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Much To Answer For





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New Orleans

Club Hell

March 28

Von stared, finger curled around the trigger, boots rooted to the wood planks.

Holly Miková’s hair was a wild, wind-swept tangle the pale, buttery color of late afternoon sunshine, her eyes the deep blue of ripe blueberries and full of mocking laughter, just like the lips painted a deep wine red and parted in a fang-revealing smile.

She wore a white blouse underneath a black leather vest that hugged her firm curves like it’d been molded to her with a blow torch, and belted blue jeans over square-toed scooter boots. A crescent moon tattoo glittered like frost beneath her right eye.

And her presence—or the possible reason for her presence—turned Von’s blood ice-water cold.

“Good to see you again, McGuinn.” Time had plucked her formerly flannel-thick Russian accent almost threadbare. She nodded at the gun barrel in her face. “Looks like some things never change, da? Still playing with your gun, I see.”

“Every chance I get, darlin’.”

“Well, they say practice makes perfect.”

“That it does. Which is why I get no complaints,” Von drawled. He lowered the Browning to his side, but didn’t holster it. No way this is an outta-the-blue social call. “So what brings you to New Orleans, Miková?”

“You.”

Suspicions confirmed. She’d been sent. And Von had a sinking feeling as to why.

“I’m flattered as hell, truly. But I’ve handed myself over to God and taken a vow of chastity in order to keep the peace. I don’t wanna be responsible for the ladies—and a few gents—turning this city into Thunderdome just to win a date with me.”

“Still an egocentric idiot, I see.” Holly’s gaze glided over him in a heated blue caress. “But a handsome-as-sin egocentric idiot.”

“Stop. You’re making me blush.”

Holly snorted. Her attention shifted past him as she looked into the darkened hall. “You going to ask me in, McGuinn?”

“Nope.” Von stepped out onto the sidewalk, pulling the door shut behind him. The cool, moist night smelled of rain-wet brick, the Mississippi, and night-blooming jasmine. He sent Silver an all-clear, then leaned one shoulder against the door. “Tell me why you’re here.”

A smile flickered across Holly’s dark lips. “To the point, as always. A nomad thing, da? At least the few nomads I’ve met have all been . . . direct.”

“Unlike a certain Russian llygad. Spill, woman. Why you here?”

“I was sent to deliver a summons.” Pale light from the street lamps flickered in her eyes. All expression vanished from her face as she took up her official duty. “Von McGuinn, you are to report to the filidh in Memphis in one night’s time to explain why they’ve learned of a True Blood through outside sources and not from the llygad apparently serving this alleged True Blood’s household.”

Von nodded. Even though his chest felt slivered with ice, some of the tension unspooled from his muscles. He’d been right; so no more reason to fret over it. The filidh, the master-bards of the llygaid, planned to take him to task for his silence.

“Why’d they send you? Because they thought you’d enjoy breaking the news?”

“No, they thought you’d listen to me—because of what we once had.”

Holly’s black tea and vanilla scent curled into Von’s nostrils, a warm and intimate odor he’d once known very well. “Before or after you shot me?”

“That was thirty years ago, McGuinn. And, for the record—in case you haven’t noticed—you lived.”

“I’ve noticed,” Von growled. “I was thinking you might like to explain.”

“Why you lived?”

“Why you shot me, woman.”

“Come to Memphis and maybe I’ll tell you.”

Holly stepped closer and tilted her head as she scanned him from head to toe and back again, her heated gaze skimming his body like hot oil. “One question,” she said softly, lifting her eyes to his.

“Shoot—not literally, of course. Maybe I didn’t make that clear last time.”

She rolled her eyes. “Big baby.”

“So what’s your question?”

Is Dante Baptiste a True Blood?” Excitement curled through Holly’s voice, thickened her accent. Ruined her llygad- bred impartiality.

Von held her lambent gaze. “Ain’t my place to say. You need to ask him.”

Low, incredulous laughter broke from Holly, and she shook her head. “Of course it’s your place! It’s your duty to observe, compose, and report. This is information vital to vampire society, and you’ve kept mum. Abandoned your duty, your impartiality.” She touched his arm, her fingers as warm as her gaze had been. “Oh, Vonushka. You’ve got a lot to answer for.”

