Hadley is losing time, and her shadow refuses to shed light on the gaps in her memory. How can she protect her city if she can’t remember where she goes or what she does when she ought to be asleep? Her grim history appears to be stuck on repeat, and the only way forward might be a scythe through her back.
The flashy car executing a precise three-point turn tickled the back of Boaz’s memory, but he couldn’t place where he had seen it. The blonde behind the wheel also struck a chord, but the tinted windows made an ID impossible from this distance. His night vision was good, but the IED that cost him his left leg nearly took his sight in that eye. The charm he kept on a keyring in his pocket helped, but magic could only do so much.
Parker stepped onto the asphalt beside him and watched the taillights until they burned out. “What?”
“That car look familiar to you?”
“I’ve seen it around.” The sentinel hooked his hands on his hips. “Pretty sure it belongs to a local vampire.”
“Find out who.” A tightness in his gut told him the car or the vampire or both were important, and that same instinct was what saved his life overseas. “I’ve seen it before, maybe at the railroad museum.”
He preferred motorcycles, but fast cars did it for him too. A sleek beauty like that would have earned a passing glance. Too bad he hadn’t had time for a closer inspection. Maybe next time.
And there would be a next time.
His near certainty of where he had seen the car, and its driver, guaranteed it.
“I’ll ask Abernathy for the plate number, and we’ll run it.” Parker made a note. “You’re staying out at the old Whitaker place, right?”
Tension shot through Boaz’s shoulders, curving them in an instinctive hunch as if he’d been caught misbehaving instead of engaging in Society appropriate conduct for a man engaged to the Whitaker matron.
Then again, he had the next best thing to a girlfriend back in Savannah who would be less than thrilled to learn of his travel accommodations, let alone his recent and secret engagement.
Goddess, he was tired.
Dragging a hand down his face, he wished he could hop on his bike, drive home, and pretend none of this had happened. That he could find another way to save his sister, his family, that didn’t cost him the first woman to make him think, to make him feel.
I am so sorry.
Uncertain if he meant the apology for Grier or Adelaide, he forced his mind back on task.
“Yeah,” he rasped. “That’s where I’ll be.” He hesitated. “I would prefer a call to a drop-in.”
Parker, who had known him a long time, shook his head. “Her father know you’re staying with them?”
Boaz ran a finger along the inside of the collar of his tee. “Yeah.”
And he was about as thrilled with the prospect of Boaz for a son-in-law as learning Godzilla was rampaging through their small town.
His tone or expression must have set Parker’s detective instincts tingling. “You’re getting serious?”
The other man laughed at what he must consider a witty one-liner, but Boaz played dumb and took the words at face value.
“Everybody’s gotta settle down some time.” He clasped Parker on the shoulder. “I’m going back for another look.”
“Make it quick.” He shook his head, still chuckling, and checked his watch. “The cleaners are getting antsy.”
Leaving the pitted strip of asphalt, Boaz trudged back into the woods to do what he did best.
The victim had been identified as Angelo Willis of Clan Willis, whose newly turned lover, Ron Turner, had met his end at the railroad museum.
Prior to this, the thought had entered Boaz’s mind that Ron’s murder was a punishment for the younger vampire stepping out on his lover and sire, but this killed that line of inquiry stone dead.
Ron hadn’t had it easy, but Angelo, the poor bastard, had suffered more.
Wrists opened from palm to elbow, throat slit, and femoral arteries gaping, he had been hung suspended between two pines and left to bleed out. Beneath him, the pine straw glistened, black in the moonlight, and the size of the puddle made it clear the vampire hadn’t fed since news of Ron’s true death had reached him.
“He’s still alive, well, undead,” Honeywell murmured from right behind him. “We need to cut him down.”
Jessica “Honey” Honeywell was the reason Boaz was out in the middle of nowhere debating that very thing. How dead was too dead when you were already undead? He had no clue. Only a master vampire could tell him if Angelo was redeemable. His corpse was intact, his decapitation thwarted by a thin strip of meat.
Boaz examined the knots used and made a mental note of them. “How old is he?”
“Two-fifty or three hundred.” She leaned over his shoulder, her breath in his ear. “He’ll turn to dust and blow away come morning.”
Choosing to ignore the come-on, he kept his game face on. “Can they revive him in this condition?”
“Hard to say.” She withdrew a fraction when he didn’t reciprocate. Honey was smart like that. “The master of Clan Willis is upper limits for a made vampire. If it can be done, he’ll know how to do it.”
“The head is still attached.” Boaz leaned in as close as he dared without disrupting the evidence underfoot. “Might explain why decay hasn’t set in.”
New vampires, like Ron Turner, died much the same as humans. Old ones, like Angelo, crumpled into ash, one thing the movies had gotten right.
“I heard you got yourself a girlfriend.”
The change of topic didn’t surprise him. “And?”
“Also heard you were staying at the Whitaker place.”
“Yeah.” He rolled his hand, waiting on her to get to the point. “What about it?”
