The countdown is on!!! We have 3 days left until the expected release of Haunted by Amber Lynn Natusch. To celebrate, Amber has released the first 2 chapters for your reading pleasure. So grab your coffee, sit back and enjoy!
* * * SPOLIER ALERT ***
IF YOU HAVE NOT READ CAGED,
YOU MAY NOT WANT TO READ ON.
“How is that even possible?” I grumbled, staring down my new enemy.
Precariously perched in front of the white porcelain, I found myself furiously rationalizing the state of the toilet so as to avoid actually having to address it. The task was unenviable to say the least, and I was none too happy about it. Cleaning was never a chore I had much enthusiasm for, but after living with Cooper, my forced-upon-me roommate of three months, I’d learned to hate it even more.
Especially the bathroom.
Doing my best not to vomit my lunch all over the freshly mopped floor, I quickly and violently scrubbed the bowl then threw the brush away.
“Men are so disgusting.”
As the quirky lyrics of “Laid” by James reverberated off the bathroom walls, I belted out the words while fishing out other necessary cleaning products from the vanity. I wasn’t worried about getting any noise complaints since I owned the building, and singing was the only way to make the task at hand tolerable. Not wanting to delay the process, I soon found myself bent over the edge of the tub scrubbing off dubious amounts of questionable material from its edge. While I rhythmically traced my sponge in circular patterns over a particularly dingy spot, my butt bounced to and fro in the air. I was alone, so I wasn’t concerned about my gluteal theatrics.
Apparently I should have been.
As I sang loudly (and poorly) into the white cast iron below, an unexpected voice from behind me screeched in a high-pitched falsetto.
It scared the shit out of me.
My head shot up out of the tub directly into Cooper’s chin, knocking him back into the toilet which he inelegantly flipped over. He landed hard on his ass, firmly wedged between the toilet and the wall.
“OW! Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?” I shouted at him, rubbing the ever-expanding knot that was growing on the back of my head. “Ever heard of knocking? Perhaps shouting a greeting when you enter a room, and not directly into my ear? Jerk!”
Before Cooper became my warden, or “roommate” as he liked to call himself, he’d been in a horrible fight and nearly died. He was saved by a Healer, but had suffered some side effects, one of which was vocal cord damage. Apparently that needed to be scratched off the short list.
He groaned while trying to unfold himself from behind the commode. “You’re so jumpy. You really need to lighten up a bit, Rubes,” he retorted.
“Glad to see your voice is back,” I said, sounding remotely sympathetic for a second before regaining my anger. “Where have you been?” I asked before cutting off his response. “Never mind. I don’t think I really want to know.”
He was wearing his clothes from two days ago and he reeked of the bar — neither were great signs.
“Jealous?” he asked, moving closer to me.
My only response was an involuntary eye roll as I barreled through him to get out of the bathroom. Cooper and I were far from friends with benefits, but sometimes, when he exuded a certain amount of sexual confidence, I found it best to be out of close quarters.
I stomped down the hall towards the kitchen. It was next on the list for rooms to be cleaned anyways.
“I’m going to have a shower now,” he called down the hall at me.
“I’ll alert the press,” I quipped as my eyes did another loop of their sockets.
“Need to wash last night off,” he laughed.
“I’m pretty sure gonorrhea doesn’t just rinse away, Coop. Let me know how that goes for you, though,” I retorted, knowing full well he was immune to human diseases — a little fact he let me in on before things started to go downhill.
His behavior had become increasingly erratic and destructive over the past couple of months. Once he got over the initial shock of being brought back from the edge of death, he started acting oddly. In fairness, I hadn’t really known him very long, but I felt I’d had a good sense of who he was. The Cooper I was left with just wasn’t fitting the bill.
He started staying out late and clubbing at first. Then he just stopped coming home entirely. He rarely slept, and when he did, he tried to do it during daylight hours only. He was restless, self-destructive and a general pain in my ass most of the time. The few times he had slept at the apartment during the standard night hours, he’d woken screaming and shaking in his bed uncontrollably. He would never tell me why. From the moment I’d met him he had always told me everything, eventually — especially when I didn’t want to know it.
