Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
A wry smile tips the corners of his mouth. “I do believe Culebra and I have been telling you the same thing for a year and a half. You accept a stranger’s word but not ours. I should be hurt.”
“You’re right. I should have listened to you. I admit it.”
“You say that now,” he says. “But will you remember the next time I give you advice?”
Frey laughs. “At least you’re being honest.” Then he sobers. “Thank you for what you tried to do—bring John-John’s mother back.”
We lapse into a comfortable silence. The crackling of the fire, the heartbeat of rain on the windows, the tinkling of the wind chimes, all lull me into a cozy warm cocoon, and before I realize it, my eyes have closed. I feel Frey lean over, take the glass from my hand. His lips brush my forehead and as if from far away, a whisper.
“I’ve missed you, Anna.”
From the warm, soft bubble of twilight sleep, I feel my lips curl into a smile. “I missed you, too, Frey.”
Then I let go and fall into full night.
* * *
SOMETHING CUDDLY AS A PUPPY HAS CRAWLED UP ON the couch and is snuggling down beside me. When I open my eyes, the top of John-John’s head rests just under my chin. I don’t let him know I’m awake. I wait. Then, I pounce, tickling his tummy until he’s laughing so hard, we both tumble off the couch in a tangle of waving arms and legs.
When I look up, Frey is standing over us, hands on hips. “What’s going on?”
He’s dressed and when I glance at the clock on the mantel, I’m shocked to see it’s already eight.
I hoist John-John and slide back onto the couch. In unison, John-John and I say, “Nothing.”
He shakes his head. “Ready for some coffee?”
“Me, too?” From John-John.
“No,” Frey answers in a parental tone. “It’s milk for you.”
John-John and I follow Frey into the kitchen where the table has already been set for breakfast. I can tell which is my place. There’s only a mug on the placemat. But for once, I’m not self-conscious. John-John knows and accepts what I am. Something his mother certainly didn’t.
That thought brings a wave of shame. How can I fault her when I’m the reason she’s dead.
You’re not, you know.
A small, childish voice penetrates my thoughts.
Sani explained it all to me.
John-John’s voice in my head surprises me. I can’t believe I’d forgotten. Frey and I have no psychic link. I broke it through a stupid act of impulsiveness. But John-John can hone in on my thoughts. And he has. Color floods my face, hot with humiliation.
Frey, who caught his son’s message to me, comes to stand beside my chair. “John-John is right. What happened to Sarah was tragic. But it was not your fault.”
He’s holding a bowl of oatmeal and a pitcher of milk. He sets the bowl in front of John-John, passing a hand gently over the top of his son’s head. “We know she’s at peace. John-John is safe.”
With the resiliency of childhood, John-John’s thoughts brighten and he starts to work on the oatmeal. Frey brings a coffeepot to the table and pours us each a cup.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says after a moment. “How about the three of us take that trip to Legoland today?”
John-John’s high-spirited whoop is matched decibel for decibel by my own.
REY AND I CHASE JOHN-JOHN ALL OVER LEGOLAND. I grew up with Disneyland being the theme park of choice so this is a new adventure for me, too. It’s amazing how much energy a four-year-old has. Even with a vampire’s constitution, it’s work to keep up.
But it’s fun. Especially the Raptor Splash where John-John and I take on Frey—pelting him with water balloons from our battle station launcher. We come off that ride soaked to the skin and laughing our heads off.
Of course that necessitates a shopping trip for dry clothes, it being January and all. Great marketing ploy, that. When the three of us exit the Brick Brothers Trading Company we look like true California surfer dudes: John-John and Frey in their Quiksilver Diplo pants and tees and me in my Roxy hoodie and jeans.
Then, after still more rides, it’s a trip to the Big Shop. John-John picks out a Dino-themed Lego set to take back home with him. And at last the kid shows signs of tiring. His squeal on the rides is a little less piercing, his gait a little less frenetic. Like a spinning top winding down, he finally looks up at Frey and holds out his arms. Frey hoists him onto his shoulders and, armed with packages and souvenirs, we wearily and thankfully make our way back to the car.
