The kid had balls. Dan had never doubted that. He hadn’t quite expected the direct challenge just yet, but he also never backed down.
“Yes and no,” he allowed.
Jeff only managed a slight nod. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful or anything. I was just ….”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You know, if the affair was the only thing bringing the reputation of Venton to its knees, I might go along with your assertion, but it isn’t. You’re going to see this happen time and time again in cases you work for Iodex, so listen up, once someone does something that even casts a slight shadow of doubt on their reputation, people start to question every single thing they’ve ever said or done. Wilshire may or may not have anything to do with the stolen exams, or the missing drug tests, or the missing money, but he poisoned his own well by having an affair. Now, he’s our top suspect because clearly he had something he wanted to hide. Doubt spreads faster than any disease. For the past week, every memory I have of the man has haunted me. When he gave me advice, was he telling the truth? Fi’s done the same thing. When trust shatters, you can’t ever put it back the way it was. The shadow only gets darker. It consumes everything around it.
“We cannot and should not try to legislate another man’s moral compass, but no one only lies once. A lie has to be covered up. There has to be another lie, and then another, and then another. The exams and the money those are all crimes punishable by law. I don’t know how intricate this web Wilshire’s spun might be, but I can assure you once we start to unravel it, the lies will hit the light, and he won’t be able to hide in the shadows anymore. If his only transgression is the affair, he still won’t be able to build back the trust his wife, his students, and his colleagues once had in him. You and I could go in and clear his name in a court of law. He’ll never be trusted again in the court of people’s minds.”
“Yeah … I guess I didn’t really think about it that way. He’s already on trial.”
“I’m going to help you catch him.”
“No. You’re going to help me catch the people who’ve committed the crimes. Never go into a case certain you know who the bad guy is. Let the evidence tell you who you’re after.”
“So, we’re not going after Wilshire?”
“We’re going after whomever committed the crimes. He’s just a suspect at the top of the list.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“Yeah, well, be careful. I shouldn’t have asked for your help.”
“I won’t get caught. I really want to help,” Jeff begged. “It’ll be like part of my training.”
“Just watch your back and don’t talk about this to anyone but Becca. At this point we have no idea who might have a hand in any of this.”
An all too familiar weight settled on Dan’s shoulders as he climbed the stairs. Fionna was sitting on their bed gnawing on her lip as she stared up at him. That hollow spot in the center of his ribcage, the one she’d filled, ached as she reached out for him.
“I’m right here, sweetheart.” He wanted to lock the world out. Infidelity, heartache, sorrow, and the corrosive world itself had no place in their sanctuary. They would stay away from his baby. He would see to it. He would demand it. She was too good, too sweet. He loved and adored her too much to allow her to ever feel that kind of pain and doubt. But he couldn’t keep it locked away because she’d stepped into their refuge desperate for relief from what she was carrying in her heart.
Pulling his wife into his muscled embrace, he brushed a kiss in her long hair, the color of the Koa wood native to her island. “Let’s talk about it, okay?”
He knew she needed to sleep, but she wouldn’t until he’d answered every question plaguing those gorgeous sienna eyes.
“Thank you,” she fussed feebly.
Guiding her tenderly, Dan eased the stretch pants she was wearing down her long legs. Standing, he pulled the t-shirt over her head and fell to his knees. He kissed her swollen belly sweetly watching the tears fall from her beautiful eyes.
Pulling the pillows off he drew heat into his hand and heated the sheets and quilts. She watched him pull off his jeans and t-shirt before he seated himself in front of her, her willing shield and constant servant.
Their knees touched and a small smile formed on her features. Dan brushed her cheek with his thumb and kissed her forehead. “I’m right here, baby. I will always be right here. Talk to me.”
“It’s all so confusing in my head. It’s overwhelming.”
“You start talking, and we’ll make it make sense together.” It was the way their world worked. Nothing made sense unless they were together. A shiver worked through Fionna. Dan’s heart ached, a physical, palpable pain, not just an emotional one.
