For centuries, shapeshifting vampire Tynan MacGillivray has prowled the night as an outcast, valued only for his ferocious hunting skills. When a feud among the immortals escalates into all-out war, he is ordered by his ruthless queen to locate a Seer-a human woman with a special gift-who can secure victory for their clan. Ty's search leads him to a quiet New England town, but once he has the Seer in his grasp, her touch awakens within him a hunger like he's never known . . .
Lily Quinn has always been different. Since childhood, she's had vivid nightmares and an eerie sixth sense. When a sexy, silver-eyed stranger demands her help, Lily plunges into a new world of danger and sensuality. With Ty, she discovers sizzling passions she cannot deny and powers she cannot control. Soon, it is clear that Lily is much more than a Seer-she holds the key to ancient secrets and unthinkable destruction. But will a vampire's vow of eternal protection stop these evil forces . . . or unleash her dark destiny?
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By Castle, Kendra Leigh
ForeverCopyright © 2011 Castle, Kendra Leigh
All right reserved.
THE BALLROOM WAS bathed in the soft glow of candlelight, and tiny flames danced, reflected in the eyes of those gathered for the ceremony. The young woman, the Chosen, stepped uncertainly into their midst, her bare feet noiseless on the dark and gleaming wood floor. Her eyes widened as she took in the sight of the lithe and elegant figures, pale-skinned and beautiful, who had come to witness this event, the most momentous of her life.
The last of her natural life.
Though she had caught glimpses of others like her lover before, she had never seen so many in one place. It was amazing, overwhelming… and just a little frightening.
Rosalyn. Her name echoed in a whisper all around her, though not a single mouth moved. Soon she would know their thoughts as well as they knew hers. These were to be her people, those who shared the ancient bloodline of a goddess, a pharaoh. They were the Ptolemy, and they were to be revered.
As instructed, she had come to this beautiful manor in the middle of nowhere, clad in nothing but a thin silk robe of purest white. Soon, Rosalyn knew, that would be gone. She would enter her new life as she had come into the first, bare-skinned and pure. Her eyes darted anxiously around the room, searching for her beloved. The one who had made all this possible, the one who loved her enough to want her by his side for all time. However, all she saw were unfamiliar faces, cold in their beauty, eyes glowing preternaturally in the semidarkness. Some watched her with interest, others with naked hunger. Not all were unkind, she consoled herself as she fought back a shiver.
But none belonged to her Jeremy.
Rosalyn shuddered in a shallow breath and moved forward, determined not to let her fear of the unknown get the better of her. Jeremy had gone through all the proper channels, and she had been questioned by an emissary of Arsinöe herself, gaining the all-important blessing of the queen and securing her permission to join the sacred House of Ptolemy.
She had spent the past week making her arrangements and, though her family didn’t yet understand, saying her good-byes. Being born into this new life meant cutting ties with the old one, and she’d shed more than a few tears over it. But the loss was well worth the gain. No longer would she be just one of a vampire’s stable of human lovers, kept (though kept well) for the willing and frequent gift of her blood.
Now she would be Jeremy’s mate eternal. For the first time, they would feast upon each other. And when the ceremony was over, and her skin was branded with the mark that would forever bind her to the ancient dynasty that had been blessed by Sekhmet, Rosalyn knew she would walk into her new life with no regrets, hand in hand with her love. She would be Rosalyn of the Ptolemy.
But… where was Jeremy?
The small crowd of perhaps thirty witnesses cleared to form a wide circle around her, leaving her standing alone, exposed in their midst. They were unnervingly silent, as was the way of their kind, but Rosalyn had been admonished not to speak until spoken to. So she waited as silently as they did, keeping her shoulders back, her chin high. She had been declared worthy. She clung to that and hoped her looks reflected it. She had brushed her long, straight hair so that it gleamed like spun gold as it fell past her shoulders, and she’d left her delicate features unpainted, the way Jeremy preferred. After tonight, Rosalyn thought, her eyes flickering over several of the dazzlingly beautiful women in attendance, she’d never need cosmetics again anyway.
Vampiric beauty was incomparable, and eternal.
A soft murmur ran through the crowd then, and suddenly he was there, stepping into the circle with her. Tall, sandy-haired, boyishly handsome Jeremy. He stepped forward to take her hands in his, and Rosalyn shivered, as she always did, at the first touch of that cool skin on hers. But the warmth in his eyes, glowing deep blue with a light all their own, more than compensated. He leaned in close, and she could smell the faint musk of his skin.
“Ready?” he asked softly, his warm breath fanning her ear.
She nodded. “Always.”
He smiled, and the light caught the sharp points of his incisors, gleaming white between deep red lips. He looked away for a moment, and between one blink and the next, they were joined by a third person in the circle, a tall, imposing man who stood ramrod straight in a severe black suit. His expression was solemn, and when he spoke, his voice rippled through the air with a power that signified great age, though he appeared no older than forty.
This was the master of the ceremony, one of Arsinöe’s trusted emissaries sent to oversee and verify the ancient ritual.
His first question was directed at Jeremy. “By what name are you called, supplicant?”
Jeremy’s response was immediate, and full of pride. “I am Jeremy Rothburn of the Ptolemy.”
“And what do you ask of us on this full moon’s night?”
“I ask to bring this woman, Rosalyn DeVore, into the sacred House of Ptolemy, to bind her to us with the dark gift and to share with her life eternal.”
The emissary’s pale eyes shifted to her. “And you, Rosalyn DeVore? What do you request of the House of Ptolemy?”
For one heart-stopping instant, she feared that she’d forgotten the words. But then they were there for her, rolling easily from her tongue. “I ask to join this house, to share in the glorious lineage of Sekhmet, the lioness, the warrior goddess; of Arsinöe, the eternal pharaoh; and of all fortunate enough to drink the blood of the greatest of the vampire dynasties. I ask to give of my blood, my life, to Jeremy Rothburn of the Ptolemy, and for his blood, his life, to be shared in return.”
Jeremy squeezed her hands reassuringly as the master of ceremonies gave a solemn nod, acknowledging her request. Then he looked to the assembly. His voice rose, a powerful and compelling clarion call.
“All you gathered, keepers of the dark flame, honored bearers of the blood of the goddess, you have heard the petition. What say you?”
The resounding “Aye!” had Rosalyn’s heart soaring. This was it. She’d been accepted. There was only one thing left… though the final barrier was the most frightening of all. Because she would see death before they were through, if only to turn away from it forever.
The emissary actually managed a ghost of a smile when he turned his attention back to Jeremy.
“Make her yours. Make her ours.”
He stepped back then, fading away into the crowd until it was once again only the two of them in the circle. Rosalyn looked at her lover, feeling the importance of the moment, knowing she was drawing her final breaths as a mortal being.
Jeremy undid her robe with a flick of his wrist, leaving it to slide from her shoulders and pool at her feet. Then she was naked before him, before all of them, terribly, wonderfully exposed. His heart was in his eyes when he stepped forward, and Rosalyn quickly forgot about the crowd. There were only the two of them there, really. And all their eternity yet before them.
His cool hands slid over her skin, brushing against nipples that had hardened in the chill air. Fear and excitement pooled in her belly, along with an unexpected flood of desire. Then he was pushing her hair back over her shoulders, bearing the pulse beating rapidly at the base of her throat. His eyes began to change, turning feral and blindingly bright. His teeth shone like daggers as he bared them.
He had drunk from her before. She didn’t fear his teeth or the pain that so quickly gave way to pleasure. But this time, he must take her to the edge of death. And he would bring her back by letting her drink from him for the very first time.
Rosalyn gasped as his teeth pierced her flesh, and she heard an answering sigh rise up all around them. Then she could see, hear, feel nothing but Jeremy, and the sensation of drowning in a rush of pleasure until all reality narrowed to a single bright point that glowed ever farther in the distance. Lethargy stole through her limbs, and still he drank, pulling her life out of her, taking it into himself. When she crumpled to the floor, he came with her, gathering her close in his arms while he continued to feed.
Her heartbeat slowed… slowed. From the pool of near blackness in which she wallowed, Rosalyn waited for the press of Jeremy’s wrist against her lips. For the taste of his blood, so long yearned for, so that the ritual would be complete.
Instead, she began to hear the distant sounds of screaming.
