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Nickie returns to town eager to get back to her life and routine but soon discovers that there are many more changes headed her way. After an old school friend is murdered, a threatening message is written on the news article about her death and left for Nicki. She begins to wonder if maybe her friend had been killed as a warning to her, but why? Together, Nickie and Devon set out to figure out who is behind the murder and what it has to do with Nickie, but can they do it before she gets hurt again?
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Also by Melissa Stevens
Dictionary of Terms
Also by Melissa Stevens
About the Author
This book is a work of fiction. Names, character, places and incidents ether are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Melissa Stevens
All rights reserved.
Created with Vellum
Books and series from Melissa Stevens
The Kitsune Collection
(with Change, Fight, Hunt and Live in one volume)
City of Sin:
Released by Desire
Redeemed by Desire
Revealed by Desire
The Dragon Chronicles
(with Released by Desire, Redeemed by Desire and Revealed by Desire)
Diamond Bridal Agency:
To my grandparents: Bill and Elda Stephens and Bob and Mary Dunlap. You all meant the world to me and I feel very lonely now that you’re all gone.
I miss you.
After spending the summer working ten-hour shifts, four days a week, I was used to waking early. Now that school had started, I didn't have to be to work until eight o'clock. Plus, since Devon had to be up early in order to be at my folks place by five to start the day on the farm, I had more reasons to get up than to stay in bed. He had wanted me to sleep in, but I couldn't let my new fiancé leave for work without saying goodbye. That particular Monday morning I sent Devon off to work and I was catching up on local happenings after having been out of town for almost two weeks.
The picture on the news bulletin was a surprise. Without reading a word, the face staring back at me caught my attention. I knew her, or I once had. Annette Bigler, Annie to her friends, had been in my class all the way through school. We hadn't been best friends, but we'd been friendly. Since then, I'd seen her around town, enough to say hi now and then but I hadn't spent any time with her since the summer we'd graduated, almost ten years earlier. She'd gone away to school, and though she'd returned, we'd never really rekindled our relationship. I scanned the headlines, trying to figure out why her picture was there.
"BODY OF LOCAL GIRL FOUND ON CAMPUS"
The headline shocked me. Today would to be my first day back to work after more than a week and I knew nothing about a body having been found on campus. Since I was the Dean of Student's secretary, I should probably know something. I read further and found that she'd been discovered beaten and stabbed. She hadn't been killed there, but her body had been dumped after she was already dead. The police had few leads.
Glancing at the clock, I picked up my Personal Communication Device, also known as a PCD, and dialed my brother. I hoped that as a police officer, he would be able to tell me more. I also knew anything he did tell me would be accurate, not rumors or twisted to be more sensational like often happened with the news.
"Hey, Sis. It's awful early isn't it?" Raine answered, his voice sounded tired.
"Sorry," I hoped I hadn't woken him. "I just found out about Annie. Can you tell me anything other than what was in the news?"
"Not much," I heard him take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know you knew her." His voice was full of sympathy.
"We were friends in high school but we hadn't seen much of each other since."
"A student found her body on Central Campus yesterday afternoon. That area’s pretty deserted on the weekend. You know what it’s like. We don't know exactly how long she was there before she was discovered, but not more than a few hours. We figure who ever dumped her, wanted her to be found, but probably not until this morning."
I knew what he meant, the campus was long and narrow, a block wide but three long, each block was identified by location, there was North, Central and South campus.
"Any ideas who could have done it?" I wanted to know as much as he could tell me.
Noise rustled over the line and I assumed he was shaking his head.
"No. She was severely beaten and stabbed several times, but we haven't found the primary scene and we don't have any leads yet." He sounded unhappy about it and I didn't blame him.
Violent crimes weren't common in the area. I mean, yeah, there were domestic disputes, and the occasional bar fight, but something like murder? The last murder I remembered in the valley was more than five years earlier. This was going to shake the entire community.
"I know there are things the department holds back, keeps from the public, things that will help you find and identify whoever is responsible, but is there anything else you can tell me?"
"Not that-" He stopped mid-sentence and changed what he was saying. "Wait. You know she's one of you, right?"
"One of me?" I was confused.
"You know, like you and Devon."
"Oh." I suddenly realized what he was trying to say, without actually saying, that is. Annie was Kitsune. She was a shape-shifter like I am. "No, I didn't know. There are still so many that I haven't yet met."
"I don't know if it's going to be a factor, but I have to keep it in mind, even if I can't tell the rest of the force." His voice was full of reluctance and doubt. I knew that having to hide something about the victim from the rest of the investigators was hard for him, but I didn't see how it could be helped, at least not now.
"I understand." My mind was already churning with possibilities. "I'll keep my ears open and let you know if I hear anything that might help."
"I'd appreciate it."
"You sound tired." I changed the subject.
"I am. I ended up pulling a double, investigating this. I just got home and I'm on my way to bed."
"I'm sorry. I'll let you get some sleep." I felt bad for keeping him up. He had to be exhausted.
"No, I know she was your friend and you'll hear a different side of her life than I will. You might be able to help me out here," he sighed, "but not now, I’m exhausted. I need some sleep before I can process anymore."
"Get some rest, I'll talk to you later." We hung up and I typed a quick message to Devon, telling him that there had been a body found on campus the day before and I might be late getting home. He'd told me he would be on a tractor most of the day and I knew he likely wouldn't hear his PCD ring if I called, but this way the message would be waiting the next time he checked them.
