Nicholas came to the edge of the small copse of woods and quietly cursed. Somehow he must have missed the rogue, must have walked right past him. The thought made him turn and glance back the way he’d come, but Nicholas was sure there was no way he could have missed him. The woods lining the road were only ten feet deep and he’d moved through them slowly, eyes searching the trees as he’d gone. He couldn’t have missed him, but it was the only thing that made sense.
Nicholas retrieved the signal receiver from his pocket and glanced at the screen. The small blip that was the rogue’s car was still exactly where it had been earlier. The fellow hadn’t doubled back and driven away. He slipped the device back in his pocket and turned to peer at the driveway before him.
There was no way the rogue had gotten in there on foot, he was sure. It was the entry to the new enforcer house. The equivalent of a police station for vampire hunters, it had better security than a mortal prison from what he could see. The gate blocking the driveway was ten feet high and made of thick wrought iron. There was an equally high brick wall that disappeared into the trees on either side of it. Every foot or so along the wall, metal spikes shot up and three lengths of barbed wire were threaded through them, running along the top as a deterrent to anyone trying to climb it. A sign on the fence warned that it was electrified. If that wasn’t enough security, there appeared to be a second gate some fifteen feet inside the first with a link fence, also topped with barbed wire and no doubt electrified.
He shook his head slightly. This was something Nicholas never thought he’d see. The enforcers had always been rather loosely based, run out of Lucian Argeneau’s home. However, it seemed his uncle had decided to make it all more official and organized. It was about time, Nicholas supposed. This should have been done centuries ago.
His gaze slid away from the gate and to the woods on the other side of the drive from where he stood. It was hard to believe the rogue he was following had slipped across that wide open expanse under the nose of the guard inside. Aside from that, there was a pillar before the gate with a camera and intercom system built into it. The rogue wouldn’t have risked trying to cross the open area and getting caught on that camera. However, either the rogue had risked it and snuck across, or Nicholas had somehow managed to move right past the man as he’d made his way here.
Nicholas glanced over his shoulder at the woods at his back. While his mind was telling him he couldn’t have walked right past the rogue without noticing, he was starting to worry that perhaps his instincts weren’t as good as they used to be.
The sound of an engine caught his attention and Nicholas turned back to the driveway just in time to see a catering van pull in. He watched silently as it stopped between the pillars.
“Yes?” a metallic voice asked over the intercom.
“Cally’s catering,” the van driver announced. “We’re here to pick up our people and dishes.”
“Come on in.” The first gate slid open.
Nicholas expected the vehicle to be stopped between the two gates and inspected, but instead the guard in the small guardhouse inside the second gate came out and manually opened the inner gate for the van to enter. He did wave it to a stop, however, the moment it was inside.
The guard spoke briefly to the driver, and then moved around and opened the back door of the van to check inside. With his attention on the guard, Nicholas almost missed the man who suddenly slid out from under the side of the van, shifted to a crouch and sprinted for the woods behind the guardhouse.
The sight almost made him shout out a warning, but Nicholas caught himself and instead reached for his phone. It was the damned rogue, of course. The tricky bastard must have waited at the side of the road for a likely vehicle to approach, taken control of the driver to make him stop and then slid under the van and clung to something on the undercarriage to hitch a ride in.
Clever little prick, Nicholas thought, frowning as he continued to search for his cell phone. He had to warn them inside and tell them to put a guard on the sisters and then start searching the property for the rogue that had gotten in. He’d tell them to start having the guard check under the vehicles as well. At least he would if he could find his damned phone, Nicholas thought with frustration as his search came up empty. What the hell had he done with it? It had been beeping a warning that the battery was low earlier in the evening and he’d plugged it into the car lighter with its special adapter to charge it up, and—
“Hell,” Nicholas muttered, glancing back the way he’d come. He’d left the damned thing in the car. He briefly considered running back to get it, but while the rogue he was following had merely pulled over and parked at the edge of this property, Nicholas himself had parked in the woods nearer the next property to avoid being spotted. The man, Ernie Brubaker, was one of Leonius’s spawn, and Nicholas hoped if he followed him long enough, Ernie would lead him to Leo’s hideout. Leonius Livius was one nasty rogue who needed to be dealt with, and Nicholas had set himself the task of doing just that. However, his caution meant that his van was a good distance away . . . and by the time he ran back and grabbed his phone to make the call, Ernie could have grabbed one of the girls and gotten out again.
That was the only reason he could think that the fellow was here. At least that’s what Nicholas had come up with when he’d realized he’d followed the man to the new enforcer house.
