“Mommy, why does everyone call Uncle Duncan ‘master’ now?”
I glanced at Ellie as I yanked the shopping cart out of the row. The overhead fluorescent lights turned my daughter’s pale skin into a ghastly gray-blue tone even with the kabuki makeup washed off. And while the days were getting longer, dark had already fallen by the time we reached the grocery store in our Tarzana neighborhood.
Frankly, I would have given anything to light some candles and soak in a hot bath than deal with grocery shopping, but we literally had nothing for dinner in the house except juice boxes and peanut butter as Ellie had already blabbed to my mother-in-law.
Hell, we had nothing to spread the peanut butter on. We ate it straight out of the jar last night.
I passed the cart I had to the woman behind me dressed in a full burqa. Our gazes met. Her eyes were arresting, such a light hazel that they stood out against her black lashes and dark skin.
“Here you go,” I said with a friendly smile. Okay, I did it more to buy time to answer my daughter’s question than any shred of politeness.
The woman nodded and murmured, “Thank you.” She pushed the cart into the main part of the store while I grabbed another one.
“Because he’s the boss now Uncle Caesar has retired, sweetie,” I said, coming up with the simplest explanation I could. The entire fucking vampire coven were honorary aunts and uncles. I hoped it made up for Max not being in her life. I pushed the cart forward, and the second set of double doors into the supermarket hissed open.
Innocent blue eyes stared up at me. “My teacher says it’s a bad thing that we call him ‘master’.”
I froze half-way through the doors. Mrs. Hill was a dream, kind and patient with my daughter and her fellow kindergarteners. Lydia Hill was also black. And even though I was mixed, she probably didn’t realize it because of the predominant St. James genes. I fumbled for what to tell Ellie.
I settled on clearing my throat as I pushed the cart past the open doors. “Did she say why it was a bad thing?”
Ellie skipped beside me. “She said it meant his family owned your family.”
“Where on earth did she get that idea?” I had a pretty good notion, but I wanted to hear my daughter’s side of the story.
“She said the only way minorities came to America was because white people bought and sold them.” Ellie frowned. “I tried to tell to Mrs. Hill that Grandpa Kensai came here because he wanted to, but she said I was wrong.”
Technically, Kensai Osaka, his descendants, and his retainers had been forced to leave Honshu after he’d butted heads one too many times with the vampire master who ruled the island. And technically, he’d worked for an African prior to Caesar becoming Normal and ceding the coven leadership to Duncan. But trying to explain the complexities and subtleties of ancient family lines in today’s politically correct climate was damn near impossible. Add in the vampire portion, and we were looking at pretty, white straightjackets.
I paused next to the flower department while I fumbled for my shopping list and a pen in the knapsack that doubled as my purse as well as the words to explain things at a kindergarten level. The multitude of Easter lilies overpowered every other bloom in the vicinity. A quick glance said no one was nearby. No one except the dark-haired man in sunglasses and a tan windbreaker, standing behind a towering display of houseplants. For the love of Murphy, did Jake Wong realize how much he stuck out in a crowd?
At least, he’d learned not to wear hoodies after an encounter with department store security when I was buying Ellie new shoes for school. Now, he looked like a middle-aged perv stalking us instead of a purse snatcher.
I returned my attention to Ellie and lowered my voice. “Sweetie, did you tell Mrs. Hill Uncle Duncan was a vampire?”
“No!” Her eyes widened. “You and Daddy told me never to say that word to anybody who’s not Family.”
A pang hit my heart. Part surprise she remembered something Max had said, part guilt I hadn’t thought much about him lately. And we were coming up on the eighteen-month anniversary of his death.
“Thank you for listening to us.” I smiled at her. “I’ll have a talk with Mrs. Hill, but in the meantime, let’s not use the word ‘master’ around anyone at school since it bothers your teacher.”
I envied the simplicity of my daughter’s world. I didn’t have the same luxury when I was her age. My mother and all other remaining relatives descended from Duncan’s sister Margaret had been slaughtered shortly after I was born. The fact Dad could trace his line back to Caesar’s sister and Kensai had been icing on the cake for the rogue vampires who murdered him while they sought to overthrow the coven master nearly twenty-five years ago. As a result, I’d been constantly watched and guarded nearly my entire life. And now?