Even though it was still a little early, I finished getting ready and went to my job. I knew there would be a pile of paperwork to catch up on, and because of the murder, even more.
Arriving at the office, I discovered the Dean, Mr. Willowby, was already in his office, engrossed in paperwork. I let him know I was there then got started on the stack that had built up on my desk while I was gone. I spent the day trying to get caught up with everything that had happened over the last two weeks, but it was difficult to concentrate with the constant calls from the media, as well as local people, wanting to know details about the body found on campus. When the first call came in, I checked with Mr. Willowby for the official response, and afterward told the callers the same thing.
"I'm sorry, Eastern Arizona College cannot comment on ongoing police investigations. Please contact the Safford-Thatcher Police Department for more information."
A few reporters were persistent and tried to get me to say more, but I repeated myself until they gave up.
I'm not sure I'd ever been happier to see five o'clock arrive so that I could leave. I hadn't made much progress on getting caught up and the constant ring of incoming calls had me down to my last nerve.
I got home and made my way up the stairs to my third floor apartment, expecting Devon to be there, only to find the place empty. I checked the electronic lock panel next to the door. The entry log said no one had been inside since I'd left that morning. I frowned, wondering where Devon was as I started toward the bedroom to change out of my suit. As I turned toward the bedroom, I spotted a piece of paper on the floor near the door.
After the last thing I'd found under my door I wasn't sure I really wanted to know what this was, but I picked it up anyway. It was a printout of the news article I'd read that morning about Annie, but someone had slashed "SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU" across the front with a red marker. Rolling my eyes, I set it on the table next to the door and went to change clothes.
I peeled out of my suit and hung it up. I was still standing in my underwear, flipping through the clothes hanging in the closet, trying to find something to wear when I heard the front door open. I froze. I scented the air and caught the smoky fragrance that was Devon, but I wasn't sure if it was from him coming in or a remnant from him sleeping in my bed. I really needed to learn to differentiate between old scents and fresh ones.
"Nick?" Devon's voice called from the living room. I let out the breath I'd been holding and went back to looking for something to wear.
"In here." I called back, pulling a sundress off a hanger. I quickly pulled it over my head and, still tugging it down, went to see him.
He stood just inside, frowning down at the threatening note. "Where did this come from?"
"I found it inside the door when I came in. You're later than I expected, I thought you'd be here when I got home."
He looked up. "I got hung up at your folks, then I stopped and picked up dinner." He lifted the bag still hanging from one hand. "I don't like this."
"I'm not real crazy about it, but what are we gonna do? I refuse to be terrorized or intimidated by people too cowardly to identify themselves."
He sighed. "Will you, at least, agree to be careful? The idea that what happened to Annie could happen to you scares me." He looked back down at the paper with its angry red markings.
I watched him for a second, then sighed. "I won't do anything stupid. I'll watch out and avoid situations where I could be taken unaware, but I can't let these threats rule my life."
"I don't expect you to, I just want you to be careful. Have you at least told the Anikitos about it?"
Anikitos is what we call our pack leaders, at least among the Kitsune who become wolves. Bill, our Anikitos has been a friend of my family for years. He’s is like a second father to me. Knowing and trusting him had helped my transition when I discovered the Kitsune and that I am one.
I shook my head. "I haven't had a chance. I've been home less than ten minutes." Devon looked at me expectantly. "I'll tell him, just not right now."
"All right, then." Content that I would let our pack leader know about the newest threat, he dropped the paper back onto the table and headed for the kitchen. "You ready to eat? It'll be better while it's still hot."
"Sure." I followed him, "Chinese smells great, Super Wok I assume?"
We ate while discussing our day. He'd spent most of his repairing a fence through which several of my father's cattle had escaped. I told him about mine, how frustrating I had found trying to work while constantly fielding calls from reporters.
"The whole thing with Annie has me in shock. We grew up together, were in the same class most of the way through school, even played tennis together in high school."
"I'm sorry." He laid one hand over mine on the small table. "I didn't know her. I knew who she was, I recognized her on sight, but being older, I never spent any time with her."
I nodded, appreciating his sympathy but understanding what he meant by not knowing her. The only reason he'd known me in high school was because he'd hung out with my sister Payson, who'd been in his class.
"That this would happen around here, and that she would be left on campus bothers me. It's almost like she was left somewhere directly connected to you."
I looked at him a moment, thinking about the possibility. Had Annie been killed as a message to me? Or was it just a coincidence that she had been dumped on campus? Was the note from her killers or just the group that had been harassing us using it to their advantage? So many possibilities that I had no answers for.
"I don't want to think about it anymore tonight. Let's go watch some screen and relax. I've been dealing with this all day and I need a break." I stood to clean up after dinner.
Together we headed into the living room to spend the evening together.
The next morning I got up with Devon so we could talk while he got ready for work. I knew I didn't need to worry about cooking for him, he would get to my parents house early Mom would feed him while she fed Dad. It was the same arrangement that my parents had offered all their help since I was a teenager. Besides, I didn't feel good, my stomach was churning and the thought of cooking made me nauseous, but it wasn't bad enough to keep me from going to work.
When I got to the office, Mr. Willowby told me not to bother answering the phone if the caller's number was blocked, as was the case with most of the news stations and reporters. I managed to get a lot more work done by ignoring the phone most of the day. Whatever had made me ill passed a couple hours before lunchtime, leaving me feeling fine, but starving, for the rest of the day.
