HE WAS running late.
Of course he was. On what was, absolutely and without a doubt, certain to be the single most stressful day of Blake Jones’s life, he couldn’t get his act together. The alarm failed to go off, and it was only the loud beep of the snowplow that pulled him from sleep. The hot water disappeared halfway through his shower, when he still had to rinse out the shampoo. He had to search high and low to find his missing glove. When he finally made it outside, the snow on the car was four inches deep, and the plow had thoughtfully shoved snow right up against his bumper. He was sweating and shaking by the time he got himself shoveled out and the car brushed off.
A glance at the dashboard told him it was an hour after he should have been at the office, and he still had five miles to drive. In a snowstorm. On badly plowed and salted roads. It took him three times as long to make the trek than it normally did, and almost two hours late, he finally pulled into the vast parking lot at Requiem Inc.
Even then he still thought about calling in. Except he knew he couldn’t. Not today. Which was why he made the trek in the first place.
His boots crunched and squeaked as he walked as quickly as possible across the lot and to the front door. He slipped more than once, but the tread on his boots had good traction and he didn’t go down. Until he set foot on the cleared sidewalk, stepped directly onto a patch of ice, flailed a moment, and hit concrete.
Now he was late, in pain, and had wet pants.
Blake screamed a curse to the heavens, picked himself up, and trudged through the glass front doors.
The lobby was quiet. Though it was purposefully decorated in a warm and inviting style, no one lingered there. There was no need. Requiem Inc. didn’t get many visitors. The ten-story building that housed the Duncan Moor branch office wasn’t exactly open to the public. People who entered had a specific purpose—either a meeting or work—and there was no point hanging around downstairs.
Blake gave a gloved wave to the security guard behind the polished desk and beelined for the elevators, making sure to walk on the runners that had been laid down so his wet feet didn’t slip on the gleaming marble floor. He bypassed the metal detectors and headed for the far end, where a palm reader and a small gate were all he needed to gain entry to the upper floors. Blake had fairly high clearance, and while he appreciated the lengths Requiem went to in order to keep their employees safe, he was glad he didn’t have to go through the whole rigmarole. He tugged off his fleece-lined gloves, shoved them in his pocket, and laid his left palm on the sensor while he yanked off his thick hat with his right. A moment later the sensor flashed green, and a barely audible click let him know he could push through the gate.
“King is gonna kill you,” Greg called from the desk, sounding faintly amused.
Blake shot him a look, but he couldn’t quite make it as scathing as he wanted. Greg was a jovial and friendly man, and Blake didn’t have it in him to be rude, despite his morning thus far. “Ha-ha-ha.”
Greg offered him a belly laugh and waved him on. Blake shut the gate behind him and got on the closest elevator as soon as the doors swooshed open. It was a quick and silent ride to the sixth floor. Music was piped in during the holiday season, but since the New Year had come and gone, everything was once again blessedly silent. Blake didn’t mind the music—enjoyed it even—but he was glad he didn’t have to listen to it. It would have set his ragged nerves even more on edge.
The ding signaled his arrival, and a second later, the doors slid open. Blake unzipped his jacket, shrugged it off, and unwrapped his scarf. He found a smile for Julie, the receptionist at the desk in the middle of the sparse sixth-floor lobby. She grinned back.
“You’re late.” Her smoky voice was tinged with laughter, and her eyes twinkled as she studied him.
“I called.” It was a meager defense. Yes, circumstances had been beyond his control, but it still wasn’t much of an excuse. Today was not the day to be late.
“Mr. King is going to kill you.”
Blake managed a laugh, though he wasn’t feeling it. Julie was just too sweet and perky to take out his frustration and worries on. “Everybody’s a comedian.”
Julie gave a tiny chuckle and then shook her head and turned back to her work. “He’s down in the conference room. Good luck today, Blake.”
“Thanks,” he said, and he meant it. He’d take all the luck he could get. He was going to need it.
Blake made a quick stop in his office to hang up his winter gear and exchange his boots for sneakers. There was nothing he could do about the wet splotch on his hip. It would dry eventually. He didn’t linger, though he wanted nothing more than to hide there. His nerves increased tenfold, and his stomach jittered as though he’d swallowed hundreds of live butterflies. Blake took another minute just to try and gain his composure. Then he sucked in a deep breath, pulled open the door, and headed down the hall.
The conference room was usually only used for meetings. Once a month they had a whole-department staff meeting, and occasionally there was reason to gather there, but mostly the room remained unused. Blake felt awkward heading there—a bit like he was being called into the principal’s office. More than once he had to remind himself he wasn’t in trouble. He’d done nothing wrong.
He was just getting a new partner.
That was the hardest part about the whole thing. Blake had been working for Requiem for fifteen years, and in that time, he’d only had two partners. His first, Elizabeth, had trained him, but that was her last task before she finally retired. For the past fourteen years, he’d worked side by side with Katy, and they had a very close relationship. When she decided she’d had enough of the life and it was time for her to retire as well, Blake was devastated. As happy as he was for his friend, he was selfishly upset to lose her. He knew their friendship would remain, but he couldn’t stand the thought of having to start all over again with a new partner.
