Please note–this excerpt is taken from my files, which means it did not go through the final line and galley edits and may still feature errors
I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m a guardian. I’ll even admit that I enjoy hunting down those rogue supernatural elements who prey on human and non-humans alike.
But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t times when I absolutely hate my job.
Getting a call-out at three AM on a bitterly cold winter night was definitely one of those times. Especially when the call sent me to an area rapidly gaining a reputation as the ‘it’ spot for blood whores–which was the common term for humans hooked on the pleasures of a vampire’s bite.
Normally I didn’t have a problem with people getting their kicks any damn way they pleased, but for humans–and it only seemed to afflict humans, not the rest of us–becoming addicted to a vampire’s bite was definitely one of the quicker ways to court death. They simply didn’t have the strength, the speed, or even the will power to battle a vampire if things went wrong. Hell, many supernaturals didn’t, either.
And while most vampires were generally law abiding and only took enough to give the addicted his or her hit, there were always some abusers who pushed for longer, stronger rushes, and there were always vampires willing to oblige.
And sometimes that meant death.
It had become such a problem in recent months that the government had set up a think tank to find ways of curtailing the growing numbers flocking to the vampire bars. There were even calls to outlaw the practice–though how the hell anyone was going to police that I had no idea. It wasn’t like ordinary cops had much hope of tracking down and arresting vamps, and there simply weren’t enough of us guardians. Not if they wanted us to do our real job.
Personally, I think they had about as much hope of stopping this craze as they did stopping all the designer drugs that were constantly hitting the streets. If a junkie wanted his fix, then he’d find it no matter how difficult or how illegal the government made it. And at least all the whores were of legal age–the vampire ‘pushers’ were careful about that. They had to be, because otherwise they had to deal with the Directorate. Regular drug dealers just got jail time, at worst.
Of course, there was no proof that the murder I’d been called to tonight was yet another pleasure seeker who’d pushed too far. Jack had simply told me to get my butt over there pronto, and the edge in his voice had me scrambling for clothes and not taking the time for questions. But the murder had happened in the older section of Fitzroy, in a parking lot behind Dante’s–and that club was a prime location for blood whores and their vampire johns.
I slowed the car as I passed through the Smith Street intersection, then turned left onto Budd Street. Several of the street lights were out and darkness closed in around the car. The buildings here were mainly old factories and warehouses, their brick walls grimy and covered with graffiti. The few houses squeezed in between the larger buildings were dark–and with the graffiti on their walls and the filth littering their front fences, it was hard to tell whether they were occupied or not. But I was a dhampire–part werewolf, part vampire–and had inherited many gifts from both parts of my heritage. The vampire part of my soul could see the blood heat within those buildings–although unlike my twin brother, I couldn’t hear the siren call of their heart beats.
And I was damn glad of that, because it meant I’d also missed out on the vampire’s hunger for blood. Rhoan hadn’t, but he had missed the fangs, and his blood hunger only rose in tandem with the full moon.
The crime scene came into view and I pulled up behind a Directorate van. The wind’s icy fingers slapped across the back of my neck as I climbed out, and I hastily zipped up my jacket then pulled up the collar. It didn’t help much. I might be a werewolf, and therefore supposedly immune to the winter, but the cold and I had never been on friendly terms.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked towards the parking lot. The rotating blue lights of the squad cars washed the night and the few bystanders in a ghostly glow, but as far as I could see or feel, there were no actual ghosts in the area. And if this was just a feeding taken too far, then there probably wouldn’t be. As far as I knew, the souls that hung around tended to be the ones who’d met a violent end or who had something they needed to finish before they moved on. And blood whores didn’t fit either of those categories, because they’d gone to their deaths knowing the dangers and not caring one bit.
And that’s probably what annoyed me most. These people were knowingly flirting with death, yet when he answered, everyone got righteously moral and wanted the vamp responsible caught and killed. And the guardians were obliged to obey, because that was the law. But killing a blood whore wasn’t a simple act of murder. It was consensual, and that raised a whole different set of issues. And although I did believe the vamp involved needed to be punished, killing them seemed a step too far. And most of the vampire community agreed.
