Beauty Dates the Beast
Chapter One M
idnight Liaisons,” I said as I cradled the office phone to my ear. “This is Bathsheba. How can I help you?”
“Hi,” the man breathed nervously into the other end of the phone. “I’m looking for … company. Tonight. Maybe a redhead.”
I winced. There was no way to misunderstand what he was looking for, as he’d clearly stated “redhead” in a rather obvious (and breathy) fashion. We got at least one of these kinds of calls a day, and I’d become an old hand at deflecting the creepiness of misguided callers. “Midnight Liaisons is a dating service, sir. Not an escort service.” Now please, never call again.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that’s fine. How can I access your website to look at the dating profiles? It won’t give me a password.”
“The password is your Alliance ID number,” I said, my voice effortlessly pleasant from years of answering questionable phone calls. “Or I can check your credentials and get you set up with a temporary log-in. If you can tell me who your pack leader is, I’d be more than happy to send through the background check—”
Definitely a civilian on the line. A “natural,” as my boss liked to joke around the office. I decided to play dumb anyhow. “If you don’t have a pack leader … perhaps your master?” If this guy was familiar with undead society at all, he’d catch the hint.
“Coven? Fey king?” I couldn’t resist. “High lord?”
“What are you talking about, lady?” The man on the other end of the line had lost his patience. Gone was the smarmy tone, replaced by your typical, run-of-the-mill angry customer. Except he definitely wasn’t one of our
“I’m sorry,” I said in my most sugary voice. “But Midnight Liaisons has an exclusive clientele. Our dating service is open to referrals from current clients only. Have a nice day, sir—”
“Now just a minute,” the man began, but I hung up on him anyway. The chances of him ever becoming a client were slim to none, unless he had the
luck to run into a vampire looking for a new friend.
From the back of the room, Sara snickered as she typed at her desk. “You always get the weird ones.”
“Of course I do,” I said, turning in my chair to glance at her. Sara’s gaze was glued to her screen, but she had a smile on her face. “We get weird calls because the company name sounds like an escort service. And I get them because you’re
not answering the phone.”
“I’m busy,” she said, but her mouth quirked.
“Part of your job is to answer the phone,” I retorted, exasperated. “I’m the office manager! If anyone shouldn’t have to answer the phone, it’s me.”
“But you’re so good at it,” Sara soothed me, grinning. “I’m not half as patient with the freaks as you are.”
Sara just laughed. Seeing as how she’s my baby sister, she got away with just about everything. She flipped through the slender stack of profiles on her desk. “Midnight Liaisons is a stupid name, but what else would you call a dating service that caters exclusively to the paranormal?”
“Bangs for Fangs? Flea-Collared Submissives?” I quipped, turning back to my screen to get rid of the flashing pop-up reminding me to log the call into the database. “Fresh Meat for Deadbeats?”
Sara made a small noise of dismay. “You’re
too hard on them. Not everyone who has a tail is a jerk.”
I winced. That was careless of me. “Sorry,” I said, keeping my voice light and playful. “You know I didn’t mean that. The hours are strange, the clients are even stranger, but I like it here.”
It was true—my job paid well, I ran the office like it was my own, and I got to watch over my baby sister twenty-four hours a day, ensuring her safety. Life was good, if a little strange.
My job was to set up new profiles and match up clients, in addition to running the office. Sara’s job was to check in with our clients to see that dates were still on, to follow up after the date to ensure everyone enjoyed themselves, and to update profiles with “exclusive” status if necessary. It was the easiest job in our small office. She usually finished it within hours and then flipped her computer over to gaming mode, spending the rest of the day playing Warcraft.
Across the room, Sara sucked in a breath. “Oh, shit
I turned to glance back at her again. “What’s wrong?”
“Profile #2674, that’s what’s wrong,” she said anxiously.
Oh, boy. I didn’t even have to access the profile to know who it was. “What’s Rosie done now?”
Rosie cancelled on dates regularly, was aggressive
as hell, and had given more than one guy trouble—and not just the flea-and-tick variety. Some guys were into it; they expected a werewolf chick to be fiery and aggressive.
Everyone in our office hated her.
“What’s she done now?” I repeated, anticipating the complaint call certain to come in.
“She’s cancelled a date with a cat shifter through the website.” Sara raked through her short, swingy brown bob, scattering the fine strands across her cheeks. “Don’t worry, I can handle it.”
I stared at Sara’s stiff posture with alarm, watching her arms for any telltale sproutings of fur. When Sara panicked, she really
panicked, and it was my job to calm her down and take care of the situation. Her life depended on it.
I made my voice soothing. “Why is that an ‘oh shit’ problem? Rosie always cancels on the cats.”
We had a string of complaints in her file a mile long. If someone cancelled on a date, they were charged an inconvenience fee. But our boss, Giselle, always waived her fees, and Rosie abused the privilege. I suspected that Rosie and Giselle had some hidden agreement beyond the standard contract, but I wasn’t about to ask.
The only reason Rosie was still allowed in the dating service was because the pool of female Alliance members was so small compared to the male
membership. Especially ones as attractive and willing to date as Rosie. We couldn’t afford to lose her; she was brisk business. So we put a note on her profile that she preferred canine dates in the hope of deterring some clients. It didn’t deter many.
“But this isn’t just any
cat shifter,” Sara said as I headed over to her desk. Her eyes flicked back and forth across the screen. “He’s a new account. One of the Russells. And his account is flagged.”
A flag meant that someone was powerful and dangerous, and not to piss them off or the boss would do terrible things to us. It also meant Giselle had circumvented the regular setup process and had set this account up herself. She had a vested interest in its success.
