It had taken her a week to drive the fifteen hundred and some odd miles back to her home in Atlanta. It should have taken her a couple of days. She had stopped so many times, for gas, coffee and hotels. She had turned around to go back to the Moonflower more than a half dozen times and she had spent one whole day in a hotel bed crying and hugging her furry companion. Exhausted and emotionally drained, she could not stop thinking about him. Not once had she thought about her work except that she could try again later. She could only think about the passionate man that had been so tender and sweet and all of the amazing things that he had shared with her.
By the time she reached the gates of her family’s estate, she felt like a dehydrated, raggedy wreck. Her bloodshot eyes sporting dark circles, hair that looked as if it hadn’t been combed in days and her disheveled looking clothes just added to her look of misery.
As she opened the door to the old southern mansion, familiar smells inundated her. Teresa and her mother were cooking. There were always great smells wafting around. Words caught her off guard and made her jump.
“Isabella, what on earth happened to you, darlin’?” Her mother’s eyes widened at the unkempt daughter slouching past her. Her appearance completely out of character for her usually very well kept girl. What on earth indeed. Isabella moved in to hug her tightly, pausing for a moment trying to keep yet more tears at bay so mom wouldn’t insist on doing the third degree thing immediately.
“Mom I can’t talk right now. I’m just too tired.” Ella was a southern belle. For a woman of fifty and a few, she could have passed for Isabella’s older sister. She was beautiful. Tall and graceful, she was the good genes of the family. Luckily, all the kids got her good looks and common sense, and dads brains and thick dark hair. Her southern accent purred.
“Well alright then darlin’. You bathe and take a nap and join us for supper. You can tell us all about your trip.” Isabella stiffened, then, a sniffle. Dad had lowered his newspaper and Wee Hawk took the opportunity to greet him. He asked.
“Darlin’ girl… you OK.”
“Oh daddy… I, I’m just tired. I really need to talk to you about something but I just can’t keep my eyes open right now.” Her look and her voice was down trodden, her spirit seemed crushed.
“We can talk after your nap sweetheart, before supper.” Nodding she turned and walked through the kitchen like a zombie and made her way to the carriage house that she had made into her home, Wee Hawk following dutifully. Ella eyed husband Daryl, a tall husky set of a man with a full head of thick jet-black hair that was just barely beginning to sprinkle with a little salt and pepper look.
“I am tellin’ you darlin’ there is a man in this mix. I think our little girl has just met her match.”
“Think so doll.” It was a rhetorical question.
“I think so. I hope we get to meet this man and soon. It looks to me like a little bit of intervention is needed here.” Emphasis on intervention.
“I hope this guy isn’t like that last one. He gave me the creeps, made my skin crawl. I don’t think he ever really cared for our little girl.”
“This is different Daryl. You mark my words. This one has done somethin’ to our baby.” With a small snort into the air, Daryl replied.
“Or maybe our baby did something to him.”
Steam curled through the bathroom fogging up the mirrors as Isabella sank beneath the hot water that was scented with her special body oil. The one the Witch had called Ohchong. Every few months she would drive to the old downtown district to a little new age shop where a woman named Drucinda who called herself a witch, mixed it especially for her body’s chemistry. Or at least that is what the lady claimed. The fact that it was the oil soothing to her was all she had really cared about.
Her mind began to drift. Just a week ago, she didn’t believe in witches. Now she wasn’t sure anymore. Hiro had told her about the witches of Beddia and their skills. He had told her of so many things that, until she had seen it for herself, seemed impossible.
She did not have the energy to bathe before her nap. She had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow and had slept for nearly ten hours straight. When she woke, dinner was just an hour away. She committed to try to shake off her sorrow for now and have a nice dinner with her family.
Running around both in and out of the country for well over a year and a half now, her trips home had been brief. This time she wished that she could stay for a while, but someone had to tell Hiro’s family what had happened to him. They were place-shifters too. One of them could bring her home. At least she hoped one of them would bring her home. Maybe she would even stay on Hiro’s world for a while. She needed to be around people that knew him, although she didn’t know why, she only knew that she did. Her energy seemed to be gone from her, along with her heart.
‘Isabella.’ She heard his voice as clear as a bell inside her head. Gulping in half the bath water, she came up choking. Looking around as she quickly stepped out of the tub, hoping that it was true and not just her imagination, she heard it again. ‘Isabella.’ He sounded as if he were lost… confused. He was calling to her.
“Oh Gawd. Now I’m hearing his voice.” A strange thought hit her. He was after all...an alien...from another world. Maybe they didn’t die the same way people on earth died. Maybe they didn’t die...maybe they... Oh, shut up. Gawd. Don’t make this any worse. She scolded herself. His voice whispered to her once more. ‘Isabella.’ Hope sprang as she spoke into the air.
“I can hear you. I just don’t know where you are. Somebody took you...a shifter...he took you somewhere. Do you know where you are? Can I come and get you?” She waited for an answer. None came. She mumbled, unable to believe she would actually fall for her own dumb explanation of the situation.
