Blood brothers, p.19

Blood Brothers, page 19

 part  #1 of  Sign of Seven Series

 

Blood Brothers


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Chapter Eighteen

 

  Chapter Eighteen

  CAL DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TIME THEY'D FALLEN into bed. But when he opened his eyes the thin winter light eked through the window. Through it, he saw the snow was still falling in the perfect, fat, white flakes of a Hollywood Christmas movie.

  In the hush only a snowfall could create was steady and somehow satisfied snoring. It came from Lump, who was stretched over the foot of the bed like a canine blanket. That was something Cal generally discouraged, but right now, the sound, the weight, the warmth were exactly right.

  From now on, he determined, the damn dog was going everywhere with him.

  Because his foot and ankle were currently under the bulk of the dog, Cal shifted to pull free. The movement had Quinn stirring, giving a little sigh as she wiggled closer and managed to wedge her leg between his. She wore flannel, which shouldn't have been remotely sexy, and she'd managed to pin his arm during the night so it was now alive with needles and pins. And that should've been, at least mildly, annoying.

  Instead, it was exactly right, too.

  Since it was, since they were cuddled up together in bed with Hollywood snow falling outside the window, he couldn't think of a single reason not to take advantage of it.

  Smiling, he slid a hand under her T-shirt, over warm, smooth flesh. When he cupped her breast he felt her heart beat under his palm, slow and steady as Lump's snoring. He stroked, a lazy play of fingertips as he watched her face. Lightly, gently, he teased her nipple, arousing himself as he imagined taking it into his mouth, sliding his tongue over her.

  She sighed again.

  He trailed his hand down, tracing those fingertips over her belly, under the flannel to skim down her thigh. Up again. Down, then up, a whispering touch that eased closer, closer to her center.

  And the sound she made in sleep was soft and helpless.

  She was wet when he brushed over her, hot when he dipped inside her. When he pressed, he lowered his mouth to hers to take her gasp.

  She came as she woke, her body simply erupting as her mind leaped out of sleep and into shock and pleasure.

  "Oh God!"

  "Shh. " He laughed against her lips. "You'll wake the dog. "

  He tugged down her pants as he rolled. Before she could clear her mind, he pinned her, and he filled her.

  "Oh. Well. Jesus. " The words hitched and shook. "Good morning. "

  He laughed again, and bracing himself, set a slow and torturous pace. She fought to match it, to hold back and take that slow climb with him, but it flashed through her again, and flung her up.

  "God. God. God. I don't think I can-"

  "Shh, shh," he repeated, and brought his mouth down to toy with hers. "I'll go slow," he whispered. "You just go. "

  She could do nothing else. Her system was already wrecked, her body already his. Utterly his. When he took her up again, she was too breathless to cry out.

  THOROUGHLY PLEASURED, THOROUGHLY USED, Quinn lay under Cal's weight. He'd eased down so that his head rested between her breasts, and she could play with his hair. She imagined it was some faraway Sunday morning where they had nothing more pressing to worry about than if they'd make love again before breakfast, or make love after.

  "Do you take some kind of special vitamin?" she wondered.

  "Hmm?"

  "I mean, you've got some pretty impressive stamina going for you. "

  She felt his lips curve against her. "Just clean living, Blondie. "

  "Maybe it's the bowling. Maybe bowling. . . Where's Lump?"

  "He got embarrassed about halfway through the show. " Cal turned his head, gestured. "Over there. "

  Quinn looked, saw the dog on the floor, his face wedged in the corner. She laughed till her sides ached. "We embarrassed the dog. That's a first for me. God! I feel good. How can I feel so good after last night?" Then she shook her head, stretched up her arms before wrapping them around Cal. "I guess that's the point, isn't it? Even in a world gone to hell, there's still this. "

  "Yeah. " He sat up then, reached down to brush her tumbled hair as he studied her. "Quinn. " He took her hand now, played with her fingers.

  "Cal," she said, imitating his serious tone.

