Death's Rival CHAPTER TEN

Worthy Prey. Will Not Hurt Him Too Bad

Eli's right foot shot out, heel first, leg going level and straight, balance shifting as he moved, weight sliding. Faster than human, I stepped aside. With an almost uncanny awareness, he seemed to expect my body shift and followed the kick with a sweep of his leg. His heel impacted my side, but I was moving as fast as the kick. With an elbow, I clamped his foot against me and ducked under his leg, twisting, forcing him to follow or wrench his knee. In midair, he spun with me. Yanked his foot free and landed, cat-footed and sure. Eli bounced back from me.

Fun, Beast thought at me. Play with worthy prey.

I stood still, letting my little half smile and my silence work for me. I didn't look at Daniel, but I could smell his surprise. Now he knew I'd been holding back. I wondered how that might affect our training and sparring sessions in the future. Eli stepped in, closer, studying my body language, which was almost lazy. He rolled his head on his shoulders, letting the action camouflage his next move. Just before he punched out, my knees bent; I leaped. His fists were a fast one-two-three, into the space where I had been. I was three feet back, my breathing slow and steady.

Something in his face shifted into a cool, neutral expression. The fighting man was no longer playing. I let my half smile spread and gave a little bring it on gesture with my left fingers. Eli moved left, placing each foot with precision, letting his balance shift and roll. I let him lead our little dance, following his movement.

Worthy prey. Will not hurt him too bad, Beast thought. I felt her eagerness rush through me, hot and sweet. Hunt, she thought.

Eli swept out with his leg. I leaped, kicked with the heel of my foot, straight for his solar plexus, holding back enough to keep it from a killing strike. Too fast for his human reactions, my kick landed. He fell back, grunting with the aftershock. Reached for my leg. But it wasn't there anymore as I landed, cat-footed. I circled him. He swiveled with me and punched with his right. And the fight was on.

Eli was faster than any human I'd ever fought. Had more muscle mass. Knew some dirty moves I wanted to learn, even as they landed and bruised and the breath huffed and hissed out of me. But I was faster and way stronger than I looked. Eli started to sweat one minute into the fight. At two minutes he was breathing hard. I was grinning. And Beast was landing some moves of her own, one a cat-clawing strike that I had seen alley cats do, right claw going for the face, body shooting back, and back claw spinning up and going for the abdominals. Nasty move.

I was no longer hiding that I wasn't human, or at least not fully human, not pulling my punches and kicks, and I was faster and stronger with Beast participating. At twelve minutes, by the clock on the dojo wall, I had broken a sweat, but Eli was dripping, stinky, breathing hard, and his cockiness had disappeared. He had a few scratches, maybe a bruised rib or three.

I leaped back and let my hands drop slightly - only slightly - I wasn't stupid. "Yield." The word was a growl, low and snarled, and I could feel that my eyes were glowing faintly gold. Grudgingly, Eli nodded once, a downward jut of his chin. "Ravioli?" I asked.

The combo of Italian food and an animal growl must have tickled Eli's funny bone because his mouth twitched down slightly and then up. He laughed, a soft huff. "One serving of pasta or one small pizza. Per shower."

There was too much wiggle room in the statement. I clarified, "One fourteen  -  or fifteen-ounce can of Italian, pasta-based, prepackaged food, or one twelve-inch or smaller pizza from the restaurant or frozen brand of Alex's choice, or one fast-food meal of his choice, not supersized, to be given for every shower he takes with soap and shampoo, but limited to one food item per day. And for every day he skips a shower, he misses two days' worth of food."

Eli thought about that, weighing fast food against his brother's body odor. "Done."

"Pizza? This was about pizza?" We both glanced to Daniel, standing with his arms loose and ready and an incredulous look on his face.

In unison, we said, "Yeah."

Daniel shook his head, but he had a speculative look on his face that boded poorly for our next private sparring session. Daniel wanted to take on the fighter he had seen on the mats today, not the girl he had been working with for several months. Sensei might not want to compete, but that didn't make him want to fight or win any less.