At first it was only one voice, a startled shriek cut brutally short. Then another began, and another, picking up the cry until the cavernous room reverberated with the sounds of terror and pain. Rosalyn struggled to open her eyes as Jeremy’s teeth tore from her throat, as he lifted his head to stare at whatever horror show her initiation had become. Above the screaming, she heard the sounds of running, of fists beating against doors that had been sealed shut.
And beneath all that was a wet, rending sound that could be only the tearing of flesh—a sickening splatter, then a rush of air as something, someone, was cast brutally aside for the next. And the next.
The thud of lifeless bodies grew closer.
“Where is it? I can’t see it!” shrieked a terrified female voice. A window shattered.
Jeremy looked down at her, cradled in his lap, and if Rosalyn had had the strength, she would have cried out. For in his eyes she no longer saw the bright promise of eternal life.
Now there was only death.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, an instant before his head was separated from his body with such force that it hurtled away from her, across the room. Gore spattered her naked flesh, crimson on white. Then she did scream, a weak, keening sound that was dredged up from the depths of her fading soul. But she couldn’t run; she could barely move. The darkness was rushing up to meet her, and it seemed that for her, there would be no return from it after all.
Around her, amidst the fading screams, was the smell of burning.
And the last sound Rosalyn heard was the malicious gurgle of laughter.
Eight months later
TYNAN MACGILLIVRAY crouched in the shadows of the little garden, listening to the mortals rattling loudly around inside the stuffy old mansion. He tried to concentrate on the scents and sounds of the humans, hoping to pick up any subtle change in the air that might indicate a Seer was among these so-called ghost hunters, but so far all he’d gotten was a headache.
This small-town gimmick was a long shot, and he knew it. But he’d been everywhere in the past eight months, from New York City Goth clubs to Los Angeles coven meetings. Anywhere there might be a whisper of ability beyond the norm. In all that time, he had found not the faintest whiff of a Seer or even a hint of anything paranormal at all. Just a bunch of humans playing dress-up, trying to be different.
He wondered how they would feel if they walked into an actual vampire club. Most of them would probably be too foolish to even be frightened for the few seconds their life would last in one of those places. But they might note that there wasn’t nearly as much black leather and bondage wear in undead society as they seemed to think.
Ty got to his feet, all four of them, and arched his back, stiff from keeping so still in the bushes all night. His cat form was the gift of his bloodline, though it was of dubious help in places like this. The house he was staking out sat just off the town square, and there were only a few scrubby barberry bushes for cover. His fur was black, yes, and blended into shadow, but dog-sized cats didn’t exactly inspire the warm cuddlies in passersby.
Hell. It’s no good. Ty gave a frustrated growl as he accepted the fact that this trip was just another bust. He’d been reduced to combing psychic fairs and visiting what were supposedly America’s most haunted places, hoping something would draw out the sort of human he so desperately needed to find. But soon, very soon, Ty knew he would have to return to Arsinöe with the news that the Seers had, in all likelihood, simply died out. For the first time in three hundred years of service, he would have to admit failure.
And the Mulo, the gypsy curse that was slowly killing those he was charged with protecting, would continue its dark work until there was no one left who bore the mark of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the oldest and most powerful bloodline in all of vampire society, begun when Arsinöe’s life was spared by a goddess’s dark kiss. No other house could claim such a beginning, or such a ruler. But if things continued, the other dynasties, eternally jealous of the Ptolemy’s power, lineage, and reach, wouldn’t even have a carcass to feed upon.
The invisible terror had attacked twice more, both times at sacred initiations of the Ptolemy, both times leaving only one vampire alive enough to relate what had happened. Or in the case of the first atrocity, one nearly-turned human woman. Rosalyn, he remembered with a curl of distaste in the pit of his gut. They had brought her back to the compound, bloody and broken, taking what information they could before finally letting her die a very human death. He doubted she had known how lucky she was.
Ty, used to fading into shadow and listening, knew that all in the inner circle of Arsinöe’s court agreed: it was only a matter of time before the violence escalated even further, and the queen herself was targeted.
Without their fierce Egyptian queen, the House of Ptolemy would fall. Maybe not right away, but there were none fit to take Arsinöe’s place, unless Sekhmet appeared once more to bestow her grace on one of them. If the goddess even still existed. More likely there would be a bloody power struggle that left but a pale shadow of what had been, and that petty infighting would take care of whoever the Mulo had left behind, if any. And the Cait Sith such as himself, those who had been deemed fit to serve only by virtue of their Fae-tainted blood, would be left to the dubious mercy of the remaining dynasties that ruled the world of night.
He could no more let that happen than he could walk in the sun.
Ty pushed aside his dark thoughts for the moment and debated heading back to his hotel room for the night, maybe swinging by a local bar on the way to get a quick nip from one of the drunk and willing. Suddenly a back door swung open and a woman stepped out into the crisp night air.
At first he stayed to watch because he was merely curious. Then the moonlight caught the deep auburn of her hair, and Ty stared, transfixed, as she turned fully toward him. Utterly unaware of the eyes upon her, she tipped her head back, bathing herself in starlight, the soft smile on her lips revealing a woman who appreciated the pleasure of an autumn night well met.
He heard her sigh, saw the warm exhalation drift lazily upward in a cloud of mist. For him, caught in some strange spell, it all seemed to occur in slow motion, the mist of her breath hanging suspended for long moments above her mouth, as though she’d gifted a shimmering bit of her soul to the night. The long, pale column of her throat was bared above the collar of her coat, the tiny pulse beating at the base of it amplified a thousand times, until he could hear the singular pulse and pound that were her life, until it was everything in his universe. Her scent, a light, exotic vanilla, drifted to him on the chill breeze, and all thought of drinking from some nameless, faceless stranger vanished from his mind.
Ty wanted her. And though a certain amount of restriction was woven tightly into the fabric of his life, he would not deny himself this. Already he was consumed by the thought of what her blood might taste like. Would it be as sweet as she smelled? Or would it be darker than she appeared to be, ripe with berry and currant? Every human had a singular taste—this he had learned—and it spoke volumes about them, more than they would ever know.
She lingered only a moment longer, and her heart-shaped face, delicately featured with a pair of large, expressive eyes he was now determined to see close up, imprinted itself on him in a way he had never before experienced. Ty’s mind was too hazed to question it now, this odd reaction to her, but he knew he would be able to ponder nothing else later.
Later. Once he had tasted her.
When she turned away, when the burnished waves of her hair spilling over the collar of her dark coat were all he could see, Ty found he could at least move again, and he did so with the ruthless efficiency of a practiced hunter. Like a predator that has latched on to the scent of its prey, his eyes never left her, even as he rose up, his feline form shifting and elongating until he stood on two feet among the straggling bushes.
He breathed deeply, drinking in that singular scent with anticipatory relish.
Then Ty turned up the collar of his coat and began the hunt.
Lily rounded the corner of the house with a sigh of relief.
Probably she should feel guilty about bailing on the annual Bonner Mansion ghost hunt. Bailing before anything interesting happened anyway—so far, all she’d seen was a bunch of overly serious amateur ghost hunters who thought every insect was a wayward spirit. Oh, and that couple who had set up camp in a closet with the door shut, she remembered with a smirk. Whatever sort of experience they were after, she was pretty sure it wasn’t supernatural.
Why she’d even let Bay con her into this was a mystery; their weekly date to watch Ghost Hunters didn’t translate into any desire on her part to actually go running around inside a dark, musty, supposedly haunted house. Thank God the hottie from the Bonner County Paranormal Society had shown up when he had. Lily wasn’t sure which had made her best friend’s eyes light up more: the tight jeans or the thermal-imaging camera. Either way, she wasn’t even positive the group had heard her when she’d claimed a brewing headache as an excuse to leave them there, but Bay’s grin told her she’d be thanked for going at some point in the near future.
She lifted her wrist to glance at her watch, squinting at it in the darkness, and noted that it was about quarter to twelve.
“So much for another Friday night,” she muttered. Still, it didn’t have to be a total waste. Maybe she’d get crazy, stay up late with some popcorn and a Gerard Butler movie.
Wild times at Lily Quinn’s house. But better, always better, than running the risk of sleep. She didn’t need a silly ghost tour to scare her. Nothing could be scarier than the things she saw when she closed her eyes.
