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Click to pre-order Beasts of Vegas #4: Shapeshifter’s Prophecy, Beasts of Vegas #5: Fortuneteller’s Prophecy, and Beasts of Vegas #6: Spirit’s Prophecy–three, new, full-length paranormals!

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My Annual Reader Survey <3

Do you have 5 minutes? I’d love to hear from YOU about what stories and characters give you all the feels.

Please click the link and take a 5 question survey to help me write what YOU enjoy the most.

https://forms.gle/mAmFQYSMiv8jGbGb8

Thanks! <3 Anna

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You can download my books (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers) from my author’s site at Amazon.

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My First Book Signing

I had my first book signing this week, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it…

The generous owners of our local bookshop, Comic Cult HD, invited me to set up a table at their ComicFest event on Saturday. I was so nervous and shaky beforehand, but it turned out amazing. Everyone was so sweet and supportive.

It took weeks to put everything together, but I had my swag all set up–bookmarks, stickers, temporary tattoos, pens, and bookmarks. Plus, I wanted to give something away, so I collected some fun Halloween goodies (plus copies of my books) in a gift basket to raffle off. Now, I just needed some vampire-loving readers to come into the shop. 😉

My writer friends–who I adore–came to show their support. Vada browsed the Beasts of Vegas series.

Angela came to make me laugh.

And Patty picked up books for her family. (Don’t mind the hunky Thor peering over my shoulder. lol)

My new friend Ashley won my Halloween-themed gift basket, including 3 of my signed novels and a $25 Amazon gift card (which I hope she spends on loading up her Kindle app).

It was such an amazing experience. I’m glad I didn’t talk myself out of it. I really hope everyone who stopped by my table enjoys the books they bought.

<3 Anna

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NaNoWriMo!

It’s almost November–my favorite month of the year! I can’t get enough pumpkin spice, warm scarves, and National Novel Writing Month. 🙂

This year, I’m working on my 6th Beasts of Vegas novel–Spirit’s Prophecy. Garrett survived a violent home invasion that left him with supernatural consequences–when he touches people he feels their emotions. Letty bought an old house on the cheap, and she soon discovers why. The house is haunted, and Garrett may be the only person who can help her calm the unhappy spirits, but can he overcome his violent past to finally connect with Letty?

If you’re participating this year (or know someone who is), I have a goodie for you. I put together a word count calendar for all you NaNo-ers out there. Nothing fancy, but it might help keep you on track.

Good luck, and let me know how your November goes! <3

Love, Anna

Tortured Vampires, Sexy Shifters, & Cheap Books: Sign Up For My Monthly Newsletter Today.
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One Bad Night

A Collection of Stories in the Beasts of Vegas Universe

Back Cover Blurb:

Sexy shifters, tortured vampires, and powerful witches fight the evil horde on the Las Vegas Strip…

Catch up with favorite characters like Dominic Hull and Lukas Larsson in this collection of stories set in the Beasts of Vegas universe. Meet vampires, witches, and shapeshifters as they struggle to find love, revenge, and a little romance on Las Vegas Boulevard.

One Bad Night, Carly: An evil vampiress wakes up cured and pissed off.

One Bad Night, Dominic: What will shapeshifter Dominic do when his crush needs to drink blood? And he’s the only person nearby?


Download the pdf.

Or keep scrolling for the complete collection.


“One Bad Night: Dominic”

A Beasts of Vegas Story

Dominic Hull was having a bad night.

“We’ve all been there,” Ben assured, slapping him between the shoulder blades.

Dominic danced away from the unwanted touch as the pair of six-foot tall shapeshifters weaved against the flow of pedestrian traffic crossing Las Vegas Boulevard and headed toward one of Ben’s favorite clubs.

“Really? You’ve had two shots and walked around the rest of the night with puke on your pants?” Dominic retorted sarcastically.

Jesus, he was turning into a lightweight. It hadn’t been that long ago that he could take shots all night, dance in superheated clubs, and wake up the next morning as if nothing had happened. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Whatever,” Ben said. “I just want to have fun. This curfew has been a nightmare.”

Dominic agreed. His dad, the alpha, was going a little overboard recently with the check-in’s, the curfews, and the rules about going out in pairs. Dominic, being dominant himself, followed the directives only about half the time.

“Why don’t you be the alpha?” Ben gave Dominic a scrutinizing look. “Have you ever thought about it?”

Of course, he’d thought about it. As eldest son of the alpha, he was born to lead, but it didn’t interest him. It meant he’d have to challenge his father and force him to submit.

“I don’t want it. All that bureaucratic bullshit. Listening to everyone’s problems. No, thanks.”

“It’s a responsibility to care for and protect a pack,” Ben countered. “A lot of shifters would gladly take that responsibility. And it would get your dad off our backs.”

Dominic’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and with a curse of pure aggravation, he yanked it free. A text from his friend Lukas Larsson, a bear shifter from the Netherlands currently residing in Vegas.

Have you seen Mercy tonight?

Dominic’s guts twisted. A strange thing to ask. Mercy hadn’t left her suite at the Le Sort Hotel since she’d been dug up from a twenty-year, forced slumber in the earth. Hell, she hadn’t even left her bedroom.

Dominic stalled on the sidewalk and struggled through another wave of nausea before texting back.

What are you talking about? Isn’t she in her room?

Lukas didn’t immediately text back.

Isn’t she??

Dominic pictured the petite young woman with white-blonde hair and eyes perpetually registering panic.

“We gotta swing by Lukas’,” Dominic told Ben. “Something’s come up.”

“What’s wrong?” But Ben’s tone made it very clear he wasn’t thrilled with cutting their night short.

“Lukas can’t find Mercy.” Not willing to waste time, Dominic pushed his way back through the crowds toward the way they’d come. “It’ll only take a couple minutes.”

“Which one’s Mercy again?” Ben asked with a sigh.

Dominic didn’t answer. He’d purposefully kept Mercy’s name and story out of pack gossip. She was too fragile, too vulnerable, and frankly too important to him to share with anyone else.

“Just hurry up,” Dominic growled.

The only sign of pandemonium on the team’s floor of the Le Sort Hotel was Kayla. Mercy’s best friend and self-proclaimed protector visibly shook with agitation when Dominic and Ben strolled into the room she shared with Mercy.

“You called him?” she demanded of Lukas, sending Dominic a disgusted look.

“I’d take his help before I let anyone else know we have an unstable vampire on the loose,” Lukas replied. He sent Dominic his own look of frustration. “She was here—”

“When I fell asleep,” Kayla cut in. “She was in the other bed, rocking.”

Dominic knew Mercy’s emotional issues were sometimes calmed by rocking back and forth. When he came to check on her, he often found her in that position.

“And?” Dominic prompted.

“Something woke me up around 11:30,” she continued. “That’s when I noticed she was gone.”

“Did you look for her?”

“Yes, you moron,” Kayla snapped. “I searched the entire floor, then the hotel lobby, the promenade, and I was running up and down The Strip when I finally texted Lukas for help.”

“No one else knows yet?” Dominic asked.

“They’ll overreact,” she said. “They’ll hunt her, or something, when all she really needs is to see a friendly face and she’ll come right back.”

“Which is why I called Dominic.”

Kayla rolled her eyes. “He’s obsessed with her. The feelings are not mutual.”

That stung. Dominic recalled Mercy’s cool, soft hand folded within his much larger one. She’d trembled everywhere but at their point of contact.

He wasn’t obsessed.

And the feeling was very much mutual.

“I’ll help you look,” he said, though he realized too late he hadn’t been asked. “I know her scent. I can track her more quickly than you can,” he said to Kayla. To Lukas, he said, “I’ll let you know if I find her.”

Ben’s phone chirped, and he reappeared from the corner he’d been hiding in. “Oh, shit. It’s the alpha. He wants me back inside the compound.”

“Then go. I’ve got this.”

“It must be nice having an alpha for a dad,” Ben grouched.

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

Though faint, Mercy’s scent—a mix of blood and calla lilies—lingered around the elevator doors. Without a thought for anyone else, Dominic took a big breath of her scent and stepped into the next elevator heading down.

As he crisscrossed the busy lobby, Dominic asked himself what a vampire fresh off a two decade long dirt nap would do next. The lights on The Strip were calling to him, but to someone like Mercy, they’d be terrifying. The crowds, too, would intimidate her.

Dominic scanned the lobby for the least populated, least lit area of the hotel. He started away from the glittering main lobby, away from the promenade full of shops and restaurants, and deeper into the bowels of the hotel. Down a long hallway, her scent grew stronger. He followed her footsteps through an emergency exit door, across a patio covered in twinkle lights, and into a garden area that must be meant for smoking or doggie relief. It was unlit and probably free of CCTV cameras, too. The perfect place for a traumatized vampire to hide.

“Mercy?” Dominic hissed, following the ever-increasing scent of fresh blood. “Don’t be scared. It’s Dominic.” He still couldn’t see her, but he scanned and scanned, edging nearer the source of the blood. “Mercy?”

A rustle. An intake of breath.

Dominic zeroed in on a corner in the block wall, a junction made darker by a vine-covered lattice. There, crouched Mercy.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked gently, pausing ten feet away, not wanting to spook her. “We were worried about you.”

“I’m so hungry,” she whispered.

Dominic’s sight began to focus more clearly in the dark. “Mercy, are you bleeding?” He blinked, and her entire figure came into focus. Her face and hands up to the elbows were coated in blood.

“I’m so hungry,” she cried.

“Where did the blood come from?”

Mercy pointed off to the right. Immediately, a crumpled shape became obvious. Dominic rushed over. “Buddy?” he urged, shaking the man.

He caught a pained groan, and relief like Dominic had rarely known flooded his system. Thank God. “You’re gonna be okay, buddy. Just sleep it off.”

There was no reply from the man, but Dominic was confident he’d survive, the feeding marks would heal, maybe before he woke up, and Mercy wouldn’t be implicated.

“Mercy?” Dominic returned to her murky corner. “Are you ready to leave here?”

She raised her big, blue eyes to him. “I’m so hungry.”

Dominic crouched down low. “Then feed from me.”

His words seemed to startle her. “But you’re a shifter. If I infect you, it’ll kill you.”

It was true. As far as legend went, shapeshifters couldn’t survive the vampire infection. If they were exposed to the virus—transmitted through blood—in their human forms, they’d die almost immediately. In their animal forms, however, they were immune the same as any other animal.

