On my extensive list of enemies, the top two spots belonged to Lavinia Kane and time. One I planned to kill as soon as possible. That is, if I didn’t run out of the other one first.
The dashboard clock fl ipped to 10:01. The ones mocked me like two extended middle fingers. Impatience was my third enemy.
I’d already been sitting in the white van parked on a windy stretch of road near Pacific Palisades for twenty minutes. The hood of the van stood open, but the engine idled in preparation for the ambush.
“Giguhl, any visual on the car yet?”
“Negative.” His voice crackled through the earpiece, but his body was perched in a tree just outside the Dominae compound.
I sighed. “Okay, thanks.”
“Don’t you mean ‘roger’?” he responded.
“Whatever,” I said. “Let me know the minute the gates open.”
“Yeah?” I said a tad more impatiently than I intended.
“Why can’t I have a gun again?”
I rolled my eyes. “I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid, G. Now focus.”
“I live to serve,” he grumbled.
I settled back into the seat. Outside the van, the landscape offered little distraction from my impatience. Scrub brush, low stone walls, and roadkill speed bumps. Light from the City of Angels rose above the shadowed hilltops like a dusty halo.
Los Fucking Angeles.
Whoever said you couldn’t go home again was full of shit. The truth is you shouldn’t go home again. And when I’d left California, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t return. Ever. But Fate— that fickle bitch— made a liar out of me. Again.
Three days earlier, my twin sister, Maisie, had been kidnapped from a mage estate in New York. Three weeks before that I hadn’t even known she’d existed. The longstory– short version is our vampire mother died in childbirth a few months after our mage father was murdered.
Because mating between the races was forbidden, Maisie and I were separated at birth by our vampire and mage grandmothers to keep the peace. Maisie was raised by the mage side of the family in New York, and I got the short straw— a vampire upbringing in Los Angeles. The desire to meet my long- lost twin was one of the reasons I’d left
Los Angeles.The fact our vampire grandmother, Lavinia Kane, wanted me dead was the other.
But now the tables had turned. Lavinia had kidnapped Maisie in an effort to hurt me. So now I would do a little kidnapping of my own.
Giguhl’s voice bounced off my eardrum, making me jump. “Big Black is on the move. Should be on your tail in T minus sixty seconds.”
A sudden rush of blood. My hands tightened on the wheel. Showtime.
“Be ready when I summon you,” I replied in a calm tone.
“ Ten- four.”
In my previous life as an assassin, I’d disposed of problem vampires for the Dominae. Therefore, despite the personal stakes and the adrenaline surge, my body had kicked instinctively into mission mode.
I shifted the car into drive. The sweat on my palm meant it took two tries to manage.
“Hey, Red?” This from Adam Lazarus— hottie mage and the third member of our little team. We used to have a fourth— a Vanity demon— but she’d been kicked off the team twenty- four hours earlier after an unfortunate incident involving a vampire strip club, a large explosion, and a lover’s quarrel with Giguhl.
“Are you ready?” The mage always had a frustrating knack for breaking through the insulating layers I’d built around my feelings. Damn him.
Two pinpoints of light turned onto the road several blocks back. I took a deep breath and willed my heart to slow. “Are you kidding?” I snorted. “Totally.”
He knew me too well to buy that. “We’ll get her back, Sabina.” His tone had a hint of unwelcome pity. I ignored the spark of fear that fl ared at his words. “Of course we will.” Not getting Maisie back was not an option. “Okay, everyone, switching to radio silence. Let’s do this.”
My hands contracted on the steering wheel, my knuckles pale in the dim light. I tried not to focus on the only glitch in our plan: We were about to kidnap the wrong Domina.
In a perfect world, the vampire in that Mercedes would be my grandmother. When she’d taken Maisie, she’d sealed her fate with me. Although, to be honest, she was pretty much at the top of my “ must- kill list” for a host of other reasons that included manipulation, lying, kidnapping, attempted murder, and the destruction of my prized Ducati.
Yeah, I know. We make the Manson Family look like the Brady Bunch.
Anyway, Lavinia wasn’t an option for the kidnapping plan, because she rarely left the Dominae compound. But Persephone left the grounds each Tuesday to host a mass for the plebian vamps at a temple located in Santa Monica.
And with the war between vampires and mages looming, the Dominae needed to spread anti- mage propaganda to strengthen support for the war. Where better to do that than at a religious service?
