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The Singer Elizabeth Hunter 2022/7/22 11:38:32

“Wait, wait,”the laughing Italian woman said, throwing a perfectly manicured hand over Astrid’s mouth before she could speak. “You have to let me tell it.”

“No!” Astrid was indignant. “You always make it sound so much worse than what it was.”

Karen and Bruno both burst out laughing, obviously having heard the story that Renata wanted to share. Ava and Damien only exchanged confused looks over the kitchen table where the six friends had gathered to share coffee, wine, and a chocolate cake Karen had baked.

Bruno was right, the woman was a supernatural baker. It was the only explanation for how good that cake was.

“I am the only one who knows the truth!” Renata shouted, her grin huge. “You always try to hide how bad—”

“It wasn’t that bad!”

“Oh…” Renata’s eyes turned to Ava’s. “It was bad. I will never take her into the field again. She was flapping her arms like a bird that had been trapped in the rafters. ‘Renata!’” The woman’s voice took on a high-pitched tone. “‘Dust! Grigori dust all over me! I have to shower.’ Blood. Bones. She can put the most wounded body back together from pieces, but she couldn’t handle the dust.”

Damien even cracked a smile as Karen and Bruno laughed again. Ava was trying to control herself, but Renata’s imitation of Astrid’s voice was too good.

“It was my first time in the field,” Astrid protested.

“And the last time,” Renata said. “How can you be so squeamish?”

“I can handle blood and guts, not evil fallen angel remains.” The healer gave a dramatic shudder. “They’re… gritty. They get everywhere. You can inhale them. Disgusting.”

Even Damien was chuckling at that point. They’d been telling stories for hours. It had started with Damien and Renata catching up and then devolved into battle stories. Renata was more than willing to share her exploits. The others had to pry them out of Damien. But eventually, all of them were adding their tales, except for Ava.

Everyone knew her battle story, and no one wanted to dwell on it.

Ava finished her wine and pushed back from the table. “I should get to sleep.”

Astrid and Damien exchanged a look. Damien reached for the bottle of wine and filled her glass again. “Stay up and visit.”

“I’m tired.” Ava was lying. She just wanted to sleep and hopefully dream about Malachi. Still, she smiled and nodded at Renata. “Someone likes jogging way more than me.”

“I’m trying to toughen you up, California girl.”

“Come,” Astrid said. “Stay up. It’s dark, but not too late. Only nine o’clock. We want to hear your stories, too.” She blinked a little and smiled. “From LA! I bet you’ve met celebrities, haven’t you?”

What was going on? If Astrid actually wanted to know about celebrity gossip, Ava would eat her favorite lens. She narrowed her eyes at Astrid, then she opened the door in her mind. As she’d suspected, from the tone of her inner voice, the other woman was hiding something.

“I’m just tired,” Ava said carefully. “There something going on?”

Damien shrugged. “We all have a rare night free of obligations. Catching up. Getting to know people. It’s better than watching television.”

Bruno looked around, more than a little bleary-eyed himself. “Wasn’t there a game on tonight?”

“Want me to look?” Damien stood up, as if to turn on the television in the corner of the room. Damien never watched television. Ever. Not even football.

“That’s it.” Ava stood too. She pointed to Astrid and Damien. “What’s up with you guys? Why are you being weird and why are you trying to keep me awake?”

Damien’s eyes never wavered. He crossed his ink-covered arms over his chest, reminding her too much of Malachi’s disapproving stance. The pain was quick, like a knife jab. “You sleep too much.”

“You do,” Astrid said. “I’ve noticed it, too. Other than the night of the sing, you’re in bed almost right after dinner. You don’t come to the house to play games or read in the library. We hardly see you at all before you go to your room.”

Ava shrank back. “I like privacy.”

Renata was watching with quick, assessing eyes. “I think, Ava, that your friends are worried about you.”

Silence fell over the previously boisterous table.

Astrid finally said, “Yes, we are worried about you. The sleep. The lack of appetite. You barely eat anything except for a few of Karen’s cakes.”

“You think I’m depressed.”

Once again, no one said anything, but Ava recognized the signs of awkward concern. She’d lived with them her whole life. From her mother to her stepfather to every friend or boyfriend she’d ever attempted to retain.

Her throat tightened. “I’m not depressed.”

Of course she was depressed.

“You’re not?” Renata asked. “I thought you just lost your mate.”

Karen winced visibly, and Bruno put a hand on Renata’s arm.

“Rennie,” he said, “we’re trying—”

“What?” Renata said. “It’s not like she’s forgotten. Of course she’s depressed.”

Damien said, “We just want Ava to know we’re worried about her.”

“We want her to know she’s not alone,” Karen said. “That we’re here to listen if—”

“Let her be depressed for a while if she wants, damn it. It happened just months ago. And they’d barely met.” Unexpected tears shone in Renata’s eyes. “She had a glimpse of happiness, then it was taken away.” Her voice was hoarse, matching the lump that had risen in Ava’s throat. “If she wants to sleep, let her sleep.”