To be filed under the category of "Shit Just Got Crazy": Alexia Blackburn bled from a gash in her knee, and she was sneaking into a mansion full of vampires.
Her pulse pounded like a kettledrum between her ears as she made her way down the hall of the king's mansion on tiptoe. In the early Sunday morning quiet, she willed her steps, her breath, and the clang of her heart to slow the hell down and shut the hell up.
Like a champ, she managed to find every creak in every floorboard down every square inch of the long passage to the gilded cage she called her bedroom. The sun had risen well into the sky by now. She could only hope all the bloodsuckers were nestled snug in their beds for the day.
An ominous click when the central air kicked into action made Alexia's ticker go staccato. She paused, hearing nothing but the rush of white noise as prickly agitation and a layer of goose bumps covered her bare arms. Her tank top and cargo shorts had been just fine outside in the sticky August air. Inside the royal vampire estate where they kept the lights down and the temperature meat-locker fabulous? Not so much.
A glance up and down the hall revealed an all clear, so she eased on. She had bandages in her bedroom, all shapes and sizes. When one lived with vampires, one learned not to walk around bleeding. These guys might prefer the blood of their own, but not tempting fate was safest. Okay, so not living with vampires was probably safest. A situation she'd been thinking she should change.
Her face burned. Dammit, she'd sworn she'd never let anybody trap her again. How was she even in this mess?
Something squicky and damp worked its way between her toes. "Ew." The blood had run down her leg and into her sock. A shiver hit Alexia full force, making her pick up speed. She had to get to her room.
Another floorboard groaned. She stopped, hating the way her adrenaline spiked. Twenty-five years old, and still sneaking in and out of the house like a teenager. Worse, she lived daily with the acute awareness that no place was safe. Not even home. Even where she lived, she couldn't follow her own rules. On the upside, lately hardly anyone even noticed her. Made the occasional field trip that much easier.
From behind Alexia came a creak that her amateur ninja skills had not caused. Fuck. A low, deep growl froze her lungs. "Alexia."
Okay, so maybe someone noticed. After all, there was Lee. That vampire had eyes in the back of his everything.
She shifted her backpack from left shoulder to right. Carefully, she turned to face her pseudo-jailer. Lee Goram, the king's asshole in command, glared from the dark shadows.
His otherworldly blue-green eyes shone brightly in the dim hall. His tall body stood large and imposing, even from a few feet away. The prominent features of his face, his strong cheekbones and full lips, appeared unusually sharp this morning. His anger at having found her sneaking in practically punched her in the stomach.
"Hey... you." She tried for casual cheerful, but it came out sounding wobbly. There was no way to pretend that she hadn't been caught. "You're up..." Late? Early? Morning would be late for a vampire. "How come you're not in bed?"
"Because you're not in bed." He pressed close then, moving swiftly with that crazy-fast supernatural vampire speed. In a second, her back met with cool plaster and her front met... him. His square chin, thick neck... wide, solid chest. "You're bleeding," he said. Listening to Lee talk was like getting buffed all over by a loofah in a hot shower. Abrasive and raw, but at the same time decadent and delicious.
Lee had a good foot or so of height on Alexia's five feet and two inches. She couldn't ever see his face dead-on. It wasn't until he stooped to inspect her knee that she realized exactly why his face looked so weird.
Fangs. Big, fricking long-ass daggers aiming at her from his gums.
Oh, sure, she'd seen them before. But usually those babies stayed safely inside his mouth, looking longer and sharper than the average canine but more or less innocent enough. And okay, God help her, sexy as sin. She'd never seen them so large and in charge on him before.
A tremor of unease tickled the base of her spine. "Uh..." She didn't know how to answer him in a way that wouldn't draw his wrath or make him tattletale to King Thad, so she did what she always did to ease nerves in lieu of alcohol. She cracked a joke. "You know, I thought my knee felt funny."
Lee's upper lip lifted into a wicked sneer, giving her a good, gleaming eyeful of one razor-sharp tooth. "Stop fucking around, Lexi."
Her stomach tightened, and another shiver shimmied from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. "I..." Oh my gawd, Lexi, get it together! She kept swearing to herself that she was over this dumb crush.
