Authors: Jess Haines
Stifling a shudder, I made sure to keep my expression calm and blank. I didn’t want to upset Jen. If she’d listened to the message more closely or caught me looking upset she’d realize who it was, too. Her wounded, disapproving looks were the last thing I wanted to deal with right now.
“Thanks, Jen. I’ll check it out.”
I closed the door, moving back around my desk and moving the files aside so I could review the contract one more time. My concentration was shot; my good mood soured. A White Hat and Alec Royce had both tried to get in touch with me, and I had no idea why.
The clock on my computer read 3:15, which meant I still had a little over two hours before my boyfriend Chaz would pick me up for my first real vacation in months.
Being stuck recuperating in a hospital or taking time off from work to wait for the effects of a vampire’s blood bond to wear off does
count as a vacation, by the way.
Sara was supposed to keep an eye on my apartment and my messages while I was gone. It was only for a few days, but that was more (voluntary) time off than I’d taken in quite a while. Her boyfriend was letting me borrow one of his lap-tops so I could keep an eye on my e-mail and stay in touch. He’d threatened to sic his familiar, a tiny black mouse named Bob, on me every night for a week if anything happened to his coveted Fragware 5000. I’d sworn up and down I’d treat it like my own. Seriously, who wants a
crawling on them in their sleep? Ugh.
Anyway, things should’ve been winding down. My current clients had been given the message that I would be out, and Jen was supposed to refer everything to Sara until I got back. Jack and Royce’s surfacing again changed all of that.
I frowned down at the blinking message light on my phone, strongly considering waiting until I returned to town to listen to it. Alec Royce, like Jack the White Hat, was straight up bad news. He was wealthy, good-looking, and had made a couple of halfhearted attempts in the past to seduce me away from Chaz. We should’ve been able to go our separate ways since I’d saved his life and he’d returned the favor by saving mine.
However, the guy was a vampire, and I should’ve known better than to think that he’d forgotten about me over the last month. He’d used threats and coercion to get me to sign a contract that bound me to him by letter of the law, and then later he bound me to him in a much more tangible way—by blood—in order to save my life. While I was grateful for being saved, the method he used to get me out of the clutches of Max Carlyle still gave me nightmares. The remembered taste of his blood on my lips made me shiver, and not entirely in a bad way. Disgusted and horrified as I was, it had been an electrifying experience to feel so needed, so safe, so complete, while under his sway.
As you might imagine, I’d done everything possible to keep the hell away from him since then.
I thought when I changed my cell phone number that it might keep him and some of the other undesirable elements of my past from contacting me, but the number to my office was plastered all over the Yellow Pages and the Internet. I wasn’t thrilled to know he wanted to talk to me again, but having him call me was marginally better than having him show up here at my office or, worse yet, at my apartment.
Grumbling under my breath, I lifted the receiver and punched in the password to listen to the messages. There were a couple others I had to wade through before Royce’s smooth, cultured voice came on the line.
“This is Alec, and I’m leaving a message for Ms. Waynest. Shiarra, I just wanted to make sure you know that whatever happens while you are out of town is not my doing. If someone tries to make it appear otherwise, I’d appreciate being informed so that I can take action. I hope all is well with you, and enjoy your vacation.”
Well, that was confusing. Both Jack and Royce were telling me they weren’t responsible for whatever was going to happen while I was out of town. First and foremost, how the hell did Royce find out I was traveling? I didn’t post my itinerary on the ten o’clock news. Second, what were they so worried about?
It wasn’t unusual for Royce to cover his bases. Though he hadn’t tried contacting me since I’d run away from his home after the blood bond wore off, it wasn’t entirely out of character for him to make efforts to keep his name out of anything potentially nefarious. If he was worried that something might upset some plans of his or make him look bad, he’d take action.
Jack’s covering his ass didn’t make any sense to me. We hadn’t parted on the best of terms. Actually, the last time I’d seen him, I was walking out of the White Hat Super Secret Ninja Hideout after announcing that I felt safer with the monsters than I did with the hunters.
Yeah, I do need to brush up on my people skills a bit.
Regardless, it didn’t matter. Whatever it was they were worried about couldn’t possibly be any worse than what I’d already been through. Fighting mad sorcerers and psychotic vampires was not on the to-do list while I was on vacation. I was anticipating a few awkward moments, since this trip was intended to help me get to know Chaz’s unofficial family better, but that shouldn’t have been enough to make either Royce or Jack stir themselves into giving me some kind of warning.
Chaz and I had been discussing doing something like this for a while. The biggest problem with our relationship was that Chaz is a werewolf. He’s the leader of the Sunstriker Tribe, one of a few packs that live in and around New York City. The Moonwalkers have the biggest pack in town, and they’d laid claim to Central Park, along with a bunch of the parks and reserves all up and down Long Island. That meant the Sunstrikers and many of the other smaller packs had to head out to places like Caumsett State Park, Blue Mountain Reservation, or even as far as the Catskill Mountains when getting together as a group to run as a pack or to hunt. All that travel just to avoid difficulties with the Moonwalkers.
It was pretty inconvenient for the smaller packs. Not everyone can explain away needing to take three or four days off from work every month around the full moon without people getting suspicious. So, as one might imagine, the parks and preserves not claimed by the Moonwalkers were always coveted and fiercely protected. Sometimes the smaller packs got into skirmishes with each other, vying for the same hunting grounds on the full moon. It generally didn’t get so out of hand that humans, like me, got caught up in their problems. However, if Chaz and I stayed together during the height of the lunar cycle, I would need to be prepared to have lots and lots of furry critters around.
