Chapter One

 

“DEAD AND Breakfast Inn, may I help you?” Tanner Weiling ran up the stairs lightly, glad he wasn’t panting with the effort like he did sometimes. Bears were not exactly light on their feet, and somehow his human body seemed to defy physics and be denser than it should be.

He had a meeting with his business partner, Fallon, and it wasn’t yet fully sundown, so they had to meet in the vamp-proof attic. Vamp-safe? Whatever. He’d just ushered out the last guest until tomorrow, and Tanner was pleased to have a rare night off.

He pressed the phone to his ear. “Yes, Mr. DesJardins. I can have the north tower room ready for you by Friday. How many nights will you stay?”

He made a mental note that he would need to stock in blood for three nights. Antoine DesJardins liked to party. If by party he meant sit in the tower room and guzzle blood while devouring the latest Fallon Jameson novel. Every time Fallon had a new release, Antoine came up and got a signed hardback, then read for days.

Personally, Tanner thought Antoine was a damned slow reader. Fallon’s thrillers took him about six hours to read.

“Thanks, sir. I’m glad you’re looking forward to it. Bye.” He hung up just as he reached the fourth floor. Jeez, that last staircase was narrow and hot. He banged on Fallon’s door. “It’s five thirty!”

“Is it?” Fallon’s clipped, not-quite-British voice always sounded so polite. “So sorry. Come on in.”

He ducked into the aerie, which looked just like a writer’s office ought to. There was a grand wood desk with leather leg bumper things, a big swivel chair, and next to the sleek Mac computer sat an Underwood typewriter that had probably seen all the pages of Fallon’s first novel. A comfy overstuffed chair crouched by the little round window, which was covered right now with a state-of-the-art steel shutter, which kept out all light.

“Have a seat,” Fallon murmured. “Two minutes while I finish this chapter.”

“Sure.” He liked how Fallon had turned the living room into an office where he could impress folks if he wanted without letting them into his private quarters. People wanted to believe in the romance of the writer pecking away in his garret. Tanner knew that beyond the heavy wood door to the inner sanctum, everything was sleek, black and white and chrome.

No one wanted to think vampires evolved past the time of their real birth, and Fallon had been about since the Civil War or before.

Tanner sat, listening to the tap-tapping of Fallon hitting the keys. The rhythm was hypnotic, Fallon so fast and accurate that the sound was almost like the hum of a big machine. Tanner blinked, drowsy enough that he almost fell asleep.

Fall was here, and a bear’s mind turned toward hibernation….

“Are you well, love?” Fallon asked.

Tanner blinked and jerked upright. “Sorry. Sorry, did I doze off?”

“You did. It might have taken me more than two minutes. What are we meeting about?”

“I need to hire a manager.” Tanner just said it, not wanting to pussyfoot around. Okay, that was funny. He was so not a kitty.

“What?” Fallon’s black brows rose with shock, just as they always did when Tanner mentioned he needed help with the B and B. Fallon was happy to provide financial backing in return for his living space, but he had no interest in the day-to-day running of the business.

“I’m tired, Fallon. It’s crazy busy these days. I know you don’t see it, but it’s true.”

Fallon frowned harder. “You’re just saying that because it’s fall. Business will drop off some once the snows come, Tanner, and you’ll have time to sleep.”

He scowled back, knowing he could do a pretty great mean face thanks to his inner bear. “You’re just being stingy.”

“I am not.” Fallon sighed, the very picture of ennui. If there was a dictionary listing for “broody vamp,” Fallon’s picture would show up next to it. “I suppose you have figures to support this increase in business?”

“I do.” He hadn’t bothered to bring his tablet, because he knew Fallon had his Mac up and running. “If you’ll go to Dropbox and look at second-quarter final and third-quarter projected….”

“You and your spreadsheets.” Fallon clicked and the computer whirred, and Tanner sat back to let Fallon read through at his own pace. If there was anything Fallon understood, it was sales numbers. Fallon finally glanced up at him, raising his eyebrows. “Well, you’re right. There’s a significant increase in stays.”

“Right? Even with Glenda in to cook some mornings, I’m just running my paws off. And she won’t come up once the snows start.”

“So what do you propose, then?”

“That’s in the PDF.” He never came empty-handed to Fallon anymore. Never.

“Ah.” Fallon clicked around again, only to spend several moments reading. “Well, this is reasonable.”

“I thought so. I’ll begin taking résumés tomorrow and try to do interviews next week.”

“You’ll send me the résumés to review?”

“I will, but we always agreed I get final call.”

Fallon smiled faintly, a tiny slip of fang showing. “Of course.”

Right. Who was he kidding? Fallon had run off every employee he’d ever had, save Glenda and Jami, the night manager. She wasn’t scared of anything. Fallon wasn’t mean or even difficult to work with. He simply hated strangers having access to him.

