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Blood Brothers (Chapter Twelve)

Chapter Twelve

QUINN BARELY MANAGED TO MUFFLE A SCREAM, and would have danced back as the spiders skittered over the floor if Cal hadn't gripped her.

"Not real." He said it with absolute and icy calm. "It's not real."

Someone laughed, and the sound spiked wildly. There were shouts of approval as the music changed tempo to hip-grinding rock.

"Great party, Cal!" Amy from the flower shop danced by with a wide, blood-splattered grin.

With his arm still tight around Quinn, Cal began to back off the floor. He needed to see his family, needed to see…And there was Fox, gripping Layla's hand as he wound his way through the oblivious crowd.

"We need to go," Fox shouted.

"My parents-"

Fox shook his head. "It's only happening because we're here. I think it only can happen because we're here. Let's move out. Let's move."

As they pushed between tables, the tiny tea lights in the centerpieces flashed like torches, belching a volcanic spew of smoke. Cal felt it in his throat, stinging, even as his foot crunched down on a fist-sized spider. On the little stage, the drummer swung into a wild solo with bloodied sticks. When they reached the doors, Cal glanced back.

He saw the boy floating above the dancers. Laughing.

"Straight out." Following Fox's line of thought, Cal pulled Quinn toward the exit. "Straight out of the building. Then we'll see. Then we'll damn well see."

"They didn't see." Out of breath, Layla stumbled outside. "Or feel. It wasn't happening for them."

"It's outside the box, okay, it's pushed outside the lines. But only for us." Fox stripped off his jacket and tossed it over Layla's shaking shoulders. "Giving us a preview of coming attractions. Arrogant bastard."

"Yes." Quinn nodded, even as her stomach rolled. "I think you're right, because every time it puts on a show, it costs energy. So we get that lull between production numbers."

"I have to go back." He'd left his family. Even if retreat was to defend, Cal couldn't stand and do nothing while his family was inside. "I need to be in there, need to close down when the event's over."

"We'll all go back," Quinn linked her cold fingers with Cal's. "These performances are always of pretty short duration. It lost its audience, and unless it's got enough for a second act, it's done for tonight. Let's go back. It's freezing out here."

Inside, the tea lights glimmered softly, and the hearts glittered. The polished dance floor was unstained. Cal saw his parents dancing, his mother's head resting on his father's shoulder. When she caught his eye and smiled at him, Cal felt the fist twisting in his belly relax.

"I don't know about you, but I'd really like another glass of champagne." Quinn blew out a breath, as her eyes went sharp and hard. "Then you know what? Let's dance."

F OX WAS SPRAWLED ON THE COUCH WATCHING some drowsy black-and-white movie on TV when Cal and Quinn came into the rental house after midnight. "Layla went up," he said as he shoved himself to sitting. "She was beat."

The subtext, that she'd wanted to be well tucked away before her housemate and Cal came up, was perfectly clear.

"Is she all right?" Quinn asked.

"Yeah. Yeah, she handles herself. Anything else happen after we left?"

Cal shook his head as his gaze tracked over to the window, and the dark. "Just a big, happy party momentarily interrupted for some of us by supernatural blood and spiders. Everything okay here?"

"Yeah, except for the fact these women buy Diet Pepsi. Classic Coke," he said to Quinn. "A guy has to have some standards."

"We'll look right into that. Thanks, Fox." She stepped up and kissed his cheek. "For hanging out until we got back."

"No big. It got me out of cleanup duty and let me watch…" He looked back at the little TV screen. "I have no idea. You ought to think about getting cable. ESPN."

"I don't know how I've lived without it these last few days."

He grinned as he pulled on his coat. "Humankind shouldn't live by network alone. Call me if you need anything," he added as he headed for the door.

"Fox." Cal trailed behind him. After a murmured conversation, Fox sent Quinn a quick wave and left.

"What was that?"

"I asked if he'd bunk at my place tonight, check on Lump. It's no problem. I've got Coke and ESPN."

"You've got worry all over you, Cal."

"I'm having a hard time taking it off."

"It can't hurt us, not yet. It's all head games. Mean, disgusting, but just psychological warfare."

"It means something, Quinn." He gave her arms a quick, almost absent rub before turning to check the dark, again. "That it can do it now, with us. That I had that episode with Ann. It means something."

"And you have to think about it. You think a lot, have all sorts of stores up here." She tapped her temple. "The fact that you do is, well, it's comforting to me and oddly attractive. But you know what? After this really long, strange day, it might be good for us not to think at all."

