Chapter 33

Image by Ronald May from Pixabay

Haven

“The ants go marching one by one, because the think that they have won,” Avery sang the altered children’s song from the other side of the cell bars. He lay on the cot, feet resting high on the cell bars, ankles crossed. The top foot bounced in rhythm to his song while his bent arms pillowed his head. Captain Thurgood scowled at him, though it didn’t seem to make an impact.

“So, what do we do now?” I asked. “What will the Pact say when they find out we’ve withheld information on this incident for over a week? Has city council made a decision?” The Captain’s lips thinned at that as he shook his head slightly.

“The ants go marching two by two, the big one doesn’t know what to do…” Avery continued into the next verse.

“Hell, what will they do once they find out we killed a dragon,” Alex added, “and not just any dragon. The last female dragon.”

“She was sterile anyway,” the Captain grunted.

“Not sure they’ll see it that way,” I muttered.

“However it was, she was involved in local deaths and use of illegal magic,” the Captain said. “They can’t penalize us for that.”

“The ants go marching three by three, I guess they’ll just have to wait and see…”

“But they could deny us Pact protection,” I said, my brow furrowed.

“We’ll survive,” Alex said with a shrug. “Plus, we weren’t the ones who barbecued her. Avery’s the one with a flare for roast beast,” he grinned. “Pun intended.”

“Not the time, Alex.” I said. Alex shot a rubberband at me, but it just whizzed by, striking the cell bars.

“We can’t be sure they don’t already know about it,” Captain Thurgood said, crossing his arms over his chest. He looked back at our stunned expressions and sighed. “If their last hope of a future was part of this, it’s not that far a stretch to think the order came from higher up. It might be best to not associate with the Pact, after all.”

“The ants go marching four by four, look who just walked in the door…” The door into the cell bay opened. “And they all go marching to a new drum, ‘cause they don’t have a choice, boom, boom, boom,” Avery cackled.

Half a dozen men in black tactical gear entered the room, shrinking the space by half. They were preceded by a man who had to duck to enter the doorway. He stood about seven feet tall.

“Captain William Thurgood, I presume,” the tall man said formally. He had a familiar red tinge to his dark brown hair and cant to his blue eyes. “I will be taking the prisoners from here.”

“And you are,” the Captain grunted. He didn’t ask for a reason, since the uniforms had the Greek letter Y, which looked like I overlaid with Y, stitched in gold thread on their upper left pockets.

“I am General Learsi of the Guardia of Yellowstone.” There was a slight rise at the corners of the dragon’s lips as he saw the reaction in the room to the announcement that he was from the same family as Learza. I gritted my teeth and crossed my arms over my chest to keep myself from doing anything that might be… unwise.

“Transfer papers?” The Captain asked.

The dragon gestured to one of the men behind him who pulled out an envelope from his vest and passed it over.

Alex snapped his fingers and dropped his fist into his open palm in an ‘aha’ gesture, before pointing at the dragon. “Omsk, ‘83. That’s where I know you from.”

“You weren’t alive in ‘83,” I said incredulously as Learsi narrowed his eyes at Alex.

“Well, no,” he chuckled, “But I’ve seen pics of him and my father.”

Learsi’s brows rose. “Ah, Agafon. You do look much like him. How is he? Did he manage to escape that tiran?”

“Uh,” Alex swallowed then coughed out a laugh, “Eventually. Yeah.”

The Captain passed the papers back and gestured to the cell. “He’s all yours.”

Learsi resumed his frown. “One? Is Robert Murrell dead? I was unaware of this development.”

“No, but he will remain in our custody.”

“Oh?” Learsi glanced blithely over the few cells, all empty except for Avery. “But it does not appear that he is in your custody.”

“Nevertheless he will remain here until we can hold our own trial.”

“Ah, for his actions against your officers on the night he killed my sister.” His smile was glacial. “I believe the death of a dragon takes precedence.” The room seemed smaller, the walls closing in. I felt a strong urge to step back and hunch over to keep from being squashed. The worst part was I couldn’t fight it. I was a few steps back by the wall and down on one knee before I realized what I was doing, Alex beside me.

“You can have him,” Captain Thurgood said through gritted teeth, glaring at Learsi’s dress shirt. He’d had managed to do no more than sit in the chair at the desk. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t even look at the dragon anymore. “After we’re done with him.”

A low hum, more felt than heard, reverberated through the room. Don’t yawn, don’t yawn, don’t yawn. I yawned. I shook my head trying to stay focused on what was happening right then, but it was so hard. Each blink took more time. Then a phone rang, the ringtone ironically playing Suga Boom Boom, and the hum stopped.

“What?” Learsi snapped. It took a minute but my focus quickly returned and I shook out my limbs which had the prickliness of just waking up. “We’ll head out shortly, I just have to locate Murrell.” He had his phone in his hand and was wearing a bluetooth earbud.  “No, he isn’t here at the moment, but,” his lips curled down in distaste at whatever was being said. “I can grab him and fly back if I have to…” The look on his face was lined with concern. “On our way.” He turned back to the Captain who’d stayed seated, but looked up at the dragon as though Learsi was the one in trouble. “You will bring him to the Old Faithful Lodge as soon as you have finished your business with him.” He pulled out a business card and placed it on the booking desk in front of Captain Thurgood. “You do not want to fail us.”

“Is that a threat?” the Captain responded calmly.

“Why, no, Captain.” Learsi placed his palms on the desk and leaned over it with an intense stare. “It’s a promise.”

Chapter 32

Keelan

“Something’s missing,” I said as I stared at my computer screen, the cursor blinking away at the end of the line stating ‘and, so, Avery was in jail, his bluff having failed’. “They’ve two dead, Avery is awaiting transport to Yellowstone, Levi is in a coma, fake Levi stole your laptop and all our paperwork, Seija is in the wind…” I looked at Haven. “It just feels like… something’s missing.”

The night of the last new moon, barely a week ago, HPPD had taken down Avery and Learsa. At the same time everyone in Basil’s house had been given a sedative. Turns out the Levi that’d been living with my brother and I had actually been the same individual who had impersonated Dr. Batista. That meant that he was the one who’d helped Aunt Peggy prepare the tea and hot cocoa that night. It seems he’d been after all of our research, but there had been a rousing fight when Uncle Joe had shown up.

He’d come simply to check in, but what he’d found were a handful of people he couldn’t wake up and Levi. Levi had apparently been playing along, looking shocked and worried, even going so far as to call for an ambulance. That didn’t last long once Chase showed up. Chase said he’d gotten a whiff of the chameleon’s scent and, thinking it had been Levi, had followed it only to find a very different man. Once the chameleon had seen Chase, he’d run, morphing his appearance and losing himself in a crowd. Chase’d lost the trail and come to bug his brother when he caught the scent again leading right to Basil’s side door. And the fake Levi. It was hard to think that the boy I got to hang out with, got to know and joke with, came to care about, had been a plant. A ghost.

I’d woken to Uncle Joe’s grizzly roaring as he chased the imposter, making it difficult for Chase to join in. Turned out fake Levi was just a smidge wilier than the coyote and snagged Chase’s keys before dodging around him and darting out the door. When asked a while later, after an ambulance arrived from a nearby county, why he’d just let the charlatan take his keys, he’d just quirked a smile and said, “Oh, I’m not worried.”

“Honey, listen to me,” Haven said, pulling up a chair next to me and turning mine to face his. “Avery is awaiting transport to Yellowstone for trial, the doctors are sure Levi will wake up soon, we now have the true identity of the chameleon coward,” who was a mimic octopus named Duy Nguyen as it turned out. When Chase had retrieved his car, there had been no trapped occupant as he’d seemed to expect, but there had been bits of DNA left around one of the vents, “and if Seija could’ve used offensive magic, I don’t see why she wouldn’t’ve at the mill. We’ll catch them, but, for now, it’s over and we’re safe. Alright?”

“Alright.” I pursed my lips, nodding. “Then why aren’t we going home? Why are we still at my brother’s?” I asked pointedly.

Haven coughed and looked to the side. “Because… uh,” he looked back at me with a too-stretched smile. “because we haven’t finished setting up the nursery for you.”

“Riiiiiight.”

“Yup.”

“Who’s we?”

“Hmm? Oh, you know, me, Jaci, Nita, Basil. Everyone.”

“Basil?” I asked, incredulously. “My brother is included and I’m not? Wait, is that why he was going through all those magazines with me?”

He laughed. “Surprised you didn’t catch on sooner.”

“Well, I didn’t know you’d go ahead without me,” I said, mulishly.

“Do you trust me?”

“I don’t know anymore.”

“Fine, do you trust your brother, the architect?”

