~ PROLOGUE ~
The vampires were behaving weird today. Not that anyone believed Nicole when she told them. No, all the adults simply smiled, patted her on the head, and told her to go upstairs to play until her older brother arrived to take her to the zoo.
Half brother, she’d told them, and again, they’d smiled and shooed her away. She never reminded her mother about the half-brother thing, though. Chuck had a different mom, and although Nicole didn’t understand what an “affair” was, talking about Chuck always brought up that word, and it made her mom and dad fight.
One of the household vampires, Anthony, grinned as he passed her in the foyer with a tray of decadent hors d’oeuvres, but something about his smile made goose bumps prickle her arms. Like all the servants, he’d always kept his eyes downcast – “secured his gaze,” as her father called it — in the presence of humans, but not this time. This time he looked at her the way her dad looked at the Thanksgiving turkey.
Barefoot and wearing the pink princess dress she was never supposed to wear outside, she darted out the back door reserved for the servants and ran as fast as she could, squinting against the bright summer sunlight. She slipped unnoticed past the wet bar and food-laden tables, through the crowds of people partying around the pool, until she reached the hedges designed to conceal the gardening shed and equipment. Laughter and the clink of glasses followed her through the dense brush. She scurried like a little animal, not caring that the branches were scratching her skin and catching on her dress.
Panting, she crouched in the very spot where, just six months before, her vampire nanny had died, her unborn baby with her. Nicole shivered at the memory. She’d been so excited about Terese’s baby. Terese had been the best nanny ever, always teaching Nicole new things, reading to her, asking her opinion on things as if Nicole were a grownup. Terese would have been a great mommy to the baby. Secretly, Nicole had sometimes wished Terese were her mommy, too.
Tears stung Nicole’s eyes as she reached up and wrapped her necklace around her fingers, bringing the ring Terese had given her to her lips.
It’s a secret ring, Terese had said as she pressed it into her small hand. You can hide things inside it. I want you to have it. And remember what I said. Be a good girl and a good adult. You’ll have a lot of power someday. Use it well. I love you, Nikki.
Terese had been killed half an hour later…by her own mate.
The very name struck fear into Nicole’s heart. Terese had loved him, trusted him. And he’d driven a blade into her throat.
Nicole would never forget Terese’s broken voice as she pleaded with him. She’d definitely never forget his face. His glittering, silver eyes. His sandy hair Terese said was silky-soft. His fangs that had been longer than Nicole’s finger.
All of it haunted her nightmares.
Nicole jumped at her father’s angry words. He stood a few feet away in the dappled shade from the huge oak tree, his lips pressed together in a forbidding line.
“How many times have I told you to stay away from the shed? It’s not healthy to hang out here like a damned dog mourning the loss of his master. Terese was just a vampire. We got you a hamster and a new nanny. It’s time to get over it.”
“But I don’t like my new nanny! Chelsea’s grumpy and she doesn’t read to me before bed—”
“We didn’t purchase her to be your best friend,” he snapped. “And look what you’ve done to your dress. Your mother is going to have Chelsea spank you.”
Terese would never have spanked Nicole. Hand shaking, she automatically reached for the comfort of the ring Terese had given her, but in an instant, her father fisted the chain and yanked, snapping the necklace and sending the ring tumbling into the grass.
“Enough with the ring! You were supposed to throw it away. It’s beneath you to wear a slave’s jewelry. And frankly, it’s disturbing.” He flung the destroyed chain into the bushes. “Go to your room and—”
A shrill scream interrupted him. Maybe it was weird, but her first thought was that daddy hated to be interrupted. Whoever did that would be in big trouble.
Her father spun around as another scream joined the first. And then another. And another, until suddenly, all Nicole could hear were cries for help and shrieks of terror.
“Stay here, Nicole.” Her father turned to her, for a just a second, but in that moment she saw something in his face she’d never seen in him before: fear. “Hide. No matter what happens, don’t come out.”
