Night Shadows, 1
Veronica Wyndham had no idea that vampires were real, let alone that her new favorite customer—Tall Dark and Handsome—just so happened to be one. And she never imagined she’d overhear a robbery plan with murderous potential while eating lunch in the park. Making those kinds of enemies just wasn’t a good way to spend a day.
Seth Hunter knew he should have been grateful for Veronica’s unintentional help in exposing the traitors, but all he could worry about was how much danger she’d just landed in. Instinct had him taking it upon himself to keep a protective eye on her, but even then he had to keep his distance. If she found out the truth about the world around her, she would surely get Caught in Darkness.
CAUGHT IN DARKNESS
Night Shadows, 1
Copyright © 2014
~ Chapter One ~
“Coffee, black, no sugar.”
The order rang in Veronica Wyndham’s ears as she snuck a glance over at the mystery man that she and her coworkers had dubbed Tall, Dark, and Handsome. He’d started coming in only a week before, and since then he came in every morning at precisely ten-fifteen, and he always ordered exactly the same thing. Not that she knew how he could stomach it, since it was the middle of July and it was already pushing ninety degrees outside by ten o’clock.
Still, it sort of suits him, Veronica decided as she pretended to focus on filling a cup with freshly-brewed coffee. She snuck another glance at him as she reached for a fitted lid, noting appreciatively that he was dressed like he always was – in black. Black long-sleeved shirt that was just tight enough to showcase his sculpted arms, black slacks that somehow made him look even taller, and black shoes. He was even wearing a pair of black Ray Bans straight out of Men in Black. All of which, of course, complemented his thick, dark hair. And, as clichéd as it was, the look definitely worked for him.
Setting the beverage on the small pickup shelf, she called, “Coffee, no sugar,” and offered him a hopefully-casual smile as he reached for the drink. “Have a good day,” she added, smile still firmly in place despite the traitorous strand of blonde hair that had fallen into her eyes as she shifted.
Tall, Dark, and Handsome merely inclined his head before turning and sweeping out of the small building. He seemed oblivious to the multiple pairs of eyes that watched him leave.
Veronica sucked in a breath, gave herself a mental headshake, and returned to her job. You can ogle him again tomorrow, she reminded herself, tucking her hair out of the way. If nothing else, at least she could say that about her recent switch to the morning shift – she’d certainly never had eye-candy like him when she closed.
“Veronica Ann Wyndham,” Carol Wyndham began, her tone clipped, when she answered the phone several hours later, “where on Earth have you been?”
Trying not to roll her eyes, Veronica replied, “I’ve been at work, Mom. I just got home, so I’m calling you back.” Her mother had left her a short, vague voicemail earlier that afternoon, insisting that she call back ‘right away.’ But her mother also had a tendency to dramatize even the most mundane of things, so Veronica had decided not to panic without cause.
Releasing a frustrated breath, Carol declared, “That job of yours gets in the way of your life, you know. You’re twenty-five years old, you’re not getting any younger; you should be out meeting good men so that you can get married and settle down. You don’t want to wait much longer before you start having children.”
Her right eye was beginning to twitch and Veronica sighed as she stepped out of her shoes and sank into her couch. They had this argument at least twice a month. Keeping her voice calm and casual, Veronica said, “I’m sure you didn’t call just to lecture me about how much I’m messing up my life.”
“I never said you were messing it up,” Carol defended. She paused, though, before finally changing the topic and saying, “I called because we’re having a potluck for the new neighbors on Saturday night.”
Warning bells immediately went off in Veronica’s head, but she tried to keep the hesitation out of her voice as she asked, “And you’re telling me this…why?”
“What do you mean ‘why’?” her mother asked incredulously. “You need to know so that you can plan accordingly. It starts at six, so I expect to see you by five-thirty.”
Releasing a heavy breath, Veronica replied firmly, “I can’t go.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I can’t go,” Veronica repeated deliberately. “I already have plans.”
Without missing a beat, Carol said, “Then change them. Darling, we need to welcome them to the neighborhood properly.”
Attempting to remain calm, Veronica said, “I can’t just ‘change’ these plans, Mom. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I don’t live in that neighborhood anymore. I haven’t for years.”
“And how do you suppose it will look if you don’t come?”
“Like your daughter has enough of a life that she’s not available at the last minute on a Saturday night.”
Voice firm, Carol insisted, “Five-thirty, Veronica. This is not up for discussion.” The line clicked a beat later.
Veronica pulled her phone from her ear and stared, dumbfounded, at the blinking display. And then her disbelief melted quickly into anger and her grip tightened on the slim device as she sucked in a sharp breath. It’s like she’s convinced herself I’m still fifteen! Fuming now, she dropped the phone onto the cushion beside her, pushed to her feet, and made her way into her kitchen. I’m not going.
