New Year’s Resolution Number One: Don’t be afraid to say…yes.
She should have said no. As Lark Kinsley stood on the snow-covered balcony, the cold Chicago night sending chills coursing through her body, she knew that she should have said no. No, she didn’t want to be set up on a blind date with a stranger. No, she didn’t want to spend New Year’s Eve in a crowded party being jostled by drunk people that she didn’t know. Instead, she just wanted to stay home, turn on the TV, and maybe watch that ball drop from the wonderful comfort of her overstuffed couch—
“You look lovely under the moonlight.”
He’d found her. Crap. She’d thought that when she’d ducked out of the throng inside and slipped onto the balcony, she’d escaped her date from hell. Sadly, no such luck. Her shoulders stiffened as Lark turned around and faced Charles Hurley. He was handsome. Tall, fit, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. She noticed that he’d left his jacket inside. The guy had to be freezing out there. No one else was on the balcony. The others were all too busy inside, getting ready for the big countdown.
“Lark?” Irritation sounded in his voice. “Didn’t you hear what I said? You look lovely.”
Oh, right. “Thank you.” She forced a smile. Charles had been kind and charming all evening, but…jeez, there was just something off about him. Every time he got too close to her, Lark’s stomach would clench, and a shiver—one that had nothing to do with the cold—would slide over her skin. She hadn’t felt this way, not in a very long time.
He looked over his shoulder toward the closed balcony doors, then back at her, and the smile he gave her seemed to hold a cruel edge. “It’s just us. The music is so loud in there, no one can hear a thing we say.” He stalked closer to her and blocked her access to the doors. “You could probably scream, and no one would hear you.”
Okay, yes, hello, huge red flag. Her smile faded instantly as her hands shoved into the pockets of her jacket. Unlike him, she’d come out into the cold prepared. She always believed in being prepared. It was how her mother had raised her to be. “I don’t think this is working out,” Lark told him carefully. “I’m actually going to leave the party and head home—”
Now he was directly in front of her. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Uh, excuse me?”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Charles stared into her eyes. A hard, creepy stare. His voice dropped as he told her, “You don’t want to leave. You want to stay right here and offer yourself to me.”
“Are you drunk?” He didn’t sound drunk, but Lark figured she should ask the question, just to be sure.
Charles laughed. “Soon, I’ll be drunk on you.” His hand lifted and his fingers slid down her throat.
The clenching in her stomach got worse, and her chill bumps were back. “Get your hand off me.”
His mouth opened—and, oh, dammit, there was something wrong with his teeth. Not wrong, just—they were way too sharp. His canines were wicked long and pointed and—
“Get away from me!” Lark yelled.
His mouth shoved toward her throat. She felt his teeth sink into her skin. He was biting her. Her blind date from hell was biting her out on that balcony, and he’d been right. No one could hear her scream.
And if they couldn’t hear her scream…
They damn sure won’t hear this jerk scream, either.
Her right hand flew out of her jacket pocket, and she brought up her weapon. Always be prepared. Her mother’s motto. And the Girl Scout motto—she’d been one of those as a kid.
Charles the Bastard was biting her, and Lark wrenched up her fail-safe. Her fingers were tight around the narrow, wooden stake as she shoved it right toward his chest. It sank deep, plunging past skin and bone and heading for his heart.
“Ow! What the hell?” Charles stumbled back.
Lark drove the stake in harder. Deeper. Had she made it to his heart yet? Lark hadn’t needed to do an attack like this in years, and she was seriously rusty.
“You bitch!” Blood dripped from his mouth. Probably her blood.
Lark’s left hand rose to her throat and swiped at the blood there.
His fingers rose and curled around the stake. Charles heaved, trying to pull it out. Crap, she’d definitely missed his heart. Otherwise, he’d be dead by now. But while he was busy trying to remove her stake, Lark rushed by him, desperate for escape.
“Oh, no, you’re not going anywhere! I got to you first. You’re mine!” His fingers latched onto her arm.
She whirled back toward him and shoved into him with all of her might. The balcony’s floor was icy, and when Lark rammed into him, Charles slipped back. He staggered and hit the balcony railing. So she hit him again—and Charles the vampire toppled right over the railing. They were only on the second floor, a fall that wouldn’t kill a vamp, but it would sure as hell buy her some much needed time.
