“You fool! You’ve taken the wrong female!”
Y winced as his Master bellowed inside his head. Master Two might be nothing but a chip implanted just under Y’s left ear, but he ruled Y with an iron fist, despite his lack of a physical body.
“I took the one that sniffed the blossoms, Master, just as you requested,” he pointed out.
“But look at her—this is not the Khalla at all—it’s the mate of that damn tracker.”
“I can see that.” Y strove to keep his voice level. It would be wrong to raise his voice to the Master…no matter how much he might want to.
On the cold steel floor of the Scourge Fathership, the naked girl with the long, coppery curls moaned and stirred. She had been taken by a molecular transfer beam, a Scourge invention Y had traveled to the abandoned ship to get. It had been set to take whoever inhaled the fragrance of the Dream Blooms, exactly as Master Two had ordered. Y didn’t see how it was his fault the wrong female had been taken.
But so it had happened. This female—Kate, Y thought she was called—had apparently unwittingly sprung the trap set for Emily, the new Khalla back on Rageron. Indeed, she still had one of the deep blue blossoms clutched in one hand.
Y wondered how it had come through the transfer beam with her—it was his understanding that only living things were transportable. But maybe the freshly cut flower still had enough vitality to make it through the transfer…or maybe it was the spell the old hag from the Wulven home planet had placed on the blossoms that allowed it to come, clutched in Kate’s small fist. She looked so innocent and vulnerable, lying unconscious on the hard metal floor that Y felt his heart twist with pity. He immediately tried to suppress the emotion—doubtless his Master would see it as nothing but weakness.
“She’s here now,” he said, stolidly. “What shall we do with her? Do you want me to kill her?” He hoped not—he did not enjoy violence, especially towards females. But the Master was not to be denied and anyway, death would be a kinder fate than any of the horrible, twisted tortures the soulless bastard that lived in Y’s brain might devise.
“I would kill her myself, if I had a body!” Master Two hissed, his mental voice filled with frustration. “But no…let me think.”
There was a long silence—so long that Y wondered if the Master had gone to sleep. He did that at times—became inactive during a recharging period. Y had come to look forward to such periods of inactivity—they were the only rest he got from the relentless dictator that lived in his skull.
On the cold floor, Kate stirred again and moaned softly.
“Master,” Y sub-vocalized in case she could hear him. “She is waking.”
“Hush, you fool! Ah—I have it now. We must send her back.”
“You mean back to Rageron? And try to take the Khalla instead?” Y asked doubtfully. “That won’t be easy—they’ll know she was the true target. Doubtless they’ve taken her someplace shielded.”
“No, you idiot! Not back to Rageron—back home. Her home.”
“I don’t understand. Do you mean her home world of Earth?” Y shook his head in confusion. “But why?”
“Two reasons,” Two hissed in his head. “First because we must send her somewhere—we cannot take her with us. Her mate is a Wulven Kindred and they are absolutely deadly in their fur-form—we cannot risk it. Second, because home is the last place the Kindred will expect her to be. They’ll search the entire universe before they think to look back on Earth—which is just how we want it.”
“We do? But why? Are you hoping to distract them in some way?” Y asked.
“Finally, you’re learning! Yes—a distraction. That’s exactly what this girl will be. And while the Kindred are busy hunting for her, they won’t even give a thought to what we might be up to.”
“What do mean?” Y asked. “I thought your entire plan hinged on forcing the Khalla to forget and fear her mate and then transporting her here to the Father Ship for execution, after letting him see that she no longer knew him.”
It was another one of his Master’s convoluted plans which he didn’t agree with. Why take the time and trouble to bewitch the flowers in order to make the Khalla react in horror and aversion to the Beast Kindred assassin who had claimed her? Why not just snatch her away and execute her?
But his Master had declared that he wanted the assassin to suffer. He had refused to carry out the contract Two had placed on the Khalla’s head and Master Two wanted his last memory of his bride to be a painful one.
