Darkness Beloved

Darkness Beloved: Legends Of A Dark Empire

Jared King relishes the chance to act as knight in armor, thinning the Dark Empire population by killing those the empress marks for death. Rebecca Darmstadt once commanded Jared’s full submission. He wants nothing to do with her; yet he can’t resist her, for her iciness hides a passionate heart. Jared and Rebecca fight the system and each other on a treacherous journey from alienation to love.

Darkness Beloved

Tori Minard

Cover by Tori Minard from photos by © Shirophoto, © Mariia Komar , © Akv2006 ,© Yurmary

copyright © Tori Minard 2013

This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.

 

Chapter 1

 Rebecca Darmstadt needed blood. There were plenty of human pets here for her use, but she didn’t want to use them. And that was a problem, because in the presence of the imperial court, she needed to keep her wits sharp.

The Empress Daranda, ruler of the vampire nation of the Dark Empire, had a throne room—which also functioned as a sort of living room for the court—that looked like a cross between a baroque boudoir and the set of some futuristic movie made in the mid-twentieth century. Ultra-modern furniture and art that looked like it had been painted by a five-year-old rubbed shoulders with Louis XIV gilded chairs, mirrors, and an absurdly over-stated Rococo-style mural of gods and plump cherubs flitting through clouds on the nineteenth-century plaster ceiling.

Rebecca unfolded her arms and pasted what she hoped was a look of sophisticated nonchalance on her face. After the empress had killed Philippe, Rebecca had spent many decades away from the court, but she was back now and working in Imperial Purchasing. And her old habits, ones she’d perfected over two centuries of court life, were returning as well. Perhaps it was a bit like the human idea that once one had learned to ride a bicycle, one never forgot.

By now the look of aristocratic ennui Daranda’s courtiers affected was nearly automatic, yet for some reason it felt difficult tonight. Her head ached, her throat felt scratchy and she longed for blood. She wanted to scream, to hit something. Instead, she lounged on a blood-red velvet couch with nineteen-fifties skinny metal legs and pretended not to care about anything.

The couch’s color matched the evening gown she wore. Daranda preferred her courtiers to dress the part, and though Rebecca felt more comfortable in jeans and a slouchy sweater, she had enough sense of self-preservation to comply with the empress’s wishes. She felt like some kind of movie cliché in the slinky gown and towering stilettos, the perfectly applied makeup, the long tumble of black curls that cascaded over her shoulders. Didn’t all vampires everywhere dress for dinner?

She smirked, then quickly suppressed the expression. Four hundred years had failed to completely extinguish her sense of irony and her resentment of the empress. But she shouldn’t let anyone else see her true feelings. She glanced around the room, looking for something more pleasant to think about than her ancient grievances against Daranda.

Over there, on the long side of the enormous room, was Jared King, lounging on the floor along with a group of other pets. Like the rest of them, he wore nothing but his skin. And glorious skin it was.

Pale, because of his night-time lifestyle, but glowing with good health. Dusted with dark masculine hair on arms and legs, chest, the sweet line that arrowed from his navel down to his cock, which rested quiescent against his thigh. Hard muscle lay under the surface of his skin. He must take advantage of the gym the empress made available to everyone who lived in the palace.

Rebecca’s heart beat a little faster as she watched him covertly, her lowered lashes disguising—she hoped—her interest. His large, expressive blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at something another pet said. He possessed angular cheekbones and a rather square jaw that made him look older than his twenty-five years—she’d asked around for his age—and a dimple in his chin that for some absurd reason made her want to stare at him.

But it was his lips that really drew her gaze. A bit wide, just full enough, sensuously curved and exquisitely drawn with a perfect Cupid’s bow…he had the most beautiful mouth she’d ever seen on a man. She wanted to kiss that mouth and take his lower lip between her teeth.

He glanced her way. Rebecca switched her attention to a clump of vampires standing about ten feet to his left. Her face burned. Had he noticed her watching him? She couldn’t let him see how much she wanted him. It was too humiliating.

He was only a human pet. Just a boy, really, and one with a bad attitude. He was notorious for his smart-ass remarks and disrespectful behavior toward the vampires. Yet she couldn’t get him out of her head, despite the fact they’d never actually spoken to each other. So silly of her, this infatuation. Disloyal.

He’s just a pet. You won’t betray Philippe by taking him.

Her stomach gave a nauseous lurch and she noticed her hands were beginning to tremble. She’d left the feeding untended too long and she was heading into blood hunger. Feeding had never pleased her much; it made her feel vaguely guilty, even after four hundred years of vampirism. However, it was a necessary evil. If she didn’t take care of it, she could turn into a vicious monster.

She needed a pet. Jared King was a pet. Rebecca returned her attention to him. There was no reason on earth she should feel so reticent around him, so shy. He existed here at the palace to serve her pleasure, hers and that of the other vampires. He knew it and so did she.

With a hard swallow, she rose to her feet. She walked toward him. His head turned lazily and his gaze met hers. He didn’t look away as she came closer. There was something insolent, maybe even angry, in the directness of his eyes.

Stopping at the edge of the pile of human pets, Rebecca swallowed again. “You. Jared King. Get up.”

For pity’s sake, why had she said it that way? She could see in his eyes how much he resented the way she’d spoken.

He got to his feet. “Yeah?” he said, in a tone that matched the look on his face. His gaze traveled from her face down over her body and back up again, as if he were considering buying her.

Rebecca’s back stiffened at his rudeness. She had misspoken, but he had no business taking that attitude with her. “Come here. I want to use you.”

“Now how could I resist a come-on like that?” he said, stepping over the other pets to join her. When he stood in front of her, he gave her a smile that was more of a sneer, almost daring her to punish him.

Her palms were slick with sweat, her voice tight with nervousness and foolish hurt feelings. “Are you new here, pet?” she snapped, even though she knew he wasn’t. He’d been around for ten years. “Because someone needs to teach you a lesson in manners.”

He loomed over her, an intimidating force of naked masculinity. Ridiculous. She was a vampire and many times stronger than he would ever be. Nevertheless, his immediate physical presence made her yet more nervous, even while her body began to ache with desire for him.

Jared looked down at her. “I have perfect manners. I’m just not using them.”

She reached out with her mind, pushing with vampire powers at his will. If she could subdue him, she wouldn’t have to put up with his nasty attitude. Yet no matter how hard she pushed, nothing about his expression or body language changed.

He leaned close to her, put his lips by her ear. “It won’t work. I’m immune.”

Oh, please. No human is immune to vampire powers.

He must have some trick that made it more difficult for her to reach his mind. Very well, she’d simply have to try another way in. Eventually she’d find the key that would unlock his will and allow her to control him. It was best for both of them if she did.

She lifted her chin, determined not to let him know how much he unnerved her. “Fine. Follow me.”

She led him directly to her quarters. It would have been fine, expected even, for her to take him in the middle of the room with the rest of the court looking on. But that wasn’t her way. She preferred privacy, especially with him. The fewer people who suspected her silly crush the better.

Her room was rather crowded with the antiques she’d collected over the decades. She caught him looking around at the bed with its old-fashioned hangings, the elaborate Baroque mirrors with their cloudy glass, the paintings and carpets and fine old French furniture with undisguised curiosity. He’d come from a different world than she; her ways must seem strange to him.

Rebecca’s chin ticked up a notch. “I need sex and blood,” she said with entirely modern directness.

He turned toward her with another smirk. “Kinda figured you did.”

“Why are you so disrespectful?” She remembered the need to subdue his will and began another press inward on his mind.

“Hmm,” he said with mock thoughtfulness. “I don’t know. Maybe because no-one is respectful to me.”

“You’re a pet.” As if he didn’t already know that.

“Yes, I am.”

He stepped closer to her and she fought a sudden, irrational urge to step back out of reach. His will. Take his will. Rebecca shoved furiously against the resistance she felt from him, using more force than she’d ever dared with any other pet. She didn’t want to hurt him, but he needed to submit.

His fingers curled around a lock of her hair, which he lifted to his nose. “You smell good.”

Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t speak. Her thoughts scattered in a hundred different directions. He thought she smelled good. Did that mean he desired her? Could it be true?

No. No, he must be merely reacting to her vampire powers. Yes, that was it. He was even closer now, so close she could feel his body heat through her clothes. Momentary triumph flared in her mind.

He bent down as his big hands came up and captured her head in a gentle but firm grip. Her lashes fluttered. His face was so near. She could see the individual hairs in the stubble that covered his jaw, feel the warmth of his breath on her skin. He smelled like sex, like male sweat, and she wanted to lick him everywhere.

His mouth covered hers. His touch, the taste of him, set off an instant firestorm of lust in her. Rebecca grabbed him, wrapped her arms around him, moaning as she kissed him back.

Jared touched her, his hands so large and hot and hard on her body. Dimly, she knew he was undressing her, knew they tumbled together to the bed, knew they pressed together skin to skin. But in her body all she felt was roaring, desperate need.

His mouth touched her everywhere, on her breasts and between her legs, and she was crying, yelling his name, and they came together in a pounding, almost hurtful joining in which she climaxed at once. Then his orgasm began, his face contorted in something that looked like agony, his body wracked by shudders. If she bit him now, his pleasure would be so exquisite he would never forget his encounter with her. She’d seen tough, ruthless men sob with the ecstasy of a vampire bite given at the height of orgasm.

Her fangs descended so quickly she hardly felt them. She opened her mouth and struck him in the side of the neck. Jared shouted. His big body jerked in her arms. He pulled back, tried to get away. God. Had she hurt him? Could he feel what she was doing to him?

Tears started in her eyes as she clasped him to her. It was too late to let him go. She must have blood now, or her condition could become dangerous. Rebecca removed her fangs from his neck and sucked at the wounds she’d made. The life-giving fluid sent a charge through her body as she swallowed it, returning her full strength and making her tingle all over with an almost sexual glow. She couldn’t help making soft sounds of pleasure, embarrassing as the situation was.

He quieted in her arms. A husky moan came from his throat. She took another swallow, stroking his back, then stopped drinking and licked the little holes closed.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said, her throat so tight it pained her. “I couldn’t put you under.” She should have known that—he’d told her, but she hadn’t believed him.

He brushed off her apology. “How did you know my name?”

Rebecca’s face flushed. She had to force herself to hold his gaze. “I asked around.”

“Who are you?”

He didn’t like her, that was plain.

“Rebecca.”

“Nice name.” Jared pulled out of her body and got off the bed. The loss of his weight and heat made her wish she could bring him back. And she could, if she were willing to physically wrestle him to the mattress.

“See you around, Rebecca.”

“Wait.” She needed to explain, to make sure he understood she hadn’t meant to hurt him.

But he just kept walking until he’d walked out her door.

 * * *

 Several months later:

His trainers had told him that killing would get easier the more he did it. He’d blown them off—talk about a cliché. Where’d they gotten that one, the movies or TV? But they’d been right. Jared had been committing murders for the Dark Empire for just a few months and he’d already seen a big difference in how shit went down with each kill. Like his hand didn’t shake anymore when he got ready to squeeze that trigger.

How many had he done? Maybe thirty, maybe more. He’d kinda lost count, to be truthful. At first he’d kept a tally but lately he kept forgetting to log his kills. The idea of losing track of them made him feel guilty, which was complete bullshit, of course.

Thing was, they were just vamps. That was why he’d taken the job—so he could kill the fanged mofos with no fear of backlash. Offing them should’ve been easy, at least in the feelings department. Cause the only feelings he had for the bloodsuckers were rage and disgust, even if he was one of them.

Jared passed the house where his current targets lived and eased around the corner and down a couple of blocks. He parked in front of a ratty-looking duplex that had probably seen no better days. It must have been a shithole the day it was built.

He didn’t bother locking the vehicle the empress loaned him for these jobs. If somebody stole his junker, he could find them easy enough. He was a vampire now too, and these days—nights—his hearing was pretty damn acute. Course, he’d rather not get into it with a human. Homo sapiens were the ones he protected. His fellow fangies were the ones he hunted.

His shoes crunched lightly on the icy pavement—there were no sidewalks here—as he slipped back to the targets’ house. Most of the neighborhood was dark, shut down for the night, the humans sleeping obliviously in their snug little beds. They’d shit themselves if they knew what kind of creatures had moved in down the street.

Even the no-good fuckers running the meth lab. The chemical stench of their operation just about burned out his nose as he passed their boarded-up shack. For a vampire, there was no mistaking the stink of a meth lab.

Jared grinned. Maybe he should take a little detour and scare the meth cookers straight. It would be a public service.

Nah. He had a job to do. Way more crucial than making some druggies piss their pants.

The targets’ squat ranch house was utterly dark. No interior lights, no garage lights, no lights at all. The yard was nothing but snow-crusted grass and some kind of scabby looking evergreen shrub that had almost swallowed up the front door.

The shrub made a cave-like niche, hiding him from the street and any neighbors that might happen to be awake at three a.m. on a Tuesday. Excellent. It was almost like they knew he was coming and went out of their way to make it simple for him.

He picked the cheap lock with ease and slipped inside. In spite of the lack of light, his vampire eyes showed him a clear view of the interior—the postage stamp of tile that served as a foyer, the shabby but clean beige carpet, the tired furniture. Either they didn’t care about interior design, or they weren’t too prosperous.

Maybe it was the overall shabbiness, or maybe it was something else—the room had an ominous feeling about it, like something bad was waiting to happen.

Yeah. You.

He took a quick walk-through, assessing the lay of the house before settling in to wait. Three cramped bedrooms, a single bath, a door leading to the garage and another that gave onto a set of concrete stairs leading down into the pitch darkness of a basement. Plus a kitchen that looked like it hadn’t been updated since being built in the seventies.

There was a strange smell in the house. He’d noticed it when he came in, an odor almost like rotting garbage. Odd, considering how clean the place looked. Whatever it was had no bearing on his job, though, and he decided to ignore its unpleasantness.

Jared paused at the breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the living room. The kitchen’s faded avocado vinyl flooring and harvest-gold appliances were nightmarishly similar to the ones in his childhood home. So similar that icy chills ran up and down his spine as the ghost of his stepdad’s voice bellowed from the master bedroom.

He could almost see the old man, belt in hand, charging at him while his mom sat on the couch in a stupor, like Jared wasn’t even there. Jesus.

Keep it together, King. This is a totally different place.

Right. This wasn’t the same house, even if it reminded him of the dump where he’d spent his childhood. For one thing, it was a lot cleaner than the blood and alcohol soaked portal to hell he’d grown up in. For another, it was in a completely different city. Different part of the country, actually.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. The breakfast bar would give him a good vantage point. He could pop up when the vamps came in and blow them away before they realized what was going on…assuming they couldn’t sense him first.

The empress had given him a piece of crystal that supposedly blocked other vamps from sensing his energy. She’d implanted it under his skin. Yeah, it had hurt. But it seemed to work, cause so far none of his targets had been prepared for him.

Jared set his duffel on the floor behind the bar and sank onto his haunches. He took out his pistol, attached the silencer and slammed a clip home. There was no telling when the vamps would be back. It could be a long, boring wait.

The three of them had committed a terrible, unforgivable crime…at least in Empress Daranda’s eyes. They’d visited the website of Niko and Laila, her worst enemies. Anyone in the Empire who’d gone to Niko and Laila’s site was targeted for death.

Why? Because it showed they were thinking disloyal thoughts, he supposed. He didn’t really give a shit. The thing that mattered was he was being sent out by the empress herself to kill vampires in her name. It was a free pass to off the goddamn fangies, and that was all he needed to know.

Wasting vampires…it was a little like being a Medieval knight killing dragons. Protecting the fair maidens from evil monsters.

Tires crunched on the snow and ice in the driveway. He tensed. Maybe just somebody turning around. But the engine stopped and doors slammed. Footsteps on the icy concrete.

A key in the lock. He swallowed, his whole body singing, his mind narrowing down to his hands, the gun, the doorway. Hiding behind the breakfast bar, he couldn’t see it, but he could hear the sounds coming from that direction. The door opening.

They were laughing—not like monsters, but like people. Two men and a woman. The thin rustle of plastic grocery bags and a rattle of keys. The door shutting.

Jared rose, fired in the direction of the door. A round caught the first person through. A man. The guy slammed back against the corner between the wall and the doorjamb.

A woman screamed. He fired another shot. Missed. Another caught the second guy right in the forehead. Crimson blossomed on the drywall behind him, smearing downward as he sagged to the floor.

The woman dropped her bags. Glass shattered and the smell of beer joined the stench of blood as amber liquid leaked across the tile into the carpet. She didn’t look like a monster, either.

The first man groaned. He stumbled forward. Jared fired again, hit him in the upper chest. The guy jerked under the force of the bullet. His knees buckled.

The woman stared at Jared. Her eyes were large and brown, her hair blond, her lips soft and trembling. She was beautiful, so beautiful. Like a movie star or a model or something, even though she wore no make-up.

She had no color in her face. Blood from her two friends spattered her black leggings and long gray tunic. Her mouth opened in another scream, but no sound came out. Her whole body quivered.

He stood there, gun pointed at her over the laminate of the breakfast bar. His hand started to shake.

“Please,” she whispered. “Don’t shoot me.”

Fuck. His hand was shaking so bad now he wasn’t sure he could make the shot with any accuracy.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

She was a vampire. She sucked the blood of humans to stay alive. She’d probably killed multiple times, kept human pets, and God only knew what else. Raped, most likely. Didn’t they all?

Come on, King, you gonna let a pretty face mess with your head? Shoot her.

She was crying. Jesus, she was crying. Tears rolled down her cheeks and made her eyelashes stick together in wet clumps. His own eyes started to sting.

He shot her right between her elegantly arched brows.

Then he threw the gun on the floor and puked all over the avocado vinyl.

* * *

 Rebecca was back in her least favorite place—the empress’s throne room. She had to make regular appearances here, just like the rest of the court, but it was an experience she could have done without. At least she was wearing jeans and a sweater tonight, instead of bowing to Daranda’s love of formal wear.

The air was scented with blood, human sweat, sex, and a haze of clashing perfumes. Around her, naked humans knelt on the glossy beige terrazzo floor. Or crawled. Or sat in the laps of the vampires present, heads bent obediently to the side while the vampires swallowed their blood.

She could have one, if she wished. She needed the blood. But ever since she’d taken Jared King, she’d found it even more difficult to drink. The life-giving fluid always seemed to stick in her throat, making her nauseated.

Where was he tonight, anyway? She hadn’t seen him in nearly a week. Not that he’d speak to her if he were here.

Rebecca shifted restlessly. Jared hated her. Loathed her. He would never forgive her for the way she’d forced him to serve her. She could see it in his eyes on those rare occasions when he actually looked at her.

“You look lovely tonight,” said a deep male voice.

She looked up to see Grant Kowalski standing over her. He was Empress Daranda’s personal assistant, a handsome blond with a taste for pain and none too bright. Pleasant, though, for a vampire. She forced a smile for him.

“Thank you, Grant. How are you this evening?”

He sat down next to her and stretched out his legs. “I’m free. It’s my night off.”

“Ah. Always a good thing, yes?”

“It would be unwise for me to agree,” he said with a grin.

Maybe he wasn’t so dimwitted after all.

“Have any plans?” he continued.

Was he angling for a date? “Not really. I’m rather idle of late.”

“The empress has kept me running.”

“Yes. You do good work for her.”

Grant shrugged modestly. “I do my best.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. She watched a female vampire lay a male pet down across her lap and kiss him full on the mouth. His heavy arm came around her neck and his cock rose, although whether on its own or because of the vampire’s control of his mind, Rebecca couldn’t tell.

“Would you like to join me for dinner?” Grant said.

She turned to him, startled. “Dinner?”

“Just as friends. Daranda would never forgive me if it were anything more.”

“Friends.” This time her smile was genuine. “Yes, I’d like that.”

No-one had friends in the empire. Not real friends, the kind to whom you could bare your soul, the kind who would keep your secrets. But Grant would be a pleasant companion for a couple of hours, and for the past two centuries, that was the best she’d been able to hope for.

“I know a nice place downtown.” He extended a hand to her.

She took it, rising from the couch. If she was lucky, he might be able to help her forget about Jared for a couple of hours.

 

Chapter 2

 

Jared stared at the mess he’d made on the kitchen floor. Fuck. What was wrong with him? This never happened. Never. Not even the first time.

They were vampires. Not people.

The only good vamp is a dead vamp. Remember?

He grabbed a handful of paper towels from the counter. A groaning noise from the front room stopped him from cleaning up the puke. He still had work to do before the mop-up part of the operation. He swallowed again, hard. She was out there. Waiting for him.

His duffel held a machete. He pulled it out and strode into the living room, hand still shaking. See, vampires didn’t die just because you shot them. Even if the bullet went through the brain. All that did was lay them out for a little while. To make them totally dead, you had to decapitate them.

Laura Beaumont lay on her back, her head on the tile of the tiny entry, her body sprawled on the carpet. Her eyes were open. Blinking. Looking up at him. Was she the one who’d groaned?

Her lips moved.

Fuck. His eyes stung again and for a second his vision blurred.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. And swung the machete.

The blade made a meaty thunk as it bit into the flesh of her neck. He’d heard the sound before, of course. The metal stuck on her vertebrae and he had to wiggle it to get it out. Blood gushed out into the carpet. He’d forgotten to lay down the plastic first. Christ, he was nothing but a walking clusterfuck tonight.

Shaking his head, Jared stalked back to his duffel and pulled out the sheet of plastic he kept folded in the bottom. He brought it into the living room, spread it out on the floor, dragged the bodies onto it. Even Laura’s. She was still leaking blood.

He swung the machete a second time and her head came clean away from her body. He bent down to grab it by the hair. Her lips moved. He yanked his hand back. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. The job had never been this nasty before—not even the first time.

Get it together. She’s dead. It’s just leftover nerve signals or something.

Yeah, okay. He took hold of the long, blood-soaked blonde strands and swung the head over to the plastic. Heads were surprisingly heavy, considering how small they were. Especially this one. Everything about Laura Beaumont’s body was small. Delicate.

She was a vamp. There’s nothing delicate about them. Us.

The groan came again. One of the men was moving his mouth, too. What was it with these people? None of his other vic—er, targets—had behaved this way.

The men’s heads came off easier, mainly because he wasn’t flinching and cringing like a pussy while he did it. Gore pooled all over the thick plastic, running to the edges like it was trying to escape. He pulled the edges up toward the middle to prevent more blood from soaking the carpet.

For some reason known only to her, the empress wanted these bodies destroyed and all the evidence of the murders with them. Normally, he kept the sunlight out of the rooms where his targets lay, allowing them to be discovered by friends, landlords, neighbors.

There had been a bizarre rash of beheadings in Jefferson, Pennsylvania lately. The police were looking for a serial killer. Jared was responsible for most of them—did that make him a psycho?

His kills were a warning to all Imperial citizens to avoid the mistakes the beheaded ones had made. But Daranda wanted these three obliterated. He didn’t know why and didn’t much care, as long as he got to kill the breed that had ruined him and everyone he cared for.

With the plastic folded up like a giant, gruesome envelope, he dragged the whole thing backward toward the kitchen and its sliding glass doors. The back yard, enclosed in a six-foot-tall board fence, held nothing but snow and a rusty swingset that looked as old as the house. It was perfect for disposing of vampire corpses.

He rolled the bodies and severed heads onto the frozen ground in the middle of the yard, just beyond the swingset. Here the sun would catch them in the morning and burn away the remains, even the blood that dripped off the plastic and dyed the snow red. By noon, there would be nothing left except a dusting of ash.

Laura had ceased to blink and open her mouth. Or maybe he just couldn’t see it anymore, with her hair partly covering her face. At the thought, his stomach tried to heave again. He turned his back on her—them—and returned to the house.

The plastic he rinsed in the bathtub and dried with some of the targets’ towels before refolding and returning it to his duffel. He opened all the curtains in the living room and the vertical blinds on the sliding glass door. The sun would come in here, too, and ignite the blood in the carpet and on the walls. There would be a house fire. The fire department would be scratching their heads for a long time trying to figure out what kind of accelerant had been used.

Shit, no. A fire was a bad idea. It would possibly draw human attention before the bodies in the back yard had completely burned to ash. He went around closing the drapes again.

Okay, so clean-up. There was a hell of a lot of blood in the carpet. The living room stank of blood and death. Somehow he needed to get the…gunk…out of the flooring.

Jared went back to the kitchen and snagged two full rolls of paper towels. He blotted up as much of the blood as possible and threw the towels in the back yard with the corpses. Now what? He didn’t want to rent a carpet cleaner.

The cramped utility closet held a broom, dusters and an upright bagless vacuum. Probably not much use at removing blood and other body fluids. He wandered into the hallway that led to the bedrooms, where a ridiculously small linen closet kept an assortment of towels and washcloths, all crammed in so tightly he wondered how they’d taken anything out without pulling the whole mess down.

Crap. Rental was looking more and more likely.

On a whim, he opened one of the bedroom doors. The double bed had a girly comforter with purple flowers on it and smelled faintly of perfume. Must be Laura’s room. And what do you know, she had a carpet cleaner hiding in here, right next to her closet. Had he seen that on his walk-through? He couldn’t remember.

At the time, he hadn’t been thinking about cleaning the carpet.

He took in the neat bookshelf with its rows of paperbacks, the skirts and blouses hanging in the closet, the jewelry and trinkets arranged on the top of her dresser. She seemed to have a liking for cat mysteries, judging by the books.

Something brushed by his cheek and a shiver went through him. But he was alone in the house, so it must have been his imagination. Or maybe just a draft.

None of her junk was any of his business anyhow. Jared grabbed the cleaner and left the room.

It took several passes before he got all the stuff out of the carpet. By that time, he’d splashed water full of blood and carpet-cleaner all over the legs of his jeans and his shoes. It was like the blood wanted to stick to him. When he left, he paused in the doorway to take off his shoes and stick them in the duffel.

The snow and ice burned against his bare soles, but it couldn’t really hurt him. Not permanently, anyway, and it was better than leaving bloody footprints. He got back to his dented old sedan, threw the duffel on the passenger seat. Maybe it was time for a vacation. Even cold-blooded killers needed time off.

As he drove away, he glanced into his rearview mirror. A human shape occupied the back seat. Feminine, small, silhouetted in black against the coming dawn outside the windows.

He started violently. “Fuck!”

But when he looked again, the shape was gone.

* * *

The restaurant Grant chose was called Club Paris. Rebecca had been past it many times without ever once having the urge to go inside, let alone eat something there. It was located in an older brick building. The front window had been painted black long ago, so that you couldn’t see inside, and its blue and red neon sign flickered and buzzed. It looked like a dive.

She smiled at him as he helped her out of the car. Whatever kind of food they served at this place, she’d make the best of it, like the old-fashioned lady she still was in spite of all the centuries. It might be delicious—the mouthwatering smell of grilling meat filled the night air. Besides, anything was better than sitting in Daranda’s throne room one more night.

She ran for the awning and shelter from the rain as Grant whisked the car away to park it, since there were no spaces available near the restaurant. He was such an old-fashioned gentleman. All the surrounding shops and restaurants were closed and dark, except for a place called Something Wicked three doors down. What kind of store was Something Wicked? It had such an odd name.

Rebecca edged toward it. The building it occupied was also made of brick, unpainted, with decorative carvings of gargoyles. The store had one of those signs that hang from iron arms, the kind they put on charming little tourist traps. Below the name of the store, the sign read “a shop of mysterious delights and angelic antiques.”

An odd shiver crept down her spine. People were still in there, even though it was already past midnight and there weren’t any customers to speak of on the street. Several crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, giving the shop the sparkling jewel-box quality that had originally drawn her attention. Window displays held a fascinating array of objects she wanted to see more closely.

She scurried through the rain to Something Wicked’s awning and stood under it, staring into the window. Just then, Grant came dashing out of the deluge. She turned to let him know she wanted to stop in there before they went to the restaurant. Something invisible seemed to press against her mouth, as if someone were holding their fingers over her lips. Telling her not to speak.

Rubbing her mouth, she pivoted on her heel and moved away from the store. It wasn’t the kind of place most men would enjoy, anyway. She didn’t want to bore Grant when he was nice enough to invite her out of the palace.

“Ready to go in?” He smiled at her.

She fought down the urge to gaze over her shoulder at the shop. There was something about it that called to her, made her want to cancel her plans and go inside and poke around in dead humans’ belongings for the rest of the night.

Absurd. Something Wicked was just another store.

Rebecca forced her best Dark Empire smile. “Let’s go. It looks like a wonderful place.”

He laughed. “It looks like a dive. But they have great steak. You like steak?”

“I love it.”

Inside, Club Paris looked like it had last been decorated in nineteen-sixty-three. It had a distinct Rat Pack vibe, with red carpet, leather-covered seats on the banquettes and candles glowing in holders made of thick, jewel-colored glass on every table.

“Wow. Very retro,” she said.

“It’s been this way ever since it opened,” Grant said, smiling at the young hostess as she approached. “In nineteen-sixty-two.”

Huh. She’d only been one year off. Maybe she was developing psychic gifts to go along with her vampirism.

At their table, they chatted of safe and inconsequential matters while the waiter brought them wine and appetizers. Most of her interactions with other vampires were like this. Cautious, polite, avoiding anything that really mattered for fear of seeming disloyal to Daranda.

The only time she could remember being honest was when she’d been with Philippe. And Jared. She’d been honest with Jared.

Damn. She didn’t want to think about him tonight.

“You look like you have a lot on your mind,” Grant said, popping an olive in his mouth.

“Do I?”

“He’s working tonight.”

She blinked. “Who?”

“Jared King. That’s who you’re thinking about, isn’t it?”

“Um…” She hoped the dim lighting hid her blush, but since Grant was a vampire, there wasn’t much hope of that.

“You watch him,” he said.

“Oh, dear. Is it that obvious?”

“Probably just to me, because I’ve been watching his little friend Emma.”

She cocked her head. “The pet with red hair?”

“Yeah. They spend a lot of time together.”

She’d noticed. Rebecca took a sip of wine. The relationship between Jared and Emma was unclear; as pets they’d been forbidden from sexual contact with each other, but now Jared was a vampire and he was free to take the little redhead whenever he wanted.

She cleared her throat. “So what’s he working on?”

“I can’t say.” Grant gave her an apologetic smile.

“Is he really the chief of security or just a figurehead?”

“He’s a bona fide assassin alright.”

That meant carrying out murders himself. Rebecca toyed with her fork, uneasy. Until now, she’d assumed he’d been given the position because of his pretty face. Daranda liked beautiful men to represent her on official imperial business.

Talking about Jared, however compelling a topic of conversation he made, was unwise. She might say or do something to reveal her true feelings about the empire to Grant, and he was nothing if not Daranda’s creature.

“So,” she said with a bright smile. “How long have you been coming here?”

Just like that, the conversation moved back onto safe and boring ground.

By the time they finished their excellent meal, the area was even darker and quieter. The restaurant was closing and they were the only people on the street.

The brightly lit chandeliers of Something Wicked were dark, but a lamp glowed with a secret golden light from somewhere deep in the shop. There might be a worker still inside, or maybe they’d simply left a light on when they closed up for the night.

If she knocked on their door, would they let her in? Probably not. She’d have to come back tomorrow night to find out more about the place. And she would come back. Alone.

* * *

Raphael Black, the seer and chief spy of the Dark Empire, sauntered into the empress’s office with his usual sardonic expression fixed firmly in place. They were overdue for a conference. If it were up to him, it would be postponed indefinitely.

He’d changed over the last few months, in ways both subtle and drastic. He didn’t like it and he didn’t want anyone else to know. Especially Daranda.

She wore her usual exotic perfume and her usual outfit—a closely fitted dark skirt suit over either an ornate bra—meant to be seen—or a silk blouse with a plunging neckline. Tonight it was the blouse option, in pale aqua charmeuse to match her eyes. A long curl of her dark hair draped artfully across her shoulder, grazing the cleft between her breasts. She liked to taunt him with the sexual favors she offered to others but never to him.

Black kept his gaze off her décolletage. He’d long stopped pining over her, although as a young vampire he’d entertained elaborate fantasies that she would someday turn to him and see him as a desirable man, return the love he felt for her.

He noted without surprise that he no longer loved her.

“Sit down, Raphael,” she said waspishly.

He bowed, just as if she hadn’t snapped at him, and took a seat in the only available chair. Steepling his fingers in a gesture he knew she loathed, a cool smile on his lips, he waited for her to begin.

Daranda shuffled some papers on her desk. “I’m displeased.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“You know why. Too many of our subjects are turning to those degenerates on the West Coast.”

“I see.”

“You see? You see?” She glared at him, her red lips pressed into a sharp line. “I don’t believe you see anything at all. Where are your reports? What have you been doing for the last month?”

“Since Callista left, we’ve had to reorganize. We haven’t found an under-seer to replace her and her loss has been more disruptive than I expected.”

She looked like she didn’t believe a word he’d said. “You’ve been distracted ever since you returned from Oregon. What happened to you out there?”

He spread his hands out, palms up. “It was a difficult mission. All of my men died.”

“It was a disaster.”

He bowed his head in acknowledgement of his utter failure to capture the renegade vampire Obsidian. “As you say.”

“But the deaths of your subordinates never bothered you in the past. Until now, you’ve always kept your priorities in the right order.”

It was a measure of how much he’d changed that he saw her remark as a sad commentary on the former state of his soul rather than a mark of his current shame.

Daranda leaned forward across her desk. “Again, what happened to you, Raphael? Did you have contact with your…with Niko and Laila? Is that what’s disturbed you?”

“Not at all,” he said smoothly. “I never caught so much as a glimpse of them.”

No, it had been the extraordinary fact of Obsidian, Daranda’s most feared assassin, giving up his career and risking his life for a nothing of a rogue named Kayla Chandler. That and Black’s encounter with Kayla’s foster mother, a human woman who’d attempted—astoundingly—to care for him, a man whom everyone dreaded and avoided.

Daranda visibly relaxed. “Good. I’m glad to hear it.”

“It was simply a deeply disappointing episode,” he said. “We relied more heavily on Callista than we knew.”

“Well, I rely on you. The empire relies on you.”

“And I’m honored by it.”

“Get yourself together. We can’t afford for you to be operating at half strength right now.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“We need to crack down on these rogues even harder. The people must be taught a lesson.”

“Your Majesty, I agree that the threat of Niko and Laila must be fought. However, punishing the people too harshly may only drive them away faster.”

She raised her finely-arched brows in disbelief. “Do you suggest rewarding them for their disloyalty?”

“Not at all. But we’re already executing anyone caught visiting Niko and Laila’s website.”

“Yes, and yet people are still doing it. I want the culprits dragged here and tortured before the royal court. Video-tape it so it can be shown to the populace. Perhaps that will bring them to their senses.”

