Gabe Lupinsky whistled as he kicked off his snow-covered dress shoes and hung his coat and suit jacket on empty hooks in his parents' mudroom.
He'd done it. He'd actually done it. Maybe things were finally looking up.
"Gabe, is that you?" Glynna called.
"Yeah." He entered the big country kitchen to find his younger sister hopping barefoot across the cold tile floor.
She wasn't wearing her prosthetic. Again.
"I know, I know. Don't say it." She hugged him, probably as much to stave off his nagging as to say hello. "So? The announcement was today, right? Did you hear?" Eyeing him, she bounced up and down in his arms. "You know. Hurry up and tell me. Cruelty to handicapped people. My foot is freezing."
"Handicapped, my ass," he muttered. "Why don't you wear some damn slippers? And some clothes, while you're at it?" Releasing her, he followed her into the carpeted living room. It was snowing outside, a classic March squall, yet Glynna wore shorts that barely peeked out from under the hem of her oversized Minnesota Vikings T-shirt. The void where her lower left leg should be-had never been-was evident.
"Problems with the new prosthetic?" he asked. "You know there's a break-in period. If you don't wear it, it just extends the process."
She shot him a look. "I think I know that."
Gabe let the snippy response slide. He'd lost count of how many prosthetics Glynna had broken in and outgrown over her lifetime. Though his sister was an adult-barely-watching her deal with the inevitable bruises and pressure sores still made his heart ache as much now as it had when she was a little girl.
"I'll put it back on after we talk with Mom and Dad." Glynna sat down and pulled a fuzzy purple slipper on her foot, leaving the sweatpants lying over the arm of the big L-shaped leather couch.
Sisters were a mystery he knew he'd never solve. "Have you heard from Gideon and Gwen?" He and his siblings all got together once a week to talk to their parents, who were one month into a half-year trip of the Asian subcontinent, gathering material for their next travel book.
"Gideon caught a case and won't be here. Gwen's on her way. You are not going to make me wait until she gets here."
He couldn't hide the grin for long. "Yeah, I got it."
"Ha, I knew it! I knew it! Congratulations!" She launched herself off the couch and hugged him again, pogoing up and down with excitement. "Director of Physical Sciences at Sebastiani Labs. Do you get a bigger office? Underground parking? A big-ass raise?"
He smiled, shaking his head. "Remember that the position's temporary, just while Alka's on sabbatical." Yeah, the position was temporary, but he'd beaten out Alka's own daughter for the job. Satisfaction warmed him like a crackling fire.
"Well, gawd knows you're bossy enough to actually be the boss." She hopped back to the kitchen they'd just left. "Let's break out the bubbly!"
As he followed, Gabe reached under his glasses to rub his tired eyes. He'd racked up too many late nights and too much screen time preparing for the grueling series of interviews, and it wasn't like he'd get a break from the pace. That was the gig, and he wanted it more than he'd wanted anything in a long, long time.
He'd wanted it, he'd worked for it, and he'd gotten it. Yes, things were finally looking up.
Glynna pulled a bottle from the fridge, hopped to the sink, and popped a cork. When the sparkling wine frothed up over the bottle's lip, she quickly slurped. "No use wasting good Prosecco."
As she poured two flutes, he covertly glanced around the room. His parents had been comfortable leaving Glynna, who still lived at home, holding down the fort while they were gone, but he and Gideon had privately decided to... keep an eye on things, just in case. So far, neither he nor Gideon had heard about loud parties or rowdy gatherings-none loud enough to cause the neighbors to complain, at any rate. The kitchen was spotlessly clean, probably because the pile of empty pizza boxes he'd seen stacked in the mudroom rivaled the Leaning Tower of Pisa for height.
He walked over to the refrigerator and opened it, raising a brow but not commenting on the magnet near the handle that read, "Why buy the pig if you just want some sausage?" A pint of half-and-half, lots of condiments, some Leann Chin takeout, cold pizza... and not much else. There wasn't a piece of fruit or a vegetable in sight. "When did you last grocery shop?"
The letters on the half-and-half carton blurred, and he rubbed his eyes again, squinting into the dimness. "This lightbulb's burning out. I'll bring a new one next time I come over."
"Whatever. It looks fine to me."
The back door opened and closed. Gwen poked her head in from the mudroom, shrugging out of her long down coat. "Am I late?"
Glynna glanced at the clock. "Nope, but hurry up."
