Sucker Bet (Vegas Vampires #4) by Erin McCarthy
From: [email protected]
Subject: Private—off vamp slayers' list
About what Vixen said… if the slayers' loop has plans to meet up somewhere, I'm going to be there. I want to get stake training from those more experienced than me, and I absolutely have to meet you.
Is everyone meeting in Vegas? I live in Vegas, so that would be brilliant.
Gwenna Carrick hit the send button and tried not to laugh. Smooches? Egads. She was appallingly bad at being both forceful and flirty, especially in an electronic format. Slash probably had no idea she was attempting to hit on him, which she knew she should regret, but didn't. If she could gain his confidence without the bloody mincing, she was all for it, because her experience with men was limited to her brother and her ex-husband.
Which was even more dysfunctional than it sounded, given they were both egotistical millennium-old vampires and controlling to boot.
It might also explain why she absolutely loved her fake online persona of QueenieG, who said what she wanted straight out and had a tendency to get a bit bossy when she thought she was being ignored. There was something absolutely liberating about being anonymous on the vampire slayers' loop, without any of her very long life's baggage weighing her down. Gwenna liked the power, the giddy feeling she got when she just dashed off an e-mail to the loop.
And it was amusing to be, in fact, a vampire, right smack in the midst of zealous anti-undead slayers. It wasn't often she got to be the sly, clever one, and she was enjoying it. So much so that it was getting addictive.
Her brand-new mobile phone rang on the desk next to her. "Yes?" she said, seeing on caller ID—brilliant invention—that it was Ethan, current president of the Vampire Nation. And her overprotective yet endearing brother.
"Hey, Gwen. Brittany had her baby tonight. Healthy girl, everyone is doing fine."
Gwenna smiled, relieved and ecstatic to hear that Ethan's sister-in-law had delivered successfully. She and Brittany Atelier had got close in the last few months as they had found a common thread in being the only two Impure women ever to conceive a child with a vampire.
"Is she up for visitors? I'd love to pop by."
"I think she'd be disappointed if you didn't pay a visit."
"I'll be right over." Gwenna said good-bye to her brother and turned back to her screen to shut her computer off.
One hundred and seventeen new messages on the vampire slayers' loop in the last twenty-four hours, many of them written in what she was starting to suspect was a secret code. Hints at a meeting. Implications of a planned attack on vampires.
Something was definitely in the works, and she wanted to know what it was and when it was going to happen.
Before she headed to the hospital, she dashed off another e-mail to the moderator requesting a reminder to the loop to trim posts. That always sent a flurry of responses to the list, distracting from the current topics, and muddying the waters. Then she tried to e-mail FoxyKyle, who despite her ridiculous name, was the undisputed class president of the slayers' loop, with Slash87 being something comparable to VP.
FoxyKyle's e-mail was set to private. But Slash had sent her an Instant Message.
I'm in Vegas right now too… wanna get together?
Slash was in Vegas? What did that mean? The question she'd never been able to answer was if the majority of the slayers' loop were just playing out a fantasy, or if they were all true slayers. Her instinct told her only a handful were slayers in the truest sense, those who had actually killed a vampire, or were planning to, and she was sure Slash and FoxyKyle fell into that category.
She clicked Reply.
Absolutely. Time and place?
His response came immediately.
Tonight. How about ten o'clock, at the Harrah's monorail station.
Meet by the ticket machines.
Gwenna hadn't been born yesterday—not by a long shot. There was something odd about a request to meet at a rail stop, but she had to take into consideration Slash was a slayer, or at least aspired to be one. He probably enjoyed the subterfuge and intrigue. Meeting in Starbucks just wouldn't have the same ring to it.
Sure. See you then.
She'd swing by and meet Slash, assess him face to face, instead of just on-screen, then zip over to the hospital to see Brittany and the baby. Gwenna shut her computer down and stood up, curious as to why Slash wanted to meet her. She knew her reasons, but what exactly were his? Wondering if Slash and FoxyKyle had known each other prior to the slayers' loop, she figured she would have to get creative and track down Foxy later. Gwenna thought it wouldn't be that difficult. She was a dab hand with the computer. There hadn't been much else for her to do in York, where she'd been in a self-imposed exile for the last three hundred years. The Internet had saved her sanity in the last decade as she'd rattled about that castle entirely alone.
No longer. She was back in the real world. The past was dead and gone.
