…With a Baby Carriage
Accidentally Paranormal Series, Book 15
“Who’s the best, handsomest, loudest little dude in the whole wide, wide world?” Nina Blackman-Statleon cooed at the tiny bundle tucked close to Wanda Schwartz Jefferson’s chest, nuzzling her nose against his cheek.
Baby Schwartz-Jefferson, as yet still officially unnamed, due to the nature of his rushed placement with his new parents, responded in kind by balling his fists, opening his mouth wide and howling louder, the tint of his pale green skin turning a muddy red with his frustration.
Nina clucked her tongue and scratched her head full of luscious dark hair before grabbing his small fist and pressing it to her cheek. “Dude? You’re howlin’ like your skin’s peeling off. Auntie Nina just wants to make it better. Help me help you, little man.”
“Maybe he’s teething? Charlie’s been perpetually teething for what seems like an eternity,” Greg Statleon, the gorgeous husband of the equally gorgeous Nina, suggested hopefully, waving a round teething ring fresh from the freezer in his hand.
“The truth,” Nina muttered in agreement. She took the teething ring from Greg and brushed it against the baby’s mouth, but he made a sputtering noise, scrunched his face back up again and returned to his caterwauling without missing a note.
“But he’s too young to teethe,” the woman named Marty said.
Nina made a face at her other friend. “What’s too young in this crazy flippin’ world we live in, Marty? Charlie’s been teething for almost three years now because she’s half vampire and ages slow AF. The witch half of her is setting her twenty billion stuffed unicorns on fire on the reg, and making it rain in the playroom with thunder and lightning like she’s been doin’ it for a hundred years. Little dude is paranormal, is all I’m saying. Might wake up tomorrow and find he has a full set of teeth.”
Wanda tightened her hold on the squirming infant, looking helplessly to her friends from her seat on the rocking chair she’d received at her impromptu baby shower only three days ago.
“What am I doing wrong?” she whispered, her pretty eyes filling with plump tears. “I’ve rocked, walked, bounced him until my legs are ready to fall off. I’ve offered him the milk and powdered food they sent home with us from the orphanage, but he spits it right back out. Nothing works! He’s been doing this for hours. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe…maybe he hates me.”
Marty Flaherty gripped her friend’s slender shoulders and hugged her hard from behind, her bangle bracelets jingling and shiny around her slender wrist. “Who could hate you, honey? No one. That’s who. So just forget that notion right now. He’s just adjusting to his new surroundings, that’s all. He’s been in a different environment for almost a month of his life. This is all new. New smells, new sounds, new everything.”
Nina bobbed her head emphatically, clinging to the baby’s fist with one hand and using the other to brush a tear from her friend’s face. “What Marty said. He might only be a month old, but I’m sure he senses the difference in routine, people, whatthefluff ever. Okay, so he senses it in an excruciatingly loud way with lungs the size of Sherman tanks, but the little dude’s just expressing himself. He’s as new to you as you are to him, Wanda. Swear, that’s probably all it is, dude.”
Marty paused and looked to her friend, cocking her swirly blonde head with the immaculate highlights. “Did you just agree with me, Dark Overlord of the Night?”
“She did,” said the tiny black cat with an enormous head (Calamity, to anyone who asked) curled up in a ball on the back of an overstuffed armchair by the bay window.
Nina covered the baby’s ears and narrowed her charcoal-black gaze at Marty. “Shut your gooped-up face, ass-sniffer, and you, too, Calamity. Yeah, I agreed with you, numbnuts. And if it meant this super unhappy little dude would stop crying, I’d even shop with you. Wear makeup. Put on a stinkin’ dress. A fucking yellow one with flowers and lace. Whatever it takes.”
Marty snickered and grinned. “Marshmallow.”
Nina recovered the baby’s ears with her fingers. “Frosted blue eyeshadow-aholic,” she shot back.
Marty stuck her tongue out at the half vampire, half witch, visibly fighting not to respond out of obvious respect for the baby’s tender ears.
Wanda’s husband, Heath, an incredibly tall, well-muscled hunk of a man, reached a large hand out and cupped the baby’s head with a sympathetic smile. He dropped a kiss on the top of his light brown head while wiping the tears from the baby’s cheeks with his thumb.
“Buddy, what’s the trouble? Daddy will do anything to make it better.”
Baby Schwartz-Jefferson bowed his body with another ear-piercing howl, arching his spine out and away from Wanda, whose tears now flowed freely down her creamy cheeks.
Her lower lip trembled when she whisper-sobbed, “He hates me. Us. Everything. This was supposed to be a special day. A celebration. A day to welcome him into our family, and now…”
Keegan, yet another delicious specimen of paranormal male—and Marty’s other half—shook his raven-haired head, squeezing Wanda’s shoulder. “Impossible, lady. You’re the most likeable person I know, and this is a special day. It’s just noisier than first anticipated. What’s a party without some noise?”
Nina pushed her way past the men and held her arms out. “Okay, that’s enough of that whiny BS, Wanda Jefferson. Give me the kid and you go get your shite together. Wash your face, brush your hair, moisturize, whatever. I’m not gonna to have you questioning the meaning of your existence because the kid’s disoriented. Hand him over to Auntie Nina. Go find your center while I see if there’s some kind of spell I can cast to help. Darnell,” she called over her shoulder at the large man in gold high-tops who looked like a teddy bear dressed as a rapper. “Grease up those silky-smooth vocal chords, buddy. I feel a round of ‘Wheels On The Bus’ comin’ on.”
Darnell grimaced as his weary chocolate-brown eyes met Nina’s. “I got you. Whatever y’all need, boss.”
The stately, elderly gentleman named Archibald, with the kind blue eyes ensconced in a smiling face, dressed as though he’d come from the eighteen hundreds in his formal manservant wear, nodded and tugged at his throat. “Oh, Miss Nina, no more ‘Wheels On The Bus’. I beg you—beg you. What say you to a rousing ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’? I daresay, I’m a mean contributor when singing in the round.”
Nina scooped up the screaming baby from Wanda and slapped Archibald on the back with a chuckle. “Been a rough few days, huh, buddy?”
His grin wore some frayed edges as he ran the back of his hand over the baby’s plump cheek, but still his gaze was filled with joy. “I daresay, ’tis been at the very least loud. I believe we’ve sung every song in the history of baby songs, to which our fair master has quite promptly turned his nose up. Yet, howling aside, we already love him as our own. Do we not, young sapling?”