Meaning that the worst part of the whole situation was the fact that our pursuit of these vamps was raising a lot of bad feeling in the supernatural community. And having the city’s vampires angry at us could only ever end badly. There were a whole lot more of them than us, and as well trained as we guardians were, we didn’t have a hope if the vamps decided we were too much of a problem.
Of course, the two vampires who dominated my life–Quinn, my lover, and Jack, my boss–thought I was making too much of the situation. Jack even kept trying to reassure me with the fact that the vampire council had a handle on it. I didn’t believe it–or them. They weren’t out on the street dealing with the ill-feeling day in and day out. They simply didn’t understand how bad it was getting.
I did, and I didn’t mind admitting that it scared me.
The parking lot had several cars in it, but the mobile light towers weren’t trained on any of them, but rather on the corner of the lot, where it intersected with Dante’s back wall. There were several overall-clad men there, and relief slithered through me as I caught the glint of silver hair. Cole might be our top guy when it came to crime scene forensics, but he also hated these early morning call-outs as much as I did. That meant he’d be doing his best to find the clues and get the hell home as quickly as possible.
As I ducked under the blue and white police tape lining the parking lot, one of the cops keeping an eye on the small crowd huddled in the middle of the road took a step in my direction. I grabbed my badge and flashed it his way, shivering a little as the wind hit my fingers and chilled them in an instant.
The cop gave me a nod and turned back. I stepped over the gnarled roots of a small tree struggling to survive in a little corner of bare ground then flared my nostrils, drawing in the flavors of the night.
Blood was the strongest scent and that surprised me. Most vampires hated wasting their food, so maybe this murder wasn’t as straight forward as I’d been presuming.
Cole looked up as I approached, his lined face weary and dark shadows under his normally bright blue eyes. “You took your time.”
“And you look like shit.” I stopped beside him and stared down at the victim.
He was male, probably in his mid-to-late forties if his worn features and grey-flecked hair were anything to go by. There were no obvious wounds on his body, and very little in the way of blood on the front of his clothes. His arms had been crossed over his chest, almost as if he were asleep rather than dead. But someone had separated his head from his neck, and even a vampire couldn’t survive that.
The blood that was missing from his clothes formed a lake around the area where his head should have been.
“Have you bothered looking in the mirror lately?” Cole snapped off his bloody gloves and tossed them into a nearby contamination bin.
“I’m trying to avoid them. Between working day shifts
and getting call-outs at night, the bags under my eyes feel large enough to pack a lunch in. Who’s our victim?”
“Grant Haven, a local vampire who owned a café up on Smith Street.” Cole handed me a pair of slip-on shoe protectors. “Apparently he finished locking up at one, and was heading to Dante’s for a little top-up feeding.”
“There were no witnesses?” I slipped on the shoe protectors then stepped forward, avoiding the thickening pools of blood as I studied the severed flesh. It wasn’t a clean wound. In fact, the edges were all ragged, as if the killer had used some sort of serrated blade.
“No witnesses have come forward,” Cole said. “But there’s a whole club of people just waiting to be interviewed.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.” I glanced at him. His blue eyes were filled with amusement and a smile twitched at the corners of his lips. My long night had just stretched into an interminable morning. “You’re a bastard.”
“Those were Jack’s orders, not mine.”
Then Jack was a bastard. God, he knew I hated interviewing these idiots. “We’ll never get anything sensible out of them. They’ll all be high.”
Although, truth be told, the high from a vamp bite didn’t last all that long–just like the pleasure received from sex, really. And like sex, most humans could only stand several hits before it weakened them to point of sleep.
I guess we were lucky non-humans didn’t get addicted, because I very much doubted there’d be enough vampires in Melbourne to cater to a werewolf’s hunger.
“If it helps any, there aren’t many customers. Tuesday is apparently their slow night.”
Well, thank God for small mercies. I nodded down at the victim. “Who called it in?”
He motioned towards Dante’s. “The caller was anonymous, but we traced the line and location. The cell phone belonged to a Mandy Jones, and the call came from inside Dante’s.”
