Monday, December 29, 2014

Zombie Goddess (Bloodlines #6) - Chapter 5

Unfortunately, December got away from me. I guess that's what happens when you move closer to your family. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season, and I'll see you next year!

* * *

The god who popped into existence in my living room after my brunch with Bill and Lily epitomized the word. Wavy black hair fell to Ares’ shoulders. His unadorned blood red t-shirt emphasized the sharp plains of his chest and the ripples of his abs. Black jeans hugged his lower body in all the right places. I gave him credit for trying to fit in with twenty-first century life, but he couldn’t be subtle no matter how hard he tried.

He was basically sex on a stick.

Framed by his neatly trimmed moustache and beard, his full lips quirked into a cocky grin. “So you decided to accept my offer, Samantha.”

Not even a fucking question. He really believed every female, no matter whether Normal or supernatural persuasion, should drop her panties at his request. He was that sure of himself.

“No.” I crossed my arms over my chest and gave my best evil eye. “Didn’t Phil tell you why I wanted to meet you?”

He chuckled. “Females often prevaricate in order to experience my particular skills.” With each word, he took a swaggering step toward me.

“I’m not lying,” I ground out between my clenched jaws. He was too damn close. Exuded too much sensuality. “I need answers to my questions.”

He reached behind my head for my ponytail and playfully yanked it. “What will you give me in return for your answers?”

Anxiety and lust shuddered through me. It was worse than I imagined a vampire’s mojo would feel like. Annoyance at being manipulated in such a manner cracked whatever spell or influence he aimed at me. My irritation welled, and I smacked him with a psychic bolt.

My combination telepathic/telekinetic stunt knocked him backwards. He landed on his well-formed ass. The floor shivered under my feet. Not sure if it was him or me that caused the vibration, I wondered if I had started something that I couldn’t finish.

Again.

“If all you’re going to do is play games, then leave.” I tried to keep my voice level, but I’m sure I wore my bitch scowl on my face.

Ares climbed to his feet, but didn’t look pissed as I expected. His steady gaze held me, but none of the earlier leering quality lay in his expression. “This is why you need a more suitable mate.” He gestured at the scuff on the carpet where he had landed. “You would have killed the vampire.”

I quelled my shiver of fear. No sense in giving Ares any more ammunition. “I’ve smacked Duncan with a psy-bolt before. Worst thing I did was give him a headache.”

“Your strength is growing, my lady.” Ares shoved his hands in his pockets. The non-threatening gesture didn’t make me any less worried about what he could do. “Yes, you knocked me down, but you would’ve sent the vampire through the glass.” He tilted his head toward the huge plate windows and sliding doors to the terrace behind him. The terrace filled with bright noon sunshine. “He wouldn’t survive Apollo’s rays, much less the impact on the concrete below us.”

Was that the real reason Duncan avoided our bed last night? Did he know how strong I was becoming? Did his Elizabethan sensibilities object to the reversal of our roles? He’d been the one watching my back since the day I died and became…

What? Every time I got a handle on the things happening to my mind and body, someone offered a new theory.

And I really hated the latest theory.

I cleared my throat. “Would you like something to drink?”

Ares’ smirk returned. “Wine.”

My irritation returned. “It’s too fucking early for wine. You’ll take a soda and love it.”

“Of course, my lady.”

His faux politeness stoked my temper while I stomped into the kitchen. I pulled two colas out of the fridge and managed to suppress the urge to shake his so it exploded in his face.

Except I was shaking it slightly, not on purpose, when I returned and handed it to him. The reality of the answers I’d been denying for the last four months prompted what could only be an anxiety attack. My breath came in short rapid pants. Sweat prickled along my neck. This wasn’t Ares’ doing. Why the hell weren’t the nanites compensating for my nerves?

“Would you like to sit down?” I waved toward the couch.

He sprawled across the upholstery as if he owned Las Vegas. I perched on the edge of the matching plush armchair and busied my fingers with opening my can. Carbon dioxide hissed as it escaped from its aluminum prison, but no foam overflowed.
From Ares’ disappointed expression, he’d expected me to sit next to him on the sofa. He took a drink from his can before he said, “I still expect payment for my assistance.”

