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Happily Never After, Page 1

Jeaniene Frost


  Jeaniene Frost


  The old woman glanced at her watch. Quarter to eleven . It wouldn't be long now.

  Across the dark alley, two young men sauntered over with the sly, exaggerated swagger of teenagers up to no good. She barely spared them a glance as she tapped her foot and hummed. Once, very long ago, she'd have sauntered over to them, swinging her hips and murmuring promises of pleasure—for a price. But that had been another lifetime ago.

  The youths came nearer, greed and opportunism glittering in their eyes. The woman knew she looked like an easy target: a senior citizen standing in a dimly lit alley wearing an expensive trench coat, a gold watch, with a bulky purse dangling from her age-skinny arm. She may as well have added a sign that said "come and get me!"

  "Whatcha doin' out here, grandma?" one of them singsonged. The other hung back a foot or two, eyes flickering around to see if anyone was watching. No one was. People minded their own business on this side of South Philly.

  At a nod from his lookout, the other punk pulled out a switchblade.

  "Give me your money, your jewelry, and your purse. Or I'll cut you."

  The old woman smiled. "Do you know what you two are?" she asked in an amused voice.

  They looked at each other in surprise, clearly not expecting her lack of fear. Then their scowls returned.

  "Yeah, we're the guys robbing you!" the one with the knife snapped.

  "No," said a voice from the other end of the alley, an English accent decorating his words. "You're dinner."

  Before the two could blink, they were dangling by their throats from pale, rock-steady hands. One was yanked close to the black-clad figure. The stranger's eyes changed from brown to glowing green as he dipped his head to the exposed throat. The youth's partner in crime, still hoisted aloft, could only make terrified grunts as he watched fangs pierce his friend's neck.

  Then the stranger dropped the now-limp form and latched his mouth onto the other available neck. A minute later the second youth dropped flaccidly to the street. The stranger wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then pulled the old woman to him.

  Instead of struggling, she hugged him as hard as her feeble body could manage. He squeezed back gently, smiling when he let her go.

  "Greta, whatever were you thinking by telling me to meet you here? This is no place for you."

  She laughed with a hint of her former bawdy cackle.

  "I was thinking you'd be hungry, Bones. I knew I'd have something for you to eat by the time you got here."

  He chuckled as well, brushing a strand of white hair from her face. "Same old Greta. Always finding ways to please her blokes."

  She felt the warmth of many pleasant memories shimmer through her. Bones' beautiful face hadn't changed with time, and that was a comfort. Time was merciless on so many things, including herself, but it had no power over the blond vampire standing in front of her.

  She glanced at the still forms near their feet. "Are they dead?" she asked, more curious than concerned.

  Absently Bones kicked one of them. "No, just unconscious. I'll drop these sods in the nearest dumpster before we leave. Serves them right for threatening you."

  Which brought her to why she'd called him here. "I need a favor," Greta said.

  He took her hand. Once his skin would have felt noticeably cooler, but no longer. With the meal he just ate and my poor circulation, Greta thought wryly, we're almost the same temperature.

  If he thought that as well, it didn't show on his face. Very softly, he kissed her fingers.

  "Whatever you need, you know you have but to ask."

  Tears pricked her eyes. A long time ago, she'd left the home Bones gave her to marry a man she'd fallen madly in love with. Fifty years later, she didn't regret her decision, but sometimes she wondered how things would have turned out if she'd stayed with Bones instead.

  Greta shook off the memories. "It's my grandchildren," she began. "They're in trouble."

  Twenty minutes later, Greta was finished detailing their predicament. Bones nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face.

  "I can't handle this myself, luv, because I'm focusing all my energy on finding someone, but I'll send a bloke who'll take care of things. I trust him, so you'll all be in good hands. My word on it."

  Greta smiled. "That's more than enough for me."

  Chapter 1

  Isabella peeked through the slats sectioning off the prep room from the rest of her restaurant's on-display kitchen. Yes, the dark-haired man was still at his table, and yes, he was still staring at her.

  Fool, she thought as she jerked out of sight. Hadn't he heard? She was now engaged to Robert "Robbery" Bertini. Here comes the bride, she thought with a fresh spurt of anger. Why hadn't she just gone out with Robert the first time he asked? Or the tenth? It was only her repeated refusals that made her stand out from all the other women he had on his expensively clad arm. She'd seen Goodfellas, she should have known that saying no to a mob boss, even a relatively minor one like Robert, would only encourage him to go after her. Why had he decided to come to her restaurant every Thursday night, anyway? If he'd never set foot in here, none of this would have happened!

  Actually, it could all be blamed on meatballs. Isa gave a nearby pan of seasoned meaty goodness an evil glare. Yep, it was their fault. Damned tasty little bastards had put her late parents' restaurant on the map. Who knew they'd also turn out to be a local mafia boss's favorite meal?

  "Isa, table nine wants to see you!" her head chef Frank called out.

