The next thrilling Mercy Thompson novel – the major urban fantasy series from the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author
This wasn’t the first time chocolate got me in trouble.
I died first. So I made cookies.
They were popular fare on Pirate night, so I needed to make a lot. Darryl had gotten me a jumbo-sized antique mixing bowl last Christmas that probably could have held the water supply for an elephant for a day. I don’t know where he found it.
If I ever filled the bowl entirely, I’d have to have one of the werewolves move it. It ate the eighteen cups of flour I dumped into it with room for more. All the while, piratical howls rose up the stairway from the bowels of the basement.
“Jesse—” Aiden began, raising his voice to carry over an enthusiastic if off-key whistling rendition of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.”
“Call me Barbary Belle,” my stepdaughter, Jesse, reminded him.
Aiden might have looked and sounded like he was a boy, but he hadn’t been young for a very long time. We had assimilated him, rather than adopted him, as he was centuries older than Adam and me put together. He was still finding some things about modern life difficult to adjust to, like the live-action-role-playing (LARP) aspect of the computer-based pirate game they were playing.
“It only works right if you think of me as a pirate and not your sister,” Jesse said patiently. Ignoring his response that she wasn’t his sister, she continued, “As long as you call me Jesse—that’s who you think of when you interact with me. You have to believe I’m a pirate to make it a proper game. The first step is to call me by my game name—Barbary Belle.”
There was a pause as someone let out a full-throated roar that subsided into a groan of frustration.
“Eat clamshells, you sodding buffoon,” Ben chortled. His game name was Sodding Bart, but I didn’t have to think of him that way because I was dead, anyway.
I got out my smaller mixing bowl, the one that had been perfectly adequate until I married into a werewolf pack. I filled it with softened butter, brown sugar, and vanilla. As I mixed them together, I decided that it wasn’t that I was a bad pirate, it was that I had miscalculated. By baking sugar-and-chocolate-laden food whenever I died first, I’d succeeded in turning myself into a target.
The oven beeped to tell me it was at temperature, and I found all four cookie sheets in the narrow cabinet that they belonged in—a minor miracle. I wasn’t the only one who got KP duty in the house, but I seemed to be the only one who could put things in the same place (where they belonged) on a regular basis. The baking pans, in particular, got shoved all sorts of odd places. I had once found one of them in the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t ask—but I washed that motherhumper with bleach before I used it to bake on again.
“Motherhumper” was a word that was catching on in the pack with horrible efficiency after “Sodding Bart” Ben had started using it in his pirate role. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was a real swearword that no one had thought up yet, one of those swearwords that were real swearwords in Ben’s home country of Great Britain (like “fanny,” which meant something very different in the UK than it did here), or a replacement swearword like “darn” or “shoot.” In any case, I’d found myself using it on occasions when “dang” wasn’t quite strong enough—like finding cookware in bathrooms.
I thought I was good to go when I found the baking pans. But when I opened the cupboard where there should have been ten bags of chocolate chips, there were only six. I searched the kitchen and came up with another one (open and half-gone) in the top cupboard behind the spaghetti noodles, which made six and a half, leaner than I liked for a double-quadruple batch, but it would do.
What would not do was no eggs. And there were no eggs.
I scrounged through the fridge for the second time, checking out the back corners and behind the milk, where things liked to hide. But even though I’d gotten four dozen eggs two days ago, there was not an egg to be had.
There were perils in living in the de facto clubhouse of a werewolf pack. Thawing roasts in the fridge required the concealment skills of a World War II French Underground spy working in Nazi headquarters. I hadn’t hidden the eggs because, since they were neither sweet nor bleeding, I’d thought they were safe. I’d been wrong.
The majority of the egg-and-roast-stealing werewolf pack was currently downstairs, enthralled in games of piracy on the high seas of the computer screen. There was irony in how much they loved the pirate computer game—werewolves are too dense to swim. Coyotes, even coyote shifters like me, can swim just fine—except, apparently, in The Dread Pirate’s Booty scenarios, because I’d drowned four times this month.
I hadn’t drowned this time, though. This time, I’d died with my stepdaughter’s knife in my back. Barbary Belle was highly skilled with knives.
“I’m headed to the Stop and Rob,” I called downstairs. “Does anyone need anything?”
The store wasn’t really called that, of course; it had a perfectly normal name that I couldn’t remember. “Stop and Rob” was more of a general term for a twenty-four-hour gas station and convenience store, a sobriquet earned in the days when the night-shift clerk had been left on his or her own with a till full of thousands of dollars. Technology—cameras, quick-drop safes that didn’t open until daylight, and silent alarms—had made working the night shift safer, but they’d always be Stop and Robs to me.
“Ahrrrr.” My husband Adam’s voice traveled up the stairs. “Gold and women and grog!” He didn’t play often, but when he did, he played full throttle and immersed.
“Gold and women and grog!” echoed a chorus of men’s voices.