The exasperated exhalation that escaped from me matched the sounds I often heard Duncan make when he was at his wits’ end with something idiotic I had done. “Sex is off the table.”

Ares’ smile shifted into another cocky grin. “Personally, I prefer a bed.”

“No sex at all.” I glared at him. Or tried to. His wicked humor and dark hair would be my undoing. They were the very same things that attracted me to my ex Jake and my current Duncan.

My mental state wasn’t helping my resistance to him. After spending years photographing, and resisting, the most gorgeous men on the planet while I worked for one of the top tabloids, I had thought I’d been picky. But since I’d died, I felt like a werewolf in heat. When I had asked Bebe about my revved-up libido, she admitted that it corresponded with my revved-up everything else thanks to the damn nanites. Deep down, I had believed I wouldn’t hurt Duncan by cheating on him, no matter how my hormones tried to convince me otherwise. But it was getting harder and harder to keep my impulses under control.

All of my impulses.

I focused on Phil’s threat to put my speed healing to the test by shoving a grenade down my throat for even thinking of doing her dad. She’d made that point perfectly clear on the phone, even if he was the one chasing me.

It wasn’t my fault if Ares mojo’d me, was it?

Aluminum crackled beneath my fingertips. Maybe I needed to focus on other things I really cared about. Like my unborn niece.

“I can be your personal shopper for Tiffany’s baby.”

Ares snorted in derision. “You believe I cannot provide for my foster granddaughter?”

“I think Cerberus is a totally inappropriate choice for a mortal child’s puppy,” I shot back.

Glass in the windows and pictures frames hummed in response to his laughter. “Not even I would be that foolish.”

“Then there’s my mother,” I added. “You want to have access to Tiffany and her baby? You’re going to need me to get through her. This is the woman who had no problem taking on the zombies that invaded my brother’s wedding. Not to mention, she bitched out three ancient vampire coven masters in the hospital afterward. Mom’s not going to cut you any slack because you’re a god.”

Ares’ right eyebrow lifted. “And if I simply remove her?”

“If you came to me with that proposal while I was still alive, you would have had a deal.” I shrugged. “Now that I’m dead, I found myself a little more forgiving when it comes to her behavior. So if you do anything to her, I’ll have to knock you on your ass again.” Somehow, I managed to keep “well-formed” out of that statement.

“How does my treating your mother with deference correlate to a favor given by you?”

“I’m smoothing the path, remember? If you want to do something stupid, oh, like give the baby a present that will cause her harm, let’s say a Golden Apple from the garden of the Hesperides, that’s your fault, and Mom will find a way to take you out.”

I took a sip of my soda, watching for his reaction. For all the stories about him not being the brightest of the Olympians, I got the impression his moronic playboy behavior was mainly an act.

“I’ll accept your offer with one condition—”

The carbonation in my stomach cavorted with my stomach acid to produce an uncomfortable sensation. “Yes?”

“I accompany you on this shopping trip.”

The vision of the Greek god of war holding my purse while I looked for onesies triggered an unfortunate response. I started laughing hysterically. Somehow, I managed to set my cola on the coffee table before I dropped it, but despite my best efforts, I could only tamper the sounds down to random guffaws.

Ares scowled. “And why do you find the thought of my company so amusing?”

“Because I can’t imagine you doing the things for me that Duncan would do on a shopping trip,” I said between snorts.

“And what do you think a vampire could accomplish at a market that I could not?” From the sparks in Ares’ eyes and the red flush creeping up his neck, I’d pushed him too far.

With a strength of will I didn’t think I had, I managed to sober myself. “First of all, he carries my bags.”

“Done.”

“He pays for everything.”

“Of course.” The wicked smirk was back.

“And he does it without complaining or whining.”

A scowl chased the smirk off Ares’ face. “Are you calling me a sniveler with no backbone?”

“Are you saying a vampire can do something you can’t?”

“No.” His tone was the same as a pissed-off werewolf. I should know. I’ve done my share of pissing off weres.

“Do we have an agreement?”

“Yes.”

“Swear by the River Styx.”

