By Karen Lynch
Copyright @ 2018 Karen Lynch
This is a sample. The number of pages is limited.
Christian Kent has many labels – warrior, protector, friend,
lover – but the one label he never wanted was mate. In his lifetime, the only
girl he has ever loved, was the one he couldn’t have. He left her to protect
her heart, but his own will always belong to her.
As a girl, the one person she believed would never hurt her broke her heart. Now a warrior, she’s loving life and living for the next adventure. She’s put the past behind her, including the man who walked out of her life.
Fate brought them together once, and it’s not done with them yet. When they are suddenly thrown together to battle a lethal new foe, sparks fly and old feelings resurface. Chris will have to work hard to heal the rift between them. But will she be able to let go of the old heartbreak and open her heart to him again? Can they come together before the threat they are facing tears them apart forever?
“God, I hope so.”
I approached the two firemen shouting over the roar of the flames engulfing a four-story apartment building across the street. The five hoses aimed at the building were doing nothing to stop the fire that was blazing out of control. All the men could do now was try to keep it from spreading to nearby buildings.
I’d been on my way to meet up with Nikolas when I heard the alarms and saw the fire, and I came to see if there was anything I could do to help. But it looked like there was little I could do here.
Glass broke on the top floor of the building, followed by a child’s scream.
“Jesus Christ! Someone’s up there,” one of the firemen yelled. “Get that ladder over here.”
One look at the flames licking at the curtains of the broken window told me the firemen wouldn’t get there in time. Engaging my demon speed, I sped across the street and entered the lobby of the old building. The place was an inferno, and smoke burned my throat and eyes as the intense heat surrounded me.
I raced up the burning stairs that would have collapsed under the weight of a normal man. Only my speed kept me from falling through them and protected me from the worst of the flames. I’d have a few burns, but nothing that wouldn’t heal in a few hours.
The top floor was just starting to burn, but thick smoke made it difficult to see, even with my enhanced sight. I had to find the child and get out of here before this whole place went up.
“Where are you?” I shouted as I ran from one apartment to the next.
A shrill cry answered me, and I followed it. Inside the apartment, I spotted a middle-aged woman lying on the living room floor, and a quick check told me she was dead. Was I too late?
My Mori stirred, telling me there was another of my kind nearby. I whirled around, my gaze scanning the room until it landed on a small form huddled in a corner. I ran over and swept the child up in my arms, relieved when she cried out, letting me know she was okay.
I turned to see flames licking at the doorframe. I could withstand the fire, but the child’s Mori was too young to protect her. Running to the closest bedroom, I grabbed a quilt from the bed and threw it into the bathtub to soak it with water. The child didn’t move or speak as I wrapped her in the wet quilt and hugged her to my chest. She was in shock, but there was no time to comfort her. We needed to get out of here, now.
I ignored the sting of the flames as I hurried out of the apartment, carrying my precious burden. At the landing, I stared down at the gaping hole where the stairs used to be. If I were alone, I’d jump to the first floor and sustain minor injuries. I couldn’t do that with a child unless it was our only option.
At the end of the hall was a door I hadn’t tried, and I yanked it open to find the stairs to the roof. Seconds later, I burst out onto the roof and took a few gulps of fresh air.
Smoke billowed out of the doorway, reminding me we weren’t out of danger yet. I ran to the edge of the roof and looked down. Between the flames and the thick smoke, it was difficult to see the people on the ground, so I knew they couldn’t see us either.
My gaze moved to the next building, and I judged the distance to be around fifteen feet. Backing up, I tightened my hold on the child.
“Almost there,” I said to her before I sped forward again and jumped.
I landed easily on the other roof. The child whimpered when I set her down and pulled out my phone. A few seconds later, Nikolas answered, and I wasted no time in explaining the situation to him. I hung up to see to the little girl.
I pulled back the edges of the quilt to reveal a tear-stained face framed by messy blonde curls that glowed like a halo in the late afternoon sun. She couldn’t be more than five or six, too young to lose all she’d ever known.
“It’s okay,” I crooned. “I won’t let anything hurt you.”
Her eyelids fluttered open, and frightened gray eyes met mine. She stared at me without speaking, most likely in shock after what she’d been through.
I smiled and withdrew my hand to show her she was safe with me. I had rescued a few orphans in the past, and I was good with children.
“I’m going to carry you down now,” I told her softly. “If you get scared, you just hold on tight to me.”
She didn’t say anything as I pushed the quilt off her shoulders and picked her up. Cradling her in my arms, I ran lightly down the stairs and stepped out into the crowd milling around. Without a backward glance, I hurried down the street toward the gas station on the corner where I’d told Nikolas to meet me.
Five minutes after I got there, Nikolas pulled up on his bike, followed by a white van. The side door of the van slid open, and Paulette jumped out.
“Is she injured?” the blonde warrior asked.
“Not that I could see, but I think she’s in shock.”
Paulette’s face softened. “I’d be surprised if she wasn’t. She’ll be okay once we get her home. You can give her to me.”
I moved to hand the girl off to her, but small arms wrapped around my neck, clinging to me. Not wanting to frighten the girl more, I tried to persuade her with gentle words to go to Paulette. But every attempt only made her whimper and hold on tighter. When Paulette tried to take her from me, the girl started to wail, quieting only after Paulette stepped back.
I smiled at Paulette over the girl’s head. “I’m due for a visit home anyway.”
Climbing into the van, I settled in the back with the girl hugging my neck. Her clothes were damp from the quilt, and she shivered against me even after Paulette laid a thick blanket over us. My Mori warmed her, and I whispered reassuring words until she relaxed against me.
I couldn’t help but think of how close we’d come to never knowing of her existence. If I hadn’t decided to take that route to the restaurant, if she hadn’t screamed at that moment, I would not have found her and she’d be dead now.
She moved, and I looked down at her round, angelic face, streaked with dirt and tears. Her gray eyes watched me with so much trust it made my chest ache, and all I wanted to do was take away her sadness and fear.
“Can you tell me your name?”
She blinked but said nothing.
“I guess I’ll have to make up one for you,” I said playfully. “How about Goldilocks? You like that?”
She shook her head.
“Hmmm. You’re a quiet one, aren’t you? Maybe I’ll call you Mouse. How does that sound?”
Her golden eyebrows drew together.
“No?” I pursed my lips, pretending to think about it. “I know. I’ll call you Dove because of those beautiful gray eyes.”
A wisp of a smile touched her lips before she lowered her head and curled into me again.
I smiled down at the mop of blonde curls peeking above the blanket.
“Dove it is.”
“We’ve got company.”
I adjusted my grip on my sword as half a dozen cutlass-wielding gulaks ran into the basement, followed by two ranc demons with semi-automatic weapons. I grimaced at the sight of the guns. Ranc demons had terrible aim, and it would take a lot of bullets to kill one of us, but getting shot still hurt like hell.
I’d worked with Nikolas so long that no words were needed. My free hand went to one of the knives in my harness, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him do the same.
In one fluid motion, I pulled a knife free and sent it flying at the nearest ranc demon. He made a choked sound and fell to his knees as the blade buried itself in his chest. Next to him, the second ranc demon went down without a sound as Nikolas’s knife found its mark.
“That’s better,” Nikolas said, facing the gulaks. “Let’s do this.”
The gulaks shouted and charged us, and I found myself battling three of the lizard-like demons at once.
I blocked the first gulak’s strike with my sword and felt the force of the blow all the way to my shoulder. Spinning away from him, I swung low and slashed open the stomach of the second one. He bellowed in pain as I ducked the oncoming blade from the third one.
Coming around for a counterattack, I landed a kick on the first gulak’s knee, sending him staggering backward as my blade sliced cleanly through the wrist of the third one. He roared as his sword hit the floor with his hand still gripping the hilt.
Lucky for me, gulaks were known more for their brute strength than their skill with a blade, or I might have been relieved of a few favorite body parts before I was done with them. With the three of them disarmed, it was easy enough to dispatch them back to the hell they came from.
I looked at Nikolas, who was wiping his blades on the pants of a fallen gulak.
“You’d think a slave-trafficking operation as big as this would have a lot better security.”
He nodded as his gaze swept the basement. “I was thinking the same thing.”
“How’s it going down there?” Sara’s voice came over the comm she insisted we wear on jobs now. She could talk to Nikolas through their bond, but she liked us all to be in contact. He and I had never used communication devices, but Sara felt better with us wearing them.
