Callan bonus epilogue
Make sure you’ve read Callan (Outback Shifters 2) before reading this bonus epilogue!
Last chance to avoid spoilers…!
Callan – bonus epilogue
by Zoe Chant
It took a little while, but finally Ella’s knees stopped shaking, and her palms started to feel a little less clammy and sweaty. Her stomach was still turning somersaults, but she no longer felt in imminent danger of throwing up all over herself, so that was a win, right?
And it’s over now. It’s finished. I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
No more sleepless nights, lying awake worrying about all the things that could go wrong. No more picking at her food, feeling too nervous to eat. No more –
“Honestly, Ella, anyone would think from the look on your face you’d just been sentenced to jail time, not awarded your PhD.”
Ella looked at her friend Priyanka, trying to force her features into a haughty expression and failing miserably.
“Hey, I just didn’t want to do the stage walk, all right?” she shot back. That had been the most nerve-wracking thing she’d ever done! Even though she knew most people here in the ceremony hall were only paying attention to their own friends and family, she’d still felt like the crowd’s eyes were on her at all times. “I’m a shy person – I hated being up there with all those people looking at me, especially wearing this stupid hat!”
She waved her hand vaguely at the massive, puffy cap she’d had to wear for the past few hours now as part of the standard PhD graduation gown set.
“I keep seeing the tassel out of the corner of my eye and jumping,” Ella said, shaking her head just to watch the offending thing wave around. “In fact, now that the whole thing is over and done with, I’m taking it off.”
“Oh no you’re not,” Priyanka laughed, pulling Ella’s cap a little lower down on her head. “You’re leaving it on so you can bask in your achievement for just a little while longer. C’mon, Ella – I’m proud of you! At least enjoy my enjoyment?”
Ella grumbled, but she had to admit – a tiny little bit of her was pleased at how happy Priyanka was for her. And she did feel just the tiniest bit proud of herself for finally having managed to graduate. It had been a difficult road to get here, and at one point she’d lost all hope that she might be able to finish her research and her thesis at all. Her lab and almost all of her work had been destroyed by a pair of criminals with a grudge – but thankfully, they’d missed one single petri dish filled with the precious cell cultures she’d been studying, and she’d been able to build her research again from there.
It wasn’t easy, Ella thought, remembering back to the day she’d walked in to find her lab destroyed with a shudder. But I did it. I finally, finally, finally graduated.
And, despite all the problems the destruction of her work had caused her, she still couldn’t bring herself to totally regret it, since it had been the beginning of so many other –wonderful – things in her life.
Such as –
“Ella. You look…”
Ella raised an eyebrow as she watched her fated mate, Callan, struggle to find a word to describe how she looked in her stupid puffy hat and long black gown.
“You look adorable,” he finally settled on, a grin spreading across his face.
“I saw you having to think about that!” Ella shot back, shaking her head. “Why won’t everyone just admit it? I look silly!”
“No sillier than anyone else does in those stupid hats,” Priyanka said wisely. “Honestly, I don’t look hot in my graduation photos at all. So at least we’re all in the same boat.”
“It’s an adorable kind of silly,” Callan assured her, his grin still in place. “You know I wouldn’t tell you that if it wasn’t true.”
“Adorable to you, maybe,” Ella grumbled – but to be honest, she didn’t really care what other people thought. Callan was looking at her with the kind of smile that made her kind of forget that other people even existed, so on balance, perhaps things weren’t so bad.
“Listen to your man, Ell,” Priyanka said, laughing again. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
Ella ducked her head, but she could feel her heart warming. Two years ago, even a year ago, she’d never dared to imagine her life would be what it was now. She’d settled into the idea that she was married to her work – she didn’t have time for a social life, and dating and having any kind of love life had seemed like a total impossibility. She hadn’t even felt like she’d belonged in her PhD program, and had woken up in a cold sweat plenty of times after dreaming her supervisor had discovered she was a fraud, and she was being kicked out.