This vacation was our “trial run” to see how I might handle having a whole crapload of shifted Weres around me during the full moon. We’d drive up to the lodge in Hunter tonight, and the daylight hours would be devoted to getting to know the people who made up his tribe. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, the moon would be full, and I would get to see them together as a pack. I’d have to be careful, though. Tempers would be short, and some of them might change before the full moon.
No doubt, this would be one weird four-day weekend. I was reasonably certain I could handle it. As long as Chaz was with me, I would be fine.
To be honest, I was more excited about the prospect of staying in a cabin out in the woods with Chaz than about seeing a bunch of furry people running around in the dark but, hey, I could deal with it.
Though I was awfully nervous about the contract I’d been in the process of signing when Jack called. While we had resumed dating, Chaz and I hadn’t slept together since he’d revealed what he was. Legally, he couldn’t touch me. Even sleeping in the same cabin would be pushing it—but I was tired of how careful we had to be, and of how distant he was with me after both Royce and that psycho vampire, Max Carlyle, had temporarily bound me to themselves by blood. Offering to sign a
Notice of Mutual Consent to Human/Other Citizen Relationship and Contractual Binding Agreement
with him should make him sit up and take notice that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I truly wanted to be with him, and that I trusted him again.
My worry was whether or not he trusted
enough to sign it, too.
This little camping trip seemed like the perfect opportunity to make things right between us. We’d gotten a good group discount at a small resort up in the Catskills. It was too early for snow but too cold to tempt many vacationers. Plus, now that school was back in session, tourist season was officially over. Chaz had assured me that the guy who owned the property wouldn’t have any problem with the Sunstrikers—he was also a Were. One well-known among the supernatural community for having bought a bunch of forestland out in the mountains and cordoning off his borders to keep out hunters and tourists, which helped any packs staying with him know exactly how far out they could safely range on the hunt.
It was hard to picture anything going wrong. After all, I’d been introduced to Chaz’s pack before. We’d even gone out to dinner or the movies with a few of them. The only other time I’d seen the entire pack in one place was when we showed up to fight David Borowsky, the crazed sorcerer who meant to enslave all of the Weres and vampires in New York using a weird magic artifact. Sure, they were dangerous, but since I was the pack leader’s girlfriend and had helped save their furry butts, as long as I didn’t do anything too stupid they should be able to hold their hungers and tempers in check.
What could go wrong?
I pondered these things while I stared at the contract. Screw it. I tucked the papers away in my bag and followed Jen’s example, amusing myself with a card game while I waited for the clock to tick by and Chaz to come pick me up.
I wasn’t pleased when a familiar face showed up at the office an hour before Chaz was expected to arrive. Though I’d been strenuously ignoring anything going on beyond the haven of my office, I couldn’t help but overhear Jen arguing with someone outside. I figured if it was that important, Sara could handle it.
Then Jen’s voice rose, loud enough that I couldn’t mistake who she was speaking to, or who he was here to see.
“Mr. Pradiz, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come back next week. Nothing has changed since I told you over the phone an hour ago that she isn’t available. Now would you
Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Mr. Pradiz” was the tabloid reporter who had splashed my personal life across every newspaper in town while I was busy trying to stay alive. He’d been following me from a distance ever since Royce scared off one of Max Carlyle’s minions who’d come to kidnap me. We had an uneasy understanding that I’d give him the scoop behind the supernatural hoopla that always seemed to blow up around me as long as he left me the hell alone and let me come to him when I had a story. I didn’t like him following me around, but all he’d agreed to was keeping his distance and not approaching me or my friends in public. For him to show up here, now, couldn’t be good news. Whatever he wanted, it could wait until I got back to town.
I groaned and heaved myself out of the squeaky office chair, cracking my office door open and peering out. Jim’s clothing was neat, but nondescript, his skin bronzed by hours in the sun and blond hair fashionably tousled. Aside from the tiny digital camera peeking out of his shirt pocket, he didn’t seem to be armed with anything other than a complete inability to take a hint. The avid interest gleaming in the reporter’s hazel eyes when he spotted me instantly put me on my toes.
He grinned, showing whiter than white teeth in a practiced look that might have been attractive had I not been overexposed to the charms of far greater predators—such as Max Carlyle and Alec Royce.
“Ah, so you
here! Ms. Waynest, just a few quick questions—”
“It won’t take but a minute—”
His eyes glittered with impatience and something else I didn’t want to explore too deeply, that ingratiating smile wilting around the edges. “Don’t be so quick to turn me away. You haven’t even heard me out yet.”
“I don’t need to. You’ve been shadowing me for over a month—so if you haven’t found whatever the hell it is you want from me yet, I’m sure it can wait a few more days. I’ll get back to you after my vacation. Hell, I’ll even give you an exclusive if you can promise to stay the fuck away from me until then.”
“An exclusive?” he said, one bleached blond eyebrow arching high. “My, my. You must be desperate to hide something from me.”
“Thanks, you’re not my type,” was his deadpan reply. I frowned, and his smile returned, brighter than ever. “All I’m interested in is a story. I hear things are heating up around you. I want to know why.”
“Tough. You can wait ’til I’m back. Please, Jim, I promise I’ll talk to you if you just leave me the hell alone until Monday.”
“Tempting as the offer is, I’m not sure I can take it. But I’ll tell you what—here’s my card. Call me when you figure out you’re in over your head.”
He gave me a shit-eating grin as he flicked the card at Jen and sauntered out of the office. She muttered something uncomplimentary under her breath about his theatrics and slid the square of paper off her desk and into the trash. I was tempted to call out for him to stop and explain himself, but the idea of souring my vacation worrying about whatever he was after was deterrent enough to keep my mouth shut.