Rheia Bradley paced back and forth in front of the large picture window in her family room. Last night's dream had spooked her so badly, she'd asked Radek Carson, one of her oldest friends, to swing by the house. He had taken over as Sheriff when her father retired and always knew how to cheer her up.
She breathed out a sigh of relief when she saw headlights flood her driveway. She walked over to the door and waited, she knew if she simply swung it open without checking to see who there, Radek would never let her hear the end of it. A minute later, there was a knock and she checked the peephole. Sure enough, the bastard had covered it with his thumb.
"Stop wasting time, Radek," she yelled through the door.
"Just checking," was his muffled reply. She opened the door and grinned; Radek hadn't come alone. Beside him were the other members of the paranormal squad that patrolled their small town of Jefferson. Outside the confines of the four paranormal pillar cities, Vanguard squads blended into human first-responder teams. To avoid the issue of seeming ageless, the Vanguard members rotated from city to city, occasionally returning to an active duty status as a Unit Warrior in one of the four pillar cities.
She opened the door wide; Radek walked in and ruffled her hair. Ever since she was a child, she always likened him to his animal. The bear-shifter was huge and barrel-chested. When not in his sheriff's uniform he stayed in jeans and his favorite, worn biker jacket. She always joked with him that if the townspeople saw him riding around on his bike, there would be less crime. She crinkled her nose as he leaned down to kiss her cheek, his scruffy beard was scratchy. Laughing, he kept walking to make room for the others. Behind him the fire marshal, Marco Rodriguez, a jaguar shifter, winked and she blushed. He chuckled and kept walking through to the family room. Marco could make even the old women at the bingo hall feel beautiful. He epitomized Latin good looks and always flirted with her outrageously. To this day, despite the number of years he'd been doing it, he could make her cheeks burn. Levi Sorrel stepped over the threshold and gave her a hug. He was one of the town's police detectives and excelled at complex puzzles. Smiling, the witch handed her a small sachet of lavender and chamomile. Growing up he had taught her about different herbs and their uses; she knew that these two herbs in particular helped to sooth frantic nerves. She squeezed his hand in thanks. Dax Vi'Eaereson followed behind Levi, his huge body filling the doorframe. Dax worked with Marco in the fire department. She'd heard more than one woman around town threaten to set their house on fire to get the two men to save them. Where Marco was dark eyes and lean muscles, Dax was tall, as were all fae, with long golden hair, amber colored eyes and built like a linebacker. Without saying a word, Dax leaned down and kissed her forehead before moving forward. The last of their squad, Athan Durant, a vampire and her girlhood crush, walked in closing the door behind him. He was the squad's only paramedic. His vampire senses and attunement to blood, helped him treat many human injuries and diseases. Athan had borne her girlish infatuation with the grace of a gentleman, neither breaking her heart nor encouraging her. His royal blue eyes smiled at her warmly as he pulled her into a hug. She let herself sag for just a moment, soaking in his strength and support.
"We're here now, honey. Come into the family room so I can visit with my niece and you can tell us what has you so frightened. Then we can kill it and head home." He pulled back and kissed the tip of her nose. Smiling, she let him take her hand and lead her to the family room.
Radek had already scooped up her daughter, Penny, and she was firmly ensconced on his lap. They were playing with Penny's favorite hidden object book. It had been almost a year ago to the day since Penny came into her life. Radek and his team had arrived at the scene of a brutal double homicide and to their shock, found the tiny girl wedged between the wall and the bed. The blankets not only masked her scent but also kept her out of sight. Radek bundled her up and gave her to Athan, so he could bring the child to her. Athan upon arriving at her house, thrust the girl into her arms and said, "She can't go into the system, she's one of us."
Radek told Levi to manipulate the computer systems so that Penny was officially hers, but they all soon discovered, that forging adoption papers had been the easy part. Penny, when found, had been nearly catatonic for the first six months that she'd lived with her. Rheia had tried to balance the needs of a traumatized child with her career as a doctor at the local hospital. When it became evident that Penny needed more care than she was providing, she took a leave of absence. She used the inheritance she received upon the death of her parents to raise her daughter. It saddened her that her parents would never get to meet Penny, but she believed that, in a way, the money they left her was their way of helping their granddaughter.
"Penny, darlin', why don't you go up to your room and arrange your baby dolls so your uncles can see how well you've learned how to clean?" Rheia suggested. Penny was only four; she didn't want her to hear about the nightmare. Penny looked up at her from Radek's lap and stared at her. Without changing expression, the little girl hopped down and walked towards the stairs.
Shaking her head, Rheia reached out and pulled her in for a tight hug. "I know I treat you like a little girl, but guess what, squirt? You are. Let me protect you for as long as I can, yeah?"
