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The Blood Series Boxed Set (Books 1-3) by Tamara Rose Blodgett

Julia stuffed her wool cap down more firmly on her head and waded through the icy puddles on the way to her 1977 Chevy Blazer. Fall had edged into early winter, and the dampness of the rain had solidified into a dangerous sheet of ice.
The Blood Series Boxed Set (Books 1-3)
The Blood Series Boxed Set (Books 1-3) by Tamara Rose Blodgett
Julia had been prepared, and instead of wearing the latest Ugg fashion boots, she'd pulled on her XtraTufs. They had an unparalleled ugliness but did the job. She might keep her ass in the air instead of pegged to an ice puddle by wearing her trusty boots. She threw her backpack over one shoulder and balanced a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. When Aunt Lily had asked about the contents of the mug, Julia had lied through her teeth. Her aunt seemed to think caffeine was the devil's drink. Julia smiled at that. She was done growing, and besides, coffee was a mainstay of Alaskan existence. She shuffled to the driver's side and gripped the handle. Then her feet lost some of their purchase, and she slid to the right, her coffee sloshing out of the slit in the travel mug's lid. “Shit!” Julia said as a couple of hot drops landed on her wrist, scalding her. After grappling with the handle, she jerked the door open and slammed the palm of her free hand against the driver's seat, steadying herself until she could heave her backpack inside. But her breath stilled in her lungs when she saw what waited for her: a single rose, its delicate form in a beautiful, ethereal tangerine color, lay inches from where her reddened and chapped hand had slapped down. She'd almost destroyed it while saving her sliding butt from falling. A smile stole over her face, and she carefully put her travel mug in the cup holder between the seats and picked up the flower. There was no note, but she knew who had laid it there: her fiancé, Jason. Their relationship was a secret. Aunt Lily would have ten different kinds of cows if she knew how serious she and Jason really were. She looked around, her breath coming in white puffs in the crisp air. The snow having not committed itself to falling yet, the promise still hung in the air. It would be like him, Julia thought, to pop up just as she discovered his present and grab her from behind, twirling her around. But he wasn't there. Huh. She turned the keys and jacked up the heat all the way. In five minutes, she'd hit the road, head to Homer High. She was spoiled. Usually Jason picked her up, but today she had to head over to the DMV and get a stupid emissions test. It was amazing they even allowed her to drive her gas-guzzling truck. She sighed. Soon, she'd be with Jason. * School Julia tore off her multi-colored, itchy hat as she waltzed into the school. The familiar smell of kids, books, and lunch wafted across the air, the chill of late fall left outside the doors. She fluffed her champagne-colored hair, hoping to eradicate the hat head she'd tagged herself with on the way over. “Hey, bestie!” Cynthia cried. Julia laughed. Hadn't she just spent all day and a night last weekend with Cyn? She acted as though they'd been separated for months. “Hey Cyn,” Julia said, slowing down to let her catch up. As usual, Cyn was dressed to the nines: high heels, ridiculously tight-ass pants, and the latest off-the-shoulder top with a crazy zebra pattern. It made Julia dizzy looking at it. “What?” Cynthia looked at Julia's face. “Your top. It's like some kind of optical illusion or something.” “I know, right? It's hot, hot, hot.” She snapped her fingers after each word for emphasis. Julia rolled her eyes. There was no cure for Cynthia's Fashion Awareness. Julia considered herself fashion challenged. Yessiree. Irrefutably. Getting everything to match and be comfortable was of utmost importance. Of course, once Julia mentioned the zebra shirt, Cyn was honor-bound to give her the once-over, scanning from the top of Julia's head and working her way down. Julia had almost escaped the wrath when Cynthia's gaze landed like a lead weight on her boots. “Argh!” she shrieked in horror. “You wore your Tufs to school again! And don't give me any of that horseshit about how we're seniors and absolved of everything.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Fashion is the exception. And those”—she waggled her fingers at Julia's offending footwear—“are for… for…” “Gardening,” Jason interjected smoothly, his arm sliding around Julia's waist. He'd heard the XtraTufs speech before. “Don't you defend her, either!” Cynthia said. Jason, all mock innocence said, “Who me?” his hand to his chest. Cynthia's eyes narrowed to slits. “You're no help, Jason Caldwell. She could wear a shapeless sack over her whole body, and you'd still think she was gorgeous.” “Guilty.” He pecked Julia's head, which was still fuzzy from the hat. Julia leaned back against his chest, her head tucking comfortably underneath his chin, and sighed. This is where she'd wanted to be from the moment she opened her eyes—against him, soaking up his warmth, letting it seep into her bones and chase the coldness of the morning away. Cyn snapped her fingers in front of Julia's face. “Snap out of it, Jules!” Jason laughed. Julia was known to mentally wander. It had become an annoying theme lately. “Cranky witch!” Julia teased, taking a swipe at Cyn with her woolen hat. She ducked smoothly, accustomed to Julia's abuse. “Okay… so, did you finish that English paper we started on Friday?” Julia dug around in her backpack until she found a crumpled piece of paper at the bottom. She turned and slapped it against her locker, smoothing it with her other hand. Jason's big hand was a warm presence on her shoulder, kneading it softly. “Are you kidding? Terrell will never accept that mess,” Cynthia said, throwing out one hip and putting a hand on it. Julia shrugged a shoulder. “It's a rough draft. Besides, keeping the standard low like I do ensures that I get gravy when I turn something in.” Julia smiled at her own awesome logic. School just didn't appeal. It was something she would survive until she could graduate. Jason was the one who would go to University of Alaska Anchorage. He was set with a full ride. Mr. Basketball. Julia turned to look at him and wondered for the millionth time why he'd want her. He was so gorgeous and she was so… her. It didn't matter that Cyn thought she was pretty. Cyn was her BFF, and that was what best friends did: cheerlead for each other. Julia still didn't have a plan. She knew she couldn't wait to get out of Aunt Lily's place and begin a life with Jason. Cynthia gave an elaborate roll of her eyes and caved in to Julia's reasoning. “You can try all your down-home, weasel-like charm on Terrell while Jason and I turn in real papers. Unwrinkled papers.” She cocked her brows up to her hairline. Looping her arm through Julia's, Cyn dragged her to her first class, the dreaded Language Arts. Everyone knew there was nothing artful about it. Jason laughed as the three of them trudged to class, arms linked. CHAPTER TWO After Jason Julia's chin touched her chest, lank strands of hair swirling around her face, her arms chained above her head. Her hands had lost feeling hours ago. A cloak of numbness stole over her, and her mind screamed. Her body aching for food. But she'd be damned if she'd take it from her captors. The Murderers. The creature came to her, his teeth gleaming in the low light. She looked at him, her eyelids at half-mast. Its piercing silvery irises bored into her. Julia felt the weight of their desire fill her mind, pressing without mercy against the fragility that was there. Forcing his will. “You must eat, Julia. You will eat,” he said in a fierce whisper. “Why don't you… go… to… hell!” she rasped as loudly as she could. Weakened by lack of food, her voice held all the emotion that she couldn't release in a scream. The air had grown pregnant with contained frustration and violence—against her. “Let me convince her,” the one named Pierce said, his stare covering her body like decaying liquid. The leader, William, turned and stood in one fluid movement. “I have seen your methods with other Blood Singers. We will not use that here with this one.” Pierce smirked. “You grow attached. She is a vehicle for our needs—nothing more. She is human.” William took Pierce by his collar and pulled him until their faces nearly met. “She is much more than that. What if she is the one? Look at the sign upon her head.” He shook Pierce in disgust and pushed him away. Pierce reared back and opened his mouth, and something burst from the flesh as he hissed his displeasure. Fangs. Julia swallowed. She felt as though she were in a nightmare she couldn't escape from. She protected herself by dwelling in her memory bank. It was full. In that space, Julia felt rich. The new reality couldn't intrude on her memories. William and Pierce looked at her quickly. “She pulls away inside herself again! Fool! I almost had her!” It was as if Julia could see through a glass, though darkly. Black water covered her vision, and the horrible creatures that had torn her away from a future of love and contentment, and toward one of terror and uncertainty, rushed at her. She let the water cover her consciousness. The creatures were dim orbs of pale flesh as they sprinted to her side. She fell back into the well of her mind, the liquid forming a barrier between them and her memories. For now, the memories won. **** Senior Year, Springtime Cyn bent her head over the textbook and then, looking up, scowled at Julia. “This is simple. You're overthinking the stuff.” Julia was beyond frustrated. She'd flunked lame-ass Algebra II when she was a junior and, on the eve of graduation, was still struggling with the concepts. Cyn, at her elbow, ramming it down her throat, wasn't helping. Julia glowered. “I don't get it! They put the alphabet in math, and now it's a big jumble of nothing!”” “How in the righteous world did you pass Algebra I?” Julia gave her a sheepish look. “You cribbed off of Jason? You're kidding me, right?” “When am I gonna use this worthless crap?” Julia said, throwing her pencil down. “You're not! That's not the point, Jules. The point is getting the grade. We're American. We're not supposed to be the intellectual global force. We just get the degree then go on to college and get that degree.” She shrugged. Julia crossed her arms underneath her breasts. “You don't see what's wrong with that picture?” “Doesn't matter what I think. I just work the system.” “So, we're nothing but a bunch of sheep, manipulating a broken system.” “Speaking of manipulating,” Cyn said, a contemplative expression crowding her features. “Ah—no. I am not going to dress up.” “Listen, we're almost done with this math cram…” “It's a cram all right,” Julia said. “Anyway,” Cyn said, drawing the word out