  "You crawled through a blizzard to help save my dog. "

  "He's a good dog. Anyone would have done the same. "

  "No. You're not naive enough to think that. Fox and Gage, yeah. For the dog, and for me. Layla and Cybil, maybe. Maybe it was being caught in the moment, or maybe they're built that way. "

  She touched his face, skimmed her fingers under those patient gray eyes. "No one was going to leave that dog out there, Cal. "

  "Then I'd say that dog is pretty lucky to have people like you around. So am I. You crawled through the snow, toward that thing. You dug in the snow with your bare hands. "

  "If you're trying to make a hero out of me. . . Go ahead," she decided. "I think I like the fit. "

  "You whistled with your fingers. "

  Now she grinned. "Just a little something I picked up along the way. I can actually whistle a lot louder than that, when I'm not out of breath, freezing, and quivering with terror. "

  "I love you. "

  "I'll demonstrate sometime when. . . What?"

  "I never thought to say those words to any woman I wasn't related to. I was just never going to go there. "

  If she'd been given a hard, direct jolt of electricity to her heart, it couldn't have leaped any higher. "Would you mind saying them again, while I'm paying better attention?"

  "I love you. "

  There it went again, she thought. Leaps and bounds. "Because I can whistle with my fingers?"

  "That might've been the money shot. "

  "God. " She shut her eyes. "I want you to love me, and I really like to get what I want. But. " She took a breath. "Cal, if this is because of last night, because I helped get Lump, then-"

  "This is because you think if you eat half my slice of pizza it doesn't count. "

  "Well, it doesn't, technically. "

  "Because you always know where your keys are, and you can think about ten things at the same time. Because you don't back down, and your hair's like sunlight. Because you tell the truth and you know how to be a friend. And for dozens of reasons I haven't figured out yet. Dozens more I may never figure out. But I know I can say to you what I never thought to say to anyone. "

  She hooked her arms around his neck, rested her forehead on his. She had to just breathe for a moment, just breathe her way through the beauty of it as she often did with a great work of art or a song that brought tears to her throat.

  "This is a really good day. " She touched her lips to his. "This is a truly excellent day. "

  They sat for a while, holding each other while the dog snored in the corner, and the snow fell outside the windows.

  When Cal went downstairs, he followed the scent of coffee into the kitchen, and found Gage scowling as he slapped a skillet onto the stove. They grunted at each other as Cal got a clean mug out of the dishwasher.

  "Looks like close to three out there already, and it's still coming. "

  "I got eyes. " Gage ripped open a pound of bacon. "You sound chipper about it. "

  "It's a really good day. "

  "I'd probably think so, too, if I started it off with some morning nookie. "

  "God, men are crude. " Cybil strolled in, her dark eyes bleary.

  "Then you ought to plug your ears when you're around our kind. Bacon gets fried, eggs get scrambled," Gage told them. "Anybody doesn't like the options should try another restaurant. "

  Cybil poured her coffee, stood studying him over the rim as she took the first sip. He hadn't shaved or combed that dark mass of hair. He was obviously morning irritable, and none of that, she mused, made him any less attractive.

  Too bad.

  "You know what I've noticed about you, Gage?"

  "What's that?"
<
br />   "You've got a great ass, and a crappy attitude. Let me know when breakfast is ready," she added as she strolled out of the kitchen.

  "She's right. I've often said that about your ass and attitude. "

  "Phones are out," Fox announced as he came in, yanked open the refrigerator and pounced on a Coke. "Got ahold of my mother by cell. They're okay over there. "

  "Knowing your parents, they probably just had sex," Gage commented.

  "Hey! True," Fox said after a moment, "but, hey. "

  "He's got sex on the brain. "

  "Why wouldn't he? He's not sick or watching sports, the only two circumstances men don't necessarily have sex on the brain. "

  Gage laid bacon in the heated skillet. "Somebody make some toast or something. And we're going to need another pot of coffee. "

  "I've got to take Lump out. I'm not just letting him out on his own. "

  "I'll take him. " Fox leaned down to scratch Lump's head. "I want to walk around anyway. " He turned, nearly walked into Layla. "Hi, sorry. Ah. . . I'm going to take Lump out. Why don't you come along?"

  "Oh. I guess. Sure. I'll just get my things. "

  "Smooth," Gage commented when Layla left. "You're a smooth one, Fox. "

  "What?"