“Then don’t infect me.” He lowered himself to the cool lawn, crossing his legs. “Come here.”

Mercy crawled hesitantly from her hiding place, her eyes locked on his.

Touch was a tricky concept for Dominic. Most of the time, it repulsed him. It didn’t matter who touched him or why. But there was something different about Mercy. She was so damaged, he felt compelled to protect her.  Hers was the only touch he sought.

Now, he held out a wrist to her, staying absolutely still otherwise, to avoid spooking her.

He’d never been bitten by a vampire. Mostly, he was excited by the thought of Mercy’s red lips on his skin, of her pointed white canines sinking into his flesh, of her sucking his life blood down her throat…

Dominic expected her to take his hand, but she pounced instead, biting deep into the fleshy part of his arm. It was quick, like a snakebite. And then she slithered into his lap, curling into a soft, blood-soaked ball.

The first few pulls only hurt a little, and he recovered from his initial surprise. He pet her silken hair, one long stroke from scalp to the middle of her narrow back. Her heart raced in her chest, thumping like a bunny’s.

“Better?” he prompted.

Her only answer was a re-shifting of her weight and a guttural groan of assent. He caressed her hair again, tangling his fingers among her tresses and digging his fingers in.

“I got sick tonight, too,” he said into the quiet. “I took a couple shots at a club and threw up. You can probably still smell it.”

Tiny nod.

“It happens to the best of us.” Oh, his legs were numb. He clenched his jaw through a dizzy spell. “Maybe drinking so much bagged blood made you…” What was he saying?

Dominic’s spine softened, and he would have hit the turf if Mercy hadn’t reacted so quickly. She grabbed him by the shirt and shook him gently.

His mind cleared only enough to see into her eyes and sigh in pleasure. “Your eyes sparkle.” Good Lord, had he said it aloud?

She stood and hauled him to his feet, but when he swayed into her, his body brushing hers, she stepped away and forced him to hold his own weight. Luckily, his shifter DNA included rapid healing. Already, he was feeling fractionally stronger.

He cleared his throat, folding his arm closed over the bloody wound. “You okay?”

Rather than answer, she hung her head, no doubt listening to everything, but reacting to nothing.

“Well,” he inhaled deeply, sensing the blood, the victim across the way, and her unique lily scent. “Let’s get upstairs, then. I’m not feeling so good.”

She followed him into the main lobby, keeping to his shadow, using him like a walking shield from the lights and crowds they encountered the nearer they got to the bank of elevators. Dominic pushed for the fifty-first floor, keyed in the access code, and wavered slightly.

“You’re a heavy drinker,” he said, attempting a playful tease.

She glanced up at him in concern, however. “You tasted so delicious,” she told him in a small voice. “I couldn’t stop myself.”

On the team’s private floor, the elevator doors swept open, and Dominic recognized Kayla and Lukas at the other end of the hallway. Without a word of thanks or farewell, Mercy scurried away to her waiting friends, leaving the scent of blood and lilies heavy in her wake.

Read more about Dominic and Mercy in Shapeshifter’s Prophecy (Beasts of Vegas #5)…

“One Bad Night: Carly”

A Beasts of Vegas Story

Carly Alvah was having a bad night.

Gaining consciousness in an ambulance headed for a Las Vegas hospital wasn’t even the worst of it. Because when she came to, she remembered everything—the overgrown bear shifter named Lukas Larsson she’d been running from, his beefy hand clamped around her throat, and oxygen becoming a limited commodity. That son of a bitch had snuffed her out. Her. Like he had any right to raise his eyes off the ground in her presence, let alone put his dirty hands on her.

She was a goddess among mortals, a monster, a blood-worshipping vampire, for God’s sake.

Speaking of…

Carly quickly took stock of her current situation. She lay in an undignified sprawl upon a gurney inside a slightly smelly ambulance. A bored EMT swayed beside her with every bump and roll of the vehicle.

“You’re okay,” the man said. “Take it easy.”

Not going to happen. She needed to get back to her minions among the Four Sons. Now.

She sat up, tearing at the blood pressure cuff around her arm and the oxygen cannula in her nose.

“Nope.” The EMT sighed in annoyance. “Lie back. We’re almost to the ER.” He pressed on her chest and, with an embarrassingly small amount of force, held her flat to the gurney.

She snarled and attacked, striking like a cobra for the tender, blood-infused flesh below his jaw.

Rather than eat his throat out and bathe in a gush of warm, slick blood, Carly lurched half off the gurney and landed with her head in the EMT’s lap.

What the hell?

Had she been drugged? Lobotomized? Where were her enhanced speed, strength, and senses? Come to think of it—she ran the tip of her tongue along her teeth—she had no fangs, either.

Stunned, Carly allowed the EMT to settle her back onto the gurney and reattach the cuff and cannula, clucking under his breath the whole time.

What was happening?

“What did you give me?” she demanded. God, even her voice sounded pathetic.

“Nothing,” he said. “But you were unconscious when we found you. Do you remember what happened?”

“Where did you find me?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“In a white van. Is that ringing any bells?”

That tricky, tricky shifter. He must have dosed her with something debilitating and dumped her back in her own vehicle. She’d be tempted to ride out this little annoyance, but she couldn’t let anyone draw and test her blood. They’d discover she was infected with vampirism and she’d never see daylight again. The US Army, in particular, was known for imprisoning and experimenting on infecteds indefinitely.

She had an empire to run. She was too powerful for captivity.

The ambulance slowed to a stop and, before she knew what was happening, the doors were open, her gurney was in motion, and she was whisked against her will down a wide corridor lined with ill humans and medical equipment.

“No,” she complained. “I’m fine.” Her enhanced healing abilities would take care of any lingering damage the shifter had caused in short order. She didn’t need help, she needed out. “I can go.”

Carly sat up and attempted to leap from the gurney to land like a cat before sprinting away. The reality was much more humbling. Again, she reeled forward and a firm hand held her down.

“No,” she repeated, struggling. “Don’t touch me. I’m fine.”

A restraint latched around her left wrist, another around her right. “Settle down, honey, we’re only trying to help.”

“Fuck you,” she screamed. “I’ll eat your heart. I’ll swim in your blood.”

“No one’s going to hurt you,” a calm voice instructed.

She fought so hard against the restraints, her back bowed off the gurney. God damn it, she hadn’t felt so helpless in years. “I’ll kill you all,” she bellowed. “I’m a vampire queen, you bitches. I’ll eat every single one of you.”

“Five of Haldol,” another voice directed. “Call for a psych eval when she wakes up.”

Carly was asleep before she knew she’d been pricked with a needle.

#

This time, when Carly woke up, she understood the irritating situation she was in. Somehow, the shifter Lukas Larsson had taken away her vampire powers. They had to return soon. The infection flooding her system would put her back to normal in no time at all.

Carly tested her right restraint. She sensed it was a fraction looser than the other. She worked at the cuff. Little by little, her hand slipped out. Her thumb ached in pain, and the muscles in her arm quivered in fatigue, but she made progress.

Her right thumb dislocated, and her wrist slid free as a man carrying a clipboard close to his extended belly barged right into her curtained space. Carly cocked her hip to the side, concealing her free hand.

“Hello, young lady,” he greeted with a sickly sweet smile. “How are you feeling?” He checked his notes. “I’m Dr. Wayne, who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?” He waited, pen poised for her response.

“Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.” She rattled her remaining restraint. “I’m not injured. I’m fine.”

A little disappointed, he straightened. “I heard you were shouting about being a vampire.”

“Are you deaf?”

He talked on as if he hadn’t heard her. “First thing you should know, your blood was taken and tested by the hospital. You definitely do not have the vampire infection. I promise you that. So, why don’t you tell me why you thought you were infected?”

Finally, reality struck Carly, and she couldn’t respond. The shifter hadn’t dampened the infection. The fucker had cured it.

She blinked numbly at the well-meaning staff member. “You’re sure?”

The man seemed relieved he’d broken through her psychosis. “Absolutely, one hundred percent certain.”

“You tested my blood for vampirism?” she repeated.

It couldn’t be true. There was no cure.

Yet, it made sense. It explained her sudden weakness and the departure of her fangs. It explained everything.

Lukas had had a witch with him. Maybe… Could she…?

“The government,” Dr. Wayne told her, “has mandated testing of all drawn blood for vampirism since the early two thousands when several stray infecteds popped up in U.S. hospitals. It’s done automatically anytime blood is sent to the lab, and you tested negative for vampirism.” He eyed her carefully. “Does that surprise you?”

No. Carly was more pissed than surprised. She barely controlled her rage enough to nod politely. Sanely. “I must have hit my head,” she said through gritted teeth. “I was confused. I thought I was infected, but I can see that I was wrong.” She forced a sneer of a smile. “I feel much better now.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He didn’t buy her act at all. In fact, he pulled up a chair and settled in. “Let’s talk about why you thought you were infected.”

Twenty-four hours ago, she’d have torn these restraints from their anchors and shoved them down the good doctor’s throat. But then she’d come across Lukas Larsson, and now she was practically helpless.

Not completely helpless, only practically.

She discreetly scanned the room, searching out potential weapons. Not much. A plastic jug of water. The chair the man sat in. The sheet curled around her hips. But Carly was creative, and she’d had lots of experience killing on the spur. She settled on the IV tubing connected to her arm via a needle.

Carly ripped off the final restraint, and a split second later, the doctor realized she was free. As he struggled upright in surprise, Carly launched herself onto the doctor’s chest. She wrapped the tubing around his throat twice and yanked, silencing any attempted call for help and pinching off his air supply. They tumbled to the floor. He tried to kick the chair over to attract passerby, but Carly merely doubled the tubing around her forearm. She glanced at the IV pole that had fallen across the doctor’s chest. A nice heavy weapon all its own.

Sneering, she leaned back on the crass garrote, refusing to be fought off until the man went first stiff and then limp. Even then, she waited another fifteen seconds before climbing to her feet and taking the IV stand in hand. Sore thumb be damned, she slammed the base into the doctor’s face until his nose broke, his lips split, and one eyelid ripped away.

Alive with adrenalin, Carly swiped a hand through his bloodied face, and licked her fingers clean. Blood still ruled her, vampire or not.

Her heart pounding, she ran for it. Screw any further deception or subterfuge. She simply wanted out.

