Immortal ever after, p.14
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       Immortal Ever After, p.14

         Part #18 of Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands
 
Page 14

 

  Roxy barked. Smiling, Valerie gave her another pat and then stood up. “Okay. Let’s go see who’s up and then I’ll take you out in the backyard and throw the ball for you. ”

  Roxy followed closely as Valerie walked to the door, bumping up against her leg repeatedly as if herding her along. It made Valerie smile and pat the dog’s head as she walked. She didn’t encounter anyone in the hall, or on the main floor. It looked like everyone else was still sleeping. But then it had been night when she’d called 911 and these men had been working. She supposed they worked nights and slept most of the day. Which was a bit worrisome. Did that mean the alarm was on again and would be every morning when Roxy needed out? She fretted over the possibility as she walked to the panel by the French doors in the living room. Much to her relief, the panel read “ready,” which she knew from the alarm at her clinic meant it wasn’t on.

  Relaxing, she fetched Roxy’s ball from the bag Anders had set next to the island last night, and then led the German shepherd outside to throw the ball for her to fetch. It turned out she wasn’t in much better shape for that than running. Every time she threw the ball, the stitches in her back made their presence known. Even using her left hand didn’t help much, and her throws were pretty lame.

  Valerie was about to give up the game when she heard the French doors open behind her. She turned to look around at once, half relieved and half disappointed to see Leigh smiling at her from the kitchen.

  “Morning,” the brunette called cheerfully, stepping out onto the sheltered verandah.

  “Morning,” Valerie responded, offering a smile. She threw the ball one last time for Roxy, and then turned to approach the other woman. “Sorry about waking you up this morning. ”

  Leigh waved that away. “We’d just gone to bed. We weren’t asleep. ”

  Valerie raised her eyebrows. “Night owls?”

  “Pretty much. ” Leigh laughed.

  “I’m surprised you’re up now if you only went to bed at six thirty,” she commented.

  “I napped earlier, remember?” she said with a shrug and rubbed her stomach as she admitted, “I find I’m having trouble sleeping for anything more than a couple hours. I can’t get comfortable and tend to take a lot of short naps. ”

  “Ah. ” Valerie nodded, her gaze dropping to Leigh’s belly. She supposed it would be hard to find a comfortable position in her condition.

  “Are you ready for breakfast?” Leigh asked suddenly, turning to lead the way back into the house.

  “Actually, yes. I’m starved,” Valerie admitted at once and whistled for Roxy as she followed her inside. As she waited by the open door for the dog to come in, she added, “But why don’t you sit down and let me cook? Just tell me what you want and where to find it and I’ll play chef. ”

  When Leigh hesitated, looking tempted, she added, “It’s the least I can do for your letting me stay here. ”

  Leigh chuckled at the claim, and then heaved a sigh. “You’re more than welcome here and don’t have to work off your stay, Valerie. ” Grimacing, she added, “But I would appreciate some help with breakfast. ”

  “My pleasure,” Valerie assured her.

  Nodding, Leigh walked over to a cupboard and opened it to survey the boxed and canned food inside.

  “How do you feel about pancakes?” she asked as she pulled out a box of buttermilk pancake mix.

  “Love them,” Valerie said at once.

  “Great. ” Leigh beamed and opened another cupboard to retrieve a big bowl. “Can you grab the eggs and milk out of the fridge while I start the coffee?”

  They chatted amiably as they worked. Once they had the batter for the pancakes mixed, Leigh decided they should add sausages to the breakfast. She set the electric grill up on the island and sat in one of the chairs to cook the sausages while Valerie flipped pancakes at the range.

  “Good Lord. ”

  Valerie glanced around at that gasped comment from Leigh. “What’s wrong?”

  “I—nothing, I just—” She wrinkled her nose and then admitted, “I know you probably thought we had, but we never contacted your family to let them know you’re okay, Valerie. They’re probably worried sick. ”

  “Oh. ” Valerie turned back to her pancakes and sighed. “It’s okay. There’s no one to contact or worry. ”

  “No one?” Leigh asked and she could hear the frown in her voice.

  Valerie shook her head. “I was an only child. My grandparents died one after another of heart attacks and cancer as I was growing up and my parents died three years ago in a car accident. There’s just myself and an aunt who moved to Texas thirty years ago. I’ve only seen her twice since then. At her parents’ funerals. ” She shrugged. “Other than Christmas cards, we don’t stay in touch. ”

  “Oh,” Leigh said softly and fell silent.

  “What about friends?” Anders asked, and Valerie nearly jumped out of her skin. Both at his sudden joining of the conversation and because of his chest brushing her back as he reached around her to set a small Petsmart bag on the counter.

  “Waste pick-up bags,” he murmured by her ear, his fingers drifting lightly over her bare upper arm as his hand withdrew. “Since Lucian was here to keep you safe, I popped out and picked them up for you. ”

  Valerie stared blankly at the bag, aware that shivers were running down her spine and goose bumps were popping up on her skin where his breath and fingers had passed. She had to wonder how she could be staring at something so unsexy and be so turned on at the same time.

  A muffled laugh drew Valerie’s confused gaze to Leigh and the other woman grinned at her as she said, “That was sweet of you, Anders. ”

  “Yes, it was,” Valerie said and then paused to clear her throat when it came out froggy. “Thank you. ”

  “Mind you,” Leigh added. “Red roses might have been sweeter than red doggie pooh bags. ”

  “I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Anders responded.

  Valerie flushed and turned back to the pancakes. What Leigh was suggesting would have been appropriate if they were dating or something, but they weren’t, and she did appreciate his running out to get her the bags. She didn’t want to repay Leigh for allowing her into her home by leaving little Roxy gifts all over their yard . . . And what did his response mean exactly?

