One Lucky Vampire(Argeneau Series)(9)

By: Lynsay Sands

Jake opened his eyes to find sunlight creeping around the edges of his blinds. He stared at the light and shadow it caused in the room, and then pushed his blankets aside and sat up, surprised to find he was buck naked. He normally slept naked at home, but he’d brought pajama bottoms to wear here. It was always good to be prepared and if an emergency struck in the middle of the night . . . Well, having the family jewels hanging out was never good at times like that.

Standing up, he opened the top drawer of the dresser and pulled out a T-shirt and a pair of loose, cotton pajama bottoms in a black, white, and gray plaid. He’d dress properly after he made coffee . . . and brushed his teeth. God, his mouth tasted like a sewer. What was up with that?

And what time was it? He glanced around to the alarm clock, frowning when he saw that it was two in the afternoon. What—?

Jake stilled as memory washed over him like a ten-gallon barrel of water. It left him just as stunned as a sudden dunking would have done. In the next moment, he was hopping around, pulling his pajama bottoms onto first one leg and then the other. Once he had them on, Jake headed out the door, tugging his T-shirt on as he went.

Nicole’s bedroom door was open, he saw as he passed. The bed was made, which meant she was up. He checked the kitchen for her first, and came to an abrupt halt when he spotted the stranger seated at the table, an iPad on the table before her. The woman had fair hair like Nicole, but did not have her generous curves. She was dressed casually in faded jeans and a cobalt sweater, and she was an immortal. Jake didn’t know how he knew that, he just did. Since being turned, he always recognized one of their kind when in their presence. It was like a low-key awareness that went through him, as if all his nanos were sensing and saluting hers.

The blonde glanced over now. Spotting him, she leaned back in her seat to give him the once-over.

“You’re up,” she commented, pushing her long, wavy blond hair behind one ear. “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Jake said slowly, his gaze narrowing on her eyes. They were a bright silver green. Not an Argeneau or a Notte then. Argeneaus were known for their silver-blue eyes, and Nottes for their dark metallic eyes. “Who are you?”

“Nina Viridis,” she announced, standing up. “I’m an Enforcer.”

Jake nodded, relaxing now that he knew she was a Rogue Hunter. “So Nicole did call Marguerite?”

Nina nodded, and leaned back against the table, arms crossing over her chest. She hadn’t stood to approach and shake his hand in greeting as he’d first expected, but so that she wasn’t at a disadvantage. As a Rogue Hunter, it would be second nature to ensure she was never at a disadvantage, he supposed.

“She called Marguerite, who called Lucian, who sent us over to look after things until Marguerite and the others could get here.”

“Marguerite’s here?” he asked, instinctively glancing over his shoulder as if expecting the woman to come walking across the upper living room from the stairs.

“She was,” Nina said, drawing his attention again. “And she brought Julius, Decker, and his wife, Dani, as well as Dante and Tomasso. They’re gone now though. Everyone but the twins left once you were resting quietly and obviously on the mend.”

“Dante and Tomasso are still here?” he asked with a frown.

Nina nodded. “They remained behind to help babysit the mortal.”

Jake shifted uncomfortably at this news. He hadn’t seen anyone from the Notte family since moving to Ottawa and wasn’t sure he was ready to see his cousins now. “I’m sure with you here I don’t need Tomasso and Dante to—”

“My team’s not going to be here,” she said at once. “Mark and Gill already left. Tybo’s leaving after he finishes clearing the drive of snow, and I was only waiting for you to wake up.” She smiled wryly. “Marguerite suggested it. I gather Dante and Tomasso aren’t the most talkative duo on the planet and she wanted to be sure someone told you what happened.”

Jake sighed at this news. It seemed he was going to deal with family now, ready or not. Shrugging that worry away for now, he asked, “So what did happen? Was it vampire flu or something? Because between the headache and vomiting, it sure as hell felt like flu, but I thought we couldn’t get sick.”

