At graves end, p.16
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       At Graves End, p.16

         Part #3 of Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
 
Chapter Sixteen

 

  SANTA LOOKS LIKE HE'S BEEN HITTING MORE than the eggnog, I thought as I strolled by the mix of people waiting in line to get a picture with ol' Saint Nick. Right now, a nip or two of the hard stuff sounded good to me, too.

  Tate tightened his arm around me. It still felt wrong not to pull away, but I didn't. I leaned into him and smiled instead. Weren't we the perfect picture of a happy couple?

  "You're so beautiful," Tate whispered, nuzzling my cheek. His mouth slid until it covered my own.

  With my job, it was standard operating procedure to kiss undead targets. Hey, when playing a horny chick trying to get a guy alone, that was expected. But Tate wasn't a target, or a stranger, or someone who'd end up dead by the end of the night.

  Unless, of course, Bones lost his temper and killed him before this charade was over.

  Tate's mouth was cool over mine, but getting warmer by the contact with my heated flesh. He wasn't a bad kisser, either, I couldn't help but notice, even though he'd kept things respectable by not slipping me any tongue. I tried not to dwell on the fact that I was kissing my friend. Tried to treat this like any other job, but I was failing.

  I pulled away, a little too abruptly than my act as his date would have warranted.

  "Um. . . I want some cotton candy," I blurted.

  Tate lowered his head to whisper one word near my ear.

  "Chicken. "

  He was right. If this was just another job, I wouldn't have thought twice about faking a little passion, French-kissing the fangs off him, or even grabbing his ass to make things appear more authentic. But this wasTate, so the objectivity I normally had was gone. Aside from my own lack of personal detachment, at any minute, I kept expecting Bones to leap out of a corner and rip Tate's head off.

  Yeah, Vlad had a point. No one wouldever think Bones would tolerate me wandering around a carnival making out with the man he hated.

  Above us, kids screamed in delight as the Mad Hatter ride whirled them even faster. The Tilt-A-Whirl off to our left had similar squeals coming from it. Add that to the other rides, the countless conversations from people, Christmas songs blaring, metal grinding of the machines, and it made for a continuous chaos of sound around us.

  Somewhere in the midst of this carnival, according to Vlad, was Anthony, one of Patra's henchmen. Anthony had a thing for Christmas carnivals. Enough not to have the good sense to stay away from them during a war. Then again, everyone thought it was someone else who'd get nabbed, sold out, followed, or killed. I was guilty of that myself. I hadn't imagined Max would be waiting for me at my mother's. So who was I to throw stones at Anthony for assuming no one would know what carnival he chose to visit tonight?

  Hell, maybe Anthony wouldn't show up, and this was just Vlad's idea of a funny trick to play on Bones. To say Bones hadn't liked the idea of me playing Tate's girlfriend was to put it mildly. Bones had muttered a string of curses that raised even my brows, then said something along the lines of "Looks like Christmas came early for you, wanker" to Tate when he finally agreed it was the perfect ruse.

  Of course, Vlad's intentions tonight could be more sinister, too. Mencheres didn't seem to think that Vlad would set us up. Bones must not have, either, or I wouldn't be here, but there was something to be said about trusting a vampire who openly didn't like Bones.

  "Keep your eye on the prize," I muttered to Tate, avoiding his gaze.

  A snort came from him. "I am. "

  That made me pull up short on my way to the cotton candy vendor. Tate and I were never alone anymore, so aside from our main goal, this was also the perfect time to set some things straight.

  "Look, Tate, you have got to get over this. . . thingyou have for me. It's affecting our friendship, our work, and you take your life in your hands every time you bring it up in front of Bones. "

  Tate came closer, lowering his voice, not that it mattered with all this background noise. Another vampire would have to be within spitting distance to focus in on our conversation.

