Written by Anna Abner
Copyright 2016 by Anna Abner
Enjoy this free peek into the Red Plague series!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Cole Burkov is a necromancer, but waking from a devastating nightmare spell has left him confused about what’s real and what’s fantasy. Afraid of hurting more of his friends, he casts a vanishing spell on himself, except something goes wrong. He’s not invisible to spirits. He’s invisible to everyone.
Talia Jackson doesn’t want to help Cole cast his vanishing spell. She’s too busy trying to collect him for the Dark Caster. But when Cole uses her, against her will, to create the spell she becomes the only human being on earth that can see him.
Together, the unlikely allies will seek out one of the most diabolical casters in the dark cabal—the White Wraith. But when the witch fights back, Cole and Talia discover the only way to survive her furious assault is by working together.
Rough asphalt dug into Cole Burkov’s knees, but he couldn’t remember why he’d knelt in front of a burned down church in the first place. His memory was in tatters, made up of a pinch of nightmare, a dash of reality, and a whole lot of lost time.
Blood was what brought him back to himself. The old, itchy blood on his hands and the fresh, slimy blood smeared across his left forearm, obscuring the line of scars of varying ages running up his wrist like railroad tracks.
When he cast magic he was always careful to cut shallow slices, but maybe sometime during the night, lost in his muddled memories, he’d cut himself too deep.
He couldn’t remember.
Cole sucked in a deep breath, hoping the rush of humid, North Carolina air would stimulate his memory, but it only made him dizzy.
Something wasn’t right.
As he gazed up at the charred skeleton of a former religious building, he got the funny feeling he was supposed to be doing something. That he wasn’t there on his knees by chance.
But the only other living being in the vicinity was a large, ebony crow peering at him from a willow tree at the edge of the parking lot. Crows were bad luck. One in a churchyard was an omen of death. The bird flapped its wings once and took flight, soaring low over the parking lot before disappearing behind a brick wall.
“Cole!” A familiar ghost appeared in front of him, her face a mask of agony. He’d never seen his spirit companion Stephanie so distressed. “I found Dani. She’s coming. Can you hear me? She’s on her way. Just hang tight and everything will be okay.”
Daniela Ferraro. His friend. The witch.
Bits and pieces of the last few days resurfaced. He’d strangled Dani in a hospital room and then escaped, hiding out on the streets and in the woods ringing the town. The night before he’d slept sheltered among a copse of pine trees behind Auburn’s movie theater. The night before that? Hard to say. He thought the clothes he wore, black scrub bottoms and a yellow smiley face tee, were castoffs from the hospital. Or maybe that was part of the nightmare spell. Maybe he’d never been inside a hospital.
Either way, unable to suffer the guilt a moment longer, he’d come to the Dark Caster’s last known gathering place to face him. Or join him. That, too, was vague.
Of course the bastard wasn’t there.
But if Dani was on her way it meant one of two things. Either he was still in the nightmare spell and Cole would be forced to kill her again when the evil inside him rose up, or he hadn’t killed her and she’d try to stop him from going to war with the Dark Caster.
Neither of those things was going to happen.
“Tell her not to come,” he said. “Tell her not to come anywhere near me.”
* * *
Cole Burkov didn’t look like much of a threat. Talia Jackson had seen homeless people with better personal hygiene.
Black hair made even blacker with days of clinging dirt and grime. Chalky pale skin peeking out of secondhand clothes. Dirty, bare feet.
But she did what she was told, the way she always did, and got out of her car. She straightened a pair of barely-there shorts and a new gray tank top. Even after midnight, late April in North Carolina was muggy, and tendrils of cinnamon curls stuck to the nape of her neck.
She crossed the parking lot, her flip-flops kicking up ash and bits of charred wood from the meetinghouse’s remains. Creepy place. She’d been sent there by one of the Dark Caster’s messenger spirits, Johanna. Not on his orders, though. No, the White Wraith herself had organized this pick-up. And, to be honest, Talia was much more afraid of the wraith than she was of the DC, the Dark Caster himself. Witches freaked her out.
Of course, Talia had never actually seen or spoken to either the big boss or his right hand woman. It didn’t matter. Their reputations were enough to give her nightmares.
Fear of them both was the only reason she stood in the remains of their meetinghouse. To say she was there willingly would’ve been one heck of an exaggeration. She was there because her nephew was being held by the dark cabal—a sinister group of followers of the Dark Caster—as living, breathing collateral. And Talia was terrified of what would happen to him if she refused.
Burkov hadn’t noticed her yet. He had his back to her, studying something on the ground.
According to Johanna, he was a valuable asset. Or a target. It was difficult to guess the cabal’s true motives sometimes. All Talia knew was she was supposed to get over there, ASAP, never mind the time, and acquire the scraggly bum with the crazy eyes and bare feet. His spirit companion, an equally nonthreatening soccer mom type, blinked erratically around his periphery like she had a short in her wiring.
Talia really needed this assignment to go smoothly and for Burkov to get in her vehicle without a fight. Because this was one more notch on her Must Impress the DC belt, and one step closer to finding her nephew Sylvester.
“Miss, you must put him to sleep,” Hugh whispered at her. Her spirit companion did not trust strange men. Annoyingly old-fashioned, he still fussed when she went out in public unescorted. “Do not give him a chance to speak. He may hurt you before you can protect yourself.”
Talia had drawn an emergency spell circle on the roof of her Honda two-door for just such a contingency. She may need it tonight.
The simplest course of action was to put Burkov to sleep—against his will—drag him into the backseat of her car, and then dump him on the Carver’s front lawn.
But she didn’t do any of those things.
He faced her, and only then did she see the dried blood up both arms to the elbows. God, what kind of magic had he been casting? The sight of so much blood triggered a memory. The Carver had warned her Cole was seriously, ridiculously, take-no-chances dangerous.
She slid a step in reverse, her breath freezing in her throat.
“You’re not the Dark Caster.” He scratched at two days’ worth of whiskers. “Are you?” But he didn’t go for a weapon. He didn’t draw any glyphs.
So, she straightened her shoulders like she would with any big-mouthed freshman. Once a less than impressive fourteen-year-old had sneered at her, “I don’t have to listen to you. You’re just the school nurse.” He’d quickly learned disrespecting her was more trouble than it was worth.
“He sent me to collect you. My name’s Talia Jackson. My car’s in the lot.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” the spirit in workout clothes shouted at him. “She’s a liar. She’ll say anything.”
“I’m not a liar,” Talia grumbled, stung. She’d done terrible things, but she’d never lied.
“Shut your mouth,” the ghost snapped. “You don’t care about him the way I do. And he’s not going anywhere.” She turned on Cole. “Listen to me. Just hang on for a little while longer. Your friends are coming.”
The threat of his so-called friends made Talia nervous. She wasn’t strong enough of a caster to overpower him and his cohorts, too. And if she failed to deliver Cole to the Carver…
The repercussions were too awful to contemplate.
Cole waved the ghost away like swatting a buzzing insect. “Who are you?” he demanded of Talia.
“Talia Jackson,” she said again. Nervous, she blew sticky auburn curls from her brow, and then glanced over her shoulder toward her car and the spell circle on its roof. “I’m a member of the dark cabal. I was told you’d be here. And I’m kinda in a hurry.”
He stumbled nearer, blood dripping a trail from his fingertips. So near she could tell his eyes were an intense shade of green.
“That’s close enough,” she warned. Ill or not Talia didn’t trust him to play nice. All the other people the DC had introduced her to had been criminally insane. She had nothing to convince her Burkov was any different. “I will protect myself, if I have to.”
He produced a bloodstained pocketknife and cracked it open.
Screw it. She reverted to plan B.
Quick as a cat, she scrambled up the windshield of her car. Even though the roof creaked in complaint and dipped beneath her feet, it was worth it to stand surrounded by spell marks. Magical power tingled in her fingertips.
“Miss, I don’t like the look of this man,” Hugh said softly as he hovered at her side.
Neither did she. “Stop,” she shouted at Cole. “We’re only doing this my way.” But he didn’t stop. “Please don’t make me do this,” she muttered. She didn’t want to put him to sleep. She didn’t want to hurt people anymore. And without the Carver, his buddy Jeff, and their spirits standing over her goading her on, she faltered.
Cole squinted up at her as if he could read every thought, every criminal act, and every doubt in the contours of her face. “You don’t work for the Dark Caster.”
“I do.” Not by choice, but that was none of his business. “And he is anxious to meet you. If you will please get in the car, I’d really appreciate it.” At any moment reinforcements may roll up, incapacitate her, and run off with her target. Seconds ticked by, and she bounced a little in frustration.
“You don’t seem like you practice black magic,” Cole said, staring hard with those penetrating green eyes of his.
“I’m a casting all-star,” she bluffed.
He made a grunting noise. “If you say so.”
“Well, I do.” She only bent the truth a little. She may not be the best necromancer in the world, but she’d been born one and that made a huge difference.
He caught her eye, and she had the unsettling feeling he was leveling with her. Maybe even trusting her a tiny bit.
“I’m not going to hurt you, as long as you don’t cast on me,” he said. “Deal?”
She believed him, which was absurd. She didn’t even know him. And he had all kinds of reasons to want to hurt her.
When she started to get off the roof of her car, Cole held up a hand to stall her. “I need a favor first.”
She didn’t want to perform any favors, have any conversations, waste anymore time. But he’d piqued her interest. She couldn’t help herself.
“What kind of favor?”
“I need you to help me with a healing spell, and then I’ll go with you.”
Not a bad compromise. “Okay. Just do it quick. This place gives me the creeps.” She may as well have been trampling over fresh graves. Odds were no one had died on the property, but it felt like they had.
He pulled a black marker from his pocket and paired it with the knife.
“Cole Burkov, are you listening to me?” His spirit sounded a bit like an aggravated mother, which amused Talia.
Unperturbed, Cole drew a spell circle, but then he did something Talia had never seen any caster do. He used his very unsanitary looking knife to slice the tender skin of his left forearm, and fresh blood pooled.
“Why did you do that?” she exclaimed. The guy couldn’t afford to lose any more blood. In fact, he flattened one hand on the pavement to remain upright.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled, though that didn’t exactly answer her question.
“Please, Cole!” His spirit broke down and wept with undisguised anguish. The type of grieving wail Talia’s mother had made after her eleven-year-old grandson had been abducted.
Just to end the agony, Talia cast an amplification spell at Cole.
Different spells affected her in unique ways, but they all began as a tingle in her extremities, and this was no different. Then, as Hugh fed her more power, an electrical current flowed up from her fingers and toes.
Nothing strange there. Not until Cole channeled both his spirit and Talia’s. He soaked up her juju like it was an oil spill and he was made of paper towels. He dragged raw power out of her by the roots, and she winced. It felt like he was tearing the skin off her bones.
She should’ve known he wouldn’t be so greedy with her magic for a simple healing spell.
Rather than mend his cuts and bruises, he rounded on his spirit companion. “Sorry, Steph. I need some time. Vanesco,” he said.
Talia didn’t speak Latin, but no way had Cole cast anything helpful or soothing.
The vibrations of Hugh’s power died down. The pulling sensation ceased.
“Cole!” Steph sobbed, seeming to lose sight of him in the dark parking lot. “Goddamn you, Cole!” She sent Talia a final, scathing look, and then disappeared.
Talia, though, had no trouble whatsoever seeing Cole. “You used me,” she accused. “I don’t appreciate being tricked, Burkov. I should turn your eyes inside out for that. What spell did you use me to cast?”
“A vanishing spell,” he admitted.
Oh, that was new. She slipped her cell phone from her back pocket and opened a journaling and sketching app she really liked for studying spells. It gave her the freedom to draw glyphs with her fingers and add captions with the on-screen keyboard as well as attach photos.
“What was the Latin word you used?” She tapped a quick summary, and then snapped a pic of the glyph on the asphalt.
“I’ll tell you later.” He stood, weaved, and took a knee. “Sorry I couldn’t be upfront with you, but Steph wants to help me, which means stopping me.” He blew out a long breath. “I don’t want to be helped.”
He’d made himself invisible to all spirits, even his own. Tricky, tricky fiend.
On his second attempt, Cole climbed to his feet. “You said something about a car?”
Blood dribbled over his palm and rained upon the ground. But he did nothing to stop it. Like he didn’t care if he bled to death. Like it might be a relief.
“Cover that cut, would you?” Talia put away her phone and hopped off the roof. “Your blood pressure must be in the toilet.”
Without a word, he pulled his T-shirt over his head and wrapped it around his left arm. Talia froze, absorbing the sight of him unexpectedly bare-chested. He was on the thin side, but that only accented the ridges and plains of his torso. His wide chest had a fine covering of dark hair trailing down and disappearing beneath the waistband of his pants.
“This your car?”
“Yeah.” She forced herself to focus. “Get in.”
* * *
Rebecca Powell rolled to the left, expecting to find a warm body to curl into. But Holden’s side of the bed was empty. The sheets were still warm and smelled of his skin, though, and she burrowed deep under the comforter. Her nagging to-do list attempted to break through her consciousness. So much to finalize. Especially if she and Holden Clark were ever going to open a second Sparky’s diner on the far side of Auburn. But she mentally pushed those thoughts away.
“Becca, you have to get up.”
She mumbled something to convey that it was still dark out and she’d much rather sleep until at least dawn after the workout he’d given her the night before. Muscles she didn’t even know she possessed ached. But in the very best way.
The bed rocked under his weight, and a gentle hand pulled the silken sheets below her face. She scrunched her nose. No fair.
“Believe me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than in this bed with you, but Dani just called,” he said. “She’s freaking out. She and David got word Cole is at the cabal’s meetinghouse, which is closer to our end of town than hers. He needs help.”
Rebecca sat up, fully awake. “Is he okay?”
“She’s not sure, but she basically ordered me to get my ass over there and pick him up, whether he likes it or not.”
“Of course.” She scurried out of bed and dressed in the clothes she’d tossed onto Holden’s bedroom floor the night before. “Let’s go.”
When she’d been in desperate need of support Cole Burkov had been there for her. He’d woken Holden from a hellish nightmare spell while Becca had been helpless. She would do anything for him.
“Who’s Cole?” asked the snarky female spirit that had been haunting Becca for days. She lurked in the corner between the dresser and the master bath, her head cocked to one side.
Rebecca refused to answer. Her strategy so far had been to ignore the ghost and hope it simply faded away.
Holden, though, worked off of different instincts. “How long are you gonna ignore Jolie?” he asked gently. “She just wants to get to know you.”
She didn’t know how to explain to Holden the feelings churning inside her.
Becca remained silent as she followed him outside and climbed into the passenger seat of his stripped-down Jeep.
Ignoring people was becoming second nature. Luckily, he didn’t seem bothered by it.
“Last I heard Cole had woken from a nightmare spell like yours,” she said as he rolled the vehicle onto the street. “And disappeared. Anything I’m missing?”
“I don’t know.” His mouth compressed into a tight line. “I remember how disorienting it was coming out of that spell. I couldn’t tell what was real. And he was in it for a lot longer than I was.”
“I hope he’s okay,” she said, but Cole’s loitering around the Dark Caster’s meetinghouse said otherwise. What reason could he possibly have to go there?
Turning her palms up, she studied them. She’d accessed her new necromancy powers once. To save Holden from Derek Walker, a top member of the dark cabal. But she hadn’t tapped it since. Honestly, she never wanted to again. If there were a pill to take necromancy away, she would swallow it. But it wasn’t so easy. For the rest of her life she’d be able to cast magic and see spirits of the dead trapped on earth. Whether she liked it, or not.
“We’ll make sure he’s okay,” Holden promised. “I owe the guy.”
