Chapter 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Vampire

Only 2 more weeks until the release of…

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Read Chapter One HERE and Chapter Two HERE

Chapter Three

Trixie knew she was coming around too often but she couldn’t help herself. Perched in her favorite spot among the treetops, she picked up the shrill chirp of a cellphone as it filled the air for a moment or two before Chelsea answered it. A smile bloomed on the woman’s face as she spoke to whoever was on the other line.

Satisfied she was both safe and happy, Trixie knew it was time to go. But when Chelsea turned and stepped away from the sink, she revealed her swollen pregnant belly. A smile curved Trixie’s lips because Chelsea’s tummy looked much bigger than it had a couple of weeks ago.

She was at least seven months along. Maybe more. Trixie had seen Chelsea’s boyfriend several times over the past year and it was obvious he was the father of her unborn child. Were they going to get married? Trixie imagined Chelsea walking down the aisle in a white wedding dress, and a pit of sadness bloomed in her chest.

Yet one more milestone in Chelsea’s life that Trixie wouldn’t be a part of. Trixie was a ghost, a specter lurking around in the trees like a creepy fucking Peeping Tom.

The sound of a car coming down the long gravel driveway pulled Trixie from her bout of self-pity. The blue sedan stopped in front of the house and a few moments later, Chelsea came out. Bundled up in a warm coat to protect her from the chill in the early November air, she opened the front passenger door and climbed in.

Trixie’s stomach rolled when a faint but familiar scent wafted out of the car and a cramp wracked her stomach. Gritting her teeth against the unpleasant scent, she gripped the branch above her with both hands. Her black-painted fingernails dug into the bark as she wrinkled her nose and shook her head in an effort to get rid of the stink. Chelsea’s boyfriend smelled like rotten fruit, or old flowers or something and it actually made her a little nauseated.

“Jeez,” Trixie whispered in a rush as the car backed down the long driveway. “What the hell does he do for a living that makes him smell like that? There’s no way Chelsea can smell that or she’d never hang out with him.” She wrinkled her nose. Having heightened senses wasn’t always a blessing. “Phew.”

The subtle but distinctive sound of air rushing nearby made her freeze in place. She wasn’t alone. Another vampire had landed in the vicinity. Why the hell would any other vamp come here to Chelsea’s house in the middle of the freaking woods? Fear, panic, and an overwhelming desire to protect the young woman swelled inside of her. She would be damned if any vamps would mess with this particular human—let alone feed on her.

All of her senses went on high alert and as the headlights vanished in the distance, Trixie dropped soundlessly to the ground. Standing in a battle ready position, her feet firmly planted on the needle-covered surface and her hands curled into fists at her side, she scanned the area for her unwelcome visitor. A gust of November wind whisked over her, rustling the fallen leaves on the ground. With it came the all too familiar scent of sandalwood, cinnamon, and leather.

A potent rush of arousal and anticipation fired through her, a feeling she had all but forgotten until a certain vampire cowboy came to the city two years ago and turned her world on its ear. She’d been turned on since becoming a vamp but not like this, not in such an uncontrolled way. Trixie had always been the one to seek out sex as a way to scratch an itch but this was different.

This time the itch was hunting her.

“I know you’re here, Dakota,” she said in a sing-song voice. He might make her feel all kinds of out of sorts, but that didn’t mean she had to let him know that.

Trixie stood taller, Shane had been training her to fight and she discovered she had a knack for it. In fact, she enjoyed practicing so much that she’d installed a kickboxing stand in her apartment and spent several afternoons beating the crap out of it.

Learning how to defend herself, and her coven, was empowering and cathartic.

Her fighting skills might come in handy now, especially if old blue eyes tried to get too friendly. Wound tight with a mixture of lust anxiety, and she hated to admit it, a healthy amount of curiosity as well, she scanned the moonlit forest.
He was out there…watching.

“You know,” she shouted. “For a sentry you kind of suck at sneaking up on people. What’s your deal, man? Did you come out here to take me up on my offer to kick your ass?”

An owl hooted in the distance and a fat raccoon waddled by quickly. Tension filled the air and just when she thought she would scream with frustration, a tall broad-shouldered figure stepped out of the moonlit shadows of a neighboring tree. He slipped his hands in the pockets of his long leather sentry coat and leaned casually against the massive pine. Cocky as ever, he winked at her and acted like it was no big deal that he had been following her.