We’d learned long ago not to mess with the flagged accounts. Not if we valued our jobs.
“Oh boy,” I breathed. “Do I need to call Giselle about the cancellation?”
Giselle was the siren who had started Midnight Liaisons; she was a bit of a hard-ass. She wouldn’t be pleased when she found out Rosie had screwed with a flagged account.
“Hell, no,” Sara said, looking at me as if I’d grown another head. She hunched over the keyboard and began to type frantically. “I can handle this. Just give me a minute.”
“Sara,” I warned, concerned about her reaction.
“We need to be careful when it comes to the flagged accounts. Let me call Giselle and see how she wants to handle it.”
“No way. I’m fixing this,” she said as she typed furiously, her gaze fixed on the screen. “Give me five minutes and I can fake a database failure and wipe out all the records for the past twenty-four hours—”
“Sara! Jeezus, no!” I tried to grab her wrists, but my little sister was quicker than me. “Don’t you touch the database. You’re going to hose every single record that’s been updated since the last backup. Don’t touch anything
. I’m calling Giselle.”
I moved back to my desk and flipped through my interoffice directory. Giselle was on vacation, so I needed her cell number. I hated the thought of calling her and disturbing her while she was out, but I hated the thought of her firing me even more. And she was sure to fire someone if she figured out that we’d somehow messed up a flagged account. I dialed.
“This is Giselle,” said a throaty voice.
“Gis! Hi! I—”
“I’m in Vegas right now, and you’re not,” the recording continued. “And I can’t make it to the phone right now. I’m a bit … tied up.” A sultry laugh. “If this is work-related, it can wait until I get back. Otherwise, leave a message.”
The voice mail beeped. I hung up. I’d made
the mistake of leaving a message once and she’d chewed me out and threatened my job. I knew better than to do it again. When one of Giselle’s rich boyfriends took her away for the weekend, she did not
like to be disturbed.
Back to square one, then.
“If we lose the account, we’re in deep shit, Bath,” Sara said. “She’s going to fire me.”
I was afraid she was right. Not only did Giselle have a sensitive (read: tenuous) relationship with the Russell clan, but she also had little tolerance for humans. The only reason she staffed her business with quiet, “normal” girls like Sara and me was because we could work all hours of the day and were forbidden to date the clientele. Giselle’s circle of friends was limited by things like daylight and a full moon.
Sara turned her worried gaze to me. “What are we going to do?”
I moved to the back of the office and leaned over Sara’s desk, determined to take control of the situation. “Okay. Let’s figure this out. Pull up Rosie’s profile. See if she logged where she was heading with her Russell date tonight.”
Midnight Liaisons strictly monitored the activities of clients. The date, time, and location of a date were recorded and detailed, for their protection as well as ours. You never knew when an
interspecies war was going to break out because someone had dated someone else’s bitch. Literally.
Sara’s fingers tapped on the keyboard, and then she whistled. “She logged it, all right. Dinner at Un Peu de Goût and a couple of nights at the Worthington afterwards.”
“Dinner and a private party, eh?” Rosie moved in faster circles than most girls, human or otherwise. Still, she had good taste, and the restaurant was pricey. At least she was getting this guy to treat her right.
The phone on my desk rang again. I automatically went over to pick it up. “Midnight Liaisons. How may I help you?”
“Yes,” the man on the line said in a fake gruff voice. “I’d like a date tonight. A redhead.”
Him again. Now was not
the time. I rolled my eyes and hung up the phone, then went back to Sara’s desk. “Pull up the Russell’s account again.”
The phone rang.
Now I was starting to get irritated. We rarely had so many calls so close together, and it almost never happened before dark, which was our busy period due to the vampires waking up. Since it was midafternoon, it meant the freak was probably calling back again.
Time to fix this. I marched back to my desk. “Give me a moment, Sara, and we’ll figure this
out.” The phone rang a second and third time before I picked it up and answered in my breathiest voice. “Midnight Liaisons. If you keep calling us, you fucking pervert, I’m going to call the cops and tell them you’re soliciting our business for sex.”
A deep laugh rumbled through the receiver—most definitely not my last caller. Warmth flooded through my body at the liquid sound, and I felt my face flushing at the sensation.
“Do you call all your customers perverts,” the man asked, “or am I just lucky?”
I bit my lip. “I’m sorry. I thought you were—never mind. How can I help you, sir?”
“I have a bit of a problem,” he said in a delicious voice, pleasant and smooth. “I had a very important date tonight and she just cancelled on me.”
My heart sank. “What is your profile number, sir?”
He gave it to me and I typed it into the system, though I already knew what it would show. Rosie’s date.
The caller’s profile pulled up. Leader of the Russell clan—oh, hell—
and very much a VIP with our service. No picture in the database, and his history was brief, his profile number brand-new. He hadn’t used our service before setting up the date with Rosie. My superseductive caller was apparently named Beau Russell. I’d bet he was
absolutely gorgeous. Tall, blond, and handsome, to match his cougar genes. A sensual face to match the sinful voice. And lots of muscles.
“You got quiet over there, sweetheart.” He paused, then said in a low voice, “You see my problem?”
That pulled me back to earth. I quit picturing the client’s abs and tapped on my mouse, my cheeks hot. “I see Rosie Smith cancelled on your date, correct,” I said. “And I’m not your sweetheart.”
“Rosie agreed to spend the week with me,” he said, his words easy, as if he couldn’t imagine there being a problem. “It’s vital that I have a companion through Sunday.”
