Dianne Duvall portrays a world of temptation, loyalty, and heartbreak…a world where danger and desire walk hand in hand…
Ami isn’t much for trusting strangers. She has a hard time trusting anyone. But she’s no coward, and she’s no pushover in the protection department either. So when she comes across a mysterious warrior taking on eight deranged vampires on his own, she doesn’t hesitate to save his bacon. Of course, that was before she realized what one little rescue would get her into…
Marcus Graden has been an Immortal protector of humanity for eight hundred years, and he’s not interested in backup. From the moment Ami arrives in his life, he can’t deny that she’s strong, smart, and extremely skilled at watching his back. But she’s also destroying his protective solitude and stirring desires he can’t bear to awaken. After all, whatever her secrets—how can she defeat death itself?
“A thrilling and chilling new paranormal series. Fantastic!” —Romantic Times
“These dark, kick-ass guardians can protect me any day!” —Alexandra Ivy
It was not the cool breeze that made the hairs on the back of Ami’s neck rise, but the low bestial growl that accompanied it.
She froze, one arm extended in front of her, fingers tightening on the DVD case poised half-in half-out of the movie rental quick-drop slot. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms. Adrenaline surged through her veins and sped her pulse.
Swiveling to face the source of that disturbing warning, she surveyed the parking lot behind her and found it empty save for her shiny black Tesla Roadster. Orange and brown leaves swirled and tumbled across patched black asphalt that still glistened in places from a midnight shower. Whole Foods, Blockbuster, and the other businesses in the strip mall had long since closed for the night.
She glanced to her right. East Franklin Street was deserted . . . as it should be. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a college town. At roughly 3:20 on a Sunday night (or Monday morning), students and professors would be snug in their beds, catching Z’s in preparation for an early start to the work or school week.
Ami relaxed her death grip on the DVD and let it thunk down atop the myriad of other movies and games that had been returned. She took a step toward her car. The growl sounded once more, seeming to buffet her and ruffle her bangs alongside the northerly wind. Deep and full of menace, it was not the complaint of some irritable house pet left too long in the elements. No dog produced this rumbling. Something larger did, bringing it closer in tone and texture to that of a lion or a tiger.
Another growl answered it, not as impressive as the first, but nevertheless disturbing. Then another. And another. And another. Frowning, Ami reached into her jacket, withdrew the Glock 9mm Seth insisted she always carry, and approached East Franklin Street with caution.
It definitely came from the north. Not from the darkened businesses across the street, but from the bike trail to their right that veered left into the trees behind them. A snarling infused with such violence and fury one might think a lion were battling a pack of wolves.
Just as she reached the edge of the parking lot, odd shick, ting, and clang noises joined the fray.
Ami darted across the street and raced down the bike path. Tall trees formed spires on her right. A small meadow with a radio tower lay on her left, but soon surrendered to forest. When it did, Ami slowed to a brisk walk and entered the denser shadows. Her heart pounded. The babbling of a brook she couldn’t see teased her ears.
Ten or fifteen yards in, she left the path, headed into the trees, and began wading through the undergrowth. Fortunately, it had rained earlier. The autumn leaves beneath the canopy were still damp and muffled her footsteps.
Up ahead, small lights flickered like fireflies. Amber. Green. Blue. Silver. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in pairs. Moving and shifting. The length of time they remained visible varying.
Ami swallowed hard and questioned her sanity as she came to an area where the trees thinned. She paused, concealed by the denser foliage on the perimeter.
Ahead, too small to be called a clearing, lay a patch of land the size of a two-car garage that just happened to be treeless. In its center, a fantastical scene unfolded that— for many—would defy belief.
The flickering lights she had spied swam in and out of focus as the faces that housed them moved so quickly to and fro that they blurred. Men, who were clearly more than mortal men, engaged in a surreal battle that resurrected her first description: a lion facing down a wolf pack.
