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Meeting Midnight

Ankarrah Chronicles Book One

J.D. Dexter

Copyright © 2018. J.D. Dexter

All rights reserved. This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by United States of America copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, at “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter One

“Let’s go, Josh. You should’ve done your primping at home,” I drawl at my best friend from outside the open car window. It’s a balmy Friday night and spring weather in Kansas changes its mind as often as girls change their clothes to follow the next fashion trend. I wrap one hand around my long brown hair, the other holding the skirt of my maxi dress, trying to keep both from flying everywhere.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not all of us can go through life without having to do anything to look beautiful,” he grouses at me as he rises. His six foot four frame towering over the hood of his low-slung Camaro—his self-proclaimed pride and joy. Softly closing the door to his car, he meets me at the front of the car.

“Aww, thanks, Josh. I think you’re beautiful too. Even if you are wearing more hair gel than I am.” I stand on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

“Men are not beautiful. Men are handsome,” he corrects me. Holding my arm, he leads me around to the back of the dilapidated bar.

“And we’re going to this standing health code violation, why? Where did you even hear about the esteemed Roscoe’s?” I feel like my eyes are going to pop out of my head from straining to see where I’m going in the fading sunlight. My wedge heels are not the off-road variety. The old, dilapidated building appears as if a strong Kansas wind could knock it into the next county.

“You’ll see.” Josh steers me around some potholes that could swallow my Mini Cooper.

“Right. That’s what you said at the place last time. We ended up sprinting to Coop just to escape the man with the shotgun.” I remember feeling like one of the Duke brothers from my dad’s favorite TV show.

“You’ve really got to quit naming your cars, Fin. It’s a little creepy.”

“Men name their cars all the time. Why can’t I?”

“Um, because you’re not a man?”

“You really want to get into that conversation again?”

“Nope, you’re right. Not tonight,” He mutters under his breath, hunching his shoulders.

I chuckle quietly as I remember the last time we had a discussion about the double standards Josh holds. He was soundly trounced in logic; even his dad sided with me. And Mr. H is about as old-school patronizing as they come. Neither of them are misogynists, they just don’t think women should do things that men do. Women are supposed to be classy, tactful, and willing to let men take care of them.

I put a stop to those notions when I was ten and got Josh out of a fight by beating up his bully. He just needs to be reminded of that every once in a while. I’m one of the few women in the Hastings men’s lives who are afforded a more equal footing in their lives. Josh’s mother, two sisters, and grandmother being the other select few. Even I wouldn’t tangle with Mrs. H; that woman is frightening.

We finally make our way through the booby-trapped parking lot and make it to the entrance. The rancid wafts of decaying trash drift on the wind. Josh reaches out to rap his knuckles against the aging grayed wood just as it opens. His reflexes are the only thing that keep him from knocking on a bottle-blonde’s head, right between her eyes.

“Watch it, jerk!” She hisses at him. Her clothes look tight enough that I’m worried about her circulation. Her red lipstick a little smeared around the open gash of her mouth, making it seem like she’s bleeding.

She stumbles out of the doorway, crashing between our bodies. I’m lucky she’s so short, and Josh has a good grip on my arm, otherwise Ms. Trashy and I would’ve both ended up sprawled on the dirty stoop. Looking stunned and a little confused, she glares up at us through her damaged hair.

“How’d a fat girl like you land a prime ten like him?” She snarls at me while jerking her head in Josh’s direction. She’s definitely right about Josh being a prime ten. The boy has more muscles than Thor, and a body that makes lesser gods weep.

I laugh down at her. “Honey, some men like filet mignon instead of flank steak.” Running my hand over my padded hip, I say, “Real men appreciate a fine cut of meat.”

“Come on, baby. Let’s leave the flank steak here to ponder her life choices,” Josh mocks as we continue our way into the weakly lighted bar. His hand resting low on my hip, squeezing the flesh through the fabric of my sundress. While I’m not stick thin, I’m certainly not fat. I have more curves than a mountain switchback road – at least according to my Nonna. She told me that one day I would appreciate my height and curves.

She was right.

“Assholes!” The shriek sounds just as the door slams. Enclosed in the dank, stinky room, I pause for a moment to let me eyes adjust. The stale smell of old cigarettes permeates the room even though indoor smoking has been banned for a while now.

“And you brought us here, why, again?” I ask Josh out of the side of my mouth.

“You’ll see,” he answers, absolutely unfazed by the interaction outside or inside.

I turn to look at him, almost eye to eye in my heels, and see his eyes flitting back and forth, looking for someone. Seeing his eyes track, stop, and go back, I turn, looking to see who has caught his attention.

“Brian?” I blurt out, caught completely off guard to see one of Josh’s favorite cousins, and another of my best friends, striding across the wooden floor towards us, his boot heels sounding like muffled shotgun blasts. His dark hair absorbing the light, a slash of a smile on his chiseled face. He moved to an outlying neighborhood, meaning we didn’t get to see him as often as we would like.

My shriek fills the air as I’m swung up into the air. Brian’s hands latch together under my butt. Throwing my head back, extending my arms with my hands wrapped around his thick neck, I let loose a happy squeal, wrapping my dangling legs around his lean waist. I lean forward and smack my lips to his quickly, our typical greeting.

“Easy there, Fin. You might want to tone back the enthusiasm a bit. The clientele here are a little too excited by your reaction.” Josh cautions me from behind.

Brian’s arms move from beneath my butt, catching the hem of my dress, as he goes to set me on my feet. I can feel Josh’s hands frantically grabbing at the fabric of my dress. A catcall sounds from the far side of the room. I can feel Brian’s chest muscles tense under my fingers at the sound as my feet make contact with the floor again.

