Cass woke me up with one of her favorite stalking games. She let herself into my room, climbed onto my twin bed, and straddled my hips. She leaned down, hands cuffing my wrists, and raked her fangs across my juicy carotid while purring deep in her throat.
And then she screeched like a howler monkey when I flipped her off me and onto the floor.
The self-defense classes were her idea. Really, she only had herself to blame.
Not bothering to open my eyes, I murmured, “Not today, Satan.”
“But you don’t.” A smile tickled the edge of my mouth. “Not on me.”
“I wouldn’t have bitten you.” She hesitated. “Hard.”
“I’ve been bitten by vampires.” I cracked an eye to glare at her. “It’s always hard, and it always hurts.” I flashed my forearm, a favorite spot of theirs. “It usually scars too.”
“Bites don’t count when they happen in the heat of battle.” She pouted. “I could make it good for you.”
“Mm-hmm.” I yawned, blowing morning breath in her face when she got too close. “Keep your fangs to yourself, missy.”
A cough moved through her chest, and she wrinkled her nose. “You’re no fun.”
“So you tell me. Like every day.”
“Friends are supposed to tell friends when they’re stuck in a rut.”
“Friends are also not supposed to eat friends. Friends are not food.”
Red lips curving in a sensual grin, she leaned closer. “I—”
“Nope.” I tapped the end of her nose. “Bad vampire.”
Cass dialed up the charm. “But—”
“Bad.” I tapped her again. “Vampire.”
Growling, she bared her teeth at me and rose into a crouch, muscles coiling, ready to spring.
Lucky for me, her phone rang. The jingle was a familiar one. It belonged to our boss.
“Gustav,” she grumbled, switching to speaker. “What have you got for me?”
“Ask me in person sometime,” the shifter chuckled, “and I just might show you.”
While Cass chuckled at the come-on, I mouthed, You two were made for each other.
“Promises, promises.” She sighed lustily, which I hadn’t known was possible. “You’re all talk.”
“This mouth is better at things unsaid, sweetheart.” A growl entered his voice. “Try me.”
Hunger sparked in her eyes, and she wet her lips, about to take this into territory my ears were too young to hear.
“Hi, Gustav,” I chimed in. “What’s up?”
“If you’ve been listening in, I’ll let you take a wild guess.”
Heat flooded my cheeks, and I wished I had kept my mouth shut.
“I got a runaway.” His sigh blasted the receiver, but he dragged his thoughts back on task. “This one is hot.”
Cass rose in a fluid stretch of lean muscle. “Hot as in…?”
“Handling this case will burn you,” he warned. “Though the kid is a looker.”
Pulse thumping, I pushed upright. “Kid?”
“Twyla Thorn.” He tapped a few keys. “Adopted by a vamp couple when she was six. She’s sixteen now. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Tall, lean. She’s going to be a knockout in a few years.”
Given the limitations of vampire reproduction, I had heard of plenty of couples who chose to adopt human children. Some did it for status, others curiosity, a few out of boredom, and in very rare cases, love.
The one thing they all had in common?
To be clear, I mean physical beauty. There’s no barometer for inner beauty. You can’t look at a child and know what’s in its heart. Then there’s the whole nature versus nurture argument that even the undead can’t agree on.
The goal, from what I had seen and heard, was to raise a child who would one day be resuscitated as a full member of the clan who took them in.
Basically, this kid, Twyla, had a different brand of biological clock, and it was ticking. Loudly.
“She ran away?” I threw aside the covers. “Are you sure she wasn’t kidnapped?”
Vampires tended to keep their offspring on a short leash. They weren’t afforded much opportunity to mingle with other humans. They were kept close and encouraged to spend their free time with the clan.
And yeah. Total isolation in the age of social media was the perfect recipe for teenage rebellion. No doubt.
“She went out with another vampire-fostered girl named Belle Francis. Belle says she pulled into a fast food chain on their way home from a movie, and as soon as the car stopped in front of the drive-thru, Twyla jumped out and ran.”
