She glanced up at him and was relieved to find that he hadn’t recoiled with disgust—which was not only something that people had done to her in the past, but the kind of thing the aristocracy was known for.
Boone, contrary to his station, was leaning in even closer, his expression open . . . accepting.
Taking another long inhale, she said, “Other young were downright cruel, but Isobel was there for me. I can remember the first fistfight she got into over my disability.” Helania had to smile. “She pounded the crap out of this little boy who had been making fun of me. I was too busy trying to get along in the world to worry about what people thought of my deafness, but she cared and she was fierce about it.”
“Is that why you think you can’t get along with people?”
“It’s a hangover from all those years, you know?” She touched her ear again. “Anyway, I had been told that there was a possibility that my transition would fix the problem with my ear canals, but I never believed it. When I came through the change, I was shocked to hear everything so clearly. I hated it at first. Everything was so loud, especially the high notes of things like hinges on doors, phones ringing, whistling. It was a difficult adjustment.”
“It must have been a different world to you,” he said.
“Totally different. I mean, I had kept to myself before then. After my hearing worked? I shut down for about a year. That was when Isobel insisted that we move out and start living on our own. She seemed to understand that I needed space to myself, and my parents were—they were very concerned and very well intended. But they were relentless in trying to draw me out, and all that pushing was having the opposite effect. Things got better after Isobel and I began living together. Movies were what saved me. While Isobel was out with her friends, I played them on the TV. First with those record-like discs, remember the ones that came like big albums in those plastic sleeves?”
Boone laughed. “Yes, God . . . I haven’t thought of them in years.”
“Right? Then Beta and VHS. Then DVDs. Now we have Netflix and Hulu.” She took a sip of her wine. “So when Isobel was out in the world, I would sit alone and watch movies, first with the sound turned way down and then gradually . . .” She shrugged. “I got used to it. Now, I can even be in crowds and not get overwhelmed by the all the layers of sound. But it took years. I read an article once that said the adjustment to a sense was all about neuropathways being developed. My brain has had to rewire itself, in other words.”
“But you’re still not completely at ease with people.”
“No, I’m not. Is it nature in the form of innate introversion? Or nurture from those two and a half decades of being deaf and getting ridiculed by kids my own age as well as some of their parents? I’m not sure. And I suppose it doesn’t matter. I am what I am.”
There was a note of apology in her tone, but then she had long felt that she had things to make up for, damages to explain, limitations to excuse—
Boone reached across the table and took her hand, the one with the scars on the palm. “I wouldn’t change a thing about you.”
“Well, that’s lucky for me,” she whispered, “as I’ve not had a lot of luck being anything different.”
As the jazz trio’s tempo changed, his thumb stroked over her flesh. “Dance with me?”
A spike of warmth flared in the center of her chest, right where her heart was. The glow was a surprise, and akin to a fire being lit in a cold, drafty room: A shocking, very pleasant change.
Isobel would approve of this, she thought abruptly. All of it.
Boone. The jazz music. The cozy pub-like atmosphere. Helania . . . taking a chance on someone.
And in this moment, it felt like the dice she was rolling were not so much on Boone, but . . . on herself.
“Yes,” she said with a slow smile. “I would like that.”
They got to their feet at the same time, and given that their table was right in front by the stage, it was just two steps over and she was up against his body.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, he was big. Her head only came up to his pecs and his arms seemed enormous as they wrapped around her. But he held her gently, letting her decide how close to get, and what do you know . . .
She wanted close.
It was a tough goal to accomplish, however. He had never taken his leather jacket off, and it wasn’t until she snuck a hand underneath it and ran into a holstered gun that she realized why.
“Sorry,” he said tightly.
“It’s okay.” She looked up into his eyes. “At least I know I’m safe.”
His face got deadly serious. “Always. I’m never going to let anything happen to you.”
As tears pricked the corners of her eyes, she laid her head on his leather-covered chest. She didn’t want to ruin the mood, but the truth was, that vow was hard to hear.
Too much like the past. Too much like Isobel.