“Would you listen to them?” said Mary Jo scornfully. “Give me a man who knows what to do with what the good Lord gave him instead of these clueless scallywags who run at the first sight of a real woman.”
“Ahrrrr,” agreed Auriele, while Jesse giggled.
“Swab the decks, ye lubbers, lest you slide in the blood and crack your four-pounders,” I called. “And whate’er ye do, don’t trust Barbary Belle at your back.”
There was a roar of general agreement, and Jesse giggled again.
“And, Captain Larson,” I said, addressing Adam—my mate had taken the name from Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf—“you can have gold, and you can have grog. You go after another woman, and you’ll be pulling back a stub.”
There was a little silence.
“Argh,” said Adam with renewed enthusiasm. “I got me a woman. What do I need with more? The women are for my men!”
“Argh!” roared his men. “Bring us gold, grog, and women!”
“Men!” said Auriele, sweet-voiced. “Bring us a few good men.”
“Stupidheads,” growled Honey. “Die!”
There was a general outcry because, apparently, several someones did.
I laughed my way out the door.
After a moment’s thought, I took Adam’s SUV. I was going to have to figure out what to do for a daily driver. My beloved Vanagon Syncro was getting far too many miles put on her, and her transmission was rare and more precious than gold on the secondary market. I’d been driving her ever since my poor Rabbit had been totaled, and the van was starting to need more and more repairs. I’d looked at an ’87 Jetta with a blown engine a few days ago. They wanted too much for it, but maybe I’d just have to pony up.
The SUV growled the couple of miles to the convenience store that was ten miles closer to home than any other store open at this hour of the night. The clerk was restocking cigarettes and didn’t look up as I passed him.
I picked up two dozen overpriced eggs and three equally overpriced bags of chocolate chips and set them on the counter. The clerk turned away from the cigarettes, looked at me, and froze. He swallowed hard and looked away—scanning the bar codes on the eggs with a hand that shook so much that he might save me the effort of cracking the shells myself.
“You must be new?” I suggested, running my ATM card in the reader.
He knew who I was without knowing the important things, I thought.
I found the limelight disconcerting, but I was slowly getting used to it. My husband was Alpha of the local pack; he’d been a household name in the Tri-Cities since the werewolves first revealed their existence a few years ago. When we’d married, I’d gotten a little of his reflected glory, but after helping to fight a troll on the Cable Bridge a couple of months ago, I had become at least as well-known as Adam. People reacted differently to the reality of werewolves in the world. Sensible people stayed a certain length back. Others were stupidly friendly or not‑so‑stupidly afraid. The new guy obviously belonged to the latter group.
“Started last week,” the clerk muttered as he bagged the chocolate chips and eggs as if they might bite him.
“I’m not a werewolf,” I told him. “You don’t have anything to fear from me. And my husband has put a moratorium on killing gas-station clerks this week.”
The clerk blinked at me.
“None of the pack will hurt you,” I clarified, reminding myself not to try to be funny around people who were too scared to know I was joking. “If you have any trouble with a werewolf or something like that, you can call us”—I found the card holder in my purse and gave him one of the pack’s cards, printed on off-white card stock—“at this number. We’ll take care of it if we can.”
We all carried the cards now that we’d (my fault) taken on the task of policing the supernatural community of the Tri-Cities, protecting the human citizens from things that go bump in the night. We’d also been called in to find lost children, dogs, and, once, two calves and their guard llama. Zack had composed a song for that one. I hadn’t even known he could play guitar.
Sometimes the job of protecting the Tri-Cities was more glamorous than others. The livestock call, in addition to being musically commemorated, had actually been something of a PR coup: photos of werewolves herding small lost calves back home had gone viral on Facebook.
The clerk took the card as if it were going to bite him. “Okay,” he lied.
I couldn’t do any better than that, so I left with my cookie- making ingredients. I hopped into the SUV and set the bag on the passenger seat as I backed out of the parking space. Frowning, I wondered if his strong reaction might be due to something that had happened to him—a personal incident. I looked both ways before heading out onto the road. Maybe I should go talk to him again.
I was still worrying about the clerk when there was a loud noise that stole my breath. The bag with the eggs in it flew off the seat, and something hit me with a loud bang and a foul smell—and then there was a sharp pain, followed by . . . nothing.
* * *
I think I woke up several times, for no more than a few minutes that ended abruptly when I moved. I heard people talking, mostly the voices of unfamiliar men, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Magic shimmered and itched. Then a warm breath of spring air drifted through the pain and took it all away. I slept, more tired than I ever remembered being.
When I finally roused, awake and aware for real, I couldn’t see anything. I might not have been a werewolf, but a shapeshifting coyote could still see okay in very dim light. Either I was blind, or wherever I was had no light at all.
