Tony couldn’t believe what he was seeing on the security monitor. A woman and her kid were living in the alleyway next to his office, and they were in trouble. A man snuck up on her and snatched the kid. He had to do something….
Jana Cantrell wasn’t taking the news too well. She would have been dead and her son in the clutches of that maniac if it hadn’t been for her being Tony’s mate, and she was now immortal. She didn’t trust men. She had just escaped from the imprisonment of the maniac who had nearly killed her. No way in hell would she be enslaved by another….
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Charles, Charlie to most people who knew him, was so lost he hadn’t any idea if he was walking on the ground or the sky. Of course, he knew the difference, but it was so dark out tonight that if there had been a moon shining, he couldn’t see it. When he sat himself down on a log to get his bearings again, he paused in his thinking to look at what could have made the sound he’d heard. Terrified out of his mind when he saw glowing eyes looking at him, Charlie sat as still as he could. The eyes grew larger and incredibly more shiny as the beast made its way to him. He didn’t run, knowing that even if he knew where he was at the moment, the wolf would know it better. It would chase him down and kill him without any hesitation.
The wolf, a big gray fella, just stood there within a few inches of his outstretched legs. When he laid down, putting his heavy head on Charlie’s leg, Charlie had another moment of fear. The thing never took his eyes off him either. As soon as he felt he was brave enough to try and talk to the wolf, he was gone, and in his place was a man. A fully-clothed man with the gray of the wolf’s fur colored into his hair. Even his eyes were the same as the wolf’s, Charlie thought. Still, neither of them moved until the man sat back on his butt and regarded him. “You live on the property not far from here, is that correct?” Charlie told him he was only squatting there until they found him. But he was a mite lost. “Yes, I’ve been following you for some time.
And in all that time, never did you harm any other animal you came across, and there were plenty too. Why is that?” “You mean the rabbit and the family of deer?” The man nodded. “I don’t have a need for meat just now. I only kill when I have to. When my belly feels like it can’t go another minute without some meat in it. And even then, I use it up the best I can. What I can’t use, I find some other animal that will use the rest. Why do you ask?” “I’ll get to that. You didn’t seem that surprised when I changed from wolf to man. Can you tell me why that is?” He nodded and told him what he’d been seeing a lot of lately.
“Yes, war will make a man wish for better times. So you were surprised but just wrote it off as being another strange thing that had no explanation. That’s a very good explanation, I think.” “They say the war is about over. I don’t know much about that. I can still hear shooting when I’m out and about. I don’t have any land left because the soldiers took it all when they was coming through. Not that it was much more than a bunch of rocks and stumps, to begin with.”
The man only nodded. “I’m Charles Griffin. Most call me Charlie. Some call me a great deal more, but I ignore them. Not everybody was able to go to school all the time. I had my family to feed when my daddy up and got sick. Momma died a few weeks ago, and I’ve been roaming around since looking for work. I don’t suppose you know anyone that might be wanting an extra hand around, do you?” “I do, as a matter of fact. My name is Romeo Hank. The Hank is for when I need a last name. But I do have something I’d like to propose to you if you’ve got the time to listen.”
Charlie told him he didn’t have anything but time right now. “All right. I have a medium-sized pack. You can see a few of them over there watching over us. They’re all just wolves. I’m the only wolf shifter I know. They’re a good bunch. Hungry most of the time, but then all of us are, correct?” “Yes. Some more than others. At least I can find me a bit of string and fashion me up a hook to use.” Romeo told him that was excellent. “You need me to fish some fish out for you and your pack? I don’t mind at all doing that for you. In fact, I’d be powerful happy to help you out.”
“Not just yet. But I think I will take you up on it soon. I have a daughter. Her name is Luna. Such a beautiful name, don’t you think?” Charlie asked if it meant moon. “It does. Thank you. You’re very well educated for a man with no means of living.” “My mom was a school teacher when I was born. They fired her, of course, when she had me. Since my dad was gone, she took whatever jobs she could get to support us. She taught me to read and to figure. I can write too, but I do have to think about the spelling of things. Can you write?” Romeo said he’d been given a great gift in that. “I think so too. When I find me a newspaper or some little old book, I treasure it for a bit.
Then I pass it on if I can. I don’t have to know the people in the paper. I just like reading about their stories. Are you going to tell me what this is about?” “I am. I was working up to it, but I believe you to be a man that can be trusted with things in life. I would like to change you into a wolf. One such as I am. You’ll be a man when you wish. A wolf when necessary. There will be magic, as well as wealth.” Charlie told him he didn’t have use for wealth, but food all the time would be nice. “That is precisely what I’m speaking about, Charlie, my good man.”
Throughout the rest of the night and well into the morning, they spoke of things Romeo needed from him. It wasn’t brought up again about him being changed, but Romeo did tell him that his daughter had found out that he, plain old Charlie, was her mate. The soul reason he’d not been harmed while wandering around in the woods. “Do you understand what it is I want you to do?” Charlie said he thought so. “No. I’m sorry. I can’t allow you to go into this, only thinking you understand. Please, ask me anything you’d like.
You must be clear on this. I need you to be clear on how it is I wish for you to someday take over for me.” Romeo never got upset with him when he asked his questions. If Charlie was honest with himself, which he usually tried not to be, he was afraid that Romeo had picked the wrong man. That he’d be better off finding himself someone else to take over his empire. “You’re the right man, Charlie. When I told you I’d been following you around, I want you to know that it wasn’t just last evening, but for some time now. I’ve seen you share your last bit of food with people. Work for someone that cannot do for themselves, and not take anything but a bit of bread and water.
You’re a very good man. A better man that I am.” Charlie started to protest. “No. I’m correct in picking you as my replacement. And if that is some of your worry, being an alpha, you’ve no worries there either. I will not leave this earth for the next until you are comfortable with what is needed of you. Now. If you’ve no more questions, I shall leave you to allow you to think on it.
I’ll be back here tomorrow so you can tell me your answer. I know I have picked the right man, Charlie. It’s something you can do easily to save this pack and my daughter.” Luna followed him as he walked around. He’d thought about calling back Romeo and asking more questions, but he didn’t. Sitting down again, his leg bothering him from sitting so long, he looked at the big, beautiful wolf. “You’re not really his daughter, are you?” She shook her head. “I didn’t think so. Is there any more of the others that he claims are his children?”
She nodded this time, and he determined by asking questions that it was one other female. “I don’t know what to think about all this, to be honest with you. Are you my mate? Is he telling me the truth? I just don’t know what to think.” She nodded or shook her head after each of the questions he put to her. Yes, she was his mate. Yes, Romeo was telling the truth. There were many more questions and answers. He was headed back to the area where he’d first seen Romeo when he felt the pain take his breath away as it slammed into his left shoulder.
Falling back, he hit his head and lay there while trying his best to catch his breath. That was when he heard the other gunshots, the wolves howling and trying to hide. Pulling Luna toward him, he whispered harshly into her ear, hoping that at least she’d understand him enough to know that she must warn the others. “Go. Tell Romeo to hide the pack. To make sure you and your sister are safe.” She didn’t want to leave him, whimpering at him as she laid her head on his shoulder. “Go. Please. Run and escape before they hurt you too.” When she left him, Charlie closed his eyes. Opening them when he felt the shadow darken over him, he looked up in time to see the barrel of a large rifle. He was a goner, he knew that. He could only hope that Luna and the others were safe.
Lander was good at her job. What she wasn’t good with was people, most people, in fact. Especially attornies who weren’t prepared when they cross-examined her as a witness. She didn’t care. She had work to do. Leaving the courthouse was the last thing she remembered when she woke up in the hospital.
Happy to have finally found his mate after all these centuries, Hamish, an ancient vampire, had been following her scent all morning. The scent led him to the courthouse, where he decided to wait until she came out. But shots rang out when Lander stepped out of the building. Hamish would have to move fast, or he would find and lose his mate at the same time.
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“Please state your entire name for the record.” Lander did as she was told. “And your occupation pertaining to what you’re here for today.” “I’m a diver. As for why I’m here, I’ve no idea. I was summoned based on the findings of another diver.” The attorney went back to the table to look at his notes, saying nothing. Lander had a look around the fancy courtroom. The room was overdone as far as she could see. Large windows were hidden behind long blinds, so there weren’t any blinding rays coming into the room. Although she thought it might be nice to have the sunshine in the room, she could also understand the need for some sort of break from it.
The carpet on the floor was about as stained as the muddy river she’d been in only last night. Chairs instead of benches were nice. Oak, she’d bet, with armrests on them. The pictures on the wall were of past judges and officers that had been killed in the line of duty. Black ribbons wrapped one corner of each frame. Her father had been a judge in good standing, but not in this state. He worked out in California, where she had grown up. When Dad retired some years ago, he and his new wife, Lilith—Lander’s stepmom—decided to sell their home and see the world. That had been three years ago. While she did speak to him on occasion, she didn’t really miss him all that much.
They’d never been what anyone would call even remotely close. “Ms. Henderson, it says here that you were brought in as an expert witness.” Lander didn’t ask for clarification. If he wanted answers, he was going to have to ask her questions. This wasn’t her first courtroom appearance. She’d like to think she was also an expert on pissing lawyers off. “Well, what do you have to say about the condition of the body that was retrieved?” “I don’t know anything about the body that was retrieved. As for its condition, I wouldn’t have the first clue about that either, as I’ve never seen it or heard the file number.” He did some more shuffling. Lander turned to the judge.
“Sir, I was summoned to be here just last night. I’m sure if I had been told I was to be a witness to anything, I would have had more time to go over the notes. I don’t know who did the dive, the retrieval, or where it might have happened. I’m completely in the dark as to what is going on here.” Judge Wilson did the paper shuffle thing too. “It says here that you were given a file folder as early as a week ago. That in that, it had the pictures, notes, and the information you mentioned. You didn’t receive anything?” Instead of answering, she asked him if he had an address where it was supposed to have gone. “It says here that it was hand-delivered to you at the sight of another job you were on in the area of DC.” “Then no, I wouldn’t have been there to get the paperwork. I’ve not been to DC in over three months. In fact, I’ve not been to my own home in over five months. Since I work for several states and agencies on finding bodies and such, I’ve been working nonstop for a while now.”
Judge Wilson called the attorney to his dais. “What is the meaning of this? You bring in an expert who hasn’t any idea what the hell is going on? On top of that, you also stated that she was hand-delivered the paperwork that should have been given to her over a week ago. What are you playing at, Taylor? I’m not going to put up with your shenanigans today.” “All she had to do was ask for the file here, and I would have handed it to her. The expert that was supposed to be here called me three days ago and told me he’d had a heart attack and wasn’t going to be able to make it. It took me that long to find her to come in.”
Wilson asked Taylor if he’d been dropped on his head as an infant. “Not that I’m aware of. But she is the best there is, and I thought it would be easy for her to tell us what she saw in the pictures. That’s all it would take.” They both looked at her. The judge was pissed if the large veins in his forehead and temple were any indication. When she was handed the file from Taylor, she didn’t even bother opening it. He said for her to look at the pictures and tell them what they wanted to know. It wasn’t as simple as her opening it up and looking at the pictures to determine anything that went on at the dive. “This isn’t going to help me or anyone else. I don’t know how many experts you’ve called in before this, but this chick doesn’t play like that. I don’t have any information that goes with these photos.
First of all, I wasn’t on the dive. Also, I don’t know the conditions that brought the person into the, what I’m assuming was water. In a car? Did he jump? Pushed? I haven’t any clue. How long was this person in the water? Where was the water? What were the weather conditions when it happened? Also, when the body—again, I’m assuming—was retrieved. Pictures tell me nothing. If you wanted me to be an expert, you’d have to give me every note, every sample that was taken at the site, as well as I’d need to talk to the person who did the actual job. Pictures mean shit if you want me to tell you the conditions of anything.” Taylor told her to watch her language. “I will not. You pulled me from a job where I do know what’s going on to come here. You’ve wasted my time and that of the people in here.
Also, you should know I’m not free to just come and go as you please. From the moment you ‘summoned’ me, your firm is being charged two hundred dollars an hour. As I said, I’m not cheap, nor free.” “I’m not going to pay you. You haven’t done a thing that was required of you.” She told Taylor that if he was better at his job, she wouldn’t be here with her thumb up her ass. “Your Honor, she’s being hostile to me. Not to mention using profanity in this courtroom.” “If I were sitting there working with you, I believe I would have been a good deal more hostile towards you. Now get over there and sit down while I talk to Ms. Lander.” Wilson turned to her, his face holding a smile, but it was as forced as she was in trying not to be really pissed off. “Now, young lady. How much information can you tell me, if any, from those photos? Other than the fact that the man is dead.”
“That would be about it. Pictures don’t really tell much anyway in a crime scene—that’s why a lot of departments are filming. Pictures don’t show depth. They’re only one-dimensional, so you don’t see what is just below the ear. Or what might be in the mouth. I’m sorry, sir, but as I said, there is nothing I can add to this. You’d be better off bringing in an expert on water deaths. A coroner would even be able to tell you more than I could.” Wilson asked Tayler if he’d called in a medical examiner. He said he hadn’t. “Sir, I would help if I could, but I have no information. And even if I did, there isn’t any way I could get you accurate information for a trial if it comes to that, from what I’ve been handed right now.” After another thirty minutes, she was let go. To say that things were finished would have been far from the truth, as Taylor was still getting his ass reamed by the judge for failure on his part in getting someone to help him.
Just as she was coming out of the building, someone tackled her to the ground. Hitting her head twice on the hard steps of the courthouse, she blacked out. When she woke up, Lander knew she was in a hospital. Not only did the white and gray walls give it away, the ugliest curtain she’d ever seen was pulled around her bed. Sitting up, she nearly threw up. The pain was so bad. The man’s voice had her turning toward him but much slower than she might have. “You have a concussion, and they need to put some stitches in your head.” She asked him what had happened. “I happened. That’s why you’re here in the cubical and not in the morgue, where a lot of other people are. There was a shooting that happened just as I took you to the ground. I’m sorry about your head. But at least you’re still living.”
“Who did the shooting? I’m assuming it was a drive-by?” He said he didn’t know. They’d asked him to come here with her. “Ambulance?” “Yes. I might have brought you here on my own, but you were bleeding a great deal, and I was worried about the laceration you have. Plus, there was still shooting going on when the first ambulance pulled up. It came from one of the higher buildings across the street. I’m Hamish Perry, by the way.” She told him her name as she strained to sit up on the bed. “They wanted to make sure you lie still. Something about the way your wound is deep and wide.” “I have a hard head, and I hate hospitals with a passion.” She looked at him while she let her body adjust to the new position. “Why did you save me? I mean, there are, according to you, several others that you could have knocked on their ass and given them a concussion.” He laughed. It was cute and charming. However, she wasn’t into cute or charming right now. Thinking about moving off the bed, she watched him stand up.
Lander had a feeling that if she were to fall, he’d catch her. “I’m a vampire of considerable age. If you’re wondering why I’m out during the day, I can tell you that I’m old enough to be able to withstand a great deal more light than a younger vampire.” She watched as he took two steps toward her. Lander told him that he was swaying. “Actually, that would be you swaying. Also, you seem to be rolling your head about more and more as you sit there. Would you mind lying back on the bed?
Otherwise, I’m going to have to pick you up and hold you. I don’t know that you’re going to like that any more than what else I have to tell you.” “I don’t care.” Her belly was churning up, and her head felt slightly too heavy for her shoulders. “I’m going to be sick.” His hands at the side of her head seemed to be just the right pressure to make her feel stable for a few minutes anyway. The rest of her body felt like it had been wrung out, turned inside out, and wasn’t going to let her stay upright. Just as she was sure she was going to puke all over the man in front of her, she was without pain. “You’re still hurt and very weak. Just let them stitch you up, and I think you’ll be all right.” She asked him what he’d done to her. “We’ll talk about that when you get out of here. I believe they’re going to keep you overnight.
I’ll stay with you to make sure you’re all right.” “You said, vampire. That you’re old and a vampire.” He said he was one. Yes. “You’re not telling me something. Something to do with why I’m feeling better.” “Not better, no. However, I’ve taken away your pain for the moment. Once they get you numbed to be stitched up, I’ll talk to you.” She demanded that he tell her right now. “All right. I’m your mate. I’ve been chasing your scent all morning since I happened upon it at the convenience store down the street. I was waiting for you outside the courthouse when I heard the shooting. I saved you from being shot because I knew I’d not touched you as yet, and you’d be killed. You’re now an immortal, the same as I am. Lander, are you listening to me?” “I am, but I’m not sure what you’re saying.
My head is all fuzzy. You said you’re my mate? I’m not a vampire.” The curtain swooshed open, the sound of the rings making her head spin again. The nurse told them what she was going to do and that a room had been set up for her. Hamish, she thought that was his name, sat down in the chair again while she was being strapped to the bed. “What are they doing to me?” You’re moving around too much for them, Lander. Lie still, or they’re going to have to put you under. It’s all right, love. Just be still. She couldn’t. Her mind was all over the place with what he’d said to her. Lander, the nurse is afraid your concussion is far worse than the doctors are saying. She is right.
Lander asked him how he was talking to her mind. I’m your mate. Once I gave you a bit of my blood to keep you from dying out there, we formed a connection. Let the medication take you under, Lander. The nurse is worried for you when you speak out loud to me. Just let it take you under. That’s my girl. ~*~ Hamish waited in the waiting room for Lander to be brought out of surgery. They couldn’t get her body to calm with what they could give her in the emergency department. The way she was thrashing around made them think she might have a brain bruise that was causing it. He knew it was from her thinking about the few things he’d told her. Stretching out his legs, he wondered what he should be doing now. While he knew only what he could get from her mind, there were still a great many things he needed to know about her sooner rather than later.
Like that cancer that had been in her bone marrow, as well as spots of it on her brain. She didn’t know he’d healed her of her cancer, of course. In fact, she’d not ever get any kind of sickness again. Once he acknowledged her, she was healed of all that and more. There were no longer spots on her breasts that he was sure no one had found yet, as they’d been very small. Her hearing was now perfectly pitched instead of her having tinnitus in her ear. She was as healthy as he was, with the exception of the wound on her head. He would have healed it by now, but there were just too many humans around that would be suspicious if she were suddenly healed. Standing up when his name was called, he made his way to the nurses’ stations.
The nurse there, an elderly woman, was smiling at him when he arrived at her area. “The doctor wanted me to tell you that your wife is calmer now. They put in forty-three stitches and have made sure there were no foreign objects in the wound.” He thanked her. “They will be keeping her overnight, I’m afraid. She’s been given a lot of medication, and he’s not sure how well she’ll react to that.” “I’ll need to make arrangements for me to be able to stay here with her.” She said she’d already taken care that Lander had one of the rooms with space for guests. “Thank you very much. I don’t want to leave her in the event she wakes up.” Yes, that would be a disaster if she woke up too soon. Then she’d tell everyone that he was indeed not her husband and wasn’t related to her at all. Hamish smiled at his own thoughts as he wrote down the information about which room Lander was going to be in, as well as the outside line, so their family could call and check on them. Going back to his seat, he pulled out his cell.
Who to call? his mind thought. It wasn’t as if he had anyone around close that would want to know he’d found his mate. He’d tell his grandda after Lander was out of the hospital, or he’d be here every second of her stay. Last he’d heard from his grandda, the man had been living the easy life on one cruise after another. Should he call her family? They weren’t close. He couldn’t find a single memory that was recent in her mind about them. No sisters or brothers. Just a dad that was on his fourth marriage to a woman nearly Lander’s age. Hamish also knew her mother had remarried, and they weren’t close either.
He thought that very sad, but nothing he’d not encountered year after year with humans. Not only did they not respect their elders, but they treated children with the same disregard. Putting his cellphone away, he decided now was not the time to make any calls. If she wanted him to call her parents, or she wanted to call them, he’d be there for her in the event things went south. As it seemed to happen a good deal when they were all together. They rolled her bed in about an hour later. The doctor spoke to him about what they’d done for Lander and how well she’d taken the medication. Hamish told him they’d not been together long—which was the truth—and he was still learning about her. After he left them, Hamish touched his finger to the bandage covering most of her head and gave her a little more of his magic. She was going to have a hell of a headache in the morning, he knew.
Leaning back on the seat, he thought about what needed to be done to prepare things for his mate. While he had a house—several of them, as a matter of fact—he’d never been one to upgrade things. In fact, he’d been sleeping in a cave lately. There was no need for him to have a stove or working lights in the place he was staying, so that had to be something he took care of quickly. Also, he did have a bed—not a coffin-like the movies projected men like him to sleep in—but it wasn’t suitable for a woman to want to sleep in. It was narrow, hard as stone, and without any linens on it. Not that he spent all that much time in the house or bed, but it would be something that had to be cared for before he brought Lander home. Or would they live in her home? It mattered little to him where they lived. Hamish had plenty of money if she wanted to start from scratch.
While he’d been looking around in her head, he noted that she spent very little time at her home. Working a great deal, she tended to live from one hotel to the next, as her job kept her hopping. She was a diver. It seemed such a small thing to call her that when she was sought after by agencies all around the world. He’d looked her up after finding out her name and knew that even though everyone thought her name was Lander, it was actually Aulander Fitzgerald Henderson. He also knew she was named from the little town in North Carolina where her mother had been born. Hamish hadn’t been able to find any reference to the name Fitzgerald, but he would soon enough. When the nurse came in to take Lander’s blood pressure and temp, he stepped into the hall. Making sure there was no one around, he took himself to the local shop and got some magazines, as well as a couple of books. He was also able to purchase a tablet he was going to use to research his new mate and her family.
Returning to the hospital was easy enough. He appeared in her bathroom and came out when he knew the coast was clear. Sitting down, he reached out to his grandda, only just realizing that he was supposed to go on some kind of cruise with him in the next couple of days. “Oh, son, I’m so happy to hear from you. I was going to talk to you later tonight. I’m about finished with riding around on a boat. Nowhere for me to feel the grass under my feet— What’s happened? Where are you?” He told him he was fine and that he was in the hospital. “I’m not sure how you reckon that being fine and in the hospital are the same thing, but I’ll come to see you. Is the room empty where you are?” “Just hang on a minute.”
He asked him again what was wrong. “Nothing. My mate found me today. Nearly scaring ten years off my life.” Grandda appeared in the room with him, so close to the bed that he wondered if he’d been hurt in his appearance. When he waved him off after asking him if he was fine, Grandda stared at Lander for several minutes before he spoke. “She sure is a pretty little thing, Hamish. What happened that brought the two of you in here?” He told him how she’d been in the courthouse, as well as how he’d followed her there by her scent. “So she’s been shot but is going to be all right. How bad was it when you first found her? I’m betting she was far from all right.” “Yes, she would like to know too.” Lander looked at him, then at his grandda, before looking at him again. “He has to be related to you, but I’m doubting very much that he’s your dad. You seem closer than that.
I have no idea why I feel that way, but there you go. Why are you even still hanging around here? Don’t you have some bodies to drain or something? And you.” She pointed at his grandda. “Why are you here? I’m sure you guys have a lot more things to do than to sit around with a measly human. I’m right, aren’t I? You are still a vampire?” “Yes. We both are vampires. Lander, this is my grandda. He’s been on a cruise until a few minutes ago. His name is Charles Hamish Perry. Grandda, this is Aulander Henderson Perry.” Grandda stood up and put out his hand. “He is harmless, I promise you.” “What makes you think I am?” She sat up higher on the bed as she stared at his grandda.
“I don’t have a lot of information on either of you, but this one tells me that he’s my mate. I understand the concept—I work with a few shifters—but he must be wrong about this thing with us. I’m not all that healthy and won’t be around for very much longer. Not the way things are going in my life. I have cancer, and it’s killing me.” “You’re not ill, child.” Grandda stepped closer to Lander with his hand still out. “If you were to take my hand into yours, I can tell you a great deal about yourself. Some I’m sure you don’t even know.” “I’m sure you can, but just for now, we’ll shake without having a meet and greet about my life.” Grandda laughed and told her she was enjoyable. “Not really. It’s why I spend a great deal of time on my own. I don’t enjoy people all that much.”
“Neither does my grandson. Until recently, I think he was staying in a cave someplace, working out a way to end his life.” He wasn’t sure how his grandda had figured that out, but he didn’t say anything to him. “He’s lost a lot of family recently. His parents have been gone for some time, but he had a brother who ended his life recently, as well as his aunt. Hamish does have a sister, but she’s not been around for quite some time. I think she’s off her noodle, but then she’s always been flighty. As for the others? They were bored. So was Hamish. But you’ll keep him on his toes, won’t you?” “Not if I can help it.” The nurse came in and was surprised to see Lander sitting up so well. But Grandda told her, with magic, that everything was normal. When she left them, Lander said she was starving. “I could eat a horse. Do you guys do that? Have a horse for your food?” “You’re very snarky, aren’t you? No, we don’t have horses. In answer to your earlier question, no, we don’t drain people either.
Grandda showed up here when I told him you’d found me.” She said she’d not be taking credit for that—she’d not been looking for anyone. “Be that as it may, you’ve found me. I’m not sure of a great many things, but I am sure that you and I are going to get along well.” “You mean if I listen to your every command? Don’t count on it, buster. I have a life, and I’m going to continue to live it despite you being in the background.” He said he wanted to be a part of her life. “Tough. I’m sick and dying. I love my job, but I’m going to have to give it up soon because—”
“You no longer have cancer, Lander. Even the spots on your breasts that were much too small to see as yet are gone. If you’d give it a chance, I think you’ll find out you’re hearing better than you ever were. The bad break at your left ankle isn’t aching as it normally would at this time of the day. You’re healthy and in good shape. You’re no longer going to die. As I said before, you’re immortal, just as I am.” When she sat up fully, he thought she was going to attack him. Standing too, he was surprised when she got off the bed and took them both to the floor. “Lander?” Grandda got down on the floor too. While he didn’t seem to know what was happening, he nearly screamed when the door exploded behind him. Pressing her to the floor to keep her safe, Hamish wasn’t the least bit surprised when Grandda left them in a poof and returned quickly after.
“The man from this morning was going to kill me. His name was Taylor or something. I could…Christ, I could hear his heart racing, and that’s what alerted me to him being hyped up on something. Then for some reason, somehow, I was able to feel his intent about killing me. Why? He was going to kill me because I—because he thinks I made him look like a fool in the courtroom.” Lander looked at Grandda. “Did you kill him? I can’t hear him anymore.” “Yes.” Grandda helped them both up. Lander laid back down on the bed but didn’t stop staring at his grandda. “He wouldn’t have stopped, child. He would have harmed you in some way that would have gotten him killed anyway.” “Because of Hamish.” It wasn’t a question, but he nodded to her anyway. When she pulled the sheet up and over her chest to her neck, he could feel her stress. “I’m very sleepy now. I want to rest. Thank you both for being here with me and for killing that man. I’m sure you’re right. He was a fool, and foolish people never think they’re in the wrong.
Even if it’s glaring them in the face. I’m sleepy now.” Hamish watched as she closed her eyes. Reaching out to touch her hand, he helped her rest. He could feel her terror as well as her need for a great deal of rest. He helped her with that. When she was in a deeper sleep, he turned to his grandda. “Will it come back and bite either of us in the ass?” Grandda told him Taylor would be found as a suicide. “Thank you for that. He was going to kill her, and I didn’t feel a thing. What if he’d gotten by me?” “I don’t think you’ll have to worry over that too much, Hamish.
You were making sure she was doing all right when it got by you. I’m thinking you’ll never get that involved again with her where something will get by you. Or perhaps that is her superpower. That she can protect you when you need it. You remember how your grandma could just know when the humans were coming to kill us off? It’s the reason we don’t put it out there that we’re vampires anymore. Humans get it into their head that we’re there for the killing.” “This man, he really was going to kill her. For her being smarter than him.” Grandda told him that was about right. “I wonder what it is that would drive a person to do something like that in a large hospital.” “I don’t know, son. I don’t. However, the cameras are all fixed that he would have been seen on. The staff is also none the wiser. I already fixed up the door and walls while you two were talking.”
Grandda looked at Lander. “I’m already about in love with the child. She saved us both, but especially you, from being shot up. In my book, that makes her about perfect.” “I’m falling in love with her as well.” Grandda decided to go and get some food for Lander when she woke up. He did know she wasn’t one to eat a lot of sweets—that had been forefront in her mind when she’d been thinking she was hungry. “Grandda, when I go to rest later, will you keep an eye on her for me after you return with food? Please? I need a little downtime, or I’m not going to do either of us any good.” “You know I will. It’ll be my pleasure to do so.” Grandda told him to go on home now, that he had this. “You rest up. I don’t know why I’m thinking this, but I feel like she’s going to keep you hopping for a while. I hope so. She’s perfect for you.” He didn’t know if she was perfect or not, but he knew Grandda was correct. She was going to keep him on his toes, and he was looking forward to it. Yes, having a mate was going to be epic. Hamish popped home, the cave that Grandda had been talking about, and laid down on the bed he’d made for his stay. Tomorrow he was going to have to get things organized for his mate. He only hoped no one was going to be out to kill her again anytime soon.
Dakota was doing all she could do to keep it together. She was a widow trying to raise her young daughter and between jobs to boot. Helping her granny and her aunt move into the School House Condos, Dakota was reminded again about how much she didn’t have. Her granny’s offer of a handout was too much. She wanted to make it on her own.
Micky had a feeling that Dakota would be Marcus’s mate. Marcus didn’t want any part of Micky’s matchmaking and said he’d be out of town. But Marcus had a change of heart and decided to see for himself if Micky was right.
Dakota was scared to death. She was mated to a black tiger. Everything was happening too fast. The Prince family was great, but they were too big, too loud, and too everything. It was all too much. And when Dakota found out that Queen Aurora had plotted her entire life, that was the last straw.
Harper Wilson and all her siblings were relieved when they received the notice of their parents’ demise. No one deserved it more, and the only reason Harper agreed to go back to that little town in Ohio was to make sure they were truly dead.
Bryant Prince and his family were immortals and hadn’t aged since they’d reached the age of twenty-eight. He and his family had always lived next door to the Wilsons, but he never knew the Wilson children. The Wilsons had always kept to themselves, so no one had any idea what was going on in the little house of horrors. If they had, the Wilson parents would have been dead a long time ago.
There was nothing left of the Wilson house but one wall. The fire had taken the rest. The garage, however, was still intact, and this was where Harper wound up. Drawn in by dark, morbid memories from her childhood. Bryant watched her, knowing that he’d found his mate.
Allison Sheppard had come back to town to bury her siblings. Allie’s sister and two brothers had robbed the local bank. Samson Prince had killed two of them to protect the innocent people in the bank, her baby brother was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial. Allie wanted to wash her hands of all of them.
