“Ash!” Small hands slipped around my shoulders from behind and squeezed for all they were worth. Which was a lot.
“Keelan!” the voice interrupted as the person who emmitted it moved into view. She was a diminutive creature, especially for an alpha. At five foot nothing she made me seen like a giant at 5’10”. Her small hand smacked her forhead lightly as she rolled her eyes and said, “Right. I keep forgetting. Sorry.” I knew she was in earnest and the smile that was never far from her lips made me shrug a shoulder, guilty for being so annoyed with her.
“Oh, my god.” Her hidden smile turned into a full-on grin. “I haven’t seen you in like forever and there is so much to catch up on.” She clapped her hands in rappid succession as she spied something over my shoulder. “But first,” I looked over my shoulder as a waitress, or was it bartender?, came over to us with a tray of drinks. “Shots.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” I sigh as I turn back to face Nita.
She grinned wider. “What? I don’t get to go out much these days. Steph is watching Erin until tommorrow afternoon so that Lavinia and I can have quality time with friends and family.”
I eyed the two shots she’d already downed between sentences. “Yeah. That’s why.”
“Oh, I’m not drinking these by myself.” She pushed six shots of baby guiness in front of me. “This is a social event, best man. Drink up.”
I froze mid reach for the first shot and stared at Nita.
She took her fourth shot and caught my eye. “You heard right, old friend. You’re going to stand up beside me as my best man. It’s the least you can do after bailing on me thirteen years ago.”
“But what about-”
“Oh, Haven and Rayen are standing up for me and Jaci and Alex are Lavinia’s groomsmen, since they shared an apartment in college, and her sister Amabilia is her maid-of-honor, .” I couldn’t get a word in edgwise so I threw caution to the wind and took a shot. “I’d’ve asked Galihali but she’s pregnant and you know what she’s like pregnant.” She paused with a grimace and my heart clenched. I took another shot. “Well, you don’t. But be thankful you didn’t have to be around for her first. She’d carry on about all the ways she could die and got herself into the mindset that she really was going to be one of the anomoly cases and she just had to write her last will and testament before she’d go into the delivery room.”
I choked on the third shot when the liquid battled for right-of-way with a laugh. A hand thumped my back as I spluttered to recover oxygen. “Careful, there. Drinking can be hazardous to your health.” I knew who it was by the rich cadence of his voice, accidently inhaling more liquid and causing more coughing. Moving out of his reach now was a thing I was physically incapapable of doing due to the burning liquid I was in the middle of evicting from my lungs. Once I could breathe normally again, Nita handed me some napkins to wipe myself off. They weren’t going to be nearly enough since I’d knocked down the other shot glasses during my coughing fit and the front of my shirt and jeans were soaked.
“Awww,” a swarthy man in a black leather coat said from the other side of Haven as he helped Nita try to mop up the small round table. If he hadn’t drawn attention to himself, I might have missed him in the dim lighting of the club. He was handsome, to be sure, and I would’ve been more disappointed at not being able to fully appreciate the view if not for the nearness of the larger man between us. “Who killed the KoolAid?”
“Excuse me,” I coughed, waving at myself, “while I move this eyesore to the restroom to clean up.”
“I’d let you borrow my clothes but…” Nita trailed off. Yeah, she was too small for me to even consider trying on her clothes. Her eyes brightened. “Haven! You keep a spare set of clothes in your car right?” He nodded slowly. “Great!” She turned to me. “You can change into Haven’s spare set-”
“Sorry, Nita,” Haven cut her off. I felt an strangly sharp needle glide into my chest. It seemed he was still very mad at me if he wouldn’t even let me use his spare set of clothes at a time like this. “My car is down for the count at Jaci’s shop.”
She immediately turned to the darker man, but before she could open her mouth he shook his head. “No can do, baby girl. This is my spare set,” he said motioning to himself. She harrumphed and cast me an apologetic glance.
“It’s okay.” I smiled to reinforce my statement. “Really.” I turned and made my way to the bathroom skirting the room to keep from getting my mess on anyone else.
I used a mountain of dry paper towels and another soaked in water to get the alcohol out of my clothes as best as humanly possible under the circumstances. Finally, I pulled open the door and who should be standing directly across the hall but Haven. He was leaning against the wall with both arms and ankles crossed and he wore a slightly loose, navy blue t-shirt that did nothing to disguise his pecs.