Lily crunched through dead leaves, then stopped, frowning at the unfamiliar view of bare trees and, a little farther off, the wrought-iron fence that bordered the property’s grounds. Despite the reasonably close proximity to the town square, the Bonner Mansion sat back a ways from the road, and the historical society had managed to hang on to a portion of the original property, so there were still grounds to the place. But there was, as a nod to modernity, a parking lot.
And it was, Lily realized, on the other side of the house. She tipped her head back, closed her eyes, and groaned.
Her impeccable sense of misdirection had struck again.
After a moment spent silently cursing, Lily shoved her hands deeper into her pockets and set off on what she hoped was the correct course this time. Directional impairment was one of her defining features, right along with her inexplicable aversion to suitable men. If she could only find a well-educated, Shakespeare-quoting bad boy who still had a thing for sexy tattoos and maybe a mild leather fetish, she might at least have a shot at avoiding her probable future as a crazy old cat lady.
A long shot, maybe. But a shot.
At least it was a beautiful night, Lily thought, inhaling deeply. The smell of an October night was one of her favorites, especially in this part of New England. It was rife with the earthy, rich smell of decaying leaves, of wood smoke from someone’s chimney, and shot through with a cleansing bite of cold.
Lily looked around as she walked, taking her time. In the faint glow from the streetlights along the road, this place really did have a haunted look about it, but not scary. More like someplace where you’d find a dark romance, full of shadows and sensual mystery.
She huffed out a breath, amused at herself. She taught English lit because she had always liked the fantasy of what could be, instead of the often unpleasant reality of how things were. Speaking of which, it looked like a little Phantom of the Opera might be in order for her Friday night movie. Even if the ending absolutely refused to go the way she wanted, she thought with a faint smile, no matter how many times she’d willed Christine to heal the dark and wounded Phantom instead of wasting her time on boring old Raoul.
It would have made for one hell of a love scene—
There was a sudden, strange tingling sensation at the back of her neck. Lily felt the hairs there rising as a rush of adrenaline chilled her blood. Someone was behind her. She knew it without seeing, felt eyes on her that hadn’t been there a moment before.
But when she whirled around, stumbling a little in her haste to confront whoever was behind her, she saw nothing. Only the empty expanse of lawn, dotted with the skeletal shapes of slumbering trees, an empty bench, and beside her, the dark shape of the house. Nothing.
Nowhere even to hide.
Lily felt her heart kick into a quicker rhythm, and her breath became shallower as her eyes darted around, looking for a shape, a shadow, anything that would explain her sudden, overwhelming certainty that she wasn’t alone.
Stupid, she told herself. You’re walking through a horror movie setup, and it’s just got your imagination running, is all.
Lily knew that was more than likely it, but she still wanted to reach her car and get out of here. Soothed a little by the thought that there were a whole bunch of people inside the house who would hear her scream if anything did happen, she turned to continue making her way out front, casting a lingering look over one shoulder.
Though the moon rode high in the night sky, nearly full, and the air was still rich with the very scents she’d just been enjoying, all her pleasure had vanished in favor of the insistent instinct that had kept humans walking the Earth for as long as they had: flight.
“Hey, are you all right?”
She gave a small scream before she could stop herself, jumping at the sudden appearance of another person in front of her when there’d been no sign of another soul only seconds before.
He raised his hands in front of him, eyebrows lifting in an expression that plainly said he was as startled as she was. “Whoa, hey, don’t do that! I’m not a ghost or anything. You can start breathing again.” One eyebrow arched higher, plaintive. “Please?”
It was the faintly amused concern he put into that last word that finally got her to draw in a single, shuddering breath. But she still shot a quick look around, gauging distance in case she had to run.
“Look, I’m sorry,” the man said, drawing Lily’s full attention back to him. “I needed to get out of there for a few. Too many people, not enough ghosts, you know?”
“I… yeah,” Lily said, still trying to figure out how she should deal with this. Had he been inside too? She wasn’t sure…. There’d been a cluster of people, and not everyone had shown up at the same time. It was certainly possible. But when she looked more closely at him, she was sure she would have remembered if they’d crossed paths.
“Let’s start over,” he said.
This time she picked up on the lilting Scottish accent in a voice that was soft and deep but with a slightly rough edge.
He extended a hand to her. “I’m Tynan. MacGillivray.”
Yeah, it didn’t get any more Scottish than that. Lily hesitated for a split second, but her deeply ingrained sense of politeness refused to let her keep her hand in her pocket. Tentatively, she slid her hand into his and watched as his long, slim fingers closed around it.
“I’m Lily. Lily Quinn,” she said, surprised by the sensation of cool, silken skin against her own. But at the point of contact, warmth quickly bloomed, matching the heat that began to course through her system as she finally noticed that Tynan MacGillivray was incredibly good-looking.
Not handsome, she thought. That was the wrong word for what he was, though some people might have used it anyway. He was more… compelling. She let herself take in the sharp-featured, angular face with a long blade of a nose and dark, slashing brows. His mouth held the only hint of softness, with an invitingly full lower lip that caught her attention far more than it should have, under the circumstances. His skin was so fair as to make him pale, though for some reason it only enhanced his strange appeal, and was set off further by the slightly shaggy, overlong crop of deep brown hair that he’d pushed away from his face.
It was his eyes, though, that Lily couldn’t seem to avoid. Light gray, with a silvery cast from the moonlight, they watched her steadily, unblinking. She wanted to believe he meant her no harm. But there was an intensity in the way he looked at her that kept her off balance. I should get moving, get out of here, Lily thought, feeling like a deer that has picked up the scent of a predator.
But she was caught by those eyes, unable to look away. She shuddered in a soft breath as he stepped in closer, never letting go of her hand.
No, she thought, her eyes locked with his, her legs refusing to move. But then, right on the heels of that: Yes.
“Lily,” he said, his voice little more than a sensual growl. “Now, that’s a pretty name. Fitting.”
No one had ever said her name quite like that before, savoring it, as though they were tasting it. Desire, unexpected, unwanted, but undeniable all the same, unfurled deep in her belly. She tried to think of something to say, something that would break this odd spell she was falling under, but nothing sprang to mind. There was only this dark stranger. Everything else seemed to fade away, unimportant.
“You’re shivering,” he remarked. “You shouldn’t be out here in the cold all alone.”
“No, I… I guess not,” she murmured, mildly surprised that though she was shivering, she hadn’t even noticed. She certainly wasn’t cold anymore. And for some reason it was difficult to hang on to her thoughts long enough to form a coherent sentence. “I was… just going to my car.”
His eyes, she thought, caught up in a hazy rush of desire that flooded her from head to toe, banishing any awareness of the temperature of the air. His eyes were silver, she realized as they grew closer. Silver, and glowing like the moon. Strange, beautiful eyes.
“Why don’t you let me walk you?” he asked.
The words barely penetrated her consciousness. After struggling to make sense of them, she found herself nodding. Car. Walk. Yes. Probably a good thing. “Yeah. That would be great.”
Tynan smiled, a lazy, sensual lift of his lips. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that, despite what each of them had said, neither of them made a move to go. Instead, he trailed his free hand down her cheek, cool marble against her warm flesh, and rubbed his thumb slowly across her lower lip.
Lily’s lips parted in answer, and her eyes slipped shut as a soft sigh escaped her. She’d never felt such pleasure from such a light touch, but all she could think of, all she wanted, was for it to continue.
“Lily,” he purred again. “How lovely you are.”
“Mmm,” was all she could manage in response. She turned into his touch as his skilled fingers slid into her hair, as he let go of her hand to slide his around the curve of her waist as he stepped into her. It was like drifting in some dark dream, and Lily embraced it willingly, sliding her hands up his chest and then around to his back, urging him even closer.
She wasn’t sure what she was asking for—but at Tynan’s touch, something stirred inside of her, some long-dormant need that arched and stretched after a long sleep, then flooded her with aching demand. She turned her face up to his, a wordless invitation. His warm breath fanned her face, and even through the strange haze that seemed to have enveloped her, she thrilled a little at the ragged sound of his breathing, at the erratic beat of his heart against her chest.
“Lily,” he said again, and this time it was almost reverent.
He bent his head to hers, and Lily’s lips parted in anticipation. She had never wanted a man’s kiss so desperately; her entire being seemed to vibrate with desire. Her breath stilled as she waited for the press of his lips against her own. But instead of taking what she offered, Tynan’s mouth only grazed her cheek, and his long fingers deftly cupped her chin to turn her head to the side.
