I was standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument when I got the call. I wanted to hop the next flight to L.A., but I was in the middle of assisting The Agency with a case, and my walking away could cost innocent kids their lives.
“I’ll be home in a couple of days,” I told Elizabeth. “Tell Dylan and Brian congrats and kiss Sophie for me.”
I hung up the phone feeling frustrated, disappointed, and relieved. I’d wanted to be there when my friends’ daughter was born, and I hated that The Agency—of all things—had pulled me away at exactly the wrong moment. But more than that, I was glad that Dylan and Sophie had come through it all okay. Dylan’s pregnancy had been hard on her, and we’d all been worried about what would happen when the big day came around, but Elizabeth had assured me that both mother and daughter were doing fine.
I pushed all thoughts of my friends away. I had other things to deal with at the moment—like helping The Agency catch a madman who was using his metaphysical abilities to kidnap, abuse, and kill little kids.
You won’t find The Agency listed on any government websites. You won’t hear about The Agency on the news or read about them in the headlines. Technically, the organization doesn’t exist. Off the record, The Agency is the branch of the U.S. government that deals with magic. And because they don’t technically exist, they can get away with breaking all kinds of rules. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s right. But it has always scared the hell out of me to know they can and often do operate without boundaries.
I’d worked with The Agency since right after I’d graduated high school. I’d apprenticed with a P.I. in Jacksonville, Florida, and he’d introduced me to contacts within the organization. He often worked for them as a private contractor, but he refused to join up. It didn’t take me long to understand why, and when he retired and I took over his business, I decided to follow in his footsteps in that regard; I’d often worked with The Agency, but I would never work for them.
Nothing I’d seen during this newest case had convinced me otherwise. If anything, The Agency had slid a little farther toward the black end of the spectrum. They still scared the hell out of me, though there were plenty of good people within their ranks.
Like the woman who was covering the ground between us with long, sure strides.
I shivered and tucked my hands into my armpits to keep them from freezing off as I watched her make her way toward me across the mostly deserted mall. In her no-nonsense boots, cords, and heavy, wool coat, she looked strong, confident, and sophisticated, not to mention much warmer than I was in my jeans and leather jacket.
“I’m not cut out for this shit, Martine,” I told her when she got within hearing distance. “Next time, can we chase down an asshole in the Caribbean?”
Martine flashed me a smile. “How do you think I feel?” she asked me, her normally faint accent as thick as old honey.
Martine Rochon had been born and raised in the Caribbean. I’d never asked where. I thought her accent might be Haitian, but I wasn’t sure. I, on the other hand, had been born and raised outside of Cleveland, Ohio. It gets cold in Ohio, and at one time I’d enjoyed that, reveling in snowball fights and white Christmases. But I’d moved to Florida when I was nineteen, and I’d lived there my entire life…until recently, when I’d moved to southern California, where, if anything, it was even warmer and sunnier. Martine was no more comfortable with the cold temperature than I was, but at least she’d been smart enough to prepare for it.
“I think you feel pretty snug all wrapped up like that,” I answered. Then I turned from small talk to our case. “What have we got?”
She gave me a small, quick nod, and then turned to walk away. I fell into step beside her, and she filled me in as we walked. We bounced around some ideas and ended up with a plan.
In a way, I hated that we worked well together. I hadn’t been prepared to like Martine when we’d first met. I sure as hell hadn’t expected to respect her.
We’d met in a small hospital in Austin, shortly after a hard-fought battle between The Agency and a rogue practitioner named Hayes, who’d kidnapped and tortured both my brother’s girlfriend and a tiny little girl named Madison. Several people I cared about had been badly hurt during that confrontation, including my ex-boyfriend and good friend, Rob Quinn. Martine had been dating Rob at the time, and yes, I’d been jealous. I’m not even sure why. We’d had a good run, Rob and me, but we’d wanted different things. We’d managed to stay friends, and I’d been grateful for that, but a part of me hated that another woman had been at his side when he needed someone most.
In the end, it hadn’t mattered. Rob had taken a header down a staircase while in the middle of a magic-induced hallucination and died before he hit the bottom—and I’d been the one left behind to hold Martine up through the worst of her grief.
Martine and I had become friends afterward, and we had worked together a few times as well. We worked really well together, and I still hadn’t gotten past my Robbie issues to the point where I could deal with that fact.
But if we managed to catch this asshole before he hurt any more kids, I figured that would go a long way toward making me appreciate our working relationship.
We managed to catch the kid-snatching asshole a couple of days later, and I hopped the next flight back home to California. I stepped out of the airport terminal into blinding sunlight, and I turned my face up to it with a smile. It wasn’t exactly warm in L.A. at Christmastime, but at least it wasn’t freezing like it had been in D.C. My jeans and leather jacket were perfectly appropriate for the L.A. weather, and the brilliant, late afternoon sunshine reached past the surface to warm something inside of me that had been chilled by the case as well as the overcast days in the northeast.
I was dead tired, and I ached to head home to my big, comfy bed and a long, long nap, but after I paid a small fortune to get out of the airport parking lot, I found myself headed toward Brian and Dylan’s apartment instead. I could put off sleep for an extra half hour or so. There was someone I needed to meet.
When I got to the apartment, I knocked gently on the door, afraid of disturbing anyone. No one answered, so I tried the knob, which proved to be unlocked, and let myself inside.
At first I didn’t see anyone in the main part of the apartment, but as I stepped further inside, I realized that someone was sitting on the sofa, out of my line of sight. He looked up as I walked into the room, a goofy, besotted smile curving his lips.
“Hey,” he said softly.
My heart caught in my throat for a moment. Seth was the last person I had expected to find here. He was supposed to be off on the other side of the country somewhere, touring with his band, not snuggled up on Brian and Dylan’s sofa with a tiny, pink bundle nestled in his arms.
In the two months since we’d spent the night together down by the ocean, I’d heard precious little out of Seth. We’d texted some, communicated sporadically though the social networks, and had a couple of brief telephone conversations about the house, the cleaning crew, and the yard guy. We hadn’t seen each other, and we hadn’t spoken a single word about ‘us’ —or the lack thereof.
Now here he was, smiling up at me like he hadn’t been avoiding me for all he was worth. It made me want to punch him in the throat.
Seth either didn’t see the rage and frustration bubbling up inside me or he chose to ignore them. He looked down at the baby in his arms and tugged the blanket a little farther away from her tiny, pink face.
“She’s awesome, isn’t she?”
I looked down at Sophie and my rage melted away. I dropped my backpack on the floor, leaned down over the sofa and Seth’s shoulder, and stroked the back of my knuckles against Sophie soft, little cheek.
“Yeah. Yeah, she is,” I agreed. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“Napping. They’re both exhausted. I convinced them that Sophie could keep an eye on me for a little while.”
I grinned despite myself. “She looks like she could take you.”
“Yup. Teeny-tiny badass.” He looked up at me, still smiling. She had him completely enchanted. “You want her?”
I skirted around the sofa and leaned down to take the baby before straightening again. Two seconds later, Seth was on his feet, obviously unable to stand letting Sophie’s sweet face out of his sight. I couldn’t help grinning.
“It’s been a long time since I got to cuddle one this size,” I said.
“Not since April?” he guessed.
I gave a little nod, not trusting myself to speak. I didn’t think about April much, but when I did, it still hurt. My niece had been one of the best things to come into my life. She’d been an amazing little girl, sunny and happy almost all of the time.
Then she got sick.
I hadn’t been around as much as I could have, but when I had spent time with Chris’s family, it had been torture to watch April struggling against the illness that eventually took her life. And it had been torture watching what her illness—and her death—did to my brother. Even now, sixteen years later, it hurt like hell to think about how they’d suffered. I snuggled Sophie a little closer and blinked back tears.
Seth wrapped his arms around me and Sophie. “Yeah, me, too,” he said. “Ryder came along after that, but Stacy and Brad were still in upstate New York then, and I couldn’t get away from my crap job long enough to go see him until about a month later. And when Becca was born, I was too broke to fly home at all. Didn’t see her until she was almost a year old.”
“I saw the pictures your mom posted on your Facebook the other day,” I told him. “Those kids are growing up so fast.”
“I know,” Seth said. He sounded sad. “And I have no idea when or if I’ll get to see them again.”
I moved away enough so that I could turn to face Seth without smashing Sophie. “Why not?”
“I didn’t tell you?” he asked, his brow furrowing. When I shook my head he asked, “I did tell you that Brad took off, right?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yeah. About a year ago,” he said, his attention back on Sophie. “Just up and left them. Moved to Miami. Fucker.”
“That’s pretty shitty.”
“Yeah. My sister didn’t handle it too well. Ended up ‘getting religion.’ She still talks to Mom and Dad, but she doesn’t want me around her kids until I repent and get away from the devil’s music or some shit.”
I couldn’t hold back a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Didn’t mean to bore you,” Seth said with a crooked grin that said he knew damn good and well that wasn’t the case.
“I haven’t slept much lately,” I told him. “I had planned on going to head straight home to bed, but I couldn’t resist this one,” I said.
“She is pretty irresistible,” he agreed. “If you’re half as tired as you look, you probably shouldn’t be driving. No one’s using the guest room.”
“They aren’t?” I asked, looking up in surprise.
“Dylan didn’t want her folks staying here. They drive her nuts. And Brian’s parents won’t get into town for a couple more days. So it’s all yours,” he explained. “Go. Sleep.”
With a nod, I negotiated another baby switch-off, managing not to drop Sophie or even jiggle her around too much. Then I snatched up my backpack and headed for the guest room for a much-needed nap.