Valaria awoke to the sound of violent retching coming from the bathroom. She quickly looked around the livingroom and remembered she had crashed on Ronnie’s small, two-seater couch after spending a good hour staring out the window looking…for what?
She thought there was no way she was going to get any sleep as her body was stilled keyed up from the unexpected stranger. But after staring at each shadow and every vehicle that drove by, she finally grew weary enough to crash.
She contemplated going back to her own place, but she knew she needed to talk to Ronnie about their mutual plans that suddenly vanished with her declaration from the night before…and there had to be some agreement on strange men who looked too good to be coming into any dive bars…
She heard a flush and opened her eyes to see a very repentant version of her best friend sluggishly scuff her way to the couch, still clothed from the night before. Valaria sat up and moved so the aching girl could sit down.
Veronica held her head in her hands as she sat and groaned, “Oh Vee, I am never going to drink again.”
Vee chuckled, “Yeah, that might be a good thing,” already knowing the promise was empty.
“Or at least I’m not going to mix my drinks again,” Ronnie amended, “Yeah, just stick to one kind all evening.”
Valaria chuckled again, “Well you were certainly happy last night, I haven’t seen you drink that much in a long time.”
Ronnie peeked out through her fingers, “Yeah, well I was just so happy you were going to have an evening out too.” She closed her fingers, “Sorry, Vee. I didn’t mean to ruin your night.”
Valaria looked away, “Well it wasn’t you really.”
Veronica groaned, “Oh yeah, that sexy guy we met…what was his name again? I can’t remember.”
Vee had no trouble remembering, “Kaden.” She felt her insides start to turn again and she braced herself for the accompanying pain. She sucked in her breath as the claws began to tear at her.
Ronnie pulled her hands away from her face, “Vee, are you still having those pains?”
Valaria glanced towards her while she tried not to let anything show. She didn’t want to worry her friend, “Just a little…nothing to worry about…damn!” She jumped from the couch and started walking in a circle trying to breathe through the slicing of her midsection.
Veronica jumped up too, forgetting all about her own head and stomach, “Vee, tell me what to do. Do you need something to drink?”
Valaria looked away as she paced. She didn’t want to worry her friend since there was basically nothing she could do.
“What about if I cooked you something…did you eat something bad yesterday?” Ronnie made her way to the kitchen nook and opened the fridge, “I’ve got some eggs and bacon.”
Valaria knew that giving her friend something to do would be the best thing going right now, “Yeah, Ron, I could use a good breakfast,” she glanced at the clock to see one o’clock in the afternoon, “or lunch,” she tried to sound funny.
“Comin’ right up, Ronnie’s Sunday fry-up, best in the west…or somewhere,” she laughed nervously as she began to throw the meal together, “You just sit at the table and I’ll get you a coffee to get you started…and I’ll get myself one too…” she muttered under her breath.
Vee felt the sharp talons contract back inside and she sighed in relief as she sat down. In minutes, black coffee was sat in front of her. Valaria grabbed it and took a sip.
“Vee? You need to see a doctor,” her friend reached up in the cupboard for her own pain relief and swallowed the white pills with a big gulp of her own hot drink.
Valaria shook her head, “You know I can’t, Ron. I have nothing to even say who I am. Don’t worry, it’s probably nothing.”
Bread was put into the toaster as her friend replied, “Yeah, well I was thinking about that. You know some people, can’t they just use my I.D. and put your picture on it? That way you could be me and use my insurance and get yourself checked.”
That was an idea…
“I can’t have you dying on me, Vee, I couldn’t make it without you,” her friend was buttering the first two slices of toast and then popped in two more. The bacon was sizzling softly on the stove, giving the most comforting aroma.
Valaria looked out the window, “That’s why I wanted everything in your name Ron, you know, in case something happened to me. You know what I do isn’t the most safest of jobs.”
A plate of bacon hit the table, “Well, you aren’t going to be doing it for much longer, right?”
Vee turned back and grabbed a hot slice, “No, I told you we have just about enough for that place up in Wyoming.”
Ronnie began to crack eggs, “Yeah…”
“I remember what you said last night, Ronnie, and it’s okay, I understand,” Vee supplied.
Veronica turned back around, “I’m so sorry, Vee, I love you so much, but I want a real family, with a husband…”
“and two point three kids in a little house with a white picket fence,” Vee’s voice broke in, “and I totally understand, Ron, I really do.”
“I mean, if I was lucky enough to find a man like that Kaden guy last night…”
Vee broke in, “No, Ron, you deserve better than that man last night.”