Meaning she was likely still there. “She obviously doesn’t know a lot about Directorate practices if she thought she could remain anonymous.”
Cole smiled. “I don’t think the Directorate actually advertises the fact they trace every single call coming in, or out.”
That was true. I’d only discovered it because I’d been horribly nosy during my time as Jack’s assistant, and I’d often gone trawling through the computer system to see what I could find. “Do we know who owns Dante’s?”
“Unsurprisingly enough, a vamp named Dante Starke.”
“What do we know about him?”
Cole shrugged. “He has a rep for preferring to handle his own problems. Other than that, you’ll have to check the system.”
‘Preferring to handle his own problems’ probably meant he hated cops. And guardians. Great. “What was used on the victim’s neck?”
“Rough tooth saw. Dusty found it discarded in one of the bins behind the club. But it’s been wiped clean of anything useful.”
I glanced around and saw the shifter in question hunkering down over what looked like an oil stain. Cole’s other assistant, Dobbs, was nowhere in sight–but given the three of them usually traveled together, I knew he’d be around somewhere. “Was it a new or old saw?”
“Brand new. It still had the Bunnings price tag on it.”
“Any chance of tracking down which store it was purchased at?”
“Maybe. But even if we found the right hardware store, I don’t think they’d be much help. They probably sell hundreds of the things each week.”
“Still, it’s worth a shot.” I frowned down at the vamp’s unmarked body. “He doesn’t appear to have put up a fight of any kind.”
“None at all, which leads me to suspect that he’s probably been drugged. We’ll run the full toxicology when we get him back to the lab.”
“So there’s no indication so far of who our murderer might be?”
“Well, sawing through a person’s neck takes strength, so we’re probably looking for either a large male, or a non-human.”
“Gee, that really narrows down the field.”
“Best I’ve got for the moment,” Cole said, snapping on a new set of gloves. “Now, if that’s all you’ve got, I’ve really got to get back to work. I have a bed and a lover waiting.”
I raised my eyebrows. For as long as I’d known him he’d been relationship free, so the woman who’d finally caught his interest had to be someone pretty special.
“She has to be new, because anyone familiar with our line of work wouldn’t bother waiting.” Hell, Quinn hadn’t. He’d mumbled something about bundling up against the cold, and had promptly gone back to sleep. Anyone would think I’d worn the old vampire out. “So, is it anyone I know?”
“No.” His smile bloomed bright. Man, he had the love-bug bad. “And no, I will not share details. Now go do some work.”
“You do realize that I am now officially intrigued?”
He groaned. “Please don’t go investigating. I don’t want to scare her away.”
I grinned as I stripped off the shoe protectors and tossed them in the hazard bin.
“Riley, don’t.” He almost sounded worried.
“Don’t what?” I raised my eyebrows, pretending an innocence that probably wasn’t believable given the grin I couldn’t quite control.
“Don’t try and play innocent. You’re as far from that as anyone could get.”
He had a point there. “I just want to protect your interests. I’d do the same for any friend.”
“Then please consider me an enemy.”
I patted his shoulder as I passed. “Sorry, I’ve got suspects to interview. We’ll continue this discussion later. Over coffee.”
“You are such a bitch,” he muttered, but the twinkle in his eyes took the bite out of his words. “And you’d do anything to get a free coffee, wouldn’t you?”
“Totally,” I said, and left him to it.
There were two uniforms stationed at the entrance to Dante’s, along with a dark eyed man who looked in serious need of a good feed. He was standing to one side of the doorway, under a blue light, and it gave his sallow features an even sicker glow. His dark gaze was never still, flickering from the cops to me, then onto the surrounding streets.
I showed the cops my badge and met the other man’s gaze. “Who are you?”
“Valentine Smith. I’m the bouncer here.”
He didn’t look as if he could bounce a kitten out the door let alone anyone larger. But then, if he was a vampire–and given the rather pungent scent he was emitting, he couldn’t be anything else–his looks would have been misleading. Even the scrawniest of vampires had more strength than the average non-human. And far more than any human.
“How long have you been on duty here?”
