Chapter 7

 Haven

“I need to talk to someone.” The voice was authoritative and, though it couldn’t be described as yelling, it sure carried. I rounded the corner to see a man standing in front of officer Yang at the service desk.

Yang, for her part, stood her ground against a man who’s wide stance and lean muscles bespoke a fighter. The tatoos that climbed his neck and peeked from under his shirt sleeve didn’t help his impression. “Sir, we can’t divulge information about an ongoing investigation.”

“Except to the media?” The man’s voice remained calm but his eyes burned. “This circus is starting to make people nervous and they’re looking sideways at my guys.” A growling undertone vibrated in his throat. “Are you trying to get them lynched?”

“Officer Yang.” I nod first to Yang and then to the man on the other side of the desk. “What seems to be the problem.”

“Detective,” Yang said, turning relieved eyes up to mine. “This gentleman-”

“Who can I talk to about this serial killer.” The man’s eyes shifted to me and they practically glowed with anger.

“I believe Office Yang told you-”

“‘We cannot disclose information about an ongoing situation’ or some bullshit?” I wasn’t sure he was aware of the low growl he was producing until he cleared his throat and took a deep breath before continuing. “Look, my guys are good guys. They may have done wrong in the past but that is in the past and they came here looking for a fresh start. Most of them have found jobs but they still get suspicious looks. This bullshit with the killer is making many of them feel unsafe at work.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” I kept my voice as neutral as possible. “We’re doing everything we can to get Murrell off the streets.”

“It better be soon.” The man planted his index finger on the counter. “You may not like what will happen if any of my men gets lynched.”

I pressed my lips together. “Is that a threat, sir?”

“Just a warning.”

I tried a different tack. “People are just scared.”

“And scared people do stupid things.” He nodded. “Sure. But you can’t expect innocent people to not defend themselves.”

I pressed my lips together. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t antagonize the man even further.

“And what about the New Years run?”

“What about it?”

“What is City Council doing to make sure its citizens are safe during the annual New Years Eve run tonight?”

“I believe they’ll be discussing that this afternoon at city hall.”

“Is the public invited?”

I ground my teeth at his not-quite-accusatory tone. “They posted the announcement a half-hour ago and they would, indeed, like the public to be involved. I’m sure they would love your input.” My dry sarcasm didn’t even make him blink.

A smile tilted his mouth up, though it didn’t touch his eyes. “Thank you for your time, officer.”

The obvious slight made my jaw clench on my own smile. He nodded and walked out the front.

I turned to Yang as she sat at the computer playing solitaire. It made her look busy to anyone walking in, exuding a more professional atmosphere, while occupying her when there was nothing to do. “Who was that?”

“AJ Belmont. AKA: The Masked Crusader.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

She sighed. “Tanuki. He’s the new self-appointed liaison between ex-con shifters and everyone else, I suppose. He works at the Community Center.”

My eyebrows shot up. “The Community Center?”

“Yup.”

“What does he do there? Scare away tax payers?”

She rolled her eyes to the ceiling then to me. “What tax payers?”

“Point taken.”

“He runs the children’s programs and works with at-risk youth.”

I looked from her to the front door in shock. “Nope. Don’t believe you. That’s too much.”

“It’s true.”

“How do you know?”

“He’s in here all the time complaining about the work atmospheres for his men, complaining about the lack of employment opportunities, complaining about the lack of funding for his programs.”

“He seems to complain a lot.”

“Just means he cares.” She looked out the door almost longingly.

Which was my que to head in to the bullpen and back to the hunt for Murrell. Mr. Belmont may have gotten on my nerves, but he had a point. We needed to shut Murrell down.

“Alex, do you have the Winter file?” I asked as I set my brown take-away bag on my desk and pulled out one of Jimmy’s famous wet burritos.

I loved that he set up his stand in front of the precinct today. Popping the top off the to-go tray, the smell of the beef and bean wrapped in a fresh tortilla and topped with a spicy sauce and melted cheese just made my mouth water. I grabbed the disposable fork and started to unwrap it as I turned to face Alex who, uncharacteristically, hadn’t answered yet. Maybe he’d caught a lead.

Alex wasn’t sitting at his desk. Where Alex had a military cut hairstyle, this man had cornrows. Where Alex could hide by just turning out the lights or stepping outside at night, this man might have to at least find a deeper shadow. Where Alex was like a barrell, this man might tip over in a strong wind.

“Excuse me,” I said as I stepped up behind where he sat perusing the material on Alex’s desk. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Coffee. Black. Make that five sugars,” he said without even looking around.

I yanked the chair away from the desk, sending him back several feet. He turned an unnerving pair of one golden brown and one blue eyes on me. A few pages remained in his hands as he watched in shock as the rest moved farther away. “Hey! I was reading that.”

“Clearly. Unfortunately, I am unaware of your identity and have no immediate way of gauging your rank.”

He stood, arranging the papers still in his hand into a neat stack as he looked up at me. I knew I could crush him in an instant, but he seemed unaffected. “No,” he cocked a hip to the side as his eyes scanned down my body and back up, “but you can call me Sir Wallace. As in your knight in shining armor.”

I pressed my lips together and crossed my arms.

He slunk a step toward me, batting his lashes.

“Hey, man.” Alex appeard at the interloper’s shoulder, hanging an arm around his neck. “I wouldn’t try your wiles with this one,” he said waving a hand in my direction. “He’s all but spoken for.”

The other man grinned slyly my way. “So there’s wiggle room.”

“Nah, man, he’s besotted. High-school sweetheart is back in town.”

I grunted, narrowing my eyes on my partner. This person did not need to know anything about my personal life.

However, this new information seemed to have a decided effect on the smaller man. He stopped his flirtatious stance and looks, straightening to his full height. Surprisingly, he was taller than Alex, belied by his lanky figure.

“Damn, bro, if you all meet your fated mates around here, what am I gonna do?” he all but whined.

Alex rolled his eyes. “Oh, I dunno, go through legitimate channels?”

“Psshhht, I’ll just come to you.” He slipped his arm around Alex’s torso with one arm and lightly punched him in the chest with the other. “You know you’re like a brother to me.”

Alex patted the side of his face forcefully. “Try that again, Chase, and, as your adopted brother, I’ll have to arrest you.”

As they parted, I noticed Alex reclaiming a couple file folders that had appeared in the other man’s hand. I let my arms fall to my sides in fists and stepped into Chase’s personal space.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I growled.

“My job.” To his credit, he still didn’t back down even though I loomed over him.

“What job? You’re not qualified to work here.”

“Well, HR.” He squared his jaw. “I do have an extensive resume of catching criminals law enforcement is too innefective to catch themselves.”

I ground my teeth. First the criminal advocate and now what could I could only infer to be a bounty hunter. Though, he did look a little, no, a lot small for the occupation.

“How? With your winning attitude?”

He puffed out his chest.

Alex put a hand on each of our shoulder’s. “Hey, guys. Chill. Step back.”

I took a deep, slow breath in through my nose as I stepped back, trying to reign in my temper. Then something struck me. “You’re an omega? Shouldn’t you be on-”

“Suppressants? Damn, HR, you’re good.” He pulled out a zip packet from his backpack housing an EpiPen style injection kit. It was a more expensive option as the dose and brand was individualized but more effective and fast acting than the usual pill or manual loaded needle medication. “Always keep ‘em on me.” He took one out and jammed the needle end into his thigh with a hiss.

No wonder I’d reacted so strongly; he’d been in the first stages of a heat cycle. Strange that I’d reacted to him as an alpha to an alpha rather than an alpha to an omega. All I could think of to say was, “I don’t work in Human Resources.”

“I know.”

I took another breath, the hairs that I hadn’t realized had stood up on my neck settling. Let’s try introductions. “My name is Haven, but you can call me Detective-”

“Riley. Exactly, HR.” He grinned childishly.

This kid was going to get on my nerves, pheromones or not. I turned toward Alex and opened my mouth. He just held up a finger to stop me speaking as he was on his cell. I complied, even if my teeth did clack when they shut.

“That was the hospital,” he said as he hung up. “Avery’s awake, but he’s badly burned.” His face looked grim. “If we want to talk to him today we gotta hurry.”

I closed my eyes, trying to reign in the temper that information caused. Taking a few deep breaths I opened my eyes.

“Right. Let’s get moving. And you-” I turned toward Chase. He was gone.

“Man.” Using a finger to draw Chase’s outline where he’d been standing moments before, Alex continued,” you can almost see the blinking, dotted outline right there.”

“I wish he’d been a cartoon.”

“No you don’t.”

“Why not?” I grunted. “Then he’d just be the figment of a sadistic immagination.”

“You wouldn’t want to be the antagonist on CartoonNetwork.”

“I’m not a jealous cat, a redneck hunter, or a crazy coyote.”

Alex just raised an eyebrow, holding my gaze. Like hell was I going to admit he was right.

Chapter 6

Keelan

When I woke the next morning I’d been certain the invite from Haven had been a dream. One of those dreams that you woke up thinking for sure had been real, like winning the lottery and being able to do the work you love without supplementing it with a job you hate. But the navy pickup that pulled up in front of the house that evening proved the veracity of the dream.

“Well, go on, boy.” My uncle pushed my coat at me. “Don’t keep him waiting, I’ve a bingo game to get to and your boyfriend’s blocking me in.”

