Authors: Aimee Laine
Tags: #Paranormal Romance, #genetic testing, #Shape Shifter, #Romance, #mimic, #abuse, #urban fantasy
She gasped at the image.
Her hands flew to her mouth as her eyes welled.
A man, a baby of no more than two and a child of at least ten stared back at her, their smiles more beautiful than anything Lily had seen.
A woman, too.
Not me. That’s not me.
Someone Lily could have been a clone of, without using her skill as a Mimic, posed with the family—like a sister or mother, of which she had neither.
Who are you?
• • •
Cael’s lids drooped as he watched Charley hound Roy with question after question. Just as she said, he didn’t say a word but sat facing the camera.
By the second hour of interrogations, Cael’s ability to stay awake faltered. He shook his head as Charley repeated, adjusted and restated each question.
“Keep an eye on the next fifteen minutes.” Charley bumped Cael’s arm with hers. “Trust me.”
He scooted closer to her but kept his gaze riveted to the television.
Charley sat on the edge of the table, in the same room where Cael himself had tried to extract information from Roy. She leaned forward, the V-neck of her shirt dipping. “You gotta talk to me, Roy.”
His eyes darted toward her and back to center.
Charley shuffled closer, edging her way along the table. “If not me, you’ll get Cael, and he’s not happy with you right now.” She backed away but tilted down until her elbows reached the table.
Roy’s eyes shifted toward the table.
Wyatt coughed into his fist.
James chuckled and stretched an arm across the back of the couch.
“It’s just you and me now, Roy,” Charley’s on-screen image said.
His chin lifted. He swung his head toward the two-way mirror.
“You’ll give me some answers if our audience disappears?” Charley sat up straight.
Roy said nothing. No acknowledgment at all.
Charley stood, moved to the window. “Turn on the light and leave.”
“What—” Wyatt’s voice came through the speakers.
“Just do it.” The firmness of her tone had Cael sitting up straighter. “And … go down the hall.”
Cael noted Roy sat more upright, too—if that were possible.
On a huff, Wyatt’s voice disappeared. A latch clicked. Light shone behind the mirror, giving any observer a view through the separation. Wyatt stormed through the room, picking up and tossing folders on the surface of the desk. He stood, hands on hips, before his head drooped and he exited.
Charley walked back to the table and sat with her face to the camera and back to the door. “Tell me about Lily, Roy.”
His lips twitched.
“She’s beautiful, right?”
A slight eyebrow movement on his left side.
“She’d make a nice partner, wouldn’t she?”
Another eyebrow jump on the left again.
Charley clasped her hands on the desk. “You’ve got the reputation of a two-century mimic, but you’re really closer to a hundred, right?”
“You don’t want to be blamed for her disappearance because you didn’t do it, did you?” Charley’s sexy voice flowed like molten chocolate.
Roy’s shoulders slouched just enough for Cael to take notice.
“You’re not here to hurt Lily. You’re here to win her over.” Charley tapped the surface of the table. “My question is how did you know about her, and why make such a spectacle of yourself last week in Savannah?”
“They call you ‘the chameleon’. Why?”
“Why come after Lily now?”
His lips pursed but by such a small amount that Cael cocked his own head.
Charley stood, paced to one side of the room and back to the table. “What if I helped you, Roy. What if—”
“What the hell?” Cael stood.
She sat back, her arms crossed over her chest as Wyatt jumped up from his spot.
“You need to listen to the rest.” Charley nodded toward the still moving video.
Anger flared within Cael. Ever since Roy had bought a ring in Savannah, he knew plans had been made. “You’re either on my side or his, Charley. You either help him or help me. Which is it?”
“She said listen,” Wyatt said.
Cael clenched his fists as James joined Wyatt.
“A pissing match isn’t going to get us anywhere.” James relocated himself at Cael’s side. With one hand on his shoulder, he pushed Cael until he sat on the couch again. “Now, shut up and keep watching until Charley says you can get up again.”
Cael’s sigh came out forced as Charley patted his leg. He extricated her fingers from his jeans and dropped them into her own lap as Wyatt tucked her in closer to himself.
