Read the beginning of Cold Blooded by Amanda Carlson, the third Jessica McClain novel – a fast-paced and irresistibly sexy urban fantasy novel perfect for fans of Kelley Armstrong.
Get down!” Tallulah Talbot, the most powerful witch in the country, grabbed on to my arm and hurled us both into the bushes. Seconds later an explosion hit with the force of a meteor. I shielded my face and body as rocks peppered down around us. Once it stopped, I rolled over and opened my eyes, coughing and spitting out dirt as I rose to my knees.
I squinted through the brush. “Do you see what I’m seeing?” I pointed to a crater the size of a city bus in the middle of my office parking lot. The noise had rocked my eardrums, but other than that I was fine. I stood, dusting off my clothes. Tally was already up next to me. “What kind of an explosion was that?”
It had come out of the blue.
Before she could respond, Rourke was in front of me. He had several holes in his shirt, but the small wounds had already closed. He hauled me out of the bushes, his big hands encircling my waist. “Jessica, are you all right?” His gave me a long once-over.
“I’m fine.” I placed a palm on his warm chest. Touching him calmed me and I needed it. After the ordeal we’d just gone through battling Selene, I was still on edge. The Lunar Goddess had put up quite a fight, but in the end I had managed to defeat her immortality long enough to send her to the Underworld. The low growl in Rourke’s chest made my fingers tremble. He was as agitated as I was. Five minutes without someone trying to kill me would’ve gone an extremely long way.
“That wasn’t a normal bomb.” Rourke turned toward the parking lot. “Look at the damage. That hole has to be fifteen feet deep and just as wide.”
“It was a Mask Orb.” Tally emerged out of the brush behind us, readjusting her skullcap. She was dressed in all black, her white hair neatly tucked away, and at five feet tall with zero chest, she channeled a twelve-year-old boy, not an all-powerful spell caster. “It searches out a target and explodes once it finds its mark. It’s an old sorcerer standby. Those guys only have a few tricks up their sleeves, so they tend to use them tirelessly.” She smirked. “The Mask Orbs are impossible to detect until two seconds before they detonate, when they give off a tiny pfft of air. It’s a flaw in their spell. You just became the luckiest people alive, because I have a built‑in detector on me at all times.” She patted her backside.
Tyler ran up, followed by Danny and Nick. They were all in one piece. Thank goodness supernaturals had preternatural speed, because most supes couldn’t regenerate from the damage of an explosion.
When Tally had yelled, everyone had moved.
“We need to get out of here,” Tyler said as he started to herd us forward. “The Humvee is armored. We can take it back to the Safe House and figure out our next move. I’m not waiting for another one of those things to explode.”
“If there was another one, it would’ve gone off already,” Tally said. “A Mask Orb is left as a calling card. It was meant to go off right when you arrived.” She nodded toward me, because we all knew it had my name all over it. “But the chunderheads must have activated it by the front entrance, so it took time to find you. Which, considering everything, was a very lucky break.” She bent over and dusted debris off her jeans. “But now that it’s been detonated, they know you’re here, so lingering isn’t advisable.”
I glanced around at the group. We were all assembled behind my office building. We’d just learned that James Graham, my father’s second‑in‑command, whom we’d thought had gone rogue, had taken off after Marcy Talbot, my secretary and Tally’s niece. According to Tally, Marcy had been recently abducted by sorcerers, the ones behind the new gaping crater in my parking lot. There was no reason to argue with Tally’s logic about who was behind the kidnapping. She clearly knew what she was talking about, especially if she had a Mask Orb detector embedded in her ass.
“Well, we’re certainly not sticking around to see if they show up,” Tyler said. “So like I said, let’s get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Nick added. “It’s best if we leave quickly.”
There were no arguments. We started moving toward our vehicle, passing by the huge hole as we went. It was a very specific area of damage, and other than things being pelted by falling debris, nothing else was touched. Cars were still parked in their spaces, riding on the edge of the crater. Humans were going to scratch their heads when they saw this. I’d never had a run‑in with any sorcerers, so I wasn’t sure how they operated, but it appeared to be along the lines of blow something up and ask questions later.
We walked toward the yellow Humvee, which illuminated the night like an awful phosphorus specter. It hadn’t been damaged by the blast at all, which was a total shame. Dents and bruises could only improve it. “Once we arrive at the Safe House, we can lay out a plan to get Marcy back,” I said as I turned to make my way around the vehicle. But before I could take a step, Tally snatched me by the shoulder, yanking me backward.
I stumbled but recovered quickly.
“You and I are not going to your Safe House.”
She was incredibly strong for five feet of skinny witch.
Rourke, Danny, and Tyler all moved forward to intercede.
“Stop.” I held up my hand, keeping my eyes pinned on Tally. “I refuse to handle this with violence.” I was tired. We’d driven all night. I’d just been in an epic battle with a deranged Goddess, followed by an encounter with a Demon Lord, who had informed me I had a court date in the Underworld to face crimes I’d inadvertently committed. Fighting with the witches would be counterproductive to both my health and to our case, which was to get Marcy back unharmed.
