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The Deadliest Bite
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After an assassination attempt on Vayl, I find myself pulled into a tangled web that takes the gang to Romania. So how will I save a ghost, rescue a demon, and cheat the Great Taker out of a soul he’s slavering for while defeating my nastiest foe yet so that Vayl can, at last, cherish a few precious years with his sons? With careful planning, major violence, and one (hopefully) final trip to Hell.
Table of Contents
A Preview of TEMPEST RISING
Wednesday, June 13, midnight
I'll say one thing about walking around with a rubber band up your asscrack—it helps train you for torture.
"They call them thongs," the girl at Victoria's Secret had told me, doing her best not to look at me like I'd experienced major brain damage sometime between high school and college.
"I know what they call them," I'd said as I picked at the flimsy material and tried not to wince. "I just don't understand why…" I'd looked around the store. They were everywhere, like fluffy pink bunnies that multiply while you aren't looking and then blow your foot off the second you step on them.
The girl had blinked her silver-lined eyelids and shrugged. "They're sexy."
"Uh-huh. Are they comfortable too? Like, am I gonna come home from work all tired and grumpy and say to my dog, 'I'm crapped out. Time for a warm bath, flannel pj's, and my thong?'"
"It could happen." She'd smiled, faintly, just one corner of her mouth rising, which had reminded me of why I was standing in the middle of lingerie paradise in the first place. Vayl. Who was, even now, counting to one hundred, giving me a chance to find a new cubbyhole to hide in before he began hunting the halls of the red brick monstrosity he called home.
As I padded through neatly arranged rooms full of expensive furniture and beautifully displayed antiques, it struck me as hilarious that the vampire who owned them all chose to spend his free time playing strip hide-and-seek with his sorta-human girlfriend. I caught sight of myself in the gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace and smiled. Because I was more than that. Vayl called me his avhar—a Vampere word that described better than any other the infinite number of ties that bound me to him. I also smiled because, after sixteen days of rest and relaxation from a series of missions that had nearly killed both of us, I had to admit I was looking better. Eating three meals a day had filled out the hollows. Now I couldn't count each rib just by looking. My fingernails had stopped flaking. My eyes had brightened until sometimes they reminded me eerily of my father's snapping green orbs as they cut through us the first day he got home from a tour, inspecting the troops to see how we'd grown in his absence. Even my curls seemed bouncier and redder except, of course, for the white-streaked one that curved into my right cheek like a familiar friend. I didn't let my glance linger on it. No point in reminding myself of my first trip to hell when this game, like all the others Vayl and I had played, was designed to make the most of the time we had left until I had to go back.
"Fee fi fo fum! My senses are tingling with huuu-man!" Vayl called.
"Crap!" Just one in Vayl's awesome bag-o-tricks was the ability to pick up on strong emotions. My little detour down Vanity Lane had given away my position.
One last glance in the mirror. We'd been playing the game for a while. All he'd left me wearing was a watch, the blue lace Victoria's Secret underwire I'd bought, which gave me such incredible lift I had actual cleavage (yeah, baby!), the matching dungeons-r-us thong, and a pair of three-inch black heels that made sneaking damn near impossible but did wonders for my legs. Of course Vayl was down to a pair of red silk boxers, so our next encounter promised to be mondo fun. Especially if I made the hunt interesting.
I snapped the band of my watch. My super-genius buddy Bergman had invented it for me, wiring it to use the kinetic energy it had stored from my movements to shield their sound. Sometimes being an assassin for the CIA comes in handy. Especially when you get to use cool spy gadgets to play sneak-n-peek with your lover.
I was on the main floor, looking for a decent place to tuck in, listening for sounds of movement above and hearing none. Geez, the guy lived in a ninety-year-old Victorian! Shouldn't one floorboard squeak? Then I'd know which staircase he was descending, at least. The main one connected the second, third, and fourth floors to the front door. The rear stairs, darker and much narrower because snobs didn't think servants deserved elbow room back when, only went from the kitchen to the second floor, where all the bedrooms were located, and the basement, where all the creepy, clanky junk had been installed.
