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Authors: Lauren Dane

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Chapter Three

After returning home, she got rid of her blade and other weapons and left them, along with the file, well out of sight.

She’d gone out to find Jack in her living room, long legs stretched out, feet on her coffee table as he watched television. A beer sat near his right hand. He’d looked entirely at home there and she had to admit, she liked the way he looked drinking her beer and watching her television.

He fit in her place. They’d been friends a long time and she trusted his opinion, but she knew they had to have it out about her very long absence from Vegas before they could move on and talk about work.

So she gave him as much information as she could about the whys of where she’d been and for how long. He’d been pissed off at how long she’d danced around the truth, telling her bluntly he knew she wasn’t telling him everything. But it had to be enough. She couldn’t tell him what she was and that was that.

So she’d apologized profusely and meant it.

She couldn’t deny how much she’d missed him, but she’d had no choice and as much as she could, she tried to make that point clear. He couldn’t know she’d made a kill so high level the fallout caused a shitstorm that embroiled her in meeting after meeting, hearing after hearing for months on end.

Stupid politics.

Hoping he’d find her apology enough, she jerked her head,, motioning toward her kitchen. “I need to talk with you about something I heard. You hungry?”

“I’m starving.” He stood and stretched, apology apparently accepted.

Padding toward her kitchen, she waved him on. “Come on then.”

She pulled out makings for sandwiches, piling them on the counter, and he settled in on one of the stools around the center island.

“So I heard some interesting news about a body you all just found.” She continued working as she spoke, trying to be nonchalant. Most often he told her about the cases she asked after. He wasn’t supposed to without official leave, but she often provided them with a lot of helpful information. Jack was a man who wanted to take out the scum who hurt people. If it meant sharing info with her, he would.

“You heard, huh? How is that?”

She put a plate in front of him and cracked open a beer for both of them before grabbing the folder and sitting down.

“I’ve got my sources. You know that.”

He saw the folder and narrowed his eyes. “Goddamn, woman! How do you do that?” He tried to take it but she snorted and pulled her hand free.

“I’m special, what can I say. Now, just tell me already. It’s not like I don’t know. I want to hear your take on it.”

He sighed and took a bite of the sandwich. “Two days ago we found a body just outside of town. Nasty bit of business. Head nearly ripped off. Never seen anything like it. I know, wouldn’t be the first dead body we find outside town. But this body was nearly totally drained of blood.”

This was the part that disturbed her the most. Her heart stuttered for a moment. “Wh…what? Like how?”

“I mean veins collapsed, nearly totally bloodless. No blood where the body was found. No blood on the wounds. Talked to our guy in the morgue and he says it’s what a body looks like after they’re prepared for burial and drained of bodily fluids.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah. You got any ideas? There’s nothing. I mean nothing. No fingerprints. No hair or tissue. She had sex, but a condom was used. There were no footprints leading to where this body was discovered. In the middle of an abandoned dirt field—there should have been tracks but there were none. No tire marks except for our own. We saw the body from the air. It was like someone dumped her from above but there’s no physical evidence that the body was dropped. Looks like it was set down. But by what and how did they do it without making any tracks?” He shrugged. “You gonna give me that case file back?”

“No. Listen, it came to me from a concerned citizen. You know I’m not going to get in the way or make myself known in your investigation unless I’m called in officially to profile. But you have to understand I’m going to be looking into this myself.”

He rolled his eyes and nodded. “Fine. Right now, the higher-ups are just treating this like a run-of-the-mill murder of some dumb bimbo. But I don’t know. I’d appreciate your eye, Rowan.”

“Of course. You know I’ll let you in on what I find. I may not be on your timeline but you know I don’t sandbag indefinitely.”

He nodded. “You shouldn’t sandbag at all. Damn it, Rowan, this is dangerous shit. This is some fucked-up asshole out there. You’re not a cop.”

No. But what she was trumped that. Not like she could tell him what she was, though. “I’ll be careful. You know that.”

“I don’t know shit, Rowan. For years and years I’ve known you but I haven’t known shit. That needs to change sometime, you know? Why don’t you trust me?”