“I just came on shift. The boss asked me to help out these officers, in case some of the customers got antsy about being detained.”
I glanced at the cops. The older of the two nodded in confirmation. I returned my gaze to Valentine. He wasn’t looking at me. He was studying the street, as if he expected something to happen. Though I guess having a dead vamp on your back doorstep and cops on your front would be enough to make anyone jumpy. “How many people are inside at the moment?”
He shrugged. “Maybe twenty customers, and half that again of vampires.”
Interesting that the vampires weren’t considered customers. “And who’s in charge tonight?”
“The boss himself?”
The guard’s gaze flicked briefly to mine then moved on again. “He lives here.”
That surprised me. The old warehouse was as grimy and as run-down as the rest of the buildings in this area. Surely a wealthy businessman would prefer a more…well, if not opulent, then less dangerous area to reside in? But maybe the key word was wealthy. He might be a vampire, he might own a nightclub, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was rich.
“Could you please tell Mr. Starke that I’ll need to speak to him?”
He looked at me again, then nodded. His gaze became slightly unfocused, and a buzz of energy caressed the air. He had to be a newer vampire. Any vampire with more than a few years behind him had learned not to let anyone know when they were using telepathy.
I stepped past the cops and pushed the nightclub’s door open. The smell hit me immediately. It was a miasma of hunger and lust, of humanity and vampire, all entwined with the aroma of sweat, booze and blood. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. Normally I loved the scent of lust when it rode on the air, but this was different. This had an almost desperate edge to it.
Which made sense, since the club was catering to those addicted to vampire bites.
I stepped into the darkness. The door shut behind me, closing out the light and making the shadowed confines of the room appear even more unfriendly.
That feeling was coming from the vampires in the room, not the humans. The majority of the humans were either busy boozing, or getting their fix.
I scanned the room, taking note of the black walls and carpets–and wondering if they chose that color because it made the blood less noticeable. Booths lined three of the walls, some with curtains, some without. A good fifteen of these were currently occupied, and it was from them that the lusty scent was the strongest. A small dance floor filled the front half of the room, but hardly anyone was on it. There were quite a few vamps sitting at the tables in front of the bar that lined the fourth wall. None of them seemed to be drinking, but all of them were brooding.
I could feel it–feel the heat of it rumbling along the edges of my thoughts. They weren’t trying to get into my head, just sharing their unhappy vibe.
It made me glad that Cole and his team were right next door in the parking lot.
I walked across to the bar. The bartender strolled over, idly drying a glass and chewing gum. “What can I do for you?”
I showed him my badge. “I believe your boss has been informed that I need to speak to him?”
There was a slight pause, and though I didn’t feel the caress of energy, I knew he was communicating with said boss. After a moment, he nodded and said, “He’ll be down in a minute. Do you need a drink?”
“Not yet.” Though I definitely might by the time I’d finished this gig.
I turned around and let my gaze sweep the room again. The humans who were engaged in drinking rather than being drunk from were all clustered around the far end of the bar. Most of them were women, and all of them looked as unhappy as the vamps.
Though I heard no footsteps, awareness tingled across my skin. I shifted my gaze and saw a golden-haired man walking towards me–although ‘drifting’ would have been a more accurate term, because his feet didn’t appear to touch the carpet. Then again, he knew exactly what had been spilled on it.
“Dante Starke,” he said, coming to an effortless halt several feet away.
His scent swirled around me, and though I’d been expecting him to smell as bad as his club, he didn’t. He was orange blossom and dark spices, a combination as elegant as the man–and one that stirred the embers of desire deep in the pit of my stomach. Even Quinn didn’t smell this good.
I shoved the thought away and concentrated on the vamp rather than his delicious scent. If Starke was a pauper, then his suit certainly didn’t advertise it. I’d seen enough suits on Quinn to recognize the cut and quality of a Zegna, and they certainly weren’t anything the average Joe would be buying off the rack in any old department store. But as classy as the grey pinstripe was, it was the man wearing the cloth that drew the eye. He was power, passion, and beauty all rolled into a six-foot four-inch golden frame, and he seemed totally out of place in this run-down dump.
