Authors: Tes Hilaire
Copyright Â© 2013 by Tes Hilaire
Cover and internal design Â© 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Patricia Schmitt (Pickyme)
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To my wonderful street team, Hilaire's Hellions. Imagination is just the beginning of the journey to completing a book. Your help and encouragement dispels the darkness along the way.
Four months beforeâ¦
Valin fought to breathe through the layers of dust shifting through the stale air of the cave. One aftershock tremor after another rumbled through the cavern.
He blinked, striving to make out anything in the darkness. Nothing could have possibly survived that blast. Even Valin's skin felt singed, and as a Paladin he was supposedly immune from the burn of heavenly light. Unlike the vamps and demons they'd been battling in this godforsaken place.
He shuddered, dread settling in his core. Gritting his teeth, he pushed out with his senses, striving for any signs of a living, breathing essence. Nothing. Absolutely fucking nothing.
you're too late. Just like you were with Angeline. Too late to protect her. Too late to save your unborn child. And now your little vampire is dead too.
He clenched his jaw. He would not believe Gabriella was dead. She might have been a vampire, but she was
“Fuck.” He raked his hands down over his face. “What the hell am I thinking?” He'd just met the pint-sized pain in the ass. He knew nothing about her other than that she was stubborn, annoying, andâ¦brave. So fucking brave. Brave enough to face down
, her natural enemy, while chained to a wall. Brave enough to stand against her master. Brave enough to run toward death in some vain hope that she might save the lives of two others. Stupid, impossible brat.
Swearing, he pushed off the clammy wall, stumbling along, randomly picking tunnels whenever he came to a split. Maybe she made it far enough. She was fast and determined. Maybeâ¦
His boot kicked into something soft, causing a pile of ash to billow up around him, clogging his lungs.
He ground to a halt, breath trapped tight behind his ribs as he sifted his hand through the cloud of ash. So soft, so light, and all that was left of a life. His hand began to shake, pain radiating from behind his ribs, even though he knew,
it could just as likely be some random bloodsucker who'd decided to take their chances in these caves rather than facing the Paladin who'd come to eradicate them.
This wasn't her. He'd prove it. He clenched his hand into a fist, taking another step into the darkness. He just had to find her first.
It's not her blood. Not Gabby.
Valin's hand shook as he splayed his palm across the splotch marring the pavement. The slick fluid masqueraded as nothing more than the leftovers of a long-sitting vehicle, though it wasn't. Black, oily blood. Blood from a creature so inherently malicious that its dark essence had leached into the blacktop upon its death, leaving a pall of evil.
. Sitting back on his heels, he dragged his hands down over his face, half-surprised to feel the stubble on his jaw. Endless nights of searching, sleepless days of worrying. How long could he keep this up? Four months of nothing, then last week he'd seen her. It had been from a distance on a dark street and she'd been wearing a wig, but something deep in his gut had screamed that it was her.
He had to find herâalive and well, and most importantly, before any of his brothers did. Every time one of his Paladin brethren claimed another kill, his gut tightened into knots, his fear that this time one of his seemingly offhand inquiries would yield a tale of a redheaded vampire's demise and he would completely lose it.
He swore, closing his eyes. It would be worse than when he'd lost Angeline. She'd been his best friend, their unborn child his heart and hope, but Gabbyâ¦
She's my mate. My very soul.
He hadn't even claimed her yet and it seemed the universe was conniving with friend and foe alike to take her from him too.
“What is it, Valin?” a voice rose from behind him. “Can you tell what happened?”
Valin tensed and twisted, quickly closing in on his shields as he glared up at the blond Paladin who'd snuck up behind him. And wasn't that just great? Caught having a “moment” by Bennett, the one Paladin who had a shit's chance in hell of reading him. Luckily the empathic warrior didn't seem to be attributing Valin's case of nerves with his spiraling grasp on his sanity, his focus solely on the stain at Valin's feet.
“I can say pretty definitively that someone killed a merker here.”
“Dead?” Bennett's brow winged up. “How, though?”
Valin shrugged. It wasn't that he didn't want to answer the question, more that he wished he knew what the answer was. It wasn't easy killing a merker. Slice 'em up, fry the heart and gray matter in His light, and serve was the only tried-and-true recipe he knew of, but given the potency of the residual stain, it was just as obvious that someone had found another way.
“Bloody hell.” Bennett took a deep breath, running his hand back and forth across his short, spiky hair. “It's one of them, isn't it?”
Valin's brow shot up. As in one of the gifted humans who'd managed to send the council all in a tizzy after their little surprise break-in last week? Not only had the group's actions compromised the safety of the Paladin sanctuary Haven, but the misguided band had just enough power to be dangerousâto themselves, to others, and to the random merker, it would seem.
