I gave her an encouraging half smile, but I didn’t speak.
“I knew Jake was a vampire when we started seeing each other. It was part of the draw…just a little taste of danger, you know?”
I nodded like I knew, but I didn’t really. Mason was the most dangerous man I’d ever had feelings for. Maybe he was dangerous. And in the right circumstances, I was certain he could be very dangerous indeed. But that didn’t draw me. It was the very human man beneath the power, and the sense that a part of him ached for something he sensed in me. And part of me saw something it needed in him.
“But Jake…” She took a shuddering breath. “Jake was a good person. A simple man who just wanted a simple life. Why couldn’t I give him that?” Her voice broke.
The very thing that had attracted Mary to her husband was the same thing Nicolas Chevalier had in spades. Danger. But the suggestion of danger in Jake hadn’t prepared Mary to deal with the real thing.
“Did Nicolas kill your husband, Mary?” I asked gently, doing everything I could to keep the fear surging within me from my voice. This was big. Huge. Bigger than my ability to deal with it on my own. And it would even be tough with Mason at my side. Why the hell was Claude out of town this week of all weeks?
Mary jumped as if a jolt of electricity shocked her. “No! I mean, I don’t know. You’re asking me to—”
“I’m not asking you to do anything but tell me the truth, Mary.”
The panic coming off her was palpable, and her eyes practically vibrated. “I don’t know who killed him. I…” She glanced around the room as if only now discovering where she was. “I’m sorry, but you have to go.”
“Go!” she screeched.
“Something isn’t right. She didn’t tell me everything,” I said for at least the fifth time since we’d arrived at Mason’s house with our take-out Chinese food. Mary Stone had been impossible to reason with after she’d told me to go, and I was pretty certain that the woman had been prepared to physically toss me out despite my sidearm if I hadn’t left when I did.
Mason threw up his hands, sending a small bit of rice flying onto the table. “Then we should go back. Press her for more information.”
I sighed. “Let’s give her the night. Go back in the morning. Maybe an extra night of thinking about her husband will loosen her tongue.” I knew without a doubt that the likelihood of Mary Stone confiding anything more in me tonight was almost nonexistent. She was too emotional, too scared.
“You know it’s possible that the affair and the murder aren’t connected, right?”
My mouth dropped open. “She was cheating on one vamp with another, more powerful vampire, and he was killed by a vampire. And you think they aren’t connected?”
“I said that didn’t mean they were necessarily connected, not that they weren’t for sure. I’m just saying, Nicolas Chevalier has an ironclad alibi.”
I frowned. Much as I hated to admit it, Mason was right. “Too ironclad. Like he planned it that way,” I muttered.
Mason shrugged and dumped a small pile of honey glazed walnut shrimp on his plate.
“Does Nicolas Chevalier strike you as the kind of man who would fight his own battles?” I asked.
“Nic Chevalier strikes me as the kind of snake who hides in the shadows unless there’s a fight he’s certain to win. Even then, I think he’d cheat, just to be sure.”
My hand paused over my Mongolian beef. I hadn’t expected quite such an honest assessment from Mason, but I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised. He wasn’t the type to pull punches or bullshit to keep people happy. “You’re right. And I think he’s the type to hire out a hit on someone like Jake to make sure he had an ironclad alibi when we came calling.”
“I suspect you’re right.”
I tapped my chopsticks together and watched Mason finish off the shrimp and a box of Kung Pao chicken. Man, lycans could eat. I laughed.
“You’re like a teenage boy.”
He flashed his teeth. “Am I?”
A shiver danced up my spine but I ignored it. “Yes. My brother used to eat like that.” A flash of my brother’s face, now vague since it had been so long since I’d seen him, touched my mind. “Of course, I think he still eats like that. But last I saw, he was developing quite the potbelly.”
Mason’s brows shot up to meet his hairline. “Are you accusing me of having a potbelly?” He leaned back and felt his stomach, as if worried he might find a new bulge.
I almost choked at the sight, and drank a gulp of soda to clear my throat.
“Don’t let the sight of my awesome abs rob you of your breath, my dear.”
I breathed in the soda I was trying to clear my throat with, and then coughed half of it into my napkin. Mason ran around the table and pounded my back, amusement and worry competing on his face.