Through doors, down hallways, and finally into a loading bay. She was free.

And she knew exactly who to punish first.

Read more about Carly in Spellspeaker’s Prophecy (Beasts of Vegas #2)…

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<3 Anna

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Hunter’s Prophecy (Beasts of Vegas #0)

Back Cover Blurb:

Sexy shifters, tortured vampires, and powerful witches fight the evil horde on the Las Vegas Strip…

In this short prequel, Connor Beckett is on a mission to thwart his cursed future and kill Oleksander the Destroyer. The vampire warlord, however, is locked away in a secret army prison. In order to find him, Connor must confront his very first vampire.

Except he can’t possibly comprehend the violence awaiting him.

With the help of his best friend, the witch Roz Carrera, Connor will track a vampire along Las Vegas Boulevard as he defies his prophecy and his future.

Open your free pdf file here.

Or, read the entire story below.

Ilvane’s Prophecy #616: Connor from Cleveland will release the Destroyer and trigger the apocalypse.

Unable to sleep, Connor Beckett propped his arms under his head and clenched his eyes tight as he contemplated his prophecy. What a way to prove himself a fuck-up. The damning words affected him as deeply this morning as they had the first day he’d read them in the newspaper.

Connor from Cleveland.

The moment he’d seen the post, he’d known to his core, it was meant for him.

Connor from Cleveland.

He rolled onto his side in the nylon four-man tent and drew his knees toward his chest. What else was he to do about the prophecy except thwart it?

Roz Carrera shifted uncomfortably, and the entire structure quivered. “It’s so freaking hot,” she complained. “What time is it?”

“Around five. I thought you’d be used to the heat. You’re from Miami, aren’t you?” He seemed to remember she’d talked about Miami. How she’d ended up at the University of Chicago, he still wasn’t sure, but he was damned glad she’d enrolled. He couldn’t have chosen a better partner, though he wouldn’t have guessed it until she’d outed herself at a frat party as a real-life spellspeaker.

“It’s humid in Florida,” she returned. “This is dry as fuck.”

Las Vegas at any time of the year was bound to be both dry and hot, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. They’d spent most of their combined funds to purchase the tent, a couple of packs, and two flights out of O’Hare. The little money they had left was to keep them from starving to death and not for luxuries like hotel rooms with AC.

“Get some sleep,” Connor said. “We’ll search the casinos again today. You’ll be in the air conditioning, then.” They’d been searching for days for leads—eyewitnesses to vampire activity or a real, live infected. They’d run into a lot of rumors and cosplayers so far. No actual vampires. “Any new leads?”

“Not really.” With a huff, she spun and punched at the extra clothes serving as a pillow. Connor turned the opposite way, his back to her. Maybe another guy, a regular guy, a guy without a prophecy hanging over his head would have pulled Roz closer and enjoyed her long, lithe body.

But Connor wasn’t a regular guy, and he did have a prophecy hanging over his head. So, he settled in, closed his eyes, and tried to catch one more hour of sleep. Their partnership was all business, and he needed the witch on his side much more than he needed a hookup.

Besides, Connor preferred blondes.

“I can’t sleep,” she announced. “Do you mind? I need to change clothes.”

Connor roused, stretched, and stepped out of the flimsy structure into the sizzling desert air. Around him, people slept on, oblivious, in other tents, trailers, and RVs across the campsite sprawled in the shadow of the Le Sort Hotel. Squinting, Connor stared up at the shiny towers and endless rows of reflective glass blocking out the sky, imagining staying in a resort with all the luxuries money could buy at his fingertips.

“Must be nice,” he grumbled.

He’d grown up poor in Cleveland, the only child of a single mother. An engineering degree from the University of Chicago was supposed to change his trajectory, but then he’d gone and carpet-bombed his life by running off to Vegas with a strange witch.

There may still be hope for his fiscal future, though. His grandfather had died recently and left him an enormous trust fund, but then an aunt he’d never met had contested the will, and the money was still tied up in probate. Connor might never see a cent of it, which was fine with him. He had so many great memories growing up with his grandpa, and they were worth more than any fund. Somehow, he and Roz would make their plan of finding a real vampire work. Money, or no money.

He dismissed the view of the resort and grabbed his pack, rifling through it for a sketchbook and pencil. Perching on an upturned log, he balanced his book on his knee and picked up where he’d last left off—practicing eyes. Dark, comic, feminine, furious. He drew and drew, spitting out every variation he could think of, trying to improve his style with each stroke of the lead.

But even while drawing, thoughts of vampires were never far away.

It had been a long twenty years since vampires—or infecteds—roamed free in the Ukrainian mountains, spreading vampirism and wreaking havoc. Twenty years since Oleksander the Destroyer had been picked up by the U.S. Army after his failed attempt at invading Prague and been squirreled away somewhere in the Nevada desert along with most of his horde. It had been so long, and vampires had been so quiet since, that people had begun to forget. Connor believed, though, that they were still out there, the leftovers.

“Hope you like potato chips for breakfast,” Roz said, climbing out of the tent with her laptop under one arm and carrying a crumpled bag of chips in the other hand. “It’s all we have left.”

“Go ahead.” He’d rather skip breakfast.

In the lavender glow of dawn, she dropped crisscross onto a patch of synthetic grass and opened her laptop. She munched a couple of chips, clicking the touchpad.

“More emails?” he guessed. She’d been sending messages to wealthy people and companies with known interests in the paranormal asking for help. She had a whole wish list of vehicles, weapons, and tech she hoped to acquire for their mission to find Oleksander’s prison.

The only problem with super secret, underground military prisons was they were really hard to find.

“No, but do you remember the missing persons cases I told you about?” she asked. “I cross-referenced the ones from the last year looking for patterns that might indicate supernatural events.”

Even though he’d gone to the same university as her, Connor only understood about half of that. What he comprehended very well was, he needed to locate a vampire to lead him to Oleksander. Whatever it took.

“Find anything?” While she chewed and scrolled, he put away his sketchbook and started tearing down their campsite for the day. The tent stayed to hold their spot, but he loaded everything portable into one giant pack. The last thing he did was strap a hunting knife in its sheath to his hip. Just in case.

“I don’t know, yet. It’s gonna take some time.” Her voice trailed off as she leaned into her screen.

Connor swung their pack over one shoulder, keeping his wallet and a bottle of water out for their walk. “I’ll go check in with Remy.”

Roz grunted a goodbye.

Remy and his common law wife Precious were sprawled on an outdoor sofa in front of a piecemeal singlewide trailer near the center of camp. Over time, Remy had added a front porch, a roofed garden, and a wraparound wooden deck to protect from the blistering heat, and the structure looked more like an arts and crafts project than a home.

“Can I leave this with you?” Connor greeted, indicating his pack.

“Hey, man.” The grizzled slice of human-shaped beef jerky peeled himself off the sofa. “You bet. Where you off to today?”

Connor propped the heavy pack against the trailer wall. “Casino crawling,” he said. “What about you?”

Remy grinned. “I am the king of all I survey, dude.” He swept his arm out to indicate his campground kingdom.

“Some king,” Precious snorted.

A U.S. Army decal in the trailer’s window caught Connor’s eye. Giving Remy a second look, Connor considered whether the guy could have served in the Vegas area around the time Oleksander and his infected horde disappeared into secret prisons.

“Remy, what do you know about vampires?”

The older man cleared his throat. “Well, just about everything there is to know,” he replied. “Back in my army days, I was ordered to guard their quarters.”

“You’ve seen them? You know where they are?”

Remy put one finger to his lips and winked.

“You think you’re going to hunt vampires?” Precious eyed Connor up and down, all six feet of him, a huff of a laugh escaping. “Good luck.”

“What she said,” Remy replied.

The couple’s out-of-tune laughter followed Connor all the way back to Roz and his campsite.

“Ready?” Roz stuffed the laptop and chips into a knapsack and stomped off toward the road fronting the camp.

It was only a meandering half a mile to The Strip, not far enough to warrant hitchhiking. So, they walked in silence through eerily quiet and empty streets. The only other people up and on the sidewalks before six a.m. were fitness nuts and gamblers who hadn’t gone to bed yet.

Roz bowed her head over her phone. “Whoa. Four days ago,” she said without looking up, “a waitress named Tara Reeves was attacked in the wee hours and drained of blood. She survived. I can’t believe I didn’t see this earlier.”

“Any details?” This could be the break they were waiting for. This Tara person could point them toward the vampire who hurt her.

“Not in the press,” she said, scrolling and clicking at warp speeds. “But social media is a different story.” Roz nearly stepped into a light post, but Connor steered her around it in the knick of time. Still too invested to look up, she added, “Here it is. She works at the Lucky Hand.” Finally, peeling her gaze from her phone, Roz quickened her pace. “Let’s go.”

Inside the cavernous casino, Connor and Roz roamed the floor, checking nametags. A cute little barmaid passed them named LeeAnn.

“Is Tara Reeves working today?” Roz shouted after her.

“Tara’s working the poker machines, love,” the woman said in an adorable British accent that landed pleasantly in Connor’s ears. “Northeast corner.”

From there, it wasn’t hard to find the right waitress.

“Tara Reeves?” Connor questioned.

A tall and svelte woman with overdone brown hair startled at the sound of her name, her tray of half empty tumblers rattling. “Sorry, honey,” she said, avoiding eye contact, “I’m extra busy today. Gotta cover for my friend who didn’t show up.”

Connor elbowed Roz and gave her a nod, indicating she should take this one. Roz had bite to her, but he sensed Tara might talk to a female more easily than him right now. It had only been four days since the attack, and she still sported bruises under a layer of make-up.

The unlucky woman wouldn’t change into a monster, though. He and Roz had done their homework. Vampirism was spread through infected bodily fluids entering a person’s blood stream through a cut. It was usually intentional, not accidental. Tara had been a meal to her attacker, nothing more.

Roz hurried to catch up to the fleeing barmaid. “I know you’re busy. This job probably sucks ass. Can I just ask you a couple of questions? We heard you told the police you were attacked by a vampire. We’d really like to know the details.”

Tara stopped fast, and ice cubes clinked. “You want to know about vampires? Are you two a couple of idiots, or something?”

Roz made an incomprehensible sound before Tara rolled right over her.

“Yeah, I got bit, but the cops don’t give a shit. They talked to him, he had some BS alibi, and they let him go. They weren’t that excited about a serial biter, you get me?”

