Boaz had earned a reputation for haring off alone after leads, but Honey was still pissed to arrive at the Whitaker place to find it vacant. He knew this because she called him seconds after he left to ream him out over wasting her time. She wasn’t mollified when he invited her, and her ride-a-longs, to join them. But she respected his gut enough not to press the issue. For now.
“Your friend Honey…” Cass caught his eye in the rear-view mirror and wetted her lips. “She’s single?”
“Yes.” She wouldn’t have come onto him otherwise. “Fair warning, she’s straight.”
“Mmm.” Cass returned her attention to the road. “She sounds absolutely delicious.”
Addie had chosen to ride in the cramped backseat with him while Cass drove her matchbox-sized sports car. It didn’t have to mean anything, but it made his chest go tight when he glanced over at her. She was protecting him. He was the Elite sentinel, and she was worried he might get hurt going out on what amounted to a routine call for her and Cass.
Aside from Grier, no woman had ever worried about him or his ability to handle himself.
There were parallels there, yeah, and no. He wasn’t about to study them too hard. Not now.
That would come later, during the long days when his restless mind ought to be sleeping but couldn’t shut down. Guilt was a hell of a catalyst for insomnia, and he had been spending too much time watching sunrises lately.
“Vicious Cycle on South Orange Avenue or the Third Saturday Market on Walnut Street,” she said, her fingers gliding across a tablet screen. “That’s where I’m placing my bets.”
“Ari Willis,” Cass said, “would rather die than be caught dead at either of those places.”
“Obviously not,” Addie countered. “Or else she wouldn’t have been spotted there.”
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”
“Now, Cass.” Addie clucked her tongue. “This is a job. It’s not personal. Let’s keep it professional.”
“Says the woman with her love muffin sitting on the rack beside her.”
Addie waited a beat then asked, “You set up a rack joke but didn’t follow through?”
Boaz wisely kept his mouth shut and his eyes on his hands where he folded them in his lap.
“I’m off my game,” she admitted. “I can’t believe Ari rabbited.”
“Ari was a member of Cass’s clan until about five years ago,” Addie explained to Boaz. “She switched to Clan Willis when she mated one of the founding members’ descendants.”
“Social-climbing hussy,” Cass said fondly. “She was a remarkable woman before Demaryius got his claws in her. Then she faded a bit, like a rose pressed between the pages of a book for safe keeping.”
“Cass and Ari dated.” Addie caught his eye. “For about a decade.”
“I wasn’t opposed to being climbed,” Cass lamented. “The social aspect is what split us apart. I came from nothing. I was used to being invisible. She came from a rich and influential human family. She was overlooked one too many times for her pride to bear it.” She shook her head. “She moved out one night while I was at work. The next time I heard from her, she was sending me an invitation to her mating ceremony.”
“I’m sorry, Cass.” Boaz dipped his chin. “We’ll do our best to find her and retrieve her safely.”
The vampire mashed her lips together and nodded, her attention hyper focused on the road.
“Goddess,” Addie cursed, “like this could get any worse.”
Cass glanced back at Addie on reflex. “What’s wrong?”
“Jean Patel is in town.”
Jean Patel, of Clan Patel, was not the sort of vampire anyone with an ounce of common sense wanted to meet in a dark alley. He was a bruiser with a vigilante strike a mile wide, a wet works man for any clan who could afford his fees.
Patel wasn’t a bounty hunter. He was a mercenary. His loyalty, morals, and experience were all for sale.
Ari’s defection must have been the last straw for her wounded clan’s pride. “Clan Willis hired him?”
Curling her lip, Addie scanned the information on her tablet. “Looks that way.”
“Why now?” Boaz turned this latest development over in his head. “Why call in the big guns now?”
“They’ve taken several hits to their membership roster,” Addie said, “but they can’t afford to let this one stand. Ari isn’t a victim. She’s a coward. She’s running scared. That makes her mate and her clan look weak. Weak clans don’t last long. They’re going to haul her back into the fold, kicking and screaming if need be.”
“I can’t blame them for outsourcing, really.” An elegant shrug lifted Cass’s shoulders. “They’ve paid us a lot of money for corpses lately.”
