Blood Cross Chapter 24

Hot to trot?

We tramped out of the forest, a short line of blood-soaked humans and I. Angelina riding my back like a horsey ride, her heels kicking my hipbones. Little Evan, still asleep, was nestled in Derek's arms. Bliss was limp in a fireman's carry held by one of the soldiers whose name I hadn't learned yet. Hicklin was carried by the rest of his mates.

Faces unmoved, the soldiers had dispatched the ravening teenaged vamps and beheaded the rest. I hadn't let Angelina watch, which had made her pout. The vamp heads were in a pile in the center of the pentagram, gathered for the bounty they would bring Derek and his crew, all but Baldy's, Bettina's, and Adrianna's. Baldy was mine, confirmation of my completed contract, and my proof for payment. Bettina was still bound, too hungry to be released without a proper blood supply, preferably several of her own servants. Adrianna still had her head, though stakes pierced in her heart where she lay, faceup to the moon. I hoped that Leo might be able get something from her about the plot. Who knew what resided in a dead brain, that could be retrieved by a master of the city?

The bloody gem and the sliver of the Blood Cross were secreted in my pockets, though it gave me the willies to have the gem anywhere near me. It was still bloody scarlet and glowed, warm to the touch.

"It's Mama!" Angie screamed in my ear, her whole body quivering.

I flinched slightly, my eardrums still sensitive from the death keens of the vamps and the gunfire. "Yeah. And your daddy and Aunt Evangelina."

Molly and Evan ran to me, Molly taking Angelina, Big Evan cradling his son. They fell together on the grass, in the dark, and I could see their magics blending into a protective and healing ward. Evangelina took over, directing the soldiers where to drop their burdens. She had them place Bliss in the back of a rental car and gave each of the human men a healing amulet. But her attention was for the witch, her face hard and set, and the power she pumped into the drained girl was visible in the night air.

I stood there, my arms empty, having no idea what to do or how to do it, the relics burning holes in my pockets and my mind.

From up the road, a heavy black Hummer moved toward us, followed by two unmarked cars. Leo was here and he'd brought Jodi and her crew. Maybe Leo had been summoned by Derek. Maybe by the amount of power we'd unleashed. Maybe by the death of so many vamps at one time. Either way, my shoulders tightened. As usual, I wasn't up to a battle with Leo. Wasn't sure I ever would be.

As the armored vehicle and its tails slowed to a stop, the soldiers fanned out, hands empty, waiting. Moving with that snakelike vamp grace, Leo stepped from the passenger side of the high truck and to the ground. He was in a business suit, and the wind caught the jacket, blowing it open, revealing the silk lining, shining in the full moon. His eyes were human, and more sane than I'd seen recently. The breeze caught his black hair and tumbled it back from his face.

Bruiser emerged from the driver's side, finding me instantly in the night. His eyes were dark, intent, as they looked me up and down and came to rest on my face, on my right cheek, where the gem had touched me. I was pretty sure I would have a scar even after I shifted again. It was hurting with a cold pain, like frostbite but with a blood-pounding thump. Bruiser wore slacks and a dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal his forearms, a gun under one arm, and as the wind blew at his clothes, I spotted another holstered at his ankle. Two vamp-killers were sheathed on his thighs. He'd come to do battle. A little late.

Leo stopped at Derek and his men and they gathered in a small circle, voices low. I didn't bother to try to listen in. Bruiser came to me, stopping just inside my personal space, a bit too close so soon after a battle. His eyes still held mine. The silence between us had weight and texture, as if words were being said that I couldn't hear. His fingers came up and touched my right cheek, gently brushing, tracing down to my jaw, circling a wound that was a lot bigger than I'd expected.

To his side, I saw Jodi, Rick, and Sloan emerge from the unmarked van. I didn't watch to see where they went, my attention on Bruiser. He smelled of dry herbs, cracked pepper, and papyrus, of Leo and vamp blood. Faintly, of aftershave, spicy and spiky.

His fingers were warm on my cold skin. I had no idea what to say. Bruiser said it for me. "I wanted to be here."

I understood. Wanted to be here. Couldn't. He was Leo's.I managed a twisted smile, holding in the spurt of disappointment. "You had to do what Leo wanted. Follow orders."

"Yes." His hand cupped my face, his palm warm and dry.

I wanted to lay my injured cheek in his hand and weep. Wanted to rub my pelt over him, scent-marking him. But I wouldn't do either. I closed my eyes on the need that thundered through me, sudden and violent and demanding. It was the full moon. Only the full moon. Nothing else. "You had to follow Leo," I repeated, not able to prevent the loneliness echoing in my words.

"For now, Jane Yellowrock. But not forever."

My heart leaped, and I raised my head. Beast, close to the surface, peered out through my eyes. "You're his blood-servant. That's forever."

"Not always. There are sometimes . . . options. With conditions. If you're interested."

I found a real smile. I had no clue what he was talking about, but Beast was happy to have him near.

"Jane?" Rick's voice. At my shoulder. Close.

I stepped back and found the cop in the dark. He was armed and wearing a dark blue Windbreaker, the word POLICE in bold white letters. I had to make an official report to both Leo and the cops. Might as well start now.