dramatically, “this is your last final before graduation. Prom is coming. Let's get you hot and sexy for your man-toy.” Maybe Julia shouldn't have told Cyn about the secret engagement. But as she'd said to Jason, if she didn't tell someone, she'd burst. And now she had an endless barrage of teasing from Cyn. “Jason's not a Ê»toy,ʼ Cyn.” She scrunched her face. “Ooh, touchy. Okay, calm yourself.” Julia blew a stray hair away from her forehead. She had to give in to Cyn, or she'd be after her until she chose a dress. “Okay!” Julia threw up her hands. “I'll go.” “That's not good enough. Tell me what I need to hear. Otherwise, you might go and watch me pick out a dress and worm out of everything.” She gave Julia steady green eyes. Damn. She had her there. “Okay, I'll try something on and choose a dress for prom. Happy?” “Repeat after me: It will not be a sack,” she said in her droll way. Julia fumed. Did she really think she'd pick out some shapeless sheath? “I do,” she said. “Hey! I didn't say—” Cyn made a circling motion with her index finger alongside her head. “Saw your wheels turning.” Julia repeated the sack thing, and Cynthia smiled. Onward and upward. * Jason Jason poked the stick into the fire, mercilessly stabbing the coals, trying to decide if he should add another piece of driftwood on or not. He looked at Jules, who was talking animatedly with Cyn and Kev away from the fire. Jason smiled. The hell with it—he'd put on another chunk. She'd wander over to him eventually and would be colder than a block of ice. He couldn't have his girl getting cold. That was against guy code. Keep your chick warm, fed, and most of all, protected. He let his gaze linger on her. He couldn't believe she'd be his soon. They'd graduate and then get married. His parents would be steaming pissed, but they'd get over it. So far, he had always done what they wanted. He'd been the good boy. He'd played basketball until his body still felt as though it was on the court when he lay down on his bed each night. He'd sucked up the grades, played his ass off, and helped his girl limp through Math and Science. He smiled, thinking of how much Jules hated the Math-Science grind. He took in her profile: blonde hair that wanted to be red, that damn wool cap covering some of it, her legs encased in jeans that dragged along the sand, and her bright-red puffy coat. Above the collar of her jacket was her face, which Jason's eyes stroked with love. Her face. He knew Julia was the one the moment she moved to Homer, when she was almost nine. Sullen and alone, living with her aunt, she'd been new to the area and had no friends. He'd been a gangly and awkward nine. He'd started as her champion then and never looked back. Now and forever. As if sensing his thoughts, Julia turned to look straight at him, and a smile broke, her amber eyes like glittering jewels in a face caressed by firelight. She looked at him with a questioning expression, and he gave a slight shake of his head to convey that it was nothing. She turned away, the ghost of a smile still playing on her lips. Then she burst into laughter at some dumb thing Kevin said. He looked away from her and added two more chunks to the fire. It burned brightly and became hot. * Cyn Cynthia watched the two of them jammed together like sardines and smiled. She was happy for Julia and Jason. They'd been two peas in a pod since fourth grade, and Jules had had it tough. She deserved happiness. They made a cool couple. Jason was six foot two and towered over Jules. She was only five-four, but she had never seemed short. Cynthia had never met anyone more alive, more independent. Her Aunt Lily had taken her in after Jules's parents passed. Cynthia had to admit that Lily rankled her ass sometimes too. She was so strict on Jules, as if she'd ever do anything. Hell, Jules was a secret prude. She hadn't even done the deed with Jason. They'd been dating three years, and nada. There's willpower for you! Cynthia looked up through her mascaraed eyelashes at Kevin, her steady and at-hand prom date, and sighed. He was absolutely hot. She wasn't letting him get away. Cynthia had all the titillating details to share with Jules later. She'd act bored and then listen raptly while Jules talked about her love life. She frowned as a thought occurred to her: she'd have to ride Jules's ass about going to Soldotna and picking out a prom dress. Jules was insisting on Vegas for the wedding and was sure to get out of getting a dress for that. Cynthia did a mental eye roll. But Jules wasn't getting out of going to the prom. Cynthia had tried to talk Jules out of marriage for shit's sake. I mean, she's been eighteen for, what, six months? What's the rush? Cynthia thought it had something to do with both her parents being killed when she was young. That event had really scarred her friend. Jules wanted something to hang on to, something tangible and real. Cynthia wasn't sure getting married at eighteen was the answer. But even she had to admit Julia couldn't do wrong with Jason. He worshiped her. Cynthia looked at the two of them together as she snuggled in next to Kevin. Jason touched Jules, cupping her face like a fragile egg as they began to kiss. “Looks like they've got the right idea, Cyn,” Kevin said, waggling his eyebrows. Cynthia gave him a mock punch. “You just want to get lucky!” “There is that,” Kevin replied, only half joking. “Uh huh. That's what I was talking about.” He dipped his head and gave her a peck on the lips, and she turned on the rough driftwood log where they were perched, the warmth of the fire beating against her back, and drew him against her. His mouth found hers, and they twined themselves around each other. The sky lingered above them, black velvet with stars sprinkled about it. * Dress-Up Julia thought she'd slit her wrists if she had to try on one more dress. She paced the room. She should have never said yes. Cyn had dress-napped her the instant they came into the boutique. Of course, everything looked good on fashion-aware Cyn. With her tall, lanky frame, she could get away with anything. She'd chosen a shell-pink, full-length, gauzy dress that made her look like a princess. Or, a queen, judging by the way she was beating the hell out of Julia with her scepter. “Come on, Jules. One more?” “NO! I promised I'd try on dresses—for you—and I have! What is this, number fifteen?” Cyn had the grace to look ashamed and flashed both hands twice. “Twenty!” Julia all but shrieked. “Right. Well… you're totally hard to find something for! I mean, who has your coloring anyway?” Julia huffed, her eyes taking in the piles of gowns growing in the corners like obscene shrouds. “Okay—one more. Then we pick whatever from the pile!” Her palm struck out at the material as though it were alive. “Okay. But if you're only trying on one more dress, it's going to be green.” Julia groaned. She hated green. Cyn brought out her hands in supplication. “I know you hate green, but just trust me, okay? * Cyn Cynthia insisted on she and Jules going together to prom so they could make their grand entrance and blow the dudes away. She'd also taken the initiative and ragged Julia's ass until she caved and let Cynthia do the make-up and hair for both of them. She wasn't letting her bestie into prom with anything resembling hippie chic. Julia was going to look put together and polished if it was the last thing Cynthia did. Cynthia dug around in her huge purse until she found her makeup bag and dragged it out, throwing it on Julia's vanity with a resounding smack. Julia eyed it warily. Pointing to it she asked, “what's all that crap in there?” “Make-you-beautiful-stuff.” The corners of Julia's mouth turned up. “That's a technical term, right?” “Hell yeah!” Cynthia winked. Julia sighed. She knew she'd look like a French whore by the time Cyn was done with her, but she'd released the reins and left Cyn firmly in charge of prom fashion. Julia wondered what Jason was up to. Definitely not this. “Woman up, Jules! I'm not taking a skin graft or something. Seriously, you act like you've never worn makeup before.” There was a significant silence. “Okay, that was sorta lame. You, the makeup queen.” Julia slouched and Cyn poked her in the back. “Posture, princess.” Then she set to work. Foundation, powder, eyeliner... false eyelashes. False eyelashes! “No way! I am not putting that crap on my real eyelashes.” Julia stared at Cynthia in horror. “How about just a few on the outer edge? It'll make your eyes look bigger.” “They're big enough.” Julia thought that if they were any bigger, she'd be a toad. “They're ginger colored! You can hardly see them,” Cyn wheedled. Julia shook her head. “No. Just put the brown mascara on, and be done with it.” Cynthia sighed, defeated. She still made it a point to spend a ton of time on each eye, finally swiveling Julia around in her chair to look at her reflection. Julia stared. And stared some more. A slow smile spread on Cynthia's face. “See, Jules? You're a goddess. Who knew?” Julia couldn't believe the transformation. The mossy green of the dress set off her hair, making the red in it look like molten champagne. Her eyes sparkled like gold topaz gems in a pale face with shimmering lips that were a pouty apricot. She opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. “You can tell me now,” Cyn said, smug. Julia turned from her reflection and scowled at Cyn. Cynthia waited. Well, hell. “You're the greatest.” Cynthia grinned. “I know, doll face.” Julia rolled her eyes. What was Jason going to think of her in this getup? With the makeup and everything? Julia rolled her glossed lip into her teeth and nibbled anxiously. * Jason waited impatiently for Julia to arrive. He knew he should have nixed the lame plan of the girls—the four of them going together. He'd let Kevin convince him it was easier not to fight Cynthia. “Listen man, just let them. I don't want to deal with Cyn when she gets a head of steam about girl shit, you feel me?” Kevin had said. “What's so flaming-ass important that I can't pick Jules up?” “I told you—they're putting the masks and garb on.” “What?” Jason asked, confused. He was already feeling gay in a tux, and the bow around his neck was a slowly tightening noose. He tugged at it again. “Hey! Don't dick with that, it screws up the gig.” “What's a gig?” Jason asked, messing around with the stupid noose. “It's—damn, man! Leave it alone!” Kevin slapped his hand away. He took either side of the corners of the bow tie and aligned them with Jason's Adam's apple. There, Kevin thought. He wondered if his ass-hat friend could leave it alone for the next two hours. Probably not. “It's a military term... it means to keep all your accessories in line with the middle of your body,” Kevin said in a matter-of-fact way. “That's great, Kev. I'll sleep better knowing your ramrod dad gave you a few pointers.” “Hey jag-up, Dad served our country and has a few pearls of wisdom once