“You can identify who attacked you?” Roz clarified with more than a little zeal shining in her eyes.

“You really are idiots,” Tara scoffed. “Go see him, then. He calls himself Adrian, and he hangs out at the blackjack tables across the street. Real great guy. Have fun.” With a disgusted snort, she was off again, weaving into the crowd.

Connor sent Roz a nervous look. Could it be that easy?

“They’re really in the city,” he breathed. “It’s not just rumors.”

Roz nodded. “This is why we’re here, right? Let’s go find him.”

A vampire playing blackjack didn’t fit Connor’s preconceived notions of mindless, rabid predators feasting on fountains of blood, but it didn’t sound too dangerous. They’d be in a crowd, after all, and captured on probably a hundred different recording devices.

With a nod, Connor turned and led the way outside into the suffocating heat. Buffeted by the growing crowds, they crossed the street on the pedestrian bridge and strolled into the casino. A Scandinavian-themed mega-resort, there were probably dozens of blackjack tables studding the main casino floor, not to mention private games on other floors for celebrities and high rollers. It might have been a needle in a haystack sort of issue, except the casino floor was nearly empty and Connor knew the infected in the room almost the moment he entered it.

Adrian, who’d attacked Tara the barmaid in the early morning hours and almost drained her to the point of death, hunched over one of the only game tables operating before noon. He was by far the best looking man in sight—glossy auburn hair, a bit of scruff across a well-defined jaw, and a suit that hung tailor-made on his athletic body.

But he didn’t look so tough. He may be handsome, but handsome didn’t threaten Connor. He’d been training for this daily from the moment he stepped off the plane. He could take him.

After readjusting the sheathed knife on his hip, Connor made a beeline for the infected at the blackjack table, only slowing down when he marched to within striking distance. At Connor’s approach, the vampire glanced up.

“Room for one more player?”

Adrian didn’t even let the dealer answer. With inhuman strength and speed, the vampire slammed the woman on the stool next to him into Roz’s arms, toppling them both to the thick carpeting. Connor turned his attention away for a split second just as Adrian struck at him. Teeth, meant for Connor’s carotid artery, sank into his shoulder instead. Cloth and flesh tore. Sinew and tendons crushed.

All Connor wanted to do was talk to the infected. A couple questions about the army, Oleksander, and how to kill the warlord. He hadn’t expected Adrian to attack without hesitation.

Vampires were a lot faster and stronger than he’d anticipated.

Connor’s arms finally came back online, and he pummeled the vampire’s ribs, first his right and then his left, hard punishing blows that didn’t seem to faze Adrian one bit.

A pair of beefy security guards arrived and startled the vampire who tossed Connor to the ground like a discarded toy. He leapt on top of the blackjack table and fled through the crowds at top speeds. One of the security guards halfheartedly ran after, while the other radioed for paramedics as he knelt beside Connor.

“Buddy, how you doing?”

Not too well. “Roz?” Connor called out instead. “You okay?”

“I’m here,” came Roz’s brusque yet annoyed voice in the crowd right before she smacked the guard’s bicep. “He’s fine. Worry about the asshole that did this to him.”

Roz grabbed Connor by the shirt and shook him, not an easy task considering he outweighed her by over fifty pounds. In a lower voice, she said, “Get the fuck up before they call the cops.”

It was difficult to explain to the police why Connor was on a mission to find vampires. They didn’t always subscribe to the Oracle’s prophecies. Best to stay off their radar, so Connor rose on shaky legs and waved off any help from the rent-a-cop.

“I’m good,” he assured. “He was too drunk to do any damage.”

Wishful thinking. The blood may not be visible through Connor’s dark clothing, but he could feel it oozing down his chest and arms, just enough to piss him off.

Stumbling out of the casino and onto the sidewalk, Roz directed Connor into the next public building and a family restroom.

“What are you doing?” he demanded as she locked the door.

“You’re bleeding.” She spread her arms at her sides and said, “Blessed is my power. I call upon thee.” A magical windstorm whipped into being, swirling around her legs and hips. It started at her feet, ruffling her clothes as it spiraled up her body and played with her long dark tresses. When she raised her eyes, they shone with power. “Heal,” she whispered.

As she spoke her spell, repeating words of healing and comfort, Connor watched her. Rozlyn Carrera was a remarkable sight. She seemed to sparkle from her feet all the way up to the crown of dark hair on her head as magic oozed out of her pores.

He stared, mesmerized, as a tickle began in his shoulder. He rolled the wounded arm and sensed the bite was closing up. “It’s working. You’re doing it.”

A few minutes later, her power exhausted, she ceased casting. Connor’s shoulder wasn’t good as new, but it was markedly better than it had been.

“Thanks,” he said, holding the door for her as they made their way back onto Las Vegas Boulevard. “I don’t want to lose him, Roz. He’s the first vampire we’ve even gotten close to.”

“He’s had a taste of blood,” she said. “But he’s not full. I have a hunch he’ll stick around here until he finds a victim he can drain.” She sent him a look full of nervous energy. “We need backup.”

#

Roz stomped onto the camp manager’s front porch amid Precious’ half-hearted protests and settled her hands on her hips. “Remy, do you know anything about vampires, or not?”

“Who do you think locked them up?” Remy inhaled, puffing up his chest. “I was a wet-behind-the-ears private back then, but the army had me pouring cement and bolting steel doors together so the infecteds couldn’t escape.”

“At least one of them got away. He’s on The Strip right now.”

“What?” Remy coughed, his chest deflating. “Are you sure?”

“We’re sure.” She laid a hand on Connor’s shoulder and drew away a blood-red palm. “You in?”

“You want to kill him?” Remy waggled his eyebrows at Precious. “I know places you could dump a body.”

“No.” Connor huffed an uneasy laugh, not sure if the older man was kidding. “No killing. I just want to ask him some questions, but he’s a little hesitant to talk. I need your help convincing him.”

“I’m guessing he’s not too friendly.” Remy locked his front door and jangled his keys at Connor. “You need stitches or something first?”

“Nah.” Connor ignored the pain throbbing through his chest and blinked away a dizzy feeling. “This is more important.”

“Fine.” Remy pointed ahead. “Let’s go.”

“I’m coming, too.” Precious peeled herself off the outdoor sofa. “I’ll get the guns.”

Remy rolled his eyes as Precious hobbled inside the trailer on plastic wedges. When she reemerged, she carried two large handguns. With much pomp and circumstance, she handed a .357 to Remy and a .44 magnum to Connor.

Not sure where to hold it, Connor tucked it into the waistband of his jeans, concealing it under his shirt. He really hoped he didn’t have to use it.

Remy stashed his handgun as well. “What kind of information you all looking for?”

As a group, they meandered toward the lights and noise of The Strip.

“I have to find Oleksander the Destroyer,” Connor said.

Remy stuttered a step. “You must be kidding.” When Connor didn’t answer, he added, “Twenty years ago, the army was so scared of that monster they had him drugged and chained until he was as helpless as a little baby. What are you gonna do with him?”

“Do you know where he is?” Connor pressed. “You said you were there.”

“Well… I was around, that’s for sure, but the army moved them a lot and I don’t know…”

Connor grit his teeth. So, Remy was more storyteller than legitimate asset. It didn’t change what Connor had to do.

“Anyone else want a shot of tequila first?” Precious asked, veering toward a casino bar. “Liquid courage?”

Remy pulled her away from a grinning bartender. “Later.”

Ignoring the couple, Roz touched Connor’s arm, snapping his attention onto her. “You good?”

He nodded jerkily. “The walking helps.” He attempted a smile. “What’s the plan?”

“Well, he’d be an idiot to go back to the same casino,” Roz said, dropping her hand. “The security staff knows his face, and now he won’t be able to walk through the front door without being recognized. But he seems to like the casinos,” she added. “I think he’ll strike again in the same area.”

“We have to find him,” Connor said. “This is the best lead we’ve found since we got here.” While Remy was distracted taking care of Precious, Connor leaned in toward Roz. “I have to kill Oleksander,” he whispered, staring directly into her anxious brown eyes. “I can’t be the guy who lets him out and starts the fucking apocalypse. I can’t.”

“Okay. We’ll talk to Adrian.” Roz started walking again. “But there are thousands of people on the street in constant movement, thousands more on casino floors, not to mention the people in hotel rooms, restaurants, malls, theme parks… I’m estimating a less than one percent chance of finding him before he feeds and disappears.”

“You’re not helping,” Connor grouched as they hit the street in front of the last place they’d seen Adrian.

“This is it?” asked Remy. “This is where he took a chunk outta you?”

Roz ignored the retired soldier and searched the crowds. “If I were him, I’d have left here in a hurry. And there are so many other places I could visit. So many options.”

Yeah, no kidding.

Roz continued, “But if I was hungry, I might go across the street and start over.” She nodded her head in the direction of the palatial resort on the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard. “More blackjack. More victims. And a security system that won’t recognize him. Let’s check it out.” She graced Connor with a concerned glance. “What do we have to lose? Right?”

No choice, he thought glumly as he followed her across the pedestrian bridge and into the marble-lined entrance hall.

Precious stumbled in her preposterous shoes. “Can we get a drink now?”

“Soon,” Remy assured, steadying her. “Very soon.”

Adrian lounged at a low-limit blackjack table near the hotel elevators. He wore the same immaculately tailored suit, completely unruffled from their earlier fracas, betting on a new hand. The vampire appeared unperturbed, but Connor could still feel the blood on his skin, dry and scaly.

“You’ve got his habits figured out,” Connor applauded. “Now, I’ll approach him. Stay back and cover the spells in case he gets mean again.”

Connor rolled his aching shoulders, and the vampire caught his eye. The bastard smiled a warm slow smile and wiggled his fingers at Connor before turning back to his game.

“Son of a bitch,” Connor swore. Adrian was going to make this difficult, he could tell. Connor didn’t want to fight him. He only wanted to ask him a few questions.

“Is that him?” Precious asked

“That’s him,” Connor agreed, not taking his eyes off the vampire.

Adrian folded his hand, swept his chips into a pocket of his suit, tipped the dealer, and sauntered casually toward the hotel elevators.

“You and I,” Remy hissed at Connor, “grab him and hold him still. If he tries anything, I’ll shoot him. That seems like a good plan to me.”