“Gawd, I’m so stupid.” The word Stupid resonated inside her mind and she froze. She heard Marks voice inside her head say ‘Isabel, you are so stupid. You can’t get anything right. That’s why you need me. You can’t get along without me.” Whoa...where had that come from? She stood for a moment with eyes wide. The flash she had just experienced seemed way too real to be just some random brain synopsis firing off. Something felt very wrong.
She finished drying off, patting her hair semi-dry, shaking it loose and combing it with her fingers, she wanted it to look tussled and wind-blown, it would match the way that she felt right now. Dressing quickly, all the while reiterating her conjecture about alien culture and death...whispering ‘Please be true...please be true...’over and over almost like a mantra.
Tonight she just wanted to be in the comfort of her family, hoping for a brief respite from the memories...and the pain. Tonight she would indulge her need to know that she was loved. Her brothers were home. She had hardly spoken to them in months. But first, she would tell her dad what she had discovered. Then, tonight after their reunion, she would call and make plane reservations.
Slipping on a simple pale green summer dress that came to about mid-thigh, the embroidery starting at the bodice trailed its way down to the hemline, the material was fragile, and it matched how she was feeling. Tonight, for some reason she wanted to feel feminine. She slipped on a pair of sandals and wiggled her toes. She thought about Hiro.
It would have been really nice if he could have seen her dressed up, just once. Images of him began to play through her mind. She immediately pushed them back down. Tonight she was there for her family. Tomorrow she would start her preparation to get back to Beddia… come hell or high water.
As she stepped outside the carriage house the aroma’s coming from the kitchen slammed into her. Hungry, she was so very hungry. The sumptuous smell made her stomach growl loudly and she found herself practically running to the back kitchen door to find Teresa who had been their nanny, their housekeeper, cook, good friend and confidant for as long as she could remember. As a very little girl, Isabella remembered attending her wedding. She had been Teresa’s little flower girl and her mother had been her maid of honor. They were good friends and together they had watched each other’s families grow.
“Teresa, it is so good to see you. It is so good to be home. How are you? How are Maria and Jacinto? Did Diego get his scholarship?” She realized when the words came out that she genuinely wanted to know. It almost felt as if some normality were slipping back in to her life.
“It is good to see you too Miss Isabella. Everyone is fine. But the scholarship, we won’t know about that for a few more weeks. But hurry now, your family is in the sitting room with that Mark fellow you used to date. Did you invite him? Will he be staying for dinner?” Isabella felt her stomach turn over right before rage smacked her between her eyes. Her hands curled into fists as suddenly a strange flash, a scenario, began to play through her mind.
It was of Mark and her in the privacy of his bedroom. She saw herself clear as a bell lying in his bed, her eyelids heavy, almost as if drugged. He stood beside the bed. She could see his lips moving and struggled to hear what he was saying. The words and images inside her head were broken and confusing. ‘You will do anything for me Isabel. You’re my personal slut. All you can think about is me. You’ll give me anything I want. You’ll do whatever I tell you. All you want in this world is me. Say it Isabel. Say ‘I’ll do anything for you’... say it. Crawl over here on your belly and beg me.’
She watched the image from her mind in brutal detail as she did as he asked. She crawled across the bed to him...and begged. As he laughed, he moved to scoop his finger into a jar and when he removed it, it was covered in a sticky substance that looked like honey. He smeared it over his erection. She heard him say ‘Come on baby... come get your fix. You won’t remember a thing in the morning, except that you want me and you would do anything to get it.’
Her eyes had grown wide in horror. The image had left her stunned. It seemed all too real to be just some conjured illusion from her mind. She heard a voice calling to her.
“Miss Isabella...Isabella...what is wrong?” She looked to see Teresa standing in front of her, holding her hand, shaking it. She pulled herself away from the image to say,
“Sorry... I was just thinking.”
“Not something good I think. The look on your face said that the devil had you.” Being a good catholic, Teresa crossed herself before moving to the cabinet. Oh Gawd, no kidding. She had always questioned why she had ever been attracted to Mark. She questioned why she had ever considered him as a lover. Whenever she had slept over at his apartment she had always woke up feeling tired, sick and anxious. She always felt dirty and used and she could never figure out why she kept going back.
Even after she escaped to South America, she felt sick for weeks. Several times, she thought about getting back on the plane and going home to him. More times than she could count, she had picked up the phone almost desperate to have him. She had to fight with everything that she had in her, not to betray herself.
After the first couple of weeks of anxiety, it got easier each day, until one day she found herself happy and laughing with her co-workers. Had Mark been giving her something? Had what she had gone through been withdrawal? She would now swear that was what it was. Teresa’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“I will be serving supper in about twenty minutes. Go say hello. Hurry, they have missed you.” Teresa was animated as her old world Spanish accent rolled around her words. Slowly Isabella started to make her way toward the large walk-through pantry room that connected to the dining room, quickly counting place settings.
