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Authors: Tracey O'Hara

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BOOK: Night's Cold Kiss
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“Don’t look so annoyed, darling. Does a mother need a reason to visit her son?” she asked, her bottom lip sticking out.

“Why are you here, Lilijana?” he asked, keeping his temper in check.

“I’ve come to town to attend the ball, of course.”

“What’s wrong with your penthouse?”

“It’s being redecorated, darling.” She batted her long lashes over her blue eyes. “You wouldn’t toss your own mother out on the street this close to dawn, would you?”

“Of course not,” Christian ran his hand through his hair.

“Very nice, Lili.” Viktor had positioned himself on the sofa between Lilijana’s companions. “Where did you find these gorgeous specimens?”

“Viktor, it’s been a while.” Her eyes narrowed and she turned back to Christian. “What have you boys been up to?”

“We’ve been in catching up, gambling, and partaking of the nightlife. You know—the usual,” Viktor said with a flick of his wrist, his eyes never leaving the male human to his right.

Christian noticed for the first time the two men were identical twins. “Mother, you’d better see to your pets. Viktor looks hungry.”

“You only call me Mother when you’re really annoyed with me.” This time she crossed her arms under her breasts to go with the petulant pout.

He ran his hand through his hair again and dropped his hand when his mother smiled at catching his telltale sign of frustration. Damn, why did she do this to him? “Look—it’s been a long trip and daylight is near. I just want to get to bed.”

“Fine—you do that, darling. I’ll catch up with Viktor.” She glanced toward the sofa where he sat running a forefinger across the left twin’s lips while the right twin caressed Victor’s thigh.

Christian threw him a warning glance, knowing Lilijana all too well. Viktor grinned back and winked. He was no fool.

“Oh, one other thing,” Lilijana said, “Your sister is here too Viktor.”

Christian had started for the door, but stopped, his heart sinking.

“I’ll catch up with Leri later,” Viktor said, his fangs gleaming white and ready. “Can I have one? Please?”

Christian shook his head. Better and better, his mother
and
his former lover had descended upon him, and they couldn’t have picked a worse time.

He made his way to the second floor and his bedroom, and her perfume warned him before he opened the door—to find Viktor’s naked sister draped across his bed.

She smiled and stretched languorously. “Hello, Christian. I’d expected you sooner.”

“This is not a good time, Valerica.”

“Oh come on, Christian.” Her tongue snaked around her forefinger before she ran it across her lower lip.

He’d had more than enough of women and their bloody games for one night. “I mean it. All I want is a shower and sleep,” he growled, getting close to the limit of his patience.

“I can wash your back for you.” Valerica sat up and smiled.

He walked to the side of the bed and bent so close their noses almost touched. Triumph flooded Valerica’s features and she leaned in for his kiss. Christian snagged her discarded lace robe from the floor and took a step back before throwing it at her. Her eyes widened.

“I told you, I’m not in the mood.”

Her amber eyes—the same as Viktor’s—narrowed. “Very well.” She donned the negligee and crawled from the bed, closing the distance between them. “But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

He dropped his gaze to her willowy figure under the open lacy robe. In the past he would’ve taken her up on the invitation, but tonight he wanted more of that firm athletic roundness, breasts that overflowed his hands, long platinum hair…

His hardness swelled in his jeans. Valerica smiled as she took a step closer and a silken curtain of brown hair slipped across his arm as she rubbed her hand against his crotch.

He grabbed her wrist roughly. “Go and borrow one of Lilijana’s toys, Valerica. I’m sure she can spare one if your brother hasn’t already worn them out.” He stepped away and turned his back to her. The walls shook with the force of the door she slammed behind her.

He unbuttoned his trousers and crossed to the bathroom.
Now for that shower.

Christian was drying off when Kavindish’s familiar knock sounded at his door.

“Come in.”

The butler entered carrying a crimson-filled glass on a silver tray.

“Thought you could use a meal before you retire, sir. You looked a bit pale.”

“Thank you, Kavindish.” Christian took the glass and drank deeply. “Have my other guests retired?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Raise me at the usual time—I’ll be going out early this evening.” Anything to avoid his guests.