in awhile.” “Along with some colorful vocabulary.” “No shit, right?” Kevin said, totally missing the irony. Jason smiled and shook his head as they hopped into Kev's car. They made their way to the last dance they'd ever attend. * Jason Kevin elbowed Jason, and they looked at the girls as they entered the gymnasium, where fake acrylic stars danced above their heads like wayward diamonds. Jason couldn't take his eyes off of her. The breath left his body in one, exhaustive rush. Jules was drop-dead gorgeous. He knew that people said that all the time about chicks and sometimes even about dudes. But Julia floated inside the auditorium on a cloud of emerald vapor, her dress the color of green kissed by autumn…... and stunned him into silence. Her hair looked almost red, its normal gold color boosted by the pine of the dress, her eyes a sparkling gold. They took up half her face. He still couldn't look away. She walked toward him slowly, and Jason noticed the dress showcased how curvy she was. She wasn't a twig, and she wasn't heavy. Jason took in a shaky breath, his eyes on her hourglass figure. Then he noticed all the other guys were staring at her too, and frowned. Julia reached him just as he put his hands out for her, and he relaxed. He pulled her closer and leaned down until his jaw brushed her temple. “You're beautiful,” he whispered against her fragrant skin. He could tell by Julia's expression that she knew she looked beautiful even without him saying it. They moved out to the dance floor, their hands knotted together, their gazes locked. Jason wanted her so damn bad. It wasn't just sex—he could have tapped any mindless alley cat in the school for that. She was his, and he was hers. Jason knew Jules was the one he wanted from the moment he saw her. * Julia waited in her bed with bated breath. Jason had dropped her off from prom and promised to sneak in her bedroom window later. Much later—Aunt Lily had the irritating habit of checking in on her before she went to sleep. Julia clutched her cell in one hand so she could text Jason the instant she was done checking. She lay on her side for what felt like ten hours in her pajama bottoms and a camisole. Her hair was still loose and curled from prom, the makeup still on. Finally, Lily opened the door a crack and, seeing that Julia appeared asleep, closed it softly behind her. Julia let a long breath out while texting Jason. He was waiting outside her house like a good stalker-boyfriend, and she helped him stumble through the window. “Damn! I won't miss that anymore. No more nut-cruncher windowsill for me!” Julia cocked and eyebrow. “We wouldn't want your, ah, nuts crunched. No, that wouldn't do,” Julia said in a low, teasing voice. “Come here and kiss me,” Jason said, "You're killing me. And aren't you supposed to take all that crap off your face when you go to bed?” She scrunched her nose in that way he loved and said, “Nah, pillowcase will get rid of it.” “Really?” Jason asked, grinning. He walked over to her, his eyes registering her post-prom glory with an expression of approval. “The dance turned out okay, Jules.” He bent to kiss the hollow between those sexy bones that intersected her neck. She nodded, a little breathless, as his breath moved over her pulse. She wound her arms around his neck, and his lips traveled up to her jaw then made its way to her forehead. He began peppering her face with butterfly kisses, his lashes brushing her skin. Her breathing became shallower, and Jason picked her up and carried her to the bed. They lay together, head to hip, the heat of their bodies one hot line. He moved against her, his hands on her ribs, kneading her flesh as she wound a leg around his hip, their mouths moving against each other. His hands traveled, and Julia pulled away. “Jason,” she whispered. “What?” he said, never breaking from his sensual assault. She could hardly breathe. She just wanted… she wanted to finish what they'd started. But she wanted forever more. She thought of her parents, long gone, their loss a thread that tied the fabric of her being together. He paused and pulled back to look at her, a sliver of moonlight a pale slash across his eyes. Then he pressed his forehead against hers. “I know,” he moaned. “I'm sorry,” Julia whispered. “It's not that I don't trust you.” “I know,” he repeated against the skin of her forehead. A lone tear escaped her eye, and Jason caught it, staring with eyes that had looked into hers for a decade. “I want to be married. It's what my parents would have wanted,” she said and Jason felt her tremble against him. He silently promised to make her first time extra special. It'd be perfect if it killed him. “You still miss them.” he said, tightening his hold on her. “Every day,” she replied through a sheen of tears. He leaned down and kissed her on her forehead, where her scar was—a crescent-shaped scar. Jason could wait forever if it meant being with her. They lay together in each other's arms until dawn shattered the darkness into a million pieces of golden orange, rose, and scarlet, flinging the colors about the room like so much broken glass. CHAPTER THREE Present Day Liquid lapped Julia, and the water parted, ice replacing the subtle undulation of comfort she'd been under. She came to the surface of her consciousness in a nauseating wave. She became aware that she was drowning. She was drowning in hunger and weakness. She didn't have the strength to move. Loud voices assailed her. They floated around her, stabbing at her consciousness until she finally understood where she was. If she'd had the strength, she would have wept. The creatures that had stolen her life away were arguing about her again. “I am phoning him. Gabriel must be made aware of what is happening here!” Julia cracked open her eyes, wide and grainy. Her mouth felt like the Sahara Desert. She was so thirsty her bones ached. How long had she been out? “She is killing herself,” the one named William said. His fists were clenched, and anxiety tightened his already stark features. “Call him. Ask him what we must do. If she is as important as you hypothesize, it is necessary, no?” Pierce asked. Julia lay perfectly still, but they heard a change in her breathing and turned their silvered eyes to her. She had just enough energy to lift her forearm and cover her eyes. She would not look at them. “Just kill me,” she said listlessly. Without Jason, why go on? She couldn't bear to think of all of it right now. The shards of that nightmare would not be a memory she would look at any time soon, if ever. She didn't hear them approach, but an icy hand clamped around her forearm gently and moved it off of her eyes, which ran with tears. Her mind was so beleaguered with grief she could hardly breathe. Why didn't they just kill her? After all, that's what they were good at: killing. * William tapped his cell to hibernate and pocketed it inside his jacket. He breathed an elaborate exhalation. They took a chance implementing this protocol. If they did not follow it to the letter, they would lose her. This girl. The Blood Singer from the Book of Blood. The Rare One. He gave Pierce a full look as they walked together toward the girl. * Julia watched them come, one dark and one light. Angels. They looked like angels. Angels of death. Her arms had long ago been released, but she lay there, unable to move a muscle. Only her eyes rolled in their sockets, tracking the approach of the creatures. * William crouched down, touching the hollow on the underside of her wrist where a thready pulse beat. “She is close, it is a near thing.” Pierce nodded. “It must be you. You are the one with Singer heritage coursing through your veins. Maybe you can bring her back.” William had hoped that she would come around these past months. But they could tarry here no longer. The Were drew near, circling like sharks in bloody water. This coven grew restless with her presence. Blood Singers were a stick to stir the cauldron of trouble. He had already waited too long. She was weak, compromised. Julia looked up at him with eyes of liquid gold, and he breathed through his mouth, hoping the scent of her would not impede what he must do. It was a risk he must accept. * Julia saw William look at her intently and kept her eyes open with effort. Something was building. It thrummed deep in her bones like a call. Julia whimpered. She hated to be weak but knew what they were capable of. She watched as his eyes drank in the sight of her. Then his fangs elongated, escaping his mouth. She opened her own to scream and nothing came out. His eyes tightened at her expression, and he tore into the flesh of his own wrist. Black blood began oozing out of his damaged forearm and flowed down, dripping onto her neck. The droplets splattered like hot candle wax on her skin. “Drink,” William said, lowering his wrist down to her mouth. She shook her head, and with her ebbing strength, she clamped her lips together. William's eyes flicked behind her, and he grunted, frustrated. “Hold her.” His voice was filled with regret. Large hands clamped onto either side of her head, and she was helpless to move in their hold. Julia seethed with frustration. The poison of his body poured into her mouth in a steady stream and she fought, trying to move her head, but steel bands of flesh held her in position. He pressed his forearm onto her mouth, and with his other hand, he pinched her nostrils together. She sucked the blood down into her throat as she began to clamp her teeth around his arm. He didn't react they way she thought he would. He dragged her against himself. Pierce released her in surprise. Her mouth on William's arm, Julia bit down with everything she had. His eyes dilated, the silver disappearing to be replaced by deep crimson. He pressed her against him, his fangs completely extended. “William! Control yourself!” Pierce yelled. Julia hung on for dear life as she watched those black eyes look at her with such longing and loneliness. As he reared to strike a fist crashed into the side of his temple. Her mouth was torn off his forearm, her body sliding off his lap onto the floor. Julia lay in a small heap on her side as a fire burned inside her. It became a delicious roar. She was being consumed by heat. It burned and itched. She melted into the intense warmth, her consciousness narrowing. As her mind dimmed, she saw Pierce check on William, whose black eyes were shut. Pierce looked in her direction. Julia knew what else he was: a vampire. She fell into a deep abyss of grayness, her mind shielding her from what she couldn't handle. She floated swiftly down her memory pipeline, grateful for the escape it gave her. * Last Day Jason had his fingers entwined in Julia's. Their last day of school was finally here, and they had plane tickets for Vegas. They were going to do it. She looked up at him and smiled. He looked into the light-gold depths of her gaze and almost stumbled. She always had