  "Do you know why I won't shut up about how I feel about you? Because I didn't say anything for years. We were friends, but I kept hoping with time, more would develop between us. I'm not making that mistake again, hesitating when I should have moved forward. I don't care if it pisses Crypt Keeper off or makes you uncomfortable, I'm done pretending that I only want to be your friend. "

  Tate leaned down, and I had to either let him press next to me, or cause a scene and wrest away.

  "Don't tell me the thought's never crossed your mind, either," he said very softly. "I remember that night we kissed, before Bones showed back up in your life. You weren't treating me like just a friend then. "

  Figures he'd bring that up, I thought, frustration and annoyance competing within me. One evening of way too many drinks and loneliness had led to a kiss that should have never happened.

  "You're an attractive man, and I'm not dead. Yeah, the thought crossed my mind once or twice. But that was before Bones came back. I can honestly say it hasn't happened since. "

  "Sometimes I hate Don," Tate spat.

  I was baffled. "What does my uncle have to do with any of this?"

  "Don knew what you were from the moment you were born, and I'd known him for three years before I met you. Three years, Cat. That fucking torments me. All Don would've had to do was look you up six months sooner than he did. Then you wouldn't have met Bones first, you would have met me. We like each other, you're attracted to me, and as a fellow vampire hunter, I would have been your perfect man. You would have fallen in love with me instead of ever loving Bones. "

  I was amazed by how much thought he'd put into this-and the worst part was, if Ihad met Tate before Bones, there was a good chance I might have ended up dating him. I couldn't say I'd have fallen in love with him, but there was nothing about Tate that made him unappealing as boyfriend material.

  "Or I could have been killed on my first mission, that's a more likely scenario, because then Bones wouldn't have trained me first. And even if it all went like you described, it still wouldn't have worked out between us. "

  "Why?" Tate asked harshly.

  "Bones would have been hired to kill me. He was offered the hit during the years I ran from him and the undead world didn't know of our connection. So either Bones would have killed me, or he would have been intrigued by my being a half-breed and captured me, like he did when we first met. Either way, you and I still wouldn't have made it. Sometimes two people just aren't meant to be together. "

  "I don't believe that," he said, stubbornness written all over him.

  Refusal to quit in spite of overwhelming odds. That's what made Tate such a brave soldier, but in this regard, it also made him hold on to something he should let go of.

  "Things will change," I said at last. "One day, you'll meet a woman who'll make you realize your feelings for me weren't the real deal. And when that happens, I'll be happy for you. "

  Tate shook his head. "Or you'll realize Bones isn't the man you thought he was, and you'll leave him. Come on, Cat, you barely even know him. "

  "I don't know Bones?" I repeated. "You're kidding me, right?"

  "He's almost two hundred and fifty years old, and you've been around him, combined, for less than one year," Tate stated flatly.

  "I know what counts," I said in a hard voice, stung.

  "Or you're blinded by infatuation. Bones is a former pro, Cat. He's been romancing women for centuries. Annette's told me some things about him, and I gotta say, sometimes I don't know whether to stab Bones-or shake his hand. Someone like that doesn't just wake up one morning and change everything about their life by becoming a one-woman man. "

  Tate's voice became rougher, lower, and he turned until I faced him.

  "But I've been by your side for almost five years. You know you can trust me. You know I'd never lie to you, or cheat on you, and baby, he will. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but i
t'll happen. And when it does, you'll leave him. And I'll be waiting. "

  This conversation was going nowhere. So much for talking sense into him about our friendship. I shot Tate an exasperated look even as I pasted a fake smile on my face and headed back to the cotton candy vendor. I couldn't swill gin here, but I could pound sugar while waiting to see if Anthony showed up.

  Three cotton candies and two spins on the Ferris wheel later-hey, nothing beat the Ferris wheel for getting a good vantage point-there was still no sign of Anthony. Or any other vampires aside from Tate. It was after ten, so most of the youngest kids were gone by now. Santa was looking less jolly as the time dragged on. No doubt he was counting down the minutes until midnight, when the carnival closed.