“Did Belle try to stop her?” I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. “Or did she just watch her go?”
As someone who could remember being a teenager, versus the semi-immortals I dealt with on a daily basis, I knew with absolute certainty there was no difference between aiding and abetting a friend and simply looking the other way while a friend engaged in questionable behavior.
“According to Belle,” Gustav rumbled, “she parked and ran after her.”
“Give us a minute.” Cass pursed her lips then muted the phone. “Well?”
“Let’s do it.” These kids, with their limited knowledge of the human world, washed up sooner rather than later from their grand adventures. “It sounds like easy money.”
“There’s no such thing.” She chuckled and unmuted the phone. “We’ll take the job.”
“I’ll send over the details.”
“You do that.” She ended the call and sized me up with a smile. “So…your man is downstairs.”
Admitting I stayed up until Boaz let himself in and climbed up to bed was begging for her to tease me.
“Boaz is a guest.” I sounded calm. Neutral even. “I imagine he’s getting ready to start his night.”
“Or he’s arguing with some chick named Grier over breakfast.” She cocked her head. “Who is that?”
“Probably someone he works with.” A knot formed in my gut as I stood and stretched. “Can I get some privacy to dress?”
“You won’t let me touch,” she huffed. “The least you can do is let me look.”
“Suit yourself.” I kept my smug grin hidden as I pulled my shirt over my head. “Behold!”
“You slept in a bra?” Disgust twisted her upper lip. “Why would you torture yourself like that?”
“The same reason I slept with shorts on.” I flashed her my pajama bottoms with a twitch of my hips. “What do you think?”
“Are those…?” Her gaze shot to mine. “Heads of garlic?”
“I wanted to buy the matching bra, but it made me look like I have cloves for nipples.”
With a grumble and a huff, she stormed out of my bedroom and left me alone to tug on black leather pants and my corset top. After shoving my boots, stakes, and various other equipment into my gym bag, I pulled on baggy sweats and an oversized sweatshirt over my work attire.
Bag on shoulder, I slid on running shoes and headed downstairs.
“There she is.” Boaz sat at the table with an empty plate—and a cell phone—in front of him. “I made enough for two. Your half is in the microwave.”
The smile I flashed him was reflexive and a tad sentimental. I couldn’t remember the last time someone cooked for me. “Thanks.”
“Say that again after you see what I made.”
“Oh.” I removed the paper towel, and I was grateful the door shielded my expression from him. “You made waffles.”
The kind I used to buy on sale for Hadley when we were teens. Cheap, quick, and studded with blueberries. At least I think they were blueberries. They might have been those blueish pellet things.
“I can’t cook, but I do okay with a toaster oven.” He rose, stuck his plate in the dishwasher, then came to stand close enough I could smell a hint of his cologne. “I wasn’t sure what you liked, so I picked up my usual on my way back last night. Make a list, and I’m happy to shop for us.”
The offer tread too close to charity for my taste, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. After all, the fact he wanted to take care of me, and my family, was the reason I had agreed to his proposal.
“You don’t have to eat it.” He leaned around the microwave door to get a look at my face. “You won’t hurt my feelings if you’d rather have yogurt or oatmeal.”
“Do I look like a health nut to you?” I took the plate, dumped the artificially flavored syrup he’d also bought over the top, then smeared pats of butter he had softened to room temperature between the layers. “I haven’t eaten these in forever. They were my sister’s favorite. She could live off them for weeks.”
The meal that had been appetizing a second earlier kicked up nostalgia that left my vision blurry.
“Hey.” He took the plate from me and set it on the counter. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“It hits me at the weirdest times.” I glanced up, blinked my eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” He slowly brought me in for a hug, giving me time to opt out, but I needed one. “I get it.” He rested his chin on top of my head. “Grief is like a marathon, except there’s no finish line.”
That’s how this felt.
“I like that.” I liked this too. More than I should. Forming an emotional attachment was just asking for trouble. He couldn’t hurt me unless I gave him that power over me. But his arms were strong, his chest was wide, and he smelled amazing. A minute or two longer wouldn’t hurt. “Speaking from personal experience?”