I cleared my throat. Twice. “I’m just gonna head out. Would you let Nita know?”
“You can tell her yourself if you really want to leave, but either way,” he held out the sweatshirt he’d been wearing earlier, “you can wear this.” It was black with a rockstar unicorn on the front and was clearly too big for me.
“Ah, no. No, thank you.” I put my hands up in front of me as if warding him off.
“I insist.” He draped it across my elbows. “It’s cold out tonight.”
He was right. I was a little chilly and I was still inside. Just the thought of going outside in wet clothes had me shivering. And I’d be out there a while if I took the bus. I sighed and slipped the sweater on. It smelled like spring rain and I took a deep breath in through my nose before I realized what I was doing. I was pretty sure by the flare of his nose that Haven scented my arousal and was thankful of the oversized sweater for a whole other reason than the one intended.
Speaking of oversized outerwear, I rolled up the sleeves a couple times and shoved the new wrist cuffs up to my elbows. It was still oversized on me, but now it looked more like a fashion statement than a boy playing pretend in his father’s clothes. I glanced up at Haven out of the corner of my eye and saw he was rather focused on my hidden beltline.
I gulped and cleared my throat as I started back toward the sounds of music. “We should head back to Nita. She’ll be wondering where we are.”
“She’s probably moved on by now.” I seriously hoped so, because I could leave without her cojolery or guilt as this situation had ultimately been her fault. Or maybe I could blame George for dragging me here. But life rarely works out the way you’d expect. She was talking to a group near the doorway to the hall we’d exited and extricated herself immediately, rushing over.
“I am so sorry,” she said, her words the tiniest bit slurred. Dang, she really must’ve hit the bar in the time I’d been gone.
I pinched my nose at the reek of alcohol rolling off her. “Jeez, Nita, you’re soused. How long was I in the bathroom?”
“The better question is,” she grinned slyly, “what were both of you doing in there? Isn’t that my brother’s sweater?”
My cheeks flushed and Haven and I started talking over one another.
“I wasn’t in the bathroom-”
“My clothes are wet-”
“and it’s getting cold out-”
“He just lent me his sweater-”
“So he wouldn’t freeze on his way home.”
Nita looked back and forth between us like she was watching a tennis match.“Uh-huh,” she drew out each syllable through upturned lips. “You know, I think there’s rooms still available at the Amble Inn next door. You know, if you don’t feel like you can wait until you get home.”
Ice threaded my spine, sapping away any desire I’d just felt. There was no way anything would happen. I couldn’t just undo the last decade and be with Haven again. I’d made my choices and had to continue to live with the consequences.
I forced my stiff features into what I hoped was an apologetic smile. “I’m just going to take the bus back to Aunt Peggy’s. It’s been a long couple days.”
“You shouldn’t go alone.” Haven said. “There’s a fugitive on the loose.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No, that’s okay. Like I said I’ll be fine.”
“I insist.” He wasn’t going to take no, so I just glared at him.
I blew out a breath and rolled my eyes. Whatever. “You insist a lot lately.”
Nita burst into a fit of the giggles. “You… you,” she gasped eventually, “You two should really see your faces right now.” She fell on her ass as her laughter grew.
We passed a woman with long raven hair on the way out and Haven put a hand on my shoulder to stop me as he paused and whispered to her motioning in the direction we’d just come. The room was so loud the only thing I’d heard was her name when he’d called out to her initially. Though Nita lacked height she made up for it with a strong build and this Lavinia played a great foil with her lean, willowy frame just a few inches taller than her alpha. She nodded to Haven and drifted away, and for a moment I wondered if she was a swan shifter.
I turned back to the exit only to be pulled up short by a mirror.
“Arkham,” my mirror said.
“Batman.” Saying our childhood nicknames was like a kick in the long-term memory. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been avoiding thinking about my brother until that moment. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I’d only planned on being here for a couple days and ridding myself from the town. I mean, what could I be to him? “I-”
He just shook his head as his jaw clenched and he scooted by me calling, “Lavinia! Sorry I’m late. My sitter quit and-”
I left. As quickly and unobtrusively as possible. I took a couple breaths of the chilled air. Of course Basil didn’t want to speak to me. I just needed to ask Aunt Peggy if she knew where mom and dad had their first kiss. I thought it had something to do with a tree, as cliché as that was.