* * *

We walked back to my house, Eli ruminating silently, me enjoying the feel of the late afternoon sun beating down on my shoulders. I felt, more than heard, when he had his questions all in order. "No. I'm not. And no. I won't."

He laughed again, that soft huffing breath that must have worked well in Ranger recon. "Say what?"

"No, I'm not human. No, I won't tell you what I am. And while I'm at it, yes." I let my half smile lift, feeling his eyes on me. "You were more fun than anyone I've sparred with in a long time. Even if I did have to hold back some."

"Hold back?" His voice rose a hair in surprise.

I slanted my eyes at him. "You're still alive."

Eli cursed under his breath and put one hand to his solar plexus where my first kick had landed. "Hold back, my as - my backside."

I just grinned.

Inside my house, the kitchen was clean, the dishes - including the ravioli bowl - were washed and left to dry on a towel by the sink, and Alex was hooking something up to the back of the television in the living room. Only it wasn't my TV, but a large, flat screen that hadn't been there before. It was perched on a drop-leaf table I vaguely remembered seeing upstairs, and electronics were scattered across its top: black, gray, and silver boxes, wires, an ergonomic keyboard, and squares of tightly folded paper instructions, which the Kid hadn't needed to read.

"How much?" Eli demanded.

The Kid glanced up, just now seeing us. He had no security consciousness about him at all. We could have been two ninja attackers or even a couple of Angus steers, and I didn't think he'd have noticed us enter. "Less than two grand."

Eli took a breath to yell, I took one to laugh, and the Kid forestalled us both by adding, "I called George Dumas." He went back to work, his attention on the spiderweb of cables he was constructing.

My stomach took a rolling tumble and I managed to inhale. George was well enough to be taking calls. "And?" I said, sounding almost normal.

"Mr. Dumas approved the preliminary estimate as a start-up to replacing the security system lost by the Master of the City in the fire that took out his house. He gave me all the necessary passwords and I'll rebuild it from here, tie it in to the system at the Vampire Council Building, the system at the heir's home out back, and eventually move the operating system to the Pellissier Clan Home when it's reconstructed." He glanced up. "Oh. I e-mailed him the prelim estimate on your company's letterhead. You know, since we work for you now. Not trying to undercut you or anything."

Eli and I had both stopped speaking, watching the brainiac work. I looked at Eli. Several things to say flashed through my head and I settled on "I don't have a letterhead." Which was stupid but better than some other options.

The Kid opened a new coil of cable, watching us from beneath his too-long bangs. "You do now. Your business name's not real catchy, but the blurb line is. Yellowrock Security. Protecting and staking vamps - we do it all. Have Stakes, Will Travel."

I laughed out loud. Eli did his soft chuckle. "I just know I'm going to regret this, but I like it. But I don't think we're exactly going into business together."

"Sure we are. The three of us." He looked back and forth between us, suddenly confused at our reactions. "We make a great team," he insisted. He pointed at me. "You can't construct an extensive security system all by yourself. You'd have to hire help. Me. You need someone to handle the recon and work with extra security personnel, someone who can do everything from general construction to electrical work, to defusing a bomb. There he is. You've got the cash and connections we need to get started, only my brother's too ethical to steal your business out from under you. You're also more than human and are reported to heal fast, move fast, and fight like a demon. Perfect team.

"Oh. All that research on your security team and vamps is printed out, collated, and stacked at your door, as well as e-mailed." As if dismissing us, the kid bent over and started moving the electronic thingamajig boxes around on the old table. Eli watched, his lips pursed, mild confusion on his face.

Alex looked up at us again. "Hey. That company, Greyson Labs? I found a tie-in to vamps. It's not a huge tie-in, but it's there."

I couldn't help my smile. The kid was good. Arguably better than Reach, and even paying the outrageous fees Eli was charging me, he was cheaper than Reach. "Yeah?"