She’d graduated from the very program she’d been so scared she didn’t belong in.
And there was also the fact that throughout it all, Callan had been by her side.
My fated mate, she thought, the words still sounding new and exciting every time she thought them. They meant more to her than she could say, even though she still didn’t fully understand the bond they shared. But even if she didn’t understand it, she knew it was real – she felt it with every beat of her heart. And she knew that no matter what, Callan would always be right where he was now: By her side.
“Fine,” she said, shaking her head, the tassel jiggling around in her peripheral vision. “I’ll leave it on. For now.”
“Well, at least until the party’s finished,” Priyanka said.
Ella’s mouth popped open. “Party?”
“C’mon, you didn’t think you were getting away without a party, did you?” Priyanka said, grinning.
Ella blinked, before looking up at Callan. “Did you know about this?”
Callan’s warm smile turned a little sheepish. “Well, sort of. But only after Priyanka and Dave had made it clear they were going to organize it anyway. I didn’t help, if that makes a difference.”
“Not really,” Ella said – but to be honest, she could already feel the beginnings of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. To be honest, she’d kind of been hoping to go straight home and spend the afternoon with Callan celebrating… but there’d be time for that later, she supposed. To her surprise, she actually found herself kind of looking forward to a party, even though she would never have described herself as a party person.
As long as it’s a small party, she thought, as Callan put his arm over her shoulder, and together they made their way out of the hall. And no one went to too much trouble.
They met Ella’s other friends Dave, Gin and Toshi in the parking area of the park Callan drove them to. The weather was still hot at this time of year, but not unbearably so – and it was clear from her friends’ choice of venue that they’d put quite a bit of thought into it.
Despite her science nerdery, Ella was an outdoorsy type – she loved hiking and being out in nature. A park was the perfect place for a party for her. Much better than a stuffy, fancy restaurant, or a house party with music blaring. This was perfect, out in the fresh air, among the trees.
“Are you sure you didn’t have anything to do with organizing this?” Ella asked Callan quietly, as Priyanka and the others greeted each other.
Callan again smiled a little sheepishly. “Well, I might have suggested the venue,” he said, leaning down to kiss her quickly while the others were distracted.
“Good job,” Ella laughed. “Honestly, if I have to have a party, I guess this isn’t too bad.” She scratched her head. “Can I take my dumb hat off yet?”
“I’ll allow it,” Callan said. “But only because you’ve admitted a party in your honor isn’t so bad.”
Ella grinned at him as she whipped the huge, puffy, be-tasseled monstrosity off her head at last, running her fingers through her hair. “Ugh! It was getting hot under there! Honestly, I thought getting your PhD was supposed to bestow some dignity upon you, not strip every last bit of it away.”
“Well, I still think you looked adorable,” Callan said stubbornly. He smiled at her, his eyes warm. “But then, I would.”
Ella felt an answering warmth within her as she returned his smile. “Yeah, you would.”
Falling in with Ella’s friends, they made their way across the park. Ella didn’t talk as much as her friends did, but neither she nor they minded that – Ella had come to appreciate just how much they looked out for her and cared about her over the past few months, even if she was definitely the quiet one in the group. Too often, it had been easy to imagine herself as the drag factor – unfun, uninteresting, uncool – but everything that had happened recently had slowly begun to help her believe otherwise.
It helped that they were all so obviously excited for her, Dave throwing a rolled-up streamer over her, calling out Congratulations! while Gin handed her a huge bouquet of flowers, grinning at her. They made their way across the park to where Ella could see a barbeque area had been set up, surrounded by tables of food – and a bunch of balloons, spelling out the words CONGRATULATIONS ELLA!
So much for no one going to too much trouble!
But despite that, Ella found herself laughing along with them all, lightness and joy in her heart – and happier than she ever could have imagined she’d be. And part of that had been allowing herself to actually accept the love the people around her showed her, and realizing that she could be worthy of it.
