“Do you enjoy watching me?” Ella Lancaster asked softly as she stared into the one-way mirror. Her own reflection peered back at her, but she knew he was there. Standing just on the other side of that glass. Watching her. Always, watching.
And I’m his prisoner. As if she hadn’t played this particular game—or nightmare—before. Only this time, something seemed different. Was he different? Or just another man she would have to kill?
Ella lifted her hand to the glass. Her image appeared fragile. A woman—delicate, almost petite—with long, dark hair and light blue, almond-shaped eyes. Her palm flattened against the glass, almost as if she were trying to touch the man who waited on the other side.
But I’m not so interested in touching you…more interested in fighting you and escaping.
Because she couldn’t stay his prisoner. She was going out of her mind being captive once again.
“No chains on my wrists,” Ella said as she cocked her head. “A fancy room instead of jail bars, but I know a prison when I see one.” And he could stock the place with all the high-end furniture and too expensive clothing that he wanted. She knew where she was, and there was no pretending. “I want out.”
She’d already spent too much time being held captive. Her nightmare had been going on for far too long.
That sick, twisted freak of an alpha werewolf named Keegan had been the start of her most recent hell. He’d kept her chained and starved in his basement. He’d nearly broken her mind…
Nearly? She almost laughed at that thought. Ella knew her mind was broken. So was she.
But Keegan was gone now. And she was in the custody of the United States government. The FBI. The government was supposed to protect people, right?
It’s a pity that rule doesn’t apply to paranormals.
“You watch me all the time,” she whispered. “Do you think I don’t feel you?” She smiled at him and could see the flash of her fangs reflected in the mirror. “Is it really right for someone like you to hold me prisoner?” Ella kept her hand against the glass. “After all, you’re just as much of a monster as I am.”
Did he think she hadn’t realized that?
“Now let me out,” she said, voice soft, beguiling.
“Let me out!” Ella said again, voice harder. She wanted to drive her fist into that glass and shatter it. The man on the other side of that mirror had no idea just who he was dealing with. She was getting stronger now, and soon, soon everyone would be feeling her rage.
I won’t be a victim again. I won’t!
She strained to hear sounds from that other room. The people in power there believed they were so clever, trying to use their sound-proofing technology. They didn’t know just what she could do.
Fools. Know your enemy. That was rule one for survival.
As she strained, Ella could hear the faint taps of footsteps. Her watcher was coming closer. Heading to her door.
She kept her hand on the glass, not moving at all even as adrenaline burst through her veins. He hadn’t come to see her—not without glass between them—since she’d first been brought in.
Just watching. Day and night…watching…
He’d sent his team members in to poke and prod her. Sent a doctor who’d taken her blood and all kinds of test samples. The guards had been there, too, of course. But the watcher had stayed away. The man in charge.
Ella heard the click of the lock and the slide of the bolt as her cell was unlocked. It’s a cell. I don’t care how much you try to pretty it up. The door opened.
His scent hit her first. Rich, masculine. The scent seemed to wrap around her.
Then he was advancing in the room. Moving with a slow, confident stride. Her gaze slid up and she saw his reflection in that mirror. Tall, fit, with shoulders that seemed incredibly wide. Power. That was what she noticed first about him. Long before she even focused on his face, Ella was aware of the power that his muscled body possessed.
Power equals danger.
She swallowed down her fear and made herself study his face.
She’d seen him before, of course, when she’d been pulled from her previous prison. Keegan’s torture center. When she’d been rescued from the deranged werewolf who’d been determined to drain every bit of power from her body.
He had been there.
The blond male who now stood, still and silent, just a few feet away.
A handsome man, if you went for that sort. She never had. His jaw was hard, his forehead high. His nose was elegant—far too much so for her taste. It needed to be broken, maybe that would give the guy character. Maybe that would make him look less cold.
Cold. That was definitely the way she felt when she stared at him. Maybe it was his eyes. Those hard eyes of his held no hint of any emotion. And his lips—lips that could have been sensual—were pressed into a taut line.
