Colin spun around, his eyes meeting Juliana’s. “Call the police. They can dust the glass for fingerprints and check the liquid for drugs.” She frowned. You think he drugged her and carried her out? The sick bastard wouldn’t need drugs. The hypnotic tone of his voice would be enough to lure Muriel out of her pub without locking up. But he couldn’t tell Juliana that. Colin shrugged. “It is worth checking.” He stepped close to Bartley, keeping his face turned away from Juliana. “Stay with her and keep her safe. I need to hunt.”
Bartley leaned in closer. “Is it…?” Colin nodded and focused on Darby again. “I’m afraid we need to close the pub early tonight.” Darby grabbed his hat from the stool next to him and stood up. “Understood. If there’s anythin’ I can do to help…”
“We’ll let you know. The police might want the guy’s description again.” Juliana approached, words already written on her notepad. Thanks for watching the till, Darby. When Muriel gets back, she owes you a drink. He chuckled and swiped the air with his hand. “No bother.” He gave Juliana a gentle hug. “They’ll find your cousin.” Colin waited for her eyes to meet his before he spoke again. “I am going to check the other pubs to find out if anyone has seen her. Bartley will stay with you and wait for the police.”
He glanced at Claire. “Can I walk you to your car?” Claire gave him a knowing look. Her go-get-’em look. “Yes, thank ye.” He tipped his head. As she came around the bar, he turned his attention back to Juliana. Her determined stance reassured him. She was a fighter, heart and soul. He didn’t need to peer into her mind to see it. “I’ll meet up with you before sunrise.” He stepped closer to her, the floral scent of her skin enticing him. She tipped her chin up, staring into his eyes, as his finger tenderly traced her jawline. He had to touch her soft, warm skin. This woman had been through enough already. Losing her cousin would surely break her. He needed to protect his territory, but now it was personal. He had to protect Juliana. And right now, that meant finding Muriel.
He could not fail. Leaning closer, he whispered, “Please be safe.” Her lips parted, tempting him to bridge the distance between them. Before he could act, she rose on her toes and her lips tenderly brushed his, setting fire to his ancient soul. She lowered, breaking the kiss, her lashes fluttering up as she stared at him. Her rose-colored lips mouthed the words Thank you. Finally she slid her notepad off the bar. See that you come back soon. The corner of his mouth tugged into a lopsided smile, forgetting any previous hesitation about confronting Benedict. He lifted her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to her fingers. “Be careful.”
The wraith woman sat up on the bed and whined. “If you’re giving up on your questions, let me finish him. I’m hungry.” Spencer’s eye twitched. “No. He’s mine.” He drew his arm back. Struck. Knocked the sight from Custo’s eyes. Pain wedged through his cheekbone to split his skull. Custo blinked hard against a thick film obscuring his vision, and yet, strangely, he was able to see perfectly: The room changed, brightened. Long fluorescent lights glared overhead where the bedroom had been lit by recessed cans. A sense of constriction bound his chest in a different, suffocating kind of discomfort. Thick, earthy smells of blood and fluid and sweat filled his nose.
A man masked in soft blue-green stared down at him and commanded, “One more push!” Oh, dear God. His birth. Then a cry, the squall of an infant, offered up from his own throat. A nudge under his chin brought Custo back to the bedroom in the loft. Spencer leaned in and Custo could feel his breath on his face. “You can die fast and easy or slow and miserable.” Custo’s heart labored while he refused to inhale—no used Spencer air for him, thank you. “It’s your choice,” Spencer said. He scratched his cheek with the barrel of the gun. “Schl—” Custo’s jaw wouldn’t work right. He tried again for slow and miserable. Give Adam time. “Let me have him,” the wraith complained. “Adam and the girl are probably long gone anyway.” “No. And stay out of my business,” Spencer answered. The wraith stood, hand on the doorknob. “What a waste…” Spencer brought his gun-heavy hand down again. A crush of blackness hit Custo and jarred his memory to sudden clarity a second time.
