I like my women like I like my whiskey: more than is good for me.
Name’s Kane, Kate Kane. I’m a paranormal private investigator, which is like a normal private investigator except—and stop me if you’re having trouble following this—more paranormal. This business comes with a few basic rules: don’t start drinking before noon, don’t get your partner killed, don’t sleep with the woman who killed him.
Last year I broke all of them.
The only rule I didn’t break was the one that said don’t work for vampires. But then a dead werewolf showed up outside the Soho shag palace of Julian Saint-Germain—a bloodsucking flibbertigibbet who’s spent the last eight centuries presiding over an ever-growing empire of booze, sex and hemoglobin.
I shouldn’t have taken the job. The last thing I needed was to get caught in a supernatural smackdown between a werewolf pack and a vampire prince. Even if the vampire prince was dangerously my type. But what can I say? I was broke, I’m a sucker for a pretty face and I gave up on making good decisions a long time ago.
This book is approximately 77,500 words
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Whiskey & Cigarettes
I woke to the taste of stale whiskey and the smell of stale cigarettes. Rolling over, I found a picture on the pillow — Patrick had been drawing me again. I stared into the face of the girl I used to be: someone young enough, pretty enough, and stupid enough to find that shit romantic. I'd dated a vampire when I was seventeen. It was a mistake I was still paying for.
The portrait wasn't quite up to his usual standard. Normally he shaded every eyelash. I'd given up hoping he'd get bored, so he must have been interrupted.
I tried to go back to sleep, but knowing somebody had been watching took all the fun out of being unconscious. Giving up, I crawled out of the covers and went to close the window. It wouldn't do any good, of course. I'd have to talk to Nimue about fixing the wards. But the last time I'd seen her, I'd been rebounding hard from Eve, so we'd been a bit busy for rituals.
I couldn't be arsed to shower, so I threw on what had been yesterday's clothes yesterday, and made myself a breakfast of reheated coffee and ibuprofen. The post was mainly bills. All right, entirely bills. And I hadn't paid my TV licence, which meant no more late night Diagnosis Murder marathons.
The truth was, since Archer'd died — since I'd let Archer die — work had been slow. Well, slower.
There was a voicemail from Dad on my laptop. I hadn't sent anything back for a while, but the messages still came in every month or so. And my mum, or rather my stepmum — as I'd discovered around the time I went through my dating vampires phase — had emailed a photograph of their new garden. They were standing in front of a shed, smiling and waving, Dad with that slightly off-kilter look that came from not being able to see the camera. It's weird to think of your parents having a life, but my dad was once the mortal consort of the Queen of the Wild Hunt. And by consort, I mean ... yeah. Jenny — my stepmum — eventually got him out, but the queen kept his eyes. They found me on the doorstep a few months later, wrapped in a wolf skin, in a basket made of briars. An honest-to-God faery princess. But since my mother's the immortal embodiment of an abstract concept, it's not like I'm going to inherit a magical kingdom anytime soon. And she'd never shown up at parent-teacher night.
My headache had eased just enough that I thought I could probably face daylight. It was Sunday, but I was supposed to be in the office working on the bottle of Famous Grouse in my bottom drawer. I was getting on with that, juggling my caseload of zero and reminding myself to take Archer's name off the door, when the incubus came in.
"Kate Kane?" His voice was sex and honey.
"The Prince of Cups commands your attendance."
I hadn't had much contact with the four princes who ruled the vampires of England. I knew they went by Cups, Swords, Coins, and Wands, and near as I could tell, Cups got people laid, Swords killed people, Coins bought people, and Wands kept the whole thing quiet.
"I don't work for vampires." I finished my drink and poured myself another.
His whiskey-gold eyes scanned my office. "It doesn't look like you work at all."
There weren't many reformed sex demons working for vampire princes in this town. In fact, there was exactly one reformed sex demon working for a vampire prince. So, this had to be Ashriel, right-hand man to Julian Saint-Germain, Prince of Cups. The word on the street was that he'd gone celibate, which made him about half as dangerous as most other demons but still twice as dangerous as, say, me. And, as luck would have it, he and his boss were two of the city's supernatural power players I'd managed not to piss off. Probably because I hadn't met either of them.
