Changing Paths Preview
Mowing made me feel fat. I knew it was stupid but it did. I felt lazy and I looked like a blubber butt sitting on that stupid riding mower on display for whoever was around to watch. As if they were judging me for not getting off my ass and using a push mower to get the exercise… Kinda like when an extremely heavy person used one of those riding shopping carts and we all secretly knew they weren’t handicapped or elderly and the majority of them wouldn’t need to use it if they had been walking around more earlier.
I felt I was the extremely heavy person-in-waiting by not using the push mower to mow the estate and that was what people thought of me too when they saw me on the riding mower. Which might be why I basically mowed closer to the schools and the Damas house when everyone else was at dinner or the sun was setting and any other time farther away because there weren’t prying eyes.
But that was changing too. There were so many more perimeter watches and patrols, even the cameras everywhere that now made me feel like I was constantly being watched and on display. At least I was about done for the season now given it was the beginning of November. I’d spent the last couple of days on that riding lawn mower and spreading winter turf-builder fertilizer down on all the usable, non-woodsy grass on the whole damn estate.
And now I got to shut it down for winter. Even if I didn’t like doing it, I didn’t like having nothing much to do in the off-season even more. I know my grandma thought I loved the mowing job, and I let her think that because it broke her heart to even consider I was anything but blissfully happy, but I wasn’t. I was alone, besides her, sad most of the time, and just distant from everyone else. The school in general.
I’d made it seem like I was extra happy lately because my gram had thought she’d hooked me up with a different job—not that she’d told me what it was because she’d wanted that to be a surprise—but that had fallen through so she was really distraught over that. I did at least like tinkering with the mower and the tool shed was pretty much my domain, which was nice. I mean, no one really got the chance to have their own area like that.
It wasn’t bad helping everyone who handled the gardens. I mean, they came to me for equipment and whatnot, but that was some interaction… Not that I’d call them friends.
There was a tap on my shoulder, snapping me out of my thoughts and I spun around so fast I fell back onto the mower’s seat. My heart was racing, chest heaving… But not just from the fright as I stared up at one of the gorgeous Sethos brothers. I’d never talked to any of them personally, though I’d been around them here and there.
Enough to know that Colton was a big smartass, Rhyce was mated, and the other three could have me any way, anytime, anywhere they wanted.
This one tilted his head, giving me a half smile, and then moved his hands to his ears, gesturing for me to take out my earbuds. I quickly did, tucking them in my pocket. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in that slight Southern drawl I’d never found attractive on anyone else.
“No, it’s okay. I needed a jumpstart today, and I don’t like sticking my fingers in electrical sockets,” I rambled as I slid back off the mower. “No one ever comes out here really, so my music keeps me company.” He blinked at me funny, frowning almost, and I realized how bad that really sounded. “What did you need…”
“Taylor. Taylor Sethos,” he introduced as he held out his hand. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you before. Have we met? I mean, I didn’t recognize the name, but I figured I’d have to have seen you at least given you were here before the mad rush.”
I shrugged and took his hand. “I blend in. Landan Almeric. We’ve not officially met, but everyone knows who you guys are.”
“Your grandma makes the awesome pies!” His eyes lit up as he licked his lips.
I nodded as I pulled my hand away. I’d been no more than five feet away from him at least a dozen times but I didn’t matter enough to ever be noticed but that he of course knew about. “Yup, everyone knows her. What do you need, Taylor?”
“Oh, it’s not me. The Lundbergs asked if someone would track you down and—”
“No,” I snapped as I turned away, waiting for this to be brought up. “Someone else can mow that massive fucking land. Just because I got stuck doing it here doesn’t mean I’m doing all that extra land because they expanded and—”
He grabbed my shoulder and spun me back to face him. “Not why I’m here,” he muttered, searching my eyes curiously. I relaxed a bit but he still was focused on me. “Wow, you really hate mowing.”
“Would you like to mow the lawn for years, be all you do? All you are?” I felt vindicated when he winced and shook his head. No, no one wanted the job. Rotating it would have been fair, but I got stuck with it all after Seth Mitchell got promoted to where he should have been. At least then I’d had a partner to split it with. They’d never even sent a replacement after all the influx of people.
“That’s not how they talked about you. They said you’re good with your hands, fixing stuff. That’s why I’m here. If you’re done with what you need to do, the Lundbergs would like to talk to you.”
