Death and relaxation, p.7
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       Death and Relaxation, p.7

           Devon Monk
 

  I knew exactly why she’d left. She’d been dating a god—Heimdall, to be exact. She hadn’t known he was a god. That was another unbreakable rule deities had to follow—no sharing the secret. She thought he was a fisherman who took people out on whale-watching trips in the spring.

  And yes, he was a fisherman. Nice, quiet-spoken man for the god who was supposed to alert all the gods in Valhalla that Ragnarok was upon them.

  It never ceased to amaze me that the gods worked jobs during their mortal vacation that had nothing to do with their god powers.

  The quiet of the sea had been Heimdall’s chosen profession.

  Still, he had a little of that light that gods, even unpowered gods, carried. Some mortals were more susceptible to it. Moths to eternal flames.

  Lila Carson had fallen fast and hard for the quiet fisherman.

  It had lasted two years, then Heimdall—or Heim, as he preferred to be called—had broken up with her.

  Heim might be a quiet fisherman, but Lila Carson and her broken heart did not leave that relationship quietly. Furiously would be a better term.

  Vengefully.

  Great. Just what I needed in my town. A jilted ex-lover to a god.

  “So we’re keeping eye on Margot and Lila,” I said.

  “I’ll make sure Chris knows that Margot and Lila are sisters,” Myra said.

  “Better go out now and tell him,” I said. “The easiest disaster to deal with is the one we can prevent.”

  “Sure.” Myra shrugged into her jacket. “Oh, and Jean got a line on someone for temporary help. You okay with us hiring without your input?”

  “Able body, listens to orders, not Dan Perkin, and it’s fine by me.”

  I thought I caught an all-too-satisfied smile before she started toward the door. “Good. We’ll do paperwork, then introductions tonight at Jump Off’s around seven.”

  “Why are we conducting a hire in a brewery?”

  “Because you need to eat a decent meal, and the casual setting will make getting to know our new team member more pleasant.”

  “Who put you in charge of office decisions?”

  “You did. Just now.” She paused at the door. “As soon as you get that report done, go home and get some sleep.”

  “Not my boss.”

  She snorted. “Call it a strong suggestion from a coworker. Take a long lunch break, okay? Roy will call if something else blows up.”

  Roy gave a quick two-finger salute, then went back to clicking the Rubik’s Cube.

  I shook my head and watched her stroll out the door. Death, destruction, and a pile of paperwork. What a way to start the day. I took a drink of the coffee.

  It went down bitter and thick, and I chuckled. If Myra and Jean really had roped someone into helping us out, I’d make them do my paperwork.

  “Any idea who they have on the hook to hire?” I asked Roy as I settled in at my desk again.

  “Nope.”

  I was pretty sure he was lying.

  “Any reason why you’re lying to your boss?”

  This time he smiled, though he didn’t take his eyes away from the cube. “Yep.”