It didn’t take Allie but a moment to realize that the entire town looked on her as a pariah, like she was responsible for what her siblings did. Not that she could blame them, but the silent accusations did hurt. The sooner she was finished with this mess, the better. She would leave this town and good riddance.
Samson only wanted to make the woman understand that they weren’t monsters, and he had no choice in the bank, but from the moment he was within two feet of her, her scent overwhelmed him. Allie was his mate, and this changed everything….
Piper James was at the funeral home doing the hardest thing she’d ever had to do—bury her mother. The last ten years had been difficult, with her dad’s illness then him ultimately dying, and then her mother being diagnosed with cancer. Her siblings, Mary and Louis, had been no help at all, financially or lending a hand with their care. Now that their mother was gone, those two were going to be a handful, Piper just knew it. Fisher Prince, a rare black tiger shifter, had a gift. He was able to find people and things with little effort. When a judge called him and asked him to find Piper and keep her safe from her siblings, Fisher agreed to help him out, but he wasn’t expecting to find his mate in the process. The bond between the two was nearly immediate, and when he gave her a ring gifted to him by Aurora, queen of the earth, neither was prepared for what happened next. Mary and Louis were never going to stop pursuing Piper unless someone intervened. Would the Prince family be in time to stop the inevitable?
Emmie Rankin didn’t trust men. She had been brutally raped at fourteen and now had her daughter, Olivia, as a result. Olivia was now a teen herself. Although an attorney by trade, Emmie had had to give up her practice to stay at home and take care of her father and her child.
Kylan Prince was a black tiger shifter. He had been waiting a long time for his mate to come into his life. Now that she was finally here, he was determined to do everything he could to convince her that he was what she and her daughter needed in their lives.
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“Grannie, are you sure about this? I mean, you’re giving up a great deal of space to live in what amounts to a one-room classroom.” Grannie told her to behave. “I thought I was. I could have said that while it’s nice, it’s certainly not anything you’re used to living in. Not only that, there is no room for you to have anyone serve you. You’re used to the finer things in life, not living in this kind of space with a bunch of strangers.”
“You’re a snob. Which I don’t understand because you won’t take a dime from me and refuse to let me help you out of a squander. You are, you know. I just want to point that out to you again.” Dakota kissed her grannie on the cheek and moved into the next room. “I love this room and the colors that I’m going to put in here. The thought of having as much color as I want boggles my mind. They did say I could have it painted before I moved in, didn’t they, darling?”
“They did.” Dakota looked out the window that had a lovely view of the gardens beneath. “I do love that you’ll be close to us again. However, I want you to understand, again, that I’m not going to side with either you or Aunt Lisa. If you get into another fight that has you moving to the other side of the country, I won’t speak to either of you. Nor will you be able to have Loren over.
Not that I know where you’d put her in here.” “I’m getting one of those magic beds that she goes on about all the time. I’m to understand that is all you sleep in. A pull-out bed, Dakota, isn’t a place to take a man when you’re in the mood.” To equally embarrass her grannie, she explained how she knew perfectly well how to take care of her own needs. “My goodness. Do you have one of those battery-operated boyfriends that Lisa is going on about?
Dakota. How could you?” “It’s easy, really. I just make sure the batteries are new or have enough life in them to make sure I can get my own batteries charged. You should try it sometimes, Grannie. It might make it, so you’re less tense all the time.” Aunt Lisa came into the room before Grannie could say anything. It was just as well. Aunt Lisa would have surely embarrassed them both.
After kissing her great aunt, she asked her what she thought of Grannie’s new digs. The two of them were twins, but only by birthdate would anyone ever know that. They were as different as night was day. “I’m moving into the one on the third floor. Did you know for a bit more money, you can have two apartments here? I did that. I even put in so that you could have two as well, Vicky. You might need the room if Dakota ever decides to get married again. And Loren can come and stay with us both this way.” Grannie thanked her sister, but Dakota could tell she was miffed that she’d not thought of it first. She asked her great aunt how it worked. “They take the second apartment and make it into three bedrooms. The first apartment then has a larger living room, as well as a dining area outside the kitchen.
I’m going to use one of the bedrooms as my closet. I so love to have all my clothing spread out so I can get to it. What will you do with it, Vicky?” “Well, since I’ve only just discovered I have the extra room, I’ve not made any plans. I don’t know if you realize this or not, but people do not have plans all the time about what they’re going to do at any given moment. Perhaps I’ll have Dakota come and live with me.
Wouldn’t that be a hoot?” Dakota told them both that she wasn’t old enough to live here. The youngest that a person could be was sixty. “Oh yes. But I can have Loren here whenever I wish so long as she’s a good girl. I think they thought of her when the Webster people defined a good girl. She is such a darling.” It would be a nice place for her and Loren to live in, Dakota thought as they sat in the large dining room. She also thought that no one would ever guess this place used to be a school with children eating in this very room. Sometimes, she’d bet, it would be the only hot meal they would get that day.
She and her daughter did struggle, as her grannie had pointed out. Dakota had been married once, and it had been a wonderful marriage. Michael had been a good man, a better friend, and the best father. But his life had been cut short when he’d gone overseas to fight in a war that had not only ravaged the country there but her own life and that of her daughter. “I saw your uncle the other day. He was looking much better than I’ve seen him in a while. I had no idea he was out of the nursing home.” She told her aunt what she knew. “I see. Why do you suppose he didn’t come to us when he needed a little help? I suppose he’s more like you than he is your father.
Is Loren all right with the two of you barely making ends meet?” “She is, actually. We are having a bit of a time with it, but we’ll come out ahead someday, I think.” Grannie and Aunt Lisa told her that they could get her ahead now. “I know you can. And I do appreciate you wanting to help us. But I swear to you, we’re all right. I don’t want to have to take from you all the time. I love that you want to, but you’ll need your money for when you get old.” “Honey, if we get any older, we’re going to be like dried-up old apples.” Grannie sat down at the table while they waited on the people in charge of the apartments that her aunt and Grannie were going to be living in. “I’m finished asking, Dakota. You’re my only grandchild.
You have my only great-grandchild. I’m not going to allow you to put me off any longer.” The people came in, but Grannie wasn’t finished with her just yet. Pulling out her pocketbook, what she forever called her wallet, she pulled out four credit cards and handed them out to her. Dakota didn’t want to take them, but she knew her grannie well enough to know that she’d sit there with them out until she took them. Grannie was all kinds of stubborn.
After Dakota took them from her, Grannie took her arm. “Use them, Dakota. Please. I’ve been carrying those around for months now just to give them to you, and today is the day. I’m going to be coming around more, and I won’t live like I am now when you don’t have two pennies to rub together.” Nodding, she noted that the three people had moved to the other side of the room. “I love you, darling. I will now and forever have you and Loren in my heart and prayers.
Please, I need to help you now while I’m alive. I need to do this for the two of you.” Taking the credit cards that had her name on them, Dakota left her aunt and Grannie to deal with the apartment on their own. Walking to her apartment that she and Loren shared, she was just entering when Loren came home from school. All smiles and hugs, Loren asked if the other two women were settled up yet. “Yes. They’re both going to be living in the School House.
They both are getting two places, so they can have a place for you to spend the night. I’m so happy for them both but also worried that they’ll be fighting again in no time. You know how they can be.” Loren said they were like her. “What is that supposed to mean, young lady? I am not stubborn.” “Sure you’re not. Is it because you’re not stubborn that we could have been paying the bills when they come due instead of eenie meenie miney moe-ing them on which gets paid each month?”
Dakota wanted to cry. She told Loren she was trying to be independent. “Mom, if you got any more independent, we could set up our own country. What is it you’re afraid of? Money? I think it would be nice to have a little once in a while. Don’t you?” “You do realize that I’m the adult, and you’re the ten-year-old?” Loren just smiled at her. “I think your grannie has had enough of my being independent as well. Look what she gave me. Or I should say what she made me take from her today. I don’t want to use them. But as you so delicately pointed out, we’re broke.” “Not broken, Mom, just short.”
Loren laughed and went to her room—the only other room in the tiny apartment besides the bathroom. While she was doing her homework, Dakota sat there thinking about how she’d gotten to the place she was in now. It was a great many things, things she was sure—or at least hopeful—that her older relatives didn’t know about. Dakota wondered what she would have done had Michael not been killed by friendly fire when he pulled out his own gun on a room full of officers after having a mental breakdown. Everyone in the world knew what Michael had done—who he had killed, even.
It was why she couldn’t get a well-paying job. Her husband, and through him, she and Loren was considered a traitor to his country. After dinner was finished and things were cleaned up, Dakota pulled out her bed when Loren declared she was exhausted and got into bed. All evening since she’d been home, Dakota had thought of nothing else but the credit cards. Just to be able to catch up on her rent would have been a wonderful thing. But to use them would make her feel like she was no longer her own woman.
No longer able to afford things for herself and her little girl. The knock at the door startled her, and she stood back from it when she asked who it was. Glancing at the clock, she was surprised by the lateness of the hour as well as the light that shone under the door. Asking again who was there, the person on the other side simply laughed. It was a woman. “My name is Micky Prince. Your grandmother, who I absolutely love, by the way, sent me over here to talk to you. She said I was to tell you that her middle name is the same as your daughter’s and that she’s the most brilliant ten-year-old ever born.
Besides you, she said.” Dakota didn’t say anything. “All right. List two in having you trust me enough to allow me in. Your last electric bill was twenty-seven dollars because you don’t have any lights on unless you’re in the room. Then it’s only long enough to find whatever it is you’re looking for. You dress and undress in the dark. There is only fifty-seven cents in your account until you get another job, which I’m here to offer you. You—” Dakota opened the door. “I have a dollar and twelve cents in my account, thank you very much.”
Micky looked like a model. She had the most beautiful red hair Dakota had ever seen. “What does Grannie want now? I think she’s humiliated me enough, don’t you?” “She said you were beautiful and prideful. Both, to me, aren’t things that are bad things. May I come in? Your landlord is on the steps eavesdropping on us.” The thundering down the stairs made Dakota realize she’d been right about Mr. White. “I’m sure you’re aware of this, but this place is a dump. It should have been torn down decades ago.”
“I’m well aware of my situation, Ms. Prince. But you said my grannie sent you here. Tell me what it is and leave. It’s late, and I have things to do tomorrow.” She repeated that she had a job for her. “I’m not going to take a job that my grannie bullied you into making up for me. And don’t tell me she didn’t do it. She’s very good at making people do what she wants when she sees something she thinks she needs doing. I love her very much, but I’m just fine and dandy.”
“I saw you today when she handed you the credit cards. I told her after you left that I thought she was a rude bitch for doing that in front of us. I wasn’t going to allow her to live in the School House, but she made me realize she needed to be close to you to help. Help you what, I found out later. How long have you been living like this, Dakota?”
Opening the door wider, she found her daughter on the made-up couch. Smiling at the two of them, Loren went to make them both some tea. “She’s as lovely as you are. And I’m betting as stubborn too.” “I am, thanks,” Loren said that they only had two cups and no sugar, then asked Micky if she drank hot tea without lemon or sugar. “I can make two teas, but they’ll be cloudy because the water filter, if there ever was one, was broken before Mom and I moved in. The landlord is a jerk.
He told Mom if she wanted things fixed, she’d have to go out with him. I’m thinking he wants more than that, but then I’m only ten, and my mom thinks I know nothing about sex yet.” “Loren Sullivan. Hush telling this lady thing like that.” But Micky laughed and told Loren she loved an honest kid. “Then you’ll worship her. She has no filter at all and just says whatever she thinks of. Not that she just empties her head, but she can be too blunt.” Dakota looked at Micky. “You’re not human, are you? Did you make me say that to you?”
“No, I’m not human. My husband is a black tiger. I’m…well, magical. I guess it would be safe to call me. And no, I didn’t make you say anything. I did make up the part about knowing the landlord was there.
I was as surprised as you were when he ran down the stairs. He is, as Loren said, a jerk.” ~*~ Micky showed Dakota around. There was a great deal of speculation between the family members on whether or not Dakota was Marcus’s mate. However, in order not to find out, Marcus had taken off for parts unknown until he could get things settled with his home. Not that anyone understood that, as he had a nice home already, but it wasn’t up to her. Dakota seemed overwhelmed by the number of perks she was getting to work at the School House as a manager. “Are you giving me this job because of my grannie and aunt?” Micky told her that was part of it.
“I don’t need charity, Mrs. Prince. I’m doing all right on my own.” “We both know that’s bullshit.” Opening the door to the house she’d be living in until they could find her something closer—if she turned out not to be Marcus’s mate— she showed her the things that were magical that she’d have both here and where she lived when they found something. “The local school is a good one. There is the packed school as well that Loren can attend.
I would suggest sending her there. They’re advanced in the way they teach, and I believe she’ll like it better.” “You know I’m considered a traitor to my country, right? I mean, I want to make that clear right upfront. If I take the job.” Micky said nothing. She knew Dakota was tempted. “What’s really going on here? There is something you’re not telling me. Isn’t there?” “Two things, really. But I want to point something out to you first.
Magic doesn’t come to those that haven’t been accepted into this family. Not that I don’t like you and enjoy being around you—I do. But when we entered this house, you commented on how nice and warm it was. Where is your coat?” She looked around, and Micky continued. “Secondly, the house allowed you in. Not because I’m with you, Dakota, but because I believe it has an idea of who you are to us. All of the Prince family. Mate to Marcus and mistress of this house.” “Mate. To a black tiger.” Micky watched as her mind worked out what she’d just been told. She would never play any games with her like poker or a lying contest. Dakota’s expression never changed. “I was married once. I have a daughter. Whatever this person wants from me, I’m not going to give up my child.” “I should hope not.
Besides, Marcus is in the process of adopting a little girl of his own. She’s four and has been dealt some horrific blows in her short life.” Dakota said she’d read about her in the paper. “Yes, I’m sure you have. But what it didn’t tell you was that she was kidnapped from a hospital when she was about three hours old. Not by the woman currently in jail, but Ronnie became a bargaining chip for Sharon.
The woman who took her had said she was going to call the police on Sharon. I’m not sure of all the details on the deal or how Ronnie became a commodity. But we will find out.” “The little boy, he died, the paper said.” Micky hurt whenever she thought of young Shane. “The paper said his parents had given up on him being found, and it had taken a toll on not only their marriage but their lives as well. They’re both dead. The police are calling it a murder-suicide, but I think it was profound grief that took both their lives.
I don’t know what I’d do if my child were to be taken from me.” “I don’t either, to be honest. His funeral was a few days ago. Ronnie has been staying with Marcus after Tyler, my brother-in-law through marriage, wasn’t able to take her. Something about him not having enough stable time in his life. Which, I suppose, was good for him. Tyler is just now getting his career on track, and he’ll still be able to visit Ronnie whenever he wishes.” Dakota walked around the house without saying much of anything. Micky pointed out some of the things that were magical in the living room.
The large screened television was on a football game, and she was glad to see that Dakota knew who was playing and cheered quietly for the Browns. She wondered who had turned it on when Marcus came out of the kitchen with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Marcus, I thought you were going to be out of town.” He just stared at Dakota as Micky asked him why he was there. “You said I could show her around while you weren’t here.” “I thought I’d just come here and meet her. I thought you were coming by tomorrow, or I would have cleaned up.” Micky wanted to laugh at the way the two of them were staring at each other. “I’m Marcus Prince. You must be Victoria.”
“My name is Victoria too. But everyone calls me Ronnie. You’re very pretty.” All three of them turned to Ronnie, who she’d not noticed before now. She was sitting backward on the couch, facing the three of them. “We’re just hanging out here. I’ve never hung out before, have you?” “Yes. With my daughter. She’s ten, and her name is Loren Victoria. She’s named after my grannie.” Ronnie asked if she was going to be coming over soon. “I don’t know. She’s with my grannie helping her move some of her things around in her new place.” While the three of them seemed to be getting to know each other, Micky reached out to Marcus to ask him if she was his mate.
After a glare at her, she knew she had her answer and was excited about it. You knew she was going to be when it was first mentioned to you that she was single. Micky told him she’d only hoped so. She is. When will I meet her daughter? I’m assuming you have that planned out as well. I don’t, actually. But I can have her brought here. I think this would be a good time too, don’t you? Marcus sat down on the couch with Ronnie as Dakota stood where she’d been when he’d joined them in the living room. She’s terrified.
I don’t know about what, but she is. Can you tell? No. Her mind is chaotic like she has a million things going on at one time. Micky thought it was time that she left and started for the door. Wait. She’s worse now that you’re leaving. Just give me a few minutes to figure out what has her so afraid. Micky sat down on the other couch and invited Dakota to do the same. When she sat by her, Ronnie came to sit with her. When she reached for Dakota’s hand, Micky could see that it mellowed her to the point where she could see a little into her mind.
She’s afraid because of what she’s been called. Dakota can’t take another hit to her heart. She’s been hurt by a great deal by people, hasn’t she? Marcus said she had, but no one here in this town. Good. I’d hate to have to kill someone for hurting either of them. I’m going to contact someone to bring Loren here. Perhaps her grannie too. It’ll be strange for you, I’m thinking, to know that you’re older by far than her grannie is. Thanks. Why don’t you have everyone come over here for dinner tonight?
She might as well get used to all of us right off the bat. She asked him if he thought that was a good idea. I do. She’s starved for family and has it in her head that she’ll never have that. More importantly, that she’ll never have that for her daughter. When she said she was going to go get her daughter and Grannie, Dakota seemed to be all right with her leaving this time. Getting into her car, she squeaked when Bubble appeared on her steering wheel. “They’ll need faeries. You should also be aware that Ms. Lisa is aware of us and that we’re around. When Colors showed up to see what she was doing to the rooms, Ms. Lisa began talking to him the moment he arrived.
Do we know why?” Micky said she’d only spoken to the other woman once. “Colors has been changing the room to suit the elderly woman. She has a way with bright colors like Lady Grannie does.” Pulling up in front of the school, Micky noticed two moving trucks out front. They’d rented all but two of the fifty-three rooms, and she was happy for that. It turned out well for those staying there. However, she thought she’d have to find someone else to manage it, as she thought Dakota would be busy from now on. Her cell phone was ringing when she put in the code to enter the building.
“This is Dakota Sullivan. I didn’t have a cell phone before this, and I found one in my pocket when I was thinking of calling you. Not only that but your number and picture appeared there like I would call you. More magic?” Micky said it was. “All right. I want you to know I’m terrified out of my mind right now. The phone isn’t the only thing freaking me out. The house is moving.” “I’m sorry. I should have explained more of what was going on. Is Marcus helping you?” She said he was being really nice. “He is a nice guy.
I’m here at your grannie’s place now. Is there anything I need to tell Loren to have her come with me?” The pause had her thinking she didn’t quite trust any of this yet. Her either. “We’re not going to hurt you, Dakota. I promise you. We’ll do everything within our power to make sure you’re safe and secure.” “That’s what Marcus said. You guys can do whatever you want to me, but don’t hurt my family. They’re all I have in the world.” Micky told her they had them as well. “I’m not going down that rabbit hole just yet.
Loren will come with you if Grannie does. Are you bringing Aunt Lisa as well?” “If you think she’ll come.” Dakota just laughed, then seemed to catch herself. “I’m sorry this is too much for you, Dakota. I don’t know if it will be any better for you after tonight, but I can assure you that you’re in good hands now.” “Thank you,” Micky asked her why she was going to call her. “Oh. I’ll take the job. I’ve been told no less than ten times that I won’t have to work, but I want to. I want to make a difference in myself. So if you’re sure, I’ll take the job.”
“Good. I’m going to bring your family over to the house, and we’ll have the family over for dinner. Did Marcus tell you that they’re all tigers?” She said he had and that they were very loud. “They are. However, my family has them beat. You’ll love us all. Just as much as we’ll love you, Dakota.” Grannie, as she was asked to call her, was more than willing to go and meet her family. She didn’t tell her much about what Dakota was to them, but she did tell the woman that Dakota was taking the job. When Loren came out of the second apartment that was just bedrooms for the place, Micky was blown away by how much she looked like her great-grandma.
Being side by side like they were now, they could have been twins if they’d been the same age. Then she saw the picture of Grannie when she’d been twelve. “My goodness. You look so much alike. I’d think you were the same person. You’re both so beautiful.” Loren thanked her, but she was embarrassed at the praise. She was sure Dakota would have been, too, if she had said the same to her. “I’m taking you both to Marcus’s home for dinner.
Do you think Ms. Bishop will come as well?” “She’d be very upset if we didn’t invite her even if she were to turn us down. By the way, I’m thinking this place has some kind of magical spell around it. I swear to you, my walls changed colors the moment I thought of it.” Micky asked her when that had happened. “About an hour ago. Nothing changed before that.” “About the time that Marcus and Dakota met.” Grannie didn’t say anything, but she did look at her hard. “I’ll explain once we’re on the way.” Loren said she’d go get her aunt, and that was when Micky told Grannie about Marcus and Dakota.
About how the magic came to both her and Lisa and, more than likely, Loren the moment they acknowledged one another. Grannie had no questions or comments, so they loaded up in the car and made their way back to where Dakota and Marcus were. Micky could see that some of the family had shown up already. This was going to be epic. She didn’t know why, but she thought that Dakota laying low as she seemed to be, wasn’t her usual way of doing things. Nope, she was going to set things to right sooner or later.
Harley loved the other woman, and Lisa and Grannie were fun to watch. The two of them bickered like two people that loved each other very much but still didn’t find each other to be very much fun to be around. Dinner was steaks on the grill, one of his favorite meals, as well as all the trimmings. Loren was getting along well with the other kids, and Ronnie didn’t leave Loren’s side once. He was impressed that the older girl didn’t get irritated with Ronnie but allowed her to hold her hand whenever she needed it. Both of them seemed to need it a great deal. “I was wondering something.
Perhaps you’re the one to ask. This thing that’s between my grandniece and Marcus—is it permanent, or will he break it off with her once he finds out he doesn’t want a child from another man? Or some bullshit like that.” Harley explained to Lisa that Ronnie wasn’t his child, but he loved her. “Yes, I can see that he does. The family does as well, don’t they? But Dakota has had enough pain for several lifetimes.
The town where my sister and I lived, they treated her and my Loren like they’d sold off secrets that the world needed. If they had taken care of Michael when he first got sick over there, he might well have had a better time of it. The way it turned out, he shot up a bunch of people that should very well have taken care of him rather than patch him up and send him back out to kill. He wasn’t cut out to murder, poor man. Not much of a husband either, but he loved Loren and Victoria with all he had. I could forget most anything if he loved her like that.” “He’ll love her more. Marcus will also make sure they never have to do without again.
Nor will anyone, and I mean no one, make her feel bad for something ever again. We all will make sure of that. You can bank on my word on that.” She eyed him. “Lisa, we’re all very old and very powerful black tigers. On my oath that I promised Lady Aurora of the Earth and Faeries, we will take care of the four of you as if you were born to us, and you are as much a blood relative as my parents are to us.” “All right. I will trust you with her heart. And that of Loren. She seems to like you all, so I’ll trust her decision on this.”
Harley knew there was more to her not trusting them, but he wouldn’t look for now. “Young man, you said you were old. I’m thinking you’re a few years older than my sister and I. Am I correct?” “No.” She nodded as if she had thought they weren’t that old. “I’m thousands of thousands of years older than you and your sister combined. We were born in a time when there were few people around. This world was only just being discovered. My family is the first of the black tigers, made magical so that we could go around and slowly populate the world with our kind. We were here when your entire lineage wasn’t even a speck in anyone’s universe. With our age comes great magic. More powerful than any other creature born, made, or created other than the lady of the earth.” “Oh my goodness.”
The magic touched his back, and he knew that Aurora had arrived. Without turning, he introduced the beautiful queen to the newest family members, including Ronnie, who stood just behind Marcus. “You’re real, aren’t you? You’re here and alive.” “I am, Lady Lisa. I am happy to see that you and your sister have done so well. I’m equally happy that you’re a part of my family of kittens.
It is very good to see you both again.” Dakota asked her aunt how she knew the queen. “We met a very long time ago, child.’ Before your father was born, even before your grannie met and married her Duke.” ~*~ Marcus watched the two older women while they spoke of the time they met Aurora. He’d not ever heard the story before, and apparently, neither had Dakota and her daughter. As they told the tale, he watched his mate. She was the most beautiful woman and had the most straight face of anyone he’d ever encountered.
“The two of us had escaped our nanny. Back then, we were always in and out of trouble.” Lisa pointed out that they were still in and out of trouble. “Very true. Less now that we can’t run off when we’re about to be caught, but we still have a good deal of fun.”
“You had a nanny, Grannie?” Vicky laughed and told Loren that was the thing back when there was money to be wasted. “My goodness. I never thought of you being a little girl. I don’t mean to sound stupid, but you’ve always been old to me.” “Thank you, darling. We’ll talk about how you shouldn’t say things like that to older people later. Anyway, we’d escaped and were in the yard playing. It was much too close to dark for us to have been out, but there we were, enjoying our freedom as if it would be the last.”
Lisa added that it was the last too. “Yes, we were both so terrified after that it was seldom that we ever wished to visit the yard again.” “The two of them were near the woods that surrounded their home. There were all sorts of creatures that kept an eye on the two of them, but one of the faeries that had been sent to watch them had been…well, she’d been murdered before she could warn anyone to come and help her. There was a great bear out there. He was old and cranky, but there wasn’t any reason for him to have done what he did to them.” Dakota asked Aurora what he’d done. It was Grannie that said he’d killed them both. “Yes. He had killed them both by breaking Lisa’s neck, then tearing out the throat of Vicky.”
“I don’t understand. If he killed them, how are they here now?” Aurora looked at Dakota and smiled. Marcus had a feeling he knew the answer to the question, but he wasn’t sure he should say. “Do you know? Why are they both here, unharmed, if the bear killed them? Please, tell me.” “Aurora saved them because your grannie was meant to have a son, so you would be born to come to me.” Aurora nodded. “And in that, you were to have a daughter that we could both raise with Ronnie. I don’t think Ronnie being a Victoria is a coincidence either, is it? “ Aurora shook her head. “This is all too strange.” Vicky looked at Aurora as she continued. “You never told us that part.
For the longest time, I thought we’d just dreamed it. A horrific dream, but that it wasn’t real.” Marcus asked Vicky what had made her realize it was true. “When Lisa had the same dream I had. Even the feeling of having died. We ended up back in our bedroom that very night. Our gowns had been changed, and we were just in our beds. I never wanted to believe any of it until just this moment.” “I needed you both, you see. You for Dakota, as Marcus said. And Lisa to keep you going. I know there were many times when you wished to give up.
To not go on after your husband died. Then your son dying the way he did nearly did you both in.” Aurora laughed. “Did you ever notice that Lisa would come around when you were at your lowest? That she’d bully you into an argument, and you’d feel better afterwards? I gave her the nudge to be there.”
“So my life has been manipulated since birth,” Aurora told Dakota it was more than that. “I don’t see how. You’ve already told me that you’ve kept my grandmother and her sister alive for me to be born. For what reason? So I could be mated to one of your kittens? If that’s not manipulation, I have no idea what it would be called.” “There are four children that need the two of you. If you had not been alive, Dakota, your daughter would not have come to you. And these four children would surely die.” Dakota looked at Marcus, asking if he knew about this. He told her he didn’t. “No one knew, my child. But I assure you, it was for the betterment of all of you.
You have a purpose in Marcus’s life, and he in yours. Not just the children but other children as well. They will not survive without you.” “Don’t blackmail me,” Aurora said that hadn’t been what she meant. “I don’t like any of this. I’ll help with the children, but I want you to know I’m not at all happy with you right now. I’m happy that you saved my grannie and aunt, but the rest of this? I don’t know what to think. Nor do I have anything else to say to you at the moment.”
“I understand. But the children, they are going to need you more than I can explain to you, Dakota. Also Loren. They’re coming soon. I do hope you’re going to take them on with an open mind and heart and not hold what I’ve made you feel against them.” She said she’d never do that to a child. “No, you wouldn’t. All right. I must return to the castle. I’m so very sorry I’ve wounded you, Dakota.
I do hope in time that you can forgive me for the intrusion into your life.” After she left, Marcus asked Dakota if she was all right. Without an answer, she left the room. Marcus looked at his mom and asked her what he was supposed to do now. “Nothing. Just let her think on this. However, you will need to be more than honest with her about things. I’m not sure why that thought has come to me, son, but answer her questions as directly as you would any of your family. She will not tolerate half-truths.”
He nodded. “Also, I think you should spend some time with Loren. When her mother left, she followed her, but I have a feeling she’s not going to be as easy to talk to as her mom. She, too, has been hurt by things we don’t know about.” After his family left, Marcus thought about the things that had happened to bring him his mate. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he would be pissed as well if he were in Dakota’s shoes. He wasn’t.
Marcus had his mate and two children, with four more on the way. Whatever came around about this, he was going to be the best husband and father he could be. If she’d let him. “My mom wants me to leave her alone for a little while. She told me to come in here.” Marcus asked if she was all right. “No. Would you be?” He said he’d not.
“I don’t know what to think about this. But when she’s not happy, neither am I.” “That’s as it should be.” He turned the football game up when she asked him to, and Ronnie sat down between the two of them. He had no idea what was going to happen next, but he was going to be there for them even if they didn’t want him to be. Marcus already loved his little family, and he was going to do his best to make sure they were happy.
Quincy watched the woman move through the crowd. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something just felt off. She was too close to the man in front of her not to be with him. When the man purposefully stepped out in front of an oncoming truck, it was all Quincy could do to stop her from the same fate. She was deaf. Her scent was familiar, but she wasn’t his mate.
Grace was upset with Quincy but didn’t know why. She was thankful that he saved her sister, but she felt pissy and needed to take it out on someone, and he made a good target. But when he didn’t retaliate, she regretted her actions.
It didn’t take but a second for Quincy to figure out that Grace was his mate. But would she be as happy about it as he was? Only time would tell….
Raven Addington was happy with her life the way it was. She and her daughter, Molly, were doing just fine on their own, despite what her mother had to say about it. Merriam, Raven’s mother, never had anything nice to say about anything, so why should now be any different.
Sawyer Bishop had turned in his notice at the police force. No matter how bad he needed the money, he wasn’t about to let a hot-headed partner make him a mark for an early grave. His parents needed his help on the farm, so he was happy to leave the force.
Sawyer was supposed to be on desk duty, but they were shorthanded, so he took the call that came in from the 911 dispatch. It would be his last, and then he would be a poor but free man.
When Sawyer arrived on the scene, it was bad. The poor woman had been beaten until she was unrecognizable and barely breathing. Although he didn’t know her personally, he knew Raven Addington was extremely wealthy, and that bothered him more than he cared to admit. Being a Bengal tiger, he knew from her scent that she was his mate. Her station in life was so far above his, he didn’t think it was going to work. But when she coded in the hospital, he had to make a quick decision and hope it wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass later.