“You think?” he replied, sarcasm dripping heavily in his tone. Not like there were many other options.
Bennett didn't rise to Valin's sarcasm. His face was solemn as he met Valin's gaze. “No Paladin has reported a kill in this area, so yes, I do think so.”
Valin sucked in a breath, acid churning in a stomach already raw with nerves at the mention of the daily kill reports the council had taken to posting. Eleven vampires and three succubi in the last week and a half alone.
Gabby. She's tough. Smart.
A memory surfaced, Gabriella's lips curling to reveal her pretty little fangs as she jerked at the manacles.
“Do I look like the fucking enemy?”
she'd demanded, her sinful red locks sticking to the trails of salty tears coating her cheeks. The truth was she hadn'tâwhich was his reason for not immediately staking her. Chained in that dilapidated coalhouse, a cloud-break away from extinction, attitude had poured off the pint-sized vamp, exposing a backbone that may well have been bent, but never broken. He'd known instinctively that she, like his brother Roland, had had no choice in her turning, and the IV bag lying on the floor beside her proved she fought her nature tooth and nail.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't matter to a Paladin that she'd been turned against her will. Didn't matter that she was free now, her maker Christos having fallen to Roland's blade. Nor did it matter that Gabby had always seemed to bat for the good guys. Nope, the only thing that would matter to his brothers if they were to come face to face with her was her heritage. Part succubus and all vampânot exactly the credentials to put on an application for the angel-blood-only club.
“Hey, mateâ¦you in there?”
Valin blinked, taking in Bennett's pinched face, the suspicion burgeoning in his eyes. Not cool. He didn't need his Paladin brothers watching him too closely. Play along, go with the flowâ¦find her. The rest of the shit he could figure out later.
“I'll be fine,” Valin replied, tugging up his hoodie's zipper. “Just cold and cranky.”
“Right then.” Bennett blew out a deep breath as he searched the less than lively street around them. “So, any ideas how we're going to track down who did this?”
“Yeah, I got one,” Valin replied, carefully stepping around the stain.
“Find the prey and you'll find the hunter.” He curved his lips up in a semblance of a smile. “Let's go find some bad guys.”
“Really, Aaron, you don't have to stay,” Gabriella said, emphasizing the words with a full-on stare down. It was the umpteenth time she'd told him to leave, and the umpteenth method she'd tried, but she'd yet to have any success convincing her self-assigned tagalong to leave her side. His lack of compliance was really beginning to put a chip in her ego of badass-extraordinaire, not to mention a throb in her fangs.
“I'll stay. Unless you want to try and make me leave.” He flashed a grin, showing off the chip he'd gotten in his front tooth last week when she'd attempted to do just that. Gabby ground her fangs against her lower eyeteeth. Tempting, but then she'd have to explain to Jacob why she couldn't seem to keep his little brother in one piece.
Sighing, she turned her attention back to the almost deserted street. From here, in this fenced-off playground, she had a great view in both directions, including the old restaurant-turned-club down the way. In another time, or perhaps just another lifetime, she might've raised an eyebrow at having a playground so close to a club that catered to the depraved, but with the things she'd lived through and seen, it came nowhere near a WTF on her radar screen. Besides, it really was the perfect location to scope out the club. A good hoodie, some torn jeans, and boots, and as long as she didn't get close enough for a face-to-face, she could still pass for a high school delinquent looking to score some on the teeter-totter.
Too bad Aaron in his camo pants and clean-cut crop of brown hair ruined the image.
Maybe she should just bite him and get it over with. It would be one way of deterring him from following her everywhere.
She swallowed, jerking her gaze away when she realized she'd focused on his neck. Not that it helped. Short of cutting off her ears, there was no way to ignore the pounding heartbeat still throbbing against her eardrums.
“Eats garlic. Probably tastes bad. And who would fix the base's computer?”
Aaron twisted his head, forehead bunched. “What are you muttering on about?”
“All the reasons I shouldn't eat you for dinner.”
His brown eyes widened, but then he laughed, Adam's apple bobbing. “Good one. But I'm still not leaving.”
She shrugged. “It's your jugular.”
And okay, even saying that as a joke was bad, because as he shook his head, chuckling, she noticed she was running her tongue over her fangs.