“We’re good, boss,” I retorted.
“How are the humans?” Nikolas asked as he stepped over a gulak body.
We’d entered the four-story building from the roof, and the first thing we’d done was take out the guards on the top floor and free the captives up there. Once the floor was secure, Sara stayed behind with Paulette to reassure the terrified humans while the rest of us cleared the building.
“Few cuts and bruises, but alive.” Her voice sounded a little breathless, and I knew she was moving around checking on her charges. “We have fourteen human girls and three mox females up here. One of the demons needs medical attention… Hold on.”
She went quiet for a few seconds. “One of the girls said five more were taken away before we got here. They could still be in the building.”
“We’re on it,” Nikolas said. “Raoul, you copy?”
“Copy,” Raoul replied. “Three is clear, and we’re doing a sweep of two now.”
“We’ll work our way up to you,” Nikolas said.
Sara cut in. “Be careful. Don’t make me have to come down there and save your sorry asses.”
Nikolas smiled and shook his head, and I was struck by how much he’d changed in the year and a half since he’d met Sara. Dedicated to his warrior lifestyle, he’d been the last person I’d expected to settle down, but one look at my little cousin and my best friend had fallen hard.
He used to almost lose it when Sara was in any kind of danger, and I’d often wondered how he was going to deal with her being a warrior. Now they worked together, and he’d finally accepted that his mate could take care of herself. That didn’t mean he didn’t worry, though.
We moved silently through the basement until we came to a utility room. Nikolas reached for the knob and stopped, sniffing the air.
“You smell that?”
I sniffed and nodded grimly as the coppery scent of fresh blood hit me.
“Human,” I said in a low voice.
We positioned ourselves on either side of the door, and Nikolas turned the knob, easing the door open to reveal a dead girl inside. One look at her ravaged throat told me no gulak had killed her.
I crouched and touched the body. “Still warm.”
“We have a fresh vampire kill,” Nikolas barked to the team. “Stay sharp.”
“I’m not picking up anything,” Sara said.
No one questioned her because her “vampire radar,” as she called it, was never wrong. She could sense any vampire within a quarter-mile radius and even tell what direction they were coming from. Pretty useful skill to have in our line of work.
Nikolas and I left the room and continued our search of the basement. It didn’t take me long to find the open sewer grate in the boiler room where the vampire had exited the building.
I peered through the hole at the blackness below. “What do you think?”
“If Sara can’t sense him, he’s long gone,” Nikolas called from the hallway. “Let’s finish down here and head up.”
I headed for the door and let out a grunt when I walked straight into an invisible wall as I tried to pass through the doorway.
I rubbed my nose. “What the hell?”
Nikolas tried to enter the room, coming up against the same barrier. He pushed at it with his hand. “Force field. My guess is it’s warlock made.”
“Nice,” I groused. So much for the lack of security. “What now?”
He smirked as he spoke into his comm. “Sara, it looks like you have to save Chris’s ass after all. He got himself stuck behind a warlock barrier.”
Sara laughed. “I’m on my way. Give me a minute to –” She gasped loudly. “Five vampires, coming fast!”
No sooner had she spoken than the first vampire leaped through the sewer grate. Nikolas battered the magic barrier, and I heard Sara say something, but I was too distracted to listen.
I brought my sword up as the vampire rushed me without waiting for his backup. He screamed as my blade sliced him from navel to shoulder, and he fell backward onto the second vampire coming through the grate. His brethren threw him aside, and he slammed into a pipe, sending water gushing everywhere.
The newcomer snarled at me but kept his distance as three more vampires jumped through the hole in the floor. I quickly sized up the situation. These were not young vampires, judging by how fast they’d gotten here after Sara had detected them. That didn’t bode well for the good guys – namely me.
The only female in the group looked me up and down lecherously. She was blonde, and she’d been in her early twenties when she was changed.
“I’ll do some one-on-one time with you when the boys have had their fun.” She licked one of her fangs. “I’ll even let your friend watch.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, I have a rule. No sex with people I have to kill. It puts a real damper on the romance.”
Behind me, Nikolas snorted.
One of the male vampires snarled. “Enough playing around, Jen. Let’s do this.”
She huffed and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Fine. You want him, he’s –”
A white flash lit up the room. Out of nowhere a slender brunette girl appeared, sprawled on her back between me and the vampires. I couldn’t tell who was more shocked to see her there.
She sat up and looked around in wonder. “What do you know? It worked. Sort of.”
She tossed a sheepish smile over her shoulder at him. “Surprise.”
“Who the fuck are you?” demanded the female vampire from the other side of the room. She and the others had been driven back by Sara’s arrival, but they were inching forward again.
Sara stood and dusted off her jeans. “I’m here to rescue him.”
The female stared at her.
“It’s our thing. He gets into trouble, and I save him.” Sara lifted her hands and let them fall back to her sides. “Men. What can you do, right?”
“Sara,” Nikolas ground out.
One of the males barked a laugh. “She’s wacko. Look, she doesn’t even have a weapon.”
I moved swiftly to Sara’s side. I’d seen enough of her power in the last year to know what she was capable of, but there was no way I’d let her face five vampires alone.
“New trick? Impressive.”
Her green eyes gleamed with excitement. “I can’t wait to tell Eldeorin I finally did it.”
I smiled at her. “Maybe we should deal with our little problem first before your mate loses it.”
We sized up the five vampires watching us with a mix of confusion and malice. I was pretty sure they’d never encountered someone so wholly unfazed by their presence, and they had no idea what to make of her.
Sara looked at me. “I’ll take the three on the right. Can you handle two?”
I met her smirk with my own. “Try to keep up, little girl.”
I was on the first vampire before he knew I was coming. My blade severed his head, and his blood sprayed the shocked faces of his friends. To my right, another vampire screamed, and I glanced that way as he burst into flames.
A vampire took advantage of my distraction and rushed me. His claws scored my stomach and would have gutted me if I hadn’t spun away in time. Ignoring the burning pain, I came around quickly and took his arm off at the elbow. Before he could recover, I impaled him through the heart.
I turned to see two bodies engulfed in flames and the female vampire cowering against the far wall, her eyes darting to the sewer grate.
“Want to flip for it?” I joked to Sara.
She opened her mouth to reply but sucked in a sharp breath instead, her hand going to her chest. I knew we had more company before she got the words out.
What I wasn’t expecting was for my sweet little cousin to grab the front of my shirt and throw me toward the doorway. I hit the forcefield and fell to my knees, losing my grip on my sword. I regained my feet as another six vampires spilled from the sewer.
Before I could move for my weapon, Sara lit up like a bolt of lightning. I barely had time to make sure I was on dry ground before her power streaked through the water on the floor. Every vampire in the room screamed and convulsed before collapsing in smoking heaps.
I jerked as an errant spark of Fae magic set me back on my ass. It wasn’t enough to do damage, but it felt like I’d grabbed the end of a low voltage wire.
I let out a moan. “Son of a bitch.”
“Sorry!” Sara fell to her knees beside me. “Are you okay? Did I get you?” Her eyes widened, and she reached out to pat the side of my head. “Oops. You’re smoking a little.”
I gave her a suffering look, and her lips twitched.
“Sara,” Nikolas growled as Raoul, Brock, and Calvin arrived behind him to stare at the carnage.
She smiled at me and went to dissolve the barrier with a touch. Fae magic beat all other magic every day of the week.
In the next instant, Nikolas had her in his arms, looking like he wanted to yell at her and kiss her at the same time.
“Don’t mind me,” I called. “I’ll just lie here until my legs work again.”
Sara laughed, and Raoul came over to grab my hands and pull me to my feet. My legs wobbled a little, and I had to hold on to him for support.
“What happened to you?” Raoul asked.
“What do you think?” I grimaced at Sara. “I can’t believe you set my hair on fire.”
She looked me over. “It’s just a little charred on the ends.”
Her eyes sparkled with laughter. “Why? You have a hot date tonight?”
She rolled her eyes, and the others laughed.
Nikolas looked at Brock. “We’ll need a large cleanup team, and the human girls should go to the hospital.”
“And the mox demons?”
Sara stepped out of Nikolas’s arms. “I already called someone for them. I should probably get back to them and the girls.”
Nikolas gave her a wry smile. “Take the stairs this time.”
