|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)|
Read an Excerpt
"It's a monstrosity."
Valerie Craig agreed with her companion's sentiment wholeheartedly, not exactly thrilled about entering the remote mansion in front of them. She spared Graham a quick smile despite the falling sensation in her stomach.
"You say that every time we come here," she said.
She felt clammy and wilted like a cold, half-cooked noodle. The entire western half of Washington State often wore gloomy skies like a skin, but today the humidity exceeded Val's expectations. Graham didn't look disheveled in the slightest, each strand of his thick brown hair perfectly aligned as usual and nary a wrinkle in his crisp charcoal slacks and vanilla button-up. He could have been a cover model. Amazing. Four dismal hours out of Seattle along winding roads into the Middle-of-Nowhere Mountains and he looked as fresh as the minute they'd left the office.
Val angled the rearview mirror toward where she sat in the passenger's seat of Graham's Prius and took a last-minute peek at her reflection. She grimaced, brushing the smudges under her eyes with her fingertip. Even her makeup sagged under the humidity and perspiration coating her skin.
"Stop, V. You look beautiful."
"Eye of the beholder, Graham. You're too nice to be honest."
No one in their right mind would call her once wavy-golden tresses — that now hung in ropy tendrils — beautiful. Sustaining an impeccable appearance was easier for Graham. He bordered on pretty, with the face of an angel that hosted long, dark lashes, a sculpted nose, and high cheekbones with a slightly cherubic roundness to them. He hadn't broken a sweat once during the humid drive. She wasn't sure Graham could sweat.
Val took another minute to blot at her eyeliner and renew her lip gloss, but she was only stalling. Then again, the vampires they were calling on were nothing if not fastidiously snobbish, thus necessitating the attention to her makeup meltdown.
Steeling herself, she stepped out into the misting rain and peered up at the three stories that contained the source of her dread. As dismal as the clouds, the mansion towered over them like a weathered sentinel. Slate-gray stone ended in jagged spires at the top of each corner, the sharp angles stabbing into the sky. Occasionally, a sliver of stained glass interrupted the structure's flat planes, but aside from the slivers and a few balconies, the place was windowless. It made sense, considering who lived — or rather existed — within.
They were about to enter an upscale coffin.
Graham nudged her with his elbow as he reached her side. "Come on, Val. Buck up. It's just a building."
"It's not the building I'm having issues with." What awaited them inside was worse. Much worse. She shook her head. "I'm fine, Graham. You know I always get a case of nerves before I go in. It'll settle."
"You think they'll blow us off?"
"Of that I have no doubt." Her shoulder lifted in a half shrug. "But we've got a job to do. We have to give them a chance to fix the problem before we can consider taking drastic measures with them."
"I can't believe I get to come in this time. I'm about to meet royalty face-to-face." The touch of awe in his voice earned him a scowl. As one of very few who knew of her antipathy for vampires, he should've had the courtesy to put a leash on his excitement. Instead, he acted like an eager groupie.
"You've talked to them before." Val tried to keep the irritation from her voice. "Besides, royalty and politicians mean the same to me. Overindulged, overpaid, overglorified, and any other over-word you want to add."
With a sharp tug on his sleeve, she steered him along the cobbled, oval drive toward the dramatic steps leading to the entry.
"How many times have you seen them in person?" He only half listened for her answer as his gaze roamed the estate, his interest caught by the topiaries lining the driveway. She snorted indelicately.
"Too many to count. They're creepy. Just be prepared and show no fear or they'll take it as weakness. They'll tread all over you." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Coming to the mansion in person was akin to walking a minefield. She always expected a blast if she made the wrong move. "All right. Let's go in."
Val schooled her expression into a professional mask as they ascended steps wide enough to park a car on and reached the titanic double doors. Graham ducked in front of her and tapped the wrought iron knocker against the slab of blackened timber. He was enjoying this entirely too much. She pinched him in the side. His startled grunt told her she might have pinched a little too hard.
Without a hint of squeak, the door swung wide to reveal a slender pole of a man with slightly sunken cheeks, wispy white hair, and a gray undertone to his skin. A walking corpse. The upper-caste vampires, Immortalis Dominorum, and their vampire followers, the Immortalis Legio, were always well fed, giving them an unnaturally healthy glow. This man had to be a human subjugate not yet worthy of transformation.
Some subjugates were never found worthy and were left to waste away, waiting for an everlasting reward that would never transpire. Hardly fair, considering these desperate humans were approved for transformation by the Dominorum only to discover their probationary period often ended in death — which is exactly why she and Graham had come to the mansion.
She'd fought for more than two years to restrict or eradicate transformation altogether, and Congress had appointed her vice director of a small team of Vampire Liaisons. That simple title came with a whopping perk of legislative influence she had every intention of using, hopefully without anyone at the VLO figuring out her intentions.