“Easy, big guy. No worries,” I reassure the giant man in front of me. If Josh makes me feel petite, Brian makes me feel like a tween. He’s a least six inches taller than me now, even though I’m wearing heels. His chest resembles a good whiskey barrel that whittles down to a narrow waist. His legs are so powerful and muscular, he struggles to find jeans that aren’t tailored. We used to give each other crap about being the tallest guy and girl in school.

Looking into Brian’s eyes, the color a deeper blue than Josh’s, I see he’s pulling back from pummeling the stupid idiot on the other side of the bar. His face losing the harsh edges. As I smile at him, I can see an answering smirk begin to pull at his mouth.

“How’s Brent?” I ask about his younger brother, the last of our Four Musketeers.

“Ask him yourself, nugget.” Wrapping his massive arm around my shoulders, I get tugged towards the far side of the dreary space. There’s Brent, looking ill at ease, in his typical three-piece suit. His dapper clothes definitely making stand out in this dive.

He and Brian are a study in opposites. Brian is big, burly, and a teddy bear—unless you mess with me or his family. Brent is slight, lean, and fiery—until you get to know him.

“Brent!” I launch myself at him as he rises from the booth. We’re the same height with me in heels, making him a rock solid six foot one. We stumble as he tries to find his footing, tripping back a couple of steps under my onslaught.

“Finley!” He mimics my cry before laying his mouth gently to my smiling lips in a quick kiss of greeting.

I’m not touchy-feely with anyone other than my three best friends and my parents. I’ve never felt comfortable enough with others to allow them into my personal space, but I cherish the closeness I have with these stable men. I’ll be a little sad, but mostly happy, when they meet their future wives.

Pulling back, I put both of my hands on his cheeks. Looking in his golden brown eyes, I see some stress and trouble.

“What’s up, buttercup?” I can feel my brow furrowing. No one gets to hurt my boys, and this looks more intense than something from work.

“We’ll get there, I promise,” he answers just as quietly. Releasing me, he steps over to give Josh a hug and a manly back pat.

We all settle into the booth that Brent had been sitting at before he stood up. Brian and Brent share one side of the booth while Josh and I sit opposite them.

Brian and Brent have already ordered a couple of beers, the condensation sliding slowly down the brown glass. The yeasty smell of beer coats the back of my throat, making me swallow down a gag. I’ve never liked the stuff.

The waitress comes over, her look frankly appraising the booth full of delicious men I’m surrounded by. I smile and give her a wink, which she returns.

“What can I getcha?” She drawls, jutting her right hip out, her weight resting on the other leg. I bet her hips are killing her by the end of the night. Mentally, I start analyzing her stance and the issues she probably deals with on a daily basis: hips, knees, feet, upper back, and top of her shoulders. Being a massage therapist who specializes in muscular dysfunction, analyzing people is an occupational hazard.

My ability to see the colors inside and around others is something I’ve hidden for my entire life. I have to actively work to not see the colors swirling around others. I think it’s just rude to know that kind of information without someone telling me about it explicitly.

If I want to, I can see the colors of pain swirling around her body in pulses and waves. It’s something I’ve always been able to do, and one of the things that makes me so great at fixing muscular dysfunction.

I blink a couple of times, bringing the waitress back into focus, as Josh taps his thigh to mine. “I’ll just have a Coke, thanks,” I hurry to provide an answer, knowing that I’ve lost track of real life again. Sometimes I get caught up in watching people. I get so lost that I let life pass me by on occasion.

I can feel Josh’s upper body moving up and down at my side, a clear indication he’s laughing at me. He laughs when I ‘blank out’ in public. He’s told me he thinks it’s because I find everyone and everything around me boring, so I just tune everything out. I haven’t corrected him in the twenty years we’ve been friends.

Brian and Brent are snickering under their breath as well. They don’t know, or at least haven’t told me, what they think happens when I blank out, but they find it funny nonetheless.

“Sorry,” I offer to the waitress. She just laughs too, nods her head, and goes to get our drinks.

“Losing track still, Finley?” Brent wondered.

“Yup.” I give him a wink.

If they only knew. I’m weird and I know that, supernatural healing abilities notwithstanding. I own it and try to make it work for me. Most of the time I’m successful—well, at least I consider myself successful, anyways.

All the men chuckle.

“I’m glad to see not too much has changed since I moved to Andover.” Brian smiles.

“Does that mean some things have changed since then?” I notice the same stress and trouble deeper in Brian’s eyes than I saw in Brent’s.

“Everything is always changing, Finley-babe. You know that.”

“Indubitably,” I cheekily answer. “But I want to know why both you and Brent are unhappy.” I’m unwilling to see loved ones in pain, especially if I can somehow help make them feel better.

“Here you go.” The waitress puts the drinks down on the scarred table with definite clunks. She wipes her hands on the rag hanging from the apron that seems ubiquitous with people who serve in restaurants and bars.

“Thanks. I appreciate you,” I tell her sincerely, looking into her eyes. The world needs more gratitude. She seems a little surprised, but gives me a big smile and turns to wait on her other customers.

“What?” I ask the smiling men at my table. “There’s nothing wrong with being nice,” I say a bit testily, my cheeks heating just a touch under their scrutiny.

“Not one thing wrong with it, Finley. We should all do it more.” Brent nods his head, before taking a sip from his half-full bottle.

“Finley here charms her way into the hearts of men and women alike.” Brian lifts his beer bottle in a silent toast.

“I don’t know about charm. I made Josh cry earlier this week.” I beam at Brian. “But thanks for calling me charming. I’ll take it.”

“Now wait a second. I didn’t cry! I manfully shared my pain and anguish. Fin just snickered and told me to suck it up,” Josh pouts. “And she called me Whiny Wendy … again.”