Though I wasn't sure I had time, I paused for a second, reached out, and sniffed. My nostrils flared, though the scent that wafted into my brain stem had nothing to do with true odor. It was all mental, and never before had I been so pleased to have had this Sensitivity to others (as in nonhumans) dumped on me. The price, dying twice and then being brought back by a mind-blowing Power with a soft spot for model trains, and me, had always seemed too high. Even though I'd gotten to know Raoul well enough to think of him as both my Spirit Guide and my friend, it still did. But if I could finally get some fun out of the deal, maybe… there! Vayl was definitely sneaking down the servants' stairs.
I tiptoed toward the front of the house and slipped into a room he liked to call the conservatory. Although when I told him Miss Scarlet did it in there with the candlestick he just looked at me blankly and said, "Was the candlestick sitting on the pianoforte?" In some ways the dude is permanently stuck in the eighteenth century.
Some of that showed in the choices he'd made for the room, as well. A huge window seat spanned the whole length of the front wall. Covered with lace-edged cushions, it gave the lazy lounger a spectacular view of Ohio's countryside. Because Vayl didn't live in Cleveland, but had bought a house about twenty minutes outside the city, where if you stood still long enough you could hear cows mooing across the cornfields.
He hadn't bothered draping that window, although he had thrown Bergman at it, which meant it was covered by a UV shield that kept perverts (and the worst rays of the sun) from peeping inside. It was also (along with the rest of the house) protected by the most sophisticated alarm system known to man.
Which was probably why when Vayl did chill out in the room, he could feel extra-relaxed in the high-backed white sofa that sat perpendicular to the fireplace. Tall gold tassel-shaded lamps stood at each end of the couch, though he could see in the dark, so they had to be more for looks than practicality. I hadn't figured out yet if he preferred the couch or the overstuffed blue chair across from it, its round, tufted footstool reminding me of a foofy dog set permanently into begging position. After all, that would give him a better view of the gleaming white instrument sitting at a diagonal in the corner opposite the widely arched entryway. It was, in a fact, a real antique pianoforte. Vayl had played it for me the night before, some classical piece that would be great to fall asleep to. I'd matured enough, in the time I'd known him, not to say what I was thinking out loud. But as soon as I got a chance I'd be taking that guy to a Killers concert. He had no idea what he was missing.
I lifted up the window seat, expecting to find boxes of puzzles and old toys like the ones my Granny May had stored in hers. But either Vayl wasn't into storage or his house was big enough to display all his goodies, because the cabinet under the bench was empty. A perfect hiding place for one five-foot-five twenty-six-year-old who badly wanted to see her vamp shed his shorts.
Unless she had a touch of the Claustrophobia.
I stared at the dark, empty space. Three seconds later I decided it had shrunk in the three seconds I'd considered it. While my competitive streak warred with my fear, I looked around for an alternative.
A round table covered with a floor-length blue satin cloth stood in the corner next to another blue chair, this one less comfy but more elegant than its fireside cousin. Under the table? Less confining, since the cover was flexible. But no. It held too much glass; both an oldfashioned globe lamp embossed with blooming roses, and a figurine of a hummingbird tasting nectar from a red petunia. However, behind the chair… yup, that'll work. I'd shucked my shoes and swung one leg over the back of the chair when the doorbell. Fucking. Rang.
Vayl skidded around the corner. "Jasmine!"
Shit, damn, shit, shit, shit, shit! I tried to think of a less graceful position for a woman who'd deliberately set out to look sexy to be caught in. But I couldn't imagine anything worse than straddling a wing chair with one hand on the wall for balance, one foot on the armrest, and my mostly bare ass stuck halfway between. So I yelled, "Get out!"
The screen door slammed. Moments later a car peeled away.
"I think I scared off your visitor," I said.
