Authors: Cate Dean
“Damn it.” She closed her eyes briefly, took in a breath. “You’re going to let him go.”
“I won’t press charges.”
The cop cleared his throat. “We will see to his punishment, miss. And his wife will be informed, her car impounded until we find a better solution. I promise you, Lester will not sit behind the wheel again.”
He stood, gentle as he pulled Lester up, leading him to the car. Sirens announced the ambulance, and Eric was moved to a gurney, strapped in and transported to the ambulance so fast Annie had to run after the paramedic as he opened the driver’s door.
“I want to go with him.”
“Sorry, miss. No civilians in the ambulance. He’ll be taken to Briarton Clinic.”
Before she could argue he slammed the door and the ambulance took off. Annie sank to the curb.
“We’ll take you.” Penn crouched next to her, touched her arm. “He will be well tended, Annie. Briarton is one of the best private clinics in the area. Chelle, can you lock up? I’ll bring the car around.” She rubbed Annie’s arm, and the warmth of healing energy spread through her. “He’ll be fine. Just hold on to that, and wait here.”
Annie covered her face, shaking as her adrenaline faded. Penn’s gift helped her keep steady. She got her feet under her, slowly stood. She wanted to be ready when Penn showed up with the car.
If Eric had less than a full recovery, she would go after—
God help me, he’s just a harmless old man.
She let out her breath, pulled her phone out of her jacket pocket. It took three tries before her shaking fingers let her punch in the number.
“Please be there, please be there . . .”
“Annie?” Claire’s sleepy voice had her choking back a sob. “Are you all right?”
“Eric,” she whispered. Clearing the tears out of her throat, she tried again. “Eric’s been in an accident.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” She heard rustling. “How is he?”
“I don’t know—the ambulance just took him to the local clinic. God, Claire—the thought of losing him nearly broke me.”
“Annie.” She recognized that tone. It was the “I know you can get through this” voice she used every time Annie wanted to give up on her spell craft. “Go to the clinic, be with him. If it was serious, he would be headed to a city hospital right now, and not the local version. Zach and I will be there tomorrow morning, your time. Just hang in there, and call me when you need to.”
Annie clutched the phone. “Thanks. I wish you were here.”
“Are you alone?”
“No.” She moved to the street when a zippy little two seater pulled up next to her. “I met a couple of witches. Get this,” she felt better already, hearing Claire’s voice, feeling her calming presence. “They run a New Age store, here in Briarton, they’re Americans, and they could be us.”
“I look forward to meeting them.”
“I have to go. Penn just got here with her car. She’s the me of the team.” Claire’s laughter eased the weight on her heart. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. You sure you don’t want me to meet you at the airport?”
“Positive. Especially with Eric hurt. You stay put—we’ll find you.”
“Call as soon as you get here.”
“The moment I can. He will be all right, Annie.”
“Yeah, I know.” She blinked, tears stinging her eyes. “I love you, Claire—you know that?”
“Always have. I love you, Annie. Now go take care of your handsome hunk.”
Annie smiled, just like Claire probably intended. “See you tomorrow.”
She ended the call, feeling better, and moved around the hood to climb in the passenger seat.
“Everything okay?” Penn studied her, brown eyes dark with sympathy.
“Yeah. I’ll be better once I know how Eric is.”
“Then let’s get you to him.” She revved the engine and took off, squealing from zero to fifty in the time it took Annie to blink.
“Oh, hell.” Annie held on. “I was right—you are me.”
s Annie okay?” Zach stood in the doorway, his hair flat on one side, rubbing his face.
“She’s fine. Come here, sweetheart.” Claire held out her hand, twined her fingers with Zach’s, and gently told him about Eric.
“But he’s okay, right?” The panic in his voice had Claire wrapping her arm around his waist and tucking him against her side. “He’s going to be fine?”
“I hope so, Zach. It sounds serious, but not life threatening. We will know soon enough.” She kissed his cheek and stood, pulling him to his feet. “Are you packed?”
“Kinda.” He scuffed his bare foot against the rug, avoiding her gaze.
“And how close is kinda to being done?”
“Sorta.” He smiled up at her, peeking through his sleep tangled hair.