“Please don’t say no.”
“To what, sweetheart?”
Fionna grasped his hands tightly in her own and drew from him. Concentrating, Dan supplied her with soothing calm and strength, careful not to push too much through her at once. She caught her escaping breath.
“Just promise you won’t say no.”
“I can’t think of a time I’ve ever been able to tell you no, but what are we talking about exactly, baby doll? You name it. I’ll walk straight through hell to get anything you want.”
“You already did that.” Another round of choked tears cascaded down her face. “I don’t want a thing exactly. I just …”
“You just what?”
“I don’t want you to work on Chancellor Wilshire’s affair without me. I want to be there for all the investigating part. Please, please let me. I need you to let me.I need to be a part of this case.”
Of all the things his mind had conjured trying to guess what it was she wanted, that hadn’t even made the list. “Fi, listen.” Dan tried to figure out how that might work. “You need to be here. You’re supposed to be resting. I don’t want you to do anything but that. As selfish as this is …”
“What?” she pled.
“This week hasn’t been anything at all what I expected, but no matter what crap has come up at work, or with life in general, when I walk in that door and I see you, and I hear Aida say daddy, and jump up in my arms, when you kiss me, when you let me hold you. That means more to me than you’ll ever know. Those are the moments that I’ve lived for over the past week. Those quick moments have made everything bearable.
“I’m so sorry that I let the world get to you. That’s not my job. I’m supposed to protect you from all of the shit that’s out there. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. All I’ve managed to do is bring the world inside our home. AlI I wanted to do was to keep you tucked up here where you’re safe and happy, where my girls are safe and with their mommy.
“I love to walk in and see you smiling, and eat the things you make for us because they don’t just feed all of us nourishment, Fi, they feed my soul. I love that you do that for us and that it somehow makes you happy. I know that’s probably incredibly chauvinistic. You can yell at me if you want. But that’s the truth, and I don’t ever want to lie to you. I don’t want to bring my work home to you, baby. I want to keep you in my shield and never let anything hurt you.”
“It’s not chauvinistic. I love to cook for you and make our home a safe place for our babies. I’m happiest when I’m doing those things, but I can’t just hide out here, Dan. Life is going to intrude whether we want it to or not. I know I need to rest so Halia will be healthy, and I can carry her full term. I’m so scared something is going to go wrong with her, but I need you to let me help you with this part of the investigation. Please. I’m begging you. I know I can’t be up at Venton much. I have to take care of my girls, but all of the stuff Jeff just found for you, I want to go through it with you. You don’t understand. You don’t know what I know.”
Whatever was ricocheting violently through her mind, Dan had to rescue her. It was who he was.
“Hey, it’s okay.” He rubbed her back and cradled her head on his shoulder. “If it’s what you need, then you can be my partner for this. I’ll find out what I can at the Academy, and then I’ll come home and we’ll work on it together. If that’s what you need then that’s what we’ll do, but I need you to tell me what you know that I don’t. I’d like to understand. If you’re going be my crime fighting partner, you have to tell me everything you know.” He hoped for a slight smile. She delighted him by giving him a slight chuckle.
“Okay.” She wiped away her tears and gulped in a few deep breaths. “But I get to be Batman. When I’m not pregnant, I look damn good in black leather.” Lost somewhere between her sweet, teasing sense of humor and the terror she was trying to explain was his baby.
Constantly telling himself that there was no danger in her helping him and that with her phenomenal abilities she would probably have the case solved in a matter of days, Dan laughed as he kissed her wet cheek.
“How about you play Catwoman to my Batman? Her black leather suit will show off all of your best assets.” He let his hands slip down the sides of her breasts. “And I’d love to see you with a whip.”
“Meow,” Fionna giggled. Dan was pleased she was feeling more herself, but he wasn’t fool enough to believe that her terrorizing fears had disappeared. She’d just pushed them further under the surface.
“Tell me, baby,” he soothed, “What is it about all of this that scared you so badly? I would never ever cheat on you, ever. You know that.”
