As iAm sat behind his desk in his office at the restaurant, he was supposed to be tallying receipts. Putting in meat and liquor orders for the upcoming week. Planning menus.
Failed it, not nailed it.
What the hell time was it anyway? he thought as he checked the digital clock on the landline phone.
Settling back in his chair, he stretched his arms out and rotated both his shoulders. When that did absolutely nothing to relieve the tension riding up his neck and nailing him in the back of the head, he tried some office yoga by grabbing the edge of the desk and pulling against it. As his forearms roped up with muscles and veins, he reflected that as a chef, he never wore a watch. Or bracelets of any kind. Or rings. He needed to have his fingers and his wrists free of any entanglements, things that could be hard to clean, stuff that could break or be in the way, hindrances of any kind.
Then again, with Trez as his brother, he had so much existential baggage to carry around, it was a wonder he could stand the weight of his shoes and clothes.
“Damn it,” he muttered as he released his hold.
That blowout between them had been bad, but it had been coming since the moment Therese had been hired. And he should have known better than to bring her on. Sure, the fact that she looked like Selena wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t mean he was obligated to employ her. He should have referred her to another job. With his network of contacts in the Caldwell foodie scene, he should have—
Who the hell was he kidding. Trez would still have been in bad shape.
Except the argument would have been over suicide, not some female.
And of course he wanted to see his damn brother happy. Was the male even serious about that shit? What he did not want was Trez fooling himself and using someone else—and iAm stood by that message, straight up. Still, he probably could have done a helluva lot better getting the point across and now he’d driven the male off. Like he hadn’t known that Trez had been outside for a good half an hour tonight? Waiting in a running car outside of the reach of the security cameras. In the cold.
For the server to get off.
No doubt so he could get her off.
And P.S., he actually didn’t think Therese was going to be the one hurt most when things went tits up. Trez was. The male wasn’t going to survive another crushing disappointment, but iAm hadn’t wanted to put that into words. For one, it was too painful. For another, he didn’t want to give the guy any ideas.
FFS, every frickin’ night iAm was braced for the phone call that Trez was dead. Like that instability needed a doomed romance with a doppelganger added to it? He knew exactly where his brother was in that head of his. In that heart of his. And if Trez decided to peace out, he would make sure that somebody else found the body—he would be determined to spare iAm that trauma. So as a result, anytime iAm’s cell went off, he felt like he was getting shot through the chest—and needless to say, this had given him a new hatred for telemarketers.
Groaning, he gave extending his arms over his head a try. In a way, this gut-churn over what his brother was doing, where he was, who he was with… was just a continuation of the way it had always been between the two of them. Trez had forever been on the run from his destiny of mating the queen of the s’Hisbe—and iAm had run after him. Someone had to protect the male. Guard his six. Make sure he didn’t completely self-destruct.
Plus, there had been the reality that Trez was all he’d had in this world. With their parents and the tribe left behind, what else had there been?
Except then, the deck of destiny had ended up getting shuffled and it turned out the priests had been wrong. iAm was the one to mate the queen—a fate he had been oh, so very happy to live up to as it turned out. And you’d think with that burden lifted, all would be chill. Nope. Instead of his brother being released from the burden of pain, Trez had been saddled with the heaviest agony there was.
Selena’s death had been so fucking unfair.
Maybe it was all in the stars, though. According to the tradition of the s’Hisbe, astrology determined everything, and it was clear that Trez had been born under an alignment of sorrowful portent. Back when Selena had showed up on the scene, iAm had been suspicious at first, but then, as time had passed, he’d been so sure things were finally going to change. That the sucky era was over. That the second phase, the better part, could now commence—
iAm’s instincts fired, the bonded male in him overriding even the fears for his blooded kin.
Rising to his feet, he was about to go around his desk when his female materialized in between the jambs of his office doorway.
For a moment, although he had seen her merely the night before, he had to drink in everything about his mate. maichen was tall and regal, her dark skin set off by a spectacular set of gold-threaded robing, her hair falling down her back in hundreds of braids strung with golden beads. Her eyes were kind and worried as they sought his own, and her hands went to her belly.
iAm’s heart pounded with terror. “What did they say. The priests.”