I glared at him.

“Do you trust Basil?” he rephrased.

I sighed. “Yeah.”

“Will you let him surprise you?”

“Okay, I get it. I’ll let you guys deal with the chemicals and nails and all that, but I want to go home. Sit in my own chair. Eat at my own table. Sleep in my own bed.”

Haven’s eyes crinkled slyly. “Soon.” He kissed me lightly and leaned back until our lips were just shy of touching, he said “Very soon.” Then he kissed me hard, before lifting me easily and carrying me upstairs and continuing his ministrations on the very comfortable guest bed.

Distantly I heard Basil say, “This room has a door, you know.”

******

“So,” AJ said a few days later, “we’re setting up a viewing party slash run on the 26th for anyone who wants to come for the combined supermoon and lunar eclipse.” The corners of AJ’s upturned eyes crinkled affably.

It was nice seeing the rec-center being proactive, it had been rather blasé when I was a kid. “That sounds fun, but what is a supermoon?”

“It’s where the moon is the closest to earth in her elliptical orbit. It gives the illusion of being larger as well as reflecting more light,” he delineated. “That, combined with the penumbral lunar eclipse between 4 and 5 am will be something to see.”

“Yeah, that sounds really fun,” I said, distracted as I saw Haven get out of his car and approach the house from behind AJ’s chair, a sour look on his face. “Sorry, but,” I started to push myself up from the porch bench and AJ moved to help me into a standing position, “I think it’s about supper time and I should really head in.”

By this time Haven had made it to the porch and had a distinctly unfriendly gaze leveled at AJ. “My apologies for keeping you,” AJ said, ignoring the territorial bison a few feet away. I could just see in my mind’s eye Haven pawing at the ground with his tail raised and grunting. “I hope to see you there,” he said, finally glancing at Haven with a nod and a small smile. “Have a good night.” With that he shook my hand and brushed by Haven.

“What was that?” I asked amusedly once AJ had driven off.

“What did he want?” Haven harrumphed.

“To invite us to a party,” I answered. “So, why were you glaring at him?”

“He,” Haven paused and looked at me. “I just don’t trust him.”

“Ah. Any reason for that?” I inquired curiously. Haven grimaced. Nodding sagely, I said, “That would be a no.” Lacing my fingers with his, I turn to head inside. “Come on, I really am hungry.” I was forced to stop as Haven refused to move. I looked back at him questioningly.

“I was thinking,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face, “we could have dinner at home.”

It took my brain just a second to catch up as a grin split my face. “You mean… you’re not yanking my chain right now, right?”

“Hmmm, maybe later.” He smirked before drawing me toward Zoe.

I stopped, taking a half-step back toward the house. “Wait, I gotta get my stuff.”

“You forgot this,” Basil said, stepping off the porch with a grin and passing two duffels and my backpack to Haven who slung them into the trunk. I hadn’t realized I’d collected enough stuff for a whole duffle. “You can come back for the rest later.”

My eyes widened. “There’s more?”

“I think you might be a closet hoarder,” Basil rolled his eyes and winked. I snorted.

“Thank you for letting me hang out in your cave, Batman,” I gave him a tight hug, “but it’s back to the asylum.”

He hugged me back with a squeeze and a chuckle. “Take care, Arkham. I’ll leave you in Detective Riley’s custody.” With a hug and a promise to stop by tomorrow, I climbed in the SUV and we were off to Haven’s, now our, apartment. Except we didn’t stop at the apartment. Or the party store down the street, which would have been plausible since we hadn’t been back for a while and likely needed at least a few groceries.

“Um, Haven?” I started, confused. “Where are we going?”

“Home.”

“But we passed the apartments.”

“Yup.”

“Are we taking the scenic route?”

He thought a moment. “Not really.” That was unhelpful.

I sighed. He was clearly in an enigmatic mood. We pulled up in front of a house with a wide lawn, winding front porch, and on the front corner was an expansive tower with tall windows. The Rusik house.

“You didn’t,” I breathed. Haven just grinned. I swallowed, irritation starting to swell. “Ha ha, you’ve had your fun. Now let’s go home, I’m starving. ”

Haven sighed and got out of the SUV, coming around to my side and opening the door. “It may still need a little work, but,” he held out his hand to me, “We are home.”

Chapter 31

Image by Ronald Plett from Pixabay

Haven

Keelan looked up at me, a small bundle of blankets in his arms. “What should we name him?” I just shook my head. It felt like I’d swallowed an egg whole and it had lodged itself in my trachea. I couldn’t speak, not because I didn’t want to, but because all the words that came to me to describe the moment weren’t big enough, weren’t as detailed or as all-consuming as this moment was.

Carefully, he passed the precious bundle to me and I pressed the small opening at the head wider to see inside. There was nothing. I unwrapped the blanket to uncover another wrapped blanket. With each new blanket uncovered, my frenzy built until all I had were tiny hospital blankets scattered at my feet. I whirled to face Keelan, but the bed was empty, the blankets there pulled aside and crumpled.

I had to find them, they couldn’t have gone far. He’d promised. Hadn’t he?

I froze at the faint sound of crying. Turning towards it, I ran, I ran for everything I loved, everything I could no longer live without. The closer I got, the higher pitched the crying became and the more cries joined in.

I had to find them. I had to

******

Pain wracked my body, every muscle seizing at once, fire racing through my blood.

“Fuck!” My eyes flew open and I gasped, adrenaline pumping through my system.

“Move it, boy,” a voice boomed to my left. My eyes and my gun settled on Captain Thurgood almost at the same time. In one hand he held a Glock, in the other a taser.

I blinked. “What-”

“Later,” he interrupted, nodding toward the hill full of trees to one side, up which the old mill could be found. It took me a moment to realize the reason I could see so well on the night of a new moon was because someone had started a pretty large bonfire up there. I could hear the sirens down the road where the firetruck was approaching the mill’s drive.

The Captain cursed and pulled out his cellphone, punching in a number. “Pierce,” he barked into the phone, “I told you to keep your team back until we’ve cleared the area.” He growled at whatever the Fire Chief said as he moved on down the line, shocking personnel awake as he went.

I climbed out of my vehicle, checking my vest for spare clips and grabbed a helmet. In minutes the whole of Hidden Pine’s police department, a third in their shifted forms, were moving through the trees. I didn’t know what had happened, but it seemed as if nearly the whole department, everyone who’d been on this assignment, had been put under. I just hoped we weren’t too late now, but a glance at my watch told me we were. A crashing sound echoed from up the hill and what appeared to be multiple flares bundled together, shot into the sky, disappearing in the heavy clouds.

As we reached the edge of the clearing where the old mill stood, I could see that the bonfire was in fact the mill itself as the bright flames roared from the uppermost floor. It looked like a giant hole had been ripped through the rear side of the roof and wall, black clouds billowing as if from a giant smoke stack. More smoke puffed from open wounds on the second floor and a couple windows on the first.

The town’s primary firetruck pulled into the grass by the driveway, yellow ants swarming them to set up the water hoses. It was clear they meant to do no more than keep the fire from spreading as they sprayed the dry grass around the base and outward. Just after we moved out from the trees, I saw the flanks of team two approaching from the other side. Creaking metal could be heard as the old fashioned wind turbine in the front no doubt became unstable in the heat of the fire.

A couple firefighters moved around to the door set on the side of the building towards me where the main ground floor door stood open, the closer pipeman preceding their path with water spray. Maybe they intended to check the place for survivors after all. There was a faint glow from inside the doorway, but it seemed as if the fire hadn’t quite made it to the mill’s entrance. I noticed a flash of movement from just inside the doorway and shouted for the firemen to stay back, but my voice was faded by distance and washed away by the water spray and crackling fire.

Signaling my team to move in, I kept my weapon at a slightly lowered but ready angle as I picked up the pace, my team matching me. Wishing they’d stuck to simply maintaining the fire, I aimed at the ground in front of the approaching firefighters and shot to get their attention. It worked, as they both jumped a step back, but that also drew the attention of the group that just exited the fire from where they’d been bent over, coughing. My team halted several yards from them.

“Move away from the building and get down on the ground!” I shouted, now close enough to be heard

Scanning them, I noticed a distinct lack of dragon and the big man was simply too large to be the chameleon. The witch stared in shock, looking even smaller next to the bulky man next to her holding… a body? Avery, slinking at the back, shifted to the side.

“Don’t even think about it!” the nearest officer yelled, setting off a cacophony.

“Move forward!”

“Down on the ground!”

“Hands palms up at your sides!”

“Do it!”

“Get down!”

