I kept adjusting the hem on the midnight-blue dress; the damn thing wouldn’t stay down. I wondered why the hell I had decided to wear a dress in a first place. I looked ridiculous. I never should have come. What if she doesn’t want to see me? Dress back in place, I resituated the pie in my hands and debated whether I should turn tail and run. The pie was warm against my fingers, a stark contrast to the winter air around me, giving me goose bumps along my bare legs. I’d warmed the store-bought peach pie in my apartment oven before coming over, and even placed it in a stoneware dish to give the impression that it was homemade, not that she’d believe it. Marion knew me well enough. It was the thought that counted, though, and I for one knew that I couldn’t bake a pie to save my life.
Before I could make up my mind to stay or go, the door swung open and I froze, caught like a deer in the headlights. Marion Sanborn looked tired. Her graying hair was pulled back in a tight knot, her glasses resting on the bridge of her nose as she looked out at me standing nervously on her doorstep with a pie in my hands while wearing a damn dress in the middle of winter. I pressed my heel into the doormat, trying to get the clumps of snow off. I was grateful that it wasn’t currently snowing or I’d have to dust snow from my hair too.
Stupid heels, what was I thinking? My eyes wandered as I tried to come up with the right words to say. How did I convey just how sorry I was without making her hate me even more?
“Aria, you’re here,” she said. Without another word, she wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug I hadn’t been expecting and ushered me into her home, away from the bitter cold.
“I…umm…” I stuttered, words unable to form.
“Hush, dear, just come have seat.” She took the pie from my hands, setting it aside on a nearby table that was littered with casseroles, pies, plates of cookies, and other baked goods. I supposed everyone else who’d come to pay their respects had thought food would help. I wasn’t sure why I’d brought a pie, but it had seemed like the right thing to do. Now I felt like an idiot. Food didn’t replace a husband.
Mike’s funeral had taken place a little over three weeks ago. Looking at the array of food on the table made me realize just how much he’d been loved. I’d gone to the funeral and watched from a distance, too afraid to face Marion. Too ashamed of the role I’d played in his death. I blamed myself, and rightly so. He’d still be here if it hadn’t been for me.
I took a seat on the cream-colored sofa Marion directed me towards and folded my hands in my lap while she hurried into the nearby kitchen. I could hear the refrigerator open and a cupboard close. I did my best not to fidget while I waited for her return. Finding a stray fiber on the arm of the sofa, I nervously pulled at the thread in an effort to distract myself. For once, my pyrokinesis was staying silent, no sudden urges to light furniture on fire, which was a relief. Ever since Mike’s passing, I’d had less and less control over my abilities. I knew a good part of it was my grief and frustration, but the lack of control was beginning to take its toll. I was glad that for once it was staying dormant when I needed it to.
The aroma of coffee filled the air. A few minutes later, Marion emerged from the kitchen with two steaming mugs in her hands.
“Here, dear, drink this.”
I gratefully accepted the mug of coffee she handed me, allowing the warmth to seep into my body as I brought the cup up to mouth and took a tentative sip. Coffee always had a soothing effect on me. I was grateful that like me, Marion was a coffee drinker despite the time of day. I watched Marion over the rim of my coffee cup as she took a drink as well. She didn’t seem angry as I’d expected. Only sad. My heart ached at the thought of what she must be going through. My eyes scanned the photos lining the living room walls, landing on Mike and Marion’s wedding portrait that hung as the focal point of the room, above the fireplace mantel. Marion’s eyes followed mine and the corners of her mouth lifted, a small smile on her face, though the sadness remained in her eyes.
“We had twenty years together,” she told me.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Gods, wasn’t that the truth. Mike and Marion had taken me in when I had no one else, and how had I repaid them? I shook my head. They had deserved better from me.
“For what? You didn’t take him from me. It wasn’t your fault.”
My eyes misted behind my lids and I fought the emotions threatening to emerge.
“It was my fault,” I said. “It was my fault that he was attacked. They hadn’t come for him, they’d come for me.” I hung my head.