Nicholas sighed and swiveled back to peer at the gate and the driveway beyond again. The guard had already returned to his little shack and the van had disappeared from view. No doubt at that very minute the rogue was racing through the trees toward the house. He had to warn them, but the only way to do that without his phone was to walk up to the gate and flat-out tell the guard . . . and that would pretty much toast his cojones, Nicholas acknowledged. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much choice. If he didn’t—
Nicholas was distracted from his thoughts by the arrival of another vehicle. He turned his head to watch a van approach the gate, and felt a grim smile curve his lips as he noted the cleaning service name on the side of the vehicle stopped beside the pillar. It was blocking the camera and intercom from his view . . . and him from the camera’s view, he realized.
Without pausing to think about how risky it was for him personally, Nicholas slid from the cover of the trees and raced across the short open expanse to the back of the van. Once there, he took hold of the handle on the back door and stepped onto the back bumper, careful not to cause unnecessary motion in the vehicle with his weight. He then held on for dear life and waited as the driver explained into the intercom that they were there to clean up after the party.
The guard repeated his invitation to “come on in,” and after a short pause as the outer gate swung open, the van started forward with Nicholas clinging to the back like some bad imitation of Spider-man. He was passing the camera on the pillar before he recalled its presence, but by then it was too late. Telling himself the guard wouldn’t be inside the guardhouse to see him riding by, but had no doubt headed out to open the inner gate, Nicholas stayed on his perch until the back end of the van was even with the second open gate. He then leaped off and made a charge for the bushes by the guardhouse as he’d seen the rogue do. Nicholas prayed the whole way that the guard stuck to the routine he’d used the first time. If so, the van would block the guard’s view of his mad dash for the trees. If not, he was likely to get a bullet in the back.
Nicholas didn’t release the breath he was holding until he reached the safety of the woods behind the guard shack without anyone shouting out or shooting at him. He then allowed himself to breathe out and suck in a fresh gust of air, but barely slowed his step as he followed the trail he suspected the rogue had taken, heading straight toward the house on the hill.
“Oh brother,” Jo muttered.
“What?” Alex asked, lowering her glass and raising an eyebrow.
“More arrivals.” Jo nodded toward the doorway where their sister, Sam and her fiancé, Mortimer were greeting a newcomer. It was yet another tall, well-built hunk in leather. Every male here appeared to be wearing leather of some description or other, either leather pants, a leather jacket, a leather vest, or some combination of the items. One or two were even wearing the whole deal. It was like a biker convention without the tats. That was the one thing Jo had noticed; while all the men looked mean and gruff, and several even had long hair, not a single one had a tattoo or piercing of any kind. They were the most clean-cut bikers she’d ever seen.
If they were bikers, she thought. Maybe they were all in rock bands like Mortimer and his friends Bricker and Decker. If that was the case, then it made them the most clean-cut rockers she’d ever seen.
“Come on, it isn’t that bad,” Alex said with amusement.
“Isn’t it?” Jo asked dryly.
“No,” Alex assured her. “I mean look around. We are presently in a room full of really good-looking men. I haven’t seen this much eye candy in one place in a long, long time.”
“Eye candy?” Jo asked asked.
“Yes, eye candy. Look around you, Jo, every single guy here is built. They all have muscly chests and narrow waists.” She shook her head, her marveling eyes sliding over the men gathered in small groups that were dotted throughout the room. “There isn’t a paunch, a set of crooked teeth, or a knobby knee to be seen.”
“Yeah, and if they weren’t treating us like lepers it might be nice,” Jo said dryly.
“They aren’t treating us like lepers,” Alex said with a laugh.
“Are you kidding me? Are we at the same party or are you just not paying attention?” Jo asked with amazement. “Alex, they come in, Sam and Mortimer greet and have a little huddle with them, and then they bring them over to us, and the men all—every last one—stare at us with this weird intense look for a minute, saying absolutely nothing. They then glance to Mortimer, shake their head and move off. Some even just turn around and leave right away. The rest just stand around talking to each other and ignoring us,” she pointed out and then asked, “And you don’t think this is strange?”
“Well, when you put it that way,” Alex said wryly and shrugged. “It is kind of weird.”
“Yes, it is,” Jo said firmly. “And it isn’t the only weird thing here. What about the security on this place? That’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but Sam explained that Mortimer and the boys are having trouble with a stalker fan,” Alex reminded her.
“Right,” Jo snorted. “A stalker fan for a band who hasn’t even agreed on a name yet.”
“I thought they were going with Morty and the Muppets,” Alex said with a frown.
“Alex,” Jo said. “Even if they have a name now and a stalker from some Podunk little town they’ve played, where the heck did they get the money for this place and all its security? For God’s sake, they’re tricked out here like a third world dictator or big-wheel drug dealer. I doubt even the president of the U.S. or the Prime Minster here in Canada have twenty feet of barbed wire between them and the world.”
