Brothers Winchester, Remington, and Colt know the legends—they were trained from childhood to destroy demon predators, wielding the latest steam-powered gadgetry. It’s a devil of a job. But sometimes your fate chooses you…
Winn Jackson isn’t interested in hunting nightmares across the Wild West—even if it’s the family business. Unlike his rakehell brothers, Winn believes in rules. As sheriff of Bodie, California, he only shoots actual law breakers. That’s what he’s doing when he rescues the Contessa Drossenburg, Alexandra Porter, a lady with all the elegance of the Old World—grace, beauty and class. And then he sees her fangs.
Alexandra isn’t just some bloodsucking damsel in distress, though. She’s on a mission to save her people—and she’s dead certain that Winn’s family legacy is the only way. Luckily, aside from grace and class, she also has a stubborn streak a mile wide. So like it or not, Winn is going to come back with her to the mountains of Transylvania, and while he’s at it, change his opinions about vampires, demon-hunting, and who exactly deserves shooting. And if she has her way, he’s going to do his darnedest to save the world…
“Meyers puts the steam in steampunk.”
Outside Bodie, CA 1883
“Put down the gun, Hoss, ’fore I blow that oversized melon of yours to kingdom come.” Winchester Jackson’s cold, steady voice cracked through the canyon sure as a shot. Although Hoss Dalton, seated on his horse, had his rifle stuck under the leather flap of the stagecoach window, Winn knew the outlaw never robbed alone. Somewhere, hidden by the rock walls, sagebrush, and dead grasses of the canyon, Hoss’s ragged band of fellow thieves lay in wait.
The stage perched precariously on the shaley edge of the dirt road leading from Carson City to Winn’s town of Bodie. Inside, a woman whimpered and a small dog yipped.
This was getting old. It really was. And it was unlikely this would end well. Hoss was two bricks shy of a load and perpetually halfdrunk. But then anyone who’d seen and done the things an old Hunter like Hoss had would want to drown himself in whiskey most of the time. “Hoss? You hear me?”
The female whimper was cut off instantly. Even the hot desert air scented with creosote and sagebrush in the rocky chute of the canyon stood still.
Hoss turned slowly. His rifle, which was pointed at the occupants hidden within the dark interior of the steam stage, wavered at the Iwon’ttellyouagain tone of the sheriff’s voice.
Attached to the front of the stage, the mechanical horses, big copper beasts the size of Clydesdales, pinged, hissing steam through their venting nostrils as the metal and gears cooled.
Winn kept Hoss in his sights. The old man’s eyes, rheumy from too much rotgut whiskey, flicked to the starshaped silver badge on Winn’s chest, his rifle slipping an inch. Sonofabitch, was the old fool going to shoot a stage full of people right here, ten minutes from town, for a measly payroll?
The brilliant sun hung whitehot overhead in a cloudless field of brilliant blue.
“Countdown is at three, Hoss. Drop that, or swear to God, I’ll shoot you where you stand! Tommy Sutton? You stay right where you are!” he yelled. He didn’t know if Sutton was there or not. Didn’t have eyes in the back of his head either, but the rustle in the grasses off to his right stopped.
“Damn, Winn. You ain’t nothin’ like your old man.” Hoss’s tone conveyed his deep disappointment born of familiarity.
Winn peered down the length of his rifle barrel aimed at his quarry’s heart. “Thank you for the compliment.” Fact was, anything that distinguished him from his notorious outlaw father and supernatural Hunter, Cyrus “Black Jack” Jackson, pleased him enormously. He didn’t want any part of that life. Not now. Not ever again.
“Cain’t you jest let me go, for old time’s sake?” Hoss and his group of bandits had once been Hunters alongside his father. But tough times had turned them from protecting humanity to protecting their own selfserving interests. They’d robbed this stage four times in the last month, hoping for a payroll run for the Black Gulch Mine.
Winn was damned if he was going to let it be five. He had a murder a day, sometimes more than one, to contend with in the rowdy mining town. Having the miners’ pay stolen and travelers threatened on a regular basis was a pain in his ass. He’d stuck Hoss and his cronies in jail three times for doing exactly this. And every time, Hoss’s nefarious connections had gotten them out. But enough was enough.
“If I let you go, then I wouldn’t be doing my job, now would I? Get your hands where I can see them.” Winn pulled down the lever on his repeating rifle, preparing it to fire.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Four other guns cocked and pointed at Winchester’s head as the rest of Hoss’s group emerged from the jagged, tan rocks of the canyon. A perfect place to stage a holdup.
“Not this time, Winn.” His wide smile a mess of gaps and yellowed teeth, Hoss stepped forward and pulled the rifle from Winchester’s hands. “No one would have figured you for the rotten apple in the barrel. A lawman!” His lip curled with contempt. “That would jest make your pa spit nails.”
Winchester resisted the urge to tug on the hardened tips of his heavily waxed black mustache, a habit he’d developed when agitated during his last five years as sheriff of Bodie. “My pa would have spit anything he could chew.”
