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.
Sarah had been on the run her entire adult life. As soon as she found out she was pregnant, she faked her death to keep her children safe from the prick who’d fathered them. Now, nine years later, her twin boys were her entire world, and she was petrified he would find her. When she received the voicemail from Cass, she thought the end had finally come for both her and her boys.
Cassidy Foster was only helping a client find his long-lost grandchildren when he contacted Sarah, but when a distress call came in from one of her boys, Cass told the boys to hide before Cass’s lion took him. It only took that split second for him to know the woman inside screaming was his mate. Would he be too late to save her?
Brook Garrett had learned to live by her wits. When she was very young, she lost her father to a car crash. When her mother remarried, her nightmare really began. A few years later, her mother died the same way. She was next.Ronan Foster was an officer out on medical leave. He was a lion and wasn’t hurt in the least, but the guy responsible for shooting him would go free if he didn’t take the sabbatical. The guy was for much more than shooting him, and justice needed to be served. Trust was hard for Brook. Her stepparents had seen to that. Now the big lion was telling her that they were mates and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She had been doing just fine without a man in her life….
Parker Carter spent eight years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit—murdering her father. Now that the justice system had finally admitted their mistake, Parker was set free. Parker could have left anytime she wanted, she was a powerful witch, but for reasons of her own, she had remained locked up and didn’t use any of her magic. Donahue Foster, a teacher at the local school, was having a hard time resting. Taking a run and stretching his legs as his lion was something he hadn’t done in a while. He hadn’t gotten far when he noticed two things, he smelled fresh blood, and he felt a presence. Don was dumbfounded when the woman used a mind link to communicate with him. She told him her name was Parker Carter, she didn’t like people, and she was his mate. Don was so stunned with that news that he was nearly run over by the night hunters Parker chased off. Now that Parker was back, her past needed to be settled. Half-truths and well-kept secrets needed to be exposed. And the possession of her mother, Meggie, was the most mind-boggling of all. What kind of screwed-up magic was this?
Sometimes, Rogue didn’t much care for her job, but it paid well, and she was damn good at it. As a forensic photographer, Rogue’s job was sometimes a bit more than she could handle. Especially when there were kids involved. But she could always vent to her college buds, Loman and Cass Foster.
Quin had heard all about Rogue from his brothers, and he was anxious to meet her. Loman and Cass said they owed their lives to Rogue, but they wouldn’t give Quin any of the details.
As soon as Rogue arrived, Quin realized she was his mate, but as soon as she met Don’s mate Parker, it was chaos, leaving Parker heartbroken and Rogue hurt. Rogue was steaming mad, and Quin’s lion wanted to protect her, but Parker was family too. Quin was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
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Cass sat down next to the man he’d come to respect a great deal over the last few days. Robby Quarter was not only a good man, but he was very troubled. The word had come to him that there was a child out there that belonged to Robin, and Robby had jumped at the chance to go see the child and mother. Not that they had DNA proof it was his child, they did have a whereabouts for it that the two of them had followed to where they were now. “I’ve spoken to the principal of the school the child might be attending, and she told me if it’s who she thinks it is, they’re in financial trouble. Also, if this is Robin’s, there are twin boys, not a single child as we were looking for.” Robby looked at him with so much hope in his eyes that it hurt Cass to have to tell him the next part. “The woman, their mother, is working several jobs and sleeps while they’re at school.
I have, with my own money, deposited two hundred dollars. Even if she’s not who we think she might be, I have to help her out. She really is in trouble.” “I’ll pay you for that. Yes, you’re right. Even if it’s not Robin’s children, they shouldn’t have to go without. What do we do now? I mean, I’m guessing we don’t just go up to her and tell her who we are.” Cass said that was exactly what they were going to do. “Oh. I guess I figured you’d be a bit on the squeamish side. That’s not true. I’m a lot on the squeamish side of doing this. I don’t know what I’d even say to her about all this.” “You tell her the truth. That you have only just found out about her. However, I’d start by telling her that Robin is in prison and that he won’t be getting out. From the stories I’ve heard about Robin, it might well be the reason she’s living here and not closer to anyone she knows.” Robby also knew the sadistic things Robin had done to women.
Things he’d also done to men that, in Robby’s mind, had been horrendous. “Robby, we don’t have to do anything but make sure this woman has money to feed her children and pay her bills.” “Where do we go from here, Cass? I’m not going to have done all this only to sit by and wonder if they might need me. As I said before, this is the only hope I have right now that makes me feel as if I’ve not been a complete failure as a father and a man.” Cass told him he wasn’t even close to being a failure at anything. “Perhaps not now, but I worry. Robin might well have had something wrong with him all along. I don’t know. But I do know this family might need me, and I want to help them.” “I understand.” He handed him the paperwork he’d gotten at the school board. “This isn’t much, but it’s the best I could do until we get the rest of the information back. And talk to the mother. She’ll be able to give us everything you want if she wishes. Otherwise, I’d advise you to help from a distance. We don’t want to piss her off and have her bring charges against you for being a stalker or something along those lines.”
The pictures he’d been able to collect showed two little boys, aged nine, playing in the yard. There were also infant pictures of them, as well as a couple of school pictures Cass had been able to unearth. Robby was staring at the two little boys lying in a crib at what he assumed was a hospital. “I don’t remember Robin being this tiny. I’m sure he was at some point, but all my head can think about is that he’s an adult. I bet your momma can remember how much each of you weighed when you were born and the exact time.” Cass didn’t answer him. Not that he required an answer, but he just kept to himself that she most assuredly did know those facts. “Let’s go and see this young woman, Cass. Make an appointment or whatever we need to do. I’ll abide by what she tells me.
Even if my heart tells me something different.” It took him over three hours to get a phone number for Sarah Linton. She did indeed sleep during the day, according to one of the places that came up on her information. It was, he said, “damned difficult” to call her in early when they needed her. She worked nearly thirty hours a week at two different restaurants as a waitress and another twenty-five at a place where she sold timeshares. According to that boss, she was a good person to work with, but she was exhausted all the time. He said it made her less friendly to the people there wanting to date her. Neither place seemed to know she had children. Nor did they know where she lived. A post office box number was all they had.
The lady that lived in the apartment below her had two children as well. They would, when necessary, trade-off sitting each other’s kids, so they didn’t have to pay a sitter. The third job was for her kids to go to a private school. Sarah graded papers for the local teachers at the school where her boys went to pay for extras. Like their lunches. Tuition was paid by her cleaning the place on weekends, with her boys helping. Cass hurt for the way she was struggling to make ends meet. Once he had the phone number, he was able to leave a message for her. All he said was his name and that he had some information she needed concerning Robin Quarter. Also, he made sure he told her Robin was in prison. Either she’d call him back, or she’d not—it was up to her now. Almost as soon as he closed the connection to his phone, his cell rang back that it was her. “What do you mean calling me at my home about Robin Quarter? What business is it of yours that—?
You said he was in prison. You’re sure about that? Last time I heard, he was above such laws and did whatever the fuck he pleased.” He heard one of the boys telling her to put a penny in the jar. Cass listened as she told the child she was sorry, then he heard a door closing, shutting off the sounds of the household. “Why are you calling me? Has he told you what he did to me? Do you think to get something from me? I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have anything, thanks to him. I don’t get to see my parents. My sisters and brothers. I lost my job.” She sobbed, and he wanted to go there now and take her into his arms. “What is it you want, Mr. Foster? The only thing in the world I have is my sons, and I’d rather die than to let that bastard near them.”
“Are they Robin’s children?” She said they were. “What do you know of Robin’s father? Mr. Robby Quarter.” “I thought he was dead. That’s what that prick told me. That he owned his family ranch and that I should feel privileged that— Why is it I’m telling you this? Do you have some kind of mystical powers? Are you a shifter? That’s it, you’re making me tell you this personal stuff.” “I am a shifter, Miss Linton. A lion, as a matter of fact. However, I’m not making you tell me. I think you’ve been through enough without having someone make you relive it. No, I’m not making you. But I will tell you that I have the same strange feelings toward you. That I need to protect and take care of you. I’m sorry about all this, all the things that have happened to you, but Mr. Quarter, Robby, would like to meet you. And the boys. He’s only just found out about you three.” She asked him why she should believe him. “You shouldn’t, I suppose, believe me or him. But what harm can it do for you to meet with us? If you need proof that Robin is in prison, pull up the paper in his hometown. Read how he was arrested for the murder of several people.
That rather than stand trial and more than likely get the death penalty, he decided to tell the state where the bodies were and spend the rest of his life in prison, without the chance of parole.” “I don’t have a computer. I don’t have enough money to pay the electric bill that is overdue at the moment. I’m sure if you’ve been looking into our lives, you know a good deal more about me than I do you.” He told her he was sorry. Then he told her about the money in the bank. “I’m not even going to tell you that you shouldn’t have done that. Bouncing a single check could be a trickle-down disaster for us right now. Look, let me talk to my sons. Tell them what’s going on and who it is that wants to meet them. I’m not making any promises.
They’re leerier of people than I am.” “Thank you for this.” She said she’d not done anything as yet. “No, but you’ve given Mr. Quarter a chance, and that’s much more than he had before. You call us back at this number and tell us where we can meet you if you decide you will, and we’ll be there.” After hanging up, Cass had to calm himself before he spoke to Robby. He didn’t want to sound hopeful and then for her call and tell them she’d decided not to see them. But he had enough information now to do some of the things he and Robby had spoken about before. Putting those things into action took a great deal less time than he thought it would have.
Reaching for the phone to call Robby, it rang. Letting out a long breath, he tried his best to sound upbeat while answering. But as soon as he heard the voice on the other end, his lion nearly took him. “Are you the attorney that talked to our mom? The one that is a lion?” He told the young man he was. “You’d better get over here right now. The man that comes by to get the rent money is going to hurt her again.” “Call the police.” He told him he’d done that. “Good. I’m on my way. You and your brother, hide. Someplace where the man can’t get to you.” “Good idea.”
The phone was dropped, and he could still hear screaming in the background. Going out the door, he held the phone tightly against his ear as he drove like a madman to the address he’d found while doing some work. He was pulling in just as the police were. When he heard a gunshot sounding, his lion simply took him. As he was racing to the door, it came open, and the children were there. Pushing them out of the way as gently as he could, he moved into the house, smelling blood as he moved. The man in the kitchen was standing over a woman, and rage rolled over him in a way that made Cass sick to his stomach. Blacking out for a few moments, as if he’d been hit in the head, Cass woke lying in the grass out back of the house.
He was clothed and in his human form, and an officer was standing near him. Sitting up, he saw the man turn to him, asking if he was all right now. “I don’t know. What happened?” He told him he’d dragged him out when more police had shown up. “I’m assuming there was a reason for that? Also, that you pulled me out as my other self.” “Yes, you were a lion. Big fucker too. Pardon my language, sir. But yes, I pulled you out so they’d not know what was going on. Parker Foster showed up too. I don’t mean she came in the door saying howdy doody. She just was there when you were finished taking care of Mr. Crabtree. Mrs. Foster said you were her brother-in-law.” He nodded and nearly had to be sick from the movement. “She took care that the body wasn’t anything like he was. You killed him. Good thing too. He was ready to kill Miss Linton. I’m aware that I’m not making much sense, but this hasn’t been an ordinary domestic house call.” “I’m not sure if it’s me or what, but it’s like you’re talking to me in disjointed sentences.” He said it was him.
That he was scared out of his mind right now. “If Parker said she’d take care of things, she will. Tell me what happened. All I remember is hearing the gunshot, and then nothing after my lion took me.” “My partner and I pulled in the same time as you. I wanted to tell you that telling those boys to hide was a good idea. They were coming out to us when you went into the house.” Careful not to nod too much, he said he’d had an abusive father. “Miss Linton was in the kitchen telling her landlord, Mr. Crabtree, that she had the money for the rent. He seemed to think she had other means to pay. Needless to say, she took objection to that.” “I just bet she did. Then what happened? Was he going to make her have sex with him?”