Goddamn. Would a vampire just show up already? She was getting really sick of scoping out club after club looking for action. This one had all the traits of being prime pickings for the prey she hunted. Its patrons certainly bought into the vamp culture. Hell, some even filed their teeth. It was the type of place she hatedâshe had no respect for anyone who craved the life she'd been forced to liveâand she would have walked away in a heartbeat but for one thing: She needed a replacement. Her last unwitting spy in the coven had gone blip and fallen off the radar, which meant the blood bond had been destroyed and the vamp was dead. Ergo she had no fucking idea what the vamps' newest leader, Stephan, planned to do next. Which was not cool, given his ultimate goal appeared to be capturing and turning as much of the gifted population of the city as possible, presumably to make his own little army of super-powered vampires.
Gabby couldn't let that happen. Ganelon, with his army of demons and merkers, was bad enough. Though maybe if she were lucky,
lucky, Lucifer's right-hand man and general would catch wind of Stephan's delusions of grandeur, take offense, and wipe him out before he could complete his recruitment plan.
don't you wish for hell to freeze over while you're at it, Gabby?
Aaron shifted, arching his back. “Tell me again why we don't wait inside? Maybe get a drink?”
“That's just it. I'd want a drink.”
He narrowed his eyes, for the first time looking at all concerned. “You
looking a little peaked. Have youâ¦you knowâ¦lately?”
She glared at him. Really? For three months she'd worked with the small militia of gifted humans that Jacob had enlisted, turning them from a hodgepodge bunch of wannabe warriors into the well-oiled fighting machines they were now. And yeah, perhaps they weren't quite ready to step into their Paladin cousins' shoes and take on Ganelon's army yet, but they could at least hold their own in the smaller skirmishes against the fangy recruiters out there. Which was a far cry from when Gabby had rescued Jacob and a handful of his groupies from shit creek back at the end of the summer.
Jacob, ever the opportunist, had immediately tried to convert Gabby to his cause. The idea of leaving a legacy behind when she diedâsomething more than her former stepdaddy and mommy dearest had planned for herâhad sounded appealing. So Gabby agreed to some part-time help. The only condition being that no one ever, ever, ever pry into her personal lifeâpast or presentâand that included the who, what, where, when, or how she took care of herâ¦needs. So far no one had broken that rule. Until now.
“Because, if youâ¦you knowâ¦if you needed toâ¦” Aaron swallowed.
“I don't feed from humans,” she snarled, then pretty much ruined it by flashing her fangs as she did.
His mouth cracked, turning up into a boyish grin. “No problem then. Considering I'm not one hundred percent human, right?”
She gave him a penetrating lookâ¦and fell into his thoughts. An image of her, riding him, then bending down to sink her teeth into his neckâ¦
“Oh, God, Aaron, stop!” She clamped down on her shields, cutting off her accidental intrusion into his mind.
“What? What did I do? Am I doing it again?” He glanced around, his brow puzzling up at the unchanged landscape.
“Don't. Don't even think it, much less say it.”
He snapped his mouth closed, color flooding his cheeks as he finally clued in to what had happened. He turned away, doing his best to at least pretend he was focused on the street on the other side of the chain-link fence as he attempted to shore up his shields.
Gabby squirmed, trying to ease the prickling sensation riding through her limbs that urged her to get up and run from the graphic images that still coated the inside of her skull after that little mind bump. But that wasn't going to help, not when she'd have to face him again later. And it wasn't like this was the first time it had happened, either.
“Listen. I'm sorry. I really am. But
, it wouldn't be safe and
, you'd regret it after.”
“Isn't that my concern, not yours?” he asked softly, his voice filled with the longing she'd been valiantly trying to ignore and couldn't now that he'd said something.
Damn him. She didn't want to do this. She normally didn't give a crap what people thought of her, but she wasn't cruel. Even so, short of the timelessly detested
I'm just not interested
, what could be said? Not to take it personally, that she didn't think she could ever feel that way about anyone? And even if she could scrape up some feelings for him, that any sort of intimacy they shared would be a one-way street? Both succubus and vampire sex, at their core, were about power and control. Even before she'd been turned she'd been taught that.
She rolled her shoulders, fending off memories as she prepped herself for the heartbreak ahead when something tickled her senses. Twisting, she pushed back the edge of her hoodie, scoping out the dimly lit sidewalk. Sure enough there came a vampire, dressed to party in bicep-clinging black silk and snugly fit trousers. And what do you know? He'd brought a few buddies with him. One of which she knewâ¦intimately.
“Lawrenceâ¦” she hissed, already imagining the hot warmth of his blood trickling down her throat before she stuffed her knife up under his ribs.
One of the others would have to do for her new puppet.
She smiled, and something of her eagerness must have slipped through her shields because Lawrence drew up short, causing one of his buddies to bump into him. The lead vampire took another couple steps before he, too, noticed something was wrong, his head lifting, tongue flicking out as if he could taste her on the air.