Brent almost spews his beer all over the table at Josh’s remark. Pretty sure some went up his nose with the way he’s pinching it and wincing.

“Uh huh,” I nod at the table, giving Brian and Brent an exaggerated wink. “Right. ‘Manfully shared.’ He starts yelping,” I deepen my voice. “‘Crap on a cracker, Fin, that hurts!’ He almost used all of my Kleenex.”

Brian and Brent’s laughter shoots out over the room. A momentary hush covers the low muffles that fill the rowdy bar at the burst of sound. Josh huffs a sigh, a slight smile on his mouth.

“Well, crying or not, Josh here can take it, I bet,” Brent offers once his mouth is empty. Brent introduced Josh to Cross Fit, so he’s aware of the physicality that Josh possesses.

“And don’t think I’ve forgotten about you two being unhappy. I want to know what’s going on.” I pin them both with a level stare. The lingering laughter at the table goes up in smoke like a flame doused by water.

I tap my unpolished fingernail on the table top, going for a stern, yet compassionate look. Pretty sure it didn’t faze them in the least.

“Charming and bossy,” Brent says with a sad smile.

“You better believe it, so fess up, brother. I got nothing but time.” I move my fingers in a come ahead gesture.

“Our dad thinks he’s in trouble,” Brian mutters, his shoulders coming up around his ears in defense.

“What kind of trouble can Uncle Mark get into? He’s a doctor,” Josh says, looking perplexed.

“True. Although he’s a PhD, instead of an MD; He’s a medical researcher. He a geneticist and works in adaptations—whatever that means. My eyes glaze over when he goes too in-depth.” He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders slightly.

“Okay. What kind of trouble does he think he’s in?” I ask quietly. Brian is a laid-back kind of guy, and the man sitting across from me is stressed, scared, and losing it.

Brent touches Brian’s arm softly before cupping his beer once again. The brothers have always been close, and it shows now in the comfort they give and take between them.

“He’s been looking at some new markers for cancer in genomes. Don’t ask me specifics because I couldn’t begin to start.” Brian shakes his head. “Anyways, something he’s found has brought a lot of scrutiny. He says he feels like he’s being followed. Things in his office are being moved, at least he thinks so. He thinks his phone is being bugged because he’s noticing some weird clicks and whatnots on his calls now.” Brian takes another drink, his eyes sad.

“Do you believe him?” I ask.

“Dad’s never been the paranoid type, but I can’t imagine someone wanting to follow him or bug his phone. That’s crazy.” He looks at me, his concern for his dad easy to see.

“Maybe to you and to us, but if he thinks creepy things are happening, the least we can do is hear him out. You yourself said you don’t understand what he does at his work. This could be something about all of that, and none of us are smart enough to appreciate the risk.” I shrug my shoulders.

“Besides, if, heaven forbid, something does happen, all of us are going to feel awful for not listening. It costs us nothing to listen, except some time. I can afford time,” I tell them softly.

The two men nod their heads. Brian’s shoulders slump, reminding me of when he was a little boy and reprimanded by his dad. The look of utter dejection.

“I’m guessing that’s not what you wanted to hear,” I say quietly. Brent gives me wide eyes and a small shake of his head.

“No, that’s not what I wanted to hear. But I promised this guy,” jutting his thumb at Brent, “that I would listen to what you had to say. And try to follow your suggestions,” Brian answered.

“Well, other than listening, I’m not really sure I have any suggestions for you right now,” I tell them both.

“Yeah, but you know things, Finley. Things the rest of us don’t. You’ve always been able to see underneath what’s really going on, and I trust your instincts.” Brian leans towards me across the table. The earnestness on his face is difficult to see.

I hold myself really still.

Crap, crap, crap.

No one was supposed to notice…or if they did, they were just supposed to think I was weird. I’m good with people just thinking I’m weird. I don’t need them thinking I’m a freak. “I don’t know what you mean,” I proclaim, trying to look innocent.

“Don’t pull that crap with me, Finley Marie.” His eyes glint in the fluorescent lighting above us. “You know good and well what I’m talking about. We don’t talk about it because it obviously upsets you, but don’t think we haven’t noticed that you’re special,” he replies heatedly. Both of his hands are flat on the table, his fingers splayed wide. He looks like he’s trying to hold himself back from grabbing me and giving me a good shake.

“Thanks—I think—for calling me special. But, really, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I try once again, barely breathing.

“Finley, I’m begging.” Brian’s low voice breaks my heart, especially with the slight sheen of tears in his eyes. And people think he’s this big brute of a guy. All fluff, this one. Which makes me as weak as wet cotton candy, I guess. The fear lurking in his eyes tugs at my heart.

“Fine!” Slumping back against the booth back, my arms crossed over my chest. “I’ll help you out as long as you don’t call me special with that saccharine tone. It makes me feel like I should be wearing a helmet, drool cup, and riding the short bus.”

I sulk for a bit knowing they’ll still give me crap about my being special. I’m just unable—and unwilling—to abandon any of these men when they ask for my help. I’m too picky about letting people into my life, for a variety of reasons, to let any of them think I don’t care about them.

“Wait.” A thought occurs to me. Flicking one finger at the three men surrounding me. “How did you even figure it out? I’ve been careful. Like Clark Kent careful,” I whisper shout at them.

Chuckling is the only answer I get. A trio of deep, masculine laughs fill the space of our booth. They all look at me like I’m an idiot.

“Please.” A pitying look. “Like we don’t know every one of your emotions, or how your face looks during those emotions?” Brian’s obviously the spokesperson for the group this round. Apparently, I get managed a lot by the men in my life. And to think I manage them most of the time. That’ll teach me to get on my high horse. I blow out a breath, rustling the hair near my forehead.

