Turns out my taking-my-bags-to-Haven’s gesture didn’t turn out quite as planned. I was back to living at Basil’s. This time, however, Haven seemed to have sort-of moved in too. Not that he actually moved anything more than a duffle bag into the house, but he hadn’t really gone home either.
It seemed I was back to being babysat. Haven hadn’t wanted me to stay at his place while he was at work until the situation was resolved. So, I decided I was going to make the best of it and welcomed everyone who visited with me during the day by making food, offering beverages, setting up movies, pulling out games, and even offered kid friendly entertainment. That’s how my brother’s house turned into a makeshift daycare.
It wasn’t like we were the only people in town behaving this way. Since Kelly Merlo put out that article, the tension in Hidden Pines had become like trying to wear a pair of jeans half-a-size too small. It’ll fit, but just barely and you never know when the seems will rip or the zipper bust.
Aunt Peggy started dropping by nearly every day with a bake-n-go meal for the house. Just now she’d brought by the most delicious smelling lasagna, making my stomach rumble. I knew the kids were hungry when they all piled into the kitchen like a human snowball as soon as the oven popped open. Kate and Rayen followed sedately with a small distance between them and the kids. Kate was hovering around Rayen, making sure she had everything she needed, while the latter mostly did her best to ignore her wife as she talked to her youngest brother, Jaci.
It was Ryan, therefore, who was directing the little ones where to sit while Samson got out plates and silverware. Ryan’s twin sisters, Rindle and Rory, fought to sit next to Sean’s high-chair. Erin slipped past Ryan in the hubbub and came over to me, stretching her neck out while on her tiptoes to see into the oven.
“Careful, honey, it’s hot. You don’t want to get burned do you?” She took a big step back while staring me in the eyes mulishly, then squeaked as Ryan scooped her up and plopped her between Sean and the twins on the far side of the table, in what I assumed was a punishment move for them not cooperating.
I placed hot pads on the counter before going back to the oven and bending down to retrieve the first glass pan, but my center of gravity being what it was and a bump from behind had me tipping forward faster than I meant to and I quickly grabbed the edge of the counter, my heartbeat drumming.
Alex helped me out of the awkward lean and Aunt Peggy tsked. “Sorry, love, I didn’t mean to knock you over. You should go sit down, I’ll get this,” she said as she set the first of the dishes on the hot pads.
“I’m not an invalid,” I retorted as I retrieved a spatula and knife and turned back to cut the lasagna.
Which I didn’t get to do as Alex promptly took the utensils with a ‘thank you’ and a wink and set to work dividing and placing slices on plates. “Hey!” I squawked. “I was going to do that,” I said as if he needed clarification. Clearly, he did know that had been my intent.
“And what would I tell Haven if you ended up chopping off a finger?” He grinned at my glare. “Look at it this way, you’re helping my future children by letting me do this.”
After a minute of glaring, I huffed out a sigh and patted his cheek. “I’ll remember this.”
Even though Basil had a large table, we still had to squeeze in extra place settings, making me happy the kids could pretty much squish onto one side leaving the ends and the opposite side open. I sat on the end by Sean so I could practice parenting. Jaci sat on my other side like one of the first moving pictures where all the sound for the film was provided by in person musicians. Only the musicians here hadn’t seen the movie or even followed the same sheet music for that matter.
I checked my phone. It was already noon the day after May’s new moon and I’d heard nothing about Haven or anything happening at the old haunted mill, the suspected location of the final scene. Basil had been gone when I woke up and Alex had been making breakfast. I checked my phone again.
Kate and Rayen decided it was time to head home as soon as the kids were done eating. They were taking Sam and Erin as well since they’d arranged for a slumber party at their house, which I declined an invite to. Spending the day with the rambunctious kids was enough for me at the moment. Aunt Peggy announced she was going to do the dishes and ordered Jaci to help her just as he was about to sneak through the hallway door. I wasn’t sure where Alex had run off to but he’d clearly gotten the jump on Jaci for getting out of dish duty.
I turned back to Sean who was still obstinately staring at his steamed broccoli, refusing even to try it, after he’d wiped out the lasagna, and I was not sure whether I was going to give up or make a last ditch effort to get him to eat it. If I couldn’t get Sean to eat his vegetables, would I make a good dad? Large arms slipped around my middle before I found out what I was going to do and came to rest on my stomach. I relaxed as I patted his hands and his chin sagged to my shoulder.
I turned to give him a peck on the cheek. “Welcome back.”
“You tried to give him plain broccoli?” Basil said, swooping in and snagging one of the rejected vegetables from Sean’s plate and popping it in his own mouth.
“Well, I thought he’d be a little more like his Papa, but…” I waved my hand at the tray. “Maybe he’s more like his dad.”