that affect on him. He'd been drawn to her from the beginning. A small furrow lay between her brows. Julia's hand lifted to her temple and rubbed. Jason pulled her over to the side of the hall, the sea of bodies and backpacks jostling past, an excited buzz thrumming around them. He slid his palm underneath her honey-colored hair and wrapped the back of it on her neck, gently kneading the soft skin. “Is it the headaches again?” Jules had been having these bone-crusher headaches. Jason thought it was the stress at home. Trying to plan a secret elopement could take its toll on a girl. He smirked. “Huh, you really care!” she said, giving him a mock-scowl and putting her hands on her hips. Her luscious hips. “No! Uh… I was just thinking all the super-secret spy moves you're pulling around Lily are getting kinda old.” He cocked an eyebrow. She nodded. “Actually…” Julia looked down at her hands, which had found their way to Jason's hips, and she couldn't look away. A blush came over her face. Jason put a gentle finger under her chin and raised it until their eyes met. “What is it?” She shoved her erotic impulses away and concentrated on his question instead, the blush still staining her cheeks. The high color marking her cheekbones a delicate pink made Jason wonder what she'd been thinking about. He opened his mouth to repeat the question, and she interrupted, “It's the dreams. I'm having them again.” “Oh,” Jason said, pulling her in against his body. He hadn't liked the dreams. He wasn't going to tell her, but he'd begun having some of his own, and they were goddamn doozies. “Get a room!” Kevin yelled, walking by, arm slung around Cynthia. Jason gave Kevin the finger, and Julia grabbed it in the air. “Don't,” she hissed, giving him a scowl. Jason threw up the other hand and flipped him another bird. “You're impossible!” Julia said sternly. Then she smiled. She began laughing, and convulsed into a stream of irrepressible giggles. “That's so helpful, Jules. You're so on it,” Kevin said. Jason was standing there, in full view of the world, giving Kevin the double-finger send off. Oh my God. Julia clutched her sides, howling. She was bent over until she noticed a pair of hot-pink boots come into her line of sight. She grabbed Cyn's sweater and hauled herself up. “Hey asswipe—you're not sensing any adults around?” Kevin asked. Jason dropped his hands as one of their teachers made his way toward them in a huff of righteous adult indignation. Terrell. Great. Instead of calming them down, Terrell's approach had the opposite effect, and Julia continued laughing, tears streaming down her face. * Terrell lurched up to the group. He dismissed the Wade girl, who was doubled over in fits of hysterical giggling. It was the basketball boys who caught his attention. He didn't care if the Caldwell boy had got an A in his class—there was something fishy about them. He got right up in Caldwell's face, momentarily nonplussed that the kid had him by four inches. “Listen here, Caldwell. I don't give a lick about how great you think you are, or that it's your last day here. This isn't the court. You don't own the school, the halls, anything. Act like an adult, and maybe, just maybe, you'll become one someday.” * Terrell had sobered Julia up, and she didn't like how he was talking to Jason. Big surprise: she didn't like Terrell that much. She and Cyn had their arms crossed, and Kevin loomed over Terrell. He didn't seem intimidated, and Julia suddenly remembered a term that Lily had used: little man's syndrome. Maybe he has a dose of that. “We clear?” Terrell wasn't really asking. He was commanding. He wanted a certain kind of response. Please don't get nailed on the last day, Julia thought, seeing Jason's fists clench and loosen. She watched him notch down his anger at Terrell, and her shoulders relaxed. It looked like things were going to settle down. Then Terrell looked at her. Really looked at her, starting at her head and ending at her feet, sweeping over her private parts with a lingering look. Gross! “Hey perv!” Cyn squeaked. “Why don't you go die somewhere?” But it was Jason who knotted his teacher's collar in his fist and dragged him close. “Don't you look at her,” he said in a low voice, violence swirling beneath the surface. Kevin was prying his fingers off of Terrell. “Don't. He deserves it, but don't. He's pushinʼ ya.” Their eyes met, and Jason released Terrell, pulling Julia behind him protectively. Terrell looked smug. “I knew you'd mess up. This is all I needed to get you where I want you.” * Jason was confused. He'd seen the perv look at Julia and some of the other girls, but what did it have to do with today? Why had he been so overt with Julia? His eyes narrowed on the teacher. Jason planted his legs apart, hands on his hips, looking around once to make sure Julia was behind him and safe. This guy had lost it. Kevin hit him in the arm, and Jason's face whipped back toward Terrell as Cyn gasped. Jason focused on the gun that was naked in Terrell’s hand. What the hell is this? Jason retreated, Julia a warm presence at his back. She wasn't laughing anymore. Kids around them, who had just been gloating how much trouble Jason was going to be in, scattered like beetles out of a jar, screaming as they ran down the hall. * Julia's headache slammed into her uncontrollably, spearing into her temple at a fever pitch. But it was the frenzied gaze of the teacher that she couldn’t look away from. His beady hazel eyes shifted between the three kids, seeking. Finally, he looked at Julia behind Jason and said, “It's you. If you were not here, then I could… stop having this pain. The pain would stop.” He brandished his gun. Kids slammed themselves onto the hallway floor. Julia felt something integral fall into place as the pain slipped away and became a burning mass. “Hey, whack job!” Kevin said, going for the gun at the same time that Jason did. It wasn't choreographed, and as their bodies moved, a gap opened, and Terrell pointed the barrel—at Julia. An intense focus and a warm liquid pain that she'd buried came to her in a sliding push. With nothing but raw emotion, she looked at the black hole of the gun and mentally shoved as the hammer pulled back. It clicked. Time slowed down, Jason batting the gun away even as the bullet rushed toward Julia, Cyn screaming in the background and Kevin landing on Terrell, their bodies crashing to the floor. Julia moved as the bullet entered the curtain of her hair instead of the fragile bones of her face, its course veering at the last moment and she fell sideways away from the trajectory. Hitting Cyn, they both stumbled into the lockers. “Julia!” Jason hollered, sprinting to her side, kicking the gun away as he came. His eyes frantically took in her body, checking for damage. He looked relieved. She was unscathed—miraculously. As sirens wailed in the background, Jason turned around, leaving Julia in Cyn's arms, and grabbed a fistful of Terrell's hair. Using the teacher's head like the dull side of a hammer, he picked it up and slammed it into the floor again and again. Cops came and pulled him off, but the damage was done. Terrell lay in a pool of his own blood, which spread into the soles of all who had gathered. CHAPTER FOUR “Julia,” a voice whispered to her as if through a tunnel. She came awake in stages, still feeling as if she were in the school hallway, watching Jason beat Terrell's head into the floor until it split open like an egg. She opened an eye and looked into silvered, reflective ones. Julia flinched to see her captors. The vampires. Once she'd thought the existence of such creatures was a myth, but now, through hard evidence and even harder experience, she believed in them. Even as his eyes clenched at her reaction of revulsion, the vampire's expression showed cautious relief, and he stroked a wisp of hair away from her temple. Julia found her voice. “Don't touch me.” His hand paused, then finished the movement. He stood and Julia looked around, taking in the room for the first time. She'd never allowed herself to care about her surroundings. The one named Pierce loomed into view and she shrank back. “We will not harm you—” “Right, you guys are so harmless,” Julia said in a voice husky with disuse. William and Pierce looked at each other. Finally, William said, “We did—I did what I had to in order to pull you out of your dreamscapes. If I had not done that”—he shrugged impossibly broad shoulders—“you would have buried your psyche there forever, until there was no feeding you or hydrating you…” “Until you ceased to exist,” Pierce finished for him. Julia tried to sit up and succeeded, barely. She felt better, actually. Who were they to play God anyway? Maybe she didn't want to exist. Had they thought about that? They watched her warily. She swung her legs off the bed she'd been lying on. She tentatively put her feet on the rough wooden surface and stood. The blood rushed to her head, and her vision swam in streamers of dull colors before her eyes. She commanded her legs to hold her even as they folded. A cloud of gray reached her, and she was swooped up in the arms of the hateful vampire, William. “You're too weak to walk,” he said in a voice that reverberated through her breastbone, melodic and low. It affected her. She didn't know why, but his nearness frightened her, and she saw the reflection of that fear etched on his face. He looked pained. “Let me down,” she whispered. “Pierce, get Susan again.” In her peripheral vision, she saw a blur of color and heard a far-off door open then shut. Julia stared at the vampire. “Why am I here?” she asked, resisting the deep pull that emanated from her body to his. She didn't know what it was, but it was organic. Needy. Liquid fingers sank into her, through her skin, deep in her marrow, clinging to her consciousness like cobwebs. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. When she opened them, William gave her his steady regard. “You are safe within this coven.” “I am not safe with you. I will never be safe again.” * William flinched, knowing that she could not separate their acquisition of her with the violence that had surrounded it. She was lumping the groups together, the Were and Vampire. Now was not the time to correct her misapprehension—not when the Were's rancid breath was upon their doorstep and when the whole coven was in a chasm of blood lust from her months with them. The fragrance of her rarity permeated every nook and cranny that the haven provided. Even the most immune amongst them, of Blood Singer descent themselves, were itching with need. The time was ripe for William to make haste to his home kiss—the coven where he had always been. Just thinking of the city and what lay underneath it made his sluggish heart beat faster, primal adrenaline surging through his limbs. Julia responded to his physicality, taking a sharp inhalation, her body tingling in reaction to his thoughts. “It's the blood share. It will pass,” he said. “Put me down.” William gently put her on her feet, his hand gripping her bony elbow, which had become like a twig since they had taken her. * Julia longed to tear it away from him but knew that she could hardly stand. She fumed, trying not to think about the blood she'd drunk from her husband's murderers. The memory encroached on her mind ruthlessly, and she shut it down like all the others she didn't want to see, biting the inside of her cheek. Blood welled inside her mouth like sour copper, and she made a slight noise. William looked at her sharply, sucking in his breath, and began to breathe through his mouth. Julia smiled genuinely for the first time since her ordeal had begun. A terrible idea took shape in her mind. She knew how to escape. Just when she thought she'd press her advantage, a large woman burst through the door, and Julia's heart skipped a beat, racing inside her rib cage. She swayed, and William pulled her gently against him. She didn't resist. There was no use. But she would soon permanently resist. Oh, so permanently. * Caregiver Susan looked at the Blood Singer that the runners had acquired some months past. It was the first time that the girl hadn't been half-unconscious throughout the countless bowls of soup, water poured down her throat, sponge baths, and dressings she'd shared with the girl. But the Blood Singer looked at Susan as a stranger—for she was. The trauma surrounding the acquisition had been so overwhelming the girl had yet to recover. When she was finally dying, William had been beside himself with worry, and been given the green light to save her. Blood share. He had done it. Even with the potential for scrambling the wires of his quarry, he had done it. Now she stood—now she looked as if she might survive. Even Susan could see beneath the dishevelment and scrawny physique to the healthy girl she had been. She would be well again, Susan vowed. She had to be well again. Julia was the Rare One. Susan's eyes flicked to the pale, moon-shaped scar on the girl's head. She approached Julia and took her gently from William's arms, his hands trailing reluctantly from her body. Susan glanced at William and could sense the feral vestiges about him still. “You'd do well to leave us for a time,” she said, and William nodded. Heaven knew he had to push his limits with her fresh blood a darkly blooming fragrance in the room, suffocating his reasoning, his directives. William walked away, the pull of his blood in Julia's body beating in time with his heart. It felt like warm taffy swimming upstream. He moved to the door, and his hand landed on the doorknob. * Julia watched the vampire turn the knob, stiffen and quickly slip through. The large woman breathed a sigh of relief when the vampire had left. Julia tried to pull away, but the woman gripped her upper arm, her fingers encircling the whole of it. Julia glared at her. “Take your hands off me.” The woman smiled. “Listen to me,” she began, her eyes boring into Julia's. “I am not like them. But you know that, don't you?” Julia didn't answer. She was not going to cooperate with any of this. “I am human,” the woman said. “Yeah, whatever. You work for them. That's all the info I need.” “Who do you think got soup down your throat? Bathed you? Put clothes on you?” Julia looked at her in dawning horror. The woman had touched her when she was unconscious. Julia studied her closely. There was something almost familiar about her. Memories assaulted her in a torrent. Being in a tub and floating. This woman washing her… ugh. Julia thought of the intimacy that entailed and wanted to throw up. She remembered the food that she'd been spoon-fed. She'd wanted to die. She still did. The woman looked at her and nodded. “You remember.” “Yes,” Julia replied through clenched teeth. “Not a very grateful sort, are you?” Julia tore her thin arm free, her legs trembling. “I didn't ask for anyone to care for me,” she said in a fierce voice, the first, hot tears falling. “You should have let me die. That's all I want. I want to die.” * Susan was moved with compassion. This waif with such bottled-up emotion and aggression had lost too much. They would have to start from nothing with her. Ground zero. The older woman crossed her arms and stared at Julia, who glared back, raising a hand to move her tangled hair behind her ear. “Well, my dear, you're not going to die—on the contrary. My job is to get you living and healthy for transport.” Despite her commitment to be contrary, Julia heard herself ask, “Transport where?” Her lip quivered, on the brink of crying harder. “Seattle. You were acquired by that coven.” The girl's eyes lost their focus, and she began to fall. Susan screamed, “William!” * Suddenly, Julia was held in arms of warm steel. Her heart slowed, and her body calmed, its chemistry lulled by his closeness. Just before she crossed the threshold into unconsciousness, her mind told her what she feared most. Blood share. Her body was a traitor to her mind. Somehow, she was connected to her captor, whether she wanted to be or not. Julia faded, the tailspin of knowledge following her down into the spiral of her dreams of earlier times. CHAPTER FIVE Consequence Truman looked from one to the other of them and sighed. “Listen, kids.” He ripped a hand through his already disheveled hair. “I believe you tried to do the right thing, but Caldwell…” He spread his palms away from his body. Jason dropped his eyes, his hands gripping Julia's. He hadn't meant to kill Terrell, but when he saw him shoot at Julia, something profound and primitive had kicked in. All he could think of was eliminating the threat. Eliminating Terrell. So he did. Terrell was going to kill her. A red veil had descended, clouding his vision, clouding his mind. It hadn't lifted until the cops had pulled him off Terrell. Four cops. At least they'd let him wash off—wash Terrell off him. He'd had blood splatter and gore wrist deep. His stomach churned a little with the memory. Now he and Julia were in the police station, making noise about self-defense. The cop might look like a rumpled dishrag, but his eyes were sharp, like those of the majestic bald eagles that flew outside the windows. They tracked him, equal parts wise and aware, missing nothing. “You're of age, son. It doesn't matter that you were still technically a student. We know you're over eighteen. Hell, you're almost nineteen, aren't you?” When Jason nodded, he continued. “So, is your girl here.” His gaze went to Julia, and Jason tensed. * The cop took in the kid's reaction—if he could be called a kid—wondering about his extreme protectiveness for his girlfriend. It struck him as noteworthy. Jason looked like a man, all height and muscle mass. A jock. The girl was the opposite. She had a sullen and fiery cast to her, but she was a tiny thing, different coloring, all champagne and… those eyes. He repressed a shudder. They were spun gold, like a cat's eyes. They followed him with an intensity that was unsettling. He cleared his throat. “As you know, the teacher was the one who brandished and fired a weapon. You may be able to get off with counseling. But your reaction wasn't typical, and there will be some accountability for that.” Jason nodded, and Julia stifled a sigh. Detective Truman asked, “Is there some reason Terrell would commit violence against you, Julia?” Her face shows her confusion. She clearly didn't know why the teacher had targeted her. Truman would do some digging and see what was what, try to make sense of the senseless. His eyes flicked to Jason. “Your parents have made your bail. And”— he waggled a finger—“I wouldn't skip town, pal.” * Jason almost laughed to think anyone would imagine he would skip town. Like I'd leave Julia. Ever. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. He stood to leave, pulling her with him. His last thought as he left the building was that their elopement plans were screwed. With a grim face, he pulled Julia behind him, his parentsʼ car parked in front of the broad concrete steps of the precinct. The storm on his dad's face told him what the next few days would be like. The barometric pressure was dropping. It was a tense drive on the way to Julia's house. His parents were glancing back at them in the rear view mirror surreptitiously. Rather than worry about a lecture from his parents, he wanted to comfort Julia and forget that he'd almost been killed himself. He'd protected Julia… and maybe other kids. But it was all about image, and he had tarnished his and Julia's. He was so mad he could spit. It'd be so great once he and Julia were safely in Anchorage, married and beginning their life together. His parents could piss up a rope. He'd accomplished everything they wanted, and they needed to give him credit for that. Julia interrupted his thoughts with a small noise, and he looked down at her, a small bundle in the cradle of his arms. He was instantly alarmed and felt a delayed shock from the events of the last few hours. Great timing. They were just pulling up to her front door, her Aunt Lily waiting on the top step, wrapping a thin cardigan around herself, her hands fisting the material in a death-clench. She skipped down the stairs, making a war path for their car. Before Jason could properly shield Julia, Lily had torn open the door, putting her hands on Julia. “Don't, Lily,” Jason said, meeting her tense and angry eyes. “You don't tell me what to do. I almost lost my niece today. The one that you were taking care of.” She said that last like an accusation, and it made Jason's heart clench. He had taken care of her the best he could. He didn't need this right now. Julia didn't need it. He looked down at Julia. Her skin was clammy and pale, her breathing rapid. “What's wrong with her?” Lily asked in a panic. “She's in shock,” Harold Caldwell said. Jason sighed. “Please move. I'll carry her into the house and get her in a lying-down position.” Fortunately, she backed away, and Jason unfolded his body outside the car, swiveling Julia as he went, swinging her up into his arms. “Jason,” she said, her eyes fluttering open and widening. “They're coming… the wolves and… the blood… blood…” “What is she saying?” Shelia Caldwell asked. Jason shook his head, puzzled. “I don't think it's anything. She's in shock. Getting her lying down is key here, Mom.” Jason's eyes left the loose group of adults, and he strode to the house, toeing open the unlatched front door. He picked the first sofa he saw and brought a still and pale Julia to it, laying her down gently. He swiped a hair from her forehead and kissed it. She felt cool. He wasn't leaving until she was okay. She is far from okay. “Stay away from here, Jason,” Lily yelled, huffing into the room. “I don't think this is helping things,” his mom said, her hands fluttering helplessly in front of her. Lily gave her a withering look of such contempt that his mom took a step