“She is very healthy.”
“She?” he breathed.
maichen’s smile was gentle and ancient as she came unto him, moving when he was unable to. “She. Our next queen, born unto us. As the stars had provided.”
A daughter. He was going to be the father of a daughter. A princess who would be queen someday, as provided by the heavens. By the traditions. By the grace of fate.
Wrapping his arms around his mate, iAm held maichen close and breathed in her beautiful scent. But then he got woozy. Before he could think about sitting back down, his body made the decision for him. All at once, he fell off his feet, his chair catching his weight and holding it, when he no longer could.
“A little girl,” he said with both hands on his face. And then he sat upright. “Whataboutyou?”
The words came out so fast, he was going to repeat them, but his mate just stepped in between his knees and stroked his shoulders. “I am fine. I am perfectly fine. I promise you.”
Annnnnnnd cue the world going around in another circle. He was totally dizzy even though he was sitting down—it was like his body had known there was another wave on his horizon.
“You need to go see Doc Jane,” he mumbled as he turned his head to put his ear to her lower belly through the royal robing. “I believe in conventional medicine, and I can’t risk you or… our daughter.”
Daughter. They were having a daughter. Provided everything went all right.
“I will go see your healer.” maichen ran her fingertips over his skull trim, in that way he liked. “We shall go together.”
As iAm held the warm, strong body of his female, he felt like a pussy for not getting to his feet properly or sitting her in his lap. The night had been a rough one, though. He had never thought he would get mated. Never thought young were in his future. And here that amazing future was coming to him… with the discord around Trez the inevitable chaser of bad news.
“Did you see him tonight?” maichen asked.
She always seemed to know where his mind went. And there was only one “him” in his world. No name was required.
“He came by.”
“How is he?”
“The same.” He shook his head. “Worse, actually. And that was before we got into it.”
“Did you tell Trez?” maichen asked while putting her hand back on her belly. “About…”
“I couldn’t. I just…” He looked up at his mate. “How can I? It is too cruel. He lost everything, and now I have not only you, but a young. It’s too much—and please don’t take that the wrong way.”
As she stared at him sadly, he reflected that when you mated someone, you took on their struggles. But man, he wished like hell he hadn’t brought this shit to her door.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and knew why he’d been so harsh with his brother earlier. He’d wanted to share his good news with the other most important person in his life. But with things as they were—and the way they had always been—he had no real kin of his own. He had never had kin of his own. He’d had a responsibility, one borne out of love but a weight just the same. He had a constant worry, a pit in his gut… a curse thanks to a fate that was his own even as it was not.
Once, just once, he’d like to be able to have the relationship flow in the other direction. In his way. He wanted to get some support and concern instead of constantly giving it.
But come on, how selfish was he? It wasn’t like Trez had volunteered for any of this crap, and blaming the male for reality was a douche move. Like when their souls had been bargaining to come down onto the planet for a life span, had Trez really looked over the Happy Days story line and decided, Naaaaah, I’d much rather be in the Takes a Licking section.
Of course he hadn’t. And iAm needed to be more supportive.
“I owe my brother an apology,” he said with defeat.
* * *
Sitting across from his female, Trez was scrambled in his head, but calm on the outside. At least he thought he was calm. No tapping heels, drumming fingers… or twitches of the eyebrows or mouth that he could tell.
So things were looking up. And hell, not only had there been a good ten or fifteen minutes since anybody outed a gun, there had also been a respite from people jumping out of windows. They kept this trend up, he might actually sleep through the day.
“You don’t really live here, do you,” his female said as she continued to consume her one-Raisin-per-spoonful-Bran.
For a split second, he tried to configure a lie in his head. Something about moving in soon. Just having moved in. Trying the place out for moving in. But he was tired, and all that fiction building seemed like too much work. Besides, his female was smart, and it didn’t take a genius to notice the lack of personal effects.
Or the total non-clothes in the closet or bureau upstairs, if she checked.