She looked at him, pushing the bag of potato chips in his direction before putting the file in a nearby drawer.

“I do trust you, Jack. But there are things I can’t say and you know that. Now eat your sandwich and stop bitching.”

Later, after he’d gone, Rowan sat out on her deck, her bare feet on the railing, the warm wind in her hair, and let the night settle into her bones.

The realization that she was going to have to stake some Vampires again so soon after the last kill came over her. Her brain worked over the details of the murder—tears on the neck so severe the victim had been nearly beheaded. Wounds on the chest. The heart removed and tossed into the chest cavity, nearly desiccated.

This wasn’t just a Vampire who’d gotten out of control on a feed. This was a monster and that was something altogether different and far more disturbing.

Chapter Four

After barely four hours of sleep, Rowan woke, knowing what she needed to do. She locked up, leaving her blade in the case in her back entry. Where she was going, she couldn’t rely on it. It wasn’t the place for weapons.

An hour later, she arrived at the nondescript ranch that housed the shrine to Brigid and her acolytes. As always, the Mother-Acolyte waited on the front porch, white-blond hair blowing in the heated breeze.

Rowan got out and approached, falling to her knees and bowing her head. “Mother.”

The woman put her hand on top of Rowan’s head and peace settled over her. “Rowan. Child of the triple Goddess. Come.”

Rowan stood and followed the priestess into the house and down a flight of stairs. It was cool and dark but the way was lit by both the glow of power about the priestess and the altar in the center of the room, dominated by a large cauldron of flame.

“I leave you here.”

Rowan nodded and removed her clothing. She cleansed in the ritual bath and pulled a loose-fitting robe over her head. Bare feet moved over the cool earth as she approached the cauldron.

Her fingers traced the marks on the altar, invoking the Goddess whose power she bore. Light burst through her and she let herself fall away from her body as she ascended.

“You’ve been away for some time. All is not well.”

Rowan looked up into the face of her real mother and smiled, wishing she could touch her, be held by her. But still, she was thankful she had this rare opportunity to know her in any guise. Not all who served the Goddess were able to ascend in spirit the way her mother had.

She nodded. “You know of my slaying of the Scion here in Las Vegas. They removed me from my position while the matter was adjudicated. And now…now I’ll have to slay another.”

“This is your duty.”

“It is. But something isn’t right. I feel…I don’t know, I feel like there’s something else coming that I can’t quite see. It’s going to be very bad.”

“Your father had a great gift. Cunning and intuition. Use it. I believe you’ll need all your gifts to survive this one.” Her mother paused a moment, gathering her words.

“My darling, I was merely a servant to her. You are her Vessel. Her blade is righteous in your hands. Do not forget that. I am proud.”

“Thank you. I want so much to make you proud. To do what is right in her name.”

“You’re approaching your thirtieth birthday. You move from one cycle of life to the next. No longer a maiden. I expect you’ll come into more of your power then, so be aware and listen when she speaks through you.”

Rowan had a set of gifts inherited through her blood and connection to Brigid. She presided over Imbolc ceremonies, marking Brigid’s feast day and celebration, traveling to Kildare each year to do so. Each February first on Imbolc and Rowan’s birthday, she gained more power. Gifted with battle and ability to kill when necessary, some years ago Rowan had come into some healing gifts. News that she’d gain some larger boost to her power on her birthday was of great interest.

Knowing better than to expect definite answers, Rowan remained for some time longer, listening to her mother’s poetry and stories, letting her stores of power be refilled by the Goddess herself. When the small flaming arrow tattoo on her shoulder began to burn, she knew it was time to return to her own plane of existence.

“Be well. Be smart and be vicious if you need to be,” her mother murmured as Rowan began to descend into her physical form.

After she’d changed into her street clothes, she went upstairs to the large kitchen and had tea with the acolytes who lived there. Rowan was always a revered guest in the house and it had ceased to make her uncomfortable after experiencing it for so many years.

As she left, they pressed apples—a remembrance of Brigid’s Isle of Apples—into her hands and she took them with a smile. This was one of the few places she could be gentle without worry. Where she could give and accept love without wondering what the price tag would be.

