All I cared about was that Bones didn’t stop.
The woman wore a UPS uniform, but her plain sedan and thoughts revealed that she worked for another employer. Still, if Bones and I wouldn’t have had our senses lasered on everyone who entered that parking garage, we would have skipped right over her.
For starters, she parked at the sidewalk instead of inside the garage even though that’s where she was headed. Furthermore, everything about her seemed designed to be forgettable, from her short, lackluster hair to her average build and her pleasant-yet-plain features. Dress her in another uniform, and she could serve you pancakes at the local diner without once piquing your curiosity, yet her thoughts were in stark contrast to her appearance. She took note of her surroundings with military precision I’d worked hard to drill into my men when I commanded my old unit.
She’d never fall for the broken heel in the street act. She’d run me over first and check to see if I was an actual threat later.
Which meant we needed a new plan.
“We need to switch tactics,” Bones stated, echoing my concerns.
I gave the sunlight a frustrated glance. If only she’d made her drop at night! With the cover of darkness, we could snatch her up and fly her away with minimal chance of anyone noticing. But revealing our species to humanity with a splashy supernatural kidnapping in broad daylight would make our current predicament look mild by comparison. There was a reason vampires had stayed in their metaphorical coffins for millennia. Anyone who threatened the secret of our existence ended up dead the messy, painful way by the Law Guardians.
“We could follow her home, take her there,” I suggested.
“She doesn’t live around here,” a sleep-thickened voice stated from the backseat.
Ian. I’d almost forgotten he was here, probably because he’d been napping the past seven hours while Bones and I staked out the parking garage. Now he sat up in a slouch, sliding his black satin sleep mask up to his hairline.
“She’d live near the pickup point, not the drop-off location,” he continued, blinking at the bright sunlight streaming into our car. “Which one is she?”
“The brunette wearing the UPS uniform,” I said, pointing at her as she walked briskly toward the elevator. From our parked position on top of a hill across the street, we had a good view of the multi-level garage, which was why we’d chosen the spot.
Ian stared until she disappeared inside the elevator. Then he glanced back at me.
“Don’t fret, poppet. I’ll get her.”
“We need to do this discreetly. If I wanted to make a colossal scene, I’d just drag her off kicking and screaming now,” I said, not adding, “dumb ass” only because he was family.
“She’ll come without a fuss,” Ian said with confidence.
“You can’t green-eye her in the elevator, it’ll have video surveillance. So will the garage,” I retorted.
“I don’t need these,” Ian said, flashing emerald in his turquoise gaze for a split second, “when I have this.”
With a casual swipe of his hand, he ripped his shirt open, causing buttons to fly everywhere. Another swipe took his sleep mask all the way off. Finally, he finger-combed his shoulder-length hair and smiled at his reflection in the rearview mirror.
“I am, after all, irresistible.”
I couldn’t contain my snort. “I resisted you just fine the day we met, or don’t you remember me sticking a knife in your chest?”
Ian smiled with lazy wickedness. “I remember, but you seem to have forgotten that you kissed me first. And thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Caught off guard, I flushed. Hey, I’d been celibate for over four years at the time—I wasn’t thinking clearly!
“Ian,” Bones drew out warningly.
He waved a hand. “Stop growling, Crispin. I’m well over my former attraction to your wife, but the point remains that I’m stunning.”
With that, he got out of the car and sauntered off with his open shirt flapping behind him like twin mini capes.
“Get back here,” I hissed, not shouting only because we were still trying to be incognito.
Ian blew a kiss over his shoulder and kept walking, heading down the hill toward the parking garage. Bones stayed my hand when I would’ve yanked the car door open to go after him.
“Let him try, Kitten. Hooks work best when they’re baited.”
They did, but the female courier came off as too shrewd to bite into this particular piece of bait. I only hoped Ian didn’t blow our cover after his bare-chested sashaying failed to sweep her off her feet.
