Authors: Mary Hughes
Tags: #vampire;erotic;paranormal romance;undead;urban fantasy;steamy;sensual;vampire romance;action;sizzling;Meiers Corners;Mary Hughes;Biting Love;romantic comedy;funny;humor;Chicago;medical;doctor;adult
A pale face stared at me, capped and gowned like an orderly.
Eyes totally blank.
The doctor in me ticked off vitals. Gaze unresponsive, pinprick pupils. White face. Shoulders indicated shallow breathing. Hypnotized or sleepwalking?
Beyond him I got the impression of a railed gurney, a lump under the covers attached to a bunch of tubes and machines, reinforced by the little high-pitched whimper of an IV pump.
It caught me by surprise. My arm wilted as the door slid completely shut. With a
of machinery, the elevator took off. I blurted, “What was that?”
“What was what?” Marrone’s quizzical expression as he glided closer was overdone. Luke’s face was carefully neutral.
“In the elevator.” Inanely, I pointed at the closed doors, as if he could X-ray inside. “It looked like a patient.”
Marrone stared at me, his face a blank mask for an instant. “Oh, surely not, my dear. We don’t do
here, much less clinical trials.”
“I know what I saw—”
“We’ve been at this awhile. Shall we return to my office for refreshments?”
I got a vague, unsettled feeling at that. I couldn’t help but remember Luke’s words again.
Marrone always has an angle.
I hit the call button with a little more energy than it required. “Thanks, but I think I’d better head back. I have to be at the hospital by four.”
The next elevator arrived and I didn’t give him a choice, walking inside and pressing lobby. But when I didn’t hear either him or Luke enter behind me, I started to press hold and raised my head to call out.
My heart jumped into my throat and started Watusiing.
Luke glided into the elevator behind Marrone, a hard frown on his face. He raised a brow at me, and I understood that, though he didn’t want Marrone to think he was involved with me, all I had to do was say the word and he’d intervene.
I swallowed my heart back where it belonged and gave a twitch of the eyes, meaning
“I thought today was your day off, my dear?” Marrone’s tone was gentle.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” I backed away, into the wall beside the button panel.
“You look pale. You should come up for some water, or even a glass of wine.” He slid closer, close enough that I could smell the peppermint of his breath. On the floor panel above the button for thirty-eight, he inserted a key and turned it two clicks. “Beside, you haven’t shown me yours…your research, that is.”
We went up.
As the elevator rose, both my stomach and my thoughts were swirling. Why was he pushing so hard? I didn’t like it. Why was the orderly so blank? Was he drugged? That sent a shiver through me.
Like a nascent solar system, chunks of thought collided, some breaking apart but some coalescing. Marrone’s insistence on my research. The orderly, blank as if drugged. The Meiers River, containing…well, it wasn’t a known hallucinogen, but the chemical structure was closely related. That thermostabilizer signature on both hallucinogen and my brother-in-law’s vampire poison.
Marrone, interested in both. Marrone’s drug company, near enough to be behind both.
“The penthouse.” The doors
open and Marrone started to take my elbow. I pretended an itch to avoid him, but he simply waited by my side until I realized it was either lead the way out of the elevator or be led. I strode off, Marrone shepherding me with gestures, Luke stalking close behind.
Marrone showed us to a large corner office, decked out in warm colors and soft fabrics like furniture from a luxury hotel suite. Two gigantic windows were uncovered but made of some sort of refractive, smoky gray glass, probably UV shielded. He went straight to the wet bar. “So about that drink—”
“Water,” I yelped.
The drug connection was tenuous at best, imagined at worst. But what if it wasn’t paranoia but thin-slicing, the ability to pick out what’s important from a very narrow window of experience?
If the orderly was drugged, what better way than the water?
I needed proof. So, get a sample. Several samples, from Marrone, from the drinking fountains…even that waterfall downstairs. I happened to carry sterile plastic sample tubes in my backpack. Don’t judge me. You never know when you’ll need to pee in a cup.
“Refreshments are a good idea, you’re right.” My words tumbled out. “But I have to drive and so maybe a glass of ice water?”
“Only water?” He turned to me with raised eyebrows, not as effective as Luke’s or Lizelle’s because his were so wispy. “I suppose I can accommodate such a delightful guest.” He bent to open what sounded like a mini-fridge, retrieved a frosty pitcher of water and set it on the bar, then turned to lift two cut glasses from an overhead cabinet. “Perhaps while I’m pouring, you can retrieve your research?”
