Avon
September 30, 2008
ISBN-10: 0-0614-7429-0
ISBN-13: 978-0-061-47429-3



Argeneau Family Tree
Notte Family Tree

Audiobook
Harper Collins Audio
Jan 19, 2010
Order audiobook at Audible.com

Rogue Hunter: An Immortal Who Protects The World From Renegade Vampires

Samantha Willan is a workaholic lawyer. She's grateful for some rest and relaxation in cottage country, and after a recent break-up she wants to stay as far away from romance as possible. Then she meets her irresistible new neighbor. There's something strange and mysterious about his eyes. Is it just her imagination, or are they locked on her neck?

Garrett Mortimer is a rogue hunter. His last assignment united Lucian Argeneau with his life mate, and Mortimer is hoping this one will be less... adventurous. He's here to track down a reported rogue, but fun in the sun is every bloodsucker's nightmare. Worse, he can't seem to get his mind off Samantha, especially when he spies her skinny-dipping in the lake. After eight hundred years as a bachelor, is he ready to turn a volatile attraction into a lasting love affair?


This story was a lot of fun for me. While it draws on the stories that came before and does include the Argeneaus, it also brings in previously unmet Argeneau and non-Argeneau characters. As well, they open up our view to the rest of the immortal world a bit more. These stories will also begin unraveling some previously hinted at Argeneau family secrets that only a few readers have picked up on. (Now you're wondering, aren't you? LOL)

But that starts in the book after this one. The Rogue Hunter, itself, is a light and fun reintroduction to Mortimer and the other Council Enforcers saddled with the task of protecting mankind from those gone rogue. Their jobs are difficult and dangerous at the best of times, and a strong bond forms between them as they help protect mortals and immortals alike. With great power comes great responsibility and these guys have it in spades!


Prologue

Warm summer air swam over Tanya as she stepped out into the night. It was cooler than it had been earlier in the day, but still hot compared to the air-conditioned coffee shop. She sucked in the humid air as she started across the pavement, her eyes moving around the nearly empty parking lot, noting the van now parked beside her eighteen-wheeler. Hers had been the only vehicle when she’d stopped here for a coffee break after her long haul.  She’d also been the only patron in the coffee shop until a few minutes ago when the owner of that van had entered.  His arrival was why she’d left.  The man was tall, lean and dark-haired, but something about his pale features and the hungry way he’d watched her had made her decide she’d taken a long enough break.

She’d nearly reached the driver’s side of her truck when the sound of a skittering pebble drew Tanya’s head around. Her gaze turned wary as she recognized the man from the coffee shop. His dark hair and clothes blended with the night around them, but his pale face and silver eyes couldn’t be missed.

“I wanted to show you something in my van,” he announced as he crossed the short distance separating them.

Tanya’s upper lip curled in a sneer. She’d just bet he had something he wanted to show her. Men! Find out she was a trucker and they seemed to immediately think that was slang for slut.

“I don’t--” The words died in her throat, the want to see anything you’ve got seeming to evaporate from her head.

“It’s all right. You’ll like this.” His tone was soothing, almost crooning, and Tanya felt herself relax, the warning bell in her head fading to a distant chime.

“I’ll like this,” she echoed in a whisper.

“Yes, you will,” he assured her, and gestured for her to move forward as he opened the back door of the van.

Tanya found herself climbing in. She watched him close the door, shutting out the world. When he turned toward her, the silver of his eyes was afire, almost seeming to bubble in his irises as he caught her arms and drew her closer. Her gaze dropped to his mouth as his lips parted, and she saw the fangs slipping out.

Tanya stared at those fangs as he lowered his head toward her. She followed them right up until his face moved to her throat and she could no longer see them anymore. She felt a quick pinch as they sank into her neck, and then a wave of pleasure rolled over her, drowning any other emotion.

I told you you’d like this, Tanya heard him say, though the words were in her head not her ears.

“Yes. Oh yes,” she moaned with ecstasy, her arms rising to clutch at his shoulders as he drained her lifeblood away.

 

 

Chapter One

 

“Sorry about leaving so late.”

