Read the first chapter of Last Blood – the apocalyptic final instalment in Kristen Painter's fast-paced and original urban fantasy series about a race of humans bred to feed vampire nobility!
Paradise City, New Florida 2067
Twenty-four hours. That’s how long it had taken Chrysabelle to get herself together after finding out that the raptor fae had devoured Mal’s love for her, leaving him cold and uncaring, only to then discover she was also pregnant with Mal’s child. Twenty-four hours as a sobbing wreck curled in her bed. Then she’d run out of tears and passed another twenty-four hours there, staring blindly at the ceiling, thinking about nothing and everything, rationalizing her choices, and trying to make sense of her future. On the third day, she’d gotten out of bed with the resolute knowledge that whatever she had to do to protect that future wasn’t going to get done in bed.
If there was anything she’d learned from her mother, it was that strong women pushed forward, no matter what the circumstances, and strong women protected their children. Even at the cost of their own lives.
Being able to protect herself and her child meant being ready for anything, and that meant training. Lots of it.
Beating the daylights out of an opponent had always given Chrysabelle a sense of peace. Even now, when the opponent was her brother, it still worked. The focus of landing each hit and avoiding his incoming blows almost made her forget about the life-changing secret growing in her belly.
It was still better than moping in bed, staring into space and trying to figure out how to make sense of a life without Mal when the child she carried was a constant reminder of everything she’d lost.
She ducked too late to avoid Damian’s bokken. The wooden practice sword caught the side of her headgear, spun her off balance, and knocked her to her hands and knees.
“Hey.” He straightened, bokken falling to his side. “Pay attention, will you? The last thing I want to do is concuss the sister I just found.” Under his own headgear, he smiled as he offered his hand. “More accurately, who just found me.”
She took the help and he pulled her to her feet. “Thanks.”
“You want to stop? You seem a little distracted.” Concern sparked in his blue eyes. “I realize we’re just getting to know each other, but I am your brother. If there’s anything you want to talk about . . .”
“Thank you.” His offer meant a lot, but this wasn’t something she was ready to share. “I’m fine.” Other than the gaping hole in her heart. She lifted her bokken. “Let’s keep going. I like having a partner again.” And she liked maintaining her edge.
He tipped his head to one side. “You’re sure? We’ve sparred more in the last day than I used to in a week at the Domus.”
She allowed a tiny bit of what she was feeling into her face. “I need this.” Because stopping meant dealing with her reality.
“Cool with me.” He went back to first stance.
“Cool? I think a little Fi rubbed off on you.” She matched him, shifting most of her weight onto her back foot and bending her knees slightly. She pointed the tip of her bokken at his eyes and forced herself to concentrate on the present.
“There are worse people to hang out with.” He nodded at her and took the same stance.
What did he mean by that? Mal? Before she could unravel that thread any further, knocking interrupted them. They both turned toward the door.
“Speak of the devil.” Damian came out of fighting stance. “Not that you’re the devil, Fi.” He laughed. “Nice to see you.”
Fi smiled and gave a little fi nger wave. “You too, Damian. You seem like you’re settling in okay.”
“You too from what I hear.” He planted the tip of his sword against the gym mats and pulled off his face mask, tucking it beneath his arm. “I guess you’re here to see Chrys?”
Fi’s brows rose a tiny bit, maybe at his shortening of Chrysabelle’s name. She nodded. “Yep. You cool if she and I chat for a bit?”
Chrysabelle glanced at Damian. He took her bokken. “Sure. It’s almost lunch anyway. I’m going to get a shower, and then I’ll come back over and eat.” He winked at Fi. “If you two aren’t still having your super-secret girl talk.”
“Guys never change no matter how old they get.” Fi rolled her eyes. “I’m sure we’ll be done by then.”
Damian nodded, but the humor faded from his face and he glanced at Chrysabelle. “It’s okay if I come back for lunch, isn’t it?”
