Authors: Kristen Painter
Nocturne Falls, Book Five
Sebastian Ellingham isn’t known for being a happy vampire. And when his long estranged wife comes to town expecting to pick up where they left off, things take a sharp turn toward cranky. Sure he’s been protecting her for centuries, but her assumption that he’s still available (he is) rankles.
His answer is to hire a woman to play his fiancée. The lucky victim is Tessa Blythe, sister of one of the town’s deputies, librarian in need of a job and, oh yes, reluctant Valkyrie. Playing along with Sebastian is all about the end game for her, the position of Dean of Library Studies at the local private academy.
When unexpected sparks fly between them, they agree to mutually deny the attraction. Fate, however, has other plans…
Welcome to Nocturne Falls, the town that celebrates Halloween 365 days a year. The tourists think it's all a show: the vampires, the werewolves, the witches, the occasional gargoyle flying through the sky. But the supernaturals populating the town know better.
Living in Nocturne Falls means being yourself. Fangs, fur, and all.
THE VAMPIRE’S FAKE FIANCÉE:
Nocturne Falls, Book Five
Copyright © 2016 Kristen Painter
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, events, and places portrayed in this book are products of the author’s imagination and are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Want to know when Kristen’s next book is coming out? Join her mailing list for release news, fun giveaways, insider scoop and more!
For all those readers who asked when Sebastian was getting his book.
“A hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the video system to high-definition? I think not.” Sebastian snorted as he crossed off yet another line item.
The proposed operational budget for the new wedding chapel was ridiculous. Sebastian shook his head as he looked at the bottom line for a third time. There was no way he was approving a second budget of more than half a million dollars so the lovesick could marry in a Halloween theme of their choice. Especially not after he’d already approved the first budget to get the place up and running.
Julian would have to understand that this new project of his would have to operate on a more reasonable sum.
That was if his playboy brother stayed in town long enough to actually have a conversation. He seemed to spend more time in Las Vegas than he did in Nocturne Falls these days. And if Julian thought he was going to get his usual salary when he wasn’t putting in his usual hours, well, that was another thing they’d need to discuss. Sebastian was not about to pick up his brother’s slack playing the Vampire On Duty for the tourists.
Thankfully, one of the other vampires in town, Greyson Garrett, had been happy to fill in. Like most vampires, he was well off enough that he didn’t need to work. Unlike most vampires, he had his own sort of magic that allowed him to daywalk like all of the Ellinghams, meaning he could fill in whatever shifts necessary. Sebastian suspected the secret was an old Roma spell from Greyson’s past. The Romani were a people with their own magic, Sebastian knew that much. He also knew Greyson Garrett wasn’t the man’s real name, but many vampires changed their names as time went on for various reasons. None of which Sebastian cared about. The man was a hard worker and readily available. Unlike Julian.
Sebastian ran his tongue over his fangs and went back to the budget, picking out another of the line items. Nearly forty thousand alone for décor in a fourth themed room. What kind of theme was Newly Wed and Nearly Dead anyway?
Julian had clearly been swayed by Delaney and Corette on this, but Sebastian wasn’t about to let his youngest brother spend like a drunken sailor because of the women in their family and their cockamamie ideas about this new venture.
“Hmph.” He crossed out the onsite photographer. There were plenty in town. If people wanted pictures of this nonsense, they could hire one of those. No need to keep one on staff.
The door to his study flew open. “Sir—”
Sebastian held up a hand. “Greaves, I asked not to be disturbed.”
“I know, sir, but this is important.”
With some concern, Sebastian set his pencil down and gave his rook his full attention. The man wasn’t prone to hyperbole, so if Greaves said it was important, it must be. “What is it?”
The man paled and swallowed. “I was in town getting groceries and I stopped by the pub for a pint—”
“You know I don’t care about that. How you spend your time is your business.”
“I know that, but while I was in the pub, I…ran into someone.”
“And?” Sebastian frowned. He wanted this budget finished today. And he was not one for dramatics. “Get on with it, man.”
The rook’s lip curled and his eyes took on the muddy haze of disgust. He cleared his throat. “Evangeline is in town.”
Her name was enough to throw a switch inside Sebastian. Everything in him went numb, iced down by a chill that went soul-deep. The wound inside him, the one he liked to pretend had healed, throbbed anew, and then the promise he’d made—the promise that had bound him to the woman like a ball and chain—rang in his ears. He blinked and found his voice. “You must be mistaken.”
“I spoke to her myself. Itwasher.”
Sebastian sat there, letting the information soak in. “It’s been nearly two hundred years since I’ve seen her.” And over three hundred since they’d meant anything to each other. Or rather, since he’d meant anything to her. Over three hundred years since she’d walked out and left him with the wrenching conclusion that he was not enough for her.
He’d tried to keep tabs on her, but there had been long stretches, years at a time on occasion, when he’d had no idea where she was or if she was all right. Every once in a while, she contacted him. Mostly when she needed money.
Blast it,onlywhen she needed money. But these days, providing for her was the only real means he had of keeping the promise he’d made.
“She looks a little different. Changed her hair.”
Sebastian nodded vaguely. Her face filled his memories, causing his heart to sting with emotions. “Still beautiful, I assume.”
He gave the pain a moment before pushing it aside. Of course she’d still be beautiful. She was a vampire the same as he was, their looks almost entirely frozen in time. And she’d always been breathtakingly lovely, even as a human. At least on the outside. “What did she want? Money? I’m sure she’s down to her last penny again. And most likely she wants cash. It’ll be morning before I can access the kind of funds she—”
“No, sir. At least not that she mentioned. All she said was that she wanted to speak to you.”
Sebastian stiffened and looked past Greaves into the hall behind him. “Did you bring her back here?”
“No, of course not.” Greaves adjusted his collar. “I told her to stay put and I’d be back with an answer shortly.”
Sebastian eyed his rook. In their nearly four hundred years together, the man had been a stalwart companion. Trustworthy. Willing to sacrifice. Never duplicitous. A keeper of secrets. All the qualities Sebastian himself possessed. “What answer?”
“When you’d be willing to meet with her. If you’re willing, that is.”
Sebastian stared at the man. To be face to face with Evangeline again after all this time…a thousand possibilities filled his head, followed by only a few outcomes. “Even if she didn’t bring up money, I’m sure that’s what this is about. Just find out how much she needs this time and I’ll take care of it. I don’t need to see her face to face to fill her accounts.”
“I really don’t think that’s what this is about. She wouldn’t need to see you in person if she was just running low.”
Greaves had a point. Was it possible something in Evangeline had changed in these last centuries? “Then whatdoyou think she wants? As best as you can tell.”
Greaves pondered the question. “My guess is she wants to apologize.”
“Evangeline? Apologize? How much did you have to drink, old man?”
“I know, it doesn’t seem like her, but she was different. Almost…contrite. I think you should at least see what she wants.”
“Damn it.” Sebastian shook his head. “Fine. I’ll meet with her. But on my terms.”
He hated the hold she had over him and yet felt powerless to do anything but respond exactly as she’d probably guessed he would. No matter the responsibility he still felt toward her, he could not let her have the upper hand. Not this time.
If he did, he would be completely destroyed. “Go back to the pub. Get a number for her. Or find out where she’s staying. Tell her I’ll contact her when I’m ready to talk and we’ll meet where I want to meet. If she wants to see me, it’s going to happen how I want it to.”
Greaves seemed to puff up a bit. “Very good, sir.” He left to deliver Sebastian’s message.
Sebastian put a hand to his chest as he leaned back into his chair. If his heart could beat, he felt sure it would be pounding. He closed the file before him. The project budget could wait.
He had a lot to think about. A lot of feelings to sort. Scenarios to play out. A course of action to decide upon. A promise to keep.
After all, it wasn’t every day your estranged wife came back to town and wanted to talk.
Tessa Blythe reluctantly put her new kitten, Duncan, down on the floor so she could grab the ringing phone. He scampered off, undoubtedly in search of another roll of toilet paper to shred or catnip toy to disembowel. The little monster was a terror. Cute enough to melt butter, but horribly behaved. She was utterly and completely in love with tiny tabby kitten. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s your sister.”
“Hi, Jenna. What’s new?” Jenna was a sheriff’s deputy in a silly little town that celebrated Halloween three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Sounded like a recipe for disaster to Tessa. “You’re not calling to tell me you got stabbed by a criminal, are you? Or bitten by a zombie or whatever unfortunate element roams the streets there? Oh, please tell me you didn’t have to kill someone in self-defense.”
A sigh answered her. “Tessa, this is Nocturne Falls, not the dark streets of some crime-ridden city. It’s like Tim Burton’s version of Disney. I can’t even tell you the last time I took my gun out of its holster. I swear, you’d love it here. It’s very friendly to supernaturals. And really, considering who we are, you need to get over your fear of living a genuine life.”
“I am living a genuine life. And can we please not go into that again?”
Duncan was now climbing the side of the couch, claws digging deep in the ancient plaid fabric that covered the ugly thing. (The apartment had come furnished, but ugly was ugly.) Tessa put her hand over the receiver. “No. Bad cat. Bad.” She was never getting her security deposit back.
“Who are you yelling at? Did you say cat? Did you get a cat, Tessa? Holy Loki, please tell me you did not get a cat. You’re turning into a cliché.”
“Just because I’m a librarian,possiblywith a cat, doesn’t mean I’m a cliché.”
“No, but when you also wear glasses you don’t need and generally seem to have your hair in a bun, the scales do lean in that direction.”
“I wear magnifying lenses because it helps me with my job.”
“You wear glasses as way to disguise your looks.”
“Are you saying I don’t look good in my glasses? That’s very cruel.”
“Had any dates lately? Or does that birth control bun effectively keep the men at bay?”
Tessa reached up and pulled the elastic out of her hair. “For your information, my hair is down right now. Besides, you wear your hair up all the time.”
“I have to, it’s a job requirement. You don’t have that excuse, but hey, if you want to hide yourself from the world by becoming a cliché, that’s your business. I love you, frumpy bun and all, you know that. I wouldn’t be trying to get you to move to Nocturne Falls to be near me if I didn’t love you. Right?”
“Right.” Tessa wouldn’t mind moving, even if the town was a tourist trap. She’d moved to Dayton, Ohio, only because it was where she’d gotten her first librarian job. And she’d love to be near her sister, but there was the matter of getting a new job. And quitting her current one. Not that her current one had turned out to be anything that fabulous.
“So listen, that’s why I’m calling. I just heard through the grapevine that the private school here is hiring a dean of library studies. And the money will be good. I don’t know how good, but Harmswood Academy doesn’t cut corners.”
“I have a job.”
“Are you the dean of anything?”
Now it was Tessa’s turn to sigh. “No. But Icouldget promoted.”
“The only way you’re going to get promoted is if that old battle ax that’s in charge dies.”
“Jenna, that’s unkind.”
“It’s true, though, isn’t it?”
Tessa frowned. “Yes.”
“And didn’t you call me last week and say that if you could find another librarian job, you’d take it in a heartbeat?”
Tessa took a breath. “Yes. But that was in the heat of the moment.”
“It still happened. Now you have a chance. So take a week off, come down here and submit your resume. What have you got to lose?”
“I’d have to bring Duncan.”
Jenna gasped. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Tessa pressed her hand to her forehead, the headache of confession surely on its way. “Duncan is my cat.” Who was now chewing off the end of the curtain pull.
“Iknewyou adopted a cat.”
“I didn’t adopt him, exactly. Someone dropped him in the book return slot, and Mrs. Unger was going to take him to the pound. Can you imagine? The poor thing. He’s just this tiny little ball of brown and black striped fur. Some dog would probably think he was a chew toy. Or a snack.”
“Told you she was a battle ax.”
“Sheisan enormous grump. Constantly nitpicking my work. And between us, she smells oddly like Lipton onion soup mix. All the time.”
Jenna laughed. “See? You don’t want to work there. You want to be in charge of your own library. The library dean. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it?”
“It does.” Tessa closed her eyes. The library at a well-funded private academy could be a magnificent thing. “Do you have any idea what the library at this school looks like?”
“I’ve only been up to the academy once. They have their own security force. But the campus is gorgeous. I’m sure the library is great.”
Tessa bit her lip. A library like that could be really something. And to be in charge of it? That was a little dizzying. “I’ll have to put in for time off.”
Jenna muttered disgustedly, “What if Battle Ax says no?”
“I don’t think she’d do that. I have two vacation days coming. I just have to fill out the form and get them approved. Shouldn’t take more than ten days. Two weeks, tops.”
“Wait that long and the job could be gone by the time you get here. Just quit and come here. Bring Dumpling. Bring everything. Move.”
“Yes, him too. C’mon, Tessa. You can live with me until you get on your feet. I make enough money for both of us to live on. We’re not going to be taking a singles cruise anytime soon, but we’ll be okay until you start the dean position.”
“If I just quit my job, I’m not going to be able to use them for a reference.”
“You really think Unger is going to give you a decent reference? Doesn’t she blame you for the county deciding the library needed a Facebook page?”
“Yes.” That had been an ugly few weeks. Even with the four hundred likes they’d garnered. “But what if I don’t get the job? What if something happens and the interview doesn’t go well?”
“What’s the point of being a valkyrie if you don’t use what you’ve got? If you get a vibe that the interview isn’t going well, you can change tactics. Tell them what you think they want to hear. Or you could always become a deputy like me.”
“You know how I feel about violence and fighting and all that.” And about anything that might cause her to get upset, but seeing as how Jenna knew that already, Tessa didn’t see the point in bringing it up again. She stared at the pale scar that transected the last three knuckles of her right hand.
“For crying out loud, do I need to mentionagainthat we’re valkyries? Warrior goddesses. Protectors of the worthy. Fierceness is in our DNA.”
“Maybe for you, but that’s not the life I’ve chosen to lead.” Not after the incident. Not after she’d figured out what she was really capable of.
“I know.” Jenna exhaled in the sort of long-suffering way she did whenever they had this conversation. “You probably don’t even remember how to swing your sword, do you?”
“I do.” Probably. “I chose not to.” Or ever again, actually. At the thought of her sword, a small trill of energy zipped down her spine. She ignored it. Like she always did.
“When’s the last time you had it out?”
“I’m a librarian. The opportunities to wield a sword are few and far between.” Which made this job perfect for her. “Now, back to what I’m going to do for work if this job doesn’t pan out.”
“Something will turn up. There’s plenty of other stuff you could do in this town.”
“But I want to be a librarian. It’s what I went to school for. It’s what I’m good at. It’s where my heart is.” She loved books. In a book you could escape and be anything you wanted, no risk involved. No chance of hurting anyone else.
“You’ll get the job, Tessa. How could you not?”
“Because someone with more experience could come along.”
“Yes, but you have to also be a supernatural to get this job. And you don’t get much more supernatural than being a descendant of one of Odin’s shield maidens.”
Tessa tapped a finger against her lip. Duncan leaped off the couch and headed for the kitchen. By the quiver of his tail, she could tell he was up to no good. So the usual. “True.”
“And I know this is a risk, and you don’t take risks. But just this once, please take a chance. Mom and Dad are going to be touring Europe for the rest of their lives. We’ll be lucky to see them at our weddings, if we ever get married. Wouldn’t it be nice for us to be close enough to hang out whenever we wanted? We could spend Christmas together if you lived here. We could go shopping and do spa days and all that kind of stuff together.”
Tessa’s librarian’s salary didn’t allow for much shopping or any spa days, but she got what her sister was saying. “It would be nice to be closer.”
Jenna went on. “Also, isn’t Ohio like completely covered in snow and ice? Winter in Georgia isn’t nearly as bad.”
“I don’t mind the snow, but it would be nice not to have to scrape my windshield every morning.” She looked around at her cramped apartment that her job barely paid for and thought about her sister’s house in Nocturne Falls. She’d seen pictures. Not only was it pretty and on a street with big trees, it had a backyard, which meant Duncan could go out and run around. Fresh air. Sunshine. A chance to wear himself out.
And the chance for her to be near her sister.
“Come on, throw that cat into a carrier and start driving. I’ll talk to one of the Ellinghams and see about getting you a tour of the school before your interview so you can see for yourself exactly how amazing it is.”
“I can’t just leave like that. There’s a ton of things I’d have to take care of first.”
“I still have to give the library my notice that I’m quitting and turn off my water and electric and let the landlord know I’m breaking the lease and—”
“Find your inner warrior and make it happen. Besides, I already submitted your name. They’re expecting you.”
“What? Why did you do that?”
“Because you never would have done it.”
“I might have.”
“Tessa. This is the kind of change you need. The kind of job youdeserve.”
Tessa squeezed her eyes shut. She and her inner warrior hadn’t really communicated in a long time, but she knew Jenna was right. She needed a change, and being near her sister would be great. “I can be there in four days.”
“You can be here in one.”
“Impossible. Two is the absolute minimum.”
Jenna whooped into the phone. “Yes! I knew I could talk you into it. See you in two days, sis!”
“Wait—” But Jenna had already hung up. Like she knew she’d just talked Tessa into something she’d only change her mind about.
Tessa blew out a breath. She was already having doubts. What had she just gotten herself into? She shook herself. No, this was a good thing. She really wasn’t happy at her current job. And this apartment was dreadful. A change would be good. Being near her sister would be great. Jenna was so brave and daring and didn’t let a thing stand in her way. Tessa wanted to be more like that. In theory.
She walked over and pulled Duncan out of the trash can, then hugged him against her chest for a second before holding him up to look him in the eyes. “I realize you’re just getting the lay of the land, but don’t get too comfortable. Change is afoot.”
He meowed at her, a loud, squeaky sound that made her grin. “I know! This is a big step for both of us, but Jenna will be there and she’s got a yard you can play in. Plus, I promise you can take all of your new toys, too.”
He tried to eat a piece of her hair.
She pulled it out of his mouth and shook her head. What on earth had she just agreed to?
Sebastian would be lying to himself if he tried to deny the slightly righteous pleasure that he’d taken from keeping Evangeline waiting. It had been only three days. And after all, she’d kept him waiting nearly three hundred years. Seventy-two hours seemed a drop in the bucket in comparison.
It had been a calculated move. Not just to keep her waiting, but to time things so that his meeting with her happened the morning of interviews at Harmswood. He’d be dressed sharply and have a place to go afterward, giving him a reason not to linger.
He also wanted her to know he was a busy man. Occupied with many things. None of which were her. He sighed. If only that were true. She did occupy some of his time, which irritated him to no end, but it was a responsibility with which he’d learned to live. A duty.
And then of course, there was the matter of the time they were meeting.
Eight in the morning. A time that, despite the blazing sun high in the January sky, did nothing to deter his ability to be outside. Unlike most vampires. He had the bespelled amulet that he and all the members of his family wore to thank for that miracle. Unless Evangeline had found similar magic on her own, she had no such amulet. She’d left him before Elenora Ellingham, his grandmother and the woman who’d turned him, had saved the life of a very powerful witch.
In thanks, the witch had created the amulets for them.
Being able to daywalk gave Sebastian an edge over Evangeline. Something, quite frankly, to hold over her. Had she stayed, she’d have an amulet too. Not that he was about to reveal that. The amulets were a closely guarded family secret.
And so, because he’d chosen to meet her at such an early morning hour, they were meeting at the bed-and-breakfast in which Evangeline had ensconced herself. When Sebastian chose to leave, she’d be unable to follow.
That’s what he wanted. The complete advantage. After all she’d put him through, it was only fair. On some level, he continued to feelsomethingfor her. He must, he supposed. Not even the vampire council would consider them still married, but they were bonded and always would be. He’d turned her. The council took the role of sire very seriously. For that reason, and another that had been decided before they’d married, he was responsible for her. So yes, he was always going to take care of her. Butshe’dlefthim.
He needed her to suffer a bit before he took her back.
He froze. What was he thinking? Before he took her back? At best, it wasifhe took her back. He reminded himself that was the attitude he had to adopt if he was going to come out ahead with Evangeline. She was far too cunning for him to assume things would go off without some sort of hitch. He would be aware of everything she did, keenly appraising her moves and words and gestures for some deeper motive.
He would not be made a fool of twice.
He pulled his Aston Martin into the small parking lot of the Black Rose. The establishment was a known D&B, or dead-and-breakfast—a small inn that catered to vampire clientele and other supernaturals. There were three in town, but it was no surprise Evangeline had chosen the Black Rose. It was the most luxurious of the trio.
He locked his vehicle and went inside.
He could hear Mrs. Turnbuckle, the D&B’s owner, in the dining room talking to some of the other guests. She was elf or hobbit or some such creature, and known for her hospitality and small talk. The latter being a loathsome practice he considered a waste of air. And since he had neither the time nor the desire to engage in such a purposeless activity, he headed straight for the stairs and Evangeline’s room.
He’d almost reached the landing too. He steeled himself and turned, keeping his tone civil but free from encouragement. “Mrs. Turnbuckle.”
She was a spry thing in her seventies, with piercing brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses and pointed ears that peeked through her wiry blue-gray curls. “Visiting a guest?”
Why else would he be in this miserable establishment? “Yes. Good day.” He attempted to take his leave.
“Wouldn’t be the pretty one in the Thorn Suite, would it?”
He sighed. “Yes. And she’s expecting me.”
