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Chapter One
“Ever heard the phrase ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’?” Dan muttered as we stared at the huge, black-mirrored doors.

“You know, that’s what I love about you, always the optimist,” I said, trying to convince myself there was no reason for my reflection to look so nervous. Beyond the doors subterranean bass pounded, vibrating through my chest like a warning. A warning I had to ignore.

“We can still leave,” Dan said, sounding calm but looking grim.
“This will get me off the hook with Lord Marco,” I reminded him. And, frankly, repaying a debt to the oldest vampire in Seattle was the only reason good enough to get me to walk through these particular doors. Into Maelstrom—darkest of the city’s dark clubs—and, even worse, into a meeting with Lord Esteban, the vamp who owned the place.

Dan frowned, rubbing the fading scar on his right wrist. “It will get you off one hook.”

Like I needed the reminder that this favor wasn’t all I owed Lord Marco. After all, Dan and I had been fighting about my other debt for six weeks now. The fact that I owed blood to an Old One wasn’t exactly easy to forget. Talk about making a deal with the devil.

Though I’d done it to save Dan’s life. And some would argue that, for an Old One, and the ruler of Seattle’s vampires, Marco was hardly devilish. From what I’d seen of him, he ruled more with the velvet glove and less with the iron fist. But velvet or not, I was certain that welching on a debt to him would be a bad idea.

So I was trying to tough it out even though Marco was sending me into the lion’s den, so to speak. I still hadn’t figured out why he’d asked me to assist Lord Esteban—probably his biggest rival for power—to clear my debt. Strange are the ways of vampires.

I shot Dan a reassuring smile. “Let’s focus on right now, huh? We see what Lord Esteban’s problem is. It can’t be that bad. Marco can’t ask me to do something that could hurt me. That was part of our agreement.”

I sounded certain. I doubted Dan would buy it but I had to at least try to sound more optimistic than I felt. I tugged at the leather halter I wore, trying to make the pointed edges meet the waist of the matching pants.

It didn’t work. It hadn’t worked any of the hundred or so times I tried to do the same thing since my assistant, Jase, had kitted me out in the latest in dark club chic. Which equated to sleek black leather and not that much of it.
I’d wanted to wear body armor.

Jase said that’d only flag me as fresh meat. In a dark club, that could have an all too literal meaning.

Hence the dominatrix Barbie look I was sporting. Leather, chains, too much black eyeliner, and wine-red lipstick. Not me at all. Clients tend to like their accountants to wear suits, not spikes and skin. And, speaking as their accountant, I prefer it too.

Dan had been subjected to Jase’s fashion direction as well. But I liked his outfit. Black leather pants hugged his long legs, outlining every hard-earned muscle, and a thin black T-shirt that was exactly the right degree of tight did the same for his chest.

I let all that hard male flesh distract me from Esteban for a moment and stepped a little closer, breathing in his scent. “You know, I think you should keep these clothes.”

One side of his mouth lifted. “Really? What did you have in mind?”

“How about I tell you later?” I pressed closer to him, felt his heart speed up and saw the smile widen, just a fraction. I was happy to see the smile, even if it was only half an expression. Things between us were kind of strained. Six weeks ago, I’d kind of proposed. And he’d kind of accepted. But that was before he’d found out about Marco and the deals I’d made.

Before we’d had the mother of all arguments.

“You should tell me now,” Dan said, smile still lingering. I wished it would stay in place just a bit longer. Since the argument we’d been circling each other warily. He hadn’t produced a ring and there’d been no talk of weddings, despite some not so subtle hints from our pack’s Alphas. What there had been were some spectacular fights and some even more spectacular make-up sex.

There hadn’t been many smiles. There had been lots of me feeling like I was walking on eggshells and failing miserably to not crush them. Especially since Marco had called in his favor two nights ago.

I was hoping getting at least one of my debts settled might ease things between us. Get us moving forward again. Maybe give me back some semblance of a normal life.

“More fun in private,” I said.

Dan’s smile disappeared. His head turned back to the door. “Private? Ash, inside those doors most people wouldn’t blink an eye if we did it in the middle of the dance floor.” His voice gave no hint of the growling rumble it held when he was happy. Or horny.

Talk about a mood killer. I stepped back, as the reality of where we were returned. A dark club. Where the crowd played rough in more than one sense of the word.

BDSM, vampires feeding on willing—and maybe not so willing—victims and other things I didn’t really want to know about. And that was just the public areas.

The rumors of what went on in the private rooms were nasty. Though they were just rumors. No one had ever successfully prosecuted an owner of a dark club.

And Lord Esteban was the biggest, baddest owner of them all.

Maybe Dan was right, maybe I should just go back to Marco and tell him no deal. But then I might just have two pissed off Old Ones on my case. While there was a chance that Marco might be willing to let me off, everything I’d heard about Esteban suggested the concept of letting it slide wasn’t one he was familiar with.

Marco had always treated me with courtesy but I’d never met Esteban and I couldn’t assume he’d do the same. The one vampire of his lineage I had met hadn’t seemed that friendly. Therefore, backing out was not an option. Even though, not for the first time since Dan had reentered my life, I wished desperately that I could go back to being boring old Ashley Keenan, forensic accountant.

Not Ashley the werewolf, killer of psychopathic vampires and debtor to Old Ones.

Sadly that was about as likely to happen as me enjoying the next thirty minutes.

“We’re going to do this like we agreed, right?” I said, watching Dan’s face. He’d flat out refused to let me come alone. I was happy to have backup but had insisted that he let me do the talking. Cue yet another fight. He’d finally accepted my argument that looking weak in front of Esteban was hardly going to keep me safe. “Dan?”

I got one short nod and a growled “Fine.” I suddenly felt more eggshells crumbling beneath my feet but there wasn’t anything I could do to fix things right now. So I turned back to the doors, resisting the urge to turn tail and bolt. Instead, instincts screaming at me, I stepped forward and pushed them open.

Time to ride the whirlwind.

As we stepped through the doors, the music crashed over us like thunder. I fought the urge to wince. I needed to look tough. Jase had drilled that into me. No backing down or I’d just be inviting trouble. Cringing at the screeching industrial metal assaulting my senses was definitely not tough.

I squared my shoulders, relying on the nearness of Dan’s scent to know he had my back and moved farther into the club. The darkened space smelled of heat and sweat and too many people in a place that never saw sunshine. The odors of wolf and vampire and human mingled in dizzying jumble of scent that made my nose itch. Underneath it all I smelled fear. And blood. Old and new.

My throat tightened. The smell was too familiar. I still smelled it in my nightmares—the ones I tried to forget and mostly succeeded—except when something triggered the memories all over again. Like the scent of blood.
No freaking out allowed. I tried to breathe through my mouth and slow my heartbeat. No point acting tough when most of the people around you can hear your heart pounding with fear.

As my eyes adjusted to the lack of the light—one advantage of being a werewolf—I tried to get the lay of the vast room. Bodies packed a huge central dance floor, twisting and writhing to the relentless music. Ultraviolet lights shone down from weird angles, turning skin unnatural shades of gray and purple, making it difficult to make out individual features. In the middle of the dance floor was a raised square platform. Empty. Thank God for small mercies. I had no desire to take in the sort of floorshow a dark club might offer.