She’d spent so much of her life feeling out of place – but now, she thought, perhaps she was finally starting to believe she belonged.
She had friends. She had the beginnings of a family, now that her father was back in her life.
And, of course, she had Callan.
And, of course, with Callan came –
“My God,” said Dave, as they came up the steps from the grass into the barbecue area. “It’s full of hunks.”
Ella choked down a laugh, even as she had to admit it was probably an accurate description of the situation.
With Callan, came hunks.
Not that she had an eye for any of them, but the fact that they’d all come here to congratulate her too meant a lot. Callan’s best friend Hector was manning the barbeque, his mate Myrtle by his side. Hector’s brother Rhys was on his other side, criticizing Hector’s barbeque technique – though Ella had come to realize that that was just what the brothers were like, and despite the competitive exterior, they loved each other deeply. Rhys was a year younger than Hector, but they could have been twins – they looked alike, sounded alike, acted alike, and thought alike – though you wouldn’t know it from the way Rhys was letting Hector know all about how he was cooking the sausages wrong.
Trent, Callan’s teammate at the Agency, was chopping a salad and openly smiling flirtatiously at Priyanka, which Ella had to roll her eyes at. Trent was a charmer, but he was a good guy, and he was a lot of fun – and she was certain Priyanka wouldn’t mind the attention, given her own weakness for handsome men.
Trent’s polar opposite, tipping ice into an Esky filled with drinks, was Euan – taciturn, maybe even a little surly, and definitely not a charmer. Ella had still found she’d come to like him, though. He’d helped her out a lot when they’d been on the run from Hargreaves Inc., and without him they never would have cracked the encoded research they’d needed to find out what was going on. Plus, she’d learned there was a reason for his stoicism: he’d lost the ability to shift. She didn’t know how it’d happened, but he’d told them about it himself – and the obvious pain it caused him had touched Ella’s heart. She knew from talking to Callan that his shifted form was like the other half of himself, and that without it he wouldn’t feel whole.
I don’t know what that’s like, Ella thought, swallowing, but I do know what it’s like to feel alone, or like you’re different from everyone else.
The fact that Euan had come to her party touched her as well – she knew that, like her, he wasn’t a party person. He caught her eye now and lifted the drink he was holding up slightly in a silent salute, and Ella nodded to him in return, smiling. One day, I know he’ll get his shifter abilities back. I just know it.
“Hey, Ella, Callan – are you going to introduce us to these guys?” Gin broke into her reverie, nudging her in the ribs.
Ella laughed – Priyanka and Trent were already chatting, and Dave had wandered over to engage in the barbeque debate with Rhys and Hector.
“Seems like everyone’s getting along already,” Callan said. “I swear, they’re all friendly – don’t let their appearances fool you.”
“Oh, believe me, there’s nothing wrong with their appearances,” Gin said, as Toshi rolled his eyes.
“You just keep your eyes where they belong, and don’t say anything stupid to embarrass me,” he grumped, as he stalked off to the salad bar.
“When have I ever done that?” Gin asked, following after him.
“Ella! Oh my God! You’re here!” Ella turned in time to see Myrtle bustling over from the barbeque, a huge smile on her face. “Thank God – I’ve had about as much as I can take of those two quibbling over correct cooking methods. I just want to eat the damn food!”
Ella laughed as she pulled Myrtle into a hug. “I can’t believe you guys are here,” she said – and really, she couldn’t. But then again, she was beginning to realize how tight-knit Callan’s team at the Agency was – despite all their differences, they were just that: a team.
“Nonsense,” Myrtle laughed. “When Callan called, you couldn’t have stopped us.”
Ella turned to Callan, quirking an eyebrow. “You called? First it was ‘I had nothing to do with this!’ and then it was ‘I just picked the venue’ and now you’re calling people to invite them?”