She was constantly amazed at how selfish and thoughtless her mother could be at times. Saturday was her best friend Allison’s birthday – and her mother knew that. She and Allison had been friends since high school. I can’t just bail on Ali’s birthday! It was times like this that she really wanted to yell at her mother, despite the fact that she knew she never would.
Mom’s just going to have to be disappointed, Veronica decided silently as she dug through her refrigerator. Ordinarily, Veronica would let her mother win an argument like this. Whenever she put her foot down on an issue she never heard the end of it – her mother was still giving her grief for working part-time in a coffee shop! And she tried, she really did, not to upset her mother. But this was different. This was something important to someone else, someone who also mattered to her, and her mother was just going to have to accept that.
I am absolutely not going.
* * *
Seth Hunter strode purposefully into the comfortable Baltimore penthouse, offering a courtesy nod to the lone man sprawled lazily out on the sofa in the large living room. Even though he had been in town for over a week now, Seth was still surprised that Robert – the man he was currently heading to see – actually lived in such a flashy space. As the local Family’s head vampire, Robert certainly had the finances and status for penthouse-living, but Robert himself was so unassuming and down-to-earth that it just seemed to clash. Not that it was any of Seth’s business; he wasn’t in town to judge anything other than the loyalty of Robert’s Family.
He came to a stop on the outside of a sturdy, unassuming door and gathered his thoughts. With deliberate casualty (in case anyone was watching), Seth lifted one loosely-curled fist and tapped on the door. He remained entirely still until he heard a faintly muffled voice call to him from the other side, and then he eased the door open and slipped inside.
Robert’s office – originally intended to be used as an additional bedroom – was a good size and lavishly decorated. What was once a closet had now been transformed into a recessed bookcase, and thick, black drapes hung over the single window. Pictures and multiple framed diplomas adorned the walls, and a large, mahogany desk was stationed before the covered window. A corded phone, two more framed pictures, a laptop, and a new printer were scattered across the desk, behind which sat Robert himself.
Robert took a deep breath, letting his well-wrung hands land back on his desk, and lifted his weary, dark eyes up to meet Seth’s gaze. “Thank you so much for coming right over,” he began. “Please, sit.”
Seth inclined his head and settled into one of the leather chairs facing the desk as he said, “It wasn’t a problem. What’s going on?” He had been called into town to help smoke out some suspected traitors, but so far his investigation had been slow-going at best. He could only assume that Robert had called for him because he’d learned something more.
“Ah,” Robert hedged, looking away again. It was obvious that he knew his next words wouldn’t make Seth a very happy vampire. “I’m afraid it seems that my friend, our informant, has disappeared. I haven’t been able to get ahold of him since early last night, and he’s not at home.”
Seth’s lips dipped in a disapproving frown. Robert’s informant was something of a sore subject for him, as Robert had insisted on keeping his friend’s identity secret. Robert’s friend was also the best lead they had. “Has anyone else seen or talked to him more recently?” Seth asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Robert replied dejectedly. “I’m worried, Seth. I’m afraid someone might have realized that he knew about their plans.”
“That’s a possibility,” Seth agreed, wishing he could in good conscience point out that he could have been keeping an eye on their informant if he’d known who the man was. But he wasn’t angry enough to point the blame at a man so obviously concerned for another’s safety so, instead, he added, “It’s also possible that his disappearance means our targets will be making their move sooner than later. Did you learn anything new last time you spoke with him?”
Robert slowly shook his head, saying, “No, I haven’t. I was hoping you had.”
It’s hard to get information without knowing who to talk to, Seth grumbled silently. Aloud, he replied, “I haven’t had much luck. Whoever’s involved is at least smart enough not to talk around the new guy, and I haven’t had enough time to dig into everyone’s daily routines.”
“Tiffany’s not going to like any of this,” Robert said on a sigh as he sank back into his chair.
Seth studied his current employer quietly for a moment before forcing himself to bring up an old subject. “Robert,” he began, “I know you don’t like this idea, but maybe it’s time you considered that your friend’s been lying. He could have been feeding you information in order to throw the both of us off of his trail.”
Robert dragged his eyes back from the ceiling, his expression hardening visibly and finally showing an echo of the powerful vampire he truly was. “Absolutely not,” he insisted. “He would never betray me; I would trust him with anything. And I’m not paying you to waste precious time suspecting the wrong man.”
Managing to keep his voice even, Seth replied, “At this point I’m suspecting everyone, including your friend, since I don’t know who he is.” He pushed to his feet, aware that Robert didn’t have anything more for him, and added, “But it shouldn’t take a lot of effort to figure out who’s missing. If I find a lead for him, I’ll let you know.”
