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
“And you know the boys came early.”
“Logan, I was there when her water broke.” An hour fifteen from start to finish. It was a miracle they’d gotten her to the hospital in time, especially when Sarah Jane had run home from the park with her cut arm.
If it had been up to Luke, none of it would’ve happened because neither female would have left the safety of the Steel home fortress.
“Did the births go okay?” Nixie asked.
“Everyone is fine and resting.” Logan grinned.
“No thanks to you.” Luke threw a left jab, and when Logan blocked as expected, shot a lightning cross punch to his twin’s deltoid, so fast even Logan could only partially deflect it. “You should never have risked her coming here. You know twins are often early.”
Logan raised palms. “Pax. I convinced her to return home with me.”
“Finally, she acts sensibly. It’s really for the best, brother mine. The babies will be in a safe home, and you and your mate can rest.”
“As much as new rugrats let you.” Nixie shook her head. “I’ve got my hands full with one. Can’t imagine riding herd on a quartet.”
“Which is why I’m asking for this favor.” Logan leaned toward Luke, the picture of an earnest young husband.
Luke whistled. If recapping was a yellow warning, earnest was downright red-alert. “You want me to maim someone?”
“What’s worse than killing?”
“Not worse, not really.” From the pleading in his brother’s eyes, yes really. “It’s just that Ellen Ripley and Sarah Jane asked to stay here for a sleepover. Liese will go home with me and the new babies—but only if
stay to babysit…I mean, protect the girls.”
“Only for a few nights,” his about-to-die brother said quickly. “You’ll hardly have to do a thing. The kids will keep each other occupied.”
“Kids.” Luke really didn’t like the sound of that. Logan had twin girls but that sounded like more than two. “How many kids?”
“You don’t have to watch them all—”
“They won’t wind each other up? Triple the noise and chaos?
Logan shrugged helplessly. “How many are there?”
“Our daughter.” Nixie held up a thumb. “Your two.” Index and middle fingers popped out. “Rorik Strongwell, Steve Johnson Junior and Tyge Sparta.” Her ring finger, little finger and another thumb extended as she named more children, all under the age of seven.
Luke felt himself pale a shade with each name.
She grinned. “I won’t leave you to ride herd on them alone…at least, not too often.”
“Me.” Luke shook his head, his own voice barely audible over the buzzing in his ears. “A bachelor,
in loco parentis
for two kindergarteners is bad enough. But you’re telling me I’ll have to deal with six?” He was pretty sure the punk rocker was teasing him, but the idea of being solo-responsible for that many small lives, even for a moment, made him break out in a sweat.
“It’ll be good practice.” Nixie rose and stretched out her back. For the first time Luke could see the baby bump—she was pregnant again, but that was par for the course for vampire mates. “Since you’re getting your own household soon, right?”
“What?” Luke could only stare. Every time he had dealings with the tiny punk rocker, he felt as if he’d been blown around by a hurricane. “I’m not starting—”
“Sure you are. I heard Big, Bad and Fangy is making you plant a new household on the DEW line.”
Luke chuffed out his stupefaction. “DEW line” was her slang for the households standing as a shield between vampire factions. “Big, Bad and Fangy” was one of her terms for his master, the ancient vampire Kai Elias. The discussions between himself and Elias had been private, but somehow the small female knew. “Elias is only
me to do so.”
“‘Making’, ‘encouraging’, same diff with Mr. Scary Ancient.”
“Well, I haven’t said yes.” And he never would. Luke wasn’t master vampire material. “Besides, Meiers Corners already has four households. Ten vampires trying to blend in with seven thousand humans. Adding three more? The masquerade’s already wearing a little thin.”
“So what?” She sat. “If humans stumble onto the secret, you just woo-woo them into forgetting.”
“Not all humans ‘woo-woo’ as you put it.” Especially in this little city, for some reason.
“Then you get the ancient fucker on the line. He can zap anybody.”
“He’s not always available to zap…oh hell.” This was not a battle he could win. Dozens of raging rogues, yes. Vampire wives, not so much. He was going to have to stay as far as possible from the actual bridal shower. He shot his twin a “rescue me” look.
Logan simply grinned, until Luke narrowed his eyes.
If you want me to watch over your two terrors…
“Speaking of households.” Logan turned to Julian. “I heard Old Man Crahn is finally selling.”
“Just in time,” the lawyer said. “My household is bursting at the seams. I must have the space those extra townhouses will give me.”
There were two pairs of townhouses on the block, like two sets of I’s on the dashed line of Walnut Street. Each pair faced together, originally with a driveway between. Julian had grassed over his and put parking in the basement.
“You seem awfully sure he’ll sell to you,” Logan said.