She nodded, but he was already gone, running for the main house. Frightened and confused, she wedged herself between the storage shed and a bush and listened to the screams and pleas, the groans and wet, horrible crunching sounds punctuated by maniacal laughter. On the ground, the ring Terese had given her lay in a tangle of trampled grass, and Nicole found that if she focused on the shiny oval ruby, she could pretend the noises all around her weren’t real.
Suddenly, a huge foot came down on the ring. Too petrified to move, Nicole could only gasp when massive hands ripped her from her hiding place and hurled her against the supply shed wall. She crumpled to the ground, pain tearing through her back, hips, and her right leg. She tried to scramble to her feet, but her body wasn’t working right.
Trembling, choking on a sob, she looked down at her thigh and the bloody end of bone protruding through mangled flesh. Her princess dress was grass and blood-stained now. Even through her unimaginable agony and terror, her mind could only form one thought with any semblance of clarity: she would be in so much trouble for ruining her clothes.
“I’ve been looking for you, Nicole.”
Through a haze of pain and tears, she glanced up at the vampire looming over her. “B-Boris?” She cried out as her family’s chef lifted her and once again slammed her against the shed, this time pinning her there. “Where’s my daddy? I want my mommy. Mommy!”
“Call for her all you want,” Boris said. “She’s not coming.” He touched her cheek with his finger, and a stab of icy terror shot straight to her heart. “I’ve fed you since you were old enough to eat solid foods, you spoiled little human. Now it’s time for you to feed me.” He took a deep breath, like he was smelling her. “I’ve always heard that children taste better than adults. Sweeter. Purer. Now I get to find out for myself.” He grinned. “It’s going to hurt, since I have no fangs.”
Nicole tried to fight. Tried to kick, hit, scream. But Boris was strong and she was a petrified eight-year-old girl with a broken leg. His dull teeth sank into her skin. Grinding, crushing sounds accompanied a storm of agony as he chewed into her throat. Liquid warmth streamed down her neck, and when she tried to scream, only a gurgling noise came out of her mouth.
Why was he doing this? Why would someone who had baked her cookies for after-school snacks and strawberry cakes for her birthdays want to hurt her so badly?
You can domesticate animals, but you can never trust them or know for sure that they won’t bite. You can’t override instinct, her father once said. Vampires are animals that must always be harnessed. Remember that, Nicole.
She hadn’t believed him. But as her body went mercifully numb and her struggles weakened, she recalled what her father had said when she’d argued that their household vampires like Boris and Terese were kind and loyal.
Even cute, fluffy pet bunnies can bite.
Darkness closed in, and in the last second before she lost consciousness, Nicole wondered if bunny bites hurt as badly as vampire bites.
~ CHAPTER ONE ~
“Go fuck yourself.”
Hunter, MoonBound clan’s leader, leaned back in his chair and gave Riker an expectant look. “Go fuck yourself…” He made a “come on” gesture with his fingers. “Finish the sentence.”
Riker rolled his eyes. “Go fuck yourself…sir.”
Nodding his dark head in satisfaction, Hunter kicked his boots up on the scarred oak conference table. “Better.” He laced his fingers together over his abs, his deeply tanned skin making his white T-shirt seem even brighter. “Now, as I was saying before being told to do something anatomically impossible, if we can storm the Martin residence with enough of our warriors, we can take hostages. The humans will be forced to give Neriya back to us.”
Another warrior seated at the table, Baddon, flipped a pen into the air. “Why don’t we get ShadowSpawn to pony up some muscle to help? It’s their female we’re trying to rescue.”
“I already tried,” Hunter said grimly. “They insist that because Neriya was taken taken by the humans while in our care, we’re responsible for getting her back or they’ll declare war on the eve of the new moon.”
Katina, the clan’s only senior-level female warrior, hissed. “That goes against every vampire custom and protocol there is. No one declares war so close to moon fever.” She braced her elbows on the table and leaned forward, as if ready to launch herself at anyone who dared argue with her. She’d certainly done it before. “You know they wouldn’t do it on the eve of the full moon, when the males need to feed.”
