“Boaz knows,” I muttered, resisting the urge to glance over my shoulder. “He freaking knows.”
“I doubt it,” Cass demurred. “He doesn’t strike me as the knowing type.”
Cranking my head toward her, I considered yanking her bouncy ponytail to get her attention, but vampire. She would bite me, I would punch her, and it would go downhill from there. “He’s a sentinel, an Elite, which implies he has some skill.”
They wouldn’t have let him spearhead a murder investigation that crossed state lines otherwise.
“Or that he banged his instructor.”
From the rumors I had heard about him, I couldn’t defend him on that point. Honestly? I didn’t want to think about it. Which is probably why Cass kept throwing it in my face. “I can’t afford for him to get tangled up in this.”
The Whitaker family name was the only reason he approached me with an offer of an alliance—I meant—marriagein the first place. The whole hanging with vampires and working as a bounty hunter thing would torpedo that. I couldn’t let that happen. His family, and their money, was the only ticket out of this cycle for me and mine.
“You could always dump him and come live with me. I could take care of you and your father.” She slanted her eyes toward me. “I wouldn’t ask for anything you weren’t willing to give him.”
So sex, sex, sex, and light housekeeping. Maybe blood on holidays or special occasions.
“As generous as your offer is,” I said, exhaling through my nose, “this is about more than me.”
The Whitaker line would die out with me. There was no changing that. I had agreed to give up my family name and become a Pritchard, but our family home could be preserved with a big enough cash infusion to counter decades worth of neglect. That was something.
“Your father would have to sober up before he noticed or cared where the money originated.”
Fingers curling into balls in my lap, I kept my anger leashed. “I would notice, and I would care.”
Cass partnering with me on jobs already felt like charity. I couldn’t move in, take her money, and still look at myself in the mirror. With Boaz, it was different. I was bartering my family’s reputation in exchange for his family’s money. It was a balanced trade. Plus, I had already made the deal.
The Society wasn’t a big believer in take-backsies.
“I whored for a living all my human life,” she said coldly. “Do you think less of me for it?”
“You secured your own power and independence in a time when women had neither. I admire you for choosing the road less traveled and—”
“Oh, my road was traveled plenty.”
“Goddess.” I banged my head against the back of my seat. “You know what I mean.”
“You’re a silly romantic.” She curled her lip. “You want to love, and be loved, and have—” she made gagging noises, “—babies.”
Babies were part of the bargain. Did I want kids? It really didn’t matter at this point. I would do my duty.
Eager to get the spotlight off me, I dragged her attention back to our job. “So…about Twyla.”
“Aww.” She stroked the length of my thigh with her fingertips. “Thank you.”
“Ahem.” I knocked her hand away. “Twyla?”
“Most children fostered by vampires run away with other humans rather than other vampires. They get curious about their parents, their species, the whole mortal experience. They hit puberty, develop urges, and decide to experiment with the living.”
“So where would a human girl with no life experience go to get some?”
“Depends on if she’s got a boyfriend picked out, or if she’s still shopping.”
“I can’t believe I have to point this out to you.” She indicated lights in the distance. “It’s a Friday night.”
“That doesn’t narrow the scope even a little.”
Slanting her eyes toward me, she frowned. “How long have you been out of high school again?”
“Oh.” I got it in a flash. “A football game.”
“It’s a rather obvious choice, but as we have no other leads, I thought we might start there.”
“You pay more attention to humans than you let on.”
“I’m a predator, Addie. I must know my prey in order to be a successful one.”
A shiver coasted down my spine, a reminder that Cass was dangerous. She might be my best friend, but she was also had urges. Most of the ones involving me were X-rated, according to her, but vampires had impulse control issues that often made them lethal lovers. Yet another reason not to take her up on her offer.
“In my defense, I’ve never been to one.”
“A football game?”
“Hadley,” she said softly in understanding. “You gave up so much of your life for her.”
“She was worth it.” A lump formed in my throat. “I would do it all over again.”
