“What happened?” Tatius demanded, his glare boring into me.
I looked around. Nathanial was several feet away, standing at the edge of the semi-circle that had opened around me. His posture was aloof, uninterested, but he watched me without blinking. He tapped two long fingers on his full bottom lip, as if idly contemplating an obscure thought, but again, his gaze didn’t waver. Something about my mouth? I pressed my lips together.
Crap. My fangs were still out.
I willed the damn things to retract, and Tatius’s grip on my arm tightened. He shook me.
“I said, what happened?” “I touched her shoulder, that was all.” “Should we guess why?” A chime-like voice spoke from
somewhere in the mass of vampires. I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to press my hand over my
mouth. My fangs weren’t visible anymore, I knew that, but it was no great mystery to anyone on the balcony what had been motivating me. “She smelled like blood,” I muttered under my breath.
I should have known better. Vampire hearing was exquisite.
The woman in the gold-trimmed dress lifted an arched eyebrow dotted with rhinestones. “In this crowd, I should think more than a reckless child”—she dismissed me with the insult—“would have noticed blood. Unless there was some trick involved.” She stared at the posed figure again. There was no blood on the collar of the outfit— there wasn’t even blood around the cleanly severed stub of neck. The woman turned back to Tatius. “What have you to say of this, Puppet Master?”
“My apologies, Collector. I assure you, I intend to get to the bottom of it.” Tatius’s gruff voice crackled down my back.
Collector? Great. The Collector was the big bad star of this party. The guest of honor. I so needed to get out of here. In my old life I’d learned better than to pull an alpha cat’s tail—though knowing better didn’t mean it didn’t happen anyway, sometimes. But I totally hadn’t meant to land in the center of this attention. “Nuri,” Tatius said, turning toward the crowd. The mass of vampires who—now that the initial shock of the body’s discovery had worn off—were murmuring among themselves, parted to allow a pre- teen girl through.
As the girl, Nuri, approached, Tatius released my arm. Thank the moon. I moved to step aside, but his hand slid around the back of my neck. The touch wasn’t restraining, but it was overly personal, his fingers coming to a rest in the hollow between my collarbone and throat. Oh hell no. The last time I met Tatius, he’d considered killing me. Then he’d forced his blood in me. I did not want anything else to do with the vamp.
I tried to shrug him away, but his fingers flexed in response, his nails biting against my skin. Okay, so apparently I was going to have to make a scene—another scene—or stay put. I erred on the side of caution, for once.
Nuri, dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen with a large snake peeking out beneath her dark dreadlocks, knelt beside the harlequin. As I watched her lift the dead woman’s hand, I realized where I’d seen Nuri before. She’d sat at the council table the first time I was brought before the vampires, which meant she must be a lot older than she looked.
After a moment of poking at the body, she stood and turned to Tatius. “Rigor mortis has only begun to set, so I’d guess she’s been dead no more than four hours. There is no tearing of the flesh, so she was decapitated by a sharp instrument. The lack of blood suggests she was drained before death. I’ll report more when I find it.” The words were too old, too serious for her thin, girlish voice. Not that anyone else appeared to notice. She stepped aside and nodded to two pleather- clad vampires, who rushed forward to lift the body and carry it toward a private elevator in the corner. The fake head still lay on the floor, ignored.
The Collector stepped forward, over the forgotten head, until the train of her dress engulfed it. “You have your Truthseeker looking into things, and while I’m sure she will be very thorough”—the way she said it made it clear she was not certain of any such thing—“I offer the assistance of one of my vampires.” Without waiting for an answer, she lifted her hand. “Elizabeth, attend us.”
Tatius’s fingers flexed against my skin. Agitation? Anger? But he didn’t say anything as the small, doll-like woman I’d seen earlier in the night on the giant’s arm stepped forward. “I will be happy to assist,” the woman said, curtsying to the
Collector. Then she turned and her icy eyes caught on mine. “At least we know the harlequin wasn’t this fledgling’s snack.”
Tatius’s fingers flexed again, harder this time. “Hermit, find her someone to eat.” He shoved me toward Nathanial, and I gladly retreated from the center of attention.