This was a man who gave nothing away.
Then I suppose I’ll have to take everything from him.
He was dressed in a well-cut suit, one that perfectly displayed his wide shoulders and fit his tall frame. He looked polished. Powerful. Determined.
Not your average jailer…
“Have you looked long enough?” he asked. His voice was a deep, dark rumble. Sexy.
She didn’t want to find anything about her jailer to be sexy. This attraction she had to him—it was odd. Unwanted.
But…there. Instinctive. Primal. Even her heart was already beating faster, and not just because she thought escape was at hand. Because he was close, and he stirred her.
Ella lowered her hand away from the glass. She slowly turned to face him, making sure that her own expression was schooled not to show her emotions. She was going to try logic with him first. She’d plead her case. Perhaps that tactic would work.
And perhaps not.
“You’ve had plenty of time to look at me,” Ella murmured. “I suppose I thought it was only fair for me to have the same opportunity.”
His jaw hardened. Just a small movement, but she saw it and Ella liked that she’d gotten to him.
“Did you think I didn’t know? I could feel it when you were close.” She motioned toward the mirror, then toward the video camera mounted near the ceiling. “I think this was all a bit…much, don’t you? I mean, I’m locked in. It’s not as if I can plot some terrible wickedness here.”
“You can plot it,” he allowed, “you just can’t carry it out.”
Ella took a step closer to him.
He offered her his hand. “It’s time we were officially introduced. My name is Eric Pate, and I’m in charge of the FBI’s Para Unit.”
She stared at his hand.
The Para Unit. There had been whispers about that group for years. Government agents who policed the creatures that went bump in the night. According to the gossip she’d heard, if a supernatural got on the wrong side of the Para Unit, well, that supernatural found his—or her—butt tossed into Purgatory.
Is Purgatory real?
Ella was very much afraid that it was.
“I don’t bite,” Eric murmured. His hand was still offered toward her.
“No.” Ella cleared her throat. “I think that’s my deal.” Because she didn’t want to show him her fear, she put her hand in his.
Her breath caught in her throat. And, yes, she still breathed. Her heart still beat, she could still feel pain and pleasure. Despite the tales heard by so many, paranormals were still alive. They could hurt, they could feel…just like humans.
Ella had thought that the man before her was cold. Emotionless. After all, a darkness seemed to cling to him like a shroud, but when they touched—fire seemed to ignite in her hand. Her heart beat even faster, nearly racing out of control. Her breasts ached, as if wanting, needing a lover’s touch. And—
She tried to pull away.
But his hand tightened around hers. She could feel the strength in that hand.
“Is something wrong?”
Yes, you’re what’s wrong! The man before her was far from human, no matter what he wanted to pretend. And she should not be reacting to him that way. His scent wasn’t human. It was just slightly…off. Everything about him was, yet she was still feeling that pull between them.
“Let me go,” she told him, keeping her voice flat by using every single drop of self-control that she possessed.
A faint smile curved his lips. That smile never reached his eyes as he—very slowly—eased his hand away from hers. Before he let her go completely, his fingers trailed over her inner wrist, right above the pulse that raced so frantically.
“I would have thought…” Eric murmured, “That you would be a bit more appreciative.”
“Appreciative?” Ella nearly strangled on the word. “You’ve kept me locked up—”
“In the best room money can buy…”
“I haven’t seen the outside world in two weeks—”
“You’re a vampire,” he said, frowning a bit. “I would think that me keeping you out of the sunlight would be a good thing for you. Something that you might even thank me for.”
Think again, buddy. Sunlight did weaken most vamps. She didn’t happen to share that weakness.
“I want to be released,” Ella announced. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Nothing he knew about, anyway. The sooner she was away from him and his Para Unit, the better. “I was a victim!”
For an instant, what could have been sympathy flashed over his face. “Yes, I believe you were.”
