This is long, just an FYI. 🙂

But here’s a preview of BLADE SONG, due out next week.

aneira [a-nir-a] derived from Antianeirai, found in the Illiad, warrior women, meaning ‘those who war like men’.  Also known as Amazons.

 

 

Chapter One

My sword arm is mighty.

I will not falter.

I will not fail.

My aim is true.

My heart is strong.

I’m the descendant of some legendary badasses and I’ll damn well make myself wake up—

“You are so lovely…”

The silken voice whispered to me in the depth of my dreams, wrapping around me and pulling me under. It was a seductive thing, full of promise. Full of warmth and wonder and lies.

Jude. The bastard had never been able to keep to himself.

It had been six years since I’d met him and in those six years, he’d done his damnedest to infiltrate my life. I’d trusted him, sort of. Once. But in the years since I’d made his acquaintance, I’d learned to place my trust elsewhere…and to keep my distance.

So far, we were at a stalemate, but when it came to dreams, he usually had the upper hand. I’d always had surreal, vivid dreams anyway, and here, he reigned supreme.

Lost in the dark, velvety grasp of sleep, I wasn’t able to do much more than grumble and groan when he first appeared. It always took me a few minutes to get my bearings when he shoved his way into my dreams. Jude, the bastard, took great advantage of it.

He stretched out beside me on the bed and I could even feel it giving way under his weight, under that long, lean, powerful body. His hand rested on my belly and I could feel the way my muscles reacted, the way I reacted.

“Are you going to come to me, little aneira?” he whispered, dipping his head and nuzzling my neck.

I found my voice at the brush of his teeth on my neck.

Figures it would take that.

Yeah, having a vampire pressing his teeth to your throat, even in dreams, is enough to get the adrenaline going.

Full-fledged vampires aren’t the hot and sexy things of books. They are deadly. Cold. Soulless, powerful and yes, they can be sexy as hell—Jude is proof of that, but I suspected it might safer to share my bed with a pit viper.

Summoning that image to mind gave me the strength I needed to move.

My sword arm is mighty.

I will not falter…

Rolling out of bed and away from him, I grabbed the T-shirt from the foot of the bed and jerked it on. “Jude, seriously. How often are you going to do this?” I asked.

“You had to get dressed, didn’t you?”

I shot him a dirty look and immediately wished I hadn’t. Moonlight gilded him with its pale light, turning his blond hair to silver, casting that carved face into angelic lines as his eyes glowed.

They were green. When he was angry, they glowed red with blood hunger, but right now, they were alight with an emerald luminescence that raked over my skin like a caress.

Damn it. It had been too long since I’d gotten laid. The last boyfriend I’d had ended up leaving town after he’d been offered a very lucrative job. He was around off and on now, but it was more off than on and we’d drifted apart. Still, there were times when I missed him. A lot. And not just because of the sex.

But if I’d gotten laid anytime in the past couple of years, Jude wouldn’t seem so damned appealing right now. That look in his eyes was enough to drive me mad, but I wasn’t going to let him get to me.

Not any more than I hadn’t already.

“What do you want, Jude?”

He laughed. It stroked over my skin, begged me to laugh with him. Nope. Not doing that. Definitely not. “You know what I want, little warrior. When are you going to stop avoiding me? I haven’t seen you in months. You’re not taking my calls and you won’t take the work I send your way…foolish, that. Your silly little business is hurting for work and we both know it.”

Silly.

Running my tongue along my teeth, I returned to my bed.

I could let the anger I felt at the insult get to me. Or I could use it.

I’d rather use it.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Jude’s eyes widen as I drew closer. His hand snaked out as I reached with my own.

But I wasn’t reaching for him.

I was reaching for the sword I kept under my pillow.

No, I couldn’t wield it in dreams…but I could use the strength I found in it.

The hilt settled in my hand, like an extension of my arm. Just touching it made me feel like I’d…come home.

Touching a sword. Yes. I’m more than a little messed up.

Smiling at him, I said, “I’m waking up now.”

My sword arm is mighty.

I will not falter.

I will not fail.

My aim is true.

My heart is strong.

The mantra of the aneira—the people I’d descended from. My mother had been full-blooded. My father had been human. Still, that had been drilled into my head and I’d shouted it out on the practice fields of Aneris Hall, the hell where I’d lived for the first fifteen years of my life.

The entire thing would take several minutes to recite, but the first few lines were enough to get me through the worst things. Sometimes, I had to say it several times a day.

My name is Kit Colbana.

In a world filled with shapeshifters, vampires and witches who can turn your insides into your outsides, I’m next to nothing; a peon.

I’ve got a knack for killing and tracking things down. I’m a talented thief, although I try to avoid that line of work, if I can. Luck tends to swing in my favor, although sometimes it’s in a very odd manner, but at least I land on my feet when I ought to be landing in a grave or worse. And I have the ability to fade out…I can go invisible. A handy skill for an assassin, I guess.

But that’s it. That’s pretty much all I can do.

The magic in my blood is weak. I’m a half-breed, and while that term might bother some people, it’s just a fact of life.

My human father? I don’t know anything about him, other than he was human. I don’t know why my mom decided to shack up with him, and I don’t know why he was never in our lives.

He’s just a non-entity.

My mother was aneira…think of Amazons, and imagine something more. Something magical. We were once a well-known race, assassins sent out to do the jobs no other could. Sometimes we were thieves, sent out to track down priceless treasures. We’d even been bounty hunters, if legend tells it right.

A proud, noble race.

Now we’re not much more than a memory and only a few hundred of us remain. My mother had died when I was young, leaving me in the care of my not-so-loving family.

The aneira didn’t smile on the half-bloods and I was worse than most, because I was half human. They’d rather kill me than care for me. Sometimes, I think the only reason they didn’t is because they figured they’d have more fun tormenting me for years. If they killed me, it would be over too soon.

So they kept me, raised me. And they made sure I never forgot that although I had aneira blood, I wasn’t one of them. I was just a mongrel. A useless waste.

My mother’s fucked-up mistake…that’s what they liked to tell me.

That was the heritage they decided to share with me. Her mistake.

But I had a few scattered memories of her…I could remember her singing. The faint echo of her voice.

Maybe I was her mistake, but I shared her heritage. I had the memory of her singing to me.

And her sword.

Alone in my gym, I practiced. Strike. Block. Downward cut.

I practiced alone. But in my mind, I saw Jude. The bastard.

Sneaking into my dreams again.

Bleed him out. If I did anything at close range, that was what I’d have to do. Nick the arteries. I was fast. He’d be faster. But vampires needed blood just as much as we did. If I injured him enough, maybe I could slow him enough to really hurt him.

It was a fun fantasy, anyway.

Not that I’d really have a chance.

Six years ago, I’d made the mistake of calling him when I tried to help a friend. I hadn’t known him, he hadn’t really known me, but he’d offered help just the same.

The daughter of a friend had gotten mixed up with a bad group. The worst kind—wererats. A werecreature, in and of itself, wasn’t a bad thing, but the rats in East Orlando had been notoriously bad. Criminally bad, even. I found out a few weeks after my little adventure the rats had been slated for extermination by the council, anyway.

And said friend’s daughter had gotten involved with one of them. She was sick, diagnosed with leukemia, and she’d gotten in her head that the bite would cure her. In all likelihood, it would just hasten her death. A were’s bite is a hard, brutal thing and less than twenty percent survive it, anyway. If you’re not healthy, you don’t stand a chance. She hadn’t been healthy.