She laughed softly and kissed his jaw before she headed to the stairwell, leaving the rest of us with a pile of smoking vampire bodies.
I looked at Nikolas as I ran a hand through my hair to assess the damage. “Did you know she could transport?”
He rubbed his jaw in exasperation. “She and Eldeorin have been working on it, but as far as I knew, she hadn’t been able to do it since that first time.”
“Well, that should make for an interesting dinner conversation tonight.”
I’d had a few laughs at Nikolas’s expense since he’d bonded with Sara, and the fun hadn’t ended with their mating. Knowing my cousin, these two would keep me entertained for decades.
“When are you two heading to LA?” I asked him.
“Next week. Sara wants to stop by Westhorne for a few days first.”
Last year, we’d set up a temporary command center near Santa Cruz, and after we left, it was moved to Los Angeles. Now, the Council wanted to establish a larger, permanent command center there to handle the day-to-day operations in that area. They’d asked me to help get the center up and running, but I’d already committed to a long overdue visit with my parents in Germany. Nikolas had agreed to take over in my place.
We spent the next two hours working with the cleanup crew while Sara and Paulette saw to the girls we’d rescued and delivered them to the hospital. Then, we all met up again back at the safe house in Norcross.
After my shower, I found Nikolas and Sara in the kitchen, discussing dinner options.
I sat on one of the barstools. “You guys staying in tonight?”
“Yes,” Sara answered for them. “You are not dragging me to another nightclub like the last one.”
Wearing an innocent smile, I rested my arms on the granite counter. “What was wrong with Koma’s? You said you wanted to go somewhere laid-back where you didn’t have to dress up.”
She fixed me with a look of chagrin. “If those people had been any more laid-back, they would have been horizontal. In fact, some of them were.”
Nikolas chuckled, and she tossed him a half-hearted glare. “You’re as bad as he is.”
He tugged her back against him and trapped her with his arms. “How about I take you to Dominick’s, and then we’ll have a quiet night in?”
Her lips curved into a smile. “That sounds really nice.”
I laid my hands on the counter and stood. “And this is where I bid you good night.”
“You’re not coming to dinner with us?” Sara asked me.
I caught Nikolas’s eye and saw the subtle shake of his head.
“As much as I enjoy your company, Cousin, I think I’ll see if Raoul wants to go for a steak. Then I’ll probably head over to Buckhead.”
She hugged Nikolas’s arms. “I guess we’ll see you later.”
I smiled as I turned away. “Don’t wait up.”
I zipped up my weapons bag and set it on the floor next to my duffle. Straightening, I scanned the room I’d slept in since I was six. The pale-blue walls were covered in framed photos of my life here, and the shelves overflowed with books and treasures I’d collected over the years. A wave of nostalgia rushed over me. I’d had a good life here, and I was going to miss this place.
I turned to smile at Mason as his muscled form filled my bedroom doorway. His black hair was artfully mussed, and his blue eyes gleamed with excitement.
“I didn’t expect you until dinner. You packed already?”
He grinned and entered the room to throw his six-foot-one frame down on my pristine white bedspread. At a scowl from me, he kicked off his Chucks before he put his feet up.
“Unlike you, I don’t have a hundred pairs of shoes to pack. I figured you’d need help lugging all your bags.”
I let out a very unladylike snort. “For your information, I’m all packed, too.”
It was true I liked shoes, but I’d probably have little need for most of them on this assignment. A thrill went through me. My first assignment away from home.
He glanced at the duffle bag, and his brows rose. “One bag?”
I shrugged. “Warriors travel light. And you’d be amazed how much I fit in that thing.”
“Good, because we have a lot of traveling to do.”
Our eyes met and grins split our faces. Before I knew what he was up to, he grabbed my hand and pulled me down on the bed. We lay side by side, hands clasped and faces turned toward each other.
“This is it,” I said softly.
“This is it.”
He exhaled loudly and stared up at the ceiling. “Did you ever think this day would come?”
“Yes.” I studied his handsome face, which was as familiar to me as my own. “I always knew we’d get here, even if I had to drag your ass along with me.”
“Yeah, right.” He laughed and reached over with his free hand to tickle my ribs. “I seem to recall me kicking your little butt many times in training.”
“With a sword, maybe. But you still can’t best me in hand-to-hand.”
“In your dreams.”
I felt the slight tightening of his fingers on mine a second before he lunged. Bringing my legs and hands up against him, I twisted to the side, sending him flying over me. He hit the rug facedown, and I was on top of him before he could recover. My legs wound around his, and my hands twisted his arms to pin his larger body to the floor.
I leaned down to his ear. “Say ‘Beth is the best warrior ever.’”
“Beth is the second-best warrior ever,” said a muffled voice.
“Mason, Mason, when will you ever learn?” I let out a dramatic sigh.
“Beth, did you ask…? Oh, hello, Mason.”
Mason squirmed, and I dug an elbow into his back, smirking at Rachel, who stood in the doorway.
“I assume Mason is staying for dinner.” Her eyes sparkled, and her long red curls bobbed as she shook her head at us.
“Yes,” he said in a sulky voice that made me grin harder.
“Okay then. Dinner is in an hour.”
As soon as she left, I released Mason and rolled away from him, coming to my feet in a single motion. As expected, he grabbed for me, but I was already at a safe distance. I knew my best friend too well.
He sat up, glaring at me. I smiled back, and his lips twitched in response. He could never stay vexed with me for long.
I sank down on the edge of the bed and fingered the bedspread Rachel had given me years ago. Everything here was so familiar, and it felt strange to think that tomorrow night I’d be sleeping in a new room in a different state.
“It’s not forever. You’ll be back for a visit before you know it,” said Mason, who knew me as well as I knew him.
“I know. It’s just I’ve never lived anywhere else. Not since he…they found me. And I can’t imagine going months without seeing Rachel.”
I wasn’t related to Rachel by blood, but she was a mother to me in every way that mattered. She’d taken me in when I was a frightened six-year-old orphan, loving me and helping me through my grief for my human grandmother. It was Rachel who had explained the voice in my head and taught me to control my demon. She had also given me my first knife and shown me how to use it.
Mason pulled his phone from his back pocket and waved it at me. “They have this amazing device now called a phone, and you can even do video calls.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
“Besides, you’ll have me watching your back. What more could you want?”
“Absolutely nothing.” I chewed my lower lip. “You know, you can still go to Westhorne.”
He drew his knees up and rested his arms on them. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No. But I know how much you wanted to go there after training. You’d be there now if it wasn’t for me.”
“Every new warrior in the country wants to go to Westhorne. Well, except for you. By the way, have I told you lately how weird you are?” He gave me a lopsided smile. “There’ll be plenty of opportunities to go to Westhorne, but we only get one first assignment, and we’re doing it together like we always said we would.”
“But nothing. I want to do this, and the way I see it, you owe me.”
My eyebrows shot up. “I owe you? For what?”
“For ruining me for other women.”
I burst out laughing. I’d known Mason most of my life, but we hadn’t become friends until we started training together at fourteen. He’d been a cocky thing and already a huge flirt, but back then, I’d had no interest in the boys at the stronghold. It wasn’t until I was seventeen and I’d finally tossed away all my silly girlish dreams of him, that I’d agreed to date Mason.
By then, we were sparring partners and he was my best friend, and the romance was doomed before it had started. He’d been my first kiss, and though he was skilled in that area, I couldn’t see past the friendship. He liked to joke that I’d broken his heart, even though he’d gone on a date with someone else two days later.
“I’ve lost count of the girls you’ve been with. If you’re ruined, I wouldn’t want to see you whole.”
A self-satisfied smile curved his lips.
“And if anything, you’ve ruined me for other men. I can’t talk to anyone like I do with you. So, the way I see it, you actually owe me.”
“I knew it. You secretly want me.”
I threw up my arms. “You’re hopeless. You know that?”
His stomach growled in response. “And hungry. When are you going to feed me?”
I stood and held out a hand. He took it, and I pulled him to his feet.
“Come on. Let’s go help Rachel. I’m sure we can find something to keep you alive until dinner.”
* * *
“Did you remember your phone?”
“Yes.” I pulled my cell from the inside pocket of my leather jacket and held it up to Rachel.
I pointed to the sword scabbard next to my seat and patted one of the large saddlebags on my bike. “All set.”
“Cash? Credit card?”
