Two vampires walk into a bar…and naturally, it had to be mine. Of course, it wasn’t the opening for a funny joke, either.
Gio had been on his way out, two cases full of booze in his skinny, strong arms, but from the corner of my eye, I saw him. Absently, I noted the way he stopped in the doorway, just out of sight of the vampires, watched the way he eyed them, saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. And then, as quiet as he could be—and being a were, that was pretty damn quiet—he backed away.
I might have thought more of it, except I was dealing with my own level of panic and it was climbing higher and higher all the time as the vampires decided to settle at the bar just a few feet away.
My hands were sweating.
Why were they here? Vamps didn’t come to TJ’s much. She didn’t like them and the feeling was pretty mutual. She didn’t offer safe passage to people she didn’t like and the blooddrinkers were outnumbered five to one in Wolf Haven. Wolf Haven was pretty much lawless territory and everybody knew it.
The few vamps who managed to survive here usually did so because they struck bargains with the right people.
But no vamps struck a deal with TJ. TJ just didn’t strike deals. She did business and if she disliked you, it was entirely possible she would sooner set your ass on fire than do business. Part of me hoped desperately that TJ would take a rampant dislike to them.
I shouldn’t have lingered around to help cover tonight.
The wererat who usually handled the bar after dark wasn’t coming in and Gio had just hightailed it out of here. Just thinking about the vampires was enough to leave me half sick. My gut clenched into a tight knot and bile battled its way up my throat.
I swallowed it down and made sure I had everything under control before I approached them. Lingering over the empties, I shoved them into the dishwasher, then checked to make sure my hands were steady.
They weren’t. The fine tremor would have been unnoticeable to humans, but a vampire would notice it in a heartbeat. Instinctively, my mind started to fall back on the one thing that had always steadied me.
I am aneira…
Immediately, I stopped myself.
That wasn’t true anymore. I wasn’t the warrior I’d once been so I had to rely on something else to get me through.
I shot them another look from the corner of my eye.
Evaluate your target, Kitasa—
The voice of one my aunts crept up from the well of my memories. Unwelcome at most times, but just then, it served to focus me. Target. Enemy. Same thing, right?
They were young—younger than Jude. And they were on my turf now. I had a mean-ass gun strapped to my thigh. TJ had no issues with me carrying the weapon in the bar now, although before she would have raised hell. The ammo in that gun would take down an elephant. Or a vamp.
The sight of them still had my mind spinning away to dark and ugly places where time had no meaning and everything was pain and blood and hopelessness.
Now you’re mine, and nobody will come for you…
Jude’s voice, a sly whisper in the back of my mind, even now.
It didn’t matter that he’d been wrong.
It didn’t matter that people had come for me.
It didn’t matter that I’d even managed to get out of that hell-hole on my own.
Yeah, I’d had a different idea of escape planned—the permanent kind.
It didn’t even matter that he was locked inside a silver-lined box for the next five decades, his punishment for kidnapping a fellow member in good standing with the Assembly. That was how they’d phrased it. He’d kidnapped me and his punishment was confinement within a box.
I still had nightmares.
And I didn’t know what was going to happen once he got out.
The fear was still enough to choke me.
A hand jabbed into my ribs and I looked up, found myself staring into TJ’s dark brown eyes. She didn’t say a word, but her nostrils flared wide and she breathed in slowly. I caught the drift.
I was throwing off fear so badly, she could scent it on the air. So could everybody else in there. I had to pull it in.
I couldn’t rely on my sword, but I could rely on other things. Like the gun strapped to my thigh. I knew how to use it and I was fast. I could draw it in a second. I knew, because I’d timed myself. Turn, sight, fire. All in a blink. And a vampire’s blood would run dark, ugly red across the floor.
Slowly, the fear eased back, because I knew I could do it.