Was that the name she was using these days? At least she hadn’t used Ellingham. “That’s the one.” He forced a smile and what he imagined would pass for a jovial nod and a polite dismissal. “Good day.”
He escaped the innkeeper and knocked on Evangeline’s door as quickly as possible.
Evangeline let him stand there until he was just about to knock again. His hand was raised when the door opened.
She smiled like she’d just seen him yesterday. She wore a slinky, floor-length black negligee with a matching robe and feathered mules. Her hair was shorter, a darker brown and streaked with deep red, but otherwise, she looked the same. She sucked in a breath and put her hand to her chest. “Sebastian. It’s so good to see you. Thank you for coming. I wasn’t sure I was going to see my husband at all after you made me wait all week.”
“It was three days.” Seeing her combined with the flood of her perfume and the sound of her voice hit him like a punch to the gut. The edges of his vision seemed to dim and blur, and his mouth went dry. He wanted to kiss her and shake her and run from the room all at the same time.Get ahold of yourself, man.He pulled himself together and frowned. “And I hardly think you have the right to call me husband after all this time.”
Her smile widened and she backed up, opening the door to let him in. “Oh, Sebby, come now. Sure, it’s been a few years, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re married.”
A few years? Is that how it felt to her? The woman had never been good with sums, but she was certainly aware of how much time had passed. He walked into her room with a great deal more composure than he felt. “It’s been more than a fewyearsand our marriage exists in memory only. There isn’t a court of law in this world that would uphold that bond after the length of time we’ve been separated.”
She closed the door. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. And I’m terribly sorry about that, I am. Mistakes were made, but I was hoping we could move past that. After all, you are still my sire.” She sidled past him to take a seat in one of two chairs by the windows, bathing him in a cloud of her scent.
He filled his lungs with it, then immediately wished he hadn’t. With every passing moment, he was growing more intoxicated with the need for her. Damn his weakness for her. Damn his sense of responsibility to her.
Maybe that’s all it was. His sense of duty kicking in. Or maybe it was the fact that he’d not had the companionship of a woman since Evangeline had left him.
Oh, he’d thought about other women. Desired them. But he’d never done anything about it. Another wretched side effect of loyalty and duty and bloody responsibility. And perhaps his desire not to have to explain the mess of his life to anyone else.
He distracted himself by studying the suite. The windows behind the alcove where she sat were covered with room-darkening shades on the inside and UV film on the outside. That was standard in every D&B.
She poked at the other chair with the tip of her shoe. Her toenails were painted blood red. His fingers itched to touch her skin. He liked to imagine he still remembered what it felt like to hold a woman in his arms. To feel the press of a woman’s soft curves against his own unyielding angles.
She fluttered her lashes. “Please sit. I can’t bear to have you standing there, judging me.”
“I’m not judging you.” He should be, but he wasn’t. Instead, he was judging himself. Taking the measure of his weaknesses. He took the seat.
A sharp laugh burst out of her. “Now we both know that’s not true. But I’m okay with it. I’ve been a very bad girl. Just awful to you, my darling. I deserve your judgment.”
“I suppose you do.” She had been awful to him, especially when she’d made him realize all those years ago that he wasn’t enough. Not for her. Maybe not for any woman. So why was she waltzing back into his life now?
She lowered her eyes and pursed her lips as a dramatic shudder went through her. “Do you hate me, Sebby?”
He sighed. The answer to that question was not a simple one. And whatever game she was playing, he wanted to know what she hoped to accomplish and fast. Before he made a foolish decision based on another foolish decision made centuries ago. “Why are you here, Evangeline?”
“That’s the Sebastian I know. Right to the point.” Her expression saddened and she folded her hands in her lap. “I did you a terrible wrong, Sebastian. I acknowledge that and I ask your forgiveness.”
He’d heard this before. Well, not heard exactly, but over the years he’d read versions of it in letters, telegrams, and emails.
“How much money do you need?” He was fully prepared to advance her some funds, just as he’d done in the past. Just as he always had. Just as he’d promised to do.
She put a hand to her heart. Assuming she had one. “I’m not here asking for money. I have enough of my own, thank you. And if that’s all I needed, I wouldn’t have come here in person.”
She stared at him, truly stared into his eyes, as hers went soft and liquid. “I miss you, Sebby. I was stupid and foolish and I know enough about life now to realize that you were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He narrowed his gaze, mostly unmoved by her outpouring of emotion. He’d seen similar displays from her too many times to be fully drawn in. And focusing on the pain she’d caused him helped temper any soft feelings that arose. “You told me becoming a vampire was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
She nodded. “And it was. For a long time. But life without you just isn’t…life. And I’ll be honest, because you deserve that from me. The men I’ve met, well, none of them has compared to you. You and I? We were meant to be together. I know that now. After all, what’s eternity without your soulmate?”
She’d never called him that before. He tried very hard not to react. He’d dreamed about her coming to him like this. Begging for his forgiveness. Telling him she would be faithful and true and how he was the only man who’d ever meant anything to her. “What are you saying, Evangeline?”
She reached out and took his hand. “I’m ready for you to be my husband again.”
His lips parted but he was momentarily speechless.Shewas ready for him to be her husband again? What about what he was ready for? What about what he wanted? Her assumptions were numerous and staggering. And where was the groveling and the promises of fidelity? She’d just admitted there had been other men. Was he just supposed to forgive the many affairs she’d undoubtedly had while she’d been cavorting her way around the world? Where was her apology? Her sense of contrition? Her profession of love? “Just like that.”
She grinned. “Just like that. We can go right back to being husband and wife. Just like old times. I can move in tomorrow. Or tonight!” She fluttered her lashes at him. “We could getreacquainted.”
A curious anger built in him. He’d once thought this was what he’d wanted, to have Evangeline back in his life. But now that the opportunity faced him, he realized that she was taking his love for her for granted.Like she always had.Everything inside him shifted. What he thought he’d wanted and what he actually wanted were two different things.
He might not have been enough man to keep her at his side all those years ago, but time away from her had taught him that he could do just fine without her. Perhaps not as happy or as content as he would have liked. Maybe even a little bit lonely, but he’d managed.
Time had also taught him he didn’t need to be at her side to keep the promise he’d made. Not so long as he defined taking care of her by financial standards, which is all she’d allowed these past centuries.
He shook his head, flush with the power of his new realization. “You’re assuming I haven’t moved on.”
She laughed and waved a hand at him. “Come now, Sebby. You still carry a torch for me. You know it. I know it. Let’s stop playing games and get on with our life.”
His anger breached the boundaries of common sense. He stood and glared down at her. “For your information, I have not only gotten over you, but I am involved with someone else.”
Her smile disappeared. “You’re not serious.”
“I bloody well am.”
Her mouth tightened into a little knot of disbelief. “If you’re trying to get me to fawn all over you and tell you how much I missed you, fine, but let’s not pretend that—”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Hewaslying, of course, but falsehoods were not something to which he’d ever been disposed so she had no reason to doubt him.
She crossed her arms and the twinkle of a challenge danced in her eyes. “You expect me to believe you’ve found another woman who is as equally enthralled with you as you are with her? A woman who can bear your moods? Who doesn’t weep with boredom when you go off on your academic tangents? Sebby, I grew to love you despite those things. Our match, arranged as it was, worked because you are a good man, as loyal as a hunting dog and as predictable as the chimes for dinner,notbecause you kept me entertained. But I’ve always been a resourceful woman and capable of doing that for myself. Why do you think we hosted so many balls and dinners and house parties?”
And there was the side of Evangeline he’d come to despise. The cutting, cruel woman who could tear him down faster than she could look at him. That side of her had been evident even in their early years of marriage, but he’d chalked it up to her youth and unhappiness at the arranged marriage.
His time away from her had helped him see some truths, but it had done little to thicken his skin. Her words hurt, even after all these years. Perhaps in some part because he knew they were true. The pain pushed his lie to new heights. “My fiancée thinks none of those things. She adores me.”
She blinked. “You’re engaged?”
Bloody hell. He’d said fiancée. There was no retreating now. He lifted his chin. “Yes. Happily.”
She snorted in disbelief.
Red edged his vision and logical thought gave way to spontaneous reaction. “Come to dinner at my house and see for yourself. Tomorrow at seven. That’s safely after sundown.”
“Seven it is, then.”
Something dark sparked in her eyes but he ignored it. “I’ll send Greaves with the details.”
He stormed out before she could say another word. He was fuming. He’d expected her to be petulant and egotistical. That’s who Evangeline was. A spoiled, willful child of a woman. But for her to carry on like she was his last hope for companionship—and that he should begratefulfor her willingness to return to his life? Her nerve was astonishing, even for Evangeline.
She had no appreciation for what he’d been doing for her all these years. The way he’d watched over her to the best of his abilities and taken care of her financial needs without question, to say nothing about turning a blind eye to her disloyal ways. He could have sent someone to gather proof of her affairs and used it to dissolve their relationship in the eyes of the council, but he hadn’t. He’d clung to the promise he’d made and his old-fashioned sense of responsibility.
He stopped at the driver’s door to his car, seething with rage. His heart was irreparably broken. He’d acknowledged that years ago. He’d learned to live with the pain of her abandonment and betrayal. But this assumption that he was waiting with open arms to take her back, no apology needed,thiswas galling.
He got in and slammed the door shut. She’d see how wrong she was. How he truly didn’t need her anymore. How very over her he was. Tomorrow night’s dinner would be the absolute end of his emotional relationship with Evangeline.
Or perhaps… Perhaps it would be the start of a new relationship with her. One in which he held the upper hand and she finally saw him as more than just a…loyal dog. Tomorrow night’s dinner would change everything one way or another.
He could always tell her about the promise. But that wasn’t part of the deal he’d made and he was a man of his word. That promise would remain his secret. He’d kept it these many years, he could keep it awhile longer.
He shut his eyes and swallowed as the fine points of the impending dinner came back to him. There was one small detail he’d have to work on. Quickly.
He did not actuallyhavea fiancée.
Tessa had thought being the dean of library studies at a private academy sounded intriguing, but after Jenna had given her a tour of the campus and allowed her to linger in the utterly gorgeous library that she’d be in charge of (three floors, stained glass windows, dark wood paneling, antique tapestries, and the most up-to-date touch-screen catalog system she’d ever seen), Tessa thought she might weep if she didn’t get the job.
She couldn’t stop smiling. If this actually happened, moving to Nocturne Falls might be the smartest thing she’d ever done. She nudged her sister. “The rare-book room has medieval manuscripts.”
Jenna nodded. “Cool, right?”
“Cool? Don’t be such a Philistine. They’re priceless works of art that give us a glimpse into another age. They’re the ability to time travel on a page. And I would be in charge of them.”
“Like I said, cool.” Jenna pointed ahead. “That’s reception. I’ll just tell her we’re here for the interview, then I’ll introduce you to the Ellinghams and you’re on your own.”
“Thank you.” Tessa sighed. She couldn’t expect her sister to understand. Jenna was a cop. The things that excited her were guns, catching criminals and cold beer. And those things were great, if you were a cop. But Tessa’s mind needed art and literature and beauty. Those were the things that kept her sane and reminded her of all the good life had to offer. Those things and her pursuit of them helped balance the parts of her she wasn’t so fond of.
Jenna nudged her. “You ready?”
“Then let’s go. They’re waiting. The receptionist will take us back.”
The woman smiled at them. “Right this way, ladies.”
Nerves seized Tessa, but she reminded herself that she was smart and capable and she knew her library sciences. Not only could she do this job but she could do it well.
She and Jenna followed the receptionist to a door near the end of a long hallway decorated with oil paintings of past deans. Not one of them looked fully human. The woman knocked on one of two doors in an alcove.
A voice called for them to enter. The receptionist smiled, opened the door and stood out of the way.
Jenna went in first. In her uniform, she was an ever greater presence than she usually was. But then, Jenna had embraced being tall and beautiful and a valkyrie.
Jenna nodded at the imperious man on the other side of the table. “Hugh.”
“I know we’re early, but I thought it would be you and Sebastian.”
Hugh smiled tightly. “It will be. He’s running a little late. This is your sister?”
“Yes, this is Tessa Blythe. Librarian extraordinaire.” Jenna smiled at her. “Tessa, this is Hugh Ellingham, one of the founders of the town and this academy.”
Tessa nodded and shook his hand. “Thank you for the interview.”
“Your resume is exceptional. Perhaps a little light on years of experience, but otherwise very impressive. I apologize for my brother’s tardiness. If you’ll just have a seat, I’ll text him and see how much longer he’s going to be.”
Tessa nodded as Hugh picked up his phone.
Jenna leaned in and whispered, “I’m gonna go. Knock ’em dead.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you later.”
The door burst open before Jenna had taken two steps toward it. A tall, handsome, and very agitated man strode into the room with all the dark, stormy presence of Mr. Darcy. He looked like a slightly older, sterner version of the man she’d just met. “Apologies for being late, Hugh, but bloody hell, you will not believe the morning I’ve had. Evangeline is in town.”
Hugh’s mouth gaped. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, very.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I won’t go into it all now, but I need a woman. Who do you know that might be willing to pretend to be my betrothed for an evening?”
Jenna snorted. “That’s gonna be a short list.”
Both men turned and the man who’d just come in eyed Jenna and Tessa like they were interlopers. He looked back at Hugh. “You could have mentioned the interview was here.”
“You didn’t give me a chance.” Hugh gestured toward Tessa. “This is Tessa Blythe, Deputy Blythe’s sister. Tessa, this is my late brother, Sebastian.”
Tessa lifted her fingers in a small wave, hoping the man’s less than cheerful disposition didn’t affect her interview.
Jenna laughed. “I see what you did there.Latebrother. Funny.” She nudged Tessa. “Because he’s both a vampire and not on time.”
“I get it,” Tessa whispered. Her sister’s fearlessness around these men was astonishing. Sure, they were vampires and they looked appropriately intimidating, but they were also in charge of the hiring. That was a far more daunting bit of information where Tessa was concerned.
Sebastian gave them a curt nod before turning back to his brother. “I can’t do this interview right now. I need to sort out this problem. Evangeline’s coming to dinner tomorrow night and expects to meet my fiancée.”
Hugh shook his head. “Why on earth would she expect that?”
Sebastian frowned. “Because I told her she would.”
“And why did you tell her that?”
Sebastian’s frown hardened into something more serious. “Pride.”
Hugh glanced at Jenna. “How about the deputy here?”
Jenna crossed her arms. “Yeah, that’s not happening.”
Sebastian’s brows knit together, his unhappy expression unchanged. “Why not? I’ll compensate you for your time.”
“I appreciate that, but, and I say this with the utmost respect, no one would buy it. As best I can tell, we have nothing in common. You rarely leave your house, and when you do, you’re dressed like you’re off to a business meeting. Which you probably are because you’re the CFO of this town. And that’s all great, but my idea of fun is four-wheeling through the mud or getting a little range time in with my service weapon.”
“Or wrestling a perp to the ground,” Tessa added.
Jenna nodded. “Exactly. See? My sister gets me. Hey!” She looked at Tessa with a bright smile. “You could do it.”
Tessa swallowed as a surge of anxiety attempted to close her throat. “What?”
Sebastian expelled a gruff sound of disbelief. “This mouse? No offense, but Evangeline would eat her for breakfast.”
Tessa’s eyes rounded.
His hand shot up. “Not literally. I just meant—”
Jenna cut him off. “I know what you meant. You think because my sister looks like a librarian andisa librarian that she’s too timid and quiet for anyone to buy that she’d be your fiancée. Well, I’ll have you know that she might look harmless but she’s a valkyrie, same as I am, and one of the fiercest women I know.”
Tessa almost groaned at Jenna’s lie. Fierce? She might as well have said Tessa could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Sebastian’s brows lifted as his gaze swept Tessa from head to toe. “She doesn’t look like a valkyrie.”
“Well, I am,” Tessa said. Did Jenna really see her as fierce? “I have to be, don’t I? I mean, my sister is one. It’s not a thing that skips generations or only affects one child.”
Jenna jabbed a finger at him, clearly not done. “What she looks like and what she’s capable of are two different things. You want help with this situation? Tessa can do it. But you’d better promise her this job when this charade is all said and done. Otherwise, no deal.”
Tessa poked a warning finger into her sister’s back, but the Kevlar vest beneath her uniform shirt didn’t allow for much pressure. There was no way she could do this. Pretend to be a vampire’s betrothed? And this vampire, who was clearly a difficult man to get along with? No. Way.
“I’ll promise her the job, but I must warn you both. Pretending to be my fiancée could be a little dangerous.”
Dangerous? Tessa bit her lip. How could pretending be dangerous?
Jenna laughed. “Don’t worry about Tessa. She can take care of herself.”
Sebastian’s brows knit. “Are you sure? She doesn’t look like she could defend herself from a kitten.”
Jenna leaned in. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”
Tessa wanted to disappear. She knew exactly what Jenna meant by that even if Sebastian didn’t.Please don’t let her explain further.
But Jenna’s words seemed to have Sebastian considering the deal. “And when she can’t pull it off? Then what? No, I think you should do it, Deputy. It’s only for a night.”
“I’m on duty. And also, I already said no. If Tessa can’t pull it off, then you don’t have to hire her. But she will. You’ll see. And then she’ll be the new library dean.”
“Dean of library studies,” Tessa corrected. Was this really happening?
Sebastian’s gaze narrowed in calculation and his jaw twitched in a very unhappy way, which matched the deep sense of skepticism coming off him. “You’ll need to be at my house first thing in the morning. You’ll have to be familiar with my house and me. We’ll need the whole day together if this is going to work.”
Tessa felt very much like she was on a roller coaster climbing toward the peak of a very sharp drop. But how hard could it be to pretend for an evening? Especially when it meant guaranteeing herself the amazing position of dean of library studies. “I can be there as early as you need me.”
He snorted. “Wonderful, but the early start is hardly the difficult bit. Fooling Evangeline is where things get tricky. She’s a master of deception and manipulation, and a vampire as old as I am. Pulling one over on her will be a Herculean task.”
Tessa nodded. Her valkyrie senses told her he wasn’t lying. A new wave of nervousness rattled her. Moving to Nocturne Falls was starting to feel like a very questionable decision.
Sebastian stared into his backyard, seeing nothing of the gardens or the purple sky brought on by twilight. All he could think about was that he’d made a stupid, rash decision. Evangeline’s presence had that kind of effect on men. And his bold claim of being engaged was proof that she most definitely still had that effect on him.
There was no way the meek little sister of Deputy Blythe was going to convince Evangeline that she was his fiancée. Valkyrie or not, the woman was so bland as to be almost unnoticeable, and if her personality matched her looks, he was doomed. She wasn’t ugly by any stretch, but she was just so plain that she would be impossible to pick out in a crowd. He doubted Evangeline would ever believe he was attracted to Tessa.
The poor woman couldn’t help who she was, though. And he was indebted to her for coming to his rescue, fully aware that it was a tremendously kind act on her behalf. Of course, she stood to gain the dean of library studies job, which she was infinitely qualified for anyway, but he was appreciative regardless. Job or not, he owed her. She barely knew him.
He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had put themselves out for him in such a manner. A tiny spot of warmth bloomed in his heart for Tessa Blythe. The first he’d really felt for anyone outside of his family, which naturally included Greaves. He stayed on that thought for a moment. No matter the outcome, Tessa had proven herself a good person.
Sebastian rubbed his chin. Perhaps Tessa being Evangeline’s exact opposite was a good thing. Maybe Tessa’s mousiness would startle Evangeline into thinking this setup was the truth. That he must really love the woman to be keeping company with her. He couldn’t say.
But no matter how he played the outcomes in his head, he couldn’t shake the feeling this whole mess had the very serious potential to blow up in his face. Tessa should have the job either way. She should not suffer if this plan didn’t work. Because if it didn’t, Evangeline would surely make her suffer.
Sebastian vowed he would protect Tessa from Evangeline, no matter the cost to himself or Evangeline. Tessa didn’t deserve to be hurt because of his problems. Or Evangeline’s unpredictability.
Yes, he’d see to it that Tessa had the job, but he wouldn’t tell her that. He needed her to be motivated, after all. This was not going to be an easy task.
If only they had more time to prepare. But then, theydidto some extent. Not much more time, but he could go see Tessa tonight. In fact, he almost had to. A day would never be enough to get their stories memorized and become familiar enough with one another so as not to appear like strangers. He sighed loudly.
“Everything all right, sir?”
Sebastian turned. He’d told Greaves everything the minute he’d gotten home. “I need to go see Tessa. There are too many details. We’ll never get them right if we don’t start now.”
“You could just tell Evangeline the truth.”
“And look like a fool in her eyes once again? No. I can’t have her thinking I’ve been waiting for her return all these years. That I’ve just been pining away.”
“Except that you have been.” He held his hands up. “Respectfully.”
Sebastian frowned. “I know what a pathetic fool I am, old man. No need to remind me.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “She looked at me with utter disbelief. As if the thought that another woman was willing to have me was completely preposterous. That I could not possibly be interesting enough to hold the attention of another woman. It may be my downfall, but my pride will not let that lie.”