"That's a good idea." Take a break, he told himself. Take some normal. Walking back to her, he skimmed his fingers over her cheek, then let them trail down her arm until they linked with hers. "Why don't we try that?"

He drew her toward the steps, started up. There were a few homey creaks, the click and hum of the furnace, and nothing else.

"Do you-"

He cut her off by cupping a hand on her cheek, then laying his lips on hers. Soft and easy as a sigh. "No questions either. Then we'd have to think of the answers."

"Good point."

Just the room, the dark, the woman. That was all there would be, all he wanted for the night. Her scent, her skin, the fall of her hair, the sounds two people made when they discovered each other.

It was enough. It was more than enough.

He closed the door behind him.

"I like candles." She drew away to pick up a long, slim lighter to set the candles she'd scattered around the room to flame.

In their light she looked delicate, more delicate than she was. He enjoyed the contrast of reality and illusion. The mattress and box spring sat on the floor, covered by sheets that looked crisp and pearly against a blanket of deep, rich purple. His tulips sat like a cheerful carnival on the scarred wood of her flea market dresser.

She'd hung fabric in a blurry blend of colors over the windows to close out the night. And when she turned from them, she smiled.

It was, for him, perfect.

"Maybe I should tell you-"

He shook his head, stepped toward her.

"Later." He did the first thing that came to mind, lifting his hands to her hair. He drew the pins out, let them fall. When the weight of it tumbled free, over her shoulders, down her back, he combed his fingers through it. With his eyes on hers, he wrapped her hair around his fist like a rope, gave a tug.

"There's still a lot of later," he said, and took her mouth with his.

Her lips, for him, were perfect. Soft and full, warm and generous. He felt a quick tremble from her as her arms wound around him, as she pressed her body to his. She didn't yield, didn't soften-not yet. Instead she met his slow, patient assault with one of her own.

He slid the jacket from her shoulders, let it fall like the pins so his hands, his fingertips could explore silk and lace and flesh. While their lips brushed, rubbed, pressed, her hands came to his shoulders, then shoved at his jacket until it dropped away.

He tasted her throat, heard her purr of approval. As he eased back, he danced his fingers over the alluring line of her collarbone. Her eyes were vivid, alight with anticipation. He wanted to see them heavy. He wanted to see them go blind. Watching them, watching her, he let his fingers trail down to the swell of her breast where the lace flirted. And watching her still, glided them over the lace, over the silk to cup her while his thumb lightly rubbed, rubbed to tease her nipple.

He heard her breath catch, release, felt her shiver even as she reached to him to unbutton his shirt. Her hands slid up his torso, spread. He knew his heartbeat skipped, but his own hand made the journey almost lazily to the waistband of her pants. The flesh there was warm, and her muscles quivered as his fingers did a testing sweep. Then with a flick and a tug, her pants floated down her legs.

The move was so sudden, so unexpected, she couldn't anticipate or prepare. Everything had been so slow, so dreamy, then his hands hooked under her arms, lifted her straight off her feet. The quick, careless show of strength shocked her system, made her head swim. Even when he set her back down, her knees stayed weak.

His gaze skimmed down, over the camisole, over the frothy underwear she'd donned with the idea of making him crazy. His lips curved as his eyes came back to hers.

"Nice."

It was all he said, and her mouth went dry. It was ridiculous. She'd had other men look at her, touch her, want her. But he did, and her throat went dry. She tried to find something clever and careless to say back, but could barely find the wit to breathe.

Then he hooked his finger in the waist of her panties, gave one easy tug. She stepped toward him like a woman under a spell.

"Let's see what's under here," he murmured, and lifted the camisole over her head. "Very nice," was his comment as he traced his fingertip along the edge of her bra.

She couldn't remember her moves, had to remind herself she was good at this-actively good, not just the type who went limp and let a guy do all the work. She reached for the hook of his trousers, fumbled.

"You're shaking."

"Shut up. I feel like an idiot."

He took her hands, brought them both to his lips and she knew she was as sunk as the Titanic. "Sexy," he corrected. "What you are is stupendously sexy."

"Cal." She had to concentrate to form the words. "I really need to lie down."

There was that smile again, and though it might have transmitted self-satisfied male, she really didn't give a damn.

Then they were on the bed, aroused bodies on cool, crisp sheets, candlelight flickering like magic in the dark. And his hands, his mouth, went to work on her.

