San Diego, 2013
The lights of the club pulsed red and gold as he swirled the ice in the glass in front of him. The frozen water turned and twisted, spinning his glass into a small whirlpool that splashed over the edge of the cut crystal glass. His amnis caught the drops that fell to the table and quickly slid them back in the glass, leaving the polished wood unmarked. The music, the abysmally loud techno and pop that the patrons preferred, flowed around him as he sat in the black leather booth, watching.
Baojia was always watching.
Humans danced in a mass like one pulsing organism. Skin. Heat. Sweat. The mingled scents of blood and alcohol filled his nose, but he had already fed that night, a pretty young co-ed who would have no memory of his teeth in her neck. He would have indulged in more, but the girl had too much alcohol in her blood so he pushed her back toward her friends, who only giggled and winked at him.
Idiotic humans. Baojia was painfully bored.
The club in San Diego, Boca, was his sire’s pride and joy. It had been recently remodeled, thanks to Baojia’s presence. He had nothing better to do, after all. He was stuck in San Diego, having a time out like a rebellious toddler. The first year had been deserved; he had taken his exile with stoic grace. After all, it had been his failure that had led to the death of Ernesto’s kinsman and his negligence caused Ernesto’s favorite granddaughter grave injury. Beatrice De Novo had been under his protection, and he had failed in his mission.
No, the first year had been well deserved.
The second year as well. Perhaps.
Baojia had been in San Diego for three years. Beatrice De Novo had recovered—rather admirably—and had settled with her mate in Los Angeles. She had probably forgotten about him. Forgotten the years he had watched over her while the damnable Italian had been jaunting around the world. It wasn’t Giovanni Vecchio who had protected the young human, it was Baojia. For four years, she had been his assignment. Her safety hadn’t been his only job, but it had been a priority. It still stung that she had no idea the lengths to which he had gone.
History. He took another sip of water. It was history. He had more important things to worry about. Like how to relieve this excruciating boredom and convince his sire to release him from the hell on earth of college children who thought they ruled the world.
He turned at the sound of his assistant’s voice. “What is it, Luis?”
“Do you know a woman named Natalie Ellis?”
He frowned. “Human?”
“Okay, I figured.” Luis patted the back of the booth in the VIP area of the club, which took up the balcony. “I’ll tell her to take off.”
He shrugged. “Let her stay and keep drinking as long as she’s not causing a scene.”
“Okay. She’s at the bar if you want to look. Redhead in a black dress. Cute, if you like freckles.”
His mouth turned up at the corner. “How sweet.”
“Yeah…” Luis chuckled. “Something tells me… not. Oh, and here’s the report from the casino. Jared dropped it off earlier. You still meeting with Rory at two?”
He nodded. “Make sure my office is clear and show him in as soon as he arrives. What time is it?”
He stretched his neck to the side in a completely habitual gesture. He didn’t need to stretch anymore than he needed to drink the water in front of him. Still, those little signals all put the humans around him at ease. “Wonderful. It’s busy tonight.”
“Back to school, Boss.” Luis grinned. “A fresh new crop of newly legal eye candy.”
He often forgot how young Luis was. The human was only twenty-five, the son of one of Ernesto’s long-time human employees. The don of Los Angeles was nothing if not loyal. He kept the fealty of his human servants for generations, which had served him well in the rapidly changing atmosphere of Southern California.
“Get back to work being charming, Luis. And keep on eye on the new bartender. I think he’s pouring a little heavy for the more attractive female patrons.”
Like the redhead in the black dress who was definitely not a co-ed.
As soon as Luis had mentioned red hair, his eyes had searched for her. From his perch in the corner, Baojia could observe three of the four doors in the club. A monitor in the corner watched the other. He could see the bar, and the mirror behind it let him see each and every movement of the humans tending it. The DJ’s booth was elevated and also monitored by a camera that fed into the small screen he could see from his seat.