“Believe?” Okay, she was repeating the guy way too much and her voice had just risen to a near ear-splitting degree. She sucked in a deep breath and tried to get her control back. Back, back, back! “I was chained in that werewolf’s basement. He starved me. He tortured me.” He made me wish for death. Only death hadn’t come. Keegan James hadn’t been about to let his new prize escape into the afterlife. “All I want is to be free. I am not a threat to you.” Maybe. Mostly?
His gaze swept over her. Such a calculating stare. “You’ve been fed while you were here.” A pause. “And you’re certainly looking…better…now.”
“Yes, well, considering that I looked like a walking skeleton when I was brought in, just about anything has to be an improvement.” She paced over to the little table in her “kitchen” area and picked up an empty blood bag. “But this isn’t exactly hitting the spot for me.”
One heavy brow rose as he crossed his arms over his chest and continued to study her. “Why? Because you like to get your blood straight from the vein?”
Actually, yes, but that wasn’t something she’d reveal right then. Though tapping his vein was tempting. Ella cleared her throat. “I prefer blood that hasn’t been drugged.”
He just stared back at her.
“Did you think I couldn’t taste the drugs in it? You’re trying to keep me controlled.” That seriously infuriated her. “At all times. But I don’t deserve that. I’ve done nothing to you!”
“Most vampires don’t taste the drugs.”
She dropped the bag back on the table and realized she’d made her first mistake. I’m supposed to act like every other vampire. I’m not supposed to stick out. “Well, maybe it was because I’d gone so long without the blood.” No, stop, don’t give excuses. That will just draw more of his attention. “You don’t have to drug me. I’m no threat to you or anyone else.”
He seemed to consider that. Then he stalked toward her, and that was the only way she could describe his movement—stalking. Graceful, dangerous, like a jungle cat after prey. She didn’t want to be his prey.
His hand lifted.
“It’s okay,” Eric told her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She didn’t call him a liar. After all, she was trying to get on his good side. Freedom had a price, Ella knew that.
His hand skimmed down her cheek. It was odd—a caress. Why would her jailer be caressing her?
Her stomach knotted. “No.”
He blinked those eerily compelling eyes of his. Were they blue or green? It was hard for her to tell for certain. The color seemed to keep shifting the more she stared into his gaze. At first, she’d thought they were a pure green, but the more she looked into them…
She wanted to be clear about one thing. “I’m not going to have sex with you.” Despite the insane way her body was responding to him.
His hand stilled. “Did I…ask for sex?”
“You’re touching me.”
“And you…want me.”
His gaze sharpened. “Just how do you know that?”
Oh, crap…Mistake number two. She could pick up on his emotions—and, despite his powerful control—Ella had felt his desire in the air around them. But an average, run-of-the-mill vampire wasn’t supposed to literally feel emotions and desires in the air. At least not without first drinking from a victim. Donor. Donor, not victim. “You’re touching me,” she whispered. “And your pupils have gone wide. I know when a man wants me.”
That sounded good. She hoped.
“I didn’t ask you for sex,” Eric said as his hand fell away.
“Then why did you touch me?”
His head cocked to the right as he studied her. “Because…I wanted to.”
“Don’t do it again.” She backed up a step. “I don’t like being touched, all right? That hand shake? That was more than enough for me.”
He nodded. “Until you ask, I won’t.”
What? The guy shouldn’t hold his breath. He’d pass out. “I’m only asking to be let go! I’m only asking—”
“You haven’t told me your name. Not me. Not anyone here.”
Her laughter sounded bitter, even to her own ears. “You mean the other jailers? The guards who slip in the blood while staring at me with fear in their gazes? No, I didn’t tell them my name.”
He headed over to her couch and just sat down. Made himself all at home as he sprawled there, in her cell. Her perfect, fancy prison that looked like something out of the pages of a glossy home design magazine. “There’s a certain way things work here.”
She clasped her hands behind her back, the better for him not to see that her nails were sharpening into mini-claws.
“Information can buy you a whole lot…” Eric drawled.
“Can it buy freedom?”
“I don’t get it!” Ella burst out. “I thought you were one of the good guys. I thought—”
“You shouldn’t make that mistake.” His fingers drummed against the arm of her couch. “Don’t ever do that. Just because I have a badge, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m good.”
