“Oh, hello, Mr. Latimer,” the human man said. “I was… er, I was just leaving.”
Emile glanced back at her, and there was regret in his face. As if he knew things he wished he didn’t. “I’ll see you out on the floor, Therese.”
After the human left, she looked up, way up, into the eyes of a male that she had not been able to get out of her mind. Trez Latimer was more than a vampire. He was a Shadow, his dark skin and black eyes integral to the venerable heritage of the s’Hisbe, his heavy shoulders and long powerful legs the kind of thing you never saw except in warriors.
He was extraordinary. In all ways.
And he was staring at her with a kind of intensity that she had never understood, but certainly could not question. From the moment he had first seen her, he had appeared to be captivated—which made no sense at all. Therese was a middle-of-the-road female, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither fat nor thin, neither brilliant nor stupid.
Yet to this incredible male, she seemed to be of unusual interest.
There had to be a reason. But self-preservation dictated that she not go any further with him. God knew she had enough on her plate already.
“Hi,” she said softly. “I wondered if you would be here tonight.”
And I wondered if you were dead, Trez thought to himself.
But that was hardly the kind of opener he wanted to lead with. For one, as a vampire, Therese wouldn’t have been stupid like him and taken a car through the storm. She would have dematerialized here. For another, she was not his responsibility. Really. No, really, she was not.
And likewise he was not her curse.
Just because this female and his beloved Selena looked so completely similar did not give him the right to be behave as if Therese was his beloved shellan. So whether she was late to work on a snowy night, or if she didn’t come in at all, or if she were early or on time, none of this was his problem, his fault, or his concern. And for crissakes, this paranoia he was rocking with regard to her safety was annoying.
Come on, not every female he met or came into contact with was going to die on him.
If that were true, the Black Dagger Brotherhood would all be widowers by now.
Trez cursed and looked away. Looked back. Tried not to re-memorize that which had never left his mind.
“Yes, I’m here,” he heard himself say.
“Are you okay?”
Nope. Not even close. “I was just worried about you.”
Yeah, wow. That pep talk he’d given himself had really stuck, hadn’t it.
“That’s really kind of you.”
“The weather’s bad out tonight.” His voice sounded strange to his own ears. Tense and low. “Because of the snow.”
Plus, there’s that disaster zone you’re living in, he tacked on in his head. And God, he really had to shut up here. He was just digging a hole he wasn’t going to be able to climb out of.
“Oh, I’m fine.” She made a dismissive motion with her hand. “I’m self-sufficient.”
Next up: strained silence.
As the quiet persisted, Trez was aware he was staring, but his eyes refused to go anywhere else. Every time he saw this female, he found himself compulsively checking to see if he was right about what she looked like. To see if he had somehow misinterpreted something about her. And the fucked-up thing was that he couldn’t decide whether he wanted his perception to be right or wrong—although it wasn’t like he got a vote on that.
The likeness was stunning, and it reconnected him with everything he had lost, better than a photograph because there was movement, better than a memory because there was conversation, better than a fantasy because it was real. Therese’s long, dark, curly hair, which was raked back and twisted into a tight bun per uniform requirements, was the precise color and texture of his Chosen’s. And the female’s pale eyes, perfectly set in her perfect face, were so like Selena’s he had to force himself not to weep. And her lips…
Well, they were like his female’s, too, and not just in terms of shape. And goddamn it, he shouldn’t know what they felt like.
He shouldn’t have kissed her on impulse that one time, and he shouldn’t have made this drive to see her, and he shouldn’t have come here tonight on a pretense just so he could stand in front of her and get caught in this net again. She was not his dead shellan come back to life. She was a young female, hired by his brother, to work here in this restaurant. A stranger. Who just happened to look something like the love of his life.
“Sooooo, yes,” she said slowly. “I’m fine.”
Her eyebrows lifted and she leaned forward, as if she were trying to help him with the conversation. Or maybe was wondering if he’d stroked out.
“Good.” Trez nodded. “I’m glad.”
When she looked around him, as if she had to get to work, he knew he was going to lose his chance.
