Vradin, Chapter Eighteen

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Tank met Zoe’s cousin on the front porch. The man had his cop face on, but the scent of anger, stress and worry tugged at Tank’s wolf. Tank gave the man enough time to study him before opening the front door and granting him entry.

“Where’s Zoe?” Fergusson asked for his opening line.

“Sleeping at the moment,” Tank answered, leading the way into the kitchen. “Can I offer you some coffee while you grill me? I’d like for Zoe to have a bit longer nap before we wake her up.”

Fergusson followed him, but asked, “So now you’re my cousin’s keeper? You get to make decisions for her?”

Tank shrugged. “She’s a guest in my home. I would be remiss in my duties as a host to discomfort her when I can avoid it. Zoe did not get to sleep until a little after four this morning. She woke shortly before you called, too dizzy to stand up on her own, and threw up the remnants of her dinner. After talking with you, she fell back asleep pretty quickly.”

“Why didn’t you take her to the hospital?” Fergusson asked, his words clipped.

“She told me that the reaction was pretty much on par for the pill you had her take last night, and she refused to go.”

“I want to see her, now,” Fergusson demanded.

Tank raised an eyebrow at the man, but said, “If you give your word not to wake her just yet, by all means.”

Fergusson started to brace himself for a challenge, so Tank added, “I’m not saying that you can’t speak with her before you leave, just give her more time to recuperate. You do have questions you want to ask me, right? Let’s get that out of the way first.”

“Lead the way,” Fergusson said.

Tank waited, watching Fergusson with a placid expression.

“We can talk first, but I want to see her now,” Fergusson finally conceded.

Tank nodded and lead the way to his room. Fergusson entered the room and made a discrete, thorough check of the surroundings as he moved to the side of the bed.

Zoe was curled up in a fetal ball on her side, hugging the pillow he normally laid his head upon at night to her chest. The sight of that cuddle by proxy tightened Tank’s chest while warming it at the same time.

Fergusson put two fingers to the pulse in her wrist, and she made a cute cub-like growl in her sleep, twisting her arm away from her cousin. The movement reassured Fergusson, judging by the tension flowing out of his shoulders. The man stood for a moment, watching Zoe sleep while Tank watched them both. Then Fergusson made a much more obvious study of the room.

They maintained silence until they returned to the kitchen. The clock on the microwave read ten thirty in the morning. Tank started a new pot of coffee brewing. “Cream and sugar?” he asked Fergusson.

The sergeant shook his head, and asked, “So why is my cousin sleeping in your bed?”

Tank shrugged. “When she woke up this morning, she said the light in the guest room was too bright. I have heavier curtains in my room.”

Fergusson watched as he pulled out cream and sugar and a small jar of chocolate powder. Tank set the condiments on a tray that lived in the center of the kitchen island. He collected two spoons and set them to the side of the tray.

“What, exactly, is the situation with you and my cousin?”

Tank gestured towards a bar stool on the other side of the kitchen island, snagging one for himself so he could face Fergusson across the counter top. “Undefined right now. We both have a lot to find out about each other before we decide where we go with things.”

Fergusson took the seat. “You’re going to a lot of trouble for someone you’re ‘undefined’ about.”

“You served two tours in the sandbox.” In response to the cop’s narrowed gaze, Tank said, “Dwayne Thompson served with you. Had good things to say, too. Thompson’s now doing guard work for G.S.I. down around Hollywood. Remind me to pass along his number if you want it. But anyhow, you served in the sandbox. You should know a thing or two about personal demons. Zoe is the first person I’ve met who makes my demons sit down and shut up. That is precious to me. Where I stand with Zoe, well, that’s a question only she can answer right now. We don’t know each other well enough to know if we want to be more than friends.”

Fergusson snorted and said, “That’s not the impression you gave last night.”

“Frankly, she’s smoking hot, and what I’ve seen of her, how she handles herself, is promising. I’m not too enamored of her work, but so far I’ve only seen it give her grief. If she’s interested in dating, I’m not exactly averse to that.” Tank hoped the sarcastic understatement in that last part came through loud and clear. He finished on a more sober note. “By the same token, I’m not going to push her into anything that may push her and the Peace she brings out of my life.”

“And when did you say you two met?”

There was a bang and a click down the hall. Tank rose and stepped to the doorway. Steps started down the hallway, softened by bare feet and light weight, but the step was longer than Zoe’s. Jody, then. Tank turned back to the kitchen.

