I’d seen a fucking monster today.
I’d almost died.
I exhaled heavily, allowing that knowledge to wash over me, allowing my brain to wrap itself around what had happened tonight. A monster had wanted to eat me, but I’d been saved by reapers. Real live reapers. Cora was going to flip out when I told her. Although she wouldn’t be home for a few more hours, so no home-cooked meal for me. My bedside clock showed it to be almost four-thirty in the morning. But this was supper time by my standards. A large majority of people in Necro worked the nightshift, and the city accommodated the nocturnal. Cora and I were used to sleeping during the day and being up with the moon. We’d adapted to the shift patterns Soul Savers demanded.
Ten minutes later, slippers and PJs on, I grabbed the cordless phone and padded into the lounge. The lights were off, but a steady amber glow emanated from Cyril’s enclosure, which took up the whole of the back wall. My albino ball python lifted his head, watching me as I approached.
“Pastry House, how can I help?” a bored male voice said down the phone.
“Hey, Teddy. I need food.”
“Ah, the lovely Fee. The usual?”
“Yes, please, sexy.”
He chuckled. “Hardly. But thanks. It’ll be with you in thirty.”
“You’re the best.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
I ended the call, dreaming of the flaky, buttery pastries that would be delivered shortly. Teddy was the best damn baker in Necro, and at almost five in the morning, it meant the pastries would be fresh out of the oven. Yummy.
I dropped onto the sofa by the enclosure. “How you doing, big guy?”
Cyril brought his head closer to the glass, tongue flicking out to taste the air.
“I hope your day was better than mine.”
He seemed to study me with his beady eyes, as if to say not much to get up to in a glass box with air holes.
“You want to know or not?”
His head lifted a little more.
“Okay, well …” I filled Cyril in on the events of the day. “So, you see, Cora is now me, and I’m … well, I’ll be hanging out here a lot more over the next two weeks.”
He’d kept his head up the whole time I’d been speaking, his eyes on me, listening. Okay, so that was ridiculous. He was a snake. He didn’t understand what I was saying, but ever since Aunt Lara had bought him for me four years ago, I’d felt a connection to the creature. Be it his stillness, his calm aura, or the way he would take the time to stalk his dead prey before devouring it. He was a fully-grown male ball python, around four feet in length and perfectly chill. I loved him.
“You want a cuddle before my food gets here?”
His head came up even more, as if he was eager to get out. It had been a couple of days since I’d handled him. I unlocked the enclosure and slid the glass across to let him out. Cyril slid out slowly, aimed for my lap. He coiled himself onto my thighs and then laid his head on my chest, tongue flicking out as if asking for a kiss.
It always astounded Aunt Lara how relaxed we were together. How he never seemed to get agitated or threatened around me. What she didn’t understand was that being around Cyril had a cathartic effect on me too. It was like all the trials of the day were being sucked out of my body—the anger, the fear, the confusion, it all melted away.
Ten minutes later, he slid off my lap and back into his enclosure.
“Had enough already?” I closed up the enclosure. “Thanks for listening, big guy.”
There was a knock on the front door. Twenty minutes. That had to be a record, even for Teddy. I grabbed my purse on the way to the door, ready with a tip.
“Well, that was qui—”
The man on the doorstep smiled shyly at me. “Hey, Fee. Miss me?”
My heart shot up into my mouth. “Lucas? What the fuck?”
He arched a brow. “That’s it? I roll back into town after five years, and that’s all you have to say?”
Lucas was here. My buddy, my bestie. The guy I’d been in love with forever, the one who’d broken my heart by falling for someone else and then moving out of town to be with her five years ago, was back.
Rein it in, Fee. “It’s five in the fucking morning, Lucas.”
“I came by during the day and then again in the evening … I figured you were on a night shift …”
This was his third visit? I staunched the flutter in my stomach. “No Grace?”
I looked over his shoulder as if expecting her to be there, except hell would freeze over before Grace came to see me. For some reason, she hated me. I didn’t get why. I’d been nothing but nice to her. Given them both space and all that shit when he’d started dating her, despite how hurt I’d been. I’d even hung out with them when Lucas asked.