“I know you would.” Cass shook her head, her ponytail swinging. “Your heart is the thing I admire most about you.” She pursed her lips. “Most people who survive what you have turn cold or indifferent, they wall themselves off from the world that hurt them, but you’re still soft and warm with an ooey-gooey center.”
“Why did that sound like you were comparing me to a cinnamon roll?”
“I haven’t the foggiest.”
What did one do with cinnamon rolls? One bit into them.
The stadium appeared through the trees, and Cass turned into the drive leading up to the high school as if she had done it a thousand times, which raised questions to which I didn’t want answers.
A trio of parents worked the incoming traffic lane, collecting their five dollar parking donations and waving cars through to the lot. With a bright smile, Cass paid her money then continued on to locate a strategic spot in the event our hunt proved fruitful, and we needed to make a quick escape with our quarry.
A roar of sound swept over me when I exited the car, and I gawked at the number of spectators.
“Who are all these people?” I examined the packed stands. “Band parents, cheer parents, and athlete parents?”
“Locals content to relive their glory days, faculty, security.” Cass shrugged. “A little of everything.”
“Are the games always this slammed?”
“You paid no attention whatsoever in school, did you?” She chuckled. “Hornets versus Lions.”
High school meant showing up, collecting my straight As, then going home to help with my sister.
Friends and boys and football, the entire teenage experience, wasn’t as important as Hadley.
“Ah, yes. The Lions.” I did vaguely remember that much. “The school’s archrivals.”
“Well, at least you received that much of an education.” Shaking her head, she sighed. “I texted you the photos of Twyla and Belle. Keep your eyes peeled. We’ll need to interrogate anyone she or they are with after we contain the situation.”
Odds were good the bestie had circled back around to our runaway, thinking they had gotten away with their little rebellion.
“Split up?” I checked my phone to refresh my memory. “Or search together?”
“Two of us are conspicuous.” She scanned the area. “This also places us in public together.”
Dangerous for word of our partnership, let alone our friendship, to get out. This might be a human school full of human students, but Low Society families enrolled their fledging necromancers here too. That’s how I ended up sporting mandatory Hornet tees in gym class for four years.
A fresh shudder rippled down the length of my spine.
High school was the absolute worst.
I would have gladly homeschooled, but Mom wanted at least one of her daughters to have the authentic experience. I never told her being poor, smarter than my classmates, and uninterested in losing my virginity to a slobbery boy in the back of his mom’s car had earned me the nickname Nerdelaide and crushed any hope of a social life.
“Meet me behind the bleachers on the away team’s side.”
Jerking my attention back to Cass, I narrowed my eyes on her. “No funny business.”
“I said behind, not under.”
Cackling, she sashayed off toward the home team’s side, attracting far more attention than I could have if I stripped naked and streaked across the field.
Setting out for the opposite side, I scanned the sea of faces for one of the girls.
A warning tingle stung the base of my neck, alerting me to the presence of a vampire, and I slowed my stride to give me a moment to pick them out of the crowd. No one had the decency to flash fang or wear a cape, so I didn’t get far in narrowing down my search. There were too many people, and vampire parents had as much right to be here as anyone.
Shrugging off the sensation, I dodged teen couples and adults alike as I passed the concession stand. The line was long, but the food smelled amazing. Some of the dads who volunteered to grill cooked like pros. I might have skipped the football games, but I dated a guy who played baseball for a hot minute. The only reason I stuck around as long as I did was the free—and excellent—food leftover after the games.
Eventually, the guy caught me sticking burgers in my pockets to take home instead of eating them with the team, and when he attempted to blackmail me into getting horizontal with him to buy his silence, I kicked him in the junk. The next day, he got his revenge by telling everyone I was so poor I dug food out of the trashcan.
The guy was a waste of oxygen, clearly, but the food… Goddess, the food! Oh how I had missed the way his dad buttered and toasted the buns on the nights he worked concession.
Fixing a smile on my face, I pivoted toward the voice. “Yes?”
“You don’t remember me?” A red-cheeked woman laughed. “We had homeroom together for years.”
“Ah. Yes. Right.” I snapped my fingers like I remembered instead of blanking. “How have you been?”
