PS, yes I know Lex is a douche. ;)
As the morning wore on into early afternoon, the crowd changed from curious shape shifters looking for gossip to weary holiday shoppers looking for some caffeinated courage before heading back out into the fray. Talbot's Peak has a small town feel to it despite having a fairly large population at least partially because few of its residents actually lived within city limits. Most of the houses were businesses, not family dwellings with most of the population living on ranches or communes. We also have a thriving kitsch market of hand crafted everything. This draws shoppers looking for that extra special gift for miles around, even from as far away as Seattle and Vancouver. It’s one of my favorite things about this town.
The reason this matters to the story is that almost all of the local businesses cater to shifters first. Human customers are a pleasant side market only. You can buy cosmetics, lotions, and body sprays made to appeal to animal noses that are every bit as nice as the expensive national brands for a fraction of the price. Most locals, even the humans, used them. But not Maggie Novak. Miss "I Want To Be Famous" wore Chanel Number 5, which smells like ass to shifter noses, or so I've been told. It kind of makes sense since she wants to pass herself off as a glamorous human. She dresses like Paris Hilton, uses human beauty products, and eats the kind of trendy food humans prefer which also changes her body chemistry to something non-coyoteish. It’s not that she smells bad, per se. She just stands out kind of awkwardly in this town and it let me, with my regular human nose, know when she walked into Java Joe's a little after two pm.
It should be noted that before today, Maggie Novak had never once stepped foot in my coffee shop.
She wasn't here for a coffee today, either, because instead of going to the counter to place her order, she just kind of looked around like she owned the place and disapproved before making a bee-line over to Mooney. She didn't sit down at the counter, either. I was too far away to overhear but I saw Mooney's body language became stiff. I decided that was all the invitation I needed to barge into the conversation.
"I think you fail to understand, beta," Maggie was saying. "I need to talk to you and I'm not going to stand here at the counter like a pig at the feed trough."
"Can I get you something," I said quickly before Mooney, who quite clearly knew she was making a dig at him, said something snarky that he might regret later.
"Go away," Maggie sneered at me. I smiled my sweetest smile and Mooney looked at me uncertainly.
"I'm sorry, Miss Novak, but the tables are for paying customers. We're very busy today so I must ask you to buy something or leave."
"And if I demanded to talk to the owner of this dive?" she replied with the same saccharin tone.
"You are speaking to one of them. But please don't feel compelled to remain here if you feel it isn't up to your personal standards." We stared at each other for a long minute with Mooney sitting back watching like he was expecting a fight to break out any second. Finally, Maggie's eye turned gleefully cruel.
"I'll have a triple latte skinny no-whip with one half pump of pumpkin spice syrup and none of that monkey frou-frou stuff. Extra hot."
I smiled even wider and left to go fix her drink. Oh, I knew she thought she'd won by making me serve her, but she forgot that this was my place of business. It didn't lower my status to serve a customer. Shape shifters who owned restaurants served their customers without losing status, and I'm not even a shifter. That being said, there was nothing saying I had to meekly take that insult just because I didn’t have a body hair issue.
I slipped behind the bar and grabbed a mug, shooing Gloria, who still had not left the shop, away when she tried to butt in.
"You shouldn't wait on her!" Gloria hissed anxiously. "She'll take it as you backing down from a challenge!"
"She isn’t the first bitch I've dealt with, Glo," I said, still grinning. "I want there to be no confusion about who fixed her drink."
"Trust me, she's going to know that I know how to play this dominance game. I saw Lex do this lots of times. It's an acceptable way for a dual-natured entity who owns a business to snub someone without having to refuse them service."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Because refusing her service would signal fear—"
"Whereas offering deliberately shoddy service offers a challenge, yes. Watch and learn, my young friend." I eyed the steaming cup of coffee and milk—extra hot, as requested—and debated on the extras. She’d said one-half pump of pumpkin spice syrup, but I didn’t want to waste it. It’s my bestselling flavor this time of year and I’m almost out. Just then, I heard a ruckus out in the seating are and looked up in time to see Mooney go from defensive to furious. I couldn’t help myself, I had to pop into his mind. With a quick shuffling of magic in my chi, I flipped on the telepomancy spell.
[Everything was going along perfectly for the first time since I moved back here at my FORMER best brother’s request. I got a hot girl and work I actually like and then this. This mangy, self-important coyote sashays in and informs me—and everyone listening—that she agreed to go out with me in exchange for getting tickets to that blue-blood pack function in a few days. And when I asked what the bleeding hell she was baying about, she informs me that my alpha had offered her an invite to that New Year’s Eve ball or whatever it was the Hancock Pack had planned. Like. Hell.]