Wordlessly, the man led them through a narrow entry into a grand foyer. A high dome rose a dizzying thirty feet above their heads. Dual stairways curved along the walls on each side, climbing to a lofty, second-level landing. Most of the guest rooms were on that floor. They were opulent. She'd taken the full tour upon her first arrival over a year before, but Graham gawked openly at the luxurious black marble floors, glossy mahogany railing, Tiffany crystal chandeliers, and all the other glaring displays of decadence along the way. Personally, she found it frigid. The textures and colors exuded sterility and the chill in the air gave her goose bumps. It even smelled cold.
"Psst," she whispered. "At least close your mouth and quit drooling."
He flashed a smile. "It's gorgeous."
"A monstrosity, you said."
"Changed my mind."
They passed through the arched entry under the landing and stopped in a sitting room decorated in gaudy black and deep crimson. Gold accents around the room reminded her how grossly rich, and therefore powerful, the oldest Immortalis were. Massive portraits lined the walls, each highlighted by a lit sconce beneath its heavy frame. The miniscule lights casting shadows around the portrait edges and the stark darkness of the walls didn't give her impression of menace any relief.
The gaunt man gestured toward one of the long settees and left the room. His behavior didn't seem strange considering what he was. In fact, he fit right in. With each encounter of a subjugate, she wondered why they'd chosen to become a vampire. It wasn't like vampires were automatically rich and powerful and sexy. Humans came out of the transformation, if they survived, much the same as they went in. What could make anyone wish for that excruciating, morbid transformation?
Especially her ex-husband, Will.
"What's wrong?" Graham stroked a stray lock of hair away from her cheek, his touch tender. "You seem far away."
"Sorry." She perched at the edge of the couch, her fingers smoothing over the velvety crimson upholstery.
Graham's lips thinned into a disapproving line. "Don't think about him."
"I can't help it. He's partly why we're here."
"He's not the man you married and not the man I befriended. That man no longer exists. May as well think of him as someone else."
"You're right." She took his hand and pulled him to the seat next to her. "I'm glad you're here."
She evaded his attempt at eye contact. He'd developed feelings beyond friendship for her, but it was a one-way street. She could never look at him without seeing her ex-husband's best friend. And the man who'd revealed Will's betrayals. All of them.
When Graham opened his mouth to speak, she silenced him with a swift jerk of her head. They weren't alone. Two figures moved toward them, their motion liquid. Both vampires appeared to be in their late twenties or early thirties, but Val knew the couple to be much older.
The woman's hair tumbled in lustrous auburn waves past her waist, her delicate face like beauty incarnate, with creamy smooth skin and pouty lips. Her body, elegantly displayed in a clingy, floor-length gown of soft teal, was lean and sleek with generous, perky breasts. It was false advertising. Vampirism didn't get her those looks. Evangeline had been born physically perfect — and human. Just as the male, Olen, had been.
Olen, his spine straight and his shoulders back, wore an autocratic air with apparent ease. Though barely half a foot taller than Val's five-foot- seven inches, he seemed to peer several feet down his straight nose at her. Fine lines graced the corners of his eyes, although she'd never seen the vampire smile. His black hair had grayed prematurely at his temples before he'd turned.
Olen's impact came from his eyes. Their dark red coloring didn't impede the keen edge of intelligence that hit like armor-piercing bullets. She felt as if he could see into her soul. He tipped his head slightly toward her, sending a stab of ice down her spine.
Graham, the sociable one, normally would have been the first to extend a greeting, but he appeared struck dumb. She stood to address their hosts.
"Olen Rex, Domina Evangeline," she said. "Thank you for seeing us. This is my associate, Graham Fischer. Graham joined the Vampire Liaison Office two months ago. He has prior experience working with the governor as an attorney and private consultant."
"I recall we've spoken several times. Lovely to meet you in person, Mr. Fischer." Evangeline's voice swathed his name in a sexy rasp. "Welcome."
The vamp's ruby-eyed gaze fixed on Graham with too much interest for Val's comfort. Evangeline's sensuality cranked to high volume reduced her friend to a giant walking gland that would end up being useless to their cause. Perhaps that was the vampire's intent. If he kept this up, she'd have to neuter him before he could come back again.
Evangeline's red lips curved into a knowing smirk. The vampire most likely smelled Graham's physical arousal, and Val wanted to jettison his traitorous body back to Seattle at Mach ten speed.
"What brings you to us in such dreadful weather?" Olen asked.
Of course he knew what brought her, but he liked to play games. After nearly two years, the game had become tiresome.
Val cut straight to the point. "There's been a rash of bloodings."
If the thought of depraved vampires rampantly sucking humans dry caused the vampires alarm, they hid it well.
Heartless. She caught her tongue between her teeth, fighting the bitter words aching to get loose. When they didn't respond, she added, "And a sharp increase in derangements over the last two months."