James rewound the minute’s worth of footage they’d missed.
On-screen, Charley faced Roy straight on. “What if I helped you, Roy. What if I found a way for you and Lily to have a conversation?”
He blinked three times.
“Something less dramatic and espionage-like? Something where you don’t have to be the one hiding along the wall taking notes but can sit and talk to her?”
More lid movement.
With each question, Cael’s rage grew; his body shook.
“Do you want to know if there’s any chemistry between the two of you?”
A small shoulder shrug.
“If you know her enough to find her favorite jewel and go to a store two states away to order it from one of our own, then you probably know a lot about Lily.”
He coughed into a fist before righting himself again.
“If you help me, I’ll set up a meeting with her. So you can find out for yourself. The old-fashioned way.”
Whether Roy stared at Charley or not, Cael read acquiescence.
“What do you want to know?” Roy asked.
“I’m sorry, Angela,” the man said as Lily stared at the photo. “I thought—I—”
A small dotting of freckles spread across the bridge of the woman’s nose. Her hair matched Lily’s latest test color. Even the blue of her eyes matched what had reflected back at Lily from the store windows.
A shuffle behind Lily had her stiffening again. She clung to the door knob.
She closed her eyes as her heart skipped a beat.
We mimic people for a reason, Lil. One of the many is to give hope.
Charley’s words echoed through Lily’s mind.
Be there for the man and the boy, and maybe I’ll get some answers.
A small hand slipped into Lily’s. She tilted down to the boy, the smaller of the two children in the portrait that must have been taken at least two years before.
“Hi … Max,” Lily said, though breath stoppered in her chest.
I can’t do this. I’m not good at this.
Panic took hold again.
The little boy squeezed her hand, sending relaxing vibes through Lily. She switched to the man, his brown eyes full of uncertainty.
How in the world do I take the place of a woman I’ve never actually met? We’re supposed to have details and information. I have nothing.
She ran a hand over her forehead and broke their connected gaze to return to the boy.
He held up both arms.
Lily leaned down and picked him up, his body much lighter than Chase’s—at least the last time she’d lifted the boy she’d have loved to hear call her Mommy. A pang of disappointment hit her heart.
“Where’s Leigh, Mommy? Did she come back with you?” Max snuggled his head against Lily’s shoulder.
Is Leigh the little girl?
The man’s head dipped as he stepped to the floor level. “Come here, Max.”
Max held tighter to Lily.
“I think … Mommy is tired. Maybe she could help you back to your bed?”
Lily stepped past the man and started up the stairs.
She stopped, afraid to turn back to him.
Lily took each stair one at a time, backtracking through the hallway and taking in the photos she’d passed in a rush before. Baby, toddlerhood and school-aged snapshots covered the pale lavender walls on one side. On the other, Max’s growth, with images that could have been taken the day before, plastered the space. Up and through the second staircase, Lily walked with Max cradled in her arms.
More photos of Angela and the man, smiling, happy, their arms around each other.
“Max?” Lily asked as she hit the top step. “You know how to spell, right?”
He nodded against her as a big yawn accompanied the leaden weight his body had become.
“How do you spell Daddy’s name?”
“D—” The letter came out on a sleepy whisper.
“No, I mean his real name.”
More snuggles against her shoulder. “T … O … N … Y.”
“Good job, big boy.” Lily finished their walk, entering the only room with its door open, and draped him across his bed and pulled the Thomas the Tank Engine comforter up to his neck.
Her gaze caught the clock as it blinked 3:08 AM. “No wonder I’m exhausted.”
Lily pivoted to leave but froze as Tony’s form filled the frame. He crooked his finger, and she followed him out and down the hallway. At the door to the bedroom where she’d first woken up, he motioned her in.
Here goes nothing.
In the soft glow of recessed lights, he took on every bit of a desperate husband looking for a missing wife—or what Lily imagined that would look like.
“You don’t remember us, do you?”
Oh, please tell me the woman has amnesia or something.
Lily bit at the side of her lip but let go, not knowing if Angela would use that gesture. She shook her head, wanting to keep her voice to herself until she could at least hear Angela’s and practice it—even a voice mail recording would suffice.