Let him know that she feared and loathed him at the last. It is a fitting punishment, he had said. And so the whole elaborate scheme had been carried out exactly as he had ordered…only to fail at the last minute. It made Y wonder if there had been something wrong with his Master’s mind when he recorded the personality chip which was currently embedded under Y’s ear. He vaguely remembered seeing the corpse of his Master when he first awoke back on Z4, the Dark Kindred home world. It seemed to him there had been dark spots on Master Two’s brain…areas of stinking, oozing rot which would not seem to be conducive to logical reasoning…
“I have been so focused on the Seeing that B’Rugh did for me—so focused on the future of the Kindred race,” Master Two said, interrupting his treasonous thoughts. “But why settle for destroying their future when I can destroy their present?”
“And how do you plan to do that, Master?” Y asked, careful to keep his voice level and respectful rather that doubtful.
“Have you not noticed, Y, all the lovely toys the Scourge left lying around when they died?” His Master’s voice sounded greedy. “This molecular transfer beam is only one of them. Think of everything else they left! The flesh tanks…the sniffer kennels…there are so many tools here, just waiting for the right set of hands to pick them up.”
My hands, you mean, Y thought resentfully but did not say aloud. Since the Master rode inside his head but had no direct access to his body, he was forced to do any physical labor involved in Master Two’s schemes.
“I see,” he said. “So you wish to explore the Father Ship further?”
“Not the Father Ship, no. I think we have found everything we need here. But what of Zlicth?”
“The Scourge home world?” Y shook his head. “But I thought that was a dead world—poisoned beyond repair.”
“Fool—we don’t wish to herd cattle or grow crops! I’m just interested in seeing what other toys the AllFather might have left lying around. I want to know his secrets…to see through his eyes.”
“You’re seeing through my eyes already,” Y pointed out.
“Yes, and what good does it do me? I need eyes of my own…hands…a body.” Master Two cackled gleefully inside his head. “I think our friend the AllFather can help me there.”
“How?” Y asked, honestly mystified.
“You’ll see, my dear Y. For now, just send the girl you erroneously took back to Earth.”
“Which part of Earth?”
“I don’t know—nor do I care. Use a set of the Earth coordinates programmed into the molecular transfer beam if you like. There should be several to pick from—I know the Scourge stole females from there regularly.”
“Very well.” Y obeyed as he always did, although he was becoming increasingly resentful. He punched in the coordinate log and picked a likely one before pointing the needle-like nose of the matter transference beam at the girl who was now moving and moaning regularly. Then he pressed the transfer control.
As she disappeared in a blinding flash of light, Y reflected that at least Two hadn’t made him kill or torture her. But he wondered how she would manage back on Earth with no memory of her mate or idea of where she was or how she had gotten there.
“Transfer complete,” he said.
“Very good.” Master Two sounded at least marginally pleased. “Now let’s get back to our own ship and set a course for Zlicth at once. I want to see those wonderful toys…”
Y turned at once, leaving the control room of the Father Ship without a second glance. He was glad to be getting away from the huge, haunted-feeling ship. He only wished their destination wasn’t more of the same. What could Master Two be planning?
Neither he nor his ever vigilant Master noticed the crumpled blue Dream Blossom flower left lying on the floor where Kate had been.
Six Months Later…
“So how’s work?” Mimi asked as she forked into her steaming pile of noodles from Sarku Japanese Bistro—one of the many fast food joints in the International Mall food court.
“Not bad.” Kate took a sip of her Jamba Juice Veggie Vitality smoothie. “Same old, same old mostly. I had a woman come in wanting to return an ankle bracelet she said she’d only bought a week ago.”
“And?” Mimi raised one skinny eyebrow. Everything about Mimi was skinny from her eyebrows to her elbows to her long, graceful neck. She was built like a giraffe which meant she and Kate looked funny together, especially standing side by side. Kate didn’t mind though—at 4’9 she was used to being the shortest kid on the block. Still, sometimes the extreme height difference between herself and her friend bothered her. Not because she thought people were looking and laughing but because it seemed to bring back memories. Memories of someone even taller than Mimi…
No, don’t think about it. Kate pushed the half-formed thought resolutely away.