“Better? The man was gorgeous, Vee! I mean he was a long cherry popsicle on a hot day…”
“He was trouble, Ron…”
“So, you keep saying, but you didn’t know him, Vee, you never even gave him a chance…”
Vee grabbed another piece of crisp bacon and tore into it, “I know his type.”
“And what type is that? Tall? Handsome? Friendly?” Ronnie turned to grab two plates from the cupboard and began to scoop a couple of over-easy eggs onto each and then buttered the second pair of toast that was sitting in the toaster getting cold.
How could she make Veronica understand? And did it really matter since they were never going to see him again?
“Listen Ronnie, I’m sorry, you’re right, I don’t know him and maybe he could be a good guy,” he wasn’t worth fighting over.
He’s worth fighting for…
Valaria shook her head as those words rolled through her brain.
Veronica set two plates down on the table, topped up their coffees and sat down, “It’s okay, Vee, I know you are just trying to protect me, but you have got to stop wrapping me in bubble wrap. If I ever have a chance at a real family, you’ve got to let me make my own mistakes.”
Valaria opened her mouth but her friend’s finger stopped her, “I still want you to do what you do best, weeding out the really bad ones but a little bad could be good.”
Vee closed her eyes, she was right, she had no right to make her friend toe her line. She never liked other people having control of her future, so why did she think she should control Ronnie’s?
Valaria blew out the breath she had been holding as she grabbed her toast, “You’re absolutely right, it’s your life and you should have complete control over it. I agree to back off, okay? And when you find your Prince Charming, I will give you my blessing and let you fly.”
She was surprised to see tears in her friend’s picture-perfect blue eyes. She reached out, “I’m so sorry, Ron, I don’t want you to cry.”
Ronnie shook her head, “I love you, you know that? I could never ask for a better friend.”
Valaria pulled her hand back and began to eat, sometimes she felt really uncomfortable with the L word, even if it was from her best friend in the whole world…well, her only friend really. Vee didn’t mind saying it, but she still had trouble with receiving that affection.
As if sensing her discomfiture, Ronnie changed the subject, “So, what are we doing today? I can rent a car and we could go for a drive somewhere.”
Vee shook her head, “Can’t, I have a job for tonight.”
“So soon? I mean, you did great from the last one,” Ronnie answered.
“Yeah, but now that you are looking for your happy ever after, I’m going to need even more money,” Valaria didn’t want to lay on any guilt trip.
Fat chance, “All that money is yours, Vee, you earned it,” her friend spoke up.
Vee smiled a little, “No, that is OUR money. You’re going to need enough to buy that little house with a white picket fence.”
“Well, I can do without the fence you know,” her friend stuffed in her own bite of eggs as she asked, “So where is the job tonight?”
Valaria normally wouldn’t be too specific just in case she ended up with cops hot on her ass. She did not want Veronica to be caught in between, the less she knew, the better. But for some reason, she told her this time, “On the west side, Green Hills. There is a couple that are leaving this morning for a week in Bermuda, so I thought I would pay them a little visit.”
“And how do you know that?” her friend was always surprised how her friend could get that information when she herself was a ghost.
Vee smiled, “If I told you, then I’d have to kill you.”
Ronnie smiled at their old joke but asked seriously, “Is it safe? I mean, is the information reliable?”
Vee nodded, “Probably about as good as usual and you know me, I’m so quiet, I’m like a ninja! No one can catch me!”
“I know you have been lucky up till now, but no one can be lucky forever. I mean someone is going to finally start putting two and two together, and next thing you know, your butt is in jail. Then what would I do?” her friend was still serious.
Valaria sopped up her egg with the last of her toast, “Then you’re going to have more than enough money for your house.”
“Don’t you ever think about getting caught? Doesn’t it worry you at all?” This was the first time her friend was this stressed over what she did for a living.
Vee looked her in the eyes, “No, I don’t. If I started to worry over every creaking board or every dark corner, that’s when I would make mistakes.” She never told her friend about the little voice inside her that warned her of any trouble coming, well, except for the tall, dark cherry popsicle (her friend’s words) from last night.
“What are you thinking about Vee? You suddenly got a far-off look like you weren’t here,” Ronnie asked.
Valaria grinned widely, “I was thinking about cherry popsicles.”
Both of them burst out laughing, filling the kitchen with some much-needed amusement.
Kaden had spent over two hours waiting in the darkness, staring up at the fifth-floor window, hoping to catch more than a glimpse of his little preshift, but after the first hour of gazing at her through the glass, she disappeared from sight. He waited, hoping she could feel him outside or at least her shifter could feel him. Course, he knew from experience that her first shift would be her wolf form. Would her wolf really want to play with his cat? Cats and dogs didn’t usually mix, but he knew from history, they did from time to time.
