Randall had promised that he would come to dinner and act as a buffer when I told Michael about Vega so I was trying to take a nap before Randall and Cassiopeia came over when the doorbell rang. I groaned and threw a pillow over my head, trying to get comfortable on the couch. “Come in,” I yelled, my voice muffled through the material.
“Hello, Lyra-Rose,” Michael said easily. “How are you doing this evening?”
My stomach tensed- he wasn’t supposed to be so soon- and I fidgeted under my throw blanket, trying to avoid the inevitable as long as possible. “I’m fine,” I mumbled.
“Then why are you hiding from me?”
I huffed and sat up, successfully making myself light-headed. “I’m not hiding. See? Everything’s fine,” I insisted stubbornly.
His eyes narrowed on my collarbone. I followed his gaze and my eyes immediately grew wide in horror. A vivid pink welt was poking out of the collar of the oversized sweatshirt I was wearing. I yanked the grey fabric higher to cover the mark the demonic crow’s claws had made in my creamy skin. I reluctantly turned my attention back to my immortal guardian and saw that his eyes had turned stormy silver full of anger and I flinched back slightly. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Um, Vega has a pet crow,” I replied as easily as I could.
He looked stunned. “Corvus attacked you?”
I tried to act nonchalant. “It’s no big deal. I’m totally fine.”
“That is not true, Lyra. You are not fine. Why did you not tell me that this happened?”
I cast my gaze down so that I didn’t have to see the disappointment etched in his face. I played nervously with my fingers as I worked up the courage to answer. “I don’t like being so dependent,” I murmured. “I hate how much I need you when she comes around. I just want to be able to handle things myself.”
His warm fingers combed through my strawberry locks. “Lyra-Rose, needing help is not the same as being dependent. I care about you and I want to keep you as long as possible.”
My cheeks turned as fiery as my hair. “I’m sorry. I’m just not used to needing anyone to take care of me. I’m not used to being this scared though, either.”
His strong arms wrapped securely around my small shoulders and he pulled me tightly against his chest so that I was nearly on his lap while his fingers continued through my hair. “It is okay, Lyra. I am here.”
I always prided myself on being tough so I hadn’t cried in front of anyone but Randall in a long time but I let myself fall apart in Michael’s broad shoulders. I squeezed the front of his T-shirt in my fists as the smooth fabric soaked up the salt water leaking down my face. Pretty soon I was reduced to a snotty nose, puffy red eyes, and chest-aching hiccups.
“Better?” he asked when I was done bawling my eyes out.
I sniffled, pressing the heels of my palms into my eyes. “Yeah, I think I’m fine. I just lost it for a minute.”
He smiled faintly and wiped his thumbs under my eyes. “I am here for you and I am not going anywhere. I do not mind it if you ‘lose it’ in front of me.”
I took a few shaky breaths and collapsed onto the couch. “Thank you, Michael. I really don’t know how I would get through this without you.”
He sat next to me and patted my knee. “That is what I am here for, Lyra-Rose. I am used to taking care of you when you get emotional like this.”
I leaned against his chest and elbowed him in his stomach. “I keep forgetting that you know me so well. For me it’s like we just met but for you… How is it that you’re not annoyed with me yet?”
Michael chuckled. “I have had years of experience when it comes to dealing with you,” he teased lightly.
I laughed a little at that. I closed my eyes and relaxed into him, loving how perfectly I fit into his side. It was comfortable to just sitting with him and being so close. I felt safe snuggled into his warm embrace and that tense wall that had been built inside me slowly faded so that my mind wasn’t so overworked.
I was nearly asleep when the front door banged open. My eyes flew open and I saw Randall and Cassi carrying paper bags with grease-soaked bottoms. I’d been so comfortably that I’d completely forgotten that they were bringing burgers.
Randall whistled. “Someone’s gettin’ cozy.”
Cassi smacked his arm. “Stop it, Randy, and leave them alone. I’m sorry. Were we interrupting anything? I did tell him to knock first.”
I shoved off the couch and went to attack the closest bag, popping several French Fries into my mouth. “No, we were just waiting for you. Besides, I don’t think that Randall knows how to knock. At least not at my house or office.”
My best friend simply went to my fridge and pulled out a pack of sodas. “I’ve known you long enough in this life to be like family. Even Mac thinks of me as her uncle.”
“Mackenzie is three and doesn’t understand the concept of relatives. She’d think that a monkey was her brother if it was around long enough.”
He tossed a Diet Coke at me and clutched at his chest drastically. “Ouch, Ly, that hurt. Mackenzie loves me as much as you do.”