Samantha Willan tore her gaze away from the star-littered sky overhead and turned a surprised glance to her younger sister. They were reclining on the wooden dock in front of the family cottage, enjoying the evening air and the beautiful view. Or they had been until Jo’s apology. Seeing her guilt-ridden expression, Samantha frowned and leaned to the side, bumping the younger woman affectionately with her shoulder as she teased, “You should be. We missed all the crazy traffic, didn’t have any of the usual stop-and-go nonsense, and made great time here. All in all it was a horribly pleasant ride for a change. Shame on you for forcing that on us.”

Jo grinned, but shook her head. “It’s also now after two A.M., we’ve just finished unloading the car, and we still have to let the cottage air out before we can sleep.” She raised her eyebrows in challenge. “It’s going to be a late night for all of us thanks to my stupid job.”

Sam wrinkled her nose. It was summer. The sun had baked down on the closed-up cottage all day, heating it like an oven. Despite the fact that the night had cooled with the setting sun, the small, well-insulated building had still retained that heat when they’d arrived. The first thing they’d done--even before unloading the car--had been to open all the windows. They would have turned on the ceiling fans too, but there’d been a storm that afternoon and the power had been knocked out. No power meant no ceiling fans to help bring down the temperature. They’d have to wait for the night air to slowly seep in and displace the hotter air. That could take a while.

“So?” Sam said lightly. “We’ve unpacked, the beds are made, and we don’t have to get up early. We’re on vacation; we can go to bed as late as we want. In the meantime, we get to relax here on the dock and enjoy this lovely view . . . so stop fretting. Besides,” she added solemnly, “your job isn’t stupid.”

“Yeah, right,” Jo said on a laugh. “You’re a lawyer, Alex is a gourmet chef with her own restaurant, and I work in a bar.”

“You are now night manager in that bar, thank you very much,” Sam pointed out firmly. “And stop comparing yourself to us. Alex and I are both very proud of you for getting that promotion,” she said firmly. “Besides, it’s paying your way through University, isn’t it? That makes it far from stupid in my book.”

Jo relaxed, a small smile claiming her lips. “I guess.”

“You can guess if you like, but I know,” Sam assured her with another affectionate bump. They fell silent then and both turned their gazes skyward, taking in the sparkling, star-strewn black above. It was hard to believe they were only two hours north of Toronto; the sky here made it seem like a whole other world. It was awe-inspiring.

“We should have brought sleeping bags,” Jo said on a little sigh. “We could have slept out here under the stars.”

“On the dock?” Sam asked with a disbelieving laugh. “No way. All three of us would probably end up in the lake somehow. . . Or we’d wake up to find chipmunks curled up in the sleeping bags with us and seagulls circling overhead, relieving themselves on our sleeping faces.”

“Eww!” Laughing, Jo gave her shoulder a push and shook her head. “You are such a pessimist. I swear I’ve never met anyone who could be such a downer.”

“Not a downer, sensible,” Sam corrected.

“Ha! You always see the glass as half empty. Honestly, you find the flaw in everything.”

“In other words, she acts like the lawyer she is.”

Sam and Jo sat up and turned to glance toward shore where that amused voice had come from. At first all they could see were shadows in the darkness, but then Jo turned on the flashlight they’d brought with them and raised it. The beam of light splashed over and then settled on their eldest sister, Alex, as she made her way down the sloping yard to the dock.

“Get that light out of my eyes,” Alex complained with a laugh, raising a hand to stave off the glare, and Jo lowered the beam to the ground so that she could negotiate the last few feet without incident.

“Thanks,” Alex said as she stepped onto the dock to join them.

“No problem.” Jo said. The beam then bounced away from Alex, flashing over Sam’s face and briefly blinding her before it blinked out.

Sam was left with white spots burned in her eyes and was trying to get her normal vision back when the light suddenly blinked on again, once more aimed straight at her face.

“Hey!” She raised her own hand to shield her eyes and scowled into the glare of light moving over her. “Turn that out!”

“Sorry. I thought I saw—I did!” Jo exclaimed triumphantly as the beam reached her neck. “You’re bleeding.”

“Damn blackflies,” Sam muttered. It was the season for it. Grimacing, she wiped blindly at her neck.

“The other side,” Jo said helpfully. “There are two of them.”

“Hmm.” Alex dropped to her haunches to get a look. Whatever she saw brought a grin to her face. “There are two. . . side by side. It looks like a vampire bite.”