He looked at Greaves. “Am I that difficult of a man just because I am firm in my beliefs and have little tolerance for imperfection in others? Is that enough to make me…hard to love, do you think?”
Greaves pursed his mouth. “I can’t speak for the female population, but you are not Julian, that’s for sure.”
Sebastian snorted derisively at the mention of his youngest brother. “And I never will be if treacly charm and loose morals are what make a man attractive.”
Greaves grunted in agreement.
A hard thought struck Sebastian. He let a few seconds pass before speaking again. “Am I boring, then, Greaves?”
Greaves tipped his head slightly. “I suppose that depends on what a woman finds stimulating. Evangeline’s interests lay beyond the realm of the cerebral, so you two were never going to be a good match. You’re a brilliant man with a mind that seeks higher pleasures. You need a woman with a similar mind.”
“Thank you for that.” Sebastian rolled his shoulders to relieve the stress of the day. It failed to help. “I’m going out to see Miss Blythe. We have work to do. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Very good, sir.”
Deputy Blythe lived in one of the residential neighborhoods the Ellinghams had set aside specifically for town employees. The houses weren’t enormous but they weren’t shoe boxes either and the yards all showed pride of ownership, something that pleased Sebastian. Order was a thing of beauty and these streets had it in spades.
He parked in her driveway next to her patrol car and went to the front door to knock. Deputy Blythe answered a few moments later and he knew immediately by her expression that he was not who she’d expected.
“Deputy Blythe. I realize I should have phoned that I was coming. My apologies for interrupting your evening. I was hoping to speak with Tessa.”
“Did you decide to call the whole thing off?”
“No. But that is why I’m here. Is she available?”
“Sure, come in. She’s in her room. I’ll get her.” Jenna pointed at the couch in the living room. “Have a seat.”
He remained standing. The house was as neat inside as it was out and not overly accessorized. He liked it.
A few minutes later, Tessa walked into the room. She pushed her glasses back and blinked at him. “H-hello.”
A more tentative greeting he could not imagine. He did his best to be casual. “Hi. I’m sorry to drop by unannounced, but I was thinking we should start the process of getting to know each other now instead of trying to cram it all into the hours before dinner tomorrow.”
She nodded, looking relieved. “That’s a good idea. I have to confess, the whole thing is making me nervous. I don’t like being unprepared.”
“No, neither do I. Would you like to go out? Get some coffee perhaps?” He hadn’t actually intended that, but it seemed like he’d become quite impulsive lately.
She tucked a loose strand of dirty-blonde hair behind one ear. It was the only piece that had escaped the chignon at the nape of her neck. “Um, sure. I guess if we’re supposed to be engaged, being seen in public together makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Although now it’s my turn to confess that I hadn’t even thought of that.”
She raised her hand, palm to her chest, and wiggled her fingers. “Something else you might not have thought about. Do you have a ring for me to wear?”
“An engagement ring. Won’t this other woman expect to see one on my hand?”
He closed his eyes and sighed. There was so much he hadn’t considered. This was why he was rarely impulsive. Actions spawned by emotion were prone to failure. “Yes, she absolutely will. And no, I don’t have one. We’ll remedy that this evening as well. Why don’t you get ready and I’ll make a call and see what I can do about that.”
She glanced down at her nondescript pants and blouse. “I…am ready.”
“Oh.” Plain did not begin to describe the poor woman.
Her mouth thinned to a perturbed line. “No, never mind. I’ll go change. I’ll be quick.”
“Take as long as you like. I’m happy to wait.”
She headed back down the hall and he heard her calling for her sister. He shook his head. He had only himself to blame when Evangeline saw through this. He pulled out his phone and dialed Willa Iscove, the jeweler in town. He needed a ring and he could think of no one else who could provide him with one on such short notice.
There would be no half-measures, either, because in all of this mess, he knew one thing. If he was going down in flames, it was going to be the largest bonfire Nocturne Falls had ever witnessed.
Tessa slipped into her sister’s room and shut the door, leaning against it. “You have to help me.”
Jenna looked up from where she was sitting on her bed playing with Duncan who was chasing a feather on a string, but mostly falling over his own feet in the process. “What do you need? Whatever it is, I’ll do it. It’s my valkyrie duty to protect the worthy and you certainly fit that description, even if you are another valkyrie. Wait, you’re not going to ask me to take your place as Grumpy’s fiancée are you? Because I love you but my answer to that is still no.”
“No, it’s not that and don’t call him Grumpy. That’s my future boss you’re talking about.Ifthis works out. He wants to go out for coffee and by the way he looked at my clothes, I could tell he didn’t think much of this outfit. If I’m supposed to be his fiancée, I need to look like a woman he’d actually be seen with. Which I’m guessing I don’t now.”
“And that’s what you want my help with?”
Tessa nodded. “Yes. Please.”
Jenna hopped off the bed and squealed with delight. “I’ve been trying to give you a makeover for years.”
“Hold up. This is not a makeover. I just need help picking out something else to wear. Something more like what a vampire’s fiancée would wear.” Tessa shook her head at the ridiculousness of that statement. “Whatever that is.”
Jenna went over and opened her closet.
Tessa’s brows knit. “My clothes are in the guest room.”
“Which is why I’m looking in here.” She stared into her closet. “Do you have any skinny jeans?”
“Do I look like a hipster?”
Jenna shot her a look. “Regular jeans will have to do.”
“I don’t have any of those either.”
Jenna looked at her sister. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No. I don’t wear jeans. They’re not work appropriate.”
Jenna tipped her head to the side. “You have a life outside of work.”
Not really, but Tessa kept that comment to herself.
Jenna pulled a stack of jeans off a shelf and plopped them on the bed. “The skinnies are on top. Lucky for you, we’re the same size.”
“You’re an inch taller.” Why would one person own so many pairs of jeans? Weren’t they all essentially the same? Blue and denim.
“Half an inch and that won’t make a difference.” Jenna waved her hands at Tessa like she was trying to shoo flies away. “Let’s go, strip, get into the jeans. And lose that old lady blouse.”
“It’s not an old lady blouse. This is Ann Taylor, I’ll have you know.”
“Forgive me. Lose that middle-aged lady blouse.”
Tessa huffed out a breath but took off her navy chinos and silk shirt and climbed into the pair of jeans Jenna indicated. They weresnug. “Are these jeans or leggings?”
Jenna rolled her eyes. “Jeans.”
“Are they supposed to be this tight? I think I’m losing circulation in my thighs.”
“Yes, and no, you’re not.” Jenna pulled out a couple of tops on hangers before turning around. “Holy Loki, you actually have a body. And boobs!”
Tessa wrapped her arms around her bare stomach. “Of course I have a body. And a chest.”
“Yeah, but who knew the whole package was this hot? Although, Tessa, seriously? That bra is a real snooze. White cotton? Do you have to special order those from Amish-R-Us?” Jenna curled her lip. “We might be sisters but we are not related by fashion.”
“It’s practical. And I can bleach it.” And they matched her underwear, but Tessa was sure her sister wouldn’t think that was a plus.
Jenna lifted her brows. “What are you doing in your bras that they need to be bleached?” She held up a hand. “On second thought, don’t answer that.” She thrust out the handful of shirts. “Try these on.”
Tessa took the hangers but stared at the shirts. “All together?”
“Oh my word, no. One at a time.” Jenna shook her head and went back to digging in her closet. “You still wear a size eight shoe like me, right?”
“Yes.” Tessa pulled the first top on. It was plum-colored and sort of twisted at the neck but then the fabric fell away in a draped cowl. It was pretty. Lower cut than the tops she normally wore, but not uncomfortably so. Not a color she would have typically picked either, but this was about looking different, so mission accomplished.
Jenna turned around with a pair of tall, brown leather boots and a long, chunky brown cardigan. “That top is perfect. Forget the rest of them. Here, boots and a sweater. Donotbutton it.”
“What if I get cold? It’s January, you know.”
“Yes, but it’s a warm January. And we’re valkyries. Suck it up, you’ll be fine. Besides, beauty isn’t always easy or convenient.”
“Says the woman who normally wears a uniform. That’s about as easy and convenient as it gets.”
“Yes, but when I go out, I let my light shine. Unlike you, who has yet to actually turn your light on. At least I know now there’s a bulb in there. Okay, hair and makeup time.”
“Jenna, settle down. My hair is fine and I don’t need makeup.”
“Your hair belongs in the same store as that old lady blouse. The bun is not happening. We have gorgeous dirty-blonde hair with all kinds of natural highlights that human women pay big bucks for and you’re hiding them in a knot. The hair is coming down. And look, no oneneedsmakeup, but trust me, a little mascara and lip gloss are not going to kill you and they’ll work wonders to show off your blue eyes. Which are the same phenomenal blue as mine. You’ll see when I’m done. You, only better.”
Ten minutes later and Tessa’s hair was down and brushed and mascara and lip gloss had been applied. Tessa had even allowed Jenna to tweeze her eyebrows a little. Jenna was impossible to say no to. But as Tessa looked in the mirror, she knew that she looked nice.
“Well?” Jenna asked. “What do you think?”
“I look less whore-y than I thought I would.”
Jenna put her hands on her hips. “That’s a fine compliment for all my hard work. You look beautiful. Well, you always were, but now it’s apparent. Just think what I could do with a few more minutes.”
“This is plenty, thanks.”
“Yeah, I get it. All right, go. Have fun and figure out all this fake fiancée stuff.”
Tessa doubted fun would be part of the evening. She hesitated. “You’ll watch Duncan?”
They both glanced at the bed. The kitten was passed out on his back, his fat stripey belly exposed. Jenna laughed softly. “I don’t think he needs much watching right now.”
“No, I guess not. But half of the pizza is mine when it gets here. I’m going to want it when I get home.”
Jenna crossed her arms. “I’ll do my best but Salvatore’s is one of my downfalls. If there’s less than half left, I can’t be held responsible. Now quit stalling and go.”
Tessa sighed. “Fine.”
“Seriously, have fun. Or at least try to.”
“Sure.” Tessa left her sister and walked out to the living room.
Sebastian was facing the fireplace, one hand on the mantel, as he finished up a phone call. “Yes, that’ll be fine. Thank you.”
He hung up and turned around. His eyes widened. Then narrowed again. “Tessa?”
“Do I look that different?”
“I…yes, a bit, with your hair down.” He smiled and she had a moment of surprise herself.
He was shockingly handsome when he wasn’t frowning. She took an extra breath to get rid of the weird fluttery feeling in her stomach. Something she’d had for lunch must not have agreed with her. “Thanks. I guess.”
He nodded. “You look lovely.”
“My sister did it.” The fluttery thing wasn’t going away and she realized it had nothing to do with the burger she’d had at Mummy’s. Great. It was one thing pretending to be his fiancée, but to actually find him attractive? That was not going to help. “So, coffee?”
“Yes. But first we have a stop to make. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, that’s fine.”
The stop turned out to be downtown Nocturne Falls. Tessa hadn’t spent much time in town yet as she’d only just arrived the day before. Lunch at the diner had been her only foray and it had been brief since Jenna had to get back to the station after her break. The town was pretty at night with the shops all lit up and twinkle lights in the trees. From the Halloween colors to the cobwebs on the lamp posts and the occasionally crooked-on-purpose building, it was like visiting a theme park.
She watched out the window as he parked in a spot reserved for town employees. “Does it always look like this or is this just left over from an event?”
“No, it’s always like this. Keeps the atmosphere festive, I suppose. It’s more my brother Julian’s department. He’s in charge of theming and characters. And occasionally new businesses.”
She looked at him. “What do you do? I should know that.”
He nodded as he turned the engine off. “I’m the CFO of Nocturne Falls.”
She’d already assumed he had money. Knowing he was also in charge of the town’s money made sense. He seemed like the type to run a tight ship and an even tighter purse. “You must be good with numbers.”
His eyebrows lifted in response. “Better with them than with people.”
He went silent a moment. “I’m a bit of a loner, I guess. People can be so…”
His mouth bent in a half-smile. “Amongst other things, yes.” The remnants of the smile faded and his gaze shifted to the street. “Let’s go see about this ring, shall we?”
“Is that what the stop is about?”
He nodded. “The jeweler is very accommodating.”
Tessa imagined most business owners would feel that way toward the CFO of the town, although Sebastian didn’t seem like the type to throw his weight around. Especially if what Jenna had said about him never leaving his house was true.
They got out of the car (she realized too late that he was coming around to open her door) and she walked with him to a pretty little shop called Illusions. This time, he reached the door ahead of her and opened it. She went in. There were a few people in the store and two women behind the counters waiting on them.
One of them, a stunningly beautiful fae woman, greeted Sebastian, then Tessa, with a smile. “Hello there.”
Sebastian answered with a nod. “Evening, Willa.”
She excused herself from the customers she was waiting on. “I’m all set up for you in the back. Come around the counter and into my office.”
She went ahead of Sebastian and Tessa, slipping into the back room but standing at the door until they were in. A large orange cat lounged on the desk.
“Hi there, kitty cat.” Tessa smiled and gave him a little scratch. Without opening his eyes, he stretched and put his paw on her arm.
“Now you’ve done it,” Willa said as she shut the office door. “You’re his new best friend.”
“He’s very sweet. What’s his name?”
“Jasper. Feel free to put him on the floor, too. We’re going to need that desk.”
Tessa couldn’t bring herself to move the sleepy beast. “But he’s so comfortable.”
Sebastian cleared his throat. He wasn’t interested in cat talk apparently. “Thank you for seeing us on such short notice. And for understanding.”
Willa gave a little nod. “I know all about how your past can sneak up and bite you.” She opened a safe and pulled out a large, covered velvet tray, then carried it over and gave Jasper a little shove off the desk. “Sorry, baby, but I need the space.”
He jumped down and skulked off, finding a new place to lounge on top of a low filing cabinet.
Willa put the tray down and lifted the top.
Tessa sucked in a breath. There had to be twenty diamond rings on display, all of them enormous and sparkling like the sun and completely over the top. She hated to think of such assuredly expensive baubles gaudy, but to her that’s what they were. Not that she would say that to either Willa or Sebastian. “Wow.”
Willa laughed softly. “I feel that way too. All the time. Which one do you like?”
She looked at Willa, then Sebastian, then back at Willa. Clearly they both expected her to swoon over them. “They’re all lovely.”
Sebastian came closer and motioned to the tray. “Pick one.”
She looked at the rings again and finally shook her head, unable to make a decision. “None of these are really me.”
He sighed. “This isn’t about which one best suits your personal taste, it’s about fooling Evangeline.”
She frowned at him. “I understand that, but it seems to me that picking a ring that’s unlike something I’d actually wear goes against the whole idea here. You want it to be convincing, don’t you?”
His expression took an exasperated turn. “Choose a ring. You only have to wear it tonight and tomorrow night.”
Willa put her hand on Tessa’s arm. “Just a moment. I have something else.”
She took the tray back to the safe and returned with one half the size. She put it on the desk and opened it. The rings inside held diamonds just as large but all in much simpler settings, some without any accompanying side stones. “Better?”
“Yes,” Tessa answered.
Sebastian shook his head. “These are too plain.”
“These are more me,” Tessa shot back. If that meant she was plain, so be it. “But they’re all still so large.”
“I’m not compromising on that. I’d never buy the woman I love anything less than…that one.” He pointed to a ring that held the second-largest center stone with two long tapered diamonds on the sides.
Willa smiled. “A classic round solitaire with two tapered baguettes set in platinum. An enduring style for sure.” She looked at Tessa. “A good choice, don’t you think?”
The center stone was the size of a fat, spring pea and Tessa was already having palpitations at the thought of how much such a ring cost and what would happen if she somehow lost it, but Sebastian was right. To a point. It was a prop, not a symbol of hisanything. Unless his desire to fool his ex-wife counted. “It’s beautiful.” And it was.
Just so unlike anything she’d ever thought would end up on her finger.
Willa pulled the ring free of the insert that held it in place and offered it to Sebastian. “Why don’t you see if it fits your bride-to-be?”
He made a gruff little noise of complaint but took the ring anyway.
Tessa offered her hand. And realized he was about to touch her. She went very still, unable to focus on anything but the ring in his fingers and the subtle trembling of her own. No man had ever put a ring on her before and she suspected no man might ever again.
To have the whole thing be a sham made her unexpectedly sad.
He wrapped his fingers loosely around her wrist while he guided the ring on.
His fingers were long and perfect and slightly callused, which surprised her. She’d thought a man who worked with numbers would have smooth skin. She couldn’t help but think that he had the kind of hands that looked like they’d be nice to hold. Large enough to envelope hers. And his touch was surprisingly gentle and warmer than she’d expected. Of course, she’d never touched—or been touched by—a vampire before.
She stared at the ring shining like a spotlight on her finger. It sparkled and glittered, demanding attention.
“It fits perfectly,” Willa said.
Tessa just nodded, a little blinded by the diamond’s brilliance.
Sebastian grunted, which apparently was a big part of his vocal repertoire. “I’ll have it back day after tomorrow.”
“No rush.” Willa’s voice held a smile. “I know where you live.”
“Indeed. Shall we?”
It took Tessa a moment to realize he was speaking to her. “Oh, yes. Of course. Thank you so much, Willa. Nice to meet you.”
The fae smiled back. “You too. Good luck with everything.”
Tessa left with Sebastian. It was impossible to ignore the ring. First of all, it was heavier than she’d imagined an engagement ring would be. Secondly, she felt like everyone was staring at it. Or maybe it was just her. She couldn’t help but glance down at it. It glittered like a disco ball and was about as out of place on her hand.
“Don’t fall in love with it. Keeping it isn’t part of the deal.”
She jerked her head up. “I know that. Trust me, I have no designs on you or your money. All I want is the job.”
He snorted softly like he didn’t totally buy that.
The noise and the sense of disbelief radiating off him raised her valkyrie ire, a rare occurrence. Mostly because she did everything to avoid it. Alarms started going off inside her. She clenched her right hand until the scar on her knuckles stood out white. She needed to fix this and now.
She stopped cold, forcing him to do the same, then backtrack to her. “What’s the matter?”
She kept her voice low but her tone clear. “This was your idea. If you’re going to disparage my character or imply that I am somehowout to get somethingbeyond the job that was promised to me, then perhaps you should find yourself another fool.”
Her ire still rising, she pulled the ring off, shoved it into his hand and spun to walk away from him. Cooling off and calming down was paramount.
She’d seen his mouth come open, but had no idea if he was following after her or not. It was bad enough that he thought she wasn’t up to the task of convincing his ex that she was worthy of his affections, but for him to even slightly imply that she was somehow in this for financial gain was ludicrous.
Just like this insane scheme.
She wanted the job desperately. Actually, she needed it desperately. But if it meant spending time with a man who was going to rile her up and test her temper, she was done.
Nothing was worth risking another life over.
Sebastian stared after Tessa, mouth open, head full of disbelief, the ring still warm in his hand. The little mouse had roared and it was oddly stimulating. He found himself again and took off after her, nearly needing to jog to catch her. “Tessa.Tessa.”
She refused to slow. “I don’t want to do this anymore. Find someone else.”
She stopped, but the unhappy curve of her pretty mouth said she wasn’t going to be still long. Pedestrians streamed past them. She wrapped her left hand over her right, her thumb rubbing at her knuckles. At a scar there. “You’re not a nice man. And I say that knowing full well this could cost me the job of dean, but this is a mutually beneficial situation. You’re getting as much out of this as I am. Maybe more. So you making me feel like I’m trying to…to…griftyou is—”
“You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. My people skills are not what they should be. Which is no excuse for my behavior.” He held out the ring. “Please. Give me another chance. I need you.” That was something he hadn’t said—or needed to say—to anyone in many, many years. To be saying those words to this particular woman was a rather surreal experience.
The passersby slowed and from the smiles and glances at the ring, it was obvious they thought they were witnessing a proposal.
He took her elbow and led her out of the path of traffic and prying eyes. “What do you say? Another chance? I have been told I am a difficult man. Most recently by Evangeline. Perhaps I am, but I have no desire to change, especially not for her. The most I can do is attempt to temper my natural tendencies. Which I will. But you must accept that dealing with who I am is part of this arrangement.”
She made a face. “Well, when you put it that way, how can a girl resist?” Resignation filled her gaze. “I said I would help and I’m a woman of my word.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
She stuck her hand out, palm up. “The ring?”
He gave it to her, letting her put it on herself this time since that seemed to be her desire. It was fine with him. He knew very well the softness of her skin. He didn’t need the temptation of it again. This was a business arrangement, nothing more. “Coffee, then?”
“You don’t seem very enthused by the idea. We do still need to get to know each other.”
She let out a soft breath. “I think I’m getting to know you just fine.” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “Coffee is good, but I might need something stronger.”
He raised his brows. “Alcohol?” He hadn’t pictured her as the drinking type.
“I can manage that.” He took off walking, a new destination in mind.
From behind him, he heard the sound of throat clearing. He glanced over his shoulder. She was still standing there, a look of expectation on her face. He returned to her side. “Did I forget something?”
“We’re supposed to be engaged. Not only didn’t you wait for me, but couples in love hold hands.”
He blinked. “You want to hold my hand?”
She glared at him. “Not particularly, no. But you could at least offer me your arm.”
