Friday, April 10, 2015

First Dates - Adventures of Jose and Az

First Dates

Az tapped her chin as she circled the man standing still as a statue in the middle of her rarely used bedroom.   She started at the top of his dark head and catalogued everything down to the polished toes of his black boots.  Black jeans.  Black t-shirt.  Both wrinkle-free and perfectly fitted.  There wasn’t anything out of place.  Nothing wrong.  But it didn’t seem right.
“It’s close to the full moon,” she said, not bothering to consult the lunar calendar behind her.  “Your eyes are too bright.  We need to cover them.”
Any Shifter who lived past puberty could Shift whenever the whim struck.  They weren’t dependant on the moon’s cycles, but there was something about a full moon that made a Shifter just a little different.  Stronger.  Bigger.  Shinier eyes and even sharper fangs.
“I can’t wear sunglasses at night, Astraea,” the man snapped.  “It won’t affect my night vision, but I’ll look like an idiot.”
Grouchier.  Definitely grouchier.
“Then wear the cap.”  She reached for the black baseball cap they’d already wasted twenty minutes arguing over.  Sharp claws turned it into confetti before her fingertips could touch the brim.  “Fine.  No cap.  You know, you could stay here.  This is easily a one-man operation.”
“No.  You aren’t going out on your own.”
Az settled a hand on her hip and fought to control her own temper.  Patience.  You love him.  You won’t rip out his tongue.  You won’t string him up in the front yard as a warning to the others.  Patience.  Patience.
“I think I can handle a chain restaurant and the outdoor theater.  On family night.”
Strong arms crossed over an equally strong chest.  Stern eyes fixed in an unwavering stare.  “You are not going out on your own.”
Despite her best efforts to remain the calm one in the room, muttered curses about overprotective, testosterone-drenched, irritating Shifters followed her as she stomped to her closet.  She inhaled the sweet, soothing scent of the magnolia sachets.  Fifteen seconds later, the haze of anger dissipated and she could think clearly.
“Perhaps we need to rethink our plan.”
Jose propped a hip against the edge of Az’s bed and nodded in agreement. “No caps.  Or sunglasses.”
This was her second round of dress-up for the evening.  She didn’t enjoy playing dresser half as much as she enjoyed being the dressee.  Was she this irritating when Jose put together new outfits for her?  If not, she was absolutely going to make sure their next closet-date gave him a migraine.
Az toyed with the hem of her black turtleneck.  “Go put on normal clothes.  Meet me back here in ten minutes.”
Jose arched an eyebrow.  “Define normal.”
“Chain restaurant and outdoor theater normal.  Simple.  Boring.  Pants and a shirt.  Nothing flashy.”
“So, pretend I’m Ike.”
“If that’s what it takes.”  Az made a shooing motion with her fingers.  “Borrow some that swamp water Tommy calls aftershave.”
Jose’s lips thinned, but he didn’t complain.  Az waited until she heard the snick of her door closing to yank the turtleneck over her head.  She shucked her black cargo pants as she surveyed the contents of her enormous closet.
Boring.  She needed boring.  Forgettable.  No cute, flirty skirts or snug sweaters.  No heels or strappy sandals.  She paired a pair of tailored black trousers with a baby blue cowl-neck sleeveless shirt.  It wasn’t the most demure shirt in her closet, but the color reminded her of Rick’s eyes.  Rick’s eyes made her happy.  It was her happy shirt.
She was stepping into a pair of plain black flats when Jose slipped back into her bedroom.  In pressed brown trousers and an oatmeal-colored Irish fisherman’s ribbed sweater, he looked more like a man ready for a date and less like a man ready for a night of surveillance work.
“You’re going to sweat to death in that sweater,” she predicted.
“I can regulate my temperature.  You, on the other hand, are going to freeze to death in that shirt,” Jose countered.  Dark eyes studied her for a moment.  “It needs accessories.  Keep it simple.  Silver hoops and that bangle you scammed off that D’sari last month.”
