Page 13

 D.B. Reynolds

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The woman’s delicate laugh tightened his gut with fear. Did she find his nakedness amusing? Was there some flaw that proved him unacceptable and would result in his punishment for embarrassing Hafiz?
“He’s certainly tidy,” she said over her laugh. “And very pretty, too.”
Aden surrendered to the shudder that rolled through him as her soft hand stroked over his skin, starting at his back and caressing his buttocks, the trail of her fingers following her slow steps around to his chest. He fought against his body’s instinctive reaction, but he was a twelve-year-old boy who’d never been touched by a woman like this. His abdomen clenched with an entirely different kind of fear as her slender fingers glided down to his belly and lower, finally grasping his erect cock with a boldness that shocked him. And terrified him.
“Lovely,” she commented. “Though you’ve marked him more than once, Hafiz.”
“Boys require discipline,” Hafiz said casually, as if the beatings he subjected his slaves to were for their own good and nothing to remark upon.
“Fortunately,” the woman said, “the marks will fade with proper treatment. It’s a shame you don’t appreciate true male beauty. Still, your loss is my gain. I’ll take him.”
“And the price?” Hafiz inquired in his oily voice.
“I’ll meet your price,” she said negligently. “But he goes with me this morning. I know you and your discipline. I’ll not have you marking him out of spite. The last boy I bought from you couldn’t work for nearly two weeks.”
Aden listened to this exchange and wondered what it meant. Clearly, his master had sold him to this woman, and that was a good thing. Or so he hoped. Aden was untutored, but not stupid. As much as he despised Hafiz, he knew there were far worse fates that could be his. It seemed unlikely, however, that this woman ran a slave ship, or any of the other detestable positions he could find himself in, especially given her admonishment to Hafiz about not marking him. He took that as a good sign, but, in truth, he had no idea what it meant.
His head still lowered, Aden watched from the corner of his eye as the woman picked up his clothes and fingered them with distaste.
“Put these back on for now. The matron will clothe you more suitably later.” She turned away dismissively as he began to dress. “Our business is complete, Hafiz. Come, boy.”
And that easily, Aden’s entire existence changed once more.
Chapter Seven
Chicago, IL, present day
SID WOKE THE next morning, feeling frustrated and angry. It wasn’t supposed to have worked out this way. Dresner had assured her that vampires were horndogs, always looking for an easy conquest to score both blood and sex. Unfortunately, she was now forced to question everything Dresner had told her, because it seemed the prof had been working for Silas all along. Dresner had all but admitted setting Sid up as bait for Aden, purely so she could help Silas win control over the territory. And now, because Sid had visited Aden’s office once or twice—with Dresner’s encouragement—she was in the crosshairs of this Silas, a vampire she’d never even heard of before last night.
Sid didn’t even care who won the territory. The only reason she’d approached Aden in the first place was because Dresner said he was the guy most likely to win, and therefore the guy most likely to help her fulfill her crusade to shut down Klemens’s old slave trade.
Granted, that was before she’d actually met Aden, the overbearing asshole. And now that she had, she really didn’t care who won. Or so she’d told herself all through her long walk in the dark last night, from Dresner’s house to a busy club where she’d caught a cab. And ever since she woke up this morning, too. Unfortunately, she wasn’t having much luck convincing herself that it was true. Somehow that infuriating, chauvinistic, high-handed . . . gorgeous, powerful, and intensely masculine hunk of vampire had gotten under her skin. And wasn’t that a bitch? Because as long as she was listing things that frustrated her, Aden had to be at the very top. One minute he was seducing her, and the next, like a switch being thrown, he was all business, all don’t get in my way, little human, the big bad vampire will handle everything.
“Fuck that,” she muttered and stormed over to her computer. Hadn’t she been working this story for months? She knew more about Klemens and his sleazy businesses than Aden did. He hadn’t even been sure there was a slave network until she’d told him. He’d seemed upset once he found out, though. She’d give him that. Of course, then he’d immediately gone all high-handed me-Tarzan and shuffled the little lady off to the tree house where she’d be safe. Well, double fuck that. She’d worked this story alone so far, and she could keep doing it. She didn’t need almighty Aden’s permission to do her job.
