Stop. Cooper stopped moving and waited for Carson to speak again. To your left is a young woman. I want you to stick close to her for a bit. She’s in danger, and you have to save her. Sure. And while I’m at this and she calls the police, will you bail me out of jail? I’m sure that she’ll be thrilled to death to have a big hulking man standing close to her. Carson didn’t seem all that amused at him, and he could almost taste her anger. I’m sorry— Look. I didn’t ask for this shit. The least you can do is— When she stopped talking his dragon roared up around him. Wait right where you are. I can feel…Cooper, in a few seconds, like five or less, this black car is coming around…Cooper, shield her. And Rose is with you. Pushing the woman and her burden to the glass front of the store they were near, he felt the bullets spray over them. Glass shattered around them. The mannequin in the window looked like it had been on the front line of a war, the way its body took the bullets. The pain took his breath away even as the squeal of tires sounded in the distance. Cooper heard Rose telling him to not move, to stand still. Cooper felt the hot blood of his body running down his back, his legs too. The woman started to scream, and it hurt his already pounding head. “Hush.” Closing her mouth, she looked up at him, and he saw the baby cradled in her arms in some sort of carrier that strapped it to her. “The baby? Is it all right?” “Yes, I think so. He’s just afraid. So am I. You saved us.” He just nodded, staring back at the little guy in her arms. He could hear Carson yelling at him, but he couldn’t answer her just yet. Every part of his body ached. “Cooper?” He looked at his brother by turning his head slightly. It hurt, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember his name. “Hudson. It’s Hudson. I’ve called an ambulance, and the police are on their way too. Carson knows that I have you and that you’re alive. Just don’t move right now and we’ll make sure that he’s not returning to finish the job.” “I can do that, I think. Hudson, what happened? And the woman and her baby? Are they really all right?” Hudson said that he had her, and Cooper realized that at some point, he’d been moved and she and her baby were gone. “I hurt, Hudson. Help me.” “I am. Okay? You’re going to be fine, I promise you. Just let me lower you to the sidewalk.” Yes, he thought. That sounded really good. “Come on, buddy. Don’t faint on me just yet.” “Okay.” It was surreal. Blood was everywhere, and he was sure that it was all his. He looked up at the broken glass and then at his body. There were shards of it in his arms and shirt front. Putting out his hand, he was relieved when Rose landed on him. “I got hurt.”
It seemed stupid to say that, but he really was hurting, and he was also, he figured, in a little shock. As she sat down, watching him carefully, he began to feel just a little better. Not great, but better now that he was sitting. “Yes, my lord. But you are not going to die. We saved you.” He looked around the best he could. “They did their job for you, and I am very proud of them.” The other faeries were gathering their dead. His mind was still slightly fuzzy, his memory of them being with him all but gone. But he looked at Rose and she looked so sad. These were her men, and they had saved his life. He wasn’t sure what had happened, not yet at any rate. So he looked to his faerie. “What happened?” Rose told him that Carson had called them to him. “How did they save me, Rose? I need to know what happened that brought them to me.” “The spray of bullets was aimed at your heart and throat, my lord. The woman was the target, as was her son, but with you protecting them, neither of them were killed. The man, he’ll be captured soon enough. The woman has minor damage, but she will heal. Had the bullets hit you in either place, they would have killed you with the amount of damage. The piercing of your heart with such a dagger as a bullet, or the spray of bullets going through your throat, would have removed your head. Many of your men, they gave their life for you today.” He asked her how many there were. “Sixty-seven. There will be great mourning and celebrating today.” He knew that they would mourn their deaths…it would be hard on the families they left behind. And they would also celebrate the fact that they had saved his life. He’d do something for them, as would Rose. Too many deaths, he thought. And he’d be sure to take care of their families too. Cooper asked her to let him know what it was they needed and he’d make sure they had it. He reached for Carson then. His heart was hurting from the loss, and he needed to connect with her to comfort him. She held his heart in her hands, and she would be the only one to help him when he was this down. He told her what had happened and that he was all right, thanks to her and his army. Hudson told me. I’m on my way to you now. Christ, I’m so sorry. Tell Rose that as well. He said that he would, and for her to be careful. I will. I love you. That man, he would have killed them both. I didn’t feel the baby until it was almost too late. I’m so sorry. But he would have hurt them badly, Cooper. Thank you for putting up with me and doing this