“That’s not very much, then,” I muttered. I grinned widely as he tried and failed to throw a fry at me.
It was nice to have a normal dinner of fast food. It was pretty quiet but there was enough comfortable conversation to keep the evening from getting awkward. I was glad that Cassi was beginning to become a permanent fixture in my life because I was really grateful to have some girl time with someone that I could talk to without having to omit all of the crazy going on in my life. She and I sat in the kitchen cleaning up and talking while Michael and Randall were in the living room.
“It’ll be all right,” she assured me with a small smile. “If anyone can get through this, you can.”
“How do you know?”
She tucked a lock of her dark hair behind her ear and paused in loading the dishwasher to look me square on. “I’ve seen your past, Lyra, and I’ve been there for some of it. You are everything good and beautiful about humanity. You are stronger than you think, and definitely strong enough to handle all of the crap that’s been going on. You just need to believe in yourself as much as I do.”
The corners of my mouth turned up quickly. She wrapped her arms around me and I buried my face in her shoulder. “Thank you, Cassi,” I muttered softly, feeling surer of myself than I had in longer than I could remember.
I needed a vacation. Between work and worrying about Vega, I was starting to get wrinkles and I hardly had any time to myself anymore. Randall watched me while we were at work and Michael was at my house by the time I got home. I was actually starting to look forward to this week’s Family Dinner so that I wouldn’t be stuck with three paranoid babysitters hanging over my shoulder.
When Saturday night rolled around I was all set to go to my mom’s house for cocktails with all of our snobby relatives. I planned on being on my best behavior and even selected the baby blue dress my mom obsessed over. My strawberry hair was curled and pushed back with a purple ribbon and my make-up was done to perfection. I was determined to make the best of my evening.
“Hey, Lyra, are you ready to go?” Randall called up the stairs.
I slipped on my silver stilettos and rushed down to meet him. “Sure, but you really don’t have to go with me.” In all honesty, I was sort of looking forward to ditching my bodyguards and Randall going to Family Night was sort of ruining it.
“It’s no problem. I know how much you hate your family events. I wouldn’t leave you to suffer that alone.”
I smiled at him. Normally I would have been thrilled to have Randall go with me but I just wanted a piece of normalcy. I smiled the best I could and batted my curled lashes slightly. “It’s fine, really. I’m sure that you’d much rather be spending your Saturday night with Cassiopeia than me.”
He shrugged easily and fixed the turquoise tie that matched his dress shirt. “We’ve spent Saturday nights together since you were little. Besides, I’ve never missed a Family Dinner at the Dawsons’.”
“Neither has my dad,” I said quietly.
My best friend frowned. “He’s not going to be there tonight?”
I wiped carefully at my eyes so not to smear my painstakingly done eyeliner. “I don’t really know. I’ve talked to him a little since he moved but we’ve been avoiding the issue of Mom. He hasn’t brought up dinner so I have no idea if he’ll show tonight or not.”
Randall pulled me against him and rested his chin on my head. “I know it’s hard and I really do wish that I could’ve done something to fix this. C’mon, let me be your date to this family thing. It’ll be just like old times, I swear.”
One side of my mouth quirked up. Sure, Randall was a cupid but he was still my best friend and maybe having him at Family Dinner was exactly the kind of normal I was looking for. Things were usually easier with him at my side. “Okay, yeah, you can come. We’ll party the night away and get hammered like we usually do. Then tomorrow while I’m barfing my guts out you’ll bring bagels and hold my hair back for me.”
He scrunched up his nose in disgust and then laughed. “Okay, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
The first couple of hours at my mom’s party were pretty bearable- meaning I didn’t go lock myself in the game room for an extended period of time. Dad wasn’t there and Mom fussed over my dress, hair, shoes, and everything else. I think she honestly expected me to be her version of perfect despite knowing me for 24 years. Sigh. Anyway, other than the normal crappiness of going to one of the Dawson Family Functions, things were pretty good, like the food and music playing.
Then it all turned to crap.
I was talking with Randall and one of my more amiable cousins. Rebekah was my age. She looked like brunette Barbie with silky brown hair, big hazel eyes, and that freakishy perfect body that you usually only see in magazines. I used to get jealous of Rebekah a lot because she seemed so perfect. On top of her looks she was actually the kind of person that you’d want to be friends with. In my snobbish, egocentric family it was good to have someone like her so I had decided long ago that I wouldn’t be a bitch and let my slight bouts of jealousy get in the way of liking her. So, because Rebekah is one of the few relatives that can actually stand me, she was stuck in the chaos when the party started to fall apart at the seams. The three of us were at the bar but Randall was acting as the designated driver so he just watched as my cousin and I took shots and sipped Cosmos. I was having a good time when I heard my mom’s voice hiss, “I won’t have any drunken woman ruining my party. I want her out of here.”
