“There are…things you don’t know about me,” Julian Craig said gruffly, his faint British accent slipping into his voice. “Things I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Rose Kinley forced herself to smile. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you’re making it seem.” And he was making it seem bad. Her heart thudded in her chest as she stared at him. They were in the Florida Keys, a virtual paradise, and the moment should have been perfect. Julian had taken her to a private home on the gleaming water, and they were standing on the balcony as the waves crashed below them. She’d been dating Julian for nearly two months—two of the best months of her life.
Rose was pretty sure that she was falling in love with him.
Julian. Tall. Dark. Handsome and so very sexy with his powerful build and those mysterious, golden eyes. When he came into a room, she couldn’t look away from him. She’d actually felt pulled toward him from the very first moment that they met.
“Rose, do you believe in monsters?”
A surprised and nervous laugh escaped her. “Monsters?” She put her hand on his chest and felt the strength beneath her touch. “You mean the boogeyman?” She smiled, teasing.
He shook his head and Julian didn’t smile.
The moments ticked by. Is he serious? Her own smile vanished. “No, I don’t believe in monsters. I’m not a child to be scared of the dark.” She stared up at him. “I know there is evil in the world.” This was so not the conversation she’d anticipated when he brought her to such a romantic setting. So much for those plans. “Robbers, killers…I know they’re out there. I see stories about them on the news every night.”
“I’m not talking about bad humans.” For a moment, she could have sworn that his eyes gleamed. Sometimes, they seemed to do that…to be brighter. To almost glow. A trick of the light or the dark or something, she was sure. No way were his eyes actually glowing. “I’m talking about real monsters,” he continued gruffly. “And, love, you need to believe in them because they are out there.”
Her heart lurched in her chest. No, Julian, please, don’t be insane. You were so wonderfully perfect. “Are they?” Rose asked him carefully. Her friends had warned her, but had she listened? Oh, no. If a guy seems too good to be true…
“Yes, they are out there. They hide in plain sight and humans just don’t see them.”
If he seems too good to be true, then he probably isn’t all that good in the first place.
She swallowed and her hand fell away from his chest. Rose pulled in a deep breath and despite the heat of the night, it seemed to chill her lungs. “Do you…see any monsters right now?” Probably something she should know.
He growled. Goosebumps rose on her arms because it was such a deep, animalistic sound. That was one of the things about Julian. He had sort of an animal attraction vibe going on. A wildness that he barely held in check. Maybe that wildness was what had first drawn her to him. She’d taken one look at Julian and thought…
He isn’t like other men.
Now she knew why…it was because the guy might just be certifiably insane. Monsters walking around with humans? Sounded like he’d definitely taken a break from the meds.
“I’m dead serious, Rose. Fuck, I knew you wouldn’t believe me. I have to show you…”
She backed up a step. “I-I thought we were just going to have a nice night out. You don’t need to show me anything about monsters—”
His left hand lifted. A strong, powerful hand. One tanned by the sun with long fingers and…and claws that were sprouting from the tips of those fingers.
Rose shook her head. That wasn’t possible. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, but when they opened again, the claws were still there—and growing longer with each moment that passed. Long and wicked sharp claws.
“I’m one of the monsters, love.”
Her head whipped up. She stared into his eyes and they were definitely glowing. That wasn’t normal. Glowing eyes. Claws from his fingertips. Oh, my God. Even his face shape had altered a bit, becoming sharper, harder.
She took another stumbling step back. “This isn’t funny. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but stop the joke.”
“It’s no joke.” His voice had changed, too. Gone deeper. His words were more growl than anything else. He lifted his right hand, and it was changing, too. More claws. Long and dark and sharper than a knife.
Rose shook her head—over and over—and then she did what any smart woman would do when her lover suddenly sprouted claws. She turned and she ran.
She didn’t slow down, she just ran faster. She flew through that house and rushed down the stairs that would take her to the ground floor. She didn’t hear him behind her and that scared her because she was sure he was trailing her. She grabbed for the door and yanked it open—
Only to have it immediately slammed closed again, by Julian. He hadn’t just trailed her, he’d caught her, all without making a sound.
Her breath heaved out and she whirled to find another way out. But…she was trapped. He’d trapped her between his hard body and the wood of the door. His eyes were still doing that scary glow thing and she was too afraid to look down and see if he still sported claws. “I-I want to leave.” She tried to sound calm. Rose was sure she failed.