The day waned as she drove into the city. She wanted to talk to Jack and she knew his on-again, off-again girlfriend and sort of psycho bitch from hell, Lisa, would be off shift.

“Hey, Rowan! Long time no see,” Detective Don Styles called out as she walked into the room.

“Hey, Styles. Is Jack around?”

“I’m here. What can I do for you, gorgeous?”

Rowan looked over to where Jack stood, leaning in his doorway, and waved. “I want to borrow your brain, such as it is.”

“Better than the one you got. Come on then.” He waved her into his office and closed the door behind himself. “I imagine you came by to snoop so g’hed.” Pointing to the files on his desk, he remained standing.

With a shrug, she sat and began to leaf through them. Once she’d read the autopsy report and seen all the medical data she knew for sure the murderer had been a Vampire. Nothing else could fly into a scene like that. Nothing else could drain the body of blood that way.

Gruesome stuff. They didn’t have any real evidence. No skin, hair or fluid left behind but the victim’s. The coroner was still holding on for some tox reports, but he’d noted needle tracks on her arm. Most likely a heroin or speed junkie. Which also meant she’d fall to the bottom of the case list because sadly, junkies turned up dead. Not
this
kind of dead, but they’d avoid the truth and stick to what they knew. Which was that junkies lost jobs and alienated family. They sold what they had, borrowed, stole and eventually ended up on the stroll. Any one of these things could get a person dead.

When she finished she rubbed her eyes and stood. “Thank you for letting me look at this. I’m going to ask around. I’ll get back to you when I hear something.”

She started to walk past him but he put his arm up, blocking her exit. “You watch your ass. This is sick shit. Just tell me what you think. I know you know something you aren’t saying.”

“I have some ideas but I don’t want to say anything until I do some checking out first. You know how I work.”

“Yeah. Just don’t let it get you killed. You come to me if you need me, understand?” The frustration in his eyes softened to concern and she tiptoed up to kiss his cheek.

“I gotcha. Thank you.” She paused. “Really, I promise I’m careful.”

He sighed, rolling his eyes. “You’d better be.”

She breezed into her apartment and hit the speakerphone dial as she tossed herself onto her couch.

“Sangre International.”

Rowan snorted at that. Damned Vampires thought they were so clever. Blood International? So lame.

“I need to speak with the Scion. It’s Rowan Summerwaite calling.”

There was a slight hesitation. “Of course, Ms. Summerwaite. I’ll get him. Please hold a moment.”

The girl probably thought Rowan kicked puppies and ate small children dipped in honey mustard sauce. Geez, you kill a few Vampires and suddenly you were the big bad wolf and all.

Some moments later she heard the call being transferred and Clive picked up. “To what do I owe the honor of this call?”

She reined in her annoyance. “I need to speak to you regarding an urgent matter.”

He swore softly. “Really urgent? I’m expected on a conference call in ten minutes.” Of course, his arrogant tone was still there.

“Look, do you think I’d be spending time with you if it wasn’t really urgent? I need to have dinner anyway. Will you be done in two hours?”

“You’re awfully accommodating.”

“Stop acting surprised, asshole. You’re the one who started the fight last night. I’m not all holy water and blessed blades through the heart you know.”

“You’ve actually made me snort, Ms. Summerwaite. I don’t like the general downturn in my behavior since I’ve met you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a bad influence. What’s new? But?” She looked at her split ends and made a mental note to get a haircut.

“I do not admit to anything. But theoretically I may have started it. Although you’re a very vexing woman and I quite believe you goaded me into the worst of it. And yes, I will be available in two hours. Shall I meet you in my home or would you prefer somewhere else?”

She smiled. The bastard was charming in his own uptight way. “Your place is fine. I love to scare your inferiors when I show up. I’ll see you in two.” She disconnected before he could answer and ran upstairs to change her clothes.

Chapter Five

The heels of her boots clicked like a metronome on the shiny floors as Clive’s assistant brought Rowan up to his apartment again. The boots were favorites because they ferreted all sorts of weapons and lock picks and other various implements of up-to-no-goodedness in the buckles.