“Um, sure.” I bugged my eyes out at Luke, silent communication that I wanted him to distract Marrone. I didn’t really expect him to understand from a jabbing gaze, much less accommodate me, but he gave me a small nod and sauntered to Marrone’s side.
“Get me one too, would you? Nice glasses. Crystal? And is that scotch I see next to them?”
“Yes. Are you interested?”
“Depends on the age—and who made it.”
That was one smart vampire. I got a little sploosh of pleasure.
I snared my glass of water without Marrone breaking stride. His attention was totally on an amber bottle. “Let me tell you about this scotch.” He started pontificating, which was probably what Luke intended.
When I realized Luke not only understood my hurried silent communications, but he’d done so easily—and then did as I asked without question—my heart went
Which was confusing and a little frightening. I understood a relationship as a strings-free, sexual encounter.
That ping said things weren’t so strings-free anymore.
I jammed a hand into my backpack and felt for a sample tube. Getting closer to Luke Steel wasn’t a good idea. When emotions swamped me, failure wasn’t far behind. Best for me to keep sentiment offline.
My hand landed on the tube. I quickly unscrewed the lid and dipped up a sample of water. Luke asked a question, raising his voice to cover the sloshing clink of ice cubes.
My heart pinged again. Stupid organ.
I capped the tube and jammed it into my pack. Damn it, I’d spent half a lifetime honing my mind, my rationality. Putting aside fickle emotions to do the job.
But this time…this was the first time I wanted to follow my heart.
Luke kept a discreet eye on Alexis as he diverted Marrone’s attention.
After she scooped up a tube of water, she made some excuse about getting a gift for a party, dropped a manila envelope on Marrone’s desk, and scurried out. Marrone blinked after her, scotch bottle in one hand. With a shrug, he poured two glasses of amber liquid and took them to the desk, setting one on the opposite side.
Luke settled himself into the guest chair, a precise two inches lower than the executive behemoth behind the desk. He understood the head game behind the chairs but couldn’t bother with Marrone’s nonsense, busy thinking hard. Alexis was up to something. Even knowing her for so short a time, he’d recognized that glint in her eye. She’d seen something, maybe having to do with the sick human he’d smelled on the elevator, and she’d taken that sample of water to investigate.
He didn’t know if the sick human was simply a visitor who happened to be ill, or if something darker was going on. But Alexis had misgivings, and he’d give her the chance to explore them.
Which meant he had to distract Marrone from figuring out why she’d left so hurriedly. Not by pretending innocence. The other male was the mistrustful sort—the more Luke tried to act like nothing happened, the more Marrone would dig.
Solution? Bring it up himself so that Marrone could reject it.
“So what was that all about, with the elevator, and then her leaving so fast?” He sipped scotch. Took a moment, despite the danger of the situation, to savor it, because the stuff deserved it. The other male knew his liquor.
Marrone affected a deep sigh and rolled eyes toward the ceiling. “What is any of it all about? Life, eh?”
That just hit Luke wrong. Suddenly, he’d had enough. Enough of Marrone, enough of all his angles, his plans within plans. Enough of having to think like a damned pretzel to keep up, keep ahead.
Enough of being alone and lonely…
Enough of every damned thing. Elias could negotiate his own truce. He shot to his feet.
“If you’re going to feed me the usual bullshit, I’ll be on my way.”
“Steel, wait.” Marrone put up one slim-fingered hand.
Luke was already at the door, accessing his blood-location sense. If he hurried, he could catch up to Alexis before she left…not out of any need to see her, to touch her…sure, okay, he was lying to himself, but he also had a duty, simply to make sure she got off safely.
Behind him, Marrone said, “Don’t go. I think we have much in common. I know we have much to discuss.” The location of his voice changed slightly, as if he’d risen and come out from behind his desk.
But Luke was concentrating on Alexis. Strangely, when she pinged on his senses, she wasn’t as far as he expected. She was in the foyer and stationary.
Perhaps getting more water samples. Luke was curious why, but his protective instinct overrode curiosity, and he realized if he left now to catch up with her, Marrone might have the leisure to detect her via security cameras or other means. Better the male didn’t know what she was up to. Marrone’s idea of interrogation was along the lines of strip-mining.
Luke spun so fast that Marrone, sneaking up on him, actually put up both hands as if warding off a blow.
“Does this mean you’re amenable?” The male grinned to cover but left his hands raised.
“It means I’ll listen to what you have to say.” Luke stalked past Marrone to the corner conversation area and sat in the tallest chair. He had to force himself to relax, to ease into his insouciant personality. What was automatic for his brother was studied for him, at least since the attack that left his wife dead.