“Let me explain…”
Explain claws? “You already did. You’re a…” Monster. Rose couldn’t get that word out.
“I should have stayed the hell away from you.” His gaze swept over her face. “But there was something about you, from the first moment. I saw you, and I wanted you more than I’ve ever wanted any other woman.”
Her heart was about to jump right out of her chest. He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel his heat surrounding her. He was so big, well over six feet, and he dwarfed her own five-foot-five frame.
His dark head leaned toward her. “But I never wanted you to fear me.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t have flashed your claws,” she blurted. Because how was she not supposed to fear those things? They were like knives that had just grown straight from his fingers.
“I’m a shifter. It’s what I’ve been since birth.” Dark stubble lined his jaw. “If I could change who I was, I would. Trust me, I’ve wished to be different more times than I could count but I never wanted it more…” He swallowed. “Never more than when I met you.”
A shifter. That meant…he turned into some kind of animal or something, right? “What do you…become?” Was she seriously having this conversation?
Right. Sure. Because of course he wouldn’t turn into something cuddly and sweet. He would be a panther. Raw power and danger and claws that could rip her throat open in one swipe.
She felt dizzy. Rose really didn’t want to faint on him. “I need you to let me leave.”
“That’s the last thing I want to do.” And then he was locking his hands around her shoulders. She couldn’t help it, Rose flinched, but his claws didn’t slice into her. He touched her with the hands and strength of a man, not some kind of beast. “You think I’ve ever told another human what I am? That’s against the rules. I’m not supposed to tell mortals, but you’re different.” His gaze still blazed. “Because you’re mine.”
When he touched her, her body reacted. It was like a heat burned between them, one that raged and destroyed everything in its path, everything but the white-hot need and passion that erupted. He touched her, and she wanted. It was a desire unlike anything she’d ever felt before. And, yes, maybe she had thought it was unnatural at first…
Then she hadn’t cared.
But now… “What did you do to me?” Rose whispered. “How did you make me want you so much?” Even then, when she was terrified of him, she wanted him. Her breasts were aching, her body readying when she should be running as fast and as far from him as she could.
“I think you were made for me.”
Rose shook her head.
“And I was made for you.”
She didn’t believe in soul mates. She hardly believed in love. She—
“I will never hurt you,” Julian vowed. “Believe that, if you believe nothing else. I told you the truth because I don’t want to lie to you. I want you to know all of me. Everything. No secrets and no—”
But he broke off, his eyes widening in alarm.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
She heard the thunder, as if from a distance. She heard the blasts and she felt the wooden door shake behind her.
Then the pain came, erupting through her body. Her right side. Her left. Her back and then—then straight through her chest.
Julian was shouting and jerking her away from the door. She grabbed his arms, holding tightly, and she looked back over her shoulder.
There were…holes in the door. As if someone had…shot through the door?
She could feel a warm wetness on her body. Julian had her in his arms and he was running through the house. He rushed up the stairs and put her on the bed.
“Don’t move, love. Just…fuck, stay here, I’ll take care of them. I’ll take care of you.”
Rose tried to speak, but couldn’t. A faint moan was the only sound to escape her lips. She tried to lift herself up, but…something was wrong. She couldn’t move her legs. And the pain that had wracked her just moments before?
She didn’t feel it any longer.
She didn’t feel anything.
But she could hear screams. Desperate, terrified screams that seemed to shake the night itself. And she heard the inhuman snarls of a beast.
Her breath whispered out and her eyelids sagged closed.
She was dying, and Rose knew it. Someone had shot through the door. The bullets had torn into her and now…now her life was over.
“I hope you know what you’ve done.”
That voice—low and oddly sinister—pulled Rose from the darkness. Her eyelids flew open and she sucked in a greedy gulp of air.
“Be sure you hold up your end of the bargain, panther.” Again, it was that sinister voice talking. One that seemed to reek of power and danger. “Because there is a price for the gift I’ve given.”
Her gaze shot to the man speaking. He was tall, with dark hair, glinting eyes, and a face that seemed to be cut straight from stone. For just an instant, she actually wondered if she was looking into the face of the devil. But then he smiled at her…
Rose didn’t wonder any longer. She knew.
“Welcome back,” he said.
