HoC Ep. 17: God Save the Queen

Heather felt the tip of her pencil tear into the paper. Rune’s front paws, planted on the two sides of the open phonebook, obscured the number she had been copying down. “What do you mean, hire someone?” Rune asked. He stood there deliberately so she had no choice but to pay complete attention to him.

Heather scrubbed the eraser across the now illegible phone number for house painter number six. “The house is too big to do it myself,” she said.

“Half of it is stone,” Rune countered. He hooked a paw at her pencil, but she dodged out of the way and went back to erasing. The paper started to shred more. “And I would help you.”

“Oh, so it will take an actual month of Sundays to finish, instead of just a figurative one.” She gave up on erasing and just crossed out what was left of the entry. “Did you miss the part where I have a deadline for this?” She started copying it out again.

“Assuming Yvonne was telling the truth,” Rune said. He pounced forward. Now his paws obscured the paper and he sat on the phone book. “Would you stop fussing with that for a minute?”

Heather set the pencil down with a snap. “I’m trying to get this done so I can go into town and call them all in one shot and get prices to compare.”

“No one can make you sell your home just because the paint is peeling.”

“No, but they can make life unpleasant enough that it stops being worth it to stay.” She shoved her chair back and left Rune behind as she jogged down the stairs.

He followed her, of course, and cornered her again while she pulled on her shoes by the front door. “We’re not going to leave, no matter what they do.”

“Fantastic,” Heather said and yanked on the laces. “How about you start answering the door, so you can deal with the next person who comes here on George frickin’ Ellison’s behalf?” She stood up and opened the door onto a hot May morning. “If painting the house gets them off my back, we’re going to paint the house.”

“Where are you going?” Rune asked before she could close the door.

“To get the mail,” she said. She felt viciously glad to know that Rune would be disinclined to follow her that far down the road. He could make it about half way, just until the street came into view, before he balked and that was with Heather coaxing him along.

At the bottom of the hill, Heather jerked on the door of the mailbox to get it open. That was one more thing that needed repair or replacement and it was one more thing she would probably have to do on her own. Behind her, the rumble of a car’s engine grew as it came around the turn. Her whole plan for the day was shot because Rune wanted everything they fixed on the house to be a joyous sharing experience. She took out the handful of letters and slammed the door shut again.

Heather knew it would be a lot of work to organize the House around avoiding human painters. She shuffled through the letters as she started back up the hill. Back on the street, a car door slammed; probably someone lost again, trying to find the Shadow Hills entrance on the other side of the hill. It was not exactly a cake walk when the exterminators came out, mostly thanks to Rune himself. But Yvonne’s warning was just the latest piece of evidence that George Ellison was out to get Heather. And Heather was not going to sit still for it.

Heather was still out of sight of the house when she heard a footstep crunch on the gravel behind her. Great, someone was lost and wandering around on the property. She turned just as two arms whipped around her. There was a flash of white and a hand wrapped in cloth smashed into her face hard enough to split her lip where it hit against her teeth. She took a gasping breath and her head swam. Fumes!

Topaz peeked out of the backpack where Umber left it unzipped. Below him in the dark, popcorn-scented bottom of the backpack, Rafflesia yelped as he stepped on her while fighting to stand upright. Umber turned right and headed up the walkway. Behind her and where Topaz could see, the marquee of the theater came into view again as they walked out from under it. Birds pecked around the ground while it was still early and the shopping center was mostly empty. “That was amazing,” he said. “Can we go again tomorrow?” He thought of all the kittens at home who would probably love human movies.

Umber continued her leisurely walk but answered him in a low voice. “Hey, movies aren’t cheap, especially when someone insists on popcorn with extra butter.” She paused as a human passed them going the opposite way and continued when Topaz reemerged from the backpack. “Plus, I’m spending too much as it is. My truck takes a lot of gas to drive six hours down here and six back every weekend.”

Rafflesia shoved him to the side so she could look out. “You wouldn’t have to check up on us if someone would go back to the House with me.” She licked her lips. “I’ve got popcorn stuck in my teeth still,” she muttered.

