Authors: Kristin Miller
|Vampires of Crimson Bay |
There should be nothing to fear; Eve’s safe. But I can’t go back. Not when my nightmares have resurfaced—the ones in which the only person I’ve ever loved is ravaged by a vampire bite.
If she only knew how close I am to losing control . . .
It doesn’t matter that I promised Eve, and myself, I wouldn’t sink my fangs into her perfect, unblemished skin. I know that one day my bloodlust will overcome my love and my promise. The only thing I don’t know is how much longer I can fight the truth of my dreams: I
taste her . . . and when I do, I’ll drain her dry.
Kristin Miller is the author of the Vampires of Crimson Bay series, a paranormal series featuring a blood war between vampires and shape-shifters, from Avon Impulse. She lives in Northern California with her family.
WO IN THE
it’s just you and me . . . me and you
’D LIKE TO
thank my wonderful agent Nalini Akolekar for making me feel like I’m working with not only a knowledgeable professional, but also a great friend. And for cheesecake lunches! I say we make those a new conference tradition! Warm thanks to the entire HarperCollins team. I’m privileged to be part of the Avon family and thank my stars every day that you see something in me and my work. To Editing Goddess Esi Sogah, whose keen eye and sense of character make my head spin—words could never express my gratitude.
To my early readers, Aggie Smith and Lora Walker—I may be able to write the damn thing, but I’d trip over plot holes right and left without the two of you. Thank you for always being willing to read my roughest work and for humoring my manic-induced plot questions. You’re the best friends a gal could ask for. I also have to thank my critique partners, Lisa Sanchez and A.J. Larrieu, for seeing things in this manuscript I couldn’t see. You ladies push me to be a better writer and I’m forever grateful.
Huge thanks to Jennifer and Susana for reading romance novels with such passion—it’s awe-inspiring. (And even if you don’t consider your names “heroine-worthy,” remember
To my family and friends—your love and support mean everything to me. I hope I’m doing you proud.
Last and never least, to Justin, Kelli, and Gavin—with everything, you’re my world.
khiss: A group of vampires living together under a leader who may or may not be their common sire.
mawares: Magic wielded by vampire elders. These powers can include time-warping, telepathy, light control, and orbs of protection (though usually not all exhibited by the same elder).
mundane: A human with no vampire or therian blood.
therian: Shape-shifters by blood able to shift into any living thing. They must have one or both parents with therian blood in order for their shifting traits to show. Death by blade to heart or by decapitation.
Valcdana: Bonding ceremony in which one partner is completely drained of life, then refilled using their partner’s blood. The ceremony often results in the death of one or more participants, giving the traditional “till death do us part” marriage vow more weight.
vampire: A being that drinks blood for nourishment in place of food. They must have one or both parents with vampire blood in order for the vampire traits to show. Death by sunlight, draining of blood, stake, or blade to the heart.
“Trust no one—not even yourself.
Friends can be made enemies just as primal instinct can spoil good intention.”
Before Bloodlust: A Prevention Guide
ANTE’S BREATH CAME
out in thick pants, fogging his mask and wetting his face, as he surveyed every dark inch of the makeshift training center. He moved cautiously, his pistol extended, each step slow and deliberate. It was as cold as a meat locker in here, he thought, as he wiped condensation off his mask. Damn cold, even for January.
The run-down warehouse had a vaulted wood ceiling plastered with layer upon layer of industrial insulation. The floor consisted of busted-up pallets covered with chunks of carpet padding that bunched into large mountains of gray fluff, leaving ample room for an ambush to hide in the shadows. Six-feet-thick concrete walls with no windows and a single roll-up metal door created the perfect place to get a hell of a lot of training done without alerting the neighbors that this was anything but a warehouse.
Nothing out of the ordinary from the outside.
But the three vampires circling within, covered head to toe in black, save for the goggles covering their eyes and noses, were far from ordinary. The other two trainees each had a weapon in their grasp, a gun and a set of throwing knives. Eyes wide with awareness, their pulses pounded out of their chests.
From the left, a flash of movement caught their attention. Dante popped off two quick shots to the wood beams stretching from one side of the warehouse to the other. Two small blades flew off one of the trainee’s fingertips, sinking into the beam with heavy thuds. All eyes tracked the lightning-quick shadow, guns raised, knives at the ready.
Damn, that sucker was good.
Dante could barely see his trainer, let alone get a solid bead on him. But, he reminded himself as he double-checked the amount of ammo in his barrel, this is why he came here. Ruan was the best at getting in, staying hidden, and escaping without anyone the wiser. He was uncatchable. Seemingly invisible. And a brainiac to boot. Capable of knowing your next move before you did.
A deadly combo. Especially when he was the one doing the hunting.
Watching shadows slant and stretch as Ruan ran around them in dizzying circles was enough to make Dante a firm believer in the legends he’d heard. Rumor had it he was once nicknamed “Ghost” for his seemingly supernatural abilities. That he’d infiltrated a therian hotspot all by his lonesome, killed over thirty experienced guards, rescued the kidnapped Primus, and escaped back to his haven before a single report of foul play hit therian radios.