Back? Her gaze jumped to the left and she saw Julian…Julian—who was wearing only a pair of faded jeans and who was covered in blood. The coppery scent reached out to her and Rose found herself licking her lips.
I like the way it smells.
What in the hell? She jerked upright in the bed, a bed that was also stained with blood. Her blood. Her hands flew over her body, searching for the wounds that had been there before, but now they were gone. No torn skin. No bullet holes. No pain at all.
“Wh-what happened?” Rose whispered. Her throat seemed parched so she swallowed a few times and licked her lips. “I was…hurt.”
“But you’re not any longer,” the mysterious man said. “Amazing, isn’t it? The price some people will pay to keep the things they value.”
She wasn’t a thing and she didn’t think she liked that mystery guy. “Who are you?”
He shrugged. He wore a suit, a perfectly pressed suit that seemed so out of place in that room full of blood. “Call me Luke. All my friends—and my enemies—do.” He stalked toward Julian and clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “See? She’s as good as new. Well, with a few minor adjustments, of course.”
She slid from the bed and stood on trembling legs, feeling at a terrible disadvantage. “What’s going on?” Rose struggled to remember. “I was…shot.”
“At least three times,” Luke offered helpfully, even smiling as he shared that tidbit with her. “Or was it four? One bullet severed your spine. Rather nasty.”
She looked down at her legs. Rose remembered that she hadn’t been able to feel them. A tear slid down her cheek. I feel them now.
“And what weak assholes shoot through a door, anyway?” Luke demanded to know. Her gaze flew back to him as he shook his head in disgust as he released Julian’s shoulder and turned the force of his rather creepy stare onto her. “Using heat sensors, trying to take out Julian. Not caring who got in their way. Hardly the sporting thing to do.” His smile hardened. “I sure hope they’re enjoying hell.”
Severed your spine…And what weak assholes shoot through a door, anyway? His words echoed in her ears. She stumbled away from him and found herself backing into the nearby corner as her shoulders hit the wall. If some bullet had severed her spine, she wouldn’t be standing right then. She wouldn’t even be moving at all.
Terrified, her gaze darted around and she realized that every piece of furniture in that bedroom—every piece but the bed she’d been in—had been wrecked. The dresser was smashed to bits. The chair had been clawed open. The walls were even smashed—deep holes and gouge marks were in them. What is happening?
“A thank you isn’t out of the question,” Luke announced as he released Julian’s shoulder. He waited a beat, as if he expected someone to suddenly shout out thanks. When no gratitude came, he sighed. “I pretty much bent the laws of nature for you, lady. So…yeah, you’re welcome.”
“I’m having a nightmare.” There. That made sense. Julian wasn’t a monster. He hadn’t grown claws. She hadn’t been shot. Creepy Luke wasn’t there. This was all—
“You are the nightmare now, sweetheart.” Luke gave her a chilling smile. “And again, you’re welcome.”
Her gaze snapped toward Julian. Why hadn’t he spoken yet? And why was he staring at her with that twisted expression of grief and relief on his handsome face? “Julian?”
A muscle flexed along the hard line of his jaw. “I wasn’t going to let you die.”
Her stomach was twisting.
“Technically, she did die,” Luke supplied helpfully as he tapped his chin. A big, ominous-looking ring curled around his finger. “And I brought her back. Undead style.”
She grabbed at her shirt once more. Her blood-covered shirt. There were holes in her shirt. Bullet holes? OhmyGod, yes, they are. But no wounds were on her body.
“So, you’ll need to know a few things.” Now Luke seemed brisk. “Sunlight won’t kill you. That old story is total bullshit. My asshole brother started circulating it centuries ago. Leo is such a bastard.”
“Julian?” She whispered once more. “What’s happening?”
His gaze seemed tormented. She felt tormented.
“You still breathe. Your heart still beats,” Luke continued. “I mean, if it didn’t, your body would start to decompose. Your flesh would rot. You’d be all gross and disgusting and basically a zombie. Which you are not,” he added hastily when Julian glared at him. “But since you still have a heartbeat and brain function and what not…that does mean you can die. See, that’s where the stories always go wrong again. Once more, courtesy of my dick brother.”
She didn’t care about his brother and Luke was just talking nonsense.
Why was Julian not speaking?