Now I was curious. “Yeah, okay. Let me seal the rest of this so it doesn’t go bad.”
“I can help.”
I shook my head and hurried over to the spreader attached to the mower. “My clothes are all grubby and trashed. You don’t want to risk getting fertilizer on yours. Even after you wash them they’re really never good clothes again.”
“Yeah, as opposed to how often we end up shredding ours because of a shift or something,” Taylor drawled. “I’m not wearing a suit. I can help.”
“It’s fine. I’ve been doing it for days,” I muttered. In truth, I didn’t want him to come close to me when I knew I smelled like sweat, outside, fertilizer, and all around ass. I detached the spreader, struggling with the latch and then to move it back.
There was a loud sigh and then a big body surrounded me from behind, grabbing the metal end of the spreader to keep it up on the two wheels easily. I glanced down and saw Taylor’s hands just about covering my own before snapping my head up to look at him. Damn, he was tall.
Like a foot taller than my five-seven.
“There’s no shame in asking for help,” he murmured, watching me closely. “Where do you want me?” My eyes bugged out at the innuendo, and Taylor caught it then, clearing his throat. “Where does the cart need to go?”
“Corner over there, backed in so I can get to the release valve and empty it.” I ducked under his arm, my heart racing for a whole new reason that I didn’t want to admit. He moved it over there like nothing and then grabbed the open massive bag of fertilizer, frowning.
“They buy these in bulk, right?” he asked, shaking the bag.
He studied the bag a moment and then his eyebrows shot up before he glanced at me. “This bag says it’s fifty kilos.”
“Yes,” I hedged, wondering where he was going with this.
“That’s about a hundred and ten pounds.”
“Yes, I wasn’t that bad at school. I just didn’t sit still well, but I do know math and I can convert things.” Now I was kinda getting annoyed with him.
“Landan, you’re like a hundred and ten pounds. How are you picking these up? Why hasn’t anyone come to help you?”
“I weigh more than that. I’m not some scrawny kid,” I snapped, stomping over there and grabbing the bag from him. I quickly stuck it under the release panel and emptied the spreader before taping the bag up, sticking it with the others, and rushing out of the shed. Taylor followed after me, clearing his throat when I locked it up.
“I didn’t mean you were scrawny.”
“Fine,” I lied but didn’t look at him. “Where am I going? I’ve never been to the Lundberg property or estate.”
“Of course you have. Everyone was invited to their big housewarming party.”
“Oh, really? Must have forgotten that,” I drawled. “When was it?” In fact I knew, but the answer was about as sad as why I was carrying and dealing with those big bags all by myself.
“You forgot you were in that huge, super-swank house the Nephilim will be training at? What? Did you get drunk before you were supposed to?” The amusement and somewhat judgy tone of his was what set me off and actually made me admit the truth.
I spun around and jabbed my finger into his firm chest, staring up and up to meet his gaze.
“No, I didn’t get drunk and forget. They forgot me. No one invited me. I was out here, working, banished from everything as normal. I didn’t even know about the party until the day of when there was no one in the cafeteria and I couldn’t get food because I hadn’t even had a chance to talk to my grandmother. Just like I didn’t know when the silent alarms went off last time because they’re not connected to the shed.
“And that’s why I have to lug those bags myself and am sore for days after fertilizing because they’re just left for me at the loading dock to deal with as I was instructed when I got stuck with this assignment. So yeah, there’s no shame in asking for help, but I’ve learned there’s also no point around here because no one cares about the guy who fucking mows the lawn.” I spun on my heel and headed for my room. “Tell the Lundbergs I decline whatever they want.”
“You’re going to want to take this meeting, Landan, especially since you’re so miserable with this assignment,” he called after me and that really took the wind out of my sails.
But still, I couldn’t let all of the crap and neglect just go. I glanced at him over my shoulder. “What? I’m being promoted from lawn to pool boy? I heard they have some really swank ones.”
Taylor sighed and then was suddenly in front of me. “I’d make a crack about so much anger and sarcasm in a human so young and short, but I’d be even worse if stuck and abandoned where you were.” He studied my eyes and then shook his head. “Not pool boy. Your gram set this up with Malfinn I guess but things got pushed back with Oddfinn arriving. Now he and his brothers have the time and want to talk to you.”