There were only five...Mom, Dad, Gabriel, Nicholas and her. Mark was there uninvited. Gawd, he was the last person in the world that she wanted to see.
She calmed herself and prepared to get rid of him diplomatically. Tonight she wanted to have her family all to herself. If she made was successful and was able to make it back to Beddia, she might just stay a while, so tonight she was prepared to be greedy. Tonight it was going to be just her and her family.
A moment of paranoia prickled along her spine causing her to reach to be certain that the anklet Hiro had given her was secure around her wrist. It had fit her wrist loosely and easily it could have slipped off. She had taken a gold hook earring and had slipped it through the intricate weave, shortening it slightly to make it fit her tighter. She stopped for a second to wonder why she had done that. Mark was no otherworldly shifter. Whoa, her imagination was really starting to get the best of her.
Still, she couldn’t fight the feeling that something was going on around this guy that was really bad, and she never again wanted any part of it. A small puff of disgust exited her nose.
If she ever did find out that this creep had been using something on her... she would make him pay...in blood! Okay, maybe not in blood but it sounded good.
As she entered what her mother called the informal sitting room just off the dining room, homesickness struck her. It was a large room with big bay windows covering almost one full wall and reaching almost to the top of fourteen-foot high ceiling. Handcrafted crown molding ran around the span of the ceiling and cornice moldings stood as sentinels beside old southern style pocket doors. Double doors made of decorative Tiffany stained glass lead out into a garden, her mother’s pride and joy. Rattan furniture of the highest quality and heavy in their weave sat comfortably in several conversational configurations. Fresh flowers from her mother’s garden were everywhere and the aroma made her smile. Hardwood floors could be seen intermittent between elegant Persian rugs. Along one wall was a huge fireplace faced completely in decorative hand painted tiles. Gawd, how she loved this old house.
“Hey sis.” Isabella’s delight shown in her face as her brothers Gabriel and Nicholas surrounded her. Nicholas, the youngest of them, picking her up off the floor and twirling her. She felt happiness for the first time in days... for the first time since she had lost Hiro.
“I’m so glad to be home, I’ve missed you so much.” She clung to him as tears slipped over her cheeks.
“Hey. What about me?” Gabriel moved in for his turn, pulling her away from his brother to hug her tightly. She turned into his embrace and she didn’t want to let go. She couldn’t bear it if she lost anyone else that she loved. This brother she had almost lost twice. She just wanted to hold on as tight as she could...for as long as she could. Mom’s voice broke into her melancholy.
“Darlin, Mark has stopped by for a few minutes just to say hello.” Her mother had formed her words to let Mark know that he was uninvited. Clever mom. Suddenly feeling defensive, turning to him, she asked suspiciously.
“How did you know I was back?” For a moment, she thought maybe it was because of the tracking device on her equipment. He was grinning as he walked towards her, his saunter casual... to her eyes, predatory.
“I saw you fly through town like a bat out-a-hell. I waved but you just kept going. I thought that maybe something was wrong. I stopped by earlier but I was told that you had gone directly to bed. Aren’t you feeling well Isabel?”
In the background, Isabella heard the doorbell ring and silently groaned. She wanted her family to herself. Why couldn’t people just go away and leave her to her family? Mark had crossed the room to where she stood with her arms around her brother. Almost as if Gabriel had sensed Isabella’s revulsion of Mark, he twirled her out of his reach.
Lifting her was more that he could handle. His leukemia was back and he had come home to say his good-byes. He wanted just one more small amount of time with the people that he loved before he would die. It was all he could do to keep up the appearance of normality. He had worn a bulky sweater under a bulky sweater and two pair of sweat pants under his blue jeans in hopes that his family would not notice his weight loss. He had even resorted to an instant tan, the spray on kind, before coming home to visit. He was weak and in pain and his time was nearly up. Teresa’s voice broke in from the hallway. Her tone of voice sing-song... girly... flirty.
“Isa... bella. Look what I found. He says he is a friend of yours and has been trying to catch up to you. Come say hello to Hiro.” Isabella’s heart stopped. She turned slowly and her eyes meet his. The impact of the sight of him after believing that he was dead made her step away from her brother, her eyes moving up and down his body, examining him in disbelief.
His hair was pulled back at the sides and braided into a thick plait that ran its way down his back, held in place by the ancient hair slide that Trent had given him. His six foot three inches and two hundred and twenty pounds of sleek well-defined muscle was dressed in casual blue jeans and a off white shirt, sleeves rolled up to show powerful forearms.
‘Isabella’ He whispered to her mind as he sent her images of what had happened and how the shifter had helped him. ‘The shifter is kin to me Isa. He took me somewhere safe to heal. My kind can heal rapidly. I am well Isabella.’ Everyone stood in silence, watching them watch each other. Finally he spoke,
“Isabella, I am glad you made it home safely. I was concerned.” He smiled. Dimples softened his ferocious warrior look. Mom and dad watched with interest. Gabriel and Nicolas perused him suspiciously. Marks lip curled in disgust. Somehow the man that he had shot with a sprawl weapon just a little over one week ago was alive and well and in his way yet again.