I got home that evening and the small apartment was empty again. I changed clothes and stretched out across the bed, planning to take a short nap while I waited for Devon to get home. I vaguely remember him helping me under the covers and climbing in beside me, but nothing solid until his alarm went off the next morning.
I dragged my eyes open, they felt they had been weighed down with sand bags, as if I'd barely fallen asleep, but I knew better. I knew if his alarm was going off, then I'd slept at least ten hours.
"Mmmph," I tried to say morning.
"You must have been tired last night."
"I don't remember you coming home." I was finally able to form real words.
"Exactly. I couldn't wake you. Every time I tried, you would mumble, roll over, and go back to sleep. I finally just let you sleep."
"I don't remember it." I blinked several more times, trying to make my eyes and brain behave as I lay in bed watching him dress.
"I don't doubt it. You were pretty much out of it." He pulled his tee shirt over his head and settled the hem around his waist.
"So what did you do last night?"
"I ate, read a little, then moved you into bed and joined you."
The mention of food made my stomach churn and I ran for the bathroom, thinking I was going to be sick, but nothing came up.
"Are you all right?" Devon stood in the doorway watching me, concern filling his eyes.
I nodded, not trusting my stomach with an open mouth. After lying on the bathroom floor, waiting to be sick for several minutes I made my way back to bed. I climbed in and Devon sat on the edge, helping pull the covers over me.
"Maybe you should call in. Go see Alexis, she'll be able to help." He smoothed my hair away from my face and placed a soft kiss on my forehead.
I didn’t have it in me to argue. Besides the nausea was getting worse not better. "I will, but since it's too early to do either, I think I'll go back to sleep for now."
"That sounds good." He glanced around. "Where's your PCD?"
"In the top of my purse, hanging on the front door."
Devon nodded and disappeared into the other room. "Here it is," he set the small device on the table beside the bed. "I want you to call me if it gets worse. Your dad will understand if you're too sick to go to the clinic on your own." He gave me a look that reminded me of my father, and I knew if I didn't go see Alexis I would be in trouble.
I nodded and snuggled further in to the bed, wishing my stomach would settle enough for me to get back to sleep. "Can you set the alarm to wake me at 8:00 a.m., so I can call in?"
"No problem." He reset the alarm and kissed my head again before leaving. I drifted back to sleep.
My stomach was still upset when the alarm went off, but not bad enough to send me running for the bathroom. I called Mr. Willowby and let him know I wouldn't be in, apologizing for the inconvenience. He was understanding, assuring me he would rather I stay home and get better. After hanging up I stared up at the ceiling, wondering why I felt so bad. After a few minutes, I realized I was procrastinating and forced myself out of bed, so I could get ready to make a visit to the pack healer.
I pulled my car into the small parking area at the rear of the house belonging to the pack's Lysandros and Harmonia, the couple that were second in command behind the Anikitos and Alekto. I let myself through the gate leading into the back yard where the guesthouse that housed the Kitsune clinic sat. After my last visit, where I'd had to show a member of the pack that he wasn't dominant to me, I was leery of someone else trying the same thing so I glanced around the yard to make sure there wasn't anyone around. After determining it was empty, I continued into the clinic and found Alexis sitting on the sofa in the waiting area. She appeared to be reading. I found her was curled in the comfortable seat as if she sat there often. Her blond hair was cut into a pixie cut that seemed just right for her tiny body and upbeat personality.
She glanced up and did a double take when she saw me. "Why aren't you at work?"
"Too sick." I sat down beside her.
"My stomach. It's better now, but when I got up with Dev this morning it was bad, I thought I was going to throw up." I made an unhappy face.
"But you didn't?"
"Is that all?"
I shrugged, not sure what she was looking for. "I've been tired. I came in from work last night and laid down for a ten or fifteen minute nap and slept until morning. Dev said he tried to wake me when he came in but I wouldn't wake up."
"Have you been sick since you got home or is it just today?"
"I was nauseous a little yesterday too, but it was gone before noon." I looked at the clock on the far wall and found it was barely nine.
"How's your appetite?"
"When I'm not ready to vomit? I'm starving all the time."
Alexis nodded, as if what I was telling her was something she had anticipated. "I expected it to take longer than this, but obviously I was wrong."
"What is it?" I was concerned it could be something serious.
"You're not sick, Nickie. You're pregnant. I saw it after you were injured in Seattle. I didn't say anything because I knew telling you or Devon then would only have made things worse." She laid one had on my back and rubbed in small, comforting circles.
My heart skipped a beat and the sick feeling in my stomach grew worse. I broke into a cold sweat, and I ran for the bathroom.
I was cleaning my face with a wet paper towel when Caden appeared in the doorway, Alexis right behind him. Caden was the enforcer who kept Alexis safe when she used her healing talent.
I was glad I'd pulled my hair into a ponytail before I'd left this morning, it was the only thing that had kept it out of my face as I'd gotten sick.
"You all right?" He asked.
"She'll be fine," Alexis pushed past him, "She's just a little shocked." She shooed the large man down the hall and stepped into the bathroom with me. "I take it this wasn't planned?"
I shook my head. "No." My whole body trembled as she led me back into the front room.
Alexis took a deep breath, "Any idea how it happened?" She eased me down onto the sofa.