Irritation flashed through me. The gall of shifters, always talking down to humans. “Well then, sir, I would suggest next time that you examine your date’s profile a little closer. If you had looked at Rosie’s date history, you would have seen she has a few bad habits, like accepting dates from cat shifters and then dumping them at the last minute. A bit of simple research could have avoided this heartache.” Realizing my tone was a bit unsympathetic, I tacked on a “sir.”
He chuckled low in his throat at my tart lecture. “You’ll have to forgive me for not being too familiar with your website.” His voice thrummed low in my ear. “I’m not used to searching for women online.”
No, I’d bet not. If he was half as sexy as his voice, they’d be falling all over him on a regular basis.
“Regardless,” he continued, “we need to fix this. Is Giselle in? Should I talk to her?”
I ignored the last two questions. Obviously he was on good terms with my boss. Obviously this was bad news for me. “I can’t force Rosie to go out with you, sir.”
“Call me Beau,” he said, the inflection in his voice changing to coaxing. It made my thighs quiver traitorously. “And if Rosie won’t go out with me, I need you to find me another date.”
I brightened. “I can do that.” Piece of cake. Tucking the phone against my shoulder, I began to type, entering his number and today’s date into the profile generator. “Give me just a moment and I’ll go through the database. I’m sure we can find you someone on short notice.”
“No vampires,” he said, “or any sort of un-dead.” Then he paused. “What’s your
I typed his search criteria into the system with a frown. The whole “no undead” thing limited my search by a lot. Female shifters were rare, and if I counted out both men and undead, we might have a problem getting someone for tonight—let alone the next week. “My name is Bathsheba Ward,” I said absently, crossing my fingers as I waited for the profile results to pull up.
Just as I gave him my name, the door to the office rang and a gorgeous man walked in, a pair of sunglasses obscuring his eyes.
My jaw dropped. He was beautiful—tall, dark, tanned. His suit was expensive, and he grinned and flashed pearly white teeth at me. Even at my desk, I could smell the thick musk of his cologne. A bit heavy, but typical of the confident sorts.
Sara immediately got up and went back to the filing room, as she always did when a shifter entered the building. I smelled the powdery stink of the perfume she was dousing her pulse points with, the smell overpowering and cloying when combined with the stranger’s cologne.
The man must have come in for a new profile setup. Giselle preferred that I handle those in person, and I raised a finger to my customer, indicating that I needed a moment.
He nodded and sat down directly across from my desk, eyeing me with interest.
I felt the heat rise in my cheeks and hit the Enter key a few more times, just to distract myself. Look busy, look busy.
“Bathsheba?” The man on the phone sounded amused, and I had to drag my attention back to the phone call. “That’s a mouthful for a modern girl. Are you a vamp?”
Intensely uncomfortable, I flipped through
some files on my desk, avoiding the scrutiny of the man across from me. “If I were a vampire,” I said lightly, “I’d be burnt toast right now since it’s midday.” Sunlight poured in from the window behind my desk, and the entire front of the strip-mall office was windows. “I’m human. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Oh, I’m not disappointed,” he said in a low voice that made my toes curl.
Between the phone call and the man across from me—who looked altogether too interested in my conversation—I was going to die of embarrassment.
My search results finally came in and the computer pinged at me. Thank God.
One lone, lousy profile popped up on my screen. “It looks like we’ve found you a good match, Beau,” I said, turning on the sales pitch. “Lorraina Murphy happens to be free tonight, and she’s very interested in dating all kinds of shifters, according to her profile.”
He made a rumbling sound of assent. “And what is she?”
“A shifter,” I said evasively.
“What kind?” he pressed.
An uncomfortable pause. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that.”
I held back a sigh, knowing where this was headed. “Harpy.”
The man across from me smiled.
There was a pause on the phone, as there always was when the harpy’s profile came up. Then, very softly, he said, “I’m not going to go out with a harpy, Bathsheba.”
I couldn’t blame the man. Harpies had a bit of a reputation. They gave psycho-girlfriend new meaning. They tended to get unhinged over small stuff, and then things got really ugly. Shit hit the wall, no joke. “We have a doppelganger on file,” I said desperately. “Jean can pose as a man or a woman, depending on your needs.”
The phone grew very quiet.
Then, “Bathsheba, are you married?” God, his voice sounded sexier than ever. Say yes. Lie and say you are married
. “No,” I breathed. “I’m not.” I didn’t dare look up at the man across from me; too bad I couldn’t hide under my desk.
“No.” My personal life was way too complicated to even think about throwing a boyfriend into the mix. Worried, I glanced at the doorway to the filing room, but I didn’t see Sara. I hoped she was all right.
“Then it sounds like you’re my date, doesn’t it?”
“What?” I sputtered, then immediately threw the standard rejection at him. “The Paranormal
Alliance doesn’t permit human/supe dating unless allowed by a special visa.”
“I’ve got lawyers. Leave the details to me.”
“Mr. Russell,” I said, desperate, “I don’t date clients.”
The man across from me sat up and leaned forward, as if his interest had sparked. He murmured, “That’s a real shame.”
My face couldn’t possibly get any redder. Not. Humanly. Possible.
“Make an exception—or let me talk to Giselle.” The man on the phone wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and I turned all my concentration back to him. I was starting to get a little irritated at his high-handed demands.
“Giselle’s not available.”
“Then it looks like we have only one option.”