The guests didn’t have master keys, Tanner would say.

Tanner sighed but smiled anyway. “How goes the book?”

“It goes well. Exceptional, in fact. Hopefully I’ll have it done before you start interviewing. You know how distracting that can be.”

“Oh, boo-hoo. I’m supposed to sleep all winter, and I always have to be awake. Cry me a river.” He stood, knowing Fallon was exaggerating from the tone of his voice. Fallon never gushed. He’d let his partner get back to work. “I’ll let you know when the first interview is scheduled so you can be sure to have all your words in.”

“Thank you.” Now Fallon was grinning, just happy as anything that he’d gotten Tanner’s goat, no doubt.

“You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time.”

“I always have time for you, Tanner. You know that.”

That was true enough. Fallon was the best friend he’d ever had, and he would defend Tanner to the death. He just wasn’t happy about anything that meant change.

“I appreciate it.” He rose, then moved across to Fallon’s desk to kiss his friend on the cheek. “You’re a good egg, Fallon.”

“I am rotten to the core.” Fallon shooed him away with a languid hand. “Go on. I need to write.”

Tanner left the room, the stairs so much easier going down. He grinned. That had gone far better than he’d expected. Now he could only hope that finding an assistant would be just as easy.

 

 

FALLON UNDERWOOD stared at the screen where Tanner’s email glared back at him. Three résumés attached, and none of them was remotely suitable for the inn.

They had a night auditor who was perfectly trained, so the vamp was out. The mummy wouldn’t work in the least because no one wanted random crypt dust on the floor—Glenda would hex his undead ass out of existence—and unattached fingers in the tea? Right out.

He pursed his lips when he looked at the werecat. Mountain lion. Very young. Just out of college. No. That would never do. Too bouncy. Too Tigger.

He called down to Tanner on the house phone. “Seriously? A river rafter? Seriously?”

“He has a degree in hospitality. He worked at a large B and B in Fort Collins.”

“He’s a kitty adrenaline junkie.” They didn’t need that kind of energy.

“Yeah? Well, that will serve him well. I notice you don’t comment on the other two.”

“Because I just deleted those. You weren’t serious. No way you were.”

“No? Well, I have a few more to send you. They’ll come for interviews next week.”

“Are you sure you can’t just have Glenda do it?”

“Glenda? Our Glenda?” Tanner laughed, the sound merry as fuck. “She would smother the guests in their sleep. Possibly awake.”

“Either that or make them statues. Less work that way.”

“One of the ones I still need to send you is an elf.”

“Seriously, Tanner? A house elf?”

“I know! Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

“No. No, elves are not helpful and you know it.” They were vain and much preferred others to work for them.

He just wanted to bite them.

“You’re profiling.”

“Tanner, I will bite your beary butt.”

“Alas, you never follow through.” Tanner sighed dramatically.

“It’s all that muscle,” he teased. “My fangs ache just thinking about it.”

Tanner laughed. “Come down and have supper/breakfast with me. It’s dark.”

“I suppose I can do that, bear. Give me ten.” He stood up and stretched, feeling his back pop.

“You got it. I’ll warm something for you.”

“I’ll be right there. No mummies.”

Tanner chuckled and rang off, leaving him even more worried than before. He had a feeling he was going to end up having to veto the mummy in person.

That smell, and the sneezing….

The sneezing was the worst.

He changed out of his sweats into a pair of dark jeans and a button-down shirt in midnight blue. Fallon hated to let anyone, even Tanner, know what a slob he could be.

Sure, he could spend night after night in front of his computer, head down, not even breathing, but that was his secret.

Tanner deserved for him to look good, just in case there were guests. He shot his cuffs before making his way downstairs, admiring as he always did Tanner’s understated, old-world decorating style.

He’d loved this place from the first time Tanner’d brought him here, decades ago. There was something magical about this space.

Maybe it was the land. Maybe it was Tanner. Either way, he didn’t want to lose the balance they had, and he feared it would happen if someone new came on board.

He worried about it with every new person. Every single one. Most of them he admitted he never saw. Glenda kicked him out of his rooms once a week to clean. Jami brought him blood at 4:00 a.m. most nights.

It wasn’t like they were a big estate. They weren’t a hotel, for goodness’ sake.

Tanner was just being dramatic. Bears hibernated, but humans did not.

Oh, that was the tack to take. Bears hibernated, but so did a lot of their clientele. In the winter, most of their guests were low-maintenance.

Like him. He was totally easy.

All Tanner had to do was stock blood. Sure, it was nice to have it delivered to his rooms, but he could get it himself, if he absolutely had to.

He bounced down the stairs, finding Tanner waiting for him.

Long arms opened for him, and Fallon walked into the bear hug, breathing deep. He liked to pretend he didn’t need contact, but Tanner had never taken no for an answer. Hugs were a way of life in the ursine crowd, apparently.

