Chapter 26

Keelan

There was about a month or so between Rayen and my pregnancies, but she was at least as big as me. When I’d asked her about it she’d told me you start to show earlier after your first because your muscles have already been stretched. I just took another bite of cheesecake.

“Oh, that looks good.” I looked around to see a pair of big blue eyes devouring my dessert. These eyes were accompanied by an attractive fade cut topped with a stylish mop of mousy brown hair and a guileless smile that brought all the boys to the yard. At least it had in high school.

“Raiden?” I asked, stunned. I hadn’t seen him since he’d left town right out of high school saying he was going to make it big as an actor. We’d been best friends but we hadn’t really kept in touch, me for obvious reasons and him because he was never really good at long distance.

“Ashley,” he exclaimed, bouncing on his toes which made his hair flop. His smile went from radiant to blinding as he squealed and threw his arms around me. “Oh my goddess, you have to tell me everything. But first, that cheesecake looks divine. Haven, let’s quick run a plate through the buffet.” He turned away and for the first time I noticed he had a blue rope attached to his wrist that linked him to Haven. Haven opened his mouth to say something but Raiden had taken his connected arm in both of his, clasping it to his chest and pouting outrageously. “Please-please-please-please-please. I want some cheesecake before it’s all gone.” I raised an eyebrow at the use of his old tricks.

Haven gave me a strained smile and said through his teeth, “We’ll be right back.”

As they left, I heard Rayen growl and turned to her questioningly. She shrugged with a grimace. “They broke up last year. That little bitch was just playing with my brother until he found some guitarist that could buy him more pretty things.” She snorted derisively. “Wonder why he’s back.”

This speech didn’t really line up with what I remembered of him. He’d had a string of boyfriends, as well as a couple girlfriends, between middle school and high school, which made him flighty but he’d not been materialistic. Mostly they’d broken up with him for being too clingy and capricious. His tastes had seemed to change depending on who he was dating, but surely he knew himself by now. Okay, so maybe it did line up, especially if he’d had a lot of Hollywood beau.

When they came back Raiden was holding an overloaded plate, more like platter at this point, with just the fingertips of an expert hand while the other held tightly to Haven’s. I had to swallow at the sight. I had to take a moment to lock my jealousy into a closet before I noticed Haven’s face was blank and the hand that was in Raiden’s hung limp, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Love Me Knot would have put them together even if I’d participated as well. Legally I couldn’t, since the higher likelihood of hospitalization for pregnant individuals made the forcible attachment to another person risky. Yet, they looked good together.

I shrugged my shoulders to ease the tension that had settle there.

“I do hope you’ll all help me eat this, as I sure couldn’t finish it alone,” he beamed around the table as he set the plate in the center. Rayen just glared at the offending desserts and food was starting to taste like mulch to me so I declined. Raiden’s face drooped a little until Alex joined the table a moment later hailing him as the greatest host alive, pulling the platter over to himself and digging in.

“I don’t understand where you put it all,” Basil said as he took a seat beside Alex, one knee over the other and hands folded on top. Alex just grinned like a five-year-old, chocolate covered teeth and all. I did my best to avoid looking at Haven, letting my eyes wander around the gathering and noticed Levi sitting between a few of the local guards. He was hunkered between his shoulderblades as he worked in his drawing pad. They were probably giving him grief over who his father was.

“So, Ash, how’ve you- woah,” Raiden cut off when I swung my leg over the bench to head to Liam’s aid. I turned my face back to him with an apology about leaving so soon dying on my lips as I followed his gaze to my distended stomach. “Oh, my god, that’s so amazing!” He seemed to vibrate with energy. “How far along are you? Do you get morning sickness? Have you felt it kick? Is it a boy or a girl?” His eyes widened, “Oh, my gawd, who is the patriarch? Is it someone I know?”

He hadn’t given me any time to answer each question until the last one, when he paused with an eerily knowing grin. I took breath, feeling a flush creep up my neck, and couldn’t stop myself from briefly meeting Haven’s eyes before I responded. “Uh, yeah. You know him. Sorry, I have to go talk to someone for a second for, um,” another glance at Haven, “personal reasons.”

Without waiting for his reaction or more questions, I stood and wove through the crowd to Liam. As I approached I heard the Guardsmen discussing a body that’d been found on a farm somewhere to the south. 

“You know, four leaf clovers were once cultivated by tanuki and human witches in an attempt to create good luck,” I said over his shoulder as he doodled a clover that reminded me of Dr. Seuss books in that it had tiny people going about their days on it. It looked like a continuation of what he’d been drawing the other night and I wondered if, “do you like Dr. Seuss?”

He whipped his head toward me, eyes wide. The three Guardsmen around the table looked up at me at the same time. Two of them grimaced while the third rolled his eyes and they moved a few tables down..

“Um, huh?” Liam looked from me to the departing men with consternation.

“It looked like you were building a city on a clover. That sounds like something Dr. Seuss would do.”

“Oh, uh. Yeah.”

“Is it a happy city?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, his eyes sad.

“Who’s hand was holding the clover? Yours?” He didn’t respond or even look at me, but I had a feeling I was right. It had to be his hand there. He felt like an outsider looking in, like he didn’t fit. I knew the feeling. I smiled at him when he looked over at me. “Who wants to fit in anyway? It’s better to just be yourself.”

Was that guilt I saw? Before I could think much on it George walked up.

“Hey, they’re setting up for the three legged race,” he grinned.

I looked at his wrists and then glanced around pointedly, raising an eyebrow at him. “Where’s your partner?”

“What, you think I’d show my face before the Love Me Knot is untied? You must take me for a fool.” He shook his head slowly with mock condescension. I punched his shoulder and he winced.

“Come on,” I said turning a grin onto Liam. “Let’s go watch people be fools.”

He responded with a small lopsided smile. As we walked over to the roped of competition area, I secretly hoped my dear sweet friend Raiden tripped and fell on his face. He did. But it was a sour victory as he’d brought Haven down too, landing right on top of him. Well, not completely. Haven had caught himself, one hand on either side of Raiden. My blood seemed to have an odd icy-hot thing going at the moment as jealousy warred with hurt.

Chapter 25

Haven

Victor Sinclair had been found by a windtech checking on the turbines at the wind farm this morning, a mere week after Murrell’s release. Victor had been beaten so badly that he’d looked dead, but when emergency services arrived they found a pulse and he’d been rushed to the hospital. I had two unis on guard round the clock to ensure his safety. If I was going to put Murrell away for good I needed to know his involvment and Victor could be key. I wasn’t having someone else disappear on my watch. In the meantime, there was somewhere I had to be.

Since the first wedding reception was cut short by officials traipsing through to assess the scene of Dr. Batista’s murder, Nita had decided to have it rain-checked. This time, however, they planned it for early afternoon at the Julien Duvall Memorial Park. What had once been open field had been turned into a playground named for the kid who’d died after being rescued from Saltech’s hidden basement. It was a subsidiary of Morloch Industries, Jeanine Mor’s company.

There were swing sets and a tire swing off to one side while a basketball court claimed the other. The far side was an outwardly fallow field specially cultivated for children’s Werival matches, though hardly anyone played today. Picnic tables and camp grills, the small metal kind that stood rooted on sturdy poles, lined the area closest to the parking lot. The wooden castle that sprawled in the middle was the real draw. It had monkey bars, slides, stairs, tunnels, and a couple short zip-lines, to name a few. There were even underground areas and an aerie.

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find I had to park a ways down the street as the parking lot was full. I hadn’t gotten very far from my car when I heard my name being called. I stopped and faced a woman jogging up to me from behind. Her average height, tawny skin, and dark hair and eyes tweaked my memory, but I couldn’t place her.

“Yes?” I asked politely.

“I’m sorry,” she huffed as she slowed to a stop in front of me. She was a little shorter than I’d thought. “You’re one of the Guard right? I think I heard Nita mention it before. Or is that the other brother?”

“No, I’m Detective Riley.” I didn’t offer more information no matter what she claimed my sister told her. “Is there something I can help you with?”

She looked away, eyeing the street as if deciding what to say. “Can I walk with you?” She may not have been easy to read, however I doubted that was what she’d wanted to ask. I just nodded and we continued toward the park. Her eyes seemed to be searching for more than words as they flitted over the road, trees and people as we walked. “I heard you have the body of a man by the name of Dr. Miguel Ezequiel Batista?”

I stopped, watching as she followed suit, turning to look at me. “And you are?” I asked, studying her face for any hint of intent, suddenly curious as to how she knew my sister.

Her mouth made an ‘O’ shape and she face-palmed. “I’m sorry. Where have my manners gone?” She put out her hand. “I’m Michael Roman.”

My eyebrows rose at the masculine pronunciation of her name as I automatically shook her hand. She seemed to recall something and started digging in her bag as I asked, “Were you related to Miguel?”

“He’s my dad.” She pulled out a business card and handed it to me. It read Crescent Moon: Teas, Supplements, and More, with the slogan Live Naturally on the front. On the back was her name and contact info. “I’m named after him, well the english version. Oh, and I am a girl, they were just hoping for a boy and decided to keep the name,” she answered my unasked question. “I’m actually super glad they did. It’s a great conversation starter.”

“Oh.” What did you say to that? She knew her father was dead, but wasn’t distraught. So, I poked. “It must have been tough when you learned he died. How did you find out? I wasn’t aware he had any family.”

“Oh, I, uh,” her fingers fiddled with her purse strap, “my aunt told me. Well, not my aunt, but she was always like an aunt, you know?”

“Yes, but you’re his family?” I redirected.

“Yes, well, they got a divorce when I was thirteen or so, but he’s always been there when I needed him. For the most part,” she chuckled softly. “We kept in touch all the time, talking maybe once a week, or every other week or whenever. But, um,” she paused looking hard at a tree off to the side, “we had a fight around Christmas.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he kinda sent me a letter saying he might, um, die soon. He sends them every couple years.” She patted her purse absentmindedly. “This time I called him to tell him to stop. It was upsetting mom.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to ask, was he suicidal?”

“What? No, of course not. It’s just he gets a little,” she waved her hands around her head, “lost in his head sometimes. I mean, you know what he is right? I mean, um,” She paused, suddenly blinking fast and looked away, swallowing hard, “what he was.”

So, she must have just been in shock earlier. “A doctor?”

“No…” she looked me dead in the eye, brows drawn together as she searched my face for something. “You sure you don’t know? But you’re with Keelan and you know her. I thought-”

“There you are, Haven,” Aunt Peggy broke in, “We were beginning to think you’d bailed on us, naughty boy.” I turned around to give the matron a hug. “Now, come along or you’ll miss the Love Me Knot.”