Hiro’s eyes quickly scanned the room, pausing momentarily on Mark. He tried to look into his mind but there was a scattering device at play. It was rudimentary and badly placed, it wavered. Never the less, it was a sign that he was in league with either the Sulkar traitor Mandusa or the Physician. Hiro could only conjecture that he had been injected with Nano-technology to turn him into what the Physician called a Dragoon, giving him special skills.
Isabella had already begun to cross the room towards him. Mark stepped forward to stop her. Hiro stepped forward to intercept his move, turning her away from him and moving her out of his grasp. The words just dropped out of her mouth without thought in a breathy whisper.
“Gawd, I thought you were dead.” Nicholas’s tone of voice was intense when asked.
“You thought he was dead? What are you talking about Isabella? Why would you think that he was dead?” Mother was interested and asked.
“What’s goin’ on Darlin’?” Dad stood and spoke.
“What on earth happened out there Isa. You were just in New Mexico. You wanna tell us what’s going on here?” Hiro continued to smiled, his eyes never leaving her. Her eyes never left him. It was as if she hadn’t heard anyone else speak. She asked,
“How did you find me?” He winked at her before saying,
“I followed your ROV.” Everyone traded looks. Ella asked.
“What does that mean, what is a ROV?” Hiro answered casually as he chuckled. The pleasure of seeing her standing there safe was elating.
“It is an energy signature” Dad’s ear perked up. Nicholas loosened his protective stance and flashed his friendly smile before asking.
“Hey, are you a treky?”
Nicky was twenty-two years old and as handsome as his sister was beautiful. They shared many of the same characteristics. His hair that was thick, dark and curly and he had the same fair skin and lavender eyes. He stood at six feet one inch, with an athletic built. He was definitely the kind of young man that would drive women wild. His nose had been broken a couple of times, was slightly crooked, and was a distinguishing feature that lent him an air of recklessness, which happened to be a characteristic that he did indeed own - one that both mom and dad had tried to break him of. The scar just over his right eye, under this eyebrow, that he had acquired as a quarterback in his first year of college added to his look of devil-may-care cockiness. Hiro answered, casting him a glance.
“In a manner of speaking, I am a ‘treky’.” Hiro still had not released Isabella from his gaze. It was then she could wait no longer. She had to feel him to be sure he was real and that she wasn’t dreaming it again. Her hands immediately began feeling around his chest.
“Isabella, I was concerned for your safety.” Dad was getting anxious and broke in.
“Alright, what is going on? If you put my little girl in danger I want to know.” Hiro answered before Isabella could.
“Someone is trying to steal your daughter’s research. They believe it important and wish to take credit for it. Whoever it is, tried to scare us off by shooting into our camp. I sent Isabella away for the sake of safety.” He looked to her. She was trying to follow along in the alibi. He continued.
“We agreed to meet in another place later on. I doubled around to see if I could discover who it was. I found nothing. My vehicle was damaged and I missed Isabella at our rendezvous point.” Looking back to Isabella, hoping his story sounded plausible to a protective father’s ear.
“I did not mean to scare you Isabella. I lost my cell phone in the confusion and by the time I got to a phone, I realized I had also lost your number and could not call. I came straight here, as I knew that you would be worried. I am glad that you are alright and made it home safely.” He said it with such concern and intimacy that it made Ella smile.
She was right. This was the man in the mix and what a man at that. Mom’s Cheshire cat grin was lighting her face. Now this man was a real man. She could tell. She had good instincts. Her baby girl had certainly got herself some luck... and with any luck... she might have even got herself a little of him. What a dreamy man.
Isabella was going over their alibi inside her mind. Okay. That sounded plausible, hopefully. She waited for her father to respond. He watched them carefully. Nicholas spit out the words angrily as he moved forward to shove at Mark.
“It was you Mark, wasn’t it? What an asshole. It’s easy enough to call around and find out if you were in town or not.” Dad stopped him.
“We don’t accuse people son.” Mark put on his best defense. He showed concern.
“Damn Isabel. You should have called me. I would have gone with you. Do you even know this guy? Who is he and why do you trust him? How do you know that it wasn’t someone he works with that shot into your camp? How do you know it isn’t this guy trying to steal your work?” Dad took this moment to ask.
“Why don’t you introduce your friend Isabella?” Hiro did not hesitate, extending his hand in greeting.
“My apologies Mr. Benedict, I meant no disrespect. I am Hiro Varda. I met your daughter on one of her expeditions.” Recognition was dawning on Daryl. The name clicked inside his mind and it all began to make sense. He asked to confirm his suspicions.
“Varda...of, The Institute of Environmental Earth Studies... The Varda Foundation? You’re listed on the Board of Directors as Hiro Asa. You say your last name is Varda?”
“Yes Mr. Benedict. I know your name as well. One of your companies launched a few research satellites for us in the past.”