Sasha Harvard had returned to the small town in Ohio because Hailey Riddle, a ghost, had led her there. Sasha had been speaking to the dead for as long as she could remember. In working with the police, Sasha had been in the field, helping to look for Melinda’s spirit when Melinda Havard had found her. Melinda told her that they were sisters, and the man that had killed her thought that she was Sasha. Melinda had done the best she could to deliver the child she was carrying before she succumbed to her wounds. The child was marked like Sasha, and the dead would find her when she was older. Melinda wanted Sasha to raise her child, and she warned Sasha that the man who had killed her would come after both her and the child because of what they could do. Sasha pulled out the business card of Sawyer Bishop, the officer in charge on the field, and told him that she’d like to meet him at his house and to send someone to pick her up.
Chandler Bishop knocked on Sasha’s door to pick her up. He heard a scuffle inside and broke down the door. A man was standing over Sasha with a baseball bat, and she had been beaten. When Chandler yelled at the man, he just disappeared. Sasha was shocked that he’d seen the man. Chandler thought the man was a vampire, Sasha told him the man was dead.
Chandler had found his mate and could see the dead now too apparently. And the little girl, Pip, her niece, would be theirs as well. A readymade family and he couldn’t be happier. But would he and his tiger be able to keep them safe from both the living and the dead?
the living and the dead?
Wesley Bishop was helping out a friend by letting Emmie stay with him. He knew she wasn’t his mate, but she was good company. Emmie was hiding from her abusive brothers. When she asked Wesley to take her to the bank, she was meeting her best friend Penny and Penny’s grandfather, Joe, to go over their accounts, Wesley readily agreed.
Wesley thought Penny was about the prettiest woman he’d ever seen—feisty too, and when her scent hit him like a freight train, he was the happiest tiger shifter on the planet.
Penny, not so much. Like Emmie, Penny’s family had a way of getting their point across with a heavy fist. Trusting a man wasn’t easy for her.
Wesley was no quitter; he’d convince his new mate to trust him if it was the last thing he did. And keeping her safe was proving to be more difficult by the day.
It would take Hodge time to get used to Gunner’s family. She’d used a little magic to help Raven deliver her twins without any pain. The Bishops were crowding her, wanting answers Hodge wasn’t ready to give. She was a loner, and all these people around her would take some getting used to. Gunner felt the same way and told his family to just go home. His mom wasn’t too happy about that.
To the world, Gunner was retired from his service with the military, but he was too good at his job to just stop. Someone had placed a price on Gunner’s head. He just had to figure out who. They’d come close once, but Hodge had sensed the threat and took care of it. But more attempts were inevitable. Would Hodge be able to intervene the next time?
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Quincey moved to the middle of the pack. He supposed it was rude of him to call people, mostly humans, a pack, but to his way of thinking, saying it out loud and thinking it were two different things. Thinking things about people was what got him through the worst kind of patients. The light that told them when to walk was still red, but something just wasn’t right about the man and woman in front of him. He could tell they weren’t together if the glares the man was giving the woman were any indication.
Not to mention, he told her several times to get out of his space. Not that it did him any good—she never moved out of her place right behind him. Quincey saw the big truck coming down the road. It had been the safest and the quickest construction route for the new building going in on one of the properties they all owned. Even as he was thinking this was going to end badly, the man moved. Then the woman did. Grabbing her back from following the man, he was driven to the sidewalk by her turning on him.
Leaping up, he grabbed her again and buried her face into his chest to keep her from the horrors of what had just happened. She was still fighting for freedom as everyone around them backed from the dead man’s body and the truck that had ended his life. “I have you.” She fought free of him and then began signing at him. Putting his hands over hers, he stopped her, but only long enough for him to sign back to her that she needed to slow down.
“It’s been a while. I’m a little rusty. I didn’t want you to follow the man into moving traffic.” She turned then, looking where the rest of the people were looking. When she turned back to him, she thanked him as only a deaf person could. Her fingers to her chin, then pointing them toward him. Having her settled, he went to the man lying broken on the road. Even though he could see that his back was broken, as was his neck, Quincey tried his pulse on what was left of his throat. He was able to pronounce him dead. He then reached for his brother. There’s been an accident/suicide on Main Street, Sawyer. Could you please send help? He asked if anyone else was hurt.
No. Just the man. The truck driver couldn’t have stopped in time if he had seen the man. Whoever he was, he timed it perfectly to step in front of the truck and end his life. I’m on my way. I’ve called an ambulance too. He thanked his brother. You were there, I’m assuming. Are you sure he wasn’t pushed? Positive. There is a deaf woman here too. I managed to keep her from moving into the same accident. I think she was using him as a reference as to when she could cross the street. The woman was upset—anyone within two inches of her could tell that. Going to her, Quincey was careful to wipe the man’s blood from his hand as he got closer. He didn’t want to frighten her any more than she already was. When she looked up at him, he could also see fear there. Assuring her that she wasn’t going to be in trouble had her smacking his forehead.
“You’re very violent, aren’t you?” She told him to fuck off. “Rude. I was just going to let you know that the police are on their way and that my brother knows you weren’t involved.” Quincey had to think about some of the words he was signing to her, and when she laughed, not a sound moving past her upturned mouth, he grinned back at her. He explained to her that he hadn’t used ASL for a while. “I had no idea he was going to get hurt when he moved.” Quincey explained to her that he thought the man had committed suicide. And had she followed him, she would have been killed too. “I can’t hear the clicking.
There were too many people for me to see the other side, or this one, to tell me when I could walk.” “You’re fine now, so that’s all that matters, right?” She nodded and looked to his right. Turning that way as well, he saw Sawyer get out of his truck and walk toward him. “That’s my older brother. He’s the acting sheriff here until they find someone to replace him. He knows ASL too.” ASL, or the American Sign Language, had been something he’d been taught by his mom. All of them had been when she homeschooled them. Mom had learned it from her aunt, who was born deaf. It had, over the years, come in handy when he had to speak to someone that couldn’t hear.
Sawyer seemed to be doing all right now that he’d told her that he, too, was a little rusty, so Quincey started away. When his hand was grabbed, he turned back to the woman and said he wasn’t going to leave her. He needed to talk to the coroner. “Her name is Beth Stone. She’s new here in town to teach ASL to the staff at the hospital. Did you know anything about that?” He told Sawyer he no longer read the emails at the hospital, as they were stupid. “Be that as it may, could you check on it for me? Not that I don’t believe her, but she has literally only just arrived and hasn’t had a chance to figure out where they’re putting her while here.”
“Yes, I can do that.” Pulling out his cell phone, it didn’t bother him in the least that Beth was still holding onto him. Asking for the department that scheduled classes for the staff, he wasn’t just told about the woman, Beth, but was also told that she was late. “She’s been involved in an accident. She’s not injured or a part of it, but she was a witness to it.” “Is this the body that is coming to us soon, Doctor Bishop?” He told her he’d pronounced him dead at the scene and that he would be in later to sign the death certificate for him. “Thank you, sir. I’ll make sure I tell the others what has happened to her.
Also, if you’d not mind, when you come, I’d like you to take her housing information so she may have it. I’m to understand she’s deaf.” “Yes, she is.” There wasn’t anything more that he wanted to add to the conversation, so he closed his phone. Turning to Sawyer, he found himself alone again with Beth. She asked him what was going on. He explained to her what was happening with the hospital. “Thank you. To be honest with you, I’d forgotten about getting in touch with them.” She looked at her hand on his shirt but only released him long enough to sign. “You must think I’m a loony, holding you like this. But it anchors me.”
“I don’t think that at all. You’ve had something traumatic happen near you, and it’s understandable that you’re upset and need to anchor yourself.” Something occurred to him in that moment, and he felt his heart rate pick up. “Beth, are you seeing anyone? Married or something like that? I mean, do you have someone in your life right now?” “Why? Has someone contacted you? Did someone contact you to get in touch with me?” He said he didn’t know who she was, but no, no one had. “Then why do you care if I’m with someone or not?” “I’m a shifter. White Bengal tiger. Do you know anything about shifters?” She said she knew a great many shifters, but sadly, no tigers. “Yes, well, I’d have to figure it out, but I’m thinking the reason you feel so comfortable around me, and me you, is that you might be my mate. I’d have to get closer to you to find out.”
“How close?” He told her. “All right. You can sniff me. But nothing else. I know you won’t hurt me, or you would have already, but just don’t get too fresh with me.” Burying his nose into her neck, he knew immediately that she wasn’t his mate, but she had been around someone that might be. Instead of asking her who it was, he just told her she wasn’t, but that he was here for her. “I thank you for that. I know a few shifters, as I said. And a man that is a wolf nearly married the wrong woman when it was her mother all the time he was smelling on her. He didn’t realize it until the day of the wedding.” He told Beth that was something he’d been thinking too. Then asked her if she had anyone.
“Mom was in an asylum for the criminally insane until she killed herself. Mom killed my dad, sister, and brother, and a bunch of other people one night. It was much more than her putting a bullet in their heads. She— Well, that’s one you’ll have to look up on your own. Melody Stone. Five years ago.” “I’ll look into that. No one else then?” She smiled at him and told him she had two sisters, one younger, the other older. “I’m assuming they don’t live around here. If not, then I don’t think it could be them. This person you would have had contact with recently.” “Both of them do, as a matter of fact.” He smiled at her and said he might be better off letting it go.
“Doubtful you could survive that, Doctor Bishop.” “Doubtful that either one of them would want to attach themselves to a country doctor with no chance of moving on to something more. Not that I want that, but I’m not all that much where a woman would fall over herself for me.” She told him to behave, then the police asked to speak to her. Since Sawyer was working for the department, he let him take care of translating for her. However, he didn’t leave her side. She needed protection as much as his tiger did, he thought.
She was tough and seemed to be able to defend herself. Watching her as she answered their questions, he thought about her family as he looked it up on his phone. Melody Stone had made the front page in every newspaper around the world, it looked like. She’d killed not only two of her children but her husband, his mother, sister, brother, as well as a mailman, two men who picked up the trash, and two officers when they had tried to arrest her. Melody had, according to the report he was reading, just simply snapped one day.
After reading the accounting of what had happened to the people she had killed in her home, Quincey shivered. The only reason Beth and Joanie had been able to live was that they’d hidden in the basement. Hearing the screams of their mother’s victims, as well as the laughter from her the entire three days they’d been trapped with no way out, had been a lot to endure, the author of the article had written. Just as he was finishing the article, he was touched on the arm by someone. Looking at Beth, he asked her if she was all right. She asked him to call her sisters and that she’d buy him lunch. “I’ll call them for you, but you don’t have to buy me lunch, Beth.
I was joking when I said I was nothing but a country doctor. I have other means of making money.” She said she figured that but still wanted to have lunch with him. “All right. But I’ll buy. It’s a manly thing to do.” The place across the street from his office served a really good French dip sandwich. He ordered that, as well as a cup of their vegetable soup to go with it. Beth wanted the same, but instead of water, she wanted tea. Writing down the numbers after the server left, Quincey wondered what he was getting himself into. As soon as the phone was answered by someone cursing, he knew this person was going to be his mate. “My name is Quincey Bishop.
I was—” She told him she didn’t know him. “I’m aware of that, Ms. Stone, but your sister is here with me, and she’s—” “Is she hurt? I told her to take one of us with her. Damn it. Did you hurt her?” He said he’d not. “Well? What the hell are you doing with my little sister then? I’m telling you right now, you’re not going to get away with—” “Will you calm the fuck down for a minute and let me finish telling you the reason I called you?” No apology came from her end, but he was just pissy enough to let it go for now. “She was witness to an accident that claimed the life of a young man. She wasn’t involved or injured, but she’s understandably shook up. However, why she would think you’d be a comfort to her is beyond me.
We’re at the Dixie Restaurant on Main Street.” Closing the phone, he didn’t want to tell Beth what had happened, but she asked, so he told her the one that had answered the phone was a rude bitch. Beth smiled and told him it could have been either of her sisters. Neither of them were good with people. They ate their lunch and spoke about her job. He’d not been as excited about his job as she was about hers in a long time, he realized. Of course, she was just beginning hers, and he’d been a doctor for nearly eight years.
Christ, he thought, that was a long time. When two women sat down with them, just barged into their lunch, he watched the conversation the two of them were having with Beth. They were pissed. Not at her, but that she’d not called them right away. Beth told them both to fuck off and that she was a grown woman. That got him laughing, and the two newcomers glared at him. “You two are a great deal alike. I’m assuming you, boss everyone, around when you feel you’re in the right.” He spoke to the other two and signed for Beth to understand him. “I told you she was fine, yet there you are checking her out like she was some sort of kid you have to boss—” One of them told him it was none of his business. Quincey slammed his hands on the table and spoke again. “Stop interrupting me when I’m speaking. You’ve done that so many times I can only assume you’re used to people letting you ride all over them.
Well, I’m not going to allow you to beat up on her or me. So you can either calm the fuck down, or you can just get the hell out of here. Beth and I were having a nice lunch until you two arrived.” Neither of them said another word to him or Beth. When the server arrived, he asked them if they needed a menu. They both agreed to have whatever Beth was having. When the server walked away, he knew the woman talking was the one who had answered the phone. “I’m sorry. I’m not good around people. My name is Grace. My sister is Joanie. You’ve been really nice by taking care of Beth, so she wasn’t too traumatized, and we all appreciate that.” He told Grace it was his pleasure. “Thank you for that. And you were in the right when you yelled at us. Now and on the phone. We came here on a whim for Beth, and I’ve not had any luck getting things squared away for us to live here with her.”
“What sort of issues are you having? I’m assuming it’s housing.” She told him that was it. “Buying or renting? The reason I ask is that my family has both sitting empty right now.” “Buying. But you don’t have to go to any trouble for us. We’ll get it settled up.” Joanie told her to shut up and let him help. He noticed they were doing the same thing he’d been doing, speaking and using sign language so that Beth could be a part of everything. “All right. We’ll take your help. But you don’t have to go out of your way and make your family—” This time it was Beth that put her hand over her sister’s mouth.
She told him she’d take all the help he wanted to give them. She wasn’t as stubborn or as stupid as her sisters. Quincey laughed and called his brother Gunner. He knew he had several properties around town and could help these women out. Putting the phone on speaker when he asked his brother if it was all right, he explained who he was with as well as what they needed. He signed the conversation to Beth. ~*~ “I don’t understand. What do you mean he thinks one of us is his mate? I’m not going to settle down with someone that has to love me. No way.” Grace looked at Beth as they spoke. “You have to have that wrong. He never said a word about it.”
“Perhaps because you were so caustic to him the entire time he was trying to have lunch with me. You do understand that I’m an adult, the same as you and Joanie are, don’t you? I mean, I voted in the last election. I get to make my own money. All kinds of stuff.” She told her sister to be nice. “No, I won’t be nice to you. He was the perfect gentleman, despite the fact that I knocked him to the ground when he saved me from following that man into traffic. I hope he’s not either of your mates. I’m positive he can do so much better than you guys.”
After her sister left her, she stared at the work she’d been doing when the call had come in. Not that she didn’t know each and every line she’d drawn. Standing up, she stood over the drawing without seeing it anymore. All she could think about was how rude and bitchy she’d been to Quincey. Both her and Joanie had been. Making a decision, she grabbed her keys and told Joanie where she was going. Joanie asked if she could go as well. All three of them ended up going to find Doctor Bishop. The houses along his street were houses she’d always had an attraction for. The last two houses she’d drawn had been the same sort of antebellum homes.
As soon as his driveway came up, the house sitting far back from the road, she knew this man was a smart businessman. The house, along with the garden out front and the grounds, was well maintained. Getting out of the car, she was shocked to her core when a large white tiger came running at them from the side of the house. The larger-than-life cat stopped not a foot from where she was standing. She looked up at the house when a woman in a white apron asked if she wanted the doctor. “No. Not unless he tries to eat me. I’m assuming this is Quincey Bishop?” The woman laughed and made her way toward them. “I came to talk to him about my behavior earlier today. Is he going to hurt me?” “I’d say not. But he is Doc.
He wants me to tell you that you and your sisters are welcome to go inside the house, but he has to go to the barn to change into clothing. He’ll be naked should he shift right now.” The cat snarled at the woman, who told him to behave himself. “I just baked up some zucchini bread if you’d like some. The garden out back is just plum full of the little suckers.” When the woman turned, heading back to the house, Joanie and Beth joined her. When Grace started to move to join them, the cat blocked her path. After he blocked her twice more, she stood where she was. “I’m assuming you want me to stay here. I can do that. So long as you understand, I’m not going to let you hurt me. Or my sisters.” She thought of what Beth said to her about being mates.
“Am I your mate? I don’t even know if you can understand me or not.” Her cell phone ringing nearly gave her a heart attack. Grace wasn’t sure, but she thought Quincey was laughing at her. Answering the call from Joanie, she was laughing hard enough that it took her two tries to tell her why she’d call at this time. “He said for you to put out your hand so he can nip it. Beth said it wasn’t at all painful, but he can talk to you after he tastes your blood.
I’d do it, Grace. What harm could it do for you to be able to speak to a tiger when you need one?” She didn’t ask her how she thought she’d need him but put out her hand. The lick across her entire palm made her realize he was hiding a lot of teeth from her. When he nipped gently on her hand, she wasn’t hurt at all. Pulling her hand back, noticing that it was still trembling a good deal, she asked him if it had worked. It did. And yes, Grace, you’re my mate. She nodded and looked away. I won’t hurt you or your family. Not ever. I’ll protect them with my life, as I will you.
“I’m not asking for you to do that, Quincey. I’m a little overwhelmed right now.” He told her he was sorry for adding to her stress. “I came here to tell you how sorry I was for snapping at you so much. I’d like to tell you I was having an off day, but I’m snappish to everyone lately. I hate my job. I hate my life, and I just want to crawl into a cave and never come out. Nothing seems to be going right.” Is there anything I can do to help you? Shaking her head, she looked at him. I’ll do whatever you need me to do, Grace. Just tell me what has you overwhelmed. I want to know.
No, that’s not nearly enough. I need to know. “I draw houses. Pretty pictures of them so people can hang them in their homes and be proud of it. However, no one wants to see their house the way it really looks. They want me to make it look like something they’ll never be able to achieve. Not without a great deal of money and about five hundred years.” Quincey asked her if someone was disappointed in what she did for them. “Yes. They’re suing me for drawing a house that looks just like the one they sent me pictures of. No big trees out front, like they thought I’d just know they wanted there.
The broken-down fence wasn’t fixed, and lord have mercy, I should have read their mind and just assumed they’d want the yellow shutters to be black and the house to be white, not pink. I kid you not, Quincey. It’s the ugliest pink you’ve ever seen. But they’re suing me for the house they had in their heads and not what they have.” I can help you with that. I have a great many contacts to look into it for you. Or I could hire you a good attorney if you don’t already have one. She told him he was too nice. Thank you. She laughed when he didn’t tell her she was as well. She knew she’d not been.
But when she pointed it out to him, he stood up. Thinking he was going to attack her or something now that he was growling low in his throat, she bumped her head when he told her to get down behind her car. The car came out of nowhere and slid to a stop not a foot from her own car. Gravel sprayed everywhere and hit her against the back of her legs. Quincey didn’t move from his position, but two men came out of the house then and leaned against the posts. She didn’t have any idea who they might be, but she thought they were much too relaxed compared to Quincey’s fur standing on edge and his stiff stance.
“You need something?” The men came down the stairs from the porch and made their way to the new arrival, sauntering in a slow walk. “I asked you something, Mr. Jacobson. You’ll live longer if you answer me and put that gun away.” “He said it was suicide. That brother of yours, he told the police he’d seen my son jump into the front of that moving truck on purpose. He needs to take that back. Right now.” The sharp noise of a gun going off had her crying out, but she didn’t move when Quincey told her she was all right. “Where is he? Where’s Doc Bishop? I know he lives around here.” “You need to calm down and put that rifle away before you get hurt.” Mr. Jacobson pointed out that he was the one holding the rifle. “You are at that, but that tiger right there is going to kill you if you don’t calm down and put the rifle into your car.
We’ll talk to you then, but not with you waving that thing around like you’ve no idea who or what you’re going to kill with it.” Someone else pulled into the drive, and she was afraid it was reinforcements for Mr. Jacobson. A woman and a man got out of the car and walked toward the elderly man. The woman was dressed in business attire, the man in a suit. The other two men nodded at them when they were next to her car. “It’s William, isn’t it?” The man said he was, then told the woman talking that his son didn’t commit suicide.
“But he did. You know me, William. You know what I can do. I helped you a couple of weeks ago to find the paperwork your wife put up. I showed you what I can do, didn’t I?” “You speak to the dead.” Grace could hear the grief in the other man’s voice. “You got him there with you, Sasha? My son, he with you right now?” “He is, and he wants to speak to you. Are you ready to see him? He’s not able to glamour himself because of him only being dead for a few hours. Are you ready for what he looks like?” He said he wasn’t, but he would like to see him. “All right.” “Oh, Billy. Oh my, Billy. What did they do to you?”
Standing up, she stared at the man. It hurt her heart to see him like this. William went to his knees and asked over and over who had killed him. “You’re all I have in the world, son. Did they take you from me?” “No, Dad. No one took me from you. I did kill myself.” The sobbing was painful to hear. Before she could think what a dangerous thing she was doing, she made her way to the grieving man and took the gun from him. Then she held him to her breast as he cried for his loss. “You’re going to hear a lot of things about me, Dad, and most of them are going to be true. The woman I was seeing, however, is going to tell you the child she is carrying is mine. It’s not. However, if you could see your way to do it, I’d very much like it if you could find someone to care for him. Otherwise, she’ll sell him to someone, and you’ll never see him.” “I’ll raise him myself, Billy.”
Billy told his dad he didn’t want that. He knew his dad had failing health. “You left me, son. I don’t care what others are going to say. You left me here all alone.” “Dad, I was dying anyway. You knew that. The doctor I saw this morning, not Doc Bishop, but the guy I’ve been seeing said my cancer had advanced, and I didn’t have but a few weeks to live. I couldn’t let you do that, go through that again like you did with Mom.” He said he would have.
“I know you would have. I know that, Dad. But I didn’t want you to have to. So I ended it.” William sobbed, his body becoming weaker with each passing moment. When Billy said he had to go, it was all Grace could do not to demand that he stay. When he was gone, she held onto William tightly, knowing some of his grief like her own. “Grace?” She looked up at the man who’d been on the porch. “I’m Wesley, one of Quincey’s brothers. This is Gunner, and Chandler is standing over with his wife, Sasha. Quincey asked us to take you inside, and one of us will drive Mr. Jacobson home. All right?”
“Will he be all right?” Wesley said his dad was going to stay with him tonight and help him with arrangements in the morning. “He’s hurting very badly. I hurt for him.” “We all do. Come on now, honey. Let’s get you into the house, and Quincey said he’d join you in a few minutes.” Being led into the house, she stumbled a couple of times on the way up the stairs. “Steady there. You get hurt, and he’s going to have my head. I’ll get you settled and call your sisters for you.” As soon as she was seated, both her sisters came to sit with her. Grace was numb. She didn’t know what had happened with the man and his son, but she did hurt for them both. Not that she’d not thought the same thing over the years. Her mother had been arrested and put away. Everyone looked at the three of them like they might go off the handle, too, killing any and everyone that got in their way. When Quincey joined them in the living room, he sat across from them. She thought she could really love a man like him.
Yasmine Dennis was doing her best to make it on her own. She’d been blind since she was seven and had done rather well for herself despite her disability. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time resulted in a hospital stay, and a childhood friend, Caleb Anderson, came to her rescue.
Joey Phillips was just trying to help the beautiful woman avoid a fall when he met her. Despite her surly disposition, he was intrigued. She might think she was handicapped, but all Joey saw was a beautiful woman that he desperately needed to get
Caleb Anderson just lost his mother to cancer. He had never known his father, Howard Berkley, now deceased as well. Her final wishes were for Caleb to deliver a letter of her passing to her estranged parents, grandparents that he’d never met, and to find the other five boys sired by Berkley. Caleb would do anything he could to honor her wishes. Tabby Tillman had had enough of the Andersons. She was tired of running the company and their lazy son Shep taking all the credit and bonuses. Just pay her for her overtime and vacation, and she was out of there. Caleb was impressed with Tabby. The woman didn’t curb her opinions, and he liked that about her. Moving to be closer to her was something he didn’t think twice about. A change of scenery would be just what he needed.
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Yasmine started to sit up, but the pain behind her eyes had her crying out. Stopping all movement other than to lie back on the pillow, she wondered not just where she was but what had happened to get her there. The squeak of shoes told her she was in some sort of medical facility. She’d been in enough of those over her life that even the smell of antiseptic would make her blood run cold. Not that anyone at any facility had ever been mean to her. It was just being there over and over that had her cringe whenever she smelled certain smells. “Yasmine Dennis?” Turning her head toward the voice, she said that was her name. “My name is Doctor Jerome.
Do you know where you are?” “Medical facility.” He asked her which one. “I don’t know. Has anyone notified my sister? Jasmine Dennis?” “We’ve called her, but she’s not arrived just yet. What can you tell me about what had you coming in here tonight?” Yasmine didn’t know, but she had a feeling that not only did this man know, but he wasn’t terribly happy about the turn of events that brought her here. “The police are here, Miss Dennis. They have a few questions for you about why you’re here.” “All right. But I’d like to wait on my sister, please?” Dr. Jerome told her they were only going to be a moment. “I’d rather you didn’t bring them in. I want to wait on my sister. You said you called her, but she’s not here. I want to wait on her.” “Miss Dennis? My name is Captain Sawyer. I’d like to ask you a few questions if you’d not mind.” She told him she did mind, and she wanted her sister there. “Miss Dennis, you’re not in trouble. We’re just here to ask you some things about last night. Do you own a car, Miss Dennis?”
“No. I will keep telling you until she’s here that I want to wait on my sister. It’s important that she be here with me.” He asked her two more questions, each of them sounding a little harsher like he was angry with her now. “I would like my sister, Jasmine Dennis, here before I answer any questions you put before me.” After about the fifth time she repeated her statement, they seemed to get the idea. They weren’t happy about it, but they no longer peppered her with questions. Hearing the door open, she knew it was going to be her sister. “Yazzie?” Thank goodness. “My goodness, what’s happened to you? Why are the police here? Tell me what’s going on.” “I don’t know. I woke up in here, and they’re asking me questions.”
Her sister asked someone what was going on. “Jasmine, just don’t get arrested.” “We’re just asking questions, for now, Miss Dennis. Some witnesses put your sister behind the wheel of a car that was the getaway vehicle for an armed robbery yesterday afternoon. There are seven dead plus three officers. We’d like to know where she was and who she was with.” “You’re joking right now, aren’t you?” Jasmine’s fingers tightened around hers before her sister continued. “Well, I guess I can see where you’d not know. Gentlemen, I can tell you right now that there isn’t any way the witness was telling you the truth.
My sister has been blind since we were seven years old. There isn’t any way she’d drive anything anywhere.” Jasmine made it sound like she’d won a marathon or something. That she’d come in first, too. Being blind wasn’t anything Yasmine had wanted, but it had happened, and here she was. While the police asked questions of her sister, Yasmine tried to focus on anything but the fact that she was a little excited that someone, even for a brief time, thought she could be a regular person and drive a car. “They’re gone.” Jasmine climbed into the bed with her and held her hands. “Your face is pretty beat up. There are bandages on your eyes. I told you to get one of those bracelet things that will tell people you’re blind. What would you have done had I not come in here and saved your ass?”
“Gone to jail,” Jasmine told her to be sensible. “I would have gotten around to it sooner or later, Jasmine. It’s not like I would have been able to hide the fact that I can’t see from them once they asked me to look at pictures or something. Just let me lie here in the quiet for a moment.” It had only been lately that Yasmine was getting annoyed with her twin. She was forever bossing her around about this or that. Usually, things that Yasmine didn’t want to do, or for that matter, didn’t think necessary. Like the shirt. Jasmine had gotten her a new shirt. She brought it to her apartment and had her try it on. She wore it for most of the first afternoon. It wasn’t until she was brought back to her place after being at the mall with her that Hal, her landlord, had told her what the shirt said.
“I’m blind, so pardon me for stumbling around.” The thing was, Jasmine wouldn’t have seen it as a joke. Getting her a shirt that pointed out her blindness and made a big deal out of it was something that Jasmine was really good about doing. No matter how much it embarrassed Yasmine, her sister thought the world should be aware that her twin was handicapped. A word that Jasmine loved as much as Yasmine hated. “You’ll come and stay with me for a few days.” Yasmine didn’t bother telling her no. She wouldn’t be bullied into anything at this point in her life. “That way, I can pamper you and care for you.” “I don’t need caring for, Jazzie.
I’m fine.” She told her that she’d been beaten. “Perhaps, but it’s not like I can see any more than I did before the bandages were put on my face. I’m not going home with you. I don’t like your menagerie of animals. Nor do I care for all the noises at your place. The sounds or the smells.” “My home does not smell. And you’ll stay with me, and that’s final.” Though it wasn’t nearly final, Yasmine didn’t say anything to her. “What is this world coming to when people are killed in a bank robbery?” “You sound like you’re rooting for the bank robbers.” Yasmine was feeling sleepy and asked Jasmine to move off the bed. Of course, she had to put up a fuss. “Jasmine, blind or not, I was hurt. Just let me rest.” Calling for the nurse, her sister was just pissed off enough that she wouldn’t speak to either of them. It wasn’t like anyone looking at the two of them would think they were anything but related.
The nurse winked at her when Jasmine didn’t answer her question about the two of them being related. The only difference between the two of them that Yasmine was aware of was that her sister was annoying, and she wasn’t. Laughing a little to herself, the door opened and closed before she felt the medicine kick in. “Do you need anything else, honey?” Yasmine asked the nurse, who she assumed was giving her the medicine, where her sister had gone. “I think she’s in a huff, that one. Upset because you called me in here, I guess. If you’re hurting, honey, don’t hesitate to call. Did they tell you how you’re injured? Someone should have guessed that you couldn’t see. Let me go get your chart and tell you.”
The door opened briefly then closed up. “Let me see here.” “You knew I was blind.” The nurse, Anna, told her she had been in the room when she’d awakened. “I don’t understand. I mean, I’m glad you figured it out, but how?” “You didn’t look around.” She laughed a little. “It says here that you have a concussion, as well as a sprained ankle. There are fifteen stitches in your forehead, as well as numerous lacerations to your face and neck. Nothing is broken. Is there anything else I can help you with, honey?” “No.” She thought about it. “Yes. Wait. I know this is going to sound very odd, but I was wondering if you could call a friend of mine. I know his number. His name is Caleb Anderson. But I don’t want you to tell my sister.