“We discussed it when I bought these two buildings,” Julian said. “We negotiated an oral contract.”
“My Suitguy.” Nixie affectionately squeezed his biceps, a maneuver that took both hands for her. “Why make a handshake deal when you can have an ‘oral contract’?”
For some reason, the word oral bumped Luke’s wandering mind to Alexis’s kiss, and other things he and Alexis could do with their mouths…
He jumped back into the conversation with both feet. “Yes, all right, I’ll watch the twins. Now Thor, what’s so secret that you couldn’t pick up a secure phone?”
“My systems are secure,” Logan said. “They’re not infallible. No matter how careful any of us are, satellite imaging, computer hacks and parabolic microphones make the days of complete secrecy past.”
“This information isn’t secret so much as private.” Thor glanced at each of the room’s occupants, his ash blond hair gleaming in the electric light. “It’s about Adelaide’s murder. Or rather, about her murderer.”
Luke stilled. Four hundred years ago, he’d been made a vampire. Three hundred years ago, he met and married Adelaide. Shortly thereafter, his wife had been slaughtered by a vampire.
Feelings cut through him like a winter wind.
Helplessness as she died. Failing to protect her. His fault.
His heart whooshed in his ears, the lights dimmed and the room seemed colder, everyone receding until he felt old and alone.
He hadn’t even had the satisfaction of revenge. His twin had come across the bastard first and had done what needed to be done. “Logan destroyed him years ago. It’s over.”
“Not quite,” Thor said. “My boss’s intel says your wife’s killer is moving again.”
“Impossible. Ruthven is dead.”
“Ruthven’s dead, yes. But he isn’t Adelaide’s killer.”
“Dr. Byornsson? Did you hear what I said?”
I hastily dropped my hand from lips still vibrating from Luke Steel’s kiss to concentrate on my patient.
Work. Emotions got in the way.
Gelb’s medical information glowed on the screen before me. Vitals ticked themselves off—five-four, hundred-thirty pounds, fifty-seven years, BP borderline high. “You’re suffering an allergic reaction to your nicotine patches.”
the problem. You listen as well as my husband. Love him to pieces, but he’s dumber than a sack of cue balls.” She
a combination of severe disappointment and fondness, as only a Meiers Corners matron could do. “The directions say to apply one new patch every twenty-four hours, to dry, clean, hairless skin. Honestly, these patches are supposed to be the
way to quit smoking?”
I mentally thumbed through known side effects of nicotine replacement therapy. Besides skin irritation, there was the potential for palpitations, abnormal heart rate, headache, nausea and sleep problems. Not determined safe for pregnancy and nursing mothers, but Ms. Gelb was well beyond that. Allergies to the adhesive? Drug interaction issues?
“Is irritation an issue?” I asked.
“Only with people
” She was clearly becoming exasperated with me.
“Well then, what’s the problem?”
“I’m running out of room.”
As I spun my chair to meet her eyes, I nodded. “Room? I see.” I kept nodding. It was important for a patient to feel her doctor was competent, and nodding signaled both knowledge and empathy. While I had no clue what she meant, I was a damned good doctor, and I would eventually catch on. Nodding got me through the interim without loss of patient confidence. “Room for…?”
“You’re the one with the schooling. What do you think?” She opened her gown.
Well, yes, I’d thought of one possibility but rejected it. Surely a responsible, rational adult would be able to read and follow simple directions…but no.
Her entire torso was tiled in patches.
I barely held back a laugh and hiccuped a snort instead.
“You see now?”
“Y-yes.” I kept nodding, trying to look competent and sober and not like I was about to pee my pants. My eyes started to water, so I nodded harder.
“Tomorrow’s supposed to hit eighty. It’s getting too warm to wear long sleeves.”
My head was going up and down like a jackhammer now. “Yes, I see. Definitely. Problem.” Yikes. “Ms. Gelb, generally each patch should be removed after sixteen to twenty-four hours, or you risk skin irritation and loss of effectiveness of the patch.”
She stared at me. “What?”
“One patch at a time, Ms. Gelb.”
“Why didn’t you just say that? What’s wrong with your head?”
“Um…nothing.” I stopped nodding and shouted, “Nurse Battle, could you come in please? My nurse will help you.” Because if I didn’t get out of there, pronto, I was going to bust a gut, which definitely wouldn’t go well on my patient-relationship survey.
The moment my big nurse came in I sketched the diagnosis—she’d have a field day writing that up for the charts but that was her problem—and skedaddled. The instant the door was shut I fell against the wall, buried my face and burst out laughing.
A single scuff of hard-soled shoes presaged the acerbic voice. “Dr. Byornsson,
My laugh froze. I turned.
Screamingly blue eyes peered at me out of an ascetic, creased face—the frowning visage of Dr. Gregor Haus.
