Rebecca and I had been rehearsing the plan over and over as we were getting ready to head into town. For once, I didn't have to dress fancy, opting for stonewashed jeans and tasseled boots. I finished tying the pink plaid shirt at the front, leaving my belly-button exposed. I was toying with the idea of getting a piercing, but perhaps I better talk to Axel first. He might not like it.
Rebecca put away her hairbrush and turned to me. “Like I said: baby steps. You show your face around Bear Creek, then venture into the hot-spots of Hawcroft at a later date,” she advised, wanting to snuff-out the gossips. “It'll stop people from making their own assumptions about what Carlton did or didn't disclose to you.”
This was necessary to avoid any bad press and damaging rumors that could slur my father's reputation on the council. My seat could be challenged if people knew about my furry little problem or lack thereof.
Dad called an hour ago to inform me that I would need to attend the United Shifter HQ within the next few days to formally accept the role. I needed to be officially sworn in, just like a human government official. This was one of the biggest responsibilities of my life, my first real job. I wasn't sure how I would feel about that but since coming back here, I was ready to undertake the role. I wanted to learn more about my kind; most of all, I wanted to make a difference. Axel had really rubbed off on me. I was shedding the layer of selfishness that had encapsulated me all my life. Coming here to Forest Lake had awakened the women inside, and like a beautiful butterfly who had burst free of her ugly restraints, Riley Griffiths was now laid to rest so that Riley Thorne could step up and take her rightful place.
“Shall we have another glass of wine while we wait for the cab?” I suggested, deliberating whether it was such a good idea.
“Yeah, why not?” Rebecca didn't need asking twice.
We probably shouldn't. We needed to maintain a level head if we were to remember the plan without a hiccup. Pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to be accosted by the reaper and slur my words in an act of feeble retaliation. The guy's an alligator shifter. I'm a fox. I vaguely remember the story about The Gingerbread Man: the one where the fox manages to trick the Gingerbread Man into riding across the lake with him, then later devours him as he steps onto his nose to avoid the rising water. The more that I heard about this reaper guy, the more anxious I was about meeting him. He wasn't some naïve little cookie, he was a mob boss. He was the bad guy in the story, and I was the novice fox.
“You're overthinking things again,” Rebecca pointed out.
I was, she was absolutely right. “I know,” I admitted. “Let's go through it one last time.”
“We're just two girlfriends going out for dinner,” she shrugged simply. “We let people see that we're friends and that everything's peachy.” She winced her eyes as if she had jumped ten steps ahead. “If that's OK with you?”
I swatted my hand in dismissal. “Sure, you're my BFF now, Axel has Beast.”
Both of us chuckled at that. Rebecca dropped her shoulders with relief. “That means a lot to me.” We both paused to take another sip of wine to avoid any awkwardness. “Okay, we show our faces during dinner. Nothing swanky, just a casual restaurant. You're going to mingle with the locals and win them over with your charming personality.” She winked.
I nodded. “Right. And if the reaper just so happens to rear his ugly head?”
“Then you politely explain to him that if he wishes to discuss matters, then he has to arrange an appointment just like everyone else. He isn't going to want to talk about his garbage collection dates or issues with his taxes.” She chuckled to herself. “He can't take a shit these days without Alpha Alec being notified about it, so don't worry. He's not stupid enough to try anything. Rumor has it that he's trying to win the affections of his mate, so be prepared for him to try to sucker you into a sob story,” she warned, taking on a foreboding tone.
“He's one of your patients, isn't he?” I asked off the bat.
Rebecca's face blanched. “Huh? I...I…” she stammered, not knowing what else to say.
I gave an assured shrug, “I could tell by your aggressive body language when you were talking about him, and the sarcastic tone in your voice.”
“I'm not allowed to discuss it--patient confidentiality!” she squealed, placing one hand against her chest. “But that doesn't mean that I can't warn you. That guy gives me the creeps. His mate is better off without him, that's for sure. Thank goodness she's tucked safely back in Stonevale where his scaly claws can't reach her.”