As soon as we get to the condo, John-John crawls onto the couch and falls fast asleep. Frey lifts him up and carries him to the bedroom while I pour us each a glass of wine.
One glass, I tell myself. One glass and then I’m going home.
When Frey returns, I hand one of the glasses to him, echoing out loud what I’d been thinking a moment before. “One glass. Then I have to leave.”
“Why? It’s early.”
I point to the couch. “Any more than one and I’ll end up falling asleep again.”
“So? You looked pretty comfortable on that couch.”
“No. If I stay, you’ll tempt me with a trip to SeaWorld tomorrow and then I’ll miss another day of work. I have to at least check in. And Stephen is coming home in a few days and I—”
Something dims in Frey’s eyes. He turns away and sinks down onto the couch.
Frey takes a long pull of his wine and avoids looking at me. After a moment, his shoulders seem to relax and his expression softens. “How is Stephen?”
“And the two of you . . . ?”
“Are we making it work? I think so. There’s something about a life-and-death battle against a godlike demon that tends to bring people together.”
My attempt at humor is obviously lost on Frey. No smile. Under his breath, I hear him say, “You and I have fought a few demons together, too.”
No response except, “So it’s over with the tribunal?”
“How did you know—?” I stop. “Of course. You’ve been talking to Culebra.”
“We’ve kept in touch.”
“Yes. Belinda Burke and the tribunal are finally behind us.” I mentally cross my fingers. Belinda Burke? That bitch is undisputedly dead. But the tribunal? I can only hope.
Frey lets another long moment pass. “John-John had fun today, didn’t he?”
“He’s such a great kid.”
“I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my decision to stay on the reservation. It’s one of the reasons I brought him here.”
“You’re thinking of moving back?”
“Not full time. I would never cut John-John off from his grandparents or force him to leave the only home he’s ever known. But maybe we could split our time. Stay here for the school year and spend winter and summer breaks on the reservation.”
“That would be so great.”
“Kayani is willing to take care of the horses and the house while we’re here. I’ve spoken to him about it already. He thinks it would be good for John-John to broaden his horizons.”
“And John-John? What does he think?”
“I haven’t talked to him yet. I wanted to give him a chance to experience life in the big city for a week or so. It’s quite a change from what he’s used to. He may not like it. And it’s as much his decision as mine.”
I nod. Then, “What’s the other reason?”
“You said rethinking your decision to stay on the reservation was one of the reasons you’re here. What’s the other?”
He stares into the fire, and something in the set of his jaw gives it away. Still, I won’t say it first. I can’t.
Frey lets another long moment pass. “You,” he says at last. “I came back for you.”
His words hang in the air. They may as well be in blazing neon over the fireplace.
I don’t know what to say. So, for once, I exercise restraint and say nothing.
Frey looks up at me from his seat on the couch. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
Still, no intelligible response springs to mind.
Frey smiles. “I’ve rendered you speechless.”
I drop down beside him. “You have.”
He releases a deep breath. “I realize you and Stephen have gotten close. But he’s human. Do you really think you can make it work for the long term?”
“Can anyone make anything work long term? My parents are the only couple their age I know that have been together as long as they have. And that wasn’t easy. I remember how hard it was after my brother died. And there were other times. Things my parents didn’t know I knew. My father had an affair once. I thought he’d broken my mother’s heart into so many pieces, she’d never be able to put it back together. But they survived. They got stronger.”
“Because they loved each other.” Frey’s soft voice is like a caress. “No one exasperates me the way you do. Or tests me the way you do. Or completes me the way you do. You have the most generous heart of anyone I know. I want John-John to learn from you. I can’t think of a better role model. It took being away from you to make me realize how much I need you to be part of our lives.”
His words slow, then stop abruptly. He’s facing away from me as if afraid to see how I’m reacting. He shouldn’t worry. I’ve never been so touched. I turn his chin gently so I can read his eyes.
“I will always be a part of John-John’s life. As long as you let me. I love that little boy.” I let my hand drop and the motion makes light reflect off Sani’s ring, a spark that seems to penetrate the haze of confusion whirling in my head.