A private library, wood shelves gleaming. A young man in a dark suit sat behind a wide desk, while Custo perched on a hard, striped sofa, feet swinging in the air above the floor, trying not to—what word had his mommy said?—fidget. One of his shoelaces had come undone again. “I said I’d pay for his schooling, but that’s it.” The man’s voice was cold. “He’s your son,” his mommy answered. She was wearing the shirt that showed her bra today. Custo hated that shirt—why didn’t she fix that top button? “He’s my bastard—it’s a little different—and I want nothing to do with him.”
Reality tumbled back into Custo’s consciousness, Spencer slapping his cheek. Custo tried to lift his head, but his chin only bounced on his chest. His ears were full of the rush of ocean and wind, which made no sense in the middle of the city. “Adam wouldn’t do the same for you,” Spencer said. “He has to know you’re here and what I’d do to you. Last chance.” Not even if it were his first. “No.”
“You can’t save him, you know. Not even if he gets away today.” Spencer leaned in to Custo’s ear. “A little secret, just between you and me…there’s someone else at Segue who sides with the wraiths. Someone you both trust. The minute Adam turns his back…” Spencer reared back for effect, swung, and the world split again. Custo was in a school yard surrounded by wide white buildings and the strong scent of honeysuckle. That first day at Shelby Boys’ School. Some pansy blue blood planted a fist to his face. Custo shook off the surprise of the blow and looked for the assailant.
The kid was tall and skinny, face flushed, blue eyes bright with fear as a bunch of other boys egged him on. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” the rest of the boys chanted. This should be easy. Custo ducked to the side when the pussy threw a wild punch, then clocked him on the jaw. The boy fell in a sprawl on the ground. Custo stepped forward, shifted to plant a kick in the boy’s gut—a reminder to everyone what would happen if they dared put their hands on the poor, stupid new kid again—and got hauled back by his collar. The fabric burned at his throat. “He hit me first!” Custo yelled to whatever teacher had made it to the grounds in time to stop the fight. They couldn’t expel him on the first day, could they? “And you got him back. Enough.” Not a teacher. An older kid. Well, Custo could take him, too. He dropped his weight and spun. Buttons popped, but the other kid hung on.
“I’m Adam Thorne,” he said, seemingly unperturbed, “and we’re going to be friends.” Custo wrestled against Adam’s hold. He stamped on the older boy’s prissy loafer—a baby trick, but Adam was keeping him too off balance to do more. “Best friends,” Adam amended in grim, low tones. “The rest of you, move out. Not the time or place, men.”
The skinny kid scrambled up from the dirt and milled away with the rest of group. Custo lifted his chin to their backward looks. Just try me. Adam saved his life that day. Another expulsion would have sent him back to the streets. Permanently. Spencer’s earbud buzzed through the cloudy murk of Custo’s memories. “Repeat,” Spencer said, “Adam’s here?” Custo’s heart clenched. Goddamn stupid hero. “Guess we don’t need you anymore,” Spencer hissed darkly in Custo’s face. “This was way too easy.” No! Wait! He had to warn— A white thunderclap of pain and Custo’s consciousness spread like water running from a dropped clay vessel, his life falling in so many pieces around him. The expanse of the loft was laid open to his understanding, a sixth sense that strengthened exponentially in the sudden absence of all others. In the great room beyond, Adam and Talia held their ground near the elevator, darkness billowing out in silken waves from Talia’s position.
