Thirty minutes later, we were back on Nicky's bike, racing towards home. It had come down to me having to be the voice of reason and putting an end to our fun. Not that I'd wanted to, but Nicky had lost all urgency to leave the house. Or let me leave it. But we didn't know why we were being called in, and our texts had been sent from Erik's phone. We couldn't ignore that. Nor could we ignore the fact that we'd spent more time fooling around than we should have and we needed to hurry. So, it shouldn't have come as a surprise when the light bar of a police cruiser started flashing behind us.
Nicky pulled the bike over, and the cruiser stopped several feet behind us. It was still early enough in the evening that the streets were pretty heavy with traffic, and it seemed like every car that passed by slowed down just a little so they could get a look at us. Of course, they probably were.
I wasn't sure what to do, because I'd never been pulled over on a bike before. Nicky cut the engine and put the kickstand down. He turned his head and glanced back at me. "Put your hands up on my shoulders." I did as he told me and he kept his hands on the handlebars.
The door of the cruiser opened and I heard the officer step out of his car and make his way towards us. He stopped at the left rear corner of the bike and we both had to crane our necks around to look at him.
"I'm officer Tate. Ma'am, I'm going to need you to remove your helmet. Sir, I need to ask you to remove the key from the ignition." He stood with his elbow resting over the top of his gun. He held a flashlight in his other hand, which he kept pointed at us. I removed the helmet as asked and squinted at him through the bright light. "License and registration, please."
Nicky pulled them both from his wallet and handed them over. It was hard to tell through being blinded by the flashlight, but the almost bored expression on the cop's face changed when he looked at the license. "Are you carrying, Mr. Spencer?"
"Yes sir, shoulder holster." Nicky said, and I really hoped that wasn't going to cause a big problem. We needed to get going.
The officer looked me over, probably gauging the likelihood of whether I was carrying too. There was nowhere on me to hide a gun, even with my shirt now untucked. It would have had to have been a very tiny gun, in a very uncomfortable place. I could see he was going to dismiss me as a non-threat when our eyes met and I slipped right into his head without meaning to. He was going to take Nicky's gun and have him take a seat in the cruiser while he ran the gun, our descriptions, Nicky's license, and the bike. It was going to take forever and we didn't have time for this.
"Ma'am?" The office looked a little confused. Dazed, almost. Oops.
I bit my lip. I knew I shouldn't try it. It was stupid. He wasn't some harmless, cute little shoe salesman for me to practice on. If I screwed up, we were screwed.
"We're really in a hurry, officer." I said apologetically. He stared blankly and the hand holding the flashlight wavered a bit. I really hoped that was a good sign. I didn't know how to do this and read his thoughts at the same time. I didn't even know if that was possible. "We're very sorry for speeding, and we'll be more careful. I need to get home, so maybe... you could let us off with a warning this time?"
I held my breath, no matter that I didn't breathe. It was a breath holding kind of moment. Nicky's muscles were tense beneath my hands.
Officer Tate smiled and handed Nicky his license and registration. "I'm going to let you off on a verbal warning this time, but you watch your speed. If you're going to be taking a passenger, you need to get yourself another helmet too." He nodded at us. "Have a good night now."
I rested my forehead against Nicky's back and sighed heavily. He turned around and winked at me. "Thanks Obi Wan."
I snapped my teeth at him.
. . . . .
When we got to the house, Ben's car was in the driveway. I wasn't happy. Nicky's eyes narrowed at the sight of it, but he didn't say anything. He didn't throw an arm across my shoulders or make some other possessive gesture either, unlike some guys would have done. Namely the owner of that car we were glaring at, or at least I was glaring at.
He sighed. "Well, this ought to be interesting."
"Sure, if watching me neuter a werewolf qualifies." I kicked the front tire of the car as we walked past it towards the house. It wasn't very satisfying, but it wasn't in me to do actual damage to someone's property.
A guard opened the front door for us with a curt nod. I didn't recognize him, but with these guys all wearing the same dark suit and sunglasses, it wasn't real easy to tell them apart. I offered him a small smile anyway. The guy was protecting the house I lived in, which more or less meant he was protecting me too. I figured a smile was the least I could offer in thanks.
Ben was waiting right there in the entryway, with Derek lounging by the stairs, presumably keeping an eye on the werewolf to make sure he didn't cause trouble. I went on the attack right away, and cruelly hoped Ben would be able to smell Nicky on my breath and know what I'd been doing.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I didn't realize just how angry I was until I felt my fangs extend and scrape my lower lip. Ben took a small step backwards, but I just advanced on him. "It's bad enough that you're calling my mom. Why can't you just leave me alone? You have no right to come here."
