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First pages

1

Blood — it looked like wine and tasted like copper candy, and Chuck knew he’d never get used to drinking the loathsome stuff. It wasn’t just a matter of getting it past his teeth; it also gave him a raging hard-on and inspired the overwhelming urge to kill something, preferably something hot and human and screaming in his arms.

Made it an embarrassing challenge to behave for the female lab technician. Just as well the woman had a preternatural gift for soothing the newly-undead. They called her the handler; it was more respectable than vamp-whisperer.

Zoe took the empty cup from his hand. A pinkish film clung to the sides, and in the red haze pre-feed, he hadn’t noticed the plastic tumbler was a Sesame Street collectible. Cookie Monster. Chuck stifled a groan.

“You’re doing great,” said Zoe, eyes kind behind her glasses. “Your feeds are getting smaller. We’re down to snack-size.”

Hard to keep a straight face. Hysterical laughter wouldn’t look good on his daily progress report, not when laughter turned to screaming, and screaming turned to sobbing. Chuck stared down at Zoe from his perch on the cold exam table and swallowed all the things he wouldn’t say, couldn’t, not to her. Not to anyone, without falling apart.

Zoe cocked her head, sending waves of glossy black hair sliding over her shoulder, clouds of scent rolling off it — mostly the chemical shampoo-stuff they covered up with flowery shit like lavender or gardenia or whatever. Chuck’s nostrils flared involuntarily.

If Zoe noticed him getting a whiff of her, she didn’t show it. She picked up her clipboard from the exam table and said, “McPherson thinks you’re ready for fieldwork.”

Chuck laughed, a sound like dry branches breaking. He cleared his throat. “Less than a week ago I was trying to maul anything that moved. McPherson’s a nutcase.” McPherson was worse than a nutcase — but the more accurate terminology wasn’t fit for use in the company of the fairer sex.

“And you’ve progressed in leaps and bounds, though it may not feel that way. You have extraordinary control.” Zoe jotted something down on her clipboard. “McPherson wouldn’t send you out unless he thought you were safe.” She looked up. “Unless I thought you were safe.”

Safe. What a joke. Chuck raked a hand through his short crop of hair. Pity he hadn’t been turned before the gray hairs showed up, ha ha.

He really was losing his mind.

Good God. Fieldwork. He dragged a breath in and held it, willing his erection to disappear, but a proper lungful of Zoe’s scent didn’t help; beneath the strong shampoo, there was heat and flesh and blood, hot and luscious. Zoe’s psychic gift might keep her from being eaten alive, but it didn’t stop her smelling like food, couldn’t stop Chuck from picturing — vividly and helplessly — her smooth caramel skin breaking under his fangs like a ripe peach.

Safe. Yeah right.

Fieldwork, sure — he was ready for that. All his old friends at the LAPD would be totally jazzed to find him on the streets and eating people, especially since they’d all attended his funeral. He could just imagine the happy reunion.

Zoe offered him a warm smile. “I know it’s hard, Chuck. But you were a good cop in life. You’re still good.”

He clenched his jaw, forgetting the fangs. They scraped against his bottom teeth with a sound in his head like nails on a chalkboard. When he spoke, his voice was a harsh, broken rumble. “But not a cop.”

Zoe put a hand on his thick forearm, skin hot against his. Calm blew through him like a gust of wind. “Not anymore,” she said quietly. “Now you’re something else.”

Would’ve been better if she’d lied to him. Somehow it made it worse — the compassion, the understanding, the honesty. Made him feel more of a monster.

Not that he’d ever been much of a man to begin with. Not a gentleman, that was for sure — unrefined, bullish, pigheaded maybe — but a decent human being? He’d tried. Somehow, he had to remember why he’d bothered in the first place.

He looked away from Zoe and wished to God he could hate her. Wanted to hate her the way he hated everything else about this place. Made it easier to live through. Not that you’re alive, Chuckie-boyha ha.

Hell, the woman was only doing her job. Didn’t deserve his hate, or his sullen silence.

She was the kind of woman he’d dreamed of finding, once — warmth and softness, sugar and spice. Settle down, have a bunch of kids. But long nights of rage and red pre-feed haze, confusion and humiliation — all with her hushed voice and cool hands there to rein him in, when the hazard team wasn’t subduing him with tranquilizers — and now he could barely stand the sight of her.

