Railroad museum sounded much fancier than the reality. It was more of an abandoned train station you donated five dollars to tour than an actual museum. That meant no handy walls to pen in our vamp. He would bolt if he scented us, scented me, since necromancers smelled alive in a way that parched vampire throats. Cass was old enough to smell like the ruffle of brittle pages in an old book. Unless she had eaten recently. Since baby vamps were prone to bloodlust, she fasted while on the job.
Music throbbed in the darkness ahead. “Do you hear that?”
Cass rolled her eyes so hard, she could have counted her own vertebrae. “What do you think?”
“Yes, it was.” She patted me on the head. “But you’re adorable for asking.”
With a growl, I snapped my teeth at her.
“You’ve spent too much time with Gustav if you’re trying to bite people for petting you.”
“I’ll tell him you said so.”
“Please do.” Her smile turned wicked. “It’s no fun pulling his tail if he doesn’t feel it.”
Signaling for her to hush, even though I had been the one to blab first, a rookie mistake I blamed on the call from Boaz yanking me out of my zone, I drew an ash stake from the holster on my thigh and began stalking the origin of the pounding beat.
Effortless in the way of vampires, Cass strolled beside me on the loose gravel without making a sound.
I envied her stealth when my best was nowhere near her worst, but not the cost of it.
Cass never talked about who resuscitated her or why, and I didn’t ask. She didn’t talk about why she belonged to a different clan than the one she had been born into, and I didn’t ask about that either.
Prostitutes in her day couldn’t have afforded to pay a necromancer for the service. Not even a madame of her renown. That meant a vamp had paid for it him—or her—self, had wanted Cass by their side for centuries longer than the decades granted to a human, and yet she lived alone.
I didn’t want to poke her tender spots any more than I wanted her to poke mine.
Under a longnecked overhead light, the newest of the engines gleamed ahead of us. Its paint, once the color of ripe tomatoes, had turned rusty as old blood over time. The music poured from a compact Bluetooth speaker propped on the left rear wheel. The range on the device connection couldn’t be far, maybe thirty feet or so. He must be within that radius.
A familiar series of hand gestures informed me of Cass’s intent to circle the outer perimeter in case our heartbroken runaway had made new friends.
One vampire, I could handle. Two would be iffy. Three, and I might as well ring the dinner bell.
Careful to keep several of the behemoth antiques between me and the speaker, I began my hunt in earnest.
A dozen steps later, the front of the engine came into full view, and I found our runner.
Used to blood and death, I didn’t lose my lunch, but I tasted it perched at the back of my throat.
Ron Turner had been staked through the heart and the groin with railroad spikes the killer left in him. Spread-eagle over the tracks, he stared up at the night sky. Or he would have, if his phone hadn’t been placed over his eyes like a sleep mask.
Out of my depth, I held my position, waiting on Cass to circle back to me.
“Well, that was easy.” She didn’t bother crouching, a sure sign we were alone. “Let’s bag and tag him.”
“For about the last six months judging by his current state of decomp.”
Baby vamps were still…juicy…when they died. Only the old ones turned to dust like in the movies. Whoever was responsible for this bit of theater knew that. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered with the symbolic staking or the placement of the phone.
“Okay, smartass. I get he was a vampire, and therefore dead.” I pointed at my chest. “Hello, necromancer? I mean he’s dead-dead.” I reached for my phone. “The kind even we can’t reset.”
“Please don’t do what you’re thinking about doing.”
“This was murder. A ritualistic murder.”
“This is a paycheck.” She rubbed her fingers together through blue nitrile gloves. “A big, fat paycheck.”
“Boaz is a sentinel,” I confessed, hating how his name popped right into my head. “An Elite.”
“He would rat you out in a heartbeat if you called to tell him you found a dead vampire in a closed railroad museum.” She flung her arm toward him. “The same vampire whose bounty ticket we planned on punching.”
“I didn’t say I was going to call him.” I rubbed my palms over my face. “I don’t know why I mentioned it.”
“He’s posted in Savannah, right?”
Used to her flexible morals where bounty met the law, I scowled at her all the same.
“Here’s your problem,” she continued. “You’re feeling guilty because he thinks he’s buying Suzy Q Homemaker with his money, but you’re more like Buffy if Spike was a girl and also your partner but still incredibly sexy. Oh! Or maybe if Willow and Spike had a baby.”
“Bisexual badass. Gotcha.”
“Yes.” She toyed with the laces on her corset, exposing a hidden pocket with yet more gloves. “But born during one of those alternate universe episode deals. Otherwise, you’d be changing my diapers, Buff. I can’t help you kick ass if I can’t even wipe my own, you know?”
A sigh gusted past my lips. “Does this have anything to do with me and my situation or…?”
Vampires often got swept up in their own mythos, donning silk-lined capes and fake Transylvanian accents, but Cass didn’t have that problem. Not exactly. She didn’t binge every single vampire movie and TV show, read every comic and book series, for the entertainment value. She considered it research. On how to kill vampires. Or even slightly inconvenience them. And then she did everything in her power to avoid those triggers, no matter how ridiculous.
Just my luck the one vampire I actually liked turned out to be a hypochondriac.
“You’re thinking how often we clash with law enforcement.” She was still chugging, full steam ahead. “You’re wondering if you can give this up after your problems are solved by hopping in the sack with your husband, since he’s got enough money for you to retire and do whatever dull thing Society matrons do with their time.”
“You…might be onto something.” I hated admitting it, but there you go. “Who am I after I marry him?”
“A woman who did what she had to for her family.” Cass brushed her fingertips across my cheek, comforting me instead of perving on me for a change. “We painted ladies don’t cast stones, Addie. Stop hunching like you expect to be hit.”