Or knocking at her door. Gwenna groaned, knowing before she even heard the doorbell that her ex-husband, Roberto Donatelli, was standing outside her hotel suite. She had an acute sense of smell and she knew his scent, a mix of expensive cologne and alcohol. And while it probably wasn't entirely logical, she was just always aware of him. He was like a toothache one tried to ignore, but instead had you reaching for the aspirin at regular intervals.
"Damn." She stuck her tongue out, knowing he couldn't see her, but enjoying it nonetheless. Then she added a series of obnoxious facial expressions and a rude gesture or two to work it all out of her system as she walked across the room. Pasting a polite smile on her face, she opened the door.
"Hi, Roberto. What brings you by?" Gwenna kept the door mostly closed, wanting him to take the hint, knowing he wouldn't.
"Hello, my beautiful wife," he said with a charming smile, leaning in to kiss her cheek. "I just missed seeing your lovely face."
It took everything in her not to correct his use of the term wife , given that they had been granted a vampire divorce three centuries ago, but he had wanted to irritate her, and she refused to give him the satisfaction. She accepted the kiss, than said airily, "Well, you've seen it, so I guess you'll be on your way now."
His smile disappeared and deep lines of annoyance marred his smooth forehead. "Since when do you talk like that? This city has had a negative effect on you… since you've been living in Vegas you've gotten—"
"A backbone?" she asked dryly. God knew he must despise that. Their entire marriage had been based on him dominating her.
"No. Nasty. Impolite."
She rolled her eyes.
"See? That is what I'm talking about. This isn't like you, Gwenna."
Everyone thought they knew her. They expected her to sit down and shut up, and for most of her life she'd done just that. But while she would always strive to be a kind and compassionate person, she no longer wanted to be an undead doormat.
"Maybe this is the new me."
"Well, it's highly unattractive."
Any patience she'd been trying to hold on to disappeared. "Why the hell are you here? And how did you get into the casino anyway?"
"I'm vice president of the Vampire Nation. We had a series of cabinet meetings in your brother's offices."
"You're not supposed to come up to this floor." Immediately she regretted making such a petulant statement. She sounded like a six-year-old.
"Why not?" He leaned toward her, suave and sophisticated in his dark charcoal gray suit, his hair trim and tidy, little flecks of silver on either side of his temples. "Are you afraid of me, my dear? You know I only have your best interests in mind." He brushed her hair back off her cheek softly. "I love you."
She hated when he did this. Back when she was mortal, his words and charismatic touches had made her weak in the knees and willing to give up her virginity to him. Now it just grated on her nerves and made her wish she really did know Slash's staking skills. There were times she'd love to just skewer Roberto like an Italian shish kebab.
"Right, then. You love me. Is there anything else you'd like to tell me before you leave?"
He dropped his hand and the false charm. "Have you talked to my daughter? Has Brittany had the baby yet?"
Just when she thought she had the upper hand on him, he was utterly brilliant at ripping the rug out from under her. It hurt like hell that he had a daughter, conceived with no forethought in a random moment of selfish pleasure in the back of a seventies strip club, when Gwenna herself would never be a mother again.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss Brittany or her baby with you."
Roberto frowned at her. "Just tell me if she's alright."
"And her due date is next Friday?"
"Yes." That was the truth after all. No need to mention that she'd already given birth.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" he asked, gesturing toward her suite.
"Gwenna," he said, his voice exasperated.
"What?" She felt just as annoyed. What in hell did he want from her? He'd already had the best three hundred years of her life, and while she probably had a pound of flesh to give him, she wasn't feeling generous. Or masochistic.
"We were happy together."
Oh, God, he was going to take it there.
She sighed and leaned on her doorframe. "Sometimes. Sometimes not. Now will you please just go? I'm not in the mood to play this game tonight."
"I'm not playing games. I love you."
Roberto touched her face again and she shivered, which he mistook for passion. He leaned closer, while Gwenna gathered her resolve. There had been a time when she would have just let him, simply because it was easier. Easiest still had been locking herself away in York and never having to deal with him. But she refused to allow him such total control over her anymore.
Roberto's fangs let down as he bent his head. Gwenna clapped her hand over his mouth to prevent his teeth from sinking into the flesh of her neck. "We're divorced, Roberto. And I don't need a fuck, buddy."
