Excerpt for Midnight Scoundrel (A Soulmark Series Book 2): Lycan & Vampire Soulmark Series by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Midnight Scoundrel

A Soulmark Series





Rebecca Main

















www.RebeccaMain.com

© 2017 Rebecca Main. All rights reserved. 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Dedication


To my family and loved ones, thank you for zsupporting me. A special thanks to Anne, Christy, Felicia, Kim, and, of course, Bear. You are all wonderful!

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 …1


Chapter 2 …16


Chapter 3 …31


Chapter 4 …45


Chapter 5 …61


Chapter 6 …82


Chapter 7 …102


Chapter 8 …123


Chapter 9 …136


Chapter 10 …150


Chapter 11 …162


Chapter 12 …179


Chapter 13 …194


Chapter 14 …218


Chapter 15 …230


Epilogue …241

Chapter 1

Two days prior

Ryatt



The bar is a dump. A skim of the narrow landscape is all that’s needed to confirm the fact. My nose wrinkled at the smell of stale, days old alcohol. The likes of which have seeped into the walls decades ago, along with the patrons. It is not a place to meet new people. Nor to gather with friends and lament your day’s end. Here the patrons sit widely apart, each oozing their declarations of “fuck off” with slumped shoulders and threatening scowls.


It suits my needs exactly, for I’ve no wish to be bothered. I stop mid-step when my inspection is interrupted by a golden beauty sulking at the dingy bar.


She’s wearing one of those off-the-shoulder dresses that seem to be all the rage this summer. Her hair, half up, sits high atop her head in one of those messy little buns with glimpses of silver dripping from her ears. And then there is her skin. Tan and healthy—glowing. She is like an oasis in this desert dump, pining away over several empty shot glasses and a cell phone. The beauty casts a wary glance over her shoulder as the door slams shut behind me. Her blue eyes widen from afar, her lips falling into a gentle “O” before she sends me a determined frown. It’s a much gentler “fuck off” than all the others I receive. It’s quite adorable really. Certainly not enough to stop me.


I send her a grin that falls somewhere between lascivious and mischievous and saunter forward.


“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a bar like this?” I ask, making sure my voice is a pleasant, husky hum as I seat myself next to this golden goddess. The duffle bag I carry is set gingerly underneath the barstool I choose.


“How original,” she responds tartly. Disdain evident. Her eyes flicker towards me curiously to run the length of my body, lingering a tad too long to be respectable. I make sure to keep myself poised under her scrutiny, muscles flexing minutely under it. She scoffs belatedly, a blush rising to her cheeks as if she is aware of her faux pas. A pleased smile ventures onto my lips when she turns her attention to the bartender. Fingers fluttering away to signal him. “Another, José.”


“I’ll have whatever the lady is having, but make it a double.” She stiffens slightly, and I watch in interest as she attempts to ignore me. She’s certain to have a difficult time of it.


I inhale. She is by far the prettiest thing I’ve seen in miles, and she smells of a tangle of emotions: fear, adrenaline, and the faintest hint of arousal. All blended between hints of lilac and lavender perfume. Of course, there is a touch of grief mingled in between, but it’s the same as every other poor sap in this godforsaken bar. She casts another sidelong glance my way as the tequila is set in front of us. Will she take the bait?


“Cheers,” she chirps after a moment’s hesitation. Her smile is a brittle thing as she thrusts her shoulders back and swirls her creaking stool towards me. The liquid is down her throat before I can even reach my glass. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was some supernatural creature with her speed and grace, but her scent is completely human. I let out an amused chuckle before knocking back mine.


“Going somewhere, sweetheart?”


I let my eyes flick towards the pale pink suitcase near her feet, but hers do not follow as I expect. A delicate chime trills from her phone and with a sigh, she gives the electronic her attention. Her brow scrunches together, lips pursing as she furiously types a response. By the time she has finished, I have already signaled José for another round. When the drinks are set down, she gives another gentle scoff and flips her hair over her shoulder.


“Gee, thanks.” But there is nothing sweet about the way her rosy lips curl into such a saccharine smile. Playing hard to get? No problem.


“Let me guess,” I lean closer, devious and knowing smirk in place. “You just broke up with your boyfriend. This was your first big trip together, and you caught him with someone else. One of those dark-haired beauties around these parts. Now you’re making the trek back home, all by your lonesome. Pissed off and upset that you wasted your time and money on a vacation that ended in heartbreak. Am I close?”


She swallows, eyes widening and heartbeat ticking up just a fraction. Her surprise is palpable, so I soften just a tad and reach for the tequila.


“Something like that,” she finally mutters.


“I’ve always preferred the fairer types,” I tell her. The scoff I earn is mixed with a furtive laugh, one she is quick to mask behind a cough. Got you. “Kyle,” I lie, lifting the shot glass in a peace offering. Her icy gaze melts and shifts to the remaining shot glass.


“Fuck it,” she mumbles under her breath, snatching up the shot glass and clinking it against mine. We down it in one and politely ignore each other’s grimaces as the amber liquor burns its way down. “Mary,” she offers. My sights narrow at the way her voice goes a little high at the end, my hearing picking up the way her heart skips a beat. She raises an eyebrow in challenge, but I only chuckle. Why not play this little game of lies and see where it takes us?


“Tell me all about your troubles, sweet Mary,” I coo. She rolls her eyes, the hint of a smile gracing her lips.


“I’m not nearly drunk enough,” Mary confesses coyly. I’m about to respond when one of her legs drags itself up and across the other. Her dress, already so short, hikes up another perilous inch to reveal more sun-kissed skin. I let my gaze enjoy the newly revealed flesh for a moment before capturing her eyes with mine. I put on a wolfish grin and enjoy the way she replies in kind with her own knowing smirk. Let the games begin.


+++


Mary is a recent graduate from the Art Institute of California in San Francisco. She waxes on about the likes of Friedrich and Turner. How the dark and gloomy Romanticism speaks to her soul.


