From the New York Times bestselling author of the Night Huntress series comes a thrilling new look at the iconic origin story of Cat and Bones, as experienced by Bones…from the other half of the grave.
There are two sides to every story–and the sizzling British alpha vampire, Bones, has a lot to say…
Ever wondered what Bones was thinking and feeling when he and half-vampire Cat Crawfield first met? Or how their story might differ if he were the one telling it? Now, relive the beginning of Cat and Bones’ bestselling love story through Bones’ point of view, which reveals a darker, sexier take on their early days, as well as a deeper dive into Bones’ past, the vampire world, and other things that Cat didn’t see when their story was told only through her eyes in Halfway to the Grave.
Cat had her say. Now, it’s Bones’ turn.
“Even if you’ve never read any of the other books in Frost’s sexy, action-packed series (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Anne Rice fans), this darker, even sexier reboot is a perfect starting point.” -Apple Books. Voted one of the “Best Books” of the month on Apple!
Read an extended excerpt below.
Copyright Jeaniene Frost. All rights reserved.
THE OTHER HALF OF THE GRAVE
Readers have long asked me if I’d ever write Bones’s side of the story, and I said no because I didn’t “hear” Bones in my head the same way that I heard Cat. Well, a couple years ago, Bones finally started talking to me, and wow, did he have a lot to say. I thought I knew everything about him, and Bones proved me wrong. Writing this also showed Cat in a brand-new light for me, as well as Ian, Spade, and others. Reliving their story through Bones’s perspective made me laugh, cry, and fall in love with him and Cat all over again. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
When you read, you’ll notice that I updated the technology to today’s time because I didn’t want to confuse readers by not mentioning things that are commonplace now. I also didn’t want to pull readers out of the story by keeping the now-defunct technology of the early 2000s. Example: Bones had a beeper as a receiver for Cat’s panic alert back in the original version (Gen Z, you’ll have to look up what a “beeper” is.) I laughed out loud when I re-read that part, and it’s not supposed to be a funny scene. So, I thought upgrading the technology was a better choice. I also gave Cat a cell phone in this version. Her not having one back when HALFWAY TO THE GRAVE was first published was unusual, but not unheard of. Today, however, the average middle schooler has a cell phone, so a college student like Cat would definitely have one, too.
Finally, since this is told through Bones’s point of view, there are slight changes in context and dialog. Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that couples can have two versions of the same incident, and both will swear that their version is correct. Such is the case with how Bones remembers things versus how Cat did. Hey, I’m not going to tell Bones that he’s wrong. This is his story, and he’s sticking to it.
Tonight, Bones hunted.
Devon was his prey. According to Bones’s sources, Devon ran the books for an undead cabal that operated from Mexico all the way to this poor imitation of a high-end nightclub in Columbus, Ohio. Devon was supposed to be here tonight, hence Bones sitting in the frayed, fake-velvet booths of the club’s VIP area. The music was atrocious, and so loud that the humans had to shout in order to hear each other. With a vampire’s heightened senses, the annoying beat felt as if it were being pumped directly into Bones’s skull.
He was, as the cliché went, getting too old for this. At least when it came to frequenting human nightclubs. When it came to hunting, Bones’s two-centuries-plus was to his advantage. The same held true for his other pursuits.
One example of those pursuits flashed a smile at him as she came nearer. She was attractive enough, if he ignored the heavy chemical scent of perfume she’d doused herself with. But he couldn’t ignore the way her eyes were dilated from something other than feminine interest.
“Hi,” she purred, leaning over his table to better display her décolleté. “What do you say to buying me a drink, sexy?”
Shagging might be his favorite pastime, but Bones never touched a woman under the influence of drugs. She was also now blocking his view of the club’s entrance. If Devon slipped in, Bones wouldn’t know it. Normally, he’d let her down gently, but lives were on the line.
“I’d say lay off whatever drugs made your pupils larger than olives,” he replied with a rudeness meant to send her away.
She huffed and straightened, clearing his line of sight to the door. “Bastard,” she snapped before stalking off.
Bones hefted his glass in salute. “Right you are.”
Two more women and a man made similar advances over the next hour. He sent them away as well. He’d just rebuffed his latest admirer when a glimpse of almost luminescent skin caught his eye.
Vampire, was Bones’s first thought as he studied the woman entering the club. Her hair was a crimson splash that hid her face as she waited while the bouncer checked her identification. Must be a young-looking vampire, for the bouncer to double-check her license. After a moment, she was allowed to pass.
Bones only caught glimpses of her as she threaded her way through the crowd. She wore oversized denim trousers with construction-style pockets, long black gloves, and a nondescript white top with elbow-length sleeves. If not for its scooped neckline, he wouldn’t have caught sight of her distinctive skin, especially since her long red tresses shielded most of her face.
Push your hair back, Bones thought. Show me your face…
Wait, who cared what the vampire looked like, if she was even a vampire at all? He had his doubts now. Yes, her skin held that faint tinge of incandescence that usually meant “vampire,” but she moved like a human, and she also had too much flush in her skin for a vampire’s stationary pulse.
Must be a human with unusually lovely skin, nothing more. Bones finished his whisky and left cash for his bill. A tour of the club was now in order. Devon could’ve slipped in when he was distracted by the redhead. That wouldn’t do.
An hour later, Bones was back in the booths with their elevated view of the entrance. Devon hadn’t shown up yet, and it was approaching midnight. If this were a vampire club, the evening would just be starting, but this was a human establishment so it would only be open another two hours.
Perhaps his intelligence on Devon had been wrong. Vampires had been known to lie to stop the pain when a silver knife was shoved into their sternum-
Ash blond hair caught Bones’s eye as a man walked into the club. He moved with distinct, purposeful grace, and his skin held the same faint tinge of luminescence as Bones’s own.
The redhead he’d admired earlier suddenly came toward Bones with an unsteady gait. Before Bones could send her away, she dropped into the seat across the table from him.
“Hello handsome,” she said, a faint slur turning a poor impression of a seductive voice into a terrible one.
“Not now,” he replied shortly.
She blinked as if she’d never been rejected before. With her beauty, she probably hadn’t. Dark red brows arched over storm-cloud gray eyes while very little makeup graced her high cheekbones, elegant nose, and luscious, full lips. No perfume masked her scent, either, allowing him to catch a subtle mix of sweet cream, vanilla, and…cherries.
“Excuse me?” she said.
He could no longer see Devon now. Lovely or no, he wouldn’t let her cost him years of hunting.
“I’m busy, so off you go.”
She touched his hand. Her warmth erased any doubt as to her humanity, as did the heartbeat he could now hear from her nearness. She stammered out something he ignored until she finished it with “Want to fuck?”
As soon as she said it, a horrified look crossed her features. Her hand also paused midway to her mouth as if she’d been about to physically attempt stuffing the words back.
His lips curled. Not afraid to say what she wanted even if it embarrassed her, was she? Under other circumstances, he’d make her forget that embarrassment in the nearest, darkest corner, but now wasn’t the time.
“Bad timing, luv. Be a good bird and fly away. I’ll find you later.”
At that, she got up and walked away, shaking her head. Bones didn’t spare her another look. His gaze was all for the blond vampire moving through the crowd with the arrogance of an apex predator surrounded by prey.
Bones flew up to the ceiling. His all-black attire plus the darkness around the booths meant that no one noticed. Once there, he went behind the network of lights. Anyone who looked up would only see the constant flash of strobes or the roving beams of spotlights. Not the dark figure behind them.
His perch gave him a clear view of Devon. The other vampire paused by several women during his slow sweep of the club, leaning in to catch their scent, brush their skin, or run his fingers through their hair. Devon made it seem subtle, almost accidental, but shoppers in a grocery store tested their produce in much the same way.
Devon was picking out his next meal.
Bones’s jaw tightened when he saw Devon catch a glimpse of the redhead. He’d hoped she’d leave the club after his refusal, but she’d done a circle of the place as if looking for him, and then sat at the bar. When Devon saw her, he stopped talking to the petite blond he’d been conversing with and stared.
Distractingly lovely, isn’t she? Bones thought, feeling an odd twinge of anger. Yes, vampires were territorial over their possessions or their people, but the redhead was neither to him. Still, that twinge grew when Devon left the blonde and went straight over to her.
He couldn’t hear what Devon said over the pulsating music. He could only watch as Devon leaned behind the redhead and spoke. She turned around, annoyance clear on her features.
Good. Send him on his way!
A bright smile wreathed her face, turning up the dial on her already irresistible beauty. Whatever she said had Devon sitting next to her and signaling the bartender for a drink.
Anger surged again. Bones told himself it was fueled by sympathy, not more irrational jealousy.
Bad choice, pet. He intends to eat you in an entirely different way than I did.
Her choices soon worsened. Within half an hour, the redhead was following Devon out the door. Bones slid across the ceiling to a corner, and then jumped down and left the club. Once outside, he flew high to avoid being spotted and kept his aura tamped down so that Devon couldn’t detect it.
The redhead could barely walk as she followed Devon to his car. Clearly, she’d had too much to drink. Devon didn’t care. He smirked as he helped her into the passenger seat, and then climbed into the driver’s side and pulled away.
Bones stayed high as he followed the Volkswagen. No surprise, Devon drove to a deserted, wooded area. Bones dropped lower, tensing when the car stopped. Almost immediately, the passenger door opened, and the redhead stumbled out.
Bones was low enough to hear Devon laugh when she staggered away, screaming. Drunk as she was, she only made it a few meters before she tripped and fell. Not that she would have been able to escape Devon even if she’d been sober. No human could outrun a vampire.
Bones dropped even lower as Devon walked over to the girl. His back was to Bones, but from the new green glow bathing the redhead’s features, he’d released the inhuman light in his gaze. Seeing it, she whimpered and crawled backward faster.
Don’t fret, luv, Bones thought grimly. I’m coming. Just need to catch him unawares so you don’t get hurt in the process.
“Don’t hurt me!” she cried out when Devon knelt next to her and grabbed her by the back of the neck.
“It will only hurt for a moment,” Devon hissed.
Bones braced against the nearest tree trunk, about to springboard off it to maximize his speed to knock Devon away-
The redhead’s hand whipped out, ramming something into Devon’s chest. Before Bones could react, she gave it a vicious twist, and Devon collapsed on top of her. She kept twisting until Devon shriveled into a vampire’s true state of death.
Bones was too stunned to do anything other than stare.
What the bloody hell was this?
“You were right,” she said in a tone that no longer bore a hint of a drunken slur. “It only hurt for a moment.”
Bones’s disbelief gave way to anger. All the answers he’d sought for the past several years, gone. All because of a lovely, murdering redhead who’d fooled both him and Devon, though only one of them had lived to regret it.
She shoved Devon’s body aside. No hysterics, no remorse, and she’d shown no hesitation before stabbing Devon, either. If she had, Bones could have stopped her. But no, she’d been swift and merciless. This wasn’t her first kill, especially with how brisk and businesslike she was as she opened the trunk and hefted Devon’s body into it.
Little chit must be a professional. He’d be sure to use that to his advantage when he met her again. He’d been her first intended victim, after all.
I promised to find you. I’ll keep that promise.
She whistled as she closed the trunk and got back into Devon’s car. Bones flew high and followed her. He had no idea who she was, but he was going to find out.
The redhead drove back to the club, where she parked Devon’s car next to an old Ford truck at the far side of the club’s parking lot. She got out and quickly transferred Devon’s body from the trunk to the truck bed and covered him with black plastic sheeting. Then, she left Devon’s car and drove off in her truck. Smart. Now, Devon’s car wouldn’t be traced back to her murder scene, and anyone looking for Devon would assume he’d left his vehicle at the club himself after catching a ride.
She drove for about an hour, until she reached a cherry orchard in a small, rural town. Once there, she chopped Devon’s head off and buried him on the far edge of the orchard. Then, she went inside the lone house on the property and slept so soundly Bones could hear her snores from his nearby tree perch.
He didn’t sleep. He spent the rest of the early morning hours looking up everything he could find on the mysterious redhead. Thanks to the orchard’s name painted on a faded sign in front of the property, it was easy.
Catherine Kathleen Crawfield appeared to be a normal college girl whose only oddity was her utter lack of social media presence. The only online images Bones could find of her were yearbook pictures and an old family photo on the Crawfield Cherry Orchard’s official website. The orchard was owned by Catherine’s grandparents, who were as boring a couple as Bones had ever researched. Nothing interesting popped up regarding Catherine’s mum, either, and her father was unknown. On paper, the Crawfields were no more than a family of cherry farmers going back five generations.
Yet Catherine was a vampire killer. If he hadn’t seen it himself, let alone smelled evidence of other kills buried in the family orchard, he wouldn’t believe it, but there it was. How did Devon fit in? Catherine had only focused on him after Bones had rebuffed her. Had Bones been Catherine’s intended target all along? Or had Devon? Bones’s brown hair was currently dyed blond, and Devon was a blond, so Catherine could have confused one of them for the other.
Or had Catherine been after both of them? The head of the cabal Bones was investigating could have found out that Bones was after Devon. Perhaps he’d decided to get rid of the pair of them as a precaution? If so, a human woman seemed a poor choice of assassins, though Devon would doubtless disagree.
Well, if the lady wanted to kill him, he’d let her try.
Catherine went to the same club the next night. As soon as she entered, she did what Bones realized was a sweep of the premises. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she sat at the bar. Bones was behind her before she could order a drink.
“I’m ready to fuck now.”
A line offensive enough to send all except a person with ulterior motives running. Last chance to show you’re a lamb instead of a wolf, Catherine.
“What?” she gasped out, spinning around. Then, the outrage in her expression died as she recognized him. Oddly, she flushed as if embarrassed by remembering what she’d said. Then her chin lifted and determination filled her gaze.
“Yes, well…drink first?”
“Don’t bother,” he said, waving away the bartender she’d started to hail. “Let’s go.”
“Now?” She looked startled.
When she hesitated, he said, “Changed your mind?” and turned as if to leave.
She grabbed her purse and practically lunged toward him. Not a lamb at all, then.
“No, no. Lead the way,” she said.
As if he’d turn his back on her even once tonight. His arm swept out. “Ladies first.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him so much, he was surprised she didn’t trip on her way from the club to the parking lot. Once they were outside, she opened her mouth as if to speak, but Bones beat her to it.
“Well? Get your ride, and let’s be off.”
“My ride?” she all but stammered. “I don’t have a ride. Where’s your car?”
“I drove a bike here,” he lied. “Fancy a ride on it?”
“A motorcycle?” she said with such obvious consternation, he stifled a laugh. Was she imaging how difficult it would be to transport his body on one of those? “Um, we should take my vehicle instead. It’s over there.”
She began to walk toward the old Ford, staggering after a few steps as if remembering that she was supposed to act drunk.
“Thought you didn’t have a ride?” Bones called out.
She turned around, her expression saying “Oh shit” louder than words. Sweet bleedin’ hell, she was terrible at this.