  “So, you have no family, but what about friends?” Anders asked, reminding her of his earlier question.

  “I have friends, of course. But they’re back in Winnipeg. They won’t even know I went missing. ” She flipped the pancakes and added, “I only moved to Cambridge the week before I was kidnapped and I spent most of that week rushing around getting things I needed for the house and for classes. I hadn’t made any friends here yet. ” She lifted the pancakes out of the frying pan and slid them onto a plate in the oven to keep warm, then poured two more onto the griddle before admitting, “Mrs. Ribble is the only person I’d even talked to besides store clerks and school officials and that was because she came out to say that Roxy better not be a barker or she’d call the police. ”

  “And then the old bat goes and tries to steal her,” Leigh muttered.

  Valerie shook her head at the comment and glanced around with amusement. “I don’t know why you guys have it in for the woman. She did look after Roxy. ”

  “For purely selfish reasons,” Leigh said grimly. “Trust me, that woman is the most selfish, bitter old biddy I’ve ever met. ”

  Valerie turned to stare at her. “You didn’t even talk to her. Have you met Mrs. Ribble before or something?”

  Leigh opened her mouth, and then paused briefly before saying, “I know someone who knows her. ”

  “Hmm. ” Valerie turned back to the pancakes. She wasn’t terribly surprised to hear Mrs. Ribble was a mean-spirited old woman. She’d already developed that opinion herself even before the last encounter. In the week that she’d been living next door to the wo
man, she’d heard or seen her giving hell to three neighbors for things that were none of her concern, and harass the local kids for infractions as small as accidentally stepping off the sidewalk onto her grass. The woman seemed to delight in making other people miserable. And she was good at it. Lots of practice, Valerie suspected.

  “So, it could have been quite a while before anyone noticed you’d gone missing,” Anders said thoughtfully, and Valerie glanced around to see that he was getting himself a cup of coffee.

  “Yes, quite a while,” she acknowledged, turning back to her pan. “None of the other women had family or friends in the area either. We figured that out pretty quick while talking. Not one of us had anyone to worry or raise a fuss over our going missing. We thought that was probably the reason he chose us. ”

  “That’s probably true,” Leigh said solemnly. “And it was smart of him. ”

  “It explains why we didn’t get on to him sooner,” Anders said, and then pointed out, “If he continues with that pattern it will be harder to track him down. ”

  Valerie frowned at the thought of this monster out there somewhere preying on other women even as they spoke.

  “It will take him a while to set up somewhere else,” Leigh said, her thoughts apparently moving along the same line as Valerie’s. “He needs to find a new home base, gather cages and whatnot . . . ” She paused, and then asked, “Valerie, was there anything else you had in common with the other women?”

  “Like what?” Valerie asked uncertainly, turning sideways so she could keep one eye on her cooking and one on Leigh.

  “Well, there has to be a way that he set his sights on each of you. It can’t be a coincidence that none of you had family and friends. Likely he chose each of you because of that, but how did he find it out?” she asked. “Is there some welcoming organization or something? Did you all use the same realtor?”

  “I don’t know,” Valerie admitted with a frown. They hadn’t followed that line of questioning. After discovering each of them had that in common, they’d mostly talked about each other, their memories of better times, their lives, their regrets over things they hadn’t yet done, their dreams for the future when they were free, and what foods they’d most like to eat. They’d even talked about books they’d read and movies they’d seen, anything to take them temporarily from their grim reality. Now she wished she’d thought of this and asked these questions of the others. It could be a way to find the man.

  “Not to worry,” Leigh said brightly, using her tongs to turn the sausages she was cooking. “We’ll just have to do that now. We can get you all together and let you talk until we sort out what place or person you all have in common. ”

  “I’m afraid that’s not possible. ”

  Valerie glanced beyond Leigh to see Lucian standing just inside the room. His hair was sleep ruffled, and he wore jeans, but was shirtless. However, a T-shirt dangled from his fingers and even as she looked his way he started to pull it on.

  “Why isn’t it possible, Lucian?” Leigh asked. “All we have to do is take Valerie to the Enforcer house to chat with them. ”

  “Which would be nice except that the women have been returned to their lives,” he said, moving forward to kiss his wife on the forehead.

  “Oh,” Leigh said with disappointment.

  “Well, that doesn’t mean we can’t get them all together,” Valerie said reasonably.

  Leigh bit her lip as Lucian and Anders exchanged glances, and then Lucian said, “Of course, we can contact them and ask if they’d be willing, but I suspect they all just want to forget what happened and get on with their lives. ”

  “Well, yes, I imagine they do. But surely they’ll want the man who kidnapped us captured and off the streets,” she pointed out with a frown.

  Lucian made a noncommittal sound and moved around the island to fetch himself a cup of coffee. He fixed it sweet and white, took a gulp, and then turned to eye her. “Before they were returned to their lives, the other women were asked what this Igor of yours and his boss looked like. None of them seemed to be able to answer that. ”

  Valerie grimaced and shook her head as she switched out the latest pancakes for fresh batter. “I’m not surprised. We were in the dark most of the time. Igor was just a large silhouette who delivered food and water and dragged one of us away every day. And whatever was in that oatmeal was some nasty stuff. The first time he took me upstairs I was under the influence and it was like a bad acid trip, faces coming out of the wall, their faces and bodies distorted as if looking through the bottom of a pop bottle, and the whole house spinning dizzily around me. ” She shook her head at the unpleasant memory.
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