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But the idea that Claude knew—a man I’d admired, a man who had probably never shown a moment of weakness in his life—shook me to my core.
Who else knew? Fuck.
I couldn’t let him know how much this bothered me. I twisted my finger out of the bit of hair I’d unconsciously wrapped around it, and then slammed my hand down on his counter—making a most unsatisfying low thump. Stupid granite countertops. “Tell me now or I’m out of here.”
“I’m sorry,” Claude murmured, mouth only inches from my hair.
I jumped. He stood next to me now. Fast would be an understatement.
“I had no right—”
“Whatever.” I waved off the hand he was trying to touch my shoulder with. I didn’t need comfort. “Just tell me who the fuck the vampire from my vision is.”
Claude sighed, almost imperceptibly, then walked at a more human speed back to the other side of the breakfast bar where he’d left his half-drunk glass of wine.
“The man in the drawing is Luc Chevalier.”
I grabbed the beer he’d gotten me, which I’d left untouched, and tipped it to my lips. The cold liquid slid down my throat, coating it as I downed half the bottle.
“Are you all right?”
“The Magister.” The vampire leader for Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. One of the most powerful vampires in the country. And father to the vampire Claude hunted.
The Magister had been involved in my brother’s disappearance, and I’d seen it in my vision. I’d convinced myself that the flash—and accompanying nightmares—I’d gotten off my brother’s jacket eighteen years before had been my imagination.
But now I knew it was a vision, because the man—the vampire—I’d seen, fucking existed.
How had I not known? How had I not seen him on the news? He was the vampire equivalent of a local politician—only more powerful. Maybe because most vampires were notoriously camera shy, and I didn’t much care about noncriminal-related news anyway.
“I know him, Beatrice. And I know he wouldn’t be involved in this mess. Wouldn’t take innocent lives.”
“You can’t be certain of that.”
“How? How can you say that for sure? Because old vampires are terrible at hiding things, right? That’s how they survive for so long—excessive honesty?”
“I’ve been friends with the man for centuries. Centuries. Vampires that old don’t just change. And he couldn’t have hidden ritualistically killing people or torturing them with branding irons for centuries from me.”
I found myself, once again, unable to look away from the pale irises. He cared—really cared—about this friend of his. And the way he spoke, it was as if he needed me to believe in the Magister as well.
I turned to look at my beer bottle, still clutched in my hand. “Sometimes, it’s the people closest to us who are able to fool us most easily—or we fool ourselves.”
“I’m not saying he’s an angel—he’s not—but he’s also not a sociopath. I’m not an idiot, mon chou.” Exhaustion suddenly soaked his tone, and he leaned against the counter for support.
A shiver ran up my back at the familiar endearment, but I took a deep breath and ignored it. “I’m not saying you are.”
“Do you really think that I could be close to him for so long and not notice that kind of flaw? We can only fool ourselves so much.”
I thought about that. After centuries at the vampire’s side, could he fail to notice a sociopathic nature? Sounded unlikely. And for that to happen to a man like Claude—an investigator at his very core? Hell, I’d heard he’d served in law enforcement for decades, before vampires were even acknowledged as anything more than old wives’ tales.
But I couldn’t let the idea go.
I forced myself to study the vampire before me. The longish hair, the AC/DC T-shirt, the light blue eyes, and the strong jawline. The wide shoulders and obvious strength in his arms.
Every instinct in my body told me that he was worthy of trust. Even our time together—with its abrupt ending—supported the fact that he was an honest man. He’d never made me any promises, no matter what my heart had hoped for. But if I trusted him, then I had to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.
Because if Luc Chevalier proved to be a villain, so too, would Claude.
“All right. I’ll give your friend the benefit of the doubt,” I said, finally, voice thick. So much for telling him about my brother’s and Luc’s connection. I definitely wasn’t going to share it now.
Tension left him so visibly it was like a waterfall rushing to disappear into the floor beneath him. “Thank you.”
“But I’m also not letting you investigate this alone.”
His head jerked up and his eyes met mine. I stifled a grin. How often was Claude Desmarais startled? Not often, I would wager.
My urge to smile faded. Saying that I didn’t trust him to bring in a man with whom he’d shared several lifetimes of friendship wouldn’t encourage him to let me in. “Like you said, I’m not allowed back on active duty for a couple more weeks, and I’m bored.”
