“And just what happened to bring you here in your jammies? You haven’t said.”
I used the process of opening the safe to buy me time to figure out how to answer her. Taking a deep breath, I ran through the steps to disarm the wards and punched in the combination with a little more vigor than was strictly necessary. Closing my eyes and saying a quick prayer, I pulled the door lever. Dawna was carefully crouched behind my desk in case the whole thing blew. When the door opened, we both let out a little whoop of joy.
I drew out the old-fashioned cash box I keep on hand for emergencies. I only kept a couple hundred dollars in there, but if Dawna didn’t go nuts, that should be enough to cover the basics.
“Last night we caught somebody messing with the gas line to the cottage. Before you ask, he got away. And I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to meet with the cops after dark in my current … condition. So I bugged out before they got there.”
She blinked rapidly several times, her expression one of complete shock. “Oh. But why—”
“Would somebody want to blow me up? No clue. And if I could’ve thought of somewhere else to go that would be safe and unoccupied, I would’ve done it. I don’t want to put anybody here in danger.”
She sat up straighter, her face flushing, her breath speeding up. I noted the pulse on her neck without meaning to but was able to tear my gaze away before she noticed. “Do you think we’re in danger?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. It would help if I had a clue what was going on, but I just don’t.” I gave her a slow smile. “But I intend to find out.”
She shivered. “You scare me sometimes, you know that?”
“It’s the fangs.”
“No,” she said firmly, “it’s not.”
I didn’t know how to answer that, so I changed the subject. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked as I opened the box and forked over the cash, which was actually three hundred. Yay. “I know it’s a bother.”
She glared up at me from the pen and Post-it note she was using to make a list. “Don’t be an ass,” she scolded. “I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t want to help. I’ll lock the door behind me on the way out and you should have the whole place to yourself until I get back. Ron and the others aren’t exactly known for getting here early, and Bubba just left.” She took the cash from my hand, tucking it into the pocket of her suit jacket along with the note and pen.
I put the cash box and duffel into the safe, then closed it and put up the wards. I was going to be down the hall for a bit, and I do not leave weapons unattended. Ever.
“Thanks, Dawna. Really.”
I grinned. It was her standard answer to everything—unless she was annoyed. Irritate her and she got all formal, with a “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir.” In five years, I’ve only earned two “ma’ams.” Ron, on the other hand, gets about half a dozen “sirs” a day and doesn’t even catch the sarcasm.
Some people are just so dense.
I limped out of the office and down the hall to the bathroom. Hitting the light, I took a look around.
It’s a fairly good-sized room. Not big by modern standards, it would’ve been considered positively luxurious back when the house was built. In those days, the standard was to have one bath for an entire house. But this building had started life as a mansion. Along with real parquet floors and an honest-to-God stained-glass window on the landing between the first and second floors, it had been built with a bathroom on every floor. The original tub had probably been a big old claw-footed monstrosity, but somewhere around the sixties an ambitious owner had decided to do an update of the bathrooms. There was a shower, with ceramic tile squares and a matching oversized tub in flamingo pink. They exactly matched the pedestal sink and toilet. The wallpaper was candy-cane striped in pink, silver, black, and white. It was loud but undeniably eye-catching. A plain white shower curtain hung on the metal rod, the only plain thing in the room.
I rummaged around in the built-in linen closet and the medicine chest, lining up toiletries on the edge of the tub. Nobody in the building used the showers much, but the plumbing worked just fine, and I always kept supplies on hand, just in case.
I decided to brush my teeth first.
I glanced into the mirror as I squeezed toothpaste onto the brush. Good news, I had a reflection; bad news, I looked like crap. My skin was normally pale, but not like this. There was an inch-long gash healing on my right cheek and nasty green and purple bruising along my jaw, none of which I remembered getting. They had to have come from this morning’s scuffle, but they looked days old. My hair was a wreck, standing out in all directions, decorated with leaves and twigs. Jeez. No wonder Dawna had stared.
My T-shirt had started out white but was now liberally decorated with blood- and grass stains, and it was really too thin to wear in public. Only my plaid flannel boxers seemed to have survived the attack unscathed.