“Yes we did. I met your father goin’ on twenty some odd years ago. So Aidan Varda would be your brother?” That little kink between Isabella’s eyes was back. That her father and Hiro knew of each other was just another strange twist in the even stranger situation that was unfolding.
“Aidan is my younger brother. I am the eldest of eleven children.” Hiro looked into his mind. Daryl wanted more information.
Years ago while still a very young man he had risked his career to chase down the strange manner in which his research crew had disappeared. He had been hired as an independent research contractor to take soil and core samples, look for any underground caverns, chasms, and to test the tectonic plates in a remote location. He had taken with him a crew of fourteen men and women. After base camp had been set-up, he hiked up over a hill just to get a better look at the lay of the land. He turned around to survey the valley where base camp had been set-up, and at that very moment there was a strange waver of light, a distortion of space, then an unusual snap of atmosphere... and base camp... all tents, vehicles, tables, supplies... and people, had simply vanished. In that moment, the course of his life had changed completely.
He began an independent investigation, searching for anything that could help him understand how such a thing could happen. He discovered that The Varda Foundation had just completed their own investigation regarding this strange occurrence. After several requests for material and data that they had gathered, he realized that there would be no sharing of information. As he investigated further, he discovered that there had been other occurrences even stranger than the one he had been pursuing. When he continued to dig into these matters, he was approached by a secret Government agency.
The incident that had been a turning point in Daryl Benedict’s life, and still to this day... unresolved, had set him on a path that had gotten him appointed as the head of a secret government agency called, The Bureau of Paranormal Occurrence and Phenomenon.
Once installed as head of this agency, he continued his investigations only to discover that the Varda did reconnaissance on the same paranormal events. Oddly, the Varda Foundation seemed to know more about spatial distortions as well as when and where they would occur.
He even suspected that in the locations where special permission was required for entry, the Varda Foundation always had an ‘In’. They were always first in and first out at all investigation sites.
Although the Varda Foundation had offices in several major cities worldwide, their main research facility was located on an island in the South China Sea. How they had managed that, was still a mystery. Because of this... they were untouchable and unreachable.
Daryl’s family businesses had been handed down from generation to generation. They were all conducted by appointed boards with him acting as CEO, guarding his legacy to his children and theirs. But his first priority was always the agency. He knew that the paranormal existed. He had seen it with his own eyes. Some way, somehow, this man that stood before him, holding onto his daughter, had answers to questions that he had been searching for, for years.
Mark had held himself casually quiet, steaming at Isabella’s proximity to this stranger, but with the mention of the name Varda something in him had stilled. Mandusa, his business associate, hated this family with a venom that was unsurpassed by any hatred that he had ever known. And now, he could share in that emotion. He wanted this guy dead! Whatever the cost... if it was the last thing on earth that he did... this guy was going to die by his hand.
Daryl wanted to ask what his little girl had been doing to warrant not only someone trying to steal from her, but intervention from the Varda Foundation as well. It had not escaped his attention that Mark was still present, hanging back just a little, watching, and listening. He did not want to ask while Mark was present. But as soon as Mark was out of there... he wanted answers. If his guess was correct, his daughters discovery would have something to do with his business... the paranormal. Otherwise, he saw no reason for a representative of The Varda Foundation to be involved.
They all watched curiously, as Isabella now clung to Hiro. He returned her embrace tenderly. As her voice broke, she spoke in a muffled tone into his chest.
“Gawd, I was so worried.” She had to clear her throat as something moved in her. Her eyes dropped closed. She had been without him for just over a week that it had taken her to get home and for him to heal. Seeing him, having his scent mingling in her senses, was causing her to feel the draw of Hui-lu Shai-eia. Hiro felt it as well. It took everything that he had just to hang on to his composure. His lips ran across the top of her head, her hair teasing his lips, his tone of voice intimate beyond all belief as he said.
“All that matters is that you are safe. It was my only concern. You did the right thing by heading directly home.” Good line... many points. Mom really liked this man. Finally, she stepped away from Hiro to say.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.” Mom played the diplomat jumping in quickly.
“Why darlin, you’re just hungry. Well, I would just bet that you thought about Teresa and me just cookin’ up storm all the way home. I’m just gonna run help her. Why don’t we all go into the dinin’ room. And Hiro, you sit by me. I just have a million questions.” As mom turned to make her way to the kitchen, Isabella whispered in her smallest voice close to his chest,
“I saw you get shot in the chest. You should be dead. How is this possible?” Whispering close to her ear, he asked,
“Am I making you uncomfortable? Would you like for me to leave?” Her eyes widened. All bets were off. She wasn’t going to lose him again. Quickly he spoke to her mind.
‘Speak with your mind Isabella. I will hear you. We might be scaring your family.’
‘No, don’t go. Tell me it wasn’t a hallucination. The Portals, the shifting, the gunshot wound. Please tell me I’m not crazy.’