Callan lifted his hands, clearly trying and failing not to smile. “Okay, okay, you got me. But you’re happy I did, right?”
“Of course I am,” Ella said warmly. Any excuse to see Myrtle and Hector was a good one.
“And besides which, we would’ve come to say congratulations even if there wasn’t a party,” Myrtle said. “Something I’ve come to appreciate about shifters is that when you’re family, you’re family. These guys will stick by you no matter what. And since Hector and Callan are basically like brothers, I guess that makes us sisters.”
Ella had never had a sister before, or any other kind of sibling. She hadn’t had parents. Sure, she knew her friends loved her, but this was the first time anyone had called her their sister.
“Thank you,” she said softly, looking down, and feeling her heart thudding.
She was starting to realize that when she’d met Callan, it wasn’t just the mated bond and finding out that shifters existed that had changed her life. She’d also gained a whole new family, too.
“Thank you,” she said again, looking up and smiling at Myrtle. “I really mean it.”
“You’re very welcome,” Myrtle laughed. “Anyway, should we get you some food?”
Ella nodded, and Myrtle bustled off again, calling to Hector to stop messing with the hamburgers and sausages and start serving up.
Ella looked up at Callan, only to find him smiling down at her. “Myrtle meant what she said, Ella,” he said after a moment. “Being a shifter’s mate – it means you really do have family you can rely on now, if you need them.”
“I know,” she replied softly, watching as her newfound family all bustled around the tables of food, laughing and chattering to each other. Her friends and Callan’s friends seemed to be getting along just fine – Euan even seemed to be having a conversation with Toshi as they both drank a beer. “I just… I never thought this would happen to me. It’s still hard to get used to.”
Callan nodded. “You take all the time you need,” he said. “And if you ever want any of them to back off a little, just let me know. Shifter families stick together, but I know it can be a little… overwhelming, at times.”
Laughing, Ella shook her head. “No, no need for that just yet – but I’ll let you know. Anyway, aren’t you the one who ended up being the mastermind behind this whole thing?”
“I already admitted to my sins,” Callan said, shooting her a grin. “Is there any way I can make it up to you?”
“There might be,” Ella mused, lifting her hand to tap her finger against her lips. “But I’ll have to give it some thought. And it may not be the kind of thing that’s appropriate for a public park.”
“Sounds pretty terrible,” Callan said.
“Oh, it will be.” Ella raised an eyebrow and looked up at him. “You can hardly imagine.”
Callan raised his eyebrow right back at her. “I can imagine kind of a lot.”
“Well, I’ll just have to be very, very creative then.” Ella swallowed, trying to ignore the heat that she could already feel building in her belly. There’d be time for that later. “Come on. Let’s get you some food. You’re going to need to keep your strength up later.”
“Yes ma’am,” Callan said, laughing as he put his arm over her shoulder, and together they joined their friends at the food table.
“Very creative,” Callan said, slightly out of breath, as they lay together in Ella’s bed hours later.
The party had ended after everyone had gorged themselves on food and the leftovers had been portioned out – there’d been so much that Ella didn’t think they’d have to cook for days, which suited her plans just fine.
“Glad you thought so,” she said, as she snuggled up by Callan’s side. Satisfaction beat through her with every pulse of her heart, and even though it was still relatively early, she felt almost as if she could go to sleep right now.
“Hey, Ella – you’re not tired, are you?”
Yawning, Ella shook her head. “A little – that was tiring work, you know. But I’m not that sleepy.”
“Good,” Callan said, grinning at her. “Because I still have to congratulate you properly on your graduation.”
“Oh – do you now?” Ella asked, feeling excitement stirring within her once more. “And how are you going to do th—”
Her words were cut off as Callan leaned down, capturing her mouth in a searing kiss, his arms coming up to hold her tightly against him.
Well, I guess that answers that question, she thought, closing her eyes, and giving herself over to him.