“Okay, okay,” Topaz said. Next to them, the automatic doors of a grocery store slid open. “Blame it all on me. Does anyone else smell salmon?” The doors started to close, only to reopen again halfway through. A familiar woman stood by them, oblivious to their frustrations, and hunched over a cell phone. Topaz grabbed Rafflesia by the scruff of her neck and pulled her down into the backpack. “I know her.”

While Umber pretended to examine a display of potted plants with Mother’s Day-themed decorations, Topaz listened in on the woman. “Slow down. What are you talking about?”

Topaz strained to hear. He could just make out the voice of the person on the other end. “…Lee…Just come…what I’m doing…”

“What’s she saying?” Rafflesia demanded.

Topaz pushed her away with a hind foot. The woman said, “Alright, I’ll be there. Just don’t.” She hesitated then walked quickly away from the store. “Don’t do anything dangerous.”

“Umber, run, get your truck,” Topaz said. “We have to follow her.”

Umber, to her credit, only paused to ask why once they were in the truck and following the woman’s car out into the suburbs. On the seat, Topaz put his paws up on the arm rest and watched out the window. Umber squeezed through the last second of a traffic light to keep up with the other car. “You’re sure she’s talking about Heather?”

Topaz spared her a quick glance. “There’s something going on between her and Heather. That other person sounded bad. I just know.”

“She’s slowing down,” Rafflesia said, watching from over Topaz’s shoulder.

“Shit, look,” Umber said as she downshifted and slowed to a crawl. “That’s a gated community. I can’t follow her without a pass code.”

The car turned into a driveway and stopped at a box mounted on a post. Topaz watched as an arm reached through the window and pressed buttons on the box. “Roll down the window.”

Umber leaned across the seat and cranked down the window, still driving down the road as the gap between them and the other car closed. “I have to pass by.”

“Go get help,” Topaz ordered. Then he dove through the open window. He landed on the side of the road at a run and bolted into the cover of the hedges that lined the driveway. He heard Umber’s truck accelerate away as he chased the car. So long as he kept up, he could guide the others there as well. So long as Rafflesia could get someone to come help him.

George led Susanna into his garage, flicking on the light as he went. The room smelled of oil and dust. Five degrees cooler than the rest of the house, it felt like he could use it as an extra freezer. “You’ll have to help me get her into the house. I had a devil of a time getting her into the trunk in the first place.”

Behind him, Susanna scurried across the concrete and over to the trunk. “She’s still in there? She could be dead!”

George rolled his eyes and bent to pull the latch inside the car. “I checked on her when I got home. She’s just unconscious.”

Susanna backed away as the trunk popped up an inch. “Won’t she be awake by now?”

“How should I know?” He went around to the back of the car. “I tied her hands, at any rate.” He lifted the trunk lid. “Oh, hell.”

Susanna leaned forward. “Is that a cat?” She looked over at him and blinked theatrically. Color rushed back into her pale face. “You kidnapped a cat?”

“Don’t be stupid,” George said, mind racing. A white and brown cat lay with its head sticking out of the collar of Lee’s shirt and the tip of its tail flicking at the hem. The hastily tied ropes lay in a knot toward the back of the trunk. He should have thought of this. She was one of them, whatever they were. Lee’s jeans were piled at the other end of the trunk, bent at the hip and knee just as he had left her curled up. Had she changed because he knocked her out?

“George, are you sure you’re all right? I think maybe the stress has gotten to you.” She set a hand on his shoulder, fingers taking up a pinch of shirt, and tried to lead him away from the car. “You might have had a nervous break–”

“That is Lee,” he said and batted her hand away. “I would have pictures to prove it, but I broke my phone and almost got caught and–”

“That’s a cat,” Susanna insisted. She pointed to it as she backed away. “And pictures to prove what?” She edged around the car and toward the door. “You’re scaring me.”

