It had been decades since Dakota had attended a birthday party and never for a vampire-human hybrid toddler. The entire event only confirmed his feelings about New York City.
This place was crazy.
Give him the wild plains of Texas and wide-open spaces any day of the week. Before he’d been stationed here a couple of years ago, everyone he ever met raved to him about the Big Apple. Dakota hadn’t felt at home since he’d arrived and the vampire/human toddler didn’t exactly put him at ease.
Vampires having a baby? Now that was some crazy shit but crazy or not, it didn’t make it any less real. These city slickers weren’t exactly run of the mill vampires.
Emily, the tiny guest of honor, sat at the head of the shiny black dining table in a white high chair. She clapped with glee as Maya brought out the small pink and white birthday cake. There was a roomful of people, but Emily was the only one there who could actually eat the cake.
Maya placed it on the table in front of the child as the rest of the coven members broke into a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. Even Shane Quesada, Dakota’s fellow sentry and one of the most badass soldiers Dakota had ever met, was singing along. He stood behind his Bloodmate, Maya, with something that looked like a smile on his face. The guy rarely smiled and when he caught Dakota’s eye, his grin faltered briefly before he once again stared adoringly at the curly haired toddler.
Dakota studied the scene intently but stayed out of the way, leaning against the living room wall. They had all welcomed him, hell, they were friendly enough. But he still wasn’t one of them. Not really.
He’d watched most of his human family grow old and die. That had been difficult enough. But when Dakota lost his maker early on, he had learned the true meaning of grief. It wasn’t something he ever wanted to experience again.
He liked to keep moving, and in that respect being a sentry was a perfect fit. That and there was nothing he loved quite as much as a good fight, the smell of blood in the air, and the freedom to put down the bad guys.
Yup. It was the perfect job for him.
Although, hanging around this city-slicker coven of vampires could confuse a man. The more time he spent with them, the more he wanted to be a part of their family. They were a really weird family but a family all the same. Dakota stilled as Olivia hugged her little girl and when she kissed her rosy round cheek, a deep empty ache welled in his chest.
Damn it all.
The sudden and surprising swell of emotion swamped him and he quickly pulled another cinnamon lollipop out of the pocket of his long leather sentry coat. Dakota rolled the stick between his fingers before unwrapping it and popping it into his mouth. The spicy sweet taste of the candy tasted a little like blood but that’s not why he liked them. Sucking on that damn lollipop was the one remnant he held onto from his human life.
It let him recall what it felt like to be human.
The czars sat on either side of their daughter and Olivia’s secretary Suzie was snapping pictures of the festivities with her phone. Damien, a hulking brute of a vampire, hovered behind Suzie, like he usually did, and waved at Emily as he sang along.
Most little ones would be frightened by a guy like Damien, but not Emily. She beamed at him with pure adoration. Besides, Dakota thought with a wry grin, the dude was wearing one of those pointy party hats and at the moment he looked about as harmful as a teddy bear.
Dakota would be damned if he was going to put on a pink party hat. A cowboy hat, that he’d wear, but a pointy paper cone with sparkly ballerinas on it was not going on his head. No sir.
“Dakota? Catch.” Olivia’s sharp green-eyed gaze latched onto his as she tossed him one of the dreaded paper hats. “You must have missed yours when you came in.”
“Nope. I didn’t miss it. I know that as czar of this district, you’re my boss and all, but I’m gonna have to decline this particular request.” Dakota caught it with one hand. He tilted his head in deference to the czar and winked at Emily who rewarded him with a giggle. “Hats just aren’t my style,” he drawled. “Unless of course, it’s a Stetson.”
“My mistake, but don’t sweat it. It’s not an order and besides, we’re all off duty right now.” Olivia laughed, as Maya swept in and adjusted the bib around the little one’s neck. “Maybe for her birthday party next year, I’ll get a special cowboy birthday hat just for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Dakota dipped his head and pulled the lollipop out of his mouth. “That would be real nice.”
With a loud shriek, Emily smashed both of her pudgy little hands into the cake before giggling and eating the confection off her fingers. The entire group burst out laughing and Suzie snapped away capturing more photos.
Everyone was having a grand old time.
Well, almost everyone.
Dakota’s steady gaze shifted to the left and landed on the only individual in the room who wasn’t exuding the same goofy happiness as the rest. He’d sensed her uneasiness out in the hallway before he’d even rounded the corner.
Aside from being the only woman who’d caught his eye in over fifty years, she was also the one member of the coven that Dakota couldn’t figure out. That nagged at him. He was good at getting the bead on people, human, vamp, or otherwise, but not this one. Over the past couple of years, the pink haired spitfire of a woman had become a riddle he wanted to solve.