That jolted him out of his anger. “You cannot be serious! You want me to swear our most sacred oath over a shopping expedition for baby gifts?”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “It’s not just the shopping and you know it. I help you with handling Mom and selecting the baby presents. In return, you answer my questions.” I sucked in a deep breath. “Fully and truthfully,” I added. Maybe Colin’s negotiation lessons were sinking into my robot-laden brain. “And absolutely no sexual innuendos, suggestions or touching of any kind whatsoever.”

Ares was silent for so long I thought he would disagree and leave. “Did you destroy the roses I sent?”

His question was so unexpected, his voice so quiet, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. The potted rose bush with twelve perfect, ebony blooms had been my first gift. The Normal girl from housekeeping who’d brought it to my office was still on personal leave, but at least she was out of the hospital. I was the only person the plant wouldn’t attempt stab with its thorns.

“No.”

“Where are they?”

“In my safe where they won’t try to drink anyone else’s blood.” I tried not to think about the special vault in the basement. When the city had been first built, it had been a safe house for vampires immigrating to Las Vegas. Later, it became a prison for rogues. I hated going into that vault. The stench of death and despair smelled better to me than the Karnak chef’s molten lava cake.

And that scared the piss out of me.

Concern creased Ares’ forehead. “Aren’t you feeding them?”

“That thing drinks blood!”

“Of course.” He actually looked confused at my revulsion. “Can you not conceive of a better gift from a god of war to a goddess of death?”

“I’m not—”

He looked at me askance.

The denial died on my lips, but I still wasn’t ready to say the truth aloud. I sucked in a deep breath. “I’m not in the market for a boyfriend, Ares, and I already have one fiancĂ©, which is plenty. This is why I want you to swear on the River Styx concerning our deal.”

The sorrow in his expression made me want to cry. Somehow, I knew his emotion had nothing to do with me turning him down or my insistence on his oath concerning our deal. “Ox blood. If you are unwilling to feed my gift human blood, then feed it ox blood.”

Would the damned plant even leave if I gave the potted roses back to him? I’d read enough Greek mythology to know that gifts, or curses, from the gods couldn’t be returned. Only amended.

With the supernatural races, I was learning there was always a grain of truth within their stories. I nodded once. “Thanks for the info. Now about our deal—”

He blew out a deep breath, and I suppressed a smile. It seemed I exasperated every male I encountered.

“How do I know you will keep you side of the bargain?”

I shrugged. “You can always ask Phil to be your enforcer. She’s already threatened to use a grenade to disembowel me if I sleep with you.”

“Is that why you won’t—”

“No!” The walls of the penthouse shivered in response to my shout, and a hairline crack appeared above the kitchenette. Great. Now I needed to call maintenance, and they would tell Duncan, and he’d ask what happened, and…

I cleared my throat. “Do I need to repeat my terms?”

“When?” Ares looked too damn amused by my discomfiture.

I ran my tongue over my suddenly dry lips. Best to get this over with. “I’ve got time tomorrow afternoon to shop.”

He leaned forward, not predatory, but pretty damn close. “Then I get to choose the place.” He surprised me by naming the department store at the Beverly Center where Max and Tiffany had registered, though the registry itself was probably my mom’s idea.
As much as I dreaded spending any more time alone with him than necessary, maybe a trip to Los Angeles would sooth my fractured emotional state. I nodded. “As long as you answer my questions here and now.”

“Agreed.” He leaned back against the couch.

I cough not so discreetly, and he rolled his eyes.

“I swear by the River Styx that I will answer all your questions for the next three hours, fully and truthfully in exchange for you spending an equal three hours in my company tomorrow where we will partake of the midafternoon meal and purchase appropriate gifts for my foster granddaughter. I also swear I will carry all packages, as well as Lady Samantha’s purse with no complaints. Satisfied?” His expression dared me to disagree.

“Yes. Thank you,” I added. “Shall we begin?”

* * *
Max’s right toe tapped a nervous rhythm against the kitchen tile of Caesar’s mansion while Bebe perched on a chair next to him and examined the new adornment on his wrist. “Well?”

“I think you’re picking up some of Tiffany’s less endearing habits.” She glanced up at him. “Do I need to give you a sedative, or will a kick in the shins suffice?”