"It is midnight in the middle of nowhere. Either he had no business being here in the first place. Or his business would have proved a maddening distraction from my business, which is much more important." Vayl leaned against the door frame, crossing his hands behind his back so I'd be sure to get a great view of his broad, curlcovered chest. He grinned, his fangs giving him the look of a hungry lion. "But I have a feeling you were not speaking to him to begin with."
"Well… no. I mean—" I motioned to myself. "This isn't how I figured you'd find me. In fact, you weren't supposed to—Oh shit, there's no way to get out of this position without looking even more ridiculous. Turn around."
"I will do no such thing."
"Jasmine, your body is more delectable than melted chocolate on a sea of sugar candies. And the fact that you wore that lovely confection for me—"
"It's coming right off," I warned him as I reclaimed my leg from the no-girl's-land between the chair and the wall. "Stupid piece of crack-grinding—urf!" Whatever I'd meant to say got lost in the spin as Vayl swept me off the chair and twirled us around the room in a spontaneous waltz. His laugh, a deep-throated sound of such genuine mirth that I always ended up joining him, accompanied us even better than the clinking keys of the pianoforte would have. Which was where I ended up sitting, my hands on the lid beside my hips, pinned there as his arms wrapped around me and he covered my lips, my neck, my shoulders with kisses that grew more passionate with each brush of his lips as they crossed my skin, leaving trails of fire that grew with every indrawn breath.
And just before my claustrophobia kicked in, he loosened his arms so he could feather his fingers up my spine and down my shoulder blades. I shivered.
"Cold?" he murmured into my left breast.
"Nnng." I laced my fingers through his and brought them up to my mouth, smiling triumphantly as he moaned.
"We need cushions," he said.
I wrapped my legs around Vayl's hips and locked my elbows around his neck, which was corded with muscle that had been packed on in the days when heavy lifting meant cutting wood for the family's fire and hammering horseshoes out of raw iron. I ran my fingers through his jet-black hair, his soft curls springing around my nails playfully like they, too, realized what little time we had left to just enjoy each other.
We were halfway to the couch when I whispered, as I nuzzled his earlobe, "All I need is a flat surface. Baby, it doesn't even need to be horizontal."
Low growl rumbling from his chest into mine as he veered off couch-course. We slammed into the wall, knocking a gasp from me that blew into his ear, making him shiver with delight. His fangs scraped down my neck and suddenly I couldn't touch him, kiss him, love him enough. I wanted to become a part of him, dive through him and leave the finest part of me inside his heart. And the best part was knowing, by the urgency in his touch, in his moans, that he felt exactly the same way.
Afterward we lay in the doorway, tangled around each other because, finally, we didn't have to let go. Vayl ran his finger across my collarbone. It stung enough that I looked down, saw the trail his teeth had left. Just scrapes; he hadn't drunk from me this time.
"Jasmine, I cannot decide how to feel about these." His finger traced the marks again, a sweet irritation. I looked into his eyes and realized how much I depended on their color to clue me into his thoughts and emotions. They'd faded from passion-bright emerald to stormy blue.
"What are you worried about?" I asked.
His finger came under my chin, lifted it up so he could plant a gentle kiss on my lips. "The temptation to taste of you fully rises higher each time we make love," he said. "You feel it as well."
It wasn't a question. He'd had a special insight to my emotions since I'd offered my neck to him the first time, during a mission to Miami when his personal blood supply had been tainted.
I said, "Yeah. Resisting has been… tough."
"And yet we must."
I brought my hand up to his wrist and squeezed. "You never stop surprising me, you know that? Not two months ago you were suggesting you should turn me. And now—"
"You know I was not myself then. Besides, I have had time to consider, and so have you. Think what happens to us each time I drink of you. We are becoming more powerful, and yet unlike any other man and woman on earth."
"Well. We did start out kinda unique."
His nod gave me that. After all, the guy was a Wraith, which meant he could freeze his enemies from the inside out. Even among the Vampere that talent was rare. And people who knew me hesitated to even call me human anymore. Being able to walk in Vayl's memories had made me wonder sometimes myself, although I thought I'd proven that I still had it where it counted.