He patted Tanner’s back. “No guests tonight?”

“Four. But they’re pretty quiet.”

“Wow. That’s busy.”

“Right?” Tanner’s dark brown bear eyes twinkled. “I know you hate the idea of someone new, but we did agree.”

“Still. No mummies. No zombies.”

“You vamps and your prejudices.”

“I can’t help what I am, Tanner.” Vampires were really the living dead. Blood still flowed. Zombies and mummies were spells. Totally different beasts.

“None of us can, I guess. Still, you’re getting stiff.”

“I am not.” He looked at his pants.

“I mean hidebound. Unbending.” Tanner chuckled softly. “You always make me smile, Fallon.”

“I try, old friend. I truly do. Please, not the mummy.”

“Not the mummy, Fal. You have my word.”

“Thank you. Blood and cookies?”

“I’ll have eggs and bacon.” Tanner led the way to the kitchen, lumbering in that bear way of his.

“I do love how you love your breakfast foods, day or night.”

“Syrup and honey go with toast and bacon and all those things.”

“Yes. Sweets.” Tanner adored that. Fallon preferred salty and spicy to go with his sweet.

He sat at the huge island in the warm, mostly commercial kitchen. The whole motif of sunny French Provençal made him wince, but it was lovely in spite of itself.

“You know, we are supposed to be catering to the goth type, right?” Fallon asked.

“If they wanted that, they’d go to Nathan’s in New York.” Tanner began assembling food. “They want Colorado comfort. Remote retreat. Good service.”

“Something not quite so… cheery?”

“Bah. You hush. This is my domain, and I like yellow and blue.”

“Honey and berries?”

“Be good.” Tanner swatted him with a dish towel.

“I’m basically incapable.” It was a neat thought, though. With every silly joke that passed between them, Fallon relaxed. Tanner wasn’t trying to replace him. Just get some help.

And maybe a nice long nap.

As much as it irked him sometimes to give in, Fallon wanted his friend to be happy.

He supposed he could live with a manager.

Well, anything that wasn’t a mummy.

 

 

CARTER CHECKED his hair in the rearview mirror, nodded, and hopped out of the Jeep.

Time to do this. Interview, ho!

The house was pretty cool, an older three-story with clapboard siding instead of a log place. A few cabins sprinkled the hillside behind the house, and the view? Epic.

There was this bridge you had to cross to get there, the river right there, singing to him. The aspens were whispering, the leaves clacking and clicking together.

He would bet there was a boat landing carved out on the bank back there. Carter itched to see it, but instead he trotted up the steps so he could knock on the door.

Positive, peaceful, competent, joyous. He repeated the words over and over. The mantra was better than “Will work for food.” Desperation was not an attractive trait, especially in a manager.

A stout lady with, uh, hissing hair opened the door. “Yes?”

“Good afternoon.” Smile, focus on the eyes.

His lips started to go numb, his nose itching like someone had cast it in concrete. Oh. No. No eyeball-to-eyeball with this one.

She chuckled, the sound like rocks clacking together. “Come in. I’ll get Tanner.”

“Thank you, ma’am!” No biting, he willed the snakes.

The back half of her hair hissed at him some more when she turned around, but Carter stayed just out of range. He’d never met… was she a gorgon? Was he mixing his mythology?

That was pretty cool, one way or the other. Showed willingness to work with all sorts of beings. He thought the boss was a werebear, but he wasn’t sure.

“Mr. Tanner? This is your two o’clock.”

“Ah, thank you, Glenda.” The Tanner guy was in a wee office nook off the main room. He rose, and Carter confirmed that was definitely bear. Tall and broad with shaggy brown hair and deep brown eyes.

“Sir.” He held out one hand and smiled.

“Carter Hughes?” Tanner shook hands, warm and firm but not squeezy. “I’m Tanner Weiling.”

“Mr. Weiling, pleased to meet you.” No bouncing.

None.

Zero.

Be the antibounce.

Tanner smiled, and the expression seemed to say Tanner knew he was trying not to bounce.

“Come sit down.” Tanner led the way to a neat little bay window where two chairs and a coffee table were all set up.

“Oh, this is lovely. You have an amazing view.”

“Thanks. It makes people feel calm.”

“I believe that.” Carter sat on the chair Tanner indicated. Well, perched.

“Talk to me, Carter. Why does someone with a hotel management degree come out here to a little B and B?”

“Because you welcome all of us. You’re not just running a guesthouse for humans. I love the idea of catering to all the ‘more than human’ guests.” He’d worked all this out after reading interview questions online.

“I built this place with my business partner just for that. I wanted a getaway for seekers of the less than goth.”

“Your business partner?” He tried not to frown. He’d done pretty heavy research and never found anyone but Tanner listed as the owner.