Lily made a noise then, a soft, frustrated moan that drew a chuckle from her tormentor.
“Patience, sweetheart,” he admonished her, his gruff brogue more pronounced now. “Too fast and you’ll spoil it.”
Tynan trailed soft kisses along her jawline, the relative chill of his lips against her warm and sensitive flesh a shocking pleasure. Lily writhed in his arms, wanting to be closer, wanting some nameless more that she couldn’t identify. But Tynan seemed to be relentlessly controlled, the uneven intake of his breath the only clue that he might be as close to undone as she. Lily heard his voice then, seeming to echo right inside her head.
Let me taste you.
Powerless to do anything but obey, Lily let her head fall back in submission, baring her throat to him, willing him to touch more, take more. In some dim recess of her mind, it occurred to her that this entire situation was madness at best, suicidal at worst. But the harder she tried to hang on to any rational thoughts, the quicker they seemed to evaporate. And wasn’t it so much more pleasurable to just give up, give in? As though Tynan wanted to illustrate just that point, he nipped at her ear, flicking his tongue over the sensitive lobe.
“Please,” Lily moaned, moving restlessly against him, not even sure what she was asking for. Then he was drawing her hair away from her neck, tugging her head to the side to gain better access. He forced the collar of her shirt down, baring her collarbone to the cold night air. Lily allowed it all, her only desire to feel his lips on her skin again, to give him whatever he wanted. All the world had vanished except for Tynan. She could feel his hands shaking as his handling of her roughened, and she sensed his need was even greater than her own.
Suddenly he stopped, going stock-still as he expelled a single shaking breath. Lost in the deepening fog of her sexual haze, Lily gripped the thick wool of Tynan’s coat harder and made a soft sound of distress. Why had he stopped? She needed… she needed…
All she heard was a softly muttered curse in an unfamiliar tongue.
Then, a ripple of air, a breath of chill wind. Lily slowly opened her eyes, only barely beginning to register where she was and what she had been doing. Her hands were fisted in nothing but empty air. She blinked rapidly, taking a stumbling step backward, feeling a crushing, if nonsensical, sense of loss. She turned in a circle, knowing that he had to still be here. He couldn’t have left. It was impossible for a man to vanish into thin air.
But whoever—or whatever—Tynan MacGillivray was, Lily was soon forced to acknowledge the truth.
He was gone.
TY CROUCHED SILENTLY on a tree branch, his silver eyes unblinking as he watched Lily Quinn slowly make her way to her car. She still seemed dazed, though by the time she reached the parking lot, the wobble had gone from her step and she’d quickened her pace, throwing a final, fearful glance over her shoulder before getting in and driving off.
He couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen, Ty knew. It had to have been a trick of the light and his bloodlust-addled brain. Likely it was a birthmark, or even a tattoo, a wicked little surprise hidden beneath the classy wrappings. No mortal could wear a vampire mark, and Lily was most certainly mortal. But just as certain was that she was also… more.
Gods, had he ever reacted so strongly to the scent of a woman’s blood?
The memory of her pressed against him, the feel of her skin beneath his hands, threatened to send him running after her to finish what they’d started. Instead, Ty clung to what control he had left, sinking his claws into the wood beneath him, the fur along his back rising in response to the ancient struggle inside of him. He needed to feed, and soon—even though it meant he would have to force himself to drink from yet another nameless, faceless victim.
Leave it to him to want a woman he would never be allowed to taste.
With a surly growl, Ty sprang from the tree. By the time he hit the ground, he was a man again, stalking off in the direction of the town square. He ought to be grateful that something had stopped him from sinking his teeth into Lily Quinn. If he had, he would have ruined what was likely his only chance at fulfilling his mission.
Still, it would have been nice if he’d noticed he couldn’t catch even a hint of the woman’s thoughts before he’d gotten so close that he could think of nothing but her neck. That impenetrable mind was the undeniable hallmark of a Seer. Lily’s particular beauty was just a bonus, and an unfortunate one at that. To bite her would rob her of the ability he was in dire need of.
As the Americans liked to say, he needed to get his head back in the game.
Ty pulled his cell phone from his pocket and kept walking, his long legs eating up the distance with a speed that bordered on inhuman, and called the only woman he had any true allegiance to. His queen’s favor had elevated him far above what any gutterblood like himself could normally expect; she had drawn him into her trusted inner circle, where his kind would never have been tolerated before—though in truth, he was only barely tolerated by the rest and had learned early on to rely on subterfuge to get what information he needed.
Still, right now, even having a vampire queen on speed dial didn’t quite make up for the fact that he was alone. Again. And hungry in a way that he’d somehow have to assuage.
The phone rang only once before she picked up, and Arsinöe’s honeyed tones could do nothing to disguise her agitation. The hairs on his neck and the backs of his arms prickled with it, warning him to tread lightly.
The woman was a force of nature. And when she was angry, she was apt to destroy everything and everyone in her path.
“Tynan. Calling to tell me of another fruitless adventure, I presume?”
Her voice was a smooth purr, and Ty could picture her reclining on her chaise, her kohl-lined eyes narrowed, her long red nails tapping on the fabric. She had always been kind to him, in her way, though he had seen plenty of her cruelty. One couldn’t stay the ruler of the greatest of the vampire dynasties without it. But he had sensed a change in her lately, a strain and barely leashed fury that he attributed to the murders and her inability to stop them. Ty hoped his discovery of Lily could start to reverse that… provided she was, in fact, a Seer.
He could have been perfectly confident, were it not for that odd little decoration on her skin.
“Not this time,” he replied, turning onto the sidewalk and heading for the lights of the city’s old-fashioned downtown square. He slowed a little to give himself time to talk. No one else needed to hear this conversation.
“Tell me.” The change in her tone was instant, sharpening with keen interest bordering on desperation. He wondered what more had happened since he’d last spoken to Arsinöe. More death, likely. Ty found he couldn’t dredge up much sympathy. He doubted he would have attempted to get close to many of the Ptolemy even if they hadn’t given him a wide berth. His bloodline was known for producing cold-blooded killers, after all. The Cait Sith were gutter vamps, ruthless hunters with no leader and no conscience. This tended to give one an aura of unapproachability. Which was fine with Ty. Highbloods were a tedious lot, full of entitlement and fond of entertaining themselves by looking down on… well, on mongrels like him.
“There’s a woman here,” Ty said, keeping his voice low. “Her mind is closed to me. Can’t hear a bloody thing, and you know I’m good at that.”
“Yes, good, but can she See?” The angry snap in Arsinöe’s voice surprised him, as he’d expected at least a modicum of praise for all these months of searching. But then, much about the queen had changed since the Mulo had come. Maybe, Ty thought darkly, some of it was permanent.
Or maybe it was always there and you just didn’t want to see it.
He shoved the traitorous thought aside and focused on the situation at hand.
“I’m not sure yet,” he allowed slowly, glad to be so far out of range of Arsinöe’s stinging claws for once. “But she’s the first I’ve found like her.” He thought again of Lily’s strange mark and nearly mentioned it. But something held him back. In his mind’s eye, Lily’s face appeared, innocent, open, her eyes closed and lips parted in invitation. For the briefest instant, Tynan felt an urge to protect her in a way that was borne of some deeper, unfamiliar instinct.
The kind of instinct, Ty thought as he ruthlessly snuffed it out, that could get a vampire like himself killed.
Still, he held his tongue. Another look at Lily’s sexy little tattoo would doubtless reveal nothing. And if he was wrong… well, he would deal with that only if he had to.
“Tynan,” said the woman on the other end of the line.
The weariness in her voice did pull at him now. He and Arsinöe had known each other a long time. There was, despite the class separation, some modicum of affection there. And the gods knew he owed her a great deal for all she had given him.
“I’m glad, of course, that you think you’ve found something,” she continued. “But in the last week, we’ve lost fifty of our line, not to mention a number of priceless artifacts. The Mulo must be stopped, and I’m… concerned… that we are running out of time. I don’t want possibilities—I need facts. Be certain before you bring her. I’ve no interest in another pretty toy when my people are dying. How long is this going to take you?”
“That depends,” he replied. “Do you want her willing?”