Avery stalled in following the directions, eyes darting side to side for an escape that didn’t exist. The tall man with a faux hawk, known from Chase’s files to be Brandon Jeffries, complied, stepping forward and gently setting the body he carried on the ground in front of him. When Jeffries removed his hands the body’s head fell toward me. It was a familiar face. Someone I hadn’t talked to much, but had seemed nice, if a bit awkward. Most importantly, they shouldn’t have been in Hidden Pines at all.

The witch’s raised hands fell to her sides as her eyes turned skyward. One moment I was looking into the face of Levi Hathan, the next I was on my back, gasping. A loud snap erupted past the ringing in my ears and I rolled to the side to push myself up. The turbine had snapped and fallen, one spoke digging into the dirt as it tipped forward, crashing onto the firetruck, the firemen dodging in all directions. The Fire Chief is gonna be pissed, that was a brand new truck. That wasn’t all either, the mill itself was almost completely collapsed, chunks falling both into the roaring fire as well as tilting outward. 

At the center of the wreckage stood a huge dragon, its head snaking violently as it screamed in protest or pain, climbing out of the burning mill. One of its wings had a massive rip through the membrane, lengthening with every frantic wingbeat, and the other looked awkwardly bent as it dragged on the ground. Something burning stuck out of her neck, probably what she was trying to shake off. So, we’ve found Learsa.

Team two was making their way around her, boxing her in under the direction of Captain Thurgood. Learsa would have been a whole lot more intimidating if she’d even been marginally less injured. Leaving the dragon to them I looked back to where the prisoners should have been, the ground empty save for the unconscious face of Levi. God, I hoped he was just asleep.

Groaning, I got my feet under me, glancing around the area. A couple of the others were coming around, groaning themselves, as more were doing quick status checks. I stooped with a grunt, feels like I got hit by a semi, to grab my gun.

I waved at a couple firefighters who were picking their way over to us and motioned to the teenager, making sure that Levi would be taken care of first. Removing my helmet, I dropped it to the ground. “We’ve got three on the run,” I addressed those of my team who were moving to rise, if they hadn’t already. “We’ll search in teams of three. Fan out. Lewis, O’Connor, on me,” I snapped at the two men already grabbing their own guns.

That left each of the other two teams that had formed with a shifted officer. In a V-formation, each team entered the woods at different points. I lead my team around the rear of the building, watching the trees for movement. We were only about a quarter mile in when I heard an awkward sound that abruptly cut off. Holding up a fist, the three of us paused. I motioned to Lewis to shift. Quickly, but silently, he stripped, turning his shirt into a makeshift bag for his belongings, as he was taught and shoved it in the crook of two trees that split from the same roots for later retrieval. A couple minutes later and he stood in his wolf form, about three feet tall at the shoulder. Taking another minute to sniff the ground and air as his ears twitched and turned, taking in all the new information, he moved forward just slightly to the left of our original course.

I’d have shifted except bison have very poor eyesight under the best of conditions, which these were not. Instead, O’Connor and I flanked him as quietly as we could, taking our time with our guns at the ready and watching our respective sides. There was the sound of moving water up ahead, a creek or possible tributary to Pine river. Approaching the edge of the trees, we saw a small clearing of grass and wildflowers stretching to a low strip of sand at the edge of a creek nearly big enough to be called a river.

Avery was bent over something closer to the treeline. With a hand signal the three of us spread out, set to enter the area at different points, with Lewis taking the closest to Avery. As I moved around the curve of trees I noticed that Avery was hunched over Brandon. Odd. Maybe Brandon had been injured. Wouldn’t be surprising with a dragon falling from the sky and all.

As we stepped from the trees I called, “Brandon Jeffries and Avery Lange, you are under arrest. Lay down on your stomach with your palms facing up.”

Avery looked up from what he was doing, glancing around the clearing at the three of us. O’Connor and I were at an obtuse angle from each other where we could maintain our sides while not standing dangerously in the other’s line of fire. Lewis was crouched low, ready to spring forward.

“Well, you’re early,” Avery said, irked. “No fair.”

It was then that I noticed that his hands had not been beside Brandon as he checked on him, they’d been inside him. As he removed his bloodied hands from Brandon’s abdomen, he flung an arm toward Lewis. It looked like he cast a spell, flames seemingly sparking from his finger tips. But I knew what it was. A shot rang out the other side of Lewis at the same moment and blood sprayed. The bullet, however, did not hit Avery but grazed him before it entered Brandon, a barrage of white fire blooming from his body. The impact of the explosion threw Avery back, pinwheeling him a few feet back toward the treeline.

Although Avery’s throwing arm wasn’t that great, some of the sparks that jumped from the chunk of white phosphorous he’d thrown had made it to Lewis, the pressure from the explosion helping them along as well. I ran toward where Lewis had landed, having been knocked down by the shockwave as well.

“We need to get him to the river and wash it off,” I yelled to O’Connor as he came running as well, both of us having been out of range of the blast radius ourselves. “Don’t touch the burning fur and don’t breathe in the smoke. And you,” I said, addressing Lewis as I skidded to a halt next to him, “don’t shift, unless you want the chemicals directly on your skin. Go! Now!”

Lewis had a stumbling start but then took off toward the river, O’Connor on his tail, skirting the human bonfire and its poisonous smoke. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, sure they’d be fine now; Lewis hadn’t had a whole lot of the substance stick to his fur. But. If I wanted this whole thing to end I needed to make sure Avery was either in custody or dead. I was hoping for the latter, as he’d seemed like a crumpled mess as I’d passed him on my way to Lewis, but I knew when it came to this maniac I wasn’t the lucky one thus far.

Sure enough, as I skirted the burning corpse and the small fires started by the sparks while retracing my steps, I caught sight of Avery limping away just at the treeline about twenty feet in front of me.

Leveling my gun on him, I said, “Enough, Avery. Get on your knees, hands behind your head.”

He slowly turned toward me. “Oh? I think not.”

On the last word he turned and flung the his arm at me. I took the shot. And the river rock thudded dully against my vest.

Chapter 30

Keelan

Turns out my taking-my-bags-to-Haven’s gesture didn’t turn out quite as planned. I was back to living at Basil’s. This time, however, Haven seemed to have sort-of moved in too. Not that he actually moved anything more than a duffle bag into the house, but he hadn’t really gone home either.

It seemed I was back to being babysat. Haven hadn’t wanted me to stay at his place while he was at work until the situation was resolved. So, I decided I was going to make the best of it and welcomed everyone who visited with me during the day by making food, offering beverages, setting up movies, pulling out games, and even offered kid friendly entertainment. That’s how my brother’s house turned into a makeshift daycare.

It wasn’t like we were the only people in town behaving this way. Since Kelly Merlo put out that article, the tension in Hidden Pines had become like trying to wear a pair of jeans half-a-size too small. It’ll fit, but just barely and you never know when the seems will rip or the zipper bust.

Aunt Peggy started dropping by nearly every day with a bake-n-go meal for the house. Just now she’d brought by the most delicious smelling lasagna, making my stomach rumble. I knew the kids were hungry when they all piled into the kitchen like a human mudball as soon as the oven popped open. Kate and Rayen followed sedately with a small distance between them and the kids. Kate was hovering around Rayen, making sure she had everything she needed, while the latter mostly did her best to ignore her wife as she talked to her youngest brother, Jaci.

It was Ryan, therefore, who was directing the little ones where to sit while Samson got out plates and silverware. Ryan’s twin sisters, Rindle and Rory, fought to sit next to Sean’s high-chair. Erin slipped past Ryan in the hubbub and came over to me, stretching her neck out while on her tiptoes to see into the oven.

“Careful, honey, it’s hot. You don’t want to get burned do you?” She took a big step back while staring me in the eyes mulishly, then squeaked as Ryan scooped her up and plopped her between Sean and the twins on the far side of the table, in what I assumed was a punishment move for them not cooperating.

I placed hot pads on the counter before going back to the oven and bending down to retrieve the first glass pan, but, my center of gravity being what it was, a bump from behind had me tipping forward faster than I meant to and I quickly grabbed the edge of the counter, my heartbeat drumming.

Alex helped me out of the awkward lean and Aunt Peggy tsked. “Sorry, love, I didn’t mean to knock you over. You should go sit down, I’ll get this,” she said as she set the first of the dishes on the hotpads.

“I’m not an invalid,” I retorted as I retrieved a spatula and knife and turned back to cut the lasagna.

Which I didn’t get to do as Alex promptly took the utensils with a ‘thank you’ and a wink and set to work dividing and placing slices on plates. “Hey!” I squawked. “I was going to do that,” I said, as if he needed clarification. Clearly, he did know that had been my intent.