“I’ll be right there.” I pulled out my own business card and turned to pass it to Michael. As soon as Michael came into view she was swept into a fierce hug by the elder woman who’d squealed at the sight of her.

“Hey, Aunt Peggy.” Michael patted Peggy’s back and looked for all the world like a fish out of water. “Can’t… breathe.”

Aunt Peggy let her go and stood back, hands on the girl’s shoulders as she scanned her, her smile like a beacon. “Are you still single, Mikey? You should come too.”

She propelled us up the hill cutting through the trees on a shortcut to the park as she pattered away about who was present, who had bailed and who she was excited to introduce to her favorite god-daughter. We exchanged looks, mine sympathetic and hers wry, at least until Aunt Peggy turned her attention to me. She poked me in the side demanding when I was going to propose to her prodigal nephew and keep him in Hidden Pines. I shied from telling her he’d already refused such a proposal. I’d just have to try again. And again and again, until he said yes.

Love me Knot was a game commonly played at weddings, or matings as traditional folks called it. It was as traditional to us as throwing the bouquet was to humans. A giant ball of intertwined ropes lay on the grass in the center of the tables. Any adult could participate but it was generally singles who grabbed one of the loose rope ends. Then you had to work with the others to unravel the huge ball. For the rest of the night, or in this case afternoon, you had to stay with the person on the other end of the rope. It was like forcing people to go on a date at the wedding.

I won’t lie. Some couples did find their future at the other end of the rope, more than you’d expect even. It was still not a sure-fire way to gain a partner. Not to mention, I already knew who my ‘the one’ was, so I felt it to be pointless. Turns out we made it just as they were about to start. I saw several married couples in the mix, which wasn’t uncommon to make sure someone was on every rope. In the end it was a game, after all. More often than not, there were mini games throughout the night that the teams of two would participate in. I noticed, with relief, that there were no more free rope ends and a scan of the crowd showed me Keelan was filling a plate.

Nita was standing on a chair so she could see over the heads of those around the central knot. “We have one more spot people,” she called, one hand cupping her mouth while the other waved a half-inch thick braid of rope around. I tried to duck out of her line of sight through the mill of spectators as I headed toward the buffet table, but the movement seemed to draw her eye as she called excitedly, “Haven! Haven, Come here!”

I turned, ready to throw my new acquaintance to the wolves… except she wasn’t there. Michael was gone, having successfully disappeared into the crowd. For probably the fourth time in my life, I wished I weren’t so tall. I waved my hands in a gesture along with shaking my head as I told her I was rather hungry would prefer to sit this one out. However, several of the crowd including a couple fellow officers and no few friends and family members ushered me into the center circle. I was trapped.

Almost as soon as I touched the rope, it slid around my wrist and tied itself. It would remain fastened there for six hours, the set limit for the artifact. It had been bought by the community center from a witch for these type of events. Which explained why AJ was participating, if he’d been the one to bring the stupid thing. Selene forbid anyone who damaged or lost a piece of it. Usually it was a favorite game, but there didn’t appear to be as many single adults present as I’d thought. The lucky ones had probably ducked out before the Love Me Knot had been dropped on the lawn. People were understandably leery of putting themselves in a position where they were magically tied to someone else. It was only a game but breaking the bond forcibly could be hazardous.

It wasn’t surprising to see Jaci, Rayen and Alex had been dragged into this game. It required sixteen couples or thirty-two individuals, no more no less. We started untwisting ourselves, like a reverse maypole, ducking under and going over each other. It was a trial sometimes as a few who were in a hurry managed to twist themselves up more. At one point one of the shorter participants, a young woman who was likely playing for the first time, had to get her rope over me and I had to all but sit on the ground. When everyone was untangled, the crowd erupted in cheers, jeers, and guffaws as people saw who was tied to whom.

I blinked at where Chase and Kate laughed and high-fived at discovering themselves as a team, though Chase did shoot me a tight smile. With a purple cord between each of them, Jaci and AJ seemed to be trying to look anywhere but at each other and Alex was leading a blank-faced Basil towards me. A tug on my own cord made me look around to follow it to its source: Raiden.

“Son of a witch,” I exclaimed under my breath as he walked toward me.

His eye twitched.

Chapter 24

Keelan

I had my own stool behind the counter at the Daily Grind now. I refused to use it on principal. Most of the time. I wasn’t above using it to gain sympathy points or to annoy irritating customers. We have a good staff, trained to make the best coffee. Or at least the best coffee on the rez, but we still got those customers that didn’t like their food, drink, or service and forgot their manners. I was facing off with one of those people and the stool tactic seemed to be working well.

“Here you go Miss Seija, a fresh mocha latte half caf quad, 1 mint, and with a light dusting of cinnamon,” I said for the fourth time, a too wide smile slapped on my lips. I had been more willing to be friendly earlier. Not anymore. I pronounced her name with a hard E sound for the EI this time while using the Y sound for the J as she’d corrected me with earlier. This made her name sound like See-yah instead of Say-uh. Sometimes, I had to give myself a mental high five.  

“I want to speak to your manager,” she clipped through clenched teeth.

“Of course.” I nodded with exaggerated politeness and made an exaggerated show of getting off the stool and stretching my back, which really did feel sore now that I thought about it. Ugh. I left the front to Jesse and shuffled to the kitchen feeling her eyes bore holes through the back of my skull. Once the swinging door to the kitchen fell closed I walked at a normal pace to Peter’s office, rapping twice with my knuckles before pushing my way in.

Peter had his head bent over some papers on his desk, scrawling notes over them. Curious I took a peek at what appeared to be a handwritten apology. Victor hadn’t come back since Ryan’s party and Peter was crushed. I assumed that he’d exhausted phone, text, email and social media. Whatever he’d done to make Victor angry must’ve been pretty bad to resort to snail mail just to talk to him. Maybe it had something to do with trying, and failing, to have a baby. I’d overheard a little of a phone call once a few weeks ago.

I didn’t get to read much beyond the first few words when Peter’s head whipped up. “Keelan? What’s up?” He flipped the legal pad he was writing on.

“Oh, it’s nothing I can’t handle. Sorry to interrupt.” I waved a hand for him to continue what he was doing and headed back toward the door. I’d just tell the annoying woman that he was gone for the day.

“Keelan,” he said, but I was already out.

When I got back to the counter the pain-in-the-neck woman was gone, replaced with a pain-in-the-ass man.

“What do you want, Bobby?” I made no attempt at smiling at Robert and he gritted his teeth at the use of the nickname he hated. I thought it worked perfectly now that he was working with the police. At least that’s what I’d heard had happened a few days since. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing. I was happy he’d got a chance to turn his life around. Really.

But. He’d steadfastly refused to tell me anything since he’d been released except that I should get out of town, going so far as to ask if I’d take Levi with me. Which only confirmed my theory about what was going on. I’d gone so far as to build my own board with a map of the reservation and notes. So far the only two that were part of it for sure were Liza, the coywolf who was buried alive, and the thug, who’d died here in the kitchen and who I’d recently learned had been a shark. He’d drowned in air. I had my suspicions about Dr. Batista as well, but I couldn’t get much information on him. However, the potion to keep shifters as animals after death had to wear off right? And we’d found him months after his death.

“Can I get a hot chocolate with three shots of peppermint and lots of foam?” Right, no time to chase those thoughts. I noticed the speaker wasn’t Robert, but a hollow-faced teenage boy.

“Absolutely,” I said with a genuine smile. “Would you like white, milk, or dark chocolate?”

The boy’s eyes lit up in his stark face. “Dark, definitely, dark.”

“Whipped cream?”

He nodded enthusiastically.

I scrawled on a cup and set it to the side as Jesse finished his last order and called out for Seija three times before setting the cup down and moving on. “Anything to eat?”

“Grilled cheese, please.” The smile spread from his eyes to his lips.

When I turned to him Robert was staring at the lonely cup on the pickup counter. He noticed me staring and with a quick glance at the board above me he said, “I’ll have-”

“Black coffee and a slice of toast?” I interrupted benignly. He finally met my eyes, lips pressing to a thin line. He said nothing as I punched the order into the register and gave him the total. He continued to say nothing as he passed over some cash. However, he tried to say something when I held out his change.

Without taking it he said, “I’m sorry, but-” He looked like he wanted to say more, but he didn’t look sorry in the least. When he’d told me to run, he’d asked me to take his son with me. I’d said Levi could stay with me, but that I wasn’t leaving. So, I just set down his change and turned to take his order slip to the cook.

Peter met me in the kitchen and pulled me back into his office. I didn’t protest too much as I wasn’t having a very good day on the register.

“Sorry about earlier Pete,” I said as I thankfully settled in a chair, “but I did knock.”

He waved a hand. “This is not about that, although,” he paused to give me a look before he sat on his side of the desk, “now that you mention it, I am curious what you wanted to talk about earlier.”

It was my turn to wave off his comment. “Oh, just another ornery customer wanted to talk to management, but she seems to have left on her own.”

“Oh, that’s good, that’s good.” His thoughts seemed elsewhere. Then he actually seemed to register what I was saying and his focus sharpened on me. “Wait. They’re still harassing you?”

“Guess so.” Once news that I was in town got all the way around, coupled with the ongoing multiple homicide and likely serial killer, people were on edge. And for most people, I was as good a scapegoat as any.

He sighed and ran a hand over his eyes. “Maybe you should work in the back, or, I don’t know, take some time?”

“I can’t. This is my only income, now. Basil won’t let me on any of the construction sites,” I grumped. I hadn’t thought much on his not calling me in on my off days since I’d taken time off to recover, but when people started acting out around me at the café and I’d asked if there was anything I could do he’d shut me out.

“Good brother,” he said. He put up his hands against the glare I leveled at him. I didn’t want someone else to tell me that construction was no place for a person in my condition. “Look, things aren’t going to settle down for a while. It might be better if you stayed home. I mean, it’s not as if you don’t have people willing to take care of you.”

My glare turned into the evil eye and he sighed. I took that as a win, even if it ultimately didn’t feel like one.

“Did you want to talk to me? About something else?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” he looked at his desk as if he were looking through it, or maybe he could see a smudge I couldn’t. “Yes. I’m, uh, going away for a while and if I don’t come back before Victor, I’d like you to give him this for me.” It was a large manila envelope, tabbed closed with Victor’s name in a large scrawl on the front.

“Okay,” I drew out the second syllable in a kind of question. He either pretended not to notice or he was to distracted. Either way, it was none of my business. “I will.”

*****

“I’m not taking a Lamaze class,” I said firmly.

“I think it’ll be good for you.” Basil was setting out the pizza boxes on the table while I was getting the plates.

