Authors: Teyla Branton
Tags: #sandy williams, #ABNA contest, #ilona Andrew, #Romantic Suspense, #series, #Paranormal Romance, #Contemporary, #Paranormal, #Romance, #Science Fiction, #woman protagonist, #charlaine harris, #Unbounded, #action, #clean romance, #Fiction, #patricia briggs, #Urban Fantasy
His blue eyes popped open and he choked on his yawn. “Erin? But you’re—”
He whooped and crossed the kitchen in four steps, swooping me up into his arms and twirling me around and around. He really had gained muscle if he could do that. “I can’t believe it. You’re alive! I thought I’d lost you!” He crushed me to him, tears coming fast.
It was the reaction I’d expected—craved—from Tom.
My mother was crying again, prying me from Jace’s grasp. She kept touching me all over, patting my arms and shoulders. Then I was in my father’s arms again, and back to Jace. It felt so good. For the moment, the disappointments I’d caused in the past didn’t matter. I’d done this thing right at least. I’d survived.
My grandmother entered the kitchen, still buttoning the top of her old-fashioned robe. Her gray eyes widened and she immediately began to sob. Then we were off again, hugging and crying.
My mother ran a finger across my left eyebrow. “Your eye. They said you’d lost all use of it. How could they be so wrong?”
That started another round of questions, but I refused to answer. “Wait for Chris.”
My mother squeezed my shoulder. “Let’s have something to drink. What would you like?”
I couldn’t very well tell her I’d like some curequick, though I was craving Cort’s mixture.
“Have a seat,” my grandmother said to Tom. “There’s a chair next to Erin.” She began making coffee, and as I breathed in, I felt the coffee, not only as a smell, but seeping into my body, and a bit of my tiredness vanished.
Tom sat by me, still wearing the stunned expression he’d had since I turned on the light at his house. His hand lay on the table, and I put mine over it. He didn’t respond. After a moment I took my hand away.
By the time Chris and Lorrie arrived, Grandma had made coffee for us, tea for herself, and had also filled the table with food that no one but Jace seemed to want. My father stood behind my chair, and my mother sat next to me. She said she’d thought I’d lost weight. After days of mostly only absorbing nutrients through my skin, she was probably right, but I told her it was because the new jeans were loose.
When Chris entered the kitchen, I noticed his blond hair was longer and darker than I remembered. How long had it been since I’d really seen him? His face was worried and lined and he looked every one of his thirty-eight years. When he saw me, his eyes, gray like mine, widened and his jaw went slack. Behind him, Lorrie, my blond-haired sister-in-law gasped. “Erin!” They hugged me, the questions flying around my head until I felt dizzy.
“Let’s all sit down,” I said. “I’ll explain everything.”
More chairs were brought in and somehow Tom and I were separated. It was just as well. His silence made me nervous.
“I need a knife,” I said.
Jace handed me a butter knife, but I took the cheese knife from the cutting board instead. I turned my palm upward and, my lip between my teeth, pressed the knife into the fat at the base of my hand.
“Erin!” my mother said sharply. My grandmother gasped, and everyone else stared at me as if I had gone crazy.
The knife wasn’t making very much headway on my skin, so I dragged it across, wincing as it finally brought blood, slicing deeper than I’d intended. Pain registered, making me suck in my breath. Boy, I was bad at this. I grabbed a bundle of napkins and pressed it against the wound.
My father grabbed the knife from the table where I’d dropped it, placing it beyond my reach. “Are you crazy?”
“It’s okay, Dad.”
“That’s going to need stitches.” My grandmother took off the napkins to examine the wound.
“It’s fine.” Already I could feel the flow of blood slowing. “Don’t worry. It’s part of the story.” I replaced the napkins and turned my hand palm down on the table.
A movement came from the basement stairway. I was the only one who saw it because everyone else was focused on me. I knew who it was—or at least I hoped I did. I jumped up from the table. “Come out,” I ordered.
Just in case, I reached for the cheese knife again.
Y FATHER HELD THE KNIFE
out of my reach, so I had no choice but to face the intruder unarmed. Murmurs swept through my family as Ava stepped into view, dressed similarly to me. She gave me a wry smile. “Hello, Erin.”
