Spirited Away Bonus Chapter:
One week later…
As soon as she spotted her tall hunk of a boss weaving through the crowd, Spider’s stomach decided it wanted to practice a somersault routine worthy of the Olympics. One somersault right after another until she felt the fish taco she’d had for lunch threatening to resurface in a really bad way.
Stay calm and act normal. You’ve got this!
She glanced over her shoulder at the two dogs strapped into the back seat, tongues hanging out of their mouths while hot, stinky breath blew in her direction. The cat was curled up asleep in his carrier beside them.
Deep breath. Dazzling smile. And opening her car door, she stood and waved like crazy to get Zach’s attention where she’d parked one of the company’s SUVs in the loading and unloading zone. “Yo, bossman!”
Hannah spotted her first, and the two honeymooners made their way toward the vehicle while Charlie and Costello, both of whom must have had some crazy superpower detecting their owners’ presence, began struggling against their restraints and whining as if they were being tortured.
“Remember our deal, boys. Not one word about any of the craziness that happened while I was petsitting you guys. Capiche?”
Both dogs barked at her, but it was the cat she was worried about anyway. The cat who stretched and barely managed to open his eyes when she pointed a finger at his carrier in warning. She could only hope and pray that her, er, blackmail worked with Abbott, but he was still a wildcard. Cats! Ugh.
“Spider!” Hannah managed to look pretty and elegant even as she did a quick dance on heels hurrying to hug Spider in greeting. The other woman pulled her into an eager embrace and squeezed. “Ohmygosh, I love your hair! Oh, it’s so good to see you. My boys! Did they give you any trouble?”
“Nope. Not one bit.” Spider stepped back to give Hannah room to reach inside the car and pour adoration over her children in fur.
Which brought Spider face to face with her boss. Kind of. Not really, since he was at least six-two and Spider wasn’t. But still.
“Bossman! How was your trip?” She reached to help him with his luggage.
“It was good.” A relaxed smile stretched across his handsome face. “I picked you up some stuff for your Doctor Who collection. Hannah bought you some shirts. Wait til you see them.”
“Awww. You got me stuff?” Any anxiety she’d been feeling vanished beneath a spike of excitement. Her boss was so awesome. She held out the keys. “Here. I figured you’d want to drive back, so I brought your SUV. I can squeeze in the back seat with the animals.”
As she did, she felt a bit like a teenager going on a road trip with her parents and younger siblings. Charlie kept jostling her against the side of the door while Costello stared at her with this weird maniacal grin on his doggy face.
“So, what did we miss?” Hannah asked, turning slightly in her seat to smile at her. “What’s been happening while we were away?”
Spider’s face immediately caught fire. “Um, not much.”
“Are you blushing?” Zach asked, lifting his chin to stare at her in the rear-view mirror. That man was too darned observant.
“Of course not.” Spider cleared her throat. “You’re going to find out sooner or later.” Deep breath. “I’m sort of dating your neighbor now.”
“Spider!” Hannah turned and beamed at her. “The hot one you asked me about?”
“Hot one?” Zach growled.
Hannah flicked her wrist dismissively. “Noah, right?”
Spider grinned. “Yeah.”
“So what’s he like?”
“He’s…awesome. And hot. Oh, he’s so hot.”
“I think we’ve established that,” Zach chimed in drolly. “Noah what? What’s his full name? Did you do a background check on him?”
She tried not to roll her eyes. “Of course I did.” And then some. “He’s a good guy.”
She began checking off the basics on Noah for Hannah, eager to keep the topic away from ghosts, psycho stalkers, runaway dogs and anything else sure to get her butt fired.
Zach’s attention was on the road, but his forehead kept creasing above his sunglasses. She saw that much in the rearview.
“Did something happen with Charlie?” Zach suddenly asked.
Spider’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Did something happen with Charlie while we were away?”
She feigned a laugh. “Of course not.” She reached over and petted the flighty dog.
“Why is he giving me impressions of a strange backyard and saying he wishes I would buy a swimming pool like the one he ran around so he’d get more exercise?” His chin lifted. “He wants to go swimming.”
Spider hugged Charlie closer to her side. “Oh, you know. It’s all that HGTV I’ve been watching. That episode where the people put in a swimming pool.” Nervous laughter trickled from her throat.
“Well, he’s not showing it to me as much as he is letting me smell the chlorine.”
D’oh! Charlie was blind. TV as an excuse wouldn’t cut it.
“I have no idea.”
“Why is Abbott showing me a strange man in my bed?”
Zach lifted his gaze to meet hers in the mirror. “I’m pretty sure it’s our neighbor. Noah.”
That darn cat!
Gritting her teeth, Spider sent Abbott an angry look, shooting him a mental message and hoping it reached him. Oh, it’s on, cat. I have one word for you. Youtube.
