I have the rough draft of Vampires, Bears and Other Bitey Things 90% finished. To help everyone get back in to the Az & Rick groove, here's a short story that takes place after the first book.
Adventures in Ghost Hunting Chapter 1 /3
Az trailed her fingertips along the wall as she quietly meandered down the hallway towards the staircase. It was dark, but she knew every inch of the hall. She could walk it, and identify doors, with her eyes closed. Or at three in the morning. Same difference.
Halfway between her origin point – Jose’s bedroom - and her destination, she paused to press her palm against the cool wood of a closed door. If she concentrated, she could hear a soft huffle-snore. Two legs in Rick’s bed rather than four. The invitation would still be open. His goodnight kiss had made that clear. It was tempting.
With a wistful sigh, she dropped her hand back to her side and continued on her quest for a new book. The Care and Feeding of Siberian Huskies had been interesting, but she doubted that many of the tips would translate well to the care and feeding of a house full of Shifters.
At the murmur of voices from the room diagonally across from Rick’s, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to determine whether it was moonlight or artificial light seeping from underneath the door. Uriah and Quinn had a strict midnight lights out rule. Exceptions were only made for pack functions, school assignments, and illnesses.
There were no pack functions. All homework assignments had been checked and tucked away in backpacks. The boys had been perfectly healthy during a surprisingly cutthroat post-homework game of Scrabble.
Az crossed the carpeted hallway and carefully turned the knob so that it didn’t squeak. She couldn’t risk knocking first. Knocking would undoubtedly rouse Rick, which would undoubtedly get the boys grounded. And if the boys were grounded, she was grounded, too.
A flashlight clicked off as soon as she opened the door. The edge of a sheet dangled off the top bunk. Four pillows were piled in front of the window. There two were two figures seated on the bottom bunk. Though she didn’t have a Shifter’s senses, Az could practically taste the guilt in the air.
She stepped inside the room and pulled the door shut. For ten seconds after the door closed with a snick, she held her breath. When the growl of a sleep-deprived Alpha didn’t shake the floor under her feet, she relaxed and set her book on the corner of a nearby desk.
“What’s going on?” she whispered as she tiptoed toward the bed. Navigating the teens’ bedroom in the dark wasn’t as easy as walking down the hallway. There were dirty clothes landmines and sporting equipment roadblocks to avoid.
“Nothing,” Uriah said, voice equally quiet.
Az squirmed her way between the two teens. She treated each to her harshest Rick-esque glare. She’d practiced in the mirror for three days before trying it out on Rick. He hadn’t even bothered to pretend to be impressed. Jerk. At least Jose had winced. Ike had even handed over his pint of ice cream when she’d tested the glare on him.
“You’re risking missing out on an absolutely gorgeous weekend for nothing?”
The boys leaned in front of her to hold a silent brotherly conversation. Az inspected the glow-in-the-dark galaxy adhered to the ceiling. Orion’s Belt was in the wrong location, and she was pretty sure they were missing a planet. Given their science grades, though, it was hardly a surprise.
Quinn straightened suddenly. He raked a hand through his mop of hair. “The house across the street is haunted.”
“Haunted?” That wasn’t the answer she’d expected. Az rose. She picked her way to the window and pulled back the thick, thermal curtains. The Gothic Revival house was dark. According to Rick, it had been foreclosed months before her arrival in Houston. With its lancet windows, steeply pitched roof, and decorative trim, it certainly appeared intimidating.
Uriah flopped back against the mattress. “We’re not crazy.”
“I’m hardly one to toss stones,” Az murmured, squinting as a small speck of light appeared in one of the second-floor windows. “It could be squatters. That last cold front dropped the temperature.”
“We’ve seen faces in the windows. And a woman on the balcony,” Quinn said.
“There was a man on the porch the other day. I could see through him,” Uriah added. His enthusiasm paled in comparison to his brother’s, but there was a note of curiosity in his tone. “Last week, I thought I heard a baby crying when I was out raking the yard.”
