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"Abs to die for," I purred appreciatively.
On the bar stool beside me, Ramon looked up from the notepad propped on his crossed knees. "Check, boss," he said, making a tick mark on the page.
"Biceps pumped," I continued.
One of the carpenters rebuilding the club's stage began to use a nail gun, and each thunk-whap! seemed to go right through my pounding temples. One of the reasons I'd drifted into the Hot Box Club as late as I had was to avoid the loud construction, but I'd forgotten the double time and a half I'd promised the crew if they worked evenings this week. Of course, the other reason I'd shown up so tardily had been because when my alarm clock had gone off at noon, I'd thrown it across the room and burrowed my head under the pillows again. I took a hasty sip of the cocktail I'd concocted as a hair-of-the-dog remedy for last night's overindulgence and spoke above the noise. "Sweetie, can you give us a slow turn?"
My first order of business when I'd taken possession of the Hot Box had been to have everything inside it hauled away, most of the chairs and tables having been destroyed in a massive fight on the former strip dive's last night of operation. The replacement furnishings I'd ordered hadn't been delivered yet, so right now my new club was little more than a cavernously empty space.
Empty of furniture, that is. In addition to the carpenters working on the stage, a conga line of gorgeous males wearing hopeful expressions and not much else snaked from the vicinity of the bar to the coat check area near the main entrance. The dark-haired Adonis at the head of the line obligingly presented his rear view to Ramon and me.
"Mmm-mmm!" Ramon said for my ears only. "Even covered by tighty-whities, those buns look hard enough to crack nuts."
"Yours, maybe, if you get fresh with him," I enlightened him. "He's not gay, sweetie. That means I get to pick him to play on my team."
"Wanna bet, chica?" Ramon gave the man a sultry wink and got a faint smile in return. "Please, Kat. Some things a boy just knows," he murmured.
Instead of answering him, I raised my martini glass at the Adonis. "I think I left out an ingredient, Jean-Paul. The ones you made for me last night tasted just a tad yummier, somehow. Vodka, amaretto, orange juice, a dollop of cherry sorbet and...?" "Crème de pêche, chérie," the dark-haired man answered, his smile broadening. "C'est essentiel, non? Without it you do not have a true Baiser de Vampire—Vampire's Kiss, as you say in English. If you wish, I can come to your place again this evening and show you more of my repertoire." He gave a glance that seemed to savor every last detail of me, taking in the way I'd pulled my hair into a silver-blond chignon, appreciating how my cream-colored Badgley Mischka slip dress skimmed my curves...and seeming to know that under my sophisticated exterior, I was wearing a deliciously trampy pink-and-black bra and panties. "My bartending repertoire, of course," he added with Gallic suavity.
"Too tempting, sweetie. Unfortunately I'm otherwise engaged," I sighed. "But I was impressed enough last night that I've decided you've got the job. Talk to Ramon before you leave and he'll go through the details with you."
"Impressed by what part of his repertoire?" Ramon asked cattily as Jean-Paul strolled out of the room in his tight briefs. "And as club manager, don't I have any input on who we hire?"
"Of course you do." I patted his hand. "But for the public to forget the guys-only reputation this place used to have when it was the Hot Box, it's vital we attract women from the start. That's the official reason for this pecs and abs beauty contest, sweetie—the fact that you and I adore looking at half-naked men is just a bonus. Trust me, having a bare-chested Jean-Paul shaking cocktails behind the bar will definitely raise female pulses."
And pulses are another must-have for our future clientele, I reminded myself as I went around the bar to freshen my drink, seeing as how, by the Hot Box's last night of business, most of its patrons didn't possess one.
That had been the downside of buying this establishment. Once merely a sleazy strip joint, during its final month it had been owned by the Queen of All Evil—one of the titles my sisters and I knew her by, although on the Hot Box's unpaid tax notices she'd used the name Zena Uzhasnoye, which my Grandfather Dark-heart says translates as Zena the Terrible. But whatever alias she'd gone under, she'd turned the Hot Box into a center of vamp activity...and in the process, neglected such mundane matters as paying the bills. After my sister Megan had finally staked her, it wasn't long before a notice was tacked up on the door informing anyone who was interested that the place was to be sold to pay off the creditors.
I'd seen the notice at a time when I'd been wondering what I could do with the rest of my life, and the notion of buying the Hot Box and turning it into a trendy club had seemed absolutely inspired. I like cocktails and parties and men. Clubs include all those things. Investigation agencies don't, and going to work for an investigation agency was the only other option that had presented itself since my initial life plan of becoming Mrs. Lance Zellweger had blown up in my face.
The agency idea had been Tashya's. "So we've whacked the queen vampyr," she'd said to Megan and me a few days after the final battle at the Hot Box. "What about the ones that got away? We know Zena brought along a few dozen undead troops when she came to Maplesburg, and that's not counting the vamps she and her buddies created once they arrived. Strolling around at night staking any vampires we might happen to come across is better than doing nothing, but we need to get organized if we're going to clean up this town. What do you think about Darkheart & Crosse for a name?"
"A name for what?" Megan had asked, stifling a yawn—the result of her strolling around, as Tash put it, the previous night and staking whatever vamps she'd come across. Not for the first time since the battle at the Hot Box I had wondered what kind of toll being a hereditary Daughter of Lilith would take on my sister. For those who don't know, Daughter of Lilith is the correct term for what Megan is—a true descendant of Adam's first wife, the one who's gotten such bad PR over the centuries from Venus-envying men. Technically, Tash and I are daughters of Lilith, too, but the vamp-slaying destiny only gets passed down to one female descendant per family per generation.