Shit. Giselle was going to flay me alive if I went out with a client. It was forbidden. I’d lose my job. Then again … I stared at the star on his profile. I was going to lose my job either way, wasn’t I? Maybe if I went out with Mr. Russell, I could convince him to keep it a secret. Giselle would never have to know we’d botched his account, and I’d have a few drinks with the man and then let him down easy. He seemed nice enough.
I sighed. “I think you are making a mistake, Mr. Russell.”
“Still a mistake.”
“Why is that? You have a lovely name, a sexy voice, and you’re free tonight,” he said, his tone cajoling. “You’re at least an auxiliary member of the Alliance if you’re working for Giselle, so there won’t be anything awkward to explain, like why I grow a tail sometimes. And you already think I’m a pervert, remember? So there won’t be any surprises.”
Was that a joke? My protest came out as a dry squeak. This was such a bad idea.
“I have to say, I’m looking forward to our date,” Beau continued. “I’ll get the chance to put a face to that sweet tongue of yours.”
I blushed again. Dammit.
Thinking hard, I glanced over at the file room and saw Sara pacing, rubbing her arms. That was a bad sign. Right now she had a lot to stress over: the messed-up account, Giselle’s wrath, and the shifter in the room. A panicked knot formed in my throat as Sara slammed the file room door shut. Very bad sign. Since it was my job to keep Sara from getting agitated, that meant getting rid of the shifter who sat across from me.
And to do that, I had to get the other
shifter off the phone.
I turned away from my desk, trying to get a
semblance of privacy. “Just dinner,” I breathed into the receiver, caving despite my misgivings. I couldn’t look at the man across the desk from me as I gave in to Beau’s demand. Everything in me shouted big mistake,
but I had to do something. Sara was seconds away from losing it. “Not the whole week. And I won’t go back to the hotel with you.”
“Unless you want to,” he added.
I rolled my eyes at his cockiness. “I won’t want to. Trust me.”
“We’ll see,” he said, supremely confident. “I’ll meet you at the restaurant at seven thirty. See you then, sweet Bathsheba.” He hung up.
I set the phone down with relief. One problem down, one to go.
The man across from me smiled. “Hi, I’m Jason,” he said, extending his hand.
“Was that him?” Sara called, her voice muffled through the door. “Am I totally fired now?”
I cleared my throat and gave the man across from me an apologetic look. “Could you excuse me for a moment?”
“Of course,” he said with a nod.
I dashed into the file room and closed the door behind me. Immediately, I put a hand to my mouth, gagging at the thick, cloying perfume. My eyes watered. “Jesus, Sara. If you spray any more
of that stuff, he’s going to think we have a rose garden back here.”
“He’s a shifter,” she hissed and sprayed another squirt into the air. “I’m just being careful. So, am I totally fired?”
“Not quite,” I said, fanning the air. The goofy, nervous feeling wouldn’t leave me, no matter how hard I tried to calm down. “I’ve fixed things.”
Sara looked confused. “What do you mean, you ‘fixed’ things?”
“I’m going out with Beau Russell tonight. Taking Rosie’s place.”
Sara’s jaw dropped. “What
? We’re not allowed to date clients. You’re a normal
, not paranormal. You don’t have the appropriate paperwork.” She shook her head, glancing at the closed door behind me to make sure our guest wasn’t going to enter. “That’s really sweet of you, sis, but Giselle will have a cow if she finds out.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” I said. “By the time she gets back from vacation, it’ll be taken care of.”
She shook her head, her short, fine hair flying about her shoulders. “Don’t be crazy, Bath. I can fix this—”
I grabbed her arm and pinched it, like I used to when we were kids. “If you erase one file out of that database, I swear I’m going to pour water onto your motherboard at home. Understand me?” At
her glare, I continued, “I’m the office manager. Let me manage this.”
She stuck her tongue out at me in response, and I knew I’d won.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked abruptly, changing the subject. “Do you need to leave?”
“I’m fine,” she said as she rubbed her arms again. “Everything’s under control.”
“Bullshit.” I wanted to reach for her again, but I knew from experience that would just aggravate things. “I’ll take care of this guy. You stay in here and I’ll cover for you until you feel better, all right?”
Her lips pinched into a tight line, and she nodded.
“Knock something over so you have an excuse to stay here and clean up. Just not the perfume bottle. My lunch won’t stay down if you spray it again.”
Again, Sara gave a tight nod.
I gave her a thumbs-up and slipped out of the room.
Jason smiled at me as I returned to my desk. “Everything all right?”
“Just fine,” I agreed with my best smile. “Now if I could just see your Alliance ID, I can get your profile set up.”
It took forty-five minutes to set up Jason’s account.
I usually got them set up faster while still being polite and chatty, but Jason was a talker and a flirt to boot. I worked steadily, sneaking glances at the closed file room door. There wasn’t a single sound, which concerned me a little, but I couldn’t show it.
Jason was determined to hit on me. I declined his advances and kept things strictly business, sending his request for a date to a pretty little were-fox that I thought might suit him. Once Jason had his profile paperwork printed out and his latest flirtatious comment rebuffed, there was nothing else for him to do but leave. I kept working for a few minutes after he left, just in case he decided to come back, but he didn’t. Then, I bolted up from my desk and ran to the file room and opened the door.
A sleek gray wolf lay on the floor, her head between her paws. Sara’s clothes were discarded on the floor, mixed with some fallen files.
“Oh, Sara,” I chided her.
The wolf whined.
I picked up her torn shirt, examining it to see if it was mendable. It wasn’t. With a roll of my eyes, I went back to my desk and opened my bottom drawer, then lifted a big, manila envelope to reveal a stack of emergency shirts. I picked out a pink one and shut the drawer again.
