Authors: RB Austin
“I’m not going to the HQ.” Sarid stood on the sidewalk, hand on the passenger side door of Lucas’s SUV that Gabe had opened for him.
You can’t leave. They’ll go after Mine. Hurt! Where’s Mindwipe? Maim! Where’d he go? Kill! He’s in there right now. Touching her. Touching her mind. I’ll destroy him. He’s hunting her down. Ripping the memories she has of us from her mind. I will make his blood run like a fountain.
Lucas was already in the front seat, and at Sarid’s declaration turned to stare at him through the open door.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,
,” Gabe said slowly.
The Other growled.
Of course he doesn’t. He’s in on it. Don’t you see? They’re all in on the plan. You must go now. Stop them from touching her. From hurting her. Kill! I’ll kill them all. The next time I’m free. They’re dead. I’ll play with their entrails. Wear them like jewelry.
Sarid said to the demon.
Cade won’t break his promise.
Mindwipe has her by now. He dragged her away. Touched her. Kill! Took her to an empty room. He’s reading her thoughts. Knows her deep dark secrets. Maim! Death is too good for him. I will keep him alive. I will make him suffer. He will know pain.
Sarid shifted from side to side. Glanced back at the hospital entrance. “Where’s Cade?”
Gabe and Lucas shared a glance.
“Didn’t you hear him, big guy?” Gabe said. “He’s going after the EMTs.”
Lies. They’re all lying. Go back. Check on her. We must protect her.
Why? What is it about this female?
The demon stilled.
I don’t know.
“. . . safer at the HQ,” Lucas said.
“It’s not safer,” Sarid said. “The Other is agitated right now. I’ll stay at my place in town.”
“Isn’t he normally quiet after an episode,” Gabe asked.
An episode. Like it was nothing more than a temper tantrum. But that was his fault. His brothers didn’t know the full truth. “The Other is unpredictable. I’ll go to my place.” He started to close the door.
“At least let us give you a ride,” Lucas called out. “Will you even make it a half-block before passing out? You need blood. Gabe and I will donate.”
Sarid paused, waited for the demon to offer his opinion.
Normally Sarid rejoiced when the demon was quiet. It was so infrequent. Today it filled him with dread.
But Lucas was correct. Sarid didn’t have enough strength to walk to his place, plus he needed blood.
“All right.” He got into the car, praying this wasn’t a mistake.
Asjhone had been walking toward the serving window when someone caught her hand.
“Asjhone.” The man’s voice had been deep, and caused shivers to run up and down her spine.
He’d worn a crisp white shirt that looked beautiful against his dark skin. A red tie. Dark gray suit jacket that had definitely not been off the rack. It was similar to the suits her father complained about wearing when Mother dragged him off to charity events.
Although the man in front of her, wearing this outfit, didn’t make her think of her father.
Her cheeks filled with heat. “Hello.”
“Come away with me.” His mouth lifted in a slow smile.
Did he realize that slow, inch-by-inch curl of his lips drove her crazy? She shook her head, smiled. When she tried to take her hand back, he clasped it tighter.
The man glanced over her shoulder. The lines around his eyes tightened. “Just for a drive,” he said, attention back on her. “I have a new car.” He tilted his head toward the front window. A black Porsche was illegally parked next to the curb.
Her lips pursed. “You’re going to get a ticket if you leave it there.”
She hid another shiver, then sucked in a breath when he moved closer. His face was inches away, his mouth even closer to her ear. “No one would dare.”
Doing her best to ignore the heat pooling in her lower body, she leaned back, raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
He opened his mouth.
“Asjhone! Your order.”
The man made a low sound under his breath. “I don’t like your boss.”
“It’s not his fault. I am working.” She tried again to pull her hand free.
He reached for her other one. Held them both. “Come with me. I want to take you for a drive.”
“I can’t. I have to work.”
He frowned. “When are you going to let me support you?”
She laughed, as she had the other five times he’d asked her that. They’d only met ten days ago.
“She gets off at eight,” Angelique said as she passed, arms loaded with plates.
The man brought Asjhone’s knuckles to his mouth. Gently brushed his lips against her skin.
Goosebumps broke out across her body.
“I’ll be back at eight. And I won’t take no for an answer.”
With one more kiss on the back of her hand, he walked out of the diner.
Through the window, Asjhone watched him slide into his fancy car. His profile was as exquisite as the full frontal.
Oh God, she had needed a fan or some ice water.
“Damn, girl,” Angelique had said from behind. “Why’d he have to sit in your section? You get all the luck.”
The rest of Asjhone’s shift at the hospital flew by. She’d been too busy to dwell on the mystery of Sarid.
A husband and wife were ambulanced in. Severe car accident. Wife was still in the ICU. The husband had died. A teenager accidently shot himself in the foot with his father’s gun. Forty-year-old male had fallen off a truck ramp and fractured his hip. A mother in early labor. One heart attack turned indigestion. The little girl from earlier that morning had an appendicitis, not the flu like Dr. Behall first thought.
By the time Asjhone opened her apartment door, she was ready for bed.