Nathanial’s arm slipped around my waist as I reached him, and he wove us through the crowd, away from the couches. We passed the two vampires waiting for the elevator with the body, and I breathed deeply, rolling the decapitated woman’s scent through my senses. The sweet tang of blood reached for me, made the roof of my mouth burn, but I focused on committing her scent to memory.
Nathanial didn’t fail to notice my signs of hunger. “I am taking you home.”
Home. It was a nice thought. I’d had enough with vampires. Enough of their double-tongued political games. And enough headless bodies. But . . .
I glanced back at the vamps loading the corpse into the elevator, but it wasn’t her harlequin costume I saw. My mind replaced her with the image of another body, one bloated from several days of death. A human body that had been, in part, my fault, because I’d accidentally created the shifter who’d killed her. I’d tracked the murderer, stopped him, but the weight of his victims wore on me.
Nathanial studied me with eyes that saw too much. Eyes that stripped away my secrets. He shook his head, a small smile tipping the edge of his lips. It wasn’t a happy smile. I looked away, and he drew me closer to the side of his body without breaking stride toward the stairs.
“I will take you to the hospital,” he said. “You can visit them.”
Two weeks ago, I would have avoided hospitals at all costs. But then, two weeks ago, I’d still had to breathe to live, I’d spent most of my time as a six-pound calico kitten, and I hadn’t yet known I’d created a rogue who’d gone on a killing spree. A rogue whose victim count totaled fourteen women.
The only two survivors were currently in medically-induced comas at Saint Mary’s Hospital. Two weeks ago it would have been easier to walk away from a headless body. To trust that someone else would deal with it. A lot can change in two weeks.
I glanced back at the gathered vampires. All the vampires in Haven were on this balcony. The harlequin had been drained of blood. If the killer was a vampire, he was here. It has nothing to do with me. This murder isn’t my responsibility. It isn’t.
I let Nathanial lead me out of the club. But damn, guilt was a bitch.
Two hours later, I walked into Nathanial’s kitchen. Without Nathanial. After all, we hadn’t been formally dismissed by Tatius, so he had to return to Death’s Angel after our visit to the hospital. I was still flushed from the flight home as I followed the sounds of the television into the front den. Even after dozens of airborne trips with Nathanial, I still couldn’t get enough of the wind in my face and watching the world slip by below us. I could only hope the ability to fly would be a vampire trick I’d learn one day.
I pushed open the den door. “You up for a hunt?”
Bobby, a shifter from my home world of Firth, and once the big love of my life, was currently a couch-crasher in Nathanial’s cabin and would continue to be until the gate to Firth reopened and he could return to his pregnant mate. He looked up as I entered. Our relationship was complicated, and awkward, but we were working it out. Mostly. When he wasn’t threatening to drag me back to Firth with him, that is.
He hit a button on the remote, muting the brightly animated cartoon on the screen. Then he lifted his feet from the arm of the couch. I slid into the free spot.
“Still hungry? We caught dinner before you left.” He frowned, his brow creasing, and he rolled to a sitting position. “Did something happen at that vamp club?”
“It, no, well . . . ” I grabbed one of the hunter green throw pillows and dragged it into my lap. “I’m just hungry.”
Bobby slid closer, moving into my personal space. “You’re starting to smell like a frightened rabbit.”
Okay, this was what I meant by awkward. I jumped to my feet. “I’ll just go by myself.” “Kitten . . . ” “Forget I asked.” I headed for the door. Bobby was right. We’d already hunted tonight. Even with the heightened metabolism of a shapeshifter, Bobby was only one person and his other form was a bobcat—he didn’t need two rabbits in one night. Hell, in Firth, he wouldn’t have eaten more than three or four rabbits a week. It was wasteful to kill more tonight.
He caught up with me at the front door and pulled his sweater off despite the blanket of snow spreading out around the cabin. He had to shift if he intended to hunt.
I took the front steps two at a time. “I said to forget it.”
He jutted his chin and continued to disrobe. “We’ll freeze the extra meat.” His fingers moved to the button of his jeans. “You hunting like that?”
