Paradise City, New Florida, 2067
The cheap lace and single-sewn seams pressed into Chrysabelle’s flesh, weighed down by the uncomfortable tapestry jacket that finished her disguise. Her training kept her from fidgeting with the shirt’s tag even as it bit into her skin. She studied those around her. How curious that the kine perceived her world this way. No, this was her world, not the one she’d left behind. And she had to stop thinking of humans as kine. She was one of them now. Free. Independent. Owned by no one.
She forced a weak smile as the club’s heavy electronic beat ricocheted through her bones. Lights flickered and strobed, casting shadows and angles that paid no compliments to the faces around her. She cringed as a few bodies collided with her in the surrounding crush. Nothing in her years of training had prepared her for immersion in a crowd of mortals. She recognized the warm, earthy smell of them from the human servants her patron and the other nobles had kept, but acclimating to their noise and their boisterous behavior was going to take time. Perhaps humans lived so hard because they had so little of that very thing.
Something she was coming to understand.
The names on the slip of paper in her pocket were memorized, but she pulled it out and read them again. Jonas Sweets, and beneath it, Nyssa, both written in her aunt’s flowery script. Just the sight of the handwriting calmed her a little. She folded the note and tucked it away. If Aunt Maris said Jonas could connect her with help, Chrysabelle would trust that he could, even though the idea of trusting a kine – no, a human – seemed untenable.
She pushed through to the bar, failing in her attempt to avoid more contact but happy at how little attention she attracted. The foundation Maris had applied to her hands, face and neck, the only skin left visible by her clothing, covered her signum perfectly. No longer did the multitude of gold markings she bore identify her as an object to be possessed. She was her own person now, passing easily as human.
The feat split her in two. While part of her thrilled to be free of the stifling propriety that governed her every move and rejoiced that she was no longer property, another part of her felt wholly unprepared for this existence. There was no denying life in Algernon’s manor had been one of shelter and privilege.
Enough wallowing. She hadn’t the time and there was no going back, even if she could. Which she wouldn’t. And it wasn’t as if Aunt Maris hadn’t provided for her and wouldn’t continue to do so, if Chrysabelle could just take care of this one small problem. Finding a space between two bodies, she squeezed in and waited for the bartender’s attention.
He nodded at her. ‘What can I get you?’
She slid the first plastic fifty across the bar as Maris had instructed. ‘I need to find Jonas Sweets.’
He took the bill, smiling enough to display canines capped into points. Ridiculous. ‘Haven’t seen him in a few days, but he’ll show up eventually.’
Eventually was too late. She added a second bill. ‘What time does he usually come in?’
The bartender removed the empty glasses in front of her, snatched up the money, and leaned in. ‘Midnight. Sometimes sooner. Sometimes later.’
It was nearly 1 a.m. now. ‘How about his assistant, Nyssa? The mute girl?
‘She won’t show without him.’ He tapped the bar with damp fingers. ‘I can give Jonas a message for you, if he turns up. What’s your name?’
She shook her head. No names. No clues. No trail. The bartender shrugged and hustled away. She slumped against the bar and rested her hand over her eyes. At least she could get out of here now. Or maybe she should stay. The Nothos wouldn’t attempt anything in so public a place, would they?
A bitter laugh stalled in her throat. She knew better. The hellhounds could kill her in a single pass, without a noise or a struggle or her even knowing what had happened until the pain lit every nerve in her body or her heart shuddered to a stop. She’d never seen one of the horrible creatures, but she didn’t need to in order to understand what one was capable of.
They could walk among this crowd without detection, hidden by the covenant that protected humans from the othernaturals, the vampires, varcolai, fae, and such that coexisted with them. She would be the only one to see them coming.
The certainty of her death echoed in her marrow. She shoved the thought away and lifted her head, scanning the crowd, inhaling the earthy human aroma in search of the signature reek of brimstone. Were they already here? Had they tracked her this far, this fast? She wouldn’t go back to her aunt’s if they had. Couldn’t risk bringing that danger to her only family. Maris was not the strong young woman she’d once been.
Her gaze skipped from face to face. So many powdered cheeks and blood red lips. Mouths full of false fangs. Cultivated widow’s peaks. All in an attempt to what? Replicate the very beings who would drain the lifeblood from their mortal bodies before they could utter a single word of sycophantic praise? Poor, misguided fools. She felt sorry for them, really. They worshipped their own deaths, lulled into thinking beauty and perfection were just a bite away. She would never think that. Never fall under the spell of those manufactured lies. No matter how long or how short her new life was.
She knew too much.
Malkolm hated Puncture with every undead fiber of his being. If it weren’t for the bloodlust crazing his brain – which kicked the ever-present voices into a frenzy – he’d be home, sipping the single malt he could no longer afford, maybe listening to Fauré or Tchaikovsky while searching his books for a way to empty his head of all thoughts but his own.