She exhaled slowly, her gaze bouncing from those hypnotic eyes that reminded her so much of tropical water on a sunny day to the furious set of his jaw, his severe buzz cut, and the tense bulk of his arms and chest. How could someone so menacing have such warm, inviting eyes?
Lee's body invaded her space, one searing hand on each of her shoulders. "You disappeared without a word. You stayed out all night. Now you come back injured and bleeding." Deep inhale. "You smell of alcohol." He took her chin in the crook of his thumb and forefinger. "This is unacceptable behavior."
Unacceptable behavior? She may have been here for her safety, but the badass mofo vampire routine was sooo last decade. She deserved to be treated as an equal in this place. "I'm not a child. I shouldn't need to ask permission to go where I want." She lifted her chin out of his grasp and crossed her arms over her chest. A little defensive? Fine. She'd challenge any gal staring up at two-hundred-plus pounds of pissed-off vampire muscle not to get defensive. Or... weak in the knees.
"You're under the king's protection. We can't protect you if we don't know where you are," he said as he pulled out his phone. He knelt before her and prodded at the cut with calloused fingers. "Sorry to wake you, Doctor." He spoke into the phone now. Great, now she was waking the proverbial neighborhood. Frickin' fabulous. "I've got Alexia here; she's in need of stitches. I'll meet you at her room."
Lee tugged her down the hall and Alexia raced to keep pace with the long strides of his powerful legs, even though each step made knifelike pain stab into her leg. "Look, I fell. It's fine. I'm fine."
"You're not fine. You need stitches." Medical wisdom from Lee Goram.
They arrived at her door. Alexia stood tall, meeting his stare even though the intensity of his disapproval hit her full force. She lowered her voice to a whisper, mindful of all the residents who slept at this hour. "Look, I hit an after-hours rave, okay? I just wanted to go dancing. Sometimes I need to be around other humans." She'd landed here, after all, because her BFF had turned out to be the vampire queen. But being buddies with a vampire out in the human world had turned out to be a different proposition from being a solitary human living in the vampire world.
No response from Lee. He knelt again, fingers sliding gently over her thigh as he studied her cut. Those insane fangs of his... A quiet rumble in his throat, and her cotton thong nearly burst into flames. "What did you fall on, a knife?"
She almost smiled, but anger still simmered in his aqua-colored eyes. "Jagged rock." She reached into her pocket for the black cord that had caught her foot. "I tripped on this thing. Out by the back gate."
Raised eyebrows. "Where did you find this?" His face darkened as he reached for the sueded string, covered with knots.
"Tied between the gateposts. The dirt from the road covered it up. You shoulda been there, I did a really epic face-plant." Still no laugh from Lee, so Alexia shrugged. "Stupid prank, I guess. Stoner teenagers." Kids around Ash Falls, Virginia, suffered from rich-with-too-much-liquor-and-free-time-itis.
Lee stopped with one hand still on her leg. "Did you mess with the string in any way?"
"Nuh-uh. No messing, swear." Really. Please. In a sudden moment of overwhelm, Alexia slapped at Lee's hand, backing against the door. God, if he kept running his fingers all over her, she'd lose her mind. When his body pressed close enough to share the heat from his skin and he touched her the way he was touching her now? Hard to remember Lee hated humans, and he only took care of her out of loyalty to the king and queen.
Distance was good. Distance was very good.
Hurried footsteps pattered up the diamond-patterned runner in the hallway. The doctor, coming to stitch Alexia's knee.
Lee glanced in Dr. Brayden's direction before licking his lips slowly and easing to his full, immense height. "Threats exist"-he raised his chin as he paused for breath-"that you can't begin to imagine. I need you to stay inside. Especially if you can't take an escort. Please." Then he departed, leaving Alexia alone with the doctor and his bag of tricks.
She searched for her voice in the wake of Lee's retreat, but found herself following the roll of his shoulders and the flex of his legs under his fatigues. Threats exist. That you can't begin to imagine. What the good hell did that mean? She'd seen the vampires' enemies, but she'd also learned they didn't usually go after a lone human unprovoked. And since when did Lee say "please" to anyone?
Alexia sighed. She'd been thinking for a while now that maybe it was time to leave the estate. Leave the vampire community here in Ash Falls for good. She didn't fit, and the proverbial walls were closing in.