If living was her only goal, she’d have been better off going to the vampires. Not that they were likely to have touched a sick, underage girl. Vamps were careful about that, for the most part.

In the end, it hadn’t mattered. She died less than a year after I brought her back to her mom.

She died hating me, too.

It was a weight I’d carry the rest of my life.

But I couldn’t let the rats keep her. They wouldn’t have saved her life and they wouldn’t have been kind about how they tried to mark her, either.

Too bad she had been too young to understand that.

Sometimes I felt like it was all for nothing.

All for nothing, and I still had an albatross by the name of Jude around my neck.

Bleed him. Dozens of nicks across that very fine body, preferably when he hadn’t fed for a while. That would be best. And then—

I whirled, bringing my sword across right where the level of his neck would be if he had actually been standing in the room with me.

Vamps couldn’t die of blood loss. It would slow him. Weaken him. But it wouldn’t kill him. The older ones could even handle a bit of sun. But if I took his damned head, he was dead.

And if he didn’t quit trying to snake his way into my business, into my dreams, into my life, I just might try to do it.

Although he was right about one thing. I really, really did need to get some business, and soon. I’d rather start flipping burgers, though, or hacking trees down with my sword than accept a job from him.

Anything would be better than taking work from Jude Whittier.

Chapter Two

My sword arm is mighty.

I will not falter.

I will not fail.

Yeah, I really do have to go through those few lines sometimes, just to level out. It keeps me focused. Helps lessen the fear.

I will not falter.

I will not fail.

Nor will I show any sign of fear to this guy standing in my office. I don’t know who he is.  He hasn’t given me a name and I didn’t plan on asking for it until I know if I’m doing business with him.  I’m thinking I’d rather not do business with him, truth be told. I had a bad feeling about this already and we hadn’t even started talking about the job yet.

Damn it. How do I get myself into these messes? Oh, right. I’d been praying, hoping—pretty much anything except standing out on the street corner holding up signs that read: I need work! I should be more careful about what I wish for. That streak of luck that was part of my heritage was probably what had landed him here. I’d needed work. Now I had work. I also had a lesson in be careful what you wish for,I suspected.

I’d been doing this a few years and I’d learned to recognize the shit jobs from the good ones. This could be very profitable.

Profit is good. I like profit. I like money. I don’t get to see enough of it.

But I was kind of concerned about the warning in my gut.

Profitable, yes. But this guy was bad, bad news. And every last instinct inside me was screaming, bad, bad, bad…get away from him, get away now now now now!

All the more reason I had to stay calm. All the more reason not to show that I was afraid. No showing any sign of fear—things like a racing heartbeat, increased respiration, sweaty palms, fidgeting. No. Forget the fidgeting. Plenty of people were the squirming sort and it had nothing to do with fear.

I fidgeted all the time, even when I wasn’t afraid.

I’m not afraid—damn it, I am aneira. I’ve got fricking noble blood and this shifter can stand there sneering at me all he wants. What do I care?

“You know, we had a bet.” Mr. Badass sat in the chair across from my battered desk, slumped in a boneless sprawl not many humans over the age of three could manage.

I didn’t think he was a wolf. Wolves were very…rigid. Anally so.

If he was a wolf, he’d be in a three piece suit, pressed within an inch of its suitly life, and he’d probably have a duo of backup lawyers to witness everything. And he wouldn’t have sat in my chair with that boneless sprawl, either. Hard to do with a stick up the ass, really. The members of the wolf pack always had a stick up their collective asses.

I had no problem working with the local wolf pack. Don’t get me wrong. Most of them are big on courtesy, and all about order and rules, and as long as I didn’t cross them, they left me alone. The problem was when the job involved some of their assholes; their assholes tried to rip off body parts and eat innards and it got messy sometimes.

But they paid well. I could use a nice-paying job.

He wasn’t a wolf, though. There was really only one logical explanation if he was local.  We had two main were factions down here. Cat and wolf.  But he didn’t have to be local, and I didn’t like to assume.

I’d figure it out in a minute. If I had the nose of a shapeshifter, I’d have him pegged already, but I’d get there. I was good at it, unusually so. I could see the energy hovering about them and I could usually see some echo of their animal hovering about them, a skill I knew I could trace back to my aneira roots.

We were good assassins because we could understand our marks, learn them, know them and figure out the best way to kill them.

Still, anybody who knew what to look for could peg a shifter from a mile away and this guy was no different. Most of them didn’t bother to batten down the hatches and they let all that raw power hang out there for the entire world to see.

They were all caged energy and strength and they emanated…something. Just…something. You meet a shapeshifter and find out what he is, and you realize what the something is once you’ve seen it.

He had the something. I could sense it hovering above him, power coiled and lying in wait. There was a lot of it, too. But he kept it chained in too tightly for me to read it as easily I’d like.

Not a wolf, though. I knew that much. Too laid back, too easy.

His jeans had rips at the knees. His T-shirt was clean, but faded and wrinkled and over it, he wore a flannel button down. I don’t think any of the wolves I knew even had an inkling what flannel was.

“Don’t you want to know what the bet was?” he asked, watching me with an odd little smile on his face.

“Bet?” I said, echoing his words.

“Yeah.”

Unable to stay still, I took a pen from my desk and twirled it around on my fingers, watching him, waiting for him to elaborate. The silence stretched out for over a minute. It wasn’t wasted time. He watched me. I watched him. A wide grin curled his lips, his teeth flashing white against the darkness of his skin. I started thinking about the Cheshire cat.

Bingo. Not a wolf. A cat. Even as I thought it, I could almost see that lazy energy around him flex its claws and stretch, giving me a feline smile.  There were a handful of creatures to pick from in the were pool and it varied from country to country.  Here in the States, the dominant creatures were cat, wolf and rat, with a few bears thrown in for fun.

Narrowing my eyes, I asked softly, “Is this a local job?”

“Local?”  He studied me curiously.

“Local.  As in are you local?”

A faint smiled curled his lips.  “Yeah.  I’m local.”

Shit.  This was wonderful.  Just wonderful.  I had some sort of cat shifter in my office. And you can’t outwait a cat. Even I knew that. Since he was here on business, and since I was running a business—sort of—I figured I needed to get this over with, because I needed him out of my office. I wasn’t working for a damn cat, not if he was from the Orlando clan. This wasn’t courier work—I could already tell. If it was, he would have already dumped whatever and left. So that meant it was something bigger, and I wasn’t interested.

I preferred to keep my investigative work to something a little steadier than the local cat pack.

They were insane.

I’d do busy work for non-humans and I didn’t mind working for the wolves. I didn’t mind courier work between any of the local factions, really. That was actually ideal, because it was quick, it was easy and it paid pretty damn well. But if I had my way, I’d never work for the cats. They were dangerous.

Unlike the wolves, they weren’t quite so keen on following rules and since my office was incorporated in East Orlando—an area that had recently been recognized as ANH territory, if I accepted a job from the cat pack, it was pretty much CYA: cover your ass.

Bring your own back-up, make up your will, just in case, and be ready to die if you don’t have sufficient back-up. I don’t.

The damn cats were likely to try to rip my arms off if I screwed up. Or just to avoid paying me. Yes. Attempts had been made. It’s a good thing I’m handy with all sorts of sharp, shiny objects.

“What sort of bet?” I continued to watch him, searching now for some kind of sign on just what type of cat he was. His physical features weren’t much help. Oh, he was a treat to look at, definitely; probably several inches over six feet, muscled enough to make it clear he actually worked at it, and his dark hair was cropped close to his skull. I couldn’t quite make out his ancestry. Multiracial, I suspected. Maybe Polynesian and black? Or Native American and black? Something else entirely? Whatever he was?  Didn’t matter, because he was practically a visual orgasm.  And his eyes were amazing.

