“I told you, I owe those guys money.”

Nikan shook his head, annoyance popping inside him. “Your lies have a metallic scent to them.”

Antoine was silent until Esperanze moved closer to him. She grasped the vamp’s hands in her much smaller ones, making Nikan’s wolf claw at his insides, shredding and tearing, eager to add to the blood on Antoine’s face. Damn, this need to mate was making him crazy.

“Tell us what’s going on. Trust Nikan, he’ll help you if he can. We both will,” Esperanze said softly.

Her words were like a soothing balm over Nikan. Still, he hated the sight of her touching another male. Any male, regardless of species. He balled his hands into fists. No need to act like a complete fucking Neanderthal and piss Essie off.

“I . . .” Antoine withdrew his hands from Esperanze and scrubbed them over his face. “Fuck! I’ll just say it. They took Chandra and they’re using her to get to me.”

Nikan had heard enough. He pointed to the bed. “Sit.” It looked as if the vamp was close to breaking down and Nikan wanted answers that made sense. After Antoine did as he ordered, he continued. “Who is Chandra? And what do they want you for?”

“She’s my . . . well, we’re not involved, yet. She’s a human friend of mine. A biology professor at the college.” He looked at Esperanze, a ghost of a smile on his drawn, pale face. “You’d like her, Esperanze.” Shaking his head, he refocused on Nikan. “I’d planned to ask her to undergo the change so we could be together always, but something happened. I don’t know how they knew she meant something to me. Maybe they were watching, I don’t know . . .” He scrubbed another hand over his face.

“Who was watching?” Nikan demanded. He didn’t have time for kid gloves.

Antoine’s head tilted toward the door. “Gregorio and Marco Moretti, those two young shifters. They’re blackmailing me.”

“For what?” Esperanze asked.

He looked at Nikan, his face distraught. “If I tell you, I don’t care what you do to me, but you have to swear you’ll help save my friend.”

Nikan shook his head. “I’m not swearing to anything until you tell me exactly what’s going on.”

The vampire pursed his lips and stood. “Then leave.”

Esperanze swiveled to Nikan, placing a hand on his forearm. She gently squeezed. “Nikan.”

Damn, I am so screwed. All she had to do was use that pleading voice and he’d say yes to almost anything. He looked sharply at Antoine. “Fine. I’ll help your female.”

“Swear it.”

“If he says he will, that’s good enough,” Esperanze interjected, heat in her voice.

Nikan’s chest swelled with pride. She might not return his feelings with the same intensity as him, but she trusted him and that meant a hell of a lot. To have the trust of a woman like Esperanze . . . he swallowed back a lump of foreign emotion.

Antoine nodded. “They’ve been holding her hostage in exchange for my blood. They’re selling it.”

The space grew deathly quiet. Nikan couldn’t even hear sounds from the neighboring rooms. Selling any paranormal blood was illegal in every circle. Human, shifter, fae, demon and especially vampire. Vampire blood gave humans supernatural strength, giving them power and a euphoric rush, making them reckless, dangerous to everyone. But Nikan pushed past it. That was a problem they’d deal with later. Now, his only interest was helping the innocent human involved. “Why did they take your woman? Why not just take you instead?”

He laughed wryly. “I only wish they had, but I’m too high profile. While I’m not part of a coven, I’m still very well known in many academic circles. If I disappeared, someone would come looking.”

“Why not go to the Brethren? I don’t really know much about vampires, but wouldn’t they help?” Esperanze asked, confusion in her voice.

Nikan snorted softly, already knowing the answer. She obviously didn’t understand their hierarchy.

Antoine shook his head. “They’d have done nothing if I’d gone to them for help over a mere human. If she’d been turned, they might have intervened, especially since it’s shifters that have her. Now I can’t go to them.”

“Why?” she persisted.

“I’ve been giving shifters my blood. They’d kill me for that alone and Chandra would be dead. And in case you’re wondering, I briefly thought about going to the cops but the humans already know she’s missing. They’ve even questioned me about her since we work together. The Moretti brothers threatened to kill her if I spoke to the authorities again and they’ll do it. I have no one to turn to.”

“Have you tried tracking them to see where she’s being held?” Nikan asked.

Antoine nodded. “Over the past few weeks I’ve tried a couple times. They’ve been very careful each time they come to see me.”

