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
“All right, I admit it!” I shot to my feet, driving a hand through my hair. “I don’t want you moving back to Chicago because I don’t like how John treats you.”
“You mean you don’t like
” She rose too, her eyes blazing. “You’re the one who swept me out of the city without even giving him a chance to say goodbye to his own child—”
“Because your face was purple with bruises! Because it was only a matter of time before he turned his fists on Una.”
hurt her. He loves her.”
“He was escalating, Lizelle. And the fact that you tried to get him into counseling for his temper, but he never cooperated—”
“He cooperated! He was always accommodating where Una was concerned.”
“How can you say that? You tried scheduling appointments. He never bothered to show.”
“He’s a busy man. An important man. Every time, he had reasons.”
She threw her book onto the end table. “I can’t talk to you like this.” She swept out.
Sinking onto the sofa, I palmed my forehead. How had that happened? How had a rational discussion turned into an out-and-out fight?
At six in the morning, I got up to go to the bathroom. Seeing myself in the mirror, the bags under my red-rimmed eyes, the straw nest that was my hair, I realized I had to get some sleep. I dug around in the kitchen cabinets for some malt powder for warm milk and came across my blueprints.
My renovations. Our shelter.
was why I had to go and hear Marrone out. To give Lizelle a place to connect with other women going through her pain. To give her security away from her husband. I’d call Marrone’s assistant when I woke to make the tour appointment.
Yeah, still didn’t trust him. But for the first time I thought maybe I didn’t have to trust him to take the job.
I got out of my car and craned my neck at the tall building. Only a few weeks living again in Meiers Corners, and I was as bad as any tourist. I’d already forgotten what a mere forty stories looked like.
The unfortunately named BlooDrug Research—despite Lizelle saying it was supposed to be blood and drug combined, I still thought it sounded like the tapestry a murdered body was wrapped in—was housed in the largest of a trio of glass-and-chrome buildings planted in one of the ubiquitous office parks in the Chicago metro area. The advantage of seeding offices among strip malls was that there was plenty of parking for employees and guests. The disadvantage was, you couldn’t go home for lunch.
Although that was good for retail.
Well. This wasn’t going to get any easier or more appealing. With a deep breath, I started forward.
That deep voice sent involuntary shivers of lust through me. In broad daylight? It had to be, but it couldn’t possibly be.
Yet when I turned, a male vision in a three-piece charcoal suit, dull gold tie and gleaming black shoes, hair as bright as the June sunlight itself, glided to my side.
Sauntering proof that it wasn’t the suit that made the man, but the man who made the broad-shouldered suit. My tongue lolled out and I was hard pressed not to make it a four-piece suit, with me as the sporran.
I stammered, “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” His long hair was scraped tightly back from his face, probably to emulate a conservative cut, but it only emphasized the structure of his jaw and cheekbone. “But I won’t, because my brother runs a security firm, and he happened to overhear you were headed here today.”
“Neatly avoiding my question.” I started for the front doors. “How’s your niece doing?”
“Good.” He sauntered easily beside me, shortening his strides to match mine. “I’m actually in charge of the twins for a while but there was a brief break in the guardian duties for me today, until mid-afternoon, as Jaxxie invited her friends along on her last-day-of-school field trip. Sarah Jane and Ellen Ripley are safe amid twenty kindergarteners and twice that many eagle-eyed parents, including the Emersons and Spartas.”
“Lucky you.” It was kind of fun to saunter in step with Luke. “But it’s daytime. Aren’t you supposed to be on fire or something?”
“Me? Not for another ten minutes at least. We’ll be inside long before then. I show up in mirrors too. Good thing, or shaving would be a lot more adventurous.”
By this time we’d reached the entrance, two sets of glass-and-chrome doors bookending a revolving door. He zipped forward to swing one open, then, instead of racing inside to shade and safety, he held it for me.
“Deliberately flaunting your solar invulnerability?”
“It never hurts to reinforce my humanity.”
But the wink he gave me as I passed was with an eye shading red-gold, and his skin was getting a little flushed, so I didn’t waste time getting inside and moving into the shade. He joined me, and when his color returned to normal it was a relief.
We wended our way through a cavernous entry of shining marble in edgy, geometric shapes sprouting ferns and lilies. A waterfall splashed in the background. “So, you heard I was coming here and just decided to join me?”
“Actually, I was invited.” Luke’s grin subtly sharpened.
“Marrone invited you? Really? Why, does he want to see your research too?”