I am a nomad. Traveling South American with all that’s left to my name in the bag at my feet. I tell her how I revel in the nights spent under the stars and my daring treks across the scorched and barren earth, but I’m always hungering for something more.


She has stopped taking her shots in one, preferring to sip on the molten elixir instead. Her baby blue eyes turn to steely storms, as the hours tick on. When I tease at her inability to keep up, she reminds me that she has been sitting at this desolate bar much longer than I. And that she is always able to keep up.


Somewhere around shot 11 or 12 I slip and call her beautiful. It brings the most delicious blush to her cheeks. Though she eyes me speculatively from beneath her long lashes, she does not rebuff my compliment. A few more shots taken and she proclaims that she’s never been with a real man. One who knows how to take care of a woman, or himself, for that matter. I confess that I’ve never been in love. That no woman has been able to tame my wild heart. Her eyes widen.


When I return from the bathroom—a literal shit hole—Mary is collecting her things and attempting to finish off a bottle of water she’s pulled from her purse. She wiggles it enticingly in front of me, only a quarter of the bottle left. I take it and sit down with a huff, finishing the warm water in two long drags.


“You’re leaving?” I mumble. The bathroom mirror has proved my eyes are just as glazed as hers, if not more. They lose their hunter’s sharpness, but I know in my gut this night has already been sealed.


“I leave tomorrow on an early flight,” she explains clumsily, heartbeat picking up. “I should really go get some sleep while I can.”


I nod knowingly, but reach out and grab her wrist before she can take a step. “Where are you staying?”


“At a motel nearby,” she whispers, letting the silence grow between us as she leans her body ever so slightly towards me.


A twinkle sparkles behind my misty blue eyes. “Me too.”


+++


Our bags are left carelessly near the door of her motel room as the door slams shut behind us. I let her press my body against the cool metal. Savor the way her luscious curves sink into me as she attacks my mouth. I groan into the kiss, enthused with her eager attentions, and kiss back just as zealously. It had been rough these past few weeks trying to track down the other half of the Crystal of Dan Furth, but I had done it. Now our alliance with the Trinity Coven would be cemented, and our lands guaranteed protection. I deserved a reward. One night of wicked splendor spent with this little lost lamb before going home victorious to my pack.


Her nails rake a path down my chest and tug at the belt wrapped around my waist.


“Bed,” she whispers hotly against my lips. I nod, driving forward until we land in a heap atop the questionable blanket. The bed lets out a long groan of protest as we work our way towards the middle.


“You. Are. Glorious.” I punctuate each word with a searing kiss. She lets out a breathy laugh. “And so fucking soft.” I nuzzle the warm flesh of her neck, breathing in the heavy scent of adrenaline and arousal wafting from her skin. It is more obvious to me now that I am in far worse shape than she, her deft fingers working magic on my body. She pulls back, out of breath and eyeing me through lust-filled eyes. A beat later she reaches towards the nightstand near her head to snatch a water bottle. She downs the small amount of water left in it before tossing it to the ground with a satisfied sigh.


“You should drink more water,” she tells me matter-of-factly, tossing a look to the other half-empty bottle of water still on the nightstand. “I don’t want you losing steam halfway because you’re dehy—” I roll my eyes but do as she says, seizing the bottle on my second attempt and finishing it off in messy gulps.


“Good boy,” she teases before flipping me onto my back. I let out a wry laugh, pushing aside the way my head swims at the motion and placing my hands on her hips to steady myself. If she prefers to take control—scorn that ex-boyfriend of hers—so be it. The view from the bottom is one of my favorites.


Mary locks eyes with me and grinds her hips down. Immediately our stunted moans fill the room. She is stunning. Lips parted, hair mussed and framing her face, and eyes darkened to a fever pitch. When she rolls her hips again, she lets her fingers fist into the fabric of my Henley, moaning low in her throat at the coarse friction. Then my shirt is being pulled away from my body to explore the expanse of my chest and abs. When her hands tease lower, I watch her through heavy-lidded eyes. She makes her descent slowly, caressing my neck then chest with her soft lips.


A wave of dizziness stirs in my head at the sensation. An almost purr-like noise escapes as her teeth dare to nip at the taut muscles of my pectorals. I let my hands wander the length of her thighs. Venturing higher and higher until her secret is discovered. I let out a sound of deep longing and look upon her with newfound interest.


“You are full of surprises, little lamb,” I hiss, fingers meeting only warm skin. There is nothing between her and me, except, that is, my jeans. She gives a saucy smile and slaps away my hand. “Tease,” I mumble, stretching my arms languidly back and allowing her to do as she pleases. She sinks lower, leaving wet, open-mouth kisses all the way down south of my navel. Nip. Kiss. A swirl of the tongue and down one inch more.


“What’s the rush?” she whispers as she undoes my belt and jeans—jerks them down. I cannot contain my animalistic growl, the wolf inside me howling in anticipation. It is unusually riled, but then again, I have not indulged in skin this sweet in weeks. We are both starved. I attempt to lean up on my elbows but find myself suddenly extremely fatigued. I needed more water.


“Water,” I beg, voice hoarse as I look around the nightstand then to her. My little vixen. She’s situated comfortably between my thighs, licking her lips as she stares down my cock.


“Impressive,” Mary says, tongue flicking out to trace its head and ignoring my plea. I grit my teeth and inhale deeply through my nose. Screw the water then. My hand reaches down to cup the back of her neck and guide her lips around my aching cock when the most startling sensation overcomes me. With a strangled gasp, my hips lurch upwards and I enter into the warmth of her mouth. She releases a moan, eyes wide and a bit unsure as they look up at me.


Fuck.


The world around me bends and snaps. It shifts. A monumental movement suddenly centers my whole being around this little slip of a thing sucking so tightly on me now. My fingers tighten and urge her forward. To take me deeper as the passion unfurls inside me like some raging bull. No prior experience can possibly compare to this moment. This revelation.