With monumental effort, he stilled his foot. “Can you get it off?”

She shook her head, brunette curls swaying. “No.” She leaned back, but kept her hand over his. “Describe this person again.”

He repeated his impressions of his visitor. “He’s the same guy that appeared in one of the candid shots at the zombie-interrupted ceremony, minus the tissue stuffed up his nose while at my office, but no one remembers him being there. Do you have any idea of who it is?”

“Now I do.” She pursed her lips, rose from the kitchen chair, and strode through the swinging door.

Max jumped to his feet and raced after her. She’d already disappeared from the foyer, but from the sharp clicks of her heels, Bebe was headed down the hall toward her, well, magick lab was the only thing he could think of to call Caesar’s former conservatory.

The heavy drapes were pulled back from the huge windows when he walked into the room. A scarlet Persian carpet highlighted with gold threads covered the black, white and gray marble floor. Antique birch chairs and tables sat on the thick wool. Bebe examined the contents of the floor-to-ceiling shelves along the back wall.

When Max crossed over the gigantic silver pentacle underneath the carpet, tingles radiated from the strange watch along his skin. Most people didn’t know about the metal embedded into the marble and hidden by the carpet. Knowing the ring was there and actually feeling the power added to his fear.

Bebe glanced up from the tome she’d pulled off the shelf. Her lips tilted down as her gaze traveled from the floor to him and back. “Well, that’s interesting.”

“‘Interesting’ is not the word I’d chose.” The instant he stepped out of the silver circle the electric sensation along his arm disappeared.

She turned the book so he could see the page she was looking at. “Is this him?"

The woodcut had to have been close to two centuries old, but the resemblance was uncanny. Max nodded. “Who is it?”

“Baron Samedi. One of Voudon loas of death.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Zombie Goddess (Bloodlines #6) - Chapter 4

“Lawyers in Love” interrupted the bad dream I was having. The same one I was having more and more frequently. Something that looked like a velociraptor with tentacles tearing me apart faster than the nanites could put me back together.

Grateful for the sort-of rescue, I reached for my phone and thumbed the answer button. “Hey, Colin. What do you have for me?”

“Did I wake you?”

I sighed. “It doesn’t matter.” I started to fling back the covers, but Duncan wasn’t in bed with me, so I settled back under them. “Is there any way Lilianne can shut our act down permanently?”

“It’s always a possibility, Sam. I stand by the legal team’s original analysis, but that doesn’t mean she won’t get a sympathetic judge or jury who will do something stupid. In the meantime, Marshall received a cease and desist order from Lilianne’s attorney. His people e-mailed a copy to you, me, and Lily this morning.”

The urge to cry hit me hard. This was going to devastate Lily, And I couldn’t blame the show’s producer, Marshall Wagoner. He had to look out for his own interests.

“What can we do to fight this?” I leaned over and sniffed Duncan’s pillow. His scent wasn’t fresh. He hadn’t come to bed last night.

Great. On top of everything else, I had a pouty fiancé to deal with.

“Given Lilianne’s accusation that her mother’s reputation and memory are being desecrated, we need evidence that Lily is being faithful to her original act since this is a tribute show.”

“But I thought we didn’t want to violate copyright?”

Colin’s exhale whistled through the receiver. “That’s the reason you’re not using her original material, but Lilianne’s accusing Lily of perverting the act by using off-color jokes and obscenities. We need something, a recording, a newsclip, anything that shows Lily is sticking to her old style without reusing the same material.”

I swallowed the hard lump at the back of my throat, unsure if the emotional crap was mine or empathy for my baby zombie. “I’ll see what I can find.” I really needed to change the subject before I lost it. “How’s the vampire thing going?”

Colin chuckled. “I’m getting used to it. Caesar let me go back to Philly to see my family. It’s unbelievable being able to talk to my nephew Evan again.”

I smiled at Colin’s excitement. The lawyer was adapting to vampire life far better than any of us expected. “Caesar must really have taken a shine to you to bend the rules.”

“No, he’s over-aware of the implications in the sudden disappearance of a scion of the famed political Fitzgerald family.”

Envy stuck a needle in my heart. Colin had a good relationship with his parents. I had to die before my mother and I developed an uneasy truce. “At least, you had a choice.”