Besides, of the three Dominae who ruled the vampire race, Persephone was the weakest. Weak is relative when discussing ancient female vampires, of course. But Persephone tended to be more interested in preserving history and promoting spiritualism among the vampire bourgeoisie than in crushing opposition or amassing obscene fortunes like the other two Dominae. That meant she’d be far easier to manipulate than Lavinia or Tanith— the Beta Domina, who controlled their business interests. The plan was to nab Persephone and deliver her to the faery and mage leaders for interrogation and a possible hostage exchange. Simple.
If we survived.
The Mercedes was about two blocks back now. A few car lengths behind that, I spied the headlights of the beater pickup we’d boosted. Adam held the truck back at a conservative distance as he waited for my signal.
“Wait for it,” I said, my eyes glued to the mirror. When the target was a block back, I tensed my foot over the gas pedal. “Nothing to see here.” With each turn of the sedan’s wheels, my heart picked up speed. “Just a broken- down van.”
The Mercedes’ dark-as-midnight windows prevented me from counting heads. Looked like we were going to have to do this the hard way, as usual.
I punched the accelerator. The tires spun for a moment on gravel before jumping out onto the road. Squealing brakes and a blaring horn. Every muscle rigid as I braced for impact. The scream of crunching metal. Vertigo and pain as the van tipped and slid several hundred feet. The seat belt dug into my skin but kept me from being tossed around like loose change in a dryer. When the world stilled again, ominous silence reigned. Scratch that, not silence exactly. The van’s radiator hissed, and someone was groaning.
Oh, right. That was me.
“Now, Giguhl!” I grunted. With a punch of the button, my seat belt spat me at the passenger’s door.
A burst of light flashed outside the van, signaling Giguhl’s arrival. Shouting and gunfi re commenced on the road. I crawled into the van’s cargo area. The cooler I’d stashed earlier lay near the door. I wrenched it open and grabbed a bag of blood. My fangs made quick work of the silicone casing. For once, the chemical taste of the blood didn’t bother me as I gulped down the vampire version of a healing potion and energy drink in one.
The van’s back doors wrenched open. I tumbled out and landed at Giguhl’s hooves. He didn’t waste time asking if I was okay. Instead, he hooked his claws under my arms and lifted. When my feet hit pavement and I swayed, he steadied me. Nodding my thanks, I pulled a gun from my waistband.
I turned to survey the scene. The Mercedes was trapped between the van and the pickup, which now sported an accordion for a fender. Just beyond, Adam approached the Mercedes from the rear.
“Go,” I said to Giguhl. He moved so fast I could barely track his movement. The next thing I knew, he was crouched next to the Mercedes. I aimed my gun at the driver’s side and pulled off two rounds. Only instead of shattering the windshield, the bullets left spiderwebs on the bulletproof glass.
The Mercedes’ engine roared and the van lurched a few inches forward. The car’s wheels spun, kicking up a plume of smoke and gravel. “Adam?” I called.
“I’m on it!” The hair on the back of my neck prickled as he cast a spell over the lurching car. The engine emitted a loud death rattle before finally dying.
“Look alive, that’s probably one- way gla—”
A bullet exploded from the passenger’s side of the windshield. I ducked and rolled, coming up in a crouch near the intersection of the Mercedes and the van’s undercarriage.
With a predatory smile, the demon punched a hole through the driver’s window. Crucial design fl aw of bulletproof glass? It can’t keep out a determined demon.
Using one massive claw, Giguhl reached in like a cat into a fi sh tank and pulled out the wriggling vamp from behind the wheel.
“Giguhl! Catch!” Adam yelled. He tossed an applewood stake at the demon, who caught it with his free claw.
Two seconds later, the vamp ignited as his soul escaped and his ashes scattered to the wind.
“There’s a metal partition. I can’t get to them this way,”
Giguhl yelled as he reached in for the passenger.
“Got it!” I sidestepped my way toward the back door.
Adam approached the one on the other side. A couple more bullets zinged at us through the glass but went wide. That’s the problem with one- way glass. Bullets can get through from the inside, but the layered glass makes anything but point- blank range inaccurate.
At least that’s what I thought until Adam yelped and his head dropped out of sight behind the car.
“Shit! Adam?” My heart thudded in my chest like a piston. It’s one thing to shoot at me, but it was something else to hurt the mage.
“I’m okay. Just missed me.”
My pulse slowed from panicked to pissed.
More shots exploded out from the rear windows. I ducked next to a quarter panel, trusting the car’s armored walls to protect me.