“And what would I tell Haven if you ended up chopping off a finger?” He grinned at my glare. “Look at it this way, you’re helping my future children by letting me do this.”

After a minute of glaring, I huffed out a sigh and patted his cheek. “I’ll remember this.”

Even though Basil had a large table, we still had to squeeze in extra place settings, making me happy the kids could pretty much squish onto one side leaving the ends and the opposite side open. I sat on the end by Sean so I could practice parenting. Jaci sat on my other side like one of the first moving pictures where all the sound for the film was provided by in person musicians. Only the musicians here hadn’t seen the movie or even followed the same sheet music for that matter.

I checked my phone. It was already noon the day of May’s new moon and I’d heard nothing about Haven or anything happening at the old haunted mill, the suspected location of the final sacrifice. Basil had been gone when I woke up and Alex had been making breakfast. I checked my phone again.

Kate and Rayen decided it was time to head home as soon as the kids were done eating. They were taking Sam and Erin as well since they’d arranged for a slumber party at their house, which I declined an invite to. Spending the day with the rambunctious kids was enough for me at the moment. Aunt Peggy announced she was going to do the dishes and ordered Jaci to help her just as he was about to sneak through the hallway door. I wasn’t sure where Alex had run off to but he’d clearly gotten the jump on Jaci for getting out of dish duty.

I turned back to Sean who was still obstinately staring at his steamed broccoli, refusing even to try it after he’d wiped out the lasagna, and I was not sure whether I was going to give up or make a last ditch effort to get him to eat it. If I couldn’t get Sean to eat his vegetables, would I make a good dad? Large arms slipped around my middle before I found out what I was going to do and came to rest on my stomach. I relaxed as I patted his hands and his chin sagged to my shoulder.

I turned to give him a peck on the cheek. “Welcome back.”

“You tried to give him plain broccoli?” Basil said, swooping in and snagging one of the rejected vegetables from Sean’s plate and popping it in his own mouth.

“Well, I thought he’d be a little more like his Papa, but…” I waved my hand at the tray. “Maybe he’s more like his dad.”

Basil’s eyes clouded for a moment before he nodded sagely. Picking up a piece of broccoli he dipped it in the leftover lasagna sauce and picked up three pieces of scattered cheese and made a smiley face on the top of the broccoli. “Tada!” He showed Sean the face and the child giggled. While his mouth was open my brother popped the broccoli into his mouth. The boy’s face scrunched in offense, then confusion as he open-mouth chewed it. After swallowing he picked up another broccoli and handed it to his papa to repeat the service.

“Hey, Batman, why’re you home? I thought you were finally starting back up at the Moran’s house.”

He shook his head, making faces at his son. “Nope. Well, yeah, my team got started the on the rebuilding process today, but I’ve been at the haunted mill.”

“What? Why?”

“They found a set of the original blueprints and wanted me to check it out. See if I saw anything… off.”

“You mean something aside from rotting walls and broken windows?”

“Yup.”

“Something smells good,” Haven said, distracting me as he lifted his head to look around the kitchen. “Any leftovers?”

“Aunt Peggy made lasagna,” his face lit up until I continued, “but it’s all gone. Sorry, love.”

He sighed, kissing me under the ear. “Well, I guess I’ll have to grab something on the way back.” I looked up at him questioningly but he was looking at Basil, who nodded.

“Yeah, weren’t you supposed to be hiding in bushes or something by now?” I asked.

“No, it’s a stakeout, not deer hunting. Last night was quiet and we’ve done one last sweep this morning but we haven’t found anything that would indicate they were setting up there.”

I frowned, turning to face him. “Just because you haven’t found anything doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”

“If a tree falls in a forest, huh?” Haven sighed. “I know. Maybe it isn’t the right spot?”

“I still think you should keep an eye on the neighboring buildings, too,” Basil added.

I thought a minute, then shook my head. “I don’t know. I was sure it was there. Maybe we got the day wrong?”

“If that’s true we should focus more manpower on finding their base of operations instead. You know, be proactive rather than reactive,” Alex said as he wandered back into the kitchen eating a handful of berries he got from who-knows-where.

“I’ll leave that to you then,” Haven said, “I’ve gotta head back to the site. Basil, do you have a minute?”

“Sure.” He’d picked up Sean at some point and was finishing up wiping his face down with a washcloth. “Arkham, do you mind-”

“Not at all.” I lifted Sean back into my arms. His head was already nodding and with a slight sway it fell to my shoulder.

When they came back inside, they looked more serious, if that was possible, and Basil had a suspicious lump in jacket. I just rolled my eyes.

“Haven, you should stay here and get some rest, I’ll go,” Alex said. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you the collar,” he winked.

Haven frowned at his partner, but it was Basil who asked, “Did you sleep at all today?”

“Sure I did,” Alex grinned. “I got a solid forty winks.” Jaci shook his head and rolled his eyes from the sink behind Alex, while Aunt Peggy muttered something about spending all day doing his best impersonation of a jungle gym.

“So you basically got a power nap,” Haven said. “No, you stay here. Maybe you can pile enough together to be of use if you’re needed. You should have Kiki come over as well.”

“Like you’re any better off. And she went back west to see her family.”

“Oh, that’s good. Least she’s safe. Also, I am better off. I got a few hours in last night in the car.” He shrugged. “Not my fault you refused.”

Alex mock-gagged. “I don’t understand anyone who can sleep in cars.”

“Depends on the car,” Jaci said as he and Aunt Peggy sat back down at the table each with a cup of tea. “You want some?” he asked me and I nodded, easing myself back down onto a chair, Sean’s sleepy eyes opened only for a brief second when I readjusted him to lay more on my chest. his little arms curled around my neck as I circled the hot mug Jaci set down with the fingers of my left hand and took a sip.

“Besides, how am I supposed to sleep here when I have to be on guard?” Alex continued. “I might as well go to work.”

“Ugh, why don’t you all go,” I snapped. God, I missed my coffee. “Aunt Peggy and Jaci are here and she brought firepower.” Aunt Peggy grinned and patted her purse on the table. “We’ll be fine.”

Alex threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, I’ll stay.” To me he said, “I’ll be on the couch if you need me.” I bit my lip to hold back a grin as he stalked out of the room.

“Why don’t you stay for a cup of tea at least,” Aunt Peggy chimed in.

“I really should get going, Aunt Peggy,” Haven said.

“Nonsense, why do you keep all those ‘to go’ mugs if you aren’t going to use them. I’ll just make up a batch, it’s caffeinated after all, and you can share with your little friends. Basil can help you drop them off and come right back.”

Jaci helped Aunt Peggy get out the travel mugs, and boy did my brother have a lot, and made up a giant batch of Orange Tea she insisted would help keep them awake and wouldn’t be as unhealthy as ‘that godforsaken bean juice’.. After giving me a kiss that made me think he might stay after all, Haven and Basil headed out.

I sighed and headed for a cupboard in the corner that hid a lazy susan. “Want some grasshoppers?” I asked Jaci, pulling out the mint-chocolate cookies and bringing them back to the table. Aunt Peggy had taken charge of putting Sean down for the night.

“Sure,” Jaci said, nibbling a corner off one of the cookies. “It’s good to have you back. I don’t think my brother has ever been quite… whole, since you left. Like you took a part of him with you.”

“Honestly, I think I left a part of myself here.” I thought for a moment. “Didn’t get it back until I decided to stay.”

“Really? You’re staying?” An energetic smile for Jaci looked like a lazy smile on anyone else, but I could tell. I’d spent enough time around their family when I was dating Haven.

I snorted. “See this?” I pointed at my stomach. “This is a fake belly I bought online. It’s really just an inflatable balloon in silicone. I’m just trying to get your brother to marry me so I can take half of everything when I leave him next time.”

Jaci smacked my shoulder with the back of his hand. I winced and sucked in a breath.

“Woah, I didn’t hit that hard, did I?” he asked.

“No,” I pressed a hand against the side of my stomach. “Don’t think he liked me joking like that. He punched my kidney.”

He snickered. “Serves you right. You make sure to keep your dad in line,” he told my belly.

 We sat in companionable silence for a little while before Jaci asked, “So, you think Avery’s at the center of this thing?” Then it clicked.

“Oh, my god, Jaci, you’re a genius,” I exclaimed as I jumped to my feet. Okay, so I didn’t jump. I might as well have been wearing a backpack full of books backwards, so, it was more like an awkward interpretive dance move as I spread my legs a little wider than normal and pushed up on the arms of the chair while arching my back until I was standing upright. If this was five months what would nine months be like? I debated the possible necessity of an electronic lift recliner.

“That looked difficult.” Jaci took a sip of tea, likely hiding a small smile.