Addie grunted in agreement, her attention already back on a stream of information.
“You’re staring.” Without glancing up, she managed to catch his attention. “Do I have a bat in the cave?”
“That’s disgusting.” Cass huffed from the front. “And an insult to vampires everywhere.”
“It’s a booger.” Addie rolled her eyes. “Even vampires have them, so get over it.”
“You’re breaking my brain,” Boaz admitted. “I had this idea of how our lives would be, but this—you—are nothing like how I pictured.”
Lowering the tablet, she searched his face. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Good.” He couldn’t hide his smile. “You’re fascinating as hell, Addie.”
A flush warmed her cheeks, and he almost brushed his fingertips across them, but he made a fist on his lap instead.
“Left for the bike shop,” Cass interrupted. “Right for the market.”
Addie hesitated, but not for long. “Right.”
“Her gut is never wrong.” Cass sounded proud. “She would have made a fantastic vampire.”
Necromancers couldn’t be resuscitated. Only humans could be awakened as vampires. Otherwise, Boaz had the feeling Addie would have woken up sporting fangs one night and murdered Cass for stepping way, way, way over the line.
“Patel has been spotted in both locations within the last twelve hours.” Addie laughed softly. “I’m not sure eenie, meenie, minie, moe counts as infallible instinct.”
“Patel?” Leaning back to watch Addie work, Boaz asked, “We’re hunting Ari, right?”
“We’re letting him do the legwork.” She tapped the screen. “He’s got six vampires with him, and they’ve cleared all the usual places. That saves us time. The fact he’s still being spotted around town means he’s had no luck finding her.”
“Why circle back?” He scratched his head. “You said he’s already hit the bike store and the market.”
“There are only so many places for a high-profile vampire to go in town if she doesn’t want to be found.” Addie glanced at him. “We’ve got the homefield advantage, but Patel is a pro. He’ll ferret them out quickly.”
“What’s keeping her in town?”
“If she leaves, she’s out. No takebacks. She’s already walking a thin line, but she could still spin it at this point and save face. If she crosses the line, she’ll be considered a rogue. No home, no allies, no resources. We need to find her and return her to her clan before that happens, or else she’ll suicide. They always do.”
“Not always,” Cass murmured. “There’s a five percent chance she’ll survive on her own or until she can join another clan.”
A frown tugged on the edges of Addie’s mouth. “Will she swallow her pride and go back to Javier?”
“Only five percent?” Boaz scowled at the grim statistic. “The brass has never shared that number with us.”
Otherwise, he might have tried harder to rehome vampires caught in the crosshairs of their operations instead of assuming it was better to cut them loose to find their own way.
“Vampires might stare down their noses at wargs for being pack animals, but they’re not the lone predators they would have us believe. Most are old, bored, and pampered. Their afterlives are about prestige, glamor, and indulgence.”
“You make them sound like a race of undead one-percenters.”
“Do you know how much it costs to be resuscitated?” Addie snorted. “You have to be filthy rich to afford a necromancer. That carries over into the next life. Vampires are spoiled, pampered, and coddled.”
“Not everyone buys their way in.” Cass flicked her gaze up to meet his in the rear-view mirror. “Some of us are chosen for other attributes.” Her voice softened. “Some aren’t given a choice at all.”
As much as Boaz wished the issue was one he could hang on necromancers of the past, it was still a common practice. Vampires wanted immortal companions, and consent wasn’t high on their list of qualifiers. As long as the vampires could pay, High Society necromancers simply didn’t care.
“We had good timing.” Addie smiled. “The party is in full swing.”
“The harvest market,” Cass murmured with approval. “I had forgotten that was tonight.”
“There’s a harvest market?” Boaz glanced out his window and whistled. “That’s impressive.”
More than anything, it reminded him of a fair, but there were craft vendors in addition to the games, rides, and abundance of food vendors.
“Humans are in the mix,” Addie warned. “It’s a fall thing. There’s usually a…” she squinted against the night then pointed out behind the farthest rows of stalls, “…bonfire.”
“You two eat while we’re here. Mingle.” Cass turned into the lot and found a parking spot far enough away to prevent us from getting blocked in. “Couples are less conspicuous.”