I was terribly aware of how quiet the bar had become. I twisted the top of a bottle of Corona and delivered it to the were in front of me. She was a jaguar and although the Corona had no effect on her whatsoever, it was the only thing she’d drink.
She smiled at me but the look on her face was distracted and even before I turned around, I knew who she was looking at. The eerie glow rolling across her eyes was worrisome. TJ was going to get pissed if all of them lost it in here.
“Oh, somebody had fun with you…”
I looked up and found myself staring into red, red eyes.
That fear tried to scream at me again.
This time, I screamed back.
Somewhere in the back of the room, a were snarled.
I blocked the sound out. The weight of the Desert Eagle strapped to my thigh was the only thing that mattered right then. Like most modern weapons, the Eagle hadn’t ever sang in the back of my head and sometimes I thought that made it easier. I didn’t miss his music and it wasn’t so painful now as I stared into those fiery eyes.
I missed my sword…I could see myself spinning, striking—
As those red eyes glowed, I forced myself to think past that. He was staring at my neck and that popped the bubble of terror as it tried to swell out of my control.
Fury punched through me, obliterating everything else.
“Not used to having vamps in here,” I said levelly. “We’ve only got some cheap blood whiskey on hand.”
Blood whiskey was the vampire’s poison of choice when it came to bars. The older one smiled, a closed-lip kind that didn’t show a hint of fang. “That will be fine.”
I nodded and went to pull it up. TJ kept the blood whiskey on hand just in case—she did like making her money. It wasn’t used often, a synthetic blood blend, mixed with alcohol. It was cut-rate whiskey, I could tell from the smell as I poured it, but TJ wasn’t going to waste her good stuff on blood suckers. I poured their drinks into the heated glasses and carried them back to the bar, set them down, but before I could I could move away, the older leech reached out, brushing my hair aside. “He was careless.”
I backed away, popping my wrist out of habit. I could imagine the weight of my blade…so easily. “No. He took great care, trust me. He did exactly as he wanted to do. Please don’t touch me again.”
The vampire inclined his head, nodded slowly.
His companion snickered. “He had a lot of fun, I think. You were all but ripe with fear just moments ago.”
My gut clenched and although the magic that connected me to my sword was gone, my hand started to itch and heat pooled there. It hadn’t done that in…months. The need to draw the gun was strong. The need to hurt something was stronger.
I could control it, as long as he didn’t make a move, but—
“I can show you it’s not always bad,” he whispered, flashing fangs at me.
I drew the Eagle and leveled it at his head before the last word had even left his lips.
The red in his eyes burned hotter, brighter.
“You can’t kill me with that.” Cold crashed through the room.
“Want to bet?” I cocked my head and studied him. “You’re no more than thirty, thirty-five at the most. That’s just a baby. If I bury enough silver in your brain, you’re dead, and I mean for-real dead.”
He swayed, the moves oddly snake-like. “You’d never be fast enough.”
I kept my focus on him. “Yeah? You sure about that?”
His partner laid a hand on his arm. “Edison. You’ve upset her. Perhaps we should—”
The younger one leaped.
Vaguely, I was aware that the older one misted away. Edison, though…he came at me in a rush. I aimed, squeezed.
His head disappeared in an explosion of blood, brain and bone.
As his lifeless body dropped to the floor, I lowered my gun.
Nobody ever thought I was fast enough.
“I meant no harm in coming here.”
The other vampire appeared behind TJ.
She tensed but said nothing, stroking a hand down her crossbow.
I stared at him.
Out in the bar, there was chaos. Shifters were snarling and growling and in general, acting the way predators did when something died. I wasn’t going back out there. Goliath was working the bar, something he only did in times of crisis.
“She doesn’t like it when something comes at her back,” I said to the leech. I still held my gun. Part of me knew I should put the damn thing back in its holster, but not yet. I’d known the vampire hadn’t left and until he was gone, nope, not putting it up.