  The phone rang, and he answered it. By the time he was done taking down the information about a car that had been sitting in the community garden parking lot for the last six days, a car that was either filled with brown clothes or clown clothes—I couldn’t quite catch the details—the coffee had done its trick and I was deep into my report, making headway.

  ~~~

  I PARKED below my house. It was evening, just a little after six, and already getting dark.

  Even in the warm enclosure of my car, I could hear the ocean, could hear the rain on the roof, the wind smoothing the tough, twisted coastal pines.

  The day had just never let up, and I was utterly beat. I’d pulled together my report on the explosion and all the people I’d talked to, then had followed up on Odin’s complaint that Zeus had purposely trashed his favorite chainsaw when he’d borrowed it. After that, it was six phone calls from Dan Perkin, who wanted to know when I was arresting Chris Lagon. He’d called three more times since then, but I’d let them all go to voice mail.

  Jean stumbled in late to take over the switchboard from Roy—wouldn’t game all day, my ass—and Roy cut out early because he had grandchildren coming to visit. It had been nonstop fires to put out all day.

  I had an interview to conduct in less than an hour. In a bar.

  How had I let Myra talk me into that?

  I think it was the promise of a decent meal I didn’t have to cook.

  What I wanted to do was sleep for about a day. But I needed to shower, change. Maybe do something with my hair.

  At least Thanatos hadn’t shown up yet. Maybe he would tomorrow. Or better yet, maybe he’d come to town tonight while Jean was on duty. Good. Let her handle our newest vacationing deity.

  All I had to handle was one new hire. And since Myra and Jean had already picked him or her out, I could just eat my burger and fries and pull the friendly-but-stern boss act.

  Piece of cake.

  I picked up Thanatos’s contract and got out of the Jeep. My very steep concrete stairway built into the hill might as well have been carved into the side of Mt. Everest. I slogged up the stairs.

  The problem with being tired and distracted was that I didn’t notice that something was wrong with my house, something was different, until I was on my front step under the tiny porch roof that sheltered the worst of the rain.

  I pulled my gun, suddenly very, very awake and alert.

  One will fall echoed through my head. I thought about calling my sisters for backup. But this was my home, my family home. There hadn’t ever been anything that had happened here that I couldn’t deal with.

  Plus, I had a gun, a badge, and any number of monsters and gods at my call, if needed.

  I opened the door—unlocked—and stepped into the dark living room.

  No lights on in the house. No streetlight below on the little gravel cul-de-sac.

  A few steps into the living room and I spotted the backpack thrown on the floor next to the couch.

  Robber? Why would a robber leave a backpack in the living room?

  Transient? All the way up at the top of a hill several streets away from the main roads? Not likely.

  I made a quick search of the living room, office area, kitchen. The faint light from under my bedroom door caught my eye.

  Whoever it was, they were casing my bedroom. And they were being quiet about it.

  I took a quick breath, set myself, and opened the door with one hand, my gun steady.

  “Don’t move,” I shouted, “Police.”

  “Whoa, hold on, hold on!”

  There was a man in my bed. For a wild, happy second, I thought it was Ryder. But that lasted only a second.

  Because I knew who was under my sheets.

  “Cooper?” I said, my voice still loud from the adrenalin.

  Cooper Clark, my ex-boyfriend, had let his blond hair grow out and wore it tied up in a knot at the top of his head. He was the epitome of surfer good looks, clean-shaven with a lean swimmer’s body that he’d decorated with a couple new tattoos bracing his ribs.

  He was shirtless, just the edge of his boxer briefs visible under my blanket, which he had thrown over his hips, both legs sticking out from underneath.

  He was in my bed. Mostly naked.

  My ex-hit-and-run heartache was stretched out in my bed.

  Smiling at me.

  Would this train wreck of a day never end?

  He held up both hands in mock surrender. “Hey, officer,” he said, his eyes slipping to the gun I was still pointing at him, then back to me, to my mouth. He always used to stare at my mouth instead of my eyes. I’d forgotten that. “Did you miss me, Delaney?”

  I lowered the gun and holstered it before I was tempted to squeeze the trigger. A minor injury would be hell on my record, but sure would make me feel better.

  “Cooper,” I
said with exaggerated patience. “Why are you here? In my house. In my bed.”

  That charming smile quickly swapped out with an expression of chagrin.

