A full moon bathed the rear deck of the Cora Ann in buttery yellow light, and I basked in the pale beams the way a human might soak up the sun. Head tilted back, eyes closed, I let the past month fall away in a weak attempt at forgetting how wildly off course my life had veered since the wheel got wrenched from Maud’s iron grasp.
“I don’t blame you for dying,” I murmured, the thrum of the boat’s engine drowning out my confession, “but I do wish you had told me the truth.”
And I wished I had listened to what advice she had given me.
“That boy will only break your heart.”
That boy was Boaz Pritchard, and Maud’s prediction had come true.
Hindsight had me questioning if maybe, just maybe, she hadn’t been looking down her nose at him the way I thought all this time. She might have just been viewing our compatibility, including our social inequalities, through the lens of centuries of life experience.
“I thought I might find you out here.” Marit bellied up to the metal railing I had been leaning against and peered over the edge into the churning black waters of the Savannah River. “You’re not thinking of jumping, are you?”
“What?” I jerked back like the metal had scalded me. “No. Why?”
“Hey, broken hearts have driven smarter people to do dumber things.”
“I’m not going to drown myself over Boaz.” Rolling my eyes with dramatic flair, I did a bang-up job of stemming the tears summoned by that single name. “He’s not worth it.”
This time my voice only broke a little at the mention. Maybe one day it wouldn’t crack at all.
“Attagirl. Glad to hear you know your worth—and his.” She raked me over with a wandering eye. Having never seen me decked out in the full Southern belle regalia required for all women who worked for Haint Misbehavin’, she gawked. “If boy troubles didn’t drive you out here, then what gives?”
The moon drew my eye again. “I was just wishing Maud was here to give me some advice.”
It took her a second to peg the name. “Your adoptive mom?”
“Yeah.” The topic of Maud parched my mouth. “She died a few years back.”
“Mama died when I was ten.” She cast her gaze out into the night. “You lost your birth mom early too?”
“I was five.” Evangeline Marchand was a memory pressed between the pages of a scrapbook. “I never knew my father.”
“That’s rough.” Her smile wilted. “I want to whack Papa with a stick at least fifty times a day for being overprotective, but I wouldn’t trade his mother-henning for all the world.” She took my hand, squeezed. “I wish you had that. We all deserve someone who takes care of us, even when we don’t need it.”
The well-tread path of my thoughts led me back to Boaz and all the small ways he had cared for me. Groceries when I was light on funds. Gas in Jolene’s tank. Heck, Jolene. He sold me his first love for a dollar at a time when I almost had to search couch cushions to make the payment.
But this time, rather than a straight road, there was a fork.
The tattoo between my shoulder blades. The grimoire on my desk. The home-cooked breakfast in my belly. The blood-ink pen in my pocket. Those were not-so-small gestures as well. And the man who had made them…
Yeah. I had no idea what to do about him either.
“We better get back in there.” I swished my dress from side to side, a bell tolling, then swirled past her. “The dry run commences in fifteen minutes, and I have to greet my victims at the table.”
The victims in this case were crew members paid overtime to fill the seats. Considering how most still blamed me for Marit’s accident, I wasn’t expecting any tips. I barely expected civility.
The ghost boy who was actually responsible for Marit’s near-death experience was around here somewhere, getting ready to shake things up on cue. The crew might never believe I was innocent, but the bosses would overlook my iffy record if I brought paranormal activity to each of my shifts. Oscar would make me too indispensable to pink slip. I just had to get them to notice the correlation first.
I might not have to work for a living these days, but I loved the job, and I wanted to do it well. Plus, the kid needed to get out and stretch his legs. Woolly made a great playmate, but Oscar needed more stimulation than the old girl could provide, and I wanted to give him zero excuses for going poltergeist on us.
Worrying the simple rubber cord around my neck, I rubbed my thumb over the dented brass button that acted as a tether for the ghost boy. The nervous habit earned me a funny look from Marit, so I tucked it back into the neckline of my dress.
Laughing off my weirdness, she linked her arm through mine and escorted me into the refurbished dining room where Oscar had almost killed her. Other than a slight hitch in her stride, a faint catch of her breath, she didn’t give away how much crossing the threshold disturbed her. With a wink, she broke from me to join the bosses at the center of the room.
Her father, Sean Voorhees, owned River Street Steam. Beside him stood Cricket Meacham, the owner of Haint Misbehavin’ Ghost Tours. Combining their businesses had birthed Haint Misbehavin’ Haunted Cruises.