The lion—a dark, menacing figure in the center of the storm—bore glowing amber eyes and long black hair that floated around his head like tendrils of smoke as he spun, fought, and slashed at his attackers with a speed that brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons Darnell had shown her.
No other creature could move so swiftly.
The pack of wolves—growling and snapping like their namesakes—also bore glowing eyes, theirs green, blue, and silver. Though they all, like the immortal, were garbed in midnight hues, their hair varied. Blond.
Brunette. Auburn. Long. Short. Shaved. Spiked. Pulled back in a ponytail. They, too, moved faster than humans ever could, darting in and striking at the immortal with indistinct motions, then leaping back and pausing to gauge the damage and let their comrades have a shot, their blades dripping crimson liquid.
Though they couldn’t match their enemy’s speed and strength, the vampires outnumbered the immortal . . . eight to one as best she could count. Ami could only make out individual features when the vampires paused between strikes.
She discerned none of the immortal’s features because he remained in continuous motion, his swords or sais or whatever blades he wielded defending him from assaults on all sides.
Ami reached into her left pocket, palm sweating, and pulled out a cylindrical aluminum silencer that was longer than the Glock itself.
Keeping her gaze on the conflict before her, she screwed it onto the barrel. The top-of-theline suppressor would reduce the explosive expulsion of each hollow-point bullet to a mere click that would not rouse residents slumbering in the houses and townhouses beyond the trees.
Raising the Glock with her right hand, she supported it with her left and waited.
A blur of movement solidified into a blond vampire who halted—aqua eyes gleaming, bowie knives dripping—on the fringes of the pack.
Ami fired twice.
Blood sprayed from his carotid and femoral arteries. Dropping his weapons, the vampire emitted a garbled croak and clamped his hands to his neck in an attempt to cease the gush of his life’s blood.
A vampire with shaggy brown hair appeared next to him.
Ami fired thrice more, striking the new vamp in his carotid, brachial, and femoral arteries.
All six remaining vampires stilled and glanced at their injured colleagues, who sank to their knees as they bled out faster than the virus that infected them could heal their wounds.
The Immortal Guardian paused and unerringly met Ami’s gaze.
For one split second, her heart stopped, and everything around her fell away, out of focus, a dark void. All but the immortal.
His hair settled on his shoulders and tumbled halfway down his back and chest in wild disarray, concealing much of his face. His eyes, viewed through the tangles, glowed a vibrant amber beneath raven brows. Dark stubble covered a strong jaw spattered with spots and streaks of scarlet.
His full lips parted, emitting great gasping breaths interspersed with the rumblings of a lion, and displayed white, glinting fangs.
It was, perhaps, one of the oddest moments of Marcus’s existence.
Well, odd might not be the correct word. Vampires still moving in packs larger than twos or threes was odd. Vampires remaining lucid enough to organize the ambush he had plunged into was odd. At least, it had been up until a year and a half ago.
This . . .
This was surprising.
And very little surprised Marcus Grayden.
Panting, losing blood from dozens of cuts and gashes that had not had time to heal before more were inflicted, he stared at the instigator of this fortuitous pause.
He had expected to see a Second decked out in black vampire-hunting togs. Instead, his fascinated gaze landed upon a sweet, undeniably feminine face with a halo of bright orange curls. Wide green eyes as vivid as emeralds peered out of concealing foliage and met his.
She was pretty. And small. And seemed to radiate innocence. Were it not for the weapon extended before her, he would wonder if he weren’t imagining her.
Who was she? What was she doing here?
The clothing she wore labeled her a civilian—snug jeans, loose sweater, dark jacket—so why wasn’t she screaming? Why didn’t she shoot him? Why was she helping him instead of fleeing or firing at them all?
Marcus lacked the time to speculate further. He sensed the instant the six remaining vampires located the petite assassin and drew back his arm.
Ami watched the immortal swing a gleaming short sword at the vampire nearest him as all six vampires searched the trees for a glimpse of her. The head of a third vamp hit the ground at roughly the same moment Ami realized she had been spotted.