He runs a bowling alley, she thought as he simply saturated her with pleasure. How did he get hands like this? Where did he learn to…Oh my God.

She came in a long, rolling wave that seemed to curl up from her toes, ride over her legs, burst in her center then wash over heart and mind. She clung to it, greedily wringing every drop of shock and delight until she was both limp and breathless.

Okay, okay, was all her brain could manage. Okay, wow.

Her body was a feast of curves and quivers. He could have lingered over those lovely breasts, the strong line of torso, that feminine flare of hip for days. Then there were her legs, smooth and strong and…sensitive. So many places to touch, so much to taste, and all the endless night to savor.

She rose to him, wrapped around him, arched and flowed and answered. He felt her heart thundering under his lips, heard her moan as he used his tongue to torment. Her fingers dug into his shoulders, his hips, her hands squeezing then gliding to fray the taut line of his control.

Kisses became more urgent. The cool air of the room went hot, went thick as smoke. When the need became a blur, he slipped inside her. And yes, watched her eyes go blind.

He gripped her hands to anchor himself, to stop himself from simply plunging, from bulleting by the aching pleasure to release. Her fingers tightened on his, and that pleasure glowed on her face with each long, slow thrust. Stay with me, he thought, and she did, beat for beat. Until it built and built in her ragged breaths, in the shivering of her body. She made a helpless sound as she closed her eyes, turned her head on the pillow. When her body melted under him, he pressed his face to that exposed curve of her neck. And let himself go.

HE LAY QUIET, THINKING SHE MIGHT HAVE FALLEN asleep. She'd rolled so that her head was on his shoulder, her arm tossed across his chest, and her leg hooked around his. It was, he thought, a little like being tied up with a Quinn bow. And he couldn't find anything not to like about it.

"I was going to say something."

Not asleep, he realized, though her words were drunk and slurry.

"About what?"

"Mmm. I was going to say, when we first came into the room. I was going to say something." She curled closer, and he realized the heat sex had generated had ebbed, and she was cold.

"Hold on." He had to unwind her, to which she gave a couple of halfhearted mutters of protest. But when he pulled up the blanket, she snuggled right in. "Better?"

"Couldn't be any. I was going to say that I've been-more or less-thinking about getting you naked since I met you."

"That's funny. I've been more or less thinking the same about you. You've got an amazing body there, Quinn."

"Lifestyle change, for which I could now preach like an evangelist. However." She levered up so she could look down into his face. "Had I known what it would be like, I would've had you naked in five minutes flat."

He grinned. "Once again, our thoughts run on parallel lines. Do that thing again. No," he said with a laugh when her eyebrows wiggled. "This thing."

He tugged her head down again until it rested on his shoulder, then drew her arm over his chest. "And the leg. That's it," he said when she obliged. "That's perfect."

The fact that it was gave her a nice warm glow under her heart. Quinn closed her eyes, and without a worry in the world, drifted off to sleep.

IN THE DARK, SHE WOKE WHEN SOMETHING FELL on her. She managed a breathless squeal, shoved herself to sitting, balled her hands into fists.

"Sorry, sorry."

She recognized Cal's whisper, but it was too late to stop the punch. Her fist jabbed into something hard enough to sting her knuckles. "Ow! Ow! Shit."

"I'll say," Cal muttered.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Tripping, falling down, and getting punched in the head."

"Why?"

"Because it's pitch-dark." He shifted, rubbed his sore temple. "And I was trying not to wake you up, and you hit me. In the head."

"Well, I'm sorry," she hissed right back. "For all I knew you could've been a mad rapist, or more likely, given the location, a demon from hell. What are you doing milling around in the dark?"

"Trying to find my shoes, which I think is what I tripped over."

"You're leaving?"

"It's morning, and I've got a breakfast meeting in a couple hours."

"It's dark."

"It's February, and you've got those curtain deals over the windows. It's about six thirty."

"Oh God." She plopped back down. "Six thirty isn't morning, even in February. Or maybe especially."

"Which is why I was trying not to wake you up."

She shifted. She could make him out now, a little, as her eyes adjusted. "Well, I'm awake, so why are you still whispering?"

"I don't know. Maybe I have brain damage from getting punched in the head."

Something about the baffled irritation in his voice stirred her juices. "Aw. Why don't you crawl back in here with me where it's all nice and warm? I'll kiss it and make it better."