“Yes,” Jo agreed and then teased, “If I hadn’t been here the whole time I’d have said Dracula got you and didn’t clean up after himself.”

“Ugh. Don’t even joke about that,” Sam said with a shudder.

Jo laughed at her disgust. “Most women would love to have that happen. They fantasize about things like that happening to them.”

“Most women don’t have phobias about bats,” Sam responded dryly. “Besides, I hardly think most women fantasize about being bitten by flying rodents.”

“Not flying rodents,” Jo said with exasperation. “A vampire.”

“Same thing,” Sam muttered with disgust. “They turn into bats and rats and wolves and Lord knows what else. I’m not into bestiality, thanks.”

 “Gawddddd. You are such a . . . a . . .”

“Lawyer?” Alex suggested with amusement.

“Yes,” Jo snapped.

“Stop saying that like it’s a bad thing.” Sam scowled at them both. “I worked long and hard to become a lawyer.”

“Yes, you did,” Alex agreed soothingly, and then informed her, “You’re still bleeding. Maybe you should try some of that After Bite stuff on it.”

“Yeah. I need a refill on my drink anyway,” Sam murmured. Giving up on her neck, she got to her feet, asking, “Can I get something for anyone else while I’m up?”

“Nothing for me, thanks,” Jo said.

“I could use another beer. I meant to grab one while I was up going to the bathroom, but forgot,” Alex said and then grabbed at Sam’s elbow to steady her as she swayed unsteadily. Amusement clear in her voice, she commented, “Maybe you should switch to soda.”

“She already is on soda,” Jo announced. “She isn’t drinking.”

Alex’s head swiveled sharply to Sam. “Not another ear infection?”

Sam nodded reluctantly, not surprised when Alex began to curse. Knowing it was just a result of her worry and that it would be followed by a rant about rotten doctors, the useless health care system, and the length of the wait to see a specialist, Sam didn’t stick around to listen. She moved cautiously off the dock and up the lawn, but wasn’t halfway to the cottage before she began to regret not having grabbed the flashlight from Jo. This was not the city with streetlights to brighten the situation. Here in cottage country, night was black velvet, dark and heavy. While it had seemed lighter on the dock with the starlit sky overhead, here the trees blocked out the starlight. It was much darker, and Sam found herself stumbling over exposed roots and rocks in her path. Between that and the lack of balance her ear infection was causing, she was having a bit of a struggle.

Grabbing at the thigh-sized trunk of the young maple tree between the cottage and the dock, Sam paused briefly to get her bearings. She was about to continue again when the sound of a door closing drew her eyes to the cottage next door.  It was in darkness, as it had been when they’d arrived.

As it always was, in fact, she thought with a grimace.  The cottage had been sold two years ago, but they still hadn’t yet met the new neighbor. The new owner never seemed to be up here, at least not when Sam or her sisters were at their cottage. They checked every time they came up, hoping to finally get to meet them.  It wasn’t that they were overly sociable.  The fact was, life here wasn’t like life in the city. Neighbors depended on neighbors up here. They didn’t bother each other, but did like to know who they were and tended to look out for each other. It was a necessity in an area where the power was frequently knocked out and amenities could be so far away in an emergency.

There had been a lot of speculation on the lake last summer about the new owners. Grant, their neighbor on the other side and a year-round resident, had said that the cottage had been in use at a couple of points during the winter. He’d seen the lights on at night, and a man walking around the building to the shed a couple of times, but the man had kept to himself. Sam doubted Grant had encouraged him to do otherwise, however. He pretty much kept to himself too and only talked to those on the lake for whom he did handyman work, and then only when--and as much as--absolutely necessary. He probably wouldn’t even have mentioned it if she hadn’t asked if he’d met the new neighbors yet.

That thought made her glance toward Grant’s dark cottage on the other side of theirs as she briefly wondered if the noise she’d heard hadn’t come from his place. Sound carried oddly on the lake, and it could have come from just about anywhere, even from one of the cottages across the lake. 

Shrugging the worry away, she released her hold on the tree trunk and continued up toward the cottage.

“Cottage country.”

Garrett Mortimer chuckled at the disgust in his partner’s voice. “I can tell you’re thrilled by this assignment.”

Justin Bricker grimaced. “It’s cottage country, Mortimer. Cottages are all about sun and sand and fun. We’re vampires. We avoid sunlight like the plague. What are we doing here?”