Without a doubt, hidden behind her luxurious locks is a soulmark to match my own. There is no other explanation for this sudden euphoria and the wolf inside of me growls its sound agreement. To be sure, my fingers must lie on three lines, stacked neatly atop each other. The matching mark reminiscent of the Greek letter xi. She lets out another softer moan, eyes fluttering closed. And then her tongue is moving, a gentle sweeping caress along the underside of my shaft. I must taper back the vicious snarl curling at the back of my throat as my head falls back from the pure ecstasy of her touch. She draws herself upwards slowly. Her lips sealed tightly around me as she drags out the sensation. Just as her lips seek to release me, my hips chase after her on their own accord. A flex of my fingers and she stalls to accommodate my pursuit. I bow forward, trembling to keep from thrusting too deeply and hitting the back of her throat.


Christ.” A heavy pant falls from my lips as stars erupt behind closed eyes. Around me. Inside me. There is nothing but Mary and her warm embrace.


She grabs my wrist, urging my hand to release its hold. I relax my grip, fingers lingering as I pull back my hips. Her hand becomes more insistent. Then a sudden striking fear takes hold of my heart. I cannot miss what will most likely be my only opportunity to seal the soulmark. My fingers tighten for a fleeting second.


“Let it be known that thy are found,” comes my ragged whisper, “and my soul awakened. The stars incline us, my love, and so we are sealed.” I gasp at the sudden all-encompassing glory that hits me. Reveling in the sound of her muffled moans around my cock. The vibrations entice my hips to press onwards once more in short jerking movements to fuck her mouth.


“Fucking hell,” I grunt as my load spills unexpectedly inside her. She pulls away, much to my dismay, somehow finding the strength to push away my hand and remove those succulent lips.


“What the fuck,” she hisses, eyes wide and fully dilated. She wipes away the vestiges of my release from her face, an angry scowl marring her beautiful features. “What the fuck was that?” Her hand races to the back of her neck as she slips off the bed. Away from me.


“I can explain,” I mutter, trying and failing to roll onto my side and go after her. My limbs lack their usual strength and dexterity.


“Listen,” she calls from the bathroom, “I know guys get into the whole, ‘choke on this, bitch’ stuff, but I need a little warning before getting into that kind of shit, okay? You can’t just…do that and not fucking warn a girl. Not cool.” The sink turns on full blast, and I hear rather than see her splashing water over her face.


“What’s your name?” I ask, unperturbed by her anger. I would make up for it later, but first I needed to know her real name.


“Mary,” she snarks, walking up to the bed with her hands on her hips. “Asshole.”


“Not Mary,” I correct, words slurring. “Your real name.”


The smile she shares with me is tight. Her eyes sparkling vindictively down at me. A slow comprehension fills me with dread. She is most certainly not as drunk as I am. I suddenly wonder if she ever was.


“Guilty as charged,” she says with a smirk. “How are you feeling, champ?”


I swallow, eyes narrowing even though wave after wave of paralyzing weightlessness hits me. “What have you done?” Comes my rasping plea.


“Don’t worry, Kyle. This will all be over in three…two…”


My eyes fall closed against my will as the strength in my body leaves me completely. I succumb to darkness. Her radiant figure a fixture in my mind’s eye as I drift away into the sea of shadows that is my mind.


+++


Present Day


“…and when I woke up, she was gone. Along with the crystal,” I tell them with a lamenting cringe, waiting for the outburst that is sure to come. Xander stands stock still, the little vein near his left temple jutting out. And dear little Zoelle is both flushed and flustered. Perhaps I went a tad too into the details? I shoot her a knowing smirk, and her blush deepens.


“The crystal is gone?” Xander asks once more.


I swallow, feeling the weight of disappointment heavy in his words, and hold back another cringe. Soon enough my feigned composure crumbles under it, leaving a swell of regret and shame to rise as I am forced to acknowledge my failure. To know I have let down my Alpha and caused him displeasure curls my stomach. Except, I didn’t just let down my Alpha with my dalliance—but my pack and our allies as well. My head tips to the side with a whine as his displeasure continues to relay itself through the pack bonds.


“It’s alright, Ryatt,” Zoelle reassures, her hand coming to rest on my shoulder. “We’ll figure something out. Right, Xander?”


There is a tense pause. I dare not look my brother in the eye, remaining in my submissive stance and exposing my neck further to appease him. Finally—finally—he lets out a long-suffering sigh and that pressure in my heart, the one cinching it shut like an iron fist, lessens and releases. Another warm hand finds my shoulder. This one larger. Stronger. Better.


“We’ll figure something out, brother,” he reassures me. I nod and take a deep breath. Then another.


“On the upside,” I say, slipping back into a more relaxed stance, eyes lifting meekly to meet theirs, “I found my soulmark.” My lips twitch upwards, a feeling of unmistakable joy spiriting through me. Zoelle peeks a quick glance at her fiancé, dazzling him with a brilliant smile and burst of gleeful laughter. He melts. Shoulders falling back and eyes lighting up for his soulmark. The dolt.


“But you don’t even know her real name!” Zoelle cries in distress, effectively ruining the moment. I roll my eyes at her dramatics.


Au contraire, soon-to-be-sister. I do.”


Their eyebrows rise in unison. “You do?”


“But of course. I’ve been hard at work the past day or so getting my fingers into this and that. Her real name is Quinn Montgomery.”


“How did you find out so fast?” Zoelle asks, head tipping curiously to the side. Xander merely rolls his eyes.


“I have a multitude of talents,” I inform her graciously, “as you well know. One of them just so happens to be 'hacker extraordinaire.' Anything can be found on the internet these days if you know how to look.”


“What else do you know?” Xander asks. The continued retreat of his hostility allowing me room to breathe without that strange and rapt pressure around my heart.


“22—”


“Young, even for you,” Zoelle chimes in cheekily.