Yes, like a German version of Gregory House. A weird coincidence, but Meiers Corners was a sinkhole for sanity that way.
I arranged my face into the epitome of sober professionalism. “Dr. Haus, how can I help you?”
He shoved a paper in my face, so close I couldn’t focus, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t actually looking for my input.
“Sarah Jane Steel,” he said. “Discharge status—alive
“Um…typo?” In point of fact, the computer record system only had two buttons under discharge, alive and dead, and I’d had to get creative to cram in the “without permission”, meaning her father had removed her forcibly from my care. In trying to dot my i’s I’d apparently punctured the t’s instead.
“Dr. Byornsson, I brought you in because you were reputed to be one of the best emergency room physicians in the Midwest. But if you’re not up to the job, I’ll find someone else.”
My chest froze. “Someone else? But there isn’t anyone half as good—”
“Half a doctor is better than one who isn’t here at all.”
The words hit like a physical blow, shattering the ice in my chest into shards that cut as I sucked in a breath. He was right. I’d let attraction and roiling emotions eat into my concentration.
Rationality saved me. I had a plan, and I would fight to the bitter death to see it through.
“I’ll do better, Dr. Haus. May I get back to work?”
He nodded grudging permission, but I was already hot-footing it away.
Before I saw another patient, I had to get myself under control. I headed toward the cafeteria, closed at this time of night except for vending, but empty calories were exactly what I was after. I was angry at Dr. Haus but more at myself. Sure, part of what happened was just bad timing. But part of it was because I let my blood get fizzed kissing Luke Steel.
I slotted quarters into the candy machine, trying to get it to cough up a chocolate bar. The paper wrapper clung like snot to the turning metal spiral through a dozen tries. A frustrated kick slammed into the machine only rewarded me with smarting stubbed toes and, hopping back, I thought I’d hit bottom.
Proof positive that when Fate hands you a bad day, it’s fully prepared to put a satin bow on it in the form of a fist.
“My dear! There you are.”
A shudder swept my frame milliseconds before recognition set in. Giuseppe Marrone. I turned.
Hurrying toward me was a tall, slightly stooped man in old-fashioned knee-length coat, scooped vest and pinned ascot totally out of keeping with the warm weather. His long wavy hair and mustache were dark blond and fake. Blue granny glasses completed a nineties Dracula look
Gary Oldman, though not as cool as Oldman. Probably on purpose—I hadn’t known him long, but Marrone seemed to do nothing on a whim, although sometimes the purpose seemed very overblown. Take the name. Giuseppe Marrone sounded deliciously foreign, until you realized it was Italian for Joe Brown.
I suspected Marrone was also a vampire, so the Dracula look was probably his idea of a subtle pun.
He smiled toothily. “How lucky I ran across you.”
Luck’s not a lady, she’s a middle finger.
Marrone had given me the subtle creeps from the night I’d met him a few months ago at a charity fundraiser in Chicago. The creeps had escalated when he showed up in Meiers Corners a week after I’d moved back, ostensibly to interview technical college graduates for his pharmaceutical companies but implying heavily he was interested in me romantically.
Except he didn’t come right out and ask for sex. That would’ve been almost reassuring. But he kept popping up in my sphere, having inexplicably made me his special project, maybe for the same reason that made boys torture small animals.
Problem was, he was a big benefactor for the medical community. I had to put on my playing-nice face.
“Mr. Marrone, how delightful. I’m sorry, I’d chat, but I have patients—”
“This won’t take long. I have news, my dear. Bad news.” He peered at me through his blue glasses, his eyes an odd avaricious shade of green.
My nape prickled.
“You know I have a branch of business concerned with real estate?”
That set my arrector pili muscles trembling, raising goose bumps on my arms. Pharmaceuticals, realty…did the man have hands in all my pots? I shook my head weakly.
“Well, I do. A title search was done on those townhouses you’re so interested in. Someone is looking to buy them out from under you.”
Immediately the rest of my flesh rumpled in dismay. The townhouses he so blithely named were where Lizelle, her daughter and I were living, where I planned to open my shelter. They were integral to my plan.
So integral, I’d plunked down my life’s savings on them as earnest money. But those townhouses weren’t mine yet. To clinch the deal, I needed a down payment. A mortgage.
So I asked cautiously, “Who?”
“My dear.” Marrone smiled all the way to the spirit gum attaching his hair. “Julian Emerson.”
The name hit me like a fist to the gut. I breathed through it. “Julian?” I knew the lawyer from a couple visits home over the years, and of course, by reputation. He was smart and strong—and the whole reason I had to have
townhouses. The safest location in the world was tiny insular Meiers Corners, right next door to an Alliance master vampire. He’d make an excellent neighbor but a formidable foe.