  "Good morning, really attractive woman. How would you like to trudge around with me in three feet of snow and watch a dog piss on a few trees? Before you've even had your coffee?"

  "It was just a suggestion. She could've said no. "

  "I'm sure she would have if she'd had a hit of caffeine so her brain was in gear. "

  "That must be why you only get lucky with women without brains. "

  "You're just spreading sunshine," Cal commented when Fox steamed out.

  "Make another damn pot of coffee. "

  "I need to bring in some wood, feed the generator, and start shoveling three feet of snow off the decks. Let me know when breakfast is ready. "

  Alone, Gage snarled, and turned the bacon. He still had the snarl when Quinn came in.

  "I thought I'd find everyone in here, but they're all scattered. " She got out a mug. "Looks like we need another pot of coffee. "

  Because she got the coffee down, Gage didn't have time to snap at her.

  "I'll take care of that. Anything else I can do to help?"

  He turned his head to look at her. "Why?"

  "Because I figure if I help you with breakfast, it takes us both off the cooking rotation for the next couple of meals. "

  He nodded, appreciating the logic. "Smart. You're the toast and additional coffee. "

  "Check. "

  He beat a dozen eggs while she got to work. She had a quick, efficient way about her, Gage noted. The quick wouldn't matter so much to Cal, but the efficient would be a serious plus. She was built, she was bright, and as he'd seen for himself last night, she had a wide streak of brave.

  "You're making him happy. "

  Quinn stopped, looked over. "Good, because he's making me happy. "

  "One thing, if you haven't figured it out by now. He's rooted here. This is his place. Whatever happens, the Hollow's always going to be Cal's place. "

  "I figured that out. " She plucked toast when it popped, dropped more bread in. "All things considered, it's a nice town. "

  "All things considered," Gage agreed, then poured the eggs into the second skillet.

  OUTSIDE, AS GAGE PREDICTED, FOX WATCHED Lump piss on trees. More entertaining, he supposed, had been watching the dog wade, trudge, and occasionally leap through the waist-high snow. It was the waist-high factor that had Fox and Layla stopping on the front deck, and Fox going to work with the shovel Cal had shoved into his hands on their way out.

  Still, it was great to be out in the snow globe of the morning, tossing the white stuff around while more of it pumped out of the sky.

  "Maybe I should go down, knock the snow off some of Cal's shrubs. "

  Fox glanced over at her. She had a ski cap pulled over her head, a scarf wrapped around her neck. Both had already picked up a layer of white. "You'll sink, then we'll be tossing you a lifeline to get you back. We'll dig out a path eventually. "

  "He doesn't seem to be spooked. " She kept an eagle eye on Lump. "I thought, after last night, he'd be skittish about going out. "

  "Short-term doggie memory. Probably for the best. "

  "I won't forget it. "

  "No. " He shouldn't have asked her to come out, Fox realized. Especially since he couldn't quite figure out how to broach the whole job deal, which had been part of the idea for having her tag along.

  He was usually better at this stuff, dealing with people. Dealing with women. Now, he worked on carving down a shovel-width path across the deck to the steps, and just jumped in.

  "So, Cal said you're looking for a job. "

  "Not exactly. I mean I'm going to have to find some work, but I haven't been looking. "

  "My secretary-office manager-assistant. " He dumped snow, dug the shovel back down. "We never settled on a title, now that I think about it. Anyway, she's moving to Minneapolis. I need somebody to do the stuff she does. "

  Damn Quinn, she thought. "The stuff. "

  It occurred to Fox that he was considered fairly articulate in court. "Filing, billing, answering phones, keeping the calendar, rescheduling when necessary, handling clients, typing documents and correspondence. She's a notary, too, but that's not a necessity right off. "

  "What software does she use?"

  "I don't know. I'd have to ask her. " Did she use any software? How was he supposed to know?

  "I don't know anything about secretarial work, or office management. I don't know anything about the law. "

  Fox knew tones, and hers was defensive. He kept shoveling. "Do you know the alphabet?"