“I forgot it was here, is all,” she said in a too-bright tone. Then, she started to slur her words again. “Think I drank too much. You want to drive?”
“No thanks,” he said at once.
Anger flashed across her features before she covered it with a smile. “Really, I think you should drive. I’d hate to wrap us around a tree.”
And be distracted while she launched a new attempt to murder him? “If you want to beg off until another night…” he said, turning away again.
“No!” she replied with such obvious desperation, he almost laughed. She must have realized she’d revealed too much because at once she tried to backtrack.
“I mean, you’re so good-looking and”–her brow furrowed as she quickly tried to think up more flattery–“I really want to get it on.”
This time, he couldn’t stifle his laughter. She blanched, and he almost pitied her, except for how she’d twist silver into his heart the first chance she got.
His tongue traced the inside of his lip as he stared at her until she flinched. But he only said, “Right, then, let’s be off.” Relief filled her face until he added, “You’re driving.”
With that, Bones climbed into the passenger seat of her pickup truck. Your move.
She shifted on her feet for a few moments. Then, decision made, she got into the truck.
Bones didn’t take his eyes off her as she drove. She must have felt it, but she didn’t look at him. Instead, her breathing hitched, her heart rate sped up, and her scent wavered between fear and resolve. Didn’t she know vampires could scent emotions? She should have worn perfume. The harsh chemical odor would’ve helped mask her true feelings.
Ten minutes into the silent standoff, she said “What’s your name?” in a sharp, tense tone.
Trying to verify your target? “Does it matter?”
She finally looked his way. Uncertainty filled her features before determination tightened her jaw.
“I just wanted to know. Mine’s Cat,” she said as she left the freeway for a gravel road.
“Cat, hmm?” he mocked. “From where I sit, you look more like a Kitten.”
She shot him an irritated glance. “It’s Cat. Cat Raven.”
“Whatever you say, Kitten Tweety,” Bones drawled.
She slammed on the brakes. “You got a problem, mister?”
I don’t, but you do. Temper, temper. “No problem, pet. Have we stopped here for good? Is this where you want to shag?”
She flushed again before looking away. Perhaps this part wasn’t an act. His would-be murderess was a prude? Priceless.
“Um, no,” she said. “Further up. It’s prettier there.”
And well off the main road so no one could stumble across them. Prude or no, she was still doing her level best to kill him. Pity he’d have to disappoint her.
“I just bet it is, luv,” Bones said with a chuckle.
After a few minutes, she stopped at the edge of a lake. Bones didn’t move. He only watched with more amusement as she fidgeted and kept glancing at the pocket on her right thigh. Even though her trousers were oversized, Bones could still see the outline of her weapon. She couldn’t pull it out without being obvious, and without the element of surprise, he could snatch it from her before she could raise it to stab him.
She had to know that. How would she attempt to distract him? She couldn’t play the helpless victim if she wasn’t being attacked, and Bones wasn’t moving a muscle. Frustration nearly boiled off her as the minutes ticked by.
Bones hid his smile. She had no idea what to do now, did she?
“Don’t you want to go outside and…shag?” she said at last.
Bones didn’t attempt to conceal his grin. “Oh, no. Right here. Love to do it in a truck.”
He could hear her teeth grind as she said “Well…” while doubtless searching for an excuse to leave his sight long enough to pull her weapon. “There’s not much room in here,” she settled on, and began to open her door.
“Plenty of room, Kitten,” Bones replied. “I’ll stay here.”
“Don’t call me Kitten,” she said, anger sharpening both her tone and her scent.
Lucifer’s bouncing balls, she had to be the worst faux-seductress ever! Devon should be spinning in his grave over letting her slay him.
“Take off your clothes,” Bones said while raking her with a gaze. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Now the red in her cheeks was from rage. “Excuse me?”
“You weren’t going to shag me with your clothes on, were you, Kitten?” he taunted her. “Guess all you’ll need is your knickers off, then. Come on. Don’t take all bloody night.”
She shot him a look of pure hatred before her expression turned crafty. “You first.”
She thought modesty would be his downfall? Bones grinned.
“Shy bird, are you? Didn’t peg you for it, what with walking up to me and practically begging for a shag. How about this? We’ll take our clothes off at the same time.”
Her expression mottled with more fury, but either she gave up on her attempt to kill him, or she continued with the seductress charade. She chose the charade and began to unbutton her trousers. When Bones undid his and pulled up his shirt, her fingers actually shook.
Once again, he almost pitied her. Then he saw her hand slip to the weapon in her pocket. As soon as she touched it, her trembling eased. She wanted him dead so much that the prospect calmed her.
She’d made her move. My turn.
“Look here, luv, see what I have for you,” Bones said, pulling his cock out.
Her cheeks flamed and she looked away. It was all the distraction he needed.
His fist shot out and connected with her head. She slumped into his arms, her right hand still curled around the weapon she’d tried so hard to murder him with.
Bones pulled it out. A wooden stake? That wouldn’t kill any vampire…wait. It was heavier than it should be.
Bones broke off a piece of the wood…and smiled.
“Well,” he said to his unconscious companion. “Aren’t you full of surprises, Kitten?”
Hours later, she regained consciousness and immediately threw up. The unshaded lamp between them meant she didn’t see his wince. Concussions were nasty things. Good thing he’d chained her in a standing position instead of flat on her back. Otherwise, her vomit might have gone back down her throat.
Bones waited until she stopped heaving before he came into the bright circle of light. “I thawt I thaw a putty tat.” A sarcastic Tweety Bird impression was the least she deserved after trying to kill him. “I did, I did thee a putty tat!”
Anger flashed across her features. Good. The concussion wasn’t addling her wits, then. Time to get answers. “Now, luv, let’s get down to business. Who do you work for?”
She had the nerve to look surprised. Then, disappointingly, she lied. “I don’t work for anyone.”
“Bollocks,” he said, and came nearer.
Her heart rate increased as she glanced down at herself. He’d stripped her of her weapons and outer garments while she was unconscious, leaving her only in her bra and knickers. Sadly, her clothing had revealed nothing except an extra silver weapon shaped like a cross, of all things, and her mobile only had texts and phone calls to and from her mother.
But someone had taught her how to kill vampires. Someone had sent her after him and Devon. If it was who Bones thought it was, she was protecting the same mass murderer he’d chased across two different countries.
He couldn’t allow that, but he’d ask her nicely one more time. “Who do you work for?”
“No one,” she lied again.
The hard way, then. He slapped her, hiding his distaste for it behind a deep scowl.
She glared at him and snapped, “Go to hell!”
Why wouldn’t she tell him who her boss was? Was she in love with the sod? Or was she so greedy that she didn’t care how many people suffered, as long as she received whatever reward she’d been promised?
If she were a man, Bones would ask again with his knife, but he couldn’t bring himself to torture a woman, even one that had tried to kill him. Still, she was a murderer at best and a conspirator in a cartel that had murdered hundreds at worst. He gave her a firmer slap.
“Once again, who do you work for?”
She spat out the blood he’d drawn onto his feet. “No one, ass munch!”
Laughter burst from him. He hadn’t been called such a creatively vile name in decades. It merited giving her another chance to talk without more unpleasantness. Still, she couldn’t think he’d gone soft. That’s why he let her see his fangs before he leaned in very close.
“I know you’re lying,” he said, brushing those fangs near her neck. Her whole body went rigid and her pulse tripled in speed. “Because last night, I went looking for a bloke,” Bones whispered against her skin. “When I spotted him, I saw the same lovely red-haired girl who’d been rubbing on me leaving with him. I followed, thinking I’d sneak up on him while he was occupied. Instead, I watched you plug a stake into his heart, and what a stake!”
He held up her impressive weapon between them. Her eyes widened when she saw it.
“Wood on the outside, silver on the inside,” Bones said, tapping the stake. “Poof, down goes Devon, yet it didn’t stop there. You transported him to your truck, drove home, chopped his head off, and buried him in pieces, all while whistling a merry tune. How in the bloody hell could you do that, hmm?”
With every word, her expression became more stricken. His tone hardened.
“You don’t work for anyone? Then why, when I take a deep whiff here,” he inhaled near her neck, “do I smell something other than human? Faint, but unmistakable. Vampire.”
She flinched at the word. Bones pounced. She needed to know there was no point lying to him anymore.
“You’ve got a boss, you do. Feeds you some of his blood, right? Makes you stronger and faster, but still only human. Us poor vamps never see it coming. All we see is”–he pressed on the vibrating pulse in her neck–“food. Now, for the last time before I forget my manners, tell me who your boss is.”
Anger and hatred soured her scent, but her gaze burned into his with a defiant sort of despair. “I don’t have a boss.” Idiot, her tone added. “You want to know why I smell like a human and a vampire? Because that’s what I am. Years ago, my mother went on a date with what she thought was a nice guy. He turned out to be a vampire, and he raped her. Five months later there was me, premature but fully developed, with a whole slew of funky abilities.”
Ah, Bones thought. She’s unhinged.
Poor lass. Someone should tell her that while modern fiction might have half-breeds aplenty, in reality, the only one that Bones knew of had died nearly six hundred years ago.
“When she finally told me about my father,” Cat went on. “I promised her I’d kill every vampire I found to ensure no one else suffers the way she did. She’s been afraid to leave our home ever since! I hunt for her,” her voice rose to a scream, “and the only thing I regret about dying now is that I didn’t take more of you bloodsuckers with me!”
With that, she closed her eyes and braced.
Bones’s brows rose. Did she think he was about to rip her throat out? As if he’d murder someone barking mad…or was there more to it than that?
Her voice had held the distinct ring of truth. Could a vampire have compelled her to believe such an impossible story? A simple “kill these blokes” order would’ve been easier, but some vampires tended toward the dramatic.
After a few moments, her eyelids peeked open. “Well?” she demanded. “Kill me already, you pathetic suck-neck!”
Bones stifled a laugh. “Ass-munch. Suck-neck. You kiss your mum with that mouth?”
She puffed up in outrage. “Don’t you talk about my mother, murderer! Your kind isn’t fit to speak of her!”
“I’ve seen you do murder,” Bones reminded her, then couldn’t resist adding, “And if what you’re telling me is true, you’re the same kind I am.”
She shook her head so hard, her hair flew. “I am nothing like your kind! You’re all monsters, preying on innocent people and caring nothing about the lives you wreck. The vampires I killed all attacked me. It was just their bad luck that I was ready for them. I might have some of this cursed blood in my veins, but at least I was using it to–”
“Oh, stick a sock in it already.” Bigoted little bird, wasn’t she? “You always ramble on so? No wonder your dates went right for your throat. Can’t say as I blame them.”
Her jaw dropped, and he almost laughed at the look on her face. The Queen couldn’t be more offended if someone had farted on her crumpets. Still, the brief silence was welcome as he continued to weigh whether she was mental or under vampiric compulsion. Now, he gave either possibility fifty-fifty odds.
“I hate to interrupt your sympathy sessions over the other dead vampires,” she said in a scathing tone. “But are you going to be killing me soon or what?”
Mental without a doubt, he thought until he put his mouth near the pounding pulse in her throat. Then, her scent changed his mind. Few humans knew that courage and cowardice smelled the same: like fear. The only difference between the courageous and cowards was whether or not they overcame that fear.
Even with the creature she despised most at her throat, Cat didn’t grovel or try to offer someone else’s life in exchange for her own. She only stiffened as his fangs grazed her skin.
Bravery like that deserved another chance before he drank the answers he needed out of her. He leaned back. She sagged in relief, but he pretended not to notice.
“In a hurry to die, are you?” he asked in a casual way. If she didn’t believe her life was in danger, she’d have no incentive to tell him the truth. “Not before you answer a few more questions.”
Her mouth turned down. “What makes you think I will?”
He had to fight not to smile. She couldn’t know how much he admired her courage. Little chit would only use it against him.
“Believe me, you’ll like it much more if you do,” he said in a suitably menacing tone.
She gulped but said, “What do you want to know? Maybe I’ll tell you.”
This time, he couldn’t stop his smile. It was also getting harder to ignore how her plain cotton knickers hugged her shapely hips, or how her bra had slipped during her struggle.
Before, he hadn’t given her near nakedness a thought beyond ensuring that she had no more weapons. Now that she likely wasn’t a willing participant in the cartel he was hunting, her charms were becoming distracting. He fancied many things about women, but courage outweighed them all, and she had courage to spare.
“Brave little Kitten, I’ll give you that,” he said, tracing his tongue along the inside of his lip. “Right, then. Suppose I believe you’re the offspring of a human and a vampire. Almost unheard of, but we’ll get back to that. Then let’s say I believe you troll clubs hunting us evil deads to avenge your mum. How did you know what to use to kill us?”
Someone had to tell her. If she revealed who, he’d know the vampire who’d compelled her into believing such nonsense.
“It’s not an open secret,” Bones went on. “Most humans think good ol’ wood will do it. But not you. You’re telling me you’ve never dealt with vampires before, except to kill them?” Impossible, his tone stressed.
“You got anything to drink around here?” was her surprising response. “Nothing with clots in it, I mean, or that can be classified as O-negative or B-positive. Hmm?”
Once again, he had to bite back his laughter. He’d been asked–or begged–for many things during an interrogation, but never before had someone dared to request a booze break.
Courage to spare, indeed.
“Thirsty, luv? What a coincidence. So am I.”
The implied threat made her blanch. Bones pulled out a flask and held it to her mouth. As soon as it brushed her lips, she bit the rim, tilted her head back, and emptied all of his good whisky down her throat. She even sighed with regret when she released her bite and the flask dropped back into his hand.
Bones held the bottle upside down. No, not a drop remained. She was a brash, brave, foul-mouthed, murdering drunk, and God help him, he hadn’t found anyone this enticing in centuries.
“If I’d have known you were such a lush, I’d have given you the cheap stuff.” Then, lest she sense the effect she had on him, he added, “Going to go out with a bang, are you?”
Instead of quailing, she managed to shrug. “What’s the matter? Did I ruin my flavor for you? I’m sure I’ll be turning over in my grave worrying that you didn’t like how I tasted. I hope you choke on my blood, you jerk.”
Laughter spilled out of him. If he were in her position, he’d give his interrogator nothing but scathing sarcasm, too.
“Good form, Kitten! But enough stalling. How did you know what to use if no vampire told you?”
She looked away. “I didn’t. Oh, I’d read a hundred books or more about our…your kind after hearing about my father. Some said crosses, sunlight, wood, or silver. It was pure luck, really.” Her tone darkened. “One night, a vampire approached me at a club and then took me for a drive. Of course, he couldn’t have been nicer, right up until he tried to eat me alive. I made up my mind that I was going to kill him or die trying, and the big silver cross dagger was all I had on me. It worked, though it took a bit of doing. So presto, I knew about silver.”
Bones listened, expressionless, but inside, he tipped his hat. Well done, you.