Trixie LaRoux sat on the arm of the overstuffed brown leather chair with an expression that Dakota couldn’t read. Her hair, which changed color as frequently as the wind blew, was currently streaked with variations of pink and black and was slicked back in a short stubby ponytail. Dressed in her usual ensemble of ripped up jeans, black combat boots, and a well-worn graphic t-shirt, she looked every bit the crazy punk rock wild woman most people thought she was.
When Dakota first met Trixie, he’d expected her to be crude and rude, but no matter how hard she tried to put out that image, she was neither. Under all of that heavy black eye makeup and pink hair was a woman doing her best to hide. Her edgy appearance and saucy language was a cover, a way to hide in plain sight.
But hide from what? Or whom?
And that was exactly what kept drawing Dakota in.
Perched on the arm of the chair, Trixie slowly swung her boot-clad feet, her pale brown eyes focused on Emily. Dakota noted an unmistakable air of sadness hidden behind a small smile. Why was she so damn melancholy? She loved Emily and the rest of the coven, so why was she acting more like she was at a funeral instead of a birthday party?
Trixie adjusted her position, her palms resting on either side of her thighs, but she froze when she caught him staring at her.
“What?” Trixie cracked her knuckles in a gesture she exhibited whenever she got nervous. She brushed at her shirt and pants. “Did Emily fling frosting on me or something?”
“No, ma’am. Just admiring a pretty lady, that’s all.” Dakota’s grin grew as her cheeks pinked. “Nothin’ wrong with that.”
“Right,” she scoffed. “I’m no lady.”
“I beg to differ,” he winked. “A tough one… but definitely a lady.”
Clearing her throat, she hopped off the chair and moved closer to her maker, as though seeking protection. Sticking her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, she nodded toward the table.
“Hey, Olivia. Why don’t you have Emily open some of her presents?”
Dakota pushed himself away from the wall and moved in closer, giving him a clearer view of Trixie. As they pulled one present after another over to the birthday girl, Trixie’s body language reeked of anxiety that grew more visible by the second. She folded her arms over her chest and nibbled on her thumb while Olivia and Doug helped their daughter open the pile of gifts. Trixie’s smile was strained and not the open genuine smile he witnessed over the past couple of years. He’d been studying her closely and he’d grown to know her smiles—and this was her fake one. The smile that hid her sadness.
Not so tough after all and definitely not so simple.
“I left a gift for Miss Emily too, it’s right there on the table.” Dakota tossed the lollipop stick in the small wastebasket in the corner. “It’s the one in the brown box. Just a little somethin’.”
“Thanks, man,” Doug said, without taking his eyes off his daughter. “You didn’t have to do that, but it’s appreciated.”
“Let’s see what our resident cowboy gave you.” Olivia dragged the box over. “It’s not pair of chaps or something, is it?”
“No, ma’am.” Dakota shook his head and let out a beleaguered sigh. “No chaps. She doesn’t have a horse and gettin’ her chaps now would be plain old silly. This isn’t as swell as a real horse, but I hope she’ll take a shine to it.”
“Swell?” Trixie said with a snort. “Dude, no one says ‘swell’ anymore.”
“I do.” He clasped his hands in front of him.
“Of course you do.” She rolled her eyes and muttered, “You probably say neat-o, too.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He winked at Trixie and suppressed a grin when she looked away. “Swell. Neat-o. All those words are great, and if you ask me, y’all should use ‘em more often.”
“As if.” Trixie rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind cowboy, but if you don’t update your verbiage, it won’t take long for people to figure out that something’s up with you. I mean what if Shane walked around talking like they did back in the olden days?”
“He kinda does,” Dakota said, with a wry smile in Shane’s direction. “No offense, Quesada.”
“None taken.” Shane shrugged as Maya snuggled into his embrace. “I’m well aware of my outdated vernacular.”
“Dude? You’re totally not helping.” Trixie made a face of derision. “Okay, cowboy, let’s put it this way. For the decade impaired, when you talk like that, it makes you sound like a real square, man.”
“Hell, no.” Dakota’s face fell and he straightened his back. “I ain’t no square, missy and you can bet your fine lookin’ bottom on that.”
Trixie flinched and an unreadable expression flickered over her features. Olivia intervened before she could respond.
“Are you two finished?” Olivia asked, looking between them with a thinly disguised smile. “I’d like to open Dakota’s gift for Emily, but without the banter.”
“By all means.” Dakota made a sweeping gesture with one hand as Emily, now seated in her mother’s lap, tugged at the box. “Like I was sayin’, it’s just a little something.”