“Oh, you know how it is. You graduate, get married, start having kids. Where does the time go?”
No, not really. “Do you have a kid on the team?”
“We’re not that old.” She made sure to include me in her statement. “I teach sophomore math. I’m here to support the team.” She made a fist and raised it overhead. “Go Hornets!”
“Yeah.” I mimicked her. “Go team, go!”
“I haven’t seen you since graduation.” She glanced to either side of me. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw the lights and got nostalgic,” I lied. “I thought I might buy a burger or pom-poms or something.”
“The spirit booth is just over there.” She pointed to a gathering of women. “I’m working there tonight.”
“Oh great.” I eased past her before she hauled me to vomit money in her booth. “See you later.”
“I can’t believe I forgot to ask.” She pressed a hand to her heart. “How is your sister?”
Aside from kindergarten and half of first grade, Hadley hadn’t attended public school. No classmates remembered her, aside from her being the sick kid, but she rode with Mom to pick me up whenever she felt up to it. She smiled and waved, glad to see other kids, but I always had to hear the next day that my little sister was a freak.
Probably why I got into so many fights in school.
Which explained why bounty hunting felt like a natural fit for me career-wise.
“Hadley is…” I cleared my throat and stuck to the script Boaz and I agreed on, “…great.”
“I’m glad to hear she’s doing better.”
The tingle that announced yet another vampire left me antsy to get away from her.
“I should go.” I hooked a thumb toward the stands. “Find a good spot on the bleachers.”
“You do that.” She beamed. “Come see me at half-time about those pom-poms.”
“I’ll do that.”
Winking, she leaned in. “They’re half off then.”
“I…” I gritted my teeth at the subtle reminder of my poverty. “Thanks.”
“Oh, there you are.” Cass strolled up from behind the woman whose name I had yet to recall, captured my face between her palms, and kissed me long and slow. “I was getting worried.”
Hand to her throat, the woman backed away. “I’ll just let you two get back to…”
“You do that.” Cass flicked her hand. “Go on.”
The woman scurried away, thoroughly scandalized, and I glowered at Cass until she dropped her hands.
“It got rid of her, didn’t it?”
“You didn’t have to put on a show for that.”
“No,” she allowed, “but I do love performing for a crowd.”
The weight of curious eyes on my shoulders hunched them. “I hate you.”
“Don’t be such a prude.” She wrapped an arm around my waist and tucked me against her side. “It was one harmless little kiss. I barely used any tongue. Besides, you can’t tell me you honestly care what these people think of you.”
“I am engaged, Cass.”
“So you continue to remind me.”
“I can’t put on free shows with you in public without the risk of it getting back to him.”
“With a reputation like his, I doubt he would blink at his fiancée bringing a friend to the party.” She studied me. “For sex.”
“I get it.” I swatted at her. “You don’t have to break it down for me. So loudly. And in public.”
Leaning in, she smiled, slow and wicked. “I worry all that virginity is clogging your ears.”
Again, the temptation to yank her ponytail itched my fingers. “Did you find anything?”
“Other than you rekindling old friendships?”
“Yes, aside from that.”
“No.” She thinned her lips. “There are several vampires in attendance, but they had the poor taste to wear booster shirts in public, so I must assume their wards are enrolled at this school.”
“I’ve sensed a couple of vampires on my side too.”
“Unusually high numbers,” she murmured. “I wasn’t aware there were that many in the area.”
“This side ought to be the visitors, but yeah. They must keep a low profile to turn out in these numbers.”
Most vampires in rural parts of the country blended with humans in order to survive. They kept their clans small, their resources hidden, and their members in line. Otherwise, folks like Cass and me paid them a visit. And no clan master wanted that.
“Addie…” Cass dug her fingers into my side. “I smell blood.”
Heart kicking up a notch, I reminded her, “There’s a game happening several yards away whose only point I can tell seems to be boys running up and down a field while knocking the crap out of each other.”
Head angling toward the away team’s locker room, she said, “No player bled this much.”
And lived went unspoken.
“Let’s hope you’re wrong.”
But I got a bad feeling she was right.
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