Authors: Cynthia Cooke
In all the years Xana Scorpio has hunted vampires with her brother, only vampire king Marius has eluded her. Then Marius captures her. He's convinced she has the antidote to a toxin killing his people. Desperate for information to save them, Marius will use every sensual power in his arsenal to get what he wants. Though Xana tries to resist him, Marius is as seductive as he is deadly. She is held helpless by his gazeâand by the surge of desire aroused with his biteâ¦.
The sky erupted in an explosion of red and orange hues hastening the day's end. Soon the vampires would be rising. Damn, she'd better hurry.
Xana pulled to a stop along the shoulder of the two-lane highway that wound through northern California's coastal mountain range and killed the engine. She popped open the glove box and slipped out her Glock. She hurriedly placed it inside her waistband against the small of her back and then grabbed two thin wooden stakes sharpened to needle-fine points and placed one in each of her back pockets.
She snatched her brother'sâCayman'sâpack off the floor then climbed out of her truck, tucking her hands into her leather jacket pockets, cupping the five-point silver stars in each palm as she started down the mountain path.
Below her the valley twinkled in a sea of lights, but up here, she was alone. Isolated. She took a deep eucalyptus-scented breath as the wind picked up and listened for Cayman beyond the rustling of the leaves. Nothing. She kept to the path heading toward a warehouse. Why would Cayman have come here without her? He knew better, and it pissed her off. But lately he'd been hiding something, keeping secrets and pulling dumb stunts.
Like this one.
A pulse of electricity zapped the hair on the back of her neck and sent a shiver across her shoulders. She glanced behind her, but saw no one then stepped behind a large pine and stood still, listening, straining to hear even the slightest movement. Someone was out there watching her. She knew it. She felt it.
She grasped the star in her pocket tighter and quickened her pace back down the path. The sooner she got to Cayman and the warehouse below, the better. About halfway down the mountain, she saw a movement in the shadows. Slowing, she peered through the dense foliage, inching forward, thankful for the soft carpet of pine needles beneath her feet. Cayman stepped out from behind a tree, then paused, as still as the night.
“Jesus, Cay,” Xana whispered. “What's up with the theatrics?”
“No theatrics. But a little less noise would be nice.”
She narrowed her eyes into fine feline slits. “Why did you drag me all the way out here?”
“It's your birthday. I wanted to give you a present.”
“And you couldn't have given it to me, say at the Chart House over a filet?” she asked.
He shoved his hand in his pocket then pulled out a pewter tube with an amethyst crystal set into its top dangling from a long silver chain.
Her annoyance evaporated. “Wow, Cayman.” She cupped the necklace in her hand. “It's beautiful.”
“I thought you'd like it.” He placed it around her neck. “But this isn't all I got you.”
“No?” She looked at him warily. Surprise gifts weren't like Cayman.
“You got the pack I asked you to bring?”
“Of course.” She patted the strap slung over her shoulder.
“Good. Then let's go.”
“Cay.” She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “What aren't you telling me?” A niggling in her gut hinted that there was more going on here than he was letting on.
The small muscles in his jaw twitched. “This is a big one.”
Xana paused at the slight quiver in his voice. Was it possible that her steadfast older brother, who was always in control, was suddenly afraid? A twinge nipped Xana's insides. She had an intimate relationship with fear, had lived with it for so long, she wasn't sure she could live without it. Cayman, on the other hand, was never afraid and Xana had come to depend on him to keep her fear at bay.
Now she didn't know what to think. “What big one?”
He was being cryptic again. As they walked farther down the hill, the warehouse came into view. They watched for a moment as the building's front door opened and a young woman stepped out. She locked the door behind her then crossed the empty lot to her red car. “She should be the last one,” Cayman said. “They worked late tonight.”
Xana felt that odd tingling on the back of her neck again. She swung around, certain there must be someone behind her, but again saw no one.
She was just jumpy. Jumpy and tired.
“Great, now would you mind telling me what's going on?” she asked.
“Vampires. Lots of them.”
“Since when do vampires play corporate business? You've got to be wrong about this.” God, she hoped he was wrong about this.