There was a muffled double-thump as Gwen's heavy winter boots hit the floor. A couple of seconds later, she entered the kitchen, dropping her bulging briefcase on the kitchen table. She eyed the open bottle and champagne flutes. "I hope we're celebrating?"
"Yes!" Glynna burst out before he could answer. "He got the job!"
"I knew it. Congratulations, Gabe." Her hug was more subdued than Glynna's was but no less heartfelt.
"Thanks, but remember, it's temporary. Alka will be back later in the fall."
He pulled his head back so she could read his lips. "Remember that it's temporary."
"Well, Elliott Sebastiani hasn't accomplished what he has by not recognizing and nurturing talent. You're on your way."
Gabe shrugged. No doubt Sebastiani Labs' CEO had signed off on Alka's decision since Gabe would report to him while she was gone. It was a fabulous opportunity, true, but now it was up to him to execute, to prove, day in and day out, that they'd made the right decision. His first opportunity to make a good impression would be tomorrow when he, Alka, and Mr. Sebastiani discussed how to restructure his current workload. Earlier today, when Alka had told him the job was his, she'd unknowingly eased his mind about his biggest concern: her daughter, Lorin. Thankfully, Lorin planned on spending the summer in northern Minnesota, working the archaeological site where, it was theorized, their ancestors had settled after being marooned on the planet eons ago. Yeah, he and Lorin would have to touch base occasionally, but she'd be out of sight, out of mind for most of her mother's absence.
"Here." Glynna handed them both a delicate flute. "It's time to call the 'rents."
They went to their parents' study, a comfortable room cluttered with papers, books, and souvenirs from their travels. Wolves dominated the decor-matted prints of wolves in the wild, figurines carved of wood, jade, and ivory, and candid family snapshots. Glynna sat at the computer and, with a few clicks and keystrokes, placed the call to their parents, who'd somehow managed to find reliable electricity and broadband in Nepal.
"Been burning the midnight oil already?" Gwen asked.
"You've been rubbing your eyes since I got here."
He jerked his hand out from under the thick lenses of his glasses. He blinked hard, but the damn shadows wouldn't clear. "Can we get some more light in here?"
Gwen looked at him strangely.
"There they are!" Glynna cried. "Hi, Mom and Dad!"
"Hello, my darlings!" His mother's voice sounded a little choppy, but being they were calling from the freaking Himalayas, who could complain?
"Gabe got the promotion!"
So much for his news. As Glynna chattered away, he winced, raising a hand to his stinging left eye. Was there any aspirin in the house? Because he could really-Ouch. He caught his breath as the sting became a stab. Something... snapped. "Shit." Doubling over, he slapped his hand over the hot, lancing pain.
"Gabe?" He heard his mother's worried voice.
He collapsed onto a nearby chair. Jesus. Someone was skewering his eye with a rusty blade.
"Gabe?" Gwen touched his wrist. "What is it?"
"Pain," he gritted out. "In my eye."
"Glynna, call the ambulance-"
"Call Dr. Mueller." Gabe rattled off his ophthalmologist's phone number.
"What's going on?" his mother demanded from half a world away.
Gingerly opening his eyes, Gabe peered at the screen and tried to shove down the panic. He could hear the worry in her voice, but he couldn't see her mouth.
The black sinkhole in his field of vision swallowed her lower face whole.
Lorin Schlessinger stumbled into her chilly cabin, tracking clods of mud across the rough plank floor, entirely focused on the precious cargo she carried, swaddled in a large piece of treated chamois.
Shouldering the heavy door closed, she nudged the fabric aside to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. Nope. Still there. She carefully set the luminescent silver metal box, about the size of a fisherman's tackle box, on the wooden table next to her laptop. The box was unexpectedly light for its size, and accidentally hitting it with the stake she'd tried to hammer into the ground hadn't scratched its surface.
She was late for her meeting, but... damn, what a reason for tardiness. After years of backbreaking work-hell, generations of backbreaking work-had the unforgiving ground finally surrendered not just concrete evidence of their ancestors, but the Holy Grail of concrete evidence?
Noah Pritchard's command box. Knees suddenly wobbly, she lowered herself onto one of the table's straight-backed chairs and scrubbed her fists against her numb cheekbones. Breathe. In and out.
She gazed at the box, marveling at the serene, almost phosphorescent, glow. She wasn't aware of any local metal possessing such properties, but she was no metallurgist. Someone back at Sebastiani Labs would have to help identify the composition-once she le...