“Looking for a rogue immortal,” Mortimer said calmly, managing not to wince at his younger partner’s use of the term vampire. He couldn’t help it, he, like many of the older ones of their kind, had a terrible abhorrence for the word. It brought back memories of marauding villagers with torches and stakes.

“Right,” Bricker said dryly. “But what would any self-respecting vampire--rogue or not--be doing here? We haven’t seen a streetlight in hours. It’s black as pitch out here and has been forever. If there’s anything at all beyond the headlights of our car, I’d be surprised.”

Mortimer chuckled. “There’s a lot more than you think beyond the headlights.”

“Bears, raccoons, deer, and bunnies,” Bricker said, obviously unimpressed.

Garrett shook his head, but waited to negotiate a rather sharp curve in the road before saying, “We’ve probably passed a couple hundred cottages and houses since getting off the main highway. Believe me, hidden in the darkness are loads of people.”

“Maybe,” Bricker allowed with some disgruntlement. “But I guarantee you there won’t be a single immortal among them.”

“No?” Garrett arched an eyebrow even as his lips twitched again.

“No,” Bricker assured him. “No self-respecting immortal would stick himself out here. It’s just not our scene.”

“Right. So. . . What?” he asked dryly. “You’re saying that all self-respecting immortals are presently hanging out on the other side of the globe where its winter and the days are shorter?”

“No, of course not,” Bricker growled with irritation. “But they aren’t likely to be at a cottage. They’ll be in cities like Toronto and Montreal where they have underground concourses and don’t have to expose themselves to the sun to go places and do things.”

Mortimer nodded, but didn’t agree or disagree. The truth was, he knew a lot of their people would indeed be spending the summer in such places. While mortals enjoyed the underground cities in the winter because it allowed them to avoid the bitter cold outside, and some sought it out in the summer to avoid the harsh heat, immortals simply enjoyed the underground concourses during daylight in both summer and winter. It gave them a freedom they had never imagined they might enjoy before the advent of such things. They could walk around during daylight without worrying about the damage it was doing to them.

Mortimer peered at his partner, noting the dissatisfaction on his handsome, angular face and the frustrated way he ran one hand through his dark curls. Glancing back to the road ahead, he pointed out mildly, “The intelligence we have says that half a dozen mortals have been spotted with bite marks.”

“I know, but it makes no sense that a vampire would hang out up here.”

“And maybe that’s why he or she is,” Mortimer said. “After all, as you say it’s the last place anyone would expect to find an immortal . . . and because it is cottage country, it’s full of mortals who come and go, concentrate on sun and fun, and don’t bother neighboring cottagers.”

Bricker looked startled at the suggestion. It obviously wasn’t something he’d considered.

 “You have to admit it’s a pretty good place to hide out,” Mortimer continued. “Almost every cottage we’ve passed is surrounded by trees, and the people up here feel safe so they won’t be as aware or cautious . . . A rogue immortal would be a wolf among sheep.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Bricker murmured, his expression thoughtful. “It’s dark as death out here. He could creep up on people around a campfire, lure someone into the trees for a bite, and be gone without ever being seen.”

Mortimer grunted in agreement, his attention on the small, green, numbered markers among the foliage on the side of the road. Each glowed brightly in the headlight’s beam and each marked a driveway that disappeared into the trees, leading to cottages that they couldn’t see from the road. Their cottage turned out to be the last one leading off the gravel road. Mortimer steered them down the dirt lane, wincing as they bumped over ruts and rocks. They traveled through trees for at least a full minute before the headlights flashed on a brown building ahead.

“Welcome to the boonies,” Bricker said with a sneer. Holding on to the strap above the passenger door to steady himself during the bumpy ride, he added almost under his breath, “This so isn’t my bag.”

Mortimer smiled faintly and admitted, “It isn’t really my bag either, but it’s someone’s or we wouldn’t be up here.”

“Right. Our rogue,” Bricker muttered unhappily.

“And Decker,” he pointed out. “It’s his cottage we’re using as a base while we’re up here.”

“Yeah, but he always was a strange bird,” Bricker said. “Only he would enjoy living at the end of the world.”