Eyes on his bare feet, Chuck slid from the exam table and padded away without a backward glance, headed for his two armored escorts by the door. It was done. Time to get back to his cell and focus on not killing McPherson when the Branch head came to see him.

He didn’t bother saying goodbye to Zoe, didn’t know what the hell to say. And besides, he had a boner to hide. At least today, they’d given him some shorts to wear beneath the sweats.

Being a vampire sucked.

 

The door to Chuck’s cell swung open and McPherson stepped through without bothering to knock. He had a beige manila folder in one hand. A gust of outside air swept in; scents of coffee and paper and human bodies rode it faintly, dissipating in the bland-tasting, climate-controlled air of the cell. Chuck was stretched out on the fresh mattress — it and the toilet were the only furniture.

He folded his hands behind his head and studied McPherson. The Branch head looked like your average pen-pusher: forty-something, bald on top and soft in the middle with an unlovely face that wasn’t too familiar with a razor. His suit was tailored but old. He was short, looked unassuming, and it was easy to dismiss him if you didn’t notice the eyes.

McPherson jammed his hands in his pockets and stood against the wall, and that was when Chuck noticed he hadn’t closed the door. Chuck waited for McPherson’s usual pair of guards to step through. They didn’t.

Chuck went still inside. Couldn’t help it. Vamp reflexes taking over, muscles tensing, the taste of possible freedom on his tongue, his mind rocketing with instinctive calculations of speed and angle and distance —

“This some kind of test, McPherson?”

McPherson never moved — as still as a vampire. “No test necessary. I’m here to brief you for your first assignment. You’re on the job as of tonight, Montiel.” His voice was husky from vodka and late nights, things Chuck could smell on him like cologne.

Chuck wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t a rookie; he could tell when someone was trying to herd him. Treat him like a cop — use his last name, no chummy greeting — make him feel at home. As if he ever could.

“I thought vampires didn’t have last names,” Chuck said, fixing his gaze on the ceiling.

A grunt from McPherson, but no movement from the corner of Chuck’s eye. “Vamp’s aren’t supposed to have badges, either,” said McPherson. “But you got one of those. If you still want the job.”

Chuck was on his feet and in front of McPherson in less time than it took to blink. He overshot, unaccustomed to his new speed and strength, swayed onto the balls of his feet. McPherson flinched. Chuck wished he could enjoy it, but scaring the smaller man just made him feel dirty. Oily. Monstrous.

“I never wanted the job in the first place,” Chuck growled down at the Branch head, anger pulsing behind his eyes like a cold, frantic tide. “I don’t want your stupid fucking job, and I don’t want your stupid fucking badge. I want my life back.” Breathing hard now, even though he didn’t need to, other than to talk. Rage like electrified ice-water in his veins, surging in place of his nonexistent pulse. No warmth in being angry now, no human comfort, just cold.

McPherson’s blue eyes flashed. “Don’t be a goddamn chump, Montiel. In the life you’re talking about, you’re dead. Dead and in the ground.”

Like he needed reminding.

Something sick and sour roiled at the back of his throat when he imagined his friends from the force — his mom and dad, Aunt Laurell, his sister and her husband and the twins — thinking he’d been killed by a crazed meth-head with a knife in an abandoned warehouse. But it was better than them knowing the truth.

He imagined them standing over his grave, mourning him. As though he were really dead. Really gone. Pressure mounted behind his eyes. Dead and in the ground — that’s what they thought he was. Dead and in the ground.

“Good,” Chuck spat. “I want that. Give me that.”

McPherson finally moved. He shook his head in disgust and leaned in, jabbed a finger at the middle of Chuck’s bare chest, for all the world as though Chuck were a juvenile delinquent and not a furious vampire. “Y’know,” McPherson said conversationally, “I never pegged you for such a loser. Cut out the suicide bullshit and we’ll talk options if you want, but don’t bore me to death with this put-me-out-of-my-everloving-misery shtick. I’m old, Chuck, and unlike you I don’t have the rest of eternity to hash this out.”

Ballsy motherfu —

“And if you’re thinking about hitting me, Chuck, you’d better do it right. Because if I get up anytime this century I will have your ass kicked to kingdom-come.”

