Cassidy DiRocco knows the dark side intimately--as a crime reporter in New York City, she sees it every day. But since she discovered that she's a night blood, her power and potential has led the dark right to her doorway. With her brother missing and no one remembering he exists, she makes a deal with Dominic Lysander, the fascinating master vampire of New York, to find him.
Dominic needs the help of Bex, another master vampire, to keep peace in the city, so he sends Cassidy to a remote, woodsy town upstate to convince her--assuming she survives long enough. A series of vicious "animal attacks" after dark tells Cassidy there's more to Bex and her coven than anyone's saying. That goes double for fellow night blood Ian Walker, the tall, blond animal tracker who's supposed to be her ally. Walker may be hot-blooded and hard-bodied, but he's hiding something too. If Cassidy wants the truth, she'll have to squeeze it out herself… every last drop.
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Sweet Last Drop
Night Blood Series
By Melody Johnson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Melody Johnson
All rights reserved.
The bus ride from The Big Apple to Erin, New York gradually descended from the metropolitan area to suburbs, from suburbs to woodsy small towns, and then to nothing but fields and sheds and, of course, cows. I'd never seen so many cows in my life. Considering I'd never actually seen a cow in person, I suppose that wasn't much of a statement, but it certainly seemed like Erin had an over-abundance of them. Their mooing reminded me of Dominic's night blood-and-hamburger metaphor when he'd described how my blood tasted. "You are a rare dish," he'd said, and I'd been terrified by his attraction.
I was still terrified of Dominic, attraction or not, but terror could only hold so much immediacy for so long, especially when the object of my terror was being relatively civil. Despite his consuming responsibilities as Master Vampire of New York City, Dominic had found time to visit me on numerous occasions at the hospital while I recovered from our battle against the rebel vampires. He visited me at home once I'd been released from the hospital. He visited me in the office when I returned to work and outside the office at every starlit opportunity. When he came calling, he was always fully fed, completely gorgeous, and the ultimate gentleman.
I knew better than to believe the illusion.
In his infinite patience, I think Dominic was biding his time, and I suspected it had everything to do with this very road trip to Erin, New York, Ian Walker's hometown and the resting place of Erin's abundantly powerful coven Master, Bex. Dominic's Leveling was approaching in two short weeks, and he'd need all the power and allies at his back as possible to survive the one night he'd be as weak and vulnerable to death as any human.
Dominic, however, wasn't the only man in my life with ulterior motives, although Ian Walker had been decidedly less patient for this visit.
"I can't wait to see you, darlin'," Walker had said at least once per conversation during the daily phone calls we'd enjoyed for the past three weeks. "I miss you."
Walker's voice had deepened salaciously, reminding me of that one night in my office. He'd lifted me onto my desk, and his strong hands had touched me in places I'd never thought I could feel again. I would have found his persistence coming from someone else nauseating, but between all the darlin's and ma'ams, we shared an indelible bond that went beyond incorrigible flirtation.
Walker and I were two of the rare humans who had night blood, a hereditary gene necessary to complete the transformation into a vampire, but just because I had the potential to become a vampire didn't mean I wanted to become one. That was a main point of contention between Dominic and me, albeit one of our more vehement disagreements. Walker, on the other hand, understood and shared my opinion on the matter. He was the only person who could relate to the danger of living with the knowledge that vampires existed.
Despite everything we had in common, I remained skeptical of both Walker and my feelings for him. We'd only physically known each other for one week. How well could I legitimately come to know a person in such a short time? But when I looked back at the week we'd shared and survived, I swallowed my doubts and forced myself to say the words because they were true.
"I miss you too."
And now, after three weeks of nothing but phone time with Walker, I had finally arrived in Erin, New York for what should have been a vacation from all those demons back in the city. Less than twenty-four hours into our reunion, however, and Walker and I weren't any closer to putting the moves on each other. He'd barely had time to give me a proper tour of the town before we were once again staring at a body.
Her name was Lydia Bowser, and she was last seen by her grandmother, leaving the farm for a walk before dinner. According to her grandmother and Walker's detailed notes, she took a walk before dinner every night. She'd loved the last moments of daylight when "the sun had already dipped below the horizon but its rays still lit the sky with a dim, burning glow."
I'd raised my eyebrows at the description, both from its nostalgia and its telling timeframe. Foul play after dark meant only one thing.
Although I'd left the city on vampire business in addition to my business with Walker, I'd especially looked forward to leaving behind a recent stretch of murders. Detective Greta Wahl and Officer Harroway — my personal friends and two of NYPD's finest — were recovering evidence and leads at a snail's pace; considering their slow, nearly backwards progress on that particular investigation, I'd still be able to report their findings when I returned to the city next week. I was due for a reprieve from the usual "doom and gloom," as my boss often referred to my articles, but gazing down at Lydia Bowser, I realized that doom and gloom had, once again, found me.
"The police already called it quits for today. You should have told them the media was coming. It's not as if I can interview the victim." I crossed my arms and glared at Walker. Grief and fear didn't look good on me, but I'd wear sarcasm any day of the week.