But when they drove into the parking lot of the burned out building, the whole place was deserted.
“Damn it,” Holden swore, hitting the steering wheel. “Dani’s gonna kick my butt.”
Becca snickered, couldn’t help it, imagining the tiny woman fighting a full grown man, but Daniela’s power didn’t lie in her physical form. She was a witch. And terrifying.
She stifled her laugh.
“Some chick came and picked him up.”
Becca jumped at the sound of the young man’s voice. She’d never get used to spirits popping up at random times.
Tony, David Wilkes’ teenaged spirit companion, appeared beside Holden. Dani and David were spending a lot of time together and sometimes sending a spirit messenger was faster than a phone call.
Tony added, “Dani told David to tell me to tell you—”
“We get it,” Holden snapped. “Where is Cole?”
“On the move. Dani’s meeting us. I’ll navigate.” As if he were corporeal and not a hazy image, Tony swung into the back seat and pointed north. “It’s up Western.”
“This lady,” Holden said, “who was she?”
With the wind whipping around the cab of the Jeep, Tony’s reply was no more than a whisper in Becca’s ear. “I don’t know her, but she drove off and no one’s seen Cole since.”
Daniela Ferraro can’t touch people without hurting them. So when she wakes up in the Dark Caster’s cell next to the one man guaranteed to mess with her heart, she will risk anything to escape.
David Wilkes has no idea why he’s been abducted and thrown in a locked room with Dani, the woman who jilted him two years ago. But when the Dark Caster threatens David’s four year old son, David will not stop until Ryan is safe and the evil necromancers tormenting him are destroyed.
When Dani’s powers are bound and her necromancer friends are out of commission, the only way to protect the people she cares about and keep the Chaos Gate firmly closed is to trust in David.
But the closer Dani gets to David the more lethal her touch becomes for the only man she’s ever loved.
David Wilkes’s bedroom smelled funny. He woke with a pulsing headache to mold, dust, and perfume scents—three odors he never encountered in his new condo. With great care not to jostle his skull, he peeled his cheek off a strange pillow and rolled onto his back in an unfamiliar bed. A white ceiling came into focus, so he hadn’t skydived with a faulty parachute. But something bad had happened. In a flash, it was four years ago, and he was driving his ‘63 Camaro home with his wife, Jordyn, and their son, Ryan, when a motorcycle veered into his path and the side of a Chinese restaurant rose up in front of his windshield.
He returned, gratefully, to the present and an uncertain female voice. But when he lifted his head to make eye contact, the resulting agony forced him to reconsider.
“Are you in pain?”
That was a nurse type of question. Maybe he’d had another accident and ended up in a hospital. Oh, no. Ryan. David didn’t care if he tore his own body to pieces in a high speed collision, but he couldn’t handle the thought of Ryan injured.
“Where’s my son?” he mumbled. Even speech hurt.
A small, cold hand palmed his forearm. “Heal,” she said. He extracted himself from her icy grasp, and the uncomfortable freezing sensation faded.
David took a deep breath, which helped. A few more and the pain receded into the background.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
He blinked and found himself staring into a pair of dark, nearly black, eyes. Familiar eyes.
“Daniela?” What was his son’s former preschool teacher doing here? And where was here?
This was no hospital room, but a basement, considering the dank odors. Two narrow mattresses lay on the floor, a beat-up recliner between them. A bare concrete floor. And a steel door. The kind of door used in horror movies and prison cells.
This was not a hospital. And there was no sign of his son.
“What happened?” he asked. Time felt wonky. Things blended together, some events hazing over. He must have been asleep a long time.
“Drink some water. You’ll feel better.” She slid a tall plastic bottle across the floor.
Yes, he was thirsty, like really thirsty. David drank, spilling water down the sides of his mouth, and then stood. But he moved too quickly, got light-headed, and reached for Dani to steady himself.
“Something’s wrong,” he said, and then groaned.
She shrank from his touch. “I’m not totally sure what’s going on. I woke up a few minutes ago.”
Her rejection cleared his head like nothing else could have. For a moment, he’d forgotten how cold she was. “You’re not totally sure.” He tried to shake off her obvious revulsion. As if she hadn’t already made it clear a year ago. “But you have an idea?”
David remembered leaving his office in city hall. Had he reached Ryan’s day care? Had he made it home? Someone had abducted him by force, obviously, and stuck him here with Dani Ferraro, of all people. But that didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t important enough to abduct. There must be another explanation. Or this was one big goof-up.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head, and waves of black hair rustled around her narrow shoulders. And just like in the old days, desire zinged through him. She was still graceful and petite and exactly his type. While she had her face turned away, he studied her from her neon pink sneakers to her wild mane of black curls. Yep, still gorgeous. “But it has to do with magic.”
He would have laughed if he hadn’t been so sick inside. “Right.” So, Dani was going the crazy route. Fine. But he couldn’t afford to sit around describing pink elephants and shouting about alien conspiracies. He had his son to worry about.
Turning in a slow circle, he stared at the door and then the high window. Where the hell was he, and where was Ryan? The last he remembered, his four-year-old was safe in Auburn in his new day care. But what if…? David’s insides twisted, and he rushed the door, jerking on the handle. It didn’t budge. Sealed tight. As in triple locked, maybe welded shut.
“Hey!” He pounded on the metal. “Open up!” No response. “You hear me? Open this door!”
His memories twisted and warped. Last night—was it only last night?—he’d been driving home from his office in Auburn’s city hall on his way to pick up Ryan at New Horizons Day Care, thinking about dinner and construction on the bridge and the new crime drama waiting for him on his TiVo. There was no reason he should be locked in this room except that someone with a strong incentive had put him here.
And he was trapped with the one woman he’d hoped to never see again. A year had passed, but he hadn’t forgotten when this sexy woman had flicked him away like lint on her sleeve.
He had to get out of here. Now.
If Ryan was in some room somewhere, alone and scared and hurt, the boy would be terrified. David hauled back and punched the door. Pain shrieked up his forearm, but there wasn’t so much as a scratch on the metal. He couldn’t deal with a fracture when he didn’t even know where he was or why. No more punching things.
Dani didn’t get anywhere near him. “Easy, big guy.”
Mentally, he shut her out. She was too distracting. There was nothing Dani could say right now he’d want to hear. Unless it was a realistic escape plan. Instead, he pulled himself up onto the high window like it was a chin-up bar and peered through glass streaked in dried mud and covered with a heavy-duty security mesh. Were they still in Auburn, let alone North Carolina? He recognized dirt and light and a part of a dandelion weed. They could have been anywhere in the world.
“Ryan!” David banged on the glass so hard it cracked along the left edge. He dropped to his feet. A cut could mean tetanus or a staph infection and eventually sepsis. He couldn’t afford any accidents until he figured all this out.
“There’s broken glass,” he warned Dani. He couldn’t help talking to her just like he couldn’t help still liking her even after she’d rejected him. He was such a sucker. “Stay back.”
“Did you cut yourself?” Her voice registered concern, but she didn’t get any closer in order to look for herself. Obviously, she still couldn’t stand him. Not used to feeling like a leper, he turned his back on her.
“No.” Abandoning the window, he inspected the surrounding wall for weaknesses. The bricks looked new, like maybe someone had remodeled the room recently. “We’re prisoners.” It wasn’t a question. They were.
“I haven’t heard anyone else,” Dani said. “My purse is here, but my cell phone is gone.”
He patted his pants pockets. Everything was in his wallet in its proper place, including eighty dollars in cash, but his phone and car keys were missing. “What do they want? Money?” He snorted.
He was the city manager of Auburn. He had a lot of responsibility to the community, and his job came with a fair amount of power, but he couldn’t single-handedly make things happen. He couldn’t clear arrest records. He couldn’t reduce tax fees. He couldn’t even fix tickets.
But if it was a ransom they wanted, no problem. David had savings. And his mother was stupidly wealthy. All they had to do was ask.
“Do they have demands?”
“I haven’t seen anyone besides the two of us,” Dani said.
No demands meant their jailers had no plans to release them. Ever. “Did you see Ryan?”
He glanced up from the junction of the bricks and the concrete floor to watch her reaction, but something hazy and out of place caught his eye. A figure hovered in the corner. David wouldn’t normally pay attention to aberrations in reality. They were lingering symptoms of a serious head injury four years ago. But he was being held hostage in a basement with a girl he’d once kissed, so he was paying attention to everything.
The longer David stared at the figure, the more details solidified. A teenage boy, tall and lanky, appeared. He had dark hair and wore long pants, a thin sweater, and a pair of skate shoes. A manifestation of David’s inner fears? A memory of someone he’d once known? An amalgam of himself, his son, and his late father?
“Did you?” Dani asked for maybe the second or third time.
David blinked, and the boy in the corner vanished. “What?”
“Did you see anyone else?”
“No.” He checked the dial on his watch. “It’s Friday.” His eyes widened. Not possible. He’d been driving home on Thursday. He ran his fingers through is hair, feeling for bumps or sore spots, but didn’t find any. How had he lost an entire twenty-four hours? “We’ve been here for a whole day? Are you kidding?” His mother must be freaking out. Not to mention Ryan. The boy wasn’t used to David spending nights away from home. He’d be a nervous wreck.
“Actually, it’s the nineteenth.” She waved her chunky digital watch at him. “We’ve been here eight days.”
“No.” The room tilted wildly before righting itself. Eight days. Not only was it physically impossible, but without any word from him, his family would begin to think he was dead. “A person can only live three days without water.”
“Unless we were under a sleep spell. Magic can keep a person alive indefinitely.”
Magic again. This was serious, damn it. He crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed Dani by the upper arms. His fingers dug into her biceps, and he caught a whiff of floral perfume. His nerve endings came to life as his breath shortened. Even after a year, she still affected him.
“Magic’s not real,” he said.
She jerked away, much stronger than she appeared, and stumbled into the wall at her back.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, gasping.
It had been a year since their ill-fated date at Papa Luigi’s when he’d leaned in for a good-night kiss and she’d turned to a block of ice. Apparently, her disgust for him hadn’t dwindled. Which hurt, even now.
He studied her, unabashed, memorizing every curve and square inch of her work scrubs, and he still couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the attraction he felt, even now. She’d always seemed so friendly. A little eccentric, but he liked that. It’s why he’d agreed to the setup a year ago. He hadn’t expected her to reject him so completely. Not after such an amazing first date, during which they’d clearly connected. Chemistry through the roof. He hadn’t imagined that. Her rejection still stung.
Of all the people in the world, what were the two of them doing there together?
“This can’t be a coincidence,” he said. Maybe Dani knew more than she was saying. Was she in on it? He narrowed his eyes. Was she the mastermind come to screw with him? “What aren’t you telling me?”
Dani acted like she hadn’t heard his question. “You must have some knowledge of magic, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Are you hearing me?”
“Do you hang out with a lot of casters?” she asked.
“Where is Ryan?”
She squinted at different points on his face as if she were solving an algebraic equation.
“Answer me!” God, this was not the time to get weird.
Dani visibly paled. “No way. You’re not a caster. You can’t be.”
* * *
So, so awkward. No, it was worse than that. Humiliating was a good word. So was demeaning. There was no reason for her to be in this room with him. She’d once taken a chance on David Wilkes, the first guy in ten years she’d liked enough to try for something more.
The date had been such a train wreck that he wouldn’t make eye contact the next time he came by to pick up his son from day care. About a month later, David pulled Ryan out of Dani’s preschool class, and Happy Trails completely, saying he had a new job in Auburn, a forty-five minute drive south. It had been humiliating then, too, to think their date had been so painful he couldn’t even stand to look at her afterwards.
Dani folded her arms around her middle, afraid she’d fall to pieces if she let go. Some witch or necromancer had grabbed her and David—what were the odds, really?—and forced them to sleep. Magic, not hers, soured her entire nervous system. Her stomach rioted.
A supernatural being was screwing with her and David, too. And she couldn’t even think about anyone hurting four-year-old Ryan because she’d start crying and never stop.
In the ten minutes or so while David had still slept, she’d examined the basement and everything in it. Whoever had put them here was smart. They’d swept the room of anything resembling a weapon. No tools or lumber or anything helpful remained but the narrow mattresses, the recliner, and a couple bottles of flat, room-temperature water. Anything else she needed was going to have to come through that door.
She just hadn’t figured out the why, yet.
Dani had been born a witch, but she hadn’t fully come into her power until the age of fourteen when she’d squeezed in a hall closet with an older boy. That encounter, too, had ended in pain and anguish. She’d spent the last decade trying to control the unrelenting tropical storm brewing inside her with varying levels of success.
The past few years had been fairly stable. She liked working at Happy Trails Day Care. She liked her new apartment. She had a friend. And purpose. Her power was easier to control when she was content.
So putting her in a cage with the one guy who messed with her head was a very bad idea.
What did David Wilkes have to do with anything anyway? Besides being so gorgeous and blond and tall that he made her nervous, if she got upset and touched his bare skin, she could cause permanent damage. She might even kill him.
Her power operated through touch. She couldn’t wiggle her nose like Samantha in that show. She couldn’t wave a wand like Hermione. Dani had to have actual physical contact with the object—or person—she wanted to effect.
Was that her captor’s endgame? Get her to kill an innocent person?
Or maybe David wasn’t completely innocent. Maybe he was a caster, too. She stared at him, trying to find signs. No paranormal jewelry. No magical tattoos. Just khaki pants, loafers, and a white button down shirt. Absolutely nothing otherworldly about him. Even his hair was neat and tidy.
“Don’t screw around with me,” he snapped. “I want to see Ryan. I want to know he’s safe.”
Someone with significant power had put her and David to sleep like unplugging a pair of blenders. What did David Wilkes have that they wanted? As far as Dani knew, he was a regular guy, a local politician with an adorable son, but nothing screamed supernatural. What was she missing?
“Are you a necromancer? A witch?” Not a single spell mark on him. “Something else?”
David zigzagged across the room from door to recliner to window to mattress like a rat in a maze. Even trapped and freaking out he looked good, which let her know she must be in shock. A normal person in the same situation would be pondering escape, not the power in David Wilkes’s long, long legs. Or the way his shoulders flexed and moved under his white shirt. Or how red highlights shone in his touchable blond hair every time he passed in front of the window. He was still hot, and he still revved her engine. Even after their disastrous date and the awkward encounters right afterwards and then the ensuing silence.
He returned to the door and rapped on the steel. “Excuse me! I want to talk to the person in charge.”
The idea that this local do-gooder was secretly a caster just didn’t click. But if there was a chance that he was a necromancer—even one very, very deep in the magical closet—she had to get him to power up. They needed every advantage they could muster.
And nothing put a caster at ease like seeing someone else use magic.
“I’ll do a locator spell, and then you’ll know where Ryan is,” she offered.
There was no reason to feel silly. Dani cast magic in front of people. Yesterday she’d cast a spell on Rebecca Powell in front of Holden Clark. No, not yesterday. Over a week ago.
But that was different. Holden was a caster, too. And Rebecca had been under a demonic-summoning spell. She’d had a quick and brutal introduction to the supernatural. But David claimed he didn’t believe in magic. It was possible he’d never seen a caster at work, let alone a witch.
He stared at her like she’d suggested they polka. “You’ll do a what?”
“I’m a witch.”
He snorted. “Right.”
“Whether you believe me or not doesn’t change anything.” Kneeling, Dani laid a palm on the cold concrete floor. Her power surged like a blizzard under her skin and connected her nerve endings in a net of magical energy.
The outline of all fifty states appeared in neon-blue lines on the concrete. “Show my location.”
A lavender dot burst into being within the borders of North Carolina, her home state. So, their abductor hadn’t carried them too far. Good.
