Authors: Karen Nichols
“Hey!” She slapped at his back, bare feet kicking out when Jase came casually from outside, looking at the pair with an arched brow.
“How’s the view up there?” Jase asked seconds before he found his arms filled when Nick leaned over toward him and dumped her against him.
“She didn’t want us to know she’s a girl warrior in Warcraft,” Nick commented, turning the monitor and showing him her character list. He moved the mouse, clicking and opening familiar screens to quickly read through the lists. “Nice armor, girl….you’ve been in a few epic fights.”
“Do – you – mind,” she asked chillingly, straightening her shirt when Jase lowered her feet to the floor and did nothing to hide his grin.
“Our peaceful little Brea? Warcraft? Seriously?” Jase walked around, his arm around her waist to stop her from grabbing the computer and closing the screen.
“I could poison you both!” She yelled with a burst of fury.
“You’d miss us,” Nick tossed back with a laugh. “An eighty-three priest and an eighty-four mage. Nice looking girl toons. Nice armor, too. High end stuff,” he looked over at Jase and gave him the title of the server she played on. “My, my, my……what other wonders do you have hidden from us, Breanna Cooper?”
“We can always use a good healer,” Jase commented thoughtfully, glancing down 59
at the woman who stopped wiggling. He bent his head next to the curious frown on her lips. “We play, too…..and a few other games.”
“It’s relaxing,” she said grudgingly, straightening her shirt again and checking the oven before going to her computer, glaring at them each as they wandered into the living area chuckling. She closed her computer down and went back to get the rest of the dinner started.
She had just put a thick towel over the bread when Nick came to the wide archway.
Nick stared at the traces of flour on her cheek and nose; the slim fingers coated with remnants of something that would probably taste delicious and that sweet bow of her lips in a little pout.
“The sheriff is here to talk to you about the fire, Brea,” Nick waited for her nod before leaving her to clean up. He was sitting behind his desk when she came in, bare foot and looking a little uncomfortable and lost. He didn’t like seeing her pale, even less, hands that had been sturdy and strong enough to shove at him half an hour ago now seemed to shake as she wrung them at her waist.
“Miss Cooper?” Wearing a gray and blue uniform, he stepped forward and held out his palm. “Sheriff Decker.”
“Breanna Cooper,” she said quietly, like most people, the sight and presence of the uniform and all it entailed enough to inhibit behaviors. She wasn’t sure what it was.
Maybe the fear of doing or saying something that would get her in trouble.
Jase was up from his desk after a quick look at Nick, his palm on her waist and 60
guiding her to sit down. He didn’t relish seeing her pass out and as pale as she was looking now, it was a definite possibility.
They knew to always watch one another to make certain they didn’t swamp her together in front of strangers. What they were willing to accept in the privacy of their own lives, wasn’t what the world would accept without ridicule and censure. They knew it would all be aimed at her, because no one would be willing to challenge either of the males in the relationship. And neither of them would put Brea in that position.
“Do I have to sign something? I don’t know what I can tell you,” Breanna drew in a long, slow breath. Jase stood behind her, his palms on her shoulders, thumbs gently massaging along the base of her skull. Soothing, calming her, she realized.
“I just have a few questions, Miss Cooper,” he pulled a notebook from a shirt pocket and opened it. “Mr. Gaines brought me copies of threats you’ve been receiving.
How often were they arriving?”
“Every morning on the door of my café,” Brea looked over at Nick, surprised. “I gave the first couple to the police….and I filed a report but,” she shrugged. “There really wasn’t much to go on, they told me.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“What…” she stared from one to the other.
“Tell him what happened when you went to open the café, Brea,” Nick said simply.
“Oh…it was just after five and someone hit me. I didn’t see anyone. No one spoke….” Her hand went up, touching just above her ear where the bump had been. “It 61
was fuzzy after that….I remember the fog and I remember a hard…hard surface and smells….fuel….I think I was in a trunk,” she whispered, eyes wide as she tried to see what she’d refused to before now. Brea stared at the floor, at the heavy boots on the sheriff. “Then it was cold. Very cold….I felt my feet moving….and I could smell the ocean. I could hear the waves and birds…..gulls….” she lifted her wrist, one hand rubbing the place that had been scarred and now showed no signs of it having been there at all.