I wrinkled my nose and glanced at the now empty shot glass in my hand. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked with an icy edge in my voice.
Mom blinked and her hazel eyes had brown flecks when she turned them on me. “Oh, nothing, Lyra,” she sighed. She seemed almost tired, which was so not like her at all. “We just have a loose cannon making a muck of the party. Probably from your father’s side of the family, mind you,” she added darkly.
I glanced at Rebekah who rolled her eyes dramatically. Randall bit his lower lip to keep from laughing. “Who is it?” I didn’t care too much but I did want to try and make my mom happy so I figured I’d help her get rid of the party crasher.
“I don’t know. Her name started with a V. It was Vanessa or Vera or something.”
“Vega?” I guessed, my stomach flittering with nerves.
My mother nodded once with a frown highlighting her wrinkles. “Yes, that was it. Vega. She is ruining my party.”
My eyes grew a million times rounder and my heart jumped into my throat. “I-I’ll go talk to her. Maybe I can talk some sense into her.”
“I hope that you’re not talking about me.”
Damn, just the sound of her voice had me jumping out of my skin and my heart racing. Randall paled immediately. I whipped around and saw her smirking at me. “Vega,” I greeted dully.
Her smirk widened into a full grin. “Oh, Lyra-Rose. It’s great to see you again. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“You know her, Lyra-Rose?” my mother hissed. She probably thought that I had invited her to ruin the party.
“Yeah, we’re like family. Right, Vega?” I sneered without taking my eyes from her strangely colored ones.
“That’s right. Just like family.”
“I’ve never met you,” Rebekah butted in with an unusually hard look on her pretty face.
The immortal’s gaze flashed to my cousin and I felt the pit of my stomach drop out. If looks could kill then Rebekah would have been fried on the spot. As it was, I was afraid that Vega would drop any pretenses of being normal to slaughter her right on the spot. “No, we haven’t,” she replied instead. “But if you don’t mind, I have personal business to take care of with Lyra.”
Vega’s hand shot out to grab my wrist and her claw-like nails dug into the delicate skin there tight enough to draw blood. For god-knows-what reason, Rebekah took the tiniest step from my side so she was slightly blocking me from Vega’s view. “I think that’s up to my cousin here to decide,” she declared boldly.
I barely saw the movement but Vega pushed Rebekah into the counter with just the slightest flick of her wrist. She hit hard and crumpled to the ground while the peanut gallery gathered around did nothing but gawk and gasp. I sucked in a breath sharply and tried to drop to her level but Vega held me fast.
“Don’t try to make a bigger scene or I’ll give these disgusting humans a real show. What is it going to be?” she hissed dangerously into my ear.
“I’ll go with you,” I answered meeting her steady gaze with one of my own.
She yanked so hard that I thought my arm would pop from the socket and started leading me through the crowd. Randall followed silently behind and I bit my lip worriedly. I was new to the concept of him being immortal but I’d spent this entire life making sure that my best friend didn’t get hurt and I wasn’t going to stop doing that now.
“What are the chances of you staying here?” I whispered under my breath.
“You’d need a miracle,” he answered seriously.
And that’s exactly what I got.
Our little train had made it all the way to the grand foyer of my mother’s mansion when Mackenzie popped out of nowhere. “Auntie!” she giggled in her high, excited screech. Her pudgy legs propelled her forward and into my waiting arms.
“Hey, Mac, whatcha doin’?”
“I play hide-n-seek. Mommy never find me.”
I frowned. There was no way that I was dragging her into my mess but I couldn’t just leave her alone in this big crowd. Family or not, Mac was my niece and I didn’t trust any of these people to keep an eye on her. “Well where’s your mom?”
“Me no know,” she answered with a shrug. “Her looking for me.”
“Well go get her,” Vega snarled impatiently. “Unless, Lyra, you’d like for the runt to come with us.”
I felt all the color drain from my face. “Just wait a minute. Let me find her mother.”
“No,” she hurled the word before I’d taken a breath.
I turned my pleading look to my best friend. “Watch her for a minute, will you?”
“Lyra,” he started desperately.
“Please?” I begged. I hate begging. “I can’t just leave her alone and I don’t want her near Vega. Please.”
I handed the squirming three-year-old into his arms before he could come up with a protest that might actually work. “Here, Mac, go with Uncle Randall. He’s gonna make sure you get to Mommy safely.”
No sooner had I handed over the little girl than Vega was once again dragging me away from any prying eyes out into the dark, starry night.