After an eternity of silence, he said, “Did anyone in the coven besides me choose?”

My laugh was rather weak. “Alex, but technically he was dying from a dozen bullet holes when Duncan offered to Turn him.”

Colin’s chuckle was equally uncomfortable. “Yeah, I noticed pretty quick not to ask certain questions. Thanks for being straight with me.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, keep Lily away from the showroom while I work on your case. Hopefully, Lilianne will agree to settle before this gets too far.”

“Thanks, Colin.” I clicked off the phone and ran my hand over Duncan’s side of the bed. Compared to some of our epic battles, last night’s tiff hardly registered on the Richter scale. But ever since Alex and Phil’s little trip to Peru, things between Duncan and me had gotten very weird.

But I needed to deal with Lily’s issue first. I owed her that much.

I wasn’t the one who resurrected the corpses of her, Bill and Morty. No, that was pro basketball player and necromancer extraordinaire David Head. All because that asswipe, now comatose bed warmer, had a major league crush on Duncan.

But thanks to him, I learned two very important lessons six months ago. My blood killed the living, and it restored dead things to life. It made me super-cautious about as small of thing as a paper cut.

I dressed and raided the suite’s refrigerator. The staff kept it stocked with hard-boiled eggs, cheese and pre-cut veggies for emergencies. The contents of the fridge and half dozen bagels I pulled from the pantry would tide me over. I definitely needed to break the news to Lily before I hit one of the casino restaurants for breakfast.

Fifteen minutes later, I knocked on her door. It swung open with a vision I didn’t need to see—Bill Faith in Lily’s pink fuzzy bathrobe.

He turned beet red, from his bare toes to his prominent nose. “Uh, I, uh, was expecting room service.”

I crossed my arms and tried to hide my delight that he and Lily had moved to the next step in their relationship. “And I thought drag was part of your act, not a lifestyle choice.”

Apparently, there was a color more red than beet because Bill’s skin turned that shade. “Our private life is none of your concern.”

I shoved past him. “I don’t care if you lick honey off her ass—” I squelched the urge to wince when he went from red to an interesting shade of purple. “I’m here on business and I need to talk to Lily.”

She appeared in the doorway to her bedroom, wearing a retro sweater and skirt set. “What did the lawyers say?”

I sucked in a deep breath and released it. “You’re going to have to take a break from the show for a few days. Just until Colin and his team can get this straightened out.”

Her stricken expression yanked at my heart as she sank down on the couch.

“Why?” Bill waved a hand in Lily’s direction. “Red hasn’t done anything wrong!"

“No, she hasn’t.” I crossed the room and sat next to Lily. “Colin says it would help if we could find some recordings of your old stand-up act. To show that you’re being authentic to the original Lily Bell.”

“I am the original Lily Bell,” she wailed.

I took her fisted hands in mine. “We can’t tell anyone that. Not unless you want to end up as a lab experiment.”

“You were one,” Bill mumbled.

“And that’s what got all four of us into this mess,” I shot back before I turned to Lily once more. “We need to give the lawyers everything we can in order to fight this.”

Wetness shimmered in her eyes. “I don’t want to fight my own daughter, Sam. We did far too much of that the first time around. Can’t I just go and tell her—”

I squeezed her hands. “No, Lily. We’ve been over this before. Your children attended the funeral for their elderly mother. If you show up on Lilianne’s front door like you are now, she will never believe you. She wouldn’t have believed you last night.”

The look she gave me turned downright ugly. “It’s not fair. You get to see your family.”

“Because my brother and I are members of the Augustine coven, and because my parents will keep their traps shut in order to see their grandchildren.” Also because my Normal mother was the one person in the universe that scared a vampire as ancient as Caesar. I wasn’t quite sure why.
Lily switched tactics. More tears trickled down her cheeks. “If we can convince Lilianne of the truth, she’ll keep our secret.”

“Do you have any idea what will happen to her if she doesn’t?”

“Duncan can erase her memory.”

