“Honey, I’m home!” Cian’s booming voice reached Theresa, who was seated at the piano.
Theresa jumped and emitted a little squeal. “Geez, Cian, you scared the hell out of me.”
Cian came to her side, bent to kiss her, then gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry, love. So, how was your day?”
Theresa frowned. “It was…interesting, and I admit I’m a bit worried. Lenora and Tyrone had an incident yesterday.” She hurriedly explained about the strange guy who’d intercepted her twin brother and his wife. “Tyrone is royally pissed and on high alert, and Lenora’s still pretty shaken up.”
Theresa sighed and nodded. “Yeah, exactly. Mom helped Lenora put extra security wards around their property and I went over this morning to help reinforce them. That’s all we can do for now. Let’s just hope this was just a one-time incident.”
Theresa got up from the piano and followed Cian into the kitchen where he poured them each a glass of wine. “On another note, have you heard from Valerie?”
Theresa sipped her wine and shook her head. “Not in a couple days or so. When I do talk to her, she’s very vague. I’m worried, Cian. Val’s always been a free spirit, but I think something is really wrong this time. She evades any kind of personal questions and won’t stay on the phone for more than five minutes.’
“Do you want me to try tot talk to her?” Cian asked.
Theresa tapped her glass with a perfectly manicured fingernail and shrugged. “Well, you do have a way with people and Val’s always been especially close to you. You could try.”
Cian nodded. “How about if you and your Mom have a ladies’ night tomorrow night? Invite Lenora and Crystal. Better yet, invite yourselves over to their place since Lenora is probably sticking close to home after what happened. I’ll get Val to come over here and have a big brotherly talk with her. How does that sound?”
“If anyone can get anything out of her, it’s you, darling. If nothing else, at least we’ll know you tried. I’ll go call Lenora now.”
Cian used all his persuasion skills on Valerie, who finally agreed to having dinner with her brother-in-law at his place. Cian was an excellent cook, so what made Valerie finally give in was his promise of serving her a deliciously irresistible gourmet meal. When Cian answered the door upon her arrival, he greeted her with a grin and big hug. He was relieved to see that she was respectfully dressed. As of late, she’d been dressing like a cheap thrift store slut.
“It smells great in here and I’m starved,” Valerie said after inhaling deeply.
Cian studied Valerie closely, noticing, at once, that she’d lost weight. To his trained eye, she looked spaced out, too, which he hoped to address later on.
“It should. I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day,” Cian quipped, a hint of laughter in his eyes.
“No wonder Theresa gets you to cook as often as she can. If she had her way, you’d be doing it all the time,” Valerie said.
Ciain laughed, “Well, when you’ve got it, flaunt it. Besides, she’s been working her ass off on that musical score she’s writing right now. I sent her out for some R&R but didn’t want to rattle around in this place all by my lonesome tonight.”
“Oh,” Valerie said awkwardly, looking down at her hands.
“C’mon. I’ve got your favorite wine all ready. Let’s go have a glass before dinner,” Cian said, sliding an arm around Valerie’s waist and guiding her to the dining room.
As Cian sipped his wine, he noticed Valerie downing hers faster than usual. “Hey, slow down there, sis. Too much on an empty stomach and all.”
“I need it,’ Valerie said matter-of-factly. “It’s been a hell of a day.”
“I can relate,” Cian smiled. He decided not to press the issue right now. If he pushed too hard to soon, it would drive his sister-in-law away.
Valerie poured herself a second glass of wine, sipping it this time. “You didn’t invite me over here just for wine and dinner, did you?”
Cian sighed heavily but locked his gaze with hers. Valerie had always had a knack of getting right down to things. “No, I didn’t, but we can talk more while we eat, that is, if you want to talk.” Cian thought it best to let Valerie mull that over. “Things always look better with quality hot food in the belly.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Valerie said, looking into her glass distractedly. Cian just let her stew in silence for a while before checking on the food.
When Cian had everything prepared, he escorted Valerie to the table, pulled out her chair for her, the laid her napkin in her lap. She smiled the first genuine smile Cian had seen in a long time. He knew his sister-in-law loved being wined and dined, so he made sure to play his role flawlessly.