“So this anklet—the bracelet was tarnished, the clasp was broken, and it was missing a stone,” she said, grinning wryly at Mimi. “I mean, really? I wanted to ask if she’d been in a triathlon while she was wearing it. How else could it get into such bad shape in a week?”
“Customers…” Mimi shook her head. She worked across the mall at the Godiva store so she knew some of what Kate went through. Although selling high end chocolates was a little different than selling extremely expensive jewelry.
Kate shrugged. “Could be worse. Like the lady yesterday who had a fit because we didn’t have the Pandora bead she’d dreamed up in her head. A monkey sitting in a palm tree with a banana dangling from its hand.”
“Weird. Why would she want that?” Mimi took another bite of noodles. She could eat absolutely anything and it would never show on her long, gangly body. Kate wasn’t nearly so lucky. As short as she was, she really had to watch her weight.
“Dunno,” she said, shrugging. “But she got twice as upset when I told her that no, we didn’t have someone in the back who could make anything she wanted to her specification. She actually thought I could just go to the back room and magically make the bead she imagined and get it back to her in under an hour. I mean, what do I look like—a witch?”
Mimi jumped as though Kate had poked her with a pin.
“Uh, well you do have that one thing, you know,” she pointed out in a whisper.
“You mean the Knowing?” Kate sighed. She really wished she hadn’t had to tell her friend and roommate about her peculiar little talent for finding out private details about people when she touched them. It was a gift that had run in her family for generations—her mother and grandmother, both deceased—had both had it.
It was supposed to be a family secret but when Kate had woken naked and alone in the middle of a park in Sarasota six months ago with Mimi standing over her, she had reached out to the other girl in blind panic. Mimi had taken her hand to help her up and Kate had blurted out, “Your name is Marjorie but you hate that name so you go by Mimi. Your mother died of breast cancer exactly one year ago and you own twelve cats even though you told your apartment complex you only have six.”
Mimi had drawn back, aghast. But thank goodness for Kate, the outpouring about her personal life had fascinated her rather than repelling her, as it did many people. She’d wanted to know more about this strange, naked girl who’d appeared out of nowhere and seemed to know everything somehow. So instead of driving Kate to the Salvation Army or some other charity shelter, she’d taken her home to her apartment in Tampa and let her stay.
Kate was beyond grateful to her new friend—especially since she had no idea how she’d gotten to Sarasota or what had been happening to her the past three years. She had a serious gap in her memory that bothered her terribly. Mimi, however, had a kind heart and a patient spirit—she was a collector of hurt people as well as animals. She’d told Kate everything would come back in time. In the mean-time, she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted to.
Though she appreciated the sentiment, Kate wasn’t sure she wanted everything to come back. After all—what if something really terrible had happened to her and she’d blocked it out? Maybe she had a traumatic past that her mind was hiding from her. It was just blind luck that she’d been found by someone like Mimi. Her new friend had given her a place to stay and even let her have her pick of the clothes her last roommate had left in the closet.
The roommate had been 5’4—substantially taller than Kate. But they’d had the same proportions—generous bust and hips with a small waist. So with a little hemming, most of the clothes were wearable. She’d had good taste too so Kate had looked nice enough to get a job at International Mall, the swankiest and most expensive mall in the Tampa Bay area. It was right by the airport and had lots of international customers so Kate’s knowledge of languages came in handy too.
The language thing was…weird. She could somehow instantly understand and speak any language she heard whether she knew it or not. It wasn’t like the Knowing, a gift handed down from generation to generation. That was just part of her DNA. The language thing hadn’t been there before the gap in her memory—Kate knew for a fact because she could remember failing high school French. She’d had what her teacher called a “dead ear,” meaning she couldn’t hear or master the necessary accent to make her spoken French sound anything but atrocious. Yet now she spoke French like a native Parisian—she’d spoken it just yesterday to a client at her store. And she could speak any other language as well, even if she’d never heard it before.