  “The door was open. You never lock it, you know. I thought you were at work, and I wanted to surprise you. Make you dinner. Double garlic chicken lasagna. You’ll love it. You still weren’t home and, well, our bed looked so comfortable.”

  “My bed,” I corrected.

  He shifted his wide shoulders, pushed up to sitting so he could lean against my headboard. “Right. That’s what I meant. Your bed looked so comfortable. Are you mad? Don’t be mad. I just wanted to make you smile. Surprise?” He lifted his hands and grinned.

  Then he shifted off the bed and stood, walking toward me, his eyes on my mouth.

  “I wanted to surprise you.” His smile lit up his soft brown eyes. “I’m back, Del. And this time I’m staying right here. Right where I belong.”

  He stopped in front of me. His strong, long fingers rested on my shoulders. Talented fingers that pressed gently. His touch was familiar, as was the spice of his cologne.

  He’d been a musician—could play any instrument he put those long fingers on. It was a failed application to Juilliard that had sent him into a spiral of self-pity and alcohol in high school. He’d dug himself up out of that and worked for the cable company, making his way up to manager.

  When I thought back on it—and I’d had a year to do just that—he’d never seemed at peace or content with his life even then. He’d rolled through a dozen failed hobbies, two failed business attempts, and had decided it wasn’t his lost chance at Juilliard that was holding him back. It was this town and all the things here—me included—holding him back from his true potential. From happiness.

  He’d told me that. Right to my face. He’d said I was ruining his life.

  And then he’d left, ruining mine.

  “Not with me,” I said, surprised it had taken me several seconds to find my voice. Surprised at how vulnerable him being here made me feel.

  “What do you mean?” he asked.

  “You can stay in town, but you can’t stay with me.” That came out stronger. Good.

  I stepped away from his touch and crossed my arms over my chest. “You need to find somewhere else to sleep.”

  His hands dropped to his side like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He suddenly looked lost and sad.

  “I screwed this up, didn’t I?” He sat on the foot of the bed, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have just walked in here and thought you’d want to see me. It’s been months since I went away.”

  “A year,” I said. “That’s twelve months.”

  He nodded, his brow furrowed. “Yeah. A year. A lot can change in a year. People can change.” He looked up at me, at my mouth. “I’ve changed, Del. I’ve… I’m not that mixed-up mess I was. But you haven’t changed. Still as beautiful as ever.”

  “Listen,” I said, feeling bad for him despite my desire to shoot him. A little. In a non-dominant limb. “I’m glad you’re back in town, Cooper. But you and me? That’s not happening.”

  His face lit up with a smile. “You’re glad I’m back?”

  “You heard the rest of the ‘not happening’ thing, right?”

  “Sure,” he said. “Right. I know. We need time. New person”—he pointed at his chest—“new relationship. We’ll start with dinner. One of my roommates was a professional chef, and I can make a mean pasta.”

  “Same old person.” I pointed at my face. “We’re not having dinner tonight.”

  He gave me a kicked-puppy look. “Why?”

  “I have a thing I need to get to.”

  “A thing?”

  “An appointment. It’s work.”

  The corners of his eyes tightened and his hand curled into a loose fist. “Of course it’s work. Always work.”

  “What?”

  “Still the number one thing in your life. I would have thought you’d give it a rest. After your dad…”

  One look at my expression and he had the good sense to shut up.

  “I think Hal has a room open.” I pushed past him to the bathroom. Hal was Hades, god of the underworld. He ran a sweet little bed and breakfast on the north side of town. All frills and doilies and old-lady knickknacks. “He might give you a homecoming discount, but don’t hold your breath.”

  “Hal? I thought… Look. Sorry about the work comment. Really. Can I sleep on your couch? For one night? I’ll find a place to crash tomorrow if you want me to go.”

  “I want you to go find a place to crash tonight.”

  He followed me to the bathroom and leaned in the open doorway.

  Cooper was a little on the thin side, his long, lean muscles well defined. The tattoo across his left ribs was a stylized ram charging into fire. Down his right were words to a poem I didn’t recognize.

  No track marks on his arms. Yes, I looked. He had no impulse control, and high school had seen him through some pretty bad habits. He didn’t smell like old alcohol. When my gaze finally finished wandering up and met his eyes, it set off that slow electric tingle somewhere deep inside of me.

  It wasn’t love. But I’d known Cooper for years. Dated him. Thought I loved him. Thought I was building a life with him.