When Penny looked up, her eyes softened and her small arms tightened around Rheia's waist. This was as close as she came to a smile. It wasn't much, but it was a dramatic improvement over how non-responsive she'd been when she had first moved in.
Penny let go and headed up the stairs. When Rheia turned to face the room, the men were trying not to grin. "I know, I know! She acts as precocious and surly as I did when I was a child." She walked in and took the seat next to Radek, surprising her adoptive brothers. She only turned to Radek or Dax when she was feeling scared or threatened. Both men were so imposing that she always felt comforted by their presence. Levi was her go-to movie watching buddy. He knew how she took her coffee and what sweets to bring her for a visit. Marco's specialty was revenge served cold. He was a master at the cat and mouse game. The longer his prey suffered psychologically, the better. His sunny disposition hid a vicious nature. True to his animal, either he was purring or lashing out. Athan, however, did not believe in a long drawn out revenge scheme. He would smile, nod, then go out and happily murder anyone who hurt her. The bond they shared ran deep and she knew, there wasn't much the older vampire wouldn't do for her.
Radek wrapped a beefy arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. "Okay, Pumpkin Dumpling, tell big brother Radek what has you so upset."
She took a long shuddering breath. "It's probably nothing, it's just that I can't seem to shake this nightmare. The bone-numbing terror is as fresh in me now as it was in my dream. I can't stop shaking." She held up her trembling hand.
"What happened in the dream?" Levi asked, concern on his face.
"I'm here in the family room, pacing. It's as if I know something bad is going to happen. Suddenly the front door is kicked in and these savage looking men run in. One of the men approaches me, smiling; I can tell he's insane. Just as he raises a knife I hear a man's voice shout and then..." she trailed off.
Radek started to rub up and down on her arm. "I'll tell you what pumpkin, we'll check all the windows and the doors before we leave. I also have a kick bar in my trunk that you can use on the front door to prevent it from being kicked in. Next week we'll install an alarm system that will not only immediately alert the police, but will also page out to us. Does that make you feel better?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. "I think so." She looked around the room and the men were smiling at her. She knew they would do anything to make her feel safe in her childhood home. She'd been their adopted little sister for over twenty years now. She got the feeling, that even when she was old and grey they would still treat her like a child.
She stood and walked over to stand between the family room and the kitchen. "Let me put a frozen lasagna in the oven, though I don't know if I'll be able to stand the smell. In my nightmare, the attackers smelled like rotten cheese, I woke up gagging." Swallowing hard at the memory, she turned to head into the kitchen when suddenly, Athan's hand grabbed her upper arm. When she looked up, his eyes looked a bit wild.
"What did you say about how they smelled?" His tone was serious. She looked around at the other men, they all looked worried.
"They smelled like death and old cheese. It was disgusting. Why?"
Athan pulled her into his arms. She turned her head to see the men were already moving. Levi's hands were glowing as he spoke low. From the Latin she'd learned in med school, he was asking for protection. In all the years they had spent together, he'd never once cast a spell in front of her. Dax left the room and went out the front door.
Radek stepped in front of her. "Rheia, this is very important. Is there anything else you can remember from your dream? Anything at all, no matter how small?"
She shook her head then paused. "Just the man's voice. He sounded so desperate when he yelled. He said, 'Run! Call for help! Come to Lycaonia!'."
Marco's olive-toned skin drained of color. Cussing under his breath Radek pulled his phone from his pocket. Rheia heard the front door open and close. Dax returned with a large duffel bag, which he set on the coffee table. When he unzipped it, she saw he carried an arsenal.
"You can't have that around Penny! Is that ..." she looked closer. "Is that a grenade launcher?" she practically screeched.
Marco turned to Athan. "I'll leave her to you." He walked over to where Dax was already loading weapons. He picked up a shotgun and took up a position in front of the picture window.
She looked up at Athan. "What's going on?" She had been scared of her nightmare, but now she was terrified.
He ran a hand over her hair. "Even though you've known about paranormals most of your life, we've tried to keep the scarier details about our world from you. You know about the four pillar cities and how mates work, but what we haven't told you is that our people have been waging a long time war against something we call ferals. They are paranormals who have lost their souls. That horrible smell you described from your dream is the decay of a person's body, rotting from the inside out."
She stared at him. "You're telling me that those things are out there, right now? That what I dreamt is real?"
He nodded. "The man you heard in your dream said the word 'Lycaonia'. That is the name of the shifter paranormal city. It's about eight hours south of here. A couple months ago, a spell was cast to bring all the unit warriors their mates. Shortly after that the Unit Commander, Aiden McKenzie began dreaming of his mate. There's a pretty good chance that the man's voice you heard in your dream was your mate's," he explained.
Rheia was stunned. All her life she secretly dreamed of finding a paranormal of her own for a mate. Her last boyfriend had fallen woefully short of the standards she had set using her brothers as examples of manhood. In addition to being self-absorbed, he'd left the night she brought Penny home and never returned, saying he didn't want a child in his life.