Kate had no idea how she’d acquired her gift with languages but it certainly came in handy at work. In fact, it was the way she’d gotten the job in the first place…
She’d been walking through the mall a few weeks after her sudden appearance in Sarasota, looking for work after Mimi had started her shift at Godiva. Since she didn’t own a car, it made sense to try to find a job in the same place her new friend worked. Unfortunately, it seemed like no one was hiring. Kate was just about to give up on the nicer shops and go try the food court when she’d passed by a high end jewelry store on the top floor of the mall. Official purveyor of Rolex watches, proclaimed an elegantly scripted sign out front. Inside, a customer was trying to make himself understood in Farsi.
Of course, Kate didn’t know it was Farsi—she only knew that he was speaking in a foreign tongue but she could somehow understand it. For a moment she just stood there, stunned. How in the Hell could she understand everything the customer was saying when she didn’t know any language but English? She froze—staring into the jewelry store, unable to drag herself away.
“No, this is not the one I am looking for,” the customer was saying, pointing at something in the jewelry case. “I want one with rubies—those are my wife’s favorite stone.”
“I’m sorry…” The saleslady said. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Do you speak English?”
“What?” Plainly the customer was getting more and more irritated.
“What about Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?” the sales lady asked, switching to Spanish.
Kate’s mouth dropped. This she recognized—she’d heard Spanish spoken often enough to know what it sounded like. Only, she’d never understood it before. Now it was perfectly clear.
“What are you saying?” the customer demanded in Farsi.
“I’m sorry,” the saleslady said, shaking her head hopelessly. “I only speak Spanish and English.”
“Forget it!” The customer threw up his hands in disgust.
It was at this moment that Kate had an epiphany. She didn’t know how she was understanding these languages but clearly she was. Behind her in the mall, she heard two women walking by, speaking in Vietnamese. Kate understood every word. Apparently this was a new gift she somehow had.
Being suddenly multi-lingual probably would have freaked out most people but Kate was used to being unusual. She’d grown up knowing she was different from everyone else and the kids in her small town high school had never let her forget it for an instant. You either hid your differences away and let them make you a freak…or you used them to your advantage to make you stronger. Kate preferred the latter.
But just because she understood all these languages, did it mean she could speak them too?
Only one way to find out!
Lifting her chin, Kate stepped into the jewelry shop.
“Excuse me, but I think I know what he’s saying,” she told the saleslady, pointing to the disgusted customer who was preparing to leave. “I think I can help.”
“If you can, please!” She was an older lady with an elegant coif of gray hair swept up in the back and a simple strand of pearls around her neck. “I’d love to help him but I can’t understand a word.”
“Hello,” Kate said to the disgusted customer in perfect Farsi. “Can I help translate? I know your language.”
“Oh, at last! Finally someone who can help—thank you, yes!” He nodded eagerly. “I cannot go home without procuring something for my wife. I see a piece I like very much but I need it with rubies, not emeralds.”
“Show me,” Kate said and he pointed at the case. Kate translated rapidly between him and the saleslady, amazed to hear the words pouring out of her own mouth. Words she shouldn’t have been able to understand or pronounce at all and yet they came flowing as easily as if the customer’s language was her native tongue.
The saleslady happened to have exactly what the customer wanted in another case. Before long, the sale was made and everyone was happy. Kate was about to leave and see what other languages she could understand when the manager of the store stepped out from the back.
“I saw that—a very impressive display, young lady,” he said, nodding at Kate.
“Oh yes, Mr. Myers, she was wonderful, wasn’t she?” The older saleslady beamed at Kate. “Thank you so much—I couldn’t have made that sale without you to translate.”
“So do you speak other languages?” the manager asked. “We get quite a lot of international customers here and we’re always on the lookout for sales staff with multilingual capabilities.”
Kate had decided to take a chance. “I can speak and understand just about any language there is,” she’d said quietly, keeping her voice level and calm so it didn’t seem like she was bragging. She wasn’t completely certain it was true but it seemed like a pretty safe bet.
“Is that right?” The manager looked even more interested. “You have a gift for languages, do you?”
“You could say that,” Kate said.
“And are you looking for employment?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.” Kate had stepped up and held out her hand. “Kate McMillan.”
“Arthur Myers,” he’d said, taking her offered hand. The minute she touched his hand, Kate had known this was a good situation for her. But she needed to take things carefully.