“You should know by now that I don’t give a damn about that,” she said smoothly.
Again he felt that faint unease with the way things seemed to have changed back in the thick of Arsinöe’s court. Something felt off, but he didn’t know if it was her or if it was simply that he’d been out of the loop for so long now. It was one of the reasons he’d struggled with being chosen for this hunt: despite the way it had been presented, it felt like he was being eliminated.
She’d made a show of it, of course. Fawning over him, telling him how much more trustworthy he was than the others of his blood, how his skills were far better suited to finding this needle in a haystack than so many of her courtiers who had gone soft from easy living. Backhanded insults to his much-maligned bloodline that Ty was certain sounded like praise to Arsinöe’s ears… but, of course, he was used to that. All Cait Sith were. All her praise notwithstanding, he had stopped being called, stopped being included. After all his efforts to prove himself over the centuries in her service, he could sense that Arsinöe had begun to push him out.
And the Ptolemy courtiers, who seemed to have grown more bitter and vicious over the years he had spent among them, gloated openly at his departure. They cheered at the purge of the gutterblood who had somehow infiltrated their rarefied little club.
He worried less about himself and more about what would become of his other blood brothers and sisters in his absence. Arsinöe had softened considerably over the years in her treatment of the Cait Sith she had conscripted, especially considering how dark things had been at the time of his own siring. But though the queen was strong, she was hardly immune to the views of the highbloods closest to her. And, gods, but he was tired of the politics.
“A week. Two, tops,” Ty said after a quick canvass of his options. “I know nothing about her at this point. And setting people at ease isn’t usually my strong suit. But as I doubt she just sits around having visions all day, I’ll have to try and learn some people skills, I suppose.”
He’d meant it as a little joke, but Arsinöe was obviously not in the mood.
“It had better be less than two weeks,” she said, and Ty could hear the steel in her voice. “And if she is what you say, the woman will do as she is told. She will be well compensated, of course. Tell her she will be returned home. Tell her everything will go back to normal, will be set to rights if she does this service for me. For my people. And throw in an offer of money if that isn’t enough. That should do it. It always does.”
“You would let her go after this?” Ty asked, surprised.
“Of course not. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep her well. She may come in handy. One never knows. But it has little to do with you, Tynan,” Arsinöe said, a casual dismissal that cut him to the quick. It had been many years since she had openly snubbed him for being less than her own blood.
His months away began to feel like years. What had happened?
But she seemed to have no intention of telling him, instead shifting gears smoothly into the role she often played with both servants and courtiers: the playful seductress. Ty could actually hear the sly smile in her voice when she asked, “Is she pretty, this new discovery of yours?”
Ty raked his fingers through his hair and looked to the heavens, a sky scattered with stars. She knew. Of course she did. The woman was ancient and had been born to rule, to manipulate people, to understand their motivations and use them. His three centuries on Earth, on the other hand, hadn’t given him much artifice. Usually he didn’t care, but he was surprised at how little he enjoyed having Arsinöe picking up on his interest. They had never been lovers, but she was a jealous creature by nature. She must be the only woman, even to her lowly pet hunter.
Easily done when no self-respecting vampiress would bed a Cait more than once.
“She’s all right, I guess,” he allowed, trying for noncommittal as opposed to a lie he’d eventually be caught in. No one could look at Lily Quinn and believe for an instant he’d thought her plain.
“Hmm,” was all Arsinöe said. “Maybe I should send someone along to help you. So you don’t get distracted.”
Ty frowned, knowing full well that her teasing tone hid truth. “If you’re going to send anyone, send Jaden,” he said, referring to his closest blood brother, a Cait Sith only slightly younger than himself. He wasn’t the most personable of vampires, either, but he was unusually trustworthy.
Arsinöe’s soft laughter again stirred the hair at the back of his neck. She seemed to have other ideas.
“You have been gone hunting a while, haven’t you?”
“Is something wrong?” he asked, gritting his teeth. He was in no mood to be played with tonight, and Arsinöe seemed to be in a dangerously changeable mood.
“You should ask Jaden if you see him,” she replied lightly—too lightly. “But I doubt you will. He’s left us.”
Jaden, you fool. No matter how the Ptolemy valued their services, he and Jaden were servants. And servants did not have the option of quitting. That was the same as choosing death.
Yet another thing for Ty to worry about. Later. All that mattered right this second was that he wouldn’t be getting help from any of his own blood—the only sort of help he might have tolerated.
As though she’d heard his thoughts, the queen continued. “I was thinking of sending along Nero. He’ll deal with her quickly enough, one way or the other.”
Ty’s eyes narrowed in the darkness, and he came to a complete stop on the deserted sidewalk. A number of pieces clicked into place. So, he thought. That’s how it is. Arsinöe had rarely taken lovers during his time traveling with the Ptolemy court, but each had presented some challenges. Nero, however, was more than just a challenge. Ty had long suspected the cold, calculating Ptolemy highblood wanted not just Arsinöe, but also the power she had at her disposal. And Nero had made no secret of his longing for the days when the Cait Sith were treated like slaves of the lowest order. For Arsinöe to bring him up this way could only mean Nero had finally caught her eye, which meant he had her ear as well. And whatever doubts she had already been having about Ty’s presence in her circle would have been bolstered, agreed with, and amplified. For months.
Ty suddenly felt ill.
“Why would you send a highblood? You made it very clear you wanted a hunter for the job, and Nero isn’t one to get his hands dirty,” Ty ground out, barely managing to hold his tongue and lash out the way he wanted to. The queen might tolerate some insolence from him, but there were places one did not go… and he was suddenly unsure of his limits.
“I did send a hunter,” Arsinöe snapped. “And months later—countless precious lives later—I have nothing to show for it. There are tasks better suited to noble blood, Tynan. I have begun to think this is one of them.”
His throat ached from all of the things he wanted to shout at her, things that would get a cat like himself killed in a heartbeat if said in the presence of a highblood—any highblood. But he had not made this world, he reminded himself. All he could do was survive in it. Which is what he would continue to do, no matter the unspeakable things it did to what was left of his pride.
“How long will you give me, Highness?” he asked hoarsely, reverting to the formality he hadn’t used with her in many years. That finally seemed to touch her, for the little it was worth.
“A week, Tynan,” Arsinöe said softly. Then with warmth she had thus far been lacking, “A week, and I give this to Nero. But I know you won’t fail me. You never have.”
He accepted what passed for an endearment, but when he ended the call and set off again toward the square, Ty was left with roiling anger and no outlet for it. He’d wanted to know what had happened in his absence, but in this case, knowing was no comfort to him. In a roaming court of bored vampire nobility who were as predictable as they were violent, one of the things you could always count on was the constant jockeying for position among the highblood hangers-on who served as Arsinöe’s courtiers, advisers, and, occasionally, lovers.
Looked like Nero had finally made it to the top. And Ty couldn’t begin to imagine how he might undo the damage the clever Ptolemy had no doubt already done.
Tynan glared ahead as he zeroed in on a prime site for dinner, a seedy little bar called Jasper’s where the occasional patron staggered out into the cold night and mediocre 80s power rock drifted from the darkened interior with each swing of the door. His hunter’s mind saw all this, but the rest of his thoughts were consumed with Nero. He was well acquainted with the ambitious Ptolemy’s “methods.” Just as he had firsthand experience with Nero’s feelings on lowbloods and what, exactly, they had been put on Earth to do.
Just get the girl and get home, he told himself. Lily Quinn would either manage among the Ptolemy or would not. It was nothing to him. What mattered was making sure that the handful of his kind who still lived under the thumb of the Ptolemy dynasty didn’t end up like the rest: dead, or as good as.
As he stepped through the doors and was greeted by a blast of warmth and the scent of stale beer and cheap perfume, Ty allowed himself a moment, just a moment, to despise his own existence. He wished he had died that long-ago night. He wished his queen had never taken notice of him and left him to his fate.
But he had not, and she had. His lot was what it was.
And he had already been gone too long.
Hours later, at the time of night when the world seems to be holding its breath for the dawn, Tynan stood looking down at the woman who had already caused him so much trouble and who was, he feared, bound to cause him more before they were through.