“No clan would risk that,” Baddon said. “But females mean little to ShadowSpawn except as breeders. It’s probably not a big deal to them if the females miss a new moon feeding.”
“Fuck ‘em,” Katina spat. “Let them come. Our warriors are well trained and powerful. We’ll give them the fight of their lives.”
As much as Riker wanted to agree with her, the truth was that the odds were in the enemy clan’s favor. Not only did they outnumber MoonBound clan three to one, but ShadowSpawn had no code of ethics and made no distinction between males, females, and children when it came to killing in battle or otherwise.
“Wendigo legend is based on the ShadowSpawn,” Hunter reminded them. “They’re killers, cannibals who have destroyed clans up and down the west coast. Neriya was lost while she was a guest in our home. Make no mistake; if we don’t return her to ShadowSpawn, we’ll feel their wrath. They’re desperate to get her back.”
Understandable. Vampire mortality rates during childbirth were dangerously high, and Neriya’s rare ability to deliver babies safely made her precious among their people. ShadowSpawn would definitely fight for her.
“I’m not afraid of them.” Katina shifted, her leather jacket squeaking against the back of the chair. “Riker has prepared us for this. We can win, even if we have to scatter into the forest and fight like guerillas until the end of time.”
“Perhaps.” Hunter’s gaze lifted to the far wall of the conference room, where a painting depicting a bloody battle between two vampire clans hung next to other vampire and Native American artwork. “But our females and children will be dead. What will we have won?”
Riker had lost a female and child, so he knew the answer to that.
And he wished like hell he didn’t.
Hunter signaled to one of the clan’s maidens, who brought over a tray laden with a leather flask, glasses, and a ceremonial pipe. Hunter waited until she left the room before saying, “Now, let’s do the peace thing.”
Peace? Riker was nowhere near ready to toast to a “good hunt” and smoke to “plentiful blood.” Their clan was in danger from a rival vampire clan whose members were savage animals, and until the threat was over, Riker wasn’t going to play nice. Not even with the male who had led MoonBound clan for nearly two hundred years.
“Didn’t you hear a word I said?” Riker whipped a dagger from his weapons’ harness and sank the blade into the table, where it vibrated as violently as the temper pulsing through his veins. “I don’t give a shit if you’re Supreme King Alpha Commander of the Known Universe. You’re going to listen to me.”
One ebony eyebrow climbed up Hunter’s forehead, and the other three warriors stopped moving and breathing. All except Baddon, anyway. He traced one of the skull tats on his forearm and let out a soft “holy shit” whistle.
“Someone’s feeling his oats today.” Hunter folded his arms across his broad chest and studied Riker with deceptively calm, half-lidded eyes that were as black as his hair. “Why don’t you make me listen. And then tell me why I shouldn’t fire you as my Second before I toss you into the pit for a month.”
Summoning his human military training, Riker inhaled a slow, measured breath in order to steal a few precious seconds to get his next move queued up. He’d stepped over the line by disrespecting Hunter in front of the senior warriors, and Riker would take his punishment like a good little vampire later. Right now he had to knock some sense into his thick-headed clan leader.
“You’re a great chief, Hunter,” Riker said calmly. “But battle and covert ops are my specialty, and I’m telling you that, in this case, a stealthy surgical strike is going to be more effective than numbers and brute force. If my plan for rescuing Neriya doesn’t work, you can rally the clan for a larger assault, but you’ve got to let me do this my way. You’ve trusted me in charge of our warriors for thirty years, so trust me enough to handle this now. I can get her away from the humans who captured her. We’ll return her to ShadowSpawn before they have a chance to come after us.” Riker popped his dagger from the wood and sheathed it. “And you don’t want to fire me because you’d be stuck dealing with Myne on your own. Which is also why you shouldn’t drop me into the pit.”
Hunter appeared to consider what he’d said. Though Riker was only half-kidding about why Hunter shouldn’t fire him or drop-kick him into the pit used for non-lethal punishments, there was some truth to what he’d said. Myne and Hunter, the only two pureblood vampires besides Baddon in the clan, got along like two tomcats in a bag, and neither would admit that he needed the other.
