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Animal Rage by Kathryn Thomas (1)

CHAPTER 1

Isabel waits, letting Jamie absorb what she’s just told her. It’s a bombshell, but she’s confident her friend will rally in a few moments to ask the hundreds of questions she probably has spinning around her head. As they sit drinking coffee in the sunshine at the new hip deli that has just opened down the street from the boarding house, Isabel can’t help but scan the crowd.

The old neighborhood is buzzing with all the young professionals, the hipsters who have moved in and are slowly turning the area into one of those places people actually want to move to. But her eyes skip over all of them. There’s only one person she’s looking for, only one person she wants to see and he’s not here.

“So, he’s a biker, like Sons of Anarchy, super hot guys on motorbikes?” Jamie has always had a way of reducing things to the lowest common denominator.

Isabel rolls her eyes at her friend and shakes her head. “Well, the super hot guy part is right. But the key point you’re missing here is that Wesley’s a criminal.” It had taken a while for her to get her own brain around that important fact. It still isn’t an easy thing to accept.

“Right.” Jamie nods, tapping her perfectly manicured nails against her lips in her ‘thinking’ pose.

Isabel looks down at her own hands, with their nails bitten down to the quick, and she can’t help but feel a little like the least feminine person in the world next to her best friend who is as vibrant and colorful as a peacock.

“But, everything has shades of grey, Issy. It’s not all just black and white.” Jamie looks at her pointedly, knowing that monochrome is exactly how Isabel tends to see the world. Her scientific mind won’t let it be any other way. “There are the mugging-old-lady type of criminals and then there are the stealing-a-loaf-of-bread-to-feed-their-family type and a whole lot in between.”

Isabel smiles at the way Jamie has of seeing the romance in everything. She’s missed having her best friend around. “I’m pretty sure he’s never mugged anyone’s grandma.” She shakes her head. “From the little he told me, he only deals with bad guys of one type or another – rival gangs, people mixed up in drug deals, that kind of thing.”

“So he only did bad stuff to people who deserved it!” Jamie lifts her spoon as if in victory. “That is definitely something I can get on board with.”

Isabel shakes her head at her friend who seems far too pleased with her conclusion. “It still doesn’t make it legal or right, Jamie. Besides, I’m pretty sure the people he works for are bad guys, too, so I don’t know where that leaves him. I shouldn’t have been okay with housing a criminal. I know that. Hell, I’m so by the book it’s not even funny.” Jamie nods in agreement. “I should have turned him in or at least thrown him out of the boarding house when I found out what he did. But I didn’t. I didn’t even come close.” She sighs deeply. “Anyway, it’s not like it matters anymore.”

Jamie sets her cappuccino back down. “And why doesn’t it matter? You’re clearly crazy about this guy, even if you refuse to admit it.”

Isabel rubs her eyes, feeling the familiar tiredness seep through her, despite the copious amounts of caffeine she’s been taking on board as if it is going out of fashion. Since Wesley walked out, her insomnia has worsened. She’s under no illusions that she must look like a wreck. Only sleeping a couple of hours a night will do that to you, apparently. It is time to tell Jamie the full story.

Isabel keeps her voice low, conscious that she doesn’t want the nearby tables to overhear their conversation. She tells Jamie about patching Wesley up every night when he came back from wreaking whatever havoc he was employed to do. She tells her about Jimmy, the member of the Devil Dogs who had threatened her with a knife. Finally she gets to the part of the story that gets her all choked up, but she gets through it as best she can, refusing to cry in public. That was one rule that she had no plans to break anytime soon.

“He left. That was three days ago.” She’s proud of herself for getting through the telling without shedding any tears.

“So that’s why you’ve been dodging my calls.” Jamie’s tone suggests that it all makes sense now.

Isabel nods. “I knew I’d end up telling you if we spoke and I didn’t want to worry you. Besides, I wasn’t quite ready to talk about it.” Her voice cracks and she takes another sip of her coffee as if the bitter taste will do something to soothe the ache in her heart.

Jamie’s hand covers hers and she squeezes it, offering comfort. “You don’t seem all that ready to talk about it now, either.” She looks her friend in the eye. “You look like shit, Issy.”

Isabel can’t help but laugh at Jamie’s directness. The normalcy of her friend’s reaction to Isabel’s obvious distraught state is the best medicine for the craziness that seems to have invaded her life since Wesley walked into it. “Well, I’ve been reliably informed that not sleeping will do that to you.” Isabel huffs a mirthless laugh, stirring her flat white to avoid Jamie’s assessing gaze.