Damn Jonas for disappearing without setting up another reliable source. Mal cracked his knuckles, thinking about the beating that idiot was in for when he showed up again. It wasn’t like the local Quik E Mart carried pints of fresh, clean, human blood. Unfortunately.
The warm, delicious scent of the very thing he craved hit full force as he pushed through the heavy velvet drapes curtaining the VIP section. In here, his real face, the face of the monster he’d been turned into, made him the very best of their pretenders and got him access to any area of the nightclub he wanted. Ironic, considering how showing his real face anywhere else would probably get him locked up as a mental patient. He shuddered and inhaled without thinking. His body tensed with the seductive aroma of thriving, vibrating life. The voices went mad, pounding against his skull. A multitude of heartbeats filled his ears, pulses around him calling out like siren songs. Bite me, drink me, swallow me whole.
A petite redhead with a jeweled cross dangling between her breasts stopped dead in front of him. Like an actual vampire could ever tolerate the touch of that sacred symbol. Dumb git. But then how was she to know the origins of creatures she only hoped were real? She appraised him from head to toe, running her tongue over a set of resin fangs. ‘You’re new here, huh? I love your look. Are those contacts? I haven’t seen any metallic ones like that. Kinda different, but totally hot.’
She reached out to touch the hard ridge of his cheekbone and he snapped back, baring his teeth and growling softly. Eat her. She scowled. ‘Chill, dude.’ Pouting, she skulked away, muttering ‘freak’ under her breath.
Fine. Let her think what she wanted. A human’s touch might push him over the edge. No, he reassured himself, it wouldn’t. Yes. He wouldn’t let it. Do. He wouldn’t get that far gone. Go. But in truth, he balanced on the edge. Fall. He needed to feed. To kill. To shut the voices up.
With that thought he shoved his way to the bar, disgusted things had gotten this dire. He got the bartender’s attention, then pushed some persuasion into his voice. ‘Hey.’ It was one of the few powers that hadn’t blinked out on him yet. Good old family genes.
His head turned in Mal’s direction, eyes slightly glazed. Mal eased off. Humans were so suggestible. ‘What’ll it be?’
‘Give me a Vlad.’ Inwardly, he died a little. Metaphorically speaking. The whole idea of doing this here, in full view of a human audience, made him sick. But not as sick as going without. How fortunate that humans wanted to mimic his kind to the full extent.
The bartender’s brows lifted. ‘Looking to get laid, huh? A pint should keep you busy all night. These chicks get seriously damp over that action. Not that anyone’s managed to drink the pint and keep it down.’ He hesitated. ‘You gotta puke, you head for the john, you got me?’
‘Not going to happen.’
‘Yeah, right.’ The bartender opened a small black fridge and took out a plastic bag fat with red liquid.
Mal swallowed the saliva coating his tongue, unable to focus his gaze elsewhere, despite the fact he preferred his sustenance body temperature and not chilled. A few of the voices wept softly. ‘That’s human, right? And fresh?’
The bartender laughed. ‘Chickening out?’
‘No. Just making sure.’
‘Yeah, it’s fresh and it’s human. That’s why it’s $250 a pop.’
He squirted the liquid into a pilsner. It oozed down the glass thick and viscous, sending a bittersweet aroma into the air. Even here in the VIP lounge, heads turned. Several women and at least one man radiated hard lust in his direction. The scent of human desire was like dying roses, and right now, Puncture’s VIP lounge smelled like a funeral parlor. He hadn’t anticipated such a rapt audience, but the ache in his gut stuck up a big middle finger to caring what the humans around him thought. At least there weren’t any fringe vamps here tonight. Despite his status as an outcast anathema, the lesser-class vampires only saw him as nobility. He wasn’t in the mood to be sucked up to. Ever.
The bartender slid the glass his way. ‘There you go. Will that be cash?’
‘Start a tab.’
‘I don’t think so, buddy.’
Mal refocused his power. ‘I’ve already paid you.’
The man’s jaw loosened and the tension lines in his forehead disappeared. ‘You’ve already paid.’
‘That’s a good little human,’ Mal muttered. He grabbed the pilsner and walked toward an empty stretch of railing for a little privacy. The air behind him heated up. He glanced over his shoulder. A set of twins with blue-black hair, jet lips, and matching leather corsets stood waiting.
‘Hi,’ they said in unison.
Eat them. Drain them.
‘No.’ He filled his voice with power, hoping that would be enough.
They stepped forward. Behind them, the bartender watched with obvious interest.
The blood warmed in his grasp, its tang filling his nose, but feeding would have to wait a moment longer. Using charm this time, he spoke. ‘I am not the one you seek. Pleasure awaits you elsewhere. Leave me now.’