In the dark, he pondered what her cat would look like when it was released. Her sister had become a snow leopard, maybe she was a snow leopard too.
Or a panther…
Leopold, his own black panther chuffed inside, wanting nothing more than to follow the girl right up to her apartment and brand her for his own. Kaden felt the same way, but he knew he still had a long way to go to convince this girl about who he was and more importantly, who she was. How did one tell someone who was raised by humans that they were part of a near-extinct race of shifters? He knew his friend, Slayde, had done it, but he had been surrounded by his own kind. And the girl, Cassidy, had wandered into his territory. She had been basically at his mercy…no, that wasn’t right, she had been a fighter and after her first, and second, shift she was more open to who she really was.
Vee looked like she was ready to throw him to the ground and run. Not that he wouldn’t mind being thrown to the ground if she wanted to be on top…
He grinned in the darkness as the hardness between his legs became even more uncomfortable. And how close was she to her first shift? It might make it easier if she was, she wouldn’t be able to stop it and it would lend some truth to his words. Slayde, Cassidy and he had perused the file about the accident in which Cassidy had lost both her parents, and it would be a good guess that Vee might be shifting at any time and he thought he caught her in pain as she had entered the bar last night. That was a sure sign that her animal had awakened and was getting close to breaking free and the full moon wasn’t that many days away.
And he brought with him the special tea that would ease her shifting pains, but would she trust him enough to take it? Hell, he probably wouldn’t trust him either. How can you develop trust when one person doesn’t want anything to do with you?
She is ours…
Kaden was glad his panther was so convinced, because he still didn’t have a solid plan on how to get her back to Terravane Valley to meet her sister. And after what her friend had said, he wasn’t so sure that Vee COULDN’T knock him on his ass. That would be impressive, wouldn’t it? He was positive that if he missed the next chance with her, she would go into deep hiding where he couldn’t find her. And he wasn’t the type to kidnap her friend in order to lure her out of hiding…but he wouldn’t rule out anything…
When it looked like his quarry had finally gone to bed, Kaden went down a couple of blocks and whistled for a taxi to take him to his hotel. He would make sure he came back as soon as he got some sleep and then he would try to find a way to casually bump into her again…
Valaria sidled up to her target, blending into the darkness. The tall lamp lighting the curved driveway didn’t quite make it into her shadows. Her midnight colored clothes hugged her form and made for easy movement. She looked up at the camera sitting in the corner above the door and saw the red light beeping silently. She was familiar with these security systems, knowing that they just needed a little signal jamming. It didn’t matter about the video, she just needed the invisible thread line on each window to shut off for ten seconds once when she went in and once when she went out.
Her connection within the security company didn’t mind helping her for a share of the profits. That’s why she always went for the stuff that might be mistakenly lost or looked like it hadn’t been worn in a while. She had always trusted her instincts when she picked out the pieces. And her fences always broke the pieces down into jewels and gold, with the jewels being sold on the black market and the gold melted down.
She always justified their loss as what life owed her for dealing her such a bad hand. Besides, those rich people had insurance for that stuff, she was probably doing them a favor so they could collect the cash for stuff they really didn’t want anymore.
Valaria made her way around to the back of the house, looking for the easiest window to get in. She knew this house had windows that had small electronic deadbolts attached to them which needed a code to unlock them.
Fortunately, she had a device that could read and generate the correct code and it would also turn off the invisible light wire inside. Unfortunately, she only had ten seconds once it unlocked the window to open it, slip inside and close it again before it re-activated with a new security code.
Quickly she pressed a small button and held her breath as the red light beeped its magic. Green means go! Valaria wasted no time in pushing the window up and sliding inside before pulling it closed behind her. She mentally counted the seconds as she performed the action. She had just counted eight when she closed the window tight and heard the click as it relocked itself.
As usual, she lay close to the floor and just listened to the silence, making sure she was indeed alone and that there weren’t any other new alarms installed that would alert authorities to her presence. After a few quiet minutes, she turned on her small flashlight and began to case out the down floor. She always liked to make herself familiar with rooms, windows and exits…just in case…
Her flashlight was a dull beam that she kept close to the floor, her eyes always adjusted well to the dark, which was good, wouldn’t want the neighbors to see any wildly spinning lights inside. The downstairs predictably contained a large steel kitchen, diningroom, and study off the side of the livingroom. A surprisingly large bathroom was located off the hall to the kitchen. She also noticed a door beside it that contained a large window that she could see led to an indoor pool with hot tub.