“Rumor has it you’re off the market, but I didn’t buy it for a minute.” She sized him up, made sure he knew she still liked what she saw. “Sounds like you’re as available as ever to me.”
The words got stuck in his throat, but he pushed them out in the face of her amusement. “I’m not.”
“Oh, honey, no. You can’t have a sweetie in every city. You’re either monogamous, goddess help us all, or you’re the same old Boaz who’s always known how to show a girl a good time.”
A reluctant smile kicked up his lips. “Why can’t it be both?”
“Mm-hmm. See? You never change.” She bumped shoulders with him. “Can you make it by my place?”
Again, the words didn’t want to come. This time he figured it was because his heart was pulling him in one direction while duty yanked him in another. The idea of belonging to someone was…not terrible. Strange, but doable. He might even grow to like it.
His parents weren’t the lovey-dovey type, but they had built a solid life for each other and their kids. Sure, Mom and Amelie fought like cats and dogs, and Dad would rather stare into space than see what was right in front of him, but that’s just how things shook out for them.
Things could have been a lot worse.
“I’m an honest man these days,” he joked to let her down easy. “Don’t tempt me.”
“You really mean that.” She spun an earring through her fingers. “Huh.”
“It’s new,” he said gruffly. “I’m still figuring out what to do and how to act.”
“Seems like you’ve got what not to do down pat,” she teased back. “That’s the big one.”
The old Boaz might have viewed juggling three women as a challenge, but that was before he set eyes on Grier, all grown up and everything he ever wanted. And even then, he still took Adelaide’s hand and made her a promise he couldn’t break. Slowly but surely, it was sinking in that he was too damn old for the bullshit he got up to in his youth.
“Okay.” She picked her way behind the corpse. “Do you think whoever did this realized they were leaving us a witness?”
The smooth transition from personal to business was one of the reasons he liked her so well.
“The other kills were similar to Ron’s death,” he reminded her. “Newly resuscitated vampires.”
“You can’t think we’ve got a vampire hunter.” She laughed hard once then sobered. “Seriously, those went out of style ages ago.”
“They crop up now and then.” Humans watched movies, read books, got ideas. “People notice neighbors, coworkers, even their friends acting strange. They hold that behavior up against what they think they know about vampires and decide it’s their civic duty to go on a killing spree.”
“Goddess,” she breathed. “How many humans have been collateral damage this time?”
“That would explain why they’re sticking to freshies.” She frowned. “They’re easier to identify and simpler to kill.”
“Ron was the link to Angelo.” Boaz exhaled. “That’s how the killer found Angelo, why they risked it.”
A cautious hunter was rarer still, and even more dangerous. Most humans made mistakes identifying the monsters among them. This one wasn’t taking any chances.
“Then we’ve got problems.” She glanced toward the flashing lights. “The woman who reported Ron Turner’s murder is a bounty hunter, a vampire. She was tracking him for a payday when she stumbled across his corpse.”
“We need to beat the killer to her.”
“With a job like hers?” Honey scoffed. “She can protect herself.”
The brutal tableau before him burned in his mind’s eye. “I bet Angelo thought the same thing.”
Waving the cleaners in, Boaz tipped his chin to Honey then set out for his bike.
Come dusk, he had a vampire to interrogate.
He bet he could guess what type of car she drove.
“Well?” Cass prowled over wearing a toothy grin. “Are we going hunting?”
“The payout isn’t as large since he’s not a criminal, but we can both guess where he’ll go.”
To the scene of the crime. To see his dead undead lover. To make whatever peace available to him.
A quick check of the time left me conflicted. “We only have two hours until dawn.”
“I enjoy living dangerously.”
“Your love muffin is busy working his second crime scene. He won’t be at the train museum to bust us.”
“He’s not my love muffin.”
“Did you notice his hands?” She flexed her delicate fingers. “That man knows how to knead dough.”
“My bakery is not open for business.” I made a slashing gesture when her gaze dipped to my chest. “Do not make mention of my breasts as pillowy mounds of—anything really. Leave my boobs out of this.”
“You’re the least fun person I’ve ever met.”
“And yet you’re still here.”
“Your staidness was a cry for help. Who am I not to answer?”
“Staidness is an old vampire word. I thought you were hip and with it.”
“I’m hip and with it enough to know humans don’t say hip or with it and haven’t since the eighties.”
“Two hours,” I warned, done teasing the vampire. For now. “We’ll have to make it fast.”
Cass smiled, teeth glittering. “My specialty.”
“You’re terrible.” I dragged a hand down my face. “Horrible.”
“No good,” she agreed. “Very bad too.”
Laughing under my breath, which only encouraged her bad behavior, I jogged upstairs to pull on jeans, sneakers, and a tee. I didn’t expect Angelo to put up much of a fight, if we found him in time.
With dawn an oncoming threat, we had to factor in vampire ennui as well.
Angelo might decide he would rather greet the sun than live without his lover.
Usually it was dawn or near it when those calls came in. Thanks to the hour, I got to handle them solo. Fun times.