Her heart thumped in her chest. She needed to let her own family know about her whereabouts, if she could find them, but an instinctive, almost primal need to know more about Tony and Max, Angela and Leigh hit her like walking through a spider web strand she couldn’t brush off.
Tony took the spot on the edge of the bed, waving her to his side.
With a hesitancy that made her fingers tremble, Lily sat, squishing the mattress down.
Their bodies leaned into each other.
An involuntary flinch took hold of Lily as a deep sigh escaped from Tony. “I’m sorry,” they both said at the same time as they righted themselves until a foot apart.
“I haven’t slept in here since you lef—-since you disappeared.” His hand reached out and rested on the bed’s surface. “Where’s Leigh, Anj? You said you knew where she was and—why isn’t she with you?” He dropped his head into his hands. “I’m sorry. They said your memory might be off for a while. I didn’t know what that meant exactly.”
“Me neither. The last thing I remember is being accosted on the street.”
He gasped. “What?”
Lily stared into his eyes, so soft yet torn between love and anger.
“What do you mean accosted?”
He tucked her hair behind her ear. “Never mind. Let’s not think about it tonight.” His body pressed closer to hers. “I’ve—we’ve just missed you so much.”
Please don’t get snuggly.
Lily wanted to comfort him in the way he desired, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to. Her role as a Mimic only went so far. “I’d like to freshen up and then go to sleep. Is that okay?” A bathroom waited at the far corner of the room.
“Anj?” He inhaled and let the air go. “Can I … can I stay?”
She shivered once. “Sure.” If he hadn’t asked with such need, Lily would have belted out a ‘no’.
His shoulders relaxed a little. “Thank you.”
That’s all you can do, Lil. Hopefully he’ll sleep peacefully.
She slipped into the bathroom. Her blue eyes had darkened even more in anticipation of her birthday. The mocha color of her hair and the deep bags under her eyes added to her “Guess Who?” game with Tony’s wife. Lily could have fixed those physical attributes with a thought, but they, too, came with her once-yearly appearance. If she chose to help Tony, she’d need to stay in her most current form—Angela.
A push away from the counter allowed her to take in the bathroom. Simple. White. Clean.
On the shelf behind her sat a cell phone.
• • •
Cael stormed around the room, back and forth, alternating between slapping his forehead and punching the air.
After the fifth pass, Charley stopped him and took his hands, holding them tight. “Say it.”
“Why’d you go down that path? Why’d you give in to him like that? He’s one of the best Mimics in the world, Charley, and you just handed him Lily.”
Cael yanked himself free.
“Cael Robert Aldridge, get your ass over here.”
Only his mother—a woman he hadn’t seen since her death forty years before—had called him by his full name.
“Turn around, Cael,” Charley said.
James and Wyatt both laughed.
“And you two … cut it out. It’s late. I’m tired, and my insanely human-only body is calling for sleep like I’ve been drugged with a massive dose of tranquilizers.”
Cael spun as directed. He gave Charley a small bow. “Yes, master. What can I do for you?”
Charley’s grin undid him.
His heart hurt because of Lily’s absence and his own failure to get Roy to talk. “I’m sorry, Charley. Everything you said was right.”
“You ready to listen to me, now?”
A wave of his hand through the air gave her the go-ahead.
“Roy’s feelings came through clearly once I put his signals to a pattern. Twitches to the left and he agreed. To the right, maybe not so much. I asked him the same questions for four hours, Cael. Four.” She held out her fingers as if he needed to count them. “That’s the benefit of still having my photographic memory. Once I figured him out, it took nothing to get him to agree. I did put him off, though, because I don’t know what you need him to tell you. He says he didn’t have anything to do with Lily’s disappearance. So … what …
do you want me to ask him?”
“I—” Cael stared at Wyatt and James.
They’d had a plan. To wheedle information about whom Roy worked for, and why he’d dropped in on their town. With Lily gone, his top-ranked question altered to:
Why are you following the woman I’ve loved for four decades but who sees me as big brother?