"Maybe he will be a vampire," Athan said softly. When she looked up his eyes were twinkling.
"I hope to all the Gods she does have a mate. I for one was not willing to lose her to old age," Dax said, walking up to hand Athan a gun.
"Aiden, I have a situation here," she heard Radek say, holding his phone in one hand, his gun in the other.
Marco walked over to her. "I'm heading upstairs to pack for Penny. Did you want me to pack for you as well?" he asked.
"Pack?" Her head was swimming.
"Honey, you can't stay here. You have to go to Lycaonia," he explained gently.
"But my house! My things!" she protested.
"We can pack up all your things and send them to you," Dax offered.
"What about my house? This is temporary, right? I can come home later when you kill these things, right?" she asked desperately.
Marco shook his head, sadness in his eyes. "Pumpkin, if your mate is in Lycaonia, that's where you belong."
"This was my parent's house. I grew up here! Why is this happening now? Penny's been here almost a year?"
Marco growled low. "That sonofabitch Bruce Johnson at the Herald just released an exposé about the recent murders and linked them back to Penny's parents. He let the cat out of the bag that they were survived by a little girl that may have witnessed the murder. He also mentions that the poor orphan was adopted by a local humanitarian and surgeon. He must've hacked the records, because that was not for public consumption."
"Let's just get you and Penny to safety, then we can figure things out," Athan said, squeezing her hand.
She turned to Marco. "Our suitcases are in my closet. Pack as many of her things as you can, she'll need familiar things around her. I'll be up in a second to pack my clothes." He jogged up the stairs and out of sight.
"Commander, I need to send her to you. It's ten pm now, she should be arriving around six am, can you have someone watching out for her? Yes, sir, yes, sir. I'm going to give her directions. Your idea to have unit warriors outside the four cities is starting to pay off, isn't it? If we can save even one mate... yes, sir. I'll check in later with more details. Goodbye, sir." Radek ended the call and turned to her. "Aiden McKenzie will have someone waiting for you, to escort you into the city. You need to go pack, Pumpkin Dumpling." He pointed to the stairs.
Feeling numb, she turned and walked up the stairs. She went to Penny's room first. Marco was making her dollies walk then jump into the suitcase. Penny watched intently, a serious look on her face. The little girl didn't have much. She had refused all of her toys from her parent's home except a small, handmade cloth doll. Rheia believed that Penny's mother had made it for her. Penny rejected everything else, including her old clothes.
Even later Penny hadn't expressed much interest when they'd gone shopping, so the amount to pack for her daughter was painfully small. Not wanting to disturb the two, she turned and made her way to the master bedroom. It took her two years after her parent's fatal car accident to move into the master bedroom. Marco had left the large and medium size suitcases open for her on her bed. Looking around the room with a critical eye, she decided to pack her clothes and toiletries in the large suitcase and pack her sentimental items in the medium suitcase.
She emptied her small closet and nightstand into the large suitcase and frowned. She had a lot of space left over. Ironically, she hated clothes shopping as much as Penny. She mostly lived in her scrubs, rotating between the same seven pair. The rest of her wardrobe was comprised of some tee-shirts, a couple pair of jeans, sweaters, a couple nightgowns and undergarments. Her clothes selection was as pitiful as her daughter's. She transferred the clothes and toiletries to the medium suitcase and zipped it shut. In the larger suitcase she packed the small set of fairy tale books her father had read to her as a child, all of her mother's jewelry, her own favorite books, a small shoebox of keepsakes, three photo albums, and the accordion file which held all of her legal papers. Looking down at the nearly full suitcase she realized there was only one more thing she had to have with her. She turned and raced downstairs to the kitchen. Lovingly she wrapped her mother's china tea service, which included a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, and four cups with saucers in her kitchen towels and headed back upstairs with them in a laundry basket.
When she first came to this home, she hadn't been that much older than Penny was now. She could clearly remember her mother sitting her down at the table and making her a pot of sweet chamomile tea. All the ugliness of her past slipped away as she sat holding that delicate teacup. She carefully packed the small tea service in the suitcase using her kitchen and bathroom towels to keep it safe. She zipped up the suitcase and stood back.
"You ready, hun?" Marco asked. Penny peeked out from around his side, holding his hand.
Rheia nodded. "Yes. Surprisingly I was able to get most of my personal things into two suitcases. Everything else is just household items, but the things that matters will be going with us." She walked over and scooped Penny up, the small girl laid her head on her shoulder.
"We're going to a very nice place, Penny. It's called Lycaonia. It's a city where all the people are like Uncle Radek and Uncle Marco," she said, walking down the stairs. Behind her Marco easily managed the three suitcases.
