Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chapter One - Invisible by Kimber Chin

Chapter One

“Promise.” Birger’s normally robust voice was reduced to a whisper, barely audible over the hum of the oxygen concentrator-compressor combo.

Maeve couldn’t hear the weakness, she wouldn’t hear it. This was Birger, strong, invincible, going-to-live forever Birger.

“No need. The reading doesn’t happen 'til you’re dead and you’re not dying anytime soon, so give it a rest. ” Maeve paced the master bedroom, her heels clicking decisively against the hardwood floor, her hands gripped tightly behind her back.

Blue eyes flicked back and forth, watching her.


Englebarn, he always called her that. He was the only person who did. She didn’t even know what that blasted endearment meant because he wouldn’t tell her.

'Course she didn’t really have to know. The caring in the word was powerful enough to sway decisions. It wasn’t fair of him to use it now.

“I’m not listening.” She gave him her best glare, one that would have incinerated any other man into a heap of ash. The old fart merely smiled.

“Englebarn.” He straightened his frail body, preventing himself from sliding off the bed.

Her lips twisted. Stubborn fool. “Let me do that.” She grabbed the stark white pillow and gave the stuffing a few angry thumps before slipping it back behind Birger’s gray head.


“Don’t thank me yet. I’m not done with you.” She sat back down on the side of the bed, trying not to notice that there was plenty of space, and picked up the small plastic jar on the antique bedside table.

“Not.” Birger feigned a grimace.

“Yeah, the ointment.” Maeve smoothed the lotion onto her palms, rubbing her hands together, the friction raising the temperature. “It might stink but it works. Deal with it.” Though the doctor had doubts about its powers, she was convinced the massages made a difference.

There was only the sound of the machines and her friend’s ragged breathing as Maeve rubbed her lubricated fingers over his chest. Blast it, he was getting thin, disappearing right in front of her.

“You have to eat more,” she grumbled. “Tomorrow I’ll make you some fish cakes, the family recipe, just the way you taught me with warm potato salad and remoulade sauce. You know you’ll like that.”


Maeve’s eyes narrowed. “Not another word, Birger Rayner. I don’t want to hear about it.”

Her obstinate friend wasn’t giving up. “Must accept.”

She fought the urge to pinch him, hard. “I don’t have to accept anything; especially not you talking nonsense 'til my ears bleed.”

“Tired,” he gave a deep heartfelt sigh.

Maeve knew he was tired. She was too, bone-crushingly, shoulder-achingly tired. At times she had been ready to give up but the only other choice was…no, there wasn’t any other choice.

“Fight, Birger,” she demanded, her voice breaking. “You can win this. You know you can. You’ve done it before.”

“No.” Birger’s fingers folded over hers, ignoring the stickiness.

Maeve looked down, startled by their unnatural coolness. His tanned skin was almost paler than hers.

“So tired,” her elderly friend repeated.

Their gazes met, his sunken blue eyes pleading for her to understand. He was tired, tired and in pain. Her dear, dear friend was in pain. Pain that she was selfishly prolonging by insisting that he fight.

He had been through so much already: decades without his Rosie, recurring bouts of cancer, the soul-sucking treatments, and he had never given up, never once suggested it. Not until now.

What that meant, she knew.

He was ready.

Well, good for him. Maeve wasn’t, but then she didn’t think she’d ever be. And it wasn’t up to her. It was his life, his choice. She should respect that choice. She should let him go.

“Okay.” Acceptance was one last gift she could give him. “Then die, I don’t care.” But she didn’t have to be gracious about it.

Birger squeezed her hand. “Promise,” his voice was a whistling rasp.

That blasted morbid promise. He was insisting on it. “Enough already,” Maeve’s short burst of laughter was borderline hysterical, “I promise. I promise, but I’m not going to cry for you, you ass.”

This earned her another smile. “Don’t disa…”

“I’m not going to disappear.” Though Maeve wanted to, badly, even now. “Not 'til I attend your stupid melodramatic reading, hear how you’ll squander your millions saving the common cockroach, proving to the entire world that you’re a complete crackhead.”


Heartless? If she was so heartless, why did she feel like she was breaking in two? “I’d have to be, wouldn’t I? To deal with you? You torture me daily for years and now you’ve got the gall to up and die on me. Lord, I’d be a fool to be anything other.”