The way people used reptilian characteristics to describe him made me form a monstrous image inside my head. I didn't want to be confronted by him. The grimace on Rebecca's face told me everything that I needed to know.
It was at that point we heard a car horn honking outside the cabin.
“Drink up, the cab is here,” I urged Rebecca. “There's no need to waste good wine that cost a whopping five dollars a bottle,” I joked.
Rebecca spluttered with laughter. “You know, after around thirty dollars all wine tastes the same. I lived on this shit during my college years,” she muttered whilst screwing the cap back onto the bottle.
I had never seen a wine bottle with a screw-on cap before. I raised my brows as I thought. Come to think of it, all my wine had been handed to me in fine crystal, so I would never know.
The cabs around here were all Jeeps. I suppose they had to be, considering this was a subterranean town. Most of the dwellings were high up in the mountains.
Rebecca tried to persuade the cab driver to accept the fare, but he wouldn't take our money. I guess it pays to have a mother-in-law as treasured as Lizzie Thorne was. Money wasn't the only thing that gave you status, having a caring and considerate nature goes a long way too.
We were dropped off at the familiar town's square of Bear Creek. I had been here once before to sign the mating license. The whole place screamed 'old country' and reminded me of the old western films that my dad used to watch. Axel was right to warn me about dressing casually for dinner. My wardrobe wasn't exactly subtle, but the borrowed clothes I still had from his sisters helped me to blend right in.
“You're going to love it here,” Rebecca's voice rang with excitement. “Rosie's pot roast is to die for.”
“Pot roast?” I said, flaring my eyes. "I can't say it's something I've tried. But if it's as good as Lizzie's stew, then I'll have to give it a try."
The sound of music and warmth greeted me as I stepped into the rustic establishment. I could smell something good wafting through from the kitchen. The atmosphere was laid-back and homely, a place to sit back and relax as well as fill your stomach.
My eyes were never still. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was red and white gingham. There were cute little curtains that were frilled around the edges and tied back with more gingham cloth. Every single one of the oak tables was covered with a plastic gingham covering. There were padded gingham seat cushions fixed to each and every chair. The waitresses were wearing their own clothing but all had gingham aprons tied around their waists, and the stuffed squirrel that was situated next to the tip jar on the counter was wearing a pair of gingham dungarees.
I shot Rebecca a side-glance, and she responded with a stern eye signal.
“Act natural,” she hissed from the corner of her mouth.
I fluffed my hair as we waited by the door to be seated. People looked up from where they were sitting, giving me their full evaluation.
Rebecca huffed. “Scratch that, just copy me.”
One of the waitresses noticed us and smiled. She grabbed two menus from the counter area and made her way through the maze of tables to get to us.
“Welcome to Rosie's! Table for two?” She asked, cheerfully.
I glanced between Rebecca and the pretty waitress, wondering whether it was a trick question. “Uh...yeah, there's two of us.”
She chuckled, scrunching her nose. “I hope you like it up here. I know it is a little different from what you're used to in the city.”
“It's fine,” I answered quickly. “I love Bear Creek. Everyone here is super nice, I feel so welcome.”
There were a few raised mugs as a gesture of 'cheers' and a couple of guys returned a 'welcome home' as we were escorted to our table. I found myself smiling back, completely unforced and natural as if my happiness was shining through. Now all I needed was my husband to come home and my mind could finally rest. Being apart from him was pure hell. My mind was on overdrive, worrying about the worst-case scenario.
The waitress gave us a few minutes to peruse the menu, then returned with the drinks we ordered. She flipped open her little notepad and pulled the pen from out of her ponytail.
“Have you guys decided what you want to order?” She asked.
Both Rebecca and I answered at the exact same time. “The pot roast.”
Rebecca looked back at me, impressed.
The waitress scribbled that down before walking over to the counter. She tore off the square piece of paper and impaled it onto a spike on the countertop. As her hand slammed down on the bell beside it, an enormous guy wearing a gingham shirt came sauntering through the saloon-style doors and snatched it up to read. His eyes snapped to mine, then his brows disappeared beneath his floppy fringe.