She was my best friend and I was willing to do whatever it took, including keeping the peace with an angry witch.
Rourke eased up reluctantly, sensing my mood. He was a strong alpha, and I knew it was going to be tough for him to follow my lead, especially after so many years on his own. But for now, his willingness to try was appreciated. My wolf barked her approval in my mind. Tyler and Danny were still poised and ready to spring, their blood and anxiety jumping in my veins as we all glared at each other. Danny had recently sworn a pledge to me, making me his Alpha, and his duty to protect me at all costs blinded him to good judgment, especially in this high-stress environment. I tried to send out a calming vibe, but I had no idea how to do anything remotely Alpha-like or if it would even work.
Tally stood completely unfazed by our show of aggression.
Instead, her stony gaze bored a hole straight into my soul. She crossed her arms, waiting. “Three minutes ago we all could’ve been blown to smithereens.” I obliged her by continuing, trying to defuse the situation. “As far as I can tell, we all want the same goal. We want Marcy back. So let’s start acting like we’re on the same side.” Tally’s power pecked at my skin. My wolf growled and clacked her jaws, resenting the feel of it as it pressed against us. I turned and gave Tally my full attention. “How would you like this to run? You have our cooperation.” I didn’t need to specify “up to a point” because that went without saying.
Supernaturals tolerated each other for brief interludes when it was mutually beneficial. Tally blamed me for Marcy’s disappearance and I owned that. I should’ve been more diligent. I couldn’t keep running around pretending the Prophecy wasn’t real and the supernatural race wasn’t going to notice me. My negligence had put people I loved in danger and I owed it to Marcy to cooperate with her aunt.
“I don’t care where they go”—Tally flicked her head toward the group—“but you’re coming with me. We head back to my Coven and gather information, including from the wolf who you say is tracking her. Regardless of what we find, we move in two hours. I’m not leaving my niece in the hands of the Baldies any longer than necessary.”
Nick stepped forward, composed as always. “Ms. Talbot, I’m sure there’s a way we can find neutral ground—somewhere we can all gather that’s not within your direct boundary or ours.” I could always count on Nick to stay levelheaded. Tally’s home base would be a giant disadvantage if we had a disagreement about how things should run. I smiled at Nick to show my appreciation. I’d missed his brown curls, golden eyes, and sweet smile. There wasn’t a nicer guy on earth.
Tally shook her head. “It’s too dangerous. The sorcerers will pick up our trail as soon as they arrive. Our signatures are all over this parking lot. We can’t linger at any unwarded location or we’ll be vulnerable to attack, and I don’t have time to put up the necessary spells to keep us safe somewhere else. We head to my Coven, where I have full protection in place. No compromises.”
Rourke took a single step forward. “You guarantee our safety first, or nobody goes with you, witch.”
“Of course,” Tally snipped. “What do you think I’m going to do—harvest your body parts for my bubbling cauldron? You’ll be safe as long as the priority remains to get my niece back.”
Tally had a point.
Because the sorcerers knew we’d arrived, protection was the most logical option. But the best thing for my team would be to keep some people on the outside in case things went wrong in the Coven. “Fine, the three of us will go with you.” I motioned between Rourke, Nick, and me. “Tyler and Danny will head to the Safe House.” I nodded to them both. “Find out anything you can on James’s whereabouts. I want a phone call in less than two hours, whether you find something or not. Contact Dad,” I told Tyler, “and let him know what’s going on. After that, we rendezvous at an agreed-upon spot outside the Coven and head out.”
I cut him off in my mind.
Tyler, we don’t have a choice. If I refuse to go with Tally, it’ ll bring more trouble than we need right now. And the priority is Marcy.
I don’t like it. That witch could do a thousand things to you inside that house, not to mention she wanted to use you as ransom an hour ago.
Tally’s original plan was to ransom me to the sorcerers, which was still a viable option if we couldn’t track them. I’d trade myself for Marcy in a heartbeat, but not without a solid plan. Tyler didn’t have to know that, and in order to move forward, we needed to pick Tally’s brain about the sorcerers anyway. I hear you, but you’re going to have to trust me on this. We’ ll take the necessary precautions, and I have an angry cat with me who’s not about to let anything go wrong.
He grumbled but looked resigned.
“Give me the keys,” I asked him out loud. Tyler reluctantly reached into his pocket and pulled them out. The Safe House was only a few miles away. They could make it on foot in a few minutes. Remember, we still have this. I tapped my finger to my temple, trying my best to reassure him. Then I glanced over at Rourke, who stood frowning at Tally.
She glared back, her arms still crossed.
“Before we leave, I want you to swear an oath, witch,” Rourke said. “Or the deal is off. Covens are notorious for holding prisoners, and breaking layered wards by multiple witches is next to impossible.”
