At Grave's End (Night Huntress #3)

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05.03.2019

I WOKE UP ALONE IN OUR BED LATER. ASLEEPY glance around showed that Bones wasn't in the bedroom. Curious, I went downstairs and found him on the couch in our family room.

Bones was staring out the window at the mountain ridge in the distance. Vampires had the ability to sit with utter stillness, as immobile as statues. Certainly, Bones was beautiful enough to be a work of art. Moonlight made his hair look lighter than its deep brown shade. He'd changed it from blond back to its natural color to be less noticeable when we were on jobs. Those faint silvery rays also caressed the dips and hollows of Bones's crystal skin, highlighting his lean, rippled physique. His darker brows almost matched the color of his eyes when they weren't lit up by vampire green. Shadows made his high cheekbones look even more perfectly etched when he turned his head and saw me standing there.

"Hey." I tightened the robe I'd thrown on, feeling his tension in the air. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, luv. I'm just a touch nervous, actually."

That got my attention. I sat next to him. "You never get nervous."

Bones smiled. "I have something for you. But I don't know if you'll want it."

"Why wouldn't I want it?"

Bones slid off the couch to kneel in front of me. I still didn't get it. Only when I saw the small black velvet box in his other hand did it hit me.

"Catherine." If I hadn't already guessed, his one and only use of my real name would have clued me in. "Catherine Kathleen Crawfield, will you marry me?"

It didn't hit me until right then how much I'd wanted Bones to ask me that. Sure, we were married under vampire law, but having Bones cut his hand, slap it over mine, and declare me to be his wife didn't feel quite like the white wedding fantasies I'd had as a little girl. Plus, Bones had done it to prevent an all out brawl between his people and his sire Ian's people over the issue of who had dibs on me.

Looking at Bones now made all my childish imaginings pale into nothingness, however. True, Bones was a former-human-gigolo-turned-vampire-hitman instead of a charming prince, but no fairy tale heroine could have felt the way I did, with the man I was insanely in love with asking me on bended knee to be his wife. My throat closed off with emotion. How had I ever gotten so lucky?

Bones made a noise of amused exasperation. "Of all the times for you to be speechless. If you don't mind, choose one response or the other. The suspense is torturing me."

"Yes."

Tears came to my eyes even as I started to laugh at the sheer joy bubbling up inside me.

Something cool and hard slid on my finger. I could barely see it, since my vision was blurred, but I caught a flash of red.

"I had this cut and fashioned into a ring almost five years ago," Bones said. "I know you think I was pressured into binding myself with you before, but that's not true. I'd always intended to marry you, Kitten."

For about the thousandth time, I regretted leaving Bones the way I had years ago. I thought I'd been protecting him. Turned out I was just hurting both of us needlessly.

"How could you be nervous about asking me to marry you, Bones? I'd die for you. Why wouldn't I want to live for you as well?"

He gave me a long, deep kiss, whispering onto my lips only when I pulled away out of breathlessness.

"I know it's what I intend to do."

Later, I was stretched out in his arms, waiting for dawn, which wasn't far off.

"Do you want to elope, or do you want to do the whole big wedding thing?" I asked sleepily.

Bones smiled. "You know vampires, pet. Always like a fancy show, we do. Also, I know our vampire binding didn't feel like a real wedding to you, so I want you to have something that does."

I gave an amused grunt. "Wow, a big wedding. We'll have a hell of a time explaining the menu to a potential caterer. Choice of entree: beef or seafood for the humans, raw meat and body parts for the ghouls…and a keg of hot fresh blood at the bar for the vampires. God, I can just picture my mother's face."

Bones's smile turned devilish and he leapt up. I watched him, curious, as he went to the other side of the room and dialed his cell phone.

"Justina."

I vaulted after him as soon as I heard my mother's name. Bones sprinted away from me, fighting back his laughter and continuing to speak.

"Yes, it's Bones. Now really, that's such a foul name to call me…um hmm, same to you, I'm sure…"

"Give me that phone," I demanded.

He ignored me, darting out of my reach. Ever since my father, my mother hated vampires with a pathological passion. She'd even tried to have Bones killed before-twice-which was why he was taking such delight in giving her a little payback now.

"Actually, Justina, I didn't just ring you to chat about what an undead murderer I was…right, degenerate whore as well. Did I ever tell you my mum was one? No? Oh, blimey, I come from a long line of whores, in fact…"

I sucked in a breath as Bones divulged yet another tidbit about his past to my mother, who must be frothing at the mouth by now.

"…called to give you the good news. I asked your daughter to marry me and she accepted. Congratulations, I will officially be your son-in-law. Now, do you want me to call you Mum straightaway, or wait until after the wedding?"

I flew through the air in a dive that finally tackled him, wrenching the phone away. Bones was laughing so hard, he had to breathe to get it all out.

"Mom? Are you there? Mom…?"

"You might want to give her a moment, Kitten. I believe she fainted."

There were some days when I felt a pang of wistful regret that I'd never be a mother. Sure, my father had been newly undead enough that he'd managed to impregnate my mother, but as a rule, vampires couldn't reproduce. And I'd never risk passing on my genetic abnormalities to a child by means of artificial insemination, let alone my dangerous lifestyle by adopting one.

Right now, however, I was glad I wasn't a mother. I'd faced some scary sights hunting vampires and ghouls, but hordes of children hyped-up on sugar, squealing as they ran from one video game to the next, while I knew there was no escape for me? Truly frightening.

