Apparently, the sanding I’d started working on at the Moran’s house had lead in it. Oh, joy. After I’d been sanding for a few days, lead had been discovered in the paint on the baseboards, and this had been after finding and dealing with a termite infestation, a heavy coating of black mold under the tiles in the rear bathroom and leaky water pipes. Work had halted while the Morans discussed whether they wanted to keep the current structure or not. Ultimately, they had no choice. It collapsed in on itself one night toward the middle of February.
As my job was mudding and painting, I was temporarily out of a job. I mean, there wasn’t much work during the winter, mainly small additions or interior work, but there was barely enough of that kind of work for his full time employees. Due to expense and weather restrictions, starting a building from scratch is not common practice. The Morans were getting antsy living out of a motel and wanted it done so they’d decided to pay the extra expenses, but it was still going to take time to just clear the site and build the framework. In the meantime, Peter offered me a part-time job at the café. Now, I worked there a couple days a week.
“You should go to the hospital,” Basil interrupted my thoughts.
“I don’t need to,” I retorted. He’d been trying to get me to go all week. I’d been feeling ill since they’d discovered Karen Ellory’s body at the Moran’s house a week ago after having cleared the rubble. Broken pipes and had created quite a pool before the water had been turned off. It was so cold that it had partially frozen and they’d had to set up a heated tent to melt it and remove the water. That’s when they found her. She’d been dead for nearly a month since her body had to have been in the house when it collapsed from the fire. I swallowed and held my breath to keep the threatening bile down. My doctor ends up murdered in the house I’d been working on. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
“Yes, you do.” It took me a bewildered second to remember what we were talking about. Basil crossed his arms over his chest. I was the one who’d taken self defense but he was the one with all the muscle. No fair.
“When did you become the Big Bad Alpha?” I groused. I know you are supposed to be nice to customers but he wasn’t ordering. That meant he wasn’t a customer, right? I didn’t have to look up more than a couple inches, but it annoyed me that I had to do so at all while looking at my twin. My identical twin. Secondary genders really did make a difference. They could use a picture of us side by side to show biology students what puberty would do to an individual who went alpha or omega. It wasn’t common for twins to differentiate secondary genders like us, particularly when both parents also had the same secondary gender. I ground my teeth. “I wore a mask and glasses and that was a weeks ago. Besides, they were there too.” I waved my hand around to indicate those of his crew who’d joined him for lunch
“And they got tested,” he shot a look at the two men standing at his back who were studying the menu behind me while pretending to not be listening. “Right?” he asked them.
They started and the younger one, Beet, blushed the color of his namesake. “Yessir.”
Markham, a middle-aged Nordic looking alpha probably in his 70s, just shook his head. “I wasn’t in the same room as him most of the time. But Manny was in there a lot without a mask and went into the clinic last week when he started feeling nauseous, just in case.”
Basil just looked at me as if that were an answer.
I rolled my eyes. “I feel fine. Either order or take a hike.”
He grabbed my wrist to stop me and it was an ordeal to not bend one of his fingers back to break his hold. “What?” I snapped.
His eyes just narrowed. “Get checked out.”
I just growled non-commitally, pulling my arm from his grip. He nodded his head once as if I’d conceded, prick, and ordered a black tea and a ham and cheese croissant sandwich before sitting at a table by the window overlooking the river.
Behind them was a man poking at his laptop who’d been nursing a black coffee since before I’d started my shift an hour ago. Haven hadn’t really taken away my babysitters that night, but I could appreciate that he at least had them be more inconsipicuous. I hadn’t been on the run for a decade for nothing, after all. I guessed with Karen Ellory’s death he’d been allowed to extend the length of time he could have someone watch me.
My first instict that night had been to run. I’d been taking the trash out when Avery had visited me a week shy of Febuary’s new moon. Nights were getting darker and shadows deeper as the moon waned. The bin was full and the bag I was adding would keep the lid from closing, but tomorrow was trash day so it wasn’t too big a deal.