“Got my hands full,” he grunted. I looked over and saw him crouching under the busted window. Two bullets zinged over his horns. While the driver had been taken by surprise, the passenger was using Giguhl for target practice. Time to end this shit. I banged a fi st on the hood.
“Come out with your hands up and no one else gets hurt.”
Two shots exploded from the back window. I cursed under my breath. Looked like we had ourselves a regular Mexican standoff until someone ran out of bullets.
“Sabina?” I barely heard Giguhl over the constant barrage of gunfire.
“If I create a distraction, can you take this guy out?”
I nodded. “Be careful.”
His black lips spread into a grin. “Yes, ma’am.”
He held up a claw. He counted down from three with his talons. On one, he leapt up onto the roof of the car and began rocking it side to side. I jumped toward the open window. The vamp’s attention was on the ceiling of the car as he held on for dear life.
“Hey!” I yelled. His head turned, and his eyes widened a nanosecond before I delivered a bullet into the center of his forehead. His body ignited, making a mess of the Corinthian leather.
“Nice!” Giguhl said, pumping a fi st as he jumped off the roof.
I wiped a hand across my brow. “Too early to start celebrating, G.”
As if to support my claim, a new volley of gunfire came from the back of the car. Giguhl and I squatted down and duckwalked toward the front bumper. I met the mage’s eyes over the hood. “Any ideas?”
“None that don’t involve one of us gaining an extra orifice.”
Toward the end, his voice sounded unnaturally loud.
That’s when I realized the gunfi re had ceased. The sudden silence jarred me into stillness. I narrowed my eyes and watched the back door. The car started rocking again, but this time from inside. Something was going down in the back seat.
I scooted along the side of the car toward the back, careful to stay out of sight. Muffl ed shouts leaked from bullet holes in the window. Two voices— one male, one female— argued with increasing volume. The car continued to shake until, suddenly, a single gunshot cut off the male’s shout. Little wisps of copper- scented smoke leaked from the holes.
“You okay, mancy?” I whisper- shouted at Adam in the unnatural silence that followed.
“All clear,” he replied. “But I wouldn’t mind someone telling me what the fuck is going on.”
That made two of us.
Two seconds later we got our answer when the door next to my head fl ew open. The panel knocked me on my ass. The gun slicked against my palm. My breath came out in pants as I raised my aim up the height of the door.
A mop of kinky mahogany curls cleared the top of the door. And below, a foot clad in a low- heeled black pump stepped onto the blacktop, followed by its twin. Next, a slender, milky hand with bloodied cuticles grasped the doorframe.
When the face came into view, my stomach dipped with dread. Persephone’s classically beautiful face didn’t feature a Roman nose, two beady black eyes, or a butt- cleft hin. No, only one Domina was cursed with such mannish features.
I suddenly wanted to vomit all over those sensible but unattractive shoes. Besides being the ugliest of the three, she was also the smartest and a mistress of the bitchly arts. In other words, she was a complication I didn’t need.
With a shaky hand, I kept the gun’s unblinking eye trained on the Domina. “Tanith? What. The. Fuck?”
The businesslike smile accentuated Tanith’s unfortunate features.
“Sabina,” she said. “Forgive my presumption in killing the final guard. But time is money and the wait was growing tiresome.”
I blinked in surprise. Giguhl came up behind my back.
His claws hooked under my arms and lifted. My feet hit the ground without my aim ever straying from its target. Adam skidded around the trunk to take up position behind one of the most powerful vampires alive.
“Why did you kill your own guard?”
She scowled and crossed her arms. “Your ambush was an unwelcome surprise at first, but as I sat there waiting for my guards to dispose of you I had a sudden flash of inspiration.” She shrugged. “Killing that last guard was the most expedient course of action.”
“What did this flash of inspiration entail exactly?”Adam asked.
The Domina barely spared the mage a scornful glance. With her eyes on me, she said, “Before we discuss that, perhaps you should enact the escape portion of your plan before the backup those guards called arrives.” She paused and narrowed her eyes at us. If she’d been wearing spectacles, she would have lowered them down her nose.
“You do have an escape plan, don’t you?”
Even with my gun, a demon, and a mage surrounding her, she stared us down like we were incompetent underlings.
“Of course we have an escape plan. But I’m seriously considering aborting this mission altogether unless you explain yourself. Why did you help us?”
She tilted her head like something I said didn’t compute. “I’m helping myself. Or rather, you will be helping me. I assume your plan is to trade me for your sister?” I squinted at her, neither confirming nor denying. But her unmitigated gall left me speechless. Like I’d ever help a Domina again after everything they’d put me through.