The vampire edged around, moving into her line of sight. He had his hands linked together in front of him and he was trying very hard to look nice and polite and not like a bloodsucker. He looked at TJ and then at me. “I meant no harm in coming here. I hadn’t heard you…” He paused and then shook his head. “I am…working. I’m trying to track somebody down, but we didn’t come here with the intent to cause any harm, or trouble. If I’d known—”
I narrowed my eyes and he went silent.
“Known what?” I asked. I had to force the words out. I was afraid I already knew.
His gaze dropped once more to my neck, and I knew.
My heart slammed against my ribs. Wonderful. I’m a legend. Jude’s whore.
“Get out,” I said quietly.
He bowed his head. “Of course. But…” He paused and then carefully, as though he was selecting each word, he continued, “I would like to offer you a kind suggestion.”
“Leeches have no kindness.”
“I do not blame you for feeling that way,” he said, his mild brown eyes holding mine. I couldn’t read anything in that gaze. “Every time one of my kind sees the marks on you, they will think, and wonder. Some will feel as I do and be displeased, and make no mistake. I am displeased. I realize you have no cause to believe me and I understand. But…”
His words trailed off and his gaze shifted past me. He knew what he wanted to say, I could see it. But I had a feeling he was trying to figure out if the words he had to say were going to result in TJ lifting her crossbow or me putting the Desert Eagle to use again.
“Just say what you need to say and get out.” I wanted him gone.
Once more, he inclined his head. “Others will see it and look at you as a toy.”
“All the more reason to stay the hell away from your kind, then.”
* * * *
“Who the fuck were they, TJ?”
She hunched over the computer. Her crossbow was on the massive mahogany length of her desk, just a whisper away.
The vampires had pissed her off.
She shot me a dark look from under the fringe of her bangs and then went back to glaring at the computer like that would pull the information up sooner.
“New players,” she muttered. “I know that much.”
Hell. I knew that much. If they weren’t fairly new, I would have at least been able to place their faces and they probably would have recognized mine from the get-go—it wouldn’t have taken the scars.
Ours wasn’t so small a world that I knew every damned soul with a drop of non-human blood, but once upon a time, it had served my purposes to know the big guns. The one I’d killed wasn’t a major anything, unless you counted the sleazeball circuit.
But the other one…he was smart. He was a cool, slick piece of work and he’d been on a mission. Plus, he wasn’t a baby vamp—only had a century or two on him. Not old as far as vampires go, but comfortable in his skin. He wasn’t full of his own sense of arrogance and when he’d looked at me, he hadn’t written me off as a threat.
That, in and of itself, was a bit of a worry.
Right now, I wrote myself off as a threat.
I’d seen the measuring look in his eyes, though, and I knew what it meant.
I recognized my own kind well enough.
Maybe he wasn’t a hired killer but he hadn’t been in there just for bad whiskey cut with fake blood, either. He’d been…looking. For something. Someone. Since he’d been unprepared to see me, it had nothing to do with me and it wouldn’t have been any of TJ’s people.
Nobody would go into TJ’s place looking for one of hers. They wouldn’t make it out alive if she found them out.
Judging by the grim look on her face, I suspected she was already regretting letting the other one leave.
A few minutes later, she grunted. “Fucker. Affiliated with Allerton House.”
Allerton. A face flashed through my mind and I closed my eyes. Samuel Allerton. One of the men my…ex had killed a few months ago. It was a long and winding road that had placed me here and Allerton had been one of the pit stops.
The vampire had been an obstacle, somebody who might have been a danger. He’d been dealt with before I even knew about him.
And now somebody affiliated with his house was creeping around?
“Why would he be here?”
TJ shook her head, absently stroking a hand down her crossbow. “I don’t know, Kit,” she muttered. “This guy’s name is Abraham. Died in 1894. Doesn’t seem to be a total waste, as far as vampires go.”