“I did not scam it off him,” Az said, crossing to her jewelry box.  She fastened on a pair of small silver hoop earrings; her fingers traced the runes carved into the thick, heavy silver bangle bracelet.  “It was a poker game.  He put it in the pot.  I won the pot.”
“You were cheating.”
“I was not!”
“You drained a seer two days before the weekly poker game.”
“Not on purpose.”  Az frowned at her best friend.  “And you weren’t complaining about that sweet motorcycle I helped you win during the Bingo game.”
“Let’s go.”
Az snorted as she slipped the bracelet over her wrist.  Typical Shifter deflection.  When all else fails, change the subject.  She followed Jose down the stairs.  It was a Friday night and the house was practically empty.  Greta and Ike were spending the weekend in Galveston.  Most of the pack was a local bar unwinding from a long week and the stress of an upcoming full moon.  Rick had been called in to a super-top-secret meeting with Greer and Matt Anders.  Quinn and Oscar were binging on a Top Gear marathon.
Though the living room was not on the way to the garage, Az made a slight detour.  She passed behind the couch to ruffle Quinn’s hair.  It was shaggier than usual.  The moon’s influence in action.  She’d have to take him to get it cut before Monday.  She wasn’t in the mood for another meeting with Vice Principal Delgado.
“Are you set for the night, kiddo?” she asked during the next commercial break.
“Yeah.  The pizza’ll be here in a few.  We got a half veggie if you’re going to stick around.”  Quinn tore his eyes from the television long enough to take in Az’s outfit.  “Guess that’s a negative on sticking around.  Az, it’s cold outside.  You should change your shirt.”
“That’s what jackets are for.”  Az grit her teeth and smiled at the concerned teen.  Patience.  I will not ground the overprotective Shifter.  It’s not his fault his biggest male role model is a domineering, mollycoddling jerk.  “I’ll have my phone if you need me.”
Quinn tilted his head and accepted the kiss on his cheek with far more maturity than most boys his age.   “Have fun ruining my brother’s night.”  
Az snagged the black leather jacket dangling from Jose’s fingertips and grabbed her purse off the kitchen counter.  She rarely took the pack’s teasing seriously, but Quinn’s last words left her with an uneasy feeling.  She didn’t want to sabotage Uriah’s first date with his chemistry study buddy.  In fact , she’d done everything in her power to smooth the way. 
She’d met with Carly Wright’s very nice parents to assure them that Uriah had full control of his coyote and would tear out his own throat before he hurt an innocent person.  She and Jose had spent hours helping Uriah research date plans.  She’d helped Uriah pick out his clothes and had helped him sweet talk Ike into the use of Ike’s car.
Most importantly, she’d kept knowledge of the date from Rick.  Rick hadn’t banned either teen from dating, but she’d heard horror stories from pack members who’d brought potential significant others around the Alpha.  Carly was a sweet, smart, shy girl.  Carly knew how to quietly, slyly combat Uriah’s mischievousness.  She’d even managed to raise Uriah’s chemistry grade from a D to a C.  Carly did not deserve a Rick Haskell interrogation.
No teenage girl needed to be asked whether or not she exchanged sexual favors for life-sustaining energy. 
And Rick seriously needed to get over his succubus phobia.
“We’re just going to observe,” she said, once they were tucked in a corner booth at the restaurant.  “He was so nervous, and it is close to the full moon.”
She felt Jose’s gaze on her.  She lifted the heavy, laminated menu but the letters were just a blur.  Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Uriah and his pretty redhead.  Judging by the bright, happy laughter spilling from Carly’s mouth, Uriah was at his most charming.  Good for him.
So was Az trying to ruin his date?  Is that why she’d insisted on spying on him?  Did she not trust him or his ability to control his animal?  Was she as territorial as the Shifters she lived with?  Did she want to keep her boys all to herself? 