  The tingle was familiarity. Even though I was still angry at him for breaking up with me, I was surprised to find that I didn’t have it in me to hold on to the anger. What we’d had was gone. And now that he stood right there, half-naked in my bathroom doorway, wanting to patch things up, wanting to try to rebuild the card house he’d knocked down, I knew it wouldn’t happen.

  I’d fallen out of love with him. My heart had broken, but it was well on its way to healing, without Cooper in it. It was…unexpected. I’d spent a year wanting to yell at him for what he’d done to us, for giving up, for leaving. And now I wanted him to get dressed and get a room. Was it normal to get over a year of heartache in an instant?

  “Huh.”

  He must have taken that surprised huff of air as some kind of invitation to grovel. “I know I left at the worst possible time,” he said.

  “Not at all. Well, yes, you did. But you know. Things. They work out.”

  “I was just mixed up. Looking for something”—he lifted his hand and waved absently—“more.”

  “Looking to find yourself, away from this one-road sinkhole of a town, I believe you said.”

  His mouth twisted down ruefully at that. “I was a jackass for saying that.”

  I couldn’t help but smile a little. “Any luck? Finding?”

  His eyes narrowed slightly. Probably trying to figure out why I was being so nice about all this. I smiled enigmatically. Just because I wasn’t angry anymore didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy watching him squirm.

  “Yeah. No. Maybe.” He exhaled a hard breath. “I thought, I know I want big things. To make a mark. To be someone.”

  “You are someone,” I said softly.

  “Someone better.” His words were so quiet, I almost didn’t hear them.

  “Start by being better than sleeping uninvited on your ex-girlfriend’s couch.”

  “Ouch.” He nodded. “I needed to see you. To talk.”

  “We can talk. Not tonight. I have work.”

  This time he didn’t give me attitude for it. He pushed off the doorframe, all those lean muscles and ink sliding away from me.

  This was right. I knew it was. My heart skipped for a doubtful moment, second-guessing my decision, but I knew Cooper and I were done.

  “Give ’em hell, chief,” he said with the playboy grin that had started us dating in the first place. That twinge of electricity hummed over my skin again, a reminder of what we weren’t anymore. Maybe a clue to what we could be eventually: friends.

  “Always do,” I said. “Pick up your backpack on the way out.”

  “So I’ll see you? Around?”

  Those brown eyes were soft with hope, with need. There were shadows in his face, in his eyes I hadn
t seen before. The time he’d been away hadn’t been easy on him.

  He was asking me for a second chance.

  I was good at that. At giving people second chances. In some ways, it was my job to do so. It was also in my nature.

  “In this one-road sinkhole of a town? Count on it.”

  He chuckled and I shut the bathroom door. I listened for the sound of him walking away. Finally heard the creak of footsteps.

  I leaned on the sink and stared at myself in the mirror.

  My eyes, which had a habit of shifting from gray-blue to cloudy green, were stark against my pale skin, my pupils dilated. I looked like I’d just seen a ghost.

  “Ghost of an old relationship.” I pulled off my T-shirt and sat on the edge of the bathtub to untie my boots. “I’m over him.” It sounded weird on my lips, but it also sounded true. “When the hell did that happen?”

  An image of Ryder came to my mind unbidden. Ryder at the Fourth of July beach bonfire, shirtless while he played tackle volleyball with a bunch of the Wolfes and Rossis. Ryder showing Roy’s little grandson how to skip rocks on the flat wash of shallow waves. Ryder, dripping wet and muddy, strong arms and muscled back flexing as he tirelessly filled and hauled sandbags, working through the night with half the town to save the Murphy’s place from the flood.

  Ryder. Ryder had happened. Ryder had happened to me, and I hadn’t noticed. Hadn’t wanted to notice.

  I paused and rubbed at my face, trying to scrub away the images and the realization. I was falling for Ryder. No. I had fallen for him. Cooper coming back had just flipped the switch on the neon sign in my head that spelled “Ryder” in swirly, lovesick loops, a giant cartoon-y arrow pointing down at my heart.

  Great. I didn’t have time in my life for sleep, much less for a relationship.

  Whatever was between Ryder and me would have to wait. Until we had an extra hand at the station. Until I’d figured out who was blowing up garden patches in the middle of the night. And it would absolutely have to wait until after the Rhubarb Rally. Adding Ryder into my life before then—if he even wanted to be added—would be madness.

  There was enough crazy in this town without me adding more to my life.

 
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