“No Grace,” Lucas said. “Grace and I are over. Grace was a mistake.”
Ouch. “I’m sorry.”
“Um, Fee, I’m freezing my balls off out here.”
Oh, shit. “Yeah, sure, come in.”
What was I doing inviting him in? Cora was going to kick my ass when she found out. No. No, it was fine. I was inviting him into the house, not back into my life. I was fine. We were fine. I was no longer in love with him.
He stepped over the threshold, bringing his familiar scent with him. He still wore the same aftershave, the brand I’d bought him years ago. It didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything.
But he was done with Grace, and he was here. Why was he here? I followed him into the lounge.
He stopped by Cyril’s enclosure. “You got a snake?”
“Lara bought him for me.”
He nodded slowly. “I’m sorry. I should have been here.”
My chest tightened, and a bitter tang bit the back of my tongue. “Yeah, you should have.”
He sighed. “I wanted to come. I was all packed, and then Grace …” He blew out a breath. “I should have come to the funeral. I should have been there for you.”
But he hadn’t come. He hadn’t even sent flowers. And just like that, all the good feelings his appearance had elicited died. He’d left five years ago, and he hadn’t looked back.
“She was your mother too.” Those hadn’t been the words I’d intended to say, but they obviously needed to come out.
“She was a mother to a lot of children. Look, I didn’t come here to dredge up the past,” he said. “I made a mistake, and I realize that. I should have been there for you when she died.”
Lara was the only mother I’d known. My foster carer from age three to six and then adopted mother after that, although she’d always asked me to call her Aunt Lara. All the children who’d passed through this house had called her Aunt Lara, but Lucas and I had stayed the longest. He’d come to us when he was ten, and I’d been nine, and we’d clicked immediately. We’d become best friends, and as the years went on, well … I’d fallen for him. But Aunt Lara hadn’t adopted him, and he hadn’t stayed past the age of eighteen, moving out as soon as he could. Our friendship had continued, and there had been so many times when I’d thought, this is it, he’s going to make a move, and he had. Just not on me.
And now, he was back.
But why? “What do you want, Lucas? Why are you here?”
A strange look crossed his features, a mixture of guilt, remorse, and determination. “I’m here about the house.”
“You’ve lost me? What house?”
“This house. Aunt Lara left it to the both of us, remember?”
She had. Along with a neat sum of money each. “What about it?”
“I need the money, Fee.”
Money … “Aunt Lara left you money.”
“Oh … So, you need a place to stay? You want to move back in?” I was so confused.
He sighed in exasperation. “No, Fee, I want to sell the house.”
The silence was a roar in my ears. “Sell my house.”
“Our house, Fee. Even though I have no idea why she fucking bothered putting my name in her will. Guilt probably. I mean, I was the kid she failed to love.”
My mind was whirring, putting together the pieces of what he was saying, what he was intimating.
“Lucas … You think she didn’t love you?” I stared at him incredulously. “Was that why you moved out as soon as you legally could?”
His smile was bitter. “You were always her favorite. Perfect Fee. The one she adopted.”
He was delusional, blinkered. But then it had taken me a while to figure out her reasoning too. “Lucas, she didn’t adopt you because she didn’t want to label us brother and sister.”
He stared at me, wide-eyed.
Oh, God. He was going to make me say it. “She hoped we’d be … together.”
He slow-blinked, and it was almost painful to watch him process the concept. “You and me? Together?”
He said it like it was an alien concept that he needed time to wrap his head around, and what was left of the hope in my heart croaked and died.
I cleared my throat with a laugh. “Yeah, well, she was obviously mistaken.”
He smiled, but it looked uncomfortable on his face. “Yeah, I mean … You were always the little sister I never had. She should have asked me. She should have given me the choice.”
I felt sick. “You want to sell the house.”
“My fiancée and I need to put a down payment on a house, and—”
“I thought you and Grace were over?”
He looked sheepish. “Yeah, I met someone else. She’s great, you’ll love her. I really want you to meet her. Grace was always so negative about you and me. Jealous.” He rolled his eyes. “I have no idea why.”
My stomach sank a little more. Yeah, he was clueless, and I’d been a sap about a lot of things, but he wasn’t having my house.