“Ladies and gents, this is the night you’ve been training for,” Cricket rasped around the unlit cigarette in her mouth, her voice low and scratchy. “This new venture promises to rocket Haint Misbehavin’ straight to the top of the charts for best ghost tour company in Savannah.” She beamed at us like a proud momma. “While this isn’t our traditional walking tour, I trust you’ll all do your best to keep it spooky.” Her gaze landed on me. “No mistakes. No excuses. No second chances. Flub tonight, and you’re out of rotation for next week’s grand opening.”
Had I still depended on this income to survive, I might have gulped a little. Okay, fine. I did anyway.
Cricket was fierce, and she handed out second chances the way Scrooge passed out presents at Christmas, and I was on my third. Basically, I was her Tiny Tim. I could not afford to screw this up if I wanted to maintain a slice of normal in my life.
As it was, she made no secret of the fact I was stepping into Amelie’s shoes. Even with no effort on her part, my former best friend was giving me a hand up yet again.
I bobbed in a brief curtsey to show the boss lady I understood and located my table, easily identified by the azure tablecloth that matched my dress. I sashayed over, guide face on, and restrained an eye-roll as panic flashed across the familiar crewmen. One guy not so subtly made the sign of the cross over his navel, for all the good that would do him. I doubt it worked on indigestion.
“Well, butter my biscuits, aren’t y’all a handsome bunch?” I palmed the lacy fan dangling from a silk ribbon on my wrist and flicked it open with a practiced flourish that had taken me all week to master. Points to Cricket for realizing we required a new prop since parasols were unwieldy indoors and in numbers. “I’m your hostess this evening.” Hostess sounded classier than Hi, I’m a River Haint. So I wasn’t complaining. “Welcome aboard the Cora Ann for the maiden voyage of the Haint Misbehavin’ Haunted Cruise.”
Falling into my Blue Belle persona, I made eye contact with each guest at my table to engage them. The last set of peepers, the tawny brown of crushed pecan shells, almost flustered me into a growl. The chair had been vacant when I stepped out on the balcony for a breath of night air, but it wasn’t empty now.
Sandy-blond hair hung in dreads down the small of Hood’s muscular back. He kept the length twisted in a loose tail at his nape. Dressed in a black tee, tactical pants and boots, he mostly blended in with the other guests in their casual attire if you discounted the way humans leaned away from him in response to their hindbrain going nuclear in his presence.
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
I did not need a babysitter.
“Sir?” I kept the sugary drawl as I snapped my fan shut. “Might I have a moment of your time?”
The four other men heaved sighs of relief over not being singled out by who they viewed as the attempted murderess in charge of their dinner entertainment.
“Sure thing.” Hood rose with fluid grace that put vampires to shame and trailed me back out onto the balcony. After the door shut on his heels, he smiled. “Something on your mind?”
“What are you doing here?” I whirled on him. “You’re supposed to be waiting by the truck. The truck you insisted on using to drive me here.” After he insulted Jolene. And, to be fair, after discovering Detective Caitlin Russo of the Savannah Police Department had a habit of escorting me to work like I was a flight risk instead of so rooted in this town I drew strength from standing on its soil. There was also the small matter of the bounty on my head, the master vampire on my heels, and the Marchand family breathing down my neck. Okay, fine. So maybe he was right to worry about me. “How did you end up on the boat?”
“That would be my doing.” Marit, who must have spotted my hasty exit, released a dreamy sigh in his direction. “I saw him standing out there, looking gorgeous and bored, and I thought he might dress up the place.”
Hood grinned at her. All lips, no teeth. Polite. Oh boy.
“Marit explained how you were short on guests, so I volunteered.” Mischief danced in his eyes. “I’m pleased to be of assistance.”
“I just bet you are,” I grumbled. “Marit, do me a favor. Don’t invite strange men you find loitering in the parking lot onto the boat in the future.”
“He’s so pretty, though.” She fluttered her lashes. “Plus, he gave you a ride to work. I figured a friend of yours couldn’t be all that dangerous.”
The urge to laugh burbled in my throat and almost choked me. My friends? Not dangerous? Ha.
“Where did you find him?” Marit made goo-goo eyes at Hood. “Do you have any brothers?”
“Only one,” Hood answered. “He’s unmated.”
“Unmarried,” I corrected in a rush. “As in single.”
“Single.” Marit latched on to the word with both hands then leaned in close, cupping her mouth while she whispered in my ear. “Mated, married, more-than-friends. I don’t care what kind of weirdo he is as long as there are more where he came from, and he’s willing to give me directions to the motherland.”