Deranged transformations were illegal, even among the Immortalis Legio, commonly known as the Legion. No self-respecting vampire would lower themselves to transform a human not approved by the Dominorum. A sudden increase could only mean the Dominorum hadn't been enforcing the law and capturing the greedy vampires as they were supposed to.
"Unfortunate," Olen replied. For all the concern he showed, he could have been talking about the Seahawks game last weekend. "We make every effort to curb unruly Legion citizens and prevent harm to humans. Are you certain the bloodings are authentic?"
Val's eyes widened, shock and fury vying for domination. "Are you implying the VLO can't tell the difference between a blooding and a copycat?"
"Certainly not," Evangeline cut in, still smiling. Val hated that smile. Only a sociopath could sport that cat-with-warm-milk smile when they were talking about murder. "We only want to avoid pointing fingers at innocent citizens."
There was nothing innocent about vampires. They shouldn't even exist, although Val could never utter those words publicly and expect to keep her liaison position.
"No one wants to make false accusations," Graham said, "but only a vampire could have caused these deaths."
Ah, he speaks.
"So you come to us expecting the Dominorum to solve your homicide cases for you?" Olen arched a haughty brow.
"This problem isn't ours to solve alone, Olen." Val concentrated on smoothing the emotion from her face. There was no way in hell she'd let him know he was getting to her. "They were perpetrated by some of yours."
"Or by a rogue. The Legion follows the dictates of the Dominorum." Olen's lips settled into a contemptuous smirk. If he were to acknowledge one of the Legion vampires as suspect, it would be a step closer to admitting transformation was a problem. If all transformations became illegal, the Immortalis would lose considerable power over human society. Transformations were their biggest commodity.
"Perhaps the Dominorum is losing control over the Legion." Val kept her voice low and steady and her expression placid as she dug into his sense of pride. Her knees went weak at the risk of pushing him too far, but she'd be damned if she'd return to her seat while the vampires stood over her.
Olen's eyes flared with inner light before he composed himself. She was glad she'd brought Graham, despite his earlier lapse in good taste. It wouldn't be a stretch for her to disappear, the victim of a mysterious accident on the way back to Seattle.
Evangeline turned to Olen, her head tilted to the side. When Olen met his mate's gaze, Val's fine hairs stood on end. The air charged with restrained energy as the two vampires spoke telepathically. After a few silent, tense minutes, Olen's attention settled on Val.
"It is in our interest to punish any Legion who may be violating Dominorum rule. In light of the possibility the murderer may not be a rogue but one of the Legion, we offer you a liaison to smooth over any ... bumps you encounter with the Legion when questioning them."
"A liaison? As in only one? You want to give us a desk jockey and no enforcement officers?"
This time Evangeline's smile exuded wicked delight and grew broad enough to expose her fangs. Even Olen, the one who never smiled, had a look of smug amusement.
"You need someone with Immortalis jurisdiction to find the killer you're looking for, even to eventually discover that the killer is simply a rogue," he said.
There were too many derangements in such a short period of time to be caused by one rogue.
"Yes, Ms. Craig, we'll give you one vampire. Once you meet him, you'll see one could never speak his name and the word only in the same sentence."
Something in his tone put those icy fingers back into her spine. "Do I know this vampire?"
"No. He's not particularly inclined toward politics." Olen's strange inflection gave her the impression he'd made an inflated understatement.
"Who is he?"
"A last name," Val noted. "He's young then. Will the Legion obey him?"
Evangeline laughed. "Oh, they'll obey. He's an adjuvant."
Val's face tightened. Adjuvants were the ultimate bane of her existence, the only vampires capable of turning humans and supercharged with extraordinary strength, speed, and abilities. No good could come of working with a creature like Kade Rollins.
"Find someone else." Amazed she'd kept her voice steady, she willed Olen to rescind his choice.
He didn't even blink. "Your liaison is Kade. By the time you reach Seattle, his contact information will be at your disposal. Keep in mind that he's one of ours. He is not your minion." He cocked his head in thought. "Although I doubt you'll have any trouble remembering that."
The pair turned in unison, walked out through the archway, and disappeared down the hall. Val and Graham had been dismissed.
As they started for the foyer, the walking corpse appeared on cue to lead the way. Val sensed the tension humming in Graham. At least he waited until the massive door boomed shut behind them before he spoke.
She sighed, wishing she wasn't about to hear the veneration in his voice but knowing she would nonetheless. "Let's go. I can't get away from here soon enough."
"Wow. They were something amazing. Did you feel that — their presence?"
"Graham." She peered at him like a bug under glass. "Stop. What you're doing, what you're thinking. Just stop. They're the bad guys you know."
Excerpted from "Bad Mouth"
Copyright © 2013 Angela McCallister.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.