Deep, dark gray. Like thunderheads piling up on the sky right at sunset.

Amusement danced in those eyes, but it didn’t make them any less formidable. “When you opened this joint, most of us figured you wouldn’t make it a year.”

“A year, huh? That’s all you gave me?” I made myself smile and rested my chin in my palm. I’d bought the practice from a guy I knew—a private investigator who’d decided he wanted to get out of the business while he could. And while property in Orlando was still worth something. Things had gone downhill around the same time I’d been coming through the mess with the rats and I’d used the money I received for my part in the ‘clean-up’ to buy this place.

The parks were still a big tourist draw, but Orlando no longer held the attraction it once had. Even the snowbirds had given up. The tourist traps still did okay, but they had the money to spell their properties and that made mortals feel safer.

It wasn’t that the place was a cesspool of danger, death and decay, but people perceived it as such and perception was everything. The parks got by because of the thrill aspect. Orlando was a thrill a minute…you had the amusement parks for the kiddies, and then if you really wanted to walk on the wild side, you could go out to East Orlando…and see shapeshifters in the raw.

Well, not really. But that was the rumor. People came here thinking you’d see them rip loose and find their beast right in front of you. It was crap. Shapeshifters didn’t lose control around humans. It led to ugly things like modern day versions of witch hunts, but with shifters as the quarry, and bloodier, nastier, more widespread results.

Besides, they didn’t see the point in losing control in front of humans. Humans weren’t worth it to them. They were like annoying fleas. A nuisance, but just a part of life. And sadly, a flea collar didn’t help.

Me? Now I can honestly say I have seen them lose their skin. I’ve been known to provoke people. But if I ended up hurt or dead, nobody was going to issue a quarantine or kill order, especially if it was on the job.

I wasn’t human enough to matter, really.

All in all, East Orlando was safer than mortals thought, but mortals didn’t like living here anymore. Not in the old part of town where the parks were or in East Orlando where all of us freaks had set up camp.

Sadly, it meant my job pickings were getting slim. The first few years, I’d had things like cheating spouses and background checks and stuff to keep me busy, but lately, not so much.

Focusing on the matter at hand, I said, “So, I made it through the year. Yay, me, right?”

“You made it through the year and then some. Surprised us.” He continued to study me, still smiling. That cagey grin had me thinking about a cat watching a mouse right before it pounced. And I suspected that was exactly what he wanted me to think.

Sighing, I tipped back in my chair and put my boots up on the desk. I hate this shit. Why do they have to act like this? Territorial. Pushy. You’ll be terrified and show it.

“Well, seeing as how I lasted six years…and counting, I guess some of you had egg on your face.” I laced my hands over my belly and held his gaze. I’ll be damned if I act like the mouse, you overgrown tomcat.

His smile widened.

I started thinking about where else I could live. Someplace with a bigger human population so I didn’t have to keep tolerating the posturing bullshit.

Shapeshifters and vamps were everywhere, but there were only a few hotspots. East Orlando was one of them. Outer Indianapolis, Honolulu, Upper Denver, Anchorage, North Toronto, Buffalo…those were some of the others.

I wondered how Boise would suit me. I could live in Boise.  Humans out-numbered the non-humans fifteen to one there, from what I heard. Humans still outnumbered non-humans here, but it was more like five to one in Orlando and with those odds, they considered the paranormal population the stronger one.

They called us non-humans. Made up a bunch of nice little acronyms and laws and shit. As long as we ‘belonged’ to the ANH and followed the laws laid out by them, we could exist peacefully. ANH—the Assembly of Non-Humans.

The Assembly was our governing council, headed by people we elected, with a couple of human emissaries so everybody could pretend we played nice with each other.

Pretend.  Shit.

“Hmm. We’ll keep the bets running. When you took on the Gruer job, some of us were pretty sure you’d either lose your shirt or your life.” His eyes dropped. “Might have been nice to see you lose your shirt, but I still thought you’d run out of luck at some point.”

Gruer had been one of the human emissaries. He was in jail now for taking bribes. They’d only charged him with the human crimes and he’d be out in a year. Somehow I didn’t think he’d be alive long after that. His other crimes had included crimes against NH children. There were rumors of the prices people had put on his head. Yeah, we weren’t supposed to screw with humans, but sometimes, they met with unhappy accidents, and if the bodies disappeared…?

Well.

As long as they couldn’t prove anything…that was the big thing, I guessed. Gruer would get his own.

“Gruer was a stupid-ass, cruel bastard. You seriously thought he would chase me out? Thought he could kill me?” Not damn likely. I curled my lip at him. Seriously, they were betting on me? What the hell? “Don’t the shifters have better things to do with their money?”

“Well,” he said. “We always like to find amusing ways to kill time.”

“Hard to believe there’s nothing more amusing out there than me.”

“Oh, you’ve been very amusing, Colbana.” He leaned forward and light glinted off his eyes in the most unusual way—cat’s eyes… Shit, he better not be getting ready to shift on me. I was so screwed if he did.

But even as I thought it, I realized that wasn’t it. There was just something…eerie about his eyes. Hypnotic. Scary. “Want to hear how I bet?”

“Sure. Tell me, which side were you on?”

He laughed. “The side that loses, usually. After all, you’re still alive…” Then his laugh faded away into a smile. “Nobody’s bitten you and made you change your skin, either. And you’re still here.”

“Oh, I’ve been bitten.” I smiled. “I’m immune.”

Black brows rose a fraction. “That’s not likely.”

I shrugged. Likely didn’t mean impossible. The were virus was pretty damn invasive. Either it killed you or it changed you—and it was far more likely to kill you. The virus would kill seventy to seventy-five percent of the people it infected. Twenty to twenty-five percent became were.  The numbers fluctuated, but they guessed only five percent of humans were truly immune.

But I wasn’t human.

“Trust me. I’ve been bit. More than once. Doesn’t take.”

“Bite’s not the only thing that will do it.” The smile on his face went sly and damn if I didn’t feel my heart kick up a little.

“Please. I’ve read up on shapeshifter biology. I know all about how it works. I’m less likely to catch it from the bite, more likely to catch it from sex.” Swinging my boots off the desk, I shrugged. For a few very short months, I’d had a werewolf boyfriend. It had been a fluke—a guy I’d worked with and the guy he’d hired me to help track down had bitten me. Those wolves, all nice and courteous. The guy had been convinced I’d shift. I hadn’t. We’d had a few weeks of fun once I convinced him of that fact. “That doesn’t work, either.”

“Huh.” His eyes narrowed as he studied me. “I don’t smell that much magic on you.”

“Yeah, well.” I figured he’d assume that. Witches were immune to the were virus. The magic in their blood nullified it. I figured there was enough of my own magic to do the same. Who knows? Wasn’t like I could call home to ask and it didn’t matter anyway. “What can you do?”

“I guess that explains why you don’t change your skin,” he mused. He reached down and when I saw the flash of silver in his hand, I moved.

The only sign of emotion on his face was the faint flicker of his eyelashes. Then he dropped his gaze to the sword in my hand. “You really are as fast as I’ve heard.”

“Yeah, I bet you say that to all the ladies.” I rose and lifted the blade. The swirls and runes on it danced in the dim light. There was enough silver in the blade, enough magic in her to hurt him. He knew it…and he knew I was fully aware of that as well.