Basil’s eyes clouded for a moment before he nodded sagely. Picking up a piece of broccoli he dipped it in the leftover lasagna sauce and picked up three pieces of scattered cheese and made a smiley face on the top of the broccoli. “Tada!” He showed Sean the face and the child giggled. While his mouth was open my brother popped the broccoli into his mouth. The boy’s face scrunched in offense, then confusion as he open-mouth chewed it. After swallowing he picked up another broccoli and handed it to his papa to repeat the service.
“Hey, Batman, why’re you home so early? I thought you were finally starting back up at the Moran’s house.”
He shook his head, making faces at his son. “Nope. Well, yeah, my team got started the on the rebuilding process today, but I’ve been at the haunted mill.”
“Check out the structure from a construction worker’s point of view. See if I saw anything… off.”
“You mean something aside from charred walls?”
“Something smells good,” Haven said, distracting me as he lifted his head to look around the kitchen. “Any leftovers?”
“Aunt Peggy made lasagna,” his face lit up until I continued, “but it’s all gone. Sorry, love.”
He sighed, kissing me under the ear. “Well, I guess we’ll have to grab something on the way back.” I looked up at him questioningly but he was looking at Basil, who nodded.
“Did something happen?” I asked.
“No, not a thing. Last night was quiet and we’ve been searching the mill’s ruins all morning but we haven’t found anything.”
I frowned, turning to face him. “Just because you haven’t found anything doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
“If a tree falls in a forest, huh?” Haven sighed. “I know. Maybe it wasn’t the right spot?”
“We should look at the neighboring buildings,” Basil added.
I thought a minute, then shook my head. “I don’t know. I was sure it was there. Maybe there was a hidden passage or a false floor or something. Or maybe we got the day wrong?”
“If that’s true we should focus more manpower on finding their base of operations instead. You know, be proactive rather than reactive,” Alex said as he wandered back into the kitchen eating a handful of berries he got from who-knows-where.
“I’ll leave that to you then,” Haven said, “I’ve gotta head back to the site. Basil, if you’d rather stay-”
“No, I’ll come.” He’d picked up Sean at some point and was finishing up wiping his face down with a washcloth. “Arkham, do you mind-”
“Not at all.” I lifted Sean back into my arms.
“Haven, you should stay here and get some rest,” Alex said. “I’ll go with Basil.”
Haven frowned at his partner, but it was Basil who asked, “Did you sleep at all today?”
“Sure I did,” Alex grinned. “I got a solid forty winks.” Jaci shook his head and rolled his eyes from the sink behind Alex, while Aunt Peggy muttered something about spending all day doing his best impersonation of a jungle gym.
“So you basically got a power nap,” Haven said. “No, you stay here. Sleep. You’re no use exhausted. You should have Kiki come over as well.”
“Like you’re any better off. And she went back west to see her family.”
“Oh, that’s good. Least she’s safe. Also, I am better off. I got a few hours in last night in the car.” He shrugged. “Not my fault you refused.”
Alex mock-gagged. “I don’t understand anyone who can sleep in cars.”
“Depends on the car,” Jaci said as he and Aunt Peggy sat back down at the table each with a cup of tea. “You want some?” he asked me and I nodded, easing myself back down onto a chair. I circled the hot mug with my fingers and took a sip.
“Besides, how am I supposed to sleep here when I have to be on guard?” Alex continued. “I might as well go to work.”
“Ugh, why don’t you all go,” I snapped. God, I missed my coffee. “Aunt Peggy and Jaci are here and nothings happened. We’ll be fine.”
“Robert should be back soon, as well,” Aunt Peggy said. I appreciated that she had all but welcomed my friend with open arms, but I wasn’t so sure he’d be back. I was pretty sure he’d gotten out of the deal with the dragon he’d made, or at least had found a way to make a run for it. I didn’t blame him and I wasn’t going to expose him. Guess I really was that friend you’d call to help hide a body. “You boys should get going if you’re going.”
Alex threw his hands up in the air as Basil added his stern stare to Haven’s. “Fine, I’ll stay.” To me he said, “I’ll be on the couch if you need me.” I bit my lip to hold back a grin.
After giving me a kiss that made me think he might stay after all, Haven and Basil headed out.
I sighed and headed for a cupboard in the corner that hid a lazy susan. “Want some grasshoppers?” I asked Jaci, pulling out the mint-chocolate cookies and bringing them back to the table. Aunt Peggy had taken charge of putting Sean down for a nap.
“Sure,” Jaci said, nibbling a corner off one of the cookies. “It’s good to have you back. I don’t think my brother has ever been quite… whole, since you left. Like you took a part of him with you.”
“Honestly, I think I left a part of myself here.” I thought for a moment. “Didn’t get it back until I decided to stay.”
“Really? You’re staying?” An energetic smile for Jaci looked like a lazy smile on anyone else, but I could tell. I’d spent enough time around their family when I was dating Haven.
I snorted. “See this?” I pointed at my stomach. “This is a fake belly I bought online. It’s really just an inflatable balloon in silicone. I’m just trying to get your brother to marry me so I can take half of everything when I leave him next time.”
Jaci smacked my shoulder with the back of his hand. I winced and sucked in a breath.