“—an orphan. No family to speak of; mother dead, father out of the picture. From ages 11 to 15 she was in the state system until, seemingly, falling off the grid,” I tell them without pause. My mind fills in the blanks I leave out. Father never in the picture. The mother died of an overdose only to be found by little Quinn after she returned from school one chilly autumn day. Subsequently, she was tossed from foster home to group home time after time until the therapy she found in painting and sketching just wasn’t cutting it anymore. She turned to crime, using her artistic abilities to dabble in forgeries and other petty thefts until one day she found herself playing in the big leagues. Too bad she had yet to learn how to cover her tracks. It’s not easy to hide from a wolf, but hiding from an Adolphus is a different matter altogether.


“Sounds like you’ve been busy,” Xander says.


“I have.”


“I assume you have a plan,” he continues, the corner of his lip ticking upwards as I give him a somewhat bashful smile. A chuckle escapes my lips. The one that has been fine-tuned to give my audience pause. Xander raises a brow. Zoelle sends me an unsure smile.


“I’ve something in mind.”


Chapter 2


Quinn



There’s something so freeing about pretending to be someone you're not. Especially when that someone has no qualms spending a cool two grand on a pair of Christian Louboutin, Fabiola Over the Knee Boots. It hardly mattered that said boots had yet to be properly broken in and were forming major blisters on both pinky toes. Nope. Such were the daily trials and tribulations of my character's day: Colette Winters.


Denver, Colorado didn’t quite fit the vibe of the character I donned—California rich girl—but she would do. She was certainly one of my favorite personas to take on, if not solely because of her wardrobe. I was waiting at The Brown Palace for my current employer to show up. He was late, but with the payout from my most recent job, I didn’t care. Not that much anyway. After all, an order of Veuve Clicquot for Two had been placed immediately upon my arrival. So although his timing wasn’t to be applauded, his taste in dining most certainly was. I assumed the heavy rain thundering down outside had a strong play in his lack of punctuality. Downtown traffic was excruciating because of it.


I give a cursory look over the other occupants of the tea room on this dreary Monday afternoon. Lots of old biddies with their daughters and granddaughters. Not a man in sight, save for the waiters who come by with their charming, youthful smiles, hoping to snag a hefty tip. I barely bat an eyelash when my own comes around to deliver the champagne.


I heave an unladylike sigh once he is out of hearing range. He's cute and kind of charming, but not like a certain somebody had been. The melancholy I have been fighting for the better part of two days rears its ugly head again. Where the damnable thing has come from I have no idea. Yet it lingers and grows as the days tick by. The thought that my despondency could stem from a certain raven-haired man does nothing to appease my rare mood. Especially when a thorough review of said feelings seems to lead back to him.


It wasn’t guilt I was feeling. Kyle—or whatever his real name was—was just another pretty face, with a pretty piece of property somebody else wanted. Simple as that.


I had done it a dozen times before. The dingy bar. The sob story. The spiked water. Stumbling back to the decoy bedroom, only to tuck them in and take their shit. Hook, line, and sinker. Every. Single. Time. My targets could hardly make it to the bed before the Rohypnol started to kick in. Kyle had lasted a remarkably long time, all things considered. It was somewhat impressive actually. I take a delicate sip of champagne to hide the flush that creeps up onto my cheeks as I think of just how long he lasted.


That particular portion of my plan had not gone as I had envisioned. Though that’s not to say it went terribly. It was quite the opposite. Another blush dares to blaze across my cheeks as thoughts of his heated moans and the dizzying sensation of his touch collect at the forefront of my mind. How was it even possible to feel such a torrent of emotions from one intimate act? And yet the feel of his hand cradling my neck while I took him inside my mouth was an unbelievably pleasurable experience. Never before had I felt the building of such pleasure that I was almost torn from reality. I hadn’t minded going down on him one bit, and that in itself was even more unbelievable.


My eyes flick towards the second glass of Veuve that is placed before an empty seat. I long to reach out and down it, but that’s hardly how this native Californian would act. Not Colette Winters, I think.


So instead I set my flute down and scan the sea of plumed hats and demurely set shoulders for my waiter. I offer him a small smirk when I catch him making his way over with a tea tray filled with scones, pastries, and those little finger sandwiches I just love.


“Thank you,” I say softly once he has set down the tray and refilled my glass. I refuse the tea that comes with the service. My dietary needs fulfilled with all that is already offered: sweets and champagne.


“Ms. Montgomery.”


My second glass stalls at my bottom lip as my eyes flick sideways. Mr. Vrana stares down at me with familiar intensity, his words sharp as crystal. I straighten my spine and set down my glass. He waves off my attempt to stand and seats himself.


“Please, don’t stop on my account,” he muses, draping a napkin over his lap and looking over the presentation before him. He places a scone on his plate and lifts his glass of champagne, easing it forward in a gentle slant towards me. “I do believe congratulations are in order.”


I plaster a large smile on my face. “All in a night’s work,” I assure him smoothly, picking my glass back up and sipping from it tentatively. We share a measured look over the fine china before I flit my gaze towards the third chair at our small table. On it sits a small Prada bag, gleaming white and proudly stamped. Its insides carry very precious cargo.


“For me?” he gleans. “You shouldn’t have.” His gentle teasing leaves me feeling on edge when I catch the slight undertone of menace behind it. I watch as he inspects his merchandise.


He’s a beautiful man. Fair of skin and hair, prominent cheekbones, and pale blue eyes laced with bits of silver. He is tall and lean, with hardly a trace of fat on his body—not that I had the opportunity to prove that theory. Mr. Vrana was most definitely the type of man you would mix business and pleasure with, if not for your basic instincts yelling at you to run away screaming. He slants a smile my way. One that sends a bout of shivers up my spine.


“I hope everything is to your liking?” I nibble at the sandwich on my plate. The beef is deliciously tender and juicy, set off only more by the slight smear of horseradish between it and the bread.


He pulls the black box from the bag and lifts its lid carefully, eyes alight with a victorious gleam. The crystal he pulls from its cushioned bed is a mixture of purple and pink. The cluster of three is just one part of something bigger, or so one jagged side seems to suggest.