“Come back to my office and we’ll talk,” Mr. Myers had said. Kate had allowed him to usher her into the back, knowing from the single touch of his hand that he wouldn’t hurt or assault her. Besides, even if he tried, she had her Glock 42 concealed under her dressy business suit jacket.
The 42 was one of the smallest guns Glock had ever made, which made it ideal both for Kate’s small hands and a concealed carry. She’d found it along with a few small pieces of her past and she wasn’t willing to give it up.
After a few weeks of living with Mimi, more of Kate’s memory had come back and she’d been able to get some of her personal effects, which had been stored in her mom’s house back in Mississippi. Mimi had driven her there—happy to go on a road trip—and though Kate didn’t have the keys, she knew just how to jiggle the handle of the back door to get in.
Inside, stored in the attic, she’d found her driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card—and of course the gun. It had cost her some time and trouble to get the concealed weapons carry permit here in Florida but Kate considered it money well spent. She had a feeling there was something else hiding in that three year time gap—another memory not nearly as useful as her sudden ability with languages. A dark memory—one she might need protection from.
So she carried the 42 with her everywhere she went and even slept with it under her pillow at night. It made her feel better—as though she was somehow in control. As though she hadn’t lost three whole years of her life somehow and wound up naked and alone in a Sarasota park with no knowledge of how she’d gotten there.
“Have a seat, please.” The manager had indicated a plush, leather chair across from his own.
“Thank you.” Kate took the seat and smiled sedately. “Tell me why you want me to work here.”
Mr. Meyers looked rather flustered.
“Oh, well that’s usually my line. You tell me why you want to work here.”
“Well, I need a job. Right now I’m living with my good friend Mimi and I want to be able to help out—pay half the rent and groceries.”
“That sounds responsible of you.” Mr. Meyers looked sympathetic. “So are you having a hard time finding something in today’s market? Maybe your degree isn’t very useful? Lourdes, the nice woman you helped make that sale, has a Masters degree in Sixteenth Century Spanish poetry. Not very practical I’m afraid.”
“Actually, I have a degree in Communications. Not terribly useful but not a complete waste of time either,” Kate said pleasantly. “The reason I can’t find a job is that I have a three year gap in my résumé—most employers don’t like that.”
“Hmm, as an employer myself I can see why.” Myers had frowned. “Can you tell me why you have this gap?”
This was something Kate had struggled with over and over in other job interviews. She didn’t like to lie but it sounded both crazy and dramatic to explain that she’d been abducted, had three years of her memory wiped, and been dumped naked in a park in Sarasota. She supposed she could say she had been working for the government on some kind of black ops mission but she didn’t exactly look like a spy. Also, she had no Army record of any kind and it would be easy enough to trace the falsehood.
The only lie that fit the situation made her very uncomfortable to use but what else could she do? She really needed this job and just one little falsehood wouldn’t hurt—she hoped.
“The Kindred,” she said, the words tasting like dust on her lips. “I…I was called as a bride. Went up to the Mother Ship and stayed for the past three years.” Since the Kindred didn’t make their claiming files available to the public, this would be very difficult to confirm or deny. It was the perfect excuse—she just wished it didn’t give her that itchy, uncomfortable feeling between her shoulder blades, like someone was watching her.
“A Kindred bride, eh?” Myers raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Forgive me but it was my understanding that the Kindred took wives for life. Almost no one ever comes back after being mated to one.”
“It doesn’t always work out,” Kate said tightly. “I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind.” She straightened up in her chair. “I think it would be a better idea if I told you why you want to hire me.”
“All right.” Myers steepled his fingers under his chubby chin and gave her an interested look. “Tell me.”
“Aside from my multilingual capabilities, you want me working here for you because I would be a great saleswoman. I know things about people the minute I meet them and shake their hand.”
“You do? Go on.” Mr. Myers looked more intrigued than ever and Kate mentally breathed a sigh of relief. She’d gotten an impression when she shook his hand that he would be open to her gift, just as Mimi was. But it was always a risk telling someone about the Knowing.
“I know that you’ve been married to a lovely woman named Melinda for the past twenty-two years, that you have two daughters named Jessie and Dawn, and that you live in South Tampa,” Kate began, getting the easy stuff out of the way first.
