Authors: Karen Nichols
“I know you mean well, but someone is after me,” she didn’t look at them and kept talking. “And I really don’t think I could handle anymore grief if something happened to you…..both of you…..either of you…it would just be best if I called a cab and went into town. I can get a room and no one would even notice me. I’m like that, you know? People don’t notice me at all. I kind of just blend in with things most of the time. It was always like that….especially in school. There’s an advantage to being plain.”
“I hear words,” Jase began, humor in his tone.
“Hmm…I heard some too, but they didn’t make much sense,” Nick drained the iced tea he’d been drinking and carried the glass to the dishwasher.
“Sounds like a bunch of little bees buzzing around my ears,” Jase murmured, his palm up ad swiping at the side of his head.
Brea fought the giggle and lost.
“The simple answer is no, Brea. So lose that crazy idea and make yourself at home.”
“Oh and feel free to cook anything your delightful little heart desires,” Jase added with a warm chuckle.
Brea gripped the edge of the sink with both hands. “You’re not being reasonable.
You don’t know me. I could be….I could be a serial killer. I could be dangerous.”
“You could be on the verge of exhaustion because you’ve been afraid to sleep in your own bed,” Jase said softly, moving to stand at one side of her while Nick took the other side. “You could be just a little on the undernourished side for the same reason.
And the gentleman in me won’t even mention the dark circles beneath your otherwise gorgeous eyes.”
“You need some rest,” Nick said from the other side, his hand up and brushing the tendrils of hair that had broken free from the thick braid hanging down her back.
“We work here,” Jase said, his fingers tracing a line around her ear. He felt her breathing, soft little pants of confusion. “We live here. The alarms are set and we’re trained and armed. You’re safe here,” he repeated firmly.
“There’s a nice big sunken tub off your bedroom,” Nick turned her and walked her toward the hall, Jase trailing behind them. “We’ll finish cleaning up. That….we know how to do. Go take a bath or shower and relax. There’s a TV in there and a CD player. I saw your collection of CD’s in your pack.”
“I bought some clothes for you, Brea,” Jase saw her swallow and face them, her hand on the doorknob to the guest room. “It’s alright. Try and rest, okay?” She was tired. And she knew she had circles because every little noise woke her in her apartment. She’d been working herself harder than usual, trying to tire herself out enough to sleep without dreaming; without seeing her parents in her sleep. But it never worked.
Her palm was up and swiping at the tear that eased free as she nodded and slipped inside the bedroom, her shoulders against the door as she allowed the darkness to settle around her.
She knew they were right. She knew she’d spent the last six weeks always looking over her shoulder. Because she was positive if she were her normal self, she 33
would have grabbed up her pack and stormed out of the house. Not sure where she’d go, but by god, she’d go.
Brea had never consciously looked for a partner. She knew she was plain. She’d been told it often enough, made fun of often enough. She didn’t think about it much.
Not much, anyway. Grade school things should be made to vanish from your memories, she wished fervently. How did she manage to find two really good looking men in one fell swoop?
Her eyes adjusted, her feet moving over the thick carpeting to the bedside table where she tapped a button, the light coming on in a soft glow that lit up the room. A huge armoire rested along one wall, a low chest of drawers and an old chest of some kind was settled at the bottom of the bed with a couple extra quilts on it.
But it was what filled the surface of the bed that had her sinking to sit on the chest at the bottom of the bed, her mouth open and eyes wide. Bags of all colors and shapes filled the surface. Plastic and paper, some with tissue paper, some just large with handles.
It took her an hour. She had pushed the bags to the top of the bed and settled cross legged at the bottom. Opening bags, folding them and laying the items out in small piles.
She had a new pair of jeans; a pair of Capri pants in a pretty shade of blue; several girl tee shirts and tank tops. She found socks and at least a dozen pairs of panties that looked like soft pieces of almost nothing when she touched them. Instead of bras, he’d bought several stretch lace under shirts in bright vibrant colors. She ran a 34
palm over the satin tap sets, three of them, one in peach, one the color of a ripe apple and another the shade of a starless night.
All bought for her by a stranger, she thought as she lay across the bottom of the bed, staring at the neatly folded piles. She’d stacked the folded bags to the side of the bed on the floor and reached behind her, pulling a quilt over her and just staring.
A man had never bought her things like this before.
Be honest, she chided, a man, other than her father, had never bought her anything before.
His pen moved over the application he was reading, jotting notes for Jase to read when it was his turn to review them.
“You think she’s alright?” Nick glanced down the hall.
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear the water running. No alarms went off, so she hasn’t made a run by jumping out the window,” he met the stunned look on Nick’s face with a shrug.