I leaned back in my chair and gave him the once-over, which even I could admit was no chore. The promise of sex rolled off him like too much cologne. He was beautiful, and deadly, and thankfully not my type. "Sit down, then. Tell me what this is about."
He poured himself into a chair like bourbon over ice, hands folding primly in his lap. "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to disclose any details. I'm simply here to escort you to the prince."
That could've meant anything from a polite drive to a bag over my head. I leaned forwards to pour myself a top-up, reaching with the other hand for the blade duct-taped to the bottom of my desk. I had a whole row of them: gold for vampires, silver for werewolves, iron for faeries, sanctified steel for demons. I hadn't worked out how to kill an angel yet, but I'd only had to try once.
"Escort," he repeated.
It wasn't a bag-over-the-head tone, so I left the knife. Kept the drink.
"I'll need more than that before I agree to anything."
"You don't have to agree to anything. You only have to come with me. And you will be compensated for your time."
"Eight hundred a day." I chinked my glass against the empty bottle. "Plus expenses."
"That's outrageous." He sounded almost amused.
"It's my 'I don't work for vampires' rate. Take it or leave it."
He stood, apparently taking it. "Shall we go?"
Not even an attempt to haggle. That meant one of two things. Either this was a "money is no object" kinda deal, or they were planning to kill me before payday. I went to one of my cupboards and slid back the false panel. The incubus drew in a soft breath. I had a lot of knives. Really, a lot of knives. And I liked people to know it.
Ashriel flicked up a brow. "There's caution, and then there's paranoia."
"I'm a big fan of alive." I took gold and sanctified steel. And a hip flask. "Where exactly will we be going?" "The Velvet."
No surprises there. If you wanted to drink, dance, or fuck in London, chances were you'd be paying the Prince of Cups for the privilege, and the Velvet on Brewer Street was the heart of Julian Saint-Germain's Empire of Sleaze.
"All right." I pulled my phone out of my pocket and traced a route on Google Maps. "But this is the way we're going."
He stood and leaned over me to peer at the map. He smelled of clean skin and sandalwood, with an underlying sweetness you might want to lick from his naked body. If you were into that. "What? No. That's ridiculous. We should go down Kingsway, not Drury Lane."
"It's my way or no way."
"Fine." He gave an exasperated sigh, but his orders probably involved getting me to Brewer Street, not bickering about the route.
It didn't seem like a trap, but that didn't mean it wasn't one. And anyway, there were tolls on Kingsway.
I locked up and followed Ashriel's taut little arse downstairs.
A metallic green Mini Roadster was parked on the double yellow lines outside my office. And here was me thinking that working for the prince of pleasure might actually involve some, y'know, pleasure. Where was the limo? The champagne? The twitchy-tailed bunny girls to drape themselves all over me? "Under-compensating for something?" He grinned. All that and dimples too.
"Why me?" I asked, once I'd stuffed myself into the passenger seat, folding my legs up like reluctant concertinas.
Ashriel's eyes slid sideways and caught mine for a moment. "Discretion. Skills. You used to be the best."
"You used to shag your lovers to death. People change."
"Their behaviour, yes. In essentials, no."
He was still watching me, his eyes pools of sunlight drawing me onwards with promises of unimagined sexual ecstasy.
Been there, done that. I yawned.
"See." He dropped the demonic crap. "Useful skills."
Ashriel was texting one-handed with his phone pressed to the steering wheel. I reached instinctively for my knife, and he sighed. "I'm letting Julian know we're on our way. Not calling down an airstrike or marshalling my army of PI-eating demons."
It's all fun and games until someone gets stabbed in the back.
"Mind if I smoke?" he asked when he was done.
"Knock yourself out."
