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His dashboard clock showed one minute after midnight. The patrons spilling from the doorway of Addie's Bar were well into their partying, reeling around the parking lot laughing and shouting.
Anton Beck parked his truck and turned the ignition off, feeling the loud bass thump of the music all the way out here. Smoke curled from the open windows, a blue haze that reminded him of the morning mists of Vancouver Island, one of his favorite places on earth.
But this was Alpine, Texas, and even at this late hour, heat still shimmered from the dry earth in muted waves. Now that his air conditioner no longer blew, the heat made beads of perspiration break out on his forehead.
He needed to get out of the truck and begin what he'd come to do.
Still he sat, unwilling yet to take the steps necessary to take him inside. A headache had begun to throb behind his eyes, the kind that promised to explode into a full-blown migraine if he wasn't careful. The noise level inside the bar just might be enough of a trigger to send him staggering for a quiet place to lie down. He hoped not. Not tonight, of all nights. Such a thing was not possible.
Swallowing, he hesitated. Once he stepped onto the gravel, he knew the memories would swirl around him, haunting him with the aching familiarity of grief. Stark contrast to the riotous nightlife going on in and around the bar.
A bar was the last place he wanted to be tonight, any night, actually. But this was a special night, and this was Addie's Place. Addie was the nearest person he had to family, and this was the closest thing he had to home. He needed to say hello to her, to let her wrap him in her flower-scented arms and hug him, while feeding him tortillas and tamales. As though her rich, sinful food could help him begin healing the scars that pockmarked his soul.
But first, he needed to focus on his sister. This night, he had a ritual to complete. He had made a small cross outside the bar, near the rise and the twisted tree. Every year he came on the same date to light a candle and stand guard over the marker that noted the spot where his baby sister, Juliet, had been killed. He'd never forgiven himself for her death. She'd been here to meet him, after all. And he'd been running late.
Growing up, he'd always wanted to watch over her, keep her safe. Being taken away by the Pack to become a Protector had made this impossible. But he'd done what he could. In this instance, he'd failed tremendously. His own mother hadn't spoken to him since.
Now, three years had passed, and each year he felt the burden of guilt heavier on his shoulders.
A group of vampires strolled past his truck, laughing quietly amongst themselves. Their pale skin gleamed in the moonlight, beautiful and icy. Beck couldn't help but admire them, even knowing that at one time in the distant past, they'd been his sworn enemy.
And, as had become habit now, he searched all their faces, compulsively seeking one that was less than perfect, yet still lovely. Marika, his sister's best friend. She'd disappeared after Juliet had died, making him wonder if she'd had something to do with her death. If he ever saw her again, he planned to ask her.
Though he'd not yet found her, he hadn't given up hope. Vampires these days humored him. Once, staring too long would have been seen as an insult and caused a battle.
Juliet had endured a lot of flack for her friendship with Marika. Shape-shifters and vampires just didn't mix.
Beck had proven this even further by his one misstep with his sister's best friend. Though Juliet had never known about their brief affair, he'd never forgiven himself. He and Marika had been together when Juliet had been killed. The memory, even now so ragged and painful, made him flinch.
Shaking off the ache in his chest and the nagging hurt in his head, Beck got out of the car. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and headed toward the bar. Before he could see Addie's welcoming smile, he had a pilgrimage to make.
He patted his hunting-vest pocket, making sure his bottle of rotgut was still there. It was. Though he would have welcomed company, specifically Marika's, without her this salute was better made alone. When he'd finished, then and only then, he could go inside and accept comfort from the woman who'd loved them both like her own.
Trudging up the slight rise, he stared out over the moonlit land that seemed to go on forever, unbroken except for sagebrush and cactus. In the distance, the mesa rose, dark purple against the night sky, a tribute to ancient gods from a long-forgotten past.
He'd long ago tried to make his peace with them, settling finally for an uneasy compromise.
Each step brought him closer to hell.
Here. He slowed as he reached the spot. The marker, a stylized ankh carved in granite, had been well-tended, and someone had placed a foil-wrapped planter of tulips in front. Addie. Beck smiled slightly, making a mental note to thank her later.
He dropped to his knees on the soft grass and pulled out his bottle, barely wetting his lips before he spoke. "Hey, Jules," he said softly. "Me again."
The answering silence felt full of condemnation.
This time, he took a swig in earnest, the pungent whiskey burning down his throat. When he'd finished, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I haven't found your killer, not yet. But I promise you I won't give up."
No answer, of course. There never was.
Beyond him, in the undulating land toward the mesa, he heard the muted sounds of nature in the night, behind him, human noises of revelry enhanced by alcohol and music.
With a sigh, he took one more slug of the whiskey. He thought of all the things he'd like to say to his sister, of everything that had happened in the past year, without her. He missed Jules, missed her badly, and, though he knew this would never bring her back, he raised the whiskey bottle to begin his third and final toast.
Something or someone slammed into him from behind, knocking the bottle out of his hand and sending whiskey flying.
Beck twisted, ready to fight. He cursed the stupidity that had made him let his guard down, cursed, too, the fact that he couldn't even mourn without some bozo wanting to prove his manhood.
More than one. There were three of them, swaying slightly from drink, felt hats pulled low to keep the moonlight from revealing their faces. Two humans and a shifter, wearing his long hair in a thick braid down his back.
Beck got in one good left hook, connecting with a satisfying crunch. He felt confident he broke that guy's jaw, before one of the others picked up his whiskey bottle and smashed him hard over the back of the head.