I placed my hands on Rachel’s shoulders and met her anxious gaze. “I’m good. Don’t worry.”
Her eyes misted. “How can I not worry? My little girl is going out into the world.”
“I’m not little anymore, and I can take care of myself,” I said in a soothing voice.
She sniffed softly. “I know you can, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Now I know how my mother felt when I left home the first time.”
I pulled her in and hugged her tightly. “I love you, Rachel.”
“I love you, too,” she said hoarsely.
We broke apart, both of us on the verge of tears. I looked at Mason, who stood with his parents a few feet away.
“Ready?” he asked, his eyes lit with anticipation.
I nodded, afraid my voice would crack if I spoke. This was no way for a warrior to behave.
Rachel handed me my helmet, and I donned it as I straddled the seat of my bike. When Mason and I had bought our motorcycles last year, he’d gotten a sleek black Ducati, the bike favored by most warriors. I’d gone for a more classic look and feel. I loved my dark-red Harley Davidson.
“Call me when you get there,” Rachel ordered.
I took a deep breath and started my bike, glad no one could see the tear that escaped and rolled down my cheek. I heard the Ducati rumble to life a few seconds before Mason pulled up beside me. We looked at each other, and I gave him a thumbs-up. And then we were off.
Side by side, we rode to the main gate that was already open for us. As we passed the gatehouse, I had a moment of panic, but it passed quickly. I stared at the road stretching out before us, and exhilaration replaced the butterflies in my stomach. This was it, the moment Mason and I had talked about for years. It felt almost surreal.
We reached the first bend in the road that would take us out of sight of home, and I slowed to look back at the sprawling stronghold behind the tall iron gates.
Mason’s voice came over the speaker in my helmet. “You good?”
I sped up until I was beside him, and together, we rode away from Longstone.
“Beth, are you sure this is the right place?”
“I think so.”
I slowed my bike and stared at the large one-story Spanish villa surrounded by tall trees and perfectly manicured grounds. It looked like something you’d see in a celebrity magazine, definitely not what I’d imagined a command center to look like. But then, this was Los Angeles, and the Council was generous when it came to outfitting and housing its warriors.
The arched front door opened, and a short, pretty brunette in jeans and a sweater came out. One look at her as she walked toward us told me she couldn’t be a warrior. I glanced at the phone mounted to my dash. How could I have messed up the address?
“Hi,” she called over the rumble of our motorcycles.
I turned off the Harley and removed my helmet, shaking out my long blonde hair.
“Hi. I’m sorry. I think we might have taken a wrong turn.”
The girl smiled. “Not if your names are Beth and Mason. We heard you’d be arriving today.”
“Oh.” I stared at her for a moment, unsure of what to say. “Are you…” My voice lowered. “…a warrior?”
She laughed heartily. “I guess I am. Don’t worry. I get that a lot.”
Relieved, but still confused, I dismounted and held out my hand to her. “Beth Hansen.”
“Sara Grey,” she said as we shook hands.
I did a double take.
“The Sara Grey?”
I stared at the girl who was rumored to be half Fae, had single-handedly killed a Master, and was mated to the legendary Nikolas Danshov. She was as famous as her mate. Maybe more.
Her green eyes sparkled with amusement. “The one and only, but I prefer Sara.” She turned to Mason. “And you must be Mason Young.”
He took her hand, looking a little awed. I had to bite back a grin because I knew exactly what was going through his mind. Wherever Sara Grey went, so did her mate.
Lord Tristan wasn’t the only reason Mason had wanted to go to Westhorne. It was also the home of Nikolas Danshov. Every new warrior, including me, dreamed of fighting alongside him. But I had my reasons for not wanting to go to Westhorne, and not even the chance to work with Nikolas could override those.
When we’d learned about the new command center in Los Angeles, Mason and I had immediately requested to be placed there. It was a great opportunity to work with seasoned warriors in the field, and the city was a hotbed of demon activity. We hadn’t heard who would be running the center, and the last person either of us had expected to find here was Nikolas.
Sara waved at the house. “Come inside, and I’ll give you the grand tour.”
We grabbed our stuff and followed Sara into the house. The wide foyer opened into a spacious living area with floor-to-ceiling windows at the back that looked out over a courtyard and a large pool.
Leaving our bags near the door, we walked to the nearest end of the U-shaped house that had been converted into a busy control room. I looked around the room, taking in the computers and banks of monitors at the various workstations set up around the room. On the wall was the largest computer screen I’d ever seen, displaying a map of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. Tiny colored dots moved on the screen, and it took me several seconds to realize they were locators for our warriors out in the city.
I’d been to the security center at Longstone a few times, but that was nothing compared to this. I was more than a little impressed by the size of it all as Sara walked us around, introducing us to the people there.
“This is the weapons room.” Sara opened a door to a store room filled with shelves of weapons and other gear. “If you need anything, you’ll probably find it in here. If not, let Raoul know, and he’ll commission it for you.”
She closed the door, and we moved on to the next one.
“And this is the gym.”
We entered the room where two men were fighting, their movements so fast it was hard to follow them even when I used my demon sight. They stopped, and one of the men turned to smile at Sara. I didn’t need to hear Mason’s sharp intake of breath to know who we were about to meet.
“Beth and Mason, this is Nikolas and Raoul. Nikolas runs the command center, and Raoul is his second.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, proud of how confident I sounded despite the nervous flutter in my stomach.
Mason muttered a hello.
The men walked over to shake our hands. They were the same height with black hair, but that was where the similarities ended. Raoul had an easy manner about him. Nikolas was friendly, but there was an edge to him, an aura of strength in every movement.
“This is your first field assignment?” Nikolas asked.
“Yes,” I answered for both of us. “We’ve been assigned to Longstone since we finished training last year.”
“I read your files. Top of your training class, and Teresa Fuller personally recommended you for this placement.”
“Thanks,” Mason and I said together.
I felt my face flush from the praise. I hadn’t known the Longstone leader had spoken to Nikolas about us. This whole day had a surreal quality to it, and I was half expecting to wake up and find myself back in my old bedroom.
“Take today to settle in, and we’ll meet tomorrow morning to discuss duties and team assignments,” Nikolas said.
We nodded, and he and Raoul went back to sparring. I would have loved to stay and watch, but Sara was already leaving. Reluctantly, I followed, tugging Mason with me.
At the end of the hallway, Sara turned to us with a knowing smile.
“He has that effect on most people. It’ll pass once you get to know him.”
Mason smiled sheepishly. “I haven’t acted that stupid since I was fourteen.”
“Was it like that for you when you met him?” I asked Sara.
Sara laughed. “Not quite. But we’ll save that story for another time. Let me show you the rest of the house.”
Leading us into a gorgeous kitchen that was a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern appliances, she pointed to a door on the other side of the room.
“The previous owner must have had a big car collection because he added on a huge garage. You can get to it through here or through the control room.”
We left the kitchen and walked through the rest of the house. Sara explained that most of the warriors working out of the command center lived at the three safe houses in the city. That way this place wasn’t too crowded.
“We have four bedrooms in here, and there is a guesthouse with two bedrooms out back. One of you can take the last room, or you can both stay in the guesthouse. It’s up to you.”
“The guesthouse will work.” I liked the idea of Mason and me having our own space.
Sara led us back to the living room and through a set of French doors to the backyard. The guesthouse was a much smaller one-story structure nestled in the trees a hundred or so feet from the house. It had a small living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, each with their own bathroom.
Mason let me have the larger bedroom, and I set my things down on the queen-size bed, eager to unpack and settle in.
“Let me know if you need anything,” Sara said from the bedroom doorway. “I’m the unofficial den mother until we get everything sorted out.”
“You don’t have to take care of us.”
She waved a hand. “I like doing it, and the others don’t complain unless I try to cook. Raoul says he’s counting down the days until Chris gets here. Apparently, my omelet skills need some work.”
The bottom fell out of my stomach. “Chris Kent?”
I mentally kicked myself for not putting it together sooner. Chris and Nikolas were best friends, and everyone knew they worked together. If Nikolas was here, then chances were Chris was around, too. My mind conjured an image of his green eyes and dimpled smile, and the old hurt pricked my chest.
“Yes. I figured you must know him since you’re both from Longstone.”
“It’s been a while,” I said a lot more casually than I felt. “So, he’s coming here, too?”
She shrugged. “He’s in Germany now, but I expect he’ll turn up here eventually. Do you know him well?”
