The situation with the vampire was haunting me all day. Cole had barely said two words to me before he’d dropped me off at my apartment above an auto repair shop.
It was Cole’s birthday, and we were having a barbecue at Liam’s place. My older brother’s log-cabin home wouldn’t be complete for a few more months, so we decided to work the grill and make a bonfire to keep the ladies warm.
Feeling like I needed to do something to snap myself out of the rut I was in, I’d invited Marissa, a nurse I sometimes dated, to Cole’s small party. She knew we were casual and didn’t seem to mind being my date now and again. There was no pressure with Marissa, and I liked that.
Marissa and I arrived early to help Liam and Jessica set up. We had about an hour before the sun began to set. Jessica had insisted we tie helium balloons to the folding chairs or anyplace that I could find to attach them. Several had already popped, and each time one did, Jess gave me a look that said she wished she’d given the job to someone else.
After the third balloon popped, Marissa took the remaining four balloons out of my hands. “Go see if Liam needs help with the bonfire.”
“Fine by me,” I said, relieved.
It was nice having Jessica around. Liam was certainly more relaxed these days. I hadn’t seen him this way in a long time—maybe since we were kids. At a young age, he became responsible for Cole and me, and it changed him from happy-go-lucky to cool and cautious. Gone was the youthful lighthearted nature that had made him so popular through high school.
Liam finished stacking enough wood to keep the fire going for days. He was staring contently into the blaze when I walked over. “Nice job.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Daisy, Jessica’s best friend, walked up to me and put a bowl of potato salad in my arms. “Make yourself useful, Seth. Put that on the table and find the paper plates.”
“I suddenly know what’s wrong here. There’s too much estrogen in the air. Women just love to boss men around,” I said, depositing the bowl on the folding table covered in a clean red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
Since when did we use a tablecloth? When had Liam ever owned a tablecloth for that matter?
Cole’s Jeep could be heard before it was seen coming down the long gravel drive—a cloud of dust floated behind him. He parked and climbed out carrying a grocery bag and wearing a cheesy grin.
I was glad to see he was in good humor. After the situation with the vampire, I was worried he’d still be angry with me. Cole didn’t hold a grudge, but he did have a temper.
He walked up to Liam and gave him a rough hug. “Happy birthday, Cole,” Liam said, taking the grocery bag from him.
“Thanks, Liam. I picked up some more beer.” He ran his hand through his hair, then walked over to me. I met him halfway and wrapped him in a brotherly embrace. Cole held on a little longer than normal.
When he finally pulled away, I asked, “We good?”
He smiled his boyish grin and nodded.
“Cole!” Jessica yelled excitedly. She hurried from the fifth-wheel trailer that Liam lived in while the cabin was under construction.
Cole hugged Jessica and spun her around. “I have your favorite cake—chocolate with buttercream frosting,” Jess said happily.
“Okay, but that’s not my favorite cake,” Cole said.
Jessica looked confused. She turned around toward Liam, her hands on her hips. “I thought you said that was his favorite?”
Liam smiled slyly. “You must have misunderstood. I said chocolate cake with buttercream frosting was my favorite.”
Cole and I laughed hard. “It’s okay, Jessica. It’s an old family joke. It happens every year, at every birthday,” I said.
Jessica didn’t seem to appreciate the joke or Liam, for that matter.
“Well, I don’t see the humor, myself,” Jessica said before walking away.
“Maybe time to change that tradition, Liam. I think you’re in the doghouse now,” I said. Cole gave me a look and we started laughing anew.
“She’ll get used to our ways, just like I’m getting used to hers.” He smiled and lifted a corner of the plaid tablecloth. “The grill is hot. Let’s start cooking.”
Nothing could beat an Arizona sunset for its spectacular beauty. Red, orange, pink, and purple smeared across the sky like a neon watercolor painting.
Daisy’s date arrived, just after sunset. His name was Eric, and he worked at the morgue. They stood close and occasionally held hands but didn’t seem totally together. Maybe it was more like Marissa and me—friends with occasional benefits.
Marissa knew everyone there, so she had no trouble making herself useful and chatting with whoever was near. Jessica had the side dishes and condiments neatly arranged while Liam worked the grill, cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. Daisy had insisted on chicken and provided her own chicken breast for Liam to grill. She didn’t eat red meat, something I couldn’t comprehend.
We were just about to start eating when someone on a motorcycle came down the driveway. The bike was smaller than mine, but I was still surprised to realize a woman was driving it.
Snug jeans and a sheepskin-collared leather jacket gave away the curves that were undeniably feminine. When she pulled off the shiny black helmet, I was equally surprised to recognize Zoey as she climbed off the bike.
I looked over at Cole to see his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide. He immediately walked over to her.
When she had rested her helmet on the handlebars, she shook her long red hair out and smiled at Cole. “Happy birthday, handsome. Sorry if I’m late. The bar was packed, and I had a hard time convincing my boss to let me leave.” She hugged Cole and kissed his cheek briefly.
“How’d you know there was a party? I mean, I’m happy you’re here, but how did you . . .” Cole said, stumbling over his words.