My head hurt, my nose hurt, and my left shoulder felt bruised. My mouth was dry and tasted bad, as if I’d gone for a week without brushing my teeth. It felt like I’d just been hit by a troll—though the left-shoulder pain was more of a seat-belt‑in‑a‑car thing. But I couldn’t remember . . . even as that thought started to trigger some panic, memories came trickling back.
I’d been taking a run to our local Stop and Rob—the same all-night gas station slash convenience store where I’d first met lone and gay werewolf Warren all those years ago. Warren had worked out rather well for the pack . . . I gathered my wandering thoughts and herded them down a track that might do some good. The difficulty I had doing that—and the nasty headache—made me think I might have a concussion.
I considered the loud bang and the eggs and realized that it hadn’t been the eggs that had exploded and smelled bad, but the SUV’s air bags. I was a mechanic. I knew what blown air bags smelled like. I didn’t know what odd effect of shock made me think it might have been the eggs. The suddenness of the accident had combined the related events of the groceries’ hitting me and the air bag’s hitting me into a cause and effect that didn’t exist.
As my thoughts slowly achieved clarity, I realized that the SUV had been struck from the side, struck at speed to have activated the air bags.
With that information, I reevaluated my situation without moving. My face was sore—a separate and lesser pain than the headache—and I diagnosed the situation as my having been hit with an air bag or two that hadn’t quite saved me from a concussion or its near cousin. The sore left shoulder wasn’t serious, nor was the general ache and horrible weariness.
Probably all of my pain was from the accident . . . car wreck, I supposed, because I was pretty sure it hadn’t been an accident. The vehicle that hit me hadn’t had its headlights on—I would have remembered headlights. And if it had been a real accident, I’d be in the hospital instead of wherever I was. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t too badly damaged . . . but that wasn’t right. I had a sudden flash of seeing my own rib—but though I was sore, my chest rose and fell without complication. I pushed that memory back, something to be dealt with after I figured out where I was and why.
My body was convinced that my current location was in a room-sized space despite the pitch-darkness. The floor was . . . odd. Cool—almost cold—and smooth under my cheek. The coolness felt good on my sore face, but it was robbing my body of warmth. Metal. It didn’t smell familiar—didn’t smell strongly of anything or anybody, as if it had been a long time since it was put to use, or it was new.
A door popped open. A light clicked on, making all of my speculations moot, because illumination was suddenly effortless. I was in a room that looked for all the world like a walk‑in freezer—all shiny, silvery surfaces. I’d jerked when the door opened, so it was no good trying to pretend to be unconscious. The next-best thing would be facing whoever it was on my own two feet.
I rolled over in preparation for doing that very thing, but before I could do more, I had a sudden and unexpected bout of dry heaves that did my head no good at all. When I lifted my head and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, I noted that there were two men standing in the doorway, frowning at me. Neither had made any move to help or—at least that I noticed—reacted at all.
I dry-heaved a couple of extra times to give myself a chance to examine the invaders of my walk‑in‑freezer cell.
The nearest man was tuxedo-model beautiful, with dark, curling hair, liquid-brown eyes, and a thousand-dollar suit that managed to show off the muscles beneath without doing anything so crass as being tight anywhere. There was something predatory in his gaze, and he had that spark that made one man more dominant than another without a word being said.
I’d been raised by werewolves. I knew an Alpha personality when I was in its presence.
The other man was at least fifty pounds heavier and three inches taller, with the face of a boxer or a dockworker. His nose had been broken a few times, and over his left eye was the sort of scar that you got when someone punched you in the eye and the skin around the socket split.
The pretty man radiated power, but this one . . . this one gave me nothing at all.
His eyes were brown, too, but they were ordinary eyes except for the expression in them. Something very cold and hungry looked out at me. He wore worn jeans and a tight-fitting Henley-style shirt.
Visually, I could have been dropped into a scene in some Italian gangster movie. There was no mistaking the Mediterranean origins of either one.
My nose told me the real story. Vampires.
I was on my hands and knees, but standing up wasn’t going to help me fight off a pair of vampires, so I stayed where I was for a moment.
I was wearing my own clothes, but they were torn and stiff with my own dried blood—and that blood smelled like it was at least a day old. An unfamiliar, plain gold cuff around my wrist covered a nagging ache I hadn’t noticed before I moved. I reached up to make sure of what I was already pretty sure of—there was no necklace there. That meant I was missing my wedding ring, Adam’s dog tag, and my lamb—my symbol of faith that helped protect me from vampires.
I was missing something else. Something that mattered a lot more.
“She doesn’t need this in here,” said the vampire with the broken nose. He reached out and did something that released the cuff on my wrist. The skin all the way around my wrist was marked with puffy red dots, as if a mosquito had bitten me in even increments.
I very carefully didn’t move.
“You’ll have to forgive us,” said the beautiful vampire as he crouched down in front of me. The British crispness of his voice was only a little softened by his Italian accent. “We were told you were the most dangerous person in the Tri-Cities and gave you the courtesy of treating you as such.” And he kept nattering on about injuries and a healer and blah blah blah.
