Viktor Konstantine, enforcer of the bad humans and APres Guarda uber-minion, stood next to Dad like he had a right. My fingers curled into fists. Short nails dug into my fleshy palms. Reacting to my fright, my blue bugs raced across my skin in a tingling fury, waiting for me to take flight or fight.
I preferred to rearrange Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino’s features into a living Picasso. I stomped across the drive of my parents’ hacienda. Gravel crunched under my sneakers. “What are you doing here, Viktor?”
“You’re as beautiful as ever, obecht.” His sapphire eyes flashed, mirroring the gleam of his straight white teeth.
“Don’t.” I shook my fist at him. Too bad the spam dots couldn’t turn my arm into a bat to smack him upside the head. He’d left me with a psycho who’d cut off my toe for a souvenir for pity’s sake. “Don’t you dare obecht me.”
His lips quirked.
The jerk found this funny? I’d show him funny when I shoved a cactus up his backside. “I want you gone. Now. Faster than now.”
“MaryJane.” Mom’s voice buzzed in my ear like an annoying bee.
I focused on my target. If my eyes could shoot lasers, Viktor would be a smoldering pile of ash. Remains that I would stomp on with both feet. “Go. Leave. Now. Or else…”
“Or else?” Rocking back on his heels, he stuck his hands in his pockets. A key fob flashed in his palm. At the center of the triangular piece, a crystal glowed red.
Red for danger.
I skidded to a halt. Heels gouged the gravel, spraying rocks. I expected the scum-bucket would be armed but that… That nasty bit of alien tech was a scrambler. A weapon as foul as it sounded. One shot frappéd the victim’s insides. The skin was left intact until the body fell, then it burst and sprayed black goo everywhere.
Viktor casually pointed it at Dad.
Black eyebrows beetling over his thick nose, my second father glanced from Viktor to me then back again.
The alien stooge wouldn’t fire, not with so many witnesses. It would hardly suit his employer’s aims to melt a dozen people at a commune on the outskirts of Sedona. Then again, the APres Guarda did want to frighten the US government into signing a treaty. My mouth dried. I had to get him away from my family. I had to call his bluff. “Or else, I’ll call the authorities and have them come pick you up.”
And I didn’t mean the local sheriff or police, either.
I had alien friends on Earth, ones that could kick his tight behind.
“MaryJane!” Mom yelled before footsteps crunched on the gravel.
Viktor’s eyes narrowed and a muscle ticked in his jaw. “And here I thought the Creator had arranged this rendezvous for us to get to know each other better.”
I snorted. “You and your creator can shove—”
“MaryJane Radiance Hemplewhite.” Mom’s shout was louder this time. A second later, a hand gripped my arm and spun me around. Steel laced her chestnut hair and anger tightened the skin around her eyes. “I raised you better than to be rude to strangers.”
“Strangers?” I sputtered. Could my mother really be defending the uber-minion? “He’s not a stranger! He’s… He’s…”
Saying alien would get me strapped to a chair and treated with some foul-tasting natural concoction that might clean out my bowels but certainly wouldn’t change my opinion or the facts. Facts they didn’t know. Facts they wouldn’t believe.
“Don’t be too hard on her, Susan.” Viktor’s words oozed across the driveway like melted chocolate.
I glared at him. Why was he defending me? He had to be up to something.
“I’m afraid we didn’t part on the best of terms.” The jerkface looked at his shiny shoes.
The skin on my neck prickled. No. No, he wouldn’t.
“I kissed Rae. Let her believe things….” He trailed off.
If he dared to say it… If he dared to imply a relationship… I’d have the CeeBees make his who-ha think it was permanently on ice. I tugged on my arm, trying to break free.
Mom dug her talons in. Bits of blue paint flaked off her index finger. She leaned forward, reeled in by Mr. Tall, Dark, and Latino’s line. “Believe what?”
Viktor peeked at Mom from under a shingle of ebony hair. “She found out I was in another relationship. One I couldn’t get out of.”
Steam must have hissed out of my ears. I’m sure I popped a few blue bugs. Red tinged my vision.
“Oh. Oh.” Mom blinked. Polyamory was her thing. She expected it in others, welcomed it.
I hated it. And I’d bet all the little CeeBees in my body that Viktor knew both those facts.
The glint in his eyes was pure evil.
I’d like to introduce him to Satan’s pitchfork and not in a good way.
Mom turned to me. A frown dug furrows in her forehead and her eyes tilted down a bit. That darn sad, disappointed face. “Now, MaryJane—”
“Don’t.” I raised my hand to silence her. We’d had this conversation before. Many times before. So many, I even asked the mailman if I was his child. I jerked free of her grip. Pivoting about, I dug in with my toes and stomped toward the house. A rooster tail of gravel sprayed behind me.
