Title: Unexpected
Author: Shatterpath
Feedback address: shatterpath@shatterstorm.net
Date in Calendar: 20 June 2013
Fandom: Light, Water, MusesAn alternate universe for a variety of television series. All disclaimers below.
Pairing: Renatta/Rosie, Dace/Darcy
Rating: PG
Word Count: 7421
Summary: Things at the House of Hearts take on a new twist and we meet new faces that keep things running smoothly. ...Usually.
Book: Cartomancy
Advertisement: Part of the FSAC:DD11


Author's Notes: Outside of familiar LWM faces, there is a mess of new OCs here. If you're not familiar with LWM, I hope that perhaps you can enjoy this anyway. This is a writing project inspired by ABC's Once Upon a Time and originally was my Nanowrimo 2012 project.

All words in italics are phonetic foreign words, Spanish in this case.

Beta: ariestess

Part 1

Renata & Rosie     Kicker
Click to get the full-sized images.

++ Renata Drewson ++


"Two weeks! Two weeks! Two weeks!"

It's all the warning I get before that familiar little body leaps athletically onto the bed.

"Oof! Careful, Scotty!"

Okay, not so little anymore.

Giggling and squirming, our son throws himself between us, audibly clonking his skull against his mother's. While he blathers on about his approaching festivities, I smile sympathetically at Rosie while she blinks away sleep. Without being able to get close enough for a kiss, I reach over Scotty's head and affectionately stroke Rosie's inky bangs. She is so impossibly beautiful to me, with her girlish good looks and creamy pale skin in contrast to the fine, black hair and mercurial earthy green eyes. So different from me!

After the silent, loving communication with my long time partner, I focus on the excited boy, who grins wildly at my attention. He's a beautiful boy, such his mother's child, with wavy brown locks and her gorgeous eyes. And, amusingly, the ability to soak up the sunshine instead of being burned by it. In that, he might as well be mine!

"Two weeks?" I play clueless, baiting him. "What on earth is special about 2 weeks?"

"Maaaaaadre," he whines petulantly. "I'm gonna be nine! You made me promise not to talk about it 'til it was two weeks!"

"Oh, that."

Their matched gazes, one amused and one childishly outraged, makes me laugh, enjoying the morning despite the unexpected wake-up call. Careful to not let the sheets slip and reveal my very naked state, I grab Scotty and hug and kiss him while he squeals in boyish outrage. Quickly tiring of the maternal attention, he flails away and leaves us in peace.

"Hurricane Scotty," Rosie sighs and I smile at how she's thrown an arm over her eyes, clearly still half asleep. It gives me a chance to slither closer and nuzzle that coveted spot behind her ear, basking in the familiar hitch her her breathing from the caress. Lately, my beloved has been fretting over her approaching fortieth birthday and I have been doing my best to reassure her that time has taken nothing from her.

Not that it has been a chore!

Working for the House of Hearts my entire adult life has shown me every facet of love and sexuality, from the most sweet and vanilla to the darkest of healthy desires. But all of it is only a mental exercise for me, merely part of the job. I am fiercely loyal to my wife and son and no one can change that.

For a moment, Rosie plays coy, a ploy I am very familiar with, and I step up my game with mouth and hands. Then she groans and pulls me to her, kissing away my smug grin and helping me welcome the morning in proper fashion.

Much later, I am pleasantly well-fucked, showered, dressed and happy to leave Rosie somnolent in the big bed. She is one of the few Hearts with a normal schedule as the in-house teacher for all of the strange and gifted children that this place attracts. With a last nuzzle to that beloved crown of raven's wing hair, I leave her be and slip out.

"Buenos dias, Madre," Scotty greets me and looks sheepish when I take in the sloppy mess he's made of the couch and himself with his breakfast. "Sorry. I'll clean up when I finish eating, I promise."

Kissing his head, I nod and let it go. I learned many years to let go the worst of my anal retentive tenancies. It was that, or go insane.

Scotty's snippets of Spanish and my name from him always makes me smile. Before he and Rosie came into my life, my conflict over my heritage had come to a head, leaving me determined to forget the language, the expectations, everything.

Until I had someone to teach it all to.

Whatever little bits and pieces of my Puerto Rican heritage I teach the boy, he soaks it up like a sponge, And I do love sharing the lyrical Spanish language with him in bits and pieces. Particularly since it gives me a chance for me to tease his mother without his even knowing it. She does love it when I whisper seductively to her in my mother's native language.