The officer nodded and said that had been his plan. “Then I showed up.” “Yes, you did. Took his head right off him. Miss Linton had been shot once in the belly by the time you entered. It wasn’t until we entered that I realized we might well be in over our heads. I should have waited, but I called in the extras. Mrs. Foster showed up. Just like that, she just appeared and started telling me and my partner what we had to do. She sure is a bossy thing, isn’t she?” He looked around, almost as if he was afraid she might have heard him. “The body was lying there with his head off and blood all over the place when the others showed up. They saw what we were told to say.
That Miss Linton had saved herself by stabbing him in the chest. Then they took her off to the hospital. Funny thing, though—she was about healed by the time they got here.” It took him a few moments to realize what he’d said. After he sat there for a little while longer, all his thoughts centered on Sarah. He had a feeling she’d healed because of him. When he was ready to stand up, Parker met him at the doorway to the house. She looked like she was as happy as he was. “She’s going to be just fine. They took her to the hospital right after it was determined it was self-defense. I’ve called Robby in. He’s with the boys now. They’re getting to know one another. Are you all right?” He shrugged. “Good. There are several things you should be made aware of.
First of all, you weren’t here. I’m sure you might have guessed that part, but I just need to put that out there. Second, the house is now a part of the Foster group. We purchased it just today, so we have the right to do with it as we want. Which will be tearing it down as soon as the police are finished with it. No one needs to be seeing this place and thinking about the death that occurred here. Especially not those young boys. Who I like, by the way.” “I’ve not met them yet.” She nodded and didn’t continue. Nor did she seem inclined to tell him anything else. “What are you not telling me? Just tell me, Parker. You look like you have a fart crosswise, and it’s paining you.” “You Foster men. I do have something to tell you, but I think you might well be aware of it already. She’s your mate. Also, the kids are Robin’s. I’m assuming that was why you were coming out here.” Cass told her about one of the boys calling him. “They’re not speaking.
Not to any of us. When asked how the man had gotten into the house, they clammed up tighter than you can be when you’re on a case.” “Are you thinking they might have let him in and are feeling badly for it?” She said she knew that was what had happened. “Are they hurt? Where is Sarah? I know you said she was taken to the hospital, but the young cop told me she’d started to heal. I’m guessing either you did something to her, or it was me being her mate.” “You. The kids were hurt, but not terribly. That is what I’ve been working up to. He’s been bullying them all along.
Making them let him in the house when she’s not at home. Or worse yet, when she’s sleeping. I’ve heard of this happening before, but this guy would take pictures of her sleeping. The boys are sick with it, the worry that they caused their mother to nearly die. Which she did, by the way. They need to be sat down and told what the hell is going on. Also, they weren’t the least bit afraid of you showing up as a big badassed lion. I guess their mother told them what you were.” “Yes. I’m assuming so too. The one that called me, he knew what I was. When I told him to hide with his brother, he just dropped the phone and bugged the hell out. I wonder how they knew to call me.” Parker said his phone number was by the phone when she’d gotten there. That Sarah must have written it down. “And they were supposed to talk about us coming to meet them.” “Sounds about right.” She asked him where he was going now. “I’m guessing the hospital. If so, I’d like to ride along. I want to check on the boys as well as Sarah.
You’ll have to talk to her soon, and I would like to be there in the event she has any questions about the magic I can only assume she got.” “Why? I mean, other than mine, you’re assuming she got something from you as well?” Parker nodded but didn’t look very happy. “What happened, Parker? Am I going to be afraid of her when I go see her? To be honest with you, I’ve only ever seen a picture of her and the boys. Not to mention the one of her was slightly blurry, and the boys were just school pictures. Those never show what a child really looks like.” They spoke all the way to the hospital.
By the time they arrived, he was ready to go back to the house and wait. Nothing, he thought, could have prepared him for the shit Parker knew about his mate and children. Nothing that would have been on paper anyway. “She had this good life—a wonderfully supportive family—and Robin took it all away by taking her from her date, who he killed, then raping her. The fucker then shot her three times in the chest and left her for dead. If not for the police being called when they were and them knowing about the death of Dennis, her then-boyfriend, it might well have been too late for her.” Cass listened to Parker, but his mind was centered on the fact that she might well have died twice before he would have met her. “As it turned out, Robin found out that she was alive and tormented her for the next several months.
When she found out she was going to have his child, they faked her suicide, and she moved out here to raise them on their own. I’m going to have someone notify her family that she’s safe now, as soon as we can get her and the boys together.” He was as ready as he’d ever been, he supposed when he knocked on the door to her room. Even as he opened it, he could hear crying. The children were on the bed with her, and Robby was sitting in the chair. All four of them looked like they’d been talking and crying for some time now. ~*~ Hanging up the phone, Tommy had a few minutes to himself as he stood there thinking of what he’d just been told. Robin Quarter was in jail, and his little girl had met someone.
Not that he didn’t believe his little girl could care for herself, but he liked that Ms. Foster had filled him in on Cassidy Foster and what sort of means he had to take care of the three of them. “Tommy, what is it? You sounded upset.” He told his wife of nearly fifty years what the call had been about. Michell sat down on the chair. He was glad there had been one there for her to use. “Is she coming home?” “She’s in the hospital. I was told it’s nothing more than a precaution. The landlord she was renting from, he tried to hurt her.” He didn’t say more. Michell seemed to understand. “We were asked to decide what we want to do about seeing her. And the boys. Like that would ever be something we’d have to think about.” “Who called you?” He had to glance at his notes, knowing he had to get the name right the first time or he’d not remember it. “An FBI agent? In the family? My goodness. Whatever are we to think about that?” “Nothing. The man that is Sarah’s mate—she did say, mate—is an attorney. A good one, too, apparently. He works for the family. And even had she not told me, I know who the Fosters are.”
She said she had heard of them as well. Tommy sat down. “Do we tell the others or wait until we know things? I haven’t any idea what that might be, but you tell me, and I’ll call them. Jude will be thrilled beyond words. He’s missed his sister.” Jude didn’t know who his sister was, but he thought saying it like he had made his wife feel better. Jude had been born with the cord wrapped tightly around his little throat and had suffered brain damage. He was a good boy at thirty-six, and perhaps he did miss Sarah, but not as his sister, Tommy thought. Just someone he’d not seen in a long time. “We’ll have a hotel room set up for us, she told me. Also that if the others were wanting to come, they’d send their plane for us.” He had to laugh a little. “Their plane. I don’t know if I’ve even been on a domestic flight, much less a private one.” “Yes, you have. Our honeymoon.” He was joking but again kept it to himself. This was serious business here, and he didn’t want his wife upset. “Should we call the others?”
“Yes. If we don’t tell them, they’ll be upset. Not that they’ll be upset for long, but it might be nice to have them with us when we meet her new family.” He thought of the boys and the pictures he had of them that were almost as old as they were now. “They’d be nine about now. I’ve only seen them the one time, and that wasn’t nearly enough. Grandsons. I need to see them as much as I do our Sarah.” “Me as well, Tommy. I’ve so missed her.” She stood up, then sat again. “I just want to think about this for a moment longer. The thought of seeing them all, it’s just like a dream, and I don’t think I ever want to wake from it. Are you sure that man is in prison? He should have gone long ago, but we just didn’t have the money to sue him. And Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. Oh, Tommy, I want to have a hug from them so desperately. Did this woman say when we could go?”
“Today if we’ve got a mind to.” He wanted to leave right that moment, but he knew there were things to be planned and such. “She told me that Robby Quarter is there with her. That he’d only just found out about Sarah and the boys. I don’t know why, but I had it in my head that we were told he was dead.” “Yes, we were told that. But then every other thing coming out of the monster’s mouth has been nothing but bologna. It’s a small wonder he’s been put away. Did she tell you how he was caught?” Tommy said he’d not thought to ask. “Well, I suppose we can get to that when we get there. I’ll call the girls, you call Michael. Tell them….
I guess we should plan on this trip for the morning if they’re really going to send something to go in. It certainly will be much cheaper this way.” “I agree.” He didn’t tell her they’d offered to pay for them to be in a hotel if they were all to come. Remembering to do that so she could tell Shelly and April so they’d not be out anything but a couple of days work, he called his son. Michael was about as thrilled as he’d been when he’d heard they could see Sarah. “I’d have to see about money, Dad. As much as I’d love to go and give her a hug, I can’t afford much right now.” He told him what the Fosters had said. “For all of us? I mean, my wife and child too?
Dad, Sarah hasn’t met Belinda or my son yet. We were married after she left home to hideout. I’d love to be able to take them too. You see, and if that can be done, I’m all in for it. I’ll be there whenever they tell us to be.” After finding out his daughters had said the same thing about having things paid for, he was happy to know they were willing to drop everything to go see their sister. He’d not thought of how she might not have seen some of the kids yet, and that made him cry just a little. Sarah had missed so much. They’d missed so much too. He made a headcount and was sure they’d tell him it was just too many people. Fourteen of them converging on a generous family was a lot to deal with. Not to mention hotel accommodations.
So when he called Mrs. Foster back, Tommy was prepared for her to tell him just that. However, she was excited that Sarah would see her entire family and didn’t say a word about how many. “You tell me how many per room, Mr. Linton, and I’ll work that into the hotel. Also, we’ve rented out a restaurant that was being fixed up to feed us all tomorrow night.” He couldn’t believe people were being this nice to his family and told her that. “You’re going to be our family as well, and we make sure family is all taken care of. You’ll get to meet all of Cass’s family too. I did tell you they were lions, correct? So don’t be surprised if they’re a little larger than normal men.”
“My daughter-in-law, Belinda, is a lion. We know a few other shifters as well.” Parker, as she told him to call her, was happy to hear that. “Parker, this is going to be expensive. I mean, I’ve heard about your family, and I still think this is a great deal of money to be putting out for a family you don’t know.” “No, it’s not. We’d pay more just to have Sarah happy. I think she’s a little down with all this going on. By the way, she has no idea you’re all coming. We thought it would be a lovely surprise for her and the boys to see you all.” He said it certainly would. Then he told her about the nieces and nephews she’d not met. “Then it will be twice as wonderful for her. Tommy, you leave the arrangements to me, and we’ll have a party like no one has ever seen before.” “I’m sure of that.” He laughed when she did. “All right. If you can make the arrangements for us to come there tomorrow, we’ll be at the airport. There are a lot of us, so we might have to make a couple of trips to give me some time.” “I’m sending limos to get you all.” He nearly sobbed when she told him it was part of their welcome to the family plan.
“It would be wonderful if you could make sure everyone is meeting up at your home. It will save us some time to get you out here.” He called his family back and told them what was going on. All of them were going to come home tonight and be there in the morning. Since he knew it would take them a while to get packed and such, he told them they’d have dinner here, and that should give them plenty of time. Glancing at his clock, he thought that in eight hours, his kids, for the most part, would be all under one roof for the first time in ages. Bedtime came later than he wanted, but it was wonderful to see his kids. Jude had to be taken outside a couple of times—it got to be too much for him. But he loved the kids, and he played with them as much as they did each other. He could only imagine what the Fosters would make of him when he was upset.
At eight sharp, the limos pulled into their drive. The neighbors were out looking at the sight as he started loading up suitcases into the vans. He didn’t care. Tommy was going to see his little girl, and they could fly a fig for all he cared. Once the men had the vans loaded up, they went ahead to the airport to start on the trip. Car seats had been provided, which he thought was very nice, as well as snacks for the kids to munch on. There were even some things for Jude, which he thought was well beyond a nice thing anyone could have done for them. Loading into the plane took less time than he thought it should have, and a few minutes after he was seated and buckled in, they were in the air. Christ, he thought, looking around at his family.