Now, thanks to Max’s genetics, Ellie was even more valuable to various parties who wanted to destroy our coven.
Which was why my fellow enforcer was following us.
“Why don’t you pick out a couple of nice tomatoes for us?” I pointed at the low display Ellie could reach.
Suspicion narrowed her eyes at my request for fresh produce. “We’re still going to McDonald’s tonight, aren’t we?”
Once again, my stomach rebelled at the thought, but I couldn’t blame the fast food restaurant. My extreme morning sickness when I’d been pregnant with Ellie was thoroughly at fault. Because of the memory, I hadn’t been able to eat there since then.
So, of course, it was my daughter’s favorite.
“As soon as we get our shopping done. We don’t have any coffee either,” I reminded her.
“No grumpy mommies!” She tore off for the tomato display.
I didn’t bother to turn around. “Come out from behind the plants, Wong.”
“Wow. Ellie is right. You are a grumpy mommy.” He appeared in my line of vision and peered at me over the rim of his sunglasses. “Do I need to get you some coffee now?” He gestured toward the in-store café on the other side of the produce section.
“You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you. Mattie was scheduled to be on duty tonight.”
He shrugged. “Her great-something-granddaughter’s play is tonight. She asked if we could trade shifts.”
I crossed my arms and tapped my toe. “And Alex approved this?” The coven’s chief enforcer was married to my foster mom, which kind of made him my step-father as well as our boss. Like I said, vampire families were complicated even when you’re Normal.
And just because I’d already talked to Alex didn’t mean I wouldn’t give Jake some shit for not calling me himself.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Jake frowned, but even while talking to me, his eyes roamed, examining the other shoppers for signs of danger. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s been on an unpredictability rampage lately. He wants to keep the bad guys guessing.”
The last things I wanted to discuss was work or Alex’s tactics, much less the fact I’d been placed on desk duty for the last eighteen months because of the threat against Ellie. My only consolation was Elizabeth was even more restricted in her movements than I was.
“Next time, call me and confirm even if Alex contacts me,” I muttered. “You know these dino demons can pretend to be anyone.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He flashed me a grin that sent inappropriate feelings through me. Why on earth she dumped him was beyond rational understanding? Hell, if I’d met Jake before Max and I became a couple, I might not have hooked up with my husband.
But then, I wouldn’t have Ellie either.
“Uncle Jake!” Ellie raced back with two tomatoes in a clear plastic bag.
He caught her as she leapt at him. “What’s up, munchkin?”
“You’re not doing a good job of hiding,” she whispered. Or tried to. Everyone in the flower department and produce section could hear her. “I saw you behind those plants.”
“Yeah.” He gave me a dirty look. “Your mom pointed that out, too.”
I grinned. “Dude, I wasn’t the one made by a five-year-old.”
“How about we get your mom some coffee so she won’t be so grumpy?” he said.
“Uh-huh.” She nodded her head vigorously. “Can I get some milk, too?”
“That’s up to your mom.”
They both looked at me and said, “Ple-e-e-ease!”
I shook my head, trying to not to laugh at their antics. “Fine. I’ll be in the deli.”
Ellie handed me the bag of tomatoes before the pair headed for the café. Jake and Max had been friends for years before I met my husband. Hell, their friendship had even survived—
Old rage welled, and I roughly shoved the cart toward the deli department. She could have saved her brother. She had the power. But she hadn’t lifted a finger.
And now, my little girl didn’t have her father. Even worse, Duncan had sided with her, which was why I only spoke with him when necessary. Even as my grief for my deceased husband eased, the fury remained.
Maybe agreeing to go to Ted and Elizabeth’s for Easter dinner wasn’t such a good idea. I might get her blood all over their expensive berber carpet.
“Can I help you?” The hair-netted store employee peered over the counter. She smiled brightly. Her medium brown complexion didn’t look any healthier under the grocery’s lights than Ellie’s had. Murphy only knew how bad my skin looked.
“Yes, please.” I tapped my pen against my chin. “A half-pound of Swiss, and a half-pound of Colby Longhorn.”
I stared at the rolls of lunch meats, trying to decide between pesto ham and black pepper turkey, when the sandalwood hit my nose. I looked up. The slip of paper and pen fell from my hands.
