He puffed himself up, taking in as much air as his chest would allow, trying to loom over me. He expected me to back down. Nearly everyone does. He’s not a small man, and he’s loud and obnoxious. Most people don’t want to antagonize him. They seem to sense that he lives to dominate others. But I’m not most people. I’d had a really rough couple of days. And I was well and truly tired of Ron’s bullshit.
“Eight fifteen. Why?” He spit the words at me like a curse, and started to lean around me, drawing in another huge lungful of air, preparatory to screaming.
I stepped directly in front of him. “Dawna’s hours are nine to five. It’s not nine. She’s not on duty.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but I silenced him with a look and a gesture upward, reminding him that we had important clients on site. “Bellowing like that does not make you look important, Ron. It makes you look like an ass. Hogging the facilities and the secretary’s time does not make you more important than the rest of the tenants, who pay just as much for the privilege as you do. It makes you a selfish, obnoxious prick.” I hadn’t raised my voice once. In fact, my tone was gentle enough to be conversational. But that didn’t fool him. Because I wasn’t backing down. My body language was aggressive. And my skin had, yet again, started to glow. He flinched, taking a half step back. This time I let him keep it.
“I have had two attempts made on my life in as many days. I am tired and out of patience. As a personal favor to me, Dawna went on her own time to the store so that I would not have to meet with potential clients looking like this. Unfortunately, the clients arrived early. But you will not berate her for not being here at your beck and call. You will not, in fact, berate her for anything.”
“Is that a threat?” he blustered, but I could smell the fear on him. Fortunately, I’d already eaten. My stomach didn’t even rumble.
“Ronald.” I smiled, making sure to flash plenty of fang. “If I decide to threaten you, you’ll know it. In the meantime let’s just call this a friendly sssuggestion.” The lisp was back, but oddly, I didn’t mind. Not even a little.
And that was when he finally took a good look at me. He backed away, his eyes huge at the sight of the fangs. But despite his obvious fear, he continued to bluster. “How dare you!”
I was saved a response. The front door opened and Bubba stepped in with my mother at his heels. Right behind them were Kevin Landingham and Bruno DeLuca.
For a full ten seconds the world stopped. I swear. Right on its axis. I stood there, staring at Bruno, the man I’d thought was the love of my life back in college.
My mouth went dry, my heart racing. For just a minute the rest of the world disappeared and it was just me and him.
Bruno had changed. He was still five feet, eleven inches, of pure Italian studliness. But there were touches of gray at his temples, and worry lines had appeared between his brows and at the corners of his mouth. A smile was twitching at his lips and there was laughter sparking in his dark brown eyes. Then again, there nearly always was, when he saw me.
It was my mother who broke the spell, drawing me back to the present with more speed than grace. “Celie?” My mother’s voice rose nearly an octave between the first and second syllables of my name. “Oh my God, honey, what’s happened to you? You look like hell.”
Everyone turned to stare—including Ron. He seemed to see past his anger, fear, and the fangs for the first time, looking me over from head to toe.
“She’s right, Graves. You look … terrible. Are those your pajamas?”
Oh, hell. I decided to take charge of the situation before things got any worse. It didn’t seem likely and the mere thought was horrifying, but you never could tell. “Yes, Ron. I came here in my pj’s because the gas company wouldn’t let me back in the house.” I turned to my mother. “Hi, Mom. It’s been a rough couple of days. Come by the office when you’re done with Bubba and I’ll drive you home. Kevin, Bruno, why don’t you go join everybody else up in my office? It’s a regular party in there.” Okay, the sarcasm was a little overdone, but I couldn’t help myself.
I stepped aside so they could trudge past. Bruno gave my shoulder a quick squeeze on the way. It was a small gesture, but it really did make me feel better. When they were past the landing, I turned back to Ron. He was still staring, his eyes too wide. “Are you telling me the truth? Did somebody really try to kill you?”
“Yessss.” I pointed at my mouth “Notice the teeth? I didn’t have them last week.”
“Why?” He seemed truly puzzled. Apparently, he didn’t not like me enough to even consider elimination. That was sort of flattering.
I shrugged. “Damned if I know. But I intend to find out.”
I had Dawna deliver the photocopy of the cocktail napkin to Cassandra and make my excuses to everyone. I needed a shower, and I wanted to put on some clothes fit for wearing in front of people. Selfish, probably. Chicken, definitely. But screw it. The fact that I’d gone downstairs for a confrontation with Ron showed me more clearly than any words that I was reaching the end of my rope.
