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An Extract From RED-HEADED STEPCHILD

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

He said nothing, just stood off behind a thicket of trees waiting for me to acknowledge him. Despite his silence, I could feel hot waves of disapproval flying in my direction.

At last, the final scoop of earth fell onto the grave. Stalling, I leaned on the shovel handle and restored order to my hair. Next I brushed flecks of dirt from my cashmere sweater. Not the first choice of digging attire for some, but I always believed manual labor was no excuse for sloppiness. Besides, the sweater was black, so it went well with the haphazard funerary rites.

The Harvest Moon, a glowing orange sphere, still loomed in the sky. Plenty of time before sunrise. In the distance, traffic hummed like white noise in the City of Angels. I took a moment to appreciate the calm.

Memory of the phone call from my grandmother intruded. When she told me the target of my latest assignment, an icy chill spread through my veins. I’d almost hung up, unable to believe what she was asking me to do. But when she told me David was working with Clovis Trakiya, white-hot anger replaced the chill. I called up that anger now to spur my resolve. I clenched my teeth and ignored the cold stone sitting in my stomach. My own feelings about David were irrelevant now. The minute he decided to work with one of the Dominae’s enemies—a glorified cult leader who wanted to overthrow their power—he’d signed his death warrant.

Unable to put it off any longer, I turned to him. “What’s up?”

David stalked out of his hiding place, a frown marring the perfect planes of his face. “Do you want to tell me why you’re burying a body?”

“Who, me?” I asked, tossing the shovel to the ground. My palms were already healing. I wish I could say the same for my guilty conscience. If David thought I should apologize for feeding from a human, I didn’t want to know what he was going to say in about five minutes.

“Cut the shit, Sabina. You’ve been hunting again.” His eyes glowed with accusation. “What happened to the synthetic blood I gave you?”

“That stuff tastes like shit,” I said. “It’s like nonalcoholic beer. What’s the point?”

“Regardless, it’s wrong to feed from humans.”

It’s also wrong to betray your race, I thought. If there was one thing about David that always got my back up, it was his holier-than-thou attitude. Where were his morals when he made the decision to sell out?

Keep it together, Sabina. It will all be over in a few minutes.

“Oh, come on. It was just a stupid drug dealer,” I said, forcing myself to keep up the banter. “If it makes you feel any better, he was selling to kids.”

David crossed his arms and said nothing.

“Though I have to say nothing beats Type O mixed with a little cannabis.”

A muscle worked in David’s jaw. “You’re stoned?”

“Not really,” I said. “Though I do have a strange craving for pizza. Extra garlic.”

He took a deep breath. “What am I going to do with you?” His lips quirked despite his harsh tone.

“First of all, no more lectures. We’re vampires, David. Mortal codes of good and evil don’t apply to us.”

He arched a brow. “Don’t they?”

“Whatever,” I said. “Can we just skip the philosophical debates for once?”

He shook his head. “Okay then, why don’t you tell me why we’re meeting way out here?”

Heaving a deep sigh, I pulled my weapon. David’s eyes widened as I aimed the custom-made pistol between them.

His eyes pivoted from the gun to me. I hoped he didn’t notice the slight tremor in my hands.

“I should have known when you called me,” he said. “You never do that.”

“Aren’t you going to ask me why?” His calm unsettled me.

“I know why.” He crossed his arms and regarded me closely. “The question is, do you?”

My eye twitched. “I know enough. How could you betray the Dominae?”

He didn’t flinch. “One of these days your blind obedience to the Dominae is going to be your downfall.”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t waste your final words on another lecture.”

He lunged before the last word left my lips. He plowed into me, knocking the breath out of my chest and the gun from my hand. We landed in a tangle of limbs on the fresh grave. Dirt and fists flew as we each struggled to gain advantage. He grabbed my hair and whacked my head into the dirt. Soil tunneled up my nose and rage blurred my vision.

My hands curled into claws and dug into his eyes. Distracted by pain, he covered them with his palms. Gaining the advantage fueled my adrenaline as I flipped him onto his back. My knees straddled his hips, and I belted him in the nose with the base of my hand. Blood spurted from his nostrils, streaking his lips and chin.

“Bitch!” Like an animal, he sank his fangs into the fleshy part of my palm. I shrieked, backhanding him across the cheek with my uninjured hand. He growled and shoved me. I flew back several feet, landing on my ass with a thud.