Living with a werewolf meant a lot of torn
clothing. In the six years since Sara had been transformed, I’d learned to adapt to her needs.
But it didn’t mean I couldn’t give her crap about it. I went back to the file room and dangled the pink shirt in front of her. “Last one in a normal color,” I teased. “Change one more time, and you’re reduced to those SpongeBob T-shirts we found on the clearance rack.”
She growled at me, her canine lips curling back in a snarl.
I grinned and tossed the shirt down at her. “Just a little added incentive.”
I warred all day with what to wear to my date. Part of me wanted to wear something that was about as sexy as a funeral. Since Mr. Beau Russell was planning on getting laid, I wanted him to understand as soon as he looked at me that he was not scoring tonight. I needed something that screamed off-limits, puritanical, and possibly Amish.
But the feminine part of me rebelled at not looking my best. Beau was probably handsome and confident. I, meanwhile, hadn’t been on a date in six years.
It was the first thing to have changed in my life after Sara had turned, and I’d willingly given it up.
Protecting Sara had become my life, and everything I did revolved around her.
And yet … here I was, about to go out on a date. Just me and some guy looking to meet a pretty girl, charm her, and hopefully score. I swallowed. No pressure. To make matters worse, we were going to a fancy restaurant. I needed to look like I belonged there, to be glamorous and confident.
After all, I had to be on my guard around Mr. Russell. I needed to be supremely self-assured, and poised as hell. Balls-to-the-wall, take no prisoners, not-interested-in-you strong female who was human and normal, and didn’t happen to have a werewolf sister.
After work, I spent an hour picking through my closet. Most of my clothes were practical, and nothing seemed quite right for a date. I ended up settling on a sleeveless, swingy A-line dress in black, edged with aqua satin. It was pretty and feminine. The skirt was shorter than I remembered and the neckline deep enough to show generous cleavage, which was probably why it had sat in my closet unworn for so long, the tags still attached. It really wasn’t all that seductive, but for someone like me, there was never an occasion to wear it.
I put on a couple of bracelets and hoop earrings, and pulled my long, straight, superfine blond hair
into a bun high atop my head. I didn’t have time to blow-dry it into fluffiness.
After all, I wasn’t really trying to impress Mr. Russell, was I?
And just because I wasn’t trying to impress him, I added a second coat of lip gloss.
Before heading out the door, I gave my clothes a squirt of Febreze and tumbled them in the dryer with a floral-scented dryer sheet just in case Sara’s distinctive werewolf scent lingered on me. I couldn’t smell it because I was human, but just about every shifter had a nose ten times keener than mine, and we’d had several close calls. My black strappy sandals had been airing on the porch for the same reason.
Un Peu de Goût was in the heart of Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, where it catered to a business clientele and tourists looking to spend money on dinner. The last restaurant I’d been to was Burger King, so I was nervous.
My sister was at home sleeping off her most recent change. It always took a toll on her, so I left the car with her and took a cab to the restaurant. I stared out the window as we drove, trying not to get too anxious, my purse clutched close to my chest like a football carried into enemy territory.
As I walked into the restaurant, my heels clicked
loudly on the marble tile, drawing the attention of the maître d’. This was a big fat mistake. I should have worn something with a longer hemline, or a less plunging neckline. Or just turned the date down. If Giselle found out I was dating one of the clients, even at his request, I’d be out of a job, no matter how important the account.
Humans were a dime a dozen, even the ones who wouldn’t freak out over the weird proclivities of the boss or strange client requests. The Alliance community was an exclusive one, and all of the clients were rich and powerful. Some had tons of money, thanks to long life spans, and some simply had a natural charisma that drew humans to them.
A couple of sorry humans like Sara and me—well, maybe just me—were outclassed. If she had to choose between loyal human employees and clients, Giselle would always pick clients.
I smiled at the maître d’, hoping he couldn’t sense my nervousness. “I’m here to meet Mr. Beau Russell,” I said breathlessly. “We have a dinner reservation.”
The maître d’ didn’t even look down at his list. He gave me a tight, knowing smile. “Mr. Russell will be here shortly, mademoiselle. You may wait at the bar.”
“Oh,” I said, a bit surprised that my date wasn’t here yet. “Certainly.” I let him lead me in.
When I approached the bar, I started to feel a little irritated at the absent Mr. Russell, who couldn’t bother to show up on time. If this was some sort of passive-aggressive move to put the little human in her place, I wasn’t amused. With a small frown, I ordered a mojito and sat down on my barstool to wait.
The mojito was expensive but tasty and did wonderful things to relax my frazzled nerves. I’d sucked down half of my drink before I forced myself to slow down. I didn’t want to be plastered by the time the man got to the restaurant.
Ten minutes passed, and I played with the lime on the edge of my glass. Where was he? Maybe he wouldn’t show up. Maybe he’d called the agency back and told Sara that he wasn’t going to meet me. I knew what the Alliance went for in a woman, especially the shifters. All their dating profiles read the same—muscular, lean, aggressive. Gorgeous. Enthusiastic. Morally ambiguous. Most shifter women pursued the men as hotly as they were pursued back. Even the vampire women were elegant, delicate creatures.
Me? I was a desk jockey for the glamorous. A mousy blonde encased in power panty hose that were going to cut off her circulation. He’d take a
look at me, laugh, and ask to meet the harpy after all. Twitchy at the thought, I took a bite out of my lime and sucked on it. After ten more minutes, this guy could consider himself out of a date. I wasn’t going to wait here all night like some pathetic loser. I put my lime rind on a napkin and tossed back the rest of my drink.
