IT HAD TO BE IMPORTANT. IT HAD TO MATTER. Cal rolled it over and over and over, carving time out of his workday and his off time to research the Hawkins-Black lineage himself. Here was something new, he thought, some door they hadn't known existed, much less tried to break down.
He told himself it was vital, and time-consuming work, and that was why he and Quinn hadn't managed to really connect for the last couple of days. He was busy; she was busy. Couldn't be helped.
Besides, it was probably a good time for them to have this break from each other. Let things just simmer down a little. As he'd told his mother, this wasn't the time to get serious, to think about falling in love. Because big, life-altering things were supposed to happen after people fell seriously in love. And he had enough, big, life-altering things to worry about.
He dumped food in Lump's bowl as his dog waited for breakfast with his usual unruffled patience. Because it was Thursday, he'd tossed a load of laundry in the washer when he'd let Lump out for his morning plod and pee. He continued his habitual weekday morning routine, nursing his first cup of coffee while he got out a box of Chex.
But when he reached for the milk it made him think of Quinn. Two percent milk, he thought with a shake of his head. Maybe she was fixing her version of a bowl of cereal right now. Maybe she was standing in her kitchen with the smell of coffee in the air, thinking of him.
Because the idea of that held such appeal, he reached for the phone to call her, when he heard the sound behind him and turned.
Gage got the coffee mug out of the cupboard he opened. "Jumpy."
"No. I didn't hear you come in."
"You were mooning over a woman."
"I have a lot of things on my mind."
"Especially the woman. You've got tells, Hawkins. Starting with the wistful, cocker spaniel eyes."
"Up yours, Turner."
Gage merely grinned and poured coffee. "Then there's that fish hook in the corner of your mouth." He hooked his finger in his own, gave a tug. "Unmistakable."
"You're jealous because you're not getting laid regular."
"No question about that." Gage sipped his black coffee, used one bare foot to rub Lump's flank as the dog concentrated his entire being on his kibble. "She's not your usual type."
"Oh?" Irritation crawled up Cal's back like a lizard. "What's my usual type?"
"Pretty much same as mine. Keep it light, no deep thinking, no strings, no worries. Who could blame us, considering?" He picked up the cereal, dug right into the box. "But she breaks your mold. She's smart, she's steady, and she's got a big, fat ball of string in her back pocket. She's already started wrapping you in it."
"Does that cynicism you carry around everywhere ever get heavy?"
"Realism," Gage corrected as he munched on cereal. "And it keeps me light on my feet. I like her."
"I do, too." Cal forgot the milk and just took a handful of cereal out of the bowl he'd poured. "She...she told me she's in love with me."
"Fast work. And now she's suddenly pretty damn busy, and you're sleeping alone, pal. I said she was smart."
"Jesus, Gage." Insult bloomed on two stalks-one for himself, one for Quinn. "She's not like that. She doesn't use people like that."
"And you know this because you know her so well."
"I do." Any sign of irritation faded as that simple truth struck home. "That's just it. I do know her. There may be dozens, hell, hundreds of things I don't know, but I know who-how-she is. I don't know if some of that's because of this connection, because of what we're all tied to, but I know it's true. The first time I met her, things changed. I don't know. Something changed for me. So you can make cracks, but that's the way it is."
"I'm going to say you're lucky," Gage said after a moment. "That I hope it works out the way you want. I never figured any of us had a decent shot at normal." He shrugged. "Wouldn't mind being wrong. Besides, you look real cute with that hook in your mouth."
Cal lifted his middle finger off the bowl and into the air.
"Right back atcha," Fox said as he strolled in. He went straight to the refrigerator for a Coke. "What's up?"
"What's up is you're mooching my Cokes again, and you never bring any to replace them."
"I brought beer last week. Besides, Gage told me to come over this morning, and when I come over in the morning, I expect a damn Coke."
"You told him to come over?"
"Yeah. So, O'Dell, Cal's in love with the blonde."
"I didn't say I-"
"Tell me something I don't know." Fox popped the top on the can of Coke and gulped.
"I never said I was in love with anyone."
Fox merely shifted his gaze to Cal. "I've known you my whole life. I know what those shiny little hearts in your eyes mean. It's cool. She was, like, made for you."
"He says she's not my usual type, you say she's made for me."
"We're both right. She's not the type you usually fish for." Fox gulped down more soda, then took the box of cereal from Gage. "Because you didn't want to find the one who fit. She fits, but she was sort of a surprise. Practically an ambush. Did I get up an hour early to come over here before work so we could talk about Cal's love life?"