A metallic clink and rattle of gears alerted Winn that the steps of the coach were being lowered. “Stay inside,” he shouted to the fool preparing to alight on a mountain pass with five armed men waiting mere feet away.
A rustle of taffeta accompanied a length of silky calf and dainty half boot onto the first step. From the dim recesses of the stage stepped an elegant woman.
Winn felt a rush of unwanted heat as she emerged into the dusty sunlight. Dark, glossy curls were capped with a jaunty little top hat sporting a cloud of black feathers. Her expensivelooking bustled gown, the blueblack iridescent color of raven wings, hugged her slim waist and suggested a silhouette that was amply curved by nature rather than artifice. But more stunning than her figure was her face.
Seeing her beautiful, exotic features made Winn’s heart knock uncomfortably and caused his palms to sweat. Sure he’d seen women. Plenty of them. But nothing like this roamed the likes of Bodie. Lips, a shade too full to be fashionable, and high cheekbones accented a pair of piercing whiskeycolored eyes that stole his breath away.
The woman’s dusky beauty was both dark and alluring, but an undercurrent of danger surrounded her like a storm cloud charged with lightning. Upon the black kidskin leather of her gloved hand was a large ruby ring, which matched the bloodlike droplets of rubies at her ears. Her every mannerism screamed wealth and privilege.
“Is there a problem, gentlemen?” Her voice was soothing and rich like warm honey, and her heavy Eastern European accent made “gentlemen” sound more like “zhentlemen.”
Hoss gave an impatient jerk of his head toward the stage, even though his gaze lingered on the woman. “Wait your turn, missus. Get back in that coach. We’ll have us a fine time when I’m done with my business.” His suggestive tone made Winchester want to punch him—hard, and preferably more than once.
“I think not,” she replied smoothly.
The hair pricked up porcupine fashion on the back of Winchester’s neck as the scent of sulfur tainted the air. Something about this situation wasn’t right.
He turned away from the woman, focusing instead on taking down Hoss. Sure, he’d probably get shot by one of the Dalton gang, but if he did it right, it wouldn’t be more than a flesh wound, and Hoss would take the brunt of his gang’s shots. He bent his knees slightly, preparing to lunge at Hoss’s middle, but before he could even move, all hell broke loose.
The woman’s face warped, her brows protruded, her eyes turned crimson, and her full lips bracketed a pair of perfect, pearly fangs. She hissed, and every head turned.
“Vampire!” Hoss yelled to the others.
Taken off guard, they fumbled with their weapons, trying to exchange regular bullets for silver, but they weren’t fast enough. In a blink she had stripped the Dalton gang from their horses and savagely ripped out their throats with her delicate gloved hands and razorsharp fangs. In a cloud of dust, the horses ran down the canyon, back toward town, their frightened whinnies echoing off the rocks.
Only he and Hoss remained. Winchester grabbed his rifle out of Hoss’s loose grip and trained the weapon on the monster in taffeta. She turned back, facing them, her lips slicked with bright red blood. The tip of her soft pink tongue stroked one fang, making Winchester’s gut contract involuntarily.
“A bit rustic, and a little too well marinated in whiskey, but substantial,” she said, as if discussing the vintage of wine. She pulled a black silk handkerchief from the sleeve of her gown and dabbed at the blood remaining around her lips and chin, removing the last traces of her unladylike activity.
“Well, don’t just stand there, goddammit, shoot her!” Hoss yelled, shuffling behind Winchester. Winn stood his ground, the rifle pointed straight at the vampiress’s heart. Not that it would do much good. What he really needed was a machete or a broadsword to lop that lovely darkhaired head from her slim shoulders.
“Don’t come any closer,” he warned.
She tilted her head slightly, like an inquisitive bird of prey, her eyes returning to their original amber color and her face returning to its regal profile. Only the fangs still remained.
“You have nothing to fear from me. Look around you, Hunter. Have I harmed the innocents in the coach? Have I harmed you? No. I took only the lives of those who were contributing nothing to your society in the first place. Hardly a crime.” She peeled the soiled black gloves from her fingers one at a time, then tossed them into the air where they disappeared in a swirl of dark smoke.
Winn’s finger rested heavy on the trigger, just needing a finite amount of pressure to fire the rifle at the vampiress. Only one thing held him back.
Everything she’d said was true.
He glanced at the wooden, steampowered stagecoach. The occupants huddled inside, whispering and peering with wide, frightened eyes from behind the dusty leather window coverings, afraid to come out; but they were unharmed. Hoss’s men lay in crumpled bloody heaps, and Hoss himself was still cowering behind him, but she hadn’t attacked him.
“What d’you want, vampire?”