By the time seven more minutes passed, I’d had it. Enough was enough. Mr. Russell wasn’t coming to our impromptu date. Part of me breathed a sigh of relief. At least Giselle wouldn’t have anything to be upset over, and I’d fulfilled all my obligations. I left a couple of dollars for the bartender, tucked my bag under my arm, then stepped away from the bar—and saw him.
He lounged nearby, leaning against the bar as if he owned the place. He was turned toward me, a half-full beer on the bar beside him. It was obvious he’d been there some time, and just as obvious that he’d been watching me without bothering to introduce himself. The jerk.
A slow smile curved his lips, and my heart stuttered. I’d seen beautiful men, and I’d seen sexy men. But I’d never seen a man who was as powerfully masculine as this one.
I was finding it hard to breathe.
It wasn’t the sleepy, sexy eyes with the dark lashes. It wasn’t the piercing gray irises that
assessed me as if they could see me naked. It wasn’t the impressive spread of his shoulders or the narrow waist, or the thick fall of tousled brown hair over his tanned forehead. None of that caused my breath to evaporate quite like the confidence that poured from him. It was there from the easy way he carried his big frame to the crooked smile that tugged at his lips and emphasized his amazing cheekbones.
This man was going to be trouble.
The room grew fuzzy at the edges, and black stars flashed in front of my eyes as he crossed the floor to meet me. Everything about him was effortless, graceful motion, like a predator stalking its prey.
He leaned in close to me, and I could smell his musky clean scent. “You need to breathe, Bathsheba.”
Breathe. Right. I sucked in a breath and my vision cleared.
He smiled at me again, that soft, lazy smile. “That’s better.”
I fought the urge to wipe it off his face, annoyed that he’d made me wait while he’d been here all along.
He gestured at the sea of white-linen-covered tables. “Shall we sit?”
That depended on his answer. “How long have you been here watching me?”
The smile widened into a grin. “You caught me,” he admitted. “I wanted to watch you for a few minutes. Is that so wrong?”
“It was very uncomfortable for me,” I said coolly. “I believed I was being stood up.”
He took my hand in his and lifted it to his mouth for a kiss. His lips brushed against my skin, sending a shiver through me. “I apologize,” he said, looking serious. “That was thoughtless of me.”
I tried pulling my hand out of his.
He didn’t budge.
I raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Russell, you know that humans aren’t allowed to date in the Alliance. On behalf of my company, I didn’t want to leave you stranded tonight—but I could lose my job over this. So if
I stay, Giselle must never know about it.”
His thumb rubbed against the back of my hand. “Of course not. The last thing I want is for you to get in trouble at my expense. Please stay—I ordered the tasting menu,” he coaxed.
I’d never been to a tasting dinner, with its multiple courses of fancy tidbits, all designed to show off the chef’s culinary skills and imagination. It would be fun—and he seemed sincere. I pulled my hand away and nodded. “Fine. I’ll stay.”
“Thank you.” At the table, he pulled my chair out as the waiter hovered nearby, then he sat down
across from me and flicked his napkin into his lap with a flourish.
The waiter opened a bottle of expensive wine and, as we each took a sip, I said, “I feel that I should point out my first rule of dating, Mr. Russell. Just because you wine and dine me doesn’t mean I’m obligated to have sex with you. So going to the Worthington after dinner is not happening.”
He smiled, clearly not offended in the slightest. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Miss Bathsheba. If I pay for dinner, the only pleasure I expect is your company.”
I stared at the six and a half feet of masculinity on the other side of the table. He looked amused, as if he liked a challenge. This could end up being very, very dangerous in a way I hadn’t expected.
I changed topics, trying to put a wall up between us. “So why did you want to watch me at the bar, Mr. Russell? Just in case I had warts and a hunched back, so you could make a hasty escape?”
“I wanted to see if the voice and name matched the body.”
“And? Do I look like a Bathsheba to you?”
“You do,” he said. “Soft. Delicious. Warm. Curvy.” His eyes glinted as he leaned across the table. “I bet you’d taste the same.”
Oh. My. An instant flush crossed my cheeks. “That’s a first,” I said, recovering swiftly. “Usually
I’m told that the name Bathsheba reminds them of an old lady clutching her knitting.”
“They’d be wrong.” Red alert. Red alert. All hormones on deck
. “Mr. Russell—”
“Beau,” he said, interrupting me. “Short for Beauregard.” He gave me a sheepish look. “Old Southern family.”
I finally smiled. “I’m not about to give you a hard time about your name. You’re speaking to a woman named after one of the greatest adulteresses in the Bible. My sister’s lucky she wasn’t named Whore of Babylon.”
He laughed, his silvery eyes warm and crinkling at the corners. He lifted his wineglass and raised it to me. “Two very unusual names for two very normal people. We’re a match made in heaven, Bathsheba Ward.”
I wasn’t sure how normal he was, but I clinked my glass against his anyhow. I wasn’t used to hearing my full name all the time, so when we set our glasses down, I said, “My friends call me Bath.”
He clasped my hand between his warm ones. “But I don’t want to be your friend.”
His skin against mine was incredibly distracting. I felt the calluses on his palms, felt the strong grip of his warm, large hands, his nails lightly
scratching at the back of my hand in an absent, comforting gesture.
Oh, dear. I liked that far, far too much for my own good. Licking my lips nervously, I asked. “So what’s on the tasting menu tonight?”
He grinned. “I have no idea. I just asked the maître d’ what was good and that’s what he recommended.”