“How often is that?”

“Three times a week.”

Nikan frowned. “Why did they rough you up this morning? You’re their cash cow. It doesn’t make sense.”

The vampire rubbed a hand over his ribs, as if in pain. “I demanded to talk to her. They haven’t let me talk to her in a week and I told them if they didn’t let me today, I was walking away. I . . . wouldn’t have, but I’ve been going crazy thinking about her. Last time we spoke she was in good spirits and it didn’t sound as if they’d hurt her, but these two are animals. I can only imagine what they’re capable of. This morning they stopped by to ‘remind’ me who was in charge.”

Nikan reached out and tugged Esperanze close. This weekend was supposed to have been about her seduction and pleasure. He’d even planned to stay a few extra days, spend more time with her, maybe do some touristy sightseeing stuff. Dealing with rogue shifters selling vamp blood? Something he’d never imagined. He wanted to pack Esperanze up and get the hell out of town. Keeping her out of danger was his number one priority, but she’d hate him if he did. And the truth was, he’d hate himself if he walked away from helping an innocent human.

“We’ve got to help him.” Esperanze wrapped her arm around his waist, curling into him as she nuzzled her head against his chest.

“I know.” His fingers tightened on her shoulder as he looked at Antoine. “I want to know every single thing you know about these two shifters. Everything you’ve noticed no matter how small.” He turned to Esperanze, his voice automatically softening. “And I need to know the info you memorized from that ID.”

“That was Gregorio,” Antoine said.

Esperanze nodded in agreement. “That’s what it said on his license.”

Names might not be much, but at least they were a start. Before joining with the Armstrong pack, Nikan had lived on his mother’s reservation. For decades, the elders of his Potawatomi tribe had come to him to settle disputes because of his shifter ability to scent lies. He’d also been called upon by local law enforcement for help in tracking lost kids or missing persons once paranormal beings had come out to the rest of the world. He might not like the idea of staying in DC, but he liked the thought of helping out an innocent.

* * *

Esperanze sat on the edge of the big bed in her and Nikan’s hotel room. Antoine sat at the small breakfast table, his head in his hands. He might have changed out of his bloody clothes and completely healed from the bruises and lacerations, but he still looked awful.

Seeing him so torn up broke her heart, especially since she understood his worry. The thought of losing a man she cared about—namely Nikan—shredded her insides. She’d put herself in Antoine’s shoes earlier as he’d told them why he was giving up his blood, and she couldn’t find any room in her heart for judgment. If someone took Nikan, she’d do anything to keep him safe.

The realization had slammed into her with startling force. She might want to deny how much she cared for him, but it was becoming impossible. Considering how he’d stepped up and was helping Antoine with no concern for his own safety made her feelings for him swell even more.

Antoine had cancelled his speaking engagements today and she wouldn’t be going to anything else either. Nothing mattered now except helping his friend.

She nearly jumped when the hotel room door opened, but her heart rate steadied when Nikan stepped inside. They’d been very careful after leaving Antoine’s hotel, but Nikan still wanted to make sure they hadn’t been followed.

“We’re clear.” He pulled out his cell phone as he spoke. She knew who he was calling before their Alpha even picked up.

“Hey, man. How’s the conference? You and Esperanze mated yet?” Thanks to her extrasensory abilities she could hear Connor’s questions clearly.

Hearing that question made her heart stutter and her breath catch. Nikan stared at her, his expression completely unreadable. She held her breath as she waited for him to answer.

“We’ve run into a big problem.” Nikan’s voice was rock steady.

Something that felt a lot like disappointment surged through her when Nikan didn’t even touch what Connor had asked. Intellectually, she knew it wasn’t the time or place to even care about his nonresponsiveness, but it stung in a way she didn’t completely understand. Mating with an alpha wasn’t something she’d ever planned on. Of course she’d never planned to fall for a warrior like Nikan either.

Silently, she waited as Nikan outlined to their Alpha everything that had just happened. Nikan also gave him all the information they had on the two shifters’ identities to pass on to Ryan, their resident computer genius/hacker at the ranch. Finally her Alpha spoke and her spirits plummeted. “I can’t spare the manpower right now. Not with everything going on at the ranch. Everyone’s still healing from Alicia and Carmen’s deaths and there are still members of the Antiparanormal League who want us dead. I only let you go because—”