“I swear not to hold you against your will,” Tally stated evenly. “But I want a vow in return that you will do whatever we deem necessary to get my niece back, including a ransom if your wolf has failed to track her.” She narrowed her eyes. “Without doing so, you risk a war with us.”
Before Rourke could protest, I said, “I swear we will do everything we can to find your niece. Whatever it takes.”
Tally nodded once, accepting me at my word.
“Keep your wits about you, then, Jessica,” Danny quipped as he gently prodded an unhappy Tyler backward. “We’ll plan on seeing you shortly.” He winked as they took off into the night.
As they ran, their combined uncertainty jumped through my blood. Being an Alpha, even for this short time, wasn’t an easy job. The responsibility for their well-being pressed down on me. We needed to find my father soon so he could take back their Troths and fix this.
I directed my attention to Tally. “I’ll drive, because there’s no way we’re fitting in your car.”
She didn’t argue. Her silver two-door Camaro was still parked at a haphazard angle by the back door where she’d clearly spun it to a stop. The car had missed the mayhem of the Orb, but just barely. It had to have been warded against damage, because there wasn’t a scratch on it.
I walked around to the driver’s side of the Humvee with Nick following closely.
“I haven’t had a chance to tell you,” he said, reaching out to give me a quick hug, “but I’m incredibly glad to see you back so soon. It’s been quiet around here with you gone. And as much as I knew you’d make it home, seeing you not dead, broken, or battered is the best gift I could’ve asked for.”
“It’s really good to see you too,” I told him honestly, hugging him back. Nick had been my best—and only—friend growing up on the Compound, where physical strength had meant status, and we’d both had none. During our childhood we’d forged a solid, unbreakable bond and I was extremely happy to see him. “I’ll fill you in on all the details as soon as I can, but Selene is going to be gone for a very long time, in a place where she can’t touch us.”
In the Underworld, specifically.
“I knew you’d beat her.” Nick chuckled as he opened the back passenger door. “I never doubted you for a second.” He cocked his head slightly as he got in. “Well, maybe I had a few errant thoughts, but they passed quickly enough.”
I grinned as I climbed into the driver’s seat. “The battle was intense and it wasn’t very pretty.” Rourke growled his agreement as he settled in next to Nick. Selene had eviscerated him, intent on doing the greatest possible damage to us both. Images started to invade my psyche and my wolf huffed. Time to change the scenery. “Nick, after we find Marcy, the next priority will be to prepare for New Orleans.” We were due at the Vampire Queen’s to provide guard duty services in three weeks and we couldn’t go in unprepared. “I refuse to let Eudoxia gain the upper hand.”
Tally slid into the front seat and slammed the door. She raised her eyebrow at me but stayed silent. Our business wasn’t hers, and with a small nod, she acknowledged it.
The Vamp Queen’s request for us to guard her was ridiculous at best, but I had sworn a binding oath, meaning that if I didn’t deliver, bad things would happen. There was no doubt she had ulterior motives for wanting me on her home turf, so we had to prepare. I needed to know everything about vampires and how they worked. Having Naomi on my team was my ace in the hole, and between her and Nick, I hoped we could gather enough information to stay at least one step ahead.
I’d been a wolf for only a short time, but my on‑the-job training had brought my skill level up exponentially in the last few weeks. I was fairly confident I could get Marcy back and survive my time with the Vamp Queen.
If not, life was about to become extremely interesting.
I turned the diesel engine over and the beast roared to life.
“By the way, where’s Ray?” Nick asked, leaning forward. Raymond Hart, the detective who’d been the bane of my existence for a very long time, had accompanied us on the journey to find Rourke. As I’d fought Selene, he’d been brutally attacked by a vampire and, right this minute, I had no idea if he was dead or alive.
“Ray is in . . . transition,” I said, settling on an ambiguous word. I glanced sideways at Tally. “It requires some explaining.”
I’d left Ray in the capable hands of Naomi, our vamp guide, who through an unexpected blood exchange, had not only become bonded to me, but also had become my friend and ally. Ray’s wounds may have been too severe for any kind of transformation, but I’d given her the okay to try. I’d felt I owed Ray that much. In my opinion he had the right to choose his own death. Eamon, Naomi’s brother, had ravaged him cruelly and it had been an awful way to die.
Nick nodded once without question. He knew me well enough to catch on; whether he liked the idea or not was hard to tell. He sat back in his seat, his face pensive. Ray was a tough human being, not necessarily someone you’d choose to become a supe. It’s true Ray was rough around the edges and cranky, but Nick hadn’t witnessed what he’d been capable of on the journey, as I had. In the end Ray had defended me and there had been a grudging respect growing between us. I desperately hoped, as a supe, he would come around to seeing our side of things.
If not, it was going to be a tough road. But there was no going back now.
I pulled away from the curb. “Where to?”