“He’s not-”

“Go on.” He opened the door and pushed me out it before I could finish my sentence. I stopped on the porch in front of a surprised Haven. I shifted under his gaze, unsure what to do next; I still wasn’t confident this was a date at all. He probably just wanted to catch up. As friends. “Well, don’t just stand there mooning over each other,” my uncle said as he stepped onto the porch himself and shut the door behind him. “I’ve only got ten minutes to get to the VA before those bastards start without me. Tonight’s my night, I feel it.”

“Grampa, you forgot your stamps.” Ryan came out with his coat unzipped, holding a small bucket filled with what looked like markers with round bulbs at the end.

“You’re going too?” I didn’t think kids enjoyed such a boring game.

“Of course! Who else is going to be Grandpa’s good luck charm.” Meaning he was going to be Uncle Joe’s gofer, but he seemed exited about it.

“How much did he offer this time?” Haven asked.

Ryan beamed. “If he wins a pot I get 10% and if he doesn’t win he’ll give me twenty bucks.”

My eyebrows rose and Haven said, “Wow. That’s very generous Uncle Joe.” It almost sounded sarcastic.

Uncle Joe just grunted and tugged on a pair of fingerless gloves.

“The grand prize drawing has rolled over the last five months so it’s huge!” Ryan’s grin just seemed to get bigger, somehow.

“Okay, then. Well, have fun.” I said stepping off the porch after Haven.

“You too.” Ryan waggled his fingers at me as Uncle Joe grunted and climbed into his station wagon. In a singsong voice he chirruped, “Have a good night, Haven and Keelan. The willow by mystic lake is easy to climb.”

I blushed at the nine-year-old’s audacity.

Haven responded, “Later, Alphalpha.”

I burst out laughing as I noticed the wind had made the hair at the top of Ryan’s forehead stick up just like in The Little Rascals. The boy made a face as he tried to flatten his hair, finally settling on pulling his coat’s hood up.

I seriously must’ve been stressing lately because I didn’t stop laughing until we were walking into a sit-down restaurant I hadn’t caught the name of for the tears in my eyes. We were seated off to the side in a booth rather than a table. It seemed he remembered my preferences.

Haven smiled at the death throes of laughter that bubbled out of my throat as I attempted to look over the menu. “It wasn’t that funny.” Which just set me off again.

I took a sip of the water Haven had asked the waitress to bring us.

“I think I just needed to laugh.”

“Looks like it.”

I thought a moment. “Actually, I haven’t laughed so much in the last decade as I have in the last couple days.”

“I’m glad we’re making such a good impression on you.”

“We?”

“The town, your family.” He paused a second, turning his glass of water slowly. “Me.” There was a bit of flint in his eyes that seemed to contact the chunk of steel in my chest and igniting a pile of forgotten tinder in my chest.

“So, what’ll you two have?” A welcome interruption if ever there was one. I’d made a promise to myself the night before that I would think about my actions more and being around Haven again seemed to make me forget that.

Haven ordered Mongolian Beef and I must’ve made a face, because he looked at me sideways and asked, “What?”

“It’s just seems wrong hearing a bison order steak.”

“Still?” He rolled his eyes and I chuckled.

“And you sweatheart?” Bonnie’s voice shook a little, her eyes twinkling. Her nametag said Bonnie and I thought it fit her very well.

“I’ll have the special, Bonnie. Thank you.” I didn’t know what the special was in a place like this but a quick glance around the room made me think it was probably chicken, or sushi or something like that. It could be steak of some sort but there were tanks at the back with various fish and crustacea keeping their food sources alive. I doubted the special would be something terrible, though, and I didn’t want to wait any longer than I had to.

“Alrighty. Let me know if you need anything else.”

There was a wall tank with decorative fish and sea life. It looked like there was an anemone in there too. I always thought fish were peaceful to watch. I never wanted one as a pet, though, because they didn’t travel well.

“Haven,” a voice called behind me. I turned as a dark-skinned man stole a chair from a nearby table and spun it so he was sitting backwards on it while facing us. Looking at me he asked, “Is this him?”

Haven sighed audibly. “Keelan this is my partner, Alex. Alex, this is Keelan. Play nice.” The last part was clearly aimed at the new guy.

Alex waved Haven off, however. “Pshaw, I’m always nice. So, Keelan, this your first time to Chen’s?”

“Uh, yes. This restaurant wasn’t around when I was a kid.”

“Oh, man,” he said, his already wide grin seeming to get wider and alarmingly more vivid, “you have got to try the clownfish.”

I stuttered a laugh, because he was clearly pulling my leg. “Yeah. Right.”

“Aw, c’mon, man,” he said, smacking Haven on his shoulder. “You didn’t tell him about his options?”

I looked at Haven and rolled my eyes at his friend. Funny thing was, Haven didn’t roll his eyes back. Instead he looked somewhat uncomfortable, almost sheepish. I glanced back at the decorative tank were I’d noticed the anemone earlier and saw there were, in fact, some clown fish swimming lazily around it.

My smile faded some. “You’re not serious.” Alex turned his toothy smile back to me.

“Oh, dude, they’re the best. And Chen? The only cook who can make ‘em properly.” He closed his eyes in apparent bliss.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I was stunned. “You eat Nemo?”

He shrugged at me. “It’s the best.”

“Gross. No. I ordered the special.”

“Ah,” his smile grew suspiciously. Then he looked behind me towards the front door. “Well, enjoy your meal. Save me any leftovers yeah?” He winked and, stunned, I watched him head toward a cute, diminutive woman at the door who was tapping her foot and looking at Alex pointedly.

I turned back to Haven. “Did he mean what I think he meant?”

Haven shrugged, lips pursed attempting to hide a smile and looked toward the kitchen door.

“They serve me clownfish, you’re eating it,” I said with finality.

When our server appeared with our food, she placed a sushi platter in front of me. I poked at it unsure before asking, “This isn’t clownfish is it?”

She burst out laughing. “Oh, sugar, no. We only have one customer who orders that dish. This is your standard sushi platter with the chef’s secret sauce.”

I let out a breath. “Oh, good.”

I groaned and closed my eyes when I dipped the first bite of sushi into the pale sauce and brought it to my lips. This was heaven. When I opened my eyes I saw Haven staring at me with smoldering eyes.

I cleared my throat and searched for another topic. “So, um, Alex is your partner in the Guard?” Smooth, very smooth.

“Yup, best partner I’ve ever had. It’s gonna be hard if he and Kiki move to Yellowstone.”

“He’s moving?”

“Kiki wants to move there for better job opportunities in her field.”

“What does she do?”

“Genetic research. She’s looking to see if the secondary gender can be detected sooner than puberty. I think. That or she’s trying to create a breed of superheros.”

“Ah, yeah. Not much call for that here. They’ve got you.”

He brought his arms up and flexed them like He-man and I laughed. So, he did a couple other poses until Bonnie walked by having just taken another table’s order and wolf whistled. He just winked at her but I could tell he’d colored up a little.

“Yeah. I just wish Alex wouldn’t let her get away with so much. I mean, she’s a good person but she’s got him wrapped around her paw.” He focused on the door Alex had left, his face growing introspective. “I’m actually kinda surprised he’s not given in already.”

“I can understand how hard it is to stand up to someone. Especially if they’re an alpha. Even more so if it’s someone you love.”

“Only if you’re not sure how they feel.” He seemed to remember where he was. “Oh, sorry. I shouldn’t be discussing this right now.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind.” It’d actually relaxed me a bit.

“Wait. Did you imply Alex was an omega?”

“He’s not?”

“No. He might be small for an alpha, but you really shouldn’t judge him based on that.”

I could tell Alex was a mass of muscle, but next to Haven he seemed like a toothpick. And then there was Alex’s wife. She exuded the aura of an alpha. “But wasn’t his wife-”

“Oh, she’s an alpha too. Although same secondary sex couples aren’t common it’s not unheard of.”

He was right. Many of the uppercrust tried to keep alpha lines pure which meant opposite primary and same secondary sex marraiges. I’d just never seen one myself. It was more difficult for an alpha female to carry to term than any omega, and when both spouses of an alpha and omega couple were female it was still the omega who would carry. Only in extreme cases would they conceive a test tube baby in the alpha female of the pair.

“So, how’ve you been?” He winced after finishing the question.

It took me a second to bring my mind back to the present. When I did, I couldn’t help but tease him. “Well, I’ve been worse. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I ran away from home awhile ago.”

“Yeah?” His smile returned. “I seem to remember something about that. But the way I heard it, you were just trying to survive after taking down a kingpin.”

“I was only trying to atone for my own part.”

“Sounds like a superhero to me.”

“Anti-hero, you mean.”

“Those are the most interesting.”

“With the best origin stories.” I continued, aiming my chopsticks at him as if making a point, “Better than mine.”

He gave me a skeptical look. “Let’s think about this a moment. You were the life of the party in high school, got hired by a notorious mob boss, gathered incriminating information, exposed said information thus painting a huge target on yourself, and had to go into hiding until the aforementioned kingpin died before returning to your childhood home to complete whatever task it is your parents gave you.”

“How’d you know about my parents?” I gaped at him.

“O-ho, I see I was on the money.” He winked at me. “I didn’t. It was just a guess.”