He stared at her, appalled and fighting to keep his face impassive. She’d always been a bloodthirsty tyrant, although it had taken him centuries to realize it, fool that he was, but this…this was insanity.

Black cleared his throat. “How many do you intend to torture?”

“As many as it takes.”

“Your Majesty, as your senior advisor, it’s my duty to tell you I believe this would be unwise.”

She laughed. “Did I hear you correctly? Are you calling me a fool?”

“No.” He kept his voice calm and steady. “I’m giving you the advice you—”

“I don’t keep you around for your advice,” she interrupted. “You’re a weapon, Raphael, and nothing more.”

He regarded her steadily. “That isn’t what you told me in the beginning.”

“I lied. You were young and idealistic. I told you what you wanted to hear.”

“The same way you lied about Garek’s death?” She’d told him his Amaki—or fairy—best friend had betrayed him and subsequently died, but the death had never occurred. He knew because he’d recently encountered Garek face-to-face.

The empress flushed. “I told you. I was misinformed about that. I believed him to be dead.”

Should he believe her? His deepest intuition whispered she was lying again. But if he pursued this line of inquiry, he’d call into question everything he’d believed and valued in the thousands of years since he’d become a vampire.

The foundation of his world seemed to tremble beneath his chair as he pondered the question of Daranda’s reliability. He couldn’t think about that right now. It was too distracting, and it would wait. At the moment, there were more pressing problems to solve.

“I am your servant in all things,” he said. Liar. “I understand and support your desire to bring these malefactors to justice.”

Daranda smiled.

“I suggest we try another tack before we move to mass torture,” he continued. “Education, for example. The people need to understand how dangerous Niko and Laila are. Also, we can expose their website as a hoax. Half your subjects still believe they aren’t even real, after all. I think a publicity campaign would diminish the number of defections without any more bloodshed.”

“Hmm.” She tapped her long nails on the glossy top of her desk. “I never thought you’d be so squeamish.”

“Torture is an effective deterrent, Your Majesty, but it may also spur more rebellion. I’d like to try softer measures first.”

She sighed. “Well, alright. I was looking forward to the torture, but I suppose I’ll let you try. But, Raphael?”

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“I’m watching you.” She smiled, but her sea-colored eyes remained chilly. “I’ll be noticing everything you do.”

* * *

The house was abnormally quiet. All she could hear was the steady tick of the old-fashioned clock on the living room wall and some random bumps from downstairs. An overpowering odor of some cleaning chemical filled the air, and beneath that lay the sweet scent of blood. Vampire blood.

Laura opened her eyes. Why was she on her back on the living room floor? She never lounged on the floor. It was undignified, unladylike and unacceptable. She sat up and looked around the room.

Everything seemed to be in its usual spot. Nothing out of the ordinary except the smell. The chemical stench reminded her of something, yet she couldn’t remember what it was.

The carpet was damp. The moisture in it had seeped into her clothing where she’d pressed against it. She rose to her feet as a prickle of dread began to work its way up from her stomach to her throat. Something terrible had happened. What was it? What was it?

Laura walked reluctantly through her little kitchen and out the sliding glass door that led to her neglected backyard. She wasn’t much of a gardener and hadn’t even bothered removing the rusty old swingset that had come with the house when she’d bought it thirty years ago. She rarely came out here, yet she knew there was something she needed to see, to remember.

Some oddly shaped lumps near the swings caught her eye and she moved toward them. There were three of them, long and narrow and oddly colored in the sodium lamps from the streetlights. They were…oh, Lord, they were bodies. Three vampire corpses laid out on the frozen ground.

Her own face stared up at her with sightless eyes. Laura recoiled with a shriek. There was a single bullet-hole in her forehead. And her head…her head was no longer attached to her body. She’d been decapitated. This was an execution, imperial-style.

Memories rushed back, nearly bowling her over with the hideous pain they brought with them. The shooter…a young man. No, a young vampire. He’d killed her and her roommates. Why? She was no traitor. She worked closely with the empress.

Someone must have discovered her special work. That was the only explanation that made sense of this. She didn’t know who it was, but she would find out.

The only bright spot in this disaster was that she was still here, even if she was technically dead. She’d opened the sliding glass door with her hand, just like a living person, and that must mean her experiments had worked. She had outlasted the death of her body.

But wait…if she could open a door, maybe she could re-unite her head and her body. It would take weeks to heal such a catastrophic injury, but it might work. She’d heard tales of decapitated vampires reviving when their heads were immediately joined back to their bodies. Maybe all was not lost after all. In a burst of hope and excitement, she turned to collect her detached skull.

She’d been so distracted by the grisly situation that she hadn’t noticed how much light was in the sky. Just as she picked up her head, the sun crested her neighbors’ spruce trees and early morning light flooded the yard. Her severed head began to smoke, the skin instantly turning red and blistery.

Oh, my, no. This wouldn’t do at all. She rushed the head to the rest of her corpse and tried to align it with the bloody stump of her neck, but she had nothing to use to keep the two pieces of herself together.

Her spirit hands shook as she cast about for something—anything!—to bind her head to her body. Pete’s shirt, maybe. But it was smoking, too, sending a smell of burning cotton into the cold winter air. Frank’s clothing was already in flames.

The leggings on her corpse had melted to her legs. Sullen black smoke, stinking of petroleum, rose from the manmade fibers. A tiny flame appeared in the long, cotton tunic on Laura’s corpse. Her hair caught fire and she dropped her head, which rolled to a stop at a grotesque angle from her body.

She couldn’t recognize her own features now, as the heat consumed them. Her face was nothing but a mass of charred and roasted flesh. Laura sobbed helplessly at the sight of her body destroyed by the sun. It was gone. All gone.

She couldn’t save herself now. Beheading might be possible to recover from, but not in combination with these dreadful burns. She covered her eyes, turning away from the carnage. If only she’d awakened sooner, or realized more quickly what was going on.

Now she was trapped in the spirit world. Her plans, her imperial aspirations, had come to nothing. She couldn’t rule without a body; no matter how convincing her current form was, it wouldn’t fool people for long.

I may not have a body of my own, but perhaps I can borrow one.

The thought calmed her, renewed her hope. Laura gave a shaky sigh and wiped her eyes. She’d never borrowed a body before. This promised to be interesting.

 

Chapter 3

 

Jared walked through fog so thick he couldn’t tell where he was. He couldn’t even see his feet, or any kind of landmark. Nothing but white, the air still, silent, odorless.

A small figure appeared ahead of him, just a silhouette in the fog. It reminded him of the thing he’d seen in his car and he shivered. He stopped walking, but the figure came nearer.

The face that resolved out of the misty whiteness was Laura Beaumont’s. It was her. Still tearful, terrified, covered in the blood of her roomies.

“Please don’t hurt me,” she said.

“I won’t hurt you.”

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“I won’t.” He lifted his hand in an attempt to reassure her. “Laura, I won’t do anything to you.”

“Please,” she whispered. “Please don’t.”

“I said I wouldn’t.”

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“For Christ’s sake, I already said I wouldn’t.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. “Please don’t hurt me.”

He had his machete in his hands now. He raised it. No! He didn’t want—the blade came slashing down, caught her in the center of her slender neck. Her head fell slowly to the side.

Jared stared at her face as it gazed up at him from the ground. The fog didn’t hide it the way it hid his feet. She blinked up at him and her lips moved.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“Fuck!” He sat straight up in bed, heart pounding like a jackhammer.

Shit. Oh, shit. It was only a dream. Not real. He was awake now. Awake. But the fog still seemed to cling to him, wisps of it hovering at the corners of his eyes, and he could feel Laura. Watching.

His sheets were soaked in sweat. His body shook. He rubbed his eyes with a groan. Maybe he was going batshit crazy from the transformation. Maybe that’s what this was.

Some vamps did lose their minds. But who could he ask about it? Who could give him advice? Nobody. Anyone he talked to would go straight to Daranda with a report.

He threw the covers off and got to his feet from the mattress he kept on the floor. Light streamed in around the broken blinds on his window, some of the burning bars of sun almost reaching his bed. He kicked the mattress farther away from his window.

I’m not going crazy. It’s just too much stress. Too much work.

It was midday and he needed more sleep, but the dream still hung around at the edges of his mind. He went into his bathroom and turned on the shower. When they’d assigned him this room in the imperial palace, they hadn’t given him any furniture, but it was better than sleeping in a pile with the other pets. At least he had his own bathroom.

Yeah, and you’re right next to Rebecca.

He grimaced under the hot, stinging spray of the shower. That was one vamp he never wanted to see again. Unfortunately, he couldn’t totally avoid her since she lived next door.

What would Rebecca think of the work he’d done tonight? Would it horrify her? Or maybe it would turn her on.

Somehow he couldn’t imagine that. Rebecca was a cold bitch with a snotty attitude, but she didn’t strike him as vicious.

He pictured her witnessing his actions that night and flushed under a wave of shame more scalding than any shower. For her to see that—the blood, the brutality, the red and black terror of his targets. It made him queasy all over again.

Thought you were a knight in shining armor.

Jared leaned his forehead against the shower wall. This was supposed to be his chance to hurt the fangies. Kill them with no blowback. Destroy them the way they destroyed so many humans.

And here he was feeling guilty about it.

He soaped up his hands and scrubbed himself, never mind that he’d already showered when he’d gotten home. The dream had left him feeling sticky. Dirty. Like he couldn’t get Laura’s blood off his skin.

It was inside him, had seeped through his pores, and now he’d never get it out.

Fuck, what kind of bullshit thought was that? Maybe he was going nuts after all.

He needed a drink. Now. He stopped in the middle of soaping his lower back, rinsed off the suds and got out of the shower, the water still spraying all over the walls of the enclosure.

There wasn’t anything to drink in his room. Jared toweled off and found a clean shirt and pair of jeans. The palace kitchen should at least have a few beers in the fridge.

He didn’t bother locking his door. There was nothing in his room that anyone else would want. Even he didn’t want his shit.

The window at the end of the hall let in too much light. It had a roller shade on it, but the thing was broken, just like his, and canted at an angle about three inches above the sill. Didn’t anyone pay attention to maintenance around here?

Squinting in the glare, he turned toward the other end of the hall, where the elevator was. And ran into a soft, feminine body. He caught the woman by her upper arms, his eyes still half blinded by the violent sunlight.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t see you.”

A faint whiff of perfume, the kind from the bottle overlaying natural female musk, came from the silk robe she wore. Familiar perfume that roused his cock to throbbing awareness. He frowned.

“It’s alright,” she said. “You didn’t hurt me.”

Shit. Rebecca.

“Well, if it isn’t Miss Fuck-me-now. What are you doing wandering around in the middle of the day?” he drawled.

She jerked out of his grasp. “What do you care?”

“I don’t.” He brushed by her, heading for the elevator.

Nice, King. Really mature.

Her light footsteps followed him. “I know you hate me, and I even know why. But that doesn’t mean you can be rude to me.”

Jared paused at the elevator. He could see her now that he was farther away from the blinding glare of the window. Her black hair was loose around her shoulders, her face free of make-up, her feet bare. She looked soft, touchable. Not like the brittle society bitch who’d demanded his services that memorable night.

“I’m rude to everyone.”

She lifted her chin. “I’m entitled to basic courtesy.”

“Maybe you are.” He punched the down button.

“We have to work together. We might as well get along.”

That made him smile. “We don’t work together.”

“Well, we live next door to each other.”

“You noticed, huh?”

Her lips tightened. “Why are you making this so difficult?”

“Am I? I thought I was just trying to get into the elevator. You’re the one who followed me.”

“I don’t like living next door to someone who hates me.”

“Golly, I’m sorry, Princess.”

The door to the elevator opened. He got inside. Rebecca followed him. What was her deal, anyway? Couldn’t she see he wanted to be alone?

“Can’t we work something out?”

Jared pressed “b” for basement. “There’s nothing to work out. We don’t get along. End of story. I don’t have a problem with it.”

“I do.”

“Like I said—sorry, Princess. Can’t help you there.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, causing her breasts to plump up beneath the blue-green silk of her robe. He dragged his gaze away from the sight, trying not to remember what those breasts had felt like in his hands, tasted like under his mouth. God, she’d been so—

“You’re going to make me hate you.”

He laughed.

Her eyes tipped down at the outer corners, the corners of her mouth following. She looked like she wanted to cry. He was good at that—making women cry.

What he couldn’t figure out was why she cared about any of this. They hardly knew each other. The only time they’d spent together had been one evening when she’d demanded sex and blood from him, as a vampire to a pet. Yet she was always giving him these big-eyed glances, like she had a crush on him or something.

No way.

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. She stood there in the cramped elevator, not looking at him, seeming totally forlorn.

“You have a crush on me, Princess?” he said softly.

Her face turned red.

“Seriously, Rebecca? You’re that into me?”

Her lips trembled. She didn’t answer.

“You don’t want me, baby. I’m a no-good motherfucker and that’s the truth.”

He turned away from her and stared at the elevator buttons as the machine lowered them to the basement at such a leisurely pace he could have gotten there faster by crawling down the stairs on hands and knees.

Finally, the door opened into the kitchen, a big bare room with stainless steel appliances made for restaurant use and shiny stainless counters. The concrete block walls were painted an ugly tan color and the floor was that old speckled tile from the fifties. Probably full of asbestos.

Jared made for the fridge, not bothering to look and see whether Rebecca would follow him. The giant industrial refrigerator held two whole cases of beer, one some mass-produced crap and the other a locally brewed porter.

He chose the porter. After an instant’s pause, he snagged a second one and offered it to Rebecca. Perfect hospitality, that was where he excelled. Yeah.

She glanced up at him, her amber eyes solemn. With a sigh, she accepted the bottle.

“You’re welcome,” he said, taking his to the chipped old diner-style table pushed against one wall.

“You’re an asshole,” she said.

“Got it in one.”

He pulled a chair out by hooking his foot around its leg, sat down, set the beer on the table top. Rebecca chose a seat for herself. Jared pulled his keys out of his pocket and used his bottle opener to pop the top on his porter. He held out his hand for her bottle.

“I can do it myself,” she said.

“Okay.”

“Give me your bottle opener. Please.”

He took the beer out of her hand and opened it for her. “There you go.”

“Thank you.” She sounded like it hurt her to say those words to him.

“Any time, Princess.”

“Why are you calling me that? I’m not and have never been a princess.”

“You look like one.” And he didn’t mean that in a good way.

“How would you know? Have you ever met one?”

“Nope.” He took a pull on the porter. Good stuff, dark and slightly mellow with a nice kick.

“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jared watched her curiously. “Have you? Met any princesses.”

She hesitated, staring at her beer. “Yes.”

“Really. What was that like?”

“Frightening.”

That wasn’t the answer he’d expected. He rubbed the stubble on his jawline. “Why was it frightening?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Sure.” Not that he cared. Rebecca did not interest him in any way. He was just trying to pass the time and forget a nightmare.

“She could have crushed me. Done anything she wanted to me. I was nothing and she was royal.”

“Sounds like you were a human pet, without the blood drinking.”

“I suppose I was, or I would have been if she’d noticed me.” She took a cautious sip of her porter.

The beer moistened her lips, giving them a deeper pink sheen. She had beautiful, kissable lips. He lifted his bottle again, just so he didn’t have to look at them.

“Did you forget?” he said.

“What?” She paused with her own bottle poised at her mouth.

“Did you forget what it was like to be a pet? Cause the way you act, it’s like you have no idea.”

She set her bottle down with a bang. “Yes. I forgot.”

“Well, you know what they say. Recognizing a problem is the first step in solving it.”

“Do you practice this smart-ass attitude?”

“Don’t have to. It comes naturally.”

A reluctant smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. With a flush of irritation, he realized he liked it. Wanted to see her really smile, like with the corners of her eyes crinkling and her teeth showing.

“I guess the attitude comes in handy in your job,” Rebecca said.

He stilled. “What does that mean?”

“Just—you know. It’s dangerous.” Her face turned pink.

“I’m not the one in danger, Princess,” he said softly.

“Okay. I’m sorry.” She blushed even more brightly. Her chin came up and her face took on the regal expression that so annoyed him. “I meant no disrespect.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet you didn’t.”

“My God. You’re impossible.” She shoved her chair away from the table and stood. “I’m tired. I’m going back to bed.”

“See you around.”

She muttered something that sounded like “I hope not.”

Jared watched her march to the elevator and stab the button with an angry finger. He’d really gotten to her. A flicker of guilt moved through him. His lack of worth seemed crystal clear today, clearer than at any time in his life. Clearer than after one of his stepdad’s beatings. Murdered three people’s bodies and savaged another’s ego. An excellent night’s work.

She had her back turned, her shoulders stiff with anger or maybe embarrassment. Her fingers tightly clutched her elbows, wrinkling the sleeves of her robe. Was she naked under that thing?

His groin tightened at the thought. She might be an ice princess, but she did have a fine body.

The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. She got in, punched the button, waited for them to close again, all without looking at him. He’d hurt her feelings, or more likely just offended the hell out of her.

What did she expect of him? As a human pet, he hadn’t had the right to refuse her demands for blood and sex. But he wasn’t human anymore. He didn’t have to submit to that bullshit.

Did she think he’d forget what she’d done? 

Chapter 4

 

For her return trip to Something Wicked, Rebecca wore snug jeans tucked into tall boots, a white cashmere turtleneck and an espresso-brown leather jacket. She didn’t have a car and flying got chilly this time of year. She added a white beret and brown leather gloves before leaving her room.

At the door, she stopped. Jared was standing in the hall talking to Emma. He leaned one hand against the wall, stretching his tight gray t-shirt over the hard muscles of his torso. Her mouth went dry as she stared at him, at the dark curling hair falling over his brow, the cleft in his chin that she found so…fascinating.

He was smiling down at the redhead with obvious affection as the girl laughed up at him. His blue eyes were warm in a way they never were when they looked at Rebecca.

Her heart thumped painfully. She felt like she’d swallowed a rock. They looked so natural, so easy together, as if they belonged. A unit, a couple. She would never belong—not to him, not to anyone.

Regardless, she wasn’t going to sit around and mope. The city awaited and she planned to enjoy it. She fixed a little smile on her face, lifted her chin and walked past them as if she couldn’t have cared less who they were or what they were doing.

His scent flooded her nostrils. Freshly washed male with a generous note of arousal. Rebecca’s face heated. Naturally, he would be aroused, talking to his lover. She had the most damnable luck, coming out only to see them practically in each other’s arms.

In her peripheral vision, she saw Jared glance at her. She didn’t acknowledge him. He didn’t want to know her, and that was fine with Rebecca. But she could sense his gaze on her all the way down the corridor.

Daranda’s palace had once been a bank, constructed in the eighteen-eighties. The empress had reinforced the roof to support a rooftop garden, which was currently deserted due to the icy rain falling over Jefferson. Not a good night to fly, yet it suited Rebecca’s mood.

She took to the air with an agitated leap. Why did she waste her energy worrying what Jared thought of her? He’d never forgive her for using him when he’d still been a pet, although why he held it against her and not the other vampires who’d used him remained a mystery.

Tiny needles of rain pattered against her face and the smooth leather of her jacket. Below her, Jefferson spread its glittering night-time cloak over the land. From up here, everything looked beautiful, magical, the squalor of seedy neighborhoods hidden in darkness.

Jared was newly transformed, little more than an adolescent. Too young for her. Unworthy. He was no Philippe, that was certain. Yet she couldn’t seem to prevent her mind from dwelling on him. His face, his voice, the hot satin of his skin. The way he’d felt inside her. She was becoming pathetic. He belonged to Emma and she needed to accept that.

* * *

By the time she set down in the alley behind Something Wicked, her hat and gloves were nearly soaked through. The thighs of her jeans were wet, her cheeks flushed, blood thrumming in her veins. Hollywood might refer to vampires as the undead, yet she never felt so alive as when she flew.

She landed next to an oily puddle. People thronged the sidewalks, shopping and looking for an early dinner. The sun had set only half an hour ago; she’d have plenty of time to meander through the shop. Maybe she’d find an item to add to her ever-growing collection of antiques.

Rebecca sidestepped a knot of giggling teenage girls on her way to the door of the shop. Once again, the crystal chandeliers glowed and sparkled. A display of vintage jewelry winked under the lights in the window. Beyond that, shelves and tables held displays of such varied merchandise she couldn’t make sense of it all.

An odd sense of excitement tingled in her belly as she opened the door. Little bells hanging on an embroidered ribbon chimed with her entry. Inside, the familiar musty smell of the antiques mingled with something spicy and delicious.

She seemed to be the only customer at present. Wandering at random through the labyrinth-like accumulation of goods, she found old china dolls, dishware, statuary and paintings, racks of antique clothing, and shelf after shelf of books. The air seemed to hum with an energy she’d encountered before in old things and places.

Rebecca held out a hand, fingers extended, and brushed it over object after object, not touching anything but the air above them. So many of the things vibrated with that energy she couldn’t pin it down to specific items. She’d never experienced this in so many pieces all in the same place at once.

Odd. Very odd.

The rustle of clothing announced the approach of a human. Rebecca looked up from a rack of nineteenth-century dresses she was examining; the woman coming toward her had the ageless appearance she associated with vampires and Amaki, yet was human. Another oddity.

She had jet black hair in a pixie cut and wore black jeans, high-heeled black boots and a black V-neck sweater that clung to her slender curves. A long hand-painted silk scarf in spring and emerald green and a pair of dangling pentacle earrings finished the ensemble. Was she a witch, then?

The woman smiled warmly at Rebecca. “I’d hoped you would make it in today.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You found us last night, but you weren’t able to come in the shop.”

“You noticed me?” She hadn’t been there very long, just a few minutes while waiting for Grant to park the car.

“Of course.” The woman held out a hand in greeting. “I’m Valerie. I’m here most days.”

“Uh, nice to meet you, Valerie. I’m Rebecca.” They shook hands.

“Yes, I know.”

Even for a vampire, this was a strange encounter. She smiled politely. “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on here. You’re acting like we had an appointment or something.”

Valerie smiled again with a conspiratorial air. “We do. It’s just you weren’t informed ahead of time.”

“Right.”

“Don’t you notice something unusual about this store?”

The whole thing was getting stranger and stranger by the minute. Maybe she ought to go. But she didn’t especially want to. She wanted to find out what this weirdness was really all about.

“There’s a lot of energy in here.”

“Exactly.” Valerie smiled even more broadly, as if pleased with a new student. “Our merchandise is quite unusual. We don’t carry ordinary antiques.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“You’re a vampire.”

Rebecca stared at her; for an instant her mind went still, unable to move past the startling fact that Valerie knew what she was. She blinked twice. “I have to go.”

Instead of trying to walk past Valerie, she turned on her heel to leave. But the human caught her arm and Rebecca hesitated.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” Valerie said. “I’m not very good at this.”

“Good at what? What is going on?”

The human sighed ruefully. “We work with the Dark.”

“The Dark? You mean the Dark?”

“Yes. We do Its bidding, Its work in the world. And when vampires find their way to our store, we know it’s because they’ve been called to work with us.”

The Dark was an immortal being, the power that gave vampires their unlimited lifespans, superhuman strength and other extraordinary abilities. She’d never heard of anyone working with the Dark except for vampires…and even vampires mostly left It alone. They viewed It with more dread than love.

“I didn’t know about any of this.”

“Naturally not. Your empress wants to kill this knowledge. You should know that if you work with us, you will be in danger from the empire. They hunt us and our associates ruthlessly.”

Rebecca frowned. “I don’t even know what this work is.”

“If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you.”

She regarded Valerie with cautious interest. The idea of working against the empire had never truly occurred to her, although she’d often chafed under Daranda’s harsh leadership. The punishments for treason were so unspeakable she simply hadn’t considered it.

I’m still not considering it.

But she wanted to know what the nature of Valerie’s work was.

“I can’t make you any promises yet,” she said.

“I understand and I wouldn’t expect you to until you know what’s involved.” Valerie gestured toward the back of the shop. “Will you come and find out?”

“Yes. I—I think I’d like that.”

Valerie turned as if to lead the way. Rebecca hesitated. What if this were some kind of trap? She could be walking into an ambush.

After four hundred years, her ability to sense others of her kind was fairly keen, although not infallible. Most humans were entirely incapable of harming her unless the sun was up, and Valerie was human. As far as she could tell, there weren’t any other vampires present, so she ought to be safe.

However, Valerie was also a witch of unknown powers and ability. Who knew what she was capable of? Not to mention the possibility that this whole situation was set up to entrap potential traitors. That sounded exactly like something Daranda would do.

The nagging disquiet, the sense of disconnection that had dogged her ever since the night she’d taken Jared, flared in her mind and she found herself following Valerie to the back of the store. Following just because it was something to do, someone with whom to connect. The human pulled aside some long red velvet curtains to reveal an opening in the back wall. Rebecca tromped after her.

The back room had a desk and chair, a comfortable looking overstuffed sofa covered in caramel-colored chenille set in front of a bookshelf, and a work table with a couple of dining room chairs pulled up to it. The walls were the same deep red as those in the store. Pre-Raphaelite paintings of witches and mythological scenes decorated the place.

“Would you like some tea or coffee?” Valerie said.

“Just an explanation, please.”

Her hostess took a seat on the sofa. “Okay. Sit down. I promise not to attack you.”

Rebecca sat on the far side of the couch. “I’m not afraid of you. You’re a human.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

She made a show of looking at her watch. “I have an appointment in a little while, so perhaps you could get to the point.”

Valerie smiled wryly. “You’re impatient for a vampire.”

“The point, please.”

“Alright. Are you familiar with The Words Of The Vampire?”

Rebecca frowned. “It sounds vaguely familiar. What is it?”

“A book that describes the magical process a human has to go through in order to become a vampire. If a person follows the instructions in the book exactly, that person will transform.”

“No.” She shook her head. “That’s not true. A vampire can only be made by a bite and blood exchange with another vamp.”

“That’s what Daranda wants you to believe.”

“You’re telling me there’s another way?”

“A better way. The original method has been preserved in The Words Of The Vampire. Daranda has been trying for millennia to destroy every copy of the book that exists and to kill anyone known to possess it.”

“Why haven’t I heard of it, then?”

“Because she doesn’t want her people to know about it. The only ones who do are the seers and assassins, people like Raphael Black and Obsidian.”

“Obsidian defected.” He was rumored to be dead. Then again, he was rumored to have taken up residence with Niko and Laila, and everyone knew that couldn’t be true. Niko and Laila were mythological, not real.

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Valerie smiled again, this time looking rather smug.

“And what is this other method?”

“I don’t know the particulars. Any human who views the book or handles it too often will be compelled to attempt the transformation, so those of us who choose to remain human must stay away from it. That’s why we need your help. We need copiers.”

“Copiers. You know you can use the machines at any office supply store.”

“That wouldn’t work, Rebecca. The magic would be destroyed. It must be copied by hand by a vampire.”

“And you want me to help you by copying this book.”

“Yes.”

She sighed. “I suppose if Daranda found out I was involved with you, she’d have me skinned alive.”

“At the least. But you’ve already endangered yourself just by coming in here.”

“You should have a warning sign on the door.”

“Now what good would that do?” Valerie looked at her impishly. “We’d never get any copiers that way.”

“I believe that’s my point. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. I have no desire to betray the empress.”

The human twisted in her seat, a movement that set her pentacle earrings swinging. She reached behind herself and pulled a volume from the bookshelf. She offered it to Rebecca.

“See it for yourself.”

“No, really. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Please? Just have a look.”

It was a slim volume with an ancient-looking leather cover in dark brown. No lettering identified its subject or author. Valerie set it on the sofa cushion next to her. It seemed to vibrate with more energy than any of the other items in the store, as if it had a life of its own or even some kind of consciousness.

Rebecca picked it up in tense hands. It almost throbbed against her skin. “It feels alive,” she whispered.

“In a sense, it is.”

“Why is this transformation a better way than Daranda’s?” Rebecca held the book without opening it.

“Because it makes a better vampire. People who transform according to the book have a better relationship with the Dark. They’re more powerful, more stable, and they don’t answer to the empress. They aren’t under her control.”

That would explain why Daranda hated it so much. She ran her fingertips over the leather. It had dried out and cracked in some places. It might be as old as she, or even older.

Rebecca opened the cover. It was written on paper, not the vellum or parchment she’d half expected. But it was handwritten—that she could see by the irregularity of the letters. The language was English, but the style was so stilted and archaic she had trouble following the text.

“What do I get in return for doing this work?” Not that she would do it. She was merely curious to know what compensation they might give her.

“The knowledge you’ve helped to strike a blow for the Dark and real vampires everywhere,” Valerie said with another wry smile. “Also, our scintillating company here at Something Wicked for the time you’re working on the book.”

“Hmm. That isn’t much in return for me risking my life. Risking hideous tortures if I’m found out.”

“I can’t deny it. Of course, you’ll get free coffee or tea and snacks while you’re here working. But really you have to agree to this because you believe it’s the right thing to do.”

“I don’t know what the right thing is.”

“I understand. That’s why I’m going to give you a day to think about it.” Valerie reached into her pocket and withdrew a necklace. “This will allow you to return here when you’ve made your decision. It only works until the next dark moon. If you do decide to work with us, we’ll give it a full charge that will last longer.”

“Why can’t I just fly here like I did tonight?”

“Because we won’t be in the same place. It’s how we protect ourselves and our customers from the empire.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We move around. Every night we’re in a different location, unless we’re waiting for someone like you to come back to us. You won’t be able to find us again without the necklace.”

Rebecca made a dismissive sound. “Come on. I don’t believe that.”

“You will.” With that cryptic remark, the human extended the necklace to Rebecca.

It was a gold pendant on a long chain. The pendant had an unusual blue gem in the center that seemed to swirl with purple and green flashes of light when Rebecca looked at it out of the corner of her eye. When she gazed at it straight on, the flashes disappeared.

She accepted the jewelry. “Alright. I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you. That’s all I can ask. No, don’t put on the necklace until you want to come here. Keep it in your pocket until then. And for the Dark’s sake, don’t show it to anyone.” 

 

Chapter 5

 

The Bean and Bagel had taken more of Black’s money than he cared to think about. Not that he couldn’t afford it. He had plenty of funds. However, this wasn’t the kind of place where he’d normally enjoy spending time. The cozy yet trendy atmosphere of the coffee house annoyed him, with its knots of chattering hipsters, its jazz, its pleasant scent of roasted beans. The dark, silent chill of his underground palace was much preferable.

He’d sworn he would never look upon or even think of Perrie Underhill again. She’d told him to stay away, and he knew that was the right thing to do. Not for her. What did he care about her? For him. Obsessing about a delicate little human was the kind of pathetic behavior he detested in others.

Yet here he was, ensconced in the fragrant confines of the Bean and Bagel, an espresso in his hand while he stared out the window at her building. Waiting for a glimpse of her. The same way he’d waited every day for the past several weeks. It was behavior unworthy of the seer of the Dark Empire, and he was ashamed of himself, yet he couldn’t seem to stop.

Was this the way it had been with Obsidian? Had the assassin felt so pathetically unable to control himself? Had he wondered what he was becoming, if he could be so obsessed with a rogue? And one who’d failed to make the transition properly, at that.

Black had been unforgivably distracted ever since he’d returned from his attempt to apprehend Obsidian in Oregon, unable to fully concentrate on his job. Unable to care about it. The empress’s demands had been nothing more than irritations, the rigors and deceptions of court life even more empty than before.

He took a sip of the coffee. He needed some way to revive his interest in his work. His problem wasn’t a lack of sleep—the last Long Sleep he’d had ended just over ten years before, so that couldn’t be the problem. There was something else. Doubts and old feelings he’d thought long dead and forgotten had shaken his usually calm, ordered life.

Outside, sleet fell mercilessly over the streets of Jefferson. Humans newly freed from their daily labors picked their way down icy sidewalks, their shoulders hunched and heads bowed against the cruel weather. Car headlights caught the precipitation in their beams, making the sleet sparkle, making it look almost beautiful.

The doorman of Perrie’s building stood under a portico, sheltered from the worst of the wind and freezing rain. Black watched the man turn as someone approached the door from inside the building. He could see the human through the glass of the building’s lobby—a small female. The doorman opened the door and the woman emerged. Black straightened, his hand tensing around his cup.

It was her.

She had on a long green coat with a fitted waist that made it look almost like a dress. A hat covered her golden hair and he could hardly see her face beneath its brim, but he knew it was her. He could feel her, even from here. She moved with small, careful steps over the ice, carrying the enormous tote bag she always had with her.

A strange sensation pushed its way out of his depths, causing his chest to ache. He wanted. He wanted. And he couldn’t have.

Of course you want her. She’s lovely and fresh and you’re in need of a new pet.

Yes, that was it. He simply needed a new pet. He’d gone far too long without one. If he was wise, he’d make that his first priority, find a suitable woman and take her. Perrie Underhill wasn’t suitable. She was…too good for him, for what he had in mind.

His gaze followed her all the way down the street. She walked so slowly, almost as if she were ill. He’d been wondering about that, about the tentative way she moved. But it wasn’t his concern and he needed to stop watching her, stop thinking about her.

Perrie reached a small, exclusive boutique a block down and disappeared inside. That was his cue to leave. He stood, threw his coffee in the trash and walked out into the sleet without buttoning his coat. He wouldn’t come back to the Bean and Bagel.

His palace was only a few blocks away and it took him less than five minutes to get there walking at a normal human pace. By the time he arrived, his hair was coated with sleet and his feet felt like blocks of ice. It was good. The discomfort distracted him from the memory of Perrie in that old-fashioned coat and hat, her energy signature teasing him even from across the street.

Black turned down the alley that led to the entrance to his palace. Not much light penetrated the narrow space between his building and the next. The alley acted like a wind tunnel, focusing the power of the stiff winter breeze and throwing freezing rain in his face.

He bent his head, like the humans, trying not to think of Perrie, trying only to look where he put his feet. This was the last time he would spy on her. The last time. The empire needed him. Daranda was becoming more unstable and capricious every night.

As he neared his door, he raised his head to peer into the shadows. A man stood there, almost invisible in the darkness. The sleet and thoughts of Perrie must have addled him, because he hadn’t noticed the fellow until the last instant.

Then he recognized the man. “Garek,” he said without particular surprise.

“Ravki.”

“That is no longer my name.”

The Amaki stepped out of the deepest shadows, letting a stray beam from a nearby streetlamp catch the pale gold of his hair. “You’ll always be Ravki to me,” he said in a pronounced Amaki accent.

“What do you want?” He’d hoped never to see the bastard again.

Garek shrugged. “It’s damned cold out here. Will you invite me inside?”

