This next story is Tiffany-centric, and I had a lot of fun writing it. It's funny how the words pour out when you're enjoying yourself.
The werewolf at the entrance to my in-laws’ estate poked my left finger with an Olympian bronze pin, one of many my foster grandfather had finagled out of his brother Hephaestus. When I didn’t scream, burst into flames, or otherwise croak from the injury, the were signaled his partner to open the gates.
I guided my SUV up to the portico of the main house and climbed out. Enough sunlight remained to show the flower beds had been redone.
Elizabeth didn’t have much else to do these days. She was damn lucky she had only been sentenced to house arrest after her treason. All of the St. James Coven enforcers, except one, wanted the privilege of whacking off her head, which was Uncle Duncan had to trade favors with Los Angeles’s pack master. Elizabeth thought she’d been saving Max’s life when she went behind our backs, but she started a cold war between the North American vampire masters that had threatened to turn hot for the last eighteen months.
A brief twinge of grief jerked at my soul at the thought of my late husband, not the all-consuming blackness that had coated every waking thought the first year after his death. I stabbed the doorbell. Max was the reason I agreed to our daughter spending a day of her Spring Break with her grandparents. The extra time to work on my masters’ thesis was only a bonus.
The door swung open for my second surprise. Susannah Epstein stood there in a gray housekeeper’s uniform way too big for her and an expression that could only be described as a mix of amusement and annoyance. “Hey, Tiffany!”
“Should I ask what happened to Juanita?”
The teen witch smirked and flipped her ponytail. “Besides the fact she could deal with the weres and the vampires, but dealing with your mother-in-law’s cabin fever wasn’t worth her green card?”
Shit. Elizabeth must have been on one hell of a roll this week. If our vampire coven didn’t need her so bad, Uncle Duncan would have dug the family broadsword out of storage and cheerfully beheaded her himself, even though she was his mother-in-law as well.
“Come on in.” Susannah waved. The polish on her fingernails matched the aqua streaks in her dark curls. The bright color distracted from the even darker turn my own thoughts had taken. “Ellie’s putting on a performance for the family.”
As much as I wanted to ask how her step-grandmother conned her into working as a housekeeper for the craziest Normal on this side of the Mississippi, I managed to remain quiet. Instead, I followed her. Strains of Vivaldi grew stronger as we approached the formal living room.
A pained smile was plastered on Elizabeth’s face when she glanced at me from where she sat on one of the couches with her toy poodle, Mr. Cuddles. As I entered the living room, I saw why.
Kabuki theater makeup decorated my baby’s face. She was dressed in her black leotard, hot pink tutu, and the black toe shoes she’d demanded for her fifth birthday. The sweet tones of the composer’s “Spring” concerto were at odds with the mix of ballet moves and kata forms Ellie demonstrated in time to the music.
While Elizabeth tried, and failed, to hide her dismay, Ted was enthralled. Given Ellie would be his one and only grandchild, I suspected Ted would support her even if she decided to become a contract killer. As the last notes of the violin died, he launched into enthusiastic applause.
Half-blind, the thirteen-year-old Mr. Cuddles barked at Ted’s clapping.
“That was very nice, Eleanor.” Elizabeth was the only person who called my daughter by her full name, probably thinking it would irritate me. Hell, I was just happy my own mother hadn’t given me one of my ancestors’ more frumpy names.
“Spectacular, sweetie!” a garrulous voice said.
I walked a little further into the living room. Grandma Neel, Elizabeth’s mother and one of my daughter’s namesakes, sat on her raggedy recliner she insisted on bring with her when she moved to Los Angeles from Ridgeway, West Virginia.
Well, forced to move to keep Dare Coven, which controlled the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon line, from murdering the old lady out of spite.
“Hi there, shrimp!” She grinned, showing more than a few missing teeth.
“Back atcha, munchkin.” I leaned over to give her a hug.
From the hot pink and black track suit she wore, I knew what had inspired Ellie’s performance attire. It also explained why Susannah was now working here. Max’s grandmother and the high priestess of the Los Angeles witch coven had hit it off from the moment they met.
“Mommy! You need to see my new show!” Ellie raced toward Ted’s expensive stereo.
“Hold up there, young lady!” I gave her a stern look. “I told you this morning before Grandma Phil brought you over here we would need to leave at seven.”
She lifted her chin in a defiant gesture. “You said we could stop at McDonald’s for dinner.”
I squelched my urge to vomit. These were the times I missed Max taking on certain household duties, and trips to that particular fast food joint was one of them. “And I also said you needed to be ready. If you wash your face, put on your street shoes, and don’t argue with me, we will still go to McDonald’s.”