“What will you be doing?” Addie leaned forward. “You can’t blend dressed like that.”
Boaz was starting to think every garment in Cass’s closet was leather, skintight, and missing a few yards of fabric.
“Don’t fret.” Cass awarded her a feline smile. “I intend to make some calls while you two clear the area.”
Addie frowned at her. “Gustav?”
“He told us Patel is in town.” She hummed. “Odds are he told Patel we’re on the case too.”
“Why would he do that?” Boaz rumbled. “That paints a target on your backs.”
Rival bounty hunters had been known to get aggressive toward their competition when the stakes were high.
“Gustav believes a little competition is good for the soul,” Cass said dryly. “He doesn’t play favorites. He does, however, hedge his bets.”
“How does he win if Patel collects the bounty?” Boaz wondered. “Wouldn’t he keep that to split with his team?”
“He’ll owe Gustav a cut since they’re operating in his territory. Not as big as what we would pay him, since we work for him, but a sizeable amount.” Boaz continued to stare at her until Cass sighed and explained, “All bounties must be awarded through a licensed broker. Patel isn’t one. He depends on brokers in whatever area he’s hired in to receive and disburse funds for him. Gustav is a rarity. He’s licensed in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. That means he gets regular business from guys like Patel, who freelance in a region rather than belong to a specific state or county agency.”
“Ari needs to make contact with her allies.” Addie stared through the windshield. “She needs to know the situation with her mate, and she’ll want to know what measures have been taken to secure her. She’ll have friends here. Meeting in public, with potential human collateral damage, is the safest she’s going to be, and she knows it.”
“All right.” Boaz didn’t like how the pieces fit, but they knew Ari. He didn’t. “Let’s do this.”
“I’ll give you an hour,” Cass cut in. “Then we need to move on.”
“Okay.” Addie got out then turned back to him. “Get moving.” She snapped her fingers. “I smell funnel cakes.”
Boaz let himself out his door, breathed in the night air, perfumed with fried foods and grilled meats, and his stomach rumbled in response. “You come to these often?”
“Uh, no. I avoid them like the plague.” She shrugged. “Unless I really, really need a funnel cake.”
“Does that happen often?”
“More often than I would like to admit.” She patted her stomach. “They’re so doughy and sugary and greasy. I shouldn’t want them, I know they’re bad for me, but how can I resist?”
“Resistance is overrated.” He cut her a look. “Eat the funnel cake.”
“I suppose I could always start dieting for the wedding after tonight.”
“I hate to point out the obvious,” he drawled, “but your dress will be white, right?”
“It’s tradition,” she agreed, sounding amused. “So probably.”
“Then I don’t see the problem. Let’s have funnel cake at the wedding. White dress, white sugar. Who will ever know?”
Surprised laughter shot out of her. “I like how you think.”
“I like you, Addie. Let’s try to keep it real between us, okay?”
“Done.” She flashed him a bright smile. “Real sounds good.”
Are you going to tell her about Grier?
Are you going to explain why your heart’s currently unavailable?
Are you going to be honest to pay her back for coming clean with you?
Once he broke the news of his engagement to Grier, he had no reason to tell Addie about her. Grier would cut him out of her heart, out of her life. That was the right thing for her to do, the smart thing. She deserved better. She always had, and he had been a fool to think he could live up to her expectations.
Bawk. Bawk. Bawk.
Hell, yes, he was a chicken.
Give him a bucket of paint and a brush, and he would swipe the yellow line down his own back.
Things with Addie were good. Far better than he had any right to expect. He didn’t want to start their relationship with the specter of Grier between them. Not when she was already haunting him.
“How do you feel about turkey legs and roasted corn on a stick for dinner?” Addie cut through the crowd, nodding here and there to folks she knew. “That will keep us mobile while we perform our recon.”
“I am the least picky eater you’re ever going to find. You choose. Whatever you want. My treat.” Her smile faltered, and he could have kicked himself. “That’s not a dig at your financial situation.”
“I know.” She kept walking. “I’m sensitive about it, so I tend to read more into things than is there.”