I ignored his offered hand, not wanting to touch his flesh when my inner wolf was taking so much notice, and showed him my badge. “We’re investigating the murder in the parking lot behind your club.”
“So I’ve been informed.” He crossed his arms, his expression bored. And yet his golden eyes were alert and hungry, reminding me of a hawk with its prey in its sights.
A tremor went through me, though I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was fear or something else. Damn it, I was werewolf who’d found her soul mate, so technically I shouldn’t feel anything for anyone other than the man I was destined to spend the rest of my life with. But of course, things were never that simple for me. Not only did I have Quinn as my lover, but I didn’t want Kye–my said soul mate–anywhere near me.
And now it seemed I was attracted to this man. Or vamp. Or whatever the hell he was.
Sometimes I wished fate would just stick to the rules when it came to my life. It would have made things a whole lot easier.
“How can I help the Directorate, Ms. Jenson?”
His voice was like buttered honey, smooth and rich. I licked my lips and tried to shake the lust from my thoughts. “I’d like to ask you a few questions, then I’d like somewhere a little more private to interview each of your guests.”
One golden eyebrow arched upwards, and part of me ached to lean forward and kiss it. Damn, this was weird.
“You don’t actually need my permission to do either of those things.”
“No, but given the current climate, I’ve discovered it makes things easier to be polite.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “I suppose you could be right.” He waved an elegant hand towards the door just behind the bar. “My office is through there. Would that be suitable?”
“Perfectly. Thank you.”
“Good.” His fingers touched my spine, lightly guiding me towards the door. It was a heat I felt all the way down to my toes. “Boris, a bottle of champagne for the two of us, please?”
“Not for me. I’m working.” I opened the door and stepped away from his touch.
“Surely even the Directorate would not begrudge her guardians a sip or two?”
“My boss is rather old fashioned when it comes to mixing alcohol and work.”
The office was sparsely furnished, with filing cabinet, an old desk neatly stacked with books and paperwork, a leather office chair that had seen better days, and a coat stand. The only luxurious items were the two plush, burgundy velvet armchairs. I walked over and sat in the one closest to the door.
It didn’t make me feel any less trapped.
God, what was it about this man that was getting to me? Hell, I’d faced a god of death. One golden vampire shouldn’t have worried me in the least.
And yet he did.
“Ah, but this isn’t mere alcohol,” he said softly, seductively, “but rather the finest ambrosia ever made.”
I shrugged. “He’d still class it as off-limits.”
“Tragic.” He sat down and crossed his legs, the action elegance itself. One shiny shoe briefly touched my calf, and delight shimmered up my leg.
I shifted fractionally. Amusement twitched at his lips.
“What is it you wish to know, Ms. Jenson?”
“What do you know of a vamp called Grant Haven?”
Starke didn’t answer immediately, waiting as the bartender came into the room and deposited a bottle of Bollinger champagne and two glasses on the table. Once he was gone again, Starke picked up the bottle, popped the cork with ridiculous ease, and began pouring it.
“Please, none for me.”
“Ms. Jenson, it is totally uncivilized to be sitting here without partaking of one of life’s great pleasures.” He held out the glass of liquid gold, his gaze meeting and holding mine. The hunger was stronger in those watchful depths, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure he was talking about the champers. “And I refuse to answer questions until you at least take a sip.”
“I could just haul your ass down to the Directorate for questioning.”
“You could,” he admitted calmly, “but that would cause a rise in the ill feeling you’re so desperate to avoid.”
He had me there. So I accepted the glass, careful not to touch his fingers in the process. The delicate lemon and grapefruit notes teased my nostrils, making my taste buds water. I’d become something of a champagne freak since I’d begun hanging around with Quinn, and Bollinger, with its fresh flavor and teasing undernotes of fruit and coffee, was one of my favorites. I took a sip.
“There,” I said. “I’ve upheld my end. Now answer the question.”
He smiled again, and my stomach knotted in response. “Haven is one of the regulars here. He services my guests.”
“So the vamps here are under your employ?”