"I'm not here for you." He said tersely, but his eyes flicked over my shoulder to where Nicky stood and he clenched his jaw.
"Then why did we both get called in?" I raised my eyebrows as I shouted at him, crossing my arms over my chest. Nicky put a hand on my arm, a gentle warning that I needed to back off and cool down before I really got mad.
Ben clearly didn't like it. His eyes followed Nicky's hand on my arm and darkened. But then he shook himself and looked at me again. "I don't want to fight with you. Not tonight, Eryn."
I stepped away from him and backed up until I ran into Nicky and stopped. He dropped his hand from my arm. Then I really looked at Ben. He didn't look like himself. He looked... exhausted. His hair was unwashed and finger combed, his clothes were wrinkled like he'd slept in them. Or maybe he hadn't slept at all. There were dark circles under his eyes. I looked at Derek, but he just shrugged at me.
"My office, please." Erik stepped into the entryway from behind me and herded us before him, all except for Derek who remained where he was.
Erik's office wasn't empty when we stepped inside. Bhavna stood to the side of Erik's chair behind his desk, and Aris sat on the far end of the sofa positioned across the small room. Nathan was there as well, seated in a stiff wooden chair against another wall. Ben took up position standing beside the sofa, at the opposite end of where Aris sat. Nicky plopped down in the middle, beside Aris. I had no choice but to sit at the other end, closest to Ben.
Nicky ruffled Aris's hair as though she were a little kid and she giggled at him. Great. I didn't know he was a fan.
"What's going on?" Nicky asked her.
She frowned at him before whispering loudly, "You don't get to walk into a movie during the last fifteen minutes and expect to be filled in. You'll just have to wait and see how it ends."
He snatched a licorice whip out of the bucket in her lap and flipped her nose with it before taking a bite. "In other words, you don't know either."
Erik took his seat behind his desk and focused his attention on Ben. "Would you care to update Miss Carter and the others here as to what brought you to our home this evening?"
Ben looked nervous, and he swallowed audibly. His shoulders were tight, and even though he had his hands shoved into his pockets, I could tell he had them clenched into fists. He didn't look aggressive, but neither did he look like he'd be willing to back down from a fight if challenged right then. He looked scared. And that scared me.
"What happened?" I asked him with none of the anger I had when I'd entered the house. I felt my eyes tighten in response to the anxiety radiating from him.
"Jason's dead." He told me. I doubted anyone else in the room would know who that was. Jason had been the only other member of Ben's pack to survive the attack on our house a month earlier, an attack orchestrated by the pack's Alpha, Gabe. Ben had been forced to kill Gabe in my defense.
Jason and I hadn't been close. I'd considered him a friend once, but I felt more guilt at the lack of emotion I felt over hearing he was dead than I felt grief.
"I'm sorry," I said, and then I felt more guilt over the fact that I couldn't come up with something better to say than that. I was confused though. It didn't make sense that Ben would come here because of that.
"He was executed this afternoon, Eryn. Because of what we did here."
"Oh..." I said. I frowned.
Nicky put his hand on my back and addressed Ben. "You're here because you think you're next?" I stiffened and his hand grew heavy on my back, like he was trying to hold me in place.
"I don't think I'm next," Ben shook his head. "I am next. They found me guilty of murdering my Alpha. Next to that, what's trying to instigate a little war? I'm screwed." He laughed, but there was no humor in it.
"But," I leaned towards Ben and clasped my hands in my lap to keep from reaching out towards him. "You didn't murder him. He attacked you, so it was self defense."
He shook his head again. "I murdered him in defense of a vampire. That's all they see."
"I don't understand." I had to blink to keep my eyes from filling with tears. I was getting really tired of crying every time I got the slightest bit upset. "What did Jason do wrong? I mean, in their minds. Why would they care? You're all werewolves. We're vampires. They should be happy you attacked us, right? So even if they're pissed about Gabe, why does the rest matter to them?" I didn't even know who "they" were. Did werewolves have their own private government or something?
"The elders don't care if anybody goes out and kills a vampire or two so long as it's a clean kill, or unless they really had it coming and there's solid evidence that it had to be done. They don't want a full blown war to start over one pack being stupid enough to attack, unprovoked, on that scale. Jason was a reminder that that won't be tolerated. I wasn't involved in the attack. I was here, but I didn't come to fight. I just... I wanted to make sure you were safe." He laughed again, no more humor this time than before. "The real kicker is that if Gabe had lived, they'd be executing him for all of that too."