‘All of it was truth. You are not crazy Isabella.’ Daryl stood with eyes narrowed on his daughter, just watching. There was an intimacy to the way she touched this man. She was looking at him as if she were speaking to him with an almost frantic undertone to her unheard voice. But no words were spoken. Still, something like that just couldn’t be possible. Marks patience was at an end, his voice boomed from where he was standing.
“Okay that’s enough Isabel. Have you forgotten that we are engaged? I don’t know who this guy is but your acting like a groupie. He’s not a rock star.” By the time he finished speaking he was standing beside her, his hand moved to grab her wrist. Contact. Hiro moved Isabella, stepping between them and causing Mark to lose his hold on her. Mark was quick to speak.
“Come here Isabel. Come on. Come here. Come to me.” Hiro glanced to see Isabella’s hand rubbing the spot where Mark had grabbed her arm. She answered angrily,
“I’m not your dog to call. Don’t order me around.” Hiro drew in a breath, a familiar scent mingled with a commercial concoction and Hiro knew that Mark had most probably mixed the Sulkar drug with hand lotion before coming there. The Sulkar drug was instantly addictive. Realization dawned. So this had been the way that Mark had trapped her mind and forced her compliance. Mark continued to repeat his command, certain that any moment its grip would take hold and she would obey.
“Isabel, come on, whatever the problem is, we can work it out. You want to be with me. You know you do. You want to be with me.” Hiro could tell that he was trying to insinuate a command to her mind. Mark took that moment to try again to touch Isabella by reaching around Hiro. He was stopped with a twist of his wrist that turned him as Hiro’s grip forced him to bend forward at the waist. Mark could feel the power in this man’s grip. No wonder shooting him hadn’t worked, this guy had enhancements as well. Hiro leaned over to say, his voice firm and commanding.
“Never put your hands on her again. She is no longer in your spell.” He was hoping it was true. He was hoping that she was as strong as he thought her to be. Daryl had crossed the room and had taken Isabella a step back, turning her to hold her against him. He did not like Mark, never had. And now he would get to say what he had wanted to say for so long.
“Mark, you need to leave. Isabella left you over a year ago, so let’s don’t pretend some prior commitment that doesn’t exist. My daughter doesn’t want you here so you are not welcome here.”
Mark tried to shove Hiro but his position was awkward and Hiro didn’t budge. Then, to deliberately throw Mark off balance Hiro released him to step in front of where Daryl stood holding Isabella. Mark stumbled, then, found his footing. Isabella’s face was buried in her father chest, her hand still gripping the spot where he had touched her. Hiro cautioned Daryl.
“Take her into the kitchen and wash her arm and hands. Don’t touch it yourself.” Mark froze for just a moment. This guy knew about the drug and Isabel’s addiction. He wondered if Isabel knew as well. It was not looking good for him in this moment. Daryl stood for a moment, uncomprehending. Then, Hiro’s words began to make sense. He quickly moved his daughter out of the room. Nicholas moved to Hiro’s side and promptly joined in the undercurrent of anger.
“You were never good enough for her. You treated her like shit you prick. I’m glad she dumped your ass. And I’d bet real money you’re the one trying to steal her research. She’s smarter than you’ll ever be... always has been. I hear the rumors about you, you twisted pervert. You just want her cause you’re hoping that she’ll get you into dad’s will. Do you honestly think anyone of us would ever feel safe sleeping under the same roof as you, you psychopath?” Ella stepped back into the room and in an effort to defuse a possible escalation of emotions she looked to Mark and tried to speak diplomatically.
“Mark, we haven’t seen Isabella in a while. Tonight is a family night. You understand. You really should go now.” He had to use all of his effort to keep his face from twisting in anger. Still, he spit out the words.
“This guy isn’t family and it looks to me like he’s staying. Isabella and I just had a misunderstanding. I know that after we are able to talk privately she will feel better. We are still together, she is just a little mad at me right now. We can fix it. It’s nothing to get crazy over. We just need time to talk. Privately.” Now it was Hiro’s turn.
“You will never be speaking to Isabella again Mark, public or private.” He glanced to Mark’s hands before saying.
“I repeat my warning. Never put your diseased hands on her again... or I will rip them off.” Wow... that was uncharacteristic for a holy man of the Obej. But damn, it felt good to say it. He continued.
“Isabella is with me now. She knows what you are and your coercions will no longer work on her.” Mark was suddenly still, almost peaceful as his mind moved to lay his plan of revenge. Okay. If this guy wanted war... then war he would get. Leaning in he spoke in a low tone.
“I know what you are freak. I know how to fuck with you. And next time...” His hand moved to form the image of an imaginary gun. His finger pulled the imaginary trigger. He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t have too. Hiro know that this was the man that had shot him. His words implying that there would be a next time... and he would not miss his chance. He had every intention of killing him. As he turned to leave, Nicholas shouted.
“You’re the only freak here. Don’t ever come back. She’s rid of you Asshole.”
“Nicky... such language.” Mom said as she watched as Nicholas walked behind Mark making sure to slam the door and lock it behind him.
“Asshole.” He stated it one last time emphatically. Turning to smile at his mother, he said.