“Your blank face is actually more of a listening face,” Brent says, his laughter dissipating. “Do you remember when I first brought the managing partner to meet this rambunctious group? I had been with the firm for about three years, and Hank was tired of only getting to hear about my great cousin and said cousin’s best girl. He said he wanted to actually meet these people.”

“I can honestly say that Hank was really surprised by you. Enough that had it gone any farther on his end, I would’ve had to have a talk with him about it. You’re tall, built like a wet dream, have fascinating eyes, and the purest heart I’ve ever met in my entire life.” Brent’s own golden eyes twinkled.

“I think you’re either delusional or purposely mis-remembering.” Pretty sure he’s a little crazy—or buttering me up for something. “If I recall, I sacked him on the football field during a late spring game with all the cousins.” I chuckle, feeling Josh’s slightly twitching body letting me know he’s in the middle of remembering that episode too. I let the comment about my fascinating eyes pass. I’ve grown out of needing to feel protective or ashamed of being different, but I was bullied pretty harshly growing up. Leaves a girl with some insecurity complexes.

The boys have all said they love my eyes; to me, they’re just weirdly colored eyes. I have central heterochromia, meaning I have more than one color in my iris. My eye doctor says he’s never seen anything like them before in all his years of eye care. My right eye is a dark blue closest to the pupil, with a honey brown ring around the outside. My left eye has a gray ring against the pupil, encircled by green. Both eyes have tiny flecks of a whitish-silver color splashed around the irises. On good days I think they’re beautiful. On bad days, I remember all of the awful comments I got as a teenager.

“You stalked over to make sure I wasn’t trying to kill your boss. Josh told me that you had never looked so spooked in his life.” I smirk.

“I wasn’t worried you’d kill him, I was worried you would leave him with a bad impression of the family.” Brent sounds like a guilty witness.

“Ha. I’m the least of your extended family’s issues. I was part of the welcoming committee.”

“Indeed, you were, that day.” He smirks at me, giving me a slight nod of acknowledgement. “You made that day one of my happier memories, instead of making it one of the worst of my life since becoming a partner.” He catches my hand in his.

“But being a so-willing captive since he was captured under your delicious body.” I snort at his exaggerated wink. “He told me later that he noticed your stillness as you took him in.”

Josh’s snort fills the air.

“Not like that, gutter brain.” Brent punches at Josh. “Finley, I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and you are the only one who listens with her whole body. You seem to see something that no one else can. And then make decisions based on those visions that make no sense whatsoever in the moment but turn out to be the best option a little farther down the road,” he explains seriously.

“Hank mentioned it to me later; he was telling me how he wished he could get you to be a jury consultant for firm, how you could make sure that we won all of our cases. I told him that wouldn’t be happening. He brought it up again a couple months later when we had that awful case. I told him again, in no uncertain terms, that no one would be using you like that. He didn’t look like he was going to back down, so I threatened him.” I bring my startled gaze to meet his fired golden eyes.

Brent, while a laid-back guy like his brother, is a little more ready to barrel into skirmishes. He doesn’t typically threaten people though. Right now, he’s a little stiff and looks like he’s bracing for a huge fight.

I’m shocked by his reaction, and I lose the hold I keep on the Spectrum, my vision exploding with color. Looking at him awash in colors, I realize he’s scared of my reaction. Both he and Brian are; their reactions leave me a little stunned.

Blinking away the colors of the rainbow, I get up from my side of the booth, trying hard to keep my own face smooth. I take the two steps to reach their side of the table. Brian turns to face me, his eyes ready to be rejected, braced for the hurt that he thinks is coming.

Brian was never the most popular guy in school. He was super tall, but didn’t fill in his muscles until his senior year. He got called a lot of names and picked on quite a bit by the popular guys who were jealous of his height. You would think being six foot eight would be a good thing for a guy. And it probably would have been—had he been even remotely interested in sports. Instead he was always in Shop Class making intricate and delicate things with his hands. It’s one of the reasons he’s so good in construction and being a master craftsman.

His first instinct is to guard against rejection. It breaks my heart every time I see that guarded reaction towards me. I’m just glad it doesn’t happen too often.

I lean down, lay my hands gently on his hewn cheeks, and with my eyes steady on his, I place a gentle kiss on his forehead. “You’re both mine for life, guys. No getting away from me now. Demons don’t even stand a chance of ripping either of you away from me.” I whisper into the space between us, our foreheads resting against each other. These three men are the brothers of my heart, and I would do anything to help them. I stretch my arm out, pulling Brent in and kissing his forehead softly as well. Brent slumps back into his seat, a look of relief on his face.

Brian’s arms wrap around my body like steel cables, pulling me into his lap, with his face pressed into space between my neck and shoulder. I rub his giant back in soothing circles, feeling his chest shudder with each breath he takes.

“Told you she wouldn’t care, guys,” Josh says from our side of the booth, “She loves you idiots.”

“Too right I do. And why would you think I would mind you having my back like that?” I ask, a little confused by the severity of his reaction.

I barely get my chin out of the way of his head whipping back.

“What?” All three men are genuinely shocked, looking at me like I’ve gone crazy.

“What, what?” I parrot them.

“Fin, you used to bite our heads off, not to mention the various unmentionable things you threatened to do to other parts of our bodies when we tried to protect you,” Josh splutters, his eyes wide.

I wave that away with a brush of my hand. “Well, that was when we were little, and you jerks were trying to keep me from having fun. This was – is – different.” I lean forward and hug Brian one more time before getting up and sitting back on my side of the booth.

“Yeah, trying to keep you from leaping from the top of the treehouse, how silly we were.” Brian’s sarcasm could fill the whole room.

“Exactly!” I agree with a nod of my head. “I would have been fine.”