I just stared. What could I say? He’d clearly learned some tricks on the job and had used them on me. I couln’t even be mad at him. It wasn’t like it was a state secret, I just hadn’t felt like talking to anyone about it. But somehow he’d known. He’d known I’d been withholding something and had use the tools in his arsenal to get it. And he’d only done it because he cared about me. I couldn’t imagine what ulterior motive could be behind such a inconsequential piece of information.

“They wanted their ashes spread around the place where they first kissed.” Ah, so this was what I’d decided to do. “They didn’t just leave with me, you know. They left everyone else behind. They’d always talk about coming back someday as if we were just doing a world trip. An extended vacation. They talked about bringing Basil and me so many places. They wanted to take us skiing in the Alps, spend Mardigras in New Orleans, go to Temple Bar in Dublin during St. Patty’s, take a Christmas tour of Europe. I think they felt guilty for leaving him behind.” I stared into my glass of water as I stirred it with my spoon. “They shouldn’t have come with me.”

His hand covered mine stilling the spoon mid-rotation.

“They did the right thing.”

“Did they?”

“You needed them. Basil had the rest of the family. He never needed help.”

“Perhaps not. But they’d still be alive now, instead of becoming targets.”

“What do you mean, I thought-”

I could still hear their screams. I could still smell the odor of burning flesh. I could still see- I hadn’t realized I was crying until Haven wiped my cheeks softly with his thumb.

“Oh, my god.” I chuckled thickly. “I can’t believe I’m ruining our date.”

Haven’s head tilted, empathy arrested on his face. I was mortified. I hadn’t been thinking. I knew I shouldn’t have called it a-

“Date.” A smile formed on his face as raw as sunshine. “Yes. This is a date.”

“It’s not if you don’t want it to be,” I backpedaled.

“Do you want it to be?” His smile faded slighlty.

My breath caught. I wasn’t planning on staying, but I didn’t want to lose sight of something so pure. Before I could stop myself, I whispered, “Yes.”

The hand that was covering mine moved, picking up my own and pulling it to his side. He turned it palm up and, while staring me in the eyes, kissed the center of it. I sucked in a breath at the sensation that buzzed up my arm like a live wire shock making my heart beat a hundred times faster.

“If you two are ready to head out, sugarmill, I’ve got your check here.” I jumped pulling my hand back from Haven. Or I tried to at least. He held it firm in his hand for a moment after I stopped tugging on it before letting go to retrieve his wallet. I was so flustered that it only occurred to me as he was handing over his credit card that I should pay for my portion. I pulled out my wallet and was opening it when Haven covered my hands with his again.

“It’s a date remember? I got this.” His smile was contagious and my face heated.

Chapter 5

Keelan

No matter that I was technically outside and could head in any direction, I was trapped. It was nothing physical, nothing tangible, nothing I could easily set aside. It was the way he was looking at me. It took me way back to our first date. He’d been dressed in a tux and had been voluteered to be my prom date by George. I know, it was a surprise that the school’s biggest party boy didn’t even have one invite, but it turned out there was a reason for that. His name rhymed with Basil, and nobody at school was willing to cross him. Well, there was one exception.

I hadn’t known at the time but had later been informed smugly by George that Haven had been interested in me for a while and had actually asked my cousin for advice. He’d just meant to find out whether I might be interested in him as well but George had simply taken the opportunity to play matchmaker. I have to admit, I hadn’t been looking forward to going stag to prom, and Basil was going, plus my parents insisted it would be an important experience for me, something I’d regret missing. Blah, blah, blah.

I can’t say I’d’ve regretted missing prom but I definitely was grateful for the introduction to Haven. He’d been more lanky at the time but still tall, still growing into his body, still hot. I’d thought I was being pranked, like in those teen romance movies where the jock and his friends make fun of the lowly geek. Or that I’d been dreaming. But he’d looked at me so sincerely, his eyes, locked with mine, so intense.

As they were now.

I started as I felt something brush my arm and looked down to see Aunt Peggy had a hand resting there and a knowing smile in her eyes.

“Unc-” I cleared my throat, dry as it was. “Uncle Joe says he can’t find the blasted Miracle Whip and that the kids are driving him bonkers.”

“My brother would never be so nice in his words,” her teeth showed in her smile before it softened, “but thank you for editing the ol’coots language for me, dear. Those kids should be in bed anyhow.”

Desperate for any reason to leave the area I volunteered, “Oh, I can do that, Aunt Peggy.” Waving a hand to indicate Haven without looking I said, “You have company.”

“Oh, no, dear. I can handle them myself.” I opened my mouth to protest but she cut me off. “Besides, it’s you the detective’s come to see, dear. Not me.”

With that she slipped inside the front door and shut it softly, but with a finality that had my heart racing. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face Haven again.

“Holy shit!” I jumped back, nearly tripping over a potted plant as I discovered Haven had come several feet closer to me while I’d been distracted.

Haven grabbed my arm to steady me and I cursed my stupid reflexes. I’d trained in martial arts, had concentrated on always knowing my surroundings, and I’d still been caught off guard. I needed to be more careful. But it was hard to concentrate with Haven standing so close.

“Um,” I breathed, scanning down his broad, well-muscled torso and over to where his hand rested on my arm. I gulped before returning my gaze to his. “Do you think I could have my arm back?”

Haven’s eyebrows rose and he released me instantly, the electricity that seemed to reside in his skin making me feel a twinge of loss as he took a couple steps back.

“Sorry, I- I just – you were-” He waved his hand toward the area behind me. I just stared, curling my lips between my teeth to keep from laughing at his discomposure, it had been quite a while since I’d seen it. I flashed to prom night.

He cleared his throat as he glanced away for a second. It was getting dark so I couldn’t be sure, but was he blushing?

I couldn’t help it. This was just too much. I burst out laughing.

His stunned stare turned into rumbling chuckles not long after I’d squatted down to keep from falling on my ass right there on the porch. Tension seeped from my limbs as I laughed and Haven was visibly more relaxed himself.

“I’m so sorry,” I somehow managed between giggles and gasps, tears skipping down my cheeks as if it were opening day at Michigan’s Adventure. I let myself fall the last few inches to the porch, as my legs protested the position, and leaned back against the potted plant that had started this whole thing. “I just- you were just too cute.”

It took me a second to realize he’d gone quiet. I looked up with another stuttering laugh and froze. He had his head tilted, a half smile playing about his mouth and his eyes, though crinkled with amusement, glinted.

“There’s a really good restaurant I don’t think was here when you left. If anything’ll make you want to stay, their food will.”

I didn’t believe that for a second. If anything were to keep me here it’d be him. Therefore, going with him was a bad idea. “Um, I already had dinner.” It wasn’t quite a lie as I’d had a late lunch.

“Tomorrow night.”

I gulped. This was a really, really bad idea. “Okay.” Stupid mouth. “As long as Aunt Peggy doesn’t need me-”

“No, no, I won’t be needing you tomorrow.” I spun my head toward the now open front door where five sets of eyes, three floating around Aunt Peggy’s knees and one over her shoulder were enthralled. “I’ve got Ryan here to help with the little ones.” She patted the nine-year-old’s arm affectionately. Ryan loved playing with the younger children and seemed to be bidding fair to become a popular omega, just like Basil had been. I liked kids, I just wasn’t used to being around them.

I jumped to my feet and brushed invisible dirt from my jeans as I faced my aunt. “Are you sure? I don’t want to impede you.”

“Don’t even think it, my boy.” She pointed a finger at me, shaking it. “Now come in out of the cold, you two. You’re gonna catch your death.”

“I’m sorry, Peggy, but I should get going.” Haven stepped forward to give her a hug and ruffle the heads of the kids he could reach. “Good night.” For a moment I thought he might hug me too, but he didn’t. I didn’t have enough time to feel too left out before he brushed my hand with his, the electric current from earlier alive and well, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

To which line Ryan responded as Haven left, “ooooOOOOooooh. Keelan and Haven sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n- OW!” Aunt Peggy’s hand could give a solid ‘thwack’ when she chose to do so. I should know.

I did my best to ignore my burning face as I went in behind the others. As they ascended the stairs, herded by Aunt Peggy, I turned toward the kitchen where Uncle Joe had set up his laptop for me to use. I made myself a cup of coffee before settling into the chair in front of the computer at the dining room table. Working for my brother was really uncomfortable and if there was any way I could find another job, I’d take it.

“You shouldn’t drink that before bed.”

“Goddammit!” I jumped splashing coffee down my front, but, unfortunately, Uncle Joe’s computer took the brunt of the attack. “Shit!” I glanced over to see Ryan standing open-mouthed staring between me and the computer as I hurried to grab anything I could find to save the laptop. “Shouldn’t you be in bed,” I snapped as I desperately tried to soak up the hot liquid with napkins from the center of the table as I glanced toward the handtowel hanging on the oven handle.

“I’m sorry.” His voice was so small.

I sighed as I lifted the laptop to place the folded handtowel under it. I then started digging through the cupboards until I could control my temper. I wasn’t really angry at him so much as myself. I couldn’t afford to buy Uncle Joe a new computer and I did’t know if he had anything he valued that might get lost on this one.

Without looking back at him and with a, hopefully, much more level voice, I asked, “Do you know where they hide the rice?”

“Over here.” I turned in time to see him enter a door that seemed to appear out of nowhere, for how much it didn’t blend in with the kitchen, right next to the fridge. I followed into a narrow but decent sized pantry. Ryan was at the back pulling out a ten pound bag of rice.

“Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you,” I said almost giddily. I didn’t know how much time you had to get the electronics into the rice, but the less time the better for sure. I went back to the cupboard where I’d seen the cake pan and put a good layer of rice in the bottom, followed by open computer, and topped with more rice.

“Now what?” Ryan asked curiously beside me.

“Now we wait.” I turned to stare at him a moment. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

He snorted. “I’m nine.” As if those two words explained everything.

I just stared at him.

He rolled his eyes ever-so-slightly. “I get a later bed-time because I’m older.”

“Ah.” I nod as if that makes sense to me. Like I said, I was not around kids much and I only grew up with my twin brother.

Well, without being able to do research on the computer there was no reason to drink coffee this late, I supposed.

“Want some hot chocolate?”

Ryan’s eyes lit up and for a second I wondered if I’d done the right thing. But, whatever, I could always claim ignorance and Ryan won’t get in trouble for my gaffe. I gathered the ingredients with Ryan’s help and started heating the milk on the stove, stirring gently.

“So.” Ryan stood next to me leaning back on the counter as he studied my face. I focused on my stirring. “Are you and Uncle Haven dating?” The spoon sliped all the way into the pan and my hand chased it into the milk. I hissed instinctively but the milk wasn’t hot enough to burn yet. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, buddy, I’m fine. It’s not that hot yet.”

“Oh, good.” A pause. “So are you dating?”

I cleared my throat. “No, we’re not dating.”

“But you’re going on a date tomorrow right?” His eyebrows were scrunched together and his lips twisted in confusion. “That’s what it sounded like.”

“Sure that’s what it might sound like but no, it’s not… well, maybe? I don’t know.”

“Well, I think it would be cool. I like Uncle Haven and mom says she really wishes she could see him settle down and ma says she’s tried to set him up so much her black books dried up, whatever that means. And…” He paused long enough that I ventured to look over at him. His clear gray eyes stared innocently into mine. “I think he really likes you.”

“I don’t think so,” I scoff.

He stared for a moment before bringing both shoulders up to his ears and dropping them. “Well, I do. And I like you and you both laugh more around each other. At least you laughed a lot tonight.” Children could be so straightforward. If only life was so clean-cut.

The milk started to steam lightly and I added the cocoa as I stirred. He passed me the sugar when I asked him for it as I turned off the stovetop and added a dash of vanilla as well. When I had two mugs poured I turned back to the table where Ryan had sat back down and handed him his cup as I joined him there.

“You do like him, though, don’t you?” Hell this boy was persistent. For some reason he seemed a little worried, a frown marring his face. “It sure smelled like you did.” I could feel heat rise up my neck. Had it been that obvious? A mischevous grin replaced his frown and as he picked up his mug of cocoa so it hid his lips he began singing, “Keelan and Haven sittin’ in a tree-”

I threw a sopping wet, coffee soaked napkin at him. It smacked into his forhead and plopped into his cocoa splashing him and the table. He gasped, his startled jerk of the mug away from him caused a bigger splash on himself. I snickered and he just gaped at me for a moment before grabbing more napkins and beginning to wipe up the new mess.

I was loathe to say he caught me off guard, but it turned out this was only a means of creating ammunition. He quickly peppered me with hot cocoa napkins. In my bid to save my own mug from incoming missiles I spilt a good portion down my front.

“Okay, kid,” I said, grinning. “This means war.”

By the time Aunt Peggy came downstairs, Ryan and I had few dry spots left on us and the kitchen was a war zone of sodden clumps of paper. We’d had the presence of mind to put another cake pan over the top of the computer and rice but that was it. We’d doused the kitchen in milk and chocolate.

We hadn’t even noticed her until I ducked the enemie’s projectile and heard, “What in the hell is going on here?” Ryan dropped his arms, his face going sheet white. I spun to face Aunt Peggy as she plucked the wet napkin ball from her chest and looked around. “And what have you done to my kitchen.”

“Sorry, Aunt Peggy,” Ryan said, his voice barely audible.

“Sorry, Aunt Peggy.” I felt nine years old again. “We’ll clean it up right away.” I motioned to Ryan to get the mop I’d seen in the pantry earlier as I headed for a dishrag from the sink and turned on the faucet to soak it. I could feel her glare on my back as she said, “This room better be spotless by the time I get out of my shower.”

I squeezed my eyes shut on a long exhale as she exited the room.

A hand touched my arm lightly and I looked around to see Ryan grinning up at me. I couln’t help but return the smile. Yeah, it’d been worth it.

We were just finishing up and Ryan was going to get a change of clothes and go to the upstairs shower when Aunt Peggy made her reappearance. Ryan and I stood at attention in the middle of the room as she walked around, running her hand along anything she could reach.

She faced us and stared hard at each of us in turn. It was like staring down a bison; you couldn’t tell for sure what she was going to do, but if she charged there was no getting away quick enough. “This never happens again, am I clear?”

We both nodded.

“Okay.” She nodded sharply. Taking a couple steps forward she pulls Ryan into a hug and kisses the top of his head. “Good night, pumpkin.”

“G’night.” He all but ran from the room.

“And you,” she turned to me, “what were you thinking?”

“Honestly?” I rub the side of my face tiredly. “I wasn’t. We were just,” I waved around the kitchen, “having fun, I guess. I got caught up in it.” I knew it wasn’t much of an excuse but it was the truth. I’d been thinking less about my actions since coming back. Perhaps I needed to be a little more careful but… I had fun. It’d been so long.

My face must’ve showed something of my thoughts because her expression softened and she patted my arm. “No harm done, no harm done.” She paused, looking up at me and making sure I met her eyes. “This time.”I nod. There was nothing else to say.

Chapter 4

Haven

He’d been sitting right next to me. I could smell him and, god, how I wanted to touch him. But he only seemed interested in keeping a distance between us. He’d pressed himself against the passenger side door the entire ride to his aunt and uncle’s place. Then out of nowhere, he’d kissed me. No, that hadn’t just been a kiss. That had been memories of paradise reborn. It had been everything I’d ever wanted but never thought I’d have again.

I wasn’t sure whether to praise the sensitivity of my car horn or damn it to hell. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if he stayed in town. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he decided to leave.

“Haven, you might not want to contaminate the crime scene. Just sayin’.” Meagan’s voice halted my progress a second too late. I’d stepped in a still slick pool of blood. She let out a long suffering breath. “We’re going to need your shoe, sir.” She was clearly trying not to laugh at my fauxpas. I appreciated it, I really did. The irritation still didn’t go away.

“Of course you do.” I grumped.

“You can wear these.” She held out a pair of booties. “I mean, if you’d been wearing them in the first place you wouldn’t have to go around deshod.”

“Whatever,” I grouched. Then gritted my teeth and tried to be less of an asshole. “I’ll just get reshod when I stop by my house.”

“That just sounds wrong for some reason.” Alex walked through the doorway to the living room.

“Ha ha.”

He looked at Meagan. “That’s Haven for ya. Keeping Journeys’ open one crime scene at a time.”

I tool a swing at him and he ducked away grinning. I took a couple more ending with a feint that had him practically dangling from his leather jacket as he refused to slip out of this favored article of clothing.

“Wait,” he said, all seriousness. “Do you smell that?”

“You’re gonna need to come up with something better than that,” I respond smirking.

“Meagan! Wait!” he raised his arms letting the jacket hang empty in my grip. He really was serious. He grabbed the little forensic scientist and pulled her away from the body.

“Hey!” she screeched as she flailed against him.

“Meagan, that body’s practically a bomb right now.” He turned to me. “Do you smell that?”

A polar bear had a better nose than a bison, but I took a deep breath through my nose anyway.

“Garlic,” I said numbly. Dammit, I should’ve noticed it sooner. “Evacuate the building and call it in,” I state as I herd the rest of the forensic team out while Alex pushes Meagan before him.

*****

Several hours later we were back at the office staring at a dry erase board full of information about Murrell. This was the second body, aside from his cousin, that he’d killed in this town. He’d left a trail of bodies over the last month starting in Texas and traveling north to the upper mitten of Michigan, ending here in Hidden Pines.

We weren’t a large city, though we weren’t too far from a couple, but we were nestled near a restricted access national park on a shifter reservation. This allowed space for both shifters and humans, the ones who lived outside the reservation, to feel safe. On the reservation, our Guard upheld the law and even FBI had no jurisdiction without our allowance. Which meant that as soon as Murrell passed into our territory, he was now our responsibility. Joy.

Walking in on the latest scene, my heart had stopped as I’d thought it was Keelan lying in a pool of blood. The bone-melting relief I’d felt at realising the truth had me feeling guilty toward the dead man. He likely had people who cared for him. People who would be devastated by his loss.

It was strange though. Murrell hadn’t left more than one body at any location on his way here. The only reason they’d known he’d killed them were the MO and the knowledge he’d escaped. Now there were two bodies. Here. In Hidden Pines. If he was here for something, what was it? What was his goal?

“Maybe he just wanted to be on a shifter reservation?”

My head whipped around to see Alex standing right next to me. He handed me a mug of coffee. Black. It’s not that I had anything against fixings. Sometimes I’d add sugar or cream, but black was quickest and the earthy scent of the beans were the best. The smells and sounds in the office must have meshed togther in the background for me not to have noticed his approach.