"No, it was just an interesting sidebar. I got some information when I was in the Czech Republic. Rumors, lore, mostly, which I followed up when I had time. I got a call from an expert last night, which is why I told you to come over this morning. I might have ID'd our Big Evil Bastard."
They sat down at the kitchen table with coffee and dry cereal-Fox in one of his lawyer suits, Gage in a black T-shirt and loose pants, Cal in jeans and a flannel shirt.
And spoke of demons.
"I toured some of the smaller and outlying villages," Gage began. "I always figure I might as well pick up some local color, maybe a local skirt while I'm stacking up poker chips and markers."
He'd been doing the same for years, Cal knew. Following any whiff of information about devils, demons, unexplained phenomenon. He always came back with stories, but nothing that had ever fit the, well, the profile, Cal supposed, of their particular problem.
"There was talk about this old demon who could take other forms. You get werewolf stuff over there, and initially, I figured that was this deal. But this wasn't about biting throats out and silver bullets. The talk was about how this thing hunted humans to enslave them, and feed off their...the translation was kind of vague, and the best I got was essence, or humanity."
"That's vague, too-or colorful as lore tends to be. Not on flesh and bone, not with fang and claw-that kind of thing. The legend is this demon, or creature, could take people's minds as well as their souls, and cause them to go mad, cause them to kill."
"Could be the root of ours," Fox decided.
"It rang close enough that I followed it up. It was a lot to wade through; that area's ripe with stories like this. But in this place in the hills, with this thick forest that reminded me of home, I hit something. Its name is Tmavy. Translates to Dark. The Dark."
He thought, they all thought of what had come out of the ground at the Pagan Stone. "It came like a man who wasn't a man, hunted like a wolf that wasn't a wolf. And sometimes it was a boy, a boy who lured women and children in particular into the forest. Most never came back, and those who did were mad. The families of those who did went mad, too. Killed each other, or themselves, their neighbors."
Gage paused, rose to get the coffeepot. "I got some of this when I was there, but I found a priest who gave me the name of a guy, a professor, who studied and publishes on Eastern European demonology. He got in touch last night. He claims this particular demon-and he isn't afraid to use the word-roamed Europe for centuries. He, in turn, was hunted by a man-some say another demon, or a wizard, or just a man with a mission. Legend has it that they battled in the forest, and the wizard was mortally wounded, left for dead. And that, according to Professor Linz, was its mistake. Someone came, a young boy, and the wizard passed the boy his power before he died."
"What happened?" Fox demanded.
"No one, including Linz, is sure. The stories claim the thing vanished, or moved on, or died, somewhere in the early-to mid-seventeenth century."
"When he hopped a goddamn boat for the New World," Cal added.
"Maybe. That may be."
"So did the boy," Cal continued, "or the man he'd become, or his descendent. But he nearly had him over there, nearly did at some point in time-that's something I've seen. I think. Him and the woman, a cabin. Him holding a bloody sword, and knowing nearly all were dead. He couldn't stop it there, so he passed what he had to Dent, and Dent tried again. Here."
"What did he pass to us?" Fox demanded. "What power? Not getting a freaking head cold, having a broken arm knit itself? What good does that do?"
"Keeps us healthy and whole when we face it down. And there's the glimmers I see, that we all see in different ways." Cal shoved at his hair. "I don't know. But it has to be something that matters. The three parts of the stone. They have to be. We've just never figured it out."
"And time's almost up."
Cal nodded at Gage. "We need to show the stones to the others. We took an oath, we all have to agree to that. If we hadn't, I'd have-"
"Shown yours to Quinn already," Fox finished. "And yeah, maybe you're right. It's worth a shot. It could be it needs all six of us to put it back together."
"Or it could be that when whatever happened at the Pagan Stone happened, the bloodstone split because its power was damaged. Destroyed."
"Your glass is always half empty, Turner," Fox commented. "Either way, it's worth the try. Agreed?"
"Agreed." Cal looked at Gage, who shrugged.
"What the hell."
CAL DEBATED WITH HIMSELF ALL THE WAY INTO town. He didn't need an excuse to stop by to see Quinn. For God's sake, they were sleeping together. It wasn't as if he needed an appointment or clearance or a specific reason to knock on her door, to see how she was doing. To ask what the hell was going on.
There was no question she'd been distracted every time he'd managed to reach her by phone the last couple of days. She hadn't dropped into the center since they'd rolled around his office floor.
And she'd told him she was in love with him.
