Authors: Chloe Cole
Bookish librarian or vampire hunter?
When nightwalker Gabriel Thorne is tasked to do recon on Zara Matheson, he thinks it’s a waste of time. This shy bookworm’s edgiest achievement is winning a blue ribbon for the county’s best pumpkin pie. It’s only when he meets her face to face that he realizes his mistake. Because while she might look like an angel, Zara brings out the beast in him.
Zara Matheson hasn’t been the same since the mysterious death of her father, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of it. When her investigation leads her to Club Nitris, she slips into the seductive world of dominance and submission with a man who rocks her to the core. But is their searing attraction blinding her to the danger that surrounds her?
? Come on, boss. Tell me you’re not serious.”
Gabriel stared at Irena for a long moment, waiting to see if she was about to crack a laugh and tell him she was pulling his leg.
Instead, her sherry-colored eyes narrowed and she leaned forward over the massive desk between them.
“Do you have a problem with that, Gabriel? Maybe you think women are incapable of being a danger to our kind? Unworthy of your attention?”
He blew out a long sigh and settled heavily back against the chair across from her.
“Nope. You know that’s not it, so don’t pull that shit with me.”
Irena had been running the show since he had been recruited to The Protectorate fifty years before, and she was a killing machine. One of the most lethal vampires since her creator, Ezekiel. She was tough enough to be both the problem and the solution in almost any circumstance, so her irritation at the idea that he wasn’t taking this new threat seriously was understandable. But, while she was wrong in her assumption of the why’s of it, she was dead right on the rest.
He wanted no part of this particular assignment.
“Let one of the others handle her. You know I’m not good at women.” He shifted restlessly. “They think I’m mean.”
He didn’t blame them much for that.
Or, as mean as he had to be to offset the curse of uncanny animal magnetism that came along with being a vampire. Unfortunately, between the “back the eff up” vibe he chose to embrace and his menacing size, it wasn’t exactly easy to get close to people he was asked to reconnoiter even when they were men. Women were nearly impossible.
He tried to placate Irena with a compromise. “Look, maybe there’s no need for up close and personal anyway. I can run surveillance on her from afar and get you the information you need.” Because it was almost certainly a false alarm anyway. Just like the past five had been.
Irena had been slipping deeper and deeper into paranoia and, while he felt terrible that she was struggling, he didn’t want to give her more rope to hang herself. The other Protectors were watching very closely, and there were already whispers of a potential coup. If this was another wild good chase, those whispers would soon become cries for her head on the proverbial chopping block.
Irena might not be a perfect leader, but she was a damn sight better than most of the alternatives, and he would hate to see her lose everything she’d worked so hard for. Especially now, when it was all she had left.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t going to budge on this. He could see it in her eyes.
“Nope.” She shook her head briskly. “We’ve already had someone on her from afar for almost a week and, as of this morning, we’ve got nothing. I have a feeling about this one. We need to get an operative in close.” She blew out a sigh and set her elbows on the desk like she was going to start spitting unwelcome truths at him, and he tensed in preparation. “Look, Gabriel, I know you don’t like it, but maybe it’s time to—”
He held up a hand to shut her down before she even finished. “I’m not doing it. I know what you’re going to say, and I’m telling you right now, it’s not happening.”
She went quiet for a long moment and then shrugged as her eyes went hard. “Well, luckily for me, I’m the boss, and you don’t get to make those decisions. So consider this a direct order,” she said, leaning back and tossing her inky black hair over one shoulder. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I think you’re one of the most honorable of our kind. But I need someone I can trust to handle this as quickly and carefully as possible. You don’t have to screw her. Just let off the reins for a few minutes, pour a little of the charm on and get some answers for me, yes?”
She laid her elegant fingers on the manila file between them and slid it toward him but didn’t release it right away.
“This is the only time I will ever ask this of you. I swear it. Just something about her…I can’t let it go. Not yet.” Her tone had gone reedy and the desperation on her face was like a punch in the chest. “If you do this and find she’s clean, I’ll take a step back. Reevaluate what I’m doing, okay? But we’ve got to take care of this first.” She tapped her index finger on the file between them. “Do it for me.”
He hated to disappoint her, but damn, his guts were churning already.
He pushed aside the sense of foreboding and gave his boss a curt nod. She’d been through enough in the past few months. Besides, she was right. They both knew she didn’t have to ask. Unless he wanted to find himself out of a job and the loop altogether, he was going to have to figure out a way to get her what she needed.
Because him out of the loop was out of the question. It would mean a bunch of bloodsuckers unburdened by conscience in power with one less vampire who still had some humanity left in him to balance the scales. And the only thing more sickening than the thought of what Irena was asking him to do was the thought of that.
“When do I start?” he asked, bracing himself.
“Tomorrow night at the latest. She’ll only be in town for ten more days. We need as much on her as possible before she leaves the Cape and heads to her hometown for the holidays. If we determine she’s a code red threat, we’ll need to take her out here, where we have some control over any ensuing investigation.”