“Later, I found out that wood didn’t work at all. Got a nice scar on the thigh to prove it. The vamp laughed when he saw my stake, too, so clearly, he wasn’t afraid of wood. Then, when I was making caramel apples it occurred to me to hide the silver in something a vampire would think was harmless.” She gave him a baleful look. “Though most of you are so busy eyeing my neck, you don’t even see me pull out my pointy friend.”
He’d started shaking his head at the caramel apples part. By the time she finished, he was almost agog. “You’re telling me caramel apples and books taught you how to kill vampires?”
At her nod, he started to pace. Could she…could she be telling the truth? No vampire in his right mind would make up such a ridiculous story simply to compel a human to kill.
“Then it’s a damn good thing most of the recent generations disklike reading, or we’d all be in serious trouble,” he finished with a sharp laugh. “But how did you know he was a vampire when you saw him?” What were the facts amidst the fiction that another vampire must have implemented in her mind? “Did you not find out until he tried to have an artery party?”
She flinched at how close he’d come. Bones backed up, but only a step. She was too brave to be allowed to feel truly comfortable. That could cause her to think lying was an option.
“I don’t know how I knew. I just did. For starters, your kind looks different. Your skin looks…ethereal, almost. You move differently, more purposeful. And when I’m near you, I feel it in the air, like static electricity.”
He’d been surprised at her perceptiveness about a vampire’s skin and movements. Most humans didn’t notice such things. But when she said she could feel vampires, he was shocked. Only vampires could feel another vampire’s aura.
“Happy now?” she suddenly demanded, her voice cracking a bit. “Heard what you wanted?”
“Almost. How many vampires have you killed? Don’t lie to me, or I’ll know it.”
She paused as if silently counting. Then, “Sixteen, including your friend from last night.”
“Sixteen?” How? She’d failed utterly at being a seductress, and her only other act was being a marginally-believable drunk. “Sixteen vampires you took out yourself with nothing but a stake and your cleavage? Makes me ashamed of my kind, it does.”
Her chin lifted. “I would have killed more if I hadn’t been too young to get into bars, since they’re vampire trolling grounds, not to mention all the times I had to take off when my grandfather got sick.”
A mechanical “ping” came from the other side of the cave, indicating a new text. Bones left to read it. He’d uploaded Cat’s SIM card from her mobile and sent it to his hacker friend, Ted. If there was deleted information on there from Cat’s vampire boss, Ted would find it.
Nothing, Ted’s text read, dashing Bones’s hopes. Most boring phone I’ve ever cracked. U owe me.
Bones’s jaw tightened. Yes, he did, but it left him no closer to answers. Only Catherine had those.
Chains clanged and he heard her grunt. Bones came back to her section of the cave to see her bent forward, straining as she tried to wrest her chains from the wall. He switched the light off to disorient her and chuckled as she cursed him.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he mocked. “Those chains won’t budge. They’re not going anywhere, and neither are you. Good of you to try, though. Hate to think your spirit’s broken already.”
“I hate you,” she said, out of breath from her efforts.
More truth, but not enough. Still, he had another path. A vampire compulsion could be broken by a stronger vampire, and Bones was strong. All it would take was drinking her blood.
“Time’s up, luv,” he said softly.
Her heart hammered when he smoothed her hair back from her neck. His lips thinned. He hated terrifying her, but drinking her blood was the only way to break the hold the other vampire had on her. Who knew what else Cat had been forced to do?
She thought he was about to kill her, but in reality, he was freeing her. If he thought she’d believe him, he’d tell her that. But in case he was wrong about her being under vampiric compulsion and this had been her best acting job yet…
“Last chance, Kitten. Who do you work for? Tell me the truth, and I’ll let you live.”
“I told you the truth,” she gasped out, her pulse vibrating against his lips.
He rested his fangs over it. “I don’t believe you,” he murmured, glancing up to give her one more chance to confess–
Holy Mother of Christ, her eyes.
“Bloody hell, look at your eyes,” Bones breathed out, staggering back.
She said nothing. Just stared at him with eyes that, impossibly, were now the same glowing emerald green as his own.
Bones lunged forward and gripped her head. “Look at your bloody eyes!” he thundered, stunned into repetition.
Her expression was half terror, half annoyance. “Don’t need to look at them, I’ve seen them. They change from gray to green when I’m upset. Happy now? Going to enjoy your meal more?”
He let her go before shock made him forget to check his strength and he accidentally hurt her. Then he began to pace.
“Bugger, you’re telling the truth.” No vampire was compelling her or controlling her. Somehow, she was the offspring of a human and a vampire. “You have to be,” he went on, as if some part of him still needed convincing. “You have a pulse, but only vampires have eyes that glow green. This is unbelievable!”
“Glad you’re excited,” she said in a suddenly weary voice.
He stopped pacing to stare at her. Her hair tangled around her shoulders and her gaze lost some of its glowing intensity now that his fangs were nowhere near her throat. Did she have fangs, too? No, he only saw flat teeth when she nibbled on her bottom lip, and if she was upset enough for her eyes to transform, her canines would have, too, if they could.
Vampire eyes, human teeth. It shouldn’t be possible. She shouldn’t be possible, yet here she was. Half human and half vampire…and pathological in her hatred of the latter.
That hatred would get her killed. She had no idea what was happening in Ohio now, but if she kept throwing herself in vampires’ paths, she’d find out. The mass grave he’d uncovered two weeks ago flashed in his mind. If she kept on this path, she’d be one of those skeletons, tossed away like rubbish after the most hellish of existences…
Rage suffused him, followed by a stronger swell of determination. It didn’t matter that she’d tried to kill him. Didn’t matter that she wasn’t one of his people. Also didn’t matter that his near-pathological need to protect her made no bloody sense. He wouldn’t let her become one of the lost.
She wanted to kill vampires? He could work with that.
“This is perfect,” he said as if he’d been looking his entire life for a half breed. “In fact, it could come in right handy.”
“What could come in handy?” she asked in an irate tone. “Either kill me, or let me go already. I’m tired.”
He turned the light back on. She blinked under its brightness before scowling at him. He grinned. Oh yes, she’d stake him right and proper if she could. Now, to give her a compelling reason not to.
“How would you like to put your money where your mouth is?”
“What?” she asked with open suspicion.
“I can kill you, or let you live.” His tone was bland, as if either option meant nothing to him. “But living comes with conditions. Your choice, your pick. Can’t let you go without conditions; you just try to stake me.”
“Aren’t you the smart one?” she muttered.
He stifled his laugh. “You see, we’re in the same boat. You hunt vampires. I hunt vampires. Both of us have our reasons, and we both have our problems. Other vampires can sense me whenever I’m close, so that makes it difficult for me to stake them without them expecting the try and running. You, on the other hand, put them at ease with that juicy jugular of yours, but you aren’t strong enough to bring down the really big fish.”
She stiffened in offense.
Bones continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “Oh, you may have beaten some green ones, probably no older than twenty years undead, tops. Barely out of their nappies, as it were. But a Master vampire, like me?” He let scorn drip from his tone. “You couldn’t bring me down with both weapons blazing. I’d be picking you out of my teeth in minutes. Therefore, I propose a deal. You continue doing what you love most–killing vampires–but you only hunt the ones I’m looking for. No exceptions,” he stressed when she opened her mouth. “You’re the bait. I’m the hook.”
She stared at him as if he’d taken leave of his senses. Perhaps he had. Recruiting the half dead to kill the undead was a bit unorthodox, but he needed to keep her safe, and she needed to kill vampires. At least for now.
I hunt for her, she’d said of her mother. To ensure no one else suffers the way she did…
Except every time she risked her life hunting vampires, Cat was punishing herself for merely existing. That sort of self-destructive imperative couldn’t easily be remedied. He knew that from experience. He hadn’t become a bounty hunter of people even his kind was afraid of by accident. Once, like Cat, he’d thought it was all he deserved, too.
With time, Cat would realize there was more to life. Until then, he’d keep her safe, and trained to handle the monsters she thought she needed to kill. Until then…
Bones tapped his foot. “Don’t have all night. The longer you wait, the hungrier I get. Might change my mind in a few minutes.”
“I’ll do it,” she said quickly. Then she added, “But I have a condition of my own.”
He chuckled. “You’re hardly in a position to demand conditions.”
Her chin jutted out. “Just challenging you to put your money where your mouth is. You said I wouldn’t last against you even with both my weapons. I disagree. Unchain me, give me my stuff, and let’s go. Winner takes all.”
Damn good thing he wasn’t in profile, or she’d notice that he’d just turned rock hard.
“And what you do you want if you win?” he asked while sending his blood to a less distracting place in his body.
First seething courage, now brutal honesty. She was just trying to switch him on, wasn’t she?
“If I can beat you, I don’t need you,” she continued. “And as you put it, if I just let you walk, you’d come after me. But if you win”–a shrug–“I play by your rules.”
Every bit of him felt like it was waking up. He’d think it was more lust, except it didn’t stop there. No, it grew until it penetrated parts of him he hadn’t realized existed.
He’d heard poets talk about things like this. They gave it fanciful names like “love at first sight” or “destiny.” He’d always dismissed such claims as nonsense. Now, he wasn’t so certain.
“You know, pet,” he said to cover those new, startling emotions. “With you chained there, I could have a nice long drink out of your neck and go about my business as usual. You’re pushing your luck quite a bit saying this to me.”
“You don’t seem the type that likes a boring drink out of a chained-up jugular,” she countered.
Right you are.
“You seem like the type who likes danger. Why else would a vampire hunt vampires? Well? Are you in, or am I out?”
She held her breath after throwing down the gauntlet. He came nearer, his gaze raking her while those inexplicable sensations kept growing until they felt as if they’d breach his skin and boil over onto the ground between them. Her breathing hitched and her heartbeat sped up, but her gaze remained hard, desperate…and fixed on him with deadly intent.
He almost laughed. Here he was, feeling as if Cupid’s arrow had pierced his heart, and the source of his affection wanted nothing more than to see him dead. But first, she’d demanded a demonstration of his abilities.
Very well. As she’d soon learn, he was always happy to fulfill a lady’s request.
Bones unlocked her manacles. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” he said, and meant it this time.
“Give me my clothes back,” were her first words once she was free.
“You are trying to kill me, right?” Bones asked, chuckling. “Those trousers will cost you fluidity.”
And wearing them will ensure I’m not distracted by your lovely form, he didn’t add, though she should have known that, and she also should’ve used it to her advantage.
“Fluidity or not, I refuse to fight you in my underwear,” she said between gritted teeth.
Worst. Murderess. Ever.
But if these were her terms… “Very well. Wait here.”
Bones left her alone, not fretting about her running away. What this cave lacked in conveniences, it made up for in security. It’s why he’d chosen to stay here instead of more comfortable surroundings. No one would think to look for him in a cavernous hole in the ground.
Unlike Hollywood’s common portrayal of vampires in ramshackle castles or dark crypts, most of his kind wouldn’t be caught dead in such hovels when there were modern–and luxurious–conveniences available. Vampires hadn’t survived millenniums without detection because they’d failed to evolve. No, most vampires were very versatile, and they enjoyed their comforts as much as any human.
Bones did, too, especially since he’d had more than his share of poverty as a lad. But growing up destitute had taught him never to value anything more than he could afford to lose. He might not like staying in a cave, but he didn’t value his comfort more than his advantage over his enemies. He’d return to his normal, posh lifestyle once this was over.
The echoing factor in the cave also gave Bones an acoustical image of everything Cat did. From the sounds, she didn’t stray far from where he’d left her. Smart. The light bulb only illuminated a small section of that area, and there were several steep drops and crevasses beyond her sight. More natural security, all for the price of temporarily sleeping rough.
He went to the flatter, large section he used as his living quarters to fetch her things. When he returned, he tossed them at her. “Here.”
She caught them with reflexes far faster than an average human. What other vampire traits did she have?
She gave him a pointed look before she pulled on her trousers. “You could pretend to be polite and turn your back.”
He snorted. “With you armed? Shall I put a big red X over my heart for you as well, Kitten?”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped.
Oh, it was her name forever now. “Whatever you say, luv.”
That earned him another death glare. He only grinned, still basking in the unfamiliar yet wondrous sensations she brought out in him. Yes, she was fantasizing about ripping both of her weapons through his heart while he was feeling things he’d only heard of before, but who said romance was perfect?
“Are we doing this here?” she asked in an abrupt tone when she finished dressing.
Where she could barely see and the uneven terrain could fell her with one wrong step? She had so much to learn.
“Start walking straight ahead. Soon, you’ll see lights.”
She gave him several wary glances when she passed him, but then she moved with surer steps once she was several paces ahead. He followed, brows raised when she went well beyond the lamp’s glow without a pause in her stride.
Can see in the dark, he added to her list of preternatural attributes.
She stopped when she reached the large antechamber he’d recently renovated. It now had lights strung up in several spots plus a desk and a chair. He’d intended to add other items now that he knew his stay here would be extended, but his delay in getting those meant they had plenty of room for their duel.
He cracked his knuckles and rolled his head around his shoulders; a prefight ritual dating back to his humanity. Then he steeled himself against his repugnance at the thought of hurting her. She’d demanded this duel. He’d give her the respect she was due by honoring that demand.
“All right, Kitten. Because I’m a gentleman, I’ll let you have the first try. Come on. Let’s do this.”
She charged at him with impressive speed for a human, but too slow to be effective against him. She also seemed to have no strategy beyond pointing her weapons in his direction and lunging. He didn’t bother criticizing her. He just whirled and let her sail past him.
“Going jogging, pet?”
She glared at him before attacking again from his right. He blocked her overhead stab, but–good on her!–she simultaneously scored a slash in his abdomen with her other weapon. Before she could dig it deeper, he gave her a light kick in the midsection.
She sprawled onto the cave floor.
“I liked this shirt,” he muttered, examining the new rip. “Now you’ve gone and ripped it.”
And for what? His heart wasn’t in his stomach, as she very well knew.
She stayed doubled over for a few seconds, breathing raggedly. Insufficient abdominal muscles, he added to his list. How would her reflexes hold up, now that she’d been winded?
He moved at half speed, raising his arm to telegraph his intentions. Her eyes widened, and she ducked, but too slow, and she didn’t let go of her midsection to block his strike. He gave her a glancing blow to the side of her head in reprimand.
Next time, stop clutching your belly and block me!
She staggered and almost fell. Then she attacked him with impressive enthusiasm. For several minutes, he let her, dialing down his strength, speed, and skill until he fought with no more force than an average young vampire.
Under these conditions, could she win?
No, he realized after several minutes. She kept getting up, though, proving her will was as formidable as her rage. But her reflexes, strength, and speed were still too human.
When he’d learned what he needed to know, he flung her off. She landed on the floor with a thud, groaning. Then, she opened bloodshot eyes. They were glowing green, her gaze a mixture of rage, pain, and desperation.