“You’re right. I’m not thinking like an engaged man.” He stuck his elbow out.
She looped her arm through it. “If you want this to work, you’d better try.”
“Again, you’re right. Shall we?”
She nodded and he started toward the coffee shop again. A few locals glanced at him with curious expressions. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was out in public or because he was with a woman. Either way, it would cause the town gossips to wag their tongues. Good. Let them talk.
Maybe Evangeline would get wind of it. He hoped. That was sort of the point.
He walked Tessa straight to Delaney’s. She’d be closing up soon, but they still had a few minutes. He held the door for Tessa, then went in after her.
“It smells like heaven in here.” Her eyes closed and she took a deep inhale. A look of sheer pleasure washed over her face, highlighting its symmetry.
He watched her intently. Not only had he been wrong about her being plain, but he was starting to realize she was rather pretty.
“Sebastian, is that you?” Delaney walked out from the back, carrying a stack of flattened boxes. “Is the world coming to an end? What are you doing in here?”
He straightened and approached his sister-in-law while Tessa was still marveling at one of Delaney’s show cakes in the front window. “I trust Hugh filled you in on my recent circumstances?”
“He did.” Her gaze shifted to Tessa. “That must be the selfless saint who’s agreed to martyr herself for your cause.”
He frowned. “I hardly think it’s that dire a situation.”
“She’s got to spend time with you, doesn’t she?”
He felt a growl building in his throat. “Now see here—”
Tessa walked up before he could say anything more and smiled at Delaney. “Is this your shop?”
Delaney tucked the boxes under the counter. “It sure is. I bet you could use one of everything.”
Tessa laughed and Sebastian blinked at the sound. He hadn’t heard it from her before and it was lovely. Light and sweet and musical. Not at all what he’d expected.
Delaney pulled one of the boxes off the stack and folded it together, then lined it with wax paper. “What do you like?”
Tessa suddenly grew more serious. “Oh, maybe just a cookie.”
Sebastian had a feeling he knew what had dampened her mood. “Give my…fiancéewhatever she’d like and put it on my account.”
Delaney snorted. “Like I wasn’t already going to.”
Sebastian sighed and turned to Tessa. “Tessa, this is Delaney, my brother Hugh’s wife.”
Delaney stuck her hand out. “Which makes me your pretend sister-in-law-to-be. How are you holding up?”
Tessa shook her hand and suddenly seemed to relax. “I’m…all right.”
“Sebastian’s bark is much worse than his bite.” Delaney made a face. “Or maybe that doesn’t really apply to vampires, but you know what I mean. I hear you’re Deputy Jenna’s sister.”
“That is so cool. You’re a valkyrie too, right?”
The more Delaney engaged Tessa, the more the woman seemed to come alive. That gave Sebastian an idea. “Delaney, you and Hugh must come to dinner tomorrow night. The two of you can help steer the conversation in case Evangeline gets too inquisitive.”
Delaney’s eyes rounded. “Done. And that will save me the trouble of getting Hugh to wrangle us an invite. I can’t wait to meet this woman you’ve been tormenting yourself over.”
He scowled. “I have not been tormenting myself over her.”
“Sure, sure.” She waved him off and looked at Tessa again. “Okay, seriously, what’s your poison? What’s your favorite flavor combo?”
Tessa swept her gaze across the cases again. “I love chocolate and orange together.”
“I have just the thing.” Delaney moved a few steps down the display. “Dark chocolate blood orange truffles dusted with fennel pollen.” She reached in with a sheet of waxed paper and plucked one out, then handed it to Tessa.
She took it and nibbled a little bite. Her eyes closed and a moan of pleasure rumbled out of her. And straight through Sebastian. The sound was even better than her laugh. He straightened as she swallowed and opened her eyes. “Wow. You made that?”
“I sure did.” Delaney preened. “How about you let me make up a box of goodies for you?”
Tessa’s mouth was full of chocolate, so she just nodded and murmured, “Mm-hmm.”
She walked back to Sebastian, licking her lips.
It was highly distracting for reasons he didn’t care to think about. “Enjoying yourself?”
“Yes.” She licked the tip of one finger. “Aren’t you getting anything?”
“I don’t eat sweets.”
“You’re a vampire, not a robot. Who doesn’t eat sweets?”
“I don’t.” They were an indulgence and indulgences led to weaknesses. “You can add that to the list of things you’ve learned about me.”
She nodded, but there was a little sadness in her eyes. “You’re kind of a mess, aren’t you? I’m sure most people see your proper uprightness as part of who you are, but to me it seems like a defense mechanism. Valkyries once judged the souls of men on the battlefield, you know. Who deserved to live, who deserved to die and who deserved Valhalla. We’re still exceptional judges of character. It’s why my sister is such an outstanding deputy. She can tell when someone’s really innocent. Or truly guilty.”
His skin itched at her assessment. “Your job is to pretend to be my betrothed. That is all. I do not need your analysis or sympathy or judgment. Understood?”
She stared at him for a long second. “More than you know.”
For the first time since this whole charade had started, Tessa saw Sebastian in a very different light. He was broken by betrayal. It practically radiated out of him. It also explained why he was gruff and defensive and not particularly open to new things. On some level, she understood that reaction.
This Evangeline had done a number on him. Tessa couldn’t help but feel for the man. To her, it was clear he was damaged and yet, she doubted that anyone outside of his family really grasped that.
Then she reminded herself that it wasn’t her job to fix him. Just pretend to be his fiancée. If he wanted his ex-wife back, then maybe she could help him with that. If that’s what he wanted.
Delaney returned with a small paper shopping bag and held it out. “Let me know what you think of them.” She winked. “I can always send more if your new boyfriend wears you down.”
Tessa made herself smile. “I’m sure we’ll be fine. Thank you so much. I guess I’ll see you at dinner.”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
Sebastian nodded. “Thank you, Delaney. You’ll let Hugh know about tomorrow night, then?”
“Yes, but you should still call him.”
“I suppose I should,” Sebastian said. “Very well. We’re off for coffee.”
“The Hallowed Bean?” Delaney asked.
“Good choice.” She looked at Tessa. “If you’re still in the mood for something sweet, try the drinking chocolate. It’s phenomenal.”
“Thanks, I will.” Tessa lifted the bag. “And thanks again for the treats.”
She and Sebastian went across the street to the coffee shop. A good number of customers filled the spot, leading her to believe the cute little shop had to be a local favorite. She stood with him at the counter and ordered the drinking chocolate Delaney had suggested, along with a slice of vanilla pound cake.
Sebastian got black coffee. “Why don’t you find us a seat? I’ll bring everything over.”
“Okay.” She chose a table near the window. If they were going to be seen, that was a prime location. She put the bag of sweets from Delaney on the seat next to her.
Sebastian joined her a few minutes later, tray in hand. He put her drink and her cake in front of her, then sat. He took his coffee off the tray, then handed the tray to a passing worker. He sipped the dark brew, then nodded at her selections. “I suppose you have a rather high metabolism, given your true nature. Or you do something else to stay fit.”
That almost sounded like a compliment on her figure. She cut a bit of cake with her fork. “High metabolism like most of…us.” She wasn’t sure if using the wordsupernaturalin public was okay. “And I suppose your first choice of sustenance isn’t cake.”
He gave a little laugh. “No, not quite. But that’s not to say I don’t partake on occasion. Although those occasions are rare. I prefer moderation in all things.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“Why? Because I seem like someone who doesn’t know how to enjoy himself?”
She sipped her chocolate, watching him. “You said that, not me. I was going to say because you seem like a person who favors control above all else. I respect that.”
His brows lifted slightly. “You do?”
She nodded. “Did you think I was going to give you grief about it?”
A moment passed before he answered. “Yes. My brothers both do. Delaney does. Even my grandmother now and then.” He sighed and looked out the window. “I sometimes feel as though I spend more time defending the way I’ve chosen to live my life than actually living it.”
She snorted softly. “I understand that more than you know.”
“And how is that?”
She cut another bite of cake, but didn’t eat it. “I’m a valkyrie who’s become a librarian. Most of my kind take very different career paths.”
“Like your sister.”
“Exactly like Jenna.” Tessa ate the cake. It was good. Not as good as the drinking chocolate, which was extraordinary, but nice enough. She swallowed. “What is it about your life that your family doesn’t agree with?”
He shrugged and twisted his ceramic mug until the handle was at a right angle to his spoon. “I tend to avoid gatherings and social events as often as I can. I prefer to stay at home. With my books and my work and the pursuits that I enjoy. I live a simple life and that’s the way I like it. But I have often been told that I am boring.”
“I’ve heard that a few times myself.”
He lifted his mug. “Here’s to boring, then. Perhaps Evangeline will believe we are a couple after all.”
She clinked her cup of chocolate to his. “Maybe she will.”
He sipped his coffee. “Let’s hope.”
“What’s your goal for this dinner with her? I know you want her to see that another woman finds you desirable, but what else? You must want something more than that.”
He stared into his mug, going silent.
She stabbed another little square of cake she’d cut with her fork. “You don’t have to tell me, but it would be helpful if I had some idea of what the end game is.”
“I want…” He sighed. “You will think me ridiculous.”
“You don’t know that. And why do you care what I think anyway?”
He lifted his head. “Because I’m going to be your boss.”
“That hasn’t happened yet. And if you don’t tell me, I won’t know how to help you.”
His mouth bent with frustration. “I guess I want her back. As much as I wish that weren’t true, it would be the simplest solution to everything.”
Tessa narrowed her eyes. “You really want your ex back? Just being honest here, but I don’t understand how that would be the simplest solution to anything unless you’re trying to drive yourself crazy.”
He smiled briefly. “It’s complicated.”
“She is your ex, isn’t she?”
“Not technically, no. There was never any formal divorce. She just…left.”
“How many years ago?”
He frowned. “Nearly three hundred.”
She failed to hide her surprise. Talk about carrying a torch. “There has to be a statute of limitations on that sort of thing.”
“I’m sure there is. But the marriage isn’t really the issue. I am Evangeline’s sire, something the vampire council takes very seriously. When you cause another to become immortal, things change. A sire must protect those they turn to the best of their ability. And so, I am responsible for her. And I will be until the day one of us ceases to exist. Unless she signs dissolution papers. Which I doubt she will ever do.”
“Do you still feel married?”
“I feel…” He paused. “More like a parent with a prodigal child. Hmm. That’s the first time I’ve put that thought into words, but it’s true. It also sums up why it would be easier to have her back. So I can protect her. That is, more easily than I do now.”
She understood the desire to protect and assist those who needed it. That was another trait of being valkyrie. Although for a valkyrie, it was more about those who were worthy of protection, not a sense of responsibility. That was probably a big part of why she’d agreed to help him. It was in her makeup. Finding the right book for a person was the same thing, just on a much smaller scale. “And if she doesn’t want you back? Not saying that’s going to be the case, just curious what you’ll do then.”
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “I don’t know. I’ve spent my years waiting for her to return. I always knew she would. I never wanted to think about if she didn’t. But she has, and she claims to want us to be together again. All I need from dinner is for her to realize she’s going to have to make me want that too.”
Tessa nodded. “You want her to work for it. To make up for all the time you’ve spent waiting.” She smiled. “You want to make her pay a little too, don’t you?”
A glimmer of something lit his eyes. “Does that make me an awful person?”
“I think it makes you shockingly normal.”
He smiled and laughed a little, giving her a glimpse of his fangs. “I can’t say I’ve been called that very often in my life. Thank you for doing this. I confess I judged you harshly at first but I see now that you are an intelligent woman and very capable of carrying out this charade. You’ll make an excellent addition to Harmswood.”
“Thank you. I certainly hope I get the job.”
“Unless this thing goes horribly wrong, I rather think you’ve earned the job just by being a part of this. You’re certainly qualified. And I think we’ll work very well together.”
“Well, that’s good to know. And appreciated. I hope this all works out for you the way you’d like.” She drained the last of her chocolate. The sugar rush was almost instantaneous, but so were the images of her and Sebastian working well together. Images she was sure he hadn’t intended to create. Images that had nothing to do with work.
She cleared her throat, desperate for a new topic. “With that in mind, we’d better dig a little deeper.”
Sebastian nodded, slightly distracted by the flush of color in Tessa’s cheeks. “We should dig deeper, I agree, but are you feeling all right?”
“You look flushed.”
She laughed nervously. “Probably just the sugar rush. It tends to do that to me.”
“I see. Well, looks good on you.” A new thought hit him. “Say, would you like to get a drink?”
“I just had one.”
“I mean an actual drink. An adult beverage.” The desire for a glass of whiskey had hit him hard and with a kind of rare pull he almost never gave into. Perhaps he was changing as a person after all, because this new impulsive side of him was certainly not something he’d experienced before.
“Oh. All right, I suppose I could have one.”
“Not much of a drinker?”
She bobbed her head back and forth. “I prefer to remain in control of my faculties.”
Which confirmed his earlier thought about her. “I can understand that, but one won’t hurt, will it?”
She made a face that was a cross between a smile and a grimace. “I haven’t had dinner yet.”
“And yet, you just had cake.” He smirked. “Isn’t having dessert before your meal breaking some sort of rule?”
“Yes, but, well, I was hungry and there wasn’t much else to choose from but sweets.”
He put a hand to his chest. “Barely engaged an hour and already I’ve failed you. How about some dinner, then? To go with our drinks.”
“Okay. That would be great. You have a place in mind?”
And ten minutes later, they were walking into the Poisoned Apple, the local pub. Or the nearest thing to one. It wasn’t a place he frequented often, but neither was any other place in town. He’d heard Delaney mention it and her taste was decent enough.
He slipped the hostess some cash to get them a good table quickly. Unlike his brothers, he wasn’t as well known and couldn’t trade on his name as easily to curry favor, but he was fine with that. Privacy was more important to him.
They were seated at a booth in the back corner. It was quiet, unlike the bar, and secluded enough to feel like a safe space to carry on a personal conversation. He looked at Tessa as the server greeted them. “What would you like to drink? A nice red?”
Her mouth curved up on one side. “Beer.” She glanced up at the server. “Whatever lager you have on tap will do.”
The waitress nodded. “And for you, sir?”
“The best whiskey you have. Neat.”
“I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
As the girl left, he leaned toward Tessa. “I hadn’t expected you to drink beer.”
“What did you think I’d order?”
“White wine? Or maybe a wine spritzer. But definitely not beer.”
She laughed. “It’s a valkyrie thing. We have fairly simple, rustic tastes.”
“Simple and rustic now seem the least two likely adjectives I’d use to describe you.”
She smiled and went a little shy at the compliment, which was oddly endearing. Then he realized she probably didn’t get many compliments. The thought that she was being underappreciated by those around her bothered him.
She smoothed the edge of her placemat. “We should work on our stories.”
She nodded. “How we met, how you proposed, those stories. They seem like things your ex will ask about.”
“Ah, yes, very good. I’m sure she will. We ought to figure out what we want to eat first. I’m having the steak, I know that much.”
He scoffed. “Not hardly. The aged porterhouse. It’s the only choice if you like steak, which most vampires do. It’s one of their specialties.” At least that’s what he’d heard from Hugh.
Her gaze slid down the menu until she found it. No doubt she was looking at the price. It was the most expensive choice. “That’s a lot of meat.”
“You can take the leftovers home to your sister. Proof that I fed you, in case she asks.”
Tessa smiled. “Okay. Oh, that reminds me. I should text her that I’m eating out.” She closed her menu, pulled out her phone and sent the message. After she tucked her phone away, she gazed at him, her line of sight going right through him. “Where on earth would we have met? You said you don’t like to leave the house.”
“Easy. We’ll say we met at one of my grandmother’s social functions. She hosts them all the time. Balls for all sorts of things. Charity events. Whatever the town needs. I think it’s one of her best ways of gleaning gossip. We’ll say you were there as a guest of your sister.”
Tessa nodded. “That works, but we should be specific. Which event?”
“How about the Black and Orange Ball? While it’s not actually a charity event, it is one of the most popular things that happens around here. It’s the Halloween party my grandmother’s been throwing for years. It’s a huge deal. People come from all over to attend. It’s a perfectly legitimate way for us to have met as I am forced into attending every year.”
“Okay. Where is it held?”
“My grandmother’s estate.”
“Any chance I could see that tomorrow? Just to have a sense of what it looks like?”
He hesitated. “That would mean bringing my grandmother into this and I’d prefer not to do that. I have pictures from past events I can show you though. As for Elenora, well, she has an intense dislike for Evangeline—”
“I’d be surprised if you said otherwise. Most grandmothers are pretty protective.”
“Mine is no exception.” He grimaced, thinking about what Elenora would do if given the opportunity to confront Evangeline in person. “What else do we need to work out?”
Tessa bit her lip. “Well, we’ve only been seeing each other since the end of October and we’re already engaged? You don’t seem like you’d act that quickly.”
“I wouldn’t.” Although he wasn’t entirely sure. His and Evangeline’s marriage had been arranged, so no proposal necessary. “We’ll say we met at the ball the year before. Good enough?”
“Yes. Now, how and where did you propose?”
He smiled. “At this year’s ball, since that’s where we met.”
“I like that. It’s romantic.”
“Evangeline won’t buy me being romantic.”
Tessa made a face. “Then she doesn’t know you very well. I think anyone can be romantic under the right set of circumstances.”
He smiled. He very much liked the way she thought.
The server returned with their drinks and took their order. When she’d left, Sebastian raised his glass. “To success.”
Tessa lifted her beer. “To success.”
They clinked glasses and drank.
He swallowed and tipped his head to one side. “What if she Googles you?”
Tessa shrugged. “What if she does?”
“Is she going to find anything about you online that says you live elsewhere? I apologize, I don’t recall where you moved from.”
“Ohio, and no, I doubt she’ll find anything. I used to run the Northeast Ohio Library’s Facebook page, but my name wasn’t on it, just the head librarian’s.”
“You’re not listed on the library’s main website, then?”
“Hah. Like Mrs. Unger would approve that.” Tessa rolled her eyes. “Nope, not listed on the website either.”
“Very good. I take it Mrs. Unger is your former boss?”
“Yes.” She wrinkled her nose.
“And not someone you’re fond of.”
“No.” Tessa sipped her beer. “I think she felt challenged by me. She’d been the head librarian for years and then I get hired right out of school with all these new ideas and…” Tessa’s brows lifted. “You know how it is.”
“Hmm. I guess I do, but I believe I might be Mrs. Unger in that scenario.”
Tessa grinned. “Why? Do you hate change?”
He nodded, reluctantly. “It’s not my favorite thing, no.”
He leaned back, slowly turning his glass of whiskey. “If things are working the way they are, why change them?”
“What if there’s a better way to do something?”
“I don’t know if I believe that’s enough reason. And better by whose definition?”
“So if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
She stared at him over the rim of her glass. “Is that why you’ve never gotten officially divorced from Evangeline? That seems like a broken situation that would have been fixed by changing it, don’t you think? Plus, you’re not a bad-looking guy. You could have found someone else to be with.”
He took a small amount of pleasure in her compliment, but didn’t dwell on it. Vanity was a weakness. “No.” The word came out sharper than he’d intended, but bloody hell, she was asking questions she had no right to.
Her brows went higher. “Forget I asked.”
He sighed. And lowered his voice. “I never pursued any sort of official separation from her because I couldn’t.” For several reasons, not the least of which was the promise he’d made. He’d always hoped she’d come back. It would have made his life easier, that was for certain.
“Why couldn’t you?”
“For a sire to divorce the spouse they’ve turned, it requires either the signature of the spouse, something Evangeline wouldn’t have given me, or proof of infidelity.”
“That sounds like something you could have managed.”
He stared at the table. “Yes, I can. I choose not to.”
The tablecloth blurred in front of his eyes. “Because I am an old-fashioned fool. I don’t want to ruin her. Or be the one to end things so distinctly.”
She peered at him. “So you ended up paying the price for her sins. I can’t imagine in all those years of being alone you never once thought about being with someone else.”
He kept his gaze on the table. “What I thought about and what I wanted were two different things. Evangeline was always foremost on my mind.” Then he picked his head up. “Some might think my loyalty a respectable quality. Especially in this day and age.”
“I’m not judging you. Just curious. You must have had some kind of amazing marriage to hold out like that. To still be holding out.”
Except that wasn’t really how he was feeling these days. He frowned. “Our marriage was arranged. Most marriages back then were, especially for those of wealth and position.”
“Then I get the loyalty, which is definitely admirable, but letting her go at this point would be completely understandable. No one expects you to keep the vows you made three hundred years ago.”
“Almost four, actually.”
“Maybe you could talk to this council. Explain things. They might make an exception.”
He thought about it. No one had ever really questioned him about this before. His brothers had tried, but he’d always shut them down as soon as they started. Eventually they knew the topic of Evangeline was off-limits and stopped bringing her up. “And yes, maybe they would make an exception, but that’s not who I am. I am a man of my word. And I value the bond we had.”
Tessa swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Does she? I’m guessing not if she left you like that.”
“She was young and impetus. Becoming…” He lowered his voice. “Becoming a vampire was an enormous change. She had wild oats to sow. And she did. Now she’s done. Ready to be my wife again.”