“Yay!” She tore off for the stairs.
Susannah laughed. “I’ll go help her.”
Once they disappeared, Ted quietly said, “Why don’t you two stay for dinner?”
“Because god knows she doesn’t have any food in the house?” Elizabeth sneered.
Figured my own kid would tattle on me.
Before I could come up with a good retort, Grandma Neel came to my rescue. “When you bother to get something higher than an M.R.S. degree, you can bitch, Lizzie. Until then, shut the fuck up and leave the girl alone.”
Elizabeth’s mouth open and closed a few times, but the glares both Ted and her mother aimed at her convinced Elizabeth she was on the losing side of this battle. Or maybe she realized I hadn’t accepted Ted’s invitation.
Mr. Cuddles growled in my general direction, all too happy to give voice to his mistress’s displeasure.
I smiled at my father-in-law. I may totally detest his wife, but they were Ellie’s only living biological grandparents, and for her sake, I made the effort. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got a couple of errands I need to run tonight. How about we come over for Easter dinner?”
People would’ve thought I’d given Ted the fucking Holy Grail the way his face lit up, but he immediately sobered. “Is it okay if Duncan and Sam are here?”
My eyes narrowed at the mention of her name.
“Please, Tiffany. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve had my family together for a holiday.” His big blue eyes looked so much like Max’s through his glasses.
Did my hate for the bitch who’d condemned my husband to death outweigh Ted’s need for his family?
“Can I second Ted’s request?” Grandma Neel asked. “Not trying to play the guilt card, shrimp, but I’m eighty-years-old, and Lord knows how many Easters I have left.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Samantha would know.”
And that snotty comment tilted the emotional pile in my head despite my feelings about my sister-in-law. “It’s cool, Ted.” I held up a finger before he could say whatever he was about to say. “On the condition that she is never alone in a room with Ellie. Got me?”
He didn’t even ask me who I meant. He simply nodded.
Ellie raced back into the living, her black bangs damp from her face scrubbing and her jacket on. “Ready to go! See?” She held up a foot to show off her matching hot pink athletic shoes.
“All right then.” I gave Ted and Grandma Neel hugs. “We’ll see you Sunday.”
“At noon,” Ted added.
Ellie’s eyes were wide. “We’re coming here for Easter?”
“Yay!” She hugged everybody before she tore off for the front door.
Part of me rejoiced a smear of red face paint Ellie had missed now decorated Elizabeth’s off-white skirt as I turned to follow my daughter.
I waved to the weres at the gate as I pulled onto the street. A glance at the rearview showed my daughter while she rattled on about bringing her eggs over to hide. Behind her, headlights snapped on, and a Jeep pulled into traffic.
A familiar red Jeep that was often parked in my driveway. Rather than guess and take chances with my daughter’s life, I tapped the hands-off button for my phone and said, “Call Alex.”
Two rings later, my boss’s cheerful voice filled the compartment. “Hey, darlin’! What’s up?”
“Hi, Grandpa Alex!” Ellie yelled from the backseat.
“This is business, young lady,” I said sternly.
“Sorry, Mommy,” Ellie said.
“What’s wrong?” Alex’s voice turned serious at my words.
“Was there a change in guard rotation?” I bit out.
“Oops! Sorry, Tiffany.” Computer keys clicked in the background. “Mattie had a last minute family thing. Jake’s on tonight.”
“You’re lucky I recognized his vehicle.”
Alex groaned. “Please tell me you didn’t shoot him.”
“Hell, no—” I started.
“Mommy, language,” came an angry five-year-old’s voice from her car seat. Alex’s stifled laughter echoed through the speaker.
“Sorry,” I muttered and cleared my throat. “No, I didn’t shoot him. He’s supposed to help me swap out our garbage disposal tomorrow.” Part of me felt guilty for depending on Jake’s knowledge of household repairs, but I wanted Ellie to learn to fend for herself. That meant I needed to learn. Neither my uncle who raised me or my husband knew basic household shit. They always hired other people to fix their stuff.
“I promise I’ll call you next time there’s a schedule change,” Alex swore.
“Only because you know I’ll tell Phil, and she’ll barbeque your ass.”
Alex chuckled. “She will, and Ellie don’t give your mom a hard time.”
“I won’t! We’re going to McDonald’s!” she yelled.
“Thanks, Alex. Talk to you later.” I ended the call. It wasn’t his fault I had turned into a raging paranoid. The same assholes who had beaten Max to death had kidnapped Ellie, and despite their efforts, I managed to get her back alive. I’d already lost my husband. I sure as hell wasn’t losing my daughter, too.