Blake took one more steadying breath as he pushed open the conference room door. And promptly lost it all when he saw the African-American man standing by the bank of windows, watching the snow fall. He had expected his boss, Michael King. But what he got was someone else entirely.
Blake’s heart picked up as he let his gaze drift down the length of the man’s body. He was tall—at least several inches over six feet—and broad shouldered. The fitted long-sleeved shirt he wore clung to sculpted muscles in his pecs, shoulders, and arms, and accentuated his flat stomach. His skin was a warm, honeyed shade of brown and looked perfectly smooth. Blake’s fingers ached to reach out and touch—to trace the strong jaw, the corded neck, and rub along the closely shorn dark hair.
As though he sensed Blake’s presence, the man turned and graced Blake with a wide, blindingly white smile. His dark eyes were warm and inviting and sparkled in the overhead light. Lust hit Blake hard, tightened in his gut, and made his blood flow south. He had to swallow and then lick his lips.
Good lord. The man was simply gorgeous.
Blake tried and failed to think of the last time he’d reacted so strongly to another man. He’d never felt lust so intensely just on sight. Usually that kind of attraction built over time, after he’d really gotten to know someone. But if this guy told him to get naked and bend over the table, Blake would have done it eagerly.
“Hello there.” The man had a deep bass rumble of a voice, but it still held a brightness that surprised Blake. His tone was as open and inviting as his face, and Blake actually swayed forward before he caught himself.
“Hi.” Blake, on the other hand, could only manage a breathless whisper.
The man’s smile grew even wider. “Are you Blake?”
Blake nodded, entranced… and then realization dawned. How did the guy know his name? He had to be new. Blake would have known if someone that beautiful worked for Requiem. Maybe he was starting at the same time as Blake’s new partner, and they would all be meeting together.
Wait a minute.
Blake squinted, and his lust vanished in a flash. He blamed the pretty man for addling his thought process. That’s why he hadn’t put two and two together right away. Blake took a step back to put more distance between them, even though they were standing on opposite sides of the room.
“Who are you?”
The brightness in the man’s face dimmed just a fraction. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but the answer came from the doorway behind Blake as his boss finally entered the room.
“This is Derek Scott, your new partner.”
Blake whipped around and faced Michael King. Didn’t matter that his boss was all muscle and height and towered over Blake’s five-foot-nine frame. It didn’t even matter that King had all the authority as the department head.
“What?” Derek asked, confusion clear in his voice.
Blake didn’t spare him a glance. “Absolutely not.”
King leveled Blake with a patronizing look. “Yeah. You don’t have a choice. Suck it up.”
“I can’t.” The panic bled through into Blake’s voice, and he didn’t even try to stop it. “I only have girls as partners. You know this. I can’t have a guy.”
“Why not?” Derek sounded curious… and a little hurt. Blake didn’t care.
King was unimpressed by Blake’s outburst. “It’s not as big a deal as you’re making it out to be. It’ll be fine.”
It wouldn’t be. Blake’s reactions were intense, and having them in front of a male partner was unthinkable—doubly so since Blake was so attracted to him. This was a disaster just waiting to happen, and Blake could not let it.
He shot an apologetic glance over his shoulder. “This isn’t about you, man. I’m sorry.” Then he focused on King once again. “Can I talk to you alone, please?”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” King made a dismissive gesture. “Just sit down.”
“King, this is important.”
“I’ll just, uh… I’ll just step out?” Derek cleared his throat, and out of the corner of his eye, Blake saw him move.
“No,” King said with finality. He blew out a breath, gestured for them all to sit, and pulled out a chair. Derek followed a moment later, somewhat cautiously. Blake didn’t sit. He crossed his arms and stared down his boss.
“I didn’t make this decision lightly, Blake. There were a lot of factors that went into this assignment. Not the least of which was that Derek excelled in his training. His profile shows him to be a 93 percent match with you, and he has the anchor gene.”
That gave Blake pause. He’d never worked with anyone who had the gene, and it was supposed to make the whole process so much easier. Katy had been exceptional, but that had been because of her personality. Having the gene meant that Derek was hardwired to care. But Blake didn’t focus on that. Instead he zeroed in on the other part and what it implied.
“So this has been in the works for a while, then?”
King let out a snort. “Of course it has. Katy gave her notice two months ago, and that’s when I started combing through applications. Did you think he just appeared out of nowhere? I didn’t just randomly pick someone because you’ve been without a partner for the better part of two weeks.”
Indignation and anger roiled in Blake’s gut. “You knew all this time and didn’t tell me?”
“It was a strategic move.” King gave him another stern glare. “I knew you’d react this way, and I didn’t want you to get all worked up about it. At least until I knew for sure that Derek would be willing to move from the Albuquerque office. And then he needed a few days to settle in. Now,” King paused to gesture to the empty seat on his left, “would you care to sit down and stop being rude to your new partner?”