“I can smell the smoke from here,” Jose said, gently tugging the menu from Az’s hands.  “Why do you look like you’re going to cry?”
Az blinked rapidly, surprised to find moisture clinging to her eyelashes.  “I’m a horrible person.”
“Yes, yes you are.”
The sharp, stabbing pain came out of nowhere.  She glanced down expecting to see a fork or dagger protruding from her chest.  She forced herself to meet Jose’s bland stare.  “Oh.”
His wide grin only confused her.  “You’re an idiot.”  He covered her fists with his palms.  “You didn’t exactly hear me protest this little outing, did you?”
“And if you hadn’t sworn Ike and Quinn to secrecy, everyone in the pack would be here.  A few of them wouldn’t even bother trying to stay hidden.”
“Rick would have installed a camera somewhere and put a bug on Uriah.”
“Damn straight he would have.”
The tension in Az’s spine gradually faded.  She wasn’t trying to ruin his date.  She was protecting him.  She liked Carly, but teenage boys – especially ones with occasional flea problems – were fragile creatures. 
“So why am I a horrible person?”
“Because, my shining star, you made me promise not to record our little coyote’s first date.”
Az let Jose order for her when the waitress sidled up to their table.  She was too intent on watching Uriah and Carly.  Uriah wasn’t as shy as his brother.  In uncertain situations he either clammed up or resorted to outrageously impish behavior.  She was glad that he was displaying neither attitude.
Twice she had to jerk herself around so that Uriah couldn’t see her face.  Every now and then, his nose would go up as if he was sniffing the air.  He would slowly scan the room, but he never seemed to spot Az or Jose. 
Az and Jose tried to keep their voices lower than normal.  The noise of the restaurant would do a lot to confuse Uriah’s sharper-than-normal senses, but they weren’t willing to take any risks.  Discovery would put them in the doghouse with a master prankster.
Plus, Uriah would just tell Rick.
And then Rick would get pissed that Az hadn’t told him about Uriah’s date.
Shifters,’ Az sighed as she sipped her iced tea. 
Jose did his best to distract her with the tale of his first date.  What had started as a simple night of dancing had turned into a night spent with animal control.  Upon returning, he’d seen a stranger flirt with his date – and his date flirt back -  and had Shifted in the dark hallway.  As he hadn’t told his date about his condition, the sight of a large, angry ocelot had cleared the club.  Jose had spent the night locked in a cage.  His father had confined him to the house for two weeks.  He’d never spoken to his date again.
“Where was your first date, Az?”
Az dragged her attention from the table across the restaurant.  She frowned for a moment before waving her hand between them.  “Here.  Now.”
Jose paled.  He furiously glanced around the room.  “If you value my life, my heart, don’t ever say that again.  This is not a date.”
It was Az’s turn to frown.  “Well, I’m sorry if I’m not up to your exacting standards.  I suppose I can find some slimeball to hit on me if that’d make you happy.  I haven’t had any practice, but I’m sure I can flirt back.  It’s all just fluttery eyelashes and extreme cleavage, isn’t it?”
“I love you, but you’re not too bright, are you?”  Jose leaned toward her.  “Do you think I’m going to deny tall, dark and grumpy the opportunity to be your first date.”
Az felt her cheeks warm.  She dropped her gaze to her mostly-empty plate.  “Rick and I don’t date.”
“No, you just spent practically every waking moment together.  It’s been three nights since you crept into my room.  Ike and Greta said it’s been a week since you’ve set up camp on their window seat.  Quinn was griping about the lack of late-night video game marathons.”
“I have my own room,” she said, wishing a sinkhole would open up below their booth.  She had no idea that her nighttime wanderings were the subject of so much scrutiny.
“The sheets on that bed are the same ones I put on it before you showed up.  They don’t smell like you.”
“You know, the smelling thing is kinda irritating.”
“Says the woman who licked Lucas yesterday.”
