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Authors: Meljean Brook

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BOOK: Demon Night
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“Not the kind we want.”

“It must be nice to choose the kind of money you want,” Charlie said. Those pale eyes narrowed, and she turned back to Mark with a smile. He was downing more of his drink, so she took pity on him and offered the information first. “I think Jane's close to announcing her engagement to someone at Legion.”

Mark's jaw tightened. Poor guy. An asshole for a father and a torch for her sister. “I'm not surprised,” he finally said. The force of his drumming fingers against the tabletop increased, then he lifted his gaze to hers. “Well, I'm not in Seattle long, but I'd hate to lose touch again. Do you think we can go out for a bite sometime this week, catch up?”

Catch up? Wasn't that what they'd just done? Or did he want to invite Jane and Dylan on a double date—or worse, spend the meal pumping Charlie for information about her sister?

But when she opened her mouth to decline, she saw the senator's pinched lips and decided she could at least shoot him down out of his father's sight.

“It's possible that I could arrange some time off,” she said. Could, but wouldn't—and she might as well set up her rejection now. “I do have finals coming up, but I could probably squeeze a few hours in before you leave.”


She wondered how many votes that smile would garner in the next forty years, and obligingly wrote down her home phone number. Charlie rarely answered it; anyone she wanted to speak with had her cell number. Only debt collectors and telemarketers called at her apartment—none of the former lately, but she was still wary enough to screen the calls.

She passed Vin on the way back to the bar, widening her eyes in a silent
Thank God that's over
that had him looking at the Brandts and grinning. In the corner of the lounge, Joel sat at his usual table, with the perfect angle on the television and his laptop open in front of him. Charlie eyed the amount of ice and alcohol in the glass of the woman whose rigid smile and frequent glances at her watch suggested that she was on an awkward date, and the much lower level in the glass of the guy who wasn't impressing her. Most likely, the woman would be leaving soon, and he would be wanting another drink.

The elderly gentleman at the bar was still nursing his. He didn't sit primly, as Charlie would have expected of someone his trim size, but with the easy sprawl of a large man accustomed to taking up space. His right foot rested on the brass rail in front of the bar, the low heel of his shiny black boot hooked casually on the rung of the stool.

This time he nodded when she asked if he wanted a refill, and he murmured a thanks when she tipped a splash into his glass.

He picked up his drink, and gestured toward the restaurant with it. “I would venture that the young man only takes wine when his father dines with him.”

Charlie blinked, then realized he must have heard Vin speaking to her earlier. “I think you're probably right.”

She studied him, tried to place his accent. Definitely educated. It reminded her of New York upper crust, but slightly more formal in its delivery. And although there was no hesitation in his speech, he spoke like an actor after a session with a voice coach, testing the shape of each word before it left his mouth.

“I'd have pegged you for a port,” she offered. “Or a cognac.”

A brief flash of humor and surprise crossed his face. He leaned forward, rested his forearms on the bar. “You are not altogether wrong. My father preferred port. And in his last year of life, he preferred to have quite a lot of it. It was a much more dignified drink than

Charlie couldn't imagine what his father had to do with his drink, but she held her tongue when he raised his glass and downed the two fingers' worth in a single swallow.

Either he was no stranger to the bottle himself, or he had a throat of steel. Not a wince, a flaring of his nostrils, or a watering of his eyes.

“But I've always thought its only threat to a man's dignity is when he's had too much to please a pretty woman,” he added with a smile. “I'm not likely to get there.”

His tone was flirtatious—and though it invited her to play along, she only asked, “Another then?”

“Yes.” His fingers circled the heavy-bottomed glass, the tip of his thumb a scant distance from his middle finger. “What would you have taken the father for?”

Remembering the senator's pale gaze, his disapproving frown, she said, “I'd have said he doesn't drink. Ever.”

“He ordered one.”

“But he hasn't taken a sip. He probably came in, thought: Okay, I'm going to connect with my voters, seem like a regular guy. And a place like this, a regular guy gets a drink, so he did. Only, a beer's
regular, wine's too formal—or sissy—and whiskey might give the impression he takes his drink too seriously.” She stopped. Had he recognized the senator? He hadn't even blinked when she'd mentioned voters, and was only nodding thoughtfully as he looked down into his glass.

“I see it a lot,” she added, and he glanced back up at her. “People keeping up appearances.”

A wry smile creased the corners of his mouth. “But appearances are almost always deceiving,” he said, and downed half the whiskey in his glass.

“Yes.” She watched him, feeling the first hint of unease. He was taking them too fast. With her chin, she gestured behind him, hoping to turn his attention from his drink. “Take Joel over there. Tonight, alone, he's a screwdriver and he's got the local news on. But every so often, he brings in someone he met online and orders a German beer from the tap. And although he's the sweetest guy, he's completely different in front of them: changing the channel to ESPN and pulling off some macho act. And they don't ever come back. I can never decide if it's funny or sad,” she finished softly.

Maybe both. Her brow furrowed as she watched Joel's thin, pale face brighten at whatever he read on his laptop screen, then his smile as he typed a response.

So many expectations set up, and then destroyed. Did he really think the front he put on was what they wanted? Or did he sabotage himself, unable to bear the idea that when they met him in person they would be disappointed in what he really was—so he gave them something false to be disappointed in?

After two months chatting over a wall, had Ethan been disappointed?

She hadn't even realized how she'd built up her own expectations until she'd finally been on the verge of meeting him—and maybe all of the expectation had been on her side.

She should have looked back.

