“Last day of this assignment.”
Jake nodded silently, but didn’t look at Dan Shephard, the blond man at his side and his partner for this job. Instead, Jake’s eyes were busily sliding over the crowd that had gathered around the hotel entrance where their client stood answering questions. It was supposed to look like a spur of the moment thing, their client stopping to answer a few of the many questions shot at him by the press who always followed him on visits like this. It was supposed to make him seem more accessible and less the dangerous dictator he was. But it wasn’t spur of the moment. Jake, Dan, and the rest of the security team had been told that he was going to stop and answer questions and that they weren’t to rush him into his vehicle and whisk him away as would be the norm. Instead they were to let him “do his thing” and just keep an eye out for trouble. Jake was doing just that, keeping an eye out, looking for any possible threat.
“Damn good thing it’s almost over too,” Dan added grimly. “One more day of watching out for this arrogant, demanding prick and I might be tempted to kill him myself.”
That comment made Jake’s mouth twitch with amusement. Their client was definitely an annoying, arrogant, and demanding bastard. But then, what else could you expect from a foreign dictator? Besides, working as professional protection in Ottawa meant that a lot of the people they were sent to guard were arrogant, demanding, or annoying. At least on the outside. Some were a different case inside and just acting up out of fear or stress, but not all. This client was as arrogant, demanding, and annoying inside as he acted on the outside. But, they were hired to do a job and you couldn’t like every client, he thought philosophically.
“He flies out at eight, right? Then we’re done?” Dan asked.
Jake nodded, but his eyes had narrowed on a man in the crowd. The fellow wore a baseball cap and jean jacket. He was also eyeballing their client. Of course, most people there were, but there was just something about Ball-Cap Boy that was raising alarms in Jake’s head.
“Four more hours then,” Dan muttered, glancing at his wristwatch. “Four more hours . . . and counting,” he added dryly. “Want to go for a drink afterward? I know I need one after a week with this bast— Where are you going?”
Jake heard the question, but didn’t stop to answer. He was hurrying through the crowd toward Ball-Cap Boy, every muscle in his body straining to get there in time as the man pulled a gun from the waistband at the back of his jeans and began to level it at their client.
“That was one hell of a catch,” Dan said, slapping Jake on the back six hours later as they headed out of Protection One’s swanky offices and approached the elevators. Their four hours of work had turned into six thanks to Jake’s stopping and apprehending the assassin in the baseball cap. First there had been the police and all their questions to deal with and then they’d had to fill in their boss, Hank Latham, on what had taken place.
Now, they were finally leaving work, two hours later than expected.
“I don’t know how you did it,” Dan continued, shaking his head as the elevator doors opened and they stepped on board. “Hell, I didn’t even track the guy as a problem, but I sure as hell couldn’t have moved as fast as you did. You flew through that crowd.”
“Adrenaline,” Jake muttered, glancing at his watch.
“You gotta love adrenaline,” Dan commented, slapping him again as Jake pushed the button for the main floor. As the doors closed, he commented, “So we get a couple of play days before the next assignment. Want to go for a drink to celebrate?”
“Can’t. I’m meeting someone for dinner and I’m already late,” Jake said, leaning back against the elevator wall and crossing his arms. He wasn’t really sorry he had to decline. He liked Dan, he was a good guy, but Jake wasn’t much of a drinker. Alcohol did little for him.
“Someone? Like a lady?” Dan asked with a grin.
“Someone, like sort of family,” Jake said evasively.
“Sort of family?” Dan prodded.
Jake hesitated, and then said, “Yeah. You know, that older lady who isn’t really a relation but your parents make you call aunt.”
“Ah,” Dan grimaced. “Yeah. I have one of those myself, a lifelong friend of my mom’s. She and her hubby hang with my parents all the time and she’s been ‘Aunt Betty’ most of my life. Dotty old biddy now, but good-hearted.”
“Yeah, this is the same deal,” Jake said, ignoring the twinge of guilt the words caused. The lady in question was old as hell, but “dotty old biddy” didn’t exactly fit her.
“Well . . .” Dan eyed him silently, and then smiled wryly and said, “I’m kind of glad to hear about this aunt who’s not an aunt. You never mention family. I was beginning to think you were hatched or something.”
“Nah. There just isn’t much to talk about,” Jake said quietly. “Most of my family live on the West Coast or out of the country. Haven’t seen much of them the last few years or so.”
“Ah.” Dan nodded. “So . . . ? Siblings? Parents still alive? Kissing cousins around?”
Much to Jake’s relief he was saved from answering the probing questions when they reached the main floor and the doors began to open. Moving forward, he said, “See you in a couple days,” over his shoulder.
“Yeah.” Dan said, following him off the elevator.
Jake hurried for the building’s exit, but his expression was tight. He knew damned right well that wouldn’t be the end of the questions. Dan would repeat them at the first opportunity, and have a dozen more.
Putting away that worry for now, Jake pushed through the front doors and turned right, moving quickly. He was supposed to have been at the restaurant ten minutes ago. Fortunately, the Protection One offices were downtown, just around the corner and down the street from where he was headed. A three- or four-minute walk if he moved fast.
Of course, it was possible he was rushing for nothing. His dinner companion may already have given up and left. He couldn’t say he’d be sorry if she had. He wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. He had no doubt his “aunt” was trying to arrange a family reunion, and while it may have been more than half a dozen years since he’d left the bosom of his family, he wasn’t ready to return. Not yet anyway.
Worrying about how to politely say as much, Jake reached the restaurant and hurried inside, only to pause abruptly, his gaze searching the patrons.
“Hi. Did you want a table or are you meeting someone?”
Jake glanced to the young woman who had spoken. Dressed all in black, she was blond, beaming, and perky as hell. She waited wide-eyed and head tilted for his answer.