"That's a cruel thing to suggest when I have a breakfast meeting with the mayor, the town manager, and the town council."

"Sex and politics go together like peanut butter and jelly."

"That may be, but I've got to go home, feed Lump, drag Fox out of bed as he's in on this meeting. Shower, shave, and change so it doesn't look like I've been having hot sex."

As he dragged on his shoes, she roused herself to push up again, then slither around him. "You could do all that after."

Her breasts, warm and full, pressed against his back as she nibbled on the side of his throat. And her hand snuck down to where he'd already gone rock hard.

"You've got a mean streak, Blondie."

"Maybe you ought to teach me a lesson." She let out a choked laugh when he swiveled and grabbed her.

This time when he fell on her, it was on purpose.

HE WAS LATE FOR THE MEETING, BUT HE WAS feeling too damn good to care. He ordered an enormous breakfast-eggs, bacon, hash browns, two biscuits. He worked his way through it while Fox gulped down Coke as if it were the antidote to some rare and fatal poison in his bloodstream, and the others engaged in small talk.

Small talk edged into town business. It may have been February, but plans for the annual Memorial Day parade had to be finalized. Then there was the debate about installing new benches in the park. Most of it washed over Cal as he ate, as he thought about Quinn.

He tuned back in, primarily because Fox kicked him under the table.

"The Branson place is only a couple doors down from the Bowl-a-Rama," Mayor Watson continued. "Misty said it looked like the house on either side went dark, too, but across the street, the lights were on. Phones went out, too. Spooked her pretty good, she said when Wendy and I picked her up after the dance. Only lasted a few minutes."

"Maybe a breaker," Jim Hawkins suggested, but he looked at his son.

"Maybe, but Misty said it all flickered and snapped for a few seconds. Power surge maybe. But I think I'm going to urge Mike Branson to get his wiring checked out. Could be something's shorting out. We don't want an electrical fire."

How did they manage to forget? Cal wondered. Was it a defense mechanism, amnesia, or simply part of the whole ugly situation?

Not all of them. He could see the question, the concern in his father's eyes, in one or two of the others. But the mayor and most of the council were moving on to a discussion of painting the bleachers in the ballpark before Little League season began.

There had been other odd power surges, other strange power outages. But never until June, never before that final countdown to the Seven.

When the meeting was over, Fox walked to the bowling center with Cal and his father. They didn't speak until they were inside, and the door closed behind them.

"It's too early for this to happen," Jim said immediately. "It's more likely a power surge, or faulty wiring."

"It's not. Things have been happening already," Cal told him. "And it's not just Fox and I who've seen them. Not this time."

"Well." Jim sat down heavily at one of the tables in the grill section. "What can I do?"

Take care of yourself, Cal thought. Take care of Mom. But it would never be enough. "Anything feels off, you tell me. Tell Fox, or Gage when he gets here. There are more of us this time. Quinn and Layla, they're part of it. We need to figure out how and why."

His great-grandmother had known Quinn was connected, Cal thought. She'd sensed something. "I need to talk to Gran."

"Cal, she's ninety-seven. I don't care how spry she is, she's still ninety-seven."

"I'll be careful."

"You know, I'm going to talk to Mrs. H again." Fox shook his head. "She's jumpy, nervous. Making noises about leaving next month instead of April. I figured it was just restlessness now that she's decided to move. Maybe it's more."

"All right." Jim blew out a breath. "You two go do what you need to do. I'll handle things here. I know how to run the center," he said before Cal could protest. "Been doing it awhile now."

"Okay. I'll run Gran to the library if she wants to go today. I'll be back after, and we can switch off. You can pick her up, take her home."

CAL WALKED TO ESSIE'S HOUSE. SHE ONLY LIVED a block away in the pretty little house she shared with his cousin Ginger. Essie's concession to her age was to have Ginger live in, take care of the house, the grocery shopping, most of the cooking, and be her chauffeur for duties like doctor and dentist appointments.

Cal knew Ginger to be a sturdy, practical sort who stayed out of his gran's way-and her business-unless she needed to do otherwise. Ginger preferred TV to books, and lived for a trio of afternoon soaps. Her disastrous and childless marriage had turned her off men, except television beefcake or those within the covers of People magazine.

As far as Cal could tell, his gran and his cousin bumped along well enough in the little dollhouse with its trim front yard and cheerful blue porch.

When he arrived he didn't see Ginger's car at the curb, and wondered if his gran had an early medical appointment. His father kept Essie's schedule in his head, as he kept so much else, but he'd been upset that morning.