“I saw three people walking out on the sand that morning,” Nick picked up the story. “Only the one in the center was being carried between them and then left on the beach. The storm was coming in when we ran out to see if she was hurt.”
“You found her on the beach?” Decker looked from one man to the other, his face expressionless.
“The car was a deep red, and older model four door sedan,” Jase told him, not backing away from the look they were being given. “We found her there, unconscious and brought her back here. Then the storm hit so we didn’t go out again and she didn’t wake up for a few hours to tell us what had happened.”
“I see….” He looked back at Brea. “Miss Cooper….can you think of anyone…any reason for these notes? The demands that you leave town?” He’d done his own checking on the thirty year old woman and had come up blank. Completely.
“I don’t know. I don’t have the kind of life that people care about,” Brea opened her hands and stared at her palms, her head shaking.
“Miss Cooper….you’re a beautiful woman….”
“Me?” The high squeak bubbled out before she could stop it, staring up numbly at the sheriff. Was he blind?
“As I said, Miss Cooper, you are and can easily be described as a stunningly beautiful woman. Perhaps a companion….an ex relationship that the man didn’t want to end….”
“The last time I had a boyfriend I was fifteen and he wanted my father to give him a good grade in physics,” she interrupted with a little snarl. “I know what I look like. I know that there is no previous relationship in my life, aside from a few friends and my parents. I know my life. I don’t know why anyone is messing with it, believe me, if I did, you would know because I am a precise and efficient person who doesn’t like having my life turned upside down on the whim of some psycho. I have a simple life. I love my shop, I love running the beach and woods and I love cooking. Period.
End of life.”
Jase worked to keep his laughter inside, his hands gently massaging her neck.
He knew if he looked over at Nick, he’d lose it.
“Mr. Bishop and Mr. Gaines both place you here at the time your café was set on fire,” the Sheriff said after a long minute to regroup. “We can’t identify the accelerant used to ignite the blaze, but our people are still working on it. I have the fax number here and will send you a copy of the police report for your insurance but at this point, you’re not a suspect and we’re still investigating. If you receive any more threats or someone contacts you, please let me know,” he reached into his shirt pocket and handed her a card.
“Thank you. I’m sorry about….” Brea sighed. “I’m a little stressed. Oh, god! My bread!” She was up and out of the room at a fast clip, thrusting the card into Jase’s hand before disappearing into the kitchen.
“She cooks when she’s stressed,” Jase offered with a half shrug.
“Have you known Miss Cooper long?” The older man looked from one to the other, waiting.
“Several months,” Nick answered, lying smoothly. “Finding her on the beach was a bit of a shock. It’s like she says, Sheriff. She doesn’t have the kind of life to be pushed from a town. Between here and Aftport, I’m not sure you’ll find anyone with a bad thing to say. Brea pretty much stays in her own little world.” The sheriff nodded, his head shaking.
“But you don’t know much about her parent’s death.”
“Brea thinks she’s tough and should handle everything without her friends, Sheriff,” Jase said tonelessly, glancing toward the kitchen. “She’s stubborn and independent. Not altogether bad traits in a person. But not great for information gathering.”
“I checked into the death of her parents as you requested, Mr. Gaines,” the Sheriff turned to Nick. “No bodies were identified. And the same type of accelerant was used. Miss Cooper was in the middle of her shop from five-thirty until we went to her just after three and has customers and staff more than willing to vouch for her. I believe the shop closed for several days. The case hasn’t been closed. The medical examiner and our office found traces of blood and…..they made assumptions. I know 64
she held a funeral. I also know it was private and just her. I can’t say the office is suspicious of her as a suspect, but I can’t say they’ve ruled her out, either. Problem is, there’s no motive to point to her. We couldn’t find anyone, and I mean anyone, who had ever seen a hint of discord in their relationship. Her parents doted on her and have since they moved here almost thirty years ago. Their reputation with the school was well respected and the only time Breanna was away from the area was when she attended school.”