But he didn’t look worried. Of course, hurt was a far cry from kill. I was pretty sure I couldn’t kill him. I was equally sure he knew that. I was equally sure he could kill me, and he was probably aware of that same fact. Damn it.

“Settle down, princess.” He leaned back in the chair and used the knife he’d pulled to start cutting his fingernails. In my office.

Ewww. And no, thanks. I had a cat shifter in my office, holding a knife. I wasn’t going to settle down. I didn’t lower the blade either. “Do us both a favor, if you would, and tell me why you’re gracing me with your presence, cat.” Please…so I can tell you no and you can be on your way.

“Cat, huh?” He grinned at me, a toothy smile that would look all too at home on a tiger. A lion. A cougar. Any of those. All of those. One of the big predator cats, damn it. Why couldn’t he be something little? Like a bobcat. A lynx, maybe? Or an ocelot. Yeah. I’d think about him as an ocelot. A little dwarf leopard. Cute, fuzzy. Not at all dangerous.

I stared at him and watched as his eyes flashed again.

No. He wasn’t cute or fuzzy and he sure as hell was dangerous. He tucked his blade away and reached for the file folder he’d brought in with him. So innocuous.

The cat shifter sits in my office, clips his nails with an oversized bowie knife and then proceeds to do business. My life is too damn strange. I should have decided to do the tax crap today. Then I wouldn’t be stuck here with him.

“My Lady sends her regards and formally requests your assistance, Miz Colbana.”

Oh, shit. There was only one person he’d refer to as My Lady. And she was as much trouble as the current thorn in my side. Jude was deadly, but at least he was a predictable pain in the ass. The leader of the cats was not.

This was bad. This was so very bad. Worse, the man sitting across from me had gone all formal-like, making this sound like an official request. Technically, I could refuse him, but when they got formal and I said no, it was a pain in my ass, because they talked amongst themselves and fewer were likely to look me up later down the road. I already had too little business coming my way as it was.

Oh, well. I’d just move. I’d already been thinking about Boise, right?

“I’m afraid my schedule is full.” Sliding my blade home, I reached for the phone. “I’ve got someplace to be in twenty. You’ll have to see yourself out, cat.”

“We’ll pay you fifty thousand dollars. Regardless of the outcome.”

“I’m afraid I’ll be tied up for the rest of the month.” Giving him a vague smile, I grabbed a pen and started jotting notes down like mad—whatever came to mind. Busy, busy, busy, see? I don’t have time to work for My Lady.

I wasn’t working for the damn Alphas. And I wasn’t—

He dropped something on my desk.

In that moment, I really hated him.

“We all have weaknesses,” he murmured. “Me, I like a stacked redhead, cold beer, and pizza. I hear you have a soft spot for kids…can’t stand to see them hurt.”

“Beer is kind of pointless, seeing as how most of you burn through it before you can get drunk,” I muttered, trying to pretend the picture in front of me wasn’t getting to me. But it was. It was getting to me badly. Shit, how old was he?

“Hey. I like the taste.” He reached over and plucked up the picture, lifting it until it was all I could see. “He’s sixteen.”

I glared at him. “No fucking way.” That kid didn’t look like he’d so much as kissed puberty. Skinny as a rail, still soft in the face.

He shrugged. “We tend to mature a little later. He’s…hitting later than most. His name is Doyle. He’s my Lady’s cousin and he’s been missing for a week.”

Not my problem, I told myself. Taking the picture, I turned it face down and then looked back at the man standing across from my desk. “I can’t help you.”

“Two weeks ago, he finally started showing signs of spiking.” He paused, his eyes narrowing on my face.

Weird eyes. Deadly eyes. They were storm cloud gray, swirling and darkening into black until that was all I saw. “You know what spiking is, little girl?”

“It’s when an adolescent shifter tries to change for the first time.” They weren’t always successful. There were two ways to become a shapeshifter. You got infected. Infection happened with a bite or through unprotected sex. Or you were born with it and actually, being born with it was still being infected with it.

I’ve heard rumors of a more magically-based shapeshifter race, but the only kind I’ve ever dealt with are the biologicals…those who get it through the virus, either by sex, bite or birth.

When a shifter kid spiked, things could get dicey fast. Kids tended to panic and without guidance, there was a good chance they’d lose control during the change.

Panic, excessive strength, animal instincts—not a good mix. Sometimes…that first change killed them. Sometimes the panic and the pain were enough to drive a kid crazy and they’d forget who they were, falling prey to the animal that lived inside their skin. When the beast got control, it didn’t give up easily and if that spark of humanity didn’t appear, the shifter was executed.

They had a fucked-up lot in life, that was for certain.

But if they made it through those first few rough changes, they generally did okay.

And this poor kid was out there…alone?

“Why did he run?”

The cat shifter shrugged. “We don’t know, exactly. Doyle is one of those kids who tend to stand on the outside. Very much a loner.”

“You’re lying about something.”

A faint smile curled his lips. He flexed a hand. I had the odd impression of a cat flexing its claws. “You know, if you were one of us, I could rip your throat out over that.”

I readied myself. He was here because his alpha had sent him. That didn’t mean he couldn’t hurt me a little in the process. And if he decided that was what he was going to do, I’d damn well do my best to bleed him.

He continued to watch me and abruptly he sat up in his seat, leaning forward and staring at me with a wide grin. “It’s almost kind of cute. Like a kitten attacking a full-grown tiger or something. Too silly and little to realize how badly it could get hurt.”

“I’m not a kitten.” Wrapping my hand around the grip of my sword, I flexed my muscles. Relaxed. Flexed. Relaxed. “And if you don’t want to hear the truth of what I have to say, maybe you’d be better off telling your boss to find another investigator. I don’t live in your world, cat. And the beauty of that? Means I don’t have to abide by the stupid, insane medieval crap shit that you all live and breathe.” I smiled serenely.

To my surprise, he chuckled. “It seems she had a good read on you. You will get in trouble working this alone.” He reached into his jacket and five seconds later, I found myself staring at neat little stacks of green.

Money.

Lots and lots of cold, hard cash.

Oh, shiny…

“Your down payment.” Then he smiled. “And don’t worry…I’ll take care of my own meals and such.”

“Wait a second, I never said I was taking the damn job.” I continued to stare at the money. Damn, it was enough to set me up for a while. And then some. Abruptly, his words got through to me and I shifted my focus back to his face. “What do you mean, you take care of your own meals?”

“I’m part of the package, kitten. Your bodyguard, babysitter and tattle-tale, all rolled into one.” Flashing his teeth at me, he added, “Aren’t you pleased?”

Hell. No.

Two hours later, my self-appointed bodyguard was guiding me into the decidedly opulent lair of the Lady.

Somehow, Hell. No. had turned into Okay without a conscious decision from my brain. I didn’t even realize it had happened.

One minute I had been in the process of gathering up the money to throw at his face, and the second…the picture. I had looked back at the picture. The poor kid with stringy blond hair hanging in his thin face, his blue eyes defiant and scared.

Lost.

Sixteen. Out there, alone. Sixteen years old and his body was a ticking time-bomb.

I’d been fifteen when I’d run away from my mother’s family. Fifteen, and although I hadn’t had to worry about my body going nuts, I had spent the next three years convinced one of my aunts, or worse…my grandmother…might come after me. I knew what it was like to be alone and scared.

“Come on, kitten. She’s waiting for you.”

Glaring at the back of his head, I pointed out, “I have a name.” It wasn’t kitten. I didn’t like kitten.