back. “Don't tell me what is helpful or what is not. What would you even know about suffering, challenges, anything?” Shelia had a helpless expression on her face. Lily nodded. “That's what I thought. Go home to your fancy house and your comforts, and leave me and my niece alone.” * Harold Caldwell looked down his nose at Lily Wade. She was beneath him. He had suffered the relationship between Julia and Jason, knowing it was a high school sweetheart thing. Jason would see that Julia was all wrong for him and dump her when he was attending college. But this incident with the teacher might prove to be the perfect break for the relationship. It put Harold in good spirits. Magnanimous spirits. “We understand, Lily. Of course we'll leave you in peace to comfort Julia.” He smiled the first genuine smile of the day since hearing the wretched and humiliating news of his son's involvement in the shooting. He began to back out of the house when he caught sight of Jason moving back toward the couch. He pursed his lips into a thin line. “Jason,” he commanded in a low tone. Jason didn't even turn. “What?” His eyes were fixed on Julia's pale face. Julia's lips were tinged blue. “Let's go.” “No,” Jason said, looking up at his father. * Lily's head snapped up. "Your family has some nerve. How dare you try to bulldoze your way into my home?" She picked up the nearest phone, her finger hovering above the number nine. “Don't make me call the police,” she threatened Jason in a low voice. Jason couldn't believe what was happening. The hell with this! He walked right back over to the couch and scooped Julia up in his arms, her soft moaning twisting something inside his chest. “Put her down, Jason!” his dad yelled. Their eyes met again. “No. I don't give two shits and an eff what you guys do. I'm an adult and everyone needs to back right the hell off.” He'd never talked to his dad that way. It was long-past due. Lily stabbed the numbers in the phone and Shelia tore it out of her hand and jammed it into the receiver. “Please,” her voice trembled, “let's discuss this.” Lily looked at them as if they'd gone insane. Harold planted his hands on his hips and stared at Jason. “Listen here, Jason. I posted your bail. I am responsible for you until that hearing. You'll be found innocent, but until then, don't jeopardize this with your he-man stunts. Leave that girl where she belongs. Now.” A loud ticking from the clock on the wall reverberated around the room, the moment swelling unbearably around them, the tension a living breathing thing. Jason wanted to scream so badly his eyes burned with unshed tears. He turned away from them, blinking fiercely, feeling as if he were betraying her. Betraying Julia. He laid her back down on the couch. Her eyelashes were like soot against chalky cheeks. He wrapped her up against him one more time and then, saying nothing, he stalked out of the house, shouldering past his dad and almost knocking him over. Jason looked up as the cold air struck his bare arms. The clouds were roiling above him, the look of their charcoal anger exactly matching his. CHAPTER SIX Existing If Julia was honest with herself, she had to admit that Susan was a saint. But she was not there to make friends. Every day she thought of how she could get away. Each day she wanted away from William and, to a lesser degree, Pierce. At least she finally had answers. William was deliriously complacent with her presence here. He thought he had it under control. Well, he had another thing coming. Julia was waiting for the best opportunity she could find to leave permanently. William had expounded on her importance, making her desire to leave even more acute. He said that Blood Singers were rare. They were critically needed in the human population. The vampires looked at the humans like cattle. Blood Singers were just a fraction of the human population—one-tenth of one percent, to be exact. Julia had listened to his speech silently. William and Pierce were “runners.” Their express purpose was the acquisition of Blood Singers. The Blood Singers balanced the vampiresʼ “food load.” The quality of their blood made the vampire population able to sustain its existence on the ordinary human population's blood Whatever, Julia thought, remembering his words. * “So, you see how essential you are?” William had tried to appeal to her sense of importance when he'd first spoken to her about Blood Singers. He spread his palms out on either side of his body, his coal-black hair shimmering with blue in the subdued glow of the dining hall. His silver eyes bored into hers. A sudden memory of those eyes shifting to a red so deep it was nearly black, as he'd almost struck her flesh, caused her heart to speed up. She rode it out. He could probably hear her blood course through her veins. That was the last thing she needed. Julia would never be able to help herself if he was anticipating all her moves, especially as weakened as she'd become. “Why take me? It sounds like you need us out in the populace,” she restated, genuinely puzzled. “We're reconnaissance. We seek the Rare Ones.” “Okay.” Julia threw up her hands, her soup forgotten. William frowned when she pushed the bowl away. “I give up. Who are the Rare Ones?” William stared at her, and she held his gaze. “You are a Rare One, Julia.” She shrugged. So? She wasn't sure how that differed from what he had already told her. As far as she could tell, the Blood Singers of the human race were the purebred cattle of homo sapiens. Wonderful. He took in her expression. “Maybe you have not asked the right question. It is quite simple, actually.” Julia thought about it. It slowly came to her. “Why do you have that name for us—Blood Singers?” He smiled at her as if she were a prized pupil, and he looked achingly human for that one moment. Then his face fell into the handsome but otherworldly lines she was becoming accustomed to. “Do you not feel it?” He placed his fist to his chest, where his heart would beat. Or would it? They stared at each other, and Julia felt a pull to him. She fought the pull. It was like ignoring one voice amongst many. She tried to think in those terms, tuning out that one strand so that it seemed like a distant bell. She silenced it with an effort. His hand slowly fell from his breastbone. “That is the call of the blood. I have shared mine with you. It now calls to yours.” “Why?” Julia asked, deeply creeped out. “Because I have shared blood with you.” “No, you forced your blood inside of me!” She raised her voice at him, crossing her arms as heat seeped across her cheekbones. William's eyes narrowed. “True. So that you might live, I gave you my blood. I have Blood Singer ancestry.” Julia cocked an eyebrow. The conversation was becoming more confusing by the moment. What he said next made her forget her curiosity suddenly, as if she'd fallen off a precipice. “How do you think we found you? Found… Jason?” His name fell like a stone in the room, the horrible memory threatening the edges of her consciousness. She shut her eyes tight against the images assaulting her. William continued as if the oxygen had not been forcibly torn from the room. Julia felt as though an elephant had sat on her lungs. “Your blood calls to us. It sings to us. We follow it like a melody on the wind. All roads lead to the Blood Singer.” Julia opened her eyes. A startling revelation was blossoming in her mind. “Jason was… he was a Blood Singer?” she asked in a breathless whisper. William nodded. Julia jumped off the bench and flung herself at William, beating against him with her fists. Her hair flailed wildly about her. It felt like beating a brick wall—stony and cold. “You killed him! You had no right!” she wailed. “You killed him.” She sobbed as he grabbed her wrists. “Why didn't you kill me instead?” Julia asked in a sorrowful moan as she sagged against him, fainting from exhaustion. * William had carried Julia up in his arms, the burden of her weight no more than a feather. His pain at watching hers was unmatched by anything he had ever known. He carried Julia back to her room, his soul as heavy as a ton of lead. * Julia William had been fairly quiet since the scene in the dining hall the week before, and Julia was glad. She thought the ache for him would never end. But fortunately, day by day, it lessened. She didn't want to be tied to the blood drinker. That was what he was—all he was. He and Pierce lingered in the hall, speaking in covert whispers as she dabbed at the corners of her mouth, bread half-eaten in front of her. The dreams had started again and, with them, her long-lost friend, headache. She sighed, rubbing her temples. William and Pierce were suddenly beside her. “Are you ill, Julia?” She glared up at the pair. A prudent girl with half a brain would have been scared of the vampires—they were deadly and menacing. But she didn't care about her welfare anymore, or her future. She wasn't interested in being taken anywhere with vampires. “No, I'm fine.” She looked at them impassively. Pierce stared a moment more then turned to William. “Perhaps her awakening has begun.” Julia had thought she was about done with the revelations. “Possibly,” William said thoughtfully. “What?” Julia asked, standing, hugging herself to stay warm. She looked up at the pair, such a contrast to each other. They were huge men—vampires, Julia self-corrected. She gulped back a sudden stab of fear. “Rare Ones go through a…” William struggled for just the right word. “Transition?” Pierce supplied. Julia's brows jacked down over her eyes and she said, “Haven't you two kidnapped Blood Singers before?” William's expression darkened at her terminology. But Julia remained steadfast. It was what it was. “We have acquired some of Rare One lineage but never a pureblood. Never once,” Pierce said. “Adolescence!” William said triumphantly, remembering the word. William's expression darkened at her terminology. But Julia remained steadfast. It was kidnapping, no matter what they called it. What the hell? “Look guys,” she said, and they turned their simultaneous attention unnervingly on her. Julia stepped back, but realizing it made her look weak, she moved back toward them again. “I am clearly a woman. Fully grown, guys.” She ran a hand down the front of her body, and the vampires tracked it. She was immediately embarrassed but bottled it up before they noticed. She rushed on before they could comment. “What I'm saying is I went through adolescence years ago. I am done with all that,” Julia said waving away their weird ideas with a hand. Pierce shook his head, and William said, “No. The Rare One comes of age much later than one that is just a Blood Singer. The purer you are, the greater the manifestation of your latent talents.” Julia's eyes shifted back and forth between the two of them. “What talents?” she asked slowly. William paused then dropped the bomb. “Paranormal talents.” Julia's hand whipped out and gripped the table that stood behind her. The hell with not appearing weak. She backed up until her thighs pressed against the bench. Insane vampires. It wasn't enough that there were such things as vampires. These ones were crazy-ass-loon vampires. It just kept getting better and better. Julia despaired. “Are you having headaches?” Pierce pressed. “Precognitive dreams?” William asked silkily. Julia's head snapped up and she locked into William's silver gaze. She shook her head. She would not be their stupid Blood Singer messiah or whatever the hell they were looking for. She redoubled her determination to escape. Soon. CHAPTER SEVEN Graduation It was cool, the air holding none of the heat that would be found in other parts of America. Here at latitude fifty-nine, late May meant maybe sixty degrees. Maybe. Today the temperature was a cool fifty-eight. Intermittent clouds floated overhead, and the breeze from the Homer Spit had made its way to the high school, slowed but not beaten. Julia looked away from the valedictorian, who was expounding on the benefits of altruistic endeavors. It was all bullshit, spoken through the bullhorn of what she could gain by making a good impression on whoever was listening. Julia swung her leg restlessly until Jason stilled her with a hand on her knee. He looked at her. “It'll be okay. Just today, and then we're free.” The girl droned on. The guys got a fine sheen of sweat over their brows—all that satiny polyester was causing a greenhouse effect. Finally, the staff herded them through the line, and they shook hands, stood for pictures, and ate the celebratory cake. It was anticlimactic. It only served to underscore that uneasy feeling Julia had—as if she were waiting. She'd had this feeling ever since the Terrell incident. Death, she corrected herself. She had felt a portent, a feeling of impending doom. It felt like a ticking time bomb. Her sleep was leaving her these days and nightmares were taking up residence in its absence. She was exhausted. Jason said he was worried about her. If that weren't enough, there was the impending trial. If a jury of Jason's peers found him not guilty in the death of Terrell, then he was free. Unfortunately, because of the nature of how he had… killed Terrell, he had a mandatory six weeks of anger-management classes. And of course, he was angry about the classes. Total irony. The Caldwells had not really forgiven Jason for making them look “bad” by killing Terrell. Even Detective Truman had defended Jason, saying he'd saved lives. Of course, what the Caldwells weren't telling Truman was that Julia's life was not that important to them. It hurt, but Julia had to stay focused on her future with Jason. When the lame reception was over, they drove to Julia's house so she could change. Soon, they'd head to the beach with Kevin and Cyn. Julia opened the door, Jason behind her. He'd been so quiet in the car. She knew something was on his mind. Seeing that Lily wasn't home from work yet she walked to her room. She tore open her closet door and chucked out her beach jeans, T-shirt, and the faded, battered Salty Dawg Saloon hoodie. It was her most beat-up one, but she loved it. She'd bribed a tourist one summer to go in there and get one for her. It was a Homer landmark, a cabin from 1897 that had grown into a rough and tumble tavern. She pressed the hoodie against her face, inhaling the fragrant laundry soap Lily used, and a pang of homesickness struck her. I'm really going, she thought, a little forlorn. Just six short weeks until Vegas. Jason came up behind Julia and wrapped his arms around her, the graduation gowns wrapping and mingling together around their legs. “It's not like she's gonna die. You can come back and visit her, Jules.” Julia nodded silently. She understood that. She did. But there would be no one, no family to see her get married, no one to appreciate her husband. Just Lily. And Lily was bitter—Julia knew that. Lily had gotten saddled with her brother's kid, and that had been a stain on her heart, spreading and filling her with resentment. Jason kissed Julia's temple, his lips hovering above her skin like butterfly wings, fragile but present. She leaned back against him. He turned her and slowly lifted the gown, the rasping of the satin catching on the fine strands of hair that had escaped the clasp she'd secured it in. He tossed it aside and tore his gown off, letting it fall to the floor at his feet. He gathered Julia in his arms and kissed her, pressing his lips to hers with heat. His lips moved over hers with pressure and longing, combining in a succulent pull. Julia's mouth opened, and her arms slid around his broad shoulders, the muscles bunching as he pressed her closer. She gave a little moan, and he moved them backward, where they fell softly on her bed. He broke the kiss when they landed, his elbows braced on either side of her body. “I can't wait to make you mine, Julia,” he said, dipping to kiss her temple again. His lips slid from that point, making a blazing trail down her jaw, then a sideways path to her mouth. He lingered there, scooping her long hair from where it was pinned underneath her, fanning it out behind her. Jason slid her farther on the bed, falling to the side of her. He cupped her face and pecked her lips again. Searching her face, he saw the lingering anxiety there. “Lily'll come around. You'll see.” “She may not. But even though she took me in and saved me from the system, it wasn't her choice.” Speak of the devil. Julia heard Lily buzz into the house and start clanking around in the kitchen—supper preparation. Julia wasn't that interested. Eating hadn't been a big priority since Terrell. She'd never been an emotional eater. When stuff got intense, food lost its appeal. “Come on.” Jason kissed her again then kissed her once more on that tender spot between her earlobe and her collarbone. She smiled, a little breathless. She knew some guys would have been trying to attack the obvious, but not Jason. He really loved her. He wanted her, but he wanted her for the right reasons. Jason was the man for her. * Later Right away, Julia knew she should have worn a puffy over the top of her hoodie. She sighed, stepping out of Jason's big truck, the lift kit making the whole thing a hike to get in and out of. She gave a scoot and a hop and got out before Jason could meet her on the other side. He came around and closed the door for her. “You should have waited for me. I'd have gotten you down.” His lips turned up. “I bet you would, pervert!” Julia teased as Cyn and Kevin walked up. Kevin smirked, “I hear Ê»pervert.ʼ Must be Caldwell here.” “Thanks for the support, Kev,” Jason said. He grinned, shrugging. “Welcome.” Cyn smiled at Julia, taking in the XtraTufs and hoodie uniform. Cynthia was wearing her Ugg boots. Stylish to most, ugly to Julia. “Well, I see you are consistent,” Cyn said in her droll way. “Don't start. I didn't want to suffer through any more unwanted clothing.” Cyn rolled her eyes. “I did see you barely making it through the ceremony. Couldn't you have faked it?” “Hell no! I didn't like any of the teachers, and after the Terrell thing…” She immediately felt terrible. Her friends had been there, too, and here she was bringing it up. “Sorry guys,” Julia mumbled, bowing her head a little and letting her long hair form a curtain to hide her expression. That had been beyond stupid. She could have kicked her own ass. Miss Sensitive. Jason put a finger underneath her chin, tilting it so their eyes met. “Don't be sorry, Jules. All of us were there. It was me that killed him,” he said in a low voice. “Ask me if I feel bad?” She swallowed, her mouth dry. “Do you feel bad?” He shook his head, solemn. “No.” “Hell, Jules. You were in that psycho's crosshairs. Caldwell had to do it.” Kevin spread his arms away from his body. He wore a T-shirt that read, Zombie Bait. Cynthia looked at Julia with sympathy. They'd been friends for years. Cyn understood that Julia didn't want to feel responsible for any accidents, especially after her parents. Especially that. Cyn reached out and put a chunk of hair behind Jules's ear. “Don't sweat that creeper, Jules. It wasn't your fault that he died. Just because someone dies when you're around, doesn't mean you have to take the death on as your fault. That's crap and you know it.” Cyn dipped down a little until she was eye level with Julia. “Are you hearing me?” “Yeah,” Julia whispered. She was so lucky to have these guys. Unshed tears burned the back of her eyelids. Tears were for sissies. She sucked it up, hugging Cyn with one arm and flinging the other around Jason, her hand finding the middle of his back. It was where she could reach him. He cuddled her as they did an awkward shamble to the bonfire that Kevin had built. The heat washed over her like a wave of comfort and serenity that was too brief. Her peace was too brief. CHAPTER EIGHT Seattle Pierce and William had deemed her ready. Ready for travel, ready for the final leg of their journey. They were headed to William's home coven in Seattle. Julia was ready too. She only had the smallest amount of guilt. After all, if Julia were to face her memories, she'd have to wallow in them, explore them, and reconcile herself to the fact that it was not William and Pierce who'd killed Jason. Those two had been too late to stop it from happening. She would not let sentiment cloud her plan. But the memory began to play out like the nightmare it was. Julia felt the heat begin at her toes and roar up her body as if she were a lone tree in a forest on fire. Her heart was beating rapidly, her palms sweating, and her breath coming in great whoops. She had to calm down before she had a full-blown panic attack. That always got the complete attention of the vampires. She didn't want their attention ever again. Julia slowed her breathing, shoving the horrible memory down in the well of her subconscious. It would come again—it always did, in the silent and unguarded moments of her wakefulness. It would surge forward like the tide to shore. She waited until her hands had only a fine tremble then picked up her bag. Turning, she looked one more time at her temporary home. She sighed, closing the door behind her. Julia suddenly realized what day it was. Over a year had passed since her precious Jason had been ripped from her life—torn from her soul, leaving it shredded within her body. She moved down the hall, seeing the two runners who waited so still against the exit. Waiting for her—their prize. But not for long, Julia thought, working hard to suppress a smile. She moved forward and they fell into step beside her, leaving the house behind them forever. * Imagine the logistics of traveling with vampires. If it hadn't been her reality, Julia would have thought it was funny as hell. But it wasn't funny. They had driven up the highway to the Anchorage Airport, gotten on the plane—"red-eye flight" taking on new meaning—and flown the