“That’s all he had on him,” I inform Mr. Vrana carefully.


“I’m well aware,” he replies shortly. We sit in silence as he repackages his new purchase. “This will go beautifully in my safe,” he informs me genially. My smile begins to ache as it ticks up another inch.


“Wonderful.”


He passes a cool eye over me. “You’ve done well. As per usual, Ms. Montgomery.”


Well, duh. I was made for this kind of stuff. No one ever expected the pretty blonde laughing away in a crowd to have their most coveted belongings tucked safely away in the Hermes bag on her arm.


“Thank you, Mr. Vrana. It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.” A smile curves onto his lips, though it does not reach his eyes. It rarely does.


“You’ll find your payment in progress, Ms. Montgomery. Should there be any issues, which I’m sure there won’t, you know who to contact.”


“Of course,” I reply smoothly, fingers itching to snatch my champagne as he stares me down. Mr. Vrana is a dangerous man, more so than any I have met before, and he knows it.


“I’ll be debuting a new artist in the city next Saturday at my residence atop the Four Seasons,” he tells me casually. I cannot hide the flicker of confusion that passes over my face. Nor the tiniest quiver in my smile at this unusual small talk. “I know your love of art,” he continues, smile turning sharp, “and thought to extend to you an invitation. As long as you can keep your hands to yourself, that is.”


“I—” don’t make a fool of yourself, Quinn, not now “—would love to come. Thank you for the invitation.” He inclines his head towards me and stands. This time I stand as well and stretch out my hand for him to take. He does, and places a kiss onto my knuckles, eyes never straying from my face. There is something unnerving about the act. The cool touch of his skin against my own. The uncommon pull of his gaze. It elicits a shiver from my body.


“Expect a formal invitation at your hotel’s reception desk. The Omni, is it?” I nod numbly, counterfeit smile back in place. “Was the Warwick no longer to your tastes? Or Hotel Teatro?”


I quell the urge to shudder at his all-knowing smile. Of course, he’s had me followed. It would hardly serve his purpose for me to turn tail and run off with his fancy rock.


“Something like that,” I chime sweetly. He inclines his head then departs. Prada bag firmly in his grasp. I sit with a sigh, pick up my glass, and down its contents. “Damn.”


Popping a petit four into my mouth, I lean back and let my shoulders sag. I peruse the crowd once again, collecting my calm in bits and pieces. Another job was done. Another cool mill’ in the bank. A few more jobs like this and I could retire before the end of next year. Vanish to some island and live out my days on some sandy beach sipping Mai Tais all day and night. Just me, myself, and I. And maybe a cabana boy or two to keep me company.


Something catches my eye. A familiar gleam of deep, cherry red hair. Elegantly curled and precisely draped. It’s M. My mentor of sorts. Though she would loathe for me to call her so. Anything but M is simply unacceptable and yet I can’t evade the word when she comes to mind. After all, M is the one who taught me the art of the con. How to seduce, how to steal, how to...everything. When I first started out selling forgeries, I was with some sleazebag who took advantage of my talents—among other things. It wasn’t until M came along and convinced me of my worth and potential that I came fully under her tutelage.


She’s on the arm of some older gentlemen dressed head to toe in Armani as they make their way out of the Tea Room. The maître d' passes them their umbrellas and raincoats. As if sensing my gaze, her own seeks mine. Our eyes meet, but no tell of recognition crosses her features. Then, after a long second passes by, I am gifted with a slight inclination of her head before she departs.


My phone is in my hand before I can help myself. Fingers flying over the keyboard to send a message to the redhead a second later. I receive her reply just as I’m finishing off my last tea sandwich and let a real smile come to fruition. A drink to catch up with a colleague was just what I needed to distract from the looming ache in my chest.


+++


“You look as if you’re doing well, Q.” A silky voice greets from behind. I’m only halfway out of my chair at La Menagerie before she presses two quick kisses to the sides of my face and sits opposite me.


“Same to you, M,” I respond sincerely. M is somewhere in her early forties. A complete and total fox. Dark red hair, deep brown eyes, and curves that demand you listen. I was lucky that our first encounter had gone the way it did. Instead of pressing charges against me once she realized the lesser known Pissarro I had sold her wasn’t one at all, she informed me I was wasting my talents. If I could learn to use my womanly wiles, I’d see my payout double. Triple even. The rest, as they say, is history. Five years later and I was swimming in work.


“What trouble have you been getting into?” She asks, her tone hinting at a secret. I cock my head.


“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I reply. Her eyes narrow on me as a glass of Pinot Grigio is poured for each of us. She refrains from speaking until our waiter is gone, our order in hand.


“Then why have I heard mention of your name through certain…channels?”


I give her a cheeky grin. “Hmm, perhaps they’re just admirers of my work?” I suggest coyly, though inside her words strike a cord. “What were they asking for exactly?”


“Your name,” she tells me after taking a deliberate sip of her wine. “Among other things.”


My smile fades. “What ‘other things’?” I ask tightly.


M smirks. “You’re not going to make it very far in this business if you don’t reign in that wild side of yours. I heard what happened in Montenegro.”


“That was a complete misunderstanding,” I assure her, smothering a smile as I recall the unplanned ménage à trois. “Which ended rather well, I might add. Everything went according to plan.”


Her disapproval scolds me through her eyes. “You’re too reckless, Q. Have you remembered anything I’ve taught you? You need to do your homework before accepting a job. Let alone jumping into a game on the side. You’ll end up behind bars or six feet under if you don’t start playing smarter.” A plaintive sigh bursts past my lips, earning a rather feral glare from M. “I’m well aware of the excitement of it all. The rush of adrenaline while on the run. The surge of fear when rolling the dice. You can have that for as long as you want—”


“—As long as I play it smart,” I finish.


“Let others lose themselves in you. Not the other way around.”