“Sapling,” Nina snorted, wrinkling her nose at Wanda as she made her way across the wide family room filled with beautiful Belgian farmhouse décor in a soft palette of creams and light sage greens, with stone pots full of lavender. “Can we get a name here, please, Mommy? Tell Mommy she needs to give you a name, Punkin’. How do you feel about Screech?”
The baby responded by batting his fists in the vampire’s face.
“Okay. You don’t like it. I’m not insulted. We’re only making suggestions here,” she replied, nibbling at his jaw, refusing to be deterred by his angry cries. She made another proposal as she whisked him off with Darnell and Archibald in tow. “Oh! I know. Mouth? Or Mouthy with a Y or maybe a double E? You know it’s all the flippin’ rage for new parents to turn a simple name into a spelling bee just to be different these days.”
As if the poor child hadn’t opened his mouth wide enough before, he did so this time by staring directly at the beautiful woman and literally screeching in her face.
Yet still, Nina wasn’t put off. “And people complain about how loud I am. Sheesh, buddy. Yer takin’ my cake.”
As Nina took the baby off to another room in Wanda and Heath’s amazing house, and assorted offspring of the group played in the big farmhouse kitchen, Sally Brice—Sal, to the maybe two friends she had left—quietly observed from her corner in an overstuffed armchair while pretending to write notes on a legal pad.
As things quieted once more, Wanda finally ventured a sheepish peek at her and smiled an apology. “I’m so sorry you had to see us like this, Miss Brown. I find I’m so emotional these days. We weren’t expecting… I mean, the agency didn’t tell us to expect you today…”
Miss Brown. She had to remember she hadn’t used her real name or she’d blow her cover.
Sal held up a hand and shook her head. “Not at all. But surprise home visits are a part of the package, I’m afraid.” She patted herself on the back. That sounded very natural. Like she had a total clue as to what she was talking about.
Wanda—elegant, refined, utterly ruffled—folded her hands in her lap. “I guess we really surprised you with all the carrying on, huh?”
Sal had come here full of vim and vigor, ready to rip the baby from the arms of his new parents, only to be astounded by what greeted her. People. So many pretty people all packed into a room, doing everything in their cumulative power to stop this baby from a moment’s unhappiness.
They soothed. They cajoled. They supported each other in an endless round of patience and understanding. After a half hour of all the screaming, Sal wanted to make a run for it, but she couldn’t.
She wouldn’t. She was mesmerized by this network of men and woman known as OOPS and their unwavering devotion to each other and the comfort of this child.
Sal didn’t like it. Or rather, she didn’t want to like it, but even she had to admit the baby was in good hands. But that didn’t give her any explanations. She wasn’t here to be wooed. She was here for answers.
So instead, Sal played the part she’d come to play. Social worker—which was a huge stretch for someone as ridiculously inexperienced with kids as she was.
Searching her mind, Sal tried to recall the million and two movies she’d seen featuring infants and the advice she knew had to be stored somewhere in her head.
Taking a deep breath in the silence that had enveloped the family room, with its comfortable furniture, throw pillows and blankets in muted blues, creams and white, she took a stab at it.
Leaning forward, Sal tucked her hair behind her ear into the conservative bun at the back of her head. “You know, I think your friends are right when they say he just needs to adjust. It’s true. He can sense a new environment, new crib, etcetera, and that may take him a bit to warm up to. Babies like yours, who’ve been in an orphanage for a time, can sometimes react adversely to the love I’m certain you want to shower on him. He’s not used to being kissed and hugged. Cuddling and playtime and all the things crucial to a baby’s development sometimes go by the wayside in favor of just getting the job done. While the orphanage takes great pride in providing all the necessary things like food and shelter, they’re strapped for the equally important hugs and kisses and say…er…tummy time.”
Phew. Where she’d pulled the phrase “tummy time” from was a mystery, but they all appeared to absorb the information and nod as though she made sense—which was an enormous relief.
Marty’s finger shot up in the air, her blue eyes twinkling. “Tummy time! Right. That helps strengthen his shoulders and neck, yes? But he should always be supervised, if I recall. It’s been so long since Hollis was born, I’ve forgotten.”
Wanda sat up straight and smoothed her flowing floral skirt over her thighs. “I don’t think tummy time is what he’s so upset about, but I’ll try anything to get him to calm down. This can’t be good for him. I can’t bear to see him so unhappy. I know it’s a million times worse for him, but… It’s…”
“Upsetting,” Sal finished for her, crossing her ankles, only to catch a glimpse of her ugly, brown orthopedic shoes. Buying them had seemed to make perfect sense. They felt like something a social worker would wear when she was trying to come off stern and authoritative. Now, in front of all these pretty people, she just felt foolish. “I can only imagine how hard this has been for you as a new mother. Adoption has a way of throwing you into the burning ring of fire, doesn’t it?”
But Wanda waved a slender hand at her. “No, no! Forget about me and how I feel. I’m sorry you had to see me cry. I’m not normally so emotionally overwrought. You’d think I’d actually birthed the baby and was suffering from post-partum from the swing of my hormones. Anyway, it’s not me we need to worry about. It’s him. I want him to feel safe, loved, comfortable. We waited a long time for him. I’m determined to do this right, and seeing him cry like this is tearing me apart.”
Sal’s heart clenched into a tight ball. Samantha would have loved to hear Wanda was so invested.
Pretending to write something on her legal pad, she smiled at the lovely woman again. “How long ago did you apply with the agency to adopt?”
Heath smiled, twin grooves appearing on either side of his mouth. His classically handsome features beamed with pleasure. “Last October. We thought it would take forever to be approved, but as you know, we have forever to wait,” he joked.
Wanda actually chuckled and smiled up at her husband, who’d come to crouch beside her rocking chair. She tugged at the collar on his fitted shirt in a loving gesture. “It’s true. We do have an eternity.”
Sal couldn’t help but let a smile slip, too. “You’re both…?” she asked, a leading tone in her question because she didn’t know their species.
“Vampires,” they chimed in simultaneously, then laughed. “Well, I’m half werewolf, half vampire.” Wanda smiled again, her face bright, her skin creamy smooth.
“How interesting. Bet that’s some story, huh?” Sal couldn’t help but be fascinated by these people she wanted to hate. They were all so…so…nice.
