Dawn opened the window to look down on the alley behind her apartment building and check for traffic, see if anyone was waiting--as in people who still needed to be convinced this trip was a good idea, heading out cross country on her motorcycle--before she went downstairs with her packed bag, her riding jacket and helmet. A flicker of shadows in the corner of her loft apartment made her stop, in case a Hound had come to visit her.
But no such occurrence. It was just the curtain, waving in an unusually chill breeze. Dawn sighed and crossed the room to close the window. After all, she was going away for several weeks. It wouldn't be good to come back and find that wall and several feet into the apartment drenched from rain and blown apart from whatever freak weather patterns descended on Neighborlee. Her roommate, Cinden, was away visiting her adopted grandmother.
Blue, green, and pink sparkles shimmered into being in front of her nose as she turned to leave. Dawn held her breath, waiting for the winkies to pass on some impression or mental image. They winked out after just a few seconds. She sighed. The brainless little magical creatures were just "making their rounds", as Angela called their activity. Keeping watch on friends and allies, making sure no inimical Talents or other-dimensional invaders tried to sneak in, piggybacking on an innocent pawn. Or worse, sleeping inside something, to wait until an opportune time, like the creature everyone referred to as Big Ugly, trapped between multiple dimensions and trying to ooze out underneath Neighborlee. The winkies couldn't do anything, but they made effective watchdogs. Supposedly. Angela laughed a little, and sometimes smirked when people like Maurice complained about the winkies butting into every move he made. She claimed they were just being protective. Dawn and Lanie and others in Neighborlee who could see the little bits of light and noise called it being nosey.
"I have to get out of here," she muttered as she caught up the strap of her helmet in the crook of her elbow and headed for the door again. Dawn snorted. She sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
No convincing needed. Her vivid dreams had increased over the last year. As members of the Hunt found the Web site she had created to make contact, or Stayn's, Marak's, and Miss Salem's connections had picked up more clues and identified the lost children, those dreams had proven painfully, sharply accurate. Dawn would violate her vows as a member of the Hunt if she ignored the clear message in this latest recurring dream. A member of the Hunt was alone, traveling by foot, and according to the dreams only Dawn could help the thin, ragged girl reach safety. Many dreams showed mountain roads. One member of the Hunt had arrived on Earth just in the last few months--on Smokeytop Mountain, near the town of Cameron, to be more precise, and nearly in the lap of a reluctant member of the Hunt, Aireen Cairn, now called Iris Davenport.
Dawn's first destination was to visit Iris and her boyfriend, Nate, who was the son of two members of the Hunt. They had found each other, married, and then were killed by a traitor. Miss Salem was using her federal connections to investigate Nate's parents and the dead traitor, to dredge up some clue as to their identities, to mark them off the list of who still had to show up or make contact. Stayn's cousin, Lin, was one of those who had yet to be identified.
Definitely, Dawn would go check on Iris, first. Just on the off chance the girl had had another member of the Hunt drop on her doorstep, and she was trying to get the newcomer settled before making contact. Dawn understood how Iris--or rather, Aireen--felt. If she had a family that adopted her, and a real home, rather than being big sister to the little girls at the orphanage where she had grown up, she might have been just as reluctant to walk away from her new life when Stayn found her. If Stayn hadn't been her best friend from childhood, from back home, and if he hadn't been her betrothed.
And that was another reason to get out and away from Neighorlee, to put some distance and space between her and Stayn. He had promised not to put pressure on her, to let her grow up. The man was honorable, but when did honor and patience go too far? Had he decided he didn't want to marry her after all? Or was she putting out signals telling him to back away, and never be more than good friends? She needed to get away, to see new sights, meet new people, change the air in her lungs, and straighten out all the things tangled up in her heart and her mind.
The only thing she knew was that if Stayn didn't kiss her soon, she was going to blow some circuits. It had been too long since those fumbling, disastrous kisses when they were playing cat-and-mouse with that crime boss, Archby, at Cedar Point Amusement Park. She could barely remember what they felt like.
Dawn pulled her apartment door closed behind her, tugging hard to make it click and latch. Shimmers of subliminal sound down her back told her thunder rumbled in the distance. She shivered and let her boots clatter and thud on the flights of switchback stairs taking her from the sixth floor to the ground level door into the back room of Stayn and Ethan's detective agency.
"The heck with it," she murmured, on the third floor landing. "Why do I have to wait for him? Maybe that's the problem--he's waiting for me to give him the signal?" A snicker escaped her as a scenario burst full-blown into her mind. "Give him something to think about, maybe, while I'm away?"
Stayn was edgy enough about her taking this reconnaissance trip alone, she wouldn't be out of his thoughts for a minute, the whole time she was away. That was a very comforting, gratifying realization.