  "Of course I know the alphabet, but the point-"

  "Would be," he interrupted, "if you know the alphabet you can probably figure out how to file. And you know how to use a phone, which means you can answer one and make calls from one. Those would be essential job skills for this position. Can you use a keyboard?"

  "Yes, but it depends on-"

  "She can show you whatever the hell she does in that area. "

  "It doesn't sound as if you know a lot about what she does. "

  He also knew disapproval when he heard it. "Okay. " He straightened, leaned on the shovel, and looked dead into her eyes. "She's been with me since I set up. I'm going to miss her like I'd miss my arm. But people move on, and the rest of us have to deal. I need somebody to put papers where they belong and find them when I need to have them, to send out bills so I can pay mine, to tell me when I'm due in court, to answer the phone we hope rings so I'll have somebody to bill, and basically maintain some kind of order so I can practice law. You need a job and a paycheck. I think we could help each other out. "

  "Cal asked you to offer me a job because Quinn asked him to ask you. "

  "That would be right. Doesn't change the bottom line. "

  No, it didn't, she supposed. But it still griped. "It wouldn't be permanent. I'm only looking for something to fill in until. . . "

  "You move on. " Fox nodded. "Works for me. That way, neither of us are stuck. We're just helping each other out for a while. " He shoveled off two more blades of snow, then stopped just to lean on it with his eyes on hers.

  "Besides, you knew I was going to offer you the job because you pick up that sort of thing. "

  "Quinn asked Cal to ask you to offer it to me right in front of me. "

  "You pick up on that sort of thing," he repeated. "That's your part in this, or part of your part. You get a sense of people, of situations. "

  "I'm not psychic, if that's what you're saying. " The defensive was back in her tone.

  "You drove to the Hollow, when you'd never been here before. You knew where to go, what roads to take. "

  "I don't know what that was. " She crossed her arms, and the move wasn't ju
st defensive, Fox thought. It was stubborn.

  "Sure you do, it just freaks you. You took off with Quinn that first night, went with her, a woman you'd never met. "

  "She was a sane alternative to a big, evil slug," Layla said dryly.

  "You didn't just run, didn't haul ass to your room and lock the door. You got in her car with her, came with her out here-where you'd also never been, and walked into a house with two strange men in it. "

  "Strange might be the operative word. I was scared, confused, and running on adrenaline. " She looked away from him, toward where Lump was rolling in the snow as if it were a meadow of daisies. "I trusted my instincts. "

  "Instincts is one word for it. I bet when you were working in that clothes shop you had really good instincts about what your customers wanted, what they'd buy. Bet you're damn good at that. "

  He went back to shoveling when she said nothing. "Bet you've always been good at that sort of thing. Quinn gets flashes from the past, like Cal. Apparently Cybil gets them of possible future events. I'd say you're stuck with me, Layla, in the now. "

  "I can't read minds, and I don't want anyone reading mine. "

  "It's not like that, exactly. " He was going to have to work with her, he decided. Help her figure out what she had and how to use it. And he was going to have to give her some time and some space to get used to the idea.

  "Anyway, we're probably going to be snowed in here for the weekend. I've got stuff next week, but when we can get back to town, you could come in when it suits you, let Mrs. H show you the ropes. We'll see how you feel about the job then. "

  "Look, I'm grateful you'd offer-"

  "No, you're not. " Now he smiled and tossed another shovel of snow off the deck. "Not so much. I've got instincts, too. "

  It wasn't just humor, but understanding. The stiffness went out of her as she kicked at the snow. "There's gratitude, it's just buried under the annoyance. "

  Cocking his head, he held out the shovel. "Want to dig it out?"

  And she laughed. "Let's try this. If I do come in, and do decide to take the job, it's with the stipulation that if either of us decides it's not working, we just say so. No hard feelings. "

  "That's a deal. " He held out a hand, took hers to seal it. Then just held it while the snow swirled around them.

  She had to feel it, he thought, had to feel that immediate and tangible link. That recognition.

  Cybil cracked the door an inch. "Breakfast is ready. "

  Fox released Layla's hand, turned. He let out a quiet breath before calling the dog home.