Still, it was more likely that Ginger had taken a run to the grocery store.

He crossed the porch and knocked. It didn't surprise him when the door opened. Even upset, his father rarely forgot anything.

But it did surprise him to see Quinn at the threshold.

"Hi. Come on in. Essie and I are just having some tea in the parlor."

He gripped her arm. "Why are you here?"

The greeting smile faded at the sharp tone. "I have a job to do. And Essie called me."

"Why?"

"Maybe if you come in instead of scowling at me, we'll both find out."

Seeing no other choice, Cal walked into his great-grandmother's lovely living room where African violets bloomed in purple profusion in the windows, where built-in shelves Fox's father had crafted were filled with books, family pictures, little bits and bobs of memories. Where the company tea set was laid out on the low table in front of the high-backed sofa his mother had reupholstered only the previous spring.

Where his beloved gran sat like a queen in her favored wingback chair. "Cal." She lifted her hand for his, and her cheek for his kiss. "I thought you'd be tied up all morning between the meeting and center business."

"Meeting's over, and Dad's at the center. I didn't see Ginger's car."

"She's off running some errands since I had company. Quinn's just pouring the tea. Go get yourself a cup out of the cupboard."

"No, thanks. I'm fine. Just had breakfast."

"I would've called you, too, if I'd realized you'd have time this morning."

"I've always got time for you, Gran."

"He's my boy," she said to Quinn, squeezing Cal's hand before she released it to take the tea Quinn offered. "Thank you. Please, sit down, both of you. I might as well get right to it. I need to ask you if there was an incident last night, during the dance. An incident just before ten."

She looked hard at Cal's face as she asked, and what she saw had her closing her eyes. "So there was." Her thin voice quivered. "I don't know whether to be relieved or afraid. Relieved because I thought I might be losing my mind. Afraid because I'm not. It was real then," she said quietly. "What I saw."

"What did you see?"

"It was as if I were behind a curtain. As if a curtain had dropped, or a shroud, and I had to look through it. I thought it was blood, but no one seemed to notice. No one noticed all the blood, or the things that crawled and clattered over the floor, over the tables." Her hand lifted to rub at her throat. "I couldn't see clearly, but I saw a shape, a black shape. It seemed to float in the air on the other side of the curtain. I thought it was death."

She smiled a little as she lifted her tea with a steady hand. "You prepare for death at my age, or you damn well should. But I was afraid of that shape. Then it was gone, the curtain lifted again, and everything was exactly as it should be."

"Gran-"

"Why didn't I tell you last night?" she interrupted. "I can read your face like a book, Caleb. Pride, fear. I simply wanted to get out, to be home, and your father drove me. I needed to sleep, and I did. This morning, I needed to know if it was true."

"Mrs. Hawkins-"

"You'll call me Essie now," she said to Quinn.

"Essie, have you ever had an experience like this before?"

"Yes. I didn't tell you," she said when Cal cursed. "Or anyone. It was the summer you were ten. That first summer. I saw terrible things outside the house, things that couldn't be. That black shape that was sometimes a man, sometimes a dog. Or a hideous combination of both. Your grandfather didn't see, or wouldn't. I always thought he simply wouldn't see. There were horrible things that week."

She closed her eyes a moment, then took another soothing sip of tea. "Neighbors, friends. Things they did to themselves and each other. After the second night, you came to the door. Do you remember, Cal?"

"Yes, ma'am, I remember."

"Ten years old." She smiled at Quinn. "He was only a little boy, with his two young friends. They were so afraid. You could see and feel the fear and the, valor, I want to say, coming off them like light. You told me we had to pack up, your grandfather and I. We had to come stay at your house. That it wasn't safe in town. Didn't you ever wonder why I didn't argue, or pat you on the head and shoo you on home?"

"No. I guess there was too much else going on. I just wanted you and Pop safe."

"And every seven years, I packed for your grandfather and me, then when he died, just for me, now this year it'll be Ginger and me. But it's coming sooner and stronger this time."

"I'll pack for you, Gran, for you and Ginger right now."

"Oh, I think we're safe enough for now," she said to Cal. "When it's time, Ginger and I can put what we'll need together. I want you to take the books. I know I've read them, you've read them. It seems countless times. But we've missed something, somehow. And now, we have fresh eyes."

Quinn turned toward Cal, narrowed her eyes. "Books?"

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