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Ruby scoured the room for any male with a tattooed ring finger. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. No luck at all. The breeze from the open French doors wafted across her face, making her want to step out of the crowded ballroom if only for a few moments. She wasn’t fond of crowds.
A few steps past the threshold, someone put a hand on her shoulder and she leapt two feet in the air.
“Viktor! I swear if you do that one more time—” She turned and sputtered into silence when she saw the hunky blond who said his name was Max.
Was that jealousy in his tone? Really? To avoid another misunderstanding, Ruby said, “He’s my brother. And he’s wily.”
“Hmm. I’ve never had a brother. I didn’t know they could be wily.”
“Well, they can.”
“Could we have a chat, please? I’d like to try and explain my behavior earlier.”
She exhaled her anger and put a smile on her face. She deserved to spend a few minutes walking in the moonlight with a handsome single man, even if he was odd. “Sure.”
His warm hand settled naturally at the small of her back and he guided her to the balcony overlooking a beautiful back garden and the woods next to the property. A few other couples had the same idea, but they were at the other end of the outdoor space, leaving Ruby and the handsome blond alone.
“What is your name?”
“Ruby,” she said. “Ruby Hart.”
He nodded, staring deeply into her eyes. “And what do you do, Ruby Hart?”
“I’m a paranormal investigator.”
“That sounds very interesting.”
“It is.” She grinned as she always did when thinking about her chosen profession. She did truly love it.
“Are you working right now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Will you be offended if I need to keep my job details private?”
“No. Of course not.” He didn’t take his gaze from her, almost as if he feared she’d disappear in a puff of smoke if he blinked.
“Is this job of yours dangerous?”
“I don’t think so, but I do my best to be careful regardless.”
“Good for you.”
“What do you do, Max?”
He smiled and her heart flipped over. Stop it. “I work for Bubba’s Psychic Readings.”
“As a psychic?”
“Can you read my mind?”
“Not sure.” His eyes narrowed and his focused gaze intensified. “It’s very difficult.”
“Hmm.” She wasn’t really surprised. Her sister-in-law, Bianca, also worked for Bubba and had trouble reading Ruby. Apparently, witches were nearly impossible for Alpha aliens to mindread.
He leaned closer and said firmly, “You are searching for someone.”
Ruby sucked in a breath. “You can see that?” She closed her eyes and tried to think of anything but her case. She had an obligation to protect her client’s privacy. Of course, trying not to think about something almost guaranteed it would be the only thing one could think of.
Max’s eyes widened more than the full moon in the sky. He cleared his throat, closed his eyes for the length of several heartbeats and seemed to regain his composure with effort.
Had he seen something in her mind? Had he learned what she was doing here tonight? Ruby cast about for a gambit to throw him off guard. “Why did you tell me you loved me? Why did you say you wanted to marry me?”
He blinked and said, “Because I fell in love with you the second we met. And also, I must tell you the truth no matter what, apparently.” He slapped a hand over his mouth, eyes filled with…what? Fear? Excitement? Both?
She stepped closer. He retreated a step. “Do you think my butt looks too big in this Little Red Riding Hood costume?”
His fingers lowered from his lips. “No. You are absolutely perfect, most especially your butt in that intriguing black skirt. Also, I love your costume. But you probably look amazing even without it.”
His fingers all pressed into his lips as if he needed both hands to keep from spilling whatever words were in his head. So, he wanted to see her naked? Not a shocker. He was a man, after all. And a very fine-looking man at that…
“I should go,” he mumbled through his digits. He moved back, staring at her like he didn’t want to leave.
“No. Wait.” She grabbed his bare forearm to keep him from escaping. He went still as a statue, apparently shocked she’d put a hand on him, and sighed like a love-struck swain. She pulled her hand away slowly as he watched.
Max shook his head as if trying to clear his mind. He then gave her an intense head-to-toe onceover before stumbling backward, turning clumsily toward the balcony doors and fast-walking back into the loud, busy party.
Ruby let him go. Why was he always running away after confessing his love for her? The more enduring question might be why she wanted to follow him and discover what she suspected was a perfect body under his huntsman costume. Mentally shaking her head for letting him distract her, Ruby made her way back inside to the party.
She searched the entire place and found nothing but frustration. There was no sign of her quarry, a single man with a tattoo on his ring finger. The few partygoers who wore gloves, she quickly identified as longtime residents. Not one of them was a recent transplant to Nocturne Falls.
Maybe that should be her next attempt. How could she get a list of new folks in town? Ruby hadn’t been told much regarding her quarry’s paranormal ability. Just that there was a good chance he would be in Nocturne Falls and he had a tattoo on his right ring finger. That was the extent of the information given.
However, the accompanying payment for simply looking around for this man had been too much to pass up and the equally generous payment if she actually made contact and delivered the message was very hard to let go of. She’d spent the bonus amount five different ways in her head, playing the what if game.
The party seemed at its height as she made another circle of the room, searching endlessly for her prey. More than once, her mind wandered to Max and the wide band on his ring finger. Surely he wasn’t the person she was looking for, was he?