I discovered most forlorn vampires huddled in shadows, only making their brave stand against UV when they spotted me coming. Or awaiting the rising of the sun on the roof of their home, always with a door or window to their back, and cast in deep shadow. Or, my personal favorite, standing in front of a window clutching blackout curtains to rip open dramatically, except they never did.
Out of the six or seven attempted suicides I had fielded, only one had resulted in the vampire going through with it. I hesitated to count it since he hadn’t meant to do it. He tripped over the fabric artfully arranged on the floor at his feet, caught himself on the curtain, ripped it open, and exploded into dust I was blowing out of my nose for days.
Needless to say, I didn’t get paid for that job.
With Cass behind the wheel, we covered half the distance to the railroad museum in a blur. About to make our turn, a red and blue strobe caught my eye.
“Accident?” I heard the doubt in my voice. “Can you tell if it’s police or emergency services?”
Soon it became apparent we would have to drive past them to reach our paycheck.
“Police.” She slowed as we approached. “This doesn’t look good.”
“Forensics.” I recognized the sleek van from previous encounters. “These aren’t local cops.”
The vehicles bore the right logos, but they were too new, too shiny. Nicer than the budget would have allowed stretched across a fleet this size.
“They’re Society,” she agreed. “Sentinels, cleaners, maybe even an Elite.”
The rise of her voice at the end of the sentence spoke volumes. “You think Boaz is out there.”
“How many crimes against the Society could be committed in a town this size in one night?”
“Depends on how motivated the individuals are to their cause.”
We rolled to a stop when a uniformed officer stepped from the shoulder onto the road. He knocked on the glass, and Cass lowered the window, smile in place. He blinded us with his flashlight, making it impossible to distinguish his features, but he wasn’t shy about looking his fill.
“There’s been an accident.” He focused the beam on Cass, the light reflecting off the pale orbs she somehow plumped between throwing the car in park and lowering the window. “I’m going to have to ask you ladies to turn around.”
Pale orbs? Really? Goddess. I was spending too much time with Cass if her voice was the one narrating my thoughts.
“We’re headed into town for a late dinner.” She kept her fangs tucked in. “Can’t we squeak past?”
“No, ma’am.” He indicated the row of orange cones dotting the oncoming and outgoing traffic lanes. “You’ll have to cancel. I’m sure your dates will understand.”
“Dates?” She fluttered her lashes. “Oh, no. Nothing like that. Just a girls’ night out is all.”
“That’s nice.” The man lowered his flashlight by degrees, probably to admire the even more generous swath of porcelain skin exposed by her sudden zipper malfunction. “Maybe you can reschedule for tomorrow.”
“Maybe we can.” She leaned out the window, just a bit. “What are your plans, Officer…?”
The light clicked off, and I blinked away spots, curious how Cass could see a damn thing with her more sensitive eyes in the direct line of fire.
“Abernathy,” he supplied, eager to please. “I don’t have any, but I’m off after five.”
A purr turned her voice to silk. “You don’t say?”
Just as she swooped in for the metaphorical kill, three men tramped out of the woods at the edge of the road, and my vision cleared enough to recognize the tallest and the blondest of them.
“Cass.” I choked back the urgency in my voice. “We really should let the nice officer get back to work.”
She followed my line of sight straight to the last person who needed to see me, or her, or us. Together. We didn’t need him making any connections. I might not have a record, but Cass’s was a mile long. He would have questions, and any answers I gave him would condemn me and my family.
“Here’s my card.” She passed the officer I could see now was cute and young a black rectangle. “Call me.”
“I’ll do that.” He tucked it into his shirt pocket. “You ladies have a nice rest of your night.”
“Oh,” she promised, “we will.”
Her three-point turn, complete with pause to flip her glossy curtain of blond hair over her shoulder for the sentinel’s benefit, would have done a shampoo ad proud. He was definitely buying what she was selling.
“We have a source now,” she announced after raising her window. “You can thank me later. Or now. Actually, now is good.”
Meaning she planned on wining him and dining on him to get intel on what really brought out the big guns.
“Thank you,” I said dutifully. “You’re the very best vampire ever.”
“Aww.” She patted my thigh. “You know what I like.”
“I do know what you like.” I grabbed her wrist. “That’s why I’m going to have to ask you to keep your hands on your side of the car.”
“And now I know what you like.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m a vampire.”
“Your heart almost beat out of your chest when you recognized Boaz.”
“He almost spotted me. Worse, he almost spotted me with you.”
Cass was on record as finding Ron Turner’s body. Boaz would wonder, once he realized that, what my connection was to her. I was a Low Society necromancer. I couldn’t resuscitate humans, turning them into vampires. Beyond that act of creation, most necromancers didn’t mingle with their offspring. Let alone with someone else’s.
Tapping the side of her nose, she turned smug. “That’s not what your pheromones said.”
“You’ve told me a hundred times that fear and arousal smell the same to you.”
As a vampire, she provoked a prey reaction in her lovers, so it was hardly surprising.
