The year is 3048, Earth is no longer habitable, and man has ed to the stars where they've discovered the secret of immortality-Meridian. Unfortunately, the radioactive mineral is exorbitantly expensive and only available to a select few. A new class comprised of the super rich and immortal soon evolves. The Collective, as they're called, rule the universe.
Two-thousand-year-old Ricardo Sanchez, vampire and rogue pilot of the space cruiser, El Cazador, can't resist two things: gorgeous women and impossible jobs. When beautiful Skylar Rossaria approaches him to break a prisoner out of the Collective's maximum security prison on Trakis One, Rico jumps at the chance. Being hunted by the Collective has never been so dangerous-or so fun!
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A Blood Hunter Novel
By Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Nicola Cleasby
All rights reserved.
Rico hurled himself behind the huge trunk of a tree and stood, back pressed against the rough bark, as the missiles whizzed past.
An arrow thwacked into the wood behind him, and every muscle in his body tensed. He reached gingerly around and snapped it off. In the dim light, he held the shaft to his face and cursed loudly — wooden arrows. It was almost as though they were expecting him.
"Goddamn heathen peasants." He might as well be back in the Dark Ages.
In the distance, a pack of hounds bayed for blood. His blood. But they weren't getting it.
He braced himself and peered around the trunk through the thick stand of trees, and spotted the crimson glow of a hundred torches not too far in the distance. Breathing in, he caught the oily scent of burning pitch.
A triumphant roar filled the air. The hounds must have picked up his scent.
Rico cursed and darted off again, weaving through the dense forest with blurring speed. He could outrun the mob and the hounds, but it was a damn poor way to end an evening.
When the sound of voices faded behind him, he slowed down and finally came to a halt. Time to get the hell out of here. Leaning against a tree, he switched on his comm unit.
"What is it?" Tannis sounded irritated, and Rico frowned.
"I need picking up."
"It will have to be later — I'm busy."
He cocked his head to one side, listening for the sound of the mob, judging its distance. His pursuers would be on him soon. Tannis had better get unbusy and fast.
"Tannis, stop whatever it is you're doing, bring my goddamn spaceship, and pick me up."
She was silent for a moment. "I'll think about it."
The line went dead. He stared at the comm receiver on his wrist. She'd cut him off. Gritting his teeth, he imagined the pleasure of tossing her mutant body out of the ship's airlock. Only first, he had to get back to the ship. He pressed his finger down until he heard the line open.
"What?" she snapped.
"Tannis, are you aware that I've rigged El Cazador to blow if I don't input a unique numerical code every twenty-four hours? Come and get me or the whole ship goes up."
"Good try, but I don't believe you. You don't think that far ahead."
He took a deep breath. "Do you remember that time last year?"
"The time I saved your worthless life. At great personal risk to myself."
"So bloody well reciprocate."
A shaft of burning pain shot through his leg and he jumped, then stared down in disbelief at the arrow sticking out of his calf, an inch below the knee. "I've been shot," he said.
"Shot? By what?"
"By a big fucking arrow. Get down here. Now."
He yanked the arrow from his leg and flung it to the forest floor. "Or you're fired," he added and shut off the connection.
His pursuers were close now, so close he could hear the fierce crackle of flames mixed with the rise and fall of excited voices. He ignored the pain in his leg and took off through the trees again. A few minutes later, he skidded to a halt.
Straight in front of him, the land fell away abruptly. He peeked over the edge. A long way below, water roared. A lot of water. A lot of cold water. He hated cold water. He searched the sky for any sign of Tannis, but a thick layer of cloud obscured the moons and he saw only darkness. He jammed his finger onto the comm unit. "You here yet?"
"Have a little patience. I'll be there in five minutes."
"Great, just great. The problem is, I might not be here in five minutes."
"Don't be so melodramatic. Just hold on."
He stared over the edge into the dark, turbulent water. "Hold on to what?"
A low snarl sounded behind him. With a sigh of resignation, he turned to face his pursuers. They emerged from the shadowy tree line, torches held in front of them, before fanning out to form a semicircle around him.
One of the hounds crept toward him, belly close to the ground, growling softly. It reminded Rico a little of the dogs back on Earth, probably even had some real dog DNA in there somewhere. Rico growled back, baring his fangs. The animal got the message, turned tail, and ran.
A tall man stepped forward to stand at the center of the group. He wore the long black robes of a priest, and Rico groaned. Not heathens after all. Bloody religious fanatics. He should have expected it.
When man had fled to the stars nearly a thousand years ago, the old religions had gone into an abrupt decline. By the year 2600, they had all but vanished from the universe, and good riddance as far as Rico was concerned.
But that had changed with the discovery of Meridian.
A rare, radioactive element with the ability to bestow immortality on those lucky enough to afford its exorbitant price, Meridian heralded the evolution of a new class — the Collective. Super rich and virtually indestructible, the Collective quickly gained power. Now, they ruled most of the civilized universe.
But while not everyone could afford Meridian, everyone wanted immortality, and the old religious beliefs had gained a new popularity. The Church of Everlasting Life offered a cheaper, if less reliable, alternative with its promise of an afterlife in paradise.
On these isolated outer planets, the Collective's influence was slim and the Church took advantage of that and jumped in to fill the gap. A shudder of loathing ran through him. Rico had no feelings either for or against the Collective, but he hated the Church as only someone who had lived through the Inquisition could.
"Son of Satan," the priest cried, and the mob behind him roared.
Rico rolled his eyes. "We're not actually related."
A second man stepped forward, dragging a girl with him, and the priest grabbed her hair, tugged back her head. In the flickering light, Rico saw the puncture wounds in her ivory neck and had a flashback to the sweet taste of her blood.
"I have been ordained by God," the priest said, "for the punishment of the wicked and the eradication of evil."
"Get a life," Rico muttered. "Look, it's honestly no big deal — the marks will heal in a couple of days. You won't even know I was here."
His words didn't seem to impress them. Of course, the Church was rarely impressed unless they were slaughtering innocents, and Rico was the first to admit he hadn't qualified as an innocent in numerous lifetimes. If ever.
Five men stepped forward, and Rico watched them warily. They raised their bows, cocked their wooden arrows. Drew them taut and aimed them straight at his heart.
Rico glanced over his shoulder at the icy water below. He was going to have to jump. "Shit."
He tensed himself, ready to dive over the edge, just as the sky filled with noise and light. His gaze shot upward. He released his breath. The shuttle hovered above them, and a laser beam shot out, cutting the ground between him and the archers. A voice boomed from the open hatch.
"Lower your weapons."
But they were already edging backward. The shuttle flew lower, almost touching the ground, and Rico lunged for the open hatchway. "About bloody time."
The mob was almost back in the trees now, but at the last moment, the girl pulled free and raced toward the shuttle. She stared up at them, imploring. "Take me with you, Rico."
He looked at Tannis, raised an eyebrow.
"No freaking way." She reached across and slammed her palm to the door panel.
Rico had a last brief glimpse of the girl. He hoped she'd be okay, that her people would treat her as a victim, though she'd hardly been reluctant.
"What took you so long?" he growled as the hatch slid shut behind him and the shuttle sped away from the planet.
Tannis swiveled her chair to face him. She ran a hand through her short, dark hair and raised one brow in accusation. "Been eating the natives, Rico?"
"Dios, I go out for a snack and all I get is hassle. I've got to eat."
He hobbled across and sank into the seat next to her, rubbing his leg and tossing Tannis a wounded look. His ship's captain was no Florence Nightingale, but dammit, his leg hurt. "They shot me."
"Aw, poor baby." She uncoiled her lean body from the chair and came to stand over him, her cold, yellow eyes looking him over. Reaching down, she tore open his pants leg. The bleeding had already stopped, the wound healing over. "You'll live."
He frowned. "So what kept you?"
"While you were down there playing, I got us a job."
His mood lightened. "Dangerous?"
"For this sort of money, it's probably going to kill us."
He grinned. "Sounds like my sort of job."CHAPTER 2
Lasers blasted from all sides, and the stench of scorched air burned her nostrils. Skylar had passed beyond exhaustion, to where her body reacted automatically, whirling and countering, her own pistols deflecting each incoming shot.
It wasn't enough. At the thought, the speed of the shots increased until the area was a blur of flashing lights. Off to her right, a blaster roared and Skylar dived for cover. A laser beam slammed into her while she was midair, hitting her directly in the chest. She crashed to the floor, and the breath left her lungs in a whoosh.
Ignoring the searing pain, she rolled, came up on her feet, legs braced, a pistol still gripped in each hand.
"My office, now, Lieutenant."
The words sounded in Skylar's mind. At the same time, the shots ceased, and the room lights came on as the simulation unit shut down. Skylar stood for a moment, head hanging, her breathing short and fast as she came down from the adrenalin high. Sweat stuck the material of her jumpsuit to her skin, rivulets ran down her forehead, stinging her eyes, and her chest ached viciously from the laser blast. She needed a shower, and a few minutes to get her shit together before she faced the colonel.
"I'll be there in five, sir."
"I said now, Lieutenant."
"Crap," she muttered under her breath.
A group of trainees stood around the edges of the room, their expressions ranging from awe to fear. None of them spoke, but a tall young man tossed her a towel as she passed. She nodded her thanks and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
The suns were high overhead as she crossed the courtyard from the training center to the office block, and it was a relief to enter the relative coolness of the corridor. Pausing outside the colonel's office, she rubbed her hands down the sides of her jumpsuit and ran a calming mantra through her mind. If she wasn't careful, the colonel would pick up her inner turmoil and he'd terminate her first solo mission before it even began. The mantra completed, she tapped on the door and pushed it open without waiting for an answer.
The colonel stood at the far side of the large room, hands behind his back, staring out of the window to the courtyard beyond where a group of new recruits were being put through their paces. He turned as she entered the room, and she saluted.
He was dressed identically to Skylar in a black jumpsuit, with the violet insignia of the Corps on his chest, long boots, and a weapons belt strapped at his waist. Although he was tall, he always reminded Skylar of a boy dressed up as a soldier, until she looked into his eyes and saw the centuries reflected there.
She'd heard he'd only been eighteen when he'd taken the treatment, and while some people changed over the years, the colonel hadn't aged at all. His gaze wandered over her, his eyes narrowing as he took in her disheveled state.
"You were hit?" he asked nodding at her chest.
She glanced down and saw the rusty scorch mark where the blast had caught her. "I was training, sir."
"I know, Lieutenant. I asked if you were hit."
"Yes, sir. I was careless."
"Either that or you raised the simulation unit to level eleven, when the maximum recommended level, even for trained operatives, is eight."
Crap. Had she? No wonder those newbies had been giving her odd looks. She kept quiet; there wasn't much she could say.
The colonel pursed his lips, then shrugged. "At ease, Lieutenant. Take a seat."
Skylar sank down into the hard upright chair in front of the desk. The colonel took the seat opposite and leaned back watching her for a moment. She tried not to squirm under the intensity of his stare.
"Your recent psych profile threw up a few concerns."
More crap. "It did?"
"The consensus is that you're becoming less integrated into the whole. Any idea why that might be?"
What could she say? That recently she'd felt so alone. That all the voices in her head just made her feel more disconnected. That she was worried she'd made a huge mistake and was going to have to live with it. Forever. The concept of forever filled her with fear.
But if she said any of those things he'd bust her out of his army so fast she'd be spinning. And this was better than before; over the years, she had found some respite in the action. And if she just got this mission and got away for a while, then maybe she could work her way through her problems.
"No, sir. I'm fine, sir."
"What about Aiden's death?"
"We weren't close."
But his death had unsettled her. Maybe because she had been thinking they were indestructible, but Aiden's assassination had proved that a lie. So maybe 'forever' wasn't quite so long after all.
"Hmm. Well, in the end, it was considered your particular ... issues would be an advantage for this posting, as you'll be working alone. Afterward, we'll review your case."
"So the mission is on?"
She maintained her rigid control, but a smile tugged at her lips. She had tried not to think about it, but as relief flooded her system, she knew she might have gone crazy if she had to go back to her old command. Or even worse, if she was kicked out of the Corps altogether. Then she wouldn't belong anywhere.
"Tell me what you have so far."
She forced her mind back to the mission. "I've made initial contact with the captain of a ship I think is suitable —"
"Show me," he interrupted.
Skylar reached across the desk and flicked on the monitor. She brought up her mission files, then sat back as the colonel perused them, his brows drawing together in a small frown.
"Why this ship? This crew?"
Skylar considered what to say. The truth was, she wasn't sure. She'd reviewed over twenty possible ships looking for a suitable candidate. But she'd always come back to this one. Something about El Cazador tugged at her interest, and little did that these days.
"Gut instinct, mainly," Skylar said. The colonel was a big one for his officers using gut instinct provided they could back it up with logic. "But the ship has everything we need. The crew is a motley bunch of misfits with moral flexibility and mercenary tendencies, but they're also good at what they do."
"Mainly low-level smuggling jobs which keep them just below the scanners. Plus the odd misappropriation of property — but to order, not random robbery."
"And something else. The owner has a reputation as a womanizer — I thought I might use that, go in as some sort of bimbo, try and get him off balance."
The colonel considered her, his eyes running down over her figure, making her want to fidget in her seat. Okay, so she wasn't exactly bimbo material, but she was sure with a bit of effort she could clean up okay.
"And you're good with that?" he asked.
"I can control the situation."
"I'm sure you can. You have an impressive reputation for keeping men at arm's length, Lieutenant."
She bit back a scowl. Was that a good thing? Anyway, it didn't matter. She would use the womanizer aspect to get in there, maybe distract him a little, but the real hook would be the money.
The colonel rose to his feet, and she knew the meeting was over. "I'm sure you have arrangements to make. I'll speak with you again before you leave. And Lieutenant ..."
"I'm sure you'll make an excellent 'bimbo,' but maybe you should get a little outside help with the disguise."
Skylar gritted her teeth and kept her thoughts to herself. "Yes, sir. I'll be sure to do that, sir."
She managed to maintain her blank expression until the door closed and then she grinned. The mission was on.
* * *
The star cruiser grew smaller in her monitor until it vanished, leaving her alone in the vastness of space. Inside, some of her inner tension relaxed, and she sensed the first stirrings of anticipation. Finally, she checked her coordinates and brought the small shuttle to a standstill.
"Are you ready, Lieutenant?" The colonel's words sounded in Skylar's mind.
"Yes, sir. I've arrived at the rendezvous point."
"You know how important this mission is to us?"
"I do, sir."
"Could you put me on visual?"
She wanted to ask why, but she already knew the answer. She flicked on the monitor and tried not to scowl as the colonel's face filled the screen. He scrutinized her for a minute, his lips twitching in obvious amusement.
"Thank you, sir." Despite the sarcasm in her tone, the colonel just nodded.
"Okay, then I suggest you lock down the link. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir."
Excerpted from Break Out by Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2012 Nicola Cleasby. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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