The waiter arrived and we pulled apart, though Beau’s hand seemed to linger on mine.
“An amuse-bouche for the monsieur and the mademoiselle,” the waiter said, a hint of a Texas drawl coloring his French. He set down two tiny plates. “A patisserie with caviar and crème fraiche,” he said, then left.
Beau popped the amuse-bouche into his mouth. After a moment his expression changed and his chewing slowed.
I eyed the concoction on my plate. “How is it?”
He chewed for a moment more, then swallowed hard. “Interesting.”
was a ringing endorsement. I eyed mine, and nodded that I was done when the waiter arrived to take the plates away. He returned a moment later with two bowls of bright orangey-yellow soup.
My eyes widened at the brown thing floating in my soup.
“Butternut bisque,” the waiter announced, “with quail egg in nest.”
Oh, dear. The waiter left and I looked at my bowl, then at Beau. He was staring at his food with an odd expression on his face.
“Is that a real bird’s nest?” I asked him. “Are we supposed to eat it?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, then tapped his spoon against the egg. “I know I’m a were-cat, but this is ridiculous.”
I giggled and took a large swallow of wine, no more eager to eat mine than he was. “Maybe I’m not as adventurous as I should be when it comes to eating,” I admitted. “What’s next on the menu?”
“Cheese,” he said, looking down at the piece of paper.
“Why the face? That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“A savory mixture of goat and … yak cheeses,” he said, continuing to read.
“Er … oh.” I took another swig of my wine. “The wine is very good, at least.”
Beau looked chagrined. “I’m sorry you’re not enjoying the meal.”
“We haven’t even started the meal,” I quipped. “The entree will probably be some unfortunate exotic animal served on a bed of seaweed. French seaweed.”
He laughed, then glanced at me. “There’s a sports bar next door. Want to go grab a burger?”
“And leave my bird’s nest behind?” I pretended to protect my plate, resisting the urge to break into laughter. At his grin, I put down my wineglass and stood. “Let’s go.”
He threw a wad of bills on the table.
In the sports bar, we grabbed a comfortable booth and ordered. As we waited for our burgers, an uncomfortable silence fell. Sitting across from him in a cozy booth in a dark corner felt far more intimate than sitting stiffly across from him at a fancy French restaurant had.
I clasped my hands together, trying to think of something to break the silence, but nothing came to mind. Crap. I hadn’t dated in so long that I didn’t know what to talk about. Football? I didn’t know if he was a big sports fan. The weather? No, that was just stupid—
“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked, misinterpreting my awkwardness.
“I’m just not very good at small talk. Or dating. I don’t date.”
He looked fascinated. “I can’t imagine why not. Tell me about yourself then.”
I froze. Talking about me meant talking about
Sara, and I couldn’t talk about Sara. “There’s not much to tell,” I said in a stiff voice. Was this a probe for information? Was he going to sell it to the wolf packs? “I’m a very boring girl.”
He shook his head, that beautiful smile flashing across his face. “I sincerely doubt that anyone with a name like yours could be boring.”
I remained quiet.
“You really aren’t
good with small talk,” he teased.
Shoot, what could I talk about that wouldn’t alert him to our secret? “I … like to read.”
He smiled at me over the plate of cheese fries the waiter set down in front of us. “Who doesn’t?”
Well, how could you not like a man who said that? “That’s about it, really. Now, your turn. Tell me something you like.”
I caught a flash of white teeth. “I like women. Soft, curvy women.”
I rolled my eyes. “That doesn’t count.”
“Because it’s a given—like if I said I liked men with large packages.” I reached over for a cheese fry. “That’s like saying that you like breathing, or eating.”
“Sounds like we’re a match made in heaven,” he said lazily. “I like to eat, love to breathe”—he
leaned over the table—“and I have a very large package.”
I choked on my cheese fry. “Not nice,” I coughed, trying to catch my breath. “You play dirty, sir.”
He picked up a fry and gestured at me with it before popping it into his mouth. “Your turn.”
“There’s really nothing else to tell.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Nobody’s life is that dull. I get the impression that you’ve got something to hide, Miss Bathsheba.” Why, yes, Beau. When I was nineteen, my younger sister started dating a werewolf. He bit her and turned her, and I had to drop out of college to take care of her as she adjusted to growing fur and a tail. And since the werewolf pack wants her back, we keep a low profile in case we have to leave town again. Oh, and I like frat boy comedy movies. You?
I finished chewing my fry, pretending to think it over. I needed something bland and nondescript, to angle the conversation back toward safer ground. Aha! “I like bookkeeping.”
It was the one phrase guaranteed to scare a man off. Most women would say that they liked to date, or dance, or curl up at home with a movie. I liked general ledgers and balancing someone’s books.
He did a catlike tilt of his head that was a bit unnerving, reminding me that he was slightly
more than human, for all his sexiness. “Bookkeeping? Like accounting?”
I waited for his eyes to glaze over with disinterest. “I find it enjoyable.”
He reached for another cheese fry. “Do you like math, then? The challenge of it?”
That wasn’t the bored look I was used to—or worse, the derisive sneer. It startled me, and I gave him a genuine smile. “I like the control aspect, being the one in charge. At first I hated it, but then it became like a puzzle to me, to figure out how to balance the books and find the right numbers that make everything click.” I enjoyed managing Giselle’s office. It made me think I could own my own business someday, so I considered it good practice.
“You ever think about starting your own business?”
“Maybe someday,” I said, uncomfortable again. I didn’t want to talk about my personal hopes and dreams with him.