He’d seen that same desperation earlier. Why did she feel it now? Did she think he’d go back on his word not to kill her? Or was there something else behind that look–
Silver flashed in her hand. In the next instant, agony flared, and he looked down to see the hilt of her cross dagger embedded only a few centimeters above his heart. That’s what he got for allowing his concern for her to distract him!
He snatched it out, snarling “Bloody hell, woman, that hurts!”
Though excellent throwing skills, he silently added.
She got back on her feet, but from her slow, careful movements, it took a great deal of effort.
“Had enough?” he asked, inhaling to see if her scent indicated worse injuries than he could see.
That desperate look leapt back into her gaze. “Not yet.”
She couldn’t win. She had to know that, but she refused to concede. If he was any other vampire, her need to continue this fight would be the last thing she ever did. The thought of that made him feel…bloody hell, more than he could handle right now.
He steeled himself against it, and against his near-overwhelming urge to call off this duel and heal her. If he didn’t collect on her agreement to let him train her, her need to kill vampires combined with her human weaknesses would get her killed, and if she had even an inkling of knowledge about what he felt for her, she’d use it to slaughter him.
But if she thought she needed him to accomplish her goals… he could use her vampire-slaying compulsion to save her.
Bones resumed their fight, now showing her with crisp, ruthless efficiency that she was outmatched in every way. When she fell to the ground and didn’t get back up, he knelt next to her.
One swollen eye slit open to glare at him. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. Still, Bones could make out what she mouthed at him.
Then she passed out.
Admiration and those deeper, mystifying emotions swelled in him as he bit his wrist and held the bloody gash to her mouth. Even unconscious, she swallowed, at first weakly, and then stronger as his blood healed her bruises, cuts, and fractures.
She didn’t stir as he picked her up and carried her to the bedroom he’d made from a cozy alcove in the cave. He set her on the bed, and then sealed them both in by blocking the entranceway with a heavy stone slab. Now he could sleep without fretting about anything–or anyone–disturbing them.
Dawn was upon them, and his brave, ferocious Kitten wasn’t the only one who could use some rest.
Bones let the first several tugs go despite their revealing more of his body to the cave’s chilly air. But when she yanked the last of his blankets off him, he ceased being a gentleman.
“If you’re going to take all the covers, you can sleep on the floor!”
Cat’s eyes opened, then widened when she saw him next to her in bed. Horror suffused her features, and she jumped up with such alarm, she banged her head on the room’s low ceiling.
“Owww,” she moaned while her gaze darted around, looking for a way to escape. When she realized the small room was sealed, she backed into the corner. Then she glanced down at herself, relief suffusing her expression when she saw that she was still fully clothed.
He suppressed a scoff. She thought he’d assault her while she was unconscious? She had so much to learn.
“Why am I not in a hospital?” she asked with more alarm than relief.
Bones sat up, moving slowly so he didn’t startle her. “I healed you.”
She blanched, fingers flying to her throat. As if she could wake up as a vampire and not realize it at once.
“How?” she demanded. “How did you do that?”
He leaned back. “Blood, of course.”
She paled even more, if possible. Then her voice elevated to a shriek. “Tell me what you did to me!”
He hid his urge to comfort her behind an eye roll.
She tracked his every movement, her body coiled to fight while her heart rate tripled. To show he had no interest in harming her, he fluffed his pillow and pulled it nearer.
“Gave you a few drops of my blood,” he said in a neutral tone. “Figured you wouldn’t need much, what with you being a half-breed. You probably heal fast naturally, but then you were banged up a bit. Your own fault, of course, having suggested that stupid match,” he added just to rile her.
He could stand her anger, but her fear hit him places he had no defense against yet. They were too new.
“Now, if you don’t mind, it’s daylight and I’m knackered. Didn’t even get a meal out of all this,” he said as further ammunition for her ire.
She barely seemed to hear that last part. “Vampire blood heals?” she asked in a shocked tone.
He closed his eyes. “You didn’t know? Blimey, but you’re ignorant about your own kind.”
“Your kind is not my kind,” she said at once.
Neither was humanity. Eventually, she’d have to reckon with that. But he only replied, “Whatever you say, Kitten.”
She was quiet for a moment. He resisted the urge to open his eyes because if he did, he might stare at her sleep-tousled crimson hair. Or her eyes, dark as an approaching storm. Or the elegant curve of her throat, the soft swell of her breasts, and the round arse she’d unwittingly snuggled against him earlier…
“Would too much blood turn me?”
The question interrupted his thoughts. Good thing, too, or he might have tented the sheets over his hips.
“How much is too much?” she went on.
He opened one eye. It was all he dared, considering where his previous thoughts had taken him.
“Look, school’s out now,” he replied in a gruff tone. “I’m going to sleep. You’re going to shut up. Later, when I’m awake, we’ll go over all these niceties and more. Until then, let a fellow get some rest.”
She drew herself up with a huff. “Show me the way out, and you can sleep all you want.”
He snorted. “Sure. Shall I fetch your weapons for you as well, and close my eyes while you plug holes into my heart?”
She glanced away.
He stifled another snort. She’d been thinking that exact thing. Time to give her something else to think about.
“Not likely,” he said, tone hardening. “You’re in until I let you out. Don’t bother trying to escape, you’d never make it. Now, I suggest you let me get some rest, because if you keep me awake much longer, I’m going to want breakfast.”
To punctuate his point, he shut his eyes, yet heard her suck in an appalled breath.
“I’m not sleeping with you.”
Not yet, Kitten, but if I have my way, you will soon.
He yanked the blanket off and threw it in her general direction. A peek through his lashes revealed that she let it hit her in the face.
Bloody hell, the woman needed to learn how to duck.
“Sleep on the floor, then. You’re a cover hog, anyhow.”
For the next half hour, he listened to her move around as if searching for a softer spot. She wouldn’t find one. The cave floor was hard limestone, not mud. Would she swallow her pride– and hatred–enough to share the king-sized mattress with him?
She didn’t. Eventually, she settled down in one spot and her breathing became regular and deep. Then snores filled the room.
Bones’s lips twitched. Somehow, despite avoiding this feeling for nearly two hundred and fifty years, he was now head-over-heels for a prissy, murdering half-breed who hated the sight of him and snored. If this wasn’t repayment for his many sins, he didn’t know what was.
Wait until he told Charles. His best mate would hurt himself from laughing too hard.
But before he told anyone, he had to show her there was far more to vampires than what she believed. Yes, it meant upending his life, but the feelings she elicited left him no choice. No wonder songwriters droned on and on about such things. Shockingly, Bones wanted to tell everyone, too, including the snoring redhead who’d go right for her stakes if she had any inkling of what he felt for her.
No, he’d tell her none of it. Instead, he’d be a stern taskmaster while he trained her to survive against odds that would kill her with her current, under-developed abilities. The rest would have to wait until she looked at him and saw a man instead of a monster…and looked at herself and saw a woman instead of a sin to atone for.
In the meantime, he’d be reacquainting himself with something he was very unfamiliar with–celibacy.
He gave his right hand a wry glance. You and I are about to become a lot closer, mate.
With how long it would probably take for his Kitten to warm up to him, he might well become the first vampire to ever develop calluses.
Six hours later, Bones stood over her. She didn’t stir. No sense of being watched, he added to his list of things she’d need to improve upon. Then he bent and shook her shoulder.
“Rise and shine, we have work to do.”
She rolled over with a groan, then gave him an accusing look as her joints creaked when she sat up.
He only grinned. “Serves you right for trying to kill me. Last bloke who did that ended up with much more than a stiff neck. You’re right lucky you’re useful, or you’d be nothing more than a flush in my cheeks by now.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” she muttered. “Lucky.”
Bones wagged a finger at her. “Don’t be glum. You’re about to get a first-class education in nosferatu. Believe me, not many humans get to learn this stuff. Then again, you’re not really human.”
She flinched. “Stop saying that. I’m more human than I am…thing.”
She seemed oblivious to the fact that every time she insulted vampires, she also reviled herself. “Yes, well, we’ll find out just how much shortly,” was all he said. “Move away from the wall.”
She seemed glad for an excuse to get as far away from him as the small room allowed. He’d expected that, but he was surprised that it still stung. Then he chided himself for a fool. Was she supposed to forget everything she’d seen and been taught simply because he hadn’t murdered her in her sleep? She was right not to trust him until he gave her a reason.
Time to start giving her one.
Bones hefted the stone boulder up and moved it aside. “Come along,” he said.
She didn’t move.
She came out of the room, and then glanced around at the antechamber they’d fought in with an embarrassed sort of dismay.
“I don’t suppose…is there a bathroom in here?”
Bones stopped mid-step. Right. He should have anticipated she’d have that need–
“One of us still has functioning kidneys,” she added, with a look of distaste in his direction.
Another “dead monster” crack, was it? Very well, he’d treat her with the same rudeness. “Think this is a bloomin’ hotel? What, next you’ll be wanting a bidet?”
She flushed, and then ground out, “Unless you like it messy, I suggest you show me an alternative, and fast.”
He sighed as if exasperated. “Follow me. Don’t trip or twist anything, damned if I’ll carry you. Let’s see what we can come up with. Sodding woman,” he added. If she was angry, she would no longer be embarrassed about her normal bodily functions.
She muttered under her breath as she followed him. He didn’t catch all of it, but the words “stake” and “heart” were clear. He hid his smile. Not embarrassed at all now, was she?
“There,” he said after leading her to the underground river that cut through the cave. “That water runs downstream. You can climb on those rocks and do your business.”
She ran over, her lips edging up in a smile that was too triumphant to only be anticipated bladder relief.
“By the way, if you’re thinking you’ll just jump off and swim out of here, it’s a bad idea,” he called out. “That water’s about forty degrees and snakes over two miles before it exits these caves. Not a nice way to be, hypothermic and lost in the dark. You’d also have broken our agreement, so when I found you, I would be really, really displeased.”
Her shoulders stiffened, but she had the grace not to deny any of it. Progress.
“See you in a bit,” he said, walking far enough away to give her the illusion of privacy.
“I suppose toilet paper’s out of the question?” she called out a few moments later.
He snorted in amusement. “I’ll put it on my shopping list, Kitten.”
“Stop calling me that. My name is Cat.”
Not to me, he thought, hearing her come closer. When he could feel her warmth in the air and smell the creamy, vanilla-and-cherries scent that clung to her, he closed his eyes. She hit his senses with the impact of a sledgehammer, making his need to touch her almost painful.
He forced that back, surprised by how difficult it was. He’d never lacked self-control before. Granted, his looks ensured that women seldom rebuffed his attentions, so he supposed he was out of practice when it came to this form of discipline.
“What’s your name, by the way?” she asked, a thread of hesitation running through her tone. “You never told me.”
She hadn’t truly wanted to know before. He’d been nothing more than a target to be eliminated to her.
“If we’re going to be working together, at least I should know what to call you,” she went on, as if rationalizing to herself why she’d asked him this. “Unless you simply prefer answering to profanity, of course,” she finished in a clear attempt to further distance herself from the question.
Too late, he thought, a grin playing about his lip as he turned around. I caught you treating me–however briefly–like a person instead of a monster.
“My name is Bones.”
“First things first,” Bones said, settling himself onto a boulder as if it were a chair. “If you’re going to be truly good at killing vampires, you need to know more about them.”
After a moment, Cat sat on the boulder opposite him. He’d picked this spot because it was toward the entrance of the cave, where light filtered in through cracks in the rocky ceiling. She might be able to see well in the dark, but he didn’t have to keep her limited to darkness.
“Sunlight doesn’t do anything but give us a sunburn if we expose our skin to it for too long,” he began with.
Interest flicked on her face, as if he’d answered a question she’d long wondered about.
“But we won’t explode into flames in the sun like we do in the movies,” he continued. “However, we do like to sleep in the day because we are most powerful at night. During the day we are slower, weaker, and less alert, especially at dawn.”
Brand new vampires couldn’t even stay conscious for the first few weeks at dawn, but he left that part out. No need to whet her appetite for a kill that would never happen.
“By dawn, you’ll find most vampires tucked into whatever they call a bed, which, as you could tell from last night, doesn’t mean a coffin,” he went on. “Oh, some of the old-fashioned ones only sleep in coffins, but most of us sleep in whatever’s comfortable. In fact, some vamps will have coffins staged in their lair so some Van Helsing wannabe will go there first while the vampire sneaks up on them. Done that trick a time or two myself. So, if you think throwing up the blinds and letting the sun stream in will do the trick, forget it.”
Her expression was rapt. If she still had her mobile, he expected she would’ve started taking electronic notes. Inwardly, Bones smiled. She might be listening in anticipation of turning herself into a better killer, but she was still learning more about the other half of her nature than she had before. Nothing chipped at blind bigotry more effectively than knowledge.
“Crosses. Unless they’re rigged up like yours, they’ll only make us laugh before we eat you. Wood, as you are aware, can give us splinters, but it won’t stop us from ripping your throat out. Holy water…well.” Bones gave a dismissive grunt. “I’ve had more damage done by someone throwing dirt in my face. The whole religious thing is bunk when it comes to hurting our kind, got it?” No god worshipped has a problem with us, he didn’t add, but hoped she realized from the subtext. “Your only advantage is that when a vampire sees that special stake of yours, they won’t be put off by it.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll use this information against you?” she asked.
Bones leaned forward. At once, she leaned back. The single gesture reinforced how much she despised all things vampire, including him. Before he could change that, she was right; he couldn’t have her using this information to plot his demise.
Time for the stick.
“You and I are going to have to trust one another to accomplish our objectives, so I’ll make this very, very simple: If you so much as look cross-eyes at me and I even wonder if you’re thinking about betraying me, I’ll kill you. Now, that might not scare you, being the big brave girl that you are, but remember this: I followed you home the other night. Got anyone you care about in that barn of a house?”
He let the sentence dangle.
She gulped, paling a shade whiter than death. He could practically hear her mind filling in terrible threats he’d never be evil enough to utter. In this, her revulsion of vampires would be to his benefit.
Stick, accomplished. Now, the carrot.
“Besides,” he said in a more cheerful tone. “I can give you what you want.”
Her expression couldn’t be more doubtful. “What could you possibly know about what I want?”
“You want what every abandoned child wants. You want to find your father.”
Her heart skipped a beat before accelerating into a loud staccato.
“But you don’t want a happy reunion,” Bones went on, his tone deepening. “You want to kill him.”
Her gaze fixed on him as if he’d used his power to mesmerize her. “You can help me find my father? How?”
Bones shrugged as if he didn’t know firsthand the kind of hatred a person could harbor against someone who’d hurt and abandoned their mother. “For starters, I know a great many undead types, so without me, you’re looking for a needle in a fangstack. Even if I don’t personally know him, I already know more about him than you do.”
“What? How?” she sputtered.
“His age, for example.” When her confusion didn’t abate, he sighed. She knew nothing about the species she’d committed her young life to killing. “You’re what, twenty-one?”