  She grimaced. That was Tall, Dark and Dumb's table, the new customer with the staring problem. Under other circumstances, Isa wouldn't have minded his fixed attention. He certainly wasn't hard to look at—brown hair falling just above his shoulders, a lean build, and a half-smile that managed to be charming and a trifle devious at the same time.

  But today was Thursday, so her fiancé—for the time being only, she promised herself—was here with his usual quartet of goons. Isa had already noticed Robert giving a couple of pointed glares to the man for his obvious fixation on her. Soon Robert wouldn't settle for just dirty looks. He'd have the stranger taken out back and his knees broken, if he was in a good mood. Isa didn't want to think about what would happen to the man if Robert was testy tonight.

  She made her way to table nine with a polite yet frosty smile on her face. At Spagarelli's, Isa was known for taking time to stop and talk to the patrons, remember the names of her regulars, and even have a drink with some of them. When she'd reopened this restaurant, she wanted to be hands-on with everything, including the customers. Now, of course, it made it impossible for her to refuse Tall, Dark and Dumb's request to speak with the owner. She hoped Robert had chosen now to go to the little boy's room, but he hadn't. Instead, he watched her approach the man's table with narrowed black eyes.

  "Isa," he called out, displeasure clear in his gravelly voice.

  "Just a moment," she said with false brightness. "I have to attend to a customer."

  What she really wanted to tell Robert was to shut the hell up and leave. Permanently. But she couldn't say that, nor could she tell him the other thing that was constantly on the tip of her tongue—that she'd rather marry Al Capone's corpse than him. After all, Frazier was depending on her. Where he was or why she needed to pretend she was going ahead with this wedding, Isa didn't know, but the last time she'd spoken to her brother, Frazier said it was a matter of life and death.

  So she played the future Mrs. Robert Bertini, which wasn't easy. Robert had visions of becoming the next Michael Corleone, and to accomplish that, he thought he needed the ideal Mafioso image of being married to a traditional Italian woman. The fact that Isa ow
ned a perfect money-laundering front with her restaurant was just the icing on the cake, she was certain.

  Well, Robert had a lot to learn. Anyone who knew her well would have known that trying to blackmail Isa into marriage was a bad idea. Pure-blooded Italian she might be, but a traditional, docile crime-lord wife she was not.

  Frustration over the whole situation boiled just below the surface as Isa plonked down across from the man at table nine, making sure her back was to Robert.

  "Can I help you?" she asked with far less tact than normal.

  A slow smile lit his face, making him look even more wickedly enticing.

  "Actually, darling, I'm here to help you."

  Isa was not in the mood for banter. She could practically hear the steam coming out of Robert's ears. This man would be lucky to leave here alive. The longer she talked to him, the less chance he had of that. She couldn't afford to risk his life by playing polite restaurateur.

  "The only way I'd need your help is if you were a restaurant critic or a health inspector. Now, unless you have something to say about the wine, since you haven't eaten a bite of food, I really must go—"

  "Robbery's got you on a short leash, doesn't he?" the man interrupted. "Yessir, he's been glaring holes into my head for the past hour."

  Isa's mouth dropped. So did her opinion of him. If he knew who Robert was, and he'd been eye-humping his fiancé right in front of him anyway, then he had to be the world's biggest fool.

  "Are you drunk?" she asked low.

  He laughed with a toss of his head. "Nothing like that, Isabella. My name's Chance, by the way. Pleased to meet you."

  He held out his hand. Isa shook it briefly and then stood.

  "Enjoy the rest of your wine, Mr. Chance."

  "Just Chance," he corrected, giving her another appraising stare. "You know, with your black hair and cedar eyes, you look a lot like your grandmother when she was younger."

  Isa froze…and then sat back down. "How do you know my grandmother?" Or that she looked like me when she was young?

  Chance cast a glance over her shoulder. "We've got company coming, darling, but suffice it to say my sire's an old friend of your grandmother's, and I am here to help you."

  Robert's most trusted cohort Paul appeared in the next moment. With his massive size and steamrolling personality, Isa mentally referred to him as Bowling Ball.

  "Isa," he rumbled. "Boss wants to see you now."

  She stood at once, her mind in a jumble. What had her grandmother done? She wasn't even supposed to know Frazier was in trouble. My God, the woman was seventy-five, she couldn't take the stress!

  "Next time try the 1997 Cabernet," she said to Chance, tapping on his wine bottle. "In fact, there's a store on Twelfth Street

  called Blue Ridge Vineyards that sells them. They close at seven on weekdays, so you should be able to pick up a bottle tomorrow."

  He inclined his head with another smile. "I'll remember that."

  Isa hoped Chance would get the message to meet her there tomorrow night. Whatever her grandmother was up to, it had to be called off. Robert wasn't some average stalking suitor who could be dealt with by filing a restraining order. He practically owned the police, and whatever Chance was—a private investigator her grandmother hired, maybe?—he wouldn't be able to handle the heat Robert would bring.

  With an inward sigh, Isa went off to pacify her fiancé.

