The sound was a relief. So was the sudden limpness in the form underneath her. It was over.
She jumped off the body before it started leaking as they all did. Then she stood at attention, careful not to look directly at the old man who watched her from behind a thick layer of glass. He didn’t like it when she stared into his eyes.
The man pursed his lips as he considered the results of her latest test. Not a muscle moved, but inwardly, she smiled at the melody that kept repeating in his mind. Her other instructors rarely sang in their thoughts, yet he did. Every time. If it wouldn’t have made him mad, she would’ve told him she enjoyed it, but her instructor didn’t like people prying into his mind. She’d overheard that shortly after getting the ability, so she never told him about it.
“Seven seconds,” he said at last, glancing down at the body. “These subjects no longer represent a challenge to you.”
He sounded pleased, but still she didn’t smile. Displays of emotion led to too many questions, and she wanted to get back to her manuals.
“It’s time to move on to the next phase,” he continued.
The words seemed to be directed at her, yet he was really speaking to the man behind the mirrored glass twenty meters above him. Since she wasn’t supposed to know he was there, however, she nodded.
The way he drew out the words warned her that this next test wouldn’t be easy, which was why she couldn’t stop her surprised blink when the chute above her opened and a new subject tumbled into the arena. It looked similar to the others she’d neutralized, but when it leapt up and faced her, she understood. Her new opponent had no heartbeat.
“What is it?” she asked, her own heart starting to beat faster.
Her opponent had a question, too.
“What the f**k is this?”
“Neutralize it,” her gray-haired instructor commanded.
She hid her disappointment. Perhaps if she finished quickly, she’d be rewarded with an answer. At the very least, neutralizing this . . . thing would give her more information.
She charged without another moment’s hesitation, sweeping its legs out from under it before slamming her elbow down on its throat.
Its bones shattered with the usual sound, but instead of going limp, the thing threw her off and leapt upward while giving the old man a disbelieving look.
“What have you done?”
As it spoke, its neck snapped back into place, losing its misshapen angle in less time than she took to blink again. She stared in confusion. What sort of creature could heal itself like that?
“You want to live?” her instructor answered the thing coolly. “You’ll have to kill her.”
Those same words had been spoken to many opponents before this one, yet for the first time, her hands felt damp. With its incredible healing ability, was it possible that the thing couldn’t be neutralized?
She glanced up at the old man, meeting his gaze for a second before she looked away. Even in that brief moment, she had her answer.
The thing could be killed. She just had to figure out how.
Ignoring a ghost is a lot more difficult than you’d think. For starters, walls don’t hinder their kind, so although I shut the door in the face of the spectre loitering outside my house, he followed me inside as if invited. My jaw clenched in irritation, but I began unloading my groceries as though I hadn’t noticed. Too soon, I was done. Being a vampire married to another vampire meant that my shopping list was pretty short.
“This is ridiculous. You can’t keep shunning me forever, Cat,” the ghost muttered.
Yeah, ghosts can talk, too. That made them even harder to ignore. Of course, it didn’t help that this ghost was also my uncle. Alive, dead, undead . . . family had a way of getting under your skin whether you wanted them to or not.
Case in point: Despite my vow not to talk to him, I couldn’t keep from replying.
“Actually, since neither of us is getting any older, I can do this forever,” I noted coolly. “Or until you ante up on everything you know about the a-hole running our old team.”
“Madigan is who I came to talk to you about,” he said.
Surprise and suspicion made my eyes narrow. For months, my uncle Don had refused to divulge anything about my new nemesis, Jason Madigan. Don had a history with the former CIA operative who’d taken over the tactical unit I used to work for, but he’d kept mum on the details even when his silence meant that Madigan had nearly gotten me, my husband, and other innocent people killed. Now he was ready to spill? Something else had to be going on. Don was so pathologically secretive that I hadn’t found out we were related until four years after I started working for him.
“What?” I asked without preamble.
He tugged on a gray eyebrow, a habit he couldn’t break even after losing his physical body. He also appeared to be dressed in his usual suit and tie despite dying in a hospital gown. I’d think it was my memories dictating how Don looked except for the hundreds of other ghosts I’d met. There might not be shopping malls in the afterlife, but residual self-image was strong enough to make others see ghosts the way they saw themselves. Don had been the picture of a perfectly groomed, sixty-something bureaucrat in life, so that’s what he looked like in death.
He also hadn’t lost any of the tenacity behind those gunmetal-colored eyes, the only physical trait we had in common. My crimson hair and pale skin came from my father.
“I’m worried about Tate, Juan, Dave, and Cooper,” Don stated. “They haven’t been to their homes recently, and as you know, I can’t get into the compound to check if they’re there.”
I didn’t point out that it was Don’s fault Madigan knew how to ghostproof a building. Heavy combinations of marijuana, garlic, and burning sage would keep all but the strongest spooks away. After a ghost had almost killed Madigan last year, he’d outfitted our old base with a liberal supply of all three.
“How long since you’ve seen them?”
“Three weeks and four days,” he replied. Faults he might have, but Don was meticulous. “If only one of them was away that long, I’d assume he was on an undercover job, but all of them?”
Yes, that was strange even for members of a covert Homeland Security branch that dealt with misbehaving members of undead society. When I was a member of the team, the longest undercover job I’d been on was eleven days. Rogue vampires and ghouls tended to frequent the same spots if they were dumb enough to act out so much that they caught the government’s attention.
Still, I wasn’t about to assume the worst. Phone calls were beyond Don’s capabilities as a ghost, but I had no such hindrances.
I pulled a cell phone out of my kitchen drawer, dialing Tate’s number. When I got his voice mail, I hung up. If something had happened, and Madigan was responsible, he’d be checking Tate’s messages. No need to clue him in that I was sniffing around.
