I’m downright awful when it comes to remembering my phone. It usually gets left at home or in the car because no one ever talks to or texts me. The girls know I’m either at home or the bakery, so those are the numbers they use.
Before the three girls and I made it back to my vehicle, a small, wind-up toy of a car that got great gas mileage, I could hear my phone going off. It was one of those blessing and curse situations. Whoever was calling was likely ready to rip my head off when they’d first heard the news about the hostage situation at the bakery, but now they would’ve had time to cool down. This was lucky for me, since Drakken were strong enough to literally rip my head off. The coin toss would be if they’d been calling long enough to once again achieve irate status.
The girls all hopped into the car. After I started the vehicle and set the air conditioner to full blast and somewhere around the temperature of the Bering Sea, I gingerly picked up my phone. I treated it as though it was about to explode in my hand.
‘Danika,’ the display informed me, and I shrunk in on myself like a deflating balloon. This was the last person I’d wanted to talk to first, but it had to happen sooner or later. I left the girls in the car and went across the parking lane from it, where I could still see them but they wouldn’t hear the conversation.
“Hello,” I greeted, dread worming its way through my body like an energy stealing sickness, and the sensation was so strong I shifted from foot to foot.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” she fumed. “We asked you to do one thing. ONE THING,” she shouted, “and you managed to royally screw that up in the most spectacular way possible!” She drew a breath, but before she could continue I interjected the only thing I could think of to get her attention.
“I know how they are finding her,” I said, dangling the useful bit of information in front of her with the same audacity a bull fighter had when waving a red cape in front of a bull. Sometimes it works and they go for the cape, but sometimes you get gored.
There was a, I hoped, thoughtful pause at the other end of the line. Danika was the, ‘problem solver,’ for all the red clans. Not just one, but all of them. She was devious, cunning, cruel, and knew how to make a body disappear faster than a dog eating food that drops on the floor at dinnertime. I just prayed to the Dark Goddess my body wasn’t next.
“Go on,” she said, her voice carefully neutral, and I had to wonder who had walked into the room. Danika did a wide range of emotions with me, most within the realm of revulsion, but never calm and evenhanded.
“Uh,” I began, thrown by her change in attitude, “they are tracking the use of her magic, somehow. Anytime she uses it, they know and they can find her.”
I had to admit it was a handy piece of magic—and expensive. Whoever was funding this had the cold, hard cash they needed to get what they wanted. At this moment it happened to be Meriel.
“That is hard to believe, though the evidence suggests you may be correct,” she ground out, and I wondered how painful, on a scale of one-to-ten, that was for her to admit.
I was gonna go with infinity.
“They would need something containing her DNA, and she lived in privilege on the clansland,” Danika said, troubled. She wasn’t necessarily talking to me, but the enormity of what she said made my heart constrict.
“It had to be someone close to the family, or from within the family itself,” I whispered, though I knew she heard me.
“Yessss,” she hissed, and her voice grew deeper the same as when I angered her in my kitchen. I couldn’t swallow past the dryness in my throat, and a chilling sweat broke out along my skin despite the heat.
The clanslands are closely monitored and regulated by the respective clans. Think starving, vicious mother bear guarding both a cub and a fresh kill, and you’ll get somewhere in the neighborhood of how jealously they guard their territory. A stranger cannot simply waltz into the picture without being noticed, and certainly not to and in the clan leader’s house; filled with family and servants, who are also from the clan.
Such a feat would take a level of stealth that even those of black clan, who specialized in such a thing, would turn down the job. Which left only two options: family or servants, and both were an atrocious betrayal of trust.
It might get me skewered, but I had to ask, “What is going on, Danika? Does it have something to do with this weird poem the guy said to me?”
Once again silence stretched on the other end of the line. When she didn’t ask, “What poem?”, I had a sneaking suspicion they knew what was going on, but were going to treat me like a good little mushroom: kept in the dark and fed crap.
“Make sure you are home tonight at five-thirty, and have an appropriate meal ready for Lord Kieran, me, and one other,” she said, but didn’t enlighten me as to who the third person was, and promptly hung up. The dinner probably wasn’t her idea, just as her calm behavior was likely the result of whoever was in the room with her. Lord Kieran was my bet.
Oh, I knew what would happen: they’d give me tidbits, just enough to shut me up, and get a free meal out of it to boot. Dealing with the clans would make the most even-tempered Preacher cuss.
I was grinding my teeth when I got into the car, and simply said to the girls, “We have some shopping to do.” Then I looked in my rearview mirror at Meriel and my expression softened from raging scowl to something related to a smile. “Your father is coming for dinner.”
She squealed and laughed with happiness, the way younger children do that sounds ridiculous if an adult did it, and clapped her hands. Standing in the face of such unbridled joy washed away any harsh feelings that remained, and a real smile that reached down into my soul and recalled memories of my father, graced my features.
“Do you know any of his favorite foods?” I asked, and pulled out of my parking spot.
I drove as she recounted meal…after meal…after meal. I’d be in the kitchen for the next week, or two, if I cooked all the things, ‘Papa,’ liked. I asked her to narrow it down to a couple of meals, and we ended up with: steaks with my secret marinade, a medley of vegetables I’d roast in a butter-garlic sauce, okra to fry, loaded baked potatoes, homemade dinner rolls, and last but not least a strawberries-and-cream tart. A weakness of Lord Kieran’s. I finished the list off with a couple of different wines for the adults, and sparkling grape juice for those under the legal minimum.