“No, I told you they smell equally good. It’s not the same thing.”
“I’m glad we cleared that up.”
“Can I stay at your place tonight?”
Another inglorious fact about middle aged vampires I learned from Cass.
They get lonely.
Really, really lonely.
And once they bond to you, they’re like barnacles on the hull of a ship. You have to chip them off if you decide you want them gone.
“I’ll make up Hadley’s room for you.” I hung blackout curtains with Velcro closures in there months ago for this very reason. Right after The Garlic Incident. “Just remember to lock the door so Dad doesn’t walk in on you.”
“I’m a vampire, not an idiot. I know the drill.” She clicked her nails on the rich leather of the steering wheel. “Do you want to watch a movie?”
“Sure.” She would pass out after the sun rose, and we both knew it. “Keanu or Dracula?”
“Not all vampire movies are about Dracula,” she huffed. “And not all vampires wear black silk capes with red lining.”
“True and true.” I snickered. “I’ve seen your closet, though. You own such a garment.”
“It was for Halloween,” she screeched. “Why must I keep telling you that?”
“Halloween two years ago,” I reminded her. “What’s it still doing in there?”
“Who knows?” She tossed her hair. “I’m a very busy vampire, and I don’t have time to properly organize my closet.”
“It’s not like you’re immortal or anything.”
“What a cruel thing to say. We both know I’m not truly immortal.”
“Sorry enough to let me cop a feel?”
“You understand I had to ask.”
“I do, and you understand I had to hard pass or I would start waking up with you curled around me during the day.”
“What a lovely mental picture that provides.” Her chuckle was positively evil. “I could teach you all kinds of things before you marry.”
“I’ve waited this long. I might as well let Boaz teach me all kinds of things after we’re married.”
A beat of silence lapsed before Cass’s expression turned somber. “I don’t like this.”
“What? The marriage?” I gave her the same pep talk I usually reserved for myself. “Get used to it. It’s happening.”
“The train museum wasn’t far from your house.” Her lips pursed. “The car accident was even closer.”
All of a sudden, her request to stay over was cast into a whole new light, and it blinded.
Cass was worried about me.
And if Cass was worried, I probably should be too.
Cass found me curled up on the couch when she came to retrieve her car and plopped down beside me.
“You look rattled.” She flicked the end of my robe’s sash back and forth like an irritated cat swishing its tail. “Want to talk about?”
“Boaz dropped by tonight. He’s investigating the Turner situation.”
“That’s not ideal, but we can manage.” She crossed her long legs and kicked her foot, smiling an evil little smile at the silver tip on her boot, a taunt for Gustav. “He’s got no reason to think you’re involved, and he doesn’t know me from Adam.”
A weird caving sensation filled my middle. “I invited him to stay here.”
“Smart.” She tapped my knee. “This way we can keep an eye on him.”
That was the plan, but he had keen eyes himself. Who would be watching whom? How much had I slipped up tonight? How much had he noticed? How would I explain any of this if I got caught?
“Turner isn’t the first.” I might as well tell her the rest. “He’s the latest in a string of ritual murders.”
“Vampire murders?” She rolled her eyes. “There are always idiots who fancy themselves vampire slayers. You would not believe the quality of stakes I’ve been assaulted with in my time.” She slipped into her mocking humans voice, low and brutish. “I sharpened a pencil.” She mimed stabbing me in the chest. “Fear me!”
“First of all, you only did that to cop a feel.” I slapped her hand off me. “Second of all, the Society wouldn’t get involved if it wasn’t serious.”
Boaz was an Elite, a special class of sentinel. They wouldn’t spend him on a case that wasn’t priority.
“The Society loves to stick its nose into vampire business. They’re helicopter parents if you ask me.”
The Society was responsible for resuscitating humans, using necromantic magic to transform them into vampires, but they only cared for their offspring up to the point when the check cleared. Past that, as long as they weren’t making waves among humans, the Society would sit on its hands and allow the vampire masters to police their clans. Or not. Obviously. Or I would be out of a job.
I wasn’t buying that, but I was no detective. I was a bounty hunter, not even a certified one. I couldn’t risk the paperwork tracing back to me to apply for the license.
“Before I forget.” She reached between her boobs, taking far too long, and pulled out a wad of cash. “There’s your cut.”
“How did you manage this?” I gawked at the money I never expected to see. “The cleaners took the body into custody, right?”
Cleaners kept the paranormal world from bleeding over into the normal, and that meant cleaning up our crime scenes and disposing of bodies before they were discovered by humans.
“Do you remember Frank?”
“The human who thought he got turned into a vampire because you bit him during sex once?”
“That’s him.” She chuckled at the memory and then sighed with amusement. “He’s a cleaner these days. I talked him into giving me the head after the rest had been catalogued.”
“Won’t that get him in trouble?”
“Don’t you care?”
“Not especially.” She frowned when I gave her the look. “Please don’t lecture me, Addie.” She bared her fangs then pointed at them. “I’m carnivorous. Dare I say, a maneater.” She hooked her fingers into claws and raked the air with them. “This is what I do. I use them, and then I throw them away.”
