Shades of Hate – K. N. Banet

I walked out of my house with a smile, ready to get through another day of work. The sun was going down, the bar was open, and the spring night still had a little chill to it. I just needed to get to Kick Shot, but I wasn’t in any sort of rush because I didn’t open anymore. I didn’t do anything, really. I showed up as the owner and talked to the patrons, then disappeared into the office to go over the finances with Oliver if needed. Honestly, it was boring work, but it was my job now. Kick Shot had been overrun by overachievers, handed off to me by my own family. I was getting used to it. Every day, I got a little better at standing to the side and letting Oliver make the important decisions. He was good at hiring the right people, better at managing the finances, and he excelled at keeping the customers happy, both new and old. There were a lot of new customers. We were beginning to attract a younger crowd, exactly as Oliver wanted. College students from Tyler were now coming down to Kick Shot to stretch their legs. It wasn’t the most exciting bar, my Kick Shot, but it was finally in the black, making money instead of bleeding it. Dirk was the same way but in a much grumpier fashion.

He knew how to keep the place exciting, how to listen to the customers, and how to give them what they wanted. He knew how to blend in and be one of them in a way I never quite achieved. He also made sure the other bartenders stayed in line, and was now technically the assistant manager to help Oliver. All I had to do was stay out of the way—me, Jacky Leon, the owner of the bar, had to stay out of the way. The werecat who ruled the territory around Jacksonville, Texas, not that any of the humans knew that. I was the daughter of Hasan, ruler of the werecats, yet I couldn’t work in my own bar anymore. Some part of me was still a little upset, but another part of me, one growing larger by the day, knew it was for the best for moving on with life. One day, I would have had to shut it down because I was hiding. Not all supernatural species hid from humanity, but werecats certainly did. Humans believed I was one of them, even if a small handful had their suspicions to the contrary.

If I let others run my little bar, I would never have to shut it down to hide what I was. One day, I could become the owner who never came around while Oliver and Dirk trained their replacements. So, while I was upset with the radical change in my life, I also could finally step back and see the bigger picture. Things were better in this new normal. My new normal. It took months to get here, but it’s nice. I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked down the trail toward the bar. I was still resistant to putting in a sidewalk or a driveway to my home. Until I had no other choice, I was keeping the trail, and no one could convince me otherwise. Although people tried.

I passed my little car, parked behind Kick Shot, and entered through the back door. Only one step in, one of the new employees saw me and smiled. “Boss is here!” he called out. I smiled in return and kept my feelings about his announcement to myself. They all did it now, except Oliver. One day, I’m going to kill Dirk for starting it. As the young man disappeared, I could smell something in the kitchen from where I stood. I had let Oliver put in the kitchen, and he had ignored me after that. Instead of using it for occasional events as I had asked, he was halfway to turning my once-tiny dive bar into a bar and grill. I realized a month after we reopened there was no point in arguing.

Whatever Oliver wanted was better for Kick Shot than trying to cling to my sad little existence. He hired a few guys for the back and a small serving staff to run food out or help the bartenders when it got too busy. We had a small but fully functional menu as well. I didn’t deal with ordering the food. I only had to show up and smile, so that’s what I was doing. “Hello, Ms. Leon!” a young woman said with a smile. Leslie was an eighteen-year-old, trying to earn a little extra money after school and gain some work experience during her senior year before heading off to college. “How are you tonight?” “I’m doing well,” I replied, staying where I was, at the backdoor and in front of the stairs to the upper offices. “Do you know where Oliver is?” “He hasn’t come down from the offices tonight,” she answered, pointing at the ceiling.

“It’s busy tonight, so…” “Go,” I said, refusing to drop my smile, but it was an effort. It was why I never hired anyone myself. Keeping a smile was hard, even when I was in a fantastic mood, as I was tonight. Leslie ran off and hit a bell. Halfway up the stairs, I heard people calling out orders and drinks. I found Oliver in his office. We didn’t share it anymore, not that we had for very long. The Kick Shot of old had been burned down the month after he had been sent from London to help me. That was over a year ago. I was only supposed to have him for a year, but I didn’t think I could let him leave, and he knew it.

That was why he walked all over me. I’d given an inch, and he’d taken the state of Texas. “Hey, Oliver,” I greeted, closing us in. “How are you tonight?” The twenty-three-year-old with auburn hair and a crisp navy suit was a very British young man, very proper about his appearance and behavior. It was stereotypical of me to think that way, but I had yet to meet someone who didn’t know Oliver Price was a Londoner or Englishman the moment they met him. They saw what he wanted them to see. What most people didn’t see was the anxious young man. They didn’t see his need to please, his need to prove himself, his need to be perfect because someone in his life had told him he would never be good enough. “I’m good,” he answered, not looking up from whatever he was working on. “We’re low on a few things, and I’m trying to get this order done.