“I am so glad that back-end of a mule is out of here. I could never understand what Isa saw in him. He made her miserable.” As he arrived to where mom was standing, he donned his most charming smile and cuddled up to her and allowed his southern drawl to deepen as he cooed.
“Sorry mom. You didn’t really hear that did you?” She smacked him gently on the side of the head, her smile doting.
“Of course not Darlin’. My son is perfect and would never dream of behavin’ in such a tawdry manner.” her southern accent twirling the word ‘tawdry’. She then turned her attention to Hiro, slipping her arm through his.
“Did I hear you say that Isabella is with you now? I just have to hear all about this. You can sit by me at supper and I am gonna want details.” Oh yes... she was a smooth southern belle. Her best smile, lashes batting in the vixen style that was pure Scarlet O’Hara, Isabella must have taken after dad. She used none of these ploys. Nicholas was quick to do the niceties.
“I’m Nicholas. That woman shamelessly trying to pry information from you is my mother, Ella... and my brother over there is Gabriel.” He gestured to the young man still standing beside the credenza. Hiro extended his hand to Nicky, as mom had called him. He glanced to Gabriel and nodded. His gesture was returned. Gabriel mumbled.
“Nice to meet you.” Hiro could smell death on him. He was struggling to present normality. He had let everyone else handle the situation at hand because he just didn’t have the energy for it. Hiro knew that it was only a matter of a few short weeks or maybe even less before Isabella would lose her brother. It would devastate her. The only way to save him was to take him away from this world. Only Beddia could save him.
“It is good to meet all of you. Isabella speaks of you with great affection. If you do not mind, I would like to check on her. I need to know she is alright. But first, I would like to wash my hands.” Oh, yes. Mom liked this guy.
“She’s with her daddy, darlin. She’ll be just fine. Mark has this tendency to just suck all the air out of a room, that’s all.” Her emphasis on the word ‘suck’. Nicky sounded in.
“Yeah... air out of a room and life out of...”
“Now stop Nicky. Gone is gone. Out of sight and all. Let’s see to supper.” Ella showed Hiro the guest bathroom. When he returned she guided Hiro towards the dining room. When they entered, he saw Isabella sitting at the table with her father. They were whispering. Daryl stood up slowly, his face a carefully controlled mask of anger.
“You think that he was using drugs on my daughter?”
“I believe he was.” They now stood face to face.
“My daughter has told me briefly about her research. You got something to add?” Hiro glanced around the room before saying.
“Not at this time. Do you have a security crew Mr. Benedict?” Daryl’s eyes narrowed on Hiro. He had just implied that his home might be monitored. His mouth tightened, head nodding as his eyes then followed the line of the room.
“If I do, and you are still making this suggestion, I better be getting myself a new one.” Hiro liked Isabella’s father. He was quite astute. Hiro added.
“It never hurts to be self-sufficient in these matters... especially when you know that you have an enemy.” Daryl nodded before saying.
“Radio shack here I come.” his tone bordering on sarcastic and laced with frustration.
Hiro moved to where Isabella sat. Running his finger across her cheek, down her arm he attempted to lighten the strain of the situation.
“I think your mother is correct. You are hungry and have a lot on your mind. Your mothers’ cooking smells delicious and I am very hungry myself. Shall we?” For the first time in days, Isabella actually took a deep breath. At this moment, life could not get any better. Hiro pulled the chair out and seated Ella, who was delighted with his chivalry. Dinner was served. His mind made an open scan of everyone in the room. Ella began.
“So tell us about yourself Hiro. Mother, father, sisters, brothers. Where do you live? What do you do for a livin’?” Daryl made an attempt to slow her down.
“Ella, darlin’ give the boy a chance to speak. How can he answer all your questions if you don’t quit talking?” Hiro smiled. He could feel the love between them.
Ella spoke animatedly about Isabella and Gabriel’s homecoming. Gabriel worked in Boston as an executive in one of his father’s companies. He was the steady one, the one that would dutifully take over the family business when the time came. Only he knew this would never happen. His time would come to leave this world long before he would ever take his father’s seat as CEO of the family business. Hiro could feel his sadness, his fear and regret. He had chosen death over suffering through more chemotherapy that he knew would not save him.
Dinner went smoothly. Daryl guided the conversation to keep the subject matter light. No questions were asked about Isabella’s research. Nothing too personal was asked of Hiro. Mom took her cues from her husband. She seemed to know what was appropriate and what was not. His sons followed his lead as well. It was as if they had done this same thing many times.
Hiro didn’t have to look into Daryl’s mind to see that very soon he was going to want real answers to real questions... he could tell by the look in his eyes. He knew that Daryl had had a great deal of experience with the paranormal, but never had he shared it with his children. He did this for their safety. He had experienced first-hand what could happen to someone that knew more than their ever so benevolent government wanted them too. Ella however, was a different story. Under her flirty southern belle façade was a woman with a fierce intellect, one that would never allow her husband to keep secrets from her. What Daryl knew... Ella knew.