She licked her lips. “What do you want from me?”
His brow furrowed as he seemed to consider that. His stare slowly traveled over her body, and she—she didn’t like it. She felt too tense beneath his stare. Too nervous and—
“We’ll start simply. Tell me about yourself.”
That would be the opposite of simple, and she wasn’t about to make that extreme blunder. “I’m Ella, Ella Lancaster, and I’m a vampire.” That felt like safe info to give up.
“How old are you?”
Behind her back, she could feel her claws extend a bit more. “Haven’t you heard? You’re not supposed to ask a woman her age. That’s just rude. Extremely poor manners.”
The faintest smile curved his lips. “Are you a new vamp or have you been around for a while?”
“I’m fresh.” She cleared her throat. “I mean new.” Crap, did he know about the slang term for newly made vamps? Freshblood? Surely he did, since the guy was the Para Unit. She just had to act weak and timid a bit more and he’d buy her ruse, she was sure of it.
“Really.” He leaned forward and his hand slid inside his coat. He pulled out—a wooden stake. Oh, crap. Things were definitely about to get real in there. “I would have pegged you for an older vampire.”
Her gaze locked on the stake as Eric twirled it between his fingers. “What are you doing with that?” A stake to the heart would freeze a vampire. Totally incapacitate her. She wouldn’t die, not unless he followed up the stake attack by cutting off her head. But—
He threw the stake at her. It flashed, whirling end over end in a deadly arc that was directed straight at her chest.
She grabbed that stake right out of the air before it could land in her heart. Then she flew across the room. Okay, she didn’t technically fly, but she moved so fast that she knew it would look like a big blur to him, and in a flash, Ella had that stake shoved at his throat. “Do you enjoy torturing vampires?” Ella snarled at him.
He didn’t fight her. Her body was sprawled on top of his as he continued to lounge on her couch. She could feel his strength, but he wasn’t using it against her.
No, he’d just tried to stake me, that’s all. Bastard.
“You’re not Freshblood,” he said softly. He almost sounded pleased, satisfied, as if she’d passed some kind of test for him.
“This is what’s going to happen,” Ella said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “That jerk you’ve got behind the glass? The one watching us now—videoing our interaction or whatever the hell it is that he’s supposed to be doing—that guy is going to open the cell door. He’s going to clear a path so that I can get out of this prison. And you’re going to let me walk away. I’ll vanish, and we never have to see each other again.”
His gaze held hers. “And why would that happen?”
She pressed the sharp end of that stake deeper against his throat. “Because if you don’t order him to do as I’ve said, I will shove this stake into your throat. Do you think you’ll stay alive long enough for help to get to you?” Ella pretended to consider the matter. “I don’t think so. I don’t—”
“You don’t bluff that well.”
She certainly did!
“You’re strong, your reflexes are off the charts, and you move with the speed of a vamp who has been around a very long time.”
Mistake three, mistake four, mistake—screw it! I won’t count them now.
“Yes, you are many things, Ella…”
A shiver slid over her. There was something about the way he said her name. A deep caress in his voice that unnerved her.
“But I don’t think you are stupid.”
She growled, “That’s good to know.”
“Because killing me? That would be a dumb move. If you murdered the head of the Para Unit, what do you think would happen to you?”
“How about I tell you what would happen?” Eric murmured. “You’d lose this plush cell and be on the next boat to Purgatory. The guards would throw you in a cage and you’d stay there for the rest of your very, very long life. If the werewolves there didn’t kill you—I’ve heard some of them are very attracted to vampire females—then I’m sure there would be plenty of other hell for you to enjoy.”
The stake was still at his throat. Her legs were on either side of his hips as she straddled him on the couch. She stared into his eyes, and, for a moment, she truly hated him.
Ella snapped the stake in her hand and tossed the pieces of wood aside.
He nodded. “See, I said you weren’t good at bluffing. I knew you weren’t going to kill me.”
“And how’d you know that? Trust me, buddy, I’m plenty tempted right now.”