I swallowed. “I knew him when I was younger, but I haven’t seen him in years.”
Sara smiled. “Well, maybe you’ll catch up again when he comes back.”
“Okay. I’ll get out of your hair and let you unpack.” She walked to the door and turned back to me. “Come inside when you’re done, and we’ll scrounge up some lunch.”
As soon as the front door closed, Mason entered my bedroom. The concern in his eyes told me he’d overheard our conversation.
“We don’t have to stay here.”
I fingered the strap of my duffle bag. “We can’t just pick up and leave. We asked to come here, and it’ll look bad if we change our minds after one day.”
“I don’t care about that.”
He was such a bad liar. Being a warrior meant everything to him, and like me, he wanted to make a good impression on his first assignment. And I’d seen the excitement in his eyes when he found out he’d be working with Nikolas. He’d already passed on Westhorne for me. No way was I letting him give up this opportunity.
“We’re not leaving. He might never even show up here.”
“And if he does?”
I lifted a shoulder. “Then I’ll put on my big girl panties and deal with it. It’s not the end of the world.”
Mason scowled. “He hurt you.”
“He didn’t do anything to me. He just…” Didn’t want me.
“He broke your heart.”
“That was four years ago, and I’m over it. He’s probably forgotten all about me anyway.”
I bit my lip as my chest squeezed, hating that it hurt after all this time. Why did I still care? Chris didn’t. He’d made that clear when he left and never came back.
I unzipped my duffle bag and pulled out my small toiletry case and a change of clothes.
“I’m going to shower before lunch,” I said, putting an end to the conversation.
Mason stood. “Give me your keys, and I’ll move our bikes. I want to check out the garage.”
I tossed my keys to him. “Thanks.”
Half an hour later, freshly showered and changed, I unpacked my things and hung my clothes in the closet. I smiled at my sparse wardrobe. I loved clothes, but there was only so much you could carry on a bike, and I’d give up my shoes before my Harley. Besides, now I had a good excuse to go shopping in LA.
I threw my empty bag into the closet, and a glint of silver on the bedspread caught my eye. Pressing my lips together, I stared at the silver chain for a long moment before I picked it up. I sat on the bed, letting the delicate chain wrap loosely around my fingers so the small silver dove pendant dangled from my hand.
I’d thrown the necklace into the back of my closet years ago, not wanting to look at it but unable to part with it. Seeing it now brought back memories of a time I wished I could forget – and the person who I’d thought had cared for me before he’d walked out of my life.
Of all the places in the world I could have gone, I’d chosen the command center run by Chris’s best friend. I’d lied when I told Mason I could deal with it if Chris showed up here. The truth was my stomach clenched painfully at the mere thought of seeing him again. If I had any sense of self-preservation, I’d ride away from here today and not look back.
I flopped back on the bed with a groan. This was so stupid. Why was I still letting him get to me? It wasn’t like we’d ever been together. All I’d been to Chris was the little girl he liked to indulge whenever he came to visit.
Until he never came again.
A knock came at my door, and I called for Mason to come in. His hair was damp, and he’d changed his clothes.
“Get the bikes moved?” I asked, sitting up.
He tossed me my keys. “Yeah. Wait’ll you see the garage. You can fit two dozen bikes in there.”
“I didn’t expect you back so soon. I figured you’d be fawning over Nikolas’s Ducati for at least half an hour.”
“Ha-ha.” He looked around my room. “You unpacked?”
“Good. Let’s go get some lunch.”
I grinned. “Yeah. I bet Nikolas eats around this time.”
He snorted, but I noticed he didn’t try to deny that was why he was eager to go to the main house. I was going to have so much fun watching my normally cool best friend get all tongue-tied around his hero.
I opened the drawer to the night table and dropped the chain inside. Then I waved at Mason.
“Lead the way.”
* * *
I pulled into the parking spot next to Mason and shut off the Harley. Dismounting, I removed my helmet and watched as a black Jeep parked two spots away. The front doors of the Jeep opened, and Raoul and Brock got out.
My stomach fluttered, and I fought to keep the foolish grin off my face as the two men walked over to us. Mason and I had been in Los Angeles for three days, and most of that time had been spent being briefed on protocols and procedures and getting to know the other warriors. I was all for being prepared, but I was itching to get out and do what I’d been training for my whole life.
For the last two weeks, a tana demon had been at work in the city. Cousins to Incubi, tana demons lived on human energy, but unlike Incubi, they didn’t feed off sexual energy only. A tana demon could be male or female, and they only fed from the opposite sex. And what they left behind was nothing more than a husk of dried skin and bones. Since all the victims had been women, we knew we were looking for a male demon.
Another team was hunting him, but Nikolas thought it would be good experience for Mason and me to ride along with Raoul and check out a tip from an informant. According to the informant, a succubus named Adele, the tana demon might hit one of two places tonight. The other team was checking out the first club a block away, and we got the second one, a club called Suave.
“When we get inside, spread out,” Raoul said. “If you spot the target, keep him in sight and let the team know where you are. Any questions?”
He looked at Mason and me. We shook our heads, and the four of us walked toward the club, where a line of about fifty people stood outside the door. Instead of getting into line, Raoul headed for the door where a burly man stood guard. I didn’t hear the exchange between them, but the bouncer smiled and waved us in amid complaints from the crowd.
Loud music and a wave of warm air hit me as we walked down the short hallway to the main section of the club. The interior was one big room with a round bar in the center, surrounded by a sea of undulating bodies. How did you find someone in all this, especially when you only had a vague description to go by? The only way to recognize a tana demon was by their unique odor, which could most aptly be described as rotting oranges. Humans couldn’t smell it, but we could. The problem was that you had to get close enough to pick it up.
I waved to Mason and set off around the edge of the dancers, my eyes scanning every male face as my nose tried to detect the tana’s presence. According to Adele, the demon was tall and blond, which wasn’t a whole lot to go on and fit the description of half the men here. More than one of them caught me looking, prompting them to approach me and slowing my search. I brushed them off as politely as I could and continued on my way. Of course, there’s always that one guy who is more persistent than the others.
“One drink,” he called over the music.
“No, thanks. I’m looking for someone.”
I continued to search the faces around us. When he spoke again, he was inches from me, and I could smell alcohol on his breath. I’d seen intoxicated humans in movies and on TV, but this was my first encounter with one. The alcohol fumes made me want to cover my nose and mouth. It was a good thing humans didn’t have our sense of smell, or they’d probably never date.
“I’m someone,” he drawled silkily.
I nudged away the hand he’d laid on my shoulder. He was good-looking, and I was sure any number of girls here would love him to be their someone. I wasn’t one of them.
“Excuse me. I think I see my friend.”
I plunged into the crowd, letting it swallow me up. My new direction took me toward the bar, and I had to push through the mass of bodies. A hand cupped my ass, and I swiped it away in annoyance. When a different hand groped my breast, I wasn’t as forgiving. I squeezed the fingers until the faceless man yelped in pain.
My mood was darker by the time I reached the bar, and the excitement of my first job had dimmed. I wondered how Mason and the others were faring. I hadn’t heard from them, so I assumed they weren’t having any luck either.
A bartender stopped in front of me and asked what I wanted. I ordered a ginger ale and sipped it as I resumed my task of studying the face of every blond male around me. I soon came to the realization that hunting wasn’t all chases and combat. It could be downright boring.
On the opposite side of the circular bar, a couple caught my eye. I’d seen them during my first scan of the people around the bar, but I’d dismissed the man because he was dark-haired, not blond. I noticed them this time because the girl, who had seemed alert a few minutes ago, now looked drunk. Or drugged, if her glassy eyes and slack mouth were any indication.
I looked at her companion and found him watching her with an expression that was more hunger than concern. I knew how easy it was for someone to slip you a drug in one of these places. I also knew predators didn’t always come in demon form.
The girl got off her stool and would have fallen if the man hadn’t grabbed her. She smiled at him with unfocused eyes as he led her away from the bar. I set my glass on the bar and followed.
I lost them in the crowd several times, but I managed to catch sight of them walking down a dark hallway toward the back exit of the club. I debated whether or not to alert my team and decided not to pull them away from the job for this. If it came down to it, I could easily handle a human male.
The metal door squeaked when I opened it and slipped outside into a loading area used for deliveries. At the bottom of a concrete ramp, I spotted the man carrying the girl, who appeared to be unconscious. He stopped walking and looked up at me.