His hand ripped part of her jacket away as he plummeted over the edge. He bellowed her name and then—
Lark was looking down. She saw him hit the pavement. And her eyes squeezed closed. Oh, man, that had been brutal. Her breath heaved in and out. In and out.
A vampire. In Chicago. She’d thought she was safe. She’d thought that she’d put that nightmare behind her. Everything should have been fine. She’d been content to live a normal life. Sure, she still carried a stake or two with her wherever she went, but Lark had thought that she was beyond the paranormal madness now. Her mother was dead. All of her family long gone. Lark had been surviving just fine on her own. And now…this.
Her eyes opened as she peered down below.
The vamp was gone. Only a big, dark spot remained where he’d been. A pool of blood? He was already up and…no doubt, hunting again.
She needed to get out of there, ASAP.
Her mother would’ve said that she needed to get her ass after the vamp. That she needed to finish what she’d started, but…Lark’s fingers touched her throbbing neck. I want to go home. She wanted to lock all of her doors and hide. Lark backed away from the balcony. Turned and ran back into the party. Voices were rising and falling and too much laughter filled the air.
“It’s almost time for the countdown!” The DJ blasted a beat of music after his announcement. “Grab your sweetheart and pull her close. You don’t want to miss the midnight kiss!”
Yes, she wanted to miss it. She wanted to miss every single thing about this night. Lark pushed her way to the door and made it out of the condo and into the stairwell. Her heels raced over the stairs as she fled. She’d get to the street. Grab a cab. Go back to her tiny apartment and forget that she’d had a run-in with a vamp. Just as she’d tried to forget the other times that monsters had made her life an absolute living hell.
Other humans got to pretend that the world was normal. She wanted the same luxury.
She pushed open the door on the first floor and rushed into the cold night. Lark glanced to the left and to the right, and she didn’t see any sign of Charles. The vamp should have run—if he was smart, that was exactly what he would have done.
A taxi waited a few feet away. She lifted her hand as she hurried toward—
“You’re not leaving me.”
Oh, hell. That was Charles. Obviously, he had not been smart. Now she was going to have to kill his undead ass.
Before she could reach the taxi, he lunged out and—
Charles didn’t touch her. Because, suddenly—as fast as she could blink—someone else was there. A tall, dark, and ever-so-built guy in a long, black coat. He’d put his body in front of Lark’s, blocking Charles from reaching her.
“Get the fuck back,” Mr. Mysterious snarled at Charles.
She should warn the fellow that he was facing off with a vampire. That he was in some serious freaking danger.
“She’s mine!” Charles yelled. “I tasted her, I—”
“You dared?” This deep, dangerous rumble came from her mystery guy. In the next breath, he’d locked one hand around Charles’s neck and lifted him up, holding him easily as Charles kicked out and tried to punch at her rescuer.
Lark took a step back. A normal man wouldn’t just pick up a vamp with one hand and hold him like he was a rag doll. No way, a normal guy could not do that.
“What is happening to my night?” Lark whispered. Then, because she did not want to deal with any of this—and because her sense of self-preservation was strong—Lark turned and fled. As fast as she could go. The heels she wore slowed her down, so she just kicked them off. The taxi at the corner had pulled away, but there was another cab waiting up the street. She could get to that vehicle. Get inside. Haul ass away and—
“I’m here to help you.”
Tall, dark and too strong was in front of her. He’d just moved way too fast as he cut off her escape. And he wasn’t even breathing hard.
His eyes were dark pools. His face seemed carved from granite. The guy was huge and handsome and incredibly scary.
His hands reached toward her.
“Don’t!” Lark yelled.
Her head turned, and she glanced over her shoulder. “Where is Charles? Where did he go?”
“He’s running. Fast and hard. But it will do him no good. I’ll find him, and I’ll kill him. He doesn’t get to taste what’s mine.”
Oh, no. She gulped. “This needs to be a nightmare.” She focused on him again. A shiver slid over her. He was way too wicked hot and dangerously scary.
“It’s not a nightmare.” One dark brow rose as his gaze swept over her. When he focused on her neck, his eyes narrowed. He leaned closer and his lips parted—
“You’ve got fangs.” Two vampires in one night? Why? Why? Did the world just hate her? Was Fate pissed off?