The dance floor took up most of the main level, lined by booths that were reservation only. The VIP area in the balcony was even more exclusive. Boca had become the premiere nightclub in downtown San Diego, and Baojia had remodeled it with security in mind. If he had to be stuck in a tiny corner of his sire’s kingdom, that corner would be the most secure in Ernesto’s territories.
Baojia stood at the balcony and watched the redhead, who was sipping a clear cocktail with two limes. Her hair was a tumble of red waves; very attractive, he had to admit. Her pale shoulders were bare, but the rest of her dress hugged her curves. She was of medium height and had an athletic build. Not slight and girlish like the children on the dance floor. She was around thirty in human years, if he had to guess. She stood out for that alone. Her dress and make-up fit the club, the intelligent eyes that scanned the room and ignored the males surrounding her did not.
He didn’t know her, but she was intriguing. She asked for him, specifically? He’d have to ask Luis. Very few humans knew his name.
Who are you, Natalie Ellis? He narrowed his gaze as she checked her mobile phone, punching something in, then slipped it back in her purse. It was a large purse, the kind a professional woman carried, not a girl out clubbing. Right dress. Right jewelry and make-up. Wrong purse.
“You’re a pretty liar, aren’t you?” he murmured, his hands hanging in the pockets of his perfectly tailored black suit. Baojia abhorred ill-fitting clothes. “And how do you know my name?”
He saw Luis approach and touch the woman’s shoulder. She turned, her polite smile slowly turning down. She was annoyed. Her eyes flicked up to the balcony and met his. He cocked his head as they held. Curious. Most humans wouldn’t hold his gaze for long; some instinct always told them to look away from the predator. Not hers. They kept right on his. Challenging. Tempting.
She kept watching him as she reached back and grabbed her cocktail. She tilted the glass up, and her throat undulated as she swallowed, the pale skin glowing in the red lights of the club. Never taking her eyes off him, she finished her drink and set the glass down, then finally turned back to Luis. She reached in her too-large purse, handed Luis a card, then stood. Baojia watched her until she left out the crowded front doors. Then he turned and sat down again, pulling out the report about the casino in the desert near El Centro.
Baojia stifled the groan when he opened the file and saw the first column of numbers that filled it.
He had get back to LA.
Rory McNair was already sitting in a chair and drinking a glass of blood in his office when Baojia escaped the still-lively club at two. His sister Paula’s husband was a casual man. He and Baojia had been turned within twenty years of each other and always had a good relationship, though Rory’s allegiance was to Paula first. The two had been mated for over one hundred years. Of all Ernesto’s children, it was Paula, Rory, and Baojia whom he trusted most. Well, until the Chinese disaster, as Rory referred to it.
“How you doing, brother?”
Baojia shrugged. “I’m bored watching college kids and redecorating night clubs. How are you?”
“Overworked and living with an annoyed wife.” Rory’s grey mustache twitched. “How did you manage all this shit and still have a life?”
Since Baojia had been exiled, the majority of the security for Ernesto’s large territory had fallen to Rory’s hands. Paula was the businesswoman. Baojia had been the security. Rory was mostly a man of leisure, so the sudden weight of responsibility for a region stretching from Northern Mexico to Central California was not a welcome addition to his life.
“I didn’t have a life, remember?” He smiled. “I suppose I should be grateful for the vacation, but I just find myself obsessing over all the problems that could be cropping up in my absence.” He raised a quick hand. “Not that I don’t trust you. I just know that it’s a lot. Have there been any more problems in the mountains?”
“Not much.” Rory twisted the tip of his mustache and leaned back in his chair, blood forgotten. “They’re still growin’ up there, but the gang activity has been contained.” Marijuana production in the Southern California mountains was hardly something that Ernesto usually worried about, but the infiltration of gangs from Northern Mexico was. It was not uncommon for other vampire leaders to send in criminal gangs they controlled to test the resolve of their neighbors. Problems out of the ordinary had to be dealt with swiftly and decisively in order to maintain a leader’s position and authority. Baojia worried that Rory was not taking it seriously enough.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
Rory snorted. “From San Diego?”