I glanced down. I was still wearing the ridiculous tiger suit, but unlike Bobby, my clothes didn’t matter. He’d lose a lot of mass once he shifted, and a thirty-pound bobcat couldn’t exactly wear a two- hundred-pound man’s jeans and sweater. Technically, whenever I shifted, my clothing disappeared. That was my gift. Or it had been, before I became a vampire. Now I was stuck in one form. My claws had extended, once, when I’d been in a fight for my life against the rogues. But since then, my cat had remained locked in the cold coil inside me. Dead.
I kicked off my party boots. “Let’s hunt.”
Snow crunched under my bare toes, and my prey lifted its head, its long ears twitching. I went still, not even daring to breathe. Beside me, Bobby hesitated, his compact bobcat form disappearing behind a frozen shrub.
The snow hare’s ears twitched again, his whiskers trembling as his nose worked. Muscles bunched as he prepared to leap, and I sprang into motion.
Brittle, ice-encased twigs shattered as I broke through the frozen brush. My dash was noisy, but that didn’t matter now. Not at the speed I was moving. I pounced, snatching the hare in mid-bound.
It screamed, a piercing distress call. I grabbed at its pumping back legs, but one slipped away. Pain flared across my collarbone as the hare’s back claws ripped through the thin material of my costume, tearing into the skin below. Not that the pain stopped me. I caught the leg with one hand, gripping the hare’s scruff with the other, and effectively immobilized it. Fur brushed my lips, then my fangs sank into the back of its neck. Liquid warmth filled my mouth, slid down my throat. Heat, life, filled my torso, spreading contentment toward my limbs.
Then the hare’s mind opened to me.
Panic raked across my senses, stabbing deep. Run, the hare’s instincts urged me. Every cell in my body knew I’d die if I couldn’t run. My heart jumped to my throat, making swallowing difficult.
A vampire bite caused euphoria in humans, but animals recognized death when it caught them. Still, even as the depths of the hare’s fear enfolded me, I had other instincts—darker, more demanding needs which kept my mouth working, my throat convulsing.
The small hare drew one last breath. Then the connection between our minds snapped. The sudden absence of its terrified presence left a gaping hole in my mind—an emptiness which didn’t fill as I regained awareness of myself and of the limp body in my fingers.
My hands trembled as I set the small corpse in front of Bobby. I swallowed hard. My tongue tasted like I’d been sucking on an old piece of copper, and I shivered despite the new warmth rushing through my limbs. This is natural. The way it should be. I’d been born a predator. A cat. I’d hunted with my clan all my life. This hare was prey, serving its function in the circle of life.
Bobby butted my knee with his tawny, bobcat head, his imploring, almond-shaped eyes watching me. My gaze refocused, and I realized I was still crouched over the dead hare, my thumb sliding along its cooling paw. I pulled my hand away and lunged to my feet.
Bobby stared at me a heartbeat or two longer. Then his paw lashed out, fast and precise, disemboweling the hare. The animal version of field dressing—or an appetizer. A scream sounded in my head again, starting as the dead rabbit’s voice, then bleeding into a woman’s sobbing cry. I turned away, but it was too late.
Finding the beheaded body earlier tonight had been too much of a reminder of the rogues’ actions. Now, in my mind’s eye, I saw claws rip through flesh. The flesh was furless, pale, human, and very much alive. The woman’s scream redoubled in pain, and giddy amusement bubbled in me as I reached out to rip away more tender skin.
No, I won’t see this—won’t feel it. Not again.
I squeezed my eyes shut, but I couldn’t block out images playing behind my eyelids. Bobby’s feline call of concern grew distant; the first clue that I was running. My stride carried me effortlessly through the frozen forest, but I couldn’t distance myself from the memories haunting me.
And memories they were. They just weren’t mine. I’d absorbed the memories when I’d tried to drain the rogue during our fight. My mind had touched his, had seen through his eyes, had felt the high that rushed through him when he killed. Now I had flashbacks that put me in a front-row seat to the sense-surround biography of a sociopath. And those tainted thoughts I’d never be able to outrun.