Snorting, I turned away from her and went over to stare at the bank of monitors. They faced out over the bar, the alley in the back, the halls upstairs, the gym, giving us a birds-eye view of TJ’s domain. The only rooms not wired were the bedrooms. The bar was still crowded, roiling with an energy I could feel from here.
“Who is he looking for, TJ?”
“I really don’t know.”
I turned my head and looked back at her. “He didn’t find whoever it was. So he’ll probably be back.”
She grunted and shrugged. “I’ll call in a few more wolves to help for a while.” Then she eased her chair back from the desk and swiveled it around, watching me with a brooding stare. “I guess that means you don’t want to help cover nights anymore. Can’t risk seeing another leech, huh?”
I managed not to flinch. But I suspected she knew what I was thinking.
She put her crossbow in her lap, stroking it absently. “Sooner or later, you’ll see another vampire. What are you going to do, kill every last one who says something?”
I turned around and walked out.
* * * *
TJ had never been one for letting something alone, though. She was like a dog with a bone. Or a werewolf. A pain in the ass.
When I ignored her knock, she just used her code to bypass mine and came in. I pretended to ignore her as I stayed where I was, staring at the fire I had crackling away merrily in the little fireplace. TJ’s bar had been built in an old building and I had one of the few rooms with an actual fireplace.
TJ had always given me this room. There was enough of a chill in the air now, the weather about as cool as it ever got here in Florida. The warmth of the fire felt good on my skin, but it did nothing to thaw the ice inside me.
Nothing ever seemed to warm me.
Stop it. I closed my eyes and tightened my hand around the Eagle’s grip, tried to pretend it was my blade.
It was a pitiful comparison. The gun, solid as it was, useful as it was, just wasn’t the same.
“You can’t hide away forever,” TJ said quietly.
“I’m not hiding. I’m taking a break. It was a long day.”
She sighed and wheeled her chair closer to me. I averted my face and focused back on the flames dancing in the fire. Much easier to look at them instead. Much easier.
“Kit, you’re stronger than this.”
Her hand stroked my arm and I closed my eyes against the tears that threatened to cloud my vision. TJ never touched anybody. Suddenly I felt like a coward and I couldn’t even look at her as she said, “Kit…you’re stronger than I am. Please don’t turn into me. Don’t let him win like this.”
Shame slid through me. “There are much worse things than being like you, TJ.”
“Worse things?” She laughed sourly. “Yeah, sure. I could be like your bitch of a grandmother. I could have been born human and made a leech instead of born a weak werewolf and then tortured by the sadistic wolf who stole my legs. But he’s not the one who stole my life, Kit. I gave it up. I stay in here…and I hide. I let him ruin me. I’m letting him win…and I know it.”
“TJ, that’s not—”
“Don’t,” she warned, and the thread of steel under her voice was enough to silence me.
“I stay in there,” she murmured. “I hide. Even though that son of a bitch would never leave his mountain to find me, I stay here. And I hide. You face down everything that scares you, until now. Don’t let him win, Kitty. You didn’t let anything else take you down. Don’t let this ruin you.”
* * * *
You didn’t let anything else take you down…
And as I made myself walk into the bathroom the next morning, I realized TJ wasn’t really wrong.
My grandmother’s voice, never far from my mind, rose up to haunt me. Useless waste. I’ll make a warrior out of you if it kills me…
Sometimes, I think she’d meant if it killed me.
And damn if she didn’t try. Try hard. But I’d run away from her, managed to build a life.
You face down everything that scares you.
But right now, everything scared me. Life. Leaving the safety of TJ’s bar. And facing the woman in the mirror. It was a damned hard thing to do and for the past four months, I’d avoided it as much as I possibly could. As often as I could, because looking at myself was just too hard.
But today, I made myself look anyway.
It was almost a shock, the woman I saw staring back at me.
Leaner. Harder. Sadder.
The scars had paled. My neck was a mess of them. The ones on the left side of my neck were neat, a small circle of them, placed there back when I’d still mattered to somebody. When I’d still mattered, period.
