Authors: Jayne Castle
A Few Hours Later in the Old Quarter of Cadence CityÂ .Â .Â .
ELLY STOPPED AT THE LAST BOOTH AT THE BACK OF THE
crowded, noisy tavern.
Cooper sat alone, dining on a large sandwich, some greasy looking fries, and a bottle of Green Ruin beer.
She was startled to see that he was dressed like the other hunters around him. It was, she reflected, the first time she had ever seen him in khaki and leather. One of the reasons she had fallen for him in the first place was that he had seemed so different from the other hunters she had known all her life.
He wasn't wearing his glasses or Guild seal ring, either, she noticed. He was, in fact, doing an excellent job of blending into the crowd. But then, Cooper had a knack for making you see what he wanted you to see. She could personally testify to that. Back at the beginning of the roller-coaster ride that had been their relationship, she had actually believed that he was a librarian.
But even in khaki and leather, he still rezzed her senses in a way that no other man had ever been able to do.
Her pulse was racing, but she gave him her coolest, most composed smile.
“Welcome to Cadence,” she said brightly. “Mind if I join you?”
She had to raise her voice to be heard above the loud rez-rock music, but she did not allow her brilliant smile to waver by so much as a fraction of an inch. Growing up in a family with three brothers and a father who were all ghost hunters had taught her a few things about dealing with the species. So had her mother. Rule number one, according to Evelyn St. Clair, was that a woman had to stand up for herself, or else she would get trampled beneath a lot of heavy ghost-hunter boots.
Cooper's boots were heavier than those of most hunters.
He looked up from his sandwich and beer, showing no sign of surprise. She knew that he had seen her enter the bar a moment ago and had tracked her progress through the crowd. Very little escaped Cooper's notice. He had a hunter's natural awareness of his environment.
“Elly,” he said in the low, dangerously soft voice that never failed to stir the hair on the nape of her neck. He got slowly, politely to his feet. “Nice to see you again. When I got your call a few minutes ago, I was surprised to hear that you were in the neighborhood.” He indicated the rowdy tavern scene with a faint inclination of his head. “Not exactly your kind of place.”
She set her oversized tote very carefully on the seat across from the one Cooper was using.
“When you're looking for a hunter,” she said, slipping out of her coat, “you go to places where they tend to congregate. Unfortunately, the Trap Door is just that sort of dive. The big surprise here is you. Back in Aurora Springs you didn't spend a lot of time in the usual hunter hangouts.
You're not wearing your seal ring, either. What's up? Are you here incognito or something?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.” He took her coat and hung it on the hook at the front of the booth. “Guild bosses tend to attract attention. I'd like to avoid that on this trip. Luckily only a couple of people here in Cadence know me by sight.”
She sat down beside the tote. “Why all the secrecy?”
“I'm in town on personal business, not Guild business.” He lowered himself onto the red plastic cushion across from her. “I'd prefer not to be recognized. There are reasons.”
Oh, damn. He's got a mistress here in Cadence. He's trying to protect her from the media.
The tabloids loved to cover illicit Guild boss affairs and associated gossip.
Her heart plummeted. The fizzy feeling deep inside that had been bubbling like mad ever since she'd gotten the phone call from her mother that afternoon, suddenly went flat.
Should have considered the possibility that he was involved with someone else,
she told herself.
It's been six months, after all. What did you expect? That he had been pining away over there in Aurora Springs, missing you?
When her mother had phoned to tell her that she'd heard that Cooper was on his way to Cadence, she'd been unable to suppress the little jolt of hope and excitement. He was coming after her at last.
Except that he hadn't come after her. The drive from Aurora Springs took an hour and a half, at most, and probably a good deal less in Cooper's sleek, high-powered Spectrum EX. Guild bosses didn't worry a lot about posted speed limits. Cooper had no doubt been in town for hours, but he hadn't called or come by the shop. Now she knew that he had probably gone straight to his lover's place.
But if that was the case, why wasn't he with her tonight? It was after eight o'clock. Maybe she was married.
Pull yourself together, woman. You're here on a mission.
Still, she found she had to give herself a couple of minutes to adjust to being this close to him again. She had not actually forgotten the impact he made on all her senses. She relived it frequently late at night when she was alone in her bed. Nevertheless, when she had learned he was due to arrive in town today, she had convinced herself that, after all these months away from him, she would be able to handle the sexy thrill.
It was downright annoying to discover that she had not developed any real immunity to Cooper in the past few months. But being on her own here in the big city and running a business had taught her a few new social skills.
“How did you know I was in town?” Cooper asked.
“The Old Quarter here in Cadence is my neighborhood now,” she said smoothly. “Let's just say I have my sources.”
“Right.” He nodded, evidently satisfied, and picked up his sandwich. “Your mother phoned and told you I was on my way here to Cadence.”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact. She called me this afternoon to warn me.”
He looked amused. “She thought that my impending arrival warranted a warning?”
“She's my mom. She didn't want me to be taken by surprise if you decided to show up at my shop.”
“Should have remembered that moms are inclined to do things like that.” He drank some beer and lowered the bottle. “So, how's life in the big city?”
His mesmerizing blue eyes were even more riveting without the transparent shield of his glasses, she discovered. Or maybe she had just forgotten how compelling they were.
“Life here is great,” she said briskly. “A whole new world, in fact. I always knew that Aurora Springs was staid
and conservative compared to a city like Cadence, but I didn't realize just how old-fashioned and behind the times the place really is until I got here.”
“Been an enlightening six months for you, has it?”
“It certainly has. Did you know, for instance, that the local Guild is making a major effort to go mainstream like the Resonance City Guild? There's talk of turning it into a corporation.”