“Meeting someone,” he assured her, and then turned his attention back to the room, his eye immediately caught by the auburn-haired beauty waving at him from a table in the back corner. She hadn’t left. Damn, he thought wearily and headed for the table. She was on her feet by the time he reached her, and immediately stepped forward to hug him.
“Sorry I’m late,” Jake apologized as he self-consciously returned the embrace. “I just got out of work.”
“No need to apologize, Stephano. I’m just glad you agreed to meet me,” Marguerite Argeneau said, leaning back in his arms to smile at him warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” Jake said stiffly as he released her. Voice gentle, he added, “I don’t go by Stephano anymore.”
“Oh, yes, of course, I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “You go by your second name now. Jacob.”
“Call me Jake,” he suggested, urging her back to her seat, before settling in the one across from her as another woman all in black approached with menus in hand. This one was a brunette, but she wore a beaming smile as perky as the blonde’s at the door as she stopped at the table.
“Good evening!” she said gaily as she set a menu in front of each of them. “Would you like something to drink while you look at the menu?”
“Water,” Jake said quietly.
Nodding, the girl then turned to Marguerite. “How is your tea? Would you like fresh tea, or something else to drink?”
“Another tea, please, and a glass of water,” Marguerite said, her smile just as wide as the girl’s.
Nodding, their waitress beamed again and rushed off.
Marguerite immediately turned to him with a more natural smile. “Jake. The name suits you. And I understand now you use Colson, your father’s last name, rather than Notte?”
He shifted uncomfortably as he nodded, and then waited for her to give him hell for being an ungrateful wretch and dropping the name of the man who had been a father to him since he was five.
Instead, Marguerite smiled with understanding and said, “A new name for a new life.”
Jake’s surprise at her comment must have shown on his face, because she smiled and shrugged.
“I know you didn’t want to be immortal, Steph— Jake,” She grimaced apologetically for the slip and Jake shrugged it away. No he hadn’t wanted to be immortal. His mother had explained everything to him and offered to turn him on his eighteenth birthday, but he’d refused. He was born mortal and had wanted to stay that way. But then some skinny little bitch immortal had stabbed him in the chest while pursuing a vendetta against his boss, Vincent Argeneau, Marguerite’s nephew. Vincent had found him dying on the office floor and had used his one turn to make Jake an immortal. It had been the only way Vincent could save him and Jake understood why he’d done it. He even knew intellectually that he should be grateful for it. But he wasn’t. Or maybe he was. He just didn’t know it. Mostly he’d spent his time since then trying to ignore it and pretend it hadn’t happened, that he was normal and not a freak who had to feed on blood to survive.
“I know you’ve been struggling with the change,” Marguerite continued. “And I respect that. I haven’t come here to judge you, or try to get you to see your mother, or guilt you with comments about her loving and worrying about you.”
Jake’s mouth twitched with amusement at the words. Just saying them was enough to inspire some guilt . . . and Marguerite knew that, but he suspected she just couldn’t resist. She was a mother too, after all. But he let her get away with it and simply asked, “So how long has everyone known where I was and what I was doing?”
Jake had responded to waking up to find himself a vampire much like a wounded animal, crawling away to a corner to lick his wounds. Only his corner was Ottawa, which was hell and gone from California, where he’d lived at the time. And rather than lick his wounds, he did his best to pretend there wasn’t anything different. Other than sending his mother and brother short notes in birthday and Christmas e-cards, he’d broken all contact with the family while he dealt with it. But since he wasn’t really dealing with it, this had gone on for seven years. But then, what the hell? Time was irrelevant now. He could take as long as he wanted to deal with it.
“No one else knows,” Marguerite assured him, and when he arched one dubious eyebrow, she added, “Well, aside from myself and Bastien, of course.”
Jake’s mouth tightened. He’d had to let Bastien, the president of Argeneau Enterprises, know. He needed blood to survive and while he might now be a fricking vampire, he’d be damned if he was going to go around attacking and biting mortals to survive. Which meant he needed blood delivered, and Argeneau Enterprises had a blood bank that supplied blood to immortals. Jake was sure there were other suppliers with similar setups, but Argeneau was the only one he knew about, and it wasn’t like vampire blood banks advertised in the damned yellow pages. So, he’d had to arrange for delivery of a steady supply. But he’d called Bastien personally, asking him to keep his whereabouts and new name a secret. It seemed he’d trusted the wrong person.
“Bastien didn’t tell me,” Marguerite assured him solemnly. “He has kept your secret as he promised.”
“I’m his mother,” she said simply. “I can read all my children as easily as reading a book. He can’t keep secrets from me. Although he tries,” she added with a grin.
Jake smiled wryly and sank back in his seat. He should have suspected as much. His own mother was the same way and had been since she’d met Roberto Conti Notte and been turned when Jake was a boy. He had never been able to keep a secret from her after that, which was damned dismaying to a teenage boy full of hormones. Knowing your mother would know what you were doing was pretty inhibiting sexually.
“I’ve known from the beginning where you were and respected your need for privacy while you adjusted.”
“Until now,” he said quietly.
“Until now,” Marguerite agreed solemnly. “Because I need you.”
That brought him upright in his seat, his eyebrows high. “You need me?”
“Yes.” She nodded solemnly, but then sat back and peered past him.
Jake wasn’t surprised to look around and see the waitress returning with their drinks.
“Are you ready to order, or do you need a few more minutes?” the girl asked as she set down their drinks.
Jake glanced at Marguerite as she looked down at her menu. She had opened it, but he didn’t think she’d really got a chance to check it out before this. On the other hand, he hadn’t even opened his, but didn’t need to. He had eaten here many times. The workers were always annoyingly perky, but the food was also always great. It was why he’d suggested it as the meeting spot.