She’ll get all up in my face about calling someone else to help me out.” “I can do that for you.” The phone was picked up, and she heard the buttons pressed. “If you don’t mind my saying so, child, I think you should try and distance yourself from your sister for a bit. She’s trying very hard to control you. Yes. My name is Anna Dereck. I’m a nurse at Mercy Hospital. I have a patient of mine that would like to speak with Mr. Caleb Anderson.” Control her? Yes, she supposed it would look like Jasmine was trying to control her when all she was doing was trying to keep her safe. Sometimes she did take things too far, and there were times, like now, that she wanted to get away from her. But controlling her? The phone was put into her hand, and she said her name. “Hello, Yasmine Dennis. My name is Tabby Anderson.
I’m Caleb’s wife. He’s not here right now, but I can get a message to him if you’d like.” Yasmine told the other woman it was all right. It wasn’t important. “I think it is. You’re obviously in a hospital. Emergency room? No. It’s too quiet there. What is it I can tell Caleb so he can fix whatever is wrong?” “It’s nothing, Mrs. Anderson.” She said her name was Tabby. “Yes, I understand. We’re friends, Caleb and me. Or we were sort of friends. I’m not sure we still are. It’s been a long time, so he might not remember me at all. Well, I don’t know how many blind women he knows, but I’m sure that would be the only stand out that would jar his memory.”
“Are you finished ranting?” Yasmine told her she didn’t feel she was ranting. “All right. Then are you finished over-explaining why you’d be calling a married man? I’m assuming that’s why you’re rambling. I guess that would be a better word for it.” “I’ve been hurt, you see. I’m in the hospital with a concussion. A sprained ankle too, but since I’ve not gotten up, I don’t know if it hurts or not. The nurse who called for me just gave me some medication for pain, so that might be it.” She felt secure in talking to this woman because she knew the chances of meeting her were slim to none. “My sister, my twin, is driving me crazy. She’s…well, I was just told she’s controlling.
I didn’t realize that before. Or maybe I did, and that was why I called you. Or Caleb. Understand?” “I do. And even though you know you’re hurt and could use someone to help you along, you don’t want it to be her. Is that right?” Yasmine said that was it precisely. “You’re at Mercy, the nurse said.” “Yes. But please don’t bother Caleb. I was just having a moment, and now that I’m over it, I’m all right to go home with Jasmine.” Before she could stop herself, Yasmine spoke again. “She has four cats and two dogs. Last time I was at her house, she had a ferret and a bird. It’s very noisy at her house too. Like animals baying at the moon kind of noises.” The laughter alerted her that she’d spoken aloud. “I’m sorry. You must think I’m an ungrateful sister that needs to be slapped.” “I don’t, actually.
I find you totally honest and fun.” The door opened and closed, and she knew it was her sister by her smell. “I guess you have company now. I’ll see you later, Yasmine.” “Who was that?” She told her it was a friend of hers from college. “A better friend than I am a sister? Never mind. Don’t answer that. I’m sorry I got in a huff about you staying with me. But I do think it’s the only way to go. You’ll come and stay with me, and we’ll have some fun for a while. I’ll get on your nerves, and you’ll go home, and we’ll have a few days to reflect on how much we annoy each other before we’re calling again. All right?” Yasmine was saved from answering when her phone rang. Of course, her sister answered it and didn’t even bother handing the phone to her, but just started talking to the person on the other end. “She’s asleep.” Whoever it was laughed, and Yasmine had a feeling it was Tabby Anderson.
“When I tell you she’s asleep, then she’s asleep. Who is this?” “Give me the phone, Jasmine. I want to talk to her.” Of course, she didn’t. Nor did she stop telling the woman she was asleep when she had to be able to hear her talking to her sister. Then the phone slammed down on the cradle. “Why did you do that? I told you I wanted to talk to her. Jasmine, that was just rude.” “That woman was rude. She said to tell you she had your ass. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Then she laughed at me. Like it was some kind of joke that I was trying to let you rest, as you told me you wanted to do.” She did want her to let her rest, but as usual, Jasmine wouldn’t do what she wanted. However, it wasn’t worth fighting with her about what she wanted. “I’m going to talk to the staff and tell them you’re not to have any visitors.
It would be just like that rude woman to come here and try to take you from me.” “I’m not a child, Jasmine. There isn’t any way she’s going to kidnap me.” Jasmine told her it wouldn’t happen while she was there. “You’re being ridiculous. Next time she calls, you hand me the phone.” “I will not. It’s settled. I don’t know how you think you’re going to get along at home without someone there to take care of you, Yasmine. I told you it was settled, and it is. I’m responsible for you, and I take that very seriously.” Jasmine had said that to her before. A lot. “Now, tell me what she said and who her name is so I can take care of this for you.” “Linda Ashcraft. She and I went to school together.” Jasmine left her then, the door opening and closing told her that. Plus, she could no longer smell the cats on her sister’s clothing. Yasmine smiled. “She’s not going to be bothered by not coming to see me because she died some time ago. Good luck, Tabby, if you’re coming here. It’s going to be a nightmare for us both, I think.”
Caitlynn was beginning to regret getting out of bed that morning. This day had too many surprises, and she didn’t know if she could handle any more. Her da’s night terrors started a chain of events that had her head spinning.
Dawson was intrigued with the Irish waitress from the moment she greeted them at the table. Dawson did not realize at first that she was his mate. But when she was mortally wounded, he had to think fast: change her to a tiger or let her die. Letting her die wasn’t an option.
Caitlynn had had little experience with shifters, but she did understand the concept of being told she was Dawson’s mate. However, that didn’t mean she was going to just roll over and accept it. But…there was something extremely appealing about the man….
A fresh start was what Rogan Hall needed. A small town, out of the way, where no one knew her or her brother was where they’d start over. She worked from home, and they kept to themselves. The only thing Rogan couldn’t give up was her early morning run.
Like clockwork, she ran every morning, and again, like clockwork, the same family would pass her on the country road heading to who knew where. The little boy in the back seat would wave at her with such enthusiasm, it made her heart melt. However, that morning, everything would change. Only moments after the car passed her and drove around the bend, she heard a loud commotion. Another car barreled past her, and she found the quaint family’s car overturned and on fire. Rogan did the only thing she could do, she saved them.
Thatcher Robinson was on duty at the hospital when his parents contacted him through their link and told him about the accident and what to expect when the ambulance arrived. Thatch, his dad, told him they had to save the woman by changing her, but her burns were severe, and his dad wasn’t sure that the new tiger would survive.
When Rogan regained consciousness, she was unsure where she was, but she knew she was different. She could feel the tiger move just beneath her skin. Rogan knew very little about shifters, but what she did know had her cringing. Why someone would take it upon themselves to change her, she didn’t know, but when the young doctor, Dawson, said his brother was her mate, she was furious. If the big, bad, Thatcher thought he was going to order her around, he had another thing coming….
Anna didn’t know what to do with the man who acted like he was attached to her hip. Every time she moved, just to get up and move to the bathroom, he’d be right there with her, helping her into a panic attack. Not really, but that was what it felt like to her.
Morgan wasn’t sure what he’d have to do to convince Anna that he wouldn’t just up and leave her. She was a tiger too, and she knew they were mates just as well as he did. But for some reason, he couldn’t get her to trust him.
“I don’t think that I’d offer you my hand. You’d more than likely bite it off.”
She growled at him. “I’m not sure if you feel the same way I do about me growling at you, but all it does when you do it is making me want to spread you out before me and lick every square inch of you.”
Trudy Justice was good at her job, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t vulnerable. Caught unaware by a fellow FBI agent, the gunshot wound to Tru’s gut nearly did her in. To the world, Tru was dead. Rogan was hiding her out until they could figure out who had marked her to be a target.
Houston Robinson, a tiger shifter, was preparing to shift and take a much-needed run when a strange woman’s voice interrupted him before he could remove his pants to shift. At first, he was irritated, but when he saw the blood, he wanted to help.
Hurting bad and suspicious of everyone, Tru was in no mood to listen to anyone, especially a shapeshifter claiming to be her mate. She didn’t care how nice he pretended to be….
Allie Langley was upset about losing her job. It wasn’t the teaching job she wanted, but it helped pay the bills. It was just how her luck had been running since she’d moved to that town: first, she’d been kidnapped and tortured, now the job. What next?
Becket Robinson’s car had broken down, and he needed to use the phone. He hadn’t expected to find his mate when he knocked on the door, but now that he had, he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. It didn’t matter how much she ranted and raved about it either. She would fit right in with the rest of the family.
But when Becket discovered her injuries and how infected they were, he called in Thatcher, one of his brothers, to help.
Allie collapsed in Beckett’s arms when her fever spiked. Allie’s brother begged Beckett to change Allie into a tiger to save her. Thatcher agreed that converting her would be the only way to save her. Beckett knew he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. But, he couldn’t let her die…. He knew he was going to have one pissed-off mate when she finally woke up. If she woke up….
Jonas Robinson had his hands full but was loving every minute of it. Those four children needed him, and he had to admit he needed them as well. If no other family came out of the woodwork wanting them, he had his heart set on adopting them.
Ginger Morgan, a talented photographer, worked undercover for the Government. She was good at her job, but it often put her off the radar for weeks at a time. She had just heard of her sister Sissy’s recent hospital stay when she returned to town.
Sissy had it in her mind that she wanted a ready-made family and wanted to take in her nieces and nephews, whom she had never met. When Ginger found out who had the kids, she called her college buddy, Dawson Robinson, to find out more. What happened next had all their heads spinning.
Ginger was swept into a world of intrigue as Rogan Robinson brought her team in and hid them from the world. Those children’s identities had to be kept secret at all costs. Now that Ginger and her family were involved, they would be targets as well.
Ginger knew a little about shifters, but being mated to one was something she’d have to give some thought to. And being a mother was something she’d never wanted to be—until now….
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Thatcher was exhausted. He knew Dawson was as well. The two of them had been called to another center like theirs to work. Nineteen agents had been shot. Four of those had died at the scene. While they’d not told them what had happened, Rogen told them what she was aware of. So earlier in the day, he’d asked her what the hell had gone down. “A man they’re calling John Doe was apprehended. He had an arsenal at his disposal, and it looks like he used every bit of what he had to keep from being arrested.” Thatcher told her what he had on his end.
“I would imagine there are even more than that someplace else. Thirty agents to go in isn’t nearly what I’d be taking in.” “Three of the ones that were brought here are dead. One more isn’t going to make it. There are no name tags on these men and women. How will they know who is who when it’s all finished, and they have to contact their loved ones?” She had told him. “I guess I thought they all had families like you and Tru do. Is that why she only goes out on clean-ups that are relatively safe?” “I would imagine she goes out on assignments that none of us know about.
You have to remember that she’s clean up, and there are none better than her. Just like me and my computers.” She told him whatever she found out throughout the day, and he relayed the information to Dawson. The two of them worked well side by side. Dawson had been in ER for so long he was very good at making quick decisions about what he needed to do. Thatcher wasn’t that quick, but he was learning to work on the fly, as Dawson was so fond of saying. Now here they were, in the middle of the night, driving back home. He’d wanted to take a flight back—it would have been easier—but Dawson told him that he just needed to unwind for a little while, and driving the two hours was just what he would need. When they pulled into an all-night diner, he looked at his brother.
“I’m starving. I’m sure you are, too, if your stomach noises are any indication.” He said he could eat. “Thatcher, I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed this out to you before, but you say that all the time. Like, is there ever a time when you aren’t hungry?” “Never.” They got out of the car and walked up to the quaint little place. “I didn’t know this place was open again. I mean, after the previous owner passed on about five years ago, I just thought it would never reopen. Remember coming here after a football game?” “I didn’t play ball. But I do remember coming here with Mom and Dad for breakfast a few times a month. Best grits in the state, I think Dad used to say.” The waitress told them to have a seat wherever they wanted, and they opted for the one close to the long bar that had neat little red stools lined up in front of it. “Cad a oíche. What can I get the two of you?” Thatcher understood her saying that she’d had a night but didn’t comment. Dawson looked at the woman.
“Irish.” She shook her head and told him she was Caitlynn, just as her nametag said. “No. I meant you’re Irish.” “Aye, that I am. And you be a scholar, aren’t you?” She winked at Dawson with a sassy grin. “I’ve some fresh tea brewing if you’ve a mind to try it. Also, there is coffee for the heathens that wish that nasty brew.” “Tea. I’m sorry if I insulted you.” She said she was having a wee bit of fun with him, and Dawson nodded. They both ordered the tea. “Also, if you have some lemon, I’d like that as well.” “You’ll not be messing with my tea with a drip of lemon, I’ll have you know. Are you daft, man?” They both were smiling when she walked away, laughing lyrical laughter that had him wishing she’d sing to them. “I’m sappy again.” Dawson asked him what it was now, and Thatcher told him about her laughter. “Doesn’t it sound like a song we should listen to?”
“You are sappy. What does Rogen do with you when you get like this? I’m betting you run and hide from her so she doesn’t slap you upside the head.” Dawson shook his head as he continued. “I feel out of sorts myself. Like something is terribly wrong with—” The man came out of nowhere. He pulled Dawson from the seat he’d been in and had a gun to his head. Thatcher didn’t move, but he did talk to the man, asking him what was wrong and not to kill his brother. Then Caitlynn was there too. “Da. Stop this. Stop ag gortu’ an fhir seo, Da?” Caitlynn telling her dad to stop hurting Dawson wasn’t working until she shoved her way between them. “Da. It’s me. Caitlynn.
Your wee bonny lass. Come on now. Don’t hurt him. You’ve been woke up too soon, I can see that.” “What can I do?” Caitlynn told Thatcher there was nothing. That her dad suffered from night terrors and sleepwalking. She cautioned them not to wake him suddenly. “I can’t let him hurt either of you, Caitlynn. Get him to stop, or I’m going to have to take him down to the floor.” “Did ya hear that, Da? This man is going to hurt you if you don’t wake up and let his poor brother go. Is that what you be hoping for? Come on now, Da. Let the man go and—” The gun went off, and Thatcher jerked the man off the woman and to the floor. It wasn’t until he searched the man for any wounds that he turned to ask Dawson if he was all right.
It was Caitlynn that had been shot. Her blood was staining her white shirt like it was going to stain it red before she fell to the floor. “Oh my God, baby girl. What have I done?” The man moved out of the way when Dawson told him to. After laying the woman on the floor, Dawson went to work on her. The man, they’d never gotten his name, started sobbing that he’d killed his little girl. “Go get my bag, Thatcher.” He nodded and went to the trunk to pull out both their bags. He was thankful now that they’d been able to get some good supplies while at the other clinic and rushed back into the restaurant. “She’s not going to make it. Christ, this is a nightmare. I’m going to change her. It’s the only way to save her.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Dawson looked up at him, and he saw it. “She’s your mate.” “Yes. I didn’t know until she was standing between me and her father. I have to save her, Thatcher. She’s not going to be happy, but I have to do something.” The sound of the gun going off in the kitchen had them both pausing. “Go and see what that old fool is up to. I swear to you, Thatcher, I wish now the two of us had taken the plane.” Dawson was shifting to his cat just as Thatcher opened the swinging door to the kitchen. There on the floor, with the gun lying beside him, was the man. He had just finished slitting his right wrist when Thatcher got to him. Making a decision that would change the course of two people’s lives, Thatcher let his cat take him too. Licking the wounds closed at his wrists, he knew he’d have to work fast. There had been a lot of blood loss. The first wrist he’d cut had been too long, and the old man was probably losing his grip on life even as he shot his gun off, Thatcher thought.
Biting into the soft part of the man’s belly, Thatcher tore at his flesh so the change would hopefully be quicker. Praying that he could save the man’s life, he tasted the chemicals that the man had been taking. Antidepressants. Large doses of caffeine. A cocktail of all kinds of over-the-counter drugs mixed with the ones that had been prescribed was what was poisoning the man, causing his nightmares, as well as a great many other things Thatcher could taste. After the man’s heart started beating better, his breathing evening out too, Thatcher sat back on his haunches and watched him. Exhaustion like he’d never felt rolled over him in ways he was sure no one on this earth could have been prepared for. Dawson joined him in the kitchen with Caitlynn in his arms. He laid her on the floor beside her father and sat down next to him. Putting his hand in his fur, Dawson started talking.
“We’re going to need some help here. I don’t mean with getting the two of them home, but there is a lot of blood out there that someone is going to notice. In here, too, it seems. Can you call Rogen?” Nodding, he pulled out his cell phone to call her after shifting to his other self. He was glad to see the blood was gone and that his clothing was intact. “Will you start off with the fact that I found my mate? That might make her less pissed off at me if you do that.” “She won’t be mad, Dawson. We did what we had to do.” Rogen answered on the first ring. She asked him where the hell he was. “I’m in a sort of a bit of trouble here. Nothing major, but we have a great deal of blood that needs to be cleaned up, as well as two people we’ve had to change.” “Where are you?” After giving her the name of the place, he told her what had happened. “Well, of course, I’m not going to be mad at him. What a thing to say to me.
All right, Thatcher, I’m at the computers. Tell me again the name of the place the two of you are in. By the way, why did you call me on the phone? Usually, you just reach out to me.” “My dad taught us that. When you reach out to someone in the middle of the night, they might not wake fully and incorporate whatever you’re saying to them into their dreams. They may or may not remember it in the morning or even wake enough to help you if you need them. So we call first.” Rogen said that was a wonderful idea.
“Dad has them on occasion. Sometimes they’re off the wall, but he is the greatest.” “All right. I have the place. Boy, there is nothing around it for miles. I can have a clean-up crew there in about twenty minutes.” He told her he didn’t need Tru. They’d only just saved the people. “A clean-up crew to make sure there isn’t a trace of blood behind, moron. Christ, I love you. Also, I’ll call in some fill-in people to work the place. According to the things I’m reading, for being out in the middle of nowhere, they serve up a really hardy breakfast. Do you think the two of you can muddle through until someone gets there?” “Do you mean cook? Then yes. We can just make sure no one is seated in the middle of the place until you have people here. We’re also going to need something to transport the people to our homes. I don’t know what Dawson is planning.”
His brother told him what he wanted to do. “All right. He wants to take both the woman and her dad to his place to care for them. I’ll help out when I can. But that’s the plan.” “I like that plan. Don’t you just love it when the stars line up or some shit like that? Anyway, there will be a cleanup crew there in about twenty minutes. They’ll say there was a buckled floorboard, and that will keep people from wandering where they’d be best not to. Also, the staff will arrive one at a time over the next thirty.” He thanked her. “Hang on a second. I’m looking into something. My oh my.” Thatcher put his phone on speakerphone when Rogen asked him to. “If this is about my mate or her dad, I don’t want to know. Not yet, at any rate.” She told him it might be important. “All right. But just the important parts. Nothing personal.” “Caitlynn Leary is a grad from law school. Gave it all up to come to the States to be with her dad when he needed her about six months ago.
Apparently, Shawn Leary has been having some kind of nightmare episodes for some time now. He fought in a couple of skirmishes back in Ireland and came to the States to start fresh when his wife was killed in an automobile accident about three years ago.” Dawson asked her if this was considered important. “It is. Shawn is said to have murdered his wife and their unborn child and fled here to not just get a fresh start but to avoid prison. I’ll look into that too. Also, you should know, Dawson, that the restaurant is about a week from closing down. Not that there isn’t enough money—there is, but only barely—but a corporation has decided that the land would be better suited to their needs than the needs of having a hardy meal. Shawn apparently gives meals to anyone that comes in that needs one. They pay it off by doing dishes or something along those lines. It’s made him a very popular person in that little town.
I think I’m going to like this man.” “Me too.” The bell at the front of the place dinged, and Dawson went to answer it. Thatcher got up to start cooking after dragging Shawn to the other side of the kitchen. Rogen asked him to talk to her through their link. All right.
Two things you should know about Shawn and Caitlynn. First of all, Caitlynn is a hell of an attorney. She is currently taking some classes here to update her on Ohio laws. She’s an international attorney and could fit well within our little circle. Also, Shawn was a surgeon while in Ireland. After his wife was killed, he just couldn’t do it anymore. I think he might need his ass kicked back into gear. Shawn also speaks four languages, including Gaelic. Caitlynn speaks six. He asked her why she’d not been able to tell him that on the phone. I thought when I heard the door ding that you might be needing both your hands.
I forgot that your mom made sure you guys could cook. Dawson said he had a two-top that wanted to look over the menu. He handed him one of them so he’d know what to cook with each meal. Making sure he had all the things he might need for breakfast, he was surprised and charmed that there was a large pot of Irish oatmeal on a low burner. She wanted to make sure we could survive on more than just fast food. There is something very nice about this menu, Rogen. Like Shawn decided he would cook the things he loved and fuck the rest of the norm. Irish oatmeal. There is quick toast here too. Mom used to make that when she had stale bread. Butter it up and put it in a skillet to warm it up. She said she thought she made that for the grandkids. More than likely. Did you know that Mom is making sure that the grandkids can cook things? I love it.
When Dawson brought back his order, he told him that the crew was there to clean up. Telling Rogen, he also told her that he had to go. Cooking required concentration. Enjoying himself for the first time since being called out yesterday, Thatcher decided he might just figure out a way to get this sort of cooking in town. He thought that if no one else would enjoy it, he certainly would. Thatcher thought his dad might as well. Whistling as he worked the grill, he was shocked to his very core when Caitlynn spoke behind him. “What the bloody hell is going on here?”
~~ Caitlynn didn’t know what to think about the two men working with her, but she decided they were much too busy to worry over it now. Thatcher was doing a good job of keeping up with things, and Dawson was making sure the cash register was covered, as well as the breakfast bar that the regulars came in to be seated at. He was also having a wonderful time. Her da was still lying on the floor in the kitchen. She was sure there was something going on with that, but for now, she didn’t want to know. The amount of blood in front of the sinks was scary to her, and she decided she didn’t want to look into it too deeply right now. “Do you know what bubble and squeak is?” She stared at Thatcher when he asked her. “I could look it up, but I have a feeling your dad didn’t go by any kind of recipe when it came to cooking back here.
There are all kinds of things in his walk-in that make me think that he got what was on sale and made up his menu from that.” “You Americans call it fried potatoes. Cut the ones leftover in the icebox into small bits and fry them up.” He thanked her. “There is fresh marmalade in the icebox too. What the hell is going on here? You’re not a cook, are you?” “I am right now. And there is a great deal going on that will take some time to tell you about. I will. And so will Dawson. But for now, I think we need to get this place fixed up so the people aren’t too suspicious about things.” She didn’t move, wondering if she should press the matter more. “I promise you, Caitlynn, we’re going to tell you everything. I’m sure you have a great many questions. We’ll get to those as well.” The blood on her shirt was something she kept coming back to.
A large apron that her da usually wore was covering it up. Dawson had put ketchup on it too to make it look more like that sort of stain than blood. Caitlynn remembered being shot and wondered why she wasn’t in more pain. Or dead, for that matter. The breakfast crowd was served up faster than ever with the extra hands. Thatcher was doing a great job of putting out the food. Dawson was amazing at waiting tables, making coffee, and making sure that everyone had what they needed. While there was a couple of seconds between customers, he was making sure all the salt and pepper shakers were filled, as well as the little bowls of sugar packets. It was like having three extra people with him around, rather than just him.
Other people began to show up as they dealt with the crowd. Two of them went to the kitchen to help Thatcher with not just cleaning the pots and pans but to clear up the blood on the floor. Three more of them began taking tables to wait on and worked like they’d been doing it here for years. Caitlynn had a chance to sit down with a hot cup of tea when she was shoved into a seat. Dawson sat across from her. “I don’t know if I like you overly much. You’re not only a better waitstaff than me, but you seem to be enjoying yourself too much.” He grinned, and she felt her heart do a little flip flop. “You here to tell me what is happening?” “I will answer anything you wish to know. Your accent is not as pronounced as it was when we first arrived.” She told him the reason for that was that when she was upset, it came out stronger.
And people expected her to have an accent when she was waiting on them. “Oh, well, that’s sad. I like it. It suits you to have a fiery temper along with all that red hair. And the freckles are about the cutest thing I’ve seen.” “Behave, you idiot, before I smack you.” He laughed, and she grinned in response. “I was shot. What happened that I’m not hurting at all? And so you know, I’ve looked—there isn’t a wound or anything to be found either.” “Do you want this right upfront or working up to it? I can do either way.” She said she liked her information like she liked her whiskey, straight up. “Good. When you were shot, it didn’t look like you were going to make it. So I changed you into a cat. A tiger, to be exact. Thatcher changed your father into one too when he went into the kitchen and slit his wrists. It was touch and go there for a while for—” “Back up.
What do you mean, you’ve changed me into a cat? I’m not a cat.” He only stared at her as he sipped his own tea. “Let me think on that a moment. So, you saved my life by changing me into a tiger. And my da too. Okay, I guess I don’t mind that so much. So you’re a shifter. I don’t know many of them, to be honest.” “You were in contact with a bear, as well as a fox at some point recently. I can smell them on you.” Nodding, she let what he was saying to her roll around in her mind. “I don’t mean to spring this on you now, but you’re also my mate. Do you understand what that means?” “Yes. Somewhat. I’m an attorney or was one in Ireland. I did a couple of cases with a mate who had supposedly killed his mate or children. I got a book on shifters from the pack leader that helped me win the case. Also, a bear case. Bruin, I think they’re called.” “Yes. We know a few bears. The pack leader in our town is a good friend of the family as well.” She thought about what he was telling her when Thatcher sat down with them. He had brought them a large platter of food and three forks.
“This looks amazing, Thatcher. Did you make this?” “Yes. It’s an Irish breakfast. I’m not sure about the black pudding, but I put it in here to try. I had to look it up. It’s not legal to sell or even to have in the States.” Caitlynn explained why her da served it. “Okay, I didn’t know that. Good idea to take regular sausage, and dying it black is a good way to get around that. And it’s doubtful that anyone here would know the difference. Your dad is a smart man.” “He is. Will he be all right?” Dawson told her he would be better than he had been before. So would she be. “Why are all these people coming into work? I’m sure you had something to do with that too.” “Yes. I can’t tell you any more than that until we get to know you better. But I will tell you that nothing we’re doing is illegal, nor will it come back to bite you in the ass.” Thatcher looked at her with a sort of cocky grin.
“I can tell you that my wife, as well as the wives of my other brothers, works for some very important people. And that they’ll make sure things are done in such a way that nothing will be able to hurt you or your father again.” “They accused him of killing my ma and unborn sister. Da would never do anything like that.” Neither of them so much as blinked. “Do you believe me or not? Now would be the time to tell me that so I can take care of him.” “I don’t know anything about that. Nothing other than what my wife told us.” Caitlynn nodded and looked around her da’s restaurant to give herself time. “Rogen, my wife, told us that this place is going to be torn down in a couple of weeks. I’m sorry about that. You seem to be doing really well here.” “We were. I came home to help my da move to someplace else.
He loves being in the kitchen. He told me it makes him not have to think about things much. I think he just likes tasting the food as he cooks it.” She looked back at Dawson. “My da, he’s all I have in the world, and I’d move the earth to make sure he’s safe and cared for. He didn’t mean to shoot me. He gets these night terrors that make it so he sleepwalks.” “Thatcher told me he’s taking a lot of drugs, both prescribed and over the counter. I think he might be making himself ill by taking a couple of combinations of drugs that he shouldn’t be taking. Did you know that?” She said she hadn’t. “Also, I can set him up with someone to talk to about his nightmares. There are things that might be contributing to him having them that he’s not being treated for.”
“He doesn’t see a psychiatrist. I tried to get him into one, but he’s not a citizen yet, so they won’t set him up. It’s been hard on him, too, with getting his medications. No insurance or any kind of help from anyone for the same reasons.” Dawson said he’d take care of that for her. “You’re just willing to jump right in with both feet and help out without knowing a thing about us? Why is that? Not to mention, I know nothing about you.” “You’re my mate, as I told you. And I’d do anything, including taking a bullet for you should that be necessary. I wish I’d been in a position to do that for you earlier, but I think this works so much better for us.” She asked him what his version of us meant. “Whatever you wish it to be. I have no intentions of rushing you into anything. And I’d never tell you to do something you wouldn’t want to do on your own. I’m very laid back and easygoing. I’m a doctor that works with my brother. I have a few charities I work on as well. I have money, or I should say we have money. Everything I have is now yours. And whatever you have is also yours. I have five brothers, one of them being Thatcher.
Five sisters-in-law that are married to them. Parents that I love deeply and profoundly. Nieces and nephews as well.” “What is it you’re not telling me?” Dawson asked her what she meant when Thatcher got up to guide the men that were cleaning up into the back room for something to eat. “I don’t know, Dawson. What sort of skeletons do you have hidden in your closet? Is there another wife? Never mind, that doesn’t work with shifters. I feel like that rabbit going down the hole, and I’ve no idea what I’m going to fall into next.” “I don’t know that I have any skeletons in my closet. But I can and will have Rogen look for you. As for the rabbit hole? I’m feeling the same thing.
I’ve never had a mate before. Hadn’t even thought of having one with the way things are going right now. I am happy about it. Excited to see what the rest of our lives turn out to be.” She asked him about children. “I don’t have any, as you might well know. However, if and when we have any, that would be entirely up to you, as it is your body.” “You’re too nice. No one is this nice.” He told her he thought she was looking for trouble. “More than likely, you’re right on that. I’m working last night, and two men show up at the door. My da shoots me. You and your brother turn us into tigers, and now I find out I’m a cat. I think under the circumstances, I’m allowed to be looking for the other shoe to drop.” “I suppose you’re right.” A young man dressed in jeans and a tee came to sit with them for only a few seconds before he left a note behind and left them. She asked Dawson what it said when he put it back on the table. “Your father is loaded up and on his way to my home to recover.
You’ll stay there too, should you wish. I’m not there often, as I’m working a great deal nowadays. But I won’t share a room or a bed with you until you say so. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to—I do, very much so—but I won’t. The note also says that anytime you’re ready to go, we can leave the restaurant in good hands.” She stood up and felt something run over her. Dawson put his hand out to steady her, but he didn’t touch her. She had a feeling it was the cat in her but didn’t comment. There was just too much other shit going on for her to worry about being a tiger right now. Getting into the back seat of the car, she was surprised when Thatcher sat in the passenger seat and Dawson drove. Looking out the window at the restaurant as it grew smaller and smaller, the lights dimmer too, Caitlynn wondered what the next phase of her life would be. And decided that she wasn’t going to let some overgrown housecat ruin her life. She had it just the way she liked it. The trouble was, she liked Dawson too. Very much. She didn’t think she’d ever met a man like him and likely wouldn’t again. Lying back on the seat, she let herself fall asleep. It was her superpower, her dad had told her.
