BEVERLY HILLS, 1987
Cameron Collins stretched his wings and floated through the night sky, closing his eyes for a moment as he relished the feeling of the wind over his scales. There was nothing like a long, peaceful flight at the end of the day.
You should’ve been there, Tess. He spoke the words in his mind, sending them up to the stars overhead. You’d be so surprised to see how things have taken off lately. I have actors and actresses in my latest film that I never imagined I would get the chance to work with. And I’m told they aren’t there because of the script, but because of me. It’s just like you said it would be.
But of course, Tess didn’t respond. She’d been gone for four years; it was hard to believe it’d been that long already. Five years since she had been diagnosed with a deadly, incurable virus that only infected dragons. All the top medical research facilities were working on it, and the doctors had assured Cameron they were doing everything they could.
Most days, Tess was all right. Andy had just been born, and she’d been able to manage him. She rocked him, changed him, and curled up to take naps with him. For anyone who didn’t know, she was no different than any other new mother who didn’t get enough sleep.
But Cameron knew the difference in her. He’d seen it around her eyes, where a dark coloration settled in a rim around her eyelashes and refused to leave, no matter how much she napped or how much makeup she put on. He’d seen it, too, in the way she spoke and the way she lost interest in all the things she loved. She no longer wanted to go out and explore the national parks or spend an entire Saturday shopping. Instead, Tess was content to stay at home and read or watch television. Anything that didn’t involve too much effort was fine, as long as they were all together.
The real difference came when she tried to shift. Cameron and Tess had taken long flights together almost every night when they’d started dating. It was something they both enjoyed, and there was a romantic aspect to it that couldn’t be described or denied. Sometimes they would talk for hours as they flew; other times, they simply glided through the air on silent wings. Cameron had tried to show off, swirling and swooping through the air, but Tess would always just laugh at him and demonstrate her own moves.
They couldn’t do that once she fell ill. One side effect of the virus was that she couldn’t remain in her shifted form for very long. At first, she thought it was just because she was tired. “I’ll try again tomorrow,” she’d told him one night as they stood in their backyard. Tess had made the transformation, her body stretching and molding until she was the glorious red dragon that had first impressed him so much. But only a moment later, she’d shifted back far too quickly. Her body had slammed into itself as she returned to her human shape, leaving her in a crumpled heap on the grass.
“No, it’s too much. The doctor said this might happen.”
She’d moaned in pain as she pulled herself to her feet. “I don’t care what the doctor said. I’m not giving up my true form just because of some sickness. I can do this. I know I can.”
But she couldn’t, not that night. Cameron had thought she’d finally left the matter alone when they’d stopped their late-night flights, but he’d been painfully wrong. Tess had shifted one last time, choosing to do it on her own when Cameron wasn’t there to fuss over her. He’d found her in the yard just as she’d launched into the air, eager to use her wings before they were taken from her permanently. Cameron had shifted and gone after her, but she’d always been faster than him. She was still too far away when he’d seen her body betray her for the last time, leaving her without her wings in midair. He’d gone after her, determined to catch her before she hit the ground, but he just wasn’t fast enough.
That’d been enough to deter Cameron from shifting for a long time. He was no longer interested in flying or even seeing his own ochre scales. He could just be human and be as normal as possible for their son, determined to raise Andy to the best of his abilities.
But after about a year or so, he’d found himself desperately wishing for a way to talk to Tess. Cameron knew she was gone and there was no way of bringing her back or actually speaking to her, but it just wasn’t fair that she should miss out on everything in his life—and in Andy’s. He’d been reckless that first time, jumping out the second-story window and shifting in the air, even though he was out of practice. But his wings had caught the air before he hit the ground, and he’d been flying almost every night since then.
I miss you so much, even after all this time. You were always there to encourage me, and it’s only because of you that I’m so successful. I would’ve loved to take you to all these premiers and walk you down the red carpet like you deserved. If you’d ever been interested in acting, then we could’ve been the king and queen of Hollywood.