Forcing myself not to put away the open box of cereal, I set about preparing myself a more substantial breakfast. I'm not on active duty today and there have been loose plans for movie and perhaps a family outing if the winter weather permits. But something is nagging me, a distant tickle of discomfort almost like the sensation of being watched.

I do not like it.

My protective instincts are well-honed, as much a part of me as my DNA. That streak got me noticed by the House of Hearts thirteen years ago, and has earned me the coveted place as the head of building security since.

When the alarms flicker to life and start wailing, it's almost a relief.

++ Dace ++

When the intruder alarms blare out, my instincts shrill to life, swirled with the relief that I really was sensing something off about the building. At least the old instincts are still accurate!

It goes against every fiber of my being to just stand here, hyper aware of the movement of the elevator and the familiar pulse of life in the building around me. Time feels like it is slowing and I ruthlessly clamp down on my Sentinel senses to prevent zone out. That's the last damn thing I need...

Later, I will be sure to compliment on Akiko's at least partial grasp of the situation, as she goes quiet and warily alert, careful not to disturb me.

When the elevator doors finally ping open, Iím out like a shot.

In an instant, I take the situation in, body prepped for anything. There is a stranger on the floor of the Collective's bullpen, a lanky blonde woman dressed casually, her body completely immobilized by Darcy's lethal hold. With one arm wrenched up, a deadly sharp stiletto heel at the base of the stranger's neck, my playmate clearly has that problem under control for the moment.

On my heels are two Hounds, alert and ready for anything. In a flash, they eyeball the situation and turn the attention to me. "Search for any other intruders," I call out over the worried clucking of the rest of the Collective and other arriving personnel.

Even as I take a step towards Darcy and her prisoner, more chaos arrives. Renata is wild-eyed and primed for action, taking in everything with a practiced glance. Before I can say a word, another of the elevators arrives, carrying two people I would have never expected.

"Dammit, Kicker," Nick groans and rubs his face. "I told you not to make a scene."

Before Renata can growl, I let loose with one of my own. The low, threatening burr of sound stills every muscle in the room. Few are stupid enough to ignore that primal a sound. Beside her old coworker, Alex blinks big brown eyes at me, clearly startled by what's going on. Nick has wisely flinched from the sound, and Darcy swallows audibly, but doesn't let up her stranglehold.

"I sent the first Hounds to look for others," I say quietly and kneel beside the stranger. "Let up, Darcy. Damn nice job, by the way. Remind me to reward you later."

The woman groans as her arm drops flat and the stiletto is removed from the base of her neck. My hand in its place stills any potential movement.

"Don't move. Trust me that my reflexes are more than most anything on this earth can counter. I'd rather not prove how deadly I can be."

"Alright," she murmurs in a thick southern accent, flinching at my invasive hands on her prone body. With a very through frisking that leaves her only the modesty of being fully dressed, I grab the back of her shirt and the heavy belt to brusquely stand her up. "You and you," I instruct, looking pointedly at Nick and Alex. "My office, now. Darcy, will you and the others see to my guest? I'll see to you later, 'Kiko."

Feeling bad for my visiting playmate, I have to trust that she knows business must take precedence over anything else. Nick's looking uncomfortably around makes my hackles stand on end and I bellow, "Anyone else?"

While part of me rails that I sound like an idiot talking to thin air, I know better than to ignore impulses like this. Right on cue, two more figures appear in the hallway leading to the executive offices, making me bristle further. Whoever that big male is, he's big.

"Well then, I see we've convened expeditiously," drawls a familiar and unexpected voice. "This isn't like you, Kicker."

There are few people who not only garner my instant respect, but I almost fear, but Ingle is one of them.

"I..." my prisoner hedges and actually shakes a bit in my hard grip. I know confusion and pain when I see it. Gentling a bit, after all, she's clearly associated with people I trust despite the break in, I push her towards Ingle and her enormous shadow.

"Darcy, send up one of the docs too, won't you?"

++ Renata ++

Seething with anger and high emotion, I prowl the rooms and corridors of my domain like a jungle cat. My territory has been violated and my charges threatened. The helpless feeling is horrible, leaving me feeling violated and naked. Every Hound in the building has come together, received their instructions and dispersed. More have arrived to swell our numbers and comb every inch of the Hearts buildings and the surrounding areas.

Now, working around Dace and her compatriots gets a girl used to a high level of weird shit, but this has me rattled. How the hell had that woman gotten all the way to the ninth floor? I.T. tells me that there is no indication of her trespassing. No eyes or cameras registered her presence until Darcy jumped her.

Speaking of which...

Stepping out onto the exec level, I cast about with astute senses, soaking up the stress and disarray, but lack of danger. Good. After checking in with the Collective, I track Darcy down in the quiet cafeteria.