“You have a serious sweet tooth,” I chided softly, not like it mattered. Hood could hear every word.
“I do enjoy man candy,” she agreed, straightening. “Mostly the unwrapping.”
“TMI.” I shoved her away. “T.M.I.”
“Make this quick.” She snapped her fingers in emphasis. “Cricket is making the rounds. Papa won’t be far behind her. I’m supposed to herd the stragglers, so stop straggling.”
Sure enough, I spied Cricket working the crowd, observing hostesses and tweaking performances.
With a finger wave, Marit left us alone on the balcony. Hood watched her go, and she flushed at his attention. But what she mistook as masculine appreciation was predatory intent.
“No stalking my friends.” Where was a rolled-up newspaper when you needed one? “We’ve talked about this.”
“My duty is to protect you.”
That was it. His entire argument summed up in six words.
I shook my closed fan in his face. “How is sabotaging my dress rehearsal a protective measure?”
“Treat me the same as any other member of the crew.” He backed off, hands spread. “You won’t even notice I’m here.”
Gwyllgi dropped that line a lot. Clearly, they underestimated the camouflage abilities of giant dog-lizard things.
A twang rent the air, and I swatted at my ear like a mosquito had buzzed me. “What was—?”
“Get down.” Hood tackled me, his weight crushing the oxygen from my lungs as we hit the deck. The hoopskirt flipped up, pinning one of the hard ridges under my breasts. Nostrils flared, he raised his head a scant inch higher. “I can’t scent the archer. The river masks him at this distance.”
“Archer?” Another thud rang out as a second arrow joined the first in the wooden trim above the door Marit had just walked through on her way to a dining room teeming with humans.
“We have to get off this boat,” he growled. “You’re a sitting duck out here.”
“Hold on.” I cranked my head around to see him. “I can’t just leave.”
“I’ll lose my job if I bail.” True panic welled in me, overriding common sense. “I’m already on my second strike.”
“You’ve got to choose.” Sympathy darkened his eyes. “What’s more important? Your job, or their safety?”
The answer would have hurt less if someone had ripped out what was left of my heart. “Their safety.”
A burst of inhuman speed left him holding an arrow he pried from the molding. He tucked the evidence into the waistband of his pants as the archer struck where his head had been a second ago.
“Stay down.” Hood climbed off me, keeping low, and gestured for me to go ahead. “Our first obstacle is getting to the first deck without being shot.”
“I can’t crawl in this.” The bottommost circular frame was rounder than my arms were long. “It’s too wide to fit down the stairwell unless I stand and fold it.”
A ripping noise had me biting my lip to hold in a dismayed cry as the hoopskirt collapsed, and the silky fabric puddled around my knees.
All of a sudden, the breeze that had buffeted my cheeks at the railing started caressing, well, my cheeks.
“Blue panties,” he tsked. “You’re a sucker for a theme, huh?”
“Shut it,” I snapped, “or I’ll tell Lethe you were looking.”
“She’s going to get the same free show as me.” He chuckled. “I’m not worried.”
Heat scalded my cheeks—the ones on my face—as I started crawling away from the dining room and all the innocents waiting on the show to start.
We hit the stairwell and climbed down on hands and knees. Hood kept so close, he almost covered me. I might have been nervous at his proximity paired with my relative nakedness had I not seen him with his mate. As it was, he was an old pro at getting around on all fours, and I was grateful for the shield he provided me.
We reached the first deck with its solid metal walls and huddled in the farthest corner from the gap leading onto the gangway.
“What’s the plan?” Dressed in a ripped bodice, panties, torn thigh-highs and tennis shoes, I wasn’t psyched about my options. “How do we get back on land?”
“The archer will be hidden where he can monitor the dock. He’s hoping we’ll panic, run off the boat, and present him with an easy target. That or he’s betting we’ll risk the water.”
“Plans A and B suck. I’ll take C.”
“B it is.” He lifted his head, flared his nostrils. “Can you swim?”
“B?” As I did the math, I squished my spine flat against the railing. “Give me a minute. I can draw on sigils that will—”
“—wash right off in the water.” He scooped me up in a bridal carry. “Take a deep breath.” With no ceremony whatsoever, he dumped me over the edge. “Hold your nose.”
The water smacked me across the back, and it stung like a slap. At least all the air I had sucked down to argue with him kept me from suffocating as I plummeted toward the silty bottom, a victim of momentum until my flailing arms slowed my descent enough for me to start clawing my way back to the surface.