Alex grinned and said, “I have a theory about that.”
“Oh?” Jo asked. “And what is that?”
“That Mortimer isn’t really in a band. That the story was all just some cover to hide the fact that he’s really some big-deal rich guy. Like Gates maybe.”
Jo raised her eyebrows. “Gates is a skinny old dude with glasses and graying hair. Mortimer is not Bill Gates.”
“Well, his son or some other rich guy then,” Alex said with exasperation. “The point is, he just pretended to be some poor schmuck in a band so that Sam wouldn’t fall for his money rather than him.”
“Right,” Jo said doubtfully, although, really, it made more sense than that Mortimer, Decker and Bricker were in some little band and having trouble with a stalker fan. She supposed Sam probably knew the truth of the situation by now, and would eventually clue them in. In the meantime, Sam and Mortimer had finished their little huddle and were now leading over the latest arrival at the party—late being the key word since it was late and the caterers and cleaners were moving through cleaning up around the guests. Turning, she handed Alex her drink. “Here. Hold this. I have to go to the bathroom.”
Alex accepted the drink, but narrowed her eyes. “You’d best really have to go. You are not leaving me here to handle all these men by myself.”
Jo gave a wry laugh. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing to handle, they’re all more interested in each other than us. They’re probably all gay.”
“You think?” Alex asked with wide-eyed alarm.
Jo merely rolled her eyes and slid quickly away before Sam, Mortimer and Mr. Late-to-the-party could reach them. She had to wonder about the question, though, as she moved through the milling men. They all looked kind of perfect. Not perfect as in model gorgeous. Despite Alex’s words, there were some men there who were not picture-perfect pretty. Some were tall, others a little shorter, some white, some darker-skinned, one had a nose that was a little large, another had narrow eyes, and so on, but they were all perfect versions of themselves with perfect complexions, healthy hair and very healthy bodies. There wasn’t a blemish to be seen, not a single split end on a single head, and not an ounce of fat. It was enough to make a gal feel a bit inferior. Most men she was acquainted with didn’t know from a split end or good blemish creams and moisturizers . . . unless they were gay.
Maybe she hadn’t been far off the mark, Jo thought as she reached the door. A glance back as she stepped into the hall showed that Sam and Mortimer had reached Alex with the latest man, and he was doing that weird staring thing, peering intensely at Alex’s forehead as if she had a huge zit growing in the center of it.
Shaking her head, Jo hurried up the hall. She bypassed the bathroom, however, heading for the kitchen instead. Much to her relief, the room was empty. Jo moved quickly through it to the dark and equally empty dining room and the sliding glass doors that waited there.
A small sigh of relief slipped from her lips when she managed to step outside without being discovered or stopped. Jo eased the door closed behind her and then paused to glance around. She and Alex had arrived earlier in the evening when it had still been light out. The yard had been large and peaceful then; a beautifully manicured lawn surrounded by trees softly swaying in a light breeze. But spooky seemed more fitting now, Jo thought with a grimace. The bucolic scene from day became a mass of unrecognizable shapes in the darkness, and all of it was rustling in the gentle night breeze. It was enough to make her glance warily around and consider heading back inside, but she didn’t. Instead, Jo took a breath and started out. She wanted a little walk and fresh air before returning inside to suffer more of the weird encounters that made up this party. She’d really like to cut out and head to her apartment to relax and put her feet up, but she’d ridden here with Alex, and they were supposed to spend the night. Now Jo wished she’d driven herself. If she tried to retire early, Sam would no doubt be all over her, asking what was wrong and why she wasn’t still at the party. Jo didn’t want to hurt her older sister’s feelings by telling her this was the lamest party she’d ever attended.
Heck, working at the bar most nights was more entertaining than this party, Jo thought wryly. The only people here who had really talked to her and Alex were Sam and Mortimer, and his supposed bandmates Bricker and Decker, as well as Decker’s girlfriend Dani and her little sister, Stephanie. They were all nice enough, but Decker, Dani, and Stephanie had disappeared directly after greeting them, which had left Jo, Alex, and Sam as the only attendees who were female. That fact, added to the fact that every single one of the males in attendance had avoided them after their brief weird behavior on being introduced. . . Well, it had all put her on edge. Some fresh air and quiet was what she needed and if she was going to be walking at night, this was the place to do it. Spooky or not, with all the security, she was definitely safer here than anywhere else, Jo thought as she started out across the lawn.