She tugged off her headgear. “Of course it’s okay. You know half of all of this is yours. House included. You don’t have to ask for permission to come over here and you certainly don’t have to stay in the guesthouse.” Again, she wondered if his reluctance had something to do with Mal. Or her relationship with Mal. Not that there was any current relationship to speak of.
“I know, but I’m comfortable there. And I feel a little responsible for Amylia.”
“She the comarré you brought back from Cachtice?” Fi asked.
“Yes,” Chrysabelle answered, but she kept her eyes on Damian. “And you shouldn’t feel responsible. I would have brought her back anyway.”
He shrugged, walked to the weapons rack, and notched the first bokken into place. “Then you’re a better person than I am.” He dropped the second one into its slot, hung up his face mask, then headed for the door. “I would have left her. After Saraphina . . . you just never know. See you at lunch.”
“Okay.” She watched her brother leave, sighing with frustration.
Fi spoke after the door closed behind him. “Things not going as planned?”
“Does anything?” Chrysabelle prayed Fi didn’t see that as an opening to ask about Mal. She pushed some stray hair behind one ear and quickly moved on. “How are you? How’s Doc? I’m sorry I missed the wedding.”
Fi shrugged. “So did everyone else. It was just me, Doc, his council members as witnesses, and Isaiah, Doc’ s—I mean, our butler, who happens to be a minister of the Church of Bast, so he married us. Really, we just wanted to make it official and get on with our life.”
“I understand that. And I have to say, marriage suits you. You look . . . different. But in a good way.” Fi’s formerly long wavy hair was pin-straight and cut in a precise chin-length bob, her makeup impeccable, her clothes—which had always been good—seemed even better. “How’s Doc doing with his new position as pride leader?”
“He’s good. Busy. Running a pride is a twenty-four-seven job.” Fi looked down at her sleek little navy dress. “As for the rest of me, being the pride leader’s wife comes with access to all the best stuff, including a personal beauty team.” She laughed nervously. “Who knew?” Her smile washed out. “There’s so much stuff to go to. Meetings. Appearances. Dinners. It’s a lot of work.”
Which would explain the dark smudges under her eyes. Chrysabelle tipped her head to one side. “Sounds like it. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Actually, yes.” Fi took a deep breath. “I want to learn to fight. More than that. I want to learn to win a fight.”
A slight alarm sounded in Chrysabelle’s head. “Why? Who’s threatening you?”
“No one. Yet. But that’s the point.” She hugged her arms around her body. “Barasa—he’s one of Doc’s council members and the pride’s main physician—he says a pride leader’s wife needs to know how to fight. And that opposition ‘rears its head’ at least once a year. More when the wife is new.”
“But I thought the only challenge that counts is one issued by the pride leader or his wife, right?”
“Yes, but . . .” Fi stared at the ceiling. “I’m not known for my even temper.” She shook her head and twisted the toe of one coral stiletto into the gym mat. “And it’s occurred to me that I might be a target. Doc isn’t always with me. I have a bodyguard almost all the time now when I go out.”
Chrysabelle looked over Fi’s shoulder. “Where is he now?”
“I made him stay with the car. I know how Velimai feels about strangers in her house. Sorry, your house. Yours and Damian’s. Whoever it belongs to now. You know what I mean.”
Chrysabelle rested her hand on top of Fi’s arm, hoping to ease some of her anxiety. “I’d be happy to help you.”
“You will? Awesome! Doc’s had his council members trying to teach me, but they’re varcolai. I don’t have that same strength or speed. Plus they’re guys. Who knows better how to fight like a girl than another girl?” Fi grinned. “I’ve seen you fight. You go hardcore. I wanna do that too.”
Dropping her hand, Chrysabelle laughed. “Hardcore it is then.” She raised her brows. “There’s a catch.”
“Does this have to do with—”
Before Fi could say “Mal” Chrysabelle spoke. “Remember how you offered to help me with changing my look? I’m ready.”