A hand on my elbow stopped me. I spun, tearing my elbow away and shoving the heel of my other palm in the approximate direction of the attackers’ solar plexus. Haven ‘oomphed’ and took a step back, spine curling as he bent to suck in air. Right. Haven had been in the middle of ‘escorting’ me home.
“I told you I didn’t need an escort.” I refused to feel guilty. He’d touched me without warning. There was nothing to feel guilty about. Even if he was still sucking in air, trying to even his breathing. I shrugged and stepped back to keep from reaching out to him.
“I can see that,” he said finally, looking up at me. “Where’d you learn that?” Then his eyes widened. One minute I was standing a couple steps away the next I was in his arms after he’d gripped my arm again and pulled. A horn blared behind me as it passed. “That was a close one.” He hugged me even tighter before seemingly realizing it and letting go. The night seemed colder for some reason.
“Uh, yeah,” I said intelligently. So much for my self-defense classes. When was the session of training for dealing with exes I was still in love with?
“Um, sorry for, um.” Haven rubbed the back of his neck as he looked off to the side. “I borrowed Alex’s car to drop you off. It’s over here.”
“Doesn’t he need it?”
“Nah, he’s drinking already. His wife is coming later anyway and she doesn’t really drink so she’ll take him home.”
He started walking toward the parking lot I’d seen from the bus ealier that was just down the road. A glance at the bus schedule posted next to the bench at the bus stop told me that I’d be waiting another 20 minutes. I glanced between the direction the bus would come from and Haven, who’d stopped a little ways down to wait.
I sighed. I’d sighed a lot the past couple days. I was cold, tired and could feel that my massacre of paper towel hadn’t gotten as much sticky alcohol off as I’d thought. I needed a shower and the thought of waiting when I had another option seemed ridiculous. Even if the other option was my ex and the only man I’d loved.
His scent, so fresh and new while so familiar and old at the same time, whirled around the car’s interior from the heater and wearing his sweater didn’t help with the intensity of it. If my pants had been uncomfortable at the bar they were painful to wear right now. He seemed to look over at me more and more as time passed. He had to know my current situation which made me blush profusely. I readjusted the heating vents more fully on myself to cover how I’d quickly pulled the hood of the sweater up. That didn’t help my problem as much as I’d hoped. Neither did the smell of his own interest that mingled with mine in the car.
“We’re here.” Was it me or did his voice seem a little strained?
I looked out the window to see the single strand of blinking christmas lights lining the awning over the front door. I wondered if my aunt was one of those people who would keep the lights up until march. Uncle Joe would probably start insisting on packing Christmas away after New Years. Heck, my guess was that he’d probably already started nagging.
A car beeped in the neighbors drive and I looked over to see a man huddled in his parka getting out and locking the car with the key fob. How long had we been sitting here? I turned to say thank you and saw Haven staring straight ahead clenching and unclenching his jaw. I would’ve said that he was angry at me except that I knew he was clearly aroused by the outline of his pants. It was too much. So, I did what any sane person would do in this situation. I reached out and turned his face toward mine before pressing our lips firmly together. That’s all it was supposed to be.
But when he opened his mouth in surprise, all those late nights, early mornings and stolen hours came rushing back. His lips parted in surprise and I pressed my advantage, diving my tongue in to draw his out. His hand slipped around the back of my neck, his hand splaying to both support my head and take control of the kiss as he explored my mouth.
A horn blared in my ears and I jumped back my head hit the sunglasses storage on the ceiling. I’d been in the middle of climbing into his lap.
I stared at him in shock before I scrambled backwards without looking out the passenger door saying, “I’m sorry. I-” my butt hit the ground sharply and I oomphed.
“I’m fine,” I said as I scrambled to my feet then fidgeted with dusting myself off more than necessary as I desperately tried to think of something to say to negate what had just happened without being a complete dick. “Well… I guess, I should get inside.” I didn’t bend down to peer into the car or wave. I just turned and rushed toward the temporary safety of the house.
If I didn’t wheedle the location from Aunt Peggy the next morning I was going to leave. I swore it.
I sat down to dinner with Uncle Joe and Aunt Peggy two days later. Aunt peggy should have been in the Air Force as good as she was at evasive maneuvers.