I tried to reach out to Adam through our mate bond and touched . . . emptiness. Silence had fallen between us, not the electric, expectant kind. This silence was the emptiness that falls in the dead of night in the middle of a Montana winter when the world is encased in snow and icy cold, a silence that engulfed my soul and left me alone.
“—find you,” he was saying. “The witch’s bracelet blocked your inconvenient tie with your pack and mate until we could get you into our room here, where no magic can pass. If we had realized how fragile you were, steps would have been taken to devise a gentler method of extraction.”
I only cared about the “no magic can pass” part. If it was some sort of barricade magic or a circle, then this . . . silence was temporary, brought on by the cuff and continued by some effect of this location. Until I got out of this room, or possibly out of some outer enclosure, I wouldn’t be able to contact Adam using our bond. The imperative and hope I held on to firmly was “out.”
I was alive, I thought as I fought down the panic of the blankness where my mate should have been. Alive was a very good thing. If they had wanted me dead, I’d have been dead, and there was nothing I could have done about it.
I considered the word I’d heard earlier—“healer”—and the image of my own rib out where it had no business being and had a moment of wow. The only healer I’d ever seen who could do something like that was Baba Yaga.
Very good. I was alive. I narrowed my eyes at the two vampires.
They were the ones who had gone to a lot of trouble (apparently—judging by all the talking the pretty vampire was doing) to get me here. They could tell me what they wanted, then I could figure out how to get out and reestablish contact with Adam.
I gave a momentary thought to what Adam would have done when our link went dark. I had to trust he had dealt with it.
It was more than time to start making some plans. If I had been sure my legs would hold me, I’d have stood up then, but whatever they’d given me, the healing, or the accident, or some combination of the three had left me pretty wobbly.
Trying to stand up and falling on my rump would leave me in a worse negotiating position than simply staying where I was. So I sat, grateful that I hadn’t actually thrown up, which wouldn’t have done my dignity any more good.
I was all poised to wait for them to speak when something else the pretty vampire had said right at the first hit me.
“What idiot told you I was the most dangerous person in the Tri-Cities?” I said incredulously. “There are goblins who could take me without working up much of a sweat.”
That was maybe a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Goblins were a lot tougher than they were credited with by those who knew them. They were in the habit of running first, second, and third, and only fighting when there was no way out. That running thing had garnered them a reputation as supernatural wimps, a reputation they actively cultivated. When they were cornered, they were vicious and deadly. We had only recently started working with them, and I’d developed a new respect for their abilities.
“Perhaps he didn’t mean ‘powerful’ and ‘dangerous’ in the usual way,” suggested the thuggish vampire mildly. Like Pretty Vampire, his speech had a touch of British enunciation, colored with Italian that was more of a hint than a real accent. Despite the fact that it was my question he addressed, he wasn’t talking to me. His attention was on Pretty Vampire. “Wulfe is subtle, and he often gives correct answers that lead to the wrong conclusions. Someone should have broken him of that habit a long time ago.”
Wulfe. Wulfe, I knew. He was the right-hand vampire of Marsilia, who ruled the vampire seethe in the Tri-Cities. He was the scariest vampire I’ve ever met—and by now I’d met a few real contestants for that honor—but Wulfe could work magic, was crazy powerful, and unpredictable. Like just now, for instance. What in the world had I done to him to make him paint a target on my back and send Thug Vampire and Pretty Vampire after me?
Unlike his cohort, Pretty Vampire spoke directly to me. “You are the mate of the Alpha of the Tri-Cities werewolf pack, who just negotiated a deal with the fae that turned your little conglomerate town of the Tri-Cities in the retroterra of eastern Washington State into a safe zone for dealing with the fae,” said Pretty Vampire.
“We like the term ‘neutral zone’ better than ‘safe zone,’ ” I told him. “It sounds less judgmental and more businesslike.” Also more Star Trek-ish.My stepdaughter called it a freak zone, which I thought the most accurate description. A number of the fae who had returned to or who visited the Tri-Cities did so without glamour now—they’d quit trying to pretend to be human. Our summer tourist season, usually driven by the wineries, was looking to be the largest in anyone’s memory.
I hadn’t missed the little bit of Italian that Pretty Vampire had thrown out. A lot of vampires had accents, especially the old ones. Vampires, like werewolves, had their origins in Europe. Among the vampires, being American was a confession of youth and weakness—so none of them was too eager to lose their accent.
I was starting to get a really bad feeling about these two vampires. Okay, being kidnapped had already given me a really bad feeling, but this was worse. If these guys were actually from Italy—recently from Italy—well, I knew of one Italian vampire that was really, really bad news. I wondered if Marsilia knew that there were strange vampires from her homeland trespassing in her territory. I was very much afraid that the answer was no.