“Twenty-two,” she corrected in a whisper. “Last month.”
“Indeed? Then you have the wrong age as well as the wrong address on that fake license of yours.”
Her chin lifted. “How do you know it’s a fake?”
He snorted. “Didn’t we just cover this? I know your real address, and it’s not the one on that license.”
Though it was clever of her to have false identification on her when she hunted. If Bones hadn’t followed her home, he would have been chasing down information on the wrong person.
“Come to think of it, you are a liar, possessor of false identification, and a murderer,” he said, enjoying the little huff she made when she was indignant.
“Not to mention a tease,” he went on. “Foulmouthed as well. Yep, you and I will get along famously.”
She gave him a withering look. “Bollocks.”
Bones grinned. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But back to the subject. You said your mum carried you for what? Five months?”
At once, her expression changed, going back to the haunted one that no one her age should wear. “Yes, why?”
He leaned forward. This time, she didn’t lean back.
“When you’re changed into a vampire, it takes a few days for some of the human functions to stop completely. Oh, the heartbeat stops right off and the breathing does as well, but tears still look normal for the first day or so before you cry only pink due to the blood-to-water ratio in our bodies. You might even piss once or twice to get it out of your system. But the main point is, you father still had swimmers in his sacks.”
“Excuse me?” she said in her prissiest tone.
“You know, luv. Sperm. Your father still had living sperm in his juice. Now, that could only be possible if he’d been newly changed. Within a week at most, I’d wager. Right off, then, you can pinpoint almost exactly how old he is, in vampire years. Add that to any recent deaths around that time and place matching his description, and bingo! There’s your da.”
Shock suffused her features as she processed this. Bones waited, saying nothing. When she finally looked back at him, that shock had been replaced by flintlike determination.
She’d worn the same look all those times she’d gotten back up after he knocked her down during their fight. Nothing would stop her from seeing their arrangement through now. But, of course, she was still suspicious.
“Why do you want to help me find my father? In fact, why do you kill other vampires at all? They’re your own kind.”
Yours too, Bones didn’t say, but it was true despite her denial. “I’ll help you find your father because you hate him more than me, so it’ll keep you motivated to do what I say.”
She gave a nod she didn’t even seem to be aware of.
“As for why I hunt vampires…you don’t need to bother about that now.” She wouldn’t believe him even if he told her. “Suffice it to say that some people just need killing, and that goes for vampires as well as humans.”
She didn’t argue, which meant she must’ve met some evil sods with heartbeats, too. God knew the world had no shortage.
“Back to the subject,” he said. “Guns don’t work on us, either, with only two exceptions. One, if the bloke is lucky enough to shoot our necks in two. Decapitation does work; not many things can live without a head, and a head is the only part on a vampire that won’t grow back if you cut it off. Two, if the gun has silver bullets and enough are fired into the heart to destroy it. That’s not as easy as it sounds,” he warned. “No vampire will stand still and pose for you. Likely, he’ll rip you apart before any real damage is done. But those silver bullets hurt, so you can use them to slow a vamp down and then stake him, though you’d better be quick with that silver because you’ll have a very brassed-off vampire on your hands.”
She nodded, giving him that laser-like attention again. Staring into her dark gray eyes was like starting into the heart of a storm. Even dirty and blood-streaked, she was ridiculously beautiful, and so earnest it broke his heart.
She shouldn’t be concerned with the best way to murder anyone, especially vampires. But somehow, she was convinced that she didn’t deserve more to life than this.
I’ll change that, he swore. But for now, he’d hold up his end of their bargain.
“Strangulation, drowning, none of that does anything. Vampires only breathe about once an hour for preference, and we can go indefinitely without oxygen. Our version of hyperventilating is to breathe once every few minutes. That’s one way to tell a vamp is tiring; he’ll start to breathe a bit to perk up. Electrocution, poisonous gas, ingestible poisons, drugs…none of those work.”
“Sure we can’t test some of those on you?” she muttered.
He wagged his finger in mock rebuke. “None of that, now. You and I are partners, remember? If you start to forget that, maybe you’d remember the things I mentioned would work really well on you.”
“It was a joke,” she said with no conviction.
Such a terrible liar. “The bottom line is that we are very hard to put down. How you managed to plant sixteen of us in the ground is beyond me, but then the world never lacks for fools.”
She huffed. “I would have had you in pieces if you hadn’t made me drive and then sucker-punched me when I wasn’t looking.”
He laughed. She stared at him before quickly looking away as if something she’d seen had rattled her.
“Kitten, why do you think I made you drive?” he said, still chuckling. “I had you pegged five seconds after speaking with you. You were a novice, green to the gills, and once off your routine, helpless as a babe. Of course, I ‘sucker-punched’ you. There is only one way to fight, and that’s dirty. Clean, gentlemanly fighting will get you nowhere but dead, and fast. Take every cheap shot, every low blow, absolutely kick someone when they’re down, and then maybe you’ll be the one who walks away.” He’d learned that at great cost during his youth. The memory made his laughter fade. “Remember, this isn’t a boxing match. You can’t win by scoring the most points.”
“I get it,” she said in grim tone.
She probably did. She’d killed over a dozen vampires, and any one of them would have murdered her for the attempt, had they been lucky enough to survive it. She’d known that. Must be why she carried false identification so her family wouldn’t be harmed in retaliation, if one of her targets rifled through her things after murdering her. Many people could be brave in the heat of battle, but for years, she’d prepared for her own death with the kind of ice-cold courage that few had.
Yet another thing to admire, but she had to think this was a business arrangement he cared little about.
“Now we’re off topic,” he said. “We’ve covered our weaknesses. Onto our strengths, and we have many. We can scent you long before we see you, and we can hear your heartbeat from nearly a mile away. In addition to that, a vampire can suck a pint of your blood and seconds later, you won’t even remember seeing one. Our fangs secrete a substance that, when combined with the power in our gaze, makes humans easy to hypnotize. So, for example, you wouldn’t know that a vampire just sucked a meal out of your neck. Instead, all you’d remember is that you met a bloke, had a chat, and now you’re sleepy.”
And Master vampires like him didn’t even need the narcotic-like property in their venom in order to control humans’ minds. The power in their gaze alone was enough.
“That’s how most of us feed,” he stressed in case she didn’t connect the dots herself. “If every vampire killed to eat, we’d have been outed from our closet centuries ago–”
“You can control my mind?” she interrupted, horrified.
Doubtful, but no need to wonder when he could be sure. His eyes flared green as he let his power out.
“Come to me.”
Any regular human would be on their feet and moving toward him. She recoiled and hissed, “No fucking way.”
He grinned and let his eyes return to their normal dark brown shade. “Appears not. Good on you. Can’t have you getting all weak-minded and forgetting your goals, can we? Must be your bloodline. It doesn’t work on other vampires, either.” She bristled and he clarified, “Or other humans who imbibe of vampire blood. Some humans are immune to it, but only a small percentage. Have to have extraordinary mind control or natural resistance not to let us meddle about in your heads. Video games have solved that as far as most of humanity goes. That, and telly.”
“Telly?” she repeated in confusion.
Americans. “Television. Don’t you speak English?”
“You sure don’t,” she mumbled.
Please. He’d spent so little time in England recently, he probably sounded more like a Yank than a Brit.
“Daylight’s burning, and we still have a lot to cover. We’ve gone through the senses and the mind control, but don’t forget our strength. Or our teeth. Master vampires are strong enough to break you in half and carry the pieces with a finger. We can throw your car at you if we want to, and we’ll rip you apart with our teeth. The question is, how many of our strengths do you have in you?”
Her head lowered, and she hunched as if about to reveal damning secrets. “Darkness doesn’t affect me. I can see as well at night as in the day. I’m faster than any human I know,” she added, now giving him a glance through her lashes. “I can hear things from far away, maybe not as far as you can. But sometimes in my room at night, I could hear my grandparent’s downstairs whispering to each other about me–”
She paused at his raised brow. He schooled his expression to show nothing, but anger burned. Her whole bloody family had ostracized her when she couldn’t help how she’d been born?
“I don’t think I can control anyone’s mind,” she went on. “I mean, I’ve never tried it, but I think if I could, people would have treated me differently…anyway,” she continued in a brisker tone. “I know I’m stronger than the average person. When I was fourteen, I beat up three boys, and they were all bigger than me.” Bitterness crept into her tone. “That was when I couldn’t hide anymore from the fact that something was very wrong with me. You’ve seen my eyes.”
She said it as if they were the most hideous of deformities. He couldn’t disagree more. Her glowing green eyes were a miracle, as was she.
“I have to control them when I’m upset so other people don’t see them glow. My teeth are normal, I guess. They’ve never poked out funny, anyhow.”
Her voice trailed off and she kept glancing at him as if expecting him to rain insults upon her. She spoke of her dazzling uniqueness with more shame than he’d heard genocidal murderers speak of mass atrocities.
“Let me get this straight,” he said in a carefully controlled tone. “You said at fourteen you truly realized your uniqueness. You didn’t know what you were before then? What did your mum tell you about your father when you were growing up?”
Pain filled her gaze. “She never mentioned my father. If I’d ask, as I did when I was little, she’d change the subject or get angry. But the other children let me know. They called me a bastard from the time they could speak.”
She closed her eyes. Briefly, Bones did too.
Oh, how well I know that pain, Kitten…
“Like I said, when I hit puberty I started to feel even more different,” she said, opening her eyes. “It got harder to hide my weirdness like my mom told me to. I liked the night most.” For a moment, her tone softened. “I’d wander for hours in the orchard. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even sleep until dawn…”
Of all the things she’d spoken of, this was the only memory that didn’t seem strafed with pain. He almost smiled at the image of a young Cat playing in the orchard all night. Then her tone hardened and tightness filled her features.
“But it wasn’t until those boys cornered me that I knew how bad it was.”
“What did they do?” he asked softly.
She closed her eyes again. “They were pushing me, calling me names, the usual stuff. That didn’t set me off; it happened almost every day.”
It was a damn good thing she couldn’t see his expression or she’d leap back in fear. All I need are names, he thought coldly. Never too late for bullies to pay for their crimes.
“But then one of them called my mother a slut, and I lost it. I threw a rock at him and busted his teeth out. The others jumped me, and I beat them.”
She opened her eyes. His expression was schooled back into blankness. If she saw his pride in her, she’d be suspicious.
“They never told anyone what happened.”
Bet they didn’t, the sniveling little shits.
“Finally, on my sixteenth birthday, my mother decided I was old enough to know the truth about my father. I didn’t want to believe her, but deep down, I knew it was true. That was the first night I saw my eyes glow. She held a mirror up to my face after stabbing me in the leg-”
She did what? His horror must’ve pierced his controlled mask because at once, she began to defend her mum.
“She wasn’t being mean. She needed me really upset so I could see what my eyes did. About six months after that, I killed my first vampire.”
Her words excused her mum’s actions, but her eyes filled with tears that she tried to blink away. Those tears kept Bones from pointing out that even after she’d tried to kill him, he–a “cursed” vampire!–hadn’t been cruel enough to stab her, and he’d thought she might be working for a murdering slaver.
No wonder her gaze held such desperation. Her own mum had broken her, and she’d done it when Cat had been at her most vulnerable.
Yet Cat hadn’t stayed broken. Somehow, she’d picked up the pieces and molded herself into an avenger of the very woman who’d shattered her. Now, with every vampire she slew, Cat was trying to murder the parts of herself her mum had caused her to despise…and also to buy back her mother’s love.
She shouldn’t have had to be that strong. No one should.
Suddenly, she stood. “Speaking of my mother, I have to call her. She’ll be worried sick. I’ve come home late before, but I’ve never been out this long. She’ll think one of you bloodsuckers finally killed me.”
That smashed through his control. “Your mum knows you’ve been hunting vampires? And she allows you do to do this?”
Blimey, she didn’t have to hunt for monsters. She lived with one!
“I thought you were joking when you said your mum knew you were putting a dent in our population. If you were my child, I’d have you nailed inside your room at night to keep you from doing this.”
Her face went red from rage, but once again, her eyes stopped him. She hadn’t looked this hurt when she thought he was going to kill her. Deep down, she must know how wrong her mum’s actions were. She just couldn’t bring herself to admit it.
“Don’t speak about her that way! She knows I’m doing the right thing! Why wouldn’t she support that?”
Because she should love you more than she hates the species of the sod who raped her.
He didn’t say it. The only reason she’d agreed to partner with him was so she could learn to be a better vampire killer. If he pointed out that no amount of superior slaying skills would make her mum love her if she didn’t love her already, he’d never see her again.
So, he forced himself to shrug. “Whatever you say.”
Then he stood in front of her.
She blinked, startled by his speed. If she knew all his abilities, she might faint, so for now, he’d only show her what was necessary.
“You’ve got good aim when you throw things. Found that out when you chucked your cross at me. Just think, a few centimeters lower, and you’d be planting daisies over my head by now. We’ll work to improve your speed and accuracy. You’ll be safer if you can kill from a distance. You’re too vulnerable up close.”
To emphasize that, he grasped her upper arms. She tried to pull away and couldn’t.
His brow arched. Exactly.
“Your strength leaves much to be desired. You’re stronger than a human man, but as weak as the weakest vampire. Also, your flexibility is shit, and you don’t use your legs at all when you fight. They’re valuable weapons and should be treated as such. As for your speed…that might be hopeless. But,” his tone brightened, “we’ll give it a go. The way I figure it, we have five weeks of hard training, and one week to work on your looks before we can get you out in the field.”
“My looks?” she repeated, her cheeks filling up with a lovely, angry shade of red. “What’s wrong with them?”
Bones gave her his most patronizing smile. “Oh, nothing horrible, but still, something that needs fixing.”
His needling had her forgetting all about the pain of her mum’s rejection. Indeed, if her face got any redder, it would soon match her hair. “How dare you–”
“After all, we’re going after some big fish,” he interrupted her. “Baggy jeans and plain tee-shirts won’t cut it. You wouldn’t know sexy if it bit you in the arse.”
Green flashed in her eyes. “By God, I am going to–”
“Quit blathering,” he cut her off again, now fighting to hold in his laughter. It wasn’t all lies. She was stunning, but she didn’t present herself that way. Maybe she didn’t even realize it. By the time he was through, she would, as would everyone who set eyes on her.
Besides, it would help with hunting vampires. A beautiful woman in a tight, tiny dress would be irresistible to them…and Bones couldn’t wait to see her in one himself.
“Didn’t you want to call your mum?” he tempted her. “Come with me. My mobile’s in the back.”
Once again, he heard her mutter threats under her breath, this time involving silver-studded barb wire and his nether regions. But once again, she also followed him.
It took two weeks for her to stop smelling of fear. Granted, she wore rage and resentment as if they were designer perfumes, but he could hardly blame her. He trained her with the same ruthlessness that the poverty-ridden streets of London had trained him, but instead of the chronic hunger he’d endured, he strapped boulders to her back while she climbed up the steep terrain in the cave. Instead of running from the law after he’d stolen food to survive, he ran her through the woods until she vomited. And instead of the endless times he was beaten and robbed by older lads, she got hand-to-hand combat with him.