This was all possible because of the kindness of strangers. A man came back to speak to them just as the seatbelt sign was turned off. “Hello, everyone. My name is Cassidy Foster. Everyone calls me Cass. Sarah is my mate.” The applause had the younger man’s face turning bright pink. “I came along to answer any questions I could about not just Sarah and her being hurt, but anything else I can do for you. But in the meantime, I’ve brought you a little surprise.” The boys came out of the cockpit, and Tommy nearly knocked his wife out of the way to get to them. My goodness, Tommy thought, they are handsome little men. All of them hugged them, telling them how excited they were to come along, and by the time they were landing in the little airport near a city called Zanesville, Toby was sitting on his lap, and Mike was sitting with his grandma. “You’ve given us a great gift, young man. Not just in having the boys here, but with bringing us to my daughter.”
Cass said it was his pleasure, but he’d wanted to meet them as well. “Yes, well, you might want to take that back when we all converge on my daughter’s room and drive you insane.” “Mr. Linton, I have a very large family myself. I know loud. But Sarah is at the hotel now. They released her this morning, and my brother made sure she was taken there for us to have more room. My sister-in-law, Rogue, has a Ph.D. in forensic photography, but she is also a good doctor. She’s making sure she doesn’t overdo it before we arrive.” He was impressed at the jobs they all had. “You weren’t told this, and I’m sure you’ll find out anyway, but Parker, you’ve spoken to her, she’s a witch. An honest to goodness witch. We’re all sorts of things when you get right down to it.” There was a lot to think about, but he pushed it all to the back of his mind. The ride to the hotel seemed to take forever, but it was made easier with Toby and Mike with them.
The boys told them all about their life. He was sure there was worse than they were saying, but they were happy, and to Tommy, that was more than enough. Pulling into the parking lot of not a cheap hotel as he had thought, but a very nice one, Tommy suddenly had second thoughts. He wasn’t sure she’d welcome them. That Sarah had somehow changed. But when Toby pulled him free of the first luxury he’d had in forever, Tommy went into the hotel. There his Sarah was talking to Cass, who had left ahead of them. “Daddy? Mom?”
That was all it took for him to lose it. Sarah hugged them all, marveling over the babies and her family. Even Jude was excited and hugged Sarah several times, as they all did. It was a homecoming he was glad the Fosters had made possible for them all.
Gracie had just lost the one person that meant the most to her. Craig, the ancient vampire that had raised her. He wasn’t just a father figure. He was her best friend. Now, she had been shot too, but she would honor his final wishes, find Bancroft, the king of the vampires and go to him. She wasn’t a vampire. She was so much more. The problem was that Gracie trusted no one.
As soon as she was around him, Gracie knew that Clyde, an ancient vampire, was her mate, but she was in no hurry to tell him. She had to deal with Bancroft first. The one responsible for Craig’s death was plotting to kill them all.
Kelly Roman was good at her job. As a forensic anthropologist, she could help the dead and help the families find closure. The one thing she hated about her job was her boss, Shamus Van. That man was out to sabotage everything she did. And when he brought in the new chief of police, Bancroft Dalton, to make her look bad, that was the last straw. She’d quit before they had a chance to fire her.
When Bancroft showed up at her front door, he asked to be invited in, and when he told her he couldn’t lie to her, it set off all kinds of bells and whistles in Kelly’s suspicions. It wasn’t the fact that he was a vampire that bothered her, it was the part about him not being able to lie to her. She knew shifters couldn’t lie to their mates. There was no way in hell she was letting a man barge into her life and take over….
Elizabeth Strickland, Lizzy, to her friends, found herself in a predicament. The last thing she remembered was attending her own bachelorette party, then waking up in a cave with six other women. They all had wounds, just like hers, only they were dead. Lizzy had awakened as a newborn vampire. She had no idea why they died, and she had lived, but she had wished every day that she had died with them.
Stanley Remy, better known as just Remy, was an old vampire and close friends with Bancroft, their leader. He had his own issues. He was being falsely charged with making baby vamps and leaving them to fend for themselves.
Lizzy just wanted the bodies of the other women found. Once they were, she had every intention of meeting the sun. What she didn’t need were two overbearing old vampires dictating to her what she could and couldn’t do. She had killed her maker, she wouldn’t hesitate to take them out if they didn’t let her be.
But then Remy gifted her with something she never thought she’d have again. To feel the sun without burning. She could have her life back. Maybe this mate thing wouldn’t be so bad after all.
If only it were that simple….
Donald had been in the room with the women for a while. He knew one of them was his mate, but their scents were so similar he couldn’t tell which one it was. He took the women home one at a time. CJ and Rachel were the last to leave. It was then that Donald knew which one was his mate. He didn’t know which one of them was taking it harder, either.
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Gracie watched the water flow over the dam. She’d been coming here to this spot for years now, and it was always different. Today there were families having a nice day in the warm sunshine with a picnic basket and all. There were dogs, too, playing with their masters and retrieving whatever it was they tossed for them to return. Small and big kids were chasing each other, some of them racing the clouds as well. When someone sat down beside her, she didn’t bother looking. She had an idea she knew just who it was. “Why anyone would want to eat out of doors is beyond me. Bugs and grass all over a person. And the food is forever cold. Even things that should not be.
Who would have believed that humans would eat a cold chicken leg?” She smiled at Craig. “What have you been doing since we spoke last? Have you gotten things on your end under control yet?” “I have. There are two shipments going out in the morning. Hopefully, they’ll end up where they’re supposed to be. Yesterday there was a big brew-ha-ha over some damaged merchandise that was sent to them by mistake, but they got it taken care of quickly.” He asked her about the trip that was being planned for next week. “I still can’t find anyone that is going. There is a flight plan made out for the company jet, but no names on the schedule. I’ll keep working on that.
I have about four days left to find the manifest of who is going.” “The boss would like you to pull yourself from the job site a few days earlier than we planned. He thinks that once things start falling apart around them, they’ll start looking harder at the people who were only just hired. You’ve been there how long now?” She told him. “Yes, well, I’ll see what he wants you to do. Getting fired might be hard for you. I’m hearing about how much you’ve contributed to the work there.” “It’s all right. Whatever is needed.” She looked out beyond where they were sitting at the families again. “Do you suppose there is a person out there for us, Craig? I don’t mean a family, but someone we can have some fun with and perhaps share a good bottle of wine with?”
“It’s doubtful to me that anyone would want an old queer vampire to share anything with them.” She laughed but kept watching the families. “Why are you asking? I’ve never heard you wish for bedpartners or even someone to share a meal with before. Are you getting too old for this, my dear?” “No. Goodness, no. And before you ask, no, I’m not bored either. I’m just being silly, I guess.” She saw that someone was setting up a few tables. Perhaps a party was going to be going on. Gracie loved birthday parties for the little ones. As she watched the people putting tablecloths on the long tables, she spoke to Craig without turning. “When I was a child, there was a kid in my class that was having a party. Everyone was invited, even me this time. But once at the house, I knew I’d only been invited because his mother had insisted everyone be there. The gift I had was cheap and not wrapped as well as the other things.
I never went to another one after that. Have you ever been to a child’s party, Craig?” A playpen was set up for a baby, and Gracie wished she was close enough to see the child. She’d bet it had pudgy little legs and fat cheeks. The cutest babies always seemed to be ready to explode with good humor and chubby legs. Turning to ask Craig if he heard her, she saw that he was gone. “Not nice, Craig.” Before she turned back to the scene below her, she saw that there was ash on her clothing. A great deal of it. Counting to fifty slowly so she could think, she knew it was important to get her ass in gear and out of there. Still seated, she took the briefcase Craig carried with him everywhere he went and shoved it up under her shirt.
Then she pulled out her weapon, checking to make sure it was loaded and ready to go. Reaching down to pretend to tie her shoes, she pulled out one of the extra clips and put it in her front pocket. Stretching and looking around, she stood up and made her way out of the area as quickly as she could without drawing attention to herself. It took her four hours to lose the tag she had on her. Then another hour for her to find the man and kill him. Before she could pull the trigger on her weapon to take him out, he shot her once in the shoulder. Christ, it had knocked her back on her ass, but she’d been able to get up and get rid of the bloodstain before anyone could get to it. Chemicals were forever on her for that very move.
Whoever he was working with, they’d prepared their shooter well. He didn’t have prints on his hands or anything that would tell him apart from every other male in the world. She did, however, take a bit of his blood in a vial and put it in her case. Knowing that going home would be a terrible move, she made her way to the safehouse she had set up. There she’d be able to get money, a list of contacts, as well as more weapons. Gracie would also be able to fix her wound and get a grip on herself. It wasn’t that she would freak out, but she needed to know who would kill an operative while sitting right next to another one. After pulling the bullet free of her shoulder and cleaning up the wound, she took a large bottle of whisky off the shelf and drank straight from the bottle. Sitting down in the kitchen, she opened Craig’s briefcase and was startled to see her name on an envelope.
Getting herself a glass, knowing that Craig would be looking down on her, upset that she was drinking from the bottle, she poured the liquid to the top and sat back down. Emptying out the rest of the things in the case, she set the letter aside. Her employment file was in his case, along with his own. She set those aside, wondering why he’d have them on his person. Then she looked at the map he had, as well as a few notes that had been written on it. Craig would never stoop to using GPS. He told her it was too easy to trace. She didn’t use it either. Nor even a cell phone. Putting the things in piles, Gracie put her hands over the case to see if he had hidden anything else in the thing that no one would be able to find without her kind of magic.
Finding the small piece of silver there, she knew without looking at the note with it that it was what had killed his lover. Contrary to what he said to people, Craig was a heterosexual and had had a very long and wonderful life with his wife Margaret before her death, before Gracie had even been born. Pulling the envelope to her, she opened it up carefully and laid not only the money to the side but what looked like a passport.
Opening the letter, she read what her only friend in the world had left her. “If you’re reading this, I’m dead. If I am, I hope you have the good sense not to call it to the office nor to let anyone else know. I’m dead—having others know will not bring me back no matter how much you’ll miss me.” She would too. More than she would anyone. Taking another drink from her glass, she refilled it as she continued. “You’ve more than likely gone over everything I have in this case before reading this letter. Good girl. I’ve taught you well. However, don’t let that go to your head. There are things afoot that you must now be made aware of. Like there is someone in the office looking for you. Through me. I do believe he will likely kill me to get to you.
Don’t go looking for him. If you do, you might as well sign your own death warrant. You’ll need to get yourself someplace safe for now.” She had to pause in her reading. Gracie knew he’d make sure she was safe, even after death. The man had a way about him that would make her pissed off at him one minute, then wondering how she’d ever lived without him. The living without him was hitting her very hard right now. “There is a man that I neither know nor have spoken to other than through our link. He is the king of all our kind. You must go to him. Don’t even think about telling me no. You will do it because I’m dead, if for no other reason than that. I cannot go to the afterlife wondering if you’re safe too.” Nodding to the letter, she said to him that she’d go. “Good for you, my dear child. His name is Bancroft Dalton. He is, by all accounts, a good man, as well as a man that gets things done.
You will go to him, and he will not only keep you safe, but he will make sure justice will be served for my death.” After reading the rest of his missive to her, she found out that she was his only heir. Not that she really was, but he told her she was his child, no matter that he didn’t sire her. After gathering up the other things he’d sent with her, she found the key he’d mentioned too. She’d be able to get in and out of the bank holding whatever he wanted her to have without anyone being the wiser. Gracie made plans to leave this place first thing in the morning. There was nothing here to indicate she’d been here at any time, but she would still destroy the place after she left.
Not a soul lived in the building but her, and even though she owned it, no one would ever be able to track down the rightful owner. She had learned a great deal from her friend, the vampire. Gracie took a long hot shower and figured out her plans for the next morning. Gathering up all the things she would need—guns, ammo, as well as her first aid kit— she put it all in her magical backpack. It would hold a car, and she’d be able to carry it if it came down to that. Studying the passport and gathering the money up with what Craig had given her, she ate a bowl of cereal that had expired three years ago dry and set up her bed. Tomorrow she’d be leaving this country forever.