“Do you honestly believe Lavinia will agree to a trade?” Tanith snorted. “Of course you do. You get that naiveté from your mage side.”
I took a long cleansing breath through my nose. “How about you spend a little less time insulting me and a lot more time explaining why you think I’d ever help you.”
“Because I know where Maisie is. And I have a plan that not only helps you save her, but also ensures this distasteful war business is taken off the table forever.”
“Where is she?” I demanded.
“She’s not in Los Angeles. That’s all I’m willing to tell you until I have certain assurances from both the Hekate Council and Queen Maeve.”
“Now who’s being naive? Or are you forgetting the army you sent a few days ago to kill off most of the mages in New York?”
She held up a finger. “Correction. Lavinia sent that army.
It wasn’t until after the attack that she told Persephone and me that she’s formed an alliance with the Caste of Nod.”
The Caste of Nod is a mysterious sect made up of members of all the dark races. As far as I could tell, their goal was to cause me a lot of fucking problems. In New York, they’d orchestrated several attempts on my life because they thought I was destined to unite all the dark races. That’s the last thing they wanted, because only an all- out war between the races would bring on the second coming of Lilith. In other words, they were total wackos.
And homicidal ones, at that.
“Assuming I believe Lavinia acted without your knowledge, why haven’t you confronted her?”
She laughed— an awkward, insincere sound. “Surely you haven’t been away long enough to forget how things work here. Confronting the Alpha Dominae is a death sentence.”
I frowned. “But law dictates the three of you share power equally.”
“Despite what the laws state, your grandmother has been the de facto leader of the vampire race for centuries. Persephone and I assist her in running things, of course, but she holds all the real power. At best, she could have the Under Council strip us of our titles. At worst, well . . .” She trailed off, knowing she didn’t need to finish the thought.
After all, I used to make my living being the worst- case scenario for vamps who pissed off the Dominae.
“What about Persephone?”
Worry lines creased her normally smooth forehead.
“Unfortunately, Persephone remains loyal to Lavinia.
She’s too weak to be a real threat anyway. As for why I’m here, well, it’s simple.” She adjusted the French cuffs on her white shirt. “I’m double- crossing your grandmother.” She paused to let the concussion from that bombshell sink in. “I’m going to help you find Maisie in return for the Hekate Council and the Queen’s support in my plans.”
“What plans?” I crossed my arms. This ought to be good.
“My plan to become the sole ruler of the Lilim, of course.” Tanith’s lips lifted, fl ashing a little fang. “In order to take control of the vampire race, I need Lavinia dead and an alliance with the Council and Queen Maeve in my pocket.”
In the stunned silence that followed that announcement, I literally had no idea what to say to her. Instead, I glanced at Adam and waved my gun to indicate I needed a moment of his time. “Giguhl, watch her. She moves an inch, rip off her fucking head.”
The Mischief demon cracked the knuckles of his claws and waggled his scraggly black brows at the ancient vampire.
Tanith tapped her toe on the asphalt but otherwise remained unimpressed. With one last parting glare at the Domina, I went to join Adam for a private confab.
“What the fuck?” he asked, crossing his arms.
“That pretty much sums it up for me, too.”
He nodded absently.
I continued, “I don’t suppose we could just kill her now and save ourselves a lot of trouble.”
He gave me one of his Sabina-be-reasonable looks.
“Red, I know it’s a curveball, but our goal was to kidnap a Domina, right?”
“The way I see it, we have two choices.” He counted the options off on his fingers. “We can stand here all night questioning her motives and risk becoming bull’s-eyes for more of her guards. Or we can continue with the plan and get her to a place fi lled with heavily armed guards of our own and let the leaders sort it out.”
Twenty feet beyond Adam, Giguhl called. “I vote for C) Stop yapping and get the hell out of Dodge.”
“I concur,” Tanith added.
So much for talking in private.
Nosy demons and vampire leaders aside, I didn’t like this one bit. But I wasn’t any more interested in becoming target practice than he was. “Everyone circle up.”
Tanith’s impatient nod indicated her displeasure over further delays. I nodded to Giguhl. He grabbed the ancient vampire’s arms and led her to the side of the road so Adam could work his magic.
A split second before Adam’s whispered incantations dematerialized our bodies, a gun exploded from the tree line. Giguhl yelped, “Not again!” Then, just as suddenly, darkness and a rush of cold wind swept us away to the Seelie Court.