Now Marty, snugly fitted against her husband’s side, chuckled. “If you only knew the things we’ve all been through.”
The one thing Sal did know was what they’d been through. She knew people all over the globe. She heard the gossip in their paranormal world. In and amongst their kind, these women in particular were legend. “So I’ve heard. I know all about OOPS.”
Wanda’s face instantly went worried and she was quick to reassure. “But we’re very careful when we accept a client at OOPS. I mostly do a lot of soothing and comforting. Nina’s the muscle of our group. I promise you, I try and stay as safe as possible.”
But Sal shook her head and held up a hand. “That’s not why I’m here, Mrs. Jefferson. I’m only here to check on the baby’s well-being and observe. Not to judge your chosen path in life.”
Though, the whole OOPS support group thing did worry her, if she were honest. These women saved all sorts of people from paranormal crisis. Often, the clients they dealt with were in an accidental predicament. The women swooped in, at no cost to the client, and selflessly put themselves on the line to help them learn to adjust to their new lives.
If what she’d heard were true, some of the stories were incredible—and dangerous. Who’d take care of the baby if something happened to Wanda? Though, Sal already knew she had the answers. They were all right in this room. They were singing songs to soothe an irate baby in the other room. The baby would never want for a thing with this bunch.
That left her comforted. But that also left Sal deflated. Still with plenty of unanswered questions, but deflated.
Rising, Sal ran a hand over her hair then held it out to Wanda, who rose instantly, too, and enveloped her fingers with a warm grip.
“Again, I’m sorry your visit was so…loud. Please feel free to drop by anytime.”
Sal almost winced as she let go of Wanda’s hand. This was her last connection to Baby Schwartz-Jefferson, and it was slipping away as quickly as sand in an hourglass.
Fighting the threat of tears, she composed herself enough to ask, “Might I make a suggestion to help with the baby’s care?”
Wanda’s face relaxed a little, making it clear she was open to contributions. “Anything, of course. Please.”
“I know you’ll find this unconventional, or maybe even a little crazy. I also know the adoption agency will tell you if you allow the baby’s human side to take over, he’ll eventually stop crying. But I can’t bear to hear his cries either. And it isn’t like you can explain to him the craving will pass like you might with an adult.”
Wanda’s head tilted to the side. “The craving? The agency didn’t say anything about cravings. They said he just cries sometimes. They actually said to let him cry a little longer each time before rushing in to soothe him. They told us to just ride it out and it would pass. But they didn’t explain much else. Though, his crying surely hasn’t passed, so I’m not sure what you mean by cravings.”
Yeah. She’d bet that’s what they told her. Naturally, they hadn’t told her the most important bit about adopting this baby because it wasn’t exactly pleasant—or even terribly legal.
“That’s all well and good, and eventually, I’m positive you’ll be able to wean him, but for now and up to the first year, his development is crucial.”
Wanda frowned. “Wean him? I don’t understand, but just tell us what we need to do. Please.”
“For the love of popsicles, pleeeaase tell us!” Nina shouted from another part of the house, where the baby’s muffled cries continued as another round of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore” began.
“I’m sorry, I’ve gotten ahead of myself with words like cravings and weaning. Here’s what I mean. He needs brains, Mrs. Jefferson. A baby zombie needs brains.”
Wanda’s mouth dropped open, but Marty rushed in to speak for her friend. “Brains? Like, the morgue and dead people and well, you know…dead people?”
Sal nodded her head as she made her way to the cheerfully antiqued double doors, preparing to leave. “I do know. I also know the council and all their hags combined wouldn’t know how to deal with a zombie baby any more than they know how to deal with me—a banshee. Banshees are rare, too.”
“A banshee? What in the name of Twinkies is a banshee?” Nina yelped. “Knew you smelled weird!”
“Can it, Elvira!” Marty shouted to her. “Please, continue, Miss Brown.
Sal hid another smile. This Nina was really something. “Anyway, I’m sure they’d like your baby to integrate into the human world just like everyone else, and in some instances, I agree. We can’t have everyone running around willy-nilly, eating livestock or drinking blood from innocents—”
“Whoever made that rule is a moron!” Nina called out over the baby’s cries.
Sal almost laughed, but instead, she nodded her head in a sage bounce. “My point is, there are maybe four or five zombies in the world at large. Your baby is rare—so rare. But he’s only half human, and I have it on good authority he needs brains to quell his cravings. I can’t think of a single really good reason why the council prevents you from collecting a brain or two—the person you’d take it from is, after all, dead and won’t miss it. Yes, science could surely use it, I suppose, but in the face of allowing a baby to suffer, I don’t see the harm. However, the council’s all about being as politically correct as possible, and that means letting your baby suffer while he waits for his human half to take over. Council calls it a process. I call it baloney.”
“Brains? Process?” Wanda repeated, her gaze far away. “My God, it all makes sense. We’re so used to Carl—who happens to be the product of a very tragic accident, by the way—and his broccoli, I guess it just never occurred to us. I feel so stupid!”
“Carl?” She’d wondered about Carl ever since she saw his name on one of her reports. How did a zombie survive on broccoli alone? Never mind that, how did Carl survive when all his organs were dead? The mysteries of the paranormal would never cease to amaze her.
Marty nodded and smiled. “Yes. Didn’t you read about him in the intent-to-adopt statement Wanda and Heath wrote?”
Shit. No. She hadn’t because, well, she was a big fat liar right now. Refusing to become flustered, Sal improvised while giving them a weary look. “I deal with so many cases. It must’ve slipped my recollection of the case.”
“I’m sure you’re busy,” Marty soothed. “Anyway, Carl lives with Nina, but he’s family to all of us. He’s a fully-grown adult who suffered a spell gone sideways via a witch doctor. We found him while we were on a case. That was Harry’s case, right?” She looked to Wanda for confirmation.
Wanda agreed with her friend. “Yes. That was a doozy.”
“Harry?” Sal asked, though she knew she shouldn’t muddy the waters further.
Marty smiled her sunshiny smile. “He’s my sister-in-law’s husband. I can’t explain how Carl ended up not needing brains the way zombies do, but he loves broccoli and almost any vegetable—he’s almost totally vegan. He speaks in one-word sentences most times, and that’s after Nina spent countless hours teaching him how. And he reads, too. Anything and everything. He loses digits we have to duct-tape back onto his hands on the reg, but has a heart the size of half the eastern hemisphere, and he’s truly a treasure. Still, he’d never survive without Nina. I don’t even know if he knows he’s supposed to eat brains. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know he’s a zombie.”