When Olivia opened the simple brown box and pulled the present from within, a squeal of delight erupted from Emily. Her small pudgy hands immediately curled around the coffee-colored wooden horse but her reaction wasn’t the one that got to him. Amid the oohs and ahhs over his hand-carved creation. Trixie remained silent. Her brown-eyed gaze was fixed on Emily and her newfound prize. As the little girl hugged her present, the expression on Trixie’s face went from playful to sad in a split second.
“This is beautiful, Dakota,” Olivia said, admiring the hand crafted figure. “Did you make this?”
“I sure did,” he said, turning his attention back to Olivia. Pride filled him along with a touch of humility. “My daddy taught me how to carve wood and well, as y’all can imagine, I’ve had some years to perfect it. She’s too little for a real horse, so this one will have to do for now.”
“Thank you.” Olivia let out soft laugh as Emily pulled at the ribbon on the table. “But I mostly thank you for not getting her a real horse.”
“We both do,” Doug chimed in.
“Happy to do it.” Dakota nodded and slipped his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “If she takes a shine to it, I’m happy to make her more. Hell, I could wittle the girl her own herd of wild horses, if you think she’d like it. Every little girl should have horse of her own.”
Before Olivia could respond, Trixie headed for the door.
“I’m kinda beat, so I’ll see you guys later.” She curled her hand around the apartment door and tugged it open. Her gaze met his briefly just before slipped outside. “See you at The Coven after sundown.”
The Coven was their nightclub, where Trixie and Maya tended bar every night.
“Hey,” Maya called to her sister, flying to the door in a blur. “Why are you leaving? It’s Sunday and the one night the club is closed. You can’t tell me you’re going to sleep. Why don’t you and I have a good old sisters’ night? Shane is going out on patrol with Dakota and we could hang out and watch old movies.”
“No, thanks.” Trixie shook her head. She hugged Maya quickly before waving to the others. “I’m out. I’ll see you after sundown to open the club for Monday.”
“Where do you suppose she’s runnin’ off to?” Dakota murmured. “She’s been doin’ that a lot lately. Y’all notice that?”
“Trixie’s private life is her own,” Olivia said, with a sidelong glance in Dakota’s direction. “If you want to know where she’s going, then you’ll have to ask her.”
“I dare you,” Doug said with a snort of laughter.
“I second that.” Shane raised his hand before gathering Maya into his arms.
“You’re supposed to say I double dog dare you,” Maya giggled.
“What does a dog have to do with it?” Shane asked.
“Oh man, y’all are crazy,” Dakota sighed heavily and pointed at Shane as he headed toward the door. “And you make me sound hip.”
“You should go after her.”
Suzie’s soft hesitant voice cut through the teasing laughter in the room with more force than the shy young vampire surely intended. In the almost two years Dakota had been here, he’d probably only heard her speak twice and that was in response to direct questions. Suzie shuffled her feet nervously and tucked a long strand of pale blonde hair behind her ear.
“I—I mean if you wanted to.” Lifting one shoulder, she stared at the phone in her hand. “It….it would be okay. I had one of my visions, you know. It was fuzzy, like always, but anyway…you should go after her.”
Everyone shifted his or her attention to Dakota, but it was the knowing smile on Olivia’s face that gave him pause. The czar obviously knew he was attracted to Trixie and based on the look she exchanged with Doug, so did everyone else. Shit on a shingle. Why did he suddenly feel like he was on a freaking vampire dating game show?
“Thanks for the tip. I better be gettin’ out on patrol.”
Dakota tugged the door open and stilled when Trixie’s sweet spicy scent, an enticing mix of peppermint with a hint of whiskey, wafted by. Gripping the doorknob, he fought the urge to unsheath his fangs, a swell of longing rolling through him. Damn, that woman smelled like Christmas morning, and conjured up images of a cozy night by a fire. For a split second he remembered what it felt like to be human–warm and alive. But the sensation was gone as swiftly as it came.
His jaw clenched and a flicker of frustration shimmied up his back.
“Damn,” he whispered.
“Dakota? I think it would be wise for us to listen to Suzie.” Olivia kissed Emily’s head of red curls. “Why doesn’t Doug go out on patrol in your territory tonight? Just for a little while. That way, you can follow Trixie and make sure everything’s alright.”
“Good idea.” Doug rose from his chair and gave Dakota thumbs up. “I’ve got it covered, man.”
“Well,” Dakota began slowly, “I could check on her, y’know? Make sure she’s not gettin’ herself into any trouble.” Hands on his hips, he stared into the empty hall. “Suzie? Did you see somethin’ that worries you?”
“No,” she said in barely audible voice. “N-not exactly.”
“Fine then.” He squared his shoulders and nodded at the well-meaning, but meddlesome, coven. “Happy to oblige. Once I know she’s safe, I’ll be right back on duty.”
The door shut behind Dakota and the room fell silent, except for Emily’s high-pitched babbling.