He toyed with a small sculpture on the end table nearest him. “Why BlooDrug? My five-year-old niece could come up with a better name.”
“She hasn’t inherited the family propensity to pun? How unfortunate.” Marrone set Luke’s glass on the table beside him and slung himself into a chair opposite.
“What pun is bloodrug?”
“What you sweep blood under, naturally.”
“Not much of a pun, either.”
“Isn’t it?” Marrone shrugged, then held up his glass. “Then let’s hope I’m better at negotiation. To making peace.”
Luke grabbed the glass on his side and lifted it. “Making peace.” He tipped it toward the other male and brought it to his lips.
After surreptitiously filling a second sample tube from the drinking fountain and a third from the waterfall and pausing to label all three with my felt-tip pen, I hurried to the parking lot.
I was in my car and about to drive off in relief when another thought hit me. On arrival, I’d been overwhelmed with the forty-story office building. Forty floors, not thirty-nine.
I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t want to stop, to take the time to double check my faint suspicions. Obviously, I’d simply made a mistake estimating. No reason to think everything else, elevator, suite numbering and Marrone, were wrong, especially when balanced against my quick appraisal. I was only one floor off.
But something, maybe thin-slicing again—certainly not the vague, disturbed feeling in my middle—made me get out of the car.
I shielded my eyes against the sun and counted. Twice.
Forty stories. And the elevator only had thirty-nine floors.
One floor was missing.
All my nerves went on alert, so high that fine hair raised all over my body and my skin prickled like I was mid-swarm in stinging bees.
Luke was inside that building. Alone with Marrone, alone with his drugs, in a tower with a missing floor.
The sense of wrongness that washed over me flooded in so strongly it goosed me to slam the car door and run back toward the building.
I wanted Luke out. Safe.
Even as I ran, I was appalled with myself. I don’t know if I was more disturbed by the strength of my feelings, by my acting on the feelings, or by Luke meaning so much to me in such a short time. Didn’t stop me from going back. Nerves goosed me until I was panting. When I got inside, I had to consciously slow to a hip-churning walk, racing to the back. To the elevators, and more importantly, the fire alarm.
I threw it. A rave-level buzz snarled its warning.
Startled at how loud it was, I flinched. My brain offered that my automatic reaction was actually in my favor, simulating surprise.
No, officer, I didn’t pull the alarm. I was as startled as everyone.
But now the implications of what I’d done came home. The panic. The fear. What if I’d caused a stampede, and people got hurt? I’d never forgive myself.
Heart hammering, I ran into the entry area, to begin triage…and slowed.
People were going about their business as if the whole marble area wasn’t ringing with buzzing echoes ramped to twelve. No mass panicked exodus.
Good, in that nobody would be trampled. Bad, in that it might not eject Luke from Marrone’s domain.
No, I had to trust that he was savvy enough to know the potential danger. Smart enough to get out.
to be smart enough to get out.
I tried to look as calm as the rest of the people around me, but as I returned to my car, shame washed over me. Painful, hot. I’d acted in a totally irrational manner, almost violently so. My King-Konging around might have gotten people hurt.
That was the trouble with letting feelings run my life. They steered me wrong, then cascaded out of control.
Maybe if I’d been accustomed to a roiling emotional cauldron in my belly and my skull, I’d have dealt with it more easily. As it was, I tried to stuff everything behind a wall, but it bled through and soaked the plaster, bulging until my wall burst. I was inundated with messy hot feeling again, worse than before because now I’d added failure to the mix. I sat in the car and called on every bit of self-discipline I had to breathe through it. To start the ignition.
To drive away.
I drove around a good half hour until my heart rate slowed from hummingbird to rabbit. Even then, I was still too worked up to go home, so when I caught sight of a store featuring “WOMEN’S PARTY APPAREL”, I made a brief stop. I wasn’t going to the shower, but I was no Grinch. Might as well buy the present now.
I told the store clerk I wanted a gift for a bride’s pre-wedding party. Confusingly, the clerk seemed to think there was a major difference between a wedding shower and a bachelorette party. But she was happy to pick out the best item the store had to offer and even wrap it for an extra fee.
Then, without anything better to do, I headed for the hospital. Nothing unusual in my coming in on my day off. There was enough of a medical lab in the building that I could analyze Meiers River water samples for the signature chemicals. I’d been doing so every few years since I’d first found the hallucinogen-like substance in high school, trying to figure out what was going on, but it was my discovery that the thermostabilizer and related chemicals in the vampire poison were also in our water supply that kicked my research into high gear.