Cameron smiled to himself at the thought. Tess was gorgeous, with long, dark red hair and eyes that could be completely innocent one minute and devilish the next. She had a body to beat the band, too, and it would’ve been easy for her to get any role she wanted. But Tess had majored in English literature and was far more interested in her teaching job at UCLA than being onscreen.
Still, she’d always been his biggest supporter, encouraging him to go to work and spend all the hours he needed to there, even if it meant that it took time away from them. “You go, and stop worrying. I’ll be right here when you get back. This is your career, Cameron. It’s important.”
You can’t ever know how much I appreciated you, but I regret spending all that time at work instead of being at home with you. You were everything to me. It’s so unfair that I should find my soulmate and then lose her.
Cameron turned and made a wide circle, studying the city below him. There were so many lights, so many people down there who were living their lives as though everything was okay. He envied them sometimes, wishing he could be as carefree.
It was getting late. He’d love to spend half the night out there, but he had to get up early the next morning for work. Even if Tess wasn’t around to see his success, he thought of it as his tribute to her.
* * *
Cameron descended into his neighborhood, eager for his bed, but his heart thundered in his chest when he saw that several of the lights were on in the house. Andy had been tucked in when he’d left, and Welda usually only stayed up an extra hour or so to read before she turned in herself. Most of the lights downstairs were on as well as a few on the second floor. Cameron swooped down into the backyard, his feet stinging as they hit the earth.
“What’s the matter?” he asked breathlessly as he rushed in the back door. “Is Andy all right? He’s not sick, is he?” When Tess had fallen ill, they’d tested both Cameron and Andy and determined that neither one of them were capable of contracting the virus. So far, that seemed to be the truth, but Cameron always worried about it in the back of his mind.
“He’s fine, dear, just fine,” Welda greeted him at the door in her thick, German accent. She’d normally be in her long nightgown and fluffy bathrobe by now, but she was still dressed for the day in a dark skirt and blouse. “You worry far too much about him. It’s not good for either one of you.”
“Then what’s going on? Why is the house lit up like Christmas?” He glanced around the kitchen. It was clean and tidy, the counters and appliances as spotless as Welda always kept them. The faint scent of beef rouladen from that night’s dinner still hung in the air. There was no sign of disaster.
“Calm down, my dear. I’ll make us a nice cup of tea while we talk.”
Cameron clamped his lips together, fighting the urge to interrogate the old woman. She’d been there ever since Andy was born, and she always did things in her own time and in her own way. She couldn’t be coerced by anything, and Cameron was convinced her Old-World patience was something akin to magic. He’d never met any Americans who were so imperturbable. It certainly made for a good quality in a nanny, though.
A few minutes later, Cameron sat across from her at the dining table. He wasn’t in the mood for tea, but since Welda prepared it, he obediently stirred a spoon of sugar into the hot liquid.
“Did you have a nice flight?” The wrinkles around her eyes deepened as she wrapped her long, withered fingers around her mug. “It was a good night for it, ja?”
“It was. Nothing unusual.” He wasn’t going to draw out the details or they would never get through this conversation.
“Not like that night when lightning started striking all around you? That’s good.” She took a long, slurping sip of her tea and closed her eyes.
Cameron hadn’t minded that night, actually. It’d been a thrill unlike anything he was used to when the sudden thunderstorm had popped up, sending brilliant bolts of lightning forking through the air all around him. It’d been dangerous, but he’d enjoyed it far more than he ever would’ve admitted to Welda. The surge of adrenaline had felt as though it was enough to last a lifetime. A much smaller supply of it was currently running through his veins as he waited to find out just why they were sitting there so late at night having tea. “And how was your evening?”
Welda stared down into her mug for a long moment. Her eyebrows twitched, and her mouth pursed and clamped as though she was trying to find all the right words, but couldn’t remember how to form them. “I received a call from my cousin.”
“That’s nice,” he replied, unsure of what else to say.
The old woman nodded. “It would be. I haven’t heard from her in quite some time, and international calls aren’t exactly cheap.”
“Welda, I’ve told you not to worry about that. You can call home anytime you need to.” Cameron paid the nanny well, but he firmly believed in fringe benefits. He could afford a few long-distance calls if it made her happy.