I straighten in my seat. “I wasn’t about to fall for the duke or his wife,” I assure M.


She snorts, the action startling me. I had never heard her snort. Laugh. Giggle. Simper. Yes to all three. But never a snort. “As I said, you’re too reckless. One of these times you're going to dive too deep. Hell, you’ll probably even lose your heart to—”


“I wouldn’t,” I tell her sharply, feeling a frown starlight across my brow. I’d let my heart get trashed enough in the past by both family and friends. I had no desire to let the action happen again. So I had built a wall around my heart to put a stop to the endless stream of disappointments that passed through my life. I might be willing to risk life and limb, but no longer was my heart up for grabs. I was planning on keeping it to myself. Indefinitely.


Yet as the stubborn reassurance scores through my mind, flashes of dark hair and blue eyes stir from my memory. The taste of Kyle—the blistering heat of his hands and lips—assaults my senses like a phantom. A weak tremor falls from my nape to the end of my spine. A pang of longing not far behind.


M clears her throat and passes me a speculative look. “Good. And have you been covering your trail as I taught you to?” I flush and mentally tick off all the things I know I’ve yet to do.


Yes—”


“—The one meant to keep you out of jail?” she asks calmly, her wine glass held lightly between her fingertips.


I give pause. Damn her. “I’ll do better,” I lament. The waiter returns with our order of ahi tuna tartare before M can rip me a new one.


“No new clients are going to take you if you’re so easily found, Q. Anonymity is important in this business of ours. For both you and the client.”


I duck my head. “I understand, okay? I’ll do better. This is all I have, and I don’t particularly feel like screwing it up.” She shrugs her shoulders and lets the subject drop, her admonishment over. I know she does it because somewhere in that deep dark heart she cares about me, but it’s no less annoying to be treated like I’m still some novice. M homes in on the tartare. Taking a large helping of the tuna on one of the wonton chips. She lets out a hearty moan.


The sound, so similar to the one I’d made only a few days ago, submerges me in memories once more. Of Kyle’s hungered kiss and how it felt to be devoured and savored all at once. The overwhelming sensation of a fire blazing through my veins as he held me prisoner. I squirm in my seat and reach for the tuna, shoving a loaded wonton into my mouth. M’s barely disguised disgust brings my head back up from deep waters.


“So, who was the man you were with earlier?” I ask.


“Another long con job,” she replies. “I saw that you were with Mr. Vrana. I’ve worked with him on a job or two before.”


“He’s intense. Don’t you think?”


“To say the very least,” she confirms, an uneasy look filtering across her face. “Be careful with him, Q. He’s not a man to be trifled with.”


“Nobody we work with is meant to be trifled with.”


Her sharp glare freezes me mid-reach. “I mean it, Q.”


“He likes my work, and he pays well. Really well, M. I’m not about to mess that up.”


“Just be smart. Especially with him. Are you staying in Denver much longer? Or are you working another job for him?”


I mull over the question as I chew on another hearty bite of the tartare. A dozen different coastal towns and beaches flitter across my mind’s eyes. It had been a while since I’d indulged in a vacation of sorts where I could let loose and enjoy myself. Nevertheless, I still needed to stockpile my savings. Especially after my most recent shopping spree. I take a sip of my wine, eyeing M over the rim of the glass casually. She might be my mentor, but it wouldn’t be the first time she learned of a job I was up for and swiped it from me.


“Just one more I think. I haven’t received any of the recon for it yet.”


“Well, I think you should get out of town.” I arch a brow in response.


“I was just out of town,” I remind her.


“Ah yes, traipsing around in paradise. How taxing.”


I smirk, “It was an easy enough job.” And easy enough to remember. In vivid detail. There was no denying it. I couldn’t seem to keep my head out of the clouds. Every wandering thought led to blue eyes and charming grins that had felt so right when dealt my way. “A classic set up,” I continue, forcefully nonchalant.


“Men are so predictable,” she says with a languid sigh, not noticing my melancholy. “Isn’t that nice? It always makes the job a little bit smoother. Was the target anyone of consequence?”


“Maybe,” I reply, collecting myself. Finally. “I was given a time and place. A description of the object, and a photograph of the target. Nothing more.”


M takes the last bite of the tartare and wipes away any lingering crumbs from her fingertips with the black napkin on her lap.


“A clean cut job then?”


“Very much so,” I confirm. Except for the fact that I couldn’t get Kyle out of my head. M shoots me a coy look over the rim of her wine glass.


“I have a little present for you.”


“Is it Gucci?” She laughs and slips me a manila envelope from her purse. “Definitely, not Gucci,” I gripe playfully.


“It’s an opportunity,” M informs me. She tinkers through her purse and pulls out a mirror and lip gloss.


“Who’s paying?”


“No one,” my eyes shoot to hers. “Like I said, it’s an opportunity. A little birdie told me a Degas was making its way to some town called Branson Falls, up in Montana.”


“You’re joking.”


I hold my breath as she gives me a candid smile. The one that softens her features and brings a real light of joy to her eyes. “Really. Go ahead and look.” She busies herself with retouching her makeup as I open the job.


“How is this…I can’t believe this is happening. How did I not hear about this?” I mutter under my breath as I finger through the files: purchase order, authentication papers, shipping details, schematics of the house. “Who the hell is your little birdie friend, and can I be friends with them too?” I give her my best puppy dog eyes.


She laughs once more. “We all have our sources, dear. Even you. Consider this an early birthday gift.”


“You don’t know when my birthday is,” I remind her, tucking the manila envelope into my purse. “I don’t even know when my birthday is.”


“That’s more useful than you realize, darling,” she purrs, finishing the reapplication of her lip gloss with a flourish. A far away ache gives a knock to my heart. Images of my mother, too doped up to care about her only daughter’s birthday year after year filtering across my memory. I push the ache and memories away back into the recesses of my heart.


“I’ll be sure to take full advantage of it in a few years.”