Alex stepped over and dropped to my feet, which I did not expect, and started talking. "There's this boutique pharmaceutical company called DeAli. It, in turn, is wholly owned by a company called Allyon Enterprises, which is wholly owned by Vazquez International. Vazquez Int. also owns Greyson Labs." His grin grew. "Greyson is the company that employed Ramondo Pitri. Greyson is also the owner of Blood-Call Inc. I traced the money up in a line, then across, and down to find it."

I dropped slowly to the floor, bringing my face even with the Kid's. "Blood-Call was the name on the business cards in Seattle."

"Bingo. And Blood-Call? It's like a - " He shot a look at his brother and changed whatever he was about to say into "Like, you know, an escort service for vamps." At my expression, he ducked his head to hide his gratified smile. He'd discovered something important and he knew it.

"Escort service. Meaning blood-meals and dates," I said. That seemed important, and I tried to put it all together, but there was too much going on in my brain to isolate it.

"Dates. Yeah. Riiight," the Kid said.

"How did you figure all that out?" I asked.

"Financial market info is pretty easy to come by on publicly held companies. I'm doing a search to see if any board members in any of the companies are suckheads."

"Publicly held companies?" Eli barked. "Government companies?"

Kid rolled his eyes. "I'm not hacking. 'Publicly held companies' means the general public invests in them and owns stock. They're traded on the stock exchange and stuff. Like that. A lot of info on publicly held companies has to be freely available, if you know where and how to look."

"And Ramondo Pitri is now tied in to Blood-Call, which caters to vamps," I said, "and to Greyson Labs, which has something to do with medicine. And disease."

Yeah. That was it. It was tenuous, but it felt right, the way a puzzle piece feels when you slide it into a hole shaped just for it. "If someone wanted to infect a vamp, giving him a disease through sex and dinner would be a good way, but I don't see how a company that makes cancer drugs would also develop a disease." I thought about that for a moment, seeing if the puzzle piece still felt right, and oddly it did.

"There are Blood-Call businesses in Seattle and Sedona and Boston," I guessed.

"Yes, ma'am, there are. Of course there are Blood-Calls in lots of cities in the U.S., and there haven't been takeovers in them. Yet. So I haven't proved a tie-in."

"Huh. I don't know how or if it ties in either, but as a pal of mine says, I stopped believing in coincidences when I stopped believing in Santa. Not bad work, kid. Not bad at all," I said.

I went to my room, picking up the pages as I went. Business partners? Not gonna happen. But temporary contract employees this good, I could live with.

I stepped into my room and stopped. Someone had been in here. I smelled a male and a female, raw fish, tea, powdered sugar, and perfume, something expensive and light. I sniffed, parsing the scent-signatures. Deon, Katie's three-star chef, a friend of sorts, and gayer than an entire line of chorus dancers, had been in my bedroom? Yeah, he had. With him was Christie, one of the girls who worked at Katie's Ladies. I did not want Christie, with her piercings and chains and tats and general air of disdain, in my room. But -

The place had been dusted. The bed was made up. The cobwebs hanging from the ceiling were gone. I walked in and lifted the coverlet. Clean sheets. I bent and sniffed. The corners smelled of Deon and Christie - only the corners, which was a happy discovery. It meant they had handled my sheets, not rolled around on them, which was a mental image I really didn't want to intrude in my psychological space. But there was a major problem. My weapons were gone.

A slow boil started somewhere in my gut, and I dropped the collated pages on the bed, walked out of bedroom, across the foyer, and into the living room. Before I could open my mouth, the Kid said, "In the ordnance room," and pointed at the hole in the wall. I narrowed my eyes and ducked into the hollow space under the stairs. My weapons and Eli's were laid out on the striped mattress, hung on spikes in the mortar of the rock walls, stretched out on trays on a battered bookshelf and on another table, both from upstairs. There wasn't much room to walk, but it was . . . organized. My blades were on the new table in sheaths or laid out by blade length. The stakes were on one end, the silver-tipped ones, then the ones made of ash wood. The vial of holy water was hanging above the table surface. My guns were on the bed by size, from the M4 shotgun to the tiny derringer. Eli's weapons and ordnance, including flashbangs and what looked suspiciously like C4 explosives, were on the other side of the bed and on the bookcase. And there was a lot of it. My hands itched to try out a garrote made to look like a bracelet. Niiice.