Pale blue eyes danced. “Fool.”

“Yeah, I’m a fool.” Maeve looked away, her eyes stinging. Must be that ointment, the sharp smell made her eyes water.

There was a thumping on the front door. Maeve ignored the sound. If it was important, one of the nurses would get it. If it wasn’t, the person would go away. It was important. The door was opened, there was a loud bang as it slammed shut, raised voices, and heavy steps on the staircase.

“The cavalry’s here.” Maeve’s light comment didn’t quite conceal her bitterness.

Unwarranted bitterness. Enough fantasy land. Time to face reality. She wasn’t family, not truly, and she wouldn’t be with Birger when he died. She hadn’t that right, despite the long days spent by his side, nursing him.

“Uncle.” The door burst open, making Maeve jump. A shadow fell over the bed. This, this was family. The first arrival would be the absentee grandnephew, Hagen, Birger’s beloved golden boy. Her lips curled into a snarl at the interruption.

As Maeve turned to dart the stranger a squelching glance, her eyes widened at the sheer size of him. His height didn’t surprise her. Birger was taller than the average man and she knew from Birger that his brother, Hagen’s grandfather, had been as tall. So height was expected.

The width was not. Where the older man was willowy, the nephew was pure brawn. Monstrously broad shoulders. And very fitting. Their last name translated to warrior in Danish, Birger had told her, and Hagen Rayner did resemble a blond Viking warrior.

A scowling Viking warrior.

Disapproving of an outsider’s intrusion, with Maeve being the outsider. She wasn’t welcome. It was time to go.

“Birger.” Maeve rose and then leaned over to kiss his sallow cheek. “Love you.” The words slipped out before she could hold them back. A moment of weakness.

“Love too.” He rested his warm, weathered face against hers.

It wasn’t a private moment, not at all. Maeve could feel the nephew staring at her, the interloper, with open and hostile curiosity, wondering who she was. She couldn’t face him.

She couldn’t be civil and introduce herself. Do the polite thing. Swallow her resentment and pretend like she was pleased to meet him. Say “Hello, I’m Maeve Delaney and you are?”

Why lie? She wasn’t pleased to meet him, this much discussed grandnephew, Birger’s shining star, not when the reason was losing her closest friend. The tears dangling at the edge of her eyelashes threatened to fall, and Maeve tilted her chin up. No, she wouldn’t let him see her cry. Instead, she gave this younger Rayner her best glare as she closed the door behind her.

~ * ~

She didn’t leave. She should have, but she couldn’t bring herself to go.

Maeve sat rigidly on the William IV period, carved recamier, her trouser-clad knees primly pressed together until they hurt, mindlessly twirling the simple gold band circling the middle finger of her right hand.

She stared at the front door. Yeah, she should leave. Maeve wasn’t needed. She wasn’t wanted. She wasn’t even noticed. Not a word had been spoken to her, the relatives wrapped up in their own bubble of grief.

At first, she stayed to ensure Birger died in the company of loved ones. It had been only the grandnephew then and, despite Birger’s glowing recommendations, he was a stranger. Maeve didn’t have faith in his reliability, couldn’t trust him to stay by Birger’s side.

Now, Birger dying alone was no longer a possibility. Dozens of people, tall, aggressive fair-headed people had arrived since; so many that they spilled out of the bedroom into the hallway, even into the sanctuary of the downstairs living room.

Elderly women talking fish cake recipes with all the gravity of state secrets. Men discussing business deals as though Birger wasn’t dying in the bedroom upstairs. The inane conversations made Maeve want to scream. Didn’t they know that a man was fighting for his life?

Then less than a minute ago, there had been a flurry of activity, adults filing out of the room leaving Maeve alone with her rising panic and lip-gnawing worries.

This was it. Was he in pain? Was he scared? Was someone holding his hand?

She wouldn’t cry. She had told him, she wouldn’t.

Maeve closed her eyes, trying to regain control of her emotions, concentrating on her breathing, on her heartbeat, on the small hands on her knees.

Small hands?

“You got green eyes?” A girl was peering intently into her face, so close that Maeve could feel her breath soft on her cheek. She had Birger’s defined chin, giving her an overly determined look for a, Maeve guessed by her height, five year old.

She blinked, confused. What did eye color have to do with anything that was happening today? Not that it mattered. Maeve had no reason not to answer. “Yeah.”

