Check here for Chapter 1 – Untamed.
The rest of the night was a blur of taking orders, bringing drinks, picking up empties, cashing checks and covertly watching Cole for any more suspicious looks. There were none. He was his charming, easy-going self, who helped run things again as soon as Snooty and Snotty left, which was far sooner than usual. They hadn’t even finished their drinks.
By four in the morning, the last of the stragglers left. All of us were dead on our feet. Cole told Blair, who’d worked more than any of us, to go home and leave the cleaning up to us. We filled and turned on the dishwashers, wiped down tables, counters and chairs, and stacked the chairs on top of the tables. When only the floors remained to be mopped, Cole dismissed Joanie as well. She had to get her kids ready for school in a couple of hours.
I often ended up alone with Cole early in the morning, finishing the cleaning in companionable silence interspersed with occasional banter. Today I got the feeling there was more to it than that. He wanted to catch me alone.
Cole got a big bucket of water and brought two mops, one of which he handed to me. I took it to one end of the bar and started mopping. Cole went to the other end, and we worked our way into the middle. We would meet at the end of the bar that led into the break room.
We mopped in silence for a while, but it soon became too heavy. I couldn’t get his eyes out of my mind, the way the vicious creature had jumped out of them. A shiver of fear ran down my spine, and I made sure to monitor his every move. I usually enjoyed having no music on while we cleaned, but now I wished Cole hadn’t switched off the stereo system as soon as the last customers left.
Cole finally broke the silence. “Busy night.” His voice rang loud in the empty room.
“Saturday,” I said with a shrug. “The usual.”
“Thanks for coming in on short notice. I know you were busy.”
He had noticed something. He must have, or he wouldn’t direct the conversation to my pre-shift activities. But as silence stretched between us once more, I realized he was only making conversation. My mind switched on again, reminding me that I usually had no trouble talking to him.
“No problem,” I said. “I was just wrapping up with Pilates, anyhow.”
I went over to the bucket and sunk the mop into it, watching him while he slid his mop over the floor, facing away from me. His movements were strong and rhythmic, and muscles played on his back and shoulders beneath his polo shirt. I used to admire this view openly, but today it threw into stark contrast how much stronger he was than I. Best to think of other things.
“What did your friends want?”
He straightened and turned, saw me standing beside the bucket. His eyes narrowed for a split second, then he shrugged and came over. “The usual. Just a drink and some reminiscing.”
I turned before he reached the bucket, and went back to the last patch of floor I’d cleaned. On any other day, I would have made a comment about how Snooty and Snotty never seemed to have any fun times to reminisce about, but today I held my tongue.
Cole didn’t seem to feel the need to fill the silence, so I kept quiet, too. Fifteen minutes later we’d boxed ourselves in at the door to the break room, where Cole had already relocated the bucket. We bumped shoulders with our last strokes. I hurriedly stepped into the room, leaving the last patch of dirty floor to him.
“Grab me a beer, would you?” he said.
Still normal. We often ended the night hanging out with a beer for another twenty minutes before heading home.
A side door to the right lead into the well-lit kitchen, which was already spic and span. I pulled two beers out of the fridge and returned to the break room.
Cole had finished mopping up. He watched me enter, his posture relaxed. Too relaxed. I forced myself to walk up to him and hand him the beer. He took it with a sigh of gratitude.
“Thanks. Just what the doctor ordered.” He hopped up on the old sideboard that stood against one wall, his long legs dangling over the edge. He clinked his bottle to mine and took a long pull. I sipped, keeping an eye on him. He saw my hesitation and smiled, patting the empty space on the sideboard next to him in invitation. “You seemed distracted today.”
No biggy. Just got the daylights scared out of me by whatever it is that lives inside you.
“Just one of those days,” I tossed his own words from earlier back at him. I sat down on the sideboard next to him and leaned back against the wall.
He chuckled. “Touché.” His shoulder bumped mine in a gesture of camaraderie and he drew in a long, tired breath. I was suddenly aware of how very close he was. Close enough to grab me.
The thought made me tense up. If the hitch in his breath was any indication, he’d felt it. I kept staring straight ahead.
I’m tired, I thought, over and over. Just tired after a long night’s work. I’m sitting here, relaxing, enjoying a cool beer before going home.
“Lauren?” His soft voice commanded my attention.
I looked at him. That wildness was back in his eyes, though it was tempered, subdued. As if he’d leashed it.
“What were you really up to when I called tonight?”
Here it was, the confrontation I’d been hoping to avoid. I could see in his eyes that talking about it wasn’t what he had in mind. The game was on.
I jumped off the sideboard to give myself more space to maneuver, but he was faster. He surged in front of me with incredible speed, blocking my way. I threw my half-empty bottle of beer at him. He plucked it out of the air and put it down on the sideboard without spilling a drop.
I backed away, aiming for the door to the bar. He strode forward and herded me into a corner. I kicked at his knee, but he stepped to the side so fast my boot hit air. Off balance, I had nothing to bring against him when he grabbed my wrists and pushed me into the wall, pinning me against it with his body. I pushed back, but I might as well have tried to push a mountain.