"I'm okay." I took a steadying breath and blew out. "But we have one human dead, from vamp and witch wounds. Hicklin. I don't know his full name." It was suddenly awful that I didn't know the first name of the man who had died tonight. I swallowed back tears. "We broke up a ceremony intended to bring sanity to rogue vamps. To the long-chained. But it required the death of two witch children, which I wasn't gonna let happen. It was also, somehow, part of a plot to kill Leo and take over the city."

Bruiser flinched slightly. If I hadn't been watching for it, I'd have missed it. Protective instincts bred into him by sips of vamp blood. And maybe by love. Who knew?

"Bettina, the blood-master of Clan Rousseau, is bound and starving back at the site, next to a staked anamchara, part of a cross-clan plan to challenge and defeat Leo and return to the Naturaleza. Leo might be able to do something with her memories. She still has her head. I'll give you a full report later. For now we have seven vamps dead, all involved with the creation of the young rogues, all sanctioned under my contract with the council. Two witch children and one witch adult saved. If we can keep her alive."

"Where?" Bruiser asked. I pointed at the rental and Bruiser went quickly to Leo, drawing the vamp away, toward Evangelina and Bliss.

That left me with Rick. The pretty boy. The Player. The Joe who had been undercover and now was back with the cops. I looked at him. He didn't have the smooth, effortless movements of George Dumas, nor the charisma. But he smelled human, of cheap aftershave, of Leo's expensive coffee and pastries, of gun oil and ammo and faintly of horses. I smiled. He gave me back a half smile. "You with him? With Dumas?"

"I don't think so. He belongs to Leo. I'm not one to share, especially with a vamp."

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"I have horses, four dogs, a barn cat or three, parents who live nearby, and too many sisters to make my life pleasant. No wife, no girlfriend, no vamp master."

I felt a warmth start in my belly and move up and out. "You offering yourself?" I hooked my thumbs into my leather pockets and dropped my weight on one hip. "For what?"

"For . . ." He stopped, his mouth quirking up, revealing the crooked tooth on his lower jaw. "For whatever you might want. We could start out with wild monkey sex and see what develops."

The heat shot through me, hard and fast, like gunning a bike motor and hitting the road with a growl of tire on asphalt. "I need a shower. And I have a houseful of houseguests."

Rick let his smile spread. "I have a shower. And a hot tub out back under the stars.

Course I live in a single-wide trailer. It may not be up to your standards."

"Don't let the fancy house fool you. It's Katie's. My usual digs consist of an efficiency rental under the eaves of Old Lady Pierson's house. I have a shower but no hot tub, and if I did, Old Lady Pierson would want to join us."

"Hot to trot?"


"My place it is, then. I can take you to your bike. You can follow me home?"

"Oh yeah."

He didn't touch me. Just turned and led the way, flipping a nonchalant wave to Jodi on the way by. I walked in his wake and sat in the passenger seat of the unmarked. He climbed in the driver side and started the engine. And pulled slowly past the other vehicles lining the road.

Leo sat in the rental, the window down, blood on his lips. I was pretty sure it was Bliss's blood. He took a breath that looked odd, not quite needed, not quite human when his chest moved, but he didn't notice me. He was healing her the way vamps healed, with sips of blood and a slow laving of tongue.

Bruiser stood on the sidewalk, staring at the car, catching my gaze. Holding it. No question in his eyes, no accusation. Just an uncomfortable patience and a quiet strength.

But I'd made my choice. I didn't want a blood-servant, no matter how powerful and sensual and . . . No. Not a blood-servant. I wanted a human. I wanted this human. And mostly, I didn't want to share. I was pretty sure he read all that in my eyes. His gaze followed us as we moved out of sight, his mouth lifting at the corner, his expression plain in the side mirror.

By the time the night was over, I was tired and happy and satisfied, taking up more than my share of Rick's bed in exhausted contentment. I wasn't going home just yet. I figured it was best to give the Trueblood family time to reconnect alone anyway.

According to Bruiser, who called on my cell just after sunrise to fill me in, Leo's reaction to what he learned at the battle site didn't result in a vamp bloodbath, but it was close. And the council - the ones still healthy after Leo finished punishing his rivals -

was in pretty big disarray, not that I cared. The Blood Master of the City was intent on forcing certain new policies down their throats and they were going to have to give in, including bringing the witch/vamp cold war out of the past and to the bargaining table.

They didn't have a choice. Killing children - even witch children - was worthy of death sentence in the Vampira Carta. And Leo was fulfilling the law with a new purge. This time there would be no forgiveness.

I listened to Bruiser's spiel while hanging head and shoulders off the bed, my legs twined with Rick's, his fingers tracing lazy circles on the back of my thigh.

"You're likely in danger for a while. The remaining renegades that Leo's chasing down have sworn blood vengeance on you." He sounded worried. "I want you to take care."

I laughed sourly. "I did the job the council hired me for, stopped a vamp war in the process,and brought the witches into the vamp's archaic treaty process. All in one night.

Far as I can see, it's all good. You tell them I expect payment ASAP. In full." Taking a page from the locals, I disconnected.

"That your other boyfriend?" Rick asked.

Shock zinged through me and I rolled back on the bed, on top of him, slinging my hair out of the way. "Otherboyfriend?"

"If you want to call me that."

"I'll think about it. But if had a boyfriend, there'd be only the one."

"Hmmm," Rick murmured. The vibration of his deliberation rumbled like a big purr.

"Wonder if he knows that?"
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