“That’s what you say now.”
“Fionna!” Fury pulsed in his shield. A spark of red shot through the green haze surrounding them. He tried to remember that she was extremely hormonal and that she was terrified, but truthfully she’d cut him deep. “Never say that, never even think that again. Do you understand me? Just say whatever is bothering you. We’ll figure it out, but never say that to me again.”
“I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t do that. It’s just so different from other emotions.”
“What’s different?” Dan tried to help her formulate her words.
“All of the emotions tied up in an affair, they’re different than what I feel from everyone else.”
“Okay. Can you tell me how they’re different?” He was still hurt over her accusation but he was desperate to know where all of this was coming from.
“You know how sometimes I can feel emotional energy from Non-Gifted people.”
“Yeah, I kind of assumed that goes right along with being the strongest Receiver of our time. I, of all people, know how powerful you are, sweetheart.”
“Well, men and women that aren’t Gifted, but are thinking about cheating or are cheating, I pick up on that much easier than any other emotion from anyone else. Those energies are so palpable, they run in such a constant continual wave, I can read those easier in a Non-Gifted person than I can read the normal everyday emotions of Gifted people.”
Confusion cast her tear-stained face as she tried to explain what being Fionna Styler Vindico, the most powerful Receiver of their time, meant.
“It consumes them. It starts out with nothing at all. A look, a glance, an innocent flirtation, but it fills something that’s missing in that person’s spirit, and they become instantly addicted to the feeling. It can even be a hormonal imbalance that causes them to feel a void. It always starts from a need they aren’t taking care of in a healthy way. Instead of turning in to their relationship with their spouse or their relationship with themselves, they turn outward to fill the needs. Then the deception takes over. The desperation to feel whatever they felt from that person, the need to feel it again and again, dominates every single thing they do.” She began speaking rapidly, trying to help Dan see the things she felt virtually any time she was out in public.
“That’s why it never matters what the other person looks like. It has nothing to do with the fact that a woman is married to a hunk but cheats with the guy that’s decades older than her, losing his hair, and has a beer gut. It’s that feeling that they’re after. Whether Chancellor Wilshire made Mentor Bryant feel safe, or taken care of, or like she was sexy and beautiful, or just complimented her lesson plans, she was desperate for something and he filled it.
“It may have been completely innocent at first, but one of them let the feeling overtake them and then they do everything in their power to have that drug again. Most women I know that have cheated on their husbands can’t really even really tell you what the other guy looks like. It isn’t him she’s consumed with. It’s the desperation to feel the way the lover makes her feel, the passion that she feels from him because its new and it’s exciting. I just wish I could explain to you how much of the person it occupies. They can’t think of anything else. They get careless and stupid because they’re so desperate for the next fix they really don’t care if they get caught. The next email, the next text message, whatever. It’s like Papa always says,” she shuddered as she reached the pinnacle of her terror, “It’s a balance. If your energy is off or your soul is out of sorts, the balance of your spirit is broken. If it isn’t restored, it will ultimately ruin your life. Your chemical balance can drive you to do things you never thought possible. No one walks down the aisle with the intention of cheating. Things get off, they’re off for a while and no one bothers to try and steady the tipping balance, or to swim against the dangerous tides, and all of a sudden you’re choking and drowning in the drug.”
Letting everything she’d said wash over him Dan held onto his wife with force. “Fi, I know you’re scared, and that on top of everything else that comes with us having Halia, you’re terrified that something will tip out of balance between us. I will not let that happen. It will be different and things will change, but not for the worse. They’ll change for the better. I know it might take us a few weeks to find the balance and it will continue to change, but I’m not going to let us get out of sync.
“If something is wrong, we’ll fix it together. I will swim any tidal wave. I will fight with everything that I am. I will never let you go, and I will never ever let you drown. And I don’t just mean now.”
She had to hear him, and he would talk until she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they would take the leap of faith together and he would never let her go. “I mean forever. I meant forever when I was standing on that shoreline last spring. I mean forever now. I will always mean forever.”