“Yes. And of course, as a lawyer, Emerson is unbeatable.”
I pumped steel into my spine, forced myself straight and spun for the exit. As I stormed away, I stripped off my white coat like Superman did his shirt and tie. “Unbeatable? Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Ruthven didn’t kill my wife?” Luke felt like he’d been punched in the jaw. “But Logan positively ID’d him.”
“Ruthven was the blade,” Thor said. “But he wasn’t the hand.”
“Someone…” Shock paralyzed Luke. “Someone was behind him?”
“Someone still is, according to my boss.”
” The word exploded from more than one set of lips.
Thor shrugged. “Her informants aren’t sure.”
it.” Luke’s cold paralysis exploded in anger. “Ever since that day I’ve been agonizing over it. Centuries analyzing that attack, what, who, how. Then Logan took out Ruthven, and I thought it was done. My gut told me otherwise, but I ignored it. And now you’re telling me it
“Sorry,” Thor said. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“I do, but why now? And
Logan tapped one thoughtful claw on the table. “It seems impossible that we
know. We have some of the best intel in the world.”
“And Scary Ancient does a fair take on the omniscient thing,” Nixie said.
Thor shrugged. “Elias doesn’t always share.”
Nixie snorted. “Change ‘always’ to ‘nearly ever’ and I’d agree.”
“He’d share this,” Luke snarled. “Or, Ancient One or not, he and I would have words.”
“Look.” Thor held up both palms. “I’m not a household master, and I don’t say much because it’s not my place—but maybe Elias expects us to reason things out for ourselves.”
“What are you talking about?” Julian said.
“The signs have been there from the beginning. The Eastern European tech filtering into the country. The missing vampires up north. Even Dracula getting loose from his prison a few years back. That’s not local talent. Those are the long moves of someone more subtle, more cunning. Someone else is out there, pulling strings.”
“Fuck me and my Ferrari,” Luke said. “I can’t wrap my head around it. Adelaide’s killer, the pawn of another vampire?”
His eyes closed. He’d thought it was done. Not over, and he’d never really felt closure, but he’d always thought Adelaide had at least had justice. But now…
Because Luke’s eyes were closed and he was centered inward, he smelled the stench first. And heard the shouting first. The screaming.
I was about to fling the employee exit door wide when a thin pale hand like a lobster claw seized my shoulder. I spun.
“My dear.” Giuseppe smiled, the fake mustache making it all kinds of oily. “You have another option. Hear me out. I have a proposition.”
Everything in me shouted “No” to any suggestion of Marrone’s, especially one he’d call a
But behind him, Dr. Haus appeared, giving me the evil eye—all the more effective with that piercing blue.
Marrone is a big benefactor. You lose him for us, we lose you.
If I lost this job, I lost easy access to Lizelle, and possibly my toehold in the city of Meiers Corners itself. There wasn’t any city residency requirement to own property or hold a job here—only decades of tradition, more rigid than any concrete or iron.
“There.” A cunning glint entered Giuseppe’s gaze. “I knew you could be reasonable.”
Implying I normally wasn’t? I rolled my eyes, the facial equivalent of giving him a polite finger.
“Now, now, my dear. I saw that. But you require money, yes?”
My gaze twitched away, a tacit admission.
“Well then. I think you’ll find I can be very…accommodating.”
I glanced back in time to see him finger the knot of his ascot, then stroke suggestively down its ruby length.
Whoa. That went beyond suggestive into “smell my fingers” territory. Sex, all right, but not with strings attached. Dr. Haus had disappeared, but even if he’d been watching, I wouldn’t have throttled my reaction. “No fucking way—”
“Don’t let’s be hasty.” Marrone’s smarmy smile dropped, and his hands flew from his phallic symbol. With a placating pat of the air he reached into a breast pocket and pulled out a black leather checkbook and a gold pen topped by a discreet diamond—if half a carat glinting in my eye could be called discreet. “You’re looking for a down payment on those two quaint little fourplexes on Eighth and Walnut, yes?”
I hadn’t made a secret of it, but his casually spouting those details raised hairs on the back of my neck.
“They’re going for $400K for both.” He peered over his glasses at me in an owlish imitation of Ms. Gelb’s matronly
“That price tells you the quality of what you’re getting. Are you certain you want them?”
I could only nod dumbly.
“The bank will ask for five percent down, although if you’re as good as me, you could get it for as little as 1.5%…but you’re not. So twenty K down payment, plus funds for renovation…” He cut me another look over the top of his glasses. “
renovation. Oh, and cleaning.” His mouth tightened with distaste as he refocused on his checkbook. “So, say another thirty grand, for a total of fifty thousand cash.” He scrawled.