Marion was shaking her head. “We knew the dangers of his line of work. Don’t carry that guilt with you; it’s not your burden to carry.” But it was, and it was a burden that would follow me no matter where I went.
A tear slipped free and silently slid down my cheek. I hastily wiped it away. My eyes focused on the cup in my hands, unable to meet her gaze.
“Now that you’re here, though, there are some things I’d like to discuss with you.” I just nodded, not bothering to look up. I heard the sound of paper ruffling.
“Mike left Sanborn Place to you,” she said. “He’d prepared his will last year and named you the owner in the event of his death.”
That caught my attention and I abruptly looked up. My mouth hung wide open.
Marion’s eyed softened as she handed me a few sheets of paper. I placed my coffee cup on the nearby end table and opened them, my hands shook as I read over each piece line by line. He’d listed me as an owner. Why would he do that?
“You know he always thought of you as a daughter, the daughter we were never able to have,” Marion said, answering my unspoken question.
“I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head. This couldn’t be real.
She reached forward and clasped my hand in hers. “Aria, you’re family. You’ll always be welcome here, and I hope that by taking over Sanborn Place, you’ll realize you’re one of ours.” Her hand was warm on mine, her grasp frail yet firm.
“But, this isn’t right.” I shook my head. I didn’t deserve this. Sanborn Place was Mike’s life. He’d started the company from nothing, and for it to just be handed to me didn’t seem fair. I’d been a merc for only a handful of years.”
“I don’t deserve it,” I told her. “You should keep it. Hell, you should sell it. I know the money would be helpful. It could help you live comfortably, and you deserve that. Sell it. If it’s in my name, I’ll sign it back to you. It’s yours.” I nodded my head. That was exactly what I would do. Sign it back over so she could sell it.
Marion’s eyes were filled with compassion I didn’t deserve.
“The business is yours. It took my husband from me. I want no part of it.” Her tone broached no argument.
Unable to respond, I just sat there, my mind unable to truly digest her words. Mike and Marion had been the closest thing to parents I’d had since losing my own, and losing Mike was like someone ripping a piece of my heart straight from my chest. I didn’t know how Marion was coping so well when I felt like I was barely hanging on. Nightmares constantly plagued me and I was having trouble eating.
“Now, I’ve already had construction started to repair the damages after the fire. I didn’t want you facing it the way it was, but I’ve been told renovations should be done within the next two weeks. You’re welcome to stop by the site anytime. Here,” She reached into her purse and retrieved a business card, handing it to me. The card was black with embossed lettering, simple but sleek in design. Diamond Rock Construction was written across the card with a phone number below, no personal name.
“You can call them if you have any questions.”
She smiled at me. I stayed for an hour longer as Marion fixed the two of us lunch from the variety of casseroles friends and relatives had brought over. I did my best to remain upbeat and to try and push the food around my plate enough that it looked like I was actually eating, but I was fairly sure she caught on. The longer I stayed, the more I could see the grief weighing on her, as though it were something physical. I wished I knew what to say, how to help. When it was time to go, I promised her I’d stay in touch and visit often. I wasn’t sure if it was a promise I could keep, but I’d try. Loss was not something I dealt with very well.
I drove straight to Sanborn Place, curious about what had been done. In the month since Mike’s death, I hadn’t been back. It had felt too fresh, too raw. With winter in full swing, the sidewalks were empty. My tires slid as I took a corner faster than I should have and I had to jerk on the wheel to keep from spinning out of control.
Righting the vehicle I pulled into the parking garage. I parked my Civic and headed for the staircase that would lead me up to the main doors. I found myself in a room filled with activity. Several men in construction clothing were milling about, some painting, others patching holes in the drywall, and others tearing out burnt remnants of carpet. Thankfully, no one seemed to pay me any mind. The smell of paint and primer was strong as I walked through the office. Then the smell of burnt flesh hit my nose as I passed through the main room. I jerked back, my hand coming to cover my mouth as I fought to keep what little I’d eaten at Marion’s down. I eyed the construction workers incredulously. Couldn’t they smell it? None seemed bothered by it. Maybe it was just me. I took a deep breath through my mouth and pushed forward.