“It’s a funny story,” she began, trying not to squirm in her seat. “It turns out Noah was being haunted, and Connor did a cleansing of his house one night and—”
“Connor’s here?” Zach inserted.
Spider nodded. “Anyway, Noah got sick from the cleansing and Connor and I carried him to your house to recover. He stayed in the guest room one night. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“And we don’t,” Hannah said with a stern glance at her husband. “Is he okay now?”
Grateful for the distraction, Spider launched into an explanation of all that had occurred, minus anything that would completely freak them out. They would learn it all eventually — especially since most of it had made the news — but certain details were better left unknown until she had no choice but to make them known.
“How fortunate for Noah that he lived next door to us,” Hannah said at one point. “And how fortunate that Connor was in town. Zach, we need to have him over for dinner. Noah, too.”
“Hmmm.” Those frown lines were back on her boss’s face as he lifted his eyes to look not at Spider, but to her right. Abbott, that sneaky cat, was staring back at him, looking all intent about something. What was he telling Zach now?
It had been a puzzling predicament, figuring out how to keep the cat quiet when his owners returned. How exactly did one get a cat to do her bidding? Finally, she’d hatched a desperate, last-minute plan she only hoped would indebt the animal to her forever.
Cat videos. Hours of cat videos had been shown to Abbott, and Spider had explained that cats ruled the Internet—and not always in a good way. It didn’t matter how stupid, boring or bad quality it was. If someone put a video of a cat online, that someone could expect half a nation to eventually view the thing.
She’d found the most demoralizing collection of cat videos she could, and played them on the television while she pittered around with her work.
“You wouldn’t want that to happen to you, would you, kitty?”
She’d thought the cat had understood her, but maybe he needed a little reminder.
Spider casually pulled out her phone and accessed the videos stored on it. She angled her phone so the cat, if he was watching, could see the footage now playing. The edges of her mouth lifted as Abbott, looking as humiliated as a cat could, filled the screen — dressed in red devil ears and a matching cape. Laughter bubbled in her chest as the image changed to the second outfit she’d put on him. The Harry Potter scarf she’d bought at Universal Studios last summer was far too big for the cat’s neck, but the teddy bear sized eyeglasses and tiny witches hat were a perfect fit. As the cat fell onto his side, struggling to get the costume off, the image transitioned again. This time Abbott sat perfectly still with an I’m-so-not-amused look on his little kitty face as she zoomed in on the Pippi Longstocking-style red pigtails on his head. Giggling, Spider watched as Abbott grew impatient and ran off screen, but the pigtails stayed on the entire time.
Oh yeah, this was so going on Youtube.
“Wait.” Zach said suddenly.
“Wait, what?” Hannah asked.
“I don’t know. Abbott keeps thinking that. And he keeps telling me that I should reward Spider with lots and lots of tuna, which is basically his way of saying I should give her a raise.”
Yes! Mission accomplished.
Spider put her phone away and smiled. But her mouth immediately fell open when Zach pulled into his driveway and she noticed a familiar red truck parked at the curb.
Her ex must have spotted her at the same time because Paul opened his door and climbed out, even as Hannah said, “I wonder who that is.”
Someone shoot me now.
“My ex,” Spider blurted before she could censor herself. Groaning, she hurried to add, “I’m sorry. He’s kind of been making a nuisance of himself. I’ll get rid of him.”
Any other circumstance, she’d be dialing 9-1-1 right now, but she could not let him cause a scene in front of Zach and Hannah. She sprang out of the car to intercept Paul, but of course Noah was already striding across his lawn, too, his face and stance etched in full-on protective mode.
“Paul, what are you doing here?” she demanded.
It would be a miracle if she could get him to leave before blood was shed.
His eyes were hidden by sunglasses, but he seemed to be focused on whatever was behind her. Turning, she saw Zach approaching with Charlie on his leash beside him. Her boss, and even the dog, looked as intimidating as hell.
Oh for heaven’s sake!
“I came to talk.” Paul took a step closer. “Who’s this guy? Someone else you’re sleeping with?”
Before she could answer, Zach called out, “I’m her boss and her friend, asshole. Spider, you want me to get rid of this loser?”
Charlie growled to add some menace to the threat.
“Great idea. I’ll help,” Noah said, stopping beside her.
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, because wasn’t this typical? The men in her life stepping up to protect her. Nice, to a point, but yeah, she was kind of over the whole thing.
Crossing her arms, she clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. “Guys, I’ve got this.”
Noah took a step closer. “But—”
“No. Hang back while Paul and I have a little chat.” She glanced over her shoulder, noticed Hannah, Costello and Abbott standing on the front steps watching, and added in a hiss, “Please.”