This time Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass met her at the doors of the elevator. The smooth, regal female who’d escorted Rowan murmured to Clive, who nodded and dismissed her before turning to Rowan again. And she didn’t fail to notice the way his eyes lingered on her breasts and legs.

“Ms. Summerwaite, won’t you come in?” He might have roving eyes, but his voice was haughty and cool.

“Sure, Clive.” She swept past him into the living room and sat down. “You’ve got a lawbreaker on your hands,” she said without preamble as he joined her, sitting across the low table from her.

“What makes you say that?”

She tossed the pictures from the file across the table to him and sat back.

Annoyed, he picked them up and looked through them one by one until he put them down on the table again. Face a schooled blank mask, he blinked at her. “And what makes you think this is a Vampire?”

“Uh, because I’m not an idiot?”

“Must you always be so crass?”

She stood up. “Crass? Look at those pictures and the notes on them. Drained of blood. Desiccated heart that’d been ripped out of her chest. Throat torn out. You know what it is as well as I do.”

He stood and got in her face. “You people are capable of this kind of violence too.”

“But not in this case.”

“You’re biased where we’re concerned, Ms. Summerwaite. It seems you’re always looking for something to pin on us.” He narrowed his eyes at her.

She threw her hands up in the air. “Always? You’re an expert on my behavior now? You’ve known me all of two days and you know what I always do?”

The moment stretched as their eyes remained locked. Feeling something build between them, she moved away, escaping to the large windows overlooking the Strip.

“I know your history.” His voice was a growl.

“And I know yours.” Her reply was a whisper and suddenly he was right behind her. “You know what this is. The body was dropped some miles out of town in the middle of an abandoned field. No tracks of any kind around the body. No tire marks. Nothing.”

He was silent for a moment. “It could have been an animal.”

She spun then, eyes narrowed, mouth set in a frustrated slash. “You know what this is. Stop it! What is it with you people anyway? You just don’t fucking care that one of your own has murdered this girl and left her body in the middle of nowhere. Animals wouldn’t go near it. All the time it sat out there in the open and nothing touched it. I’m here to tell you that the cops are investigating and this will bring down a whole load of shit on your heads. I will hunt this lawbreaker, Scion. So wise up and get out of my way. I only came as a courtesy.”

“Courtesy?” His face was close to hers, anger radiating from him. “You have no courtesy. Damn you,” he murmured right before his lips found hers, taking her in a rough kiss.

Before the surprise set in and enabled her to pull away, desire, hot and forbidden rushed through her body as her hands fisted in the front of his expensive shirt.

The cool of the window at her back didn’t matter as his lips owned hers, his tongue sliding into her mouth, shocking in the contrast of temperature even though it was only a few degrees different. It’d been a very long time since she’d kissed a Vampire. She’d been young then, a totally different person.

Wantonly, she writhed against his body, the hardness of him sliding against her breasts, her thighs. She kept her grip on his shirt, knowing if she let go, her fingers might wander to places best left untouched.

He had no such compulsion though. Slightly rough, as if he couldn’t touch enough of her at once, his hands roved over her body, up her thighs, across her belly, skirting her breasts, through her hair. All the while he kissed and kissed her with a feral intensity that made her lose her mind.

He broke away, pupils dilated, breath heaving from him, his incisors gleaming in the low light, and a thrill skittered through her, even as she knew she should be ashamed.

He groaned and laughed ruefully. “This is so wrong.”

“Yes, it’s wrong.” Was he gonna do something with what he was packing behind his zipper or what? Why was he questioning it
now?

“I already want to do it again. What are you doing to me? This is your fault.” He pushed away and began to pace.

It was her turn to laugh and thank the Goddess he’d acted like the prick he was to help her wrest control from her hormones.

“My fault? Who shoved their tongue in whose throat? You started it. You were all Frenching me and grinding your dick on me and stuff. I was just you know, um, stuck between you and the window.”

“Must you be so bloody vulgar?”

“Vulgar? You think that was vulgar? You’re a pussy. And anyway, you said bloody! I know that’s a bad word to you Brits.”

“You make me vulgar. Damn you.”

