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    Chloe loosened her grip on her mother, bending to brush her lips against her mother’s temple.  “Come on mom.  Let me make you some coffee.”

    The older woman shook her head, “I just want to lie down.”

    Chloe followed as her mother headed for the stairs.

    “Most have gone to the reception, but if any guests come,” Bea halted briefly, “feed them and thank them.”

    Chloe nodded wordlessly.  Her mother could always rely on her to do as asked.  At twenty-seven, it wasn’t a matter of obedience, rather a matter of respect. 

    Once her mother disappeared at the top of the stairs, Chloe busied herself picking up her mother’s home. 

    Bea’s typically immaculate home was now cluttered with dirty dishes, wads of dirty clothes, and piles of yet-to-be discarded newspapers from the past several days.  It was a testament to her mother’s suffering.  Even when their father had passed, her mother’s home had remained spotless.  But now, eyeing her surroundings, Chloe could almost feel her mother’s release on the tight reins of control she had clutched so fiercely.  It was terrifying.  The prospect of her mother succumbing to her misery was a despair that Chloe knew she’d never overcome.  Chloe bit her lip worriedly, How do I keep mom from going under?

    When the doorbell chimed, Chloe raised her eyes to the ceiling hoping her mother wasn’t disturbed by the noise.  As she strode quickly to the front door, she smoothed her hands over her hair and stopped with her hand on the knob to suck in a reassuring breath.  Should it hurt this bad just to breathe?

    Chloe opened the door without bothering to paste on a pleasant or non-committed welcoming smile.  Instead, she opted for resigned tolerance, which was exactly what she felt.  She didn’t want visitors and her mother didn’t either, but it was how her community offered condolences.

    Pulling the door open, she sucked in another agonized breath as her eyes locked on Dell Blackbird.

    He stood in her doorway, drenched, his head lowered as rain dripped from his lithe frame.  He was wearing the same suit he’d worn to the funeral, only now instead of looking sophisticated and controlled, he seemed dangerous.  The lines of his body were taught…rigid.  It was startling, and Chloe realized she should have been frightened, but she was too damn mad to be frightened.

    Her brows knitted in anger as Dell lifted his head, his eyes locking with hers.

    When Dell growled fiercely and fell to the floor, Chloe wasn’t quite sure what was happening.  A wave of nausea crashed over her, followed immediately by a peaceful serenity.  It was the first time she’d felt at peace since her brother’s death.  The emotion drew a whimper from her parted lips even as her knees threatened to buckle.

    She braced her arms in the doorframe, clutching the wood tightly until she regained her composure.  When Dell hissed out a long agonized breath, Chloe instinctively bent to offer aid before she quickly righted herself.

     With one hand clamped on her fluttering belly, she mustered up as much hatred as she could.  “No need to bow to me dog!”  She fought to keep the confusion from her tone, but she knew she failed miserably.

    Dell’s head snapped up, his strong features contorted in fury and pain.  One hand clutched his belly while he growled through gritted teeth, “I am no dog!”

    Chloe sneered down at him.  She’d heard the stories.  It was a small town after all, and everyone knew the story.  Blackbirds were supposedly descendants of skin walkers, shape shifters, wolves.  It was a joke at first, but over the years the rumor had garnered the Blackbird family first mockery, then respect, and then fear.  Now the town’s folk regarded them with what Chloe could only compare to some semblance of reverence. 

    “You’re all dogs.  Filthy beasts.”  She lowered her head to deepen her sneer.  She hated him, and she wanted him to hurt like she was hurting.  “Someone should put you down.”

    Dell struggled to his feet, drawing in a ragged breath.  “Keep it up and I’ll show you how beastly I can be.”

    Chloe’s sneer faltered and she flushed angrily at the telling catch in her voice, “You already have.” 

    “CHLOE!”

    Chloe’s head snapped round to discover her mother frowning disapprovingly at her daughter from the top of the stairs.  She eyed her mother for several tense moments and when she turned back to Dell, he was gone.

 

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