Running did little to clear my head, and I eventually forced myself to slow. Sticky blood seeped down the front of my costume from the hare’s deep scratch on my shoulder. I probably ruined the costume. At least I’ll never have to wear it again. Circling back to the cabin, I brushed the snow clinging to my bare feet on the welcome mat before stepping inside.
“Bobby? Nathanial? Anyone here?” I called as I pushed the front door closed behind me.
No one answered, but footfalls thudded in the hall—footfalls far too heavy to belong to a bobcat. I cringed as the double doors swung open and Nathanial’s Newfoundland trudged into the kitchen.
The massive dog just cocked his head. He rounded the large table that monopolized the room, his black nose working as he approached. I pressed my back flat against the wall, my hand groping for the door knob.
“Regan, stay.” I peeled my free hand off the wall and tried to mimic the gesture Nathanial used to control the beast.
Regan didn’t pay attention.
He took another step forward. Phantom pain laced through my torso, tracing the path of old scars from an attack I’d barely survived as a child. The attack had been by a rogue wolf, not a dog, but dogs were still Canids, and close enough to wolves to make me uneasy.
The dog sniffed the air, his large muzzle lifting, and I shuffled sideways. Okay, maybe more than just “uneasy.”
Regan stopped, his floppy ears pricking like he heard something. Then his head swung to the door and his ears dropped, his hackles rising.
“Niiice doggy,” I whispered.
Regan’s lip rolled back in a silent growl, but he wasn’t looking at me. His gaze was fixed on the door. A loud ding dong sliced through the air.
I jumped. The doorbell? I hadn’t even known Nathanial had a doorbell. And who would visit out here in the middle of nowhere? The bell dinged again. “Let us in, little one,” a deep female voice called, the words heavily accented by a throat clearly more accustomed to pronouncing a harsher Germanic language.
Oh, this evening kept getting better and better. I knew that voice. It belonged to the vampire council’s enforcer, Anaya. And I was willing to bet, even though I couldn’t hear him, that her companion Clive was with her. I’d only met the pair of enforcers once before, but they’d gleefully delivered me to what they had believed would be my final death. I didn’t foresee us becoming friends.
“You’ll have to come back later. Nathanial isn’t here.”
“Open the door.” This time the voice was clipped and masculine. Definitely Clive.
Regan apparently didn’t appreciate the vampire’s tone either, because his silent growl became increasingly less silent.
My fists clenched at the growl, my fangs descending. He’s not growling at you, I reminded myself, repeating it like a mantra in my mind. The mantra didn’t help. A great, growling dog was between me and the door. He could have it.
I scuttled further away, sliding along the kitchen wall. Regan fell silent, and if I hadn’t been listening so hard, I wouldn’t have heard the creak of the wooden stairs outside.
Anaya and Clive were leaving? Just like that?
Regan looked at me, his mouth falling open and his pink tongue lolling out one side. It was a happy expression, I knew it was, but I still shivered at the sight of all his big, white teeth.
“Uh, why don’t you stay here in the kitchen, and I’ll go somewhere else?” I asked the big dog.
He regarded me with shiny black eyes, and then plopped down on the tile.
I’ll take that as yes.
Pushing off the wall, I crept across the room, angling for the swinging doors in the opposite corner. Regan watched every halting step. I was a yard beyond him when a loud bang crashed against the door.
I leapt backward, slamming into the huge table. Regan also jumped to his feet, his hackles lifting, his long fur fluffing out like an excited porcupine.
“I think you lost something,” Anaya called through the door. She punctuated the statement with the sound of something hard hitting something meaty.
A pained grunt drifted through the door. I’d lost something that could be hurt?
Forgetting about the growling dog, I darted across the room and flung open the door. Anaya stood directly in front of the door, still dressed in the costume she must have been wearing at the party earlier—unless she normally dressed as an eighteenth century bar wench with a skirt far too short for the time period. Behind her, Clive was dressed as Napoleon—appropriate, given his height—but instead of hiding his right hand in his uniform, he gripped Bobby’s once again human wrists. Clive’s other hand curled in Bobby’s shoulder-length tawny hair, controlling Bobby’s head, pulling it back to expose his naked throat.