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The cake rested in the springform. The meringue topping it was blush and slightly crispy. It crackled a little, which undoubtfully would get a side eye from Orro, but I didn’t care.
I reached out and poked the springform. Barely warm. Okay.
A familiar presence crossed the inn’s boundary. The magic of the inn shifted in response. If Gertrude Hunt was a dog, it would’ve raised its head and wagged its tail.
Sean was home.
Another presence followed, creeping up our driveway. I motioned to the inn, and it produced a screen for me and tossed the feed from the side cameras onto it. Sean’s truck had driven up and parked in front of the garage. Behind it, a massive white tri-axe with a black dump bed filled with firewood slowly backed its way up the gentle slope of the driveway and around the house.
I took a long knife and carefully worked it around the perimeter of the springform, slicing through the meringue. If you tried to open the pan without it, half of the meringue would come off.
Sean got out of his truck. He was tall and corded with hard, lean muscle. You could tell just by looking at him that he was both strong and fast, but there was more to it. Sean looked ready. He projected a kind of calm but alert assurance, and you knew with a deep, instinctual understanding that if a threat appeared, he would respond instantly and with devastating power.
People sensed it and felt the need to label it. Since we lived in Texas, most of the time they ended up asking him if he played football, because somehow saying “that guy played football” provided a reasonable explanation for Sean’s combat readiness.
Beast took off, out through the doggie door, and straight to Sean, dancing around his feet and wagging her tail. He bent down to pet her.
I unlocked the latch on the pan and gently eased it up and over the cake. Perfect.
I dropped the springform into the sink, set the coffee pot to brew some decaf, and went outside, just in time to watch the dump truck unload a huge pile of firewood onto our grass. I came to stand next to Sean. He smiled at me and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. I leaned against him and felt him relax.
You made it home, honey. It’s all good.
The driver, a middle-aged heavy-set man with a ruddy face and short salt-and-pepper hair, got out and eyeballed it.
“Seven cords,” he told me proudly.
“Looks great,” I told him.
“Your husband didn’t pay for stacking,” the driver reported. “He said he needs the exercise.”
I smiled at Sean. He wasn’t my husband, but there was no reason to point that out. “We’ll take care of it.”
The driver winked at us. “You two are a cute couple. Say, were you a linebacker in high school?”
“Yeah,” Sean lied with straight face.
He had done all sorts of sports in his childhood, but none through his schools. He was too good and too physically gifted, and his parents wanted to avoid attention. Most of his high school extracurricular activities had been split between several martial arts schools with carefully vetted teachers. He had an easier time blending in while in the Army. High school sports prioritized individual achievement and stardom, while the Army emphasized teamwork.
“Thought so,” the driver said. “Well, you folks have a good one.”
“Take care.” Sean raised his hand.
The driver got into his truck and started down the driveway. The grass around the wood pile shivered.
“Not yet,” Sean said.
The lawn became still.
The dump truck rolled to the end of the driveway, sat there, letting the traffic pass, turned left, and sped down the road.
“Okay,” Sean said. “Take it.”
The lawn split, opening a black pit under the firewood. Gertrude Hunt gulped the whole seven cords in a single swallow, and I felt the impact roll through it. The lawn knitted together, as if zippered. No sign of the wood pile remained.
Sean raised his head, and his lips stretched into a slow, lazy smile. “Mmmm, apple cake.”
Surprising a werewolf with food was a lost cause. “We have a visitor.”
“I know. I smelled her by the garage. What does she want?”
“To talk to you.”
He sighed. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.”
We walked over to the garage. The door slid open, and the werewolf woman blinked against the sudden sunlight and saw Sean. Her shoulders straightened. She tossed her hair back with a strategically impatient jerk of her head.
Here comes the speech.
“So that’s what you look like.” She’d pitched her voice lower, into a smooth, seductive soprano. “Not bad.”
“A man like you stuck in a place like this. What a waste.”
Sean said nothing.
“Wilmos is missing,” she said.
Wilmos was a first generation werewolf, a veteran, one of the oldest survivors of Auul. The werewolfism kept him spry, but he was an adult when Sean’s parents were born, and he had a hand in creating their alpha strain. Wilmos made his name as a mercenary and a shop owner at Baha-char, the galactic bazar. He was less a mercenary now and more a go-between for mercenaries and the people who needed them. And he thought Sean walked on water. We met by chance, and when Sean decided he wanted to see the universe for himself, Wilmos showed him the ropes. He was the one who got him into that Nexus mess, and I would never forgive him for that. Ever.