I’d been trying to find a productive way to deal with him, other than screaming at him or ignoring his antics. Maybe it was a side effect of his “healing”, but unfortunately there was no one to ask. I couldn’t exactly take him unwillingly to a therapist and say, “So this is my friend — who happens to be a werewolf — and he nearly died from being shot with silver recently, until some crazy lady basically crawled inside him and fixed him up, but now he seems to be having PTSD and is whoring around. Any suggestions?” I was running out of options.
Sean and Sophie were conveniently in Milan, which was not so convenient for me. They were probably the only two people I could have asked, but they were gone indefinitely — perhaps forever. I hadn’t decided if that was to my betterment or detriment. Potato, po-tah-to.
The only upside to Cooper’s deteriorating behavior was that it provided an excellent distraction from the surge of emotions I was so desperate to suppress. The backlash from my imprisonment in Utah threatened to overtake me daily until his distress provided me with something else to occupy my mind. Avoidance proved the key to my sanity for the time being, but I was no fool. Those seas were rising, and the levy was about to break.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to put that coat aside for you, Ruby?” Ronnie asked, disappointment tainting her expression.
“No, it’s OK,” I replied, turning my attention back to the rack of clothes in front of me. “I just bought that military one last month. Even I can only rationalize having so many coats in the closet.”
“Hmm, that sounds like nonsense to me, but it’s your money,” she said, winking. “Hey, isn’t Cooper supposed to be swinging by today?”
“He is. I guess he’s running late,” I replied, hoping to avoid the topic entirely. I was starting to find the task of making excuses for him exhausting — Ronnie didn’t really need to know his issues anyway.
I strolled through the store browsing through the racks, fingering some of the threadbare, vintage tees and staring at the wall of jeans. I needed more clothing like I needed a hole in the head, but it was just so rewarding to find the proverbial needle in the fashion haystack.
“Hmm…maybe some shoes?” I said quietly to myself.
I eyed up the wall display, debating whether or not I should make physical contact with any of them as that was sure to lead to a try-on followed by a purchase.
The phone rang in the background and I heard Ronnie answer, “Better With Age, what can I do for you?”
“Should be ‘how can I dress you better?’” I muttered to myself.
“Annie…slow down. You’re not making any sense,” Ronnie said, her concern audible. “Who? Tell me what happened!”
I didn’t want to eavesdrop on her, but it was impossible not to overhear her conversation. She sounded worried, and I was worried for her. I glanced over to the checkout counter where the petite brunette was standing, but her back was facing me so I couldn’t get a read on the situation. I stood awkwardly staring at the shoes, wishing Cooper would show up and save me from the whole thing.
Too bad Cooper was all out of the saving business.
“How bad is it? I mean did they catch it early enough to do anything about it?” Ronnie asked, her voice straining. “Okay, okay…I’ll get out there as soon as I can.”
She hung up the phone slowly and didn’t move. I had no idea what to do and started sweating at the thought of having to be useful.
Ronnie and I were friends of sorts, due to my undying commitment to buying everything in her store. We’d gotten to know each other over time and our relationship was growing slowly, but we weren’t exactly best friends. I knew she needed help in that moment, but was clueless about what to do or say. Thankfully, she made the first move.
“Okay, so…I need to book a ticket. I guess I’ll have to close the store, and have Peyta…,” she rambled, scurrying about behind the counter. “SHIT! Peyta…she can’t go. What am I going to do with her?”
Her eyes met mine across the store, her desperation plain. In my discomfort with the situation, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“She could stay with me. I only have a couch for her, but I’m sure she wouldn’t be any trouble.”
Did I just say that?
Ronnie flew at me from behind the checkout counter, arms spread wide. She latched onto my shoulders, shaking me a little. “Would you? That would make this so much easier,” she said, breathing a bit more easily. “But I don’t know when I’m going to be back.”
