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Authors: Lynn Crandall

Heartfelt (6 page)

BOOK: Heartfelt
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“You didn’t answer the last question. What animals are you planning to bring to such a facility?” The voice came from a seasoned reporter at the back of room. He worked for a large daily in a nearby metropolitan area, and Asia was a fan of his work. “How are you going to keep them, in cages?”

The reporter smiled at Asia and a thought came through.
She’s not going to be easily appeased with his lies and fake project.

She smiled in return, her heart expanding a bit to appreciate his assessment of her. He was right. She wasn’t going to sit still for his spin. She waited for Sage’s response to the man’s questions.

“Cages?” Sage mocked. “No. The Nexus Group and I want the very best for the animals. The facility will have state-of-the-art enclosures, large enough to give the animals adequate space to wander, graze, climb trees, whatever the particular animals do. We’ll have an expert staff any preserve would want. So the animals will have the feeding programs especially designed for their species and opportunities to intermingle with their own kind.”

“You didn’t answer my first question. What kind of animals?” The man’s crystal blue eyes were solid, stern.

“We’re planning on giving a place to wolves, bears, buffalo, and badgers. We’re also going to give homes to rescued big cats. So that would include tigers, lions, cougars, bobcats, and lynxes.”

Asia’s breath froze. There it was. Surreptitiously, insidious, and malevolent, TNG was planning to continue its project to turn humans and animals into mindless killing machines.

Oh, how stupid did TNG think the colony was? For that matter, how much disregard did they hold for average human citizens that they believed they could launch this new attempt at a power seize and no one would step up to stop them?

The dignitaries in the room—the mayor of Laurelwood, the local representative, members of the city council, the president of the local university, including the director of the university’s school of veterinary medicine—mumbled amongst themselves. Asia got a first row seat to some of their comments.

The mayor voiced pleasure at such ingenious thinking. The university president agreed the plan might present opportunities, but he wanted to know more details. As Asia allowed the thoughts to present themselves, her control over the bombardment lessened. Thoughts she wanted nothing to do with——that the sexy young woman was going to try to seduce Sage, that the mayor was looking forward to a hamburger with all the fixings at Happy’s, and that the city manager wanted to shove his fist into Sage’s face—all competed with the calm she tried to hold.

When Daren closed the press conference, he stepped in the direction of Ms. Flirtatious, but got stopped by the young male reporter. Asia couldn’t get out of the room fast enough.

Inside her car, heading back to the newspaper office, she took advantage of the silence. She rolled her shoulders and released the tension that tightened her muscles. She didn’t have far to drive, but urgency pushed her adrenaline. She had to let the colony know about the animal preserve she’d just learned about. Quickly, she punched in Casey’s number.

“Hi, Asia.”

“Casey, I’ve got new information from the press conference.”

She reviewed what she’d learned, while Casey listened.

“Wow. I can see why you’re concerned, Asia. Can you meet this afternoon?”

Asia frowned. “No, I’ve got a deadline.”

“Well, this information can’t wait. I’ll pass it on to the others. We’ll talk later.”

Asia sighed, relieved to be able to talk to Casey. Now she had to hunker down at her computer. Her article needed to be filed by early afternoon, so the next couple hours would be spent at her desk, hammering it out. What was going to help her get through those couple hours was the hope that she could grab Conrad later and get some time in at the gym.

• • •

Conrad’s appointment with his client was going as most of his client meetings went: move some money to better investments and assure the client that his already enormous wealth was growing. With his ability to see solutions to pretty much anything, his work came easy to him and he made many people happy. It fit him well. It didn’t take very much effort and it didn’t require making close relationships that he wasn’t interested in.

“Conrad, thanks for holding my hand and making sure my money is working as well for me as you are.” The man stood and reached for Conrad’s hand. A quick, firm handshake let Conrad know his client’s hands were soft, callus free, as the hands of most of his clients were. Physical labor was not part of their “good life.” Not all of his clients were part of the one percent who controlled most of the wealth in the country, but all of them were well to do and, like him, had old money.