“Uh huh. Just like the way you were fine when we found you at the bottom of the cement stairs after trying to skateboard down a rail?” The sarcasm level in Josh’s voice is getting high. I might need some galoshes if they’re not careful.

Who am I kidding? We use sarcasm like other people use toilet paper: more than is needed, just to be safe.

“Well, I would have been fine. If you wouldn’t have picked me up and rushed me to your dad’s, Brian.” Now or never, I think to myself. “I was in the middle of healing myself already. Being taken to the hospital made me have to heal like a normal person, it took for freaking ever!” Thinking back on that time, I wince with the remembered days of pain and waiting for my body to heal like someone who isn’t special. Man, I hate that word.


I tap my fingers on the scarred table, watching the emotions and thoughts flit across three beloved faces.

Brent’s the first to break his astonished silence. “What do you mean, you were already healing yourself?” His whisper shout is in an octave I’ve never heard from him before. I never would have thought his big body could produce such a high-pitched sound.

I look around carefully, making sure no one is paying attention too closely. “Just what I said. I’ve been healing myself for about fifteen years now. While I don’t actively heal my patients, I do use the Spectrum—which is what I call the ability to see pain, dysfunction, distress, and other issues—to see where their specific issues are and how to go about fixing them in the most efficient way possible.” I wouldn’t say I’m scared by their reactions, but I’ve never admitted this to anyone else.

Heck, I barely admitted it to myself until a couple months after I opened my clinic.

“Holy crap, Finley.” Brent breathes shakily, his eyes intently surveying our immediate surroundings, looking for Eavesdropper Evans. “If anyone found out about that, you would be in some serious trouble. Or worse, kidnapped and experimented on.”

I stifle a snort. “Agent Clark is not looking for me, Brent. But I appreciate that I need to be careful.” I pat his hand. Smiling at the idea that a secret government agency would be interested in me. Although, if they could hook me up with Thor, I would have to seriously rethink my choices.

“You need to stop taking this so lightly, Finley Marie.” Brian’s anger is a little fiercer than I had planned on.

“Wow, two ‘Finley Marie’s in one conversation. I must be in trouble.” I smile back at him, trying to get him to relax.

“Your safety and well-being are not joking matters to me, girlfriend.” His words are muffled by his clenched teeth.

“Seconded.” Josh joins in, lifting his hand like he’s at one of his interminable board meetings.

Leaning forward, I can feel my temper spiking. “I take my well-being very seriously. And my safety is something I’ve been handing for years. I’ve been healing myself from a variety of issues for a very long time, guys. I don’t appreciate your diminishing my abilities to care for myself.” I’m more than a little offended by their attitudes.

I would never do something that would hurt my mom or dad like that. They struggled so much to have a baby, that by the time I came along, they had just about given up. I wouldn’t ruin their happiness for anything in the world. Besides these guys, my parents are the most important people in my life.

“There’s the ferocity we’ve come to know and fear,” Josh says, resting his warm hand on my arm. “Had we known you were imminently more capable than the Western Medical Complex, we would’ve been less worried. You’re the one who decided not to share that secret with us, not the other way around. So get off your high horse, Fin.” He squeezes my arm a little at the end of his speech.

I growl at all of them, knowing they’re right and I need to cool off. I take a couple of deep breaths, the still air of the bar coating my throat like oil. I cough a couple of times. Nodding my head at them all, their expressions relax.

“Sorry to have gotten us so far off topic,” I ask, trying to shift the focus off me. “But what did you want me to do about your dad, Bri?”

I hate being the center of attention.

Brian’s still sitting there like a statue. I give him a little nudge under the table with my foot.

“Bri?” I ask, waving my hand in front of his vacant face.

And they laugh at me for going blank during conversation.

He shakes himself, blinks a couple of times, and brings his awareness back to the dingy room with the flashing neon beer signs.

“Sorry. What? What did you say?” he asks.

“What do you think I can do about your dad?” I repeat.

“Well, first, I want to know if he’s telling the truth. How we proceed is determined on if he’s lying or not,” he states firmly.

“Okay, I can do that.” I try not to let my smile engulf my whole face. I’ve known if people were lying for years now. I try to look innocent, hoping they won’t catch on.

I’m not very good at hiding my emotions.

Josh’s hand smacks the table like a cymbal crash. “I knew it! I knew you were cheating!” His face dark and pinched.

“Whatever do you mean, Joshua mine? How dare you think I would ever cheat? I’m offended by the very idea,” I retort piously, trying to get my nose higher into the air.

“Wait a second.” Brent glares at me like he’s thinking really hard about some complex math problem.

“Dang it, Fin!” He sticks a rigid finger in my face. Apparently, he’s on the Hate-Finley bandwagon. “You’re going to owe me huge…as soon as I figure out how to collect.” He simmers for a beat. “Huge.” His finger is still wagging in my face.

“What? What are you guys talking about?” Brian’s bewildered voice fills the void, he’s looking between the two other men while I attempt to look angelic.

“Think about it, Bri. She knows when people are lying.” Brent encourages his brother. Brian still looks lost and getting annoyed at being left out.

Brent’s face shows he’s moved past outraged and is now filled with reluctant humor.

Whew, here’s hoping he doesn’t intend to cash in on that threat. I’m not sure I have enough money for that…maybe he would let me do it in installments? I’ll have to ask him later.

“Don’t you freaking let her off the hook that easily, Brent. Don’t you dare.” Josh’s smile engulfing his face before he collapses into fits of suppressed laughter. He’s never been able to stay mad at me for long.

Thank goodness.

Brian’s brows are scrunched in thought, his fingers tapping out a restless rhythm on the table. Brent and Josh are swept up into gales of laughter, waiting for Brian to catch on. Brian’s going to be the one to get seriously pissed if he doesn’t make it to laughter soon. He’s really big on honesty in all things, even in the little things.