“You must have been a maitre’d at Le Cirque in a past life,” Valerie teased him.
Cian chuckled. “Nah, but I did go to charm school.”
“Bullshit,” Valerie laughed.
Cian snorted. “Well, lady, you’ve got to admit it’s a good act nonetheless.” He and Valerie could always banter easily, but it had been quite a while since they’d enjoyed such an exchange. To Cian, however, it felt lackluster. Valerie was holding back, way back, and Cian’s heart felt heavy.
After serving Valerie, Cian tended to his own meal but watched Valerie intently. She was demolishing her food as though it was an enemy who’d invaded her turf. It was clear to Cian that she was ravenous and hadn’t had a decent meal in some time. It worried him, and he was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of what was bothering her.
Over coffee, Cian made his move. “What’s been happening with you, Val? We don’t get to see much of you anymore, and we’re worried.”
“Don’t be. I’m fine,” Valerie replied.
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,’ Cian insisted. More gently, he said, ‘Come on, now. Out with it. The way you attacked your dinner tells me you haven’t eaten a hearty meal in who knows how long. You downed your first glass of wine like it would be your last, and you look..tired. What’s eating you?”
Valerie slowly lowered her coffee cup to the table and studied her brother-in-law. Cian could see she was having an inner battle with herself, so he waited patiently for her to speak. His gaze never left hers.
“Do you ever feel like you just don’t belong?” Valerie asked, seeming to choose her words carefully.
Cian considered his answer before replying. “I suppose everyone has moments like that at one time or another.”
“I don’t belong anywhere, Cian.”
Bullocks,” Cian said. “You’re very important and loved by a lot of people, me included.”
Valerie shook her head. “I’m different. I’ve always been different…and they hate me for being a failure.”
“Who hates you and why do you say you’re a failure?” Cian asked, puzzled.
“Mom and Dad. They hate me because I couldn’t make it work with Caleb. I’m the only one in the family who got a divorce.” Valerie stood up and restlessly paced the floor. “I’m not a goody-two-shoes like Tyrone and Theresa. I’m not talented, and I always got in trouble. Even my hair…it’s red instead of blond. I’m…I’m not like them. I’ve always been alone.”
This was a lot for Cian to process. He had no idea that Valerie felt like such an outcast. Sure, she’d had a few rough patches but to Cian’s observations, the family had always been there for her and shown its love in abundance. “OK. Let’s take this apart, shall we?” He walked over to Valerie and pulled her into a tight hug. In response, Valerie burst into tears, her shoulders heaving with every sob. Cian kissed the top of her head, rubbed her back, and spoke in soft, low tones. “First of all, your parents don’t hate you. You’re not the first ever to get a divorce, nor will you be the last. Listen, Val, I’ve been around this family enough to know a few things about wolves, so I know about Imprinting. I don’t know how that experience feels or anything, but from my observations, my deduction is that you never Imprinted on Caleb, did you?”
Valerie shook her head against Cian’s shoulder.
“To me, that’s very telling. There’s a reason you never Imprinted on him. You guys weren’t meant for each other and sadly, you found that out after you were hitched. It happens, hon, but it also tells me that there’s something better waiting out there for you,” Cian said. “Your folks were sorry it happened; we all were, but nobody in this family hates you for it. Sometimes people just make the wrong choice.”
Valerie snorted, unconvinced.
“Next thing. I wouldn’t call Tyrone and Theresa a goody-two-shoes,” Cian said.
“Hmph,” Valerie grunted, then heaved another sob.
“Come now. Nobody’s perfect and neither are they. I’m here to tell you that Theresa has her bitchy moments. I love her with all my heart, but trust me, she can yowl like an alley cat when her panties are in a twist.”
“Well…this is true,” Valerie said hesitantly.
“See? And I’ll bet Lenora would be the first to say that Tyrone also has his moments. In fact, I once heard that he got suspended from school for three days for egging the school.”
Valerie gave a watery laugh. “He would have gotten away with it if Mrs. Ashwood hadn’t caught him. What an old cow she was,” Valerie said in reference to an elderly English teacher at the junior high she’d attended.