Myers frowned. “Anyone could find that out just by doing an internet search on me.”
“Yes, but could they also know that you have never—not once—cheated on your wife? Even that time in Vegas at the jewelers’ convention. That girl at the bar was so pretty! She had red hair and green eyes like mine. She bought you a drink and you talked half the night. She wanted you to come up to her room and you were halfway there…then you thought about Melinda and Jessie and Dawn—how much you loved them. How you didn’t want to betray them. And you resisted temptation.”
As she spoke her piece, Myers’ face went first red, then white. But he didn’t start shouting at her or ordering her out of his office, which was a good sign. Some people didn’t take their most private moments being exposed very well.
Kate knew that she was lucky that particular memory had been at the top of his mind when he shook her hand—probably because she reminded him of that long ago girl that got away. It was a good memory too—one he could be proud of. So much better than if she’d caught a flash of him kicking a stray dog when he thought no one was watching or binge eating Chunky Monkey ice cream straight from the carton at three o’clock in the morning when no one else was up.
Myers drew a deep breath.
“Well,” he said at last. “You’re right. That’s certainly something unique that no one else should know. I thought I’d take that memory to the grave. Can you read everyone’s mind or just mine?”
“It’s not mind reading—I just know things about people when I touch them sometimes. It’s a family gift,” Kate said, trying to downplay it a bit. “You can imagine how useful it would be here on your sales floor. As I greet each customer and shake their hand, I’ll be able to tell if they’re really intending to buy and what exactly they’re looking for. I’ll be able to steer them in the right direction.”
“Yes…” Myers rubbed his balding head thoughtfully. “Yes, I can see how that would come in handy.”
“I can also tell if they have…dishonest intentions.”
“That could be useful,” he said thoughtfully. “We had some trouble here a few years ago. Maybe you heard about it?”
Kate shook her head.
“Well some gentlemen came in here… Ha! I say gentlemen but they were basically thugs. Anyway, they used sledgehammers to break into our Rolex cases and made off with half a million dollars worth of merchandise.” He frowned. “Insurance covered our losses, of course, but it was still a bad situation. The sound the sledge hammers made was very like a shotgun blast. People assumed there was some kind of terrorist attack. The whole mall was evacuated and shut down…just a mess.” He shook his head.
“That won’t happen on my watch.” Kate lifted her chin. “Someone intending to shoplift or rob the store will have to get through me first.”
“Oh, well…” Mr. Myers smothered a laugh. “Of course I would ask you to keep an eye on anyone you had reason to suspect but I would never expect someone of your, er, stature to get involved in any kind of altercation.”
“You think a tiny, petite little thing like me can’t defend herself, let alone defend your store?” Kate raised an eyebrow at him.
“Well…I mean, you are rather…uh, small.” He cleared his throat. “You must admit that.”
“I admit it, all right. I know it to my bones—I am always going to be the smallest one in any given situation,” Kate said. “That’s why I make sure I’m always prepared.”
Opening the left side of her suit jacket, she exposed the butt of the dainty Glock 42.
“Oh my!” Mr. Myers scrambled backwards quickly, nearly losing his balance in his swivel chair.
“It’s all right.” Kate let her jacket fall closed. “I’ve got a permit to carry concealed. “I’ll show it to you if you want.”
“Yes, well…that would be necessary if I hired you.”
Good—he was still talking about hiring her. Kate blessed her gift again. She’d been pretty sure he would be receptive to her little show of force but it was impossible to know for sure until you tried.
“All right,” she said quietly.
“But…do you even know how to use it?” Myers nodded at her hidden gun again.
“Let me tell you, Mr. Myers, I grew up in Mississippi without a daddy or any male protection. One of the first things my mother taught me was how to shoot. The second was the right way to clean house—she was picky that way.” Kate smiled and got an answering smile in return which encouraged her to continue. “I can promise you I’d never draw my gun unless somebody else drew a gun on me or one of the other employees first.”
“What if I asked you to leave it at home?” he’d asked, frowning a little.
Kate sighed. “I can’t do that. I need it for protection.”