Claire couldn’t stop herself; she laughed, shaking her head. “You’re lucky I love you, brat. Now get—back to bed, and in the morning you can finish that kinda sorta packing. We have to pick up Marcus before we head to the airport.”
Zach groaned. “Does he really have to go?”
“Annie invited him.” He opened his mouth to make a comment. “No. He is traveling with us, so get over yourself.”
Those clear blue eyes widened. “Mom—you sound—”
“Like Annie.” Smiling, Claire, shooed him to the door. “Missing her, I guess. More than I expected. Now go back to bed. And if you finish that packing early enough, we can stop for breakfast at Lily’s before we go.”
He stopped his shuffle and turned around, the look on his face so hopeful she had to bite her lip to keep from smiling. “Steak breakfast burritos?”
With a whoop he dashed down the hall, jumping up to slap the top of the doorway before he disappeared inside. Claire set the smile free, and took her own advice, climbing into bed.
Bribery may not be the best option, but oh, how it works.
Annie would be laughing like a loon.
Claire’s smile faded at the thought of her, dealing with Eric’s injuries, and what may come after, on her own.
“Hang on, Annie.” She offered up a silent prayer. “We’ll be with you soon.”
laire paced from the newsstand tucked against the wall of the airport concourse back to their gate, trying to work off some of her frustration, and avoid the cause of it.
Zach slouched in one of the uncomfortable chairs, baseball cap pulled low, attention fixed on his cell phone. Marcus sat across from him, a study in black and irritation. When she got close enough to hear them sniping at each other, she did an about face and headed back to the newsstand.
Their boarding announcement blared over the system. Since Marcus insisted on paying for first class, they would board first. With a sigh, Claire moved to them, picked up her small backpack.
“Mom?” Zach’s voice was timid. “Is this the first time I’ve been on a plane?”
The panic he tried to hide had her crouching in front of him. “Yes, sweetheart.” As far as she knew. What he did before—before he fell, when he spent centuries as a guardian here—could have involved him flying on a plane. But he couldn’t, didn’t, remember any of it. She didn’t know whether to be grateful or not.
Taking a shaky breath, he nodded, pulled the cap off so she could see him. Golden brown hair tumbled to his shoulders; no matter how often, or how short she cut it, in a few days it returned to the length it was when he fell.
“I think—I might be afraid of flying.”
“Sweet heaven—why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“That’s my job, Zach.” His smile eased the knot in her stomach. Sitting next to him, she took his hand, his skin like ice. “Can you get on the plane?”
“I think so. I’m sorry, Mom—I didn’t want to ruin your holiday. But I do feel sick to my stomach, like someone punched me. And he knew it,” one hand waved at Marcus, “even though I used every trick to hide it.”
“I am a healer, Zach.”
He pushed hair off his face, glared at Marcus. “I thought you were a genie.”
“Jinn.” Amusement edged Marcus’ sand rough voice. “As you well know, since you thoroughly researched me. I recognize an interrogation when I am on the receiving end of one. While you were bringing suitcases to the car,” he said, answering the question Claire was about to ask. “And the panic he fought to hide was considerable. I did what I could to ease it.”
Zach stared at him. “I felt better—but I thought it was because you agreed not to tell Mom. You shook my hand—that’s when you—according to the myth you need permission—”
“I imagine it was a combination, and I do prefer healing once I’ve asked, though it not a requirement, despite what you read. I deduced that you would say no, regardless of the relief I could offer.”
“Yeah,” Zach studied his shoes. “You were right. Thanks.” He looked over at Marcus, held out his hand. “Thank you. It helped.”
Marcus stood, shook his hand. “It is what I do, Zach.”
Claire looked up at him, mouthed a thank you, and helped Zach stand. “Are you ready, sweetheart? I’ll be right here. And there will be plenty of sick bags, just in case.”
“Mom—gross.” He swung his backpack over one shoulder, shoved the baseball cap on his head. “If I do puke in front of everyone, just shoot me.”
nnie!” She lifted her head. The sight of Zach running along the sidewalk in front of the clinic had her smiling. Relief swept through her when she saw Claire and Marcus behind him. “We made it!”