In the dark place where they'd confined her, Marika Tarus bit back her rage and bided her time. Eventually, her captors would grow careless. Someone would open the cement sarcophagus to check on her and then, she'd attack. She'd channel all her anger and pain into building her strength.
The rough cement no longer felt cold or hard. She allowed herself no sensations, nothing but the all-consuming fury that heated her from within. She was patientone didn't live a few hundred years without learning that traitand she could wait until she was given the opportunity to escape. When they did give her that chance, she'd flee. But first, she'd extract her vengeance.
All vampires knew not to mess with a Vampire Huntress. Now these stupid humans would know, too.
She moved, the tiny effort bringing a slash of pain. They'd broken her legs and shattered her kneecaps, but her body had already mostly healed. Vampires healed quickly. She'd been able to move her legs without pain after two days and, though something still felt wrong, knew she'd be able to walk once she got to her feet.
If she got to her feet. How long were they going to keep her locked up in total darkness? And for what reason? No matter what they did to her, she'd never tell them what they wanted to know.
Once she'd refused to answer their questions, they'd beaten and tortured her, then put her into her current prison. It had taken all three of them to lift the lid and slide the massive stone over her. This was the only thing heavy enough to contain her vampiric strength. Otherwise, she'd have escaped long ago.
They'd given her injections, toosome kind of sedative. At first, the drug had knocked her for a loop, but the drowsy fog had worn off after a few hours.
The fools believed they were winning. Keeping her here, they believed if she were deprived of nourishmentbloodlong enough, she'd grow weak. She'd heard them discussing how long it could be before she wasted away. Their theory was eight weeks, tops. She'd smiled grimly in the absolute darkness. They had no idea how many months a vampire of her age could go without drinking. One more advantage she'd have, were they ever foolish enough to release her.
For now, she lay in her silent prison and waited.
Confinement in the small, airless space would have made her feel claustrophobic if she'd been human. Since she was quite used to squeezing into tiny places, the prison tomb didn't bother her. Yet. No doubt they were hoping her enforced solitude would eventually drive her mad.
They didn't know, she thought, grinning savagely to herself, she'd gone mad three years ago to the day.
Knowing her best friend had died in her place, because of her sins, had made her that way.
Now, she had one thing to live for. Her daughter. She'd never betray Dani, no matter what they did to her.
Beck came to trussed up like a turkey, being transported in the back of a pickup truck. With each bounce and dip of the tires, his body slammed against the metal bed. The haze of pain made him grimace, though his first thought was of Addie. She'd worry when he didn't show up for their annual remembrance.
Finally, they arrived somewhere, and the truck stopped. All three of his captors climbed in the truck bed then, standing around him as though debating their next move.
"Where is she?" One of themthe one who was also a shifterkicked him, hard. "Tell us, or we'll kill you both."
He grunted, glaring up at them. Blood ran in a slow trickle from a cut on his head. He itched to wipe it away, but with his hands tied, he couldn't.
She? "Who?" he managed to croak.
Instead of answering, his captor slapped him, hard enough to send his head ricocheting against the metal side.
Stars exploded and his vision blurred. While he gasped for breath, fighting against the pain, they waited, watching. One of them grinned like a fool. Beck wanted to smash that one's face in.
And he still had no idea what they wanted.
Damn. The world had gone insane. When the two other men lifted him and held him, one on each arm, Beck stared blankly at his attacker, wishing he could clear his head enough to think and plan. And change.
Instead, he stalled again, with truth. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Another punch, this time to the gut. Beck doubled over, retching.
"Where is she?" Same question, same intonation. Tell us what we want to know, or we'll torture you until you can take no more.
"Tell us. Where is she?"
"Who?" Beck cried out. "Come on, buddy. Give me a break. You have the wrong man."
The tall, wiry shifter stepped back, adjusting his hat. He wore his inky black hair in a long, braided rope down his back. Flexing his fist, he glared at Beck before addressing the others. "I think he's telling the truth."
"No, he's not." The one with the battered hat leaned closer, giving Beck a whiff of sour breath and cigarette smoke. "Let me make this clear. We've got the woman. Now, we want the kid. Either you tell us where she is, or the woman dies."
The woman? The kid? Beck closed his eyes, fighting back a wave of nausea and shock. "Listen," he said and then attempted to lick his cracked lips. "I honestly don't know what you're talking about. What woman?"
"The same one you've been looking for," the tall man
spat. "The vampire bitch and her demon offspring. Your daughter."
His blood ran cold. "You must be mistaken. I have no children." He had to try, God help him, to make them realize what nonsense they were spouting. What they spoke of was impossible.
"I have no child," he repeated.
"You do. We've seen the photographs of your kid. Yours and the vampire's."
He couldn't help himself. "Come on. Surely you know that vampires can't have children. Everyone knows that."
The three men glared at him, disbelief plain in their faces.
"We're taking you to her," the shifter with the long braid said, spitting a brown wad of chewing tobacco on the ground near Beck's feet. "Maybe once you see what we're going to do to the mother of your daughter, you'll realize we're serious and tell us what we want to know."
Stepping around him, the two men shoved him out of the truck. The three-foot fall felt like a story as he hit the ground hard and lay crumpled in a heap. A moan of pain escaped him.
Ignoring this, his escorts jumped down beside him and yanked him up again, one on each side, supporting him. As they moved forward, Beck stumbled and fell, earning a kick from the braided shifter.
"Let's go." He prodded Beck's back with something sharp that might have been a knife or a stick.