“From your ex-husband?” His frown deepened. “Is he going to come here hunting you and want to shoot up the place?”
“No, no—nothing like that,” Kate assured him. “It’s just I’m a woman alone—a small woman alone. And Tampa is a pretty big city with a high crime rate. If you want me to work evening shifts and lock up for you some nights, I’ll need to feel protected. And in my experience, I can’t rely on anyone but myself for that protection.”
She felt a twinge as she said it and a little voice whispered in her head that once she’d had someone else to protect her—someone to get her back. But Kate pushed it away. It was all foolishness—she was all she had and she had to stick to her guns. Literally.
“Well…having an armed sales person on the floor is highly unusual. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single other manager who would allow it. If you actually did ever shoot anyone I would have to disavow any knowledge of your…er…armed state. I’d have to be crazy to even consider it. Still…”
Kate could see that Myers was wavering.
“Just think of me as an extra security guard,” she said, smiling at him comfortingly. “An undercover one no one knows about. And you don’t have to pay me any extra—I’ll work on commission the same as everyone else.”
“Yes…and if your gift is everything you say it is, I dare say you’ll be making more commission and more sales than any of my other sales people inside a month.” Mr. Myers had smiled at her. “All right, Ms. McMillan, you’ve convinced me. We’ll have to do a background check of course.”
“Of course.” Kate nodded easily, her heart pounding. Was she really getting the job?
“If that all comes back clean, shall we give it a one week trial period to start? And then if we’re a good fit, we can take it from there.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity.” Kate held out her hand again. Myers had hesitated briefly but then took it and gave it a firm shake.
“Nice to have you aboard. Now let’s just get you set up with the right paperwork…”
“So what time do you get off tonight?” Mimi asked, breaking Kate’s train of thought. She was almost finished with her huge pile of noodles, Kate saw a bit enviously. If she’d eaten a pile of carbs like that, her pants wouldn’t button for a month but Mimi would stay slim and gangly forever—she had the metabolism of a racehorse.
“I have to close.” She sighed and then brightened. “But I have a customer coming back that I think might really pan out. He’s interested in buying one of the Rolexes. A Yacht-Master edition I think.”
“Ooo…” Mimi leaned forward, her kindly face lighting up with interest. “And how much do those run?”
“He’s looking at one in the 70,000 dollar range.” Kate smiled. “Which means I can finally pay you all the back rent I owe.”
“Oh please…” Mimi made a shooing gesture. “You know I don’t care about that!”
“Yes, but I do,” Kate said stubbornly. “You’ve been so good to me, taking me home and letting me stay with you, even after I remembered about my mom’s house.”
“I’m glad you decided to come back to Tampa even after our little road trip.” Mimi smiled. “The apartment would have felt so lonely without you.”
“Well, there’s nothing for me in Mississippi.” Kate smiled back. “And a really good friend here in Tampa. My only friend.”
“Hey—you’ll meet new people. If you ever come out of your shell.” Mimi patted her hand gently. “I wish you could come to Pat’s party tonight. It’s going to be a hoot.”
“I bet.” Kate tried to paste a regretful look on her face but the truth was, she was more than glad to be missing the party Mimi was talking about. The good thing about Mimi was, she loved everybody. By the same token, the bad thing about Mimi was, she loved everybody.
Pat, who was throwing the party, had been over to their apartment once before. He was tall, balding, somewhere in his mid-thirties and seemed to be stuck in perpetual hippie mode. His entire wardrobe consisted of baggy, torn jeans and big tie-dyed t-shirts that couldn’t quite hide his hairy gut. He also had long, dirty fingernails and smoked pot that he grew himself in his own hydroponic garden. Kate would rather watch paint dry than go to a party at his house.
“Pat’s going to be upset you’re not there,” Mimi remarked, finishing the last of her noodles. “I think he likes you. Like, really likes you?”
“Oh, really?” Kate tried to keep her voice neutral but inside she was cringing. Now she was doubly glad she was working late tonight. Just the thought of Pat pawing at her with those big, hairy mitts and long, dirty fingernails made her feel queasy.