“We can’t,” she assured him. “It wasn’t flu. The headache was caused by some sonar mouse repellents Nicole had bought. We removed them and have wiped them from her memory. Several times,” she added dryly. “She keeps remembering them and wondering where they are and one of the twins or myself wipes her memory . . . again. We thought it best not to get into explanations like that until you could talk to her.”

Jake merely grunted at this news and then asked, “So that was the cause of the headache. What about the vomiting up blood?”

“Poison,” Nina said grimly.

Jake’s head went back at this news, and then he immediately began shaking it. “I was weak, puking, and had a fever. It was flu.”

“You were weak from lack of blood, puking up the poison thanks to the nanos, and what you thought was a fever was the nanos working in overdrive to save you. They heat up in your blood, so your blood heats up,” she said simply. “It was poison, not flu.”

“But I couldn’t have been poisoned,” he argued. “I cooked supper. I did the shopping too, and I replaced anything in the house that had been opened on that shopping trip, just in case poison had been slipped into something. There is no way—”

“It was the hot tub,” she interrupted. “Dani took a sample and had it tested at a lab here in Ottawa and there were high concentrations of some poison that can be absorbed through the skin, nicotine and dimethyl sulfate—” She paused and frowned. “Or was it sulfide?” She shook her head. “No, it had fox in it somewhere. Sulfoxy maybe?”

“Whatever. It was poisoned,” Jake said grimly. He didn’t care about the specific substances. The hot tub had been poisoned.

“Yeah.” Nina nodded. “Apparently, Nicole got lucky she put the robe on you before helping you inside. Dani thinks she might have got enough poison from just skin to skin contact to kill or at least make her sick. I guess the concentration was super high.”

Jake’s mouth tightened at this news as he distinctly recalled Nicole reaching out to help him while he was still in the hot tub. Fortunately, he’d felt sick and cranky and had waved her away, refusing her help. If she had touched his bare arm then, would she have been poisoned from just that small contact? Nina was suggesting she may have been. “So the vomiting was from the poison?”

“It was the nanos getting the poison out of your system, which is why it went on so long. I mean you got a full body dunk in poison soup, my friend. It would have been in your skin, blood, organs . . . well, if it got that far. The nanos probably went after it as soon as it soaked into your skin, but we humans have a hell of a lot of skin.”

Jake nodded and sighed. He had no doubt that particular poison soup had been meant for Nicole, and as unpleasant as it had been, he was glad he’d taken that dunk in it rather than her. He survived. She wouldn’t have. Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “Where is Nicole?”

“Down in her studio, working. Dante and Tomasso are with her,” Nina added as if he’d worry about that.

“Why? She should be safe in her studio,” he said with a frown. “I had a security system installed and as long as she keeps her sliding door locked she’s fine on her own down there.”

“Yeah, as long as she leaves the door locked. But while we got a lot of snow dumped on us last night, it’s mild today and she had her studio door unlocked and cracked open to let the paint fumes out,” Nina announced dryly. “I gather she has no clue she’s the target of someone who wants her dead?”

“No,” Jake admitted. “She’s in denial. She thinks the things that have happened are just accidents and such.”

“Yeah, well, someone needs to kick her ass out of denial,” Nina said grimly. “This was no accident. She would have died if she’d got in that hot tub, and she wouldn’t have gone pleasantly. Someone’s playing hard ball.”

Jake nodded. “What did she say when Marguerite told her the hot tub was poisoned?”

“Marguerite didn’t tell her anything,” Nina said with amusement. “She said it wasn’t her place.”

Jake frowned. “What? Well, how did you guys explain what happened to me?”

“We didn’t. Marguerite slipped into her little mortal head, made sure she felt everything was okay, and that she was relaxed, and sent her back to work, and Dante and Tomasso have been keeping her in that headspace. Actually,” Nina added wryly, “It may have been the best thing she could have done for her. Apparently, Nicole has painted up a storm since. In fact, she was painting until well after dawn this morning, and then went right back to it after little more than four hours of sleep. I gather she’s finished two portraits, is almost done with a third and is going gangbusters on two new ones.”

“She only got four hours of sleep?” Jake asked, picking on the one thing that had bothered him.

