“Peri, are you even listening to me?”
Embarrassed, she pulled her eyes from the man. “I’m sorry, what?”
Sandy’s thin eyebrows were furrowed. “I said, cats steal the breath from babies.”
Pitching her voice lower, Peri muttered, “Well, I’m not likely to have that problem, am I.” It sounded bitter, even to her, and she wished she could take it back when Sandy reached for her hand. Peri stifled the urge to pull away, not wanting Sandy to think she was pining for a baby. A family. She wasn’t. Not really. She’d made her choice a long time ago.
“It’s not too late,” Sandy said softly, and Peri refused to show any new emotion. “You have lots of time. Is that what’s bothering you?”
Peri exhaled, deciding to come out with it if only to speed this up. “No,” she said, meeting Sandy’s eyes. “It’s like half the people I know are gone, and the other half are treating me as if I’m going to break. As if they’re afraid of what I might do, and I don’t know why. Was I an ass-hat before I lost everything? Because that’s the impression I’m getting.”
“You were—are—not an ass-hat,” Sandy said frankly, and the man at the bar snorted.
“Then what is it?” she whispered. “I have no friends but Allen, and even he’s watching me as if I might suddenly—I don’t know … go off on a nut and break his face.”
“Allen has his own issues,” Sandy said. “You might have lost everything, but he hasn’t, and until he lets go of you in the past, he can’t appreciate you in the now, much less the future.”
Loss. It was a recurring theme in her nightmares. She had loved someone, and now love was gone. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Now you’ll be evaluating him.”
“Oh, we’ve been doing that already,” Sandy said drily. “I’ll talk to him.”
I bet you will, she thought sourly, looking up when Allen came in with a wash of light.
“Hello, ladies!” he called, the sun glinting on his dark curls as he hoisted a paper bag. “Frank!” he shouted, though the man was nowhere to be seen. “You want a doughnut?”
“Absofreakinglutely!” came a muffled shout, and Frank strode in from the back room, thick hands working over a towel.
Peri shifted on the hearth to make room for everyone as Frank ambled over, but the large man took a nearby chair, turning it around and straddling it. Peri’s eye twitched, and she dismissed it. Frank wasn’t putting space between them because he was afraid she was going to flip out. He was a psychologist, for God’s sake. But it still felt wrong, especially when Allen handed Peri her latte and sat beside Frank instead of her.
Allen ripped open the bag. “Mmmm, cream filling,” Frank said as he took one, using a finger to catch the excess on his lips as he took a huge bite. “Thanks.”
“Anyone want coffee?” Sandy asked, sitting back in a mild huff when both Frank and Allen vigorously shook their heads. “There is nothing wrong with my coffee,” she grumbled, turning when the bar’s door opened and Bill came in.
“Not when you’re drunk, anyway,” Frank said, laughing as she leaned across the space and smacked his thick leg.
“This is nice,” Bill said as he smiled at them clustered around the empty fireplace.
“They’re making fun of my coffee,” Sandy complained. “My coffee is fine!”
“I agree. It tastes like it was ground this morning,” Bill said, and Allen smiled at the old joke, wiping his hand free from powdered sugar and shifting to sit beside Peri. For the first time, Peri felt things were getting back to normal, and she glanced at the man at the bar. Even Bill was ignoring him. He had to be an observer.
“So, how you doing, Allen?” Bill asked, and Allen glanced at Peri with a tentative smile.
“Better by the hour, Bill. Better by the hour,” he said, and Peri warmed.
The man at the bar turned, sitting to face them with his arms over his chest and a disapproving expression.
“You’d better get a doughnut before they’re gone, Peri,” Sandy said, and Peri took one even though she wasn’t hungry.
Finally Bill sat down, and Peri slowly exhaled. “Well, how is she?” Bill asked.
Sandy’s entire demeanor shifted toward the professional. She looked at Frank, and he gestured for her to be forthright. Peri’s heart thumped. “She’s lying about her nightmares,” Sandy said.
“I am not!”
Allen took her hand. “Peri, I’d never leave you.”
Sandy made a tiny puff of sound. “It’s not about you anchoring her, it’s about her needing more backstory for her life. Shut up, Allen. I’ll get to you in a minute. The nightmares aren’t unusual. It’s her wandering attention I’m concerned about.”
“My attention is fine,” Peri said, purposely not letting her gaze go to the man at the bar.
“And she hasn’t mentioned it,” Sandy said almost hesitantly, “but I think she still harbors a grudge against the alliance.”
Peri worked to keep her breathing even so as not to show her anger. “Silas Denier almost killed Allen,” Peri said, and Frank gave Bill a sideways look, his thick arms crossed over his chest. “And I’m supposed to pretend it didn’t happen? Allen will heal, but my three years are gone, so, yes, I’m pissed. You going to put me in the hole because I’m pissed?”