Sheer terror ripped through her, shocking her heart back into action and ramming it against her ribs in a panicked triple-tempo. Three of the five remaining vampires resumed their clash with the immortal. The other two turned their furious attention upon her.
Ami squeezed the trigger again and again and again, firing blindly into the blur their bodies became as they raced toward her. Or tried to race toward her. Hollow points did a lot of damage internally, bursting open like flower blossoms upon impact. And a semi-automatic could fire a lot of hollow points in a very short time.
Amy emptied the clip, filling the vamps’ torsos with the ten remaining bullets. As the two vampires stumbled and hesitated, she ejected the clip and drew another from her pocket.
One vamp—head shaven—recovered faster than the other, leaping toward her with a feral sound as she slid the new clip into the grip.
An unfocused shape swept between them: the immortal, moving so fast the breeze created by his passing yanked the hair back from her face. The bald vampire, nearly upon her, bounced back as though he had hit a wall. Cuts seemed to open on his flesh spontaneously as the immortal’s short swords flashed.
Shaken, Ami slammed the clip home, advanced a bullet into the chamber, and raised her weapon.
Two of the three vampires the immortal had been fighting had fallen. As the immortal halted, the two who had pursued her both fell, limp, to the ground. The sole surviving vampire took in the rapidly decomposing bodies of his companions and fled.
The Immortal Guardian turned to face her.
Ami swallowed hard and looked up at him. Way up at him. At six foot one or so, he towered over her own five feet. Her fear did not lessen, though she knew it should. Immortals were the good guys. Immortals had rescued her from the monsters who had locked her in a hell of their making.
Immortals had taken her in, helped her regain her sanity, protected her, and given her a home.
But not before those monsters had done irreparable damage to her psyche.
Ami forced herself to lower her weapon, but could not lessen her grip on it or still her trembling.
The immortal studied her in silence. His clothing was torn in numerous places and wet with blood, both his and the vampires’. Though his hands still grasped short swords in loose, comfortable clasps, one arm hung at an odd angle.
“Are you injured?” he asked. His voice, soft and deep, carried a British accent.
Unable to find her own, she shook her head.
“You know what I am, what they are,” he commented, motioning to the deceased vampires with a tilt of his head.
“Yes,” she squeezed past her tight throat. “Are you . . . are you all right?”
He nodded and glanced in the direction of the fleeing vampire. “I’ve one more to take care of.”
“Do you want me to call in reinforcements?”
A wicked smile curled his lips as he began walking backward in the direction of his prey. “And spoil my fun? No, thank you.”
Something about that smile, the dark anticipation that filled his handsome features, produced a flutter of butterfly wings in her belly.
“Am I correct in assuming you’re a Second?”
She opened her mouth to respond in the negative.
Seconds were humans who worked with immortals and protected them during the daylight hours when they had to scorn the sun. All were very carefully screened to ensure their loyalty and underwent extensive martial arts and weapons training. They were also a lot like Secret Service agents and wouldn’t hesitate to give their lives to save that of their Immortal Guardian . . . which was why Seconds were almost always male. Apparently most immortals tended to be old-fashioned and found the idea of a woman’s sacrificing her life for them too unpalatable to bear.
The sudden bleating of her cell phone made Ami jump and snap her mouth shut.
She fumbled for the phone.
The immortal looked over his shoulder, his eagerness to begin the chase evident.
When she glimpsed the caller ID, Ami barely suppressed a groan. “Go ahead,” she urged the immortal and waved to the bodies of the vampires, which were shriveling up as the parasitic virus that infected them devoured them from the inside out in a desperate bid to live. “I’ll take care of this.”
Ami brought the phone to her ear and answered in as normal a voice as she could produce after the past nerve-wracking few minutes. “Hi, Seth.”
The immortal’s eyebrows flew up. No doubt his preternaturally enhanced hearing had allowed him to listen to the bass-baritone greeting of the leader of the Immortal
Guardians . . . as well as the affection that laced it.
“You’re late. Where are you?” Seth continued.