“My pleasure, Dick. Have a good day.” The man sauntered out of Conrad’s office with Conrad surveying him. His dark grey suit was obviously designed and crafted specifically for Mr. Diego Monterrosa. A native of Spain, he now resided in Laurelwood. Thanks to the man’s wealth, Conrad’s commission was a very nice sum.

His work made him wealthy and it was something that was all his. His parents were one-percenters, but they didn’t own him. They’d each been born into it, just as he was. That didn’t make them special or better, though they would disagree. Yes, the wealth was great. But growing up a child of extremely wealthy parents had almost driven him to suicide years ago. No one had understood why a rich kid felt so hopeless. But Asia had understood.

His cellphone on his desk vibrated, drawing his attention back to the present. He picked it up and glanced at it to determine who was calling. A moan rumbled in his gut. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?”

His mother on the other end sighed heavily into the phone. “Why does something have to be up for me to call my son? Really, Conrad, mind your manners.”

He pursed his lips. At twenty-eight years old he was still getting the tsk-tsk from his mother regarding his manners, of all things. The proverbial rope around his neck pinched tighter. “Sorry, Mother. How are you today?”

“I’m fine. I only have a minute. Could you possibly come to the house for lunch today?” Even over the phone her smile sounded forced, manipulative. He couldn’t blame her entirely. She was what her parents had trained her to be. A very powerful, rich, gracious-appearing woman.

He checked the clock on the wall. His insides squirmed. He could take the time but he knew he would be facing the inquisitor, otherwise known as his mother. He knew he’d have to talk with her about the party sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner.

“Sure, Mom.”

“Oh, wonderful,” she gushed. “Lunch is at one o’clock, but arrive early and we’ll have more time to chat. Bye, dear.”

Conrad shook his head. He checked his phone for his schedule. His appointments with clients were back to back all afternoon, but rocks were sliding into his gut, bringing down his mood. Funny that his mother could still evoke such misery without even trying.

He scrolled through his contacts, searching for the right pick-me-up. “Cassandra,” he murmured to himself. An image all willowy, shapely, and blond came into his mind. He hadn’t seen her in a few weeks. It never seemed to matter how much he ignored a young woman, his dates were always forgiving. He smirked, and texted Cassandra, asking to see her later. Immediately, she texted back, and the date was set.

He put down his phone and prepared to leave, but a text from Casey arrived. He perused it, his muscles twisting. Asia’s press conference had shone a light on new activities of TNG. The colony would need to snap to attention on this one. Plans for an animal preserve run by TNG didn’t sound like good news to him.

He shut down his computer, turned off the lights, and walked to the door, locking it behind him.

There was so much on his mind, but Conrad needed to focus on just one thing right now. As he drove to his parents’ house, he practiced the words he planned to say to them about the party. “I expect you’ll have a lot of very rich, high class people at your party. I don’t relate well to those people anymore, so I’m going to bring a date. I’m sure you can understand that I will be much more comfortable with her beside me. Who is she, you ask? Asia Blue. What, I’m forbidden to see her, you say? You can’t forbid me of anything or anyone.”

Saying the words untied the knots in his stomach. If he could speak his truth he would feel the power of standing up to his parents.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Tell the truth. Asia will be my date.

Conrad’s parents’ home, the home he’d grown up in, stood on acres of land, surrounded by budding trees and gardens. Water falling down a rectangular copper plate bubbled in a small pool at the bottom. Just like the house, the property was cared for by the family servants. Its back lots were left wild and unkempt. The natural state of that part of the land made it perfect for runs. The massive, four-story home he grew up in was beautiful, but the land was what kept him sane growing up. When he’d turned eighteen and started expressing his lynx form, the land made a safe refuge from his parents’ intruding eyes and unsolicited but constant reminder of their expectations for him.

His mother appeared at the front door and wrapped her fashionably thin arms around him. “Just in time for lunch, son.”

Conrad’s throat clenched. He was late and she didn’t like it. She never missed an opportunity to remind him of his imperfections. “Hello, Mother.”

“Lunch is in the solarium. It’s such a nice day. Your father will be along soon.”

They walked down the broad hall beneath the sweeping staircase to the second floor. He paused to look closely at a new painting on the wall. “This is different.” The painting was a canvas of colorful shapes, lines, and swirls.