But it was the weariness and strain around the eyes that was the most telling. It had been a hard couple of days, and that was taking its toll. My body might be healing better than the average human—not as well as a vampire, but then, who did? But the healing, while welcome, couldn’t erase the signs of exhaustion and pain that had nothing to do with physical damage. I had dark bags under my eyes that looked like I’d been punched … repeatedly.
I looked down at the toothbrush, trying to escape my reflection, and was trying to master the specialized technique of brushing fangs when I heard a commotion downstairs.
“Dawna? Dawna!!” Ron’s bass bellow carried easily up the stairs. “Don’t worry. Our receptionist is here somewhere.”
Of course. Of all the days for Ron to meet clients early. I stepped out of the bathroom, intending to yell down that she’d be right back, but he was talking to someone, using a tone that was ever so accommodating. I knew it must be a big client to earn that level of brownnosing. Mere mortals were never treated so well.
“You can have a seat in the lobby if you like. I can get you some coffee.”
“No, thank you.”
I recognized that voice. Hell, anyone who’d been to the movies in the past decade would recognize that voice. It was Cassandra Meadows, star of stage and screen, “America’s Darling,” and … Vicki’s mother.
I stepped back into the bathroom, looked up, and addressed my reflection. Well, fuck a duck. Spitting out the toothpaste, I slid the brush into the little chrome holder mounted on the wall and grabbed rather desperately for a comb.
It wasn’t that I expected to make myself look good. Only God does miracles. Hell, in Cassandra’s company I’d look like a toad no matter what I did. But there’s a certain tension between most attractive women. If I went out looking like this, I’d lose points and she’d use it to her advantage. I couldn’t do a damned thing about the clothes. But my hair would be combed, my face clean, and my breath, by God, would be minty fresh.
“Where are Ms. Graves’s offices?”
“She takes up most of the third floor. You can’t miss it.” I could hear the puzzlement in his voice, could almost imagine him looking at the very beefy professional bodyguards she always had with her and wondering why on earth she’d want to hire me.
She wouldn’t. Cassandra and Jason were an industry unto themselves. They earned salaries in the multiple millions for every picture even before the points and incentives; their income rivaled the economies of some small countries. They hired a team of security experts—one of the best teams, actually. Miller & Creede were top-notch. Most of their staff were former military or government operatives. All of them had magical or psychic ability of one sort or another, and Miller & Creede required ongoing certification and continuing education. To hire on with them you had to be the best. I’d never applied. First, I wouldn’t have met the magical/psychic requirements. More important, I didn’t have the right attitude. The staff at M&C work as a team. They are used to following orders without question, complaint, or comment. I wouldn’t last a week. Hell, I probably wouldn’t last a day.
I heard footsteps on the stairs. Two men in dress shoes followed by a woman in heels, then, much more softly, a third man. I could smell gun oil and expensive perfume, feel the frisson of magical power moving ahead of them, scanning for threats. Damn, they were good.
I’d combed out my hair and scrubbed my face by the time they reached the top of the stairs, so I was as presentable as I could be when I stepped out to greet them in the hall.
“Hello, Mrs. Cooper.” I watched eyes the violet of morning glories narrow slightly at my use of her actual name rather than her stage moniker. “I’m surprised to see you here. You must have come straight from the airport.”
That last was a guess, but a good one. Her royal purple silk suit had deep creases across the lap, as if she’d been sitting in it for a long time, and even the perfectly applied makeup couldn’t completely hide the evidence of tears. I was glad of that last. Vicki deserved more than a few tears.
Cassandra gasped at my appearance, flinching backward. One of a pair of large bodyguards stepped between us, his hand automatically going beneath his jacket.
Well, hell. I hadn’t said more than hello and already things were going badly. Of course, it could be the pale skin, bruised eyes, and fangs. Nah.
“Celia?” Just my name, spoken in a tone that was more cautious than friendly. It occurred to me that I’d surprised her by not reacting with outright hostility. She knew I didn’t like her, mainly because I thought she’d treated her daughter shabbily. But Cassandra was Vicki’s mother, and her daughter had loved her deeply. So I swallowed my resentment and forced myself to play nice and provide a basic explanation. “I was attacked by a vampire the other night. I’m not a bat—but there have been some changes. Go on into my office. Make yourself comfortable.” I gestured in the direction of the open door.