Each day, he wondered if she would quit. Part of him hoped she would. That hope increased the first week, when she threw off the boulders he’d strapped onto her and said, “Enough!”
“That so?” Bones replied mildly. “If you no longer want to hunt vampires, then by all means, quit.”
“I’m not quitting that,” she snapped. “I’m quitting this. I hunted vampires just fine before your back-breaking techniques. If I’d known what you intended with that stupid bargain, I would have gladly chosen death!”
She would be choosing death, if she kept hunting vampires without his training. She might have survived on sheer luck plus the element of surprise before, but those were unreliable. Skill wasn’t, and he’d make damn sure she had it even if she didn’t think she needed it.
That’s why he smiled wide enough to show his fangs. “You’d rather die? Come here and prove it.”
She stared at him.
He stared back, knowing her prejudice made her believe he’d really drain the life from her without a second thought.
After a long moment, she began strapping the boulders back onto the harness he’d fashioned for her, and then resumed her trek up the cave’s steep incline.
He’d never been so proud of her…or so irritated by her low opinion of him.
By the second week, she’d made remarkable gains, so much that she stopped losing consciousness during their bouts. She looked rightfully pleased with herself over that, until she realized she would now be awake when he gave her his blood to heal her.
“I won’t do it,” she said in her most obstinate tone.
“Two of your ribs are broken, your arm’s dislocated, and your eyes are so black, you could double as a raccoon,” Bones countered, thrusting his bitten finger toward her. “Going to return home to your family that way?”
Her jaw clenched. “I’ll tell them I was in a car crash.”
“You’d also be breaking our bargain because you wouldn’t be able to continue your training for weeks,” he said, now wagging his blood-smeared finger at her. “That’s not an option, so quit complaining, open your mouth, and swallow.”
“Don’t you sound like every other guy?” she muttered, but finally popped his bloody finger into her mouth.
With anyone else, he would have found the quip amusing. With her, jealousy hit him so hard that he was briefly robbed of rational thought. Her mouth was so warm, so inviting…and how many other blokes had thought the same under much more erotic circumstances?
“Disgusting,” she garbled as she swallowed his blood. “How can you things live off that?”
Things. His patience stretched to the breaking point.
“Necessity is the mother of all appetites,” he said in a curt tone.
“All this blood better not turn me into a vampire,” she muttered, and almost spat his finger out. Then she looked at the moistened digit, at him, and blushed as if thinking of something other than his finger sliding between her lips.
Lust strafed the unexpected jealousy that still gripped him. Never before had she looked at him that way. Finally, she saw him as a man, and judging from that blush, a man she was having naughty thoughts about.
It took all his control to wipe his finger as if nothing had occurred. She wasn’t ready to act on the thought. From her expression, it was already gone, but it had been there.
“Trust me, luv, this won’t turn you into a vampire,” he said. “Since you keep fretting about it, however, I’ll tell you how it works. First, I’d have to drain you to the very point of death. Then, I’d open a vein, and let you drink from me until you were stuffed full of my blood. Only that would trigger the change. These measly drops aren’t doing more than healing your injuries. They’re probably not even enhancing your strength, so stop fretting every time you have to lick a few bits off my pieces.”
Her face turned scarlet, and not from any lustful twinges this time. She simply couldn’t handle even unintended innuendo.
“That’s another thing you have to stop,” he said, addressing it head-on. “You can’t turn red as a sunset while pretending to be a confident, horny woman. No bloke’s going to believe that act if he says ‘cock’ and you faint. Your virginity’s going to get you killed.”
“I’m not a virgin,” she countered.
Insane jealousy slammed him, until he couldn’t think past the need to kill any man who’d touched her. Right then, he was every inch the monster she’d repeatedly accused him of being.
“…change the subject,” she was saying. “We’re not friends. I don’t want to discuss this with you.”
Entirely reasonable. Her sexual history was her business, not his. But when he opened his mouth, none of those logical statements came out. Only his maddened jealousy did, inflamed by his feelings for her and the seething territoriality that all vampires had.
“Well, well, well. Kitten’s catted around, has she?”
Shut it, fool! the sane part of him urged. Shut it now!
But he didn’t. “Chap must be quite a lad. Is he waiting for you to finish your training? Or did you tire of him? Didn’t peg you for the promiscuous type, but then you did offer me a taste when we first met. I wonder–did you plan on staking me before or after you got your itch scratched? What about the other vampires? Did they die with smiles on their faces–”
She slapped him.
He’d never deserved it more. He only caught her wrist when she tried it again because her violence fed the beast that he was now using all his strength to contain.
She whipped her free hand at his cheek. He caught that, too. Then, her expression tore through his insanity. If anyone else had caused her that level of hurt, he’d rip them to pieces.
“Don’t talk to me that way, scum.” Her voice shook. “I’ve heard enough of it. Just because my mother had me out of wedlock, our stupid neighbors thought she was a slut, and me, too, by default. Not that it’s your business, but I’ve only been with one guy, and he dropped me right afterward, so no, I didn’t duplicate the sexual escapades of my peers. Now, I mean it, we are never talking about this again!”
Rage and humiliation had her panting, and her pulse lashed him with its rapid beat. He barely even registered the ”scum” insult. He was too gutted for causing her such pain.
“Kitten, I apologize.”
It wasn’t nearly enough, but how could he explain the reason behind his sudden, unhinged attack? Besides, his lack of control was his problem, not hers. So, he went with the logic that had failed him before.
“I had no right to say that to you. No one does. But just because your ignorant neighbors took their bigotry out on you and your mum, or some pimply teenager pulled a one-nighter–”
“Stop it,” she interrupted, tears brightening her eyes. “Just stop. I can do the job, I can fake sexy, horny, whatever. But we are not discussing this.”
As if he cared about the bloody job! “Look, luv–”
“Bite me,” she spat, and stalked off.
Bones stayed where he was until the last echoes from her footsteps dissipated. Stalactites on the antechamber’s ceiling caught the additional lights he’d set up for her, scattering them over the ground like discarded stars. He’d also gotten a couch for her to sit on, a table so she had something to set her belongings on, a telly to watch if she ever stayed past her training schedule–she hadn’t, but one day, she might–and space heaters so she would no longer shiver in the cave’s naturally chilly temperature. Now, every item mocked him with her absence, and when the extended silence confirmed that she was truly gone, he felt more alone than he had in decades.
Everything that mattered most to him had just left.
Bones took another few minutes to feel every bit of the blame, regret, and loneliness that his actions had wrought. Then, he resolved to fix what he’d broken between them.
Advice would help. He was hardly the first vampire to fall victim to preternaturally psychotic possessiveness. They’d found a way to function through it. He could, too.
Bones pulled out his mobile, scrolled, and hit “call” on his best mate’s name. Charles answered on the second ring.
“Crispin! How goes it? Still in New Orleans?”
“I’m in Ohio now,” Bones replied, used to Charles calling him by his birth name. Bones did the same despite Charles long ago renaming himself Spade–the tool he’d been assigned back when they were both prisoners at the New South Wales penal colonies in the late seventeen hundreds.
“’Fraid this isn’t a social call, Charles. I’m in over my head with a particular situation.”
Charles let out an indulgent laugh. “What are the lovely lasses’ names? Or are there too many for you to remember?”
A grim smile stretched Bones’s lips. “It’s only one lass, and I’m more than a little in love with her.”
A car horn blared through the line. Charles muttered something, then said, “Sorry, mate. I’m on my way to London, and traffic is murder. You were saying something about her being little in size and you loving it?”
“That’s not what I said.” Now Bones made sure to enunciate each word. “I said I’m more than a little in love with her.”
Charles’s screech made Bones hold his mobile further away from his ear. Still, he heard the rest clearly.
“Who is she? And why didn’t you tell me this before now? We spoke only four weeks ago!”
“I hadn’t met her four weeks ago.”
“Crispin.” Charles’s tone changed from loud shock to the softer, calm one he normally reserved for people teetering on the edge of sanity. “You’re telling me you’ve fallen for a woman you’ve known less than a month?”
“What did you tell me back when I said something similar to you about Giselda?” Bones replied. “You said, ‘you never have to wonder if you’re in love. When you are, you’ll know it.’ I know it, Charles. The length of time doesn’t matter.”
Silence. Bones didn’t know if it was more doubt on Charles’ part, or because he’d mentioned Giselda. Even over a century later, Charles hadn’t gotten over her death. Bones used to think that such an amount of grief was excessive. Now, he understood.
“Then I couldn’t be happier for you,” his best mate finally replied. “Tell me about her. I want to know everything.”
Bones closed his eyes. “Her name is Cat, and she’s an exceptionally strong, brave woman who’s two hundred years too young for me, hates all things vampire, has already tried to murder me twice, and loathes the very ground I walk on.”
He heard a screech of brakes, several horn blasts, and then finally, Charles’s laughter.
“Sorry, mate, I accidentally ran the car off the road. Now that I’m safely parked in a ditch, do repeat yourself because you didn’t just say the object of your devotion hates you.”
“You heard me,” Bones said dryly. “I haven’t even gotten to the best part. She’s also half-vampire.”
Silence stretched even longer this time. Bones broke it with a sharp laugh.
“I know. Impossible, right? If I hadn’t seen the proof of it myself, I wouldn’t believe it, either. But she is, and she’s been taught to hate our kind–and herself-–because of it.”
“Oh, Crispin,” Charles eventually said with a sigh. “Leave it to you to take the hardest road possible yet again.”
“Someone has to walk it,” Bones said, knowing Charles meant more than his new love interest. His best mate had long fretted that Bones’s line of work would one day kill him, but someone had to stop the worst among their kind, and vampire law only afforded one loophole.
Kill a vampire from a powerful Master vampire’s line for moral reasons, and you invited war between your people and theirs. But kill a vampire because you took a contract that someone had put on the sod’s life, and that was simply the cost of doing business in a free market society.
So, when Bones could strike a blow for the better, he did. Getting paid afterward was merely the icing on the cake.
“We’re not having that old argument,” Bones said. “I need to know what you did to stop yourself from going barking mad whenever jealousy hit you. Just now, I berated her for not being a virgin. Can you believe I, of all people, did that?”
“Crickey,” Charles muttered.
“Exactly,” Bones said with more dryness.
Charles sighed again. “You can’t learn to feel the jealousy any less. At least, I didn’t. But you can learn not to take it out on her. When it strikes, force yourself to walk away while remembering that what you’re feeling is a chemical surge turbo-charged by our supernatural natures. Or force yourself to walk away while making the phrase ‘bite your tongue’ a reality. Or walk away while punching yourself very hard in the face. In short, walk away while doing anything except giving voice to those out-of-control emotions.”
Sound advice, indeed. “Thanks, mate. I owe you.”
“No, you don’t.” Sadness edged Charles’s tone now. Bones could almost picture him running a hand through his spiked black hair. “I’m still in your debt, and ever will be. But enough of that. When do I get to meet this wonder of biology and thief of previously-untouchable hearts?”
“When she won’t kill you on sight,” Bones replied, his mouth curling at Charles’s instant laugh. “I’m not joking. She might look harmless, but her fighting skills are quite impressive. Soon, she’ll be equal to a strong vampire.”
“She wants you dead, and you’re training her to be better equipped to carry out that objective?” Charles snorted. “You’re going about this ‘love’ thing all wrong, mate.”
“On the contrary,” Bones replied in a light one. “I have a solid plan. But until she stops seeing all vampires as the enemy, you can’t meet her, and for obvious reasons, don’t tell anyone about her.”
Charles grunted. “If the past is prologue, when other vampires learn what she is, half will want to claim her for their own lines, and the other half will want to kill her.”
Bones’s fangs shot out, and he nearly crushed his mobile from his fist instinctively clenching.
None would hurt her. He’d slaughter the lot of them first!
Time to practice the techniques Charles had just suggested. Bones bit his tongue until the taste of blood calmed him.
“Another reason why it’s important that she learn to be at her fighting best,” he replied in a very controlled tone.
“You, too,” Charles said softly. “When Ian hears of her–”
“I’ll be free from Ian’s line by then,” Bones said, his tone hardening. “And I’ll take all who are mine with me.”
Charles grunted. “And if Ian objects?”
Bones’s jaw tightened until Charles should have heard the cartilage crack. “Doesn’t matter. If Ian refuses to grant me my freedom, I’ll challenge him and take it.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Crispin.”
Never more so.
“Thanks, mate. Until again.”
He hung up before Charles could say anything else. There was no need for more warnings. Bones knew the risks. They didn’t matter.
But first, he’d have to repair the hurt he’d caused her, and also resume hunting the cartel he’d been chasing. If they’d set up their new base in Ohio, as Bones suspected, he had to take them down before they endangered other innocent women.
Confirming their presence meant finding the dead, and following the money; the same formula he’d used many times. It worked, though normally, he had to find the dead by scouting out various sites according to rumors and whispers, and then start digging until he hit graves.
But Cat’s lineage straddled both sides of the grave, so this time, Bones might have a short cut.
“We’re going on a field trip,” Bones announced.
Cat gave him a startled look. “Now?”
“Yes. I know you’re tired from training, but this won’t be taxing, promise.” And it had to be done late at night, though he kept that part to himself. “Come on, moonlight’s burning. The longer you delay, the longer this will take.”
“Fine,” she said with a sigh.
Her reluctance was an improvement compared to the first week after their fight. Then, she’d treated him only with icy anger. The second week, it had been irritation tinged with grudging respect. Now, at week four, she treated him like an over-demanding boss while also showing pride at her progress.
He couldn’t decide which pleased him more; her increased comfort in the same abilities she’d previously been ashamed of, or how she was now so at ease with him, she thought nothing of brushing his arm when she bent to retrieve her bag.
Four weeks ago, she would’ve jumped as if scalded. Now, she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and said, “Please tell me we’re not taking your Ducati.”
Her dislike of his motorcycle wasn’t news to him. That’s why he said, “We’re not. You’re driving.”
They walked the two miles from the cave to where she’d parked her old pickup truck. His bike could’ve handled the overgrown, wooded terrain, but she had to park that far away because her truck would’ve stalled on the first heavy bit of brush. Still, she enjoyed driving it, so he didn’t point that out, or the fact that they’d arrive at their destination much faster if they took his bike.
She was mostly silent for the first hour into their drive, responding only to the directions he gave her. Then, when the city lights faded and nothing except lonely country road stretched in front of them, nervousness tinged her scent.
Bones glanced around, seeking the cause. No, nothing but bleak, barren scenery and their single-lane, unpaved road.
“Turn left here,” Bones said when he spotted the sign for Peach Tree Road.
She gave him a dubious look, probably because he was steering her deeper into the woods, not out of them.