She darted back into her suite and closed the door on his shocked and appalled face. Hands shaking a little, she listened to him shout her name in utter horror. She'd never used the f word before. Maybe she'd thought it to herself, but it had never crossed her lips. And she'd done it with such force and vehemence. It was seriously liberating, and she felt an adrenaline-like rush rip through her.
"I can't believe you just said that… Gwenna Donatelli! Open this door." He was screaming and pounding so hard, the door shook.
"It's Gwenna Carrick , damn it!" she yelled right back.
She never yelled. Ever. And the total silence from his side of the door confirmed that for the first time in almost a thou-sand years she had shocked Roberto into complete speechlessness.
Let the past stay where it belonged. She was ready for a new millennium.
Nate Thomas focused on the woman in front of him, trying not to think disparaging blond jokes as he ignored the crime-scene team scuttling around the body. Either he was running on too little sleep, or this woman was a dimwit, because they'd been talking for ten minutes and he'd yet to figure how the hell she'd managed to stumble across a murder victim behind a monorail ticket vending machine.
"So you came here from the casino, the Ava?" he asked carefully.
"Why? Where were you going?"
"Here." Her finger pointed down to the ground as she hugged her thin arms to herself.
Her head shook slowly. "No, to here. This spot."
"Right here. In the station. This was your destination?" He didn't think many women would consider hanging out at the train station on the Strip a good time for a Thursday night, but hell, what did he know about the opposite sex? Diddly-squat for the most part.
A quick sweep from head to toe showed this particular woman to be five foot one or two, a hundred and ten pounds, fair skinned, blue eyes, delicate facial features, and short fingernails, painted a vivid red. She was dressed in loose jeans, way looser than current fashion dictated, a form-fitting red T-shirt, and brown leather sandals. No earrings, no makeup except for that shiny lip stuff, and no watch. Large ornate gilded ring on her right hand, which was almost overpowering for her small fingers. Not a hooker, that he could say with certainty, but otherwise not easy to read.
Nervous eyes darted left and right and had trouble meeting his. "Yes. I was planning to meet someone here."
That was progress. "Who?"
"Um. A guy."
Or not. Nate really was tired. He'd been up for seventy-two hours, easily, and he had a pounding headache. He shouldn't have even answered this call, but he had the most experience, and several other detectives were on vacation for spring break. But his brain was foggy, his patience thin, and his witness was either intentionally uncooperative or not the brightest bulb in the pack.
"What guy? A friend? A boyfriend?"
"Well, not exactly a friend. Definitely not a boyfriend. More like an acquaintance."
"What's his name?"
"I don't know his real name."
Nate stared hard at her. Was she a user? Meeting a dealer? That would explain the fact that she looked like a strong wind could blow her over, and her translucent complexion, not to mention her repeated evasiveness. "Look, if you were doing a deal, buying some stuff, I don't care about that, okay? I'm more concerned with who did this…" He jerked his thumb over to where the photographer was taking shots of the victim, a white male in his twenties, entirely drained of all his body fluids. "I don't care who sells you your smack. I just want to hear what you know, what you heard, what you saw, the whole truth, do you understand?"
For the first time since he'd been directed to her upon arriving at the scene, she lost her nervous demeanor. "I wasn't here to buy drugs!"
She sounded downright indignant. Utterly offended.
"Then what were you here for? Is your hook-up guy married?" Maybe she was having an affair or into anonymous sex for kicks. She didn't look like the type, but Nate had learned they rarely did.
"Oh, I don't know. Do you think he's married?" That seemed to flummox her.
Nate tried not to sigh. "I don't know. Tell me how you know him and why you were meeting him, and maybe we can figure out if that has anything to do with the poor guy wadded up like dirty laundry and crammed behind a ticket machine. I don't know about you, but I'd like to catch a killer here."
She winced and rubbed her arms absently. "That was rather appalling, wasn't it? Poor sot. Do you know who he is?"
She had quite the little focus problem and it was starting to bug the hell out of him. "Who were you meeting?" Nate glanced down at the notebook in front of him. Her name was Gwenna according to the uniform who had initially arrived on the scene. Gwenna Carrick. "Look Gwenna, just tell me what you know about the guy you were meeting."
"I just know the user name he goes by. It's Slash87."
"User name? Online?"
"Yes." Her cheeks got a little pink.
"You were meeting a guy you met on the Internet?"
Christ. Why did everyone suddenly think it was a good idea to hook up online with total strangers and meet them in unsafe locales without knowing jack shit about them other than the fact that they used freakin' smileys in their damn e-mails? Yeah, Nate was officially out of patience.