What Hiro already knew was that eventually they would have to be taken into his confidence. It could be no other way. Their daughter was his lifemate and soon, he would take their son Gabriel from them. It would be the only way to save him.
Dinner concluded with dessert... a fresh fruit and cream tart. Indeed, it was a delight. It made him think of Sophean, the sweet young girl that had been the bakers apprentice in his brother Aidan’s household. She had been abducted by a renegade shifter and tortured by the Sulkar traitor Mandusa. They had arrived in time to rescue her, but Desanya had not been so lucky. If Mandusa were using Mark to spy on Isabella, then he would not be too far away. The idea that she might someday be exposed to the creature that had now taken human form did not sit well with him.
Something odd was happening with Isabella. As she sat at the dinner table wishing that she could get Hiro alone so she could interrogate him, among other things, she was getting glimpses, little patches of a visual story, a sound bite narrated by Hiro, nebulous words that were sometimes attached to pictures. Occasionally he would speak to her mind and reassure her that everything was going to be all right. How sweet. Although their meeting had started out...well...sexy as all get out, it had spiraled into the strange and then into frightening. But now she was beginning to breathe again.
It took her a while to figure out that she was actually rattling around inside Hiro’s head. He seemed particularly concerned with someone named Mandusa. Many times, he pondered what ‘The Physician’ was planning regarding the Diabolicon. Diabolicon... Cool word. She liked it. She also saw him wonder if the Physician had already acquired the Ceridian-lexica, and if it really did have the power to open the Temporal Rift. Wow... alien stuff had really cool names. But what she liked most was being able to see what he was thinking... and it was getting easier with each passing moment.
Daryl was plotting his strategy as to how he would finagle information from Hiro when the phone rang. Teresa was on her way home but stopped to answer it from the room that they had recently vacated. She peeked around the corner to announce.
“It is for you Nicky. It is one of your professors.” She said her goodnights and made her way to the door, closing it behind her. Nicholas stood to say.
“Don’t get excited dad. I have been a good boy. This has to be about something other than my... recent behavior.” He grinned and winked at mom as he exited the room. Hiro liked him. He was open and playful and he could tell that like all the members of this family, he had a generous and kind spirit. But it would be his temper that would get him into trouble.
It took only seconds for Hiro’s head to tip upwards, his nose scenting the air, the taste of ozone flushing his mouth. It was all too familiar. It was the smell and the taste of the sprawl weapon that had been intent on killing him. He knew in an instant that Nicholas had been singled out.
He stood so fast that the chair went skidding across the room. Daryl was quick to respond, following Hiro from the room just in time to see Nicholas standing with the phone to his ear. A stray thought filtered through his mind. Why hadn’t his professor just called him on his cell phone?
Nicholas stood in front of the expansive bay windows. Hiro lunged for him just as the glass shattered. Hiro watched Nicky’s chest explode, heard Isabella scream, Daryl’s frantic tone calling for his son. Almost as in slow motion, he watched Nicky fly backwards as the weapons velocity impacted his chest, just as it had done with him. His body hit the wall, bounced, and then hit the floor hard. As soon as the sprawl tasted blood, it stopped. Smart weapon. Then the sprawl began to do its wicked work. Nicky gasped, as garbled sounds bubbled up from his throat accompanied by a gush of blood, sounds of pain and panic. He clutched at his chest with one hand as he reached for his father with the other. His face was a mask of pain and terror.
“Dad. Oh god...what...” Pain ripped through him, sharp as shards, over and over as if his nerves were being stripped raw. Blood rushed from his mouth... he choked on it. As Hiro quickly knelt down beside Nicholas, he heard the Isabella’s strained and frantic voice.
“No... I can’t believe this is happening again. This can’t be happening again.” By now, Nicholas was surrounded by a frenzy of chaotic emotions. Ella’s voice was a solid wall of grief as she was already mourning her son. His chest covered in blood... his body jerking convulsively... his face, twisted in agony. He was dying right there in front of them. Daryl called out.
“Gab, call an ambulance. Hurry.” Gabriel already had the phone in his hand. Daryl’s hand went to apply pressure to the wound, and then pulled back quickly when he felt the movement inside his son’s chest.
“Good god, what is this? Hold on son. Help is coming.” His vision was clouded by fear. The young man had stopped his fight against the pain. His body jerked, his eyes void of life. Isabella gripped Hiro’s arm that was now around Nicholas.
“Hiro, Please help him. He can’t die. This can’t be happening again.” There was so much emotional chaos in the room, everyone talking in desperate tones, everyone trying to save the young man. An impossibility. Hiro looked to Daryl, glancing then to Gabriel.
“Gabriel, put down the phone.” His decision was made. Now was the time. His attention turned to Daryl.
“He has been shot with a sprawl weapon. This weapon is not of this earth.” Hiro watched the grief of hope lost wash over Daryl’s face. As well, he saw that Daryl had just connected the dots.
With his words, 'a weapon not of this world', Hiro had exposed himself.