Chuck’s knuckles creaked as he curled his hands into fists. He felt his lips peel back, a snarl like a liquid crack of thunder bubbling up from his stomach.

Through gritted fangs he hissed, “Options?”

McPherson laughed, and just like that the tension sparking between them died. Chuck’s breath stilled, the cold tide receding. Hard to stay angry without adrenalin and elevated pulse and all the other human bells and whistles. God, he would never get used to this. Always be a stranger in this new, undead shell of a body.

McPherson sobered. “If you don’t join the Branch, then we can offer you a position as a civilian.” He paced away from Chuck to the long observation window of reinforced one-way glass. The glass was bullet-proof but not vampire-proof, Chuck was told when they’d downgraded his security status and moved him here. A vote of confidence in him. Better than the steel cell, but not by much.

McPherson met Chuck’s eyes in the mirrored glass. “We could get you a night job according to your skill set — for you, probably security work, someplace quiet. You’ll be mentored with one of our older vamps for a while, ‘til you can feed without killing. We chip you, monitor you, you show up to regular contact sessions with our community integration workers.” He shrugged. “If you want to be a civvie, it’s all we can do. We won’t put you in a cage, but we can’t turn you loose on the city.”

Great. He’d be free, but deader than he was now. Treated like a reformed criminal. None of that would matter if he could only do himself in — walk into the killing dawn — but he’d been assured that his new vampire body, with all its hard-wiring, would make self-destruction impossible. At least for a few centuries.

Jesus. Chuck scrubbed at his face, grizzled now with three-day stubble for the rest of eternity. “I can’t do that. You know I can’t.”

He heard McPherson shrug. “Then don’t. Become part of the solution. We need guys like you.” The Branch director was silent a few moments. “We pray we’ll never get guys like you, but we need you.”

Chuck looked up, met his own eyes in the glass. Dark as bruises. Bright as stars. His thick-set face wasn’t human, not anymore — not humanly possible to look bullish but somehow sharp and alien at the same time. Like turning vamp made you luminous and crystalline, without changing a thing.

That and his tan was fading fast. At least now his moon-white ass would match the rest of him.

“I’m a monster, McPherson. Eight days ago I was trying to kill people, and if it hadn’t been for your little vamp-whisperer, I would have done it. Killed people. I can’t be a cop like that.”

“Miss Vasquez’s professional opinion is that you have exceptional control and an overriding moral drive to back it up. She knows what she’s talking about.” McPherson was silent a while, then he turned and held the manila folder out to Chuck. “There was another murder, while you were coming through the Change.”

Chuck just looked at it. “This is Los Angeles. There’s murder every day.” But in his secret heart he knew, and McPherson could see it.

“I got number six here.” McPherson shook the folder. “Louise Kendall, found dead and mutilated on the steps of her apartment building three nights ago. And I got something else too. I got a kid who might be able to help us figure out how and why they’re selecting the victims.”

Holy mother of God. Chuck felt like the floor had just dropped out from underneath him. “You know who’s responsible for the killings? You know who the Cleaner is?”

McPherson made a face. “Don’t call them that, bad enough the press is saying it. Stupid name. And no, we don’t know. We just know what they call themselves. Take this.”

Chuck reached out, took the folder, took the bait — couldn’t help himself. “If you know more than the department does, then what the hell am I supposed to do for you?”

McPherson shrugged and moved to the open door, put a hand on the knob. “You’ll see. C’mon.” He swung the door wide. “Read and move, Montiel, while I give you the formal introduction to Branch Zero.”

 

Although the surrounding high-rises of government housing threw the narrow alley into deep shadow, Misha knew the very moment that the sun slipped below the lip of the horizon, abandoning L.A. to the cool of encroaching night. She tilted her head out the window of the parked Jeep; sky above like a bruise, purple and orange with sodium-arc twilight. Sunset like a weight in her blood, a shift in her center of gravity. It must be similar for vamps — except they welcomed the dark, when she knew too well what else lived for the night to truly rejoice in it. Not in this city.

There were worse things than vampires. Thankfully, what Misha was about to face hardly came close — but the knowledge didn’t ease the prickle of apprehension that gnawed at the base of her skull.