“Isn’t it wonderful? The painter is an emerging artist, but already she’s made a name for herself in the art world.”

Conrad peered closely at the signature on the painting. “Kellan Rivan? I haven’t heard of her.”

His mother swiped his arm playfully. “Of course you haven’t. You don’t pay attention to the arts.” She looped her arm through his and walked toward the sunroom at the back of the house. “Lunch smells lovely, Debra.”

“Are you ready for me to serve you, ma’am?” The small woman smiled warmly at Conrad. “It’s so nice to see you, sir.”

Conrad grabbed her around the waist and hugged her. “So formal. It’s great to see you, too. How’s your family?” Debra was a human, but he trusted her because she’d been a good friend when he was younger and struggling.

“They are doing well.” A glare from his mother sent Debra to the kitchen.

“Son!” Conrad startled at his father’s booming voice. “Great to see you.” He shook Conrad’s hand, than pulled out a chair from the table. “Sit, sit.”

Debra brought in a lunch of chicken salad with grapes and walnuts wrapped in a spinach tortilla.

“Thank you, Debra. It looks delicious.” Conrad nodded at her before she slipped back into the kitchen. A twinge of discomfort bit at his midsection. He’d grown up this way, with his parents treating average people as “less thans.” It hadn’t fazed him … until this moment with Debra. He’d known her most of his life. He knew her family. But to his parents she was as much a utility as the electricity that powered their house.

The bite of wrap suddenly went very dry in his mouth. If he were honest, he’d taken his wealthy lifestyle and all that it meant, including a sense of superiority, for granted. Why was he suddenly growing a conscience?

No. He wasn’t. Everyone and everything had its place. His was part of the elite class, a were-lynx with privilege. Humans by their nature were sub-class, creatures of their egos.

“You’re quiet, son. What’s on your mind?” His father studied Conrad’s face.

“Just enjoying this lunch. I miss Debra’s cooking.” It wasn’t a lie. He did enjoy her cooking. And he sighed with relief that the thought popped up so readily to satisfy his parents’ curiosity. Sharing personal reflection, especially if it involved assessment of life-long beliefs, was not done in his family.

He caught his parents exchanging a glance. The thoughts he’d planned for the moment that was about to arise slid out of his brain. Why was it so hard to be forthright with these people?

“You know, the party is only a week away. I hope you’re going to be gracious to our friends. Everyone is so looking forward to seeing you.” His mother, always the coquette, feigned innocence.

“How many people are you inviting?” He dodged her gaze by taking another bite of his food.

“I told you. We’re expecting one hundred people. It’s just going to be a little fun gala to celebrate spring.” His mother’s voice was pinched, even though excitement for the party lit up her face.

Conrad avoided responding by stuffing his mouth with his last bite. The air in the room got dense and the invisible rope around his neck pulled tighter. His eyes scanned from his father’s gaze to his mother’s.

“You will be there, won’t you, son?” His father leaned against the back of the chair and waited.

Conrad sat up straight and crossed his arms over his chest. “I will be there.”

“Wonderful,” his mother cooed. “Rebecca Boylan is excited to meet you.”

The air in his lungs pinched. “I’m bringing a friend.”

“A friend? Who?” His father wiped the edges of his mouth. It was an innocuous action, so why did it resonate so sternly with Conrad?

“Someone you know. Asia Blue.” There. Now they knew. Next, fireworks. Well, there was nothing they could do to him or Asia. He was entitled to bring a date he would enjoy being around, regardless of what his parents thought.

“Conrad, how could you?” His mother shook her head, dismay pouting her mouth. “You know how we feel about moggies. They’re no better than humans. I didn’t realize you were still seeing that woman.”

“Son, you could do so much better. This Rebecca is from a good, pure family. Her parents are very wealthy and respected.” His father knitted his brow. “We wonder if the colony you belong to is the best one for you. You joined it when you were so young. Maybe it’s time for a change. What with a moggy leader and the ways your colony engages with humans and moggies as though they’re equal to pures, we’re concerned you may be putting yourself in danger.”

BOOK: Heartfelt
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