The confusion vanishes and is replaced by the thunderclouds sweeping across his face. His cheeks take on a ruddy hue, and his nostrils flare like a horse’s after a fast run.

“You wouldn’t dare, Finley. You wouldn’t have dared.” His voice is shaking as fast as the finger he has in my face. “I can’t believe you’ve been cheating at poker all of these years!” Brian yells. His bellow drawing the attention of other patrons. I duck my head just a little, trying to diffuse the situation.

My halo is broken in his eyes. And I can only laugh. He looks so lost and disgusted.

“I never meant to do it—well, until I was in high school and you guys really annoyed me,” I reply, a laugh caught in my throat. “It just sort of happened one day when we were playing, and then I got really good at spotting the tells. So, really, since all three of you need that skill now, I would think you could be a little more understanding about it all. It was so long in the past, it’s hardly worth mentioning.” I brush off the concern.

Deep in his eyes, I see his humor pierce the veil of thunderous outrage. I breathe a little easier knowing the storm is passing.

“Honestly, the only times I cheated were the times you guys made my life super difficult,” I explain. “Besides, playing poker with you three helped me hone my abilities, so I really should be thanking you for being such crappy poker players.”

“Right. I seem to remember losing a lot of money to you over the years.” Brian looks at me askance.

“Maybe it’s because you’re just a sucky poker player.” I shrug my shoulders, hands up in a helpless gesture.

Brent and Josh snicker under their breath.

I wave my hand in the air, brushing the matter aside. “Again, since we can’t seem to stay on track today, what are you wanting me to do with your dad?”

“Well, if you could come by the house after church on Sunday, we’re having family dinner. If you could sit down with me while I talk to him, that would be great. If he’s telling the truth, we can go from there,” Brian suggests.

“Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem.” I pull out my phone to mark it down in my calendar—the only thing that keeps my life straight. “Your mom going to be there?” I ask, keeping my face lowered and my eyes focused in my phone.

“Pretty sure, you know, since it’s family dinner and all.”

Lifting my head, I catch his fading smirk.

“I can run interference if it gets too bad,” Brent offers. He knows too well that Cynthia—never call me Cindy—Hastings and I don’t get along very well. I give him a grateful smile. He’s been nice enough to not question me about it. Not that I would have an answer for him anyway, since I have no idea what’s wrong either.

“I’ll join you, if that’s okay. I haven’t seen Mark or Cynthia in a while,” Josh puts in.

“Sounds like a good party to me, then,” Brian states.

Chapter Two

“What do you think is happening with Uncle Mark?” I ask Josh, looking at all the beautiful houses in the College Hill neighborhood. The grand, mansion-like homes dominate the fifteen-block square in the middle of Wichita. Formerly housing the wealthiest, most influential people in decades past, the area is still well-kept and has some of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen. None of the houses look like their neighbor, and that just makes me love them more.

“No idea, but I think if Uncle Mark’s saying these kinds of things, then something is really bothering him.” Josh pulls up to the curb and shuts off his Camaro. Grand homes with street parking.

“Yeah.” Uncurling from the car, I fix the bottom of my skirt that’s gotten caught in the strap of my sandal. I turn to look at him. “Once more into the fray?”

“Lead the way, Ms. Tindol.” Meeting me at the base of the driveway, Josh drops into a sweeping bow, arm motioning the way to the huge solid wood double door. I give him a regal nod, a smile pulling on the corner of my mouth.

Never feeling comfortable enough at Cynthia’s house to just walk in—something we do at each other’s houses, we wait for someone to open to the front doors for us after using the old-fashioned knocker.

The door is opened by the lady of the house. Cynthia Hastings is dressed to perfection. Her penchant for spin classes and Pilates has left her with little to no body fat, and skin that always looks one size too small. Her cold manner must protect even her hair, because her blond locks don’t even frizz up in the high humidity of Wichita summers. Her thin lips are in a constant state of sneering, making her look like she’s smelled something unpleasant. Her makeup is just a touch too harsh, and her voice reminds me of a chronic laryngitis sufferer who smokes a pack a day.

Today’s Doctor’s Wife outfit is a slim-fit pair of black pants, white blouse, chunky gold necklace, and appropriately matched shoes. I’ve never seen Cynthia in anything but name brand; nor have I ever seen her in any outfit more than once.

“Welcome, Josh.” She smiles and her eyes twinkle. Her low, smoked-foghorn voice is never what I expect to come out of her mouth.

“Finley.” I get a turned-up nose and a delicate sniff. Probably my overabundance of color in my maxi dress. The nerve, to wear a floral print in the spring.

“Aunt Cynthia, good to see you.” Josh busses her cheek as is their customary greeting. Stepping into the grand hall, I stop just over the threshold, waiting for Cynthia to close and secure the doors behind us.

“Cynthia.” I nod at her. Our civility towards each other is something of a mystery to me. I’ve never given her a reason to not like me, at least not that I know of. I remember meeting her the first time, full-on smiles, laughter, hugs. A couple of months later, Ice Queen had invaded her body; no explanation given. I’m not sure why, but something about her unsettles me that I struggle to define, even to myself.

Tuning out the chatter between Cynthia and Josh, I allow my vision to fill with the colors of the Spectrum, and just watch her. Her body shows a sluggish pulse of varying greens overlaying her normal heather gray. She’s in pain, but not physical pain. Her Spectrum flares red as she turns to stare at me, done with her conversation with Josh. I hurry to look like I haven’t spaced out.

“Finley.” Her cold tone holds the barest hint of a question.

“I’m sorry. What were you saying?” There goes my attempt at looking engaged.

“I asked how your parents were.” The slightest whiff of offense colors her frozen tone.