“MaryJane!” Mom called.
Pops winked. His steel braid draped over the shoulder of his flannel shirt. His brown eyes twinkled and his mouth curled at the corners. “Welcome home, Doodlebug.”
He opened his arms wide. He was always glad to see me, and never looked at me as if I were alien spawn for wanting to run with the pack.
“Thanks, Pops.” I hugged my biological father and ran my hand down the knots of his spine. He’d always been wiry but this was downright thin. “I thought weed was supposed to give you the munchies?”
After one tight squeeze, he released me. “Got a whole new batch of brownies cooling on the table. Yours are in the small pan.”
The ones without the wacky weed, he meant. I could live with that. Once upon a time, Pops had trained as a chef in Paris. His cooking reflected it.
“MaryJane.” Mom huffed closer. “Why do you have time for Pops and not me?”
I kissed his cool cheek. “See you on the flip side.”
Winking, Pops shifted to the side. “I’ll give you a ten-second head start.”
I’ll take ten seconds and double it. That should be plenty of time to find the owner of the commune, Moonbeam Hartsucker, and convince him to give Viktor the boot. The soles of my Converse sneakers slapped the Saltillo tile when I crossed the porch. I jerked open the screen door and pushed the heavy wooden one. Cherubs smiled at me from the brass knocker.
As soon as I stepped inside, the screen banged shut behind me.
I slammed the interior door. Blowing on my fingers, I summoned my magical spam dots. “Lock the door for twenty seconds.”
My fingertips tingled. A soft blue aura glowed around the knob when I shut it. Finally, something was going my way. Better still, that nifty trick wasn’t in any CeeBee manual. At least, I didn’t think it was. I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading the manual. It was over nine hundred pages long and I’d only been on the job three months.
“Hey, Moonbeam!” My voiced rolled like smoke along the ceiling. A gust of wind shook the glass panes in the thick adobe walls. A fire crackled in the beehive fireplace in the corner. Guitars, flutes, bongos and tambourines lined the shelves along the front wall. A stack of oversized cushions in orange, blue, red, green, and yellow listed toward the cream-colored wall. An overflowing bookshelf divided the great room from the dining area. Centered around Navajo throw rugs, clusters of rattan chairs and love seats filled the rest of the space.
I turned right at the hallway, away from the kitchen and headed toward Moonbeam’s hiding space—the study.
“Moonbeam? It’s me, Rae.” I passed the bathroom. I hoped my parents had paid the water bill this time. A blue outhouse glimmered beyond the window. I gritted my teeth and walked on. The study door was open. Gleaming brass hinges strapped the dark wood planks. I slipped inside.
Terracotta walls surrounded me with their warmth. Turquoise coyotes posed in front of full moons on the upholstered pillows and cushions. On the office chair behind the rattan desk, a marmalade cat peered at me with one green eye.
The cat meowed then yawned and flashed its fangs. With a swish of his tail, the tom jumped from the chair and sauntered off.
I shook my head. I don’t care what the database of galactic life said. Cats had to be an alien species.
The front door banged open.
Time was up. Dang. Squaring my shoulders, I headed for the front room and went on the offensive. “Where is Moonbeam?”
Mom drew up short, her hand on the doorknob. “Really, MaryJane, where are your manners?”
I scanned the group. Mom, Pops, and Dad. Crapola. This was an intervention. I felt my teeth sweat. “Where is Moonbeam?”
The old man would be on my side. He liked folks who bucked the system and with my folks, normal was bucking the system.
Mom and Pops exchanged glances. Mom pursed her lips. Pops flushed.
Dad cleared his throat. Shuffling to the fore, he used the suitcase to shield the plastic bags overflowing with goodies from the convenience store. “Why don’t I put these in Doodlebug’s room, then we can all talk over a cup of tea.”
My mouth dropped opened. Dad had my bags. He’d opened the trunk of my car. How had he done that? My stomach tightened. Viktor and his key fob of alien apps. He must have overrode the security features. I rolled my shoulders to relieve the building tension. “I want Moonbeam at the tea party.”
Mom pushed Pops toward the kitchen. The beads on her macraméd bracelets tapped together as they slid up her skinny arm. White paint streaked the back of her hand.
Shaking his head, Pops shambled across the rugs. “Got your iron undies on, Doodlebug?”
I jerked my chin once. I wish my blue bugs could conjure up some battle gear. Instead, I had my old stand-by of covering my ears and humming. Going home was a lot like becoming a child again.
Much, much worse.
Pops patted my arm when he passed.
