A faint chime tugged me out of sleep. I opened my eyes and blinked. I’d dreamt of a desert, a vast endless sea of shifting yellow sand under a white sun. I had wandered through it, ankle-deep and barefoot, feeling the grains of sand slide under my toes with each sinking step, trying to find something or someone. I had looked for hours, but found only more sand. The soothing ceiling of my dark bedroom was too much of a shock after the sunlit dunes, and for a confusing moment, I didn’t know where I was.
Magic chimed in my head again, brushing against my senses, feather-light and quick, but insistent. Someone had skimmed the boundary of the inn.
I swung my feet to the wooden floor, picked up my broom, and went down the shadowy hallway. Beast, my tiny Shih Tzu, darted from under the bed and trailed me, ready to attack unknown invaders. It was five days before Christmas, and I wasn’t expecting guests, especially not at two o’clock in the morning. But then, of course, when Gertrude Hunt Bed and Breakfast did receive guests, they were never the usual kind and they rarely announced themselves.
The hallway ended in a door. I swiped the knitted cardigan hanging on the hook to the right of the door, wrapped myself in it, and slid my feet into a pair of slippers. This December started with a flood and then turned unseasonably cold. At night, the temperature got down into the low thirties, which in Texas terms meant the apocalypse had to be nigh. Going outside was like stepping into a freezer, while the inside of the inn was warm and toasty, so I bundled up when I went out, then shed sweatshirts and cardigans at random doorways when I came back in.
The door swung open in front of me and I stepped out onto the balcony.
The cold air hit me. Wow.
The moon shone brightly, spilling silver light through the gauzy shreds of night clouds. My apple orchard stretched to the left. Directly in front of me a huge old oak tree spread its branches over the lawn, limbs nearly touching the balcony. To the right, Park Street ran parallel to the inn. Exactly opposite Gertrude Hunt, Camelot Road shot off Park Street, leading deep into the Avalon subdivision, filled with the usual two-story Texas houses with old trees on the trimmed lawns and dark vehicles parked in the driveways.
All was quiet.
I probed the night with my senses. The inn and I were bound so tightly that I could feel every inch of the grounds, if I chose. The intruder had touched the boundary but hadn’t entered, and now he or she hid.
I waited, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. My breath made tiny clouds that melted into the night.
Someone was out there, watching me. I could feel the weight of their gaze. Shivers of fear or cold ran down my spine. Probably both.
“I know you’re there. Come out.”
I peered into the night, scrutinizing the familiar landscape. The row of hedges separating Park Street from my lawn appeared undisturbed. No strange footprints crossed the lawn. Nothing hid in the oak tree, nothing rustled the bushes behind it, nothing troubled the cedar twenty feet behind the bushes…
Two amber eyes stared at me from the shadows under the cedar. I almost jumped.
“Sean!” He nearly gave me a heart attack.
Sean Evans didn’t move, a darker shadow in the deep night. Several months ago, we’d met just like this, except that time he was marking his territory on my apple trees. Now he just waited, silent, respecting the boundaries of the inn.
“Come closer,” I called, keeping my voice low. No need to wake up the entire neighborhood. “I don’t want to shout.”
He moved, a blur, ran up to the oak, leapt, bounced, and landed on the branch near the balcony. Déjà vu.
Beast woofed once, quietly, just to let him know she was there in case he decided to try anything.
“Is something wrong?”
I scrutinized his face. When Sean first moved into the Avalon subdivision, he’d caused a mild epidemic of swooning. If someone looked up “ex-military badass” in the dictionary, they would find his picture. He was closing on thirty, with a handsome face he kept clean-shaven, russet-brown hair cut short, and an athletic, powerful body. He was strong and fast, and crossing him was a dumb idea. He was also a werewolf without a planet, something the overwhelming majority of people on Earth had no idea existed. Several months ago, while Sean helped me defend the Avalon subdivision from an interstellar assassin, he’d learned about his origins and then left to find himself. He ended up being trapped in an interstellar war in a place called Nexus, and it took all my resources to break him free of it.
The war took a toll. A long scar now marked his face. The pre-Nexus Sean had been arrogant and aggressive. This new Sean was quiet and patient, and if you peered into his clear amber eyes, you would find a steel hardness. Sometimes you would see nothing at all, as if you were gazing into the eyes of a tiger. No hunger, no rage, just an inscrutable watchfulness. Sean and I had gone to the movies three nights ago, and a drunk guy tried to pick a fight with us outside the theater after the show. Sean looked at him, and whatever that man saw in Sean’s eyes must’ve cut right through the alcohol haze, because the drunk turned around without a word and walked away.
I could handle the arrogance and the anger, but that watchful nothing alarmed me. He hid it well enough. I saw him have conversations with people around the neighborhood, and none of them ran away screaming. But the nothing was still there. He didn’t say more than two words to me through the whole evening. With his other neighbors, he took pains to pretend to be normal, but I knew exactly what he went through. With me he was himself, and that Sean held the door open for me, offered me his jacket when he thought I was cold, and put himself between me and the drunk, but he wasn’t talking. Whatever he had lived through on Nexus had pushed him outside the normal human life and I wasn’t sure I could pull him back into the light.