“If I'm wrong, then why is your vampire sense doing the tango up and down your spine?”
He was right. She didn't like the uneasiness twisting through her. Usually they waited until nightfall, hunting vamps in the shadier districts of San Francisco, where the fog crawls across the ocean and winds through the streets. The city was a haven for alternative lifestyles and underground clubs where patrons often offered up the sweet drink willingly. In these haunts, vampires blended in, melded, thrived.
Warehouses in the middle of the mountains were not their normal stomping grounds, but one thing Xana knew about her brother was that Cayman was seldom wrong. His facts were always straight. He took time to make sure they were on the right trail, that their raids were organized and plotted down to the slightest detail.
Xana, on the other hand, was not a thinker, but a doer. A woman of action. And that's what she wanted to do right nowâact. Not sit around here watching the shadows deepen into sharp points on the side of an ugly grey box. But still, something didn't feel right about this.
As the red compact disappeared up the road, Cayman turned to her. “Okay, let's go.”
“Finally,” she said on a deep breath. They hurried down the hillside and into the parking lot then ran toward the building's entrance.
Cayman pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the glass front door. “Getting a copy of the key off the woman who just left last night was easy. Getting the codes to the alarm system wasn't. But I got 'em.”
An anxious twinge pinched Xana's side. “You've done a lot of planning for this one,” she said, wondering why he hadn't clued her into the job earlier.
“Always do.” He opened the door and stepped inside then stopped and punched the alarm code into a small box on the wall by the door.
Xana pulled out her gun specifically equipped with wooden-core silver bullets then followed her brother into the heart of the building, down one gloomy corridor after another where the only sound was the low hum of the air conditioner reverberating around them. “Sure is quiet,” she whispered.
“Just wait until dark. That's when the party starts.” They passed through the main warehouse, weaving through wooden crates stacked ten and twenty feet high. “This place fronts as an import/export businessâjunk art, vases, statues, but the real work goes on in a lab dug into the side of the mountain.”
Xana paused outside a locked door and waited for Cayman to open it. This was way beyond the vamp-staking they usually did. Cayman continued through the doorway, down a long corridor, to a door set into the far wall. Once opened, he stepped out onto a metal landing. Xana followed, then stopped. Her breath catching in her throat choked her. “My God.”
The entire floor below them was lined up with row upon row of stainless steel cylinders.
“High-tech coffins,” Cayman explained.
Xana turned to him. “Are you kidding me?”
Cayman's gaze hardened. “Does it look like it? According to my sources, someone is building an empire of vampires. We're here to stop them.” Cayman descended the stairs, taking them two at a time.
? Xana stared after him. The niggling fingers of concern she'd felt earlier grew into fists of fear. She looked out at the sea of coffins. This was a lot bigger than annihilating a few vamps.
Cayman stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned back, his eyes darkening as he grasped the rail with whitened knuckles. “Start unloading the explosives. I'll be right back. I just need three minutes, five tops. Then we'll blow this place to kingdom come.”
Xana nodded, but realized with certain dread that it hadn't been fear earlier on the hillside that had caused the quiver in Cayman's voice, but rage. Mr. Cool was about to lose it and that scared Xana a lot more than the roomful of vampires below her.
The sooner they got out of this place, the better.
She grabbed Cayman's pack and moved quickly through the room, strategically placing sticks of dynamite in each corner before inserting the blasting caps and running the fuse the length of the room to connect with a detonator. She attached the timer and placed it at the bottom of the stairwell. The explosion had to be powerful enough to incinerate the basement's occupants without bringing down the building or the mountain.
After she positioned her last explosive, she pulled a nearby box next to a coffin and stepped up to look through the small glass window in the top of the steel dome. A man lay tucked inside, his skin an odd shade of purplish gray, the dark circles beneath his closed eyes a deep red. Strangely, he didn't look like a soulless evil vampire, but she knew too well that looks could be deceiving.