“So basically, you’re a predatory litterbug.”
“I don’t believe in double dipping.” A shudder rippled through her. “Do you know how many alcohol wipes I used before I bit him? Five. And now he’s always baring his throat around me and talking about blood exchanges like he’s seen in the movies.” She gagged a little. “He believes everything he sees on TV. It’s ridiculous.”
I didn’t remind her of the week she spent as my uninvited guest, the better for me to play nurse to her, after she accidentally drank the blood of someone who had eaten pizza for dinner. Convinced she was going to die from garlic poisoning, she wouldn’t leave my bed or put on clothes, determined to leave the world the way she came into or some such nonsense. Also something she saw in a movie.
After seven days, her lucky number, she rose from the bed and proclaimed herself cured by the grace of—I wasn’t really listening. At that point, I had a week’s worth of naked vampire to wash out of my sheets before I could sleep in my room again. Plus, she had been sipping her warmed blood in bed and spilled it all over my good comforter.
“What will you do if your man sneaks into your room at night?”
“He’s not my man.” Just my future husband. “And I’ll stab him with the stake I keep under my pillow.”
Given my line of work, I had to be prepared a vampire might follow me home one day. From where I sat, the trick worked on fiancés who followed me home too.
“Bloodthirsty.” She chuckled. “I like it.”
Finding a man pinned to my wall, a macabre butterfly caught midair, would make her century.
“Of course you do.” I nudged her with my foot. “What is that? Are you…purring?”
“Am I? That’s embarrassing.” She touched her lower stomach. “Oh. No. It’s my phone. I set it on vibrate.”
“You set it on vibrate, and then you shoved it down your pants.” I was never borrowing her phone again. No matter how much hand sanitizer she used after the fact. “Like a normal person.”
“I’m not a person,” she said absently. “I’m a creature of the night.”
She bared her fangs halfheartedly and hissed for emphasis.
“Who’s calling?” I nudged her again. “Gustav?” I leaned over. “I noticed you wore his favorite boots.”
“Clan Willis has put out a BOLO on Angelo, Ron Turner’s lover.”
“Do you think he heard about the murder?”
“The preliminary findings must have been uploaded into the cleaners’ database.” Her lips twisted. “I was on-scene. I provided the identification. The gory details can’t have been listed yet, but his name might have been enough to send Angelo into a tizzy.”
“Vampires are so dramatic.”
“Live as long as we do, and you begin to crave sensation. What is love if not sensation? What is loss if not the ultimate sensation?” She tapped the end of my nose. “And he must look good while doing it.”
“Are you telling me he’s at the tailor’s getting fitted for mourning attire? That he would ditch his clan, tell no one where he’s gone, and duck out just to get a new black ensemble?”
Depending on his age, he might commission enough black suits to last him a full year.
Vampires: The original drama llamas.
“The news can’t have been delivered.” She sniffed. “He has to hurry before it’s formally announced.”
“I held my sister’s hand while she died. I was in my pajamas, and so was she. I cried until I passed out and had to be carried to my room. The last thing on my mind was dashing out for a quick fitting.”
Cass did a thing she hated almost as much as germs. She apologized and meant it.
“I’m sorry, Addie.” She touched my leg in a mostly nonsexual way. “Humans love differently than we do. We might have been human once, but we lose that spark. What’s left is an echo of mortality and morality. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know, which is why it was so easy for me to insinuate myself into your life and bend you to my will.”
What she wanted from me then was a desperate partner in crime, someone willing to do the dirty work. The literal dirty work. Anything that might result in contamination from germs, diseases, so forth and so on. How she made it as a prostitute for so long boggled my mind. Sex was the ultimate fluid swapping experience, and she had been paid for it long before condoms, birth control, or STD preventives, let alone treatment.
Unless she was willing to coexist with germs until after she became a vampire. It happened like that sometimes. A weird trait, a personality quirk, a bizarre affectation ballooned until it took them over.
“Does that mean you wouldn’t mourn me if I got my throat ripped out on the job?”
“No.” A low rumble laced her voice. “It means I would rip the flesh from anyone who dared, strip by strip, and feed it to them. I would then hang them from their pinky toes, slash their throats, and let them exsanguinate. Once that was done, I would coffin them in cement and have the block dropped in the ocean.”
Touched by her twisted affection, I had to swallow back tears. “But would you look good doing it?”
“Dearest, darling one.” She plumped her cleavage. “I would look amazing.”
A familiar ringtone had me reaching for my phone. With Dad upstairs and Cass beside me, I had few guesses as to the culprit. The caller ID didn’t work, but I risked answering anyway. “Hello?”
“I’m going to be late,” Boaz said grimly. “Are you sure you want me to come back to your place? I can crash in the barracks. I don’t want to be an imposition.”
The slight pulling sensation in my chest drew me upright, and Cass too. “What happened?”
“There’s been another murder.” A siren muffled his voice. “I can’t get into the details, but I need to go.”