Walker looked up from a marker he was inspecting. He might not possess Dominic's mind control abilities, but when his eyes met mine, I had to physically restrain myself from stepping toward him. A smirk tugged at his lips. "Knowing that the media was coming would have spooked them for sure. You can interview the coroner. He'll arrive in a few minutes to officially pronounce time of death and take her body to the morgue."
"I don't want to interview the coroner," I said stubbornly. "I want to interview a witness."
"I doubt an animal attack is what your boss had in mind when he approved your story on city versus rural New York crime fluctuations. You don't need interviews from this case."
I snorted. "Carter will love whatever I give him, although after my last article, an animal attack might be pushing the envelope."
Walker raised his eyebrows. "Animal attacks in New York City certainly warrant headlines, but up here in Erin, NY, darlin', they're the rule, not the exception."
"You're telling me this is truly an animal attack from an actual animal? Not a vampire attack made to look like an animal attack?"
"How can you know for sure? How do you differentiate between what's real from the reality that Bex fabricates?"
"Bex would never leave a kill out for discovery." Walker's voice was clipped and uncharacteristically formal. "She's very careful about selecting and disposing of her prey."
"Neither would Dominic, but with the Leveling approaching —"
"Bex's Leveling isn't approaching," Walker interrupted. "Unlike Dominic, she's unfortunately in full, indisputable command of her coven. They don't make mistakes, not like this." Walker gestured to the surrounding woods and the pieces of Lydia Bowser that had been left out for discovery.
I bit my tongue to stop myself from defending Dominic. He was indisputably in command of his coven too, but a faction of rebels was frustrated with his conservative rule. He knew they no longer wanted to hide their existence from humans, but he'd never suspected that Jillian Allister, his second in command, would lead the uprising. In some ways, the blow of Jillian's betrayal had been more devastating to him than his physical injuries. We'd barely survived, but despite her betrayal, Dominic had regained control of his coven.
Considering Walker's unilateral distain for vampires, defending Dominic would only derail our conversation, so instead I said, "I've no doubt that Bex has control of her coven, but mistakes happen. We shouldn't rule anything out."
Walker crossed his arms. "I'll need to measure the bite radius and inspect the tracks to confirm the species and the number of potential predators, but I've no doubt that an animal attacked and killed Lydia, not a vampire."
I held Walker's gaze for a suspended moment, but despite my alligator exterior, even I melted under his velvety brown eyes. I sighed and let some of the anger seep away. "So no interviews."
Walker nodded. "If you insist on discounting the coroner, no interviews."
"Then why bring me here? It's nothing I haven't seen from your lovely tour of the town this afternoon."
"Although it's not homicide, it's still a case I'll be working on while you're in town. I thought you'd want in."
I smiled. "I always want in."
Walker's smirk widened. "So stop wasting our time arguing and get your fill before Berry arrives to transport Lydia to the morgue."
"Bernard Bershaw, our coroner."
Walker's voice had started off teasing, but by the time he referred to Lydia, his tone had wavered. Here in his hometown, with a population shy of two thousand, Walker probably knew just about everyone. Living in a city of millions, the chances of knowing the victims are slim, but I could empathize. In all my years covering murders and interviewing loved ones, the only victim I'd ever known personally was Jolene McCall, and the memory of her death would haunt me for the rest of my life.
I kept my gaze carefully focused on Walker to distract myself from what little was left of Lydia. "I'm sorry for your loss. I'm assuming you knew her?"
Walker nodded, staring directly at her body. "Her father was the police chief here for years. He just recently retired. We worked on several cases together, and he always carried wallets of his girls. Lydia was his youngest."
Walker wasn't giving me background for the case. His words were more about grief than investigation, but something about his story struck a chord inside me, and God help me, I was hard-wired to pluck at it, grief or not.
From experience, I knew that people didn't respond well to personal questions at a crime scene. They took offense, no matter the intention, because it made them feel suspect. So I made my voice as soft and innocent as I could before asking my question, which, considering my five foot two, one hundred ten-pound frame, could usually sound quite sweet despite my actual disposition. "Did Lydia have a boyfriend?"
Walker's gaze snapped up to meet mine. My tone hadn't fooled him. "What are you getting at?"
I shrugged and kept my gaze honed on his. "It's just a question."
"And I want to know why you're asking it."
"Ex-police chief's youngest daughter takes a stroll at dusk, why? Because she loves the last burning rays of sunlight?" I kept my face neutral and let Walker make the connection himself.
Walker's face flushed. "This was an animal attack."
"It certainly looks like it." I conceded. "But what things are and what they look like aren't always the same."
Walker shook his head, but his mouth clamped shut.
"It's just a question, Walker."
"A question that didn't need asking," Walker insisted. "In this town, we don't look under rocks that best lay put to rest. Maybe Lydia had a boyfriend and maybe she didn't. It's best to let the family grieve in peace without questions and rumors unearthing pain over an animal attack."
"You don't know whether or not she had a boyfriend," I pushed.