“Really.” Clearly Mimi wasn’t aware of the reaction she’d caused by mentioning Pat’s feelings, which was just as well.
“You know, Mimi…” Kate tried to find a nice way to say what had to be said. “When it comes to Pat, well…I really don’t feel ready to date anybody just yet.”
“Oh, of course.” Mimi put a hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Kate—I swear I won’t say anything to encourage him. Are you…” Her voice dropped. “Are you still having those bad dreams?”
Kate took a last sip of her juice, trying to hide her confusion. She wished she hadn’t told Mimi about the dreams—the ones where a huge, muscular stranger with burning blue eyes was stalking her. But she’d apparently been thrashing around and crying out one night and Mimi had woken her up. The whole bad dream had come pouring out and now her friend knew everything.
Well, not quite everything. She only knew about the man Kate saw in her dreams. She didn’t know about the other thing—the Beast—as Kate had come to call it. It was somehow attached to the man but she didn’t know how. It snarled and snapped at her, its burning, silver eyes narrowed in menace and its knife-like teeth hungry for her blood.
It’s the Beast you really have to watch out for, whispered a little voice in her head. The man you could take down with a couple of well-placed shots. But the Beast…nothing’s bringing that monster down. Not once it sets its sights on you and decides you’re dinner. If that happens, you’re toast, Kate—as good as dead.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, feeling a cold chill run down her back at the thought. “But I’ll be okay. I’m just…not ready to date right now.”
“Of course not. And you don’t have to until you’re ready.” Mimi patted her arm comfortingly.
“Thanks Mimi. Did I ever tell you how sweet you are?” Kate grinned at her with genuine affection. “You’re like my guardian angel, you know that, girlfriend?”
“Aww…” Mimi’s narrow cheeks grew red. “Stop it.”
“I will not,” Kate said. “If you hadn’t found me when you did, I—”
Her voice died in her throat and a feeling of dread clutched at her heart like an icy fist.
“You what? Kate? Are you okay?” Mimi looked at her anxiously.
“I…I just…” Kate couldn’t form anything coherent to say. Across the busy, crowded food court a tall figure was standing, watching her. A tall, muscular man with dark hair and burning blue eyes.
The man from her dreams.
Kate felt like her heart was about to stop. Cold sweat broke out all over her body and suddenly she couldn’t get a deep enough breath to fill her lungs, even though she was gasping for air.
Him—it’s him! He’s coming to get me!
Her hands clenched into trembling fists and she started to see spots dancing in front of her eyes. God, was she going to black out?
No, can’t do that! Have to take control. Have to breathe!
“Kate? What is it? What are you staring at?” Mimi looked to see what had put the expression of horror on her friend’s face. But just as she turned her head, the tall man, who was head and shoulders above anyone else in the food court, somehow melted into the crowd and disappeared.
As soon as he left, Kate’s heart gave a little skip and started beating normally again. Her breathing slowed and her tense muscles began to relax.
“Nothing,” she said in a voice that trembled only a little. “It’s nothing. For a minute I thought I saw—”
“Saw what?” Mimi looked at her with genuine concern on her long face. “Seriously Kate—what? You looked white as a sheet. For a minute I thought you were going to faint or have a panic attack!”
“It was nothing.” Kate waved a hand, trying to dismiss the dark figure. “A figment of my imagination, that’s all.”
“Well…if you’re sure.” Mimi was clearly reluctant to let it go.
“I’m sure,” Kate said briskly. Standing, she grabbed her empty cup and Mimi’s tray. “Come on—break’s over. Time to get back to work. I have expensive watches to sell.”
“And if I sell that Yacht-Master, we’ll have our own party!” Kate promised recklessly. “It’ll be amazing.”
“That sounds like fun.” Mimi seemed willing to let herself be distracted, at least for now. Kate breathed a sigh of relief. She dumped their trash in the can and they chatted lightly about possible party themes as they left the food court together. Of the tall, dark-haired man with blue eyes, there was no sign. Kate tried to tell herself he was just a figment of her imagination, brought on by Mimi’s mention of her dreams. But he’d seemed so real standing there, staring at her.
So real and so very, very dangerous.