“No.”

“We want you to come home again.”

Black snorted. “This is my home. And you stole my under-seer. Why should I trust you?”

“Callista is with me. She’s happy now.”

“Why should I believe you?”

Garek spread his hands to the sides. “Come with me and see for yourself. She would be happy to welcome you, I’m sure, as would your parents.”

“My parents abandoned me.”

“They did no such thing. This separation gives them more pain than you can imagine.”

“It’s been thousands of years. Surely they’ve gotten used to it by now.”

The Amaki shook his head. “I don’t think you can ever get used to such a thing.” The sadness in Garek’s voice pulled at the dissonant notes of doubt and sorrow in Black’s own heart. He didn’t want them; he meant to obliterate them, not nurture them until they took him over.

“Go away, Garek. I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Is that so? Or are you afraid of what you might find out? Are you afraid of the truth?”

Black shouldered past his one-time friend to punch in the combination of his electronic lock. “Afraid? I fear nothing. I simply have no time for sentimental reunions with the people who betrayed me. I have work to do, and you’re no part of it.”

“I never betrayed you, Ravki. I was captured at the same time you were.”

“Yes, and I never saw you again. Wasn’t that convenient? I never saw what became of you because I was left to rot in a prison, my only friends the men who tortured me.”

Garek took him by the arm. “I was captured, too. Enslaved by the Atlanteans for twenty years.”

It was an old story, one Black preferred not to think about. He and Garek had once been the closest of friends, sharing rented rooms in ancient Atlantis, sometimes even sharing women. He’d been so young then, so foolish and trusting. He could barely recognize that naive young man as himself.

“You realize you could say anything about those years and I would have no way of knowing whether it was the truth or a lie,” Black said.

“You’re a quarter Amaki yourself. I think you know I’m telling you the truth.”

He shook off Garek’s hand. “Get off my property and don’t come back.”

“I cannot make that promise.”

Black jerked open his door. “I don’t want or need you. I don’t want or need anyone. Now get out.” He slipped into his building and let the heavy metal door slam behind him, leaving Garek outside in the sleet.

The Amaki had terrible timing. He couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to approach Black, right after seeing Perrie for the last time. At least he couldn’t breach the interior of the building by Walking the Between, the Amaki ability to transport themselves from one place to another instantaneously. There was too much iron in the walls, and iron dampened Amaki powers.

Black descended the entry stairs in utter darkness. He knew this place so well he didn’t need any light to find his way. It was home, familiar and safe.

Then why does it feel so unwelcoming?

 

Chapter 6

 

Jared watched out of the corner of his eye as Rebecca disappeared into the palace elevator, her erotic perfume lingering in the air to torture him. His sex continued to throb behind the denim he wore, like it thought it could get up and follow her without the rest of him. She looked hot in jeans and leather, her outfit kind of a weird mash-up of ladylike and rocker chick. He couldn’t seem to stop looking at her, either, even if it gave him the gut-ache from hell to think of her.

“You like her, don’t you?” Emma said.

“What?” He gazed blankly down at his companion.

“Rebecca. You like her.”

“Can’t stand her.”

Emma grinned. “Liar. I can see how you look at her.”

“Like I can’t stand her?”

“Like you can hardly wait to get in her pants.”

He grimaced. “Never again.”

“Was it that bad?” she said with a sympathetic expression and tone of voice he knew was meant to tease.

No. It was that good.

Jared shrugged. “It was okay.”

“Uh huh.” She elbowed him. “Someday I’ll get you to admit it.”

“You’ll never make me talk.”

“I wouldn’t be so cocky if I were you, vampire.”

That word, applied to him, stole his good mood. Accepting the transformation may have been a mistake. He wasn’t sure he was helping anyone by wasting imperial citizens who pissed off Daranda, even if they were all fangies. After all, if they were pissing off the empress, that had to mean they had some good in them, didn’t it?

“Hey, I didn’t mean to offend you,” Emma said.

“No, you didn’t. It’s okay.”

“Are you sure?” Her dark eyes looked concerned, her brows crinkled in the center.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep well last day.” Because he kept dreaming of Laura, seeing her blood in the carpet of that little house, hearing her voice pleading for mercy.

He wanted more information about her. He needed to know who she’d really been. Was she a rebel or an innocent victim? Maybe if he could figure that out, he’d be able to sleep.

“Maybe you should take a nap.”

“Too busy. Look, I’ve gotta get some work done. I’ll see you later.”

“Okay.” She went on her toes and pecked him on the cheek. “See ya.”

He retreated back to his room. The bare-bones decor hardly registered as he padded across the floorboards to his laptop, plugged in next to his only lamp, a piece of glossy brass nineteen-eighties era junk he’d gotten at a thrift store. Both items sat on the floor as well, since he didn’t have a desk.

The heavy feeling that had dogged him since the execution still lingered, especially when he was alone. He kept thinking someone was watching him, kept feeling someone’s gaze on his back. It gave him a creepy, itchy sensation that he tried to ignore.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he opened the laptop and logged in to the imperial database containing citizen files, using the password he’d stolen from Daranda’s personal assistant back when Jared had still been a human pet. At the time, he hadn’t planned to do anything with it. He’d just gotten a thrill at stealing something from the vamps.

The password was still good months later. He should have used it before the hit, to find out what kind of people he was supposed to kill. Except that wasn’t part of his job. He was like a gun—Daranda pointed him at vampires and he went bang. He wasn’t expected to think about the right and wrong of what he was doing or question his orders.

Until last night, he hadn’t cared. They were vampires and he was happy to take their sorry lives. He hadn’t wanted to question orders.

Well, he was questioning them now.

He found Laura Beaumont’s file easily. She’d been born in eighteen-oh-five in New Orleans. The empire had no record of her ever owning a human pet. So that excuse for his actions was no good. Laura hadn’t kept human slaves for blood donations.

Doesn’t mean she never killed anyone.

She might have drained people once in a while. Some vampires did, even though they only needed an ounce or two of blood every couple weeks to keep up their health and strength. Unfortunately for his investigation, the empire didn’t keep records of its citizens draining humans. Probably no way to track something like that.

They had little intel on her, other than the fact she worked a crappy job as a night shift waitress in a diner. There wasn’t any more on Geller or Cranshaw, either. All had been ordinary Dark Empire citizens, with low-level jobs, no pets, no other friends or associates. Like most vampires in the Dark Empire, they’d kept to themselves. Daranda discouraged close friendships and long-term lovers because she wanted all her citizens to be mainly attached to her, like some kind of vampire goddess come to life.

So he’d wasted three regular folks last night, because they’d peeked at a forbidden website. How many others on his target list fit the same description? And why was he only now thinking about what this meant?

Jared rubbed his brows. In the quiet of his room, he could almost hear Laura whispering to him. Please don’t hurt me. He didn’t believe in ghosts. But he felt haunted, for real.

Fuck it. He was starving and couldn’t concentrate anyway. Jared closed his laptop and unfolded himself from his position on the floor.

He could go out, maybe to a drive-thru or something. Or he could just hoof it downstairs and make himself a sandwich. The drive-thru felt like more trouble than it was worth. He always got all tongue-tied and weird when he had to talk into the little box. So downstairs it was.

Most of the court vampires ate their regular meals together in the formal dining room. Jared liked to avoid that situation. Instead he snuck into the kitchen at odd times and fixed something for himself, or he got take-out or something. Ordering a pizza to be delivered was looked down on—after all, the last thing D wanted was to attract the attention of the humans. Still, he could get take-out.

Pizza sounded good, but again he didn’t want to make that phone call. Somewhere along the way, during the years as a pet, he’d developed a real hate for talking to people who weren’t face-to-face with him. Come to think of it, he didn’t like sit-down restaurants much either. The court kitchen was so much simpler.

Unless Rebecca was already there. The elevator doors opened to reveal her sitting at the ugly old table, drinking something out of a paper cup. Shit. He stalled out in the middle of exiting the elevator, and she looked up and saw him. Double shit.

What is your problem? She’s just a person. Quit being such a pussy.

He put on a cocky smile he wasn’t feeling at all and sauntered into the room. It smelled sweet, like dessert. Or maybe that was her.

Rebecca got out of her chair. “I was just leaving.”

“Don’t go on account of me,” he said on his way to the fridge.

“I wasn’t.”

“Sure.”

She made an exasperated noise in her throat. “Are you incapable of being polite?”

“No.” He grinned to himself as she made another irritable sound.

“Given how much you hate me, you shouldn’t protest when I go.”

“Now, how much fun would that be?” He eyed the multitude of food containers stacked in the fridge. Something in there had to be edible.

“A lot more fun than arguing all the time.”

“We’ve only had one argument so far. I wouldn’t call that all the time.” He pulled out a package of sliced deli meat, some mustard and a box of washed lettuce.

“It seemed like more than once.”

Turning around with his prizes, he grinned at her. “That’s because I’m just that important to you.”

She growled. “Only in your dreams.”

It was the middle of the night and she was fully dressed. Too bad. He would’ve liked to see that green silk robe of hers again, especially if she was nude underneath it. Maybe if he asked really nicely, she’d do him a favor and go put it on. Then again, probably not.

He gave her a once-over, taking in her skinny jeans tucked into tall boots, her crisp white blouse under a fitted denim jacket. Even in the ugly fluorescent light, she looked gorgeous. “I like your outfit. Sexy.”

Her face turned pink. “It’s unkind to mock people.”

“What makes you think I’m mocking you?”

“It’s the only way you ever interact with me.”

“Oh, come on.” Standing at the stainless steel counter, he spread mustard on a couple slices of rye bread. “I never mocked you when you took me to bed.”

“That’s because you were too busy—” She stopped.

“What?” He spun around to face her. “Too busy what?”

The pink in her face turned to red. “Coming.”

“Oh.” He laughed. “Yeah, that.”

He’d come and come hard with her, that was for sure. Just thinking about it made his cock swollen and eager again, like it thought he could bend her over the kitchen table and take her right now.

“You did seem to enjoy yourself,” she said.

He looked more closely at her. She raised one eyebrow slightly and her lips turned up a little on one side. She was baiting him.

“You’re hot, Princess, I’ll give you that.” Except for all the ice underneath. Her outside, though, was smoking. He’d never seen a more fuckable woman.

“So are you.”

“You think so? Gosh, that makes me feel all warm inside.” He turned back to his sandwich. If he wasn’t facing her then she couldn’t see how much she affected him.

A movement in the air told him she’d come to stand behind him. He tensed, feeling her presence at his back.

“Emma is a lucky woman,” she remarked casually.

Emma? He frowned as he arranged slices of ham on his bread. She thought he was with Emma? Like, lovers? Jared fought down a sudden grin.

“I’m not sure she’d agree with you,” he said.

“If she hates me as much as you do, she wouldn’t agree with me even if I said the sun rises in the east.”

“Probably true.”

Her clothes rustled as she spun on her heel and marched back to the table. “I should never have come back to court.”

Jared put his finished sandwich on a plate and brought it to the table. He sat down next to her, making sure to crowd her a little. Just to let her know he had no respect for her higher standing in the empire.

“You’re probably right,” he said.

“I don’t belong here.”

“Hey.” He touched her wrist with the tip of his index finger in alarm. What she was saying could be interpreted in very ugly ways by any of Daranda’s favorites who happened to be listening. “Don’t talk like that.”

“Why not? It’s true.”

“This isn’t a good place, Princess.”

“Why would you care?” She picked up her drink and took a swig.

“I don’t. Doesn’t mean I want to see you get hurt.”

“I don’t understand you at all.”

He shrugged. “I confuse everyone.” Then he took a bite of the sandwich. All the ingredients were top-notch, the bread fresh and locally baked.

The fact was, although it made him an idiot, he couldn’t stand the thought of something really awful happening to Rebecca. And it would, if the wrong people overheard her.

She leaned in close to him. “If you go up and report me, you’ll score big points with you-know-who.”

He stopped chewing to stare at her. That hurt. A lot. Jared swallowed heavily. “What kind of piece of shit do you think I am?”

“You mean you wouldn’t report me?” she said in insultingly surprised tones.

“No, God damn it. I wouldn’t.”

Rebecca stared at him for a long minute, her face solemn and intent. “Maybe I’ve misjudged you, then.”

Something about the way she looked at him made his heart beat faster. Stupid. He didn’t even like her. Yet he opened his mouth anyway. “I wouldn’t hurt you.”

He couldn’t read her face as a series of expressions flitted across her features—sadness, hope, skepticism…and a softening that suggested maybe she was starting to like him all over again. Too much there; he couldn’t make sense of it. No doubt she couldn’t, either.

“I wouldn’t hurt you, either,” she said. “I never meant to in the first place.”

The intimacy of that remark made his skin itch all over, made him want to ditch this place and her. His face got hot. “Yeah. We don’t need to go over that again.”

“Alright. If it makes you uncomfortable, we won’t.” She sipped at her drink. “So, how about this weather?”

“It’s good. Keeps the bodies of my vics from rotting and stinking before the sun can come up and burn them away.”

His deliberately shocking words had the intended effect—she went pale and quit talking. They also reminded him of what he really was. Rebecca was kidding herself if she thought he was relationship material. Or maybe he was the one kidding himself, thinking she wanted that with him. Maybe she’d just liked fucking him.

If she was the ice princess he thought, she probably didn’t care about relationships.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, standing.

“Did I offend you again?”

“No.” She didn’t sound too convincing. “I have to get back to work.”

“Ah. Well, see you around.”

“Yes. Um—have a good evening.” She didn’t bother with the elevator, going straight for the stairs instead. Yeah, she wanted to get away from him. Why did that sting when he’d done his best to drive her off?

* * *

The next night, Jared returned to his computer research. He couldn’t find anything more about Laura Beaumont or her roommates, though. It was like they’d been invisible or something. Like they had no real identity. Or maybe they were just so unimportant Daranda’s people hadn’t bothered collecting information about them.

The whole time he’d been working, the sense of an invisible someone had rubbed against the edges of his mind, irritating him. Making him want to yell at whoever it was…except that would be crazy.

His head ached. His body hurt from sitting in the same position all evening long and he was insanely tired, even though he’d gotten a full day’s sleep. He wasn’t getting anywhere with this research crap and he was starting to wonder why he’d wasted his time with it.

He needed to get out of here, get his mind off the dead. He didn’t have any more kill orders for the moment and it would be easy to just take off, disappear for the night. Wander the town, get laid, get drunk, whatever. Anything to drown out her voice.

Two hours later, he found himself sitting in his borrowed car outside Laura Beaumont’s house. How the fuck had he gotten here? Driving around aimlessly after the last bar he’d hit, after the woman whose blood he’d drunk, somehow he’d gotten back to this—this place, this fucked-up nightmare house, without even knowing he was coming this way.

Jesus Christ.

He got out of the car. Stood there in the street, just staring at the house. It looked even more lonely, even smaller than it had the night of the executions.

The temperature had dropped in the couple of hours he’d been screwing off. The rain had stopped, and all the water on the surfaces of things had frozen into a hard, glassy layer of ice.

His feet started to move, carrying him up the slippery driveway to the front door. His hand reached out and touched the knob. He’d forgotten to lock up after he was finished. The place was still open.

Under the weird stink he’d noticed the first night, he could still smell the blood. Humans probably couldn’t. He’d gone over that carpet so many times—to a human, it probably smelled just like cheap perfume. He caught that note, too, but beneath the sticky floral there was blood. And other things.

“Jared.”

He spun on his heel. Nobody was there. Of course nobody was there. With a shake of his head, he shut the door. Nobody but him in this shack.

There was blood in the bathroom, too. He couldn’t see it, but his nose picked it up. Fuck, hadn’t he run enough water down that drain? What did he have to do to get the stink out?

Humans can’t smell it, dumbass.

Jared poked into Geller’s room, then Cranshaw’s. He was here, and he’d killed them, too. They deserved some kind of nod.

You are so fucked up. What’re you gonna do next, put up a memorial? Leave teddy bears and flowers on the driveway?

There wasn’t much in the two men’s bedrooms, just some juvenile shit like centerfold posters on the walls, clothes scattered all over the floors and the beds, and some sweet computer rigs. Both of them must have been gamers.

Laura’s room was just the same as he’d left it. No surprise there. The bedspread still had its purple flowers. What were they called? Irises, that was it. Long, skinny irises looking like they’d been drawn in black ink on the white background, then colored in by a nine-year-old who hadn’t been able to stay inside the lines.

He sat down on it. A little puff of her scent came up out of the bedcoverings. Sweet, like flowers and woman. Sweeter than Rebecca. The smell didn’t arouse him the way Rebecca’s did, either, but it made his throat close up until it hurt.

She had a poster on her wall, too. It was a picture of a half-naked chick in a see-through tunic holding a cup or goblet out like she was offering a serious high to whoever was looking at her. There was a boar—like a hairy pig—laying at her feet. A pig? Really?

Weird picture.

He got up and went to her dresser. She didn’t seem to have a jewelry box because the top was covered in necklaces, bracelets, and a dish full of earrings. One of the necklaces seemed to flicker, like it had lights inside it. LEDs, maybe.

The lights came out of the gem in the center of its pendant. The thing was green, and the lights were pink and purple. But he couldn’t see them when he looked right at it. They were only there when he looked away at something else.

Jared picked up the necklace. It felt a lot heavier than it looked. The green gem was set in silver with a lot of fancy curlicues.

“Jared.”

He started, whirling at the sound of her voice. It had definitely been a female voice. No-one was in the room with him. Damn it, he was going to find whoever was doing the whispering and have a word with her. It wasn’t funny.

No-one was in the hall, either. Or the bathroom, the men’s bedrooms, the living room, the kitchen. He was alone in the house.

A crawling sensation went over his whole body.

The door to the backyard was unlocked, too. Had he paid any attention to what he’d been doing last night? He went outside, glanced around the barren space. The snow had a shiny glaze of ice on it now and the bodies were gone, destroyed by the sun.

He could still see the place where they’d been, could make it out from the rest of the yard. For one thing, the snow beneath them had burned away. Even the grass under that had burned. There was nothing but bare earth covered in slick ice. For another, he could still sense them. Like they were hanging around waiting to see what would happen next.

There was a pattern to the burned areas. Three body-shaped interruptions in the snow. Laura had been on the end, on his right. He dropped to his knees next to the dirt-colored outline of her.

The ice covering her place had grayish speckles in it. Her ashes. There wasn’t much left of her, but it was enough. Enough for him to touch. She was preserved inside a thin layer of frozen rain.

Please don’t hurt me.

His mouth contorted and a harsh sound escaped him. Jared punched the ice. It broke into shards under his fist. Each shard contained a few bits of ash.

His fingers reached out, picked up a shard. Put it in his mouth.

What the fuck did I do that for?

He did it again, picked up another chunk and put it in his mouth. Swallowed. The ice felt like a cold lump all the way down his throat.

Knock it the fuck off, King.

But his hand kept moving, kept sticking those pieces of ash-filled ice in his mouth. He kept swallowing until he’d gotten it all inside him.

He stared at the bare ground he’d uncovered. Started to shake. She was inside him now, in his belly. What the fuck had he done? Did this make him some kind of vampire cannibal?

Jesus. Get rid of it. Get rid of it now.

Jared stuck a finger down his throat, but he couldn’t seem to trigger the gag reflex. Nothing happened. He did it again, then a third time, and still nothing happened.

He climbed to his feet, staggered into the house. If he couldn’t make himself puke, how could he get it out of him? His whole body shook now, his hands moving so much he could hardly open doors.

“Jared,” she whispered.

“What do you want?”

“Jared.”

“Fuck this. I’m outta here.” He strode to the front door, plunged through it, not even bothering to close it behind him.

His car refused to start. He slammed his open palm against the dashboard. Turned the key again. The engine wouldn’t even turn over.

“Let me go, Laura.” He felt like an idiot saying it out loud.

Of course there was no answer.

He turned the key again and the car started, smooth as butter. Jared peeled away from the sidewalk and tore out of the neighborhood. Damned if he ever went into that house again. 

 

Chapter 7

 

Despite Valerie’s claim that she’d need the supposed magic necklace in order to return to Something Wicked, Rebecca flew there the next night. The weather was bad again, freezing rain mixed with occasional fat flakes of snow, the air full of the cold scent of winter. She still hadn’t made up her mind what to do. All day, one thought had revolved through her mind, even while she slept—she’d been invited to betray the empire.

Daranda and her minions did unspeakable things to those who betrayed her. Rebecca had witnessed some of these punishments. They were as bad as anything devised by the witch hunters in Renaissance Europe. If she agreed to Valerie’s proposal, she could end up as the new entertainment for the imperial torturers.

The woman’s story was probably nothing more than lies, anyway. If there was another, better way to become a vampire, why did nobody know about it? Even Daranda couldn’t completely suppress information like that. Could she?

But what if it were true? What if the cruelty of the Dark Empire was the result of faulty transformations and not an inevitable part of being vampire? If she knew of this and did nothing to right the situation then she would be partly responsible for perpetuating the current system.

She needed more information before she could make a good decision. Yet the only sources she knew of were the official Dark Empire doctrine on the one hand and Valerie on the other.

She found Club Paris easily enough. Its neon sign was like a blue and red beacon in the night, plus there was a small crowd of people trying to get in the door at the same time. She flew over it and came to earth in the alley behind the building. She walked back to the main street, past the restaurant’s customers, looking ahead for the crystalline glow of Something Wicked’s chandeliers. It was gone; that section of the sidewalk was dark and gloomy.

Rebecca kept moving forward. The hour was still early. They couldn’t be closed—it was barely dinner time and there were innumerable humans still on the streets. They’d miss sales if they closed up so early.

She came to the space where the store ought to be. It was gone. Completely gone. The space was there, but Something Wicked had disappeared, leaving nothing but dust and empty floorboards behind.

Valerie had said the shop moved around, but she hadn’t believed her. It had sounded too bizarre to be real. Here was her proof, right before her eyes. The window even had a for-lease sign taped to the inside of the glass.

If the shop really could appear and disappear, maybe the rest of Valerie’s wild tale was also true.

Rebecca sighed. She’d changed her mind about the weather—it was even more brutal than the night before. She was soaked through and beginning to shiver as the chill seeped under her skin. She needed to go home and think over everything she’d learned, and before she went home, she wanted something to eat. Not Club Paris, though—something lighter, in a more cheerful setting.

She walked several blocks from Something Wicked’s former spot looking for a different restaurant; this new area offered a number of cafes and bakeries, all still open, cheerily lit and glowing from within.

Choosing the nearest, she went inside with a breath of relief at the warmth that instantly surrounded her. Seated in a corner, with a cup of coffee and a bowl of potato soup to warm her even more, she settled in to consider her problem.

Valerie was right. The seers may already be aware of her visit to the shop. Daranda would undoubtedly view it as outright treason, even though she hadn’t done anything but talk yet. But that was really no argument for helping the witch. It seemed more like an argument for getting out of town.

On the other hand, the shop wouldn’t be able to retain any copiers if the seers immediately accused anyone who visited. The seers couldn’t be that efficient. Either way, she was in trouble.

Perhaps just one copy. It wouldn’t take very long and I could wash my hands of Something Wicked.

The problem was she wanted to know more. She wanted to read The Words Of The Vampire for herself. Wanted to understand the Dark, to know if she’d been cheated by Daranda of her right relationship to It. What was the right choice?

This is a question that must be answered by the heart, not by logic.

She left the cafe without coming to any conclusions.

Her clothes had just begun to dry and when she went outside the bitter breeze nearly turned her into a Rebecca-shaped ice sculpture. Rebecca’s head suddenly ached and the icy clamminess of her jeans and gloves returned to her awareness with unpleasant force. She would go home, get warm and then try to make sense of all this. Home, then more hot coffee. When she’d thawed out, maybe she could make up her mind.

* * *

Unfortunately, there was no peace to be had in her suite. Jared was playing some kind of god-awful “music” consisting of a demonic growly voice and thundering drums. It was so loud it made the wall between their rooms vibrate. Visibly.

Perhaps it would bother her less when she’d made herself comfortable.

She stripped off her cold, wet clothes and laid them over the furniture to dry. Then, although the night was just beginning, she found the warmest nightgown she owned, a granny-style flannel affair with a high ruffled neckline. It looked ridiculous on her and she hardly ever wore it, but it felt soft and comforting. She topped it with a plush microfiber robe and stuck her feet into a pair of sheepskin slippers.

Jared’s music still blared aggressively. This was the first time she’d ever heard that kind of noise coming from his room. He must have bought himself a sound system. Didn’t he have any manners at all? He must know he was being rude and inconsiderate.

He prides himself on being rude.

Well, she wasn’t putting up with it. Not tonight. She had important matters on her mind and she didn’t want to listen to that obnoxious garbage of his.

She marched over to his room and knocked on the door. And waited. There was no response. She knocked again. Waited. No response. Was he ignoring her or was the music so loud it drowned out her knock? She would have thought Jared could hear it, considering he was a vampire.

She gritted her teeth. I’ll give him a knock he can’t ignore.

Raising both fists to the door, she gave it a beating. She was about to kick it for good measure when he yanked it open and glared at her furiously, the “music” blaring out from behind him.

“What the fuck is your problem, Princess?” he growled, blue eyes narrowed and hard.

You’re so beautiful when you’re angry. The errant thought almost made her smile. She bit her lip. This wasn’t the time.

“Your music is too loud. Please turn it down.”

“No.” He continued to glower.

“For pity’s sake, you are such an adolescent. Turn the damn music down.”

“I like it this way.”

“Well, I don’t and I’m your neighbor. It’s so loud it’s almost shaking the plaster off the walls.”

He lifted one shoulder. “Plaster can be fixed.”

“Oh, yes? Do you know how? Because if my room is damaged, I’ll expect you to personally make it right.”

He laughed and shook his head. “You sure you’re not a real princess?”

She made an incoherent noise of frustration. “Why can’t you be reasonable?”

“The world isn’t reasonable. Why should I be?”

Rebecca darted past him and into his room. There was virtually no furniture in it. Just a mattress on the floor, a cheap desk lamp and laptop, also on the floor, and a pair of tiny speakers hooked up to the laptop. The forlorn bareness of the room stopped her for an instant. It was almost like a cage or jail cell.

All the hideous noise seemed to be coming out of those absurdly small speakers. This close to the so-called music, her ears hurt. She had no idea how to work the laptop, so she simply grabbed the cord and pulled it out of the plug. Instant, blessed silence.

Jared took her by her shoulders, spun her around and shoved her against the nearest wall. “You have no business coming into my room, Princess.”

She stared up at him, at his clenched jaw, the hard line of his lips. He was truly furious with her. Sudden awareness of his hot male body flooded her and her breath caught as her stomach flip-flopped.

“I—have a lot on my mind. Your music was giving me a headache.”

“I have a lot on my mind, too. The music helps me forget.”

She laughed. “You have a lot on your mind?”

Instantly, she regretted her scornful tone. His face lost all expression, becoming so cold and remote it was as if he’d gone somewhere else. Why couldn’t she keep her head around him?

“Maybe it’s a surprise to you, but I do have a mind,” he said.

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

He gave her an insolent once-over that reminded her just what she was wearing. Normally she wouldn’t allow anyone to see her in such a frumpy outfit. It was yet another example of how much he confused and distracted her.

Heat rushed over her face. “Let me go. I want to leave.”

“Maybe I don’t want you to.”

“I’m not an idiot, Jared. I know how much you hate me.”

He leaned in, caging her with his body, hands planted on the wall on either side of her head. “Maybe,” he whispered, “I’d like some payment here.”

She licked her lips, her mouth suddenly bone dry. “Payment?”

“Yeah. A fair trade.”

“What are you talking ab—”

He stopped her voice with a ferocious kiss, his mouth punishing and hard. Rebecca’s head bumped the wall. A huge male hand grasped the back of her skull, holding her in place for his predation.

He probably meant it to be frightening or offensive. She pressed her hands against his chest to shove him away, but the shove never came. Instead, she opened her mouth under his and with a broken groan he plunged inside.

His tongue penetrated deeply, sliding and stroking all the sensitive inner surfaces of her mouth. She moaned. Her hands slipped down his torso, around his ribs, her arms clasping his narrow waist, palms stroking the hard muscle of his back.

In her core, something hot and needy blossomed. His other hand came up to cradle her jaw as he continued to explore her. His hips rolled against her belly. She could feel his massive erection pushing, pushing against her.

Both of them were panting and moaning now. Rebecca took his lower lip between her teeth. One of his hands left her head to push inside her robe and cup her breast through the flannel of her nightgown. She arched into his touch and he brushed her aching nipple with his thumb, sending spears of sweet pleasure deep into her body.

A whimper escaped her. One of his legs shoved between her thighs, the hard pressure sending more shocks of pleasure through her sex. Rebecca ground herself against him.

“Jared, what are—oh,” said a female voice behind them.

He jerked back from her as if he’d been stung. His breath came fast, his lips swollen from kissing her. Bright red color stained his cheeks.

“Sorry,” Emma said. “I didn’t know you were with someone.” She was stark naked, as the pets usually were.

“Oh, God,” Rebecca whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

She covered her mouth with her hand and fled the room, running past Emma without meeting the human’s gaze. Her own door was still ajar. She dashed inside, shut and locked it.

Ridiculous. As if he’d actually follow her in here—or anywhere else, for that matter. She’d just made a monumental fool of herself, throwing herself at a man who didn’t want her, a man involved with someone else.

He had a raging erection. Because of you.

That didn’t mean he wanted her for anything more than a quick fuck. He despised her. He’d started that kiss as a way to punish her…and the punishment had worked, because now she felt such a boiling welter of shame and confusion she couldn’t even bear to see her own reflection in her antique mirrors.

Rebecca sat on her bed and put her head in her hands. What was wrong with her these days? There was no shame in kissing a handsome man, even if he did have a girlfriend. If he was so attached to Emma, why had he been kissing Rebecca instead?

She ought to have stood her ground. Instead she’d run away like a little girl and now she was hiding in her room. That was the real shame.

Besides, she had more important things to think about than Jared. She still had to decide what she was going to do about Something Wicked. 

 

Chapter 8

 

Rebecca’s door slammed shut and the bolt clicked. Jared wiped a hand over his face as his groin continued to ache with need. He could taste her. His nose was full of her smell. “What did you want, Emma?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Yeah. I’m aware.”

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

“I can’t.”

“I can tell.” She had a grin in her voice. “Do you stick your tongue down the throat of every person you can’t stand?”

“Sometimes it seems like it,” he said wearily. How many vamps of both genders had he fucked—or been fucked by—in his ten years as a human pet? He’d lost count.

“Hey.” She took him by the hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“You didn’t, kid. I’m okay.”

He squeezed her hand in reassurance. Emma was like the little sister he’d never had. He loved her, really loved her, but there was nothing sexual about it even though he could see she was pretty hot in her own way. They just weren’t like that together.

“I knocked, but you didn’t answer. I guess I figured you’d lock your door if you wanted privacy.”

“It wasn’t like I planned to…you know. It just kinda happened.”

“Well, I didn’t mean to scare her off. Why’d she run away like that?”

“I dunno.” He shook his head. “I can’t figure her out.”

“She looked like she’d been caught doing something terrible.”

He snorted. “She’s probably embarrassed she was seen with someone like me. I’m not up to her usual standards.” For some reason, acknowledging it made his chest hurt.

“She’s not good enough for you,” Emma said firmly.

Jared ruffled her auburn hair. “You’re a sweet kid. Anyway, I think she might think you and I are together.”

Emma laughed. “Really?”

“Yeah. She said something about it.”

“I don’t know why she’d think that.”

“Maybe because you never leave me alone.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “I just came by to hear those new speakers you bought.”

“That’s why she came over. She wanted me to turn down my music. Said it was so loud it was shaking the plaster off the walls.”

“Oh, please. She’s just so old she doesn’t know good tunes when she hears them.”

He smiled. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

“So, let’s hear it.”

“Okay, but at a lower volume. I don’t want her barging in here again.” He plugged his laptop back into the wall. “She pulled out my cord.”

“Bitch.”

“Don’t, Emma. You can get in trouble talking like that about the vamps.”

“You’re a vamp.”

“Yeah.” He swallowed. “Don’t remind me.” He went to his closet and pulled out one of his t-shirts and a pair of sweats. “Wanna put this on?”

“Thanks.” She slipped into the clothes while he called up his music list.

He needed to get some earbuds so he didn’t drive Rebecca nuts. Because he needed the music. He needed it to drown out the sound of Laura’s voice whispering his name. She just wouldn’t shut up, had been muttering to him ever since his trip to the house.

“That’s way too low,” Emma said, bending over his laptop.

“Leave it.”

“Because of Rebecca? Don’t you want to piss her off?” she said with an impish grin.

Did he? “Not so much.”

She shook her head. “Don’t even try to tell me you don’t like her, ‘cause I’m not listening anymore.”

“Whatever.”

She laughed. Jared felt a smile tugging at his lips. He shouldered her aside to turn up the metal—but not too far—and ambled over to the window. Leaning against the sill, he watched Emma rock out. For just a second there she looked young, really young, like the twenty-two year old she truly was. He might have joined her if he didn’t feel so damned tired. Every night it was a struggle to stay awake.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Something smooth and hard met the fingertips of his right hand. He didn’t recognize it—not by touch—and he pulled it out.

Holy fuck.

It was Laura Beaumont’s necklace, the one with the weird, flashing gem. In the dim light of his room, the flickering within the green stone was even more dramatic. How had it gotten into his pocket?

He must have put it there, but he couldn’t remember doing it. On an ordinary night, he’d put it down to absentmindedness. Tonight, with Laura whispering in his ear, he wondered.

“What’s that?” Emma said, dancing over to him.

“Nothing. Just something I found.” He stuffed it back in his pocket.

“Pretty. Can I have it?”

“No.”

She pouted. “Why not? Are you going to wear it?”

“No.”

“It would match that new green dress of yours.”

He pretended to cuff her on the shoulder. “Shut up.”

“I bet you’re gonna give it to Rebecca.”

“Nope. I think I know who it belongs to and I’m going to return it.”

“Who?”

He leaned close to her ear. “That’s top secret imperial business,” he said in a stage whisper.

“Oh, fine, play secret agent. See if I care.” She went back to dancing.

No, he wouldn’t give it to Rebecca. He wouldn’t give it to anyone. Something about the pendant made him uneasy. It almost seemed to vibrate against his palm when he held it, as if it contained some intensely focused energy inside the stone.

He pulled it out again to examine it more closely. There was nothing in the setting that suggested it contained a battery, so where were the vibrations coming from? Emma had her back turned. He lifted the pendant to his ear. It made no sound that he could hear…and he had excellent hearing.

All in all, it was a fucking bizarre piece of jewelry.

