Hi there.” A woman with short, perky blond pigtails stuck out her hand in greeting. “I’m Ryder Anderson from Midnight Liaisons. You must be Ruby Sommers.”
“That’s me,” I said firmly, shaking her hand. Her grip was wimpy, like most human women’s, and there was an odd scent to her that I couldn’t place. Maybe it was just my nerves. I was so anxious that I felt like throwing up or running out the door. Possibly both.
Ryder gave me a cheery smile. “It’s so nice to finally meet you. Your date isn’t scheduled to arrive for another ten minutes, so I thought I’d finish going over a few things about the dating service with you, if that’s all right?” Her voice was incessantly bubbly.
“Okay,” I said, feeling overwhelmed despite her efficient attitude. When she waved me forward, I followed her like a lost baby duckling, and I hated myself for it.
The restaurant she’d picked for the date had a cozy, publike atmosphere. It was dark and intimate, with a small flickering oil lamp on each table. The booths were surrounded by tall wooden panels with green ivy growing over the edges, making each section private.
I sat down at the table she led me to, tugging my chair in and then wiping my sweating palms over my green linen retro dress. It belted at the waist and had a cute flared skirt. My sister, Jayde, had picked it out when she learned I’d planned to wear jeans and a sweater. “You’ll never catch a man like that,” she’d told me.
Maybe she was right. It shouldn’t be hard for me to catch a man at all. As a shifter female, I should have my pick, right? Yet here I was, lonely and desperate and set up on a blind date through a dating service. Maybe it was how I dressed. I eyed Ryder’s attire. Her polo top was bright pink and belted into white capris with pink piping. Pink-and-white heeled sandals completed the outfit. She looked as if she was ready to go to the country club, and she looked really eager for my date.
I didn’t feel half as excited as she looked. Instead, there was a pit of dread in my stomach telling me this wouldn’t end well.
“So,” she said with a big grin. “Here’s how this works. I’m going to go sit on the far side of the restaurant. It’s like a chaperoned date, but I won’t listen in.” She pointed at her ear. “Humans can’t hear across noisy rooms. It’s just to observe and make sure you feel safe and comfortable. The date will begin and end here at the restaurant. If you wish to meet him again, it won’t be chaperoned, though we will ask you to log each date so we can keep track of where you’re at and any interspecies information you might wish to share with the agency.”
“I see.” This all sounded a little controlled. I just wanted a date with a nice guy. A little conversation and maybe some flirting to break up the monotony of my life. Someone to talk to who wouldn’t make me feel so alone.
Someone who would wipe the memories of my last relationship from my mind, because I couldn’t seem to forget about Michael.
“Now, do you want me to set up a rescue call?” Her blue eyes focused on me.
“In case the date is going badly,” Ryder said, pulling out her phone and typing. “I can call you forty-five minutes into the date and say that you’re needed at work. You can choose to answer however you like, but it’ll give you an out.”
“No, that’s okay. I think I’ll be all right.”
She winked at me cheerfully. “I think you will be, too. Everyone loves Valjean.”
“Valjean?” I laughed. “You mean, like the one from the musical?”
“Musical?” She looked confused.
“Never mind.” I guessed perky Ryder didn’t spend much time listening to anything she couldn’t work out to. “I just thought it was a weird name.”
She grinned. “We’ll get to him soon enough. But first, I need to finish filling out your profile. Can I see your Alliance ID card?”
I pulled my wallet out of my tiny clutch. Another one of Jayde’s brilliant ideas—a teeny, tiny matching green purse instead of my normal serviceable brown satchel. “Here you go.”
Ryder peered at it, then typed something else into her iPad. “Okay, good. It looks like you didn’t fill out your profession on your profile.”
“Oh, yeah.” I could feel my cheeks flush. “That’s because I really don’t have an official one.”
Ryder tilted her head at me, confused. “You don’t have one?” She looked down at her notes on the iPad, then back to me. “But I show here that you’re twenty-six and have some college education. What do you do for a living?”
I hated this question. “I’m a security guard at an Alliance storage facility.”
She blinked at me as if it did not compute, and her gaze flicked over my five-foot-nothing frame and my slightly too curvy body. Her response was a polite “Oh?”