He pulled out a packet of unfiltered Camels and put one between his lips, and I reached my arm across the seats to light it for him, the flame from my Zippo defining the arch of his cheekbones in flickering gold. I should really get a new lighter. This one was a present from Eve and had the Serenity Prayer engraved on it. She always did have a cruel sense of humour. I used to find it pretty hot.
"Help yourself, by the way." Ashriel reduced the cigarette to a column of ash in a single inhalation.
"Yeah, right." Never take stuff from demons. Rule number obvious.
"Oscar Wilde," he drawled, "wrote that a cigarette is the perfect type of perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied." He paused. "Wanker."
About ten minutes later, we pulled up at the Velvet. The place used to be a strip club in the sixties, a history it flaunted like a pair of nipple tassels. It was red and gold on the outside and red and gold on the inside; dirty, decadent, and smugly ironic, as though it was flashing you and winking at you at the same time.
Ashriel led me past mirrored walls and geometric Deco fountains, golden balustrades and plush velvet booths. It was what you'd call an intimate venue — full of nooks and crannies with no line of sight. I hated intimate venues. And I could have done without the low ceiling and the endless horizon of me reflected by the mirrors. Fuck, I'd let myself go a bit.
There was a gallery concealed behind suspicious-looking red velvet curtains and a corner stage still sparkling with glitter and lost sequins. Beyond the bar (more mirrors and gleaming racks of bottles), we passed a fire exit leading to the alley outside, and went through a set of swing doors opening onto a stone staircase. Each step was edged by a stripe of fading yellow paint, and the walls were covered with health and safety notices, fire drills, staff schedules, and hand-scribbled memos. Honestly, I was just glad to get away from all that shiny.
The next floor was a dressing area. One wall had been given over to yet more mirrors, each set into a frame of bare bulbs, while the rest of the room was a carnage of discarded glamour. I catalogued racks of costumes, ostrich feather fans tangled with wigs in every colour of the rainbow, silk stockings and feather boas, haphazard piles of makeup, and dodgy props, including a six-foot martini glass with its own inflatable olive.
The final staircase took us up to a much smaller admin area. There were a couple of office workers here, tapping away at their keyboards and answering phones. But as soon as Ashriel stepped through the door, they stopped whatever they were doing and stared at him. He was standing close enough to me that I felt his body tense.
Demons can't feel pleasure unless they steal it from someone else, which means they're basically out-of-control junkies. And their hit of choice is people, the only drug that actually jumps up and down shouting, "Pick me, pick me!" I'd have felt sorry for him if I hadn't seen how badly demons can fuck you over. And the more damage they do, the stronger they get and the harder it is to kick them back to Hell where they belong. Which sounds harsh, but demons hurt people just by existing. I'd never met one that was trying to stop. If he really wasn't feeding on anyone, Ashriel had chosen to make his own life a living hell. Poor fucker.
I offered him an alternative temptation. "Smoke?"
He pulled a cigarette from the packet with a crackle of paper that made me want one too. "Marlboro Lights," he sighed. "Barely a peck on the cheek of destruction."
"I'm commitment phobic."
He bit off the filter. "Julian is waiting for you. Straight through there. I'll be downstairs."
Once he departed, office life slowly resumed with a clacking of keyboards. There was only one other door in the room. "Julian Saint-Germain — Manager" was embossed on it in gleaming gold. And just like that we were back in Shinyland. I went inside, only mildly reassured by all the knives I'd brought. Vampire princes being what they were, I could have been stepping into anything.
But it was quite nice in there.
No orgies of androgynous bonk demons. No blood-slaves chained to the furniture. Instead, accents of gold on walls the colour of a really good merlot, lots of gleaming, honey-coloured wood, and the sort of heavy antique furniture you're not allowed to make anymore because trees, conservation, blah. Between the exposed ceiling beams, a vast skylight framed the rooftops and towers of the London horizon against a sweep of grey morning sky. Now that was just showing off. Even though it didn't physically hurt them, most vampires avoided direct sunlight because it weakened their powers. You'd only hold court under a giant window well after dawn if you were crazy powerful or crazy reckless. I was guessing the Prince of Cups was both.
