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Faith James wanted to fight what was happening. She wanted to shout expletives and punch somebody, but no one was in the car with her, and there was no time to stop and think about alternatives. She was a surgeon in a Miami hospital of merit, yet here in a remote corner of southern France she was out of her element, and feeling anxious.
Something felt off. And it wasn't just because she had left the last town of any notable size behind more than an hour ago. Her heart had been pounding for the past six miles of dusty one-lane roads. She had always been sensitive to feelings; almost supernaturally aware of things other people didn't perceive or care to acknowledge if they did. This gift was a boon in her work. A James family trait.
But jet lag tended to scramble everything up. Fear didn't help any, either, or the fact that bad feelings didn't come with a guidebook.
More to the point, it had become quite evident that some James females didn't cope well with the supersize sensitivity of others. Her sister, Hope, for instance, instigator of this last-minute, nerve-racking trip to France.
"What the hell, Hope?" Faith muttered, driving too fast in the dark, taking an impossibly tight curve in a slide of gravel. "What made you leave that tour? What were you thinking?"
It was too dark to see the slip of paper lying on the passenger seat, but that was okay. She had memorized the name of the person the French police liaison recommended to help her find her sister. Mason LanVal lived out here, in the middle of nowhere, a recluse no doubt as crusty as this bumpy road.
It may have been well past the civilized hour for a house call to a person who didn't even have the courtesy to own a phone, but she couldn't have waited until morning to find LanVal. Her sister had been missing for seven days now. Way too long. She didn't want to imagine what that might mean, and kept her mind from going there by getting angry.
"Damn it, Hope. Where the hell are you?"
She swiped at the prickling sensation on the back of her neck, a subtle warning that at this time of night, in pitch-dark, with the forest canopy blocking out everything but the blue sweep of her headlights, she shouldn't have come here alone. Even for such a dire cause.
Her body was telling her this.
Vibrations surfed the bare, bronzed skin of her forearms. She wasn't breathing properly, couldn't get enough air. It was as if the trees used up all the oxygen they produced with none to spare, and every now and then she got a noseful of damp, alien greenery that nearly made her choke. Her knuckles ached from her tight grip on the steering wheel.
This place was everything Miami wasn't. Dark. Remote. Unfamiliar. Underpopulated. Hell, that was an understatement, she thought, since the area didn't seem to be populated at all.
"And it's too damned quiet!"
Other things lived here, of course, if people didn't. Not the kind of animals found on bustling Miami boulevards in fancy cars, but real animals. Furry creatures that kept darting out of the way of her tires, causing her heart to lurch. She felt that spike in her heart rate again now as her tires hit another pothole. Cursing, she glanced up and caught a glimpse of something large in the headlights that she had to pull the wheel hard to avoid.
The car swerved, missed traction, spun. Darkness swirled in a vortex of flashing lights, followed by a terrible screeching sound. Heat slammed into her. She missed a breath.
Reeling, Faith wrenched the door open and was out of the car and running, without regard for the steaming rental, its hood tight up against a tree, its lights flickering as if they barely had any life left. She ran blind, into the dark forest, her mind grappling with what she'd seen in the headlights.
She'd seen her. For real, this time, not just wishful thinking about a face in a crowd. Hope's face had flashed in the light in this godforsaken place. Dark hair. White features. It seemed impossible, absurd, a miracle. Everyone in this part of France was looking for Hope James, and Faith had just stumbled on her by accident?
What were the odds of that happening? Still, she knew every expression on Hope's young face. She had seen them all as she watched her little sister grow up. It was a shame her own promise to look out for her rebellious sibling hadn't turned out to be so easy. But right now, nothing else mattered except finding Hope and making sure she was safe.
"Stop!" Faith shouted through air that seemed thinner off the road where the surrounding blackness greedily enveloped her.
Maybe she was hyperventilating.
Gritting her teeth, she took in sharp, earthy smells, part vegetation, part animal, that ripped her further from her comfort zone. It was a damned forest, for God's sake, the type of place she'd spent a lifetime avoiding.