“So you can be killed with the usual methods,” Luke’s voice was flat. He snapped his fingers. “Pay attention here, okay? Focus. This shit is important.”
“A gunshot to the heart, drowning, stabbing…you get the idea.” His hand did a little roll in the air. “You’ll die, but you’ll come back. Lucky you.”
“This isn’t real,” she mumbled. It couldn’t be real. Her stomach wasn’t just twisting any longer. It was knotting. Cramping.
“You’ll come back,” Luke nodded, “but you’ll be damn thirsty. Just remember that blood is always of paramount importance for you. Drink up, drink, drink, drink.”
He’d just told her to drink blood.
Her teeth were burning. Stretching?
“There they are.” Luke clapped his hands, as if proud. “Right on cue.” His head cocked. “Gorgeous fangs, by the way. They’ll help you with that whole blood drinking issue. You can also compel humans, to a certain extent, so they’ll pretty much just offer their throats to you.” He sighed. “A word of warning, though, try not to kill your prey. That will just attract my brother’s attention and, as previously noted, he can truly be a pain in the ass.”
Her fingers were over her mouth and she touched—fangs. Honest-to-God fangs were coming out of her mouth. Her canines had extended to wicked sharp points and when she talked—“This isn’t happening!”
When she spoke, she actually had a little lisp.
Luke just laughed. “You’ll get used to them. Give it time.”
She wasn’t giving this anything.
“Now, I said you’d come back from death, but there are a few exceptions.” Luke turned his back on her as he paced around the room. “Don’t ever take a stake to the heart. Your heart is key, my dead. Key. And don’t get yourself burned to ash. Oh, and if you lose your head—”
She ran for the bedroom door, but Julian suddenly stepped into her path. He’d moved fast. Way, way too fast. He didn’t touch her. His hands were clenched at his sides. “I’m…sorry. I couldn’t let you go.”
Her breath heaved in and out of her lungs. Her teeth burned in her mouth and hunger was clawing through her. “What did you do?” Talking was hard with those stupid fangs in her mouth.
“I made a deal with the devil.”
Someone tapped her shoulder. “That would be me, sweetheart.”
She didn’t look back. She couldn’t take her eyes off Julian. “I don’t believe in the devil.”
“Maybe you should,” Luke said, sounding annoyed now. “Maybe it’s time for you to start believing in a whole lot of things.”
She had to get out of there. Rose shoved against Julian and he actually backed away. She flew through the doorway and ran—ran faster than she’d ever gone before. In seconds, she was out of the house and barreling down the street. Her surroundings seemed to pass her in a blur and then—
Julian’s hands curled around her. He stopped her. Just appeared right in front of her and caught her hands in his. “I won’t always be able to catch up to you,” he muttered. “Luke just gave me a bonus tonight.”
“What is happening to me?” Because that dark, twisting hunger was so much worse and she found herself staring at his neck. She could see the pulse point there. Could almost hear the swoosh of his blood if she tried hard enough.
Everything seemed too bright. Too bright even though it was night time. And she could hear so many sounds…laughter, from people who weren’t even on the road. The drumbeat of music from a club that had to be miles away.
“You have to drink because you’re still weak.” He pulled her closer and even lifted her up against him, moving her so that her mouth was right at his throat. “Go ahead, love, take what you need. I’ll always give you what you need.”
Her mouth pressed to his skin. Her teeth—she bit him and his blood trickled into her mouth. Warm and strangely sweet and soon it wasn’t just a trickle because she had to take more. She needed more. She drank and she drank and—
Her hands shoved against him. Julian released her and she stumbled back, almost falling onto the pavement. Her hand went to her mouth and she swiped the back of it over her lips. Then she looked at her hand. His blood was on her skin. His blood was in her mouth.
Julian didn’t move. There were two puncture wounds on his neck. Blood dripped down his throat.
You are the nightmare.
“I couldn’t let you go,” he said again. “I wasn’t going to have you die for me.”
She shook her head. Horror built in her and she thought she’d vomit, right then and there. I drank his blood.
“You’re a vampire.”
She’d freaking figured that out! “I don’t want to be this way.” She took another step back from him. “I don’t want this!” Drinking blood? Attacking people? “Change me back!”
His head bowed.
“Change me back!” Rose screamed at him. She was a human. She had a great life. She wanted to grow old and have kids and eat chocolate and not be a monster. “Please!” Now her voice was nearly a sob. “Don’t do this to me.”