“She worked late and then had an appointment this morning with some old guy in one of the portraits,” Nina explained. “I guess she does the final details with the subject there posing and he was available this morning when she called last night. It didn’t take her long, but afterward she wanted to keep working.” Nina shrugged. “I suppose she’ll sleep when she gets tired.”

“Hmm.” Jake turned toward the door, intending to go down and talk to her.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Nina said, stopping him.

“You wouldn’t what?” he asked, turning back.

“She’s working well right now, probably faster than she ever has. I suspect that’s thanks to a suggestion Marguerite put in her head,” Nina added wryly, and then pointed out, “No doubt that’s going to come to a shuddering halt the minute you tell her how things are. Why don’t you let her get as much done as she can, while she can? Eat, shower, shave, and just take it easy for a bit. The boys will bring her up for dinner and you can bring her world crashing down around her ears then.”

“Dinner,” Jake muttered. After yesterday, eating was the last thing he was interested in, but he had to cook dinner.

“Marguerite arranged for meals to be delivered for the next couple of days,” Nina informed him, turning to her iPad and shutting it down. “She thought you’d appreciate the break.”

“Yeah,” Jake muttered, relaxing. After dinner was soon enough to talk to Nicole, mostly because he very much feared Nina had it right and this conversation was going to bring Nicole’s world down around her ears. She was so resistant to acknowledging that her ex-husband might wish her actual physical harm . . . She wasn’t going to take this well.

“Just a heads-up,” Nina said, closing the cover of her iPad and picking it up to walk toward him. “You have more than the hot tub poisoning to deal with here. You tried to bite her and flashed your fangs while you were out of your head,” she announced as she slid past him to exit the room. “Marguerite fiddled with her memory to keep her from freaking about it, and Dante and Tomasso have been reinforcing it while you were asleep. But it won’t last long once she’s in your presence again. You’re going to have to tell her everything.”

“What?” Jake asked weakly, turning to stare after the woman.

“You can handle it,” Nina said quietly, pausing to retrieve a brown leather jacket that had lain on the end of the couch. She tugged it on, shifting her iPad from hand to hand to do it, and then pulled her hair out of the neckline and moved toward the stairs with a solemn, “Good luck.”

Jake stared after Nina, wanting to call her back. He wanted to ask her to do the talking for him. Or to tell him what to say. This was not a conversation he was ready for. He’d only just learned Nicole was his life mate, and he hadn’t yet accepted and handled that; how could he expect her to accept not only that she might be a perfect mate for him, but also that there were such things as vampires and he was one?

Yeah, this was definitely a conversation that could wait until after supper. It would give him some time to figure out what the hell he was going to say.

“That’s good. It looks just like Christian and Caro. It looks live, like they could walk right off the canvas and into the room.”

Nicole smiled at that compliment from Tomasso as she shifted away from the portrait of Marguerite’s son and soon to be daughter-in-law to the next painting and began to work on it. It was the perfect compliment and exactly what she was trying to achieve. She loved it when work went well, and it was definitely going well. She was on a roll. The last two days since Jake had got sick she’d been on fire and had got more done than she normally did in a week. It was a real high for her, better than drugs. She was jazzed.

“Yeah,” Dante agreed. “But why do you work on more than one painting at a time?”

“It keeps it interesting,” Nicole said with a shrug as she played with the skin color on the portrait of the local politician. She was trying to get just the right shade to emulate the rough, somewhat florid color of the man’s face in life.

“Hmmm,” Dante muttered.

Nicole smiled faintly, and shook her head. “You guys must be bored to tears. I don’t know why you aren’t off doing something more interesting than watching me paint.” Frowning now, she added, “What are you doing here anyway?”

“We’re Jake’s cousins. We’re visiting,” Dante said.

“Jake said he ran away from his family,” Nicole told them.

“Yeah,” Tomasso said. “Some people don’t handle things so well, and some people need time to handle things. Stephano needed time.”

“Stephano,” she murmured and shook her head as she shifted to the next painting. “I know that’s his first name, but it’s still weird to hear him called that. I know him as Jake.”

“Jake’s a good name,” Dante commented.

