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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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.