“Yeah?” She exhaled violently. “I’m already damned. Now, where’s the bathroom?”

He pointed and she snatched up her bag and sealed herself in the palatial powder room, staring at herself in the mirror. She gripped the marble countertop so hard the tendons in her hands protested.

Ruthlessly, she forced herself under control.

What had she done? What would she have done if he hadn’t stopped? He was the enemy and she was a traitor for even letting him touch her. Guilt and shame warred within until anger pushed it all away.

He’d had the audacity to blame her? Oh he was such a piece of work. All Vampires were so damned arrogant. He should be thanking his lucky stars she hadn’t twisted his ’nads off!

She splashed cold water on her face and reapplied her lipstick. Clive Stewart needed to be kept at a distance. He was a Vampire. Underline, underline, bold and exclamation points. She knew, only too well, what they were. What they were capable of.

Methodically, she smoothed her clothing and fixed her hair.

There was no reason to have
anything
but a business relationship with him. The more he feared her wrath, the better. Wrath didn’t include kissing and second base.

Looking at herself in the mirror again, she repeated that last bit, just to make it extra clear to herself because she totally
was
a bad influence, even on her own self.

Safely pulled together again, she returned to find him totally composed and sitting, looking through the file. Good.

“I should tell you you needn’t worry about catching the virus.”

She must have looked as confused as she felt because he pointed to her mouth. “I believe I nicked your lip. I apologize for that. And of course, Vampires can’t carry STDs so you don’t need to be concerned about blood exchange.”

Her tongue found the spot he’d brushed with his incisors. A perverse need to poke at him built within her. A need to shake him and wipe that smug look from his face. “I know. You seem to forget I was raised by The First. I lost my virginity at sixteen to one of his lieutenants.” The man who’d told her the truth about what really happened to her parents not six months later when they’d broken things off. When her godfather found out, the lieutenant had been executed. Another six months later and she’d escaped the Keep and landed on the doorstep of the Motherhouse in Paris.

He made a strangled sound, his fists clenching a little, before he sighed. “I do forget. Yes.” He looked at her for a moment and then down to the photos on the table. “What are you going to do about this?”

“I’m going to hunt him down and slay him. You can help me. Or not. The outcome will be the same.”

“You want me to help you kill a Vampire?” he demanded, incredulous.

“Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t, okay? I
know
what you are. I know what you do. This breaks the treaty. Period. You can’t kill humans. You certainly can’t torture them, kill them and dump their bodies. More than the fact that you seem to show no outrage over murder, you should be concerned that the human police are involved. They’ve asked me to consult on the case, as a matter of fact.”

“If you tell them about us, it’s you who’ve broken the treaty.”

She shook her head and stood. Picking up the photos and tucking them in her bag, she looked at him for several long moments.

“I have not broken the treaty. Let’s be clear here, you may wrap up what you are in a three-thousand-dollar suit and think you fool others about your true nature. But I don’t pretend to be what I’m not. I’m a Hunter and I’ll find this Vampire and kill him. I won’t feel remorse for it. I won’t tell the cops about you, but try not to underestimate humans for a change, okay? After a while, they’re going to start asking the right questions and they may just figure it out on their own.”

She moved toward the elevator and hit the call button. “In any case, it’s up to you what you do. But never what I do. Remember that. I’m a Hunter. It’s my job. I serve the Goddess, that’s my calling. Justice will be meted out.”

The doors closed behind her and he scrubbed his face with his hands, groaning at her scent. For a man who prided himself on never being out of control, he’d just had the most intense minutes of his life. In fact he’d never felt more alive than in the hours since she’d strode into his apartment the first time.

God, he’d kissed the Hunter. Against the windows. The one woman he should not want, should not have touched and he did it in view of the entire Las Vegas Strip. Worse, he’d do it again in a heartbeat. He’d have done more if he hadn’t heard his phone ringing in the top drawer of his desk across the room.

Straightening his clothing he went and washed his face and hands, slightly disturbed that he hesitated at getting rid of her scent.

Pulling himself together, he gave a terse order to his personal assistant to set up a meeting with the others immediately.

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