Checking her calendar, she saw it was the eleventh of the month, and the slavers maintained a surprisingly strict schedule, for bloodsucking bottom feeders. The newest shipment of girls would have come in last night. They’d be penned up in one of several holding houses, awaiting the next online auction, which would be on the thirteenth. The number of women to be auctioned varied. It could be as few as five or as many as twenty. It just depended on the gleaners and how much merchandise they could round up. Sid’s problem would be determining which of the houses the women were being held in. If she could figure that out, she could do some recon and maybe gather enough evidence to take to the police. If she could only persuade them to conduct a raid while the women were still being held prisoner, they’d have no choice but to open a wider investigation. Granted, she’d brought the police evidence before, and they’d never moved on it. She suspected they’d been bought off, though she’d never been able to prove it. But she kept trying, and maybe this time her report would fall to someone who wasn’t in the slavers’ pay, someone who would follow up on her information.
And if that went against Aden’s preferences for keeping the human authorities out of it, then too bad. If he’d listened to her, it never would have come to this.
Sid settled down to work. Because the slavers were so organized in other things, she’d been working on a system for figuring out which house they’d use in any given month. It wasn’t perfect, but so far, she’d been right about sixty percent of the time. Eventually, her odds would go up, but with any luck they’d be shut down before that happened.
She’d calculated her best guess and was gathering her stuff for a little field trip when her phone rang. She almost didn’t answer, too focused on her plans for the afternoon to be interrupted, but then she caught Will’s name on the caller ID.
“Fuck,” she whispered. Was it Wednesday already? She briefly considered letting it go to voice mail, but decided that was just too cowardly, so she picked up the phone with a breathless, “Hi, Will.”
“Hey, sweetheart. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, sure, why?”
“You sound out of breath.”
“Oh, that. I dropped a file and was crawling around under my desk,” she explained, appalled at the ease with which the lie tripped off her tongue.
“Can we make it an early lunch today? I’ve got a meeting.”
It was the perfect excuse to cancel, but she couldn’t do it. She didn’t have many friends since moving to Chicago. Or rather, she had them, mostly from college, but they were spread all over the globe. Will was one of the few who always made an effort to stay in touch, something she herself was woefully remiss in. Besides, who knew? Maybe they would get married someday.
Sid contemplated that last thought and shook her head. Nope. She just couldn’t see herself settling into her mother’s routine for the rest of her life. And that’s what life with Will would be. Not a bad life, but not the one Sid wanted, either.
“You there, Sid?”
“Yeah, sorry. My brain took a short trip without me. Early lunch is fine. Where and when?”
“I reserved 11:30 at Naha. That work?”
Sid checked the time on her computer. It would be tight, but she could do it. And she’d still have plenty of time this afternoon to check out the slavers’ house.
“Works great. I’ll see you there.”
“Looking forward to it.”
She disconnected, smiling at Will’s sign-off. No brooding, alpha male bullshit from Will. He was beta all the way. Had she ever seen him angry? Did he ever get angry? He must, right? Everyone did eventually. She sighed and slumped back to her bedroom to change clothes. Ripped Levi’s and scuffed Chucks weren’t going to cut it at Naha.
SID TOOK A BIG bite of her Naha “famous” half-pound burger and chewed with great relish. She caught Will watching her with a lopsided grin.
“What?” she demanded.
“How a bitty thing like you manages to chow down the way you do—”
“First, I’m not a bitty thing. I’m nearly five-eight, as you well know. Second, no woman wants to be told she chows down. As for the rest of it, there’s no reason you couldn’t have ordered a burger if you’d wanted one, so stop looking at my lunch like a starving dog, and eat your damn halibut.”
“Testy. But I had steak yesterday, and I’m trying to cut back on red meat, now that I’m getting older.”
“Oh for God’s sake, you’re going to be thirty, not sixty. Get over it.”
“Wait ’til it’s your turn. Speaking of birthdays, I assume you’re heading home this weekend for your dad’s big bash?”
Sid blanked for a moment. Her father’s birthday party was . . . oh, God, this weekend? She was mortified and feeling more than a little guilty that she’d forgotten.
“You forgot, didn’t you?”
“Of course not,” she insisted, thinking that she and Will knew each other entirely too well. “It’s on my calendar.”
“And you forgot anyway.”
“I’d have picked it up tomorrow. My alert’s set for two days before.”