Not waiting for a response, she grabbed Paul’s bicep and dragged him back toward his truck. “In case you didn’t notice, I just did you a favor. Not to mention, you’re breaking the law right now. Why don’t you say whatever it is you came here to say and then leave?”
Considering she had filed a Stalking Order of Protection against this man a week ago, she might be acting braver than was proper, but she wasn’t entirely stupid. A brand new taser was tucked away in her pocket, ready should she need it.
Paul jerked his arm out of her grasp. “You didn’t used to be this bossy.”
“You didn’t used to be such a creep.”
Tearing his sunglasses off, he stopped to face her, and she could see the barely reigned in temper flashing behind his eyes. “I came here to tell you I’m leaving Atlanta, so you can drop the restraining order.”
“Thanks to you, my job has become a living hell, and your father has made it clear one wrong move and I’ll lose my badge. Now that you’ve filed that order, what choice do I have? Who knows how long my suspension will last?”
Spider simply stared at him. What. Did he expect her to feel sorry for him? She knew Jack had blabbed a warning to her father about Paul that had spread like wildfire throughout the precincts.
“He was following Emma around a little too much to be considered appropriate,” Jack had reportedly confided. “Trust me, there’s trouble brewing there, chief. That girl is in danger if something isn’t done about him.”
Supposedly the boys in blue had rallied around her, warning Paul to stay away from her or face the consequences. Some of the guys had even refused to patrol with him if he came back to duty, or so she’d heard.
Taking a deep breath, he glanced toward the men behind her now. “You know my uncle runs a department outside of Cleveland. He’s offered me a transfer up there. I’m taking it.”
“Good for you.” Not so good for the women of Cleveland, but good for her, too.
“You could come with me. We could start fresh. Forget everything that’s happened.”
Was he kidding her right now?
“Paul, you’re out of your freaking mind if you think that could ever be a reality.” She glanced over her shoulder and saw Noah and Zach standing side by side, arms crossed, mouths pulled straight as frowns tightened their features. Encouraged by their presence, she stood a little taller as she met Paul’s gaze. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out between us. I really am, but we’re no good together. You and me, we’re toxic. Don’t you realize that?”
“I’ll always love you.”
She supposed he believed that, but she didn’t. Geez, she hoped he eventually lost interest in her.
“I don’t want anything to do with you. Why can’t you understand that?”
His face softened, and his eyes glistened.
“Emma, how did we get like this?” He sighed. “How did I get like this?”
Chest tightening, she took a step back. No, no, no. She did not want to feel sorry for him.
“You don’t have to say anything.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “They’ve had me seeing a shrink, did your dad tell you that? It’s part of my evaluation during my suspension. I don’t know. I think it’s been helping. You know, Jack asked to see me. He told me everything, about what happened to that woman whose remains they found. You know, I don’t ever want to become like that. I think some distance will be good for me, too.”
She swallowed. “I hope so.”
“Anyway.” He pushed his sunglasses back onto his face. “You’re right. Maybe if I put some distance between us…”
His words trailed off, and all Spider could think was, yes, please, put some distance between us. Lots of distance.
“Goodbye, Emma. Take care of yourself. I won’t bother you anymore. You’ve got my word.”
Muscles she hadn’t realized were bunched unclenched as immense relief and hope rolled through her body. Then again, for all she knew this could be another ruse, a trick to get her to lower her defenses. He might have no intention of leaving town at all. Her shoulders tensed again.
No way was she revoking that restraining order. Not now. Not ever.
She watched as he climbed into his truck and drove away. Maybe it was karma or luck or nothing at all, but it felt like bringing closure to Kate had prevented history from repeating itself. Perhaps both she and Paul could now start to heal, provided he was sincere. Turning, she couldn’t help but smile when both Noah and Zach uncrossed their arms at the same time.
“We good?” Zach asked.
She gave him a captain’s salute. “Yep. All good.”
He turned to Noah, gave him a once over, and held out his hand. “You hurt her, and it won’t be pretty.”
Clasping his hand in a firm shake, a huge smile spread across her boyfriend’s face, even as Spider rolled her eyes at both of them. “Are you kidding? I’m the one who would need protection from her.”
Zach’s lips trembled as he glanced her way. His gaze was a mixture of amusement and pride as he considered her for a few seconds. He clapped Noah on the back and chuckled. “You two come on in. If half of what Charlie has told me is true, I think I need a drink.”
A squeak left her mouth. Charlie! Why, that little no-good traitor.
His husky laughter warm against her ear, Noah tugged her into the crook of his arm. “Relax. Everything’s going to be fine.”
She sagged against him. “I’m going to be so fired in a minute.”
“No way.” He whispered a naughty bet in her ear.
Her breath caught. “What if I don’t get fired?”
“Same goes, only the roles are reversed.” He brushed a quick kiss to her temple. “Come on. Let’s go find out, so I can claim my prize.”