9
Arena of Heroes and Fools

It’d been ten years since Antoinette had set foot inside the hallowed halls of the Academy of Parahuman Studies New York campus. Being a child prodigy Antoinette had had offers from several of the specialist training colleges both here and abroad, but she’d chosen New York because it had the best Venator training facilities, which she’d heard were now even better.

Sergei’s cane tapped across the marble floor, echoing off the high ornate ceilings of the empty hall. A clanging bell drowned out the sounds of their progress and soon the corridors filled with the buzz of noisy young people of all ages, races, shapes, and colors.

“Sergei—” an ancient voice called above the din.

“Rudolf—so you aren’t dead yet?” Sergei answered Antoinette’s former instructor.

Rudolf had been ancient when she’d met him as a child and in all this time he hadn’t changed one bit. Sergei had told her the old man had looked exactly the same when he and Grigore were boys training under him—before the accident had left Sergei with a severe limp.

“Instructor,” she said, bowing formally.

The wizened little man smiled and held out his arms.
“Enough of that—you never did it when you were a student, why start now? Give me a hug.”

She smiled back and wrapped her arms around him. He felt fragile, like tissue paper stretched over bone, but she knew from experience how quick and strong he really was. He had been one of her few friends during her time here and the only reason she’d made it through.

He held her at arm’s length. “You’re looking fit and doing well from all reports.”

“You look…” she stepped back a little.

“Older,” he said, chuckling.

“No,” Antoinette said, “just the same actually. Are you sure you’re not part parahuman?”

“Not that I’m aware, but I was an orphan.” He tapped her arm lightly with his walking stick.

“Well now…Sergei Petrescu. What a great pleasure to see you here.” A deep soft voice came from behind.

Sergei turned to meet the approaching tall man. He appeared to be in his late thirties, early forties she guessed, and rather attractive with light brown hair and a strong features.

“Lucian,” Sergei said in a booming voice. “Lucian Moretti.”

The man’s face split into a friendly grin. Dark intelligent eyes danced in his chiseled face, and the corners of his generous mouth titled under his almost too-big nose.

“Lucian,” Rudolf said, “this is Antoinette, Sergei’s niece and a former student here at the Academy.”

“The pleasure is all mine.” He raised her hand to his lips and brushed her skin with a featherlight touch, the barest of contact. It was an old-fashioned gesture she’d usually find annoying but from him it was flattering.

He clasped Sergei’s hand in both of his. “Sergei—it’s so good to see you again.”

“And you too, Lucian.”

“How’s the school?”

“Thriving, thanks. We have over three hundred students
in seven grades now and quite a few even look good enough to come here in a few years.” Sergei grinned and turned to Antoinette. “Lucian worked for a while under your Uncle Nic in Paris.”

Lucian’s smile slipped. “I was truly sorry to hear about Nic’s passing. He was a good man and taught me so much.”

“Thank you.” Grief tightened around Sergei’s eyes.

“So, are you teaching here?” Antoinette asked, changing to a less painful subject.

“Not really, I’m here on a research grant. But I’m also on the Academy board.”

Sergei grinned and gripped Lucian’s shoulder. “You were always much better with books than you were with physical training.”

“Lucian, would you please show Antoinette the changes we’ve made since she was here while Sergei and I catch up?” Rudolf said. “I’m sure she’d rather have the company of someone more her own age than two cantankerous old men.”

“Speak for yourself,” Sergei said as he wrapped an arm around the Rudolf’s shoulder. “I’m not old.”

“That sounds like a marvelous idea.” Lucian grinned. “It’d be my honor.”

She accepted his offered arm without hesitation, feeling instantly comfortable. Sergei and Rudolf shuffled off in the opposite direction, their heads already bent together in discussion.

“They’ll be at it for hours,” she said, watching them walk away, each leaning on his walking stick. She turned to look up at her guide. “Thanks for babysitting.”

Lucian chuckled. “Are you kidding? I get to escort the famous Antoinette Petrescu.”

“I’m not famous.” She waved off his compliment and glanced away to cover the small pleased grin.