“Hello, darlin’,” he drawled in that I’m-just-a-good-old-boy tone. “You only noticed me here because I let you. I kept my distance until the humans left.”

“What are you doing out here?” Trixie demanded. She strode toward him, hands on her hips, but stopped about two feet away. Best to keep some space between them. Like it or not, he was now a part of her coven. Sort of. Flirting was one thing but if he actually did make a move, rejecting him would make things super awkward between them. “Seriously. Why are you following me?”

“Curiosity got the better of me. You’ve been runnin’ off every other Sunday night for the past couple months and not tellin’ anybody where you’re gettin’ off to.” He pushed himself off the tree and fished one of those damn lollipops out of his pocket before popping it in his mouth. “Not only that. Suzie said I should.”

“Oh really?” Trixie folded her arms over her breasts and cocked her head. “I call bullshit on that, smart guy. Suzie barely speaks to me, her coven mate, let alone you, a newcomer.”

“Well, she did speak to me and I ain’t that new.” A touch of irritation edged his voice and for a second he looked almost wounded. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been here for two years.”

“Whatever,” she said as casually as possible. She had noticed. A lot. “That’s new as far as vampires are concerned.”

“True.” He took a step closer and she held her ground. “Suzie said you might be gettin’ yourself into trouble and that I should check on you. Now, I was thinkin’ you found a prime huntin’ ground that was out of the way of the city, where your hunts wouldn’t be noticed. Is that what this is?”

He inched nearer and his voice dropped low. He dragged the little white stick from his lips and pointed it at her. “You casin’ out this house and the humans who live here for a feedin’ frenzy? If so, how about lettin’ me in on it? I haven’t had a live feed in a long while.”

Live feeds, while not illegal, were strongly discouraged because they could lead to unwanted complications. Even though she missed the buzz that came with feeding from a human, Trixie didn’t miss getting the blood memories.

She hadn’t fed off a living breathing human in over a year and the idea of anyone feeding off Chelsea was downright revolting.

“You won’t touch her,” Trixie hissed. She bared her fangs, grabbed the lapels of his coat and shoved at him. He didn’t move. She might be a vampire with the strength of twenty men but Dakota was bigger, older, and stronger. “She is not prey for me, you, or anyone else. Do you understand me? I don’t want anyone in the community to know about her. Chelsea is off limits,” she seethed. “And if you know what’s good for you, you won’t come here again.”

Dakota was just over six feet tall and towered over her, but Trixie was not going to back down. The stench of silver from the weapons hidden in his coat scorched her nostrils, but the comforting scent of sandalwood clung to him, soothing the burn. Damn. He smelled good. Too good. Her fingers curled tighter around the smooth leather of his coat and her knuckles met the firm, unyielding muscles of his chest. She’d long suspected the man was nothing but bone, muscle, and sinew under all that leather.

Suspicions confirmed.

Why was she attracted to a man who was as deadly as he was cocky? Glutton for punishment. That had to be it. Even as a human she never could lay off the boys who were no good for her and look where that had gotten her?

“You lookin’ to tangle with me?” Dakota leaned into her grasp and arched one eyebrow. “I’m happy to oblige.”

He was trying to intimidate her into submission. Trixie wasn’t easily intimidated by anyone; she sure as hell wouldn’t be by him, his weaponry, his position as a sentry, or his penetrating stare.

Dakota inched closer and pressed his firm body further into her grasp. His lips tilted, giving her a glimpse of the tip of one of his fangs. Trixie let out a strangled groan and licked her lower lip. Why was seeing only a part of his fangs such a fucking turn-on?

“If by tangle you mean have me kick your ass?” She hoped like hell he couldn’t see right through her. “Then, yeah, and for the record, I’m not afraid of you.”

Dakota’s bluish gray eyes peered at her beneath his furrowed brow. His short-cropped dark blond hair glistened in the silvery moonlight. His hands hung at his side and his lack of response both frustrated and confused her. He was a sentry for the Presidium and she’d basically just attacked him, but the guy did nothing. Most sentries, even Shane, wouldn’t take crap from vamp like her.

“Say something.” Trixie softened her tone.

“Like what?”