“I am the Lady Alexandra Porter, Contessa Drossenburg, emissary of His Vampiric Imperial Majesty, Emperor Vladimir the Fifth. I’ve come to seek out the eldest of the Chosen, Winchester Jackson. I was told he resides in Bodie.” Her gaze flicked to the cluster of sunbleached wooden and brick buildings down in the valley below, then drifted to the star on his chest. “Do you know him?”
“Lady, I am him.”
Her eyes widened slightly. “Then we have business to discuss.”
Winn slowly lowered his gun, but not his guard. Apparently Hoss was stupider than he looked; he tried to wrestle the repeating rifle away from him. But Winn had lost his patience. He clocked Hoss on the side of the head with the butt of his rifle, and the other man slid unconscious facedown into the powderfine dirt.
Winn glanced up at the vampire. “I don’t do business with supernaturals.”
She gave a shrug of her petite shoulder, her fangs retracting completely, leaving behind a row of even, white teeth. “I expected as much, but the emperor does not share my view. He thinks it is time for vampires to join with the Chosen if we are to defeat a mutual enemy.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
“Da. But perhaps it is best if we discuss this elsewhere.” She threw a meaningful glance over her shoulder at the stunned occupants of the steam stage. “May I have your leave to glamour them? It is not safe for them to know so much. Don’t you agree, Mr. Jackson?”
Much as he didn’t like it, she did have a point. The last thing he needed was a stage full of frightened travelers to come rolling into Bodie spouting off about a vampire killing the Dalton gang. People, as a general rule, were panicky, stupid, and rash. And chances were ten out of ten, if the travelers talked, the town would come beating down his door demanding that he fix it. No, it was far better if she glamoured the lot of them and made them forget this unpleasantness had ever happened. He nodded his approval.
The vampire dipped her head as she bent in a curtsey, then gingerly picked up her skirts and turned back to the stage. The low, husky quality of her voice rustled like the taffeta she wore, sultry and smooth, completely absorbing the total attention of the travelers.
“You have had a most pleasant trip, with only the slightest delay for a mechanical horse that needed an application of oil,” she said slowly. Winn tried to block out her voice, but glanced over her shoulder to see the wide, glassy stares of the occupants of the stage. She certainly did know how to throw a glamour. Good thing he was practically immune.
That was the second thing Pa had taught Winn about hunting. The first had been never to trust a supernatural being. The Darkin were the scourge of the universe—children of the night—dedicated to eliminating humans so they could claim the earth for themselves.
No matter how elegant, sophisticated, or wellmannered the contessa seemed, she was still just a damn vampire, and sooner or later he was going to have to slay her.
The knowledge bit down deep and hard into his bones, refusing to let go. Winn silently cursed in four different languages. As the oldest Jackson brother, he’d been exposed to the life of a Hunter the longest. Pa had started drilling the rules into him from the time Winn could toddle.
Which made all of this so much worse. Because ten years ago he’d given it up, walked away, and vowed to stay good and gone from Hunters and anything to do with the Darkin. He’d tried to lead a normal life—be an upstanding citizen with a clean reputation—something neither of his brothers would know about. For while the Jackson brothers looked similar on the outside, with their pa’s jet hair and broad shoulders and their ma’s blue eyes and winning smile, they were as different as could be on the inside.
Winn turned away from her as she bid the travelers a kind goodbye. She shook their hands, and waved to them while the horses gained steam and began to huff and chuff, ready to resume their journey into Bodie.
It didn’t help that his little brother Colt, the hothead of the three and a selfstyled outlaw, had come waltzing in that afternoon, determined to locate their pa’s longlost piece of the Book of Legend. Winchester had told his little brother the truth. Only a Darkin could access the Book where Pa had hid it. And, nothin’, but nothin’, was going to change his mind about taking up arms as a Hunter again.
White puffs of steam and darker smoke from the carriage’s boilers mixed with the dust kicked up by the mechanical horses, creating a dark smudge in the otherwise cloudless clear blue sky as the stage clanked and rolled on down the hill into Bodie.
The vampire eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and respect mingling in the depths of her eyes. “You are not exactly what I expected, Mr. Jackson.” She clasped her bare hands together, the dark ruby ring winking on the ring finger of her right hand.
“What’d you expect?”
The corner of her mouth tipped up in a way that made his skin seem to shrink a size, and he had to keep himself from leaning forward to sample those tempting lips.
“From the legends we’ve been told”—her gaze raked him over, assessing him— “someone bigger.”
Winn’s lips twitched beneath the edge of his mustache. “Is that so?”
Her long, tapered fingers lightly brushed the velvet rim of her expensive little hat, which was sheltering her face from the sun. “Da.But then looks can be deceiving.” Even though she looked no more than twentyfive, she had to be an old and powerful vampire to be withstanding the intensity of the daylight.
“You got that right,” he muttered. Strip a bustle, petticoats, and corset off a woman and you were often shocked at what remained. But not with her. He could tell.
“His Majesty would like you to accompany us to his main palace in Europe and join in recovering the second third of the Book of Legend.”
“You know where another piece is?”