There wasn’t any reason for her to return now that her friend was gone. By six the next morning, she was inside the vaults at the bank. The key she had opened one box that led her to three more. Taking all the money and gems out of them, she put them in the bag. Also, she was able to find Craig’s will, along with the deeds to all his properties. Not bothering to read them right now, she slipped out of the vault, then the bank, before anyone came into work. The second place she went to was an unmarked grave. There were no dates on it. Nothing to indicate that someone was buried beneath the large headstone.
She took out the bullet that had been left on the seat where Craig had been sitting and shoved it into the ground along with the little piece of silver. Putting her hand on top of the ivory stone, she felt the marker give under her fingers and pulled the last thing she needed with her. A thumb drive. It was updated daily and brought here under cover of darkness and vampire skills. She didn’t know what was on it but had been told no less than fifty times a day that she was to get it and take it with her if she needed to run. Today was the first time she’d been able to open the mechanism. More than likely because the magic knew Craig was gone. There were two cars for her to use. Gracie took the one that had fewer people lingering outside the building.
She didn’t recognize anyone as being operatives, but it made her no less careful of getting in and out. By the time she was pulling into the airport to get a flight out of the country, not only was the building she’d been in last night nothing but rubble but Craig’s place, as well as his desk at work, were destroyed. She never worked there often enough to have a desk, and Craig had already taken her file. The flight took off on time, and she settled down to sleep. Or at least pretended to do so. She was wearing enough of a disguise that no one would recognize her. And since she’d been getting magic from Craig, no one would be able to describe her the same way as the other patrons on the plane. She was a ghost.
What most of the people called her where she had worked. By the time the latest plane she was on landed at the airport in Columbus, Ohio, she’d been around the world three times. Getting off the plane at each stop made it easier for her to see if she was being followed. However, her shoulder was aching badly by then, and she was exhausted. Without any kind of driver’s license or even a photo identification, she wasn’t able to rent herself a car. But that was easy enough to work around. Stealing one of the cars from the lot, she was well on her way to the king’s house four days after Craig was murdered. The car, like the other things she’d used, would be destroyed when she got to the king. He’d better not be some blowhard, or she’d have to figure out a way to kick his ass. Settling into one of the empty buildings on the outskirts of town, she was ready for some sleep. Pulling out a sleeping bag as well as some clean clothing, Gracie closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
Gracie would do as the king wanted, but only so far. She wanted to take some of the money she’d saved up and buy an island. Someplace accessible either by flying in or taking a ship. After her years of service to her government, Gracie felt as if she deserved something nice. To not give a shit about anything else was her plan. ~*~ Bancroft hung up the phone. Craig Anderson had been killed five days ago. Not only had he been killed, but someone had gotten into his bank and taken everything he’d had stored in there. Bancroft hoped it was his friend, Gracie James, and not some random ass that had just happened to know where to look. When Kelly joined him in the office, she sat on his lap and asked him if he was all right.
“I am. We’re to have a visitor in the next few days. I don’t know anything about her other than her name. Grace James. I’m not entirely sure that is her real name either. She was a friend of someone that contacted me a month ago when he was having trouble at his work.” “The Anderson man.” He nodded. “You said he worked for the IBC. I don’t remember what you told me that meant.” “Identity-based cryptography. I’m not sure in what capacity he worked for them, but I know it was very hush-hush. The woman, as I said, I don’t know anything about. But she meant a great deal to the man, and he wanted me to protect her at all costs.” Kelly asked him if she worked there as well. “I don’t know. She might well have. When he called me, he told me there were some very unsavory people looking to get to Gracie—that’s what he called her. And if they got her, they’d not kill her but use her. Again, I haven’t any idea what that might mean.”
“More than likely, she’s magical. But not a vampire.” Bancroft told her he didn’t believe she was. “I guess we’ll find out when she arrives. Do you know when?” “That was her on the phone. She called to tell me she’d be at the restaurant in town at six tonight and that she’d see us there. I don’t think she’s all that trusting. If I were to bring anyone with me other than you, I can kiss her ass goodbye. I’m not sure what that means either, other than literally kissing it goodbye, but she said I was to go only with you.” Kelly asked him if he would. “Yes. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I can trust her to do what she says. The girl knows she can’t kill me, but she can put me in a world of hurt. I believe her. Also, and this is from Craig, Gracie is a good deal stronger than she looks, and I’m not to let her wallow in her own pain of losing him if I can help it. They were very close.” “All right. Do you think she’ll stay here?” Bancroft shrugged. “Does she need medical attention? Clothing? Money, or even a nice warm meal?”
After each question, he shrugged. When she smacked him on the chest, he told her once again that he knew nothing about her. The one and only thing he did know about her was that she needed to be protected. That it was for all mankind. However, he didn’t tell Kelly that. That would be just like telling her to go see the woman and get answers. By the time they were ready to go, he was no closer to getting information than he had been before. He’d not done any kind of search on either Craig or Gracie. But he did hear about the explosion of a building, as well as a stolen car at the local airport.
Nothing more than that was out there, but he had a feeling it was Gracie. At five-thirty, they were seated in the only sit-down restaurant in town. He noticed that Clyde and Brian were there as well but didn’t invite them to join them. Bancroft hoped that Gracie didn’t think they’d been asked to come here on his behalf. Talking to this woman was his top priority. He ordered a glass of wine from the waitress that came by, and Kelly asked for some juice. Looking around the place, he wondered why they’d not eaten here before. Taking a small sip of the wine, he noticed a small piece of paper was sticking out of the butter. He might not have noticed it at all, but when Kelly had cut into it, it stuck out. Pulling the note out, he read it. What surprised him the most was that it was written in the old language of the vampire. The second thing was that his waitress was Gracie.
She came back with a second basket of bread when he was trying to decide what to do now. “The room is on pause.” He looked around and was dismayed to see that Kelly was not moving either. “I don’t know her. I don’t know your ass either, but I was told you were a good man. I have to have a doctor see me as soon as possible. Only someone you trust. I was shot the day Craig was killed, and it’s not healing well.” “Can you heal yourself?” She told him she couldn’t but could heal others. Even so far as to bring them back from death. “I see. Actually, I don’t know what to think about that. Where are you staying?”
When she didn’t answer him, Bancroft put out his hand. “You don’t trust well, I was told. I will give you a sip of my blood so you can speak to me at any time.” I don’t need it. I don’t even need to touch you to be able to speak to you like this. His heart started racing when she did speak to him. “I’m not sure what else I might have gotten from Craig’s death, but enough to get me in and out of situations that aren’t of my making. I was human when I met him. A child. He took me in, trained me, and kept me out of trouble. I owe him my life and anything else he might have wanted from me. But he asked for nothing. I was told you could protect me.” “I can. I will.”
She nodded and stood up. “What happens now? Those others over there. I didn’t know they would be here.” She just smiled at him as the room began moving again. Gracie asked him if he was ready to order. After placing an order, he told Kelly what had happened. Just as he’d thought she would, she was pissy. Then she thought it was funny. He’d been out-magicked by a young woman. When their dinner was brought to them, not only was the meal perfect, but their waitress was different. He supposed she’d gotten what she wanted from him and would get back to him later. The man Brian is in trouble with his family. Nothing new, it sounds like, with the people you hang around with. He will need you to help him with money very soon, or he’ll go to prison. Not a good place for a vampire, I’m guessing. He told her it wasn’t. The other man, Clyde, he’s having a wonderful time staying at your home. However, he’s bored out of his mind and wishes you’d give him something to do.
He needs neither money nor anything else. He’s just a man used to having plenty to do all the time. The others in your household seem to be doing well. Are you going to go to my home? I’m assuming you know where it is by now. She told him she did but wasn’t going there just yet. She had two things to fix yet. Something I should be aware of? No. But the new queen of faeries needs someone to slap her around. She’s in over her head and is going to fail, she thinks. I don’t know how she thinks she will since she’s been taking care of the little people for some time now. Just hit her upside the head, and she’ll be fine. He said she’d hurt him if he did that. Yes, I suppose she would. I was going to ask if you’d do that when I was around, but that might distract me too much from my job.
Also, the man Ramon, he’s a physician. I’ll need him to look over my wound as soon as tomorrow. I’ll meet him at your home. There was no more communication from her for the rest of the night. He did have a splendid meal with Kelly, and the food was fantastic. His bill, he was told, was paid already, and he only needed to leave a tip. The note with his paid bill said he was to leave a good one or someone would take him to task. Bancroft was still laughing as they headed home. While he didn’t know anything about Gracie, nor what sort of trouble she might be in, he was looking forward to tangling with her. He had a feeling she was a hellcat like the women in the family. Kelly, too was happy to know she could hold her own with him. He was just too pleased to get upset about anything right now.
Jamie Kemp was good at her job. Working for the FBI in search and rescue as a dog trainer and handler was fulfilling work. Never laying down many roots, Jamie was ready to head out on assignment with her dogs at a moment’s notice.
Mark Cross and his family had lived in the Smoky Mountains for ten generations, and he loved the land, but of late, he was feeling rather lonely. Mark and his entire family were bears, black bears that blended into the wooded areas better than any wild ones in the park.
Jamie and her dogs were called in to find a missing woman. Instead, Jamie found herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer. Mark showed her pictures of the women this maniac had killed, and she could be their twin. And to complicate things more, Mark was her mate….
Mark counted to ten, then counted again. Looking at the mother and the three kids with her, he could only think they had been told to be like this. There wasn’t any way he would believe someone could allow their children to behave like these were and think it was all right. It wasn’t. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to control your children. We’re walking into dangerous territory, and I wouldn’t want to see them get hurt.” He might if he had to put up with this much longer. “Could you please restrain—?” “Are you telling me I should lock my children up?” He said he’d not said that. “Yes, you did. You told me to restrain them. Well, I’m not going to. We’re outside.
They’re not hurting anyone, and I’d think you’d be thrilled to have someone come on this walk with you. You’ve been quite boring if you ask me.” “He didn’t.” They all turned to the elderly man that had come on the tour too. “And if you would pay attention to what is going on around you, you’d see it’s not the least bit boring at all. Don’t you see what a wonderful treat we have right here in this man? He’s very knowledgeable. If you’d listen.” “Whatever.” She looked at her three children, two boys and a little girl. Mark figured they were about the same age, twelve to fourteen.
Tall for their age if they were any younger. “My kids are here because they wanted to be out in nature. We’re in nature. In the event that it slipped your mind, it is your job to entertain them. You should be doing a better job of keeping their attention rather than complaining about how they’re acting. Again, we’re outside. A little noise is to be expected.” “Ma’am, I’d really appreciate it if you and your children would keep it down. Loud noises will attract the bears. They’ll want to come out and see what the commotion is all about, and that—” “Did you hear that, kids? You’re doing a better job than Ranger Rick here in showing us nature at its finest.”
The woman looked at him. “That’s the only reason we’ve come on this little walk of yours. To see some bears. It’s what we all want. I would love to have a great big bear not only come and see what is going on but to come up close and personal with us. How about any of the rest of you?” Mark pulled out a bear claw he’d found earlier today. He showed the woman how large it was. Even compared to his own hands, it was massive. Mark took a step toward the woman, hoping to scare her, but she just grinned at him.
“This would cut out your throat in a split second. The bears here aren’t domesticated. They’re dangerous killers. This is their land we walk upon. Their territory that they eat and sleep in. We’re only visitors to them. And if we, any of us, gets in their way, disturbs their sleep or whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’ll not come up and thank you politely for making them nervous.” “I know better.” He asked her what she knew better. “I’ve seen online how people get their pictures taken with all kinds of animals around here. And we’d better see a bear today, Ranger Rick, or I’m going to complain to your boss.”
“My name is Federal Wildlife Officer Mark Cross. Not Ranger Rick.” He looked at the others and decided he’d had enough of the family. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to go back to your car. This trip is too dangerous for you to be on if you’re not going to follow—” “Listen here, buster. I am not going back to my car or my cabin. I am not going to do anything but stay on this shitty walk with you. There is nothing for them to do there but whine and drive me up the wall. We’re here, and you’d better be getting a move on.