That was the problem. The oil on the water, the sand in the shoe, or whatever goddamn analogy made the most sense. She'd told him she loved him, he hadn't said "me, too," which she claimed she didn't expect. But any guy who actually believed a woman always meant exactly what she said was deep in dangerous delusion.
Now, she was avoiding him.
They didn't have time for games, for bruised feelings and sulks. There were more important things at stake. Which, he was forced to admit, was why he shouldn't have touched her in the first place. By adding sex to the mix, they'd clouded and complicated the issue, and the issue was already clouded and complicated enough. They had to be practical; they had to be smart. Objective, he added as he pulled up in front of the rental house. Cold-blooded, clear-minded.
Nobody was any of those things when they were having sex. Not if they were having really good sex.
He jammed his hands in his pockets as he walked up to her door, then dragged one out to knock. The fact that he'd worked himself up to a mad might not have been objective or practical, but it felt absolutely right.
Until she opened the door.
Her hair was damp. She'd pulled it back from her face in a sleek tail, and he could see it wasn't quite dry. He could smell the girly shampoo and soap, and the scents wound their way into him until the muscle in his gut tightened in response.
She wore fuzzy purple socks, black flannel pants, and a hot pink sweatshirt that announced: T.G.I.F. THANK GOD I'M FEMALE.
He could add his own thanks.
The idea she was sulking was hard to hang on to when he was blasted by her sunbeam smile and buzzing energy.
"I was just thinking about you. Come inside. Jesus, it's cold. I've so had it with winter. I was about to treat myself to a low-fat mug of hot chocolate. Want in on that?"
"Ah-I really don't."
"Well, come on back, because I've got the yen." She rose up on her toes to give him a long, solid kiss, then grabbed his hand to pull him back to the kitchen. "I nagged Cyb and Layla into going to the gym with me this morning. Took some doing with Cyb, but I figured safety in numbers. Nothing weird happened, unless you count watching Cyb twist herself into some advanced yoga positions. Which Matt did, let me tell you. Things have been quiet in the otherworldly sense the last couple days."
She got out a packet of powdered mix, slapped it against her hand a couple of times to settle it before ripping it open to pour it into a mug. "Sure you don't want some?"
"Yeah, go ahead."
"We've been a busy hive around here," she went on as she filled the mug, half with water, half with two percent milk. "I'm waiting to hear something about the family Bible, or whatever else my grandmother might dig up. Today, maybe, hopefully by tomorrow. Meanwhile, we've got charts of family trees as we know them, and Layla's trying to shake some ancestry out of her relatives."
She stirred up the liquid and mix, stuck it in the microwave. "I had to leave a lot of the research up to my partners in crime and finish an article for the magazine. Gotta pay the doorman, after all. So?" She turned back as the microwave hummed. "How about you?"
"I missed you." He hadn't planned to say it, certainly hadn't expected it to be the first thing out of his mouth. Then he realized, it was obviously the first thing on his mind.
Her eyes went soft; that sexy mouth curved up. "That's nice to hear. I missed you, too, especially last night when I crawled into bed about one in the morning. My cold, empty bed."
"I didn't just mean the sex, Quinn." And where had that come from?
"Neither did I." She angled her head, ignoring the beep of the microwave. "I missed having you around at the end of the day, when I could finally come down from having to hammer out that article, when I wanted to stop thinking about what I had to do, and what was going to happen. You're irritated about something. Why don't you tell me what it is?"
She turned toward the microwave as she spoke to get her mug out. Cal saw immediately she'd made the move as Cybil was stepping through the kitchen doorway. Quinn merely shook her head, and Cybil stepped back and retreated without a word.
"I don't know, exactly." He pulled off his coat now, tossed it over one of the chairs around a little cafe table that hadn't been there on his last visit. "I guess I thought, after the other day, after...what you said-"
"I said I was in love with you. That makes you quiver inside," she noted. "Men."
"I didn't start avoiding you."
"You think-" She took a deep inhale through her nose, exhaled in a huff. "Well, you have a really high opinion of yourself, and a crappy one of me."
"No, it's just-"
"I had things to do, I had work. I am not at your beck any more than you're at mine."
"That's not what I meant."
"You think I'd play games like that? Especially now?"
"Especially now's the point. This isn't the time for big personal issues."
"If not now, when?" she demanded. "Do you really, do you honestly think we can label and file all our personal business and close it in a drawer until it's convenient? I like things in their place, too. I want to know where things are, so I put them where I want or need them to be. But feelings and thoughts are different from the goddamn car keys, Cal."