“That’s OK. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Seriously…stop talking now.
“This could run into the next week or two depending on how it goes, possibly longer. You’re sure you’re flexible with that?” she asked, seeking confirmation that everything would be okay.
“Absolutely. Take all the time you need. Cooper and I will take good care of her.”
What am I doing? Cooper can’t even take care of himself!
She gave me another quick hug and then ran to the phone to call Peyta and let her know what was going on. Since I didn’t really know either, I did eavesdrop on that conversation.
I checked my watch to see how late Cooper was. Twenty minutes and counting. I was starting to feel claustrophobic in the tiny shop and decided to bail. I waved to get Ronnie’s attention and gestured that I was heading out. She mouthed back that she’d call me; she had my cell number in case of a store-related emergency. I burst through the door of her shop a little too enthusiastically, almost falling over on the way. As I stumbled to a halt, I looked down the adjacent alley to see Cooper rounding the far corner walking away from me. Where in the hell is he going? I yelled after him, but he didn’t seem to hear. I found that strange given his heightened wolf senses. Maybe he just didn’t want to hear me.
Making my way home on foot, I enjoyed the downtown feel as I walked. There was so much history in that area and it was apparent from the brick buildings to the cobblestone streets. What I loved most was the town’s commitment to keeping the architecture and atmosphere as historically accurate as possible. Street signs and lights were fashioned after a time long past. Storefronts were allowed to be new and modern inside but the building facades were never to be altered. I had a lot of respect for that.
I arrived home minutes later to see the lights on in the apartment. Did he just leave everything on and run out the door? I sighed and shook my head to myself as I made my way into the building and up the stairs. Music echoed through the stairwell, muffled slightly be my apartment door. It was a delightful mix of late eighties and early nineties hip-hop.
I walked through the door to find Cooper dancing around the living room with a vacuum cleaner in his hand. The dancing may have been better described as a combination of one part Flashdance, one part Jane Fonda jazzercise, and one part total awesomeness. I went from confused to hysterical in about zero point five seconds. He couldn’t hear my laughter over the deafening sound, so my show continued. I had collapsed to the floor clutching my stomach and trying to breathe without peeing my pants. When the high kicks started I was done for; I crawled to the stereo and turned it off.
Cooper wheeled around and closed the distance between us before I knew what was going on. He towered over me blocking the light, but I could sense his expression and it was not a friendly one.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he yelled down at me.
I was too scared to move initially so I stayed where I sat.
“I had to shut it off before my bladder burst, Cooper. I haven’t seen anything that funny since the movie ‘Just Friends’, which was highly underrated by the way,” I replied, hoping humor would diffuse the situation a bit. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I’m trying to clean. I want the music on. Don’t touch shit unless you’re told to.”
I stood up to meet his hostility face-to-face. With all the weird behavior he’d been exhibiting for the last three months, aggression had never been on the list. A check needed to be added to that column.
“Hey, Shit-For-Brains, are you forgetting where you are? Last time I checked this was my house, and that’s my stereo, and you’re living in my guest room. I’m pretty sure that means I don’t have to run shit past you and I certainly don’t need your permission,” I yelled in his face. I could feel the anger roiling off of him, my empath abilities in full alarm mode. His rage-fueled response fed my own.
He stood still, breathing rapidly while flexing his hands in and out of fists. I was hoping neither would be coming for my face. Cooper had never been violent with me, not even close, but everything about him at that moment said he wanted a fight, and not a verbal one. I tried to emanate calm as I had in the past with him, hoping it would bring him down a notch or two. Given my own state of rage, however, it accomplished nothing. Eventually he just stormed past me to his bedroom, but not before throwing the vacuum cleaner across the room, ripping the cord out of the wall and taking the outlet with it.
I stood alone in the living room wondering exactly what had just happened. I further wondered how I would keep a seventeen-year-old girl safe in my home when I wasn’t entirely sure how to do that for myself. With a sigh I decided to address one problem at a time.
“Guess I need to call an electrician.”