He sighed. "I don't know. Her father never mentioned her having one."
"Does she have a best friend? Or is she particularly close to one of her sisters?"
"You're not letting this go, are you? You're gonna poke at wounds and make them fester over what is clearly an animal attack."
"You brought me here knowing my propensity for questions. I'm just doing my job."
Walker crossed his arms. "And what's that?"
"To face the facts and find the truth."
"This was an animal attack," Walker repeated, but he sounded exhausted.
"Yes, and I'm sure she sincerely loved taking walks at dusk," I said, trying to pump sincerity into my voice. "But I'm also sure that's not the whole truth. She told someone the real reason for taking nightly sunset strolls, and that's the person I need to interview."
The crunch of gravel groaned from around the bend in the road. Walker shifted his gaze and waved to the approaching van behind me.
"You can't just knock on strangers' doors and start asking questions like you do in the city. They don't know you here. They'll clam up."
I stared at him for a long moment. "But they know you. Since it's a case you'll be working on, maybe you can help me interview witnesses while I'm in town."
Walker shook his head slowly, but when he met my gaze, a wide smile crept over his features. "You're relentless, DiRocco."
"Only with things that matter," I said.
A car door slammed, and Walker stepped forward to greet the person behind me. As Walker passed he leaned down, and the heady spice of his cologne made me want to lean in.
"I'll see what I can do," he whispered.
* * *
Walker greeted Berry with a back-pounding, handshake-hug. When he stepped back to introduce me, I shook Berry's hand, looked up to meet his gaze, and kept looking up. Berry was a ruddy, solid man whose family life and career choice had replaced what had probably been a promising future in professional basketball. Most people towered over me, but Berry was exceptionally tall, made only taller-looking by his string bean-like appendages. By his slight hunch, I'd wager he was just as aware of his height as I was of mine. He was kind and quiet as he handled Lydia's remains, but despite Walker's claim that animal attacks were a common occurrence upstate, Berry had obviously not grown accustomed to witnessing such carnage.
Lydia had been lovely, with wide doll eyes and wavy, light brown hair. Her face and upper chest were relatively intact; I could still see past the few lacerations across her cheeks and shoulders to the person she'd been before the attack. The rest of her, however, hadn't fared as well.
From her upper chest down, Lydia's remains were scattered in ragged parts, detached organs, and indecipherable pieces. Long shreds of tissue still connected her left arm to her shoulder, but Berry found the marker for her right arm further into the woods. Her abdomen had been raked by claws, spilling her intestines. They stretched in a long, tangled pile next to the unnatural angle of her left leg. The jagged break of her shin tore through the skin just under her knee. Nothing remained of her right leg except shreds of muscle and tendon. If a scrap of skin had survived, I couldn't see it beneath all the blood.
The sight made Jillian stir inside my mind. I could feel her struggle on the opposite end of the mental twine connecting us; she hadn't fed in weeks, not since I'd entranced her to save Dominic from her betrayal. She and her partner, Kaden, were supposed to have been executed for their crimes against the coven, for their crimes against me, but despite Dominic's assurances that their sentences had been carried out, I could still feel her.
One last, frayed thread still connected our minds, and she wouldn't let go.
The sweltering burns over Jillian's body singed mine, as if we were imprisoned inside an oven, roasting in its confinement. I could feel her rage, as searing as the surrounding heat, as she envisioned and reveled in the thought of Dominic's slow and gruesome death.
Examining Lydia's remains was disturbing on many levels, without or without Jillian stirring my thoughts, but worse than the brutality of Lydia's injuries was my reaction to them. Gazing at her blood made my throat convulse in a dry, scratchy swallow. My skin itched from the inside, like I'd resisted a hit and needed a fix, except instead of narcotics, I'd found a gruesome crime scene. God help me, there shouldn't have been anything here to resist.
I glanced at Walker and Berry to see if they'd noticed my distraction. With Lydia center stage, no one was looking at me.
Berry placed two fingers on her neck, but it was a perfunctory measure. Lydia didn't have a pulse. We could see through the right side of her neck and the shredded tissue of her esophagus to the glistening stacks of her spinal column. Her blood was not pumping. Berry glanced at his watch briefly and stood.
"Time of death, 2000 hours."
Walker let a moment pass before he spoke. "How would you like to start?"
Berry cleared his throat. "I have a container as well as the body bag. Let's get as much of her as possible on the gurney and go from there."
Although some of Lydia was still whole and recognizable, not much of her parts were still attached by sturdy tissue. Walker and Berry lifted her upper body, left arm, torso, and left leg into the body bag in one smooth motion, but mid-move, half of her palm and three fingers fell to the ground. Walker picked up the fallen appendage and placed it gently in the container with her other severed body parts, but watching a piece of her physically detach from the whole was somehow worse. Berry couldn't stomach it. He left for a five-minute break, which Walker and I both encouraged him to take, but honestly, I just wanted to finish as quickly as possible and get the hell out of the woods.
Excerpted from Sweet Last Drop by Melody Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Melody Johnson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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