“Another murder,” I echoed. “As in two? As in someone else died tonight?”
“Yeah.” He exhaled hard. “Just wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t worry.”
Beside me Cass mashed her index fingers together and twisted them back and forth while making kissing noises.
Annoyance with her bled over onto him. “How presumptuous of you.”
“Just a turn of phrase.” His voice came out tired, defeated even. “I didn’t mean to imply, well, anything.”
A frustrated scream rose up my throat, but I couldn’t let it out. Once I started, I might not stop.
“I didn’t mean to snap at you.” Palming Cass’s forehead, I shoved her out of my face and hopped off the couch to begin pacing. “I appreciate the call. I would have worried if I woke and you weren’t here.”
Turning, I bumped into Cass, who had moved on to dry humping the doorframe while pointing at the phone and mouthing Boaz’s name. Recalling where she had been keeping her cell, I wished for bleach or a time machine to undo the last five minutes of my life. Or the last five years. I would take what I could get.
“You don’t have to patronize me.”
“I’m not.” I made a fist and hit myself in the forehead. “I’m just having a bad night, and it’s wrong for me to take it out on you.”
“The offer stands. I can go to the barracks.” He lightened his tone. “Hell, I can stay there all week if it’s easier.”
Two vampires dead. One a bounty of ours, the other…I would have to pester Gustav for those details.
There was no reason for me to think it had anything to do with me, or Cass, or even Gustav, but I couldn’t let it go. The killings, so close to home, bothered me. Having Boaz this close, in my space, bothered me too, but he was a handy conduit to information. He was also the man I agreed to spend the rest of my life with, so I had to play nice. I had to smooth this over. I had to make this work.
Goddess, I was tired all of a sudden. Even the comforting weight of cash doused with Cass’s perfume did nothing to alleviate the dread coiling around my throat, tight as a noose.
“Come home,” I said, hating the waver in my voice. “I’ll be waiting.”
“All right.” He hesitated. “You’re good people, Addie.”
Good people didn’t invite their future husbands into their homes to spy on them.
Good people didn’t consider how far they were willing to go to keep their secrets.
Good people didn’t wish, even a little, that the label would stick, that the epithet was true.
I couldn’t afford to be good, and what’s worse, I couldn’t afford to let him catch me being bad.
Copyright © 2019 Hailey Edwards
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The front door on the old Whitaker place creaked open, and Boaz straightened from his lean. The motorcycle behind him, Wilhelmina, didn’t budge. She was built like a brick house, and it had been love at first sight across the crowded dealership floor. Too bad women didn’t come with operation manuals. Maybe then he’d have more luck understanding what made them tick, or how he always managed to tick them off.
The curvy blonde who stood in the doorway was just his type, which was a good thing, given she had agreed to marry him.
Gathering the takeout bags off Willie’s handlebars, he set his smile into familiar lines then approached.
“Sorry I kept you waiting.” Adelaide clutched the halves of her robe together at her throat. “I wasn’t expecting company tonight.”
The leather boots were the lace-up kind you wore to make a statement, usually a sexual one, but on her he couldn’t puzzle out what they meant. She wore them underneath a ratty green housecoat that fit what he knew of her personality. The sultry/slumpy combination confused the hell out of him. Still mulling over her choice in loungewear, he didn’t think to ask how she beat him inside without him noticing her park or enter.
Unless… Had she been here the whole time?
Boaz didn’t know her well enough to call her on a lie he wasn’t certain she had told, and it wasn’t like he was sharing his life story with her all in one sitting, so he didn’t push her for explanations.
Still, the flush in her cheeks fit with a woman who had run down the stairs to greet him, convincing him she had been up in her room. Maybe with a lover? Why else the red face? The slight breathlessness that didn’t come from her attraction to him. So far, she had shown none. That worked for him. For once, he wasn’t eager to jump straight to the physical.
“No problem.” His gut knotted so hard at the thought of sex the smell of takeout made him want to run to the nearest bush and vomit. “I wasn’t waiting long.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Two words stuck on repeat in his head. Damn it. At this point, he couldn’t say he if he meant them for her or for Grier or for both.
Maybe he meant them for himself too.
Goddess, I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. I want to pretend none of this happened—not Amelie’s arrest, not her disownment, and not this attempt to fix it—and for our lives to go back to normal.
This must be the karma he had been warned so many times would jump up and bite him on the ass one of these days. Well, sure enough, it had finally sunk its teeth in him and was having a good chew at his expense.
“That smells delicious.” Adelaide retreated behind the door, only her hands and head visible, but it didn’t erase the memory of those boots or the light dust coating them. “Let’s eat in the living room. The kitchen feels empty these days.”
Medical bills had drained the Whitakers’ coffers until a rundown house, a rare beauty in its day, was all they had to show for their station. They were an old family, a well-respected one, and most importantly— They were too poor to be picky about Adelaide accepting him to be used as damage control for his own family name.
“Works for me.” He carried the food in and waited on her to direct him. “Do you have any beer?”
