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.”