She brushed away the last of the crumbs from the granola bar she’d just eaten, turned to the passenger seat and cocked an eyebrow at Datura. Her best friend narrowed her eyes at Misha, their startling green striking even in the shaded twilight, vivid against skin the color of dark walnut.

“Last chance, Dee,” said Misha. “Are you sure? You don’t have to do this with me, I’ll understand.”

Datura shook her huge mane of curls, jewelery and weapons clinking, and gave a haughty sniff. “Don’t ask me that again, china-doll, or I’ll have to hex you.” Her Haitian accent turned the words to lilting mockery, but Misha suspected the woman was all too sincere. She’d long ago grown used to the nickname, but even after three years of friendship, Dee’s sense of humor was still a mystery.

With a sigh, Misha turned to the backseat. “And you?”

Taka flashed her a white smile from the shadows, only his pale triangular face and folded hands visible. He shrugged. “You lead, I follow, my lady.” His English was thickly accented but perfect, voice soft as a spring wind. He never raised it — except in battle-cry. Hopefully he wouldn’t find need to raise it tonight.

“All right,” Misha said. “Here’s the plan. I take point — Dee, you back me up. Taka goes in for our target. Quick and clean, guys — I want us safe and out of there, I have too much to do before the Beltane dance tomorrow night. How’s it sound?”

Datura snorted a laugh. “Aside from half-baked, just fine.” She adjusted her weapons rig. “But why you first? This man is dangerous, yes? Not that you can’t handle yourself, my friend,” she added. “You merely look like a china-doll. But still.” She turned and frowned in a way that never failed to remind Misha of her mother.

She cleared her throat. “This guy is dangerous. And he’s likely to respond to you, Dee,” — with her Amazon-like stature and death-goddess stare — “with violence rather than cooperation, and if he opens the door and sees Taka he’ll just close it in our faces. This one needs my delicate touch.”

Taka snorted softly, but he didn’t argue and neither did Dee. They seldom did. Misha just hoped she’d made the right call. When Jerry Kendall opened his apartment door in about five minutes time, he’d see lush curves and a cascade of white curls, huge dark eyes and lips like something fragile and edible — china-doll indeed. Alluring and defenseless.

Low-level glamour: couldn’t get by without it.

“With any luck, he’ll make a pass at me.” Misha twisted so she could look into the backseat at Taka again. “That’ll give you a clear chance to go in for the girl.”

His voice was without inflection, his eyes dark and vulpine as he gazed at her. “And if the man refuses to succumb to your charms?”

Misha grinned back at him. “Then we throw the plan to the wind. Like always.” With that, she opened the door and climbed out into the ripe, hopeless smell of the alley.

 

As the Branch-owned SUV cruised to a halt behind the towering tenement building, Chuck focused on not panicking, but his body wouldn’t respond. His cells were screaming at him, pulling him flatter against the back of his seat, roaring at him to find cover and find it now. He gripped the edge of his seat with one hand and the inner door handle with the other, and fought the hysteria.

Sun’s gone down, he kept telling himself. The blasted sun has gone down, you stupid piece-of-crap vampire body. McPherson warned him this would happen; was it some kind of cruel joke, sending him out right on sunset? Another test? Plain old torture? Chuck gritted his fangs and turned to his new “partner,” Grayson.

“When does it stop?” Chuck said.. Trying not to growl.

Grayson looked at him askance, skin so pale it almost glowed in the dim interior of the car. “It takes a couple of decades,” Grayson answered, his fancy European-or-whatever accent making even those casual words sound formal. “Sunset madness subsides when you’re strong enough not to die at sunrise. You’re doing very well.”

This time, Chuck really did growl. “As comforting as it is to know I won’t always drop dead at the crack of dawn, I meant in the more immediate sense.”

“Oh.” Grayson managed to look amused without ever changing his expression, green eyes dancing above a long, straight nose. “Sun’s been down eleven minutes,” he said. “You’ll feel better in a few.” The older vampire turned to gaze out the tinted window, eyes narrowing at the shitty apartment buildings that loomed on the other side of the street. Chuck was familiar with the area; it wasn’t the worst, but not far from, either.

How old was Grayson? Did Chuck even wanna know?

Grayson unclipped his seatbelt, and Chuck resisted the urge to laugh at the fact they’d both buckled up. “I don’t need to tell you again,” said Grayson, cracking his door open, “That we need the girl in one piece. But I am telling you. Alive and untouched, got it?”