“I’m not asking you to investigate his disappearance,” Robert declared calmly. “You told me at the beginning to act normal, and under ordinary circumstances I would be handling his disappearance myself. I was only telling you so that you would know that we won’t have any new information coming our way for a while.”
Lips drawing into a thin line, Seth inclined his head again and turned without a word. He’d taken this case because he’d thought he liked Robert—however, at that moment Robert was his own worst enemy. But there was nothing to be done about it. In the meantime, he still had an undetermined number of traitors to flush out of hiding before they hurt somebody.
* * *
Despite herself, Veronica couldn’t stop reflecting on the ridiculous situation her mother had put her in. Even as she went through her nightly routine, brushing her easily-tangled and still-damp hair, she found herself mentally arguing her point all over again. It was entirely unfair of her mother to demand that she participate in someone else’s potluck, especially on the night of her best friend’s birthday. But she also knew that her mother wouldn’t see it that way.
“Just bring Allison with you,” her mother would say, as if it were the most obvious solution in the world. “She knows how much I adore her.” That was the positive, attempt–at-being-reasonable response. There was always a possibility that her mother would come back with, “Allison will understand. And it’s not like you never see her.”
Yeah, well, it’s not like I never see you, either, Veronica found herself grumbling as she set her brush back onto the nightstand. She groaned aloud, squeezed her eyes shut, and shook her head. Great, now I’m arguing with my mother inside my head!
The worst part was that if the issue were to be brought to Allison’s attention, Veronica knew without a doubt that Allison would tell her to go anyway. That was how Allison was, and, conversely, that was a large part of the reason why Veronica was so reluctant to give in to her mother’s demand. Allison was looking forward to having all of her friends around for her party – she hadn’t even celebrated the year before – and Veronica knew she’d be disappointed if someone had to cancel. The last thing Veronica wanted to do was be that person.
Fleetingly, Veronica wondered if her mother would make her go up to the new neighbor’s door and apologize in person for missing the potluck like she had during her sophomore year of college.
Releasing a heavy sigh, Veronica flopped down onto her mattress and stared, unseeingly, up at the ceiling. That had been so humiliating – not to mention unnecessary – and that had, in fact, been the action that led to her ultimately deciding to move out of the house. She had never been so furious at her mother, nor her mother at her. They hadn’t spoken to each other for nearly a month.
Guilt swirled up in Veronica’s chest, making her stomach clench. She was going to have to do it. Allison would understand, whether or not she should have to, and Carol would not. The only thing she wanted less than to disappoint her best friend was to find herself in the middle of another ultimately-senseless argument with her mother. In the morning, before she got into work, she was going to have to call Allison and explain the situation and pray that her best friend would be willing to schedule a small celebration in the near future.
The world was such an incredibly unjust place sometimes.
* * *
“Let me know if you need a heavier hand,” Jasen Hawthorne reminded on the other end of the line.
Seth cut the engine after easing his Corvette into his usual parking space in front of the coffee house, releasing a silent breath before replying, “Don’t worry; if it comes to that, I will.” Jasen was significantly older than Seth, and their jobs were similar enough that the pair often worked together, despite that their titles were different. Seth was, officially, a Private Investigator of the First Family – a title which granted him jurisdiction to travel between Families without causing problems. In contrast, Jasen was the First Family’s most efficient Enforcer. While Seth was largely an anonymous figure among the vampires, there were few who hadn’t at least heard of Jasen. But working with Jasen had at least as many disadvantages as advantages, so Seth generally tried to work alone.
“All right,” Jasen said, his voice as even and deliberate as ever. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Seth replied before pulling the phone from his ear and disconnecting. The screen was already blinking, and he wondered if Jasen had even heard his last response – not that it mattered. With a shake of his head, Seth dropped his phone back into his pocket and climbed from his car. That phone call had nearly made him late for his morning coffee.
The soft jingle of the bells over the door signaled his arrival as he stepped through a moment later and, like he always did, he kept his covered gaze focused on the counter. It was hard not to notice the way the atmosphere shifted as he stepped into line, or the way the young brunette at the register let her gaze flick to him for a lingering moment. But it wasn’t too hard to ignore. And then the probably-late-for-work, early-twenties boy ahead of him stepped aside, having placed his order, and it was Seth’s turn. Like he always did, as her eyes searched his sunglasses curiously, he casually requested, “Coffee, black, no sugar.”
It wasn’t until he was turning away from the register counter, headed to wait for his drink, that he realized he had been hoping to see the same blonde woman from the day before. And he had barely registered the feeling before his eyes landed on her, and some part of him stirred as he studied her. She had her hair pulled back in a high ponytail, her head bowed ever-so-slightly as she prepared the drink ahead of his, and her outfit was covered by the company’s standard dark blue apron. But even from what he could see it was easy to tell that she had a shapely figure to go with her naturally pale complexion.