"Hey," I greet her quietly, relieved when she looks up with slightly bloodshot eyes. Dammit, she's been crying. "Oh, come here, you."

Sniffling a bit, Darcy lets me hug her tightly, the two of us curled up in the dimmest corner of the cavernous space. With unerring timing, Frenchie appears with steaming mugs topped with whipped cream and a pair of garishly green cupcakes. With a wink, she leaves as quietly as she arrived, certainly not the usual MO for the bubbly chef.

"Nice work, by the way."

Sighing, Darcy sits up and glares at me. "You're mad at me."

"No, no Iím not. I'm..." How do I explain myself? "I'm mad because I wasn't there. Stopping this sort of shit is my job."

Big hazel eyes blink at my cussing, a true indicator of my stress. Darcy and me have been close friends for a great many years now and she could probably count how many times Iíve done that.

"Well, all of your lessons paid off," Darcy muses and rubs both hands over her face, completely ruining her already ravaged makeup. "even if the whole thing has left me completely unnerved. I don't even remember reacting."

"Well, that's good."

While we talk out what happened before I arrived, we drink the exquisite coffees laced with chocolate and devour the cupcakes. No sane person refuses one of Frenchie's specialties. Thus bolstered with caffeine and sugar, I walk Darcy to the bathroom and head for the boss' office.

The Hounds flanking the door don't flicker as I move past them with a nod. My people know their jobs and overperform. It's one of the pleasures of being a Hound in the first place, much less their boss.

The boss' office falls quiet when the door opens and I boldly meet every eye that falls on me. These people may be powerful, but this is my territory, dammit!

++ Dace ++

The headache building behind my eyes is going to be a doozy. Too much damn juju in this small room. Renata's hot, bristly energy only adds fuel to the mix and I absorb and ignore as best I can. "Everything okay, Ren?"

It takes a moment for my subordinate to tear her eyes away from glowering about the room. "The initial sweep is clean. My teams are going over the building and immediate surroundings with a fine tooth comb. I.T. reports no indication of the break in or how that woman got as far as she did."

The dark, alert eyes sweep around the room, looking for the perp. When they alight on Kicker's forlorn, recumbent body on my big couch, I watch inky eyebrows flare up then furrow in confusion. A flicker of my hand waves her over and I gesture expansively at the table. "You know Ingle and Alex. This is Nick Boyle of The Legacy, keeper of the San Francisco House. The blondes are his people. Nick, Mac, this is Renata Drewson, my head of building security."

Leaping to his feet, the still boyishly handsome Nick approaches my guard dog with hand extended. "We're very sorry about the chaos caused today. Is that pretty lady out in the bullpen felling okay? You're staff did great, by the way."

He's foundering at Renata's blatant rebuff and I make a soft sound of rebuke. Bristling at the sound, she very reluctantly shakes the offered hand, her posture rigid and expression stony. "Did great doing what, exactly?"

"Catching Kicker."

Despite the weight of many eyes, the woman doesn't move. Good, it's about time the painkillers kicked in. Kerry will be surprised when I tell her later how long the stranger lasted. With that nearly dislocated shoulder, she was hurting and later, will get dragged down to the clinic for more testing. Renata notes the sling and smiles evilly to herself, making me sigh. She's not going to like this at all.

"Ren, you might want to sit for this. Kicker and Big Mac here," the great draft horse of a man nods silently. "Test security for The Legacy. Particularly otherworldly type shit. Normally, they wouldn't bother us, because let's face it, this is one of the safest damn places on the planet, what with all the Sentinels and amazing personnel that live her. Or practically live here anyway." The compliment softens her just a tad, those expressive eyes more focused and less angry. "Darcy, whom you've trained so very well, spotted Kicker and, well, kicked her butt. And Darcy isn't even a Hound. The building has been secured and the surprise handled well."

"So why break in then?"

"If I may?"

Ingle's smooth, oddly accented voice cools the room with the power of her charisma. It's gotten more and more noticeable with time.

"Many millennia ago, I began the organization that has become The Legacy. It's job was to monitor what humanity would now call 'supernatural' activity. Sometimes, it is places, other times objects or people. More often than not, the agents go into a situation completely blind, relying only on training and raw talent. The Lairds have been some of the best. Mac and Kicker are brother and sister."

"Runs in the family," Mac drawls in the same, thick southern accent as his sleeping sibling.

"Certainly familial lines are notorious for carrying special talents," Ingle adds and the entire table, sans poor Ren, smile knowingly. "But that isn't why we're here. We need your help and today's test was part of that. Though I do wish that Kicker hadn't stupidly taken it on herself to do it. First impressions and all that."