Connor nodded as he and Remy followed in his wake. Once the vampire looked back, giving Connor a flirty glance before heading past the elevators into a suite of meeting rooms. Connor started to run. The vampire popped open a locked door and slipped into one of the closed meeting spaces.

“Blessed is my power I call upon thee.” With those words, Roz brought a small invisible windstorm indoors.

Betting an awful lot on Roz’s magic, Connor ducked through the door a step ahead of Remy. The dim space was in varying stages of transformation—the floor was stripped to the bare concrete, one stage had already been framed in, and a multitude of electric and hand tools lay strewn about the room.

Connor didn’t have a chance to locate the vampire before a fist with the power of a battering ram behind it hit him on the side of the head, and he went down. Remy got tossed in the opposite direction, the weapon in his hand skittering across the floor and under the stage.

Connor’s vision dimmed. On his knees, he reached for a handgun that wasn’t there. Damn it. Why hadn’t he kept tabs on his gun?

Poof went any and all magic in the room. Roz didn’t perform well under pressure.

“Hold on a goddamned second,” Connor roared. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

Adrian chuckled. “You think you’re the wolf? No, sweetheart, you’re the bunny.”

“Roz, run,” Connor hissed. But when he caught sight of her, she was frantically trying to call her power.

Connor fumbled for the blade on his hip, missed, grabbed it again and slid it across the floor in Roz’s direction in a lame attempt to protect her.

She didn’t pick it up. The infected did.

Connor watched, numb, as Adrian threw it overhand at Roz. She put her hands up to deflect and thwack the blade pinned her palm to the wall beside her head.

Precious stumbled into the room, brandishing a pocket-sized pistol. “Where’s the bloodsucker?”

Adrian’s arm snaked out, his hand closing around the woman’s throat. As Connor watched, paralyzed, the infected slung her pistol away and crammed his hand into her mouth. With a solid punch and a little wiggling, he reached into her chest cavity via her esophagus.

Vomit spewed uncontrollably as Connor scrambled to his hands and knees. He retched hard enough to cry.

“Roz?” Connor gasped. Good God, where was she? He tried to tell her again to run, just get out as fast and as far as she could, but he couldn’t force the words past his lips as Precious flopped onto the concrete, blood splattering everything within a six foot diameter.

Remy, finally gaining his feet, rushed the vampire, but Adrian used his momentum to spin him face first into the wall.

With a sickening flourish, Adrian bowed over Precious and tore organs from her throat as she spasmed beneath him—lungs, liver, Connor couldn’t differentiate. Whatever the vampire found, he took big, hungry bites from.

Groaning, Connor struggled upright even as his head spun. A concussion was the least of his concerns right then.

“Roz,” he tried again. “Go.”

Remy, coming to, made a move for the vampire and got in a nice tackle before the infected noticed him, but it was no use. Adrian tore a two-by-four the size of a Louisville slugger from the half-constructed stage and captured Remy, holding the board to his throat. With a bloody smile, Adrian pulled back.

He’d made a terrible mistake. Roz was going to die. Remy was going to die. Connor was going to lose everything.

He was an even bigger fool than his prophecy forewarned.

Bracing himself, he saw with perfect clarity all the things he’d done wrong today. Everything from letting himself be led away to bringing Precious along. There had been a lot of errors, and the learning curve was steep when it came to vampire hunting, but he wasn’t finished yet.

No. He could do this. He and Roz could figure this out.

His weapons long gone, Connor picked up a discarded screwdriver and staggered forward.

“Roz, answer me,” he called into the dim room, not daring to look back and take his eyes off the vampire.

“I’m fine,” she whimpered. “Don’t worry about me. Just kill him.”

Gladly.

“I’m so happy you returned.” Adrian chuckled as Remy turned horrific shades of plum. “Thank you. Really. I tried to make it easy for you to find me, and here you are.” He jostled Remy, whose body appeared to be seizing. “And you brought more snacks. Today could not have gone any better.”

Adrian leered as Connor slid through Precious’ blood, his weapon up. The moment Connor was close enough to hit, Adrian kicked out, knocking him flat without ever letting up on Remy’s throat.

The only mistake the vampire made was letting Connor fall within striking distance. Connor stabbed the screwdriver into the infected’s thigh with as much strength as he had left. The tool scraped bone and hit with a wet little punch all the way to the handle.

“Where’s Oleksander?” Connor demanded. “Where’s the Destroyer?”

The vampire swatted Connor in the back of the head, but for a moment, his grip slackened on Remy and the man twisted free, sputtering and puking all over the cold concrete floor. Connor pulled out the tool and lodged it again in the vampire’s thigh. Higher up. This time when he pulled it out, a hot gush of blood spurted. He’d hit an artery.

“Where is he?”

“You little shit,” the vampire spat. “Stay the fuck down.” He hammered his head.

Connor didn’t so much hit the floor as floated there, half conscious, his vision wobbly and corrupt.

Remy had gathered his strength and swung at the back of the vampire’s skull with the board. Over and over. Fast, brutal blows. Blows meant to not only incapacitate but to kill. Three or four of those and the vampire lay motionless beside Connor, his crushed face a mess of blood and gore.

“No,” Connor cried. A dead vampire couldn’t lead them to the army’s secret prison and Oleksander. A dead vampire was of no use.

“Does he have any money?” Remy demanded, ignoring Connor and ransacking the vampire’s pockets. He must have found something because he arched his back and howled like a wolf into the open space. “Wooie, motherfucker. What a rush!” Then he turned on Connor. “What about you, dipshit?” He pulled and patted, thrusting his hands into Connor’s pockets, discovering his last four hundred dollars. Money meant to feed him and Roz for the month. Money that would keep them alive and off the streets.

Then he pilfered Connor’s class ring, his watch, and his shoes.

“Thanks,” Remy guffawed. “I always liked your shoes.”

When he went after Roz, Connor pushed himself to his elbows. The whole room tilted so far to the left he was sure he’d slide right off, and his stomach whined in protest.

“Leave her alone,” Connor slurred.

Remy slammed the end of the board into Roz’s gut, doubling her over. She cried out, and the sound twanged through Connor.

There was an awful moment when all he heard were the sounds of cloth rustling and Roz’s quick, pained breathing.

“I’ll kill you,” Connor said, on his knees now.

“Who are you going to kill?” Remy swung the bat across Connor’s back.

He fell to his side, his body a mass of pain. “I’ll kill you for hurting her.”

“My girl’s gone.” Remy brought the board down hard on Connor’s lower leg. The angle was all wrong, the trajectory too. His bone snapped. “But you don’t have anything to say about that, do you?”

Connor curled upon the floor as the lights flickered and the only sound that reached him was the two-by-four bouncing against concrete as Remy dropped it and fled.

Someone was calling his name. Connor peeled open his eyes.

“Get the fuck up!” Roz smacked him with bloodied hands. “We have to get out of here.”

“Roz?” Everything hurt.

“Get up!” she hissed, yanking at his shirt.

He slid his hands underneath him, found the .44 magnum wedged under his ribs, grabbed it, and with Roz’s help, he climbed to his one good leg. They lurched further into the darkened room.

“I wrecked the cameras outside,” Roz panted, pulling him toward an emergency exit door. “But we gotta hurry. We can’t be here for long.”

Connor’s thoughts cleared enough to remember the vampire. Precious. The blood. The organs. He looked back. There was no body on the ground.

“Where’s Adrian?”

“Gone.” They stumbled through the door into a dark loading area. “He took Precious’ corpse and ran.” She elbowed him in the ribs. “Just keep your head down, and don’t pass out on me.”

#

Connor knew where he was before he even opened his eyes. Hospitals had their own unique vibe. And he knew he’d been there for a while, because his body didn’t hurt the way he expected it to. His leg was surprisingly numb. His head, too. And he was in a soft, comfortable bed that smelled of detergent instead of stale sweat and sleeping bags.

He finally opened his eyes to find Roz hovering at his bedside.

“It’s okay,” she assured. “By some miracle, you’re alive.”

He made a pathetic noise to mean, What happened?

Somehow, she understood. “I didn’t tell the cops anything, so don’t worry about that. If you’re asked, we were jumped at a house party. But,” she sighed, “Remy ran, Precious is dead, the vampire ghosted, and we’re on our own.” She added, “I haven’t gone back to the camp, but I’m guessing whatever gear we left behind is Remy’s now, too.”

Feeling a little stronger, Connor sat up. “Your hand?” he managed.

She raised her neatly bandaged right hand. “Stitches and some physical therapy. No permanent damage.”

He squeezed his eyes closed, so many conflicting thoughts and memories chasing each other inside his head. Their first real encounter with a vampire had been a complete fuck up. A woman was dead. Connor was broken. Maybe he was asking too much of Roz.

How could he expect her to stay in such an awful situation, hunting creatures that could maim her with the flick of a wrist? The prophecy was his, not hers, to bear.

“You don’t have to stay,” he told her.

She swatted his bicep. “Shut the hell up.”

She was so brave, smart, and driven, but he feared he was an anchor around her neck. “You should go home.”

“No.” She scowled at him as if he’d hurt her. Again. “Don’t you remember when you sold me on this little catastrophe back in Chicago? You said—hunt vampires, kill them, find Oleksander, kill him, and do it with my magic backing you up. And I didn’t take you that seriously, I’ll be honest, but then I saw you ready to die to cancel out your prophecy and it hit me how important this is to you.”

“It’s not your fight.”

“I’m not abandoning you. I don’t care about your honor or any of that other crap.” When he didn’t respond, she asked, “When you said you believed in my magic, was that bullshit?”

It wasn’t bullshit. He’d seen her call magic. She was spectacular when she controlled her power.

“I believe in you,” he amended. “But I can’t watch you be stabbed and beaten anymore.”

“Agreed. We need a better plan and better weapons.”

He sighed. She wasn’t getting it. “Roz,” he began.

“No. Shut up. Listen to me for a second. After seeing you lying like a broken, bloody corpse on a dirty Las Vegas sidewalk, I realized how much help you really need. And I decided, then and there, I’m here for the long haul. I promised to support you with every ounce of magic I have, and you promised we’d do some good in this world. Ridding humanity of the vampire infection is damned good work.” She crossed her arms tightly. “I was there in that room with you, don’t forget. I saw him eat Precious alive. I smelled the blood. That creature is too dangerous to live. We need to stop him and everyone else like him. For good.”