Which makes us Megan's sidekicks, in the staking business at least. As Tash had continued, I'd suspected she wasn't totally thrilled with being a sidekick.
"A name for our agency, of course," she'd said. "Say a woman looks out her window one night and sees her boyfriend standing there, except there's no way he can be because she's in a third-story apartment with no balcony. Or some poor schmuck walking his dog after dark barely escapes being attacked by a bunch of thugs who have fangs and can fly, or a wife notices a bite mark on hubbie's neck and the next day finds him sleeping in the basement under a blanket of dirt. Who do they call?" she'd demanded. "Not the cops, unless they want to be labeled nutcases. Which is where Darkheart & Crosse comes in. We set up an office, put out some flyers—"
"And just what do you propose these flyers say, sweetie?" I drawled. "Darkheart & Crosse, Vamp Exterminators?"
Tash had given me an annoyed look. "I was thinking more along the lines of Darkheart & Crosse: Extraordinary Investigations."
"You know, Kat, I think the brat's got something," Megan had said slowly. "Grandfather Darkheart says that in the old country, everyone knows who the local Daughter of Lilith is, even if they don't talk about what she does. But this is Maplesburg. Maybe we should hang out a shingle."
It had snowballed from there. Mikhail, Megan's gorgeous shape-shifting main squeeze—don't ask, it's a long story—had thought the idea of an agency made sense, and although Grandfather Darkheart had been dubious at first, Megan's point about Maplesburg not being Carpathia had finally won him over.
If anyone had asked my opinion about the whole thing, I would have given it. But they hadn't, so two weeks later I had signed the papers making me the new owner of the late, unlamented Hot Box.
The acquisition had taken a big chunk out of my part of the trust funds Popsie had set up for his three granddaughters, which we'd been able to access when we'd turned twenty-one. I'd written the check without a qualm, informed Megan and Tash about my purchase, and made regretful-sounding apologies for not joining them in their Darkheart & Crosse venture.
Only then had the sick feeling that had lodged in the pit of my stomach since Tash had proposed her vampire-hunting agency idea gone away.
Which wasn't to say that I didn't still have problems, I thought now as I turned from the bar and narrowed my eyes at the crew of carpenters. I did, but they were the kind that could be solved. Cocktail in hand, I left Ramon in gay heaven interviewing the conga line of beefcake and made my way to the half-built stage on the far side of the room. The crew foreman, bulging biceps revealed by the rolled-up sleeves of his sawdusty shirt—don't you just love what swinging a hammer all day does for a man's muscles?—gave a grin as I approached.
"Hey, boss lady, I wondered when you'd get tired of those pretty boys prancing around in their undershorts and check out us real men." He lowered his voice and a frown replaced his grin. "Why didn't you call last night, babe? I waited around to hear from you and when you didn't phone I tried your number but I just kept getting your machine. I know you were home because when I drove by, your car was parked outside and a couple of lights were on in your apartment."
Gorgeous biceps or not, Terry was the problem I needed to solve. I took a sip of my drink and did so. "Getting my very own personal stalker wasn't what I had in mind when you and I had our fling last week, darling," I said lightly. "As spine-tingly and delicious as you made me feel during our naughty little romp, it was a one-time-only thing. So much more romantic that way, don't you think? You know, ships that pass in the night and all—"
"Cut the bullshit, Kat!" His tone was beginning to attract attention. I saw the dark-haired carpenter nearest to us flick a glance our way before returning to the task of reloading his nail gun as Terry went on. "I fell like a ton of bricks for you and you know it! Who the hell were you screwing senseless last night when you could have been with me?"
I sighed. I'd tried letting him down easily, but some men just can't accept it when a woman doesn't rush out to choose a china pattern after she sleeps with them. "If you must know, sweetie, one of those pretty boys over there prancing around in his underwear. His name's Jean-Paul, and to be perfectly honest, it was a toss-up as to who screwed who more senseless." I tipped back the final potent drops of my cocktail and gave Terry a wide-eyed look over the rim of the glass. "You know, it really is true what they say about the French knowing so much more about amour. Jean-Paul had me doing things I'd never imagined in my wickedest—"
"Spare me the fucking details," Terry said tightly.
"Before I went out with you I heard stories about what a ball breaker you were, but I didn't believe them. Now I do." He grabbed a nearby toolbox. "I quit. Some other sap might have taken my place in your bed, but it won't be so easy for you to find another master carpenter to take my place on this job, lady."
Ball breaker? Me? I stared after his retreating back, unaccustomed anger getting the better of me. "You never had a place in my bed, sweetie!" I called after him. "We did it on the floor and the kitchen table and in the shower, but we never actually made it to the bed, remember?"
"I think we'll all remember now, sis." I turned to see Megan standing behind me, her eyebrows raised and her arms folded across her chest. She was wearing a tight-fitting sleeveless top with slim black pants, and her shoes were Chanel ballet flats. Very retro-Audrey Hepburn, right up to and including the cropped Sabrina haircut she'd recently gotten. "Didn't you used to handle breakups more...discreetly?" she asked.