Penny looked up and pointed to her chest with her thumb. Rheia nodded. "Yes, darling, people just like you, a whole city of shifters. Won't that be nice?"
Penny scrunched up her face for a second, thinking about it, then nodded.
"Okay, here are the directions. Things are pretty normal until you turn off the highway. No matter how lost you think you are, stay on the dirt road. You'll have someone waiting for you," Radek explained, handing her a piece of paper before plucking Penny from her arms. He kissed the toddler's face all over the place. Penny squirmed, trying to avoid his whiskers. Radek pulled back and smiled at her. Penny without changing expression tweaked his nose. He gave a long booming laugh.
"You're not coming with us?" Rheia asked, feeling uneasy. She tucked the directions in her pants pocket.
"Car's loaded, Boss." Marco said, returning from the garage. He handed the keys to Rheia.
Radek shook his head. "You'll be safe in Lycaonia. I'm going to stay with the guys and try to find this threat and eliminate it. There have been too many..." he hesitated. "Incidents lately. I want to find where these guys are and take care of it."
In Rheia's mind she translated; There have been too many murders lately, and they wanted to find the ones responsible and kill them all.
Rheia took a deep breath. "What if..." she didn't want to sound childish. She was a grown woman, a doctor even. She shouldn't be relying on these men to tell her that everything would be okay.
"What, honey?" Athan asked. The men gathered around to say their goodbyes.
"What if I don't like him? What if he isn't like you, any of you? What if he doesn't want me?" she said, voicing her greatest fear.
"Oh, honey, you're breaking my heart," Levi muttered and pulled her head close to kiss the top of it.
"You love us, Pumpkin Dumpling, but your mate will complete you in ways that we never will. You're our kid sister. But you'll be his mate, his partner, his equal. He'll see sides of you, we, and correct me if I'm wrong gentlemen, never want to see. You're our kid sister for crying out loud!" Radek said, the tips of his ears turning red.
"Ahh, you mean sex." Rheia grinned.
Levi gasped and covered Penny's ears. Rheia rolled her eyes. "It's a natural part of life Levi."
"Not for you," Marco grumbled.
"If he hurts you, just call us. We have no problem explaining very thoroughly how he should treat our baby sister," Athan said, his blue eyes turning dark.
Rheia turned to Penny. "I wonder what they'll be like when you find your mate?" For a second Rheia thought she saw the hint of a smile on Penny's face.
"That will never happen! Our Penny Baby isn't allowed to mate. Ever," Marco said, growling.
Penny rolled her eyes. Rheia's heart swelled with pride. Penny may not be her daughter by blood, but this tiny kiddo was turning out just like her.
"Okay, enough crazy talk. You head to Lycaonia, find your mate, tell him if he hurts you we'll skin him alive and Penny stays a baby girl forever. Got that?" Radek demanded.
"Yes, sir!" Rheia laughed, taking Penny from his arms.
She was just about to head towards the garage when she heard a loud bang and the sound of splintering wood.
"Run for it!" Radek yelled. The men turned and ran towards the family room, blocking the danger so she and Penny could escape.
Heart in her throat, Rheia clutched Penny tightly and ran into the garage. She opened the driver's side door and got in. Penny scrambled over to the passenger seat and hit the button to lock the doors.
"Good girl! Now, get the seatbelt on and hold on tight. We don't have time to get you in your car seat," she said and started the car. She hit the garage door button. Slower than she could remember it ever moving in the past the door rose. Before the door was completely up, the same feral from her nightmare appeared behind her car, grinning at her in the rear view mirror.
"I don't think so!" she muttered and threw the car in reverse. Pressing her foot down on the accelerator she had a second to appreciate the surprised look on his face before he disappeared under her car. Both she and Penny bounced up and down as they ran him over.
The car screeched to a halt at the bottom of the driveway before she executed a 'K' point turn that would have made her father proud. She slammed her foot down on the gas pedal and sped away.
After a few minutes, a small, warm hand took hers. She looked over and saw Penny was watching her closely. There was neither fear nor panic on her face. Her brave angel was trying to comfort her.
"Oh, baby, we'll be okay, and your uncles will be okay too. We'll get settled in Lycaonia and they'll come to visit and this will seem like a really bad dream. You'll see." Penny nodded and pulled her hand up and kissed it sweetly.
"I love you too baby girl. I know one thing, my mate has a hell of a lot to live up to." Rheia said, trying not to think of what could be happening to the men they'd left behind.
Looking serious Penny nodded again. She let go of her hand and popped her left thumb into her mouth.
"Get some sleep, baby. I'll drive for a bit to put some distance between us and the house. Then we'll stop for a snack somewhere and I'll put you in your car seat, okay?"
Penny nodded again.
Radek, Athan, Dax, Marco, Levi... you better be okay.