Halfway there, I kicked off my shoes, saying a silent prayer of thanks to Hood for slicing me out of my dress. Those layers would have sunk me like a stone and tangled in my thrashing legs.
A massive splash bathed my face as I breached, and I sucked in enough oxygen to gasp, “Watch it, buddy.”
Treading water, I waited for Hood to pop up, but he didn’t.
A sense of foreboding swept through me, and I ducked again. This late, the dark was impenetrable, and any sigil I drew would wash off in seconds. Not that I knew any to spark a magical headlamp to pierce the gloom or how to create an oxygenated bubble to wear like an antique diving helmet.
Magic had hard limits, and this situation exceeded mine. There was nothing to do but search for him the old-fashioned way.
Gulping air, I dove in the spot where Hood hit the water.
Down, down, down.
Bubbles swirled around me, but I sensed no displaced water to indicate he was flailing too.
About to surface for another breath, I yelped when a broad hand clamped over my wrist, and I expelled my precious oxygen. I would have kicked the groping fingers in their owner’s face if the tickle of soft dreads hadn’t brushed my calf like seeking tentacles.
I reached back for him, clutching his forearms, and started kicking for all I was worth. He was dead weight, a lot of it, and demo work had built only so much muscle on my lean frame.
The blackness sucked me down, reminding me of the cold, wet cell where I wasted for five long years.
I was not going to die in the dark.
I was going to live.
And so was Hood.
Gritting my teeth, I released him with one hand to claw at the water, raking it with my nails as I climbed toward the surface. Head bursting free, I filled my stinging lungs while hefting him up my body, dunking myself again in the process.
Despite the wash of night air over our damp skin, Hood didn’t suck in a breath or so much as twitch.
Yanking on his shoulders, I got him floating on his back. An arrow protruded from his chest, and a second one pierced his gut. Both wounds wept into the freshwater.
“You are way too heavy for this,” I grunted, linking an arm across his chest as I began paddling for shore.
Hauling him out of the water wasn’t going to happen solo, and he was in no position to help. The best I could hope for was that Cletus had been monitoring me from the shore and called for backup. The archer would be tracking our progress, I was sure, and I was in no shape to outmaneuver him if he got close enough to take more potshots at us.
The arrows must have been tipped in poison or forged in metal that incapacitated gwyllgi. Two piddly arrows weren’t enough to knock Hood out of the game otherwise.
A cry went up behind us when Marit discovered my torn skirt on the deck. She must have come looking when we didn’t return. A grimace twisted my lips at what she must be thinking. Goddess. I had just promised her not to do something stupid about my broken heart. We didn’t know each other well, but I hoped she wouldn’t jump to the wrong conclusion. Or worse—worry that I had.
All I needed was another entry into my police record. Avoiding Detective Russo was tough enough without giving her a fresh reason to look my way.
At least the night would camouflage our location unless they broke out a searchlight.
Arms and legs on fire, I kept grabbing for the shore while holding Hood’s face above the water. Time becomes elastic when a friend is bleeding in your wake, and my muscles were ready to snap. I swore to Hecate that if we survived, I would eat fewer churros and lift more weights.
When a slim figure skidded onto the dock, his dark-auburn hair kissed by moonlight, I could have wept.
Linus shucked his dress shirt, kicked off his shoes, and dove. His perfect form reflected on long-ago summer lessons. Swimming was the one area where my talent exceeded his thanks to my time spent in the ocean under Odette’s supervision.
The fight drained out of me then, and I reclined on my back, clutching Hood to me.
Within seconds, Linus bellied up to us. “Are you all right?”
“Hood’s been shot.” I panted through a stitch in my side. “Twice. With arrows. Arrows. Who does that?”
Ancient vampires using ancient weapons from their ancient past, that’s who.
“That’s not what I asked.” Gathering Hood against him, he kept his gaze locked with mine. “Are you all right?”
“Tired.” Already I breathed easier. “But good.”
“Can you make it?” Linus hesitated when he should have started swimming. “Or do you need help?”
“Let me catch my breath.” I spread my arms and drifted. “Just give me a minute.”
With reluctance, he started hauling Hood’s limp form toward the two figures pacing at the water’s edge.
It must have been safe enough now, or he never would have left me. He would have drowned himself to save us both. That was Linus for you.
Shutting my eyes, I drifted in a quiet moment, allowing my tears to mingle with the river.
First Atramentous. Then Volkov. Now vampire assassins.