He wrapped his arms around her, surprising her with his public affection.
“Hey, handsome.” She tightened her grip, until he started to squirm. With a laugh she let him go. “How was the flight?”
Zach turned an odd shade of pale. Claire came to his rescue, rubbing his arm. “He has a sensitive stomach.”
“Mom!” Color blossomed on his cheeks. “I only—it only happened once.”
“You did great, honey.” Moving forward, she wrapped her arms around Annie. And for the first time since the accident Annie took a real breath. “How are you?”
“Better, now you’re here.” She glanced over Claire’s shoulder. “Hey, Marcus.”
He nodded, looking devastating, as usual. “Annie. I will examine Eric, if you wish.”
“I wish. Just keep walking when his doctor tries to stop you. And I use the title loosely. Come on,” she draped one arm over Claire’s shoulders. “Eric will be thrilled to see you.”
“How is he?”
“Unhappy, and uncomfortable, with a broken ankle, assorted bruises—but he’ll be okay.” The miracle of those words still brought the threat of tears. “He’ll be just fine.”
Claire hugged her waist as they headed to the door. “It’s so good to see you. Little mother.”
“God—I haven’t even had time to obsess. Thanks for the reminder.”
“My pleasure.” Claire smiled up at her, and pulled away, her mother voice in full bloom. “Zachariah! Get yourself off that wall.”
He grinned, but jumped down, and behaved himself all the way up to Eric’s room—probably a challenge, with all the equipment stored in halls, and tucked in corners. Michelle told her the clinic was in the middle of a major renovation, after a huge donation from a benefactor. Both she and Penn had stayed with Annie, distracting her until the Nazi doctor let her see Eric.
They stopped in the doorway of the private room, arranged by Marcus. She would have to thank him for it. Later, when she was up to facing his smirk.
Eric was awake, propped up on pillows, his left ankle in a fresh cast. They slathered it on him while Annie was outside; she couldn’t stand watching him flinch every time they touched him, and the militant nurse wouldn’t let her near him.
That nurse came at them the second they stepped in the room. “You cannot bring so many people here, Mr. Malone is still in a fragile—”
Claire ran over her with the icy politeness she used on difficult customers.
“I believe that is Eric’s decision. And he looks quite lively to me.”
The nurse sputtered, staring down her nose at Claire. “You—you will not—”
“Let them in, Mrs. Ames.” Eric smiled, and she blushed. “They came all the way from California to see me.”
“As you wish, Mr. Malone. All you need is to press the call button if you want them to leave.”
“Thank you.” With a stiff nod she marched out. “When am I getting out of here?”
Annie moved to the bed, kissed him. “As soon as I can spring you, handsome.”
“Now would work for me. Hey, Claire.” She came forward, took his outstretched hand. “Not the welcome I pictured.”
“We’re an informal group.” She cradled his face, studied him. “Marcus would like to take a look, if you’re up for it.”
“God, yes.” He shifted, and stilled, pain tightening his face. “This cast is already making me long for a nice, sharp hanger. Annie,” he settled against the pillows, let out a shaky breath. “Can you get the doctor? I want to sign myself out of here.”
“Are you sure?”
“I trust Marcus—and I want the closest thing here to my own bed. Along with some pajamas that aren’t air conditioned.”
“It’ll be my pleasure.” She strode out of the room, ready to do battle. With her friends here she felt powerful again, connected. Eric was going to be okay—better than okay. Tears stung her eyes, and she let them go, smiling for the first time since the accident. She touched her stomach, awed by the new life in there, growing, waiting. “It’s good now, sweetheart.” And she didn’t feel the least bit foolish talking to that life. “Daddy’s on the mend, and Mommy will keep you safe, no matter what.”
She made that promise, to her baby, to herself. No matter what.
ach walked down the main street of Briarton—the high street, Mom called it. It was like walking in a postcard.
He used his phone to snap some pics to show Mom, who stayed back at the hotel to keep Annie company. Eric was better, since Marcus did his hoodoo, but he was still stuck in one place for a while.
Just the thought of Marcus soured Zach’s mood. He put the man and what he meant to Mom out of his mind, and started looking for the New Age shop.