Connor shook his head. Watching her in pain and being unable to help had nearly split him in two. He couldn’t do it again.

But Roz spoke first, “Don’t ever tell me to go home again. I don’t have anything to go back to.”

He caught her nervous gaze and read her determination, fearing if he cut her loose, she’d only hunt vampires on her own. He couldn’t risk her getting herself killed.

“Me, either,” he admitted softly. “This is it for me. I don’t have a plan B.”

 “Then we make a promise. We don’t leave until the job is done.” She stuck out her uninjured hand. “Deal?”

Finally, he took her small but strong fingers in his and shook on it. He took a breath to say more when her phone chirped. She frowned at the screen. “It’s an international number. New Zealand, I think. That’s weird. Do you care if I answer it?” she asked, already reaching for the green button and then the speakerphone. “This is Roz.”

“Roz Carrera?” the female voice queried. “The vampire huntress? Is it really you?”

“In the flesh.” She shrugged helplessly at Connor. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, my God,” the woman said, a bit of a Kiwi accent emerging. “Anton,” she shouted over the phone, “it’s her. Get in here.” Then, “Roz, this is Natasha. I got your email last night.”

“I’m sorry,” Roz said, leaning back in her chair, “what is this about?”

“Oh, right.” The lady laughed. “Sorry. My brother and I want to fund your hunt for Oleksander the Destroyer, and we have a lot of ideas to discuss.”

Connor’s eyes widened in cautious excitement.

“That’s amazing,” Roz said. “I have a lot of ideas of my own. First, though, if you’re serious about funding us, we need a place to stay and some very specific gear—today.”

“Absolutely,” the lady said. “Do you know where the Le Sort Hotel is? Daddy went to university with the CFO. I’ll get you a suite for as long as you want it. As for gear, we’ll ship you anything you need. But first, Roz, you gotta tell me—what are vampires really like?”

The story continues in Shopgirl’s Prophecy (Beasts of Vegas #1)…

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FAQ

Q: What do you write?

A: I write paranormal romances (in the Dark Caster and Beasts of Vegas series) and YA zombie dystopians (in the Red Plague series).

Q: Do you have any other pen names?

A: Yes, I also write short gay romances under the pen name Sadie West.

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A: You can email me at theannaabner@gmail.com or find me on these social media platforms:

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A: My stories are available at all major online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Audible, Walmart Online, Google Play, iBooks, and your local library.

Q: How many places have you lived?

A: A lot! Even before I married my U.S. Marine, I lived in five different cities (Upland, Fontana, Hesperia, 29 Palms, and Provo) in two states (California and Utah). After my marriage, we lived on and off military bases in seven cities (Hesperia, 29 Palms, Barstow, Oceanside, Vista, Ogden, and Jacksonville) in three different states (California, Utah, and North Carolina). In 2016, we bought our desert hideaway in California, and I hope this will be our final move. (At least for a while!)

Q: What tends to serve as the most reliable source(s) of inspiration for you?

A: Strangely, I get a lot of great story ideas from dreams, but those are infrequent. So I look to my own imagination and the stories I enjoy reading and watching. I love movies and TV, and I’ve been influenced by Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Being Human, Warm Bodies, and a hundred other top-notch paranormal/sci-fi programs.

Q: When did you begin writing and why?

A: I feel like I have always been a writer. When I was in the sixth grade I won a young author’s contest and had my short story published. From then on, I wrote nonstop. I would fake being sick in high school so I could stay home and write more!

Q: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see the light of day?

A: Uh, yeah! Lots. A series of novellas about a multi-generational family of mermaids I wrote in my teen years comes to mind. (Though I would love to re-work it and see it published someday as a fun, sexy paranormal romance.)

Q: How would you describe your style of writing to someone that has never read your work?

My writing has been described as fast-paced and sexy. I like to call my books: sexy, scary paranormals.

Q: What do you love about being an author?

A: My characters. They become a part of me. I love them, hate them, cry for them, laugh with them. They come to life in my imagination, and that’s the best part of storytelling, for me.

Q: Vampires – do you prefer them as sexy leads or blood hungry monsters?

A: A good mix of both, actually! I like a vampire hero, but I adore one who is a little dangerous and out of control. JR Ward does a really good job of mixing sex and violence in her vampire novels.

Q: What life advice do you wish you’d been given sooner?

A: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a good one. I have the tendency to get distracted by all the little things going wrong instead of focusing on the big picture.

Q:If you were a supernatural creature, what would you be and why?

A: A witch, for sure. I love writing witches because I secretly want to be one. I’d love to be able to cast spells and get things done faster.

Q: Where do you write best?

A: I don’t have a home office right now, so believe it or not, I write best wherever my laptop is sitting. Sometimes it’s at the kitchen table. Sometimes it’s in the lobby of a music store while my daughter takes violin lessons. I’ve learned to write wherever and whenever I can.

Q: If you didn’t write in your genre, which other would you prefer and why?

A: After paranormal, historical romances are my favorite to read. I would love to write a regency or a medieval romance someday.

Q: Can you say that your journey to publication was difficult? If so, what were the hardest moments to get through?

A: I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but it was long! I spent about ten years writing and attempting to get published the traditional route. About two years ago I decided to take control of my own career and self publish.

Q: How do you overcome the little voice in your head that tells you your writing isn’t good enough?

A: I hear that voice so constantly, I would think something was wrong if I didn’t. Honestly, when I feel overwhelmed and doubt creeps in I force myself to focus on one thing at a time. The next scene, the next blog post, or the next e-mail. Then I tune out the negative thoughts and get back to work.

Q: To you, what makes a good story?

A: The characters. I like fun and interesting plots, but good characterization wins me over every time. I love experiencing a hero’s redemption or a heroine’s awakening. That’s why I read stories.

Q: What is your favorite book?

A: I like so many books, but the one I have re-read the most and still love like the first time I opened it is JR Ward’s Lover Awakened. Zsadist and Bella’s story changed my life. (I’m a sucker for a brooding, emotionally damaged hero.)

Q: What books/authors have influenced your life?

A: What a great question! So many authors spring to mind. Victoria Holt and Lisa Kleypas inspired me to try writing my own stories when I was in middle school and high school. The biggest paranormal influences on my writing, though, are Kresley Cole’s smart-mouthed immortals, J.R. Ward’s dark and violent vampire underworld, and Patricia Briggs’ vibrant supernatural characters.

Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?

A: The best advice I ever received as a struggling writer was to keep writing. Even after you’ve finished your first book, even if you get rejections, even if your latest novel doesn’t sell well, keep writing. Eventually, all your hard work will pay off.

Q: Do you have another profession besides writing?

A: I have a day job, but writing is my passion. Telling stories has always been a love of mine, and I’m so grateful to be able to do it now professionally.

Q: Do you ever get writer’s block? Do you have any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?

A: I do get writer’s block, but I don’t allow it to stick around. If I’m sick, that’s one thing. But if my muse isn’t speaking to me I’ll get up, walk around, maybe make a cup of tea and then get back to work. This is my career and I take it seriously.

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Review of Spiral of Need (Suzanne Wright)

Spiral of Need is my first novel written by Suzanne Wright, and it was better than I expected. The hero and heroine are very well drawn. They work perfectly together and lift each other up. The outside antagonists weren’t really scary, just bitchy, and a lot of the plot was confusing to me until it was all explained at the end.

My favorite part: The sex scenes are unbelievable and worth the cost of the book all on their own. Hot doesn’t begin to cover it.

My least favorite part: So many characters! I guess the author is stacking the cast with characters for future books, but there were so many names with no distinctions or personalities attached, I actually forgot the h/h’s names the last half of the book.

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Remedy (Red Plague Series #4)

Written by Anna Abner

Copyright 2016 by Anna Abner

Enjoy this free peek into the Red Plague series!

Cover Blurb:

The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

Seventeen-year-old Callie Crawford is used to fighting. She was an all-star wrestler in high school, and since 212R destroyed her world, she hasn’t stopped fighting. When her high school boyfriend Levi caught the virus, Callie saved him by keeping him chained in a rural North Carolina barn, waiting for something to change.

Before 212R, Roman Duran was a computer nerd, but since the virus, he’s become a guard in the survivor enclave in Washington, DC. After volunteering for a rescue mission, Roman has been belittled, robbed, and left for dead. He hasn’t saved a single person.

Until he stumbles across Callie. Because she has a zombie on a short leash, and Roman is carrying a syringe full of zombie cure.

Callie and Roman will face soulless survivors and rabid zombies on their journey to save a single infected. Along the way, Callie will have to choose between her past and a whole new future.

Chapter 1

The sky was gray and hazy when Callie Crawford pushed her skiff into the cold Atlantic, the surf lapping quietly against the hull. She glanced up from her compass, not liking the look of the clouds on the horizon. A warm breeze thick with salt and moisture blew through her ponytail and teased her bare arms.

A storm was the last thing Callie needed. Dad had taught her a few things, but she was no sailor, and the strength of the tides and currents always took her by surprise.

As if things weren’t messed up enough by her oversleeping.

Today was Levi’s day. Every third day since the apocalypse was his, and she’d never missed a visit, never been tardy venturing onto the mainland where packs of slobbering, mindless people infected with the 212R virus ruled. Not once. But she’d overslept, and now she’d be late arriving. Worse, she’d be late returning to her newly acquired private island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She may be forced to sail home in the dark.

Water splashed the side of the skiff as she maneuvered it over a mile of ocean. She’d been making the same trip every three days for the past two months, and she still thought she was going to die every time she lost sight of land and nothing but azure water hemmed her in.

She sailed past one of the department of transportation’s huge white ferryboats, immune to the reminder of a lost world. People didn’t use ferries anymore, and it had been left to rot. The vessel had foundered some time ago with all its vehicles still aboard. It jutted half out of the water, quiet and still, its once bright colors slowly being eaten away by rust and barnacles.

She palmed her compass, adjusted the sail for speed, and headed west. By keeping the buoys in sight, she steered her skiff straight into the port at Morris Marina.

Callie secured the ship and then pulled a marble and her slingshot from a pocket, looking for signs of trouble. No birds chirping. No dogs barking at strangers. No squirrels climbing branches. Nothing. She could have been the last creature alive on the earth.

Watching and waiting, she catalogued her survival tactics. Attacked from the front? Side step with a kick to the knee. Let their momentum work in her favor. Attacked from the rear? Head butt to the nose. Swarmed by a pack? Do whatever it took to break free and climb, even if it was into the back of a truck or up a tree. She’d mastered chokes, arm bars, and more than one submission hold.