“He’s a silent partner.” Tanner grinned like he was sharing a joke, so Carter smiled like he got it. He was really running in shallow water here, and it was rocky and technical.

“Does he live here too?” Carter asked, keeping the boat floating.

“Upstairs. Tell me about your favorite hospitality class? I’m interested.”

Carter explained all the fascinating science of guest services, because it really was a science, sort of like bars and restaurants. Tanner nodded and smiled, so Carter nodded a lot back and babbled.

He sure hoped he wasn’t putting Tanner to sleep.

Finally Tanner nodded as if he’d made a decision, smiled at him. “You hungry, Carter?”

“Um.” Oh God. What should he say? If he said yes, did he look like a mooch? If he said no, did he seem ungrateful?

His belly answered for him, growling as if he were a tiger, not a mountain lion.

Tanner laughed, the sound deep and dark and wonderful. “That would be a yes. Me too. Let’s raid the kitchen.”

“Okay!” He would love to see the kitchen setup, if only briefly.

The kitchen was built for a bear, large and well stocked. Everything was at a height that Tanner could move around well, but Carter wasn’t tiny, so he would work easily here. “Is your business partner tall too?”

“Fallon? No. No, he’s on the petite side. Not brownie tiny but smallish.”

“Oh.” Huh. “Does he not cook?”

“He’s a vamp. Not his thing.”

“Oh. Oh! I understand.” He grinned. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. My roommate all through college was a vampire. Nice girl.” Pale, but nice.

“Fallon’s… challenging. I do adore him.”

“Are you two—whoa, strike that. Too personal. Sorry.” Carter’s cheeks heated painfully.

“It is, but no. Best friends for damn near a century.”

“Wow.” Tanner looked good for a shifter that age. Bears could go a good long while, though. A lot longer than overly bouncy kitties.

“I know. I do. I look great. Nowhere ready to be a rug.”

“Totally. Can I do anything to help?” He felt weird standing there shifting from foot to foot. He really did have the urge to help.

“There’s brisket and potato salad and coleslaw in here. Rummage for bread?”

“You got it. Is there a bread box?”

“Right over there. The little built-in cabinet on top of the counter.”

Nice. He rummaged, deciding on a softer white loaf, which went with barbecue.

“You like pickles?” Tanner asked. “Also, if you want to ditch the suit jacket and tie, it’s cool.”

“Oh, thanks. Is it obvious this is not my thing?” That was another reason Carter was applying at B and B-type places rather than a five-star hotel. No suits, no shiny shoes.

“Little bit. To be honest, the only felines I’ve ever met that wore suits were foreigners.”

“Yeah? Like from where?” He loved the idea of, like, a Russian Eurasian lynx in a shiny suit. That made him happy, just thinking of intrigue and shit. Carter dug pickles out of the fridge like he belonged in there.

“I’ve met a tiger from India. Classiest son of a bitch I’ve ever met. Mated with an African lion.” Tanner made a yummy noise that Carter wasn’t sure how to interpret.

“Nice.” That sounded like a lot of teeth, but sexy as hell, nonetheless. “Do you want onions? I can chop one real quick.” Carter had taken a nine-week culinary class back before he decided what to do, and he could chop like crazy.

“Sure. There’s a half in a baggie in there. I smelled it.”

“Cool.” Sure enough, half an onion sat on one shelf, carefully wrapped in a baggie. He’d read an article once about how toxic it was to store an onion in the fridge, but, dude, he’d never keeled over from it.

Carter chopped and Tanner heated up meat and sauce, and they sat down to their lunchy snack in no time, grinning at each other.

“This looks amazing, Tanner. Thanks.” Even if he didn’t get the job, Carter was having a ball.

“You’re the first person who’s agreed to eat with me. We’re a family here. It’s important.”

“Oh, I think food is totally love.” Carter bounced. So much for the lord of the still.

Tanner relaxed deeper in his chair. “That’s what we’re about. A comfortable place to stay, meet people, eat.”

“So do you have a lot of repeat customers?”

This was a good place. A solid one that vibrated with om kind of vibes. Carter wanted this job so bad.

“Oh yes. That’s… eighty percent of our business? Repeat and long-term, say two weeks and longer.”

“Wow. Those are great numbers.” He folded some brisket into a piece of bread, then added sauce, onions, and pickles.

The meat was juicy and the bread was soft, while the onions and pickles crunched. Perfect. Had Tanner made this? Damn. Carter knew for a fact there was no barbecue joint around.

“This is so good.” He said it with his mouth full, but he couldn’t help it.

Tanner growled softly, clearly agreeing totally.

The sound settled in his bones. Carter thought he could belong here. The river wasn’t the only place that called to him about it.

Maybe he was going to luck out. Maybe he’d found his way home on his first outing.