"Aside from the obvious?" I quipped before shaking my head. "We always use condoms. Well, except once, but I have an implant." I lifted my arm to show her where the small oval chip lay under the skin, releasing a steady stream of hormones into my body.
"Oh, honey," She sounded disappointed, "didn't anyone tell you that hormonal birth control doesn't work for us?"
I looked at her, shocked. My mouth opened but words just wouldn't come.
"Give it a few days, talk to Devon, you may warm up to the idea." She rubbed her hand up and down my back, to comfort me.
I didn’t know what to say.
"I'm gonna go get you something to drink, you stay right here." Alexis went down the hall into the old kitchen that had been converted into a break room, where I knew Caden spent most of his time. I heard her voice as she talked to him but I couldn't make out what she was saying. In seconds, she came back out, carrying a small bottle of soda. She twisted the top, breaking the seal, before handing it to me. "Here, this will be easier on your stomach than water."
I took a small sip and scowled at the unfamiliar flavor. I looked at the label and found it was ginger ale.
"The ginger will help calm your nausea and the bubbles keep it from being too heavy on your stomach. You should be able to hold it down without any trouble, as long as you don't drink too much."
I took another sip. We sat in mutual silence for a while. I tried to process the news. She sat with me, being there for me.
The door behind me opened, but I didn't bother to turn to see who it was. I was too absorbed in my own troubles to care who had come in or why.
Suddenly Devon bent down in front of me. His clear gray eyes were soft with concern. "Nickie, baby? Are you okay?"
I looked at him, my eyes meeting his as the tears started to spill down my face. I took a deep breath. "I'm pregnant."
Something flashed though his eyes but was gone before I could identify it. "All right, but are you sick? Are you hurt?"
I shook my head, the tears still flowing unchecked down my face. "No one told me that the implant doesn't work for us."
He took a seat on the couch beside me and pulled me into his arms, holding me securely against him. "It's all right, baby. We'll deal with it," he murmured into my hair. I felt him set his chin on top of my head. "Is she really all right?" He asked Alexis.
"She's in shock. I'm sorry, it never occurred to me that no one let her know that the implant wouldn't work."
"That's not your fault, but will the implant hurt the baby?" He asked something that hadn’t occurred to me.
"It shouldn't, but it's probably best if it comes out."
"All right. Can you give us a few minutes?"
I barely registered the soft sound of footfalls as she left the room.
Devon's arms tightened around me. "It's okay, Nick. You're not sick, you're not hurt. We'll figure it out." His hand ran lightly over my arm, both taking and giving comfort with the contact.
Until that moment, until he said it would be okay, I hadn't realized how afraid I'd been of his reaction. I looked up at him. "Are you sure? You're not mad?"
"I'm not mad." He gave me a gentle smile. "We're both alive and we're together, everything else we can deal with."
I took a deep breath and rubbed my face against his neck, smearing the tears on my face into his skin. "You're sure?"
I let out the breath I'd been holding in a rush, letting some of the tension in my body go with it. He continued, "Alexis says that implant needs to come out. Do you think you're up to it?"
I thought for a second, considering what it would likely take to get it out. A small cut and maybe her digging for a minute or two to get the chip out, then it would be over, the cut would heal in minutes, an hour at the most.
I shrugged. "Might as well."
He helped me off his lap, stood, and together, we went in search of Alexis.
Ten minutes later, we walked out of the clinic, a small band-aid on my arm where the implant had been. "Is there anything in your car you need?" Devon asked.
I looked at him, confused.
"You're still shaky, you're not driving. We can take your car or the truck home, it's up to you."
"I've got my purse, the car will be fine here for a while."
"Good." He walked me around to the driver's side of his pickup, unlocked the door, and held it open so I could climb in.
Once in the vehicle and on the road he didn't head for the apartment, instead he was going farther into town.
"Where are we going?" I frowned.
"The diner. I'm hungry and even if you ate this morning, you need to again."
"What makes you say that?"
"Caden told me you'd been sick when he called to tell me I needed to come get you." He glanced at me before looking back at the road. "So, we'll go eat before we go home."
I didn't feel like fighting and the last of the nausea seemed to be fading. He was right, I was starving and it didn't make sense to argue.
When got back to the apartment, I made my way inside, sat on the couch and waited for Devon to join me. I'd already asked if he needed to go back to my parents, he'd said my dad let him have the whole day. Something about taking care of me being more important, honestly, once I'd heard that he didn't have to go back, I hadn't cared why.
Devon changed out of his work clothes and came back into the living room. "What's up?" He sat beside me. "You look like you've got a lot on your mind."
I looked at him as if he'd lost his mind for a moment. "Of course, I do. How are we gonna do this?"
"Get married, mated, have a baby, find a house, all of it." The weight of it all was overwhelming me and I could barely think.
"Just like everyone else. One day, one step at a time."
"But I'm not ready." I felt tears start from my eyes again and it made me angry. I hated to cry and I hated not being able to control it. I swiped the offending moisture off my face with a sharp, angry brush of my hand. "I wasn't looking for a boyfriend and now I have a mate. I wasn't ready to get married and now we're engaged. I thought I was handling it all right, dealing with things as they came. I don't know if I can deal with this." The sound of my own shrieking made me realize I was starting to lose control. I was nearly hysterical.