Humans infected with 212R were lethally fast. Speed and maneuverability were key in her personal survival strategy. And she must survive. Levi needed her.

Wary, Callie perched on the seat in her little boat and let loose a high, piercing whistle. No movement.

Her slingshot zipped securely in her pocket and a pack on her back, Callie ran. The port was clear, and she hurried past the ticket office, the souvenir shop, and a tiny cafe. Her liberated Range Rover sat with the keys in the glove box. It started right up, and Callie chose a CD from her growing collection of pilfered music. It felt like an Elvis Presley sort of day. She pushed in “Blue Suede Shoes” and drove fast down Temple Street.

#

Roman Duran jogged a step behind Jackson Schultz and saw the moment the other man faltered on his wounded leg, careening into a chain link fence. Without missing a step, Roman ducked under Jackson’s arm and forced him forward along the garbage-strewn sidewalk. The pack of infecteds was only two or, at the most, three blocks behind.

“Here,” Pollard Datsik, the third member of their trio, called. He slipped around a block wall and sprinted up a set of exterior stairs to an apartment above a liquor store. Roman dragged Jackson behind him.

While Roman helped Jackson to a sagging sofa, Pollard shut the door with a quiet click and peered through the window, his breath a puff in the silence.

“Are they following?” Roman whispered. “Are they swarming the stairs?”

Pollard stretched his neck to see further, and then soft-stepped to the next window and stared at the street below.

“I’m fine,” Jackson murmured unnecessarily. “I tripped. It won’t happen again.” He shoved Roman away. “I just need a couple minutes.”

Roman didn’t buy it. The injury in question was a jagged slash above Jackson’s knee he’d earned climbing a fence the night before. Though they’d stopped running long enough to wrap it, Jackson wasn’t as energetic as he’d been before the wound.

Separating from Jackson, Roman peered through a broken windowpane, blinking away the exhaustion that had dogged him for the past couple of days. Without enjoyment, he chewed one of their last handfuls of goldfish crackers, the food dry and pasty in his mouth. Water was about to become a serious issue.

“I’m so thirsty,” he complained in a whisper. “And dirty.” What he wouldn’t do for a clean, clear stream of fresh water.

Roman glanced at his companions, noting their equally stained and stinking uniforms. Maybe volunteering to leave Washington, DC had been a crappy decision all around. Maybe the veep should have sent older, more experienced survivors on her search and rescue mission. Maybe his eighteen years on the earth weren’t enough for this kind of assignment.

A pack of infecteds had caught their scent in Raleigh and hadn’t let go. Forty-eight hours without sleep or rest. Two days of running, of hiding, of trying to lose the predators. And now, they were out of food and water.

“What if we climb on the roof?” Roman whispered. “We could wait them out.”

Pollard seized the bag of crackers from him and crammed a handful into his mouth.

“We’re out of water,” Jackson reminded them. “What if they trap us for days? No.” He shook his head at the room’s closed door. “We could end up a lot worse than we are now. I say we keep running.”

“Forever?” Pollard scoffed. “There has to be a point where we say we can’t continue like this. A point where we circle around the pack and head home.”

Roman wouldn’t call Washington, DC home. But then he’d never called anywhere home. An orphan kicked into the system after his mother abandoned him, none of the dozen foster and group homes he’d lived in had ever been his home. And DC was no different. It was a way station to somewhere else, no matter whether he had an apartment or a job or a purpose. It still wasn’t home.

Roman had yet to find his real home.

Swallowing dry crackers, Roman double-checked the number of rounds for his M-16. When they’d left the safety of DC’s walls, they each carried forty rounds for their personal firearms. It had sounded like a lot at the time, but he was down to nineteen rounds. The other two men had less.

For an entire day, Jackson had fired warning shots at their pursuers—a mistake, Roman realized now—but the only result had been bringing even more infecteds into the pack, as nearby stragglers were attracted by the noise.

His ears perking up, Roman rushed to the far window and scanned for movement. Was he crazy, or did he hear a car engine?

Roman had left DC wanting to help people, both infecteds and survivors. After running into people, one worse than the last, his companions were nearly to the point of abandoning the mission. But Roman hadn’t given up. Even though they hadn’t helped a single person.

The sound of the Range Rover’s engine quieted as it drove out of sight.

“Let’s try the distraction method again,” Roman suggested. The last time they’d thrown empty cans near the zombies, they’d been curious enough for Roman and the other two men to escape. “It worked before.”

Their rescue mission to Myrtle Beach could still be salvaged once they shook this pack. Unhindered by the starving horde of infecteds, the three men could scavenge for food and water, sleep safely in shifts, and cover ground at an easy pace. This running for their lives, though, couldn’t go on forever. Without water and more substantial food than goldfish crackers, he wasn’t going to survive much longer.

“I’ll open fire,” Pollard said, as if Roman hadn’t spoken, “and you two run for the cell tower at the end of the street. I’ll meet you there.”

“Good plan,” Jackson said, “except you’re a horrible shot. I’ll do the shooting, thanks.” He stood, trying to hide a wince of pain but failing.

Pollard clenched his jaw at the insult. “Fine.” He grabbed Roman by the sleeve and dragged him toward the door.

“You sure about this?” Roman asked, still thinking his idea would work better than wasting more bullets and hoping to find each other under a tower.

“Just run fast,” Pollard said.

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Spell of Shattering (Dark Caster #4)

Written by Anna Abner

Copyright 2015 by Anna Abner

SoSh 600x900

Cover Blurb:

Dive into the heart-pounding final chapter of the Dark Caster series!

If the Chaos Gate opens…
Demons will infest the world.

When the charismatic mayor of Auburn hires junior agent Jessa McAvoy to acquire him a very specific property, she hopes this is her big break. She’ll do anything to make her first real estate client happy, but the one favor he asks of her is impossible—convince her former friend Derek Walker to come out of hiding. Doing so will not only bring her into the orbit of dangerous casters, but force her to confront long-buried feelings for her missing friend.

After failing his tasks for the Dark Caster, necromancer Derek Walker is hiding in Alaska from his humiliating defeats as a card-carrying member of an evil dark cabal. But when his old boss begins opening the Chaos Gate, there is nowhere on earth Derek can hide. With no other options, he must return to the last place he wants to go—home.

When Derek Walker joins forces with Jessa and the entire Raleigh coven, the dark cabal’s biggest disappointment may be the only thing standing between earth and total destruction.

Chapter One

With a little pressure, Derek Walker punched his boning knife through the throat of a dead Silver Salmon. Working the knife like a saw, he removed the head and tossed it into the trash, and then got to work gutting the unlucky creature. Bright fish blood swirled in the lake below, creating an abstract waterscape.

Bo’s voice carried over the sound of the lapping tide. “Ice is the strongest element there is,” he shouted at Stubby.

They were certainly surrounded by the stuff. Bits of frost clumped in Bo’s scraggly beard, heavy snow clung to drooping tree limbs, and gray clouds swept across the sky ready to shower ice upon their heads at any moment. Derek hoped the storm would hold off a little while longer, though, at least until the men finished fishing.

“Bullshit.” Bo’s friend Stubby dug through the nearby cooler but came up empty. The six-pack was long gone, and it wasn’t even ten a.m. Frustrated, Stubby spit brown tobacco juice into the mud. “Fire’s stronger than ice.”

Derek shifted weight from one foot to the other and skidded in the mud, catching himself on a rock. It may be August in Alaska, but the wet ground around Bear Lake at first light was cold and seeped through his sneakers.

“No it ain’t,” Bo argued. “Glaciers carved up the earth, you dummy. A few drops of frozen water will break boulders.” He waved Stubby off. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Stubby seemed to take the argument personally. “Fire melts ice. End of story.”

Derek prayed it was, but of course, it wasn’t. Bo and Stubby could argue for hours over the most accurate brand of deer rifle, the stoutest superhero, or the most potent tequila. This latest debate could rage on for days.

Derek sliced up two beautiful fish fillets and wrapped them in paper for his boss’s dinner. Most likely, Derek would sear them on the grill with some peppers and serve them up tonight to a small house party of world-class belchers and bearded survivalists on Bo’s deck.

It surprised Derek he could even wield a knife or a BBQ grill in his condition. The memory spell Holden Clark had hit him with four months ago had devastated his mind. Literally. He may as well have dropped him headfirst from a forty-story building onto broken glass and concrete. Holden had stolen every single memory, skill, and instinct Derek possessed, leaving him alive but hollow.

Waking in a hospital bed blank and vulnerable had been the most terrifying moment of his life. He picked up the second fish and attacked it with the knife.

Generally, the work he did as Bo’s assistant was exhausting, which suited Derek just fine. He didn’t need the money. He needed the distraction.

Actually, it wasn’t that much different from the work he’d done in Auburn as Rebecca Powell’s assistant. Then, he’d redecorated houses, delivered paperwork, sometimes picked up coffee and her dry cleaning, and most of the time surfed on his computer or chatted with Jessa McAvoy, the adorable junior agent working as Rebecca’s protégé. Here, he bought groceries, cooked rudimentary meals, lugged trash to the dump, and drove Bo home when he drank too much.

Whether it was good living or not didn’t enter his mind. It was just living.

“All done, boss,” Derek said with effort, throwing the last of the slimy scraps into the trash and tucking the fillets into the cooler. It was a constant struggle to form words and transfer them to his tongue. He was getting better, but he feared he would never be whole again.

“Anything else?” Derek asked, rinsing his bloody hands in the icy lake.

“Yeah, run into town and get another twelve pack, will ya’?” Bo asked.

“Sure.” He ambled for Bo’s pickup, jingling a ring of keys as he went.

“You’re putting too much weight on your bobber again,” Stubby accused. “You’ll never catch anything that way.”

“You don’t know what you’re yammering about,” Bo shot back. “I’ve caught twice as many fish as you have, and that’s just today!”

Derek climbed into the truck before he caught Stubby’s reply.

He didn’t care. He didn’t care about much anymore. Even after the memory-destroying spell had been reversed, he still wasn’t the same. Like tying shoelaces. He just couldn’t get it. No matter how many YouTube videos he watched, he couldn’t make the bunny go round the tree or the fox go in the hole or whatever nonsense he was supposed to do with ease. It worried him how much he didn’t remember. What else was gone, never to return?