No, we don’t think about that… Immediately my brain started to skitter away even as memories danced closer.
Did you really think I wasn’t coming for you? Damon’s voice, raw and broken.
Tears burned inside me, but I swallowed them back. I couldn’t handle that and this. Not now. So instead of looking at the mark he’d given me, I looked at the uglier scars. The ones that marked my ruin. My destruction.
The mess on the right side of my neck was what bothered me, the ones that told the awful, sickening story of what had been done to me.
The vampire’s voice was a nasty mockery in the back of my mind. Every time one of my kind sees the marks on you, they will think, and wonder.
They’d see me as a toy.
It pissed me off because that was what I’d been.
I touched them, made myself do it even though I flinched. I memorized the feel of them.
Jude could have healed them after he’d fed, but he’d chosen not to. He’d wanted to mark me and he hadn’t been neat about it. I’d fought, long and hard. Sometimes he’d almost let me get away, so there weren’t just puncture wounds. Some of them were long slices down my neck from where his fangs had torn me. They started just below my ear and disappeared under the collar of my shirt. There was no hiding them, not unless I just started walking around in hooded cloaks.
I needed to make them part of me, somehow.
A voice, the one that now made me want to cry when I thought of it, murmured from the back of my mind.
It’s the story of me…what put me on the road that made me what I am…
Damon had marked himself. Tattoos with charmed ink, etched onto his skin, back when he’d just been a kid, before he’d hit the spike—the period of change when a person with shifter blood went through that change prior to their first shift. The charmed ink, having it done before the first shift—those were the only ways a shapeshifter could probably keep a tattoo, otherwise the body would just absorb the marks as they were laid on him.
I didn’t heal as fast as a shifter did, but I did heal fast.
Still, if charmed ink had been used on him then, why not on me now?
The story of me…
I stared at the scars a moment longer and then left the bathroom. On the way to my bed, I grabbed a notebook and pencil. If I was going to draw a story of me, I had to know what I was now.
The sheathed sword lay on my bed, a sad mockery of what I’d once been and I knew the answer.
I was a broken blade. A broken warrior.
That was the first thing I drew. A sword, with the blade shattered into pieces. A leopard, stalking along the ground. A vampire’s fang. A giant python, his body curved into a coil. And a spear…my grandmother had always loved the spear.
I started to sketch a rat, but in the end, I didn’t bother. The rat pack hadn’t ever freaked me out that badly, and dreams about them didn’t haunt my sleep.
Everything here, though…
Touching the tip of my finger to the leopard, I bit back a sigh. Maybe the dreams about him weren’t exactly nightmares, but this was still something that had broken me.
It was time to start trying to put the pieces of myself back together.
* * * *
I let TJ handle the initial phone calls.
No point doing this if it wouldn’t work. I’d hoped for a few days to prepare myself after I’d asked her, but I didn’t have even have half an hour.
Twenty-six minutes after I’d explained to her what I needed, she pushed an address in my hand.
“This…” I licked my lips and said, “This is here in Wolf Haven.”
“Yes. Next street over,” TJ replied, stroking a hand down her ever-present crossbow. She clung to that thing the way I’d once clung to my blade. Absently, I flexed my hand and made myself look away.
“So. Are you going to go see her?”
I looked down at the notebook I’d brought down with me. If I did this, it was a start. The first step, at least.
“This doesn’t mean I’m quitting here,” I said softly. “I’m not. I’m not what I used to be and…” I closed my eyes. What in the hell did I even say to her? I’m not strong enough to walk away from here? I’m not who I used to be and I’m not able to do what I need to do?
“You just take your time, Kit.” The wheels of her chair squeaked as she moved over to me and I felt her pat my arm. “Why don’t you come in and work half the day? Later in the afternoon? You can head over now. She’s usually not that busy this time of day.”
Then I was left alone with my thoughts.