  PRACTICAL MATTERS HAD TO BE SEEN TO. SNOW needed to be shoveled, firewood hauled and stacked. Dishes had to be washed and food prepared. Cal might have felt like the house, which had always seemed roomy, grew increasingly tight with six people and one dog stuck inside it. But he knew they were safer together.

  "Not just safer. " Quinn took her turn plying the shovel. She considered digging out a path to Cal's storage shed solid exercise in lieu of a formal workout. "I think all this is meant. This enforced community. It's giving us time to get used to each other, to learn how to function as a group. "

  "Here, let me take over there. " Cal set aside the gas can he'd used to top off the generator.

  "No, see, that's not working as a group. You guys have to learn to trust the females to carry their load. Gage being drafted to make breakfast today is an example of the basics in non-gender-specific teamwork. "

  Non-gender-specific teamwork, he thought. How could he not love a woman who'd use a term like that?

  "We can all cook," she went on. "We can all shovel snow, haul firewood, make beds. We can all do what we have to do-play to our strengths, okay, but so far it's pretty much been like a middle school dance. "

  "How?"

  "Boys on one side, girls on the other, and nobody quite sure how to get everyone together. Now we are. " She stopped, rolled her shoulders. "And we have to figure it out. Even with us, Cal, even with how we feel about each other, we're still figuring each other out, learning how to trust each other. "

  "If this is about the stone, I understand you might be annoyed I didn't tell you sooner. "

  "No, I'm really not. " She shoveled a bit more, but it was mostly for form now. Her arms were killing her. "I started to be, even wanted to be, but I couldn't stir it up. Because I get that the three of you have been a unit all your lives. I don't imagine you remember a time when you weren't. Added to that you went through together-I don't think it's an exaggeration to say an earth-shattering experience. The three of you are like a. . . a body with three heads isn't right," she said and passed off the shovel.

  "We're not the damn Borg. "

  "No, but that's closer. You're a fist, tight, even closed off to a certain extent, but-" She wiggled her gloved fingers. "Individual. You work together, it's instinctive. And now. " She held up her other hand. "This other part comes along. So we're figuring out how to make them mesh. " She brought her hands together, fingers linked.

  "That actually makes sense. " And brought on a slight twinge of guilt. "I've been doing a little digging on my own. "

  "You don't mean in the snow. And on your own equals you've told Fox and Gage. "

  "I probably mentioned it. We don't know where Ann Hawkins was for a couple of years, where she gave birth to her sons, where she stayed before she came back to the Hollow-to her parents' house. So I was thinking about extended family. Cousins, aunts, uncles. And figuring a woman that pregnant might not be able to travel very far, not back then. So maybe she'd have been in the general area. Ten, twenty miles in the sixteen hundreds was a hell of a lot farther than ten or twenty miles is today. "

  "That's a good idea. I should have had it. "

  "And I should've brought it up before. "

  "Yeah. Now that you have, you should give it to Cyb, give her whatever information you have. She's the research queen. I'm good, she's better. "

  "And I'm a rank amateur. "

  "Nothing rank about you. " Grinning, she took a leap, bounced up into his arms. The momentum had him skidding. She squealed, as much with laughter as alarm as he tipped backward. He flopped; she landed face-first.

  Breathless, she dug in, got two handfuls of snow to mash into his face before she tried to roll away. He caught her at the waist, dragged her back while she screamed with helpless laughter.

  "I'm a champion snow wrestler," he warned her. "You're out of your league, Blondie. So-"

  She managed to get a hand between his legs for a nice, firm stroke. Then taking advantage of the sudden and dramatic dip of his IQ, shoved a messy ball of snow down the back of his neck.

  "Those moves are against the rules of the SWF. "

  "Check the book, buddy. This is intergender play. "

  She tried to scramble up, fell, then whooshed out a breath when his weight pinned her. "And still champion," he announced, and was about to lower his mouth to hers when the door opened.