“Suzie?” Olivia placed Emily on the floor and the little girl wasted no time playing with her new horse. “Is Trixie going to be okay?”
“Eventually, yes.” Suzie nodded, whispering, “Dakota is her Bloodmate.”
“I knew it!” Maya shouted.
“Interesting,” Shane murmured. He kissed the top of Maya’s head and smiled as he exchanged a knowing look with his lover. “I may not be a modern man but I do know what that poor bastard is about to go through. If you’ll all excuse me, I have something I need to take care of.”
“You’re not going to tell him that he’s her Bloodmate, are you?” Suzie asked quickly. “They should figure that out for themselves…I think.”
“No, I’m just going to give him some reassurance.”
Without another word, Shane whisked out of the apartment in a blur.
“Am I crazy,” Doug said slowly, “or is Quesada about to give Shelton advice on his love life?”
“You’re not crazy,” Olivia said with a chuckle. “But this coven sure as hell is.”
Dakota stood on top of the stone wall of The Cloisters garden and wrestled with whether or not he really should follow her. Trixie sure did act like she hated him, so how would she feel if she found him spying on her?
Trixie’s form grew smaller in the distance as she flew through the night sky. He had to make a freaking decision soon or her trail would vanish. Hands on his hips, he swore under his breath. He hated feeling so damn confused.
“I suspected I’d find you here.”
Shane’s voice cut through the night and pulled Dakota from his thoughts. He didn’t flinch but kept his gaze in the direction Trixie had flown off. It would be a bad move to let Quesada know that he’d actually been able to sneak up on him.
Damn, his infatuation with this woman was makin’ him crazy and sloppy.
“What are you talkin’ about, old man?” Dakota settled his hands on his hips and sliced a glance at Shane, who now stood on the wall beside him. “And what are you doin’ out here? That party is still goin’ strong.”
“I’ll overlook the insult about my age, given your current state.”
“What state would that be?”
“Let’s just say, you seem distracted lately.”
“You sayin’ that I’m not doin’ my job?” Dakota squared his shoulders. “Because if you’ll recall, I was the one who took down those two drifter vamps last month. Humans didn’t even get a whiff of the trouble they were causin’.”
“You misunderstand me,” Shane said with his typical calm. “I may be far older than you, Shelton, but it was not long ago that I was in your position.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” He shifted his stance, to get a better look at his partner.
“I was new here as well. An outsider.” He folded his hands in front of him, his expression calm but serious. “I know how odd and almost unnerving it can be to be around their family unit. It took some time for me to feel at ease here.”
“So it’s not just me?” Dakota ran one hand over his head and let out a sigh. “I’ve been a vamp for fifty years and I ain’t never seen another coven like theirs. I feel like that random friend of the family that grandma invited over for Christmas dinner, you know? I’m the guest who never left.”
“Yes.” He nodded and his mouth set in a firm line. “They’re all so close that it can be a difficult group to break into. Olivia and the others welcomed me but, like you, my instinct was to keep them all at a distance. It had been so many years since I’d had any kind of family, I had all but forgotten how to be a part of one.”
“What about Maya?” Dakota folded his arms over his chest and stared again out over the glittering water of the Hudson River. He didn’t want to give Shane any clue about his feelings for Trixie, especially when he wasn’t even sure about them himself. “I mean, she’s your Bloodmate, right? Didn’t you want to, well, not keep her at a distance.”
“On the contrary.” Shane let out something that almost sounded like a laugh. “I stayed away from her as much as possible but before long I found it…I found her…inescapable. I did not want to be drawn to her and I can assure you that the all-consuming urge to be near her was quite unsettling. I’d existed on this earth for almost four centuries, knowing exactly who I was and what my purpose was. And then I came here, to this city and this coven…to Maya.”
A gust of wind blew over them and with it came Trixie’s whiskey tinged scent. A surge of anxiety rushed through Dakota because it was growing weaker and if he didn’t get a move on, he could lose it all together.
“Not to be rude, Quesada, but is there a point anywhere in this little speech?” He pulled his leather gloves out of his coat pockets and tugged them on. “Trixie’s got a descent head start and I’ll never live it down if I lose her trail.”
“Yes.” Shane turned to him and slapped him on the arm. “The point is, don’t allow yourself to be a stubborn fool. Life, even for a vampire, can be full of surprises. And change is inevitable for all creatures.”
“Alright,” Dakota said slowly. “Thanks for the pep talk, gramps.”
“Anytime.” Shane hopped of the wall and strode toward the entrance to The Cloisters. “And one more thing, Shelton.”
“You can’t fight fate.”
As Shane disappeared through the doors, Dakota could swear that the son of a gun was laughing.
Coming 1/5/16–PRE ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY