While Merit didn’t choose to become a vampire or Sentinel of Cadogan House, she vowed to fight for her House and its Master, and she’s managed to forge strong alliances with powerful supernaturals across Chicago. But even though Merit has had wild adventures, this may be her deadliest yet....
A killer is stalking Chicago, preying on humans and leaving his victims with magical souvenirs. The CPD hasn’t been able to track the assailant, and as the body count rises, the city is running out of options. Vampires and humans aren’t on great terms, but murder makes for strange bedfellows. Can Merit find the killer before she becomes a target?
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He stood beside me as cameras flashed, a man with a long and lean body, deeply green eyes, and golden hair. He wore shorts, sneakers, and a long-sleeved shirt that snugged against the tight muscles of his torso. His hair, which normally brushed his shoulders, was pulled back in a queue, and around his neck glinted the silver pendant that marked him as a Cadogan vampire.
But he wasn’t just a vampire. Ethan Sullivan was Master of Cadogan House.
Even in running shoes, hands on his hips as he stood beneath the yellow arch that marked the starting line, a clock counting down to zero a few feet away, his Masterdom was undeniable. He looked nothing less than a leader of his people.
He glanced at me, an eyebrow arched in his usual imperious expression. “Sentinel. You appear to be enjoying this a little too much.”
I pulled my long dark hair into a ponytail using the elastic on my wrist, my long bangs across my forehead. I was also dressed in running attire—a Cadogan House Track shirt, midcalf running tights, and shoes in eye-searing neon orange that made me smile when I looked at them. But the apparel wasn’t just fun; it was functional. It had to be if I was going to achieve my goal: beating Ethan Sullivan to the finish line.
“It’s not every day I get the chance to best you in front of an audience.”
Ethan snorted, a glint of amusement in his eyes. “I don’t plan to let you best me, Sentinel. But I’m prepared to make it interesting.”
There was heat in his eyes that nearly made me blush. But since we had an audience, I held it in. “How interesting?”
“Dinner. Of the winner’s choosing.”
As a lover of food, I didn’t hesitate. “Done.”
“I wasn’t finished,” he said with a sly smile. “Dinner of the winner’s choosing—in the apparel of the winner’s choosing.”
“I do enjoy seeing you in jeans,” I countered. He generally preferred fancy to casual, but even he couldn’t run in a refined French suit and Italian loafers. But if the look in his eyes was any indication, he hadn’t intended denim, leather, or wool.
He only snorted in response.
It was March in Chicago, and the air still carried the chill of winter. But spring had nearly broken winter’s hold, and a thousand people stood on the sidelines to watch the Cadogan Dash, a race we’d organized to raise money for Chicago’s food bank.
I was the House’s social chair, and I’d been reminded recently about the importance of giving back. So I decided a charity event was just the thing, which was why we were standing in Grant Park on a brisk spring night, preparing to run three miles with a few hundred friends. While Malik, the second-in-command of the House, stayed behind (and separate from Ethan for succession purposes), others gathered in their running gear for a little friendly competition. Luc, the Cadogan guard captain, with his dark blond locks. Connor, a young vampire of my class with the easygoing personality of casual wealth. Brody, a new Cadogan guard with mile-long legs that were probably going to come in handy tonight.
But that didn’t mean the race was just fun and games.
Times had been tough for Chicago’s supernaturals, but humans’ attitudes had seemed to improve over the last few weeks. Ethan had been cleared of charges he’d killed a vampire in cold blood; it had been obvious self-defense, since we’d been attacked at Cadogan House. My grandfather, Chuck Merit, was once again the city’s official Supernatural Ombudsman, helping vampires, shifters, River nymphs, and the like with their various problems. And once again, the fickle pendulum of human emotion had swung to love. Sure, there were vampire detractors. Vampire haters. Vampire conspiracy theorists. But there were also members of the Ethan Sullivan fan club.
Most of the human spectators who’d crowded behind the barrier wore T-shirts bearing Ethan’s image and I HEART ETHAN buttons. But much to my surprise, Ethan wasn’t the only Cadogan vamp with fans in the audience. There were a few fans carrying hand-painted I HEART MERITsigns and wearing #1 SENTINEL T-shirts, which was cool, if a little unnerving.
A woman on the other side of the barricade held out a glossy eight-by-ten photograph and a permanent marker. “Ethan! Ethan! Can I have your autograph?” Her face was flushed with excitement, her eyes wide with promise.
“Your fans await,” I said with a smile.
“You’re my favorite fan,” he said, and in full view of the cameras, spectators, and news vans, he kissed me.
By the time he straightened again, my cheeks were pink and Ethan’s admirers were screaming with gusto. Apparently it didn’t matter whom the golden god kissed—the sight of him kissing was enough to send them into a frenzy.
Given the look of intensity in their eyes, I doubted they’d have felt any compunction about kicking me out of the way to get a little closer to him.
“Go ahead,” I told him. “Go see your admirers. Sign some autographs. It’s good PR for the House.”
He slid me a glance, smiled. “Not concerned one of the fans will try to sweep me away with words of love?”
“Oh, they’ll try to sweep,” I said. “But I have no worries you’ll come back to me.”
His smile was meltingly handsome. “Because I love you without measure?”
“Of course,” I said.
Also, I had the car keys.
We needed the good PR while we could get it. I had a sinking suspicion the tide would turn again; humans always looked for scapegoats. Supernaturals made easy targets.
Humans weren’t our only problem. Cadogan House had recently left the Greenwich Presidium, the European council of vampires that ruled European and North American vampires—but we hadn’t left behind the drama. The GP was a hot mess. Some council members hated our House; others hated humans. It was an organization generally out of touch with the modern world.
And Ethan, who’d moved forward to commune with the crowd, was petitioning to take charge of it. He’d filed the paperwork a week ago. Which was awkward, since the GP already had a leader—Darius West, a powerful vampire whose unfortunate involvement with an American serial killer had stunted him emotionally, an impressive feat for an immortal. After ensuring the House and its finances were in order, Ethan announced his candidacy, and we’d heard nothing in the interim.
Darius had options. Vampires loved rules, and the Canon, the volumes of vampire law, laid out three official responses to Ethan’s “Honorable Challenge.” (Vampires also liked capitalizing things.) According to the Canon, Darius could give back snarky words, a response “by Wit,” which I imagined would have been something like “Bring it” or “You just got served.” Darius could challenge Ethan to a duel, presumably by katana, since that was the favored vampire weapon, or by “account of All Houses,” which basically meant that Darius could call out all the other vampire Houses to gang up on ours.
He hadn’t done any of those things yet, and the silence was more unnerving than an outright attack would have been. In the interim, Ethan called the Masters of the Houses that allied with Cadogan—whose insignia were mounted above the Cadogan House door—shoring up his support.
We’d decided to move forward with the race, but we were certainly, obviously keeping a close eye on Ethan. Because I was Sentinel of the House, his safety was one of my priorities. And I had allies in the crowd: my grandfather’s employees—Catcher Bell, a sorcerer, and Jeff Christopher, a shifter—as well as the undercover members of the Red Guard, an organization of vampires created to keep watch on the GP and the twelve American vampire Masters.
Catcher’s girlfriend and my non-vampire best pal, Mallory Carmichael—a sorceress in her own right—stood with Jeff and Catcher, her blue ombré hair in a high topknot, a small Cadogan pennant in her hand. She waved the pennant at me, her blue eyes smiling, and gave me a very enthusiastic thumbs-up.
The RG members wore Midnight High School T-shirts to indicate their affiliation. They included my tall, handsome, and auburn-haired RG partner, Jonah, who stood near a woman vigorously shaking her décolletage at Ethan as he signed autographs. I gave the woman the stink eye, but her gaze skimmed right over me. I wasn’t the object of her affection.
“They just pretend we aren’t here.”
I chuckled at the vampire beside me, a woman with a blond ponytail, hot pink shirt, and black running tights that skimmed her long legs. She was Lindsey, one of Cadogan’s guards and Luc’s sweetheart. And Luc had plenty of fans of his own, men and women who giggled each time he flipped his tousled curls out of his eyes. From the cheeky grin on his face, he didn’t seem to mind the attention.
“The humans or the vampires?” I said.
Lindsey snorted. “Good question. I’m not sure Luc could pick me out of a lineup right now. Especially not when she’s showing off the kids.” She nodded toward a woman with pendulous cleavage and Luclicious tattooed in black script across her chest.
“He’s never going to stop talking about that,” I agreed.
“At least you have your own fans. There’s one very delectable man who hasn’t taken his eyes off you. Your two o’clock,” she said, and I glanced casually over.
He had dark skin and a shaved head, a sprinkling of goatee beneath his generous mouth. His eyes were wide set and deeply brown. There was a small crescent-shaped tattoo near the corner of his left eye.
His gaze was direct, curious, and focused on me.
I looked back at Lindsey, mouth open. “He is stunning.”
She nodded. “See? Fans of your own. As long as Ethan doesn’t see him and beat him to a bloody pulp for staring at you, we’re good. And even if he does,” Lindsey said with a grin, stretching out one calf, then the other, “your backup fan club is right over there.” She gestured to the Ombuddies, as we called Jeff and Catcher.
“They aren’t fans; they’re family.” Maybe not genetically, but certainly in spirit. And, considering Catcher’s YES, I HATE EVERYBODY T-shirt, despite their personality quirks.
“Besides. They’re on the job.”
“Speaking of, any twinges?”
Vampires preferred to fight with katanas, and my own weapon had been tempered with my blood, giving me the ability to sense other weapons nearby. I’d mentally calibrated my senses to ignore the hidden blades carried by the RG members, and thus far, the crowd was clean.
“Nope,” I said, scanning the bystanders, who smiled and snapped pictures. “All’s well so far. Hopefully it will stay that way.”
Lindsey snorted. “Darling, we’re vampires. It will definitely not stay that way.”
An unfortunate but valid point.
“All right, runners,” said the race director through his bullhorn. “We’re less than a minute away from the start. Please get ready.”
“Good luck,” Lindsey said, squeezing my arm. “We’ll be right behind you.”
I nodded. “You, too. Keep a sharp eye.”
She winked. “The sharpest.”
Ethan joined us, retying his hair with a bit of leather cord, and we moved to the front of the pack of runners, who were stretching their hamstrings and turning at the waist to loosen up.
He smiled at me, and I pushed down a bolt of lust that speared through me—and kicked up my heart rate better than any warm-up session.
Ethan leaned forward, elbows and knees bent. “Ready, Sentinel?”
“Always,” I said with my own cocky grin. I rolled my shoulders, mirrored his stance, and prepared to move.
“Dinner will be poulet à la bretonne,” Ethan said, an obvious threat that I think involved French chicken.
“Hot wings,” I countered, and Ethan shuddered.
“Go!” said the race director, and the shrill blare of an air horn filled the air.
I pulled up every ounce of strength I could manage and jumped off the line, inching out steps ahead of Ethan and trucking it down the street. Vampire strength varied. Some vamps were superstrong and superfast; others were barely stronger than humans. Fortunately, I was both. And so was Ethan.
I’d decided to make an aggressive start, to push out and try to get an early lead on him. I had to hope I could keep up the pace and wouldn’t run out of steam before the finish line.
Two blocks down the road, I realized that might have been wishful thinking. He was taller than me, with longer legs, and as strong and fast as they came. He matched my pace, sidling alongside me with determined eyes and an easy smile.
Boeuf bourguignon, Ethan silently said, activating the mental link between us.
Tater Tot casserole, I challenged. He wouldn’t beat me at that game. I was tall and trim from years of ballet and my vampire metabolism, but I knew food the way Ethan knew investments and European shoes. I could match him threat for threat without breaking a sweat.
A good thing, as the run was accomplishing that pretty well. We moved like machines, each joint and muscle moving precisely and so quickly our bodies blurred.
I couldn’t see the rest of the pack, but I could hear them behind me—the front-runners bunched a few yards behind us, apparently content to let Ethan and me battle for the lead.
And battle we did. He wasn’t going to give me this win, or submit to a dinner of chip-laden casseroles or meats on sticks. But he hadn’t made a weak vampire; I wasn’t one to give up, either. I glanced at him, saw the sweat that beaded on his forehead, tightened my core, and moved. Even as I scanned the dark street for threats, I pushed forward.
As a pseudo member of the House’s guard corps, I trained every day, and I was pushing to inch ahead. Centimeter by centimeter, I took the lead, my blood pumping and heart pounding. Two feet, then three.
Members of the CPD perched on motorcycles blocked intersections, waving and whistling as we passed. The blocks sped by, the concrete and glass of downtown Chicago, the cafes and tourist shops. Humans lined the streets, some curious to get a look at us, and some with nastier signs that claimed our appearance signaled the end of the world. Since vampires had lived among humans since the dawn of time, the logic was disappointingly faulty.
We turned onto State, sped toward the Chicago River and then across the bascule bridge that crossed the road. Ethan was only a step behind me, probably on purpose, drifting in my wake to make his effort easier.
But I wasn’t interested in making it easier for him.
One mile passed, then two, in much the same way. My legs began to heavy and tire, but I ignored it, pressed on, pushed harder. Maybe it was wrong or childish, but I wanted to win. I loved and respected Ethan, but tonight I wanted to beat him. I wanted to blow past him at the finish, triumph in my victory, and celebrate with food so fried, battered, and processed that it was hardly recognizable.
We made our final turn onto the straightaway that led to the finish.
Eyes trained on the arch, I narrowed my gaze, using every muscle in my body to propel my feet along, faster, faster, faster.
But then I heard them, the fans screaming at the finish line. “Ethan! Ethan! Ethan!” They were cheering for him, hoping for him to win. Waiting for him to win. He was their superstar.
I wanted to beat him . . . but not nearly as much as they wanted him to win. My winning would be fun for me. His winning would be fun for all of them.
I gave myself a moment to grumble, to accept that what I wanted—to beat him well and thoroughly and make him eat midwestern casseroles until ranch dressing oozed from his pores—wasn’t anything I had to have.
I could give him this win, a victory for him and his admirers. A boost for his ego and a solidification of their fandom. Human fans weren’t something to take for granted. Although I could live without the fan fiction.
But, I thought with a grin, while I could give him the victory, I was sure as hell going to make him work for it.
And work he did. I pushed faster, increasing the pace, my feet pounding so quickly my toes went nearly numb. I heard his footsteps behind me, his fierce and labored breathing, the scent of his cologne rising from his warm and nimble body.
I waited until we were five feet away . . . then dropped back a step. That was enough.
Ethan snapped through the royal blue ribbon at the finish with me only steps behind him. The crowd erupted, cheering like the Cubs had won the pennant.
Chest heaving, Ethan glanced back at me, eyebrow arched, a grin pulling up one corner of his mouth. His body gleaming with sweat, he was quite a sight.
“I believe I won,” he said, all but beaming as he moved toward me, frantic women screaming his name. They might have been screaming—and offering to give him children and undergarments—but he kept walking toward me. In the bigger scheme of things, I had won.
He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Well done, Sentinel. It was a good effort.”
“I did my best,” I said, hoping my humility seemed genuine. Because inside I was reveling in the fact that I probably could have beaten him. And that was an accomplishment all its own.
“And now I get to eat fancy French food I can’t pronounce.”
“It’s never as bad as all that,” he said. “I’ll ask Margot for suggestions.”
Margot was the House’s chef. “No snails,” I said. “Or anything with more than four legs. And nothing that resembles a spider.”
“Your list is as curious as your palate,” he said, “but I’m sure she can come up with something interesting.”
“Congratulations!” said the race director, pumping our hands energetically before offering the race medals. The silver medals were shaped like the outline of Cadogan House, the ribbons wide navy blue grosgrain. I dropped my head while he placed the medal around my neck, then watched as he did the same to Ethan.
“Amazing show,” he said, but looked chagrined. “Do vampires keep records? I’d have done an official tabulation if I’d known—that was just so fast.”
“No worries,” Ethan said, glancing at the board that marked our final time. “We were fast. But there are faster vampires.”
“Well, in any event, damned impressive.” He pumped Ethan’s hand with enthusiasm. “If you decide you’d like to train, make a run at them, I’d be happy to work with you.”
“I appreciate that,” Ethan said, and the director disappeared to greet the others who’d crossed the finish line.
That was when I felt it: the telltale tingle of metal—of a gun—moving near us.
My adrenaline began to race, and time seemed to slow to a syrupy crawl—every movement exaggerated, every scent stronger, every sound louder. I scanned the crowd, looking for a flash of metal, a suggestion of danger. For something that explained the cold chill that was now slinking its way up my spine.
Ethan, I silently warned, moving in front of him. I felt his magic lift as he transformed from athlete to Master vampire and scanned the area. I also felt the irritated twinge of it. He was just alpha enough to be bothered that I’d shielded him.
A threat? he asked.
I’m not sure.
I sensed Luc and Lindsey move behind us. The weapon, whatever it was, kept moving, weaving through the crowd like a snake and sending goose bumps up and down my arms.
“Merit?” Luc asked.
The scene was perfectly innocent but for the lust that perfumed the air. For a moment I thought I’d imagined it, that I’d just misinterpreted the excitement for something more sinister.
But the feeling thrummed harder and louder, like the string on a bass had been plucked, sending uncomfortable vibrations through my chest. I caught movement, quick and malicious, in my peripheral vision and, when I looked back, caught eyes trained in Ethan’s direction.
“A weapon,” I said to Luc, gesturing toward the crowd where the magic lurked. “Get him into your car.”
They’d keep him safe, I told myself. That was the plan we’d worked out. But a plan was one thing, and real life was something else. Fear and anticipation mixed with the adrenaline that rose at the thought of a possible battle, and there was little doubt my eyes had silvered, a sign of vampire emotion.
Luc took Ethan’s arm, began to pull him away . . . and that was when the sound of gunfire filled the air.
“Go!” I screamed, shoving Luc and Ethan back and crouching low as a dark and shiny muscle car squealed forward through the darkness, scenting rubber into the air. The car hopped the curb, moved without hesitation toward the arch that marked the finish line.
Shots were fired from the car—two, then three. Humans screamed and dropped out of the way and toward cover; Luc and Lindsey moved Ethan back to Lindsey’s SUV.
I stepped directly between them and the vehicle. If the driver was aiming for Ethan, he’d have to go through me first. Literally and figuratively.
I let my fangs descend, locked my knees to keep them from shaking, and stared back at the car with all the ruthlessness I could muster. That’s not to say I wasn’t afraid—I was staring down a lot of horsepower and a driver with an agenda. But fear, I’d learned long ago, wasn’t an excuse.
Just like my existence wasn’t an excuse for the driver to stop the car. He raced forward, and I forced myself to stay where I was, even as my heart raced, even as I imagined the blow and waited for impact.
But I would be damned if he’d get through me.
He was close enough that I saw the whites of his eyes—then he wrenched the wheel to the side, skidding the car to a grinding halt, sending gravel into the air and waves of magic toward me.
The side of the car stopped inches away, blowing the bangs from my face and giving me a look at the driver through the open window. The eyes, the goatee, the ink.
It was the man who’d watched me in the crowd, the one Lindsey and I had thought was a fan. But his interest, apparently, wasn’t for me.
“If he knows what’s good for him,” the man said, his voice deep and lush, “he’ll stay in Chicago, and out of London.”
I’d expected vitriol about vampires being in Chicago, about our gall in holding an event on a public street, not the opposite threat. Since the GP was in London, the threat was obvious. The source wasn’t.
“Who are you? And why do you care what he does?”
“I’m the messenger, and he should heed the warning. If he doesn’t back off, he’ll regret it.”
He lifted the gun, the barrel trained on me, as if punctuating the threat. Just like his gaze, his hand was utterly steady. We stared at each other for a moment that stretched and lengthened like pulled taffy.
In that drawn moment, that slow interlude, I saw his finger move and felt the sudden heat, the concussion of air from the primer’s ignition. I spun to the ground, my hair whirling around me, fingertips grazing across cold, wet asphalt.
The bullet whizzed over my shoulder, high and to the left. It would have missed, even if I’d been standing.
The steady hand, the steady gaze, the ability to park that car on a dime, and he’d missed the shot?
I whipped my head around to look back at him again.
“Bang,” he mouthed, fangs glinting at the corners of his mouth.
With the ear-piercing shriek of rubber on asphalt, he peeled away and onto the road again.
Sirens exploded through the darkness as police cruisers stormed up the drive and after the car. And just like that, the chase was on.
* * *
A sorceress and her retinue of vampires—which included Jonah and the runners from Cadogan House—rushed toward me.
“Jesus, Merit!” Mallory put her hands on my arms, squeezed, looked me over. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I assured her, giving Jonah a nod, although my hands and knees shook with built-up adrenaline and fear. But I made myself keep standing. “I’m okay. What about Ethan? Where’s Ethan?”
“He’s fine,” Brody said. “They’re on their way back to the House. Luc took the long way home. Didn’t want to get stuck on the freeway.”
Where they’d have been sitting ducks. Good plan.
“And Malik?” I asked.
“At the House, and he’s fine, too. Kelley and Juliet are with him—and they aren’t letting him out of their sight.” They were the two remaining Cadogan guards, good and experienced. “Kelley said there’s been nothing unusual there. Maybe this was someone showing off?”
I made a noncommittal noise. This wasn’t a vampire showing off; this was a vampire trying to make a very specific point. “We’ll see,” I said.
Christine, a lithe and pretty vampire, stepped forward. She wore workout gear in vibrant shades of purple, and her sable hair was pulled into a perfect ponytail. Her makeup was also perfect despite the three-mile run; she looked like she’d just stepped out of an ad for VitaBite, Blood4You’s new line of vitamin-enhanced drinks.
“What should we do?” she asked me.
I glanced around. A few of the human spectators had been injured in the chaos, and Catcher and Jeff helped the CPD calm and stabilize them while waiting for the EMTs. And with Luc and Ethan gone, I figured that made me the Cadogan vampire in charge.
I gestured toward the human crowd. “Mallory, Brody, why don’t you give Catcher and Jeff a hand with the humans?”
Mallory nodded, squeezed my arm, and set off at a jog. Brody followed.
I looked back at the rest of the Cadogan vampires. They weren’t guards or staff, but House civilians. They needed to get to safety.
“For now,” I said, “until we figure out what’s going on, get back to the House. That’s the best option until Ethan gives us orders.”
At least I hoped it was the best option. But they agreed without argument, nodding and pulling off racing bibs as they headed for vehicles or the El.
That left Jonah and me alone together.
“Merit, what the fuck was that?”
“It was about the GP,” I said, looking up into his worried blue eyes. “The driver said Ethan had to stay in Chicago and out of London.”
“Jesus,” Jonah said, eyes wide. “Did you recognize the driver?”
“He was in the crowd—I saw him before the race. Vampire, no obvious accent, presumably someone who doesn’t want Ethan to challenge Darius. But he said he was just the messenger.”
“Because he works for Darius?”
“Maybe. Or for someone who has a vested interest in control of the GP—and doesn’t think Ethan would be sympathetic.” I scanned my mental list of the other eleven Houses’ Masters; the driver didn’t match any of them. But he did have one noticeable feature.
“The driver had a crescent-shaped tattoo near his left eye. That mean anything to you? Symbolize something vampirey?”
“Is ‘vampirey’ a word?”
I just looked at him.
“Sorry,” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “You’re not the only one who uses sarcasm to cope. Unfortunate tendency.”
“My tendency isn’t unfortunate. And I’ll take that as a no.”
Jonah nodded. “That’s not a marker that’s familiar to me. There are some Rogue subgroups on the West Coast who use ink to mark their lack of affiliation.”
“Very. But they’re the only ones I know of. Anyway, I can check the RG archives. That’d be the way to go.”
“The RG has an archive?”
He rolled his eyes. “As partners go, you’re not terribly impressive.”
“Thanks, darling. I appreciate you, too.” But the comment hit home. Most RG partnerships were intimately close—physically and emotionally. I couldn’t offer that kind of relationship to Jonah, but I hadn’t been great with the business end of things, either. I always seemed to be dealing with some vampire drama or other.
“Don’t take it personally,” he said, knocking me playfully on the shoulder, a grin in his almond-shaped blue eyes. “We knew when you came on board that you’d be a different kind of guard.”
I blinked at him. “I really want to discuss that at length, but maybe at a more appropriate time.”
“You need to go back to the lighthouse,” Jonah said. “It’s past time.”
I couldn’t argue with that. The RG was headquartered in the lighthouse that stood sentinel at the harbor in Lake Michigan. In the several months I’d been an RG member, I’d visited only once.
“You have my word. Although it might be hard to get away right now, all things considered.”
Jonah’s phone rang. He pulled it out, checked the screen. “That’s Scott. I need to get back to the House. I’ll message you tomorrow.”
I nodded, watched him walk away.
“They lost the driver.”
I glanced behind me, found Catcher moving toward me from the group of bystanders. I didn’t mistake the grimness in his voice. “You’re kidding me.”
“Unfortunately not. He ditched the vehicle, and the CPD lost him on foot in Little Italy. They’re canvassing the neighborhood. Maybe they’ll get lucky.”
“Maybe,” I agreed, but I didn’t think so. He was a vampire, and probably stronger and faster than the uniforms.
“The forensic unit’s on the way,” he said. “They’ll check the car, grab the bullet casings, see if they can get fingerprints. Maybe they can match the weapon to another crime, get us an ID.”
I nodded. “Maybe. The driver was a vampire. He was here for Ethan. Had a warning to pass along,” I said, and told him what the driver had said.
Catcher’s brow knitted with concern. “Is Ethan safe?”
“Last I heard,” I said, but I pulled out my phone to check for an update and found the waiting text: EAGLE HAS LANDED.
“He’s home,” I confirmed, the band of tension across my shoulders easing just a bit.
“Well, that’s something. Good thing he was out of here before he could see you play chicken with a few thousand pounds of American-made steel.”
I grimaced. I wasn’t sure Ethan had missed my stand against oncoming traffic, but I was pretty sure I’d know the second I put a toe in the House again. He’d be furious if he’d seen.
On the other hand . . . “When your body is your only weapon, you use it.”
Catcher smiled, and there was a tiny gleam of pride in his eyes. He’d been my trainer before Ethan, the first man who’d taught me to stand, to fall, and to bluff.
“I couldn’t agree more. You did good.”
“I tried. But I’d rather have stopped him here than know he’s still out there, whoever he is, waiting to cause trouble.”
“You know how these things go, Merit. He’ll probably cause trouble again, and you’ll get your chance to square off again.”
That was exactly what I was afraid of.
* * *
Catcher, Jeff, and I stayed until the vampires had gone back to their Houses and the humans who’d been injured—six of them—had been taken care of. And then we answered the CPD’s questions. The detectives who interviewed us were polite but wary; they knew my grandfather, respected him and his long career in the CPD, but weren’t thrilled about supernatural violence spilling onto their streets.
Not that I could blame them. I was relieved to be back in my car and on my way back to the House.
Cadogan House was three stories of white stone, plus a basement of offices and training rooms. It sat in the midst of lush grounds in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and the décor was as fancy as the vampires who filled it. Subtle colors, fine fabrics, gorgeous wood.
I parked in the basement—a gift I’d earned for driving a silver confection of a car—then headed upstairs to Ethan’s office. I found him waiting with Luc and Malik, the House’s three senior staff. Ethan and Luc still wore their running clothes and race medals. Malik, tall with pale green eyes that offset his dark skin and closely cropped hair, was the only one dressed in the Cadogan House uniform: a slim-fitting black suit, crisp button-down, no tie.
Luc and Malik were seated in the office’s sitting area. Arms crossed, Ethan was in the middle of the room, pacing its length. His gaze flashed back to mine, body stiffening as he looked me over, checked me for injuries. He exhaled when he realized I was whole, but that didn’t stop the imperious arch of his eyebrow or the burst of magic that lit through the room.
I guessed he’d seen my standoff.
“I’m fine,” I assured him, stepping inside the office and closing the door. “He drove off, led the CPD on a chase. Abandoned the car and got away on foot.”
He walked toward me, clamped his hands on my arms. I saw the battle in his eyes—fear warring with fury, pride with concern.
I’m fine, I silently assured him. I’m worried about you.
Christ, Merit. He moved his hands to the nape of my neck, pulling our bodies together, touching his lips to my forehead. We’ll discuss this at length when we don’t have an audience.
So I had that to look forward to.
He kissed me again, released me. When I realized my sudden dizziness wasn’t just the result of adrenaline and magic, I walked to the bar inset in the long wall of bookshelves and grabbed a bottle of Blood4You. I’d earned it.
I popped the cap, drank the blood in seconds. It wasn’t until I’d finished it that I realized the blood had a strange, piney aftertaste.
I glanced at the bottle, brows lifted when I saw that I’d just imbibed a bottle of Cantina Lime blood. Who was coming up with these flavors? Not a vampire with good taste, certainly.
I put the bottle in the recycling bin and glanced back at the group, which watched me with anticipation.
“Big night, Sentinel?” Luc asked with a smile.
“Long night,” I agreed, and sat in one of the empty chairs. I glanced at Ethan, who still watched me warily. “Six humans injured, half of those when people rushed to avoid the gunshots. Most of the injuries were minor. And as it turns out, the driver was a vampire with words to say—and a message to pass along to you.”
Ethan’s eyes widened, and he moved closer. “Oh?”
“You should stay in Chicago. Give up your plans for London. Otherwise, you’ll regret it.”
Fury flashed in Ethan’s eyes again. He wouldn’t have appreciated the message or the delivery.
“Someone doesn’t want you to challenge Darius,” Malik said.
“That list is undoubtedly long and distinguished,” Ethan said, but his voice was tight.
“Darius himself?” Malik asked, and Ethan shook his head.
“Darius is many things, but cowardly is not one of them. And only a coward would attack unarmed civilians in order to get to me.”
“In fairness,” I said, “I think he tried to get to you.”
Ethan’s look was bland. He wasn’t pleased by the reminder—or the fact that I’d been the one to step between them. “You’re likely correct,” he said. “And strategy or not, a phone call would have sufficed.”
“Any idea of the source?” Malik asked, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands linked in front of him.
Ethan made a vague sound. “Beyond the long and distinguished list? No.” He glanced at me. “No mention of specifics? Of who was sending the message?”
“None. Someone in Chicago, maybe, since they had someone on the ground, knew about the race?”
Ethan frowned. “Scott wouldn’t care. Morgan might, but this isn’t his style.”
Morgan Greer was the newish Master of Navarre House. Scott Grey was the Master of Grey House, and Jonah’s boss.
“I’d tend to agree,” Luc said, then glanced at me. “The driver look familiar?”
“No. He’s not a Master, or anybody I recognized.” I gave them the basic physical description, and he wasn’t familiar to them, either. “He did have a tattoo—small crescent moon near one eye. Does that ring a bell?”
Ethan and Malik shook their heads, looked to Luc. “No, but we can search for it. Maybe it signifies something. Group symbol, maybe.”
“Do that,” Ethan said. “And check the tapes. See if the car—or the driver—has been near the House.”
Luc nodded, and a heavy silence fell. “Do you want to make a response to the threat?”
The unspoken question was easy enough to catch: Are you sure you want to go through with this? Stay on this path, which is clearly fraught with danger?
“No response,” Ethan said. “We do not, as they say, negotiate with terrorists.”
Luc stood, resignation in his features, and scrubbed his hands through his curly locks. He’d been supportive of his Master’s candidacy, but less thrilled that his colleague, his friend, was putting himself in danger to lead an organization no one respected. But that, I guessed, was part of the reason Ethan was doing it: to make it the organization it could be.
“You’ll need a guard when you leave the House.”
Ethan didn’t turn around. “No.” His tone brooked no argument. “We knew there was a possibility someone would make an attempt.”
“And now they have,” Luc said. “So we step up our game.”
“This won’t be the first or the last threat against me.”
“No,” Luc said, “but most of those threats don’t involve gunshots in public places and playing chicken with our Sentinel.”
Magic rose in the room, peppery with anger. Ethan turned back, his eyes as cold as emerald ice. He got testy when faced with fears he couldn’t manage, couldn’t handle with strength, intelligence, political savvy. “You think I’m not cognizant of her welfare?”
Luc fixed his gaze on Ethan. “I know you’re cognizant of her welfare. And I trust that she could handle herself because of the above-referenced chicken playing. We weren’t sure if the GP was paying attention. It looks like they are. We have to be more careful. You have to be more careful.”
“I’m still in the room,” I pointed out. “Let’s not discuss me in the third person.” But they were too absorbed in their own struggles to notice.
“Merit is usually with me when I leave the House,” Ethan said.
“Then you’ll usually have nothing to complain about.” Luc’s voice, usually full of humor, was tight with concern.
“I am Master of this House.”
“I don’t think we’re confused about your position, Liege.”
“Hey,” I said, stepping between them, arms extended in case either of them tried to do something stupid. “We have enemies enough outside the House. Yeah, this situation sucks. But let’s not make it worse with infighting.”
“Yes,” Ethan said. “Let’s not.”
Luc strode to the door. “I’m going to take a shower.”
“Do that,” Ethan said, granting permission, but Luc was already in the hallway.
“He feels he’s to blame,” Malik said.
Malik’s brows lifted. “Perhaps. But it is his responsibility to keep you safe. You aren’t being especially cooperative.”
Ethan just looked at him.
Malik gave me a long-suffering look that I appreciated more than I should have. “Talk to him,” he said, then followed Luc out the door and closed it behind him.
I glanced back at Ethan, expecting him to be staring daggers at the door Malik had shut with a surprising amount of force and irritation.
His eyes were flaming shards of emerald . . . but they were directed at me.
“What did Ido?”
He gave me a pointed look, walked to the bar, and poured amber liquid from a crystal decanter into a short glass. He sipped it wordlessly, his eyes still on mine, and still fierce.
It wasn’t often that Ethan needed time to compose himself. The fact that he needed it now nearly had me sitting down. He loved me, I’d no doubt. But no one liked to face down an angry vampire.
And when he did speak, his words were cold and short. “You stepped in front of me. Correction: You stepped in front of a racing car.”
I paused, choosing my response carefully. “It’s my job to protect this House, even if that means putting myself between you and danger. I stand Sentinel.”
“I am well aware, Merit, of your position in this House. I won’t have you take blows intended for me.”
“You took a stake that was meant for me,” I pointed out, and I’d grieved for months when he’d been gone. “I’m not going to stand by and let someone take a shot at you.”
He cursed gutturally in what I thought was Swedish.
“If you’re going to yell at me, do it in English, please. I’d like to understand the insult so I can frame an appropriately pithy response.”
He looked back at me, eyebrow arched, but one corner of his mouth twitched. It was a good thing he appreciated sarcasm, since it was usually my first response.
“I am Master of this House,” Ethan said. “It’s my job to protect my vampires.”
“Respectfully, Ethan, stop reminding us of your job. We know you’re Master. We don’t doubt it. We do exactly what we’re supposed to do—protect you.”
“You’re my world,” he said, putting down the glass. “You’re mine to protect.”
“And I’d say the same thing about you.”
His eyes went hot again, and he stared back at me from across the room, magic roiling off him in hot waves. “Will you stop being so goddamned stubborn?”
I kept my eyes on his, my tone even. “No. Will you?”
“I want to keep you safe.”
“And I want to keep you safe. I did keep you safe,” I pointed out. “And still no thank-you for that.”
Ethan pushed his hands through his hair and walked to the other end of the room, where he stared out the giant picture window, shoulders stiff. Before dawn, automatic shutters would come down, leaving the office in vampire-friendly darkness. But for now, they offered him a view of the House’s grounds.
He stood silently for a moment before glancing back at me. “I’m afraid you’ll be hurt. Afraid you’ll be targeted.”
“Why would they target me?”
“Because I love you. Because love, to some, is a weakness. A pressure point. Because I would give up anything for you, including the GP. And because I don’t mean to give up either.”
I went to him without hesitation, stepped into the arms he extended.
“I love you,” he said, wrapping his arms around me.
“I love you, too. But love or not, my job is to protect you.”
“Then maybe I should reassign you to the library.”
I laughed. “Sullivan, we crossed that bridge a long time ago. You’ve made me—trained me—and there’s no going back.”
“Still waiting on that thank-you,” I cheekily said, since we’d broken the ice.
He smiled, rubbed a thumb along my jaw. “Did you know your eyes darken when you’re serious? From cloudy sky to deep, dark ocean.” His gaze went absent as he scanned them, his green eyes tracking across my gray-blues. “So much there. Dedication. Honor. Love.”
He was skilled enough to flatter, but the depth of emotion in his eyes told me he was being sincere. My blood began to hum at the passion in his eyes, from the soft kiss he pressed to my lips.
“That’ll do for thanks,” I quietly said, pulling the reins on my hormones.
“Oh, Sentinel.” He put his arms around me again, enveloping me in comfort and his crisp-cotton cologne, then rested his head atop mine. “What am I going to do with you?”
“For starters, a shower.”
“I didn’t mean that exactly.”
I leaned back, gave him my sultriest expression. “Oh,” I said. “But I believe you did.”
We shared the Master’s apartments on the House’s third floor. A sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, and gigantic closet large enough to be a room itself. It was like a permanent spa retreat: beautiful, luxurious, scented faintly like cologne and hothouse flowers.
I walked into the bathroom and wasted no time peeling off my clothes and dropping them on the floor, leaving me naked but for the Cadogan pendant around my neck.
The bathroom was colossal, with a lot of warm stone and a giant soaking tub. But it was the shower that I wanted, with ample steam and water. I set the temperature of the various sprays, waited until the water was near boiling, and stepped inside.
The sensation was delectable. Every muscle relaxed, goose bumps of pleasure racing along my skin. And when Ethan stepped behind me, naked and tall and impressively aroused, things only improved from there.
But that didn’t staunch my humor.
“Oh, François,” I breathily said. “You’ll have to hurry. My boyfriend will be back soon.”
Ethan grunted and slipped his arms around mine, pulling him tight against my body. “My desire is impatient,” he said in a French accent that was surprisingly believable. “It will not wait, and damn your boyfriend.”
I turned to face him, wrapped my arms around his neck, and caught his bottom lip gently between my teeth. “Then by all means, François, let’s get to it.”
* * *
Wrapped in a thick, white robe, I emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later decidedly more relaxed than I’d gone in.
But I s topped in the doorway, scenting the air.
“Something wrong?” Ethan asked, stepping behind me, his voice low. I felt the rise of his magic as he awaited my response.
“Hardly.” I followed my nose into the sitting room, found on a side table a tray bearing silver-domed plates, bottles of Blood4You, cups of fruit, and gold-wrapped chocolates. I lifted one of the domes, found a set of folded tortillas spilling with fragrant, spicy pork.
Suddenly starving, I glanced back at Ethan, who watched me with amusement.
“You ordered dinner.”
“I expected you’d be starving,” Ethan said. “So I asked Margot to bring this up.”
“Why do people always think I’m hungry?”
“Because you’re always hungry.”
“Well, I did run three miles today.”
“Hardly a formidable exertion for a vampire.”
“Exertion enough.” I plucked up a plate, bottle, and silverware and carried them to the sitting area, where I took a seat and began to nosh.
The tortilla was delicate; the pork, as expected, was delicious. Margot was an amazing cook.
But then my smile faded, and mortification colored my cheeks. “Margot brought this in while we were having sex.”
Ethan smirked. “Probably.”
I closed my eyes. I was not an exhibitionist and had no interest in other Novitiates hearing anything of my intimate moments with Ethan.
“Sentinel, the vampires of this House are not naive. I strongly suspect they know what goes on behind these doors.”
Since we’d shaken the House’s foundation with sex and magic, that was undoubtedly true. “Still,” I said, but managed another bite of dinner, my appetite unburdened by embarrassment.
Ethan sat down beside me, plate and bottle in hand, then flicked something beneath the coffee table. With a low hum, a portion of the table lifted smoothly up on hinges to meet the plate he held out. He sat it down, then whipped the napkin into his lap.
I stared in amazement. “How long has it done that?”
“For the entirety of its existence.”
I gave him a dry look that he ignored, but he flipped the notch on my side of the coffee table. Like magic, the table on my side lifted as well.
“Magic,” I said, inordinately happy that the fancy piece of European furniture turned into a TV tray.
“I am a man of many talents.”
I grinned, arranged my plate on the raised surface. “And apparently some of them don’t require nudity.”
A peaceful silence fell, and we ate quietly for a few minutes. But there was still a thread of tension in the air.
“You’ll have to talk to Luc,” I said.
“He’ll be sullen.”
I smiled, speared a chunk of pineapple. “He’s already sullen. It will only get worse if you treat him like he’s not equipped to handle this. He’s captain of your guards, after all. Just go down there and talk to him.”
He looked up, staring blankly into the room, and sighed.
I pierced a grape, held it up for him. “Fruit?”
“Somehow that makes me uncomfortable.”
I bit it toothily.
“As does that,” he said. “Perhaps we should change the subject.”
“All right,” I said. “What’s new in Masterdom?”
“You know,” I said, gesturing with a fork. “All of this.”
He smiled lightly. “Well, our portfolio is underperforming. I’d prefer a return much higher than we’re getting right now. But I can move things around a bit, remedy that.”
“The House will appreciate it.”
“Not the House’s portfolio,” he said. “Ours.”
Ethan chuckled. “It hasn’t escaped my attention, Sentinel, that you cringe every time I mention our future.”
“I don’t cringe. I only cringe when you pretend-propose.” He had a penchant for going down on bended knee—and straightening a hem or helping me with a shoe. “Nobody finds that amusing.”
“I find it excessively amusing. You do realize, don’t you, that the proposal won’t always be fake?”
I looked up at him, found there was no mistaking the earnestness in his eyes. We’d been Master and Sentinel for nearly a year, but we’d been a couple for only a handful of months. It didn’t seem to matter to Ethan; he was utterly sure of me even after so little time.
Ethan sipped from his Blood4You. “I love you, Merit. You are my future, and I intend to make certain you—and the rest of the world—know that, when the time is right. Why does it surprise you so much?”
I struggled to put the emotion into words. “It’s not surprise at you. It’s not doubt. It’s just—it’s just blossomed so fast. Four hundred years of dating, and you’ve made up your mind about me so quickly.” That didn’t even touch on the fact we’d been prophesied to have a child together—the first vampire child in history.
Something in Ethan’s eyes darkened, shifted. Not for very long—but for a split second, there was a cloud across his eyes. Because I’d mentioned his past? I knew there’d been women before, just as he’d known I’d dated. Once upon a time, I’d walked in on him with one of them, his former Consort, which had once been an official position in the House . . . a position he’d offered to me.
As if a breeze had blown it away, the shadow passed, and his eyes flamed green again.
“I made up my mind because we fit,” he said, reaching out to take my hand, to squeeze it. “You make me better, and I like to think I do the same for you.”
I thought of the awkward human, then vampire, I’d been, and the slightly less awkward vampire I was becoming. “It’s just—you were very unexpected.”
“That’s because you’d only explored one half of yourself, Sentinel. I merely gave you the chance to blossom. To be the person you were always meant to become.”
Tears rushed into my eyes, and I knuckled them away. “Damn it, Ethan. How do you come up with things like that?”
“I keep a notebook. I intend to make you mine, Sentinel. Not just for tonight, or for tomorrow, or for the decade. For eternity. And I’ll have my ring on your finger. I’ll have the world know that you’re mine. I suggest you get used to the idea.”
With a frisson of excitement speeding my heart, I decided I’d find a way to adapt.
* * *
We’d just finished the meal when my phone began to ring. I pulled it out, found my grandfather’s name on the screen.
“You made it home okay,” he said with obvious relief.
“We did. Anything new on the attack?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Chicagoland Vampires novels:
“A wonderfully compelling vampire heroine.” —USA Today bestselling author Julie Kenner
“[A] strong-minded, sharp-witted heroine who will appeal to fans of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse and Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake.” —Library Journal
“Delivers enough action, plot twists, and fights to satisfy the most jaded urban fantasy reader.”—Monsters and Critics
“If you loved Nancy Drew but always wished she was an undead sword-wielding badass, Merit is your kind of girl.” —Geek Monthly
“Chloe Neill keeps readers right on the precipice of anticipation.”—Fresh Fiction