A sneaky little kernel of doubt planted itself deep in her brain. After what she’d decided would be her final round, Ruby did another quick search, looking specifically for Max.
She would ask him to take the wide gold band off and show her his ring finger. If he refused, well then, she was stuck. Maybe she’d try to throw him off-balance again, and ask about his love for her. The memory of him telling her he loved her and that he had to tell her the truth flashed in her mind, but she didn’t see him anywhere. Had he left the party after their private meeting on the balcony? If she met up with him later, would he still confess his love for her and be forced to tell her the truth? Interesting. She looked forward to seeing him again.
Ruby saw Bubba and Astrid in their flashy silver alien costumes, silver-gloved hands clasped, and headed in their direction.
If they didn’t know where he was in the ballroom, perhaps they would share when and where he worked—their main office or their satellite location—so she could surprise him with a psychic appointment. Her heart flipped over at the mere idea of seeing him again. Maybe there was something wrong with her, too. She hadn’t been looking for a man or a date or a husband, regardless of what Aunt Vilma said to try and persuade her.
Ruby had made it clear to her matchmaking-minded aunt that she was not on the hunt for any kind of relationship or companionship.
Max’s face eased into her mind and settled in for a nice long stay. He was attractive. No getting around that fact. He’d read her mind about trying to find someone at the ball, but perhaps it had been a lucky guess. An investigator, paranormal or not, looking for someone wasn’t exactly a stretch.
Ruby should stop by the family table and at least say hi to Aunt Vilma before heading out.
As she turned to do just that, Ruby saw Max exit the men’s bathroom in a hurry and head for the front door. Perhaps he was making his final escape. She almost followed him, but instead decided to try a surprise attack where he worked. She could ask to have her fortune read by him specifically, then see what he had to say about her and about that ring he wore on his right ring finger.
She drifted in the direction of the family table, ready to take a seat and view the guests from a stationary place. Viktor and Isabel were just standing up to take a spin around the dance floor.
“I see you finally got away from your big, bad, baby whisperer duties,” she said as she passed her half-vampire half brother.
He rolled his eyes, bared his fangs and hissed at her with exaggerated menace, making her giggle.
Warrick and Bianca sat next to Vilma, but also stood up to head for the dance floor. Ruby slid into one of the seats vacated by Viktor and Isabel.
“How are you, darling?” Vilma asked with a big grin. “And most importantly, who was that gorgeous, tall blond man I saw you talking to by the refreshment table?”
Ruby shook her head, awed by the fact her aunt already knew about Max. “His name is Max Vander. He told me he loves me, he wants to marry me and that he must always tell me the truth.”
Vilma giggled. “Very funny, dear.”
“I’m not kidding. He said all those things to me.”
“He doesn’t know, but he said something must be wrong with him. I believe I agree.”
“Well, the two of you look marvelous together and you even had compatible costumes. You’re Little Red Riding Hood while he was dressed as the Huntsman with an authentic axe from Warrick’s shop. I’d recognize his work anywhere.” She kissed her fingertips and threw them in the air, as if some random chef had created a perfect salad or something. “Simply perfect.”
“Well, he seems a little bit off his rocker, but I do need to talk to him again. He said he works for Bubba and Astrid. Do you know either of them well enough to get me a meeting with one or both of them?”
“I could, but why don’t you ask Bianca? Or simply go to their place of business and ask them? They are very approachable, for aliens from another planet.”
Ruby saw Sheriff Merrow cut a swift path through the crowd toward the men’s bathroom. She decided it was a case of champagne in, champagne out. Just like any other potent beverage.
Warrick and Bianca returned from the dance floor. Viktor and Isabel remained in each other’s arms, swaying to the music.
“I’m sure you’ll find your man, Ruby,” Vilma said.
“What man? Why do you need to find a man?” Warrick asked, sounding like an overprotective brother. He and Bianca sat down.
Ruby ignored his tone. “For a case I’m working on.”
Warrick perked up. “Do you need me to help you take down any supernatural bad guys?”
“You and Viktor do not have the vaguest idea of what I do for a living.”
He grinned. “No. We do. But it’s fun to see you sputter when we ask. Let’s call it brotherly love. We have a couple of decades of teasing to make up for.”
“Awesome,” she said, sounding exasperated. She wasn’t. She appreciated their sense of humor and approved of how they treated her with such love and warm welcome. Even the brotherly teasing was welcome. It was wonderful to be genuinely accepted without any strings attached to their affection. And most of all, she liked the teasing, but didn’t plan to tell them.
Before she could say another word, she smelled smoke. Sniffing the air, she turned toward the bathrooms.
She was about to sound the alarm when Warrick stood up quickly.
“I smell smoke. Does anyone smell that?” Warrick asked, as several loud voices came from across the ballroom. As a half-dragon shifter, he had a particular affinity for flames of any kind.
The shrill sound of a fire alarm pierced the air and hundreds of interestingly dressed people rushed for any and all exits.