“No bodies,” Nick said thoughtfully. “So no death certificate issued.”
“She hasn’t requested one, either.”
“She wants her parents, not their stuff,” Jase said quietly.
“I obviously didn’t get anywhere with Breanna, but you can’t tell me there isn’t a disgruntled ex somewhere in her background,” the sheriff looked from one to the other.
“We don’t know. Honestly,” Nick held up both palms. “I’m sure you ran a basic check and spoke with people after the invasion and death of her parents. What’d you turn up?”
“Just what she said,” he shook his head in frustration. “She’s never had an ex and if that isn’t damned odd, I don’t know what the hell is,” he closed the notebook and shoved it into his shirt pocket. “I’ll be in touch and you have my card,” he nodded toward Jase. “And I’ll keep an eye out for the car….problem is…”
“It’s tourist season,” Jase answered for him, accepting his nod. “We’ll watch out for her, Sheriff, thanks.”
Jase tossed the card to Nick’s desk and sunk into his own desk chair.
“That went better than I thought it might,” Nick looked toward the kitchen. “She honestly doesn’t see….”
“I’ve got a theory on that….but I’ll wait until Mariana is here,” Jase listened to the music coming from the kitchen. “We need to find her parents, Nick. Someone is trying to isolate Brea. Taking everything away from her, but for what?”
“I thought that, too and I started a few inquiries when I was there this morning.
Someone wants the entire family gone,” Nick tapped the page he’d printed. “I have someone checking where they were originally from. Expect an answer in a few days.
It’ll take time since all it was happened thirty years ago.” He looked over at his friend.
“What’s the theory?”
“Mariana will have to confirm it, Nick, but I think she’s had a snare placed around what she sees. I don’t think she sees her appearance. I also think there was a glamour placed on her,” Jase leaned forward, elbows on his knees and hands in the center. “If they were placed there by her parents….and six weeks ago – for whatever reason – they weren’t conscious enough to keep them in place – things began to slowly fade. Brea made the comment that six weeks ago, guys she’s known all her life suddenly found her attractive and began asking her out. She said it completely freaked 66
her out,” Jase looked up at Nick.
“So her parents altered what the world saw….”
“Taking a guess…..to keep her safe. But we don’t know from what yet,” Jase said quietly.
“But with obvious need, judging by what’s happened since their protection vanished.”
“So we need Mariana or her parents,” Jase leaned back, his head hanging and eyes closed. “I still can’t sense anything but human. Can you?” He looked up long enough to see Nick shake his head. “But it’s obvious her parents were some breed with magic in them.”
“And to protect her, they virtually kept her ignorant of her heritage,” there was a hard edge to his comment.
“Ignorant but alive,” Jase returned without hesitating.
Nick pushed a long breath between his lips. “That’s hard to argue. I just don’t know how Brea will take it. I get the idea that honesty is vital to her.”
“Honest, but she’s also rational and practical. Her parents raised her kind and giving and loving,” Jase shrugged. “I don’t see her finding fault with the decision they made to keep her safe, if unaware.”
“Lord, the woman can cook,” Nick inhaled the spicy scent of herbs that hinted at Italian. “And sing.”
“I noticed,” Jase made some comments on a page he was reading through. He looked up at the clock on his computer and scowled. “I’ll start setting appointments for 67
first interviews for Thursday.”
“How does she react?”
Jase looked up at him.
Clarification wasn’t needed. He knew exactly what his friend was asking.
“Surprise. Confusion. She doesn’t understand why we’re affectionate, but I get the impression affection wasn’t absent in her life, just not with her as the center with a male,” Jase scowled at his own words. “I don’t think she’ll ever see herself as the world sees her, Nick. But the interesting thing about that is she doesn’t see us that way, either.”