“You could’ve helped you know,” I said, rubbing my back as I stretched.

“Sure,” he nodded, “but I only thought of that too late since I was in awe of your prowess.”

“Shut up,” I swatted the back of his head. “Make some more tea will ya? But something else this time? Peppermint is getting old.”

“Chamomile?”

“Blech.”

“Green tea?”

“Fine. Kill me why don’t ya.” I trudged up the stairs, heading toward my room and my laptop.

Aunt Peggy stepped out of Sean’s room, pulling the door closed until there was just a crack open. I was a little surprised as he usually put up more of a fight. The morning’s events must’ve really tuckered him out.

“Off to take a nap yourself?” she whispered.

“No,” I shook my head grinning, “I think I have an idea where to find Avery, I just want to check my theory.”

She looked at me sternly. “Don’t stress yourself out too much.”

I nodded and gave a little wave as I ducked into my room, adrenaline lighting my brain up. I marked a map online with the five locations of the ritual. There it was, right at the center, just as Jaci had said. I was sure of it. I sent a copy of the marked map with a bullseye in the center to Basil’s printer and shut my laptop. I’d already made my way downstairs and to Basil’s study door only to realize that it was locked, kept so to make sure Curious Sean didn’t get into any of his papa’s work. I’d been planning on faxing the photo, but that wouldn’t work. I supposed I could send a copy to his email, but that would mean going back upstairs. I could do that later. Or I could call…

I turned to head for the kitchen and came face to face with an intruder who was sneaking in the back door. “Levi,” I hissed, “I thought you were leaving.”

His features fell into sullenness. “I couldn’t stay there.”

“Levi,” I sighed, pulling him into a hug. “I know it’s hard but you’d be safe until this all blows over.” At first he didn’t hug back. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t seen him really touch anybody before. Not wanting to make him feel uncomfortable, I was about to let him go when his arms lightly wrapped around my waist. I couldn’t tell with his head tucked into my shoulder, but I got the impression he was crying.

I stroked his hair. “Hey, now. It’s okay.” It really wasn’t. After what we’d heard about Robert being blackmailed into working for Learza, who seemed to be working with Avery, Levi should really have let his father get him out of there. ‘Working for’ wasn’t the right term either since his ‘job’ was to be the last sacrifice. He was supposed to get a message, somehow, with a when and where and, come to think of it, Haven might have gotten word when he and Basil had stepped out for a minute earlier.

As a precaution, Robert had taken Levi to the Greyhound station in Cadillac several days ago. The plan was that he’d stay at one of the Captain Thurgood’s friend’s places until it was safe to come back. Or Robert joined him, whichever. He wanted to do what was best for his son, especially since his sister seemed to be with Avery willingly. The guy didn’t seem able to completely give up on Seija, though, but I wasn’t sure he shouldn’t. A thought struck me.

“Hey,” I said, tilting my head to try to see Levi’s face. “Hey, have you called your father?”

“No.” He looked up at me guiltily. “It’s not like he actually cares.” He stepped back wiping his face of tears. He was one of those people who could cry without it turning their face into a blotchy mess with tear stains and puffy eyes. Sometimes, life was unfair.

“Well, why don’t we go have some tea,” Levi scrunched his face and I altered my suggestion, “or hot-cocoa, if you’d prefer, since it’s a bit late to drink your favorite tea and wait for your dad to come back. He will you know. He loves you very much and won’t let anything stop him.” I did my best to put as much belief into that statement as I could. That just seemed to make Levi’s eyes seem more distant. Guess when you grew up not knowing your father, it was hard to believe he cared.

As soon as we stepped into the kitchen we were swarmed by Aunt Peggy and the others as they cooed over Levi and plied him with cocoa, which he insisted on helping with, before moving to the living room to watch a movie. We appeased a napping Alex, who’d been kicked off the couch, with a cup of cocoa. He downed it as he moved to the recliner and promptly fell back to sleep.

I must have been more tired than I thought, because early on in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, about the time the first pair of lovers escaped into the woods, my eyelids started to droop. Shaking my head to try to wake myself up, I reached again for my tea. Mid-blink my eyelids didn’t want to reopen and I heard a thunk and felt a few drops of something hot and wet hit my face.

Chapter 29

Haven

It hadn’t been a good day. First had been the fight with Keelan, followed by news from Alex that AJ hadn’t been able to do anything for Peter. And then Victor Sinclair had shown up and been less than helpful having no useful information on top of asserting his intention to sue the department for allowing “the Architect’s slave boy” into his husband’s hospital room. I was exhausted from the day’s activities and had just been forced to acknowledge by my annoyingly demanding stomach that I hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before. No, it was definitely not a good day.

I’d just stashed my badge and gun when I heard a knock at the door. Not expecting anyone, I cautiously retrieved my gun and held it to one side as I peeked through the peep hole, then promptly threw open the door. “Keelan? What-” Keelan stood there with a backpack and a duffle in hand.

He flipped his head to the side, curls flopping as he interrupted. “I’m not running.” He stepped forward pushing his way inside and all I could do was let him. He plunked his things by the couch before dropping onto it and facing me. “I won’t apologize for helping Robert or working with him.” My lips pressed together as my eyebrows drew close but he held up a hand forestalling the argument he must’ve seen on my face. “I know we have our differences, but this is where I want to be. With you.” After a moment of silence, during which all I seemed capable of doing was staring, his determined look faltered and he looked down, unsure, shifting where he sat.

I didn’t know what to say. I’d honestly thought he’d leave and there was no way I could stop him. I hadn’t expected this, but I suddenly felt as if I could fly. Now that would be a sight, a bison with wings, I snorted. Keelan’s eyes snapped back to me, hurt. “Sorry.” I covered my mouth but couldn’t stop the grin. “I was just imagining ‘when bison fly’.” The tension broke.

He started laughing. I mean really laughing. The kind of laugh that laugh bubbles out uncontrollably, pulling all stress with it. He gripped his sides and even tried to hold the corners of his lips down giving him a funny open mouthed look. I understood, I was laughing with him and the muscles in my cheeks had never felt so abused. I fell to the couch next to him, my legs unable to bear my weight any longer.

“Okay,” he started as laughter fell to intermittent bursts. “I have an idea but you may not like it,” I opened my mouth but he covered it with both of his hands, “just hear me out.” I narrowed my eyes at him and nodded. “I’m not going to quit working with Robert. No,” he said as he pinched my lips closed on a low rumble that was climbing my throat. “However, I propose you work with us. Friends close and all that?” His eyes were wide, hopeful, as he searched my face and slowly let go of me but I just pursed my lips. I still didn’t like it, but he was offering to let me protect him.

I scratched my chin. “I don’t know…”

“Oh, come on.” He rolled his eyes. “Just think of it as undercover work.”

I grunted, my lips trying to betray me with a smile before I wrestled them back into place. “Fine. But we bring Alex in on this.”

His sly grin told me I hadn’t succeeded in hiding the short-lived smile. “I expected nothing less.” He leaned over and briefly covered my lips with his. I pulled him back into me as he moved to get up. I really was starving now, but for something far other than food.

*****

“So, it’s not a single or even a pair of people we’re looking for, but a group,” Basil said after Alex informed the group as to the contents of a letter Victor Sinclair had received from Peter a couple weeks back. Apparently Peter had been a part of the group that was killing people, though he kept reiterating that no one was supposed to die and that it was for the greater good. Sounded to me like he was trying to convince himself more than Victor. How killing shifters was supposed to benefit them was still unclear. He did, however, leave a last will and testament.

“How come we’re just now hearing about it?” The question grated a little but I could tell Keelan hadn’t meant to sound accusing by the open eyed, child-like look on his face. “I thought we were a team.” Or maybe he was.

I sighed and scratched the back of my neck. “He didn’t read the letter until a few days ago and we were under orders not to speak about it, but Kelly Merlo somehow got ahold of it. You’ll likely see it on tomorrow’s front page.”

“I can just see it now ‘Serial Killer Cult, Coming to a Neighborhood Near You’,” Alex said with the intonation of movie trailer voice over.

“More like ‘Architect’s Heir, The Cult of Keelan McCormick’.” Keelan’s lips twisted in distaste. “But you know, I think it may actually have something to do with Jeanine.”

All eyes were focused on him and as he looked around, he sighed. His eyes settling on Murrell who sat on his other side despite my glares. Keelan said, “Robert, would you get the map for me?”

Murrell smirked at me then nodded. He walked over to the far wall by the doors to the backyard and reached up to a larger photo frame on the wall, lifting it off its hook. He settled the frame face down on the table so everyone could see the map of Hidden Pines spread out on the back side of it. There were two dots on it and as we watched Keelan placed another where Peter had been found.