I don’t know why I turned away from the house. Maybe it was a noise. Maybe it was the flash of a silvered outline in my periphery. Or maybe I was just running on paranoia. Whatever the reason, I did turn. In the tree, maybe twenty feet up, sat a long crested eagle. It stared at me, it’s reddish-brown feathers seemingly black in the dark. I watched as the bird stretched out its wings, feathers folding and shrinking, bones cracking, joints popping and he sat naked on a limb that didn’t look like it could hold his weight.
“Hello, Robert.” I forced blitheness into my voice even as I white-knuckled the trash bag. “What brings you here this fine evening?” It wasn’t like I could run, he was faster than me and if I shifted his eagle would snag me just like he had in the forest. Though, if he made a move that would be my safest option. If I called for help, he might think I’d spilled his secret and take revenge as he’d told me he would the night my parents died. More than all that, though, I wanted answers. What I didn’t expect was the one he gave me.
“I need your help. Avery Lange is here.”
My veins clogged with ice and my lungs shivered. I spun, eyes trying to penetrate every shadow, scrutinizing every odd shape and sudden movement. “What? When? Why?” In my frantic movements I bumped into something solid and dove away from the loud crash that followed only to disover the top-heavy trash can had fallen. Fear coiled like a thorned-vine around my spine and I looked back at Robert. Or rather the empty space where he had been moments before.
I remembered the broken golf club I’d found in Basil’s front closet and moved to retrieve it from the fallen garbage. Then Haven’s voice sounded behind me and I remembered where I was and, more importantly, who I was with. I may not be safe, per se, but there was safety in numbers and Haven counted for more than one. I’d told him I was okay but couldn’t keep my eyes from searching for enemies in the shadows as I reset the trashcan and headed back inside.
My flight reflex was on high alert for the next few days, and I would have run except I hadn’t a moment to myself. Basil had moved his computer to the living room and was constantly checking on me when I left the room, Haven was there in the evenings for dinner and a movie or game, and even Kate had dropped by with the now healthy and engergetic Ryan and Liam for a playdate which turned into a multi-night slumber party. Schools had shut down due to ‘weather’ but that was code for ‘manhunt’. Ryan was the real babysitter, but it seemed he was watching me more than the kids. We even ended up making a blanket fort and the kids insisted I sleep in it with them.
It was annoying at first. I felt a driving need to leave, to get away so that everyone I loved would be safe. As the days passed and fear loosened its grip on my heart a little I was able to think more clearly. Running wasn’t a real option. I’d tried to run before and my parents paid the price. If it hadn’t been for Robert, I would’ve joined them. If Avery was coming for me again, I couldn’t run. I needed to find Robert.
As an eagle, though, he had more range and was harder to find by scent. Not to mention I still had my tail to deal with. I looked back at the man with the tablet. He was putting it in a case and tucking it into a backpack. I sighed. He’d stayed for my whole shift and my next chaperone was already waiting for me, I was sure. After hanging up my apron with ‘The Daily Grind’ arcing over the mortar and pestle logo and grabbing my coat and bag, I was surprised to see Kate waiting for me outside.
“Hey, cuz. We need to talk.”
Turns out ‘talking’ was code for kidnapping. We’d stopped at home (I seemed to have become entrenched at Basil’s) so I could get a proper change of clothes. Kate wasn’t a fashion critic but she still vetoed the baggy black sweater that had two men riding a zombie t-rex. I wound up wearing a plain black t-shirt with a pair of blue jeans. I’d put on a little weight living this sedentary lifestyle. Well, sedentary compared to before. Anything but dark colors would highlight my lack of proper exercise. I really did need to hit the gym again. On second thought, I grabbed the sweater anyway, just in case wherever we were going was too warm to wear my winter coat inside.
“Aren’t we supposed to kidnap the bride-to-be for a bachelorette party? Not one of the groomsmen?” She’d shoved me in her car and told me she was stealing me from under her brother’s nose for Nita’s bachelorette party. She hadn’t been fooled either.
“Oh, we are, but, well, this is a last minute thing. Haven’s kinda had other things to worry about lately.” Boy was that an understatement what with Murrel’s ex-wife being found dead in town when she was thought to have left and her son missing. I grimaced. “And Rayen…” She trailed off and I looked away from the buildings rolling by to see her worrying her lip.