“Okay,” I whispered, hating to hope things could get better, but wanting desperately to not be the freak on the riding lawn mower anymore.
“Do you have a portfolio or anything?” he hedged, studying me in that nerve-racking way again.
“Portfolio? Of what?”
“I don’t know. I’m just thinking of things you bring to interviews.”
His words hit me hard and I broke out in a cold sweat. “Can I at least shower now that I know this is a big thing? I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to go smelling like ass.”
“No, they wanted to see you right away and we’ve already delayed. I just didn’t know if you had a portfolio or anything.” He turned away from where I’d been heading and back towards the side of the shed. I followed after him and then saw the ATV. “Hop on. I’ll get behind you and drive.”
“Now I really want a shower,” I grumbled, hating that I’d just admitted I’d smelled out loud right before I was going to be pushed up against him again. He snickered and I forgot he would hear me.
It wasn’t as if I spent much time with hounds. Sometimes I saw them while mowing but they never paid me much mind. Or any at all to be honest.
I climbed on, wishing this was what I got to drive and ride all the time. Way better than the couple-mile-an-hour riding mower. It got even better—or worse, depending on how I looked at it—when Taylor slid on behind me, his big, hard body scooting closer.
“For the record, you don’t smell like ass,” he murmured after taking a few sniffs. “You smell like a man should after doing real labor. I seriously wouldn’t think that to be a negative with people like the Lundbergs, especially with what they want to talk to you about.”
“What do—” I started to ask, already having wanted to but too nervous, though since he kept hinting at it, I couldn’t not. Taylor kicking on the engine cut off my words and the ATV lurched as he let go of the brake. I yelped and fell into him, having nowhere to hang onto so my hands landed on his upper thighs.
His rock hard thighs. Dear Moses, what did he do? A million squats a day in between lumberjack duties that consisted of dragging trees uphill to get those thighs.
“It’s a rush, right? Sometimes I like these better than my truck,” he said, pressing his lips right to my ear so I could hear him. I nodded, not wanting to admit I could barely drive a vehicle. I’d gotten my license right before coming there, but I’d barely passed drivers education and my parents hadn’t even wanted me to get my license. Since I’d just turned eighteen, I could do it on my own, but with no practice—which was why I’d barely passed my class—there was no world in which I should have gotten my license.
I swear the tester was drunk, stoned, or some combo to have said I passed my test.
Taylor drove us through one of the newer side gates of the Damas estate onto the Lundberg’s property, and I got my first view of the massive house. Actually house didn’t cover it. Mansion didn’t either.
Did people build castles anymore? I wasn’t sure what to call it other than a ginormous building of residence and more. As he drove around it, I kept staring up, checking out every angle, thinking how cool it must have been to work on the blueprints and work on the building of it. I would have loved that job.
But I was too focused on that and not so much we were still riding on the ATV. I started to slip off, all twisted around because I was gawking. Taylor caught me around the waist and pulled me back onto the seat—though now I was facing him, my legs over his in an extremely intimate position. He stared down at me, his bright green eyes filling with something I didn’t know but thought I very much wanted to find out more about.
The spell was broken by someone shouting, and his head snapped up before he hit the brakes immediately.
“Dude, pay attention to where you’re driving and stop fondling the saved souls,” another hound growled from about ten feet away. “You know the rules. We don’t touch them.”
“I wasn’t paying attention and almost fell off,” I blurted, hating Taylor was going to get in trouble. “It’s my first time on one of these things, and I was busy wishing I’d been assigned to the crew that built this place instead of hanging on. It wasn’t him.”
“Well, hang on better because he almost ran me over,” the hound bitched but lost some of his aggression before heading towards the house.
“Thanks,” Taylor mumbled. “It’s a serious no-no for us to mess around with the Nephilim that aren’t our mates. No one has yet, and I don’t want people talking about me being the first.”
“Right, no, I get it, and the vibrations from the ATV get the blood flowing and are exciting,” I added, clearing my throat and looking away. Hey, I knew I was hard, but I was pretty sure he was too from what I was feeling against me.
“Umm, no, that’s just from having your body tucked against mine and thinking dirty things about your firm little ass before you’re staring up at me with those big, blue eyes,” he chuckled as his cheeks flushed. Then he cut the engine and slid out from under my legs faster than I could track.