“Well, this isn’t the right door.” I bit my lip, pretending to be embarrassed.
His gaze moved over my body before resting on my face. “You shouldn’t be out here alone, sweetheart.”
I jiggled the doorknob that had locked behind me. “Damn it. Now I’ll have to walk all the way around to the front again.”
“Come. I’ll walk with you.” He adjusted the girl’s weight in his arms. “I was just leaving anyway. My girl had a bit too much to drink.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said with exaggerated relief as I started toward them. “Is she okay?”
“She just needs to sleep it off.” He glanced down at the girl’s face. When he looked up again, there was no mistaking the hungry gleam in his dark eyes.
I took another two steps, and my nose twitched as the unmistakable smell of rotten oranges filled my nostrils.
My mind raced as I evaluated the situation. Tana demons were strong, but so was I. I didn’t have the speed or strength of a warrior like Raoul, but I could hold my own against a lone demon. My main concern was for the girl, who could be badly injured in a fight. And there was no way this guy was going down without one.
I had the element of surprise on my side. He wouldn’t be this calm if he knew what I was. If I alerted the team, he’d know, and he could hurt the girl before backup arrived.
I started when I realized I’d stopped halfway down the ramp. I gnawed the inside of my cheek as I began walking again. What do I do?
The decision was taken out of my hands when the demon suddenly stiffened and his eyes narrowed on me.
Crap. I’d forgotten that some demons – such as Incubi and tana demons – could recognize other demons. So much for the element of surprise.
“I only want the human,” I said evenly.
I hoped he didn’t see through my lie. This demon had already killed four women, and there was no way I was letting him go free so he could do it again.
His smile was more of a sneer. “You’re young, and I bet you’ve never met one of my kind before now. I’ve been around longer than you, and I’m not someone you want to mess with.”
A tendril of fear curled in my stomach, but I ignored it and spoke with confidence. “Leave the human and I won’t mess with you.”
Without taking my eyes from him, I reached down and pulled out one of the silver knives tucked inside my boots. I felt better with the familiar weapon in my hand.
The smile faded from his face, and he backed up several steps to lay the girl on the ground. He straightened and faced me, hatred churning in his dark, angry eyes.
I let my Mori come closer to the surface, relishing in its strength flowing through me. Now that the human was out of the equation, I was ready to fight.
Raoul’s voice in my earpiece startled me. Before I could respond, the demon took advantage of the distraction and lunged at me, faster than I expected.
I moved to the side, but he managed to hit my right shoulder, throwing me off balance. I recovered in time to see him coming in for a second attack. This time, I was ready for him.
My knife sank into the flesh above his collarbone. He grunted in pain and spun away, pulling free of the blade. Black demon blood poured from the smoking wound.
“Beth, where are you?” Mason asked over the comm.
I hit the button on my earpiece. “Outside –”
It was all I managed to get out before the demon made a break for it. I guess he figured backup was coming, and he’d decided his meal wasn’t worth dying for.
I let my knife fly, as I’d done a thousand times in practice, hitting him squarely between the shoulder blades. He stumbled, and I tackled him, taking him down to the ground. I wrenched his arms tightly behind his back, and he howled in pain. Yanking out the knife, I raised it to deliver the killing blow.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
I paused mid-strike and stared at the blonde girl standing a dozen yards away. She wore dark jeans, red boots, and a red leather jacket I would kill for. In her hand was a long silver blade.
She scowled and strode toward us. “Do you know how long I’ve been after this bastard?”
The demon tried to buck me off, and I pulled his arms tighter. He let out a muffled scream and fell quiet again.
I looked at the girl. She wasn’t close enough for me to sense her Mori, but I had a strong suspicion she was one of ours.
“You want him?” I asked her.
She huffed. “It’s no fun once they’re down.”
A door opened, and I heard running feet.
The girl smirked. “Hello, boys. Come to watch?”
“Why am I not surprised to see you here?” Raoul sounded amused as he crouched beside me. “Nice work, rookie. You going to finish it, or sit on it for a while?”
I’d been about to take out the demon before everyone arrived. Now I felt self-conscious performing my first kill in front of an audience.
“Just taking a breather,” I quipped, earning a snort of laughter from the blonde warrior.
Raoul chuckled and stood. “How’s the human?”
“Out cold,” Brock called. “But she’ll make it. We should get her out of here, though.”
That was all I needed to hear. I raised my knife again and plunged it into the tana demon’s heart. He jerked, made a gasping sound, and went still.
I stood and brushed off my pants. Then I retrieved my knife, wiping it clean on the demon’s shirt before I looked for Mason, who watched me with a mix of envy and pride.
He walked over and held up a hand for me to slap. “Niiiice.”
“Thanks.” I tried to be all cool about it, but I felt myself beaming. No one’s praise meant more to me than his.
“Good kill.” The blonde warrior nodded approvingly and came over to hold out her hand. “Jordan.”
I shook her hand as recognition set in. “You’re Sara’s friend.”
“That’s me. And you must be Beth and Mason. She mentioned you last time we talked. Sorry I haven’t been by to give you the LA welcome. Been busy looking for this guy.”
“Guess this means we’ll have the pleasure of your company tomorrow.” Raoul smiled, putting his phone to his ear. As he walked past us, I heard him say, “We got him.”
Jordan sheathed her knife at her thigh. “This was your first kill?”
“I saw you take him down. Those were some nice moves.”
She looked down at my tight black pants and red top.
“You can fight, and you have good fashion sense. I have a feeling you and I are going to be great friends, Beth.”
Taking my arm, she led me away from the others toward the street.
“What about the girl and the body?” I asked her, tossing Mason a helpless look over my shoulder.
“There are enough big strong warriors left to take care of the girl and dispose of the demon.”
She shot me a mischievous smile. “Besides, if we’re going to be friends we need to get to know each other. Now tell me, have you been to Rodeo Drive yet?”
I walked into the control room and let out a low whistle at the setup. It was twice the size of the one we’d had in Santa Cruz, and Tristan had obviously spared no expense. I recognized the guys from Raoul’s team manning some of the computers, and they all called greetings to me.
“Look who finally decided to visit us.”
Raoul left a station and came toward me. “Great to see you, man.”
“You, too.” I waved a hand at the room. “Nice digs you have here.”
Tactical operations had come a long way in the last few decades. I remembered when we didn’t have cell phones or computers, and now we had surveillance equipment that would make the CIA wet its collective pants.
“You planning to stick around a while?” Raoul asked.
“Until I get bored with you guys.”
He chuckled. “Plenty to keep you busy and entertained in LA.”
I looked around. “Speaking of busy, where is the boss man?”
“I think he’s in the garage, working on his bike. You know how he is with that thing.”
“Yeah, I do.”
We had service contracts with mechanics in every state, but Nikolas and I preferred to maintain our own motorcycles. Some of the places we’d ended up, you couldn’t count on help if you had bike trouble.
My Ducati was being shipped from Westhorne and should be here tomorrow. Not soon enough. After a month away, I couldn’t wait to have my own wheels under me again.
Raoul pointed me toward a door that led to the garage. As soon as the door closed behind me, I heard the clink of tools and saw Nikolas up to his elbows in grease.
“Need some help?” I called, walking toward him.
He stood, wearing a smile. “About time you got your lazy ass back here. How was Germany?”
“Too quiet.” I leaned against the SUV closest to him. “Living here, it’s easy to forget some countries don’t have as much trouble as we do. I did a few jobs, but the trip was a little more relaxing than I’d hoped for.”
Laughing, he reached for a rag to wipe his hands. “Well, we’ve got plenty for you to do here.”
“That’s what Raoul said. Trouble?”
He shook his head. “It’s not as bad as it was last year, but I can see why this command center was needed. We manage everything from here to San Diego, and already we’ve seen a slight dip in vampire activity in the area. Tristan said the Council is planning to establish a center in New York City next and then Miami.”
“Let me guess, he wants you to oversee the setup.”
“Yes. Sara wants to see New York, so we’ll probably go there.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “You going to do the sightseeing thing now?”
“Sara heard there’s a big demon community there, and she wants us to build relations with them.”
A laugh burst from me at his pained expression. “Sara in the Big Apple. What could possibly go wrong?”
He made a sound that was suspiciously like a groan, and I laughed harder, earning a scowl from him.