  "Kids," Cybil told them, "there's a nice warm bed upstairs if you want to play. And FYI? The power just came back on. " She glanced back over her shoulder. "Apparently the phones are up, too. "

  "Phones, electricity. Computer. " Quinn wiggled out from under Cal. "I have to check my e-mail. "

  CYBIL LEANED ON THE DRYER AS LAYLA LOADED towels into the washing machine in Cal's laundry room. "They looked like a couple of horny snow people. Covered, crusted, pink-cheeked, and groping. "

  "Young love is immune to climatic conditions. "

  Cybil chuckled. "You know, you don't have to take on the laundry detail. "

  "Clean towels are a memory at this point, and the power may not stay on. Besides, I'd rather be warm and dry in here washing towels than cold and wet out there shoveling snow. " She tossed back her hair. "Especially since no one's groping me. "

  "Good point. But I was bringing that up as, by my calculations, you and Fox are going to have to flip for cooking detail tonight. "

/>   "Quinn hasn't cooked yet, or Cal. "

  "Quinn helped with breakfast. It's Cal's house. "

  Defeated, Layla stared at the machine. "Hell. I'll take dinner. "

  "You can dump it on Fox, using laundry detail as leverage. "

  "No, we don't know if he can cook, and I can. "

  Cybil narrowed her eyes. "You can cook? This hasn't been mentioned before. "

  "If I'd mentioned it, I'd have had to cook. "

  Lips pursed, Cybil nodded slowly. "Diabolical and self-serving logic. I like it. "

  "I'll check the supplies, see what I can come up with. Something-" She broke off, stepped forward. "Quinn? What is it?"

  "We have to talk. All of us. " So pale her eyes looked bruised, Quinn stood in the doorway.

  "Q? Honey. " Cybil reached out in support. "What's happened?" She remembered Quinn's dash to the computer for e-mail. "Is everyone all right? Your parents?"

  "Yes. Yes. I want to tell it all at once, to everyone. We need to get everyone. "

  She sat in the living room with Cybil perched on the arm of her chair for comfort. Quinn wanted to curl up in Cal's lap as she'd done once before. But it seemed wrong.

  It all seemed wrong now.

  She wished the power had stayed off forever. She wished she hadn't contacted her grandmother and prodded her into seeking out family history.

  She didn't want to know what she knew now.

  No going back, she reminded herself. And what she had to say could change everything that was to come.

  She glanced at Cal. She knew she had him worried. It wasn't fair to drag it out. How would he look at her afterward? she wondered.

  Yank off the bandage, Quinn told herself, and get it over with.

  "My grandmother got the information I'd asked her about. Pages from the family Bible. There were even some records put together by a family historian in the late eighteen hundreds. I, ah, have some information on the Clark branch, Layla, that may help you. No one ever pursued that end very far, but you may be able to track back, or out from what I have now. "

  "Okay. "

  "The thing is, it looks like the family was, we'll say, pretty religious about their own tracking back. My grandfather, not so much, but his sister, a couple of cousins, they were more into it. They, apparently, get a lot of play out of the fact their ancestors were among the early Pilgrims who settled in the New World. So there isn't just the Bible, and the pages added to that over time. They've had genealogies done tracing roots back to England and Ireland in the fifteen hundreds. But what applies to us, to this, is the branch that came over here. Here to Hawkins Hollow," she said to Cal.

  She braced herself. "Sebastian Deale brought his wife and three daughters to the settlement here in sixteen fifty-one. His eldest daughter's name was Hester. Hester Deale. "

  "Hester's Pool," Fox murmured. "She's yours. "

  "That's right. Hester Deale, who according to town lore denounced Giles Dent as a witch on the night of July seventh, sixteen fifty-two. Who eight months later delivered a daughter, and when that daughter was two weeks old, drowned herself in the pond in Hawkins Wood. There's no father documented, nothing on record. But we know who fathered her child. We know what fathered her child. "

  "We can't be sure of that. "

  "We know it, Caleb. " However much it tore inside her, Quinn knew it. "We've seen it, you and I. And Layla, Layla experienced it. He raped her. She was barely sixteen. He lured her, he overpowered her-mind and body, and he got her with child. One that carried his blood. " To keep them still, Quinn gripped her hands together. "A half-demon child. She couldn't live with it, with what had been done to her, with what she'd brought into the world. So she filled her pockets with stones and went into the water to drown. "

  "What happened to her daughter?" Layla asked.