So I locked the bathroom door, stripped, and turned the water on as hot as I could stand. I scrubbed until I was as clean as I was going to get, checking my injuries as I went. The knee was the worst. Joint injuries suck. Even with the boost to my healing, it was swollen and hurting. I’d been an idiot to go downstairs, and now I was paying for it.
If I’d had any sense I’d have put an Ace bandage on the list I’d given Dawna. But I hadn’t thought about it, which meant that I was probably going to be taking another trip to PharMart. I’d read enough of the research before I fell asleep to get a fair guess of how fast I could heal—roughly a day’s worth of healing each hour. At that rate, my knee would be a problem for a few more days—if I took proper care of it.
I climbed out of the shower and toweled myself off. I used a second towel to rub most of the moisture from my hair before combing it out. It’d have to air-dry. I hadn’t thought to bring a blow-dryer to the office. But that was all right. It was clean. I was clean. I opened the bag and found myself grinning. Leave it to Dawna. She’d bought me underclothes all right. Lingerie-type underclothes. Lacy and pretty, in silk. And the top wasn’t just an ordinary tee. Nope, she’d supplied me with a matching tank and overblouse in black, probably the only color that would actually look good with my new complexion. The jeans were black, too, and my favorite brand. She’d even sprung for jewelry—small hoop earrings and a delicate pendant. White gold, not silver. I hadn’t given her enough money to pay for half of this. But I was really, really glad she’d done it. Because Bruno was here and Kevin and … well, strangely, Creede. And in this outfit I wouldn’t have to feel completely outclassed by Cassandra.
The socks were just as pretty but were nylon rather than cotton. I detest nylon ones because they make me sweat, so I pulled the tennis shoes on over my bare feet. I left the denim jacket in the bag. It was too warm to wear it inside. It was probably too warm to wear it outside, too. But I had to cover as much skin as I could.
I reflected sourly that while covering up would keep me from burning, dying of heatstroke was a distinct possibility. But wearing the jacket would enable me to carry my weapons.
The whole process probably didn’t take more than fifteen to twenty minutes. When I was as ready as I was going to get, I took a deep breath, grabbed the door handle, and stepped out into the hall, expecting to hear voices and see a crowd in my office. Instead, I was met with blessed silence except for the gentle clicking of the keys on a laptop computer.
“Where’d everybody go?” I muttered.
Bruno DeLuca’s disembodied voice answered me, coming from my office. “Mrs. Cooper and her entourage left with her copy of the funeral information. Fair warning, she doesn’t like the ‘no cremation’ thing.”
“Terrific. Just ducky.” I walked back down the hall to my office. I felt an odd tingle as I stepped over the threshold. Sort of a pins-and-needles sensation that prickled against my whole body. It was unnerving. I would’ve said something, but Bruno was already talking.
“Kevin is taking your mother home. After the scene with the attorney downstairs, I think he was afraid what you might do to her if the two of you left here alone.”
I blushed. I probably shouldn’t have threatened Ron. Yes, he was being an ass, but it’s not like he can help it. It’s his nature. You might as well blame a dog for barking. And they were right about my mother, too. Because while Ron is annoying, my mother takes me to a completely irrational level as easily as breathing.
“Relax.” Bruno looked up at me and smiled, and it warmed me to my toes. We were both older. Maybe we were even wiser. But looking at that smile, I felt the familiar tug on the old heartstrings and had to remind myself why we hadn’t worked as a couple.
“You didn’t hurt him, and from what I heard, he deserved an ass chewing.” Bruno looked me over, from head to toe. “Like the outfit. It almost makes the coloring look normal.”
“Thanks.” I draped myself sideways in one of the visitor’s chairs and ignored the sudden twinge in my leg. “And yeah, Ron deserved that and more. But I don’t like the fact that I keep almost losing control.”
Bruno turned away from the laptop he’d been working on to give me a long, level look.
“You’re going to need to be careful about that, Celia. I’ve been reading up, and while the effects of becoming an abomination are very individualized, uncontrolled rage seems to be pretty universal. It also seems to kick in any latent magical abilities that hadn’t manifested in human form.”
“I don’t have any magical abilities. Thank God for small favors.” In fact, I’d failed the standard tests I’d taken in grade school so completely I’d have gotten a negative score if it were possible. But the anger control thing was going to be a problem.