“For the record, I tried to stop this,” I said grimly. Then I turned my attention back to Ian.
The afternoon sun gave his copper-hued hair golden highlights and he made sure that the hard lines of his chest and abdomen were on full display as his pace kept his shirt billowing behind him. Grudgingly, I had to admit that several heads turned, and more than a few cars slowed down as female drivers gave him a second, third, and fourth look. Ian responded by flashing them a dazzling smile, making him appear almost angelic to anyone who didn’t know that he was a conscienceless slut.
As he crossed the street, a downward tug on his waistband had his jeans sitting even lower on his hips. Another couple inches, and he’d be flashing groin cl**vage, and from the avid stares aimed his way, that could be met with spontaneous applause.
“Have some dignity, ladies,” I muttered.
Then Ian surprised me by grabbing the nearest bystander who wasn’t gawking at him and yanking the man close enough to kiss. For a second, I wondered what the hell he was doing, but Bones said, “She’s back,” and my gaze snapped to the parking garage elevator again.
The brunette got out on the street level and headed straight to the sidewalk where she’d parked. No surprise to see that the briefcase she’d arrived with was now gone. From her thoughts, she was less watchful since the drop had been successfully made, but she still gave her surroundings a thorough once-over as she walked toward her car.
Which meant she saw Ian the moment he staggered into her path, the stranger he’d accosted now shoving him and ripping at his pants. My brows went up, but then the man snatched Ian’s wallet out of his front pocket and, with a final shove that sent him sprawling, ran off.
“Blasted sod stole my wallet!” Ian shouted.
The brunette paused about a dozen feet away. I was focused on her thoughts, so I knew the moment when her natural—and correct!—wariness was trumped by something else. She stared at Ian, who was on his back with his legs splayed and head bent. Then he flipped his hair back, revealing his face as he sat up so slowly, you couldn’t help but notice the muscles rippling across his chest and abs.
Oh yeah, he was piling it on thick.
“Do you have a mobile?” he asked, his English accent more pronounced. “I should call the police. I’ve just been robbed.”
“Mobile? You mean cell phone?” she asked while Stop STARING, Barbara! flashed across her mind.
Barbara. Now we knew her real name. No one used an alias to talk to themselves.
“Yes,” he said. Then he looked down at his bare chest as if he hadn’t ripped his shirt open himself.
“What a state I’m in,” Ian continued, actually managing to sound rueful and shaken at the same time. “Bloke near tore my clothes off trying to get my wallet. Drugs, I suspect.”
Caution urged Barbara to leave the gorgeous stranger alone, but she ignored that and came closer anyway. I was both glad and disgusted. Way to blow up Ian’s ego and deflate feminism at the same time, Barb!
Then a cluster of people blocked them from view. I tensed, ready to spring into action, but in the next moment, feminine choruses of “You poor thing!” “Are you okay?” and “Let me help you!” rang out.
Ian’s other admirers had descended on the scene.
“Unbelievable,” I breathed. By merely walking down the street shirtless, he’d managed to round up a harem.
“Ladies, thank you, but I’m well taken care of,” Ian said. Barbara’s thoughts split between logic telling her to leave and pleasure over the handsome man’s confidence in her. When Ian continued to rebuff the other women in favor of her, her indecisiveness crumpled.
“Are all of you deaf?” she snapped, her authoritative voice rising above the others. “Leave, before he calls the cops for harassment, too!”
With a few final grumbles, the would-be harem dispersed, allowing me to see the look of gratitude mixed with sensual promise that Ian bestowed on Barbara.
That did it. She closed the last few feet between them without hesitation, holding out her cell phone. When his fingers curled around hers as he took it, “Cold hands,” drifted through her mind before his gaze locked onto hers and lit up with bright, mesmerizing green.
Oh shit, was her last conscious thought.
“I told you this would be easy,” Ian said, and he wasn’t talking to her.