Az watched as the speck of light bobbed in the window before unexpectedly winking out. Something dark moved against the window, but she couldn’t tell if it was the wind moving branches or something spectral. She scanned the house’s other windows for signs of occupancy.
“Ghosts exist,” she said, “of course they do. You die and that supposed to be it, but sometimes things go haywire. Wires crossed. It could be a conscious decision or just a fluke. Combination of both. No one knows. The energy transfer relating to death is too massive to be accurately quantified. The la Fay Constant is supposed to be the best estimate, but even that’s come under fire. Energy and magic feel similar, can be used in many of the same applications, but they don’t dissipate in the same way.”
“In English, Az?”
“There’s a very good possibility you aren’t hallucinating.”
“We’ve been keeping a log.” Quinn flicked on the flashlight. He held up a battered spiral notebook. “Do you want to see it?”
The three of them huddled on the bunk with the notebook and the flashlight. Uriah hogged most of the mattress with his long legs while Quinn was content to cuddle up against her side. Their notes were detailed. They boys had carefully denoted the weather and traffic patterns at the time of each incident. Rough sketches were included with the notes.
“I wish you’d put this much effort into your schoolwork,” she muttered as she flipped to the notes on the latest occurrence. “I will say that it does appear there is something odd going on across the street.”
“Ghost odd or drug smuggling ring odd?” Uriah asked.
“I love your imagination,” Az said, grinning at the teen. “And the answer is: I don’t know.”
“But we’re going to find out, right?” Quinn asked.
Az playfully nudged his ribs with her elbow. “Have you ever known anyone in this house to pass up a mystery?”
Before either teen could respond, the scritch of nails on wood cut through the silence. Quinn and Uriah exchanged worried glances. Az hurriedly turned off the flashlight and then motioned for them to lie down. She slid off the bed and crept to the door.
A thousand explanations – okay, lies – raced through her brain. She hadn’t settled on one when she opened the door a crack. She expected an irritated Alpha glare. She got a sleepy ocelot stare. Jose used his head to push her out of the way so she could enter. She quickly scanned the hallway before shutting the door behind his tail.
“I was coming back,” Az said. She glanced at the alarm clock beside the bed and winced. It was nearly six in the morning. In thirty minutes, Rick would knock on the door to wake the boys. “Wow. I didn’t realize I’d been gone that long.”
As if on cue, Quinn let out a jaw-cracking yawn. Uriah followed seconds later. Az eyed them speculatively. If they went to school, they wouldn’t learn anything. They’d only fall asleep in one class or another and wind up with detention. Why put them through the hassle of detention and punishment from Rick for said detention?
“So sorry you boys came down with the stomach flu,” Az said, shaking her head. “I know you were both looking forward to going to school today, but I’m afraid that you’re going to have to stay home.”
Jose padded toward the bed. He sniffed both boys before cocking his head at Az. His ears were perked up and his tail was curled around her left knee. She stared at him imploringly. If Jose didn’t back her story, Rick would know something was wrong. After one, heart-stoppingly long minute Jose blinked.
“Thank you.” Az ran her fingers across the tuft of fur between his ears. “Why don’t you go back to bed?”
Jose shook off her hand and, with a liquid grace Az envied, leapt onto the top bunk. The bed creaked as he turned Quinn’s blanket into an acceptable kitty nest. The tips of his ears were the only parts of him visible from the floor.
Az scarcely had time to stash the ghost journal into a nightstand drawer and tuck the boys into bed. She was dragging the wastebasket to the bed when the door flew open. Rick, dressed only in a pair of faded jeans, stood in the doorway. He scrubbed a hand across his face, and his attention was on the activity in the hallway.
“Up and at ‘em, boys. If you’re lucky, we can sweet talk Jose into making breakfast. I’m thinking chocolate chip pancakes, bacon and...Az!”
She bit back a grin. He was downright adorable when startled. “Afraid I’m not on the menu this morning, Ricky.”
The tips of his ears burned a bright red. “What are you doing here? I thought you were bunking with the furball.”
“You realize that to me you are all furballs, right?”
“What did I say about attempting diversions before my first cup of coffee?”