“Woah, I didn’t hit that hard did I?” he asked.
“No,” I pressed a hand against the side of my stomach. “Don’t think he liked me joking like that. He punched my kidney.”
He snickered. “Serves you right. You make sure to keep your dad in line,” he told my belly.
We sat in companionable silence for a little while before Jaci asked, “So, you think Avery’s at the center of this thing?” Then it clicked.
“Oh, my god, Jaci, you’re a genius,” I exclaimed as I jumped to my feet. Okay, so I didn’t jump. I might as well have been wearing a backpack full of books backwards. So, it was more like an awkward interpretive dance move as I spread my legs a little wider than normal and pushed up on the arms of the chair while arching my back somewhat until I was standing upright. Maybe I should’ve taken on of the higher sitting chairs, while at the same time, if this was five months what would nine months be like?
“That looked difficult.” Jaci took a sip of tea, likely hiding a small smile.
“You could’ve helped you know,” I said, rubbing my back as I stretched.
“Sure,” he nodded, “but I only thought of that too late since I was in awe of your prowess.”
“Shut up,” I swatted the back of his head. “Make some more tea will ya? But something else this time? Peppermint is getting old.”
“Fine. Kill me why don’t ya.” I trudged up the stairs, heading toward my room and my laptop.
Aunt Peggy stepped out of Sean’s room, pulling the door closed until there was just a crack open. I was a little surprised as he usually put up more of a fight. The morning’s events must’ve really tuckered him out.
“Off to take a nap yourself?” she whispered.
“No,” I shook my head grinning, “I think I have an idea where to find Avery, I just want to check my theory.”
She looked at me sternly. “Don’t stress yourself out too much.”
I nodded and gave a little wave as I ducked into my room, adrenaline lighting my brain up. I marked a map online with the five locations of the ritual. There it was, right at the center, just as Jaci had said. I was sure of it. I sent a copy of the marked map to Basil’s printer and shut my laptop. I’d already made my way downstairs and to Basil’s study door only to realize that it was locked, kept so to make sure Curious Sean didn’t get into any of his work. I’d been planning on faxing the photo, but that wouldn’t work. I supposed I could send a copy to his email, but that would mean going back upstairs. I could do that later. Or I could call…
I turned to head for the kitchen and came face to face with an intruder who was sneaking in the back door. “Levi,” I hissed, “I thought you were leaving with your dad.”
His features fell into sullenness. “I don’t wanna go anywhere.”
“Levi,” I sighed, pulling him into a hug. “I know it’s hard but you’d be safe until this all blows over.” At first he didn’t hug back. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t seen him really touch anybody before. Not wanting to make him feel uncomfortable, I was about to let him go when his arms lightly wrapped around my waist. I couldn’t tell with his head tucked into my shoulder, but I got the impression he was crying.
I stroked his hair. “Hey, now. It’s okay.” It really wasn’t. After what we’d heard about Robert being blackmailed into working for Learza, who seemed to be working with Avery, Levi should really have let his father get him out of there. ‘Working for’ wasn’t the right term either since his ‘job’ was to be the last sacrifice. He was supposed to get a message, somehow, with a when and where and, though we’d been sure it was going to be the haunted mill last night, nothing had come of it.
Robert and Levi had supposedly taken Levi to the library this morning to try to focus on schoolwork, but Robert had told me goodbye. He hadn’t even said goodbye when he’s left me in Marshall Li’s custody years ago. I got it. He wanted to do what was best for his son, especially since reading the file made it more clear that his sister was with Avery willingly. A thought struck me.
“Hey,” I said, tilting my head to try to see Levi’s face. “Hey, where’s your father?”
Levi looked at me with wet eyes. “I don’t know.” He looked up at me guiltily. “I ran off.” He stepped back wiping his face of tears. He was one of those people who could cry prettily and seem almost immediately afterward as if they’d not shed a single tear. Sometimes, life was unfair.
“Well, why don’t we go have some tea,” Levi scrunched his face and I altered my suggestion, “or hot-cocoa, if you’d prefer, and wait for your dad to show up. He will you know. He loves you very much.” That just seemed to make Levi’s eyes seem more distant. Guess when you grew up not knowing your father, it was hard to believe he cared.
As soon as we stepped into the kitchen we were swarmed by Aunt Peggy and the others as they cooed over Levi and pestered him with where he’d been and where his father was. I just told them that Robert was on his way and until then we were going to have a nice cup of tea or cocoa and maybe watch a movie. Taking our drinks to go, we moved into the living room, appeasing a napping Alex with a cup of cocoa. He downed it as he moved to the recliner and promptly fell back to sleep.
I must have been more tired than I thought, because midway through ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, about the time the two men were chasing women who kept rejecting them, my eyelids started to droop. Shaking my head to try to wake myself up, I reached again for my tea. Mid-blink my eyelids didn’t want to reopen and I heard a thunk and felt a few drops of something hot and wet hit my face.