“Show Ryan,” she said.
Another lavender dot joined the first in nearly the same spot.
“How the hell did you do that?” David asked.
Dani lifted her hand, breaking the spell, and when she next flattened her palm against the floor, a neon-blue map of North Carolina appeared. “Show me where we all are.” Three dots popped up in David and Ryan’s hometown of Auburn.
Scrutinizing the map, David eased nearer than she was comfortable with. On a normal day, she liked a three-foot bubble of empty space around her at all times. What she called her no-touch zone. David was about eighteen inches away, and this was far from a normal day.
“Is that real?” he asked.
“One hundred percent,” she said, trying not to notice little things like the silky caramel color of his trousers or the fine sprinkling of hair on his forearm. It really wasn’t fair that he was that good looking and still so out of bounds. “I, uh, I can be more specific.”
“What’s your new address?” She hadn’t been to his home since he’d moved away a year ago.
“It’s 232 Pear Street. Down at the end of Western.”
In increments, Dani drew new maps. Auburn, his neighborhood, and finally a sketch of their home on Pear. Ryan’s lavender dot lay in bed.
David leaned in, narrowing the gap to about twelve inches, tops. She stiffened, her breathing accelerating. “Can you see who’s with him?”
She magically redrew the blueprint of his condo. “Show me who is in the home with Ryan.” One other lavender dot appeared with a little glowing tag that read “Joan Wilkes.”
“My mother,” he said.
Thank God. The little boy was safe with his grandma. Whatever plot she and David were part of didn’t include Ryan, and that made everything more manageable, even David’s extreme proximity.
“Show me where I am.” The map’s lines adjusted themselves. Her dot paused north of Auburn off Highway 17 on the edge of the old Hofmann Forest.
“We’re so close to town,” David marveled, hopping over to the window and pulling himself up. “Hey!” His voice boomed in the quiet space. “Can anyone hear me?”
Dani sagged in relief, her no-touch zone blessedly reestablished, and then shook off a cold sensation like frost bite. A symptom of practicing magic. She laid her chilled palm flat against the brick wall beside her. “Show me the spells cast on this room.”
Spell marks burst into sight like fireworks around the door and window. Impenetrable, one-way barrier spells.
These were necromancy marks. She couldn’t break them. Only another necromancer could do that, and she was fresh out of those. She knew exactly two. Holden Clark was trying to keep a demon out of Rebecca Powell. Maybe he already had. Or maybe he’d failed while Dani slept helplessly in this basement cell.
The other was Cole Burkov, the biggest, baddest caster in town. He’d be a huge help right now. But she couldn’t get his attention. He wasn’t here, and neither of them was psychic.
“No one will be able to hear you,” she confirmed. “They’ve cast a couple of different spells. Nothing can escape, not even sound, from either the window or the door.”
“This is so absurd.” Massaging his temples, he frowned at the glowing orange spell marks around the window frame.
Dani plopped onto her bottom and hugged herself for warmth because her temperature had dropped a degree or two during the spell. That was the tricky thing about her magic. It was fueled by her body heat, and it eventually chilled her to the bone.
“Now you know.” Her teeth chattered, and she briefly clenched her jaw to stop. “Ryan is with his grandmother.”
“Yeah. What a relief.” David didn’t sound very relieved. “You don’t know why we’re here?”
“No. Are you ready to tell me why a necromancer put you in this room with a witch?”
“I only understood about half of that sentence, so I guess the answer’s no.”
“Then why are you here?” Dani asked. It couldn’t be to simply pretty up the place. Though he was doing a damn fine job at it.
Hands on hips, he faced the window. “Has it really been a whole week?”
The floor was too cold for her now, so she paced instead, rubbing her forearms to get the blood flowing again. And with that window broken, it would only get colder after nightfall. If they were still there after dark.
She was on her own. She’d have to escape without any help. Which meant she was going to have to lay her hands on whoever walked through that door.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” David grumbled. “I didn’t know…” He reached for the marks, but his fingers passed right through them.
“Y-y-yeah.” Damned chattering teeth. She sounded like a cartoon character.
His brow furrowed. “Are you okay, or aren’t you?”
“I’m fine.” And then to distract him from her slight case of hypothermia, Dani added, “What do you remember about the abduction?”
“I’d rather hear how you became a witch.”
“That’s easy.” She completed another circuit of the room. Five strides one way, four strides the other. “I was born this way.”
He returned to the door but didn’t knock. Instead, he eyeballed its framing and the narrow seam along the bottom edge.
“Can I try?” she asked.
David stepped out of her way.
Neon spell marks floated around the edges of the door, but maybe her witch magic could overpower the necromancer’s spell. After almost an hour in this place, she was desperate enough to try.
Over the past few years, magic had gotten easier to control. If she wanted to straighten her hair, it fell in black, glossy strands. If she wanted her work scrubs ironed, the wrinkles vanished. If she wanted her fingernails painted purple with white polka dots, presto change-o. She was further in sync with her power every day. It was possible she was more powerful now than she’d ever been. Wouldn’t that be convenient?
Dani pressed the palm of her hand against the cold metal door. “Open.”
An opposing force blasted her flat on her back. Stunned, she lay there for a moment, focusing on drawing breath as foreign power fizzed like soda bubbles under her skin.
So, lesson learned. Witches still couldn’t do jack shit against a necromancer’s spell.
“Jesus. You okay?” David dropped to his knees beside her, smack-dab in her no-touch zone.
No. All this power battling within her was messing with her equilibrium. “Don’t touch me.”
“Right.” His voice echoed in the quiet room. “Message received, Dani.” He gave her a hurt look and put a whole lot of empty space between them.
Dani bit back an explanation. What was the use? She should have a blinking caution light over her head because touching her was hazardous to a person’s health. It was easier if he thought she hated him. Better than her mutilating him with magic and being unable to stop.
Dani stood and drifted to the window to stare at dirt and light and a whole lot of nothing. “I finished my shift,” she said into the awkward silence. She’d replayed her final conscious hour in her mind a thousand times since waking up in a strange bed. “I walked out with Georgie. I got into my own car and drove away. But after that, nothing. Until now.”
“You didn’t see anything?” he asked.
“Same here. They must have drugged me. Or hit me. I don’t know.”
“Or spelled you.” That was more likely.
They both heard it at the same time.
He hopped away from the door. “Holy shit.”
“Sounds like car tires.” Two vehicle doors slammed shut. A couple of minutes later they heard footsteps on stairs.
“Get behind me,” David said, rising to his full height.
“No, darlin’.” Dani shook her hands to get the blood flowing and then cracked her knuckles as power tingled into her fingertips. “You get behind me.”
Written by Anna Abner
Copyright 2013 by Anna Abner
Holden Clark walks into Rebecca Powell’s life, a tall, blue-eyed stranger who stirs long forgotten desires. But nothing, including this man, is what it seems. A dark necromancer is targeting Becca for a full-blown demonic possession. She is thrust into a world she never knew existed—a world where dark casters create chaos and necromancers talk to the dead.
Holden has no faith in his power. A necromancer, he communicates with the dead, but he has never embraced his gifts. Now, he has no choice. He must stop the dark caster attacking Rebecca, but accepting this mission means he’ll be delving into dangerous magics he’s never used before.
Under the protection of the damaged and mysterious Holden, Rebecca will question everything …
April in North Carolina didn’t have the sticky heat that would settle over the state during the summer months, but it was warm. Sweat tickled at the back of Holden Clark’s neck. But not because of the weather. He’d lied to a woman to get her here.
Well, lie was a strong word. He’d rather say he’d persuaded a woman to join him for lunch under false pretenses. Because he wasn’t a liar. In fact, he prided himself on his honesty.
But he couldn’t think of any other way to get Rebecca Powell to meet him here. Telling her the truth over the phone was out of the question.
Buster, Holden’s yellow Labrador, sat up off the asphalt and whined at an approaching, slow-moving vehicle. This must be her.
A silver Lexus pulled over and parked two spots down in the half-empty lot, giving Holden plenty of room to watch Rebecca Powell through her car windows. Grams was right. No doubt about it, the woman was under a summoning spell, and the demon trying desperately to break into their world clung to Ms. Powell’s blonde hair and narrow shoulders like a filthy veil.
“Tell her whatever you have to,” Grams said, rounding the hood of his stripped-down 1979 Jeep. “She doesn’t have much time.”
He leaned against the passenger door, his fingers tightening to the point of pain around Buster’s long, braided leash. The air between him and Rebecca crackled with magical energy. The spell on her was no amateurish accident. It was stronger than anything he’d ever experienced. Fear coiled inside him. He couldn’t help her. No matter what his Grams said.
With a flip of her hair, Rebecca rose from her car and smiled that big Realtor smile. She looked just like her photo on her website. Pretty, brown-eyed, and about his age, twenty-eight or twenty-nine. She wore her business attire—curled hair, expensive jewelry, short skirt, and heels—like battle armor. It all pronounced her professional, but friendly. Smart, but feminine. A tough southern girl.
Buster’s ears perked up. Holden dug in his heels, but Buster was eighty-five pounds of overgrown puppy. He launched himself at Rebecca full force, as if he had springs for feet. The leash jerked out of Holden’s hand, and before he could stop him, his dog scratched both her knees, untucked her white blouse, and slammed her against her car. It was Buster’s version of a polite “How do you do? Is that a demon over your shoulder?”
“Good Lord,” she squealed.
“Buster, no!” Holden wrapped both arms around the dog and lifted him clear off the ground to stop the assault. “Not cool,” he grumbled, setting the dog in the Jeep. He secured his leash to the steering wheel, giving him only enough slack to lie down.
“I’m so sorry,” Holden said, turning to Miss Powell. “He wouldn’t hurt you. He wants to smell—” He almost said the demon. “—you.”
Rebecca straightened her light blue skirt, one hand on the car for balance, and smiled, the perfect agent even with dog slobber on her arms.
“He sure is friendly.”
She closed the distance between them and the air sizzled. She extended her hand for a shake, but her knees wobbled. The magic written all over her must be taking a toll. She listed to the side.
Holden leapt to catch her before she fell, accepting the brunt of her weight against his chest. She was small and light as a bird, and she smelled like fruit and flowers and something even more delicious underneath.
At her touch, a slice of him long frozen roared back to life. It had been so long since he’d felt anything near to desire that he didn’t immediately recognize the sensation.
“Excuse me,” she chirped, wrestling free. “I got light-headed for a sec. I’ve been having migraines.”
“No problem.” Holden brushed himself off, uncomfortable with so much physical contact. It had been months since he’d been this close to a woman. And he’d never been this close to a demon.
“I’m so embarrassed.” Rebecca wiped at the worst of the dirt streaks on her skirt.
Blood bubbled up from a scratch above her knee. Holden pulled a mechanic’s rag, the closest thing to a Band-Aid in the Jeep, from his glove box and offered it to her. If only he owned a first aid kit like a normal person.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“No, thanks.” She waved away his rag and handed him a fancy business card with her photo on it. The spell on her crackled, passing him a minor electrical shock. She must have felt it, too, because she snatched her hand back.
“Mr. Clark,” she said, “let’s get down to business. You said you wanted to sell your house, but you had some questions?”
Right. His cover story. He’d called and offered her a job, insisting on meeting her here at this strip mall for a lunch date at a little Mexican restaurant. But he had no intention of selling the farmhouse he’d inherited from his grandparents. The ruse was the simplest way to get her to The Repository, a store that shared the same shopping center.
She narrowed her eyes. “Did you change your mind? Because I’m not feeling very well all of a sudden. I could reschedule.” She produced a cell phone and tapped on it. “To be honest, I’m not taking any new clients right now. My associate, Jessa, though…”
Grams appeared at his elbow. “Don’t even think about it, bubba.”
How did she know he was half a second from accepting the out?
“I can’t,” he mouthed. “It’s worse than I thought.”
Rebecca glanced up. “Sorry?” Her smile faltered.
He’d promised Grams to help Rebecca. He’d actually said the words. But if Rebecca refused his help, it wasn’t his fault.
Might as well come clean. “The spell on you. It’s worse than I thought.”
She cocked her head, a strand of honey-blonde hair sliding along her collar. “What did you say?”
Buster whined and strained at his leash, rocking the Jeep.
“The possession spell,” Holden said. “The demon.”
For a moment she didn’t react. Then, very calmly, she put away her phone and said, “I understand.” She straightened her shoulders and seemed to grow another three inches, though even in her towering heels she remained half a foot shorter than him.
“Good to meet you,” she said in a steely tone. “Have a nice day.”
Her first instinct was to dismiss anything to do with the supernatural, but he didn’t have the luxury of denial. His whole life was one big supernatural tragedy.
Grams adamantly shook her head at him. She’d given him an ultimatum. Stop the demon from breaking through to their world, or she was leaving. For good.
Last try, and then Grams would have to accept he’d done all he could.
Holden grabbed Rebecca by the wrist, stalling her. “Don’t you know someone is trying to possess you with a demon?”
* * *
Fear flashed through Rebecca, momentarily obliterating the constant headache and the pain in her thighs from his devil dog. The man whose arms she’d nearly fainted into was another lunatic. The third psychic in the last month. That must be some kind of record.
But Holden didn’t look like a Ouija-loving madman. First off, he showed up to a business lunch in jeans and a T-shirt. He was tall. And young, about her age. And way too handsome.
The fear morphed into anger, granting her strength. She locked eyes with his very, very blue ones. Quite distracting eyes, actually.
“Let me go. Now.” She stared him down, willing him to release her without any further fuss.
“Hear me out.”
“I don’t think so.” Becca palmed her cell with her free hand, her thumb poised to hit send on a 911 call.
Holden stepped so close she caught his freshly laundered scent, but Rebecca held her ground.
“Have you been seeing things? Having headaches? Does it seem like a haunting, except it’s only around you?”
Did he read minds? Yes, yes, and double yes. She dropped her cell phone into her purse. “My father hired you.”
“Then how—?” Becca blinked and couldn’t stop.
She’d hoped today’s migraine was food poisoning from the Chinese take-out she’d shared with her staff at lunch, but she’d been suffering headaches for weeks. And the other unexplained phenomena surrounding her had nothing to do with MSG or bad bean sprouts.
The pain at the back of her skull receded, but for a minute there—the one during which she’d fallen into this guy’s arms—she’d feared she was having a stroke. Maybe she had.
Holden’s voice lowered. “I can see the summoning spell all over you.”
“You cannot be serious.” Nothing in Becca’s life, not her realty courses or the motivational seminars or the “Double Your Sales” DVDs she’d watched last week, had prepared her for this nonsense.
She forced a smile, wishing she had her sister beside her to roll her eyes for. They would jostle each other and giggle and reinforce the absurdity of all this. Because there were no such things as demons or spells or magic or any of it. That was summer movie, cable TV bullshit that didn’t translate to the real world.
Except she wasn’t so sure anymore. She’d seen so much.
Holden frowned, his gaze crisscrossing her face. “Am I wrong?”
“That’s private.” She pointed at her car. “I have a lot of work to do.” That wasn’t true. Not completely. She owned her own office. She made her own schedule.
He looked her right in the eye and leaned in even closer. Way too close. Kissing range close. “A necromancer is targeting you for a full-blown demonic possession. I can help you, if you let me.”
Becca swallowed, overwhelmed with the urge to retreat. His body heat rolled over her like a wave. “What do you—”
“I know what’s happening because I’m a necromancer, too.”
She froze, not sure whether to laugh or get her phone back out and press send on that call. “You’re joking.”
He freed her, leaving her reeling.
“I was trying to—” Holden shook his head. “Forget it. I’ll see what I can do.” He tilted his ear toward his vehicle as if he heard something.