He watched silently, yet again grateful that he was wearing dark sunglasses, as she set the drink on the counter and called the name of the boy ahead of him. As she pulled back to fill his coffee her bright blue eyes flicked in his direction, the corner of her lips twitching in a subtle smile, and Seth found himself actually struggling to keep from returning the gesture. Fortunately, she looked away just as quickly, and he followed her lead, shifting his gaze to the local advertisements on the board beside him.
“Coffee, no sugar,” she called as she set his cup on the shelf. Her eyes again shifted to him, holding this time for a long second before she smiled and turned her attention back to the drinks still waiting to be made.
Seth released an inaudible breath, wrapped his hand around his coffee, and turned to make his exit. His morning coffee run was turning into a literal bright spot during his stay, but he was beginning to think it was a good thing he only saw her once a day. He suspected she had the potential to hold his attention even in a more important situation, and he still had a job to do.
Even so, as he unlocked his car, he couldn’t help but wonder what her name was.
* * *
Veronica had been right. It hadn’t been any fun at all having to tell Allison that she wouldn’t be able to make the party. But at least we were able to reschedule, she reminded herself. Instead of joining their friends for a couple of movies, dinner, and some games, she would be meeting Ali on Tuesday for a girl’s day. It was the best she could do.
And, in the meantime, it was Saturday afternoon, at least a hundred degrees, and she needed to find a decent place to eat her lunch. Despite the raging heat of the summer, Veronica had decided to grab a sandwich from a local deli and spend some time at the park. Provided, of course, that she could find a little shade. The heat was weighing down the paper bag in her hand, probably melting the cheese on her cold roast beef sandwich, and making her immensely glad that she had opted to go with a lightweight faded blue dress and sandals.
Finally spotting a full, sturdy tree that seemed to have a nice amount of shade beneath it, Veronica quickly moved over and sat down. The faintest of breezes was dancing across her heated skin, toying with her neck-length ponytail but stopping short of actually offering relief. Still, she smiled and tugged her lunch out of the bag. It was likely to be her only enjoyable meal of the day, and she wanted to make it last as long as possible.
She was still nursing the bottle of juice that she’d purchased alongside her sandwich when she heard movement somewhere behind her. She tried ignoring it, assuming that it was just someone taking their dog on a walk, but her interest was piqued when the first voice drifted to her ears.
“You better have a good reason for dragging me out here in broad daylight,” the first voice – male – snapped agitatedly. His voice was gruff and didn’t inspire confidence.
Despite herself, Veronica tightened the cap on her bottle and leaned slightly around the tree, curious now. She easily spotted the three men standing not too far from her. Two stood side-by-side, both a little shy of six foot, and the third stood opposite them, just slightly shorter than his comrades. But it was the way they were dressed that really intrigued her. Two wore ankle-length trench coats over jeans and heavy shirts with baseball caps on their heads, and the third wore jeans and sneakers beneath a hooded sweatshirt. The third man’s hood was pulled up, and all of their hands were tucked into pockets. She couldn’t imagine how they hadn’t already passed out from heat stroke.
The one in the hoodie spoke up next, his voice lower and startlingly darker as he said, “Quit whining, Wilson. You know why we’re meeting out here.”
The man standing next to the one in the hoodie spoke next, projecting his voice just a bit higher as he said, “Unless you want to back out.”
The one standing by himself – the first who’d spoken – scoffed and said, “I’m not a damn idiot; I kind of like my head where it is.”
“Good,” the louder one replied. He shifted his weight, glancing at the man beside him, before adding, “I heard Tiffany on the phone this morning; they’re going out tonight. She thinks they’ll be gone for hours. It’s the best chance we’re gonna get.”
“Tonight?” the first man—Wilson—repeated, a tone of incredulity in his voice. “But we haven’t worked it all out yet. Did you even get the code?”
“I did,” Hoodie said shortly.
Wilson flicked a glance toward him before looking back at the louder man and asking, “So…what’s the plan?”
“The plan’s pretty simple,” the louder man replied. “We wait until Robert’s out, and then we sneak inside and take the money. It’s not like he ever leaves guards; we’ll be in and out before anyone’s the wiser.”
Silence stretched, and Veronica’s eyes widened. Oh my god, she whispered silently. Never had it occurred to her that she’d be overhearing someone talking about a robbery. But that was exactly what it sounded like.
Wilson spoke up again, drawing her out of her thoughts as he asked, “And if someone catches us?”
The one in the hoodie calmly replied, “We kill ‘em.”
Rose will choose one commenter to receive a free eCopy of Caught in Darkness! Leave a comment or question below. Be sure to include your email address.