“Is he half human, too?” Sal asked, intrigued. Samantha would have liked to have met someone like her—even if he couldn’t speak.
Heath shrugged his wide shoulders, reaching for Wanda’s hand to tuck it against his side. “We don’t know for certain. We only suspect. Whatever happened to him when that witch doctor Guido tried to change him back with some hinky spell he’d concocted, it got royally screwed up, and Carl is the product of some poorly executed magic. But he definitely doesn’t eat brains.”
Sal looked around the spacious room with its enormous potted plants and pictures of friends and family. “Where is this Carl?”
“With his aunt Teddy on her ranch in Colorado,” Nina called out over the now weakening cries of the baby.
Wanda bobbed her head. “She has an exotic animal rescue and our Carl loves animals. Nina tries to expose him to all sorts of things—different environments, people and so on. So when our friend Teddy called to see if he’d like to come out for a week of horseback riding and hanging out with her husband Cormac, Nina, nervous Nellie that she is, actually consented. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
That, too, reassured Sal the baby would at least have some exposure to where he came from. Sort of.
“Did they give him brains at the orphanage? How could they have possibly allowed him to cry for an entire month?” Wanda asked, threading the fingers of her free hand together in a nervous gesture.
Sal’s stomach plunged in a downward spiral. “I don’t know, Mrs. Jefferson. I do know the cravings for brains don’t always start at birth. I don’t even know how he came to be at the orphanage, truthfully. They don’t give me that information. I’m the aftercare, so to speak. You went through an adoption agency, didn’t you? To adopt him?”
Heath nodded, tightening his grip on Wanda’s hand. “We did, and we gave a sizeable donation for expenses for the mother and whatever else was needed, of course. It was our understanding the agency had no history on the baby. The only information they gave us was the little guy was in an orphanage until they matched him with us. They felt it was best to keep his adoption closed and we agreed to do that until he’s eighteen. Then I believe he has the right to know where he came from if he so wishes.”
The agency. Sal had to fight not to roll her eyes. That damn Bright Futures Paranormal Adoption Agency was a joke. She just didn’t know how much of a joke, or why these nice people were mixed up with a place like that. So she hid her disgust.
“So no prior history…” Sal muttered and reached for the door handle. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help more. The only thing I can tell you for sure is your baby needs brains.”
“Uh, nice social worker lady?” Nina interrupted as she came from the back of the house back into the living room. “Any big ideas on where to get the brains?”
Oh, sure. She had plenty of ideas. In fact, when she left here, she was going to go heist some and drop them on Wanda’s doorstep. But would a reputable social worker know sketchy info like that? Likely not.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Statleon. I don’t know specifics. I only know what I’ve heard in my many years of experience as a…social worker.”
Wanda held her hand out again, her eyes weary. “You’ve done plenty. We’ll figure it out from here. Thank you, Miss Brown. I hope the next time you see us, it will be under much quieter circumstances.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jefferson. Both of you,” Sal said, acknowledging Heath as well. “Much luck and happiness with your new family.”
As she stepped out into the bright sunshine of a May day, it was all Sal could do not to run right back in there and yank the baby from their arms just to keep her attachment to Samantha as close as possible.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t know thing one about caring for a baby. Her life was her own and she liked it that way, but for Samantha? She’d do anything. Even raise a baby.
That included pretending to be a social worker—which she felt rather confident she’d pulled off as she raced down the wide front porch steps of the Jeffersons’ gorgeous home, carefully avoiding planters overflowing with spring flowers. Rounding the corner of the street, she began pulling off her demure jacket in shades of a dull brown that matched her equally demure skirt and pulled the pins from her hair to let it flow down her back.
Pausing for a moment, listening to the sounds of a quiet Saturday afternoon in suburbia, she gulped in deep breaths. As sprinklers chugged and lawnmowers mowed, she swiped at the tears falling down her face with impatient fingers. Tears for the loss of Samantha. Tears for a life she’d never had—nor likely ever would.
Sal smiled when she saw her motorcycle, parked at the curb lining this beautiful street with its tall oak trees and well-maintained gardens full of bright geraniums and pansies. Riding would wash away her anxiety. At least for a little while.
Maybe she’d head toward the Poconos after she grabbed some brains for the baby. It was a beautiful day and the drive would do her good, maybe clear her mind.
As she prepared to sling her leg over the seat, hiking up her skirt to reveal biker shorts, someone grabbed her by the arm and squeezed.
“Are you goddamn well insane?”
Oh, good. The party-crashing skinwalker had arrived. “Depends on who you ask, Private Detective.”
In an instant, Grey Hamlin’s face was blocking the buttery ball of sun, darkening her day. “Didn’t I tell you after you literally stole the info I had on those people you had to promise to stay the hell away from them?”
Sal yawned, leaning forward to grab her helmet from her bike’s handle as she shrugged him off. “And didn’t I tell you not even Satan himself could prevent me from checking on the baby? Why would I take your word for anything?”
He planted his hands on his lean hips. “You’re asking for trouble, Brice. I found the damn baby for you. The baby’s fine. No. The baby’s great. The baby lucked out. The baby hit the parental lottery and I told you that in good faith. Can’t you leave well enough alone?”
Sal popped her lips as she made a thick braid of her hair, letting it drape over her shoulder. “You’ve known me for what—six months now? Surely you know ‘well enough’ isn’t what I do.”
Grey huffed a breath and glared down at her with his gorgeous green eyes. “You hired me to do a job and I did it. I gave you the pictures. His birth certificate—everything. That should have damn well been enough.”
God, Grey was sexy. Still just as sexy as the day she’d gone to him and offered him all the money and information she had in the world to help find her best friend Samantha Carter. “Then why do you give a rat’s ass what I do now that your job’s done? Check cleared, didn’t it?”
His hard jaw went harder, the stubble lining it dark and prickly. “Call me crazy, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Hurt? How the hell can I get hurt and why are you following me around like some whipped puppy?”
Hurt. He had some nerve talking about hurt after he’d broken up with her. That had hurt.
He clamped his yummy lips shut for a moment, but then he smiled his gorgeous smile, flashing those perfect teeth he’d once told her his parents paid big bucks for.