“I don’t drink.” A slight hesitation then she cleared her throat. “Beer, I mean.”
So much for the hope alcohol might numb him to this required courtship, not that she was bad company. Her father was nice enough, but Boaz had yet to see the man sober. He struck Boaz as a scotch or whiskey drinker. He should have asked for that instead of a beer, but it was too late to backtrack now.
“That’s fine.” He flashed a practiced smile and received the expected response in the corresponding curve of her lips. “Water?”
“We might be poor,” she said, shutting the door behind him, “but we can afford sweet tea for guests.”
Kicking himself in the ass, he faced her. “That’s not what I—”
“I’m kidding.” She tucked the robe tighter until she became an Adelaide burrito. “Three doors down on your left is the living room. I’ll grab what we need and meet you there.”
Afraid he might trip over his tongue again, he kept it simple. “Okay.”
On his way past the staircase, he couldn’t help noticing more of the dirt that dusted her boots had left prints on the carpet runner. The rest of the house was spotless, though he doubted they could afford help for the cleaning. That told him she was no stranger to hard work. Anything this family had, he felt certain was owed to Adelaide. And here she was, with him, ready to sacrifice herself yet again. He respected the hell out of her for that, and he hated himself a little more for taking advantage, but not enough to halt the proceedings.
The living room was shabby but comfortable, and its threadbare furniture put him at ease.
You’re a bull in a China shop.
That was his mother’s go-to description of him, and she hadn’t been wrong when he was a teen, forever bumping into her knickknacks and breaking her doodads. The army helped him grow up, and the Elite polished him to a shine, but he still hated elegant spaces decorated with breakables and baubles that served no purpose but to spark insecurities in visitors.
A wall of gloomy portraits distracted him from thoughts of his own family, and he didn’t hear Adelaide until she placed cups, plates, and utensils on the low coffee table with soft clinking noises.
Cranking his head toward her, he watched her set their places. She hesitated over the second one every time, as if reminding herself to put out two of everything instead of one. It led him to believe she ate in here often, and alone. That wasn’t the only thing he noticed about her.
“Nice shoes.” He set his jaw, but it was too late. Might as well roll with it. “You like frogs?”
“Love them.” She waved him over and took the food to begin plating it. “They’re adorable.”
She stuck out one leg and rotated her foot, showing off a plush treefrog house slipper she hadn’t been wearing earlier. The top of her foot was red with creases from the bootlaces, but he refrained from mentioning them. She would tell him if it was any of his business. Until they got married, she was free to play dress-up with other men. It’s not like he could ding her when his mind drifted back to Savannah every time he let himself slip.
Forgive me, Grier. Goddess knows you deserve better.
Even his own mind refused to cut him a break, not that he deserved one.
“You okay?” Adelaide paused. “You look like you’re hurting. Headache?”
Heartache, but he couldn’t tell her that. “I skipped lunch.”
“I’ll grab you some ibuprofen.” She passed him a glass of tea. “Drink that. The caffeine will help.”
Head cocked, he watched her dash into the kitchen, heard her too. So her shoes weren’t to blame for her earlier stealth. Now that was interesting. Not many people could sneak up on him, but she had with no problem. Silent appeared to be her default, as if she had to remind herself to make noise.
The suspicion blossoming in his gut wilted when she opened a cabinet, and he spotted the rows upon rows of medicine bottles that must have belonged to her little sister. Adelaide must have taught herself to be quiet for Hadley’s sake. Or, depending on how long their father had been an alcoholic, for her own.
Thanks to Boaz’s mother disowning his little sister, he had lost Amelie in name but not in the flesh. He could see her, talk to her, hold her. Amelie might not be a Pritchard anymore, but she was still alive. Adelaide had lost her sister and her mother, and he felt like an ass for admitting that it had made her all the more appealing.
Amelie couldn’t be a Pritchard again, that ship had sailed, but she could become a Whitaker. She might not be his sister legally, thanks to the disinheritance, but she could become his sister-in-law if the muleheaded imp took advantage of the opportunity he had arranged and stepped into the deceased Hadley Whitaker’s shoes.
Adelaide ought to have kicked his ass from here to the moon for asking her to turn her misfortune to his advantage, but she was as desperate as him. Neither of them could look too close at the other for fear their golden ticket might start flaking and reveal the tarnish underneath.
Arm braced on the cabinet door, Adelaide hung her head and sucked in a deep breath, girding her loins for dealing with him. A problem most women were happy to have. He liked her better for the glimpses of her struggle. That she was fighting to make the best of their situation, the same as him, meant something. What, he couldn’t say, but something.
Glancing away, he gave her privacy, and noted a gleaming pair of keys tossed in a decorative bowl on one of the side tables next to the couch. The dull set beneath it must belong to the dinged-up sedan he spotted in the garage, the one she drove to their first meeting. Unless he was mistaken, and a gearhead like him never was when it came to cars, that was the Ferrari logo on the fob.
“Here you go.”
