Home > This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(8)

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(8)
Author: Jeaniene Frost

"Get your hands off me!" came another yell, too shrill for me to tell if I recognized who was speaking.

"You know the rules. Take it off the premises," the DJ boomed out. He didn't sound too concerned about what would happen after that, I noticed.

I reached the vampires just as they shoved the screaming man out of my line of sight.

From the frantic internal thumping in his chest, he was human.

"What's going on, guys?" My voice was casual and I kept my hands off the silver strapped to my upper back. After all, I'd promised Verses we wouldn't break his rules this time.

One of the vampires gave me a hostile glare. "None of your business, Redhead." Bones came into the area, obviously having heard the disruption and my involvement in it. He smiled at the group of vampires, but that wasn't what made them stop to give him their full attention. It was the power Bones unleashed when he dropped his shields and the full weight of his aura blasted out like a geyser, swirling the air around him with invisible currents.

"I believe my wife asked you a question," he noted in a deceptively light tone.

It was very unfeminist of me, but the expressions of wariness that settled on their faces had me biting my cheeks to keep from laughing. Just realized having several of your buddies around doesn't mean you have the upper hand, huh, boys?

"The human's a spy," the one who'd snapped at me said to Bones in a much more respectful manner. "I've seen him coming in here before, asking questions about our kind . . .

now we caught him taking pictures. You know we can't have that." I still couldn't see him behind the wall of vampires, but I was betting this was the reporter we were looking for. And as soon as they took him off the premises, he was in deep shit.

Vampires and ghouls would do anything to ensure that all but a few, select humans were happily unaware they shared the planet with creatures that were supposed to be myth.

"Give him to me," I said, thinking fast. "I'll wipe his mind and destroy all his gadgets.

No harm, no foul."

"But I'm hungry," one of them protested.

Oh yeah, the damage control they'd intended was far more permanent. "Lots of people here would be happy to help you with that, but you're not getting him," I said, my words soft but steely.

The apparent leader of the group ignored me as he pulled out a cigarette, sticking it between his teeth.

"No need to fight. You want him? I'll bargain," he said to Bones.

I was past my initial amusement over how these vampires were so focused on Bones that I seemed to be invisible to them. Plus, Bones had said it would be better if we were recognized.

Well, let this serve as my introduction.

"I have an idea. How about we arm wrestle? Winner gets the human." That switched their attention to me. Laughter broke out from the group and the leader's gaze actually became pink with tears of mirth.

"You've got to be joking," he managed.

I gave him a sweet smile. "Not at all."

His gaze flicked to Bones. "You're not going to let her do this, are you?" Bones snorted. "Let her? Mate, if you think you can control a woman, you must be single - and a thousand pounds says she beats your arse."

"We can use this," I went on, walking over to a high-top table that butted against the half wall separating the booth area from the dance floor. "Come on. Moonlight's burning." A small crowd started to form. I didn't look at them, reserving my attention for the leader as I cocked a brow in invitation. I could have suggested we take this off the premises. Upped the stakes to a brawl instead of a simple test of strength, but though I wasn't about to be dismissed as arm candy, I wasn't looking to make new enemies, either.

The vampire handed his cigarette to one of his friends before coming over. He rolled up his right sleeve with a confident glance at my very average build. If he was measuring my aura to gauge my power level, he'd find nothing intimidating there, either. Bones told me I felt like a new vampire, which was as much of a disguise as my heartbeat had been when I was half human.

In comparison, the vampire was almost as tall as Bones, but with black hair and a burly build that spoke of thick muscle underneath a layer of firmly packed fat. His appearance wasn't what I paid the most attention to, however. It was his aura, dating him at around a buck fifty, and he carried his big form with easy grace.

Not an unbeatable opponent, but not one to half-ass my efforts with, either. I set my elbow on the table, not needing to do any more prep because my halter top didn't have sleeves.

All around us, bets were being placed. It amused me to hear my low odds.

The vampire's hand curled around mine as he placed his arm on the table, having to bend a little due to his greater height. His grip was firm but not punishing, raising my opinion of him a notch. A schmuck would've ground my fingers in his fist trying to make a point.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Verses shoulder his way to the front of the other onlookers. He was probably wishing he hadn't let us in after all.

"Count of three?" I suggested to the vampire.

Blue eyes tinged with emerald met mine. "Why not?"

Calls of "Show her what you're made of, Nitro!" and "Knock her on her pretty ass!" rang out when I began to count, never taking my eyes from my opponent. As soon as the word three left my lips, that previously steady grip tightened and Nitro hammered his hand downward, going for the quick win with a blast of inhuman strength.

Except our arms stayed in their same vertical position. Nitro's biceps bulged almost as much as his gaze when his efforts didn't move my arm so much as an inch. I flashed him a smile as I held my position, mentally counting to ten before I began to edge his arm in a slow, steady arc downward. After all, I didn't want to embarrass him by slamming his hand on the table before he'd even realized what happened. It wasn't Nitro's fault he had no idea I'd been born with unusual strength, or that I still had some of Bones's power in me from drinking his blood.

Poor burly vampire didn't stand a chance.

Murmurs rose from the crowd, drowning out even the music as Nitro's arm inched closer to the table. Lines formed in his face and a harsh grunt escaped him as he put more effort into holding me off. I let him raise his arm up a few inches - the male ego was such a fragile thing, after all - before sending it down onto the table with a thunk hard enough to crack the Formica.

We'll have to pay for that before we leave, I thought amidst the burst of surprised exclamations from the watchers around us.

Nitro stared at his arm in disbelief. Then his gaze swung back up to me even as I disentangled my grip and shook the temporary numbness out of my hand. He'd really gone all out those last few seconds.

"How the hell did you get to be so strong?" he demanded. "You can't be more'n a year undead!"