“First, isn’t seeing the baby of your best friend, your last link to her, hurtful? Because you can’t tell those nice people in there who you are. The deal was if I found him, you’d shut your mouth about how you found him because it can cause me all manner of grief.”
He was right. That had been the deal. But she refused to acknowledge as much out loud. Instead, she lifted her chin and averted her gaze, focusing on a lovely row of holly hedges.
But Grey tipped her chin up with a finger and forced her to see him. “Second, I rather think of myself as more sensei than puppy. You know, guiding you. Sort of wax-on, wax-off style,” he quipped. Which was just like Grey. When he didn’t want to talk about his emotions, he resorted to jokes.
She revved the engine of her bike, making sure it was nice and loud, then pulled her body away from his luscious one. “Well, listen up, Mr. Miyagi. You made it clear as day we were over. And that’s fine. You did your job and you washed your hands of me. In my mind, ‘over’ means you no longer trail behind me like stale breadcrumbs and go your merry way while I go mine. So what’s wrong? Is your way not so merry? Do ya miss me, Grey? Isum’s wonewee?” she taunted, because it felt good to lash out.
Because damn him to hell, she missed him with an ache she’d only felt once before in her life. When her best friend went missing. But the hell she’d let Grey Hamlin see that. The hell she’d let him know the smell of his cologne was killing her right now.
Or that the feel of his fingers around her arm sent wave after wave of tingles along her skin—or even that his perfect body, with all its angles and edges, didn’t even have to be touching hers to leave its imprint.
She’d made a stupid mistake when she’d fallen for the guy she’d hired out of desperation. Private Detective Grey Hamlin, in all his dark, mysterious smexyiness, had sucked her in and spit her back out once the job was done. He was right. He had done what she’d paid him to do.
Found her friend and then later, when she’d learned Samantha had a baby, she’d asked him to find the baby, too.
And he’d done that.
He’d also dumped her the moment he’d located the baby.
Morphing into an exact replica of her, as skinwalkers are wont to do, Grey made a big deal of tossing his hair just like she did and mocked, “Isum’s is not at all lonely. Isum’s is perfectly fine, thank you. And FYI, I miss you like I’d miss a good bout of the bubonic plague.”
God, she hated when he did that. At first, his ability to morph into virtually anyone after seeing them only once had freaked her out. She’d never met a skinwalker in all her thirty years, but her research had told her they only turned into animals.
However, Grey, like her, was considered highly evolved, and could turn into most anything or anyone with just a glance at their behaviors. He didn’t even need to touch them. The trouble, or at least he said it was troubling, was he couldn’t do it for long.
After she’d gotten used to it, and understood it only made him a better detective to have that kind of power, it became a laugh riot when he morphed into someone. When they’d been together and the laughs were aplenty, that is. But his skinwalking abilities weren’t nearly as funny now that she was his target.
“Isum’s can fuck off,” Sal responded, flipping him…er, herself the bird.
God, that was weird.
He morphed back and pulled his reflective sunglasses off the top of his head, placing them on his nose. You know, so she couldn’t see whatever it was he was hiding in those green-green eyes.
Running a hand over his thick dark hair, he jammed them into the pockets of his tight jeans. “And I’ll do just that as soon as you’re on your way.
“What the hell are you doing here anyway? What is it that you want from me, Grey? Go away.”
He clucked his tongue in clear admonishment. “I want you to promise me you’ll leave the Jeffersons alone and let them raise that baby. They’re good people. Honest people. Besides, I can’t afford for people like them, important people in our world, to know I helped you hunt them down. They’re influential in our world, Sal. They have a ton of respect from the council. I don’t need the big guys trampling my little corner of the universe.”
Tears burned the back of her eyelids. Baby Schwartz-Jefferson was the last link she had to her best friend. She knew leaving him and his new family in peace was the right thing to do—her brain knew, that is. Her heart? Her heart wanted to snuggle him against her cheek and inhale his scent, see if his eyes were like Samantha’s, or if he had any of her traits at all.
And if she promised Grey she’d leave the Jeffersons alone, did that mean he’d leave her alone? Forever? Did it mean he’d stop popping up in her life? Maybe, even if the attention was negative, she wanted him to keep popping up in her life.
Which is pathetic, Sal. Epically pathetic.
Straightening her shoulders, she decided she agreed with her inner voice and it was time to cut the cord. “Fine. I promise to leave them alone. Heaven forbid I should screw up your shady little detective business. We done?”
He paused a moment, almost as if he wasn’t done. But then he let her arm go and backed away from the bike, holding up his wide hands like white flags. “Done.”
Flipping a hand up as though she didn’t care a lick, Sal waved him off in dismissal. “Sayonara, Hamlin,” she called before taking off down the perfectly paved street with the perfect houses and perfect yards to head home to nothing once more.
* * * *
Grey ran a hand over his hair again, sighing a ragged breath as he watched Sal turn into a dot on the horizon, her hair flying in an inky black ribbon from beneath her helmet. That damn woman was going to be the death of him. She was like keeping a grip on a greased cat, but if she didn’t watch her pretty ass, she’d stick her nose in something she had no way to protect herself from.
And all because she just wouldn’t let shit go.
When she’d come to him for help a few months back, he’d been prepared well in advance. Carefully placed informants ensured Sal Brice would hear about him when she flew onto his radar, asking questions about the disappearance of her best friend Samantha Carter.
Samantha was half human, half zombie—a very rare combination in the world of paranormals and highly prized. When she’d gone missing, no one paid much attention until her name became associated with something much bigger than just her disappearance.
So Sal, asking around about her, sent up red flags. She’d done just as he’d hoped she would and sought his “private detective” help. In order to contain the little firecracker and keep her from screwing up months of hard work, he’d taken her case in the hopes he’d give her a trickle of information and she’d move along.
In the end, that was all part of the bigger picture. What wasn’t part of the bigger picture was how strongly drawn to her he’d been. Like, insanely drawn to her, and she to him.
Yet, things changed further when she’d come to him midway into the investigation and told him about her vision of Samantha’s death and the mention of the baby. It changed everything, which meant he had to bail from their relationship, and bail fast, so he’d improvised and revised the whole plan by finding the baby for her.
But the plan hadn’t included falling in love with Sal Brice. He’d done everything he could to prevent it. He’d ignored the tingle in his chest whenever she’d shown up with one of her crazy leads on Samantha’s whereabouts.