Suddenly a little depressed, she glanced away from Joel and found the gentleman's gaze fixed on her. A shiver ran over her skin, pricking the fine hairs on her arms. His eyes were bottle green, clear and hard as glass, and surrounded by dark brown lashes untouched by the gray that peppered his hair.

Perhaps his drink fit him, after all. Though the rest of him suggested it, that emerald stare was not at all grandfatherly. Nor had it been dulled by age or the whiskey.

And the intensity of it was oddly…sexy.

Jesus. She dipped her head, turned away. Her hands made jerky little movements at her waist. She tugged at her apron, pretending to tighten it, and trying to tamp down the unexpected and inappropriate attraction.

Customer. Old enough to be your father. Probably an alcoholic.

And with an expression that reminded her of Ethan's when she'd first opened her door.

She closed her eyes, breathed out. That must be it. She found a lot of people sexually appealing—but in a vague way, appreciative of their looks or personalities. They rarely provoked a physical reaction.

Ethan had. And so seeing something similar in this man must have triggered the same response.

The long fingers of his left hand were tracing a spiraling pattern on the bar. He'd propped his elbow up, settling his chin against his fist as he studied her.

Definitely reminded me of Ethan,
she decided with a smile—although she'd have bet anything Grandpa had had some moves back in the day, too.

Steady again, she tried to get back to where she'd started—or to start over, rather, since his opening hadn't been the usual. “So, what are you in for? I'm guessing it isn't the same reason as Joel over there.”

He shook his head, the corners of his mouth lifting. “You don't have to play this.”

Her brows drew together. “Play what?”

“Keeping me talking, now that I've started, in the hope that I'll slow down.” Ice clinked as his large palm engulfed the glass; he tipped it at an angle but didn't bring the tumbler to his lips. “In the hope that I'll leave here not wanting it so bad. But I'm not drinking for myself, Charlie.”

He met her gaze when she looked up from his whiskey, and her stomach performed a long, lazy flop. “I've heard that before,” she said. Her throat was dry, her rasp more pronounced.

For an instant, everything in his face stilled. His gaze flicked over her shoulder. Then he blinked and the easy manner fell over him again.

“From whom did you hear it before?” His voice had rolled up a little stiff; she hadn't noticed how casual it had become until the formality returned.

Formal—but not distant.

She grabbed for a story, any story to keep him going. “A guy who used to come in here. After spending the day tossing fish over at the Market, he was in here every night, drinking a bottle of top-shelf tequila that he always said wasn't for him.” She arched a brow. “He never got drunk, either.”

He was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “That couldn't be healthful for a body.”

“It wasn't, and before long he was in the morgue. And guess what they found when they cut him open?”

“A petrified liver the size of Texas,” he said dryly.

She pressed her lips together, shook her head. “A trout. It seems one day this guy had been working, but the fish was still alive, not quite drowned in the air. And when he tried to catch it, it wriggled through his hands, straight into his mouth and down his belly. But it didn't die, just swam around in there.”

Though the corners of his eyes were twitching a little, he only nodded. “I suppose something of that nature is bound to happen.”

“Particularly in a city where fish tossing is a huge tourist attraction,” Charlie agreed with a straight face. “But this guy didn't appreciate that he could become a Seattle icon—and he knew that drinking water wouldn't drown the fish. So he tried to poison it with the tequila.”

The dry note slipped into his voice again, and he tugged at his shirt collar. “Poison is never a certainty. Sometimes they keep on living.”

“The fish certainly did—he got hooked on the tequila, until he needed it so bad the guy had to keep on coming in for that bottle even after he realized he'd failed to kill it. So when they performed the autopsy on him a few days later, they found the fish going through DTs so hard his flippers were buzzing.”

She held out her hands, let them shake in demonstration, but didn't let herself think of the rest—didn't let herself remember how horrifying it had been: the sweats, the sharp, churning nausea, the blinding headaches and disorientation, and the unrelenting, bone-deep thirst.

“You almost had me.” Though he narrowed his eyes, he was smiling. He pulled at his collar again, then unfastened the top button with fingers that seemed too large for a man of his size. “But fish have fins, Charlie. Not flippers.”

“Well, I'm not very smart. I just know it started with ‘f.'” Charlie grinned. “In any case, it's the truth. They got the fish out, sobered him up, and he's working at a sushi bar in Pioneer Square. Everyone calls him Trembling Tom.”

He didn't give in to his laughter, but he bent forward, raising his hand and rubbing the side of his brow. His smile widened and formed a slash beside his mouth that might have been a dimple in a softer face.

Her first impression of him had been a neat and precise man, but now she revised it. His coat stretched a little tight across the shoulders, the sleeves edged a little high on his wrists.

Or maybe not. Vin appeared at the end of the bar, and by the time she filled the order and returned, everything seemed to fit just right—though he was still bigger than she'd first thought.

He'd lost the light mood, too, frowning down into his scotch, his expression that of a man telling himself he shouldn't be doing something, but not quite convincing himself of it yet.

Charlie laid her forearms on the bar, leaned in. “So I'm guessing the remainder of that drink isn't for a fish.”

“No.” His brusque response seemed to end it, but after a moment he pinched the bridge of his nose and said abruptly, “My brother. I thought he'd had a second chance—maybe had a family. A woman to hold on to. Unlike your friend on the computer, he had a way with them.”

She worked it over, chose her words carefully. “You hadn't heard from him in a long time?” Hopefully, it had just been that—his brother getting in touch, and the shock of discovering he was in bad circumstances.

BOOK: Demon Night
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