“Cool,” she whispered to herself, imagining what it would feel like to sink down into the warm water and let the jets caress every muscle in her body…
No one is home…
She chuckled to herself as her voice of reason was urging her to take advantage of that little perk.
Just for a few minutes…
Her smile widened as she contemplated the luxury that she knew she would never have. Then suddenly her stomach twisted and she found herself bent over, breathing heavily as her belly was cut in two. She started to count under her breath as she felt the sweat break across her forehead.
You will feel better…
Vee shook her head from side to side, contrary to what her little voice said, this was NOT getting better. In fact, it was getting worse…how much worse was it going to get? Her stomach felt on fire as it cramped and she found her whole body begin to sweat with the pain.
Maybe a dip in the hot tub would help ease the pain. Didn’t heat applied to a painful area help it? Then again, maybe the water wasn’t even warm, would someone leave the heat on if they were going away?
She found her hand grasping the doorknob and turn. She didn’t know if she wanted it to be open or not, but was still slightly surprised when it turned easily and she pushed through. She was immediately hit with warm moisture being generated from the pool.
Well, I guess rich people did leave the heat on, she surmised as she turned and quietly closed the door behind her.
“Five minutes,” she whispered to herself as her stomach continued to ache. She noticed two towels lying on a small table and decided to take off her clothes and lay them on top. She didn’t want to wear wet clothes throughout the house and she wasn’t worrying about being caught. Her little voice seemed to be pushing her to the water…
We will feel better…
“Promise?” she whispered back as she unzipped her one-piece catsuit. She peeled it off to expose her bare skin, she never wore underclothes when she was on the job, too many layers. She glanced down at her stomach, still surprised that she didn’t see anything popping out of her skin.
She hesitated, maybe her stomach was feeling better…
Another sharp claw raked itself underneath and she wasted no time running to the hot tub and jumping in. The water was indeed pleasantly warm and surprisingly deep. She had sunk to the bottom and rose again to find a ledge to sit on. As she sat, she found the controls near the side and she turned on the jets.
She gasped as high-speed water hit her in all the right places. She couldn’t help lying back into a custom-made indent that seemed to enfold her as it massaged all the aching muscles in her body, including her stomach, which had noticeably calmed with the bubbles exploding all around it.
Valaria sighed as the pain finally eased inside. And as her body continued to relax, she was amazed at muscles that always seemed to be in flight or fight mode were now melting like jello. She couldn’t stop the giggle that escaped her lips as she let her body float away.
“Just another few minutes,” she sighed…
Kaden had watched her wander around the outside of the mansion. His place in the nearby darkness of trees afforded him the privacy he sought. He had also decided black was in order after he had visited what he thought was the apartment she shared with her friend.
Earlier that day he had returned to the place he had left her and went inside. He was stopped by a security door, not a surprise, and quickly searched the names listed beside various buttons. Down near the bottom was V. Smith. Was that his Vee or her friend Veronica? She did say she had no last name and Smith was probably one step higher…
He took a chance and pressed the button. He waited impatiently, still not knowing what he could say to make her listen to him…
“Hello?” it sounded like her friend Veronica…
That could be a good thing…
“Helllloooo…” the voice sounded just as impatient, “Look, if you’re selling, I’m not buying…”
Kaden spoke up, “Veronica?”
Silence reigned for several seconds before, “Do I know you?”
He had to be truthful, “Sort of, we met at the bar last night. Kaden, Kaden O’Connor.”
Silence met his answer and he wasn’t sure if she was going to reply…
“Yeah, I remember you, what do you want?”
Well not a total refusal, but not very welcoming either…
“Are you alone?”
He only realized how he sounded when she spoke again, “I have a gun and I know how to use it.”
He cursed himself as she spoke again, “And I don’t care how cute you are.”
Well, maybe she wouldn’t outright kill him…
“What do you want?” she asked again.
“Listen, I just want to talk. I know your friend wasn’t exactly singing my praises last night…”
“Don’t feel special, Vee doesn’t like anybody,” the voice broke in.
Kaden sighed again, this conversation couldn’t be said over an intercom where anyone entering the building could hear, “So I take it she isn’t there with you?”
“Why would she, she doesn’t live here.”
Kaden cursed under his breath again, damn!
“So, if that’s all you want to know, there, now you know. Sayonara, have a nice life,” if her voice was a phone, she hung up.
Kaden ran his hand through his hair in frustration. This wasn’t going according to plan, but then he really didn’t have much of a plan to begin with. He was hoping it was going to be easy and just fall into place, after all, what orphan didn’t want to know she had a sister?