“You know, partner,” she said, emphasizing the word. “You’re being very secretive. What’s this field trip about? I take it you didn’t just get a sudden urge to go cow tipping.”
Just to see the look on her face, he should tell her that he had. “No,” Bones said, the truth winning out. “I need some information from a man who lives out here.”
She stiffened. “I refuse to be a part of killing any humans, so if you think you’re going to interrogate this guy and then bury him, you’re wrong.”
Any other time, he’d be offended. Right now, he laughed.
“I’m serious!” she snapped, pumping the brakes.
He didn’t laugh again, but it was close. “You’ll get the joke soon enough. To set your mind at ease, I promise not to touch the fellow. You’re the one who’ll be talking to him.”
She gave him a surprised look, as if she couldn’t believe he trusted her enough to do this.
He waited. When she didn’t take her foot off the brake, his brow arched. “Will we be driving again anytime soon?”
“Oh,” she said self-consciously, and hit the gas hard enough to lurch them forward. “Do I get any more details than that? Like, some background, and what you want to know?”
“Winston Gallagher was a railway worker back in the sixties. He also had a side business of making moonshine. One day, a fellow bought Winston’s product and died the next day. Winston might’ve mistaken the alcohol content for the batch, or the sot drank too much. Either way, Winston was found guilty of murder and condemned to die.”
“That’s outrageous!” she said with all the shock of someone who’d lived a modern, privileged life. “They had no proof, no motive, and no malice aforethought.”
“’Fraid the judge, John Simms, wasn’t big on innocent until proven guilty. He also doubled as the executioner. Right before Simms hanged him, Winston swore he’d never let Simms have another night’s peace. And since that day, he hasn’t.”
She stared at him, her lips parted from shock. “He hung the man you want me to speak to?”
“Pull over at that ‘no trespassing’ sign, Kitten,” he told her. She did, still glancing at him in disbelief. “Winston won’t speak to me since our kinds don’t get along,” Bones explained. “He’ll talk to you, though, but I warn you, he’s about as cheerful as you currently are.”
“What part of this am I not understanding?” she asked with his aforementioned crossness. “Did that judge hang him or not?”
“Swung him right from the tree jutting over that cliff,” Bones said. “You can still see rope marks in it. Many people lost their lives there, but don’t bother speaking to any of them. They’re residual. Winston’s not.”
“Are you telling me Winston’s…a ghost?”
His lips twitched at her tone. Had it never occurred to her that if vampires existed, other supernatural species did, too?
“Ghost, specter, phantom, take your pick. What’s most important is he’s sentient, and that’s rare. Most ghosts are only replays doing the same things over and over, like a record stuck on a turntable. Blimey, I’m dating myself; no one uses records anymore,” he reflected. “Point is, Winston was so mad when he died, his consciousness stayed on. It’s also due to location. Ohio has a thinner membrane for separating the natural from the supernatural, so it’s easier for a soul to stay behind here. This particular area’s like a homing beacon, too, with its five cemeteries forming a pentagram.” He shook his head. “That’s like a road map for spirits. Thanks to your bloodline, you should be able to see ghosts. You might also be able to feel them. Their energy’s like a twinge of voltage in the air.”
Her brows drew together, and then wonder flicked across her features. So, she could feel ghosts. Her humanity truly was the smaller half of her.
“What kind of information could a vampire possibly want from a ghost?” she asked him.
“Have Winston tell you all the names of young girls that have recently died around these parts. Don’t let him tell you he doesn’t know, either, and I’m only interested in deaths by unnatural causes. No car accidents or diseases.”
She was giving him that look again. The one that said she couldn’t tell if he was in earnest or merely pulling her leg. “You seriously want me to go into a cemetery and ask a ghost about dead girls?”
His lips curled. “Come, now, Kitten, you’re half vampire. I wouldn’t think ghosts would be such a stretch of your imagination.”
“Guess not,” she said after a pause. “And ghosts don’t like vampires, so I shouldn’t mention my mixed lineage. Do I get to know why ghosts don’t like vampires?”
“They’re jealous. We’re as dead as they are, but we can do as we please while they’re stuck as hazy apparitions. Makes them right cranky, which reminds me.” He pulled out the bottle he’d acquired before she came over for training. “You’ll need this.”
She held it up and shook it. Bubbles briefly appeared in the clear liquid, indicating the high alcohol content. “What is it? Holy water?”
He laughed. “For Winston it is. That’s white lightning. Pure moonshine, luv,” he added when it was clear she wasn’t familiar with the term. “Simms Cemetery is right past that line of trees. Make sure to bang about a bit to get Winston’s attention. Ghosts tend to nap a lot, but once you’ve got him up, show Winston that bottle. He’ll tell you whatever you want.”
“You really want me to go stomping through a graveyard brandishing a bottle of booze to rouse an unrestful spirit so I can interrogate him?” she muttered under her breath. “Perfect.”
“Don’t forget this,” Bones added, sliding a pad and pen at her. “Make sure to write down the names and ages of every girl Winston tells you about. If he can include how they died as well, so much the better.”
“I should refuse because interrogating a ghost was not part of our agreement,” she said, but an unmistakable spark of interest lit her eyes. She might deny it to him–and especially herself–but she was more than intrigued by the prospect.
“If I’m right, this information will lead to a group of vampires who need killing,” Bones tempted her. “Hunting vampires is part of our agreement, isn’t it?”
She shook her head, but held out her hand. He gave her the pen, notepad, and bottle of illegal liquor, and then pretended not to notice the spring in her step as she left the truck.
Bones stayed on the far edge of Simms Cemetery, watching as Cat slowly walked up to the old headstones. If you didn’t know the cemetery was here, it was easy to miss, hence the human rumors that it was so haunted, it could move to change its location. When tree trunks obscured his view of her, he flew up to see over them. She didn’t know he could fly, so she wouldn’t think to look up to spot him, and his all-black attire made him nearly invisible against the night sky.
His new, higher vantage point let him see her again, though the trees were so close together, their bare limbs formed a spider web of branches between them. She was halfway through the cemetery when she whirled and whipped out her knife.
“All right, luv?” Bones called out.
“Yeah,” she said after a second, sounding slightly embarrassed. “It was nothing.”
He followed the direction of her gaze. John Simms’ shade rose from his grave and crossed the length of the cemetery. Then, he flung himself off the same cliff the hanging tree protruded over. After a few moments, his shade rose from his grave and repeated the process.
Bones didn’t know how Winston had managed to curse the judge who’d sentenced him, but the moonshine maker had done it. John Simms’ spirit hadn’t rested a single night since Winston’s death. Bones wished he could say the same about the judge who’d sentenced him to the penal colonies over two hundred years ago. He’d been a nasty sod, too.
Cat paused when another ghost materialized over an age-crumbled headstone. The Weeping Woman had appeared there so often, even humans had heard of her. But she, like Simms, wasn’t sentient. She was only a remnant of the energy the woman had left behind. Cat must’ve realized that, too, because after a sympathetic look, Cat ignored her and continued searching the cemetery.
After a moment, she stopped and knelt by another weathered headstone. “Winston Gallagher,” Cat said, knocking on it as if it were a door. “Come on out!”
Winston would hear her even if that wasn’t his headstone. Per Bones’s instructions, she was being loud.
“Knock, knock, who’s there?” Cat said next.
Bones smiled at her whimsy, and then he felt a surge of supernatural energy before a shadow formed at the nearby tree line. Cat looked in that direction, proving she felt it, too.
“Oh, Winston,” she said, drawing out the last syllable of his name as if it were an incantation. “I have something for you!”
“Insolent warm baggage,” the ghost muttered, materializing enough to show his stout midsection, bushy brown hair, and thick whiskers. “Let’s see how fast she can run.”
Winston let out an eerie wail worthy of a B-grade horror movie, and then the leaves at his feet burst outward as if kicked by a solid object. An impressive trick for a ghost.
Cat merely stood up and said, “Winston Gallagher?”
The ghost looked over his shoulder, as if expecting to find someone else behind him. That’s how shocked he was that Cat could see him. Bones stifled his laugh and flew higher. Cat wouldn’t know to look up, but Winston might, and Bones didn’t want the ghost seeing him.
“Well?” he heard Cat say impatiently.
The ghost muttered something too low for Bones to hear.
“The hell I can’t,” Cat replied. “If that’s your headstone, then tonight’s your lucky night.”
“You can see me?” Winston asked, louder now.
“Yeah, I see dead people,” Cat said in an amused tone. “Who knew? Now, let’s talk. I’m looking for some newly deceaseds, and I heard you could help.”
Bones couldn’t see Winston’s scowl, but it was clear in the ghost’s new, belligerent tone. “Get out of here, lest the grave swallow you whole, and you never leave!”
“I’m not afraid of the grave. I was born half in it,” was Cat’s calm reply. “If you want me gone, fine, but that means I’ll have to throw this in the nearest trash can.”
Bones knew the moment Winston saw the bottle.
“What’s that you’ve got there, mistress?” he crooned. Nothing like an insatiable alcohol craving to make the ghost remember his manners.
“Moonshine, my friend,” Cat replied in a tempting tone.
“Please, mistress!” Winston shouted. “Please, drink it!”
“Me?” Cat said in confusion. “I don’t want any.”
“Let me taste it through you, please!” Winston begged.
Cat began muttering under her breath. Bones grinned. No, he hadn’t mentioned this part, but now she’d learn another important lesson when it came to dealing with supernaturals: expect the unexpected. Would Cat be flexible enough to accomplish her objectives? Or would her hostility toward non-humans cause her to abandon the job?
“Fine,” Cat said after a pause. “But then you’re going to give me the names of young girls who’ve died around here. No car accidents or diseases, either. Murders only.”
One month ago, she’d thought all vampires were rabid killers. Now, she was bargaining with a ghost on behalf of her vampire partner. She had such strength. It had taken Bones years to stop hating himself for what Ian had forced him to become.
“Read the paper, mistress, you don’t need me for that,” Winston snapped. “Now, drink the ‘shine!”
The ghost was trying to bully her? Bones almost pitied him.
“I’ve caught you on a bad night,” Cat said in an icily pleasant tone. “I’ll just be on my way–”
“Samantha King, seventeen years old, passed last night after being bled to death!” Winston screeched.
Bled to death.
Bones’s jaw tightened. Contrary to what Cat believed, vampires rarely killed when they fed. Even if the vampire had no moral qualms, leaving bodies behind was a messy, attention-getting waste. Why feed and kill when a living human could provide many meals? The few humans in the know about vampires usually flocked to them, seeking the protection and care vampires gave the human members of their lines, all for the low cost of silence about their species plus a little blood.
“Mother of God,” Cat said, gagging after her first swallow of moonshine. It wasn’t Bones’s preferred liquor, either.
“That tastes like kerosene!” she went on with a gasp.
“The sweetness,” Winston moaned. “Give me more!”
Bones’s mobile vibrated with an incoming call. One glance at the number, and he knew he’d have to take this. He flew higher, until neither Cat nor the ghost could hear him.
“Ted,” Bones answered. “What did you find out?”
“Not as much as I’d like,” his friend replied, a Southern accent coating each word. “I flagged every wire or transfer above ten g’s, and you’re right. Lots of money coming in and out of areas in Ohio that aren’t experiencing an economic boom. Lots of new shell corporations here, too.”
Bones had seen this before. “Let me guess; the money’s being sent to shell corporations that can’t be easily traced?”
“Give the fanged man a cigar,” Ted drawled.
“Is Flat Creek Incorporated one of the shell companies?”
“Yes.” Ted sounded surprised. “Was going to tell you that’s the top receiver of all the wires, but you beat me to it.”
Then Bones was right about who was running this cabal, and that wasn’t good news. Hennessey was an old, powerful, well-connected Master vampire known for his expensive tastes, unbridled avarice, and absolute lack of a conscience.
“Are any of Flat Creek Inc’s clients sloppy?”
There was usually at least one. Arrogance bred contempt for playing it safe.
“Sergio Ricci,” Ted replied, rolling his r’s. “He’s been the biggest spender this past year. Probably why he’s the easiest to trace. Hard to completely hide that kind of money.”
Sergio. Not nearly as powerful or connected as Hennessey, but just as morally bankrupt. Killing him would be a pleasure.
“Thanks, mate. I’ll need our usual arrangement soon, so don’t go anywhere. In the meantime, keep your ear to the ground. Let me know if anything new comes up.”
“Will do, bud,” Ted replied.
Bones hung up and floated back down. He was near the tree tops when he heard Cat yell, “I hope worms shit on your corpse!”
She sounded more angry than endangered, but he hastened to the ground anyway. “What happened, Kitten?”
“You,” she slurred, taking several seconds to spot him even though he was now striding right toward her. “You tricked me! I never want to see you or that bottle of liquid arsenic again!”
She hurled the bottle moonshine bottle at him with none of her usual skill. It missed him by several meters.
Bones retrieved it, shocked to see it was now empty.
“You drank the whole bloody thing? You were only supposed to have a few sips!”
“Did you say that?” she accused as she staggered and fell.
Bones caught her before she hit the ground.
“I’ve got those names, so that’s all that matters, but you men are all alike.” Cat paused to let out a loud hiccup. “Alive, dead, undead, you’re all perverts. I had a drunken pervert in my pants! Do you know how unsanitary that is?”
“What are you saying?” Had someone else shown up in the cemetery while he was too high up to see? He’d kill them–
“Winston poltergeisted my panties, that’s what!” she said with another impressive hiccup.
“Why, you scurvy, lecherous spook!” Bones thundered, swinging around to face the cemetery. “If my pipes still worked, I’d go right back there and piss on your grave!”
Ghostly laughter danced on the wind before fading away.
That was it. Bones didn’t know how to kill a ghost, but finding out would become his new pastime.
Cat plucked at his jacket. She was so drunk, even that slight movement nearly felled her. Without his arm around her, she wouldn’t be able to remain on her feet.
“Who were those girls?” she slurred. “You were right, most of them had been killed by vampires.”
“I suspected as much.” And hated for her to know it, but giving them justice was more important than him fretting about her having another reason to hate their kind.
“Do you know who did it? Winston didn’t.” Cat widened her eyes, as if having difficulty focusing on him despite him being right there. “He just knew who they were and how they died.”
“Don’t ask me more about it,” Bones said, soft but stern. “I won’t tell you, and before you even wonder, no, I had nothing to do with it.”
She stared at him, her expression somber but not accusing. She believed him. It struck him with more force than he was prepared to process. He looked away so she didn’t read the emotion in his gaze. Was she finally starting to trust him?
All at once, she began to laugh. “You know what? You’re pretty. You’re so pretty.”
He looked back at her, fighting not to laugh himself now. “You’ll hate yourself in the morning for saying that. You must be absolutely pissed.”
Another cascade of giggles escaped her. “Not anymore.”
“Right,” he said, picking her up.
She didn’t even protest. Drunk beyond belief.