Maybe she’d get a more favorable response if she wasn’t so bitchy. The worst part of this whole stupid mess was that her instinct was to be nice to him. She liked him but she didn’t want to want him. Not like this.

“How about,” she began slowly, “if you promise me that you won’t come here again. Ever.”

In a surprisingly disarming move, Dakota’s large hands settled on hers and he held them against his chest. A rush of warmth whisked over her skin when his flesh covered hers, and her blood hummed with awareness. She’d touched other vampires before, platonically and otherwise, but none of them made her feel like this. For a human, a vamp would feel cool to the touch. To another vampire, their skin was basically room temperature or neutral.

But not Dakota.

His hands were warm, firm, and rough. They were the hands of man who knew a hard day’s work, and damn if that wasn’t a turn on. What was it about a man’s man that could get a girl’s blood moving? She thought of the little horse he’d carved for Emily and something inside her quivered. These hands of his could put down an enemy with swift precision but they could also gently and painstakingly cradle a piece of wood, massaging it and whittling it carefully until it became a delicate treasure. There was more to this cowboy than met the eye.

Tender and rough. Sweet but lethal.

What it would feel like to have these hands running over more sensitive parts of her anatomy?

To be cherished, cradled, and coveted?

What was she doing? Trixie blinked. He was a sentry, a soldier who dealt in death and violence. There was nothing tender about that. But still….

Pinned beneath his intense blue stare and his impossibly warm hands, she fought the surge of desire that sizzled and simmered in her blood. Her arms were crushed between their bodies and it was impossible not to notice the subtle movements of his muscles as he inched closer.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he whispered, his thumb rasping lightly over her knuckles. “You tell me why you’re comin’ to this house in the middle of nowhere, and I’ll promise to keep your secret.”

“You don’t know my secrets.” Trixie tried to tug her hands from beneath his but he refused to release her. “Please let me go.”

“Not yet.” He held her in a vice-like grip, cool as ice. “So you have more secrets than these little visits to the woods?”

“I said, let me go,” she ground out.

“Why?” He asked in an almost lighthearted tone. “The sun won’t be up for a few hours and you still haven’t answered my questions. I am a sentry for the Presidium; you know that pesky vampire government? Didn’t anyone teach you to respect authority?”

“Yeah, you may be a vamp cop,” she scoffed. “But your boss is my maker. I win.”

“You are spitfire of a woman, do you know that? You remind me of a horse that hasn’t been broken yet. All skittish and full of wild energy.”

“Are you for real?” Her jaw fell open. “Did you just compare me to a horse?”

“It’s a compliment. You’re spirited. I always preferred wild horses to the ones who’d been saddled.” His eyes twinkled with mischief and flashed at her in the dark, twin pools of silver that harkened of desire and danger. “I like that in a woman. And tellin’ me you have secrets is like throwin’ a scented shoe in front of a hound dog. Only makes me want to find out what they are.”

“Whatever secrets I have are mine and they’re called secrets for reason, genius. It’s stuff I don’t want anyone else to know about. Okay? It’s personal. I don’t know you well enough to tell you my favorite band, let alone my secrets.”

“All right, then. Let me guess.” Dakota tilted his face toward the sky and pursed his lips together. “Give me a minute.”

“Careful, you might hurt yourself with all that thinking.”

“I got it,” he said abruptly. He tilted his smiling face to her and looked totally satisfied with himself. “Definitely.”

“What?” Panic shimmied up her back. “My secrets?”

“No. Your favorite band.”

Trixie gaped at him but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Now, based on that colorful hair of yours, I’m thinkin’ you’re a fan of that Sid Vicious fella, or maybe The Clash.” His hold on her loosened and his thumb made another lazy pass along hers, sending whispers of gooseflesh up her bare arms. “Now, me? I think Johnny Cash is about the best there ever is, was, or ever will be. Somethin’ about the way he tells a story, you know? Like he can see right inside my soul. Too bad he never got turned vamp. We’d be gettin’ new songs from him forever.”

Trixie was speechless. Absolutely without words.

Here they were in the middle of the woods. She had just threatened to kick his ass. And the guy was talking about Johnny Cash. Not only that, but he was right. She did love Sid Vicious and The Clash.

Damn it. How annoying. And charming. Crap.

“Am I right?”

“Are you going to do as I ask?” Trixie’s voice wavered and she retracted her fangs. “Will you stay away from here, from Chelsea’s house?”