Oh, hell. I grab the paper to-go cup, put a shot of three random kinds of syrup in the drink, swirled it with a spoon once and then charged out to keep my hunky wolf out of trouble. If his alpha sent the bitch, publically refusing to go to the ball with her would constitute a direct challenge, something Mooney probably didn’t want to do. I forget who said you should never make permanent mistakes in the name of temporary anger, but it was good advice.
“So you think Mooney should grace you with his arm for this event because?” I purred as I set the to-go cup on the counter in front of Maggie.
“I wasn’t talking to you, ape,” Maggie sneered. “So where were we. Oh, yes! Mooney, you will come with me now so I can get a look in your closet, make sure you own something appropriate for a high society function.”
“Um, no,” Mooney said dismissively.
[You have to go with her to the party, babe,] I thought at him with my still open mind link.
[Why, because my brother thinks I need to go on a date with this she-bag?]
[Because your alpha wants you there,] I shot back. [And because it’s a ticket into the Hancock party. Ghan’s an egotistical asshat; there’s a good chance he’ll try something. With you on the inside and me on the outside, we’re sure to catch it in time to turn it back on him.]
“Well, that will save a trip because if you don’t have anything presentable, we can go right out and rent you a tux or something,” Maggie pontificated, sounding she thought she was high society herself. Mooney and I snorted at the same time, then traded mutual looks of ridicule. It was kind of nice having someone who understood my sense of humor, I realized with a smile.
“No, I do not need you to dress me, Maggie,” Mooney cut it. “I’m a big boy and I do know how to do that myself.”
“I want to see the outfit you want plan to wear,” she sniffed. And then sniffed again, this time at her drink. “What did you put in my drink?” she asked shrilly.
“Um, I have no idea,” I answered truthfully. And I didn’t; I’d just put one pump of three flavors in without looking.
“I’m on a diet, you cow! I hope you aren’t expecting me to drink this!”
“Nope, I wasn’t expecting anything as civilized as that,” I replied, again truthfully. “You came here looking for a fight, not refreshment.”
“I needed to speak to my date for the Hancock gala,” she snarled through clenched teeth.
“Someone gave you my boyfriend’s phone number, I presume? If you wanted to arrange for a work assignment, all you had to do was call him,” I said sweetly, mentally preparing for the fight I knew was coming. There were quite a few non-shifter customers and all of them were paying rapt attention, especially once I’d let it slip that Mooney was my guy. The shifters may or may not be pulling favorites, but every single human was now firmly on my side. From Mooney, I was getting a buzz of confusion, so I shut down the mind link. I was going to need every bit of focus I could scrounge. I may have stacked the odds as far in my favor as I could, but Maggie Novak was no push-over.
She threw her coffee at me, extra hot as she had ordered, of course. I knew it was coming. Making yourself take a hit like right in the face is hard, but I took it. Oh, crap, extra hot coffee and eyelids do not mix well!
No one moved. No one but me, anyway. I had to let the skank have the first hit so that I would be released from the code of hospitality, but it was my turn now. And this was my turf. I whipped my table rag out of my apron pocket, spun it tightly and snapped her with it right in the ass. I was wiping the remains of the hot coffee out of my eyes when one of the ugly throw pillows I kept on the sitting room couch hit me upside the head. Seriously? Did that bitch just throw my own pillow at me? Game on!
* * * * * * * * * *
“Marissa. Darling,” a slimy voice called from behind the door. I huffed, annoyed even more than before because I now had to clean up the mess I’d made. That snaggle-toothed old coyote didn’t fight half bad. Of course, now my little business would be a major draw to both humans and shifter—the various races all loved a good cat fight. I was also wondering when Maggie would realize she’d been liberally dusted with mange powder during the scuffle. Probably just in time to look like a red hot mess for her fancy society thing.
Mooney had left with Maggie so she could make sure the suit he said he owned was appropriate for the ball and everyone else had fled the coffee shop soon after, so I was stuck doing clean-up by myself. I had tried not to be bitter about that, but clearly I had not succeeded.
“What Lex?” I huffed once it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything until I acknowledged him. I pumped every ounce of annoyance into my voice I could scrounge, though. I still had to do another wash down to make sure I got all the magical contamination cleaned up and I didn’t want to argue with a pissed off cat while I cleaned. A long pause caused me to look back at the hairless little freak. Lex looked beyond pissed, I realized.
“I still hold your fate in my hands, bitch,” Lex said in a warning tone, his deep voice almost a growl, clearly understanding my unspoken jab.
“Witch, Lex. I’m a witch, not a bitch.” I turned my back on him and continued cleaning up the coffee shop.
“I told you to get close to the mutt, not fight over him,” Lex said as he gingerly made his way over to the counter from the back room. “What part of that didn’t you understand? First last night at the super club and now this. It makes you look like a child desperately clinging to a toy she doesn’t want to lose.”