Or so she claimed. Was he reading too much into Evangeline’s return? Perhaps. But he knew her better than anyone. She had been a good wife. Adept at the social aspects anyway. She had never been particularly warm or affectionate toward him, but he’d always chalked that up to them getting to know each other as husband and wife.
Tessa looked unconvinced. “I just don’t get it. What on earth is holding you to her?”
The truth was on the tip of his tongue, but before he could speak, a body shoved into the seat beside him.
Julian threw his arm around Sebastian’s shoulders. “Well, look at you, out on the town. I must remember to put a big red circle around today’s date on the calendar when I get home. This has to be some kind of lunar eclipse or unknown holiday, or did some alien force invade your body and take control of your faculties?”
“Julian, this is not the time—”
“Nope, you definitely sound like Sebastian.” Julian unhooked his arm and leaned forward, planting his elbows on the table and propping his chin on his hands as he grinned at Tessa. “And you must be my dear brother’sfiancée. How wonderful.”
“I…” She looked at Sebastian as if unsure how to answer.
Julian plowed on. “Nice ring. I hope you get to keep that in the deal. You’re certainly going to earn it.”
“No, she does not get to keep the ring.” Sebastian glared at Julian. “I thought you were in Las Vegas. Again.”
“I was. And now I’m home. Miss me?”
“Not particularly. We’re trying to have dinner.”
“Please tell me you got the porterhouse.” Julian looked at Tessa. “It’s the best thing you’ll ever put in your mouth.” He wiggled his brows and laughed. “Well…”
“Julian. Enough.” Sebastian had never hit his brother, but the idea suddenly had merit. “Did you have a reason for interrupting us or was it merely for sport?”
With an enormous sigh and a huge eye roll, Julian slouched in the seat. “I wanted to see where you were on the wedding chapel budget.”
“Nowhere. It’s ludicrous. The entire thing will have to be reworked.”
Tessa perked up a little. “What’s this about?”
Julian let out another sigh. “I’ve just opened a wedding chapel in town.”
“Like the ones in Las Vegas?” Tessa asked.
“Exactly. That’s where I got the idea. It’s all kinds of fun, something Sebastian hates, but the tourists will go nuts for it. We already had several weddings a month going on in town so adding this chapel seemed like a no-brainer. There are themed rooms and packages and all kinds of great stuff.” He glared at Sebastian. “I just need the working budget approved so I can do my grand opening.”
Sebastian scowled. “You asked for half a million dollars. It’s not happening.”
Tessa almost choked on her beer. “Wow, is that what it takes to run a wedding chapel?”
“No,” Sebastian said at the same time that Julian said, “Yes.”
Sebastian shook his head. “Nothing’s happening until this dinner with Evangeline is over with.”
Julian sat up. “Dinner? What dinner? When? Where? Are we going black tie or business casual? Hmm, what does one wear to a meal with one’s brother’s estranged wife?”
Sebastian snorted. “Youare not invited.”
Tessa’s mouth curved into a little half-smile. “Why not? He would be great at distracting Evangeline.” She tipped her glass at him. “You’re very good at keeping the conversation going.”
Julian pointed at her as he spoke to Sebastian. “I like this one. She’s a keeper.”
Irritation simmered through Sebastian like escaping steam. He looked at Tessa. “You think he should come only because you don’t know him like I do.”
“Maybe. But it would be nice to have him there to help corroborate our story.”
Julian grinned, showing off his fangs. “I can corroborate like nobody’s business.”
Sebastian hung on to his sanity with his fingertips. “Fine. You can come on one condition.”
“Which is?” Julian asked.
“You leave us immediately so we can enjoy the rest of our dinner in peace and you behave yourself during the dinner with Evangeline.”
Julian stood. “That’s two conditions, but I agree because I don’t nitpick the little things. Like some people. And please, what do you think I’m going to do? Try to sleep with her? Even I have standards.”
He twisted on his heel and walked off, flirting with every woman he passed as he left.
Tessa pursed her lips like she was suppressing laughter. “Your brother is quite the character.”
Sebastian watched him go. “I’m aware.”
Thankfully, the server arrived with their steaks, saving Sebastian from further conversation about Julian.
He dug into his porterhouse, trying not to dwell on the fact that Tessa had taken to Julian so much that she’d wanted him at dinner.
Time ticked by as they ate. Sebastian couldn’t get past what had just happened. He shoved a forkful of meat into his mouth and chewed. Was Julian that much more interesting than he was? Sebastian had long ago accepted that he wasn’t to every woman’s taste, but what did it mean that not even the woman pretending to be his fiancée preferred him?
Was Julian really such a prize?
Or was he just that unappealing?
Tessa ate her steak in small bites, very aware that Sebastian’s mood had taken a dark turn. It stayed that way, too, even though their meals were more than half gone. At first she thought he’d just been upset by his brother’s visit, then she realized Julian’s sudden appearance was just the catalyst. She washed down her last bite with a swig of beer and stared at the vampire across from her. “You’re upset.”
He didn’t look at her, just went on eating. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You forget that I can judge character and intent. And you’re upset.” She tried to get a deeper read on the vibes he was throwing off. “With me. You’re upset with me.”
“No, I’m not.”
She narrowed her eyes, opening herself fully to the valkyrie senses she so rarely used. “Yes, you are. But you’re mad at yourself too.”
She put her fork down. “Want to tell me why? Because I’m absolutely clueless on this one.” She wasn’t entirely sure why she cared about a man this damaged and frustrated, especially when she’d done her best to avoid things that upset her all her life. They had one more day together. That was it. Unless she got the job.
He stabbed a piece of steak. “It’s childish and unimportant.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t be so bothered.”
He went still for a long moment, then lifted his gaze to meet hers. “You prefer my brother over me and I am petty enough to care. I understand it, but I also don’t wish to discuss it further.”
In the name of Freya, the man was jealous. Never in her life had a man expressed that emotion toward her. “What makes you think that?”
“You want him at dinner. You smiled at him. You—look, I said I don’t want to discuss it further. Please, let’s just eat.”
She laughed, unable to contain her amusement. “You’re jealous.”
“No, I’m not.”
But the vibes coming off him were as green as a tree frog. “Youarejealous. That’s sort of sweet, especially considering we’re just pretending to be a couple. Keep that up and Evangeline will definitely believe you.”
His knuckles whitened as he clenched his fork. “I am not jealous.”
“If you say so. I promise, I do not prefer your brother over you. I just thought he’d be a great distraction at dinner and would be able to help us if things get off course. Period. End of story. I’m sure he’s a nice enough sort, but he seems like he’d need a very different kind of woman than who I am. He also strikes me as more concerned with things like how his hair looks or if his manscaping is on point than when the next Haruki Murakami novel is coming out.”
Sebastian’s eyes brightened. “You read Murakami?”
“Yes. Do you?”
His answer pleased her to no end. At least they could converse about books if nothing else.
The server returned. “How are we doing here? Everything all right? Can I get you anything?”
Sebastian shook his head. “I’m fine. What about you, Tessa?”
She smiled. “I’m good too.”
The server left and Sebastian physically relaxed. “I apologize. I wasn’t as upset at you as I was upset at myself. I should learn to accept certain things, but after this many centuries, I suppose I am who I am and there’s no hope for change.”
She smiled. “You hate change anyway.”
“There is that.”
“What would you change? If you could.”
He sat back. “I imagine being less uptight would be a good thing. Being more relaxed about details, that sort of thing.”
“But you handle the money for the town. I can’t imagine being less relaxed about that would be a good thing.”
He nodded, a small spark of happiness lighting his eyes. “No, it wouldn’t.”
“I could be less critical.”
She shrugged. “So you have high standards.”
“Evangeline finds my academic pursuits tedious.”
“Then why change for a woman who hasn’t been a real part of your life in nearly three hundred years? And can I just say, some women find intellect very sexy.”
The light in his eyes went from happy to wicked and became a genuine, silvery glow. A vampire thing, she imagined. He leaned forward. “Are you one of those women?”
She lifted one shoulder, aware that she was being coy for perhaps the first time in her life. It surprised her that it was something she was even capable of doing. “Iama librarian. We certainly don’t dislike brains.”
His gaze tapered but a smirk crooked his mouth. “Are you sure you’re not a zombie?”
She snorted, a horribly unladylike sound, but the funniness of his comment was multiplied by the fact that he was actually making a joke. “Worried about your gray matter now?”
He laughed with her. “Maybe. Should I invest in some sort of metal helmet?”
“Or just go with tin foil. That could be a good look for you.”
“I doubt that.”
They grinned and stared at each other and in that moment, something passed between them. A sense of togetherness. Of camaraderie. And mutual respect.
He drank the last of his whiskey. “I must apologize to you again for thinking you incapable of becoming my better half. I clearly judged you based on appearance alone and that was foolish. This dinner won’t be easy, but I believe everything will come out in the end as it should.”
“What if Evangeline continues to take you for granted? Will you still take her back?”
His happiness faded. “As we are technically still married, I suppose I have no choice.”
“But you do. You can always say no. Appeal to the council.”
“It’s not that simple. It never has been.”
“I feel like there’s more to this than you’re willing to talk about.”
“You’re very perceptive.” He let out a long sigh. “I suppose you should know. It will make things clearer, at least.”
She waited patiently.
With a frown, he began. “Evangeline’s father and mine were strong friends even before our marriage was arranged. I’m sure their friendship had something to do with that arrangement, but it was still considered a good match and we’d been promised to each other almost since birth.”
Tessa just nodded and let him speak.
“The wedding was a few months off yet when her father was thrown from his horse. He was severely injured. There was no question that he would die, it was just a matter of when. He called for me and of course I went to see him.”
“As I sat at his bedside, he confessed to me that he knew he’d spoiled Evangeline, that he’d pampered her too much and turned her into a willful, moody creature who cared only for her own pleasure. He apologized for the years ahead of me and the suffering she would bring me as a wife. He told me that if I wanted out of the arrangement, he wouldn’t hold it against me. In fact, he would see to it that no censure would come to me because of the disillusion.”
Sebastian straightened his knife. “I was young and couldn’t see past her beauty. I thought he was mad from the injury. I told him I would not break the arrangement. That I loved Evangeline.”
“Then? Yes. Fool that I was.” Sebastian’s face went a shade paler. “That’s when he made me promise to look after her for the rest of my life. He feared that if left to her own devices, she would come to ruin.”
“I vowed that I would.” His eyes held a very different light now, one so distant that Tessa imagined she could see him as he must have looked before he’d been turned.
“Her father died the next day and at the reading of his will, I discovered he’d left me an inordinate sum of money.” Sebastian swallowed. “He’d paid me to keep my promise.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. I wish it were otherwise, but it is what it is. I have been paid to watch over herandI promised to do it. As I am a man of my word, I have no choice but to do exactly that. Especially since she was turned by my own hand, something I would take back if given the smallest chance. Becoming a vampire did precisely what her father feared would happen to her anyway. It ruined her. And so, I do what I can to look after her. I will until the day one of us dies.”
Tessa could respect that. So few people held to their promises these days. It was a slightly old-fashioned view of life, but one she appreciated. And he was a man from another time. How else could he respond to such a promise? “I understand.”
“Do you? Because I don’t think my brothers would.”
“They don’t know?”
“Greaves is the only person outside of you who knows. Mostly because I refuse to discuss Evangeline with my brothers or my grandmother.”
“So they’ve asked.”
“My brothers used to. Now they know it won’t get them anywhere, so they’ve stopped. It’s understood I don’t wish to hear her name in my house, and they tend to abide by that. As far as my grandmother is concerned…I think she likes to pretend Evangeline is dead.”
“I see.” She folded her napkin and set it beside her plate. “Thank you for telling me what happened then. I feel honored that you’d share your past with me.”
He laid his napkin on the table as well. “Considering what you’re about to do for me, I thought you should understand how intertwined in my life she is. And why I would want her around me again.”
“I get it. You feel responsible for her because of the promise. Even more so because you feel you turned her into the person she is today.”
He nodded and sighed. “The truth is, I find it all very exhausting. Perhaps that’s why I don’t leave my house as often as most people.”
“Speaking of, are you ready to go?”
“I am.” She collected her purse. He clearly needed a change of scenery and subject.
“Shall we take a walk through town? Continue getting to know one another? Or have you had enough of me?”
“A walk sounds nice. And no, I haven’t had enough of you. We still have a lot to learn about each other.” Although she definitely felt like she knew him so much better than she’d imagined she would. And curiously, she liked him far more than she had when he’d shown up at Jenna’s.
Amazing how one conversation could change so much.
“That we do.”
They got up and he put his hand on the small of her back as they walked out. It was a sweet, intimate gesture that sent a shiver of unexpected pleasure through her.
She shifted the shopping bag of goodies to her other hand and reminded herself that this was all for show. She was not in a relationship with him, nor would she ever be. For one thing, he was a moody vampire. The vampire part wasn’t so bad, but the moodiness she could do without. For another, he had enough on his plate with Evangeline. And if he’d lasted for centuries without succumbing to the charms of another woman, he certainly wasn’t about to fall for a valkyrie with self-esteem issues, a dread of confrontation and a deadly temper.
She made herself smile and focus on the town as they walked toward Main Street. If she had supposedly been living here, she ought to know more about the place. “What should I know about the town?”
“We celebrate Halloween every day. It’s what brings the tourists in, it’s our industry. There’s trick-or-treating for the children every Friday night. And every month has a larger event designed to bring in even more visitors.”
“Oh? What is it this month?”
“It’s already happened. New Scare’s Eve. Although technically that could be considered a December event, but January is a slower month than most. Which is fine. Many of the shopkeepers take their vacations this month.”
“So what will it be in February?”
“The Valentine’s Day Bake Off. Also, the annual blood drive but that’s more of a local event.”
She cocked a brow. “And that blood drive benefits who?”
He smirked. “Nocturne Falls General Hospital. Mostly.”
She shook her head. “I suppose that’s a necessity.”
“We only take what we need.”
“And the Valentine’s Day Bake Off? Who does that benefit?”
He shrugged. “Everyone who gets to taste the desserts, I suppose. All the funds raised from the entry fees go toward the hospital’s cardiac ward. The contest is popular with the locals, but we get a lot of visitors in for it too. Especially women.” He sighed. “Which makes it one of Julian’s favorite events.”
She laughed. “That seems about right. Do you and your brothers do the judging?”
“I don’t. Julian has but he was banned for being too easily swayed by a pretty face or a sexy smile. And Hugh can’t this year because Delaney will definitely compete.”
She lifted the bag Delaney had given her. “If her entry is half as good as that truffle she gave me tonight, I’d say she’s a shoo-in.”
“She may well be.”
“Do you at least go to it?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Might be fun to have a day out, though, don’t you think? There’s probably more to it than just a bake off, right?”
“Yes, there are pie eating contests, games, live music and what else, I’m not sure. Dancing maybe. But again, not my thing.”
She imagined what it might be like to dance with him. She enjoyed dancing, although it wasn’t something she got to do very often. The thought of being in his arms, of being pressed against his body, sent another shiver through her.
“Are you cold?”
“No, I’m fine. Just…fine.” Then a new thought occurred to her. One brought on by the idea of being very, very close to him. And maybe encouraged by the beer she’d had. “If you’re going to kiss me, I’d rather we get the first one over with now.”
He stopped on the street. “What?”
They were just outside the entrance of a bar called DOA, which was translated on the window as Drinks On Arrival. “I was just thinking, if you’re going to kiss me in front of Evangeline, I’d rather not be surprised by it or she’ll know you’ve never done it before.”
The look of shock remained on his face. “I suppose you’re right, but…”
“I know. It’s an uncomfortable thought. Which is why I’m suggesting we get it over with now so that if we’re somehow pressed into it the night of the dinner, it won’t seem so awkward.”
He cleared his throat. “That’s smart. And if we can pull off a kiss that looks natural, it would go a long way toward convincing her.”
“All right then.”
He looked around. “Perhaps not on the street.”
“People seeing us together will just strengthen the story that we’re a couple.”
“True.” He cleared his throat again and smoothed the lapels of his jacket. “I haven’t done this in some time.”
Neither had she. “It hasn’t changed, I promise.”
“No, I guess it hasn’t.”
He looked at her with great intent, a soft, silvery glow gleaming in his eyes. He leaned in, closed his eyes and pressed his mouth to hers.
She closed her eyes and kissed him back.
A second later, her lips were vacant of his. The kiss was over.
It had been warm and technically a kiss, but not much else could be said for it.
He shifted uncomfortably and looked relieved that it was over. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“Actually…” She smiled at him, trying to ease the sting of her answer. “I know you haven’t kissed anyone in a long time, but that wasn’t so good.”
His expression fell. “It wasn’t? How not so good?”
She crossed her arms, tucking the shopping bag half under one of them. “You’re supposed to be in love with me, right? We’re engaged and all that. You have to…kiss me like you mean it or this whole thing has no chance of convincing anyone.”
“All right then.” The glow in his eyes sparked brighter. “Round two.”
Sebastian had been holding back, thinking he could get away with the barest of effort. That was not, apparently, the case. But a war raged inside him, one side fighting to keep his emotions in check, the other, the side of him that was sick and tired of being alone for so long, battled to kiss this very willing woman in front of him until she forgot her own name.
He could do it, too. Or at least, he thought he could. But it would mean allowing her into his life, because there was no way he could kiss her for real and not feel something. He was a vampire, but still flesh and blood. Still capable of feeling, no matter how hard he’d tried to shut that part of himself down.
He’d been nearly three hundred years without the touch or affection or attention of a woman. Surely one honest kiss wouldn’t undo the very delicate self-control he’d put into place, would it?
Tessa stared at him, her pretty blue eyes filled with doubt. “I’m ready when you are.”
There was a challenge in her voice. It was enough to make his decision. He was going to kiss this woman like his life depended on it.
He threaded his fingers into her hair and brought his lips to hers.
The sweetness of her mouth combined with the warmth and softness of her lips into a glorious cascade of sensation. It showered over him like sparks, biting into his skin with a mix of pain and pleasure.
Oh yes, he remembered this. What it felt like to kiss a beautiful woman. Except this sensation was far beyond anything he’d experienced with Evangeline. Maybe it had been so long that he didn’t remember it accurately. Or maybe he was just that out of practice.
Or maybe it was Tessa.
He teased his tongue along the seam of her lips. They parted and his tongue grazed hers tentatively, testing for her response.
It came a second later as she moaned softly, a sound so quiet it could have been a whisper, but it spilled from her throat as involuntarily as a breath. The sound washed over him like a balm, soothing the scars that latticed his soul. Scars left by Evangeline. Deep down inside, a part of him broke open.
He almost wept with how much he’d missed this small intimacy. The contact. The communion of touch. To think otherwise was a lie. His throat constricted with need and his fangs ached with the craving to have even more of her. All of her.
In his head, he knew he needed to stop.
But that knowledge didn’t match the desire that burned through his body.
A slave to the overwhelming need for more of her, he indulged the kiss a moment longer, lingering at her mouth like the succulent offering it was, until at her second, louder moan, he finally released her.
Her eyes stayed closed for three long seconds as she inhaled a breath that seemed to have no end. When her lids lifted, she blinked several times.
He realized his hands were still in her silky tresses. He eased them free, already wondering when he might be able to kiss her again.
She just stared at him.
“Better?” he asked. If she said no, he’d have no other recourse than to take her somewhere private for his third attempt. Because there would be a third. Sebastian Ellingham was no quitter.
She nodded and swallowed and blinked some more.
Her cheeks were flushed. He’d met her challenge, that much was plain. He took a modicum of joy from that.
“That was…” She cleared her throat and gripped the bag of sweets a little tighter. “That was much more convincing. I think that will do. If an occasion for such a thing even arises.” She laughed in a sort of nervous, giddy way that seemed very unlike her. “Probably won’t, but who knows?”
“Right. If needed. And only if needed.” Except, bloody hell, he was ready to do it all over again immediately.
She jerked like she’d suddenly remembered where she was. “I should probably get home.”
“The car’s not far from here.” He got them moving toward it and imagined she was happy for the reprieve from being face to face with him. Perhaps he’d put too much into the kiss. Had he offended her? Taken the kiss too far? Damn his inexperience with women. With normal women, anyway.
Silence hung between them until he’d gotten her settled into the car and taken his own seat behind the wheel. Traffic was minimal. He drove up Main to make a U-turn at the light, buying himself a few more minutes to figure out if he owed her an apology.
She broke the silence before he’d come to a conclusion. “What time do you want me tomorrow?”
His mind couldn’t quite process what she was asking, going somewhere he doubted she’d meant. Then the teeth of the cogs caught the wheels in his brain and everything made sense. “Early is fine. I don’t sleep much.”
“Neither do I. Eight a.m. too soon?”
“No, perfect. Come for breakfast then. I’ll tell Greaves.”
“Sort of.” She might not know what a rook was, but there would be plenty of time for explaining in the morning.
She nodded. “Eight it is.”
She seemed happy enough. Maybe he’d misread her being upset by the kiss. He pulled into her sister’s driveway and went around to open Tessa’s door.
She climbed out and gave him a little nod, holding her purse in one hand and the shopping bag in the other. “Thanks for dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Before he could say anything, she leaned up, kissed him on the cheek, then darted toward the house.