Von kept quiet. Her charges were true. But he regretted nothing. Gently shaking off her touch, he flipped the Browning’s safety back on, then reholstered the gun. Just as he pushed away from the wall, he heard the low, throbbing thunder of a Harley rumbling up one of the Quarter’s streets. And his heart kicked into high gear. Good old Murphy’s Law was putting in a goddamned appearance.

<Keep away for a few more minutes,> Von sent.

Dante’s response burned, a white-hot coal centered behind Von’s left eye. <Why?>

Von rubbed his forehead as the searing echo of Dante’s migraine faded. <A complication just popped in.>

Her weight on one hip, Holly folded her arms under her breasts and studied Von. “Who are you sending to, McGuinn?”

<Ain’t running. Ain’t hiding.>

<I thought we agreed that you ain’t ready yet, dammit.>

Silence.

“Goddamned pigheaded sonuvabitch . . .” Von muttered under his breath.

Excuse me?” Holly said, arching one straw-colored eyebrow.

The thup-thup-thup of a Harley’s deep-throated engine filled the street, echoed from the buildings. Headlight glare dazzled Von’s eyes. Shifting his gaze back to Holly, he said, “Tell the filidh I’ll be there. And have a safe trip back, darlin’.” Turning away, he pushed the club’s door open, hoping she’d take the hint and split.

“You trying to get rid of me, McGuinn?” Her voice was knowing, amused. “Without even a farewell kiss? Very subtle. Oh, and it looks like you have company, by the way.”

Sighing, Von let the door swing shut again, twisted back around and watched as Dante guided the Harley up against the curb. He lowered the kickstand with a nudge of his foot, the straps criss-crossing his boot glinting with silver light from the street lamp, then eased the bike over onto the stand. He switched off the headlight. Killed the throbbing engine.

Silence rushed in like surf over sand.

The van glided to a stop behind the Harley, Heather at the wheel, her face shadowed behind the windshield. Von frowned. Were those dents in the van’s side panel and front bumper?

Lucien opened the passenger side door and unfolded from the van. Straightening, he looked across the van’s black hood, his attention fixed on Von and his lingering guest. He arched a dark, questioning eyebrow.

<A problem with your fellow llygad?> Lucien sent.

<Yes and no. She ain’t here to cause problems, but she’s asking questions.>

<About Dante.>

<You got it. And if she asks Dante directly . . .>

<He’ll tell her the truth. The child’s determined to make himself visible to all.> Frustration and resignation edged Lucien’s thought.

<I know. He ain’t running and he ain’t hiding.>

Dante stood, swung his leg with easy grace over the bike, then bounced up onto the sidewalk. Shirtless—and what the hell happened to his shirt this time?—his white skin seemed almost to glow in the darkness. Von narrowed his eyes. Dark color streaked Dante’s shoulders and down along his sides, color that seemed to radiate out from his back. Smears of dried blood. What the hell had happened?

Then Von’s gaze locked onto the mark scarring Dante’s chest right above his heart. It looked like pictures he’d seen of angelic script. Von’s pulse pounded in his temples.

Dante acknowledged Von with a nod of his chin, a wry smile tilting his lips as he brushed a finger along the scar. His gaze flicked over Holly as he waited for Heather and Lucien.

<She’s llygad, yeah? Since you wanted me to stay away, I’m guessing she ain’t a friend of yours.>

<Not at the moment, but we did train together,> Von replied. Dante had tightened his shields, but pain radiated hot against Von’s mind like fire behind a furnace’s closed door. <She’s here on official business.>

<What do the llygaid want with us?>

<Me. It’s me they want. No big deal. I’ll tell you about it later.>

The furnace scorching Von’s thoughts vanished as Dante withdrew his psionic touch. He nodded, but Von read his dubious expression loud and clear: If it’s no big deal, then why the hell did you warn me away?

Von had no doubt Dante wouldn’t like the truth. Hell, even he didn’t like the truth. But it was truth that could wait until after Sleep.