As Ruan toyed with the trainees, making them search frantically this way and that, knowing he was closing in and there was nothing they could do about it, Dante had no doubt the most far-fetched rumors were true.
Ruan made another pass from one mound to another, right in front of Dante. Not ten feet away! Dante fired. The slug sank into the nearest pile of padding, missing Ruan by a fraction of an inch. Still a miss, damn it.
Crouching low and out of sight, Dante followed the path he predicted Ruan to be traveling. Before he could get to the next mound, a shot rang out behind him.
Dante spun, gun ready, his stomach in his throat. The bigger of the two vamps on his team dropped his hand to his stomach and came up with a handful of red paint.
“Damn it,” he grumbled. “I’m out.”
As he stalked back to the side wall, Dante took a deep breath. It was two on one now. How hard could it be to find this guy?
He’s just a vamp, not a ghost. Just a vamp. Just a . .
A small, squeaky sound, almost like a silencer tightening, came from a mound close by. Dante dropped flat to his belly, pulling himself around the mound by his elbows. He’d crawled nearly all the way around when he stopped in his tracks, realizing he’d lost sight of the other trainee.
shattered the silence.
“I’m out!” the second trainee shouted, a dejected tone in her scratchy voice.
One-on-one with the best of the best.
The sound of his own breathing drowned out everything around him. The long drawls in and out, in and out, made Dante more panicked than when he’d heard the gunfire. Not only was his visibility obscured, but he couldn’t hear for shit either. His heartbeat pulsed in his ears and constricted his chest.
, Ruan really was a ghost. And Dante was just a vamp looking for an adrenaline rush. Learning kick-ass rules of the trade were an added bonus. He was clearly outclassed . . . but maybe he could outwit him. Maybe if he played a little dirty, Ruan would underestimate him, giving Dante one clear shot . . .
Dante took a chance—one that was either going to put his red mark on Ruan’s chest or get him harassed for the rest of his extended life.
He stood straight up and walked to the middle of the warehouse. He dropped his gun to the floor, yanked off his mask and flung it aside. Feeling his backup weapon tight on his backside, Dante wondered if he’d even have a chance to draw on Ruan when he showed himself.
If he’d show himself at all.
Take the bait, Ghost, take the bait.
“All right,” Dante called out, searching the mounds for movement, his trigger finger twitching. “It’s just you and me now. How ‘bout we do this the old-fashioned way?”
All he needed was for Ruan to walk into the open and take the opportunity to go hand-to-hand. He didn’t really want to do combat that way with a trained killer, especially when he’d never been formally trained himself—unless you’d call street fights extending from childhood training. Dante simply planned on drawing the gun on his back so fast that Ruan’s head would spin . . . or rather, cover with paint.
He reached down to his boot to unsheathe the dagger tied to his ankle holster, when he felt Ruan slide up behind him—as quiet and light as air, as ominous as a rolling thunderstorm. Before he could even
about going for the gun, Ruan had a gun barrel jammed into the small of his back and a butcher knife at his throat.
“I can go for a little hand-to-hand,” Ruan said, a challenge Dante knew the Ghost could win blindfolded . . . with no hands. “But I have a feeling you’d surrender, no matter what your weapon. Weakness has nothing to do with the form of combat. It’s a mental disease. And you’re infected.”
Ruan released him and stepped back, giving Dante room to be humiliated in front of his peers. Okay, so his genius of a plan didn’t work and turned out not to be so genius after all. But dirty fighting was fighting. No matter how you won. As long as you came out on top . . . and alive . . . that’s all that mattered. He may not have come out on top this time, but there’d be a next time. And when there was . . .
“Damn, Ruan,” the beastly trainee said, marching to the center of the warehouse, removing his gear. “I couldn’t see you. I couldn’t hear you. How did you know where we were?”
“Simple,” Ruan said, his voice flat. “I followed your stench.”
Smirking, Dante turned . . . and the wide smile was wiped right off his face. Ruan wasn’t at all what he expected.
The bastard was a six-foot wall of solid muscle. His arms were covered with black Under Armour but it wasn’t hard to tell they were ripped like a bodybuilder’s underneath. And his legs! How did he manage to run so fast with leather-clad tree trunks for stompers?
But his sheer size wasn’t what startled Dante the most. He had platinum blonde hair that fell in thick waves to his shoulders. Bright green eyes. A clean-shaven square jaw. Dante wasn’t quite sure what he expected from a vamp with a deadly reputation. Maybe slick black hair, soulless eyes, a heartless spirit, scars? Certainly not this buff pretty boy who could easily pose on the cover of
Damn, compared to Ruan, Dante was almost . . .
. Certainly not a word he would’ve used to describe himself before tonight. Bold, rough, and hotter than hell, maybe. Mild? Never. What a difference a few inches and twenty pounds of muscle made. Dante had to admit, though, that his short, spiky brown hair and golden eyes gave him a more menacing first impression than the Brad Pitt wannabe standing in front of him.