* * *

Rebecca had been a vampire so long she’d forgotten most of what it had been like to be human. Except for those last few years before her transformation. That was when she’d met Philippe, the man who had offered her the change.

He’d been the handsomest man she’d ever seen, tall and blond with bright blue eyes. He was also a vampire, although he hadn’t told her so. Not until the burning.

She had little dowry, was nothing more than a poor tradesman’s daughter, but men had pursued her. Even titled men. No matter that she hadn’t encouraged them; they hovered around her anyway. Some offered marriage and some offered a different sort of arrangement.

One of her most persistent admirers was a minor nobleman. When his wife discovered his interest in Rebecca, she accused her of witchcraft.

They’d come while Philippe was away, traveling to another city, and taken Rebecca to be questioned. Tested. That was what they told her, but the tests weren’t tests at all. They were torture, and all the questions had already been answered for her. All she had to do was confess. But she wasn’t a witch.

Finally, when they’d raped her, broken every bone in her two hands and pulled her arms out of their sockets in the strappado, finally when she was nothing more than a crushed rag doll made of meat, she confessed.

As she stood on her pyre, smoke rising around her and choking her, Philippe walked through the watching crowd and the flames. He came to her, tore away the ropes that held her to the stake, and carried her away. When they were safe and alone, he told her what he was and offered her the transformation. She’d accepted and he made her whole again.

They’d been lovers for many decades. But Philippe was gone now, executed by Daranda’s minions when he questioned her judgment one too many times. How long ago was it? She’d been wearing panniers and powdered wigs, so it must have been sometime in the eighteenth century. Over two hundred years she’d been without him.

Rebecca opened the blinds on her window and stared out into the night. Sleet had begun to fall again, freezing as it touched the frozen ground. Under the street lights, the ice glistened.

Philippe had died in the winter, on an icy night like this one. She’d cried for him, even though it was dangerous to mourn a person Daranda had executed. Her tears would not stay back, not while her lover was torn apart before her eyes. Yet in all her years as an imperial citizen, she’d never contemplated revenge.

Because I’m a coward.

Valerie claimed that vampires transformed Daranda’s way were inferior and emotionally unstable. What if Philippe had died because of some instability in Daranda herself? What if The Words Of The Vampire could help create better vampires, maybe even show a way to heal the ones who already existed?

What if I go crazy eventually? Or Jared?

It was true that many of the really ancient vampires were mentally unstable. Take Daranda. She seemed to get stranger and more unpredictable every year. More vicious. More paranoid.

The thought of Jared turning into a monster like the empress made Rebecca’s stomach turn. He was rude and disrespectful, but he was never cruel. He looked out for Emma and had ever since the redhead had become a human pet.

Now that she thought of it, Jared looked out for all the pets, both males and females. He’d been their de facto leader for years. But now he was a vampire, subject to the mental breakdown the old ones so often suffered.

If I can help to change that, if I can save Jared from that fate, it will be worth the risk.

She left the window to pace her room. Was she really going to do it? After four hundred years of dutiful though grudging loyalty, was she going to rebel?

As she passed her bed, she knocked her purse off the mattress. It fell upside down on the floor, keys, lipsticks and wallet spilling out onto her Aubusson carpet.

“Damn.”

She knelt to put everything in order. When she lifted the bag, she found a book underneath it. An old book, with a plain and deeply worn leather cover. The Words Of The Vampire. Rebecca reached out with a tentative hand.

“How did that get there?” she murmured.

Valerie had kept the book when Rebecca had left the store. She was sure of it. The witch had been holding it against her chest when Rebecca had walked out onto the street. Yet somehow it had gotten into her purse and come home with her. And she hadn’t noticed it until now. Had it even been there until this moment?

The hair on the back of her neck stood up with a prickle. This could be a good sign or a very bad one. She made herself touch the book, stroking her fingertip over the cracked brown leather.

“Why are you here?”

Why am I talking to an inanimate object?

The book didn’t answer her. She picked it up and carried it to her reading spot, a chaise longue next to a floor lamp with red beaded shade. She’d draped the chaise with a fake silver-fox fur throw. If she was going to betray the empire, she might as well find out more about the project and she might as well be comfortable while she did it.

Two hours later, her brain was so crammed with strange new information that her head ached. She put the book down and got off the chaise to stalk restlessly around her room, her body buzzing with a peculiar excitement. The Words contained detailed instructions in transforming oneself. The process used herbs, crystals ground into powder, magical chants and other practices alien to her way of thinking.

What if it works?

She was going to try it out on herself. The book claimed one could re-orient a vampire to the Dark through its rituals. She would return to Something Wicked to let Valerie know she wanted to help, and while she copied the book she’d perform the rituals.

It would take her a while. She had her regular job in Imperial Purchasing to do, and she had to keep up the appearance of normality. She sat down again with the book, some paper and a pen and made a list of all the supplies she’d need to perform the rituals.

“Rebecca,” whispered a female voice.

She spun around to face the door, from where the sound seemed to originate. Of course no-one was there. She’d locked the door when she came in.

“Rebecca,” the voice said again.

Could someone be hiding in here? The room was rather cluttered with all her antique furniture and sculpture, giving an intruder several places to lurk. Rebecca walked through the suite, methodically checking every nook and cranny, even the bathroom. She was alone.

Yet she could feel someone watching her. The sensation made her neck prickle even more strongly than when she’d seen the book fall out of her purse. She’d thought the voice had come from near the door, but as she moved through the suite the presence seemed to move with her, staying just behind her the whole time.

“Rebecca.”

“What do you want?” she snapped.

She had the impression of quiet laughter. A chill spread over her body, from her scalp to her toes. She needed to get out of here for a while.

Rebecca threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater, stuck her feet in a pair of ballet flats and left her room. Anywhere was better.

Luckily, Jared wasn’t in the hall. Ugly music still growled from his room, so he must be in there with Emma. Doing the obvious.

The inexplicable pain that thought gave her distracted her for a moment from the frightening events in her room. She needed a bigger distraction, though…like a new man. Or a series of them. Something to take her mind off the one she couldn’t have.

Thinking about Philippe hadn’t done it. She was losing him, even his memory, to time and the pressure of her current needs. She could feel him slipping away. Her body seemed weighted down suddenly with the knowledge, the sadness edging out her fear of the presence in her room.

It wasn’t meal time yet, so she took the elevator up to Daranda’s throne room. Not her favorite place, but it was sure to give her something else to think about than a possible haunting of her quarters…or even Philippe. There was always plenty of tension anywhere in the empress’s vicinity.

As usual, vampires and human pets crowded the enormous room. All the pets were naked. Most of the vampires were in formal wear, although a few of the women wore cocktail dresses with skirts so short they qualified more as extra-wide belts than anything else.

Rebecca slipped into the crowd of people, looking for a place to sit. The couches seemed to all be taken. Vampires nodded and smiled at her but no-one tried to start a conversation, so she continued weaving between knots of people until she found herself at the bank of windows on the opposite side of the room.

Sleet still fell. She could see it glimmering under the street lights. A cold draft came off the window glass.

She turned her back to the window. Daranda sat at the far end of the room, far enough away that she was unlikely to notice Rebecca. That was how Rebecca liked it.

Raphael Black, however, was too close for her peace of mind. He was so tall she could easily see his dark head above most of the others in the room. The seer stood isolated in the center of the crowd, observing with his usual knowing gaze.

He always looked as if he knew what one was thinking. And she didn’t want him reading her mind—she’d been having too many dangerous thoughts lately. Whether he could really read thoughts or not, he was a frightening man; his gray-green eyes saw too much and he was suspicious of everyone. As Daranda’s chief spy, it was his job to be suspicious.

She’d go somewhere else and perhaps strike up a conversation, something trivial and safe. Rebecca took a step away from the window wall. Black turned his head and looked straight into her eyes. He smiled.

Rebecca forced an answering smile. She dropped her gaze from his and glanced around nervously for something else at which she could look. There was nothing but more vampires, more human pets, so she stared at the other people in the room.

There was Emma, on a couch and in the arms of one of the male vampires. He was kissing her along the column of her neck, as if in preparation for a bite. Wait. She wasn’t with Jared after all?

“Good evening, Rebecca,” Black said.

She started guiltily. He was so tall she had to tilt her head back to look at his face. “Um, hi.”

“You look pale tonight. Are you well?”

“Yes. I am well, thank you.” Please let him not discover what I’ve been doing.

“There’s a strange energy in the palace tonight. Do you feel it?”

She blinked. “Um, yes. Maybe. Why do you ask me?”

“I noticed it was strongest on the second floor, where your quarters are.”

“Oh.”

“Have you seen or heard anything unusual?” he said, his gaze more penetrating than ever.

“No. Not really. There is a kind of creepy feeling in the air, though.” She smiled.

“Is that amusing?”

“It does seem like a funny thing for a vampire to say.”

His lips curled up at the corners, the motion so small she wasn’t completely sure she’d really seen it. “Yes, I suppose it does.”

“Do you know what’s going on?”

“I don’t, but I will be investigating. If you do notice anything out of the ordinary, come and see me immediately.”

“Okay.” She tried not to look nervous. “You mean come to your palace?” She’d never been there before, and didn’t want to.

“You can if you like, or you can call me.”

“You have a phone?” She could have bitten off her own tongue after the foolish words. He was ancient, but he did live in the modern world, just like everyone else.

Black smiled, this time with more open amusement. He pulled a cell from the breast pocket of the jacket he wore. “Did you think I communicated by smoke signals?”

“Not exactly. I was thinking homing pigeons.”

He laughed. “I joined the twenty-first century at the same time as everyone else.”

That wasn’t what she’d heard. But she smiled anyway. “Sorry. It was a dumb thing to say.”

Black regarded her intently. “Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?”

She blinked again. Coffee with Raphael Black? “Um, sure. Yes. That would be lovely.” What the heck is going on with me? First Grant and now Black. She was getting far too much attention from the empress’s intimate associates.

“Not tonight, I’m afraid,” he said with a faint air of apology. “There’s something I must attend to. How about tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow night would be lovely.” Yes, lovely. She’d always wanted to enjoy coffee with the empire’s head spy.

 

Chapter 9

 

At two o’clock in the morning, Rebecca decided to suspend her study of The Words long enough to have a snack in the kitchen. She was only a little hungry, but she was tired of ruminating by herself all night. She needed a break.

There were other things down in the basement besides the kitchen—a furnace room, storage, dark and dusty corners that smelled of old wood, where spiders lurked and rats hid their nests. Rebecca didn’t usually go into those areas and she never really knew why she changed her routine on this particular night. She’d come into the kitchen to get a snack—that was what she’d told herself, but she knew she was hoping to run into Jared again, fool that she was.

He wasn’t there. The kitchen was empty of people. She fixed herself some cheddar and saltines and stood in the middle of the room, nibbling on them half-heartedly.

There weren’t any telltale sounds. But something prompted her to set down her snack and walk out of the room into the ugly gray hallway that led to the other parts of the basement. She stood in the dim, harsh light of the single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and waited.

There. A whiff of blood.

Sniffing, she followed the odor to the furnace room, where a faint glow of candlelight seeped beneath the door. It was very bad form to interfere in another vampire’s drinking, if that was what she smelled, and she hesitated with her hand on the handle of the furnace room door. She didn’t want to insult anyone…and yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to get into that room.

She opened the door. Three male vampires crouched over a female pet. She vaguely recognized them; they were some of the newer vampires, less than one hundred years old. One of the males was between her legs, drinking from her femoral artery while he fingered her in hard thrusts of his hand. The female lay in a limp sprawl, unresponsive to his attentions.

The red hair gave the girl away. Emma. Bite marks at her throat, dripping red wounds on either side of the pale column, showed that the other two had already drunk from her. The girl’s skin looked deathly white, even in the gloom, the sprinkle of freckles that crossed her nose standing out in sharp relief against her pallor. They’d taken too much.

The one at her thigh seemed not to notice Rebecca’s presence. He drank on, his hand pumping against Emma’s sex. Was the girl even conscious?

One of the others glared at Rebecca. “If you want her, you’ll have to wait your turn. I’ve already got dibs.”

“You’ve taken too much,” she said.

“We’re not even into the second round.”

She strode into the room, letting the door slam behind her. Still the drinking vampire continued what he was doing, apparently oblivious. She poked his hindquarters with the toe of her boot.

“Stop.”

He growled at her and kept drinking.

“You can’t do that,” the third man said.

“I just did.” Rebecca kicked the drinker. “Stop now.”

He lifted his head from his victim to snarl at her. Her pulse raced and her throat went dry. There were three of them and only one of her, besides which she was no warrior. She had the fighting skills of a ten-year-old ballerina. But that didn’t mean she’d stand by and let these goons murder Emma.

“What you’re doing is unlawful,” she said. “The empress expressly forbids it.”

The drinker wiped a trickle of blood from his chin. “She’s just a pet.”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s still illegal to drain her.”

All three men got to their feet, looming over her. She held her ground, lifting her chin to show they couldn’t intimidate her. At least she’d stopped that one from taking Emma’s last drop of blood.

“Who are you, anyway? You’ve got no business quoting imperial law at us,” the drinker said.

“I’m Rebecca Darmstadt.”

The men blinked, exchanging uneasy glances. She wasn’t exactly famous in the empire, but she was older and therefore more highly respected than many of Daranda’s other courtiers. Her age alone gave her a cachet these upstarts lacked.

“Rebecca Darmstadt, huh?” the third man said. “Never heard of you.” He swaggered toward her. “Better leave, lady.”

“Not without her.” She indicated Emma with a movement of her head.

“When we’re done with her.” The third man stood toe-to-toe with her, using his vastly superior size as an unspoken threat.

She looked right into his eyes. “Now.”

“I don’t think so.”

Rebecca crouched down to lift Emma in her arms. The third man bent over and backhanded her—crack—against her mouth. Her head snapped to the side as pain blossomed in her jaw.

She gave him a level stare. “If you beat me, you will pay. If you kill me, you’ll die.”

“Come on, man,” the drinker said, taking his friend’s arm. “She’s not worth it.”

“I want my turn.”

“You already had her once.”

Third-man shook off his crony and smacked Rebecca in the face again. This time, he used his fist and caught her in the eye. The pain was an explosion of heat that left a terrible dizzy buzzing in its wake.

“I remember you,” the first man said, his voice tense with what sounded like fear. “I saw you upstairs. You’re friends with Black.”

Rebecca forced back the dizziness. She picked up Emma and stood with the human girl limp in her arms.

“Raphael Black?” the drinker said.

“That’s right.” Rebecca smiled coldly. “He’s a good friend of mine.”

“Better leave her alone.” The first man grabbed his belligerent friend by both arms. “We don’t want Black coming around.”

“You’re going to let this bitch steal our pet?” the third man said incredulously.

“She’s not yours,” Rebecca said. “She belongs to the empress.”

“Yeah, man,” the first said. “Let her go. We’ll find you someone else.”

The third man growled like an animal. Rebecca held his angry gaze, putting every bit of ice she could muster into her expression, her posture. It was lucky the one fellow had remembered her, had seen her with Black.

“You made a wise choice,” she said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, this human needs some attention.”

It was the wrong thing to say. The drinker leered at her, at Emma’s naked form in her arms.

“We were giving her attention.”

“And you interfered,” the third man said, circling around to stand between her and the door.

“And now I’m going to save her life. Get out of my way.”

The first man strode to the door and held it open. “Go ahead. We’re glad you came along in time.”

The drinker snorted. Third-man continued to glower. Rebecca stepped around him and walked to the door, ignoring the prickle between her shoulder blades as she turned her back on them.

She glanced at the first man as she passed him. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Any friend of Mr. Black is a friend of ours. Right, guys?”

She ignored the grumbling behind her. The door closed and the three men’s voices rose in argument. Rebecca jogged to the kitchen and the elevator. Emma looked nearly dead, her lips so pale they were almost invisible.

“You’re going to be alright,” she told the girl. “I’ll give you my blood in a moment.”

The blasted elevator was taking an eternity to arrive. The men might change their minds and come after her before it could get here. To hell with it. Shifting her grip on Emma, she opened the stairwell door and charged up the stairs.

Enhanced strength was one of the best things about being a vamp. She wasn’t even a little out of breath when she reached the second floor, even with the burden of Emma’s dead weight. She opened the door to her floor with a sigh of relief. They wouldn’t try to fight her here, that was certain. Too many potential witnesses.

Thank goodness Jared wasn’t around. He’d probably try to blame Rebecca for the incident.

Emma gave a low moan as Rebecca brought her into the hallway. Her lids were fluttering, but she still looked far from normal consciousness. When she got the girl to her quarters, she’d give her some of her own blood. That would revive her almost instantly.

“What happened?”

Rebecca gave a start. She looked up and met the gaze of the last person she wanted to see at the moment. Jared.

* * *

Jared felt himself tremble with rage as he looked at Emma’s ravaged neck. “What happened?” he repeated.

Emma was unconscious, hanging in Rebecca’s arms like some kid’s beat-up stuffed toy, her skin so pale it had a blue tinge. There were bite marks on both sides of her throat. And Rebecca—blood smeared her light-blue shirt and her left eye was swelling up, her mouth already puffy and discolored.

“What did you do to her?” he said.

“Picked her up and brought her here.” Rebecca moved around him. “If you’ll excuse me, she needs some blood.”

He trailed after her. “You two didn’t fight?”

“Why on earth would I fight with Emma?”

Because she was jealous, or so he’d thought. Maybe he’d been wrong.

“How did you get a split lip if you weren’t fighting?”

She paused at her door, giving him a level look over her shoulder. “Someone hit me.”

“Bring her in here.” He opened his own door.

Rebecca walked into his room with a sigh. She didn’t want for instructions from him; she just went right for the bed and laid Emma down with remarkable gentleness.

“Who hit you?” Jared knelt on the opposite side of the mattress.

“The same men who did this to her.” She scored her wrist with her fangs and pressed the dripping wound to Emma’s lips.

Jared watched suspiciously. Did she expect him to believe she’d rescued Emma?

“Explain,” he barked.

Rebecca flicked a glance at him before returning her attention to the human. “I found three men with her. They were taking too much blood. They were on the verge of draining her. I convinced them to stop.”

“Convinced them how? You’re no fighter.”

She smoothed Emma’s tangled hair from her brow. “I talked them out of it.”

“And they hit you,” he said skeptically. Who would dare to strike Rebecca? It seemed laughable.

“Yes,” she said, her gaze focused on the human.

Emma’s eyes opened. She stared blankly upward for a minute before her eyes focused on him and then Rebecca. With a weak movement of her head, she turned away from Rebecca’s blood. “No more. Please.”

Rebecca withdrew her arm. “Rest now.”

Jared swallowed. It hurt him to look at Emma, to see the paleness of her face and the fear in her eyes. Ever since she’d joined Daranda’s court, he’d worried that something like this would happen. The vamps weren’t supposed to drain the pets, but they still did it now and then. Christ, he’d done it himself. It had been an accident, but still…the girl he’d taken was dead.

He took Emma’s hand. “Rough night, kid?”

She smiled for him. “Yeah.”

“What happened?”

“They wouldn’t stop drinking,” she said faintly.

“Who?”

“Don’t know their names. Three men. Soldiers, I think.” Emma’s dark eyes traveled from Jared’s face to Rebecca’s. “Thank you.”

“I was glad to help.” She patted the human’s arm briskly and stood. “You’re safe now and it’s time for me to go.”

Jared said nothing as she left the room. He wanted to punch something but he didn’t have a target. If Rebecca had done anything to hurt Emma…

“Was she there?” he said roughly.

“I think…at the end. She made them stop.”

He frowned. “She didn’t drink from you?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” Her eyes drifted shut. “Heard her…arguing with them. One…hit her.”

“Damn.” Now he felt like a shit for being so cold to her.

“She saved me,” Emma whispered. “Jared…” Her eyes opened again. “She’s not so bad.”

 

Chapter 10

 

There was a cafe a block away from Daranda’s palace that catered to the vamps and their human pets. It stayed open all night, served the best coffee and was extremely popular with the fanged crowd. The cafe, redolent with the smell of freshly roasted beans, had blood-red walls with a dark glaze over the top that made them look like they were covered in old red leather. The lamps were chandeliers with red crystal drops interspersed among the clear ones and it boasted banquettes covered in charcoal-colored velvet. It was the most extravagant coffee house she’d ever seen. She would have loved it except for the need to watch everything she said or did within its walls.

Rebecca made sure to visit the place at least once a week for the sake of appearances—one must fit in with the other members of the court or risk suspicions of disloyalty. She’d never been there with Raphael Black. He ordered an espresso and she got a cinnamon latte with an extra shot of cinnamon, plus a sweet roll on the side. She was a vampire. Her waist watched itself.

“So.” She smiled falsely at Black. “Do you come here often?” She really needed to practice her opening lines.

“Not especially. I’ve been frequenting a place closer to my home.”

“I’ll bet it doesn’t have as many crystal chandeliers as this one.”

He smiled. The expression almost made him look warm and approachable. Almost. “They don’t even have one.”

“I don’t know why you bother going there, in that case.” She also didn’t know why she was teasing him. Surely she wasn’t flirting with the dreaded Black.

“I’m looking for a new pet.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that.

He looked slightly uncomfortable, as if he hadn’t meant to say it.

“What happened to your old one?”

“She died. It was a heart attack.” His face took on the set expression she’d seen on other bereaved people, including herself. Trying not to show how much it hurt.

“You cared for her.”

He shrugged. “I suppose I did.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. Was she old?”

“Eighty-nine. I hadn’t used her veins for fifteen years. It would have been too hard on her.”

“It sounds as if you were a good master.”

Something, some shadow, crossed his face. “Perhaps.”

“I’ve never had a pet of my own.”

Black raised dark eyebrows. “Never?”

“No. I’ve always relied on the court pets or gone hunting for blood.”

“It’s very convenient to have one’s own. Especially since I don’t live at court.”

“I can imagine.”

Rebecca’s gaze wandered to the door of the establishment, where a young man was entering behind a girl she didn’t recognize. Oh, God. The man was Jared. What was he doing here? She’d never encountered him here before.

He wore a black peacoat over his jeans. The classic style did nothing to make him look respectable. His hair still fell in his eyes, there were holes in the knees of his jeans, and he wore a t-shirt with the name of some obnoxious metal band on it.

He made everything in her ache with longing.

She looked away, but not quickly enough. Jared caught her eye. His lips quirked as if he were amused. He gave her a curt nod as he strode up to the counter.

Black, whose back was to the door, hadn’t noticed him.

Rebecca leaned toward the seer. “Do you recommend that I get my own pet?”

“That’s up to you,” he said. “They require a big commitment. You’re responsible for all your pet’s needs.”

“Kind of like having a child?”

“It’s more like being married, with an extremely dependent spouse.”

“Being married. Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Black was full of surprises tonight. She never would have guessed he had anyone for whom he cared, or grieved, or thought of as a spouse.

“Most people don’t,” he said. “Which is part of why so many pets are abused.”

Again, he looked vaguely surprised at himself.

Rebecca was trying to come up with an appropriate remark when Jared slid into the banquette next to her. She went hot all over. Her hand tightened on her paper coffee cup until it bowed inward and threatened to spill cinnamon latte all over her lap.

“Hey, you two,” he said with wicked cheer. “I didn’t know you were dating.”

Rebecca flushed again. “We’re not.”

“Just having coffee with a friend,” Black said at the same time. “Although I would be honored if Rebecca would go to dinner with me some night.”

He would? She stared at him in astonishment. Was this a trick? He’d never shown that kind of interest in her before.

“Me, too,” Jared said.

She glared at him. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” He was all innocence.

“Everyone knows you hate me.”

“Nah, I don’t hate you, Princess.”

“Don’t you have someone to kill tonight, Jared?” Black said.

“Nope. I’m free.” He grinned at them before taking a swig of his coffee.

He was doing this just to annoy her.

“You’re doing this to annoy me,” Black said.

Rebecca blinked, giving him a sideways glance.

“Why would I want to do that?” Jared said.

“Because I once hauled you up by the scruff of your neck.”

“Nah, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. After all, I was just a pet back then.” There was something in his voice that told her he didn’t mean what he said at all.

Maybe she wasn’t the only vampire he hated.

“Speaking of pets,” she said, “how is Emma?”

“She’s fine,” he said flatly. “Back to work.”

“You were a particularly insolent pet,” Black said.

Jared shrugged. “Everyone needs a hobby.”

“With that attitude, you’re lucky you survived long enough to take the transformation.” Black gave Jared a level stare as he lifted his coffee cup.

“Am I? Funny, tonight I don’t feel so lucky.”

“Be careful,” Black said. “You don’t want to give anyone the impression you’re disloyal to the empress.”

“Aw, are you saying you care about me? I’m touched.” Jared grinned again at the seer.

She’d never seen anyone deliberately provoke the man. Most people had more sense, or more desire to continue living.

Black merely leaned back in his chair and smiled benignly at the younger vampire. “I’m just giving you a friendly reminder. The expression ‘the walls have ears’ is true in the empire.”

“I’ve never been disloyal to Daranda or the empire,” Jared said.

“Good. A wise position.”

And one she was about to abandon. Don’t think about that. Not now. As a distraction and to keep Black out of her incriminating thoughts, she stared at one of the paintings on the wall, forcing herself to note the colors and shapes. Green, blue, gold, a touch of red.

The men seemed to have forgotten her presence.

“I could learn a lot about loyalty from you, I’ll bet,” Jared said.

“I imagine so.”

“You’ve never gone against her wishes in the thousands of years you’ve been her seer, have you?”

“No, I have not.”

He was pushing it too hard. Eventually he’d cross too far over the line, Black would lose his temper, and then something horrible would happen.

Rebecca nudged Jared’s foot with her own. “Mr. Black was just telling me how to care for a personal pet.”

Oops. Good grief, she couldn’t trust her mouth—or her brain—at all tonight.

“Was he now?” Jared drawled, staring at Black.

“You must understand her needs,” Black said, staring back. “And meet them all to the best of your ability.”

“Uh huh. Great philosophy for a vampire.”

“You’re a vampire.”

“I am?” Jared looked down at himself in mock astonishment. “How did that happen?”

“Jared, quit. It’s getting old,” she said.

“Oh, damn. I’ve offended you again, haven’t I?”

“No. You’re worrying me.”

His gaze lost its teasing edge. His body stilled. “I wouldn’t want to do that.”

“Good.” She tore off a piece of sweet roll and offered it to him. “Want some?”

He took the treat, his fingertips brushing hers. The contact sent a tingle of awareness through her hand, up her arm and into the rest of her. He was still looking into her eyes as he put the bite of roll into his mouth.

Rebecca looked away on the pretense of taking a sip of her latte. In her peripheral vision, she could see Black watching the two of them with that knowing expression he so often had. What was it he thought he knew?

“I’ve got some work waiting for me at home,” he said. “So I’m going to say my good-byes and wish you a good evening now.”

“Oh, do you have to go?” Rebecca smiled in the hope he’d change his mind. Even Black couldn’t make her as uncomfortable as Jared did.

“I’m afraid I do. It was most enjoyable and I hope we can get together again.”

“Yes,” she said. “Let’s do that.”

She watched as he took his cup to the trash bin on the way to the door. He was leaving her here with Jared. What was worse, being trapped with the seer of the empire or being trapped with a newly transformed smartass who hated her?

You’re not trapped. You can always leave. I’m sure he won’t stop you.

She glanced at Jared, who was staring at the far wall of the coffee house with an abstracted expression. His lips were parted, his eyes almost blank, as if he’d fallen asleep with them open. As she studied him, he blinked and frowned, his gaze darting around the room for an instant before settling on her.

She cleared her throat. “Well, I should be going, too.”

“Stay a while.” Jared grabbed her hand.

“Why? So you can run through the rest of your insult repertoire?”

“Ouch.” He grimaced. “No. So we can talk.”

“I see your plan now. You’re trying to drive me crazy by changing your position every hour or so.”

Jared laughed at that. “Rebecca, I’m not. Really.”

“You could’ve fooled me.”

“Yeah. I haven’t been very nice.”

She gave him a suspicious glare. What game was he playing now? There was no way she would believe he’d changed his mind about her over the last three hours.

“I thought you were being mean on purpose,” she said, awkwardly aware he still had her hand.

He actually looked uncomfortable. “I was.”

“Nothing’s changed. There’s no reason to be nice to me.”

He didn’t let go of her. “Maybe I need some distraction.” He muttered the words under his breath, as if he didn’t really want her to hear.

“Distraction from what?”

“Oh, you know. Work and shit.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like your work?”

She’d have thought it was easy enough. Just walk around looking beautiful and dangerous, while others did the messy job of murdering those the empress disliked. But Grant had said Jared was the real thing, a true assassin, so maybe it wasn’t easy at all.

Jared gave one of those careless shrugs he’d perfected. “It gets old sometimes.”

He leaned back against the banquette, still grasping her hand, and lifted his cup to his lips with the same kind of graceful nonchalance. As if nothing mattered. He’d seen it all, done it all, and found it faintly amusing. He was only in his mid-twenties. Where had he acquired so much cynicism?

From us vampires, obviously.

Yes, life in Daranda’s court would do that to a person—crush any idealism or naiveté—but she couldn’t help wondering if there was something else in his background that had caused him to be so jaded.

His thumb began to stroke the back of her hand. His fingers were long and well-formed, the clasp of his hand powerful on hers. The rhythmic caress of his thumb provoked a hot ache in her core. She ought to pull away but she couldn’t bring herself to reject his touch.

“I would have thought Emma was distraction enough,” she said, partly for her own benefit. She needed to remind herself of Jared’s true feelings.

“She had to go serve her fanged masters.” He took another mouthful of coffee.

“Aren’t you in that category?”

“Emma is my friend,” he said flatly. “I will never be her master.”

“I’m not the only vampire you hate, am I?”

“Careful, Princess. You never know who’s listening. Besides, like I said, I don’t hate you.”

“I thought we agreed that you did.”

“We agreed on something?” He gave her a mocking smile. “I don’t remember that.”

“Did you follow me here?” she blurted.

He grinned. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Yes, I followed you. I saw you leave the palace with Black and I was so jealous I couldn’t stand it, so I tagged along.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “I’m crazy in love with you.”

“Knock it off.” She tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn’t let go. “Now you’re making fun of me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well, I don’t believe a word you just said.”

“I’m hurt.”

“And I’m still the same person who used and abused you.”

“I’m trying to forgive you,” he said with a pious air that she knew was fake.

“Are you ever serious? Sincere?”

“Sure. With people I like.” He lifted her hand and cradled it to his chest. “I don’t know much about you. Tell me something.”

She frowned, thrown by his abrupt change of subject. “Uh…like what?”

“Where were you born?”

“In Bayern—that is, Bavaria, in a town called Bamberg.”

“Ah. Im schule, ich studiere Deutsch.”

She gaped at him. “You speak Deutsch? I mean German?”

Ja. Aber nicht gut. I probably said that wrong, didn’t I?”

“I didn’t even know you went to school.” She blushed. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I always seem to say the wrong thing with you.”

“It’s okay. I never graduated from high school.” He stared thoughtfully at their clasped hands, now resting on the table top. “I ran away, ended up on the streets.”

“Like most of the pets.”

“Yep. At the time, food and a warm place to sleep seemed like a good trade for a bite now and then.” He tilted his head, looking at her. “So how did you become a vampire?”

She couldn’t talk to him about that. It was too personal, too deeply intimate, and he—all he ever did was make smart-ass remarks and try to humiliate her. The way she’d humiliated him, she guessed.

“I met a man,” she said after a pause. “He asked me…you know. And I said yes. His name was Philippe.”

“Where’s Philippe now?” he said.

“Executed for treason.” Her voice sounded hard and flat, even to her own ears.

He squeezed her hand. “That sucks.”

“Yes.” She gave him a wry smile, caught off-guard by his sympathy. “It does.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Most of the time I try not to think about him. I try to live in the present.” It wasn’t really true; it was more what she wished she could do than what she truly did.

“Sounds like me.”

“I’d have thought you were dwelling in the past. You’re always so resentful.”

“Aw, now you’re making me blush.”

She tried again to get her hand away from him. He only held it more tightly. “I just mean you seem angry a lot of the time.”

“I am. Was,” he amended.

“Was?”

His glance was cautious, wary. “You ever get the feeling you’ve made a totally fucked up decision but it’s too late to change your mind?”

“Yes.” When she’d chosen to use him against his will. Rebecca leaned in close. “Are you talking about the transformation?” she said in a low voice, so no-one else would hear.

“I can’t…forget I said anything.”

“This isn’t the best place to talk,” she said. “It’s too loud.”

“Yeah. Too loud.”

“Would you like to come to my room?” she said, before her courage failed.

Jared hesitated and her heart sank. She shouldn’t have asked, should’ve spared herself the embarrassment.

“Alright,” he said. 

 

Chapter 11

 

Black left the cafe with most of his espresso still in his cup. He didn’t really care for the stuff anyway, only drank it to give himself an excuse to lurk in certain cafes. The taste had an unpleasant way of lingering in his mouth. Rebecca was clearly more interested in that young pup Jared than she was in Black, so he left them to it. While she was certainly attractive, she wasn’t the one he truly wanted anyway.

He turned up the collar of his greatcoat against the stinging cold sleet and headed for his palace. There was work to be done, even if he no longer cared about doing it. Someone had to save the empire from Daranda.

Even if he’d rather give it all up and disappear with Perrie.

Where had that absurdity come from? He barely knew the girl. She wasn’t worth such a sacrifice.

He hardly noticed the shiver in the air, hardly had time to register that he wasn’t alone, before a thick arm caught him around his shoulders and dragged him into an alley. His body tensed for a fight. Then the pavement seemed to disappear beneath his feet and he tumbled with his assailant into a whirling, roaring nightmare that made his stomach try to climb out through his mouth.

What the hell was this? No-one in the empire had magic beyond the usual vampire powers of mind control and flight, as far as he knew. And no-one in the empire would dare attack him. He strove, through the spinning flashes of color and darkness, to get a look at his adversary, but although the man’s arm was still clamped around him, he couldn’t make out the fellow’s face.

The spinning abruptly halted. Black bent over against the pull of the man’s arm, wracked with dry heaves. Where were they? Thick fog surrounded them, so thick he could see only white.

The Between.

The instant he realized where he was, the other man yanked him sideways and the whirling began all over again. This time, Black remembered to close his eyes. The person who’d accosted him must be Amaki—probably Garek—because this was definitely Walking the Between, an experience he hadn’t had since his long-ago youth in Atlantis. It had been so long that he hadn’t recognized it right away.

Once again, the whirling stopped. The man let go of him. He braced his hands on his knees, fighting back a wave of nausea so strong it made him helpless to defend himself.