Buster popped his scruffy blond head over the passenger door and rested his chin on the sill, but nothing else about the decades old Jeep drew her attention. And she didn’t hear a thing.
“What are you going to do?” Becca disliked the idea of Holden Clark investigating her personal life behind her back. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a guy in the store over there.”
She glanced at the row of shops. “What guy?”
Holden eased farther away. “I’ll let you know what I find.”
“Whoa,” she said, following him. “You’re not going over there to talk to some guy about my personal business.”
“Then come with me.”
Her logical mind urged her to get as far away from Holden Clark as possible. And fast. She’d taken a self-defense class. Distance and crowds were two important assets. Right now, she had neither.
But what if he wasn’t a lunatic? What if he was right?
She was already here, and she had nothing to do the rest of the day but sit in her mostly boxed-up office or go home to her too-small apartment, the second one she’d moved into in the last three months, and eat alone.
Then he went in for the kill, aiming the full strength of those blue eyes on her. “There’s a summoning spell on you. I want to get rid of it.”
But Becca couldn’t lie to herself. Some too-weird-to-be-believed shit had been going on for a while. It was the reason she lived in a tiny, slightly toxic-smelling one-bedroom apartment instead of her real house on River Road. This wasn’t all make-believe. Those chairs hadn’t moved themselves.
“Without help it’s only going to get worse.”
Worse wasn’t an option. Worse was stroking out during her morning commute. She couldn’t do worse.
“Does this guy have a name?” she asked.
Holden cracked a small, approving smile, and his features softened. She was struck, again, by how handsome he was.
“Cole Burkov. He has experience with dark magic.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” she asked.
“Sort of. But the point is he knows a lot about spells.”
Becca bit her lip and then went with it because not only was her schedule flexible for the first time in ten years, but if her issues weren’t supernatural, then it was CAT scan and blood work time. The very real possibility that she was suffering from a brain tumor was always sitting there in the back of her mind, terrifying the living daylights out of her. And she’d much rather deal with a pesky spirit than chemotherapy.
“Fine. You got me here. Let’s see what he has to say.”
Because, yeah, Mr. Clark was probably a head case, but how else to explain the headaches, the nightmares, and the electricity glitches?
She glanced at the fluorescent lamp pole arcing above their heads, but it held steady. No light shows today, then.
Holden secured his dog, and Rebecca pulled an off-white cardigan from her trunk. It would cover the gritty paw marks on her clothes. As she pushed her arms through the long sleeves, she made a promise. Five minutes with Cole Burkov, and then she’d return to her office. That was long enough to decide whether Holden was on to something or a frustrating waste of time.
Of the two other psychics that had tracked Becca down at work, neither had mentioned a necro-whatever or a demonic possession. Their conversations had run more toward blocked chakras, sage smudging, and EMFs. They’d been equally earnest in their conversations and only slightly more ridiculous. And each had brought up forms of payment in nearly the same breath as “Hello, nice to meet you.” At least Mr. Clark wasn’t asking for money. Yet.
Holden got his dog out of the Jeep, a stronger grip on the leash this time, she hoped, and gestured for her to proceed.
She faced the storefronts. Not exactly voodoo country. Where were the Spanish moss and rolling fog?
“So,” she said, “which is the collection of dark and unknowable magics—the fast food Mexican place or the ice cream parlor/arcade?”
He eyed the row of family-friendly establishments. “It’s the comic book shop.”
The dog surged toward Rebecca, straining at his leash and dancing up on his hind legs. He was obviously biding his time until he could jump all over her. She gave him a look that said, “Try it, and I’ll hobble you.”
“Who’s your fine young gentleman?” Rebecca asked.
“Buster. I hope you don’t mind, but he doesn’t like being alone.”
Mind? “Of course not.” She grabbed her bag, locked the car, and marched ahead in her heels and turquoise pencil skirt, her cardigan hiding most of Buster’s little gifts.
Holden led the unrepentant Lab across the parking lot, keeping barely enough space between them to prevent further assault. The dog couldn’t belong to anyone but Holden. Neither one had a clue about personal space.
“What is a necromancer?” Becca asked, quickly outpaced by Holden’s long strides.
He paused on the sidewalk for her to catch up. “I see spirits. Deceased persons.”
“You see dead people.” She fought a smile. “You’re obviously a movie fan. So, is that like a magician?”
“I’m not sure magician is the right word.”
He settled Buster in a shady spot under the store’s front windows and poured water from a bottle into a stainless steel bowl. The little devil tilted its head up and stared at Holden with an expression of pure adoration before belly flopping on the warm concrete. His tail thumped twice, and then he fell asleep.
“You’re good with him.” It wasn’t right to be jealous of a well-cared-for animal. Becca looked after others, but there wasn’t a single person who took care of her. Not her sister, not her dad, and her mother didn’t count. If she had time for a boyfriend, maybe he would, but she didn’t, and there was no point in dwelling on all the reasons why she didn’t.
Holden pulled open the shop’s glass door and held it for her.
Tall wall-to-wall shelves ringed the interior of the store, which smelled like books and Mexican food. Three men played a dice and card game at a table in the corner, a teenage girl flipped through back issues, and a twenty-something guy stood at the cash register, his nametag pinned to his dark blue polo.
“We have to go,” Becca whispered. “They don’t have magic. They’re role playing.”
A dark-haired young man wearing a company shirt stared hard at her and then headed right for them. “Freaky. It’s like you have your own personal storm cloud. Demonic possession?”
Holden had probably called this guy on the drive over and prepped him for their little con game if that’s what this was. And there was a good chance that’s what it was.
“Rebecca Powell.” She extended her hand for a quick shake, reflexively passing him her card.
“Sure.” He frowned at Holden. “Let’s talk in the back room.”
“And your name is?” she called after them. No answer.
Damn them. She knocked her knuckles on a glass case dedicated to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. The stake-wielding blonde glared up at her from the cover of a glossy graphic novel.
This was a mistake.
Becca checked her watch. Three minutes down. Two to go.
Quiet conversation in the store picked up again. She didn’t mind being the center of attention—her job encouraged it—but this didn’t feel right.
“Hi.” The cashier stepped into her periphery. His nametag read Justin.
“Hello.” Smiling sweetly, she handed him her card. “Rebecca Powell. Nice to meet you.”
He traded her a plastic-encased comic book. Leaning in, he whispered, “You’re welcome.” He stared meaningfully at the book and then wandered to the checkout area.
She glanced at the comic in her hands. A group of teenagers under the Statue of Liberty raced across the front cover of Runaways.
She set the book on a shelf and marched for the closed door marked Private—No Exit. Nobody tried to stop her, and she let herself in. Groups of used candles, posters of big-breasted superheroines, and crates of comic books surrounded Cole and Holden. No ancient tomes or long wands in sight.
Becca crossed the threshold, and her ears buzzed. The air hummed as if she were standing beside an electrified fence.
Cole stopped talking midsentence, and both men stared at her.
The lightning storm in her brain intensified, worse than ever before, and her instincts screamed at her to escape.
The shelf beside her rattled.
Rebecca pasted on a smile, cloaking herself in professionalism. “What have you come up with?”
“Go back into the store,” Holden snapped, a twinge of panic in his voice.
Just what were they doing in here?
She stepped into the room. And the whole building shook.
Written by Anna Abner
Copyright 2018 by Anna Abner
Maksim Volk struggled to his knees despite the pain in his muscles and joints, despite the hunger gnawing at him from the inside out. The garage tilted, fluctuating the shadows of the wooden joists supporting the roof. His chains rattled, clanking among his wrists, ankles, and the bolt in the concrete foundation.
There was nothing for him to do but wait while his body wasted away. The infection swimming in his veins would keep him alive indefinitely, healing injuries and enhancing his senses, making him stronger than human men, granting him strength. Not enough to escape, though, not after starving for days.
But Maks hadn’t survived decades of torture to surrender to a few links of chain and a dry spell. During the twenty years he’d been a prisoner and guinea pig of the US Army, his captors had tried everything to test the limits of his fortitude, including starving him. He knew exactly how badly things could get before he desiccated.
Connor had done this to him. He and Anya.
No, she preferred Ali now, the name her biological father Uri Rusenko had given her. It was a pretty name, but it was difficult to gaze into her big blue eyes—eyes so like her mother Katya’s—and not remember the little girl named Anya.
Maks had never considered loving a child. Turned into a vampire at seventeen, he was barely more than a child himself when he first laid eyes on Katya. But when he infected her rather than lose her and she birthed a beautiful, blue-eyed baby girl into his hands, Maks had been completely and utterly smitten. For the first time in his life, someone had not only depended on him, but trusted him too. As Anya had grown, she’d gazed up at him and it had felt like someone in the world believed in him. He was a father, no matter how unconventional, and Maks loved every minute of it. Loved Ali. Loved Katya. Loved being part of a family.
But his daughter had stood by and watched Connor Beckett lock him in chains.
Maks gripped the links near the bolt and heaved upward. One of his finger joints dislocated, and still he pulled.
It wasn’t enough. The bolt remained secure, and he drooped, exhausted.
It wasn’t Ali’s fault, though, that she’d lost faith in Maks. She’d been in Britain under Uri’s brutal care for almost her entire twenty-two years of life, far from vampires and the supernatural. Far from him. It wasn’t her fault she thought he was a monster.
If he escaped the chains, he’d do anything to make it up to her.
He kicked the only object in range—a section of half-finished wall. Little remained of its original shape, and Maks further added to its deterioration with three or four savage blows with his bare foot. Wood splintered, drywall crumbled, and nails squealed in protest.
Unable to remain on his knees any longer, Maks slumped onto his side and closed his burning eyes.
Dozing in a blood-starved haze, he thought of his amber-eyed captive, Violet. It was like he could smell her sweet breath. Like he could feel her creamy, soft skin.
Maks had kept a lot of blood donors over the years, but Violet had impressed him from the start. She wasn’t cowed, despite having suffered under Oleksander the Destroyer, sadistic former warlord of the horde. She was brave, smart-mouthed, and her blood was fine liquor after a hard day. But keeping Violet a prisoner was like trapping a wild bird in a wire cage. It wasn’t right.
He must find her before Olek’s little brother Sergei hurt her. Anya would help him. No, she went by Ali now. Still, his little girl would help him save Violet. She had to.
Someone approached the garage. Footsteps crept nearer, and the side door swung open on silent hinges.
Ali Rusenko wasn’t super excited to do the Oracle’s bidding today. Ilvane the Oracle, also known as fourteen-year-old Caitlyn from suburbia, wasn’t exactly a friend. So far, Ali’s experiences with her prophecies were less than positive. If it hadn’t been for the Anya from Nadvirna prophecy, Ali wouldn’t have become the obsession of Oleksander and nearly died.
But the Oracle had recently visited Connor and asked him to be at a street corner in Vegas today a little after two. Oh, and by the way, bring Maksim Volk. The only hitch was, Maks was currently chained up, feral and half-mad himself, in their cabin in the Nevada desert.
“Prophecy time,” Connor Beckett announced, whipping open his hotel suite’s front door. “When the greatest seer in the world tells me to be somewhere at a certain time—I’ll be in that spot at that time.”
Ali strolled into the hallway and pressed for an elevator. “Any chance the Oracle’s ramblings were just that?”
“Caitlyn may be batshit,” Connor said, gracing her with a slow smile, “but everything she says happens.” The smile, at odds with his words, widened suggestively.
Her boyfriend was damned sexy, even more so since he’d been infected. A card-carrying member of the supernatural world—he was without equal in strength, speed, and healing ability. In her humble opinion, he was the hottest vampire walking.
Still amazed at how lucky she’d been on her first trip to the US, Ali rose on tiptoe and pressed a sweet kiss to his mouth. Growing up sheltered and different in the UK, she’d never believed she’d fall in love with such a beautiful, warm-hearted man, let alone that he would love her in return.
Still in his arms, Ali asked, “Didn’t she say taking Maks with us was optional?”
The elevator doors opened inside the underground parking structure and they beelined it for Connor’s souped-up 1973 Ford F-350.
“She said it’d be fun. Besides, I’m not taking any chances with fate.” Connor held the passenger door open for Ali, and she climbed in, bouncing on the wide bench seat. “Especially when it comes to helping people.”
“Speaking of helping people,” Ali said, “can we agree to release Volk after we do this errand for the Oracle? It’s not right keeping him like a captured animal.”
Ali didn’t enjoy the thought of Maksim Volk, or anyone, chained up in a cabin—alone, restrained, starving. No one deserved such treatment, not even Olek’s right hand man. But the last time they’d interacted with him, he’d been raving mad. Not long ago, Volk had murdered her cousin Stefan right in front of her. She didn’t exactly trust him. Connor had never trusted him.
“I don’t feel right keeping him prisoner,” Ali told Connor as they raced across deserted highways south of Las Vegas. “Either we hand him over to the government, or we let him go. We can’t keep him caged indefinitely.”
Connor glanced at her before returning his attention to the gray road unspooling under the hood of his pickup. “You know what the government would do to him.”
“Torture him,” she agreed. The US Army had already held him prisoner for the past twenty years, testing God-knows-what on his body, his blood, and his spirit. “Or just kill him.”
“Is that what you want?”
Ali sighed. “Of course not. I’m simply making the point that we don’t have a lot of options.” Maksim Volk was the closest thing to a father she had left, which depressed the hell out of her.
She possessed no memory of it, but according to Maks, she’d lived with him and her mother in some twisted vampire family for the first two years of her life. Volk had infected Ali’s mother Katya when she was nine months pregnant with Ali. The infection had forced Ali into the world and into Maksim Volk’s arms. Which made her feelings about the vampire complicated. To say the least.
Connor pulled the truck onto a long, sandy driveway and, after coding a number into the security gate, parked in front of a one-bedroom hunting cabin once owned by Connor and Roz’s friends, Anton and Natasha. But after the unlucky siblings had been murdered and eaten by the Four Sons, Roz had inherited the property as well as a great deal of money to use in researching the paranormal.
Connor caught up to her at the garage door. “I don’t hear anything.”
Ali tried peering through the side window, but the glass was too dirty. “Is he okay?” Oh, God. Had they killed Maksim Volk?
“I expected to hear chains rattling,” Connor said, “or swearing, or something. The last time we saw him he was screaming bloody murder.” Stepping around her, Connor unlocked the door and opened it extra slowly, examining the large space an inch at a time.
“For God’s sake,” Ali exclaimed, wiggling under his arm and shoving wide the door.
Volk hadn’t escaped. He was exactly where they’d left him. Though his gunshot wounds had healed, it was obvious from the various dark red streaks that he’d tried to squeeze out of the shackles around his wrists and ankles. He may have even tried to chew himself out.
“Maks?” she called softly.
“His heart’s beating,” Connor said, remaining by the door. Apparently satisfied the vampire curled on the floor, pale and covered in his own blood, posed no threat, he said, “He’s alive, but he needs to drink if you want him to stay that way.”
Ali threw Connor an annoyed look over her shoulder before kneeling beside Volk. Of course, she wanted him alive. If everything he said was true, and who knew with his reputation as a liar and a traitor, then her mother had loved him enough to leave her human life and join him in some vampire commune in the Ukraine with her newborn daughter. If Katya had trusted him, Ali could give him another chance.
“Maks?” Ali repeated, reaching out a hand to touch his blood-crusted hair. Her fingers brushed at the dark lock covering his face. “Can you hear me? We brought blood.”
At the B word, his sunken brown eyes opened, but he remained eerily quiet.
“Here.” She gestured for Connor to hand her a blood bag, which he did. She tore open the tubing and pressed the dribbling end to his lips, then, shifting into a sitting position, she pulled Maks’ heavy head into her lap. He swallowed as if it hurt.