“What can lamaze teach me that I don’t already know?” I asked.

“I don’t know, how to breathe?” I loved my twin but sometimes I just wanted to smack him upside the head. So I did. I’d found being pregnant granted me certain leniencies.

“If you needed training for that you wouldn’t have survived past infancy.” I smirked. “I, on the other hand, have mastered the art of moving air in and out of my lungs.”

“Someone blowing hot air?” Breath hit the back of my neck and arms came around me from behind as I set down the last plate, pulling me back to a wide chest. I liked how I fit there. It was as nice as relaxing in a hot tub and as comfortable as sleeping on a cloud. But I was still angry, so I just grabbed wad of flesh on his arm where it had lowered to rub my stomach and gave a hard twist. He yelped and let go of my waist. I stepped away with a hard glare and moved to the other side of the table, motioning him to be seated where I’d left him.

That’s right I was giving him the silent treatment. It wasn’t like that was my go to for arguments, but he left me no choice. It’d now become a kind of protest. If he won’t talk to me about what’s going on with the investigation, I wasn’t going to talk to him at all. Even if, legally, he wasn’t supposed to talk about it. More fool him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an idiot or suicidal enough to try to stop the spell myself. I was pretty sure it was a spell. If I could find something definitive or at least information that could point toward something concrete, I’d tell him. Just to let him know, let them all know, that I’m not to be discounted just because I’m a civilian, or an omega, or pregnant. Okay, so maybe I was a little emotional, bordering on bipolar sometimes, at least that’s the way it seemed to me, but I was still right.

Basil plopped a recalcitrant Sean into his high chair, kicking and screaming.

“If you don’t calm down,” I said, “I’m gonna eat your pizza.”

He stopped immediately, eyes bugging at me as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said. Before anything else could happen, Basil plopped Sean’s plate in front of him. The kid wolfed it down, eyes watching me the whole time, as if I were going to steal his messy food from him.

Haven cleared his throat as he took a second serving, eyeing me. “So, I’ve had my eye on this cabin I found just outside of town if maybe you wanted to check it out?”

My eyes probably bugged just like Sean’s had minutes ago. “I am not living in a cabin.” That’s another thing. Almost as soon as we’d had some time alone after finding Dr. Batista he’d proposed. I’d said no, not because I didn’t want to. Oh, no. I’d turned him down because I wanted him to really think about it. Not just offer because we made a kit or a calf, whatever it turned out to be. Sure, we’d been engaged before, but that was a different time.

“A house opened up just down the block from me.” Since then he’d brought up the topic of moving in together a few times, but as more of a ‘we should start thinking about it’ than a ‘let’s start looking’ kind of thing. Or so I’d thought.

“The Rusik house?” Basil asked interested.

“I always liked that place,” I said, excited. My mouth snapped shut for two reasons. One, the smile Haven turned on me made my insides turn to goo and I wanted to keep them from spilling out. And two, I remembered I was still mad at him. Even if it was a little harder to call on that anger.

“You staying for the movie?” Basil asked.

Haven scratched his neck just under his chin and said, “Ah, no, I shouldn’t. Gotta get, uh, going.” I knew I had no right to feel angry, he was just doing his job, but there it was.

Haven left almost as soon as dinner was over, yet the sneak had somehow managed to steal a kiss. A really good kiss. One that was all tongue and had my hands fisted in his long, straight hair, breathing in the scent of rain that was all him like the first breath of fresh spring air. He’d grinned like he’d won a battle. Maybe he had. Bastard.

By the time Basil had tucked a tired Sean into bed, I’d drawn the curtains on the lower level and pulled the map out from the underside of the table top, which required more acrobatics than I remembered. I needed to find another hiding place for it or very soon I wouldn’t be able to reach it. A notepad sat in front of me listing the facts as I knew them. Basil moved around the kitchen making tea before he sat down across from me with his own notes, laptop and three mugs of wild berry tea on the table. He’d caught me working in my room last week and, although he rattled off a lecture, he didn’t call Haven. He’d even started helping.

Basil studied the map that indicated the Moran’s house and the Daily Grind which each had a shiny red frowny emoji as indicators. What? That’s all we had.

“There’s more to Dr. Batista’s death than just access to hospital records,” Basil said.

There was a tap behind me on the wide, sliding glass doors that led from the dining room to the patio, making me jump. Basil got up and peeked out from one side before pulling the curtains open enough to let two individuals through before latching the doors and closing everything tight.

“Sorry we’re late. I had to lose a tail,” Robert said as he put back his hood. He pushed his shoulder blades out in a small stretch as if he could feel the feathers that had been clipped. Apparently some dragon lawyer had made him a deal with very clear-cut stipulations. His flight feathers hadn’t really been clipped, that wouldn’t work as shifting would repair that, but he’d been given a shot that bound his animal self for a time. “You sure you’re willing to take him for a few weeks?”

“Of course,” I said, irritated.

His son, Levi, had headphones in listening to music on his phone as he sat at the end of the table nearest me and pulled out a notebook.

“I got the information you asked for but you’re not gonna like it.” His features seemed permanently set at ‘somber’. “Batista wasn’t human.” Vindication and anxiety warred within me for supremacy. On the one hand, I’d been right about Batista being more than a means to get into the records. On the other, being right would have frightening consequences.

“But he wasn’t shifted when you found him, right?” I asked, as relief took over for a moment. He was right, the others had remained in their animal form after death. Relief died however, as I thought about how long it had taken to find his body compared to the others.

“No,” Robert pursed his lips, looking off to the side. “But, seriously, how long does the force shift potion, serum thingy work? No one stays in their shifted form after death.”

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing; it wasn’t a laughing matter after all. “Look at the Egyptians.”

“That’s mummification,” He retorted. “Unnatural.”

“True, but the forced shift isn’t quite natural either,” Basil cut in. “Doesn’t matter. I talked to AJ today.”

I looked at him brows climbing. “And?”

“And unless a tanuki performs a reversal to a corpse treated with this particular serum, they’ll stay that way.” He leaned back and took a sip of tea. “To be honest, he seemed on edge about the fact that they were in animal form at all. Said the only one who could do that was a tanuki.”

“There’s other tanuki here?” I’d never heard of them so far from Atlanta. When the ‘family’, I was pretty sure they were yakuza, migrated to the US, they’d set up shop in Georgia with Atlanta as the hub of their operation. If you wanted to put in a request for a tanuki’s assistance in North America, you went through them. Their products were legit, they worked, but they ranged from white and grey to black ethically. And you only left the family under very strict circumstances. The ‘fact’ that this AJ was unaffiliated made me nervous.

“He’s the only one. Moved here a couple years back. I don’t think anyone expected him to stay more than a few months, but he’s been very involved in community outreach.” He paused and looked at me, probably reading my skepticism. “You don’t think he had anything to do with this do you?”

“Well…” I thought about phrasing. “Are you sure he didn’t? I mean, you know him far more than me.”

He shook his head after a brief pause. “He seemed too spooked at the prospect of another of his kind being here for it to be him.” He seemed certain of his analysis, and, though I couldn’t shake my growing paranoia, I didn’t want to push Basil. He was, after all, a better judge of character then I was and I’d already pushed him to accept housing Levi for a bit. Strangely enough, he’d seemed fine with Robert after winning a dominance stare, which in itself shocked me.

Loose in my notes, I had a smaller version of the map on the table, plotting possible points that would work for the elements. Letting the others argue over whether to dig into AJ’s life, I placed a dot in the woods of the south east part of Hidden Pines, where Batista’s body had been found, and drew a pentagram based on even proportions from the three.

I noticed Levi looking over at my map and I quickly closed the pad and smiled at him. “Need help with your homework?” I asked as I peeked over to see he’d been doodling clovers instead of doing algebra. He just blushed, shook his head and bent it to begin working the first equation.

Chapter 23

Haven

“Oh, he’s definitely not dead.” The way Murrell lounged made it seem as though he were simply relaxing at a friend’s house, not quite at home but with people he knew wouldn’t or couldn’t hurt him. I ground my teeth.

“How do you know?” Alex asked from his seat beside me. Alex was more affable and the fact that Murrell seemed inclined to talk to him made Alex the best candidate for good cop. So I had decided to loom menacingly, arms crossed in a way that emphasized my muscles as I leaned against the wall behind and to the side of Murrell. Keeping myself in his periphery and at his back would make him nervous and more willing to talk to Alex’s friendly face. At least that was how it usually went. He’d kept his relaxed but muted demeanor for the past week. The weekend trip for Ryan’s birthday ended yesterday and I fully expected to hear about Keelan trying to push his way into the precinct again. The sooner Murrell was dealt with the better.

Murrell lifted one shoulder, tilting his head toward it in a shrug that exposed his jugular, then let it fall. It was an irritating mix of submission and insubordination.

I slammed both hands on the table between Alex and Murrell allowing enough space between my palms to lean down, elbows jutting to the side, putting myself at Murrell’s eye level. I’d seen his jaw tense for a moment, proving he wasn’t quite so relaxed after all. I nodded my head to the photos of the body that never made it back to the morgue. “Paul Winter talked to you two days before you escaped.”

Murrell, for his part, didn’t recoil or even blanch. Instead, he seemed rather obsessed with pushing my buttons. A lazy smile consumed his features as he leaned forward, settling his chin on one of his hands. If there’d been more chain connecting the cuffs, I could imagine him putting his chin in both hands to further fray my tolerance. “If you suspend your prejudice for a minute, you might learn something. Say pretty please.” I narrowed my eyes. “Or maybe Keelan-”

I hadn’t even been aware my hand had formed a fist by the time it connected with his jaw. His head snapped back and he spat a wad of blood on the table where it rolled like molasses toward the end of the table that was just a hair lower. Alex started from his chair and shoved me back against the wall.

“No, you’re right,” Murrell grinned, teeth smeared with his own blood. “He probably already knows.” I growled.

Alex slammed his arm into my chest again, recalling my attention. “Pull it together,” he snarled.

Alex watched as I leaned in the corner by the mirror to minimize temptation. Maybe I should’ve left the room, but that was too far from temptation. This time when I crossed my arms, it was to hold them still. I didn’t know why I felt like an IED with a rusted spring, but I’d been feeling more restless as the hours ticked by. Alex turned back to Murrell. “So. You wanted to tell us something?”

“You’re no fun.” Murrell’s face made a irritated moue.

“By all means,” Alex said spreading his arms, “continue to act out. Let’s see how pretty your face is tomorrow.” Murrell ran his tongue along his teeth apparently sucking the blood away; when he opened his mouth to speak there were only hints of darker read lining the white bone.

