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Sam Ralston shed his robe, tossing it to the floor. He'd done so a thousand times, in many contexts. Most involved women.
This time, however, he was staring at a wall of knives. They were eight inches in length, set about four inches apart, each point aimed straight out like the quills of an angry porcupine. In the half light, the blades gleamed softly, stainless steel polished to the understated efficiency of a showcase kitchen. The wall of blades blocked the room from end to end, leaving only a narrow gap near the ceiling.
Getting over the wall was his first challenge. Sam gave a derisive sound that wasn't quite a laugh. It echoed oddly in the otherwise bare room, adding nothing to the gray-on-gray atmosphere.
Trust La Compagnie desMorts to come up with an obstacle course designed to shred the runner right at the start. Everything that came after would be painful in the extreme, even for vampires.
But Sam was one of the Four Horsemen, La Compag-nie's crack unit named after the riders of the Apocalypse: Death, Plague, Famine and War. Units like theirs were called in after the CIA, the FBI, MI5 and all the rest of the international alphabet soup had failed to get results. Then they swept in and saved whatever needed saving.
As jobs went, the hours were bad but it was never boring.
Sam was War, and he was better than any trial the Company of the Dead could dream up. He'd proven it, mission after mission. Nevertheless, the Company put all their operatives to the test every so often, which was why he was standing in their Los Angeles facility, wearing nothing but running shorts, sneakers and fangs.
He flexed his knees and leaped. The gap was too narrow to land on top of the wall-that would have been far too easy. Instead, Sam caught the edge with his right hand, forcing himself to pause in a kind of one-armed pushup before he swung his feet onto the ledge. He felt the muscles in his shoulder and stomach bunch to hold his weight. The maneuver was almost perfect, but one blade kissed his left calf, leaving a trail of blood to snake down his leg and into his shoe. He cursed, mentally docking himself a point.
Without pausing at the top, he flung himself onto the mat on the other side. Wooden arrows hummed through the air, whispering against the back of his neck, skimming his chest right above the heart. He rolled, grabbing a SIG Sauer from the rack on the wall and taking out the two mechanical bowmen within seconds. He dropped the gun, knowing there were only two bullets inside. Miss once, and he'd be staked.
Dispassionately, Sam scanned the room for the next course on the menu. The room was lined in more stainless steel, and he could track his movements in a blurry reflection. Dark hair, gray eyes, a body coiled more like a beast than a man. No more emotion than a machine.
He heard a door open, and an enormous wolf bounded forward. A werewolf, actually. Famine, one of the other Horsemen-but the fact they worked together didn't mean Kenyon would give him an inch. For the first time, Sam felt his stomach tighten. Everything so far had been a test of strength or coordination. Kenyon, on the other hand, had a very crafty mind.
The wolf stopped a few paces away, crouching with a warning growl. Pale gold eyes raked over Sam, sending an electric prickle across his shoulders. He growled right back, feeling the low rumble in his chest. His fangs were down, adrenaline bringing out his own beast. His calf stung from the knife wound, and he could smell the blood, the coppery scent almost, but not quite, like a human's. From the gray wolf's twitching nose, he'd noticed it, too.
Kenyon sprang. Sam leaped to grab the wolf in midair, twisting so that they both fell hard to the floor. Kenyon writhed, jaws snapping, hind legs slashing. Sam straddled the beast, the coarse hair rough against his skin. At the same time, he had the wolf's head between his hands, trying to immobilize him. They were matched for strength. Sam's only hope was to keep him off balance.
It might have worked, except Kenyon chose that moment to shift. The burst of energy sent Sam sailing backward. His back had barely hit the floor when Kenyon was on top of him, huge hands around Sam's throat, shutting off all air.
"Sucker," Kenyon gloated. A manic grin lit his Nordic features.
Sam replied with a hard right jab.
"Ungh!" Kenyon fell sideways, releasing Sam's neck.
Sam got to his feet and glared down at the werewolf, putting one foot across his throat. "Vampires don't have to breathe, remember?"
Kenyon rubbed his face and swore.
"Time." The voice came from somewhere in the ceiling. "Two minutes, fifteen seconds."
Sam grunted. Not bad. Not his best speed, but close. He held out a hand to Kenyon, who took it and pulled himself up.
"You're not even sweating," the wolf complained.
"Cardio only applies if you have a pulse."
Kenyon gave him a scathing look. He'd heal quickly from Sam's punch, but he'd have a black eye first. "I should have had you."
"Dream on, dog breath."
The door opened again, and this time one of the human technicians came running in holding Sam's cell phone. Sam exchanged a look with the wolf, seeing his own question in Kenyon's eyes.