She had her hand on the doorknob as he spoke. “Tomorrow, then. Sleep well.”
She nodded, a jerky, rapid motion. “You too. Night.”
Then she was through the door and gone.
He stared at the closed door. Women were curious creatures. He was nearly four hundred years old and what he understood about them wouldn’t cover a postage stamp. Not that he’d ever cared to improve upon that.
Not until now.
“How was it?” Jenna was lounging on the couch, eyes glued to the television where her favorite reality show, Real American Firefighters, was on, while eating ice cream out of the carton. She wore sweatpants with bleach stains and a NFPD T-shirt with a frayed hem. Jenna took her down time very seriously.
“It was fine.” Tessa couldn’t bring herself to say more than that because while she was slightly afraid of what adjectives might come out of her mouth, she was more afraid of her sister knowing the truth.
It had been the best evening she’d had in a long, long time. Finished off with a kiss so mind-numbingly amazing, she’d actually forgotten where she was for a few moments. For a man who hadn’t been involved with a woman in over three hundred years, Sebastian kissed like it was his superpower. And if he was that good at kissing…
That could explain why Evangeline wanted him back.
“That’s cool,” Jenna answered, gaze still fixed to whatever shirtless contest was ongoing in firefighter land.
Duncan was playing with a foil ball on the living room floor. He looked up at her and cried.
“Oh, poor baby, did you miss me?” Tessa dropped her purse and the treat bag on the side table and scooped him up.
For the first time since Tessa had walked through the door, Jenna’s eyes came off the half-naked men on the TV and focused on Tessa. She hit the pause button and leaned forward. “Odin’s good eye, what on earth is that rock on your finger?”
Tessa had somehow forgotten about the ring. Maybe because Sebastian’s unexpectedly good kiss had melted some of her brain cells. She stuck her hand out as Duncan chewed on a piece of her hair. “It’s just temporary. Obviously. But if we’re supposed to be engaged, I need a ring.”
Jenna grabbed Tessa’s hand and stared at the ring. “So it’s a fake, right?”
“No. It came from that jewelry store on Main Street.”
Jenna’s eyes widened. “Are you freaking serious? This is real? Holy hammer of Thor. That’s insane. You’re basically wearing a really nice luxury automobile on your finger.”
Tessa admired the stone. “Yes, and it’s mine for all of twenty-four hours. After dinner tomorrow night, it’s going right back.”
Jenna’s gaze narrowed. “You should see if you can get him to throw it into the deal. Those Ellinghams are loaded. Maybe it could be like a bonus if things go extra good.”
Tessa yanked her hand back. “I am absolutely not doing that. I’m already getting an incredible job out of this. That’s enough.”
Jenna sat back. “You get the job if things go well. If they don’t, you get nothing.”
“It will go fine. Even Sebastian thinks so.” And he’d basically said the job was hers regardless. Hadn’t he?
Jenna’s left brow lifted. “You’re giving off some majorly weird vibes right now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Except that she did. Jenna was reading her, picking up on her happiness and growing fondness for Sebastian. That was the trouble with valkyries. You really couldn’t lie to them. Tessa hugged Duncan a little closer as she grabbed her purse and attempted an escape before her sister also figured out that Sebastian’s kiss had turned Tessa on. “Okay, see you in the morning. I’m going to bed.”
“You like him.”
Tessa hadn’t even made it past the kitchen. With a sigh, she turned. “Of course I like him. He’s giving me a job. Probably. And he just bought me dinner.”
Jenna’s disbelief was plainly evident on her face. “Yeah, but Sebastian Ellingham? He’s like the Grinch without the green fur. He’s Scrooge with fangs. Nobody likes him.”
Tessa couldn’t stop herself from leaping to his defense. “I’m sure his grandmother likes him. And his brothers. And Delaney seemed at least…tolerant of him. You shouldn’t buy into rumors and gossip. Granted, he might be a bit, I don’t know, set in his ways, but he’s very nice when you get to know him.”
“Get to know him?” Jenna’s mouth came open. “You’re defending him. Oh, wow, youreallylike him.”
“I just think you’re being judgmental and that’s unfair. You have no idea what he’s been through.” Or how amazingly loyal he was. Or how his kiss had the power to set things on fire internally.
Jenna threw one leg over the arm of the couch. “Judgmental is a valkyrie’s middle name. Speaking of being a valkyrie, I can tell you that every time I’ve had any contact with him, the read I get off him is true to what everyone says about him. He gives off strong vibes of wanting to be left alone, of being super concerned about details, and being generally standoffish when it comes to the opposite sex. He’s a cold, cranky fish. How you can like him, I have no idea.”
“Because he’s not that way all the time.” Tessa realized she was digging herself a deeper hole, but after what Sebastian had told her about keeping his promise to Evangeline’s father, she felt for the man. He was doing his best to do what he thought was right. He deserved to have someone stand up for him. “Just cut him some slack, okay? Everyone has a story and you have no idea what’s happened in his life to make him this way.”
Jenna shook her head. “Fine, you like him. Just don’t tell me youlike himlike him or I might lose it.” She snorted. “Next thing you know you’ll be kissing him. Gross.”
Tessa made a small involuntary sound. She turned quickly, headed for the guest room again. Duncan meowed when she squeezed him a little too tightly. Please let Jenna go back to her show…
“What a minute. You just went red. Did you kiss him? Did he kiss you?” Jenna was off the couch and in her face. “You did. You did! No. Way. Was it gross? Did he force you?” She gasped and shoved Tessa’s hair off her shoulder to peer at her neck. “Did he bite you?”
“No, he didn’t bite me and no, he didn’t force me. Don’t even imply that.” Tessa put Duncan down, tired of his squirming and tiny, needle-sharp nails, then she swatted her sister’s hands away. “And no, it wasn’t gross. It was…nice.Verynice.” It was the best kiss she’d ever had. Not that she’d had many.
Jenna jerked back. “You’re not lying. I need details.”
Tessa leaned against the wall. “This relationship has to look real. We’re supposed to be an engaged couple. We didn’t think having our first kiss in front of his ex was such a good idea. So we got it out of the way.” They’d hardly gotten it out of the way. If anything, it was all Tessa could think about. Well, maybe not the first one, but the second one…oh boy.
Jenna nodded, seemingly mollified. “That makes sense. So it wasn’t gross? Are you sure he didn’t try to bite you?”
Tessa rolled her eyes. “I’m going to bed. I have to be at his house at eight in the morning. It’s going to be a long day. Oh, and there’s a box of goodies from this sweet shop we went into. Apparently, his sister-in-law owns it and—”
“Delaney’s Delectables?” Jenna pivoted to look for the box. “No wonder I’m getting a pheromone spike off of you. I knew that couldn’t be from Sebastian. But Delaney’s better-than-sex goodies? Definitely.”
“Yes, that must be what it is.” Crisis averted. “The box is in that little shopping bag there. Don’t eat them all.”
“Yeah, okay.” Jenna opened the bag, her attention well diverted. “Night.”
“Night.” Tessa headed for her room to the sound of rustling paper.
“Still, it’s kind of weird.”
She stopped with her hand on the door knob. “What is?”
Jenna lifted a truffle from the box. “You and him? It’s weird.”
“Why? Because you’re not used to me having a man in my life? Or because you don’t think of him as boyfriend material?”
Jenna’s face screwed up in a curious expression. “Whoa. Are you saying you do think of him as boyfriend material? Because…wow. I mean, that whole dark and moody thing isn’t really your gig, is it? I never figure you’d see anything in a guy who wasn’t a total brainiac bookworm. Of course, it’s all just pretend, right? But still.”
“Right.” Tessa offered her sister a smile. “Just pretend.”
Except ever since that kiss, it hadn’t seemed like pretend at all.
Nerves were not something to which Sebastian was accustomed. And yet, here he was, at seven fifty-five a.m. feeling like a schoolboy who’d just been called to the headmaster’s office. He was downright jittery and didn’t know what to do about it.
And all because Tessa was about to arrive.
The woman whose kiss had brought him back to life. He’d thought of very little else since that kiss because it had done exactly what he’d feared. Reminded him of everything he was missing.
Now his thoughts had turned to her impressions of him.
What would she think of his home? It was nothing like his grandmother’s estate, but it was larger than both of his brothers’ homes. Well, Julian lived in the penthouse at the Excelsior, which hardly qualified as a proper house so it shouldn’t even be compared, but Hugh’s house was large and well-appointed.
Sebastian had built his home knowing it would be his refuge. He’d allowed for things like a library, a gymnasium, a theater and a pool—indoor, of course. And because of those allowances, the house was on the large side. Plus he had a guest house.
But for the first time since living here, he cared what someone else thought. Two someones, actually. Tessa and Evangeline. In Tessa’s case, he hoped she liked his home and saw it the same way he did, as a sanctuary. In Evangeline’s case, he hoped his house told her that he was doing just fine without her. Maybe even showed her what she was missing out on.
Hmm. He’d never realized how petty he could be. Another trait Evangeline brought out in him. And another reason to be done with her. If only he could.
The doorbell rang and he jumped, then immediately groaned at his response. “Calm down, man. You’re acting the fool.”
He forced himself to relax. He cracked open the Tombstone, the local newspaper, and did his best to read it, but there was nothing on the pages as interesting as the woman Greaves was welcoming at the front door.
From the library, the conversation was easy to hear. Especially with Sebastian’s heightened vampire senses.
The door opened and Greaves’ gravelly accent followed. “Good morning, miss. I’m Greaves. Please come in.”
The door closed. “Good morning. I’m Tessa Blythe. Sebastian invited me for breakfast. Well, for more than that, really, but you probably know all about that already.”
“I do. Quite generous of you to help him out this way. May I take your coat?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
“If you’ll follow me, Mr. Ellingham is in the library.”
Sebastian stiffened as their footsteps came closer. It was no accident he’d positioned himself in this room on this morning. He wanted her to be impressed and if there was any room in his house he thought capable of accomplishing that, it was his library.
The double doors opened and Greaves stepped in. “Mr. Ellingham, your guest has arrived.”
Sebastian folded the paper and stood as Tessa walked in.
Her hair was down and she wore a simple wine-colored dress with a scoop neck that showed off her slender throat and lovely collarbones.
He’d not had such attractive company for breakfast since Evangeline had been sharing his bed. “Good morning, Tessa.”
“Good morning.” But her eyes were not on him. They were on the room. Slowly, she walked deeper into the space, her gaze sweeping up the shelves to the second-story balcony that encompassed the room then back down again, lingering only briefly on the collection of antique weaponry hung around the fireplace before her inspection returned to the books.
He smiled, pleased that he’d been right. His nerves disappeared. “We’ll take our coffee in here, Greaves. And tell Frauke we’d like breakfast in half an hour.” He’d borrowed his grandmother’s cook, not trusting Greaves with anything beyond toast.
“Very good, sir.” Greaves left with a nod.
Sebastian turned to watch her. Her face was awash in abject wonder, giving him the feeling that he was being made privy to a rather intimate view of her. “What do you think of my library?”
She shook her head. “It’s beautiful. And so well stocked. It reminds me of the library at Harmswood.”
“It should. I used this one as a model, expanding the school’s version to handle all the academic books as well.”
Her gaze finally met his. “You designed that library?”
“I gave my input. Architecture has always been a bit of a hobby but I can’t take the credit for that space. All I did was make some sketches that were then turned into the final plans by a man much more skilled than I.”
She looked around again. “If I had a room like this, I would never leave it.”
They were so alike. The realization brought him inordinate pleasure. “I rarely do.”
Greaves returned with their coffee service, setting it up on the side table. “Anything else, sir?”
“That will be all, thank you.”
Greaves left them alone again.
Sebastian lifted the silver carafe. “How do you like your coffee?”
“In a vat. I might be a little addicted.” She smiled and walked toward him. “Is there cream and sugar?”
“There is.” He filled two cups. “Americans do like their java, don’t they? Cream is in the little pitcher and the sugar cubes are in the covered dish.”
She gave him a strange look. “So do you still think of yourself as a British citizen? I was under the impression that you’d been in the United States for quite a while.”
“I have been. All my family has. Technically, I suppose I’m more American than British now. We’ve lived here far longer than we lived in England. Still, it’s hard to change one’s mindset.”
She fixed her cup. “Especially when you don’t like change.”
He smiled as he added a single cube of sugar to his coffee. “Precisely.”
She lifted her cup and took a sip, sighing as she swallowed. “Shouldn’t you be drinking tea, then?”
His smile expanded. “Yes, but that just proves Icanchange.”
She grinned back.
“I’m glad you like the library. It’s my favorite room.”
“How could it not be?”
“Did you sleep well? Or did all that steak and chocolate keep you up?” Or thoughts of the kiss, which had visited him even in his dreams.
“I slept like a baby.” She drank some more of her coffee.
“Good. Today will be arduous. That rest will serve you well.”
Her stomach rumbled and she put a hand to it, looking dismayed. “Sorry about that.”
He laughed. “Not to worry. Breakfast is just around the corner. How about a tour of the house while we wait? Get you started on where everything is? The guest house we’ll do after breakfast.”
“Excellent. Bring your coffee, if you like.”
She set her cup back on the tray and smiled up at him. “Already gone. I can wait for breakfast to have the second cup. Lead the way. This place is really something from the outside. I can’t wait to see the rest.”
He hesitated, captivated for a moment by the glow of pure interest in her eyes. He realized she wasn’t going to judge him based on his house. She wasn’t that kind of person. But then, why would she be when her valkyrie senses could tell her exactly what his motives were? Could she sense he wanted to impress her? Did she know that she’d made him nervous? And that those nerves were now gone?
Could she sense that his desire to show her his home had suddenly been replaced by a very different need? One that had nothing to do with his house and everything to do with kissing her again. And again.
She frowned a little. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine.” He put his cup on the tray beside hers. “I was just thinking we should test something first.”
Her frown returned. “To what?”
“To this.” He pulled her into his arms.
Tessa gasped as Sebastian’s mouth closed over hers. Her first thought was that she had no idea what the test was.
Her second thought was that she didn’t care.
She leaned into him, letting him kiss her and reveling in the fact that he’d wanted to do it again. And that she hadn’t been the only one to take pleasure in the moment they’d shared last night.
Her hand settled on his chest. His very hard chest. She hadn’t touched a man this intimately in many years. The thrill of it zipped through her, hot and wicked.
She shuddered with overwhelming pleasure just as he released her. She breathed open-mouthed, trying to catch her breath. “Th-that was a test?”
He nodded, eyes gleaming silver-bright for a moment. Then he quickly looked away, suddenly concerned with the position of one of his gold cuff links. “Yes. I’m sorry to say you failed.”
She got a hold of herself, straightening and shunting the pleasurable feelings he’d filled her with to some safe part of her brain where she could dissect them later. “I failed? What was the test?”
He tugged at the cuff of his shirt. “To see how you’d react to a spontaneous show of affection.”
Was that what that was supposed to be? Because it had felt like a blatant display of lust. But then, what did she know? He was the first man she’d kissed in ages so her ability to compare was pretty low. “I see. And I reacted with too much surprise?”
“Precisely. If we’re a couple, those sorts of things should be more commonplace. More expected. Don’t you agree?”
He had yet to make eye contact with her since the kiss. She decide to try a test of her own. “So that wasjustan assessment of my reaction?”
He finally looked at her. “Yes. That’s what I said. Merely a test.”
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling and giving herself away. He was lying. She didn’t need her valkyrie senses to figure that out. He’d wanted to kiss her. The test excuse had been just that. An excuse. “Just checking.”
He made a small noise of agreement.
She crossed her arms, feeling a jolt of power at her new knowledge. “I’ll try to do better the next time.”
He started, then quickly covered with a fake cough. “Very good. Well, we should get on with the tour or our breakfast will be cold by the time we return.”
But as beautiful as his house was, it was difficult to pay attention. All she could think about was that he’d wanted to kiss her. And had.
Was Sebastian falling for her? Maybe just a little bit?
She’d never considered the possibility of a vampire as a partner, but maybe that was just short-sightedness on her behalf. A vampire was immortal, so they’d be immune to…death. That would make him the perfect mate for her, considering.
She stared out a window, lost in memory, her fingers absently caressing the scar on her knuckles.
She jumped and looked at him, tucking her hands behind her. “Sorry, what?”
He frowned. “Have you heard a word I’ve said? This is important. If we’ve been seeing each other for over a year, you have to know the layout of my house.”
“Yes, sorry, this is your…den?”
She glanced around. Of course it was. Why else would there be a desk in it? She moved to stand beside it, trying to ignore the wall of weaponry on proud display. The man liked his blades, apparently. In that respect, they were very different. “I got a little distracted.”
She frowned right back at him. “By yourtest.”
He straightened. “I see.”
Ooo, that felt judgy. She crossed her arms and leaned against his desk. “And you pretending that’s all it was didn’t help.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Itwasa test.”
“You’re lying again. Did you forget I can tell intent? Maybe on some level you meant it as a test, but the truth is, you wanted to kiss me.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed but he said nothing. After a long silence, he finally spoke. “I have been alone for a very long time. I apologize if I’ve offended you. That was certainly not what I meant to do.”
“You didn’t offend me.” She trailed her finger along the wood grain on his desktop, unable to look at him as her feelings about the kiss came to the surface. Her cheeks burned as hot as Brokkr’s fabled forge. “I wasn’t upset by the kiss. At all.”
He took a step toward her. “I’m happy to hear that.”
She looked at him. “I hear abutin your voice.”
He sighed and brushed a strand of hair back behind her shoulder, his smile tentative and a little sad. “I don’t want to lead you on. My desire for a woman’s touch shouldn’t be confused with an interest in a relationship. That’s not the case. I have an obligation to Evangeline, regardless of what anyone thinks, and I will uphold it. There is no place in my life for another woman.”
His words stung far more than they should have. She’d known the man for a day, had no reason to feel anything for him, and yet…she felt like he was breaking up with her. She made herself smile. “I completely understand.”
She didn’t. Not at all. But difficult decisions were one of the many threads that made up a valkyrie’s tapestry.
He nodded. “Thank you.”
He lifted his hand and gently caressed her cheek.
She grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand away. “You can’t do that. You can’t tell me you don’t want to lead me on and then touch me with that kind of tenderness.”
“We are supposed to be an engaged couple. If I cannot be tender with you, how am I supposed to be?”
“During the dinner and in front of Evangeline is one thing. But beyond that, it can’t happen. No moretests. And don’t tell me I need to be comfortable with you touching me or kissing me. I’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
He stiffened as if rebuked, which she guessed was exactly what she’d done. But he couldn’t expect her to not respond to his attentions. He nodded. “Of course, you’re right.”
He might think she was a mouse, and maybe in many ways she was, but she was a mouse with a heart and she wasn’t about to sacrifice it for his sake.
Job or no job.
Tension colored the rest of the morning and afternoon, until at last they separated to prepare for the evening ahead. Sebastian stood in his quarters, pondering the day. He understood where Tessa was coming from and actually agreed with her. He shouldn’t kiss her or touch her or pull her into his arms. Not when he couldn’t promise her more than that. It wasn’t fair to either of them, but especially her.
But knowing that did nothing to quell the desire in him. He was inexplicably drawn to her, against all his common sense and better judgment. Was it because she was the first woman he’d allowed into his life since Evangeline? Or was it because, with every passing moment, Tessa seemed more and more the complete opposite of Evangeline, and therefore, his perfect match? Tessa definitely made him feel alive in ways Evangeline never had. And never would. Or was it because Tessa seemed more and more perfect for him with every passing moment?
He had no idea the reason. All he knew was that dwelling on it only made him want to kiss her again to test his theories.
But she’d specifically said no more tests.
He sighed, frustrated with himself, with his life, with his pledge to the late Lord Heathcote, Evangeline’s father. The money the man had left Sebastian remained untouched in numerous accounts all over the world. He’d moved it periodically as time had demanded, but once settled into a new account, there it sat, collecting interest and serving as a reminder of what rash promises could cost.
That money was a millstone about his neck. He would never be rid of it or Evangeline. Never be free to attempt happiness with another. This was his life. His burden to bear.
And people wondered why his mood was always so dour. Who wouldn’t be dour in his shoes? Which were currently a pair of John Lobb oxfords in black to complement his charcoal gray suit. At least his outward appearance didn’t match his mood.
As far as he knew. He frowned at the reflection in the mirror, inspecting his attire. He’d dressed for dinner early, knowing that his brothers would arrive well ahead of seven p.m. so they could talk.
The sun set around six p.m. in Nocturne Falls in January, meaning Evangeline could arrive any time after that, but it had always been her fashion to arrive late so that she could make a grand entrance. He didn’t imagine tonight would be any different.
Satisfied with his appearance, he headed downstairs. He’d borrowed Frauke again to prepare dinner. The woman was a bit of a terror, but if Greaves had been left in charge of dinner they’d be eating tinned soup and crackers. He stuck his head into the kitchen.
Everything smelled wonderful. He picked out the scents of beef and wine and roasting potatoes. A good winter meal. Frauke’s back was to him as she stirred something on the stove. She had earbuds in. No doubt listening to one of her operas. He let her be, heading next to the dining room where Greaves was putting the finishing touches on the table.
