Good, the Bad, and the VampireBy: Sara Humphreys
“Dakota? Catch.” Olivia’s sharp green-eyed gaze latched on to his as she tossed him one of the dreaded paper hats. “You must have missed yours when you came in.”
“Nope, I didn’t miss it. I know that as czar of this district, you’re my boss and all, but I’m gonna have to decline this particular request.” Dakota caught it with one hand. He tilted his head in deference to the czar and winked at Emily, who rewarded him with a giggle. “Hats just aren’t my style,” he drawled. “Unless of course, we’re talking about a Stetson.”
“My mistake, but don’t sweat it. It’s not an order, and besides we’re all off duty right now.” Olivia laughed as Maya swept in and adjusted the bib around the little one’s neck. “Maybe for her birthday party next year, I’ll get a special cowboy birthday hat just for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Dakota dipped his head and pulled the lollipop out of his mouth. “That would be real nice.”
With a loud shriek, Emily smashed both of her pudgy little hands into the cake before giggling and eating the confection off her fingers. The entire group burst out laughing and Suzie snapped away, capturing more photos.
Everyone was having a grand old time.
Well, almost everyone.
Dakota’s steady gaze shifted to the left and landed on the only individual in the room who wasn’t exuding the same goofy happiness as the rest. He’d sensed her uneasiness out in the hallway before he even rounded the corner.
Aside from being the only woman who’d caught his eye in over fifty years, she was the one member of the coven that Dakota couldn’t figure out. That nagged at him. He was good at getting a bead on people—human, vamp, or otherwise—but not this one. Over the past couple of years, the pink-haired spitfire of a woman had become a riddle he wanted to solve.
Trixie La Roux sat on the arm of the overstuffed brown leather chair with an expression that Dakota couldn’t read. Her hair, which changed color as frequently as the wind blew, was currently streaked with variations on pink and black, and slicked back in a short stubby ponytail. Dressed in her usual ensemble of ripped-up jeans, black combat boots, and a well-worn graphic T-shirt, she looked every bit the crazy punk rock wild woman most people thought she was.
When Dakota first met Trixie, he’d expected her to be crude and rude, but no matter how hard she tried to put out that image, she was neither. Under all of that heavy black eye makeup and pink hair was a woman doing her best to hide. Her edgy appearance and saucy language were a cover, a way to hide in plain sight.
But hide from what? Or whom?
And that was what kept drawing Dakota in.
Perched on the arm of the chair, Trixie slowly swung her boot-clad feet, her pale brown eyes focused on Emily. Dakota noted an unmistakable air of sadness hidden behind a small smile. Why was she so damn melancholy? She loved Emily and the rest of the coven, so why was she acting more like she was at a funeral instead of a birthday party?
Trixie adjusted her position, her palms resting on either side of her thighs, but she froze when she caught him staring at her.
“What?” She cracked her knuckles as she did whenever she got nervous. She brushed at her shirt and pants. “Did Emily fling frosting on me or something?”
“No, ma’am. Just admiring a pretty lady, that’s all.” Dakota’s grin grew as her cheeks pinkened. “Nothin’ wrong with that.”
“Right,” she scoffed. “I’m no lady.”
“I beg to differ,” he said with a wink. “A tough one…but definitely a lady.”
Clearing her throat, she hopped off the chair and moved closer to her maker, as though seeking protection. Sticking her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, she nodded toward the table.
“Hey, Olivia. Why don’t you have Emily open some of her presents?”
Dakota pushed himself away from the wall and moved in closer, giving him a clearer view of Trixie. As they pulled one present after another over to the birthday girl, Trixie’s body language reeked of anxiety that grew more visible by the second.
She folded her arms over her chest and nibbled on her thumb while Olivia and Doug helped their daughter open the pile of gifts. Trixie’s smile was strained and not the open, genuine smile he’d witnessed over the past couple of years. He’d been studying her closely and had grown to know her smiles—and this was her fake one. The smile that hid her sadness.
Not so tough after all and definitely not so simple.
“I left a gift for Miss Emily too. It’s right there on the table.” Dakota tossed the lollipop stick in the small wastebasket in the corner. “It’s the one in the brown box. Just a little somethin’.”
“Thanks, man,” Doug said without taking his eyes off his daughter. “You didn’t have to do that, but it’s appreciated.”
“Let’s see what our resident cowboy gave you.” Olivia dragged the box over. “It’s not pair of chaps or something, is it?”
“No, ma’am.” Dakota shook his head and let out a beleaguered sigh. “No chaps. She doesn’t have a horse and gettin’ her chaps now would be plain old silly. This isn’t as swell as a real horse, but I hope she’ll take a shine to it.”