I went back into the living room, leaving Eli inspecting his own weapons, his face like a thunderhead. Once the swinging shelving in the main room was in place, the weapons would be better hidden than when they had been kept in the small locked gun safe in my closet. Here, they were safe from children, not that any lived with me any longer. And that was a pain I had no intention of dealing with just now.

Saying nothing, but smelling Eli's irritation, I went back to my room, let my hair down, and showered off before plopping down on the corner chair to read. It was boring stuff, the financial pages of a publicly held company. I was much more interested in the drugs Greyson Labs made, but I couldn't make heads or tales of that part either. Having taken an emergency medical technician course after high school didn't prepare me to understand the making of drugs I couldn't even pronounce. To stay awake, I got out my gun cleaning supplies and started to clean my .380s and nine-mils. It quickly became read a paragraph, work on a gun, read a paragraph, work on a gun.

Even with the necessary chore, I was about to nod off in boredom when the Kid knocked on my bedroom door. I set the weapon to the side and called for him to come in. Alex pushed in the door, his left leg shaking uncontrollably, his eyes wide, and his scent full of the adrenaline of excitement - which smelled a lot better than the kind of adrenaline that comes from fear or shock. Instantly, I knew he had found something, and the breath I took felt icy as it scored through my lungs. "What?"

"A vamp owns Greyson Labs. And Blood-Call. And all the other interconnected companies."

I got up and walked into the living room. "You might want to hear this," I said to Eli. "Did you know your brother is a genius?"

"Yeah. The court system said so," he said wryly.

"Spill it," I said to the Kid.

"His name is Lucas Vazquez de Allyon. The dude is a twelve-hundred-year-old, suckhead creeper, who fell off his rocker, like, five hundred years ago. He's seriously whacked." When I looked confused about the rocker part, he added, "A perv. A freak. A crazy-ass crackhead. An old dude who - "

"Alex!" Eli said. It was a military-grade reprimand in two syllables.

Alex's mouth slapped shut. I wondered what the Kid had wanted to say, and figured my cussing ban had been about to be abused. Instead, after a moment's hesitation, the Kid said, "He owns the company Ramondo Pitri worked for, though Pitri was way down the line. And de Allyon is a violent, narcissistic pervert, even for a suckhead." The Kid handed us each a sheaf of papers and, by unspoken agreement, we all went to the kitchen, Eli to make a pot of black glue he called coffee in an old percolator he'd found in the small butler's pantry where the tea things were kept, and me to start a pot of water for tea.

Lucas de Allyon had been around a long time, making a place now and then in history. He had lived in Spain about the time that Leo had been turned, and became a conquistador in search of gold, sailing to the Americas. A vamp on a ship at sea. I wondered how many of the sailors made it alive to the new world. Once here, he seemed to have reverted to the practice of Naturaleza.

Vamps and their killing bloodlust were kept in check by adherence to the Vampira Carta, which governed everything in their lives from how to care for their young scions while they went through the curing process, to how to address the need for territory and hunting grounds. Vamps who believed in the Naturaleza refused to be bound by the constraints of the Carta; they hunted and drained humans and killed without remorse or pity. Lucas's history was well documented. He had killed and enslaved hundreds, maybe thousands, of American Indians, putting them to work and to death as he saw fit. He had created himself a little kingdom and killed and drunk his way through his slaves: Choctaw, Cherokee, Natchez, and maybe even Mississippi Indian tribes.