Heather slipped out of the van, one of Dante’s black hoodies in her hand. Draping it over her trench-coated shoulder, she stepped up onto the sidewalk beside Dante, Lucien a few paces behind her, then the three of them headed over to join Von at the club entrance.

Von blinked. Was Lucien wearing a kilt? A belted black kilt and . . . sandals? And where was his goddamned shirt?

All three looked wiped out from where Von stood. Shadows bruised Heather’s eyes, and she moved with a heavy-limbed weariness; Lucien was pale, his vitality dimmed, half-healed wounds just below each shoulder; and Dante . . .

The boy was hurting. Von saw it in the set of Dante’s jaw, the dried smear of blood beneath his nose, in the black depths of his dilated eyes. Even through the double layer of protection offered by his shields and Dante’s own, pain had scorched the edges of Dante’s sendings.

Von heard Holly’s breath catch in her throat as her gaze traveled over Dante, heard her pulse pick up speed, until she drew in a deep breath and deliberately calmed herself. Her pulse slowed. Her breathing evened out. Her curious gaze skimmed Lucien, then Heather.

“Lucien,” Von greeted. He clasped the fallen angel’s forearm in a warm welcome, the muscles hard as steel beneath his fingers. “It’s damned good to see you, man.”

Lucien nodded, squeezing his fingers around Von’s arm in turn. A smile lit his obsidian eyes. “Indeed it is, llygad.”

“What happened to your shirt?” Von asked when Dante halted beside him. “You run into more grab-happy Inferno fans?”

“Nope, not Inferno fans.” Dante pulled something out of his back pocket and tossed it to Von. <We’ll talk about it later, yeah?>

Frowning, Von unfolded the blood-stiff shirt he’d caught and stared at its torn and shredded back. The thick smell of Dante’s blood threaded into the air. He looked back up at Dante. <Hell, yeah, we’re gonna talk about it later.>

Holly extended her hand. “You must be Dante Baptiste, da? I’m Holly Miková.”

Llygad,” Dante acknowledged, giving her hand a quick squeeze. “This is Heather and Lucien. You here on official business?”

“And it’s all taken care of,” Von supplied, still hoping against hope to get her nicely rounded ass moving down the sidewalk before she asked Dante the question. “She’s just now on her way back to Memphis. Drive safe, darlin’. I’ll see you later.”

Heather assessed Holly with a cool gaze, her hands tucked into the pockets of her trench. A smile twitched across Von’s lips. Woman probably already had a round chambered.

“Would you answer a question for me?” Holly asked Dante.

And . . . too late. Von sighed.

Dante shrugged. “Peut-être. Depends on the question.”

Von held his breath, knowing that Holly was memorizing every detail of Dante’s pale face, his tight-muscled body, his Cajun-spiced words. And passing it along as she connected to the web of linked consciousnesses forming the llygaid mind-net and downloaded every captured image, word, and movement to be prioritized and channeled to the proper filidh for verification.

“Rumor says that you’re a True Blood,” Holly said. “Are you?”

“You asking as llygad?”

“I am, da.” Holly studied Dante, her expression neutral and composed.

“Gotta refuse your question, then,” Dante said with a slight shake of his head. “I only send official responses through Von, and I ain’t got time for this one right now.”

Holly blinked in surprise.

So did Von. Twice. Well hell. Didn’t see that coming.

His respect for Dante deepened another notch. Looked like the boy’s ain’t running, ain’t hiding policy involved taking control of the information flow, instead of just blurting the truth whenever asked. Von released his pent-up breath in a low sigh of relief.

“Have a safe trip back to Memphis, llygad,” Dante said, stepping between Holly and Von to the door and pushing it open. “If you don’t mind, I got shit to do.”

“Of course.”

Dante slipped into the darkened hall, Lucien following him inside. Heather, however, remained standing beside Von, her attention on Holly.

“Interesting,” Holly murmured under her breath, her gaze on the closed door. Shifting her attention to Von, she said, “See you soon, da?”

“Yeah, Miková. Soon. Be sure to have that explanation ready, darlin’. A gun might not hurt either.”

With a soft laugh, Holly swiveled around and walked away into the flickering light of the street lamps, hips swinging. Von watched until the night swallowed up her cloud of pale hair.

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