“Lex, these are canids we’re talking about. Mooney isn’t going to pay me any real attention unless he thinks he’s going to get some. And the female is always the one to make the first move.”
“Admit it,” he hissed. “You actually do want to—how is it you hairless apes put it?—hit that.”
“Yes, O Great Hairless Cat Leader, us hairless apes do say that,” I drawled, rolling my eyes as I emptied the bucket of water and disinfectant I’d been using to clean up with. It wouldn’t do for my customers to end up with mange and nothing cleaned that up better than pinesol, for some strange reason. Maggie would know full well where she got it from, but if anyone else started molting and smelling bad, public opinion might take pity on her and believe the big bad human had maliciously harmed her. “Besides,” I said as I refilled the bucked and began mopping the floor again, “I already did ‘hit that.’ And it was good, too. If I get a chance, I’ll probably ‘hit that’ again.”
“You sound like a whore,” Lex jeered. “He’s not even a felix.”
“Of course Mooney isn’t felix; he’s a wolf,” I said, ignoring the whore bit. Lex doesn’t talk like that unless he’s trying to be horrible. Hell, he doesn’t even call actual people who make a living by providing sex ‘whores.’ The real meat of that insult was the thing about Mooney’s pack standing.
“Look, Lex, he’s a male and I’m a female. All our parts line up well enough,” I sighed, getting tired of this childish game. We play it every time he thinks I’m starting to get serious with a guy, making me wonder if I, at twenty-three, weren’t more mature than the cat who holds my leash, or if this was what passed for parental concern for cat gods. “I don’t really care about pack standing and he’s fun and convenient. I don’t know why you care who I date, anyway.”
“Because whatever you do reflects back onto me, monkey-child.”
“Ya know, Lex,” I said, huffing a bit because I’d begun speed mopping. “If you don’t like how my actions reflect back on you, you could always release me from your service.”
“And if you don’t like my meddling in your personal life, you could always leave my service of your own free will. You are over the age of twenty-one and emancipated,” he replied, his tone growing silky again.
“You know why I won’t leave,” I snapped. “What I don’t understand is why you won’t officially release me. It’s not like you have any use for my powers anyway.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Lex replied gloatingly. I stopped mopping to stare at him, partially shocked and partially mad.
“I have no access to your native power, true,” he conceded, “but since I locked those away when you were just a child, you haven’t developed them.”
“What do you mean, my natural powers? I’m still using magic the same way I’ve always used it.” It was a question, but I was afraid I knew the answer.
“No, my darling,” Lex said, shaking his head mournfully, a mannerism that he’d perfected long before I ever knew him. “You’ve been using the sympathetic magic I taught you after I bound your true magic. Since I taught you those skills, they are mine until I formally give them to you. But I don’t have to give them to you, just as you don’t have to stay in my service.” He got up to leave but paused and looked back over his shoulder at me. “You might not want to get too attacked you’re your little wolfie, Marissa dear. He doesn’t seem to be overly attacked to you.”
With his words, a vision swam over me, sent by Lex. I could hear him chuckling as he walked away but my mind was full of other things.
“Did you hear that?” Mooney asked as he poured someone a glass of tea. He was standing in a small kitchenette, the kind found in efficiency apartments. It was a very clean space even though it was the size of a postage stamp, with nothing on the counters other than a coffee pot and a toaster. He spun around and put the pitcher of tea back in the fridge, and that was also almost empty, containing mostly condiment bottles and a few cans of cheap beer.
“Feel what?” Maggie said as she walked out of what had to be the bedroom. My blood froze as I realized that Lex, the shit, was sending me a real-time vision of Mooney and Maggie in what had to be Mooney’s bachelor apartment. It doesn’t matter, I told myself as I watched the snaggle-toothed old coyote running her hand over a book case full of trophies in Mooney’s living room. I knew he had taken her to see his suite. It only made sense that he’d have to take her to his apartment to see it since he wasn’t the type to have a bunch of clothes at the cleaners.
“Nothing,” Mooney said with an uncomfortable shrug. “Here’s your tea. So what did you think of my wardrobe? Will it be sufficient for this party?”
“It will,” she said as she left the living room area and walked all slinky and sultry towards him. “I like your place. I was expecting something early fraternity house, but this is really quite comfortable.”
Mooney didn’t say anything but he also didn’t pull away when the bitch draped herself all over him like a limp weed. I tried to pull out of the vision when she began unbuttoning his shirt but I couldn’t. Dammit, Lex! I did not want to see this!
“So,” Mooney said as he set her unclaimed glass of iced tea on the counter behind him. He jutted his chin back toward the bedroom. “You wanna?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she purred.
I came out of the vision slowly to find myself kneeling in a puddle of spilled mop water, tears running down my face. Goddamn him! Goddamn them both and goddamn Lex while I was at it!