"No argument, but-"
"And my feelings and thoughts are as cluttered and messy as Grandma's attic," she snapped out, far from winding down. "That's just the way I like it. If things were normal every day, bopping right along, I probably wouldn't have told you. Do you think this is my first cannonball into the Dating and Relationship Pool? I was engaged, for God's sake. I told you because-because I think, maybe especially now, that feelings are what matter most. If that screws you up, too damn bad."
"I wish you'd shut up for five damn minutes."
Her eyes went to slits. "Oh, really?"
"Yeah. The fact is I don't know how to react to all of this, because I never let myself consider being in this position. How could I, with this hanging over my head? Can't risk falling for someone. How much could I tell her? How much is too much? We're-Fox and Gage and I-we're used to holding back, to keeping big pieces of this to ourselves."
"That's right," he said equably. "That's exactly right. Because it's safer that way. How could I ever think about falling in love, getting married, having kids? Bringing a kid into this nightmare's out of the question."
Those slitted blue eyes went cold as winter. "I don't believe I've yet expressed the wish to bear your young."
"Remember who you're talking to," he said quietly. "You take this situation out of the equation you've got a normal guy from a normal family. The kind who gets married, raises a family, has a mortgage and a big sloppy dog. If I let myself fall in love with a woman, that's how it's going to work."
"I guess you told me."
"And it's irresponsible to even consider any of that."
"We disagree. I happen to think considering that, moving toward that, is shooting the bird at the dark. In the end, we're each entitled to our own take on it. But understand me, get this crystal, telling you I love you didn't mean I expected you to pop a ring on my finger."
"Because you've been there."
She nodded. "Yes, I have. And you're wondering about that."
"None of my business." Screw it. "Yes."
"Okay, it's simple enough. I was seeing Dirk-"
"Shut up." But her lips twitched. "I was seeing him exclusively for about six months. We enjoyed each other. I thought I was ready for the next stage in my life, so I said yes when he asked me to marry him. We were engaged for two months when I realized I'd made a mistake. I didn't love him. Liked him just fine. He didn't love me, either. He didn't really get me-not the whole of me, which was why he figured the ring on my finger meant he could begin to advise me on my work, on my wardrobe, habits, and career options. There were a lot of little things, and they're not really important. The fact was we weren't going to make it work, so I broke it off."
She blew out another breath because it wasn't pleasant to remember she'd made that big a mistake. That she'd failed at something she knew she'd be good at. "He was more annoyed than brokenhearted, which told me I'd done the right thing. And the truth is, it stung to know I'd done the right thing, because it meant I'd done the wrong thing first. When I suggested he tell his friends he'd been the one to end it, he felt better about it. I gave him back the ring, we each boxed up things we'd kept in each other's apartments, and we walked away."
"He didn't hurt you."
"Oh, Cal." She took a step closer so she could touch his face. "No, he didn't. The situation hurt me, but he didn't. Which is only one of the reasons I knew he wasn't the one. If you want me to reassure you that you can't, that you won't break my heart, I just can't do it. Because you can, you might, and that's how I know you are. The one." She slipped her arms around him, laid her lips on his. "That must be scary for you."
"Terrifying." He pulled her against him, held her hard. "I've never had another woman in my life who's given me as many bad moments as you."
"I'm delighted to hear it."
"I thought you would be." He laid his cheek on top of her head. "I'd like to stay here, just like this, for an hour or two." He replaced his cheek with his lips, then eased back. "But I've things I have to do, and so do you. Which I knew before I walked in here and used it as an excuse to pick a fight."
"I don't mind a fight. Not when the air's clear afterward."
He framed her face with his hands, kissed her softly. "Your hot chocolate's getting cold."
"Chocolate's never the wrong temperature."
"The one thing I said before? Absolute truth. I missed you."
"I believe I can arrange some free time in my busy schedule."
"I have to work tonight. Maybe you could stop in. I'll give you another bowling lesson."
"Quinn, we-all of us-have to talk. About a lot of things. As soon as we can."
"Yes, we do. One thing before you go. Is Fox going to offer Layla a job?"
"I said something to him." Cal swore under his breath at her expression. "I'll give him another push on it."
Alone, Quinn picked up her mug, thoughtfully sipped at her lukewarm chocolate. Men, she thought, were such interesting beings.
Cybil came in. "All clear?"
"No problem." She opened a cupboard and chose a small tin of loose jasmine tea from her supply. "Discuss or mind my own?"
"Discuss. He was worked up because I told him I love him."
"Annoyed or panicked?"
"Some of both, I think. More worried because we've all got scary things to deal with, and this is another kind of scary thing."
"The scariest, when you come down to it." Cybil filled the teakettle with water. "How are you handling it?"