My grandmother stared at her. “What are
“You’re the woman from the hospital!” My mother arose and stood slightly in front of me, as though preparing to come to my defense.
“No, she’s my next-door neighbor,” my grandmother insisted. “She teaches martial arts. I took a class from her once. Why are you here, Ava?”
“Erin was about to explain,” Ava said calmly. “But it’s too dangerous for her to be out on her own, and by coming here, she has, unfortunately, put all of you in danger.”
“Are you threatening us?” My father took a step closer. “Maybe I should call the police.”
“You have that choice, but I hope you won’t. If you do, everyone here will probably die.” Ava looked at Lorrie. “Your children, too.”
Jace and Chris came to their feet, and I knew things were about to get ugly. After sparring with Ritter and seeing how they trained, I doubted all of us together had a chance against Ava.
“Wait,” I said, holding out my hands in a pleading gesture. “Please. Everyone, be calm and sit down. Ava isn’t going to hurt anyone.” I hoped that was true. She didn’t look angry, but she had followed me, after all. What would she be willing to do to keep me under her control?
“I hoped you’d trust me more, Erin,” she said, as if no one else were in the room.
“I couldn’t let them go on not knowing.”
She sighed. “You may come to wish you had.”
“Will one of you please tell me what is going on?” My father’s eyes were narrowed and his hand gripped the portable phone. “Or should I call the police now?”
I swallowed hard. “It’s okay, Dad. Please put down the phone. Everyone, I’d like you to meet Ava.”
“Ava O’Hare,” Ava added. “I’m Erin’s fourth great-grandmother—Chris and Jace’s, too—and I’m three hundred years old, give or take a few.”
More confusion erupted. My family was anything but quiet and docile. I could usually disappear in all their conversation. Or hide, rather.
“Stop!” I banged my hand on the table.
Everyone stared at me as though I’d grown two heads.
“Your hand,” my grandmother said. “Be careful of it.”
“I don’t have to.” I turned my hand over, holding it out for them to see. The bleeding had stopped completely and the edges of the cut had begun knitting together. Already the gash was noticeably smaller.
Complete silence fell—until my father said, “I think now’s a good time to tell us everything.”
I did, with Ava filling in the details, and by the time I finished, they were stunned and speechless, all but Jace, who thought it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever heard. “What about me?” he said, eyes bright with eagerness. “I’m only twenty-eight. Could I be Unbounded?”
Not knowing anything about the statistics of the Unbounded gene pool, I looked at Ava helplessly. “Even if both parents are Unbounded,” she said, “the offspring Unbounded rate is only thirty percent without genetic manipulation. With so many generations removed, the chance is much slimmer.”
“But it still happened.” Jace’s voice was full of wonder and hope.
“We’ll watch you for the Change, just as we did Chris and Erin.”
Chris and I both gave a start at the mention of his name, though I should have realized he’d been included in their observations.
My mother suddenly snapped her fingers. “I know where I’ve seen you before.”
“I told you—Ava’s my neighbor,” Grandma said.
“That’s not it. I remember seeing her when I was a child riding my bike.” Mother looked intently at Ava. “I didn’t see the car, but you did. You pushed me out of the way. The car hit you instead. At first we thought you were dead.”
“I remember that.” Grandmother stared in amazement at Ava. “I called the hospital later, and they said you’d been released. I was very relieved.”
Ava smiled at her. “I was in town because you were thirty. When you were little, you looked a lot like my first daughter. I probably visited Kansas more because of that.”
“So you’re saying,” Tom said, looking at me and not Ava, “that this woman doesn’t age—that you will never age, or not so we’ll notice. Does it mean you become stronger, too? Physically?” His mouth had a pinched whiteness about the edges and his voice was tight and hard. I’d never heard him sound so ill or controlled.
I didn’t know the answer, but Ava did. “Unbounded are generally stronger and have more endurance than they did before the Change because their cells are continuously regenerating.”
“Even if they don’t eat?”
“Unbounded are always absorbing. Food consumption is immaterial.”