“Yeah. Kit. Not too different from kitten.” He shot me a grin over his shoulder, one that was faintly demonic, I decided. “It’s too late to back out now. You already accepted the money. That’s pretty much akin to signing a contract in our world and you know it. She’ll take exception if you turn chicken now.”

I curled my lip at him.

I’d show him a fucking chicken—he’d squawk like one after I rammed my sword up his ass.

But I wasn’t going to back out. After all, he was right; I’d taken the money. And it was about that, right? I could try to pretend. After all, I like money. I didn’t get lots of it often and when I did, I got through it too easily. I was finally getting better at budgeting, but man, fifty thousand? I could splurge. A little.

Yet even as I tried to pretend, I knew better. I had a soft spot, all right. A weakness. And it was most definitely for cases that involved kids.

Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that boy’s face.

I was sunk. Completely.

“You ever going to tell me your name?” I asked, trailing along after him, eying his muscled back, those wide shoulders. In the back of my mind, some part of me thought: Pretty

And I immediately wanted to punch myself. He was a damned cat. He still hadn’t confirmed or denied, but I knew a cat when I saw one. And regardless, he was a shifter, he was somehow connected to the crazy cat clan and that meant hell, no. Even if he was hotter than hell.

“I guess I should tell you my name, since I’ll be keeping you company for a while…” He smiled as we came to a halt inside a round room—it was draped with swaths of pink silk.

I felt like I’d fallen into a piece of bubble gum.

“And that name is…?”

“Damon.”

“Demon? That’s fitting.” I smirked at him and flopped onto a chair. I put my blade on the couch next to me and drew my knee to my chest, ignoring the pointed look he gave the sword.

“You don’t need that,” he said flatly.

“I do.” I touched it and smiled as the runes danced at my touch. My mother’s sword. It wasn’t as strong in my hands as it had been in hers—after all, I was half-human, but it was still powerful. And mine. I felt better just for touching it.

My mother’s sword. And she knew me.

“She isn’t going to like some trained killer sitting in her private quarters with a silver sword,” he said. His brows dropped low of those odd eyes of his and he came off the couch, prowling closer. “How did you get it in here, anyway? I saw you lock it up.”

I smiled. “We trained killers have our tricks.”

And my sword was one of mine…she had been my mother’s sword. She would be there when I needed her, or if I thought I might. An aneira warrior wouldn’t be easily parted from her blade.

“Put it away,” he ordered. “Now.”

I closed my hand around the grip. “No.”

The last time I’d gone into the lair of one of the damned Alphas, I almost hadn’t made it out alive. If he thought I’d go into this one willingly and unarmed, he was out of his pretty skull.

The door opened.

Damon spun around and immediately bowed his head.

I remained where I was. As far as they were concerned, I was just a human—well, they did see me as a trained killer. At least they acknowledged that, but I wasn’t a shifter, and by the Assembly charter, I wasn’t required to follow their stupid laws. Nor would I. As long as I didn’t attack her, I was allowed to carry whatever fucking weapons I wanted.

So I stayed were I was, sword in my lap, and watched the lady of the cats came into the room.

She was…unexpected.

Yes. Very unexpected. Diminutive and pale, her hair nearly as blonde as mine. Thick black lashes hid her eyes and her mouth was about as pink as it could possibly get and still be natural. Either she had a damn good hand with makeup or God had just been too kind. She was slender—small waist, petite, but well-enough endowed that I had to wonder if she didn’t use her ability to change shape to alter hers in other ways. Some of the stronger ones could do things like that for short periods of time. The Alpha definitely could do something like that.

Pretty as a doll, I decided. And probably every bit as vapid. I couldn’t even get a read on whatever animal she was, although I knew she was cat. There was just…nothing there.

It was almost as bad as looking at Jude, although I knew why I couldn’t read him. My ability to read people came from their souls. He just didn’t have one.

That wasn’t the case here. Vampires lost their souls over time after they were bitten, losing them slowly. They didn’t just feed on blood——they fed on the psychic energy that came with it, and reveled on the punch of emotion that came with the feeding, since they lost their ability to feel with the death of their soul.

This woman wasn’t a vampire. She was…inanimate. Kind of like a doll. Damon had more presence than she did, I remember thinking that.

Then she turned to face me and the power of her gaze almost sent me crashing to the floor.

I gripped my blade, harder, harder, until the grip damn near bruised my hand and it still wasn’t enough. She moved and a breath later, so did I. It almost wasn’t fast enough but I’d had to rely on my instincts to survive the training of my grandmother and aunts.

I was still holding my sword in the seconds that followed and Damon stood between us, his hands raised in that calming, easy gesture people so often used.

“My Lady, you want to speak with the investigator. I brought her so she could talk to you about Doyle.”

She backhanded him—if I’d ever needed the evidence of shapeshifter strength, I had it now. He was over six feet and I imagined he weighed two-fifty, at the least. The Alpha? She was smaller than I was. I was five foot five, and she looked to be about three or four inches shorter. Save for the boobs, she was fluff all over.

But that single strike sent him flying across the room, crashing into one of the bubble-gum pink walls. He didn’t stay there. Even as she came for me again, he was there.

What the hell—?

“My Lady, you’ll be very angry if you harm the one who can help you find Doyle,” he said, and his voice had a soothing tone that seemed out of place. But then again, if he was trying to calm her down, the smart-ass mouth he showed with me wasn’t the ideal, I figured.

“Damon, are you standing in my way?” she asked. She had a lovely voice. It was like bells tinkling.

Poetic. I was getting poetic in my near-death state.

“I’m just following orders, My Lady,” he said, bowing his head.

“You followed orders by letting her bring a blade in here? To threaten me?”

“How am I a threat?”

Damon shot me a dirty look. His left eye was black, his mouth was busted and blood tricked down his face. He was trashed, and he was pissed, and I guess I couldn’t blame him. But I didn’t look at him. Focusing on the cat alpha, I asked again, “How am I a threat? I bring the weapons I normally carry on a job and if you weren’t prepared for that, then I’m sorry, but I don’t do my job unarmed, especially not when I’m working with shifters.”

“Are you implying I brought you here to harm you?”

Her head cocked to the side and I had the impression of a snake getting ready to strike. Not a pleasant picture. If I lied, she’d know. And if I lied right now, as pissed as she was…damn it, why didn’t anybody see fit to mention that the cat alpha was missing a few marbles? Of course, it wasn’t surprising, considering how fucking nuts all of them were. Maybe it was a pack thing and it all came from her.

The pieces clicked into places and I figured it out. She wasn’t soulless. She was just a sociopath.

I shook my head. Mustn’t enrage the antisocial monster standing five feet away. “I’m not implying anything. I’m treating this job the same as I would any other. I go into it knowing nothing—and that’s the way I’d prefer it.”

Her gaze, pale, pale blue held mine.

Then slowly, she nodded. When she looked away, I let myself breathe.

“Damon, look at your face…”

From the corner of my eye, I watched. She rose on the tips of her toes, touching his cheek, his nose, his bruised eye. “Oh, you poor thing. Does it hurt?”

I didn’t gape, but I wanted to. She’d knocked him into a wall…and she wanted to know if he hurt.

But of course, instead of saying something honest like Yes, bitch, it hurts, Damon just shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Ten minutes later, they were seated on the couch having tea and I was trying not to stare.

Tea.

For Pete’s sake.

“Do you take sugar?”

I stared at the small cup. I’d rather not take it at all. “Please.”