“It’s already done.” He wasn’t looking at her.
“You don’t get to make that choice.” She retreated once more. The scent of his blood was messing with her head. She would not bite him again. “It’s my life!”
His head whipped up. “It was your death. I came back to that bedroom and you were dying. Did you think I was going to let you go?” He lunged toward her and his hold was too tight as he held her. “I couldn’t watch you die. Not you. Not fucking you.”
“So you made me into a monster?”
His face hardened. “Rose…”
“Get your hands off me.” Fear and fury exploded in her. “Get away from me, now!”
Slowly, his hands fell away from her.
“Change me back,” she pleaded once more as the bloodlust rose within her. A hunger that made her want to attack.
“I can’t.” Pain was on his face, but it was nothing compared to the pain that seemed to rip her apart.
“Then stay the hell away from me,” she told him and then she was running again. Fast and hard and she didn’t look back.
You are the nightmare now.
Julian surged forward, but a hard hand clamped down on his shoulder, stopping him.
“I think the woman wants space,” Luke Thorne murmured. “So I’d advise you to back the hell off right now.”
He didn’t want to back off. Rose was in pain. She was terrified. “I have to help her.”
Luke laughed. “I think the lady feels you’ve helped enough. I warned you…playing God with someone else’s life has consequences.”
He knocked Luke’s hand aside. “I wasn’t going to watch her die!”
“Technically, she did die. And I brought her back because I am the all-powerful Lord of the Dark.” His words were mocking, but Luke’s face was grim. “I broke the rules when I did that. The price paid won’t just be yours alone, remember that. She’s the first vampire that was created not by birth or by bite. Darkness created her, and darkness will have its due.”
His claws were out. “I need her.” For the first time in his life, Julian had found something—someone—worth fighting for. And fate had tried to take her away from him.
“She doesn’t need you. At least, not right now.”
“Bullshit. She’s scared. She’s desperate. She might hurt someone.”
Luke didn’t appear concerned. “Vampires always hurt people. It’s what they do. Get it in your head, panther. The woman you knew is long gone. From the minute she sprouted fangs, she became someone else.”
His hands were shaking. It felt as if someone had ripped his heart clear from his chest.
“Now, about that deal we made…” Luke’s voice was harder.
Luke Thorne…shit, the guy was trouble. Julian knew it. Every dark paranormal who walked the earth feared Luke, and for good reason.
But I had to make a deal with him.
“Let’s see if you’re really as good of an assassin as the stories say.” Luke inclined his head. “I’ve got some beasts who haven’t been following the rules. It’s time for them to be stopped.”
“Let me just talk to Rose again, I need to—”
The air around them seemed to heat. “A deal is a deal,” Luke murmured. “Time to pay the price.” Then he laughed. “Besides, it’s not as if you won’t have time to woo your Rose again. She’s a vampire now. She has eternity waiting on her.”
She’d vanished from the little road. He still had her scent, though. He could track her. “She didn’t even know about monsters.”
Luke laughed once more. “She does now…”
She was evil, straight to her core. A monster to be feared. A creature of incredible power.
She was evil, all the way to her soul. She feared nothing. No one.
So why were her knees shaking? Dammit.
Rose Kinley paused just outside of the loud club. The music was making her ears ache and the thick crowd inside had her wanting to turn and run away. She’d never liked crowds. Not in life and not in her undead existence, either. But crowds made for the best hunting grounds, and she desperately needed to feed.
So she had to woman-the-hell-up, dig deep to be her new evil self, and go in there and find some prey. Simple enough. Her high heels clicked as she headed toward the bouncer. He was a big, burly guy, a fellow who sported a whole lot of tats and looked as if he feared nothing on the face of the earth.
I want to be like him.
She was down in Key West, a place she did not want to be, and her immediate priority was getting enough blood so that she could amp up her power. Once she was operating at full capacity, she’d be fleeing the scene as fast as possible. She had too many enemies in the Keys. Distance was a necessity for her.
The bouncer’s gaze swept over her, lingering just a moment on her breasts and her legs. She’d stolen the scrap of an outfit from a nearby shop, knowing it was exactly what she needed to gain entrance to this club. After that brief survey, the bouncer gave a nod. “You’re in, lady.”
