Target(Legend of the Ir'Indicti,Book 3)(19) by Connie Suttle
"This is one of my favorite spots," Winkler settled into a cushioned rattan chair. Ashe sat nearby, setting his soda on a glass-topped table beside the chair. He watched waves pile up on the beach while tourists walked past and brown pelicans and seagulls flew by, calling out in flight.
"Do they always fly like that?" Ashe watched a line of brown pelicans flap by, so close he could almost reach out and touch them. It looked as if they were playing follow the leader.
"A lot of the time," Winkler grinned. "You'll see a few of the white pelicans, too, but they're not as common here. I've invited your parents and your friends over tonight for a cookout," Winkler went on. "I think your father will come after sunset. The rest will be here around seven."
"Thanks," Ashe said.
"Come on, you can do this," Marco was forcing Ashe to run in the late afternoon sun. Ashe had his shirt off, sunscreen slathered on and was working to keep up with Marco and Trajan. They ran easily on the beach, and Ashe watched as bits of shell and a stray jellyfish or two blurred past as he forced himself to take longer strides. "See, those long legs can work for you," Trajan grinned. Ashe knew the nearly seven-foot werewolf was playing with him and could likely leave him behind and stranded if he wanted. "And tomorrow, you'll be in the weight room again at seven."
"What sport did you play in school?" Ashe was breathing hard.
"Basketball mostly," Trajan said. "Got a scholarship. Had to turn it down. Can you see me out of town at a scheduled game during the full moon?" Trajan shook his head. "So, now I take all my frustrations out on my trainees."
"You went to a human school." Ashe didn't make it a question.
"Ashe, most werewolf children do. A lot of those kids don't know what they are until they go through the change the first time. I gotta tell you, the werewolf kids in those experimental communities turn a lot faster than those in the human schools. Dad says it's because they know what they are from the beginning. The rest aren't told because the secret is too hard to keep. Some don't turn until they're eighteen or nineteen. I think it's instinct—the wolf knows it's not safe."
"Wow, Trajan. How old were you?" Ashe hoped he wasn't prying.
"Seventeen," Trajan replied. "Trace didn't turn until he was eighteen and about to graduate. It was hard, spending that last year in high school, suddenly realizing I was something else and couldn't ever play pro like I wanted."
"Trajan, I'm sorry about that," Ashe said. And he was. He felt a bit of kinship with Winkler's Second at that moment. Ashe was worried that he'd never be able to attend college, or do much of anything that called attention to himself. He was hunted and he could never forget that.
"Kid, I think you know how I feel," Trajan said and ran ahead.
Ashe took off his shoes when they reached the stretch of sand in front of the beach house and walked into the water. "This is a long way from Cloud Chief, isn't it?" Marco said, wading in beside him.
"Yeah. Do you ever talk to Randy Smith?" Ashe asked, gazing out over the horizon. The water stretched before him as far as he could see.
"Every now and then, by email. I think Cori talks to him more often than I do," Marco sighed. "He's working for a newspaper in Chicago, now."
"He could write really well," Ashe agreed. He'd seen the essay Randy had written at age thirteen.
"Still can. Graduated with honors from the University of Illinois. His dad, Terry, was from that area. Dawn sent him up there because Terry's brother lives in the area. Dawn went back to the Santa Fe Pack, last I heard. She stays in contact with Randy. Anyway that's what Randy tells Cori."
"I hope he's all right," Ashe said. "I was hoping I'd hear from him once in a while, but never got anything."
"Ashe, I think that's not his fault," Marco whispered. Ashe thought about that for a moment.
"Compulsion," Ashe sighed.
"I think that word is worse than cursing to me," Ashe said. "It worries me that someday, nobody will remember who I am except the vampires. And that frightens me." It worried Ashe, too, that it might drive a wedge between him and his father.
"I hope that doesn't happen," Marco said. "It's bad enough that Dad asked for Sali's memory to be altered."
"Marco, I can't talk to Sali about any of this stuff anymore," Ashe allowed the defeat to come out in his voice. "I've been isolated from my best friend. I don't know how they could think I'd feel anything other than angry about that."
"Ashe, if there comes a day when I don't remember any of this stuff, I just want you to know that it wasn't my idea, and that before that happened, I thought you were probably the most amazing shifter I'd ever met."
"Thanks, Marco." Ashe felt a flush creeping into his cheeks, but he ignored it, turning his face into the breeze coming off the water.