“Yeah, that won’t help any. But it’s not just lack of sleep I’m seeing.” Jamie pauses, tilting her head as if she can get a better read on her friend’s emotions that way. “You know, I’ve never seen you like this.” Jamie’s expression is full of wonder, as if she never expected the day to come.

“Like what?” Isabel looks down at her checked shirt and cut-off shorts. “You’ve never been overly impressed with my wardrobe decisions.” Isabel smiles, remembering the shopping trip Jamie took her on just before they went their separate ways – Isabel to college and Jamie to New York to start her career in fashion. Jamie had pretty much vetoed all of Isabel’s clothes, consigning them to goodwill and she had started from scratch. Unfortunately, Jamie’s sense of style had never really rubbed off on Isabel, and it hadn’t taken long for her to revert back to her old style.

Jamie gives her outfit a once over with a flick of her eyes. “You’re lucky, Issy. You’ve got great hair, amazing eyes, fab skin, and a body to die for. You could be wearing a trash bag and you’d still stop traffic.” Jamie sighs deeply, as if the world isn’t fair. “Your outfit could use some work. I’m not going to lie. But at least you’re rocking the ‘lumberjack chic’ look, but only just.” Jamie holds up a warning finger to her friend as if to say she should tread carefully in her sartorial choices from now on.

“What would I do without you?” Isabel rolls her eyes and laughs at the sobriety on her best friend’s face. When it comes to fashion, there is nothing more serious in Jamie’s opinion.

“Lord only knows.” Jamie shakes her head as if it doesn’t even bear thinking about. “But your wardrobe issues aren’t what I am talking about and you know it.” She gives Isabel a pointed look. “I was talking about the fact that you look like someone’s just killed your dog.”

“I don’t have a dog.” Isabel’s morose response just underscores Jamie’s point.

“Did you tell him how you feel?” Jamie ignores her friend’s pathetic attempt at comedy.

“What do you mean?” Isabel tries to evade the question, although she knows Jamie won’t let her get away with it.

“Don’t play dumb with me, Issy. It doesn’t suit you.” Jamie levels her friend with her laser-focused baby blues.

Isabel squirms under the observation. “No,” she sighs eventually. “No, I didn’t tell him.”

“What didn’t you tell him, Issy? If you can’t say the words out loud to me, how are you ever going to say them to anyone else?” Jamie throws her hands up in despair at her friend’s lack of emotional intelligence.

“I didn’t tell him I love him, okay? And now he’s gone and I don’t know if I’m ever going to see him again!” Isabel’s voice is loud, loud enough to draw attention from a nearby table and she cringes in embarrassment.

Jamie breathes a sigh of relief and mimes wiping sweat from her brow. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t choke on the words! I was beginning to wonder if you were even able to say them.” She shakes her head at Isabel.

Isabel blinks at her friend in shock. “You baited me!” She scrunches up her paper napkin and throws it at Jamie’s head, pleased when it lands in the middle of her forehead.

“That was mature.” Jamie gives her a withering look. “I just wanted to figure out if you even knew how you feel about him. And mission accomplished, it looks like you do.”

“Yay for me.” Isabel raises her hand in a mock cheerleader pose.

“So what happens now?” Jamie looks at her expectantly.

“What do you mean what happens now? I’ve got some work to do back at the boarding house and you have to help your mom with her yard sale...” Isabel trails off at the serious amount of eye rolling she’s getting from her friend.

“I meant, what happens now between you and lover boy.” Jamie plants her elbows on the table and leans forward, as if Isabel is going to let her in on some kind of secret.

“Nothing happens, Jamie. What can happen?” Isabel looks up at the blue sky, sighing deeply. “He’s gone and he’s not coming back. He said he couldn’t put me in danger and that was that.” She shrugs, wishing her emotions could be locked away so easily.

“So call him! Tell him how you feel, that you miss him and all that other good stuff. The man is clearly crazy about you. He’d be an idiot to let you go!” Jamie snaps her fingers to illustrate the point.

Isabel shakes her head. “The problem, Jamie, is that he was right.” She holds her hand up to stop her friend from interrupting her. “I couldn’t have allowed him to bring his problems, the people he deals with, down on the boarding house. Wesley made it pretty clear that his biker friends would burn it to the ground without a second thought if they wanted to.” Jamie’s eyes widen in shock. “I couldn’t let that happen to my mom’s place. And what if the next time Jimmy or one of his friends decides to pay me a visit, Wes isn’t there to protect me? Then what?”