She found the vampire’s musky scent faintly familiar. Was it a distant memory emerging from the shadows of her past? Maybe, but when she focused on it, the recollection disappeared.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, cupping the side of his face. “We thought we left you enough blood to last two weeks.”
“Looks like,” Connor said, kicking at empty, discarded packets, “he drank everything the first day to boost his strength to escape.”
“We should have come back sooner.” Ali didn’t enjoy thinking of him in such a desperate situation, especially one she’d put him in.
“She’s helpless,” Maks hissed between swallows, finally breaking his silence. “…my fault.”
“Who is ‘she’?” Ali asked as he finished the first bag. He’d been ranting about saving someone since they’d captured him, but he hadn’t yet been lucid enough to explain.
She’d never heard of her.
Connor handed Ali a second blood bag.
“Unchain him,” she said firmly. “Enough’s enough. He can’t even feed himself.”
After a pause, Connor said, “Fine,” and knelt to unshackle Maks’ wrists and ankles.
Ali offered Maks the next bag, but he didn’t immediately take it. When he attempted to lift his right arm, it became obvious it was dislocated.
“I can help with that shoulder,” Connor said.
After Maks inclined his head, Connor grabbed his right wrist, pushed back with his boot, and slid the arm into its socket with a wet pop.
Ali cringed, but Maks didn’t react to the pain.
“So,” Connor said, leaning against the wall. “The Oracle asked me to take you with me to the corner of Thompson and Faraday at two oh six this afternoon. Wanna come?”
“Why?” Maks asked.
Ali gazed down into the vampire’s pale, boyish face. Holding him was like carrying a sleepy lion in her lap. He was dangerous, and yet his weight was comfortable and familiar, as if they were friends. Or even family.
No. Not even close.
Ali wiggled out from under the suddenly stifling burden of Maks’ upper body.
“You think the Oracle makes sense?” Connor chuckled. “She told me to be at a certain place at a certain time, and then tacked on that I should bring you. ‘Fun’ is what she called it. Now, drink your fill, clean yourself up, and let’s hit the road.”
“So you can lock me up again?” Maks questioned angrily. Grabbing a third blood bag, he sat up and sank his fangs into the plastic pouch.
“I’d rather trust you,” Connor said. “But it’s not easy. Are you a bloodthirsty psychopath, or are you a misunderstood victim? Or something else altogether? I don’t know. No one knows.”
“I have to get out of here,” Maks said, struggling to stand.
He swayed, reaching for the wall that was too far away to help. Ali imagined him tumbling onto his face, and her stupid sympathetic heart won over common sense. With a muttered curse, she swept under his arm and supported some of his weight.
“I don’t know if he’s strong enough to come with us,” Ali told Connor, frowning at Maks’ so-white-it-was-nearly-translucent skin. “I’d rather drop him off at the suite and put him to bed for a couple days.”
They rented the fifty-first floor of the Le Sort Hotel on the Vegas Strip, another gift from the recently deceased Anton and Natasha. So long as Roz and Connor wanted it, the siblings’ sizeable estate would foot the bill. Right now, Ali felt it was the safest place for Maks to recuperate.
Connor shrugged. “Caitlyn said I should take him.”
The Oracle was never wrong. She’d foretold Connor’s releasing of Oleksander the Destroyer and Ali’s role in the same warlord’s final battle. Ali didn’t mess with the Oracle. Caitlyn simply knew too much.
“If you swear to me,” Maks looked directly into Ali’s eyes, “that you’ll let me go, then I’ll do the Oracle’s bidding. But you have to swear.”
Before she could second-guess herself, Ali said, “I swear it.”
Connor grumbled something unintelligible and handed Maks the fifth and final bag of blood before leading them outside.
Maksim Volk stared at the side of Connor Beckett’s head and snarled around his fifth blood bag. He was feeling a little more like himself—arm healing, joints mending, any and all torn flesh regenerating—which meant his annoyance with the uppity twat had returned in full force.
Who did Connor think he was? What made him believe he could romance Maks’ little girl and act like lord of all vampires? He was such a holier-than-thou asshat, Maks could hardly stand him. Maks was a prince, a lieutenant, a goddamned warrior. He should terrorize anyone idiotic enough to make eye contact, but Connor Beckett jerked him around like the dumb kid Maks certainly was not.
Maks glanced to the right at Ali. Her love for Connor was the only reason Maks hadn’t eviscerated him already.
By the time Connor’s truck passed through the outskirts of Vegas, Maks had finished devouring the bagged blood.
“Explain to me again the Oracle’s instructions,” Maks said, dropping the empty blood bag on the floorboards near his feet.
He needed to get this prophecy shit over with so he could track Sergei’s group. They’d probably fled their last hiding place on Red Rock Road in suburban Las Vegas. If they’d taken Violet with them rather than slaughter her and leave her for Maks as a warning, he would find her.
Guilt niggled him. If he’d let her go when he could have, she’d be safe in her home now, not an abused blood slave at the mercy of a pack of psychopaths and sadists.
He was a piece of shit. A no-good, selfish, cowardly pile of garbage.
He could do one decent thing, though. He could get Violet away from the horde.
That firecracker must still be alive. She was stronger than anyone gave her credit for. No one had been able to bully her—not Olek, not him, not even Sergei.
“I will find Violet,” he vowed, and his chest swelled slightly with the first stirrings of hope. He could do this. For her. For himself. He could do something noble and selfless. He would.
Connor speared him with a look. “I don’t know who that is, but you’ll have to get your strength back to find anyone. In the condition you’re in right now, you’d fall over at the first stiff wind. You’re useless.”
“Your flattery is embarrassing me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Just telling the truth, brother.”
“I’ll help you,” Ali chimed in, and then ducked her head, shielding her face with her long blonde hair.
“Anyway,” Connor cut in. “The Oracle didn’t make a lot of sense.” The man’s hands tightened on the steering wheel of his obnoxiously loud F-350 pickup. “But the gist is to be at a specific corner at a specific time. Oh, and by the way,” he said sarcastically, “bring Maks with you. It’ll be fun.”
“Hmm.” Maks couldn’t care less about the ramblings of an unstable young woman. Olek, though, had been obsessed with the Oracle Ilvane’s prophecies, especially the ones about him. The Anya from Nadvirna prophecy had pestered him more than the rest, but that had been proven true. Anya, now Ali, had destroyed him and fulfilled her prophecy.
“Whatever happens, I trust her,” Connor said. “If she says you should be there, you should be there.”
“Anya, do you believe in this prophet?” he asked, edging around to see her more fully. She looked so much like her mother. The only thing she’d gotten from her father was his yellow hair. Everything else came from Katya, his little bird. She would be so proud to see her daughter grown and doing well. The thought of Katya’s dismembered skeleton buried in the Nevada sand made his stomach clench. The damned US Army had tortured and killed her, then buried her in a mass grave. As if she was nothing, as if they possessed the right.
“It’s Ali,” she corrected him, “and yes. I trust her.”
Guilt again. Sour, acidic regret.
Perhaps the way to Ali’s good side was through Katya. “Do you want to know anything about your mother?” Maks blurted out.
“What?” She looked startled and maybe a little hurt.
Where had his legendary charm gone? Had it finally been beaten and humiliated out of him? Had Sergei done what neither Olek nor the US Army could? Break him?
“Your mother,” he tried again, more slowly. “I can tell you stories about Katya. If you’d like to hear them.”
Connor broke into their conversation before Ali had a chance to answer. “Sorry guys, but we’re here, and we’re cutting it close on time. Rain check on the family reunion?”
Violet Russell blinked into the gauzy light, unable to make out more than varying shadows within a poorly maintained bathroom in a tiny hotel room stinking of mold and cigarette smoke.
She’d once naively believed being the blood slave of Oleksander the Destroyer had been the worst experience of her life. When he’d given her to his second-in-command, Maksim Volk, it had been a relief. Maks didn’t beat or abuse her and only drank from her when necessary. He didn’t release her, either, but he didn’t harm her.
What a fool she’d been to think things couldn’t get worse than slavery to Olek. Being a captive of Sergei and the Four Sons’ horde was worse.
If Maks hadn’t split, they might have figured out a plan together. But the beautiful dummy had abandoned her. After all the blood she’d sacrificed for him, he’d just left.
Life wasn’t working out as she’d planned. Things had started out okay. Two parents, a decent home, twin little brothers, a mediocre elementary school, and church on Sundays. But things had gone seriously awry. She’d downgraded from girl next door to blood slave.
She didn’t deserve it.
A stupid bachelorette weekend in Vegas with her cousin Lexi, the bride-to-be, had decimated her entire life and all of her potential. If Violet had been at home with her baby Jackson on the night Olek had been netting blood donors, she wouldn’t have been pushed into a dark corner by a giant of a vampire, drained into submission, and driven to an abandoned hospital on the outskirts of town. She wouldn’t have been kept like a farm animal for weeks and handed over to Maksim Volk like a half-eaten sandwich.
Maks had the pretty face and lanky body of a seventeen-year-old boy just coming into his own. He wasn’t a boy, though. He was much older than he looked. And he cried quietly in his sleep. When asleep, the most Olek had ever done was snore and fart. But Maks was different. Something inside him was broken, and in the dead of night when she was the only witness, his tears came. In those moments, it was easy to forget he was a vampire. And not just any vampire—Maksim Volk, right hand man to Oleksander the Destroyer. Maks the Traitor. The Beautiful Devil.
He may appear a cold-blooded killer, but he wasn’t. He was a broken man trying to survive among monsters.
She worried about him, and worrying about Maksim Volk made her question her own sanity. He stayed out late, returned stumbling and covered in blood, and he rarely drank from her, which made her wonder both where else he acquired his blood and why she wanted him to taste her. But he was just the right kind of crazy to make her want to know more.
For the past thirty-six hours, Maks and Sergei had both been no-shows in her shitty new slave quarters, and Violet existed in a strange dream world of exhaustion, anxiety, and gnawing hunger. Once in a while, one of her captors would remember that she required sustenance, too, and they’d give her a can of soda or a granola bar. It wasn’t enough to keep her alive for long, not with the prolonged anemia.
If Maks planned to rescue her, he’d better move faster.
She might save him the effort.
The door opened, and painful fluorescent light poured into the foul-smelling room. Sergei himself glared down at her. He opened a single can of salty, processed soup and toed it across the tile. They made eye contact, and Violet read nothing but cruelty in his dark stare.
Then Sergei was gone.
Violet hesitated only a moment, straining to hear the vampire as she stood on weak legs and tip toed oh-so-slowly through the deserted hotel room. She pictured her son’s bright, pink face, all curious golden eyes and sloppy smiles. He needed her. Violet must be brave.
Light as a feather, quiet as a butterfly, she scampered to the window and peered down onto a busy street. It was a three-story drop, but she hardly registered as she slid open the glass and tore through the screen.
Where no one had been a moment ago, Sergei stood in her personal space. He caught her by the hair with a laugh of amusement. Violet stiffened, fighting the urge to scream her throat raw. Though she wanted to wail and beat her fists against the vampire warlord, she swallowed the pain.
“I grow bored of you.” Sergei sniffed her flesh from her mouth to her throat. “I look forward to seeing the traitor’s face when I tell him I made you fly.”
Maks hopped out of the truck, berating himself for screwing things up with Ali yet again. Maybe after a good night’s sleep and a hot shower he’d be a little better at talking to her, not that he’d ever had that problem before.
“This is the spot,” Connor said, marching across the sidewalk in front of a sleazy hotel from the nineteen sixties. He checked his watch. “Two minutes to spare. Keep your eyes peeled. Anything seems out of the ordinary, speak up.”
Maks wandered a little down Thompson Street, finding few crowds this early in the afternoon. He backtracked and stared down Faraday. Nothing supernatural about a parking lot and a weed-choked chain link fence. The most unusual things on either street were the three of them standing around looking conspicuous as hell. Maks joined Connor on the corner and gazed up at the dilapidated hotel that could stand in for a set from a Hitchcock film.
As he watched, movement in the third-floor window caught his eye. Wood casing splintered, and a girl sailed through the window, tumbling straight for the sidewalk at their feet.
Not any girl. Violet.
It took Maks no more than a split second to recognize the rags Violet wore and her streaming auburn hair as she plummeted to earth.
Beside him, Connor had seen her too and steadied himself to catch her. Maks shoved him off balance, stepped into his spot, and looked up just as Violet crashed into him with the force of a falling piano. She flattened him to the pavement, but he was able to hold her off the ground and sit up as Violet hung limply from his arms.
“Oh, my God!” Connor exclaimed. “Did you see that? She fell out of a window, and you fucking caught her! You caught her.”
Maks cradled Violet to his chest and patted her pale cheek. Bruises along her throat told him she’d been bitten. A lot. The actual fang marks may have healed, but the bruises were a different matter. They’d be around for a few days.
“Violet?” he whispered. The shock of the fall and the force of their collision had knocked her out. “Ali?” he tried instead. “She needs a doctor.”
“Of course, of course,” Ali said, her cell phone already plastered to her ear. “Lukas will be here in two minutes.”
“Who’s Lukas?” Maks queried. Violet was nothing but skin and bones in his arms, and he wasn’t handing her over to just anybody, not again.
Connor grabbed Maks by the collar and shook him back to the present. “Hey, hero, the jerks who threw your friend out of a window are taunting us. Feel like kicking their asses?”
Maks tore his gaze from Violet’s pallid face to Connor’s and then further up the wall of the shady hotel. Sergei leered out the shattered, third-floor window. For a brief moment, their eyes met, and Maks had never known such rage.
Sergei blew him a kiss.
“Ali, promise me you’ll take care of her.”
“Of course,” she stuttered. “I mean, I promise.”
Without removing his eyes from his enemy, Maks passed Violet into Ali’s lap. As he dashed for the hotel lobby, he heard Connor’s heavy footfalls behind him, though he didn’t wait to see if the man followed. Maks didn’t care. He was angry enough to take on an army single-handedly.
Maks ran up two flights of stairs in a dead sprint, and then he crashed through the door to the first room on the left. Right into a knife.
The blade punched through his abdomen. He roared, grabbing the vampire by the hair and torqueing his head so hard he nearly decapitated the unlucky henchman. The man collapsed into a boneless heap.
Connor blew past him headed straight for Sergei as Maks ignored the eight-inch blade bisecting his liver. His rage outshone any other sensation, even pain. Grabbing a pot-bellied lamp off the end table, he threw it overhand at Sergei’s head. It struck with a reassuring crunching sound.
Sergei just brushed off the attack as he and Connor exchanged heavy blows in super speed, catching and throwing punches evenly until Sergei feinted left, forced Connor face first into the wall, and rabbit punched him between the shoulder blades. Connor sucked in a horrified gasp as his legs gave out. Before Maks could reach them, Sergei grabbed Connor by an arm and a leg and tossed him out the window.
Though his pulse roared through his ears, Maks slowed his approach. He’d been spanked by Sergei before.
In the Ukraine, back when Oleksander was keeping his monster of a little brother reined in, Sergei hadn’t dared touch a hair upon Maks’ head. With Olek dead, Sergei seemed to be making up for lost time.
“You didn’t have to hurt her,” Maks shouted, his voice ragged with fury. “You didn’t have to use her like a piece of meat, not when you knew how much she meant to me.”
“I hoped you were already dead,” Sergei growled. “I’m delighted to correct my mistake.”
Maks didn’t care whether he lived or died. Violet was safe. Ali was grown and well. Katya was beyond him. He could die and be satisfied with his life.