His hands rose and curled around her hips. For the first time, her position took on a very sexual tone. A tone that she didn’t want. “Let me go.”
“You’re the one who came after me.”
“You’re the one who tried to stake me first!”
His smile stretched a bit. He had an oddly disarming smile. Good thing she wasn’t the type to be disarmed.
“You lied to me, so I just tested that lie,” Eric explained.
“With a stake?” Ella gritted out.
“It wouldn’t have killed you.”
Her chest seemed to burn. “No, but it would have hurt. If it had hit my heart, it would have paralyzed me.”
His smile dimmed.
“But I guess my pain is acceptable for you.”
Eric glanced away from her. “Actually, it’s not. I don’t…like that idea.”
She laughed. “You know what, Eric? You’re not very good at lying.” Her hands pushed against his chest. That push should have been enough to have her easily breaking free from him.
If he’d just been human, she would have been free.
But her push didn’t make him move. He tightened his hold on her hips, and Ella was too aware of his strength.
Lowering her voice, she said, “You’re the man who chains up the monsters. Do the men and women who work for you even realize that you’re a monster, too?”
A muscle flexed in his jaw.
She brought her mouth close to his right ear and Ella whispered, “I guess I’m not the only one with secrets, am I?”
He stiffened beneath her.
Then, in the next instant, Eric had put Ella on her feet and he’d jumped up to her side. “We’re done for the day,” he snapped. The guy marched for the door.
Ella blinked and stared after him. Done? No, done meant he’d leave her and she’d be trapped alone in her cell again. “Stop!”
He didn’t stop.
So she just sped right past him. Before he could reach the door, Ella was in his path. They nearly collided, but he pulled back at the last moment.
“Don’t lock me in again,” Ella said. She hated the pleading note in her voice. “I’ve been a prisoner too long. Your prisoner. His prisoner. I want to be free. That’s all I want.”
Emotion flashed in his gaze—and she could feel the swirl of those emotions in the air around her. Desire, rage…such a dangerous combination.
Ella straightened her spine. “I haven’t hurt anyone.” Despite that little show with the stake. She’d restrained herself. “Let me go.”
“I’m sorry.” His gaze swept over her face. “I can’t.”
Then he walked around her.
Ella didn’t move.
She heard his fist pound into the door. Obviously, that was a signal for the guards to let him out because the clang of the bolt in that lock rang a few seconds later. She looked over her shoulder and saw the door open. And Eric strode out.
Her body turned toward the door. Ella took a tentative step toward it.
The guard slammed the door shut.
Clang. The heavy lock slid back into place.
At that moment, something inside of Ella seemed to splinter—or maybe she splintered. Into a thousand pieces.
His hands were shaking.
Eric Pate took a deep breath and tried to yank his control back into place. He never lost his control. Never.
His hands clenched into fists.
“Are you sure we’re doing the right thing with her?” Connor Marrok asked as he moved to Eric’s side. Both men were staring through the observation glass, watching Ella.
She stood near the locked door. Her shoulders were slumped. Her long, dark hair fell forward, concealing her face.
“I don’t like locking up victims,” Connor continued, his voice roughening. “I saw her in that hellhole. That bastard Keegan had her chained up. He’d nearly starved her…”
Eric made a mental note to remove Connor from Ella’s rotation. The other man felt too much sympathy for her.
Right, like I don’t?
When he’d been in that room with her, when she’d stared up at him with tears glinting in her gorgeous eyes, his chest had begun to burn.
When she’d asked not to be locked in again, he’d almost set her free right then. Almost offered her anything, everything to just not look at him that way.
As if he were a monster.
“We aren’t hurting her,” Eric said and his voice was gruff to his own ears. “We’re helping her to heal. She needed to be monitored after what she endured with Keegan.” That sick, twisted bastard of a werewolf. A werewolf who had actually turned out to be Connor’s long lost brother. Talk about a twisted family tree.