"If I may, boss?" Nick interrupts gently and Ingle nods.

"A few weeks ago, Kicker and I were on a mission in Chile to track down an Artifact. Well, we found it alright." Even though I know what's coming, his boyish blush of embarrassment makes me smile behind a concealing hand. It's a relief that Alex has to do the same, her dark eyes twinkling. "You'll have to excuse me, Miss Drewson, the circumstances of this... problem, are humiliating." Clearing his throat, Nick gamely presses on. "So, Kick and I found the Item and it zapped us but good."

"Zapped you?"

If Renata's tone were any drier, there would be sand on the floor. Chuckling, I jump in, drawing over my sec chief's eye. "More of the magical juju crap I know you love so much. The Item, which I trust is locked up somewhere safe now?" Nick nods adamantly. "Had picked up some extra whammo over the centuries. Originally it had been some sort of healing talisman, but over time became geared towards fertility."

Again, Renata's dark brows furrow and I grin. She's got it already, she just doesn't believe it. Not that I blame her. When she looks at me for conformation, I nod.

"Yep, our new ward is the latest edition of the immaculate conception."

++ Renata ++

The lines of tension I noted on the boss' face are migrating to my own. I don't care for the esoteric parts of working for this unique woman. Rosie handles it far better than I, particularly since she's around all the usual children so much. Rubbing my nose with both thumbs, I speak quietly, knowing the whole table is listening.

"So let me get this straight. You and the blonde ninja here went searching for some lost magical artifact that knocked her up, presumably with your unwilling involvement, Mister Boyle? And now, The Legacy wants us to babysit? You'll forgive my incredulity."

"It's more than that, Renata," Alex interjects, her calm voice reassuring. "She is extraordinary, he is extraordinary and the circumstances of the child's conception were extraordinary. That child will be something truly special."

"And powerful," Dace chimes in, looking quietly dangerous where she lounges back in her seat. "Some of us can already sense it."

"So you'll be taking her out to the Ranch I assume?"

"Nope." Not the answer I was expecting and my expression makes Dace sit up and grin. "I can tell her energies will unnerve Alexis and possibly Rachel. There's no need for that, as she can live here in the building. Besides, Iíve already been informed that the siblings," she nods her head at the big blonde man, "are inseparable. And you know there's no men at the Ranch."

"Ooookay," I drawl out, confounded now and involuntarily look over at the lanky form draped over the boss's couch. "What then?"

"I need you to make her your special project."

She's got to be joking.

"This time of year?"

My piercing note of disbelief brings a strange look over Dace's face. We have an odd relationship, warm in a hands-off respectful kind of way. For me to pop off so disrespectfully is uncharacteristic, especially in front of VIPs. Clearing my throat and silently cursing the heat I can feel on my face, I nod at the towering blonde.

"My apologies for that outburst, King of Hearts. Of course Iíll see that she's taken care of."

But I know this is a bad idea, my guts are tight and anxious, like a teenager on her first date. Dace regards me with that cool feline gaze, danger lurking just under the surface while quiet reigns over the room. Then she sits up with a sharp nod and continues of as though nothing has just happened. "Okay, gang, as much as I want to grill for details, your timing is abysmally bad. New Years you understand. Busy, busy, busy. Kicker can sleep herself out right where she is. Mac, Iím to assume that you'll stay with her?"


"Good, get Renata's phone number and let her know when you two need to get settled in. Darcy and the others in the bullpen your sister stirred up can find you a small apartment in the building. Nick, can you stick around for a couple days? Or at least give Alex everything you can. Ingle, as much as Iíd like to grill you too, mundane concerns must dictate."

While they talk amidst themselves, I dig out the tiny case of business cards and approach the human draft horse. His eyes are a very unusual, vibrant green in his strong face, peering from beneath a shock of straight, wheat colored hair.

"Don't let this out of your sight," I tell him sincerely and he nods seriously, but I see a glint of what could be humor and pull the card away from his reaching hand. "I'm quite serious Mr. Laird. These are not my common business numbers. If you and your sibling are to be my 'special project'," my subtly scathing tone brings up that glint of humor and barely curls the corner of his serious mouth. "You should have the best way of contacting me."

To my surprise, one of those massive hands gently takes my wrist, tilting my hand so that he can peruse the small card. After a mere moment, he nods decisively and releases me. The power in his grip is startling, as is the careful, gentle control of it.

"Ah have it, Miss Renata, thank you."

"Have what?"