Dragging herself back to the present, she concentrated on the way he moved, the subtle swaying of all that muscle, the promise of things left as yet unexplored.
Naked things. Pleasurable things.
God, he smelled good. Leather, a slight whiff of gunmetal . . . but mostly the clean male underneath.
Helania thought once again that she had no idea where this was going or what exactly was happening between them. But she wanted things to end up in a bed.
One of Boone’s hands stroked over her shoulder and down her back, following the contours of her curves. The warmth, the subtle pressure of the caress, the span of his large palm and deft fingers . . . all of it reverberated throughout her whole body, making her feel like she was a tuning fork calibrated for him and him alone. Tilting her head, she looked up at him again.
His face was a stark mask of hunger and his eyes burned as he stared down at her.
Except she didn’t need to see his tight expression to know how badly he wanted her.
She could feel his arousal.
“No, I’m going to do it.”
The dead tone cut through the anxious talk in the clinic’s private meeting room, a bomb blowing a hole in the conversational landscape. In the silent aftermath, Butch focused on the female who had spoken up through the tense gathering. Sitting in a chair off to the side, she was well into middle age, which for a vampire didn’t mean much in terms of physical changes—as per the species’ typical lifespan, she still looked like the twenty-five-year-old she had been after she’d gone through her change three hundred or so years before.
But the centuries she had been through showed in those eyes of hers.
And that tone.
Clearly, she had seen many bad things over the course of her life. This, however . . . this coming to see if a dead body was that of her daughter was undoubtedly the very worst. And these males around her, the hellren, the son, the uncle and the grandfather? They all fell quiet and dropped their stares to the floor in deference to her.
No doubt part of it was because no one could argue her right, but more than that? Butch had the sense that nobody except her had the strength for the grim task.
And he was not surprised that the mahmen was the one who’d woman’d up. After however many years in homicide, he had learned about the differences between the sexes. Men were physically stronger, true. But the women? They were the warriors. As much as those males who had come with her would have run into a burning building to save her, not one of them was strong enough to take her place for this heartbreaking duty.
Because they couldn’t handle it.
“All right,” Butch said. “Let me know when you’re—”
The female got to her feet. “I am ready now.”
The private meeting room they were in was next to the morgue’s viewing suite, and as Butch held the door open for her, she didn’t look back at her family. She walked out into the hall with her head up and both hands on her purse. She still had her coat on, the brown wool three-quarter simply cut and simply made.
He had a thought that he should suggest she take it off. But she didn’t look like the type who was going to faint.
No, she was steady as bedrock even though he could feel the fear boiling out of her very pores.
Butch held another door open for her, and they stepped inside a small tiled room that had three chairs off to one side and a watercooler. Across the way, a horizontal, six-foot-by-four-foot glass pane was displaying the pulled curtain on its other side.
“No,” she said as she eyed the window. “Not like this.”
“It will be easier for you to—”
“If that is my daughter, I’m not going to identify her body through a piece of glass.”
Butch could only nod. “Give me a second.”
Going over to the narrow door by the window, he knocked once. When Havers opened up, Butch kept his voice low.
“We’re coming in.”
“But that is not the way—”
“That is absolutely the way we’re going to do this,” Butch whispered. “At her request.”
Havers glanced over Butch’s shoulder and then bowed. “Of course. We will accommodate her wishes.”
As the race’s physician stood to the side, Butch looked at the female. “We’re ready when you are.”
The female took several deep breaths, and that purse she had a death grip on started to shake.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I’m going to suggest you take your coat off and leave your purse here.”
She looked over at where he pointed as if she had never seen a chair before. Then she went across and set her bag down. Removing her coat, she was careful as she folded the wool up and placed it on the seat, and when she straightened, she tucked her blouse into her slacks. Her clothes were not fancy, but neither were they casual; they were the kind of thing an executive assistant would wear to work.
And he totally understood her need to prepare herself. Sometimes, composure on the surface was all a person could ask for.
When she came over to him, he offered her his hand. He just wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. “I’m going in with you.”