Violet Kendall, fifteen years old and wanted by Branch Zero for information on the grisly murder of her mother. What the fuck were they doing. “Alive and untouched. I got it.”

Not for the first time, Chuck wondered if this was witness protection or kidnapping.

 

“Technically,” said Datura, “This is kidnapping.”

Misha paused with one foot on the first step of the fire stairs, shoulders tightening with unease, and looked at her friend. “I choose to see it more as witness protection.” She glanced from Datura to Taka and back again. “But remember, if the cops show, you get the hell out of here and get back to the hotel. We can’t afford to have your identities compromised.” Taka nodded, hand on the hilt of his katana, and Datura rolled her eyes. Good enough, Misha thought, and they proceeded up the stale-smelling staircase.

Still, it felt good to be out of the alley — to be rid of the sensation of being watched. When they all made it out of the tenement building in one piece, then she’d worry about whether she really was being watched.

Five floors later, Misha was thankful she got a lot of exercise, or her long-legged friends would have left her behind somewhere around the third story. At five-six she wasn’t short, but Datura was six-one and Taka almost that. Of course, Misha wasn’t straight up-and-down like them either; no amount of exercise could sculpt all the parts of her that wanted to stay round and soft, like most of her parts did. Her genetic heritage had forged the females of her kind to be lush and decadently-fleshed, alluring and disarming, because they did not need to look like predators.

Misha, with her cascading white curls, didn’t just look harmless — she looked positively angelic. Sometimes, that was very handy.

She heard the whisper of drawn steel and glanced at Datura; she had her ceremonial dagger reversed along the back of her forearm, ivory handle pale, steel glinting bright against the chocolate velvet of her skin. She cocked a brow at Misha and started down the hall. Taka moved to Misha’s other side and padded cat-quiet ahead, short hair shining blue-black beneath the harsh fluorescents of the apartment building.

This is it. Misha followed, straight down the hall. We’re coming sweetheart, just hang in a little while longer.

Not that the girl knew they were coming. She didn’t even know who they were. It was going to make things interesting, but Violet wasn’t safe here with a father who’d been absent and negligent until his estranged wife’s murder made him the legal guardian of a teenager whom the press were suddenly very much interested in. No police protection, either. There was only one place in L.A. the kid would ever be safe now, at least while the cult of the Black Dawn still called the city home, and that was the Wayward Heart Hotel.

Thinking of home, Misha stopped at number one-oh-nine and knocked. Wished she’d had something more substantial to eat earlier. Taka eased to the right and flattened himself against the wall; Datura stood behind Misha and tried to look shorter. She failed.

The door opened a crack. Television noise and the sweaty smell of fast-food drifted out, and Misha heard a male voice mutter something unintelligible a second before the door opened another ten inches and Jerry Kendall regarded her with bright blue eyes.

His gaze slid from Datura to Misha and stopped, fever-sharp. “You reporters?” His voice grated, and Misha smelled liquor.

She swallowed audibly and brushed at the hem of her sweater before sticking her hand out toward him. “I’m Melissa Campbell. I’m a locally appointed psychiatric counselor.” Kendall’s disappointment was tangible. He looked down at her hand, then back up to her face. She withdrew it and gestured to Datura. “This is my colleague, Diane. We’re here to speak to Violet, if that’s all right with you.”

Kendall cocked his head slowly. Cornflower-blue eyes narrowed in calculation, and a tight smile that had nothing to do with pleasure spread across his features. He’d been almost handsome before; now he looked hungry and about ten years older than Misha’s first estimation, and possibly a lot drunker as well.

Behind her, Misha sensed Datura go tense. Kendall said, “Nobody told me about no counselor.” He frowned, eyes still bright, false smile still in place, gaze dropping to Misha’s chest and back up again.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Kendall,” Misha said with a sigh. “Human Services and the LAPD don’t always communicate very well, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed.”

He grunted. A muscle beneath one eye ticked, and he shook his head. “Violet can’t talk right now. She’s sleeping.”

Misha finally smiled, feigning resignation, and willed her skin not to crawl. “That’s all right. Of course, I could always talk to you instead.”