Kissing, for one. Surely, he must have kissed a woman at some point—he was a grown man—but he couldn’t recall specifics. Or even gather the desire to try it again. It seemed silly to him. That and sex. Bizarre, pointless endeavors when he had other much more important stuff to worry about.

Like how he was…

“…A huge fucking disappointment,” the spirit spat at him. “A total waste of good space. You think you deserve a second chance? What have you ever done…”

A grizzly of a dead man with a full beard and hunters cap hovered beside Bo’s truck, a gleeful smile on his pudgy face. For the past four months, the ghost had been his unwanted but constant companion.

Derek tuned out the ranting. It was getting a little easier. Night was the hardest. Trying to sleep while a nasty ghost screamed obscenities and curse words at him from the ceiling was challenging. Ear plugs only muffled the noise. They didn’t erase it completely.

The irony was, Derek was especially good at shield spells. With a spirit’s assistance, he could produce an invisible barrier impenetrable to both magic and spirit chatter. With a spirit of his own, Derek could cast banishing spells on all the ghosts the Dark Caster sent to torment his every waking moment. But Derek didn’t have a spirit companion anymore. Robert had been destroyed back in Auburn, North Carolina in the magical fiasco that had stolen Derek’s memories. And a necromancer without a spirit was just a man.

Almost the way a stray, foul-mouthed ghost couldn’t do any real damage without a necromancer to channel his spirit power.

He and the taunting soul were in the same boat—stuck with each other and frustrated.

It didn’t make listening to his insults any easier.

“Go away,” Derek murmured.

“What’s that, you miserable piece of crap?”

Clenching his jaw, Derek glared through the mud-streaked windshield at his new boss reclining in his favorite camp chair.

“Lost your voice?” the spirit taunted. “Loser,” he chanted. “Imbecile. Idiot.”

Alaska seemed far enough away to be safe.

So far, the worst the Dark Caster had managed since Derek’s escape was the big-mouthed ghost clinging to the inside of the truck.

Derek cranked the engine and steered away from the lake at a leisurely five miles an hour. Driving was something he had only re-learned since he’d been in Alaska. With the way Bo drank, it was a necessity.

Derek drove slow. Probably too slow. He remembered, vaguely, driving his former sports car fast on long, lonely stretches of highway, taking turns at warp speed and weaving recklessly through freeway traffic. Not anymore. Now, he was worse than an old woman. He didn’t drive the speed limit. He drove under it. When Bo teased him about it, which Bo loved to do at all times about all things, Derek blamed it on the rain and snow, but it honestly had little to do with weather conditions.

Just one more thing Holden Clark had stolen from him.

He parked in front of the town’s shopping center, bypassing a hardware store, a smoke-filled tavern, and the post office to pull open the heavy glass doors of a grocery store. Derek selected a twelve-pack of cheap, cold beer from the refrigerator case in the rear of the shop, and when he spun around, he came face-to-face with the eighteen-year-old checkout girl.

“Hi, Derek,” she said, grinning brightly.

It was too cold, too quiet, and too depressing to be so happy.

“Hello,” he returned, veering around her.

“Going fishing again?” she asked, trailing him down the baked-goods aisle.

“Bo is.” Derek didn’t fish. He’d never learned and didn’t see the point.

“I love to fish,” she exclaimed, scampering behind the register as he set the beer on the counter. “I’ll teach you how. I mean, if you don’t know how. Do you know how?”

While he rearranged possible responses in his mind, he studied the girl. Lea, read her nametag. She was young and dewy, and he envied the ease with which she spit out words, but something was missing. There was no light in her. An overabundance of enthusiasm, but no inner glow.

The thought of touching her in any way, let alone kissing her, made him slightly queasy. Definitely uncomfortable. And not in a good way.

“No, thanks,” he said, the same as every other time Lea had invited him somewhere.

Her face fell. “Oh. Yeah. Some other time.”

He paid for the beer with Bo’s credit card and turned to leave.

“You’re gay, right?” Lea called after him. “That’s it. You only like boys?”

He lowered his eyes and exited fast, tossing the beer in the cab of the pick-up.

Derek had been called worse in his life. It hardly bothered him anymore. He knew what kind of person attracted him. At least, he used to know. Since Holden’s spell, it was hard to say what turned him on anymore because nothing did.

He just wasn’t interested in being tangled up in someone else’s life. Or worse, someone tangling up in his. Because his was a twisted disaster of epic proportions.

To prove it, as if Derek held any doubts, his least favorite ghost appeared in the seat beside him.

“Worthless,” he repeated, making his voice purposefully ominous. “Worthless…worthless…worthless…”

Arriving at the lake a bit distracted, Derek stomped around thick-trunked trees toward Bo and Stubby’s camp chairs and silently arranged the twelve-pack in their cooler.

“Thanks, my friend,” Bo exclaimed. “Come pick us up later.”

“I will.” Until then, Derek would be working on his cabin. Struggling, he finally spit out, “Text me if you need anything.”

Once Bo and Stubby started drinking, though, they’d be arguing good-naturedly and downing cold beers for hours. Derek would have the rest of the day to himself.

“…just kill yourself already…you spineless worm… The Dark Caster’s spirit trailed him toward the truck. “…cut your own throat, and I’ll laugh while you die…”

Or maybe not.

* * *

Jessa McAvoy glanced from the weather report on her computer monitor to the beautifully embossed, rose-colored invitation in her lap.

Mr. Holden Clark and Ms. Rebecca Powell request the pleasure of your company…

Rebecca was getting married—Jessa double-checked the date—in almost three weeks.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Conflicted, definitely. She was happy for Rebecca, but at the same time it made Jessa feel like she was stuck in neutral while everyone around her raced off to new and exciting destinations.

Though there was one bright spot on her horizon. Two days earlier Carly Pritcher had hired her, verbally, to be her real estate agent. So long as her boss allowed it, Jessa was on the verge of cutting the apron strings.

“Jessa?” Speak of the devil. Ryan Rohmer emerged from his office.

“Yes?” She crammed the invitation back into its drawer.

“Pull up the phase-two forms and personalize them. Here’s the info.” He slapped a pink post-it to the door beside his head. “And I smell coffee. Can you bring me an extra large? Two sugars. Thanks.”

The sticky note lost its purchase and fluttered to the carpet.

Jessa exhaled weakly as the note swooped through the air. This wasn’t her dream. Not by a long shot. As she crossed the room to collect the slip of paper, she knew she couldn’t stay with Ryan for much longer or risk being his junior agent forever.

Jessa hated her job. No, hate wasn’t a strong enough word. Loathed maybe. She’d spent a long time as Rebecca Powell’s junior agent. When Rebecca quit the real estate game, Jessa had taken a new job with Ryan Rohmer, assuming she’d be an agent of her own. But no. She was still a junior agent, just for a different person. She hated it. Loathed it.

Jessa was a good Realtor. She should have her own business, run her own shop, be master of her own destiny. Instead, she was fetching coffee, delivering paperwork to clients, and answering Ryan’s email as if she were his assistant, not his partner. Like she was Derek Walker, Rebecca’s former assistant.

There was someone Jessa worried about a lot. She hadn’t heard from in him months, not since he had up and disappeared. Hadn’t even said good-bye.

“I don’t know why you’re sighing all dramatically,” Karen snarked from her nearby cubicle. “I work my ass off day and night for leads and you and I make the same paycheck.” She curled her upper lip. “I’d count my blessings is all I’m saying.”

“It’s not about the money,” Jessa retorted.

But Karen ducked her head over her keyboard as if she hadn’t heard.

The money made no difference at all. Yes, Ryan paid Jessa a percentage of every commission he earned while she assisted him, but she didn’t want to be an agent for the money. The chase excited Jessa. Schmoozing clients. Running down leads. Closing deals. That’s what she craved. The thrill of the hunt.

Not filling out forms and pouring coffee.

She emptied two sugar packets into an oversized mug.

“Here you go, Ryan,” she said, handing him the steaming drink through his office door.

“Mmm.” He accepted it, smiling gratefully. “Just what I needed. Thank you.”

He sipped, nodded, and returned to his computer monitor, essentially dismissing her. But she had something to tell him, and if she didn’t spit it out soon she may never say it.

Having an actual client in her back pocket gave her courage. “I didn’t get my Realtor license,” she began, “to be a junior agent my whole life.”

Ryan’s fingers stilled on the keyboard. “Are you unhappy with your job here?”

Yes. “I want to close my own deals, and every lead I’ve had in the past few months you’ve taken out from under me.”

His eyebrows collided. “That’s the contract you signed. You assist me in finding clients, you help me keep those clients happy, and if I close a deal you earn twenty percent of my commission. There are lots of people who would love to do what you’re doing.”

“I guess I’m not lots of people,” she said. But when he gave her a wounded frown, she rushed to add, “I’m thankful for my job. All I’m asking for is a couple clients of my own.”

“Are you ready to be cut loose?” he returned. “Because I can’t use you if you’re distracted with your own clients. I need you available to me twenty-four seven. So, this is what we’ll do.” He steepled his arms on the desk and stared disdainfully at her. “You continue working as my junior agent, but if you actually find a serious client and close the deal, I’ll let you out of your current employment contract and then you can be a free agent in my office.”

Jessa exhaled. “Thank you. I’ll take it.”

“Okay.” He refocused on his monitor. “But until then, I need those phase-two forms and then track down someone—anyone—who’ll approve the Jones’ for a half a million dollar home loan. Thanks.”

She returned to her cubicle and scrolled through her business contacts list. In the past month, she’d either left voicemails or spoken personally to each and every person, hoping to sniff out leads. Sometimes finding a client was about being in front of them at the right time. Today, she was beginning callbacks. Just to check in and chat.

She dialed her former neighbor, Carly Pritcher, but the call went to voicemail. “Hi, Carly,” she greeted brightly. “I hope you’re doing well. Did those tomatoes ever come in the way you wanted? If so, let me know. I’d love to swing by the old neighborhood and buy a couple. And while I’m there, we can talk about properties.”

She said good-bye, and her hand hovered over her phone to dial a different number when it buzzed with an incoming call.

“Good morning. Jessa McAvoy with Ryan Rohmer Real Estate. How can I help you?”

“This is Anastasia,” greeted a brusque female. “Please hold for the mayor.”

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