It had become the job of the pack to investigate supernatural visitors, but I knew darn well that Marsilia kept herself apprised of everyone’s comings and goings, too. If she hadn’t notified the pack before the Italian vampires trashed Adam’s SUV (and me), she probably hadn’t known about them.
“You are the mate,” said Pretty Vampire again, pulling me away from my racing thoughts. “You aren’t a werewolf, as we had assumed. Werewolves bounce back from a little thing like a car wreck a lot faster than you did. Happily, our people on the street acted quickly when they realized you were dying, or we wouldn’tbe having this pleasant conversation.”
“Happily,” I agreed blandly.
“So why does Wulfe think you are so powerful?” he asked, an edge in his voice.
I widened my eyes at him and did my best to look helpless. “I have no idea. I’m a VW mechanic,” I told him. And I showed him my hands as proof. I tried to wear gloves, when I thought about it, but dirty oil was ingrained into every crack and crevice, and my knuckles were scarred pretty good. “I’m the first one to admit that fixing old cars is a superpower, but it’s only important if you have a bus or bug you want to get fixed.”
He hit me. One moment he stood just inside the door of the walk‑in freezer, six feet away from me. Then he moved so fast I hadn’t seen his hand move, just felt the effects on my jaw. It laid me out on my side.
I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a moment because I dropped right into an argument that seemed to have been going on for a while. I couldn’t tell what they were arguing about because they did it in Italian.
I half opened my eyes to watch their body language and was pleased to find I was right. No matter how dominant Pretty Vampire was, it was Thug Vampire who was running the show. Radiating nothing in the presence of power is a sign of even more power. Thug Vampire pushed Pretty Vampire all the way out of the room without touching him. Pretty Vampire bowed and kowtowed apologetically as he backed up.
Thug Vampire returned alone and knelt beside me. His hand was warmer than the metal floor as he slid it under my shoulder and up against my face. He lifted me off the floor, my face carefully cradled against the front of his shirt.
I could have done without his picking me up. Vampires are evil. They are scary, and I don’t like being carried around by them when I’m half-conscious. I sucked in air and tried really hard to stay conscious when dizziness threatened to make me totally helpless. Again.
He walked toward the door, then paused.
“Almost,” he murmured, “I would take you out where you could be made comfortable. But you and I should negotiate before your so‑famously-volatile mate figures out where you are, eh?”
He called out something in Italian, and there was the sound of scurrying, then two unfamiliar vampires carried a Victorian-style sofa, complete with purple velvet upholstery, into the room. They looked like normal people—but I could smell what they were.
He must have had them waiting. He’d had no more intention of taking me out of the cell than he had of running naked into the dawn to be turned to ash. He’d pretended he was going to take me outside, that outside would reduce his ability to negotiate with me. Why? Vampires think sideways. Old vampires think upside down with a widdershins spin.
“That is better,” he said, setting me down on the sofa in a sitting position. He held out his hand, and one of the furniture-carrying vampires gave him an emergency cold pack, the chemical kind. He shook it, then put it into my hand and indicated that I should hold it against my cheek.
“Guccio forgot that you are not a trespasser or miscreant we are interrogating,” he told me. “He doesn’t have much experience with politics, so perhaps I expected too much from him. Who are you, Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and why did Wulfe tell me that you were the power we should contact to begin negotiations in the Tri-Cities?”
“Contact,” I said, holding the bag to my face, still trying desperately not to pass out. My ears were ringing, and my vision was spotty, so I was proud of the steadiness of my voice. “Contact. Hmm. Full-body contact makes for an interesting negotiating technique. Diplomatic, even, like the discussions that the CIA’s well-known negotiation and waterboarding team conducts.” My voice was steady, but I was babbling. I shut up as soon as I noticed.
“My apologies,” he said sincerely, without meaning the words in the least. “As Guccio told you, misled by Wulfe’s information, we did not expect you to be so fragile.”
It was still my head that hurt the most, but my jaw was now a close second. The whole slap thing and argument had been for show, I decided. If Pretty Vampire—Guccio—had been as out of control as they were pretending, I’d have had a broken neck or, at the very least, jaw. So what . . .
Horrified, I realized that they were playing good vampire/bad vampire. Bad Vampire had been sent away, and I was supposed to feel like Good Vampire was my friend. Just how dumb did they think I was?
Good Vampire, formerly known as Thug Vampire, made a soft, sympathetic sound and sat down next to me, his body turned toward mine in an intimate, sheltering way. “It looks like it hurts, poor piccola. That’s all you needed, one more bruise.”
I straightened, scooted away from him, and dealt with the resulting dizziness. I needed to be sharp, and I was anything but.
Vampires weren’t fae, who always had to tell the truth. I could tell when a human was telling a lie—but, in general, the older the creature, the better liar they were. If he wanted to negotiate with my pack, any kind of negotiate, kidnapping me had been the wrong move. If he was who I thought he was, doing it wrong was highly unlikely. So maybe negotiation wasn’t what he was after.