“You’re the youngest Venator to graduate the Academy at the tender age of sixteen. Half the trophies in cabinet have your name on it. And every kid that graduates Venator train
ing has tried to beat the record score you set in the Trials.” He leaned closer and whispered. “You’re famous, and I’m using you to improve my image.”

She blushed, something she was unaccustomed to doing. However, his image didn’t seem in need of improvement—students greeted him warmly by name as they passed in the halls and he waved to them in return.

“So where shall we start?” he asked.

“How about the new training arena? I’ve heard it’s the most advanced in the world—I’d love to take a look,” she said.

“Well, you’re in luck—they’re running an exercise today. Would you like to observe?”

“That’d be great.”

“This way then.” He took her left elbow and led her out of the main hall.

Students, books, the warren of classrooms and training rooms, the familiarity of it all brought back memories and not all good. She hadn’t exactly been popular here with her single-minded focus.

Lucian led her through the halls of the Academy until they reached an area that hadn’t existed when Antoinette had been a student. They passed through a large set of doors and the scent of a dreniac hit her. In a barred room paced a small hunched, twitchy figure in a worn dark-gray hoodie with faded lettering that looked something like
BIATCH
on the back. She turned and hissed at them, fangs showing, but the bars were plated in silver and the creature wouldn’t come any nearer. As she turned away, she could have sworn the dreniac winked at her, but it must’ve just been a twitch.

“It’s a little early in the year for holding any Trials isn’t it?” Antoinette asked.

Lucian shrugged noncommittally as they made their way up the stairs at the far end of the corridor.

They only used real dreniacs in the Trial; it was the final rite of passage for a Venator. The initiates had two chances
to make their first kill, or they failed forever. Maybe the dreniac was for someone’s second-chance test.

The arena was huge, roughly the size of a national ice hockey rink and glassed in like an observation area above an operating theater. Half a dozen rows of red flip-up seats circled a well-lit pit in the center. Halfway down the length of the arena a group of teenagers sat around, joking and laughing among themselves. The kids didn’t even notice as Lucian led her to the front row.

Antoinette got her first look at the arena floor twenty feet below. It looked like a movie set of an abandoned warehouse, reminding her of her last dreniac encounter. Her hand automatically covered the area where she’d been wounded. She could hardly believe the infected gashes of only a few days ago were now all healed as was her black eye. However, that train of thought led her to somewhere she wasn’t prepared to go yet. She would eventually have to deal with what happened between her and Christian, just not now.

“Impressed?” Lucian asked, bringing her back to the present with a start.

“Yes, very.”

Lucian pointed to a small glassed-in area on the other side of the arena where a small humanoid shape moved. “It has state-of-the-art lighting and with the atmospheric effects controlled from the booth up there we can do any setting from a foggy night to rain, or set it up like this for an indoor hunt.” He sounded like a kid at his first baseball game. “They also control the video and audio feeds into the observation gallery.”

Antoinette noticed speakers and large flat video displays placed around the stadium. Suddenly the screen filled with the image of a sandy-haired youth with movie-star good-looks. He swaggered through the opening gate at the far end of the field, whistling to himself and looked familiar.

Antoinette could almost taste the excitement in the air.

“It’s about to start, let’s take our seats,” Lucian suggested.

A cheer went up from his classmates, but he couldn’t seem to hear them. The observation windows must be soundproofed, which made perfect sense. The boy shielded his eyes and searched the upper area, grinning when he finally saw his fellow students gesturing madly at him. He gave them a cocky half-wave salute.

“Mark is this year’s top student in the Necrodreniac Venator class, trained at your uncle’s school,” Lucian said.

Of course—that’s where she’d seen him—two years ago. He’s been a cocky little shit back then too.

“This is the first exercise of this class.” Lucian winked.

Antoinette smiled, knowing what he meant; the young hotshot was about to find himself on his ass.

A buzz came from the speakers above them and a disembodied voice announced. “The exercise begins in three minutes. Would the participant please make his way to the designated starting point?”

A hush fell over the audience as the boy swaggered to his position in the center of the pit and blew a cheeky kiss to someone in the gallery. A blond girl with large hoop earrings leaned forward to return it.