“No answer,” I told Don. Then I set that phone aside and took another cell out of the drawer, dialing Juan next. After a few rings, a melodic Spanish voice instructed me to leave a message. I didn’t, again hanging up and reaching for another phone from the drawer.
“How many of those do you have?” Don muttered, floating over my shoulder.
“Enough to give Madigan a migraine,” I said with satisfaction. “If he’s tracing calls, he won’t find my location in any of these, much as he’d love to know where I am.”
Don didn’t accuse me of being paranoid. As soon as he’d taken over my uncle’s old job, Madigan had made it clear that he had it out for me. I didn’t know why. I’d been retired from the team by then, and as far as Madigan knew, there was no longer anything special about me. He didn’t know that turning from a half-vampire into a full one had come with unexpected side effects.
Dave’s phone went straight to voice mail as well. So did Cooper’s. I considered trying them at their offices, but those were inside the compound. Madigan might have enough taps on those lines to locate me no matter how I’d arranged for these burner phone signals to be rerouted.
“Okay, now I’m worried, too,” I said at last. “Maybe it’s time to drop by Madigan’s house for a little chat.”
“Don’t bother,” my uncle replied. “He rarely leaves the compound.”
That was also news, and it only added to my unease.
“Then when Bones gets home, we’ll figure out a way to get a closer look at the compound.”
Don regarded me soberly. “If Madigan has done something to them, he’ll expect you to show up.”
Once again, my jaw clenched. Damn right I’d show up. Tate, Dave, Juan, and Cooper weren’t just soldiers I’d fought alongside for years when I was part of the team. They were also my friends. If Madigan was responsible for something bad happening to them, he’d soon be sorry.
“Yeah, well, Bones and I had a couple months of relative quiet. Guess it’s time to liven things up again.”
My cat Helsing jumped down from my lap at the same time that the air became charged with tiny, invisible currents. Emotions rolled over my subconscious. Not my own, but almost as familiar to me. Moments later, I heard the crunch of tires on snow. By the time the car door shut, Helsing was at the door, his long black tail twitching with anticipation.
I stayed where I was. One cat waiting at the door was enough, thanks. With a whoosh of frigid air, my husband Bones came inside. Snow from a late spring storm coated him, making him look like he’d been dusted with powdered sugar. He stamped his feet to dislodge the flakes from his boots, causing Helsing to jump away with a hiss.
“Clearly he thinks you should pet him first and deal with the snow later,” I said.
Eyes so dark they were nearly black met mine. Once they did, my amusement turned into feminine appreciation. Bones’s cheeks were flushed, and the color accented his flawless skin, chiseled features, and sensually full mouth. Then he took his coat off, revealing an indigo shirt that clung to his muscles as if reveling in them. Black jeans were snug in all the right places, highlighting a taut stomach, strong thighs, and when he turned to hang up his coat, an ass that could double as a work of art. By the time he turned back around, his slight smile had turned into a knowing grin. More emotions enveloped my subconscious while his scent—a rich mixture of spices, musk, and burnt sugar—filled the room.
“Missed me, Kitten?”
I didn’t know how he managed to make the question sound indecent, yet he did. I would’ve said the English accent helped, but his best friends were English, and their voices never turned my insides to jelly.
“Yes,” I replied, rising and coming over to him.
He watched me, not moving when I slid my hands up to lace them behind his neck. I had to stand on tiptoe to do it, but that was okay. It brought us closer, and the hard feel of his body was almost as intoxicating as the swirls of desire that curled around my emotions. I loved that I could sense his feelings as though they were my own. If I’d realized that was one of the perks of his changing me into a full vampire, I might have upgraded my half-breed status years ago. Then his head lowered, but before his lips brushed mine, I turned away.
“Not until you say you missed me, too,” I teased.
In reply, he picked me up, his grip easily subduing my mock struggles. Smooth leather met my back as he set me onto the couch, his body a barricade I didn’t want to dislodge. Hands settled around my face, holding me with possessiveness as green filled up his irises and fangs slid out of his teeth.
My own lengthened in response, pressing against lips that I parted in anticipation. His head bent, but he only brushed his mouth over mine with a fleeting caress before chuckling.
“Two can play at teasing, luv.”
I began to struggle in earnest, which only made his laughter deepen. My high kill count had earned me the nickname of the Red Reaper in the undead world, but even before Bones’s startling new powers, I hadn’t been able to best him. All my thrashing did was to rub him against me in the most erotic way—which was why I kept doing it.
The zipper on my sweater went all the way down without his hands moving from my head. My clothes accounted for most of his practice with his fledgling telekinesis. Then the front clasp on my bra opened, baring the majority of my br**sts. His laughter changed to a growl that sent delicious tingles through me. But when the buttons popped open on his dark blue shirt, its color reminded me of Tate’s eyes and the news I needed to tell him.
“Something’s up,” I said in a gasp.
White teeth flashed before Bones lowered his mouth to my chest. “How clichéd, but true nonetheless.”
The baser part of me whispered that I could postpone this talk for an hour, but concern for my friends slapped that down. I gave myself a mental shake and grabbed a handful of Bones’s dark brown curls, pulling his head up.
“I’m serious. Don came by and relayed some disturbing information.”
It seemed to take a second for the words to penetrate, but then his brows rose. “After all this time, he finally told you what he’s been hiding about Madigan?”
“No, he didn’t,” I said, shaking my head for real this time. “He wanted to let me know that Tate and the others haven’t been home in over three weeks. I tried their cells and only got voice mails. Actually, that distracted me from pushing Don about his past with Madigan.”
Bones snorted, the brief puff of air landing in the sensitive valley between my br**sts. “Clever sod knew it would. I doubt it was an accident that he gave you this information while I was out.”