Spiky-looking metal tables of various heights formed an uneven square around the dancers. To our left a steep metal staircase led up to the metal-railed balcony ringing the room. According to Marco, we’d find Esteban’s office upstairs. Apparently the entrance to the private areas of the club was up there too. The areas I really didn’t want to see.

Any more than I wanted to meet Lord Esteban. The thought of climbing those stairs suddenly felt as inviting as walking the plank. I was all too aware that there were many, many sharks circling.

The music tore at my ears, full of weird dissonances my brain translated as screams. Steeling myself, I started forward then stopped as a man and a woman stepped into my path. They looked at me and smiled with a nasty sort of anticipation that made my spine stiffen. I didn’t smile back.

Dan moved up behind me and I let myself relax a little. I wasn’t here alone.

The guy cocked his bald head at me, one hand tucked into the waistband of his way too tight jeans. The jeans were the only thing he was wearing. Which meant I had an eyeful of unnaturally smooth chest. His nipple ring looked almost neon purple in the lights. The barely-there top the too-thin too-bleached blonde at his side wore revealed a matching piercing.

“Want to play?” Baldy’s voice was as unattractive as the rest of him, squeaky and grating all at once.

Ugh. “Not really.” I tried to move past and he grabbed my arm. I snarled, heard an echoing growl from Dan, but the guy’s big hand remained clamped around my bicep. I sucked in a breath. He smelt human—plain old sweat, cheap vodka and cheaper aftershave. I could deal with him. “You might want to reconsider.”

His fingers tightened. “Am I hurting you?”

He was, a little. Probably not as much as he wanted to. I narrowed my eyes at him, hoping he’d get the message. I didn’t have time for this. His girlfriend scowled at me and I almost laughed. She wasn’t even close to the most intimidating thing I’d seen recently. “You should pick your targets a little more carefully,” I said, then yanked my arm out of his grip.

His eyes widened. Obviously he hadn’t picked up that I was a were. “Bitch.”

Dan rumbled again behind me and I held up a hand, smiling at Baldy. “You got that right,” I said and shoved him aside with enough force to send him and his lady skank tumbling backward.

“Let’s go,” I said to Dan, moving toward the stairs, trying to avoid body contact with any more patrons. I half-heard a commotion behind me and turned just in time to see idiot boy launch himself at Dan who promptly backhanded him, sending him crashing to the floor. This time he had the sense to stay down. No one moved to help him up, not even Blondie who’d staggered to her feet and was ruining her makeup with shocked sobs.

Dan and I moved on through the mass of clubbers. A lot of them wore a lot less than either of us. Chains and spikes featured heavily, as did piercings in places that hurt to think about. I paused to let a woman leading a half-naked guy by a heavy chain attached to a collar move past me. Both of them turned their heads to look at me, the woman blowing me a kiss through blackened lips.

But it was the guy who had my attention. The lower half of his face was covered by a—well, you could only call it a muzzle, the leather fastening behind his head, hiding his mouth. Silvery mesh left a small breathing hole and elaborate silver designs mimicked fangs around the space. On the face of things, it wasn’t any creepier than half the outfits in the place but something about him made my stomach twist uneasily. I froze, watching them until they disappeared into the crowd.

It took an effort to move forward again and almost immediately a tall black man stepped into my path. “Where you going, pretty?” His head was shaved and his clothes were a dark, dark red, if my eyes were translating the weird light correctly.

I suppressed a shiver. I hated being called pretty. When I’d been held prisoner by McCallister Tate—the psychopathic vampire who’d killed my family—his henchmen had called me that. “To see Lord Esteban.”

He put his hands on his hips, effectively blocking the stairs. I stared at him, not sure if he was vamp or human. The crowd was thicker here and there were too many scents hitting my nose, too many bodies close by, for me to know which one was his.

He smiled unpleasantly, revealing fangs. Mystery solved. “You expected?”

“Yes. I have an appointment.” I waited, praying I wasn’t about to have confrontation number two. I still had Esteban ahead of me. Another fight might just use up all the acting tough I could muster. But hopefully, if this guy worked for Esteban then he had to treat Esteban’s guests courteously.

Finally he stepped aside. “Enjoy.” His tone suggested this was unlikely.

So did my brain.

I put my hand on the banister. Then snatched it back as my palm started to burn.

“Silver chips in the paint,” the vampire said from behind me. Amusement laced his voice.

What kind of idiot put silver chips in the paint when some of the clientele were shifters?

“Just keep climbing.”

Dan’s voice was right in my ear. I did what he suggested, ignoring the fading pain in my hand.

“Silver in the paint?” I whispered to him as we climbed, both avoiding contact with the banisters. It wasn’t that easy. The stairs were steep with large gaps between the treads, making it very tempting to cling to something for support.

“Some people like pain.”

Dan’s tone was matter of fact. I felt like an idiot. I knew what went on in the dark clubs. I knew what BDSM was. And Dan and I had put his handcuffs to nonofficial uses from time to time when he’d been a cop. But the stuff that went on here was way, way beyond. I’d never understand someone wanting to be hurt.

Pain was bad. And I’d had enough of it to last more than a lifetime.

So what the hell was I doing here?

Trying to get things back to normal. Right. Wearing leather and surrounded by freaks. I bit my lip. No point panicking. This should be simple. It was probably an accounting problem—I couldn’t think of anything else Marco would think I could help Esteban with—and I ate accounting problems for breakfast. So poof. Deal with the big bad vamp’s finances, repay my debt to the other big bad vamp in the process and everything would be fine.

Just fine.

The door to Esteban’s office, like those leading into Maelstrom, was a black mirror. My reflection still looked nervous. The music had faded to a dull roar but that only meant I could pick up other sounds. Groans. Screams. And dull thwacks that had to be the sound of leather hitting flesh. I swallowed, hard.

“We can still leave. I can sort Marco out,” Dan said. His reflection didn’t look any happier than mine.

Any sorting out Dan did with Marco was likely to get ugly. A werewolf-vampire political blow-up, if not actual violence, was not my idea of returning to normality. “If it’s not this, it could be something worse.” I wasn’t sure what worse might be. But I was sure that I wanted to deal with at least one of my obligations to Marco.

Just like any other business meeting, I told myself as I pasted on my polite and professional face, lifted my hand and rapped on the glass.

The door swung open silently, revealing a woman in the doorway. One I knew. A vampire named Leah who was high up in Esteban’s organization. She’d been at Marco’s when I’d made my deal.

She hadn’t liked me then and her expression suggested her opinion hadn’t changed. “Ms. Keenan.”

“Hello, Leah.” I nodded at her, trying to be polite. The long dark green dress snaking around her body made her skin look very pale, and her lips very red. Like she’d just fed.

She didn’t acknowledge the greeting. Instead she looked past me to Dan. “Who is this?”

“Daniel Gibson,” I said.

Her dark eyebrows shot up. “The FBI agent? From the Supernatural Taskforce?” The last words were a sneer.

“Yes. But he’s not here in an official capacity.”