He’d ignored her plump lips, her sexy scent, her long, straight black hair. He’d fought to keep her safe while she’d stomped her way through lead after lead like an elephant on a rampage.
He’d tried like hell to resist her—even if her dedication and loyalty left him in awe.
And Jesus, he’d failed miserably. So he’d broke it off before it got any worse and she caught on to his game.
Seeing her today had killed him, but letting her go was the smartest thing he could do if he wanted to keep her safe. It really was the only way.
Now, he just hoped she’d do as promised and keep her nose out of things.
And then he remembered whom he was dealing with and sighed again.
Sal was just about to drop off the cooler of brains, complete with instructions for the Jefferson’s, when the front light on their porch switched on, flashing a bright beam in her eyes.
Oh, to have Grey’s skinwalking abilities now.
“Mind telling me what the fuck you’re doing out here, Social Worker Brown?”
Standing up straight, Sal brushed the thighs of her leather pants with sweaty palms. “Surprise home visit?” she squeaked, licking her suddenly dry lips.
Nina, the looming vampire, crossed her arms over the chest of her black hoodie and sucked her cheeks inward.
Wow, she was stunning.
Even caught red-handed, Sal could appreciate her beauty. If you had to look like someone, it wasn’t a bad gig to look like Nina for an eternity.
Using one finger, Nina wrapped it under the lapel of Sal’s leather jacket and hauled her upward, leaving her legs to dangle. One finger. She was using one finger to hold up all of Sal’s weight—which was by no means feather-ish.
Okay, so it had taken her longer than anticipated to break into a morgue and get the brains, a disgusting job if ever there was one, but it hadn’t been the in-and-out job she’d hoped. So she was running late. Plus, she’d been bogged down by her run-in with Grey and all the emotions the encounter evoked.
Swallowing, Sal looked into Nina’s swirling black eyes, now narrowed and angry. “That’s why it’s a surprise?”
Nina’s nostrils flared as she appeared to sniff Sal. “Bullshit.”
Her eyes flew open wide even as her heart thrashed against her ribs. This was a vampire, and a badass one at that, according to the reports she’d read.
“Noooo. No, no. Not bullshit. It’s not a surprise if I tell you I’m coming,” she defended. It was a weak defense, and it came out kind of wimpy, but it was all she had.
“Who the fuck are you? You’ve got exactly five seconds to spit it out or I rip something out. From your body. Ready? Set. Gooooo!” Nina roared in her face.
As Sal’s legs swung beneath her and she flailed helplessly, her mind raced for the facts of her cover story she’d repeated to her reflection over and over until she had it right. “I already told you. I’m Sabrina Brown and I work for Bright Futures Paranormal Adoption Agency. I’m a social worker there.”
“Again, I call bullshit. Before you asked if Wanda went through an adoption agency to adopt the kid, didn’t you? Now you work for the adoption agency she adopted the kid through? Which is it?”
Oh. Shit. Had she said that? Oops.
She swallowed and stared Nina right in the eye. “I’m new there. Sometimes I forget things…” Or I forget which lie I told. Whatever.
“Yeah, right,” Nina drawled. “So what’s it gonna be, Sabrina Brown? You wanna start with your intestines or are your eyeballs dying for a peek at the inside of your brain?”
Somehow, Sal knew this wasn’t some idle threat. She’d heard about Nina and her role in OOPS. Hell, Wanda herself admitted she was the muscle of the group. Judging from her body language and the glare Nina was giving her, she decided to trust the information was correct.
Gripping Nina’s wrist, she cried out, “Wait! Let me explain. Please!”
“Nina!” Marty’s face appeared from behind the vampire, her eyes wide. “What the frack are you doing to Miss Brown? Put her down now, you heathen!”
Wanda wasn’t far behind Marty as she poked her head out of the doorway, the faint cries of the baby coming from the background. “Nina! Oh, my God! You put Miss Brown down now or I promise you, young lady, I’m going to—” She stopped mid-sentence and glanced guiltily at Sal. Smoothing a hand over her pretty lavender silk bathrobe, she squared her shoulders and appeared to compose herself. Clearing her throat, she said with a stern, matronly tone, “If you don’t knock it off, I’m going to give you a good what for. It’ll be the quiet corner for you and some serious time out, missy. Now put Miss Brown down. This instant!”
Nina reluctantly set Sal down on the front porch with a hard drop right next to a pot overflowing with red geraniums, pink Shasta, and purple pansies. But she didn’t stop staring Sal down. “Okay. There. She’s down. Now, care to tell me why Miss Brown’s here at fucking midnight, Wanda?”
Suddenly, Wanda looked startled. “I don’t know, but that’s certainly no reason for you to manhandle her or use such foul language. I promise you, Miss Brown, Nina’s very careful with her language around the children.”
“So why are you here anyway, Miss Brown?” Marty asked, her eyes curious.
Damn, these people were still here. At midnight. The depth of their support took her breath away. Even though they had families of their own, and probably very full lives, they were here for Wanda. To help her get through this tough transition. Samantha had been that way, too. Ride or die. No matter what.
Sal inched backward, away from angry Nina, and felt around for the cooler. Pulling it to her chest, she held it out to them as though it were a peace offering. “Brains.”
Aside from Nina, both women blinked. Nina, on the other hand, planted her hands on her hips and returned to her defensive stance and cynical gaze.
Sal swallowed, hoping to ease her dry throat. “I knew you’d need them. I know the baby needs them. There should be enough to last at least a month.”
“And you, a social worker, knew where to get that shit? You got an in at the morgue?” Nina crowed. “If you’re a social worker, I’m GD Miss America.”
Marty snorted and tugged a length of Nina’s shiny hair. “With these fried ends? As if.”
Nina swatted her away with an angry hand full of fingers Sal was sure she wanted to wrap around her neck. “Shut that trap, Marty. Miss Brown’s no damn social worker. What kind of social worker rides a Harley, wears leather, and has access to brains? That is your Harley, isn’t it, Miss Brown?”
Straightening her shoulders, Sal pretended offense. “Are you saying social workers aren’t allowed to have hobbies? That we can’t enjoy a good hog because we deal with the welfare of children? Doesn’t that come off a little like motorcycle-shaming?”