The cat was still asleep, so he wrapped it up in the shirt and carried it back to the house. “Where did the clothing come from then? Huh? And why is the cat wearing them?”

Susanna edged away from him through the house, always a step ahead but never quite ready to turn and leave. “It probably got cold. God, where did you even get the poor thing?”

George turned into the guest bathroom downstairs. No windows and only one door meant he could keep the creature contained easily enough. “Look, give me a day. I’m sure she’ll change back. I mean, she spends so much time as a human, she can’t stay like this for long.” He opened the door to the shower and put the bundled cat on the floor of the tub. With the door closed, it could not jump out or run out the door when they tried to come in.

Susanna looked away. He would have to keep her away from the phones in case she got a clever idea to call the police. “A day. But! But if nothing happens, I want you to see a doctor.”

George shrugged. Really, this was better than he hoped. He could get video evidence and beat down Lee in one fell swoop. “Sure thing. You’ll see. I’m not crazy. I’ve got everything under control.”

Rune paced in the kitchen. Even with it full of cats, the lack of Heather made it seem sinister. Umber sat on the floor and jingled her car keys restlessly. The constant rattle set Rune even more on edge. “We knew something had happened. I went looking for her when she didn’t come back. When I found the mail on the ground, I knew she was gone.”

Rafflesia squirmed as her mother nearly smothered her with attention. “Topaz said he knew the woman.”

Rune nodded. “That will be Susanna. And if she’s involved, you can bet it’s George Ellison she went to see.”

Carlisle, who had been sulking ever since he found out Rune and Rafflesia had conspired to bring Topaz home, finally spoke up. “The man who wanted to buy the house? I thought Heather settled that months ago.”

“He knows something about us,” Rune said. “He’s trying to blackmail Heather.”

The roomful of cats erupted into worried murmurs. Carlisle said, “Why wasn’t I told? We could have done–”

“Done what?” Rune interrupted. “No human will believe him if he tells them about changing-cats.”

“And if he gets the perfectly mundane Animal Control up here?” Carlisle countered.

Rafflesia pushed her mother away and stood between Rune and Carlisle. “Um, guys, aren’t you missing the point? Whoever has Heather and whatever the reason, we have to go get her back. Topaz is waiting for us.”

Rune huffed. He glanced at Carlisle, who looked as abashed as Rune felt. “So he knows where she is. How do we get us in and her out?”

“It’s a gated community,” Umber said. Rune could see everyone watch her warily. Even if she was helping them, no one seemed comfortable with the human who suddenly had an all-access pass to the House. “Getting to the front door is going to be difficult.”

Rune glanced at Dopple, who pinned her ears, but nodded. “I can get in the back door, but a cat should go find her. I won’t be able to hide as a human.”

“You’re not getting it,” Umber insisted. “How are you even going to get past the gate? And if someone notices you, how will explain being there?”

Rafflesia perked up. “You need a disguise or something.”

Carlisle cleared his throat. “I, ah, might have something.” He turned to Rune. “Do you think your old uniform will still fit?”

“My old…You kept that?”

“What is it?” Rafflesia asked. She seemed a little too excited about the whole masquerade part of the plan. Rune wondered what she imagined his uniform consisted of.

“I’ve got the uniform, the ID, I’ve even got the taser,” Carlisle said.

At Rafflesia’s baffled look, Rune explained, even as he wished they would just forget the whole idea. “I worked as a security guard.” In another lifetime, Rune thought. All the times he hid out in the attic to get away from the memories of his human life, there must have been a suitcase tucked away with all the reminders waiting for him.

“That’s perfect,” Umber said. “You can provide a diversion at the front door while Dopple breaks in and Topaz gets her out.”

“He’s not going in alone,” Rune said. “He’ll need backup in case only one of them answers the door.”

“I’ll go,” Rafflesia volunteered.

Rune heard a chorus of other voices with his when he immediately said, “No, you won’t.”

Dorian, flanked by several other of the House’s best hunters, said, “We’ll put together a team.” The others walked away with him, muttering about their respective talents.