From up here the setup below looked much like a maze of wooden crates and cardboard cartons. Visibility would be difficult for the exercise participant, but those above had a clear view thanks to the height and the large screens.

The image changed from the close-up on the student’s face to a shot from behind and further away. Antoinette noticed the cameras set up around the pit at differing levels allowing the action to be shown from many angles. Very high-tech.

The lights dimmed further as the boy stopped. He wore jeans and a leather Academy bomber jacket over a white T-shirt. Odd choice. He seemed to prefer looking good than wearing something more practical. The boy began rotating his head, hopping up and down and shaking out his arms and legs to loosen them.

Antoinette had a little chuckle to herself. He may think
he was ready but he was in for a rude shock. The student who showed the most potential in the class was always the first through an exercise to teach the rest that talent was not always a guarantee of success. The Academy tradition of making an example of the best and brightest was well-kept from the new students.

Antoinette had been top in her class too. Already unpopular with the other students because of her aloofness, the fall she suffered in front of them had been the most humiliating experience she’d ever had. But it taught her to never get too overconfident and never take anything for granted.

Some of the screens showed two different views—including an infrared shot. A door on the other side of the pit opened and a dark figure slipped inside. She couldn’t tell if it was male or female as it wore a jacket with the hood pulled down low, but from the speed and the way it moved it definitely wasn’t human. Then she realized that it was the same hoodie with faded lettering she saw the dreniac in the cage wearing.

She sat forward in her chair. Surely they wouldn’t put an unseasoned boy in with a real dreniac—that would be insanity—that would be murder. She tried to stand but Lucian put a hand on her forearm.

“I thought you said this was his first time,” she whispered.

“He’ll be fine.” Lucian leaned his face closer to hers. “Trust me.”

Trust. She’d never trusted anyone except her family, and he was a perfect stranger. Yet—Something in his tone and his expression made her relax. She felt she’d known him longer than the little time they’d spent together. And surely they wouldn’t let the boy come to any harm this early in the term. She sat back in her seat, her stomach still churning with nerves.

The boy’s face loomed larger than life on the screen above the arena, his smug half-smile firmly in place as he indifferently twisted his wooden bokken. Wooden—it wasn’t even
a real weapon and he was facing a dreniac. Lucian leaned forward as the dark shape stepped from the shadows a few feet from the boy. Antoinette held her breath.

It was female with the typical twitchiness of an addict dying for a death-fix. The boy’s smile hadn’t slipped—in fact it grew even cockier as he casually fell into position.

The dreniac hissed, showing her long white fangs and before the boy, or anyone else, was ready, she attacked. Antoinette tensed and shocked gasps rose from the other students as the female slammed the boy on his back. Sitting on his chest, she opened a shallow cut on his cheek with one of her long talonlike fingernails and, with a purr of pure pleasure, licked the blood.

The boy’s smug grin disappeared, replaced by a mix of horror and revulsion. The dreniac laughed and leapt away, disappearing behind the cartons again. She obviously wanted to play with her prey before she finally killed him.

The boy rose to his feet and picked up his wooden training sword. The tip shook ever so slightly in his white-knuckled grip. He touched his fingers to his cheek and brought them away, his face growing pale as he gazed at the smear of blood. Then his expression steeled, out of fear or anger, Antoinette couldn’t be sure.

The boy shook off the jacket, the first smart thing she’d seen him do, but it snagged on his wrist ruining the effect. He flapped his arm impatiently. Antoinette sighed. Fear would’ve been so much better for focusing his instincts—anger would only cloud his mind and make him prone to stupid mistakes.

This time the boy went much more carefully, cocking his head from side to side, listening to locate his elusive attacker. His grip on the wooden bokken was rigid and stiff, his lips were drawn into a tight thin line. He was too tense.

The dark figure circled behind him. Antoinette wanted to shout out and warn the boy as the dreniac climbed the crates to his right. He turned, from the screen close-up Antoinette
noticed his nostrils flair and he lifted his head. He had the scent. Good.

BOOK: Night's Cold Kiss
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