“Well,” he said appreciatively. “Why didn’t you say so. Come on in.” Kendall stepped away from the door, and Misha noted the careful movement of his body, smooth but not quite fast enough. More hammered than he looked. He held the door wide, and Misha resisted the hefty urge to glance to the right at Taka, still out of sight of Kendall.

She stepped over the threshold and took everything in at a glance; no entry hall, just the filthy living room with a hall branching off from the far left and a kitchen nearer to the right. Datura’s arm brushed her with a brief touch and Misha knew what she was thinking: Taka, diversion. The living room was too open.

Kendall moved around the open door, preparing to close it behind them; Misha planted the toe of her ballet-flat into the hard carpet, uttered a little whoop! noise, and pretended to trip forward.

She stumbled past Kendall just as he let go of the door and grabbed her arm. Nice reflexes for a drunk, Misha thought, and pitched her weight to the left, swinging them both around. She ended up hanging in his arms, his whiskey-breath in her face. He chuckled and set her on her feet without releasing her.

“Sorry,” she panted, widening her eyes and looking straight up into his face. His gaze fixed on her mouth. Behind him, Taka slipped past Datura and moved soundlessly to the hall branching off to the left of the living room. When he was out of sight, Datura slammed the door and sauntered over, crowding Misha out of Kendall’s arms with unhurried confidence.

“Got to be careful, Melissa,” Dee purred, one arm around Misha, eyes on Kendall. “Wouldn’t want to break something.”

Not that there was anything in the apartment to break; one grimy lamp and an old television illuminated a grand total of one other furnishing: the couch. Magazines and used food cartons littered the floor. Canned laughter brayed from the television behind Misha, disguising any sounds Taka probably wasn’t making.

For the first time, Kendall seemed to see Datura — white lace-up shirt tucked into scratched leathers, criss-crossed by the leather straps of her weapons rig, knives gleaming. A pirate-horde’s worth of jewelery.

Kendall’s bright gaze slid down and then up, and then he looked at Misha and back at Datura again. His chest swelled beneath his dirty work-shirt. “Why the fuck you dressed like that?”

Misha moved forward. “We don’t want to hurt you, Jerry,” she lied. “We just wanna talk.”

“The fuck you do.” Clenching his fists, Kendall swayed as he shifted the position of his feet, readying for violence. Showtime. Misha opened her hands and felt power like a sweet breeze stir beneath her sternum, on its way to her palms —

Then Jerry Kendall changed. His fists sprang open, he dropped his head, he seemed to buckle and fold in on himself without ever moving — and when he looked up again his eyes weren’t his own. They belonged to something else.

Something evil.

 

2

Misha’s heart dropped into her stomach. Shit. “Dee, he’s been hi-jacked. He’s a homing device.” A fucking vessel — no wonder he’d seemed nuts. They should have known all along, the glint in his eye, the way he moved; the nasty taste of psychic darkness in his aura that Misha dismissed as garden-variety cruelty.

Datura stepped in front of Misha and brought her arm up in a guard, dagger at the ready. “The Black Dawn must have cast a locater on him. That means they’re not far behind. Why didn’t they just use the girl?”

A low shout made Misha glance toward the hall. The thing that used to be Jerry Kendall followed her gaze, twitched, and Misha knew they were running out of time. “She’s young. Strong. Maybe they couldn’t get in.” Power gushed into Misha’s hands, invisible yet, not hard enough, not hot enough, just a moment more —

Misha! Trouble!” Taka’s voice, high and clear like wind-chimes. Kendall whipped his head toward the hall, bared his teeth, and darkness spilled away from him and then snapped back like an elastic shadow made of smoke. Through it his eyes began to glow like coals. Then he bolted.

Datura moved. One impossible leap and her fist smashed into Kendall’s face, ivory dagger-handle sending a dark spray of blood from his cheek. He staggered back toward the kitchen. Datura spun, one leg flew in a brilliant arc, and her boot-clad foot struck him in the chest with enough force to launch him into the kitchen in a wild and graceless spin.

Datura flicked hair out of her face and drew another dagger. “I’ll handle him, Misha. Run.”

Misha ran. She hit the door to the hall with her shoulder, hands still charged with power, and found Taka in the hall ahead, sword drawn but down. He held out a hand but didn’t look at her; he was facing into a doorway. Probably a bedroom. Misha skidded to a halt beside him and looked, and wonder warred with blazing dismay.