This satisfied the kid. She hustled her little body, skirts flouncing, back to her not-so-much older brother and stage whispered smugly, “I told you so.” Maeve then had the unique and uneasy experience of having two individuals under four feet tall watch her intently.

What was she a circus monkey? Green eyes were rare, sure, but not rare enough to excite children.

“I’m Natty.” Before Maeve could unravel the mystery, the girl was back.

Short for Natalie, she’d bet. “Maeve.” She tried to smile. It hurt her cheeks.

“Mayff.” That the child butchered her name didn’t surprise Maeve. Adults did the same. Birger never had though. Not even the first time.

Birger, was he…

“Do angels have names?”

Angels, and death, and Birger, must be scary things for a little girl to handle. Maeve had been only twelve when her own parents…yeah, it was scary. She swallowed her other concerns. “What else would you call them?”

Her new friend thought about this a bit, leaning trustingly against Maeve’s knee.

“Is God big?” Was the next question.

Is God big? Big as in all powerful? No, somehow she suspected the girl meant physically large. How was Maeve supposed to answer that?

She didn’t have to. A tall blonde woman appeared at the foot of the stairs. “Come kids, we’re going home.”

So like that, it was done. Birger, her friend…

“Not yet.” Natty wasn’t going anywhere.

“Now Natty.” The mom’s voice was firm.

“No, I’m staying with Mayff.” The little girl pouted.

Great, now the kid was going to have a tantrum. A crummy ending to a crummy day. “I’m going also.” Maeve stood up. Her leaving would prevent the tears and there was
no reason left to stay.

“Are you going home?” Blue eyes darker than Birger’s looked up at her without blinking.

Home? Was her sterile, lifeless apartment a home? “Yeah.” It didn’t feel like the truth.

“Ohhh,” a small thumb slipped into her mouth.

“Natty, don’t suck your thumb.” The mom pulled her hand away. “You’re a big girl now. Big girls don’t suck their thumbs and please stop bothering the nice lady.” Maeve was spared an apologetic glance.

“It’s okay.” She turned towards the door. Her hand was again tugged. “Yeah?”

“Do angels live in Heaven, Mayff?”

Maeve shifted her black pumps. “I suppose.” She felt awkward talking about the afterlife to another person’s kid, but it was logical that if she believed in angels and she believed in Heaven, she’d believe that angels lived in Heaven.

“Is Granduncle in Heaven?” The girl’s innocent question pierced Maeve’s thick skin. Tough ol' Birger in Heaven. White robes and wings. The thought was ridiculous.

“Is he, Mayff?” A tiny head tilted, a perfect imitation of her elders.

Natty was waiting for an answer. Maeve glanced at the woman and got a sad nod of confirmation.


A little forehead scrunched in thought. “Then you should go too.”

“Natty!” The woman was aghast at the straight talking.

“No, she’s right.” Maeve didn’t look up. Kids had a talent for calling it the way it was. She should go. She didn’t belong here, even a five year old could see that, “I’m leaving.”

~ * ~

She was a damn good actress, that freckle-faced gold digger; Hagen Rayner shot a glance across the table. Although he knew her mercenary heart must have been disappointed, she faked a convincing expression of gratitude upon hearing of the few worthless trinkets Uncle Birger had left her.

She didn’t cry though. And she damn well should have. After the two months it would take to settle the estate, his coveted millions would help save the rain forest.

What had the lawyer called her? Miss Delaney? Some damn thing like that. Sounded Irish.

And could he blame his Uncle for his weakness? Hell no. The woman wasn’t Hagen’s regular style but he understood the attraction. He’d felt it himself. All piss and vinegar, made a man want to kiss the sass right off her face.

Physically, the Delaney creature was a tasteful little piece with dark curls and a pale pixie face. A bit petite and way too damn short, Uncle Birger was more sophisticated than to be seen with some voluptuous tart. Shit, she must have made him feel damn young, the fifty-some years age difference was glaringly obvious, her with that firm body, perky breasts, and tight little ass.

The woman had earned the baubles too, staying with Birger to the bitter damn end, disappearing only when the family arrived.

Unlike some wives he knew.

Hagen’s gray-eyed gaze slid to Dag. When was the last time he had seen his cousin alone? He couldn’t remember but today he was. Isabelle? No-damn-where to be found. Dag’s excuse for her absence thin and weak.