She’d taken only a few steps when it occurred to her that Bricker was working the gate tonight. He’d said he’d volunteered for the job since he already knew her and Alex. Jo had found that comment a bit bewildering. Sam had said the party was to introduce them to Mortimer’s friends, and it was true they’d already met Bricker, but still . . .
Maybe she’d walk down to the guard station at the front gate and see if Bricker was bored or wanted anything, she thought, turning her feet toward the end of the house. Jo liked Bricker. Not in a kiss-me-you-fool type way. He was cute, but it was obvious there was no real spark between them. He was more like the jokester younger brother of a friend--easygoing, fun to be around, but not boyfriend material. That was all right, though. Jo wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. Heck, she didn’t have time for one. Between working full-time at the bar and the full load of marine biology courses she was taking at the university, there was little time for friends let alone a love life.
Maybe Bricker could tell her what the deal was with the guys inside, Jo thought as she turned the corner of the house. He’d know if they were gay or not.
Jo had barely started along the side of the house toward the front yard when movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned, a gasp of surprise slipping from her lips as she saw the fair-haired man charging out of the darkness, but it became a cry of pain when he crashed into her, body slamming her back against the side of the house. Her head hit the brick wall hard enough that stars exploded behind her eyes, and the agony shooting through her left her gasping for breath.
The man was saying something. Jo could hear the rumble of his voice, and smell his vile breath, but his words weren’t making it to her stunned brain, and then he was suddenly gone.
Without his body pinning her to the wall, Jo immediately crumpled to the ground, groaning as her knee landed on something terribly hard that sent more pain shooting through her. It took Jo a moment to even care about where her attacker had gone, but then the pain slowly began to recede and she became aware of the sounds of grunts and curses nearby. Forcing her eyes open, she lifted her head and spotted the two men grappling several feet away.
Jo didn’t recognize either of them from the party and was pretty sure she would have had she met them. The blond who had attacked her had a feral look about his face, and his hair was long and lank. As for his clothes, they were dark but sloppy, with various stains on them that could have been dried blood. The other man had dark hair that was not long like the fair-haired man’s, but not exactly short either. He also wore faded, but clean jeans and a dark t-shirt.
The two men were grappling and spinning, each fighting to subdue the other. They also appeared to be playing for keeps, Jo realized as she saw that the blond had his hands at her savior’s throat and was trying to choke him. In the next moment, the men crashed to the ground and were rolling.
Jo decided she had to get help for her would-be savior and started to get to her feet, but her knee banged against the rock she’d landed on earlier, drawing another hissing breath from her mouth and drawing her eyes down. Spotting the small palm-sized boulder, Jo instinctively picked it up. Holding the rock tightly, she reached for the wall with her other hand, dug her fingers into the uneven brick surface, and began to force herself upward.
Once on her feet, Jo found she was more than a little shaky and the dark yard had an alarming tendency to spin. Going back around the house and inside to get help no longer seemed a very feasible idea. By the time she got there, this battle would be over, and Jo wasn’t at all sure who the winner would be. She had to help. Taking a deep breath, she released the wall and stumbled toward the men as they rolled themselves across the paved driveway. She was only steps away when the dark-haired man managed to throw the blond off him. In the next moment he was on his feet, had grabbed the blond by the collar and dragged him to his feet as well and the two were struggling again.
Jo stood, blinking her eyes and shaking her head, a bit bemused. The speed the man had moved at was just too quick. It was like watching a movie with several bits cut out; one minute he was on the ground, and then he was up, and then he’d crossed the several feet he’d tossed her attacker and caught him up. Obviously, she’d slammed her head into the wall harder than she’d realized, Jo thought, but continued forward, raising her boulder when she saw the dark-haired man had turned the blond so that his back was to her. She grasped the boulder in both hands, lifted it over her head, and brought it down on the blond with all her might. Too much might maybe, Jo thought worriedly as she heard the cracking sound it produced. There was one bad moment where she feared she might have done some serious damage, maybe even a killing blow, but then realized that wasn’t the case at all. All she’d done was get the blond’s attention . . . and piss him off, she realized as he suddenly turned his head to growl at her like a dog, baring fangs not unlike a dog’s as well.
Jo’s eyes widened incredulously at the sight and then shifted to his golden eyes glowing with fury. She took a nervous step back, but before he made a move, the dark-haired man punched him. At least she thought he punched him. She saw her savior’s arm and shoulder shift and heard the thud. Whatever he’d done was enough to distract the blond from her. He turned back to the man who’d hit him and started to strike out at the dark-haired man in retaliation, but before he could finish the action, the dark-haired man struck again. This time, a small gurgle of sound slid from the blond’s lips and he began to crumple to the ground.
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