To be able to fall asleep no matter where she was or how she was positioned. Sleep was the best way to deal with things, she thought. ~~ Brooke didn’t care for this. Not that she knew how to do it differently, but she didn’t like people taking chances, huge ones, in this case, that might get them killed. Or if it turned out to be nothing. It couldn’t be nothing, her mind told her. There were body parts all over the place. Brooke looked at Rogen when she said her name. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see. Tru is there on-site, and there are about two dozen people that work for me that are going to be there in the event that shit hits the fan. It won’t, but they’re there in case it does.” She supposed that being in the computer room with Rogen was about the safest place she could have been. But she still worried.
“The building is right there where you said it would be. All kinds of people are interested in seeing what the fuck is going on. Once we breach the door, it’ll be a piece of cake to see what is going on and putting an end to it.” “To it or the people in there?” Rogen told her it would be both if it turned out they were working on their own. “Otherwise, you’ll keep them until they give up whatever information they have, then kill them?” “No. They’ll end up in prison. Killing them for helping won’t get us anywhere. I like to give people a second chance.” Brooke just cocked a brow at her. “Okay, I’m not into second chances, but I’m working to improve myself. A kid will do that to you, I guess.” A voice echoed around the room when the speaker clicked. “I’m to tell you that we have a hit on the owner of the land and building. He’s been dead for nearly thirteen years.” Rogen asked who was in charge, then. “His son, the best we can tell.
He’s been using the land as well as the property for some time now. There is a field of pot-growing not ten minutes walking distance from where your men are.” “That was Winnie Donaldson. She’s a good friend of mine, and also the person I report to. You will, too, when you get your head out of your ass and help us.” Brooke told her she thought she was helping. “Nah, this is old shit you had. I mean full-time. The perks are great, and you get to see the world. With your ability to blend into any situation with your camera, it makes it nice for us. And the fact that you have a press license makes it all the better getting in and out of shit.” Rolling her eyes at the other woman, she looked at the screen when she did. Rogen was hard to get to know. All the women were hard-assed and hard to know.
But she was beginning to see a side of them that she was sure few saw. They were mush when it came to the children in this place. Thatcher came down with some glasses of tea, as well as two gallons of the stuff he put in the fridge. As Rogen guided the men into position, she listened to Thatcher talking to her in low tones about what she was doing. When she saw something on the screen, she stood up and said for them to wait. The order was put out there that no one was to move as a family of four walked by some of the people hidden on the ground. They moved within two inches of one of the men she could see the outline of on the monitor. “Christ, that was close.” She agreed with the man on the monitor when he began to move toward the building when the all-clear was given. “We’re leaving two behind to make sure there aren’t any more visitors. Thanks for catching that.” Rogen winked at her, and she kept her eyes on the things that were surrounding the red outlines of people on the ground. Then the door was opened—such a mild word for the door exploding inward—and the windows broken in by the men entering the place.
There was a great deal of noise, along with the flash of lights that could be seen from the windows. “Three Caucasian men inside working on what appears to be human remains.” She nodded when Rogen looked at her. “There is a bandsaw in here that was being used when we entered, as well as a shit ton of large trash bags.” The man in charge on the ground said nothing for several minutes. “They’re stashing the clothing of the victims in them, it looks like. I have identification on the men here.” As he took pictures of the IDs of the men, he sent them from his phone to Rogen. As she looked them over, so did Brooke. “Do the faces of the people match the men in there?” Rogen asked them what she had. “Okay, the man named Fletcher Parker, can you let me see his face? Or something along those lines?”
His face suddenly appeared in front of her. The face, as clear as day, took up four of the monitors in front of her. She stared at the face for several seconds, then asked for the faces of the other two men. Rogen asked her what she saw. “I don’t know yet. I need to think on it.” The other two men’s faces seemed to ring a bell with her, and the work being done in the building resumed. It wasn’t until Rogen was clearing the men to burn the building that she remembered something. “Wait. The first man, Parker. I remember him now. I’ve seen him in the town a couple of times when I was there working on getting into the country. He was known for having a hidey-hole in his business. It would contain things like money, credit cards, as well as passports. The other man, Liston, the second person you showed me, that’s not his name either. He went by Morgenstern or something like that. He owned a butcher shop in town. Christ, now that I think on that and finding this, I’m so glad I didn’t get anything from there. I don’t remember the third man, but I have a feeling he has something to do with them in the food industry. Perhaps a restaurant or something.”
“Found them. Six passports with different names on them, as well as money.” The man showed them what he’d found and where it had been found. “You might also be interested in knowing there is paperwork that is used to put on meat when it leaves the country. Kinda sickening if you ask me, but I’m not a meat-eater.”
The men worked the room over again, finding not only things that had been stashed but a great deal more money than they’d thought. It was Tru, going into the building after them, that found the letters. There were six in total. “They’re addressed from the two of you. I can open them if you wish, but I’d rather bring them back to you.” Rogen agreed. “I’m bringing the cash with me, as well as the other stuff that was found. The men, I believe, were working for themselves. It looks as if, from the identifications that we found, they were killing tourists that were in town on vacation. Hell of a way to end your free time. Also, and I find this particularly funny, they have a diagram on the wall where the bandsaw is, telling how to cut the bodies up to look like what might be considered steaks or loins. Just around the back of this place is a large cast-iron cauldron that seems to be used for rendering fat. I don’t even want to think about what that might have been used for.” “Are they saying anything?”
Tru said she hadn’t heard them but did ask the man behind her. He told her that since they’d broken the door down, all the men had done was get on their knees with their hands laced up on their heads. “Why are they smiling? I mean, would you be smiling if someone broke down your door and pointed guns to your face? They look so happy.” “You’re right. Let me do something here and see what I can snap out of them.” Whatever she did, there was no camera on them. When Tru came back online, she was showing her face, and Brooke could just make out the men on the floor behind her. One of them looked to be dead. His neck was broken. “Their father runs the town. They think they’ll be out before we can process them. I’m thinking they don’t understand what the hell they’re up against with us. I’m having them taken to the plane now to bring back to a base that can deal with them. Good call, Brooke. You more than likely saved us a great deal of paperwork on this one. Thanks.” Rogen thanked her too.
Thatcher handed her a candy bar, and she peeled it open while she thought about what she’d just done. She’d been helping her sisters-in-law out was how she was going to think about what had just happened. There was no way she’d been instrumental in any of the shit that had gone down. Brooke just happened to be in the right place at the right time. She looked up when Jonas said her name. “I must have zoned out for a minute. Where did everyone go?” He told her they were celebrating upstairs by ordering Chinese food.
“I could eat that. Are we invited?” “Yes.” Jonas laughed. “I brought the kids with me when they called to tell me that you work for them now.” “I don’t. I was helpful to them, but I don’t work with them. I’d like to think that way for the time being.” He nodded. “What else did I miss? I’m assuming there was more if they’re celebrating.” “Yes. The government in the town where they were working has been arrested. Not just the father of the three you helped get, but several others that had a hand in what was going on. The restaurant, as well as the butcher shop, has been closed down.
Rogen made sure the reason for the shutdown is printed in the local paper, as well as a sign put on each of the doors stating that they were using human remains as their products. I think that will be very telling in a couple of days. The third man, he was only there to help them get the stuff processed. Just as guilty, but he wasn’t related to the other two.” “I saw him in the places the other two were in. I didn’t connect him to them as he was wearing different hats, literally, at the time. What will happen to them?” He didn’t say anything. “I guess I don’t want to know. What do you know about Caitlynn?” “She’s taking care of her dad right now at Dawson’s house. I’ve not met her, but Thatcher said she’s a good person.” Brooke nodded. “What’s wrong? Something is there, and I’d gladly help you with it. Tell me so I can be your knight in shining armor.”
“Your dad says that all the time to your mother. I don’t know what’s going on with me today. I should be thrilled, but I feel like I’m sort of the oddball out. The others work with Rogen. She’s begged me to work too, but I don’t know. She’s very intense, and I thought I’d just as soon not get into a fight with her over anything. I don’t think Rogen plays fair, do you?” He told her he wasn’t going to answer that. “Yes, I can understand that too. She’s very good at breaking into homes without leaving this office. Anyway, I was hoping Caitlynn and I could sort of make our own group of helpers. Not on the scale that the others are on, but more local things.” “I can get behind that. What is it you had in mind?” Brooke told him she didn’t know right now. “There are a number of charities I have going on right now. So does Dawson. Maybe you and Caitlynn can work with us on a few of them.”
“I’d like that anyway. I was thinking of trying to bring more businesses to the area. There are a great deal of unemployed families around that could use a boost. I know your family has the food drives, as well as helping the schools with supplies. But I think having a job would go a long way in making sure their kids know there is more to life than just handouts. Does that make sense?” He told her it did. Very much so. “Anyway. I have a lot of contacts I worked with. Mostly they’re businesses that are expanding to other areas that aren’t here. I can talk to them. I’d have to learn what is here for them to use, but I don’t think that would be an issue.” “I can get you a list of properties we own, as well as a few tracks of land that are up for sale that we can purchase as a group and let companies know about. I know a great deal of things behind the scenes, so to speak, that the others might not know about. Being the accountant/investment person for the family affords me a great deal of information that I keep notes on.” She smiled at him, thinking of all the things they could do with just that knowledge.
“You look beautiful when you smile like that. You’re beautiful anyway, but when you smile, you light up a room and my heart.” “You’re very romantic. I hope you know that. And that you teach our sons that as well. Women swoon over that crap.” He laughed and picked her up out of the chair. “I guess we need to get up there before they eat all the dumplings. I love those suckers.” The food was being delivered just as they entered the dining room. She was amazed at the amount of food and asked if there would be a lot of leftovers. No one moved—a pin could have been heard falling to the floor. Then they all burst out laughing as if she’d made a grand joke.
“We don’t have leftovers in this house.” Dawson kissed her on the cheek as he walked by her. Caitlynn was in the room already, handing out plates as people walked by her. Picking up the napkins, she placed one on each of the plates as they went by her. Dawson laughed, and she noticed that Caitlynn watched his every move. “Does it get any easier? Being around so many large men?” Brooke told her she didn’t even notice them anymore. “I would suppose it would be something to get used to. I’m Caitlynn. You must be Brooke, Jonas’s mate.” “I am. I’m glad to meet you.” They worked together like they were for another three minutes before they both realized they were missing the food. “How’s your dad doing? Jonas told me you hopped right up after being changed. That’s amazing.” “Dawson said it was because I was mortally wounded. I don’t know how I feel about being a cat yet. You’re not.” She said she wasn’t yet.
“It’s sort of strange, having this other half of me that’s right there. I can feel her when I’m close to Dawson. Like she wants me to rub all over him. I’m not going to. Not yet, at any rate, but she’s right there.” “Rogen told me once that it’s strange having something there too. She was changed like you were in an effort to save her life.” They had piled up their plates and were sitting down by then. Dawson was talking to Jonas when he turned and winked at her. “What is it you do for a living? I mean, before coming here?” “Attorney. Then when my da came here and opened a restaurant, I missed him a great deal. After a while, he asked me to come to help him out with it, and I jumped at the opportunity. I think he’ll miss that a great deal. Cooking for others.”
Brooke told her they could find him a place here to open a restaurant. “Really? He’d love that. I’m not sure how much he enjoyed cooking so much as talking to people. He’s a talker when he has someone to listen.” “Then he’ll love Thatch, their father. He’ll talk a person’s arm off.” They were laughing when she told her what she had in mind for them to work together. “I don’t know much just yet, but I know that helping out families isn’t enough. We need some businesses to come in and hire a few hundred people.” They talked for hours about different things. Jonas brought her a pad of paper and a pen so she could keep up. Dawson joined them a few minutes after that and told them what he had in mind for the town. ~*~ Jonas played with Marie, Morgan’s little girl until she yawned for the third time. He was joining her in her exhaustion too.
He and Brooke had been up late the night before making love and then again earlier this morning. Yawning when she did, this time, the little girl let her eyes drift closed and stayed there. He looked up when his dad sat down across from him on the floor. “I got something I want to talk to you about.” Jonas felt his spine stiffen for whatever he’d done wrong for his dad to be upset with him. “I have me an idea about somethings them girls have their heads together about. Improving things around here.” “Did you talk to them about it?” He said he wanted to run it by him first. “They’re working on the town, Dad. I honestly don’t know what they’re planning.” “I know that. But this idea I have it’s a little off the path of getting any kind of improvements. I want to start me up one of them after-school things.
Where kids can come in and mentor some of the younger kids on how to do stuff.” He asked him what sort of stuff. “You know. Basketball. Maybe help with some homework. I don’t know, son. I was just thinking on it. Might be able to get a ball game or two out of them if they want to. Also, a pool. Not one of ours, but one the city can put in. For swimming lessons and the like.” “I love the idea. However, you should be aware that putting in a pool is costly. Not the putting it in part, but insurance and hiring people to be there to watch over things. I mean, it’s a good way to get some of the kids working in the summer, but I doubt it’s in the budget for them to pay for the insurance. We could help out the first few years, but that sort of defeats the purpose of it being a city thing.” Dad said he’d not thought of that. “I think it’s something we can look into.
I really like the idea of a community pool. And the fact that it will have to hire some kids around the town too. I just had a thought. Shawn, Caitlynn’s father, loves to cook. Maybe he can make a concession stand work for the pool too.” “Now there we go. I like that idea.” Dad told him of the places where he thought a pool might work. “I don’t think putting it near the schools would be such a good idea. I don’t know if I could live with myself if one of them kiddies got themselves hurt going there when they’re not supposed to. But there are a couple of places that might work out.” He and his dad talked for an hour on the different spots he’d thought of. Jonas pulled out his cell after putting Marie on her blanket to sleep. Telling Dad of the couple of places that he knew were for sale that might work, they decided to get with someone to see about purchasing it. That was about the time that Caitlynn and Brooke joined them.
“What a lovely house this is. I’m betting it cost a pretty penny too.” Dad laughed. “What do you have to think is so funny, dear sir? It’s a good deal more than I have. You can bet your ass about that.” “I’m sure it is. But since I don’t care so long as we can all get together like this, it could be worth billions, and I’d not care. I’m these here boys daddy. You’re Dawson’s mate.” She said that remained to be seen yet. “Well, if you’re knowledgeable to any of our kind, you know that’s a done deal.” “Dad. You’re not making any friends here.” He asked him what he meant, and Jonas nodded at Caitlynn. “You’re pissing her off. Back off on telling her, it’s a done deal or she’ll hit you.” “They already met, so it’s done as far as I’m concerned. I’m just telling her the truth of it.” Dad looked at Caitlynn and smiled. “You’re not mad at this old man, are you?”
“I am, as a matter of fact. Nothing is a done deal, as you put it, unless I say it is. Your son is a good deal smarter than you are if you think just because he’s my mate, I’m going to lie down with my legs spread out and tell him to come and get it.” Dad’s face turned a nice shade of purple. He was so embarrassed. Caitlynn stood up. “Don’t ye be saying things like that to me again, old man or I’ll make you regret you opened your eyes this morn. Done deal. I’ll tell you what’s a done deal—it’s me dealing with men like you. I’m a grown fucking woman, and I decide when I want someone to come to my bed. You just remember I’m not a broodmare that needs a man to order me around.” When she left, Dad looked at him. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just meaning that she was his mate, and they’d have to be together, or he’d go insane.” Jonas told him he should have started with that.
“Do you think she’s a might touchy? I didn’t mean it.” “Dad, you’re going to have to learn that the women of this family aren’t like the women you grew up with. They marry who they want when they want. Or not at all. No one needs another person telling them what they should be doing at any time. Otherwise, the entire female population is going to come gunning for you.” They both heard Rogen say, “He said what to you?” and Jonas shook his head. “Take my advice, Dad. Just keep saying you’re sorry, or you’re never going to get out of the doghouse.” Getting up, taking Marie with him, he left his dad to deal with the women. They were all headed to the living room when he walked out. He didn’t envy his dad right now.
Either he’d be in trouble for the rest of his very short life if they had anything to say about it, or he’d be buying out the florist in pretty flowers to make up for it for the rest of his days. “Your dad is in trouble.” Jonas kissed Brooke on the mouth and told her he knew. “I thought about rescuing him, but he’s said the same thing to me. He really is in the dark ages if he thinks that what he can say and not say won’t ruffle some feathers. It didn’t bother me because I’ve gotten used to him, but Caitlynn is new.” She reached for the baby Jonas was holding. “Let me hold her.” Marie was awake now and clung to Brooke like she’d wanted a break from him too. The two of them sat there talking about nothing at all, but Marie seemed to be hanging onto her aunt’s every word. When she sat her on the table to give her some of the little pieces of rice left on her plate, Brooke spoke to him. “I decided that I’d like to have a child with you.
Soon. Not right away, but whenever we can get around to it.” He laughed and told her how it worked. “Okay, when I go into heat. There is another archaic-sounding statement. Heat. I suppose you call it breeding too.” “We do, as a matter of fact. Not to any of the women, but that’s what we say when we’re trying to keep our nuts where they are. What changed your mind?” She told him. “Yes, I can see where being around babies a great deal can make you want one of your own. But you must remember that we can’t just leave them with their parents when we leave this place. We will be taking them with us.” She laughed at him. “Your mom, she was telling me about some of the ornaments you boys made her when you were children. And you are the only one that has kept that tradition up of giving her one every Christmas.” Jonas told her how he had already picked one out for her for this year but now wanted to change it. “Because of us, you mean?” “Yes. I find an ornament that goes with an event that happened in the year. Last year I got her a beautiful cruise ship. She and Dad had gone on a cruise that they loved.
The year before that, I got her an apple tree with bright yellow apples on it. Mom discovered fuji apples at the market and went on about them for weeks after.” She asked him what he’d get for the two of them from her. “I don’t know. I have to find something to do with the two of us. Something that shows we’re a couple.” “Why not get her one that shows all her sons mated to women? Perhaps one that names the children. No, that wouldn’t work. That would have to be redone all the time. But the couples, that would be nice. I would love it.” He said he knew just the place to get it. “It would also be really great if we could gather everyone up and get their picture taken. I could do that. And then one of your parents. It would be simple enough to put them in with their family. Make it a large photo that would hang over their fireplace.” “I wonder if Houston would want to paint it.” She said that would be epic for them. “I’m liking this more and more all the time. And no dressing up for it. We will take the picture as we are daily.
My dad said he didn’t like family portraits that showed off this well-dressed family when people don’t look like that all the time.” “I like that too. Oh, this will be wonderful. We’ll have to get on it soon. In order for Houston to get to paint it, I have to take the pictures and then put them together. For everyone else, we should take individual pictures of them as well with their kids this year. Make it a family tradition to get together for their families.” Jonas kissed her again—this was going to be wonderful. “You contact your brothers and find out what time would be best. My hands are itching to get started on this.”
By the time they were ready to leave, he’d gotten all of them to agree to come by his place to get the pictures of all of them together tomorrow at noon. Brooke thought the fall colors would be perfect as a background, and he was as excited as she was. Houston came to them right away after they asked him if he wanted to paint it and hugged Brooke tightly. Dad came into the dining room looking like a beaten man. Brooke asked if he was all right, and Dad told her he wasn’t sure. Patting him on the hand then kissing his cheek, he told her that certainly helped. “Jonas and I were just talking about children.” That perked his dad right up.
“The next time I go into heat, something I’d not mention to Caitlynn if I were you, we’re going to try for a baby.” “I’m not going to say a word from now on. I never in my life thought I’d be insulting someone by just talking. I’ll show them. They’ll have to beg me to speak to them from now on.” Dad took Marie off the table and cuddled her. “You’ll love your old grandda, won’t you, honey? Me and your sister will be having a blast soon as the weather gets warmer again.” When dad walked away, still talking to the little girl in his arms, Jonas looked at Brooke when she laughed. “He might just do it too. I hope he does. I think, myself, that he didn’t mean any harm, but that’s just me. She’ll blend in or not. If not, we’ll never find her body. Are you ready to go home?” He was laughing as they made their way to the car. Brooke was a pistol and would keep him on his toes for some time. Driving to his home, he wondered what it would be like to have a bunch of his own kids running around. Well, he thought, soon enough. Soon enough, he’d know.
Imp had been alone in this world for so long she had forgotten what she was. It only took a little nudge from Winnie for her memory to come flooding back. She was a powerful earth fae and one of only three of her kind. She missed her siblings terribly, but it was too dangerous for the world for them to be in the same place. Imp was tired of being alone.
As soon as Hudson Manning realized who Imp was, the rest of the Mannings knew as well. Imp had created the first dragons. Cooper, the king of dragons, wanted to do something, anything, to repay her. Imp, however, didn’t want to hear any more about it and was getting pissy when he wouldn’t let the subject drop.
George knew almost immediately that Imp was his mate, but convincing the stubborn woman would take a little work. When the two come together, their combined magic will be more powerful than any of them could ever imagine….
Finn Manning had so much on his plate, he wasn’t sure which end was up. He’d been there six months, and the pile of work on his desk hadn’t diminished by one sheet of paper. None of the construction projects the family had lent the money for had even been started. The foreman was a bully, and Finn had had enough.
Rachel Merkel had literally felt the earth move from beneath her feet. The plates she had been stacking at the restaurant crashed around her when she hit the floor. Her sister-in-law Sandra, instead of being concerned, threatened to fire her. Rachel was wondering how that worked, considering she owned the majority share in the restaurant, but instead of arguing with her, she clocked out and went home.
After a heated argument with her brother, Chad, about Sandra, Rachel quit to keep the peace. Then, Rachel felt the earth move again. This time she was sick with it.
Finn had felt it too through an unseen connection and came to Rachel’s rescue. He didn’t know the woman, but he had an overwhelming need to help her. As soon as he caught her scent, he knew what she was to him.
Rachel, not entirely human herself, could sense Finn was a dragon, and she felt the connection when he did. What she wasn’t sure about was what all came with it—the Mannings—all the parents, brothers, aunts, and uncles—it was overwhelming….
Pembroke Black had always had a lot on her plate. As a child, she could not tolerate her father, and Pem had moved in with her grandparents when her mother died. When she was old enough to move out, she joined the Army and served the front lines as a doctor. Stitching people up was what she did best. Coping with her own emotions was another story—Pem found little joy in this world.
When Pem’s grandda passed away, Theo Manning was there to help Pem’s grandma any way he could. That included keeping grandma safe. He had no idea until he met Pem that she was his mate. Theo wanted to protect her, too, from what was to come. Pem only had to touch his hand to receive the magic coming to her, but neither had any idea how much magic would flow between them.
Pem had always had her emotions take her under at times, but this was nothing like that. She was happy. She felt better than she had in years. Pem only hoped that Theo would not rush her. There was just too much going on for her to deal with a pushy man.
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Long ago, at a time when all creatures roamed the earth as only their true selves, working with and helping humans in whatever way they could. Where magic was celebrated. And dragons darkened the skies every day. It was then man figured out there was magic in the dragons and hunted them to almost extinction. “I’m afraid there is no hope for us.” No one made a sound as their leader continued. “Once the humans found out about us and what we can do for them dead, we were doomed. I’m so terribly sorry.” Coop looked around the room. There were so few of them now he could easily count them. When he had been younger, thousands of years ago, there would not be enough room for all of them to share this room. Now they were down to having a quarter of them share the space because so many, his own wife included, had been murdered so needlessly. Coop was saddened by it all.
Turning to leave the large cave, he was stopped by his brother, Xavier. “The boys, they are well?” He nodded and smiled. Coop felt it all the way to his heart, a place that had been dead for so long, it seemed. “You have the spell? You are going to use it on them? I so wish I had thought of this before my own family was taken from me, Coop. You are a brave man and a good father.” “Thank you. And I shall use it tonight. It is the only way to save them.” Xavier nodded his own heart heavy with the losses they had suffered. “You know I would have shared should I have had it sooner. I am so sorry, brother. All of my heart, it’s sorry for you.” “I know that. I do.
But they are all gone now. My other half, my children. Killed for things not fair to our kind.” Coop knew all too well. “Ava was a good woman, Coop. A good woman and mother to your sons. She will be missed forever.” “Aye, in my heart and those of my sons.” Xavier stood there for several seconds, and Coop told him he must go. “They’re awaiting word on what is to happen with us all.” “One more thing, if you please. It will not take but a second. I have left them all I have. It is where you keep them hidden away, the boys. Deep within the cave, it’s all there.” Coop asked him what he meant. “I cannot go on, brother. I cannot. There is too much grief in my heart for me to live. I have left my things for them there. They might survive this, with the magic you have to give to them. And if so, they’ll need more than you have to help them.” “Xavier, please, you mustn’t do this.
They’ll miss you as much as I.” Xavier nodded and said it had begun. “You can come and stay with my sons. You’ll live with them in the caves, and they’ll care for you.” “Nay. I cannot. I must go. Just tell them I love them. With all of my heart.” There would be no stopping him once his heart was made up, Coop knew this, but it made his heart no less full for it. “Goodbye, my brother. Take care you are not caught by the humans.” Coop made his way back to his hidden cave and sat before the fire. The boys, he knew, were resting, their bodies getting stronger daily with their age. Soon they would be as big as him, dragons of worth and size. When his eldest son came to him, his eyes full of fear, Coop knew it was well past time he did what he had been practicing. The magic would keep them safe. Gathering his sons, six of them of varying shades of blues and greens, he asked them to have a seat. He had a story to tell them. It was not a story, not truly, but a tale that would, hopefully, keep them safe.
“A witch told me once of a great magic only few can do. It takes a loving heart and a strong dragon to make it work. I have asked her, and she has told me how to make it so. In this magic, it will keep you all safe from the humans.” They nodded, each of them knowing it was a human blade that took the life of their dear mother. “I will perform this upon you, each of you at the same time, and give you some magic you will use when you need it. This magic, strong and powerful, will let you roam with the humans, and they’ll not know your true self is just below your flesh.” “You mean we’ll be humans as well?” He nodded, then shook his head at Cooper, his oldest. “I don’t understand, Father. Will you explain?” “Yes. The magic I will give you will let you change into your true self when you are alone. But when you are out in the world, you will need to be a human. A man.”
Cooper looked at his brothers, then back at him as he continued. “With this magic, I will also give you a gift. Something you will need to keep yourself safe should they find out. A stronger armor than any other dragon before you, as well as the same immortality you have now, as man or dragon.” Hudson stared at him for long moments. He was the thinker, and if he could think of a reason for this not to work, he would voice it loudly. He was much like his mother in that. She would be the first to say when she did or did not like something. And the first to say the plan was perfect. He only hoped she would have approved of this. “I think you are very smart, Father, to try and keep us safe. But I can only think this will not work on you. Or is that your plan?” The boy was much too smart, Coop thought. “If you change us, who will change you?” “There will be no one to change me, son. I will…. It is my wish to join your mother in this earth.”
He watched them, seeing if they understood the love he had lost when she was murdered. “Giving you this magic, it will be something I can tell her I’ve done for her sons. You know as well as I that she loved you more than anything on this earth, including herself.” “She died saving us.” Coop nodded at Lincoln. “I’m not happy you’re going to die, Father, but I understand wanting to be with Mother. I miss her more every day.” “As do I.” He looked at his sons, all of them growing into dragons of worth. “I must have an agreement from you all. Even if one of you does not want this, it will not work.
I would say you should think on this hard. For once I have given this to you, there will be no going back.” “I wish to have it.” He knew Cooper would be the first. Not that he did not love his father, but Cooper would see things in a way most would not. To not have this done would mean a certain death for them all. Dragons were too valuable dead not to be hunted for all time. “I will do whatever it takes to make sure you are proud of me as well.” “I am already, Cooper. Forever.” The others nodded too. They were ready for this as much as he was dreading it. Because once he started the process to change his sons into men, he would begin to die. It would take all he was to change them. Standing up, spreading his wings out behind him, Coop told them about the things their uncle had left them. They knew where the family jewels were, the things their mother had left them as well. Once they were standing, their bodies strong and healthy, he felt his heart swell and break for what he was about to do.
“I, Cooper Manning, of the Manning Dragons of the earth, give to my sons, Cooper, Hudson, Lincoln, Lucas, Tristan, and Xavier, all I am. Each of you will take a part of the earth with you when you are converted. The part of you that is unique in all ways will be strengthened and enhanced. You will be immortal, forever, and those you take to your hearts will be as well.” His sons bowed before him when he told them to. He said the words over them that would change them to men. Coop could feel his body shutting down, his heart beating a little less. But he had one more thing he wished to bless them with, and held himself upright to give it from his own dying heart. “One day, true love will come to you. And you will have more than you have ever known. It will fill you in ways you cannot ever imagine.
Love will be yours for all times. For only then will you become a true dragon, a Manning Dragon.” ~~ Cooper sat with his brothers while their father lay dying. His heart was weak from what he had done, and it was tearing him apart. Father was weak, yes, but he continued to tell them tales of their mother, of their adventures when they were only small dragons. They were going to be alone soon; their father was so close to joining their mother it hurt Cooper in ways he had not expected. “What shall we do with his body?” Cooper looked at Tristan and asked him what he meant. “He will not be able to lie here. If the humans were to find him, they would surely cut him up into pieces. I do not want that for him. We were never able to bury Mother in the proper way after what they did to her.” “We could burn his body.” Cooper wondered how it would work when Hudson continued.
“His scales will be worthless to them should they come upon his body. The magic he held within him also will be useless to them. He will be nothing more than a carcass. They’ll leave alone.” Burn his body. It was something to think about. But he did not want to, not while he was still breathing, his body still alive. When he laid his head upon his father’s chest, hearing his heart beating slower and slower, Cooper wondered what his father would think if he knew the magic he had given them had not worked. They were all still as dragons. “He gave his life to keep us safe. But it did not work.” No one said anything to him as they each watched their father. “Dragons such as we are, we’ll be hunted and killed by the humans. There is nothing we can do but wait for them.” “We will survive if we stay here,” Cooper told Xavier they would have to leave eventually. “To feed and to fly, yes. But perhaps we could do it only at night. To keep to the skies and not let them see us.”
“They know we are about and will have spies out looking for our lairs. We will have to kill any man should he come for us, and still, we will not be safe. We are, after all, dragons who have a great deal of magic.” Cooper stopped breathing. Cooper did not hear his father’s heart and knew it was at an end. He was quiet for a bit longer, waiting, hoping for just one more beat, one more sound that would mean he was still alive. But there was nothing. Their father was dead. Sitting up, he told them he had passed from this world into the next. None of them had ever seen a dragon die before. Their mother had been dead when they found her. Each dragon they had come upon when they were out had been dead long before they found them, their bodies stripped of every part, so they resembled less of a dragon than just a pile of bones. Their scales were used for roofs for their homes and for shields. The very meat of them was roasted and stored away so it could be used for medicines and potions. Hearts were cut up and dried, then ground into a powder to use for other things the humans would use to keep them from sickness, as well as magic to have a grand garden and trees heavy with fruit.