I dropped the pages on the table, stood, and poured hot water over the tea leaves in a green ceramic pot. Moving by muscle memory and instinct, I got out a mug, Cool Whip, and sugar, and prepared a cup. Thinking. Remembering a painting of a Cherokee slave on the wall of an old vamp's house. She had yellow eyes like mine, and had probably been a skinwalker like me, but she couldn't have been trained, or she would have fought her way free of her slavery. She was dead now. Another of my kind I had found and lost without ever meeting her. I put my own failed hopes of finding another like me aside and carried my mug back to the table and pages Alex had prepared.

Not only had de Allyon enslaved the Cherokee. According to historians, he was also the first man to own African slaves on land in what was now South Carolina. He was bloodthirsty in every way an undead nonhuman could be. The accounts, even couched in terms acceptable by the Europeans of that time period, were gruesome. He supposedly died of a fever in October 1526, disappearing and reappearing in Charleston in the early sixteen hundreds. He stayed there for fifty years, and disappeared again. He later terrorized Boston for a few years before the tea party of 1773. De Allyon resurfaced in Atlanta during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, eventually buying old plantation land and setting up a sharecropper system that "employed" nearly a thousand freed slaves.

Quickly thereafter, Lucas claimed most of the state of Georgia as Blood Master of Atlanta - all the Southeastern territory, excluding Florida, that was not claimed by Amaury Pellissier, Leo's uncle. Now, it was possible that Lucas wanted Leo's territory and figured he was the undead man to take it.

I flipped through the pages. There was still no financial trail to prove that Lucas wanted Leo's territory. No proof that he had taken over Seattle and Sedona and Boston. No proof that he had sent his vamps to attack Leo in Asheville weeks ago or again at his clan home last night. No clues to where he was staying, or if he was even in the state. No nothing, except that he was powerful and a lot older and more vicious than Leo. And might be dominant enough to take what he wanted. I flipped back to the file on Blood-Call. It had businesses in Sedona, Seattle, Asheville, and Boston, with one slated to open in New Orleans in the next few months. Of course Blood-Call was also open in New York, San Francisco, L.A., Vegas, and a few other places, so it could be a coincidence, in which case I'd look stupid taking the information to Leo. Except for the fact that de Allyon owned Blood-Call, and had been Ramondo Pitri's up-line employer, there was nothing physical or financial or real that actually proved Lucas Vazquez de Allyon was the bad guy who had attacked Leo in Asheville or was making vamps sick and taking over their territories.

But my gut was saying our bad guy was de Allyon, and that Greyson Labs and Blood-Call were part of the attack on the vamps. Somehow. Even though all I had was a name from history, it was time to tell Leo.

I gathered up my laptop and retreated to my bedroom again. Copying and pasting, I prepared a report for Leo and Bruiser on Blood-Call, the lab, and de Allyon, making certain that they understood my concern was mostly conjecture at this point. With a single keystroke, I sent it off and then curled around the laptop to question myself and second-guess my research.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke before dusk to the smell of steak grilling and a dead laptop battery. Groggy, I freshened up and put on a clean bra and shirt. Having men in the house was going to seriously impact my comfort clothes. Before I left my room, I dialed Leo, but it was Bruiser who answered. "H-h-hello, Jane." His voice was low and warm and breathy, with a faint English accent and nearly a purr of sound. Bruiser. Who did not sound like himself.

"Bruiser. You sound . . . odd. Do you feel okay?"

"I discover that I quite like the way I feel."

"Uh-huh." Bruiser had been partially healed by Koun, a vamp who claimed to be pure Celt, and who would, if true, be much older than Leo. Then he'd been brought back from the dead, or near enough as not to matter, by an infusion of the blood of Bethany Salazar y Medina, a vamp who was nearly two thousand years old. And Katie had said, "George. You will live. And still mostly human. Do not despair." "Crap," I said softly.

Blood-servants were much faster and stronger than regular humans, because of the sips of vamp blood they regularly took in. They had better night vision, better hearing. I didn't know what Bruiser was now, but I had a bad feeling about it. "Have you heard from Leo?"