Not one kid but two. Violet lay half-sprawled against the foot of a bare mattress in an otherwise empty room, with her arms around the waist of a boy who was small and lean and clearly insane. They both had the same fine blond hair and brown eyes, but the boy’s eyes were crazed, huge, his face contorted with pain or rage or madness. The girl regarded Misha with a glassy stare as she murmured in the boy’s ear.

Then Misha noticed the claws. The dark hair on the boy’s forearms. The way his jaw rippled and lengthened even as she watched.

Shit. The boy was a fricking lycanthrope. How had Kendall let this kid into his apartment? Did he know he was here? Misha was going to tear her informant a new asshole — just as soon as she got everyone out of there alive.

The boy snarled, sound ripping out of his fragile body like thunder torn apart.

Misha put a hand on Taka’s arm. “Got a knife on you?”

He arched one fine winged eyebrow without taking his eyes off the girl and the lycanthrope, and withdrew a practical army-issue folding blade from beneath his jacket. He flipped it open. Misha took it from him and held it gently by the blade, hilt facing out.

“Violet.” Misha moved forward, stopped in the bedroom doorway. The girl clenched her jaw, cheekbones standing out, eyes like pits. Misha crouched. “If you come with me, it’s yours until I can get you something of your own.” She placed the knife on the thin carpet and sent it skidding across the floor to bump against the end of the bare mattress. Violet flinched, hands convulsing, forearms straining against the strength of the smaller kid. Froth flecked the boy’s chin; his eyes rolled from Misha to Taka and back.

Violet’s brown eyes blazed. “Why?”

The girl sounded older than she looked. Somewhere behind Misha, beyond the hallway, glass crashed, and something electrical popped and hissed. “Because the monsters who killed your mother are coming for you, Violet,” Misha said, gentle but firm. “The Black Dawn are almost here.”

The boy roared. His heels pummeled the carpet, back arching, ribcage thrust up at an awful swollen angle. When they were safe, Misha would find out just how the hell a kid so young got himself infected.

Violet hooked one arm around the boy’s throat and pitched sideways to snag the knife. She held it like she knew what to do with it, reversed along her forearm for a stronger grip. “If you try anything,” she said to Misha, voice wavering, “I’ll let him change and do his worst. He’s small but he’s still a wolf, got it?”

Misha nodded, knowing the girl would do no such thing, but she didn’t let it show. “Your touch is all that’s keeping him from the change?”

Surprise softened Violet’s desolate face. “Yes.”

Misha nodded, opened her mouth to speak, and something beyond the hallway exploded. Terror burst like cold acid in Misha’s throat; the Black Dawn had arrived.

 

 

 

 

 

Glass scraped at Chuck’s arms as he forced his bulk through the broken window. For a second he was grateful to be inside and off the fire escape, because turning vamp evidently didn’t cure a lifelong fear of heights, but then he took a look around.

Holy fucking shit on a stick. Instinct brought his gun to his hand without thought. Grayson had his piece out already, and as he moved aside, Chuck got a better view of the towering black woman presently kicking seven shades of shit through Violet Kendall’s father.

Hair flying, the woman whirled and slashed with a white-hilted knife, teeth bared and eyes alight.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Anna McIlwraith is an author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance. There's nowhere she'd rather be than travelling the worlds of her books, but when she's not doing that she's usually arguing with her cats and preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
This book really sprang from Chuck and his story. I knew I wanted to explore a romance hero who wasn't a super-confident alpha type; he's vulnerable and scared, but he has a unique strength and warmth that's compelling and sexy. He's a vampire, but he's human and real. And he's funny too.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Everything is just better with vampires, werewolves, wizards and monsters. And those things are better with romance!
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I grew up watching The X-Files and Buffy/Angel, so it's not surprising I came up with a way to combine those themes. Mostly I wanted an exciting world in which to set a romance series, because I'd never written romance before and really wanted to.

Next in:
Romance
One Hundred Reasons
Fresh starts, hope, and happily ever afters.
A Second Chance Summer
Searching for a new life and an old flame
A Delicious Death
Stress City in a Small Town with Big Secrets!