Wulfe had told them I was powerful. Wulfe knew them better than I. So why would Wulfe have picked me out?
nd all the while I tried to figure out the vampires, some part of me was frantically beating at the silence in my head where the pack should have been. Where Adam was supposed to be.
“Piccola,” said Good Vampire, his voice soft and chiding. Apparently he thought that I should have leaned against him and let him take care of me instead.
Why had Wulfe told him I was the most powerful person in the Tri-Cities? Vampires lied all the time—but Wulfe was more like the fae. It amused him to always tell the truth and make people believe it was a lie until it was too late.
Most powerful person in the Tri-Cities . . . hmm. Well, maybe so, if your perspective was skewed enough—and “skewed” was a good word for Wulfe. I decided it was also the kind of power that would keep me alive for a while longer and so should be shared with Good Vampire. Staying alive was the first task of any hostage.
“I am Adam Hauptman’s mate,” I told the vampire. I didn’t meet his eyes. My coyote shapeshifting was accompanied by an unpredictable resistance to some kinds of magic. Vampire magic especially had a hard time with me—but it wasn’t anything as reliable or useful as immunity.
Good Vampire made an encouraging noise, but said, “We know that.”
“Right. But it gives me power. There is this also: I was raised in the Marrok’s pack, and his oldest son is a very close friend. Siebold Adelbertsmiter counts me as his family—and even the Gray Lords treat that old one with respect.” They had, last I heard, finally found part of one of the fae who had trespassed against Zee. It had showed up on someone’s dinner plate. “You might know him as the Dark Smith of Drontheim.”
The vampire beside me didn’t move a lot, but I caught it. He knew who Zee was all right, and, for the first time, was surprised and maybe a little impressed.
“I’m also a liaison of sorts,” I continued as if I hadn’t noticed.“The local police department turns to me when they need help with the supernatural elements in our territory. I may be fragile, but I stand on the shoulders of giants—which is, I expect, why Wulfe named me to you. Political power, not intrinsic power.”
People would care if he hurt me was the subtext of my speech. I was pretty sure he heard it, but on the other hand, sometimes subtle wasn’t as effective as shoving it in front of his face.
“The Marrok treats me as a daughter,” I said, to that end. “My fae friend has killed to protect me. And my mate . . .” I tried to put it into words that were not a direct threat. “He would be very unhappy if I were hurt.”
“The Marrok broke all ties with you and your pack,” the vampire said.
I shrugged because that still hurt. “Yes. But that does not mean he would be indifferent if you hurt me. And Elizaveta Arkadyevna works for our pack.” Elizaveta was powerful enough that her reputation should have drifted to the far corners of the earth. His lack of expression told me that he, at least, knew who she was. “So do the goblins.” That last bit was probably not as impressive as it should have been, but it was true.
The vampire was quiet for a moment, then said, “You do not mention the vampire.”
“Vampire?” I asked, clueless.
“The one who has you blood-bound to her,” he said. “I tried to break the binding while you slept.”
And suddenly I wasn’t too busy to be terrified. I reached up and touched my neck with fingers that tried to shake. There were two puncture wounds in my neck.
I hate vampires . . . I hate vampires . . . I hate them.
This was the reason that vampires would never, ever be able to let the humans know about them. If a powerful enough vampire bit someone, especially more than once, that vampire could control them. They called it the Kiss. It was what allowed the Mistress or Master of a seethe to control the fledgling vampires who could not maintain sentience without feeding from a more powerful vampire. It is what allowed the maker to control his fledglings. A human who had been given the Kiss was a pet.
Thug Vampire had tried to make me his pet when I was unconscious and unable to defend myself.
“I could have done it anyway,” he said. “But it would have killed the one you are bound to, and I’m not sure I want her dead.” He smiled, reached up, and stroked my cheek.
I held myself where I was and didn’t jump up and scream. Mostly because I was certain that, dizzy as I still was, I’d land on my butt. But also because I thought that he was trying to work a bit of magic on me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know it wasn’t effective. Tomorrow, his power might work just fine—but for right now, my quirky resistance to his magic was resisting for all it was worth.
“Love,” the vampire said thoughtfully after a moment, “is the most powerful force in the world. You are loved by many. Wulfe is right, that is power. The vampire’s hold on you was something you accepted, something you wanted. I could have broken it—but if I had, she would have died.”
She? It dawned on me that he’d been using the wrong pronoun. The vampire I was tied to was Stefan.
This vampire thought . . . that I was tied to Marsilia. Who else would the mate of the pack Alpha be tied to but the Mistress of the seethe? He hadn’t broken the bond because he wanted her alive. I was right. I was right. I knew who he was.
I knew who he was—and I was in real trouble. I could hear the blood pound in my ears frantically. Never a good thing when you are sitting next to a vampire.