Today before I started, I reviewed my last couple entries on my tablet. The usual chemicals were present in the last couple samples: the hallucinogen, the signature stabilizer and an absurd amount of malt sugars and hops—probably runoff from our microbrewing industry.
I shook my head and put the tablet away. Now was for testing Marrone’s water, to discover if my hunch was my brain, fine-slicing, or my emotions leading me astray.
I was busy with pipettes and beakers and tubing (what can I say? Sometimes I like to get manual) when Lizelle found me.
“Hey, sweetie.” She gave my shoulders a quick rub.
“Hey.” I hadn’t realized how tense I was until she kneaded a couple muscle knots out. “Um, are we good?” Last time we’d seen each other, we’d argued.
“Of course. I simply came by to make sure you got home for the wedding shower.”
I winced. “Yeah, about that…I got a gift. But I’m kind of busy here. Could you take my present and make my excuses?” I smiled hopefully at her.
She grinned back. “Not a chance. If you want excuses, you’ll have to make them yourself.”
“But I’m right in the middle of an experiment, and if I leave now it might, um, blow up?” Even to me, my explanation was weak.
Lizelle wasn’t listening. She’d turned toward the door. “Helloooo, nurse.”
It wasn’t a nurse, not unless hired by the Dayumm! Sexy Male Nurses agency.
Luke glided into the room, still in his masculine suit and severe hairstyle, hand extended. “You must be Alexis’s friend. I’m Luke Steel.”
“Nice to meet you.” Lizelle shook his hand, a flush rising up her cheeks, a distinct sparkle to her eyes. She glanced toward me, both brows raised, and mouthed,
I shook my head in fond exasperation. As much as I was all about strings-free sex, she was about relationships and commitment. Mushy emotional nonsense, but I understood she only wanted me to be happy.
“Well, I’d better get back to work.” She was still pumping his hand. “Let you two talk. Alone. I was just reminding Alexis about the wedding shower tonight.”
“I thought you were getting back to work,” I murmured.
“Didn’t want you to forget,” she shot back at me.
“I’m sure you’ve already programmed a reminder on my phone.”
“Did it while you were in the shower this morning,” she said cheerfully.
I laughed. “You’d better let go of his hand before you wear him out.”
She slid an evil little glance at him. “I don’t think he wears out easily.”
“He can hear you, you know,” I said.
“I could, if I were listening.” A small smile twinkled on his luscious lips. “Which I’m not.”
“Ooh,” Lizelle cooed. “This one plays.” She gave me a big wink.
suddenly hot as a Bunsen burner. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Yup. Leaving now.”
She finally released Luke’s hand and for a moment I was struck with how big his hands really were next to hers, his slender fingers misleading.
“See you tonight at the shower,” she said to me then turned to Luke. “Hope to see more of you too.” She gave him a flirty little finger wave and sashayed out.
“Sorry.” I smiled at the door after Lizelle had gone. “She’s like family. She only wants what’s best for me. Sometimes she takes the matchmaking a touch too far.”
He quirked a smile. “I get it. I have family too. Last night Sarah Jane coaxed two stories out of me at bedtime, pleading a trip to the ER was extraordinary circumstances. As if she didn’t get extra suckers from the nurse.”
The image tugged at me, big strong Luke reading bedtime stories to children. My heart contracted. I glanced at him, hoping my expression wasn’t as sappy as my heart.
But his smile had died, and not the good,
I’m thinking of kissing you again
fade, but the
you’re scaring me
kind. It must’ve reminded him why he came here because he said, “Did you get all your water samples?”
“How did you know…yes. I’m testing them now.” I indicated the equipment.
“And was that you who threw the fire alarm?”
“Yes.” I glanced away, embarrassed. The act had triggered that overwhelming tangle of feelings—and I’d done it for him.
“Thanks,” he said as if reading my mind. “It gave me a plausible reason not to drink more than a sip of Marrone’s booze. Good stuff, but I wouldn’t put it past him to have drugged it somehow. Any particular reason you threw the alarm, or simply mistrustful?”
“Of course I have a reason.” My gaze snapped back to his. “What do you think I am, some irrational bimbette? I always have a good reason for what I do.”
“Of course you do.”
His doubting tone should’ve irritated me, which was rational, but instead I was hit by a flood of uncertainty. As if his opinion mattered, not like a colleague’s, but as Lizelle’s did, in ways that could hurt me. It made me blurt, “Forty stories.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Marrone’s building has forty stories, but there were only thirty-nine on the directory and in the elevator.” I pressed fingers to my lips, not understanding this rash rush of feelings I got around him but knowing I didn’t like it at all.