“Yeah.” Nicole smiled. She liked the name. She guessed she liked Jake too. He seemed like a nice guy. He was certainly easy on the eyes. Not that she was looking at him a lot or anything, but he was handsome . . . and a good cook, and thoughtful. Like that cheese-and-fruit tray. That had been a nice surprise and she didn’t think it was really part of the job of a cook to supply snacks. Or was it? She had no idea. She’d never had one before, and he didn’t exactly fit what she would have imagined a cook/housekeeper to look like. The only housekeeper she knew was her Aunt Maria, a sweet, grandmotherly type woman who bustled around in black dresses and orthopedic shoes.

Jake was nothing like her aunt, Nicole thought, recalling him sitting on the edge of the hot tub, buck naked. With a flat stomach, and muscular arms and legs, the man was built. He could be a Chippendale, or a male model.

Nicole frowned as she recalled the blood staining his face and chest. The man had been vomiting blood. That had scared the hell out of her. He was better now, though, some part of her mind reminded her. He was apparently sleeping well and recovering. Everything would be fine.

Those familiar words soothed her. Everything would be fine, but her stomach kept gnawing at her.

“I’m hungry,” Dante announced in his deep growl.

“Me too,” Tomasso agreed.

Nicole grinned at that. “You two are always hungry.”

“Yeah, but I’m really hungry. And it’s after six.”

Nicole straightened from the portrait and glanced around to the clock with surprise. It was indeed after six . . . and that was no doubt the reason for the continued gnawing in her stomach. Clucking under her tongue, she quickly gathered her paintbrushes to wash and moved to the sink, saying, “I’m surprised Nina didn’t come and bark at us to get upstairs for supper like she did at lunch.”

“Nina’s gone,” Tomasso rumbled.

“What?” Nicole glanced around with amazement at that. The woman had been standing guard over Jake like a German drill sergeant since arriving. She hadn’t even allowed Nicole to peek into his room just to see for herself that Jake was alive and well. “Then who’s watching over Jake?”

“Pinocchio doesn’t need watching. He’s not sick anymore,” Dante informed her.

“Yeah, he’s walking and talking like a real boy now,” Tomasso added dryly.

Nicole frowned. They’d been calling him Pinocchio since she’d met them. She didn’t understand the reason for it and they refused to explain.

“Well, he shouldn’t be on his own,” she muttered, working a little more swiftly to clean the brushes. “The man was at death’s door just yesterday.” She paused and frowned. “Or was it the day before?”

“The day before,” Dante confirmed.

She scowled. “Right, so he was on his deathbed the day before yesterday and now he’s up and moving around?” She shook her head. “What if he passes out or just falls down and hits his head?”

“It’s okay, it couldn’t hurt anything,” Tomasso assured her.

“Of course it could,” she snapped. “People have been known to die from head wounds.”

“People have,” Dante agreed. “But not Pinocchio. His head is full of wood.”

Nicole shook her head and set her brushes aside to dry, then slid out of the white smock she’d been wearing to keep from getting paint on her clothes and headed for the door.

The two men were on her heels as Nicole scurried out of the studio and up the hall. The door into the living room was open and she hurried out and took a sharp left right into a very tall, very hard body.

“Jake,” she gasped, grabbing at his shirt to keep from tumbling back. Their closeness and position caused a flash in her mind of his being on top of her and her struggling with him, which she didn’t recall or understand. But even as that flash slid through her head, she was gasping in surprise as one of the twins crashed into her from behind, squishing her against Jake’s chest.

“Sor—” Dante ended the apology on a grunt as Tomasso apparently bumped into him, squishing him against her a little harder.

When Nicole tipped her head up and back to peer at the man behind her, he smiled wryly and muttered, “Choo choo.”

Nicole gave a breathless laugh at the train sound and then slid out from between the two men, leaving them inches apart. She hardly noticed, however; she was busy trying to sort out what had just happened and what those memories in her head were. Had that really happened? Were they fragments of a dream?

Fragments of a dream. Everything is fine. Relax. The thoughts wafted through her head and she found herself relaxing.