“Where is the bastard, anyway?” Hunter asked, and Riker shrugged. Myne wasn’t one to share his plans.
“Patrolling, probably. Not my day to watch him.”
Taggart, a male who worked with the CIA before he’d been turned into a vampire, cleared his throat. “Riker’s right about stealth. I’d feel better if we had a whole team going in to rescue Neriya, but until we know the exact situation, it might be better to let Riker go in the way he wants to.”
“Especially with the increase in hunters and poachers lurking in the forest lately.” Katina growled, her pearly fangs flashing in stark contrast to her brown skin. “A large group of vampires heading toward Seattle’s billionaire district is a lot more likely to attract their attention than one or two of us.”
Except for the sound of the cuckoo clock ticking on the wall behind Katina, there was silence as Hunter looked each of them in the eye. Finally, like a great cat rising from its jungle resting place, he dropped his feet onto the wood floor and rose to his full, impressive six-feet-seven height. Those who had been born vampires instead of turned were generally taller than most humans and turned vampires. They also got to keep their natural eye color, unlike turned vampires, whose eyes always became some shade of silver as their fangs grew in.
“I’ll give Riker a shot at doing it his way.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Out. Everyone but Rike. Fill the other senior staff in. We’ll let the rest of the warriors know what’s happening when we need to.”
“What about general clan members?” Baddon asked. “Everyone is on edge.”
“I’ll speak at dinner. Assure everyone there’s nothing to worry about for now.” Hunter nodded at the door again. “Go.”
Taggart, Baddon, and Katina filed out, each shooting Riker a sympathetic glance as they went. Once the door closed, Riker got to his feet and moved away from the table, waiting for the dress-down.
It came in the form of a fist in the face.
Riker hit the wall hard enough to make the picture frames rattle.
“Don’t disrespect me in front of the others again.” Hunter glanced down at his knuckles. “Also? You have a hard face to match your hard head.” No one went from pissed to playful in a split-second the way Hunter did.
Tasting blood, Riker tested his jaw. Nothing broken or loose, but he’d feel it for a while. “You didn’t learn that the first ten times you decked me?”
Truth was that Hunter had held back. Riker had never felt the full brunt of his chief’s anger, but he’d seen it. If Hunter had wanted to, he could have shattered every bone in Riker’s skull.
Hunter gave a lazy shrug. “I’m a slow learner.”
That was a load of crap. The ancient vampire came across as a laid-back, couldn’t-give-a-shit slacker who liked video games, Sports Illustrated, and muscle cars, but he was a lot smarter than anyone who didn’t know him gave him credit for. His mind was blade-sharp, his smiles frequent, his nature affable and calm, outwardly, at least. He’d never ruled with an iron fist — and he didn’t need to. Respect for his leadership kept the clan running smoothly.
“You won’t regret this,” Riker assured him. “I can do it.”
Doubt all but billowed from Hunter’s pores as he lifted the ceremonial pipe from the tray. “If this were any other mission, I wouldn’t be concerned. You know that.”
“I know,” Riker admitted. “But you know I’m right about this. I’m familiar with the Martin house. I’ve memorized the grounds. I’ve studied every detail of their security, both inside and outside the house.”
“Okay, stalked. But my point is—”
“I know what your point is. And I know how much your hatred for the Martins has eaten at you. Hatred makes you sloppy. Makes you focus so completely on revenge that you’re blind to the dangers around you. Makes you—”
“Makes me determined to succeed.”
Hunter put his back to the wall and propped one foot behind him, his pose casual, but his expression as serious as Riker had ever seen it. “Your mate was a slave in the Martin household. How can you be sure you can do what needs to be done without that history coloring your actions?”
“Because this is my home.” Riker met his leader’s gaze head on. “This is my family. And if I screw up, I lose everything.” He glanced over at the depiction of MoonBound’s battle with the now-extinct CloudStrike clan. “We all lose everything.”