Fergusson was watching him with narrowed eyes.

“Sounds like Jody will be out shortly. Should I pour you a mug?” he offered again, stepping over to the coffee pot and pulling a plain red mug from the cupboard over the coffee maker.

“Sure. You got sharp ears?”

“Might could be you have dull ones.” The steps paused outside the kitchen door. “Good morning, Jody. Coffee?”

She sighed as she came into the kitchen, wrapped in a house coat made of a satiny pastel pink printed fabric that ended slightly above mid thigh. There was enough jiggle in her chest to prove she wasn’t wearing any supporting under garments.

Fergusson probably didn’t expect anyone to hear his small hiss of indrawn breath. So, the man was hardly unaffected by Zoe’s friend. Tank filed that information away.

“Coffee would be bliss,” Jody said, choosing to lean against the far counter. Tank pulled down two more mugs, one black and one blue. He left about two finger widths of room in each cup, handing the blue cup to Jody and carrying the black and red mugs back to the island and Fergusson.

Tank offered Fergusson first use of the cream set, which the man refused. Tank took the tray over to Jody, who was studiously pretending Fergusson didn’t exist. Fergusson, for his part Tank noticed, was discretely eying the bottom of Jody’s house coat with the beginnings of a frown forming on his lips.

Jody doctored her coffee to a pale tan complexion, retrieving a spoon from the utensil drawer without asking where to find it. Tank also noticed that Fergusson’s nostrils flared at that, and the man’s scent began to fill with a hint of anger.

This seemed to be a decent distraction. Tank asked, in a mild enough voice as he lifted his mug to his lips, “Is there something between the two of you that I should know about? Or that maybe Carl should know?”

His second’s name brought a sharpening of the anger scent from Fergusson, and coincided with Jody rolling her lips through her teeth.

After a telling pause, Fergusson turned his attention back to Tank. “So when did you and Zoe meet?”

Tank finished the sipping at his coffee, but it was Jody who said, “Please don’t tell me you’re trying to play the protective big brother! You of all people, Daniel!”

Fergusson’s jaw clenched. “I have a right to protect my cousin, princess.”

“Bullshit! If this was about protecting Zoe, you’d be out after the creeps who tried to grab her last night, not harassing the guy who’s offered her the shelter of his home.”

“If I was out after the guy harassing her, he’d walk. That’s the way the law works. So I can’t go hunting the fucker; that doesn’t mean that I have no right to look after my family!”

“You mean the family you dropped like a hot potato when she started working somewhere you disapproved of?”

Tank leaned back, watching the fireworks with curiosity.

“What the fuck do you mean, I dropped her? She moves in with you and then she won’t talk to me any more and she starts shooting me dirty looks over Sunday dinner at Grams. So you tell me, princess, what the hell happened there? Huh?”

“Seems to me you’re reaping what you sow there, cowboy.”

“What the fuck does that mean? I drop you when I find out you lied to me, and you decide to take the first-”

Jody set the mug down, and puffed up, feet braced shoulder width apart, chest out, shoulders back and chin going up in the air. “Lied to you?!” she interrupted. “When did you start talking to your mirror, you cheating bastard! You had the fucking balls to chew me out for not volunteering what I do for a living, pretending like you live in some high holy moral citadel, and the very next day — the VERY NEXT DAY — your fiancee calls me up to tell me if I don’t keep my claws off you she’s going to feed them to me! You can damn well bet I told her she was welcome to your slimy sorry ass!”

“The fuck you say!” Fergusson snapped back. “I wasn’t dating anyone but you, and all I wanted from you was to be upfront about who you were and you couldn’t even do that!”

“You might want to tell your little Ms. Jessica that you weren’t dating her, because she seems to think that rock you gave her was a promise.”

Fergusson sat back like he had just been sucker punched. There was a ticking clenching at the corners of his jaw.

Jody looked at him with smug satisfaction.

“When was the last time you heard from this Jessica chick?” Fergusson finally asked, his voice deceptively calm.

Jody must have picked up on the way Fergusson had slipped into cop mode, because the smug look slowly faded from her face while she thought about answering him.

A wave of distress rolled over Tank, emanating from Zoe. He set his coffee mug down and rose. The distress wasn’t immediate, but a building sensation, which was all that kept Tank moving at a brisk walk instead of a full charge to his room.

He knocked softly and opened the door, not waiting for a response.