“What’s wrong with Rayen?” She was making me nervous. Rayen was a sweetheart and I couldn’t bear to think anything was wrong with her.
Kate glanced aside at me and blushed. Kate blushed.
“A hotdog?” I was deliberately being obtuse. “A bamboo shower mat?” Where Haven kept his straight black hair in a long braid down to his waist, Kate had her blonde curls cropped short. This made it easy to see her pale skin redden. She blushed in blotches like me. So I poked some more. “No, I got it,” I said snapping my fingers, “she’s expecting you to sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ at karaoke tonight.”
She swung to smack the back of my head but I ducked, laughing, pressing against the door. She settled for a good jab to my shoulder. “Ow,” I groaned through bursts of giggles, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Congratulations.”
She just nodded, back to watching the road ahead. “We’re here.”
I sat up straight, wiping my eyes as I unbuckled my seatbelt. Then I looked out the window and my smile got wiped off my face as well. “No. No-no-no-no-no.” Pinkerton’s. Why were we back at Pinkerton’s?
“What’s wrong? It’s the best place in town. Hell, it’s the only place in town.”
I sighed as I stepped out of the car, resigning myself. It wasn’t like it was the locations fault I’d had a bad experience last time I was here. Actually, now that I thought about it, it hadn’t ended up so badly after all. But when I followed Kate throught the front entrance, several bleary eyed alphas grinned lasciviously at me. Nope. Nevermind. I still wasn’t a fan. They must’ve rented the whole place for the wedding shower last time.
I kept close to Kate as we wound our way through the throng.
As we neared a booth on the other side of the dance floor I heard a high-pitched squeel. “Katyyyyyy!” Nita shrieked. She didn’t need to be quite so loud to be heard over the dance music. The booth was situated in a nice corner with high cushioned backs that diminished the music several decibels. “Did you get him?” Katy nodded and stepped aside, having easily been able to block line of sight between Nita and I. Nita glomped me, feet going around my waist and I had to take a step back to maintain my balance. She may be small but she was sturdy and her wolf would scare a bear.
I patted her back awkwardly waiting for her to let go. “Okay, yeah. Missed you, too.”
She took a deep breath before dropping back to the ground. “You smell good. Did you put on something special for a special someone?” She wiggled her eyebrows and poked me in the stomach as I unzipped my coat. I was glad I’d put the sweater on outside or she’d know it wasn’t muscle she was poking, but pudge. “Wow, been working out too huh?” She smiled at me as if she were sharing a secret. “Come on, let me introduce you to everyone. This is Laura, Brandy, James, Michael-not-Michelle, she didn’t choose it-”
“I was supposed to be a boy when my parents picked the name and when I came out a girl they decided to keep it.” The speaker was a blonde woman with an aquiline nose and eyes like the night sky, the lights in the club reflecting off them like stars. It was a little unnerving. “I actually kinda like it.”
“And that is Caleb,” Nita finished. “Everyone, this is Haven’s boyfriend and my best friend from high school, Keelan.”
I nod to the table in general, glad the lighting wasn’t likely to give my blush away. “Nice to meet you.”
Everyone went back to their conversations after a wave and smile, a couple going so far as to add ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome’. While not rude I got the feeling that they weren’t thrilled with my presence. Michael, however, never took her eyes off me as I scooted in next to Caleb leaving space for Nita on the outside.
I tried to ignore her, turning back to Nita. “So, where’s Lavinia? She take over a hotel or something?”
“Oh, no. My love is right over there.” She pointed at the mass of bodies on the dance floor and as the sea of flesh parted here and there I caught glimpses of a table across the way where Livinia sat with Jaci and several people I didn’t know. As I watched, Alex approached their table with some fanfare and a tray of shots. I lost sight of them as an R&B line dance started up. A waitress walked up to our table and Nita immediately called for shots for the table.