“Oh, they’re great, just like always. Living the dream in the Bahamas,” I reply airily. My parents are considerably older than Josh’s. Older even than Mark and Cynthia. “Dad’s loving being retired, and mom can volunteer as a nurse to her heart’s content.” Not that I think Cynthia cares, but it makes me smile a little when her unhappy sneer pinches ever so slightly at the corners.

“Wonderful.” Her tone of voice makes it sound like I’ve brought dog poop in on my shoes, instead of giving her an update on my parents.

“Give them my best.” This stated as she walks away, the sound of her heels clipping on the hardwood floors, echoing off the walls.

“Will do,” I call after her. Chuckling under my breath just a little, I exhale sharply as Josh jabs his elbow into my side.

“Did you really have to start out with rubbing her face in it?” he asks quietly.

“What? She’s the one who asked. I’m not going to lie just to save her feelings. If she’s even got any,” I add the last under my breath. Shrugging my cardigan off my shoulders, I place it and my purse on the little bench inside the entryway alcove.

“Dinner is ready. Please come join us in the dining room.” Cynthia raises her voice to be heard from the doorway.

Josh and I pick up our pace. Making Cynthia wait is in no one’s best interest. I’m pretty sure Mark is the only one who gets away with it.

I step into their renovated dining room and feel like I’m looking at a magazine spread. All the latest colors, fabrics, textures, and furniture decorate the room. Their interior designer has got to love Cynthia: she renovates every two years, even if the styles haven’t changed that much.

“There they are.” The deep bellow from across the room pulls my attention to one of my favorite humans. Uncle Mark is tall, just like his boys. Although he doesn’t work out all the time like Brent, or do construction to stay fit like Brian, he’s still in good shape. Just starting to go soft around the middle, but not enough to make any of his clothes fit any tighter yet. Just looking at him and you can see where his boys get their rugged and hewn facial features.

“Uncle Mark.” I walk around the table big enough to seat a full military squadron and ease myself into his comfortable bear hug. The man gives the best hugs. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too, Finley. I’m so glad you’ve come.” I can feel his lips brush my hair as he gives me a final squeeze. Josh gets the same treatment.

“Sit, sit, sit. Cynthia’s outdone herself for dinner today.” Mark beams at the shriveled old prune with love in his eyes. I would’ve loved to have met her in her younger days.

“Thank you, Mark.” She nods at him from her seat to his direct right.

Brian, dressed up in charcoal slacks and a deep green button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled back onto his forearms, takes his usual seat to Mark’s left.

I steal the seat Brent normally occupies on Brian’s other side. I get a wink as Brent sits next to his mother. Brent looks just a handsome as Brian, but with black pants and checkered print shirt. Josh slides in beside me. I guess we both look a little less dressed up than the Mark Hastings family, but Josh and I go to a different church. One that’s a little more laid back in terms of attire.

We all join hands as Mark says grace, thanking God for our lives, the food, our health, and the wonderful weather. We all say amen and I devour the awesome spread of food before me with my eyes.

Cynthia has outdone herself on dinner. While it looks like the woman hasn’t seen a stray calorie in her life, she did have to feed two big growing boys, and one man who is not small. The homemade Italian dinner puts most five-star restaurants to shame. What she lacks in showing physical affection, she makes up for in cooking and giving of her time.

“This is delicious, Cynthia,” I say, toasting her with my water glass.

“Thank you, Finley.” Her back has got to hurt with that steel rebar poking up her spine.

“Too true, mom. This is delicious. I’ll have to come home for dinner more often,” Brian says, his mouth full of the creamy, savory pasta.

Her spine unbends, and her cheeks pinken. “Thank you, dear. I’ve been trying to get you to come to dinner for ages now. I’m hoping to bribe you into at least a couple times a month.”

“Even if he doesn’t want it, I’ll definitely agree to that. Although I’ll probably have to up my gym time to combat all of the pounds your cooking adds to my body,” Brent adds.

“I don’t know if I’m invited, but I’ll come as often as you let me. This is wonderful.” Josh joins in on the gratitude train.

“Of course, you’re invited, Josh.” She murmurs with a slight smile on her face.

I’m no longer upset that I don’t get even a token invitation. Cynthia and I seem to exist on different planets that just happen to come into each other’s orbits every once and again. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would react if the invitation had been extended to me. This woman gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Dinner discussion is full of the boys updating their parents about their current lives. Brian’s company got a couple of new contracts, so he’s pretty happy. Brent closed a high-profile case that earned him and the firm some great publicity. Josh brought a new account to the agency, and his dad is on Cloud Nine.

“And Finley, what about you?” Mark asks, working to include me in the family conversation.

“I’m doing really well. I’ve got almost a full book. It’s been a long two years.” I smile at him.

Starting a business is a lot more daunting than I thought it would be. I’m just thankful I have the support system I do—Cynthia notwithstanding. Mark is so dear to me. He, behind my own dad and Josh’s, has been one of the most stable, and encouraging men in my life. And considering some of what my life has held, stable and encouraging can never be oversold.

“I knew you’d do it!” He exclaims. “Didn’t I tell you, Cynthia? That Finley, she’s going places, I said.” He looks to his wife for her agreement.

Being forced to talk about me in good terms seems to be her limit. She dabs her mouth delicately with a linen napkin.

“Yes, dear, that’s what you said.” Her stiff reply nothing new. “Why don’t you all go into Mark’s study. It’s more comfortable in there.” She rises and begins gathering all of the dirty dishes around her.

“We can help, mom.” Brent jumps up to help her.

“No, dear. I’ve got it. I know you wanted to talk with your father.” She shoos him, and all of us, out of the room.

“What’s this?” Mark asks, his eyebrows scrunched, confusion darkening his features as he stands with the rest of us.