  * * *

  Chance heard the men following him. Their heavy footfalls, combined with huffy breathing and accelerated heartbeats, made them as noisy as if they were clanging cymbals together. He inhaled, sorting through the bonanza of the evening's scents to filter what was theirs. The one called Paul had recently cleaned the gun in his jacket; the scent of oiled metal was palpable even above the odors of garlic, spaghetti and meatballs. The other one, Ritchie, was less fastidious with his firearms—and his personal hygiene. He smelled like he hadn't taken a bath for days.

  Chance didn't quicken his pace from the same leisurely stroll he'd used while leaving the restaurant. Isabella had watched him go, surreptitiously, of course, but he'd caught her eye right as he went out the door. And then she'd blushed as he winked at her.

  That blush was what he was thinking about now, far more than the two meatwagons following him to the parking lot. He'd been observing Isabella since he arrived in Philadelphia over three days ago. Familiarizing himself with her routine, marking the places she visited…and watching Robert "Robbery" Bertini as well.

  Robert was much less interesting a subject, in Chance's opinion, and not just because Isabella was infinitely more attractive. Robert was a typical schoolhouse bully, and all his clothes, money, houses or influence wouldn't change that. His insistence on marrying a woman who didn't want him was just as spiteful as a child demanding a particular toy because some other child had it. As a vampire, Chance had seen Robert's type in one form or another for multiple decades, and his tolerance for his sort hadn't grown with time.

  Normally vampires didn't interfere in human's affairs. Humans had their own laws and social structure, and to say they differed from vampire society was to put it mildly. Most vampires had enough to handle within their own group of allies and enemies without adding human trials and tribulations to that.

  But in this case, Chance could intervene. Isabella's grandmother, Greta, had once been a member of his sire Bones' line. Time had passed, but Bones' sense of responsibility to her hadn't. Even though Chance was Master of his own line now and no longer under Bones' authority, his sire had asked him for a favor. So Chance could meddle to his heart's content with the wedding plans of the arrogant mobster. Someone who would blackmail a woman into marriage made Chance angry. Power was supposed to be used for the protection of those you cared about, not for selfishness. Apparently no one had taught that to Robert Bertini.

  In fact, it was high time someone put the Bugsy wanna-be in his place. A smile tugged at Chance's mouth. Why not? he thought. It wasn't what his sire Bones told him to do, which was to simply alter Robert's mind until he no longer believed that he wanted to marry Isabella, but Chance would make sure it still all turned out the same. Well, with just a little well-deserved comeuppance added to it.

  And that would mean more time in the lovely Isabella's company. Maybe enough to find out what else would make her blush. Chance already had a few ideas.

  "Hey, buddy," the one named Paul growled behind him. "We wanna talk to you."

  Chance turned, noting with amusement that they'd picked the darkest end of the parking lot for their confrontation. How unoriginal.

  "If you're going to warn me to stay away from Spagarelli's beautiful proprietor or you'll hurt me in various exaggerated ways, save your breath," Chance replied calmly. "I'll be seeing her—and you idiots too, I suppose—there tomorrow night at nine sharp."

  Paul's mouth dropped, making him look like a freshly caught blowfish.

  "You know who you're talkin' to?" he finally demanded.

  "Of course. Spaghetti alla nona, side of extra meatballs."

  Ritchie cracked his knuckles as he stepped nearer. "You're in for a beating, dickhead."

  "Really? Fuggetaboutit," Chance mocked with a heavy Italian accent.

  Ritchie swung. Since he was human, to Chance it looked like he was moving in slow motion. He ducked neatly and at the same time, pivoted Ritchie a little to the right.

  That roundhouse punch landed in Paul's face instead.

  Paul rocked back even as Ritchie gasped. Chance didn't bother to suppress his laughter.

  "Ouch. You owe your friend an apology," he chuckled.

  Ritchie whirled around even as Paul began cursing about his nose being broken. From the sudden sweet smell in the air, Chance didn't have to glance his way to know he was correct.

  With a snarl, Ritchie came at him again. This time, Chance didn't duck out of the way. He simply moved to the side and stuck out his foot.

  Ritchie tripped and went flying, the momentum from his charge maki
ng him land with a heavy thud several feet away. More rich, mouth-watering scent filled the air. Ritchie had skinned his knee and his elbow on the asphalt badly enough that both were bleeding.

  "Will we be dancing like this for long?" Chance asked.

  Ritchie got to his feet slowly, giving Chance a furious look. Paul was still focused on his nose, more red staining the front of his shirt.

  "You got fancy moves, pal?" Ritchie asked, drawing a gun from his inner jacket. "Try dodging this!"

  He fired twice in quick succession, hitting Chance in the chest. The bullets weren't silver, though, so their pain only lasted a few moments. Long enough for him to drop to the ground like a regular person would, clutch his chest (to hide the rapidly healing wounds), gasp out a few breaths…and then let his breath rattle out in one last, dramatic exhalation.