“We have monitored her,” Connor said. “You’ve tested her plenty. You’ve given her your drugged blood. Until today, she didn’t fight anyone.” He turned his head and glanced at Eric, his golden eyes glinting. “Until you went at her with a stake…”
Eric locked his jaw even as he felt shame burn through him. I had to do my job. I don’t like my damn job, but I had to test her. It was necessary. “I knew she wasn’t a Freshblood. I knew she’d catch that stake.”
“What if you’d been wrong?” Connor asked, not pulling any punches. “What if the great Eric Pate had actually made a mistake? But then, I guess it wouldn’t be the first time you staked a vamp. If the stories are true, you even staked your sister once.”
Eric swallowed. That particular story was true. But he’d only staked his step-sister, Holly, in order to protect her. She’d been heading out toward certain death. His job—always—was to protect his sister.
“You think I get to make the easy choices?” Eric asked, his voice low. Ella had known she was being watched, so he wondered just how much of their conversation she might be overhearing. “Nothing I do is easy.” He exhaled on a long sigh. “But Holly had run her tests on…on Ella.” A strangely disarming name. “Some interesting anomalies appeared, and I knew she wasn’t some weak, new vamp that Keegan had captured.”
Connor’s brows shot up. “Just what kind of anomalies are you talking about?”
“The kind that make me nervous. The kind that even Holly can’t understand—and she’s the best expert on paranormal genetics that we’ve got.” He glanced back through the observation window. “Ella’s not just a vampire. At least, according to Holly, she isn’t.”
He could feel the tension rocking up as Connor leaned closer to the one-way mirror. The guy was now studying Ella with new suspicion. “You think she’s like me?”
“A vamp and werewolf mix? A cross-over?” A deadly combination. “I sure as hell hope not.” But there were other things to fear in the world, too. “For a while, I thought we were just hunting vamps and wolves. Now…because of her…I’m wondering if other things could be out there, too.”
“Other…things?” Connor’s voice roughened. “She’s a woman, first and foremost. She’s not a damn thing, and you have to stop thinking like that.”
Connor didn’t understand. He probably never would. Eric couldn’t let his control down. He couldn’t risk empathizing too much with his prisoners. If he did—
Her head snapped up. Her gaze—so wide and deep and filled with pain and fury—locked on his. No hesitation. She just zeroed right in on him, as if the mirror weren’t even between them.
“Trust me,” he heard himself murmur. “I am highly aware that she’s a woman.”
A woman who was now striding straight toward him.
“Ah, correction,” Connor said, “that is one very pissed woman.”
Her cheeks burned red. Her delicate jaw locked and when she lifted her hands, Eric could see the small claws that had grown from her fingertips.
She stopped on the other side of the glass, standing directly in front of Eric. Her shoulders shuddered with every gasping breath that she took.
“I won’t be a prisoner again.” Ella’s voice was loud and clear. Her eyes glittered. “You can’t keep me here. You won’t!” Then she lifted her hands, balled them into fists, and started smashing the glass.
She’ll hurt herself. She—
“It’s reinforced, right?” Connor said, his voice flat.
It was. “She has to stop,” Eric said. “She’ll just hurt her hands. All of the cells here are paranormal proof, and even if she hadn’t been taking the drugged blood—”
The glass started to break beneath her fists.
Every muscle in Eric’s body locked down. “That’s not possible.”
“Yeah, it is!” Now Connor was letting his own claws out. “Guess we’re seeing those anomalies you mentioned.” His clawed hand reached for the red button that would sound the alarm.
Ella bared her fangs at Eric. Fangs that weren’t quite as long as a normal vamp’s. More delicate. Then she drove her fist into the glass and it shattered, falling down around them.
Connor swore and slammed down the alarm.
But Eric didn’t move. The broken glass reigned down around him and he stared into Ella’s blazing gaze. Nothing separated them now. Nothing at all.
He probably shouldn’t have noticed how incredibly gorgeous she was in that moment. But he did. He’d been drawn to her from the first instant. Such a very, very dangerous thing.
For them both.
“I won’t be a prisoner!” Ella yelled. “Not anymore.”
Then she leapt right at him.