She nodded and I waited while she played the hostess. Damon sat across from us, his face healed, but there was still blood on him. I’d have liked to ask him why he didn’t bother to go wash it off, but I had a feeling I knew why.

His alpha was a fucking crazy bitch and he was better off not drawing her attention in any way, shape or form.

“So Damon must think you can find my nephew,” the lady murmured.

I needed to think of a name to call her. Nobody would give me her name—I had rumors of shifters who’d served her for decades who didn’t know. She shifted once more in her seat, took a sip from that delicate little mug of tea and then set it down, folded her hands primly in her lap.

I had a suspicion she was posing for me. Like an oversized Barbie doll…ah, bingo. Barbie. It also made her a little less scary in my mind—maybe not in reality, but who cared about reality?

Still pondering the statement she’d made, I finally made myself answer. “I never said I could find him. I don’t even know what’s going on with him. I just know I was offered a job.” Slipping the demonic Damon a look, I resisted the urge to point out that I hadn’t exactly been given much of a chance to refuse. I could have walked away from him. Tried harder. I hadn’t. Damn it.

“Are you telling me you can’t?” she asked, once more tilting her head to the side. There was something creepy about that. It made her look too…practiced. Like she was mimicking human motions without actually understanding why she was doing it.

“I never said that either. I just don’t know anything about the case and I need to do a little more research before I can begin to think about whether or not I can find him.” There. That was honest enough, right?

“Are you good at your job?” She reached for her cup of tea again, staring at me over the rim as she took another small sip.

Cautiously, I answered, “Good enough, I think.”

“Hmmm.” After she set it down, she rose from her seat.

Like he was jerked up on a set of strings, Damon was on his feet. He shot me a narrow look.

I stayed on my ass. That woman might scare me shitless, but I’d grown up around women who scared me shitless and I was done living my life kowtowing to the people who frighten me. If you gave in and did what they wanted, they just pushed for more anyway.

And besides, I wasn’t a damn cat. I didn’t have to follow their fucked-up sense of hierarchy.

She paced the room and when she turned back, she narrowed her eyes as she saw me still sitting. “You really are a bit of a problem child, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” I shrugged. “I’m sorry. It’s in my nature.”

“I know. Your kind have always had that sense of…arrogance.” Her nose wrinkled when she said your kind. Like we left a bad taste—literally—in her mouth. “I was hoping that you’d be a little less so, since your blood is weaker.”

“Well, you know what they say. Blood is thicker than water.”

“Is it really, though?” She rubbed one hand against the other and resumed her endless prowl around the room. “They cannot stand you, little warrior.”

Little warrior

I grimaced. Had she been talking to Jude?

Most people didn’t know enough of us to really understand what we were. A handful of the older ones did. Others might know the name but they didn’t understand, didn’t realize what we were…somebody had once called me a watered-down offshoot of a nearly dead race. Not terribly complimentary, but it said it all well enough.

We’d been forgotten, by and large. So it was kind of disturbing that she knew anything about me at all. And even more that she knew of my troubled relationship with my family.

“Whether or not my family can stand me doesn’t have much standing on my ability to do the job, now, does it?” I asked, forcing myself to stay focused on Kitty-cat Barbie. Losing focus with her around was a certain way to end up dead. “All that matters is if I can find him or not. Do you want me to try?”

“No.” She smiled and as she did, the incisors in her mouth lengthened. That was the only thing that changed and it was awful to see. Pure awful.

She continued to smile even as she lisped out, “I don’t want you to try, little warrior. I want you to do it.”

Then, as her teeth shifted back to normal, she came back and sat down. “You’ll find him, Colbana. And you’ll return him to us, unharmed. Or I’m going to come after you and rip out your heart. I’ll feast on it after I bury my nephew.” She said it in the exact same tone she’d asked me if I’d like sugar, and she said it while reaching for her damned tea cup.

Part of me wanted to point out that her terms weren’t entirely fair, but I was outmatched here. Outmatched, outclassed in every way and if she came for me here, on her terms, on her turf, I’d die. From a distance, it would be different and if she wasn’t expecting it, it would be different.

But right now, if I pissed her off, I was dead. I rather liked not being dead. So I held my tongue and stared at her for a long moment. Then, without looking at the man next to me, I folded my hand around the sword on my lap and rose.

No wonder the damn thing had come to me.

I was in a room with a crazy bitch and a man who’d all but led me to slaughter.

Chapter Three

I’d barely made it out of the lair when Damon grabbed me and shoved me against a brick wall. We were alone in the corridor. Wonderful. No witnesses to see him try to kill me.

“Are you trying to get us both killed?” he demanded, his voice not much more than a growl. The rage I saw in his eyes practically burned my skin.

This close, my blade wasn’t going to do me much good.

I banished her, although it felt like I was cutting off my arm. Once I had my hands free, I smiled at him. As he snarled, I reached for the dagger I had stashed inside my jacket before we left. I only had about fifty places to hide them. He would have been hard-pressed to find them without searching me.

This was the only one I’d carried on me. It wasn’t silver and it wasn’t very big. It wouldn’t hurt him much, but if I got away from him, I could call my sword and that one could do some damage.

Assuming I could move fast enough—my head was ringing, damn it. Hell, I might be better off doing one of my other tricks. Not that I had many that worked for fighting, but there was one…

“Sure,” I said. “I woke up today just hoping some idiot shifter would appear in my office and drag me off to face his Alpha without warning me that I’d either successfully do the job she was shoving on me or she was going to declare open season on my ass. That just sounded like loads of fun, you dolt.”

Then, I shoved the blade into his side at an upward angle, twisting it as I went.

It stunned him enough that I managed to get away.

Once I had a few feet between us, I held my breath and just…faded out. My ability go invisible is just a part of me. It’s not witchcraft, although it’s probably pretty close. It’s an ability the aneira alone possess, and I had enough of the blood that even I could do it. Once you tap into that ability, it’s as natural as breathing. And it’s very useful. Even a predator has a hard time finding what he can’t see…at first.

He stumbled, caught off guard and as he did, I back-flipped away. There was a little noise and he could track that, but the second I was far enough away, I stopped with the fancy moves and just walked.

That, I could do quietly, moving into a busier area of the lair, hoping I could get far enough away from him that I’d be harder to track by scent. It worked. For a minute. I ducked through a door and found myself outside in a courtyard, surrounded by people coming and going into the lair.

It didn’t last for long. I saw it when he caught my scent and I ducked behind an arbor away from others, out of sight. As he came at me, I called my blade and it was in my hand just as he reached the area I’d picked to make my stand. I dropped the cloak of invisibility just as the tip of the blade pierced his chest.

“Back off,” I said quietly.

“You must really have a death wish,” he murmured.

“No. Actually, I’m kind of fond of life and it pisses me off that you led me in there knowing what she was going to drop on me.” I pushed the blade a little deeper and said again, “Back off.”

Instead, he took another step toward me. “Do you really think you can take me? Take any of us?”

“No.” I smiled and twisted my blade, watched as a pained look crossed his face as the silver took effect. “But I figured something out…she ordered you not to let anybody hurt me…didn’t she?”

His lids flickered.

No other response, though. No other answer.

Smiling at him, I gave the blade another twist. His skin was starting to smoke now—whatever kind of cat he was, he was strong, or he would have already pulled back. “That includes you…and her.”

He backed away. “You’ll end up dead before this is out and I’ll be the one to pay for it,” he muttered, disgust thick in his voice.

“Don’t worry.” I pulled a cloth from my pocket and cleaned the blood from my blade, tucked it away. “I’ve got a pretty good rep for landing on my feet.” Usually.