I couldn’t move. He had immobilized me within seconds. He leaned forward, put his nose against the top of my head and took a deep breath. He was smelling me.
He snatched his head back, as if afraid I might bite his neck, which was indeed very close to my face.
“Why do you smell of vampire?”
His voice was low and dangerous. His eyes burned, the wildness inside no longer leashed. He’d let it out to play. With me. I felt like the mouse about to be pounced on by the cat.
“What the hell are you?” I said.
He shook me so hard that my head rapped against the wall behind me.
“When you come into my territory stinking of vampire, I ask the questions,” he snapped. “Are you a blood bank?”
I blinked at him through the stars sparking in my vision. “A what?”
“Don’t play dumb. Are you part of a vampire’s fold?” I’d never realized a person could look feral, but that was the word that came to mind to describe the snarl on his face, the tension in his rock hard body. I could only stare at him, my terror rendering me mute.
He brought his face close to mine, drew in another deep breath. His lips thinned as if he were smelling something revolting.
“Last chance,” he whispered, “why do you stink of the Undead?”
Cole, my easy-going, charming boss, had turned into a savage beast, capable of anything. I could see it in his eyes; this was my last chance to explain – or die.
“Because of the blood,” I rasped between fear-clenched jaws.
“What blood?” He shook me again, shoving me up the wall for emphasis. My feet left the floor entirely. It hurt. My back felt like it was on fire, and his arms across my body made it hard to breathe.
“I killed one earlier,” I said.
He guffawed, short and harsh. “Bull! The truth, please.“
“I killed a vampire. It got messy. The bastard had just fed.“
“No,“ I spat. “Do you see any bite marks?“
His grip loosened the tiniest of fractions. “You’re telling me you killed a vampire tonight, then came skipping to work without a care in the world?”
“I don’t skip!” Not that it was important right now. “But I did wipe the blood off before coming here. You called before I could take a shower.”
He stared at me, his eyes pinning me in place as much as his body. “I don’t believe you.”
“Check my purse.” I nodded towards the lockers.
“Why?” he asked, suspicious. “What’s in it?”
“Tools of the trade.”
“Vampire hunting. I carry at least one stake with me at all times.”
He looked at me like I’d grown horns. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why not?“ I challenged. “Because I’m human? Because humans aren’t supposed to know about vampires? Because vampires are stronger and faster?“
“Yes, yes and… yes.“
His grip had softened. He was starting to listen.
I brought my knee up, fast. But not fast enough. He closed his legs and my knee glanced harmlessly off his thighs. But in doing so, his grip slipped enough for me to free my lower arm. I jabbed my fingertips into his armpit, hard, nailing the cluster of nerves there.
His arm jerked in response. I twisted my arm free all the way and jabbed the side of my hand into his larynx. It was a beautiful hit that might have crushed his windpipe if I hadn’t pulled the punch at the last moment. I didn’t want to kill him. There was still enough force behind it to make him gasp and rear back, releasing me.
I slipped down the wall. As soon as my feet touched ground, I swept one leg out, wiping his own out from under him. He went down with a look of such surprise on his face that I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Who’s slow now?”
I dropped my arms but stayed with my back against the wall, relaxing my body so he’d understand that I didn’t plan to attack. I’d only been trying to prove a point. I wouldn’t have dared to back off with anybody else, but this was still Cole Tanner. A good boss, a decent person.
He’d wanted a reason, so I figured he’d listen to one. “I might not be as fast or strong as you, but you only need one shot when you can take someone by surprise.” I was talking about him as much as the vampires. “They don’t expect me to fight them. And I never let them bite me.” Just the thought sent shivers down my back.
His eyes flashed and he sat up with deliberate slowness, as if he didn’t want to spook me. He got to his feet. “What do you mean, ‘never’?”
“I want to know what you are, first,” I said.
Instead of an answer, he tapped the lockers beside him with his knuckles. I went and unlocked mine, pulled my purse out and handed it to him. He looked inside and blinked. No need to root around in it, the stake was impossible to miss. He brought the purse close to his face and breathed in. He closed it with a growl of disgust and put it back in the locker, gently, as if it might explode with too much jostling. Then he stood and stared at me, his face a mask of stone.
“What are you?” I repeated, “and what is your affiliation with vampires.”
He snorted. “That one’s easy: kill on sight.”
I relaxed a little. “Then we have something in common.”
“Except you’re human. You shouldn’t even know about them.” The growl had left his voice, replaced by something else.
“It worries you that I do,“ I realized.
“Hell yes. I don’t want to kill you.“
The finality in his voice shocked me. He might not want to kill me, but he would if he believed he had to.
“You think you can?” I said. “You’re the one who hit the ground first.”
He laughed. “I won’t make the mistake of underestimating you twice. But you’re still human. I’m not. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
I could have made an educated guess, but I wanted him to confirm it. “So tell me.”
“No. My territory, my rules. I ask the questions. I won’t let you go until you’ve answered every single one to my satisfaction. And, just for the record, lying to me won’t work. It will also make you look more suspicious.”
“What if you don’t like my answers?”
“You’d better pray I do.”
Want to read on? Sign up for my newsletter to find out when Chapter 3 is posted.