She headed back toward the stairwell, winding her way through the coffins until she reached the archway her brother had disappeared through. She looked at her watch. Almost dark. She'd hate to be stuck in this building once those coffins started to open. Even her specialized vamp-blaster wouldn't stop the number of undead housed in this crypt.
“Cayman, come on!” she called down the hallway her brother had disappeared into. She heard a soft footstep behind her and pivoted, her gaze searching the room. Nothing. Her stomach churned. Something moved just outside her field of vision. A blurred shape darted from one coffin to the next, where it slipped out of sight again. Xana stilled, her breath coming in short, quick gasps.
She clutched her gun in both hands and stepped forward, peering behind a row of coffins. A long black leather coat billowed from behind a canister. She'd seen that coat before, knew that mass of jet-black hair. Her blood thinned and rushed to her head.
. King of the vampires. And the one she'd never been able to get near.
The sound of a lock clicking open echoed through the room. Her muscles tensed. Fear, her closest friend and staunchest enemy, grasped hold of her heart and squeezed, wrenching free a flood of adrenaline to buzz through her veins. She ran, rounding the last row of coffins, following that jacket.
No one was there.
Where'd he go
A breath lifted the hair about her ear.
Xana spun round.
In a quick movement, Marius wrenched her gun out of her hand. His jet-black eyes locked onto hers and, for a second, she couldn't turn away. She was lost and drowning in those inky black pools. Heat flamed, rising through her body to balloon in her chest. Her breath came in short little gasps. She moistened her lips, not missing the quick movement of his eyes as they watched her. She shoved a hand in her pocket and grasped one of the stars, wanting to pull it out, wanting to flick her wrist and embed the razor-sharp points in his chest.
But she didn't.
Marius wasn't any ordinary bloodsucker. Marius was the king of the bloodsuckers and he hadn't survived as long as he had without learning a few tricks.
Tricks she was pretty sure she didn't want to see.
“Where's Cayman?” His smooth voice moved through her sweet and thick, like hot creamy chocolate, coating her senses, making her want to hear more, making her want to lean in close to see if his breath smelled as sweet.
Jesus, what was wrong with her?
“Where's the cylinder?” he demanded.
“What are you talking about?” Her voice wasn't her own. It was higher, pitchy, weak. She didn't like it.
She didn't like anything about this.
His hardened gaze narrowed as it followed the path of explosives set around the room. “You and your brother won't like the consequences of this game you're playing.”
She should have laughed at his threat. Should have come back with something witty, something perfect that would let him know that she wasn't afraid of him. That she could take him down any moment she chose to. But for some reason her tongue was tied.
A cacophony of locks springing open rumbled through the air. Xana gasped then glanced down the hallway, looking for Cayman once more. When she turned back, Marius was gone. That was her cue to leave. She turned and headed for the stairs. She'd wait for Cayman upstairs, away from these coffins. Away from Marius.
“You ready?” Cayman asked, seemingly coming from nowhere.
Xana grabbed him by the arm. “Damn you, Cayman. Where have you been?”
“Getting this.” He held up a small plastic case. “Are the charges placed?”
“Yes, but we've got companyâMarius. He took my gun, and for some reason he was asking for you and for some kind of cylinder.”
Cayman's blue eyes swept the room. Only they weren't quite the blue they'd always been. Somehow they were different, almost mirrorlike and incandescent. “What's up with your eyes?” she demanded.
“What?” Cayman asked, taking a step back.
“I don't know. They lookâ” she groped for the right word “âpale.”
Cayman blinked and he was her brother again, the same guy who had always been there for herâon the day she was born and on the afternoon their parents died. “We'd better move.” He glanced furtively around him.
“You got that right.”
“Set the charges then meet me back at the top of the road.” He placed a plastic case into the pocket of her blouse inside her jacket. “Make sure nothing happens to that case. Trust no one.” Cayman turned and started up the stairwell.
“What? Cayman? Damn.”
A loud sound popped, then the whoosh of vacuum-released hydraulics. One by one, the coffin doors opened.
“Shit!” Xana ran to the timer hooked to the fuses that was spread across the room and activated the clock preset to count down from three minutes. “Time to roll.”