She risked a quick glance over her shoulder, unable to shake the sensation that she was being hunted. Only…no one stared back at her from the shadows.
Her imagination. These days, she always saw monsters.
Rose eased into the club. The music was even louder. A band was on the stage, bouncing around, and the crowd was going wild. The scents of alcohol and sweat were heavy in the air. Couples were making out. The drinks were flowing. And it was feeding time. For her.
Rose found her prey easily. She picked a man on the edge of the crowd, a man who was watching the dancers with a faint smile on his lips. He was handsome—tall, blond, wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
Do this. Don’t hesitate.
She walked right up to him and put her hand on his shoulder. His gaze jumped to her face and Rose smiled, hoping she didn’t let her fangs show. When she got really hungry, they had a tendency to sharpen without her knowledge. “Are you alone?”
He grinned at her, flashing perfectly even, white teeth. “Not any longer.” He gave a low whistle. “I think my night just got way better.” His blue eyes gleamed at her.
Poor guy. He had no idea that his night was about to take a serious downturn. She leaned closer to him and let her body brush against his. “How about we go outside?” Rose licked her lips. That was sexy, right? “No one can see us there.”
His smile slipped. For a moment, she thought she’d done the wrong thing. Said the wrong words. Maybe she should have tried compelling him instead of using seduction but she was just so weak that she’d been afraid the compulsion wouldn’t work.
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” he replied as he caught her hand with his. In the next instant, he was pulling her through the crowd, heading right for the club’s back door. He was stronger than she’d realized at first glance. Muscled shoulders, a firm grip. He shoved the back door open with his left hand and then he turned back to her. “This was so much easier than I—”
Something slammed into him.
Not something. A fist. A powerful hook rammed into the side of her prey’s face and he stumbled, ramming into her. She tried to steady him, but the attacker was coming in again.
And, unfortunately, she recognized the attacker.
It was hard to forget the man who’d sent her to hell.
Julian Craig stood there, his golden eyes narrowed to slits as he glared at the man who was now trying to shield Rose with his body. Her prey had turned into her would-be protector, and it seemed sad right then.
I didn’t even get his name.
“You’re going to let her go,” Julian snarled. “Right now.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Her prey shouted right back, but his shout didn’t carry far. The club was too loud. No one even gave them a second glance.
“I’m the man who is about to kick your ass,” Julian snapped back. “Now let her go.”
Why was Julian trying to ruin her undead life?
The blond had tensed and she knew he was getting ready to fight. Only it wouldn’t be a fair fight because a human would be no match for Julian. It would be a straight-up slaughter, and she didn’t have the stomach to watch that, not then.
Her fingers curled over her prey’s shoulder. She rose onto his toes and whispered into his ear, “Go back to the music. Go back inside and enjoy your night.” He needed to follow her order. Because if he stayed with her, if Julian attacked him full-force, then Rose knew the blond would die.
The guy glanced at her. Already, his jaw was bruising. His gaze was worried, confused. “What?”
“Go back to the music, asshole,” Julian blasted. “Now.”
But the blond shook his head. “You think I’m going to leave you with that psycho?” His stare was on Rose. “Forget it. Let’s get out of here together. My ride is waiting out front. We’ll get the hell away from this place and him.”
A growl broke from Julian. “She isn’t leaving with you.” His voice hardened even more as he said, “Rose, come to me. Now.”
What did the shifter want from her? She’d thought to be free of him. Did he just get off on jerking her around?
Rose sighed. As much as she might want to tell Julian to screw off, this wasn’t the time. She didn’t want to drag a human into her battle with the panther. So she pulled free of the blond and went to Julian’s side, frowning all the while. I’m not happy, Julian. Not happy at all.
“Good choice,” Julian praised, then he slammed the back door shut on the blond’s startled face. “Good fucking choice.” He locked his fingers around her wrist and hauled her toward the back of the building. “We have to get out of here, now.”
She dug in her heels. A quick peek behind her showed that the blond wasn’t following. Good for him. “Do you like hurting me?”
Julian immediately froze. Then he whirled, stared at her a moment, as if shocked, then he freed her wrist. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hold so tight, I—”
She grabbed him and shoved him against the brick wall of the club. “I am starving, Julian. Starving.” Because she’d had a truly hellish last few months. She’d been captured by a covert government group who’d lured her in with the promise of helping her, only then they’d started playing torture games. She’d been trapped with them until recently…when she’d learned that her asshole of a brother had been the one to set up that twisted group in the first place. She’d just gotten her freedom and she needed to feed. Badly.