“That they were only acceptable if they involved actions that I cannot discuss in a room with two ill teenagers.” Az glanced over her shoulder to ensure that the boys were still feigning sleep before herding Rick into the hallway. She closed the door but kept her hand on the knob. It was the only way to keep her hands off the shirtless temptation in front of her.
“Ill? They were fine last night.”
“No,” she corrected. “They were fine until they started vomiting around three in the morning. Stomach flu, I think. Which is kind of a misnomer, actually. It isn’t actually influenza. It’s gastroenteritis. If they had the actual flu, they’d be feverish, congested, and achy. This is just stomach pain and puking. Lots and lots of puking.”
Rick was silent for a few seconds. He shook his head as if coming out of a daydream. He’d likely zoned out while she was talking. Az knew he did it often. She didn’t mind. Much. It came in handy at times.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“And why would you? You were snoring loud enough to wake the dead.” A slight exaggeration but not out of the realm of possibility. He complained about Jose’s snoring, but he could be just as loud. Especially if he was as tired as she suspected he’d be given the mess at the Astrodome.
Rick made a move for the doorknob. Az slid to intercept him. She curled an arm around his bicep. Fought the urge to give it an experimental squeeze.
“Please, no. They just fell asleep. And the bathroom is finally clean. Let them rest.” She fluttered her eyelashes and tried to look as exhausted and guileless as possible. It was more difficult than people assumed. She was grateful she’d cleaned their bathroom the previous morning so that the smell of bleach was still fresh.
“They’ll need to stay home from school, then. You’ll call the office?”
“Absolutely. I’ll have them text Lenny Parker and ask to him bring by any assignments they missed.” She relaxed against the door. He was buying it. “You’ll have to settle for cold cereal. Jose is snoozing on the top bunk. I woke him when I tried to sneak out.”
“What were you doing up so late?” Rick asked. “Nightmares again? Why didn’t you come to me?”
The kicked-puppy look on his face made the corners of her eyes sting. She flung her arms around his neck, plastered herself against him, and pressed her lips to his scruffy cheek. Silly Alpha. For all his gruffness and cockiness, he was insecure about the oddest things. She didn’t hide how much she utterly adored him, but he still worried.
“No nightmares. Haven’t needed to sleep.”
Rick’s fingertips dug into her hips. He turned his head so they were nose-to-nose but made no attempt to extricate himself from the embrace. “That’s three days with no sleep, Princess. Are you sure you’ll be able to handle two sick teens? I have meetings at the ‘dome I can’t cancel.”
“Jose’ll be here. I’ll catch a quick nap while he’s on vomit bucket duty.”
Rick buried his nose in the soft skin behind Az’s left ear. His teeth gently scraped across her neck. A shiver zinged down her spine. His smug chuckle rumbled through her chest all the way to her toes. He nibbled his way down to her collarbone.
“You said you weren’t on the menu this morning, Princess. Does that mean I get a rain check?”
Down the hall, a bedroom door opened. Tommy stuck his head out into the hallway. “Hey, boss,” he called, an odd note of uncertainty in his tone.
“Yeah?” Rick asked, lips still firmly attached to Az’s skin.
“You two going to be at it much longer? Normally, I wouldn’t try to rush l’amore or anything, but it’s my day to open the shop, and I need to grab a shower.”
Heat rushed to Az’s cheeks. She struggled to get free, but Rick’s arms were like iron bands. “Put me down,” she muttered, slamming her toes into his shin.
“Keep wiggling like that, sweetheart, and I won’t settle for a rain check.”
“Put me down,” she repeated through clenched teeth.
Rick slowly, punishingly slowly, slid Az down until her feet touched the floor. He rocked back on his heels and hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. Dimples bracketed his satisfied smile. “Try not to miss me too much today, Princess.”
“Every vomit bucket will remind me of you,” she promised with a beaming grin. Before he could retaliate, she slipped into the bedroom and swiftly closed the door.Two pairs of brown eyes peered at her from the depths of the bottom bunk. She waggled her eyebrows and rubbed her hands together. “Who’s ready for a little ghost hunting?”