Tom didn’t like that answer, but when I tried to catch his attention he didn’t seem to notice. He stared past me at something only he could see. Was he thinking about Justine? Or did he now regard me as some kind of a freak?
Silence again, and then my mother spoke, tears in her voice. “Why didn’t you tell us about Erin? It’s been so hard these past days.”
Ava sighed. “Because it’s not safe yet. Our enemies would be thrilled to get their hands on her—or any of you. But also because of the funeral. Do you know how difficult it’s going to be pretending to mourn, unable to tell anyone that Erin is very much alive?”
My father’s lip curled. “We’ll manage. But you need to understand right now that we refuse to be cut out of our daughter’s life.”
“That’s between you and Erin. She’ll be able to keep in contact by phone for now—as long as you don’t mention her name or anything related to the Unbounded.” Ava’s gaze met mine. “I’m sorry, Erin, but we need to leave. It’s vital that no one sees us here.”
Everyone stared at me, my mother looking ready to cry, and I knew the time had come to make a choice. I wanted more than anything to go downstairs to my familiar bed and curl up, forgetting any of this had happened. Or go somewhere with Tom and work things out. But I couldn’t. I’d fulfilled my goal of telling my parents and Tom that I was alive. They were okay, and now I had to discover where the rest of my life would take me. Even if it was away from them for a time.
I gazed at the healing cut on my hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll call you soon.” I expected an argument, especially from my father, or a guilt trip from my mother, but they were apparently too shocked for either. Everyone began hugging me goodbye.
Only Tom stayed apart, his lips clenched tightly shut, his face stony. When he walked out to the hallway, I followed. “I wish I could be at Justine’s funeral for you,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters.”
He grabbed my hand, turning my palm upward to expose the nearly healed cut. “The Erin I know would never do something like this. I don’t even know who you are anymore.” There was a trace of horror in his expression.
“I’m the same person. I still feel the same about you.”
“What, so you’ll be out fighting mysterious bad guys, repeatedly getting cut up or shot, disappearing for days on end—and all the while I’ll be at work selling stocks? Growing older every year? I’d be nothing more than useless baggage to you.” Something new in his demeanor now, something greedy, almost envious. Hateful. I was stunned with its intensity. In the months we’d been together, I’d never seen this side of him.
“So you were willing to stay by my side for months of recovery and operations, but all bets are off now that I’ll live longer than you will?”
“Look, I wish you well in your new eternal life, but let’s not pretend I can be a part of it.” He pushed past me roughly, heading toward the front door.
His rejection was like law school all over again. I’d given up then, unwilling to endure the disbelieving faces of my peers and the public disgrace inflicted upon me, but being Unbounded wasn’t something I could run away from—even if I’d wanted to.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I yelled after him. Because I felt there was more, though I couldn’t explain why, except that his loathing hadn’t seemed entirely directed toward me.
Jace appeared behind me, his arms sliding around my shaking body. “If he can’t accept this, he’s not worth it.”
I leaned back into his arms. Trust Jace to say what I needed to hear. Justine would have said something similar. She would have embraced this opportunity, not broken under it. That’s what I chose to do.
“This is your chance,” Jace added in my ear. “Your chance to do something big. To shine. You’ve always had it in you. Stop worrying about past mistakes. Stop worrying about our parents’ dreams for you. Do what
need to do. I’m so proud to be your brother. I wish I could go with you.” I clung to him. I wished he could, too.
“And by the way,” he added. “That thing with the knife. So cool.”
“I know.” I’d been showing off, and leave it to Jace to appreciate my effort.
“Erin.” Ava was waiting.
We took the downstairs exit and found Cort, Dimitri, and Ritter waiting for us in the backyard. Cort looked amused, while Dimitri appeared exactly the same as always—I guess after a thousand years, you aren’t easily ruffled. Ritter was squatted down in the grass, a machine gun slung across his chest, giving Max a good rub. Since Max normally barked like crazy at strangers and especially men with his bulk, this was amazing, but no more so than the relaxed expression on Ritter’s chiseled face. I wouldn’t have taken him for a dog person.