“Something’s off. Like it or not, I asked Mariana to come out in a couple days.”
“Not too crazy about Mariana having her nose in our business, but I agree,” Jase said quietly. “I can’t sense any kind of magic at all. Nothing. If someone put a snare around her, they were damn good at it,” he commented, referring to a spell cast to keep something from the general world.
“It had to have been her parents, Jase. One of them, anyway. If it was both, it would account for the power behind it.”
“So they did it to keep her hidden. From someone.”
“Or something,” Nick amended carefully.
“A parental snare would be almost unbreakable,” Jase looked toward the hall.
“But Brea is breaking through probably because they’re gone.”
“Which means they were hiding her power, not necessarily her,” Nick said logically. “Two quiet school teachers in a small coastal town.”
“Have you got anything on the background check?” 36
“I have that the last name isn’t Cooper,” he looked up from the screen scrolling before him. “I have that they originated in a small town in North Carolina before Brea was born. The entire town was wiped out a month before she was born. Her parents were supposedly killed in the attack, some kind of gang affair that the town had been battling.”
“So the world thought they were dead,” Jase leaned back in his desk chair. “Then someone stumbled on them thirty years later.”
“Good mystery plot,” Nick jotted down names. “Problem is….without someone still alive who knew them, we won’t know what they were and why they were hunted.”
“Mariana might be able to remove the snare but if it’s been there since she was born, she won’t know anything. If her parents put it on her, they did it for a protective reason, which means they probably didn’t talk about anything other than school and normal human stuff,” Jase pushed up from the chair, striding down the hall to the guest room. He stood listening but there was only the sound of steady breathing.
“A problem?” Nick came along the corridor more quietly, more slowly, listening as his friend had been.
“I think she’s sleeping,” he turned the knob and eased the door open. Their night vision was sharper and more vivid, the sight spread before them making them both smile. “I’ll get the clothes. You get the bags out of here,” he said quietly, his head shaking. He carried the small stacks to the bureau and left them there, carefully easing the blankets down on the bed and laying them over her when Nick lifted her from the bottom and placed her the right way on the bed.
“At least she’s sleeping. I got the feeling she hasn’t been doing much of that since her parents died,” Nick walked out of the room, leaving the door wide and heading to finish reading through the applicants before turning in for the night.
Jase did a walk through, checking doors, windows and the alarms before going to his bedroom, like Nick, leaving the door wide. Just in case. The pain in the base of his neck was telling him if magic was involved, all the alarms in the world wouldn’t help keep something out.
It had been midnight before they went to their rooms and fell asleep.
It was just past seven when the scents began to haunt their dreams. Both males groaned and lifted a head to peer out their separate bedroom windows. Neither of them bothered with more than the sleep pants they wore, riding low on their hips and feet bare as they stumbled into the kitchen.
As if pre-assigned and accepted, both took the seats they had the night before at dinner, sleep filled eyes realizing the table was once more filled with food.
They watched her moving, adding things to the table and smiling brightly at them. The tear ravaged eyes were gone for the moment; the braid that had been frayed and loose had been replaced with a high riding ponytail, her hair still damp from her morning shower. She wore the new jeans and one of the tee shirts in a vivid lilac shade. She’d found the laundry room and the unwashed clothing so she sorted and filled the washer, starting it and closing the door before going to the kitchen.
“I think I’m still asleep,” Jase lifted the fragrant cup of coffee and sipped, frowned, tasted again and sighed. “Or in heaven. A woman who knows how to brew coffee.”
“Shh….it’s a secret blend,” Brea set the small plate of muffins on the table and took her seat.
“If you do anything to make her leave, I’ll kill you,” Nick said in a low growl, leaning toward the coffee drinker.
Both of them looked over at the little giggle that broke free before she bit her lip and began eating the eggs she’d scooped onto her plate. She lifted a slice of toast and built a little sandwich, biting down hungrily.
“Coffee drinkers have such bad reputations,” Brea said after a quiet minute, watching Nick select a tea bag from the small container she’d placed next to the tea pot. “You have so much nice stuff in your kitchen that looks like it’s never been used.”
“Most of it hasn’t,” Jase said with a shrug, pouring more coffee before filling his plate with ham, eggs and toast. “You’re definitely going to spoil us, Brea.”
“You spoiled me. Letting me sleep here and…the clothes….I have money. I can pay you back…” she stopped when two hands rose from the table, palms facing her.
“I’m guessing that means no.” She watched them both chewing and nodding. “Then you have to accept being spoiled.”
“I don’t see the down side,” Jase looked at Nick and shrugged.