“I know,” he nodded with a slow, contented grin. “In the end it doesn’t matter what the world sees, but what we see and feel.” Jase didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
It was interesting to wander into the kitchen and find a large bowl of fruit in the center of a table now covered with a brightly colored cloth with tiny blue and white checks. He stood there biting into the large apple when Nick came up from the side.
“Where is she?”
“The back yard. I heard her mumbling something about a neglected garden and then there was slamming and metal on metal and I think I might have figured out what she is,” Jase walked quietly to the back door, both of them watching the woman raking and digging; spreading grains of a nutritional organic fertilizer over the large bed and mixing it into the soil. “Look at the bed she’s already finished.”
“How the hell…” Nick looked from the tiny green sprouts to Jase.
“Fae…..but I think mixed with something else. Depending on what, the power she wields could be what someone is willing to kill for,” Jase said softly.
“Fae.” Nick looked out, watching her use a small three pronged fork to turn the soil and break it up with her other hand. “It explains the things floating. Taking a guess on the mix?”
“Not a fucking clue. But it’s obviously something that scares some group enough to want her and her family gone, not to mention whatever clan or cluster at their previous home in North Carolina.” Jase leaned a shoulder into the door jamb, arms up and crossed over his chest. “How do you think Mrs. Aimes will take it?”
“Brea?” Nick looked surprised at the question. “Probably drop to her knees and beg her to never leave us to our own devices again.” This brought a laugh from them both. “Brea said there are stacks of clean clothing on the table in the laundry room. She doesn’t know who belongs to what, so we’re to sort and take. I told her no problem.”
“Easy enough,” Jase straightened slowly.
“She’s not aware of the magic seeping free.”
“She’s spent her life being made to be oblivious to it in any form. Be glad it’s seeping instead of exploding,” Jase shook his head and decided a work break wasn’t such a bad thing, heading to the back to collect his clothing. He caught sight of the bags on Brea’s bed. “She doesn’t know?”
“Pretty sure we would have heard the squeals,” Nick chuckled.
“The healing power she has…..to heal her wrists while semi-conscious….” He said in awe.
“There’s some powerful mix inside her, Jase. Instinct guides all of us at some point. I’m just glad it chose that time to push to the surface and keep her from bleeding out before we got to her.”
“You think her parents might be alive?”
“I think it’s possible. But they were hurt to the point they couldn’t go to her and keep the magic around her to keep her hidden. In which case, it’s started seeping and now someone knows where she is. They’re in hiding somewhere, we just have to figure out a way to let them know she’s safe and where she is,” Nick carried his own clothing to his bedroom, deep in thought.
It was six when she called them to dinner using the intercom Jase had demonstrated to her. Nick was in the garage working on his motorcycle and Jase had been in the workout room at the back of the garage. Brea had to admit, it was very satisfying to cook in such a well-equipped, modern kitchen. Not to mention two men who oozed appreciation for her skills.
She listened to the little voice reminding her that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. And if these two were any indication, it seemed a really easy path to follow, she thought, chuckling to herself when they took their seats and just stared.
First at her, then at the table.
“Is something wrong?” Her nerves bounced, trying to read their expressions.
“Lasagna?” Jase spoke almost reverently.
“You made us lasagna and garlic bread,” Jase felt his mouth watering and gave 70
in to it, taking one of the fat sticks with a slice down the center, garlic and butter mingling when he took a large bite.
“And salad,” she said carefully, drizzling balsamic vinegar over the greens and filling her plate before taking a small slice of the pasta oozing cheese and sauce.
Nick didn’t wait for a verdict since Jase was already lifting a large slice of the pasta to his plate.
Brea relaxed when they both sighed and looked at her like she was a goddess.
They talked about the insane demands of some clients, laughing and eating through the meal. They decided that no matter the type of work, humans managed to make things interesting and a pain in the ass all at the same time.
Brea had the left over lasagna, which was only two slices, in a container and in the fridge; the four left over breadsticks were in a bag beside it. She considered it a good meal when most of it was gone. She wasn’t sure how, but the three of them managed to work at cleaning up the dishes and starting the dishwasher without crashing into one another, though the joking between the men had her almost bent over laughing. They were like a couple teenagers instead of men running a very successful business based on personal security.