I have shit to do later. You’d better pray I see a bear, or I’m telling you right now, we’ll make such a ruckus on our way back that the dead animals will come to investigate what’s going on.” Counting to fifty didn’t help. Turning on his heel, he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly four times before he turned back to the group. He was finished with the family and wasn’t going to let them bother them one more minute. He hoped. Pointing out the vegetation was one of his favorite things to do. Even as he walked this particular path a thousand times a season, he still found things to marvel at. His family had lived in the Smoky Mountains for ten generations, and he loved every aspect of it. You all right, big brother?
Sighing, he told Gibb what was going on. I think I might have encountered them the other day. Three brats and a woman? Yes, that’s them. Mark let the others view the area from where they were, high atop the mountain. She threatened me and said she’d better see a nice cuddly bear, or she was going to go over my head. I really don’t care. I know for a fact that this group was told four times that I wear a body camera with sound on it. Let the higher ups come out here and deal with her if they think I messed up. Frazier is out running this morning. An idea came to him, and he loved what Gibb was suggesting. Let me find him and get right back to you.
She’ll get her bear and the scare of the lifetime if I tell him what’s going on with your people. Mark and his entire family were bears, black bears that blended into the wooded areas better than any of the wild ones here in the park. And because they were protected, they could run in any field or pasture they wanted and not have to worry about being seen. Mark did wonder what his grannie would say if she found out what he and Gibb were planning. Grandda would think it the funniest thing ever, but Grandma would be— He’s not too far from where you are on the trail at Abrams Falls.
Frazier and Ewing are out there playing in the water. There aren’t any humans around, he told me, but he can hear those kids coming. Mark said he was about fifty yards from the falls. Good. Just keep on the path for a few more minutes, and he said they’d be ready for you. They’d done this before, come to the park for a person to see a bear. Mostly they did it for children, never getting too close but letting them see them. Mark would bet most of the millions of pictures taken of bears in the park included one of them. Today was going to be something none of them had ever done before—scare someone that had come to the park for a visit. “Look, I see a bear.”
He was startled from his thoughts when one of the men spoke in a whisper. Of course, the mother and her brats didn’t do anything like that but started whooping and yelling for them to come to them. One of the kids even pulled out a large cow bell and started shaking it like his life depended on it. “Christ, they’re big, aren’t they?” Before he could take action in getting the humans to remain quiet, the bears, three of them, charged. Mark knew immediately that they were not his brothers, nor were they going to stop until he killed them. Pulling out his rifle, he shot the first large male in the head.
He dropped quickly. The second bear, this one limping, was coming at an alarming rate that had him wondering if he was going to be able to put the other one coming down on time. Number two dropped too—he was only about four feet from them. A third shot and the third bear dropped as well, sliding to his death no more than six inches from his booted foot. There wasn’t a sound in the air. Nothing was chirping, singing about the beautiful weather. The three kids were finally not acting up. Mark let what he’d just had to do settle around his mind. He’d killed three bears, his kind. Ones he shouldn’t have had to murder because of the people with him.
He was turning on his heel. Mark was ready to blast the family when the elderly man from the beginning of the walk beat him to it. Christ, he was glad for the camera on his vest. Mark thought he could go on watching this for the rest of his life. But he had to take care that the animals were cared for first. Calling it in, it was Gibb that he spoke to. All his brothers worked for the forestry in some way. Even their grandparents. Gibb was the dispatcher. Mark, as calmly as he could, told him what had happened. “Are you all right?” He said he thought he was. “Grandda was here.
He heard what you said when calling it in. He’s going to go out with the rangers.” Then through their link, he asked Mark about their brothers. They weren’t here. I knew these were wild bears as soon as they started after us. I hope they’re far away about now. He told him they’d both gone home when they heard the shots fired. Good. I should have known this was going to be a bad idea. Hopefully, however, the kids got a scare out of it. Just as he was closing the connection to Gibb, the mother of the brats slapped him hard, enough to make him off balance a little. Had it not been for the tree behind him, he would surely have fallen. He asked her what she thought she was doing. “You killed those innocent bears. Don’t you think you could have just wounded them?”
He said no, that would have made them twice as dangerous. “You fucking bastard. How am I supposed to explain this to my children? They’ll have nightmares for a month. They were only coming to see us. You just had to shoot them and ruin all our fun. You fucker. I’m going to make sure you lose your job over this.” “Ma’am.” She turned and looked at his grandda. Every part of his body was tense in the event this bitch took her anger out on him. “Fifty years ago now, I was out with a bunch of my buddies when we came across some bears getting their fill at the falls.
Catching salmon, they were. We didn’t think anything of it—it was a cold day, and we were downwind from them.” “So? Why do I care what you did fifty years ago, you old man? This person here, he killed those bears like they were nothing. They weren’t going to hurt anyone. I even have some jerky I brought to feed them. See?” Mark knew then that was what made them charge. They could smell the opened package of fish jerky because they weren’t downwind of them. Grandda asked if she’d had it out when they arrived at the falls. “Yes. Duh. How were we supposed to attract them to us if we didn’t wave it around all the time? You people need to take a chill pill.
Nothing was going to happen. You all know, too, if you’d think for one moment that my putting out a bad review for this place would totally shut you down. I’m an influencer. That’s right. I make or break companies like this one every day with just my review alone. I can take a five-star place, give it one bad review, and they’re out of business.” “Excuse me. You think that because you put out a bad review about this national forest, no one will come here again? Just all by yourself?” The elderly man looked at him, then at Grandda before he laughed.
“Go on, mister. You show her what a bear will do to you when they’re angry and denied whatever some idiot is waving around them. Because as surely as I’m standing here, that woman right there killed those three bears as surely as if she pulled out a gun and fired it.” “I wasn’t worried about that shit. I have my own gun.” She was on the ground with dirt in her mouth before she got her gun all the way out of the back of her pants. When it went off, hitting his grandda in the foot, all hell broke loose. “What the fuck are you doing to me now? Christ, it’s not like I killed him or anything. It was a fucking accident.
Get off me, you shits. I’m going to sue you all for this.” The other guests were taken back to the parking lot where they’d started out this adventure. Mark stayed with his grandda until the other rangers came back and took pictures. Of course, it was all on all their cameras, from different views, as a matter of fact, but they’d need to document this so that when the arrest warrant was filled out for the woman, they’d have all their shit together. “You all right, son?” He told his grandda he didn’t know. “Yeah, I can see that written all over your face. Seems to me people are getting more salty daily.
What do you think?” “Salty? I suppose that’s as good a term as any. Are you all right, Grandda?” He lifted up his foot to show where the bullet had gone right through the top. “Grandma is going to be seriously mad at you. I’d not expect her to make you any pie for dinner tonight either. She doesn’t like you or any of us to be hurt.” “You think she’ll be a little less fussy with me if I tell her a madwoman did this to me? And that you had to kill three bears to save the life of eight people, three of them kids?” Mark pretended to think about it and then told his grandda he didn’t think it would be any different. “Yeah, I don’t think she’ll be any happier anyway I tell her.” ~*~ The body was still where he’d left her. The rangers, he knew, were busy this time of year—early spring meant spring breakers of all sorts. Deciding he’d have to do a better job of putting them out in the open, he decided to find himself another woman to kill.
Women were too stupid to realize they were being targeted. The Smokies were the perfect place for him to have his fun. He’d been out west at one of the larger parks, but that had become boring. There were too many visitors out there year round to make it so he could do his thing. Really, all he did was murder women, lay them out in an open field, and watch as the other animals tore into them. He didn’t rape them or mutilate them in any way that would get him caught. Just popped them in the head or heart with a bullet, then he’d lay in waiting while something found them. Usually, it was a wolf, but lately, in early spring, there had been a lot of other animals coming around to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Making his way back to his truck, he saw the commotion going on near one of the falls. Just wandering over there to see what had happened, he saw that someone had shot three bears. He thought of their size. Most people thought of black bears as being huge. He supposed the bigger ones could be six hundred pounds tops, but little did they realize there were much bigger bears in the wild that were not only larger but more vicious than a black bear. Grizzlies were large, but the Kodiak bear was bigger by far. They were taller, being as large as ten feet tall when standing, and had a larger bone structure as well. The most dangerous bears were the grizzly and the polar bear. However, there were none of either of these bears in this park.
Sadly. When the ambulance showed up, and an old man was loaded into it, he watched for a few more minutes to see if anyone would say anything he might be able to use. But all they did was do their job quietly and with a great deal of efficiency. He knew the bears would be left where they were. The path would be closed to visitors until such time as they were taken care of by the other animals in the park. The eco system worked well here.
Watching while they drew blood, skin tissue, and other things he’d not seen them do before, he found himself a better place to watch, which had him backing into a tree and sliding down it. There hadn’t been a sound made. He was sure of it. Not a whisper of a leaf falling. Nothing shifted under his feet. Yet right now, he would swear the younger man in a ranger uniform was looking directly at him. As if he had peeled back the veneer of the forest and seen right into his head. Staring back at him, making sure not to even breathe too quickly even though he was terrified for the first time in longer than he could remember, he sat that still.
Finally, when the man broke his peering into his head—what it seemed like even now— he found himself breathing harder than he had since he’d first come to this place and had to climb the mountain. Getting down on his hands and knees, he made his way out of the area. Not sure if he was being watched anymore, he made sure he was careful where he’d put his hands and knees, never breaking a twig or crushing a leaf. As soon as he was over the hillside from them, he stood up. It took all of his willpower not to take off running the rest of the way into the town.
It was busy this time of the day, but not nearly as bad as it would be later tonight. Careful not to get too close to people, he knew that in the short walk to his favorite place to eat, he’d been brushed against by at least two dozen people. Slipping inside, he was seated right away and brought a large glass of sweet tea. The nectar of the gods as far as he was concerned. “What are you having tonight, Jon? We’ve a special running on chili mac.” He’d nearly looked around when his waiter called him Jon. It startled him that he knew his name. Not that he really knew his name, not really, but he’d been going by Jon Smyth for a few weeks now, and it seemed to suit everyone’s curiosity.
Jon told the waiter he’d have lasagna. “Yes, sir. Coming right up.” Jon Smyth. Such a stupid name now that he thought on it. However, no one questioned why he was called such a fake name. Going with it at the time had seemed like a brilliant idea. But his name, his first anyway, was really Jon. He’d have to be more careful in the future. His salad was set before him, and he picked at it. Jon wondered why anyone would eat a special in a place. Basically, it was whatever crap they had left over from the night before—or worse yet, something that was nearly ready to turn green. They’d mix it with other crap they had, and poof, they had a special.
Some people would fall for just about anything, he supposed. Like him. Jon didn’t have much in the way of confidence in people telling the truth. It stemmed, he supposed, from his mom telling him that his daddy was coming to get him and the bastard never showing up. Lies—all of them lied to him. When he’d been old enough, just barely into his teens, he’d hunted his father down and killed him. Precisely what he’d done was shove him into moving traffic, but he had done the pushing. He’d wanted to kill off his mom too, but he needed her more than he wanted her dead. There had been a couple of times he’d made her suffer at his hands. She would sometimes not give him what he wanted. Or would make him do something he didn’t think was his job. Like cleaning his room.
Christ, why did parents want you to clean your room all the time? So what if it was messy? Don’t open the door if that was your issue. Laundry wasn’t getting done? Okay, who cares? It’s his stuff. If he wanted to stink all day, then that was his problem, not hers to harp on. Besides, if he wanted clean clothing, he only had to go down to the local stores and steal what he wanted. They, too, knew better than to fuck with him. Everyone did by the time he was sixteen. His food was put in front of him, and his drink was refilled. Then the pitcher was set on the table with him. It had taken only one time of him not being happy with being hovered over while he ate before they just left him alone. No asking if everything was all right.