“I apologized for that.”  Az straightened when she realized that Uriah was reaching for his wallet.  “We’d better get our bill.  Looks like they’re moving on to the theater.”
They stayed well behind the teens on the drive to the Miller Outdoor Theater.  Jose made sure to park his car as far from Uriah’s as possible.  Fortunately, the zoo’s central parking lot was large and packed. 
They chose an aisle spot a hundred yards or so behind the blanket Uriah spread out on the hill.  Az had thought it odd that Uriah hadn’t tried to get tickets for seats, but as she sank onto the blanket next to Jose, she sort of understood the appeal.  The night air was crisp, and the stars overhead were bright.  They were in the middle of the city, but it didn’t quite feel like it.
She stretched out her legs and leaned back on her elbows.  The musical was one she’d wanted to see, but hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to ask anyone to go with her to watch.  Twenty minutes into the performance, Jose disappeared for a bathroom run.  Before he returned, something heavy slammed into her feet.  With a yelp, she tucked her legs against her.  She raised her head, intent on glaring her attacker into submission, only to freeze at the familiar face staring down at her.
“Az?” Uriah whispered, eyes wide with surprise.
Az groaned and flopped back.  She flung an arm across her face.  She was so busted.  If she pretended that she couldn’t see him, would he go away?
“What’re you doing here, Az?”  Uriah dropped to a crouch.  He eyed the spot where Carly was waiting for him.  “Are you spying on me?”  He sniffed the blanket.  “With Tommy?”
She waved her free hand at the stage.  “Musical.  Watching.  Alone.”
“On the night that I’m with Carly.  On the same hill.”
“Go away.” She knew he wouldn’t.  He was as stubborn as the others.  Shifters.  “Don’t leave her alone too long.  She’s a cute girl.”
Uriah glanced back down at his date.  A happy smile spread across his face.  “Yeah, she is.  Funny, too.  Really, really smart.”  His smile faded.  “Too good to be slumming it with me.”
Az grasped the front of Uriah’s polo shirt and yanked him down so they were nose-to-nose.  “If I ever hear you say something so utterly stupid again, I will wash your mouth out with that nasty Lava soap.  You are a wonderful boy, and she should be lucky that she’s with you.  Why do you think I’m here?  I had to make sure she is good enough for you.”
“So you are spying on me.”
Az released Uriah’s shirt.  She couldn’t tell what the gleam in his eyes meant.  Was he going to tattle on her?  Use the moon’s influence to rip out her throat?  Swear to never talk to her again.
He surprised her by flinging his arms around her neck for a quick, tight hug.  Minty breath brushed across her ear.  “Thank you, Az.”
Still uncertain, she patted him on the shoulder.  “You’re welcome.  Now go do whatever you were going to do and get back to your date.”
A few minutes after Uriah left, someone dropped onto the blanket next to Az.  A box of gummy bears landed on her lap.  “Thanks.  Took you long enough, though.  We’ve been discovered.  Or, at least I have.  You’re still in the clear.  He thinks you’re Tommy.  I hope he doesn’t tell anyone that.”
“Me, too.”
Az stiffened.  That wasn’t Jose’s voice.  She turned her eyes to the large hand only inches from hers.  The fingers were familiar but they didn’t belong to Jose.  She swallowed.  Mustered up a bit of bravado.  “Hello, darling.  Didn’t figure you one for song and dance.”
“If this is where you are, sweetheart…,” Rick said, letting the rest of the sentence hang between them.
The lump in her throat grew.  She waited until he draped an arm across her shoulders to snuggle against his side.  Even with her jacket, the air was too cold.  Not that she was going to tell Jose or Quinn that they were right.
“Jose was just here.  That’s who I thought I was talking to.”  It was silly to justify herself, but she couldn’t stop the words.  He had no say in who she watched musicals with.  Or if she watched them alone.
“I caught him by the concession stand.  He went home.”