“Keelan, honey, what are you doing?”

He just shook his head, however, as he started indirectly connecting the dots with marker. When he was done, the map was crisscrossed with a pentagram.

“Arkham, what does this mean?” Basil asked, brows furrowed as he studied the map.

Keelan had his head down and had a hand on each temple, rubbing them. I placed a hand on the back of his neck and rubbed a circle. “You okay?”

He looked up at me with a half-hearted smile. “I’m good.” He glanced around the room taking in his brother’s concern, Alex’s confusion and my own eyes focused on Murrell where he was leaning against the table across from me, as he glared at the map as if he were trying to reduce it to ash with a look.

“This,” Keelan began, indicating what he’d drawn, “is the basis for the final project Jeanine Morr had been working on. It’s a spell.”

“What’s it do?” Alex asked.

“Have you ever heard of the Song of the Chimera?”

“Like that lion goat serpent thing?”

“Yes, that was the most famous one which is why it got labeled as ‘the chimera’ when, in fact, that was just one of many. The most recent one was in the 1930s when a pair of brothers created the jackalope.”

“I thought that was a couple taxidermist brothers that got bored one day,” Alex said.

“Well, that’s a common misconception. That’s what people believed because there’ve never been any sightings of the species, but that’s because there was only one to begin with. You see, they’d attached the species to a young boy-”

Murrell cleared his throat drawing Keelan’s eyes and my irritation. “But I digress,” he continued. “This is a witch’s spell meant to combine multiple shifter species to create something new, like a hybridization of animal spirits.”

“Like creating a mule with a horse and donkey?” I asked.

“More like splicing two different types of apple trees and melding them together to create a new kind of apple. Originally, they tried to combine the whole being, both human and animal sides, into one creature but those fell apart too quickly. The jackalope you mentioned earlier,” he nodded again at Alex, “was after they started separating animal from human and melding the animal forms together. However, those were more like rabid animals that killed everything on sight with no sentient intelligence to control them from within. It’s still theorized that it’s impossible to create a true chimera. Even the human side of the jackalope couldn’t keep the rabbit and deer from trying to oust each other like a virus. He only lasted a few months before his dual nature destroyed him.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about it.” I inwardly cringed almost as soon as Basil said it.

Keelan looked at his brother balefully. “Of course I would. Who do you think did the research for Jeanine?”

Basil’s face pinched. “I know, I’m sorry.”

“So, each point on here marks the death of one of our victims?” Alex, thankfully, brought everyone’s attention back to the map. “So, these last two places will be next.”

“Actually, right here,” Keelan tapped the paper where one of the points landed in the woods. “This is about where we found Dr. Batista.”

“But he wasn’t shifted when we found him,” Alex said.

“Is he even a shifter?” Basil asked. There was a collective sigh around the table.

“What if he was?” This time all eyes found their way to me. “I had a conversation with Batista’s daughter and she said… Well, she said he was a tenin.”

“Yeah, right,” Keelan said at the same time his brother said, “Those don’t exist.”

“Meagan did say his back had been sliced open,” I said.

Alex nodded. “They could have removed the wings to keep us from figuring it out too soon.”

“Are you implying it’s too late?” Basil asked.

“Nothing’s too late until the doc declares time of death.” He paused and scrunched up his face. “And sometimes not even then.” Murrell chuckled at that.

“Okay, so we have a location, we just need to figure out the when. Keelan?”

“What about May 11th?” Murrell said.

“How’d you pull that out of your ass?” Alex asked.

Murrell shrugged. “The others all died about a month apart. I looked it up and it seems they were all killed on the new moon.”

“Keelan?” I asked and we all looked back to him.

“Yes,” he drew out the word before nodding. “Yes, that makes sense. I mean the new moon is symbolic of a fresh start.”

“And Selene is said to walk the earth at those times and, if you’re superstitious, you wouldn’t want her watching while you systematically destroyed her children,” Basil added.

I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well that’s in less than a week, so-”

“Look who I caught trying to sneak out?” Chase walked in the back door, one hand on Levi’s elbow. “Like father like son, eh?” Chase winked at Murrell who just marched the boy back out the door. I was glad I wasn’t having to have that conversation. But then I looked down at Keelan and remembered the likelihood that I would end up having a similar conversation sometime in the next eighteen years dampened my glee a bit.

Alex went immediately to the coyote and picked him up in a bear hug. “Chase! How’ve you been? Get any good bounties?”

“Well, I just caught the kid does that count?” He jerked his thumb back toward the low angry growling in the backyard.

“Not quite. You don’t get paid for that. But we’re grateful you stopped the whipper-snapper.” Alex grinned.

“Whipper-snapper?” Chase guffawed. “What, did I step back into the 1950s or something?”

“Sometimes it feels like it,” Keelan grimaced, slapping my leg playfully.

“Turns out I did get some juicy info. Here,” he said as he pulled out a file from his messenger bag.

Keelan pulled it over before anyone could reach for it and when I moved to take it from him he just swatted my hand. I decided it was easier to read over his shoulder. Alex came around the table to Keelan’s other side to do the same. There was a photo taken from a distance just inside the cover. In it, Avery Lange was talking to a woman with her back to the camera, but her clothing reminded me distinctly of a certain dragon that had arrived a little over a month ago and had seemingly taken up residence in the area.

“I think I know her,” Keelan said slowly.

“That’s Learza from the Regional DA’s office. She’s the one that got Murrell off.”

His eyes widened as they shot to me then back down at the photo. He pointed at a woman standing to the side on a cellphone. “Really? She doesn’t look like a dragon.”

“What? No,” I tapped the picture, “I’m pretty sure this is her, though I can’t be certain.”

“Sure smelled like a dragon,” Chase chimed in.

“You’ve met dragons?” Alex asked, surprised.

“Duh,” Chase said as he punched his brother’s shoulder with a dull thud that just made Alex grin. “My work takes me all over. I’ve met all kinds of people.”

Alex shook his head disappointedly. “And you still can’t find anyone who’ll marry you.” This time Chase’s punch made Alex’s eyes tighten, though he still held onto his grin. Alex looked back at the photo. ”What is she after,” Alex mused.

“Why don’t you idiots stop staring at a photo that you can always go back to and read the rest of the file,” Chase answered. “Oooh, can I have a cupcake?” He asked Keelan with great big puppy dog eyes. Keelan laughed and motioned for him to go ahead and Chase eagerly picked out the one with the most frosting. Keelan flipped the photo and we continued to read the file.

When Murrell followed his son back into the house, I barely waited until Levi had passed out of the room to growl, “Would you care to explain why your sister is in cahoots with Avery and what Learza has to do with everything?” Chase snickered in the background, muttering something about cahoots.

I’d thought Murrell had been closed before but at this he seemed statuesque.

“Is Seija in trouble?” Keelan asked, more empathetically, giving me a hard pinch.

“She is.”

“Are you in trouble?”

Murrell gave me a cocky grin. “I’m never in trouble, right, Haven?”

I growled. “Mmf, wai-” Chase said around a mouthful of cupcake. Had there been more of them on the cooling rack? He pulled out a flashdrive and handed it to Alex as he finished chewing and swallowed. “This should help.”

“And this is…”

Chase rolled his eyes. “It’s the master of the conversation between Learza and Robert the day she got him off, no pun intended.” He winked at Murrell, eyes twinkling as Alex grinned.

“What’s it gonna be?” I asked the hawk.

Murrell just waved an arm at the flash drive as if to say ‘be my guest’ with a smirk. But there was something in his eyes, whether the strain at the corners or slight shadow under them, that made me press my lips together.

He glanced to the stairway, then sighed. It was the kind of sigh you’d hear from someone at the end of the bar as they spent their last dime to forget everything for just one night. He sat at the table directly across from me, but didn’t look at Keelan. There was no smirk, no sarcasm, as he looked me in the eye and said three words. “Put it in.”

Chase sprayed the table with cupcake crumbs.

Chapter 28

Keelan

“I can’t believe you’re helping Murrell, you know he’s dangerous.” Haven’s nostrils flared angrily. The others had gone inside and the neighbors had been shooed off, but we’d still walked nearly to the back of the property by the tree line for some privacy.

I looked up into the trees as if hoping a loose branch would fall and knock some sense into him. “To who? Me? You must’ve been hexed because you’re imagining things. He saved my life. Besides that, why would he bite the only hand willing to feed him?”

“Because he’s rabid.” I wondered if Haven was actually seeing red right now for all the bull he was shoveling.

“He is not. You don’t know him-”

“I know enough. He killed Batista and put Peter in a coma. For heaven’s sake, he killed his own wife.”