As the nausea faded, he noticed the air felt warm and dry and smelled savory. The scent of the food should have made him sick again, but instead it aroused his appetite. Dishes clinked and people spoke and laughed from very nearby. They were in an Amaki household.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes. Garek stood in front of him, hands on his narrow hips, a concerned expression on his inhumanly beautiful face. Black straightened, giving him a baleful glower.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he growled.

“Forcing your hand,” his old friend—and worst betrayer—said.

“Take me back.”

Garek spread his hands. “Sorry. I can’t do that just yet.”

“Do it or I’ll walk out on my own.”

“You’re going to walk all the way from Oregon to Pennsylvania?”

So that’s where they were—Oregon. Probably Niko and Laila’s stronghold.

“I’ll catch a plane,” Black said between gritted teeth. He was only one quarter Amaki and couldn’t Walk the Between on his own, but he had his wallet and plenty of cash. Flying in a plane was dangerous because of the chance of exposure to sunlight, but he was powerful enough to control the humans on the flight and keep them from opening their window shades. Besides, he’d go with a nighttime flight.

The footsteps of someone light and delicate interrupted this train of thought, along with a soft floral scent that stirred vague memories.

“Garek, did you find him?” said a graceful feminine voice he hadn’t heard in thousands of years…and had never heard speaking English.

Black froze. Could it be her? His half-Amaki mother, Laila, the woman who’d abandoned him to the Atlantean king’s torturers. His heart and stomach both lurched violently.

“I did,” Garek said.

He moved to the side, revealing a tiny, slender woman with the curling black hair and huge dark eyes he remembered from his childhood. She lifted those eyes to his face. Her mouth opened but no sound emerged.

She clapped a delicate hand over her mouth as her face crumpled and her eyes filled with tears. Garek laid a hand on her shoulder. She reached for Black. He stepped back.

“Ravki?” Her voice broke.

“That’s no longer my name, madam.”

“Laila, what’s going on over here?”

The newcomer was male. Black’s gut twisted at the half–remembered voice. He lifted his chin, adopting his coldest and most forbidding expression as his mother and Garek stood aside for the new addition.

Niko. Black’s father stared at him with a blank, stunned look on his face. It was a face he hadn’t seen for so long he could hardly remember their last meeting and yet it was instantly recognizable—strong regular features, dark hair, oddly pale eyes. Ravki—-Raphael—-strongly resembled his father; he saw that face in the mirror every night.

Niko’s heavy, black brows lowered ominously. “You dare come here?” he said in a deadly voice.

“I brought him,” Garek said. “Against his will.”

“Because I asked him to,” Laila added.

Niko glowered at each of them in turn, his winter–gray eyes colder than Raphael had ever seen them. “He doesn’t belong here. He could endanger us all.”

“He’s our son,” Laila said with quiet dignity. “He deserves our welcome.”

“He forfeited any welcome when he accused us of having him tortured and cut off all contact.” Niko’s gaze bored mercilessly into him. “He forfeited it when he joined Daranda. He forfeits it every time he helps that woman commit another murder.”

“I never thought you had me tortured,” Raphael said. “But you left me there. You made no effort to get me out. Do you know what twenty years of Atlantean hospitality is like?”

“We didn’t know where you were,” Laila said. “We had no idea what had happened to you and Garek. The two of you disappeared.”

Raphael shook his head.

“We looked,” Niko said. “And you should have known better than to think for even an instant that we would abandon you to that.”

“We love you, Ravki,” Laila said.

He shook his head again as a vice clamp of agony bore down on his skull. Lies. They were lying to him, trying to get him to drop his guard. Maybe to betray the empire.

His love for Daranda had died centuries ago, but she and the empire he’d helped her to build still commanded his loyalty. Thousands of imperial citizens relied on him to oversee the security of the empire, and protect them from the unregulated rogues whose lawless behavior threatened to reveal their existence to the humans who surrounded them on all sides.

His effort to root out and destroy the rogues was the only thing that stood between the vampires and a panicked extermination attempt by humans. And these people, who claimed to love him, openly aided and sheltered rogues and defectors.

“None of this matters,” he said.

“How can you say that?” Laila looked as if she wanted to put her arms around him and rescue him from the big, bad, evil empress.

“It’s over now. My loyalty goes to the empire. People depend on me.”

“We need you,” she said. “We need our boy back.”

“That boy is dead,” he said gently. “He died in the Atlantean dungeon.”

“But-–”

“Laila.” Niko clasped her by the upper arms. “Let him go.”

Tears flowed down his mother’s beautiful, still youthful face. “This isn’t right,” she said in a choked voice.

“I’m sorry.” Raphael said the words to make the parting easier, but as soon as they left his mouth he knew they were true.

He was sorry to cause her pain, even unintentionally. Once, he’d adored his mother and nearly worshipped his father. Once, he’d loved them. The vice clamp tightened ruthlessly, until his vision blurred and nausea roiled in his belly.

He squinted at Garek. “I’m leaving, with your help or without it.”

“Very well. I’ll take you back.”

They didn’t speak on the return trip. Black kept his eyes shut to keep out the worst of the effects. Still, his headache seemed to have grown talons which it had gleefully embedded in his very brain.

He opened his eyes to the cold, damp air and impenetrable shadows of the alley that fronted his palace. Garek released him, stepped back, his face somber. Black turned away from him, toward his door.

“Give them a chance,” the Amaki said. “They do love you.”

“I don’t love them.”

“Yes, you do.”

He turned to argue, but Garek had already vanished back into the Between. Raphael slumped against the wall of his building, heedless of the fine wool fabric of his greatcoat. It was near to dawn. He could feel it, feel the sun preparing to crest the horizon.

In a moment, he would enter the lock code and take the stairs down to his domain. He’d walk through the Communal Scrying Chamber where his under-seers gazed into their crystals. They’d sneak fearful looks at him as he passed among them. None would question him. None would welcome him.

His private quarters would be dark and cool and silent. No one would dare to enter uninvited. He would be alone.

Raphael pushed off the wall, striding up the alley toward the dawn. He wore a hat with a brim and his coat had a generous collar. If he kept his head down, he could avoid serious burns, especially in this heavily overcast weather.

He didn’t know where he was going until he looked up and recognized the Bean and Bagel. They were already open, catering to the human breakfast crowd. Raphael reached for the door.

He went inside and ordered himself the biggest mocha they made. Normally he despised sweets. Tonight he craved sugar.

He brought the drink to the darkest corner of the café and sat brooding and watching humans come and go. They smiled and laughed, chatted with the baristas, talked into their smart phones. All of them had somewhere to go and people who wanted them.

By the Dark, he was turning maudlin.

Plenty of these humans had trouble in their lives—unhappy marriages, intolerable work situations, illness, rebellious children. They might seem happy on the surface and yet be as miserable as he.

Am I miserable?

He couldn’t quite convince himself that the humans were as alone as he. At least they had calls to make. He couldn’t even drum up enough enthusiasm for another check-in with Daranda.

Gods, he was turning into a soggy mess. Feelings. What good were they? They’d only ever gotten him in trouble, fooled him into trusting the wrong people, caused him needless pain.

Despite his lecturing himself, his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Seeing his…gods, his parents…seeing his parents had thrown him more than he could have imagined. The way Niko had looked at him, as if he were lower than dirt…

But what had he expected? He was loyal to the empire they despised. Of course they must despise him by association. Furthermore, these were the same people who’d left him to the charming hospitality of the Atlantean royal prison.

He couldn’t remember Niko looking at him like that when he was a child, though. Never. The Dacian had been an exacting father but a loving one. Always loving.

Were his memories accurate? Time might have blurred them. It had been thousands of years, after all.

That so-called love was a lie. He showed his true nature tonight.

Raphael massaged his temples. Love. Lies. Truth. He couldn’t seem to tell one from the other lately.

“Raphael?” said a soft female voice.

He raised his head to see Perrie standing next to his table with a pleasantly surprised look on her face. His heart tripped, stumbled, sprang up and raced like a mad thing.

“I didn’t think you’d be here so early,” he said.

Her face fell. “Oh. I’m sorry to bother you.”

She turned away, blushing. His hand shot out with a will of its own and caught her slender, gloved wrist. “You’re not bothering me.”

“I’m not? Are you sure?”

“I spoke without thinking.”

Perrie faced him more fully, still looking unsure and embarrassed. “I didn’t expect to see you, either.”

“You said you didn’t want to.”

She made a face. “I know and I’m sorry.”

He still had his great paw around her little wrist. With an effort, Raphael let go of her. His fool’s heart still pounded, his mouth gone dry. He ought to leave, before things got any cozier.

Yes, leave. Leave now. But he stayed in his chair, looking at her lovely face.

“Would you—” He cleared his throat. “Would you like to sit with me?”

By the Dark, why had he said that? He was sworn to keep away from her and instead he was inviting her to join him.

It’s only coffee.

But he knew it wasn’t true. It was an opening, for both of them. These moments in the Bean and Bagel would make it that much easier to see each other, to talk and laugh the next time they met.

There won’t be a next time.

Perrie took the other chair with a bright smile. She had a coffee cup and another giant pastry, just like the last time, yet she looked as slim as ever. Maybe even thinner. More drawn.

“So how have you been?” she said.

Lonely.

He blinked. Smiled. “I’ve been well, thank you. And you?”

“I’ve been getting by. I have a lot of things I have to do, which is why I didn’t want to get involved with anyone. It didn’t seem fair.”

“I’m busy too.”

“Oh, of course.”

They fell into an awkward silence. She sipped her coffee, leaving a droplet of moisture on her lower lip. If he licked it off, would it taste sweet?

“Have you gone to any Medieval music concerts lately?” he said, just to break the silence. The first time they’d met she’d invited him to a concert of authentic lays of the troubadours, which he’d enjoyed both for the music he hadn’t heard in centuries and for her sweet company.

“I haven’t had time,” she said. “I’ve had to make do with videos on the web.”

The web? Ah, the internet. Her generation did seem to love their computers and tablets and smart phones as much as they did other people.

He was out of touch with the times. What had his former under-seer Callista Harris called him? A fossil. But she was only fifty—young for a vampire. When she was thousands of years old, they would see how carefully she kept up with current fashion.

“At least you can enjoy it second hand,” he remarked.

Perrie sighed. “Yeah. But it’s not the same.” She cocked her head, studying him. “You look thrashed.”

“Thrashed?”

“Tired. Stressed out. Exhausted.”

He nodded. “That’s pretty accurate.”

“Is it work?”

“Not exactly. It’s…a family affair.”

She widened her eyes. “You’re not married, are you?”

“No.” He smiled. “Never been married.”

“So it’s what? Your parents?”

For an instant he bristled at her continued questioning. What business was it of hers? No-one asked him prying questions; no-one dared. Then he looked into her beautiful hazel eyes and saw only warmth and friendly sympathy there.

“Yes, my parents,” he said, with an odd sense of relief at speaking the words aloud. “They disapprove of my profession.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” She gave a little laugh. “My mom disapproves of almost everything I do.”

Could he really have something in common with this human girl? It seemed he did. The idea made his chest ache in a way that felt surprisingly pleasant.

“I find it difficult to imagine anyone disapproving of you.”

She laughed again. “Imagine it. She’s always getting on me about what I eat, how I spend my time, taking my—” Her voice trailed off.

“Your what?”

She looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Oh, you know, vitamins and stuff.”

He was reasonably sure she hadn’t been about to say vitamins.

“I suppose she does those things because she loves you,” he said, mostly because it seemed like the standard response.

“Definitely. But it still drives me crazy.” She took a sip of coffee. “So what about your parents? Why don’t they like what you do? Seems like being a consultant would be a good thing.”

She remembered the benign lie he’d told her, a cover to avoid having to explain his true calling. The ache in his chest turned to a fuzzy warm glow. “I guess you could say they wanted me to go into the family business instead.”

“Oh, I get it. What kind of business is it?”

This was getting dicey. He floundered, trying to find a way to explain that wouldn’t involve the word vampire. He couldn’t say they take in traitors—it would lead to too many other unanswerable questions.

What did his parents do, anyway? How could he describe it in human terms? They took in people who were running from the empire, rogues who didn’t know how to be vampires and who were marked for death by Daranda. People who had defected, like Obsidian. They consorted with Amaki, also known as fairies, a people who would have nothing to do with the Dark Empire.

“I guess you could say they counsel people. They take in people who don’t have any place else to go, who…who have a criminal background.”

“Wow. They sound really caring.”

Did they? Somehow he’d never thought of it that way.

“Some of the people they help are extremely unsavory.” He could hear the disapproval in his tone.

“But someone has to help them. Otherwise they’ll just go on committing more crimes, right?”

“I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”

“You don’t approve of what they do either, do you?”

He looked at her warily. “I don’t care for the kind of people they work with, no.”

Perrie’s eyes were great pools of sympathy. “That must be hard. I don’t know what I’d do without my mom.”

“I’m sure you’d survive.”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe not. She’s always been there for me.”

Raphael shifted his weight from one hip to the other, uneasiness making him fidgety, making it hard for him to continue holding her gaze. He glanced out the window. Hell, it was almost full daylight outside. He was going to be a wreck by the time he got home.

“I have to go.” He stood so abruptly he knocked the table with his hip.

“Can’t you stay a little longer?”

“I wish I could, but I’m already late.”

He wanted to kiss her. No. Not now. This wasn’t the right time or place for their first kiss. At least, not on the lips. Raphael took her hand, kissed the back with a soft, quick brush of his lips.

“Let me give you my number. Maybe we can get together again sometime,” she said, smiling at him as a pink blush colored her cheeks.

“I’d like that,” he said.

She fished a pen out of her enormous tote. He watched her thin hand move the pen swiftly across a napkin. He didn’t really need her number, of course, since he knew where she lived. But it wouldn’t do to tell her that. She’d look at him like he was a creep. A stalker.

You are a creep and a stalker.

Perrie handed him the napkin. He stuck it in the inside pocket of his greatcoat. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad I ran into you.”

Raphael smiled. “So am I.”

Take her home with you. Take her now. No-one will stop you.

No. He wouldn’t do it. She deserved better than that. There was something mysterious about her that made her different from the other women he’d made into pets. She was something more.

He ought to leave her alone. If he had any decency, he’d disappear from her life. She’d never see him again. Yes, that was what he’d do. He’d go home and never call her, and never come back to the Bean and Bagel. This was the last time he’d visit the cafe. He wouldn’t even turn down this street, not for any reason. It was forbidden to him.

“I’ll call you,” he said. But he wouldn’t.

He left her without waiting for a response, jammed his hat on his head and plunged into the poisonous glare of the sunlight with his eyes nearly shut against its assault. Perrie liked him.

It didn’t matter. She was not for him. 

Chapter 12

 

Jared gave himself hell all the way back to the palace for agreeing to visit Rebecca’s room. He needed to stay away from her—as far away as possible. Yet he also needed something to keep his mind off Laura, which was why he was here sucking up to the ice princess in the first place. Anyway, she didn’t seem quite as icy at the moment, and she had saved Emma. That was worth a lot.

They didn’t have much to say to each other on the way back, though. Yeah, this was gonna be fun.

Her room looked the same as he remembered it, the walls painted dark pink, with oil paintings and tapestries hung on them. The furniture divided the room into zones—one for sleeping, with a fancy carved canopy bed, one for reading and hanging out, and another for eating. Everything looked like it came out of some European palace from two hundred or more years ago. Her scent lingered in everything and made him ache with unwelcome longing.

She led him to an old-fashioned looking couch in the hang-out area.

“Will I break it if I sit on it?” he said, looking doubtfully at its spindly curving legs.

“No. It’s a reproduction, so it only looks delicate.” She took a seat, smiling hesitantly at him as she patted the cushion next to her.

He sat. “You really like old stuff, huh?”

“I do. As long as it’s from later than the seventeenth century. I don’t like to think about my life before the transformation.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

God knew he wanted to forget his own childhood. He still couldn’t stand to watch TV shows from back then.

“Hey, Princess, you know anything about witchcraft?”

She gave him a weird, almost frightened look. “No. Why?”

Then she probably wouldn’t know what to do about a ghost. “Just wondering.”

Jared glanced at the wall that separated their suites. Would Laura follow him in here? He hadn’t heard a peep out of her since he’d left his quarters, but earlier in the evening she’d been dogging him continually.

He turned his attention to Rebecca, trying to shut any hint of Laura out of his mind. “Thank you for saving Emma. I should have said it before.”

She looked embarrassed. “I was glad to help.”

“You did more than help.”

“I like Emma. She’s a good girl and she didn’t deserve what they were doing to her.”

“No, she didn’t. But I never expected you to stand up for her.”

She shrugged. “You think the worst of me, I know.”

Now he really did feel guilty. He lifted a hand to touch her face, then dropped it before he made contact. “How are you feeling? Did they really hurt you?”

“I’m fine. Vampire, remember? I was completely healed before I left your room.”

“Good. That’s good.” He glanced around again at her fancy antique furniture. Laura could be hiding in here. Would she come after him here? If she did, would she harass Rebecca or just him?

“Would you like to tell me what’s bothering you?” Rebecca said.

He gave her a lazy smile. “I’d rather pick up where we left off.”

She blushed. She’d been doing a lot of that tonight. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do,” he said, with a confidence he didn’t feel.

He cupped the side of her face in his hand, rubbing his thumb along her cheekbone. She was so small, so delicate in her build. Especially compared to him.

Rebecca didn’t pull away or try to slap him, as he’d almost expected her to. He’d been an asshole tonight, trying to push as many of her and Black’s buttons as he could find. Yet she shivered at his touch, her whiskey-colored eyes going darker, her little body leaning toward him.

I don’t deserve her.

What the hell? That was bullshit—she was the one who’d used him, not the other way around.

His thought didn’t stop him from tilting up her chin as he bent his head to hers. Her lips were like warm silk beneath his. The last time he’d kissed her, he’d meant to challenge her, maybe even punish. Now he meant to seduce, to give pleasure.

Rebecca gave a soft moan, a sound of yearning that made him throb with desire. Her slender hands slid up over his chest and around his neck, her fingers toying with his hair. He cupped her breast, the sweet curve filling his hand, the engorged nipple thrusting insistently against his palm. With his thumb, he teased her through the sweater she wore. The damned thing was too thick. Needed to get under it.

Jared released her breast to push his hand beneath the hem of her sweater. He skimmed up the silky flesh of her belly and found her breast again. When he brushed against her nipple, she jerked and moaned.

Her hands left his hair and traveled downward until she grasped his T-shirt and began to drag it up, baring him to her gaze. He let go of her so she could undress him. When she got the T-shirt off, she stroked his naked torso with greedy intensity. She leaned in, following the path her hands had made with her mouth.

None of the vampires had ever touched him this way. It had always been his job to provide the pleasure. His breath caught as her mouth found his nipple. She licked him. Jared cradled her head as she suckled his flat male nipple, sending unexpected surges of pleasure through him and making him sigh.

When she’d tortured him thoroughly, she switched her attentions to his other nipple. And then she began to move downward, following the line of dark hair that led straight to his cock. A cock that was now so hard it almost hurt.

Her fingers worked feverishly at the button and zipper on his jeans. He let her free him, let her bend her head and take him in her mouth. Jesus. He’d never felt anything like that. Hot, wet, so good it made his eyes roll back and his mouth fall open.

He began to stroke her hair as she sucked him, as she worked her mouth up and down on his shaft. Moans escaped him and words, words he’d never said to anyone. He never talked during sex.

If she continued, he was going to come in her mouth and he didn’t want that. He wanted to come inside her body, inside her sheath. He wanted to see her face as he came in her.

“Rebecca, stop,” he said hoarsely.

She didn’t listen. Her mouth worked over him just as eagerly.

“I’m gonna come. Baby, stop, I’m gonna come.” He tried to pry her off, but she refused to budge.

Her hand clasped him firmly at his base, working him in a rhythmic motion that mimicked sex while she continued to lick and suck the head of his cock. Jared glanced down. The sight of her with his cock in her mouth was too much. He couldn’t stand it. Ecstasy roared through him. He threw his head back with a shout as he spilled everything he had into her mouth.

She drew his orgasm out by continuing to stroke him through every last shudder.

Jared leaned his head against the back of her couch, panting and spent. Rebecca reached for a tissue in the box she kept on the side table next to the couch and spit into it.

“Sorry. I don’t like to swallow it.”

“Don’t worry about it.” His voice came out all husky. “What you did was spectacular. You didn’t have to do that.”

She tossed the tissue into a little waste can under the table. “I wanted to. I needed to make up for the last time we were together.”

He took her by the arms and urged her against his body. Funny, but all the times he’d thought about fucking her, he’d never imagined just holding her. Jared wrapped his arms around her. He lowered his face to the crown of her head. She put her arms around his waist, nestling against him. She felt good there. Too good.

“I never expected you to make up for anything,” he said.

“I wanted to.”

He stared blankly at the other side of her room, while his fingers played in her long, thick hair. This was so not how he’d thought the night would go. Totally unexpected.

“No one’s ever done that for me before.” Telling her that was unexpected, too.

“No one? Really?”

“I was a boy prostitute and then I was a pet. I was there to give other people pleasure. Nobody ever cared about mine.”

She lifted her dark head and looked at him, her eyes sad. “I care.”

“Why?”

“Do I have to have a reason?”

“Yeah, Princess, I think you do.”

Rebecca traced the curve of his lower lip with her index finger. “I want you. Before, when I took you, it was wrong. I thought you were under my mental control. I didn’t know you weren’t susceptible to vampire mind control.”

“Most people don’t.”

“But you told me and I didn’t believe you. I thought, by the way you responded to me, that my powers were working. I thought I was forcing your response to me.”

He laughed softly. “Nope, it was all me.”

“So you wanted me then?”

“Wasn’t it obvious? I wanted you so bad it hurt.”

“But you were so angry. You seemed to hate me for it.”

Jared sighed heavily. “I hated all vampires. In my mind, they were all the same. They were the motherfuckers who’d made me a slave, who’d made the only person in the world I cared about a slave too.”

She had a troubled look in her eyes. “Do you still think that way?”

Did he? No. He’d learned there was at least one vampire who was different from the others. “You’re not like them.”

“God, I hope not.”

“The fact you just did what you did proves you’re different.”

She still looked troubled. “Thank you.”

He took her head in his hands, holding her still while he kissed her. Her mouth seemed warmer, wetter than before, and that was a hell of a turn on.

She let him remove her sweater and bra, let him lay her down on the sofa and tease her breasts with his palms, with his fingers, until she arched and gasped and moaned beneath him. Then he replaced his fingers with his mouth, suckling her firmly, and her moans turned to pleading cries. She was incredibly responsive.

After what she’d done for him, he meant to take his time with her. He meant to have her begging for mercy before he finished. Jared smiled as he kissed his way down her belly and dipped his tongue briefly into her navel. He was about to taste her, something he’d been dreaming about since that other night.

Unfortunately, her jeans were in the way. He pulled so hard on the waistband that the button popped off and fell with a clang to the floor. Rebecca laughed. She helped him push the jeans off her hips and down to her ankles.

He couldn’t wait anymore. He left the jeans where they were and buried his head between her thighs. She gave a shuddering gasp as his tongue met the silken folds at the center of her body.

Jared groaned. She tasted just as he remembered. Salty, tangy musk, all woman. She was wet, too, dripping with cream.

He explored every fold, every surface of her sex before focusing on the little nub at the apex of her cleft. She whimpered and moaned continuously as he played with her. Although it hadn’t been long since she’d made him come, he was already hard again. He dipped his tongue into her sheath, suckled lightly on that little nub, and Rebecca shattered, screaming.

Jared positioned himself over her. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. Damn, she was gorgeous. She opened her thighs even farther while he set his cock at her entrance.

“Please,” she said.

He sank slowly into her. Groaned loudly. Rebecca gasped, her eyes closing, her mouth falling open. She felt even better here, even better than her mouth. So tight.

“So sweet, baby,” he said.

“Yes,” she moaned, her hands clasping his waist.

He shafted her with long, slow rolls of his hips, staring right into her eyes while he did it. The look on her face—damn, it was better than anything he’d imagined. Her eyes had turned so dark they looked black, her lips were full and parted, her gaze intent on him. Only for him.

This was what he’d wanted to see for so long.

She lifted her calves, wrapped her legs around his waist, opening herself to him, taking him so deep within her their bodies seemed to meld. Jared paused, trembling. She pulled his head down to hers and captured his mouth in a devouring kiss.

Her taste still filled his mouth and now he was sharing it with her. Jared groaned against her lips as her tongue plunged deeply into him. He rocked his hips. She cried out. And the lust, the insane pleasure just took him over and he pounded her, watching her head fall back as one wail after another left her throat.

He leaned on one elbow to reach between them and touch her between her thighs. Her nails dug into the skin of his back and she shrieked. Waves of contractions pulsed around his cock. The rhythmic squeeze of her body and the sharp pain of her nails shoved him over the edge.

With hoarse cries, he lost himself in her. Rebecca, still moaning, held him close in the embrace of her arms and legs as he shook and quivered through his orgasm. It seemed to melt every last nerve in his body, even though he’d already had one powerful climax that night.

Jared held himself over her, trying not to crush her with his weight. She was a vampire and could take it, but it still seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. Which was a laugh. Since when was he a gentleman?

Gradually the shudders eased. He lifted his head and found her mouth again. She felt so perfect around him that he didn’t want the encounter to end. He didn’t want to leave her.

He’d meant to make her scream and beg, but things hadn’t turned out quite the way he’d intended.

“This couch is sturdier than I thought,” she murmured against his lips.

He snorted with laughter. “You’re a romantic.”

“I’m just saying I’m glad it’s not an antique.” She had a smile in her voice.

He laughed again. “Me too. I’d hate to get dumped on the floor in the middle of the action.”

For a while, they lay together, not talking or even thinking much. At least, he wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t thinking about how close he’d felt to her, or how weird things were now that the lust was temporarily spent. Because it was only temporary, he knew that. It would flare up again, and he’d do and say things he shouldn’t.

He couldn’t seem to help himself around her. It was like his brain just ceded control to his dick and he was lost.

They left the couch for the shower. Her bathroom had been redecorated in the old-world luxury she seemed to love. It even had a crystal chandelier hanging over one of those fancy separate tubs with little silver-painted feet.

In the shower, she got soap on her hands and rubbed them over his skin. He looked down at her, smiling half in puzzlement and half in pleasure. She washed his chest and under his arms, and when the soap was rinsed away she kissed the hills and valleys of his pecs.

Her hair was plastered to her head and her make-up had smeared. She still looked hot. His cock pulsed with need. He tipped up her chin and took her mouth, and then he pushed her against the wall and lifted her leg around his hip.

She guided him into her with a low moan. Christ, he couldn’t stop wanting her, couldn’t stop the eager thrusting motion of his hips. He was lost all over again.

Afterward, they ate peanut butter sandwiches at her little table and then they went to bed again—in the actual bed this time—where he did make her scream. And beg.

They spooned together in the bed, dozing. Jared’s mind drifted over everything that had gone down that night. If anyone had told him how it was going to turn out, he would’ve laughed. But here he was, wrapped around Rebecca like he’d never let her go.

If he didn’t get up and leave, he was going to wake up here tomorrow night. He’d open his eyes and see her looking at him, with all that weird longing he didn’t understand. She wanted him as more than a fuck, and it just didn’t compute.

He wasn’t capable of more. Couldn’t she see that? He’d thought in the beginning that she was only interested in his body and how he could make her feel, but now he could see she wanted more. A lot more. And he didn’t have more to give.

Her breath came soft and even, like she was sleeping. He carefully pulled away from her, so as not to wake her up, and got out of bed to find his clothes. It was time to go home. He was buttoning his jeans when she made a soft sighing noise behind him.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Getting dressed. What does it look like?”

“Why?” She really sounded puzzled.

“I’ve got stuff to do, Princess. I’m going back to my room.”

“Don’t.” She sounded sad. “Stay with me.”

“Can’t. I’ll see you later, okay?” He kept his voice light on purpose.

“I wish—”

He stuffed his feet into his shoes without bothering to tie them. “You’ll sleep better without me hogging your blankets anyway.”

Jared walked to the door without looking back at her. He didn’t want to see the hurt on her face. They couldn’t be a couple. He didn’t want that kind of thing, anyway. Did he? Besides, his work was going to get him killed sooner or later and then he’d be another Philippe in her life. It was better this way.

 

Chapter 13

 

Jared’s scent remained in Rebecca’s room even after the long day of sleep without him. The smell of him, of the sex they’d shared, aroused her all over again. Quite inconveniently. She had to open her window to flush it out.

The quiet shushing of car tires over wet pavement came to her, along with the patter of rain on bare branches. The air smelled wet and clean now, and part of her mourned the loss of his scent. Once she brushed her teeth, the last remnants of his flavor were gone too, washed away in a sea of peppermint.

She never should have asked him to stay. As she pondered the way he’d fled her, Rebecca put the finishing touches on her make-up and tried to ignore the headache she’d developed from a night of disturbing dreams of witch-hunters and interrogations. They’d made a lot of progress, but he was obviously still unsure how he felt about her. Asking him to spend the day had probably just pushed him away faster.

He’d been a skilled and attentive lover. Truly giving. She hadn’t expected that. She’d thought he would be intent on getting some kind of compensation from her.

At least he doesn’t hate me anymore.

But what about Emma? In the passion of last night, she’d put aside thoughts of the human. She’d chosen to assume he wouldn’t be with her, Rebecca, if he had an exclusive relationship with Emma. Now, she wondered.

All the way to the throne room, she worried about whether or not she was the other woman. That accusation had brought her to a horrible place once, a place of torture and despair. The consequences wouldn’t be so dire these days—probably—yet she cringed at the thought of being the kind of woman who would steal another’s man. Even unintentionally.

The throne room reeked of sex this evening. Rebecca wrinkled her nose. The ecstatic groans of vampire and human pet alike filled the candle-lit space; everywhere she saw lovers entwined, thrusting hips, heads tilted back in ecstasy. It made her face burn. One would think that after four centuries of exposure to the licentious behavior at court, she’d be impossible to embarrass, but this sort of carrying-on would probably always reduce her to a blushing girl.

She wanted nothing more than to turn around and retreat to the sanctuary of her rooms. However, she’d spent little time here in the past few days and keeping up appearances was vital when living at court. With that fact uppermost in her mind, she forced herself to walk into the throng.

The tang of blood lurked underneath the sexual musk, the combination so potent she could almost taste it. Her sex began to tingle as her fangs threatened to descend on their own, without her conscious volition. She was a vampire. Her primal response to these scents was beyond her control, but sometimes she hated it. Hated that something so primitive and potentially violent could arouse her so.

A small hand brushed her silk-clad arm. “Hi, Rebecca.”

She turned and smiled at Emma. “Good evening. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“No lingering effects?”

Emma shook her head. “No. I feel totally normal.”

“Have those three bothered you again?”

The redhead winked at her. “I think they’re afraid of me. And I wanted to thank you again for what you did.”

“It was nothing.” Rebecca waved her hand dismissively.

“That’s not true. I know they hit you.” Emma frowned. “They didn’t do anything worse, did they?”

“No. But it’s sweet of you to be concerned for me.” Most of the pets seemed to think all vampires were invulnerable.

“I like you,” Emma announced.

Rebecca smiled broadly at her. “I like you, too.” Emma was eminently likeable, even if she was sexually involved with Jared.

“You’re not like the others.”

“Shh.” Rebecca nudged the girl with her elbow. “Not here.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.” She giggled.

“Have you been drinking, Emma?”

“No, I’ve been drunk.” Another giggle.

Sometimes humans got a little high from vampire bites, especially when they were on the verge of losing too much blood. “I think you’re out of circulation for the evening.”

“What a sweetheart you are,” said a deep, mocking voice. “Looking after the cute little pet.”

Rebecca and Emma both swiveled toward Jared. He was smiling, but there was something false and brittle about it. His words, too…they didn’t sound like something he would normally say. What was he up to?

“Of course I’m looking after her,” Rebecca said.

“Hi, Jared.” Emma grinned at him. “Where’ve you been all evening?”

Jared lifted his chin and sniffed. “I have better things to do than sit around listening to that music you like so much.” His voice dripped scorn.

He sniffed. Like some prissy old aunt.

Emma and Rebecca exchanged equally puzzled glances.

“What music?” Emma said.

“Head-banger heavy metal whatever you call it.”

Emma raised her eyebrows. “You don’t like metal anymore?”

“No. I’m not sure why they even call it music. It sounds more like a symphony of garbage trucks to me.”

Emma laughed. “Right. That’s a good one.”

“What kind of music do you like?” Rebecca said.

“Well, anything classical is lovely. And I do have a soft spot for early rock ‘n roll, I must admit.”

Both women stared at him.

He brushed his hair from his face with a decidedly feminine gesture. “What?”

“Uh, it’s a little early for April Fool’s Day,” Emma said. “Seeing that it’s still the beginning of March.”

He looked at them blankly. Frowned. “April Fool’s Day?”

“Quit kidding around,” Emma said. “You’re giving me the creeps.”

He gave a forced-sounding laugh. “Oh, April Fool’s Day. Yeah, I’m just—uh—messing with you.”

The women exchanged another glance. What was going on with him? He liked to joke, but Rebecca had never seen him behave like this. Of course, she hadn’t really known him all that long. Was he a practical joker? She didn’t know.

The cacophony of conversation and sexual noises died. Rebecca glanced around at the other vampires, or the ones who weren’t in flagrante delicto, at any rate. They all faced toward the throne. What had they noticed that she’d missed?

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen of the court,” Grant called out in a ringing voice. “Her Majesty the Empress Daranda commands Jared King to approach the throne.”

She fired a sideways glance at Jared, who smiled evilly as he stared toward the throne. The startling, utterly un-Jared-like expression disappeared so fast she wondered if she’d really seen it. He sauntered in Daranda’s direction, hands in his jeans pockets. Emma started after him.

That was a bad idea. Emma had no business getting anywhere near the throne. Neither did Rebecca. She followed the two of them anyway. There was a slim possibility, about as sturdy as a snowflake in August, that she could avert whatever disaster was about to fall on their heads.

The empress wore a Grecian-inspired gown made of layer upon layer of the palest gray silk chiffon caught just under her breasts with a gold belt set with lapis lazuli. Her long, dark hair was caught up in a Grecian knot with tendrils spilling around her face to her shoulders. She looked like a goddess, which was no doubt her intent. She smiled indulgently at Jared as he approached, but the smile never really reached her eyes.

She reached out and caught Emma’s wrist before she drew Daranda’s attention. The girl looked back at her, eyebrows raised in question. Rebecca shook her head. The redhead dropped back, taking a position next to her.