The man looked up as Sebastian walked in. Greaves stood back from the table and gave it a nod. “I was never a butler or a footman, but I think it’ll do.”
“Well done, old man. It looks very nice.” Hard to set an ugly table with good crystal and china and the heirloom silver.
“Much appreciated. Can’t recall the last time you used this room.”
“Neither can I.” Dinner parties were not something he did. “Have you seen Tessa?”
“She’s in the guest suite getting ready.”
“Fine. I’ll be in the library. Having a stiff drink. Send my brothers in when they arrive, will you?”
“Very good, sir.”
Sebastian went into the library, closing the doors behind him. He tried to shake the tension from his muscles and failed. He’d been so sure about tonight’s outcome until the moment earlier in his office with Tessa. Now, that certainty was gone. What if he touched her and she reacted poorly? Or grabbed his hand again to keep him away?
Evangeline would see that for what it was in an instant.
He poured a generous drink. This whole thing was foolishness. He should just confess all to Evangeline and be done with it.
Except she would then continue to act toward him as she always had. Or worse, if that was possible. He needed some leverage with her, especially if she truly wanted to live as husband and wife again. It was the only way he’d get her under control enough to fulfill her father’s wishes that she be protected.
With every passing year, Sebastian was astonished that Evangeline remained alive. How she hadn’t yet been discovered as a vampire with all her reckless living, he had no idea. Daily he checked news sites around the world for reports of a woman suddenly going up in flames as the sun hit her. That would be just like Evangeline, to be caught outside at dawn.
Just like her to do something he couldn’t protect her from. Something that would make it impossible for him to keep the promise he’d made. He knew that her decision to leave him meant the only protection he could really offer was financial, and he’d done that, but it wasn’t what her father would have wanted.
Sebastian wonder what the man would think of his daughter now. He downed the whiskey in a single swallow and poured himself another one as the last one burned a pleasurable path down his throat. If Evangeline did accidentally incinerate herself, he would at least be free. He closed his eyes at such a horrible thought, but the truth remained. Evangeline was the reason he couldn’t even entertain the idea of a woman like Tessa.
Sweet, pretty, intelligent Tessa. He’d called her a mouse and yet, she’d stood up to him today. He’d been so wrong about her. She wasn’t plain or simple. She was a rare jewel of a woman with a keen mind, a sharp wit and the kind of beauty that went beyond her pretty face and blue eyes.
A soft knock at the library door turned him around. “Come in.”
The door opened and Tessa stepped through, shining brighter than any gem he’d ever seen. “I hope this dress is all right for dinner. I borrowed it from my sister. The shoes too. I was sort of surprised she owned anything this nice, but I’m glad she did.”
“So am I. You look…perfect.” And she did. The slim black dress was simple, but showed off her gorgeous figure and the black lace pumps were a little naughty, a nice contrast to the strand of pearls around her throat. She’d left her hair down, creating a new desire in him to run his hands through it. The blazing diamond on her finger stood out like a beacon.
She looked classy and sexy and just slightly unattainable. Perfection. His heart clenched at the sight of her. His fake fiancée.
“Thank you. You look very nice too.” She stayed by the door, hands clasped and looking rather unsure of herself.
He realized she must be racked with nerves. He lifted his glass. “Would you care for a drink? Might help take the edge off.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I can’t risk losing control. What if I slip up and do something wrong?”
The worry bracketing her mouth cut him. She was doing this for him. Bearing this stress, all in the hopes of winning a job. “You won’t do anything wrong. You can’t. Whatever happens tonight, happens. The job is yours, Tessa. No matter this evening’s outcome. You’ve already done more than enough for me. Come on, have a drink and relax a little. One won’t hurt. And it might take the edge off.”
She walked toward him, eyes rounding a little. “You mean that, about the job? You’re definitely giving it to me?”
He nodded as he poured her a whiskey. “Yes. You’ve earned it. And I don’t mean just because of this favor you’re doing for me. You’re exceptionally qualified.”
“Thank you.” She hesitated, then leaned in and kissed his cheek.
Her perfume teased his senses and he smiled wryly. “Was that a test?”
“No. That was just a thank you. Although I suppose I shouldn’t be kissing my boss.”
“I’m not your boss yet.” He handed her the glass, then picked his up and knocked it against her. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” She took a cautious sip.
The doorbell rang.
Sebastian smiled, doing his best to ease her mood. “That will probably be one of my brothers.”
Delaney’s and Hugh’s voices rang out from the foyer. Greaves showed them into the library a few minutes later.
“Hi, Tessa.” Delaney gave Tessa’s arm a squeeze. “How are you feeling? You look fantastic.”
“Thanks, so do you. I’m feeling okay. A little nervous.” Tessa lifted her glass. “This is helping.”
“I’m sure it is.” Delaney laughed. “How were the chocolates? Are they all gone?”
“Not yet. Of course, that’s assuming my sister didn’t eat the rest for breakfast.”
As the two women chatted, Hugh sidled up to Sebastian. “You ready for this?”
“Yes. One way or the other, things have to change between Evangeline and me.”
Hugh nodded. “That’s for damn sure.”
“I’d rather have wine. You have any red?”
“Not in here.”
Before Sebastian could ring for Greaves, the doorbell sounded again.
Julian strode into the library a few moments later. “Isn’t this cozy? Evangeline not here yet?”
They all answered him in unison. “No.”
“All right then.” He poured himself a glass of whiskey. “What’s the plan?”
“Reinforce our story. Whatever we say, go with it. Keep the conversation light. Steer Evangeline away from any probing questions,” Sebastian said. “But above all, if anything goes wrong, protect Tessa.”
Delaney made a worried face. “You think if Evangeline finds out this is all a ruse, she’ll try to hurt Tessa? What kind of woman is your ex-wife?”
“Wife,” Julian corrected. “They haven’t actually gotten a divorce.”
Hugh glared at his brother. “After this many years of separation, it’s a formality.”
“True. But Evangeline would probably disagree with you.” Julian sipped his drink and went off to join the women.
Hugh gave Sebastian a nod. “Tessa won’t come to any harm. Evangeline’s outnumbered.”
“Numbers won’t keep her insults at bay. She won’t lay hands on Tessa, but she will try to eviscerate her with words if given the chance.”
Delaney linked her arm through Tessa’s. “Then we just won’t let that happen, will—”
The doorbell rang again and everyone in the library fell silent. Sebastian’s entire body tightened with resolve.
Evangeline had arrived.
The dining room was beautiful, the food was delicious and five of the six guests at the table were firmly on Tessa’s side.
None of that kept her from feeling like a woman on trial. Was this how the dying souls on the battlefields felt when her valkyrie sisters came to collect them?
If so, it was horrifying, and confirmed her decision to live her life as far removed from her lineage as possible.
Evangeline was tremendously beautiful. Tessa knew some of that was due to her being a vampire. The turning magnified a person’s human beauty. Evangeline must have been stunning as a mortal. Her skin was as perfect as a picture in a magazine, her eyes bright and full of mystery, her hair dark brown and glossy except for a few streaks of red.
Compounding the matter, she was dressed impeccably in a cobalt blue dress that hugged her perfect body. Her make-up was equally perfect and she seemed to be unflappable, with the right response to every question and comment.
Evangeline was the kind of woman who made the world her playground and turned those around her into staff.
Tessa felt like a pretender. Well, more of a pretender than she already was. Getting ready for dinner had been as simple as changing her clothes and accessories, adding a little more makeup and running a brush through her hair. Something told her Evangeline had exerted quite a bit more effort than that.
She took a breath and reminded herself that this was not a competition. This was just a game in which the goal was to make Evangeline believe Sebastian was capable of attracting another woman and to therefore remind Evangeline that he was not to be taken for granted.
With that in mind, Tessa stopped staring at her potato gratin and lifted her head to smile lovingly at her bogus betrothed.
It wasn’t hard to do. She was, sadly, a little smitten with him. It was a rare man who valued books and learning the way he did and had the means to indulge those passions. That alone would have been enough to sway her. But then there were his dark good looks. He was the vampire version of Mr. Darcy and if she was supposed to resist that, then someone needed to tell her how.
But if she thought about the kissing, her bones went to jelly and her brain to mush and the heat of desire warmed her to the point of combustion.
She hadn’t realized the extent of her loneliness until just this moment. Freya help her, she was a sad thing. And, to make matters worse, she missed Duncan. Snuggling that little fur ball was a tremendous stress reliever.
Jenna would roll her eyes and proclaim Tessa had finally become the stereotypical cat lady librarian, but the truth could not be ignored.
Nor could the man seated at the head of the table.
Sebastian listened as Delaney described the dessert she’d brought, some red velvet cake with raspberry filling that was a test for the cake she was going to enter in the Valentine’s Day Bake Off.
Tessa smiled. She liked Delaney and not just for her skills with sweet things. She was a kind, happy woman who Tessa imagined was also a fiercely loyal friend. And Delaney and Sebastian’s brother Hugh were very clearly in love. It was charming how he watched her, a proud gleam in his eyes.
Tessa wondered if a man would ever look at her that way.
Maybe Duncan would.
She snorted at the thought, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand.
Evangeline, seated mercifully at the other end of the table, raised her brows and directed her gaze at Tessa. “What was that?”
Tessa swallowed. “Nothing, sorry.” She lifted her goblet of water and drank, hoping that would end the questioning.
Evangeline tipped her head while her eyes remained on Tessa. “Will you be entering the bake off?”
Tessa put her water down and shook her head. “I’m not a baker by any means.”
“Where do your talents lie?”
Sebastian reached over and took her hand. “Tessa is a librarian. In fact, she’s about to become the Dean of Library Studies at Harmswood Academy.”
Evangeline smiled and looked dutifully impressed. “Well, how about that. Congratulations. I’ve never had much time for reading. All those dull, musty pages. Not for me. Not when there are so many other more interesting things to do. But now I see why Sebby is so attracted to you. He loves dull things.” Before anyone could say a thing, Evangeline laughed. “Books, I mean.”
Tessa’s valkyrie temper nudged at the base of her spine. She forced herself to smile. “Of course.”
Sebastian’s hand tightened over hers. She looked at him in time to see a muscle in his jaw twitch. “Watch your tongue, Evangeline.”
She rounded her eyes and blinked at him as though she didn’t have a clue why he might be angry. “I said I meant books.”
He grunted at her, the sound a mix of disbelief and irritation.
She grinned and lifted her wine. “Quite the leap to defend your paramour. A very nice touch. Definitely the way a man should act.”
The muscle in his jaw twitched again. “What is that supposed to mean?”
She grinned over the rim of her glass. “Nothing at all. I do find it rather convenient that you’ve rallied the troops. You’re the one who invited me to dinner, after all.”
Despite Julian’s lazy slouch in his chair, there was something dark simmering in his gaze. His dislike of Evangeline, Tessa guessed. He leaned a little farther away from the vampiress before he spoke. “We’re here because your reputation precedes you, Eva.”
She drained her wine, then set the glass down. “What reputation is that?”
Someone else snorted and Tessa realized it had come from Hugh. “Evangeline, don’t play coy. My brothers and I have known you for nearly four hundred years. You were willful and spoiled as a child, given to tantrums and diatribes that lasted until your demands were met. None of that changed as you grew up and when you became a vampire, the turning did what it always does. It took the strongest of your characteristics and magnified them. Unfortunately, in your case, those characteristics weren’t all good ones.”
Hugh shook his head as he continued. “For once in your self-centered, indulgent life, do the right thing and let Sebastian be. He’s found happiness. You ought to try to do the same.”
Evangeline stared at him. An icy glaze narrowed her eyes for a moment and then she seemed to catch herself. She smiled and straightened in her chair. “I will ignore your insults but only because I’m concerned for Sebby. I just want what’s best for him.”
Julian barked out a laugh. “If that’s the case, give the man his dissolution already.”
She snapped back, “What’s best for him is me.”
Sebastian grunted again.
Evangeline’s eyes went liquid and her gaze turned to Sebastian. “Is that what you want, my darling? A dissolution? To end us once and for all?”
All eyes shifted to Sebastian. Tessa watched, knowing this was a pivotal moment for him. He’d said that getting Evangeline back was necessary for him to keep the promise he’d made, but his actions toward Tessa had said he’d prefer to be free.
She put her hands in her lap and interlaced her fingers, squeezing them together. Maybe she shouldn’t have pushed him away. Maybe she should have given in to her own feelings and let him touch and kiss her all he—and she—had wanted.
If he chose Evangeline because Tessa had denied him, she would be complicit in his unhappiness. Because there was no way he could be happy with that woman.
Tessa couldn’t imagine spending any length of time with her. Thank Freya this dinner was almost over and the charade with it. Any longer and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep her dangerous temper under control. The woman was just flat out infuriating.
Sebastian lifted his chin, his mouth firmly set until he finally spoke. “A dissolution would be bloody brilliant.”
Sebastian couldn’t believe the words coming out of his own mouth, but Evangeline’s presence at dinner had put a very hard line under the truth of who she was. And always would be.
Compared to Tessa, she was, well, there was no comparison. Unless you went with something like black and white. Winter and summer.
Angel and devil.
Evangeline’s mouth gaped open.
Sebastian folded his napkin. “I’m not saying I would abandon you, Evangeline. We’ve been connected this long, we can certainly remain…acquainted. But you’ve been out of my life for centuries, except when it suits you. Which is most of the time.”
She sputtered a few words. “But…I—”
He held up his hands. “I’m willing to continue helping you should you find yourself in need of something, because I imagine you have few friends willing to extend themselves for you that way.” Also, he was obligated to help her and would be for the rest of his life so why fight it? “That need would be mostly monetary, the same as it’s been these last centuries, but this more personal relationship of ours, such as it is, has been over for a very long time. Let’s make it official. Let me—and Tessa get on with our life. I can have my solicitor draw up the necessary dissolution papers in a day then we can send them off to the council and be free to live our lives.”
Spending time with Tessa had made him realize just how deeply he was suffering at Evangeline’s hands. There was no reason he couldn’t fulfill his promise to her father but live his own life as well. Having her sign dissolution papers would finally bring this ridiculous relationship to an end. They would be completely divorced in the eyes of the council and there could be no repercussions for either of them after that, even if he was still technically her sire.
Her mental and emotional hold on him would be gone. She would become just another item in his budget to be accounted for.
Evangeline finally found her voice. It held an edge of weepy disbelief. “I came here to make amends and resume our life together and this is how you repay me?”
“I’m not repaying you, Evangeline. That implies a debt I owe you and if it’s cost analysis you want, I assure you your side of the ledger is rather lacking. I’m merely attempting to move on with my life.”
Anger shimmered in her eyes. “I don’t believe you. I think you’re trying to force me into groveling. Trying to get me to beg you to take me back.” She sniffed. “That’s not who I am, Sebastian, and you know it.”
“I do.” Indeed, if shehadgroveled and begged, he might have taken her back no questions asked. But she hadn’t. And he’d told the fortuitous lie that had brought Tessa, and the bright light of reality, into his world. “I promise I’m not trying to force you into anything. Again, this isn’t about you. It’s about me. My life.” He looked at Tessa. “My happiness.”
“Good for you,” Hugh said.
“Rubbish,” Evangeline spat out. “You can pretend all you like, but I know you, Sebastian. I don’t believe for a moment that you’re planning on getting married. This is a game and I, for one, am done playing it.”
Sebastian laughed. “You’re done playing? Games are all you know.”
She reared back in her chair. “Is that what you think? Fine. I have a new game for you. Give me one week, living in this house with you. Let me see the two of you together, twenty-four hours a day. Convince me that you’re truly in love and I’ll give you your dissolution, no questions asked. I’ll sign with a smile. I’ll even pay to file the papers with the council.”
Her words settled over him like a pall. Tessa would never agree to that. She’d never move in with him, not after today. Asking her to keep this charade up for a week with Evangeline in the same house was too much. A bridge too far. “I wouldn’t even let you live in my guest house.”
Tessa spoke before he could say anything else. “I’m game if Sebastian is game.”
Sebastian cleared his throat to cover his surprise. “Be that as it may, Tessa and I need a moment to discuss this.”
Evangeline pursed her lips as though she’d won something and looked directly at Tessa. “He’s afraid that having me around all the time will be too much of a temptation for him. Then your poor little dull librarian’s heart would get broken.”
Tessa rose out of her chair and muttered, “Something might get broken, but it won’t be my heart.”
“What was that?” Evangeline asked over the sound of Julian snorting with amusement.
“Nothing.” Tessa glanced at Sebastian. “I’ll be in the library.”
Without waiting, she strode off. Sebastian stood, frustration souring his mood further. “You’re unbelievable, Evangeline.”
She smiled lazily. “I am, aren’t I?”
He went after Tessa.
She stood, waiting in the library. Fingers interlaced. Face masked with distress. “She is…awful.”
“I know. I’m very sorry. Obviously, I’m going to tell her this preposterous idea of hers is not going to happen—”
“Absolutely not. You have to agree to this. It’s your chance to get your life back. And like I said in the dining room, I’m agreeable. As much as anyone can be in this situation.”
He stared at her, trying to be sure he’d heard her correctly. “I don’t think you understand what you’re saying.”
“Of course I do. I’m going to have to move in here with you for a week.”
He shook his head. “Nothing makes sense to me right now. Why are you all right with this? With her?”
“I’m not all right with her, but this has nothing to do with Evangeline.” A cautious smile curved her mouth. “It has everything to do with you. You stood up to her tonight. And it feels like something has changed within you. Like you’ve finally figured out that you want to be happy and that you can be, if you remove her from your life. I know you still want to keep your promise to her father and I won’t try to dissuade you from that, but if you want your life back, then I want to help you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
No one outside his family had ever done anything like this for him before. Or shown so much concern for his well-being. “I am amazed that you would do this for me. What do you want in return?”
“Nothing.” She shrugged. “You’re giving me a job. A great job. That’s plenty.”
His heart swelled with affection for her. So many people came to him with their hands out, but not Tessa. She was giving him something that had no price. A chance at happiness. “You can keep the ring.”
She jerked back. “What? No, that’s far too much. And I don’t have any use for it. Please, just let me do this. I’m not trying to get anything out of you. Evangeline’s done that enough, I think.”
A true statement. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
“No, it won’t be. I’ll have to run back to my sister’s and collect my things.”
“You can do that in the morning, once Evangeline succumbs to daysleep. She’ll be out cold for at least five or six hours.” He raked a hand through his hair, worry filling him at the thought of everything that could go wrong. “I don’t like this idea at all.”
“Neither do I, but despite what she said about not believing us, she’s doubtful. I could read it in her and a valkyrie’s instincts are never wrong.”
“Is that why you’re doing this? Because she’s on the fence?”
Tessa’s smile returned. “I’m doing this because…I like you, Sebastian. I see a kindred spirit in you. And it makes me sad to think you’ve already spent so much of your long life burdened by responsibility for a woman who doesn’t love or respect you. I understand living a life that feels constrained by something you cannot control, but you have a chance to change that and I absolutely think you should.”
Emotion clogged his throat. He was unaccustomed to anyone wanting to help him, something he knew he’d fostered by his insistence on Evangeline being an off-limits subject. “Thank you,” he managed.
She nodded. “We should go out and tell her the good news.”
He snorted. “I’m not sure I’d call it good, but yes. In a moment.” He caught her hand and kissed her knuckles, wanting to do more, but restraining himself. If this worked, he would be indebted to Tessa for the rest of his life. Unlike with Evangeline, however, that was a debt with which he felt comfortable.
She allowed him to hold on to her for another second, then eased her hand out of his. “Come on. I’m sure she’s chomping at the bit to move in here and cause trouble.”
Sebastian sighed. “Amazing how well you know her in such a short span of time.”
Together they walked back into the dining room, which was uncomfortably quiet. Evangeline’s gaze held the determination of someone prepared to fight for what she wanted. It was not an unusual look for her.
Sebastian paused just inside the door, Tessa at his side. Knowing full well he was taking advantage of the situation, he slid his arm around her waist and settled his hand on her hip. The warmth of her seeped through his skin, a tease of what he couldn’t have. At least not yet. But it was still worth it. “Tessa and I have nothing to hide. You want to see us together for a week, fine. But then you will sign dissolution papers and we are done. My family serves as witness to this. Agreed?”
Evangeline smirked. “Agreed.”
“Witnessed,” Hugh said.
“Witnessed.” Julian pointed at Evangeline. “You’re not getting out of this.”
She steepled her fingers against her chest. “I have no intention of getting out of it. I’m a woman of my word.”
Hugh barked out a laugh. “Bollocks.”
She glowered at him before looking at Sebastian again. “Tell Greaves to get my things out of my rental car.”
Sebastian’s brows lifted. “Get them yourself. He’s my rook, not a servant at your beck and call.”
“I’m a guest,” Evangeline shot back.
“You’re an interloper. I’ve agreed you can stay the week, but don’t for a moment think you’re a guest.Guestsare invited.”
Tessa slipped her arm around Sebastian’s waist and out of the corner of his eye, he saw the side of her mouth quirk up. This was going to be a very interesting week indeed.
While Evangeline carried her bags in, loudly protesting Sebastian’s inhospitable treatment the whole time, Sebastian and Tessa said goodbye to their guests, then Tessa retreated to the library with her phone to text Jenna with an update.