"Yer numbers. Ah'm good with numbers. Now, you ain't got a reason to fret. Ah'll call when she wakes up."

Did he really memorize four phone numbers that fast? Most couldn't read them that quickly. Oh well, not my problem. With a nod of acknowledgment, I take my leave, disconcerted by the distinct feel of his cool green eyes on me.

++ Darcy ++

Oh, that strange woman had scared the shit out of me. Really, you'd think Iíd be used to people being able to sneak up on me, but I never do. And a stranger? I'd gone into reflex mode, a fight or flight response that still has me shaken. Particularly when I saw how she'd dangled limply in Daddy's grip, like a half-dead kitten, her arm clearly hurt from my grip.

"She'll be fine, you worry wart."

Jumping from Ren's unexpected voice, I look up to search the familiar dark gaze. "You're sure?"

Rolling said eyes expressively, Ren throws herself into the guest chair beside my desk and petulantly crosses her arms across her body, as though protecting herself. The gaze is cloudy and brooding and well honed instincts tell me to hold my tongue for a moment. Renata really does have the most expressive eyes, deeply dark, a rich brown like expensive chocolate and just as seductive. Really such a shame she's so impossibly married. Not that I mind, because she's the best friend I think Iíve ever had. And I adore Rosie and Scotty to pieces!

"What's bothering you?"

My question deepens that scowl for a moment, before Ren blows out a hard breath and finally meets my gaze. "She's another of Dace's 'special cases'", the sarcasm is scathing and I swallow an inappropriate grin, "and she wants me to babysit her because she's pregnant!"

After a moment, I realize that's all that's forthcoming and cock an eyebrow. "And?"

"What do you mean, 'and?'"

"Why foist a pregnant stranger on you?"

"She can't go to the Ranch because of the brother. That was the big guy in the hallway, by the way. They're inseparable I was told. So, they have to stay here and the brass seems to think she could be in some sort of danger. Ugh, this timing sucks."

Sighing heavily, Ren leaps to her feet and gives me a warm look that is almost a smile. "If the brother needs anything, help him out okay? His name is Mac Laird. I'm off to make my rounds and check in on the teams. I'll be back in a couple hours."

I watch Renata stride away, purposeful and powerful as always, before I give myself a shake and get back to business. Las Vegas is chaos during the holiday season, but the New Year's festivities are the highlight of our business year. The fact that the quarterly meeting is on the 6th never helps matters, but it's the best season to be here in the desert.

Tessa is in charge. Particularly the personal schedules and comings and goings of our two royals. But, as time has gone on, more and more of Dace's life has been pressed onto me. Not that I mind. I adore my Daddy and Tessa has spent years grooming me to fill her stilettos. Just like Iíll need to find a successor at some point. The right match will happen, I have no doubt of that.

I'm deeply engrossed in my work when the rest of the Collective goes quiet and a low, soft baritone clears his throat softly. "Umm, Miss Darcy is it?"

Goodness, he really is a big man, Ren wasn't kidding. He must stand as tall as Bubba and is built like a Olympic athlete. "Mac Laird I presume?"

His smile is small and relieved. Clearly, not the demonstrative type then. Noted. "Yes ma'am. Miss Renata said that I should speak with you about a place to live for mah sister and I."

"Certainly. Do you have any preferences?"

"Preferences, ma'am?"

His deference in that soft, thick accent is charming and I dimple at him. "Location, access to amenities, that sort of thing."

"Whelp, we're new here, so ah'll leave us in yer capable hands. We travel a lot, so we don't need anythin' fancy."

Checking in with housekeeping's servers, Iím alarmed to see that we're booked up solid. Drat. This will take some maneuvering. Then, on a whim, I check in on the actual apartments and it's a relief to see that there's a family unit on the sixth floor recently left open.

"Perfect. Now, this apartment is probably much to large for two, but it will do nicely for a week or so until things are less hectic here. Did the King of Hearts give either of you a pass?"

"No ma'am, but will this do?"

It's a simple, heavy plastic card that looks like its seen some hard times. When I pass it over the reader, it knows it, lighting up with a base profile for my new pal. And an impressive clearance level. Interesting. "McKenna. That's a nice name. You wouldn't happen to have your sister's would you?"

"No ma'am," he chuckles throatily and I know the straight girls and gay boys are going to go gaga over him. "Even drugged unconscious, she'd most likely kick my skull clean off mah shoulders. Soon as she's up, she needs ta come 'pologize ta you anyhow."

"Now, Mister Laird..."

"Please, call me Mac."

"Alright then, Mac. Your sister and I were just doing our jobs."