“If you weren’t half dead, what you just drank would kill you,” he muttered before saying, “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
She snuggled deeper into his arms. At once, his body reacted despite him knowing that this was the drink, not her. Still, she felt so right in his arms, and when she brushed her mouth on his neck and inhaled his scent…it took all his willpower to keep himself from kissing her.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked in a breathy tone.
“No, I don’t think you’re pretty.” His voice was hoarse as he fought to control himself. “I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
She smiled, and then her expression clouded. “Liar. He wouldn’t have done that if I was beautiful.”
“Who?” Bones asked at once.
“Maybe he knew,” she said as if she hadn’t heard him. “Maybe on some deep level, he sensed that I was evil. I wish I hadn’t been born this way. I wish I hadn’t been born at all–”
“You listen to me, Kitten,” he interrupted. “I don’t know who you’re talking about”–aside from the world’s biggest fool–“but you are not evil. Not one single cell of you. There is nothing wrong with you, and sod anyone who can’t see that.”
Her head fell back as if it were too heavy for her to hold up any longer. He shifted, cradling her closer.
A smile flitted over her lips. Then, with the quixotic mood fluctuation of someone drunk, she began to laugh again.
“Winston liked me. As long as I have moonshine, I’ve always got a date with a ghost!”
Did his feelings for her make him irrational enough to be jealous of a ghost? Yes, yes they did.
“Hate to inform you, but you and Winston do not have a future together.”
“Says who?” she asked with another laugh.
He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t…
He lifted her head, waiting until her gaze settled on his face. Then he leaned down so there was no chance that she could look away.
She stared at him, her breath hitching. Her heart rate sped up, too, and not from fear. No, another emotion entirely lit his senses on fire as he caught the new, intoxicating change to her scent. His whole body tightened in response, but he didn’t close the space between their mouths. He’d waited too long to kiss her to do it now, when alcohol motivated her as well as desire.
“I’m drunk, aren’t I?” she asked in an unsteady tone.
He snorted. “Impressively so.”
She smiled as if glad he’d confirmed that. Then her gaze flicked to his mouth. “Don’t you dare try to bite me.”
“Don’t fret. That was the furthest thing from my mind,” he replied with the absolute truth.
She smiled again. A pang hit him when he realized this was the most he’d seen her smile. He carried her to the Ford and opened it one-handed. Then, he set her down and fastened her seat belt around her hips. There was no accompanying shoulder strap. This truck was so old, that hadn’t been invented when it was manufactured. Then he took the notepad from her and put it in the glove box. She barely seemed to notice.
She slumped against the truck’s door as soon as he shut it, but when Bones drove off, the bumpy, unpaved road roused her. Between the lack of shock absorbs and the thin, worn seats, she had no hope of resting. She needed a new vehicle. If he thought she’d accept it, he’d buy her one tomorrow.
“Here,” Bones said when he could stand her restlessness no longer, and tugged her so she could lay her head on his leg.
“Pig!” she shouted, banging her head on the steering wheel from how fast–and clumsily–she recoiled.
“Isn’t your mind in the gutter?” he said with a chuckle. “I only had the most honorable of intentions, I assure you.”
Cat gave his lap a wary look, as if assessing its potential dangerousness. Bones’s lips twitched, but he didn’t laugh again.
Oh, you won’t have to wonder when that’ll be dangerous. I promise you, you’ll know at once.
Then, she looked at the cold, unforgiving metal that made up most of the interior to her truck before she flopped down and rested her head on his leg.
“Wake me when we get to my house.”
A week later, Cat stood in front of the new, full-length mirror and stared at her reflection with horror.
“There is no way I’m going out in public like this!”
Bones leaned back in his chair, not bothering to hide his grin. “You look so smashing, I can hardly stop myself from ripping your clothes off.”
If she knew how true that was, she’d do more than glare at him. Most women enjoyed a makeover plus bags of new clothes, but not his Kitten. The results were worth it, though. Her makeover didn’t heighten her beauty as much as demand attention for it, as did her low-cut, short-hemmed dress. If not for the boots that reached her knees, she’d be more naked than clothed, and from her scandalized expression, she was well aware of that.
“You think this is funny, don’t you?” she retorted. “This is all a big, bloody chuckle-fest to you!”
He jumped up and faced her. She was so used to his speed now that she didn’t blink at how he went from a seated position across the room to staring down at her in less than a second.
“This isn’t a joke, but it is a game, and winner takes all. If some poor undead fellow is busy looking at these”–he tugged at her bodice, earning a slap to his hand–“then he won’t be looking for this,” he finished, holding his latest gift against her stomach.
If she hadn’t been so focused on barring another inch of her bosoms from his view, she would have paid more attention to what he was doing with his other hand. After all, her cleavage was meant to distract her targets, not herself.
She grabbed the gift he held out and straightened. “Is that a stake, Bones, or are you very happy with my new dress?”
She was just daring him now, wasn’t she?
“In this case, it’s a stake. You could always feel around for something more, though,” he couldn’t resist adding. “See what comes up.”
She gave him one of her I’m-acting-more-angry-than-I-am looks. “That better be part of our upcoming dirty-talk training, or we’re going to give this new stake a go.”
Oh, he was going to enjoy this next part of her training, and for far more than its practical purposes. She might look like a seductress in her new togs, but she also needed to sound like one. Fortunately for her, he was a world-class libertine who’d spent weeks fantasizing about her. When he was done, she’d be able to handle anything her targets said.
“Now, that’s hardly a romantic rejoinder,” he said, as if this were only part of her lesson. “Concentrate! You look great, by the way. That bra perfectly showcases your cleavage.”
“Slime,” she said, but he caught her quick glance down to see if he was right. Then she quickly looked away, as if embarrassed at being caught admiring herself.
She should admire herself. She’d been berated into being ashamed for too long, but that was a subject for another day. For now, he had another surprise.
“Put the stake in your boot, Kitten. You’ll find there’s a loop for it.”
She did, smiling at how her weapon was now concealed, yet still within easy reach.
“Put your other one away as well,” he said, knowing she always carried her homemade silver-and-wood stake on her, too.
“That was a great idea, Bones,” she said when she was done putting her weapons away. Then, her expression clouded.
Poor lass. Whenever she let her guard down enough to enjoy her time with him, she had a knee-jerk reaction of punishing herself. He hadn’t been able to stop that self-destructive cycle yet, but today, he could distract her from it. Thoroughly.
“Done that myself a time or two, but something’s still not right,” he said while walking around her. “Something’s missing.” He pretended to muse a moment longer before saying, “I’ve got it!” with a snap of his fingers. “Take your knickers off.”
She gaped at him. “What?”
“Your knickers,” he repeated, using all his control to keep a straight face. “You know: panties, muff-huggers, nasty nets–”
“Are you out of your mind?” she interrupted him. “What does my underwear have to do with anything? I’m not flashing my…my crotch at someone, no matter what you say!”
Her color was up, but she hadn’t blushed yet. He’d soon fix that.
“You don’t have to flash anyone anything. Believe me, a vampire will know without you showing him that your box is unwrapped.”
“How?” she snapped. “No panty lines?”
“The scent, pet.” Ah, there was his blush! And such a lovely shade of red, too.
“No vamp in the world could mistake that,” Bones went on, his lips twitching so much that he could barely speak. Good thing she was too incensed to notice. “Like dangling catnip in front of a bloomin’ kitty. Bloke gets a good whiff of–”
“Will you stop?” she all but screeched. “I get the picture, okay? Stop drawing it! God, but you are…profane!”
He’d started this to distract her–and yes, because she was even lovelier when she blushed–but she really did need to get past her overactive sense of modesty. Her first hunt was this weekend, and she would be ready.
“Besides, I hardly see how that’s necessary,” she added, collecting herself with visible effort. “You’ve got me all dolled up in these screw-me clothes, and I’m going to burn their ears off with dirty talk. If that isn’t enough to get our targets to take me for a ride, then it’s hopeless.”
“It’s like this, luv,” he replied. “You look right fetching, but suppose a fellow prefers blondes? Or brunettes? Or likes ‘em with a little more meat on the arse? These aren’t greenhorns; these are vampires with discriminating tastes. We might need something to tip the scales, as it were. Think of it as…advertising. Besides, with a vampire’s sense of smell, it’s not like he can’t sniff you out in the first place.” And if she hadn’t realized that before, she would now. “For example, I can tell right off when you’ve got your monthlies, knickers or no knickers. Some things you just–”
“I get your point!” Now her face was fire-engine red, but to her credit, she took in a few breaths, and then met his eyes squarely. “Fine, I’ll do it, when we go out on Friday for the hunt. Not before. I’m not negotiating on this one.”
“Whatever you say, Kitten,” he replied, ignoring her glare. “Now, to our next lesson: the nasty speak. You know the rules. For every blush and recoil you give me, you owe me ten miles running through the woods. So, which are you going to be by the end of this? A triumphant seductress? Or a tired jogger?”
“Triumphant seductress,” she said with admirable confidence for someone whose cheeks were still stained from a prior blush.
He gestured to the table he’d set up. “Let’s find out.”
Cat sat down, giving a dismayed glance at how that made her short hemline hitch up even higher. Bones saw it and snorted.
“Going to lose our wager before I’ve even started?”
With a defiant arch of her brow, she yanked her hemline up another notch, and then glared at him for admiring the view.
“Are you?” she countered. “If I don’t blush or pull away, you lose. I wonder what punishment I’ll think up for you?”
“Think away,” he replied with a grin. “It’ll never happen.” Then he sat down and held out his hands. “Game on, luv.”
After a moment’s pause, she slipped her hands into his. As soon as she did, Bones told her what he was really thinking.
“You look luscious, pet, and I’m not talking about your new dress. The only thing that could make your mouth more beautiful is if it were wrapped around my cock. I wager the sight of that could start my heart again. I can’t wait to see what you look like beneath me, bent over against me, and on top of me. I want to hear how loud you can scream when you come. I bet you like it rough, too. So do I, and I’ll tear into you until you’re too tired to keep begging me for more–”
“My, my, someone hasn’t been laid in a while,” she interrupted him.
Her tone was cool, but she was already using sarcasm as a shield, and her eyes had dilated with more than embarrassment. Forbidden interest sparked there now, too, and tiny muscles twitched in her hands, as if she wanted to tighten her grip on him, but wasn’t allowing herself to.
Bones rolled his thumbs over the pressure points in her palms, teasing them with light strokes. Beneath the table, her legs clenched as if she were feeling his touch somewhere else, and her eyes widened in surprise.
That’s right, Kitten, Bones thought, letting her see past the mask he always wore around her. I can make you feel things you can’t even imagine. Soon, I’ll do everything I’m telling you now, and that’s not counting what I can do with my fangs that I won’t talk about yet…
“I’ll take your breasts into my mouth, licking your nipples until they turn dark red. They’ll do that,” he confirmed as her brow briefly furrowed. “The more I lick and the more I nibble, the darker they’ll get. You won’t want me to stop even after I’ve completely exhausted you, and I don’t tire easily. Let me inform you of a secret about vampires–we direct where the blood goes in our bodies, for as long as we want it to be there, so I can come again and again while still not stopping…”
Her breathing hitched, and when he stroked the pulse points on her wrists, he felt as well as heard her heartbeat speed up.
“I can’t wait to find out how you taste,” he continued, voice deepening while his tongue traced his lower lip. “I’ll lick you until you think you’re on fire, and after I suck all your juices out of you…I’ll drink your blood.”
“Huh?” she said before comprehension dawned, and she looked at his mouth with a flash of erotic expectation. Almost at once, a flush painted her cheeks from ear to ear, and she stood up so fast that her chair upended.
Triumph surged that had nothing to do with his winning their bet. She wasn’t blushing from her usual prudery now. Oh, no. Her scent, pulse, and the look in her eyes showed that she was blushing because part of her wanted him to do everything he’d said…and the rest of her had just realized that.
He inhaled the heady scent of her arousal while making her a silent promise. Soon, Kitten. Very soon.
But not now. She wasn’t ready to admit her attraction, let alone act on it. So, he’d continue on as if both of them weren’t aware of the new tension between them.
He let out a low laugh. “Oh, Kitten, you were doing so well! Guess you couldn’t pass up a nice stroll in the woods. Beautiful night for it, too. I smell a storm coming.”
She muttered under her breath as she paced. Not her usual curses at him this time; these sounded more directed at herself.
“No wonder I had you pegged as an innocent,” he went on. “I’ve met nuns who were more promiscuous. Knew it would be the oral stuff that did you in. I would’ve bet my life on it.”
“You don’t have a life; you’re dead,” she muttered.
Keep telling yourself that, luv. Even you don’t believe it anymore.
“On the contrary, if you judge by senses and reflexes, I’m more alive than any human. Just have a few more upgrades.”
“Upgrades?” She swung to face him. “You’re not a computer, Bones. You’re a killer.”
Once again, she seemed more desperate to convince herself of that than anything else. He’d pity that inner struggle if she wasn’t wrong about vampires in general, him in particular, and most importantly, about herself.
So, he only leaned back, tilting the chair until it balanced on two legs. All the while, her gaze kept flicking over him as if she couldn’t help herself. He didn’t want her to. That’s why his shirts had gotten much more form fitting. This new gray one was tight enough to accentuate all the muscles he’d honed from working under a pitiless overseer when he was human. Back then, his lean, hard body had been a sign of his poverty. Now, ironically, it was fashionable.
“You’re a killer, too, or did you forget?” he finally said in an easygoing tone. “You know, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and all that rot. Really, Kitten, why so shy on our former topic? Don’t tell me the sod who shagged you neglected foreplay.”
A new darkness in her voice made him stiffen. He tried to read her eyes but they were now shuttered, and her scent soured while her pacing became jerky with rage and remembered pain. This wasn’t a normal reaction to a previous one-night stand. No, something else had happened. Something far worse.
Ice cold rage replaced his desire. Whoever the sod was that had done this to her, his days were now numbered.
“Not unless you count him taking his clothes off as foreplay,” she went on in a brittle tone. “Can we not talk about that? It hardly puts me in the proper mood.”
“Don’t fret over him, pet,” he told her, making sure his voice held none of the violence surging through him. “If I meet him, I’ll snap him in half for you.”
And I will meet him. I promise you that.
“We won’t speak of him any longer,” he continued. “Ready to go back to the table now?”
With that, he waggled his brows in an exaggerated way. To his relief, annoyance replaced the pain in her expression. Good. He never wanted to see that look on her face again.
“Or do you need a few more minutes to cool off?” he said in his most insinuating tone to further take her mind off the past.
She stopped pacing. “I’m ready. I just wasn’t prepared before, but I am now.”
She sat back down, and he stretched out his hands. This time, she took them without hesitation.
“Go on,” she said in the same tone he’d heard soldiers use while preparing for battle. “Give it your best shot.”
A slow smile stretched his lips. “Love to give it my best shot. Let me tell you just how I’d do it…”
Before the hour was through, she owed him forty miles.