Mortimer smiled faintly at the insult to their comrade Decker Argeneau Pimms. As hunters for the Council, they often worked in concert with other teams, and more often than not, they seemed to be put together with Decker and his partner Anders. The four of them got along well and liked one another, but you wouldn’t know that from the way they insulted one another.

“Well, I can’t argue with Decker being strange,” Mortimer said with amusement, and then pointed out, “But cottage country is apparently attractive to at least one other immortal too. It had to have been an immortal who spotted the bite marks and reported them to the Council.”

That report was the reason they were here. Biting mortals was forbidden, and the Council had sent them up here to cottage country to look into it. They were to find the culprit and bring him--or her--back for the Council to deal with.

“Do we know who made the report?” Bricker asked curiously.

“I’m sure Lucian knows, but he didn’t tell me who,” Mortimer said, and then added, “I guess it really isn’t important anyway.”

“No,” Bricker agreed, and then breathed, “Jesus,” as Mortimer killed the car engine and the headlights blinked out at once, leaving them in a black and silent world.

The darkness was so absolute, Mortimer could almost believe they had reached the end of the earth and were now staring off into the emptiness of space. He didn’t comment, however, but merely sat, waiting for his eyes to adjust. After a moment or so, the solid black around them gave way to differing shades of gray as well.

“Do you hear that?” Bricker asked in hushed tones.

“What?” Mortimer asked with a frown. He didn’t hear anything.

“Nothing,” Bricker said dryly. “Absolutely frigging nothing.”

Releasing his breath on a soundless laugh, Mortimer grabbed his knapsack from the backseat, opened his door, and unfolded himself from the car. He then began to stretch and bend beside the vehicle to get his circulation going again. While they’d stopped several times along the way, this last bit of driving had been the longest, and he was stiff from the journey.

“Jesus.”

The repeated exclamation, this time breathed with awe, made Mortimer glance sharply around to find Bricker standing in the frame of his open door, staring wide-eyed up at the sky. Eyebrows rising, Mortimer glanced up and found himself staring at a canopy of stars spread overhead like diamonds on a blue-black canvas. It wasn’t a new sight to Mortimer. Before the world had become so crowded and electricity had been invented, every night had offered such a view. But of course Bricker wasn’t old enough to recall that time, he realized and glanced toward the awestruck man. “Nice, huh?”

“I’ve never seen so many stars in my life,” Bricker murmured, eyes hungrily eating every inch of sky. “I didn’t even realize there were this many.”

Mortimer cast one more glance upward, but then started slowly forward across the uneven ground to the cottage. It was much larger than the tiny three-room building he’d expected. This was a proper house at the very least, and larger than even the average house. It was framed with dark wood, and most of the walls appeared to be made up of windows. The sight made Mortimer’s eyebrows rise. It was the last thing he would have expected from the home of an immortal.

“Wait for me,” Bricker hissed, hurrying after him as Mortimer started up the stairs that led onto the deck surrounding the second level of the house.

Mortimer slowed a bit but continued up and along the deck to the door of the cottage. There were no lights on and the building was obviously empty, but he still frowned when he found the door locked. Decker was supposed to be here. After a slight hesitation, Mortimer reached above the door frame and felt along the ledge until his fingers closed over a key.

Relaxing a little, he unlocked the door, and then stepped inside the stuffy interior. A quick feel along the wall was all that was needed to find the light switch, but when he flipped it, nothing happened.

“The breaker probably has to be turned on,” Bricker said when Mortimer flipped it again to no avail. “I’ll find it and get the lights going.”

Mortimer merely nodded and moved farther into the cottage to make way for the other man to enter. He set his bag on the table and then turned back to see Bricker setting his own on the floor by the door. “I’ll get the cooler while you see to that.”

He heard Bricker grunt an acknowledgment as he stepped back out onto the deck. Mortimer paused on the top step when a burst of feminine laughter filled the air. He glanced across the surrounding darkness, not sure from which direction the sound had come. It had seemed quite close, but they were on the lake, and he knew sound carried on water.

After another moment, Mortimer descended the stairs, but rather than move toward the car, he went around to the lakeside instead. There was nothing to see. The lawn lay before him, running about fifty feet down to the shoreline and stretching out about twice that width before reaching the thick line of trees that bordered each side.