“I wouldn’t tell,” I blurted loudly, those three words echoing in the silence and off the walls of the building. Taylor’s eyes went wide as he gripped onto the back of the ATV and I felt my face flush. “I’m just saying, it’s no one’s business. Besides, who would I tell in my shed out in the middle of nowhere that no one ever remembers I’m at?”
“Glad you’re not a gossip and all, but we don’t do it because it’s not fair to you guys since we have mates waiting for us somewhere, and if they’re here and we’ve been with someone else, that’s a hard thing to get past especially when you can’t leave the estate.” He sighed heavily and glanced down at his hands. “We made the pact to protect all of you so no one got hurt.”
“How much do you like it when other people make decisions for you?” I challenged, sliding off the seat. His head shot up and I saw the answer easily in his eyes. “Yeah, I thought so. Everyone here knows the score. I get having the rule in the beginning because there was so much going on, but now we all know and we’re adults so it’s our choice.”
“We also do it because you could be someone else’s mate and they won’t like another hound having been with you,” he hedged, studying me closely.
“Oh boo-hoo, tough shit,” I seethed. “So you guys get your pick of virgins with no history. How nice for you. We all have to deal with your years and years and years of pasts though. Yeah, again, totally fair.”
He tilted his neck and bit back a smile. “Your grandmother makes you sound so innocent. I wonder what she would say if she knew you were arguing for the rule of not touching the souls no matter their age to be abolished.”
I felt the blood drain out of my face in an instant. “Please don’t tell my gram. That’s so not cool.”
“I won’t. I was just teasing you. I’m not a dick.” He stood up straight and nodded to where the other hound had been. “Besides, that was cool of you, and I doubt you’re going to go around babbling I got hard driving you over here which isn’t really appropriate.”
“Appropriate is relative. You make me sound like a hunchbacked freak banished to the shed,” I snapped before heading to the front of the Lundberg’s castle, tired of the banter that was obviously not going to go anywhere… Besides hurting my feelings it seemed.
I reached the front door and knocked.
“Why are you knocking?” Taylor asked as he moved up next to me.
“It’s not my house,” I drawled.
“Yeah, but it’s going to be the Nephilim training facility too.” He shot me a look and opened the door.
“Still doesn’t make it my house.”
“True, but no one ever knocks when they walk into Rafe’s house, right?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been there.” Again I got another look, but he didn’t say anything, leading the way instead. Whatever, so far I was sure all he was thinking was he wasn’t shocked I didn’t have any friends and people avoided me like they did, leaving me to be forgotten.
Which made my eyes burn as I trailed after him. Great way to walk into an interview for God only knew what.
“The last one was a twit,” someone growled.
“Mal, be nice. He wasn’t a twit,” another guy chuckled. “He just shouldn’t get into anything very labor-oriented. He seemed more tech-savvy as if he knew how to update all our phones with the best stuff.”
“Whatever. That’s not going to be of any help to me in taking a blacksmith apprentice,” Mal shot right back. I felt my heart flutter. That sounded like an awesome job. “There’s too much going on for me to make all the blessed knives and—”
“We’re not alone, Mal,” a third voice muttered as we reached the kitchen. All four Lundbergs focused on Taylor and me standing in the entryway.
“Landan Almeric?” Mal asked, raising an eyebrow. It was nice to put the voice with the face, but I didn’t know the other three at all. I glanced around and gave a quick nod. “Are you mute?”
“Not today,” I answered, raising an eyebrow right back. “Does being cautious make me a twit?”
A slow grin formed on Mal’s lips. “No, I’d put that in your favor actually. The last one came in here babbling about all kinds of crap that he could do that had nothing to do with the job so it was rather annoying.”
“What is the job? I mean, I heard blacksmith apprentice and making blessed knives and I know what knives are, and I know what blessed things are, but I need some connecting dots, please.”
“Your grandmother didn’t tell you what she asked us to consider you for?” one of the other Lundbergs asked, glancing at Mal.
“No, she told me she might have found something better suited for me and a way to get me out of the shed and off the riding mower, but then that it fell through,” I hedged as I twisted my hands behind my back. No reason for them to see how nervous I was.