“You’ve met this George,” Dopple said. “What if he recognizes you?”

Rune shrugged. Of all the parts of the plan, that was the least of his concerns. “I’ll improvise.”

“What’s that mean?” Rafflesia asked scornfully. She was obviously pissed off she was not part of the rescue team.

Carlisle hooked a paw over her shoulders and pulled her away. “I think he means he’ll hit him. Rather hard, probably. Come help me find that uniform.”

The group broke up to pursue their respective tasks. That left Rune alone to face his own preparation. He turned to Umber. “I need you to get something from Heather’s rooms for me.” He took a deep breath. There was no avoiding it, not if he wanted to get Heather back. Damn, but he wanted to get Heather back right now. He let the shaky breath out again. “Cat’s bane.”

Something wet dripped on Heather’s face. The backs of her hind legs burned. She wiped a paw across her face and opened her eyes. A shower? The faucet dripped noisily into the drain. She pushed the shirt up over her head and slipped out of it. When had she changed?

She stretched a leg up past her head and licked at the stinging skin along the back. There was blood in her fur and scrapes under that. Her lips felt bruised. She remembered the sound of gravel crunching. The driveway? The opaque glass of the shower prevented her from seeing more of the room. Where was she? She switched legs, grateful for the excuse to concentrate on the calming rhythms of grooming.

When she felt clean again, she put her paws up on the edge of the tub. She hooked at the closed door, but could not get it to slide open. The House did not have any sliding doors on the showers; they all had curtains. She was not at home.

The last thing she remembered was gravel crunching. And a car. There had been a car. And before that, she had argued with Rune about painting the house. She retreated to her shirt, which was dry and warm, especially compared to the floor of the shower. If she had her shirt here, but not the rest of her clothes, then she must have changed somewhere else and been moved.

Beyond the milky walls of the shower, another door opened. Human footsteps. The door closed again. Heather backed into the far corner of the shower to put as much space as possible between her and whoever was out there. The shower door slid open.

“Hey, kitty, are you awake?” Everything slammed into place in Heather’s mind when Susanna Dahl poked her head into the shower with a dumb smile on her face. Someone had attacked her, knocked her out, and taken her somewhere else. And if Susanna was there, Heather did not have to guess who her attacker had been.

Susanna put a plastic container full of water on the floor inside the shower. “Are you thirsty, kitty? I bet you are, huh?”

Susanna had no idea this was Heather. So she must not have seen her change. Good, great, perfect, Heather thought with grim determination. She mewed as sweetly as she could. She walked over to the water and sniffed. She lapped up some and let it wash the cottony taste out of her mouth.

Susanna stretched her hand out. “Come here, honey.”

Heather came close enough to rub her head up into Susanna’s palm. “I would like to bite you in a fatal way,” she said in cat-speak.

“Oh, what a good kitty,” Susanna said, oblivious to Heather’s threats, and scratched down her spine.

Heather could just see a door and a towel rack behind Susanna. “If I get out of here, I’m going to piss in your shoes before I leave,” Heather said and purred at the thought.

There was a knock at the door. “I’m coming in,” said a voice muffled by the door. Susanna sighed and closed the shower door again. The bathroom door opened and closed. Now the voice was clear and Heather could tell it was Ellison. “Is she awake?”

“Yes, but she’s still just a cat,” Susanna said. She spoke softly and sounded at least a little scared. Heather could see her silhouette in the glass bend deferentially toward Ellison. “George, she came right over and let me pet her.” Under the submission, though, Heather heard defiance. She doesn’t believe him. That means he doesn’t have proof of Heather changing either or he would have shown it to Susanna.

Ellison loomed huge in the door when he opened it. Heather chirruped at him and wove her body in a figure-eight. Heather thought of her mother, back before Heather was old enough to change, and how Heather would weave between her legs with just that motion and beg to be let up onto the counter while Poppy cooked.