“You seem distracted lately.” Alex took a sip of his coffee, shifting his eyes from the board to focus on my face with a smug grin.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I responded to his first comment pointedly ignoring his second.

“Of course it makes sense, silly. The stunning Ash-cloud is back in town and, by what I hear,” his grin turned devilish, “you can’t keep your hands off.” I glared, not that it would do any good. He was a little smaller than Keelan at 5’9”, but our sparring matches were a bookie’s wet dream. Shifted or not.

“There are closer reservations to where he escaped. Hell, he could’ve just headed west to Yellowstone and might even have been able to disappear for good.”

“Oh, he’d disappear alright. The dragons there have a no tolerance policy, and while they’re on reservation land, they can’t be touched.”

“Not that anyone’d dare.”

“No, not likely.” Alex yawned.

“Go home. I got this.”

“No, I’m good,” he said as he stiffled another yawn.

“Go home,” I insisted. I turned him around and started pushing him toward the door. “Tell Kiki I said hi.” As soon as I said her name I no longer had to push as his eager footsteps carried him faster.

He paused at the door and looked back with a tired frown.

“You sure?”

“Go.” I made the shooing motion with my hands and he chuckled and all but ran out of the office. I went back to the board and picked up my coffee, wrapping my hands around the waning heat of the mug. I stared at the board some more but all the pictures of the victims just reminded me of Keelean.

I had been angry at him, furious, when he’d left all those years ago. I couldn’t comprehend how he’d come into the company of the Architect much less worked for her. The bitch had been in slave trafficking as well as selling endangered species to anyone with deep enough pockets. Endangered species of shifters fetched the highest price. Ironic considering she was the Great Lakes’ lochness shifter herself, one of the rarest species. It had taken decades to bring her down. Turns out a Nessie isn’t so terrifying on dry land.

It wasn’t until I’d joined the Guard that I’d had access to all the details, but I had seen her trial. I’d seen Keelan take the stand. I’d heard his part in her organization. As her secretary he’d kept hefty documentation of her hierarchy, her deals, relationships to other organizations and individuals in various governments. It had been the trial of the century.

But it hadn’t been real until I’d read it for myself. Until I’d seen the interview tapes. Keelan had looked so small and more regal than I’d ever witnessed in those recordings. I’d learned that he’d approached the Guard rather than the other way around. He’d been so brave, so strong, so… alone.

I understood why he’d left me when he went into witsec. I understood why he’d said nothing to me. I could even understand why he didn’t come back when Jeanine Mor, the Architect, died.

I didn’t, however, understand what was happening between us now.

I took a sip of coffee. And promptly spat the cooled liquid back into the cup. It was time to go home myself. I wasn’t getting anything done and some sleep might help. I’d swing by the McCormick’s on my way. Just to check in.

“Haven!” Peggy all but shouted. “It’s good to see you, come on in.” She’d never had much of an indoor voice, but tonight she had to compete with two squeeling 5 year olds, a 9 year old who was chasing them and a 2 year old riding on the shoulders of the 9 year old and giggling hysterically.

I stepped back and motioned to the porch in front of the door in invitation for her to come outside. The noise cut off abruptly as she complied. Without stopping she walked down the covered deck to a pair of chairs and circular glass table that angled a little toward the street. I looked at the wicker pieces and opted instead for the wide, heavy duty porch swing opposite them. She turned one of the chairs to face me a little more while allowing her a good view of the street as the sun began to set.

We sat in silence for a while. There was a sharp array of purple and pink vying with the orange and red around the lowering sun as the rest of the sky fell into a blue melancholy. It was a riot of colors, sad but also, somehow, beautiful. I had to wonder if it represented what I was really feeling, that I came looking for closure.

“Well, spit it out, boy,” she said at last.

“I-” I cleared my throat, “I came to check on everyone.”

“Oh?” Her lip twitched, as she glanced at me from the corner of her eye. “Everyone’s doing fine. But I’m sure what you really want to know about is Keelan.” I only shifted slightly, but she didn’t miss anything. “He’s doing fine. He’s working for Basil if you can believe it.”

My eyes fixed on the side of her face. Basil? The one who’d refused to talk about his brother? Who’d flipped out whenever his name was mentioned? Who’d just glare at me whenever I walked into a room? That Basil?

I must’ve spoken aloud, because Peggy’s next words were, “the very same.”

“Hey, Aunt Peggy?” a voice called from the front door. “Uncle Joe says-”

Keelan froze a couple steps from the doorway, his eyes fixed on me. Nope. I still didn’t know what to do, but I was sure as hell that what I wanted was definitely not closure.

Chapter 3

Keelan

“Ash!” Small hands slipped around my shoulders from behind and squeezed for all they were worth. Which was a lot.

“It’s actually-”

“Keelan!” the voice interrupted as the person who emmitted it moved into view. She was a diminutive creature, especially for an alpha. At five foot nothing she made me seen like a giant at 5’10”. Her small hand smacked her forhead lightly as she rolled her eyes and said, “Right. I keep forgetting. Sorry.” I knew she was in earnest and the smile that was never far from her lips made me shrug a shoulder, guilty for being so annoyed with her.

“It’s okay.”

“Oh, my god.” Her hidden smile turned into a full-on grin. “I haven’t seen you in like forever and there is so much to catch up on.” She clapped her hands in rappid succession as she spied something over my shoulder. “But first,” I looked over my shoulder as a waitress, or was it bartender?, came over to us with a tray of drinks. “Shots.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I sigh as I turn back to face Nita.

She grinned wider. “What? I don’t get to go out much these days. Steph is watching Erin until tommorrow afternoon so that Lavinia and I can have quality time with friends and family.”

I eyed the two shots she’d already downed between sentences. “Yeah. That’s why.”

“Oh, I’m not drinking these by myself.” She pushed six shots of baby guiness in front of me. “This is a social event, best man. Drink up.”

I froze mid reach for the first shot and stared at Nita.

She took her fourth shot and caught my eye. “You heard right, old friend. You’re going to stand up beside me as my best man. It’s the least you can do after bailing on me thirteen years ago.”

“But what about-”

“Oh, Haven and Rayen are standing up for me and Jaci and Alex are Lavinia’s groomsmen, since they shared an apartment in college, and her sister Amabilia is her maid-of-honor, .” I couldn’t get a word in edgwise so I threw caution to the wind and took a shot. “I’d’ve asked Galihali but she’s pregnant and you know what she’s like pregnant.” She paused with a grimace and my heart clenched. I took another shot. “Well, you don’t. But be thankful you didn’t have to be around for her first. She’d carry on about all the ways she could die and got herself into the mindset that she really was going to be one of the anomoly cases and she just had to write her last will and testament before she’d go into the delivery room.”

I choked on the third shot when the liquid battled for right-of-way with a laugh. A hand thumped my back as I spluttered to recover oxygen. “Careful, there. Drinking can be hazardous to your health.” I knew who it was by the rich cadence of his voice, accidently inhaling more liquid and causing more coughing. Moving out of his reach now was a thing I was physically incapapable of doing due to the burning liquid I was in the middle of evicting from my lungs. Once I could breathe normally again, Nita handed me some napkins to wipe myself off. They weren’t going to be nearly enough since I’d knocked down the other shot glasses during my coughing fit and the front of my shirt and jeans were soaked.

“Awww,” a swarthy man in a black leather coat said from the other side of Haven as he helped Nita try to mop up the small round table. If he hadn’t drawn attention to himself, I might have missed him in the dim lighting of the club. He was handsome, to be sure, and I would’ve been more disappointed at not being able to fully appreciate the view if not for the nearness of the larger man between us. “Who killed the KoolAid?”

“Excuse me,” I coughed, waving at myself, “while I move this eyesore to the restroom to clean up.”

“I’d let you borrow my clothes but…” Nita trailed off. Yeah, she was too small for me to even consider trying on her clothes. Her eyes brightened. “Haven! You keep a spare set of clothes in your car right?” He nodded slowly. “Great!” She turned to me. “You can change into Haven’s spare set-”

“Sorry, Nita,” Haven cut her off. I felt an strangly sharp needle glide into my chest. It seemed he was still very mad at me if he wouldn’t even let me use his spare set of clothes at a time like this. “My car is down for the count at Jaci’s shop.”

She immediately turned to the darker man, but before she could open her mouth he shook his head. “No can do, baby girl. This is my spare set,” he said motioning to himself. She harrumphed and cast me an apologetic glance.

“It’s okay.” I smiled to reinforce my statement. “Really.” I turned and made my way to the bathroom skirting the room to keep from getting my mess on anyone else.

I used a mountain of dry paper towels and another soaked in water to get the alcohol out of my clothes as best as humanly possible under the circumstances. Finally, I pulled open the door and who should be standing directly across the hall but Haven. He was leaning against the wall with both arms and ankles crossed and he wore a slightly loose, navy blue t-shirt that did nothing to disguise his pecs.

I cleared my throat. Twice. “I’m just gonna head out. Would you let Nita know?”

“You can tell her yourself if you really want to leave, but either way,” he held out the sweatshirt he’d been wearing earlier, “you can wear this.” It was black with a rockstar unicorn on the front and was clearly too big for me.

“Ah, no. No, thank you.” I put my hands up in front of me as if warding him off.