The only part that would be left was the bones, and sometimes even those were carried off and used for something. Cooper hated all humans. “We will do as suggested by Hudson. It is the only assured way we can—” Before he could finish, he felt the stirring of the earth. It shook so hard it knocked each of them off their feet. As they lay there, terrified someone was coming for them, their father appeared before them. His body was still aground. But instead of dark in death, he was brilliant in light. Faeries, thousands upon thousands of faeries, seemed to be covering him. Before Cooper could tell them to stop, to leave him alone, Father spoke. “I love you, my sons.” Each of them nodded, fear almost something he could touch. “I will now and forever join my true love, your mother. I must warn you when you find your other half, and you will, you will have to be careful of the slayers. They will know what you have found by the magic you both will share. My sons, you will leave this place and take your place among men. Becoming someone I will be proud of.” “Father, the magic didn’t work.
We’re still dragons.” Cooper felt shameful to say a thing like that to his father. To tell him his sacrifice had not worked. “We will be hunted and killed.” “Nay, you only need to think of being your other half. Becoming a man is simple. The same when you wish to be your true self.” Cooper was not sure what that meant, but his father continued before he could ask. “Go now, before men come here. The magic to hide me will draw them here. Be safe, my sons, and know I love you more than I do any other creature on this place.” Cooper stood then, the faeries still working, taking the body of his father apart. But as he watched, he could see they were not doing anything but preserving his body. Faerie ropes were all around him, and strings of magic were wrapped around him like a cocoon. It made him invisible to all. As Cooper stood there, his brothers beside him, he knew that, like him, they mourned the loss of yet another parent. “You are the eldest.”
He nodded to the faerie when she asked. “We have a gift for you. For all of you, but you will receive the most. Your father was a great man, your mother a queen among her people. We wish to bestow upon you all your father had.” “My brothers, they will need it as well. I should like to share.” She smiled at him and bowed. “What have you done with his body?” “He is being prepared to be moved. We will make a grand garden upon him. Flowers will be there for all to see, but only a few will know a dragon is there with his other half, his love.” He nodded. It was as it should be. “You will take this gift? You will share, but as I said, you will get more than the others.” “I don’t care. Please, just do what you must so we can hide.” She nodded again and touched her fingers, small, tiny ones, to his forehead. Then she did the same to the others before coming back to him. “It is done. You have shared it with us?” “I have, Lord Cooper. But you must leave here now. There are humans coming.
The magic we used to do this thing has given them cause to come here.” He nodded and looked at the ground where their father had been. “He is safe. Just as your mother is now. Go, before they find you here and murder you as well.” He thanked her for her help and left. The exit from this part of the cave was hidden so well only they knew about it. As they made their way into the night, he thought of the human inside of him, and the pain of it took his breath away. In seconds, he was down on his knees. Whatever was happening, he was surely going to die. “You’re a man.” He looked up at his brothers as they began to transfer to men themselves. “We’ll be safe now, all of us. We’ll be humans for them until we can find a place where we can be ourselves.” “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again.” Hudson nodded and held his head tightly as he did so. “We will need to train ourselves in their ways. Become what they are. But never monsters.” “No, never.” They made their way to a building; any would do for now. Hudson, like him, was staggering a little, but they were getting stronger as they moved. He turned to look at him as they were settling in the empty shell of a house.
“We will need to buy things, houses, and such.” “Yes. But tomorrow. I am too tired to think beyond how much we have lost.” Hudson and the others agreed. “When the humans are gone from our cave, we’ll go and find what Father was telling us about earlier, about the wealth that will keep us safe.” “I only hope there is a great deal of it. I don’t know how to work, much less walk around like they do.” Cooper told Xavier, the youngest brother, they would soon learn. “I hope so. I hope so.” He did as well. It was going to be hard enough for them to learn to eat and dress like humans, much less get around. Cooper hoped this worked. For he was as afraid as he had ever been in his life. ~~ After a time, thousands of years, each of the dragons turned into men, forging their way into a world that was so different than the one they had been born to it seemed a different planet. But survive, they did.
Having their mates come to them, children born to all of them, gave them hope. A small and fragile thing after such hardships they were born to. Cooper became, as his father had been before him, the king of dragons—his mate, Carson, their queen. It had been and still was a time for celebration. To this day, they commemorated often and hard at each new birth of the dragons turned men and women. The others, his brothers, prospered too, finding their other halves, making their magic stronger for having their love. They worked hard in keeping everyone safe and well-fed, humans or other dragons. No one, not anyone in need, would have ever been turned away from their help. The Manning Dragons, true to their father and mother, became the most powerful dragons ever born. Of the six sons, Xavier’s sons, four hatchlings, and two humans moved far away to be the next generation of Manning dragons who would open their hearts and doors for all creatures. Even the sons of their heart, the two human-born men, carried a powerful magic. They used it, with their brothers, to help as many creatures as possible, humans and dragons alike, to live in the ever-changing world. To help them not only succeed but to perhaps help someone else when they needed it. These boys, now men, have stories to tell.
Esmerelda, Esme to her friends, and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia. Their time of fighting wars and conquering kingdoms was now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
It had been many years since Esme had been home around her sisters. She was happy they found their mates but seeing them happy only reminded her she was alone.
Tristian had been through a lot, and nothing in his life so far had been as he believed. When he came into Esme’s life and his memories restored, Tristain’s head was spinning. However, nothing compared to how totally in love he was with his new mate.
Mercy and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality. A gift that Mercy, to this day, was having difficulty coming to terms with. Living as a human was not what she was born to do, nor what she wanted to do. Being an immortal in a life she didn’t want left Mercy feeling angry at the world and turned her into a workaholic.
As an intervention, Blaze arranged an extended vacation and guilted her into taking it. She made all the arrangements and wouldn’t tell Mercy where she was going, just to be at the airport and do as she was told.
Joel Oliver needed this job. Finances were tight, and Blaze said all he had to do was chauffer a rich woman around town. What he would receive would catch him up on the mound of bills piling up and keep the roof over his—and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Miley’s—head for a few months longer. Miley was in a wheelchair—and as a result, had a lot of medical bills—but he loved her more than his own life. However, Joel was about to bite off more than he could chew.
The woman was gorgeous, and he found her snarky, hateful, attitude amusing until she interfered with how he was raising his daughter. Now, all bets were off.
Mercy would normally laugh in the man’s face for his hurtful remarks, but for some reason, her heart shattered instead. After a night of the most mind-blowing sex she could’ve imagined, he was treating her like it all meant nothing…. She had just realized he was her mate, and he hated her….
Blaze and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Blaze, a hawk, had done many things in her immortal life. Now, making toys was a pastime she enjoyed. However, the owner of the print shop that made the blueprints for her designs had not only ripped her off but several other companies by giving them faulty blueprints and keeping the correct ones for himself to profit from. Blaze had caught the defect before she had put her project into production, the other firms hadn’t been so lucky and had lost millions. Given the opportunity, Blaze purchased the print shop.
Judith and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Bryson had worked for the print shop for ten years. However, he had no knowledge of the owner’s dirty dealings. When the new owner stepped in, he was happy to still have a job and was eager to help in any way he could. What he hadn’t expected was the jolt he received when he shook the new owner’s hand. In that moment he knew two things, she wasn’t human, and she was his mate.
With two of their sisters mated, Jude and Piper were finding themselves a little envious of the large homes they had. Jude and Piper both were on the hunt for nicer accommodations. Christmas was just around the corner, and neither was sure if they wanted to attend the big gala that had been arranged this year in the old castle where they had all once lived.
Duncan was his mother’s son, thru and thru. He had inherited the gift of foresight as well as immortality and a few other magical traits. Jude being his mate, had been foreseen by his mother, Queen Dante, several millennia ago, and Queen Dante had kept Duncan’s identity a secret from them all.
When Duncan approached her, Jude didn’t know whether to stay put or flee. Being a warrior, she wasn’t afraid of any man, it’s what being with him represented, being a queen, Jude wasn’t sure she was ready for that. She wasn’t sure she would ever be ready for that.
Piper and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia. Their time of fighting wars and conquering kingdoms was now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Piper wasn’t really happy with the way her job was going and how much travel that would be required of her in the near future. She liked the art that she made, but she wanted to do whatever she wanted, not fill specific orders. She wasn’t feeling the inspiration for that.
Grant had lived in Queen Dante’s kingdom since before the old king had died. He and his mother were fae and, therefore, immortal. He had done many things over his lifetime. Being fae and their unity with the earth, Grant and his mother were the healers for their community.
When Grant and his mother were invited to King Dante’s new castle for dinner, he was excited to see what the new king had done with the place. What he didn’t expect was the charge of magic he’d receive when he met Piper. It knocked them both on their asses. Neither knew what to expect from the other, nor what magic they had exchanged. Although Piper was wary, Grant couldn’t wait to find out.
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The castle was going down, thanks wholly to her birds. Queen Dante sat upon her horse and watched as stone after stone crumbled to the ground. In a matter of moments, not only were the walls of the fort destroyed, but the king inside his castle was dead as well. Turning her mount, she headed back to the encampment to ready herself for the long ride home. The birds joined her not half an hour later, their large bodies covered in dust and blood. “You have done well, my darlings.” They could understand her and she them, but no one else could. She had made them what they were, and she would be the only one to control them. “Have you fed well on his dying cattle? What serves a man to have his food dying? His people, they were fed no better, I saw.”
The falcon—she had never named them—told her the people were headed west. In a few months, probably less, they would all be dead too. It bothered them when the people suffered because of the king or queen of the castle. But it was to be. Dante could not care for anymore in her own keep. No one would attack her keep. If they tried, she knew them to be too stupid or too drunk on their own mead. She had her birds, all of them bigger than life, made large by magic that she gave them. Looking at them as they landed around her, forever keeping her safe, she wondered why she had not thought of it sooner when her king was still alive.
“I would have set you upon him. You could have eaten him for your dinner. Though I suspect it would have given you a great deal of belly pains.” The hawk told her she was lucky he had died the way he had. No one would come for her if she had killed him. “Yes, that is very true. But I suffered greatly when he was living. No children either, to give me comfort in my olden age. Though they might have been just like him, and that would have been too much to bear.” She would never marry again. Love wasn’t anything she searched for. Not that she didn’t have someone to warm her bed on occasion, but it was nice to be able to send them on their way when she had finished with them.
Her heart belonged to no one, and she would not have another man take her to bed by force. All would be well, and no one would threaten to come and take over her home. That was a certainty. The hawk used her beak to put delicate things upon the backs of the others. There was aplenty this time. Barrels and smoked meats. Pottery that they would use like it wasn’t worth a king’s gold. They raided the castle each time they conquered. Hawk was the best at getting in and out before they took the place to the grounds. The eagle took off toward home. She would let the people know the queen was returning simply by showing up. They would have a feast this night. The food upon her back would feed them for many days, and the barrels of spices, hoarded in the lower levels of the castle, would go a long way toward helping them trade for what they did not grow.
The phoenix, by far the deadliest of her birds, shed her feathers in anticipation of getting new ones. After a battle, she would become anew, each time getting stronger, and her feathers, brilliant now, would be brighter still. She could flame a fire so hot that stone would crumble under a man’s feet. The ground would no longer hold a seed within its belly to produce food, and she could kill a man with a single breath so that there would be nothing left of his body. She loaded the last of her things onto the back of the owl. She might be small, she had always thought, but she could carry more than her own weight. And she would pick up her horse, used to flying through the sky like a bird himself, and take him back to the castle.
He would be fed and groomed before the queen ever landed on the ground. The vulture squawked at her, and she turned to look at the two men there. They looked as if they might have been about to kill her, but the sight of such large birds threw them off their duty. In no time at all, the vulture snapped both of them up and ate them down. A gruesome sight, but one that filled her heart with joy too. She was safe again. The vulture took off, too, once she was loaded up. “Well, my falcon, it is just you and I left.” She told her she was still armed. “Yes, well, probably not too bad of an idea seeing that they nearly shot us.” The falcon laid her body to the ground. She was the only one fitted with a seat, one that Dante rode on. Scouring the area, Dante always made sure the places she camped were left as neat and clean as she’d found them.
Sometimes in better shape. As she climbed on the back of her bird, she held her breath. “I do hate the height. I should have thought this through when I turned you into my warriors.” Her laughter, should there have been someone around to hear it, might have caused them to think her insane. “Homeward, my love, and we shall eat well tonight.” She took no one with her on her fights except the birds. That was why she believed her people were so loyal to her. She protected them, fed them better than herself, and made sure there was plenty for them to trade and share for things that she did not provide for them. The soil was rich and would give forth a bounty like no other gardens. Flowers, too that were woven into pretty things and traded.
There was a smithy, as well as a doctor who doubled as a dentist. They had even acquired a gravedigger, who also made markers. There was a single merchant that came by, his wagon filled when he arrived, but it would be near empty when he left. The latest news came with him and any posts he had been asked to bring to them. He would also, for a small coin, take outposts for the next time he was in the keep of a relative or friend. And today, there was such a missive. But it was for her, from someone she had hoped never to hear from again—the king of the land, the only man she answered to, though it wasn’t with any kind of happiness on her part. After the others were settled down and the food that had been brought put into storage, she sat down and wasn’t surprised that the falcon came to see her. The room she was in—the throne room for lack of a better term—had no roof and six perches for the birds when they wished to see her. Otherwise, they sat upon the top of the castle turrets, watching for anything that might befall them.
“I am to wed. The king of the land, he has decided my castle is the best there is, and he will marry me himself.” The falcon asked about his castle. “He says it will be his son’s, of which he has none as yet. His last five wives have only given him daughters from what I have heard, and they did not last long afterwards.” The falcon asked her what she would do. Dante knew what would happen to her should he come here. He would kill her. Being in her fortieth summer, she was much too old to bear any children now, and he would be better with a younger bride. One that could birth him the sons he wanted. “He will kill me; we both know that. And you six will kill him or be killed. I worry so much for the people here too.” She thought of several plans and threw them out. It was in her head that if she should die, then she would do so on her own terms. “I will need a day to think on this. In the meantime, he says he will be here in the new year.
That will give us a month to provide for the people and make sure they are not harmed.” ~*~ Dante worked as hard as the rest of her people. With her hair up in a rag, she didn’t look any different than any of the men and women that toiled with her. There was much to be done in the little time they’d been allotted. Today they were drying all the beef and goat meat they had. It would last them for several months, and where she was sending them for safety, they’d need that extra time. Long enough for them to breed more of their cattle and goats, so there would always be food for them to eat. “What of the dried herbs that are left, my lady? There are already barrels of it packed away for the trip. Shall we put them in bags to go?” She shook her head. “There are no more barrels until the morn.
The copper is working as fast as he can, making more. What shall we do?” “Leave them. There is very little, correct?” The man said that there wasn’t enough for a good strong stew. “Good. They will think you all died off from lack of planning, and that will keep you safe for a longer time. Leave it for them so that when the keep and castle are in ruin, the king will understand why.” Not that anyone was going to be coming to the castle to live, she thought. There were things in motion that would make sure everything here was gone well before the lands were walked upon again. She looked to the sky when a dark shadow fell over her. Her hawk was making her way to the village Dante had set up. Long ago, Dante had purchased the lands far from where she was now and put them in the name of Mercy Dante. She knew so much about all their futures that it made her so sad to know she’d never be there to see it happen. “My lady?” She looked at her man of arms, a man that had very little work to do but was brave and true to her. “We have plenty of things to go on the next load if you have a desire to send it on.
Do you still wish for some of the armed men to go with them this time? I’m to understand we’re to fell trees for homes.” “Yes, that would be good. How many men can you spare today?” He told her all she had. “Then send them on. I know some of you are frightened to ride the birds, but you should have no fear. They would no more harm you than they would me.” He nodded and looked at her hawk. “I shall send you all on her. She is the gentlest of the six of them.” The carrier had been fashioned a week ago. It had upset her that it had taken so long to get right, but it was safe now, and that was all she wanted. There were only a few short weeks to get the people gone from here with all that would keep them safe. Now all she had to do was make sure the birds didn’t know the last of her plans. The platform had been made from several drawbridges from castles they’d taken over.
She’d known that saving them would be helpful, but it had taken a great deal more work than she’d thought to put them together and have her fishermen weave a netting to carry it with. After several trials and failures, the carrier worked. Loading up the men on the first run of people, she noticed they had put the several men that were afraid of the ride in the middle. One of them, a hardy man otherwise, had been knocked out with much wine. It had been funny to all around that it had taken so little of the wine to do that to him. But they didn’t know she’d given him a bit of magic to help him travel. All was well when her hawk took off with the several dozen men to start on the homes that would be needed. Barrels would be next. They had been sealed by magic that would keep them well preserved.
The other birds, her warriors for all time, had been taking jewels and other items to a cave she had also covered in magic. It would help the people of the new village for as long as they lived, well beyond her body becoming nothing but dust. Dante watched as several more people were taken to the new village. She would allow them to name their new place as long as it would never be attached to the name of the castle. That would be bad for them and would bring much trouble onto their heads. When her hawk landed, she went to ask how things were progressing. “Well, my lady. They were no more off the platform for seconds when they started to work. I believe you were good to get them started on this.
‘Tis only late winter, so they should be able to have a few of the buildings up before the rest are moved.” Dante agreed with her. No one else could understand the birds but her and the other birds. It had, she knew, kept everyone safe all these years. “I can only make two trips there and back, my lady. ‘Tis not a long way by the way we fly, but the pack is heavy. Please forgive me for that.” “You have nothing to be sorry for, my bird of prey. You have done one more than I had hoped for this day. And when the others have finished their tasks for me in carrying away the riches and other things they will need, it will take no time at all to move the rest. Nay, you have done well this day in taking the men and then the food to feed them while there.” Her hawk, who would someday be called Blaze, bowed before her.
Stacking up the loads that would be going on the platforms, she could see that they’d be taking away the last of it only the day before the king was to arrive. Dante was glad now that she’d had such good people working for her. They asked nothing as to why they were doing this but did it for her. When in reality, it was all for them and her birds. Dante knew the king would never make it here. His ship and all his bounty would be deep in the waters he crossed to kill her and take her castle. The man was a fool to think she would easily do what he wanted. Wiping at a tear, she looked around the keep she’d worked so hard to keep everyone safe in. It was then she saw her son. Duncan was everything she was and more. Each time she saw her son, she would give him a little more of herself, teach him something of running a castle. He knew what he was to her and that Mary was doing her a great favor in keeping him safe.
Duncan would be a greater king than she ever was a queen. Just the way it should be. She was glad now that she’d told him he was to be mated to one of her birds. Leaving him to his work, she entered the castle to see what else was there that she could easily live without. There was very little left as it was, but she moved from room to room to make sure nothing was left behind of any value. The only thing she could see in the great room was the painting of herself. Dante wished so many times that she could have put her son there with her, but it was not to be. It would have been foolhardy to think she’d be able to keep him safe if she was to put out there that he’d been born. Other kingdoms would have done a great many things to have captured him to bring her to heel. Dante would do anything to keep him safe, including submitting to a man again.
A thing that she would never do again in her lifetime. “I shall give this to our falcon.” She turned her head enough to find Duncan behind her, and the doors closed to anyone walking around. “She will be a great person, I think. Sour to many but the one she will love.” “You have seen this?” Duncan said he’d seen a great many things. “Well, you know as well as I that it might not turn out the way we see it. There can be changes, you know.” “This I am aware of. As well as you not living past the last person that is taken from here.” She turned to look at him then, trying to see just what he was seeing. “I shall forever miss you, Mother.” It was the first time he’d called her that. Her heart was so tender of late that she would burst into tears at all that would be gone in so short of time. Hugging him to her, she felt his body was getting stronger daily. He knew how to work and did it without complaint. “I have been writing a book. It is just for you, my son.
You will know things I have known for some time. It will replenish your riches that I have put aside for you. Also, how to keep the birds safe should they need it.” He nodded. “I will give it to Mary on the day you travel. I do not want the others to know you are my son, even after all is finished here.”
“They will only know me as a man you trusted. But I will need to tell them at some point. This you know as well as I. I will be their king when they need me.” She nodded, tears flowing quickly now. “Mother, you do know I will take care that they are as safe as you made them here?” “I do, my son. I know that better than you could. You are not anything like your father. A cruel and terrible man. When you marry, and you will, I want you to know that she will only love you if you give her your heart. It’s important that you do that for her.” He said he would. “Let her strength help you when you know you are not armed to do it on your own. She will love you more and respect you forever for that.” “Will she be stronger than me, Mother?” Dante told him she was sure of it. “Then I will be for her what you have been for these people. A leader of worth. I will promise you I will also protect her forever.” “That is all that anyone can do for their mate, my child.” He hugged her, something neither of them were able to do often.
“I shall miss you, Duncan. Much more than I could ever explain to you. Go forth, protect all the people of your kingdom, and do what I say. Love your mate more than anyone, including yourself, and the two of you will be able to move mountains.” ~*~ New Town, what they had begun to call the new place they were living, looked like any other town in the country. The only difference was this one was only several weeks old. It, to Dante, looked as if it had been established long ago. She was pleased with the work her people had given the place she’d moved them to. “My lady? There is a problem in one of the homes we’ve put up. I know how to fix it, but the man living in it, he said he will be fine with it. To have his own home was more than he could have hoped for.” The queen of the people asked Barron what the issue was. “He has five daughters, my lady, and we’ve somehow put him into a house with only one bedroom.
There are ones he could use, but he insists that it be used for the other families.” “I shall speak to him. Is it Donald, the mule man?” Barron nodded, his face nearly touching the ground. He was bent so much. “Stand up, man. I believe I have pointed out this is not a time for formality. We must all work together for the greater good of the people. I shall speak to him now. Then I must, as you know, return to the castle for the final loading.” Along the way to speak to Donald, she was stopped no less than twenty times to be thanked for the things she’d provided for the people here. Without making the great move, Dante knew all of them would have been killed. Because of their loyalty to her as queen of the castle, the king of these realms, a tyrant of a man, would have ordered them all butchered as soon as he killed her on their wedding night. Of this, she was certain. “My lady? I have yet to put on a pot for tea, but you must join us in it.” Dante was not one to hold back when she had something to say. She told Donald she wanted him to take a larger home. “Oh, my lady. Barron should never have bothered you with this. We are quite happy with where we are.”
“But you have six people in a single man’s home, Donald. What, I ask you, will the man who was supposed to be in this home do with a home with many bedrooms? He will be overwhelmed in trying to keep them clean while you are smashed up in this one-bedroom chamber with your little girls.” Donald looked at his daughters, beautiful little ones that were the pride and joy of himself. “There is a home just over the road here you shall be moved to. I insist. Your daughters will share two bedrooms, and you will have your own.
I know for a fact, sir, that your snore is legendary. For your daughters to have a good sleep, you will need to be far from them. Do you not agree?” “Yes, my lady.” He moved just a little closer and, in a low voice, spoke to her. “I did not wish to cause you any undue trouble. You have given all of us a chance to survive this, and I wanted to be sure you knew I was ever so grateful for it. I’m as happy here with you and yours as I ever was in the castle keep, my lady. Incredibly happy.” “I’m glad you’re happy here, Donald. You are a good man and a man that cares well for his daughters. I shall have the men move you to the new home. It will give me a good feeling knowing you have plenty of room for yourself and your family.” He thanked her. “Your daughters, sir, they will be safe here. You need anything, you make sure you contact Barron.” “Thank you, my lady. If there is ever anything I can do for you, you need only to ask. I am and will be indebted to you for the rest of my days.” Dante felt her eyes water up with the man’s words.
Her life, she knew, was only a short time away from ending. “Thank you very much.” The little girls curtsied at her, and she had to move on. It broke her heart every time she saw small children. She so wanted to hold her own. Telling Donald once again that she’d have the men move him, she moved toward the longhouse that would serve as a church for the people and a meeting place for them to gather should they need to. Her eagle was awaiting her when she returned to the now all but abandoned castle. “You have done well, my heart. You, of all the birds I have, are the one I worry most about.” The eagle asked her why. “You are so much like me. Hard when you’re needed to be. Too soft when it comes to our people. I fear someday it will harm you in ways that not even I could fix.”
Her eagle, like the other birds, was a huge part of getting the people moved. If not for them, there would be no way she could have done this alone. It would have meant certain death for all of them, including her own son. Going to the throne room, she sat upon the floor. Dante had moved her chair to the caves for the others to sell off should no one want it. But because she could see into the future, just bits and pieces, she knew at least one of them would want such a monstrosity. “When this is finished, soon now, I will give you and the others magic to keep you safe from others who would try and capture you.” Her eagle asked what sort of magic. “You will be able to blend into situations you wouldn’t normally consider a problem. There will be problems, too. From the things I have seen, you all will have trouble from those around you.”
She laid back on the cold stone. The castle had been forged so long ago Dante could not remember who had been the person to have erected it. Now, as she looked up into the night sky, the roof here long since removed, she thought of what was going to happen in the coming days. “He has set sail and is nearly here. The king of all the lands is coming to claim not just my castle and my wealth but my birds as well. There are many people on the vessel that carts his bottom here who have no desire to be his servants. If only I could have saved them as well.” The eagle, standing upon her perch built just for her, reminded her she could not save them all. “In this, I wish it was wrong to have thought that. They will suffer, these people. They are suffering, for there is nothing to do to appease the king to find favor with him. There are so few that he has not made suffer by lashing them on their backsides. Too many of them have died in his foolishness to make me his wife for such a short time.” Listening to her eagle squawk at her about the king and idiocy, Dante thought of her impending death.
It would be a sad affair only to her son and the birds he would one day claim as his own. However, just knowing all would be safe from the king’s tyranny made the other things so worthwhile. “If I had to do it again, I would do nothing differently. I would still do what I am doing now so that all will live and live on. Even with you birds, I would do just what I have done to keep my kingdom here.” The eagle asked her if she’d been happy. “Happy? I don’t know that I have had that much in my lifetime. I have been content. Not the same, I suppose, but I have been content with my lot in life. If only I could have kept living the way we have, I do believe I could have made such a difference in things here and in the future. Before I forget this again, I have taken the time to write out the things t’will keep the new town with coin in their coffers. I know it will be aplenty, but I will worry until my last breath if it will be enough.” Her last breath.
It was only a few days away. Much too soon for her, but Dante knew it would be well worth the pain of dying to her. Sitting up, she looked at the birds, all six of them on their perches watching over her and the emptied lands they could see. They were the sole reason she was able to do this. This she knew more than anyone could have guessed. “I shall retire, I think. I have no bed to speak of now, so I will only lie upon the ticking. On the morrow, we shall have a feast. A great amount of food, as well as drink. ‘Tis fitting, I think, to celebrate this new way of life for so many.” Her beautiful phoenix asked her why she seemed so sad. “Sad? Aye, I am that and more. Things are moving at a pace I wish didn’t exist. But it is for the wellbeing of all that have called this place home. In that, I suppose I am sad that we shall never be able to return here in my lifetime.” But they would. All six of them and more will return someday and see the castle as it should have been. A lovely home to her son and his mate, the one that she herself had hand-picked for her beloved child. Oh, to be able to see them grow into love. But it was not to be.
Getting up before she made a fool of herself by crying over something she had no control over, Dante did indeed head to her bed. For tomorrow and the next day would be the hardest of anything she’d ever done before. ~*~ Dante didn’t sleep. She’d not closed her eyes to rest in more years than she could count on both her hands and then her toes. It was all right, she supposed. Dante was able to get more done this way. But she did pace herself. She’d never survive these last days if she were to fall apart now. “Mistress, there are two men here to see you. They wish to know who has carved your turrets. I did not tell him they were as real as he.” Mary shook her head at the folly of some men. “I should have called them down to talk to him about how they were made. I think he might well have soiled his britches.” “Mary, please tell them that the lady of the castle is busy and does not have time to tell him of the art he is looking at. What manner of person would ask such a thing? As if I didn’t have the sense of that turtle caught in the drain last week.
Nay, tell them to move on before I toss them into the sea.” Mary went to tell them just what she said. Dante was smiling when she heard Mary laughing. She’d no doubt take the way she’d told her to move them on to such extravagance. It would serve the men right if she really would call down one of her birds to take care that they didn’t bother her again. Dante made her way to the drying room at the back of the kitchen. She had been brewing a brew for several days now. “You’re not going to be going with us, are you, my lady?” She turned to look at her great phoenix. “If you do not explain to me what your plan is, I think to tell Mercy what I have figured out. She will not allow you to die. Nor will I be all right with your death.” “I must die, my beautiful friend. For if the king were to actually reach our lands and find this castle and all that was here when he set sail were gone, what do you think he’d say to his men?
That it was a good thing I left? That now he didn’t have to kill me? Nay, he would send them to find me. And my people. I do not wish anyone else to be harmed for what he wants from me.” The phoenix, Piper would be her name someday, asked her if she expected them to do the killing. “In a way. I have this brew here. It is nearly set for me to drink down. The castle and its walls, they must come down, or it will all be for naught. What I have made, it will have me dead before you drop the first stone upon the only home I have ever had. You as well, my dear bird.” “Mercy will not be willing to help.” Dante told her she would because she’d know what she said now was the truth. “Aye, you say that, but I think her to be most upset with the turn of events, my lady. It will break all our hearts to know you have left us behind.” “I shall never leave any of you behind. I will be forever in your hearts and you in mine as I take my last breath.” The phoenix nodded but didn’t say anything more for some time. “He will die before he gets to the land. This king who thinks to murder me in my own bed. And those that he brought with him, they too will perish. ‘Tis a folly on his part to think I’d just do as he wants as if I have no mind of my own. I know Mercy will kill him and all that have been forced to come here with him. It’s not such a bad thing, these deaths, Phoenix. It will be merciful to all that have ridden the seas to make their way here.”
After the bird left her, she pulled the large cauldron off the hot flames and covered it with a lid. Even though there were no children about or anyone working in the kitchens, she would feel terrible if any harm would come to anyone right now. Making her way back to the throne room, or what was left of it, she laid on the floor to look up at the sky. Dante hated heights. While she forever knew she’d never see the time when there would be airplanes in her sky, she knew they were set to come. She was content, for now, to bask in the beautiful view she’d miss more than she’d thought she might. Getting up, Dante made her way to the side of the castle that faced the sea. “Oh, to see the waterways filled with my own ships again. To see them sailing off to find new things to bring back to us.” There were ships out there. She could just make out their flags.