Custo’s mind clouded with Shadow as well. The darkness flickered with lightning strikes of memory. His first lay, Janet Summerton, with her peachy breasts and ginger hair. University, still on his father’s buck, dorming with a geek on scholarship. Adam’s frantic call for help when his brother Jacob had gone insane—turned wraith—and killed their parents. The flashes of memory advanced with each trembling heartbeat toward the decision to enter the loft’s building to meet Adam and Talia, when the place had so clearly been compromised. And Custo would do it again. My life for his. Spencer crossed the room and stood, his back to the bedroom door, gun ready at his chest, and utterly oblivious to the murky forest of dark trees that grew in place of the dissolving walls. Black trunks and skeletal limbs stretched into a violet sky through which brilliant stars blazed, each with a skittering comet’s tail streaming the passage of time. A gray wind lashed through the room just as Adam kicked in the bedroom door and plugged two bullets in the wraith’s head. She went down with a wide-eyed thump, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, die. That was her trade—a life of monstrous soul feeding in return for immortality.
Adam and Spencer spoke with angry gestures, but the words foundered on the hiss and whip of the crowding shadows. Spencer ducked out of the room when Adam caught sight of the ruined body in the chair. Adam, there’s another traitor at Segue, Custo said. But Adam didn’t signify he heard the warning. He fell on his knees before Custo’s chair. Adam! Listen to me! The trees grew to maturity, their boughs forming a dark tunnel to God knows where. Adam! Custo looked back, one last time, into mortality. His body had been cut free and Adam was struggling to haul it to the bed, his face contracted with rage and grief. Not necessary. Not worth it. Never worth it. But, of course, Adam couldn’t hear him. The blackness shuddered, shade upon shade.
Something was coming. From the deep, a gleam of silvery metal arched into a wicked crescent moon. A scythe. The harried shadows parted and a figure emerged, wrapped in a cloak of blackness. Shadowman was partially hooded, but his face caught starlight. His features glowed with fantastic beauty, but his eyes were wells of loneliness. And no wonder—his was an existence filled with solitary, grim work. I have to warn him. Please. Shadowman was immovable, his expression as unforgiving as stone. Hand gripping the scythe, he slowly swung out his arm, as if opening a gate to oblivion. Death. Then Hell.
Custo gathered what was left of his courage, clamping down on the naked quake of fear at his core. No sniveling allowed. He moved out of pain and into uncertainty, the tunnel of sharp branches lengthening to a bright point of light. Probably a white-hot fire to burn at the blood staining his soul for eternity. On either side of the dark path, whispers. Eyes flashing. Magic gathering to lure strays from the way. The tunnel led to a primeval shore where a narrow skiff waited to carry them across a gray channel toward a high, great gate. The light of the surrounding walls shifted through the varied spectrum of the rainbow, at once blue and yellow, then azure and verdant green.
There must be a mistake—even Spencer knew the truth. Shadowman delivered him to the gleaming portal, which opened in welcome. The light was blinding. A song of piercing joy rose to cheer an addition to the Host. Custo turned to Shadowman, but Death was gone. So not Hell. Worse. A cosmic joke. A bloodied soul to be numbered with the angels. He was a liar, a murderer, a thief, but never a hypocrite. He didn’t belong here. The shining gate closed behind him, clanging shut like a Sunday church bell. Custo braced his hands on the spectacular surface. There had to be a way out. A way to open the gate and a way to warn Adam. Custo banged a fist against the entrance. Or if not, good people died every day. Death would be back eventually, and damn if Custo wouldn’t be ready.
“Hilly, I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Thank you, Mister Spencer.” Her sweet voice trailed off as Dillon walked to the elevator at the end of the hallway. He wasn’t the kind of boss who chatted with his employees or got to know their personal lives. He didn’t have time for that, and besides, the honest truth was that if he ever got to know Hilly better he would probably fall in love with her and there was no way that could ever happen. She was too valuable as his assistant. No, it just wasn’t meant to be. At twenty-nine, Dillon considered himself at the top of his game and he simply couldn’t afford to be with a woman who might jeopardize his ability to focus ninety-five percent of his time on his job. Logic dictated that when the time came for him to settle down it would be with someone who could do something for his career, not simply make his life easier, a woman who could add clients to his firm, who was a brilliant litigator and had a sharp mind for law. That woman was Nanette Larson, of Larson, Madison and Bradly.