Raw nerves were overheating and starting to burn as her legs churned. She tripped, righted herself and sprinted on. The word flashlight came and went, unhelpful since she hadn't thought to pack one and probably wouldn't have remembered to grab it if she had.
White face. Dark hair
What was her sister doing here, anyway, so far from anything, and even farther from home? Why would Hope be out at night in a place like this, whatever the reason for her disappearance?
"Hope!" she shouted again, ignoring the sting of barreling through low-hanging branches, and the ache in her left hip where she had rammed up against the steering wheel upon impact. Adrenaline was fueling her run, a jolt better than ten cups of caffeine, a rush she needed to get this far.
But questions continued to plague her as her fear escalated to near scream level, like why her sister hadn't stopped when she'd shouted her name. Hope would have recognized the voice of the sister who had raised her, even if she hadn't liked her much lately.
None of this made sense. But then, very little about her sister's life had made much sense lately.
Faith pressed on, her eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, her mind looping back to the glimpse of impossibly white skin against a swirl of glossy black hair, attributes so opposite from her own blond, tanned appearance that their mother had once described the James sisters as "Night and Day." Different from the beginning.
Hope had once clung to her big sister for support and direction, Faith remembered longingly, until teenage rebellion and hanging with the wrong crowd had severed that bond. For some time now, Hope had resented her older sister's accomplishments. The fact that Faith had been so busy with medical school had made matters worse.
Night and Day.
"Damn it! Where are you?" Faith called, her muscles twitching with uncertainty, her fear of densely wooded places pummeling at her with an intensity only those kinds of innate fears had.
There! A flare of white on black ahead.
Another wave of nerve burn hit Faith dead on, tightening her jaw to the point of real strain. The burn, the fear and the impulse to scream were all physical warnings, big red flags. That white patch ahead seemed an unnatural glow under the trees, and nothing like the illumination of a moonbeam or a lantern. The light ahead didn't feel light at all. It felt oppressive.
Chills overcame the heat flushing Faith's skin, leaving her icy. As she backed off her pace, the trees seemed to press closer, squeezing the rest of the air out of her. On legs like lead, she slowed to a walk, concentrated harder.
Warnings. Red flags.
Had something been wrong with that image of her sister?
Two more steps Utter freaking silence.
Then, without warning, pain came crashing in. Vicious, searing, blinding pain that was acute, unimaginable, unbearable.
Faith cried out as she collapsed in distress. An ominous vertigo caught her up in a tailspin as she hit the ground with ringing sounds in both ears.
Jesus. Had she been shot?
The pain was.
Thoughts fled, overpowered by a sudden odor of blood drifting upward. Acrid, metallic, cloying.
No mistake. She smelled this same thing every day at the hospital. Only this was her blood.
God. Hang on. Think!
Panic never helped anyone.
Her leg. The pain was radiating upward from her right leg. Reaching out with shaky fingers, Faith found a thick band of steel cutting into her, several inches above her ankle, slicing all the way to the bone. She hadn't been shot. She'd stumbled into some kind of old, rusty trap, the kind hunters set out for wolves and bears.
Hell, did they even have bears in France?
The scent of blood grew stronger by the second, flowing from a wound impossible to see clearly. The trap was like a vise, tearing into her with each frantic move she made to free herself. She'd been caught in a corroded, torturous device that civilized people in this day and age would protest as obscene cruelty to animals. Had someone forgotten about it? Left it here for years?
Desperate to stanch the flow of blood, Faith tore off her blouse. With the last of her frantic energy, she wrapped the silky fabric around her leg, as low down as she could reach, and tied the sleeves together to form a makeshift bandage. After that, even the horrors of how terrible this injury actually might be began to distance themselves. The act of breathing became a chore. Hissing at the thought of defeat with a flare of fiery anger, Faith looked up through eyes refusing to focus to see someone standing over her.
Real person? Hallucination, due to blood loss?
"One too damned many," a deep, almost growling voice declared as Faith fought, with no luck, for the ability to ask this stranger for help.