“See? There you go,” Cian said firmly.
“But I always got in trouble. It always seemed to find me no matter what,” Valerie choked out.
Cian shrugged and playfully pulled a lock of her hair. “Well then, you’re nothing more than simply a victim of plain old dumb luck.” He grinned down at her a little teasingly, then sobered. “As for you being untalented, that’s entirely untrue. You’ve got a great sense of humor, you’re a great auntie to your nieces and nephews, and you play a hell of a mean guitar.” When she started to protest, he shushed her. “I’ve got proof to back myself up. You did great at that open mic comedy thing last year. You had everyone rolling, me included…and you won. That’s something to be proud of. Your nieces and nephews are always lavishing hugs on you when you visit them. Aurora always wants you to play dolls or tea party with her, and how many times have you helped Jonas with his homework? Andrea always asks you to shoot hoops with her, and Chris makes you taste everything he cooks and then asks your opinion. Andrea and Chris love talking werewolf stuff with you. And everyone knows how crazy Landon and Crystal’s boys are about you. This is part of what makes you a great auntie. You do play a mean guitar and that’s no lie. The room always shuts up the instant you start playing. As far as you being alone, that’s not true either. Tyrone and Theresa do have that twin bond. Robin and Lauren have it, and of course, there’s that special bond between both sets of quads. But you know what? There were times Theresa felt left out when it came to you and Tyrone.”
Valerie lifted her head and cocked an eyebrow at him.
“It’s true,” Cian continued. “You and Tyrone are wolves, so you have that in common. Theresa, being a witch, couldn’t share that with her twin and sometimes that made her sad. That gave you something special with your brother, something that Theresa could never be a pat of.”
“I guess I never thought of it like that,” Valerie confessed.
“Well, you should,” Cian admonished gently. “Now, as far as your hair, I happen to like your hair. Hell, look at me. I don’t have the same color hair as my mother.”
“I asked Dad about it once and he said there was a great-great aunt who had red hair. Apparently, it came from her.” She shrugged. “If that doesn’t scream different, I don’t know what does.”
“Being different isn’t always a bad thing,” Cian replied. “You stand out, so that makes you unforgettable.”
Valerie swallowed hard and sighed. “Oh, that’s me, unforgettable, but for all the wrong reasons.”
“You know what I think?” Cian asked gently, raising her chin with a forefinger.
“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway,” Valerie grumbled.
“I think this has been bothering you for a long time. You should sit down and have a long talk with your folks about it. Tell them what you just told me. They’ll listen and help try to make it right, I guarantee it. And Val,”
“I think there’s still more that’s bothering you. Here, look at me.” When Cian peered closer into her face, Valerie tried to pull away. However, Cian held her fast and his gaze was so riveting that she had no choice but to keep her eyes on his. ‘You’re on something, and you’ve lost too much weight.”
“Save the denials, sweetie. I’ve seen it too many times to not recognize it for what it is. If you don’t want to tell me how you got on it or what it even is, that’s fine. I won’t pry more than I already have. But Val, whatever it is, you need to get off it and rid yourself of whoever got you mixed up in it. You need to get away from whatever situation you’re in and fast,” Cian said sternly.
“I…I…can’t. Please, Cian, no more,” Valerie pleaded, her face losing all color. She glanced at the clock and swore colorfully. “I’ve got to go.”
“You should finish your coffee first,” Cian said, hoping to keep her talking a little longer.
“No…I can’t. I-I’m late,” she said, backing away from him and hugging herself in an obvious protective manner. “Thank you for dinner. It was delicious as always.”
“Think about what I said, OK?”
“I will…I promise,” Valerie said, hurrying to the door and shutting it quickly behind her as she left.
Cian stared after her and uttered a long, uneasy sigh. Sure, he’d gotten his sister-in-law to confide in him, but it was just a small part of what was really wrong…and there was something very wrong with Valerie. She’d been scared senseless just before she left. Who and what had she gotten herself mixed up with? Cian had the unpleasant feeling that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.