At one point, Nanette was his fierce competitor until she and her husband divorced and Dillon’s father recommended that he charm her into marriage. Dillon had carefully considered all of the ramifications of marrying someone he didn’t love just to advance his career and decided it was worth the risk. He and Nanette had gotten engaged two months ago and were planning on a spring wedding. Everything was in place for a perfect life. He and Nanette had decided to sell their million-dollar condos and buy one double in size so they could better entertain their potential clients and friends. His one fly in the perfectly white ointment was Hilly Thompson. He’d been attracted to Hilly from the first day she’d stepped into his office looking for a job, the attraction hitting him hard, but he prided himself in his staunch ability for self-control and had worked hard to remain somewhat aloof to Hilly, which was his practice with most of his employees. There was no mixing business and pleasure in the law firm, a strict rule his father had enforced years ago, and Dillon had more than amply adhered to that policy.
His one diversion from his father’s strict policies was to send his own direct reports a birthday greeting each year. Not that he had to personally do anything for it. Hilly had set up a program that automatically did all the work for him, and then she sent him a text when the gift and card were on their way. The woman was a godsend of an assistant, absolutely priceless. He honestly didn’t think he could function without her. Still, lately, now that he was on his way to the altar, he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her . . . and wondering what her skin felt like, or the taste of her full lips, or the scent of her hair or . . . . The elevator doors opened. Dillon hesitated for a moment, then returned to Hilly’s desk.
The night air, fragrant with the scent of roses, hummed with the ebb and flow of crickets calling to attract a mate. It was all he could do to drag his feet along the cracked, concrete walkway to the small military bungalow ahead of him. The path was swept clean, the grass cut with a military precision. Flower pots bracketed the cement steps held bright red geraniums. A
ll that was Kayla’s touch. Kayla.
What the hell was he going to tell Kayla? Hi, good to see you again. Sorry your husband is dead. God, I love you. The grief after Jack Pierce’s death two years—two lifetimes—ago had been more deadly than the IED that had taken his friend. Guilt and sorrow had eaten him alive, making him not give a shit if he lived or died.
All his life it had been him and Jack. When he’d been young, Jack’s family had taken him in whenever his mom was on a bender and gone for days at a time. The Pierce family had made him one of their own. They’d fed him, clothed him, given him a place to sleep at night and kept him in school. He and Jack were more like twins than best friends. They’d played the same sports, liked the same girls, done the same stupid pranks in school, graduated together and gone into the service as a team. Then, in an earth-shattering second, Cole had been alone and lost.
He knew that was precisely the reason he’d been selected for Vector Force. A flash of memory, the agony as they tested him, transformed him into a monster, stopped him in his tracks.
His fangs extended, and the need for blood started up the saliva, thick and slick in the back of his mouth. Bone deep hunger gnawed at him.
For a moment he swayed. He should have taken a few blood bags with him from the base to staunch the need to feed, just in case, but he’d thought himself under control. The porch light flicked on. Intense in the night to his amped up vampire senses, it pierced the back of his brain and brought him back to the here and now. The unmistakable mold and must tinge of sorrow scented the air about the place, as did the baby-powder scent of loneliness. He shook his head—willed his fangs to retract in gum tissue just above his even, normal teeth.
The door opened and there stood the most perfect woman in the world – Kayla Montgomery. No. Not Montgomery any longer. Pierce. Mrs. Pierce. Widow Pierce.
Her hair, a gold, sleep-snarled halo around her head, made her seem angelic while the curves and points of her naked breasts, perfectly outlined by the cling of the white tank top she wore, spoke of a body created for far more earthly pleasures. Almost every inch of her long, tan legs was bared by the pink, blue and white striped sleep shorts hugging her hips.
“Cole? Cole, is that you?” The screen door creaked open as she stepped out onto the top step. “It is you!” He couldn’t stop staring. Her lush, pale pink lips widened into a smile.