Before I could catch my breath, his weight pinned me down again. Only this time, my gun stared back at me with its unblinking eye.

“How does it feel, Sabina?” His face was close to mine as he whispered. His breath stunk of blood and fury. “How does it feel to be on the other end of the gun?”

“It sucks, actually.” Despite my tough talk, my heart hammered against my ribs. I glanced to the right and saw the shovel I’d used earlier lying about five feet away. “Listen—”

“Shut up.” His eyes were wild. “You know what the worst part is? I came here tonight to come clean with you. Was going to warn you about the Dominae and Clovis—”

“Warn me?”

David jammed the cold steel into my skull—tattooing me with his rage. “That’s the irony isn’t it? Do you even know what’s at stake here?” He cocked the hammer. Obviously, the question had been rhetorical.

One second, two, ticked by before the sound of flapping wings and a loud hoot filled the clearing. David glanced away, distracted. I punched him in the throat. He fell back, gasping and sputtering. I hauled ass to the shovel.

Time slowed. Spinning, I slashed the shovel in a wide arc. A bullet ricocheted off the metal, causing a spark. David pulled himself up to shoot again, but I lunged forward, swinging like Babe Ruth. The metal hit David’s skull with a sickening thud. He collapsed in a heap.

He wouldn’t stay down long. I grabbed the gun from his limp hand and aimed it at his chest.

I was about to pull the trigger when his eyes crept open. “Sabina.”

He lay on the ground, covered in blood and dirt. The goose egg on his forehead was already losing its mass. Knowledge of the inevitable filled his gaze. I paused, watching him.

At one time, I’d looked up to this male, counted him as a friend. And now he’d betrayed everything I held sacred by selling out to the enemy. I hated him for his treachery. I hated the Dominae for choosing me as executioner. But most of all, I hated myself for what I was about to do.

He raised a hand toward me—imploring me to listen. My insides felt coated in acid as I watched him struggle to sit up.

“Don’t trust—”

His final words were lost in the gun’s blast. David’s body exploded into flames, caused by the metaphysical friction of his soul leaving his flesh.

My whole body spasmed. The heat from the fire couldn’t stop the shaking in my limbs. Collapsing to the dirt, I wiped a quivering hand down my face.

The gun felt like a branding iron in my hand. I dropped it, but my hand still throbbed. A moment later, I changed my mind and picked it up again. Pulling out the clip, I removed one of the bullets. Holding one up for inspection, I wondered what David felt when the casing exploded and a dose of the toxic juice robbed him of his immortality.

I glanced over at the smoldering pile that was once my friend. Had he suffered? Or did death bring instant relief from the burdens of immortality? Or had I just damned his soul to a worse fate? I shook myself. His work here was done. Mine wasn’t.

My shirt was caked with smears of soot, dirt, and drying blood—David’s blood mixed with mine. I sucked in a lungful of air, hoping to ease the tightness in my chest.

The fire had died, leaving a charred, smoking mass of ash and bone. Great, I thought, now I have to dig another grave.

I used the shovel to pull myself up. A blur of white flew through the clearing. The owl called out again before flying over the trees. I stilled, wondering if I was hearing things. It called again and this time I was sure it screeched, “Sabina.”

Maybe the smoke and fatigue were playing tricks on me. Maybe it had really said my name. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t have time to worry about that. I had a body to bury.

As I dug in, my eyes started to sting. I tried to convince myself it was merely a reaction to the smoke, but a voice in my head whispered “guilt.” With ruthless determination, I shoved my conscience down, compressing it into a tiny knot and shoving it into a dark corner of myself. Maybe later I’d pull it out and examine it. Or maybe not.

Good assassins dispose of problems without remorse. Even if the problem was a friend.

 

Red-Headed Stepchild (UK/US) by Jaye Wells is out now.

In a world where being of mixed-blood is a major liability, Sabina doesn’t really fit in. And being an assassin – the only profession fit for an outcast – doesn’t help matters. But she’s never brought her work home. Until now.

Her latest mission is uncomfortably complex, and threatens the fragile peace between the vampire and mage races. As Sabina scrambles to figure out which side she’s on, she uncovers a tangled political web, some nasty facts about her family and some unexpected new talents. Any of these things could be worryingly life-changing, but together, they could be fatal …

Visit www.littlebrown.co.uk for catalogue and ordering information.

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