“Oh.”  She toyed with the top of the box of candy.  “You didn’t have to track me down.  There’s no looming apocalypse, and I had my bodyguard with me.”
“Maybe I just missed you.”  Warm lips brushed across her cheek before a finger under her chin directed her face back to the stage.  “Now, hush.  Watch.”
With her favorite wolf to cuddle up with, and no need to remain vigilant, it was easy to relax and enjoy the musical.  Not even Rick’s occasional huff or muttered curse could detract from the pleasure.  It wasn’t until he started a steady stream of soft whispers that she paid more attention to the man beside her and less to the stage.
“Put your arm around her.  Slow.  Shoulders only.  Watch that hand, pup.”
Az’s eyebrows shot up.  She didn’t think he was talking to himself.  His arm was already around her, and he never seemed to care about where his hand landed.  Neither did she.  “Who’re you talking to?”
“Uriah. I can smell his nervousness from here.”
“And he can hear you?”
He arched an eyebrow.  She rolled her eyes at herself.  Stupid question.  Shifters.  Ugh.
Rick spent the rest of the musical whispering advice and reassurances to the teen in front of them.  Az gave Uriah a thumbs’ up when he escorted Carly passed their blanket once the performance was over.  He’d already been instructed to drive her straight home, and she knew that Carly’s father would be waiting on the front porch for them.  Probably with a shotgun.
With a groan, Rick fell backwards onto the blanket.  His weight dragged Az down beside him.  The crowd was thinning, but there was no rush to leave.  “That was more exhausting than my first date.  He did good, though.”
Az grinned.  Her gruff, snarly Alpha was a softie.  He’d spent over an hour talking an anxious teen through half of his first date.  Such a sweetie.
“Quinn has an eye on a girl in his English class.”
Rick clamped a hand across Az’s mouth.  “Shh.  I don’t want to think about it.  Not right now.”  His hand lifted when she traced the lines of his palm with her tongue.  “Not as gross as you think it is, Princess.”
“It’ll be harder to spy on Quinn, though.  He’ll be looking for us.”
“You should let the boy have some privacy,” Rick said.
She bit back a laugh.  He sounded far too practical.  “Let me guess, you’re thinking a few of those gadgets locked away in your drawer and a conveniently located command center.”
She rolled onto her side, traced the curve of his jaw with her fingers.  “You know, Jose has his first date with Lucas next Thursday.”
“They’re going to that Samurai exhibition at the museum of natural science.”
“The one I told you I wanted to go to last week?”
Az fixed her eyes on his chin.  “Was that the one you were talking about?  I wasn’t paying attention to you.”
Low, amused laughter wrapped around them like a warm breeze.  “If you want to ask me out on a date, sweetheart, just do it.  You don’t need to use Uriah or Jose as excuses.”
She tried to sit up, but his arm kept her glued to his side.  She settled for jabbing her knuckles into his ribs.  “I did not invite you tonight, and I was not going to ask you - ,” she paused to take a breath, “you’d… you wouldn’t say no?”
“To a pretty girl asking me out?  Nope.”  He held up a hand when Az opened her mouth to respond.  “However, I’d like to do this the old-fashioned way.”
“You want to be the one to ask me out.”
“I do.”  Rick cupped her cheek.  The kiss was short but filled with promise.  “I won’t, though.”
Az wasn’t sure if it was the fog of lust or the roar of blood in her ears that made her misunderstand him.  At least, she hoped she’d misunderstood him.  “What?”
“I’m not going to ask you out.  If I ask you out, that’ll give you time to gossip with Jose.  He can’t keep his mouth shut, so everyone’ll know.  I know my pack, Princess.  Payback will be ugly.”
That made sense.  Still, she would have liked to be asked out.  “So what are you going to do?”
“Kidnap you,” Rick said breezily, as if it was something he’d been contemplating for a while.   He pulled her closer then rested his chin on the top of her head.  “Now, tell me all about this Carly.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