Jamie nods, looking down at the table as if she’s a little ashamed at herself for not realizing that point. “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.” Jamie bites her bottom lip, annoyed that she’d let her romantic notions override her sense for her friend’s safety.

“This is the way it was always going to play out.” Isabel shrugs, resignedly. “I knew what he did, that he led a dangerous life, but I didn’t care, because he made me feel like no one ever has before. I was this close,” she holds up her index and thumb denoting less than an inch, “this close from throwing everything away because it was getting to the point where I didn’t want to imagine my life without him.” She shakes her head, knowing she had been reckless. But, if she’s honest with herself, if she had to do it all over again, she’s not sure she would do it any differently.

“Jesus, Issy. You couldn’t have just picked a nice normal guy.” Jamie frowns at her friend.

“Oh yeah, as if those are the ones you ever go for.” Isabel narrows her eyes at her friend who has the decency to look a little sheepish.

“Fair point.” Jamie doesn’t even try to deny it.

“Besides, I can’t get in touch with him even if I want to.” Isabel continues her explanation when Jamie gives her a curious look. “I tried to call him a couple of days ago. I don’t know what I thought I was going to say. But it didn’t matter. The number had been disconnected. And it’s not like he left a forwarding address.”

“So, he’s just gone? Just disappeared? Who does that?” Jamie makes a face to highlight just how lost she would be without being surgically attached to her own cellphone.

“People who are running from the law, I guess.” Isabel says the phrase with such sanguine acceptance that anyone overhearing them would think she’d been accustomed to a life of crime.

“Good point.” Jamie takes another sip of her coffee, giving the street ahead of them a worried look as if she expects the cops to show up right there and then. Although Jamie had been a wild child, she’s never really gotten into any trouble. It’s pretty ironic that Isabel, the one who is always warning Jamie about her wild ways, is the one who ended up being involved with someone truly dangerous.

“You know what the worst part is though, Jay?” Isabel laughs a little at herself. “If I had it to do all over again, knowing then what I know now, I don’t think I would change anything.” She shakes her head, knowing how illogical that is. “As crappy and as heartbroken as I feel now, I don’t wish I never met him or that I hadn’t fallen for him. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s just how I feel.”

“Love doesn’t tend to make a whole lot of sense, babe.” The look in Jamie’s eye tells her she’s speaking from her own experience.

“Even though he was such a bastard and cheated on you?” Isabel doesn’t need to sugarcoat what happened. Jamie is all too aware the man she fell for had turned out to be a class A asshole.

“Even so.” Jamie shrugs, sighing as she thinks about the guy who broke her heart. “Because I was happy, Issy. Even though it turns out it was all a lie, I was in love with him and it’s the best feeling in the whole world.” She shakes her head, like she’s trying to dispel an image from her mind. “We’re kind of a pathetic pair, aren’t we?”

Isabel laughs. “At least we’re in it together!”

Jamie smiles at her friend, covering her hand with hers again. “Just like everything else. Now we both better get going, but tonight, I’m all yours and we are going to have some fun!”

“What do you mean?” Isabel looks at her friend suspiciously, knowing Jamie’s idea of a good time doesn’t normally involve a night in.

“Fun! F.U.N. You remember fun, right? We used to have it before we got all old and bitter?” Jamie scrunches up her face in a poor imitation of a little old lady. With her angelic features, the expression looks even more wicked and Isabel can’t help but laugh.

“Yeah, I remember fun. Although I don’t think I’m quite ready yet for one of Jamie’s famous all-nighters!” Isabel shakes her head. Jamie has always been the party girl and she’s the party pooper; they are the roles they are destined to play until they both get old and grey.

“Oh ye of little faith!” Jamie wags her finger in Isabel’s face. “I wasn’t talking about an exercise in bar-hopping and flirting. I don’t think you’re quite at that stage of the grieving process yet.” She looks speculatively at Isabel as if to double check. “No, definitely not there yet. I was thinking more like pizza, ice cream, ‘Dawson’s Creek’ marathon, and a few bottles of wine?”

Isabel feels a smile spread across her face. It’s the exact recipe she had used to help Jamie out of her own morose funk when her heart had been broken. “That sounds perfect.”

“Great, I’ll see you at your place later.” Jamie digs in her purse and throws down enough bills to cover both their coffees.

“Hey, I’ll pay for my own, Jamie.” Isabel moves to take cash out of her own bag.

“Nope, this is my treat. Now that I’m earning more than a performing chimp, I figure I could spread the wealth a little!” She winks at Isabel.