"It feels...great," she decided. "Energizing and bouncy and bright, then sort of rich and glimmering. You know, with Dirk it was all..." Quinn held out a hand, drawing it level through the air. "This was-" She shot her hand up, down, then up again. "Here's a thing. When he's telling me why this is crazy, he says how he's never been in a position-or so he thinks-to let himself think about love, marriage, family."
"Whoa, point A to Z in ten words or less."
"Exactly." Quinn gestured with her mug. "And he was rolling too fast to see that the M word gave me a serious jolt. I practically just jumped off that path, and whoops, there it is again, under my feet."
"Hence the jolt." Cybil measured out her tea. "But I don't see you jumping off."
"Because you know me. I like where my feet are, as it turns out. I like the idea of heading down that path with Cal, toward wherever it ends up. He's in trouble now," she murmured and took another sip.
"So are you, Q. But then trouble's always looked good on you."
"Better than a makeover at the Mac counter at Saks." Quinn answered the kitchen phone on its first ring. "Hello. Hello, Essie. Oh. Really? No, it's great. It's perfect. Thanks so much. I absolutely will. Thanks again. Bye." She hung up, grinned. "Essie Hawkins got us into the community center. No business there today on the main level. We can go in, poke around to our hearts' content."
"Won't that be fun?" Cybil said it dryly as she poured boiling water for her tea.
ARMED WITH THE KEY, CYBIL OPENED THE MAIN door of the old library. "We're here, on the surface, for research. One of the oldest buildings in town, home of the Hawkins family. But..." She switched on the lights. "Primarily we're looking for hidey-holes. A hiding place that was overlooked."
"For three and a half centuries," Cybil commented.
"If something's overlooked for five minutes, it can be overlooked forever." Quinn pursed her lips as she looked around. "They modernized it, so to speak, when they turned it into a library, but when they built the new one, they stripped out some of the newfangled details. It's not the way it was, but it's closer."
There were some tables and chairs set up, and someone had made an attempt at some old-timey decor in the antique old lamps, old pottery, and wood carvings on shelves. Quinn had been told groups like the Historical Society or the Garden Club could hold meetings or functions here. At election times it was a voting center.
"Stone fireplace," she said. "See, that's an excellent place to hide something." After crossing to it, she began to poke at the stones. "Plus there's an attic. Essie said they used it for storage. Still do. They keep the folding tables and chairs up there, and that kind of thing. Attics are treasure troves."
"Why is it buildings like this are so cold and creepy when no one's in them?" Layla wondered.
"We're in this one. Let's start at the top," Quinn suggested, "work our way down."
"ATTICS ARE TREASURE TROVES," CYBIL SAID twenty minutes later, "of dust and spiders."
"It's not that bad." Quinn crawled along, hoping for a loose floorboard.
"Not that good either." Courageously, Layla stood on a folding chair, checking rafters. "I don't understand why people don't think storage spaces shouldn't be cleaned as regularly as anyplace else."
"It was clean once. She kept it clean."
"Who-" Layla began, but Cybil waved a hand at her, frowned at Quinn.
"Ann and her boys. She brought them home, and shared the attic with them. Her three sons. Until they were old enough to have a room downstairs. But she stayed here. She wanted to be high, to be able to look out of her window. Even though she knew he wouldn't come, she wanted to look out for him. She was happy here, happy enough. And when she died here, she was ready to go."
Abruptly, Quinn sat back on her heels. "Holy shit, was that me?"
Cybil crouched down to study Quinn's face. "You tell us."
"I guess it was." She pressed her fingers to her forehead. "Damn, got one of those I-drank-my-frozen-margarita-too-fast-and-now-have-an-ice pick-through-my-brain headaches. I saw it, her, them, in my head. Just as clear. Everything moving, like a time-action camera. Years in seconds. But more, I felt it. That's the way it is for you, isn't it-going the other way?"
"Often," Cybil agreed.
"I saw her writing in her journal, and washing her sons' faces. I saw her laughing, or weeping. I saw her standing at the window looking into the dark. I felt..." Quinn laid a hand on her heart. "I felt her longing. It was...brutal."
"You don't look well." Layla touched her shoulder. "We should go downstairs, get you some water."
"Probably. Yeah." She took the hand Layla offered to help her up. "Maybe I should try it again. Try to bring it back, get more."
"You're awfully pale," Layla told her. "And, honey, your hand's like ice."
"Plenty for one day," Cybil agreed. "You don't want to push it."
"I didn't see where she put the journals. If she put anything here, I didn't see."