Fi’s eyes widened. “You are? Sweet! This is going to be so much fun.” She reached into the expensive-looking handbag hanging off her shoulder and pulled out a small bejeweled rectangle. She tapped the face, causing it to light up, then tapped another button and held it up to her mouth. “Pull samples for Chrysabelle.” Then she dropped the device back into her purse. “I love that phone. So much better than the comcell I used to have. I’ll be over in the morning and we’ll get started.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Bring a change of clothes and we can have your first lesson afterward.”
“I will.” Fi started toward the door, then stopped and twisted back. “It’s probably none of my business, but have you talked to Mal? I’ve been by the freighter but either he hasn’t been home or he’s avoiding me. I know things went south for you guys. I’m sorry about that. I really am.”
South? If hell was in that direction, then yes, things had gone south. Chrysabelle took a deep breath, willing it to calm her. “Thank you. No, I haven’t talked to him.” She turned a little, hiding her face. “He doesn’t love me anymore, Fi. I don’t have the slightest idea what to do about that. He was pretty adamant when he left here that I stay out of his life.”
Fi walked back. “I know Mal and if he loved you once, he’ll love you again. You still love him, right?”
There was no holding back the hitch in her breath that time. A shuddered exhale and when she found her voice, it wavered with the emotions she was trying to put behind her. “Of course, I love him. That’s why this hurts so much.” She closed her eyes, partially to hold back tears and partially to shut out the pain, but the ever-present ache she’d felt since losing Mal only blossomed in the dark.
“Then we’ll find a way to remind him of that.”
Opening her eyes, Chrysabelle shook her head. “I don’t think—”
“He feels things more deeply than you can imagine. Trust me. I used to live in that tortured head of his, remember? His curse would have never worked if he’d been completely without remorse. Somewhere deep inside, his love for you still exists just like yours does. Love doesn’t just go away.”
She stared at Fi. “Yes, it does. That’s exactly what happened.”
The ghost girl shook her head. “I don’t believe that.”
“Fi, you didn’t see the way he looked at me.” She swallowed, the memories she’d been working so hard to shut out now engulfing her. “He called me . . . food.”
With a soft whimper, Fi put her arms around Chrysabelle and hugged her. “That’s awful. Awful. But it sounds like the voices talking, not Mal. Don’t write him off completely, okay?”
Chrysabelle nodded, but it wasn’t a promise of anything. If Mal had truly reverted to the monster he’d once been, then he really was lost to her. There was no way she was letting that version of him near her. Or their child.
She’d kill him first.
Tatiana clutched the pillows to her face. Octavian’s side of the bed still held his dark, sweet scent. An exhausted sob shuddered through her as she inhaled what was left of him, punishing herself for falling in love with yet another man who’d betrayed her.
Tatiana ignored Kosmina and stayed face down in the pillows, grief pressing her into the bed, betrayal raking down her spine.
“My lady, Daciana is outside with Jonah.”
The mention of Daci’s young, willing comar led to thoughts of Tatiana’s own missing comar. Another male added to the list of her betrayers. An angry growl built in her throat. Somehow, he’d escaped her again. If she ever captured him, she would kill him the instant she could. She forced the growl down to speak, her words muffled by the bedding. “Leave me.”
“It’s been three days, my lady.” And over the course of those three days, Kosmina’s voice had gone from soothing to frustrated. “You must feed.”
“I will feed when I’m ready. Leave. Me.” Another word and she’d snap. Already she teetered on the knife edge of insanity. Blood would spill if she was pushed further.
“Yes, my lady.” Kosmina’s pulse faded as she walked away. The doors to Tatiana’s quarters opened softly, then began to swing shut. A second later they burst open and a new presence flew through them.
“Tati, please get up.” Daciana. The only companion Tatiana had left. The only one she could still trust. “I know you’re grieving, and my heart aches for you, but you can’t give up. There has to be something we can do to get Lilith back.” She sat on the side of the bed and took Tatiana’s hand. “And you need to feed. You’re as cold as marble. You’re only weakening yourself further.”
Tatiana pulled her hand away. “He betrayed me.”
“Octavian loved you.” Daciana sighed. “Whatever he did, I can’t help but believe he was forced to do it.”
