Minnie brought her hand to the base of her throat. “They started leaving these phone messages that I was in default on my mortgage? We don’t have one. As I said, my hellren built this house two centuries ago. Then they said there was something toxic on the land—and it was at that point that human officials started calling from something called the EPA? They wanted to get on the property. I let them and they found nothing. Then it was a problem with human taxes that didn’t exist. The water table. It’s been…very stressful.”

The older female glanced toward the windows. “Naturally, I cannot go out in the daylight, so I can’t go down to meet with any of these human agencies—and this caused them to become suspicious. I had to ask a friend’s doggen to pretend to be me and this made me feel even worse because I was imposing. And then…”

“What happened next?” Saxton murmured.

“Somebody shot out one of my windows two nights ago. I was downstairs at the time and I heard the popping sound and then the glass shattering all over the floor. It was in what would have been the master bedroom if I didn’t sleep underground—”

At first, Saxton had no idea where the soft growl was coming from. And then he looked across the sofa. Ruhn had bared his fangs—which had descended all the way, their points like those of knives—and his already big body seemed to have swelled with aggression, becoming something huge and very deadly.

As Saxton noted the transformation, his brain bifurcated, half of it remaining engaged with Minnie and the story…and the other part?

All he could think of was what it would be like to have sex with that.

Abruptly, Ruhn closed his lips and appeared to catch himself.

Flushing, he said, “Forgive me. But I care not for you being treated as such in your own home. It is not right.”

Minnie, who had become slightly alarmed herself, smiled once again. “You are a lovely young male, aren’t you.”

“No, I am not,” Ruhn whispered as he lowered his eyes. “But I would keep you safe herein, if I could.”

Saxton had to force himself back to the topic at hand. Otherwise, he was liable to stare at that face for the next night and a half.

Clearing his throat, he said, “How long ago was this again?”

“The night before last. I didn’t tell my granddaughter, of course. I can’t have her even more worried. But I did call Rocke and he came over to patch the glass with a piece of plywood. I ended up telling them everything—and now you came tonight.”

Saxton thought of what he’d noticed on the approach to the house, that something-is-not-like-the-others up in that window on the second floor.

This was much more serious than he’d thought.

After Mistress Miniahna completed her story, Ruhn took the tray with all the tea fixings back to the kitchen. He was trying to be polite, and also make himself useful, but what he really wanted to do was inspect the farmhouse’s lower level. There were shutters for the daytime that had been pulled into place along the rear of the house, and that gave him some reassurance—except he couldn’t understand why the front ones remained open. She should have everything shut up tight.

As he went through the simple, spacious rooms, he noted the dining room along the back. The library off to the side. The small bathroom under the stairs. A pantry and a number of closets.

In the recesses of his mind, he couldn’t help but note the woodworking on the moldings, the furniture, and especially the paneling and shelving in the library. Her hellren must have been a master carver of the old-school variety, and for some reason, that made Ruhn feel even more protective of Mistress Miniahna. Then again, these were his kind of people, civilians who worked for a living and earned their way honestly. Which was not to say that he did not respect the Brothers. As soldiers, they worked just as hard, and in dangerous, even deadly, situations. No, he was thinking of the glymera…of Saxton’s people…although he meant no disrespect to that male specifically—certainly the solicitor had risen above the shiftless nature of so much of his class, for Ruhn knew well how much work he did.

But yes, the high-bred dilettantes.

In fact, maybe that was why Ruhn felt so disconnected in the mansion. Being surrounded by all the trappings of great wealth, he found it difficult to reconcile who the people were with the assets of the highest social order of vampires. This house was his style, though. Grander than he would ever live in on his own, but so lovingly built and enjoyed.

Those fucking humans.

Indeed, although he had made a vow not to return to his old ways, he was going to happily sort this little difficulty out. By force, if necessary.

Backtracking into the country kitchen, he then returned to the parlor. Saxton was leaning forward on his cushion on the sofa, his hands motioning in emphasis.

“—think we need to reach out to them on your behalf.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” the mistress was saying. “You all work for the King. You have more serious matters than this to address.”

“It would be our pleasure to be of service unto you.”

“No, I must insist you do naught. All will be well—surely they will become bored of this soon?”

As Saxton brushed an impatient hand through his thick blond hair, Ruhn happened to notice the way the waves resettled into place, riding a cowlick that was off to one side.

It seemed odd to note such a thing, and Ruhn was careful to redirect his attention to the mistress.

“Please,” he heard himself say. “I would not feel right about leaving you here to fight them alone.”

“Must it be a fight, though?” Old hands twisted in her lap. “Again, perhaps they will just tire of me.”

Saxton spoke up. “They used a gun to threaten you. Do you think they are tiring—”

“Forgive me,” Ruhn interrupted. “But I noticed when I was in your kitchen that the shutters along the back of the house are shut—and yet those in front are not? Why are they open?”

Miniahna flushed. “The windows are painted shut after all these years, and the only way to close the shutters is to do it manually from the outside. I had opened them before the storm so I could enjoy the moonlight—and to prove that I wasn’t scared. But then the blizzard came…and I have been afraid to go out there alone. I promise you that I’ve been sticking to the rooms in the rear of the house except for tonight. With you coming, I figured…well, if I’m being watched, it is good for them to see that I’m having people in, that I’m not alone. Or was I wrong? Oh, dear, have I put you in danger—”

Ruhn put up his palm. “Do not think more of it. You did the right thing. But may I go and shut them for you?”

“Would you?” Miniahna began to blink quickly. “That would be such a help.”

“Work of a moment.”

Ruhn gave Saxton a nod and went to the front door to put his boots back on. As he let himself out of the house, the cold air made his eyes and the inside of his nose sting, but he ignored that as he stepped off the stoop and slid in between the hedges and the house. Closing the shutters one by one, he locked each set of them in place with hook latches.

A quick check on the sides of the house and around the back satisfied him that everything else was in order, and then he returned to around front.

He did not go back inside right away. Searching the big tree, he thought of those tracks in the lane.

On an impulse, he trekked through the deep snow to the truck and got out a flashlight. Triggering the beam, he trained the light up into the barren branches above him.

He found the remote camera off to one side, a subtle wink of glass flashing as the illumination hit the lens’s reflective surface. But before he did anything about it, he continued his investigation, doing a one-eighty on the property. He located a second one around the back.

Killing the flashlight, he went to the front entrance, stomped the snow off his boots on the mat, and let himself in.

After he’d reclosed the door, he leaned into the parlor. “Mistress? You said you had a security camera—do you have more than one?”

“No, why?”

“No reason. Where is your camera located again?”