“We do not let the FBI come sniffing around.” She put one hand on the doorframe, blocking our way.

Well, no. Not if half the stuff said about dark clubs was true. But I didn’t want to get into a pissing match with Leah. So I played my trump card. “I said, not in an official capacity. Lord Marco said I could bring him.” Marco was the oldest Old One in the city. Esteban had to do what he said.

“Let them in, Leah.” The words came in a low golden rumble that brushed up my spine and somehow reminded me how little clothing I was wearing, as if a warm breeze had blown past me.

I didn’t like my reaction. Leah blocked my view of the speaker, so I couldn’t see who it was but the voice was very much used to being in command. When Leah melted out of our way without protest I knew it could only be one person.
Esteban.

Curiosity warred with caution as I walked into the office, Dan on my heels. Marco had been nothing like I’d expected an Old One to be—less of the pain and terror and more of the charm and honor. I wondered whether Esteban would surprise me as well.

When I saw the man—vampire behind the desk, surprise wasn’t quite the word. A lot of vampires are good-looking. Whether it’s because they like to pick pretty prey or because they can use some of their abilities to make you think they’re attractive, I’ve never been quite sure.

Lord Marco was gorgeous, in a suave, Italian, charming male model sort of way.

No one would call this man gorgeous or even handsome, really. No. He was something far more primal than that.

He wore black. Black shirt, black tie, black suit. Which only made the golden tones of his skin and hair gleam brighter. His eyes were a blaze of blue and his face was chiseled. It should’ve added up to All American boy. But, what it actually added up to was sex. Sensuality rolled off him like a wave.

My stomach tightened in response then heat flared through me. Dan growled low in his throat. Apparently I wasn’t the only one affected.

Which meant the sex scenting the air was some sort of vampire power. My throat clamped closed and I had to remind myself to breathe as I tried to see the reality of a nice- looking guy rather than the silky steam and seduction he projected.

“Ms. Keenan.” He rose from his chair with a nod. Ornate, heavy chased silver rings glinted from each finger breaking up all that gold and black. “Why don’t you take a seat?”

It wasn’t a suggestion. More like an invitation wrapped around a command. Now that I was close to him, the voice sounded even better. The deep rumbles seemed to promise all sorts of rewards if you just did what it asked. And you wanted to do what it asked. I took a step toward him before I knew it.

Which made me want to get the hell out of there. I’d had a vampire seduce my mind once and he’d had to thrall me to do it. I wasn’t so sure Esteban would need to go that far.

Sweat broke out on my back, nerves shrilling at me to run. My mouth dried as I tried to back up a little.

My logical side told me to stay put.

Damn. I didn’t need any more complications. I stayed still for a few seconds, debating once again whether I should leave even though I knew I couldn’t. All the time, feeling a pull toward Esteban like a tide.

Esteban watched me, and the amusement in his eyes told me he knew exactly what I was fighting. Luckily I’d had a fair bit of practice in controlling my instincts and urges the last few months. I stood my ground, just long enough to make it clear I was moving under my own free will, and then took another step.

Dan’s hand pressed into the small of my back possessively as I moved toward the chairs arrayed in front of the desk.

His touch didn’t help me suppress the heat curling through me but he wouldn’t take it well if I shrugged him off. I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t a sexy guy in front of me, it was a vampire.

One with a nasty reputation.

Esteban still looked amused.

The closer we got, the stronger the pull to move closer still. No wonder his clubs were successful. You’d just need Esteban to walk through the room and people would be panting.

As I neared the chair, another vampire appeared beside me, pulling it back for me. I jumped then did a double take when I got a look at his face. If Marco was all charm and Esteban was pure sex then this guy was sheer beauty.
The kind to make painters weep and women sigh.

Like Leah, he was dark. Deep brown hair, skin a deeper olive gold than Esteban’s and eyes darker than the hair. None of which conveyed the utter perfection of his face.

He smiled while I gaped at him. I sank into the deep leather seat and his gaze sharpened as he turned his attention to Dan. He walked around me, smooth vamp gait making it look like he almost floated, and pulled a chair out for Dan as well.

“Why don’t you sit?” he asked in a tone close to a purr. The voice was almost as sleek as his gray suit. Dan stared at him, face unreadable.

“Niko, don’t play with our guests,” Esteban said.

The vamp slanted a glance at Dan then shrugged a shoulder and backed away. Dan’s shoulders relaxed a little and he sat. Though he stayed perched on the edge of the chair, eyes scanning the room.

Ready for action.

I straightened as well, trying to watch where Niko had gone out of the corner of my eye.

“He will behave.” Esteban’s voice implied ‘or else.’ “Niko, go with your sister.” He gestured toward the door and Leah.
Wait a minute, sister? Were they actually related or did Esteban mean related by lineage? I hoped it was the latter. I’d never heard of siblings being turned together before. Though they did look alike and also looked to be close in age—frozen in their early twenties. It was possible but I couldn’t imagine wanting to follow a brother or sister into vampirism unless the relationship was way closer than usual.

Leah looked like she wanted to object.

Esteban lifted one golden eyebrow and his hands flattened on the desk, rings clicking flatly against the wood. Just that small movement was enough to make it feel like the temperature in the room had dropped. The fog of arousal vanished like I’d been doused in cold water.

Thank God.

From the look on Leah’s face, she felt chilly herself. She headed for the door, then waited for Niko to join her.
A few seconds later the door closed behind them. Silence filled the room. Esteban watched us while we watched him.
Finally I decided to break the stalemate. “Lord Marco asked me to come see you.” Couldn’t hurt to remind Esteban I was under Marco’s protection. “He said you might have a job for me?”

Esteban leaned back in his chair. “For you, not the FBI agent.”

“Dan’s just here to escort me,” I replied carefully. “He’ll keep his mouth shut.” Or so he’d promised.

The assessing expression in Esteban’s blue eyes didn’t change. He was very still. “You two are bonded?”

I glanced at Dan, waiting to see if he would reply. The answer wasn’t entirely straightforward. Werewolves mate for life. And marriage vows are only part of the reason.

The other part is chemical, a physical change within each partner. Bonded mates started to smell the same. Their pheromones change. But there are also similarities in scent that run in pack lines. Dan had been the one who turned me. I had the same strain of lycanthropy as him. Our scents were similar, I knew that. Whether it was due to a true bond hadn’t yet been decided. Or at least, neither of us had exactly pushed to find out from our Alphas what our real status was. At the moment, the emotional connection we shared seemed shaky. I knew I loved Dan but that didn’t mean we could make it work.

“To be determined,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t particularly care while my stomach twisted.

I didn’t know if it was possible for a werewolf to deny the chemical bond once it occurred. Because of the pheromones, a bonded wolf isn’t attractive to other werewolves. Which makes for good harmony within the pack but also limited possibility of divorce.

Unless you decided to date nonwerewolves who wouldn’t be affected by your altered scent. It wasn’t an appealing option. Humans were at risk of infection and I wasn’t willing to do that to anyone. And vampires were just not dating material in my book.