“You don’t fool me,” Ellison said. He did not try to reach in, no doubt expecting an attack. He closed the door. Heather heard the lid of a toilet close. His silhouette sat on it just outside the shower. “I’d like to ask you again if you won’t consider selling me that house,” he said, all easy charm like he was in an office talking to a human.

Heather concentrated on keeping up the charade of being a normal cat. If she could see them, they could probably see her. And if she could just get Susanna on her side, she might bluff her way out of this.

Rune hoisted Dopple up over the top of the brick wall surrounding the front of the community. The street outside remained silent and dark under the light of the less than half-full moon. A new moon would have made it easier for them, but they all hated waiting even this long to have the cover of night. “I’m too damn old for this shit,” Rune groaned as he hauled himself up and over.

They met the others up the street, keeping in the shadows of houses for the moment. His feet crushed jasmine vines under his boots, sending up waves of fragrance as he crouched in the dark. Topaz loped over to him. He stopped with his front paws on Rune’s knees and panted. “I followed them to the house, but I haven’t seen Heather.”

“You did a good job,” Rune said and ran a hand down Topaz’s back. “Take us there.”

Topaz sent Rune up the street on foot. He walked in the open now. The old blue work pants were a little tight about the waist, but the belt fit. He considered pulling the taser from it as soon as someone answered the door and zapping them, but the rest of them had convinced him that surgical precision would be the goal.

Topaz appeared and disappeared as he led both Rune and the cats to the house. Rune waited in the shadows by the house. In the backyard, Dopple would be picking the lock of whatever door she could find. Only once they were in and had a chance to even find Heather would it be worthwhile for Rune to create a distraction. He just needed to keep Ellison, and the woman if he was lucky, out of the way while they got Heather out. He pulled the baseball cap lower over his eyes.

Topaz jumped onto the wall around the house and silently signaled Rune. Go. The doorbell rang in the recesses of the house. Rune self-consciously straightened the name tag over his heart. The shirt smelled foreign, like a relic from someone else’s life. He heard the deadbolt turn.

“What?” Ellison barked. A vein stood out along his neck.

Rune touched the brim of his hat. “Good evening, sir. We’ve had reports of a loud disturbance in this area and we’re just checking it out.” He slowed his speech to a drawl. Just doing my job, no need to panic. “Have you seen or heard anything suspicious tonight?”

Rune could see Ellison squinting against the porch light to see his face. He shifted to hide his face better while letting Ellison get a look at the name tag and the company insignia on his left arm. “We haven’t heard anything. Someone reported us?”

Guilty conscience, Rune thought. “No, sir. Someone called about gunfire, but we suspect it may be someone setting off illegal fireworks.”

“Well, thank you, but we’re fine.”

“All the same, sir, we’re advising residents to stay indoors tonight.” He left off the usual warning to lock all doors and windows. The last thing he wanted to do was remind Ellison to check those.

Ellison shut the door on him with a thin-lipped thanks. Damn. He was lucky if that was five minutes. Rune exhaled hard and walked stiffly back down to the street. He hoped he had bought them enough time.

George snarled under his breath and headed out to the kitchen. This was taking too damn long. It was time to up the stakes. He pulled a black plastic trash bag from the box under the sink. Susanna could believe whatever she wanted, but he knew that was Lee and he knew she understood him. This whole charade needed to end now. He took a roll of packing tape from the drawer of miscellaneous screw drivers and scissors. A little near death experience should get things moving.

When he heard the scream, he dropped the bag and tape and ran to the bathroom. Susanna chanted variations of “oh, my god.” He heard cats hissing. Shit. He grabbed the edge of the doorway and stumbled to a stop.

“They opened the door,” Susanna wailed. A pair of cats had her cornered in the tiny space between the toilet and the sink. Another pulled open the sliding door of the shower.

“Stop them! Don’t just stand there,” he shouted and dove for the shower door. Something hit him in the head. He caught his balance on the towel rack just as a fourth cat, one he had not noticed, raked its claws from his temple, across his ear, and down to the back of his neck.