He grabbed the TV remote off the coffee table and flung it as hard and as fast as he could at the other man’s head. While Sergei was distracted, Maks slid the knife from his belly and lunged, driving his shoulder into Sergei’s midsection and then peppering his abdomen with the blade. In and out, a staccato rhythm, hoping to sever an artery or twenty.
Sergei rained down a skull-cracking blow to the back of Maks’ head, stunning him. Dazed, he dropped his arms, leaving the knife embedded in Sergei’s belly. Easily as lifting a kitten from a curtain, Sergei took hold of Maks’ throat and carried him to the window. Dangling three stories above the concrete, Maks struggled to find any purchase on the walls or casing to keep from falling.
Unable to hoist himself back inside, Maks wrenched the knife from the warlord’s belly. Sergei squeezed his hand around Maks’ throat. Vertebrae crackled and his left leg went numb. Before he lost all control—and maybe his head in the process—Maks gripped a piece of stone siding with one hand and sawed at Sergei’s wrist with the other. The vampire continued squeezing, harder and harder. Maks cut faster.
Finally, Maks broke through bone, and he was weightless for a split second. The force of gravity was too much for his fingertips to fight, and Maks fell.
It was only a three-story fall. He’d leapt off much higher buildings than—
Written by Anna Abner
Copyright 2018 Anna Abner
Roz Carrera is a witch on the fritz. Thanks to the Coven’s rejection of her application for membership, she’s been denied a proper magical education. Without a mentor, she’s nearly useless in helping her team of vampire hunters. Complicating matters is the hulking shapeshifter she stumbles upon outside Las Vegas who may or may not be a vicious psychopath.
The only creatures shapeshifter Lukas Larsson hates more than vampires are witches. He’s in the Nevada desert to destroy the vampires who murdered his family, but the witch Roz Carrera and her ragtag team sideline him. He can’t allow the very sexy Roz to distract him from his vengeance.
Roz Carrera calculated the chances that the bonfire in the distance was a positive occurrence. Considering the number of vampires in the area, the lateness of the hour, and the sheer size of the flames, the odds weren’t great it was anything other than a clusterfuck.
Connor Beckett leaned forward in the passenger seat. “Trouble ahead,” he said softly, his voice nearly fading under the roar of their modified F-350’s engine. “Ease up, Roz.”
She decelerated slowly. In the darkness, the orange and red flames shone like napalm. Shapes and shadowy figures danced around the fire. When she cranked down her window, an animal—a big one—roared in some cross between rage and pain.
“Vampires?” she questioned, catching Connor’s eye across the bouncy truck seat while his girlfriend Ali Rusenko fidgeted between them.
“I can only hope.” He gave Roz a look that said—keep your guard up. It had been days since they’d even seen an infected. Too long, considering their mission’s sole objective was to find and capture them.
Signs of modern civilization were sparse this far out in rural Nevada. It was the only light for miles. The only village for miles. Nothing but acres and acres of desert, rocky hills, and sagebrush. And anybody who lived anywhere within sight appeared to be circling the bonfire.
“Let’s move real slow on this one,” Connor said. Once she parked the truck a hundred feet from the fire, Connor cracked open his door. “Roz, keep everyone calm until we figure out what’s going on.” He shoved a .44 down the waistband of his jeans and handed a smaller .38 Ruger to Ali. “If anyone breaks away and comes at you—shoot. Don’t hesitate.”
“I’m not shooting anyone.” Ali didn’t even glance at the weapon.
“Just in case.” He forced it into her hands.
Rolling her eyes at the dramatic twosome, Roz stepped out of the truck in form-hugging leggings, flip flops, and a crop top. Connor tossed her a handgun over the hood and she caught it, checked the clip, and flipped the safety off. She rolled her shoulders. Ready.
They approached the fire together.
“The poor thing,” Ali whispered.
To the east of the fire, a full-grown bear writhed on a set of chains, strung between two mobile homes. Roz wasn’t great with species—black, brown, polar, grizzly—but she recognized a bear when she saw one.
Roz would rather have skedaddled, but Ali moved forward. And where Ali went, Connor followed.
And just so Connor didn’t think he was too special, barking orders, Roz said, “Connor, flex your muscles. If one of those freaks makes a run for it I expect you to throw a car at him.”
“Ha, ha. Now get to the magic.”
Except Roz was a witch on the fritz and had been for weeks. The thought of calling her power already had her pulse picking up and her blood pressure spiking. She was so tired of failing, and yet she couldn’t figure out how to succeed.
“I don’t want to leave the bear here to be tortured and killed.” Ali laid a hand on Connor’s sleeve. Though Roz couldn’t see her, she figured the girl was giving Connor her big, sparkly blue eyes. Fucking bleeding hearts. What were they gonna do with a super pissed off bear? They lived in a hotel for crying out loud.
“This isn’t our business,” Roz reminded them both. “I vote for backing out of here. We’re supposed to be hunting vampires, remember? This is local stuff.”
“She’s right,” Connor said, flicking his gaze from the crowd to Ali. “Let’s go.”
“We can’t leave it here to be tortured,” Ali hissed. “You know what they’ll do to it.”
“It’s none of our business,” he hissed back. “Vampires, remember? Not bears.”
“We could put it in the back of the truck,” Ali continued, still staring with moon eyes at Connor. “We’ll set it free in the mountains. It’s the right thing to do.”
Normally, Roz would be in step with Connor, but she wanted to piss him off. She was still stinging from being replaced as the sole female in their group. Oh, how easily she’d been replaced.
Roz sort of hated them right now, their love and their to-the-death loyalty and the happiness in their eyes, and their secret glances, and the passion sparking between them. Because it had been a long time since anyone had looked at her that way.
If Connor wanted to leave, then suddenly Roz felt like staying. “Not that you asked,” she said, shouldering her way between them. “But I say we rescue the bear.”
“Fine,” he snapped. “We’ll rescue the bear.”
Connor sighed as if this was a huge imposition, but Roz saw the sparkle in his eyes. He loved the hunt, whatever the prey. He was itching for a fight. They all were. The last vampire they’d encountered had fought so hard against being captured, they’d killed it by accident. Strange. Cause back in the day they’d have killed it on purpose. But since Ali arrived and changed everything, now they had a no killing policy when it came to the infected.
“But let’s do this quick,” Connor said. “No blood shed. Especially ours.”
“Deal,” Ali said.
A small group of fire enthusiasts broke away from the group and ambled nearer.
Roz took a deep, calming breath and centered her thoughts. “Blessed is my power,” she whispered, breathing in through her nose. “I call upon thee.”
Nothing sparked. No invisible wind, no whirling particles, no zing under her skin.
A barrel-chested older man raised a can of beer and burped hello. “You all tourists?” he asked in the same tone she’d ask a person, You all child molesters?
Connor may have been impersonating a Roman statue, but Roz knew inside he was a jumpy mess. He was calculating. Using his senses. Running plays. Only rarely did anyone get the upper hand on her best friend. He was a freaking warrior.
“Not exactly,” Roz answered. “What’s with the animal?”
“Last night, three people were torn apart in their trailer.” He slurped beer, and then shrugged. “We put out bear traps, and lookie what stepped in one. Must’a escaped from the zoo.”
Under her breath, Roz called her power again. A whisper of magic tickled the tips of her fingers. There was something there in reserves, and she teased it out.
“What are you going to do with it?” Ali asked the man.
“Can’t you see the BBQ we set up?” He guffawed as the bonfire flared over his shoulder.
Right on cue, the animal in question roared an inhuman scream of pure rage with an underlying note of pain. Roz may play the tough girl on a regular basis, but that sound plucked a heartstring. They were going to do horrible things to the beast because it had chosen the wrong food source.
“Join us,” the man said. “There’s plenty for everyone.”
Roz couldn’t imagine how these drunk idiots had wrapped a chain tight around the bear’s throat and trapped it between two mobile homes, but she guessed the steel bear trap eating its left hind leg had something to do with it. Another heartstring twanged.
The beast’s hide shone with blood. Its leg was torn up and broken, and patches of fur were missing.
She disliked frontier justice.
Connor gathered both women into a huddle a few feet away. “Roz, when I signal you, put the bear to sleep. And, Ali, for God’s sake, keep your hand on your weapon.”
They turned back toward the mob circling the fire. “We can take care of your bear problem,” Connor said. “We’ll buy it off you and haul it away.”
This announcement was met with general irritation from the crowd.
Roz pushed her power up and out. “Stay calm,” she hissed, over and over, a never-ending stream of words. So long as she kept speaking, her spell would hold. Perspiration beaded between her breasts and under her arms.
She whispered under her breath, her lips barely parting at all. Knowing in a few minutes, she’d have to throw up a sleeping spell on the bear on top of the calming spell she was currently sweating through. Not that Connor ever considered her power’s parameters. Connor thought it was a piece of cake speaking complex emotional spells, making people do things they didn’t want to do. She wasn’t a machine, goddamn it. She was barely a witch at all, let alone a first class spellspeaker with the ability to alter the world.
“You have enough to do, burying your dead. Let us pay you for the bear.” Under his breath, Connor said, “Roz, get out the money. Hundreds should do it. And put the bear to sleep.”
Sure, sure. Keep the crowd calm, force an enraged animal to close its little peepers, convince a grown man scraps of paper were hundred dollar bills, and anything else that came to mind. No problem.
Her fingers and lips tingled with the power swimming through her.
“Calm, calm, stay calm, go to sleep.” She repeated the spell, her lips working in fast-forward. Her breath hissed between her teeth, the words all running together. Without stuttering a syllable, she pulled three hundred dollars from her pocket. Connor didn’t need to know it was real cash, not magicked money. There was only so much she could do.
Roz hated passing off newspaper as bills, when she could actually juice up her magic to perform the spell. Those were the places she could never go back to. She was giving witches a bad reputation. Not that she cared what the Coven thought of her. Those prissy, holier-than-thou bitches could all roast.
Especially after their latest bullshit. Last week, an envelope had arrived at their suite at the Le Sort Hotel addressed to #Roslyn Carrera. Inside was a cease-and-desist letter from the Coven demanding she stop performing unauthorized magic.
In the distance, the bear quieted. Roz pushed harder, speaking faster, focusing all her energy on the sleep spell. The beast roared once and sat down, its head, shoulders and chest hanging from the chains. If they weren’t careful, the thing would choke to death before they rescued it. She refocused on the trailer park crowd.
Roz’s head snapped up. What? Which spell had faded? Who were they coming after first?
“No way,” she breathed, her spells forgotten.
The bear wasn’t a bear at all. He was a shifter. A supernatural freak, just like her. And asleep, his conscious mind gave up control and he shifted back to his natural form.
The bear was gone, vanished, and in its place, still strung up between two rusted mobile homes with chains, was a man. A bleeding, unconscious, naked man.
Download Spellspeaker’s Prophecy (Beasts of Vegas #2) now!
Ali Rusenko has dangerous secrets she keeps close to her heart. In search of the truth of her past on the glittery Las Vegas Strip, Ali discovers vampires aren’t the most hospitable creatures. If it weren’t for sexy vampire hunter Connor Beckett and his sidekick Roz Carrera, she’d be dinner.
Connor and Roz rescue Ali, but they just can’t shake the vampires trailing her. Unfortunately, Connor knows exactly how the creatures feel. The beautiful stray sets his blood to boiling. But if Connor’s going to have a real chance to defeat the horde leader, Oleksander the Destroyer, he can’t allow Ali to leave the country without discovering the one secret she refuses to reveal.
“Get down,” Roz hissed, yanking on Connor’s black jacket. A spotlight swept over their heads, and he tasted dry earth as he flattened onto the sand.
“That was too close,” Roz complained.
They skittered like cockroaches across the ground, avoiding a parked Humvee, and staying out of the guards’ eye line. The things they couldn’t avoid at the secret army facility in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Nevada were surveillance cameras on every wall and post. Hence, the need for speed and an electro-magnetic pulse device the size of a suitcase strapped to Connor’s back. If they were caught breaking into Oleksander the Destroyer’s prison, they’d never see daylight again. Sort of the way Oleksander had been in the dark of an army cell for the past twenty years.
Connor Beckett hadn’t known six months ago—a lackluster engineering student at the University of Chicago—that the Seer Ilvane would write down his name and forever link him with the end of the human race.
Connor from Cleveland will release the Destroyer and trigger the apocalypse.
There wasn’t any way to fix the prophecy and save the world except to kill the vampire lord.
“Push the button,” Connor said, nodding at the EMP. Thank the fates for Anton and Natasha, their very generous benefactors from New Zealand and their high-tech toys.
“Pushing the button.” Roz activated the device, and every electric light on the base, hopefully the cameras and security doors too, blinked off. “Now,” she ordered. “Move.”
Light on the balls of his feet, Connor ran for building 2A, which he knew from poring over satellite photos of the installation, was where the army kept the vampires. He hunched over the card reader controlling the prison’s heavy-duty outer door, sweat rolling down the back of his neck. “Please,” he breathed. A single second delay while they stood like a couple of sore thumbs at the gateway to a vampire’s cell on a secret military base could ruin everything.
He hoped for the best and yanked. The immense door swung open on soundless hinges.
“I was only fifty percent sure the EMP was going to work,” Roz admitted as she followed him inside and sealed the door.
There wasn’t supposed to be a guard on duty at two-thirty in the morning. Except there was.
“What the hell?” complained the unlucky soldier.
Engineering classes hadn’t prepared Connor for this situation. He’d psyched himself up for killing the Destroyer, not innocent bystanders. The soldier glaring at him carried a gun on his hip, and he probably knew how to use it better than Connor could operate the high-tech gear his New Zealand backers had sent.
“Both of you get on the floor. Now.” The man pulled his weapon, but he didn’t call for back up. Connor needed it to stay that way.
“Whoa,” Connor exclaimed, his mind coming back online. He stepped in front of Roz as she followed his lead and held up both hands. “I just want to see the vampire. Don’t shoot me. Jesus!” He cracked a goofy smile.
“Yeah,” Roz parroted. “This idiot promised me we wouldn’t get in trouble.”
“Stay where you are.” The soldier wasn’t buying it. “I’m calling my sergeant.”
Plan C. Or was it D? “Sleep spell?” Connor whispered to Roz out of the corner of his mouth.
“Blessed is my power. I call upon thee.” Roz produced a tiny windstorm that pushed and pulled at her dark clothes. “Sleep, sleep, sleep…”
The guard blinked at Connor in bewilderment before his knees buckled and he crashed to the floor, fast asleep.
“Oh, crap.” Roz said, picking up the soldier’s fallen handgun. “I was only about twenty percent sure I could do that.”
“That’s twice as confident as I was,” Connor admitted, relieved he didn’t have to hurt anyone human. With no magic or supernatural abilities of his own, having a witch as a friend had its perks.
Her windstorm died down. “We gotta hurry. My spell won’t last more than a few minutes.”
Satisfied the guard was out cold, Connor turned his full attention on the pair of cell doors at the far side of the room. Each one had a monitor above it, and under each monitor was a name plaque. The first read: Maksim Volk, vampire lieutenant. The second read: Oleksander the Destroyer, vampire lord. But someone had scratched out lord and written douchebag in permanent marker.
“Grenade,” Connor said, holding out one hand. His voice didn’t even waiver, which was weird considering how terrified he was on the inside.
A cold, egg-shaped bomb landed in his palm. Connor opened the sliding hatch in the cell meant for exchanging food and correspondence and peered inside. Volk lay on a cot with his back to the door wearing an unadorned orange jumpsuit. Connor pulled the pin from the grenade and tossed it into the cell. He watched through the slit as the grenade went off, so loud Connor jumped back from the door. Through the smoke, Volk was suddenly under the cot instead of on it.