It was one thing to say you were going to leave and another to do so on limited funds. I was great at doing odd jobs to get enough money to move on to the next place. I just hadn’t found one here yet. I’d asked Aunt Peggy a dozen times about the location of my parent’s first kiss since I’d run into Basil but she was very evasive. Most recently, she’d left to remove the meatloaf from the oven. I swear, it was as if she’d known when I was going to ask and had made dinner and set the timer accordingly.
Uncle Joe had the morning’s newspaper next to him, still working on the crosswords.
“Do they still put classifieds in those?” I asked motioning toward it.
He glanced up. “Of course there are, boy. Does it look like a rag mag?”
“Why don’t you help him find something,” Aunt Peggy said as she bussled in with the meatloaf, setting it on a hotpad in the center of the table. The mashed potatoes, greenbeans and corn were already out and waiting. “Your uncle knows everybody. Now lets say grace.”
I bowed my head as Uncle Joe griped not-quite under his breath before praying aloud.
Uncle Joe took a bite of meatloaf before asking, “So, what is it you’re looking for?”
There was no harm in telling them, I supposed. “I’m looking for a temporary job.”
“A temporary job? Why? There something you didn’t mention before?” He asked pointedly glancing at stomach with a raised eyebrow, a hint of laughter in his eyes.
I blushed. “No. That’s impossible. You have to have been with someone for that. I just-” It was one thing to tell them I needed a temporary job but another to tell them I needed one so that I’d could leave when my task was done. “I just need some cash. I’m running low.”
My aunt and uncle looked at each other, but if they were having a silent conversation with their eyes I didn’t know the language. “Well…” Uncle Joe started when aunt Peggy seemed to take a decided interest in cutting her meatloaf. “If you don’t mind hard work, I know somone in construction who could use some help.”
“Nope. I don’t mind. I’ve done a little in that area before myself.”
“Oh?” He rubbed his hands together gleefully. For some reason goosebumps started forming on my arms. “Then I’ll tell him you can start… hmmm, tomorrow?”
I nodded, a smile spreading across my face despite the ominous feeling that had crept up on me. “That’d be great.” Perfect. The sooner I worked, the sooner I got paid, and the sooner I was out of here.
Getting paid looked less and less likely the longer Basil stared at me. I wasn’t sure I needed a job that bad, but I couldn’t just walk away without trying to talk to the only immediate family I had left. Maybe it was cliché, but we’d really been like two peas in a pod growing up. Thinking back, I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment the pod had broken, but we’d been like strangers for a couple years before I’d gone into witness protection.
“Look, Batman,” his lips flattened and his eyes narrowed at the nickname. “Basil,” I corrected myself. “I just need a job for a little while, a week or two at most. Then I’ll be out of your hair.” His features seemed to condense more if that were possible. I looked to the side where a wall in the house had been torn down to expand the building and breathed. He wasn’t going to give me a job, but I’d known that. I pulled out a small box I’d been carrying around in my jacket pocket since I’d decided it was time to visit my childhood home.
The plain, small gift box felt heaver than the weight allowed for. I held it out my brother. “She would’ve wanted you to have this.”
Basil stared at me a few seconds more before picking up the box in my hand. He opened it and froze. He was looking at a steel ring that turned into hands cupping a heart and capped with a crown. The heart was made of white opal, color dancing through it where the light hit. Mom always said that opals were the true stone of love where every shad of color was welcome. His eyes seemed distant as they met mine again, almost seeing through me.
“But you always wanted mom’s wedding ring.”
“You know I did. But it was because you always lost things so easily. I was never going to keep it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was waiting for you to settle down. I was going to have an elaborate plan with your mate where- well, anyway I was going to present it to you as your best man during the part where the priest says ‘the rings’. You were always more fascinated by it and mom and dad’s story than I was. You were going to be so happy you cried.” Basil smiled. Well, I think it might have been a smile anyway. “And I was going to be the one who made you cry on your wedding day. So, bonus for me.” He barked a laugh and my heart clenched as he tamped it down. I looked away.
“Well… I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Where are you going?”
I paused. “Um, I saw an internet café just down the street so I thought I’d pop in to search for some job listings.”
“Quitting already? Thought you’d finally grown balls while you were away.” I looked back at him with what was most likely stupefaction. “Come on. It’s just a couple weeks, right? We’ll start you on spackling.” He clapped my shoulder, his face like granite, making take a half step to catch myself. Working construction seemed to have done wonders for his strength.