They ordered her out of the kitchen and finished cleaning things, both of them at their desks when she came out of her bedroom almost the instant they sat down. Both looked up from the papers they were reading through, the stormy expression on her face telling them to go back to work without asking.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she informed them, though her attention was on 71
Nick this time. She didn’t waiver; standing there hip cocked to the side, arms crossed over her chest and one foot tapping. She watched them look at one another and then back at her. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, either.”
“Just think of it as Christmas,” Nick told her, going back to reading the application in front of him and working to keep the grin hidden.
“That’s seven months from now,” came the flat answer, her glare unwavering.
“Your birthday,” Jase offered, his eyes lowered to papers he’d been reading through.
“Two months ago. You are not listening to me.”
“We heard everything you said, Brea. We can afford it. You don’t have anything,” Jase looked up, one brow arched high. “Of course, if you’d rather run around the house naked because all your meager closet is in the washing machine, who are we to argue?”
“Duck,” Nick suggested with a low chuckle. Watching when Jase looked toward him and didn’t duck. The pillow hit him in the back of the head, bounced and landed behind him. The sound of a slamming door came next. “Our kitten has a temper.”
“And a damn good throw,” Jase chuckled, printing out questions in the margin of an application and tossing it to the reject pile.
They worked quietly for several minutes before the familiar beep had them both up and moving down the hall in time to see a pair of very brief running shorts and a lycra half-top take off down the path behind the house. They stood silent, watching the ponytail moving and the long, long legs taking lengthy strides. They watched the 72
bouncing behind that finally made them both groan when she was out of sight.
“No shit. I think I’ve had a hard-on since we found her,” Nick commented with a low breath pushed between his lips.
“Thanks for the visual.”
“And you haven’t?” He snorted.
“I’m just choosing not to share the visual.” Nick reached for the doorknob only to come up short when Jase’s hand closed over his wrist. He looked back to see the shaking head.
“We can’t cage her, Nick. We’ll lose her.” He watched his friend weigh his words.
“We talked about the fence and the alarms. I asked her not to use her own debit or credit cards for a week until we’re sure someone isn’t tracking her. Since we shopped in Aftport and she talked to one of her friends, it’s going to trickle through that she’s alive and well. I told her about the paths running the property, so I think we have to let her behave as normally as we can until we have this mess figured out. We need to find a way to put a tracer on her. What does she wear all the time?”
“That bright neon green watch,” Nick said after picturing her in his mind. “I’ve got just the thing for the band. Will you tell her?”
“We’ll both tell her.” Jase pulled his palm back and rubbed his neck. “Have you looked at the things she planted?”
“Yeah….four inches of growth on seeds just put in and watered. Definitely Fae.”
“Do we know anyone in the breed?” He watched Nick close one eye.
“Your mom knows a lot of them in that pottery guild thing she belongs to,” Nick listened to the groan from Jase as they walked back toward their office. Jase continued on to fill a cup with fresh coffee.
“You know she’ll ask questions,” Jase finally said, carrying the coffee back to his desk and meeting Nick’s gaze.
“Until we have something permanent and we talk to Brea about how she wants it handled, you can be vague. A friend of a friend,” he watched the grey eyes roll back.
“Oh, yeah, that always works with my mother. Mention female and the word friend in the same sentence and it’s like radar takes over,” Jase said flatly. He let his head fall back before lifting the headset to their home phone and tapping in the number. The expected exuberant greeting didn’t fail to make him smile.
“Jase! This is a nice surprise at the end of the work week,” Annie Bishop smiled broadly as she manipulated the fine brush over the inlaid design on the plates she was working on for a client.
“Why do you always make it sound like I never call?”
“Hmm…testy…..and even a little evasive,” Annie stared at the design and chose another color. “So tell me how the business is going? I heard from several friends who love the security you’ve provided them for events. I’m so proud of both of you. Is Nick there?”