"Good guess," I remarked. "It'll be a year this fall, actually, but I'll tell you a secret - I had vampire strength long before that."

His brows drew together in a frown. Then comprehension dawned and Nitro laughed.

"Red hair, beautiful, and badass. You must be the Reaper." I grinned. "Call me Cat."

He glanced at Bones next, drawing the obvious connection as to who he had to be. Bones didn't notice; he was too busy collecting his winnings. Comments like "Ah, that's splendid," and

"Better luck next time, lads" came from him. By the time he sauntered over, he had a thick stack of bills in his hands. Most vampires were slow on catching what they considered the "new" credit card trend and still carried cash.

"Leave it to you to find a way to make a profit off this," I noted in amusement.

His mouth curled. "Fortune favors the bold."

Nitro shook his head as he looked back at us. "Guess it's time for me to pay up, too." Then he walked over to where his friends stood, pulling the reporter out from behind the wall of vampires. He gave him a light shove that nevertheless had him landing in an ungainly heap near my feet.

"All yours, Reaper," he drawled.

I ticked my hand off my brow in a jaunty salute. "Pleasure doing business with you, Nitro."

That earned me a laugh. "Next time, I'll know better than to fall for your innocent little female act."

"Don't feel bad, mate," Bones replied. "She fooled me with the same thing the first time we met, right up until I saw her kill a vampire seven times her age." Then Bones went over to the nearest bar and slapped his bundle of cash onto it. "Drinks are on me until this runs out," he announced, to a rousing round of applause. I caught his wink to Verses next and the ghoul's wry shake of his head. It probably didn't come close to making up for the damage we'd caused the last time we were here, but it was a start.

With another chuckle, Nitro and his group walked away to place their drink orders.

Around us, the onlookers faded as people went back to dancing, drinking, or whatever it was they'd been doing before this all started. I looked down at the man who was slowly getting up from the floor, sandy-brown hair mussed from his earlier struggles.

Yep, this was who we'd come here for.

"Hi, Timmie," I said in a low voice.

His head whipped up, revealing a face with five o'clock shadow on his jaw and faint lines around his eyes and mouth. He looked different from the gangly boy who'd been my neighbor seven years ago when I was a college student by day and a vampire hunter by night. In addition to the stubble on his face, the laugh lines, and his hair being longer, his frame had also filled out to a stockier, more muscular physique. Getting older looks good on him, I mused.

"How do you . . . ?" he began. Then his voice died away while his eyes widened.

"Cathy?" he managed. He looked me up and down, his shocked expression changing into a smile that wreathed his face. "Cathy! I knew you weren't dead!"

Chapter Nine

Timmie continued to stare at me witha mixture of glee and disbelief. I smiled back, happy to see hints of the boy I'd been friends with amidst the differences in the man in front of me. When Tate told me Timmie was the troublesome reporter we needed to collect tonight, I'd been stunned, but pleased at the thought of seeing him again.

"I can't believe it," Timmie marveled. "You look exactly the same, except, uh, you didn't use to dress like that before," he added as goggled at my outfit. Then he made as if to hug me, but stopped when he noticed the man striding up to my side.

"You!" Timmy burst out, losing the smile while he blanched. "God, Cathy, you're still with him?"

I smothered a laugh at the incredulity in his tone. "Yep. Married him, too." Bones gave Timmie a grin that managed to be predatory even though he didn't flash any fang. "She does indeed look very fetching, but if you continue with that particular line of thought, I'll neuter you for real this time."

Timmie's cheeks reddened. "I - I didn't . . . I mean, I wouldn't . . ." Then his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You don't look any different, either, except your hair's dark now. Neither of you look a day older than the last time I saw you." Fear wafted from him as he looked back and forth between me and Bones, putting it all together with what he'd learned about this club. I watched him closely as I waited. The Timmie I'd known had been open-minded and kind, albeit ignorant about the undead like everyone else.

How much of who he used to be was still left in the person in front of me? Had the years changed not just his appearance, but his tolerance as well?

"I'm right about all of it, aren't I?" he asked at last, very softly. "Some of these people

. . . they're not human."

"No, they're not," I answered in a steady tone.

His face paled even more as he looked around at the people by the nearest bar. On the surface, nothing about them looked different from patrons gathered around any other bar, especially since Timmie couldn't see the handful of ghosts circling over the last seat on the left.

But every so often, emerald would glint from a person's gaze. Or someone would move with a quickness that Timmie's subconscious would register even if his eyes couldn't follow.

Finally his shoulders squared as he looked back at me and Bones. "You two aren't human, either." A statement, not a question.

"No," I said gently. "We're not."

He shook his head like he was trying to clear it. "Those guys, the ones who grabbed me

. . . they were gonna eat me?"

No use lying about that, either. "Oh yeah. Definitely." He glanced at Bones. "But you won't."

Bones arched a brow as if disputing that. I elbowed him while I said, "No, Timmie, he won't. Neither of us will hurt you."

"Tim," he replied, then gave me a wry smile. "No one's called me Timmie in years." I smiled back. "Sure. And it's Cat, by the way."

"Cat." That wry smile remained. "Guess it suits you better than Cathy."

"No," Bones said.

Timmie's -  Tim's - smile faded. I glanced at Bones in confusion. "No what? You think I look like a Cathy?"

"No to what he's about to ask you," Bones replied. "You already owe her for saving you from those other blokes. Don't thank her by asking for another large favor." Tim clapped his arms around his head. "My God, you can really hear . . . ? Well, stop it!" Bones laughed outright. I had to admit Timmie did look funny clutching his head, but I didn't join in Bones's chuckles.

"Try wrapping tinfoil around your nog next, see if that works better," he suggested devilishly.

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