The grin dropped abruptly, and the gold flecks in Luke’s irises gleamed brighter as his gaze riveted on me, eyes narrowed. Something multi-core fast was going on behind those hazel eyes. “Research, like your work on…blood contaminates?”
The pause that marked those words, blood contaminates, implied he really meant vampire poison.
“How did you know—?”
“My boss was interested in the outcome. He actually supplied research support for your sister. I wasn’t directly involved, but I knew about it. We also knew your sister was working with someone, but I only now put two and two together and figured out that was you.”
“Well, Marrone is interested in my blood research, although I don’t think he knows I worked on…blood contaminates specifically.” As we arrived at the bank of three elevators, I lifted the backpack, my version of the doctor’s little black bag, from my shoulder to show him. Inside was a kit containing various medical supplies, plus my tablet, the small computer holding all of my findings. “He offered me a job in research and simply wanted to see what I’d already done.”
” Luke’s sharp-eyed stare turned into an actual scowl. “What are you planning to show him?” It was less a question than a command.
My arm curled automatically around the bag, and I turned to face him. “Don’t worry, I scrubbed all v-implications.”
The scowl disappeared in rapidly blinking surprise. “That’s not what I’m worried about. Well, I am, but it’s secondary. Tertiary. I’m worried first about you.”
That shocked me almost as much as the fact that he used words like tertiary. “Me? Why? We barely know each other.”
Gaze locked on mine, he punched the elevator call button. A low buzz echoed off marble and chrome, coming from him.
Then he rolled his shoulders and visibly relaxed. The thrum died. “We know each other well enough, I think.” One blond brow raised.
I really hate the Eyebrow O’ Knowing from Lizelle, and this masculine version was just as potent. “Yes, all right, maybe we know each other in the traditional sense. What I meant is…” He looked thirtyish but as a vampire was probably older. Born pre-sexual revolution. “You don’t have any obligation to me simply because we were physically intimate.”
“How noble of you.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“Oh. Well, I thought it needed to be said.” I shrugged my pack back over my shoulder. “Since you’re probably from an era where you’re supposed to ‘do the right thing’.”
“A man can’t change in four hundred years?”
“Four…?” Astonishment left me briefly speechless. I knew as a vampire he’d be long-lived, but it never occurred to me he’d be that old. “You lived through the American Revolution?”
through French Wars of Religion. Everything else, I was dead for.” His mouth was thin and set, his eyebrows lowered like thunderclouds.
Even I could tell he was pissed, but I didn’t know why.
He looked like he’d say more, but the elevator dinged, opening with doors that went
A woman in a white lab coat pushed a troublesome cart out, one wheel stubbornly countering the direction of the other three. In the time it took her to maneuver the thing off the elevator, more people arrived.
Several women in neat office dress and a couple of lab-coated researchers filed with us into the car. I pushed the button for the twentieth floor, and the doors, in contrast to how fast they opened, slowly shut. Luke and I rode in silence until we reached our floor. Office workers and researchers stayed on as we exited.
I found myself in the typical office hallway, textured vinyl beige wallpaper, mottled carpet, pseudo-modern artwork. Decor designed to impress, not to soothe.
“So why did Marrone ask you to come?” I was only half-listening for Luke’s answer, more intent on finding reception. A sign on the wall read BlooDrug Pharmaceuticals—Lizelle was right—the dots of a Braille rendition beneath. Next to it was a metal plaque listing various departments and their suite numbers, from 2000 to 3990. Thirty-nine floors, then, not forty. Discreet signs pointed suites 2000-2040 to the right and 2050-2090 to the left. Reception was 2000.
Luke went right. “He
it was to talk peace. We’re both first lieutenants for opposing v-factions.”
And there it was, confirmation of what I already knew. Marrone was a vampire.
“Problem is, Marrone always has an angle, and plans within plans. I find it telling that he invited you at the same time.”
I followed. Suite 2000 was the first set of double glass doors. I paused outside. “Surely that’s a coincidence?”
“I’d like to think so.”
Again, not answering my question. Well, why Luke was here was immaterial.
was here because I was curious, and because, bottom line, I wanted Lizelle safe. Money was money. Marrone’s would spend just fine.
I pushed through.
“My dear, there you are. What took you so long?”
The suite was five office doors blocked by an arc of reception desk running the length of the room, four receptionists busy talking on thumb-size phone headsets as keyboards clacked out of view. The rest of the area was filled with angular, uncomfortable-looking chairs and sofas.