“As you wish. Doesn’t bother me either way. Twinks love scars.” He winked at Alex, causing the usually calm alpha’s jaw to tick. Murrell’s focus shifted to the mirrored wall behind us, admiring the rip his lip had taken and checking his teeth.

I opened my mouth ready to tell him off as a woman in a navy blue skirt suit walked in. “Hello,” she nodded at each of us respectively, ending on Murrell. “I’m Learza from the Regional DA’s office.”

Her very name had weight as it belonged to one of the most infamous of shifter races. Dragons each possess one name. It’s not that they don’t have familial names or that they use the historical ‘son’ or ‘daughter of’ either. The first one or two syllables are familial following the alpha line while the last part denotes the individual themselves. In this case ‘Lea’ was her family name and ‘rza’ her given name. The two are never separated. It’s like announcing where you’re from as well as who you are to anyone you meet, and the Lea clan were one of the oldest. Alex stood as she took the seat beside his, waiting for her to indicate he could sit again. He didn’t.

She sat a briefcase on the table and without even looking up said, “Thank you gentlemen, I’ll take it from here.”

“What?” and “Excuse me?” erupted from Alex and I nearly in unison. Murrell was our suspect, our collar.

“Riley. Lovett.” My eyes found the source of the voice and the look the Captain gave was nothing short of a command. I sighed stiffly through my nose and could practically hear Alex’s teeth protest the grinding he was putting them through, but there was nothing we could do.

My last glance of Murrell was of him leaning back in his chair. His hands, where they lay folded on the table, were as close to him as the chain would allow and his eyes were fixed on Learza warily.

“What the hell, Cap?” Alex demanded as I shut the interrogation door. He just pressed his lips together, glancing behind Alex and I, and signaled us to follow. I turned to see two men, both wearing nice suits. The taller man with a faux-hawk went into the viewing room while the smaller man, descriptive insofar as he was nondescript, entered the interrogation room itself. As soon as the door to his office closed, the Captain let out a growl of his own.

“Captain?” I asked, concerned. “I thought we were holding him for the FBI.” They should’ve picked him up within a day or two of his capture, but I hadn’t been ready to look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe I should’ve.

“Why is an ADA from the Yellowstone Pact here?” Alex asked. “Scratch that, why is a Lea dragon here?”

Captain Thurgood looked between us for a moment before responding. “Remember that great white?” We nodded. “He was undercover Sentinel.” The Sentinels were like the inhuman version of the FBI. It had been created when Yellowstone, and it’s subsidiaries, was acknowledged as a territory of the United States. Although this relegated them to lesser political status within the US, they were given more autonomy and operated more like a completely separate but allied country than a territory.

“So Murrell wasn’t lying about Avery?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know.” He glared at the door as if he could see through it and several walls into the interrogation room.  “But we can’t afford to offend them while we’re trying to join them.” When he looked back at us, his eyes were stony. “They’re taking over the operation and I’m officially telling you to stay away from this. Understand?” He looked between us pointedly.

“Sir,” I said with a nod as Alex said, “Yessir.”

Outside, Alex paused, pursing his lips. “So what are we really going to do about it?”

“Chase collected his bounty, right?” I smiled and wondered for a moment what it must look like in the red light of the setting sun. “Think he’s still in town?” If my smile looked anything like Alex’s at that moment, it was no wonder officer Yang gave us a wide berth on her way to her car.

Chapter 22

Keelan

“But-” Alex started.

“He’s dead,” Haven finished for him.

“He is?” I was stunned. If he was dead than I’d been freaking out over nothing. Except it wasn’t nothing. There were still bodies. On the other hand, I hadn’t heard anything about them being burned or having white phosphorous poisoning. I still didn’t buy it. “But, no, that’s not right.”

“Avery is dead. 53% of his body was covered in third degree burns and he got a good dose white phosphorous.” I wasn’t fond of Alex’s surprisingly patronizing tone.

I bristled. “When?”

“A few days after Christmas.”

“But Robert told me he was here a few weeks ago.” I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Maybe he lied to you.” Haven’s brow was irkingly scrunched in sympathy. “Maybe he-.”

“He’s didn’t,” I said firmly, pulling my hands from under his.

“You can’t know that for sure.”

Scooting my chair back abruptly, I stood. “I have to talk to him.”

“No.” Haven grabbed my wrist as I moved to pass by his chair. I clenched my other hand into a fist hard enough to make crescent moon indentations in my skin to keep from doing something to him I’d regret. Or maybe it was in preparation of doing that. My emotions were kind of on a seesaw.

I glared at him instead. “And why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.”

I rolled my eyes. “With him cuffed and if I have an escort? Really? Besides he could’ve killed me several times before now, if he’d wanted.”

“That’s not helping your case.”

I swiveled my head to the Alex who was picking infinitesimal fur from his sleeve. He wasn’t going to be any help. Then I moved my gaze to the Captain, my last hope, who’d remained silent for awhile now. “Sir-” The slow shake of his head make my jaw click shut.

He shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Mr. McCormick. I don’t thinks that’s wise.”

I deflated. There wasn’t really anything else I could do at this point. I supposed I should be angry and maybe I would be again shortly, but just then I was tired. No, not just tired. Talking about an emotional wound that, while aged, hadn’t quite healed and in fact might even be harboring some poisonous thoughts was a kind of exhaustion you had to experience to appreciate. It pressed on the eyelids, clouded thoughts, and made movement sluggish. There might have also been a hint of relief, that added weight to a body. It wasn’t that I didn’t want answers, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. At the moment. And like I said, I was tired.

When Haven pulled me to him, it was with a kind of worn melancholy that I allowed myself to lean in, resting my head against his chest. I listened to his heartbeat and felt mine change to match it. His arms wrapped around me like I belonged there, right there, and nowhere else. A safe Haven.

“You bunnies are adorable, but we should really get hopping,” Alex said, his tone dripping with sugar.

It vaguely registered when Haven threw the tissue box at him.

I’d go home. I’d rest. And I’d try again.

*****

No matter how many ‘agains’ I tried over the next several days, I still couldn’t get in to talk to Robert. I had my own theories about what was going on but I didn’t want to cry human, so to speak. Or maybe I just wanted him to tell me I was wrong.

I let my fork rip through the piece of cake, the utensil never touching my lips, as I watched the distant wind turbines over the treetops. They kinda looked like tiny wind spinners made for kids only more bland in their clinical white against blue sky. The wind farm had been added to the southern border of the reservation just a few years back to make it more self sufficient. It wasn’t a huge farm, but it was big enough to manage a little more than the reservation’s needs. Turns out that was a good way to make money for city upkeep.

“If you didn’t like the cake I’d’ve eaten it. The poor thing didn’t need to be murdered.” I looked up to see Ryan with his own plate of cake and ice cream, mournfully staring at mine.

They’d rented out a large cabin on the river north of Luther, not quite on the reservation. I sat near the railing on the upstairs deck to catch as much sunlight as possible in early April. Which was quite a bit as the weather seemed to be cooperating today. Those with toddlers or other childlings too young to control their shifts played in the backyard, which was fenced in to keep them from wandering into the river but so isolated that their shape-changing wouldn’t upset the locals.

“Sorry, Rye.” He scrunched up his nose. “What? Don’t like the nickname? Thought I’d try something new.”

“No, you should call him Yen, since he’s working on that money tree,” Kate chuckled as she walked up behind him.

“Ma!” he expostulated. His face turned pink under the conical cardboard hat he wore.

“Yen, huh?” I grinned. “I like that. So what are you trying to save up for?”

“Okay, so you’ve heard of the new Switch system, right?” He sat down in the chair next to me, one leg curled up so he could face me.

“Oh, now you’ve done it.” Kate’s eye-roll was belied by the quirk on her lips as Ryan started in on the new VR gaming console developed by Syntech. She ruffled Ryan’s hair and offered to take my plate when she saw the state it was in. “Come inside when you’re ready to open presents, Ryan.”

“Presents?” They boy’s eyes lit up greedily. Oh, to be ten again, I mused. He scrambled to retrieve his plate and follow.

I chuckled and went to get up myself. As the deck chair was ergonomic, tilting up at the knees for a better seated experience, it wasn’t so kind on the body of someone whose pregnant belly, even mine wasn’t nearly as big as it would be, made getting up from regular chairs a task. Every time I scooted up the ramp of the chair and went to lean forward to use the railing to haul myself up, my ass slid right back into the chair. Maybe I should’ve thought a little more about that when I’d sat down in the first place. I sighed; the party would go on without me. I leaned my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes.

A hum made me crack one eye to see a hummingbird hover over to perch on the railing. His blue feathers shone green in the light and a ring of red ones wrapped around his throat, widening just under the chin. He puffed out his feathers and turned his head from side to side.

“Hey, Peter,” I chuckled. He shifted, legs elongating until they hung down from the rail at the knee and feathers shrank into the skin, looking like a layer of feather tattoos for a moment, as fingers spread from the wings.

“Need some help?” he nodded to my chair.

“Maybe,” I said letting the eyelid fall again. “Might just take a nap first. I think I remember someone mentioning something about spare clothes in one of the bedrooms.”

“Perfect!” I could hear the happy in his voice, but, just using my hearing as I was, I could hear something off about it. “Victor isn’t coming until later, so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.” Maybe there was a hint of sarcasm. As a hummingbird he really couldn’t carry much, even clothes, so he pretty much had to find other ways to have a set of clothes waiting for him. It wasn’t like we were unused to nudity as shifters but we weren’t nudists. Well, most of us weren’t. Sometimes I thought Uncle Joe would be happier if he were.

“Hey,” I stop him before he can take more than a couple steps. “Is everything alright?”

His smile faltered ever so slightly before he pinned it back up. “Yeah, I’m good. Be back in a minute.”

He didn’t come back. After Kate had strode over maybe an hour later, apologizing, and helped me out of the chair, I sat on the much nicer indoor couch on the main floor. From there I could see the kids running around outside to where they’d been banned for their noise making as the babies were had been put down to nap inside. The adults chatted or played with the kids, but Peter never gave more than a passing nod or wave to me. The false levity made me think of the Joker from the Dark Knight and I regretted having pressed him earlier when he clearly didn’t want to talk. Still, I felt… I don’t know, stung might come close. I felt stung that he wouldn’t confide in me. I didn’t really have right to feel that way but I did.

The only other way was to talk to Victor, who had yet to make an appearance.

Chapter 21

Haven

“Where is he?” My arm was across Murrel’s chest where’d I’d slammed him against a tree. He just grimaced at me, grunted as the air whooshed from his lungs.