A feeling of being watched came over her and she glanced to her other side. One of the men in the crowd was staring at her, glaring as if he could murder her with just the power of his gaze. She recognized him—one of the men who’d tried to drain Emma.

She gave him an icy stare in return. He wouldn’t dare accost her here. Besides, she had more important matters on her mind.

Rebecca didn’t want to be stuck looking at the back of Jared’s head. She edged around the empress’s left, trying to get a better view. After a bit of polite maneuvering, she and Emma had a side view of him and Daranda.

They were exchanging greetings. The wicked, mocking expression on his face was gone as if it had never been, replaced by one of exaggerated respect. She’d never seen him look at the empress that way, not even on the night he’d been transformed.

“Tell me,” the empress said loudly. “How are you progressing on the list we provided you?”

“The list, Your Majesty?” Jared sounded as clueless as he had when talking with Rebecca and Emma.

The empress’s gaze sharpened. “Yes. The list of those whom you were ordered to assassinate.”

“Oh, that list.” He gave a false little laugh that seemed disturbingly feminine.

Emma leaned close to Rebecca’s ear. “What is he up to?” she whispered.

“I’ve no idea.”

“I’m making good progress, Your Majesty,” Jared said.

“How many have you killed so far?”

Everyone seemed to freeze in place, listening for the answer, probably wondering in dread if they too were on the list.

“Three,” he said without hesitation.

“That’s fewer than I’d hoped,” Daranda snapped.

“Sometimes these things take a while.”

“No excuses, Jared. When I give you an assignment, I expect you to finish it immediately.”

Rebecca pressed sweaty palms against her stretch-velvet skirt. Had he killed anyone on the list? Three, he’d said. She didn’t want to think of him as a killer, but if he didn’t follow orders he’d be killed himself. In the most hideous way Daranda could devise.

The empress could be quite imaginative when it came to tormenting those she disliked. Often it took her victims days to die.

* * *

Jared’s head was a blaring siren of pain and his legs waged a campaign to drop him to the floor and leave him there. He bit back a groan and peered through slitted eyes at the woman sitting in front of him. Daranda? Fuck, what was he doing in the throne room?

This place vied with the dumpsters in the alley for Jared’s least favorite palace hang-out. He never set foot in this room without a plan—what he’d do, who he’d talk to, how long he’d stay and what excuse he’d use when he left. But he couldn’t even remember coming through the door, let alone what he’d meant to do here.

Kiss the imperial ass? Or was that the Imperial Ass? Either way, the answer was no. Fuck no. Please, no. So why was he standing before the throne? And why was Daranda glaring at him in that I’m-disappointed-in-you way? Imperial disappointment could be fatal to the poor sap who’d let her down…and who appeared to be Jared, in this case.

His hands broke out in a sweat. He unglued his tongue from the roof of his mouth and tried out a smile on her. She only glared more imperiously, tapping talon-like fingernails on the carved and gilded arms of her throne. Okay. Maybe a smile hadn’t been the best choice at this point in the conversation.

Unfortunately for him, he had no clue what they’d been discussing.

“Results, Jared,” Daranda snapped. “I want to see some.”

“Yes. Absolutely, Your Majesty.” She must be talking about his hits.

“When will you finish?”

“Um…” What had he said while he was checked out? This whole situation gave him the heebie-jeebies. He tried to conceal his nervousness under a pose of cool detachment. “As soon as possible. I’ll get on it tonight.”

She pressed her glossy red lips together. The lipstick looked weirdly out of place with the wispy, draped gown-thingie she had on. “I want another report tomorrow night. If I don’t see some dramatic results soon, I’ll have to arrange for you to work under someone.”

“Your Majesty?”

She smiled cruelly. “I’m sure that would be awkward for you, having a supervisor tagging along, so I suggest you solve whatever problems have been getting in your way.”

Rebecca and Emma were standing to his right, too close. Dangerously close. He couldn’t see them, yet somehow he could sense their presences. You’d think they’d have enough sense to stay well back, but no. Here they were, up at the front where they might catch the attention of Daranda or one of her barracudas—er, courtiers.

Best to capitulate, get this crap over with so he could drag Emma somewhere safe and bite her head off.

Jared gave the empress his oiliest courtier bow, copied from the barracudas who constantly circled her. “Consider the problem already solved, Your Majesty.”

She beamed at him. “Marvelous. I look forward to your next progress report.”

“So do I, Your Majesty.” The same way he’d look forward to a root-canal with no anesthesia.

“Until tomorrow evening, then.”

He bowed again. “Until then.”

She nodded at him. Dismissal, thank God. He lobbed a final bow at her, one more ass-kissing for good measure, spun on his heel and strode toward the door. Purposeful, that’s what he was.

Yes, Ma’am, I’ll get right on those murders you ordered.

How the fuck was he going to get out of this one?

He could be grateful for one thing. His girl had enough common sense not to tag after him as he left the throne room. She didn’t catch up with him until he’d been back in his rooms for half an hour.

She didn’t knock, either. He’d left the door open, hoping she’d let herself in. Which she did, along with Rebecca. Shit.

Emma stomped into the middle of his room, put her fists on her naked nips and scowled at him. “What was that all about, anyway? You shouldn’t mess around like that. Not in the throne room.”

Rebecca looked pale. Worried. “What are you going to do about the list?”

He huffed a sigh as he raked his hair. “Hell if I know.”

Emma marched up to him and poked him in the chest. “Seriously. I’m pissed at you.”

He shot a wary glance at Rebecca. “I wasn’t messing around. I was trying to get out of there without making D more angry than she already was. And speaking of being pissed, what were you two doing up at the front like that? I don’t want either of you being dragged into my problems.”

Emma shrugged. “I thought I could help.”

“Kid, she’d just punish you along with me. Don’t do that again.”

She looked away, crossing her arms over her chest, her posture sullen.

“I mean it, Emma.”

“Okay, fine. But I don’t want you getting hurt. It would kill me.”

“Yeah, well, I feel the same way about you.” He met Rebecca’s gaze. “Stay safe.”

She didn’t say anything, just nodded. The simple gesture, nothing more than an acknowledgment of what he’d said, sparked a fire inside him. It was a fire he didn’t want and could have lived happily without.

The redhead poked him again. “You still haven’t said why you were goofing around before you got called up to the throne.”

Goofing around? He rubbed his forehead. “I’m having a little memory problem.”

“What does that mean?” Emma said.

“It means I can’t remember anything until the middle of the conversation with D.” Or what he guessed was the middle, at any rate.

“You don’t remember telling me how much you hate death metal?”

His arousal deserted him. “Uh…no. I said that?”

“You were acting totally weird.”

He glanced at Rebecca for confirmation.

She nodded. “It was eerie.”

“I thought you were play-acting,” Emma said.

“I don’t remember.” He clamped down on a spurt of panic. How could he forget almost two whole conversations?

“What do you remember?” Rebecca said.

Jared searched his memory. It was a big blank until the head-ache from hell. “My head was killing me. And Daranda said she wanted to see results.”

“So you don’t remember being summoned?”

“No. Not at all.”

“This is too freaky,” Emma said.

* * *

Controlling another’s body was more difficult than Laura had expected. Pretending to be him was even harder.

She leaned against the wall of Jared’s quarters, keeping herself invisible so she could observe without being noticed. The three of them—Jared, the snotty Rebecca and that pathetic little pet, Emma—stood around wracking their tiny brains trying to figure out what she’d done. It would have been amusing if she weren’t so annoyed.

She should have known she’d have trouble. After all, look at the fellow. He was nothing but an uncouth former beggar and prostitute, a man with no breeding, education or finesse. He didn’t even have furniture in his room, kept his mattress directly on the floor, owned no clothes besides jeans and t-shirts. Aping his coarse ways gave her a stomachache.

It had to be done, however. She would simply have to swallow her pride, grit her teeth and get on with it. Eventually she could introduce more civilized behavior, gradually so as not to startle his friends again.

Because Jared King was all she had, and Laura Beaumont never wasted a valuable resource. No, she made the most of the tools available to her. And as her long-dead dance master used to say, practice really does make perfect. If she practiced diligently, she could make everyone believe she was nothing more than a semi-literate former human pet. And when they believed that, she would have an open field.

 

Chapter 14

 

Her room didn’t smell of Jared anymore. All trace of him was gone. The chilly air smelled only of winter as it leaked through the window she’d left ajar. Rebecca reached into her jeans pocket and withdrew the magical pendant Valerie had given her. Tonight she had work to do. Treasonous work.

Yet she hesitated, staring at the pendant as it swung gently on the end of its chain. If things went badly—if she was caught—the consequences would be at least as bad as being accused of witchcraft. Daranda had no mercy for traitors.

There was still time to change her mind, to back away from the cliff.

But what about Philippe? What about Jared?

For them, she would do this.

She stood up. She didn’t know what would happen when she donned the necklace, but it seemed like a good idea to stand.

Rebecca gazed at the blue gem with its strange curling flashes of light. God only knew what it would do to her. She didn’t entirely trust the thing…or Valerie, for that matter. But the necklace was the only way to find Something Wicked again.

Lifting the chain over her head, she dropped the jewelry into place. A wave of dizziness came over her, so powerful she closed her eyes to ward it off. Her body swayed. The same lights that flashed in her gem flashed against her closed lids.

The dizziness passed. She began to hear sounds she never heard in her quarters—the traffic of a busy street, people talking as they walked by outside, the soft clicks and rustles of nearby activity she couldn’t identify.

She opened her eyes and removed the necklace. She was standing in Something Wicked, right next to a rack of antique quilts. The decor and arrangement seemed remarkably close to the old location, right down to the crystal chandeliers and the red paint on the walls.

Rebecca took a deep breath and looked around her. A male customer stood at one of the jewelry cases, examining something a blond sales clerk was displaying to him. Valerie was nowhere in sight.

Her fangs tingled at the sight and smell of the human customer. She needed to drink and soon, before blood hunger came over her. Not now, however. This wasn’t a good time.

With no better place to start, she approached the jewelry cases. The customer gave her a wary sidelong glance. She ignored him to smile at the clerk.

“Hi. Is Valerie available?”

The blonde’s eyes widened. She grinned. “You must be Rebecca. She was hoping you’d come by tonight.” She lifted a little bell sitting on the counter and rang it three times. “She’ll be right out.”

“Thank you.” She moved away from the counter, because she clearly made the customer nervous. Could he sense her otherness? Or maybe the strangeness of the shop was playing on his nerves.

Sometimes sensitive humans could feel a vampire’s predatory interest in them. Before she went home tonight, she’d find a donor. It was never wise to let one’s need for sustenance escalate to the point of blood hunger, when a vampire went wild with the violent need to drink.

That had never happened to Rebecca, but she’d seen others suffering from it. She’d seen what they did to their human victims and she never wanted to inflict that kind of brutality on any living thing.

Valerie emerged from the back room of the shop, a wide smile on her pretty face. “Rebecca! I’m so glad you could make it.”

“So am I.” She took the witch’s proffered hand.

“Are you?” Valerie winked. “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit.”

Rebecca smiled politely. “It’s not what happens here that worries me.”

“Come in the back and we’ll talk.”

The back room looked just the same as it had the first time, right down to the color on the walls. Only the shape was slightly different—not quite so long and narrow. The familiar, beloved scent of coffee filled the air.

“Would you like some coffee? We have doughnuts, too.”

“Thanks. I haven’t had breakfast yet.” She walked over to a sideboard, where the food was displayed.

“In a hurry to get this over with?”

“Yes, actually.”

Generously supplied with caffeine and sweets, she joined Valerie at the work table. “Can Raphael Black or his under-seers find me here?”

“No. We’re heavily warded against them. We’ve never been found.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” She took a bite of her buttermilk cruller.

“We try to make this work as safe for our vampire friends as possible.” Valerie’s face clouded. “We did lose someone recently, but I believe the cause was something else, not the work she did for us.”

“What happened?”

“She and her room-mates disappeared a few nights ago. Their bodies weren’t found, but I dropped by their house to investigate.”

“Investigate?”

“I’m psychic.” Valerie shuddered. “I saw it all. They were shot by an intruder who waited for them to come home. He beheaded them and dragged them outside.”

“So the sun would destroy the evidence.”

“Yeah.”

“My God.” She looked at her pastry in sudden distaste. “Do you know why they were killed?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it had something to do with Niko and Laila.”

“Yes, Daranda has been threatening anyone who looks at this new website that claims to belong to them. It’s ridiculous.”

“From what I hear,” Valerie said, “the Dark Empire is full of that kind of thing. Outrageous accusations, death by torture.”

“It is.” Rebecca grimaced. “But in four hundred years, I’ve never gotten used to it.”

“Well, let’s do something about it, then.” Valerie set a blank book on the table. It had a cover in black on black damask and looked like the sort of thing you could get in any modern bookstore.

“We use these nowadays, although if you’re really motivated, you can certainly do your own bookbinding. Some of our copiers do that, using linen rag paper and hand stitching the signatures.”

“I wouldn’t know how.”

“This will be fine, then. It has acid-free paper and we use acid-free ink as well, so the books don’t degrade too quickly.”

“Okay. So I should only use the pens you provide?”

“Yes. We want them to last as long as possible, so they can be handed down from one generation of vampires to the next.”

Rebecca produced the copy of The Words that had found its way into her purse. “I read it last night.”

Valerie frowned. “How did you get that?”

“Didn’t you put it into my bag?”

“No.” The witch looked at her with wide eyes. “You must be favored by the Dark.”

So an immortal, god-like being had snuck the book into her purse? “I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad.”

“It’s good. Definitely good.”

“And you truly believe this is a better way to create vampires?”

Valerie met her eyes with a level, forthright look. “Yes, I do. I’ve met vamps made by both methods and there’s definitely a difference.”

“But Daranda claims we need the strong guidance and control of the Empire to prevent vampires from massacring humans and provoking a huge backlash.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that. I just don’t think much of the way she manages her people. Niko and Laila don’t rule with an iron fist and yet their folk don’t go on rampages.”

“Niko and Laila are just a folktale.”

“They’re real. I’ve met them.”

“No.” She gave the other woman a skeptical stare. “Really?”

“Really. Of course, they didn’t know who I was. Niko doesn’t believe in making new vampires, so we at Something Wicked generally avoid them.”

Rebecca continued to stare at her, still trying to absorb the idea that the legendary Niko and Laila were real people. If true, what must they be like? They’d supposedly been alive since ancient Atlantis. The only vamps she knew who made that claim were Daranda and Black, neither of whom gave off what she would call reassuring vibes.

“Well,” Valerie said, “I’ll leave you to it. Take your time and double check everything. A mistake in the instructions could cost someone her life.” 

 

Chapter 15

 

Laura was talking to him. He should’ve seduced Rebecca again and stayed with her this time. By coming back to his room, Jared had opened himself up to a shit day with no sleep and a ghost whispering in his ear. Nothing seemed to shut her out, or shut her up. He’d tried putting his pillow over his head, but that hadn’t worked. She was relentless.

What the fuck did she want from him? By two o’clock in the afternoon, he was furious with her. By three, he was swimming in guilt. His mouth tasted like something had crawled in there and died.

He gave up on sleep, got up and brushed his teeth. Then he powered up his laptop. Since he was awake, he might as well poke around a little and see what he could dig up to help her. No pun intended.

He’d never heard of anyone resurrecting a vampire after the sun had taken the body. But it was worth looking into. Only thing was, where to look?

Jared logged in to the imperial network, using Grant’s password. The man needed to be more careful. Didn’t he know you were supposed to update your password every few weeks? Plus, his was really dumb. Fangs157. Come on. Anybody could crack that one.

He didn’t know where to start looking, so he just surfed for a while. There were plenty of nooks and crannies for him to explore, but none of them had much to do with magic. It would have to be magic to bring somebody back from the dead, he figured.

As he penetrated deeper into the mountains of information the empire kept, he started to notice the name of a book which kept popping up. It was called The Words Of The Vampire. Kind of a cheesy title, if you asked him. But it sounded like Daranda had kittens every time she thought about it. She hated that book with everything that was in her, judging by the way she went after it and anyone who’d ever had anything to do with it.

Naturally, that made Jared want to get his hands on a copy. Only thing was, the empire didn’t seem to know where people were getting them. Rogues-–people who made themselves vampires through their own efforts instead of allowing Daranda to transform them-–would pop up from out of nowhere and the only way, as far as anybody knew, that they could transform themselves was to use this book. The Words. Yet nobody knew where they were getting it.

If The Words Of The Vampire told how a human could become a vampire then maybe it would talk about other stuff, like how to bring a dead vampire back to life. If he could just get hold of a copy, he could find out. Of course, having something like that on his hands could lead to Daranda skinning him alive. It was the kind of thing she liked to do. Not herself, of course. She would never get her dainty little hands dirty, but she would watch while one of her flunkies peeled him inch by inch. Not something he wanted to experience.

Maybe if he went back to the house, he’d get an idea of how to help Laura. He didn’t want to go back, considering the weird shit he’d done the last time he was there, but he had to do something to get her off his back. To stop her face from popping up in his mind’s eye every time he wasn’t distracted enough with something else.

It seemed like all he could think of was how she’d begged him for mercy and he hadn’t given her any. He was supposed to be the good guy, for fuck’s sake, not a monster. But good guys didn’t murder women who begged for their lives, did they?

How had he gone from being the vengeful vampire executioner to being some guilt ridden, sorry–ass weenie who second-guessed everything he did? It seemed like it had happened in a flat second. A complete flip-flop. All it had taken was the suspicion he’d done the wrong thing.

She was inside him now. He’d taken her inside his body. What did that mean? Maybe it was something they could use. He just needed some expert advice.

Someone knocked on his door. He ran his fingers through his hair, glad he’d brushed his teeth, and went to answer it. His belly gave a little jump as he opened the door.

It was only Emma. As his stomach settled down, he realized he’d been hoping it was Rebecca. God, he was turning into a mush–brained idiot.

Emma grinned up at him. “Are you working tonight?”

“Not as far as I know.” He wished he could tell her everything, but she was susceptible to vampire mind control and if she knew about Laura, any of the vamps could find out.

“Can I come in?”

“Sure. Sorry, I’m a little distracted.”

“Is everything okay?” Emma shut the door behind herself. She was naked, as usual.

“Yeah, it’s fine. Just work stuff.”

“Did Grant give you more people to kill?” She sounded like she didn’t approve.

“Not yet. I guess business is slow.” He watched her as she wandered across his bare floor to his windows. “You don’t like what I do.”

She shook her head. “It isn’t good for you.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“I know you. Telling you not to do something is a sure way to get you to do it.”

He grimaced. “You make me sound like a five-year-old.”

“I just know you’re stubborn.”

“Well, you’re right.” He kept his voice low. “I wish I’d never taken the job.”

“But then you’d still be a human pet.”

“I think that might’ve been a good thing, compared to this.” Shit. He needed to shut his trap and keep it shut before he said something really incriminating.

“You want to tell me about it?”

“Yes. But I can’t. The vamps could drag it out of your skull and I don’t want them knowing.”

“Yeah. That sucks. So, you want to go downstairs and have a beer or something?”

He let out a sigh. “Okay. Sounds good.”

“Beer. It’s what’s for breakfast.”

“I hear that’s not so good for you.” Jared slung an arm around Emma’s bare shoulders. “You need to take better care of yourself.”

“Why? I’m not going to last long anyway.”

“Don’t say that.”

“You know it’s true. Pets don’t last long unless they become vampires and I don’t want to be one of the fangies.”

It hurt him in his chest to hear her talk that way. “I’m gonna find a way to help you, Emma. I promise.”

She nudged him gently with her elbow. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s okay, anyhow. I don’t expect you to solve all my problems for me.”

He opened the door and they went out into the hallway. Rebecca was walking down the corridor toward them, coming from the elevator. His belly did that sickening flop thing it had done earlier when he thought she was at the door. His face went all hot with embarrassment and pleasure.

Rebecca gave him a cool look with those big brown eyes of hers. She nodded politely, but didn’t smile. Her beautiful face looked tense, like she was holding in some painful emotion. Maybe she regretted what they’d done together.

“Rebecca,” he said as they passed.

“Hello, Jared.” She continued toward her quarters without pausing.

Jared’s face heated more furiously than ever. He didn’t know what she wanted from him. She was even more confusing than Laura. The last time they were together, she practically begged him to stay with her and now she was almost ignoring him. It was enough to make a dude completely nuts.

“What’s going on with you two?” Emma whispered as they reached the elevator.

“Nothing at all.”

She gave him a knowing look, but kept her mouth shut.

* * *

Rebecca’s head swam dizzily as she unlocked her door. When she inserted the key in the lock, she remembered she’d meant to find a blood donor before coming home. But she hadn’t done it. Her brain had been tired from all the copying and thinking that she’d done at Something Wicked, and she’d forgotten.

She would have to choose a pet from among Daranda’s collection before reporting in to work. Because if she waited any longer, she might go into a frenzy and then anything could happen.

She turned and left again. Work would have to wait until she got this hunger under control. Unfortunately, Jared and Emma were still at the end of the hallway waiting for the elevator.

He’d looked so uncomfortable when he’d seen her coming toward him a few minutes ago. His face had turned bright red. Now she felt her own face heating, flushing at the thought of having to face him when he so obviously wanted nothing more to do with her. To make matters even worse, a naked Emma was clinging to his arm.

Maybe I’ll take the stairs.

As she neared the human, her fangs began to tingle with the urge to descend. She could almost smell Emma’s blood coursing just beneath the surface of her, begging for Rebecca to drink. Rebecca’s nostrils flared.

Her stomach cramped with nausea. She wobbled and had to put a hand against the wall to steady herself.

Emma peered at her with apparent concern. “Are you feeling alright, Rebecca?”

“I’m just a little too hungry.”

“You need blood? You can take from me.”

“No,” Jared barked.

“No, thank you,” Rebecca said simultaneously. She shot a startled glance at him. “I won’t trespass on your territory.”

“I told you, Emma isn’t my territory. But you can find someone else anyway.”

So they were back to this, were they? She didn’t have the strength to deal with it right now. The elevator doors opened and Rebecca stumbled after the other two and leaned against the wall of the car. She’d never had the hunger this badly before.

“You don’t have to be so rude,” Emma said, punching the up button. “She has to drink from someone.”

“Not you.”

“What have you got against me?” The redhead gave him a look of mock affront. “Isn’t my blood good enough?”

“You know that’s not what this is about.”

“Stop arguing, you two.” Rebecca closed her eyes wearily.

“Went too long without drinking, huh?” Jared said, sounding unsympathetic.

Her temper got the better of her. She opened her eyes to glare at him. “Do you have a split personality? Because the other night you were completely different.”

Emma raised her eyebrows. Jared flushed again as he glared back at Rebecca. “You should keep your hunger under better control. If you let it get like this, you could attack someone.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“If you know, then there’s no excuse.”

Her eyes narrowed to evil little slits. “Ever since I drank from you, blood makes me want to vomit. I can hardly drink without throwing up, so I put it off as long as possible. There. Does that make you happy?”

He looked like she’d slapped him. “Because of me?”

The elevator doors opened.

Rebecca sighed and shook her head. “I can’t do this right now.” She walked out into the throne room.

Daranda was definitely holding court tonight, with vampires crowded around her throne and hanging on her every word. Rebecca could see and hear them even from back here. In her state of mind, if she went anywhere near the empress, she’d be likely to say something that would get her in trouble.

She cast around for a pet whose blood she might be able to tolerate. The hunger seemed to increase with vicious rapidity. It had never affected her this way before, as if it had lain in wait for her and had finally decided to pounce.

Her throat felt tight and scratchy, her whole body ached, and her nausea was getting truly painful. She pressed a hand to her belly. Who would be a good choice? They all seemed to be taken already.

Jared put a none–too–gentle hand on her shoulder. “Why would my blood make you sick?”

“Leave her alone,” Emma said.

Damn it, the last thing she wanted was his little favorite defending her, especially after what she’d done with him. Rebecca plunged into the crowded room, paying no attention to where she was going as long as it was away from them. She bumped into a mountain of impeccably dressed male.

Raphael Black, wearing a charcoal gray suit with a pale blue shirt and charcoal silk tie, frowned at her as he caught her elbow. “You are unwell.”

“Blood hunger.”

He turned and snapped his fingers at someone on his other side. A pet rushed over. Black caught the young man’s arm and pushed him toward Rebecca.

“Drink.”

Her belly cramped at the thought of taking this young man. He looked too much like Jared with his dark, wavy hair. “I can find my own pet.”

“Drink now, Rebecca. Don’t make me force you.”

What did he think he was doing now? Forcing her. She sighed, barely able to refrain from rolling her eyes.

“Please, mistress, I want to be of service,” the young man said earnestly.

Through the blood hunger came a wash of sadness. Rebecca lifted a hand to the pet’s face. He was pretty, and so young, not more than twenty-two. And his earnestness was mostly false, she was sure, imposed on him by Daranda’s—and Black’s—mental control over him.

Before Jared, she wouldn’t have given it a thought. Now she wondered what this boy was like when not under vampire control. What did he think about? What did he like to do? Did he have any dreams?

“Mistress?” he said.

“What’s your name?”

He looked puzzled. “Harry.”

She rose on tip toes and pressed her lips tenderly to his. “Thank you, Harry.”

He blinked, glanced nervously at Black. “Um, you’re welcome.”

Rebecca took swift control of his mind, sending him into a trance of sexual desire that would overcome the pain of the bite. He wouldn’t even notice what she was really doing to him. She took a deep breath, steadying herself. Her fangs descended and she struck.

The boy moaned. His arms came around her, his lean young hips pushing against her, pushing his erection against her belly. Sweet salty blood flowed into her mouth.

Her stomach cramped, trying to rebel. Rebecca breathed through her nose and forced herself to swallow.

It’s okay. You have to do this, and he likes it. You’re giving him pleasure. It’s okay.

The blood hit her system with a roar of strength returning, aches retreating, the fuzziness in her mind turning to sharp clarity. She took two more swallows before withdrawing to lick the two tiny puncture wounds, willing them to close. The young man was still moaning, his hips still moving. It seemed unfair to let him go without helping him to climax.

Rebecca took his cock in her hand and stroked him until he shuddered and spilled. He clutched her, panting, eyes still half closed.

“Thank you, mistress.”

She kissed him again. “Go and get yourself something to eat, honey.”

He wandered off with a dazed smile on his face.

Black handed her a clean handkerchief. “I don’t think you need instruction in how to care for pets. You seem quite competent.”

She wiped semen from her hand. “He’s sweet.”

“They all are when they’re under our control,” he said, and left.

Too true. Black’s remark reminded her she didn’t know Harry at all and hadn’t seen even a glimpse of his real personality.

Rebecca glanced up and found Jared staring at her balefully from a few yards away. He’d apparently watched her feeding. She stared back, defiant. He knew what she was, so how dare he look at her that way? Besides, he had the same need for blood as she did.

He stalked over to her. “My blood makes you sick but you can take his?”

She took a breath for patience. “I had to drink or go crazy.”

“So he made you sick too?”

“I had to fight it, yes.” She cocked her head, looking up at him. Could he be jealous? It seemed so unlikely.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to talk about it here.” She indicated the crowd with a movement of her head.

“Then come to my room and we’ll talk.”

“I have to go to work now. I’m terribly late as it is.” Rebecca began to walk around him.

He caught her arm. “Can’t you call in sick?”

“I’m a vampire. We don’t get sick. Now let me go.”

“Rebecca.”

“Jared, I really don’t have time for this drama. If you want to talk, we can do it later.” She pried her arm out of his grip and continued toward the elevator. The office where she worked was on the first floor, tucked away in the back of the building.

Although she didn’t look to see if he watched her leave, she could feel his gaze boring into her back, right between her shoulder blades. He’d spent all these weeks ignoring and avoiding her, and now he wanted to talk. If she hadn’t been so annoyed, she would have laughed.

He could have stayed the day and they would have talked for hours instead of sleeping. Or maybe they would’ve had crazy sex all day instead. But he hadn’t wanted to stay with her.

His quick retreat from her quarters had stung, she had to admit. And the look on his face tonight when she’d come home and he’d been in the hall with Emma…that had stung, too. She didn’t know what he wanted; evidently, neither did he.

She strode through the crowded room, dodging humans and vampires alike as she made for the elevator. People gave her odd looks as she shouldered past them. She didn’t care. She had to get away from him. And she was late for work besides.

He caught up with her, just as the elevator doors opened, and followed her inside. Rebecca punched the down button so hard she cracked the aged, yellowing plastic cover. Jared loomed over her, glowering and silent.

She glared up at him. “What do you want? If you hate me so much, then just leave me alone.”

“I want to know why my blood made you sick.”

“I’d think it would make you happy to know I suffered after our…encounter.” What a weak word for the passion that had exploded between them.

“Well, it doesn’t.”

“That’s unfortunate for you.” She faced the door, her mouth set in a grim line. He was being so unreasonable she didn’t even know what to say to him.

Jared reached across her and hit the emergency stop. The elevator lurched to a halt.

Rebecca rounded on him. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Answer my question.”

“What question?”

“Don’t play dumb, Rebecca. Tell me what was wrong with my blood.”

Her nostrils flared. “It wasn’t your blood. It was you.”

For the second time that night, he recoiled as if she’d struck him. “Me?”

“You were angry and hateful.”

The shock on his face quickly disappeared, replaced by distant amusement. He leaned his shoulder against the elevator wall with the cocky nonchalance she found so irritating and sexy. “Did you ever wonder if I wanted to have sex with you? Did you ever stop to think about my feelings?”

Her cheeks burned. “I assumed you were under my control. As a vampire, I mean.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, Princess.” His lips quirked up on one side. “That’s why I was so angry, though. In case you were wondering.”

“I explained all that the other night. And I believe I apologized.”

“Yes, you did. That doesn’t mean we’ve covered everything.”

She hadn’t really considered his feelings during that first encounter. He’d been a human pet at the time and human pets were there to be used. Of course, one always did one’s best to make the pet comfortable, but the pet’s personal desires were immaterial.

She cleared her throat. “You are unusual. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how unusual.”

He gave her a slow once-over and smiled lazily. “Do you appreciate it now?”

“I’m very aware of it.”

“Aware.” The word came out of his mouth like an insolent caress.

“You won’t let me forget it.”

“That’s right. I won’t.”

“What do you want from me? Why do you even care how you or your blood make me feel?”

“Just curious.”

“You followed me in here and stopped the elevator out of curiosity?”

He grinned. “And I like making you uncomfortable.”

“Now that I believe.”

He was too close to her. She could feel his body heat and it gave her a perverse desire to lick him all over. Why did she have to find this difficult, moody young man so irresistible? It was maddening.

“Why did you get so angry when I drank from Harry?”

His face darkened with a red flush. “I don’t give a damn who you drink from.”

“Then why were you glaring at me with murder in your eyes?”

“I hate seeing vamps suck the life out of humans.”

“You’re a vampire too.”

All amusement left his face. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“You don’t glare at all the other vampires. Just me.”

“You don’t give all the human pets hand jobs,” he countered.

She flushed. “I wanted to do something nice for him. He’s a sweet boy.”

“And I’m not.”

“No, you’re not.”

Jared laughed, a harsh and joyless sound. “Thanks, Princess.”

“You can’t stand me, remember?”

“Believe me, I remember.”

“And when I drank from you, I didn’t give you a hand job because you’d already come inside me. Or had you forgotten that part?”

“I’ll never forget it,” he growled.

Did he mean that in a good or bad way? Bad, judging by the scowl on his beautiful face. Definitely bad.

“I’ll never forget it either. I get nauseated every time I think about taking a human’s blood now.”

Something flickered in his eyes. Hurt? “Why did you pick me? Why not some other male?”

Desire and embarrassment made her snap. “I was only looking for a change of pace. I’d never had you before.”

“Uh huh. And I can’t compare to the sweet Harry.”

“No.” Jared was a thousand times better.

“Good to know.” He punched the stop button again.

With a jerk, the elevator began to descend. She looked down at her hands. She and Jared didn’t speak all the way down to the first floor.

As the doors opened he said, “I’m glad we got this out in the open.” He didn’t sound glad. He sounded sullen and resentful, as always.

She hitched her purse higher on her shoulder. “So am I. I’ll see you around.”

As casually as possible, she moved out of the elevator. This time, he didn’t follow her.

She marched across the lobby and into the back hallway, trying to keep her inward fuming from showing on her face. Other office workers passed her, greeting her cheerfully, and she had to pretend everything was normal.

Jared King was the most unreasonable man she’d ever known. She still didn’t know what he wanted from her, unless it was to make her crazy and miserable in revenge for that first night they’d had together. A night that, in retrospect, had been a cretinous error on her part.

In her heart, she acknowledged that his unruly and disrespectful attitude was part of what had drawn her to him in the beginning. His refusal—or inability—to fully submit to vampire rule had fascinated her as much as his looks. She’d wanted to turn his attention to her.

All because she’d had a foolish fantasy that she would be the one to subdue him, that out of his burning lust for her, Jared would allow himself to be tamed. She cringed inside at the admission.

The only burning lust was on her side and he would never be tamed. He’d always be a rude, sexy jerk with an enormous chip on his shoulder. If only she didn’t light up inside every time she saw him. It was humiliating.

The best she could do was hide it as much as possible and wait for the attraction to fade. It would have to fade eventually. Maybe, to make it easier, she’d move out of the palace into a small apartment nearby. Then they’d hardly ever have to see each other. 

 

Chapter 16

 

Jared wanted to run through the bustling crowd of vampires on their way to and from their offices, capture Rebecca and make her talk to him again. Instead he forced himself to stand in place, to let her go. She didn’t want to be with him, that was obvious. Something must have changed since he’d left her room and when she’d come home from her outing tonight.

Fine by him. She was still the ice princess inside, even if she’d been hotter than hell that one night. They didn’t belong together and never would.

Besides, he didn’t need any distractions. Right now his focus had to be on dealing with Laura. On finding out more about her, so he could understand what he’d really done. Was she the innocent she seemed? The answer to that question might not absolve him of guilt, but at least it could help him make sense of his actions.

Don’t hurt me.

He could still hear her whispering voice off and on during the night. If he visited her workplace, her voice might finally shut up…or it could get even louder. Either way, he had to try.

All he knew about detective work was what he’d seen on TV or read about in novels, and they were probably full of as much bullshit as truth. But he wanted to know more about Laura and questioning her coworkers seemed like a good place to start, even if it was a movie cliché. Plus it had the added bennies of distracting him from Rebecca and making it impossible for him to interrupt her at her job for another so-called discussion.