Vayl said, "I have mentioned couples like us to you before. You do remember the reason that sverhamin and avhar are so deeply respected among my people."
"Yeah," I said. "I remember."
His hand went to my hair. Dove into my curls and brought a bundle up to his lips, as if only they could resuscitate him. His eyes closed as he inhaled my scent. "Woman, you have no idea how close we walk to the edge of disaster."
"You mean, besides the fact that we assassinate national security threats for a living? Or did until our goddamn Oversight Committee shut us down."
"Never fear about that," Vayl reassured me. "The circle always turns. And I believe Martha knows exactly how to spin this particular wheel."
I had to agree. After learning that our old secretary had actually been running the department all along, I was more certain than ever that nothing could stop the bullet train that was Martha Evans from getting exactly what she wanted. And since, currently, her two priorities were to reopen our department and catch the clawed killer of Pete, the man who'd believed in me when no one else had, who'd hired me into the department and paired me with Vayl, I was cheering her on with both fists in the air.
I shook my head. Leave it to me and Vayl to turn a forced vacation, not to mention a beautiful relationship, into an even more potentially lethal situation than offing monsters for a living! I said, "Okay, so what's so bad about you taking a sip from me every once in a while? Why is it something that should keep me looking over my shoulder?"
He buried his face against my neck, speaking so quietly that I had to strain to hear.
Maybe he hoped that, if I didn't, none of it would be true. "I have told you something of the world that parallels yours, the one in which we others walk without pretense but, perhaps sometimes, with even more fear. The Whence runs according to a set of rules you would find both brutal and baffling. And its Council enforces those rules always with its bottom line in mind—whatever happens, do not attract the ire of humanity."
"What does that have to do with you and me?" I asked.
Vayl's hold tightened, becoming almost painful as his breath caught. "I believe because we are avhar and sverhamin we are changing with every exchange of blood and power, but not into anything this world or the Whence has ever seen. Because I am Vampere and you are Eldhayr the eventual outcome will not be that you become a vampire, but that we both transform into new creatures. Different, powerful species who began our lives as killers. Who are, in fact, the most effective assassins on the planet. Do you think the Whence, or even our own people, will wait around to see if we decide to be friends or foes?"
I couldn't answer. He'd sealed my lips at the word "species."
He went on. "I believe this is why every avhar/sverhamin couple has disappeared within a year of their bonding. Either they realized their own danger and melted into the night of their own volition, or they were erased out of fear of what they were becoming together." He drew his face back, showing me eyes that had gone orange around the edges. "This is why we must hold back, though every desire in us calls for the exchange. Your blood, my power. We must never taste of one another in that way again. It is too dangerous for us now."
"How do you know we're not already doomed?" I whispered.
He smiled then, his dimple appearing just long enough to charm me into a stress-releasing breath. "Because we have not yet been visited by a Blank."
"A Blank? Who's that?"
"One of our counterparts in the Whence," Vayl answered. "Except instead of eliminating the monsters who threaten to destroy humanity, they kill others whom the Council fears will make humanity want to destroy them."
The doorbell rang. And, yeah, I'll admit I jumped inside the circle of Vayl's arms. As he chuckled I said, "Speak of the devil."
"If we ever have to deal with a Blank, believe me, he will not announce his presence at the front door."
"So who the hell is it?"
Vayl's eyebrow raised a tick. "I suspect it might be the visitor you frightened off before."
"Who shows up at a vampire's door at"—I checked my watch—"one in the morning?
"Perhaps he is an encyclopedia salesman."
"Vayl." I hid a grin. Such a charming trait, this tendency to get stuck in the past. As long as it's just little bits of him and not the whole enchilada. The thought sent stabbing pains through my chest every time I remembered our most recent trip abroad, which had ended with his nearly losing all sense of the present in Marrakech. I said, "Nobody buys encyclopedia sets from door-to-door salesmen anymore, because they can get all the information they need from the Internet."