Tatiana swallowed the anguish creeping up her throat. “No one forced him to kill himself.” The bitterness of those words almost undid her. “I made him my consort, Daci. I would have married him.” She twisted herself upright, pulling her knees to her chest and leaning back against the padded leather headboard. She rocked back, her eyes filling with cold tears. “I’m such a fool. I believed every word he fed me. And the whole time, he was just stringing me along, using me for Hades knows what.”
Daciana’s shoulders slumped. “Tati, you don’t know—”
She stopped rocking. “Like hell I don’t. Why do you think he killed himself? Because he knew I’d do it for him when I found out what a traitor he was.” She tore the bed linens off and jumped out of bed. “He cost me my daughter.” She was shaking now, her body trembling with grief that had no outlet.
Silver glinted in Daciana’s eyes, turning her soft expression hard. “Then consider his suicide a gift.”
The words bit into Tatiana’s soul, freshening her pain. “How can you say—”
“Enough.” Daciana stood and planted her hands on her hips. “This isn’t the Tatiana I know. The strong, determined woman who fought her way to the top. You’re the Dominus of the House of Tepes.”
“I know who I am.”
Daciana narrowed her gaze. “Then act like it.”
Tatiana froze in shock. Few spoke to her that way, but Daciana wasn’t just anyone. She was the only family Tatiana had left.
“You know I’m right,” Daciana said. “You need to do something, not lie around in bed moping.”
Tatiana wrapped her arms around her body. Daciana spoke the truth, but Tatiana wasn’t ready to put the pain behind her. It had bitten too deep. Taken too much.
Daciana’s harsh expression softened. “I know you’re hurting, but you’re not alone in this. Whatever you want to do to get her back, I’m with you.”
Tatiana swallowed, letting Daci’s offer wash through her. She nodded and the darkness shrouding her soul lifted enough to let the light of possibility shine through. “I know what needs to be done, but getting there, finding a way out of this . . .” The image of Lilith in Samael’s arms, followed by Octavian’s ashes strewn across the floor, flashed in her head. She turned away. “You don’t understand.”
“I do understand.” Daciana strode forward and grasped Tatiana’s shoulders, forcing her to meet Daciana’s gaze. “What has happened to you is more horrible than words can describe, but you’re a fighter. You’ve always been a fighter.”
“And I will be again.” Tatiana shook her head. “Just not now. I need more time.”
Daciana’s lip curled. She drew back and slapped Tatiana across the face. “You’ve had enough time. The nobility is beginning to talk.”
Stunned from Daciana’s attack, Tatiana reeled back, the first frissons of anger breaking through the pain. “Why did you—”
Daciana followed and struck her again.
Before Tatiana could react, Daciana lifted her hand a third time. Rage moved Tatiana forward. She grabbed Daciana’s arm, bent it behind her, and took her to the ground. She crouched overtop Daciana, fangs bared. “Hit me again and I’ll—”
“Finally.” Daciana smiled up at her. “There’s the Tatiana I know. Channel that anger. Let it motivate you.” She lifted her free hand and fl attened it over Tatiana’s heart. “Who caused you all this pain?”
“Malkolm,” Tatiana hissed. “And his comarré whore.”
“Yes.” Daciana nodded.
Tatiana freed Daciana and sat back. “I have let this grief make me soft. No more.”
“That’s it,” Daciana encouraged.
Tatiana stood and lifted her head. “I am so sick of them interfering with my life. My plans.” She growled softly, weaving her grief into a suit of armor to protect her for the fight to come. Because fight she would. “If it means sacrificing everything I have left, I’ll get Lilith back and put an end to Malkolm and Chrysabelle once and for all.”
Daciana grabbed Tatiana’s hand and squeezed. “That’s the Tatiana I know and love. Come, feed from Jonah and renew your strength. Then, together, we will find a way to make all of this happen.” Her eyes went bright with promise. “I will never leave your side. You have my word.”
The pledge broke the last of Tatiana’s doubts, opening the way for her anger to take full rein. “If only everyone in my life were as faithful as you.” The wicked smile bent her mouth. “We have work to do.”