She hums her agreement and begins to stand, laying two crisp twenty-dollar bills on the table. “Take advantage of this opportunity, Q. It’s right up your alley.”


I blow her a kiss goodbye and watch as she fades effortlessly out of view. Then I take out the manila envelope once more and run through each document another time, my heart racing all the while. This was the perfect birthday gift. The perfect project to keep my mind occupied.


I’d have to send a thank you card to this Mr. Adolphus once his Degas was safely in my possession.


Happy birthday to me.

Chapter 3


Ryatt



She arrived on Tuesday to scope out the town, choosing to shack up in the Cremosi’s Bed and Breakfast. A quaint Colonial-style home with only one other occupant: Keenan. I had tasked him with trailing her whereabouts due to his military background, while I lurked from other, darker corners to mollify the soulmark. It had been a long four days. Having no contact, physical or otherwise, had left me in quite the state. My usual delightful personality and perfectly timed quips had been replaced quickly with a surly scowl and sarcastic remarks. Thankfully, both smile and scowl looked equally handsome on my face (to no one's surprise).


She had scouted our property for some time the following day, obviously readying herself for the delivery scheduled for Thursday. Watching her covert vigil from so near brought me nearly to madness. Her scent rode on the ends of each passing breeze, taunting me from my place in the shadows. The soulmark and beast inside howled at me to take her. To mark and bind her to me before she had another chance to leave me. Lucky for her, my patience and foresight held. Even through my darkest of cravings.


Now all there was to do was wait just a bit longer.


The digital clock read 1:52 a.m. in blaring red. It was exceptionally annoying, but the clock was strategically placed. Just like every other object in the room. I had made sure every piece and player had adhered to my plan this afternoon and evening. The delivery arrived on time, with Xander handling the reception and having the piece brought up to the west wing. It was placed in a room undergoing renovations, or so it would seem to anyone looking in from afar. Old canvas blankets, dirtied with dust and paint, were laid across the room’s furniture. Plastic lining was draped carefully along each wall, and buckets of paint were left surreptitiously about the room. The Degas was placed carefully atop one of the side tables, left uncovered and leaning lightly against the wall near the insufferable clock. Both were placed directly across from a window left slightly ajar. As if to suggest the room needed airing.


What better temptation could I provide?


I sit amid the array, just out of sight and hidden among the larger furniture to wait out my little thief. My hands do not shake as they press the crystal full of Woodford Reserve to my lips. I inhale purposefully, filling my nose with the aroma of leather and honey. Trace notes of butterscotch and toasted oak. It does not burn as it slips past my tongue and down my throat. It engulfs my senses. Provides the distraction I need.


The clock lets out an inaudible click as the number two changes to three. I smile and sink lower into my seat. Soon.


+++


Quinn


Everything was going well. Really well. I arrived on Tuesday late in the afternoon after grabbing some supplies from a buddy of mine. The town was…cute. Quaint, even. Totally not to my tastes, but, whatever. It had a certain je ne sais quoi about it that somehow eased the ache in my heart. Or maybe it was just the thrill of doing a heist for myself that lifted my spirits.


At least the town had some taste. Boutiques with stylish clothes dotted the downtown area with price tags that would give a fair few pause. Bistros and cafés were filled with people. Their clever little chalkboard signs drawing in crowds.


Rise and Grind,” outside of Luna Café.


Mojitos in Training,” a staked sign within a small planter of mint near the entryway of Coco’s.


We love our coffee like Kanye loves Kanye,” at some hole-in-the-wall barista joint.


I survey the neighborhood and house I’ll be pilfering. The subdivision screams money with its sprawling yards that bump up against the forest preserve just beyond its white picket fences. The house I study is perhaps the biggest of them all. It looks like some old French estate set up against a backdrop of lush green trees and hills. I adore it. I’m sure inside there is a treasure trove of lavish trinkets and antiques. Ones that would fetch a tidy sum, but it’s not what I came for. This afternoon the Degas was delivered. Mr. Adolphus collected the painting and ushered the delivery men inside, and to my delight, into the most easily accessible room. Despite it being on the second floor, the room offered two windows, one of which framed the Degas perfectly, even from afar.


It’s nearing two o’clock in the morning. The house has been still for hours, and my back has long since started to ache from my position in the tree I occupy. I eye the garden trellis secured against the side of the house and the flowers that creep up along the lattice work. Climbing the trellis wouldn't be difficult knowing that I wouldn't have to keep my balance attempting to open one of the windows. Thank goodness they were remodeling the room and had left one of the windows cracked.


It was now or never.


I’ve packed light. A small knife, my lock pick kit, and art tube are all that I carry. I wear all black, obviously, and even a dark cap over my tightly braided hair. I land with a light grunt and take off across the great lawn in a low sprint, not anticipating lights to blare so suddenly from the back porch. I dive off into the shadows, heartbeat in my throat as I scamper to the side of the house. The lights click off a minute later, and still I wait, breathing in short, panicked gasps.


Nobody had seen me approaching. I was sure. They were just those lights programmed to turn on at any odd movement. With my luck, if anyone had peeked out a window, they would have assumed it to be some woodland creature. Like a bunny or a deer. Or some other woodland creature.


Once I’ve got my heart rate under control, I tiptoe along the side of the house, positioning myself under the open window. Then up I go. Past the trenches of violets and fuchsias until I reach the window sill. The window, already cracked open, slides up the rest of the way easily enough. It gives no wary cry of disbelief as I slip myself inside.


Adrenaline courses through my veins. Any traces of nervousness departing as I creep towards the Degas. A small shiver runs its way down from the base of my neck. It is stunning. Every portrait he has ever painted is alive with fluidity and movement that dance right off the canvas. It will be the centerpiece of my small collection. I release a slow, steady stream of air and inch forward. My palms feel sweaty in their leather casing, but that is a trivial matter. I only need to undo the framing and remove the canvas. All done quickly enough with items in my lock-picking arsenal.