“Promise?” she whispered.
“But Dan ….” Pain hardened the soft angles of her face.
“You’re just not so good at not getting consumed. Sometimes, it scares me, because what happens if I don’t hold your attention anymore. You’re doing this for your dad. It’s a huge case, and it’s all on you. I’m not all that good at sharing you.”
It was the truth. His single-minded ferocity had been his downfall on many occasions. His dogmatic drive to hunt down and end Wretchkinsides had consumed his very being for ten long years, until she’d rescued him on her angel wings and pulled him from the suffocating depths of hell.
“I used to be terrible at it, but that was before I met my own personal guardian angel. She changed everything. She taught me how to live again. Taught me how important balance was. She gave me her sexy smile and offered me her hand, and I was done for hook, line, and sinker. I grabbed hold, let her lift my head up off of my desk, and followed her out of my office. I let her take me out of my own hell, out of the nightmares I lived for as long as I could remember. I followed her right into her bed, and then woefully unable to deny her access to any part of me, I let her resuscitate me. I was a selfish bastard for letting her save my sorry ass, but she was too good to resist.
“She wound her way into my heart, made me realize that I actually had a soul, because she is my soul, and it had been gone for so long. Then she went and found us our own amazing little angel. That looks up at me with those innocent brown eyes that look just like her mother’s. I will never forget laying down with both of you in the Haydenshire’s living room the night before Rainer and Emily’s wedding and her telling me that she loved me. You have no idea what that did to me. And it was all because of you.” He spread his hands tenderly over her bump. Halia was moving rapidly, frightened from Fionna’s harrowing emotions. Dan let his eyes close as he filled her womb with his own soothing energy.
“Shh, baby girl.” He leaned to speak, keeping his lips centimeters from Fionna’s belly. “Daddy’s right here, and,” he raised his head to gaze into the depths of his wife’s beautiful eyes, “I will never be anywhere but right here beside you. I hear what you’re saying to me. I really do. Whatever Wilshire made Mentor Bryant feel or whatever she made him feel, no matter how consuming it was, they both had the chance to stop it a thousand times over. I certainly don’t know the emotional side of cheating on your spouse, but I can promise you that it is a series of terrible decisions and of choosing to give in to the weakness instead of fighting to make life better. You can always turn around from where you are and decide to change course. Neither of them did and that makes me madder than anything else.
“You know an incredibly beautiful brilliant woman said to one of my punk-ass students just a few days ago that if you give a woman your best, she’ll give you more than you can even fathom. You deserve my best and I’ll never give you anything less than that. I will not let this case consume me. I swear to you. Not for my father, or for my ego, or for Governor Haydenshire, or anyone else.”
“You promise?” Fionna begged.
“Do you remember when Papa put your hand in mine at our wedding?”
He earned himself a slight smile as she nodded.
“Do you remember what he said to me?” This time her brow furrowed as she shook her head slightly. “He said, My Maylea,” Dan whispered, “Take care of her for you hold her spirit. So, that’s it for me, sweetheart. If I somehow get to be lucky enough to be the man that holds and protects your spirit, that’s all that matters to me. That’s all that I will ever allow to drive me. I let Wretchkinsides drive me for long enough and that led straight to hell. You take me to heaven, and no one else gets to take me anywhere but you.”
“Will you cast me?” she begged as she let him recline her in the bed.
Wrapping her up in the sheets and quilts on their bed, he let the melding of their skin of their spirits soothe him as he pushed his shield out over the only thing that would ever truly matter.
“Maylea,” he whispered. Feeling her smile against his chest eased his own spirit.
“I miss you calling me that.”
“I love to call you that. It’s who you are, and I love each and every part of my beautiful wildflower.”
“I feel so selfish for not wanting you to do any part of this case without me. It’s just …”
“Say it, sweetheart. I know what you’ve been wanting to tell me. You’ve worn yourself out trying so hard not to tell me the one thing you know you need. Please, just say it.”
“I want to go home.”