Wilmos was also responsible for our current enthusiastic suitor problem. Nexus was a hellish place, where three factions, the Merchant Clan of Nuan, the otrokar Hope Crushing Horde, and the vampire Holy Anocracy had clashed in a never-ending war. Time worked differently there, and space distortion anomalies made technological warfare impossible, so the war was fought in grueling melee battles. The Horde and the Anocracy had the advantage in numbers and quality of their soldiers. The Merchants had Turan Adin, an unkillable, undefeatable general who led their mercenaries. No matter how badly he was hurt, Turan Adin always rose to fight again.
In reality Turan Adins dropped like flies. Clan Nuan had gotten a hold of some exceptional armor that adjusted to its wearer, and when one mercenary general died, the next hireling put the armor on, and the Turan Adin was reborn. Sean became the latest Turan Adin and the last. The combined forces of the vampire knights and otrokar warriors failed to kill him for over 18 months.
When that war ended, Sean came back and stayed with me because he loved me. His identity as Turan Adin was supposed to have been locked away never to be revealed. However, Wilmos couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was bursting at the seams with pride and little by little he let that cat out of the bag one secret conversation at a time. The werewolves knew.
When I asked Wilmos about it, he just made some apologetic noises, then changed the subject. I viewed him as that funny charming uncle who came to dinner and cracked jokes, always well-meaning, and if you followed his lead, someone would end up in a tree, drinking a beer and chain-sawing through the branch they were sitting on.
The werewolf woman narrowed her eyes at Sean. “Word is, Wilmos asked you for help and you turned him down because you were too busy playing house with a human girl. People say you’re a coward. That you’ve gone soft. The wolf who subdued otrokars and vampire knights, reduced to a mere shadow of himself. So, I came to see for myself what happened to the hero of Nexus. You used to be somebody. What’s that like? To just give up and turn your back on a friend?”
She leaned forward as much as restraints would allow, focused on him. She’d challenged him in his territory, and now she expected him to react. She would’ve liked if he hauled her upright, slammed her against the wall, and growled in her face. It would be a display of dominance she could understand. She would submit, and then they would go to search for Wilmos together, without me, so she could prove to him how much more awesome she was as a potential mate.
Sean opened his mouth. “I don’t know you.”
The werewolf woman blinked.
He held his hand out. His broom landed into his fingers, except for him it was always a spear, a sturdy shaft tipped with a razor-sharp blade.
“Your welcome is withdrawn.” He tapped the butt of his spear on the floor.
The inn opened, walls and rooms flying out of the way, revealing a hallway leading to a distant door. It snapped open, and the bright golden sunshine of Baha-char flooded through it.
The tendril binding the werewolf woman jerked her off the floor.
“Wait!” she screamed.
The tendril shot toward the door and tossed her out, into the light. The door slammed shut. The normal architecture of the inn reasserted itself. Beast let out a satisfied bark.
“A little rough,” I said.
“She’ll land on her feet. This is getting tiresome. They need to get the message.”
We started toward the kitchen.
“What was that about Wilmos?” I asked.
Sean shrugged. “No idea.”
“Liar. You big fat liar. Did he ask you for help?”
“He always asks me for help.”
That was true. From Wilmos’ point of view, every job could benefit from Sean’s presence. He visited the inn at least once a month, and Sean always stopped by his store when we went shopping. I couldn’t recall a single time the conversation didn’t end with, “I’ve got this little project I’m working on.”
“You think he might be in trouble?” I asked.
“Last I checked, Wilmos was fully grown. He is well-armed, well-connected, and able to take care of himself. Just like he’s done for fifty years before he met me.”
We walked into the kitchen. Sean sighted the cake and went straight for it.
I took a plate out of the cabinet, added a fork, and handed it to him. He took a knife from the butcher block, cut a quarter of the cake off, slid it on the plate, and looked at me, his eyes hopeful. “Coffee?”
I poured him a mug of decaf, added some creamer, and brought it over to him. Sean took a sip of his coffee, then a bite of his cake, and sighed happily.
“The cake is delicious,” he said. “Thank you.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
I cut my own slice and sat down across from him. He reached out. I took his hand. He squeezed my fingers, smiled, and ate another piece of cake.