Devon scooted closer and wrapped one arm around my shoulders. "I know it's not what we were looking for, and it's not what we expected, but we can handle it, together."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I am." He pulled me against him, kissing the top of my head.
I relaxed against him and let the worries drift away. I would have plenty of time to worry about them tomorrow. I was going to enjoy him being here with me now. The warmth and security of his arms around me was more important than the fears that had crowded my mind. I closed my eyes, laid my head against his shoulder and let him hold me.
Thursday afternoon was Annie's memorial service. I got up, ate a few saltines and drank small sips of the ginger ale that Alexis had recommended the day before. Once I had something in my stomach the nausea seemed to pass and I was able to go in to work. I called a co-worker and asked for a ride to the office, it was on her way so she didn't mind stopping. Mr. Willowby was glad to see me feeling better.
I'd arranged to take the time off to go to the service before calling in sick the day before, so I wore a dark suit to work and took the afternoon off. I sat in the back of the church, not wanting to disturb anyone if my nausea returned and I had to leave suddenly. Even with the distance, I couldn't help but notice that Bill and Karen were there, as well as Alexis and Hank. Seeing them reminded me that I needed to tell them about the paper I'd found under my door Monday evening. I'd intended to tell him sooner, but after the surprising news Alexis gave me yesterday, I'd forgotten.
Following the service, as people started to file out, I tried to catch Bill's eye. Instead, I caught Alexis' husband Hank's attention. He waited patiently to one side of the stream of people headed for the door, for me to get to him.
"Did you know Annie?" He stepped into the line beside me.
"We went to school together, though I hadn't really spoken to her in years. She was one of us, right?"
He nodded once.
"Are the four of you going to the graveside?"
"No," He shook his head. "We've paid our respects here. We're going to meet at Bill's to discuss this."
"Would you mind if I came? I have something I think you need to see."
Hank lifted one brow. "Sure. Come on over, I'll let Bill know you're on your way."
"Thanks," I smiled, "but can I get a ride, too? I came with a co-worker, my car's in your back lot."
A crease formed on his brow. "Yeah, of course."
"I need to let Brenda know I've got a ride. Where can I meet you?"
"We're parked at the rear of the church."
"All right, I'll let her know and be right there. Thanks again."
I went in search of the co-worker and friend who’d given me a ride. I let her know I had a ride home and thanked her for giving me a ride this afternoon, then met Hank and Alexis near their car.
We gathered in Bill and Karen's living room, The Anikitos, Bill; his mate and the pack's Alekto, Karen; the Lysandros, Hank; his mate and our Harmonia, as well as the pack healer, Alexis; Terry, the enforcer who spent afternoons keeping Bill safe; as well as myself.
"Nickie mentioned she had something she needed to show us." Hank said to the rest of the group, explaining my presence.
I felt everyone in the room look at me. The attention didn’t make me nervous, I knew everyone in the room, but my stomach was slightly upset. I wasn't sure if it was the pregnancy or the stress of the situation.
I took a deep breath. "I knew Annie in school, we weren't close but we were friendly. I saw the news story about her murder Monday morning, before work. It was shocking and horrible but I didn't think that much of it. I went to work and dealt with the phone calls about it all day long, otherwise it was business as usual. That evening when I got home I found this." I pulled the folded paper out of my purse and handed it to Bill, who happened to be seated closest to me. "I didn't think a whole lot about it. We all know I've gotten threatening notes before and I planned to show you when I got a chance."
Bill unfolded the paper and I saw the color drain from his face before he passed it to Karen. "If you found this on Monday why did it take you so long to bring it to me?"
I looked down at my hands, folding and unfolding them for an uncomfortable moment before looking back up at him. "Tuesday morning I was a little sick, I planned on calling you after work. When I got home that afternoon I changed clothes and I was so tired I stretched out for a short nap while I waited for Devon. I ended up sleeping until the next morning. Yesterday, I was so sick I couldn't go into work and I simply forgot about it."
"Are you all right?" His concern was obvious.
"I went to see Alexis and she told me what's wrong. Given time it'll pass." I didn't want to tell him I was pregnant yet. I wanted the focus to stay on the note and what it might mean. "I went to work this morning, then to the service this afternoon. I knew she was one of us only because Raine told me when I called him for information Monday morning, but seeing you at the service reminded me, and made me think of that." I motioned to the paper, now in Terry's hands. "I know firsthand that it can happen, that humans can hurt us, but something tells me this wasn't humans. Something is telling me she was killed as a message."
Bill looked grim. "Because this," he motioned to the note, "makes you part of it, I'll share with you what we know. Up until now we had no clue why she was killed, or by whom."
I looked around the room at all the serious faces after they'd all seen the page I'd given them. "And now?"
"Now I have some suspicions. I'll look into them." Bill met my gaze.
"What about her life? Why her, of all people? If she was killed because of me, there has to be some kind of link. We have to have something in common, or it makes no sense."
"I'm not sure, off hand," Karen said, "All I really know is that she's from a Kitsune family and shifted in her mid-teens, like most of us do."
I shook my head. "I wouldn't know. I haven't spoken to her, well, not much, since we got out of school."
"I'll have my investigators start looking into her friends and associates. We'll look into who she was dating, if she'd had a bad break up, that kind of thing." Bill looked at me a moment. "Are you sure you're all right? You look a little flushed."