“I insist.” He draped it across my elbows. “It’s cold out tonight.”

He was right. I was a little chilly and I was still inside. Just the thought of going outside in wet clothes had me shivering. And I’d be out there a while if I took the bus. I sighed and slipped the sweater on. It smelled like spring rain and I took a deep breath in through my nose before I realized what I was doing. I was pretty sure by the flare of his nose that Haven scented my arousal and was thankful of the oversized sweater for a whole other reason than the one intended.

Speaking of oversized outerwear, I rolled up the sleeves a couple times and shoved the new wrist cuffs up to my elbows. It was still oversized on me, but now it looked more like a fashion statement than a boy playing pretend in his father’s clothes. I glanced up at Haven out of the corner of my eye and saw he was rather focused on my hidden beltline.

I gulped and cleared my throat as I started back toward the sounds of music. “We should head back to Nita. She’ll be wondering where we are.”

“She’s probably moved on by now.” I seriously hoped so, because I could leave without her cojolery or guilt as this situation had ultimately been her fault. Or maybe I could blame George for dragging me here. But life rarely works out the way you’d expect. She was talking to a group near the doorway to the hall we’d exited and extricated herself immediately, rushing over.

“I am so sorry,” she said, her words the tiniest bit slurred. Dang, she really must’ve hit the bar in the time I’d been gone.

I pinched my nose at the reek of alcohol rolling off her. “Jeez, Nita, you’re soused. How long was I in the bathroom?”

“The better question is,” she grinned slyly, “what were both of you doing in there? Isn’t that my brother’s sweater?”

My cheeks flushed and Haven and I started talking over one another.

“I wasn’t in the bathroom-”

“My clothes are wet-”

“and it’s getting cold out-”

“He just lent me his sweater-”

“So he wouldn’t freeze on his way home.”

Nita looked back and forth between us like she was watching a tennis match.“Uh-huh,” she drew out each syllable through upturned lips. “You know, I think there’s rooms still available at the Amble Inn next door. You know, if you don’t feel like you can wait until you get home.”

Ice threaded my spine, sapping away any desire I’d just felt. There was no way anything would happen. I couldn’t just undo the last decade and be with Haven again. I’d made my choices and had to continue to live with the consequences.

I forced my stiff features into what I hoped was an apologetic smile. “I’m just going to take the bus back to Aunt Peggy’s. It’s been a long couple days.”

“You shouldn’t go alone.” Haven said. “There’s a fugitive on the loose.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, that’s okay. Like I said I’ll be fine.”

“I insist.” He wasn’t going to take no, so I just glared at him.

I blew out a breath and rolled my eyes. Whatever. “You insist a lot lately.”

Nita burst into a fit of the giggles. “You… you,” she gasped eventually, “You two should really see your faces right now.” She fell on her ass as her laughter grew.

“Later, Nita.”

We passed a woman with long raven hair on the way out and Haven put a hand on my shoulder to stop me as he paused and whispered to her motioning in the direction we’d just come. The room was so loud the only thing I’d heard was her name when he’d called out to her initially. Though Nita lacked height she made up for it with a strong build and this Lavinia played a great foil with her lean, willowy frame just a few inches taller than her alpha. She nodded to Haven and drifted away, and for a moment I wondered if she was a swan shifter.

I turned back to the exit only to be pulled up short by a mirror.

“Arkham,” my mirror said.

“Batman.” Saying our childhood nicknames was like a kick in the long-term memory. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been avoiding thinking about my brother until that moment. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I’d only planned on being here for a couple days and ridding myself from the town. I mean, what could I be to him? “I-”

He just shook his head as his jaw clenched and he scooted by me calling, “Lavinia! Sorry I’m late. My sitter quit and-”

I left. As quickly and unobtrusively as possible. I took a couple breaths of the chilled air. Of course Basil didn’t want to speak to me. I just needed to ask Aunt Peggy if she knew where mom and dad had their first kiss. I thought it had something to do with a tree, as cliché as that was.

A hand on my elbow stopped me. I spun, tearing my elbow away and shoving the heel of my other palm in the approximate direction of the attackers’ solar plexus. Haven ‘oomphed’ and took a step back, spine curling as he bent to suck in air. Right. Haven had been in the middle of ‘escorting’ me home.

“I told you I didn’t need an escort.” I refused to feel guilty. He’d touched me without warning. There was nothing to feel guilty about. Even if he was still sucking in air, trying to even his breathing. I shrugged and stepped back to keep from reaching out to him.

“I can see that,” he said finally, looking up at me. “Where’d you learn that?” Then his eyes widened. One minute I was standing a couple steps away the next I was in his arms after he’d gripped my arm again and pulled. A horn blared behind me as it passed. “That was a close one.” He hugged me even tighter before seemingly realizing it and letting go. The night seemed colder for some reason.

“Uh, yeah,” I said intelligently. So much for my self-defense classes. When was the session of training for dealing with exes I was still in love with?

“Um, sorry for, um.” Haven rubbed the back of his neck as he looked off to the side. “I borrowed Alex’s car to drop you off. It’s over here.”

“Doesn’t he need it?”

“Nah, he’s drinking already. His wife is coming later anyway and she doesn’t really drink so she’ll take him home.”

He started walking toward the parking lot I’d seen from the bus ealier that was just down the road. A glance at the bus schedule posted next to the bench at the bus stop told me that I’d be waiting another 20 minutes. I glanced between the direction the bus would come from and Haven, who’d stopped a little ways down to wait.

I sighed. I’d sighed a lot the past couple days. I was cold, tired and could feel that my massacre of paper towel hadn’t gotten as much sticky alcohol off as I’d thought. I needed a shower and the thought of waiting when I had another option seemed ridiculous. Even if the other option was my ex and the only man I’d loved.

His scent, so fresh and new while so familiar and old at the same time, whirled around the car’s interior from the heater and wearing his sweater didn’t help with the intensity of it. If my pants had been uncomfortable at the bar they were painful to wear right now. He seemed to look over at me more and more as time passed. He had to know my current situation which made me blush profusely. I readjusted the heating vents more fully on myself to cover how I’d quickly pulled the hood of the sweater up. That didn’t help my problem as much as I’d hoped. Neither did the smell of his own interest that mingled with mine in the car.

“We’re here.” Was it me or did his voice seem a little strained?

I looked out the window to see the single strand of blinking christmas lights lining the awning over the front door. I wondered if my aunt was one of those people who would keep the lights up until march. Uncle Joe would probably start insisting on packing Christmas away after New Years. Heck, my guess was that he’d probably already started nagging.

A car beeped in the neighbors drive and I looked over to see a man huddled in his parka getting out and locking the car with the key fob. How long had we been sitting here? I turned to say thank you and saw Haven staring straight ahead clenching and unclenching his jaw. I would’ve said that he was angry at me except that I knew he was clearly aroused by the outline of his pants. It was too much. So, I did what any sane person would do in this situation. I reached out and turned his face toward mine before pressing our lips firmly together. That’s all it was supposed to be.

But when he opened his mouth in surprise, all those late nights, early mornings and stolen hours came rushing back. His lips parted in surprise and I pressed my advantage, diving my tongue in to draw his out. His hand slipped around the back of my neck, his hand splaying to both support my head and take control of the kiss as he explored my mouth.

A horn blared in my ears and I jumped back my head hit the sunglasses storage on the ceiling. I’d been in the middle of climbing into his lap.

I stared at him in shock before I scrambled backwards without looking out the passenger door saying, “I’m sorry. I-” my butt hit the ground sharply and I oomphed.

“Ash?”

“I’m fine,” I said as I scrambled to my feet then fidgeted with dusting myself off more than necessary as I desperately tried to think of something to say to negate what had just happened without being a complete dick. “Well… I guess, I should get inside.” I didn’t bend down to peer into the car or wave. I just turned and rushed toward the temporary safety of the house.

If I didn’t wheedle the location from Aunt Peggy the next morning I was going to leave. I swore it.

I sat down to dinner with Uncle Joe and Aunt Peggy two days later. Aunt peggy should have been in the Air Force as good as she was at evasive maneuvers.

It was one thing to say you were going to leave and another to do so on limited funds. I was great at doing odd jobs to get enough money to move on to the next place. I just hadn’t found one here yet. I’d asked Aunt Peggy a dozen times about the location of my parent’s first kiss since I’d run into Basil but she was very evasive. Most recently, she’d left to remove the meatloaf from the oven. I swear, it was as if she’d known when I was going to ask and had made dinner and set the timer accordingly.

Uncle Joe had the morning’s newspaper next to him, still working on the crosswords.

“Do they still put classifieds in those?” I asked motioning toward it.

He glanced up. “Of course there are, boy. Does it look like a rag mag?”

“Why don’t you help him find something,” Aunt Peggy said as she bussled in with the meatloaf, setting it on a hotpad in the center of the table. The mashed potatoes, greenbeans and corn were already out and waiting. “Your uncle knows everybody. Now lets say grace.”

I bowed my head as Uncle Joe griped not-quite under his breath before praying aloud.

Uncle Joe took a bite of meatloaf before asking, “So, what is it you’re looking for?”

There was no harm in telling them, I supposed. “I’m looking for a temporary job.”

“A temporary job? Why? There something you didn’t mention before?” He asked pointedly glancing at stomach with a raised eyebrow, a hint of laughter in his eyes.