When I’d found out that Keelan had gone into the woods alone, I’d immediately gone after him. I didn’t shift as my shoulder holster was the only gear I had on me and I didn’t want to leave it behind. It hadn’t been too difficult to track him through the trees until the trail dead ended. I’d walked around, trying to pick up his scent again but found nothing. That is until I practically collided with Murrell. He seemed to be as shocked to see me as I was to see him. Although we both recovered quickly, I had a gun and I used my size to overpower him long enough to put my handcuffs on him. The handcuffs were inscribed with runes by witches to prevent a shifter from accessing their animal form.

“Where the fuck is he?” Fear terrorized my imagination, fueling the rage I already felt toward the asshole in front of me. They always talk about bulls seeing red. I figure it had more to do with fights ending bloody than with blacking out or having one’s vision shaded in the color. All I know is I didn’t see red. But I wanted to. I slammed him back into the tree again, ignoring the crack from his torso and pained cry from his contorted maw.

That’s when I heard retching and whipped around, letting Murrell collapse to the ground. Keelan who’d seemingly vanished bare minutes before was on his knees outside a grove of oaks, heaving partially digested food and stomach acid. I rushed to his side, kneeling  near his head so I could keep Murrell in sight as well. Turned out that had been unnecessary as Alex had followed me and now stood over the prisoner. I nodded my head at him before gently placing a hand on Keelan’s back.

Keelan jumped, falling backwards on his ass, his eyes rounded and darting. I put my hands up placatingly. “Keelan, hey, love. It’s just me. You’re okay. You’re safe.” I slowly moved toward him and pulled him into my arms where he collapsed onto my chest and cried. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

It took a few minutes for him to cry himself out, but as soon as he did he wiped his face almost angrily and pushed away from me to stand up. “Fucking hormones, dammit.” As I stood, he looked at me, as if he hadn’t realized I was there. “Why are you here?” His lips pressed into a thin line. “Were you following me?”

I gaped at him. No ‘thank you, you saved my life’, no ‘I’m sorry for going off alone’, nothing but censure for having the audacity to make sure he was okay. I tried to reign in my temper with a deep breath. “I fucking saved you. What other goddamn way could I have gotten here so quickly without fucking following you.” Well, remaining calm was a wash.

His eyes flashed. “I didn’t need you to fucking save me,” he snarled. He paced away, running both hands furtively back and forth through his hair, mussing it up. After a minute of deliberate breathing he turned around, matching me glare for glare. “Fine.” He glanced to where Alex was standing guard over Murrell who’d pushed himself into a sitting position and had leaned back against the tree. “I was going to bring you here anyway.”

“Why?” I couldn’t keep the suspicion from my voice. Why did he seem unafraid of Murrell? Why had he planned to bring me or Alex, or both of us to a rarely visited part of the reservation? Some questions found voice. “You’ve been avoiding me the last couple of weeks. Were you running around with him?” I knew he hadn’t been, I’d had too many eyes on him, but I needed to see his reaction.

“Right,” he drew out the singular word with a scoff. “You know, if I’d honestly wanted to ditch your spies, I would’ve. And you’d never find me. I chose to stay. I chose to be protected. I chose family. I have always chosen family. And I always will.” With each exaggerated word, he jabbed my chest with a finger for punctuation. “What I wanted to show you is in there.” He motioned toward the grove he’d vomited in front of as he went to stalk by me, headed back toward the festivities.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked, wrapping my arms around his torso, pinning his arms from behind; that was for my own protection as I recalled the jab to the sternum. I may have cooled off some at his speech, but I definitely wasn’t going to let him walk back alone.

I could feel him relent a little, his head falling back to my chest. He was looking up, but not at me, at the stars visible through the trees. “Asshole,” he whispered. I chuckled, giving a quick squeeze before letting him go.

I grabbed his hand and turned to head to the grove he’d said he’d wanted to show me only to stop dead as I saw Alex on the ground. He coughed, groaning as he moved to push himself off the ground.

“Alex, you alright?” I withdrew my pistol and pushed Keelan until his back was to one of the grove’s trees as I scanned the our surroundings for Murrell. Nothing.

“Ugh,” he coughed again, “I think so.” His voice sounded a little hoarse. He pushed himself up enough that he was on one knee with the other foot flat on the ground in front of him as he looked around. “That son-of-a-witch choked me out. Well, at least he can’t change while- Fuck.” He pulled my cuffs from the ground beside him. They looked scorched, the runes melted on the metal. “How the fuck did he do that?”

The handcuffs were the most expensive pieces of standard equipment our station had. As a shifter reservation, we needed something that could be used on individuals who could just shift to get our of human restraints more than anything else. Destruction of city property, yet another charge to add to his already extensive list.

“Keelan, you know anything about this?” He seemed to know more about Murrell than he should. I looked back when he didn’t immediately respond. He was leaning against the tree where I’d put him, his head leaning back against the bark, eyes closed and mouth twisted slightly as he rubbed his stomach. It felt like my rib-cage might’ve grown a little smaller. “Keelan? You alright?”

He cracked an eye wearily. “Stress and morning sickness aren’t exactly soothing on a stomach individually, let alone together.”

“Wait, what?” It took my brain a second to catch up with my ears. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“Yep.” His lips tilted up a little, wanly. “You’re gonna be a patriarch.”

And with those five words, my world transmogrified. It wasn’t as if it was wholly unexpected, but he’d gone the hospital a couple weeks ago and hadn’t called me. I’d thought that meant he wasn’t pregnant. I mean, you’d tell someone so world changing as that as soon as possible, right? I suppose I hadn’t exactly tried talk to him either. I’d thought he’d wanted space.

“Congrats, guys,” Alex croaked, finally standing with his own gun out as he scanned the perimeter, “but can we focus here? We’re not out of the woods yet. Pun intended,” he added with a not-quite-feral grin. I could see a slight discoloration on his neck where I guessed he’d been choked out.

Right. This was something we had to deal with later. “I’ll take point. Keelan you stay in the middle and Alex will cover the rear.”

Keelan’s eyes opened, flashing to the entrance of the grove. “What about the-”

“Once you’re safe and we have backup, we’ll come back to take a look.” I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“You don’t understand,” Keelan said, pushing off the tree and heading to the entrance as he spoke, “it’s Dr. Batista, well, his body, and-” sound cut off as he simply disappeared at the widest gap in the tightly packed grove. The trees almost looked like they were molded like that, perhaps by an ancient druid. I immediately followed Keelan, barely squeezing through the opening and the raw smell struck me, but Keelan just stood off to one side. He had his phone flashlight pointed at the face of a body who definitely looked like the dead twin to the little balding doctor.

I felt something on my back and looked around to see a disembodied hand at the center of it. I grabbed Keelan’s elbow and pulled him back outside where the hand seemed to grow a body. It was Alex.

“Damn, dude, what happened?” he whispered. “I tried to follow you but hit a wall,” he looked down at his right hand almost forlornly, “and thought I’d lost my best friend.”

I snorted. “There’s some kind of barrier. If Keelan hadn’t walk in first I don’t think I would’ve noticed the gap in the grove.”

“Damn. You know, I didn’t notice it before either.” His eyes scanned the grove.

“There’s more. I’m pretty sure it blocks scents; Dr. Batista’s body is in there.”

“Whoa, for real?”

“It also blocks out sound,” Keelan added. “Oh, don’t give me that look. I was in there before you arrived, remember? I couldn’t hear anything from outside, not even the wind.”

I hadn’t known I was making a face and wondered if it looked at all like Alex’s skeptical one.

I sighed. “This changes things. If we all leave, we might not be able to find it again.”

“You won’t,” another voice piped up, instantly drawing all of our attention. “But it’s a good thing we have this guy.” Chase held up a birdcage with a long-crested eagle at the bottom, wings out slightly to keep balance as a hood covered its eyes.

“And that is?” I asked.

Chase put a hand to his chest dramatically, “Dear, me. What is the Guard coming to?”

“Jesus. Cut to the chase, Chase.” Alex rolled his eyes with annoyance, belied by a faint lift to his lips.

“What?” Chase fluttered his lashes petulantly. “You don’t recognize the man you just let get away?”

*****

“How did you know where to find Dr. Batista’s body?” I asked for the n-th time. Robert Murrell sat unconcernedly with another pair of spelled cuffs connecting him to the table and an ankle cuff specifically designed for bird species. It contained a spell to shrink with the wearer’s size and act as a tracker and/or stunner. It almost seemed unnecessary after acknowledging Chase’s nearly supernatural ability to track this guy. Almost.

“I know a witch’s spell when I see one. Don’t you?” He said it so flatly that I couldn’t be sure he was mocking me or not. My vote was the former. He looked over my shoulder at the one-sided mirror. “Look, we’re getting nowhere. Do you wanna make a deal or not.”

“I can’t be sure you have something we want?”

He just pulled his shoulders up slightly and let them fall. “Then it’ll be on your head.”

I stood at the sound of a knuckle on the glass behind me. “We’ll be back. Drink some water. Wouldn’t want you to get dehydrated.” We’d turned up the thermostat to literally make him sweat but so far he hadn’t so much as looked at the bottle of water he’d been given.

Alex and I stepped into the hall, pulling the door closed. Just up the hallway another door, this one leading to the viewing room for interrogation three, opened and Captain Thurgood stepped out.

“What is it, Cap?” Alex asked.

“Come with me.” We did. He led us down a flight of stairs and through couple halls to a conference room. When we stepped in Keelan was standing at the window fidgeting with the hem of his t-shirt, twisting it around a finger. The now-taught fabric exposed a small convex curve to his abdomen.

I turned to the captain. “What is this?” We’d spent the last day and a half, give or take, interrogating Murrell and I hadn’t had time to have a real talk with Keelan. He’d called several times, but I’d been too busy. At least that’s what I told myself.

“Just hear me out okay?” When he crossed his arms over his chest he looked… vulnerable. I just nodded and leaned against the wall by the door. Alex and Captain Thurgood took seats at the table. “Okay,” he nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts. “Okay. So, you know how my parents died eight years ago?”

“Yes,” I said slowly.

“Well, I didn’t escape the house. Not on my own, at any rate.” He took a deep breath and sank into one of the comfortable computer chairs surrounding the long, oval table. “I was in the house. Their shouting woke me up. My bedroom door was closed and I never closed it. Not while I slept. I tried opening it to get to them but the handle scorched me. The windows were painted shut. We hadn’t gotten around to fixing them yet and I panicked and called out to them. You know,” he looked down at his hands, lacing and unlacing the fingers, rubbing the backs of the knuckles with his thumbs, “witsec set us up with a house that had small tunnels running through the walls and floors as a safety feature for small form shifters. But… My claustrophobia wouldn’t let me near them. My parents had already shifted and were in the tunnels but they came for me anyway. Mom had shifted back to calm me down and just convinced me to shift as my dad took my computer chair and threw it through the window. Kinda wish I’d’a thought of that.” His chuckle was strained. “We were only on the second floor, so I’d’ve been okay. Probably. Well, actually, likely not, as a small grenade came in the window.”