WOTD: Variorum (short fic)

Word of the Day Prompt
Date: March 11, 2015
Universe: Haskell Investigations
Word of the Day: variorum (adj;1.  Containing different versions of the text by various editors; 2. Containing many notes and commentaries by a number of scholars or critics)
Timeline: post-book one, no major spoilers

A small bubble of panic welled in Rick’s throat.  He’d let go of Az’s hand for one second – just long enough to shield his eyes from the fireball – and lost her.  He stood still in a swarm of firemen, police officers, paramedics, and screaming witches.  Sharp eyes scanned the crowd for a bobbing blonde ponytail.  With the smoke from the fire and the acrid odor of burning herbs, he couldn’t use his enhanced senses to locate her magnolia scent.

Had she gone into the burning building?  Had she been knocked down by the explosion and trampled?  Had one of the witches attacked her?  Az got along with the Sisters of Munificence, but it had been five weeks since their last witch fight.  They were due.

There was no sign of Az in the crowd.  He should have carried her away from the house when the first spark lit up the night.  He should have handcuffed her to his wrist.   He should have locked her in the truck.  He should have left her at home with the rest of the pack.

Rick retrieved a roll of antacids from his pocket and popped two cherry-flavored tablets in his mouth.  The grit stuck to his molars as he chomped on the pills.  The mild cooling sensation did little for his churning gut.  Doc Taylor was on his ass about his blood pressure.  Rick was going to send Az to Doc Taylor for a week to prove that medication was unnecessary.  His blood pressure would return to normal just as soon as he had a void who didn’t run off whenever a thought popped into her pretty, reckless head.

He dug into his other pocket for his phone.  After dialing Az’s number, he jammed one finger into his ear and held the phone up to the other.  One ring.  Two.

His ass vibrated.


Anger swiftly replaced the panic. He reached into his back pocket.  The neon pink smartphone was still vibrating.  His face, slack with sleep, filled the screen.  When had she taken the picture?  Why was he listed under “Growly”?  Did she really enjoy running with Greta and him in the mornings?  He’d practically tattooed the rule about phones on her forehead.  Why had she slipped her phone into his pocket?  Why hadn’t he noticed?

Rick popped another antacid before pocketing both phones.  He grabbed the shoulder of a passing uniformed police officer.  “Have you seen Az Stanton?”

The cop’s forehead scrunched up.  After a moment, it smoothed out and a grin slowly spread across his face.  “Cute little blonde thing, right?  Great smile, decent rack, downright sweet ass?  Consults with the supe squad?”

Rick ground the antacid into fine powder.  He balled his fists to keep from wrapping his hands around the cop’s scrawny neck.  The cop didn’t know it yet, but his career was over.  Rick was going to use every iota of influence he held to ensure the cop never guarded anything more than a crosswalk.

A crosswalk in front of a retirement home.

Oblivious to how close he was to certain death, the cop chuckled.  “I haven’t seen her tonight.  Wish I had.  I hear she’s close with witches.  Big explosion like this is bound to be upsetting.  I wouldn’t mind offering up my shoulder for her to cry on.  I could take her mind off this tragedy, if you know what I mean.”

Rick bared sharp, gleaming fangs.  Fur sprouted along the back of his hands.

The cop went ashen.  He finally focused on Rick’s face.  Went even whiter.  He tugged at the collar of his shirt.  “You’re the Alpha of the Pack.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Ms. Stanton is a member of your pack.”

“Yeah, she is.”

Oh, Jesus.”  Sweat dotted the cop’s forehead.  Oh, sweet Jesus.”

“Play nice, Ricky!”

At the laughingly-issued command, both men turned away from the house.  A slender, pale figure emerged from the shadow of an ambulance.  Az, hem of her prissy skirt coated with ashes, waggled her finger as she approached.

Rick quickly scanned her for injuries.  There was a small scrape along her left cheek and red handprints on each of her forearms.  He checked her eyes for signs of a magical overload.  The blue gaze locked on to his was sad but clear.

As soon as she was within reach, he looped an arm around her waist and dragged her to his side.  Aware that the frightened cop was watching, Rick let his lips linger on the warm curve of her cheek before resting his chin on top of her head.

Oh, Jesus,” the cop muttered, backpedaling.  He stumbled over his own feet.  “I’m sorry.”

He melted into the crowd.  Rick let him go.  He’d memorized the cop’s badge number.  Retribution could wait.  His attention turned to the woman snuggled up against him.  He dragged her away from the swarm of first responders.  The heat from the fire was only fueling his simmering rage.

“There are no words for how much trouble you’re in, Astraea.”

Az sighed.  Her fingers dipped into his back pocket, but she didn’t immediately grab her phone.  “Somehow, I doubt that.  You always find the words.”

His growl made the ground beneath their feet rumble.  “There isn’t enough cute in the world to get you out of this one, either.”

“I’d be willing to test that theory.”  She flashed a small, seductive smile.  “I’ve been reading this book on -.”

“You disappeared.  Before we got out of the damn truck, I told you to stay with me.  It was an order.  Not a suggestion.  But what did you do as soon as I let go?  You disappeared.  Not a word.  Not a warning.  Nothing.  Just poof.”

“Rick, I -.”

“And then,” he snarled, “you left your phone with me!  What have I told you a thousand times about that damn phone?”