“You and I have been close for a long time. We’ve been through a lot together. You are the one I go to when I’m in trouble and you’ve never turned me away. Maybe you think you’re in love with me. But you’re emotional now because of John-John and the huge responsibility you’ve taken on.”
Frey stirs, ready to respond, but I have to get this out.
I place a finger over his lips. “It would be easy after a day like today to jump into a relationship with you. You and John-John are the family I can never have. But I want more. I want a partner who loves me the way my father loves my mother. Is it Stephen? I don’t know yet. It’s still too new. But I don’t think it’s you. Not now. Not yet.”
The corners of Frey’s mouth turn up in a wry smile. He kisses the tip of my finger. “Should I have started off with ‘I love you’?”
“It would have helped.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close. I don’t resist but let my head rest against his chest. “Does that mean you’ll still go on play dates this week with John-John and me?”
I close my eyes, breathing in his smell, listening to his heart, nestling closer. Feeling safe. “Try and stop me.”
* * *
REMARKABLY, WE MANAGE TO GET THROUGH THE NEXT few days of Frey’s visit without another bombshell being dropped. I handle my office thing in the mornings (even fugitives lay low during the holidays), and the afternoons are spent showing John-John around San Diego. He loves the ocean, is spellbound by it. The weather cooperates by giving us two afternoons of bright sun so we can gather seashells and make sand castles. By the end of each day, his little fists are full of treasures that he can take home with him. Tiny shells, glass polished by the sea, a perfect starfish. In my mind’s eye, I picture these prizes on the bookcase in his living room, next to the pictures of his mother, and bits of rocks and feathers he’d gathered on his daily rides. It makes me happy to know this visit will become part of his memories, too.
But then I am alone, sitting in my car, staring at the ring on my hand. I’ve just dropped Frey and John-John off at the airport. We parted with hugs and kisses and, like another family departure just a while ago, promises of visits to come.
I like the sound of that.
The airport security guard is approaching, waving and telling me to move on. It snaps me back and I put the car in gear. Time to get back to another reality.
Stephen will be home tomorrow.
HE COTTAGE IS SPIT-SHINED. CLEAN SHEETS ON the bed, fresh towels in the bathroom, some cheese and bread in the refrigerator in case Stephen is hungry, a new exotic preparation guaranteed to make that big moment even bigger sitting on the nightstand.
I’m looking at that now, shaking my head. This may be overkill. We’ve never needed any outside stimulant to make that big moment bigger. I’m not sure we could take it if it did.
I slide it into a nightstand drawer, feeling foolish for having spent money on such nonsense.
Besides, I’m more than ready for Stephen. We’ve been apart for two weeks.
For the tenth time in as many minutes, I glance at my watch. I’m picking him up at the airport at two. It’s one. I’m nervous—no, it’s more like
, and I have no idea why. Since we met, we’ve been inseparable. Only when he’s sent on assignment, like this one with the president, have we slept apart. When he’s in town, we’re either at my place or his. Every night.
I suppose we’re in that first flush, “can’t get enough of each other” phase. We met under very unusual circumstances. Stephen had been kidnapped by the tribunal—still not exactly sure what that bunch is all about—to ensure my presence at a trial where I had to defend myself against a charge of murder. The victim? The black witch Belinda Burke. It didn’t exactly turn out the way my “prosecutor” intended. In fact, when all the facts were known, he was in as much trouble as I was. But as is so often the case with otherworldly beings, it didn’t end with a verdict of not guilty. That same prosecutor attacked Stephen and me when we returned to Earth. We killed him together.
That’s what I meant when I told Frey a life-and-death battle against a godlike demon tends to forge bonds. During the entire time we were together on that “adventure,” Stephen didn’t flinch or turn away from what I was. And when we were safe, back on Earth, he stayed with me.
Is that love?
I think so . . .
I don’t know.
Damn it, Frey.
I give myself a mental thump. Bringing John-John here, giving me a glimpse of what the three of us could share, has burrowed into my subconscious like a tick. Frey is smart. He knew exactly what he was doing. After that one conversation, he never again mentioned love or sharing a life with him. He didn’t need to. The time he and John-John and I spent together was magical. It implanted the notion that it was possible for me to have a family, a family that included a child. A notion I’d given up on.