She did not need to be throat-blocked by Julian.
“You need blood?” He blinked. “You can have mine.” He tilted his head, offering his neck to her.
Only there was one big problem with drinking from Julian. He was a shifter—and shifter blood was incredibly powerful. Add that power boost to the animal attraction that she still felt for him—despite everything that had gone wrong between them—and, yes, that equaled a very big problem. Or maybe it equaled a whole lot of big problems.
He’s trouble. Bad trouble for me.
“Take my blood,” he said, still staring down at her. “Then we have to get the hell out of here because you’re not safe.”
“Take it,” he gritted. He wasn’t touching her. She was the one who had her hands slammed onto his chest. “Hurry.”
She glanced around. No one else was in the alley. She didn’t see anyone in the shadows.
“Do I need to do this myself?”
She felt his muscles shift beneath her hands. She glanced back and saw that he’d lifted his left hand to his throat and his claws were out. Those claws still made her nervous. “Julian, what are you—”
He cut his throat. Not too deep, just a little slice and the blood began to drip down his throat. The smell hit her instantly and her fangs shot out to fill her mouth. She rose onto her toes and licked that little trickle of blood. And at that first taste, the surge of power hit her.
Shifter power. It was like a high, a rush from the best drug in the world. It filled every inch of her body and she just wanted to take and take.
The first time she’d had Julian’s blood, she’d been scared out of her mind. The rush had left her shaken and she’d run from him.
She’d been running ever since.
But right then, her hands were tight on him. Her high heels dug into the cement and her teeth sank into him. His hands flew up and locked around her hips and he pulled her even closer to him.
“Missed you…” His gruff whisper. Words that she must have just imagined because there was no way he would ever say that to her. He’d changed her, he’d left her, and he’d nearly destroyed her.
“There she is!” A sharp voice called out, barely penetrating the fog of her blood lust.
“Got to stop, love,” Julian told her as he gently pushed her away from his throat. “I’ll give you more later. Promise.”
She was dazed, still riding that incredible high, but he moved quickly, shoving her behind him just as—
Those were the terrible noises that still filled her worst dreams. Gunfire. The blasts coming to wreck her life. But this wasn’t a nightmare. This was reality. And…this time, the bullets didn’t hit her.
They sank into Julian’s chest. He’d pushed her behind him and the shots had hit him.
“No!” The scream tore from her but Julian…he wasn’t falling. He lunged forward and rushed at the two men who’d snuck into the little alley. He slashed out with his claws and raked across the chest of one man, sending him falling to the ground as blood sprayed into the air.
The second man lifted his weapon and fired again, but Julian just laughed. “What is that shit supposed to do? Barely even stings.”
The guy stared at his weapon in shock. “It…it knocks out vamps. The tranq is supposed to take vamps down—”
Julian yanked the weapon out of the guy’s hand and threw it against the nearest brick wall. The gun shattered. “Your bad luck, mate,” he curtly announced. “I’m no vamp.” He slammed his head into the other man’s. Julian heard the crunch of bones and the shooter went down.
He didn’t get up.
Julian looked back at Rose. She’d frozen against the wall. Julian’s blood still dripped down his throat. As she stared at him, he raised his hand and held it out to her, beckoning.
He wanted her to go with him? Rose shook her head. “No, thank you.”
His face hardened. “I know you don’t have a reason to trust me, but I’m not here to hurt you. Your enemies are closing in, love. My job is to keep you safe. Consider me your paranormal protection.”
Her gaze drifted down his chest. “They…shot you.”
“With vamp tranq. Dumbasses. That was their cock up.”
Cock up. Mistake. Right. Sometimes, he used some old British slang. She used to find it cute, charming—
No. Rose slammed the door on their past. That door had to stay shut, if she was supposed to keep her sanity in place.
His hand still reached toward her. “I want this to be your choice. I need it to be.”
“Come with me. Trust me. Right now.”
But she couldn’t. After everything that had happened between them, maybe because of everything, she couldn’t. Sometimes, there was just too much blood and pain and death for trust. “Stay away from me.” She kept her back to the wall as she edged toward the mouth of the alley.