Though apparently my hormones weren’t so convinced of that, at least while under the influence of whatever mojo Esteban had going on. Up until now I hadn’t been sure whether I could still be attracted to other males who weren’t wolves if I was bonded——not that I wanted to be but I had wondered, in the aftermath of one of our fights, what happened to bonded wolves if the relationship crumbled? Were they doomed to celibacy, unable to replace the mate they couldn’t be with? Now I had an answer. Or did I? For all I knew, this could be an exception caused by vamp powers or, maybe, an indication that our bond really was tenuous.

Esteban pursed his lips. “And yet he wants to protect you from the big bad vampire.”

Yes. He did. For which I was very grateful. The state of the bond between Dan and me was something I definitely needed to discuss with Ani. A little girl talk with my Alpha who was tiny and red-headed but could also kick my butt six ways from Sunday if she decided I needed it. Oh goody. But bond or no bond, I knew Dan wouldn’t leave me unprotected.

“Pack protects pack,” I quipped.

Dan was silent beside me. Too silent. I bit my lip again. Sure, I’d asked him to let me do the talking but this was one subject I’d be happy to hear his opinion on. But his silence—— and the tension roiling around him——meant I had no idea whether he was keeping his promise or had nothing to say on the subject. Part of me couldn’t help thinking that maybe it would be easier if we weren’t bonded. Sometimes I got the feeling Dan wished there were other options. Particularly when I did things like make bargains with vampires or risk my life.

Which seemed to be happening a lot lately.

Esteban’s eyes darkened. “Loyalty. It isn’t only the werewolves who understand loyalty.”

“No, of course not.” His sharp tone puzzled me. I hadn’t said anything disparaging about vampire loyalty. There was no reason to. Vampires were generally fanatically loyal to their lineage, obeying the Old Ones of their bloodline and their sires. Though, whether obedience won by the threat of having your head ripped from your body was necessarily loyalty was an interesting philosophical point.

Wider vamp interactions are more Darwinian. Lineages rise and fall with the strength of the Old Ones. Marco currently ruled Seattle and had done so for over a century. But that didn’t mean that one day a younger, more powerful vamp couldn’t take him down.

Vamp eats vamp.

I’d rather be a werewolf. Of course, I’d have preferred being human but Dan had taken that choice away from me when he’d bitten me in an attempt to stop me being turned into a vampire after I’d been given McCallister Tate’s blood. From Dan’s point of view, the gamble had paid off. Lycanthropy had proved more infectious. I was a werewolf now.
I still had issues with that fact but faced with choosing between a rock and a hard place, I’d choose werewolf over vampire any day. Pack politics have the potential to get messy but they were something I still hadn’t experienced a lot of. And, as far as I knew, nobody got killed.

“Does loyalty have something to do with me being here?” It was a guess but at the rate we were going, this conversation was going to take hours.

“The matter is more to do with your area of expertise.”

I frowned. I’d been expecting an accounting problem. But a general accounting problem. I specialized in forensic accounting but I could do the everyday stuff too. Needing my expertise——if he meant forensics——would mean…holy shit, was someone ripping off Esteban? Talk about having a death wish. “You have a financial issue?” Hopefully that was diplomatic.

“There have been…discrepancies.” He looked from me to Dan then back as if wondering how much to say.

I knew that look. I’d sat in countless client meetings where that look had passed between partners or board members or whoever had hired me. Someone was ripping him off. Crap. I schooled my face into my ‘trust me, I’m an accountant’ look. There were two ways this conversation could go. He’d spill the beans or I’d have to gently dig out the facts.
Esteban didn’t speak. Option two it was then. Great. Getting people to talk about fraud was dicey at the best of times. When the client was a vampire who wasn’t known for his scruples, it would be more like trying to tap-dance through a minefield. “And?” I prompted.

“I have need of your services, that is all.” He inclined his head slightly toward Dan and then settled back into vampire stillness.

Whatever the problem was, he clearly wasn’t going to talk in front of Dan. I tried not to let my dismay show. Investigating the finances of vampires was familiar ground for me but my clients weren’t usually as scary as Esteban. I made sure of that. Nor did they dabble in the kind of murky areas he did. I’d been counting on Dan having my back but apparently I was going to have to do this part solo. And frankly, trying to find out who was dumb enough——or, worse, considered themselves invulnerable enough——to try and embezzle from someone like Esteban just wasn’t appealing.
After all, it was poking into Tate’s finances for Dan that had led to me, my aunt and Dan being kidnapped. Not to mention resulting in me being turned into a werewolf, committing murder—though the police had been happy to call it self-defense—and Dan almost dying.

I glanced at Dan. He had his Special Agent face firmly in place but I could smell his unhappiness with the whole situation.

Which meant he was thinking all the same things I was.

That this visit, rather than solving a problem, was creating more. Esteban wouldn’t involve a forensic accountant for a small problem. This had to be big.

Dan had been right. Goodbye frying pan, hello fire.

“Dan, would you wait outside?” I couldn’t believe I was asking him to leave me alone with Esteban. The sudden flare of fury on Dan’s face told me he couldn’t believe it either. But I didn’t see another option. I had to get Esteban to talk.

“No,” Dan said flatly.

I leaned over toward him, put my hand on his leg. Contact always seemed to make things easier. “Please. Just for a few minutes. I’ll be fine.”

I felt rather than heard the growl rumble through him. “Please,” I said again, trying for conciliatory. “Trust me. I’ve done this before.”

“Not with someone like him.” His voice was low, tinged with the wolf.

“I have a lot of vampire clients,” I reminded him. “This is my job. I promise, I’ll yell if I need you.”

I just wanted to get this conversation over and done with. It was after 2 a.m., my pants were starting to cut off the circulation to sensitive parts of my body, and I had a tension headache that there wasn’t enough ibuprofen in the world to cure. I wanted to go home.

Which meant I had to find out exactly what Esteban needed.

“She’ll be perfectly safe,” Esteban said. He smiled at me and, once again, sexual heat seemed to flavor the air.

“You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t find that confidence inspiring,” Dan said. His shoulders were rigid and the smoky tinge of true anger was rising in his scent. “Your ideas of safe are a little different from mine.”

“Shut up.” I hissed. I didn’t need Esteban to get all insulted. Neither of us would be safe if that happened.

Esteban smirked. “I won’t do anything to her she doesn’t want me to.”

This time Dan’s growl was plainly audible. I stood and stepped in front of him to block his view of Esteban. He glared at me.

Touch wasn’t going to help at this point. I could only try and talk him down a little. “Daniel. Please. Wait outside. This will only take a few minutes.”

His lips pressed together. I knew that look. He was going to get stubborn. “You promised,” I mouthed. “Don’t make this worse.”

Fury burned in his eyes but then he got up, pushing past me to stalk to the door. It slammed behind him with a rattling thud that made me fear for the mirrors.

My heart sank. So much for getting rid of my debt making things better between us. But I’d have to worry about that later. Right now, I had to deal with Esteban.

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  • Downloadable excerpts

    Chapter One
    “Ever heard the phrase ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’?” Dan muttered as we stared at the huge, black-mirrored doors.