He was eating it, wasn’t he? There was no seeing if he needed anything else with his meal. Had he wanted anything else, he would have ordered it when he sat down. Jon often times wondered if there was a person that told the waitstaff to bother the fuck out of someone while they were eating. He didn’t get it at home, so why did he have to put up with it when he paid someone else to cook for him?
Even his check was put down without any fanfare. No pointing it out—just drop it off and take themselves elsewhere. Just the way he liked it. After eating his big lunch, he made his way back to the other end of town. There were as many attractions at this end as there were at the park entrance, but he would walk this way, head up in the woods, and make his way back to his place through the wooded mountain tops. Smiling to himself, he thought of the first time he’d done this. Jon had thought himself in fairly good shape. He didn’t exercise at all, but he did chop wood for himself. Climbed stairs when he needed to get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b.’ Then he’d moved here. The very first time he had to go through the woods to his shack, he thought he was going to die.
The air was thinner the higher you got. He knew that. But what he’d not counted on was just how difficult it was to do simple tasks, like chopping wood, building himself a better shelter, or digging a hole. Christ, he thought for sure when he got out of bed that first morning, after digging a hole deep enough to put a refrigerator in, that he’d pulled every single muscle in his body. Some he was sure that even scientists hadn’t ever encountered. After digging the second hole to put his refrigerator in, lying on its side with the lid to open up for him to store things in, he didn’t hurt as badly. The blisters had even turned to callouses, and he felt better.
The third and fourth ones were a piece of cake. Now he had a cooler system that needed no electricity to keep his perishables cold. It had been the heat that had caused him the most issues. The first time he’d set a fire in the new digs he’d built, it had smoked him out. It had taken him three more tries to figure out how to make it smokeless, so he’d not draw attention to himself. Small fires, using only dried wood, had been the trick. So when winter set in, which was earlier up here in the mountains, he was as prepared as he’d ever been. Walking along the path he’d made for himself, he was just about to cross over the fence when he heard a noise behind him. Dropping to the ground, he laid still as he waited for the sound to come again. It hit him almost as soon as he saw them that it was a sleuth of bears. A large group of them, too. He’d never seen a bear play around like these seemed to be doing. Wrestling around in the dirt, they seemed to be having a great time.
As he watched them carefully, he made his way back by sliding his body along the rocks and dirt. When he was out of sight of them, he still crawled for another fifty feet or so until he was sure they couldn’t see him. Christ, that had been scary. Getting to his home a little later than he’d thought he would, Jon was happy for the bed he’d brought up with him. The fact he’d had to bring things up in the summer made it difficult, with all the tourists around, but he’d managed to get not just a stove for his heat, but a cot with a good mattress, the refrigerators, as well as a chair. He’d made his own table, but the chairs he’d tried weren’t cutting it. Lying on his bed, he thought about what he was going to do tomorrow. The first thing he was going to have to do was find himself another woman to kill.
This time, he was going to make sure her body was found sooner. It was one thing to get his jollies in killing them, but he wanted someone to find them so they’d be worried. Rolling to his side, he thought of the first woman he’d killed since arriving here. She’d been too easy to follow. Oblivious to her surroundings, he’d killed her without much in the way of thought as to why she might be standing so close to the edge of the falls.
Hitting her in the back of the head with an ax he’d just happened to be carrying around, she was considered an accident. Falling into the water, she’d been beaten up badly, he supposed, and his hitting her hadn’t been an issue. Damn it. He’d not gotten the attention he so desperately wanted. Jon wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d not be caught killing women. He had a backup plan he carried around with him all the time. It had cost him a great deal of money and pain to have one of his teeth drilled out so the little capsule would fit inside of it. A cyanide pill that would kill him instantly.
Well, not instantly, but he’d be dead all the same. He wasn’t going back to prison. Juvie hadn’t really been a prison, he supposed, but it had been prison-like. He was monitored all the time. He didn’t get to sleep when he wanted or eat when he was hungry. It was no less than he deserved, he continued to tell himself. When you act out, as they called it, there were consequences to your actions. His had been a consequence he never wanted to repeat. Closing his eyes, he let sleep take him under. Jon wasn’t plagued with nightmares about his deeds. Nor did he have a moment’s hesitation in thinking he was some sort of monster. He did what he did because women were too stupid to realize they were the lesser sex and should have a man at their side to keep them safe. It was exactly what got his mom killed.
She’d been too carefree with her body, and someone, not him, had killed her when she didn’t put out when he was there to save her. Of course, he’d been the one that had been beating her up and only stopped when she was unconscious. But his mom hadn’t been grateful enough, as the man had thought she should have been, to suck him off. Yet another prime example of women being stupid. Waking in the middle of the night, he went out into the moonlit night to take a piss. There were creatures close by—he could see them scurrying around. Jon never bothered with a light. That would get him caught. But he did keep an eye out for anything larger than he was, as well as sliding snakes that would crawl up his pant leg in a minute. Going back inside, washing up at the water bowl he’d rigged up to take in water off the roof, Jon went right back to bed and to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a good day. He could feel it in his bones.
Charlie had been gone from the small town for several years, attending medical school with Rayne. She only returned when she got the news that her mother, the sitting judge, had been murdered. Rayne convinced her to come back home. The town needed good doctors.
Booker had just bought a huge, empty house. His cousins were going to a huge estate auction, and he figured he’d go to find some deals. His cousins were meeting their wives there. It would be fun.
Booker was having a wonderful time when he met Charlie. A spirited young woman who captured his heart from the moment they met. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Booker was caught up in Charlie’s enthusiasm as a first-time bidder until she got into an argument with another bidder, a bully who would win the bid even if he had to take it by force. Booker didn’t like bullies, especially a man who bullied women. Booker jumped to Charlie’s defense. That’s when things got dicey….
When Marsden Wilkerson received the phone call that his mother had been in a car accident, he wasn’t letting anything get in his way to get to her. Not a pushy boss, and especially not his Aunt Eita. Then his world crumbled when the doctors told him that his mother, Holly, didn’t make it. Gabriella Farley, Abby, could hold her own, and she wasn’t about to take any flack from a rich bitch like Penelope Wilkerson.
All the Wilkerson women, with the exception of Holly, could fit that description. Abby stood up for Mars at the funeral home even though she really didn’t know him. What she did know was his mother, Holly, was a fine woman, and the family had given them both the shaft Mars’s entire life.
Mars wanted to apologize for his Aunt’s actions, but there was something about Abby that sparked a flame in his heart. From the first kiss, they knew they had something special, but going against the Wilkerson family could be very dangerous. Will this new love be doomed from the start?
Amy Hamilton never had much of a home life growing up. Her sister Phoenix and her mother demanded all the attention, so much so that she and her father didn’t have a relationship at all. Now that her father was filing for a divorce, he felt guilty for not being a part of her life and wanted to make up for it, but Amy wasn’t sure she was ready for that.
North Wilkerson had a similar upbringing. Although his mother was dead now, before her death, she was an awful person and an even worse mother. After having sworn off family ties to his parents, he was just now allowing his father back into his life.
Amy and Booker Wilkerson were close friends in college. Amy was only supposed to be in town for a few days, and when Booker called inviting her to dinner, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch up on old times. When Booker’s cousin North and his uncle joined them for dinner, they all had a blast.
But when North just showed up at her father’s house and took over, Amy wasn’t sure what to think of him. What did he think he was doing? She barely knew him. Amy needed to nip this in the bud before it went much further. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She didn’t need a man now, or would she ever need a man, any man….
Charlie wasn’t sure what the hell she was doing. Not just here, but what she was to do if she wanted to bid on something. Abby and Amy had talked her and Rayne into coming up to this auction today to fill out their homes. She thought they had nice homes, but what did she know about being wealthy? Not a single thing. The man she’d been sort of following was helping another man in things that he should bid on and how much. She had also learned not to take the first amount that the auctioneer put out there. It was only a starting point. “Hello.” She looked around when the man she was following spoke to her. “You haven’t any idea what you’re doing, do you?” “Nope. I will admit I’m in well over my head. Like I need all kinds of things for this house I’m going to live in, but I haven’t any idea how to go about it. Like, this table here. I love it. But I don’t know what would be a good price to bid or how to even make that happen.” He asked her if she had a number yet. “Yes. I got that when we first arrived. Abby told me about that.” “Abby? You’re here with Abby Wilkerson?” She nodded, and the man laughed. “Well, isn’t this a small world. I’m her cousin-in-law, Booker Wilkerson. I’m here with my cousin, Brandon.” “Will you help me?” He said he’d love to. “Good. First thing, this table. What is a good price to pay?
I don’t want to get caught up in the bidding and forget that I’m on a budget, somewhat.” “It’s not old if that’s what you’re thinking.” She asked him how he could tell that. “Look around at all the other pieces out here. What is the one thing they have in common? I know you can see it, but it never occurred to you yet.” She knew he wasn’t talking about the age of the piece. To her, they all looked like they’d been around a long time. Then she noticed a few things she’d not before. Looking at Booker, she smiled. “Someone has taken the time to dust this piece. Why would they do something like that to a piece that’s just a table?” He told her. “I guess I can see that. Polish it up so that it’s more appealing to someone. Eye-catching, I guess you could call it. So it will more than likely go a little high when it’s probably just a table that isn’t going to last all that long. Thank you.” “You’re so very welcome. Also, you should never, if you can help it, linger too long when looking at a piece. That gives away that you’re interested. Sort of casually look at something, then look around while keeping an eye on other people that look at it. You can figure out your competition that way.” She giggled. Charlie told him he was wonderful for helping her. “I’m enjoying myself too, so it’s good for us both.” They walked around together for the next half hour. Booker pointed out things she could bid on and how much she should go. He told her when she asked him if he’d help her when the bidding started that he’d love to, but he also had to help Brandon.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You did tell me you were here with him. You have given me a lot to go on, and I appreciate that.” He told her he wasn’t going to leave her. “But what about Brandon? Won’t he be upset?” “Right now, I don’t care. You’re much prettier than he is. Plus, he’s hanging out with Abby. Who is, I might say, good at this too.” The announcement was made that bidding would begin in five minutes. “Something else you might want to do when you go to an auction is to find out who the auctioneer is and make a mental note to watch how he does things. I ask where he might be starting when he begins and also if he will have a second auctioneer selling in another area. There is only the one person here until noon. Then they’re going to sell the house and land around it. But he’s going to start with the box lots. Those are the boxes of stuff that they deemed not worth too much, and they’re getting rid of it. I find a lot of good things in those sort of boxes.” “Like what?” They were headed to the box-lots area now. “Oh, I understand now. They’re literally boxes of just stuff. I think getting a couple of those would be a blast just to go through and see what junk you can find.” She laughed. “You’d be amazed at the things my Aunt Holly and I found in them.”
She was enjoying herself so much that she nearly forgot that they were here for a purpose. “Okay, remember what I said. Stick with the price you want to pay for it, and don’t take the first amount he puts out there.” She didn’t want anything in the box he was trying to sell off, and neither did anyone else, it seemed. As the bidding didn’t generate even a buck, he added another box, then another. The box next, the one with the office things in it, was something she was interested in. When Booker leaned down and whispered in her ear, all thoughts of bidding flew out of her head. “You’ll have to take them all—remember that when you buy a bunch of boxes.” She nodded, and when the auctioneer said a dollar, she raised her hand. While she had no idea what was in the boxes that she’d want, the office equipment appealed to her. Someone put their hand up, but he was only waving at someone across from him. The auctioneer asked him to conduct his conversations elsewhere and looked at her. “You won, missy.” She jumped for joy. Laughing, she went to the auctioneer and hugged him before she realized what she was doing. Telling him it was her first auction and bidding, he laughed with her. “Well, I’m glad you came here today. Thanks for the hug too.” When she started to go for her boxes, Booker told her to wait. No one would bother with them. He purchased the next lot of eight boxes, and she bought two more at the end that were filled with glasses, as well as wine glasses that she really liked. The two of them, she thought, had gotten a lot of junk with their stuff. They started a pile by one of the trees. Booker even purchased a chair so she’d have something to sit in under the tree. When the rest of the boxes were sold off, her buying two more lots for a total of ten, the other Wilkersons joined them. They had twenty minutes before the bidding began on the furniture. “Are you having fun?” She told Abby she was having too much fun, she thought. She didn’t know how she was going to get everything in her car. “Don’t worry about that.