God, look at him, chasing a woman around like a sad little puppy. Next he’d be saying “we need to talk.” What they needed was to stay the hell away from each other.

Laura had worked the night shift at an all-night family restaurant, the kind that served breakfast twenty-four seven, gave you fries or mashed potatoes with every entree and had eighteen different kinds of pie. When he got there, he found the decor was tired, the forest-green carpet worn in spots, the tables banged up around the edges. The whole place smelled powerfully of coffee and fried potatoes.

This was the only kind of restaurant, besides fast-food places, that he’d ever been in as a kid. Just like old times. He ought to feel comfortable here, right?

Jared shifted his weight from one foot to the other. People weren’t staring at him. They didn’t give a shit what he did, who he was, or whether he knew how to act in a restaurant. What the fuck was wrong with him, anyway, that he got all choked up every time he came to a place like this?

A cute girl with brown hair and the forest-green polo shirt uniform of the restaurant came up to him, smiling a perky little smile. What did she want?

She’s here to take you to a table, idiot.

He smiled back at her, accidentally causing the girl to gaze at him in vague adoration. Damn these vampire powers. He needed to learn better control.

“Just one tonight?” she said in a dreamy voice as she took a menu from the stack.

“Yeah.”

He followed her to a little table tucked in by one of those stations where they kept coffee and extra cups and napkins. It would probably be noisy, which was perfect. That way he could ask questions without worrying about controlling the minds of any humans who could hear what he was saying. Because they wouldn’t be able to hear over the din of crashing plates.

While the hostess was under, he might as well get whatever information he could from her. “Sit with me for a few—” He glanced at her name tag. “Kari.”

“Okay.” She sat down opposite him, staring at him with a worshipful smile.

“Do you know Laura Beaumont?”

“Yeah, a little. Is something wrong? Where is she, anyway? She hasn’t been in for her shift in days.”

“I’m investigating her…disappearance.”

“Are you police?”

“Uh…yes. I am.” It was sort of true, in a Dark Empire context.

Her lip trembled. “Do you think she’s alright?”

“I can’t say, Miss.” Guilt almost strangled him for a minute as he thought of how Laura had died. “We’re—uh—like I said, we’re looking into it.”

“I hope you find her. I hope she’s okay.”

“Did you get along with Miss Beaumont?”

“Oh, yes. She’s always real polite. Super nice and a great waitress. She never seems to tire out no matter how long her shift is or how busy we get.”

“Can you tell me anything about her personal life?”

“Not really. She’s kinda private, you know?” Kari perked up. “I do know she has a couple of roomies. Guys.”

He smiled encouragingly. “Any hobbies?”

“I don’t think so. Not that I know of. She bakes cookies sometimes.”

“I see.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.” Then she leaned across the table and stroked his hand where it lay over the menu. “If I can do anything else for you, let me know, okay?”

“I’ll do that.”

She gave him another dazzling smile before returning to her station.

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He ordered a burger and drew each of the other staff members to his table for a little interview as he ate, but none of them knew any more than Kari. Laura had been a good worker, polite and friendly yet at the same time somewhat distant. They’d been shocked when she’d failed to show up for her shift.

So far she sounded like exactly what she’d seemed to be—an ordinary person. As ordinary as a vampire could be, anyway. The only thing that struck him as odd was her lack of friends other than her roomies.

Because her coworkers didn’t know her well, they didn’t give him any leads. And that put him right back at the house, where he might pick up more clues to her character. He didn’t want to go to that house, or any of the others on the same block. The question was how far he was willing to go in his search for understanding. Would he break into Laura’s place again or would he drop the whole thing?

He wasn’t ready to return to the pathetic little ranch house where his last victims had lived. Besides, he needed some blood and he couldn’t stomach the thought of hunting for it. Why the hunting made it worse, he didn’t know. He just felt guiltier when he took the blood of some unsuspecting free human than when he drank from a pet. Stupid. He’d been a pet and he, more than any other vamp, knew what kind of life they led.

Regardless, he drove home and parked the car in the lot next to the royal palace. Rebecca must still be at work, somewhere on the first floor, he thought. He wasn’t exactly sure where her office was located, but most of that stuff happened on the first with a few sad little cubbies tucked away in the basement.

He stood in the lobby and gazed for a moment at the door leading to the back hall, where most of the offices were. Would she throw him out, or would she listen? Even if she listened, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. An apology seemed weak, and not exactly true. He’d hated watching her drink from young Henry. Er, Harry.

Seeing her jack the guy off had been even worse. The worshipful way the kid had stared at her, the ecstasy on his face as he’d come all over her hand…it made his chest tight even now, picturing it. He’d wanted to punch the guy in his pretty nose, and it hadn’t been Harry’s fault at all. He couldn’t escape his life as a pet, any more than Jared had been able to.

He shouldn’t give a damn whose blood Rebecca took or who she fucked. But he did. Why? Why did it make him want to break shit every time he even thought about her touching another man?

Christ, he was fucked in the head.

He glanced to the side and out of the corner of his eye he saw her. Laura. She was standing next to the elevator with her back to the door, wearing the same black leggings and long gray tunic she’d had on the night he shot her. Her blond hair was piled on top of her head, a few stray ringlets hanging around her face and brushing her shoulders. She was staring at him. She didn’t look dead. Her skin glowed with health and there were no marks on her that he could see.

Fuck, now he was hallucinating. Jared turned his back on Laura’s ghost, or whatever that thing by the elevator was. He couldn’t go up and have a conversation with her, now could he? He didn’t know whether other people could see her or whether he would look like he was talking to himself.

He was feeling thin tonight, like he needed blood. Maybe that was why he was seeing things. He needed the elevator, but she was there, waiting for him. Jared stopped in the middle of the lobby, thrusting his fingers through his hair in frustration. Maybe it was best if he spoke to her. He straightened his back and started toward her.

The elevator doors opened and Raphael Black stepped out. He walked right through Laura’s ghost. An odd expression crossed his usually inscrutable face, as if he’d felt something strange when he’d contacted her—not her body, but her apparition, Jared guessed.

Jared drew up short, trying not to show his irritation. Black was the true head of security in the Empire, and Jared’s de facto boss. Black and his under-seers were the ones who spied out traitors and rogues and reported them to the empress. Jared was nothing more than a glorified hit man, so he had to pay attention when Black spoke. But he didn’t have to like it.

He gave the seer a careless smile. “How’s it going, Black?”

“I have some new assignments for you.” Black was never one for the chit chat.

“Good,” Jared said easily, although a new assignment was the last thing he wanted. “You want to come to my room to give me the orders?”

“Everything is in this.” Black handed him a manila envelope.

“Where’s Grant tonight? Usually he’s the one I talk to.”

“He’s otherwise occupied. You’ll have to deal with me.” Black gave him a cold smile.

“Okay, then. I’ll take care of it.” Yeah, and he’d have to put off the blood drinking a little longer so he could see what new acts of violence were in store for him. Yippee.

“I’ll say one thing for you, King. You may be a disrespectful upstart, but you’re good at your job.”

Jared could do nothing more than nod in acknowledgment of the compliment that he didn’t want. “I’d better get started.” He left Black, heading again for the elevator.

Laura wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the seer had scared her off. He scared everything alive, so it was no surprise to Jared that even a ghost would be terrified of him.

But when he returned to his room and shut the door, she was standing right next to his mattress, her hands clasped in front of her.

Jared started. “What do you want from me?” he said, more harshly than he’d meant to.

“Why did you kill me, Jared?”

“Orders. I’m a hit man. It’s what I do.” He leaned against the wall, all casual-like, as if he talked to ghosts every day.

“But why? Why did you kill me?”

“I told you. Orders. It was not personal.”

“You didn’t want to. I could see it in your eyes.” How was it that she could sound just like a live person? She looked solid, too, yet Black had walked right through her. It didn’t make any sense.

“I was told you and your roommates were visiting Niko and Laila’s website. That was why. And no, I didn’t want to. I wish I could take it back.”

“Maybe you can,” she said with a sly smile.

“What does that mean?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Do you like her?” She took a couple of steps toward him.

“Her? I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Laura’s ghost gazed up at him with wide, innocent eyes. “Rebecca. Do you like her?”

“No. Yes-–I don’t know. What difference does it make?”

She smiled broadly, still all innocence. “I was only wondering. Because it seems like you do.”

He frowned. “You’ve been watching us?”

Laura walked the rest of the way to him. She leaned in close and placed her hands on his chest. He could feel the weight of them. “I don’t like her,” she whispered.

A shaft of ice pierced his belly. “You leave her alone. You hear me? Rebecca had nothing to do with any of this. Leave her alone.”

Laura opened her brown eyes wider. “You do like her! I knew it.”

She disappeared.

Fuck. He shoved his fingers through his hair again. Had he imagined all that or was it real? If real, then Rebecca might be in danger. Although he didn’t know what Laura could really do-–she was only a ghost, after all-–but then again she’d touched him and he’d felt it. She might be able to hurt Rebecca. He should warn her.

She was at work right now. You’d think she’d be safe there, with her coworkers around her. And he had a job to do. He tore open the manila envelope and pulled out the paper it contained.

As expected, it was a list of names of targets and the crimes they’d supposedly committed, along with their addresses. Bile rose in his throat as he studied the names. They were probably all more like Laura, Frank Geller, and Pete Cranshaw. People who hadn’t really done anything bad and who would lose their lives because Daranda was bat-shit crazy.

Now what did he do? Carry out the hits and murder more innocent people, or refuse to do his job and probably be skinned alive in front of the entire court? A great set of choices.

If he was straight with himself, he’d admit that he’d been having doubts about his mission ever since the beginning. It had sounded like a great idea when he was still a human pet and powerless to control his life, but once he’d begun the killing, something in him had rebelled against it. He just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Every hit required him to psych himself up beforehand, to get himself all pumped up with the idea that he was defending the innocent. And now he knew better.

He was no knight in shining armor. He was an executioner, and the people he executed were unjustly accused. He couldn’t do it anymore.

He wasn’t ready to die just yet, though. He scanned the paper again. He could put off Black by claiming the targets were not at home or were out of town or some shit like that. It would only work for a few days, but it would buy him some time. Of course, he still had that other list, the one Daranda had nagged him about.

And when he ran out of excuses, then what? He’d have to go on the run, like Obsidian. The former assassin, once the most feared man in the Empire after Black, had up and defected one night and run off with a rogue named Kayla Chandler. Everybody knew about it.

Sid’s actions had stunned the Empire. No-one had expected somebody like him to defect. Defections were rare, anyway, because the penalties were unspeakable. And now Black was on the alert for similar behavior. Daranda seemed convinced that her entire empire was ready to betray her for the mythical Niko and Laila the way Sid had. It would be a lot harder for Jared to catch them unawares now that Sid had put them on their guard.

Still, it was worth a try. What other choice did he have? He couldn’t continue the way he was. He wasn’t made to be a cold-blooded killer. And he couldn’t quit. The Dark Empire had no retirement plans.

So, he had a plan, sort of, for now. First he had to get some blood in him before the real hunger took hold. Preventing blood hunger was a vampire’s top priority, if he had any decency left in him at all. Otherwise, he could go off the deep end and do all kinds of nasty damage. Even kill people.

* * *

The ghost of the girl he’d accidentally murdered seemed to haunt him as he scanned the crowded throne room for a likely pet. Chrissie hadn’t been especially bright and he hadn’t known her well. He’d chosen her because she was pretty and she looked as little like Rebecca as anyone he could imagine. He’d meant to give her pleasure in return for her blood, and because he’d been a newly-made vamp, he’d lost control and taken far too much.

Something seemed to press heavily on his chest as he strode toward a tall brunette with short hair, someone new whose name he didn’t know. She’d do. She was dark like Rebecca, but had a completely different build.

He brought the pet to a nearby couch and sat down with her, nuzzling her neck and projecting lust at her as he prepared to strike. The mind-control thing was still iffy for him, but lust he could do. She looped an arm around his neck and moaned.

Jared’s fangs descended. He punched through her skin, trying not to think of the slight resistance followed by the slick, satisfying glide of teeth into flesh. It felt good. Too good.

Sucking out a mouthful of blood felt good. Having the pet’s lithe body in his arms felt good. Her little breasts crushed against his chest; he could feel them through his T-shirt. His grip on her tightened, one hand slipping down to cup her naked ass as he pulled a second swallow of blood.

Enough. Two was enough and more was dangerous. He made himself stop drinking, lick the two holes he’d made in her neck and release her. She gazed at him with heavy-lidded eyes and smiled.

“Thanks,” he said, patting her thigh.

“I wouldn’t mind if you took more.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

She pouted. “But you’re so—”

He patted her again. “Go on. You’re done for the night.”

Before anyone could intercept him, he got up and made for the elevator. He was good on blood drinking for at least a couple of weeks and there was no more reason for him to hang around this place.

 

Chapter 17

 

Jared King would bear watching, Black thought as he came to ground in the alley where he lived. He had radiated unease and resentment as Black had handed him the envelope with his orders. Of course, King always radiated resentment, but there had been a different quality to it tonight. Almost as if he dreaded opening the envelope and reading the names. The boy was having second thoughts about his chosen profession.

There was a faint whiff of petroleum or motor oil in the frigid air, as if some car had leaked while driving through. Another scent prickled his nose—vampire and…Amaki? Had Garek come by a second time?

Black strode toward the door to his palace. And came up short. Garek was there again, lurking in the shadows. His gold hair caught a stray glimmer of light from the main street and revealed his position.

Black swore under his breath. “You again. I don’t want you here. Go away.”

“I can’t do that, Ravki.”

A slight figure detached itself from the surrounding shadows and came forward. Laila. She wore a long woolen coat and a beret over her hair, but still he recognized her. He would probably always know his own mother.

Black darted forward to block the view of anyone who might happen to be watching, using his body as a shield for his mother. “Are you insane? Why did you bring her?”

“I insisted,” Laila said.

“She does that a lot,” Garek said.

“Did you give any thought, either of you, to what would happen if Daranda’s people found out she was here?”

Garek raised his brows. “Aren’t you one of Daranda’s people?”

“By the Dark, you know what I mean. Do you want her to be captured?” He took his mother by her shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Do you have any idea what the empire does to its enemies?”

She stared up at him, unmoved by his warnings. “I had to come. You’re my son.”

Black escorted her to the door, keeping his body between her and the alley. He punched in the code with swift, nervous movements, jerked open the door and nearly shoved Laila inside.

“Garek, get in here.” Black held the door open, indicating with a motion of his head that the Amaki should come inside as well.

He didn’t relax until the door was shut and locked behind them all. As usual, the stairwell was pitch dark.

“There are stairs here,” he said. “Keep your hand on the wall until you get to the bottom.”

His guests shuffled down the stairs after him. In the hallway at the bottom, he turned on the light. Its single bare bulb cast ugly shadows on the cold, hard tile of the walls and floor.

“This is where you live, Ravki?” Laila said, sounding as if she pitied him.

“This is only the front hall,” he said. “Come with me and stay silent until we get to my quarters.”

He led them to his private rooms, once again locking the door against any random intrusions by his under-seers. Not that they would come in without knocking first, but in the circumstances he couldn’t be too careful.

Laila glanced around the sumptuous fittings of his quarters, at the deep purple color of the walls and bed hangings and comfortable yet elegantly white overstuffed chairs in his sitting area. Did she still pity him? She had no reason to do so. He had everything a man could possibly want and more than most could ever hope for. He was the power behind the throne of the Dark Empire and she would do well to remember it.

“Do you live here alone?” Laila said.

“I would think that Obsidian would have told you all about it,” he said. “I live with my under-seers and a few human pets. There are about twenty-five of them.”

“Are they your lovers?” she said.

He smirked. “No. Even the great and terrible Raphael Black doesn’t abuse his power that way.” Even if he did speak of himself in the third person. He was so utterly rattled by their visit he was prattling like an idiot. “Does my father know you’re here?”

“No. He will hear nothing of you.”

“I suppose it is fate that he despises me.”

Laila shook her head. “He loves you. It’s only that you’ve hurt him so deeply.”

“I’ve hurt him?” he said with a snort.

“Did you think it wouldn’t destroy him to know that his only child will have nothing to do with him? That his son gives all his loyalty to his worst enemy?”

“I don’t wish to discuss this.” Black stalked to the liquor cart he kept on one wall of his sitting room and poured himself a drink. Whiskey. He offered his guests nothing.

“I don’t know what Daranda told you,” Garek said, “but I do know it must be lies. We never betrayed you or abandoned you.”

“Did I not just say I don’t wish to discuss this?” He knocked back the whiskey and poured another.

“You’ve been running from this for thousands of years,” Garek said. “Since Atlantis. Don’t you think it’s time to stop running?”

“I never ran.” He set his glass down with a hard click. “Can I offer you a drink?” he said with mocking civility.

Garek and Laila exchanged a glance.

“Nothing for me, thank you,” Laila said. She was giving him a soulful look, her enormous dark eyes full of sorrow.

The urge to go to her, to get on his knees and be enfolded in her delicate arms, was almost too powerful to resist. She was tiny, his mother, yet he remembered her as one of the strongest people he’d ever known. To lay his burdens on her shoulders, for even a moment, to feel her hands stroking his hair, to hear her words of forgiveness…

By the Dark, what a load of tripe. He needed no-one’s forgiveness, for he’d done nothing wrong. He’d taken the ruin of his life, the shattered thing that was left to him after the Atlantean prison, and turned it into triumph. He needed no one’s approval or forgiveness for that.

“It won’t work, you know,” he said conversationally.

“What won’t work?” Laila said.

“I won’t betray the Empire. Not for you or anyone else.”

“We’re not asking you to betray anyone,” she said. She sounded so sincere he almost believed her.

“Callista tells me you had a number of opportunities to attack Niko and Laila,” Garek said, “but you never did. She told me you always came up with an excuse why it couldn’t be done. I think I know where your true loyalties lie, and it isn’t with Daranda.”

Callista Harris had been one of Raphael’s under-seers, a talented if colorless woman he’d come to respect…at least, as much as he respected anyone. He’d taken her to Oregon to help him apprehend Obsidian and Kayla Chandler, a failure he had yet to live down. Then Garek had taken her from him. The last time Raphael had seen her, she’d been screaming to him for help.

“Callista is deluded by her own sentimentality,” he snapped.

“I find her exceptionally clear-headed,” Garek said mildly.

“You stole her from me. How do I know she’s even still alive?”

Laila gave him a shocked stare. “You think we’d harm her? What kind of monsters do you think we are?”

The kind who would leave their son at the bottom of a pit for twenty years.

“It’s time for you to go,” he said.

“I’m not done.” She moved toward him.

“I am. Please leave.”

“Ravki, no. Don’t shut us out. We really do love you.”

He turned his back on her, bracing himself on the liquor cart. “Get out. Garek, take her home.”

“We’re not giving up on you,” the Amaki said.

“Out. Now.”

“Come, Garek.” Laila’s voice was flat. “There’s no sense fighting with him.”

“He hasn’t seen a fight yet,” Garek said.

“Let’s go.”

Black remained with his face to the wall, listening to the sound of their feet as they left the room. A moment later, he heard the heavy outer door clang shut. Good. They were gone.

His hands were quivering. The whiskey sat like a pool of acid in his gut. His urge to allow Laila to hold him mocked him now, showing him as the weakling he was. Not outside, where others could see, but in his heart. He was still that weak, angry, frightened young man sitting in the dark waiting for the next torture session.

He still wore his greatcoat, the same one he’d had on when he’d met Perrie at the coffee house. His hand seemed to act on its own, reaching into the inside pocket for the napkin she’d given him. He pulled it out and gazed at it. Somehow his smart phone ended up in his other hand.

Raphael dialed her number. She wasn’t home. She wouldn’t answer. Or she’d have something better to do than see him.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded raspy, as if she’d just awakened. Or maybe that was only the poor cell reception he got in his underground home.

“Perrie, it’s Raphael.” Even in his own ears, his voice was authoritative, full of confidence. All a lie. “Can you meet me for coffee tonight?”

“What a coincidence.” She laughed a little. “I’m already at the Bean. Can you come over now?”

“I’ll be right there.”

This was foolish in the extreme. He should call her back and tell her something had come up and he couldn’t make it. Or maybe just not show up. Anything to break the connection between them.

* * *

She was sitting at the same table he’d occupied the other night. She smiled brightly at him when he came in. The shaking inside him began to ease. Raphael didn’t bother going up to order coffee; he pulled up a chair across from her and took her hand, which was cold.

“What is it?” she said. “You look upset.”

He needed to pull himself together. Normally other people couldn’t read him at all. “Hard night.”

“I’m sorry.”

His body still felt as if it were shaking, although he couldn’t see any movement. The tremors were more psychological than physical, perhaps, set off by contact with people he’d never thought to see again. Hadn’t wanted to see again.

Raphael gritted his teeth against the rage that swelled up like white fire. Why now, after all these millennia? He was famous throughout the vampire world; surely his parents had known where to find him. Yet they’d waited until now to do it.

No, not his parents. His mother. Niko still wanted nothing to do with him.

“It must have been pretty bad,” Perrie said. “Did you argue with your folks again?”

He nodded curtly. “Yes. I don’t want to burden you with it, though.”

“I don’t mind.”

“It would take too long to explain.” And she’d never believe him.

Suddenly all he wanted was to be alone with her, to take her in his arms and hold her. Kiss her. Touch her. He wanted to tell her everything and see the light in her eyes as she finally understood what he really was. He wanted to see her accept the reality of his life.

But she probably wouldn’t. If he could make her believe him, then she’d naturally be terrified. Wouldn’t she?

Perrie’s slender hand closed over his. “You know, it might help to talk about it.”

A chill stole through him, in spite of the warmth of the coffee house. “I’m not sure I know how,” he admitted.

“Guys,” Perrie said. “They never want to talk about feelings.”

“Indeed.”

She laughed. The carefree sound drew an answering smile from him and his inner shaking vanished.

A sketchbook lay open next to her. He hadn’t noticed it until now because of his inner turmoil. She saw him looking and laid her hand across the page with a bashful glance in his direction.

“Do you draw?” he said.

“Yes. A little.”

“May I see?”

Slowly, as if against her will, she slid the book across the table to him. “Just don’t laugh.”

“I would never laugh at you.”

She’d made a lively sketch of some of the tables and patrons of the cafe. He recognized one woman by her upswept hair, captured perfectly in a few deft sweeps of Perrie’s pencil.

“This is wonderful.” He looked up to meet her eyes. “You’re very good.”

She gave an awkward-looking shrug. “Not really. I’m just a beginner.”

“I’ve seen a lot of art and I think you have real talent.”

Her face turned red. “Thank you. It’s nice of you to say so.”

“Are you a student?”

“Not anymore. I don’t have time for classes.”

Raphael frowned. “Why not?”

“Oh, just busy. You know. Family obligations and stuff like that.”

If she came to live with him, she’d have plenty of time to pursue her art. There would be no more family obligations, only the ones she’d owe to him. He contemplated that with a glow of pleasure—her drawing pictures in her free moments, then surrendering herself to him when he needed her.

You’re not going to see her, remember? This is the last time.

Right. The last time. After tonight—er, this morning—he would never see her again. He’d give up the dream of having her near him. Forever.

It hurt to think of never being near her again. He’d only spent a few hours in her company, and yet she’d come to mean something to him, something more than any other woman ever had. His arms, his whole body, suddenly ached with the urge to scoop her into an embrace and carry her off to his palace. She might resist at first, but soon she’d come to understand how much better her life had become and she would be glad. Grateful.

Really, Black? Grateful?

The whining voice of his damnable conscience, an entity that had only recently made a reappearance in his life, annoyed him. Because it was right. She wouldn’t be grateful unless he used his vampire powers to make her so.

“Perrie,” he said slowly, reluctantly, “I’ve enjoyed talking with you very much, but now I have to go.”

“So soon?”

“Yes. It’s—well, I have some obligations I can’t shirk. I’m sorry.” And he was. Sorrier than she’d ever know.

“I am, too.”

Impulsively, he laid his fingers over hers. “Thank you for meeting me here. It helped to talk to you.”

“I didn’t really do anything.”

“Yes, you did. Whether you know it or not.”

Her face went pink again, with pleasure, he thought. She did like him. She’d be happy with him, he knew it.

“I wish you could stay.”

“So do I.” He lifted her hand and kissed it, the way he had the last time he’d seen her.

She smiled, blushed more brightly. “I hope I’ll see you again soon.”

“Maybe.” He couldn’t stop himself from smiling back at her, although the unguarded expression felt ridiculous on his face. “I’d like that.”

She wanted to be with him. Wouldn’t he be doing her a service to take her, then? But this wasn’t the time.

There’ll never be a good time, Black. Leave the poor girl alone.

“Good night, Perrie.” Once again, he turned and left her without a backward glance, without waiting for her farewell. He needed to leave before he went too far and forced her to come with him.

 

Chapter 18

 

Rebecca shifted nervously in her desk chair. A blonde woman had come into the office and was leaning against the wall on the other side of the cramped room, right next to the water cooler, staring at Rebecca’s back. She couldn’t see most of her coworkers, separated as they were into individual micro-cubicles, but no-one seemed to notice or care that they had a visitor. No-one except her.

Something about the blonde made her skin crawl, like there were tiny angry ants creeping around just beneath the surface. She seemed fixated on Rebecca. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she wore a secretive little smile that wasn’t the least bit friendly.

Rebecca turned her head to have a look over her shoulder. She was still there. Still smiling. What did she want and how had she gotten in here? These offices weren’t open to the general public.

She spun in her chair and marched toward the woman. The blonde watched her approach, no change in her smug expression. She was one of those classic golden beauties Rebecca had always secretly resented, her perfection undimmed even by the ugly bluish flickering of the office’s cheap fluorescent lights.

Blondie wore a cream-colored sleeveless chemise, matching pumps and a string of black pearls. Cat-eye makeup outlined her eyes and made her look like a blond Audrey Hepburn. She was like some nineteen-sixties dream of ladylike glamour and sexuality.

Rebecca stopped a foot away from the stranger. “Can I help you?”

The blonde had big, brown eyes, like chocolate drops. “I don’t think so,” she said with a faint Southern accent and a distinctly feminine demeanor. “Well, maybe you can.”

“Are you here to see someone?”

A dimple appeared in Blondie’s cheek. “Oh, yes.”

She waited a moment, but Blondie offered no more information. “Okay. Maybe I can get him or her for you.”

“Oh, I’m here to see you, Rebecca.”

Her brows pinched together. “Me? Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so. But I’m getting to know you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

Her frown deepened in irritation. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do. If you’d tell me your business, I’d appreciate it.”

“Why, bless your heart,” Blondie said. “This isn’t business, cher. It’s personal.”

Personal? “How can it be personal when we’ve never met?”

“Well, we do have a mutual acquaintance.”

“Who?”

Blondie toyed with her pearls. Her nails were long, perfectly manicured ovals. “Jared King, of course.”

Rebecca’s mouth fell open for a single undignified instant. “You know Jared?”

“I know all about him,” Blondie said with a conspiratorial air. “I’ve really gotten under his skin, I’m afraid. If I were you, I’d stay away from him.”

“Are you threatening me?”

Blondie gave a tinkling, girlie laugh. “No, cher. I never threaten. I’m only warning you.” She laid her perfect little hand on Rebecca’s wrist. “I’d hate to see you get hurt.”

“It’s very sweet of you to be concerned about me,” Rebecca said with utter insincerity. “I appreciate your coming to see me. Thank you.”

Blondie smiled broadly. “You’re very welcome.”

“Unfortunately, if my boss sees me talking, I’ll get in huge trouble, so I’d better get back to work.”

“I understand.” She patted Rebecca. “You have a wonderful night, now.”

The blonde sashayed out of the office, her pert rear end wiggling beneath the chemise. The sole of Rebecca’s shoe would make quite a decorative print on the little minx’s ass. Wonder what Jared would think of that?

As Blondie left the room, Rebecca turned to see her boss, Nora, watching her with a quizzical expression. She smiled at the other woman and shrugged.

“I don’t know how she found me.”

Nora looked even more baffled. “Who?”

“Blondie there.”

“The only blonde in this office is me.”

Rebecca blinked. “Um…you didn’t see the woman who was just here?”

“I was about to ask you why you were having a conversation with the water cooler.”

“You really didn’t see her?”

Nora smiled carefully. “Rebecca, maybe you should take a break. Go get some coffee or something. Take a quick flight around the neighborhood, something to clear your head.”

“She was right there.” Rebecca pointed at the spot Blondie had occupied. “She wore a white dress and black pearls. A blonde. You really didn’t see her?”

“No-one was there.”

“Oh, my God. I’m hallucinating.”

Nora patted her shoulder. The gesture seemed reassuring when she did it. The same thing from Blondie had made her want to put her fist in the minx’s face.

“You’ve been working extra hard lately. I want you to take the rest of the night off.”

Rebecca frowned at her boss. “Are you sure? I don’t want us to get behind.”

“Go ahead. We’ll be fine.”

She hesitated. “You won’t tell anyone, will you? I don’t want people to think I’m going crazy.”

Nora smiled again. “My lips are sealed.”

She liked and respected her boss, but gossip was a form of currency in the empire. Eventually, people would find out. However, she smiled back at Nora and thanked her as if she had complete confidence in her discretion.

Her coworkers hadn’t seemed to notice the exchange, so she pretended nothing had happened. If they didn’t see it, that was fine with her. Except she wondered if anyone else had been able to see Blondie. Had she really hallucinated her? Why would she do that?

Maybe she was a ghost. A jealous ghost who wanted Jared for herself.

They said sometimes ghosts didn’t realize they were dead. That might be the case with Blondie, because if she knew she wouldn’t be so possessive with Jared. Would she? It wasn’t as if they could do anything together.

But her touch on Rebecca’s wrist had seemed completely real. Her skin had been warm.

Rebecca shivered as she gathered her things. Weren’t ghosts normally incorporeal? Yet somehow this one had been able to manifest a body that had warmth and weight, that looked completely solid, yet was invisible to everyone except Rebecca.

The presence in her room. That had a feminine voice. It could be the same entity. No wonder it had felt so unfriendly as it watched her move around her quarters.

Ick. She can get into my quarters.

She left her office and turned right toward the elevator. A figure in the doorway of another office seemed to radiate fury as she approached. Who was that? It couldn’t be the blonde ghost; it was too tall, for one thing, and looked masculine. Jared? Why would he be down here glowering at her?

Hugging the opposite wall of the hallway, she passed the man with a quick sideways glance. It was one of Emma’s attackers. The drinker, she thought. Were they following her? Lovely. Just what she needed, on top of being dogged by a ghost.

The halls in this section of the palace were, luckily, busy at this time of night. There were other offices down here and quite a work force to occupy them. The familiar faces and bustle of work reassured her, at least a little, as she walked toward the elevator. Surely no-one would assault her here.

Wasn’t it a little silly for a vampire to be afraid of a ghost? But Blondie was no ordinary ghost—if there even was such a thing. Vampires were powerful, but they weren’t invincible and with Blondie’s physical abilities she could do a lot of harm. Especially while Rebecca slept. What if she opened the blinds and let in the sun?

* * *

Jared was not at home. Rebecca knocked and knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer. No music or other sound came from within.

She wanted to throw Blondie in his face. If he had a spectral girlfriend, didn’t she have the right to know? They had slept together…or at least had sex. And what about Emma? How many women was he screwing?

Rebecca returned to her room in a pique. She didn’t feel safe here by herself. Blondie had looked at her in such a strange way, as if she already knew what she planned to do and was pleased about it.

Black said I should report any strange occurrences.

Did she really want to consult with him? Any excuse to stay away from Black was a good one as far as she was concerned. On the other hand, he hadn’t been at all what she’d expected when they’d had coffee together. Maybe he could help her with her ghost problem.

She fished out her cell and dialed the number he’d given her. There was no answer and she ended up in his voice mail. Rebecca hung up without leaving a message. Apparently she wasn’t getting any help tonight.

She blew out a long breath. She needed something to distract her. While she almost never watched television, this seemed like a good time to veg out. She flipped on her floor lamp, turned on her set and curled up on her couch. The same couch where she’d made love to Jared.

Her core contracted with a sudden ache of longing as she remembered everything they’d done to each other. His scent still lingered in the upholstery. God, his scent, full of male musk and lust.

He was going to drive her insane, that is if she wasn’t already crazy.

She flipped channels without any real interest in what was showing. Finally she settled on a wildlife program about the arctic and the melting ice caps. Depressing.

It was easy to forget things like that, isolated as she was in the palace with its luxury and cruelty. Easy to forget there was a bigger world beyond, and more important things than who was getting along with Daranda this year. Just now, she didn’t especially want to be reminded of the desperate state of the earth’s natural environments.

She changed the channel again. A home decorating show. Perfect. They were turning a boring extra bedroom into a media room. Just the kind of fluff she needed at the moment.

But the program was actually rather boring. What did she care about media rooms? She rarely watched TV, didn’t see many movies and owned no house to contain such a room anyway. The designer made strange choices, to her mind, with ugly rough-cut slabs of wood fixed to the walls, industrial-style lights fastened on top of the wood. She didn’t understand the modern aesthetic sometimes.

In her youth, people had appreciated fine craftsmanship. Even the crude furnishings of her family’s workshop and living space above had been built of solid wood, made to last, to withstand the stresses of constant use. Pieces were carefully carved or, for less wealthy people, often hand painted with decorative fruit, flower or animal motifs.

Furniture was passed down from generation to generation, along with the sturdy cookware and other household items of the time. When things broke, their owners fixed them if possible; they rarely threw things away.

She remembered her father working from dawn to dusk in his shop, his cobbler’s bench placed next to the window for best light. In the evenings, he would come upstairs to their living quarters, where the whole family would eat a simple supper together, usually by rush light. The flickering, golden light had softened the cluttered confines of their little kitchen and made it look almost pretty.

Memory was a powerful thing. She could see the rush light now, smell the reek of tallow and the savory barley and mushroom soup she and her mother had prepared. She hadn’t eaten soup like that in many long years.

The scent changed from savory, full of onion and earthy mushrooms, to the dry odor of hot metal. The flickering yellow light remained the same.

There were other smells in the room. Sex. Sweat. Fear.

Rebecca opened her eyes before she realized they’d been closed in the first place. She was no longer in her quarters in Daranda’s palace. What was this place? It wasn’t her childhood home.

The walls were made of stucco, splattered with unidentifiable stains, and there seemed to be no window. Heavy wooden beams stretched overhead, making an oddly graceful pattern. She knew this place. Her stomach wrenched in fear.

Das Drudenhaus.

She couldn’t sit. They’d strapped her flat on her back, naked, on the top of a thick oaken table. Her legs were spread apart and cuffed to the corners of the table, her arms raised over her head. She couldn’t move.