"But she stressed ya and I don't cotton ta that."

It's rather sweet, being quietly fussed over by this handsome stranger and my inner flirt can't help herself. "Oh, all right then, if you insist."

"Ah do. However, ah should be getting' back before she wakes in a strange place. Thank ya much for yer help, Miss Darcy."

"You're welcome."

++ Renata ++

It's hours before Iím satisfied that we're back on track. There's so damn much happening all over the Heartís empire this time of year, that a snafu like this can really kill us. Thankfully, with that little test of our defenses not an actual breach, we have recovered quickly and I can finally retreat to my apartment.

Not surprising, my wife and son have not left, probably worried about what happened earlier. Before I even get the door closed, Scotty has flown from the other room to pretty much tackle me. "Madre! We were worried! What happened? Billy came by to say there was no danger, but we're worried anyway!"

"Scotty, it's okay. An outside contractor," oh wouldn't that description make Ingle smirk, "was testing our security. Darcy caught her fair and square."

"Our Darcy?" Rosie queries as she comes into the main room to join the snuggle. "Guess those self-defense lessons have paid off."

"Yeah, she pretty much said the same thing. She was a little shaken up, but Iím headed back upstairs to check on her."

Giving Rosie a quick peck, I raise a quieting hand when Scotty would object. "After I came to see you, of course. Now, as much as I wanted to join you two today, I think that the holidays are going to cut that short."


"I know, son, Iím disappointed too. The busy time will be over soon and we can finish the details of your party. Sound good?"

With a happy yell, Scotty squeezes me and races off. That leaves Rosie and I to share wry smiles before hugging tight. Sighing gustily, I confess, "I'd really rather spend the day here."

"Right here in the entryway?"

The cheek in her tone matches the dimpled smile when I pull away to mock glower. "As though you'd have any complaints."

"Oh, get out of here," she laughs and swats me on the ass to get me moving. Regretfully, I obey and get back to work.

Waiting for the elevator, I debate calling Jack to hash out the newest wave of weirdness. Rosie's older sister had been my mentor in the Hearts and the woman who built the security force that are now the well-oiled machine known as the Hounds. Her name for us too. When she left years ago to work on that damn ship, I know The Lady Heartsblood had been furious for a long time. If she'd stayed, she would be in Dace's place. Same story with Karen. But Jack's destiny has lain with Dugan and The Major Arcana ever since she met them both. Same as I was instantly smitten with her sister when I laid eyes on her all those years ago.

My musing is interrupted by the buzz of my phone. I know from the tone that this is one of the rare numbers that few have and instantly fish out the little device. Carefully placing my fingers over the electronics pads that read my bio-electric signature, I answer.


"Miss Renata?" Mac Laird's voice carries to my ears and I cast my gaze at the floor numbers flashing as I rise. "Ah wanted you to know that Kicker is comin' 'round."

"Good. I'll be there in moments."

"Yes ma'am."

With a brisk stride, I nod acknowledgment to the Collective and hurry to Dace's office. Inside, Mac is hovering over his sister, who is sitting up with her head in her hands. Good, at least she can use that arm. That will make Darcy feel better.

"C'mon, ya wuss," Mac chortles, but I notice his steadying hand is terribly gentle. "Just a mess ah painkillers."

"Fuck you, Big Mac."

Despite myself, I have to smile. Good to know my pet project is sassy.

"Sorry to interrupt," I say quietly, but with authority, "but I figured we needed to make plans. We haven't met yet, Miss Laird, but I'm Renata Drewson, head of security for the House of Heart corporate building."

When the blonde tilts her head back at a slightly drunken angle, Iím instantly struck by how pretty she is. A defined, almost angular face with a narrow, straight nose, a well formed mouth and round apple cheeks that soften her looks. The eyes are hazy and squinted, but I swear I see gemstone green.

Then she blinks as though to clear her eyes and the rush of sensation is like a vacuum.

The eyes are green, yes, but calling them merely green is an understatement of epic proportions. They are flashy and richly hued like faceted malachite, a color too exotic to be human. For a breathless moment, I must hallucinate as her face changes subtly. The beautiful, girl-next-door face becomes otherworldly gorgeous, cheekbones swept high, eyebrows arched delicately, that mouth to pretty to be real. But again, those impossible eyes are huge and expressive in that exotic face.

Are those pointed ears?

Shaking my head to fight off whatever incredible effect this is, I stumble back and sit heavily in one of the boardroom chairs. Her gaze is wide and shocked, even when she blinks and there's some sort of strange blur and she is once more merely attractive.

But my guts know that something off the charts has happened here.