I looked away, not sure if I was ready to share, but Alexis already knew and probably Hank, so I figured I might as well. "I'll be fine. I'm pregnant. The nausea seems to be morning sickness and so far it seems to come and go at random, I haven't been able to make out a pattern, if there is one."
"That's wonderful!" Karen stood to hug me. I let her wrap her arms around me and pulled me tightly against her.
"Congratulations." Bill smiled at me from his seat. "Does this mean you and Devon have sealed your mating?"
"Not yet. We're planning to, but this was a little unexpected."
"I'd recommend sooner rather than later," Bill advised, "even with a sealed mating, most males become significantly more protective of their mates while pregnant. With as protective as Devon already is, I wouldn't begin to guess how much stronger that instinct could get."
"I'll talk to Devon about it. We've been home less than a week. I was hoping for a little normalcy, a chance to rest after Seattle, but I guess that's not in the cards."
"I'm sorry," Bill patted my knee. "Though a pregnancy does add some complications for the next trip."
"You've found another non-shifter already?" I was surprised. It had taken him weeks to find the first one.
"I have several leads but I'm not sure where I'll be sending you next." He paused for a moment. "Your pregnancy, in addition to the attack in Seattle, means I'm going to need to send more security with you then I do now. In order to get Devon to go along with that we're either going to have to find a female enforcer or you'll need to have sealed your mating first."
I nodded, not sure what to say, but I was thankful that the next trip out of town would have more security.
We talked a while longer before Hank and Alexis took me back to their place with them so I could pick up my car.
By the time I made it back to the apartment complex where Devon and I each had apartments, I was dragging, though not quite as bad as I had been on Tuesday. Still, it was all I could do to climb the three floors to my apartment. I didn't want to even think about cooking. I was glad to smell food when I opened the door, it meant that Devon had beat me home and already had dinner started. While I was changing clothes, Devon appeared in the bedroom doorway.
"You're a little late, dinner's almost ready." He came in and placed a gentle kiss on the back of my neck.
I pulled a soft, worn sundress over my head and let it fall around my hips. I left my feet bare as I turned and wrapped my arms around his waist, laying my head against his shoulder.
"I went over to Bill's after the service, and then Hank and Alexis took me home with them so I could pick up my car." I rubbed my face against the soft cotton of his tee shirt.
"Yeah. I went to Annie's funeral today."
He wrapped his arms around me, his hands sliding up and down my back, comforting me. "I would have gone with you, if I had known."
"I'm sorry, I didn't think to ask." I looked up at him, propping my chin against his chest. "I got a ride with Brenda to the church. Did you know Annie was Kitsune? Raine told me the first morning, but I forgot to mention it."
He shook his head, and looked surprised. "No, I had no clue." A scowl formed on his face. "That note. Have you told Bill about it yet?"
"I gave it to him this afternoon. They agree. Killing Annie might have been some kind of message but we don't know what exactly. Bill said he'd look into it."
"I don't like it." His arms tightened around me.
"I don't either, but I have other things to worry about than vague threats."
He bent down and placed a soft kiss on my lips. "Hungry?"
"Starving and so glad I don't have to cook."
He took one hand and pulled me into the other room.
"Coming up the stairs I could only think about how I didn't want to cook tonight, do you know how nice it is not to have to?"
He chuckled. "I do. I remember more than a few nights when I didn't eat because it would have meant cooking and I just couldn't make myself do it." He sat on the sofa and pulled me onto his lap. Wrapping his arms around me, he seemed content just to hold me close.
“Today I told Bill and Karen that I'm pregnant." I said in a small voice.
"What did they say?" He kept his voice neutral.
"Congratulations. Karen was excited. Bill asked if we'd sealed our mating yet."
"Why did he want to know?" There was a sudden tension in his voice, a wariness that hadn't been there before.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "He said a lot of mated males become a great deal more protective when their mates are pregnant. As protective as you already are, he doesn't know now much worse it might get as long as our mating remains unsealed." I felt him nod, his arms still snug around me. "He also said that for my next trip out of town our mating will either have to be sealed, or he'll have to find a female enforcer."
"He's replacing me?" Devon sounded angry at the idea.
"No. He said because of what happened in Seattle and with me pregnant, he'll send a second enforcer with us." I felt some of the tension drain from Devon's body.
"I wouldn't mind some help, but he has another trip lined up for you already?" Devon sounded unhappy at the prospect.
"No. I was worried about that too. He seems to be planning ahead."
"I'm glad that's his job and not mine."
I rubbed my face against him, inhaling his scent and letting it wrap around me. "I said the same thing."
"Our food should be ready." He slid me off his lap, onto the sofa. "How about after we eat, we come back in here and curl up together?" He stood to go check on dinner.
"That sounds wonderful." I followed him, in search of food and company.
By Saturday morning, I'd mostly come to terms with the fact that I was pregnant, though I couldn't think of it in terms of having a baby yet. Pregnant was as far as I could manage. I was taking it one step at a time. Over the last couple of days, Devon and I had put together a list of questions about pregnancy in general and the differences that being Kitsune might mean. My plan was to call Alexis and get as many answers as she could give me. She may not have children of her own yet, but she was the pack healer and she should be able to answer, at least some of them.
I called Alexis, prepared with my list and when I told her why I was calling she invited Devon and me to come over, so he could hear first hand and ask about anything that he wanted to know. When I told her that Devon was working, she shifted the invitation to dinner. I accepted and told her we'd be over after he got home.