His hunger had long since been sated by a homely little bleached blonde so drunk that she’d barely skipped a beat between the time he’d bitten her and the time he’d bundled her into a cab to go home. The blood, full of alcohol, had given him a pleasant buzz. But he found, with some dismay, that the scent rising from Lily’s skin was quickly renewing the knife’s edge of his eternal hunger. Feeding had done nothing to dull the odd effect she had on him.
He began to wish he had waited to come and find her here, asleep in the upstairs bedroom of the little old Victorian near the college where she taught. She had been so easy to find. He felt a moment’s pity for her, for the way her life was about to be upended—however long her life lasted.
Lily shifted and gave a long, soft sigh, as though agreeing with him. She was curled on her side, knees drawn up beneath the quilted coverlet, the shape of her body making an S. Small hands were tucked beneath the delicate point of her chin, and all of the thick, shining hair he’d so admired in the moonlight seemed to pulse with a life of its own, bloodred against the white of her pillow. Long lashes twined together, and her lips, a feature he had tried with no success to get out of his head all night, parted gently in sleep.
She was beautiful, Tynan thought with an unfamiliar sinking sensation. And he needed to find a way to draw her in as quickly as possible. That he would betray her, likely hurt her, was a given. He didn’t bother to rail against it much. If he didn’t do what he was told, he would die, and that was one thing he’d really rather not do. He was out of the habit.
Before he could consider what he was doing, Ty reached out one long, slim finger to trail it down Lily’s bare shoulder, finding her fair skin as soft as it looked. He sucked in a breath at the sensation that shimmered through his body at that small touch, curling through him, stirring him in ways that would prove very unhelpful if things continued this way. She shivered, too, as though sensing the direction of his thoughts.
He wanted her. But Lily, like so many things, was now forbidden to him.
With a frown, Ty lifted her hair away from her collarbone with a light, deft movement and bent as closely as he could without disturbing her. He didn’t really want to see—it was as though a part of him knew he hadn’t imagined it before.
A light green pentagram, entwined with a single snake, glittering faintly in the darkness.
Unconsciously, Ty lifted his other hand to rub at his own mark, the black Celtic knot of cats entwined with the ankh of the Ptolemy. When she had chosen him, the queen had branded him herself, allowing him but a single drop of her own blood on his tongue. She was so ancient, and so potent, that even a drop had been enough for him to manifest the ankh of the Ptolemy within his original mark, branding him forevermore as both minion and slave.
He was now the most fortunate, and most wretched, of cats.
Blood is destiny, Ty thought. The vampire creed. From the moment you were sired, your mark determined your path, the way you would exist, the circles you would move in. Your place in the realm of night, as fixed and immovable as the sun he would never see again.
There was no doubt in his mind now. Lily Quinn wore such a mark. But how and why and what it meant were all things he needed to have answered before he took her into the lion’s den. He would not risk Arsinöe’s wrath—not now, when he knew how much was at stake.
I will not have this woman torn to pieces because of my own mistake.
It was a foolish thought, rising unbidden and just as quickly pushed away with a faint feeling of embarrassment. Lily Quinn being ripped apart by a furious queen was the least of his concerns. And the gods knew he’d never try to protect humans again. Hadn’t turned out so well the last time, that was sure.
After a moment, Ty drew Lily’s hair back over the mark, casting a quick glance out the window behind him. He sensed nothing, but he would take no chances, not until he knew what this meant. He knew the marks of the dynasties, and of the lowbloods that served them, and all of the variations that marked the wretched nightcrawlers who lurked at the edges of society, who hunted as they were hunted.
This was nothing like those.
“What have you gotten me into, Lily Quinn?” he asked softly, rising again. But her sleeping face gave no answers. As the first hints of lethargy began to steal through him, heralding daylight, he left her, becoming a cat as he wound around the corner of her door and stole on silent feet down the hallway. The woman had a basement full of hiding places, and he had no intention of going far.
Even in sleep, he would guard her.
Because he had a bad feeling that Lily, before all was said and done, was going to need all the protection he could give.
In dreams, Lily wandered in a ruined temple that was still blackened and charred from the fire she had seen so many times. She looked for someone, but she knew not who; she knew only that they were lost to her forever. The fire, and the people, were gone.
In sorrow and confusion, Lily looked in vain for what would never return. A man’s voice whispered on the breeze. Her name. She turned, feeling the simple word like a caress.
And the mark on her skin began to burn.
BY THE TIME her last class let out on Monday, Lily had to accept the truth: She was obsessing. And not just her usual, run-of-the-mill sort of obsessing either. She was a master at worrying over the most minuscule issues, but having an impromptu make-out session with a guy who’d managed to vanish into thin air didn’t feel all that minuscule.
“Okay, that’s it for today, everyone. Drop your papers on the desk on your way out, and start reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. I hear groaning. There is no groaning in Intro to English Lit.”
Not unless I’m the one doing it anyway, she thought, eyeing the growing pile of essays as the students filed past. Lily grabbed her cup of coffee off the podium she’d been lecturing at for the past hour and downed the last of it. Even with the aid of her superinsulated travel mug, it had gone pretty much stone cold, but she was hoping that eventually, when her caffeine levels hit critical mass, she could shake this weird, nagging feeling she was experiencing. Tynan MacGillivray was probably a serial killer. A really, really hot serial killer. With beautiful silver eyes, and a mouth that felt like—
“My God, you look like death warmed over. Please tell me you at least had an attractive reason for losing so much sleep.”
Lily jerked her head up, momentarily startled. While her imagination had gone wandering, the lecture hall had completely emptied.
And she hadn’t even noticed.
This has got to stop, she told herself, but managed a smile for the woman making her way down the aisle toward her. Bailey Harper looked a lot like a pixie who had recently tangled with a werewolf, which meant she’d come straight over from work. Bay’s wavy blond hair was desperately trying to escape the ponytail she’d wrestled it into, and the ancient jeans and T-shirt she wore were absolutely covered in a rainbow of dog hair. Lily’s eyes dropped to Bay’s sneakers, which looked as though they’d been recently chewed. Probably with her feet still in them, if Lily knew anything about Bay’s clientele.
“Does every dog you bathe maul you?” Lily asked, frowning as she realized that there were indeed fresh chew marks on Bay’s Nikes.
Bay narrowed her eyes as she came to a stop beside her. “Pretty much. And since you’re avoiding my question, I guess I can assume there isn’t an answer I’m going to like. Damn it, Lily, would you please get your ass to a sleep clinic before you just drop dead of exhaustion?”
Lily sighed and huffed an errant lock of hair out of her face. She had learned early on in their friendship that it was an exercise in futility to argue with Bay. The woman was very short, deceptively cute, and a human steamroller when she thought she was right about something, which was almost always. The only thing that kept Lily from wanting to clock her sometimes was that Bay’s heart was permanently affixed in the right place.
“I’m fine, Bay. It’s been a while since I hooked up with Prince Insomnia, so I guess he was due for a visit. He hasn’t changed—all tease, no action,” Lily said, deciding to go for humor in her latest attempt at defusing this ongoing argument.
“Ha.” Her friend’s look was bland at best. “Lily, I’m aware that I’m no fashionista, but those dark circles under your eyes aren’t doing it for you. Or me, for that matter. I worry. You’ve seemed a little out of it since Friday night. Are you sure you were okay when you left the ghost hunt? Did something freak you out and you’re just not telling me?”
Lily covered her discomfort with an amused snort. Bay was a lot closer to the truth than she liked, and she wasn’t interested in talking about it yet, if ever.
“You mean besides having to listen to that couple getting it on in the closet? No. I still think they say that place is haunted just as a gimmick to add local color or something. Speaking of local color, how’s the cute techno-geek?”
Bay pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Another detour. We are not done talking about this, Lily Quinn. But since I have you to thank for it, cute techno-geek—otherwise known as Alex—is good. At least, I think he is. We couldn’t manage to hook up this weekend, but I’m heading to dinner with him in”—Bay glanced at her watch, and her eyes widened in horror—“Jesus, an hour.” She looked down at her dog-hair-covered clothes, then back up at Lily with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “First date is way too soon for him to discover the real me, don’t you think?”
“The real you is fabulous. I just hope he isn’t allergic to animal hair,” Lily replied. She leaned against the heavy metal desk that sat off to the side of the podium. Exhaustion, hovering like a phantom over her all weekend, seemed to be coming in for a landing. She’d been honest with Bay about one thing: It had been quite a while since her so-called insomnia had acted up. What Bay didn’t know, and what Lily had no intention of sharing, was that her bouts of sleeplessness were entirely self-inflicted and born out of self-defense. Even this bone-deep weariness was better than falling into the nightmare about the woman in the temple, over and over and over… the nightmare she had spoken about only once and never would again.