Jenna was about as understanding as expected, but didn’t give Tessa any more than the usual amount of grief, agreeing to help her sister in the morning with whatever needed to be done.
That accomplished, Tessa went back out to find Sebastian. He was in the kitchen with Greaves, both of them leaning against the counter. The cook had already left, but someone had made coffee. The rich aroma permeated the space. Sebastian sipped a cup.
Tessa glanced around. “Just you two in here?”
Sebastian nodded. “Yes. She’s upstairs in the guest suite.”
Tessa stiffened. “My things were in there from when I changed for dinner.”
Greaves shook his head. “I took care of that, miss. I put your belongings in Sebastian’s quarters.”
“Thank you.” Relief swept her. This was going to be a very long week, but she’d agreed. Too late to turn back now. Not that she would change her mind. Sebastian needed this. And on a deeper level, helping him felt like it might balance her darker valkyrie side a bit. All that proclivity for death and destruction needed a few good deeds to level the scales. Something to appeal to the valkyrie’s nature to protect.
“Thank you, miss.” Greaves put his hand on a large white box sitting on the kitchen counter. “Would you like a slice of cake and some coffee? Dinner never made it as far as dessert and it would be a shame to let Miss Delaney’s cake go to waste.”
“Sure, why not?” She took a seat at the old wooden farmhouse-style table. It matched the rest of the rustic kitchen that had no doubt cost a fortune to look that way. Then she stood again. “I guess I should get myself some coffee before I get settled.”
Greaves held a hand up and moved toward the pot. “I’ve got that, miss. I’ll bring you the cream and sugar, too.”
“Thank you.” She sat back down and folded her hands on the table, looking up at Sebastian. “Jenna’s going to help me in the morning. Won’t take much. One trip. I’ll go first thing as soon as you tell me it’s okay.”
“Greaves will drive you.”
“It’s okay. I can drive myself.”
Greaves brought her coffee over, along with the sugar. He made a second trip with the creamer. “But you wouldn’t be if you were living here. Let me, miss. It’s what I do.”
“But Sebastian just told Evangeline you were a rook, not a servant. I certainly don’t want you to go out of your way—what is a rook, exactly?”
Greaves smiled. “Sort of a vampire’s butler. And I’m happy to help the woman who’s helping Sebastian. Whatever you need.”
“All right.” She shrugged. This was not a life she was used to.
Greaves went back to the counter, opened the cake box and turned to look at her. “Large or small?”
She frowned. “Um…”
He winked at her. “Slice of cake.”
She considered the evening. “Large.” Now was not the time to deny herself anything.
She glanced at Sebastian. “Aren’t you joining me?”
He held his cup in front of him. “I rarely eat—”
“Sweets. Yes, I know.” She patted the table top in front of the chair beside her. “Tonight you do. Sit.”
He made a curious face, but did as she asked, settling in beside her. “Happy?”
That seemed to appease something in him and he smiled. “Greaves, apparently I’m also having cake.”
“Very good, sir.”
Two generous slices appeared shortly after on china plates, along with silver forks and cloth napkins. The cake looked like red velvet with fresh raspberries and buttercream in the layers.
She picked up her fork, which was surprisingly heavy, but that was because it was sterling. She contemplated the setting before her. “Do you always do things so formally?”
Greaves made a soft noise.
Sebastian shot him a look as he answered. “You mean because of the china?”
“And the silver and the crystal and the cloth napkins. All of it. It’s lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s sort of formal for every day.”
He seemed to think that over for a moment. “It’s just how things are. Although I never eat in the dining room. I usually eat in here.”
Lonely was the first word that popped into her head, but she kept that to herself. She smiled. “We can eat in the dining room tomorrow if you like. Unless you prefer not to.”
He forked up a morsel of cake. “I prefer not to when I’m alone. As long as you’re here, the dining room will be perfect.”
Greaves cleared his throat. “About breakfast…”
Sebastian put his fork down. “Ah, yes. That will be a problem.”
“What?” Tessa asked.
Sebastian cocked a brow. “We order most things in. Greaves is a wretched cook.”
Greaves shook his head. “I burn water.”
Tessa laughed. “I can cook.”
“You’re a guest,” Sebastian said.
She laid her hand on his arm. “Technically, I’m the lady of the house. If I want to cook, I will.”
Sebastian leaned back, his amused expression rather charming. “As you wish.”
The kitchen door swung open and Evangeline swanned in. “As who wishes what?”
Tessa stuffed a bite of cake into her mouth. It was the perfect excuse to be quiet.
Sebastian sighed. “I take it you’re settled in?”
“Yes.” She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room. She’d changed out of her snug blue dress and into a long satin nightgown with a matching robe and feathered slippers.
Tessa wanted to roll her eyes at the choice of outfit, but didn’t. At least the cake was delicious. Delaney knew what she was doing with flour and sugar, that was for sure.
Evangeline took a few steps toward the counter, then backtracked and sat beside Sebastian. She waved her hand in Greaves’ direction. “I’ll have coffee and cake too.”
Greaves arrowed a look at Sebastian.
Tessa stood, ready to diffuse the situation. As much as she appreciated Sebastian’s willingness to stand up to Evangeline, they were going to be living in the same house for the next seven days. Battles had to be chosen carefully. “I’ll get it.”
Greaves looked mortified. “No, miss, I’ve got it. You sit and enjoy your cake.”
Evangeline’s brows rose and she leaned back in her chair. “Really? You would have waited on me?”
Tessa took her seat. “You’re a guest in our house, no matter how that came about.”
Evangeline looked at Sebastian. “Your fiancée has a better attitude than you do.”
Tessa lifted her cup. “Most people have a better attitude than Sebastian.” She smiled at him, trying to play the perfect fiancée. “But I love him anyway.”
Saying those words caused an uncomfortable feeling to ripple through her. Like she’d just signed some sort of irreversible pact that left her vulnerable. She knew the words were just for show, but they weren’t the kind of words that should be played with. Love was…bigger than that.
He smiled at her. “And how lucky I am that you do.”
Evangeline rolled her eyes. “Oh, spare me.”
Greaves put Evangeline’s plate and cup in front of her without saying a word, somehow managing to look down his nose at her the entire time.
Tessa was developing a soft spot for the gray-haired gentleman. “Evangeline, you must remember what it was like to be so madly in love that you thought your partner could do no wrong.”
Sebastian’s mouth puckered like he might be trying to suppress a snort.
Evangeline stirred a heaping teaspoon of sugar into her cup. “We weren’t in love. Our marriage was arranged. For the good of the country and the peerage and all that.”
“I see.” Tessa put her fork across her plate, her cake gone in an embarrassingly short number of bites. “That’s sad. For both of you. I hope you find your own happiness someday too.”
Evangeline started to say something, but Tessa wasn’t interested in anything more the woman might have to add. It had been a long day and her patience was wearing thin. She squeezed Sebastian’s hand and smiled at him. “I’m going up to bed, sweetheart. I hope you don’t mind.”
His eyes glowed softly. “Of course not. I’ll see you soon.”
“Rather early, isn’t it?” Evangeline asked.
Tessa stood and Sebastian got up along with her. “No,” he said. “She’s not a vampire. She keeps human hours and so do I.”
Evangeline’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t used to.”
“Times change.” He ignored her to pull Tessa close and kiss her cheek. “I’ll be up shortly.”
Tessa turned. “Yes?”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?” Greaves asked. “We still need to go over that shopping list.”
She hoped that was Greaves’ way of helping her find Sebastian’s room. She had no idea where it was. She was sure it had been on the tour, but she’d been a little distracted today and knowing the location of Sebastian’s bedroom wasn’t information she’d thought she’d need again. “That would be perfect.”
They walked out of the kitchen and toward the great room in silence. When they approached the stairs, Greaves spoke.
“I wasn’t sure you’d know your way.”
“I don’t.” She vaguely remembered something about it being on the second floor, but as they approached the landing, she realized she had no clue if she should go left or right. “Thank you. I owe you one.”
He gave a small shake of his head as he directed her to the right. “You owe me nothing, miss. You’re doing this man a great service. That woman has kept him in a dark place for too long.”
“I sensed that.”
He pointed at the set of double doors at the end of the hall. “His quarters. Do you need anything else before you turn in?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
He hesitated. “May I ask you something, miss?”
He tucked his hands behind him and took a deep breath. “Do you like Sebastian?”
She nodded. “I do.”
“Do you think you could ever…care for him?”
She smiled. She already did in some small way. “Yes, I think I could. But I don’t know if he’s ready or open to that.”
“No, I suppose not.”
She watched the man’s tender expression. It matched the emotion coming off him. “You love him, don’t you? In your own way.”
Greaves sniffed. “Been with him nearly four centuries. He’s all the family I have. We’ve been through a great deal. And I am his rook, after all.” His gaze shifted toward the stairs. “But that woman…she’s been the worst of it.”
She nodded. “I can imagine.”
He straightened. “I’ve bothered you long enough. Have a good night, miss.”
“Thank you, Greaves. You too.” She watched him go for a moment, then opened the doors and went in.
The room was as neat and masculine as Sebastian, but the object that stood out the most was the one thing she hadn’t really thought about.
And the fact that there was only one.
Sebastian freed himself from Evangeline as soon as possible. He made a quick trip to his office to make sure his desk drawers were secured, then he locked the door and went upstairs.
He found Tessa standing in the middle of the room, staring at his bed.
He understood instantly. He closed the doors behind him. “I’ll sleep on the couch by the window. Unless you’d rather not have me in the room.”
She turned. “No, that’s fine. And very generous of you.”
“If one of us is being generous, it’s you. I know I’ve thanked you, but that seems so insufficient against the reality of what you’re doing for me.”
She smiled and shrugged. “It’s okay, really.”
“Did Greaves show you around? Where the bathroom is?”
“No, he just dropped me off at the door. It was nice of him to come with me. I wouldn’t have found it on my own.” She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. “He’s a good man. I like him.”
“He is a good man. Been with me since before I was turned. Hugh’s rook was his valet too.”
“And Julian’s rook?”
“He doesn’t have one. For all his catting around, he’s a rather private sort. Likes to be alone more than he lets on.”
“That’s interesting. Of your two brothers, he’s the hardest to read. It’s like he’s covered in a fog that hides his true intent.”
Sebastian loosened his tie. “Can fae magic interrupt your abilities?”
She nodded. “Possibly. That’s old magic and earth bound.”
“That might be what it is, then. Hugh told me Julian had Willa make him a charm. She can put fae magic into the pieces she makes if the customer requests it. Supposed to help him with the ladies or something. Anyway, maybe it’s what causes the fog.”
He pulled his tie free. She hadn’t moved from the center of the room. “Is everything all right?”
She glanced down at her dress. “I don’t have anything to sleep in.”
“Ah.” He thought for a moment. “I must have something, but I’m not sure what to offer you.”
“I don’t suppose you have any souvenir T-shirts lying around?” She laughed. “You don’t seem like the type to wear anything that qualifies as casual.”
“No, I’m not.”
“What do you normally wear to bed?”
“Pajamas.” Although he rarely wore the top. He didn’t like to feel confined under the covers. He motioned to her. “Come on, they’re in the closet. I’ll show you.”
He headed into the walk-in with her behind him.
“Wow, this might be bigger than my last apartment.” She did a slow circle as she looked around. “Also, you have a lot of suits. And shirts. And shoes.”
“A well-dressed man is prepared for anything.”
She gave him the eye. “I thought you rarely left your house?”
“Then what exactly do you think is going to happen?”
“I…yes, I see your point. I like to look presentable. Whatever I’m doing.” He opened one of the drawers of the built-in dresser and extracted the first set of pajamas on the stack. He held the top out to her. “You can have the top, I’ll wear the bottoms.”
She took it, shook it out and held it up to herself. She looked down, presumably to check the length. “Okay, that will do.”
He held his hand out toward the door. “The bathroom is all yours. It’s the door next to this one. I’ll change in here.”
“Thanks.” She hugged the pajama top to her chest as she left.
He heard her gather up her things, then the bathroom door opened and closed. He undressed, putting his shoes, belt and cuff links away before hanging up his suit and throwing his shirt and socks in the hamper.
The soft sounds of her movements in the other room filtered through. He tried not to think about her undressing.
And being just a few feet away.
He pulled the pajama pants on, then looked at himself in the full length mirror on the back of the closet door. The chain about his neck that held the amulet responsible for his daywalking ability stood out against his skin. If he left it on, she might ask about it and he didn’t want to lie to her, but taking it off wasn’t something he wanted to do either.
The amulet had kept him safe from the sun for so long he couldn’t imagine being without it. The magic it contained had changed his life.
Much in the way Tessa was about to change it again.
He left the chain on. If she asked, he’d tell her. After everything she was doing for him, he felt safe trusting her with such a valuable secret. And maybe she wouldn’t ask. She wasn’t the type to pry, either.
He took a pillow and blanket from the linen cabinet that was part of the closet and went back into his bedroom to make up a bed on the leather chesterfield sofa. It sat beneath the bank of windows overlooking the back garden. It was one of his favorite places to sit and read and a rather comfortable spot, but he’d never slept there.
As he spread the blanket out, the bathroom door opened.
He turned. “How’d the top work for…”
His pajama shirt skimmed the tops of her thighs, displaying legs that were pale and gorgeously muscled and so long he lost himself staring at them. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen so much of a woman. The expanse of alabaster skin was positively enthralling.
Tessa cleared her throat.
He picked his head up to meet her gaze, hoping he hadn’t inadvertently drooled on himself. Her hair was bound in a messy knot atop her head and her face was scrubbed clean, leaving her cheeks pink. She looked like a wild creature. A forest nymph. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a woman more beautiful.
“Hello,” he whispered.
Only as the word left his mouth did he realize how inane he must sound.
She smiled. “Hi,” she whispered back. She tugged at the shirt’s hem, trying to lengthen it and failing. “It’s a little short, but it will do.”
“It looks good on you. I’ve never seen a woman in my clothes before.” It was infinitely more arousing than he’d imagined.
“Really? Is that why your eyes are glowing? I know it’s a vampire thing, and I can sense that it’s strong emotion, but I can’t quite pinpoint what emotion it is specifically. It’s almost like your vampire reaction fogs up my ability to read you a little.”
It was overwhelming desire, but he wasn’t interested in sharing that. But then, he didn’t have to share what he was feeling for her to know, did he? She had to been sensing some of what he was feeling. He turned away, using the prepping of his makeshift bed as an excuse to hide his chagrin. “It’s not always voluntary, but one can learn to control it.”
He heard rustling and glanced over his shoulder to see her climbing into his bed. It was a traditional tall bed with a heavy wood frame, and as she maneuvered under the thick down comforter, he caught a glimpse of the white cotton underwear that covered her firm backside. White cotton. Of course that’s what she would wear. It was practical and unadorned and perfect. His throat went dry.
If his eyes had been glowing before, they must be positively on fire now. He forced his head around. How was he going to spend the entire night in the same room with her? Already her soapy-clean fragrance permeated the space and in such quiet, listening to the rhythm of her beating heart was its own kind of seduction.
He closed his eyes. The image of her cotton-clad backside peeking out from under his pajama shirt appeared. He opened them back up again.
She sighed. “I wish I had my book.”
He risked a look at her again. Thankfully, this time she was under the covers. “I could run down to the library and get you something. Or there’s a copy of Forbes on the nightstand, but I don’t imagine that would hold much interest for you.” Or he could crawl in bed next to her and give her something else to do besides read.
She squinted at him. “Your eyes glow a lot.”
He forced himself to get control. “It’s all the…stress.” That was the best he could do.
“I’ll skip the magazine. I’m plenty tired and have to be up early, so it’s just as well.”
He nodded. “I’ll get the lights then.”
He strode across to the switch and turned them off, but enough moonlight snuck through the curtains for his vampire eyes to see the room as though nothing had changed. She watched him from bed, probably unaware just how well he could see her. “Good night, Tessa.”
“Good night, Sebastian.”
He slid beneath the blanket and settled in, throwing one arm behind his head. From the way he was positioned, he could see her perfectly. In his bed. He couldn’t stop watching.
She closed her eyes and turned onto her side, her face away from him. If he lay behind her, she would mold to his body seamlessly. Spooning, they called that now. He barely remembered what it felt like to hold a woman that close.
His body ached with need to the point that physical pain bloomed in his chest. Finally, he twisted away, made himself close his eyes, and prayed for sleep.
It was the only way he was going to stay out of that bed.
Tessa stared at the wall, or what she could see of it. Valkyrie sight was good, but not as sharp as a vampire’s eyes. Close, though, and the moonlight trickling in helped. She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, trying to cleanse the emotions of the evening so that sleep was a possibility.
But sleeping when there was a half-naked vampire just steps away was not going to be easy.
Especially when that vampire was giving off waves of desire. She’d asked him about his eyes hoping he’d confess to it, but he hadn’t and she’d realized a second later that he was trying very hard to control himself.
So she’d let it be. Because she was trying very hard to do the same thing.
She was glad the sight of her naked legs had distracted him when she’d come out of the bathroom. That had saved her the embarrassment of being caught staring at him. No doubt her mouth had been open and eyes wide. She knew she’d blushed.
Sebastian without his shirt was…wow. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen a man’s chest before. She did go to the community pool during the summers. And there was television and social media and the covers of romance novels, which she devoured in between the literary stuff librarians were expected to keep up with. But being in the same room with a half-naked man? Who had also kissed her? To the point that she’d thought parts of her would catch on fire?
That was a very different thing.
And now she was in his bed. It smelled of him, dark and spicy and sort of woodsy. Like the pages of a much-loved, leather-bound book.
He’d been in this bed. Right where she was now. Probably wearing this exact shirt.
She swallowed as an uncontrollable shiver ran through her.
Her lips parted and the urge to call him to her was so strong she pressed a hand over her mouth. No, no, no. Getting involved with him in a purely physical way would never end well. She wasn’t that kind of woman anyway.
She sighed and wished Duncan were here. At least then she could snuggle his furry little butt. If he’d stay still. When he slept, he went out pretty hard. And since they’d been in Nocturne Falls, he’d taken to spending part of the night with her and part of the night with Jenna. He was probably curled up on her pillow making biscuits in her hair right now.
Tessa’s eyes blinked open. She hadn’t cleared bringing Duncan here, but he was her cat. And kittens needed a lot of attention. It wouldn’t be fair to leave him at Jenna’s when she was gone so long on her shifts for the sheriff’s office.
She already knew Sebastian wouldn’t like it. Look at his house. It was immaculate. But after what she was doing for him, he was just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. She wasn’t going to spend an entire week away from her baby.
Not even for that ridiculously handsome man. There was only so much sacrifice she was willing to make.
Maybe she’d bring Duncan and then tell Sebastian about him after he was firmly ensconced in Chez Ellingham. The whole ask for forgiveness rather than permission thing. It wasn’t her way. Her way was usually planning and by-the-book and all forms in triplicate. But what if he said no? They couldn’t have that argument in front of Evangeline.
She huffed out a breath. Evangeline. The woman was under this same roof. Probably snooping around right now.
“Sebastian?” She said his name quietly, not wanting to wake him if he’d already fallen asleep.
The quickness of his reply indicated he had not. “Yes?”
There was an eagerness in his voice that surprised her. Had he been expecting her to ask him something? If so, what? She’d think about that later. “Aren’t you worried that you-know-who might be riffling through your things while you’re asleep?”
“She might be, but anything of importance is behind locked doors. My desk drawers and filing cabinets are locked as well.”
Tessa rolled over to lay on her back. “Couldn’t she pick those locks?”
“I suppose she could, if she’s learned to do that. But Greaves is probably keeping an eye on her. And even if she gets into my office, she’d have to pick the locks on my desk drawers as well.”
She smiled. “You’re a smart man to have that double security even in your home.”
He laughed softly. “You say smart, my brothers say overly cautious.”
“But you’re protecting them, too—and the town. I approve.”
They both went quiet again. Sebastian spoke a minute later. “Are you comfortable?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“Yes. This couch is surprisingly adequate as a bed. Considering what it cost, it should be.”
Note to self, do not let Duncan claw the bedroom furniture.“Good. I’d feel bad if you were miserable.”
“And if I was?”
She smiled up at the ceiling. His words seemed very flirty. “We’d have to figure something else out for you.”
“A different place for you to sleep.” Like next to her in this very large bed.
Because that would lead to sleeping. Sure.
He chuckled softly. “I’m not sure how well I would sleep in that situation either.”
Her eyes widened. It was like he was in her head. Vampires couldn’t read minds, right? She’d never heard of that being a thing. The best she could do for a response was laugh nervously, but it came out a strangled noise that made her sound like she was choking on something. She quickly cleared her throat and changed the subject. “We should go out to dinner again tomorrow night.”
“What about Evangeline?”
“You agreed she could live here for a week. I can’t imagine that includes accompanying us on all the things that couples do. Like dinner, movies, walks in the park…”
“You’re a brilliant woman, you know that?” She could hear the smile in his voice.
She smiled right back. “Thanks. I take it that means yes to dinner?”
“That means yes to anything you want.”
Her smile widened. She’d be sure to remind him of that when she brought Duncan back to his house in the morning.