None of these were her tormentor, she knew. He would be visible in two days, still out to sea a long way. He would be nothing more than a small speck in the open waters, but she’d still be able to see him. “Why now? Why have you made your plans to include me at this time? I wish more and more I’d been born a male. Then no one would dare to come here. I might well have been the king of all the lands had it been so.” Her ships had been taken to the coves not far from here. By the time they were remembered, time would go by, and they would be nothing more than rotted wood and material. Dante wouldn’t want them to be seaworthy again. It might well be the thing that got her people killed. Even in the future, the bits and pieces she could see, the ships would only cause people to look harder for her remains and perhaps run into the New Town where her people lived. That, she knew, would be a danger to all. “Mother? Are you here?” She turned to look at her son.
Duncan had been coming to her of late to get more lessons, her thoughts on things, as well as how to manage a vast kingdom such as the one she was leaving him. “I thought for sure you’d be here. I have a favor to ask of you. ‘Tis a small one, but one I think you can give me. I should like to spend the night here, within these walls, once with you. I have spoken to Mary about it, and she thinks you will grant me this one wish. It will be the first and last time the two of us will be able to be under the same roof since I was born.” “I should like that. Very much.” He nodded and smiled at her. “There is so much to tell you and so much more I think I have forgotten to pass on to you. But for this night, I shall not speak of the king coming here. Nor of my life-ending. You are aware of it, my child. This I know. But to have you here with me this last night? It is more than I could have asked for.” They made their plans to sleep on the same ticking she’d been resting on since her bed had been taken away. As they curled up under a thick blanket, the two of them talked more than they rested. Tears were shed, of course. There was no way to avoid such a thing. But there was laughter, too, much more of it than just tears.
“I shan’t be here tomorrow when you are set. I cannot be of sound mind when I know what is to happen to you. I will tell you, Mother, that there couldn’t have been a better person to raise me. Nor one that has loved me as well as you have.” She kissed him on the forehead as he spoke again. “For as long as I live, Mother dear, I will keep you in my heart, along with the birds that will be mine as well. I love you. Much more than I think any child could their parent. You are the best there is. I shall kill anyone that says differently.” She had no words to give him after that. Her heart, already tender, was breaking more. It might well have done her better not to have spent the night with her son. But it would have been harder on her, she thought, to not have this time with him with no other around.
Finally, when she could speak without tearing up, even more, Dante told her son that she loved him. That he’d be a better king than she had been a queen. After saying that, they both settled into their thoughts until the sun came rising from the seas that surrounded them. Today, she knew, would be her last day to breathe in the air, take in food for her belly, and the very last time she’d order her birds to do something she knew they’d hate her for. ~*~ The last of the herbs were drying nicely. Along with the pumpkins and other squashes, Dante had added a little magic to them so that they’d produce quicker. Would also produce more for them to have when they replanted the seeds left from this bounty. The corn stalks had been bundled up too to take along for roofs, as well as fodder for the fires that would need to be lit.
As she looked over the ground she’d been working on with the others, she wondered if the future occupants of her home would plant and use the product coming from it as much as she had. Dante knew a great deal about the coming centuries. It had come to her in dreams or just single thoughts. She used this gift of magic to make it so her son and all the people that were going to be living around here would not have to worry about money. Not when there was so much more that needed to be done. Taking a large basket of still-green tomatoes that hadn’t gotten ripe as yet, she was smashing them into pulp to make sure that the seeds, a precious thing, were set aside to dry. Duncan joined her in the drying room with several more fruits that would need to be secured. “I have dug up all the trees you wished to be stored away.
I also added some things that seemed to be begging me for a second chance. I’ve got a feeling in my heart that their kind might not be long for this time we are in.” She told her son he was more than likely right if that was what he felt. He walked around the room. “There is plenty enough herbs here to fill an entire barrel. Are you leaving them?” “I will some. The rest will go back with all the others when you leave here tonight.” He nodded. “The trees will be stored away until such a time that they’re needed.
I have found a way to preserve them so they will not rot and die. I will let you know when it is time for you to get them. Also, there is—” “Mom, I have a question for you. You do not need to answer it if you would rather not, but I would so like the answer.” She nodded and sat in the only chair in the room with them. “No one will speak to me of my sire, my father. I have asked Mary, and she has told me when the time was right, I’d be able to know all there is to know about him. I believe in my heart that no one can tell me what sort of person he was but you. It’s important to me, you see. I would like to know why I was hidden from him. Not that I don’t believe you did the right thing. But I cannot imagine the cruelty he had without you telling me.” “It is a horrific telling, my son. One I hoped you’d never hear. But since you have asked, I will tell you of his deeds. Not just to me, but to the very people that work within and out of these walls.” He sat on the floor, and Dante produced a thick ticking for him to sit on while he listened.
She did the same for herself and leaned back against the tables used for the sorting of herbs. “When I was first wed to him, by order of the then king, he was cruel even then. I wasn’t a young maiden, but a maiden all the same. Yet his lying with me was like lying with a monster. He hit me, bit me, and then when he’d filled me with his seed, he would have me tied to the bed so I’d not be able to abort any child from him with the taking of herbs or such. I allowed that to happen to me only the one time. After that, using my magic, I’d be free and wandering around without his knowledge.” “Did you? Abort any other children by him?” She told him she’d never have done that.
Not even if she had ten children, all of them girls. “I’m glad to hear that, Mom. It would have been nice to have a sibling, but I understand that it would have been difficult to want to have a child by such a monster.” Duncan sat on her lap then, just there so that she could hold him. While sitting there with his head under her chin, she told him of the things his father had done to her. What he would have done had he ever found out about her having a son. “There were times, my son, that I would wish for death after he was finished with me. The healers had to work very hard to keep me from throwing myself from the highest peak. The wounds I would carry during my life cut harder than any other thing I have had to endure. Even a spear, which I have had plenty enough of, were nothing compared to his terror.” While not giving him a great many of the details, she did tell him of the whip he’d used. His fist, as large as her head, would slam into her body any time he saw her. Dante told her son some of the things she wished for him to remember.
The decision was his mate’s, and hers alone, as to when to have children or not. There were other things too that she imparted to him. The wisdom of keeping his mouth shut when he was angry. To not make decisions without discussing them with his mate. “Your mate will be smart, Duncan. And stronger than you will ever be. Not just in strength but also in mind. She will have knowledge that comes from being a warrior. Use that. All the birds will be able to protect you in ways I cannot see or even imagine.” He told her he’d treat his mate the opposite way from how Dante had been treated.
“Then that is all that I can ask of you, Duncan. I will die knowing you will be the greatest king that has ever lived.” “I will not disappoint you or my mate, Mom. I promise you on my heart and yours that I will treat her as the queen she will be.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Come with me now. I want to swim with you while the others are finishing up. One hour will make little difference in getting ready for a king that will not see this place.” The two of them played in the water for more than half the day. When they weren’t swimming, the two of them talked about the things she’d seen. The companies, what they were called in the future, would make him the most profit. Also, about when he was to sell them so as not to lose a great fortune. “There are things called market that are nothing like we have here. They are to buy and sell stocks—I believe that is what they’re called. The things I have written for you will tell you when to buy such stocks and when to sell them. One minute will make the difference in when you sell them, Duncan. Be on time for that.”
He told her he would. “Good. That is all I can ask you to do. It will be able to sustain you for years and years.” As Duncan made his way home, she mixed up her tea and took it with her to the towers. Duncan thought it would be tomorrow morning, but she didn’t know if she could go through with it if she knew he was standing not far from her. As she settled herself into the middle of the room, she looked up at the skies. The birds, all of them, were awaiting her signal. Drinking the brew straight down, she told her birds how much she had come to love them. “Once I am gone from this world, which will not be long now, you will receive a gift from me that you’ll need to survive under the conditions of the world beyond.” She didn’t tell her birds what she’d done, that she’d poisoned herself with her own brew. Nor did she tell them she’d made it so they’d be humans. Also, they’d be true immortals and not able to be killed.
Dante was afraid they’d not take down the castle but leave it for others to take over. There would be no one else to live here but her sons and the birds. Even though he didn’t know it yet, the castle would be ready for them to live in quite nicely. “You are angry. I can feel it. I’d rather you be happy that the other people that were living here are as safe as we could make them. That without you, I don’t know that I would have been as long for this world as I was. You not only saved the people here, my birds but me as well.” Her vulture asked her why she had to die. They could carry her away. “If there is even a hint of me being not at this castle when it fell, then I will be hunted down for treason. They will not only kill me, but they’ll have their sport with me, as well as torture me to find out where my people have gone. I know I cannot survive the sort of torture they would put upon my body.
I am old, and my body wouldn’t sustain as much as they will use against me to go and find them.” Her body was weak already from her magic being depleted as much as it was, but she held onto her mind for as long as she could. Telling her saviors about how she had known to find them. That they were, of all the birds around, the ones she knew would care for her and her lands. Telling them that it was time, well past the time, for the work to be done.
Then she told them one more thing before she succumbed to her death. “I love you all so very much. Had you been children of mine, I would have— You are my children. Created from me so that I could be a good queen to all that lived here. But I would have taken glory in your lives. Been a part of it that would have made me the happiest I have ever been. There has never been a greater friendship than the kind we have here. I do love you. Please, remember me fondly.” She tried to laugh a little, but she was too weak to even do that now. “Let it begin. I shall wish you all the blessings a queen can give to her mates, best friends and children that you are.” Dante was beyond feeling anything when the first stone tore into the building. It narrowly missed her, for which she was disappointed.
They were thinking she might change her mind. Even if she wished to do that, it was too late. Her last vision was of her great vulture carrying a large stone up and over her. Dante closed her eyes, letting death take her before the stone could do so. ~*~ Duncan knew of her plans, even though she’d not said anything to him. His mother, even now, was beyond him. Death had taken her from not just himself but all that loved her. And love her, they did. Telling Mary, the woman who had taken care of him these last ten years, she let him be alone for his grief. She was a good woman, kind to him, and also good at keeping his head out of the clouds when necessary. There was never a time when she didn’t paddle his bottom when he needed it, but she was just as quick to praise him when he did something good.
He thought he was getting more praise than he’d been getting paddles of late. Going out into the yard, knowing that the rain coming down was like the earth telling of its sorrow for having lost someone like his mother, Duncan went to the waterside, the inlet to the larger sea that was yet miles and miles away. Just as he made himself comfortable under the canopy of leaves just coming to their branches, one of the birds landed beside him. “She’s gone. The queen is gone, isn’t she?” The bird squawked, but Duncan knew they didn’t know who he was, so he pretended to not understand the beautiful phoenix when she told him she was indeed gone. “I shall miss her. Forever I think. I know she did the right thing today, for all of us, but I cannot help but be a little angry with her for dying like she has.”
The bird watched over him. He was sure that someone had seen him going this way, and feared he’d fall into the fast-moving waters. He could swim, unlike so many others in the village, but to be watched over even now made him think he would welcome any kind of kindness this day. “I know had it not been the king of all the lands coming, it would have been someone else coming to make their claim. Even now, they are going to die at the hand of one so broken. I have seen the beautiful falcon around the queen so much more than the others. I believe her to have been the first of her kind.” The phoenix nodded this time, and he was glad she made the effort. Reaching over, he barely touched one of the brightest feathers he’d ever seen before turning back to look at the waterways.
“If you think me to jump in, I shan’t. It might have been tempting some time ago, but no longer. The queen has deemed that none of us shall mourn her by causing our own death. It would break her, I believe, to know that so many would like to join her in her afterlife.” Again the phoenix nodded. Duncan knew he was treated well because of his mother. He wasn’t sure who had figured out who he was to the queen, but they knew him to be special enough that she would seek him out when she wanted. And though his mother visited all homes, all the time, she would stay longer at the home he stayed in with Mary and her son. He looked at the feather he’d been admiring when it fell to the stone underneath him. “You are in mourning as well, aren’t you? I don’t blame you. I think my heart has been crushed by this day. More than that, while I know it will heal, right now, it hurts me badly enough that I wish to let the earth go on without me. But, like you, I have a job to do, and I shall do it to the best of my ability.”
More feathers landed beside them, and he collected them before they scattered. “I’ve got a mind to make something beautiful with these if you’d not mind. Something to remind me of this day and you coming to watch over me. If you’ve better things to do, phoenix, you can leave me here to my own sorrow.” Instead of leaving, she nestled down and put out her wing to cover him more when the wind picked up. The water, just a few feet from him, began to gather up strength. Duncan knew it was from the death of the king and not the water pouring from the sky. The king was dead. Mercy, as she would be called, had dropped a stone on his boat larger than anything that could be carried by the best of trucks in the future. When the water was too swift for him to safely be sitting there, he stood up.
To be able to ride on the bird, just to make sure the bad king was indeed dead, was tempting. But he dared not. She wouldn’t allow it, he thought. As he made his way back to his home, the bird flew away to do whatever she’d been told by his mother. Duncan leaned against one of the few trees left standing when New Town was built. People were going about their business. He did notice that quite a few tears were being shed. Many a woman and man had their clothes out, wiping at the tears for his mother and her passing. They would go on, as she had begged them to do. Make this place a place of safety and happiness.
Making his way into the only home he’d ever known, he pulled out one of the books she’d given him to read and began his tasks. Duncan would not be the one to disappoint his mother. Even though she was gone, he knew she’d be watching over him to keep him learning how to be the best king that ever lived. It was going to be a hard place to go to, filling out the role of his mother, but he knew with the knowledge she’d given him, what was in the books, and his ability to see bits and pieces into the future, he’d do well. By the time dinner was called, he was well into the first of many books. Having to start over several times, he’d begun to make notes on paper he’d made for this occasion. Going to the long building, he could see that many of the people there were wearing flowers on their heads. Going back into the house, he gathered all but one
feather and set about giving them to those who had not come in festive wear. It was then that Barron made the announcement that the bad king was dead, and so was their queen. After a short prayer to whatever god they prayed to, they set about having their meal, and he was glad once again for the company around him. When night began to fall, he made his way to the broken castle. It was indeed nothing more than rubble. The turrets that were there for their birds were crushed too. However, it didn’t stop them, the larger-than-life birds, from continuing their watch over them all. Out in the sea, he could see that no boats were coming to their port, nor would there be for a great many years to come. This he knew to be a good thing.
If no one was there to trade, they too would think that the good queen had perished in the fallen castle, and her people gone to other kingdoms to be their slaves. “You are her son, are you not, good Duncan?” He turned and looked at the beautiful woman standing there. The queen of faeries. The only one he’d ever been able to speak to. “The others would have come too, but their hearts, even though we were told what was to come to pass here this day, are all still broken for you, little one.” “She wishes for me to carry on as if nothing has happened.” He looked at the castle again. “I will, but I don’t think one day of mourning will matter all that much. But she’d beat me about the head and shoulders should I do that.” The queen laughed. “I have more magic for you, Duncan, king of the lands. It is all our magic so that you may call upon us should you need us.
Your good mother, she made sure that we knew what to expect in the coming years and has given us plenty to do. She is not one to allow others to sit upon their bottoms, even though she is not here to bring us to task.” He told her he thought his mother would anyway. “Of that, I have no doubt.” She touched his forehead with her long shimmering hand, and he felt the magic come to him in waves. Holding onto the tree he was near, he felt every bit of his body fill even more for the magic. He also felt himself aging. Duncan was sure that should he look at himself by the seawaters, he’d see himself a grown man. Even his face was whiskered. “She did not want you to be idle, Duncan. But to do what has been told to you to keep everyone safe.” He said he understood that even as he made himself clothing to cover his now manly body. “When you return to the encampment, you will not have to tell ‘tis you.
They will understand what you are and who you are to them. It will be safe for you now. There will be a great many years, decades upon decades, before you have a need for the birds. They’re going to have a lot to learn before then as well.” Nodding, he gleaned as much information from the queen as he could. When he turned to look at the broken castle once more, she assured him that even now, the earth was making it ready for when he needed it once again. The other magic he received from the others of the earth, he took it into his body with the knowledge that came with it. Duncan was as ready as he’d ever been to bring everything that he’d seen, his mother had seen, to fruition. He would make his mother proud.
When Heather Grey received the phone call from Merce Archer that her brother was dead, she wasn’t surprised, but when her sister-in-law, Judy Grey, claimed to be pregnant with her brother’s child, Heather knew better than that. There was no way in hell that child was his. Heather decided right then and there that she’d go to the small town and set things straight.
Peter Archer was acting as the Archer family’s attorney. He was looking into the possibility that an employee of theirs, Judy Grey, had embezzled money from one of the business owner’s personal accounts.
When Heather stormed into their lives, bringing her mentally challenged aunt with her, demanding Judy be investigated for her brother’s death, Peter was captivated with her. And when Heather said they came as a package deal, Peter didn’t hesitate because from the moment he kissed her, his life had changed forever.
Merce was a go-getter. She ran a contracting company with her father, and when she saw something that needed to be done, she did it. Archer’s company had a new product that needed to be produced, and Merce knew her company was in a perfect position to fulfill that order. She just didn’t understand why they weren’t on the list for consideration. She’d see about that.
Del was exhausted. The banging on his front door in the middle of the night was beyond infuriating. He didn’t bother getting dressed to answer it. If whoever was at the door didn’t like it, then so be it. That’s what they get for being so rude.
In all his naked glory, Del threw open the front door. Merce didn’t skip a beat in getting right to the point of her visit. The sparks fly as two stubborn souls clash for the first time….
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Merce didn’t want to make this call, but she’d made a promise, one that she intended to keep. As she pushed in the numbers, she thought of how she was going to tell this woman that her brother was gone, and though he’d already been cremated, his ashes were not going to be picked up by his wife. “Hello.” The voice sounded happy, almost too cheerful, and Merce hated this even more. Asking to speak to Heather Grey, she heard the other woman laugh. “This is her. You can tell me anything you want, but I’m not buying anything. That gets me into trouble.” An odd way to answer the phone, she thought, but Merce began speaking. “I’m sorry, Ms. Grey, but I’m calling to let you know that your brother is dead.
He was killed several days ago.” Not knowing what to expect, Merce jerked the phone from her ear when Heather began wailing and screaming about her brother. The pain in her voice was palpable. She either hadn’t heard Merce telling her she was so sorry, but she had more information, or was ignoring her. It wasn’t until another voice sounded that Merce listened to the newcomer with more interest. “What the fuck, Hey-hey? What’s the matter with you?” In a babbling voice, Heather explained to the other woman that her brother was dead. “Yes, he is. It was my dad.
Why are you—? Is someone on the phone talking to you?” “Yes. She said he was killed.” The other voice said he’d died a while back, and there wasn’t any reason for her to bet getting upset now. “Oh. I guess I don’t need to be crying either, huh?” “No. It’s been a long time. Who is that you’re talking to?” Heather told her she didn’t know who was on the phone. “Why don’t you let me have it, and I’ll figure it out for you? That way, you can go and eat your breakfast and get ready for your job.” “Okay.” The singsong voice told Merce she might well have had the wrong person. “I’m going to have to tell Mr. Watson I got to answer the phone. Maybe he’ll let me answer it at work.”
“Don’t count on it, Hey-hey. You did get upset for nothing. Go eat, and I’ll take you to work.” The voice of the stranger was soft. Playful to Heather. But when she spoke to her, Merce could tell how protective she was of the other woman. “What the fuck are you calling here for and upsetting Hey-hey? Whoever you are, you’d better believe she isn’t going to be harmed by your shit again. Do you understand me?” “She’s mentally challenged, isn’t she?” Merce didn’t know why she’d said that aloud, but she knew it to be true.
“You’re the Heather Grey I think I was supposed to talk to. I thought the other woman said she was Heather, but I don’t know for sure now. Are you the sister of Mark Grey?” “She is Heather Grey as well. I’m her niece. And yes, I’m the sister of Mark Grey.” Before she could tell her the news, Heather began speaking again. “Mark is dead then. I guess I assumed it was a scam to get my aunt to give you money. Not that it matters to you, but you’re right on her being challenged.
Thank you for that, at least— not calling her retarded. What happened to Mark?” “He was being arrested for several things at once but grabbed an officer’s weapon two different times. The second time he killed an officer at the scene. The second officer died later of his wounds. Mark was killed justifiably.” She said she didn’t doubt it. “You’re aware, I’m assuming, that he was married.” “Yes. Judy Grey. I’ve never met her. Mark would call here, telling me about the shit she was supposed to have done to him. I didn’t believe it, of course. Mark could never tell the truth because a lie was easier for him. Is she dead?”
Merce told her she was in the hospital but doing much better. “He told me he had to knock her around a little. I would have helped her, but I had had enough of his shit when he was living around here. And my aunt had as well. Besides, my thinking was if she didn’t want to be knocked around, she should have gotten herself a gun and blown his fucking head off. But then, that’s just me. What else did you want? If you think I’m going there for any reason, then you can get that shit out of your head right now. I don’t now or ever want to have anything to do with Mark, or his death, for the rest of my life.”
“What about your sister-in-law? She might need you.” Heather told her that she had enough dealing with her aunt. “You’re caring for her then?” “I am. I have been since I was eighteen, and she needed someone other than a nursing home, which would take what little money there was for her. Or I should say what little money was allotted to her. My father thought she was a burden, just not his.” Merce told her she was sorry. “No worries on your part. Hey-hey and I are getting along just fine on our own. So you can understand why we’re not going to be sucked into any drama. We have enough here on our own.” “I guess I can understand that. Judy is the one that asked me to find you and let you know that Mark was dead.
Also, she’s going to have a baby. There had been many before this one, but without Mark around to knock her about, she might be able to bring this one to term.” There was silence on the other end, but Merce thought she might not get a second chance to tell the other woman this. “There was insurance as well. I’m not entirely sure how much there is, but Judy should be all right.” There was very little noise in the background. Merce might have thought she’d been hung up on but for the singing from Hey-hey that she could hear. Just as she was going to ask Heather what was going on, she spoke again. “Hey-hey and I will be there in a few days. If you can stop her from getting the insurance, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want any of it.
I’m going just fine on my own here, but if Judy is saying she’s having my brother’s child, she’s lying.” The line was cut off this time, and it left Merce with more questions than it did answers about a great many things. Putting her phone on the desk, she sat there staring off into space, letting her mind think about what was going on with Judy and Mark. “Are you all right?” She kissed Del when he interrupted her thoughts. Smiling at him, she thought of the best way to ask him what was forefront in her mind. “What is it? You know you can ask me for the moon, and I’ll give it to you.”
“That’s just what I need. The moon in my pocket.” Kissing him again, she stood up and asked him to have a seat. When he was settled, she sat on his lap. “Now, I want you to think about this before you say anything. Do you trust Judy Grey? I mean, in all the time she’s worked for you—how long has that been?” “Just over five years, I guess. And do I trust her? I’ve had no reason not to have trusted her. Why are you asking?” She told him of the conversation she’d had with Heather. “So she didn’t explain what she meant by that. Do you think there is a cause for her to be suspicious of Judy? As I said, I’ve not had a reason to not trust her. However, we never let her into our accounts. There was never a time when she was in charge of the money, nor did she go to the bank for us. At least that was what we said.
I’ll talk to David and see what he has to say.” “Could you do it now? I don’t know why I think Heather is telling me the truth, but I do. There hasn’t been any reason for me to not trust Judy like you said, but now that it’s been put out there, I’m a little wary of what Heather might mean.” He picked up the house phone he used instead of his cell. She’d noticed he did that when at home. Del would put his phone near the front door rather than carry it around. “Don’t tell him what I’m thinking. Just sort of work up to it.” “Hey, David. Merce was just talking to Judy’s sister-in-law and wonders if there is any reason for us not to trust Judy.” She smacked him on the chest, and he laughed. “She told me to work up to it, but I thought this way was better.
We don’t beat around the bush anyway. I think we’ve been friends too long for that.” He paused again. “Yes, I can put it on speakerphone. Merce is right here with me.” “Merce?” She said she was there. “It’s funny you should be asking about that today. I just got my bank statement from my personal account, and there is just over ten grand missing. I’ve called the bank, and they’re looking into it. I don’t normally keep that much in there, but my wife and I are thinking of getting a boat to do some traveling with, and it’s not there. I’ve checked with my wife, and she said she would never do that. She wants to go boating as much as I do.”
“Did you ever give Judy your account information?” He said he’d not. “Do you leave out your checkbook? Something she could use to get the information she’d need?” “No.” Then she heard his fingers snap. “Wait. I didn’t use her for banking, but there was one time when there was an issue with my mail she got from the post office for me. When we were first using Judy to go to the post office to get company mail, she picked up mine as well. When I got it from her, there were several envelopes open. Two were credit card offers, and one of them was my statement. I never thought of it again until just now. Do you suppose she did it then? Got what she needed to use?” “It would certainly make it so you’d not be suspicious of her if it turned up now.”
Asking him to hold on, she called Peter to have him come over and see what he could make of it. “Peter said for you to put a seal on your account. He also wants to know if the money was taken out all at once or over a period of time.” “All at once.” She relayed the information to Peter. “This is insane, Del. I mean, she’s been working for us for about five years now, right? Why now? And I’m assuming you found the same thing.”
“I’ve not, no. But as I said, Merce contacted Mark’s sister, and she wasn’t coming here until she heard there was insurance. I’m not sure why it was the mentioning of the baby, but that got her coming here, and I think that’s a good thing.” David answered a few more questions for her as he spoke to Del. “Was there any time when we sent her to the bank for the company that you remember? I don’t. Not even to give her a credit card to order supplies for the office when she needed them.” “We didn’t even open an account she could have used.” Things started to fall into place while speaking to Peter and listening to the men. This woman was far smarter than anyone thought. Peter even said that Del and her should put a hold on their accounts too. At least until they found out more about Judy.
“I’m going to look into some things here in the meantime. Until you hear from me or Merce, I’d not let her even go to the post office for the company anymore. It’s much too dangerous feeling now.” David agreed, and when he hung up, Del looked at her. His face told her a great deal. He didn’t care for not trusting someone that worked for him. Also, she’d bet anything that his mind was working on other things he’d seen but not noticed until he had to think about them. “Peter is going to have someone look into her life. Also, other things, like if her name really is Judy. I’m worried more about David than I am us.” Del told her that David was going to be all right too, or he would have told him differently. “I’m glad to hear that. No one wants to feel they’ve been cheated.
Especially if she’s been playing him for the last few years.” “Did you ask her what she meant by what she said?” Merce told him she’d never gotten the chance. “I see. Well, I don’t, but I can understand how you came to see what we know. I can make a call or two. If I were to call my mom, she’d be able to find out a great deal. She’s been in this town all her life, and she might just be able to make a few calls of her own and find out exactly what Heather is talking about.” “What if it’s nothing more than a sister-in-law that is out to make trouble?” He asked her if she thought that was the case. “No. As I said, I don’t think Heather was going to come here at all until I mentioned the baby. For all we know, there might not even be one of those.
Or worse yet, there never was a child at all. She didn’t tell us how many she’d lost, but I would think it would be something a woman would just know. Not just how many, but the date and time as well. I would, I think. By the way, we need to get ready to go and see to the kids tomorrow. I don’t want them to have to stay in that place any longer than they have to.” The plan had been to go and get the kids a few days ago, but they had to wait on paperwork to be completed. Mostly it was to prove they were related to the children and could afford to take all four of them into their home.
Even Peter wanted things to go well for them, and he’d been working nearly nonstop in getting everything ready. Tomorrow they had an appointment to meet the kids, then later in the day to meet with the judge. “I’m not wearing a suit, as you suggested. Neither is Peter if he gets to see the kids as well.” She nodded, telling him they might be frightened by the sight of such huge men in suits.
“I don’t know why, but I think you’re just telling me that to make me feel better.” “No. I’ve looked at the paperwork on your cousin. He’s only five feet six inches tall, and a hard wind would blow him away. You guys aren’t nearly that tiny, and it might be too much for them.” Del told her he thought she was correct. “You had better be learning to say that more often. I’m nearly never wrong.” They were both laughing as they headed to dinner. Tonight it was just the two of them. Merce was about as excited as she’d been in some time to have dinner alone with a man. Especially this one. He was, as far as she was concerned, the best man in the world. ~*~
Todd held his two sisters’ hands as they waited in their room. Brian was with them, but he wasn’t allowed to get up and move around too much. He’d come to the place with a broken leg a few days ago, and it was still painful for him. Brian told him that his mom’s new husband had beaten him up when he wanted to go out to dinner with them. He told him they left him at home all the time with just cold pizza and soda pop. Soda pop was something that none of the kids liked. “Who do you think they are, Todd?” He told Amy he didn’t know, but they were going to have to be quiet, or they’d be put to bed again without supper. “I know. But these people, do you think they’re going to ask us questions that will make us cry?
Poor Jane didn’t like being told she wasn’t going to get to go back home ever again.” He didn’t either. But that was what the police had told them two days after they arrived here. That their father had turned their care over to the orphanage, even though they weren’t orphans, and said he didn’t want them anymore. Every time he thought of that, it made his heart hurt more. His momma had died, then his daddy said he didn’t want them. Not that he didn’t believe he’d say that about them. Since their momma had died, their father had been saying all kinds of things to them. Like he didn’t want them. That they were the scourge of the earth.
He’d had to look that word up, and it dug into his heart that someone would say that about their own kids. Todd could still see each word as he had read it to his sisters. A scourge is like being the scum of the earth. There was nothing worse than being called a scourge. Low as a thing could get. A disgrace to the world. Nothing or anything. Just flat-out gross. When the door opened to their room, he and his sisters stood up. “You’ll behave yourself, or you’ll not have dinner again, do you hear me?” They nodded. “And you’ll not be whining and blustering about how you want to go home.
I told you, and that officer told you. He doesn’t want you anymore. None of you. Your father has moved on, and you should as well.” “Yes, ma’am.” Todd watched as they wheeled Brian into the large room. He thought it was funny that this room was the only one that was decorated. The rest of the rooms looked as bare as the trees did in the winter. But he also knew that when spring rolled around, the rooms would be the same, and the trees would be pretty again.
They were seated just as two women and two men came into the room with them. The younger woman smiled at them, but he was afraid it was a trap. Everything was a trap nowadays. Every move he and the others made was thought of over and over to look for traps and such to get them into some kind of trouble. He was sick to death of not having food when he wanted it. Or being able to talk about anything that he wished with his sisters. Even Brian, who he’d only heard of until the other day, was someone he wanted to talk to.
“My name is Merce Archer.” Todd squeezed tightly on his sister’s hands. When she squeaked, he let them go and stared at the woman when she laughed. “I take it you know who the Archers are. I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of terrible stories about the person. Is it Katie? Katherine Archer that you’re afraid of?” Todd wanted to tell her but looked around the room. The people, all four of them, looked as well. Then the big man sitting next to Merce stood up. Todd felt his butt tighten up so tight he was afraid it would never open again. “We’d like to speak to the children alone.” The woman that had brought them into the room said that wasn’t allowed.