The aroma of fresh coffee greeted her when she reached the office, which was empty of people. It was still early in the morning, so that even the start-of-the-business-day traffic wasn't visible in the intersection framed in the plate glass windows of the office. Dawn fought down a sigh. She had mentioned at the last meeting of the Hunt that she was leaving today to follow the dreams, but hadn't said when. Still, she had thought Stayn would be waiting to say good-bye. Yes, she could go looking for him to say good-bye, but she had let herself hope...
What she hoped, she wasn't quite sure. But since she graduated from high school and more members of the Hunt joined them in Neighborlee, something had changed in her relationship with Stayn. Or maybe more accurately, it hadn't changed enough. He was no longer legally responsible for her. She knew she pulled her weight in the search for the rest of the Hunt, as well as his private investigations work. They worked together well, sometimes almost as if they could read each other's mind. As if they had worked together all their lives, instead of having just found each other a few years ago.
Maybe that was why that funny little dropping sensation kept dropping, making her feel a little hollow and a little teary. Stayn should be waiting here. Even though she hadn't told him the time she planned on leaving.
Definitely, something had to be done. But she wasn't sure she was the one who should get that "something" moving. What if--
"Coward," Stayn said, stepping into the office through the front door, and carrying a box from the Sipping Post. That meant bakery, fresh and warm from the oven.
"Me?" Dawn grinned, feeling that dropping sensation evaporate into something like giddiness. No, that was hunger. Her stomach grumbled loudly. "And what, pray tell, am I a coward about?"
"Sneaking out of here." He tossed the bakery box down on the desk next to her, and reached for the coffee machine and his glossy black extra large mug. "Figured I better feed you so you don't faint and fall off that deathtrap machine."
She muffled a chuckle--mostly because she feared it would come out as a totally brainless, ditzoid giggle--and reached for the box. The aroma reached her nose before she slit the sealing tape with her fingernail. Her stomach rumbled again and her mouth watered. Fresh, warm, fragrant blueberry scones with extra thick, dripping icing.
"I wasn't sneaking," she said as she debated which scone was the biggest, and if she should take it or be virtuous and leave the biggest one for him. "If you didn't notice, I stopped in here instead of heading out the other door to my bike."
"Sure you weren't going to raid the petty cash before you took off?" He dropped into his swivel chair before taking his first long gulp of fresh coffee. Letting out a long sigh of satisfaction, he leaned back and put both feet up on the desk, on top of the folders spread across it, waiting for his attention.
Just for that, she took the largest scone, and then made him wait for an answer as she took a bite and closed her eyes to savor that first warm, moist, rich mouthful.
"What if I asked you not to go?" he said, his voice softly thoughtful.
Dawn slowly opened her eyes. She took another bite as she settled down on the edge of the desk and studied him, sitting five feet away from her. So many responses she could give him, and as many explanations for just why he didn't want her to go. She feared making the wrong choice, getting the wrong answer from him.
"I have to," she began.
"And the Hounds will protect you, because you're obeying them. I know." He lowered his feet to the floor and sat up, putting the three-quarters-full mug down.
That made this conversation even more serious than she guessed, because Stayn's first cup of coffee for the day was nearly a sacred ritual that was never interrupted.
"Here. It's stupid, I know, but I'd feel better if you took this with you." He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out what looked like a tube of white paper.
Tissue paper, she realized a moment later, seeing how it bent and crinkled at the slightest movement. Stayn stood and crossed to her, holding out the thin bundle. A faint whisper of rose scent reached her before she held out her hand to take it. Dawn's heart skipped a half-dozen beats in the time it took to put down the scone and unwrap the tissue paper to find a single, deep blushing pink rose.
This meant more to her than the cell phone Stayn had insisted on giving her. More than the explanation that although he trusted the Hounds to come to her rescue if she ran into trouble when he wasn't there, he didn't want to take any chances. More than realizing that he had already programmed his name into her phone, on the very first speed dial button.
"I figured a dozen would be a mess. I mean, where could you put them on a motorcycle? You could put it in your pocket, and if you were careful it would last a while, and maybe even dry before it fell apart and I'm being a total idiot, right?" He wouldn't meet her gaze as he spoke, and his mouth trembled a little bit, like he couldn't decide if he wanted to grin or not.
"Not really." She swallowed hard. There was something scratching inside her throat, but she didn't think it was the scone. "I still have the dozen you gave me for graduation."
"Yeah?" His eyes locked with hers for a few seconds. "So I'm not being a bozo, asking you to take it with you?"
"You're being a bozo if you think I'd forget you just in the few weeks I'll be gone."
"Hmm. Maybe. The thing is, I don't want to push you, Dawn--I promised you I'd let things happen naturally."
"What is supposed to be natural for us?" she half-whispered.