Forcing my shoulders back, I shrugged off her kindness, unable to stomach it.
“You kept your sister alive.” She wasn’t done with me yet. “You kept a roof over her and your father’s heads. You’ve busted your ass to make sure he doesn’t have to swim up from the bottom of the bottle he’s always floating in these days.”
Throat tight, I withdrew. “That’s enough.”
“He’s not the only one grieving. You lost your mom. You lost your sister. And now you feel like you’ve lost yourself.”
Crushing my eyes shut, I blocked out her and her acid-churning truths. “I have to call this in.”
“I’ll do it.” She shoved me toward the exit. “Go home.” She dug in her pocket then tossed her keys at me. “Take my car. I’ll find my own way.” She adjusted her breasts. “Handsome sentinels can be so gosh darn helpful when properly motivated.”
Metal bit into my palm when I closed my fingers around my escape route. “Are you sure?”
“I can take the heat.” She reached for her phone. “I’m out of the closet.”
Until I tied the knot with Boaz, I had to keep my extracurricular activities hidden from him. Otherwise, he would call off the engagement. After all, he was buying my family’s good name to expunge the scandal from his own. He would cut me loose the second I couldn’t uphold up my end of the deal if I didn’t cross the finish line with him before my cover got blown. If that happened, he would wash me off his hands before the mud splattered from my family name onto his.
Society engagements could drag on for years, but I didn’t have that long. As much as my heart wished it otherwise, my obligations would force my hand. Until I put a ring on his finger, and he made a deposit into my account, I was the sole provider for my family.
I could not mess up with him. Could. Not.
Twitchy from the murder, and cold from the bargain I had made, I didn’t give Cass’s car a second appreciative glance. I had been brought too low for it to be more than transportation, too mad to care it was a dream to drive.
I startled when a phone rang through the speakers, the number flashing on the screen familiar.
Oh, goddess, no. How did Boaz get this number? How did he know…?
Only one way to find out. I mashed accept. “Hello?”
“Where are you?” He chuckled softly, I think at himself, but I didn’t get the joke. “I brought takeout and a movie. I guessed on both. I hope you like dim sum and Keanu Reeves.”
The strain in his voice from trying caused a sympathetic twang in my chest. It’s not like arranging a marriage was his idea of a good time either. Neither of us had much say in our engagement, not with our families in such rough shape.
His little sister had gotten into trouble in Savannah. He didn’t want to talk about it, but it was bad. Bad enough he wanted to give her Hadley’s name to start over fresh somewhere else. Bad enough he was willing to court a woman far beneath him. Only the scandal had brought him so low, and wasn’t that depressing? Not half as depressing as me agreeing to his terms in order to save what I had left, but still.
“I went for a drive,” I blurted, relief making me dizzy as I remembered Cass’s car syncing with my phone earlier. “I have no objections to dim sum, but which Keanu are we talking here? Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Speed? A Walk in the Clouds? The Matrix?”
“You recited those like you’ve got a list in front of you.” His laugh came out sounding genuine this time. “I might be in over my head here.”
“My best friend watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula one too many times and fell in love with Jonathan Harker. Well, the actor who played him. Not the character.”
Cass viewed movies as falling into one of two categories: Vampires and Keanu Reeves.
“You’ve already seen John Wick,” he realized. “I can download something else—”
“John Wick is fine.” I almost smiled. “I can respect a man who goes on a killing spree over his dog.”
“Bloodthirsty,” he teased. “I’m going to chalk Keanu up as the first thing you and I have in common.”
Common ground? He cared about that? It was more than I expected from him, and I couldn’t tell yet if it made me happy he cared or downright terrified I would flub this on some compatibility component.
“I thought you were going home?” I noticed an incoming call but didn’t know how to switch lines without dropping him, and the car didn’t provide any helpful pointers. “To Savannah?”
“That was the plan.” He sounded tired all of a sudden. “I stopped by the sentinel outpost to say hi to an old friend and got drafted for my trouble. Looks like I’ll be in town a few more days.”
Dread swam the backstroke through my gut, and its form was perfect. “Drafted?”
“A vampire was killed here three days ago. The method resembles a case I’ve been working on and off in Savannah, so I’ll be consulting.”
On and off? Existing case? Crap. There went my hope Ron’s death had been a simple lover’s quarrel.
“Oh.” I searched for my voice. “That’s horrible.”
And it was about to get worse once he found out there had been another murder.
“It’s a worry for tomorrow.” He tied off that conversation with a deft twist in topic. “We didn’t get much time to really talk earlier. We just got down to brass tacks. My schedule is clear until I report in officially at dusk, so I thought I would drop in to see you in a less formal setting.”
Part of me wondered if this date night was Dad’s suggestion, but it was more likely Boaz wanted to follow up after Dad called him to make sure I wasn’t following in his inebriated footsteps.
“Just stay put.” I flexed my hands on the wheel. “I’m on my way.”
A pleased laugh at my eagerness brightened his tone. “I’ll be here.”
Fumbling for more conversation, I blurted, “Where are you staying?”
“We have plenty of room.” I dusted off my manners. “You’re welcome to one while you’re here.”
Boaz hesitated a moment. “Are you sure you want me underfoot?”
My fiancé of twenty-four hours sleeping down the hall from me? Not ideal. But this way I could keep an eye on him while ensuring he couldn’t return the favor. With proper incentive, he might even talk up his cases and give me an idea of what Cass and I were dealing with if the killer wasn’t finished in my town.
“It’s no trouble,” I promised him in a rush. “No trouble at all.”
Now I just had to figure out how to change before he saw me dressed in hunting gear and got his hopes up he was marrying a dominatrix.