Boaz stood over Twyla Thorn, careful to avoid the coagulating puddle of her blood, and examined the gash across her slender throat that had ended her life. Her pale eyes stretched wide, even in death, as if she had never considered the reaper might actually come for her. And keep her. To be fair, raised among vampires, she would have had no fear of her mortal life ending. Most often, vampire fosters were excited for their new lives to begin.
Twyla wouldn’t get that second chance at walking the midnight path. She wouldn’t be walking anywhere ever again.
“This makes no sense.” Honey, who had a niece in marching band, had been the first on scene. “She’s human.”
Boaz played devil’s advocate. “Fostered by vampires.”
“She wasn’t made into a statement piece either.”
“You said it.” He rolled a shoulder. “She’s human.”
“You think our hunter didn’t know?”
“Maybe didn’t know or maybe figured it was a preventative measure.”
The girl was a vampire-to-be, no bones about it. Killing her as a human was ten times easier than waiting until after she had been resuscitated. She made a much more tempting target like this. But it was a break in the pattern on both fronts.
“Killers don’t change their MO,” Honey murmured, echoing his thoughts. “I don’t like this.”
“Killers make mistakes,” he countered, but the doubts were creeping in. “Who found her?”
“You’re going to love this.” She checked her notes. “Cassandra Desmond.”
“Why does that not surprise me?” He scanned the locker room one last time. “I don’t suppose she stuck around for questioning?”
Thinking of Addie and her Zumba class, he asked, “Did you notice anyone with her?”
“No.” Honey glanced around again. “You think there are two of them?”
“Killers or bounty hunters?”
“Either.” She looked back at him. “Both.”
“I’m not sure on either count.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Any witnesses?”
“Yeah.” She referred back to her notes again. “A Ms. Nunez followed Cassandra to the locker room. She’s a teacher and intended to warn her off wandering the school grounds, but she saw the blood and started screaming bloody murder.”
Easy enough to guess why Cassandra had gone to the locker room. She smelled the blood. But why had she been at the school in the first place? A bounty on a runaway? Seemed likely.
Her crossing his path during the course of this investigation once was coincidence, but this made three.
Rubbing his jaw, he eyed the door. “Nunez is still here?”
“Waiting on the cleaners to arrive,” Honey confirmed. “She’ll need her memory altered a smidge.”
Spells to alter human minds and memory were illegal, not that it stopped those in power from using them for the greater good. That was the company line, anyway. Boaz had seen enough folks garroted by policy to have his doubts, but he had the good sense to keep them to himself.
“I’m going to talk to her before that happens,” he decided, knowing she would be useless afterward. “Let me know when the cleaners get here.”
“Sure thing.” Honey stood watch over the girl who no longer needed a guardian. “The witness is behind the bleachers. She was sitting on a cooler last I saw.”
Nodding his thanks, Boaz went out to meet the woman, who was cradling her middle and rocking.
“Who could have done such a thing?” She asked the sentinels posted to either side of her. “Who was she? I don’t know all the children, of course, but I didn’t recognize her. What was her name? Maybe I’ll remember that.”
Abernathy and Parker kept their eyes forward and their mouths shut, but they nodded to Boaz.
“Ms. Nunez.” Boaz turned on his good ol’ boy smile. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
The woman perked at her name and then preened a bit when she spotted him before slumping back into her hunched posture. He got the feeling both reactions were equally authentic. That she enjoyed attention, being the center of it, but not this kind, not at this cost.
“I’m happy to help in any way I can.”
Aware the cleaners were en route, he didn’t dawdle. “Do you know Cassandra Desmond?”
There was little harm in giving out names, considering what the cleaners would do to her shortly.
“No.” She shook her head. “That name’s not familiar.”
A plain vanilla human had no reason to know a vampire, but it was a small community, and folks talked. Apparently, they just didn’t talk about Cassandra. Otherwise, he had a feeling this woman would know.
Polite as you please, he pressed harder. “Did you notice anyone or anything out of place tonight?”
“There were so many kids and parents and visitors…” Her gaze went distant. “Cassandra, you said?”
“Yes.” It pained him to wait for her to finish her thought, and he nudged her. “Cassandra Desmond.”
“I bumped into a friend of mine from high school tonight,” she confided. “She was with her girlfriend, Cass.”
Dread twisted through his gut at this confirmation of his worst fears. “What’s your friend’s name?”
“Adelaide.” She stared at a spot near the concession stand. “Adelaide Whitaker.”