Julian Saint-Germain was sprawled in a chair that was basically a throne, one leg hooked casually over the arm for maximum possible louche.
"Well," she purred, her Bette Davis eyes sweeping me up and down, "you're not quite what I was expecting."
That made two of us.CHAPTER 2
Princes & Corpses
She was wearing the traditional uniform of that sort of vampire: tight leather trousers, knee-high boots, a plum velvet frock coat, and a sleazy grin. Her ridiculously ruffly shirt had slipped from one shoulder to reveal ivory skin and a hint of black lace. And I was staring.
There was no point wishing I'd showered this morning, but I wished I'd showered this morning.
"Well, you're just what I was expecting, Ms. Saint-Germain." I folded my arms and pointedly neglected her title.
"Call me Julian, sweeting. Let's be intimate."
"Let's not. And don't call me sweeting."
She pulled her leg from its rest and leaned forwards on her throne, elbows propped on her knees as she studied me. I dug through what little I knew about Julian Saint-Germain: vampire (obviously), probably about eight hundred years old, powerful, ruthless, and ... hot? Really, really hot. She was giving me a use for words I'd never thought I'd need. Gamine. Sylph-like. Exquisite. Damn it. Damn it all to hell.
"You," she said suddenly, "have extraordinary eyes."
I do. They're purple. Thanks, Mum.
But Julian's voice came over me like a rush of silk, and it took me a long moment to remember that I was done with vampire bullshit. I turned to leave. It was mid-morning, so I was spared a full-on vamp-bamf, but she darted past me anyway, an inhuman blur.
One day, a vampire will do that to someone and they'll just keep walking. One day.
But not today.
I stopped just before we collided. We were so close that I'd have felt her breathing except she, well, wasn't. She was shorter than me — most people are — but that just meant she had to turn her face up to mine as if she was expecting a kiss. Damn it. Damn it.
I rolled my extraordinary eyes at her. "You didn't invite me here to practice cheap pickup lines."
"No" — she grinned — "but I'm willing to be flexible if you are."
"I'm armed, you know."
"I do know." She took a step forwards, her body aligning itself to mine, cold but yielding in all the right places. "I enjoy dangerous women in fedoras." Her fingers danced down my forearm, outlining the shape of my knife through my sleeve.
I sidestepped, and she followed as though we were dancing.
"Oh my," she murmured. "Your heart is beating so fast. I can almost taste it."
I leaned away from her. "Do you actually need a PI?"
She moved back and ran a hand through her hair, which was short and dark and looked like it would be as soft as feathers beneath my fingers. Which I wasn't thinking. Not at all. "You distracted me," she complained, as though it was somehow my fault that she'd jumped all over me. "There's a dead body in the alley outside."
"And it just slipped your mind?"
"No, I just decided to seduce you first."
"He's dead, he's not going anywhere."
"Yes, but I'm better in bed." She waggled her eyebrows.
I growled. "Tell me about the goddamn murder."
"And Ash said you wouldn't take the case."
"Wait, what? I ... haven't taken the case."
She smiled brilliantly, snow-white teeth and cherry-red lips. "Then why are you asking me about it?"
Well. Damn it. Damn it again. She had me there.
She sauntered off and took a seat on the edge of her desk, one leg drawn up to her chest, the other swinging idly. Lethal had never been so cute. "Obviously I'm paying for your discretion as well as your ... services." She did the eyebrow thing again. "I really don't need the mortal authorities to start poking into my business, or for the press to get hold of this. 'Man Horribly Killed While Trying to Have a Good Time' is not going to sell out my venues." Her expression turned momentarily thoughtful. "Or maybe it would, I don't know. People can be so macabre. Anyway, find out who did it so I can stop them doing it again." Her fangs flashed. "By killing them."
"What makes you think it's connected to you?"
"Sweeting, I'm a motherfucking vampire prince. Everything is connected to me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Iron & Velvet"
Copyright © 2019 Alexis J. Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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