“Has she transported again since that time in Atlanta?”
“No. Eldeorin thinks it’s linked to her emotions. She was afraid for us, so she did it subconsciously. No telling when it will happen again.”
His expression told me he’d be happy if it didn’t happen for a long time.
“How much longer are you two staying in LA?” I asked.
“That depends on what your plans are.”
Plans were something I didn’t have. Nikolas and I had been partners for years, and there’d been no shortage of jobs to keep us on the road together. Now that he and Sara had mated, the three of us were a team. The dynamic was different, but I enjoyed working with them.
There was one place I’d been meaning to go for a while. I hadn’t been home to Longstone in years, and on the long flight from Germany, I’d thought about driving up there for a few days. I wasn’t sure what reception I’d get, but it was time to go back, to see her.
“I’ll probably do a short trip to Oregon, and then I’m here as long as you need me.”
“Good.” He crouched beside the Ducati again. “I’ll show you around when I finish up, and we’ll talk about the setup here.”
A rumble filled the air, and I turned to see two motorcycles pull up outside the open garage door. The first rider shut off her Ducati and removed her helmet to reveal short blonde hair and a face I knew all too well.
The other rider dismounted, facing away from us, and I couldn’t help but admire the figure she cut in her jeans, boots, and black leather jacket. There weren’t many things sexier in my book than a woman riding a Harley.
She removed her helmet, and I watched as she shook out long blonde hair that tumbled past her shoulders. Her hand came up to smooth down one side of her hair, and I found myself waiting for her to turn around so I could see her face.
Jordan said something to her companion as they removed shopping bags from their bikes’ storage compartments. Feminine laughter floated toward me.
I frowned. I knew that laugh…
The women turned toward me, and a jolt of recognition stole my breath when I saw Jordan’s friend’s face. Shock rippled through me.
It had been four years since I’d last seen her, but I’d know her face anywhere. I stared at her, unable to believe she was here and looking even more beautiful, if that was possible. At sixteen, her features had still borne the traces of youth, but at twenty, there was nothing childlike about her. She was curvier and a little taller now, and she walked with all the self-assurance of a young warrior.
I’d heard she had finished training, and so many times in the last two years I’d thought about going home to see her. But something had always seemed to get in the way. I’d assumed she was still at Longstone, and the last place I’d expected to see her was here in Los Angeles.
I knew the moment Beth saw me. Her eyes widened, and she faltered for a brief moment before her face took on a closed expression.
Jordan, who didn’t seem to notice the change in Beth, smiled widely when she caught sight of me. “Blondie! I had no idea you were back in the country.”
I returned her smile. “Got back today. I figured you guys were missing me, so I flew directly to LAX.”
She chuckled. “You’re so full of yourself. And I haven’t missed you at all because I’ve been making new friends.”
“So I see.”
My eyes went to Beth, who met my gaze with the polite interest of a stranger, nothing that resembled the adoring looks from the girl I had known.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s nice to see you again.”
Hearing her voice after all these years made warmth flood my chest. God, I’d missed her. The urge to hug her was strong, but her cool demeanor held me back. Regret filled me. We used to be so close, but she looked at me as if I was little more than an old acquaintance. And it was all my doing.
“What brings you to LA?” I asked.
She adjusted her hold on her shopping bags. “I work here now.”
“At the command center?”
My eyes went to Jordan and then to Nikolas, who nodded. It was on the tip of my tongue to say Beth was too young for a place like LA, but I refrained when I remembered she had been a warrior longer than Jordan had.
“Yep!” Jordan gave Beth a one-armed hug. “Beth is the newest member of the Scooby gang.”
Jordan laughed. “Sara has us watching reruns of Buffy with her.”
“Ah.” I had no idea what Buffy was, and I didn’t ask.
Beth shifted on her feet, looking like she was about to leave. I wasn’t ready for her to go, and I searched for something to say to keep her there a little longer.
“Have you been in LA long?” I asked her.
“We got here two weeks ago,” she said in the same detached voice.
We? “Is Rachel here, too?”
Her brows drew together slightly, and she shook her head. “Mason and me.”
“Mason?” I repeated, trying to ignore the sudden tightening in my gut.
“He’s my friend from home.” She took a step back. “I should go. I’m working tonight. It was nice seeing you again.”
She turned toward the garage door, but Jordan snagged her arm.
“Wait. We have to show Sara what we got.” Jordan looked at me. “Later, Blondie.”
Without another glance in my direction, Beth followed Jordan into the house.
I stared after them, unable to take my eyes off Beth until the door closed behind her. I let out a long, slow breath as I recovered from the impact of seeing her again and the knowledge that she could still affect me after all this time.
“Do I want to know what that was about?”
I turned to find Nikolas crouched beside his bike again.
“You and Beth. She’s usually more talkative.” He gave me a sideways glance. “You didn’t…?”
The unfinished question hung in the air for a few seconds until the meaning sank in.
His eyebrows shot up at the vehemence of my denial.
“It’s Beth,” I said.
He gave me a confused look, and I sighed. “You remember Beth. I found her at that fire in Seattle.”
Recognition dawned in his eyes. “The one you were always buying gifts for?”
Beth’s transition to her new life had been difficult, and I’d stayed at Longstone for a week to help her settle in. I’d never done that for another orphan, but there’d been something about the angel-faced waif that had stirred my protective instincts. Eventually, I’d had to get back to work, and she’d cried when I left. I’d made sure to pick up a little toy or trinket for her whenever I went on a job. I hadn’t made it home every month, but she’d always been excited to see me. I’d loved watching her reaction when she opened the gifts I’d brought her.
Nikolas picked up a socket wrench. “I take it you haven’t seen her in a while. How long has it been since you last went home?”
“Well, she’s not a little girl anymore. And she doesn’t look as happy to see you as she used to be.”
I stared at the door Beth and Jordan had gone through, but all I could see was sixteen-year-old Beth, her gray eyes filled with hurt. I didn’t know how yet, but I was going to make things right with her again.
As soon as the door closed behind us, I sucked air into my lungs and eased up on the death grip I had on my shopping bags. I was grateful Jordan was ahead of me and couldn’t see my face. I needed a moment to recover from seeing Chris so unexpectedly.
Ever since I’d realized he could show up here, I had told myself I was ready to face him again. God, I was such a fool. Coming face-to-face with him had sent me right back to that day, and it was all I could do not to run to my room and cry like I’d done back then.
I schooled my expression as we entered the kitchen. Jordan tossed her bags onto the table and went to the fridge for a bottle of water.
“Back already?” Sara walked into the kitchen. Her eyes fell on the bags, and she grinned. “Forget that last question. Did you leave anything for the other shoppers?”
“Only the stuff we didn’t want,” Jordan joked. “You should have come with us. We found the most amazing outfits.”
Sara made a face. “I have more than enough clothes, thanks to you. I still haven’t worn the stuff I bought the last time you dragged me with you.”
Jordan’s eyes took on a gleam I was starting to recognize. “That’s exactly why we need to do a girls’ night out.”
“Define ‘night out,’” Sara said with a hint of wariness. “Are we talking dinner or another one of those underground dance clubs you tricked me into last week?”
“What was wrong with Aro’s?”
“Nothing, if you don’t count the pixie who asked me to join him and his friends for a foursome,” Sara said with a shudder.
Jordan laughed. “You should be used to faeries, as much as you hang around with Eldeorin.”
“Eldeorin is my mentor, and he’s like a cousin to me,” Sara protested.
Jordan snorted. “If you weren’t happily mated, he’d be trying his damnedest to get into your pants. Right, Beth?”
“I…can’t say. I haven’t met him yet.”
Sara frowned. “You okay, Beth? You look a little flushed.”
“Yes. I mean, I’m fine.”
Jordan smirked at me. “Chris has that effect on most women.”
Sara’s mouth curved into a big smile. “Chris is here?”
“He’s in the garage with Nikolas.” Jordan finished off her water. “All we need are Emma and the wolf boys, and the whole gang will be here.”
Sara chuckled. “Good luck getting any of them out of Maine these days, especially Roland. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed he would settle down.”
“Yep. Emma even has him housebroken.”
“Jordan!” Sara shook her head and started for the garage.
“Hey,” Jordan called after her. “Thursday night is girls’ night, so don’t make plans.”