The sentinels to either side of Nunez slid their gazes toward Boaz, aware of his connection to Addie. This link between his fiancée and the bounty hunter with a nose for trouble would blow up in his face if he didn’t hurry and diffuse the situation before the brass got involved in the case.
“You said they were together?” He held onto his smile by sheer practice. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Her busybody persona surfaced with a smirk. “They put on quite a show.”
“They kissed,” she whispered as if sharing a dirty secret. “In front of God and everyone.”
“Adelaide Whitaker kissed Cassandra Desmond?”
“Yes.” A blush touched Ms. Nunez’s cheeks, macabre slashes against the pallor of her complexion. “Everyone in line at the concession stand saw it.”
So much for easy solutions. Sentinels were one thing, but a mass of unidentified humans was another. There were too many witnesses to erase the deed or to ignore the spectacle. People would talk, word would get around, and the dominos of his life—so carefully lined up—would start falling. Worse, Addie would topple alongside him.
And goddess, when had that happened?
When had Addie joined the small circle of people he would do anything to protect?
About the time she offered your sister a way out of her troubles, he reminded himself. Don’t go getting sentimental. You need Addie. Otherwise, Amelie is screwed. Not many women would have offered what Addie did. You can’t afford to botch this.
That was why.
He wasn’t supposed to care. Not yet. Not after what he had done to Grier. But Addie was good. Whatever this was, she had to have an explanation for it. There had to be a reason. He just had to convince Addie to share hers with him.
“Thank you for your help.” He kept his voice calm, despite his desperation to break loose and put eyes on Addie before someone else put cuffs on her. “The EMTs will be by to check on you shortly.”
Turning his back on her protests, he made his way to his bike, careful to keep an eye out for pursuit. The others would be just as curious about what his fiancée was doing at the murder scene as him.
Dialing Addie as he mounted his bike, he held his breath waiting for her to answer, working to modulate his tone when she did. “Where are you?”
“At home.” She sounded breathless, and he couldn’t shake the mental picture of what else she and Cassandra could be doing to make her that way. “I’m cooking dinner. If you’re not here in an hour, I’ll put yours in the fridge.”
Emotion scraped his nerves raw. Jealousy or fear or both. He couldn’t tell, and that bothered him. “I’m on my way now, actually.”
“I’ll, um, get moving then.” Pots clattered in the background. “See you soon.”
After the call ended, Boaz rubbed his thumb over the screen, wondering what he was about to walk in on and how he was going to handle this conversation. He had never cheated on a girlfriend. He could say that much for himself. He might not stick around, might not get serious, but he was honest about his intentions from the start.
Just like you were honest with Grier?
Shame and disgust twisted his gut into knots, but this was bigger than potential infidelity. The Society wouldn’t look kindly upon their union if Addie was carrying on an affair—in public—prior to their wedding. Their union had to be above reproach in order for them to each get what they wanted from the other.
The drive to the old Whitaker place blurred, his thoughts twisting as much as his stomach, and he took a moment to compose himself before he dismounted Willie and entered the house.
“I’m in the kitchen,” Addie called cheerfully. “Do you like onions on your pizza?”
“Sure.” He strolled in, the smells leading him by the nose. “I’m not picky.”
Popping a slice of pepperoni in her mouth, she smiled over at him. “How do you feel about ham?”
Easy, so easy, to imagine this scene as his life. Him, coming home from work, grim and sour. Her, bustling around the house, bright and happy. How he felt about that, he couldn’t say, but he could picture it. “As long as it’s not served with green eggs, I’m good.”
Her laugh was throaty and pleasant as she began the meticulous arrangement of their homemade pizza, using a ratio of vegetables to meat known to her alone.
The domesticity of it all cut him down to the bone, and he asked, “How was Zumba?”
He got his tone wrong. He could tell by the way she froze, the slice of ham trembling in her fingers, and then dragged her gaze up to his. He had let his temper get away from him when he knew he couldn’t afford to blow it, but she was still selling him on some idyllic version of their future he knew as false.
“I didn’t go to Zumba,” she confessed, fussing with her toppings. “I went with a friend to a football game instead.”
He had overplayed his hand, and she was lying to him with the truth.
Might as well give up the pretense then. “Do you know a vampire by the name of Cassandra Desmond?”
Palms braced on either side of the stove, she studied the pizza for design imperfections. “Yes.”
“Did you attend the game with her?”
“Did you kiss her?”
Boaz made a fist at his side, but it was too late. The question was out there, and her answer shouldn’t have mattered so much. Their engagement was a business proposition, not a love match. He had no right to her heart. As long as she played by the rules, they could make it work. He had to believe that.
The alternative was too miserable to contemplate, but it would be no less than he deserved.