Yes. She should go. Then she wouldn't be Lee's problem-or any vampire's-anymore.
"I told you to fight." Lee Goram threw two sweaty, young vampires to the dirt.
Next to the pit of grappling bodies, he glared down at the two recruits who had been circling carefully around each other, conserving their strength when they were supposed to be battling aggressively. Nearby, mud flew. The red clay pelted them all with stinging chunks. In the large clearing at the back of the king's estate, what would hopefully be their newest batch of fighters worked over and over to take each other to the ground.
These guys were all sturdy. Powerful. Determined. Brimming to the tops of their chunky skulls with potential. Yet in the sticky August evening, a chill of unease slithered through Lee's body.
In his pocket, the presence of the knotted black leather that had tripped Alexia weighed heavily.
No clue. She had no fucking clue what she'd stumbled upon. For the remainder of that previous day and night Lee had only avoided wringing the pretty little human's neck due to the number of other priorities on his plate. Priorities like kicking off their new round of training.
Even now, Lee's hands burned with the urge to grab hold of her and shake. Fuck priorities.
Alexia had carelessly ignored his requests that she stay indoors, convinced the daylight held no risk of evil. Now they all faced a severe threat. The knot work on that cord held meaning she couldn't know. A very old, very simple pagan magic turned wicked by its user.
Upon inspection, he'd found traces of blood on the cord. Old and dried, but familiar to Lee's sense memory nonetheless: belonging to a man Lee had believed he'd killed centuries ago.
An ancient evil had somehow been resurrected.
Lee growled down at one of the two males he'd pulled aside, the one who gasped for air as a cut leaked into his eye. "Are you too hurt to continue?"
"Then what are you doing? Get up, and fight. Until you can't, or until you're told to stop." As the young vampire struggled, Lee turned to the guy's opponent. "And you. Beyond this training ring, beyond the protection of the king's estate, do you think an opponent will back off and wait for you to recover if you get tired?"
The young male, marked with a number "four" on his shirt, stammered and went pale. Numbers were easier than names when you dealt with guys who might not last long enough to be worth the bother of getting to know them better. Things weren't looking too good for number four. Or his opponent. Given what Lee suspected, they had days at most to whip the guys into shape, and from there on out, the "training" would be trial by fire. The ones who raised doubts would go home.
To take on what lay ahead, they needed to beef up their ranks. More foot soldiers, more elite fighters. Lee couldn't be sure how many guardian helpers his old enemy Haig had brought along or when he might strike, but they needed to be prepared for any possibility. Fuck knew the humans wouldn't be ready for the plague Haig had the power to rain upon them, wandering around out there like clueless bovine with their fragile immune systems.
In the midst of the chaos, Lee's mind went to Alexia. He pictured her wide, brown eyes and her blonde hair with hints of caramel the way he'd seen it dusting her bare shoulders the previous morning. That smooth, glowing olive skin of hers. He tried not to imagine her already diminutive body affected by the rapid onset of disease, but the visions came fast and unrelenting. His gut soured.
"Forgot what a dickhead you could be during training." King Thad spoke up from where he stood behind Lee, observing the trainees.
On the far side of the pit, trainee number twelve fired sparks from his hands. The instructions had been to fight without mercy, and there were no rules against using powers. An attack could happen that way in the field. But Twelve's opponent had slow reflexes.
Lee rose onto the balls of his feet, nodding. "Have to be. Most of them figure out how to deal with it eventually." Or they didn't, and those were the ones who didn't make the cut.
"Hell, if my whiny, entitled ass made it through, anyone could, right?"
Lee swallowed the shards of emotion in his throat. Thad had nearly been a brother to Lee before taking the throne. The closest thing he had to family. He was immensely proud of the changes he'd seen in the young leader in such a short time. "You were always going to succeed."
For a second they both turned. Lee caught the shrewdness of his king's stare. "I'm glad one of us had faith."
The burn in Lee's chest intensified. "I don't have faith in anything. Some things you just know." He pointed through the mess of bodies. "Like Twelve's partner over there is about to get his ass handed to him."
The two males in question wrestled on the ground. Twelve's knee dug into his partner's chest, his hands grabbed his opponent's throat. A crackle and pop fired from Twelve's hands, and then blood flew. Screams.