“… Peter’s in a coma? Since when?” I stared, barely able to pull in air for how tight my chest had grown. He looked to the side his lips thinning. He hadn’t meant to tell me that little tidbit of information. “Why wouldn’t you tell me? What is wrong with you? He is my boss, my friend. He was my first real friend since I made the mistake of coming home.”

I could imagine steam coming from his nose and ears by the look on his face. “If coming back was a mistake, why are you still here?” He yelled. “I figured you’d be gone by now.”

“You’re right.” I felt cold. Numb. He was right. Or I was right? Coming back had been a mistake. I turned away.

“No, that’s not-”

“No, you’re right. I never stay where I’m not welcome and I’ve overstayed mine.”

Haven’s phone went off.

“You should take that. It could be important.”

He growled and I heard rustling before he curtly said, “Riley.”

I walked back toward the house, through the kitchen and up the stairs to my room. And Haven didn’t follow.

After taking a warm shower, my head was still full of the ridiculousness that had been this morning. I began pulling out drawers and taking stock of what was there after setting my travel bags on the bed. I didn’t think everything was going to fit, so I’d have to pick and choose. That’s when I saw the manila envelope marked with Victor Sinclair’s name.

That’s right. Before I did anything else, I decided I had to go check on Peter. I was probably just being rash about leaving again. I’d take the time to think about it. And if I did end up leaving maybe I could give Victor the envelope early. Peter had said to deliver it after May 26th, but… Yeah. This was my best chance for an in-person delivery and if that fell through I’d leave it with the nursing staff or at the Daily Grind. By the time I got to the hospital, the edges of the envelope were more worried than I was. Peter was fine. He always was. He’d never met a problem he couldn’t get out of. This was just a misunderstanding on the doctors’ part. But then I saw him.

His face was so pale I nearly looked around for the video camera that had to be recording some kind of horror film. I gingerly sat at the edge of the chair beside him.

“Heeeey, boss. How are you?” I grimaced. “Sorry, stupid question, I know. Um, can you hear me?”

“That’s also a stupid question,” a voice that drove down the temperature of the room spoke behind me. “And I think the individuals that ask such questions should leave.”

I turned to see a tall man with dark hair, a very nice, if rumpled, suit and cup of hospital coffee giving me the iciest glare down his nose I’ve ever seen. And, trust me, I’ve seen a lot. “Excuse me?” Was all my dumb brain could muster.

“You have ears. I assume they’re operational. I want you to leave.”

I blinked. “Do I know you? Did I do something to offend you?”

“You should know me, but I doubt you do.” he scoffed. “I know you, unfortunately. Ashley Raphael Keelan McCormick. Killer of hopes, destroyer of families, and traitor to shifter-kind.” I stared, fingers going numb. I’d been attacked before but this was something else, something deeper. “I will only say this once before I call security, so listen carefully. You are not welcome in my husband’s hospital room. You are not needed in his café. You have, in fact, been costing him customers.” I opened my mouth and shut it.

“Oh, didn’t know that, huh? I left to try to make him see reason. No one wants you in Hidden Pines. No one needs you here. We’ve all been better off without you causing chaos. I have no doubt that it is because of you that he’s in this state. I never, never, want to see you again.”

I remembered him now. He was the quiet boy that sat at the front of the class, but off in the front corner desk. He was always so studious. He never raised his hand to answer questions, but if he was called on he always got them right. He always looked at me with disdain, but today that look cut to my core. It ripped through my façade and bared the broken soul within. They say you have to watch out for the quiet ones. Now I know why.

I didn’t pass out. It was more like I entered an emotionally-drained zombie-like state as I left the hospital room, got on a bus and entered my brother’s house. No one was home. Work or school or whatever. I stared for forever at my waiting bags. It wasn’t until they were blurry blobs that I realized I was crying. I wanted to curl up on the comforter, but I’d only make a mess Basil would have to clean up after I left.

So, I began packing. Pulling out whatever pieces of clothing were on top for each category, as I tried to fit as much into my bags as possible. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore. I touched my stomach. I had options. I could adopt the kid out. Or sneak back to town to ‘Three Men and a Baby’ the kid on Haven’s doorstep. Whatever happened, it seemed as though everyone would be better if I left.

It took me a moment to realize I was doing exactly what Haven had been worried I’d do only that morning. Running was the easy choice. Sure you’d have to start all over, but you’d have a clean slate. It was harder to stay and face the consequences. Even when I’d testified against my boss, I’d run. Sure, it had been for my own, very real, safety, but that didn’t mean I’d had to face the consequences of my actions. I didn’t have to face all the people who hated me, blamed me.

“So you slept with the enemy.”

I jumped and spun toward the door, heart spazing like a wild animal caught in a trap. Aunt Peggy stood with her arms bowed, hands on hips, as she regarded me. My brain tried to catch up to what she’d said. That wasn’t working. “What?”

She shook her head. “You’re working with Robert Murrell and you didn’t tell Haven.”

I rolled my eyes. “He’s not the enemy. Haven just can’t see past his own nose.” I sighed and turned to sit on the bed facing her. “I was doing it to help him, to help everyone. If we don’t stop Avery…”

“So the question becomes do the ends justify the means?” she asked so simply and stripped of any embellishment that it drove her point home.

“Nevermind,” I huffed. “No one believes me.”

“Basil does.”

“He’s just humoring me.” She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, he might’ve thought there was a chance I’m right. Or he’s a spy for Haven.” That’s when my stomach decided to base jump. “He used my own brother to spy on me. That son-of-a-witch.” I couldn’t sit still so I paced between the bed and the door, unsure whether I was going to finish packing or confront my former fiance, baby-papa, and recent ex-boyfriend. What a weird way to go about a relationship.

“Where are you going to go?” She pursed her lips. The tone of her voice seemed distant, guilt turned me to face her sad smile.

“I don’t know. If nothing else, Robert might be willing to fly me wherever I want to go and I could have my sfuff mailed. Crap, he can’t shift right now.” A text I’d received the morning of Nita’s reception popped into my head. “Oh,  that’s perfect,” I snapped my fingers and grinned at Aunt Peggy who was regarding me with raised brows. “I’ve a  Marshall friend who said he was going to pass through any day now. I can catch a ride with him.” I crossed my arms defensively over my chest as Aunt Peggy’s lips pressed together.

Aunt Peggy paused, then she just shook her head. “And you boys were so good together.” It took me a second to realize she was talking about Haven. Aunt Peggy really did like to jump all over in a conversation. It was like talking to mulitple people at once.

“‘were’ being the operative word.” I glared at the window behind her and sighed. “It’s too late for us. I fucked it up long before today. At least this time I didn’t do it alone.” A dog barked outside and I crossed to look out the window in time to see a startled cat fall off the fence. It didn’t land on its feet. Maybe I should’ve told Haven about Robert. Maybe. “And I have to live with that.”

“Oh, sweetie. He’d be lucky to have you,” she said as she wrapped me in a steadying hug. That’s when I noticed I was shaking and I couldn’t pick out a singular emotion among the melting-pot of them insided that could be the cause. “What’s more I think he knows it. Just give him another chance.” She squeezed for a second before stepping away with her hands resting on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Please. He needs you. We all do.”

My throat tightened and I scoffed, clearing it. “What is it with people asking me to give them a chance.” I flopped on the bed, dropping my head into my hands in a primal attempt to dam the flood. “I should be the one asking for one.”

“Then why don’t you?” She asked softly.

I sat as she rested a hand on my head, her fingers running comforting paths through my hair as the dam overflowed. I don’t know how long we stayed like that before I breathed stale air and stood away from her touch, turning to finish packing. A moment after, a sigh sounded behind me and I heard the whisper of shoes on carpet as they passed out the door and creaked down the stairs. I wrapped a memory of four smiling faces trapped behind the glass of a small picture frame in a T-shirt and tucked it into the front pocket of my backpack.

Chapter 27

Haven

I’d offered to take Keelan home as soon as I was disconnected from Raiden, dropping the rope in the storage tub where it would somehow tangle itself with the others again. You couldn’t just memorize the order for next time as the ropes, like angel statues in my brother’s favorite tv show, seemed to move when you weren’t looking. Alex had said he’d take AJ to the hospital which left me free, and after the afternoon I’d had all I wanted was to talk to Keelan.

Keelan had accepted the ride going so far as to offer the young teen from earlier a seat as well. The teen, Levi, had refused but I discovered that he was staying at Basil’s as well. The kid looked so familiar but my focus was redirected as Keelan sighed and stood up tiredly. In the car, he stared out the window in silence. He couldn’t still be mad about Murrell, could he?