She waved him off. “It doesn’t really matter right now. My cousin told me that my mother has taken ill, and they don’t think she’s going to get better this time.”
“I’m so sorry.” Cameron instinctively reached across the table to put his hand on her thin wrist. He had come to think of her as part of his family, and he ached for her. He knew what it was like to lose someone special. While it was difficult to think of a woman as old as Welda still having a mother around, she’d often told him tales of just what tough stock she’d come from.
Her cloudy blue eyes lifted to meet his, and the corners of her mouth tweaked up into a sad smile. “And I’m sorry too, dear. I need to go home to see her.”
“Of course. Take as long as you need, and don’t worry about the cost of the plane ticket. I’ll take care of it myself.”
But she shook her head, patting his hand. “You don’t understand, dear. I don’t know how long this is going to take, and my family needs me. I’ve made good money while I’ve been here in the States, and it could almost be a home to me, but it’s nothing like our little village. My mother is probably leaving us and going to Heaven, and someday, it will be my turn. As much as I love you and Andy, and even this big city, I don’t want to die here. It’s time for me to go home. Permanently.”
Cameron opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. Welda had been a perpetual fixture in his home for so long now. It was impossible to imagine life without her. What would he do? What would Andy do? “You’re healthy, Welda. You’re nowhere near dying.”
She clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and shook her head. “I’m sorry, my dear, but this is how things are for me. I always knew I would need to return home someday, and I knew I would receive a sign when the time was right. I don’t think there’s any denying that this is the sign I’ve been waiting for.”
“When are you leaving?” he asked grimly, not wanting to hear the answer.
“First thing in the morning, as soon as Andy is awake and I have a chance to say goodbye to him. I wouldn’t dare leave him without that at least.”
Pushing away the mug of tea, Cameron felt a distinct turning in his stomach. He’d felt it before, when he’d sat with Tess at the doctor’s office and they’d received the news of her infection. He’d felt it again when he couldn’t save her from her fall. It was a sign all right, but not one he was happy to see. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said slowly, his mind struggling to wrap around the idea of Welda leaving him. “I can’t exactly take Andy to work with me. I can hire someone new, but that takes time. And how will I know if the new nanny is going to be good to him? You’ve always taken care of him when he’s been sick and calmed him after his nightmares if I’m out of town. There’s no one else in the world like you, Welda.”
She gripped his hands in hers now, the look of her fingers belying the strength of his. “And there is no greater compliment than that, Cameron, but you must know that I have to do this. It breaks my heart, as I’ve become so attached to my little Schnuckelchen, but I have to go.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t be giving you a guilt trip. What can I do to help?”
Welda patted the back of his hand. “Nothing, darling. I’m a quick worker when I need to be. I have everything packed and ready to go by the front door.”
Cameron got up from the table and peered through the doorway into the living room. As she’d said, her things were packed. Several trunks and suitcases stood waiting on the marble tile near the door. “You should’ve waited for me. I could’ve at least carried them down for you.”
She brushed past him, patting his cheek and smiling. “As you’ve said, I’m not dying yet.”
Leaning against the stairwell, Cameron looked up at the second floor where his son was sleeping. This wasn’t just going to break his heart. It was going to destroy him. Cameron was never going to find someone as good as Welda. It would have to be someone he could truly trust with the most precious thing in his life, and the nanny was leaving some very big shoes to fill.
As though reading his mind, Welda put her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t distress. You’re a very capable young man, and you’ll get this figured out. Maybe you’ll find a nice young woman to settle down with, someone who will think of Andy as her own.”
It was a nice idea, but Cameron didn’t need to think about it for more than a fraction of a second to know it was out of the question. He’d never met anyone who made him feel the way Tess had, and he never would. Even before she’d passed away, he’d known that he would be single for the rest of his life.
“I think I’ll just call the agency instead.”
She tipped her head at him, looking as though she was about to say more on the subject, but she turned and headed up the stairs. “If you say so. I’m going to turn in. I have to get up early.”
Cameron watched her go and knew he should be doing the same thing, but he knew he wouldn’t get any sleep that night.