“It’s the nose,” I said lamely, gesturing at my face.
Ryder looked even more confused.
“My sense of smell,” I clarified. God, this was so embarrassing. “They hired me because of my predator instincts. We’re good at chasing things down in shifted form. Hunters. Apex predators,” I mumbled.
Ryder’s smile was brilliant once more. “Oh. Of course.”
God, I felt stupid. And short.
“Sooooo,” Ryder continued cheerfully, tapping her fingers on the iPad. “You also left number twenty-five blank. ‘What made you decide to contact Midnight Liaisons?’ It’s a purely optional question, but we like to get an idea of what brings people to the service. I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
What made me decide to contact a supernatural dating agency? I was twenty-six and alone and couldn’t date humans because of Alliance rules. I worked in a dead-end job and saw no one except my boss when we switched shifts. At the few places I did go to on a regular basis—the library, the movie theater, the grocery store—I couldn’t just pick a guy up on the fly. He had to be vetted by the Alliance before I could date him. Men in my life had to have a tail or fangs or both. And since supernaturals lived on the down-low, I was essentially limited to my circle of friends.
Which pretty much left my sister and my boss. I didn’t meet new people easily, and were-jaguars were loners by nature.
But there was a difference between loner and lonely. “My sister suggested the service. She says she’s met a lot of guys through Midnight Liaisons, and it’s been a while since I dated.”
“Of course,” Ryder said sympathetically.
“I had a long-term boyfriend, but it didn’t… work out,” I added, feeling the need to explain or she’d think something was wrong with me. “We sort of broke off on an ugly note.”
She made sympathetic noises in her throat, nodding at me. “Of course. Men can be such dicks.”
Such a vehement phrase from such a perky human. “Actually,” I said, feeling my heart squeeze painfully for the thousandth time since that day, “he was a really nice guy. I broke it off.”
“Why is that?”
I couldn’t tell her that I’d been dating a human, since that was forbidden. Humans weren’t supposed to know about people who grew tails and things that went bump in the night. A human might freak out and tell others, and then we’d show up on the pages of the Enquirer. Dating a human put everyone in jeopardy.
But I’d been so very in love with Michael. Handsome, funny, sexy. God, so sexy. He’d had a sweet smile that would come over his face slowly when he saw me, as if the sight of me instantly made his world a better place. I’d been addicted to him and spent half of my senior year practically living in his dorm.
Once my father had found out, he’d been furious. Not over the classes I’d been skipping or my slumping grades but because I’d broken a sacred rule. Humans were a one-night stand, and only if it couldn’t be avoided. And what I had with Michael could not be construed as anything but a relationship.
My father had threatened me, and when I’d ignored his threats, he’d threatened Michael’s life instead. I’d had no choice but to end the relationship, and quickly. I’d ended it badly enough to make sure that there was no chance of us getting back together ever again.
“It wasn’t his fault,” I said. “He caught me with another guy.”
“Oh,” she said slowly. “I see.”
Why couldn’t I keep my nervous mouth shut? “It was a long time ago. Four years. Not a big deal.”
“Of course,” Ryder said soothingly, then patted my hand. “So, are you ready to hear about your date tonight?”
My stomach gave a little lurch in protest. “Sure.”
Ryder practically wiggled in her seat with excitement. “Now, you did say you were open to dating all kinds of men.”
I didn’t remember that, since I’d filled it out in the groggy post-work-shift state. Lord only knew what I’d written down. “That’s fine. I don’t care what breed of shifter he is.”
Ryder smiled. “Let me tell you a little bit about Valjean. He’s a more recent member of the Alliance. He went to the same university as you, which is a great common ground. I think you’re really going to like him.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
She glanced down at her sheet. “I’m told he’s an investor. He loves to travel. I think he recently spent a few years in Europe.”
Envy flared through me. I’d always wanted to travel to Europe, back before real life beat me down and smothered my dreams. “A world traveler? I don’t know how much we’ll have in common, then. I never travel.”
Ryder smiled brilliantly. “Then you’ll enjoy his stories! I’m sure you two will get along just fine.”
“What breed is he?”
“Welllll.” She tilted her head and lifted her shoulders a little. “He’s a vampire.”