"Exactly. But I have to tell you, it's starting to get...I don't know. Painful. I watch Ethan and Angela, and I know they're busy making up for being separated for centuries, and they're being pretty discrete, but sometimes..." He sighed and raked both hands through his hair. "Dawn...Dandova Kale...I just want you to be as happy paired with me as I am to be paired with you."
"You are?" Her voice cracked. "I mean--happy to be stuck with me?"
"I don't see it as 'stuck'. But if that's how you see it--"
"No, I don't. But you're...well, you're taking it so slow. And yeah, it's kind of awkward, watching Angela and Ethan, even though they're not gooey or gross or going overboard all the time." She tried to laugh.
"Dawn--" He stopped, eyes, widening, as she quickly pressed two fingers against his lips, stopping him.
"I'm...glad you're happy," she said quickly, trying to ignore the tingling sensations racing up and down her arm from the contact of her fingertips on his lips. Not a smart move, Dandova! "I thought you were just comfortable, you know? If I was lucky, you were content with being paired with me. You're a good, kind, thoughtful man, and I just figured all the nice little things you did for me were because you are good and kind and thoughtful and...well, from duty."
"I like doing special things for you. Making you smile," he said, after grasping her wrist gently and lowering her hand.
"Have you been...courting me?" she asked, her voice rasping at the end.
"Not doing a very good job at it, am I?"
Dawn went up on her toes and grabbed hold of his collar with both hands and kissed him. At the back of her mind, as she dove in, she planned to make a hasty exit, and if she was lucky, manage to get her helmet on and the pack on the back of her bike and get out of there before Stayn caught up with her. If he chased her. She wanted him to chase her.
Stayn caught hold of both her wrists before she could take her lips off his. He pulled her off balance, so she fell into him, and in a lightning move released her wrists to wrap both arms around her, drawing her in for a second, longer kiss. Too soon, just a few racing heartbeats later, he stepped back and released her, after making sure she was steady on her feet.
Okay, I guess that was the absolutely right thing to do.
Dawn couldn't persuade her eyes to open, until that low, utterly masculine chuckle of satisfaction rumbled out of Stayn. For half a second, she felt cold, until she opened her eyes and saw him watching her, red-faced and looking just as nervous-edgy-uncertain as she felt.
"Okay," she said, sounding as breathless as she felt. "I guess we have a lot of talking to do when I get back."
"Just talking?" Stayn tried to force his mouth into a frown, but it trembled too much with the laughter that spilled from his eyes.
"Maybe if we had talked more, things would be different." She swallowed hard. "Closer."
"I have never felt 'stuck' with you, Dandova." He cupped her cheek with all the gentleness she could have wanted, as delicately as Serena moved when she coaxed wild birds to perch on her arms. "When we were children and they betrothed us, I was just old enough to understand a lot of what marriage meant, old enough to be curious, young enough to be disgusted." He grinned when she choked and the sound turned to laughter. "But more than anything, what mattered was that you were my friend and I was glad that we would spend the rest of our lives together. That has never changed." He sighed and stepped back, breaking the warm, soft contact. "Even when I thought I would grow old and die in this alien world and never find another member of the Hunt."
"We have a lot of wasted time to make up for."
A shiver of energy washed over her, letting her know that someone with considerable talent or magical strength approached the office. Dawn sighed, and yet felt a cool sense of relief. Even if she wanted to try a few more kisses, common sense said wasting the morning quiet by experimenting with--and celebrating--this new step in their relationship would just make it harder to leave. And she had to leave.
Stayn brushed a kiss across her cheek and hooked his arm through hers, turning her toward the door. He handed her the remainder of her scone and broke off most of the stem of her rose, making it the perfect length to go in the upper pocket of her jacket, so the blossom stuck out and brushed against her collar. She caught up her helmet and he picked up her pack, and they headed for the doorway out to the alley where her motorcycle waited.
Stayn stayed in the doorway of the back room of his office, looking down the street where Dawn had vanished, long after the sound of her motorcycle had faded away. He shuddered, imagining all the accidents that could ambush her on her beloved bike. What had Marac been thinking when he bought it for her graduation present? Yes, until they were married, Marac had authority over her as her cousin and Firstborn of Clan Kale, and as a police officer he certainly had more accurate statistics on the safety of motorcycles. But what was wrong with the man, putting Dawn on a machine like that, when he could have just as easily bought her a nice safe car?
"You'd be grumbling about all the safety hazards of traveling the highways, no matter what she drove," he muttered, and reached to close the door. The fact was that the motorcycle gave her more flexibility, a lower profile in some sense, and made it less expensive to travel wherever she needed to. He shuddered again, thinking how easy it would be to hide the motorcycle if she got into trouble--and how bad that trouble had to be, if she needed to hide it.