“Slow your roll, and save the competitive victim crap and kitschy millennial catchphrases for someone who gives a shite about your teeny-tiny feelings, lady. I said no such effin’ thing. What I said was, you’re full of shit and I’m onto you. In fact, maybe we should give that adoption agency a little ring-a-ling and ask them about you. Whaddya say, Hog Lover?”
Wanda grabbed at her friend’s arm and swung her around to make eye contact. “Nina! Stop being so rude. Miss Brown did us a favor by bringing us brains, for pity’s sake. I repeat—brains. You don’t suppose she can get into trouble for that, do you? Of course she can! She took a risk to help us, which is more than I can say for the adoption agency that fed us a bunch of hogwash about adjustments and transitions. No offense, of course, Miss Brown.”
Sal held up both her hands and smiled, avoiding Nina’s piercing gaze for fear she’d set her on fire. “None taken.”
Wanda let go of Nina’s arm, but that disappointed teacher look never left her face. “I’m sure they were just following council’s advice. Now, my poor son’s been intermittently crying up a storm for hours and hours. I’m exhausted. We’re all exhausted. If Miss Brown brought us something she shouldn’t have, ask me if I give a flip. If someone told me he needed a Porterhouse with a side of fries and a light ale, you can bet your sweet vampire tuchas I’d put it in a blender for him. How can you be so rude to someone who so obviously went out of her way to help him—to help us? Now, apologize. Please.” She waved a hand in Sal’s general direction.
Aw, hell no. No apology necessary. Grey had been right to advise her to keep her nose out of things—because wow.
“Nope,” Sal was quick to assure. “No need for apologies. I’m glad you have friends who look out for you, Mrs. Jefferson. Friends are so important.”
“Friends who can smell bullshit,” Nina muttered, but Marty jabbed her in the ribs with her elbow and frowned.
“Get in this house before I give you the beating you so richly deserve. And grab those brains. Let’s figure out how to get them into the poor child before he wakes up and starts screaming again. Move it, Vampire.” Marty pointed to the interior of the house and Nina went, but not before she used two fingers and pointed them first at her eyes then directly at Sal’s.
“I see you, Social Worker. Remember that. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m gonna find out. Trust and believe,” she warned, her tone sinister.
Wanda gave Nina a last dour look before Nina grabbed the cooler and headed back inside. She looked to Sal with pleading eyes. “I’m so sorry, Miss Brown. Nina’s…well, she’s always on guard. In some cases, okay, in most cases, she goes too far. But it’s really out of love and her wish to keep us all safe. I promise you, she has a gooey inside.”
Sal smiled, even if her heart ached. Nobody could appreciate a friend looking out for a friend more than she could. “I get it, Mrs. Jefferson. I genuinely do. I hope the brains help, but I need to get going now. It really is terribly late and I have…lots of children to check on tomorrow. So, have a good evening.”
Clearly on impulse, Wanda reached for her, giving her a quick hug and whispering tearfully, “Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
And though the contact was brief, it smelled of cinnamon apples and sunshine and the scent lingered in Sal’s nose, making her yearn for one last moment with Samantha. The only family she’d ever had.
She turned and ran down the steps as though the hounds of hell chased her so no one would see her cry.
Damn. Every time she turned up at the Jeffersons’ she turned into an absolute mess, and Grey was right again. It had to stop. There was no way she could emotionally handle seeing Samantha’s baby and not want to stick her two cents where it didn’t belong. There was no way she could keep from telling them all the dreams Samantha had shared with her about the time when she created a family of her own.
Now that they had the brains, Sal had to walk away. He wouldn’t suffer withdrawal. He wasn’t alone in some row of cribs at some rundown orphanage where only his very basic needs were cared for.
He was loved. He would always be loved. He’d be protected and coddled all his life.
Sucking in the cool night air, she reached her bike and gripped a handle for support, letting her head fall forward and her back arch. Losing Samantha had been like an empty hole she just couldn’t fill. Finding out why she’d disappeared had filled her days and nights for some time now.
But what was next? Where did she go from here? What would fill her days and nights if she couldn’t hash out the next move to finding the baby?
The future was an empty void of nothing but her and her dog, Buttercup.
She still didn’t know what had happened to Samantha—not the details anyway. Maybe she’d never know. She’d die trying to find out, but the most important part of finding out where she’d gone had led her to the baby, and for that much she’d always be grateful.
“Didn’t I fucking just tell you to go home?” someone growled from behind. “You’re itchin’ to make me keep my promise to eat your intestines, aren’t you?”
Sal froze in the spotlight of the streetlamp, her hands going clammy as she turned around to face Nina.
God, this woman was scary as hell. But Sal fought to keep her composure when she turned and said, “I am going home. Right now. See me get on my bike and ride off into the sunset. Er…night. Whatever. I’m going. Swear.”
Nina’s eyes glittered before she melted right before Sal’s eyes and turned into Grey. A laughing Grey.
Flicking her fingers in the air, she wagged them in his face. “Goddamn you, Grey! Go away! Ooooh, I hate when you do that!”
He shook a finger at her and winked as he trapped her against her bike. “I thought I told you today to stay away from these people? You made me a promise, Sal. It’s not nice to make promises you have no intention of keeping.”
She rolled her eyes at him, attempting to make herself small so their bodies wouldn’t touch. “I did not promise. I agreed. And I was only trying to help them, for Christ’s sake. The baby’s suffering. He needed brains. I didn’t even plan on them finding out it was me who got them the brains. I was just going to ding-dong ditch ’em after I dropped the cooler, but that damned Amazonian vampire who looks like a cross between Adriana Lima and Paulina Porizkova caught me.”
Grey whistled and widened his stance, leaning down to gaze at her. “She’s not hard on the eye, I’ll admit, but I did hear her threaten you. Hot and angry makes for a very sexy package. She’s one tough lady, huh?”
Sal fought a snort. Yeah. “Is tough the word you use when someone threatens to eat your intestines? Psychotic seems more fitting. And why are you still following me, eavesdropping on all my conversations? Jesus. Don’t you have someone else you need to dump?”
“Tsk-tsk,” Grey chided, running his index finger under her chin. “Don’t be bitter, Sal. It’s not your best look, and again, I’m only protecting my interests. I told you I could get shit for this if anyone found out I located the baby for you. I didn’t exactly come about the information honestly, and I’m not exactly well loved by the council for my PI work. If they knew I’d been digging around on some esteemed members they think quite highly of, it might piss them off.”