One, two, three. I was definitely out.
Cricket would never forgive me for bailing—yet again—and I couldn’t blame her.
“The Kinases have taken Hood to a healer.”
Linus’s voice carried to me over the hitching of my breath, and I rasped, “Good.”
I kept my gaze aimed skyward. “Yep?”
“I’m going to bring you in now. Lethe neutralized the archer, but he may not have been working alone.”
He hooked an arm around my waist, holding me steady, and I gripped his forearm to pull myself closer. We stayed that way a moment, even as the cool weight of his biceps made me shiver. Black filled his eyes, darker than the surrounding night, when he measured me with his gaze. “How bad is it?”
“Oh, you know. Someone shot arrows at me that could have killed my coworkers or our guests. Hood tackled me, cut off my skirt and tossed me in the river, getting shot in the process.” I tipped back my head. “Marit caught me looking over the railing earlier and asked me if I was going to commit suicide over Boaz. She probably thinks I was lying to her and went to lock my heart in Davy Jones’s locker the second her back turned.”
“It’s not your fault. I grew up human, but I’m not one. Part of me always knew one day I would have to leave their world.” I stuck my toes above the waterline. “I just didn’t expect to get kicked out.”
His tone softened. “It won’t always be this way.”
“You’re right.” I kept watch on the sky as he brought us in. “It will get worse.”
No pretty assurances met with my pronouncement, and I bit my bottom lip to keep it from wobbling.
Back at the dock, he leveraged himself onto the wooden platform then reached down for me. We grasped forearms, and he hauled me from the river using the supernatural strength that came from being bonded with a wraith.
A strangled noise escaped him when he noticed what I was—or wasn’t—wearing.
The bright flush in his cheeks made public semi-nudity worth it. “I did warn you Hood cut off my skirt.”
“You did.” He fastened his gaze on mine and kept it locked there even while he knelt to pick up the discarded dress shirt he hooked around my shoulders. “I wasn’t quite prepared.”
“Trust me,” I joked, shrugging into the fabric that smelled like him. “Neither was I.”
“I called Tony,” he offered once I had everything covered. “He’ll be here in five minutes.”
For the tips from Linus alone, Tony must bless the day he signed up as a driver for a popular ride-sharing app.
“Oh good.” I crossed my arms over my chest, doing my best to ignore the breeze on the backs of my upper thighs. “How did you get here so fast?”
“I didn’t.” He flicked his gaze skyward. “The wraith—” at my amused look, he corrected himself, “—Cletus spotted the archer a half hour ago. He was unable to determine if the vampire was working alone, so I asked the Kinases for assistance. We’ve been scouring the area for the last fifteen minutes.”
“So definitely a vampire attack?”
“He’s been taken into custody by the Elite,” he confirmed. “He’s on his way to the Lyceum.”
The Savannah Elite. A pang had me wondering if Boaz still counted himself in their number, or if he had requested a transfer to a different city. Since he hadn’t stayed on my account, I doubted he would leave on it either.
“I left Cletus to stand watch over you while we hunted the archer,” Linus continued. “Lethe took down the vampire, but not before he injured Hood.”
“He saved my life.” I glanced over my shoulder, back at the Cora Ann, at the lie I could no longer tell myself. “He saved a lot of people.” I shook my head. “The vampires are getting bolder. They moved against humans tonight.” I started rubbing my arms. “We can’t let that stand.”
“No,” he said slowly, as though feeling out my meaning to see if our views aligned. “We can’t.”
The night unspooled around his ankles, whipping tendrils that struck out where the streetlights pooled on the worn planks. The urge to step back never manifested, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I wasn’t sure about much of anything except I felt the walls rising around me, penning me into the life Maud never wanted for me.
“I think it’s time I met my grandfather,” I said softly. “Come with me?”
A stillness swept across his features. “Are you asking me, or are you asking Scion Lawson?”
Masks upon masks upon masks. Being asked which one he ought to wear told me my worth in his eyes.
“You.” I didn’t have to gut check to know it was the right call. “I want you.”
Scion Lawson had too many tangled loyalties. I wanted my friend. Linus. Him, I could trust.
“Rule number one,” he advised. “Don’t go to them. Make them come to you.”
Smart boy. I shot up an eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s coming from you and not Scion Lawson?”
“I might have picked up a few tips from him.” His lips quirked. “Come on, Grier. Let’s go home.”
The single best word in the whole English language.
Even if the wrought-iron fence surrounding Woolly was starting to feel a bit like the bars of a cage.