That was the only reason Blake sat. It wasn’t Derek’s fault that he’d been put in this situation. Blake needed to man up, but he wasn’t happy about it. At all. It felt like he’d been ambushed, and while King had reasons, it wasn’t exactly a professional move. Sure, the Ghostwalker division got a lot more leeway than some of the others. There were so few of them, even including the anchor half of the pair, that they were more like family than coworkers. Hell, in some cases, they were family. Since the abilities were tied to certain genes, they followed heredity lines. Blake’s own brother, Samuel, also was a ghostwalker.
“I apologize, Derek,” Blake said as he brought his focus back to the issue at hand. “As you can see, it was a shock to find you here. That’s no excuse for my rudeness, but I am sorry.”
Derek nodded, and his features smoothed. Blake could see the concern in his eyes, but he resolutely ignored it and turned his attention back to King.
“Okay. Fine. What’s next?”
For a long moment, King didn’t say anything at all. He just stared at Blake, and his intense gaze never wavered. Blake fought not to fidget, but he found it nearly impossible. King could make Blake feel like he was a child instead of thirty-two years old. He sat and took the staring, hardly squirming, until King was satisfied.
Damn telepaths. King had express permission to read any of his employees any time he wanted, but that didn’t mean Blake liked it when he did. King only used his powers in the course of their job, but it was still slightly unnerving.
King nodded, and the intensity behind his dark eyes faded. His expression gentled, and so did his voice. “It’s going to be fine, Blake. Really.”
Blake didn’t like the vulnerability he felt, so he just nodded once and made an impatient gesture. “I trust you. Can we just get on with it?”
“Sure,” King said jovially, and Blake scowled at his shift in attitude. “Blake Jones, I’d like you to meet your new partner, Derek Scott. Derek trained in the Albuquerque office and has just transferred here with the express intent to be your partner.”
Apparently they were going to act like the last several minutes hadn’t happened. That was fine with Blake. As though sensing Blake’s moment of inattention, King cleared his throat pointedly and flipped open the cover of his tablet.
“Derek, meet Blake. Don’t let first impressions fool you. He’s one of our most accomplished and well-trained operatives. Out of all of our currently active ghostwalkers, he’s also been here the longest.”
Derek offered Blake another genuine smile. “It’s great to meet you. I’m sorry it was a surprise sprung on you at the last minute, but I hope we can work well together.”
He was just so earnest that Blake couldn’t help but let the tension go. Once again he was reminded it wasn’t Derek’s fault. And Blake loved what he did. He needed an anchor to do it effectively and for any length of time. Not only did Derek seem gung ho about the whole thing, he actually had the gene. He was predisposed to care for Blake in his recovery. That had to count for something, right?
“I’m sure we will,” Blake lied, though he did it with a smile. He really wanted that to be the case. But he was uncomfortable to think that this man, to whom he had such a powerful attraction, would see him in his most vulnerable state. Blake didn’t know how he could handle it.
Hell, gene or not, Derek would probably ask for a transfer the first time he saw Blake come back to life.
Just then King’s tablet dinged, and the red Priority Case banner flashed across the screen. King touched the banner, and the case filled the screen for a second before King snapped the lid closed. But Blake saw it.
“That’s for me,” he said with a sigh.
King squinted. “It can wait.”
“It’s a kid, King, and marked as a priority.” Blake lifted his gaze to focus on Derek. “Sometimes children are the most problematic. They don’t understand what’s going on, and temper tantrums and fear combine to make a vengeful spirit. We don’t want that to happen if we can avoid it.”
Derek nodded. “I remember learning about that.”
“It can wait,” King said again. He gave Blake a pointed look. “You’ve only just met. Haven’t even sequestered together yet. I’ll get someone else to handle it.”
The sooner they did it, the sooner Derek would run for the hills. As much as Blake wanted to get to know the man, it was on a personal level, not a professional one. That attraction, combined with his self-consciousness, made Blake want Derek to refuse to work with him. And there was only one way that was going to happen.
“Who sent it?” Blake asked, although he had a good guess.
King blew out an explosive breath and grudgingly answered, “Shona.”
“Yeah. I thought so. It’s for me.” Blake pushed back from the table and stood. “If this kid called out to Shona, and Shona sent it on, then I’m sure I’ve got a message on my tablet too. It also means that the spirit is in danger of going dark. I’m best equipped to handle this.” He focused on Derek. “You don’t mind just jumping in, right? No better way to find out what you signed up for than to actually participate in a ghostwalk, right?”
Derek went still and studied him for a long moment. “If you really think it’s that important to do it right now, then I’m more than willing to help.”
“He’s not going to run.” King sounded smug.
“What?” Derek jerked his gaze to King’s face and swung back to look at Blake. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“We’ll see.” Blake turned and headed for the door. His palms started to sweat, and he surreptitiously wiped them on his jeans. He hoped anyway. He just couldn’t see how this would work in the long term.
“Yes we will.” Derek’s deep voice was full of conviction.
King snorted out a laugh. “Christ. You two are gonna kill me. Okay, fine. Go read the profile, and I’ll meet you in your office in a couple of minutes.”
Blake didn’t look back, and he led the way. Derek could follow him or not.