Bones was outside the Chuck E. Cheese, lucky bastard. It was because of his power level. Other vampires felt him when he was near, like inside, so Bones usually watched the premises until the gig was up and our target knew he or she was being hunted. I lacked the typical undead aura that felt like anything from static electricity to full-blown electrocution, depending on the strength of the vampire. No, I had a beating heart and I breathed, which made me look harmless-to those who didn't know what else to look for, anyway.

Toward that end, I had almost all my skin covered up. Hey, I wasn't playing bait, so I didn't need to wear my usual slut gear. Belinda was the one in a low-cut top with hip-hugging jeans that revealed several inches of her belly. She'd curled her hair and wore makeup, which was a rarity, since as Don's captive, she didn't get out much.

Looking at Belinda, with her blond hair, pouty smile, and eye-popping curves, people would never guess she was a vampire, especially since it was day- light. Even those whomight believe in vampires still bought the myth that vampires could only come out at night, which, along with the whole sleeping in coffins, being repelled by religious symbols, or being killed by a wooden stake, was wrong.

The little boy next to me tugged my arm. "I'm hungry," he announced.

I was confused. "But you just ate."

He rolled his eyes. "Lady, that was an hour ago."

"Call me Mom, Ethan," I reminded him, fixing a bright smile on my face while I fished out more money. This had to be the strangest job ever. Where Don had gotten a ten-year-old boy to act as a prop, I'll never know. But he had arranged for Ethan to come with us, saying if we spent hours lurking at a Chuck E. Cheese without a child, we'd be suspected of either being pedophiles or-duh-being vampire hunters by our target.

Ethan snatched at my handful of money without waiting for me to peel the bills off.

"Thanks!" he said, and scampered off toward the pizza counter.

Okay,that looked authentic-I'd seen kids do the same thing to their parents all day today, plus all day yesterday. Good God, between the food and the endless tokens for games, I'd gone through more money in two days here than I normally did at a week's worth of bar jobs downing multiple gin and tonics. At least this was on Uncle Sam's dime, not mine.

There was only one floor at Chuck E. Cheese's, so that made it easier to keep Belinda in sight without resorting to looming over her. She was in the section to the left of the front door, playing Skee-Ball. She landed yet another perfect throw into the center of the circles. Lights went off while more tickets spat out of the side of the machine. Belinda had a pile of them near her feet, and more than a few admiring fathers as well as kids clustered around her.

But no other vampire was here, even though this Chuck E. Cheese had been linked to the disappearance of a family three weeks ago. Not that any of the patrons here knew that. It was only because a security camera had caught a pair of glowing green eyes in the parking lot that Don even suspected vampires were involved in the family's odd disappearance.

Undead killers liked to hit the same hunting grounds more than once. Which confounded the hell out of me. If vampires or ghouls never went back to the same crime scene, my uncle's special department of Homeland Security would be out of business. Some of them didn't have enough sense to be like lightning, never striking the same place twice.

My cell vibrated. I took it off my belt, glanced at it-and smiled. The number flashing was 911, which meant a vampire had just been seen in the parking lot. I kept my eye on Ethan as I sidled over to where Belinda was. She gave me an irritated glance when I laid a hand on her arm.

"Showtime," I murmured.

"Get your hand off me," she replied without losing her sweet smile.

I squeezed instead. "If you try anything, I'll kill you. And that's only if Bones doesn't beat me to it first."

Belinda's eyes flashed green for a second, but then she shrugged. "Ten more years, then I don't have to deal with you anymore."

I let her go. "That's right. So don't fuck up a better deal than you deserve."

"Don't you need to get away from me,Reaper?" she hissed, so low even I could barely hear her. "You don't want to scare the fish away, do you?"

I gave Belinda a cool, evaluating stare before I turned my back and walked away. I'd meant what I said. If Belinda pulled any tricks during this job and endangered one of the many kids here, I'd kill her. But, as the saying went, we were giving her enough rope to hang herself. Now we had to wait and see if she swung from it.

On my way over to Ethan, my cell vibrated again. I glanced at it and mentally groaned. Another 911. That meant there were two vampires. Not good.

I reached Ethan, wanting to keep a sharp eye on him as well as the door. It wasn't long before I saw two men walk in with the distinctive skin and purposeful movements that marked the difference between a regular person and a vampire.

I gave the interior of Chuck E. Cheese's another frustrated glance. With all the children here, this was the worst kind of place to have a showdown with the undead. If I were playing bait, I'd try to maneuver the vamps into the parking lot to minimize the danger to bystanders. But Belinda probably wouldn't care enough to do that. Well, I'd just have to try and help her out.

I grasped Ethan's hand. "It's time," I told him.

His blue-green eyes widened. "The bad people are here?" he whispered.

I doubted Don had explained to Ethan-or his parents, whoever those crazy folks were to let their son do this-what sort of "bad people" we were after. I wasn't about to elaborate, either.

"You don't leave my sight, remember?" I said, soft but stern. "It'll be okay."

He nodded, visibly mustering up his courage. "Okay."

What a good boy.

My cell phone vibrated again, with another series of numbers flashing across the screen.

911-911

"Oh, f-crap," I caught myself just in time.

Ethan blinked up at me. "What's wrong?"

I got a tighter grip on his hand. "Nothing."

That was a lie, of course. I looked up in time to see a third vampire walking in the door. Then a fourth. I saw Belinda pause in her next Skee-Ball toss, look at them, and smile. Widely.

This was going to be a hell of an afternoon.