In any case, the end result was the same. She’d managed less than five hours of sleep the entire weekend, and that was usually about the point at which her body and brain came to a consensus that it was finally time to hit the sack. But Bay, true to form, didn’t seem inclined to just let this go.
Her friend’s brows drew together, creating a stubborn little furrow between them that Lily was all too familiar with.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Lily? I’m serious. You’re way too pale.”
Lily smiled with genuine affection. “You worry too much, Bay.”
“Someone has to. I’ll never understand how you managed so long without—” She stopped, snapping her mouth shut before the words came out.
But Lily knew exactly what they would have been. Without a family. Without anyone who cared enough to take care of you. Even unspoken, they stung. She had wanted a lot of things in her life that she hadn’t gotten, but pity had never been one of them.
“I can take care of myself. I’d think that would be more than apparent by now,” Lily said, her voice clipped. She didn’t want to fight with Bay, didn’t want to drive her off with a bunch of defensive BS either. But she wasn’t in the mood to have a discussion about her family or lack thereof. Not now. Preferably not ever. She looked away, beginning to gather up her things with stiff little movements.
Bay’s hand on her shoulder, the touch gentle and apologetic, made her pause. Still, she kept her gaze averted. She didn’t want her friend to see the unshed tears that suddenly filled her eyes. God, I must be exhausted, Lily thought. It wasn’t like her to let a simple mention of her crappy parental situation get to her.
But then, it was always when she was most tired that she had also felt the most alone.
“I’m sorry, Lily. I know you can take care of yourself. But it doesn’t make me a bad person for wishing you hadn’t had to for so long, does it?”
Lily sighed, her shoulders sagging. “No. I just hate being thought of as the poor little orphan no one wanted. It’s pathetic.”
“No. What’s pathetic is adopting a kid and then dropping her the second Plastic Bimbo’s baby factory starts working. What’s pathetic is caring more about your image than your child.”
Lily heard the icy fury in Bay’s voice, and loved her for it. But it was time to end this conversation. She didn’t want to expend any more energy thinking about the family that had cast her out—or the reason why they did it.
She blinked away the aggravating moisture in her eyes, straightened, and turned to look at her friend. “They don’t matter, Bay. They haven’t for a long time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate your burning need to kick their asses on my behalf. I’m just really tired, which means that Prince Insomnia has finally left the building. I’ll be fine with some sleep.”
Bay let her hand drop and stepped back, but that stubborn furrow in her brow remained. “You’re sure?” Her big blue eyes were soft with concern. “We’re good?”
“We’re good. Promise. You go have fun, okay? Call me tomorrow with the gory details.”
Bay lifted her eyebrows. “How gory? Like, sexy-time gory?”
Lily wrinkled her nose. “No, like if he lives with his mom and collects action figures gory.”
They laughed together.
“You got it,” Bay said, then threw her arms around Lily in one of the impromptu hugs it had taken her a while to get used to but were as natural to Bay as breathing. She envied her friend that, her comfort with physical affection. It had been in such short supply for most of Lily’s life that it still startled her more than anything.
Except, of course, when given by a man who seemed to have been made entirely from moonlight and shadow.
“Be careful on your way home, then. I’d offer to drive you, but I know how far that would get me.”
“You’re finally learning.” Lily gave Bay a quick squeeze and then drew back, frustrated that Tynan had reappeared in her thoughts so quickly. All she needed was sleep, she decided. Lots and lots of sleep. She could take care of herself perfectly well, just as she’d told Bay. And there was nothing wrong with her.
“I’ll bring burgers by the shop tomorrow so you can tell me all,” Lily said, forcing a cheerful note into her voice.
“Sounds good,” Bay said with a nod. “I’ll probably need the moral support. Moses comes in tomorrow.”
Lily shuddered in sympathy. Bay owned a successful dog-grooming business, and a lot of that success had come because she loved pretty much anything with fur, even if it was ornery. She even loved Moses, the excitable Saint Bernard that, though friendly, seemed to have some kind of canine ADD. And he was a serious drooler.
“Burgers from Frank’s it is, then,” Lily said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to find some tiny spot to eat that isn’t covered with slime.”
“Your lips to God’s ears,” Bay said. “And speaking of covered in slime, I guess I’ll go get beautiful for the cute techno-geek. Wish me luck!”
Lily did, and watched Bay bounce back up the aisle and out the door. As the door clicked shut, Lily’s smile faded. She turned to slowly finish gathering her things, feeling her fatigue weighing on her as though sandbags had been tied to all of her limbs. She wasn’t even going to stop by her office. She was just going to get in her car, drive home with the window open so she was sure to stay alert, and then collapse into bed.
After that, well, she could only hope that her sleep was full of pleasant dreams, or at least unmemorable ones. Or even just dark oblivion. All of those options were far better than watching the woman with the red hair be slaughtered again, her blood turning her green silk dress black while her baby screamed somewhere in the darkness beyond and all the world went up in flames.
Better than waking up with her strange tattoo burning with white-hot pain.
It tingled even as she thought it, and Lily shuddered, pushing the visions from her mind and focusing on the tasks at hand. She slid the papers into her messenger bag, along with the notes she’d used for the day’s lecture, then shrugged into the soft leather jacket that had been one of her splurges for the fall. The bag slung over one shoulder, her travel mug collected, she was off. A couple of her students waved at her as she exited Digby Hall and headed down the path that led to one of the smaller parking lots tucked behind the lecture halls.
She breathed in the crisp autumn air, surprised at how dark it was getting this early in the day. The sun was gone, and what light was left had turned the sky a deep bloodred that was rapidly fading in the west. Her steps were quick, the sound of her low boot heels clicking against the pavement in the quiet being punctuated only occasionally by the sounds of distant chatter. Lily watched a student hop into her car and drive off, the only other person in sight. Unease unfurled, quickly and unexpectedly, in her stomach. What was she trying to do, become a poster girl for how to get bad things to happen to you?
“I’m not the stupid girl who always dies first in horror movies,” she told herself. “My boobs aren’t big enough.”
The thought made her smile a little, but Lily still sped up as she caught sight of her car, now surrounded by empty parking spaces. She was just pulling her keys from her pocket when she felt the hair on the back of her neck begin to rise. Her steps quickened. Instinctively, she knew she was no longer alone—and she was being very carefully watched. Every movement. Every rapid beat of her heart.
Lily swallowed hard, drew in a shallow breath. Without even looking, she knew who it was. Her encounter with Tynan MacGillivray might have sent her into a tailspin, might have left her in a fog that hadn’t completely lifted, but she would never forget how his very presence had made her feel, as though she were nothing but a tiny, insignificant planet being pulled inexorably into the orbit of a powerful, and potentially deadly, star.
Over the last couple of days, she’d almost managed to convince herself that she was making too much of the strangeness of their meeting. But now, confronted again with the way every cell in her body tingled at his nearness, her normally iron will already softening and threatening to desert her, she knew her initial instincts had been right.
There was something very wrong about him. Something dangerous. And yet she found herself turning to where she knew he was, wanting desperately to see his face again.
He stood at the edge of the deserted parking lot, just outside the bright glow of the lights that illuminated the few cars, looking as though he’d been conjured out of her darkest longings and made flesh. There was little shadow to be had anywhere near the lights’ fluorescent glow, and yet it seemed he’d managed to find some to stand in. Or, Lily thought as she drank him in, maybe men like Tynan simply created their own shadow. That was crazy—but no crazier than the rest of this.
“Lily. You and I need to talk.”
His voice was just as she remembered, deep and slightly ragged. And at its sound, it took every ounce of her willpower to stay still. Every word he said seemed to translate to the same thing when it hit her ears: come to me. But this time, there was a difference. She’d had time to think about what he might be, what he might do to her before vanishing again into thin air. Things that would be worse than any nightmare.
Mentally, she dug in her heels, envisioning her feet encased in cement right where she stood. Whatever he was trying to get her to do, it wasn’t going to happen, no matter how good he looked just standing there in his own little pool of darkness like some modern-day version of Dracula. She felt light-headed, almost a little drunk, and Lily dug in harder, pushed back.