Very damn intriguing. Must be trouble in paradise. Hagen squashed the smirk, so inappropriate at a loved one’s will reading.

Not quickly enough, apparently. That emerald-eyed witch was watching him like she had seen, like she had known what he was damn-well thinking. Impossible. Bimbos weren’t noted for their perception.

“And finally to my grandnephew Hagen Rayner, I leave my Chicago home and contents.”

Damn straight. Hagen relaxed, allowing himself the smile now. The house was his. The antiques were his. All was as it should be.

The trustee was not done yet.

“On the condition that he locate the original deed for said house within fourteen business days, the fourteen business days starting the Monday following this will reading.”

“Pardon?” Hagen barked. Had he heard that right? It was not his free and clear? He had to find the documentation first? What sort of damn lazy bookkeeping was that?

There was a buzz in the room. Others as surprised as he was. What the hell was Birger up to now? Pulling the damn strings from the grave.

The elderly retainer held up one arthritic finger, signaling for silence. “Hagen is to have no assistance other than that offered by Miss Maeve Delaney. Neither Hagen nor Maeve will pay in cash or in kind for additional assistance from any other person or entity. Nor shall Maeve receive financial assistance from Hagen for this matter.”

“No.” The outburst came from both sides of the table.

His Uncle’s floozy would have no involvement in his damn inheritance. This was his business and his business alone. “Damn it.” Hagen’s look at Maeve silenced any comment from that source.

“Hagen,” his mom protested his use of profanities.

“Not now Mom.” He understood her distress. Although Hagen’s thoughts might wallow in the mud, he prided himself on his clean mouth.

Any other day, but not today. Today, he felt too damn angry, and raw, and hurting to filter his words. And damn it, was that witch laughing at him now? Shit, she was. Her green eyes were sparkling, emeralds in firelight.

So Hagen did what any man in his situation would do, he growled at the damn woman. That would have frightened a sane person. Not this nutcase, the corners of her full lips jerked upwards.

Shit, he was so close to ripping his hair out in frustration. Hagen raked his fingers through it instead, ignoring the crazy woman, and trying to calm down and apply himself to the situation at hand.

“And if I refuse?” Not that he planned to but he wanted to know his damn options.

“If Hagen fails to do so as determined by the trustee—that would be me,” the solicitor clarified. “Ownership of the house will then pass to Hagen’s cousin, Dag Rayner.”

Like hell it would. Hagen could see the light burn from Dag’s money hungry eyes. Dag had made no secret of what he would do with the lovingly restored Edwardian home if it
were his. Hagen would be dead his own damn self before he allowed that to happen.

~ * ~

If he hadn’t already been six feet under, Maeve would have killed Birger. How dare he mix her up in this? Her promise was to attend his Hollywood-style will reading. That was it; that was all. She hadn’t signed up to be Bonnie to that big, angry man’s Clyde.

Get a grip, Maeve told herself. She had no commitment to the search. None at all. She stared at the heavy oak boardroom door. Yeah, nothing was stopping her. The will was read. Her duty was done. She could walk away right now.

Dooming Birger’s pride and joy to guaranteed failure, a tiny twinge of guilt whispered. Not her fault, Maeve ruthlessly squashed the thought. That was Birger’s call. He knew her. He knew if he’d asked her, she would have refused. Why would it be any different after his death?

“Why fourteen damn business days?” was the giant’s next question.

His mom sucked air through her teeth and Maeve almost giggled at the absurdity of it all. Imagine that, a big man like Hagen Rayner having to watch his language.

The sickly looking retainer scanned the papers anxiously. “That is not explained. No stated reason for the fourteen days.”

Maeve knew the reason. Why fourteen business days? Because Birger had been paying attention. He’d always paid attention. Fourteen business days was the perfect length for a month-long assignment. Fourteen days to settle the case, one day for paperwork, followed by a one week holiday. Perfect.

There was no blasted way Maeve was going to volunteer the information, not in front of that grumpy ignoramus. She kept her mouth shut.

His chair creaked in protest as Hagen leaned back, seeking counsel from his parents seated at his right hand, and his brother-in-law and sister, the cutie Natty’s mother, seated at his left. Family—he was surrounded by them. She, on the other hand, was seated alone, apart from the others, not knowing another soul in the crowded stuffy room.