His lips pressed together so tightly I'd almost call his expression a glower. "How can you trust an entity everyone willingly refers to as a Web? If it is as large as they say, you must know the spider that spun it is mountainous."
The doorbell rang again. I said, "I'd like nothing better than to discuss what weapons people use to protect themselves against netbugs. But it sounds like your guest really wants in."
He pulled me close. "Do not worry. It is probably a motorist who has lost his way. People who threaten me never ring the doorbell first. Besides, I saw him on the second-floor security cameras the first time he was here. He is an innocent."
"How could you tell?" I demanded.
"It is one of my gifts."
"Fine." I started grabbing underwear. "But I'm not really prepared to entertain. Where's my shirt?"
"I think we left it in the guest bedroom."
Okay, that meant a run upstairs. But where were my pants? Oh yeah, the library. I'd probably never find my heels again.
"Do you know where your clothes are?" I asked.
"My pants are in the kitchen. And I believe you dropped my shirt in the billiard room," Vayl answered as he slipped back into his boxers, his eyes sparkling like newly polished gems at the memory of our latest game.
"Okay, that leaves you to deal with the dude at the door." I checked the monitor beside the light switch. "He looks nervous. Also tired."
"He has probably been driving in circles all night. I suggest you take the back stairs. I will get rid of him as soon as possible, and then let us go shopping for dinner supplies, shall we? Tonight I think we should try cooking spaghetti again. Perhaps this time I can teach you how to boil pasta without clumping it."
"Good luck with that. Although I'm sure Jack would appreciate a decent meal. He's probably sick of Purina," I said as we walked toward the back of the house, the doorbell insisting that we both move our asses because young-and-nervous needed to find his way back home!
"Wait a moment," Vayl said as he opened the kitchen entrance to the newly fenced backyard. "Jack wants to go with you." My enormous gray-and-white malamute stepped inside and brushed past him, nodding his thanks. (Yes, I'm serious. He's überpolite. Even poops in the same spot so you don't have to go "treasure hunting" every afternoon.) I hadn't yet turned toward the servants' stairs, but Jack divined my intentions and trotted up to the second floor before stopping at the top, grinning at me from white-toothed doggy chops as if to say, See what good shape I'm in? You should never leave me home during a mission again.
I ran up after him, patting his head affectionately as I passed him on the way to the guest bedroom. "You're right. I missed you like crazy too. I'll try to keep you close from now on, okay?"
The door I wanted had been thrown wide during Vayl's hunt, the puffy pink duvet still pulled up to reveal the spot where I'd hidden under the four-poster bed. I crossed to the freestanding mirror where he'd tossed my tailored white shirt over the support structure. I threw it on over my bra. Stepped across the hall to the big, elegant room I shared with him to grab a pair of cheek-covering panties to slip on. And, of course, the pet that had preceded Jack had to come with me too, so on went the shoulder holster I'd left sitting on the mahogany dresser. Inside it rested a Walther PPK that had once shot only regular ammo. Then Bergman got ahold of it. Now, with the flick of a button, it transformed into a vamp-smacking crossbow.
Jack had spent the time sniffing hopefully at the sofa that sat at the foot of the bed, its soft gold leather inviting him to jump up and make himself at home. "Don't even think about it," I told him. "There's a reason your bed's downstairs. Now let's bolt before you get into real trouble. I think I hear my pants ringing."
We ran up the main stairs to the third floor, where I found my jeans crumpled beside the cozy brown suede chair where I liked to curl up every afternoon with a book and a can of Diet Coke. I pulled my phone out of the back pocket and stuck it between my ear and shoulder while I shoved my legs into my Levi's.
"Jaz? Where's Vayl?"
"Hi, Cassandra. He's with me."
"He's all right then?"
"What?" I felt my fingers go numb. Usually I reacted faster. It was my job to make sure my emotions didn't cloud my judgment. Even for the two seconds it took me to realize my psychic friend was freaking out about my lover. "What did you See?"
"There was a mix-up in Australia. I accidentally packed one of your T-shirts in my suitcase. So I was folding it back into my luggage because Dave and I are coming up to visit you and Evie. It was supposed to be a surprise—" She swallowed a sob.