I called Mars, and he’s going to rent one of those hauling things to bring our stuff home in. I missed the box lots, but I see you didn’t. Would you mind if I went through them with you? Just to look at the things people consider junk?” “I’d love that.” Booker bought her lunch, as well as two bottles of water. The house, it seemed, wasn’t selling for much, and she watched Booker when he decided it would be a good investment. Charlie moved closer to him when he started to tense up when the bidding started. “You can do this.” He only glanced at her, but she could see that he was happy she’d said that. His face not only relaxed, but he wasn’t fisting his hands either. Putting her smaller hand into his much larger one, she felt like she was centered. It was a strange way to feel with only just meeting the man. Booker bought the house, or so they all thought. Since it had gone well under what they should have gotten for the place, the auctioneer had to speak to the family. Booker kissed the back of her hand when he was asked to wait until the auctioneer returned. “Thank you.” She told him he was welcome and that he had calmed her as well. “We’ll go to the furniture next. Are you ready for that?” “I believe I am.” She watched as the household things were brought out where the boxes had been. The big bed that came with several pieces of furniture caught her eye. Admiring it from a distance, she watched as others went over the stuff like they were searching for something special in it.
“Are they serious about buying it for that price? I’ve heard that some of them are only willing to go to less than a hundred dollars. That seems cheap to me.” “They’re putting that out there so that others around, like you, would hear it. They want you thinking it’s not worth all that much. But I’ve seen it in the bedroom before you got here, and it’s well worth a thousand or more. It’s very old and made of mahogany. It looks to me like it might have been handmade right here on the property. That is a really good piece.” She nodded but didn’t go near the bedroom set. She didn’t have the kind of money that would justify her paying that much for just a bedroom suite. Charlie did have her inheritance, but she was saving that for a rainy day. Booker laughed when she told him that. “My aunt would have told you that there are forever going to be rainy days, and you won’t be able to save for all of them. What you should do is make each day count so that when the rainy day does come, you have your comfort in the things you did when you had the money and time.” “I think I might have liked your aunt.” Booker kissed her then. Just a quick kiss on the mouth. “That was nice. Booker, I’m beginning to like you a great deal. Is that odd?” “No. It’s the way it should be. Come on, let’s get us a place to bid on the things that we want. If you want the bedroom suite, then you get it. I’ll even help you pay for it if it comes to being close to your limit.” It didn’t bother her that he was willing to do that. For some reason, it seemed right that they purchased the set together. Shaking her head at the nonsense in it, she moved to the group of people that had gathered around not just the bedroom suite but the table and chairs that had been brought out as well.
“That is beautiful. Don’t you think?” “It is.” A thought popped into her head in that moment. Of him sitting at one end of the table and her at the other, with people seated down either side with children in their arms. The thought, or vision, was so vivid that her breath caught when she realized this was their children and grandchildren. “Booker, something isn’t right about this.” “I know.” She had a feeling he did know, and she nodded too. “We’ll figure things out when we get back home. All right. Today, let’s just fill out our home.” She nearly missed bidding on the bedroom suite. Her mind was filled with words like home. Our. Even the vision of them and a large family. When Booker poked her in the ribs, she looked at the auctioneer when he started the bidding out at six thousand dollars. When he got back down to a hundred dollars, a man in the crowd behind her said, “Here.” She didn’t turn and glare at him as she wanted to do but kept her eye on the man doing the fast-talking. Booker told her to wait to see where it went and if anyone was going to bid with them. When he told her now, she lifted her hand up to bid one-fifty. The man behind her moved up to where they were standing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye and didn’t like that he was staring at her. When Booker moved between the two of them, she felt better. The man started cursing quietly at first, then he started getting a little louder.
“Nothing is going to happen to you, love. All right? Just do what you’re doing, and it’ll be all right.” Then the man shoved Booker into her. It wasn’t a light push either. Both of them nearly tumbled to the ground. “Excuse me. You nearly knocked us down.” The man bumped Booker in the chest with his belly. Then he started talking to him in another language. While she had no idea what was being said, Booker did and was talking to the man calmly and without raising his fists up like the other man was. “Hey. Hey now. What’s all this about?” Booker told the auctioneer that the man had insulted his wife. Had called her a slut, and said that she only wanted the bed to entertain other men on. “He said that to you? What the hell—pardon me, ma’am—but what the hell is he being upset about? It’s only an auction.” The man said something else, and Booker looked at the auctioneer. There were some very tense-filled moments there while neither of them spoke as the man went on and on about something. Not only did Abby join them, but all the Wilkersons stood up behind them. “Mars, are you with this group?” He said he was. That this was his family. “This isn’t right. Not to you or anyone in your family. But to be insulting like this to a pretty woman is just beyond what I think is right.” “I agree, Mr. Shadow.” He asked the man to leave, and he just stood there, staring at her. Finally, when she’d had enough, she pushed her way in front of Booker, and he put his hands gently on her shoulders.
“You’re a nasty bully.” She asked Booker to translate for her. He said that he understood what she was saying. “You are the meanest man I’ve met. We were all having a good time until you had to get all up in arms about a bedroom suite. What is the matter with you? Don’t you have any man—?” The blow to her face knocked her back. She not only saw stars, but she was sick with the pain of it. Closing her eyes when it became too much for her, Charlie wondered what her mother would say to her now. She’d think it was funny, she’d bet. There were noises going on, cursing too, but in the end, she just let go. Letting the pain take her under so that she’d not feel it for a while. ~*~ Wats was as pissed off as he’d ever been. Someone had actually hit a woman because she was bidding against him. Every time he thought about him hitting Charlie, he had to stop what he was doing and take a deep breath. “This will go a good deal faster if you would just let your wife fix me up.” He said he knew that, but he was safer in here. “Why? The guy was arrested, you told me.” “But I know where they took him.” Charlie laughed, then moaned. “I’m sorry you were hurt. But if it’s any consolation, you got the bedroom suite for nothing.” “Booker told me.” She looked around, then back at him. “May I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer, but please don’t make fun of me. All right?” “Yes. But you should know that I don’t lie.
If you ask me something, you’d better be prepared for the answer. Ask me.” She did. He had to think about his answer hard before he answered her. “You’re worried that you’re falling in love with my cousin? How is that something I’d make fun of you about?” “I’ve only just met him today. I mean, literally today. He’s kind and wonderfully sweet. He doesn’t rush into things. Nor does he, and this is a biggy, treat me like I’m some sort of bimbo that he needs to protect.” He laughed with her. “I suppose looking at me, you’d think I do need a protector. But he didn’t shove me out of the way when I went to talk to the man. I know it was a stupid thing for me to do. I mean, I should have let someone handle it for me, but he didn’t do anything.” “Actually, he did.” She asked him what he was talking about. “My wife can’t come here and take care of you because she’s taking care of Booker. He has a broken wrist as well as needing stitches in both his lip and his hand. He knocked the man to his ass with one blow. He came up with a gun, believe it or not. But Booker didn’t back down, he— Where are you going? I still need to stitch you up.” “Where is he?” Wats followed her, but not too closely. He could tell that she was pissed off, and he didn’t want to come between her and her anger. “Booker Wilkerson, where the hell are you?” He yelled that he was here, so she went to find him. As soon as they entered the room he’d been put in, Wats cringed. It was going to take him longer to heal from his wounds than it would Charlie, of that he was sure. Charlie asked him if he had a brain injury that she needed to be made aware of.
“Not that I’m aware of, no.” Wats noticed that everyone seemed to leave them alone except him and Rayne. He was staying for the fun—he had no idea why Rayne was. “I was mad that he hit you.” “I was too, but you should have let the police handle it when he pulled out a gun.” Booker looked at him, then back at Charlie. She did the same but looked at Booker. “What? Something you’re not telling me.” “He was going to kill you.” Charlie looked at Wats again. At his nod, she turned to Booker again. “I was willing to let the police handle it. I was sure that if I started on him, I would have killed him. But he pulled out the gun with the intention of killing you. He announced to everyone that you were one dead slut.” Booker stood up and made his way to Charlie. When she went into his arms willingly, Wats asked if they could finish stitching them up. They didn’t want the swelling to get too much before they could get that done. “I missed getting that table for our house.” Wats didn’t say anything about what Charlie said, but he did glance at his own wife. “This is so unfair. My very first auction and I have to get next to some dummy head that had to ruin it all for me.” “They stopped the auction.” Charlie asked Rayne what she meant. “No one here wanted to go on without you there. The police are still here, of course, but the others voted to wait to see if you were going to join them again.
The people here, they’re really impressed with the two of you.” “We didn’t do anything,” Wats told her what he’d seen. “Okay, we did take on a bully, but we wouldn’t have had to if he’d been a nicer person. What did he say to you?” Booker said it wasn’t nice, and wanted to leave it at that. Wats was sure that Charlie was going to push it, but she laid down on the bed that Booker was on so she could be stitched up as well. It took them more time than it normally would have because the two of them were talking to each other. Wats thought he was seeing the first blossoms of love. When they were released to go back to the auction, people cheered for them. A couple of women told Booker he could defend their honor anytime he wanted. It was embarrassing to him. Wats could tell. Everyone was good-natured about it, and the police asked if they could talk to the two of them when the auction was over. Wats was very proud of his family right then. Mars said he’d bid for them, but Charlie declined. She said her fun had been delayed, and she wanted to get back into it now. But she kissed him on the cheek for being so sweet, and then she turned to the auctioneer, asking him if he was ready. “Yes, ma’am, I am. I have to tell you, I was never so terrified in my life as when that man said he was going to kill you. I thought for sure my heart was gonna stop when that husband of yours just stood up and knocked his gun away. Goodness.” Charlie thanked him. “My wife, she said she’s going to be watching for you from now on. You surely do get the job done when someone is nasty to you.” There was some fun made when Charlie bid on the dining set. They teased them both about being careful not to bid against them. As was Booker’s nature, he got a kick out of it and didn’t anger.
Wats only then realized it was the first time he’d truly ever seen his cousin pissed. He was usually one that would just walk away. This was a first for all of them today. Not only did she win the dining set, but she also was able to bid and get two more bedroom suites. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d found someone that loved auctions as much as Booker and Aunt Holly had. She was getting good at knowing when to stop, too. As they were loading up the things on the truck Wats had gotten, Booker asked him for something for his headache. After checking him out, he told him he wanted some pictures of his head if he didn’t mind. When he agreed, that worried him just a little, but Booker assured him it was only a headache. Uncle Josiah showed up just as the auction was coming to an end. “There you are.” Booker shook hands with the auctioneer and told him he ran a good auction. “You’re a good man to have around. I don’t suppose you have yourself a shop, do you? I mean, the way your missus was buy—” “Missus?” Uncle Josiah looked around, then at his son. “Oh, yes. All right. But we do need to talk about some things later, son. All right?” Uncle Josiah looked confused, but he wasn’t going to embarrass them by asking questions now. Charlie asked him what he had in mind when the auctioneer asked about the shop. “Well, you see all this stuff that people leave behind? Some of it is worth a little bit. A lot of it they just leave behind because they’ve realized they don’t have the room to take it with them. I need someone I can call on to come and pick it up for me, and I’ll pay you to do it. It won’t be a lot, mind you, but a couple of dollars a box should cover you coming and getting it. If you’ve got a mind to.” Booker looked at his dad.