"Empty nest syndrome?" Ethan Jarod, his P.I. partner, asked from the doorway behind him.
"How long have you been standing there, smirking?" Stayn pushed a little harder on the door than necessary. It slammed shut with a satisfying bang. He felt a little better--not enough, but a little.
"According to our friends, I smirk all the time." The big, dark-haired, blue-eyed man--a knight in another world and time--leaned back against the doorframe and crossed his arms. "To be honest, my face seems to hurt all the time. Just not used to smiling for the last couple centuries, according to Angela."
Stayn bit back the urge to snarl something nasty in his birth language, when the other man's eyes lit up just from mentioning his true love's name.
"Not long," Ethan added, finally answering the question. "It's pretty convenient, having dimensional windows through the town, for traveling in bad weather. I don't have to deal with traffic or storms, or even put a coat on."
"It's summer, traffic during Neighborlee's rush hour means twenty cars in the center of town instead of five at any one time, and it's a gorgeous day." He tried to plaster a disgruntled expression on his face, but Ethan's good mood was always contagious.
Besides, Dawn had kissed him, and if he heard her correctly, she didn't resent being betrothed to him. Just the opposite--she liked it. She felt just as awkward about their situation as he did at times. And most important, Dawn might just be impatient with how slowly and carefully he was taking their whole relationship.
She admitted she had kept the dozen yellow roses he gave her for graduation.
Who wouldn't be in a good mood, after the great morning he had just had? Other than the fact that his betrothed had just driven away for an unspecified time, following that dangerously vivid guiding dream the Hounds of Hamin had put in her head.
"I need more coffee," he muttered, and sidestepped to get around Ethan and through the door into the main office.
"Didn't know you liked scones," Ethan offered, following him.
"Dandova loves blueberry ones."
"Ah." He snatched up his mug--one of the incredibly perceptive children who frequented Divine's Emporium had given him one with a knight in black armor charging a fire-breathing dragon--and held it out when Stayn finished filling his mug with fresh coffee. "Besides, you're wrong. About the weather."
"How?" Stayn made a show of stepping over to the window and pressing down on some of the slats of the blinds to look out. Sparkling sunshine slanted down from the swatch of brilliant blue sky visible between the tops of the buildings.
"Maurice popped in to let us know he and Holly both had bad vibes this morning about an incoming storm. We went down into the cellar and sub-cellar, just to check." Ethan dropped into his desk chair and leaned back, cradling his mug. "I really hate it when that guy is right. And even worse, the feeling coming up through the ground."
"You're just jealous because Maurice was living in Divine's for two years before you showed up. It's not like a guy shrunk down to six inches tall could make any moves on Angela--and she would have zapped him a dozen times over if he tried. Any idiot could tell she was waiting for someone specific." He snickered when Ethan's eyes lit up. "Well, looking back, it's obvious, now that we can see how she is whenever you walk into the room. The thing is, Maurice was never a threat. The guy was nuts for Holly long before he figured it out."
Stayn paused, halfway into his seat. A shiver ran up and down his spine and made the hairs stand up at the nape of his neck. The best way to get either a growl or a grin and rumbling chuckle from Ethan was to tease him about Maurice being a rival. The dis-enchanted Fae, now liaison and guide for Fae visiting Neighborlee from the Fae realms, had never been interested in Angela, even in pretend, to tease her. Maurice was too smart for that. Ethan's reaction to the teasing was always a good barometer to how things were at Divine's Emporium, meaning how Angela felt, reacting to the vibrations of good and evil, safety and danger, humming through the foundations of the town. For Ethan to have such a non-reaction...made Stayn feel uneasy. Maybe he should call Dawn's phone and demand she return now. Or better yet, contact Marac and tell him to make her come home. Using his authority as a police officer, if necessary.
"The ground makes my feet itch through my boots. And there was this pressure in the air when we went up into the attics and checked the secret library and the painting room," Ethan continued after taking a slow sip of his coffee. "It made the back of my head ache."
"Does Maurice think Big Ugly is waking up?"
Stayn knew that was a stupid question, but he had to say something.
"He's calling in some friends in dimensions that brush up against Neighborlee where the barriers are weak. No idea how long it'll take to test things. Guber and Epsi are hard at work, playing with his gizmos, trying to come up with something to monitor the dimensional barriers, see if Big Ugly is trying to make a break for it. There's a reason why he's been imprisoned underneath the town all these centuries, caught between dimensions." Ethan let out a gusting sigh, took a big gulp of his coffee, and thumped the mug down on his indecently clean desk. "It'd be a big help if we could find out just what that reason is."
"Yeah." Stayn shivered.
"What?" The other man's blue eyes darkened and narrowed, the intensity of his gaze nearly skewering Stayn into his chair. "You just thought of something."