“Looks like you did okay on guessing her size,” Nick commented.
“Do you think the police would let me go through the….the remains?” She looked from one to the other expectantly.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Brea,” Nick swallowed and took a long drink of juice. “Tell me what you want and you can write a note giving me permission. I think you should stay out of sight for a few days.”
“He’s right. Whoever is doing this doesn’t need to see you in town for a while.”
“I know most of it….probably all of it….is gone. But there’s a fireproof lock box that I had in my office with insurance and some photos and just…..stuff….” Brea sighed.
“I don’t have much left now. But it was under my desk. I used it to rest my feet on when I did paperwork.”
“I’ll take a ride in after I finish eating,” Nick told her. “Jase has applications to review and some people to talk to. The grounds are completely fenced, Brea. And we have gym equipment if you want to work out.”
“Do you have a car? In town?”
“No. I didn’t need one. Everything was close to the shop or I have a few friends who would let me borrow theirs when I went to book stores or the Costco for supplies,” Brea lifted a slice of the ham and nibbled. “Mostly I shopped by mail on the internet.”
“I’ll find the lock box for you and Jase can hook you up to the router,” Nick assured her. “You have a cell phone?”
“In my pack.” She looked from one to the other. Brea considered her thoughts, trying to find the right words as she watched them. And they weren’t the least bit difficult to watch. From a girl point of view. “Neither one of you seems the least bit….put out….disturbed….”
“Why would we be?” His brow creased in a frown as he reached for the eggs. He looked over at Nick.
“You opened your doors to me and…..it’s like it’s just another day to you both.”
“Maybe you just fit us, Brea,” Nick suggested easily.
“Am I being dense? Did I miss something?”
“You really don’t want me to answer that,” Nick laughed. “Another cup of coffee and he’ll be coherent.”
“I don’t feel like a stranger here,” she tried explaining herself better when the laughter stilled. “And you make me laugh. Both of you.” She stood up and carried plates to the sink, her next words dreaded my males everywhere. “You’re the best big brothers a girl could ever ask for,” she spun hastily when both of them began choking.
Two sets of hands waved her off.
“Fine….I’m good….” Jase drained the coffee and poured more. Big brother.
“Umm…yeah…..” Nick sighed, running one hand over the growth on his face.
“We’ll clean up then I’m going into town and see about your lock box, Brea. Why don’t you write out a short permission slip for me to retrieve your belonging? I’ll see about keeping your location quiet, but I know you’ll probably have to talk to the police about the whole thing.”
Brea nodded, absently cleaning the pans she’d used cooking. She’d set out meat for dinner and looked at the note on the fridge. She’d added things to it. A little part of her wondering about the comfort she felt here. Then her mind wandered to her parents and her shop.
Don’t get used to it, she told herself angrily. Don’t get used to it because someone will take it away from you.
“Brea….are you alright?” Jase had carried things to the sink in time to catch the fierce look on her face.
“How long can I stay here?” Pale brown brows arched, her eyes wide. The words had been inside. She hadn’t expected them to burst out like that! “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to sound…..angry.”
“You stay as long as you want to, Brea,” Nick came up on her other side, his hand up and tugging on the drying mass of thick tawny curls.
“This isn’t a prison for you, Brea,” Jase chose his words carefully, leaning his hip on the cabinet edge. “The property is fenced. The alarms set for the fence, even when the doors are open and you’re on the porch or walking around outside.”
“I want to go to the store. Up in Aftport. We need some things so I can cook and I can’t find them here,” she said firmly, wondering why it was getting so really hard to breathe with them each on either side of her.
They seemed to always do that to her. Come in close and stare. Sometimes a touch.
“Arrange the things the way you want, Brea. Enjoy yourself,” Nick said with a shrug.
“I can take you up after I shower and dress,” Jase told her easily. “Nick can head the other way and get the mail and see about the lock box. And yes, you could take yourself, I’d trust you with the keys to the SUV, but until we have this figured out, we’d feel better if you were with one of us outside the house.”
“I’m not a coward,” she said after a few seconds, her head nodding. “But I feel safer with you, too. I don’t know what I did. I don’t know why someone targeted me. If I just knew what they wanted from me…..”
“Crazy doesn’t always come with an explanation,” Nick said flatly, leaning in and kissing her forehead. “Stay out of trouble, you two. I’m getting dressed and heading out so I can get back and work on those applications.” 43
Brea turned to watch him leave, the soft kiss making her frown, especially when Jase repeated it on the other side of her head.
“I’ll be ready in ten,” he promised, striding out without looking back at the confusion on her face.