“We just wanted to talk with you dad. No worries,” Brian soothes. He leads the way across the grand hallway to another stately door. Pushing the heavy door open, he stands aside and waits for all of us to enter.

Mark still looks confused, but he’s game for most things his boys suggest. He walks in and sits behind his desk, the old leather no longer squeaking.

The boys and I range ourselves around the masculine, bookshelf-lined room. I’ve spent a lot of time in this room, reading Mark’s old anatomy books. It always smells like pine and bonfires in here. The smell is comforting, and brings back happy memories.

I sit in the farthest chair, nearest the bay window that looks out to their miniscule backyard, and hope I can fade into the background. The boys take the two armchairs sitting directly opposite Mark’s gigantic cherry wood desk. Josh lounges on the couch along the far wall. I feel like we’re trying to go out of our way to not gang up on Mark, and wonder why Brian didn’t discuss this with his dad to begin with.

Shifting once again into my Spectrum perception, I try to focus only on Mark. Usually when I use the Spectrum, I’m not worried about getting caught, or having my facial expression give me away. When I use it with patients, they are typically face down on the table, faces squished in a face rest cradle. Trying to look like I’m engaged while using the Spectrum is going to be pushing some of my abilities to their limits, I fear.

Clearing his throat, Brian begins, “Dad, we’ve asked Finley and Josh to join us because we’re concerned for you.”

I stifle a laugh. It sounds like Brian’s been watching too many staged interventions on YouTube.

Mark’s energy swirls from his typical cornflower blue to a sickly orange. Mark immediately straightens up in his chair, his colors stretching and lengthening out around his upright body. “Why on earth would you do that?” The embarrassment is easy to hear and flares a bright pink on the Spectrum.

“Because we love you and want to do whatever we can to help you,” Brent adds in his more practical lawyer voice.

“I understand that, but why must Josh and Finley join us?” He must have realized how that sounded, because he hurried to add, “Not that I don’t love you both, but this doesn’t really concern anyone but me.” The embarrassed pink washes over his whole body this time.

“No worries, Uncle Mark. We’re not offended.” This from Josh on the far side of the room. I make some kind of affirming noise.

“Dad, Brent and I asked Josh and Finley to come so we could get some more people to help us. People who love you,” Brian explains. “They just want you to be happy, and you’ve not been happy in a couple of weeks. We’re all starting to worry.”

“There’s no need to worry.” Mark’s voice wavers, and his Spectrum flares like a rainbow under UV light, all of the colors distorted and bleached. He’s definitely worried.

“Just tell us all what you found. Please,” Brent encourages.

“I’ve already told you boys. You didn’t seem like you believed me, and because I didn’t want to bother you with it, I just let it drop.” It sounds like Mark has to swallow around a lump in his throat. His Spectrum bleeds to deep sorrowful blue. Having his boys not believe him crushed him, the hurt still fresh.

“Please, dad. We promise to listen with open minds.” I can’t tell if it’s Brian or Brent talking; I’m so focused on watching the Spectrum and listening to the conversation.

“I don’t want to burden you.” Mark tries one more time, a tiny flash of hopeful green flaring around the edges.

“We all want to be here for you, Uncle Mark.” I barely manage to string the words together as I watch that flickering green brighten to a streak like a shooting star. Splitting my focus between Spectrum watching and conversing is a lot harder than I thought it would be. While it takes more effort to restrain the Spectrum than it does to use it, trying to use the Spectrum and have a conversation feels like I’m a rubber band that’s being stretched uncomfortably tight.

Mark’s head and shoulders slump in relief, the majority of his colors falling back to his normal cornflower blue.

“A little background for Josh and Finley then. I work in genetics and started working in variations after the genome was fully mapped in 2003. Since that time, I’ve been working on understanding various adaptations in mutations. With the explosion in genealogy and ancestry DNA testing in the wider public, my job has become much more interesting. The agency I work for, Collaborative Genetics, is owned by Syv Global. I was approached by someone high up in SG to work on a compartmentalized project. I made a breakthrough about twelve weeks ago and reported my findings to my supervisor.”

Mark’s Spectrum is shifting through every color I’ve ever seen. He’s both excited and terrified. He truly believes whatever he is saying.

“About a week after sending off the findings, I began to notice different pieces of lab equipment moved. A report where I hadn’t filed it. A memo that had been on my desk was now on my lab table. I also started noticing my desk chair in different positions than where I had left it. I know I’m not the most attentive man when it comes to mundane details, so I just pushed it from my mind as me being forgetful.”

“But it kept happening. I tried to remember to put my chair in the same place every night before leaving the office. I even wrote myself a coded note and left it on my computer screen. Three times in the last two weeks the chair has been in a different place.” The shock of having his space invaded still a living thing in his voice.

“I thought maybe the cleaning crew had moved it during their duties. But when I asked the building manager about the possibility, he said that no crews do anything in my office except empty the trash, which is located nowhere near my desk or desk chair. So that ruled out the easiest possibility. I also started noticing that the keyboard was in a different position on the desk. To make sure I wasn’t simply imagining things, I drew a small line on the desk where the top of the keyboard should rest. The keyboard had been moved at the same time my desk chair had been moved.”

“I approached my project supervisor, wanting to let him know that I thought something was going on in the lab when I wasn’t there. He said he would investigate it. That was almost two months ago. Now I’m just not sure what to believe. I know I’m not imagining things, but I also don’t know who to go to about it since the program is compartmentalized.”

Uncle Mark finally winds down, his Spectrum settling down into a dull, muddy red. His colors indicate he’s resigned himself to not being heard again—rejection and dejection all in one murky color. My heart hurts for him. What must it be like to know that you aren’t actually crazy but having no one believe you?

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