Baojia ignored the sting. It wasn’t intentional and it was hardly something that Rory could help. Until Ernesto decided to let him out of his virtual prison, he was stuck.
“Sorry.” His brother looked contrite. “You got the casino numbers?”
“Yes.” He pulled out the file. “I’m warning you, everything appears to be in order.”
Rory’s eyes twinkled. “Not a single head we can crack for missing money or booze?”
“Sadly not,” he said with a smile. “But the employee pension fund needs a new manager.”
By three in the morning, Rory was gone and Baojia was leaving the club. Luis would take care of the few after-hours patrons they entertained, so Baojia could return to the home he had secured on Coronado Island, a few steps from the beach. It was a modern house with exactly the right number of windows and a very secure location. His driver dropped him off before dawn and returned at nightfall. Was it his comfortable warehouse in downtown LA? No, but it was modern and had a good area to train, so he was as content as he could be. He was just about to step into his car when he heard the voice.
“Are you Baojia?”
He smiled, somehow knowing it was Natalie Ellis before he turned. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Took me a while to figure it out once I saw it written,” she mused, stepping closer. “Bow—like the bow of a ship, jeeah. It’s cool. Chinese?”
“Perhaps.” Baojia spun around and regarded her. “Where did you hear it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Very much so.” She had taken off the heels she’d been wearing and put on a pair of thin, black shoes, but her dress and makeup were the same. “You brought the wrong purse, Ms. Ellis.”
“How—?” She frowned before raising the very practical black handbag. “I guess you see a lot of college kids, huh? Not the usual?”
“You stood out. That’s not a bad thing. Where did you hear that name?”
She stepped closer. “Did your errand boy give you my card?”
“No. And I wouldn’t let him hear you call him an errand boy.”
Her lips wore a slight smile. “But he is.”
Baojia stepped closer. “We like to allow children their illusions, don’t we?”
Her eyes were blue. A clear blue that reminded him of old memories of the sky reflecting on the water. She was a creature made for sunlight, a dusting of freckles covered her nose and dotted her shoulders. Though her skin was pale, it was flushed with life. The unexpected curl of arousal surprised him. Human women rarely interested him.
“Listen, I don’t want to waste your time. I’m looking for Baojia because someone told me he could help me with a story I’m writing.”
“Oh? You’re a writer?” In his experience, humans usually abhorred silence and would fill it with useful information, given the chance. One rarely had to question them. Just remain silent and they would tell you what you needed to know.
“Yes.” The woman remained silent, too. One hand was placed on her hip and the other clutched her too-large purse. He couldn’t stop the smile. Apparently, they shared the same sentiments about silence. Finally, he shrugged and turned away.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Ellis. I can’t help you.”
“You are Baojia, aren’t you?” She was persistent; he’d give her that. “If you won’t help me, I guess I’ll have to go talk to Ivan myself.” He spun so fast her eyes swam. “Hey, how did you—”
Within seconds, Baojia had her tucked in the back of his sedan and told his driver to circle the block. Closing the privacy screen, he held her hand and watched her. She was completely out, rendered unconscious by the shock of his energy. He tried not to curse at his clumsy handling of the situation, but the sound of the other immortal’s name on her lips had shocked him. What did this soft, sunshine girl want with Ivan? And why the hell did she know to come to him for an introduction? She clearly did not know about their kind from her reaction to his speed.
“Ms. Ellis?” Still holding her hand, he called her name softly to rouse her. He lessened the electrical current that ran over his skin and onto hers. “Natalie?”
“Hmm?” Her eyes blinked open, but still swam with confusion. “Where am I?”
“In my car. I’ll make sure you get home safely. Where did you hear the name Baojia, Natalie? Who gave it to you?” His amnis eased into her mind, loosening her tongue. At this level of influence, she would tell him anything he wanted.
“Dez did, silly.” She sounded drunk, her cerebral cortex awash in amnis. “You know, Desiree Riley… well Desiree Kirby now. I think she changed her name when she married Matt.”