To my surprise, he didn’t argue that it wasn’t safe. He didn’t even try a halfhearted attempt. Instead, he nodded. “I’d appreciate your insights, especially if Natalie is able to remove whatever is on the brand that’s clouding your vision.”
Thank God I’d had years to perfect my poker face, otherwise I don’t think I could have kept a convincingly blank expression. “We’ll see.”
He set his wineglass in the sink and then turned to me; some of the concern I’d thought I’d seen earlier touched his expression. “No playing hero, and no talking about this to anyone but me. I can protect you, but no reason to add to the risk.”
“Don’t worry. I’m no hero.”
“That’s not how I remember you.”
“Your memory is faulty.”
“Is it?” His voice turned wistful. “It’s served me well. Gotten me through many nights alone. My memory, and wondering what might have been.”
Something shifted in my chest, pushing into my throat. I’d spent more nights thinking about what-ifs than I’d ever admit, too. I took a drink of my beer to buy myself a moment, but my voice still came out hoarse. “Pondering what-ifs is a waste of time, Claude. The past is what it is. We’re all on the paths we’ve chosen.”
“The future is hardly set in stone,” he said, but I could barely hear him, his voice was so low.
“It might as well be.” I drank the rest of my beer and then muttered a good night and headed back to my room, thoughts reeling. Thinking about the emotion I clearly heard in his voice, when he talked about what might have been, was too dangerous. I forced myself to focus on the here and now. On the case. That Claude didn’t even try to discourage me from helping on this case seemed…out of character. Either he was exceedingly confident of his ability to protect me, or he was more worried about catching Nicolas than keeping people safe. Me-shaped people anyway.
Or hell, maybe I just didn’t know the vampire as well as I thought I did.
Maybe it was time for me to get out while I still could.
“This place is messed up, little sister.”
A toothpick flashed, in and out of his mouth, and I winced at the sight. I always worried he’d stab his cheek with it, or puncture his lip. I’d managed to do both when I’d tried to copy the habit.
Sunlight reflected off his carrot-colored hair, bright despite the cold. It had to be cold—he was wearing his brown, puffy coat. That coat…
“Not a place for a little girl.” He spit the toothpick out and stared out into the street beyond. We sat on the edge of a sidewalk, next to a gutter clogged with trash. The musty scent of it touched my nose.
I knew this corner.
I opened my mouth, but he turned to me and I lost my train of thought. His mouth twisted into a wry grin. “But I guess a little girl is all I got, huh? Figures you’d be my only hope.”
“I’m not a little girl,” I argued, but my voice came out wrong. Different. Young.
His green eyes, so similar to my own, were bleak, but his voice was flat when he spoke.
“Don’t let them take me.”
Darkness washed over us, as if the whole world had suddenly dropped away from the sun. Streetlamps filled the shadows with their eerie glow. Tires shrieked.
I closed my eyes against the noise. And when I opened them again, my brother was gone. A torn bit of his coat remained, the edge just touching a small pool of blood.
My breath came fast and panic curdled in my stomach, but I couldn’t move. A yelp cut through the silence. I couldn’t see who was screaming. Couldn’t see anything anymore. But I knew who cried out for help. My brother. He had my brother. And he’d get me, too.
He was coming for me now. I knew it. I wouldn’t be able to get away. I turned my head.
Familiar features, twisted in hunger. A predator’s eyes.
He was here.
Sweat soaked my sheets when I awoke, and my heart raced, trying to beat its way out of my chest. I hadn’t dreamed of my brother in years—I saw plenty of fresh, new bad things to keep my subconscious busy on cases without my mind needing to dredge up old nightmares. But now, with one touch of a brand and one vision of Claude’s Magister, my brother again took center stage in my nightmares.
Going home wasn’t an option any longer. Even if Claude hadn’t been involved, I had to stay on this case.
My brother was right. I was his only hope. Even though it was too late to save him, I could find the man responsible for his death.
And I would.
Claude was gone by the time I’d dragged myself out of the shower and into the kitchen. The vampire had brewed fresh coffee. A short note left on the counter beside it said he’d be back soon, and that I should make myself at home.