    “You know, that’s what I love about you, always the optimist,” I said, trying to convince myself there was no reason for my reflection to look so nervous. Beyond the doors subterranean bass pounded, vibrating through my chest like a warning. A warning I had to ignore.

    “We can still leave,” Dan said, sounding calm but looking grim.
    “This will get me off the hook with Lord Marco,” I reminded him. And, frankly, repaying a debt to the oldest vampire in Seattle was the only reason good enough to get me to walk through these particular doors. Into Maelstrom—darkest of the city’s dark clubs—and, even worse, into a meeting with Lord Esteban, the vamp who owned the place.

    Dan frowned, rubbing the fading scar on his right wrist. “It will get you off one hook.”

    Like I needed the reminder that this favor wasn’t all I owed Lord Marco. After all, Dan and I had been fighting about my other debt for six weeks now. The fact that I owed blood to an Old One wasn’t exactly easy to forget. Talk about making a deal with the devil.

    Though I’d done it to save Dan’s life. And some would argue that, for an Old One, and the ruler of Seattle’s vampires, Marco was hardly devilish. From what I’d seen of him, he ruled more with the velvet glove and less with the iron fist. But velvet or not, I was certain that welching on a debt to him would be a bad idea.

    So I was trying to tough it out even though Marco was sending me into the lion’s den, so to speak. I still hadn’t figured out why he’d asked me to assist Lord Esteban—probably his biggest rival for power—to clear my debt. Strange are the ways of vampires.

    I shot Dan a reassuring smile. “Let’s focus on right now, huh? We see what Lord Esteban’s problem is. It can’t be that bad. Marco can’t ask me to do something that could hurt me. That was part of our agreement.”

    I sounded certain. I doubted Dan would buy it but I had to at least try to sound more optimistic than I felt. I tugged at the leather halter I wore, trying to make the pointed edges meet the waist of the matching pants.

    It didn’t work. It hadn’t worked any of the hundred or so times I tried to do the same thing since my assistant, Jase, had kitted me out in the latest in dark club chic. Which equated to sleek black leather and not that much of it.
    I’d wanted to wear body armor.

    Jase said that’d only flag me as fresh meat. In a dark club, that could have an all too literal meaning.

    Hence the dominatrix Barbie look I was sporting. Leather, chains, too much black eyeliner, and wine-red lipstick. Not me at all. Clients tend to like their accountants to wear suits, not spikes and skin. And, speaking as their accountant, I prefer it too.

    Dan had been subjected to Jase’s fashion direction as well. But I liked his outfit. Black leather pants hugged his long legs, outlining every hard-earned muscle, and a thin black T-shirt that was exactly the right degree of tight did the same for his chest.

    I let all that hard male flesh distract me from Esteban for a moment and stepped a little closer, breathing in his scent. “You know, I think you should keep these clothes.”

    One side of his mouth lifted. “Really? What did you have in mind?”

    “How about I tell you later?” I pressed closer to him, felt his heart speed up and saw the smile widen, just a fraction. I was happy to see the smile, even if it was only half an expression. Things between us were kind of strained. Six weeks ago, I’d kind of proposed. And he’d kind of accepted. But that was before he’d found out about Marco and the deals I’d made.

    Before we’d had the mother of all arguments.

    “You should tell me now,” Dan said, smile still lingering. I wished it would stay in place just a bit longer. Since the argument we’d been circling each other warily. He hadn’t produced a ring and there’d been no talk of weddings, despite some not so subtle hints from our pack’s Alphas. What there had been were some spectacular fights and some even more spectacular make-up sex.

    There hadn’t been many smiles. There had been lots of me feeling like I was walking on eggshells and failing miserably to not crush them. Especially since Marco had called in his favor two nights ago.

    I was hoping getting at least one of my debts settled might ease things between us. Get us moving forward again. Maybe give me back some semblance of a normal life.

    “More fun in private,” I said.

    Dan’s smile disappeared. His head turned back to the door. “Private? Ash, inside those doors most people wouldn’t blink an eye if we did it in the middle of the dance floor.” His voice gave no hint of the growling rumble it held when he was happy. Or horny.

    Talk about a mood killer. I stepped back, as the reality of where we were returned. A dark club. Where the crowd played rough in more than one sense of the word.

    BDSM, vampires feeding on willing—and maybe not so willing—victims and other things I didn’t really want to know about. And that was just the public areas.

    The rumors of what went on in the private rooms were nasty. Though they were just rumors. No one had ever successfully prosecuted an owner of a dark club.

    And Lord Esteban was the biggest, baddest owner of them all.

    Maybe Dan was right, maybe I should just go back to Marco and tell him no deal. But then I might just have two pissed off Old Ones on my case. While there was a chance that Marco might be willing to let me off, everything I’d heard about Esteban suggested the concept of letting it slide wasn’t one he was familiar with.

    Marco had always treated me with courtesy but I’d never met Esteban and I couldn’t assume he’d do the same. The one vampire of his lineage I had met hadn’t seemed that friendly. Therefore, backing out was not an option. Even though, not for the first time since Dan had reentered my life, I wished desperately that I could go back to being boring old Ashley Keenan, forensic accountant.

    Not Ashley the werewolf, killer of psychopathic vampires and debtor to Old Ones.

    Sadly that was about as likely to happen as me enjoying the next thirty minutes.

    “We’re going to do this like we agreed, right?” I said, watching Dan’s face. He’d flat out refused to let me come alone. I was happy to have backup but had insisted that he let me do the talking. Cue yet another fight. He’d finally accepted my argument that looking weak in front of Esteban was hardly going to keep me safe. “Dan?”

    I got one short nod and a growled “Fine.” I suddenly felt more eggshells crumbling beneath my feet but there wasn’t anything I could do to fix things right now. So I turned back to the doors, resisting the urge to turn tail and bolt. Instead, instincts screaming at me, I stepped forward and pushed them open.

    Time to ride the whirlwind.

    As we stepped through the doors, the music crashed over us like thunder. I fought the urge to wince. I needed to look tough. Jase had drilled that into me. No backing down or I’d just be inviting trouble. Cringing at the screeching industrial metal assaulting my senses was definitely not tough.

    I squared my shoulders, relying on the nearness of Dan’s scent to know he had my back and moved farther into the club. The darkened space smelled of heat and sweat and too many people in a place that never saw sunshine. The odors of wolf and vampire and human mingled in dizzying jumble of scent that made my nose itch. Underneath it all I smelled fear. And blood. Old and new.

    My throat tightened. The smell was too familiar. I still smelled it in my nightmares—the ones I tried to forget and mostly succeeded—except when something triggered the memories all over again. Like the scent of blood.
    No freaking out allowed. I tried to breathe through my mouth and slow my heartbeat. No point acting tough when most of the people around you can hear your heart pounding with fear.

    As my eyes adjusted to the lack of the light—one advantage of being a werewolf—I tried to get the lay of the vast room. Bodies packed a huge central dance floor, twisting and writhing to the relentless music. Ultraviolet lights shone down from weird angles, turning skin unnatural shades of gray and purple, making it difficult to make out individual features. In the middle of the dance floor was a raised square platform. Empty. Thank God for small mercies. I had no desire to take in the sort of floorshow a dark club might offer.