The deli lady’s brown eyes had the faintest gold sheen. She wasn’t anyone I knew from the coven. It didn’t matter if my body language or my thoughts gave me away. She leapt over the counter, fangs gleaming in the awful grocery lights.
I stumbled backward, yanking the cart with me as I went down and drawing my Glock at the same time. The rogue vampire landed in the cart. She smashed Ellie’s careful selected tomatoes before bending and stretching the heavy wire bottom. Thankfully, she didn’t tear through the steel. I kicked the cart away from me.
The sudden jerk and roll caught the vampire off guard. She struggled to maintain her balance, which meant she was a newborn. I lined up the heart shot and squeezed my trigger twice.
I didn’t wait for her to dissolve into a puddle of goo. I rolled to my feet and took off for the café. “Ellie!” Behind me, there was a loud splash.
A middle-aged lady wearing a business suit in the produce section screamed, “Gun!” She and the other shoppers took off in all directions.
All of Alex’s lectures over the last year and a half about altering my routes ran through my mind. I only hit this grocery once a month at most. Was it Marcus Giovanni and his rogues who’d allied themselves with the dinosaur demons or the Vampire Liberation Front? How long had these assholes been planning their attack?
Someone tackled me, and I hit the thin veneer of linoleum over concrete hard enough to knock the wind out of me. My Glock skidded away and beneath a display of oranges.
Rage came roaring back, even if my breath didn’t. I twisted onto my back, flicked my wrist, and shoved my silver-coated, and very illegal, stiletto into the temple of my attacker. His shocked expression came an instant before he slumped on top of me.
Unfortunately, the stiletto blade wasn’t long enough to penetrate his chest wall all the way to his heart, much less big enough to cut off his head. I jerked out the blade and stowed it inside my jacket sleeve again before I wiggled out from under him and crawled over to my handgun. Air came back with little fits and gasps, and my chest ached like a son of a bitch.
Another vampire dressed like a suburban dad rounded the bin of Idaho potatoes, a sick smile on his face. I squeezed off one shot. He wavered for a moment before the flesh slid from his bone and landed on the floor with a loud splooch. His skeleton collapsed a moment later.
I rose to a crouch and made my way back to the asshole who tackled me. He could have been any day worker in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. He was also trying to regain his feet when I finished what I started.
GRANDPA ARES! I silently yelled. I hated depending on anyone, but Ellie was in danger. I wanted my foster grandfather to fry these bastards before our luck ran out.
More shots echoed against the cavernous ceiling, followed by the screams of more shoppers. There was no pop of displaced air. No sudden appearance of the god who claimed me as a granddaughter. He would have done anything for Ellie, so why wasn’t he answering me?
Another shot, much closer to me. Jake.
With a more wary eye for rogues, I crawled toward the café, but apparently, I’d taken care of the ones meant to keep me out of the way while they kidnapped my daughter. Dammit, I was not going through this bullshit again!
Outside of the rails around the café area were two reeking puddles of goo. Jake used broken legs of a wooden chair to keep a third vampire at bay near the register. Ellie was nowhere in sight.
I rose to my feet and took aim. “Hey, asshat!”
Jake dove for cover, but the rogue vampire turned toward me as I planned. I squeezed off two more shots. The first took out an unhealthy chunk of skull. Bright red blossomed on the white t-shirt where his heart was from the second shot. Once again, my target wavered for a moment before the flesh and organs slid from his bones. Two seconds later, the skeleton collapsed in the gross, spreading remains.
I stalked over to Jake who climbed to his feet. “Lose your weapon?”
“Nope. Found it.” He held up his own gun and flashed a bright grin.
“Where’s Ellie?” I bit out.
Jake stuck his index finger and thumb between his lips. His whistle sounded like a bird call. An answering whistle came from one of the cabinets behind the register counter. Jake changed his bird sound.
The door of the cabinet eased open, and Jake gave the dark space a thumbs-up. Ellie crawled out. She ran to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I tried to block her view of the two kids who had been working the café. I couldn’t think about their parents waiting for them to come home for the rest of eternity, or I’d freeze with panic.
“Good girl,” I whispered into Ellie’s hair. “We need to leave, sweetie.”
I’d only taken one step toward the closest exit when the entire store plunged into darkness.