I shook my head. “And sometimes, the vampires can’t. Anne couldn’t erase my brother’s memory when he found out the truth about her years ago. If Max hadn’t kept his trap shut, she would have had to kill him.” Colin’s wife Anne had been Amish before she was Turned. Despite her attempts to stick with pacifism, she was the most dangerous of the vampires. I’d seen first hand how efficient she could be at killing.

Lily grabbed my shoulders. “If they kill her, you could bring her back.”

I stared at her. “No.”

“But you did it with us.” She waved her hand between herself and Bill.

“Are you honestly suggesting a horde of zombies invading you daughter’s backyard is a brilliant idea? Because that’s exactly how you ended up here. You were trying to eat my brother’s wedding guests.”

I instantly regretted the words at the pained look on her face. The antsy prickle of my conscience drove me to my feet, and I started to pace. I shouldn’t have thrown the wedding in her face.

Their memories of the event were hazy; mine crystal clear. Morty had literally ripped out my throat, and they licked my arterial spray off of everything. Next thing any of us knew, the three comedians were alive and healthy.

“B-but we’re human. Dr. Zachary said so.” This time the tears in her eyes weren’t an acting job. “And there’s none of your robots in us.”

“This is the same witch who has no fucking clue what these nanites are doing to me.” My lie triggered a nasty ache grew in my frontal lobes, and I rubbed my forehead. Bebe agreed with Alex. Phil’s dad had even offered a sample of his own DNA for Bebe to compare mine with. Just because I didn’t like Bebe’s conclusions, I couldn’t take my personal frustrations out on my baby zombies.

And Lily needed to know the truth about their status within the coven. “I’m sorry, but you can’t contact any of your family, much less Lilianne. You saw how she freaked out last night. We can’t take that chance. I can’t take that chance.”

“But—”

“You’re my responsibility. That means if you tell her and she can’t handle it, I’m the one who has to put her down. And if I don’t, that means Caesar will kill all of us—Lilianne, you, me, Bill and Morty."

Her eyes grew into large, blue marbles of shock. Bill’s mouth tightened into a straight line. He’d obviously suspected the stakes from the beginning.

I sat next to her on the couch again. “I don’t want that on my conscience, and I don’t think you do either. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

She slowly nodded. “I promise. I-I didn’t realize…"

I patted her hands. “I’m sorry for not being totally straight with you. I didn’t want to scare you.” My stomach growled. “Feel up to joining me for breakfast downstairs?”

She slowly nodded again.

I turned to Bill. “I’ll cancel room service. You need to put on a day dress. I’m not taking you anywhere in a bathrobe.”

* * *
Mortimer Stern pulled into a parking spot five cars down from the dark green convertible he had followed. For decades, he would never have gotten away with tailing the attractive brunette. Now, no one recognized him. He’d gotten his long-time wish of anonymity, but he wasn’t sure if it was good thing or not.
He sipped the expensive shit kids today called coffee. Couldn’t get just a plain cup of joe anymore. No, it had to creamed, steamed and sweetened until you couldn’t taste the beans.

But he needed the cover. The Karnak’s head of security was a smart cookie for a broad. He claimed he needed to get out of the damn hotel-casino to think. As long as he came back with a receipt for the coffee and some notes for the Vegas show, she and Sam didn’t question his whereabouts for a few measly hours.

Molly climbed out of her convertible and headed into the grocery store. She still had a set of legs and an ass any woman half her age would envy. Those nice, tight pants broads wore to yoga classes showed off her assets nicely. He recited baseball statistics in his head to get his dick under control. Damn, getting an erection the last couple of years had been next to impossible with the damn catheter.

And that memory took care of the problem. He climbed out of the SUV he’d borrowed from the Karnak’s vehicle pool and arrowed for grocery’s main doors.

Learning his second wife now lived in Vegas had been the only reason he’d agreed to Sam’s cockamamie plan to have him, Bill and Lily join that stupid showcase. Now his new job would come in handy when Molly recognized him.

She would recognize him, wouldn’t she?

Squelching the fear, he yanked a cart out of the rows and guided it toward the produce section. Molly was still a vegetarian, or that’s what it looked like the last time he’d followed her through the store. Regret tugged his heart. Why the hell hadn’t he treated her better? He even missed her eggplant lasagna.