I guess that I should be used to being the center of attention, but all I really wanted to do was to blend in and eat my dinner. More than anything, I wanted these people to see me as a regular person, doing everyday, mundane things. I wasn't a socialite any longer, I was a wife and council official.
Rebecca's gaze lifted above my head, then the shadow crept across our table.
“Hi, I was wondering if you could spare me a moment of your time, Councilor Thorne,” a young-looking woman asked as she came to stand at the side of our table. She had a small child with her. He was fair-haired and blue-eyed like his momma.
I was taken off guard, but I was quick to recover myself. “Yes, of course. Although, I'm not yet official,” I pointed out.
“But you will be taking the role?” She asked, hopefully.
Her enthusiasm humbled me. “I...um...yes, of course.”
She breathed out a relieved smile. “Good. It makes a nice change to see a female in power. Will you come down to the community center? We would like you to see what we've set up for the survivors of the Forest Lake disaster.”
She spoke so passionately about helping others that it struck a chord in my heart. I remembered the conversation around Axel's mom's kitchen table. A considerable amount of damage had been done to this state, that the residents here still haven't recovered from.
“I would be honored to help in any way that I can,” I promised, wholeheartedly.
“Do you mean it, lady?” A stocky bearded guy asked from where he was slouched at the adjacent table.
His comment was rather abrupt but I could tell by the genuine look of interest on his face that it was well-intended.
“Certainly I do. I want to help make a difference. Every issue that is brought to the table ought to be taken seriously. My role is to be the people's advocate, and I intend to fulfill that position to the best of my ability.”
The guy gave a satisfied grunt in response.
“Thank you,” the young mom replied, bobbing her head in a grateful nod. “I guess I'll be seeing you.”
I watched them as they left the restaurant, saying goodbye to a few other people as they went. This town was close-knit. I figured everybody knew who everybody was.
Rebecca and I chatted casually as we ate our dinner. Our evening was going so well, we decided to stop off at a quiet little bar across the street.
Rebecca held open the door for me, which closed over with a loud creaking sound. I swear, it was like something out of an old cowboy movie. The music ceased to play and everybody turned to stare in our direction. By the time we took a slow stroll towards the bar, the Dolly Parton song resumed playing and everyone continued to talk amongst themselves.
“We'll just have the one drink, then we'll call it a night,” Rebecca suggested.
We had accomplished what we set out to do. I had shown my face around town, eliminating all cause for suspicion. Rebecca ordered two glasses of Merlot, and we carried them over to an empty booth for some privacy.
“Ugh, I need to pee,” Rebecca grumbled, scrunching her face in a grimace.
“Well go on then, I'm not holding your damn hand.” I chuckled.
I gazed through the window as I sipped my wine, completely unfazed by the bustling bar around me. The next song to play was a Carrie Underwood song about cheating. I found myself smiling as I hummed along to the lyrics.
“Scuse me, ma'am, but I'm gon' need to borrow your cellphone to call animal control. It seems we have a fox in the building,” some guy with a Cajun accent drawled.
I didn't even notice him approaching, too engrossed in my thoughts.
“How original—" I rolled my eyes with a turn of my head, then they bulged wide. "Holy shit!” I muttered, as the sheer magnitude of the guy had me spluttering for air.
My eyes raked up and along his intimidating frame, from his silver-tipped cowboy boots, right the way up to his vivid-green eyes. I could tell by the tattoos that peeked from the collar of his shirt and his rolled-up sleeves that he was completely inked from the waist down. Maybe beyond that, I could only speculate.
Despite his gorgeous exterior, there was something dangerous lurking behind his reptilian eyes. It was like staring into a soulless, black chasm. At that moment, I knew exactly who he was.
I could tell by the ominous vibe that made the underside of my skin itch. Death didn't follow this guy... he was death.
“I'm mated?” I flashed him my wedding ring as evidence. " If you're here to hit on me then you're all out of luck." I chose to play ignorant rather than show any sign of fear.
And anyway 'there's a fox in the building'. Was that the best line he could come up with?
I didn't much care for Jerks who used cheesy pick-up lines. They only sounded cute when Axel used them.