Das Drudenhaus. The witch house in Bamberg.

Someone stood in the corner. She could see the person in the left edge of her vision. A woman?

Cold sweat bloomed from her every pore. In her bonds, she trembled so hard the metal fastenings clinked together. Her breath came fast and shallow.

Nein. Bitte,” she whispered. “Bitte.” Why wouldn’t the woman help her?

“Du bist eine Drude,” said a hard male voice. You are a witch. “Confess.”

“Ich bin keine Drude.” I am no witch. Her voice was a hoarse rasp from all her screaming.

His face appeared in her field of vision as he leaned over her. He stank of dried sweat, semen and the smell of her own unwashed female body. She recoiled, remembering him now. He was the one who’d raped her. She was sore where he’d used her.

His long, sharp nose looked like the beak of some evil bird and his flat, muddy-blue eyes gloated. His slash of a mouth widened in a smile as he reached out and squeezed her naked breast with brutal fingers. “Confess, mädchen, and things will go easier for you.”

“They’re already going easy,” another man said. “Cease your lovemaking so we can get down to business.”

“You are in too much haste,” Beak-nose said, twisting her nipple cruelly. “Do you not loathe to damage such a lovely body as this? Look at these tits. I should hate to ruin them.”

But his eyes glittered with such evil lust that Rebecca knew he didn’t mean it. He hoped she wouldn’t confess, so he could use more of his awful tortures on her. They’d already dislocated her shoulders more than once and crushed her fingers and toes. If she survived this—and she wouldn’t, she knew—she would never be able to use her hands again.

For God’s sake, give them what they want. End this.

But wouldn’t she go to hell, then? She couldn’t perjure herself before God, and He knew she was no witch.

“I shall not confess,” she said, her voice lisping around broken teeth.

Beak-nose grinned. “I’m sorry to hear that. Peter, bring the tongs.”

How could that woman stand and watch this and do nothing? Who was she?

The second man, a fat fellow with greasy black facial hair, waddled into view, bearing tongs glowing red from the fire. Rebecca’s eyes widened.

She shook her head. “No. No.”

“I’m afraid so, girl,” Beak-nose said. “Unless you tell me what I want to hear.”

“No! I’m not a witch! I swear before God!” She strained against her bonds, the effort sending tremendous blasts of pain through her ruined shoulders and arms.

“You are a witch.” Beak-nose held out his hand for the tongs. “Confess. Tell me everything. Or else—” He held the hot metal in front of her face. “Where shall I start? The nose? The breasts?”

He lowered the tip of the tongs until it hovered just above the skin of her nose, so she could feel the heat coming off the metal. Rebecca pinched her eyes shut, whimpering. Why wouldn’t God let her die? Why couldn’t she simply die now? She’d done nothing to deserve this.

“But her face is so pretty,” Beak-nose murmured. “I should hate to ruin it almost as much as I hesitate to ruin those tits. Perhaps even more.”

The heat of the tongs moved downward, past her chin, down her neck, over her collarbones to the space between her breasts.

“Whatever you do, we can still fuck her,” Peter said.

Beak-nose laughed. “Yes, indeed.”

He pressed the tongs against her skin. She screamed as the smell of burning flesh rose into the air. Pain. Hideous pain.

“Just a taste, my girl. Will you confess now?”

“No.” For this torture would have to end, but if she went to hell she’d be tortured until the end of time.

“A pity.”

The heat moved to her left and stopped above her nipple.

She turned her head toward the woman in the corner. “Please, help me!”

The watcher did nothing. Then the world erupted in fire. 

 

Chapter 19

 

Jared heard the screams as soon as the elevator stopped, even before the doors opened. What the hell was that racket, anyway? Was somebody fucking in the hall? Christ, this place.

The doors opened and he knew two things instantly—they were screams of terror and anguish, not pleasure, and they belonged to Rebecca. His blood iced over. Someone was hurting her.

Vampires stood in the hall, staring uncertainly at Rebecca’s door, as if they were afraid to offend Daranda by interfering in a situation she might have orchestrated. Idiots. He tore past them, horror battling with fury at the thought that someone or something was attacking her.

Maybe Daranda had orchestrated it, although why she’d turn on Rebecca was beyond him. The empress was a crazy bitch, though. She didn’t need a reason.

He might be endangering himself by defending someone Daranda disliked. Fuck it. Didn’t matter. The only thing he cared about right now was stopping whatever tried to hurt Rebecca.

Her door was unlocked and he burst inside, looking for the threat. Her TV was playing, but otherwise the room was quiet and still except for the screaming, thrashing woman on the couch. Her eyes were open, yet she obviously didn’t know where she was. Her long, black hair tangled over her face as she whipped her head back and forth and clawed at invisible enemies.

When he saw she was alone, relief claimed him for a brief instant. She must be dreaming. There was no attack after all. Then he took in her flailing limbs, the utter terror on her face, and wasn’t so sure. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t benign.

The force of her movements pushed her off the couch and onto the floor. Her head cracked into the floorboards. Still she didn’t wake up.

Jared leaped to her side and captured her wrists. She fought him, and she was strong, a vampire. But he was stronger. He drew her off the floor and against his body, imprisoning her by wrapping his arms around her.

“Rebecca, wake up!”

Nein! Nein! Mein Gott im Himmel, hilf mir!” she wailed. God in heaven, help me.

What horrors was she seeing?

“You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

Her fists pummeled his back, her screams turning to animal sounds of despair.

“Baby, wake up. Wake up, now.”

Her nails tore at the fabric of his coat with a loud ripping sound. She seemed caught in the nightmare.

Trapped. She’s trapped.

How should he wake her? Slapping her seemed like a bad idea. If her dream was violent—and it must be—she’d simply work the slap into the other dream events. Besides, he didn’t want to hit Rebecca for any reason.

He didn’t know how to comfort a woman in this kind of situation. Yeah, he’d reassured Emma a time or two, but she hadn’t been trying to tear his skin from his back. She’d been conscious.

At a loss, he began to rock Rebecca back and forth as she continued to shriek. He rubbed his palm over her back, up and down in long, slow strokes. She quivered in his arms, as vulnerable and helpless as the delicate human she appeared to be. Holding her, a shocking tenderness stole through him and all he wanted to do was soothe her.

“The bad thing is gone,” he said, guessing at the dream story. “It went away. You’re safe now.”

Her pounding hands slowed.

“You’re with me. Jared.”

The shrieks turned to sobs.

The sound of her weeping made his chest and throat hurt. “I’m here now, baby. You’re okay.”

Rebecca slumped against him, her hands now clinging to his back, her head cradled against his chest. The sobs shook her body hard and her tears began to soak through the T-shirt he wore beneath his coat. Christ, he’d had some nightmares but nothing like what she seemed to be experiencing.

He kept rocking her. “Rebecca, are you awake? Can you hear me?”

She snuffled something through her sobs that he couldn’t make out.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ve got you, sweetheart. I’ve got you.”

The endearments were just falling out of his mouth tonight. He never called women sweetheart.

“I-I-”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.” He stroked the mess of her hair.

“J-Jared?”

“Yeah.”

“H-how did y-you know—”

“You were screaming, baby. Loud screams. I could hear it at the elevator.”

“Oh, God,” she whispered, sniffing.

He looked around for some tissues and found a box on the side table next to the couch. Keeping one arm around her, he stretched as far as he could and hooked it with his index finger. Jared pulled a couple of tissues from the box and handed them to her.

A sound at the door made him look over his shoulder. People had gathered there, staring curiously at the two of them. They must have finally decided it was safe for them to investigate the noise. Useless idiots.

“It’s okay,” he said. “She just had a bad dream.”

They muttered among themselves, but no-one came inside the room. That was a good thing because he would have had to let go of Rebecca in order to chase them out, and he didn’t want to let go of her. She still trembled violently in his arms.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “How did you get in?”

“The door was unlocked.”

“It was?” She raised her head. Her eyes were red and swollen, her lashes stuck together in black spikes. She still looked beautiful to him.

“Yeah. I walked right in.” He pushed matted hair from her face.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I’m not sure I could have awakened on my own.”

“I’m glad I was here to help.” Weirdly, it was true. As awkward as things were between them, he hated to think of her caught in such an obviously terrible dream. “Are you okay now?”

“No.”

Someone in the hall closed her door for them.

Jared settled her in his lap, with his back against her couch. “Wanna tell me about it?”

She sent a quick, almost furtive glance to his face. “I was back in Germany.”

“And?” Jared petted her hair some more, to soften the force of his prodding for information.

“They were…questioning me. Trying to get me to put my mark on a confession they’d already prepared.”

“Who? Who was questioning you?”

Another furtive glance at his face. “The witch hunters.”

He frowned. “What?” Had she really said what he thought he’d heard?

Rebecca bowed her head. “I was accused of witchcraft,” she said in a barely audible voice. “A woman who thought I was trying to steal her husband.”

His gut went cold. “Jesus, Rebecca.”

“I don’t think He was there.”

“What did they do to you?”

Her head moved back and forth.

“You can tell me, sweetheart.” Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. They’d tortured witches back then, hadn’t they?

“It went on for weeks. It was…bad.”

“Just questions?”

“No. They—” Her voice wavered. “After they raped me, they took hot tongs from the fire…”

“Jesus.”

“In real life, that happened toward the end, but in the dream I was still whole when they did it.”

“Whole?” he echoed, dreading her elaboration.

“I still had my tongue.”

He closed his eyes. “Oh, no,” he whispered.

“I think at that point they didn’t expect me to confess. They were just hurting me for fun.”

“Those sick bastards.”

“Yes. If they’d have let me go, I would have been a cripple.”

His eyes popped open. “Why? What else did they do?”

“Have you heard of the strappado?”

“I don’t think so.”

“They would attach weights to your feet and hoist you in the air by your arms. Really high. Then they’d drop you to the end of the rope and the weights would—they were so heavy they’d—they’d pull your arms out of their sockets.”

“Oh, God, Rebecca.” He drew her back into a tight embrace, his throat hurting. “They did that to you?”

“Several times. And…other things.”

“What other things?”

“They crushed my hands and feet. They tore my…my breasts, pulled off my n-ni…with the hot tongs. As I said, they pulled out my tongue.”

“Oh, God.” He was shaking now, shuddering at the thought of beautiful, delicate Rebecca—or anyone—torn apart by those monsters. What was wrong with people, that they treated each other so horribly? If he could, he’d go back in time and take her away from that place.

“I’m sorry, baby. So sorry.” His voice sounded rough with emotion.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Her arms clasped him tightly around his waist. “You weren’t even born yet.”

“That’s not the point. I wish I could have been there to rescue you.”

She gave him a squeeze. “How can you be so rude and so loving at the same time?”

Loving?

“I’m just that good,” he said.

She laughed, her voice quavering slightly. “You are.”

Jared held her, rocked her for a while, taking comfort in the fact that she was in one piece, here with him, relatively safe. She’d gotten to him, alright, gotten under his skin. He couldn’t bear the thought of her frightened and in pain.

“I wonder why you dreamed about that now,” he said after a while. “You do that often?”

“Not for decades.” She tilted her head back to meet his gaze. “But something strange happened to me at work tonight that might be connected.”

“Oh, yeah?” He had only the sketchiest idea what she did all night in purchasing. Did they go on shopping sprees?

“I had a visitor. A blonde woman who said she knows you.”

A lump of dread formed in his throat. “What was her name?”

“She didn’t say. She implied she might hurt me if I don’t stay away from you, though.”

“Sonofabitch.” He gritted his teeth against sudden rage. Damn Laura anyway.

“The weirdest thing was nobody could see her except me. My boss thought I was talking to the water cooler.” Rebecca fixed him with a direct, don’t-bullshit-me look. “Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“Yeah, I think so. Was she tiny like you, long hair, brown eyes?”

“Yes.”

“Shit.” Just as he’d suspected. “Laura.”

She frowned. “Who?”

He didn’t want to tell her. Saying it out loud would make it more real, not to mention possibly tipping off the rest of Daranda’s fanged friends how he really felt about his job. Assuming anyone was listening…and in the Imperial Palace, someone was almost always listening.

“You have music, sweetheart?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Or the T.V. Yeah, that’s even better. I have a sudden urge to watch decorating shows and I can’t hear what they’re saying.” He got up and jacked the volume before rejoining her. “Now it’ll be harder to listen in,” he murmured in her ear.

“What’s going on, Jared?”

Tell her? He had to tell her. She had a right to know what was happening to her and why.

“Laura Beaumont,” he said, taking her hands and pulling her close again. “I…killed her. My last hit.”

“You killed a friend?” She sounded appalled.

“No. I never met her before that night. It was hard. Almost impossible. She…” He couldn’t look in her eyes, so he kept his gaze on their clasped hands. “She begged me not to.”

“But you still…”

“Shot her. Yeah. It’s my job, Princess. Told you, I’m a no-good motherfucker.”

Jared half-expected her to agree with him and kick him out of her quarters. Instead she laid the palm of her hand against the side of his face.

“If that were true, you wouldn’t feel so bad.”

“Don’t pretty it up. I killed Chrissie, too.”

Rebecca had been there, afterward. She’d seen the pet’s drained, dead body when he carried it up to the throne room to confess to Daranda.

“That was an accident. You didn’t mean to drain her.”

“Rebecca, that’s not the point. I’m a nasty piece of work and I know it.”

“Oh, Jared.” She leaned up and in to press her soft lips against his. “I wish we could—”

He stopped her with a finger across her mouth. “Wait until you hear the whole thing. Daranda wanted the bodies to disappear, so I dragged them outside.”

She looked more horrified by this revelation than he’d expected and he almost quit talking. But she needed to know everything.

“After that, I started hearing her voice. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I went back to the place a couple nights later and her ashes were there, frozen in the ice on the ground. I broke the ice and I—” His throat closed up in shame and self-disgust.

“You what?”

“I ate it,” he whispered.

“You ate the ice with her ashes in it?” she said, her voice as dumbfounded as he’d felt when he did it.

“Yeah. I—I don’t know why. I tried to make myself stop, but…I couldn’t. It was like something was making me do it.”

“My God.”

Jared waited for her to pull away from him, tell him to leave. Something. Because who would want to be around a freak like him? Who would want someone who could eat the ashes of a dead woman?

She stroked his face. “That must have been terrible for you.”

“You don’t hate me for it?”

“No. Why should I?”

“Because I’m disgusting.”

“No.” She kissed him again. “Something awful happened to you. You’re not disgusting.”

“But—”

“Jared. I know what it means to be forced to do something despicable.”

He gazed down into her compassionate brown eyes. They must have degraded her in ways he couldn’t even imagine. He saw nothing but understanding and acceptance in her face, something he’d never thought he would have from anyone. And for it to come from his ice princess…unbelievable.

“You are the most amazing woman.”

She blushed. “I care about you.” A frown creased her brow. “Do you think she can hear us talking?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think she wants?”

“I’m not sure. Revenge, maybe. Justice.”

“But why is she after me? I had nothing to do with it.”

“I don’t know. That part puzzles me, too.” Jared played with a lock of Rebecca’s hair. “I haven’t found out much about her, but from what I know she seems like an ordinary person. Her coworkers liked her. She didn’t even have any human pets.”

“I don’t think she was ordinary, Jared. Unless she’s become someone else entirely since she died. When she appeared to me, she gave off the strangest vibes. It made my skin crawl.”

“Really?” Until now, he’d thought of Laura as an innocent victim. “She seemed creepy?”

“Extremely. In a super-polite, Southern belle kind of way.”

“Huh. That is strange. She didn’t seem creepy at all to me. But she was alive then.”

“You were going to kill her,” Rebecca said. “That changes things, I imagine.”

“And she threatened you?”

“She said I should stay away from you and she wouldn’t want me to get hurt.”

A growl escaped him. “I’ll kill her all over again if she even tries to hurt you.”

Her lips pressed together. “Maybe she already has. That dream was so bizarre. I knew I was dreaming, at least at first, but I couldn’t wake myself up. And then it seemed so real. The pain was like nothing I’ve ever felt in a dream before. Like I was truly reliving the torture. Even now, I ache.”

“Are you saying she made you hallucinate?”

“I guess so. Don’t you think she influenced you with the ashes?”

Jared thought about that. He hadn’t been aware at the time of Laura influencing him, just that he couldn’t control his own actions. But there had been her voice, whispering.

“Maybe she did,” he said. “I don’t get why, though.”

“Neither do I.” She snuggled in against his chest. “And right now I don’t want to think about it.”

He still had his arms around her. Although she was tiny in comparison to him, she fit neatly in his embrace. The pressure of her round little ass on his groin made him ache with the beginnings of a fierce hard-on and the sweet scent of her wasn’t making it any better.

She was still an ice princess, as far as he was concerned…except some of the hard sheen seemed to have melted off her. He was starting to see how warm she was under that glossy exterior, starting to see her vulnerability, and it called to him in ways he’d never expected.

That he’d want to protect her, Rebecca, the vampire who’d once commanded him to service her, made no sense at all. At the same time, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. The more he got to know her the more he understood that her inside didn’t match the face she usually showed everyone. That face was just a mask.

“Jared,” she said softly.

“Yeah, baby?”

“Will you stay with me today? To sleep. I don’t want to be alone.”

Fear and joy wrestled each other for control of his heart. He hated this. Hated that a simple invitation from her could make all his inner organs float and tumble like they were part of some crazy high-wire act.

“Just to sleep?” he said, his voice gruff. “Nothing else?”

She hesitated. “I won’t pressure you for anything you don’t want to give.”

Damn. He hadn’t meant it that way. Jared urged her chin up. “What if I want more than sleep?”

Her eyes widened, her lips softening, parting. “Do you?”

He caressed her mouth with his. “Yes. Do you?”

Her arms snaked around his neck and her mouth opened under his, and joy won out over fear. It was a relief to give in to the desire, to his feelings, to stop fighting himself. He wanted her, ice princess or not, and it felt fucking incredible to do something about it.

* * *

Rebecca trembled, she wanted him so badly. His mouth was like wet velvet on hers, his body hot and hard against her. His fingers tangled in her hair while his other hand pressed her to him.

She felt the satiny skin on the back of his neck, the silky brush of his hair across her hands. She bit the fullness of his lower lip and licked the slippery inside surfaces of his mouth and tasted him on her tongue. A terrible need seized her, an ache that could only be satisfied in one way. Rebecca moaned and whimpered against his mouth at the power, the force of her need.

He seemed to feel something just as powerful, touching her urgently, without finesse. Their joining the other night hadn’t sated their desire for each other but had stoked it instead.

She tugged with shaking hands at his T-shirt until he yanked it off himself. Tossing the garment to the side, he grabbed her and hauled her against him once more.

He groaned as he kissed her, the dominance of his mouth both gentle and all-consuming. She stroked his powerful naked back and he shuddered. He seemed to be as affected by her as she was by him, his desire a potent aphrodisiac.

Rebecca jerked at her own shirt, ripping it off with a sharp sound of stitches popping. Her shaking hands fumbled with the clasp of her bra as Jared devoured her mouth. At last she unfastened her lingerie.

She pressed her naked torso ardently against the heat of his bare chest. He moaned into her mouth. One big hand coasted down her back to cup the curve of her ass, squeezing.

Her pants were knit. He pulled them down, shoved her panties to her thighs. His long fingers slid along the crease of her ass and between her legs.

She couldn’t get her legs wide enough. She yanked at her panties. They tore. She threw them to the side. Now she was free to open her legs and give him full access.

He gently stroked her sex. “You’re wet,” he said hoarsely.

She gasped, arching her back in invitation. He knew exactly how to touch her and everything he did fed the fire in her body until she was nothing but mindless arousal. One of his fingers slid into her sheath. Rebecca cried out, working her hips against his hand while his tongue plunged deep into her mouth.

God. Oh, God, she needed him now, needed him inside her. Rebecca struggled with the fly on his jeans. She could feel the hot, hard swell of his engorged cock beneath the denim.

Jared groaned as she freed him from his fabric prison. She curled her fingers around his pulsing shaft, drawing another broken moan from his throat.

“I need you,” she whispered.

“I haven’t—”

“Please, Jared. Now. I need you inside me.”

“God, yes.”

He lifted her onto his lap. She straddled him, panting, and guided him into her body. He gave another of those hoarse groans as she sank onto him.

With a whimper of pleasure, Rebecca watched her body take him in. He was huge, stretching her to her limit. His big hands cupped her ass, lifted her, drew her along the length of his sex, pushed her down again so that she cried out as he impaled her.

“You feel so good, baby,” he murmured, nuzzling the side of her neck. “Perfect.”

He worked her up and down on his cock and she let him take control, let him fuck her while she gasped and moaned and sobbed against his shoulder. A climax seized her, forcing shudders from her body. Jared moaned her name, bit down on the flesh of her neck. Another climax burst in her and she clawed at him, wailing, and he roared something incoherent as his big body shook and trembled beneath her.

Rebecca draped herself limply against him. His arms kept her upright. He stroked her back, whispering something she couldn’t make out, and she pressed kisses to the damp skin of his shoulder.

“Are you alright?” he said, his voice rough.

“Yes. Better than alright.”

“I didn’t hurt you when I bit you?”

“No.” Had he? She reached for the spot where his teeth had captured her. Some blood came off on her fingertips, but there was no pain. “It’s already healed.”

“Good.” He kissed her mouth, so tenderly. “Good.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. Desire still pulsed within her. She could feel it, waiting for the right moment to resurge. Did he feel the same way?

His cock was still inside her, softer now. She didn’t want to relinquish it. Apparently, he didn’t want to let her go, either, because he kept his arms locked tightly around her waist while they dozed together, still sitting up.

Eventually, the position grew uncomfortable. Rebecca withdrew from him, sighing as he slipped from her body. He opened his eyes and gazed at her sleepily.

“I’m going to wash up,” she said, rising.

He followed her into the bathroom. They washed in silence, returning to her bed to lie together face to face but without speaking. There were things she needed to say, but she wasn’t sure how to phrase them or even if he’d be willing to listen.

Perhaps later.

She must have slept. When she awoke, there was sunlight poking its evil fingers around the edges of her blinds. Jared was awake, too, watching her.

Her face felt hot. “Hi.”

His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Hi.”

“How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”

This was silly. “I’m fine.”

He propped himself up on his elbow, his face full of uncertainty. “Are you sorry?”

She blinked up at him. “Sorry? No, not at all. Why would I be?”

“I’ve been a jerk.”

“You rescued me.”

His face grew suspiciously pink. “All I did was wake you up.”

“Well, it was more than anyone else tried to do.”

“So you’re not embarrassed to be seen with me?”

Rebecca peered at him, baffled. “Why would you think that? Of course I’m not embarrassed.”

“I’m a low-down, uneducated street kid and a former human pet.”

“I don’t care about any of those things.” She kissed the center of his chest. He had curly dark hair over his pecs, just a sprinkling, and she rubbed her face against it. “I want you. I thought you were the one who didn’t want to be seen with me.”

He made a rough sound in his throat. “I’m sorry I’ve been such an ass.”

Rebecca laughed a little. “Do you mean that?”

“Yeah. We really got off on the wrong foot and I’m sorry for my part in that.”

She brushed hair from his beautiful blue eyes. “Don’t be sad. You’ll make me think you didn’t have a good time.”

“I had the best time ever. I’ve never had sex like that.”

“Me either.”

She thought of Emma and her mood wilted. Once again, she’d let her passion for Jared blind her to anything else, including his other commitments. They’d both let the fire overtake them, and it was wrong.

“What?” He brushed his thumb gently across her lower lip.

“I feel bad because you already have someone.”

“I do?” He sounded genuinely puzzled.

She stared at him in disbelief. “Emma. Remember her?”

“Emma and I are just friends.”

Oh, please. Rebecca made a scoffing noise.

“No, really. We don’t feel that way about each other.”

“I don’t believe you. She’s so cute and the two of you are always so…”

He grinned. “What?”

“You’re just so—I don’t know. You look like a couple.”

“Rebecca, are you jealous?” His grin broadened, showing perfect white teeth. He looked insufferably pleased with himself, and it made her blush even as she wanted to kiss him for it.

“No,” she said carefully. “I’m not jealous. I simply don’t want to hurt her. She seems like a very nice girl.”

“She is. I love her.”

But he’d said…Rebecca’s whole body drooped. He loved Emma, which left no place for Rebecca, because she refused to be the kind of woman who would steal another’s man.

“Hey.” Jared palmed the side of her face and pressed his mouth to hers. “I love her as a sister.”

“Truly?”

“Yes. I don’t want her sexually. Never have. And she doesn’t want me like that, either.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, Princess. I’m sure.” His gaze turned smoky. “You’re the only one I want.”

It seemed far too good to be true, but she wasn’t going to argue. She pulled his head down to hers for another all-consuming kiss. 

 

Chapter 20

 

The day had been incredible. Beautiful. Exquisite. Nothing but lovemaking and naps punctuated by the occasional snack. Rebecca’s whole body glowed; she was suffused with a dreamy sense of well-being despite her lack of sleep.

She gazed at Jared in the cool, dim light of the late afternoon, where it evaded the efforts of her blinds to keep it out. She needed to remember to pull her curtains for extra protection or someone was going to get a really bad sunburn one of these days.

Jared’s eyes were still closed, his lashes thick, dark half-circles against his cheeks, like the paintbrushes of some artist from the Low Countries back in the days of the Old Masters. For an instant she wished she was a painter so she could capture him like this, so peacefully asleep, the white sheets tumbled and barely covering the firm, round curves of his delectable rear. He was worthy of any number of paintings.

Maybe I should take up art just for him.

She smiled to herself at the absurdity of the thought. They’d only had one day together and already she was thinking of changing her life for him? In spite of everything they’d done together, they hardly knew one another.

Speaking of changing her life, she had responsibilities awaiting her at Something Wicked. Ordinarily she might have skipped a day there in order to be with Jared, but she wanted to talk to Valerie and find out what she knew about Laura Beaumont.

Maybe she ought to call in sick to work. She never called in sick; the whole idea made her cringe. But Nora had sent her home early yesternight. Her boss would understand…she hoped.

Jared sighed. His eyes opened sleepily and he reached for her. “Evening, Princess,” he said in a sexy rasp as he pulled her into his arms.

“Good evening.”

He claimed her mouth with one of the blistering kisses in which he seemed to specialize. Rebecca moaned enthusiastically, her arms going around his hot, naked torso. Something Wicked and her boss could wait.

After she and Jared had both come apart in each other’s arms once more, they lay together without talking, just skin to skin, each drinking in the other’s presence. At least, that’s what Rebecca was doing. She didn’t know for certain that Jared felt the same way about her as she did him.

He lifted a hand to sift his fingers through her hair. “Are you working tonight?”

“I should.” She felt guilty just considering playing hooky.

“Stay with me.”

The teasing, mocking light in his eyes was gone. It had disappeared some time yesternight, perhaps when she was hallucinating, replaced by a soulful sincerity she found impossible to resist. But resist she must.

“Jared—”

“Come on.” A little of the teasing sparkle reappeared. “We’ll go out to dinner, make love in the park.”

She laughed. “In the freezing rain?”

“We’ll hide under a bush or something,” he said, smiling.

She loved his smile.

“I wish I could.”

“You can. Give me your phone and I’ll show you how to call in.”

Rebecca poked him in the ribs. “I know how.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind showing you.”

“There are a few things I have to do this evening, but we can get together a little later.”

She cringed even harder at keeping her plans from him. They were lovers now. Shouldn’t she trust him?

The only other vampire she’d ever really trusted was Philippe, and he was long gone. The others, no matter how friendly they seemed, either openly reported what they knew to Daranda or were too much of an unknown quantity to trust.

Jared seemed safe. He protected Emma, always had, even when he’d been a pet and as vulnerable as any other human. He seemed to have no love for the empress. God knew he disliked most vampires. And she wanted to share this with him, wanted to reveal all she’d learned.

She opened her mouth to tell him about Something Wicked and the words refused to leave her throat. Was it a habit born of centuries of fear that kept her silent or was some unseen power sending her a message? Either way, her words died unspoken.

“Do what you have to do,” Jared said, studiously casual.

“I want to be with you.”

“Okay.” He kissed her on the nose and rolled out of bed. “I’ve got some business to take care of anyway.”

“Did you get more kill orders or whatever you call them?”

He slanted a sideways glance at her. “Yeah, I did.”

She wanted to ask if he planned to carry them out, but that wasn’t a safe question here in the palace—for either of them. “Will I see you later tonight?”

“If you want to.”

“I do. My errands should only take a couple of hours.”

“Call me when you’re done.”

They exchanged phone numbers, then he quickly dressed and left her with a smile.

She’d forgotten how awkward the beginning of a relationship could be. Her only long-term lover had been Philippe, so she really had little experience. After him, there had been occasional casual affairs, but never any kind of commitment. There couldn’t be, not in the empire.

Then what makes you think this time will be different?

The thought cast a depressing pall on her evening. In the shower, while dressing, and all through breakfast she told herself that whatever she had with Jared wasn’t all that special. It would fade quickly, like all the other times she’d given her body but not her heart. The lectures failed to lift her spirits; they only plunged her more deeply into melancholy.

* * *

Something Wicked had no customers when Rebecca traveled there again. The layout, although packed with the same merchandise as before, looked slightly different. They must have changed locations. How often did that happen? It must be hard to live with—the staff would never be sure who their neighbors would be.

Valerie was reshelving books. She turned to smile at Rebecca as she pushed the last one into place. Tonight she wore a white, Victorian-style blouse and sleek white jeans that made Rebecca blink in surprise. For some silly reason, she’d expected the witches to always dress in black.

“I wondered if I could ask you a few questions,” Rebecca said.

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“The woman you mentioned last time, the one who was killed. What was her name?”

Valerie gave her a considering look. “Laura Beaumont. Why?”

Her heart gave a tiny lurch. Part of her had thought—no, hoped—that Laura hadn’t been the person Valerie had been talking about. “She and I have a mutual acquaintance. Did you know her well?”

“Actually, I only met her a few times. Marian is the one who worked with her.”

“Do you think she’d be willing to talk to me?”

“We can ask.”

Marian was in the back room, sitting at an old desk and poring over what looked like an old-fashioned, handwritten account book. She looked up, tortoise-shell reading glasses perched on her nose.

“Rebecca would like to talk to you about Laura,” Valerie said.

Marian’s welcoming smile turned wary. “Oh?”

“If you don’t mind,” Rebecca said. “We have—had—a mutual acquaintance and I have some questions…that is, he has some concerns and I thought I could help,” she finished lamely.

“What kind of concerns?”

“She…I guess you could say she’s turning out to be a different person than he thought she was.”

“Ah.” Marian nodded, removing her glasses. “I’ll do my best to help.”

“I’ll just let you two talk.” Valerie bustled out.

Marian had gray-blue eyes which she fixed politely on Rebecca. “What would you like to know?”

“May I?” Rebecca pulled a chair from its place at the work table.

“Certainly.” Marian didn’t sound certain at all.

“I was hoping you could tell me something about Laura Beaumont’s character, what kind of person she was.”

Marian’s brow puckered. “I thought you said you knew her.”

“No. I only met her once. It was…an interesting encounter. She didn’t seem to like me.”

Marian clasped her hands together on the desk top. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

The blonde shrugged. “I don’t think she liked many people.”

“She seemed like a real Southern belle type.”

“Oh, she was. All sweetness, at least on the outside.”

Rebecca tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

The witch—at least, she thought Marian was a witch, like Valerie—fidgeted nervously with the stems of her glasses. “To tell the truth, I picked up really weird energy from Laura. Disturbing energy. I kind of dreaded the nights she came in to work.”

“How come? Anything specific?”

“Not specific, no. Not at first, anyway. She just had this ickiness about her. Like what most mundanes think vampires are like, you know? Except they’re not, at least not the ones I’ve worked with. Most are like you. Good people.”

“Who just happen to drink blood,” Rebecca said dryly.

“Well. Yeah.” Marian smiled. “I guess it does sound pretty silly.”

“I can guess what you mean. I’m just so accustomed to the Empire and the royal court. It seems like everyone there is icky.”

“You don’t seem to be.”

Rebecca flushed, thinking of the way Jared had glowered at her when she’d taken Harry’s blood. “I try not to be. But Laura was?”

“Yeah. I really think her sweetness was a put-on. Like she was sugar-coated poison, you know?”

“Sugar-coated poison. Wow.”

“She’d say things that were mean, really nasty, but she’d do it in this syrupy voice. And I caught her—” Marian broke off.

“Caught her?”

“She was always rummaging through our stuff, like she was looking for something.”

“You mean here in the back room?”

“At first it was only out front.”

Rebecca frowned. “But isn’t all that merchandise? Don’t you want to sell it?”

“To the right people, yeah. But when a vamp comes in here, they’re usually led here for one of two things. To buy and use a copy of The Words or to volunteer with us. I think Laura was here for another reason.”

“What reason?”

“I don’t know.” Marian tapped her fingers on the desk. “We have a lot of magical artifacts here. I think she must have believed we had something she wanted. It couldn’t have been The Words because she had open access to that.”

“I wonder what it could have been.”

“Wish I knew. I found her in here going through our record books one night. She tried to pass it off as research for her copy work.”

“But you didn’t believe her.”

“Hell, no. Why would she need to research? All she had to do was copy what we gave her.” Marian studied her face. “What made you think she disliked you?”

“She told me to stay away from our mutual friend because she wouldn’t want me to get hurt.” And then she may have made me hallucinate.

“That sounds just like her.”

“Then she wished me a wonderful night.”

Marian laughed. “Sugar-coated poison.”

“Can I see which books she was looking at?”

The witch looked uncomfortable. “I’d rather not.”

“Okay, no problem.” She smiled to show she had no resentment. “I wonder if it would be possible to get in the house she rented.”

“Oh, she didn’t rent. She owned that place.”

“Really?” She’d gotten the impression from Jared that it was a rental.

“That’s what she said. I guess she might’ve been lying.”

“Either way, I’d like to see it.”

“Let me give you the address.” Marian reached for another old-fashioned bound book and flipped through the pages. “Here it is.”

Armed with Laura’s address, Rebecca thanked the witch and settled down at the work table to do a bit of copying. She’d ask Jared if he wanted to accompany her to the house, but either way, she was going. There had to be something there that would give them some better insight into Laura Beaumont and her apparently vengeful nature.

Even if she turns out to be the bitch from hell, Jared still killed her in cold blood. Nothing can absolve him from that.

The depressing fact was he’d done some awful, awful things that he’d have to live with forever. But at least he’d have some understanding of this particular target, the one whose death lay so heavily on his conscience. She didn’t want to think about all the other people he must have killed. What if they all came after him the way Laura had?

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