“Not all of them, no. Haven wasn’t, but this place was close to his café and handy for a nightly top-up.” He took a sip of champagne, then sighed. It was a sound of sheer pleasure, and it curled around me as lovingly as a caress. “There is no sweeter taste than the nectar of the gods.”
“Oh, I could think of one or two things that are better,” I said, trying to keep it light. Trying to ignore the net of hunger that he seemed to be spinning around me. “Hazelnut coffee, for instance. I’d die without my daily dose of that.”
“Good coffee is a must, although I’m not sure hazelnut could be classified as good.” His heavy-lidded gaze met mine again, and something hot unfurled inside me. “Though I do agree that there are things in this life whose sweetness equals that of champagne. The juices of a woman in the throws of ecstasy, for example.”
The words were barely out his mouth and I was imagining him between my legs, licking and teasing and savoring. I blinked and the image shattered, leaving me aching and hungry.
“Will you stop that?” I said sharply.
“Stop what?” he asked, the innocence in his voice at odds with the wicked smile teasing his lips and the dangerous glint in his eyes.
“Spinning the seduction web. I’m here to find a killer. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I weave no web. I merely enhance what is already there.”
“You can’t enhance it because it isn’t there, so start concentrating on answers.” My voice was sharp. “Otherwise I will arrest your ass and drag it down to the Directorate.”
He merely shrugged. Which probably meant he’d tone it down but not give up. “What else do you wish to know?”
I crossed my legs and took another sip of champagne. The cool liquid didn’t do a whole lot to ease the fires burning within.
“Why do you employ some vamps and not others? Don’t you get enough vampires in here to cater to the needs of your human customers?”
“This club is not one of the more popular ones, but we still get plenty of humans in on the weekends.” A small smile teased his lips, briefly drawing my gaze. “The vampires I don’t employ are the ones I know I can trust not to go too far. There are fewer problems that way. The others help act as additional security should the need arise.”
“So Haven has never acted as of your bouncers?”
“Then did he ever serve someone and perhaps go a little too far?”
The small smile became full blown, and my toes curled in response. Damn, that was one hot smile. “Despite the way my establishment looks, we run an orderly club. There are very few problems here.”
I took another sip of champagne and decided Quinn really needed to get a case of this stuff. “That didn’t answer my question.”
“No, he has never caused any problems. He’s actually been on vacation for the last couple of weeks. Tonight was supposed to be his first night back.” He paused to take a drink. “I never knew they had pretty guardians. I find it quite refreshing.”
“Considering most guardians are vampires who don’t actually wash a lot, that’s not really the compliment you think it is.”
His expression became contrite, but I didn’t believe it for a second. “It’s very remiss of me to make such a remark, then. I shall endeavor to make it up to you.”
“Don’t bother. Do you know if Haven had any problems in his personal life?”
Starke raised his eyebrows. “Why would you think I’d know–or even care–about the intimate details of my friends’ private lives?”
“Because you seem the type of vampire who likes to know these sorts of things.”
“You could be right,” He flashed me a smile that was as playful as it was sensual. “I could tell you two truths right now, in fact.”
“Well, I’m not here to hear lies, Starke.”
He put the glass down on the table then leaned forward, so that his long golden body was only inches from mine. Tension ran through me, yet I honestly couldn’t say it was totally due to the readiness to fight. Part of it–a tiny, dark, and altogether stupid part–was sexual.
“I know, for instance,” he continued, his voice as smooth as silk, “that if I took you in my arms and kissed you right now, you’d fight. Eventually. Yet there would be several moments beforehand when you would melt into that kiss and enjoy the passion of it.”
I didn’t bother refuting it. I couldn’t when my heart was beating like crazy at the mere thought of that kiss.
“And the second truth?”
It came out somewhat breathless, and he reached forward, taking my free hand in his, turning it over and gently caressing my wrist. His skin was smooth against mine, his fingertips warm. And the caress…
The tremor that ran through me was all heated desire.
“The second truth,” he said softly, raising my wrist to his lips and placing the gentlest of kisses on it, “is that this is not the first beheading to happen in this area.”