"There it is," Thad said quietly.
"Yep." Lee's gums throbbed as he pushed through the group. Happened at least once a session. Good teachable-moment shit. He handed a knife to Twelve. "Give him your blood."
Twelve went pale. "What?" The young vampire took a step back from his bleeding partner, pointing to the nearby training building. "There's a doctor and a whore from Blood Service who can provide for him right over there." In fact, the doctor and an unmated female from Blood Service approached quickly.
"Now. Or you are done. And speak with respect."
Twelve's jaw hardened.
"Do you refuse?"
When the kid took one uncertain step back, Lee drew the knife blade across his own wrist and held it above Twenty-Three's open gash, drizzling blood directly into the wound. Truthfully, Lee despised giving his blood to anyone. But this was an injured trainee and they all had to learn.
"First of all..." He boomed loud enough that his voice echoed in the clearing, but kept his stare fixed on Twelve, broadcasting his disapproval. "Those of us who are unmated rely on help from our friends in Blood Service to stay strong. Every one of their providers is someone's mother or daughter, brother or sister, father or son. Show fucking decency."
When the doctor signaled Lee had given enough, he licked closed the cut on his wrist and gave the doctor space. The injured kid might have to go with the female from Blood Service to get a full feeding, but they had her present for such a purpose.
"Second," Lee said, "there's always the chance you get stuck. With a severe injury, even a few miles back to home can be life or death. Your patrol partner is your lifeline.
"What I just did there was not a blood exchange as it would be between mates. That's like comparing CPR to kissing. Know the difference." He motioned to Twelve. "Turn in your gear. Thanks for playing."
The young vampire schooled his wide eyes and slack mouth. He spun away, muttering about unfairness through clenched teeth.
"I'm surprised he didn't argue more," Thad said. "I thought for certain he'd give you trouble."
"He still might." Lee checked his watch, then glanced up at the sky. Heavy clouds rolled across the half moon. He nodded across the way to his other lieutenants, signaling them to finish. "You and I should head to the mansion," he said to Thad. "Check on Isabel. Review strategy." The tension of the first royal birth in a century needled everyone's nerves these days, and now of all times.
Thad nodded. "You're certain about this threat?" He shook his head. "I just can't imagine so many deaths being caused by one asshole."
"That cord came peppered with Haig's blood. I'm certain." Centuries later, Lee still remembered the smell of the blood that had originated one of their planet's greatest plagues. After all, he'd had the vile stuff slicked all over his skin. Splattered in his nostrils. "I'm surprised your father never told you about him."
Thad tightened his jaw and said nothing. The late king had tried to leave many secrets buried in the past. The past did not like to stay buried.
How had Haig survived? Lee had cut the righteous piece of shit open and set him on fire, for Christ's sake. Had seen the motherfucker burn alive with his own preternaturally enhanced eyes. He'd spent the past twenty-four hours asking himself whether or not he could have been mistaken, but in his gut he knew the answer. This meant a fight the likes of which their kind had forgotten to fear could come at any time. The likes of which humankind would never expect.
Jesus... Alexia. She could easily wind up one of the casualties if Lee didn't stop Haig in his tracks. If he didn't keep her sheltered and inside the fucking estate. Lee insisted to himself that this only mattered because she was Queen Isabel's best friend. He pushed away the dread that tried to settle in his gut.
His chest and arms ached. As he and Thad traversed the estate grounds in the direction of the mansion, he flexed his fingers and rubbed the back of his neck, putting on a show as if the tension of training caused him discomfort. Thad walked a few steps ahead and seemed not to notice. Good.
The heartburn-like soreness had been a dull constant for many months. Lee hadn't bothered with seeing a doctor. No point. His last mission... He'd made it out alive, but nobody knew how close he'd come to death. How much his body had resisted. A vampire his age should have centuries remaining on earth, but in his core he knew what lay ahead. His body no longer functioned as it should.
Lee would fix this once and for all. Find Haig, kill him, and tear that sanctimonious monk into fucking confetti. Make sure the slaughterer stayed dead this time. See Thad and Isabel's heir into the world safely. With hope, the stupid human cattle would never be the wiser.
Then, he could die in peace.