“No.” She exhaled hard, rustling the shredded mozzarella. “She did, however, kiss me.”
“Addie…” he began, unsure where to go from there. “We have to talk about this.”
A warning tingle coasted down his spine as the presence of a vampire registered to his senses.
“You might as well tell him the truth,” a female voice called from what sounded like the head of the stairs. “He’ll arrest you otherwise.”
That was yet to be determined, but he had to question Addie for sure. Cassandra too. He was almost glad she was here. Almost. Because he wasn’t sure how he felt finding her in his fiancée’s house, calling orders to her in the sultry voice that vampires used on their victims. From upstairs. Where the bedrooms were located.
“You might as well get your butt in here then,” Addie yelled in response. “You’re the one who blew our cover.”
A long sigh gusted down the stairs, and a striking woman with curves bound tight in leather entered the kitchen with an impressive pout aimed at Addie on her full lips.
“Boaz, this is Cass.” Addie handled the introduction. “Cass, this is Boaz.”
“I would like to get one thing straight upfront.” Cassandra—no, Cass—stopped in front of him. “Addie did not cheat on you. I took exception to how an annoyingly perky and yet condescending human was treating her and misbehaved. It was not consensual, and it was wrong.” She flicked her eyes toward Addie. “I’m sorry.”
“Cass,” she squeaked. “He wants to know about the murders, not that.”
“He’s a man, and he’s engaged to you. He wants to know.” She turned a knowing smile on him. “I bet it was eating you up inside the whole drive over, wondering if you would catch us in the act.” Her teeth were bright and sharp. “I bet you wondered, if you did, if we would ask you to join us.”
Despite her apology to Addie, it was clear Cass’s defense mechanism was seduction. He wasn’t sure she could help herself, if she was even aware she was doing it. He also wasn’t sure she cared either way, except that Addie was there to witness it. There was definitely some bond between the two women.
But then, Addie was the rare kind of person who made you want to do better, be better.
“Ignore her.” Addie snagged Cass by the wrist, hauled her to the table, and shoved her into a chair. She manhandled her more than most vampires allowed. “She lives to rile up people.”
“I’m dead,” Cass countered. “I don’t live to do anything.”
“You know what I mean.” She pointed a finger at the vampire. “You are not helping.” Turning her attention to him, she clasped her hands in front of her. “You have questions?”
“So many,” he breathed, gesturing between the women. “What is this?”
Eyes glinting, Cass wet her lips. “I’m her—”
“—friend,” Addie finished for her in a rush. “My best friend, actually.”
“Best friend,” he repeated, doubtful. “And she wants, what? To be best friends with benefits?”
“Yes,” Cass answered as Addie flushed scarlet and yelped, “No.”
Hands covering her face, Addie slumped into the chair beside Cass and braced her elbows on the table. “I hate you.”
Flicking her friend an unsure glance, Cass frowned, causing faint creases to bracket her mouth. “No, you don’t.”
“Oh, yes,” Addie mumbled. “Right about now, I do.”
The vampire appeared to wage some internal battle that resulted in her dropping the seductress act and measuring Boaz with predatory intent that lifted the fine hairs down his nape.
“I’m a bounty hunter.” Hand on Addie’s shoulder, Cass got serious. “Addie is my partner.”
A bolt of lightning striking him between the eyes would have shocked him less.
“I’m sorry.” He rubbed his forehead. “It sounded like you said Addie is a bounty hunter.”
“Oh good.” Cass smirked at him. “Then your hearing works.”
Addie slumped further, until her forehead rested on the table.
“I’m sure you’ve run my license. My employer will be happy to verify if you would like to give him a call.”
“I’ll do that.” Boaz lost his steam, and he sat at the table too. “Can Addie and I have a moment?”
“I’ll overhear your conversation,” she told him, an honest admission, “but I can go back upstairs.”
“I would appreciate the illusion,” Boaz gritted out. “I need to talk to her alone.”
The growl in his voice, yet another slip of his temper, set Cass on edge. “Addie?”
Without raising her head, she flicked her hand and muttered, “I’ll be fine.”
“Addie…” Cass bit her bottom lip as she rose. “I am sorry.”
“I was only playing.”
“I know that too,” she repeated herself, but lifted her head a fraction. “Now go eavesdrop like a good little vampire while the necromancers talk.”
Once they were alone, Boaz rubbed the base of his neck. “You two really are friends.”
Unable to bear her misery, he tapped her arm. “Talk to me.”
Peeking up at him, she slowly straightened in her chair. “What do you want to know?”
“All of it,” he said. “Everything.
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