    Spiky-looking metal tables of various heights formed an uneven square around the dancers. To our left a steep metal staircase led up to the metal-railed balcony ringing the room. According to Marco, we’d find Esteban’s office upstairs. Apparently the entrance to the private areas of the club was up there too. The areas I really didn’t want to see.

    Any more than I wanted to meet Lord Esteban. The thought of climbing those stairs suddenly felt as inviting as walking the plank. I was all too aware that there were many, many sharks circling.

    The music tore at my ears, full of weird dissonances my brain translated as screams. Steeling myself, I started forward then stopped as a man and a woman stepped into my path. They looked at me and smiled with a nasty sort of anticipation that made my spine stiffen. I didn’t smile back.

    Dan moved up behind me and I let myself relax a little. I wasn’t here alone.

    The guy cocked his bald head at me, one hand tucked into the waistband of his way too tight jeans. The jeans were the only thing he was wearing. Which meant I had an eyeful of unnaturally smooth chest. His nipple ring looked almost neon purple in the lights. The barely-there top the too-thin too-bleached blonde at his side wore revealed a matching piercing.

    “Want to play?” Baldy’s voice was as unattractive as the rest of him, squeaky and grating all at once.

    Ugh. “Not really.” I tried to move past and he grabbed my arm. I snarled, heard an echoing growl from Dan, but the guy’s big hand remained clamped around my bicep. I sucked in a breath. He smelt human—plain old sweat, cheap vodka and cheaper aftershave. I could deal with him. “You might want to reconsider.”

    His fingers tightened. “Am I hurting you?”

    He was, a little. Probably not as much as he wanted to. I narrowed my eyes at him, hoping he’d get the message. I didn’t have time for this. His girlfriend scowled at me and I almost laughed. She wasn’t even close to the most intimidating thing I’d seen recently. “You should pick your targets a little more carefully,” I said, then yanked my arm out of his grip.

    His eyes widened. Obviously he hadn’t picked up that I was a were. “Bitch.”

    Dan rumbled again behind me and I held up a hand, smiling at Baldy. “You got that right,” I said and shoved him aside with enough force to send him and his lady skank tumbling backward.

    “Let’s go,” I said to Dan, moving toward the stairs, trying to avoid body contact with any more patrons. I half-heard a commotion behind me and turned just in time to see idiot boy launch himself at Dan who promptly backhanded him, sending him crashing to the floor. This time he had the sense to stay down. No one moved to help him up, not even Blondie who’d staggered to her feet and was ruining her makeup with shocked sobs.

    Dan and I moved on through the mass of clubbers. A lot of them wore a lot less than either of us. Chains and spikes featured heavily, as did piercings in places that hurt to think about. I paused to let a woman leading a half-naked guy by a heavy chain attached to a collar move past me. Both of them turned their heads to look at me, the woman blowing me a kiss through blackened lips.

    But it was the guy who had my attention. The lower half of his face was covered by a—well, you could only call it a muzzle, the leather fastening behind his head, hiding his mouth. Silvery mesh left a small breathing hole and elaborate silver designs mimicked fangs around the space. On the face of things, it wasn’t any creepier than half the outfits in the place but something about him made my stomach twist uneasily. I froze, watching them until they disappeared into the crowd.

    It took an effort to move forward again and almost immediately a tall black man stepped into my path. “Where you going, pretty?” His head was shaved and his clothes were a dark, dark red, if my eyes were translating the weird light correctly.

    I suppressed a shiver. I hated being called pretty. When I’d been held prisoner by McCallister Tate—the psychopathic vampire who’d killed my family—his henchmen had called me that. “To see Lord Esteban.”

    He put his hands on his hips, effectively blocking the stairs. I stared at him, not sure if he was vamp or human. The crowd was thicker here and there were too many scents hitting my nose, too many bodies close by, for me to know which one was his.

    He smiled unpleasantly, revealing fangs. Mystery solved. “You expected?”

    “Yes. I have an appointment.” I waited, praying I wasn’t about to have confrontation number two. I still had Esteban ahead of me. Another fight might just use up all the acting tough I could muster. But hopefully, if this guy worked for Esteban then he had to treat Esteban’s guests courteously.

    Finally he stepped aside. “Enjoy.” His tone suggested this was unlikely.

    So did my brain.

    I put my hand on the banister. Then snatched it back as my palm started to burn.

    “Silver chips in the paint,” the vampire said from behind me. Amusement laced his voice.

    What kind of idiot put silver chips in the paint when some of the clientele were shifters?

    “Just keep climbing.”

    Dan’s voice was right in my ear. I did what he suggested, ignoring the fading pain in my hand.

    “Silver in the paint?” I whispered to him as we climbed, both avoiding contact with the banisters. It wasn’t that easy. The stairs were steep with large gaps between the treads, making it very tempting to cling to something for support.

    “Some people like pain.”

    Dan’s tone was matter of fact. I felt like an idiot. I knew what went on in the dark clubs. I knew what BDSM was. And Dan and I had put his handcuffs to nonofficial uses from time to time when he’d been a cop. But the stuff that went on here was way, way beyond. I’d never understand someone wanting to be hurt.

    Pain was bad. And I’d had enough of it to last more than a lifetime.

    So what the hell was I doing here?

    Trying to get things back to normal. Right. Wearing leather and surrounded by freaks. I bit my lip. No point panicking. This should be simple. It was probably an accounting problem—I couldn’t think of anything else Marco would think I could help Esteban with—and I ate accounting problems for breakfast. So poof. Deal with the big bad vamp’s finances, repay my debt to the other big bad vamp in the process and everything would be fine.

    Just fine.

    The door to Esteban’s office, like those leading into Maelstrom, was a black mirror. My reflection still looked nervous. The music had faded to a dull roar but that only meant I could pick up other sounds. Groans. Screams. And dull thwacks that had to be the sound of leather hitting flesh. I swallowed, hard.

    “We can still leave. I can sort Marco out,” Dan said. His reflection didn’t look any happier than mine.

    Any sorting out Dan did with Marco was likely to get ugly. A werewolf-vampire political blow-up, if not actual violence, was not my idea of returning to normality. “If it’s not this, it could be something worse.” I wasn’t sure what worse might be. But I was sure that I wanted to deal with at least one of my obligations to Marco.

    Just like any other business meeting, I told myself as I pasted on my polite and professional face, lifted my hand and rapped on the glass.

    The door swung open silently, revealing a woman in the doorway. One I knew. A vampire named Leah who was high up in Esteban’s organization. She’d been at Marco’s when I’d made my deal.

    She hadn’t liked me then and her expression suggested her opinion hadn’t changed. “Ms. Keenan.”

    “Hello, Leah.” I nodded at her, trying to be polite. The long dark green dress snaking around her body made her skin look very pale, and her lips very red. Like she’d just fed.

    She didn’t acknowledge the greeting. Instead she looked past me to Dan. “Who is this?”

    “Daniel Gibson,” I said.

    Her dark eyebrows shot up. “The FBI agent? From the Supernatural Taskforce?” The last words were a sneer.

    “Yes. But he’s not here in an official capacity.”