She didn’t need anyone else. Maeve was perfectly fine flying solo, unencumbered by anyone else’s baggage. Yeah, that was what she was used to.

Her would-be-partner, deep in a private discussion, was not. Likely couldn’t wipe his butt by himself. Pansy, Maeve thought with derision. Not that one would call him a pansy, at least not within his hearing. That would be foolhardy judging from his face.

She took the opportunity to study his solid profile. His nose looked like it had been broken more than once, the type of nose a boxer would have. Yeah, it wasn’t a pretty face, not like his cousin Dag’s, but all strength and bluntness.

“Damn it all to hell.” There came another deep voiced curse. He was cursing a lot, Maeve noticed, much to his mother’s dismay, his whole body radiating rage.

Though Hagen did get more and more interesting as he got angrier, watching him was like staring into the mouth of an active volcano. All that pent up power waiting to explode. Not a safe scene. Maeve had seen how the lava flows in Hawaii destroyed everything and everyone foolish enough to be in their path.

Yeah, if she was interested in self-preservation, it was best not to be near when Mount Hagen erupted.

The gray haired lawyer nervously pushed his glasses further up his pinched nose. “This is an unusual request, and the bequest is of minimal monetary value for someone of your generous considerations, Mister Rayner. It would be understandable if you declined to participate.”

Maeve straightened up. She hadn’t thought of that possibility. He could decline to play Birger’s perverse little game. Yeah, that’s right. Maeve warmed to the idea. Why would this challenge even interest him? It wasn’t like he needed the house. His auction business and the investments funded from those revenues could easily buy him equivalent real estate. Hagen Rayner had earned his place as the golden boy.

But then the cousin put both feet in it. “There’d be no shame in walking away, Hagen,” the good looking man taunted.

Wrong move on this Dag-person’s part if his goal was to inherit. Maeve didn’t know what the deal was with the cousins. She suspected it had something to do with the stunningly gorgeous wife she’d met at the funeral. Whatever it was, they were clearly competitors.

“Kind of you, Dag.” Yeah, very sarcastic. “I won’t be walking away this time.”

This time, a strange choice of words. Like they’d been through this before. With the bigger, more aggressive man walking away. Interesting. Maeve watched the two men with open curiosity.

“In that case, I suppose you and Miss Delaney are going to become awfully close,” was the next idiotic comment. If Hagen had any hope of finding the deed, he had to be smarter than pretty boy.

Though awfully was a very good descriptor. Being close to that beast? Maeve opened her mouth to protest her involvement. Turned out, she didn’t have to.

“I’m damn well doing this alone.” Boy oh boy, the man’s cockiness impressed her. He couldn’t even fathom the possibility of failure, could he? So very confident. Her admiration was short-lived as Hagen continued, “I have no need of Miss Delaney’s…” His cold eyes flitted over her scornfully. “Special talents.”

Now wait a blasted minute. Yeah, it wasn’t a great situation but he didn’t have to be so nasty about it. It wasn’t her choice to be named. Her pride almost prompted an automatic response before Maeve remembered that this was exactly what she wanted. No way did she want to be part of this mismatched team. “Fine with me.” She inclined her head only a fraction.

This seemed to amuse him. Laugh lines crinkled around silver eyes. Arrogant ass. “Can I have the keys and security code for the house?” he asked the solicitor.

“Unfortunately, Mister Rayner, the rules are clear. I am not to assist you.” The man’s eyes were full of regret.

That knocked the big man’s confidence on its butt. Hagen looked around the room at his relatives. What did he think? He’d get help from that direction? Good luck there. Maeve had the irrational urge to laugh out loud. She didn’t know why. Must have been the stress of a trying day.

Hagen’s trying days were only just beginning. It wasn’t going to be that easy after all, at least not for him. She, however, had both the keys and the code. Stormy gray eyes narrowed at her unconcerned expression. Maeve pursed her lips together, trying not to smile.

“I understand,” Hagen ground out, “and I’ll figure it out. Damn it.”

Maeve couldn’t resist shaking her head in wonderment, her dark curls bouncing around her face. Stubborn like his granduncle, that one. A pity she wouldn’t be around to watch him fall on his not-so-handsome face.

Time for her to disappear.

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