He now sat still, staring at the table as if it were a window into the past. I wasn’t sure if he realized he was crying. You couldn’t hear it in his voice unless you were listening for the faint hitch in his breath every now and then or how his vocal chords were stretched just a hair too tight. “Dad jumped on it like in the first Captain America movie only this one actually did go off. It wasn’t just any bomb either. It was a white phosphorous bomb and mom had caught some of the shrapnel as she shielded me when dad had jumped on the grenade. I think dad died instantly. I don’t know. But if he didn’t, I couldn’t hear him scream. Mom screamed, though.” He cupped his hands over his brow as if he couldn’t bring himself to face us. It felt wrong somehow, with him on one side of the table and the three of us on this side. Like we were a tribunal deciding whether to pass down judgement.

Still standing, I walked around the table and pulled out a chair from beside Keelan. I sat, angling myself to face him. I reached an arm around his shoulders and leaned my forehead against the side of his. I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? I’m sorry? That wouldn’t take away the memory of watching a loved one die a horrific death. I was sorry though, for not trying harder to reach him, understand him. For not listening to him. I rubbed circles into his back as he shook silently. Captain Thurgood never talked much but I was grateful Alex, who always seemed to have something to say, had the presence of mind right then to say nothing.

I passed Keelan a tissue box when he started sniffling. Half a box later, his face was dry if a bit red and slightly puffy. “Sorry,” he said, voice thick.

“No need to apologize,” Captain spoke softly. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Keelan cleared his throat and Alex entered the room with a bottle of water which he passed to Keelan. I hadn’t even noticed he’d gone. I nodded my thanks and open it for my mate. He would likely have gotten annoyed at me any other time for doing that but just now he took it without comment.

“Not long after, uh, the grenade,” he said, clearing his throat. “A ph- um, an eagle came through the window. I tried to get away, but it scooped me up in its claws.” He smiled weakly. “I kinda lost consciousness mid-flight, but he dropped me off at the US Marshal’s office the next state over. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he’d helped me. Said he’d kill me if I did…” I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing. “But recent events have proven he was bluffing.”

I wasn’t sure I liked where this was heading. “And this eagle…” I left the sentence open ended.

“Is Robert Murrell.”

“Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”

“Because I needed information from him and turning him in would’ve been a betrayal.” He looked at me, his hazel eyes, more blue today, begged me to believe him. “I owe him my life.”

I sighed. “But do you owe him our child’s life?”

“No,” he winced. “You’re right, I should’ve said something sooner. This is all really dangerous and could’ve gone bad fast. It’s just-” He bit his lip. “I didn’t think you’d believe me if I told you the truth.”

I squeezed his hands. “Of course I would.”

He met my eyes and nodded. “Okay. Then, there’s one person who wasn’t caught with Jeanine Mor.”

“What do you mean?”

“The one person she trusted to ‘take care of things’,” he put up his hands with two fingers up as rabbit ears and curled them down to emphasize the fact that what he’d just said was innuendo for murder, as if it needed emphasis. I smiled at that but it only lasted a second. “Avery Lange.”

Chapter 20

Keelan

“Oh my gawd, I’m so nervous,” Nita paced back and forth in one of pair of closed pavilions set up for the brides. They’d decided to have their wedding in the meadow furthest south on the reservation. There was a slight rise in the center that was popular for stargazing and for weddings. Although humans preferred days or evenings for weddings, shifters often had midnight ceremonies and while new moons were favorite stargazing nights, full moons were prime for shifter ceremonies.   Nita’s was no exception.

“You look amazing, Nita. Nothing’s going to go wrong,” Rayen said as she stepped into the crowded space and hugged her sister tight. It was a good thing she’d come in just then as Nita’s whining was like sandpaper on a sunburn and I was about ready to snap.

She chuckled and swatted her sister’s shoulder. “Now you’ve gone and jinxed it.” She grinned anyway.

“They’re just about ready out there,” Haven said as he let the entrance flap drop. Haven was standing like a guard at the opening and I had chosen a seat in the far corner opposite him for the last couple hours, Nita’s movements like a wall between us.

A couple weeks ago, I’d given in and gone to the clinic to get tested for led poisoning. I’d just caught Dr. Batista at the end of his shift and he’d motioned me to follow him to his office. As he retrieved my medical file, he mentioned something about taking a preemptive shot, just in case. But he went silent after opening my file, something he read putting a crease between his brows.

“Well, I suppose we can’t do that, after all. Especially in your condition,” Dr. Batista said. “I’ll have a nurse take a blood sample and we’ll decide what to do if it comes back positive for lead poisoning.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I had a condition? Did I have cancer or something? It wasn’t common among shifters but it wasn’t unheard of. “What condition?”

“You weren’t informed? It was noted in your file from… Ah, here it is. January 6th.” He pulled a page from my file and handed it over. “Lemme see who the attending was – oh. Right. Well,” he looked up at me apologetically, “with your levels of hCG, either you’re pregnant or you have testicular cancer.”

“Does it have to be one of those?” I asked, too stunned to fully compute his words.

“Well, it’s unlikely to be the latter, but just in case we can set up an ultrasound for today.”

“Really? That’s fast.” I didn’t know if I preferred lead poisoning, cancer, or a baby. They all sounded like a bad idea at the moment. Lead poisoning could probably be counteracted when caught this soon, cancer was scary but most were beatable, but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to abort a baby. I just didn’t have it in me. Was it wrong to pray I had cancer? “Um, okay. When?”

“I’ll set it up while you get your blood drawn and we can do it right after.” I swallowed, my throat dry, as I followed him to an examination room. It didn’t take long for a chipper nurse to draw a few vials of blood and for another scrubbed individual to push a machine into the room. He introduced himself as Andre Lopez, the sonographer, and he had a very open and relaxing personality.

His eyebrows rose slightly and he smiled when Dr. Batista came into the room. “Hey, Martin, how was your vacation?”

“Oh, it was sunny,” Batista replied genially. “The retreat didn’t allow electronics, which was fine at first but I just couldn’t hold out. That’s when I heard about everything and booked a flight home.”

Andre chuckled. “Finally joined the modern era? Well, we’re thankful you did. This man’s a work-a-holic,” Andre said turning back to me. “Hasn’t taken a day off in years, but he’s the best.”

“I hardly think that’s true,” Batista replied. “Now why don’t we get started?”

As Andre hooked up the machine.  I hand’t realized how comfortable I’d been in their presence until my mind wandered back to the matter at hand. It felt like I’d swallowed a jar of firebugs, the buzzing of their little bodies as they thunked against the container in frantic attempt to escape.

“I’ve got this doc, if you wanna head out. I know your shift is over.”

“That’s alright, Andre. I’m just gonna be here for moral support,” he added patting my hand. I smiled, grateful. Moral support sounded nice just then. Later, the blood tests proved I didn’t have lead poisoning or testicular cancer, but when I saw the bean that was my baby on a black and white screen, I knew I was lost.

*****

“The march is starting,” Haven interrupted my thoughts. I could hear two wooden flutes echoing and countering each other in a slow rhythm with a faint leather drumbeat keeping time. I stood and took the first spot by the tent flap grateful Rayen was between me and Haven in the lineup. We walked slowly up the aisle and I stood furthest from the center where the brides would stand. There was one long aisle that broke in the center and most of those attending sat on the ground in human or animal form with the exception of the elderly or infirm sitting in folding chairs with cozy blankets. It was warm for the month, with no snow and sunny days, but it was still chilly. This didn’t affect most shifters as much as their human counterparts, some of whom scattered in the audience wore coats instead of jackets.

The brides approached from either end of the aisle and met in the center, friends and family spread around them. Lavinia wore a sleek white dress of silk with minor lace accents, her black hair down in waves accenting her pale skin. Nita wore a Native American styled dress with long leather fringe instead of sleeves and lining the bottom of the gown from around her knees. Blue and teal triangles accented the sides and under her bust. As they approached each other, Selene touched their silhouettes with silver drawing all eyes.

The shaman spoke of trials and love followed by the brides vows. At the end they each held onto a small wooden shaft with six long ribbons leading off it. Each bridesmaid and groomsman grabbed the end of a ribbon and we danced to a slightly livelier drumbeat weaving in, around and between them, the ribbons tying their hands together until we could weave no more and tied our strand in a knot with one of the other’s. You probably guessed this, but Haven and I tied a knot. For the rest of the night the two of them would be tied together.

The crowd burst into wolf whistles, cat calls, and cheers from those in human form and all manner of noises from the shifted crowd. There was movement everywhere; some people moved off to the buffet tables lining one edge of the clearing or to the sitting tables on either side. The band struck up a beat that had people dancing and some of the crowd swept the brides up in a wicker love seat and danced with them seated, giggling and making out alternately, in the air.

I moved out of the press to avoid any accidental elbow jabs, not at all because Haven was one of the bases for Nita and Lavinia’s love seat, and headed for the food. There was quite the assortment, mostly meat but vegetarianism was gaining traction these days, even in the shifter community. I avoided all fish, since my baby didn’t seem inclined to let me have any, and went for a steak and salad.

I picked a table with no people as I wasn’t feeling very sociable tonight and settled on a metal folding chair. Many of the guests had been part of the setup having each grabbed an item or two on their way up the trail this evening. It saved on trips and allowed us to have at least some tables and chairs. There was an area set up with a pen and several adult, or at least teenage, supervisors for the the little ones. Not that the temporary plastic fence would truly hold any of them but it made it easier and most of the kiddos liked to play together. I noticed Ryan and Sam playing whack-a-mole with a few of the toddlers who were sticking their hands through the holes, giggling every time their hands were lightly smacked.

“So, you’re the big one’s mate.” An omega one might describe as lolita slid into the chair next to me, his back to the festivities.

“We’re not married,” I said curtly. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and he seemed like a talker. I focused on my food, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces. I didn’t feel like eating, either.

“Semantics,” he waved a hand airily at my comment. “You know, I think we’ve met before.”

“Oh?” I glanced back up at him. “I think I’d remember to avoid you.”

“Ouch, that stings.” He put a hand over his heart, his eyes wide in mock hurt. “And after all the help I gave you on New Years.”