“Hi, Mom.” Keandre rounded the corner and flung himself at her legs. She moved her purse and keys to one hand and one-arm hugged her son. “Hey, lil’ man. What’s this for?”
“No reason. I just missed you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Now I know something’s up. What happened? What did you break?”
He screwed his seven-year-old face into an adorable pout that still managed to make her melt.
“Keandre. Stop buttering up your mother.” Mrs. B walked out of the kitchen, hands on her hips.
Mrs. B lived in the apartment, one floor up. She was a member of the church they attended, too. About eighty-years-old and a widow, her only child lived out of state with her military husband.
She was a godsend.
Asjhone dropped Keandre off at latchkey in the mornings before school. After school, Mrs. B met Keandre at the bus stop and stayed with him until Asjhone came home. No matter how often Asjhone offered, Mrs. B refused payment, saying she needed to stay busy.
“Can I stay with Devan when Mrs. B is away taking care of her sister? Please, Momma. Please.”
“Wait. What’s going on?” She raised her gaze to Mrs. B.
“My sister’s fallen ill.” The lines on the older woman’s face, especially between her eyebrows, grew more pronounced. “I hate to do this. I know it puts you in a spot, but I have to leave in the morning to take care of her.”
Asjhone blinked. Tomorrow? How could she find a babysitter for Keandre by tomorrow? “Your sister? The one who lives in Michigan?”
“Yes. She’s in the hospital right now. The doctors think it’s pneumonia.”
Could she call in? Get off early? That wouldn’t work indefinitely. Pneumonia in elderly patients meant a long recovery time. “Of course you need to go to her. Please keep me posted on her prognosis.”
“I’m so sorry to do this to you.”
Asjhone had been meaning to find a backup babysitter. Why’d she put it off? “Think no more of it. Keandre and I will be fine.”
“Yeah, Mrs. B—”
“Yes, Mrs. B,” Asjhone corrected.
“Yes, Mrs. B,” Keandre said. “Devan already said, his mom said, I could stay there after school.”
“We’ll talk in a minute. Give Mrs. B a hug. Wish her well.”
He threw his arms around Mrs. B. “I hope your sister gets better soon.”
“Thank you, Keandre. You be good for your momma now, here?”
Asjhone followed the older woman out the door. “Keep me updated. Let me know how your sister’s doing.”
Asjhone waited until the woman had entered the elevator before closing the door. What was she going to do?
She locked the handle.
His school did run an after school latchkey program.
Turned the two deadbolts.
She’d have to look at her budget.
Set the slide chain lock in its place.
Rearrange her monthly expenses.
Pushed the swing lock across the doorframe.
If things could be rearranged.
She rubbed her forehead. A headache was forming.
In the kitchen, she checked to make sure the windows were locked. A hard press on the locking mechanism to make sure it was in the correct position. Then a double-check by pulling on the window lip.
Once complete, she moved to the dining room window then the ones in the living room.
The combined square footage of those three rooms was smaller in size than her bedroom growing up. Asjhone heaved a sigh. Nothing like money struggles to bring the past to the forefront of her mind. Her eyes strayed to the vase on the entertainment center. It was fifteen inches high with an aboriginal style. The piece was one of a kind, sculpted from clay by a famous African artist.
Arms wrapping her middle, she moved down the hall to the bathroom.
Keandre came up behind her, bouncing the ball Santa had brought him. “Can I stay with Devan, Mom? His dad said if I come over he might be able to play basketball with me and Devan in the courtyard after he gets home from work.”
Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.
“Devan and I,” Asjhone corrected, stopping in front of the bathroom window. A press on the locking mechanism. Pull on the window lip.
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
She glanced over her shoulder, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, I mean. Devan and I.”
Asjhone walked into Keandre’s room, using her foot to scoot over the Legos on his floor.
Press then pull. She did this to both windows.
It said something about the crappiness of the carpet that Keandre could bounce his ball with ease. “What have I told you about playing ball in the house?”
He let it go once more before holding it in his arms. “Please, Mom. You know Devan. His mom said I can eat dinner there if I want.”
“I don’t have to, though. You can come pick me up when you get off work. He’s just in the next complex over.”
“I know where Devan lives, honey.”
“Then can I?”
She hesitated. “I don’t like how Mrs. Mackie allows you boys to play in the courtyard without supervision.”
“She opens her window. Says she can see us from the kitchen.”
“Let me think on it. I have to get dinner ready right now. Did you finish your homework?”
His shoulders drooped. “Not yet.”
“Looks like we both have things to do, then.”
Asjhone checked the windows in her room before changing out of her scrubs. She pulled on a pair of worn jeans and a light sweater. It was April, but some days were still a bit cool.
Thirty minutes later, they were at the table. Keandre’s math homework was pushed to the side. She’d warmed one of her pre-cooked meals for dinner. Chicken casserole, her mother’s recipe.
Keandre was pushing the carrots and peas off to the side with his fork.
“You’re going to eat half of those, lil’ man, if you want any dessert.”
He lifted his head. “Did you get Superman ice cream?”
“Sorry, buddy.” She ran a hand down his cheek. “I’ll get some the next time I get paid. Promise. But Mrs. B left us cookies. They look fresh.”