  Tate and I hadn't spoken much since our prior argu ment. We continued to act like a happy couple. Tate played a marksman game, much to the dismay of the carny behind the counter, since with Tate's military background and new vampire status, he nailed every target. I then had to walk around holding a huge stuffed polar bear.

  Oh yeah. No one looking at us would think we were out hunting vampires.

  Therefore, I was surprised when Tate abruptly spun me around, kissing me like it was the last thing he'd get to do before dying. My muffled protest was stilled when he whispered, "He's here. "

  I dropped the polar bear to wrap my arms around Tate, kissing him back with equal fervor and sending my senses outward. There. About fifty yards away, a tingle of inhuman power hung in the air. How nice of you to finally come out and play, Anthony. Unless this was some other vampire who'd decided on a little Christmas cheer. That would be just our luck.

  That current of power came closer. Whoever this was, he'd felt Tate, too, because now he was heading straight for us. I put a little more oomph into kissing Tate. He groaned, tightening his arms around me. Between his grip and relentless kiss, there was a reason for me to be breathless when he finally lifted his head.

  The vampire was only a dozen feet away now. Tate didn't bother with subtlety-he stared at him and let the barest hint of green peek out of his navy gaze.

  "What do you want?"

  I turned-and blinked. This was the person we were supposed to take out?

  Wide brown eyes stared at me from a face that appeared no older than fourteen. He had curly black hair, a somewhat pronounced nose, and a slender build that accented his youthful appearance.

  "I've never seen you before," the vampire said. His voice was more in line with his aura. He might not look old enough to see an R-rated movie, but his vibe gave him away at an easy couple hundred years old.

  Tate let me step back a little, but his arm didn't leave my shoulders. "Why should you?"

  The vampire smiled, showing he had dimples. God, it made him look even younger.

  "Because I know a lot of people from our. . . country. But not you. "

  Tate gave the vampire a frosty smile. "I'm new, you could say. Name's Tate. "

  The vampire cocked his head. "Who do you belong to?"

  "An asshole," Tate said at once. I wanted to smack him.

  A dry laugh escaped the vampire, again at odds with his boyish appearance. "Don't we all? I'm Anthony. "

  Score!I mentally shouted. Here's hoping Anthony wasn't another mind reader, or we'd be screwed, although Bones assured me that ability was very rare.

  "You never answered my question," Anthony said, that pleasant smile still dimpling his face.

  Tate rolled his eyes. "Why should I? I'm not hunting, I'm just here with my girlfriend enjoying the festival. "

  "Let me give you some advice, sonny," Anthony said. To anyone close enough to overhear, it would be comical having someone who looked like a teenager calling Tate sonny. "When you meet one of us, you introduce yourself, and that includes who you belong to. Or one of us might get pissed and decide to teach you manners. "

  "Bones. " Tate let the name hang in the air before muttering, "Asshole," again.

  Yes, I knew it was part of the role, but I also knew he meant it, so I really wanted to smack him.

  Anthony glanced around, so quickly that if I hadn't been watching his every movement, I would have missed it.

  "You'rethat Tate," he murmured.

  Tate folded his arms. "Isn't it your turn now?"

  Anthony's smile grew challenging. "Patra," he said, waiting for Tate's reaction.

  Tate flicked his gaze around in much more of a pronounced manner. I shifted, too, but in apparent confusion.

  "What are you guys talking about?" I asked.

  "Nothing you need to worry about, baby," Tate replied, giving my shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "Anthony here, uh, works for a competitor of my boss's and they're both fighting over the same contract. If you ask me, I wouldn't mind if his boss wins it. "

  Anthony raised a brow. "Really? That's a bold statement to make to a stranger about your. . . boss. "

  "Let's just say I had a chance to assist your boss before, but I didn't take it, and now I have buyer's remorse over what I could have gone home with instead of what I got," Tate said. His posture straightened from a relaxed stance to open defiance.