    “We do not let the FBI come sniffing around.” She put one hand on the doorframe, blocking our way.

    Well, no. Not if half the stuff said about dark clubs was true. But I didn’t want to get into a pissing match with Leah. So I played my trump card. “I said, not in an official capacity. Lord Marco said I could bring him.” Marco was the oldest Old One in the city. Esteban had to do what he said.

    “Let them in, Leah.” The words came in a low golden rumble that brushed up my spine and somehow reminded me how little clothing I was wearing, as if a warm breeze had blown past me.

    I didn’t like my reaction. Leah blocked my view of the speaker, so I couldn’t see who it was but the voice was very much used to being in command. When Leah melted out of our way without protest I knew it could only be one person.
    Esteban.

    Curiosity warred with caution as I walked into the office, Dan on my heels. Marco had been nothing like I’d expected an Old One to be—less of the pain and terror and more of the charm and honor. I wondered whether Esteban would surprise me as well.

    When I saw the man—vampire behind the desk, surprise wasn’t quite the word. A lot of vampires are good-looking. Whether it’s because they like to pick pretty prey or because they can use some of their abilities to make you think they’re attractive, I’ve never been quite sure.

    Lord Marco was gorgeous, in a suave, Italian, charming male model sort of way.

    No one would call this man gorgeous or even handsome, really. No. He was something far more primal than that.

    He wore black. Black shirt, black tie, black suit. Which only made the golden tones of his skin and hair gleam brighter. His eyes were a blaze of blue and his face was chiseled. It should’ve added up to All American boy. But, what it actually added up to was sex. Sensuality rolled off him like a wave.

    My stomach tightened in response then heat flared through me. Dan growled low in his throat. Apparently I wasn’t the only one affected.

    Which meant the sex scenting the air was some sort of vampire power. My throat clamped closed and I had to remind myself to breathe as I tried to see the reality of a nice- looking guy rather than the silky steam and seduction he projected.

    “Ms. Keenan.” He rose from his chair with a nod. Ornate, heavy chased silver rings glinted from each finger breaking up all that gold and black. “Why don’t you take a seat?”

    It wasn’t a suggestion. More like an invitation wrapped around a command. Now that I was close to him, the voice sounded even better. The deep rumbles seemed to promise all sorts of rewards if you just did what it asked. And you wanted to do what it asked. I took a step toward him before I knew it.

    Which made me want to get the hell out of there. I’d had a vampire seduce my mind once and he’d had to thrall me to do it. I wasn’t so sure Esteban would need to go that far.

    Sweat broke out on my back, nerves shrilling at me to run. My mouth dried as I tried to back up a little.

    My logical side told me to stay put.

    Damn. I didn’t need any more complications. I stayed still for a few seconds, debating once again whether I should leave even though I knew I couldn’t. All the time, feeling a pull toward Esteban like a tide.

    Esteban watched me, and the amusement in his eyes told me he knew exactly what I was fighting. Luckily I’d had a fair bit of practice in controlling my instincts and urges the last few months. I stood my ground, just long enough to make it clear I was moving under my own free will, and then took another step.

    Dan’s hand pressed into the small of my back possessively as I moved toward the chairs arrayed in front of the desk.

    His touch didn’t help me suppress the heat curling through me but he wouldn’t take it well if I shrugged him off. I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t a sexy guy in front of me, it was a vampire.

    One with a nasty reputation.

    Esteban still looked amused.

    The closer we got, the stronger the pull to move closer still. No wonder his clubs were successful. You’d just need Esteban to walk through the room and people would be panting.

    As I neared the chair, another vampire appeared beside me, pulling it back for me. I jumped then did a double take when I got a look at his face. If Marco was all charm and Esteban was pure sex then this guy was sheer beauty.
    The kind to make painters weep and women sigh.

    Like Leah, he was dark. Deep brown hair, skin a deeper olive gold than Esteban’s and eyes darker than the hair. None of which conveyed the utter perfection of his face.

    He smiled while I gaped at him. I sank into the deep leather seat and his gaze sharpened as he turned his attention to Dan. He walked around me, smooth vamp gait making it look like he almost floated, and pulled a chair out for Dan as well.

    “Why don’t you sit?” he asked in a tone close to a purr. The voice was almost as sleek as his gray suit. Dan stared at him, face unreadable.

    “Niko, don’t play with our guests,” Esteban said.

    The vamp slanted a glance at Dan then shrugged a shoulder and backed away. Dan’s shoulders relaxed a little and he sat. Though he stayed perched on the edge of the chair, eyes scanning the room.

    Ready for action.

    I straightened as well, trying to watch where Niko had gone out of the corner of my eye.

    “He will behave.” Esteban’s voice implied ‘or else.’ “Niko, go with your sister.” He gestured toward the door and Leah.
    Wait a minute, sister? Were they actually related or did Esteban mean related by lineage? I hoped it was the latter. I’d never heard of siblings being turned together before. Though they did look alike and also looked to be close in age—frozen in their early twenties. It was possible but I couldn’t imagine wanting to follow a brother or sister into vampirism unless the relationship was way closer than usual.

    Leah looked like she wanted to object.

    Esteban lifted one golden eyebrow and his hands flattened on the desk, rings clicking flatly against the wood. Just that small movement was enough to make it feel like the temperature in the room had dropped. The fog of arousal vanished like I’d been doused in cold water.

    Thank God.

    From the look on Leah’s face, she felt chilly herself. She headed for the door, then waited for Niko to join her.
    A few seconds later the door closed behind them. Silence filled the room. Esteban watched us while we watched him.
    Finally I decided to break the stalemate. “Lord Marco asked me to come see you.” Couldn’t hurt to remind Esteban I was under Marco’s protection. “He said you might have a job for me?”

    Esteban leaned back in his chair. “For you, not the FBI agent.”

    “Dan’s just here to escort me,” I replied carefully. “He’ll keep his mouth shut.” Or so he’d promised.

    The assessing expression in Esteban’s blue eyes didn’t change. He was very still. “You two are bonded?”

    I glanced at Dan, waiting to see if he would reply. The answer wasn’t entirely straightforward. Werewolves mate for life. And marriage vows are only part of the reason.

    The other part is chemical, a physical change within each partner. Bonded mates started to smell the same. Their pheromones change. But there are also similarities in scent that run in pack lines. Dan had been the one who turned me. I had the same strain of lycanthropy as him. Our scents were similar, I knew that. Whether it was due to a true bond hadn’t yet been decided. Or at least, neither of us had exactly pushed to find out from our Alphas what our real status was. At the moment, the emotional connection we shared seemed shaky. I knew I loved Dan but that didn’t mean we could make it work.

    “To be determined,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t particularly care while my stomach twisted.

    I didn’t know if it was possible for a werewolf to deny the chemical bond once it occurred. Because of the pheromones, a bonded wolf isn’t attractive to other werewolves. Which makes for good harmony within the pack but also limited possibility of divorce.

    Unless you decided to date nonwerewolves who wouldn’t be affected by your altered scent. It wasn’t an appealing option. Humans were at risk of infection and I wasn’t willing to do that to anyone. And vampires were just not dating material in my book.