“Desiree Riley?” Beatrice De Novo’s best friend was also the wife of Matt Kirby, who ran security and other sensitive assignments for the Italian fire vampire who had taken somewhat permanent residence in Southern California. Giovanni Vecchio was Beatrice De Novo’s husband and a wary ally of his sire’s. Desiree Riley was, to put it bluntly, a human who knew things. Also, a human who wouldn’t have given out his name without reason, from what he knew of her. “Why did Dez give you my name?”
“Badgered her.” Natalie laughed. “Poor thing. Kept at her until she cracked. It’s an important story, she knows that. Needed information. My editor…” The woman drifted off again and Baojia realized he had lost control of his amnis for a moment.
“Natalie?” She was a lovely rumpled heap in the back of his car. Her red hair tumbled around her, falling into her face. Her nose wrinkled at the ticklish strands, causing Baojia to smile as he brushed it away.
“Need to talk to Ivan. Name keeps coming up.” Her forehead was wrinkled now. “So many gone. Can’t… can’t continue. ’S wrong, you know?”
“No.” He didn’t know. Didn’t know what she was talking about, but the mention of Ivan’s name was not something to be taken lightly. And there was no way this girl should be going to speak to the leader of Ensenada on her own. That was out of the question. He’d have to call Dez and investigate tomorrow night, but until then…
“Natalie,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” she whispered back.
“Where do you live?”
She told him her address without question, along with a rather amusing anecdote about her neighbor Mr. Sanchez and his new chihuahua. Finally, he had to interrupt. “I’m going to take you home now. Forget about Ivan.”
She smiled mischievously. “I don’t forget anything, buddy.”
“You will this time. Trust me.” He pulled her up, and she slumped against his side, her head rolling to the side. Her neck was bared to him, beckoning him despite his earlier meal. Baojia felt the pressure increase as his fangs pressed down and the earlier curl of arousal turned into a jolt. He wanted this woman. Eyeing her neck, he considered what he knew about her.
Natalie Ellis was a writer, a persistent one. She was also a friend of Dez, and possibly, Beatrice. Did she know them from school? He searched his memories of Beatrice’s time at university, but could find no mention or memory of this woman. She seemed to be the right age to have been in grad school with Dez and Beatrice.
“Who are you, Natalie?” He brushed away another strand of hair, twisting it around his finger for a moment. “And why did you come looking for me?”
He saw her grin, even though her eyes were closed. “Knew you were Baojia.” They flickered open and met his. “You’re really handsome. How did you move so fast?”
This caused her to giggle uncontrollably, throwing her head back in delight and sending a wave of her scent toward him. He growled at the back of his throat, which caused her to stop short and look at him with sleepy calculation. “You’re not magic,” she said. “But you’re something.”
She had good instincts. “Something?”
“Something… different.” She leaned closer and pressed herself against his chest, one hand going to his mouth. Her blue eyes looked up into his, then she looked down at his lips and traced around them. His teeth throbbed in his mouth and his lower lip dropped open on an exhale, revealing the tips of his fangs to her gaze.
A tentative finger reached out and stroked along one. “Cool,” she whispered.
“Natalie,” his voice was low and hoarse. “You are not to contact Ivan in any way. Do you understand? Forget about him.”
He increased the pressure of his influence on her mind until she slumped against his chest. “Okay,” she sighed.
“Never. Never speak to Ivan.”
“Sheesh.” She curled her lip. “Bossy.”
“I can tell. If fact, I bet you’re always serious.” Natalie rolled her eyes and pulled away. He let her go and tried to ignore the suddenly cool spot on his chest where she had rested. “Baojia?”
“You’re taking me home?”
“Okay. I’m tired. And I have work tomorrow. And my editor’s boss… Ugh. I know he doesn’t like me. He puts up with me because of the drug bust story, but it pisses him off. And I need to meet Kristy tomorrow. Did I put that in my phone? I better put that in my phone.” He cocked his head, watching her as she chattered. Suddenly, she looked down. “I can’t believe I wore this dress.”