I planned to be ready to go when Devon came in from my parents, but early in the afternoon, I couldn't hold my eyes open and lay down on the sofa to nap for a little while before getting ready. I woke to the sound of Devon's voice.
"Nickie? Are you here?" He called.
Dragging my eyes open, I pushed myself upright on the sofa. "I'm here." I blinked, trying to think clearly.
"I didn't mean to wake you. I'd come give you a kiss, but I'm filthy." He held his arms wide so I could see the grime covering his shirt and jeans. "Let me get a quick shower then we'll see about something to eat." He headed for the bedroom and the shower in the attached bathroom.
I got up and followed, "I accepted an invitation to the Jeffries' for dinner tonight. I planned to be ready when you got home, but I got tired."
"That's okay. You can get ready while I do." He pulled his tee shirt off over his head, revealing his muscular chest and abdomen. I watched the ripple and flow of the muscles under his skin as he kicked off his shoes and started to strip out of the muddy jeans. "Do you need a shower too?" His voice deepened as he noticed how closely I was watching him.
My mouth went dry. I didn't really need a shower but I couldn't refuse the invitation. Nodding, I quickly shed the tank top and shorts I'd put on that morning and led the way into the attached bathroom.
It was our first Sunday dinner since getting home from Seattle. We'd gotten home the previous Sunday, but by the time we'd gotten off the plane and made the three-hour drive home, dinner had been over. Sunday dinner was a long-standing tradition in my family. If you lived in the area, and weren't at work, you were expected to be there, Excuses weren’t accepted.
Brittney, my only sister living in the area, had two small kids and I knew it was difficult for her to manage the kids and help Mom cook on a regular basis, so I was in the habit of showing up early every week and helping Mom before the rest of the family arrived. This weekend was no different. When Devon and I arrived, early like usual, Mom made it obvious had been waiting for us. She swept me into her arms and hugged me tight.
"Let me see, let me see!" She insisted as she stepped back and reached for my hand before we started cooking.
I proudly showed her the diamond ring that had been on my left hand barely over a week.
“It was his grandmother’s.” I couldn’t help the grin on my face.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" She went back to the potatoes she'd been cutting. "Was it a surprise?"
I nodded as I went to the sink, slipping the ring off and putting it in the pocket of my jeans. "It was. I had no clue what he was planning." I washed my hands.
"Are you happy?" She asked.
I knew all she really cared about was that her children were happy. "I am." I couldn't stop the grin that spread across my face. "We're looking for a house, some place we can move into together. Both our leases are up at the end of next month and with our enhanced senses we'd really like to find some place away from so many people."
"Your dad might know of something, ask him."
We chatted as we prepared dinner, talking about other members of the family until we got to the point where we were waiting for things to cook before we could do more.
"Why don't we go in the other room and spend some time with Dad and Dev?"
"All right." Mom picked up her glass of iced tea and carried it with her. I grabbed mine and followed, slipping my ring back on since we were done with the messy part.
In the living room, Dad had turned off whatever game he'd been watching and he and Devon were talking. Apparently, Devon had already told him that we were looking for a new place because Dad was saying something about a house he knew of for rent.
I bent over Dad, where he sat in his recliner and hugged him.
"How's my little girl?" Dad asked, hugging me back.
"I'm doing good." I sat beside Devon on the sofa across the small conversation area, "While we have the two of you together and before anyone else gets here, we have something we want to tell you." I picked up Devon's hand and wove my fingers into his.
"We already know you're engaged." Dad gave me a knowing look. “Even though it took you a week to come tell us." He gave the ring on my hand a pointed look.
"I know. I also know Dev asked your permission first, so the guilt trip isn't going to work." I ignored his teasing. "That's not what we're going to say, but we're only telling you because we want to keep this a secret for a while."
"What is it, dear?" Mom’s brow furrowed with concern. "Are you all right?"
I nodded at Mom as Devon pulled his hand from mine. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders, comforting me with the contact. I looked down at where my hands sat empty on my lap.
"We found out on Wednesday that I'm pregnant." I just spit it out.
Devon's other hand slid across his leg and came to rest on my lower abdomen. He placed a soft kiss on the side of my head before turning back to my parents. "It was a surprise and a bit of a shock at first, but after getting used to the idea, I'm thrilled." Devon said.
"How about you, Nickie? How do you feel about it?" Mom wanted to know.
"It's taken some getting used to, but I'm okay with it. I'm sure that the happiness and excitement will come. I'm just not quite there yet. I'll admit, though, my lack of enthusiasm could be partially due to the nausea. I spend a couple hours every morning trying to keep my stomach from rebelling."
Mom gave me a wry smile. "I remember those days. I can't say I'm not glad they're gone."
"So, when's the wedding?" Dad wanted to know. "Before or after my newest grandchild is born?" His tone said he wouldn't be happy if the answer was after.
"Honestly, Dad, I haven't even thought about it. I've been too sick and stressed to even think about planning a wedding." I sounded tired, even to myself.
"I'd rather get married before the baby gets here, sir. I'm kind of old fashioned that way." Devon used the truth to pacify my father.
"I don't want to step on toes or make you feel like I'm trying to take over, but if you want some help planning everything, dear, I'd be more than happy to help in any way I can." Mom offered.
A wave of relief washed over me, and then something occurred to me, "You should know that we're not telling everyone about my pregnancy yet." I looked at Mom, "Devon's parent's don't know yet and won't for a while."