“So…” Keelan started, trailing off as he kept his eyes on the window. I wasn’t sure if he realized he was rubbing small circles in the side of his stomach. “You and Raiden, huh?”

“What?” I responded, pulling my thoughts back to his words. I narrowed my eyes at the road in front of me. “Rayen say something she shouldn’t again?”

“You looked good together.” He pouted, pouted. I didn’t think he knew how much he was giving away at the moment. I hid a grin as we pulled up in front of Basil’s house.

“It was pretty one-sided and didn’t last long.” He grunted non-commitally. “Hey,” I said to get him to look at me. I shifted in my seat to face him a little more as he watched me from lowered brows. “There has never been anyone else for me but you. I just, I don’t know, I thought I’d never see you again.”

He pursed his lips, looking away as he thought. “So… you never thought you’d see me again and you were lonely?” He asked, eyeing me with the barest hint of a smile. I nodded, my own smile refusing to hide. “So, what made my best friend a valid option?”

I chuckled. I should’ve known he wouldn’t make it so easy. I had nothing to say and I stopped him from saying anything by crushing our lips together. He hissed into my mouth like a balloon losing air and I about lost it, trying to pull him closer to me.

“Ow,” he panted, pulling back and I followed his movement to where a hand covered a part of his stomach and remembered the fact that this car had a center console.

“I’m sorry, are you-”

“Wanna come inside?” he asked at the same time.

“I, uh,” my brain stuttered.

“Race you to the house,” he said as he opened his door.

“Don’t run,” I called as I pushed out my own door and rushed around to keep him from hurting himself or the baby. When I got around the car I didn’t see him slipping on the lawn or careening up the cement driveway. There was a tap on my shoulder and I turned to the side to see Keelan staring up at me with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.

“I can’t believe you actually thought-” he cut off with a squeak as I swept him up into a side carry, one arm under his knees with the other braced around his back. As we reached the door he reached out to open it saying, “This is nice, but you know we should really do this in our own house.”

I growled, kicking the door shut and didn’t let go of him as I climbed the stairs, or when we got to his room, or when he stretched out on the blanket like a cat who’d just stolen the farmer’s best cream. I wouldn’t let go of him again. Ever.

*****

I woke up in a panic, fear clogging my brain function as I sat up looking wildly around before my eyes settled on Keelan where he lay next to me. I breathed slowly, bringing my heart rate back down. Keelan yawned and rolled onto his back. “Is everything okay?”

I couldn’t tell him I’d had a nightmare that he’d left me again, this time taking our child. I still worried he’d leave me, us, this town, and this time wouldn’t look back.

I must’ve said it aloud without the filter of coffee to fire my brain up as he responded, “How could I leave now?” He gestured at his belly. “This is at least 65% your fault, you know. And I fully expect you to take responsibility.”

“Yes, sir,” I grinned as I kissed his mouth then moved to his stomach. Keelan’s stomach seemed to be fighting back as I felt a knock against my lips. I looked up at Keelan and he just stared back, stunned, before his lips curved slowly up.

“I think he likes you.”

“He?” I asked.

“Or she.”

I placed a palm over the spot I’d kissed in wonder as I felt another kick.

“Okay, okay, enough wonder,” Keelan said after what felt like an hour but was more likely only ten minutes. He pushed my hands aside and began to roll toward the edge of the bed.

I grabbed his hip, halting his progress. He bent one of my fingers back to force me to loosen my grip. I just switched hands, grinning. “Where do you think you’re going?”

He scoffed. “Oh, come on. I have to pee and then I need food. You remember food right? That dead stuff that keeps us in the circle of life?” As if to punctuate his words, his stomach growled loudly at me, rumbling through my fingers.

I laughed and let him go as I got up and put on yesterday’s clothes since Basil and his son were most likely awake by now. “Fine. But you should take a shower too.”

He raised an eyebrow. “If you have something to say-”

I raised my hands, backing away with a grin. “Just that I should have breakfast ready by then and it’ll be relaxing for you.” At the door I paused. “And you kinda smell.” I ducked out of the way as a pillow flew by.

I listened as water struck the sides of the shower and eggs and turkey bacon sizzled in the frying pan. I heard movement upstairs as Sean cried out from his crib and woke Basil up. I put on more eggs and bacon. I was just placing the last piece of toast on the set of plates when Basil came down the stairs blearily rubbing his eyes. He didn’t react with anything but a nod, taking the smallest plate with him to the highchair. Placing one in the oven to keep its contents warm, I grabbed the other two plates and followed to the table.

“Has Levi gotten up yet?” Basil asked as I sat a plate in front of him.

“Levi?” Was Basil dating again? I’d thought he had a thing for-

“Yeah. 14. Scrawny. Quiet. Likes drawing.”

I snapped my fingers. “Was he at Nita’s reception yesterday? Keelan said he was staying here.”

Basil rubbed his face tiredly. “Yeah, he’s here because-” he glanced at me sharply and cleared his throat, stabbing his fork into his eggs. “because his parents are on a deadline.”

“If you’re hungry, pops, I don’t think Mr. McCormick would mind if you-” said the familiar quiet, scrawny 14-year-old as he came in the back door. He paused like a deer caught in headlights, but not before I saw who he was talking to.

Maybe I was developing a memory problem because the next thing I knew I was throwing Murrell out the door.

“I warned you,” I snarled as I stomped toward him. My bison wanted out and I let it.

I charged him with 2,000 pounds of bison on my bones. He barely dodged out of my way. I spun sharply, pawing the ground and snorting as he got to his feet. I charged again and he thought he could hide behind a tree. I turned my head catching him between my horns and tossing him in the air.

I heard shouts in the background but ignored them. I spun to face Murrell who was coughing on the ground. I charged again but the teenager got in front of the man and stood facing me. I veered off when he did nothing but flinch as I sped toward him. I moved in a circle around the pair but the boy just followed me. I charged again as Murrell stood having regained his breath. If I didn’t scare the boy away form the murderer, he’d be hurt or, heaven forbid, killed. Then Murrell would go after the others. If I got closer to the boy, he’d move. He had to.

The unyielding teen had no choice when Murrell knocked him to one side then dove the other way. I skidded near instantly to a stop right next to him. I placed a hoof on his neck. All I had to do was put weight on it and the danger would be gone. Everyone would be safe. Keelan would be safe. But I was an officer of the law. I shifted back, my hand now gripping Murrell’s neck. I would take him into custody. Again. This time, maybe it would stick.

There wasn’t much I could do without handcuffs, but I twisted an arm up behind his back and forced him to stand. When I turned, everyone from the house and even a couple neighbors stood in the yard, goggling at me. My eyes locked with Keelan’s, his face like granite.

“You can’t take him,” Keelan said in a quiet voice.

“I can and I will. He was trespassing on private property.”

“No, actually he wasn’t. He was invited.”

“He probably lied to that boy to get him to let him in. He’s a parasite.”

Levi is Robert’s son.” His quiet voice shook a little, but I didn’t think it was fear. I scoffed, but I could see pieces of the man in the boy now: the hooked nose, the pointed chin. “We’re helping him out until he can get on his feet.”

He moved to within an arms length. “This isn’t your house.” He flinched at those words and I grimaced. I hadn’t meant it wasn’t his home, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

“But it is mine,” Basil said, stepping up behind his brother and resting a hand on his shoulder. “And Robert Murrell and his son are my guests.”

It was my turn to gape. “I’m sorry?” I couldn’t have heard right.

Basil pressed his lips together for a moment, looking apologetic. “Please release him before I file a complaint.” I took several deep breaths as I looked from face to face. It took more effort to open my hand where it gripped Murrell’s wrist than… well, anything I’d had to do before.

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 settled 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 homeless drunk that’d been found passed out 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 off 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

Peter Sinclair had been found by a windtech checking on the turbines at the wind farm this morning, a mere week after Murrell’s release. Peter had been unconscious, but neither the EMTs nor the hospital staff had been able to wake him. I’d even called on AJ to see if there was anything he could do, but he’d been unavailable. Until he answered his phone, two unis were stationed at Peter’s hospital door round the clock. It was possible Peter could be key to bypassing whatever deal Learza had made with Murrell. In the meantime, there was somewhere I had to be, and it just so happened to be the most likely place I’d find my quarry.

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… He was a tenin.” She looked me dead in the eye, brows drawn together as she searched my face for something. I kept my face neutral as I digested the information that her father had been one of the winged folk, supposedly servants of Selene herself. “You sure you didn’t know? But you’re with Ashley, er 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. AJ already had a rope around one wrist, so I’d have to wait until he was at least unwound from the ball in the center to take him 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. I’d happily keep him company until I could escort AJ to the hospital.

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.