"You... you saw that." Her voice is low and shocked, almost whispery. "You ain't supposed to be able ta see that. Who are you?"

Who am I? Who the hell is she? Or what might be the better question. It must show in my eyes, for she visibly recoils, turning her head away as though Iíve slapped her. It's that so very human reaction, the pain of my reaction to her differentness that breaks through my shock. Get a grip, Renata, you've seen weirder in this job.

"Ummm... forgive me the intrusion, Miss Laird. You, uh... caught me off guard." My voice sounds high pitched and shaken even to my own ears, but at least it was coherent. Still unable to look away from her, I see Mac relax a bit and only then realize that he was about to come over the table and pummel me. With effort, I tear my eyes away and look at him. The veiled danger in his more ordinary gaze is very real, as is his silent understanding.

Truly shaken by the odd encounter, I force myself to close my eyes before rubbing my forehead. I feel like Iíve been whacked a good one and my brain isn't happy. Deep breaths and years of training help me force down the unsettling sensations and face the siblings with some calm.

A fragile sensation when faced with this charismatic stranger.

++ Kicker ++

Still loopy on painkillers and everything Iíve been through the last couple of months, I hadn't known who to expect when I looked up at the lady with that velvety, smoky voice. Her looks match her rich voice, dark and mysterious and intense. Straight, nearly black hair curls slightly against her neck and her earthy eyes are intense as they regard me. I'm not used to this sort of regard, this intensity. My job and my specialty is to fade into the background, to be part of the scenery, unseen and unimportant. It keeps me safe and makes me extremely good at what I do.

But she is not fooled.

The expressive dark eyes round and color drains from her face, noticeable despite her warmly tinted skin, before she flushes. I'm fascinated and frightened by the regard, and the tug of connection to this stranger. And I hadn't expected her shock to hurt. That leaves me perhaps even more rattled.

My hand itches to reach up and fondle the gem hanging around my neck, despite years of training to not do so. Calling attention to the Items I wear is dangerous; as I'm well aware of.

"The boss... the King of Hearts, has asked that I take care of you while you're with us. So, if you'll follow me, Iíll show you to your rooms."

Still flummoxed by whatever passed between me and this stranger, I give my brother a confused look and he smiles faintly, his gaze as secretive as always. The stress in her tone is clear, but Iím distracted by the effort of standing up. The pretty woman that wiped the floor with me upon my discovery in the building really did a number on elbow and shoulder. Even the arcane energies that benefit me haven't finished cleaning up the damage.

Lightheaded and hurting, I note my brother's familiar touch on my right arm and grabbing my belt buckle. But I also note strong, slender hands on my back and an unfamiliar body heat near my sore arm.

"Ah'm... Ah'm alright," I manage to whisper after clearing my dry throat. There's been so many changes going on my body I can't keep up with them. As has become my habit, I ruthlessly shove away my wildly conflicted feelings about what has happened to me, the violation of it all. As he always does, Mac sees my emotions and gives me a light headbutt to make me smile.

It would have worked if I didn't feel so damn off kilter and queasy. "Miss... Miss..."

Her name has completely left my mind, just like that.


"Renata. Pretty name for a very pretty lady." The brown eyes are warm and maybe a little flustered. When I can think clearly again, this is going to be very embarrassing. "Ah think ah need food and rehydratin'. Doctor says I hafta be careful 'bout that."

Between her compact, curvy body and Mac's bulk, I find myself in a comfortable booth in a room that smells like culinary heaven. I'm drooling hard enough that I have to swallow hard. They're talking to me, but Iím too fuzzy to really make sense of it. Then a head full of frizzy pinkish hair above a thoughtful smile and the happiest blue eyes I've ever seen seems to appear from nowhere, like an angel. Without a sound, she hands over a big mug that is warm on my hands.

It's something sweet and not quite milk with a splash of good, rich coffee that warms me all the way down. Did I just make that undignified sound? Oh who cares, this is amazing. With some of my base needs covered, comprehension returns and I smile weakly at my companions. "Ah feel better. This is really delicious."

"That's my super power," chuckles a voice and my pink-haired angel is back with a tray. "Knowing just what you need. That's almond milk with a splash of espresso and some sweetening. Drink it all now!" With effortless motion she serves up an army of shiny china plates loaded with goodies and two more mugs.

"Umm... that's a lot of food."

"Trust me," she says mysteriously and who can argue with dimples like that?

Like some sort of clichť curse, I have suffered through every tv sitcom pregnancy horror in these first nine weeks. Sickness, sleeplessness, weird cravings, mood swings; and Iím not even showing yet!