The scratches stung, setting one side of his face on fire. The thin skin of his forehead bled profusely until he was blinking it out of his eye. He reached up and grabbed the first handful of furry body he could find. It yowled right in his ear. The whole room echoed with screams and hisses. He flung the cat as hard as he could. He heard a yelp and a clatter of broken glass.

Where was Lee? George scrubbed at his face and left a wash of blood across the back of his hand. The shower door stood open. He spun, trying to find her. A white and brown tail disappeared around the corner of the bathroom door. He lurched after her. Something caught his arm and held him back.

“They came to rescue her,” Susanna said, voice high and reedy with shock. “Oh, god, the cats knew how to find her.”

“I told you,” he growled and shook her off. Susanna’s guards had disappeared. Lee and her savior were gone. Even the cat George threw into the mirror had vanished. A bloody mess on his head, a shattered mirror, and a handful of shed fur were all he had left.

He ran through the house. How had they gotten in? And more importantly, had they gotten out yet? If he could catch them all, Lee would fold. Surely, if he could beat her whole damn family or whatever they were, she would give up.

Susanna stumbled into his back when he stopped at the laundry room door. It stood open. Beyond it, there was a vine-covered wall and darkness. There was no sound and no movement. They were all gone.

He shook Susanna by the shoulders. “What did you do?”

She slapped at his hands. “There was a knock on the door. I thought it was you.” She pushed away from him so hard that as soon as he released her, she fell backwards to the floor. She glared up at him and rubbed a hand over her shin. There were razor-thin streaks of blood on them and huge shreds in her nylons. “This was your plan.”

George turned away and slammed the open door shut again. He could feel the blood starting to dry into a cracked skin on his face. “And my mistake was bringing you along,” he said. Learn from your mistakes, he thought. Do it better next time.

Topaz pounced on Rafflesia. “And Dorian was all, ‘Rawr! I kill you now!'” He sprang away from her and collapsed into the waiting masses of cats. “And the man was all, “Yaa! Save me! I must scream and flail now.”

Dorian laughed weakly. He had an ice pack wrapped in a dish towel pressed to his aching back. “I’m just sorry I didn’t go straight for his eyes. I hope he dislocated his shoulder throwing me like that.”

Topaz butted heads with him. “It was awesome, man. Heather and I just ran right between his legs.” He pantomimed a bob and weave maneuver. “Out the door and down the street, thank you very much.”

Rafflesia squealed and tackled Topaz, completely delighted with the full-body retelling of their daring rescue. “Wait, wait, tell me about the woman. What about her?”

Topaz rolled over and, as he did, he saw a bobtailed rump retreating from the doorway. He grinned at Rafflesia and wriggled away. “You’ll have to ask them. ‘Cuse me a minute.” Behind him, he heard someone say, “We head-butted the door to sound like knocking…”

He bounded up the stairs just as Carlisle disappeared into his room. He hadn’t seen Carlisle once since returning to the House. He had expected some sort of drama. He nosed open the door and slipped into the dark room. But Heather had just said he was the Queen’s Official Spy, which seemed to mean he got to stay. Then there had been Rafflesia and Umber and a whole house of cats who wanted to hear how he — Topaz! — had saved the Queen’s life.

Up on the bed, Carlisle’s gray body stood out against the yellow of a familiar towel. He had it wadded up around him, just the way Topaz liked to sleep on it. Topaz sat at the side of the bed and looked up. Carlisle turned his face away from the window and over to Topaz, his eyes flashing teal. Topaz struggled to keep quiet. He had to let Carlisle speak first. He had to know he would speak.

Carlisle looked away again and Topaz feared for a long moment that it had been a dismissal. But Carlisle finally said, “I think Heather was right all along.” Topaz opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but Carlisle kept talking. “Rune willingly took cat’s bane tonight. He went down to the mailbox to find Heather when she disappeared.”

Topaz had been too worried about Heather to really think about what it meant when he first saw Rune crouched in the bushes, unexpectedly human and out in the world. Even now, Topaz wanted to tell Carlisle he hadn’t come to talk about Rune.