“Curious.” He sauntered nearer, but I could detect the underlying tension in the brittle spring of his muscles. “You can’t go back.”
Like hell. But I didn’t automatically rise to the bait. “Why not?”
“It’s obvious.” A growl buzzed his words. “We don’t know what Marrone wants from you, but whatever it is, it isn’t good.”
“On the contrary, I do know what he wants—my research. He has it now, so unless that job offer of his was real, I doubt he’ll be contacting me again.” I’d gone because I needed the cash, but more, I’d needed to figure out Marrone’s game. I hadn’t gotten any money, but knowing his goal was worth the bit of scrubbed research I’d given up. Unless he figured out it was scrubbed and came after me harder. Shivering, I turned back to my test tubes, pretending I couldn’t feel the heat of Luke’s strong body beating into me, but I was grateful for it.
“Good.” The growl was gone, leaving his voice smoothly beguiling. “You’re going to Thor and Serendipity’s wedding shower?”
“Yes, I guess that’s where…crap.” I remembered Luke pulling Julian away from me, the lawyer darned touchy around the topic of those townhouses. I didn’t want to provoke that reaction again—at least, not until
I’d earned the down payment—but I’d be right there, and more,
How could I miss this opportunity?
“Don’t,” Luke said, reading my mind, or at least my face. “Emerson has enough to cope with right now. Don’t harangue him about Old Man Crahn’s properties.”
I drew my spine straight. “I don’t harangue. I offer well-reasoned, persuasive arguments. Besides, I need those townhouses as much as he does.”
“They’re every bit as important to me, and besides, I got there first…huh? You’re not disagreeing with me?”
His lips quirked in another almost-smile, his mouth sexy enough to make me want to nibble. “I’ve only just met you, Alexis, but I can tell you don’t do drama for the sake of drama. You wouldn’t throw a fit over a minor inconvenience. Whatever reason you have for wanting those townhouses, it’s a good one, and probably not even for your own benefit, but for someone else’s.”
My face heated. He thought I was that noble, that selfless? “It’s sort of for my benefit. I have a friend who needs a safe place to live.”
He looked toward the door where Lizelle had disappeared. “And what’s safer than next door to a master vampire?”
My embarrassment faded, to be replaced by a far more compelling heat.
“By the way.” His gaze came back to me. “When you’re at the shower…maybe don’t mention to the others you know about my kind. They might get rattled and try to compel you to forget.”
“I won’t.” I mulled that over. “Why haven’t you? Tried to make me forget, that is.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’m tired of all the secrecy. It’s nice that I don’t have to pretend with you.” Color rose on his high cheekbones.
“I think that’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”
“Really?” His color returned to normal. “I would think men paid you compliments all the time.”
“Are you kidding? Most of the compliments I get are along the lines of, ‘That didn’t hurt too much.’”
That breath-taking almost-smile curved his lips. I smiled back, into eyes that were more gold than hazel. His smile faded, gaze roving over my face.
Then he groaned. “Why do you have to be so beautiful?”
It surprised me. Me, beautiful? He was the gorgeous one, his gilt eyes framed by golden lashes, straight nose, dark lips shaping syllables as I wanted them to shape
“I’m not beautiful. Striking, maybe.”
“You’re wrong.” He took my face in his hands. “Your beauty shines clear through.” Then, almost as if the words were forced from his throat, he said, “Is there somewhere we can be private?”
I remembered Lizelle telling me about Dolly’s “Untouchable Steel” comment, and his own comment after this morning’s orgasm, and dared to say, “I thought you only take multiple partners.”
He gave me a confused, irritated shrug. “That was just a rumor I encouraged. Not with you, though, not anymore. Any empty patient rooms where we can be alone?”
I searched his eyes, trying to figure out what was happening in his head. He wanted me, that was clear. But from his irritated shrug, he obviously didn’t
to want me, or at least didn’t understand the desire that was driving us together.
Which was fine; I didn’t understand it either.
“Let me get this straight. You want to be alone with me—after what happened last time?”
of what happened last time.” He bent until our mouths almost touched. “Because I want to see if it happens again.”
What had happened last time was an explosive orgasm, the best of my life—at least for me. He’d gotten zilch. So if nothing else, I did owe him.
Yet as I searched his eyes, I got a strange feeling he meant something other than a nice physical release.
He meant something lurking in the stew of his psyche.
Which made me uncomfortable. First, there was no logical way I could really know what he meant. Second, well, “lurking” says it all. Why stick a hand in the snake pit?