I took in his cornrows, blindingly white smile and his pale brown eyes that seemed to match his skin. Then I replaced his current attire with a pale white robe. “Ah. I’d say thanks but,” I motioned toward my abdomen where a not-quite-yet visible baby bump was growing, “your meds didn’t work. I didn’t realize they put cheap brands in those pens.”

“Excuse me,” he said with an annoying grin, “but I only get the best brand. Doesn’t do to have weak shit in my line of work. You probably needed a stronger dose because both your parents were omegas.”

“And what is your line of work exactly?” My parentage wasn’t exactly a secret, nor was the science behind a male and female omega creating more potent omega offspring, but most people didn’t know about the former and usually forgot about the latter after high school. “Things’ve changed since I left but I don’t know of any omega who needs to keep more than one of those things on them for emergencies. If they can even afford them.”

“Oh, I’m just your standard bounty hunter. I believe you’ve seen Murrell recently.” His flippant attitude had my blood boiling, but his words froze had frost creeping up my spine. Maybe my hormones were assisting in the clash of temper and fear. Either he could read people very well or I wasn’t doing enough to guard my features. “Perfect. Could you tell me where he is?”

I hadn’t seen Murrell since he scared the shit out of me announcing Avery’s presence in Hidden Pines. He’d asked for my help which I hadn’t processed through the vice-like fear that had gripped me until after he’d disappeared. I still didn’t know why he needed my help or, for that matter, why he’d stuck around. Once I heard about how he’d been married to Karen Ellory, I figured her missing son was with him, the father. It wasn’t ideal, but he’d keep the boy safe. So, why had Murrell stayed? I hadn’t been able to find him and he hadn’t tried contacting me again since, so I had no idea.

“You may not have poisoned me on New Years, but that doesn’t mean I trust you. I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh, sorry,” he exaggeratedly face-palmed, “how silly of me. Really, sometimes I swear I earned the nickname, Goose. I’m Ch-”

“Chase!” An arm wrapped around Chase’s neck and a fist knuckled over the dreds on the top of his head.

“Fuck, Alex,” Chase said, voice just shy of snarling, “not the hair. You’re gonna make it frizz.”

Alex just laughed as he let him go and moved to sit down on my other side, dodging a swipe from Chase on his way by. I put a leg on the chair blocking it from him. “Uh-uh, you’re not gonna use me as a meat shield.”

“Oh, come on. You’re perfect. He won’t dare touch you.” I just stared at him until he moved to the next seat over. “Fine. Leave me without a hope in the world.”

I rolled my eyes setting my leg back down on the ground under the table, it had been uncomfortable, not to mention cold. The tables were set up with blankets draping to the ground reminiscent of a kotatsu to help stave off the chill. Most of the shifters here had higher natural body temperatures but it was still March in Michigan. That’s when I noticed a bird sitting near the trunk of a tree just inside the treeline, bobbing its head side to side, flashing moonlight off its beak. When it saw me the bobbing stopped and I realized who it was. This might be my only chance to get information.

“Here you go, honey.” Kiki walked up and put a plate in front of Alex. Fish. What was with the man. Still, it gave me the perfect reason for bailing on my current company as I felt my stomach begin churning at the scent.

“Sorry,” I covered my mouth making it seem worse than it was, “I have to go.”

I didn’t look back as I scurried to the edge of the field. I turned back just past the treeline to make sure I wasn’t being followed then headed further in until I saw Murrell’s silhouette through the leafless tree limbs gliding low over the treetops. I debated going back and telling Haven everything. Ever since I’d gotten the sonogram I’d been avoiding him. It wasn’t that I thought he’d be unhappy, or didn’t love me and I sure as hell loved him. It was that I knew he’d be even more driven to protect me, wrapping me in a wall of bubblewrap, and I needed answers.

Alex had given me a pained expression when I’d asked about the café and Peter had flat out told me to leave it alone or he wouldn’t bring me back on when the café was running again. Basil and Sean were practically glued to my side when Haven wasn’t around and it had been a struggle making excuses not to move in with him. He’d let it go, for now, only because with my brother he’d have eyes on me at all times. Aunt Peggy seemed to know more than she should as she’d been dropping by and forcing family to hang out when neither Basil nor Haven were around. I hadn’t been alone for a minute the last couple weeks to even hear my own thoughts. I knew why they were doing it. They thought Murrell was a serial killer who was somehow evading capture without leaving the reservation and had beef with me.

The only reason no one was with me right then was likely due to everyone thinking I was in the company of someone else. I really hoped this conversation with Murrell wouldn’t take long because I was going to be in big trouble. I hadn’t thought seriously about running away for a while now, but I was starting to feel claustrophobic and my fuse was looking a little frayed. Okay, a lot frayed. Fine, it was practically non-existant. I needed to know what Murrell knew, but turning him in would be a betrayal and I owed him my life. Plus I was sure by now that he wouldn’t kill me. A glance behind me and a long inhale through my nose told me that we were too far for anyone to be able to help. Maybe I was ninety percent sure he wouldn’t kill me.

He moved down through the trees until he landed on a low branch and I continued until I stood just outside a small, close-knit horseshoe shaped grove of oaks. He dropped from the branch, back-winging before he hit the ground and landed softly before shifting.

“You didn’t bring me here to kill me, now, did ya?” I half-joked with a short laugh as I tucked my hands into my pockets feeling for my usual brass-knuckles and knife. Hey, I may have felt suffocated with all the over-protective people in my life, but that didn’t mean I was reckless. Well, not completely reckless, I mean I was in the middle of nowhere with a wanted-criminal-plus-dangerous-shifter.

His features remained impassive, though it was hard to tell for sure in the shadows of the trees. “I have to show you something.” He stepped into the grove. I took a quick look around before following him as I slipped the knuckles on. Once inside, the smell hit me like a sledgehammer; decay, rot, death. A body lay curled against the trees on the far side of the grove, meaning it was only a couple feet away. The small man was naked and what smelled like old blood caked in trails away from his throat. How the hell had I not smelled this before?

“A witch’s spell is hiding this spot from shifter senses.” Murrell responded to a question I hadn’t thought I’d spoken aloud.

“Why?” I whispered, as if speaking would disturb the dead.

“The Architect-”

“Is dead,” I said firmly, immediately covering my mouth with my hands at the volume of my voice. Then I realized just how silent it was; there was no wind, no leaves rustling or twigs cracking, no branches scraping one another or any animal sounds whatsoever. It was like the outside world didn’t exist. Still, I continued in a lowered tone. “There’s nothing she can do now. It’s been a year and she’d been in prison for nearly a decade before that.”

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t have reach or that no one knew her plans.” He motioned at the body. “This one was killed months ago. My guess is January 13th.”

A chill ran down my spine. I tightened my fist, ready to crack him in the kidneys any moment. “How would you know?”

“It was a new moon.” He turned his head, eyes locking with mine. “There were two more after, correct? Each were also killed on a new moon.” He watched me, waiting for something, but I didn’t know what he was getting at.

“What does that have to…” my voice trailed off as I realized what it meant and it was not good. Not good at all. “Oh. They got earth and water, which should make him,” I indicated the body with a nod of my head, “the moon element. An owl or wolf maybe.”

I moved toward the body and crouched slowly, turning on the flashlight on my phone.

“That’s why you’re still here,” I said, realization dawning. “You think it’s her. Your mom.” I looked over my shoulder at where Murrell paused in the entrance, his face cast in shadow.

“I must go.”

“To get back to Levi?” I pressed a hand to my stomach, “I get it. I really do, but do you think he might be better off in a more stable home? I mean, after all this is over.” He stood for a moment, as though carved of marble, before simply disappearing between one second and the next. That barrier really was something else.

I turned back to the body shining my phone light over it as I turned the camera on to record. I’d find Haven and tell as soon as I left, but in case Avery was here and moved the body while I was gone I wanted some visual proof. The light hit the toes first which looked scraped as if he’d run some distance. His skin had minor abrasions particularly on the arms and legs but the torso bore them as well. And then there was the neck wound. I thought I could see inside his trachea and my stomach roiled, but it was the face that had me fleeing the grove to find a place to deposit my rebellious bile. He’d been so kind, seemed like someone I might’ve gone to for advice. But if he’d been dead since January, who was impersonating Dr. Batista?

Chapter 19

Haven

His hazel eyes were wide with shock as they moved from face to face finally locking with mine. I froze as if I’d looked into the eyes of a gorgon. This was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. This was everything I wanted, but by the look on his face, I was scared Keelan would run. It was too soon, he was still so on edge. I had to calm him down, but words turned into jumbled letters and my limbs had turned to stone.

“Well, fuck-a-duck,” Alex said, his grin showing a little too many teeth as he slammed his open palm into the back of my shoulder. My stone shell cracked. No, Keelan had to be at least entering his heat for this to have happened. I took in a breath. That’s all I had to tell him to make this misunderstanding go away.

“No,” Keelan said, scooching to the edge of the table. “No, no, no. No-no-no-no.” Nita took a step back as he stood and faced Rayen. “I. Am. Not. Pregnant. That’s impossible.”

She glanced between me and him, pursing her lips. “Reeeaaally?”

He met my eyes for a split second with uncertainty triggering the memory of New Year’s Eve. When he said he’d been fine. Unlike women, male omegas only went into heat two to four times a year which left a few months before one missed a period  and by that time… Yeah, you could usually tell by then. I’d hung out with him every night for two months since late January and hadn’t smelled a thing, but that could just be because I grew accustomed to the changing scent. For a second I thought he’d admit the possibility, but he just pressed his lips together as he returned Rayen’s stare.

“Oh? Then what’s this?” Nita leaned her head out from behind Keelan and just then I realized she had her hands up his sweater. I narrowed my eyes at her and growled. She just shot me a wicked smile.

Keelan pushed her arms down and stepped away from her and a little further from the table. “I just need to exercise more. That’s all.” His voice was firm but his chin dipped and his arms crossed over his torso.

“Oh-ho,” Nita continued to tease, “so defensive. Are you sure you’re no-”

“I’M NOT PREGNANT!!” This was shouted into a lull in the music and nearly all eyes in the the building turned in our direction. Keelan’s eyes were wide, his mouth agape, as he took in the looks of the club-goers: from interested to skeevy, amused to derisive. He mumble something about going home as he pulled up his hood and pushed his way through the crowd. The music thumped on but eyes still followed him as he left.

I grabbed his forgotten coat, glaring at Nita, and went after him. I caught up to him in the parking lot where he just stood and stared at Kate’s car, probably realizing he had no way home. I slowed and stopped just out of reach.

“Keelan?” I asked tentatively, not sure how he’d react.

He just sighed and turned toward me. I held out his coat and he stepped forward to take it, but then he just stood there staring at it.