He shrugged. “Mercer Wyatt will probably be able to make the Cadence Guild resemble a mainstream business enterprise. But I can guarantee you that when it comes to the inner workings at the top, things aren't going to change much.”
“How do you know that?” she demanded. “Look at the Resonance City Guild. They say the former boss, Emmett London, managed to turn it into a respectable corporate entity before he resigned. It even has a representative on the Resonance Chamber of Commerce, for goodness' sake. Talk about mainstreaming.”
“I've got nothing against taking the Guilds mainstream. Up to a point. Got a few plans of my own for Aurora Springs.”
That stopped her. “You do?”
“Yes.” He raised his brows. “But that doesn't mean anything will actually change much in the executive offices.”
“Because,” Cooper said with an air of great patience, “although you can change some aspects of how the Guilds function and how they are perceived by the public, at their core, they are fundamentally different from mainstream corporate entities.”
“Why?” she demanded.
“The Guilds are a cross between business enterprises and emergency militias. That mix requires a management style that is different from that of mainstream businesses.
It also requires more emphasis on discipline, tradition, and a degree of secrecy that true corporations can't maintain.”
“This is ridiculous.” She sat back in the seat and flattened both hands on the table. “I don't know why I'm bothering to argue with you. Talk about a waste of time. If you want to keep the Aurora Springs Guild mired in outdated traditions, that's your problem, not mine.”
“True,” he agreed. “You gave up any right to comment on the subject when you threw my ring back in my face, didn't you?”
She stiffened. “I didn't throw it back. I just sort of set it down on your desk.”
He shrugged. “We each have our version of events. Want some fries?”
She was suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the fact that she had not eaten dinner. That would put her last meal at shortly before noon, she reflected.
She looked at the fries, mouth watering. “No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” He ate another fry.
She cleared her throat. “Those things aren't good for you, you know.”
“I've heard that.” He smiled his unreadable smile again. “Worried that I might get fat?”
She felt herself redden. It was impossible to imagine Cooper Boone putting on weight. He was as hard and lean and tough as a ghost-leopard.
“I was thinking of your arteries, not your waistline,” she muttered, wishing she had kept her mouth shut.
“Seeing as how you decided not to marry me, you don't have any long-term interest in my cardiovascular system.” He paused, a fry halfway to his mouth, and gave her a polite, questioning look. “Or maybe you're hoping that the grease will do me in?”
She gripped the edge of the table with both hands. “Never mind. I'm here on business. Mind if we get to it?”
“No. Got to tell you, I've been damn curious ever since I got your call. Should I be touched that you kept my personal phone number all these months?”
“It was still in my address book,” she mumbled, deliberately offhand.
Actually, it was still locked into her memory, along with so many other small details about Cooper, such as his bird-of-prey profile and the way he wore his dark hair brushed straight back from his high forehead.
“Okay, so much for the warm reunion,” he said, biting off the end of the fry with strong, white teeth. “On to business. Why did you track me down here tonight?”
She took a steadying breath. “I need a hunter.”
A dangerous light came and went in his eyes. “Is picking up hunters for an evening of fun and games a new hobby for you?”
She could feel the heat rising in her face and prayed that the weak illumination provided by the small candle on the table concealed her blush. It was no secret that a lot of women found ghost hunters extremely attractive prospects for occasional flings and one-night stands. Bars such as the Trap Door were popular stops for bachelorette parties and groups of single females out on the town in search of a little excitement.
Because of the nature of their workâthey were, in essence, primarily expensive bodyguards in the tunnelsâhunters tended to be in great shape physically. But it wasn't just their macho swagger and their rakish khaki-and-leather attire that drew the attention of women. Rumors abounded that ghost hunters were especially good in bed after they had de-rezzed a ghost. The hormone thing, Elly reflected.
“Here in Cadence I prefer to date outside the Guild,” she said smoothly. “In fact, none of my friends know that I'm from a Guild family, and that's the way I intend to keep it.”
“Of course not,” she shot back, infuriated by the accusation. “It's just that when I left Aurora Springs I was determined to make it on my own without the help of my family or Guild connections. Oh, never mind, I don't have time to explain. The important thing right now is that I need a hunter I can trust. I would also prefer one who is not affiliated with the local Guild.”
“You trust me?” he asked.
“Got to say, that comes as something of a surprise, given our personal history.”
“You and I certainly had our issues, Cooper. But I never, for a moment, doubted that you could be trusted. My father told me once that your word was good amber. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
was an old one in the Guilds. Down in the catacombs everything depended on the quality of the tuned amber that was used to focus psi energy. Amber was necessary to navigate the endless, ancient tunnel complex. Badly tuned amber could lead a man or an entire excavation team astray, dooming those who relied on it to wander forever in the labyrinth belowground. Good amber was amber that could be relied upon when the going got rough.
“Tell me why you need a hunter,” he said.
“I have to go into an off-the-charts area of the catacombs tonight, as soon as possible. It's a sector that I am reasonably certain has been cleared of illusion traps, but when it comes to ghosts, well, you know how they are. Unpredictable. I'd prefer to have a hunter along.”
He put down the fry he had been about to eat. “Are you joking?”
“What the hell is this all about, Elly?” His eyes went hard and cold. “I can't believe that you've been foolish enough to get involved in illegal excavation work. But if that's the case, tell me now. I'll take care of it.”
She had vowed that she would not allow him to push any of her buttons tonight, but this was too much.
“And everyone wonders why we broke up.” She spread her hands. “This is a perfect example of why marriage between us would have been a disaster.”
He blinked. “What did I say?”
“You honestly don't know, do you? You haven't even got a clue. Never mind.” She sat forward determinedly. “We don't have time for this. Don't worry, I'm not going to involve you in anything illegal. This is a straight search-and-rescue job.”