“You could start up your own accounting business. I’d hire you to do my company’s books.”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
He grinned back at me and my heart flipflopped. “The offer stands. You’re welcome to get your hands on my books anytime.”
It was amazing that he could make something
as benign as accounting sound like a turn-on. I turned to my drink—a fresh mojito—and took a gulp, feeling a sudden need for liquid courage.
He smiled and leaned back, studying me like he might a delicious roast that he was about to devour. But then the smile faded and his shoulders formed a tense line.
Someone slid into the booth next to me. “Well, hello,” said a man in a low, growling voice.
I looked over in surprise, scooting farther back reflexively. Beau’s jaw had clenched into a hard line.
“What do we have here?” The man gave me a roguish grin, displaying big, crooked teeth. He had wild, thick hair that stuck up in tufts from his head, and a wrinkled polo shirt hung from his enormous frame. There was something wild about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I recognized the way his nostrils flared, sniffing the air to catch my scent.
My pulse pounded in my ears and I stiffened, thinking of Sara. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This man could be a wolf, and therefore dangerous.
The man tilted his head, the crazy grin never leaving his face, his eyes on Beau. “Who’s your friend? She from out of town?”
I waited, afraid to breathe, for him to pick up Sara’s scent on me. To expose my secret.
Beau’s eyes narrowed into a distinctly unfriendly look, though the pleasant smile remained on his face. “Go away, Tony. This is my personal business, not the pack’s.”
Tony leaned even closer toward me. I shoved him away, not caring in the slightest that it was rude. “Get away from me.”
Undeterred, Tony grabbed my hand. He sniffed me and his eyes widened. He looked back to Beau with a knowing grin. “She’s not a were at all, is she?”
I took another gulp of my mojito, relief warring with anxiety. Sara was safe … but now I had a whole new set of problems.
Beau was supposed to have been dating a supe through the agency, but I was a normal. This was sure to get back to my boss. Shit.
As I drank, Tony reached out to touch my ear. I jerked hard, spilling my drink all over the table.
Beau reached over and plucked Tony’s hand off me. “If you touch her again, I’ll break your fingers,” he said in a bored voice, but his eyes were flinty with dislike. “Understand?”
“Tsk tsk,” said Tony in a mock-playful voice. “It’s silly to get upset over human trash, Beauregard.”
Beau’s eyes narrowed into slits and I could feel the rage radiating off of him.
One wrong move and these two would fight. Beau looked ready to destroy the man, and Tony didn’t seem to have a lick of sense in his body. He just continued grinning and looking at me, his gaze flicking over my neck and pulled-up hair as if he wanted to touch me. “She’s cute for a normal, Beau. Not what I’d call your type, though.” He looked me up and down once more, his eyes a little too interested, then turned to Beau. “So where’s Arabella?”
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Oh, God. Was Beau involved with someone? Or even married?
“I don’t know,” Beau said, his words a careless drawl. “I’m not her keeper.”
I checked his finger—no sign of a ring-sized tan line. Good. Not that I cared, of course.
“I can see I’m not wanted here,” Tony stood and grinned. “You know you’re not supposed to date humans. I believe that rule was set down by your very own little Alliance. Funny how you’re the one to break the rules.”
Beau looked right at me and answered Tony, “It’s none of your business who I date. When I need permission from someone, I’ll ask.”
“Suit yourself.” The shifter smirked in my direction. “The others are going to find this really interesting, though.” Tony winked at me. “Later, chicken.”
Silence fell as he turned and left. Beau clenched
his hands, glaring at Tony as if he’d like to jump up and rip the man’s throat out. The other man didn’t look back, as he took his sweet time circling back to the far side of the restaurant and disappearing from sight. The waiter stopped by to mop the table and left me a new drink. Beau said nothing.
I was the first to break the silence. There were a hundred things I wanted to ask about. “Chicken?”
Beau’s response was grudging. “Chicken is Tony’s term for non-supes. He likes to say that they taste like chicken.”
“That’s fairly disturbing.”
“He’s trying to be tough. His pack is full of assholes who like to push around as many people as they can. They refuse to join the Alliance.”
Well, that explained why they’d been going at it like cats and dogs. It also made me want to throw up. To think that he’d sat next to me … tried to touch me … to think that he could have smelled Sara if I hadn’t been careful. I took a hasty sip of my mojito, my hands shaking. And then I choked, my throat too tight to swallow properly.
“You all right?” Beau said, the growl receding from his voice. “I’m sorry if he scared you.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m fine. My drink just went down the wrong way. So who’s Arabella?”
He sighed. “My ex,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen her in months.”
“Word must travel slow.”
“Yeah. We don’t talk to the wolf pack much.” He didn’t seem to want to expand on the subject.
Thank God for that. “What kind of supe is Arabella? Were-skunk?” I asked, my tone sweet.
His lips twitched with mirth. “No, just a were-cougar that hung around far too long. Haven’t you ever dated someone like that?”
I gave him a look. “I can’t say that my little black book is full of were-cougars.”
He laughed. “Then I am delighted to be your first.”
My entire body tensed. But that was silly. Beau couldn’t possibly know that I was a virgin.
“Before I forget,” Beau said, pulling out his wallet. He flipped through it, then handed me a small salmon-colored card. “Sign this.”
I took it from him and turned it over, reading. Lots of very small print crept across it on both sides. “What is it?”
“Your visa.” At my startled look, he flashed a grin. “It says you are legally approved to date in the Paranormal Alliance.”
From what I’d heard, this sort of permission took forever. “So why did you let Tony think that I don’t have one?”
He picked up his drink. “Maybe I want you all to myself.”