“I’m sure under normal circumstances, you don’t allow it, but that’s what we’re going to do. Or you can allow us to take them out to dinner, as we said we were going to do when we got here, without any trouble. That is still going to happen, by the way. As soon as the police arrive.” “Why is it that every time someone comes here, they think to change the rules to suit themselves? I’ve explained to you that we don’t allow the children to have time alone with people we don’t know. Also, leaving this facility is against the rules for all children. You’ll just have to deal with me being in here and not taking them anywhere. As I have told you twice now.” When the police arrived, the children were led out to a long limo and put in the back with the big people. Even Jane had a nice car seat, and Brian was put into a special harness thing that held him still while they were getting ready to leave.
It all happened so fast that Todd wanted to stick his tongue out at Mrs. Shelby and give her the finger. Not that he’d ever done that before, but he thought this was a good time to start. Instead, he and the others just sat there holding hands. “Now. I want you to know that this is your great Aunt Katie. Her sister was your grandma. Not that you ever met her, but that’s who she is. She also raised James and Mary when they were smaller, and their mother and father died.”
Todd knew that but kept his mouth shut. “You can talk freely if you want. No one here will say a word to that old bat.” “She’s mean.” Todd tried to shush his sister Amy. “She is. You know it too. We might not get any dinner for the next hundred years, but that don’t change up that she’s mean to us.” “You must be Amy.” Amy nodded at Merce. “I’m happy to hear that you guys haven’t had your tongues cut out. As I said, you can say what you want. Also, I want you to be aware that there will be no more skipped meals for you. I’ll take care of her if she tries that.”
“I believe you.” The adults laughed at Brian, but none of them thought it was funny. They were trapped as surely as if someone had stuck them into a cage and never was going to let them go home. “My mom said I wasn’t going to do her any good with me hanging on her tit. I had to ask Todd what it meant. She’s not all that nice either. Uncle James told her what he was doing with his kids, and she thought she’d do the same. My daddy said she was a follower but wasn’t smart enough to think up anything on her own.” “That’s about right. However, can you tell me why your father didn’t come and get you, Brian?” He told her about the divorce and what the lawyer told her.
“Did your dad ever try and harm you?” “Nah. He and me, we were buddies. But he’s away now. I think he’s in a place called Gurwanda. I don’t know where that is, but I heard my mom telling Uncle James that she’d taken care that he was never coming home. None of us are going to get to go back to our homes.” Merce asked Brian if it was called Grenada. “Yeah, that’s it. He is stuck there without papers. I guess I can understand that. My mom had all the stuff in his office burned up the day he left on a business trip. Then she told me he had left us. I didn’t believe her. Dad would never leave me without saying goodbye and giving me a hug.” While Brian cried, Todd watched the two men.
When one of them put out their hand, he flinched from it, sure he was going to be hit again. The man seemed angry for a second or two, then he smiled. It was tight like he was still mad, but he didn’t yell at him. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m assuming you’ve been hurt by someone recently.” Todd looked at his sisters, then back at the man. “You don’t have to worry about any of us harming you guys. And I can swear to you that I’ll kill anyone that tries.” “I’ve heard that before.” He nodded to his cousin. “His mom’s boyfriend thought it would be fun to break his leg before they brought him to the orphanage. My father would knock us around enough he’d have to take us to the hospital. We were never allowed to say anything like it happened, so we learned really early not to trust anyone.”
“Do you know that I came to see you once?” He barely remembered the older lady, but for some reason, he’d been told not to ever trust an Archer. “I see by your face that you were told about me and what a horrible person I was to your father. He isn’t a nice man. But these two men are my sons. And this is my son Del’s wife, Merce. My name is Katie. You can call me aunt if you wish, but I’m hoping that after today you’ll be my first grandchildren.” He didn’t understand how that worked. Since he’d never met any of his relatives before, he wasn’t sure of a lot of things. However, Todd didn’t think that just because you were an aunt to someone, you eventually became a grandma. “We’d like to take you home with us.” Todd sat there for a minute or two before realizing they were waiting on him to get out of the limo. Sure they were going to be back at the home. He was tense until he realized they were in front of a restaurant, one he’d never been to before.
Del got down on one knee and looked at all four of them. “I’ve just been thinking that this isn’t going to be a place you’re going to enjoy. I was thinking steaks, but I’m now wondering if you’d like a pizza or some burgers more.” “Burgers. I love hamburgers without any cheese on it, but cheese on my French fries.” He looked at Amy when she spoke. “Well, I do. What do you want to eat? Whatever they plop down in front of you like they do at that place? If they take our food from us for being here, don’t you want something you’d like to remember?” “I don’t want you or Jane to be without at all.” She hugged him, and Todd felt his eyes fill with tears. “I love you guys, and I don’t want you to starve because of this night, Amy. You’re all I have.” They were loaded back into the car and taken to a hamburger place he’d seen commercials about when he lived at home.
Going inside, Del picked up Jane when she started to fuss about the little fall she’d taken, and they all found a table. Almost sick with worry, Todd let someone order for him. Peter sat beside him and let him see a folder he had with him. It was adoption papers. It had not just his name on them, but his sisters’, as well as Brian’s. Todd asked the big man what that meant. “Just as Del told you. He and his wife are going to take you home with them as their children. They’ll take good care of you, and you’ll never have to worry about them giving you away to a place like you’re in now, or I’ll personally kick their butts. But that’s not going to happen. They’ll be good parents, and you’ll want for nothing.” He said all he wanted was a bed and food all the time. “I’m sure you do, son. I’m sure you do. However, there are a lot of things they’ll be able to give you that I’m betting you’ve not had from your parents. Your mother, more than likely, but not your father.
They’ll both love you all like you’re all the candy in the world wrapped into a nice box with a bow.” He couldn’t help it. Todd had been trying for so long to be brave for his family, but it was just too much right now. Crying hard, his body shaking with it, it wasn’t until he was lifted up and put over a strong shoulder that he knew he was going to be able to talk to Del. They were outside on a bench when he was asked if he was all right. “Yes, sir. I’ve been making sure my sisters were all right since Momma died, and I’ve been scared to death that someone would take them away and I’d never see them again. Then my cousin, who I never seen before, comes along, and I have to take care that he’s not hurt either. That woman, she’s meaner than a snake and takes our food from us when we’re bad.” He looked up at Del.
“I promise you, if you take my sisters and not me, they’ll be as good as gold. Just make sure my father doesn’t try and sell them off like he wanted to. He would have, too, if not for the social worker coming by all the time after Momma died. Now we’re in this home that I don’t know, and we got nothing from our home. I just don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m going to have me a heart attack before I can relax again. You understand?” “I do, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through all that. No seven-year-old should have to be stressed out over keeping his sisters safe. But you’ve done a good job, Todd. They’re very safe, and it’s all do to you.” Todd thanked him. “Now, later today, we’re going to go see the judge about the adoption.
We want all four of you, but my wife is going to see if she can find Brian’s dad and get him home for him. Also, we’re never going to have to worry about your father. I’m going to take care that he understands what he’s done is wrong.” “You gonna kill him?” Del didn’t answer, and that scared Todd just a little. Then he realized it was all on his father and not him, so he smiled at the big man. “You can beat him up, but if you go to jail, they’ll not let us go home with you. And I’d surely like to go there. I don’t care what sort of house you have either, so long as we can have a warm bed and some food when we want it. We’ll be good too.” “I’ve figured that out as well.” Todd nodded.
“All right. Let’s go back in and have some lunch, talk about some of the things you’d like to see in your room when we get home, as well as some of the things you’d like to have for school and such. My mom, Katie, she’s wanting a hug too, if you can find it in you to give her one. She’s been more worried than you have about the four of you.” “She must have had some really bad dreams then. I know I have.” Del told him she’d never tell them that, but she more than likely had. “You’re not kidding us, are you, Del?
I mean, you’re not going to just take us back there and never come back? I’d understand it, I would, but it would hurt badly if you did.” “I’m going to talk to Peter about having you stay with us while we’re here. That way, you don’t ever have to go back. Then when that meeting is over, you’re going to have to brace yourself. I have four more brothers at home and a grandpa of my own, as does Merce. You’re going to have so many relatives around you that you might wish you were back at the home.” “Never.” Del nodded at him, and they went back to their seats. His burger and fries were waiting for him as soon as he settled. Taking his first bite of a hot French fry he’d had in forever, it seemed, Todd hoped the man was right. He surely did. It would be nice to have a hot meal all the time again.
Caitlynne’s job was difficult. Doing what she did for the government not only put herself at risk but any friends or family she had could become a target. When her sister was hurt, she blamed herself even though it had nothing to do with her directly. It didn’t matter. It was time for her to quit before someone she cared about ended up dead.
Joel Tate had been in the building to meet with Becca Jacobson when she was attacked. To save her, Joel had to change her into what he was, a wolf. More or less guarding her in the hospital, Joel met her sister, Caitlynne, when she was brought to the hospital to see her sister. As soon as Caitlynne was close enough to him to get her scent, he knew she was his mate.
Caitlynne’s disappearing act from her job started things rolling. Her boss wasn’t taking I quit as an answer. When they tried to kill her by setting her apartment on fire, Joel thought it was time to take the situation into his own hands….
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Joel glanced at his watch when it vibrated on his wrist. Christ, he’d been here for nearly an hour longer than he had planned and still hadn’t talked to the manager of this place. Whatever was going on, it— “Mr. Tate, I’m so sorry about your wait, but I assure you, Ms. Jacobson only went to lunch. And she’s never late. There must have been a problem.” It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her she was going to have a bigger problem when someone touched his mind. Joel, I saw your car in the garage here. Please tell me you’re in the Jacobson Building. He said he was and that he was just about to leave, as Ms. Jacobson was late. Yeah, about that. Come to the garage.
There has been an attempt on her life. I need you to help me out, as I think someone interrupted the person before they could finish her off. “I have to go.” The secretary asked if he could reschedule, and he told her he’d contact her. Tell me what you need, and I’ll be on the outlook for it on my way down. As Officer Donnie Phillips filled him in on what he would need from him, he felt his wolf shiver in response to what had happened to the woman. Getting off the elevator, he could see he’d not only beaten the ambulance but there was only one cruiser in the lot. It was parked near what looked like, from where he stood, a puddle of blood. “Thank goodness you’re here.
I think she might well have gotten off a couple of shots when she was attacked. There is a blood trail to the other elevator that I would like you to, if you’d not mind, follow to see if you can sniff this person out.” He said he could do that. “Thank you. If you wanna shift behind my ride, no one will see you. It’ll give you the opportunity to save your clothing too.” As soon as he was his wolf, he made his way to the woman again. At first, all he could smell was fresh blood, then he got the scent of something else. Male. Human. As he told his friend what he’d been able to find out, he was taken to the elevator to see if he could find what floor the person got off on and if he was still in the building.
“I have no reason to believe he was able to just walk away. There are only two entrances to the place from here—the elevator you took and the service elevator. Can you manage the buttons? If you can, I’m going to wait on the ambulance and backup. My captain knows you’re helping out.” Going to the elevator, he pressed his paw against the up button. As soon as it opened, he turned to Donnie.
“You’ll be fine. If anyone sees you, it’ll help me clear the building.” Donnie was still laughing as the doors closed behind him. Shaking his head, he got off on the first floor and didn’t find the man’s scent anywhere in the hallway, so he got back onto the elevator. Joel didn’t find anything on the second or the third floor. Just as he was going to press the button for the next floor, a man, a vampire, appeared in the opening with him. As soon as the door closed, he turned to him.
“Joel Tate, I presume.” Joel nodded. “The young woman is a dear friend of mine, and I should like to help you on your search. I also would like to exchange a little blood with you so I can speak to you.” He put out his hand, and Joel eyed the cut and the oozing blood there. “I shan’t hurt you, Joel. On my honor as a very old vampire, I shall never harm you. But I cannot help without being able to speak to you.” Licking the blood at the same time, the man bit into his paw, the power of it knocked him back to the other wall. Before he could stand, Joel, staggered to his feet twice before realizing a couple of things.
He was his other self again, and he was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. “What the hell did you do to me?” The man said nothing, but he was a little off-balance as well. “That was more than just an exchange of blood. I feel like I’ve stuck my finger in a light socket while standing in a puddle of water.” “I feel the same, young Joel. You’re more than a simple wolf, as I first thought. Aren’t you?” He said nothing but did stand up. “If I’m right, and about magic, I’m rarely wrong; you’ll be able to shift now and have your clothing on when you shift back. Something I didn’t count on, but a good thing, I believe.”
When nothing more was said, and they both could stand on their own two feet, the man pressed the button for the ninth floor. When the elevator stopped again, he turned to him, and Joel could see that he was indeed a very old vampire. Magic seemed to surround him from head to toe. “My name is Hudson. I no longer remember if it is my first or last name, but that is what I go by. When pressed, I simply use Smith. Much easier to remember for me. The young woman, her name is Rebecca Jacobson, saved my life a very long time ago and has come to mean a great deal to me. By the way, she goes by Becca.” He asked him if he was going to help Becca live. “I cannot. She made me promise her I would not enhance her life, nor would I save it when it is her time to go. She has…Becca has lost a great deal in her lifetime, and I think she wishes her life to end sooner rather than later.
Hurt is the only thing she knows, I believe. But the man who has dared touch her, he is dead. Not by my hand, though I wish it were so, but by Becca. She was able to shoot him three times before he ran off like the mongrel he was.” “Then why are you bringing me up here? I mean, I don’t mind helping out the police, but you could have found him for them.” He said he didn’t want the publicity. “All right. I can understand that. I’ll let Donnie know he’s dead and that he’s up here. Where am I going to be leading them?” The man had managed to make it all the way to the bathroom door before he finally died from his wounds. She’d gotten him in the chest twice and once in the neck. He would have to tell her she’d done a great job of it, too.
The man had suffered badly, Joel would bet before he finally crawled away just as Hudson had told him he had. The police were on their way up to the floor when Hudson said he was going to check on Becca. As soon as he disappeared, Joel sat down on the floor with his hands where the police could see them. He knew all the men and women on the force, but this could get his ass killed if someone was a little jumpy.
As soon as he was cleared, he stood around waiting for someone to tell him what he needed to do. There was talk about him going to fill out a report on what he’d seen, but Donnie said he’d done them a solid and wasn’t to be mentioned as being there. “Thanks for that.” Reaching out to his brothers, all five of them, Joel made his way home. There wasn’t going to be a meeting with Becca, so there wouldn’t be any reason for a follow-up. He was going ahead with the plans he and Becca had made via email. Calling in the construction company they used, he got them set up with credit at the local lumber stores as well as two more places they’d used before when working on projects. He’d been planning to lend her the money anyway, so he was thinking while she was laid up, he’d get things going for her.
He would cover her expenses, what she’d been wanting to borrow money for in the first place, so they could start on the improvements. The company, Jacobson Toys, had been stuck in the same building for the last thirty or so years. She’d told him the plans she had to expand. Also, what she planned on doing with the extra room. The toys were wonderfully whimsical and well made. He had a few of them on his desk at the office. Joel headed there now. When he got there, both Saul and Loren were there waiting on him. It wasn’t unusual for any or all of his brothers to be at the office, but he’d had a weird morning and had shit to do. Not bothering to interrupt their argument, he headed to his office and turned on his computer. Saul flopped down in the seat to his left, and Loren headed to the fridge.
Taking out three bottles of water, he handed one to him and to Saul before he started talking. “There is a great number of foreclosed buildings and houses going up for auction in the next couple of days. Loren and I have the addresses of the homes. We’re going to go in the morning to have a look at them. The bank holds the note on those.” He asked him about the buildings. “There is where it gets tricky. The city is holding onto those, but they want them gone. Problem is, they put so many stipulations on them it’s not worth the purchase even if you could get them for a hundred thousand bucks. The two buildings that are nearer to us that I’d be interested in are well over four million dollar buildings. One of those is only a few years old.” “What sort of stipulations? Anything we can just agree to?”
“Because they’re greedy, or they are worth whatever they’re wanting?” “They’re worth it. But they’re demanding that each of the buildings be purchased as a unit. Then there are the improvements that have to be made to each building. Joel, as I said, one is new, and one of them won’t take much to bring it to code. However, two of the others need to be torn down. They’re old and outdated, not to mention the cost of upgrading them, if someone wanted to try, would be triple what the place would be worth. They’re not in a good neighborhood. No parking to speak of, and we’d be responsible for sidewalk improvements and paying for water and sewage to be brought in. Wiring alone would be astronomical.” Loren said it would cost more to do that.
“Sounds to me like you’ve made your decision.” He nodded but didn’t look like he’d actually decided anything. “What is it, Saul? You know something more. Tell me or get out. I’ve so much to do now that I’ll be here until midnight as it is.” “I heard about the attempted murder. I’m sorry you were involved. But it did turn out well.” Joel thanked his brother. “No, I’m not sure about the buildings. The newer building would be great for several companies wishing to expand. The building is over two million square feet, not counting the parking garage. It’s in mint condition as well. When it was finished, the people didn’t get to move in because of billing issues or something.” “That’s a big building.” Joel leaned back in his chair.
“Say we do this with the city and the two buildings we’re not wanting aren’t up to code. What happens then?” While Saul looked over the contract on his laptop he was never without. Joel asked Loren if he had any plans for the houses. Loren smiled at him with what his dad would have called a shit-eating grin. “There are two streets of houses we’re going to purchase. Eighteen homes in all. Most of them have been rentals for a long time and need some major overhauling. After we finish up on that, we’d be able to get about four times the amount of rent from them.” He asked what his plans were for the people living in the houses. “For the most part, they’re empty.
There are a couple of renters in three of them. An older man that is willing to be put in a nursing home if he can afford it. He told me he’s been saving for it all his life. Another one has an older couple in it. The missus is very ill and needs constant care. Their rent is only about two hundred a month—that’s how much they’ve been paying since moving in. But it will be difficult for them to make any kind of nursing home rent with their income. I’m having Dad look into a couple of charities to help out.” “That’s a good idea. And the third one? What sort of people live there?” Loren handed him a file. Opening it up, he could see the house was literally falling down around the edges.
The roof was nearly collapsed. There was plastic on the windows. “How the hell is anyone living in this place? Christ, I don’t think I’d allow anyone to live under those conditions.” “I wouldn’t either. The man that lives there is a cat. Lion, I believe he told me. He’s been living there, squatting, for the last five or so years. He’s afraid to complain about the house for fear that someone will make him pay rent for the time he’s been there. Joel, he’s in terrible shape.
Not just because of how he’s living, but he’s malnourished, as well as badly dehydrated. I was going to call the local leap, but I wanted to see if you’d do it. I don’t know the history there, but I have a feeling he’s hiding out from them.” “We’ve all heard the stories that are going on with the leap,” Loren said that was another reason he’d not called. “Let me think on it for a bit. In the meantime, have someone take him some food and a case or two of water. Better yet, get him set up in one of the houses we have. Then feed him. Anyone else I should be made aware of? Unless you’ve already done that.”
“I have. But I do appreciate that we’re on the same page with it. There is also his daughter, Harlin. I don’t know her at all, but Mr. Jason Lambert, the lion I was telling you about that is living in one of the falling down houses, said Harlin works for the leap leader and is terrified of him. I’m going to move her as well if you don’t mind.” Joel nodded just as Saul laughed. “I’m assuming you’ve found a loophole?” “I have. Just as you said, Joel. If they’re not up to code, we’ll be required by law to take the buildings down. We’re only buying it for the land anyway. So the improvements they’re requiring us to make are to knock the ones down that aren’t up to code.” Joel told Saul to wait until they made the purchase before he called them in.
“Can do. Thanks. You’ve just made us about fifty million. When I sell off the building, and I have a couple of buyers already lined up, we’ll make all of our money back, and then some.” ~*~ Caitlynne was tempted to pull out her gun and blow the five men in front of her to hell. They’d been called to her office an hour ago, and all she’d been able to say was that she wanted them to report on the shipment that was to go out in four days. Now they were arguing about who was going to tell her. Mother fuck, there were days she hated being a boss. “Ms. Jacob, there is a phone call for you on line three. Also, I’m told they’ve been trying to reach you on your cell. Whichever way you’d like to talk to them.” She asked what it was about.
“I don’t know. All he’d tell me was his name was Hudson.” Every hair on her body seemed to dance with fear. Putting her fingers in her mouth, she let go of the loudest whistle she could manage, which was saying a lot. Someone had told her once that she could shatter glass when she did it. The five men turned to her. “I thought we had a meeting.” She told the first man she’d thought so too, but she was moving on. “But we need to make sure the shipment is going out as planned. Don’t you want to know what is going on?” “The shipment is weighed and packed, correct?” Like stupid puppies, they all nodded. “Is the paperwork filled out? Filed? The addresses have been triple-checked?” “Yes, all of that. Like we do every time.”
His face flushed. “Except for that one time. But we don’t skip steps anymore. I like this job.” “Good. It sounds like you’ve taken care of it just the way you’re supposed to. However, if one thing isn’t right, the five of you will lose your jobs. This contract is important to me, and if you fuck it up again, there will be heads rolling. Understand?” Again with the nodding heads. “Now get out. I have shit to get done, and I can’t with you bickering all the time.” Picking up her phone, she had to put it back down before she could hold it steady. When she thought she was able to handle it, she decided to lock her door and then call. After returning to her desk, she turned on the white noise generator. Picking up the phone again, she called the last number that was there. She glanced at her clock to see it was well after sunset, so Hudson would be awake.
“Hello? Are you there? Who is this?” “It’s Caitlynne. You called here and asked for me to call you. Hudson?” The man said his name, but she didn’t catch it. Before she could ask him to repeat himself, he started talking. “I didn’t know she had a sister until this morning. Before I get too much further into what happened, you should know she’s on the mend. Beaten to shit, but she’ll be all right in a few weeks.” She let out a breath she’d been holding since Mary had told her about the call. “She was coming back from lunch—we know that because she had it in a bag with her. Someone, a man by the name of Benson Tuple, caught her off guard, or she might well have killed him before he hurt her. As it was, she shot him three times, twice in the chest and once in the neck. He died of his wounds.” “Where is she—?
Wait. Hudson was the one that called here. Is he all right too? I’ve never met him, but Becca talks about him a great deal. We, Becca and I, can’t make it public that we’re related. My business would get her killed.” The man said Hudson had stayed at the hospital and he’d come back to work. “I didn’t catch your name. I’m sorry. You also said Becca is all right. Can I speak to her? When do you go back to see her? I can’t acknowledge her in any way, but I need to hear her voice.” “Joel Tate. And sure. I was going to go in and spell Hudson for a little while anyway. You said you didn’t know him. I wanted to let you know Becca had told him a while back that he wasn’t to save her if she was close to death. I…so I did it. She was as near to death as anyone I’ve ever seen. If that pisses either one of you off, then I’m all right with that too. She does some fantastic work, and it would be a shame for her to die and not be able to work on her dream.”
Caitlynne started crying as she spoke to the stranger. “I don’t know what her dreams are anymore. I work for the government in inspecting cannabis and then shipping it out to distribution centers. If people were to know I have a sister, they’d hurt her to get at me. I’m so stressed out all the time I don’t know which way is up or down. I practically live here. I even have a cot in the other room that I use when I’m too exhausted to go home. Now my baby sister is hurt, and I’m sitting here at my desk wondering if it’s worth all this.” He didn’t say anything, for which she was grateful as she continued to sob. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
You could very well do the same thing I was just talking about. Don’t hurt her. Please?” “I’d never do that to either of you. However, you should take some time off, even if you only go home for a day or two. I was like that until recently. It took me having a panic attack in the middle of a meeting for me to realize I’m working myself into an early grave. Just breathe, honey. You’re doing just fine now.” She did as he said, breathing in and out with each command. “You’re going to be all right. Becca is in good hands. And when I’m not there with her or Hudson, one of my brothers is. Nothing will harm her.” “Thank you for that.” He said it was fine. “You said you helped her to live. I’m assuming you’re not human. What are you?”
“Wolf.” She asked him what sort of wolf. “No one has asked me that before. We’re timberwolves. Or I guess you could call us grays. My dad is a wolf as well, as all of us are purebloods. As I said, no one will harm your sister while we’re around.” “Thank you again for that. I’d love to go and see her, but things here aren’t the best.” He said he understood that so long as she remembered no job was worth dying over. “I guess that’s true, but my bosses at the White House think that way.”
She glanced at her calendar as he laughed. “You’re like my dad, I think. He has this thing about him that makes you either want to punch him to death or hug the stuffing out of him. I have no idea why, but I just think that.” She smiled. It was the nicest thing that had been said to or about her for a long time. “I tell you what. Hudson is good at popping in and out of places. He’s gotten us some really good—never mind. But dinners have been hot. Anyway, maybe I can see if he can come and get you and pop you here. Becca is still in a coma to keep her from fighting the meds, but you could just come and see her at least. I could keep you updated on her progress as well. I more than likely should have said this from the start, but she had a broken wrist and elbow. Fifty stitches in her head, mostly caused by her falling.
She has a great many superficial wounds all over her body that are healing, thanks mostly to my blood. Her left leg is broken, and her right ankle is sprained badly. She’s doing well now that they have her stitched up and put into casts. The doctor said she would make a full recovery.” “I’d like for you to talk to Hudson for me. I’d love to just reassure myself that she’s doing well.” He said he was going to the hospital in a few minutes, and he’d talk to him then. “Thank you for that. You’re a very kind man. I hope someone tells you that daily.” “Mostly, my brothers are there to point out the shit they think I’ve done. But they’re all right. Okay, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” She thanked him for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“No need for that, Ms. Jacob. I’m sure if you were in the same situation, you’d do the same for me. I’ll call you back.” When they hung up, she felt like she could take on the world and come out a winner. She’d not seen Becca in a couple of years now. It was dangerous for them to be seen together. Caitlynne had had that happen before, where someone decided to take a friend of hers hostage and try to get her to do what they wanted. It didn’t end well for the man. Caitlynne was clearing her desk of all paperwork when a man just suddenly appeared in the room. Glancing at the white box, what she called the device that the government had given her to use in the event someone was using a recording device when in this room, she could see it was still turned on so no one would ever be able to repeat what was said in here. Good. She had a feeling she was staring at Hudson. “Will you come with me willingly?” It was an odd way of putting things, but she nodded. “I should like for you to quiz me, young lady. Just to make sure you’re not going with anyone else. The man you spoke to, what was his name?” She told him. “Very good. He told me something you admitted, and it hurt him, so you understand. Can you tell me what that was?”
She had to think. “That I’ve not seen my sister in some time.” He nodded, and she stood up this time. “Will this hurt me? I mean, will I have any ill effects from this?” “Not at all.” Suddenly she was in a bathroom. Turning toward an odd sound, she saw a half-naked man taking a piss. “Joel, cover-up.” “Holy fucking Christ, Hudson. You couldn’t allow me a few seconds’ warning? I’m taking a leak here.” She couldn’t help it. Caitlynne started laughing. “This isn’t funny. He never warns me about shit when he’s…could you please turn around while I redress myself?” She couldn’t help but stare at the man when he turned at his shoulder and looked at her.
Christ, he was the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on. And his body? Well, hell, she’d be glad for just a touch. Hudson took her chin into his fingers and turned her head. As he washed his hands at the sink, Joel bitched at Hudson, mostly telling him what a cad he’d been, a word she’d not heard in a long time. Also that he should be banned from entering a bathroom when there were plenty of other places he could pop in and out of. “But, and pardon me for being so wrong, I thought this the safest place for me to pop, as you called it. I hadn’t any idea you’d be in here. Though I will admit, you’ve given this old man a great deal to laugh about.” Joel glared at the vampire. “Oh, come now, young man. You do have to admit this was very funny.” “For you, perhaps, but not me. Damn it. I was peeing.”
Hudson left the two of them standing there, and she put out her hand. “I’m Joel, in the event you didn’t get that.” “Yes, I heard. I’m Caitlynne Jacobson. But I go by Jacob. I’m so happy you talked him into coming to get me.” Joel said he was, too, as a matter of fact. “Good. Do you think it’s safe to see my sister now? I promise the next time I pop in, I’ll make sure it’s clear in here.” “You can try to tell him that, but even after spending only a few days with the man, I’ve come to the conclusion he pretty much does what he wants.” She started for the door. “Caitlynne, there is something else you should know before you go out there to your sister. I’m your mate.” He moved around her to be standing in front of her. With a quick kiss on her mouth, so quick she didn’t have time to react, he was gone.
It took her befuddled mind a few more minutes and a knock on the door for her to get moving again. He was her mate? Not the other way around, but that he was hers. Like he belonged to her. Going to the bed to see Becca, she let her thoughts go out of her head. Her sister was here. She was breathing but hooked up to all sorts of monitors. Gently taking her hand into hers, Caitlynne kissed it and held it to her cheek. “I’m here, Becca. Get better for me, please? I’ve missed you so much.” She decided right then and there that she was finished with her job. It was taking too much from her. Not just her health, but her sister as well. “I’m going to go back to work and send in my resignation. I’ve missed so much, and I want to be with you.
I love you, Becca. So much.” She was able to sit with her sister for an hour. The staff came in and out, but Hudson had made it so that they’d not see her. They were taking good care of her, very gentle when they needed to move her or anything, even telling her what they were doing and how it would affect her. She looked at Joel when they were alone in the room. “My family donates a great deal of money to this place. Not that she’d not be getting good care anyway, but they’ve put on extra staff just so they could take care of her. I told them she was my cousin. I hope that was all right.” Caitlynne said it was wonderful. Then she asked him what he’d meant by him being her mate. “We can hold off on that for now. I will tell you anything you want to know, but you visit with your sister now. My brother Jeremiah is bringing in dinner for us. I hope you like pasta.”
“I do. It goes straight to the hips, but I love it.” He told her she’d not gain any weight from now on because of him. “Well then, bring it on. Thank you for this. It seems so inadequate for me to keep saying that, but you’ve no idea how much I needed this. I just wish she’d wake and talk to me so I’d feel better.” “She will. She’s doing well.” He sat down across from her on the other side of the bed. “I’m going to just sit here. If you have any questions, just ask. But I will give you the straight-up answer.” “Good. I’d have it no other way.” Caitlynne tried not to think of the beautiful man sitting there with her. He was, too, from his long dark hair that he’d pulled back in some kind of ponytail to the five o’clock shadow on his face. She found herself staring at him several times throughout the rest of the evening. Then his brother showed up. Christ, they must have been cut from the same mold. They were both like looking at candy you couldn’t get enough of.