"Ashe!" Adele gave him a hard hug when she walked into Winkler's beach house later. Ashe had taken a long shower before dressing in clean jeans and a T-shirt. He walked around barefoot, thinking he probably needed sandals—that's what Winkler was wearing around the house.
Sali, Marcus and Denise were hugging Marco before Cori got to do the same. Sali, looking tan from working in the peach groves, grinned at Ashe. Wynn had come with Dori and Lavonna, and she was staying close to Sali's side. Ashe observed Dori, thinking at first that she watched Wynn. That wasn't the case. He realized after a while that Dori's eyes followed Sali everywhere, with bare longing on her face. Silently he railed against the injustices life dealt.
The cook had prepared barbecued ribs and chicken for the crowd, with potato salad, baked beans, rolls and apple pie for dessert. The food was good; Ashe sat at a table with Sali, Wynn, Dori, Marco and Cori, eating and talking. Cori had her cheek against Marco's arm after a while and Marco smiled down at her. Ashe sighed.
"Winkler, I think I could smell this barbecue from fifty miles away," a new voice announced as steps sounded on the wooden deck. Ashe turned to see who it might be. The man was around Winkler's height, with black hair, gray-blue eyes and a wry smile. He clapped Winkler on the back. Hard.
"Anthony Hancock," Ashe whispered, leaning back in his chair, completely stunned.
"He doesn't use that name anymore," Marco said softly. "It's Tony Rockland, now."
"I did a history report on him—how he was killed by terrorists," Ashe said, staring at the former Director of the Joint NSA/Homeland Security Office.
"A vampire happened to be there when his hotel was bombed," Trajan knelt beside Ashe's chair. "I wouldn't mention any of that stuff unless he says it's okay. He works for the Vampire Council, now, but Tony and Winkler knew each other before all that."
"He's a vampire." Ashe's voice held bitterness.
Aedan Evans and Nathan Anderson arrived less than half an hour later. Both nodded respectfully to Tony Hancock. Ashe couldn't think of him with a different name—Ashe had hero-worshipped the man who'd reportedly died while tracking terrorists. Now he was just another vampire who could place compulsion. He was dressed well in designer clothing, too. It wasn't a suit but the shoes were Italian, Ashe knew that much. His father had a few pairs of shoes inside his closet that were quite expensive. These looked to cost more than that and the slacks Tony wore were likely tailored and hadn’t ever seen the inside of a department store. It appeared that working for the Council paid very well.
"I think I'll go for a walk on the beach," Ashe said, rising from his seat.
"Want to go, too, Cori?" Marco smiled at Cori, who still leaned against him.
"Yeah. Let's go."
Sali, Wynn and Dori ended up going, too. Ashe was halfway down the steps leading to the beach walkway when a strange voice filtered into his head. Don't get lost, Ashe. I don't want to be forced to look for you.
"My Queen." Ruby bowed before Friesianna. "Our paid source gives a location in Texas, but it has been watched closely. The child is not there. Perhaps they are hiding him."
Friesianna cursed. "This is untenable," she hissed. "That boy is ours. We will force them to hand him over."
"Perhaps more difficult than you might imagine," Ruby, one of the Queen's four Jewel Sentinels, replied carefully. He had no desire to anger the Queen. "The community is guarded and shielded. Three witches placed a braided shield—difficult for one of ours to unravel."
"Then send two. Or three. I don't care how many. Get inside and get something for me that I can use as leverage."
"Of course, my Queen." Ruby bowed low and backed away.
"Child, I realize you owe this debt. It is because you owe it that you will not be punished as severely for keeping the information from me. I have the boy under surveillance, now. I hope you realize what an asset he will be."
"Father, I beg you not to conscript. He will do as you ask, as long as you ask, I think." Radomir lifted his eyes to Wlodek, Head of the Vampire Council.
"You know the law. There is already much rumbling in the Council about this."
"I know." Radomir silently cursed the two who'd witnessed Ashe's ability in Amarillo, Texas. They were obligated to report in detail to the Council. Now, Wlodek knew of his attempts to conceal Ashe. While he wouldn't be punished as severely, perhaps, he'd lost his sire's trust. Blood debt was blood debt, however; Radomir would be dead if not for Ashe Evans. He also knew Ashe's father would never consent to conscription. There was a way around this, but Wlodek and the Council might not see it. Now, Anthony Rockland had been sent to watch Ashe. "You intend to tie up one of ours over this?" Radomir asked instead.
"The boy is being threatened by those fool Elemaiya. They think to snatch him away. They'll throw him as fodder before their enemies, when we could make much better use of his talents. Calm yourself, child. This will come out best for us, you'll see."
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