“I invited her,” I said. I didn’t believe she would show up, but I was glad she did.
She gave me a quick hug but no kiss, I noticed. I guessed those were reserved for birthdays.
“So did I!” Jessica brushed past me to welcome Zoey herself.
Cole stared at me like he didn’t know if he should thank me or kick my ass. I winked at him and put my arm around Marissa.
“Thanks for coming. I would have invited you, but didn’t think you’d want to come,” Cole said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked, moving past Cole and closer to the fire. Zoey was friendly as she greeted the others.
Cole followed her. “Well, you turned me down for a date, and I thought . . .”
She smiled at him, and his face glazed over like it had when she’d spoken to him last night. “It’s your birthday, Cole. Lighten up.”
After the initial shock wore off, Cole seemed happy to have Zoey at his birthday celebration. I knew he would be. It was a last-minute decision on my part, but it made sense that she should be there with us. After all, she kept our greatest secret and we kept hers.
The bonfire raged, the smell of smoke and pine heavy in the air, and the stars twinkled in the night sky. Liam’s land was surrounded by national forests on three sides and the highway on the other, but we couldn’t see it through the trees. We’d all eaten our fill and were huddled around the fire sharing funny stories. The mood was light and festive, but I couldn’t help feeling restless. It was like there was something missing for me.
I caught her scent before I saw her small dark form separate from the forest and begin to walk toward us. It was as if she was summoned from my mind. Olivia and her constant shadow, Simon, walked at an ordinary pace—maybe for the humans in our midst. At least two people there didn’t share our secret--Daisy’s date and mine.
I felt the tension rolling off Cole and Liam. Liam moved in front of Jessica, and Cole took several steps toward the uninvited guests. “Easy, Cole,” I said cautiously.
“Did you invite them?” Cole demanded.
“No, but let me handle this.” I walked out to meet the two vampires before they reached our group.
“What’s going on?” I heard Marissa ask.
Olivia’s long brown hair was blowing in the breeze as she walked toward me. Her jeans were shredded, in the popular style, and not nearly warm enough for this weather. I knew the temperature didn’t matter to her. At least she was wearing an oversized leather jacket, even if it looked like it might have been a man’s.
Olivia intrigued me like no other woman ever had, and that fact was starting to bug the hell out of me.
I stopped and let them meet me in the middle of the field. A slight smile played at her lips, making my gut tighten in response. What was Olivia up to?
“Olivia. Simon.” I crossed my arms and watched them warily.
Olivia stopped in front of me and glanced over my shoulder at the others gathered around the fire. “A party? And you didn’t invite me? I think I’m hurt.”
She didn’t sound hurt, but I suddenly felt guilty for not inviting her. She had that sort of effect on me—always knocking me off my game.
“It’s a birthday party for Cole, and you are not his favorite person—or species for that matter,” I said.
I didn’t want to hurt her, but this was new territory for us and her intentions were unclear.
“I don’t have anything against Cole, even if he’s a bit hotheaded. Do you, Simon?” Olivia asked over her shoulder.
Simon, a young-looking Jamaican man with long dreadlocks, wore a leather baseball jacket from a high school that I didn’t recognize. He didn’t bother to reply. His expressionless face just watched me, as if bored. I’d always had the feeling that it would be a mistake to underestimate the quiet shadow that followed Olivia.
I wondered what their relationship was. Thinking of them as lovers made me angry, but I tried not to let it show.
“You should probably leave. I don’t want to spoil Cole’s birthday if your presence will cause tension,” I said as gently as I could.
She looked past me again. “They’re discussing it now. Sounds like the blonde thinks you should invite us to stay awhile. What do you think, Seth?” she asked, her tone challenging.
I wasn’t certain what Olivia wanted from me and didn’t understand my feelings toward her. I felt conflicted when I thought about her, which was more often than I cared to admit.
“You can hear them?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes, my hearing is better than a shifter’s,” she said while appearing to focus on a conversation I couldn’t discern.
I looked over my shoulder to see Cole, Liam, and Jessica in what looked like a serious discussion. They all looked our way before Liam began walking toward us.
“They decided to invite us to stay,” Olivia said with a smug smile. She stared at me with a defiant gleam in her eyes. I didn’t know if I wanted to kiss her or turn her over my knee and spank her.
Liam reached us and looked critically at the two vampires. “We have two friends that don’t know what we are and don’t know about vampires, so if you two can behave yourselves, we’d like to invite you to join us.”
Olivia smiled at Liam before looking at Simon. Simon nodded and began walking toward the fire without any hesitation.
“Thank you. We’d love to join you,” Olivia said, giving me a sideways glance before following Simon.
Liam looked at me. “Do they mean trouble?”
“I don’t think so. I get the sense that Olivia’s lonely. It doesn’t seem like she gets along with her own people very well,” I said as we turned to follow them back to the fire.
“Except Simon. What’s the story with them? Are they together?” Liam asked.
“I have no clue. I’m no expert on vampires, and she’s more confusing than the rest of them.”
Liam nodded, and I could hear Olivia’s soft laughter as we followed her and Simon back to the party.
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