“I, ah . . .” Ami surveyed the bloody clearing, considered how assiduously Seth guarded her safety, and thought it best not to worry him. “I . . . just stopped to return the movies Darnell and I rented last night.”
A grin split the immortal’s face, evoking such an appealing transformation that Ami could only stare, speechless.
Apparently reassured by her acquaintance with Seth and Darnell (the Second of one of the most powerful immortals) and titillated by her evasion of Seth’s question, he winked, offered her a cocky salute with the sword in his uninjured arm, then seemed to vanish into thin air as he took off after the vampire who had gotten away.
The tension that she hadn’t realized had tightened nearly every muscle in her body disappeared with him, leaving her with an almost light-headed, giddy feeling.
“Everything all right, Ami?”
“Everything’s fine,” she said and meant it.
Not only had she managed to confront a stranger—a strange man—without giving in to the panic that usually consumed her in such instances and either fleeing in terror or dissolving into a pathetic, quivering lump; she had actually helped said stranger defeat the group of vampires who had attacked him.
Jubilation laced with tremendous relief flooded her. Seth was right. She really was getting better. Those monsters hadn’t broken her.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, so happy now she could’ve danced. “Sorry I’m running late. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“All right. Be careful.”
“I will,” she chirped and returned the phone to her pocket with a grin. Unscrewing the silencer, she dropped it in her pocket and slipped the Glock into its holster.
As she left the trees and approached the decomposing vampires, her grin turned into a grimace. Blech. She had never before witnessed what happened to vampires when they were destroyed. The scent resembled that of an overflowing city Dumpster on a hot summer day. The vampires she had shot had disintegrated completely, leaving only empty bloody clothing and weapons. The others were rapidly decaying, shriveling up like mummies, then collapsing in on themselves like balloons having the air sucked out of them.
A slight shudder shook her.
Did this happen to immortals, too, when they were destroyed?
Vampires and immortals were both infected with the same rare virus that first conquered, then replaced their immune system. It leant them greater strength, speed, and longevity, healed their wounds at an accelerated rate, and kept them from aging. All good things. But infection with the virus also left them with an unfortunate photosensitivity and a sort of severe anemia.
Immortals and vampires, however, differed in one very significant way: immortals had been something more than human even before the virus had transformed them.
Born with far more advanced and complex DNA than ordinary humans, they called themselves gifted ones . . . at least before their transformation.
They didn’t know why they differed genetically from humans. They knew only that the thousands of extra DNA memo groups they possessed bestowed upon them wondrous gifts and talents others lacked and enabled their bodies to mutate the virus that infected them, eliminating the more corrosive aspects.
Immortals, for instance, did not suffer the madness that swiftly descended upon vampires, whose brains were damaged by the virus’s assault. They also didn’t fall into the deep, coma-like sleep vampires did when the sun rose.
Wrinkling her nose, Ami picked up a bloody shirt using only her thumb and forefinger. Immortals were not destroyed by extreme blood loss either. Instead, they slipped into a sort of stasis or hibernation not unlike that of a water bear until a source of blood came along.
“Well, there’s no avoiding it,” she muttered. Since she lacked gloves, she was going to have to get her hands dirty. The clothing she would bury in one or more of the strip mall’s Dumpsters. The sticky, crimson-coated weapons she would collect and store in her Roadster’s trunk. She couldn’t do anything about the bloody ground. Hopefully another autumn shower would come along and wash it clean.
Kneeling down, she began to gather the clothing into a rancid pile.
Thank goodness she had some hand wipes in the car.
Marcus staggered through the front door of his two-story home, closed it, and leaned back against the cool wood.
Eight. Eight vampires had worked together and attacked him in a surprisingly well-choreographed battle. There had been none of the usual clumsy, swinging-wild bullshit. These vamps had actually seemed to have undergone some sort of instruction.
He snorted. Not that their measly talent could ever equal his own. He had trained with a master swordsman. No fanged slacker with a machete could match his skill