“It didn’t fall through. It was delayed and I was asked to consider some others that weren’t in well-fitted positions either,” Mal muttered. “Taylor here has also shown an interest and has asked to help.” I flinched at that and then things got worse. “What’s your assessment of Landan? Is he right for this?”
I slowly turned to look at Taylor, a look of horror on my face for sure. But he didn’t focus on me, staring straight at Mal.
“He’s only right for it if he wants this job instead. But is he capable? Oh yeah. Apparently he’s been lugging bags of fertilizer the size of him around to take care of the grounds, fixing what was needed, and whatever else because he was told to do the job and without any support or help and so he did.”
“That’s not fully true,” I mumbled, not wanting to sound like a liar by omission. “Seth Mitchell helped me for a while once he got here, but then after the mad rush, it’s just been me again.”
“Okay, so mostly on his own, but him clarifying that actually makes me feel better about him learning a new trade and one as significant as dealing with the blessed blades we need to fight this war. He’ll understand that the most important thing is getting them right even if that means admitting he’s not sure or that they need to be checked.”
I bit back a scathing comment and there was a soft chuckle from behind me.
“Yes, someone will actually care enough to check up on you this time and notice if you make a mistake, Landan Almeric,” a deep voice said. I slowly turned to Michael standing there, my jaw hanging open. The only time I’d been around an angel up close, besides seeing Castillo from a distance in the cafeteria now and again, was when I’d been rescued and they hadn’t been an archangel. Those I had only seen from a distance, never up close, and never had they spoken to me or bothered with someone like me. He frowned and I realized he was listening to my churning thoughts. “Your life was all that was saved.”
I flinched knowing what he meant and not wanting to talk about it. I’d been rescued from dying and ending up in Hell when I was twenty-one, but coming to the sanctuary hadn’t changed my being ignored, forgotten, left to fend for myself, or all around much else besides more responsibility dumped onto my shoulders without anyone to go to.
“I am sorry, Landan. I do not understand how you fell through the cracks like this but parents and family members were advocating for—”
“Don’t you blame my gram,” I seethed, stepping back when he reached out to pat my shoulder. “She takes enough on herself already. It’s not her fault my dad turned out to be such a dick or married my bitch mom. My ending up here wasn’t her fault, but she left everything so I wasn’t alone, working her ass off to pitch in instead of actually retiring and relaxing.”
“Landan, you did not help her by keeping what you were going through from her,” Michael argued. “A woman that wise knew you were not happy no matter how you faked it.”
“She knew I wasn’t a fan of the job assigned to me and wanted more. Don’t we all? Most want off this estate and to be normal. That’s a normal response. She didn’t know—nor need to—anything past that. I was an adult when I arrived. I didn’t need to drop this all on her.”
“Why not tell anyone you didn’t like the job you were given?” one of the Lundberg brothers asked.
I turned enough to see him, stuffing my hands in my jeans pockets. “I did. I talked to Kellan. He told me he was in charge of the school and since I wasn’t going to take college classes or able to help out there, then there wasn’t anything he could do. And that was that. After that talk, I was pretty damn grateful I didn’t get switched to scrubbing the school’s toilets after complaining about mowing the lawn. Someone had to do it, he said, the implication clear that if I wasn’t able or going to be more useful, then it was me.”
“And after that you just started handling everything on your own?” that same Lundberg pushed.
I shrugged, bobbing my head. “I’d get word when the fertilizer or bug stuff or whatever else they wanted me to do no one talked to me about was delivered at the loading dock and I’d figure a way to go pick it up and get it done. So that’s mostly what I’ve been doing with my time here.”
“That sounds miserable in a way I cannot fathom or think I would last more than a month at,” the smallest of the four said, shivering. “I am sorry my mate’s changing jobs left you in such a lurch.”
Okay, so that was Oddfinn.
“Not his fault. Glad he got to where he should have been,” I muttered, thinking this was the worst interview ever.
“Wait, you said mostly. That’s what you’ve mostly been doing,” one of the brothers hedged. “What else have you been doing here?”
“I like to tinker,” I admitted after a few minutes of them just staring at me. A few of their eyebrows shot up at the answer, maybe thinking that was an unusual thing to say or I didn’t know what.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Oddfinn mumbled, checking his brothers if they got it, but they all shrugged.
“I’m not sure I could explain it,” I sighed, scrubbing my hand over my hair. “I’d really have to show you.”