Accidentally running into her cart might work, but it was too obvious. Ask her advice on melons? No, too desperate. But then she stopped in front of the bananas.

“Why did the banana go out with the prune?” He reached for the bunch next to the one she was reaching for.

She turned and stared at him. Her face paled the moment the recognition hit her. “I beg your pardon?”

He smiled. “It’s a joke. Why did the banana go out with the prune?”

“Because he couldn’t find a date,” she answered weakly.

“Ouch. My best material, and you’ve already heard it.”

“Who-who are you?”

“Walter Kinney.” At least, that’s what the fake ID the vampires had given him said. He held out his hand, but she still stared at him, shock imprinted on her patrician features. She made no move to take the proffered palm.

He lowered his arm. “Oka-a-ay, that wasn’t my best pick-up line. I’ll give you that. But why are you staring at me like you’ve seen a ghost?”<

“Y-you look like Mortimer Stern.”

He rubbed his chin. “Ah, I take it you caught my revival act.”

“No.” The color flowed back into her cheeks. Her hair was still pinned up from her yoga class, and it was all he could do not to pull out the clip and bury his face in the mass. Did she still use that honeysuckle shampoo she had loved when they were together?

He grinned. “You can’t tell me you knew the real Mortimer Stern.”

She blinked. “Yes. I did. He was my ex-husband.”

“Really?” He hoped his pretend surprise looked real enough. “And you are?”

“I’m sorry. You really threw me off.” Her gorgeous lips curved into a polite smile, and she held out her hand. “Molly Weiss.”

He shook it, and her touch made his cock twitch. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Weiss. Aren’t you a little young to have been married to him?”

She released his hand before he was ready. Her accompanying chuckle was tinged with bitterness. “That’s how Morty liked his women, the younger the better.”

God, he’d been such an insecure asshole. “Oh.” He ran his hand over his hair. Since his resurrection, it surprised him to find some still attached to his scalp. “Finally get up the nerve to talk to you, and finding out I resemble your ex makes asking you out incredibly awkward.”

“Asking me out?” She turned and dropped the bananas into her cart. The same duck-and-occupy-herself maneuver she used to do when she was uncomfortable.

“Yeah. I’ve seen you in here a couple of times. And—” He shrugged. Approaching Molly like this really was the stupidest thing he’d ever done. She wasn’t the easily impressed girl fresh out of high school he’d first met, but a middle-aged career woman who knew all the tricks he could pull.

And he didn’t want to use those tricks on her either.

“Sorry to bother you, Miz Weiss.” Yep, definitely a stupid idea. He shoved the shopping cart toward the dairy section, disappointment thick in his mouth. Sam had warned them. He couldn’t recapture his past. Couldn’t rectify all the things he’d done to hurt Molly.

“Walter?” A soft touch brushed his arm.

He stopped and turned toward her, praying he didn’t look too eager. “Yeah?”

“Would you like to get some coffee? Maybe? Some time?”

Paralysis gripped him. She was asking him out. He hadn’t expected the switch in roles.

She withdrew her hand. “I’m sorry. I guess the whole thing about you looking like my ex really is awkward as hell.”

“No,” he blurted. “That’s not, uh, I mean—” Dammit! He was making a mess of things. “I’d love to.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out a card. “Here’s my number.”

Mortimer took the proffered card. A wild idea popped in his head. “Why don’t you come to the show tonight? I can leave a ticket for you at will call and—”

Molly shook her head, and a tendril slipped from the tortoise shell clip. It took all of his willpower not to smooth the wayward lock from her face.

“That’s not a good idea. Let’s stick with coffee.”

The pain in her expression tore at him. “Look, if my resemblance is hurting you—”

Her smile was wan, a shadow of its normal brilliance. “I want to get to know Walter Kinney, not the ghost of someone I used to love.”

Used to love. Her remark couldn’t have hurt worse if she’d plunge a real knife into his heart. But if that was all he could have of her, then he’d take it. “Coffee, then. I’ll…text you.”

Her smile brightened a notch. “Coffee, then.” She turned and pushed her cart toward the pile of avocados.

Mortimer pivoted and shoved his own cart toward the grocery’s main doors. The only reason he didn’t text her right then and there was he needed someone to show him how.