“Hello, Mary.” My stomach drops at the familiar voice, hands freezing in place as they reach for my prize. Fuck. “Tell me something, was it my bubbly personality or the thought of getting me back in your bed that brought you back to me.”


Just take a deep breath, Quinn, I tell myself. Steady that stupid heart of yours and play along ’til you can make your getaway. Degas or not. Probably not. I cast a look of longing towards the immaculate portrait, a groan of disappointment growing in my throat before I thrust it away. I take one step back and turn to face Kyle.


“Couldn’t get enough of me, could you?” His eyes gleam even in the darkness, the moon, almost at its full, shining down through the window onto him. How the fuck didn’t I see him? I put on my brightest smile, eyes sharp as they adjust to the lighting or lack thereof. His midnight hair gleams in the moonlight, a tragic smirk upon his face that twists my stomach into knots.


“I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” I answer carefully.


“Ah, but I was expecting you, Mary." The ice cubes in his glass rattle as he finishes off his drink. “I’m sorry,” he carries on unperturbed, “Would you prefer I call you Quinn?”


My blood runs cold and my back stiffens. A thousand thoughts run through my head until they settle on one nugget of information. “I suppose I can safely assume it was you who was digging into my past?” My upper lip curls into a sneer. Damn it all to hell; this was a setup. Some kind of payback for stealing the crystal. Or maybe he just wanted to see me again. The thought skirts quickly through my mind, bringing an unusual wave of hope with it. I squash it down like a bug.


“Guilty as charged.”


“Gee, I don’t know whether to be flattered or disgusted by your stalkerish tendencies,” I tell him sweetly. His smile kicks up another notch, and he leans forward until his elbows rest upon his knees.


“You’re trouble, Ms. Montgomery. I have a feeling we’re going to get along famously.”


I scoff, “We're not going to be doing anything together, anytime soon.” I shuffle back a step, but still when his eyes narrow.


“You took something that belonged to me. It was very important. I’m going to need it back.”


“I don’t exactly have it on me,” I snap, “Besides, finders keepers and all that.”


He matches my wry smirk with one of his own, the chair he sits in letting out a whine as he shifts his weight. I swallow discreetly.


“What an interesting code you keep. Any others I should be made aware of?”


I mull over his question for a moment. “Never leave your drink unattended in a bar?”


His smirk tightens just barely around the edges. “Funny too—be still my heart. Why don’t you take a seat, Quinn, so that we can have a little chat?”


My feet stay firmly planted beneath me as our gazes wage war. He leans back. I cock a hip and cross my arms.


“I’m afraid I can’t stay and chat,” I finally reply, batting my eyelashes.


“I’m sorry,” he says with a good-natured laugh, “let me rephrase. Sit here,” his finger stabs at the footstool next to his chair, “and have a bit of a chat with me. If all goes well, I see no reason why you can’t leave unscratched.”


My eyes steal towards the window, but Kyle makes a disapproving noise from his seat. Swallowing, I steel my nerves and look back towards him. A dark promise hovers at the edge of his expression.


Sit.”


I hold back my huff of indignation and, head held high, stride towards the footstool, dusting off its surface before I sit upon it.


“Isn’t this nice,” he drawls, “a little midnight rendezvous to spice up a rather dull Thursday evening.”


“It’s Friday,” I correct. “Technically.”


“Technically.” He agrees.


The room fills itself with the most awkward silence imaginable. His eyes drilling into the side of my face as I look anywhere but him. M was going to kill me; that is, if I didn’t kill her first. Had she known about the setup? Had she been a part of Kyle’s plan? I cast him a sidelong glance and catch his eye. A rush of blood floods my cheeks, but I turn it to my advantage.


“Did she say why she did it?” I ask, letting a quiver of uncertainty hedge my words. Kyle’s brows pull towards each other in confusion.


“Who?”


I swallow and duck my head, hear the hammer of my heart beat out in my ears. “Stephanie.” My eyes dart to him as I speak the false name, hope and distress dashed across my face.


He raises a brow quizzically before leaning towards me. “I can assure you that the path that led you here was made entirely by me. Your little Stephanie was merely a pawn moved so that the lure made it in front of you.” I can’t help the way my shoulders sag in relief. She didn’t sell me out, but I had still been played. I straighten and cut Kyle a grim smile.


“I hope you’re not waiting for congratulations.”


Kyle grins once more. “I would never be so presumptuous, but one can hope.”


Before I have a chance to protest he snatches the hand I have curled anxiously around the edge of the footstool. He brings it to his lips in a chaste kiss, eyes never leaving mine. A flutter erupts in my stomach. Some strange kindling of feeling stealing over my nerves. His touch inspires thoughts of him and I together, laughing over inside jokes and stealing kisses in darkened corners. But most of all it triggers an almost immediate heat to tumble through me. I press my thighs together sharply with a gasp and attempt to yank back my hand, but to no avail. I glower at him in response.


“No touching, Kyle,” I spit, yanking once more. He releases me unexpectedly, and I careen backward, footstool and all. My screech cuts short when the stool beneath me is caught, and a hand placed possessively on my waist. Kyle's face is suddenly inches from my own.


“It’s Ryatt,” he breathes, all traces of jest gone from his voice.


“Excuse me?” comes my somewhat breathless response, eyes comically wide at our nearness. My seat is gently righted, and Ryatt kneels before me on one knee, maintaining his close proximity.


“My name is Ryatt. Your name,” he says softly, “is Quinn ‘no middle name’ Montgomery.”


There is something about this claustrophobic space that numbs my mind and stalls my heart. The warmth of his hand creeps past the layer of my black leggings and soaks into my skin. Unable to help myself, my eyes flutter nervously as they lock on his lips. In the next instant they lock back upon his eyes. Don’t go there, Quinn.


He must see the uncertainty behind them as I try to take control of my frenzied nerves. There is something about the way his smile softens. A touch of vulnerability slipping through it like an offering. He does not move closer, but he does sink lower onto his heel.


“Why did you come looking for me?”



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