Caught snooping, Boaz bristled like a spooked cat. Damn but the woman was quiet as a wraith. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She touched his shoulder, but there was nothing sexual in the press of her fingers. It was more of a guiding hand, urging him toward the food and away from the keys. “So…Keanu?”
Intrigued by her mysteries, he searched Adelaide’s face for more than the exhaustion that plagued her, but he found no clues. “Only if you promise not to spoil the movie for me.”
“I’m a talker.” She winced. “I talk through them, over them, and after them.”
“Can two people with differing movie ethics coexist without killing one another?”
“Put a TV in the bedroom if you need your own.” She shrugged. “This one is mine. My TV, my rules.”
The forty-inch flat screen was pristine but dated. Clearly Adelaide took care of what was hers.
Encouraging as far as revelations go, but it made that damn noose of obligation cinch tighter. He didn’t need a caretaker. He needed…
Grinding his teeth, he clamped down on that useless line of thought.
This wasn’t about his needs. Otherwise, he would be sitting on a couch in Woolworth House, stealing kisses—or trying to—from Grier. This was about family, about keeping his word, and about being the man Adelaide deserved.
“Bedroom?” He took a seat on the sofa beside her. “I figured you would move to Savannah with me.”
“Oh. Yeah. I plan on it.” Her voice softened. “I wasn’t thinking there for a minute.”
As the eldest daughter, she had inherited the title of Matron Whitaker. Had their finances not suffered, she would have brought a man into her family, into her house, and given him her last name. Instead, she had agreed to give up that title in favor of becoming Matron Pritchard. Losing her identity had to hurt, but his hands were tied. That was one line in their marriage contract he would not strike.
“You’re welcome to stay here, as long as you can handle your duties remotely.” He hadn’t meant to make the offer, but her expression begged him for some glimmer of hope he provided on reflex. “My parents are in good health, and there’s my little brother to consider too. We’ve got a packed house.” He tucked into his meal. “That doesn’t mean I can’t make room for you, and your dad, but you’ve got options.”
“Dad won’t leave this house.” She toyed with her food, pushing it across her plate. “As much as I’ll miss him, I won’t miss it. I’m looking forward to a fresh start, away from all the memories.”
“There’s no rush,” he assured her. “We can take this as slow as you like.”
“I appreciate that.” Her timid smile told him she was still trying, and he couldn’t ask for more than that. “I could use more time for Dad to adjust to the idea of me leaving, though. I’ll need to set up housekeeping too, since I won’t be around to clean or cook for him.”
“I’ll make it happen.” He didn’t imagine the relief in her expression, or the quick lash of her temper for daring to let someone else shoulder a burden that was hers. “You can pick the housekeeper, and I’ll vet them.”
“Ah.” She stabbed a dumpling with her fork. “You don’t trust my judgment, but you want brownie points for framing the offer as if you do.”
Prickly, prickly. Handling her when money was involved might require wearing gloves.
“The person you choose for the job is up to you. I won’t interfere with that decision. I just want to make sure we’re leaving your dad with someone we can trust to take care of him.”
Just like that, she and he were a we.
The room spun around its edges, and his throat grew tight. This was moving too fast. Way too fast.
And Grier had no idea. No goddessdamn idea.
She would hate him for this, but not half as much as he despised his cultivated reputation for the message it would send her.
You’re better than me, Grier, better than I ever will be. I hope you know that.
“Giving up control is hard for me.” Adelaide kept nudging her food back and forth. “You don’t deserve me snapping at you.” She angled her head toward him but not her eyes. “You’ve been very kind, about everything.”
“We’re in this together.” For better or for worse. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Together,” she whispered, as if trying it on to see how it fit.
The phone in his pocket buzzed, and he checked the caller ID. “I have to take this.”
“No problem.” She ditched her fork for the remote. “I’ll get the movie set up before our food gets cold.”
Standing, he walked across the room for a modicum of privacy. “Boaz.”
“We got another one.” Chambers exhaled across the receiver. “This one down at the railroad museum.”
“I’ll be right there.” Boaz itched to get moving. “Hold the cleaners off as long as you can.”
Adelaide rose as he ended the call. “Work?”
“Yeah.” He scrubbed a hand over his prickly scalp. “Looks like I can’t stay after all.”
“No problem.” She tossed the remote aside. “I’ll walk you out.”
An honest laugh escaped him. “That eager to get rid of me?”
“No,” she said, dragging out the word like she was still making up her mind. “I was remembering what you said about a case keeping you in town. I didn’t want you to think you had to stay on my account.”
An hour or two made no difference to the dead. Boaz could have blown off work, plopped back down, and gotten to know Adelaide better on her home turf. That’s what he should have done, but he was a coward.
When Adelaide stared at him, his future looked back, and he couldn’t see Grier even on the periphery. The loss gutted him. So, yeah. He could have stayed and done the fiancé thing, played his role, but she gave the impression of being just as eager to get rid of him as he was to escape her.
Goddess, this was it, wasn’t it? The beginning. So why did it feel so much more like the end?