Inside his chest, his heart fractured. Any words he’d thought he could scrape together dried to dust on his tongue. Kayla. . .Oh, God. She’d been radiant in white the last time he’d seen her. Elegant. Untouchable. She’d stood in front of the altar on one side of Jack, and he’d stood on the opposite side of him as their best man.
She launched off the stoop, the screen door slapping shut behind her and ran straight at him. Her arms wrapped around his waist in a death lock and she laid her cheek against his chest. Delicate hints of citrus, flowers and warm woman drifted up from her, filling his lungs as he inhaled sharply at her touch. He breathed in again, as deeply as he could, letting the scent of her fill him to the brim. The ache that stole over him was born of heartsick wanting. Kayla had been his first girlfriend at sixteen. And despite years of finding some small comfort in the arms of other more than willing women, no one else could touch his heart. That still belonged to Kayla alone.
He gently wrapped his arms around her in return, being extra careful to keep the contact loose and relaxed. Even after two years in Vector Force, he still didn’t know the extent of all his new vampire powers. The last thing he wanted to do was break any of her delicate bones in a power hug.
“It’s been awhile.” The words cracked as he said them. The silky strands of her hair tickled his nose, as he breathed in the unique scent of her. Sweet and clean. Every night he’d dreamed of holding her, just like this, again. He woke in the morning hating himself for dreaming about his best friend’s wife. Even now he knew thinking about how the soft curves of her breasts, bare beneath the thin tank top pressed against his chest, was somehow wrong. She wasn’t his. He shouldn’t want her the way he did.
“A while?” She leaned back and looked up at him. Long, dark lashes framed the soft brown eyes he remembered in his dreams. “Two years too long. You and Jack shipped out less than a month after we married and I haven’t seen you since.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Kayla cocked her head to the side, the corners of her eyes narrowing slightly.
Instinctively he knew she wasn’t just talking about his absence; she was talking about her husband’s death. She could say it all she wanted, like the shrinks at the military hospital did, but it didn’t change a damn thing. If he’d just let Jack drive, he would have taken the full impact of the IED instead of his best friend. She would have been in her husband’s arms instead of his.
With all the effort and careful touch he could muster, Cole pulled back from her. Hard to do because he wanted to hold her forever, and yet impossible not to let her go when there was still so much he needed to say to her.
“Come inside.” Kayla slipped her small hand into his, totally unaware of the explosion of chaos she caused in him.
“It’s late. I can come back tomorrow.”
Kayla shrugged. “It’s not like I sleep much anyway. And you’re here now. You came for a reason, right?”
He nodded, his frozen feet finally pulling free of the invisible bond to the concrete walkway to move forward.
Cole’s hand felt cool and dry to the touch, but achingly familiar and comforting as Kayla led him up the steps and through the old screen door of her little house. She hadn’t thought of it as hers and Jack’s for a long time now. Time had a way of changing perceptions. Jack had been gone for twenty-six months. Sometimes her chest ached because she couldn’t remember the sound of his voice, or the way his skin smelled. She’d never forgotten Cole’s voice, and his skin had the same warm cedar and clean soap smell it had had since she’d known him in tenth grade. For one, she didn’t remember Cole being this big when they dated in high school, or at the wedding. He seemed larger than life standing beside Jack. They’d made quite a matched set of handsome men. But the military had transformed Cole from merely a gorgeous guy into a wall of lean muscle and serious blue eyes. And she swore he’d grown taller. There was no doubt he changed.
She could little more than reply, “You, too.”
He gave a slight bow. “I’m at your service.” She was glad he hadn’t offered to shake her hand. She didn’t want him to touch her, not until it was absolutely necessary. Already the main artery in her neck was pulsing, from fear, no doubt. It certainly wasn’t from a latent fantasy to be fed upon. Blood still grossed her out. Didn’t it? Yes, absolutely. His hotness hadn’t changed that.