“Rick’s electronic leash law,” she said, smile slipping away.  “I don’t have pockets and you made me leave my purse in the car.”

“Then maybe you should think of that before you pull another ridiculously impractical outfit from your closet.”  Rick’s angry glare pinned her in place.  “If you’re serious about this shit, Az, then you have to start obeying me.  All the time.  Not just when it’s convenient for you.  Probation period is over, sweetheart.  Time to prove you’re ready to be pack.”

“I am ready!”

“Prove it.”  Rick shook his head disgustedly.  “Sometimes I swear you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

Az stiffened against him.  Stilled.  Her chin dropped to her chest.  Rick felt the tremble of her shoulders.  His anger cooled instantly.  Ah, hell.  He’d let his fear-driven fury get the better of him. At times his tongue could be sharper than his claws, and Az pushed his buttons like no one else.

“You don’t mean that,” Az said softly, hesitantly.  It was more question than statement.

“No, I don’t.”  Rick wrapped both arms around her to cradle her against his chest.  He buried his face in her soft hair.  “Of course I don’t mean it, sweetheart.  You know how I feel.  But you have to stop doing this to me.  You make me crazy.”

“I’m sorry.  I needed to get away from the house.  I was trying to avoid the Sisters of Munificence.  I warned them that this would happen.  I warned them every chance I got.  I had to get away, clear my head.  I thought I was good, but then I ran into Matron Laurie.”  She sighed again, melted against him.  “It was ugly.”

Rick remembered the marks on her arms.  Marks he was more than willing to repay on Matron Laurie.  “She hurt you.  She’s an empath, and she felt your guilt.  Two of her girls died; she took it out on you.”

Az swallowed.  Her hands settled on the small of Rick’s back.  Her nose pressed against his sternum.  Rick gently stroked his hands up and down her spine.  There were no tears soaking into his shirt, yet.  His poor, compassionate void took her responsibilities far too seriously.  She considered every misstep by a witch as a personal failure on her part.  The deaths of two witches would haunt her for weeks.  He’d have to watch her closely – make sure she didn’t fall into a funk.  He was going to be on nightmare duty, too.

“It’s not your fault, Princess.  The Sisters of Munificence are notorious for resisting change. You could have talked until you were blue in the face and it wouldn’t have done a lick of good.  Laurie’s a third-gen Matron.  She should have known better.  It’s not your fault.”

“Damn straight it’s not.”  Az pushed back just far enough to scowl up at Rick.   “I told that obstinate hag that she was playing with fire.  Literal fire.  She didn’t listen.  This is on her.”

Rick floundered for a moment.  She didn’t feel guilty?  She was angry?  At the witches?  “Huh?”

“I told them to stop being so damn tight-fisted and buy unadulterated copies of their spellbooks.  Variorums are cheaper, but something gets lost with all those commentaries and unnecessary edits.  This was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Rick shook his head and tried not to laugh.  Az took her books seriously.  She couldn’t understand that not everyone shared her passion.  Especially not cost-cutting witches.

“So what happened to your arms?”

“Matron Laurie started screaming about sabotage or an attack.  It pissed me off.  We just got tensions down to a reasonable level.  The last thing we need is someone from another coven to hear her running her mouth and firing things up again.”

“A fair point.  That doesn’t explain what happened to your arms.”

Az lifted her chin.  “Matron Laurie wouldn’t shut up.  I asked politely.”

Rick reached for another antacid.  Evasiveness meant that he wasn’t going to like what she had to say.  “What.  Did. You.  Do?”

“Punched that old biddy in the collagen-enhanced mouth.  It took three of her witches to keep me from breaking her hook of a nose.”

Rick knew he should discourage her occasional bursts of violence.  She was usually the even-tempered, diplomatic half of their team, but every now and then she gave into the anger.  He needed to teach her his breathing and meditation techniques.  The witches she had to deal with on a weekly basis were enough to try the patience of a saint.

He should discourage violence, but he was a Shifter.  Violence was as much as part of him as breathing or eating.  Az wasn’t a Shifter, but she was pack.  And her violence made him proud.

He dropped a kiss on the top of her head.  “That’s my girl.”