Only, to his credit, Ruan didn’t look like a wannabe anything. He held his own with an arrogant glare in his eye and a wide, kick-your-ass stance, yet still managed to give off an air of modesty. A paradox that Dante was sure earned the respect of those around him, wherever he went.
Ruan holstered his weapons, of which he seemed to have hundreds, and hung his vest on the side wall, then came back to each of the trainees and gave them a thorough explanation about what they’d done wrong and how to improve.
When he set his eyes on Dante, pressure squeezed his stomach tight. He’d given up, in Ruan’s eyes. Failed when he should’ve kept fighting.
Let’s get it over with already.
Dante picked his chin up and waited for the bitch slap of a report card.
“You,” Ruan began, his voice a rumble of thunder. “You surprised me.”
In the wake of silence, Dante spoke up. “Is that good or bad?”
Ruan nodded. “Good in theory, as I’m not surprised often, although I still managed to get the jump on you. I could sense your fear escalating with each shot fired on the other trainees. I knew that fear would cause you to do something irrational. When you stood up, it didn’t take but two seconds for me to slip into the dark and steal behind you. Next time you try to lure someone out like that, have someone on your side who’s waiting for your enemy to be brought out into the open. You always need to have someone watching your back, ready to make the kill shot.”
From out of nowhere a shot fired. The trainees’ mouths dropped as their eyes scanned the darkness behind Ruan. When he turned to face the hidden foe who’d shot him in the back, Dante got a good look at the mark. Dead-center on Ruan’s spinal cord was a blue paint slug, splattered into a perfect starburst.
“Fellas,” Ruan chuckled. “I’d like to introduce you to my life mate, Eve Monroe.”
What were the chances he’d run into her in a place like this?
The long barrel of a gun extended from a distant shadow on the far side of the warehouse, followed by a delicate hand and one blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, Eve . . . his boss.
, it had to be her, didn’t it? He couldn’t go anywhere lately without running into someone from his past. Now, it seemed, he was starting to run circles around his present crowd, too. Just his luck. Last semester Dante had taken a position as an assistant at Crimson Bay University. It wasn’t much, but it kept his mind busy—one of the things he needed to stay alive with his sanity intact. The other thing that kept his ticker kickin’—the reason he sought out Ruan and his training facility—was adrenaline. He never would have guessed Ruan and Eve would be a “thing”.
He kept his head low. He really didn’t feel like being asked a shitload of questions. Not now.
With a determined stride, Eve marched toward the group, wearing jeans and a Crimson Bay University hoodie like it was evening attire. In the classroom on CBU’s campus Dante had known her to be feminine, yet professional. In the warehouse, holding a paint ball gun, she was strong. Lethal, maybe, if the gun were real. How’d Ruan convince her to become involved in this? Dante wondered. Eve was a mundane—a human with no vampire blood.
Wasn’t she worried about what a group of vamps might do to her?
The closer she got to the group, the lower Dante shifted his gaze. He sank into the shadow of a nearby post and prayed to God she wouldn’t notice him.
Rubbing his back mockingly, one of the trainees snorted. “If that’s what life mates will do to ya, I think I’ll fare better on my own, thank you very much.”
Eve slid to Ruan’s side, a smug look of satisfaction on her face. “So what were you saying about having someone watch your back at all times?”
Ruan snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her to him, right against the wide span of his chest. She fit well there, Dante realized, as she gazed up into Ruan’s eyes and gave him a loving squeeze.
The air in the room crackled from their intensity. It was as if they were in some distant place. Alone. Pulled to each other like complimentary magnets. Without three trainees staring at them in shocked silence.
“All right,” Ruan said, palming Eve’s hip and pulling her as close as she could be without jumping his bones. His knee shoved between her legs as he swung her in front of him. “Lesson’s over,” he said, seemingly unable to tear his eyes away from the seductress in his grasp. “Tonight we learned two valuable lessons. The first, that you can’t turn your back for a second. Not a single one. That may be all the time the enemy needs to hone in and take advantage of an already complicated situation. Second, women are evil, mischievous creatures who will do whatever they can to mess up perfectly good lessons.”
Scrunching her face up, Eve pinched him in the side, then turned to bump him with her hip. He laughed and pinched her back, a low, protective growl coming from his chest.
Time to leave the love bats alone before he lost his O+ lunch.
“Next time we meet at a public place,” Ruan growled. “Mirage night club, downtown San Francisco. Reconnaissance will be key. Same time.”
Nodding, they filed out of the warehouse. Ruan closed and locked the door behind them.
Overall, failure or not, Dante’d had a great night. He’d felt the rush of adrenaline like he was in the heat of battle; all from an exercise in an outfitted industrial warehouse. Spikes of adrenaline warmed his core. And no one had ended up with a busted nose. Success all around.
He’d learned more in one night from Ruan than from countless hours studying the Vampire/Elder Protection Manual he received upon Induction into his new khiss.
More than that—he’d learned invaluable knowledge from the best.