"But-" Mom started to protest.
"I decided not to tell her yet, Mrs. Daniels. Mom's a gossip and once we tell her, we might as well sky-write it. When you consider how long she’s hounded me to settle down and give her another grandchild, hopefully one she'll be able to see often, we can forget any kind of secrecy. The whole town will know. We're not ready for that, not yet."
Mom sighed. "I guess you know her best. All right, I won't say anything to her about the baby, but it's going to be difficult, especially if I get her to help with putting together the wedding."
"I'd love any help you're willing to give me with planning the wedding, probably sooner would be better, though I don't want to rush you. We're not going to be able to keep people from assuming we're getting married because I got pregnant, but, at least, we know the truth."
"I'm sure my mother would love to help with wedding planning," Devon put in. "She'll try to insist on some huge shindig, but don't feel like you have to do that." He turned to look at me. "Don't let her bully you into something you don't want. If you want a big wedding, do it, but if you just want a small gathering, that's fine too, I'll do whatever you want." His gray eyes were soft with emotion as he spoke. "I'll happily participate in any kind of wedding you want. It's making you happy that’s important to me, not what my mother wants." He squeezed me against him for a moment before relaxing again.
I looked back to my parents. They were looking at each other and smiling, as though pleased with what they saw.
Mom and I went back into the kitchen to finish cooking, once it was just the two of us, she started asking about what I wanted in the way of a wedding.
"What kind of time frame do you have in mind?" she asked.
"I don't care." I thought for a minute. "After Columbus Day, but before Thanksgiving would be best." I made a quick decision.
"Do you care about colors? Location? How big?"
"Nothing Halloween, it’s too cheesy. Small to medium sized, family, close friends but nothing huge. As for location? Something intimate. No huge halls, I want a close, family atmosphere." I answered Mom's questions from the gut, without thinking about them too much.
"You're sure you haven't been thinking about this?" Mom eyed me a moment when she heard my quick, sure answers.
"Not really, at least not recently, but ever since Brittney got married I've had some ideas about how I wanted my wedding." I pulled a large turkey out of the oven. There were so many of us for Sunday dinner that we either had to fix several chickens or a turkey if we were going to have poultry. We did both with regularity, alternating with other main dishes.
"Are you sure you don't mind my help?"
"Not at all. You know planning things like this really isn't my thing. If it's left up to me we’ll probably go see a judge and get it over with, but I know how badly that would upset a lot of people." I slid the rolls into the oven and stood, setting the timer before turning to look at Mom. "It's not that I don't want to do it or that I mind having a wedding, I'm just not big on planning parties. My idea of a party is to tell people when and where to show up and to bring something with them. Somehow, I think you and Devon’s mom would have a fit if I had a potluck wedding." My serious look let her know I was only partly teasing.
She continued to question me, and I gave her what answers I could, until Brittney and her family arrived. After my sister came in with her family, things were busy and discussion about wedding planning stopped as we concentrated on getting the meal on the table. By the time we sat down to eat, both of my brothers had arrived as well.
With everyone seated around the large table we started passing dishes back and forth, letting everyone but the children help themselves. I took a large bowl of mashed sweet potatoes from Brittney, who was sitting to my left, she waited until I had served myself and passed the bowl to Devon before she grabbed my hand and took a good look at the ring on my finger.
"What's this?" She still held my hand. "And why haven't I heard about it?"
My face heated and I knew I was blushing. "It's an engagement ring." I admitted, "Devon asked while we were in Seattle."
"Congratulations." She gave me a hug. "When's the big day?"
"We haven't set a date yet, but soon."
"Actually Britt," Mom spoke up, using her nickname, "I need your help planning the wedding."
I was glad Mom enlisted Brittney's help. It meant there would be less I'd have to do.
"I'll call Devon’s mother, Amber, tomorrow and we'll get started on some plans." Mom continued.
"She probably already has a huge wedding all planned." Devon warned them. "I had to tell her why in order to get her to send me the ring in Seattle, but don't let her run things. Mom had her wedding and she got to do it again when Amy got married."
I got the feeling Devon expected problems from his mom.
Cameron and Raine both looked at me. "Engaged?" Cameron asked.
"Congrats, you two." Raine put in.
"How did I miss that?" Cam wanted to know.
"You're too busy with work and Janelle," I said. "Speaking of which, where is she?" I knew they were rarely apart when one or the other wasn't at work. “I thought she had the weekend off.”
"Something came up with her folks, she had to go to Tucson yesterday to see them. She should be home later tonight." Cameron explained.
"Are they all right?" Mom looked concerned. I knew it wasn’t just for Janelle, but her parents as well.
He nodded, waiting until he swallowed his mouthful to answer. "Yeah, it was some business thing, I'm not sure what exactly, but they're fine." He turned back to Devon and me. "You two are moving awfully fast, aren't you?"
I rolled my eyes. "Not everyone takes years to make a decision. Sometimes you just know and when you know, what's the point of putting it off?" I knew questions like this would come and since we couldn't tell most people about mating, I opted for a different approach.
Devon put his hand on my leg under the table and squeezed gently, letting me know he was there and he agreed with me. If we were sure, why were we putting it off? In that moment, I knew it was time for Devon and I to seal our mating. Neither of us had been looking for a relationship, much less a permanent one, but it seemed silly to keep making excuses when we both knew we were ready.
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