Giuseppe Marrone sat at his cross-legged ease on a sofa. He refolded a paper he’d apparently been reading and stood as we entered. He’d traded his Oldman Dracula look for a narrow black coat, tube-legged black pants and a gray silk scoop-neck sweater topped with a fussily knotted yellow scarf, the pseudo-casual uniform of the artisanal business owner.
“My dear, thank you for coming.” Marrone pointed. “Dare I hope that satchel contains your research?”
The avaricious gleam in his green eyes chilled already goose bump–rumpled flesh. I automatically shrugged my backpack around onto my back, away from his sight. “It’s on my tablet, but I made a hardcopy too.”
“Well?” He held out his hand.
“Come now,” Luke said. “At least give her a kiss and a cuddle first.”
The sarcastic drawl was foreign coming from him, but Marrone didn’t seem surprised. Maybe Luke was a different person with me.
“Hmm.” Marrone looked from me to Luke and back. “I thought, since you seemed to be waiting for her at the coffee shop, you might be friends. Seems I was mistaken.”
Luke shrugged, a graceful rise of broad shoulders. “We’ve met. In the ER, not under the best of circumstances.”
He was all nonchalance, yet I’d seen that sharp gleam in his eye. He thought here was the reason Marrone had invited us together, trying to find out if we were a couple. Or at least one of Marrone’s reasons.
Plans within plans
Marrone chuckled. “I heard your little niece had a bit of a mishap. Dr. Byornsson was the ER physician? Come to work for me, my dear. You won’t have to wipe snotty noses and pump naloxone into drug addicts.”
“The paramedics do that,” I said. “And anyway, don’t you do clinical trials here?”
“No messy trials in this office, no. Only pure clean research.”
” Think test tubes and petri dishes for
was whole animal testing.
here. But you can’t get away from
for toxicology. Wouldn’t want your clinical trial patients to start dying, would you? But let me show you.” He waved me back out into the hallway.
Luke wasn’t coming? An unhappy darkness I didn’t understand settled in my belly.
Then Marrone added, “Steel, you might as well come along.”
At that, I felt a surprising surge of relief, but from the frown on Luke’s face, he saw it as a bad sign.
Marrone always has an angle.
But he followed as Marrone guided me to the elevator, which came almost immediately when called, doors opening with a quick
Inside, Marrone pushed the button for thirty and, as the doors took forever to close, started what was, from the smooth patter of it, his tour spiel.
“That was the main reception area. The four floors above it are accounting and shipping, with the data center on twenty-five.” As Marrone recited facts, Luke glided to stand behind us. The doors finally shut and the car began to move. “Labs are above that. Marketing and administration are the top five. My office is in the penthouse on thirty-nine.”
“You own the building?” I asked.
“Not this one, no. But we lease from the twentieth floor to the roof.”
Luke said, “I’m not sure leasing from a holding company
counts as ‘not owning’.”
“Well, if you want to get fussy, yes. Just good business—I know I’m a great tenant, and my landlord is always responsive.” Marrone flashed a sharp, white grin over his shoulder. For a moment, it reminded me of someone, the shape of the lips and jaw… He turned front and with the whisk of his scraggly hair along the narrow rounded shoulders of his skinny black jacket, my cusp of recognition was gone.
“We’re skipping the boring floors to head straight to the goodies.” The elevator door opened slowly on an airy corridor. He swept a hand as he led us out. “Voila. State-of-the-art equipment, all in a clean, comfortable environment.”
Strolling along the hall, he gestured at window after window, large, spotless panes looking into well-lit, clean rooms. The machines and equipment inside…they went light years beyond the MC hospital’s test tubes and petri dishes. Mass spectrometer, liquid, gas and ionic chromatography, atomic absorption spectrometer… I think I had an equipmentgasm. If it had a cool-sounding name, it was in those rooms.
He showed me floor after floor, each better than the last. I was even getting excited about possibly working here as we approached the elevator bank to see another floor. I know I’d gotten slightly ahead of the two men, to see Marrone’s face as he rattled off facts and enthusiasm in equal measure, me nodding energetically, Luke gliding silently behind.
Suddenly Marrone stopped, a small dent of a frown on his forehead. Luke stopped too, a mirror frown on his face.
I didn’t quite catch on so fast and traipsed a few steps farther, in time to see the elevator doors start to close from the corner of my eye. I spun and kicked into a trot. “Hold, please!”
Marrone reached out a hand. “Wait, my dear.”
The moment before he snared me, Luke stepped in the way. “She’s snagging the elevator.”
Which I wouldn’t have been able to do, but those doors took forever to close. There was the barest sliver open when I got there.
I jutted my hand through, prepared to slap the bumpers.