  Anthony must have heard about the part Tate played back at Mencheres's house right before it went boom, because he nodded.

  "What if your mistake could be remedied? I happen to know my boss would be very interested in any information a. . . corporate spycould provide. "

  Tate smiled. "How does your boss reimburse? Because I'd want moneyand protection. "

  Anthony waved a hand. "You can't imagine how handsomely my employer rewards those who serve her. "

  I'll just bet, I thought cynically. Unless, of course, you're talking about the people who serve Patra because she's threatened to kill their family if they don't.

  "Do you have to talk about business now?" I asked, making my voice petulant.

  Anthony seemed to notice me for the first time. He gave me a thorough once-over, and there was nothing prepubescent in it. How typical that his first reaction had been to dismiss me because I had a heartbeat.

  "Who's your friend, Tate?"

  "Kathleen," Tate said, calling me by my middle name. "Isn't she gorgeous?"

  "She is," Anthony agreed, moving closer. His eyes glittered. "But with those looks, that red hair, and her heartbeat, she reminds me a lot of someone I've heard of. "

  There was open challenge in his voice. I gave Anthony my most innocent "who, me?" look.

  "I like to role-play," Tate replied with an edge to his tone. "So I had Kathleen change her hair color and wear contacts. You got a problem with that?"

  Anthony's arm whipped out, and he yanked my jeans down over my left hip, then my right one. There was nothing on either but smooth, unmarked skin.

  Tate bristled even as I hid a smile. That's right, buddy. No tattoo anymore. Hurt like hell when Max sliced it off, not that you would have heard about that, but now its absence is coming in handy.

  "You touch her again and we quit talking," Tate growled.

  Anthony seemed to relax. "Is she a good likeness of the real Reaper?"

  Tate shrugged. "Close enough to count. "

  I'd had my hair dyed back to its normal crimson shade, all the better to smell like its color wasn't natural, and I was wearing contacts with blue flecks in them. Just enough to change my gaze from clear gray. Plus my skin was freshly darkened, all thanks to a quick rub from a self-tanner that helped hide its normal luminescence. That had been Vlad's idea. Drac was crafty indeed.

  So far, the role-playing act was working. Anthony wasn't running for his life or his weapons.

  "Do you have to talk about thatother girl?"

  I pouted, which would be expected, considering the topic. Tate kissed the top of my head.

  "Not anymore, baby. "

  "Then can we go home?" With more pouting.

  Tate looked down on me with an indulgent smile. "Got a little business to take care of first,
then I'm all yours. "

  Anthony licked his lips. "Splendid. I'll take you to my supervisor, Hykso, who can finalize our transaction. Just let me bring my car around back. Less notice that way. "

  "I don't think so, friend," Tate said, steel underneath his genial tone. "You might change your mind and decide to involve other people in our business, and I don't want to spend the rest of my night beingdead dead. "

  Anthony managed to appear offended. "It never crossed my mind. "

  Tate smiled intractably. "Then we leave now, together. "

  Anthony chewed his lower lip with normal, flat teeth. The gesture was so boyish, he could have been one of the older kids waiting in line to get a picture with Santa. He surveyed the people around us with indecision, either for the obvious leave-taking, or more sinister regrets.

  I wanted a chance to nab Anthony's "supervisor. " The higher up we could go on Patra's chain of command, the better this night would turn out to be.

  "If we don't go with him, I still want to leave," I whispered, rubbing against Tate in a way that left nothing to the imagination as to what I was offering as incentive.

  "You've got five seconds before she changes my mind," Tate told Anthony, kissing me with a hunger that was too raw to be mistaken for anything but real.

  "All right, let's go," Anthony said.

  Tate dragged his lips from mine. Green swirled in his eyes. My mouth was slightly swollen from the fierceness of his kiss, and I was a little out of breath.

  "Let's gotonight," Anthony repeated with annoyance, beginning to shoulder his way through the people with the rudeness of a vampire who had somewhere else to be.