for them. I know, honey. I know that. And I’m glad that you did this. I don’t know how either of us would have been able to stand by when we could do something. She was babbling, but it was all right. Carson had saved them, and him as well. Sirens were blaring, and he told Carson to head to the hospital, he’d see her there. The mom and the baby are fine, thanks to you. You go there and I’ll be there soon. “Cooper, you okay?” He nodded at Hudson. “I’m to stick with you like glue. Carson told me that I had to or else. And when she has an or else at the end of a request, I don’t think I want to mess around with her. So we’re stuck until she says differently.” “No, I’d not do that. I’m feeling a little better now. Thank you for being here for me and her. Rose lost so many men. I’ll have to do something for them.” Hudson sat on the
sidewalk next to him when the medics went to check on the woman and baby. “What do you know so far? Whoever it was, he was aiming at them, not me.” “I know. Carson told me. Do you have a story?” He said that he didn’t, had not even thought about one yet. “You saw the car coming around the corner. Just that. Didn’t know the man or the woman. Carson said less is more in this. She said to just say that you only had thoughts for keeping the woman safe, that’s all.” Nodding at Hudson, he felt a little dizzy and decided to lay back. At the last minute, he turned to his side, so as not to cause any more pain in his back. The discomfort was manageable right now, but when the medics asked him about it, he knew that he had to be hurting worse than he was. Laying it on thicker than he felt, he told them he was in a great deal of pain, as well as his head hurt. He was moved to sit up to be examined by the medic when he came to him, and Cooper asked about the woman and her child. “We have her, Lord Manning. She’s just fine. So is her son. Thanks to you.” The medic, he thought his name was Ben, laughed a little. “They caught up with her husband down the street a little ways. He is one pissed off man, I guess, because he missed her. What on earth would drive a man to try and murder his wife and son? If that don’t beat all, I don’t know what does.” “He didn’t miss me.” Ben said that he could see that, but he was able to take it better than anyone else. “True, but it didn’t lessen the pain. What are we doing now? I’m assuming that I’m not just going to be patted on the head and sent home, am I?” “No, sir, I’m afraid not. You’re going in the ambulance when it comes. We sent the first one on site in with the baby and mom, just to be sure we didn’t miss anything. Mom has a minor wound on her leg, nothing compared to you. I think I’ve counted twenty-two shots to you.” Cooper asked if he was kidding. “Nope. Could be more. I’ve not looked at your back just yet. Probably more. But you’re fine.” Cooper felt sick then. Twenty-two? Then he did just what his brother had told him not to do and fainted. Cooper felt the concrete beneath him bang hard against his thick skull, then he was out. When Cooper woke he was in a hospital. Not that it surprised him, but he did feel heavy. Looking down his body, he knew why. The room was quiet, and he realized that he was alone. Sitting up, he stared at his left leg and the cast that was holding him down. He wondered if it was a joke or something. It was a thick cast, and was being held up by some sort of crane like thing. His arm was also in a sling, but no cast. There was an ace bandage around it with blood stains on it, but he didn’t think about that right now. Instead, he thought about getting out of there. Just as he was ready to yell for help, Carson walked in the room and launched herself at him. As she sobbed about how sorry she was that he’d been hurt, Cooper assured her that he was fine, and better now that she was with him. Then he asked about the baby and his mom. “They’re fine. Debbie has a few stitches, but nothing that’ll keep her down. The little boy, Robbie, he’s perfect. I’ve been playing with him while the mom was being x
rayed. How are you?” Cooper told her he was fine, but looked down at his body again. “You scared the crap out of me when I lost the connection with you. Had Hudson not told me that you passed out, I might have torn into someone there. Are you really all right?” “I promise you, I’m just fine. But, I need to ask, why do I have all this on me? I’m assuming for the police.” She told him that the news stations were there as well. “I guess I understand, but it’s a little much, don’t you think?” “No. I don’t. They took a total of thirty-nine bullets out of you, Cooper. Thirty-nine. They could wrap you from head to toe if they wanted to.” He laid his head back. Christ. “Rose lost some men. I told her whatever she needed, it was hers. Also, I asked her for a list of the names and their families. I thought we could do something for them. Okay?” “Yes, of course. Flowers. They’ll need flowers for the garden that they’ll plant in their honor. It’s been a while since we’ve had this many lost. I’m sure that Rose could use the help in any way we can give her. She knows all her men and their families. She will come to you. A task this large will need some helping. I know that it seems like an odd