His gaze fell back to his plate. “Oh. Yeah, those are good. I had some after school.”
Disappointment flashed, but she pushed it away. “How was school today?”
“Good. Gym was fun. Ms. Massie let us play basketball. She’s pretty good for a girl.”
Asjhone raised an eyebrow. “For a girl? I’ll have you know there are many fine girl players in all sports.”
He took a bite of chicken. When he finished swallowing, asked, “Did my dad like to play ball when he was alive?”
Asjhone stilled. Then forced herself to respond. “Yes. He liked sports.”
“Did he play on a team before he went into the Marines?”
“No. He didn’t play on a team. Finish eating. If there’s enough time after your bath, we can play a game of Apples to Apples.”
Keandre’s eyes lit up. “Okay.”
“Don’t forget about those vegetables.”
His nose wrinkled, but he forked a carrot into his mouth.
Two hours later, Asjhone tugged the covers over Keandre’s pajama-clad body. His skin was still warm from the bath. She resisted the urge to pull him into her arms. After his first week of second grade, cuddling was suddenly for babies. She made do with running a hand over his head. He yawned widely.
“Did you feed Mr. Neon?” She glanced at the fish bowl on his dresser. Half the time his bright red and blue beta appeared dead. It rarely moved, unlike his previous goldfish.
He nodded. “So, can I go over to Devan’s tomorrow, Mom? I’ll be careful. I promise.”
She released a breath. “Sorry, buddy. Not this time. I have Saturday off of work. How about Devan stays the night on Friday? I’ll take you guys to the pizza place, and you can play in the arcade afterward.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “I don’t want to go to latchkey after school.” His lower lip quivered.
“I know, sweetie. I’m going to check with my boss. See if I can get off early.”
“But Devan’s mom said—”
“When did you speak to Mrs. Mackie?”
“Mrs. B did. She was talking to her when I got off the bus. Mrs. Mackie said she wouldn’t mind watching me.”
What? Mrs. B had discussed her and Keandre’s situation? With just Devan’s mom? Or others?
“You never let me do anything fun,” Keandre wailed.
She startled, staring down at her son.
“I never get to play outside after dinner. I have to be in before it gets dark. Now, I can’t go over to Devan’s house after school. You treat me like a baby. It’s not fair!”
“Enough! It’s time for bed. If you continue acting this way, you can forget about Devan coming over on Friday.”
Keandre flopped over onto his side, sobbing. “You’re so mean. I hate you. I wish my dad were here.”
Asjhone sucked in a breath, unable to speak for a moment. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Keandre.” Her voice was soft. She stood. Smoothed the covers over his body. “I love you. Have a good night and I’ll see you in the morning.”
She kept his door open a jar in case he called out in the middle of the night. Tears flooded her eyes, but she held them back. At one point all kids hated their parents, mostly when they didn’t get their way. It didn’t mean anything. And until Mrs. B came back, Keandre would probably hate her a lot.
If she left work early her pay would be docked. Then she’d worry about affording rent. Latchkey wasn’t expensive, but it wasn’t super cheap either. She’d have to put off getting Keandre a new pair of shoes. He’d already grown out of the ones she bought at Christmas. His pants were getting short, too. Another expense for the back burner.
Asjhone checked the locks on the front door, again, then the windows in the kitchen, dining, and living room.
Hopefully things would look better in the morning.
Yeah, and, maybe Keandre would pick up all the Legos on his floor without prompting.
Asjhone bolted upright, gasping for air. Her body trembled. Palms were damp. Shirt stuck to her chest from sweat. Out of bed, she raced into Keandre’s room, hardly feeling the small plastic toy under her bare foot.
Air released from her lungs in a loud whoosh. Keandre was still there. He was safe.
She stayed in his room. Watched his back rise and fall until her heart slowed. At his window, she pressed on the locking mechanism and pulled up on the lip. Performed the same at the second one. She tugged the covers back up to his shoulders, lightly touched his cheek, then left.
In her own room, she checked the one window before grabbing the book Tynice had lent her. A test on the bathroom windows, then the ones in the outer rooms. Finally, the door.
In the kitchen, she filled a glass with water from the tap and carried it and her book to the sofa. Twenty minutes later she closed the book with a loud sigh. Leaning her head against the cushion, she gazed at the ceiling. It was a good part in the book. The heroine had finally given in to her desires and had sex with the hot, wealthy playboy.
There used to be a time when she’d wanted her own hot, wealthy man. Now, not so much.
Although she wouldn’t say no to mind-blowing sex every once in a while.
She set the book on the coffee table and went into the kitchen, pulling out the ingredients for her grandmother’s chicken and dumplings.
Ninety minutes later the chicken was cooked, cooled, deboned, cut into bit size pieces, and placed inside a bowl with vegetables. The dumplings had also been cut, rolled, and placed in a separate container. She set both dishes in the fridge.
Another premade dinner.
Clean up lasted thirty minutes. Asjhone glanced at the clock on the stove before turning off the light in the kitchen. Her alarm was set to go off in an hour. Hopefully she’d be able to fall asleep for a bit of that time.