“You are fond of her,” he murmured. “You love her. You asked her for the bond, and that is why it is so strong.”
There was something in the position of his body that told me that I didn’t want him to talk about Marsilia to me. Something weird in his posture that spoke of jealousy.
I raised an eyebrow at him and answered him in an effort to change the topic. “Right now, I’m not too fond of you . . . Mr. Bonarata.”
Iacopo Bonarata, the Lord of Night, head of the Milan, Italy, seethe, once lover of Marsilia, was the de facto leader of the European vampires—and probably anywhere else he chose to travel. He wasn’t the Marrok, who ruled because that was the best way to protect his people. He was just a scary bastard that none of the other vampires chose to challenge. He’d been unchallenged by anyone, as far as I could find out, at least since the Renaissance, when he rose to power as a very young and ambitious monster.
And he was jealous of my imaginary relationship with the Queen of the Damned, Marsilia.
Fortunately, my attempt to change the direction of the conversation seemed to have worked, and when I named him, the vampire threw back his head and laughed, a great booming laugh that invited me to join him.
For all that he wasn’t pretty, he exuded a sexual bonhomie that was very powerful. The only thing I’d felt that was anything like it was when the fae tavern owner, Uncle Mike, turned on the charm. For Uncle Mike it was magic, and it had nothing to do with sex. The Lord of Night was all about sex and earthy things—but it was also magic.
He’d been using it on me subtly from the moment Pretty Vampire had left my cell, but when he laughed, the magic simply boiled out of him like an invisible fog.
I caught the shadow of its effect, intended or not. This magic should have enhanced the sexual pull of the Lord of Night. It brushed over me without affecting me overly much.
The vampire’s sexual appeal was powerful even without magic—but, to me, he wasn’t Adam. That meant that I could have appreciated him without temptation. He was also a vampire, and that doubled my resistance to his magic.
The Lord of Night sat next to me, waiting for me to start drooling over him.
For my part, I sat stiff and sore—and very worried about what he would do if he realized his magic had no effect on me. Would he attribute it to my tie with another vampire, or my tie to Adam and our pack, or would he figure out what I really was?
The vampires from my neck of the woods hated and feared what I was. The walkers, the children of the ancient ones, hunted down a lot of vampires in the American frontier during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They ultimately failed, and the vampires exterminated most of my kind.
I didn’t know if Bonarata, who’d been in Italy for the whole time, felt the same way. If he even knew about what my kind could do. If he did, he might kill me out of hand rather than . . . whatever else he had planned for me.
But I could not make myself relax into him. There were some things I could not do—and pretending to be attracted to Bonarata was one of those things.
I didn’t want him to know what I was. I didn’t want him to know that the blood bond—created, ironically enough, to keep me safe from another vampire—tied me to my friend Stefan and not Marsilia, because I wasn’t sure how he’d react.
“So,” the vampire was saying while I thought furiously about the dangers of unpredictable, psychotic, obsessed, immortal vampires. “You know who I am. That is good. You may call me Jacob. Iacopo is difficult for my American friends, so I have recently changed my name to the English version.”
Apparently he was choosing to ignore the way I wasn’t reacting to his magic. That didn’t mean he backed it off.
“This was supposed to be a simple meeting.” His voice was seductive. Not beautiful, but deeply, richly masculine in a way that owed nothing to magic. “I desire to have a place where others would be comfortable meeting with me. When you created such a space, it seemed that some useful agreement could be made between your pack and my people. We meant to take you somewhere that we could talk, but your condition meant we had to take you for longer than we meant to. Somehow, I think that your Alpha will not react well to this.” Nearly every word out of his mouth was a lie. He must have thought that since I wasn’t a werewolf, I wouldn’t be able to tell. Either that, or maybe that I would be too far under his influence to notice.
He smiled a charming smile. “You know him best. How do you think I should proceed?”
“You should let me go,” I told him instantly. “And never come back to the Tri-Cities.”
His smile widened, but his eyes remained cool. “Try again.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what you want. I fix cars. For hammering out interspecies treaties, your tools are better than mine.”
“You make a very good hostage,” he said. I was pretty sure he was noticing that I wasn’t panting after him as I should have been because there was a hint of irritation in his voice. Hopefully he’d credit my bond to another vampire; sometimes, Stefan had told me, such a bond could work that way. “Don’t you think that your mate will bargain to get you back?”
“Werewolves have a long memory,” I told him. I didn’t want to answer the question because the answer was yes, so I skirted it, like a politician up for election. “And they are regrettably straightforward. The wolves are not fae to hold to bargains they view as forced. Holding me hostage is not going to help you in the long run.” Flattery was usually a good tactic with old creatures. It never had worked on the Marrok, but he was more honest with himself about what he was than most people are. “But you already know that,” I told the vampire. “I suspect you already have something planned.”
