Hleo

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Chapter 25

Ethan pulled the Jeep into a parking space facing the calm waters of Lake Pocotoa and cut the engine. Considering it was well into autumn, there were a fair number of people at the beach. Some walking dogs, a few moms with toddlers playing in the sand, and a middle-aged couple strolling along the shoreline, actually daring to let their feet splash in water. From this vantage point we had a perfect view of the long wooden pier that jutted out over the water.

“Now what?” Ethan motioned to the beach.

“I guess we’re on a stakeout for the time being.” I checked my watch. “It’s just after one now, and I know he always walks Baxter along the beach and out to the edge of the pier after lunch between one and two. He passes by The Patch like clockwork just after this, so it’s definitely his routine.”

“So, we wait.” Ethan settled back in his seat.

“Yes we do.”

We sat, watching the waves gently lap against the shore for a while. The sun shone down, and other than the few trees that separated the beach from the sidewalk, brilliantly displaying an explosion of rust and golden leaves, it could easily have been summer.

“What ever happened to Lucien?” I finally broke the silence.

Darkness clouded Ethan’s expression. I had my answer before he even opened his mouth. He took a slow breath. “He was killed by a dangerous, bitter member of the Bana who had made it his mission to destroy the people in this world it would hurt me to lose.” His voice was controlled, but his jaw had tightened and his fists were clenched.

Should I just leave it alone? I bit my lip. I had to know. “He killed Lucien because of you?” My stomach churned. Why would someone deliberately go after Ethan?

“Yes, he hated me because I was responsible for him being cast out of the Hleo society. Years earlier we had gone through training together, since he had become a Hleo just after I did. He was a little bit older than I was, but still one of the youngest members ever to be inducted and we bonded over our time in training together. We even went through the branding ceremony at the same time.” Ethan paused. “We were allies, like brothers really. There wasn’t another person I trusted more, but through the years I saw a change in him. His heart hardened to what we were doing, he was questioning the purpose of the Hleo, and the very existence of The Metadas.”

Even though the Jeep was in park, Ethan gripped the steering wheel tightly. “Many years ago he and I were protecting two people in the same area. I went to him, seeking advice on how to deal with an issue that had arisen with my protected. I arrived just in time to witness him allowing his protected to be murdered by a Bana. I regretfully took my knowledge of what he had done to The Three. They tried to deal with him but he managed to escape. He ended up joining the Bana, and never forgave me for what he saw as a betrayal of our friendship.

“After that he made it his mission to go after anyone I cared about, including the people I was protecting. I guess he assumed my failure to protect them would be too much for me to handle.” Ethan ran a hand across his face. “He’s responsible for three of the five deaths I mentioned before. After his third kill, I stopped guarding protecteds so that I could devote my energy into hunting him down and taking him out. By the time I found him, he’d tracked down Lucien, I guess wanting to get even more personal with his attacks on me. I arrived just as he stabbed my mentor in a back alley in Dublin. That was not what Lucien deserved after his faithful years of service, and I lost all control.

“In the instant he took Lucien’s life he let his guard down for a fraction of a second, and I used that as my chance to deal with him, to make sure he would be punished for his actions, and to keep him from hurting anyone ever again.” He looked out at the waves as he spoke, his voice full of hurt and anger.

I gaped at him; words wouldn’t come.

Ethan’s eyes locked with mine and as though sensing my horror his face fell. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. I’ve been immersed in this world of secrets and doing what needs to be done no matter what that entails for so long these things don’t seem that shocking anymore, but you must think I’m some sort of monster after everything I’ve told you.”

“I don’t.” I shook my head and frowned as I realized that I really didn’t. I reached out a tentative hand and placed it over Ethan’s, knowing it was capable of unspeakable acts, and had carried them out who knew how many times.

My brain told me I should be scared. I was alone in a vehicle with this mysterious and admittedly dangerous person. Against all logic, though, I found that, instead of being frightened, my heart ached that he had experienced so much sorrow and loss in his long life. If only I could change that somehow.

“I’m so sorry I asked, I didn’t mean to bring up terrible memories.”

Ethan stared at our hands for a moment then slowly pulled his out from under mine and tucked it into his lap. “You couldn’t have known.”

Silence spread out over us and I scanned the surrounding area for any signs of Mr. Brisby. I was about to give up and suggest heading back to my house when the fastidious little man came shuffling down the sidewalk that shouldered the beach, wearing a proper suit and hat. Baxter led the way, trotting along in front of Mr. Brisby on his brown leather leash.