He smiled, oddly amused and sad that this interesting human would have no memory of their encounter. “You look lovely in it.”
She smiled back, her eyes sparkling. “Even with the wrong purse.”
“It made you stand out.”
She fell silent after that, his influence and the late hour lulling her into a peaceful slumber. He relayed her address to the driver, then sat back, pursing his lips as he looked at the human woman in his car.
“A writer,” he muttered. Writers took notes. Notes that might contain Ivan’s name. It wouldn’t do for her to find those and start getting curious again. He didn’t have time to search her apartment before dawn, but he’d definitely be asking Dez some pointed questions tomorrow. Why had she given Baojia’s name to a reporter? What was Natalie talking about when she said it had to stop? Why did Dez trust her?
He sat up a little straighter and silently cheered when he realized he had something to investigate other than disappearing bottles of the top shelf vodka. Then, he glanced back at the human.
What if she started looking for Ivan before he could find out why she knew about him? What would happen if she ran into the wrong people while he was in day rest?
He frowned. She was just a woman. Why was he so concerned?
Baojia let out a frustrated breath. Stupid curious humans. They could be irritatingly persistent. But it was more intrigue than he’d had in months; he was actually looking forward to solving this mystery, even if it was regarding a human. Natalie’s leg moved against his, and he followed the line of her ankle up until the pale curve of her thigh disappeared under the edge of her dress.
She was attractive and curious. What if she went looking for Ivan? She had no standing in their world. The name of Desiree Riley certainly wasn’t going to mean anything to more than a few. She didn’t belong to anyone. If she was an employee of his sire’s, she would fall under Don Ernesto’s general aegis and be protected against another vampire’s influence or use. If a vampire kept her for blood or sex, she would fall under his personal aegis and would be even more protected.
But Natalie was under no immortal aegis at all, which meant she was fair game. He tapped his foot as he watched her sleep. The question wouldn’t leave him alone.
What if she went looking for Ivan?
Her head rolled to the side, and his eyes traced over the smooth unmarred expanse of her neck. He felt his fangs lengthen and he leaned closer. Slipping one arm around her back, he brought her body close to his and her eyes blinked open.
He took a deep breath, enjoying her scent, which held hints of the ocean and the sun. “I’m putting you under my aegis.”
“What does that mean?” She frowned. “You’re kinda weird.”
“You have no idea.” He leaned closer and heard her sigh when his lips brushed against her pulse. Was he doing this for her? Or for himself? He tried to stop thinking and enjoy the anticipation of the bite.
“What are you doing?” she asked again.
“I’m going to bite your neck and drink some of your blood,” he murmured. “You won’t see the bites, but others will. And it will offer you a measure of protection until I can figure out what’s going on.”
“I didn’t hear that right.” She blinked rapidly. “You’re going to… what?”
His amnis washed over her skin, and Baojia felt the damp coastal air draw close as his energy wrapped around her. He closed his eyes and slid his fangs into her neck. The rich taste flooded his mouth, and he felt Natalie arch her back.
“Ohhhh, that feels really good. Holy… Wh—what are you doing to me?”
He took only a mouthful before he grunted and forced himself back, licking the last bit of blood from his lips before he pierced his tongue and healed the delicate wounds in her neck. He closed his eyes, trying to will away the natural reaction of his flesh to hers. The sight of his marks in her neck gave him too much of a primitive thrill.
He was cut off when she kissed him. She grabbed his face with both hands and threw herself into it, moaning into his mouth as he gently pushed her away.
“Natalie, you’re under my influence. It’s—” He cleared his throat. “This is not appropriate.”
She was dazed, staring at him in confusion, hands still on his cheeks and arousal bringing a delicious flush to her pale skin. “Why not?”
“Trust me. I have a feeling if you ever remembered this, you’d be more than a little pissed off.”
She did the adorable wrinkling thing with her nose again. “I’m not going to remember this?”
“No.” He gently pushed her back and buckled her into her seatbelt.
But I believe I will. For quite some time.