Dad glanced over his shoulder at Mom. “No starting until after I stash her stuff.”
He caught my eye to make sure I caught his meaning.
Mom stared at the ceiling. “Honestly, Dale. She’s been smuggling contraband into the house since she was five and discovered grape soda.”
I hustled after Pops. If Mom was bringing up crap when I was five, it was going to be the intervention to end all interventions.
Standing at the sink, Pops filled the kettle. Copper pots hung from the rack beside the six-burner stove. An industrial fridge gleamed near the walk-in pantry. Stoneware plates, bowls, and mugs in bright colors filled the open shelves above the golden granite countertops. A stainless steel prep sink waited on one corner of the massive island.
Hooking an ankle around the stool, I plopped down and pulled the eight-by-eight inch glass dish toward me. My nose twitched at the spicy scent of cinnamon and vanilla. My stomach tried to crawl up my windpipe and dive in. I didn’t blame it.
Mom’s sandals snapped at the tiles as she entered. “We are eating at the table, MaryJane.”
Plates scraped together as she removed four place settings, all lined up opposite my usual spot.
Oh, boy. There’d be no witnesses for this mess. Picking at the crusty corner, I tucked the niblet into my mouth. Best offense was to focus attention somewhere else. Too bad I didn’t have a sibling I could blame. “Did something happen to Moonbeam?”
“He’s fine.” Platter in each hand, Pops used his hip to close the refrigerator. “He just—”
“Needed a break from running the ranch.” Mom finished.
Great. Hopping off the stool, I relieved Pops of one plate.
Sprigs of parsley swirled between the neatly arranged finger sandwiches. Radish roses sprouted from the center. Pops had gone all out. I blinked back the mist of tears. Pops had missed me. “This looks beautiful.”
Mom snapped her napkin flat in my direction. “This was supposed to be a civilized affair to introduce you to the new men in the commune.”
I smelled a rat. I dropped the platter the last inch onto the table. “And why am I to meet the new men in the commune and not everyone?”
Pops held out the chair opposite mother’s. “Welcome home, Doodlebug. I made all your favorites.”
He planted himself in the space between us and handed me the platter with a bowl of hummus and raw vegetables.
Brushing chocolate crumbs from his tee-shirt, Dad padded into the kitchen. “Have your say, Susan, then don’t bring it up again. This is the holidays and Rae hasn’t been home for over a year. We don’t want to run her off for another year. Or more.”
He sat on the chair with his back to the window, providing a second buffer from my mother.
“You act like it’s my fault.” Mom set her hand against her ample bosom. “She could come home anytime she wanted. But she chose to stay away. I notice she has enough money to purchase a new car and new clothes, but not enough time to find someone in her life.”
I squirmed in my seat like a five year old. How did parents strip away the years and wise decision with a few simple words? My lips parted.
Dad stuffed the end of an eggplant and pesto sandwich in my mouth. “Speak your piece. I will set the timer if I have to.”
Biting down, I tore off the piece and chewed. I loved Dad’s introduction of the timer.
Best of all, Mom hated it.
“Set the timer.” I jerked my chin to the egg-shaped thing on the island. “I want to have my say, too. But I’ll go last.”
And I’d get the last word.
Mom would just have to accept it. I stuffed the rest of the finger sandwich in my mouth and chewed. Perhaps, this Thanksgiving wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Rocking back in his chair, Pops scooped it up then soft balled it to Dad. “Five minutes each. My cooking is too good to give us indigestion.”
“Mom. Pops. Me. Rae.” Dad cranked the chicken’s top half. “Then we spend the rest of the visit catching up.”
Mom drummed her fingernails on the woven mat.
Dad set the timer in the center of the table. “Go.”
The chicken ticked once before Mom started. “You’re far too materialistic. New cars. New wardrobes. And this job of yours. Money. Money. Money. It’s all you ever think about.”
I pressed my thumb and fingers together. A technique I used when she brought up a point I needed to refute, holding onto them like they were tangible things.
“And this business with Viktor. Really, MaryJane, must you reject all of the family values I tried to instill in you? So what if he was involved with a woman when he met you? Love is infinite. There’s plenty to go around, and you might enjoy sharing.” I added the point about Viktor being an uber-minion then deleted it. Some things I couldn’t share.
From the corner of my eye, I spied Viktor leaning against the greenhouse door and spinning his key fob. What was he up to?
“Are you even listening, MaryJane? I should get an extra minute for her ignoring me.”
“I listen with my ears, Mom. Not my eyes.”
Shaking his head, Dad added another minute to Mom’s time.