“Stop it,” I finally gasped out. “I give!” I waved the soda-covered napkin in the air. “You and your awesome abs win.”
He chuckled and returned to his seat. When I didn’t cough or gasp for a few minutes, he resumed his mission to eliminate the chance of leftovers, and I settled in to watch him.
“So you have a brother?”
I blinked. “Yes. An older brother and a younger sister.” I kept my voice neutral, but something must have given me away.
“Not close?” His tone was as neutral as my own, but it didn’t fool me.
“No.” And I didn’t want to talk about it.
Seeming to understand, Mason nodded. “Me either.”
I wanted to drop the subject. My family was a sore spot for me—or if I was honest, a festering, bloody wound—but I couldn’t help my curiosity about his.
“You have siblings?”
He grimaced. “Yes.”
“Let me guess. All younger.” There was no way an older brother or sister had ever pushed around the man in front of me.
“How’d you know?”
I picked up a chopstick and tapped it against my plate. Talking about family was a bad idea—like opening a door to a room you know contains a beast that will chew you up if you let it. “Are you close?”
“Used to be.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin, leaving some food still on his plate. Apparently there was a subject that could rob the lycan of his voracious appetite.
“What happened?” It was wrong of me to press, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms as if deciding how best to answer me. Finally he said, “I screwed up. Someone got killed.”
I opened my mouth to ask one of a million questions that statement pushed into my mind, but he waved his hand at me.
“That’s enough about me for one night.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you close to your family, Astrid?”
Something in his expression said that he already knew the answer to that question, but I replied anyway. “No.”
I took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh. “Someone screwed up,” I said finally. “But no one got killed.”
He gave me a wry smile for my lame joke and I couldn’t help but smile back.
We settled in to lighter conversation and cleared the table together. Charlie came in and watched from the doorway, looking as unimpressed as only a cat could. Mason shot him the occasional frown, but didn’t try to shoo him out. A good thing, because I would have had to chill the mood by yelling at him. Despite the oddly comfortable repartee, my mind kept slipping back to think about Mason’s family. Had his family abandoned him as completely as mine had me? What could he have done to cause a death?
I wiped my hands on a dishtowel and Mason’s chest brushed my back as he reached around me to put a glass in the sink. I stiffened involuntarily, and he went still behind me, the material of his shirt softly touching mine. Heat emanated from him, and my mind spit out the fact that lycans burned hotter than humans by a few degrees.
“Astrid,” he whispered, and his breath tickled my neck.
Mind wrestling with my body, I turned around. And his arms moved to press into the counter on either side of me, trapping me within them. The humor that had ridden his expression since dinner was gone, and intensity burned in his eyes again. His nostrils flared, as if scenting me.
I opened my mouth to say something—anything—to break the sudden sharp tension between us. But his mouth took mine before I could utter a single word.
I thought I’d gotten used to Mason’s kisses, enough to know what to expect, anyway. But this was different. Despite the hard passion in his gaze, he took my mouth gently. Soft and smooth, his lips moved against mine. And then his tongue slipped in and I moaned quietly.
He enfolded me in his arms, still moving almost carefully. Wrapped up against him I suddenly felt warm—and safer than I’d felt since my world had imploded when I was a teenager.
I pulled back, fear crawling into me as I realized how comfortable I was getting in his arms.
“Wait.” My tension leaked out into my voice and he stopped, eyes fluttering open, dark gray and so full of passion I almost told him to forget about waiting.
“I can’t do this emotional rollercoaster, Mason,” I said instead, and my body cried out in frustration. “Either you like me… Like this. Or you don’t. Either you respect me and trust me—despite my lie to get onto this case—or you don’t.”
“Of course I like you.” His eyes narrowed, wrinkling his skin and revealing a bit of his age. “And I don’t think that one lie in that kind of situation makes you a bad person. I just—”
“What?” I asked.
“I lost someone, once. And because of that, I live like a damn hermit.” He turned his eyes to the tile floor and stepped back, loosening his arms from around me. I almost sighed in frustration. “And that was okay. I deserved it. I wasn’t worthy of having anyone else in my care—and didn’t want to be responsible for another life.”