“Will you go into partnership with me, Dad? I’ve decided I’ve had enough of teaching for a while, and I want to do something different. With you.” Uncle Josiah looked like he was going to cry, and Wats patted him on the back. “We just purchased a house that I think will be perfect for odds and ends. My wife here is a doctor now, so she can afford to keep me in pocket money.” “I’d love nothing more.” While Wats didn’t know what house Booker was referring to, everyone was happy all the way around. “But first, I’d like for you to get to the hospital. The police said they’d make sure that the bill was paid by that moron.” “Do you want this to start now, Mr. Shadow?” Wats had forgotten the man’s name and was glad that Charlie knew it. “We have enough help here today to load this up if you want. I mean, if that’s all right with the rest of you.” “I have a better idea.” Mars looked at Booker, then at him. “You go to the hospital with these two and make sure they’re all right. The rest of us will do the cleanup and take it where you want.” “I bought this house. I think it will be perfect for where we can start out.” They began to take the boxes and other things into the truck while he and Rayne loaded the two of them up in his car. He was beginning to worry about Booker, as he was too agreeable to going.
He was going to keep him overnight just to make sure, no matter what the X-ray told them. The ride to the hospital was quiet. He could hear Charlie and Booker talking to each other, but they were too quiet for him to hear. When Rayne took his hand into hers, he looked over at her. “She loves him.” Wats said he could see that too. “I think he loves her as well. He surely has taken a beating for her if he doesn’t.” “They’ll be all right, don’t you think?” She asked him if he was worried about Booker. “Yes. He’s not himself. I’m worried that there is something more wrong with him. I only checked his head. What if he was hurt elsewhere? I’m going to keep them both overnight, even if I have to beat the two of them into submission.” Rayne agreed with him. And that made him more worried than he’d been before. ~*~ Rayne read the X-rays three times before she was satisfied with the results. Not that she was happy with what she saw, but she knew they were lucky that she and Wats had brought them into the hospital. Charlie had a concussion and two broken ribs, more than likely from falling over when hit. Wats joined her just as she was going to go see Charlie. “He was shot. The shithead was shot, and he didn’t say a word about it.” Rayne asked how bad it was. “He was shot. Bad enough that I’m worried.” “You’re worried because he’s your relative.
Tell me what you really think, like he’s no relation to you.” Wats said it was serious, but not that bad. “Good. She has a concussion. So getting them to stay will be easier since they’ll both be here.” “I have him going into surgery now. I can’t join him there, but I can be with him when he gets out. He also has a concussion and four broken ribs. I’m sure he’s also got a couple of broken fingers.” Rayne said he was a good man. “What do you mean? He was shot and didn’t tell anyone.” “He didn’t want to freak you out. Or, for that matter, Charlie.” He’d not thought of that. “Would you have let them stay there had you known? I wouldn’t have. But Charlie got to have a good time, and her day wasn’t totally ruined by that man. Booker was a good man in being stoic and not worrying her or any of us too much.” “You know, he’s always been like that. I remember once him having a broken hand during a football game.” She asked how he’d gotten it. “He was the quarterback. I guess he was too good, and the other team thought they could take him out. But he played the rest of the game and even won before he let on that he was injured. I should have remembered that.” Rayne went to tell Charlie that she was spending the night. Wats told her that Booker was going to be fine but that he’d sustained a larger issue. Charlie had to threaten his life before he finally told her what had happened. She sat there for several moments without speaking, only to look at them with tears in her eyes. “He said he loved me. We only met today, but it seems right. I don’t know what to do about it. I mean, we only just met.” Rayne asked if she loved him. “Yes. I don’t know how that happened either, but knowing what he did for me today makes me love him all the more.
Does that make sense to you?” “Absolutely. It’s the same thing for Wats and I.” Rayne sent Wats on an errand while she sat on the side of the bed with Charlie. “He’s going to be fine, you know. And if he won’t behave, one of the others will sit on him until he does.” “Wats asked me to be his partner in his office. Are you going to be all right with that?” Rayne told her she was, that she was family now. “I guess I will be. Josiah, he was certainly confused. But he was really nice about not giving us up about the lie. It was nice, too, being called Mrs. Wilkerson.” “It is. Very nice. And you couldn’t be joining a better family.” Rayne called in the staff to make sure they started an IV for her, and told her that she’d let her know when Booker was out. Then when she left Charlie to her nurse, she stopped at the desk and asked if they could put Booker into the room with Charlie. “They’ll be roaming the halls if you don’t.” “We can arrange that, Dr. Wilkerson. My goodness, there are going to be a lot of you Wilkersons around here, aren’t there? We’ll have to make sure we use your initials, or we’ll all be messed up.” Rayne nodded and left to find Wats. It was the first time she’d been called Doctor Wilkerson by staff. It felt damned good. As they waited for Booker to come out of surgery, Rayne made a couple of phone calls. One to her aunt to let her know where they were, and the second call to Josiah.
He had asked her to call when they found out anything. He told her that he’d be right there. Wats went home to get Louis so that he could hang out with the others. He was becoming a wonderful part of the family quickly. Rayne’s phone rang, and she almost didn’t answer it. Her aunt had called her several times over the last few days, and she wasn’t ready to talk to her yet. But this time, armed with her anger that her newest family members had been hurt, as well as liking Charlie, she answered the phone with her title and Wilkerson. “Where is Selma?” Rayne asked who it was, knowing full well that it was Aunt Becky. “Don’t be a smart ass. Tell me where that sister of mine is. I have a mind to give her a piece of my mind.” “I’m sure you couldn’t afford to give her any of your mind. You have seemed to lost your marbles anyway if you think that she’s going to forgive you for treating her and me the way you did.” Becky snorted. “You think I’m kidding? I’m not. I’m happy. I have children that I love and Aunt Selma to talk to when I need an adult. You were never there for me. While you didn’t beat me, you were so verbally abusive to me that it made me feel like shit all the time.” “I kept you in line.” This time she snorted. “Where is she? I want to know why she’s changed the locks on our house. I need to get in and get some things out of it.” “Not without the police and Aunt Selma there you’re not. Besides, it’s not ‘our’ home. It’s Aunt Selma’s. She told me how you moved in with her like she needed you.” Aunt Becky said she had. “Nope. Aunt Selma is a good deal stronger than you’ve ever given her credit for. Besides, I’m thinking you need to find yourself a home anyway. She’s selling that one soon.”
“Why would she—? You did that, didn’t you? Just to see me on the streets. Well, I have money, so I can buy any home I want. You just wait and see.” Rayne told her she didn’t care if she had a house or not. “What a rude person you’ve turned out to be. My goodness, I should probably have beaten you once or twice to get that nastiness out of you. You should be nicer to me. I’m the only relative you have besides Selma. Did she tell you that she’s dying? Well, she is.” “We’re all dying, Aunt Becky. And you both being in your seventies isn’t a big stretch in knowing that you’re going to die too. But if you mean the cancer, yes, she told me about it. She also told me she’s in remission. I have a feeling you would have left that part out had I not heard.” Nothing. Not a denial or anything. “By the way, Grandda is fine as well. He’s been having fun with our children. He said it makes him feel decades younger to be a great grandda.” “He should have died long ago, the old buzzard. He’s just hanging on because he wants one of us to die first.” She thought that was as good a reason as any and told her aunt that. “Have you always been a terrible person, or am I just noticing it?” “Always have been. Always will be.” She saw the surgeon coming down the hall. Charlie was just joining them in a wheelchair when he stopped to talk to them all. “I have to go. I’m not asking you for permission to hang up, Aunt Becky, because I know you well enough to not allow it. But I’ll talk to you some other time.” Simply closing the connection, she stood up when Doctor Moran Davis sat across from Charlie. Since he and everyone else was going on the notion that she was Booker’s wife, he was going to speak to her first. “He’s come through well. The bullet didn’t do much damage.
But he will need to rest up and behave himself for the next week or so. He had a lot of injuries and is lucky his head is hard.” He looked at Wats. “I did take a look at his head. You’re right. It was a good-sized gash. I opened it up while I was in the sterile room and washed it out while I had him under. I hope you don’t mind that I did that.” “No. I’m glad you did it. I don’t want anything to happen to him.” Wats looked relieved. “I was concerned when he wasn’t arguing with us about bringing him in. He’s not one to go to the doctor all that well.” “Well, he’s in good hands, I believe.” Doctor Davis looked at Charlie. “I’m to understand that you’re going to be a physician here as well. You need anything, Charlie, you just let me know. I’m new as the head of this department, and I’m trying to make my way into getting things on a better standing between doctors and nurses. If you need anything, I’m serious, you just call me or come by.” It was another hour before they got to see Booker. Rayne could tell he was in a great deal of pain, so when he was taken to his room, sharing it with Charlie, she rushed the rest of them out of the room so he could get some meds and rest. Yes, Rayne thought this was a good family to be in with. Louis was holding Wesley’s hand when he got off the elevator. It was a good sight to see, the two of them. When he saw her, he came to her slowly. As soon as he was close enough, she gave him a big hug, then pulled out her phone to show him what they’d gotten for him today.
“The bunk beds will be nice if you want to have someone stay over. And look at this old flag. I thought if you wanted to, you could hang it on your wall.” He looked at the pictures as she showed him, and she knew he had questions. “If you don’t like it, Louis, we can sort that out later. I just thought bunk beds would be nice for your new room.” “Are you going to send me back?” She asked him where she’d send him. “To my dad. He will come and get me. I don’t ever want to go back there again. I like having stuff I can wear that is clean and stuff.” “I like you being there with us too, Louis. But in answer to your question, no, he’s not going to get you again. They found your momma. Did you hear that?” He nodded. Louis had told the police that she had been buried in the back yard near the apple tree. “And Brenda is in jail too. They’ll never get by any of us to get to you again. I swear to you on my life.” He played with her badge while he stood there next to her. She didn’t rush him. The teachers she’d spoken to about Louis said he was a thinker and that if someone rushed him, he’d tighten up tighter than a rubber band around a wrist. When he did look up at her, she smiled at him when he grinned. “Grandpa Wesley said him and me would go fishing.
I’ve never been, but when he told me he’d not been in years, I thought for sure he was kidding me.” Rayne couldn’t imagine the man with a fishing pole in his hand. “He told me if I wanted to, and I got good grades, him and me could have a lot of first times together. He even wants to go camping with me. I’ve slept outside before. I don’t think it’ll be the same with him, do you?” “No. I’m sure you’re going to have all the things necessary to make it a safe and fun trip. You might even make your food over an open fire.” He warmed to that idea, then looked at her pictures again. “Do you not want the bunk beds?” “No. I want them. That way, when Grandpa Wesley comes to read to me, we can rest up in the same room. He’s pretty tired when he leaves me at night.” She’d known Wesley was reading to Louis, just not that it had been nightly. “I’ll be a really good boy for you, Mrs. Wilkerson. I promise you.” “I know that, Louis. But not too good, all right? I mean, we have to be able to ground you to the house so we can spend more time with you once in a while.” She tickled him until he yelled for mercy. When Wats joined her in their talk, she went to check on Charlie. She woke her up, she thought. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I was watching Booker.” Coming into the room when asked, she stood by the bed so she could see how Charlie was doing. “I think my mom wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that I fell for a Wilkerson. I mean, sheesh, she surely did talk about them a great deal. I’m so happy I’m going to be a part of this family that I could bust.” “I know how you feel.” They both watched Booker breathing. “I just learned that you’re going to have to keep an eye on Booker. He’s sometimes a little stubborn when he’s hurt and won’t go to get checked out. They all have stories about him doing that.”
“I will.” Charlie took her hand into hers. “Thank you.” Rayne asked her for what. “Not treating me like I wasn’t good enough for him. For welcoming me to the family with open arms. I can’t believe it’s only been a few days, but I feel like I’ve known you all forever. It’s a wonderful feeling.” “It really is.” She sat there with Charlie for a little while longer. As her eyes finally closed, she checked on Booker and left them there. She was glad to have a family like this one. Rayne would be on her toes to keep them healthy and well, but she was looking forward to that as well.