  "She died at twenty, after having two daughters of her own. One of them died before her third birthday, the other went on to marry a man named Duncan Clark. They had three sons and a daughter. Both she, her husband, and her youngest son were killed when their house burned down. The other children escaped. "

  "Duncan Clark must be where I come in," Layla said.

  "And somewhere along the line, one of them hooked up with a gypsy from the Old World," Cybil finished. "Hardly seems fair. They get to descend from a heroic white witch, and we get the demon seed. "

  "It's not a joke," Quinn snapped.

  "No, and it's not a tragedy. It just is. "

  "Damn it, Cybil, don't you see what this means? That thing out there is my-probably our-great-grandfather times a dozen generations. It means we're carrying some part of that in us. "

  "And if I start to sprout horns and a tail in the next few weeks, I'm going to be very pissed off. "

  "Oh, fuck that!" Quinn pushed up, rounded on her friend. "Fuck the Cybilese. He raped that girl to get to us, three and a half centuries ago, but what he planted led to this. What if we're not here to stop it, not here to help this end? What if we're here to see that it doesn't stop? To play some part in hurting them?"

  "If your brain wasn't mushy with love you'd see that's a bullshit theory. Panic reaction with a heavy dose of self-pity to spice it up. " Cybil's voice was brutally cool. "We're not under some demon's thumb. We're not going to suddenly jump sides and put on the uniform of some dark entity who tries to kill a dog to get his rocks off. We're exactly who we were five minutes ago, so stop being stupid, and pull yourself together. "

  "She's right. Not about being stupid," Layla qualified. "But about being who we are. If all this is part of it, then we have to find a way to use it. "

  "Fine. I'll practice getting my head to do three-sixties. "

  "Lame," Cybil decided. "You'd do better with the sarcasm, Q, if you weren't so worried Cal's going to dump you because of the big D for demon on your forehead. "

  "Cut it out," Layla commanded, and Cybil only shrugged.

  "If he does," Cybil continued equably, "he's not worth your time anyway. "

  In the sudden, thundering silence a log fell in the grate and shot sparks.

  "Did you print out the attachment?" Cal asked.

  "No, I. . . " Quinn trailed off, shook her head.

  "Let's go do that now, then we can take a look. " He rose, put a hand on Quinn's arm, and drew her from the room.

  "Nice job," Gage commented to Cybil. Before she could snarl, he angled his head. "That wasn't sarcasm. It was either literally or verbally give her a slap across the face. Verbally's trickier, but a lot less messy. "

  "Both are painful. " Cybil pushed to her feet. "If he hurts her, I'll twist off his dick and feed it to his dog. " With that, she stormed out of the room.

  "She's a little scary," Fox decided.

  "She's not the only one. I'm the one who'll be roasting his balls for dessert. " Layla headed out behind Cybil. "I have to find something to make for dinner. "

  "Oddly, I don't have much of an appetite right now. " Fox glanced at Gage. "How about you?"

  Upstairs, Cal waited until they'd stepped into the office currently serving as the men's dorm. He pushed Quinn's back to the door. The first kiss was hard, with sharp edges of anger. The second frustrated. And the last soft.

  "Whatever's in your head about you and me, because of this, get it out. Now. Understand?"

  "Cal-"

  "It's taken me my whole life to say what I said to you this morning. I love you. This doesn't change that. So pitch that out, Quinn, or you're going to piss me off. "

  "It wasn't-that isn't. . . " She closed her eyes as a storm of emotions blew through her. "All right, that was in there, part of it, but it's all of it, the whole. When I read the file she sent, it just. . . "

  "It kicked your feet out from under you. I get that. But you know what? I'm right here to help you up. " He lifted a hand, made a fist, then opened it.

  Understanding, she fought back tears. Understanding, she put her palm to his, inte
rlaced fingers.

  "Okay?"

  "Not okay," she corrected. "Thank God about covers it. "

  "Let's print it out, see what we've got. "

  "Yeah. " Steadier, she glanced at the room. The messy, unmade pullout, the piles of clothes. "Your friends are slobs. "

  "Yes. Yes, they are. "

  Together, they picked their way through the mess to the computer.
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