“There he is.” I gripped Ethan’s bicep and pointed.

Ethan nodded. “He really does look like the man from your drawing.”

Mr. Brisby casually strolled along until he made it to the edge of the pier. He and Baxter stepped onto it and started walking towards the covered shelter built at the end.

“So, now that you’re looking at him, do you feel anything? Can you picture the original flash you saw him in?” Ethan gazed from Mr. Brisby back to me.

I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the image to reappear in my mind, but nothing happened. “No.” I resisted the urge to slam my palms against the dashboard. I was sure I’d been on to something; why else would I have gotten an image of Mr. Brisby randomly stuck in my brain?

Ethan touched my elbow. “We could go talk to him. You never know if that would do something.”

I straightened in my seat. “Okay.”

Ethan reached for his door handle and climbed out of the vehicle. I followed suit and we crossed the street and made our way to the edge of the pier. By the time we’d reached it, Mr. Brisby and Baxter were halfway back.

“We might as well just wait, let him come to us.” I leaned my elbows on the top of the wooden railing that ran the length of the pier, and stared out over the water. I didn’t want Mr. Brisby to think we were purposely watching him, and scare him off.

“Sure.” Ethan mimicked my action.

Mr. Brisby and Baxter were only twenty feet or so from us when Baxter started barking like mad and pulling on his leash, trying to get to something on the beach. I turned to see a tall thin woman in a blue jogging suit and her poodle.

“Baxter, heel,” Mr. Brisby commanded, but to no avail. Baxter continued to yank on the leash until it snapped. He charged down the pier and dashed across the sand, headed for the white fluffy dog.

Mr. Brisby strode over to us and grabbed Ethan’s arm. “Could you please help me? He’s not usually like this, and I just don’t have the speed to catch him anymore.”

“Oh, um, yes of course.” Ethan nodded and took off after the dog.

“I’ll try to wrangle him too.” I gave Mr. Brisby a smile and ran down the pier and onto the sand.

Baxter had stopped beside the other dog, happily barking and sniffing it, although the poodle looked unimpressed, as did the owner. “Get your dog away from my prize-winning Charmer,” she yelled at Ethan.

“He’s not my dog,” Ethan replied calmly, trying to grab hold of the leash as Baxter ran and leapt all around, but the dog managed to stay a step ahead of even the super-speedy reflexes of Ethan.

I circled around to stand on the other side of the debacle. Baxter abandoned the poodle and made a beeline for the water.

“You need to get a handle on your dog.” The woman gave us a dirty look before scrambling off the beach with poor Charmer in tow.

“He’s still not our dog.” I laughed and exchanged a look with Ethan as we ran towards the water’s edge.

“Come on Baxter, come here boy.” Ethan snapped his fingers and whistled. The dog ignored him.

“Now what?” I flung an arm in the direction of Baxter, happily leaping in the waves.

“I’m not …” Ethan eyed the water and then turned his attention to Mr. Brisby, who was picking his way across the sand towards us, a look of panic on his face. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Ethan shook his head. He kicked off his boots and socks and trudged into the water. “Come here Baxter.” The dog glanced up at his name, and then continued to splash in the waves.

Ethan was in over his knees at this point, but as he got closer the dog took off, obviously thinking the two of them were playing some sort of game. “Hey, try to corner him off that way.” Ethan gestured to the open waters behind Baxter.

“Are you crazy? I’m not going in there, it’s October,” I shouted, but Baxter kept dodging Ethan’s attempts to grab him. “Oh, fine.” I crouched down and removed my shoes and socks as well, before walking into the cold water. I shuddered with each wave that hit me, but managed to walk out the same distance as Ethan. “Come here, Baxter,” I called out through chattering teeth. Stupid dog. Baxter cocked his head, studying me for a moment, and then bounded towards Ethan.

As the dog started to race by him, Ethan dove after him, fully submerging his body in the freezing waters, but when he came back up he had Baxter’s collar in hand.

“Oh thank goodness.” Shivering, I retreated to the shore. My leggings clung to me, water pouring off of them.

Ethan joined me on the sand with the dog in tow. Even though he was drenched, he stooped down and ran a hand through Baxter’s fur, giving him a good scratch behind his ears. “What do you think you were doing, you silly dog?”

Baxter just cocked his head to the side and gave Ethan a look of pure innocence, his tongue flopping out of his mouth to one side. My heart warmed. Ethan’s sweet behavior towards the mischievous animal was endearing.

Ethan walked Baxter over to Mr. Brisby, who gripped Ethan’s dripping hand in both of his. “How can I ever thank you?”