Mason had scented the blood easily, as others soon would. Particles of it wafted in the close summer air, a heady draw to an unmistakable spot, no GPS tomfoolery necessary.
One of the traps set by the bloodsuckers had been tripped, and they were bound to know about it.
Inhaling deeply as he walked, processing the scent, Mason picked up his pace, determined to get there first, knowing this particular catch would send the monsters into a frenzy. Female blood was a vampire delicacy. This catch was young, her fragrance more like the first blush of a fine burgundy wine than the usual saturation of copper and aluminum. The brightness of her scent caused his muscles to ripple with apprehension and his legs to carry him faster along the darkened path.
There was something else, he decided as he walked. Her scent had an unusual component he identified as similarity. He had come into contact with a related scent recently, in the blood of another female caught out here too close to this night to be coincidence. But that other female had been human. This one wasn't. Not quite.
This female's flavor held an undercurrent that seasoned the air with the taste of pepper. Humans didn't have anything in them to resemble that, which meant that his nasty neighbors would have a field day if they were to get their hands on such a unique specimen. There was no doubt about what they would do to her, beyond the torture of catching her in their filthy trap in the first place.
A strange female.
She was alive, Mason knew. Though badly injured, he sensed a spark of life curling within her. He imagined he heard her heart's fluttering beat. It wasn't surprising for him to sense a flickering life force. Immortality equipped him with highly sensitive internal modifications. He perceived every animal and beast within a quarter-mile radius, every living thing with blood in their veins.
He had freed so many creatures, both two-legged and four, from the traps lately, making sure to complete his rounds each night. Too many people had disappeared from the area since his ghastly neighbors had taken up residence in the abandoned chateau next to his own estate. People in the towns were starting to notice. Soon the authorities would be nosing around.
This female was icing on the bloody cake. Missing women tended to whip the public into hysterics. Two missing tourists in a row, and.
Mason frowned, cutting the thought short.
The female's scent intensified suddenly, balling into a solid wall of gut-wrenching awareness that brought him to a halt. His skin blazed with a telling lick of fire that heralded the rise of a long tamped down thirst. His fangs extended with a sound like a sigh, as if the woman in the trap was an open invitation, and so much more than a task.
But he wasn't like them. He was no bloodthirsty monster, the bane of present-day civilization. He hadn't acted upon his cravings in all these centuries gone by, not since drinking his maker's blood in order to become what he was.
Temptation had no part in the boundaries that defined him. Blood-celibacy set him apart, and kept him apart. Yet his fangs suddenly ached for a dip into dewy feminine flesh. For a sip of that fragrant blood-wine. Other body parts of him were rising to the wrong occasion, as well, excited, urging him to get to this woman, or whatever the hell she might be, with haste. His very soul seemed to react to the narcotic femininity perfuming the air.
Swallowing back his baser instincts, linking them to the crass reminder of how low his monstrous cousins, the blood spin-offs called vampires, had sunk, Mason started out again, way too attuned to what lay waiting.
All that blood in the air close enough now to reach out and touch.
He found her just yards away, in a blood-drenched clearing. She was sitting down, rocking back and forth, doubled over at the waist with her hands scratching at the iron contraption holding her. There was blood on the trap and pooled on the ground. The great iron jaws had snapped her right shinbone, below the knee.
He felt her pain, hot and terrible and pulsing outward from her in waves. The atmosphere was thick with the stink of trauma. Yet this female didn't cry out.
Mason settled his gaze on her with interest, able to see details clearly in the dark, eyeing the massive trap and its destruction with the knowledge that any decent hunter stumbling upon this kind of damage would have put the injured animal down.
This was, of course, no animal.
"One too damned many," he said.
Too many casualties.
She didn't appear to have heard him. She was shaking violently with her head thrown back and her eyes half-closed with pain. Her frantic hands moved over the bands, searching for a release trigger, finding none. The trap was so heavy it couldn't have been dragged an inch, even if she hadn't been injured so badly. But she hadn't given up. Not yet.