If I can, I’m going to try to convince them to accept and ship it to us by Monday.” “It’s Saturday evening, Oliver. Can you really convince someone to send something out in that sort of time frame?” I sat across from him, watching as he filled out the order. “I can,” he said, not showing even the slightest belief that he would fail. “But they have so much paperwork.” “They always do,” I agreed. “So, is there anything you need from me tonight?” That got him to look up. “No. You’re the boss. You’re supposed to answer that question, not ask it.

” He grew more anxious with every word. I had to calm him down. “You know more about Kick Shot now than I do,” I reminded him. “It’s Saturday, so if you need me to sign anything that might have been missed yesterday, now is the time.” We had rules now. Everything that needed an owner’s signature happened on or by Friday. Saturday was my evening with Heath, and Oliver wasn’t allowed to come by and bother me with anything. “Ah…” He shook his head. “No, I don’t have anything.” He went back to the form he was filling out, then snapped his fingers.

“Did you know Dirk is leaving your territory this weekend?” “No, but I’ll ask him about it. Thanks for the heads up.” I sighed, leaning back in the chair to get comfortable. “He needs to start telling me when he makes these plans.” “I’m sure he would have gotten around to it,” Oliver commented lightly. “But I had you here, so…” Yeah, lie to make him look good. We both know he wouldn’t tell me until I ask. “Yup. Do you know what he’s doing?” I allowed the lie to keep from showing Oliver I was getting fed up with Dirk. Over the last year, I was beginning to realize why Niko sent him to me.

While he was capable and intelligent, he was also fiercely independent and rebellious. After everything that had happened, both of my humans were required to tell me when they left my territory, so I knew everything was okay. They had to tell me where they were going and why. Was it overbearing? Yes. Was it for their safety and my sanity? Yes. All I wanted was to know he would be safe wherever he went. I would never stop him from going anywhere or doing anything, I just had to know. I did it for Oliver as well, but each provided their own challenges as humans under my umbrella of protection. Oliver wasn’t tough. He didn’t have close interaction with werecats and didn’t know how dangerous the supernatural world really was.

He needed the protection because he was the most vulnerable person in my newly forming inner circle of confidants. Dirk, on the other hand, knew all of that and was technically my adult nephew, raised by Niko as his son. He knew all of it, down to the small details I couldn’t put into words. He knew how to get himself out of trouble and demanded I trust him to do that. After seeing Kick Shot burned down, Niko’s back broken, and my human family getting kidnapped by werewolves, trusting someone with their own safety was hard. “I think he’s going fishing.” Oliver frowned. “I don’t understand why people find that fun.” “Fish tastes good,” I answered, shrugging. “I’ll ask him about it before Heath gets here.

Again, thanks for the heads up.” “Have a fun evening,” Oliver said, smiling at me as I stood from the cushioned leather chair. His smile was young and suggestive. He and Dirk knew about Heath and me. There wasn’t really an option to keep a secret from them. Luckily, since I was their boss, they gave their loyalty to me and kept the secret of our relationship, with as much care as my secret identity as a supernatural. That didn’t stop them from teasing, but only when no one was watching or listening. I left Oliver in his office, glad to see him having a normal night. Heading back down the stairs, I found Dirk right where I figured, behind the bar pouring a beer for someone. Kick Shot was loud tonight, with over fifty people, and it would only get busier on a Saturday night.

“Dirk, I want to talk to you,” I declared, walking behind the bar. It should have felt good, but with the rebuilding of the bar, something strange had happened. This spot was no longer mine, and I felt surprisingly out-of-place now. It helped me with the process of letting go of my old way of life. This wasn’t my bar with someone new behind it. This was Dirk’s place and whoever he helped hire to help him. It was made with him in mind, with things arranged the way he liked them for convenience. “Like you do every Saturday before you take off,” he said, sliding the drink to the man waiting for it. “What’s on my boss’ mind tonight?” “I heard you might be going fishing this weekend,” I explained, leaning on the counter behind the bar. “What spot are you hitting up?” “Fucking Oliver,” he muttered, looking up at the ceiling for a moment before looking down at me again.

Dirk was tall, much taller than me. “I’m not going far. A one-night camping and fishing trip, that’s all. I just want to enjoy some of this Texas wilderness, and I have a friend who knows it well. Nothing big, but it’ll be a nice break, and the weather is good.” “Okay. Take a gun for protection. We don’t have much dangerous wildlife, but you know how it is.” Dirk only nodded, and I let the conversation die as I felt movement through my territory. Heath was coming.