“You got a raise! Oh my God, Jamie, that’s so great.” Isabel stands up and hugs her friend tightly. “I’m so proud of you!” Immediately she feels bad for monopolizing the conversation with her own problems when her friend had such exciting news.

Jamie makes a ‘settle down’ motion with her hand. “It’s not like I’m earning the Wall Street bucks yet. It’s still peanuts, but I’m doing what I love, so I don’t mind. I’d probably work for free if I could pay my landlord in smiles!” Jamie gives Isabel a serious look as they start walking down the busy street filled with Saturday morning shoppers.

“What, Jamie?” Isabel doesn’t even have to make eye contact with her friend. “What are you thinking? I can hear the little cogs turning around in your mind.” Isabel makes a motion like she’s winding up a wheel.

Little cogs?” Jamie expertly tosses her mane of golden hair, catching the eye of every guy on the street. “I’m not sure if that’s not an insult to my intelligence. But we’re such good friends that I won’t get mad.” She gives Isabel a pointed look.

“All right, hit me with it. What are you about to say that I’m going to get mad about?” Isabel stops in her tracks, watching her friend cautiously.

“Nothing, because as I just pointed out, best friends don’t get mad at each other.” Jamie says the words so sweetly and innocently, someone who doesn’t know her would think she has both of those attributes in spades.

Isabel knew better; her friend was no stranger to the sneak attack. “Go on.” Isabel makes ‘continue’ gestures with her hands, eyeing her friend suspiciously at the same time.

“So when are you going to start doing what you love?” Jamie focuses her attention on Isabel, who just stands there looking nonplussed. “Med school. When are you going back? You can’t hide out here the rest of your life, Issy.”

“I’m not hiding!” Isabel bristles at the suggestion, though she’s not sure if it’s all that inaccurate anymore.

“Well, whatever you want to call it, then: mourning, grieving. I get that your mom left you the boarding house but you and I both know this was never your dream; it was hers. And she wouldn’t have wanted you to give up everything because of it.” Jamie places a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder. Isabel remains silent, scuffing at the sidewalk with the toe of her converse, feeling like a teenager getting told off for teepeeing someone’s house. “Ever since we were little kids, Issy, a doctor is all you’ve ever wanted to be. That hasn’t changed, has it?”

Isabel shakes her head. “No. But it’s not that simple, Jamie. What am I supposed to do about the house?”

Jamie throws her hands up in frustration. “Do what your mom told you to do with it: sell it!”

“I can’t!” Isabel’s voice is rising in anger now.

“Why the hell not? People do it all the time.” Jamie spreads her hands as if to say that she doesn’t have any other way to say what she’s saying.

“Because it’s the only thing I have left of her, Jamie!” The words burst out of Isabel like she can’t hold them back. “And if I get rid of the house, she’s really gone.” The pleading look in her voice is matched in her eyes. You will not cry, Bishop, she tells herself.

Understanding dawns in Jamie’s face and she reaches out to hold Isabel’s hand. “I know, honey. I know that’s how you feel. But it’s not true. The house is just a thing. It’s not who your mom was.” She sighs, clearly seeing that she’s not getting anywhere with this conversation. “I didn’t want to say anything over the phone; it’s something I thought we should talk about face to face. But I’m not going to push you.” She backs off, hands held up in surrender as if to illustrate the point. “I just want you to think about it, to really think about it. Promise me you’ll at least do that.”

Isabel swallows her anger and her pain. She knows Jamie is just telling her this for her own good and the kick of it is that she’s not wrong. Since Wesley had left, Isabel’s been thinking more and more about going back to school, though she hasn’t quite figured out the ‘how’ part yet. She had given up on one thing that she loved; she doesn’t want to be two for two.

“I promise, oh wise one.” Her grumbly response is enough to tell Jamie there are no hard feelings, that she’s not mad at her for once again telling her the truth.

“Good, now I’ve got to run if I don’t want my mother to kill me!” She rolls her eyes. “I’ll catch you later.” Jamie gives her friend a bear hug before rushing off down the street, looking like a bright spot of color amongst the grey of the buildings.

Isabel bites back a sigh, knowing that now she’s alone, it’s going to be harder to keep her feelings under wraps. In the past few days she’s learned that when she’s on her own it’s nearly impossible not to think about Wesley. He’s invaded her heart and her mind and there’s absolutely nothing she can do to get him out of either.

Time heals all wounds. It was something her mother always used to say. She hopes it is true, but she can’t help but wonder how much time it’s going to take for her heart to be repaired.

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