"Tell me now, Cassandra." I tried to keep my voice calm. No sense in shouting at the woman who'd already saved my brother's life with one of her visions. But if she'd been in the room I'd have shaken her till her teeth rattled.
"When I touched your shirt I saw you, leaning over Vayl's body. He had a stake through his heart. The blood—oh, Jaz, the blood." She started to cry for real now.
"Anything else? Come on, Cassandra, I need to know everything you Saw." I'd zipped into my pants. Run to the stairs. Managed to make it to the second floor without breaking my neck. Jack was way ahead of me.
"I don't know. There's this explosion, but not like the kind you see in movies. It's more… ripply. And at the middle is a young man. Younger than you. Taller, even, than Vayl, with full brown hair that keeps falling onto his forehead. He's snarling, which makes two deep dimples appear on his cheeks. He's standing in front of a tall oak door above which is hanging—"
"A pike with a gold tassel," I finished.
"Shit! Cassandra, that's Vayl's front door. And you've just described the kid who was ringing the bell."
"Did he answer?"
A shot rang out, tearing my heart in two. Jack growled menacingly, already on his way down the final set of steps. I glanced into the well made by the turn of the stairs from second to first floor. Yeah, I could jump it. So I did, landing on another one of Vayl's overstuffed sofas. The impact sent me rolling into the walnut coffee table fronting it, knocking it across the hall into a case full of antique knives. I raised my arm, protecting my face from the shattering glass.
Not knowing how far the glass had scattered, I protected my bare feet by jumping back onto the couch. Then I took half a second to assess the situation.
Twenty feet from me, at the other end of the hall in front of the open door, Vayl lay in a spreading pool of blood, the bloody hole in his forehead a result of the .38 Special lying on the floor. There were two reasons the young man kneeling over him wasn't still holding it. He needed both hands for the hammer and stake he now held poised over Vayl's chest. And Jack's teeth had sunk deep enough into his right wrist that by now he'd have been forced to drop it anyway.
Only a guy as big as this one wouldn't have been thrown completely off balance by a full-on attack via 120-pound malamute. Despite the fact that a hundred pounds of the guy was weight he didn't need, his size had kept him off his back, though it hadn't allowed him to recover his balance enough to counter with the stake in his free hand. That would change if I didn't reach the scene in time.
I jumped to the outer part of the stairs, holding the rail to keep from falling as I cleared the fallout from the display case. Another jump took me to the floor. Five running steps gave me a good start for a spin kick that should've caught the intruder on the temple, breaking his glasses in at least two places and taking him down so hard he'd be dreaming before his head bounced. But unless they're drugged, people don't just sit and wait for the blow.
He pulled back, catching my heel on his nose. It broke, spraying blood all over his shirt and Jack. His glasses flew off, hitting the wall, but remaining miraculously intact. And it didn't take him down. In fact, it seemed to motivate him. Desperation filled his eyes. He ripped his hammer hand out of Jack's grip, though the bloody rips in his forearm would hurt like a son of a bitch when his adrenaline rush faded.
Afraid his next move would be a blow to my dog, I lunged at him. I was wrong. He threw the hammer at me, forcing me to hit the floor. I rolled when I felt his shadow loom, knowing the worst scenario was me pinned under all that weight. But it never fell on me. I jumped to my feet and began to unholster Grief, though the last thing I wanted was to kill the bastard before I found out who'd sent him.
Still, I was too late. The intruder had retrieved his revolver and was aiming the barrel at my chest. He'd probably hit me too if he squinted hard enough and held his breath long enough to stop shaking. The only positive I could see was that I stood between him and Vayl. For now.
Jack growled menacingly and began to approach the man, his fur standing on end so that he looked like the miniature bear he sounded most like when he vocalized.
The gun wavered as the man said, "You tell that dog to stop, or I will shoot it."
"No, Jack," I said. "Sit."
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2011
- Page Count
- 336 pages