He said, “So you want your boyfriend to propose. Keith, isn’t it?” She nodded, and another stream of silence sizzled by. She didn’t like the effect he had on her. She wanted him to stop staring. But no such luck. His gaze remained riveted to hers. He said, “You’re going to have to give me verbal permission to feed.”
She answered quickly, her tone jumpier than it should have been. “You have my permission.”
“Then we’re all set, aren’t we?”
“Yes, I suppose we are.” She shuffled her feet. He didn’t seem the slightest bit anxious. But why would he? Taking blood in exchange for wishes was his job. Besides, with his supposed pain-in-the-butt personality, he was probably enjoying her discomfort.
“I’ll come to your house later.” He glanced at a clock on the wall. “Let’s say, around nine?”
“That’s fine.” She didn’t need to provide her address because he would be monitoring her from his connection to the bracelet, aware of where she was at all times. And now that they were face-to-face, the notion of being tracked by him heightened her nerves. Was this how criminals felt when they were under house arrest? He angled his head. “You’re a pretty little thing. Your boyfriend is a lucky guy.”
She barely managed a polite, “Thank you,” before he added, “I’ll bet you’re going to be a tasty treat, too. Lip-smacking good.” Damn him. She took a deliberate step back. There went his “gotcha” side.
Her uncle came to the rescue. “Don’t act smart, Nicholas. Especially with my niece.” “Sorry.” The smarty in question shrugged one shoulder at a time. “I was just playing around.”
“I know,” Darrin replied. “Like you always do.” He turned to Marie. “Don’t let him intimidate you, Baby Girl. He’s harmless.” The gen-vamp grinned and leaned against the wall. “My wisecracks are worse than my bite.” She suspected that his bite was going to sting something awful. Worse yet, he winked at her when Darrin wasn’t looking. Harmless, her foot. Already he was turning into a heap of trouble, and she’d only known him for a few minutes.
“Really?” The dubious word was little more than a whoosh of air from her lungs. She probably looked ridiculous and completely shell-shocked, but it was a little too late to play it cool. Immortal Bounty needed her on a special case! “I’m afraid I can’t give you the details until you’ve accepted our offer and have signed the proper paperwork, but it would involve your possession.” It felt as though the floor dropped out from under her. She couldn’t have heard him right. “My what?”
He raised his brows as though she were dense. “The use of your body, Dr. Vale.” She glanced at the young commander, but his jaw was locked tight, the muscles in his cheeks bunching. “I’m a…I’m a forensic parapsychologist, Mr. Tanner, with a doctorate in post-Collision metaphysics. I received the highest honors in my graduating class. I was born to be an IB Investigator.” He nodded. “And you will be—when you accept our offer. You’ll have full benefits. A life on the campus. A percentage of the bounty on every case your team leads. And a starting salary that would make your past struggles nothing but a bad memory.”
“But you said…possession. To use my body.” She felt sick. Evelyn had always been the proverbial “easy target”. She had spent her life in fear of being overtaken by one spirit or another. And she had been, time after time, losing control over her body and her choices, being completely controlled by someone else. She couldn’t do it. No job was worth it. Nothing was worth it. But then she thought of her family. If she didn’t provide for them, who would?
“Evelyn…can I call you Evelyn?” the steward asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “You’re just the type of investigator we look for, but you’ve never been given a chance because of your unfortunate little problem.” He smiled and folded his hands, but the way his gaze bore into her was a palpable force. “This is your chance. Every employee has a one month probation period. Show us what you’re made of. Prove that you can handle working in this environment and coming into contact with malevolent spirits without succumbing. And when succumbing is what is called for, show us that you’re willing to do what it takes to complete an assignment. Do this, and your life at Immortal Bounty will be a long and happy one.”
She pressed her lips together. “But you’re talking about willingly being possessed.”
“Do you know the average age of retirement from this company?” the steward asked her.