“I was coming to fetch you for supper,” Jake said, stepping back from Dante.

“And we were just coming for supper,” Nicole said, looking him over now that those flashes were no longer an issue. His color was back and he seemed fine. Better than fine. He had more color now than he had since she’d met him. He almost glowed with good health, and certainly had he still been suffering even the least bit of weakness, she was sure he would have toppled over when she’d crashed into him. Instead, he’d stood strong and caught her arms to keep her up. Still, he’d been seriously ill, and she couldn’t resist asking, “How are you feeling?”

“Good.” His gaze slid to the twins and back and then he turned abruptly. “Let’s go before dinner gets cold.”

Nicole glanced to the twins herself, noting their hard, expressionless faces. It seemed there were bad feelings between the three men, which was a shame in her opinion. She and her own cousin, Pierina, were as close as sisters. But Nicole didn’t know what the situation was with Jake and his cousins. She knew they were cousins through his stepfather, but if they’d grown up together . . .

Whatever the case, their relationship definitely wasn’t good right now, she thought as she followed Jake to the stairs.

“I set the table in the kitchen rather than the dining room. I hope that’s okay,” Jake commented as he crossed the upper living room to the kitchen.

“Of course,” Nicole murmured. The dining room was the left half of the large upper room in the loft off the stairs. There was no wall separating it from the living area to the right and the entire area was carpeted in cream. The house obviously had not been built for children, she thought as she glanced to the large, dark oak dining-room table with ten chairs. She had never used the more formal dining space yet. It would be handy for large family functions, but she hadn’t had anything like that so far. Maybe she should consider having the family up for Christmas, she thought now.

“Would you like wine, water, pop, coffee . . . ?”

Nicole turned her attention to Jake’s back at that question as he led them into the kitchen. “Wine sounds nice.”

She’d worked hard and a glass of wine sounded relaxing, something she suspected she would need, considering the tension building in the air around her. Geez, there were definitely bad feelings between the trio of men in whose company she found herself. Dante and Tomasso obviously resented Jake for running away from the family. They also obviously wanted to bring him back to the fold, or they wouldn’t be here. The question was whether Jake would be willing to rejoin his family.

“Dinner is some kind of chicken, so is Creekside okay?” Jake asked, pulling a bottle of white wine out of the refrigerator. He or someone else had obviously put it in to chill. Nicole didn’t drink much and only put white wine in the refrigerator when she was expecting company. Rodolfo had wanted to put in a wine fridge, but they hadn’t got around to it before they’d split.

“Sounds good,” she murmured, moving to the table and hesitating before taking the end seat backing the front window. It meant the three men would have to take the other end and the sides. They’d have to deal with each other. She wasn’t surprised when Dante and Tomasso each took a side, leaving the other end of the small bar-height table for Jake. He would now have one man on either side of him. There was no way to ignore their presence.

Nicole’s gaze shifted to the table as she settled on her high seat. Aside from the four place settings there were several covered dishes on the table, and even as she took note of them, Dante and Tomasso began lifting covers to look underneath. The smells that wafted out were amazing and she felt her stomach rumble with interest.

“It’s chicken with a creamy mustard sauce, dilled potatoes, asparagus with butter and lemon, and a light cranberry salad,” Jake read off a piece of paper held to the refrigerator door by a magnet as he opened the wine in front of the door.

“You didn’t cook, did you?” she asked with a frown.

“Not me. Marguerite apparently ordered catering for a couple of days,” Jake said quietly. “I just warmed it up.”

“Good,” Nicole said relaxing. She didn’t care how much better he seemed, or the fact that Dante and Tomasso claimed he was back to normal. The man had nearly died. She didn’t want him doing anything for a day or so while he recovered . . . which she supposed was ironic. She was paying the man to work, he’d worked one day and then got sick and spent two days down. Now she didn’t want him working for a couple more. Go figure.

“It must be from the same place the last two dinners were from,” Dante said with a blissful sigh as he surveyed the chicken.

Tomasso nodded in agreement. “It smells as heavenly as those meals were.”