"Frenchie, I..." Renata starts to say as she drinks from her mug and I watch Mac echo the move and physically startle at the taste.

"Croissant," the flamboyant woman says simply and raises an imperious hand to forestall any further before pointing at the plates. Then she smiles winningly at my brother, who miracle of miracles, actually smiles back. "And you're welcome, sweeties. Eat up!"

It's a hearty country breakfast the likes of which would make a cowboy weep. Shockingly delicious with a notable lack of greasiness, for which my stomach is grateful, and a complete lack of eggs. The gigantic croissant on the lady's plate, drizzled with sinfully dark chocolate, looks demure by comparison.

++ Renata ++

What an odd situation I have found myself in. Breakfast with disconcerting strangers that I will be forced to deal with on a regular basis thanks to my boss. Both Lairds eat neatly and with gusto, making small happy noises of appreciation. That much food early in the day, or at all really, would make me ill. But they are far larger than I, heavy with muscle and in vibrantly good health.

Against my will, I find myself gazing at the fine physique of the unusual woman they call Kicker. She stands around Darcy's 5'9 but built much more solidly. Her hair is long and a few shades lighter than her brother and pulled back neatly at the nape of her neck. The gender neutral overshirt with a white tank over baggy jeans is very 'skater boi', but seems to suit her.

Unbidden, my eyes drift down, near her plate, where her abdomen hides under the table. Then I have to shake myself out and wolf down my pastry, not the way I like to savor the treat, and get the hell out of here. Time to let my busy schedule save my sanity. Even as I open my mouth, Frenchie appears to hand over my familiar travel mug. "I got it, hon. The Anderson place I presume? It's going to need some more furniture to be comfortable."

Really, one learns to not question how the woman knows everything that happens in this building. Hell, there are days I rely on it.

When I stand, both pairs of green eyes are instantly on me. Curse that tingle of awareness...

"As much as I hate to bail on you, duty calls. Frenchie here will see to it that you are taken care of, okay? The next week is our busiest time of year, Iím afraid. If you need anything..."

"Rennie, I got it, go!"

Even Darcy wouldn't dare swat me on the ass like my wife does, much less use that damn nick name, but Frenchie has her own set of rules. So I smile thinly at the staring siblings and make my escape.

Far from making a pathetic excuse, I really am under a challenging deadline. Las Vegas is well known for her New Year's festivities and we are every bit as busy as the businesses with less risque specialties. Perhaps more so. There are events here in the building that require the extreme end of discretion that we can provide on our home turf, in addition to most if not all of the Hearts holdings here and in other cities.

By the time I return home it is dark and quiet, filling me with a pang of guilt. Again, I didn't make it back in time to feed my loved ones, leaving them to forage under Frenchie's domain. Not that Frenchie's food isn't the best on the planet, but it wasn't made by me, here at home. Rosie is many things, but the kitchen is off limits to her. She can barely boil water and is a danger to herself and everyone else with anything sharper than a spoon. Scotty has potential when I have time to work with him and Rosie can cheer us on from a safe distance.

There is never enough hours in the day. There never have been.

No matter how quiet I try to be, Rosie always wakes to my presence. Really, why do I even bother?

"Hey, baby," she murmurs sleepily, stirring in the big bed and I see her dark head raise up a bit. We have played this scene out a million times, day after day of this life we built together.

Domestic bliss.

It's all I ever wanted, this stable safety, knowing those I love will be here, night after night.

Stunning gem-green eyes fill my mind's eye and I freeze as though a spotting laser has landed on my chest with its pinpoint intent. Is this what Papa felt when he would be tempted away from Mama and me all those times? This sudden and hungry draw to a stranger?

I'm cold all over.

"Gonna shower," I manage to choke out and retreat with fumbling urgency, trying to ignore the curiosity and concern I can feel so clearly. Shaken, I stare at my reflection in the harsh light of the bathroom, stunned at the ashen pallor of my skin. Eyes dilated, hands shaking, I feel like Iím going to be physically ill. I cannot be attracted to that woman, I will not.

Screwing my eyes closed, I grip the counter and will down my churning emotions. This is not me. I do not cheat. I don't afford temptation a second glance. I am utterly dedicated to wife and son. That is me.

It feels like a long time passes before calm settles.

I had been tired before coming in here and now Iím shaking with exhaustion. A shower will be near torture, a task I can barely manage. When I finish up and literally fall into bed beside my wife, she squeaks at the chill of my wet hair. Then she rolls over and slender arms pull me to the soft body I know better than my own.

"You okay, baby?"

I find I have no honest answer.