“No,” she answered, not following his train of thought. Clark steepled his hands and tapped his thumbs together. “Forty-seven. Which may not sound like much, until you know the average age at which an IB Mark has accumulated enough wealth to retire comfortably for the rest of their natural lives. Tell her, Commander.”
The commander’s nostrils flared as though he didn’t enjoy contributing to the conversation. “Thirty-four when they’re recruited straight out of college. A little longer at your age.”
“Exactly,” Clark said. “Which tells you two things, Evelyn. Number one, that half the Marks who work here do so because they love it—not because they need to. And number two, that sacrificing a little in the short term could be the best, most lucrative decision of your life.” She brought her hand to her cheek. Everything was tingling. She wasn’t sure she could feel her feet anymore. “Can you tell me what exactly I would be signing up for?”
“I’m sorry,” he answered. “We’re contracted directly by the Governing Body of Greater America, and the GBGA dictates that our operations remain classified to all non-Immortal Bounty employees. I can assure you, though, that you will be in no danger. A Sentinel would be with you at all times.”
She breathed slowly, trying to think this through rationally, but her mind screamed that she couldn’t hand her body and her will over. She couldn’t say yes to this. She’d only been a child when The Great Collision happened, but even so, she was old enough to remember the fear and chaos and how the fabric of the country had torn to shreds in the aftermath of the disaster. She’d heard there had been a time before that day when most American families had had enough to eat and the majority of the population could find work, but that America was dead and gone. If her father wasted away from hunger, there was no agency that would lift a finger to help him now. The steward gave her time to mull it over, and then she saw something shift in his gaze. It reminded her of a poker player who knew his hand trumped all.
“This assignment will be short, Evelyn, but your career at Immortal Bounty will be long.” He pulled something from the drawer of his desk and held it up for her to see. It took a minute to adjust her eyes to the glare of the shiny metal and read the small letters etched into the badge. That was a real IB/GBGA badge. Evelyn Vale, Investigator, it read. And under it was a contract with the seal of the Prime Executive of Greater America. When the steward pushed the badge and contract toward her, she leaned over his heavy wood desk and carefully took them from his grip, her eyes not leaving the gleam of the metal badge in her hand. She’d made something like this when she was young with the lid of an old aluminum can. But this one…this was the real deal. It would perch on her hip or the pocket of her jacket and announce to the world that she was the real deal, too.
She clutched the badge and met the steward’s gaze. “You can protect me?”
“You’ll never be safer.” An image of her father’s face and the satisfying weight of the metal in her hand made the decision for her.
“Where do I sign?” Clark’s lips pulled into a smile, and he reached over the desk and tapped a finger at the bottom of the first page. Evelyn took a pen from the edge of his desk and scrawled her name. “Wonderful,” he said. “I’ll set an appointment with Human Resources for your new hire package, but the most important part is done. Welcome to Immortal Bounty, Evelyn.” He stood and offered her his hand, and at that point, whether or not her palms were still sweaty was the furthest thing from her mind. To say the moment was surreal would be like saying The Great Collision was a tiny screwup. “Thank you, Steward Clark. I’ve wanted this for so long, and I know—” The steward’s head cocked to the side and his gaze went distant in a way that made her miss the cellular phones of her parents’ day. At least back then you knew when you were competing with an incoming call instead of everyone using those stupid ear implants like they did now. The steward glanced down at his desk to another stack of papers and made a hmm noise, seemingly moving on to the next task at hand.
“Yes, give me a minute,” he said to someone, then he glanced back to Evelyn and frowned. She sure as heck hoped that frown was for the person on the phone and not for her. “I know you won’t disappoint us, Dr. Vale.” Steward Clark turned his gaze toward the Sentinel on the sofa, and the man rose to his feet. He was massive, his muscles nearly sufficient to carry the weight of the large chip sitting on his shoulder. “Well, Commander Hayes, I’m sure you and Dr. Vale have much to discuss. Let me be the first to congratulate you on your new partner.”