A good-sized boathouse sat at the water’s edge, but the rest was open beach and left a lovely view of the calm surface of the small lake. The opposite shore was a strip of black bordering the lake itself, which was a lighter shade of dark, and the sight made him frown. There wasn’t a light in evidence on the opposite shore, no sign at all of the occupants he knew must be there. Of course, it was after two A.M. and everyone was likely asleep. Still, had he not passed all those markers at the ends of driveways, he could almost believe he and Bricker were alone up here.

Another burst of sound, this time giggling, brought an end to that thought, and Mortimer jerked his head to the left, eyes narrowing as he peered through the trees. He made out the large dark shape of the neighboring cottage, an upside-down canoe, a dock with two boats moored to it, and two figures sitting side by side on the planks of the small dock. They were in a relaxed pose, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles as they leaned back on their arms and stared up at the sky while chuckling over something.

Women, he realized, noting their very feminine shapes. One had shorter hair that barely reached her shoulders in a smooth bob. The other had longer hair, but had it scraped up into a ponytail at the back of her head.

The sound of a screen door clanging drew his gaze back to the neighboring cottage as a light beam came bobbing down its steps. A third woman, Mortimer realized, and his eyebrows rose slightly as he watched her stumble clumsily down the lawn, muttering to herself. It hadn’t occurred to him that the two mortal women on the dock might be drunk, but this one definitely was, he thought dryly as she staggered sideways slightly and then fell. He wasn’t the only one to notice, Mortimer realized, as both women on the dock turned and a flashlight beam shot from the hand of the one with the ponytail, bathing the fallen woman in light as she got to her feet.

“Sam? Are you all right?”

Caught in the beam as she was, Mortimer got a good look at the third woman. Her features suggested she was related to the other two, but she very definitely had a different body shape. While the other two were shapely and voluptuous, this one was tall, lean, and flat-chested. Her hair was as black as the night and fell in a straight curtain, framing a face filled by huge, dark eyes; a slightly crooked nose and a large mouth that was presently twisted in an embarrassed grimace.

“Yes, yes,” the woman named Sam answered on a laugh as she brushed at a large dark spot on her t-shirt. Not only had she stumbled over her own feet, she’d spilled her drink over herself.

Tsking with irritation, the woman turned back toward the cottage. “I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, don’t bother changing, Sam,” one of the women, the one with the bob, said. “There’s no one here to impress.”

“Yeah, but it’s sticky, Alex,” the woman named Sam complained.

“So. We have yet to take our first night swim. That will wash it away.”

“True.” A slow grin claimed Sam’s lips, and she continued down toward the dock.

A low whistle drew Mortimer’s attention to the side to see that Bricker had joined him and was ogling their neighbors with a wholly male appreciation.

“Maybe cottage country won’t be so bad,” Bricker whispered, and then tore his gaze away from the women to ask in hushed tones, “Sidetracked were you?”

Mortimer shrugged. “I heard laughing and came to investigate.”

The younger immortal nodded, his eyes shifting back to the women. “Yeah. Girls tend to do that a lot when they get together. At least my sisters do. They get together and laugh and giggle and . . .” He paused and peered back toward the next yard as another burst of laughter sounded from the women.

Mortimer followed his glance. Sam had reached the dock, her flashlight beam bobbing over the other two women as they got to their feet. Mortimer chuckled as it caught them rising with their backs to each other just as they bumped butts and nearly sent each other flying off the dock in opposite directions. A burst of laughter exploded from the women as they steadied themselves.

“And you say I’m clumsy?” Sam asked with dry amusement as she turned away, only to ruin the effect by nearly overbalancing and tipping off the dock herself, without bumping anything as an excuse for her own clumsiness.

Mortimer shook his head at their antics as another round of laughter erupted. The trio had obviously had quite a bit to drink. He’d barely had the thought when Sam said with disgust, “Dear God, anyone would think I was drunk, stumbling around like this.”

“Not if they knew you and knew how clumsy you are,” the one with the ponytail teased.

“Oh, who cares?” the one with the bob, whom Sam had called Alex said. “We’re on vacation. People can think what they want.”

“ Eww! Ew, ew, ew!”

The trio halted abruptly, and Sam swung the flashlight beam around toward the girl with the ponytail. “What is it, Jo?”

“I think I stepped on a baby frog,” came the disgusted moan.