“I’ll let you buy me dinner, if you prefer.”
Addie glanced over at him then, and her smile was gorgeous. “I’d like that.”
They approached one of the fair food style trucks and got in line. Boaz didn’t expect much in the way of gossip, but there were always those among the preternatural set who didn’t care who overheard what. They figured, rightly, humans didn’t see what they didn’t want to see or hear what they didn’t want to hear. Out of context, most of their conversations came across as normal-ish.
The prickle of energy dancing across his skin informed him they were vampires, which perked his ears.
“We moved here to get away from danger,” a woman was saying. “This place is the opposite of safe.”
“The past few years have been quiet,” the man argued. “This too shall pass.”
“The children…” She stared off in the distance. “We’re taking a risk by bringing them here.”
“That’s why we’re going to stay, embarrass them in front of their friends, and make sure they come home safe.” He took her hand. “Peace, Gertie. Our little ones are protected.”
“Twyla’s parents thought so too,” she said softly, fear bright in her eyes.
The man pulled her into his arms, and they stayed like that until it was their turn to order.
“Clan Willis,” Addie said when they were out of hearing range. “I recognize them.”
“How many fosters do they have?”
“The numbers are a closely guarded secret, but they adopt more often than most clans.”
“I wonder why that is.”
“I don’t know. Cass doesn’t either. I asked her once.”
“I doubt it has anything to do with this case, but it is curious.”
He made a mental note to have the local sentinels assess the situation. Adoption of human children wasn’t a crime, but some of the things vampires got up to with the ones they collected kept him up at night after working particularly disturbing cases.
A ripple moved through the crowd, an unconscious parting of the sea of humans, and chills blasted up Boaz’s spine as four vampires prowled the stalls filled with arts and crafts.
“Patel is here.” Addie sucked in a breath. “This is—”
“Boaz Pritchard,” Patel barked. “What are you doing in Bumfuck, Florida?”
“You know him?” Addie hissed. “Why didn’t you mention that?”
“We’ve met,” Boaz admitted. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Next time,” she grumbled, “I expect a heads-up.”
He met a lot of unsavory characters in his line of work, and the events surrounding those meetings were often confidential. There was no guarantee he could tell her all of what he knew under any given circumstances. That included who he knew.
The nature of her job must require similar restrictions. They would have to sit down after this and come up with a plan for what was and wasn’t fair game. It would require them both to be willing to trust, which wouldn’t come easy for either of them.
This relationship stuff was not for the fainthearted. No wonder he had avoided it for so long.
“I came to visit my fiancée.” Boaz shook Patel’s hand. “What brings you to town?”
“This isn’t a town. This is a speedbump between Jacksonville and Gainesville that someone decided to decorate with houses.” He cut his gaze toward Addie then shook his head. “Figures you would find your ideal woman out here in the sticks. You had to search every hole in the ground to find someone who hasn’t heard about your reputation.”
The dig shouldn’t have hurt. Not when it was partly the truth. But it did.
“Oh, I’ve heard the gossip.” Addie took Boaz’s hand in her much smaller one. “I just don’t care.”
Boaz whipped his head toward her, his palm slick with sweat as he wondered what gossip she had heard, if Grier’s name had been mentioned, how he was going to fix this, a million other things, but Patel had much the same reaction. Except in his case, it was as if he were surprised to remember Addie was there, let alone that she would dare speak to him.
“You’re pretty enough.” Patel assessed her with a cold sweep of his gaze. “You don’t have much sense if you don’t care about the reputation of the man you’re going to marry. Love may be blind, but you can’t afford to be. Unless you’re rich and powerful. No offense, but you don’t strike me as either.”
“Are you here for a purpose,” Boaz cut in, his jaw grinding at the insult, “or are you just in town to dispense romantic advice?”
“Work.” Patel dismissed Addie, and Boaz breathed easier for it. He had labeled her as chattel and dismissed her as being of any importance, let alone his competition. “You know how it is.” His canines were too defined. “I go where I’m needed.” He glanced at his phone, and his smile widened. “See you around.”
“Yeah.” Boaz watched him go. “I’ve got a feeling you will.”
Want to support my free content?