He smiled again. It was supposed to be sexy, and it was. But he smelled like a vampire to me—and I had Adam.
“I could kill you and try again,” he offered gently.
And like turning a valve, he shut off the magic he’d been using to influence me.
Maybe I should have pretended to be interested in him, but vampireshave better-than-human noses. Most people who are attracted to someone don’t stink of terror and stress. I wasn’t a bad actor, but I could not have disguised my reaction to sitting this close to the Lord of Night. If I’d tried, I’d probably have thrown up on him.
He pursed his lips. “You aren’t doing this right,” he informed me. “You need to convince me that leaving you alive is in my best interests. What can you do for me? What information can you provide to me to advance my goals?”
I rolled my eyes. “I think you screwed the pooch when you hit my car and kidnapped me. You’ll have to figure your own way out of this one or wait until my head doesn’t hurt.”
He leaned into me. His body was warm—and all I could think about was how much blood he’d had to consume to raise his body temperature to a few degrees warmer than human.
“Poor little one,” he crooned, cupping my face. “It was not my intention to hurt you.”
I really wasn’t myself. I am generally very good about accommodating megalomaniacal egomaniacs and waiting until it was safe to torment them. I had grown up doing that. But my head hurt, and he was creeping me out.
“Epic failure,” I told him. “I’ll have you know that I expect my archenemies to be competent.”
He laughed, and I forgot to breathe because he was so scary. All that joyous sound and the empty eyes. The seduction had failed—the terrifying, not so much. It wasn’t magic. It was just him.
“I do want a deal with Hauptman’s pack,” he said. “It is good for you that I don’t think he’d forgive me for killing you. Werewolves are sentimental that way. But it would be easy enough to kill you—and kill him. His second might be grateful.”
I met his gaze steadily and said, “I don’t think he would.”
Vampires cannot tell truth from lies the way werewolves (and I) can. But the older ones can usually sort it out anyway. Darryl would not deal with someone who killed Adam. I was certain of it, and I let the vampire know.
He smiled faintly. There was the sound of a polite knock on the door.
“Come,” he said.
The werewolf who entered was a surprise, and she shouldn’t have been. I knew that he had exiled Marsilia for feeding from his werewolf mistress. He and Marsilia were still lovers at the time—and that probably had made for added complications. I had the impression that Marsilia’s feeding from the werewolf had some deeper vampire meaning, like maybe she’d been trying to claim the werewolf for herself. I’d been told once that the whole event had to do with Marsilia disapproving of Bonarata keeping a werewolf. Werewolf blood was apparently more enticing than human, and the implication I’d gotten was that the Lord of Night was addicted.
The woman who entered the room was beautiful. Strong features were arranged symmetrically, but there was no extra flesh on her face at all, so the total effect was fragile. Her hair was dark and formally arranged in something that was far too elaborate to be called a bun. The hair artfully left loose showed signs of being naturally curly.
She wore a white silk dress that made it clear that she was naked beneath it—and that she was too thin. The white fabric contrasted with the honey gold of her complexion and brought out the scars, small white blemishes that might have been pockmarks . . . or the reminders of where fangs had broken her skin.
She wore a silver collar, but it couldn’t have been real silver because the only scars on her neck were from fangs.
“Lenka,” said the vampire, and she flinched and glanced up. Her eyes were werewolf gold—a sign that she was quite, quite lost to her wolf.
She started to speak. I thought it was Italian, but I don’t know it, so it could have been Romanian or some other Latin language that wasn’t Spanish or French.
He made a chiding noise. “Be polite,” he said. “Our guest speaks only English.”
She glanced at me with those wild eyes. “He is mine,” she said, her voice as clear and precise as if she’d been born in London.
“Lenka,” the Lord of Night purred, “do I have to punish you?”
Her eyes dropped to the ground, and she shivered, smelling of fear and arousal at the same time. I wondered if he knew that there was nothing human left to her, and the only thing that made us safe from her was that her wolf was utterly broken.
“You have a phone call,” she said, her voice subdued.
“Ah,” he said, “I’ve been expecting this call. You’ll have to excuse me.” He wrapped his hand around the werewolf’s upper arm and escorted her out. He paused and looked back at me. “I will leave Lenka to guard the door. I assume that you, mate to an Alpha werewolf, understand that without me present, she will be quite unable to stop herself from attacking and killing you. As a favor to me, who values her, I ask that you not make me put her down for spoiling my plans.”
He shut the door behind him and did not lock it.
I knew only two things for certain. First, Bonarata had lied about a lot of what he told me. Second, he very much wanted me to run through that carefully unlocked door.
I stared at the door thoughtfully and glanced around.
I generally don’t give megalomaniacal monsters what they want. But that unlocked door was an opportunity I could not pass up. I smiled grimly, ignoring the burn the expression caused in the muscles of my much-abused face. Then I stood and started stripping off my bloodstained clothes in preparation to run for my life.