The beam of light immediately dropped to illuminate the feet of the woman with the ponytail—Jo—as she raised one foot for examination.

“It looks like mud,” Sam said reassuringly.

“It was cold and squishy,” Jo said uncertainly. Teetering about in her stork-like position, she bent to better examine the bottom of the foot in question and would have lost her balance and tumbled to the grass had Alex not stepped into the beam of light to catch her arm and steady her.

“Mud is cold and squishy,” Alex said reasonably. “Besides, if you’d stepped on a baby frog it would be a pancake on the ground here, and there’s no sign of frog pancake that I can see.”

Sam moved the beam of her flashlight over the ground.

“No frog pancake,” she pointed out with a shrug. The beam of light then whirled away as she turned and moved forward once more, this time at a fast clip. She called out, “Last one in has to cook breakfast in the morning.”

That set off a round of squeals, and Mortimer watched the moonlight silvering off pale skin as the two women rushed after Sam toward a small stretch of beach at the end of the lot nearest where he and Bricker stood. While the women did squeal, the very description was somewhat misleading. They were making an obvious effort to keep their voices down to avoid disturbing anyone. Understandable considering the hour and the way sound carried across water, Mortimer supposed, and frowned as the women moved down a small incline to the shore’s edge. They hadn’t gone inside to change into bathing suits. Surely they weren’t going to—

“Are they stripping?” Bricker asked in a hopeful whisper.

Rather than answer, Mortimer moved closer to shore until they were almost parallel to the women again. Almost because the three women had thrown off their clothes in a rush and charged into the water with stifled squeals by the time he stopped.

“Damn,” Bricker breathed, pausing at his side to watch the women jumping about and gasping in the water. “I think I’m going to like it here.”

Mortimer barely caught back the bark of laughter that tried to escape at those words. Sometimes he forgot how young his partner was, but then something like this happened, and he was reminded that Bricker was still under one hundred and still suffered all kinds of hungers and appetites that older immortals were free of. The man was ravenous in most of his appetites, whether it was food, drink, or sex.

That would change with time, he thought almost regretfully. Food and drink would all start to taste the same and hold less and less interest until it was something Bricker wouldn’t bother with. As for sex . . . after a couple hundred years even sex became a time-consuming and troublesome bore, and when that happened, it was soon dropped as an activity. There were only so many positions, so many exciting places to perform it, and really, women, when you could read their every thought and desire, could be quite tedious. Having read thousands of mortals, hundreds of thousands even, Mortimer had come to the conclusion that women were the worriers of the species. Their minds seemed consumed with worry about everything from the weather to what to serve for the next meal. They worried about the health of each and every loved one around them, worried about finances, about time constraints, about whether they were meeting everyone’s needs. They worried about rising crime, the threat of terrorism, aging . . . The list of worries was endless and exhausting just to have to read from their thoughts. Mortimer couldn’t imagine having to live with such constant high levels of anxiety.

In contrast, mortal males didn’t seem to suffer the same degree of anxiety. From what he’d read of mortal male minds there were only two areas where they suffered any sort of worry: at work and in bed. Work worry--which usually translated to financial worry--depended on the job they held. The other worry . . . well, size and performance were the key factors there, but that wasn’t true with all men. Some men thought they were “hung” or that they were super skilled in the bedroom. However, a quick read of the mind of his wife or girlfriend often proved that to be delusional thinking on the part of the man.

A sharp gasp and splashing drew his attention back to the women in the lake. Moonlight was reflecting off the water and glinting on their wet skin, making it easier for him to see them. Their skin was exceptionally pale, or appeared to be under the moonlight.

“They’re sisters.” Bricker whispered the words to prevent the women hearing him. “This is the family cottage. They arrived about an hour ago, unloaded their vehicle, unpacked everything and this is their traditional first-night skinny-dip.”

He merely nodded. Bricker was obviously reading from the mind of one--or all--of the women. Mortimer hadn’t bothered to do so himself, and didn’t now. Instead he pointed out, “We still need to unpack ourselves.”

“Yeah, but we should wait until the girls are done swimming. They might run into trouble and need rescuing or something and . . .” Bricker’s voice faded when he saw the expression on Mortimer’s face. “Yeah, all right. We unpack.”

Mortimer turned quickly to hide the smile tugging at his lips.

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