"I have spoken with my master," he said. "With your help, he escaped the Mithrans who held him for a time last night. But he was injured badly. I have sent the priestesses to his lair where he sleeps, to heal him, and his most loyal blood-servants, to feed him when he wakes and to complete his healing." He paused, then added slowly, "He brought a Mithran with him when he escaped, and will be interrogating her soon. I am driving there. Leo requests your presence as well."

Going to any vamp's lair when he was injured and bleeding and had not been sent to earth to heal was not a smart move. I thought about the vamp Leo had captured. I didn't want to be part of that, not again, with the silver and the questions and the stink of burning vamp-flesh, but I thought it was more likely he'd let her live if I was there to temper his mood. Assuming I didn't tick him off and make him kill her outright.

Deep in my mind, Beast huffed. We will see the vampire in his den. We will know much, just as when we saw his hidden place in his Clan Den. I had seen one of Leo's lairs, deep beneath the clan home, which was now burned to the ground and beneath it probably. And yes, I had learned a lot.

And hey, Leo paid the bills. I'd probably suffer vamp-consequences if I didn't go, once Leo was up to meting them out.

I checked the time and said, "Okay." And I wondered if I had just screwed up badly or made the smartest move a vamp-hunter could make.

"I have sent the location to your cell phone. Meet me in ninety minutes."

An hour later, after I had eaten a fabulous steak and a mediocre salad, I dressed in the kind of clothes I wore when I went to visit a vamp instead of to fight a vamp. No armored jacket, no Benelli strapped to my back, no guns except the one I tucked into a boot beside the hidden vamp-killer. Thick denim jeans like bikers wear instead of armored leather vamp-fighting pants. Only three vamp-killers. Hair braided tight. Stakes in the loops at my belt, ready to be tucked into my hair like ornaments when I unhelmeted. I put on the silver choker to protect my neck from fangs. Leo would have plenty of humans around to feed him, but that was no reason to be provocative, and a bare throat was a clear provocation to an injured vamp.

I pushed Bitsa into the street. I felt the eyes of the brothers on my back - and legs and other body parts - as I straddled the bike, rose, and kick-started my Harley. I could also feel their misgivings, which did nothing to quell my own. I checked the phone for the address and GPS directions Bruiser had sent to it, before heading into the Warehouse District of New Orleans.

The Warehouse District was just what it sounded like - the centuries-old storage facilities of the New Orleans docks, where indigo, rice, cotton, food crops, cloth, tobacco, and other items had been shipped downriver and to Europe, in return for silk, porcelain china, tea, and slaves. Later centuries had shipped cars, mechanical tools, raw and formed iron, steel, coal, technology, imported illegal drugs, and exported sexual slavery, cash, liquor, cigarettes. Everything, legal and illegal, moral and immoral, had been stored, for a time, in the warehouses. Now the old refurbished buildings housed artists' lofts, cafes, exclusive restaurants, galleries, apartments, spas, fitness centers, and all manner of upscale social businesses.

The address I turned in to was a recently rehabbed warehouse, updated and secluded. There were bars on the windows, the wrought-iron fleur-de-lis made so popular by French immigrants, pretty as well as effective at keeping out burglars. The building also had electronic security up the wazoo: dynamic cameras with low-light and infrared capability, keypunch locks; two armed guards with earpieces, bulges suggestive of guns, and the look of trained soldiers patrolled the place. It was all stuff I had recommended to Leo for the Mithran council's headquarters and his now-burned clan home. I'd have to remember to send him a bill, now that he'd finally followed my advice.

Blinding-bright security lights brought tears to my eyes and threw the place into sharp-angled shadows. I wheeled into the parking area and Bitsa's roar went silent. I pulled my riding gloves off. I didn't really need to, and didn't often ride with gloves, but the finger-by-finger let me scope out the place.