Because The Protectorate had made sure years before that they had two beat cops on their payroll and one homicide detective under their control to avoid any inconvenient poking around.
He swallowed a curse and schooled his features as best he could. “Roger that.” He rolled to his feet, shooting her a questioning glance. “We done?”
Her gaze softened a little and her full lips tipped into a weary smile. “This isn’t meant to be a punishment, Gabriel. I’m not the enemy. I know it goes against your code to work this way, but we need to be hyper-diligent for a little longer. Just until things go back to normal.”
Back to normal. Six months after two rogue vampires had murdered a family vacationing on the beach just a few miles from their headquarters. It had been the headline for weeks.
The Bonfire Massacre.
His stomach lurched at the thought of young Elliott Finster, who hadn’t seen his fifth birthday because of those animals, and wondered for the hundredth time if he shouldn’t just step back and let the vampire hunters have their way. Because, the ugly truth of it was, most of his kind didn’t deserve to walk this earth.
He shoved back the thought ruthlessly and reminded himself of the reality of the situation.
The dozen or so people each year who fancied themselves hunters were written off by the general public as crackpots and never made it very far anyway. No matter how much evidence they supplied, most human minds just couldn’t accept the thought of an apex predator in their midst, let alone hundreds of them. Better they remained in the dark, or true pandemonium would ensue. The handful of hunters that were
capable of doing nightwalkers any damage were so few and far between, they would need to increase by a hundredfold to make true progress.
But showy, high-profile murders got attention and, right after the grisly massacre, the conspiracy theorists had come out in droves. Among them had been one tenacious old bastard who had not only found their hive, but also scored a kill.
What were the odds that he’d have hit them right in the heart?
A shaft of pain lanced through him as he thought of his fallen comrade. Melissande. Sweet and kind…the best of them all. Ezekiel’s lover. Irena’s sister.
It was that, above all else, that had Gabriel reaching for the file folder.
For better or worse, these were his people. Just because most of them were monsters, that didn’t negate his vow to protect the ones who weren’t. The few left who actually mattered.
He steeled himself and nodded.
“I’m on it.”
He turned on his heel and cut a path to the door, palming it open and closing it behind him before letting out a muffled oath.
Already, every muscle in his body was tense at the thought of spending the next week trying to get close to this new person of interest. After serving in several militaries on several continents in the past century, and using his preternatural strength to rip combatants limb from limb in some cases, one would’ve thought using his powers to seduce and coerce a woman into giving him answers he needed wouldn’t have bothered him.
One would be wrong, though. There were certain things he just didn’t do.
He closed his eyes as that all too familiar memory forced its way to the forefront of his mind.
“Run, child. Run.”
It would be one hundred twenty years come Christmas, and it still felt like yesterday.
He let his eyes snap open, swallowing hard. A slick of nausea coated his belly as he made his way down the hall and toward the stairwell.
When he reached the main floor leading to the Dark Side section of Club Nitris, he barely looked up as he cut across the room, blocking out the sounds around him. He had a dirty job to do, and the sooner he got started, the sooner he could put it to bed.
When he reached his office, he closed the door behind him and sat at his desk staring at the file Irena had given him as if it were alive, a strange sense of foreboding causing him to hesitate.
He poured two fingers of Scotch from the crystal decanter by his elbow and took a fortifying sip before cracking open the manila folder and scanning the contents quickly.
Zara Matheson. Twenty-nine-year-old librarian. Never married, no children. Lots of community service commendations, a blue ribbon at last year’s Harvest Festival for Best Pumpkin Pie, and a clean background check.
Which instantly sent Gabriel’s radar pinging.
Usually there was something. A stint in rehab. A sealed juvie record. Some time in a mental institution or even just some kinky sex scandal. Any indicator that the person of interest was real and flawed and not just some shell.
But not Ms. Matheson. In fact, she seemed to be a bona fide, flesh and blood saint.
That alone had the back of his neck prickling. If she was such a sweetheart, then why the hell had she gotten Irena’s attention in the first place?
He thumbed through to the next page, reading as he chewed on that bone for a while. After what seemed like a dozen pages of accolades for community service, and another dozen rehashing her academic and career accomplishments, he reached the first photo of the woman. The shot was taken in profile so he couldn’t see much, but what he saw jacked his pulse up double-time.
Like, crazy, sexy, platinum blonde that instantly brought to mind fifties pinups. Her hair was in a loose knot on the top of her head, but a few tendrils had escaped and brushed the collar of her black suit jacket. A suit that clung to every ripe inch of her like a second skin.
What the hell kind of librarian looked like that?
He flipped to the second of two pictures, and his whole body tensed. Even from the printed page, she leveled him with a set of wide blue eyes and plump, raspberry lips, and a hot bolt of lust coursed through him as his fangs broke through his gums with a snap.