Damon stared at me. He didn’t look impressed.

“All you had to do was leave the fucking sword,” he growled. “That was what set her off.”

I was tempted to tell him that I had left the sword, that she had come to me when I needed her. But why? I might need the element of surprise later on. He obviously hadn’t figured it out on his own.  “Hey, you saw me lock it up. Not my fault if you can’t pay closer attention.”

Those rather fantastic eyes of his narrowed.

I shrugged and turned away. I had a job to do. Not one I wanted, but since I wanted to keep breathing, apparently one that was going to have to be done.

“I need to talk to the boy’s family,” I said.

“You just did.”

Stopping, I turned and stared at him.

“My Lady is his only family. He was orphaned. Her brother was his father. His mother dumped the kid on him a few months after he was born and disappeared. Nobody really knows anything about her. The kid’s dad died when he was five. My Lady took him in and raised him.”

Damn. No wonder the boy ran away.

I was smart enough to keep that bit behind my teeth.

Damon saw it, though. His eyes narrowed and I heard the growl trickling from him. Shrugging, I turned and walked away. Hell, if I was expected to start censoring my thoughts, they might as well kill me now. I’d never survive this.

“Friends, then. Somebody.”

“What, don’t you want to talk to My Lady again?”

Suppressing a shudder, I continued to walk. “Absolutely. But his friends first. A kid that age, sometimes you get a better feel for them by talking to their friends anyway.”

“He didn’t have many.” Stormcloud eyes rested on my face. “I already explained this. He was something of a loner.”

Yes. He’d explained that. But even outsiders tended to have a couple of people they hung with. Not always, but usually. “Many isn’t the same as none. So did he have anybody he spoke with? Ever?”

Silence stretched out between us and I braced myself, prepared to wait endlessly if I had to. Patience wasn’t one of my stronger virtues, but I could stand there for hours if need be. It only took about two minutes. Either he was a weird-ass cat or he didn’t see the point in wasting time.

“There are a couple of kids,” he finally said, inclining his head. “But they aren’t going to talk to you.”

Yeah. Like that was any surprise. Shooting him a narrow look, I said, “Well, maybe you should tell them it would be wise to. You’d think they’d want him found. And while I might not inspire them to fear…you should be able to.”

“Shit, kitten. I think you just said something almost smart.”

I didn’t grace that pithy comment with a reply. There really, really wasn’t any point.

Doyle’s friends didn’t hang out at the lair—not many of the teens did.

No surprise, really.

What teenaged kid would want to hang around a place where that crazy bitch might show up? The aunt alone was a good enough reason to run away, if you asked me. Hell, if Kitty-cat Barbie was my aunt, I would have run away, too. I knew what it was like to have blood-thirsty relatives who were somewhat lacking in the sanity department.

Mine had been my grandmother, Fanis. The mega-bitch to end all mega-bitches. She could even give Kitty-cat Barbie a run for her money as far as cruelty went, I’d imagine.

Just think about her made me twitchy and I couldn’t be twitchy, so I shoved the thoughts aside and studied the long, low building in front of me. It was cordoned off by chain-link fencing, marked with the insignia of the ANH. Perched on the border of East Orlando, it was clearly non-human territory. Humans could go in, but if they did, there was an acceptable risk.

Acceptable risk.

Why did they even bother?

If anything bad happened, anybody inside with non-human blood was still screwed.

As long as all the bad shit happened on our side, it didn’t matter.

But if a human was harmed, we were fucked.

Of course, if humans ganged up and hunted us down? Not an issue. That had happened just a month ago up in Atlanta. Eight men had kidnapped a high-school-aged girl. Her mother was a shifter. Her father was human. The girl hadn’t manifested.

That didn’t matter.

Even though the men had been caught on video as she was forced into a van, nobody was pressing charges. She was still missing and nobody in the human world cared.

If she’d been my daughter, I would have gutted the men. Quietly. Taken my time and taken them out one by one.

One thing about that sign, though, it made it clear to me that was I traveling on dangerous ground. People in there played by shifter rules.

I was now on the job and that meant I’d end up stepping on toes. No safe passage. Didn’t matter if I had some bruiser at my back or not. I was going to step on toes.

“What is this place?” I asked as Damon came around to stand beside me.

“Just one of their hangouts,” he said easily, a smile on his face.

That smile alone was enough to warn me.

With a critical look at me, he warned, “They won’t let you in with weapons. And if you try to sneak that sword in, they’ll put you in a world of hurt. Just so you know—they will pat you down. You’ve got a known face, so…”

“Pat me down? Wonderful.” I started stripping out of my gear. I made a show of taking off my sword. Then I held it out to him. “Why don’t you lock it in the truck, hotshot?”

The look in his eyes was so full of distrust, I almost laughed. Instead, I just fished my keys out of my pocket and popped the lock, heading to the back of my car and stowing away the knives, my gun, the garrote that worked into my collar. He carried the sword, watching as I put away one weapon after the other. “You’d think you were going to war,” he drawled. “Are you afraid I can’t keep that cute ass of yours in one piece?”

I kept my head down, letting my hair hide my face as blood rushed up and set my cheeks on fire. I could handle being a little embarrassed. What I couldn’t handle was the other reaction.

It had been way too long since I’d been laid.

And he was pretty to look at in a rough kind of way, but there was no way I was doing this. He was just as much trouble as Jude was…

Jude

Like a whispered summons, I grew painfully aware of his presence. It stroked across my skin, brushed across my mind even as I swore and fought the urge to kick at something. What in the hell…I thought. Why now?

Jerking my head up, I turned around in a slow circle. My unwanted bodyguard noticed and he shifted, moving to stand in front of me, effectively blocking my view. I shoved at him. “Would you get the hell out of the way?”

I might as well have been shoving at a boulder for all the good it did.

But it didn’t matter. What I needed to see wasn’t in front of us.

It was driving down the street and as I turned my head, I saw it.

Long, sleek black car. A warning thrummed in my head. Getting louder and louder until it was a roar in my head. By the time the car stopped, I was ready to gouge through my eardrums just to shut it up. Yes. Problem. I’m aware. Thank you very much, brain.

The door opened and the roaring faded away as I saw who stepped out. It wasn’t Jude. I already knew that. It was early yet for him. Even though I’d long since figured out he could handle sunlight, he didn’t bother unless he chose to and only God above knew what motivated him.

I knew the woman climbing out of the car, though, her movements all liquid grace and sex personified.

It was Evangeline, his personal assistant, a woman who hated me with every fiber of her being. If it wasn’t for the hold Jude had on her, I had no doubt she’d do her damnedest to kill me. She’d had a hard time of it. Evangeline was a vampire’s servant and their blood bond gave her an extra kick, not to mention seeming immortality.

But she was more human than not.

I thought I could probably take her.

My palm itched and I clenched it. If I wasn’t careful, the sword Damon held was going to leap to my palm and that sweet little secret was going to be out of the bag. Evangeline pissed me off and I’d like to fight her, but she wasn’t a threat until Jude decided he was done toying with me. And I think he was having too much fun for that to change any time soon.

“Hello, Angie,” I drawled.

The faint line between her brows was the only sign of her displeasure, but it was enough. I wasn’t choosy. I took what I could get. Dismissing her, I went back to stripping off my weapons. The only things left were a couple of knives tucked inside my boots. I placed one knee on the bumper as Evangeline came closer, her movements sinuous and boneless, like an eel’s. She’d been one of Jude’s since before the mortal Civil War, nearly two centuries earlier. Her humanity died a little more every year. She was almost as graceful, almost as scary as some of the vampires. Almost.