Leaning back, Sal let the bike cradle the small of her back. “Yeah, yeah. But you know, I’ve always wondered how you found out about the baby to begin with. Care to share that info? Maybe give me the name of an informant or two?”
His eyes went hard like ice chips. “Why, so you can go mess with their lives, too? Pretend to be someone else you’re not? Not on your life, Sal—or should I call you Miss Brown?”
Instead of staying angry, she let her emotions get the better of her. Giving him her doe-eyed look, she ran a hand over his hard chest. “Tell me one thing, Grey. Just one. Do you know what happened to Samantha before she got pregnant? I mean before I saw the vision of her dying. Where was she when I first started looking for her? How did she end up pregnant to begin with?”
Grey’s eyes glittered in the velvety black of the night, hard and unyielding. “You know I don’t have the answer to that, Sal. The only information I have is that she ended up pregnant, then… Well, you know what happened then. Anyway, it was just like your vision told you. How that happened or with whom, I don’t know.”
Clenching her fists, she fought the knot in her throat. Nothing kept her up at night more than the vision she’d had of Samantha in some dark, dirty room, giving birth to a squalling baby on sheets covered in blood and filth.
The only vision equaling it was the one she’d had right after Samantha had somehow found a way to call her and confirm she’d truly had a child. In the middle of the phone call, while Samantha had begged her to “save the baby,” she’d witnessed her best friend’s murder, and then blacked out.
There was nothing in the vision to indicate how she’d been killed or by whom. Nothing. In fact, Sal didn’t even have a location to go on. She’d seen nothing to give her a clue as to where the death had occurred. There’d been just Samantha’s screams and her in a puddle of blood on the floor and her gut telling her she’d been murdered.
Her visions always came at a price—the loss of hours or sometimes even a day or two. The blackouts always followed the banshees’ death screams. She’d had enough of them over the years to know the visions didn’t lie. She’d witnessed more death in her lifetime than ten people, and her visions were never wrong.
Sometimes she was able to prevent the death from a vision—sometimes not. With no leads on Samantha’s whereabouts, there was no way to keep her from death.
That was how, with every fiber of her being, she knew Samantha really was dead. The tiny tentacles of their energies, so connected since they were children, were gone. Flatlined. But there was a tenuous thread to the baby—one Sal had held on to as she’d looked for him.
She’d known he was real—that he existed. Knew it. And she’d been right. But where had Samantha been all that time before the baby? She needed to know.
Removing her hand from his chest, Sal scoffed. “Same old brick wall, aren’t you, Grey?”
He smiled at her, his dark hair falling over his forehead. “I remain as consistent as always.”
Staring up at him, Sal shook her head, refusing to give in to how difficult seeing him was for her. Still, her gut clenched and her pulse raced as she prepared to leave.
“I have to go,” she whispered, knowing this could well be the last time she ever saw him.
The notion made her heart ache in agony, but really, there was nothing left to say. He remained close-mouthed about how he’d found all the information on Samantha, just like he’d been from the get-go, and he’d broken things off with her. What else was left?
But Grey cupped her cheek, surprising her with a rare tender gaze. “Sal, look. I know you miss Samantha, and you’re only trying to do what you think is right. You want to stay connected to Samantha through the little one, but you can’t without revealing who you are. The baby really is in good hands. The best hands ever. He’s going to have an amazing life. If what you’ve told me about her is true, Samantha would love that.”
Yeah. She would love that. Sal knew in her heart she would.
Still, letting go…
Swallowing hard, she nodded, fighting an onslaught of hot tears burning the backs of her eyelids. She didn’t want to cry in front of him. “I know. I do know. I’ll let go now. I’ll stop coming around. This time I promise.”
Grey stared at her for a good long minute as though he wasn’t sure he could trust she’d stay away, but then he leaned forward and kissed the tip of her nose. “Be good to yourself, Sal. Wish things could have been different,” he whispered before he sauntered down the road, his long legs eating up the sidewalk, got into his jalopy of a car, and drove away.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she clenched her eyes and her fists in unison to thwart the tears and listened to the silence of a suburban night.
The only sounds she heard were the crickets chirping and the harsh beat of her empty, broken heart.
She’d been alone most of her life with the exception of Samantha. Forming relationships as a banshee was difficult at best when you were afraid to get too close to someone for fear you’d have a vision of their death.
If you didn’t let anyone in, you couldn’t harbor the vision of someone’s horrible demise and torture yourself over whether you should share the information, could you? Because what if you couldn’t stop the tragedy? It was easier to keep most everyone at a distance.
Both orphans, she’d met Samantha in one foster home or another when they were eight, and somehow they’d managed to stay together in the system until they graduated high school and got an apartment together.
Samantha, as a half human/half zombie, was as rare in the paranormal world as Sal. She didn’t know where she’d come from any more than Sal knew who’d hatched her, and that had created a bond that remained unbroken—until Samantha disappeared as though she’d never existed.
They’d only had each other for just over twenty years. Both afraid to look too far outside of their friendship for acceptance from someone else because no one understood them better than they understood each other. No one understood how difficult it was to form an attachment to someone when you’ve been shuffled through the system better than they did.
Sure, there’d been boys as kids, and eventually men as adults, but no one either of them had really fallen hard enough for to take the risk of permanency—well, until Grey. With Grey, she’d considered a commitment. Brief as the idea had been, he’d put the kibosh on that anyway.
Yet something with Samantha had changed just before she’d disappeared, and as close as they were, her BFF began keeping secrets and behaving erratically. To put it bluntly, she’d been an ass until Sal finally confronted her.
The last time she’d seen Samantha, they’d had a fight because of that confrontation. An all-out, balls-to-the-wall argument like they’d never had before.
And then she was gone. Just like that.
And Sal was still trying to find a way to deal with that kind of abandonment—that kind of hurt from the only person in her life she’d loved like family.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to block out the last angry encounter with Samantha, telling Sal to stop clinging to her like some pathetic loser and find a life of her own.
Now, there was nothing left but to do just that.
One last long glance around at the beautiful neighborhood, with its lavish houses and long driveways, left her sighing before she slung her leg over her bike and prepared to keep her promise to Grey.
Just as she positioned herself on the bike, the hard crack of something heavy sounded, sending shooting pain through the back of her skull, knocking her out cold.
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