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Lunging into the air, he attacked full frontal, one hand zeroing in on the front of the man’s throat, the other making sure to lock on the wrist that controlled that knife. There was no struggle to speak of. Humans, even the males, were no match for vampire strength, and it was the work of a moment for Boone to twist that arm out of its socket so that the blade was dropped.

The raw sound of pain coming out of the assailant was music to Boone’s ears, but he couldn’t let that go on for long.

Forcing his fingers into the man’s open mouth, he yanked the head up by the lower jaw with such force, most of the torso came up, too. And then he slammed the back of the skull into the snowpack, ringing the fucker’s bell. The impact got him the stunned immobility he was looking for: The man was still alive—his chest rising and falling, the veins up his throat continuing to pump with a pulse—but cognition was dimmed.

That would come back soon enough.

Not that there was any way out of this for the assailant—

From out of the corner of Boone’s eye, he caught sight of the knife the man had used on the woman. The weapon was lying on its side, the stained blade glinting dully.

Oh, good, Boone thought. This was going to be more fun if things weren’t sharp.

Palming the hilt, he sat back on his heels and waited for those bloodshot eyes to start to focus again. It didn’t take that long at all, a testament to both the man’s relative youth and the cushioning properties of snow.

When Boone was sure the assailant was ready, he leaned down and put the knife right in that face.

Mumbling. Lot of mumbling. Followed by some desperate begging.

“I want you to watch me,” Boone drawled. “Okay? You with me? Don’t piss me off, that’s a bad idea. You ready? Answer me.”

When the head nodded, Boone pointed to the tip with his fore–finger. Then he moved down to the man’s waist and pointed at the crotch area.

Lots of moaning, and the arm that still worked slapped a hand across that sensitive place.

“Yeah, no,” Boone said softly. “Not going to go like that.”

Fishing into one of the pockets of his jacket, Boone found the bandana he always kept on him in case he needed to apply pressure to a wound. Then, in a quick strike, he drove the knife into the back of the assailant’s protective hand.

When the man opened his mouth to scream, Boone shoved the folds of cotton in between all those teeth.

After which he made a fist and punched the guy in the shoulder socket so hard, something cracked in there. It was a good test of the silencer—and one that was passed. The scream was muffled sure as if he had a burlap sack over that head. The pinwheeling legs, however, were a pain in the ass, kicking up snow, moving the torso around—and Boone would have taken care of that problem except he was worried about the human female losing much more blood and body heat.

Pulling the knife out of the back of the hand, he waited until the human could focus once more. Then he grabbed onto the front of the guy’s pants and inserted the tip of the blade. The urine-soaked fabric was relatively hardy, the navy blue weave the kind of thing that janitors wore to work, but it was no match for even a dull blade.

Commando. Go figure.

Positioning himself between the man’s legs, Boone pinned those twitching thighs open with his knees. Just as he was about to put the blade in place, he paused and thought that he was taking things too far.

But then he thought of the woman behind him.

“This is for her,” he said in a growl.

* * *

Helania arrived at the twenty-four-hour diner a little before midnight. As she re-formed in the shadows of its back parking lot, she had to smile. The place was literally called The 24 Hr. Diner.

Talk about clarity of mission.

Stepping onto the sidewalk that ran around to its front entrance, she liked the stainless-steel-looking outer panels and the curved windows and the fact that there were a surprisingly large number of humans taking up space inside in booths by the windows and on stools at the counter.

Entering, she hesitated next to the cash register by the door. The decor was what you’d expect from something out of the fifties: red-andwhite color scheme, gingham napkins and drapes, waitresses in skirts with ruffled shirts and aprons. The menu was posted above the counter, individual jukeboxes were at every seat, and there were glass compartments full of pie slices on plates by the soda fountain.

Boone wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and she didn’t recognize anyone as being from the species.

The sense that she was out of place on a lot of levels created an irrational panic in the center of her chest, and she considered turning around and walking back out. But then she squared her shoulders and told herself she was staying, even if it meant she got stood up and had to have a piece of pie by herself.

It was beyond time for her to stretch her horizons. Even if it was only so far as a booth at The 24 Hr. Diner.

An older woman with a name tag that had “Ruth” on it walked over. “Mornin’, darlin’, you ready to sit?”