“What you did, that day,” Carlisle said haltingly. The words dried up in Topaz’s mouth. “You saved him. And now you’ve saved Heather as well. Because you keep doing stupid, reckless things that put you and everyone else in danger.”

“I think there was a compliment in there,” Topaz said at last when Carlisle’s monologue seemed to have stalled out.

Carlisle curled his body away, turning his back to Topaz. “I’m keeping this towel,” he said quietly.

Topaz swished his tail happily. Even if Carlisle never admitted it, Topaz knew now he had been missed as much as he had missed — well, everything and everyone. “I’ll just borrow something to replace it.” He went over to the closet and, with a jump, pulled one of Carlisle’s vests down from its hanger. Topaz dragged it in his teeth over to the door. The fabric was soft and smelled like Carlisle and mothballs and detergent. “Good night.”

On his way out the door, he heard Carlisle say, “Welcome home.”

Heather picked clothing out of her dresser with fingers that still shook. She couldn’t bring herself to go into the bathroom just yet. The idea of being locked in a bathroom again set her heart racing. She looked back over by her bed, where Rune stood at attention, facing the wall. He had brought her cat’s bane when she had been too shaken to get the emergency pills she kept in the cupboard.

“I told Umber she could stay the night.” She stepped into a pair of panties and steadied herself against the nightstand. When that made the lamp rattle a little, she saw Rune half turn to her. He couldn’t seem to decide if it was more important to avert his eyes or to check on her wellbeing.

“I’m fine,” Heather said and pulled a sleep shirt over her head. There had been no point in trying to send him away while she changed. Rune had been no more than six inches away from her since they met up at Umber’s waiting truck. “You can turn around now.”

Rune stood with his hands jammed in his pockets. The tails of the button-down shirt had been pulled out over the ill-fitting pants and the plain tie fluttered loose at the collar. He was the best thing she had ever seen. “Are you sure?”

It took Heather a moment to remember that he was asking if she was fine, not if he could turn around. “I’ve just got some grazes on the backs of my legs. I think he dragged me to his car once I passed out.” She could see the hot blood rush to Rune’s face. Every so often, something would remind him of what had happened and he would start stomping around like he wanted to kill something. “There’s antibiotic cream in the medicine cabinet,” Heather said to distract him.

When he came back with it, he put his hands on her waist and turned her around. “Let me,” he said and she felt him drop to his knees behind her. He slid a warm hand up the back of her calf and just waited there until she hitched the hem of the shirt up to the tops of her thighs.

The cream was cold when he dabbed it on the first patch of raw skin just below her knee. She hissed at the sting of it and Rune’s already gentle hands became the faintest of sensations. Feather touches raised goose bumps on her legs as he moved up to her thighs. Her hands tightened on the bundle of fabric knotted in them.

When he finished, he pressed a kiss into the small of her back. A rush of desire hit Heather hard enough to catch the breath in her throat. His hands were still on her thighs with his thumbs slipping just under the edge of the shirt.

She felt disappointed when he dropped his hands to brace against his knees as he pushed himself up off the floor. She heard his knees creak and could not stifle a laugh. The laugh faded away as his arms curled around her. By her ear, he said, “What’s so funny?”

She turned around in his embrace and put her hands on his shoulders. “Did I wear you out, old guy?”

Rune glared at her but his mouth quirked up. The beginning of stubble showed gray on his cheeks. “You should talk. Aren’t you a little old to be running off like this? I had to scale a wall, twice, to get you back.”

Heather took a step backward. He followed and bent to kiss her, more hesitantly than she liked, even if she did have a bruised lip. She cupped her hands around his cheeks to feel the soft rasp of stubble against her palms and the hard line of his jaw. “I guess you’re too tired then, after your adventure,” she said between kisses.

Rune did not ask what she meant. He didn’t play hard to get. He just moved her back another step so her legs touched the edge of the bed. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. “I would do anything to get you.”

Heather tipped them both down onto the bed. “You already have me.”

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