“Volk’s down,” Connor announced. He swallowed thickly and gestured shakily for the second grenade.
Roz passed it to him, and Connor opened Oleksander’s mail slot. He’d fantasized about killing the Destroyer so many times he wanted to savor it, to take his time and be certain the vampire was dead. But Oleksander wasn’t visible through the small opening.
He’d never murdered anyone before.
Connor’s skin prickled. Was the vampire in there skulking in a corner? Or had the army moved him in the six hours since Roz had sweet-talked a drunken, off-duty soldier for info at Applebee’s?
The poor sot had admitted nobody guarded the vampires anymore because after twenty years of incarceration, torture, and experimentation both were as docile as a pair of kittens. If the army was stupid enough to believe that, fine. Connor assumed Olek and Volk were every inch the cold-blooded psychopaths they’d been before their bloody capture.
Visible or not, Connor tossed the grenade at Olek and waited. There was a gong as the bomb was thrown back at the exit, and it exploded against the door, warping it outward and filling the entire room with white smoke.
The door remained closed, but it was badly disfigured.
There was a moment, staring wide-eyed at the twisted metal, Connor considered backing out. Nothing catastrophic had happened yet. No one was hurt. So what if a few cameras were sizzled? He could pull his friend out of there and go home.
But he didn’t leave. This was Connor’s best chance to kill the Destroyer and negate his prophecy. He had to kill the vampire.
Connor plucked the third and final grenade from Roz’s vest and rolled it through the wasted door of Olek’s cell. Almost immediately, the grenade skidded right back out again.
Connor launched himself at Roz, and the grenade went off before they hit the ground, blowing them horizontally against a wall.
“Oh, shit,” he said, a ringing in his ears and blood in his mouth.
He wasn’t ready to die for a stupid prophecy. To be honest, he hadn’t totally believed the Destroyer would even be in this cell let alone that he had a chance in hell of slaying the vampire.
Connor was a failure. He was unprepared. He should have stayed home.
He rolled, taking weight off a gnarly wound on his left hip and shook Roz’s arm. “Are you okay?”
A very aggressive alarm sounded. So much for the EMP. The base had come back to life. Soon, there’d be soldiers everywhere, and Connor didn’t have a good reason for blowing up their super secret vampire prison or a desire to spend time in a matching cell.
Through the haze, a large orange shape appeared carrying a body over one shoulder.
Oleksander the Destroyer.
Looking as spry and psychotic as ever in a prison jumpsuit.
Unable to tear his gaze from the Destroyer’s nearly black eyes and heavily Slavic features, Connor shielded Roz and prepared to be consumed.
“Thank you,” Olek said and then carried a bloody and unconscious Maksim Volk out of the building.
Chills skittered up and down Connor’s battered and bloody limbs. The Destroyer was much more terrifying in person than he’d been in photographs. He was a monster, a devourer of children. And he seemed to think Connor had just done him a favor.
“Roz,” Connor groaned, the world tilting dizzily. “We have to get out of here.” Olek might realize his mistake and double back to kill them both.
“Connor?” Roz sat up, wincing as she took in the warped cell door through a haze of white smoke. “He’s free?”
“Can you run?” he asked rather than admit the truth.
“If I have to.”
They hobbled, Connor gritting his teeth every time his burned leg touched the earth, toward the back fence as scream after tortured scream reached them. Olek was finally free and obviously enjoying himself.
“Halt,” a commanding voice ordered. More soldiers.
“Smoke bomb?” Conner questioned Roz. They had debated whether it was necessary, but he couldn’t remember if she’d packed it.
She pulled a canister from her waistband, tossed the pin, and threw the explosive over her shoulder. Immediately, they were engulfed in a thick, red cloud. Shots were fired, but nothing found a human target.
Like half-dead rabbits escaping the hunt, they slid through a hole in the chain link, and limped across an expanse of sand dotted with sagebrush.
“Get in, and start the engine,” Connor ordered, ripping a camouflage tarp off his baby, a 1973 Ford F-350 pickup. “They might have helicopters.”
The truck roared to life, and he leaped through the passenger door, hanging on for dear life as Roz raced over desert roads toward the lights of the Las Vegas skyline.
No choppers took flight. No Humvees chased them. No further shots were fired. It was like the base had been swallowed up. Olek was making up for lost time and wiping the secret military installation off the map with nothing but his hands and a pair of fangs.
“What happened?” she demanded.
Connor grimaced at the black smudges on her face, the ashes in her hair, and the blood splattered across her top.
The worst thing possible. “I fulfilled my prophecy.”
Maksim Volk’s prison cell faded from sight as he was dragged away by his army-issued prison garb.
Someone had thrown a grenade at him. Even now, his eyes burned and his entire left side felt gooey.
“I miss people trying to kill me with wooden stakes,” he grumbled, squinting to see who or what had a grip on him.
Oleksander the Destroyer.
“Fabulous.” Maks swatted at Olek’s iron-like fist, but only managed to bring his right arm halfway up. Yep, something was definitely wrong with his limbs. Fricking grenades.
Olek hauled him without any gentleness whatsoever across an asphalt parking lot and then roughly over a concrete curb. Maks’ legs, currently numb and useless, had been blown up a bit, it seemed.
Lovely. With a twist and a grunt, Maks freed himself and landed flat on his back.
He sat up to inventory his injuries. His right arm was burned down to bare bone, his left leg was ground beef and cloth, but nothing seemed missing that couldn’t heal. His seventeen-year-old body would regenerate exactly as it had been, leaving him forever looking like a rangy youth.
But the best news he’d received in twenty years? He was a free man.
No matter what happened next, he would never go back into a cell and be anyone’s guinea pig.
Maks crawled on his hands and knees, headed for rocky hills in the distance, and something fragrant tickled his nose. Faint, like a memory. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeper.
Not a memory. Real.
Maks got to his feet despite the pain and stumbled west toward the scent, straining to place it.
“These mortals annoy me,” Olek grumbled as soldiers continued to fire their weapons.
Maks couldn’t care less because he’d finally recognized the scent. Vampires. Lots of rotting vampires under tons of earth. He increased his scuffling and lumbered toward a bare stretch of sand between the outer security fence and the base infirmary. The closer he got, the stronger the smell became.
He ignored the rapport of gunfire and the familiar sounds of Olek feeding messily on human victims to drop to his knees and tear into the earth as the shooting ceased altogether. His right arm was useless so he excavated with his left, scooping and clawing until his fingers were bloody and his nails cracked to the quick.
“Explain yourself,” Olek demanded, appearing behind him.
“Can’t you smell them?” Maks cried.
More specifically, his little bird. He could smell his sweet Katya, and he’d dig until both arms fell off to free her.
“Our people.” His fingers unearthed a trouser leg, and he dug faster.
At last, Olek knelt to help. He wasn’t half blown up and was made stronger from the soldiers he’d gorged on. He was much quicker displacing mounds of dirt.
A body appeared, rapidly followed by another and another. When the army had finished with Olek’s horde, they’d tossed the dried out, skeletal vampires into a mass grave under the base.
His mates. His fellow warriors. At last, he knew they weren’t being kept in a separate facility. They weren’t being tormented and experimented on the way he’d been. No, they’d been used up and thrown out like so much refuse.
Katya among them.
His little bird had been stolen from him so long ago, and yet he pictured her exactly as she’d been two decades earlier, before their capture. Young and beautiful, shy yet passionate. She had set his blood on fire.
Olek uncovered half a dozen more bodies, emaciated corpses, but further down the bodies emerged in pieces. Hands. Feet. Heads.
“No, please.” Maks dug directly at the spot Katya’s scent was strongest. She couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be.
Maks lifted a familiar torso, now rotted to pieces, and beside that, a skull with a tuft of strawberry hair still attached.
The sky collapsed around him, drenching him in shadow. Not possible. She couldn’t be gone. Not the woman who gave his soul life, who gave his wretched existence meaning.
“Sergei, Ilya, and Ivan are beyond saving,” Olek said, picking and choosing bodies from the grave. “But my three best fighters are still strong.”
Lies. Maks didn’t have to look to know Olek’s three brothers Sergei, Ilya, and Ivan were whole and in stasis thanks to their immortality, but Olek had never enjoyed his brothers’ company, not when the four siblings were constantly struggling for control over the vampire horde. But Olek’s three favorite lackeys—Freddie, Dawn, and Lara? They were a different story.
He smelled fresh blood as Olek fed his three acolytes from nearby soldiers’ throats.
Maks didn’t care. His little bird had been cut into pieces. He would never care about anything again.
“How?” He cradled Katya’s head. “We are not animals. We are not experiments.”
Not that the U.S. Army hadn’t tried. For twenty years they’d been cutting imprisoned vampires open, testing their blood, pushing the limits of their mortality. Volk and Olek had been their preferred test subjects, though, and Volk had endured an eternity of pain and agony.
He would repay every second.
“I swear to you,” Olek said as his three warriors rose up around him, “we will make the human race suffer for what they have done. We will burn their world to the ground.”
Olek started to walk away, but Volk didn’t follow. He curled around Katya’s remains and was content to die from the grief splitting him in two.
“We go.” Olek grabbed Maks’ collar and pulled.
Maks scrambled to keep a hold of Katya’s skull, but he was only able to snatch her necklace off her neck, pulling strands of red hair with it before his master tossed him, Freddie, Dawn, and Lara into a Humvee with an unconscious soldier.
If he must live a little longer, then he’d get his revenge.
While they drove out of the base and into the mountains, Maks sank his teeth into the dying soldier’s throat, Katya’s locket clenched in his hand.
The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
No closer to extracting the cure from inside Ben Sawyer, Maya Solomon is ready to give up her quest to cure the zombie virus. But Pollard and Hunny have gone ahead to Washington, DC in search of other survivors. Alone and vulnerable, Maya and Ben begin a final and treacherous journey north in the hope that somehow the secrets locked inside Ben’s blood will finally free the world from the grip of the Red Plague.
I shoved open the door of our borrowed VW Bug and stumbled into several inches of gritty beach sand. Past a craggy dune, the Atlantic Ocean burst upon the shore. Over and over, undaunted. Behind me, Ben curled in the passenger’s seat, his long legs bunched to his chest to fit the cramped interior. He hadn’t woken when I drove hell-bent across fields and marshes to escape Camp Carson. He hadn’t woken when the car stuttered to a stop, empty of fuel, on the Virginia beach. And he didn’t wake as I stood over him, chewing at my bottom lip.
Smart had done more than lie about extracting my dad’s antiserum from Ben’s blood. He’d drugged him. Among other things. He might not wake up, not completely, until morning. Four hours or more.
He needed help, first aid, possibly a doctor, but all he had was me.
I searched up and down the beach. If a pack of quick-footed red zombies, sufferers of the 212R virus, found us, we had no protection except the car. So, not much protection at all.
“I’m going to search the trunk.” He didn’t answer, but talking to someone, anyone, made me feel better. “Okay, Ben?”
He flinched at the sound of my voice. The sedatives he’d been fed hadn’t worn off completely. I grabbed his hand so he’d know he wasn’t alone anymore. Reflexively, he squeezed back, his fingers twining with mine.
In the storage compartment I found a raincoat, but no emergency flares or forgotten bottles of sports drink. Certainly nothing useful. I tossed the coat into the back seat with my gear and then closed the trunk.
“Don’t worry,” I told Ben, “we’ll be fine.”
We probably weren’t going to be fine. Not alone and unprotected.
I turned toward the sound of the surf. “I just need a minute to make a plan.”
The whitecaps looked and sounded exactly the same as they always had. With all the chaos in the world and all the changes that had hammered down upon the human race, it didn’t seem right the ocean kept rolling across the earth, oblivious.
“I’m scared,” I signed at the horizon, my hands stuttering through the motions. Really, really scared.
But the surf kept washing upon the beach in a slow, quiet rhythm. Tempo adagio. Like a hymn. I hummed a counter-beat, and the sad melody I couldn’t shake returned.
Way down here … I disappear.
The water was black as tar with the occasional silver reflection of starlight from overhead. I tried to stay out of the surf, but it was tricky in the dark determining the tide’s reach, and cold salty water splashed over my sneakers.
“Aw, crap.” I didn’t have spare shoes, which only reminded me that my survival knowledge was nil. I knew how to run, hide, and disinfect. That was about it. Because I came from a family of technology loving city folks, not rugged survivalists. For the millionth time I wished my dad hadn’t left to finish his antiserum for 212R. He may not have been able to teach me about hunting or shelter building during the apocalypse, but at least I wouldn’t have spent so much time alone.
But if Dad hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have finished the elixir and Ben would still be a Red. My dad had wanted his work to mean something. To help people. And it had saved Ben.
So, it was worth it. I just wished I had both of them, Ben and Dad.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the compact car was a shadowy shape across the sand. More than anything, I felt alone. For the first time since the plague it wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
Night stretched and lengthened, seeming to last forever.
Where was Pollard?
I shouldn’t have pushed to separate our group. I should have fought to stay together, but I’d been so sure the four of us—Pollard, Juliet, Hunny, and I—would be too visible, too loud, too obvious, breaking into Ben’s locked room. I’d argued to be the only one to pull off the rescue mission.
Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea because everywhere I looked I saw only sand, water, and sky.
Pollard should’ve been on the beach.
But he wasn’t, and I had no way of contacting him. 212R had infected so many people, and so quickly, there was no one left to run water, trash, and electricity services. No GPS, no cell phones. Wherever he was, he was out of my reach.
I walked south, but didn’t catch sight of my friends. Or any human beings at all. Not even a single house or a forgotten beach umbrella. Pivoting, I marched north as far as I felt comfortable. Off in the distance I recognized roofs and a white fence. But that was it. No Pollard, no Hunny, no Juliet, and no sign they’d been anywhere near there.
Thirst drove me back to the car.
As for supplies, we were pathetically undergeared. In my backpack I carried my personal belongings, a canteen of water, some snacks, and a couple changes of clean clothes. An extra-long screwdriver. My short sword, a fully functional replica from the Lord of the Rings films that had been my dad’s before the red plague. And the golden-hued guitar Ben had given me.
Definitely not enough to build a secure shelter and hunker down for days.
Depending on the temperature, my water supply might only last twenty-four hours. The same for the snacks.
And with Ben not in his right mind, everything fell to me to do. Except I wasn’t any good at taking care of other people. I was okay at caring for myself, but awful at taking care of others.
I opened the driver’s side door and reached between the seats for my pack and the canteen inside it. Because of the tiny interior I was forced to get very, very close to Ben. I tried not to disturb him, but my ribs brushed his arm. He snapped awake, and I squeaked in surprise, banging my head on the roof of the car.
“Maya?” he exclaimed, and then he scampered out of the car on all fours into the soft sand.
“It’s me,” I confirmed, climbing out and massaging the top of my head.
“What happened?” He used the car to push himself upright.
“We escaped from Camp Carson,” I explained, glossing over the rough parts. Like the fire. The torture chamber. Unstrapping him from a gurney.
He turned in a circle, scanning the area, and then pinned his intense red eyes on me. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better.” Muscles and joints I didn’t even know I had ached. I stretched my arms over my head, and my spine crackled like pretzel rods. “How do you feel?”
He was standing and alert, and he had color back in his cheeks. All good signs.
“I’m okay. How far are we from the base?” He squinted down the beach.
“I drove about fifteen miles-an-hour for two hours.” Camp Carson was southwest of Richmond, but after traveling north and east I could no longer picture our location on a map. We definitely weren’t near any big cities. “The car’s out of gas. I haven’t seen or heard anyone.”
“Where’s Pollard? And Hunny?”
I kicked at a clump of grass. “They left a hole for us to go through. I stayed behind to get you. We said we’d go straight east and meet on the beach.”