I blushed. “No. That’s impossible. You have to have been with someone for that. I just-” It was one thing to tell them I needed a temporary job but another to tell them I needed one so that I’d could leave when my task was done. “I just need some cash. I’m running low.”

My aunt and uncle looked at each other, but if they were having a silent conversation with their eyes I didn’t know the language. “Well…” Uncle Joe started when aunt Peggy seemed to take a decided interest in cutting her meatloaf. “If you don’t mind hard work, I know somone in construction who could use some help.”

“Nope. I don’t mind. I’ve done a little in that area before myself.”

“Oh?” He rubbed his hands together gleefully. For some reason goosebumps started forming on my arms. “Then I’ll tell him you can start… hmmm, tomorrow?”

I nodded, a smile spreading across my face despite the ominous feeling that had crept up on me. “That’d be great.” Perfect. The sooner I worked, the sooner I got paid, and the sooner I was out of here.

Getting paid looked less and less likely the longer Basil stared at me. I wasn’t sure I needed a job that bad, but I couldn’t just walk away without trying to talk to the only immediate family I had left. Maybe it was cliché, but we’d really been like two peas in a pod growing up. Thinking back, I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment the pod had broken, but we’d been like strangers for a couple years before I’d gone into witness protection.

“Look, Batman,” his lips flattened and his eyes narrowed at the nickname. “Basil,” I corrected myself. “I just need a job for a little while, a week or two at most. Then I’ll be out of your hair.” His features seemed to condense more if that were possible. I looked to the side where a wall in the house had been torn down to expand the building and breathed. He wasn’t going to give me a job, but I’d known that. I pulled out a small box I’d been carrying around in my jacket pocket since I’d decided it was time to visit my childhood home.

The plain, small gift box felt heaver than the weight allowed for. I held it out my brother. “She would’ve wanted you to have this.”

Basil stared at me a few seconds more before picking up the box in my hand. He opened it and froze. He was looking at a steel ring that turned into hands cupping a heart and capped with a crown. The heart was made of white opal, color dancing through it where the light hit. Mom always said that opals were the true stone of love where every shad of color was welcome. His eyes seemed distant as they met mine again, almost seeing through me.

“But you always wanted mom’s wedding ring.”

“You know I did. But it was because you always lost things so easily. I was never going to keep it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was waiting for you to settle down. I was going to have an elaborate plan with your mate where- well, anyway I was going to present it to you as your best man during the part where the priest says ‘the rings’. You were always more fascinated by it and mom and dad’s story than I was. You were going to be so happy you cried.” Basil smiled. Well, I think it might have been a smile anyway. “And I was going to be the one who made you cry on your wedding day. So, bonus for me.” He barked a laugh and my heart clenched as he tamped it down. I looked away.

“Well… I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Where are you going?”

I paused. “Um, I saw an internet café just down the street so I thought I’d pop in to search for some job listings.”

“Quitting already? Thought you’d finally grown balls while you were away.” I  looked back at him with what was most likely stupefaction. “Come on. It’s just a couple weeks, right? We’ll start you on spackling.” He clapped my shoulder, his face like granite, making take a half step to catch myself. Working construction seemed to have done wonders for his strength.

Chapter 2

Haven

“Have you talked to Max today?” I blinked dumbly at Alex. His thick brows nearly became one as he snapped his fingers milimeters from my face. “Dude, you gotta snap back to reality. Where’s your head at?”

I drew my lips into a smile, at least I hoped it was a smile. “Sorry, man. I’m here.”

“Better be.” His grin had always been infectious and it was no less so today. I felt my smile diminish in size but become guinuine as he started barking out orders. “We got a big day ahead of us, dude.” He slapped me on the back and shut the rear hatch on the unmarked SUV. Snatching the car keys from my loose grip, he said, “But I’ll be driving just in case. I want in on this bust since we’re the ones that located the son-of-a-bitch and with your state of mind we’d probably end up a couple counties over.”

I grunted, annoyed. He did have a point and we would only be wasting time if I tried to argue with him. My mind was stuck on Christmas Eve and my ex. I needed to unstick it for the moment and focus on a hitman come serial killer, or was it serial killer come hitman, who’d escaped last week after he killed one of his escorts and critically injured the other. They weren’t sure if the survivor would ever walk again. Even a shifter couldn’t just walk away from Robert Murrell unscathed. That was what made Murrell so scary.

We pulled into Cloverfield trailer park. Nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with the shape the drives were designed after. Murrell’s cousin, Avery Lange, owned and managed the property. He’d called yesterday, indicating that Murrell planned on staying for a few days at least. Murrell was bunking in an empty trailer in the middle of the southern loop, the roads and buildings arranged like a four leaf clover. Our vehicle was near the back of the procession of police vehicles and we’d just passed the main office at the center of the large roundabout that connected each clover leaf when I motioned Alex to go around the loop instead.

There it was. The sign out front said ‘open’. While the hours of operation posted said ‘9-5 Mon, Wed, Fri’, we’d told Avery to continue until lunch as usual, shut down and go out to eat, and not come back until either Alex or I notified him. A slat on one of the blinds slipped down in alignment with the others. Someone was definitely there and I had a sick feeling as I tried to recall seeing anyone close up the office as we drove by. God, I hoped I was wrong.

I glanced in the direction the other cars had gone. If I was wrong they’d need the manpower, but if I was right, there might not be enough time to wait for them to return. I opened my mouth to tell Alex to pull over but he was already doing so. I casually readied my weapons as Alex and I strolled up to the front door as if nothing was wrong.

Alex knocked and called, “Hey, Avery, we need to talk to you, you got a minute?” He seemed so relaxed. That’s why he was the one speaking and I was watching the perimeter, not facing the door. I was too tense and anyone watching would be able to read it in my face. They could read it in my stance too, but it was less likely without facial qeues.

He knocked again. “It’ll just take a minute, I promise.”

A hissing sound came from the other side of the door and a white smoke started to poor from the cracks. Someone screamed. I pulled out my baton to smash the tinted glass of the front door and was immediately knocked on my ass, Alex standing over me. Alex grabbed the back of my vest and was yanking on it to get me up and away from the door. I got up but I turned back to try to help Avery, or whoever was inside.

Alex held me back, his hands vice grips on my shoulders. “Dammit, Haven, think, man. You can’t go in there.”

“Move.”

“No, Goddammit. Think. Do you smell that?”

“Garlic,” I growled, incapable of forming complete sentences anymore.

“Exactly,” he snapped. “That’s white phosphorous in there. There’s nothing we can do.”

Shit. He was right. We didn’t have the proper gear and even if we went in now, Avery might already be dead and we’d likely do nothing but join him. Fuck. Alex depressed the switch on his walkie and radioed it in. The front door burst outward, the thin stumbling frame of Avery following what looked like a fire extinguisher through the broken glass. He tilted to the right stumbling a couple more steps as he coughed before collapsing on the ground.

“Go get your water from the car. Mine too,” Alex ordered as I stepped toward Avery.

“Water?”

“Yes, water, asshole. You always carry extra. Go grab it, now.”

When it came to chemicals, you didn’t question Alex. I went for the water. I had three bottles of water plus my 50 oz nalgene. When I returned, Alex had pulled out a pair of handkercheifs, why he had them I had no time to ask, and poured one of the water bottles over both of them and handed me one. He took the other two water bottles and opened them enough that just a flick of the thumb would pop the lids off and put his bit of fabric over his nose. Tucking one of the water bottles into the crook of his kerchief elbow he nodded toward Avery and we set off, me copying him.

Avery was smoking in places as we approached, a white smoke. We ducked and weaved avoiding the thin streams until we were next to him. The smoke was wafting from parts of his bare skin and one under his shirt. Alex started pouring his water over the exposed smoke streams dousing the burns. I, again, followed suit. we were down to his feet when one of the first locations started smoking again. I had a little water left and quickly poured all of it on the area. Luckily I could hear sirens in the distance. I had just time enough to take a look at the still breathing corpse once known as Avery Lange.

Captain Thurgood laced his fingers together as he rested his elbows on his desk and looked at us. He had resting stern face and was difficult to read. “You two been cleared by the hospital?”

“Yessir,” Alex and I said in unison. I suppressed a mild cough.

“Good. Then you can go home and get some rest. Take a couple days.”

Murrell’s disconcertingly cold eyes flashed in my mind. “But, sir-”

“Murrell is in the wind. No telling where he is now. We’ll call you with any developments.” We just stared at him.

“Avery,” Alex started.

“Is still unconscious,” Captain interjected. “If and when he wakes you, I’ll let you know.” When we didn’t make a move to leave, he sighed. “Look, if your call didn’t come in when it did several of our men would have joined Avery or been sent to the morgue directly. Now, go. Rest while you can, because we’ll need you on your game.”

“Yessir.” Alex said through gritted teeth while I just gave a tight nod.

We stood and left.

“Wanna go to Pinkerton’s?” Alex’s idea wasn’t a bad one. After the day we’d had, spending some time at the local police bar sounded perfect.

I sighed. “Meet you there at ten? I’ve gotta check in with my mother.”

“Sounds good. I’ll drop you off.” That’s right. I’d gotten a ride in. That felt like a whole different day.

“Jaci should be done fixing Zoe’s front axels. You can drop me off at his shop.” My brother was the best mechanic in the state. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my GMC Yukon XL. It was new by my standards which meant it was 15 years old, and it was by far the best vehicle I’d owned.