His tongue slid over the tip of one fang. “Sorry. It’s a…primitive response to blood. Totally instinctive.”
Like she didn’t know that? Vampire 101. She was no amateur. But she was already reaching for her second stake. Another warning from her mom…Always carry a back-up.
Not that carrying a back-up had helped her mother, not in the end.
But the big vamp didn’t lunge at her. And she didn’t have to shove a stake at him.
Instead, he straightened to his very formidable height. Had to be close to six-foot-three and the guy was solid. A muscled wall. He inclined his dark head toward her. “My name is Devereaux Mancini.” A pause while he waited for her to respond.
She backed up a step. Two.
His lips thinned. “Prince Devereaux Mancini.”
No, absolutely not. She could not be staring at the guy who was the leader of the freaking North American vampire kingdom. Yes, she knew his name. Mostly because it had been whispered in fear back when she’d been a kid. Why the hell was he standing in front of her?
He smiled. “You know me?”
It wasn’t a good thing that she knew him. “Stay the hell away from me.”
His smile dimmed. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
A long, black limo slowly pulled down the road.
“That’s our ride,” Devereaux murmured. “You’re chilled. Let me get you out of this cold air and to safety.”
“Safety?” Lark laughed. “Like it’s safe to get into a car with a vamp?”
His gaze was on her throat. “They will all be coming.” He took a step toward her. “I’m here to offer you protection. Choose me, and I can save you from the others.”
“Who is coming?” Another shiver slid over her.
He cursed and shrugged out of his coat. A blink later, the coat was around her, and it seemed to carry a rich, masculine scent. His scent. And he was back to standing two feet away from her.
Her gaze sharpened on him. “You just gave me your coat.” Since when were vamps into the chivalry routine?
The limo braked. Exhaust blew from the rear of the vehicle.
“You’re cold. I don’t need the coat.” He wore a tux. Looked fancy and rich and all…handsome. Sexy.
For a bloodsucker.
He even had a hot little cleft in his chin.
“It’s not safe for you out here, Lark.”
Lark. He knew her name. That was like the tenth bad sign of the night.
Devereaux lifted his hand toward her. “Choose me,” he urged her, his voice all low and deep and rumbling, “and I’ll keep you safe forever.”
Sure. Forever being a key word. She backed up one more step. “Vamp magic and compulsions don’t work on me.” Her mother had seen to that.
“I’m not using a compulsion on you.” His head cocked to the side. “I was trying logic. It’s late and cold, and you’re on your own. There’s one hungry vamp already running in the streets, desperate for you. Charles tasted your blood, so he’s just going to want more. I would have killed him for you, but you ran away, and getting to you—making sure you stayed alive tonight—was a bigger priority for me.”
She laughed. “Because a vampire prince cares about what happens to me?” To her…The daughter of a monster hunter. She wouldn’t believe that lie.
“I care very much about you.” Devereaux’s head turned, and he stared into the distance. “They’re all coming. When midnight strikes, they know that you’ll be fair game. That’s why you have to choose me before then. It’s why Charles tried to force you to choose him. I’m not like Charles. I’m giving you the option.”
She was so confused, but if she had a choice… “I’m choosing to go home on my own, thanks so much.”
A growl broke from him. “You know how hard it is for a vamp to resist fresh blood, but I haven’t touched you…yet.”
“Do you know how hard it is…” Lark tossed right back, “for a monster hunter to resist the urge to plunge a stake into a vamp? But I haven’t touched you…yet.”
He laughed. Laughed. The dark sound was oddly sexy. She was so messed up. Always had been, though. Hadn’t her mother warned her, time and time again, that she had too much of a fascination for the beasts? Hadn’t she been punished because she hadn’t been hard enough on them? Because she hadn’t always gone straight for the kill?
But his laughter faded, and he seemed to stiffen. Devereaux sucked in a deep breath. His hands fisted at his sides. “Get in the limo, now.”
He was being way too bossy. Turn-off. “Seriously? Do I look like I have a death wish? There is no way I’m getting into that ride. My mom taught me long ago to never get in a car with a stranger. Especially a strange vamp. That’s asking for trouble.”
“I’m sure your mother taught you all kinds of things.”
Yes, she had.