He placed a hand over his heart in a sincere gesture. “I do apologize. I was just tryin' to be friendly.”
I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat. Trust Rebecca to choose this precise moment to empty her bladder.
“Friendly is acceptable.” I managed a chaste smile.
“Did you mean what you said 'bout bein' the people's advocate? You won' be discriminating against any particular species?” He asked, narrowing his eyes in a way that made me feel cross-examined.
How the hell did he know that I said those exact words?
I placed my glass down in front of me as he slid into the opposite side of the booth and propped his elbows on the table. From this proximity, I could see my own reflection in his black verticle-shaped pupils. I thought I would be more scared when confronted by him, but at this moment, I felt fierce. He had been spying on me, and that pissed me off.
“I'm going to go out on a limb here," I said, not giving a shit how sarcastic it sounded. "I take it you're the reaper. I have to say, your reputation doesn't do you justice. I thought you'd be taller.” I decided to maintain a cool facade.
He studied me as I lounged back, casually sipping my wine. I don't know if he was impressed by my feisty attitude or not.
Maybe the wine was giving me courage, or maybe he wasn't all that scary. I was cut from the same cloth as my father. We Griffiths's didn't show weakness to our opponents. That was bad for business. The reaper would have better luck trying to squeeze blood from a stone.
“That's me,” he replied in a casual drawl. “You didn't answer my question.” He wagged his finger, mockingly.
I sat up straight in my seat. “You were listening to my earlier conversation. Didn't anyone tell you that it's rude to eavesdrop?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Rebecca freeze as she returned to our table. Her face paled as she noticed who was sitting in her seat. Her horror-stricken expression told me that she had not orchestrated this. He had taken it upon himself to confront me here in town. To be honest, I preferred that he had chosen a public place, rather than to turn up unannounced at the cabin.
“You got me." He held his palms up. "I'm guilty as charged.” He flashed a million-megawatt grin that could've swept the panties off many a girl. Thankfully, I was immune. “But I was intrigued by what you said.” He scratched his bottom lip with his thumbnail. “You really gon' give everyone a fair chance, without discriminating?”
There was a hopefulness in his voice that I couldn't help but notice. He wasn't demanding, he was asking, and that surprised me. He didn't seem like a man who had to ask for something he wanted. He struck me as a man who took what he wanted and to hell with the consequences.
“That's the consensus,” I responded pointedly. “Look, if you want to raise issues then you'll have to schedule an appointment, just like everyone else. I highly doubt you'll manage to sway the council in favor of organized crime though.” I hit home with the truth, noticing the flash of anger in his eyes.
“Yeah but when you take away the 'organized' you're just left with crime," he spoke in a warning tone that could've been mistaken as threatening.
"If I tell you that I'll get you a hearing, will you go away?" Our eyes were locked in a heated battle across the table.
"I'll leave you alone, for now. But you make good on your word or I guarantee you'll be seeing more of me.” His harsh words delivered a deadly promise.
"Riley, we're leaving," Rebecca interjected.
“You don't scare me.” I continued to glare at the reaper as I slid from my seat and bent down to grab my purse.
“Afraid of nothing, huh?” he muttered lazily. "Everybody's afraid of somethin'."
I could feel his seedy eyes on me as we left the bar. Rebecca must've been holding her breath because when she stepped outside she began gasping for air.
“Oh my god! Are you OK?” Her voice was strained as if she had been close to tears. “What did he say before I came back?”
“I'll tell you once we get home,” I assured.
I just wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible.
Rebecca hailed a passing cab. It barely had the chance to stop before we threw open the door and piled in. I whipped my phone out to reply to Axel's latest text: I love you too. Everything is all under control here.
“Aren't you going to tell him about what just happened?” Rebecca seemed incredulous. “I really think that he would want to know about this.”
“And worry him whilst he's miles away? No.” I shook my head, stuffing my phone back inside my purse. “I need to concentrate on our therapy sessions, now more than ever.”
Rebecca pursed her lips as she slouched back in the seat. She may not like this but my main priority was Axel.
Not myself, for the first time ever.