“I lost someone. Years ago.” The muscles to either side of his spine clenched under my hands. “I wasn’t much good to anyone for a long time after that.” He laughed at himself. “I’m not much good period.”
Here we go.
Peeling away our layers. Showing each other what’s underneath. Giving the other person a chance to run screaming before it was too late.
I showed him mine, with Hadley, and now he was showing me his.
“I didn’t mean to poke at a sore spot.” I withdrew with a sigh for the waffles I could no longer stomach. “I should probably let you get ready for work.” I jingled the bag still on my shoulder. “I’m going to the gym with a friend.”
The noise caught his attention, and he stared at the bag, and then at me, until sweat rolled down my spine.
“Got room for one more?” He patted his stomach. “I could stand to burn a few calories.”
Crap. Crap. Crap.
“It’s a women’s fitness center,” I lied like a rug. “I needed a place open twenty-four hours, and it was closest. Plus, fewer overnight creepers.”
“Gotcha.” He kept an eye on the bag. “I might start running through your neighborhood if you don’t mind.”
The statement held the weight of a question. Almost an accusation.
Breathe, Addie. He’s not suspicious. You’re being paranoid.
“Why would I mind?” I shoved the bag behind my back, grimacing when it clanked against the counter. “There’s even a bike trail you could use.”
“Your neighbors will see me coming and going.” A shrug twitched his shoulders. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted that yet.”
See? He was being considerate. That was sweet. Definitely not suspicious.
“They’ll figure it out sooner or later.” I noticed his phone on the table and bit my lip to avoid asking about Grier to deflect his interest in my bag. Until we exchanged vows, his business was his business. I could hardly demand full disclosure from him without doing the same. “Might as well give them something juicy to talk about.”
I regretted the flippant remark the second it passed my lips. I never would have made it had I not been distracted, and, okay, panicked. My family had given the neighbors plenty to talk about over the years. Hadley’s sickness. Our poverty. Hadley’s death. Mom’s death. Dad’s alcoholism. Speculation as to what I did to keep the lights on. Or who I did.
Gossip was cheap, and necromancers loved a good bargain.
“I’ll find a gym.” His gaze touched on the windows as if he might catch the neighbors peeking through them. “You don’t need more on your plate than you’ve already got.”
“You’re a nice guy, Boaz.” I’d had my doubts, given his reputation, but he was proving to be more than a handsome face. “I’m glad about that.”
“I have my moments,” he said quietly, not looking at me. “I’m trying, for you.” He attempted a smile, but it didn’t stick. “You’re nice too. You deserve the effort.”
A car horn blasting in the driveway spared me from overanalyzing what he’d said and why he couldn’t meet my eyes as he said it.
“My ride is here.” I kept the bag behind me. “See you later?”
“I’m not sure where the night will take me.” He glanced up then. “I would like to try for dinner, if you don’t have plans.”
Cass, who would have snuck out the window, hadn’t wasted time circling back for me.
“No plans.” I backed out of the kitchen. “Dinner sounds good.”
“Let me walk you out.” He flashed a smile as he edged around me. “It’s the least I can do.”
“No.” I threw myself at him. Literally. Like I was bearhugging him to keep him from opening the door and IDing the car in the driveway. “I’m late for Zumba class.” I was going to murder Cass for drawing attention to herself and her ride after I warned her Boaz saw us last night. “No time for chivalry.” I tipped back my head. “I’ve got to run, or I’ll miss it.”
The tackle-hug earned me a curious glance, but he hugged me back. “All right.”
“Bye.” I patted him on the chest. “Be safe out there.”
Boaz cut his eyes to the crack in the door when I opened it, and I was about to slam it behind me when he slid his gaze over me. “You too.”
Only after I shot from the house like a cat with a firecracker tied to its tail did I replay those last seconds.
Did that mean bye too? Or be safe too?
And if he wanted me to be safe… What did he think I was up to?
Something told me not Zumba.
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