“But I’m afraid she told you some lies, too.”
What? Lark’s eyes turned to furious slits. “Did you just insult my mother?”
His hands were still fisted. “I need you to choose me. Get in the car.”
Wow. Again, with the bossy bit. Did being arrogant go hand-in-hand with being a vamp prince? He’d obviously confused her with one of his vamp subjects. Unlike them, though, she didn’t give a damn about his orders. “Since you make it sound so appealing…” Lark drawled. Then she yanked out her back-up stake. “No. I’m not in the mood for a ride with you, and if you try to come near me, I’ll shove this guy into your heart.”
His stare dropped to the stake. Lingered. “How many of those do you have on you?”
That was the last one.
“Guess some habits die hard, hmmm…hunter?” Devereaux murmured.
She wasn’t a hunter. That had been her mother’s thing. Lark just wanted to be normal. “Stay away from me. As a general rule, I don’t go out looking for vamps to stake.” She was no Buffy. “But tonight, the vamps sure seem to be looking for me.”
“The vamps aren’t the only ones who’ll be looking for you.” He rolled back his shoulders. “If you won’t get in the car, then at least…run.”
Come again? “What?”
He lunged toward her. “Run!”
Shit. She did. Lark turned and ran as fast as she could, and as she ran, she realized that her feet had gone absolutely ice cold. She wore tights, but that hardly helped with the bitter cold, and she couldn’t even feel the sidewalk beneath her feet as she fled.
A howl split the night. A long, desperate, pain-filled howl. Lark spun around and saw the vamp prince. Only he wasn’t alone. A giant, black beast of a dog had tackled him to the ground.
Oh, hell, that’s no dog.
The beast lifted its head. Its glowing, yellow eyes locked on her as saliva dripped from its mouth. A mouth that was exploding with razor-sharp teeth.
A werewolf. One that was fully shifted and running through a human city. Had the whole world gone mad? Why were the paranormals hunting so boldly?
The wolf flew off the vamp and rushed toward her. Her wooden stake would do zero damage against him. She needed silver, and, luckily, she was wearing silver earrings. Not much of a weapon, but better than nothing. Lark dropped the stake and grabbed for her earrings, ready to drive those babies straight into the werewolf’s eyes. The pain would stop him long enough for her to plan another attack.
But Devereaux grabbed the wolf from behind. Caught him with that super vamp strength and there was a terrible crunch of bones. The wolf let out a whimper as Devereaux tossed the beast through a nearby window. Glass shattered. An alarm sounded.
Lark took her cue. She grabbed for her stake, held tight to her earrings, and she hauled ass. She knew when she was in over her head, and she was way, way out of her league. She rushed as fast as her frozen feet would carry her, and when she rounded the corner, the beat of music reached her ears. Lark saw lights blazing from a bar up ahead. Humans were filing in and out of the place. Laughter teased her ears, and she remembered another lesson from her youth…
There’s always safety in numbers.
Paranormal creatures looked for humans alone. Stragglers who were weak. They never went after a crowd. She ran toward the bar and fought her way inside. The music pounded. The lights flashed. And she prayed that the vamp prince would stay the hell away from her.
So far, this New Year’s Eve…sucked.
Devereaux Mancini adjusted the sleeve of his tux. The damn wolf had gotten blood on him. What an annoyance. Now he’d have to have the tux dry cleaned.
“Sir?” His driver cleared his throat. “I believe your prey got away.”
Devereaux glanced over at the fellow.
The driver—pushing ninety but still as agile as a man half his age—pointed down the street. “She fled that way. I don’t think she was wearing shoes, so I imagine her feet are quite frozen by now.”
“Will you be going after her? Or shall we call it a night?”
No, they weren’t calling it a freaking night. And, yes, of course, he was going after her. “Keep the limo running, Helsing. I’ll have her back in ten minutes.”
He bounded after—
“Midnight will fall in ten minutes, sir. Think you’ll be the one to claim her by then?”
If he didn’t know better, he’d think Helsing was taunting him. “Bet on it.” Because he hadn’t waited all of these centuries to find his queen…only to lose her in the final stretch of the race.
Lark Kinsley had been meant for him ever since she’d drawn her first breath. And he didn’t care how many werewolves, vamps, or demons he had to battle that night…
She was going to be his.