“Rose…You need me.” Frustration cracked in his voice.
Every time they were together, things just ended in pain. Or her death. “Stay away.” Then she gave up trying to creep out of his sight. She turned and ran, heading for escape like the desperate woman that she was.
Two vampire hunters had come for her? Who’d sent them? The government? No way would she become Uncle Sam’s prisoner again. She wouldn’t be anyone’s prisoner. And trusting Julian? No, not possible.
Not with the dark truths she’d learned about him.
Julian Craig wasn’t some hero. He was as far from a white knight as it was possible to be. He was darkness. He was death. He was the monster that she should have feared from the very beginning.
Her high heels clicked as she ran for the parking lot. She didn’t hear Julian behind her, but then, he was too good to make a sound. He hunted like the deadly panther that he was.
And his victim never saw him coming, not until it was too late. By then, his claws would be at his prey’s throat and there would never be a chance to scream.
Her breath heaved from her lungs and she used her vamp super-speed to get her ass away from that alley. Thanks to Julian’s blood, she could move that fast again, but the speed wouldn’t last without more blood. She needed to hurry and put some serious distance between herself and him.
She knew just how to get that distance because Rose had just spotted a familiar blond figure. Her intended prey before Julian had appeared and tried to ruin her night. The blond man from the club was just climbing into the front of his dark SUV. She rushed to the side of the vehicle and grabbed the door before he could close it. “I need a ride.” Her voice came out breathless and a little too high-pitched. Hardly the controlled vamp.
The blond blinked at her. “You…wait…what?”
She risked a glance over her shoulder and—shit—Julian was stalking out of the alley. He looked pissed. “I need a ride really, really badly.” She tried to inject power into her voice as she said, “You’re going to give me a ride.” The compulsion had better work. She’d gotten that temporary power boost from Julian’s blood, so it should work but…
The man blinked. “Uh, you want to get in the car?”
“Absolutely!” She took those stumbling words for an invitation and raced to the other side of the vehicle. She hopped in—
“Rose!” That deep bellow came from Julian. Oh, hell. He was running for her.
“What’s your name?” Rose demanded of the blond as she reached over and took the keys from him. She cranked the SUV.
“Simon. Simon Lorne.”
“Wonderful. Great, look, Simon, you need to get us out of here.” Julian was almost at the SUV. “Now.”
He shoved down the gas pedal and they tore out of the parking lot. As they fish-tailed out of there, she heard a long metallic groan, and Rose looked back, frantic, to see that Julian was right behind them. He scratched the SUV. He was that close—close enough to claw the side of the vehicle.
“Faster,” she urged Simon. “You need to drive one hell of a lot faster.” Because she knew the panther would be giving chase.
Simon didn’t argue. Maybe her compulsion power was just working extra well. He got them away from the club and they hurtled down the little two-lane highway. Her heart was about to burst from her chest, and Rose kept looking back, terrified that she’d see a panther’s golden eyes staring at her.
But he wasn’t there.
“You…having some trouble with your boyfriend?”
“He isn’t my boyfriend.” Okay, so he had been once. A long time ago. “He’s just a problem from my past.” She had quite a few of those. Rose exhaled and forced herself to turn back around and face the front. Slumping in the seat, she said, “Just take the next left. There’s a small motel there. You can drop me off and then just forget you ever met me.” His world would be much safer once he forgot her.
“Why would I want to forget?” The SUV drove past the road that opened onto the left. “You’re the vampire I’ve been looking for.”
It took a moment too long for his words to sink in.
Her head whipped toward Simon, but he was already moving. Simon kept one hand on the steering wheel and with his right hand, he drove a syringe into her throat. The needle jabbed into her skin and she felt a hot liquid pour into her.
“You took out my backup in the alley, but I think I can manage to bring you in alone.”
“Think again,” she gritted out. Then she leapt toward him. Rose drove her elbow into his face and heard the crack of bones. She grabbed for the steering wheel, but he was fighting her. The SUV swerved into the next lane—and Rose heard the loud blare of a horn.
“You’re going to get us both killed!” Simon yelled as the SUV flew off the road. It bounced hard and hurtled straight for a tree.
“Lucky for me, I’m already dead.” She closed her eyes and waited for the impact.
It was just as hard and brutal as she’d expected. Glass shattered. Metal groaned and she heard Simon screaming.