    Though apparently my hormones weren’t so convinced of that, at least while under the influence of whatever mojo Esteban had going on. Up until now I hadn’t been sure whether I could still be attracted to other males who weren’t wolves if I was bonded——not that I wanted to be but I had wondered, in the aftermath of one of our fights, what happened to bonded wolves if the relationship crumbled? Were they doomed to celibacy, unable to replace the mate they couldn’t be with? Now I had an answer. Or did I? For all I knew, this could be an exception caused by vamp powers or, maybe, an indication that our bond really was tenuous.

    Esteban pursed his lips. “And yet he wants to protect you from the big bad vampire.”

    Yes. He did. For which I was very grateful. The state of the bond between Dan and me was something I definitely needed to discuss with Ani. A little girl talk with my Alpha who was tiny and red-headed but could also kick my butt six ways from Sunday if she decided I needed it. Oh goody. But bond or no bond, I knew Dan wouldn’t leave me unprotected.

    “Pack protects pack,” I quipped.

    Dan was silent beside me. Too silent. I bit my lip again. Sure, I’d asked him to let me do the talking but this was one subject I’d be happy to hear his opinion on. But his silence—— and the tension roiling around him——meant I had no idea whether he was keeping his promise or had nothing to say on the subject. Part of me couldn’t help thinking that maybe it would be easier if we weren’t bonded. Sometimes I got the feeling Dan wished there were other options. Particularly when I did things like make bargains with vampires or risk my life.

    Which seemed to be happening a lot lately.

    Esteban’s eyes darkened. “Loyalty. It isn’t only the werewolves who understand loyalty.”

    “No, of course not.” His sharp tone puzzled me. I hadn’t said anything disparaging about vampire loyalty. There was no reason to. Vampires were generally fanatically loyal to their lineage, obeying the Old Ones of their bloodline and their sires. Though, whether obedience won by the threat of having your head ripped from your body was necessarily loyalty was an interesting philosophical point.

    Wider vamp interactions are more Darwinian. Lineages rise and fall with the strength of the Old Ones. Marco currently ruled Seattle and had done so for over a century. But that didn’t mean that one day a younger, more powerful vamp couldn’t take him down.

    Vamp eats vamp.

    I’d rather be a werewolf. Of course, I’d have preferred being human but Dan had taken that choice away from me when he’d bitten me in an attempt to stop me being turned into a vampire after I’d been given McCallister Tate’s blood. From Dan’s point of view, the gamble had paid off. Lycanthropy had proved more infectious. I was a werewolf now.
    I still had issues with that fact but faced with choosing between a rock and a hard place, I’d choose werewolf over vampire any day. Pack politics have the potential to get messy but they were something I still hadn’t experienced a lot of. And, as far as I knew, nobody got killed.

    “Does loyalty have something to do with me being here?” It was a guess but at the rate we were going, this conversation was going to take hours.

    “The matter is more to do with your area of expertise.”

    I frowned. I’d been expecting an accounting problem. But a general accounting problem. I specialized in forensic accounting but I could do the everyday stuff too. Needing my expertise——if he meant forensics——would mean…holy shit, was someone ripping off Esteban? Talk about having a death wish. “You have a financial issue?” Hopefully that was diplomatic.

    “There have been…discrepancies.” He looked from me to Dan then back as if wondering how much to say.

    I knew that look. I’d sat in countless client meetings where that look had passed between partners or board members or whoever had hired me. Someone was ripping him off. Crap. I schooled my face into my ‘trust me, I’m an accountant’ look. There were two ways this conversation could go. He’d spill the beans or I’d have to gently dig out the facts.
    Esteban didn’t speak. Option two it was then. Great. Getting people to talk about fraud was dicey at the best of times. When the client was a vampire who wasn’t known for his scruples, it would be more like trying to tap-dance through a minefield. “And?” I prompted.

    “I have need of your services, that is all.” He inclined his head slightly toward Dan and then settled back into vampire stillness.

    Whatever the problem was, he clearly wasn’t going to talk in front of Dan. I tried not to let my dismay show. Investigating the finances of vampires was familiar ground for me but my clients weren’t usually as scary as Esteban. I made sure of that. Nor did they dabble in the kind of murky areas he did. I’d been counting on Dan having my back but apparently I was going to have to do this part solo. And frankly, trying to find out who was dumb enough——or, worse, considered themselves invulnerable enough——to try and embezzle from someone like Esteban just wasn’t appealing.
    After all, it was poking into Tate’s finances for Dan that had led to me, my aunt and Dan being kidnapped. Not to mention resulting in me being turned into a werewolf, committing murder—though the police had been happy to call it self-defense—and Dan almost dying.

    I glanced at Dan. He had his Special Agent face firmly in place but I could smell his unhappiness with the whole situation.

    Which meant he was thinking all the same things I was.

    That this visit, rather than solving a problem, was creating more. Esteban wouldn’t involve a forensic accountant for a small problem. This had to be big.

    Dan had been right. Goodbye frying pan, hello fire.

    “Dan, would you wait outside?” I couldn’t believe I was asking him to leave me alone with Esteban. The sudden flare of fury on Dan’s face told me he couldn’t believe it either. But I didn’t see another option. I had to get Esteban to talk.

    “No,” Dan said flatly.

    I leaned over toward him, put my hand on his leg. Contact always seemed to make things easier. “Please. Just for a few minutes. I’ll be fine.”

    I felt rather than heard the growl rumble through him. “Please,” I said again, trying for conciliatory. “Trust me. I’ve done this before.”

    “Not with someone like him.” His voice was low, tinged with the wolf.

    “I have a lot of vampire clients,” I reminded him. “This is my job. I promise, I’ll yell if I need you.”

    I just wanted to get this conversation over and done with. It was after 2 a.m., my pants were starting to cut off the circulation to sensitive parts of my body, and I had a tension headache that there wasn’t enough ibuprofen in the world to cure. I wanted to go home.

    Which meant I had to find out exactly what Esteban needed.

    “She’ll be perfectly safe,” Esteban said. He smiled at me and, once again, sexual heat seemed to flavor the air.

    “You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t find that confidence inspiring,” Dan said. His shoulders were rigid and the smoky tinge of true anger was rising in his scent. “Your ideas of safe are a little different from mine.”

    “Shut up.” I hissed. I didn’t need Esteban to get all insulted. Neither of us would be safe if that happened.

    Esteban smirked. “I won’t do anything to her she doesn’t want me to.”

    This time Dan’s growl was plainly audible. I stood and stepped in front of him to block his view of Esteban. He glared at me.

    Touch wasn’t going to help at this point. I could only try and talk him down a little. “Daniel. Please. Wait outside. This will only take a few minutes.”

    His lips pressed together. I knew that look. He was going to get stubborn. “You promised,” I mouthed. “Don’t make this worse.”

    Fury burned in his eyes but then he got up, pushing past me to stalk to the door. It slammed behind him with a rattling thud that made me fear for the mirrors.

    My heart sank. So much for getting rid of my debt making things better between us. But I’d have to worry about that later. Right now, I had to deal with Esteban.