“On one condition,” he murmured. His full lips curved and he tugged her closer.

“Fine.” Trixie swallowed the rising swell of desire as his firm, muscular legs brushed against hers. “What?”

“Did I get your favorite musician right?”

“Yes.” She suppressed a grin because he’d hit the nail on the head. “Fine. Yes, you did. Those are my two favorites. Okay?”

“Good.” Dakota abruptly dropped her hands and stepped away. The warmth of his body dissipated swiftly as the space between them increased. “Now, are you gonna tell me why you’re comin’ out here all the time, or what?”

“You’re a piece of work.” Trixie almost laughed out loud. He’d guessed her favorite musician and now wanted to know everything else? What-freaking-ever. “No. Like I said, my secrets are exactly that. Secrets. And if you know what’s good for you, you won’t come out here again, let alone follow me around like a creep. I don’t, like, need some throwback from the fifties tailing me on my nights off. Got it?”

“Is that so?” Irritation flickered across his face. “You know, missy, I only came out here because your maker and the rest of that crazy ass coven told me I had to check up on you. I’ll be happy to let you run all over creation all by your pretty little self if that’s what you—“

Dakota stopped speaking mid-sentence when a gust of wind rushed over them. It whispered over Trixie from behind, sending a tiny tornado of leaves whirling around them. A growl rumbled in Dakota’s throat. His nostrils flared and he bared his fangs as he looked past her to the driveway of the house. Before she could say a word, he flew over to the gravel-covered drive and tilted his nose to the sky.

“What are you bugging out about?” Trixie flew over to him and landed on the steps of the house. There was no way she was letting him in there. “No one here but you, me, and forest creatures. Jeez, what’s your damage?”

“How long you been comin’ out here?” He asked as he scanned the area like the trained sentry he was. Any and all humor had vanished; he’d gone from good old boy to lethal weapon in a matter of seconds. “You run into any trouble out here on your visits? Supernatural or otherwise? Notice anythin’ out of the ordinary?”

“No.” She sat on the top step of the porch in a not-so-subtle attempt to block the entrance. She was getting a weird feeling in her gut; the one that warned her trouble was coming. “I’ve been visiting ever since she moved out of the city. Not that it’s any of your business, but I like to check on the woman who lives here. That’s all. No trouble. No drama. She’s just a human woman living her life.”

“Right.” Dakota said tightly. His jaw clenched and the muscle there flickered with tension. “Chelsea, is it?”

“Whatever.” Shit. Trixie cracked her knuckles and rose to her feet. She’d let the girl’s name slip. “Yeah. But she’s gone now and we should be too. Let’s go.”

“Why is she important to you?” Dakota strode slowly toward her, the gravel crunching beneath his heavy boots. All of the sweetness was gone from his voice and his expression was tense and serious—a side she rarely saw. “Who is she? What do you know about her?”

“I know enough, and you know too much.”

Before he could respond, Trixie shot up into the air and landed on top of a small pine tree. She braced her feet on the top branch and clung to the trunk with one hand. She peered down at Dakota who remained on the ground.

“And one more thing, cowboy,” she shouted down to him.

“Ma’am?”

“Keep your hands to yourself.” She smirked.

“I’ll try.” Dakota slipped his hands in his pockets and flashed a fang filled grin at her, his white teeth glinting in the moonlight.

“You’ll try?” Trixie scoffed. “How about you give me your word?”

“No way, darlin’.” He flew up to the roof of the house and landed noiselessly in a crouching position, a cocky grin curving his firm looking lips. “I’m not makin’ any promises I don’t aim to keep.”

Trixie let out a sound of disgust as Dakota shot into moonlit night and streaked across the sky like a bullet, leaving a trail of mist in his wake. She wanted to tell him fat chance, and no way he was gonna touch her again. But deep down, underneath the stream of protests, was a long silent voice of desire that whispered…yes.

***

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CHAPTER 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Vampire

The Good, the Bad, and the Vampire” will be released in 3 more weeks!! Here’s another peek to wet your appetite! Missed Chapter One? No problem. You can read it here.

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Chapter Two

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.”

“Yeah?”

“You can’t fight fate.”

As Shane disappeared through the doors, Dakota could swear that the son of a gun was laughing.

***

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