He ran a hand through his hair before shoving it in his pocket again. "So... I'm boned. No trial, no... I don't even get to defend myself. It's just kill on sight."
Erik cleared his through, bringing our attention back to him.
"Mr. Highcliff has offered us some valuable information in exchange for our assistance. We will be keeping our young friend in one of our safe houses until after the night of the new moon. At that time the greatest danger to Mr. Highcliff will have passed and he should be able to make it safely out of the city. I will require all of you to remain at the safe house with Mr. Highcliff until that time." He turned his attention to Nicky. "Nicky, I'll need you to act as a go between. In case this interferes with business as usual for you, you'll find I've doubled your salary for the next two weeks. You needn't stay in the house, but I'll need you to keep in contact with Aris so I imagine you'll be spending plenty of time there."
This time, it was me that Erik turned to. "I have a check for you as well, Miss Carter." He handed an envelope to Bhavna, who stepped around the desk to hand it over to me. I wasn't sure what I was being paid for though.
"For training... expenses... all that goof stuff." Nathan said, which clued me in on how confused I must have looked.
"Thank you," I said.
Erik nodded. "I'm sending you because of your history with Mr. Highcliff. This will no doubt be easier for him with a familiar face around. Nathan, you will go because Miss Carter isn't ready to go off on her own yet. If you're able to do so, by all means... continue her training while at the safe house. Otherwise a few days will make little difference, but either way you will supervise her.
"You coming with us, Bhav?" Nathan asked.
"No," Erik answered for her. "I cannot spare Bhavna." He sighed. "Aris, is there a problem?"
I glanced over at her, and my eyes widened. She was glaring daggers at Erik and shaking her foot so hard I was surprised I hadn't noticed the sofa vibrating along with it.
"None at all," she said with a vicious smile. "Because I'm not going anywhere."
Bhavna said something in a language I wasn't familiar with. Indian, I assumed. Whatever it was, it wasn't nice and Aris flinched in response. The foot shook harder.
"I am not," she mumbled. I really wished I knew what Bhavna had called her. "But it's not my job to protect some animal, either. I made a promise to protect you." She stabbed a finger towards Erik. "I can't do that hiding in some shack across town, babysitting him and your get."
Erik pressed his hands together, forming a steeple with his fingers. His eyes looked angry, but they didn't match the rest of him, which was all cool and calm. He didn't speak until they no longer flashed.
"No daddy." Aris said as soon as Erik opened his mouth, but she said it in a whining, childish voice.
"Daughter," Erik said with a smile. I'd never heard him refer to Aris that way, and apparently it wasn't a common thing for him to do so, because Aris crinkled her forehead at him and suddenly looked very wary. "You will obey your father."
"I'm not," Aris started, but Erik stopped her with a sharp gesture of his hand.
"You don't get to change the rules you have yourself set when they are no longer convenient to you. You will obey me."
Aris jerked her chin upwards and if she held on to that bucket of licorice any tighter, she was going to crush it. "Very well," she said, "but if any harm comes to you while I'm pet sitting, I'll be making myself a pot of mongrel stew."
"Umm..." I winced when everyone turned to look at me. "I'm probably going to be smacked down for saying this, but... maybe she's right? I'm assuming you chose Aris because she's the badass among us, but what's the point of setting someone up as a bodyguard if they really don't give a rat's ass about what happens to that... body. Besides, Aris is a..." I hesitated over what I wanted to call the girl, and then felt the pressure at the base of my skull build when I didn't finish my sentence. I threw up a wall. I don't know how I did it, but the pressure cut off immediately. I glared at Nathan, whose satisfied smile was enough to prove he'd been the one trying to poke into my head; probably trying to force me to spit out the word I'd been about to say. I decided to say it anyway. In less colorful language. "She's insane."
"You don't trust her?" Erik asked me.
"No," I said, uncomfortable.
"Do you trust me?"
"Of course." I felt like I was going to throw up, no matter that Erik didn't look mad at me or anything, but I really needed to learn to keep my mouth shut.
"Then trust that I know Aris will do what she must, and that she is the best defense Mr. Highcliff will have against what he may face."
"And also, Aris is not insane." Aris smiled sweetly at me.
Erik chuckled. "I'm not qualified to make that assessment, but perhaps it would be wise to remember that just because Aris wears a human body... she is not human. We cannot expect her to think the same way we do. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Now..." He stood up and gestured toward the door. "There is an audience waiting in the ballroom, and Mr. Highcliff has agreed to share some very interesting information with us. Let's not keep them waiting any longer."