thing, but they’ll need blankets too. They can use one of the ones in the cabinet, and they’ll cut it down for themselves.” Carson nodded. “What about the mom and baby? They need anything? I mean, that man, he wanted her dead in a powerful way.” “They’ll need a place to stay. She said no, they’d be fine, but I’ve made it happen for her. I guess she was also looking for a job, which is also taken care of. We’re going to take her to the distribution center when she is up and around.” He liked that idea. “Babysitting is going to be an issue. Not because we don’t have anyone, but because everyone wants to do it. Myself included.” “She have any family close?” She told him that she had a dad, and he was coming to be with her. She’d sent a car. “You are a wonder, my dear. Thank you for taking such good care of them both, and me.” “Debbie’s husband, Robert Jersey, is in jail. He’s being held on four counts of attempted murder, as well as a few other things, like firing a gun in city limits. His crew, as he calls them, are also being held without bond. Two of them are just kids, no older than Simon, who, by the way, is worried about you as well. So is John. They’ll be in later.” He asked her about the four attempts. “Well, Debbie and her son, you, and a clerk in the store was nearly killed as well.” “Okay, that makes sense. But thanks to you, everyone is all right. I hate to think what might have happened had you not been on top of things. I love you, Carson.” She told him that she loved him as well. “When can I break out of here? I’m behind in stuff at home, and I feel fine. Please tell me that I can leave soon?” She was shaking her head at him. “They’re going to keep you a couple of days. For the press. And the boys want to come in to see you as well, as I said. Don’t be surprised if they’re a little standoffish. Remember, their mother died in this hospital.” Cooper said he’d like for them to come, but if it was too much for them they could see him when he got home. “All right. They’re here with your family now. They all need to see you. I think they got a good scare from this.”
“So did I.” Cooper found that he really needed to be with them too. His family meant the world to him. When the door opened a moment later, Cooper felt better. Just having them there made the inconvenience of the casts and being in the hospital much more tolerable. ~~~ Winnie heard her name called and went to the long tables that had been set up for job interviews. The man sitting behind it had a personality like a flea-bitten donkey, and he sort of had the look of one too. And Winnie so badly wanted to change his attitude. Or kill him. Either would make her feel better, but she needed a job. He held out her application. “You didn’t fill this out correctly. Go back and sit down and fix it before you can move on to the next part of this process. If you pass, that is. I have final say in who gets to go to the next part of getting a job.” She asked him what she’d done wrong. He jerked the form from her and turned to the second page. “It said mark what languages you know, not the ones you don’t. So fix it.” Then he shoved it back at her so that she had no choice but to take it. The man was getting on her last good nerve, which she didn’t have a lot of to begin with. Letting out a slow breath so she didn’t snap, she worked on giving him her best smile. “It’s correct.” She tried her best to hand it back to him, but he wouldn’t take it. “I understood the question and I marked it correctly.” “You expect me to believe that you can speak seven languages?” Winnie said no. “Just as I thought. You need to—” “There was only space for seven listed. I can speak twenty-three, including sign language.” He looked ready to erupt and jerked it from her once again. “If you want, I can write those down too. I don’t mind at all.” He tore her application in half. Winnie stood there for several moments, telling herself it wasn’t worth it, nor was he, until she felt she was calm enough. Picking up her application, Winnie turned and made her way to the door. Fuck this shit. She’d have to more than likely murder someone else if she had to work there. She’d been let out of prison yesterday, and had been told that she was to show up here and fill out an application. Well, she’d done that, all the way up to the very end of what she’d been told to do. But there was no way in hell she would try and appease an asshole, no matter how badly she needed to find something to do. “Miss, you can’t take that with you. You’re supposed to turn it…What happened?” The woman had been at the other tables, the interview tables, when Winnie had come in earlier today. Winnie supposed she wasn’t going to make it that far. “Come with me.” The intrusion in her mind started then. It wasn’t painful, but very clumsy. Glancing at the other woman as they made their way to her table, Winnie figured that she had nothing to lose and spoke softly to her. “You need more practice if you’re going to enter peoples head and not have them know you’re there.” The woman stopped and stared at her. “Or you could just wait for someone to answer your questions. That’s how I usually handle it. Then if that doesn’t work, I flip into their mind. But that’s just me.”