Brea quickly had the stainless steel kitchen to rights. She’d opened cabinets and rearranged things, logically, nicely. Made everything tidy and efficient before going into the main area digging her wallet from inside her pack. As much as she wanted to, she really couldn’t let herself think about Jase and Nick. It confused her too much and she wasn’t up to more confusion in her life.
She stepped onto the porch for the first time and gazed around the large property. The fence looked normal enough with gates across the driveway in decorative and obviously deceptive wrought iron, just like the rest of the fence. It was a gorgeous location, she thought, dropping to sit on the top step.
She drew in several long breaths, wondering which of them had a little interest in the grounds. The garage appeared a huge three door number and was set back to the far right of the house. She walked down the few steps and wandered toward the garage. Going on tip-toes, she peered inside, jumping visibly when a strong pair of hands gripped her waist.
“Stand back and I’ll open it for you, Brea.” Nick’s breath tickled over her flesh, his voice sending a rush through her that had her swaying against him. There was a long, frozen moment when she felt his lips against her throat, a frozen moment when she felt his body surrender a shudder at the 44
same time she heard him slowly, very slowly draw in a long, deep breath.
Nick knew the delicate tightrope he and Jase were walking.
He knew no matter what their wolves told them, it was her choice to be theirs. It was her choice to be shared by them. But he and Jase also knew how important it was to their lives and were going to bring her along at her own pace.
But he also knew when the pair of them set their minds to something, they rarely lost. He hoped what they sensed was not only a naturally loving nature but an open mind to the possibilities.
She nodded rapidly and felt the heat of his body back from hers, letting her step to the side with him, only then noticing the remote in his fingers. Slowly, the doors of the garage began to rise, all of them at once. She heard the crunch of feet and turned to find Jase striding to join them.
“I’ll see about getting you keys, codes and a remote for the garages. Usually I open one at a time, if I know where the vehicle is I want,” Nick commented, lifting a jacket from the wall and a helmet before striding to the motorcycle, different than the one Jase had ridden the day before, this one was the same make, but the color was a deep vibrant red with black accents.
“We’ll take the SUV today,” Jase told her, taking her palm and guiding her to the far end and the deep green vehicle with tinted windows.
Brea looked over the smaller sports car, the two motorcycles and the large SUV, her head shaking. She knew exactly how Alice felt at the moment and she just wasn’t sure she’d landed her feet at the bottom of the rabbit hole yet.
“Be careful,” she said to Nick, waiting until he met her gaze, surprise there as he nodded and slipped the helmet over his head.
“You’re worried for him,” Jase led her to the passenger door, judging her height and the seat and nodding before striding to the driver’s side of the SUV.
“I worried for you yesterday,” her head shook as she settled into the well-padded seat, the belt snapped into place. “I don’t know how to protect myself let alone bringing both of you into the mess.”
“We’re probably a little more capable than you imagine, Brea,” Jase grinned at her, started the car and headed toward the drive, the doors all closing behind him as he followed Nick out to the road. They spilt off at the exit, Nick’s hand up in a salute of farewell as he raced toward town.
“I know. Big tough guys,” she sighed. “That doesn’t make it right. If I just knew why someone was after me, maybe it wouldn’t seem so crazy.”
“If what they wanted mattered, you would have sold everything and left town, like the notes ordered,” he commented casually, guiding them along the road toward the town fifteen minutes north.
“I’m not good with being ordered around,” she murmured, glancing up at his laughter. “You two are….happy. It’s nice.”
“Don’t be fooled, Brea. I think he only stopped hiding my coffee because you’re there,” Jase told her with a shake of his head. “Sometimes business stuff makes us…..far less than happy. Right now we’re adding staff because all our people are assigned and we’re getting more requests. Which is good for business.” 46
“What kind of business? Do you like it?” Brea shifted to the side, watching him.
She noticed the scar going front to back just beneath his ear and about two inches long. She noticed the way the thick strands of colors feathered against his head. Colors from deep gold to light brown to sun streaks of blonde. His hair was center parted and fell in a straight mass, only the cut keeping it under any kind of control. She’d seen that this morning when they both came to breakfast fresh out of bed.
“We do. It was a challenge to set it up and mostly operate it from the house.
We’re having an office built but it has a few days to go before we can start using it.
Occasionally one of us, or both will take on an assignment, at least we did in the beginning,” Jase recalled thoughtfully. “We still take assignments now and then, but we hire contract people and make them permanent as we can afford the expansion. And we provide specialized security teams for hire. Something we learned a lot about in the military.”
“Sometimes you two seem to move as one unit and other times,” Brea laughed.
“You’re so very different.”