Bones started the car. I looked away, not needing to see Ian climb into Barbara’s to know that the two of them would soon be following us.
“There’ll be no living with him now,” I said under my breath.
Bones grunted in amusement. “As always, Kitten.”
The good news was, after hours of questioning Barbara, we knew the location of the facility where Tate, Juan, Dave, and Cooper were most likely held since that’s where the vampire blood samples came from. Then, like the not-actor James Franco, Barbara was sent on her way with a lower blood count and a new memory.
Ian was going to throw in a bonus service (“I’m many things, but a tease isn’t one of them,” he’d stated), yet I stopped him before he could make good on his former, unspoken offer to Barbara. We didn’t have the time, plus, her previous attraction didn’t equate to current consent in my book.
The bad news was, I didn’t know how we could break into the facility without getting caught.
The McClintic Wildlife Management area in Mason County, West Virginia, was more commonly known as the “TNT area.” During World War II, it was a large manufacturing and storage center for explosives. In addition to the dozens of aboveground concrete bunkers that housed the aforementioned TNT as well as radioactive waste, there was also a network of tunnels and underground bunkers built to withstand a nuclear blast. After the war, the blueprints of the massive underground facility conveniently disappeared, though the topside bunkers were just sealed up and left to rot.
Today, a few hundred out of the three-thousand-plus-acre tract were off-limits to the public due to safety and environmental concerns. Even the airspace was closed over a section of preserve after one of the bunkers mysteriously exploded in 2010, but while the government owned and monitored the area, someone like Barbara could slip in and out without arousing locals’ suspicions. In addition to hunters who frequented the McClintic Wildlife Management area, it was also the original location of the Mothman sightings and thus drew paranormal seekers by the thousands.
“In short,” I said to Bones after I spent several fruitless hours scouring the Internet for more information, “we’re screwed. Barbara always picks up the briefcase in front of the S4-A storage igloo, but that doesn’t mean it’s the entrance to the underground compound. That could be anywhere underneath three thousand acres of swamp, forest, and brush, and we can’t go there ourselves to narrow its location by listening for thoughts.”
After all, this wasn’t located in a city like Madigan’s lab in Charlottesville. There, it wouldn’t be unusual for vampires to frequent the vicinity. Hunters and wannabe cryptids might be able to stroll around the McClintic Wildlife Management area without arousing suspicion, but no self-respecting vampire would shoot animals for sport. Neither would one chase after a supernatural creature that didn’t exist.
“If this place has security like the Tennessee compound,” I continued in frustration, “infrared alarms will go off if anyone with a body temperature lower than ninety-six degrees enters the preserve. And if those alarms triggered an instant explosion, well . . . they don’t call it the TNT area for nothing.”
No one would find that unusual, only unfortunate. Madigan had the perfect cover with this facility.
“Send Fabian to scout it,” Ian suggested, referring to the ghost I was friends with.
I gave him a sour look. “It’s worth a shot, but I doubt the most important place in Madigan’s scheme to create partly undead supersoldiers is also the only place he didn’t ghostproof.”
Bones tapped his chin, his silence acknowledging his agreement. Then, with a twisted smile, he tossed me my purse.
“You’re friends with the only vampire in the world who can beat infrared sensors, and he’s explosion-proof to boot.”
I thought he muttered, “More’s the pity” after that statement, but I was too excited to chide him.
Vlad! With his pyrokinesis, he was warmer than most humans, and that same ability also rendered him fireproof. I dug my phone out of my purse and dialed Vlad’s cell.
Daca nu este ceva important, nu lasati mesaj si nu sunati din nou, a recorded male voice answered, followed by the English translation of “If this isn’t important, don’t leave a message and don’t call back.”
No one ever accused Vlad the Impaler of being too charming. I left an urgent message with both mine and Bones’s cell number before I hung up.
“Okay, that’s done. Now, let’s find Fabian and get him to check out the McClintic Wildlife preserve, just in case.”