The tech waved Sam's iPhone, a harried look on his face.
"For you. It's Death."
"Sam, I need you and the others at Oakwood pronto. Code whatever. Code the whole damned spectrum. Just get your butts over here."
Jack Anderson, also known as Death, threw the phone onto the seat beside him, needing both hands on the wheel. He should have been using the hands-free option, but driving with undue care and attention wasn't Jack's issue.
It was the jackass trying to make a hood ornament out of his Porsche that was the problem. Not that anything could outrun his silver Porsche 911 GT2 RS-or at least not here, on the back roads of Wingman County, where soccer-mom SUVs and handyman trucks ruled the two-lane highways. Except the car behind him was a black Mercedes SLS complete with a sniper in the passenger seat.
Jack navigated a sharp turn, hugging the cliff and ignoring the sheer drop to his right. A bullet punched through the back windshield and tore through the leather seat. Bloody barbarians!
He could have sworn the bullet had glinted like silver.
They know I'm a vampire. Jack stepped on the accelerator, taking advantage of a straight stretch of road to leap ahead. Then the downshift, left turn, and he was on the wooded road leading home.
The next bullet made a spiderweb of the windshield. Who are these guys? They were bad shots, or maybe just not up to Jack's standards. Sam would have taken out a tire and sent the car over the cliff. That was how you ended a car chase: one bullet, no fuss.
He'd picked up the yahoos on his tail about halfway home, just after he'd left the populated part of the coast. They'd started shooting as soon as he was on the treacherous cliff road and couldn't get away. Jack drove as fast as he could, but the twists and turns held him back. The fact that it was two in the morning and pitch-black didn't help, either. Vampire night vision only did so much.
Just like his so-called immortality had its limitations. He was hard to kill, but a silver bullet or a fiery crash could take him out. Whoever was behind this attack had done his or her homework.
What do they want? There were plenty of people who wanted him dead. Okay, extra-dead. Re-dead. Whatever. Which ones were these?
Another turn, this time to the right. Now it would be safe to jump out of the car, vampire-quick, but he was almost home. He could do it. He could beat them.
He could see the massive iron gate of Oakwood, his mansion with its handpicked security staff. Oaks flanked the entrance, huge, gnarled sentries. Thank God. Jack's heart leaped with relief. Safe.
Then, finally, a bullet took out the rear tire. The Porsche bucked and slid. Jack swore, one curse running into the next. He'd been going too fast, and.
Is there a problem, Ms. Anderson?" said the attorney, who was visibly sweating in his penguin suit of funereal black.
Is there a problem? Chloe mused, tears threatening to seep through her defenses. Let's see. My billionaire playboy uncle Jack wrapped his Porsche around the oak tree out front because he supposedly drank too much at the yacht club, and now our dysfunctional relations are circling like hungry raptors. And, oh, yeah, he named me executor. Fun times.
The sarcasm couldn't shut down the pain squeezing her heart. She already missed her uncle like crazy-but right now it was her job to be cool, collected and businesslike.
"No, there's no problem," she said in a tight voice, memories choking her until her words were little more than a whisper.
Thankfully, she hadn't been the one to identify Jack- his butler had done that honor before she'd even arrived at Oakwood. The faithful old servant had quit after that. She didn't blame him one bit.
Chloe swallowed hard, feeling faint as she unfolded the scrap of notepaper with the combination to her uncle's private wall safe. It was slow going because her hands were clumsy and sweaty. The cause wasn't nerves, exactly. It was more like her body's attempt to melt away so she wouldn't have to deal with whatever was behind that steel door. Opening the safe was like admitting Jack was gone. She didn't want to believe it.
What happened, Jack? Did you really drive home drunk? For a moment, tears blurred the numbers on the notepaper. It just doesn't make sense. None of it does.
For one thing, Jack was never a drinker. Chloe had told that to the police. They'd given her a pitying look, as if she were a rosy-cheeked innocent. In the end, they hadn't listened to a word she'd said.
Her tears dried as she felt a pair of steel-gray eyes boring a hole between her shoulders. Irritation flooded her, momentarily washing out grief and the daunting sense of responsibility thrust on her as executor. Is there a problem? Oh, yeah, there's a problem. The room is a thousand degrees, my feet hurt in these stupid shoes and that guy over there is giving me the screaming willies.
The guy in question was named Sam Ralston. He'd shown up for the funeral along with two of Uncle Jack's other friends. They were big, handsome men, pleasant, mixed with the other richy-rich guests well enough, but there was something off about the lot of them. Something other.