Kaden punched the button again and waited.
“Listen, Kaden, no offense, but Valaria doesn’t like you and I’m beginning to see why,” came the reply.
Valaria? Her name was Valaria…
His cat purred the name over and over deep inside him.
V…A…Valaria…a perfect name…
He tried again, “Uh, Veronica? Listen, can I come up and talk to you? I promise I will tell you everything…” minus a few shifter details…
“Damn intercom!” he swore again and pushed the button and waited again.
Now what? Should he hang out here until she came down or Valaria came back?
At that moment, a young woman came down the stairs and walked towards the door. He smiled warmly at her as she opened the security door to leave. She smiled back, and he lucked out grabbing the opened door calling out to the speaker, “Be right there, Ronnie!”
He hoped that she had turned off the intercom and wouldn’t be waiting with gun in hand. He was desperate. He had to get her friend on his side, maybe then he could get Valaria to listen to what he had to say and, hopefully, she would be eager to meet her family after all. And hopefully, her turn would be delayed until she was reunited with her sister…but what would that mean when she did turn? Who would be bringing her through her second turn?
Kaden had read the apartment number beside Veronica’s name and quickly climbed the stairs to get to the fifth floor. As luck would have it, her door was directly across from the door leading to the stairs. He had hoped for an extra few minutes to figure out what he was going to say.
Before he could prepare himself, his hand knocked on the door. He could hear rustling inside before he heard the door unlocked and opened.
He placed his largest friendliest smile on his face.
Veronica stood there and rolled her eyes when she saw him, “Didn’t I say goodbye, have a nice life?”
Kaden held up both of his hands, “Listen, I only want to talk.”
“You have nothing to say that I want to hear,” he wasn’t getting in the door.
“Valaria is not an orphan. I have been sent to find her by her sister, Cassidy,” he hoped that line was a great starter.
He got in the door…
Kaden reached for the cold glass of lemonade as he made himself comfortable on the couch, Veronica having sat in the overstuffed chair with a look of surprise still glued to her face.
“So, you said Valaria has a sister?! Where is she and why didn’t she come? I mean it would make more sense…”
Kaden held up his hand, “She would have but she just gave birth and her husband was not letting her go anywhere.”
“A baby? Boy or girl?”
“What is his name?”
“Tiberius,” he answered automatically.
“Tiberius? What kind of name is that?” Ronnie broke in.
Kaden hesitated, this was not the direction he wanted to go in, but he knew he had to take his time so he wouldn’t blow the one chance he had to at least get Veronica on his side, “It was his Uncle’s name.”
“Uncle? Wow, so how many are there in her family?” she asked.
Kaden breathed deeply, wanting to impart the least amount of information because once Valaria came into her double shifter heritage, she would be encouraged to break ties with any humans she might be in contact with, including the girl sitting across from him.
Veronica looked away, “So are you related to her?” Her eyes glanced back to his lounging form.
Kaden was serious as he replied, “No, definitely not.”
Ronnie hesitated, “So why did they send you?” Another hesitation, “Are you the Irish mob or something?”
Kaden felt a little relieved and smiled, “No, I am not the Irish mob. I am a close family friend that…”
“So, how about you just leave me the phone number for her sister and I will get Vee to call her?” Ronnie broke in.
Kaden sighed, “I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Kaden pursed his lips, the girl was starting to get agitated and he wished he could just sit down and talk honestly with her, but that wasn’t possible…
“Okay, then I guess our conversation is over…”
Kaden cursed silently as he felt his one chance slipping away…
“So I will let you out,” Ronnie stood, “And I don’t think I have to tell you not to come back or I will call the police…”
“Has Vee been experiencing any pain through her midsection?” he blurted, having no idea what else to say.
Veronica sat down again, her mouth agape.
He glanced at her, feeling hopeful as she asked, “How did you know?”
He had to run with it now, “Because she has a genetic condition that needs to be treated. That’s why I am here. Her sister, Cassidy, also has it.”
Veronica was stunned, “I told her it was more than just a belly ache.” She looked away, biting her lip.
“I need her to come back with me…”
Ronnie returned her gaze to his, “Well can’t she just get treated here?”
Kaden shook his head, “No, it’s genetic and the people she is related to all live in Terravane Valley, so she has to come back with me to get treated.”
Veronica was finding the information overloading, “Is she going to die?”
Kaden avoided the question, “Her sister is very worried, it is very important we find her before it’s too late.”
Veronica shook her head in shock, “You can’t save her.”
Now Kaden was the one surprised, “What do you mean?”
Veronica had tears in her eyes, “Because she doesn’t exist.”