“Did you go straight east?”
No. I had messed up. I should’ve forced Ben onto his feet and gotten us through the trees the night before, but I’d been so scared I’d wanted to get as far away from Smart as possible. He’d tortured Ben for days in his locked room, and I was scared he would follow us and recapture Ben.
And because of it, we may have lost Pollard and Hunny for good.
“There were woods to the east,” I said. “I drove north until I found beach access. I guess they went a different way.” Or, worse, went back to rescue us. If they had, they could be locked in Ben’s old prison.
“Was there a backup plan?” he asked.
“Meet at the Washington Monument. Pollard thinks there might be people there.”
Ben blew out a long breath. “Have you seen any sign of them at all?”
“I searched while you were sleeping. I walked up and down the beach but I didn’t see anything. Not even a piece of trash blowing in the wind. It’s too dark, but if I turn on a flashlight I might attract trouble.”
“I need some fresh air.”
I bit my tongue to keep from saying, “We’re already outside. How much fresher can the air get?”
But he was determined and wobbled across the sand to the edge of the water. Just as I had done, he inched too close and wet his boots. Except he didn’t jump back like I had. He stood in the surf and let it wash over his feet.
A memory of him strapped to a gurney in Smart’s barracks room flashed in my mind. What had they done to him?
After he’d injected my dad’s antiserum, I’d been so sure the right thing to do was get him to a doctor and pull the answer to reversing the red plague out of his blood. But Smart had lied to me. I’d thought Ben was being cared for by the residents of Camp Carson. But as soon as they’d closed the door on him, they’d started the horror show. They could’ve done anything to him in there. Surgery. Amputation. Complete exsanguination.
One thing they hadn’t done was extract the cure.
“Are you okay?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to spook him. I stepped closer, itching to feel his brow for fever, but I didn’t dare. Not with him so unsteady.
“Stay away from me,” he gasped. ”For God’s sake, Maya, just stay back.”
I moved away so quickly I nearly tripped and fell on my butt in the sand. But I steadied myself and then kept a healthy distance between us.
Ben’s expression was tense as he turned toward the churning surf. “I don’t like being tied up,” he growled. “They tied me up. Do you understand?” He sucked in a ragged breath. “It was like being in lockdown in Dogwood.”
The Dogwood Juvenile Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The one Ben had been sentenced to. The same one my twin brother had been inside when the red plague hit.
Mason had been incarcerated when he was fifteen and ordered to serve time until his eighteenth birthday. A milestone he probably would never make. We didn’t turn eighteen for three more months. If he hadn’t escaped before 212R spread, then he would have been trapped inside the jail when chaos erupted. Theoretically, he could still be inside.
I shivered. “Can you walk?” I asked. Silly question. Ben was in no condition to walk. He could barely stand. “Nix that. I’ll get you some water. You need to drink lots of fluids. Fruit would be nice.” I was babbling like an idiot. We didn’t have fruit. We were lucky to have clean, drinkable water.
“Here.” I tossed the canteen at his feet so he didn’t have to touch me. Or smell me. “Drink.”
Whatever progress he’d made in the last few days seemed lost. He was just as unstable as the first day after injecting the elixir.
“It’s not safe here.” He took a long swallow from my canteen, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Carefully, he straightened his heavy boots, then the cuffs of his trousers, and then the sleeves of his black T-shirt. Finally, he rearranged his dark hair. “We have to keep moving.”
“No.” One thing was obvious. Some awful stuff had gone down in Smart’s so-called lab and Ben had regressed to near zombie status. “It’s two o’clock in the morning. We should stay here and sleep. At dawn, I’ll forage in the woods.” I glanced at the Atlantic Ocean rolling away from us. “Maybe I can even fish something.”
“You said Pollard is going to Washington, D.C.?” He frowned as if piecing a puzzle together. “Then we have to follow him.”
“What? No.” I advanced a step, and then reversed trajectory. “Sorry. I mean, you need to rest from,” I eyed him up and down, “whatever happened. We don’t have to rush into another trip.” Because I wasn’t even sure if Pollard was in D.C. Or okay. Or alive.
“You came back for me.” There was a growly resolve in his voice. “I will take you to your Pollard.”
“He’s not my anything,” I said quickly. “And you’re not ready to go on another road trip.”
“You should be part of a family, Maya, even if it’s not your own family.”
I huffed a laugh. Where had that come from? “I’m fine by myself,” I assured. “Besides, I had a family. They’re all dead.”
But Ben had stopped listening. “Is D.C. north of here?”
“It has to be.” There was no way I’d passed it during the night.
“Please pack our stuff. I just need another minute.” He plopped onto the sand again, pressing his palms against his eye sockets.
“Headache?” I guessed.
I left him in the sand to collect my backpack from the car, as well as my guitar and short sword. By the time I closed the Bug’s door, Ben was back on his feet.
“I’ll follow you.” His pace would be my pace, even if it meant slowing to a crawl.
Without saying a word, he lifted the backpack right off my shoulders and walked up the starlit beach, veering away from the water where the ground was firmer and easier to navigate. I jogged to catch up.
Ian Gallagher hated the midnight to two a.m. shift at the Kash & Grab liquor store, but a lot of times his boss Kash liked it even less and so Ian often took his place. Kash didn’t care that Ian was sixteen, that he had school in the morning, or that Ian would much rather be sleeping.
Mickey Milkovich poked his head through the back door in a sleeveless, collared shirt with the word SECURITY on the breast patch. “Hey, you,” he called in his thick Chicago accent. “I’m gonna grab a smoke in the alley. Cover for me, will ya’?”
Ian shot the boy he loved a hopelessly romantic look. If it weren’t for Kash’s security cameras trained on him, he’d join Mickey in the alley. Ian shifted against the counter, tugging at his trouser front. It had been a while, and Ian wanted to sneak outside with him. Maybe, when Mickey returned he could find the sweet spot under the counter where he was invisible to the cameras.
Deep in a graphic mental fantasy, Ian flinched when the front doors banged open and an asshole in a ski mask pointed a semi-automatic handgun at Ian’s nose.
“Open the drawer,” he demanded.
Ian stood in the bread aisle, frozen, while Kash fired a bullet into Mickey’s right thigh. Witnessing the young man he was crushing on knocked off his feet, yelling, and bleeding had no effect on Ian. Shock, he must be in shock.
Only when Kash approached Mickey, weapon still drawn, did Ian leap into motion and shield his friend.
Mickey’s thigh bled a lot, and Ian wanted to hug him so badly, to offer some kind of comfort, but Kash stood over his shoulder with the gun, and Mickey would never allow it. The fact that he let Ian touch his wounded leg was enough.
Ian began to shake. He fiddled with the buttons of the cash register, fumbling the mechanism. Ironically, the wannabe criminal on the other side of the counter was steady as a rock.
“There’s not much.” He wadded up about forty dollars—the entire contents. “Only enough for, uh, change until we close.”
Mickey better stay outside and smoke a second cigarette. If he walked in on the robbery, his temper would get him shot. Again.
The robber snatched the cash and shoved it into his pocket. “Fuck you.” He pulled the trigger.
It all seemed to happen at once—the gun popped, pain exploded across Ian’s abdomen, and he flailed into a rack of liquor bottles and cases of cigarettes.
“No,” Ian begged, a little too late.
Full, glass bottles of Crown Royale, Jack Daniels, and Grey Goose rained down upon his head.
Pain blew away as if caught in a stiff wind as darkness descended. Light dimmed. Ian blinked once, and Mickey cupped his face, his hands impossibly warm and rough against his oversensitive skin.
The air stank like alcohol.
Ian tried to ask, What are you doing here? There’s a creep with a gun. He’ll hurt you. But, “Whuyaaa?” was as far as he got.
“Shut up, dummy,” Mickey said, smiling past a sheen across both eyes. “It’ll only make you bleed out faster.”
Mickey grasped his hand, and Ian clung to him.
Though Mickey was out of juvie and Ian had seen him a couple times, they hadn’t been together yet. Ian snuck into his yard and scratched at Mickey’s bedroom window until the boy he loved slid it open.
“What the fuck do you want?” Mickey stood on the other side of the glass in nothing but boxer shorts.
Ian chipped paint off the wooden sill with his fingernail. “Did the bullet wound heal right?” he wanted to know. Then, on impulse, “Can I see it?”
“I don’t give a shit what you do.” But Mickey left the window wide open when he climbed back into bed.
Ian slid through the portal, landing gracefully on his feet. “What was juvie like?” he whispered. In the dim light, Mickey’s shape drew him like a magnet.
“Fucked up,” Mickey grunted.
Climbing into bed beside Mickey, Ian peeled the blanket off his lower body for a better look at his bare thigh.
Mickey lay real still, unnaturally still. “Yeah, you can suck me off while you’re down there, too.”
Ian couldn’t remember what the scar looked like, but Mickey tasted like clean skin and salt. It was his first time giving a blowjob, and afterwards he sprawled across Mickey’s chest, happy to doze for a few hours, but the other boy’s elbow caught him sharply in the ribs.
“Get the fuck outta here, asshole.”
Ian shivered as dark spots danced like fairies in his periphery. “Mick?” he slurred.
“I told you to shut up,” Mickey said, trying for levity but the tears in his eyes ruined the effect. “Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
Though Mickey was careful, when he lifted Ian’s upper body onto his lap, it hurt. The lights dimmed once more, and Ian may have passed out for a second because Mickey was shaking him and shouting again.
“Stop,” Ian complained. He blinked the shadows away. God, he was weak. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore, though he suspected his fingers were still locked between Mickey’s.
“The cops’ll be here any minute,” Mickey promised.
Ian gazed down his torso at the bloody wound in his belly. “…dying…” Weird, how it didn’t hurt anymore.
“You’re not fuckin’ dying,” Mickey snapped. “They’re gonna patch you right up.”
Ian blinked, and the world went dark and silent. As quick as flipping off the light switch. Mickey moved his face directly in front of Ian’s nose, jostling him. The floor tilted dangerously off balance, and Ian tumbled through a black hole.
Lights flickered as people in scrubs spoke rapid gibberish across Ian’s torso. His whole body jerked like stepping off a curb in a dream. Someone touched his arm roughly, possessively.
“Mickey?” he mumbled, searching through the haze. It had to be Mickey. No one else grabbed him the same way.
The dugout at night was a quiet, creepy place that smelled a bit like beer and urine.
“Don’t get any weird ideas,” Mickey greeted. He was always angry, always hating someone. It excited Ian, who couldn’t hold a grudge. Being with him was like being in the eye of a storm. Ian never knew, from day to day, if he’d experience Mickey’s fury or his protective side.
“Oh, yeah?” Ian shot back. “About what?”
Mickey grabbed him by the arms and forced him to sit, knees splayed, on the ancient wooden bench. “This doesn’t mean anything.”
His pants and briefs slid down and Mickey buried his face between his thighs before Ian fully appreciated the gesture. Mickey liked getting fucked. He’d never returned the favor before.
Is that all it was? A quid pro quo between fuckbuddies?
But then Mickey palmed his balls, and Ian didn’t give a shit why.
Doors and room numbers floated past, but where was Mickey?
Ian heard the words surgery, chances, and wait. Still no Mickey.
“I’m right here, Ian.” Mickey never called him Ian. He called him shithead, dummy, fucktard, and sometimes Gallagher. Never Ian.
He opened his mouth to call for him again when the walls stopped speeding past and something sharp pricked the back of his hand. He sank down through the gurney, through the floor, through the earth itself.
His age be damned, Ian loved to party. His fake ID gained him entry into every dance club on the south side. Mickey preferred a quiet beer at home. Some pot, maybe. He rarely even visited a bar.
So, between the booze and the pills, Saturday night was veering left fast. An older guy pestered Ian right out the exit door. When he stumbled out of the club and fell somewhere down the street in the literal gutter, he didn’t know what to do. If the creep followed him, he was helpless to fight him off. Ian liked fucking, but he wanted to be conscious for it.
Ian crawled out of the street and slumped against a brick wall, pulling his cellphone.
“Who the fuck is this?” Mickey answered.
“Mick,” he said, his mouth swollen and hard to control. “Come get me.”
“Gallagher?” he asked, sounding astonished. “Where the fuck are you? If this is a dumbass prank…”
“I can’t get up,” he whined. “There’s some creep…”
Mickey’s voice, when next he spoke turned serious. “Tell me where you are.”
“…street,” he breathed. “Club Smash…” His eyes drooped, and the phone must have fallen from his numb fingers because he never caught Mickey’s response.
When Mickey arrived, though, he wasn’t quiet or polite about it. He flung Ian against the sidewalk and kicked him in the ribs.
“Is this your idea of a good time?” he demanded. “Flirting with perverts and passing out on the street?”
Ian started to cry.
“You’re a fuckin’ disappointment,” Mickey swore. “Get up.”
Mickey pulled him roughly to his feet and supported him on the walk to his pickup.
“I’m sorry,” Ian whined.
“You scared the shit outta me,” Mickey replied, thrusting him into the truck. “I thought I was gonna find you stabbed and raped, you stupid bastard. Why are you out here alone?”
Ian leaned his head against the cool window glass and closed his eyes. “No one to go with.”
“Next time you wanna party, I’ll go with you,” Mickey said, starting the truck. “You need a fuckin’ chaperone. Might as well be me.”
Ian woke like rising from the depths of the community center pool. First, consciousness returned in pieces before he began to flex his limbs. Finally, his vision cleared enough to recognize the person beside him.
Across the narrow hospital bed, a sleeping Mickey balanced on the very edge, not an inch of him disturbing a single spot on Ian’s body. It looked uncomfortable.
“Mick?” His voice was raw and throaty.
The sound roused the other boy, who whipped his head up.
Their eyes met, and Mickey hovered over him, his face a mask of anxiety and grief. “Can you hear me? Are you awake?”
He nodded because his voice was trash.
Mickey hadn’t tried to touch him yet, not so much as a pat on the shoulder. Probably, he stupidly worried about hurting him.
Ian made the first move, laying his hand on Mickey’s. The touch seemed to revitalize him. Mickey’s features softened, and his chin wobbled.
“Is that really you?” Mickey asked. “’Cause you’ve been opening your eyes now and then, but no one’s home.”
Just how bad was it? “It’s me, Mick,” he promised. “Am I dying?”
“No, shithead. You’re not that lucky.”
Things must be okay if Mickey was insulting him. Ian eased deeper into the thin mattress. “Did I get shot?”
“Shot, yep.” Mickey relaxed, too, curling around him. “And your head got split open.”
“The bottles?” Ian asked, sort of remembering all that liquor bombarding him when he fell into the shelf.
“Mmm-hmm.” Ian shifted positions, and Mickey laid his head on his bicep.
“Were you worried about me?” Ian teased. In truth, Mickey’s shared body heat and the weight of his arm was lulling him back to sleep.
“Hell, no,” Mickey said, one thumb rising to tenderly stroke his cheek. “I just didn’t wanna have to tell Fiona her no-good brother died.”
Ian smiled as his eyes fluttered closed. “I love you,” he murmured.
There was a sharp intake of breath and then silence. Ian withdrew his arm and lifted his head to see into Mickey’s face.
Too soon, Ian thought. He’d fucked up and said it too soon.
Mickey bit his lower lip and then shifted around as if he couldn’t get comfortable. After clearing his throat, he blurted out, “I love you, too. Now, shut up and go back to sleep. You’re supposed to be resting.” As he said it, he pulled Ian’s arm back around his ribs. “Dummy,” he breathed into his chest.
“Douche,” Ian whispered back, resting his cheek against the top of Mickey’s head. The corners of his mouth turned up, and he fell asleep.