The Southern accent was a surprise. But then again, Helania had never heard one in person before.

“Um, I’m supposed to meet some friends here?”

“They come in yet?”

Helania looked around again. You know, just in case she’d missed three vampires sitting in and among the humans. “Ah, no. I don’t think so.”

“How many you be?”

At least that was what she thought the woman said. “I’m sorry, what?”

Falling back on old habits, she lip-read the answer that was given to her: How many do you be?

“Three?” Okay, so this whole question-as-answer thing she was rocking was annoying. As if the woman was in a position to confirm the number psychically in the event Helania had it wrong? “I mean, four. In total. Three plus me.”

The smile that came back at her was so unexpected and so . . . kind . . . that Helania nearly teared up.

“You’re nervous,” the woman said. “You meetin’ a man?”

“Um . . . well, yes. Yes, I’ve just started . . . um . . . seeing someone.

And he and his friends are meeting me here—a couple. I mean, there’s another couple coming. With him.”

“Oh, a double date! Come on, y’all can sit over here where it’s quiet.”

Helania followed the waitress down to a booth at the end of the lineup opposite the counter. As she skootched in so she was facing the door, “Ruth” brought over four glasses of water and leaned a hip against the free side of the padded bench.

“So, tell me about your beau,” the human said.

Well, he’s a vampire and he kills the undead for a living. He’s also a great kisser.

“We’re just getting to know each other.” Inside and out, in her case, she thought with a blush. “And he’s a really nice guy.”

“Honey, you’re makin’ sense then. I was married to my Merv for fifty years and I liked him just as much when I buried him as when I walked down that aisle to him.” The woman leaned in and dropped her voice. “Mark my words, the nice guys are the ones you want to take home and keep. Bad boys just break your heart, and that’s a rite of passage a smart woman only goes through once. The nice guys? Those are who you settle down with.”

Ruth gave Helania a wink as she straightened. “You want coffee?” Do I? Helania wondered.

“Yes, please?” God, again with the frickin’ question mark. “I mean, yes. Please.”

“Cream and sugar? And listen, we don’t do none of that almond milk or soy silliness, so don’t even ask. Our cream is from cows. The rest of that crap just ruins perfectly good coffee.”

As Helania didn’t know how she wanted anything at this point, she just said she’d take it black. And while Ruth went off to rustle up the caffeine, Helania rubbed sweaty palms on her jeans. Figuring that her parka wasn’t helping the hot waves going through her, and knowing she was going to have to shake hands pretty soon, she stripped out of her jacket and crammed the down folds in between her thigh and the wall of the booth.

Just as she was checking out the table-sized jukebox, her senses fired and she looked up.

A very nice-looking couple were coming through the door. The female was blond and truly striking, possessing the kind of double take attractiveness that turned her casual jeans and wool coat into formal wear. The male beside her was very tall and wearing a Syracuse baseball cap, his big body at ease—even as his eyes made the rounds of the diner like he was expecting to maybe, possibly, only-if-it-was-necessary attack an aggressor.

As they both focused on her, Helania’s first thought was What would Isobel do? And the answer to that was obvious: Her sister would have jumped out of the booth, rushed up to them, hugged them even though they were strangers, and brought them back so she could commence becoming their best friend and confidante.

Okay, right . . . when Helania considered pulling off that dance card, she had to go hell-no on all of those moves. For godsakes, she was so nervous, she would probably trip and fall on her face if she tried to slide out of this seat. And then before she could think of a B plan, the couple waved and started to head down the way.

Swallowing hard, Helania eyed the glass window next to her. She could always just dematerialize out. Leave them to clean up the human memories. Go back to her apartment and never try this kind of thing again.


Except then she realized something. It wasn’t about what Isobel would do.

It was a question of what Helania would do. And just because she couldn’t come on strong and be insta-buddies with two people she didn’t yet know, this did not mean she had failed some kind of test. It was also not a moral condemnation of her shy nature.

When the couple arrived at the table, she took a deep breath. And then, in a surprisingly calm and level voice, she said, “Hi, I think we’re having a meal together? I’m Helania.”

With a feeling of dread, she waited to see what they would do—

The female smiled and scooted into the booth on the other side.