“Dude, you still name your cars?”

“They last longer when they have a good name.” He snorted, always the skeptic. “Trust me.”

“I trust you with my continued existence,” he stated, “just not your existentialism.”

“Aw, come one, Alex.” I wave my hand from my shoulders down. “It’s all part of the package.” I grin as we pull up to a five stall garage with a sign hanging over the office door that said ‘Mecha-Nicks’. Jace stepped out of an open stall door and waved as he strode to the passenger window. “Hey, Jaci.”

“Hey, Haven.” He had an awkward half smile and his eyebrows were scrunched together rising in the middle.

I pursed my lips. “Spit it out, Jaci. What’s up?”

He rubbed the back of his head. “It’s more than the axels. The wheel bearings are going bad, the shocks are almost gone and you’re not going anywhere until it gets a new water pump.”

“Aw, hell.” I was going to have to get a ride from Alex every day until it was fixed.

“You could ask mom.” Jaci winced. “I mean, she’s got Lucille in the garage.”

“Oh, my god. Your whole family names cars?” Alex put a hand to his chest in mock dismay.

Jaci leaned down, crossing his arms on the open window panel. “Not all of us. Nita thinks its beneath her and Galihali doesn’t even drive.”

I grunted. Glancing sideways at Alex, I asked, “Would you mind?”

“Yeah, yeah. Who knew this morning that I’d be relegated to chaufeure by tonight.” He put the car in drive as he grinned and tipped a nonexistant hat towards me.

“They’re at Pinkerton’s,” Jaci called as he pulled away.

“Perfect.” Alex exposed a feral grin.

I groaned and squeezed my eyes shut. I’d forgotten that Nita and Lavinia, her omega, had their wedding shower tonight. When they’d set it up months ago, I’d been planning to attend with Raiden, but apparently attending a wedding together was a big step. Bigger than he was ready to take. At least with me.

It was going to be a long night. But I didn’t realize how long when I walked into the bar and was struck by a strong honey and cream scent that could only belong to one person.

Chapter 1

Keelan

Stirring shit up. It was what I was good for. Hell, it was all I was good for.

Aunt Peggy and Uncle Joe stood in the kitchen arguing. No, not arguing. According to them, they were having a discussion. Loudly. And what had I done to deserve all this attention? I had shown up on their doorstep on Christmas after not having had contact with them for 13 years.

Although, I’m pretty sure this would’ve happened anyway. So, if I’d given them 13 comparatively quiet years, I should really be congratulated. Especially for not being dead. I liked not being dead. My parents had died in wit sec 10 years ago and the being who’d caused us to run died two years ago. So why am I just now seeing family who’d thought I was out of their hair for good?

I’ve told myself many reasons. That there’s no way they’d let me come back after everything. That I couldn’t take the next train up because it was the fourth one of the afternoon and 4 was unlucky in Chinese. If someone wanted revenge for The Architect’s life and eventual death behind bars, they could be caught in the crossfire. I liked that one; it made me feel like a martyr, a hero, someone they’d feel guilty over not helping if I died protecting them. It made me feel redeemed a little. I mean I’d worked for The Architect after all. And when the shit inevitably scattered in a magnificent spray after being introduced to the fan, my parents had chosen me over the rest of our extended family. They had died away from family because of me.

I stood to leave. It wasn’t safe here. Not for them or for me. Two years dead did not gaurantee safety. I grabbed the handle of my backpack and reached for my coat where it hung on the coatrack. I’d figure something out. I always did.

Having a big family was great when you wanted to sneak out unnoticed. I’d done so many times growing up. I’d go out to friends parties where adult supervision was the name of  the neutralized teddybear nannycam. One time, I had convinced four drunk jocks, three  of whom were in mechanics classes while the other took robotics, to help me disassemble a school bus and reassemble it on the auditorium stage. Unfortunately, being a 15 year absentee member of the McCormicks gave me a kind of in-family fame. Or maybe it was more like infamy. There was a pun in that.

“Ashley Raphael Keelan McCormick,” a voice boomed behind me. The house fell silent. Which was amazing considering the sheer number of adults, not to mention the mass of constantly active kids, that had crowded in for the party. “You take one more step toward that door, child-”

Hunching my shoulders a little, I turned slowly to face Aunt Peggy where she stood in the entrance to the kitchen, her arms bent so her fists rested not-so-calmly on her hips. She was angry for sure, but I thought I saw flashes of worry, sadness and fear in her cornflower blue eyes. They were the same shade my mother’s eyes. I froze like a deer sensing danger. For a deer it only lasted a moment, though, before they turned tail and fled for their life. I, on the other hand, thought I might be turning into a gargoyle. I’d be more use as one, I’m sure.

“And I’ll,” she continued. “I’ll-” She never finished her threat. It was like she suddenly understood that there was nothing she could really do to make me stay. She couldn’t say she’d wash her hands of me; I’d lived for so long on my own, I could do so again. She wouldn’t confine me illegaly, she couldn’t for more than a day or two with all these witnesses. There was nothing she could say to stop me. Then a tear escaped the corner of her eye, sacrificing itelself to tug at my heartstrings. I tried looking at the floor as if pretending I wasn’t here could make it true.

Then she opened her arms. Just that. They spread to each side of her as if to accept all the pain, all the lonliness, all the fear and guilt and suffering that I’d gone through, that I’d put them through. It was forgiveness. And I so desperately wanted someone to forgive me.

I ran.

I was out the front door, down the sidewalk and at the bus stop before I could think at all, let alone clearly. I sat on the bench and sighed, an opaque mist streaming from my mouth. I shivered and went to grab my coat to put it on. I squeezed my eyes shut at the realization I must’ve left my things back at the house and debated whether to go back and get it.

“Forget something?” I jumped to my feet and pivoted while lowering my center of gravity by spreading my feet apart, one foot a little more forward than the other for balance. A fighters stance. George, my favorite cousin way back when, put up his hands in mock surrender. “Woah, hey there, killer. I came to release the hostages.”

I let out a long breath, drawing another in deep as I relaxed. My hands and knees were shaking with adrenaline. Mostly adrenaline, I acknowledged as I slipped my arms into hostage number one and zipped it up, accepting the backpack next. “Thanks,” I mumbled as I turned slightly away and began breathing on my hands to warm them up some before tugging my gloves on as I sat on the bench again.

“What was that all about?” George asked me as he settled on the bench as well.

I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “What was what all about?”

He scrunched his face up and squinted at me. Yeah, he knew I was playing dumb. “You know what I mean, dickhead. What was that with mom? Why’d you leave?”

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry for disrupting everyone’s Christmas. I shoulnd’t have come. I-” A sudden pain in my shoulder caught me offguard and I looked fully at George as he withdrew a loose fist. It hadn’t really hurt but I rubbed my shoulder anyway as I glared at him. “What was that for?”

“For thinking that being gone longer, or forever, would be better. For thinking that leaving now would fix anything.” He paused, his brows drawing even closer together as he looked me right in the eye. “For thinking that you don’t belong here.”

“What should I think?” I practically whined, giving up the pretense of being dumb. “I already caused Aunt Peggy and Uncle Joe to argue. I can’t drag anyone else down. It’s best if I-”

“Stop right there.” George seemed to have a thing for interrupting me. “They weren’t arguing. They were discussing sleeping arrangements.”

“That was not a discussion,” I said, flabbergasted.

“Sure it was.” He paused. “Come to think of it, you may never have been around for any of their real fights. Now, those are truly something to behold… or hide in the treehouse from.” He grinned as he said the last part. “So, is there someplace you gotta be,” he motioned at the bus pulling up, the last one of the night, “or are you willing to give us a second chance.”

I choked on a surprised laugh, making it sound like a bark. Me give them a second chance? He so had that bass ackward. But the words made me feel warm in a way physical energy couldn’t touch. At that moment I couldn’t speak so I just nodded. For further elucidation, I stood and walked away from the bus stop.

When we got back to the house I didn’t even notice another car had been added to the menagerie of metal surrounding my aunt and uncle’s house. But even if I had, I’d still have been stunned by their newest guest. He’d been standing where the foyer opened into the living room, at the end of the low wall that pretended to separate the two rooms, when I walked in. He was a beast of a man, and I’m not just talking about his bulk. My cousin Kate was the tallest person in the house and had to be the tallest woman in town and even she stood just shy of shoulder height to him. Then he looked at me.

“Haven,” I swollowed. I opened my mouth and had to swollow again. Damn, something was lodged in my throat. Oh, yeah, that would be my conscience, wrapped in memories and stuffed with guilt. I’d left him when I went underground. I hadn’t even told him, but I’m sure he figured it out. Who could miss a nationally televised trial where the key witness was your ex. The one who’d worked for a terrible person. The one who’d done terrible things in the employ of said terrible person. The one who’d abandoned you. Even if it was for good reason. That’s what I’d told myself, at least.

There was something in his eyes as he took two steps toward me. That’s as far as he got before George stepped between us facing Haven, speaking as if to the room in general. “Ash has had a long day. I’m going to show him where he’ll be sleeping.”

“That’ll be on the trundle in Tony’s room until we can turn the storage room into a bedroom for Ash-”

“I go by Keelan, now,” I interrupt, resituating my backpack straps.