“Why don’t we have something to eat first, sis, I’m starving.” I looked around to see Rayen slipping into the booth next to Kate, practically melting into her side with a short kiss. I felt a pang of jealousy. Not because I wanted with either of them, Kate was my cousin, but because I wanted to be able to do that to. Except when Haven replaced Nita next to me just a few seconds later, I didn’t have the gall to emulate them. I hadn’t even realized he’d been there and I wasn’t huge on PDA. Well, not anymore.
“Pizza! I vote for pizza,” he said, slipping an arm possessively around my waist and sliding me over until we touched from knee to shoulder. I may not have been able to make a move, but Haven had no compunction. I sat stiffly, face flushed, but I didn’t hate it. Not at all. It was just that it offered private information to anyone watching and I’d become a very private person.
“I want anchovies,” Caleb said from my other side. Everyone around the table made a face. Well, everyone except Rayen. There were calls of garlic bread, extra cheese, pineapple, pepperoni, all meat, and veggie supreme.
“Ooooh, anchovies,” Rayen said with an exaggerated look of bliss on her face. Of her siblings she looked the most traditionally Native American and there was a glow to her bronzed skin that could make the Moon Goddess jealous. But, ugh, her choice of foods made me grimace.
“Would you like a few minutes?” The waitress asked, impatiently trying to keep her host smile keyed in.
“No, we’ll order now,” Nita broke in with a contagious grin that caused the waitress’s smile to settle more genuinely. “We’ll have one veggie, one cheese, and two supreme, all large. And this expectant mother here,” she indicated Rayen, “will have a personal sized anchovie.”
“What about me?” Caleb asked.
“Make that a medium,” Nita grinned, her fingers lightly brushing the woman’s wrist.
“With pickles,” Rayen chimed in.
“With pickles,” Nita repeated to the waitress.
“If there’s anything else, let me know,” the woman winked, winked, at Nita and headed back to the kitchens.
While we waited, the party broke off to go dancing or visit Lavinia’s side. Haven asked if I wanted to go, but I just said I’d wait for the food. I didn’t want to tell him Lavinia would likely be happier if I didn’t go visit her. It wound up being just me and Michael, who’d eyed the press dancing with a grimace, sitting in the booth.
“I suppose I should say congratulations,” Michael said.
I looked away from the glass of water I was rolling between my hands to see if there was anyone else the might’ve walked over that she could be talking to.
“I’m sorry?” I asked when I saw no one.
“I said congratulations.”
“For what? Nita’s the one getting married.” They way she tilted her head slightly and stared at me as if she were watching a particularly fascinating science experiment was a little unsettling.
Her eyes narrowed. “Right.”
Nita popped up right then with two shot glasses and set them in front of me and Michael, and I was ready to do anything to avoid Michael’s gaze. Unfortunately, before I could grab the shot glass, Michael had whisked it away, the liquid sliding down her own throat. A glance down told me she’d already drunk the one set before her.
“Hey,” I squawked, “that was mine.”
“Not anymore,” she responded amiably. “Besides you really shouldn’t be drinking.”
“I can hold my liquor,” I grumbled.
“I’ll get you another one,” Nita said concilliatingly while shooting a glare at an unfazed Michael.
“Oh, look, food’s here.” On the heels of Michael’s words, the waitress appeared with a helper and set up the pizza’s on stands and Nita clapped in delight. My mouth watered at the sight of it, but my stomach churned at the smell of anchovies, sizzling meat and garlic. I had no time to climb out from the table and make it to the restroom. I reached for something, anything, that would keep me from ruining everyone’s dinner. Michael handed me something and I threw those godforaken cookies back out the entrance. When I was done, I wiped my mouth with a napkin feeling remarkably better. Until I looked at the chosen vomit catcher and realized it was her purse. Well, fuck.
I set it down, snapped it shut and pushed it back towards her. “Thanks. And, uh, I’m sorry.”
“Morning sickness is a bitch, isn’t it.” My head whipped around to see Rayen grinning evilly at me. I was stunned. This couldn’t be happening. She was wrong. She had to be. Then I took in the small half-circle of people around her which included Kate, Alex and one very tall, very shocked, Haven.