Who was Ralston to Uncle Jack? It was hard to say. Although she referred to Jack as her uncle, he was actually a distant cousin, and she'd never quite worked out his place in the family tree. Even though Jack had been her guardian after her parents' death, he'd not been around a lot of the time. At fourteen, it wasn't as if she'd needed supervision 24/7-at least not once the initial shock had passed. So, there were chunks of Jack's life she knew nothing about, Sam Ralston among them.
Jack had named him as the other executor, which was why he was here with her and Mr. Littleton, the family lawyer. Whatever was in the safe Jack had installed in his palatial bedroom would have to be documented as part of the estate, even if it was meant for Chloe.
Too bad. When she'd found out Ralston would be her partner in settling the estate, Chloe had actually shivered, as if someone had opened a refrigerator door right behind her.
"Do you need help?" Ralston asked, his baritone voice threaded with impatience. "No," Chloe returned.
"You know you need a key, too. The safe has a double lock."
"Got it." She turned and gave Ralston a look over her shoulder.
The view, at least, was no hardship. More than once, she'd found herself staring at him, her body clenching with an unexpected and unwelcome fever of desire. He was somewhere in his thirties, tall and hard-bodied, with thick dark hair combed back from a broad forehead. He had the kind of face advertisers of leather jackets and fast cars would have liked-strong bones, a few character lines, and a dark shadow of beard no razor could quite obliterate. His nose was blade straight, his lips full and sculpted above a slightly cleft chin. The set of his head and shoulders said he owned whatever room he was in, and the rest of the planet besides.
Yummy and forbidding at the same time.
At the moment, he was returning her glare with a face carefully scraped clean of expression-and yet every line of his body screamed "Hurry up!"
So what's the rush? she wondered. He'd been like this- barely repressed urgency-ever since he arrived.
A career as a wedding planner had honed Chloe's skills at reading people. Too many couples ordered an event based on what they thought was correct rather than what was in their hearts. Chloe was good at ferreting out the truth from a shared look, an inflection in the voice, a finger drawn down the picture of a fluffy white dress in a magazine.
Just like her gut said Ralston and his buddies might have fat wallets and Italian-cut suits, but they'd break heads just as easily as they tossed back their single-malt whiskey. Now he was standing a little to the side, just out of the splash of late afternoon sunlight pouring through the French doors- a shady guy staying in the shade.
Ralston shifted, making a noise like a stifled sigh.
"Cool your jets," Chloe said evenly. "Whatever's in here is what Uncle Jack left me."
"He already left you a nice bequest," Ralston pointed out.
Chloe cursed the lawyer for staying tactfully silent. She turned back to the safe and away from Ralston.
"Whatever is in the safe is going to be the interesting part." He sounded amused, the first sign of warmth she'd seen in him. "He liked his secrets."
"How do you know?"
"I know-knew-Jack." Now he sounded sad. She liked him better for it.
"How did you come to know him?"
He gave the same nonanswer he'd given her once before. "We hung out in a few of the same places."
Chloe began spinning the dial on the safe, her mouth gluey with unease. What was in there? Gold bars? The deed to a private island in the Caribbean? A stack of bearerbonds with tons of zeroes? Jack had possessed a Midas touch, turning every business venture into a wild success.
Poor Jack. People would remember his GQ style and his tragic death, but Chloe would remember him starting a game of hide-and-seek with her when she was six. He'd sent the care package of flowers and chocolate when her engagement had fallen apart. He'd always been there, a steady friend and the best of listeners in a world where people were too busy to slow down and truly care. Sure, he'd had money, but he'd always offered his heart, too. People-especially their family-had never stopped grabbing long enough to notice.
Chloe swallowed hard, her fingers fumbling with the dial. The safe lock clicked. She swallowed again, feeling as though she was gulping down the entire situation and it was stuck painfully in her throat. Blinking to keep her vision clear, she took the key to the second lock out of the pocket of her sleeveless, indigo sheath dress.
The key slid into the lock. Chloe turned it and then pushed down on the long handle. The safe opened on a silent glide of hinges. It was wide enough that she had to step back to accommodate the swing of the door.
The men were suddenly behind her, Ralston so close that she could feel his lapel brush her shoulder. The lawyer was a bit better about personal space, but she could sense him hovering. If curiosity had a frequency, theirs was vibrating high enough to shatter glass.
All three of them made a noise when they saw what was in the safe. There was nothing but a white box about eight inches tall and maybe four feet by three feet, with a note taped to the lid. Chloe reached in, pulling the note off. The clear tape made a ripping sound as it pulled a tiny patch of the box's white lid away with it. She unfolded the note and felt the men lean in as she read.