“I’ve not had this shit long. I keep referring to it as magical shit, but it’s kind of nice most of the time. And I’m sorry. I try hard to get better at it, and all I wanted to know was if you had been hurt by anyone here.” Winnie said that she could see that, but she needed to work on it. “I got it when I got myself a mate.” “Did you want something? I can answer it if you don’t try to get into my head again. I will hurt you.” She didn’t threaten the woman, but merely told her what she’d do. Surprisingly, she said that she’d not do it again. “Thank you.” “Donald, the guy at the application line, he pissed you off. Why?” Winnie shrugged. “He’s pissed me off a few times as well. I think he won’t be here tomorrow. Would you mind telling me what happened that your application ended up in several pieces?” Winnie told her that it didn’t matter now, just to forget it. “I don’t think he’s much of a people person. I mean, I do have a habit of pissing off people, but I didn’t do it today. At least not to him. I need a job.” The woman introduced herself. “Hello Carson, I’m Wendall Fitzpatrick. I go by Winnie.” “Wendall?” Winnie smiled at her, remembering her story that was as made up as her life history was, and the man who had made it up for her. “Oh, this must be good. Why is a beautiful woman like you named Wendall?” “Dad had it in his head I was going to be a boy, I guess. And when my mom passed away just after I was born, he was so grief stricken that he didn’t ask. So he filled out the birth certificate thinking I was his son. I guess it wasn’t until a few days later that he figured it out. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy.” Carson asked if he was happy now with her. “I think he was. He was, I guess. He passed away a few months ago. You’re very kind to talk to me. But I really need a job, and—” “I’m hiring you.” Winnie told her no, it was all right. They’d ended up back at the interview table by then, and when Carson sat down, so did Winnie. “I know that. It’s why I’m hiring you. Tell me, what happened?” “With Donald? He’s a prick about my application and how I answered a few of the questions. It really doesn’t matter.” Carson didn’t ask her which ones, and Winnie didn’t volunteer any information. Winnie just waited for her to ask about her stint in prison and what she’d done when Carson looked over her application. But she only put all the pieces in a folder and stood up from the table. Winnie figured she’d be shown the door now. “Do you have a shift preference? I’d like to have you on days, where we can get the most use out of your talents, but we can work around whatever you need.” Winnie was sure that she was joking…there wasn’t any way she’d be hiring her. “Of course, perhaps we can get you on days that run over into a little bit of second shift too, if you can.” “Days is good. Did you read my application?” Carson said that she had. “No, you didn’t. I mean, if you had, then you’d be walking me out, not asking about what shift I want. I have a record. Did you know that?” “Yes, I saw that. I’m assuming that you’ve paid your debt to society and that you’re very sorry.” It was said with a huge grin that stumped Winnie. She told her that she
had, and was sort of sorry. “Good. Now, I have a job for you. Supervisor of pick light. It’s very easy to learn. I mean, if I can, anyone can.” “I think you’re smarter than you let yourself know you are. But I murdered someone. Just pulled a knife out and cut him to shreds.” When Carson asked her what he’d done to her first, Winnie stared at her. No one had ever asked her that before. “You’re intelligent, speak several languages. You’re looking for employment, and you didn’t lie to me. Did you?” Winnie said that she hadn’t, but didn’t think she could anyway, but that she was missing the point. “No, I don’t think I am. Something happened, and you ended up on the wrong side of something. Or someone. Besides, everyone needs a second chance. Don’t you think?” Winnie followed her, her mind a tumble of questions. Mostly it was why Carson was taking such a chance with her. When they entered the office, she was shocked to her very core. Cooper Manning was there, and Winnie knew with certainty that she was in a new kind of hell. “Lord Manning.” Winnie looked at Carson, everything sort of