“Are you alright? Nita was just being Nita and-”

“It’s a misunderstanding,” he said still looking at the coat. I held my tongue. Let him talk if he wants to.

“Would you like a ride home? We could hang out and watch a movie with Basil and Sean.” He looked at me then, a wan smile tugging at his lip, and nodded.

“He’s gonna laugh at me. He’s been telling me to see a doctor.” We meandered toward my truck as Keelan slipped the coat on.

“Who, Basil? He thought you were pregnant?” How long had Keelan known? Or at least suspected?

“No,” he scoffed, confusing me. “I probably have lead poisoning from the Moran House.”

“Wait, what?” I said stopping with the driver’s door half open. That would be serious, but- “But that collapsed a month ago.”

“What happened to Lucille?” Keelan asked gaping at my SUV.

“She was just on loan. This is Zoe,” I said patting the top of the car. “Zoe, this is Keelan. He’ll hopefully be sticking around for a long while.” My smile widened as Keelan burst out laughing and climbed into the passenger seat.

He patted her dashboard, as I slipped into the driver’s seat and pulled onto the road. “Nice to meet you, Zoe. Please take good care of me.”

“Oh, I will.” I caught Keelan staring at me as I pulled onto the road.

He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Symptoms of lead poisoning can show up anytime. I suppose I’ll have to see a doctor now to be safe.”

I nodded. “To be safe.” I watched the road as he stared out the window and we remained silent the rest of the way to his brother’s.

*****

“Somebody crack open a can of tuna?” Alex entered the building in front of me, a hand up to cover his mouth and nose.

While I was being shocked by the announcement of my boyfriend’s maybe pregnancy at my sister’s bachelorette party the night before, a fight had occurred in the kitchen at The Daily Grind and we had yet another dead body.

“Aren’t you a bear?” Meagan called out from the kitchen.

“And you eat sushi,” I added. “Specialty sushi, at that.” We moved into the wider kitchen in the back. One wall was lined with sinks and an industrial dishwasher that was just a giant metal box. A small row of stoves lined another wall while a multilayered oven took up a section between what were likely the pantry and walk-in cold storage. An island stood in the center with a small rack of cookware hanging over it.

“Screw you both. I do like sushi which canned tuna is not.” He pulled out a tin of mint scented wax to put on his lip just under his nose to try and block the scent. It definitely didn’t smell like flowers in here; I held out my hand and he set the tin in it as I copied his actions.

The center island was perpendicular to the rear exit we’d entered and we stepped carefully as a layer of water coated the linoleum floor. We rounded the counter opposite and came face to tail with a shark, the tail fin curling around the side of the counter.

“What the hell?” Alex exclaimed as I turned and headed around the other side and stood behind Meagan where she examined the head of the shark.

“Same as before,” she said. “This is definitely a shifter.”

“You’re sure?” I asked, knowing the answer yet not wanting it to be true. She looked over her shoulder at me, an incredulous eyebrow raised. I sighed. Right. How else could someone fit a great white shark into a space this small without a larger doorway or being sliced into pieces. The thing was twenty feet if it was an inch.

First Karen, now this. This was the second death where a shifter had been found in their animal form post-mortem. It had been easier with Karen as a coywolf isn’t too much worse than a human to move around. We’d managed to keep the animal form part of her death out of the media. This one, though, would require the assistance of a tanuki to get it back into human shape before transportation. This meant that Meagan had to do the shifted examination now since she wouldn’t have a chance later. Though our animal side is bound to us, is an essential part of us, the human body is our core. It’s unnatural for a shifter to stay in animal shape after death. The media was already all over it.

“I think he was given a paralytic,” she continued. “There’s a puncture mark just behind the gills. I’m thinking he was tranqued mid-shift.” That made sense. Once a shift is started it has to finish. Partial shifts are a myth after all, like unicorns and pots of gold sitting at the ends of rainbows. Also, if he’d been able to move the kitchen wouldn’t have just a couple pans, plates and a chair lying around. And what was with all the water?

“Looks like someone might’ve waterboarded him.” Alex had moved to examine the knocked over chair. There were cut ropes fallen around it.

“You think they were looking for information?” I asked.

“Maybe they just wanted him to turn. A serial killer with a penchant for killing shifted shifters?”

“You thinking Murrell?”

“No, this is only the second.” Meagan broke in.

“That we know of,” Alex grumbled.

“But if I had to guess I’d say something about this makes it feel more ritualistic.”

“Well, lets not give him a third,” I said.

“Did you want to call him or shall I?” Alex stretched as he stood and turned to face me. Him was AJ Belmont, our resident criminal advocate, delinquent counselor, and royal pain-in-the-department’s-ass. He wasn’t a lawyer but he did what he could to help ex-cons find jobs and have happy homes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful idea that people can change, that they can become upstanding citizens. It usually doesn’t happen like that, though. However, since he was our resident trash panda, he was brought in to help return Karen to her human form.

To be fair, he wasn’t really a raccoon, but a Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki. Tanukis looked a little like raccoons but had rounder faces and bodies, no tail, and, where raccoons at least had opposable thumbs, tanukis had regular paws. Tanukis were, for reasons unknown to the greater population, blessed by the Selene, goddess of the moon, to work with subtle earth magics. They were herbalists, especially good at infusing magic into their work. Although the scope was fairly narrow, it was steadier and more reliable the chaotic human witch magics.

I was happy to find out that he’d already been called for before Alex and I had arrived. We didn’t have to wait too long before he walked in. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I took a small bit of satisfaction from the look of distaste on his face when he took his first breath of stale air. Unfortunately for my enjoyment but fortunately for my nasal passages, he pulled out a bundle of herbs from a brown leather satchel and lit it. Turned out it was sage and, while strong, wouldn’t normally be able to cleanse the air of the putrid stench. There was an undertone of some kind of song, seemingly wordless, that gave the sage more potency, freshening the air.

“Hey, AJ,” Meagan greeted as she stood and gave the man a hug. “Sorry about this, I know you’re busy.” She gathered her gear that she’d spread on the center island and stepped back around the island to make space for AJ at the head of the shark. When he knelt down (yep, right in the water), I followed Meagan’s example. Alex, however, decided to lean against the counter behind the tanuki.

“Come on, you gotta see this,” Meagan whispered and tugged my arm. Can’t say I wasn’t curious. It was rare to see a forced change, you generally had to get a warrant to do so and judges in general were leery about it with shifter’s rights activists pushing to make it illegal.. I let her pull me down by the shark’s tail.

“You probably shouldn’t stand there.” AJ’s voice was flat as if he didn’t really care. Well, then neither did I. I wanted to see this and wasn’t going to crouch like Meagan was to see between the shelves of the center island. With my height I could see AJ’s head and torso over the counter as he waved a feather toward the body, pushing the rising smoke before it. It wasn’t sage this time. It smelled a little of burned hair, coal and the lavender did it’s best to disguise a skunk-like scent..

I wondered if he’d set up base speakers when a low thrum vibrated through the floor. Not just the floor, it hummed in the air like electricity and danced through my bones. It was a song that called for change, but a change I couldn’t give it since I was already in my human form. It was glimpsing Selene as she ghosted through by during a new moon, but never being sure it wasn’t your imagination. It was making love under a full moon, looking into a face I’d never forgotten. It was the slowing beat of a heart as sleep overcame my weary body. It took me a second to remember to breathe and I hadn’t even realized I’d closed my eyes. I opened them as the music ended and I looked around confused. It felt like I’d lost a part of myself, but that was wrong. I still felt my otherself, but where he was usually hyper vigilant, always just under my skin, he was dozing. I mentally poked him. Any other time, he would have jumped at the chance to shift and I was lucky that he didn’t take the bait this time or more of the kitchen would be wrecked. But.

“What the fuck did you do, Belmont?” I stalked over the now human body to loom over AJ. He ignored me as he stood, replacing a brass bowl in his satchel on the counter after dumping the ashes in a ziplock baggy. I slammed my hand on his bag as he grabbed the strap, and snatched a fistfull of his shirt. “He’s not responding, what the hell did you do?”

Alex jumped forward, his hand gripping the wrist above AJ’s shirt, the other at my elbow. “Haven, dude, what are you doing? Let him go!”

AJ met my eyes, his slanted ones flat with annoyance. “I did warn you, did I not? It’s not my fault you got high.”

“That was not a warning. A warning is ‘hey, I put weed in this magic potion and you’ll lose the ability to shift’,” I growled, my fist tightening in his shirt. A sharp pain at the curve of my neck and shoulder made my hand open and AJ stepped out of reach with a cold glare. I shook my hand out as I turned a glare on my partner. I hadn’t noticed when he’d let go of me.

“What?” he shrugged, not moving to put his baton away. “It was your brachial plexus or your head. At least this way you can tell me what the fuck just happened.”

I took a deep breath, letting it out in a slow half growl. He was right. Things might’ve gotten worse if I’d continued. I poked my bison again, but he just continued sunbathing. I resisted looking over at the tanuki, but kept my left hand on his bag to keep him from leaving.

“This trash panda,” I couldn’t hold back a downward slanted lip curl, “just did something so I can’t shift.”

“Like at all?” Meagan asked from the other side of the counter. I just glanced at her and heard scratching on paper as I finally looked at AJ. “Interesting.”

“So.” I emphasized each word slowly. “What. Did. You. Do.”

AJ sighed. “I did exactly as I was asked to do. I forced your victim to change back to his natural state.”

“What were you burning?”

“That’s proprietary information and you don’t have a warrant,” he replied stiffly.

“I smelled weed.”

“Yes, I use cannibis in this tincture. It’s my own blend. Helps people relax. Which is necessary when you want them in human form.”

“Wait-wait-wait.” Alex stepped forward, grinning like a fool. “You mean my partner here was dosed with pot? Oh, that’s too much.” His machine-gun bursts of laughter grated on my nerves. “So, wait, if he’s high, how come he’s so ornary?” Alex asked wiping away tears. I flung AJ’s bag at his head, it had more weight than expected and Alex fumbled it. AJ dove for it at the same time but it still landed in the water. I grinned inwardly as AJ stood, half soaked, his bag dripping.

“I think ornary is his natural state.” AJ glared at me while uselessly swiping at the water on his bag. At the door he stopped, looking at Meagan to say, “If you need me again, my fee just doubled.”

“There you go, again, making friends,” Alex thumped my shoulder.

“Do you know when I can get my- Oh, my god.” We turned toward the lobby door to see Peter standing in the open doorway, staring down at our feet.

I glanced between the body and Peter. “Do you know him?” I asked slowly.

“You could say that.”

Chapter 18

Keelan

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. 

“She’s expecting.”

“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.