"Okay. So you don't know his real name?"
"Have you met him in person before?"
"Where did you meet him online?"
"A special-interest loop. We were supposed to meet here at ten."
"Whose idea was that?"
"Well, meeting in person was mine. To meet here was his idea."
What guy suggests meeting on a monorail platform when there were nine thousand bars, restaurants, and casinos in spitting distance? One up to no freakin' good, that's who. The blonde was definitely stereotypically dumb to have agreed to do something so dangerous. "And you didn't see him when you got off the train?"
"I don't think so. But really, how would I know? I've never seen him before."
Nate let loose with the sigh he'd been stifling. "I mean, did you make contact with him?"
"So how do you know Slash87 isn't the guy posing for his final portrait over there?" Nate jerked his thumb toward the crime tape and the flash from the camera over the body.
She blanched. "Oh, God, I don't know. I never thought of that. Do you think that's Slash? How horrible."
Nate studied her expression. The horror looked genuine enough. But something about this woman didn't add up for him. "Were you here for a date? What were your plans for after you met up tonight?"
"We didn't exactly have plans. He just said he was going to be in town, and I suggested meeting up to chat. He gave the time and place. I guess I figured we would go grab coffee or something."
Human beings were so damn exhausting. Nate glared at her, hoping she would understand the severity of what she'd done. "Do me a favor. Don't agree to meet strange men you don't know from Adam in dark monorail stations by yourself, alright? It's just a bad idea all around."
"I didn't think…" She frowned a little. "I mean, I'm really quite good at taking care of myself."
"I can tell." Nate rolled his eyes. "What if you'd been a few minutes early? That might be you behind the ticket machine."
Her chin tilted up and he could tell he'd offended her. "I don't think so."
"Yeah, whatever, keep telling yourself that. You're damn lucky, Gwenna Carrick, that you're standing there curling your lip at me instead of on your way to the morgue." It infuriated him that she was being stubborn, that she'd been so stupid. She looked about as strong as his grandmother, an easy target, and yet was so nonchalant about risking her own safety. Didn't she get that there was one chance in life? That it could be gone instantly and that one little mistake could waste you?
Selfish, that's what it was, when people just strolled around acting invincible, taking risks for no reason.
He scoffed. "So what is this online special-interest group? Who joined first, you or Slash?"
"Slash. And it's a paranormal group."
"What the hell does that mean? Like you believe in ghosts and crap?"
"Not exactly. More like…" She glanced away. "Vampires."
"Excuse me?" He'd heard her, he was just hoping he was wrong.
"It's a group that believes in vampires. And well, likes to pretend they're vampire slayers."
"Nice. So you and Slash are pretend slayers? Were you meeting to stake someone?" More likely Slash was hoping to impale Gwenna with his personal stake. Any guy who spent all his time online pretending to be Buffy's male counterpart was probably not getting a whole lot of action.
"We were meeting because the slayers are going to be getting together in Vegas and I wanted to help Slash plan it."
"Oh, like a slayers' convention? Fun. So you're on the planning and decorating committee?"
"You don't have to make fun of me." She rubbed her arms a little and looked over his shoulder. "And if that is Slash over there it's highly insensitive of you to mock what is a harmless hobby."
"You're right. I apologize." While it still sounded seriously geeky to him, he had to remember that she wasn't exposed to violence the way he was. He could compartmentalize, dissociate from the victim, but it would be different for her. That was possibly a guy she'd chatted with, felt some affinity for. "We'll try to ID him as soon as possible and we'll let you know what we find. I need you to get me all the info on that Internet group."
Gwenna made a face, her chin set. "Fine."
The phone in his pocket buzzed. Nate glanced at it and cursed. It was the hospital.
"Excuse me, I need to take this." He started to turn away.
"Can I go home?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes, but I'll need you at the police station tomorrow for further questions."
As Nate pressed the talk button on his phone and answered, he caught one last glimpse of Gwenna Carrick. She was making a ridiculous face, lip curled back, eyes rolling, tongue sticking out, clearly expressing her feelings about having to show up at the police station.
It was kind of funny to see such an attractive woman resorting to the childish mechanism, and normally Nate might have laughed. Except that the voice on the other end told him exactly what he didn't want to hear. And he suspected it would be a long time before he ever laughed again.