falling into place now. “Carson Manning, I’m assuming.” “Yes, this is my wife.” He didn’t stand up. It was then that she noticed the baby in his arms. “I’m babysitting while his mom has a look around. Have a seat, Winnie.” “I’d rather not.” He simply pointed to the chair across from him. “Please allow me to leave here. I’ll not bother you again if you would do the same for me. Had I known that you were—” “Sit down, Wendall.” She did so, but was ready to run if the opportunity presented itself. “How’s Patrick? I tried to find him.” “Dead.” He told her he was sorry. “Are you? I did what I was told, and he was left alone. The man deserved to die, yes, and I killed him, but it cost me more than the five years of my life. And for what? So that you could go on with your life? Have your entire well-being just fine and dandy? You told me that I had to kill that man, then you left me there.” “I had you released, and had you sent here. I thought you’d enjoy your freedom a bit longer or we would have been prepared for your coming. I had assumed, sadly, that you’d spend some time with Patrick. I hadn’t heard of his passing. For that, I am truly sorry. But—” “Shove it up your fucking ass.” She stood when he did, handing the baby off to Carson. He took a step toward her and she felt his dragon. “Kill me, as is your right. Kill me and end this. I won’t fight you in any way.” Cooper paused mid-step, then asked her what she’d said. Telling him no, begging him to end her life, she braced herself for whatever he did. She would welcome it. Winnie could fight back. Could hurt him and his dragon, even as depleted as her magic was. But she wouldn’t. Dead was much preferable to living, to her. “I cannot do that. I’m sorry, but I need you, and want you here. Your services have been needed for a long time, Winnie.” She told him that she wasn’t going to work for him, not ever again. “Yes, well, if I have to order you to help me, then I will. Lives depend on it too much for me to allow this to go.”
“And what I want…as usual, my needs do not matter to you and your needs.” He said that they did. “Nay, you will make me. That isn’t what I want. I wish to be returned to prison. Now.” “Excuse me.” They both looked at Carson when she spoke. “I don’t have a clue what the fuck is going on here, but someone does need to explain to me what happened between the two of you so I can tell you how stupid you’re being. And then we can move on to more important matters.” “Carson, love, this is Wendall Fitzpatrick, hit man for the Dragon Board. She has been around…well, nearly as long as me.” Carson looked at her. “She would say she’d been cursed to be around me. She’s told that to me enough times in my life. But she has saved more dragons than anyone, ever. And she ended up in prison when she, quite by accident, killed the wrong man.” “Because he told me to.” Cooper nodded and smiled. “So I’ve been stuck in a fucking prison, where I was put when no one showed up at my trial to save me. And in the meantime, the man who was kinder to me than even my own parents ever were died of a broken heart.” “I’m sorry.” She turned to leave, knowing that she couldn’t stay, no matter what he said now. “The slayers are here. They’re after my family. My brothers and my sons. We truly need you, Winnie.” “I don’t care.” Which was a lie, because she did too much, that was the problem. And it mattered little who this man was and what he’d done to her. “If I take care of this, will you never bother me again? Never in any way? And I do this my way.” “Deal.” He’d agreed too quickly, and she turned to look at him. She knew there was more to this than a simple slayer. She didn’t know what right now, but she had a feeling that she’d just been had. “My family would like for you to stay with us.” “No. I do this my way, and that does not include mingling with the Mannings.” He nodded, as if he had figured she’d say that. Going out the door, she knew she was going to regret this, that she needed to have her head examined. Reaching out for help from anyone she could beg from, she wasn’t surprised to have Rose answer her call. Winnie had wondered if the little warrior was still with Cooper, and now she knew. She just hoped that Rose would be helpful, and not report every little thing she did back to her boss.