Sherry was muttering to herself as she worked. She hated doing taxes. She hated paying them even more.
Snorting with disgust as she calculated the amount of money she’d have to pay this quarter, she saved the program and was about to shut off the computer when her office door burst open. Grumpy after her task, Sherry raised her head, ready to rip into the employee who had barged in without knocking. But, instead, the words caught in her throat and her eyes widened with surprise as she stared at the petite blond teenager who rushed in and slammed the door closed.
The kid didn’t give her more than a passing glance as her gaze slid around the room to find the window overlooking the store. The office was eight steps up from the main floor, so it allowed for an eagle’s view of everything. On spotting the window, the kid immediately dropped into a crouch, and then moved to it to poke her head up and peer anxiously out over the store floor.
Sherry’s eyebrows rose at the action, and she announced, “It’s a one-way mirror. No one in the store can see you.”
The girl glanced around and frowned at her. “Shhh.”
“Excuse me?” Sherry said with a half laugh of disbelief at the sheer gall of the girl. Expression turning serious, she said grimly, “This is my office, kiddo. I suggest you explain your reason for being here, or get out.”
Rather than put the kid in her place, the words merely drew a full-on scowl from her as she turned and then concentrated a pair of the most amazing eyes on Sherry. They were a strange silver-green and seemed almost to glow with intensity.
Caught by those beautiful and unusual eyes, Sherry allowed her to stare briefly, mostly because she was staring back, but then she arched her eyebrows. “Well? Are you just going to crouch there and gawk at me or explain yourself?”
Instead of answering, the girl frowned and asked, “Why can’t I read you?”
A short disbelieving laugh slipped from Sherry, but when the girl simply stared at her with bewilderment, she said reasonably, “Maybe because I’m not a book.”
That got no reaction from the girl. She still continued to stare at her, looking almost vexed. Tired of thinking of her as “the girl,” Sherry asked abruptly, “What’s your name?”
“Stephanie,” the girl replied almost absently, eyeing her now as if she were a bug under a microscope. That examination ended abruptly when a chime sounded from the speaker in the corner of Sherry’s office. It announced that the front door of the store had been opened. Seeming to realize that, Stephanie whirled to peer out at the store again, and quickly dropped back to her haunches so that only the top of her head poked up over the bottom of the window ledge.
“I told you it’s one-way,” Sherry said with exasperation. “They can’t see—”
“Shhh,” Stephanie hissed without glancing around, simply raising a hand in her direction, palm up, demanding silence.
Despite herself, Sherry obeyed the silent order. There was just something about the girl, a sudden stillness and tension that had been present before, but now intensified. It made Sherry frown and glance past her to the store beyond the one-way mirror as four men walked into the shop.
Using the word “walked” was somewhat misleading. It was too normal, and had they just walked in she would have simply taken note of their entrance and then turned her attention back to the teenager in her office. But there was nothing normal about these men.
All four of the newcomers looked to be in their mid-twenties. They also all had longish, dirty blond hair. One wore it in a ponytail, another actually had it up in a bun, and a third man had gelled it into long pointy spokes that poked out of his head like a hedgehog. But the leader, or at least the man in the lead, had a full, matted mane that made her think of a lion.
Sensing trouble, Sherry watched the men. They each wore jeans that could have used a run through a washing machine. Their T-shirts weren’t much better, and they didn’t walk in so much as stalk in. There was just something predatory about them, an air that made her feel like a gazelle on the planes of the Serengeti and grateful they were on the other side of the mirror.
Unaware that she had stood and was slowly moving to the girl’s side, Sherry watched with trepidation as the lead man raised his head and took a long, deep sniff of the air, scenting it like the predator he made her think of. He then nodded, lowered his head and glanced around to ask, “Where is the girl?”
Not surprisingly, the half a dozen customers in the store continued perusing the kitchenware they’d come in for, probably not even aware that he was addressing them or to what girl he was referring. Sherry doubted anyone but her employees had even noted the girl’s entrance, and busy with customers as they were, even they may not have.
When nobody paid him any attention, the lead man scowled and cast a glance back toward his men. The last man, the one that resembled a hedgehog, still stood in the open store door. Now he entered fully and slammed it, sending the bells ringing madly. When the chimes fell silent, so was the shop. Every eye in the place was now on the foursome, and the air seemed charged with a sudden wariness that Sherry was not only aware of, but was experiencing herself.
“Thank you for your attention,” the leader said pleasantly, moving forward again. After half a dozen steps, he paused again, this time in front of one of her employees who had been helping a young woman who had a little girl clutching at her skirt.
Sherry sucked in a breath when the man’s hand suddenly shot out to the side and snatched the mother by the front of her sweater. He wasn’t even looking at her as he grabbed and jerked her forward. Only then did he turn his head toward her, his nose almost brushing hers as he demanded, “Where is the—”
Sherry found herself tensing further when he paused suddenly mid-question. She bit her lip, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as he inhaled again, more deeply this time. Sherry didn’t know why, but the action made her anxious for the woman, especially when he gave a pleasant little shiver as he released his breath at the end.
“You’re pregnant,” he announced, a smile growing on his lips. Dipping his head, he ran his nose along the woman’s throat, inhaling deeply again. He then released a happy sounding little sigh and announced, “I love pregnant women almost as much as untreated diabetics. All those hormones pumping through the blood . . .” He pulled back to look her in the face as he said, “It’s a powerful cocktail.”