When we got home the girls wanted to help, especially Meriel because it was for her father, so I assigned appropriate tasks to each. Meriel, with a little control freak help from me, washed the vegetables and strawberries, then Talitha peeled potatoes, and Mina cut them. That about exhausted their helpful streak, so they wandered off and left me to the rest of the work.
I’d just finished the roll dough and turned to start the marinade for the steaks when the doorbell rang. I looked at the clock and thought it was way too early. Even for Danika, who thought fifteen minutes early meant she was on time. I wiped my hands off on a towel and headed for the door, suspicion creeping along in the back of my mind like a wary animal approaching a watering hole it just knew had alligators in it. To have one of the kidnappers show up here, at my home, would just put a cherry on top of this messed up sundae of a day.
I slid along the wall and peeked around the corner, where I could see through a tiny sliver of window to the right of my front door. Black suit and a brief glimpse of gray hair set me back on my heels in surprise. I relaxed for the briefest of moments, knowing it wasn’t the bad guys, before my shoulders tightened in anticipation for a battle.
When I opened the front door, a less than welcome expression greeted Special Agent Warren Berg, but it was either scowl at him or ogle him like the last drink of water in a desert. I went with scowl to preserve some semblance of dignity I, (possibly), had left, since he’d smelled my interest at the bakery. Couldn’t a girl keep anything a secret these days?
“Yes?” I asked, the annoyance in my tone sharp as a rose thorn.
“You never called,” he said, baritone voice rumbling half in statement, half in surprise, like he expected me to call sooner. His timbre suggested he wasn’t expecting it to be because I was so gosh-darned eager to do my civic duty, either.
“It’s only been a couple of hours,” I said, as spitting mad as a cat whose tail got stepped on, “We just got home and I have work to do. We’ll call tomorrow,” I said, about to close my door in his face and asinine assumptions, when he put a hand against it to stop me.
“I apologize,” he said, and I don’t think he could have shocked me more with a bolt of lightning. “It was rude of me to presume,” he continued, and moved his hand away from the door, leaving it up to me to continue the conversation, or not.
“Yes, it was,” I said, but after a moment’s hesitation I stepped out of the way and opened the door so he could enter.
He nodded once, a slow inclination conveying his thanks, and he stepped over the threshold.
I closed the door behind him, and turned to see him looking around my house. I hope he doesn’t hate it, raced through my mind before I could quash any such sentiment. Doesn’t matter, remember? Him, full blood, me, half-kin. See oil and water, I insisted and squared my shoulders and walked past him to the kitchen.
“This way. Can I get you anything to eat, or drink?” I asked, my southern hospitality breaking through any remaining animosity, or loony thoughts.
“Some water, of you wouldn’t mind,” he said, and sat down on one of the bar stools at the island counter.
I wasn’t exactly a messy cook, as I subscribed to the,’clean as you go,’ philosophy, but it was a lot of food to prepare and the girls had ‘helped’, so I flinched inwardly at the mess in front of him.
“I apologize for the mess. As I said, I have work to do.” I went to move some of the clutter away from him. It put me tantalizingly close to him, and for the first time I realized he smelled like a clean, cool breeze that rode the air before a storm in fall. To derail that before it could go further, I started reciting recipe ingredients and the process for one of my more elaborate desserts: a particularly yummy dacquoise.
Once I’d cleared sufficient space, and my brain, I walked over to the fridge and poured him some water. I reached across the island, chickening out on getting close to him again, and set it down in front of him.
“I understand you need to speak with the girls, but I promise they didn’t see, or hear, anything. They were in the office watching cartoons,” I stated, but he still pulled out that damned notebook.
Lord Kieran would have a fit if he knew the DSR liaison had spoken with his daughter, and what would be left of me after displeasing a clan leader wouldn’t fit in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag.
“I still need to speak with them, and since they are minors you are, of course, to be present. The various factors of the situation allows for some…discretion on my part for their interview,” he said, “but if you make me wait, it will be done in the DSR headquarters, downtown. If they truly did not hear or see anything, this won’t take long.”
I swallowed and chewed on a lip, considering, and decided on the lesser of two evils.
“I’ll go get them,” I said, and blew out a, stuck between a rock and a hard place, sigh.
He gave a curt nod. “Thank you.”
I turned to leave, but caught a flash of what almost appeared to be mischief in his eyes.
“What?” I asked, quickly on the defense.
“Nothing much, just that I like the apron,” he said, and a small smile turned up a corner of his mouth.
I looked down at the apron as though just realizing I had it on. It was a vintage apron with a sweetheart neckline, trimmed and tied with white polka dots on a black background, as well as a pocket that settled over my right thigh. The backdrop for the main portion was rose blush pink, and patterned with a variety of delicious cupcakes.
I didn’t know it was possible to do a full-body blush till that moment, but it is, and it happened. It took every ounce of self-control to not run from the kitchen, but I managed it—barely.
As I walked to the back of the house to find the girls, my head felt light and my heart was zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ing as though our wonderful day had finally come along. It wanted to throw caution to the wind, but the logical part of my brain did it’s best to put an end to that nonsense.
He’s just complimenting you to keep you unbalanced, and to get what he wants, it whispered, as candid as a slap in the face. Don’t trust and you won’t end up with a hole in your heart you can’t fill.
My heart slowed and I breathed out a heavy sigh. Yeah, call me a glass half-empty kind of person.