“Listen, have you given any more thought about that house I can get for you? The rental we talked about?”
Her eyes swung back up to his. When she didn’t immediately answer him, he could feel his protective instinct come out, and he tried to reason with it. He didn’t get far at all. His need to ensure her safety was like a charging bull, and come on, like he expected something with four clamoring hooves and anger-management issues to speak English? Listen to reason? He’d have better luck trying to convince himself she didn’t look like Selena—and how far had he gotten with that one?
This whole thing was a mess. And he couldn’t leave it well enough alone.
“I thought it was an apartment,” she said with a frown.
“No, it was a house.”
“You’re really kind. But I told you last week that I’ve reconsidered and I’m going to stay put for now.”
“I know.” Okay, he was keeping his voice level. This was awesome. “But it’s a good deal. An even better deal. Just like I said, you can pay what you’re able now, and when you earn more, you can even it out later.”
“I really appreciate it…” She smoothed the hair she had pulled back flat. “But I don’t want to rely on you.”
He put out his hand, all Stop! In the naaaame of loooove. Or, from her point of view, Stop! For the love, please frickin’ stop with this rental malarkey.
“I don’t expect anything in return,” he said. “Just so we’re clear. This is not something shady.”
As her eyes dipped to his mouth, he knew exactly what she was thinking of, and dear God, he tried to hold the line with his libido. He shouldn’t have engineered it so they’d been alone together, and not only because she worked for iAm. He was in no position to be taking any female out. He was chest-deep in grief, as steady as a two-legged chair, and just as likely to end up in the Hudson River as to make it home safely at the end of any given night.
Put like that? He was worse than a booby prize. He was a lit stick of dynamite, sure to cause damage and destruction in her life.
And that was before anyone got to the part about him feeling disloyal to a dead female for even thinking like this. With Selena gone, he should be a monk for the rest of his nights. No doubt the fact that they looked the same was the only reason he was able to think sexually at all. But still.
“You said you would move,” he pressed. “When we were at the diner together. You said you would—”
“I know I did.” Her expression turned anxious. “And I didn’t mean to jerk you around. It was just, the more I thought about it, the more I felt uneasy about taking advantage of your connections.”
“I can take you after work to see the place. You can do a walk-through—”
Trez sensed a presence out in the hall, and he looked in its direction. That blond human man was back again, leaning around the corner. Checking on Therese.
Trez’s fangs tingled as they descended.
“She’ll be right there,” he clipped out.
When the guy backed off like someone was pointing a gun at his head, Trez was disappointed for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to bare his fangs and hiss at the nosy bastard. Then maybe peel a carving knife out of the kitchen’s collection and give the fucker a haircut. Starting with the feet and ankles, then working his way up.
Like any of that was going to help this situation, though? Dead bodies were inconvenient when they were created in public.
Plus, hello, body parts on the carpet were not going to help his case with Therese.
“I have to go.” She offered an apologetic smile. “I was late tonight, and everyone took care of me.”
Everyone? Trez thought to himself. Or one particular guy.
As his heart dropped and his stomach churned, he shook his head. At himself. “Look, if you’re worried about… you know, privacy. It’s fine. It’s… whatever. I’m not going to intrude on your life.”
The fuck it was whatever. But like he was in any position to criticize her choices? If she wanted to bang that human until the sonofabitch walked with a limp and needed an IV bag for fluids, then there was not a damn thing he could do about it.
Well, except go to work with that knife. Although chances were, if she actually liked that motherfucker with the flaxen fucking hair, she was going to get a little offended if a headstone was brought into the equation.
Oh, God, he needed to get out of this—
Therese put her hand on his arm, and swear to God, he felt the contact go through his entire body.
“I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I really want to do this on my own,” she said. “I’ve thought about your kind offer, I really have, and I shouldn’t have jumped at the chance without considering the implications. It would be so easy to rely on you, but I need to stand on my own two feet. It is why I came to Caldwell, and I am not going to compromise on that.”
Trez covered her hand with his own. “I won’t have a key, I promise. I won’t be able to get in there—it’s nothing like that. It will be your private place, for you to do… whatever in.”