Ethan stepped back. “No need. I’m glad we were here.” He inclined his head to Mr. Brisby before jogging back over to me at the water’s edge.

“You got a little wet there.” I jutted my chin in the direction of his dripping hair and soaking clothes.

“Just a little.” Ethan cocked an eyebrow. He pulled his shirt up over his head and began to wring it out.

“So much for your crazy fast Hleo reflexes, huh?” I wrinkled my nose at him, trying to keep from gawking at his flexing arm and stomach muscles as he squeezed the water out of shirt.

He stopped what he was doing, squared his jaw, and stepped towards me. “You know, I’m thinking if I have to be completely soaked, so do you. Coming to the beach was your idea, after all.”

I held up my hands palms out, and took a step back. “Hey now, wait a minute. That water is freezing. Aren’t you supposed to be protecting me from things like hypothermia?”

“I think you’ll live.” He dropped his shirt onto the sand and charged towards me. I squealed and turned to run, but he wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me off the ground.

He carried me back out into the waves and dove under with me still in his arms. When we came back up for air, we were both gasping from the cold.

“There, now we’re even.” Ethan grinned.

“Not even a little.” I drove my hand through the water, splashing him good.

He shook his head, spraying water drops in all directions.

“You are in big trouble.” I wrapped my arms around myself and rubbed both biceps as we scrambled out of the water and hiked across the sand. Ethan picked up his shirt, now covered in sand, and shook it a little before slipping it back on.

“Big trouble, huh?” His eyes held an impish spark. He was usually so serious, this was a side of him I wasn’t used to, and found completely adorable.

Uh oh. As if it wasn’t hard enough before to convince myself he was just my bodyguard.

“Just you wait. When you least expect it. I’ll get you back.” I poked him in the chest.

He laughed and popped the back hatch of his Jeep open. After rummaging around for a few seconds, he pulled out a folded-up gray wool blanket and shook it open. Stepping forward, he wrapped it around my shoulders until the edges met in front of me. “Does this help?”

I grasped the blanket. He didn’t let go of the edges.

“A little.” I studied him for a second, my heart beginning to race.

He released me and we climbed back into his Jeep.

Ethan blasted the heat as we drove, and I held my hands up to the vent, although the blanket was actually working to keep me fairly warm.

Ethan shot me a sideways glance, his lips tinged with blue. “You didn’t get to talk to Mr. Brisby.”

“No, I guess I didn’t.”

“We could try again another day.”

“Maybe, but I don’t know. I’m tempted to take Baxter’s behavior as a sign, because that was totally out of character for him.” I drove my fingers through my waterlogged hair. Although the trip down here was still totally worth it. What I wouldn’t give to be pressed up against Ethan’s chest again, to feel his arms around me. I glanced over at him. His wet, long-sleeved Henley clung to his body, and I turned away before he could catch me staring.

“Really? He seems like a big goof.” Ethan turned off of Lakeshore as we left the beach behind us.

“He’s incredibly well trained usually. I’ve never had a dog, so I’m not really used to them, but Baxter is always so sweet, and usually listens so well that I’ve never been nervous around him.” I pulled the blanket more tightly around me. I couldn’t wait to get home, out of these wet clothes.

“We had a dog growing up.” Ethan repositioned the vent closest to him so that it aimed at me instead. “Dash. He was a border collie. Dad got him to help with the herding of sheep on our farm. He was supposed to stay outside, on duty, as a guard dog, but Mary would always sneak him into the house and let him sleep on her bed.” A small smile crossed Ethan’s lips.

“That’s sweet. When I was younger I begged my parents for a dog, but Mom was allergic so I ended up with a pet bunny instead.”

“Bunnies are cute.” Ethan chuckled. “And you wouldn’t have to worry about chasing one into the lake.”
I laughed. “But you looked so graceful doing it.”
Ethan drummed his hands on the steering wheel. “I must need a refresher course on agility and maneuvering.”

“First a refresher on cover tactics, since I saw right through you, now a review on maneuvering; whew, you are slipping.” I shook my head.

Ethan narrowed his eyes at me, his expression a mixture of playful and affronted, but he didn’t respond.

We pulled into my driveway and I bounded out of the Jeep. “See if you can keep up,” I teased and ran up the porch steps.

Ethan didn’t take the bait, just followed behind me at a leisurely pace. It had been a good afternoon. We hadn’t managed to find any answers—hopefully resuming our examination of my artwork would yield that—but still, it had been a good afternoon.

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