I didn’t feel like hovering over Dirk’s safety when I knew my night was about to get much better. I didn’t want anything to sour my good mood. “He’s on his way?” Dirk chuckled when I started. “You get a dreamy look on your face when he’s on his way. I have no idea how you think you’re going to hide this from your family if they ever visit.” “Our family,” I reminded him, smirking as he gave an annoyed grunt. “Niko looks at you as a son. I don’t know why you fight it so much.” “You didn’t grow up with them,” he fired back, keeping his eyes on his work as he made another drink. “The education, the expectations, the strangeness.

You have to admit, all of you are strange.” I opened my mouth, about to tell him I wasn’t strange at all. Before I met my werewolves, that might have been true, but even then, I was an oddity in the werecat world, more withdrawn than most. Strangeness was part of my life the moment Shane and I had gone over the side of that cliff. The moment Hasan decided to Change me into a werecat. Not only did I become a werecat, but I was suddenly the youngest member of a powerful family that ruled over all the others. And I still found ways to be different from them, going further outside of the bounds of normal than any of my siblings. And that was just me. Niko was born to a werewolf family. Mischa had a village of descendants that were essentially a cult.

Davor was a certifiable genius. The list went on. There were seven living children of Hasan and one that was murdered long before I was born. The only passably normal one out of the entire lot was Liza, and I never had the pleasure to meet her. “You’re right. We’re all a bit strange,” I agreed. “And you are by far the strangest,” he said, looking over the customers around Kick Shot as he handed off the drink to a server to run to a table. “Falling for a werewolf. You know, you’re lucky Niko raised me. He might be the only one who wouldn’t care.

I certainly don’t. You do you.” We could get away with these conversations in Kick Shot even more than we used to. With it becoming more and more busy, people paid less attention to us. No longer did I walk in and greet everyone by name, nor did everyone look to me to set the tone for the night. I was a background figure in the place I had made. Dirk was the bartender, but no longer did people wonder why a new guy was in my spot. He was just one of six people who rotated through the week. “I think I’m lucky you just don’t care.” “No, I really don’t.

” He sighed. “I never really…got it.” “If it helps, I don’t get it either.” I gave him a wry smile. He chuckled again, nodding as he waved a hand, telling me to leave so he could focus on work. “Dirk, text me when you’re heading back, okay?” I said as I started backing away from him. “Fine. I don’t know why you’re so worried, but fine.” “I’m serious, Dirk. After everything that’s happened—” “I know,” he hissed.

“But stop hovering so fucking much. I’m not Oliver. I was raised by Niko, and he did a damned good job of it.” I stared at him for a minute, wondering if the attitude that flared up would fade away again. I watched him work on it, finally throwing a washcloth onto the countertop. “Sorry. I hate hovering. If it helps, I’ll be with someone who knows what to do in case something happens.” “Okay.” I let it go and headed for the back door.

I had places to be. It wasn’t until my hand was on the door his words really sank in. I need to figure out who he hangs out with. It can’t be… “Wait! There were a couple of people looking for you earlier tonight,” he said quickly as if he had just remembered. “I told them you didn’t come in much on Saturday nights, and it was better if they tried again on Tuesday.” I looked back at him, frowning. “Did you take a message?” “They didn’t want to leave one. They wanted to talk to you, not me,” he said, shrugging. “It seemed weird at the time, but it got busy fast, so I didn’t put much thought into it. They left when I told them you weren’t available tonight.

” “Thanks. If you see them again, let me know. I would stay and interrogate you about them now, but…” I smiled. “It’s Saturday.” I was in a hurry. He nodded and smiled knowingly. “Go enjoy your night off, boss. I’ll write down what I remember about them and leave it in your office for you.” “Thanks.” I walked out the back door right on time to see Heath’s truck come around the back of the bar to the staff parking area.

I leaned on the wall and crossed my arms, waiting for him to park. He jumped out of his truck, looking around cautiously. We were always careful. He didn’t go into Kick Shot anymore, for any reason. When his eyes found me, he gave me a crooked smile and started walking toward the trail to my home, passing the Private Property sign. I followed, jogging to meet him there. We didn’t touch until we were out of sight. The moment we were certain no one was watching, he pulled me in for a fierce kiss that took my breath away. When it was over, I was left stunned. “Hopefully, that puts you in a good mood,” he murmured, his lips brushing mine.

“I already was, but that certainly helps. What’s wrong?” Holding onto him, fistfuls of his shirt in my hands, I kept him next to me. “I need your help.”

.

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