When I came to the portion of the office where the attack had taken place, memories struck. I could see the flash before everything ignited, hear the sizzle of vampire flesh as it caught fire, and envision ash fall like gray snow from a darkened sky. I shook away the thoughts and eyed the burn marks on the damaged walls. I had done that. I’d caused that ruin in a place that had become a second home.
The night Mike died was the night my powers exploded in a wave of destruction I hadn’t realized I was capable of. Part of that scared me. The other part was really glad that the people responsible had died a painful death at my hands—though it would have been nice if I’d been able to drag it out a bit longer. I wouldn’t mind bringing them back from the dead just to do it all over again.
My pyrokinetic abilities bubbled beneath the surface, more present since the attack. Almost as though my blood was kept at a constant simmer, the heat in my body no longer lying dormant. No longer willing to remain contained. It frightened me sometimes, especially when I thought about just how much power I had, how much devastation I could bring, and how little control I really had over all of it.
Turning around, I noticed a familiar man. Dressed in blue jeans, work boots, and a simple brown t-shirt, there was no reason for him to stand out any more than anyone else, but for some reason, he grabbed my attention.
“Excuse me,” I said, walking towards him, “do I know you?”
He’d been placing baseboard trim, but when I got his attention, he stood from his crouched position. Brushing his hands on his jeans, he stood to his full height, only a scant few inches taller than me, and inclined his head in my direction.
“No, not really. My name is Christian, Christian Kennedy. I’m the general contractor here on site, though you might find me familiar from passing me in the halls at the Compound.”
Wait, the halls at the Compound? He was shifter? I looked at him once more, really looked at him. Beyond the casual facade of a working man to see the predator beneath. If I looked hard enough, I could see the glint in his chocolate colored eyes, the slight reflective quality that told me there was more hiding just below the surface.
“Is Diamond Rock Construction Pack owned?” I asked. I knew the Pack had several business ventures but hadn’t been aware that they owned a construction company.
“It is,” a familiar voice said from behind me, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to rise. I turned to see Declan Valkenaar prowling my way. He commanded the room, and everyone he passed acknowledged his presence. Just my luck; the Alpha was here. “I’ll take it from here, Christian,” he said.
Christian nodded and turned back to his work.
“What are you doing here?” My voice was accusatory. While Declan had been kind enough to offer me a place to stay at the Compound when it looked like everyone was out to get me, he’d always given off a bad vibe. I knew why he was so nice to me. Knew he had ulterior motives. Hell, if I were him, I’d try and buddy up to me too. Who wouldn’t want a pyrokinetic on their side when the Spokane Coven of vampires was your biggest enemy?
Despite the fact that vampires had killed Mike, I didn’t hold the entire Coven responsible and I didn’t carry the same prejudices. Rogues had killed Mike. I couldn’t let a single event cloud my judgment. If they weren’t trying to kill me, I wasn’t going to go around killing them, even if they did give me the creeps.
I was a perfectly made weapon for fighting vampires, but I wasn’t going to be his weapon. The Pack would not own me.
He quirked a brow in amusement. Wonderful, just what I wanted, to amuse him.
“I’m checking up on the job. Is that a problem?”
Yes, it was a problem. I didn’t want him in my business. I folded my arms across my chest, struggling for what to say. I couldn’t be upset with him for being here. If the construction company was owned by the Pack, he had every right to come and check on their progress. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. The last month had been grating on my nerves. I felt as though someone was always watching me. And for being the Alpha of one of the biggest known packs in the United States, Declan was oddly available. He seemed to always be there. It unnerved me.
“No, no problem. Don’t you have more important things to do, though?”
He shook his head, “I make time for all of my people.”
Right, I bet he did. The thing is, I wasn’t one of his people. He eyed me up and down, his gaze lingering on the exposed skin of my bare legs before being drawn to my high heels. What, never seen a girl in a dress and heels before? I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from saying anything stupid.
“Good to know. I was just passing through. I’ll see you around.” I moved to leave and he reached out, grasping my forearm. His grip was firm as he held me immobile.
You didn’t think I’d post it all did you? *evil grins*