Sara mumbled something that sounded like “whatever.” She reached for the door, but it opened before she could touch it. My stomach lurched when Nikolas entered, followed by Chris, who immediately pulled Sara into a hug.
“How was Germany?” Sara asked Chris when she pulled away from him.
He didn’t answer immediately, and I looked up to find his eyes on me. My stomach fluttered despite the tightness in my chest, and I grew angry at myself for letting him have any effect on me.
“Germany was great, but I missed you guys,” he said, still looking at me.
My jaw clenched. If Chris thought a few smiles and sweet words could undo the past, he was sadly mistaken. A few years ago, his charm would have worked on me, but I was no longer the naïve girl he used to know.
Sara said something, drawing his attention back to her, and I used that moment to make my escape. If anyone noticed me leaving, they said nothing.
Back in the guesthouse, I threw my shopping bags onto the couch and paced the living room, allowing my calm façade to slip.
I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t see him every day and pretend I felt nothing.
I’d told Mason I could deal with it if Chris showed up, but I’d been lying to both of us. I could leave, but it would raise questions I didn’t want to answer. Plus, Mason would insist on going with me, and I would not let him give this up for me. He loved Los Angeles and working with Nikolas, and I’d never seen him so happy.
I sank down in a chair and put my head in my hands.
What am I going to do?
* * *
I yawned and rubbed my tired eyes as I walked into the kitchen. For the second night in a row, I’d done more staring at the ceiling and punching my pillow than sleeping. I needed coffee, stat, and I was grumpy enough to maim anyone who got in my way.
Some people liked a big breakfast to start the day. I was a coffee person, and I kept the cupboard stocked with my favorite French roast beans from New Guinea. Even Mason, who usually woke up with the appetite of a pack of ravenous bazerats, wouldn’t dare touch my coffee beans.
He would, however, drink all the milk.
“Mason,” I growled when I opened the fridge and saw nothing but bottled water and juice.
I looked longingly at the coffee pot then down at the camisole and short cotton pants I’d worn to bed. Coffee or shower?
It was no contest. Pulling my bed hair back into a messy bun, I left the house, not even bothering with shoes. It was still early and the sun hadn’t yet risen above the trees, but there were lights on in the main house. Someone was always up here, manning the control room.
The house was quiet when I entered the living room through the French doors, except for the faint murmur of voices coming from the direction of the control room. I moved silently to the kitchen, not wanting to disturb anyone still sleeping, and I let out a happy sound when I opened the fridge and saw four large cartons of milk. Jackpot.
I was grabbing one of the cartons when I heard voices coming toward the kitchen. I grimaced at what I must look like, and then shrugged it off. No one could possibly expect me to look civilized before my first cup of coffee.
Raoul’s voice drifted toward me. “I’m going to recon the place for the next day or so.”
“Sounds good,” Nikolas replied. “Who are you taking with you?”
“Whoever is available.”
I turned as the two men walked into the kitchen. Raoul smiled when he saw me with the milk carton.
“Did your roommate drink all the milk again?”
I made a face. “Yes.”
He chuckled. “I have something that might cheer you up. How would you like to go on a stakeout with me today?”
“A stakeout?” I asked a little breathlessly, because that could only mean one thing. Vampires. My stomach fluttered in anticipation.
“We have reason to believe there’s a new vampire nest in Long Beach. If you’re –”
Raoul and Nikolas laughed. Okay, maybe I was more than a little excited, but they were talking about a real vampire nest. New warriors never got to see a nest. This was exactly the reason I’d wanted to come to Los Angeles, to have opportunities like this one.
“When do you want to leave?” I asked, my coffee all but forgotten.
One corner of Raoul’s mouth lifted. “Can you be ready in an hour?”
“Ready for what?”
My body stiffened at Chris’s voice. Since his arrival two days ago, I’d managed to keep my distance from him, mostly thanks to Mason. My best friend had not been happy to see Chris, and the first thing he’d asked me was if I wanted to leave. When I said no, he’d stuck by my side whenever we were at the house, blocking Chris’s attempts to talk to me. The last thing I wanted was to dredge up the past, so I was grateful to Mason for running interference. I wasn’t too proud to hide behind my best friend, and I really wished he was here now.
I comforted myself with the reminder that Chris would leave again soon and my life could go back to normal. In a month or so, Sara and Nikolas were heading to New York City to oversee a new command center there. I fully expected Chris to go with them. Until then, I had to bide my time and do my best to avoid him. As far as I was concerned, we had nothing to talk about.
“Beth and I are going to recon a nest,” Raoul told Chris.
“How big a nest?” Chris asked.
“Small, maybe three or four vampires.”
I felt Chris’s eyes move to me, but I kept my gaze fixed squarely on Raoul until Chris spoke again.
“I can go with you if you need a backup.”
What? No. Anger and dismay flooded me, and I glared at Chris, only to find him looking at Raoul again. I opened my mouth to protest, but Nikolas spoke first.
“I think this would be a good learning experience for Beth, and she’ll be safe with Raoul.”
I could have hugged Nikolas at that moment. I turned hopeful eyes on Raoul, who gave me one of his familiar smirks.
“Beth and I can handle it. I’ll just have to make sure to get her some coffee on the way.”
I could barely contain my excitement. “I’ll be ready to go whenever you are.”
He came over and took two wrapped muffins from the basket on the counter. “See you back here in an hour.”
He and Nikolas headed back toward the control room, and I almost did a happy dance until I remembered I wasn’t alone. Chris was still there, and the look on his face said he was going to try to talk to me again.
Dread twisted my stomach. The logical part of my brain said I should just be an adult and get it over with. Let him have his say and move on. But the hurt sixteen-year-old in me wanted to run away and cry every time I saw his face. That part of me was frantically trying to think of a way to escape now.
“Beth, I –”
The door to the garage swung open, and Mason entered, followed by a laughing Brock. Mason came up short when he saw me alone with Chris, and my expression must have told him all he needed to know. He headed straight for me and wrapped me in a one-armed hug.
I immediately ducked out of his hold. “Ew! You stink of fish and seaweed.”
The two of them laughed. Mason and Brock had hit it off since we got here, and Brock had introduced Mason to his first love: surfing. Mason had taken to the sport like a…well, like a fish to water. If he wasn’t talking about watching Nikolas spar, he was telling me about the perfect wave he’d caught that morning.
I didn’t mind. I liked seeing his face light up when he talked about the things that made him happy. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t made new friends here, too. I spent half my free time with Sara or Jordan, sometimes both. Mason and I would always be close, but we were getting to know new people, and that was a good thing.
His eyes lit up. “We caught some great waves this morning. Brock knows all the best places to go.”
“You should come with us. Give it a try,” Brock said.
I made a face, and he chuckled. I liked the ocean, but my idea of communing with nature involved a mountain trail and a sturdy pair of hiking boots. At home, I used to drag Mason along with me, before he’d discovered his love of surfing. Now I either went alone, or Sara joined me if she was free.
“No, thanks. I’ll stick to dry land, if you don’t mind.”
Brock looked behind me. “How about you, Chris? You still surf?”
“Not in a few years.”
Suddenly, I had an image of Chris’s wet muscled body walking out of the ocean, and warmth infused me. I swallowed and pushed the thought to the farthest recesses of my mind. So, I was still attracted to him. What female wouldn’t be? It didn’t change anything.
I clutched the milk carton I still held. “I’d love to stay and talk surfing with you boys, but I have to run. I’m going on a job with Raoul today.”
Mason’s eyes widened with interest. “Oh, yeah? What kind of job?”
I could barely contain my excitement. “We’re staking out a vampire nest.”
“No way. Are you messing with me?”
“Nope. He asked me right before you got here.”
I shrugged, deciding a little payback was in order. “Just think. If you hadn’t drunk all the milk again, I’d be over at our place right now, enjoying my coffee in blissful ignorance, and Raoul might have asked you to go with him instead.”
Brock snorted, and I thought I heard Chris chuckle behind me. Mason looked like someone had taken away his surfboard.
Smiling, I headed for the door to the garage to avoid walking past Chris. I heard footsteps behind me, and for a second, I thought he’d followed me. Then I caught the smell of salt water and knew it was Mason. I should have known he’d have my back, no matter what.
I slowed to let him catch up, smiling my thanks at him.
He gave me a devilish grin and laid an arm across my shoulders again. This time, I didn’t push him away. It was a small price to pay.
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