Right. No interrupting, even when the other person asked a direct question. That little rule turned a five minute lecture into a half an hour diatribe more than once in my teens. I took a bite of a cheddar and tomato sandwich before I added more time.
“I think you haven’t had enough sex. The build-up of all that energy isn’t natural. It’s because you persist on being alone. Alone, isn’t natural.”
I dipped my sandwich in the hummus. Some folks might have been shocked at talk of sex over lunch, not me. It had been nearly a daily occurrence since I hit thirteen. It was fun for surprising visitors.
Could it make Viktor blush?
Not that I wanted him to stick around or anything. As far as I was concerned, he was a disease that I planned to be cured of.
Mom pursed her lips. “You sound sexually constipated in your letters home. If you don’t want a relationship with Viktor, don’t let that stop you from enjoying his talents. The man just oozes sexuality. He has to be a talented lover.”
I blinked. Holy Toledo! Was Mom scoping him out for herself? Would Viktor become Daddy Number Three. No. No way. I gulped my Chai tea.
“I had hoped he would help you with some of your sexual hang-ups.” Mom patted Dad’s hand, then extended her open palm to Pops. “The right men can free you on so many levels.”
I choked on my tea, then sputtered and gasped. I’d seen their hang-ups. I didn’t intend to have hooks and chains in my bedroom.
Mom filled her lungs. “Now, I was able to have some very nice men come out to the commune, to meet you. I want you to give them a chance. Talk to them. You’ll see you can have the life you want. Here with us.”
The timer pinged.
End of round one.
Pops raked it off the table and twisted to reset it. “We were hoping you’d come home after you lost your job. Live here. With us. We know our lifestyle isn’t your choice, but that doesn’t mean it is incompatible with your desire for monogamy. Those men out there were carefully vetted by Aunt Maggie for you.”
I blinked. My parents were trying to match me up.
“We are worried you’ll meet someone who won’t accept us and keep you from us.”
I shook my head. “No way. I couldn’t love anyone like that.”
Tobias Werner’s face popped into my head.
He was my boss, not my lover. Although I had slept with him more than I had any other man. Too bad sex wasn’t involved. Merely, him protecting me.
Pops didn’t add an extra minute for my interruption. “I know you wouldn’t intentionally. But the heart wants what it wants and sometimes those demands override the head.”
Not going to happen. Between me and my blue bugs, I could control myself. I popped a rose radish into my mouth.
“I love you, Doodlebug, and want you home. We could use you to run this place. We’ve branched out. Raising sheep and goats. Making cheese and wool and selling our organic produce at the Farmer’s Markets. We need someone with a sense of business.”
“In Moonbeam’s absence.” Mom interrupted.
“In Moonbeam’s absence.” Pops nodded. “You take after your grandfather that way. He could do magic things with money. No one ever got the best of my father.”
He smiled for a moment before it collapsed.
Rising, I threw my arm around his shoulders and hugged him. Pops had lost his dad six years ago. He’d talked with him at the end, but most of my life the two had been estranged. Pops had chained himself in front of his father’s factories that tested on animals, or prevented harvesting from the lumber companies, or… Well, there had been a lot of protesting in my youth, and I’d met the man only once.
Pops patted my arm and sniffled. “Now, eat up before it gets cold.”
A bark of laughter slipped through my lips. The food was best served cold.
Pops lobbed the timer at Dad, who caught it with one hand.
Wiping his beard with the napkin, he swallowed. “We want you home, Doodlebug. The world is a dangerous place, getting more so every day. Here we can protect you, keep you safe. We won’t interfere with your choices, or your chosen lifestyle. Just. Please, move back home.”
He set the timer on the table. One minute remained.
I reached for it.
“You cannot send Viktor away. Running away didn’t solve problems, only facing them does.” Mom snatched up the timer. “If you don’t want Viktor, then at least consider Alexander Leach or one of the others.”
I flipped through the Rolodex in my mind. Who was Alexander Leach?
“He’s in his prime and good looking. If you’re looking to make Viktor regret not telling you about his lover, Alexander could do it.” Mom plopped the timer down just as it rang.
I plucked it up, silencing it. Where to begin? The men, of course. And the fact that they didn’t think I could find one on my own. Slowly, I twisted the arrow to the five minute mark.
“Did someone mention my name?”
I glanced over my shoulder.
A young man Leaned against the entryway. Wind swept through his overgrown crew cut. Muscle rippled under his coat. Green eyes sparkled as if he knew what activity his name had been paired with. He raked his gaze over me. “You must be Rae.”
He set his hand against his chest and touched his tongue to his upper lip.
My skin tingled. Nails biting into the timer, I pushed out of my chair and loped for the door. “No. Just no.”