Sitting on the seat, I smelled seafood, hot grease, and coffee - natch - and wine and beer - also natch - and the scents of mold, hot tar, exhaust, stagnant and moving water, and flowers - jasmine, I thought - that marked the city. I saw the last traces of the sun on the horizon, bleeding reddish in the cerulean sky. I smelled humans I recognized. Two of Derek Lee's Vodka Boys were among the security I saw patrolling. I smelled Bruiser and Wrassler. I smelled Leo's Mercy Blade, Gee DiMercy somewhere close by, and I smelled several vamps too, which was a surprise. Sabina, the oldest outclan priestess, had been in the parking lot before total dark set in. Day-walking, or dusk-walking, was something only the really old ones can do and live. I could think of no reason for any of them to be here unless they were here for Leo to drink from. Injured vamps needed a lot of blood to heal really bad injuries, even vamps as powerful as the Master of the City. Something tightened deep inside, though I refused to name it fear or worry for the MOC. I unhelmeted, strapped it to the back of the bike, and stuck the hair sticks into my bun, wishing I had brought more than six. I adjusted the vamp-killers so they were easy to hand.

Bruiser glided through the falling dark toward me as I tucked my gloves into a pocket. I studied him as he wove between cars. His dark hair fell over his forehead in a silken wave; his brown eyes were liquid and intent. He was the same, but better somehow, richer, more mesmeric. He moved differently too, smoother, catlike. Sleek. The breeze, hot and wet, shifted, bringing his scent to me. Vamp and human and . . . vamp. He smelled of mixed vamp odor, almost like a blood-slave, the herbal pong something they acquired as they were passed around. As he got closer, his eyes holding me still, I could see even more differences. Bruiser was so full of vamp blood that his eyes were half-vamped out, pupils huge in his brown irises, and not just because of the night. His eyes gleamed, cold and dark and empty, yet hot and speaking to me of sex even before he opened his mouth.

"My Jane. You have arrived."

I grunted and swung my leg over Bitsa. His Jane. Yeah. Right.

Bruiser reached me and slid an arm around my waist. His arm felt different, harder, stronger, like a steel band, as if he could lift me up and toss me into the air, a dance move to end all dance moves. He pulled me close and ducked his head, nuzzling my neck, his lips hot and softer than velvet and finding that place under my ear that sent shivers through my body, raising chill bumps on my skin - hard to do in the heat. I wasn't used to being smaller, shorter than anyone, and the sensation of feeling petite and weak against the taller man was oddly arousing. I let him lift me to my toes, breathed in the scent of his sweat on the warm night air. Almost with a will of their own, my fingers laced through his hair.

"I missed you," he whispered as his other arm went around me, pulling me close, close enough that I knew just how he had missed me. Bruiser was four inches taller than me, and was now clearly stronger too. I knew that, predator to predator. But the knowledge faded beneath the onslaught of his scent, the heat of his skin, and his arousal pressed against me. "I missed you," he repeated, the three words morphing into a growl.

Beast breathed in his scent with me, claws out but not yet pressing in. Vampire. Much vampire blood, she thought. But still your Bruiser.

He pulled me up, closer, my body crushed against his. I'd never been the little woman before. Ever. But I was now. Weirdly, I liked it. His mouth found mine, his lips hot and soft one moment, hard and demanding the next. My breath caught.

He broke the kiss before I was ready. "When this conflict is done" - his lips moved against my ear - "I'm taking you to my place, and we will not leave until long, long after dawn."

Heat shot out from the touch of his lips and settled deep in my belly. Spreading out in tendrils of desire and need and pure want. I had to lick my lips before I could answer, half gasping, "Okay. Fine. Sure."

Bruiser laughed into my hair and swung me to his side, effortlessly. I fell into step beside him. The warehouse had two heavy steel doors and, situated between them, one oversized delivery door. We made our way to it, Bruiser holding me so close my right arm was trapped under his shoulder. He pressed a button, and the delivery door began to slide up, revealing the darkness inside. Our shadows were long and thin across the charcoal-painted cement floor. The room inside was empty, all in gray, with a bar at the back. And doors leading off into the dark. "So, where is the lair?" I asked.

Then it all went to hell.

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