“Jude would like to know why you haven’t answered his summons,” she said, a pretty polite little smile on her Cupid’s bow mouth. And her eyes were pools of seething, ugly hate.

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said cheerfully, drawing out one knife, laying it in the trunk. I did the same with its mate and then shifted to my other boot. I laid one of the blades in the trunk, but the last one, I held onto as I turned to face Evangeline. “You see, he keeps summoning me like I’m his little dog, or one of his little servants. Like you.”

I started to toss the knife. Sunlight danced off the silver surface, casting slivers of light all around. “I’m not.”

“He has a job for you,” Evangeline said.

“Then he can make an appointment.” I shrugged and continued to make the knife dance. “Or he can call me. E-mail—does he know what e-mail is? Hell, he can send you with the information or send it via courier pigeon for all I care. I don’t give a rat’s ass. But I don’t answer to his summons.”

“Rat’s ass…” Evangeline came closer. “It’s ironic that you say that. Considering that he saved you. Your ass, might I point out. From the rats.”

“True. But if the whole lot of you had been doing your fucking job?”

She snaked out a hand to grab the knife. I saw it coming and caught the blade, pointed it at her throat, just a whisper from piercing her skin. “I wouldn’t have had to do that damned job…meaning I wouldn’t have to deal with any of you,” I finished. “I could have continued my happy little existence, none of you would know about me and my life would be so much easier. I’m still pissed off over that.”

“Please do it.” Evangeline leaned against the blade, staring at me and for once, the smile on her face was echoed in her eyes. “I beg you. Draw my blood. Then I can convince my master what an utterly worthless use of space you are…I’ll kill you for attacking me and he won’t be terribly aggrieved.”

I pressed harder with my knife, cocked my head as the tip came ever closer to breaking the skin. “Sugar…killing me won’t be as easy on you as you think. Jude could tear me apart…but you can’t.”

A hard, brutal hand closed around my wrist.

Damon jerked my hand down and shoved me back.

“Leech-lover, go tell your master she’s working for the Queen of the Cats,” he said, sending me his infamous dark look. “She’s not available for anybody else at this time.”

“Like hell.” The words popped out of my mouth before I could stop them.

He ignored me as he wedged that wide, powerful body between me and Evangeline.

Her eyes widened.

She might not fear me—and that was really, really short-sighted of her, but Damon apparently worried her a little.

“If he wants her, he’s going to have to get in line. She’s busy,” Damon murmured. He leaned in, crowding into her space.

A human would have backed away.

But a vampire’s servant was a different matter and Evangeline just stood there, even though something that might have been fear glittered in her eyes. “Is that a fact?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you pass the message along?”

“I’m afraid I’m not your errand girl, cat.” Turning on her heel, she walked away. “He’ll be in contact soon, Colbana. You don’t want to keep ignoring him. It won’t go well for you.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’d been getting variations of that for the past two or three years, ever since I’d decided that life was better without Jude in it. The first few years after I’d met him, I’d gone when he called, feeling like I owed him, but then I’d realized he was trying to put me on a chain. A pretty, polite one, but a chain nonetheless. I’d spent too much of my life caged and I wasn’t doing it anymore.

There were times when circumstances jerked me back into his orbit, but usually I was able to stay away from him. I’d managed to avoid His Arrogance’s presence—in person—for going on seven months now. That wasn’t going to last much longer, but I also wasn’t terribly concerned he was going to go apeshit, either.

He was having too much fun playing with me.

Damon remained in front of me, blocking my view of the car until it rolled out of sight. Then he turned around, studying me with that odd look in his eyes. The one that made me think he was trying to decide if I’d be fun to eat or more fun to just slice to ribbons and play with.

“I think I’ve seen five year olds with more sense than you,” he said flatly. “How in the world are you even still alive?”

“Dumb luck?” I stepped back and nodded to the sword in his hand. “Are you going to lock that up or what?”

He tossed it in. Shut the trunk and then he turned to me. “Put your hands on the damned trunk.”

I cocked a brow at him. “Excuse me?”

“You carry more firepower than a Banner extermination unit.”

A Banner extermination unit—the slang term for the assassination units out of Bureau of American Non-Human Affairs—was a human group of killers. They went after the non-humans who were deemed too dangerous to exist.

And no matter what, any kill made by the Banner unit was pretty much considered a ‘righteous’ kill. Thankfully, they weren’t used too often—we preferred to handle our problem children on our own. When they did go on a hunt, they went loaded for bear.

I snorted and crossed my arms over my chest. “I hardly carry that many weapons.”

“Sure. Now turn around and put your hands on the fucking car,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to pat you down and make sure you don’t have anything else.” He leaned in and all but snarled the words into my face.

He reached for me. I lifted a hand to block but damn he was fast. A split second later, I was face down against the trunk of my car, the metal smashing against my cheek while one big arm crushed against my neck. His other hand jacked my wrist up high between my shoulder blades. My bones screamed and thanks to the pressure he had on my neck, the oxygen in my lungs dwindled down to nothing and panic tried to crowd in on me. Pain and dread gripped me and my free hand itched, so desperately bad. The blade…my sword, she sang to me, called to me…Ask, just ask

No. Not yet—

I lay there, limp, fighting back the rush of fear. If I panicked, it would be worse. It would use up my oxygen and make it that much harder to fight when I had to. And, if I did fight, it would be worse—

No. You’re not back there. He’s not Fanis

I battled back the terror, focused on the pain and called up anger. Anger grounded me. Focused me.

No fear, damn it. I could still breathe…barely…and he wasn’t trying to kill me. He just wanted me afraid while he yelled at me.

My blood is noble. My heart is strong. My aim is true. I am aneira…my heart is strong

No fear, damn it. I could be drowning in it, and he damn well could smell it on me, but I sure as hell wouldn’t show it.

As he leaned in closer, his mouth against my ear, I clenched my jaw.

“Listen, you little fool. You’re going into a place that we keep safe for our young,” he growled. “You got that? And while you aren’t exactly what I’d call a threat in our world, our young still aren’t precisely ready to defend themselves. You go in there swinging silver or anything else, it’s going to piss them off. Some of them may try to shift, which will scare you enough that you might try to defend yourself and you’re obviously too stupid to know when to pull back and when to fight. If you hurt one of them, somebody in there will try to kill you. Which means I’m bound, by my word to My Lady to kill them—just because they are defending our young.”

He all but spat each word and I knew if he wanted, he could snap my neck in an instant. It was getting hard to breathe, too hard, and I could all but feel the warming in my palm as the magic that connected me to my blade started to waken.

Then it was done. Damon loosened his hold and let me go. “Do you think you can get that into your fool head?”

Shoving upright, I glared at him over my shoulder. “Go fuck yourself,” I rasped out and it was like I had to choke the words out through a fucking straw. My face throbbed; my wrist and arm weren’t feeling too much better, but my throat felt like it had been pulverized.

Burning hot with rage and humiliation, and yet somehow cold with fear, I placed my hands on the truck and stood there as he did a quick, impersonal pat-down.

One thing was certain.

He was enough of an ass that my long-dormant libido had settled back into complacency.

Hell, he might be on the same level of dangerous as Jude, but he was a few steps higher on the asshole meter. Kind of pathetic. I hadn’t thought anybody could outpace the vampire, but this guy had managed to do it in a day.

Now that takes talent.

Amazon | BN | iBookstore