“Two dinners?” Jake asked with a frown as he set a glass of wine in front of Nicole. “You mean one.”

“Two,” Tomasso said.

“Two,” Dante echoed.

When Jake glanced to her with a questioning frown, she nodded. “Two. You started throwing up Friday night, were unconscious all day Saturday and Sunday. This is Monday.”

“Oh,” he said weakly and turned away to move around to his seat. As he sat down, he muttered, “Sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. You can’t help it if you got sick,” Nicole said firmly and frowned when she caught the looks the twins exchanged. Jake had a funny expression on his face too, she noted, but simply reached for her wine. She paused with it halfway to her lips, though, when she noted that she was the only one with wine. Glancing from man to man, she asked, “Doesn’t anyone else want wine?”

All three men shook their heads as one. Nicole stared at them, but they were all busy removing the lids on the food and beginning to serve themselves, so she took a sip and set the glass down, suddenly self-conscious about having it.

The meal was as amazing as it smelled and Nicole made a note to call Marguerite and ask which restaurant she’d had cater the meal. It would be a number she would keep right beside the phone in future.

Dinner was a mostly silent affair. Nicole made several efforts to try to start conversation, but none of the men were biting. They weren’t even looking at each other. Well, Dante and Tomasso exchanged glances that she was sure held whole conversations, but neither twin was looking at Jake and Jake was staring at his plate, his forehead knitted through the entire meal. The atmosphere was enough to put Nicole off her food, and she was relieved when she was done eating.

“I guess I should get back to work,” she murmured, picking up her plate and starting to stand.

“Actually, I need to talk to you,” Jake said quietly.

“Oh.” Nicole started to sit back down, but then changed her mind and finished getting up. She carried her plate and silverware to the sink to rinse off before putting them in the dishwasher and then returned to her seat.

A moment later Dante and Tomasso both did the same, carrying their dishes over to rinse and set them in the dishwasher.

“Would you like coffee?” Jake asked as he stood up with his own plate.

“Sure. I’ll get it,” Nicole said, starting to stand.

“We’ve got it,” Dante announced, picking up the coffeepot as Tomasso gathered four cups from the cupboard.

“Oh, thanks,” Nicole said, settling back in her seat, but she wasn’t used to being waited on and found it a bit discomfiting.

“Thank you,” Jake murmured as he moved over to rinse his own plate and silverware. By the time he finished, Dante and Tomasso were carrying the coffees back to the table.

“Thank you,” Nicole repeated as Dante set a cup in front of her. She then reached for the cream and poured some in, passing it on to Dante as she reached for the sugar.

They fell silent then as the twins fixed their own coffees. They were all sipping their hot drinks when Jake returned to the table. He sat down, fixed his own coffee and then frowned from Dante to Tomasso.

“Guys, I need to talk to Nicole,” he said finally.

Dante and Tomasso both nodded silently and relaxed back in their seats. For some reason their attitude made Nicole want to smile and she had to bite it back, especially since Jake appeared frustrated by their attitude.

“Could you give us some space?” he asked finally.

“No,” Dante said bluntly.

“We’re here to help,” Tomasso added.

Nicole bit her lip. She could see that Jake was getting annoyed, and when he opened his mouth to say something else, said quickly, “It’s fine if they stay, Jake.”

He frowned at her for the comment, which kind of confused Nicole. He was her cook/housekeeper. That was all. It wasn’t like he would have anything private to say. At least she didn’t think he did. On the other hand, she had no idea what he wanted to say. Maybe he didn’t want to stick to the two-week trial, maybe he’d made up his mind already and didn’t want to work for her anymore. Maybe this latest health crisis was making him want to run again.

“Like Tomasso said, we’re here to help,” Dante said solemnly. “Marguerite seemed to think you might need it.”

Nicole felt her eyebrows rise at this claim. What were they supposed to help with? And why would Marguerite think their help would be needed? It was like there was something everyone knew . . . except her . . . and that was starting to make her anxious.

Turning to Jake, she said, “Just tell me whatever it is you need to tell me. I’m sure it will be fine.”

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