They nodded sleepily and moved away.
The effort exhausted him. He was too weak to use so much power in such a short span of time. He gripped the railing, waiting for the dizziness in his head to abate. He stared into the crowd below. Scanned for Nyssa, but he knew better. She only left Sweets’ side when she had a delivery. The moving bodies blurred until they were an undulating mass, each one indistinguishable from the next until a muted flash of gold stopped his gaze. His entire being froze. Not here. Couldn’t be.
He blinked, then stared harder. The flickering glow remained. It reminded him of a dying firefly. Instinct kicked in. Sparks of need exploded in his gut. His gums ached, causing him to pop
his jaw. The small hairs on the back of his neck lifted and the voices went oddly quiet, save an occasional whimper. His world converged down to the soft light emanating from the crowd near the downstairs bar.
He had to find the source, see if it really was what he thought. If it was, he had to get to it before anyone else did. The urge drove him inexplicably forward.
All traces of exhaustion disappeared. The glass in his hand fell to the floor, splattering blood that no longer called to him. He vaulted over the railing and dropped effortlessly to the dance floor below. The crush parted to let him through as he strode toward the gentle beacon.
She stood at the bar, her back to him. The generous fall of sunlight-blonde hair stopped him, but the fabled luminescence brought him back to reality. So beautiful this close. He rubbed at his aching jaw. You’ll scare her like this, you fool. You’re all fang and hunger. Show some respect.
He assumed his human face, then approached. ‘Looking for someone?’
She tensed, going statue still. Even with the heavy bass, he felt her heartbeat shoot up a notch. He moved closer and leaned forward to speak without human ears hearing. Bad move. Her scent plunged into him dagger sharp, its honeyed perfume nearly doubling him with hunger pains. The whimpering in his head increased. Catching himself, he staggered for the bar behind her and reached out for support.
His hand closed over her wrist. Her pulse thrummed beneath his fingertips. Welcoming heat blazed up his arm. A chorus of fearful voices sang out in his head. Get away, get away, get away . . .
She spun, eyes fear-wide, heart thudding. ‘You’re . . . ’ She hesitated then mouthed the words ‘not human.’
Beneath his grip, she trembled. He pulled his hand away and stared. Had he been wrong? No marks adorned her face or hands. Maybe . . . but no. She had the blonde hair, the glow, the carmine lips. She hid the marks somehow. He wasn’t wrong. He knew enough of the history, the lore, the traditions. Besides, he’d seen her kind before. Just the once, but it wasn’t something you ever forgot no matter how long you lived. Only one thing caused that glow.
She bent her head. ‘Master,’ she whispered.
‘Don’t. Don’t call me that. It’s not necessary.’ She thought him nobility? Why not assume he was fringe? Or worse, anathema? But she’d addressed him with the respect due her better. A noble with all rights and privileges. Which he wasn’t. And she’d surely guessed he was here to feed. Which he was.
She nodded. ‘As you wish, mast—’ Visibly flustered, she cut herself off. ‘As you wish.’
He gestured toward the exit. ‘Outside. You don’t belong here.’
Anyone could get to her here. Like Preacher. It wasn’t safe. How she’d ended up here, he couldn’t fathom. Finding a live rabbit in a den of lions would have been less surprising.
‘I’m sure my patron will be back in just a—’
‘We both know I’m the only real vampire here.’ For now. ‘Let’s go.’
His gaze wandered to the surrounding crowd, then past him. She sucked her lower lip between her teeth and twisted her hands together. Hesitantly, she brushed past, painting a line of hunger across his chest with the curve of her shoulder. Get away, get away, get away . . .
She was not for him. He knew that, and not just because of the voices, but getting his body to agree was a different matter. Her scent numbed him like good whiskey. Made him feel needy. Reckless. Finding some shred of control, he shadowed her out of the club, away from the mob awaiting entrance, and herded her deep into the alley. He scanned in both directions. Nothing. They hadn’t been followed. He could get her somewhere safe. Not that he knew where that might be.
‘No one saw us leave.’
She backed away, hugging herself beneath her coat. Her chest rose and fell as though she’d run a marathon. Fear soured her sweet perfume. She had to be in some kind of trouble. Why else would she be here without an escort? Without her patron?
‘Trust me, we’re completely alone.’ He reached awkwardly to put his arm around her, the first attempt at comfort he’d made in years.
Quicker than a human eye could track, her arm snapped from under the coat, something dark and slim clutched in her hand. The side of her fist slammed into his chest. Whatever she held pierced him, missing his heart by inches. The voices shrieked, deafening him. Corrosive pain erupted where she made contact.
He froze, immobilized by hellfire scorching his insides. He fell to his knees and collapsed against the damp pavement. Foul water soaked his clothing as he lay there, her fading footfalls drowned out by the howling in his head.