A quick flash of emotion crossed Tynan’s face as she concentrated, forcing the fog in her mind to lift a little. She saw both anger and bewilderment clear as day in the split second he let them show before schooling his expression into inscrutability.
Her blood turned to ice, but her fear, unwelcome though it was, anchored her that much more firmly in reality.
“Look,” he said slowly, holding her gaze with his own. “I’m sorry for the other night. I wasn’t trying to scare you, and I shouldn’t have run off so quickly. But I didn’t realize…” He trailed off, seemingly at a loss as to how to continue.
Lily just watched him silently, while in her mind she began gauging how quickly she could get to her car, open the door, and lock herself in.
He seemed to know.
Tynan sighed, an irritated little hiss of air through his nose. “You’re not really hearing me at all, are you? It’s always fight or flight with your kind, never any room in between.” He closed his eyes for a moment, obviously grasping for whatever patience he had.
“I’m not a bloody negotiator,” he muttered to himself.
Well, you don’t look like one either, she thought, watching him warily as she began to edge toward her car, which was tantalizingly close, though not quite close enough. Without his strange eyes locked on her own, she felt freer to move again, more in control of herself. Right at that moment, all she wanted was to go home and forget Tynan MacGillivray ever existed. Because even now, when she knew he had stalker written all over him, she couldn’t help but stare at him, appreciating the jagged, masculine beauty of him.
Couldn’t help but want him.
It terrified her that she could feel this kind of desire for someone who was probably going to kill her in very short order. But she couldn’t seem to turn it off any more than she had been able to banish the images of him from her mind since the night they’d met. Which meant only one thing for certain: she had to get out of here as quickly as she could and call the cops.
His eyes opened again to refocus on her with laserlike intensity. They were as silver as she remembered, and some trick of the light made them seem to glow faintly as he watched her, unblinking. As soon as his gaze touched her again, she felt her limbs go liquid, and a queer sense of calm tried to smother all of her misgivings and inhibitions.
“No,” Lily said softly, the sound of her own voice in the thick, heavy atmosphere surprising her. But she could immediately tell that Tynan didn’t like the simple refusal, so she shook her head and said it again. “No.”
His eyes narrowed, and in that instant Lily saw clearly that beneath the dark, attractive veneer was something predatory. She took another step backward, testing her luck. He didn’t move a muscle, but when he spoke, he didn’t sound happy.
“If you haven’t figured it out by now, woman, I’m not going to attack you. I could have ripped out your pretty throat a hundred times over by now if I’d been inclined that way. But you are going to hear me out, one way or another. There are some questions I need answered.”
“We have nothing to talk about,” Lily said. Another step. The night had gone still and silent around them, as though they were the only two people on Earth. Had he really just said he could rip her throat out? Who said things like that? And with every step away from him, from that strange pull he exerted, Lily felt reality returning, along with emotion undulled by Tynan’s influence. Fear crept in, intensified. And began to pulse in time with her heart, which sped to a trot, then a full gallop.
It was then that she saw another emotion on his face, so raw and primal that it was all she could do not to turn and run.
“Don’t,” he said softly, his voice little more than a growl. “I don’t blame you for your fear, mo bhilis. But you’ll have to learn to hide it if you want to survive. Blood that runs so hot and fast is a temptation many won’t even try to resist.”
She stared at him, horrified, and this time Tynan couldn’t hold her gaze. He looked away, a pained expression tightening his features.
I want to go home, she thought, her breaths shallow, panic beginning to rush through her system like a drug. I just want to go home.
“I need your help,” he said. “I don’t have any more say in this than you do.”
“I don’t have any help to give.” Her voice sounded thin, breathless, and she despised the weakness in it.
Tynan’s eyes sought hers again, catching them, holding her captive.
“Oh, I think you do. In fact, I’m now sure of it.”
“Well, you’re wrong. And if you don’t get the hell out of here in about two seconds, I’m hitting the panic button. They’ve got good campus security. And antistalking laws with actual teeth, if you think you’re going to keep following me around.”
For some bizarre reason, he seemed to think that was funny, which only confirmed to Lily that not only was this guy dangerous, but he was also crazy. His grin flashed in the darkness, as quick and beautiful as lightning in a summer sky. He was a terrible waste, Lily thought, hating herself for the hot twist of lust that coiled deep in her belly at that gorgeous, fleeting grin. Then it was gone, leaving no indication that he was anything but deadly serious.
“You can make this easy or hard, Lily. But the end result will be the same. Your choice.”
“Then I’m choosing not to have this conversation,” Lily replied, thumbing the panic button on her keychain. She knew she ought to just hit it and send him running, but something stopped her. Despite everything, despite her heart pumping like she had just run a marathon, some small, twisted part of her wasn’t quite ready to let Tynan vanish again. But she had to make this stop, she knew. The stress, the return of her insomnia, and then the nightmare… Somehow she knew it had all started again because of his appearance in her life. Whatever he wanted to say to her, whatever help he wanted, Lily needed to walk away from it now, on her own terms. Because all of her instincts were telling her that to stand here any longer was to invite madness.
She’d spent too long building walls against such things to let it in now.
“I’m leaving now, Tynan. If that really is your name,” Lily said. “If you try anything, I’ll set off the alarm. If you try to contact me again, I’ll call the cops. Find somebody else to fixate on. I can’t help you.”
His dark brows drew together as she backed toward her car, not stopping now. Her heart still thundered in her ears, but she tried to keep her breathing steady, tried not to stumble.
“Lily,” he began, his voice full of warning, and she knew she was going to have to push that button after all. But just as she felt the comforting bulk of her car against her back and began to grasp frantically for the door handle, Tynan’s head snapped to the side, almost as though he’d heard someone calling his name. The movement was so abrupt, so unexpected, that even Lily paused for a moment to see what he had heard. Whatever it was, he didn’t like it.
When he looked at her again, the change in him was stunning. Lily felt a scream welling in her throat, trapped only because the look on his face had stolen her breath completely away. His eyes were as bright as the moon, filled with unholy light. His lips were peeled back in a feral snarl over teeth that glinted long and sharp. He looked like a—
“Go home. Now,” he said, his posture tense, waiting, as though bracing for an attack—or preparing to launch one. “Lock the doors and windows. Let no one in. I’ll meet you there.”
She stared, astounded at the instructions. What kind of fool did he think she was?
“You actually think I’m going to—”
“I think you’ll do as I say if you want to survive, Lily Quinn. There are far worse things stalking the night than me, and it seems I’m not the only one who’s found you. If you want to live, do as I say. Go home. Now. And don’t even think about running to anyone else, unless you want to be responsible for losing them.”
Her legs trembled beneath her, even as her fingers wrapped around the door handle. She couldn’t contain her sob of relief as she managed to pull it partway open. She turned, nearly falling to the pavement in her haste to get in. She couldn’t think straight, couldn’t think at all, really. There was only Tynan’s voice, his terrible words, ringing in her ears. And coupled with everything she’d seen, everything she’d felt, they rang horrifically true.
The night had thickened around her to the point where any movement felt as though she were pushing through water. Even the lights, normally so bright, seemed to have gone dull and dim. As she threw herself into the car, shaking so badly she could barely disentangle herself from her bag enough to get the door shut, a low, menacing noise was vibrating through the darkness.
She finally got the door shut. Lily slammed the key into the ignition and turned it, hearing her own shaking moan as the engine started only distantly, as though someone else were running her body and she was only an observer. She threw the car into drive, gripping the wheel so hard her hands ached. And still she couldn’t stop herself from looking one last time at the man—the creature—who had just laid out a choice between letting him into her life or dying at the hands of who knew what. Probably something like him.
He had hunched his back, reminding her of a cat giving its last warning before attacking. His head was turned as he looked somewhere off to the side of her, out toward the athletic fields. And he was so still he might have been made of stone. But he must have sensed her gaze on him, because, although his eyes never left whatever he was tracking, he spoke, and the word he snarled was so loud he might have been in the car with her.
Lily slammed her foot down on the gas and tore out of the parking lot, tires squealing. This time, she didn’t look back. Whatever lay ahead was bad enough.
Excerpted from Dark Awakening by Castle, Kendra Leigh Copyright © 2011 by Castle, Kendra Leigh. Excerpted by permission.
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