lonely journey to Seattle. Once in Seattle, she had a small window of time in which to escape the runners. They were already in the city where the coven was located, but she didn't know how she would shake them before they arrived. Especially when William's blood was still in her body—diluted but there, like a pulse. It would be a navigation tool. Julia caressed her bag. The hair dye and change of clothes were hidden inside. She smiled. It might work, but only if Pierce was the one nearby. If William was there, all hope was lost. She had another lapse of guilt, thinking back to her conversation with William. * On the plane, William had looked at her, and Julia had become interested in her hands. “You seem tense,” he'd said. Pierce looked up at them sharply and then glanced away. At least the two of them hadn't insisted on sandwiching her in between them. That would have been awful. Julia deliberately loosened her hands and laid them flat on her thighs. The last thing she needed was for William to detect something. She met his eyes, which were the palest gray—striking against all that black hair. He gave a little smile, and she realized she'd been staring. Her palms dampened, and she resisted the urge to rub them on her pants. “I am tense,” she answered honestly, knowing it would ring of the truth. “I mean, I've been with you for a year, and now I have to be with a bunch—” She looked around the tight confines of the airplane. “Of you,” she finished in a whisper. William's eyes narrowed, and Julia didn't squirm. She wasn't one to just keel over because someone had an emotional reaction to something she'd said. She could hack it. “We have gone over this many times, Julia. They will welcome you. You shall be safe, protected. No more running, no more mystery.” Julia understood what he'd said. She even felt that he believed it. But she'd been there that day on the beach, and she'd seen how they were with each other and with her. The Were. She shuddered, thinking of something else. Anything else. He reached out and placed his hand over hers, and Julia let him. She'd learned early on that her resistance brought a barrage of questions and concern. It was better to pretend. It'd make escape easier. Turning her hand over, he rubbed a thumb over the pulse in her wrist, which beat frantically like a trapped bird. His pupils dilated, and he licked his bottom lip as her breath came shorter, his eyes darkening, the gray beginning to disappear like imagined smoke. “William,” Pierce said in a low voice. William looked across the aisle at him, his brow furrowed. Pierce looked pointedly at the contact between them, and William removed his hand from hers, the lack of his touch leaving her disturbingly empty. What was wrong with her? It must have been because of her nervousness about the execution of the plan. She felt a stabbing pain for Jason in that moment. He'd have known what to do. But not anymore—now it was up to her. Julia had to be her own savior. William waited until he seemed to get control of himself then said, “You will see. My home coven will be a place of respite.” Fat chance, Julia had thought. Before, she'd been too weak to think of escaping. But as they made their way to Seattle, her bereavement over the loss of Jason and the others had been at the forefront of her mind, pressing her forward into the unknown. She was in charge of her own destiny. Not the vampires. Not the werewolves—only she, Julia. * Escape They exited before the other passengers. Only first class for vamps, she thought sourly. Julia had never flown first class. Actually, she'd only been on a plane for a single trip—to fly to Alaska from her home state, where her parents had been executed on the highway. She gulped at the memory. She gave herself a mental push forward as the chaos of the airport swirled around them. The vampires tracked the people around them. The cattle. She turned to William, willing her pulse to slow. “I need to change and use the restroom,” she lied smoothly, her pulse sluggish. Why it was cooperating now, when in the plane it had been fluttering uncontrollably while he'd been touching her? Julia didn't know, and didn't care. She was that close to freedom. She wasn't blowing it for anything. Pierce waited, and William ran his hand through his inky hair, making it spike. Turning that smoldering intensity to Julia, he said, “All right, but Pierce will need to stand guard outside of the bathroom until I can get our comrades here to escort you to the car.” Comrades. Translation: vampires. Julia lifted an eyebrow. Smart of him. He was going to leave her with good old Pierce while he got a few more of the vampire crew up here so the precious Blood Singer couldn't get away. Real circumspect, guys. They thought they were so smart. Well, the element of surprise was the only thing she had, and she was using it. “Where am I gonna go?” Julia pointed out. William's eyes narrowed on her, and Julia held her breath. He seemed to really deliberate until Pierce broke the swollen moment. “Just go. I will stand guard, and you will return with the additional runners.” He rolled his broad shoulders in a dismissive shrug. William palmed his chin. “Fine.” He turned to Pierce. “Be sharp, be vigilant. Even now, they may be about.” Julia looked around, expecting gnomes, trolls or both to pop up around her. “The werewolves,” Pierce clarified in a low voice. True—there was that to consider. Pierce took her elbow and she walked to the restroom with him. When she glanced over her shoulder, William's form was a speck down the choked corridor. * Julia threw the bag on the bathroom-floor stall, kicked off her flip-flops, and dragged out the skirt, boots, and shirt she'd cropped the night before. It would bare some skin, but she'd brought a jacket for coverage. She grabbed the box of black hair dye she'd nabbed from underneath the vampiresʼ bathroom sink. She rushed to the sink and began to chop her long, ginger-colored hair to shoulder length. Another girl beside her leaned back and said, “Uh, what are you doing?” She snapped gum, watching as the hair piled at Julia's feet in a heap of spun honey. Julia met her eyes in the reflection of the mirror. “What does it look like?” The girl's eyes narrowed. “Butchering your hair like a dumbass.” Julia smiled—she couldn't help it. Yeah she was. But it was necessary. The girl took a hard look at Julia. Then, shaking her head, she walked away, giving Julia a last look that said, Crazy bitch. Yeah, that was her all right. The plastic scissors didn't help with that. She couldn't bring the real ones on the plane. She stopped up the sink and mixed the black dye. Lathering it in, she watched as her hair—almost blond with a hint of red—became a mass of black. It utterly changed how she looked. The boots made her five-seven instead of five-four. She was taller, wearing different clothes, and had black hair that was eighteen inches shorter than when she'd entered the bathroom. She had the money she'd had on her the day that she was taken. Julia opened her palm and looked at the lonely thirty dollars, five dimes, and one penny. She made a fist with her hand and stuffed the change back in the pocket of her skirt. She grabbed her toiletry bag as if it were a purse, and made her departure when there was a pair of women exiting the bathroom. Julia dipped her head and walked out, the hair still wet underneath and clinging to the nape of her neck like cold fingers. * Julia kept her head down and her legs moving, her heart racing far beyond the effort she was expending. She clutched her toiletry bag under her arm and kept walking. She was exiting security just as William and the runners were passing through. Julia could hear his voice, and she didn't turn. But she swore she felt a hesitation in his speech and a scorching gaze that she did not see but felt pass over her. And then she was outside in the drizzle, the clouds making shapes across a full moon, twenty cabs in sight. Julia hailed the first one. Closing the door behind her she said, “Get me to the closest bus depot.” The cabby turned around to look at her. “To where?” he asked, his voice accented, a turban on his head. Julia tried not to stare. “Away.” “Humph!” He slammed the flag that started the meter at two bucks. They pulled away from the curb, and Julia hazarded a look behind her. Her mind recoiled in terror as she saw William and Pierce and, beside them, two runners. Vampires. Their noses were in the air, scenting it. Searching for her. CHAPTER NINE Vegas Julia and Jason were kind of arguing. He thought Elvis was classic, and she thought he was… well, creepy. “Listen Jules. Everyone who comes to Vegas has to get married in front of Elvis. I'm just saying.” He spread his hands as if to say you see my logic. Actually, she didn't. She looked up at the rendering of the oversized, pudgy singer. Elvis, with his clown-red mouth and tassels and studs on a grotesquely distended belly was not the image she wanted at her wedding—even if they were in cheesy Vegas. Even if they had stolen away to get married. Jason planted his hands on his hips. “Okay. I can see you don't see that Elvis is the symbol of vegas.” His eyebrows rose, and Cyn giggled. “I think he looks pretty gay, Jason,” Kevin said, smoothly siding with Julia. “Thanks for the love, you ass,” Jason said. Kev barked out a laugh. “Anytime, pal.” Beaten, Jason looked over the small pamphlet of chapels, finding a few more on the list. His eyes—hazel with flecks of green in the brown—shifted to Julia. “The only thing you don't want is him?” He jerked his thumb toward icky Elvis. Cynthia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Jason. No chunky monkey in white polyester. It's a no-go.” He glared at her, and Julia said, “Yeah, that.” Jason sighed. He and Kevin put their heads together as Cyn gave Julia, a look from head to toe. “Glad I could get you out of those fugly boots, Jules.” Julia smiled, Cyn had outdone herself. Julia didn't look great in white, but Cyn had explained, “You've earned white, virgin princess, but let's work with the weirdness that is your complexion.” Julia had rolled her eyes, letting Cyn transform her. Julia caught sight of herself in what could only be described as a fun-house mirror. Her long dress grazed the floor, spiky ivory heels peeking out from underneath the hem, a platform gracing the bottom. Cyn had pinned her hair in an elegant updo, leaving a few wisps hanging down. A row of creamy pearls with a champagne-colored wash encircled the base of her throat. They'd been her mother's. A lump gathered in her throat, and she looked away from the reflection of her sweetheart neckline, satin and lace colliding in a fine webbing that cradled her breasts. The absence of her parents on this important occasion was best left to future reflection. Like, never. Jason had dressed in a deep-navy suit, his tie a subtle crimson, a slash of color against his shirt. Julia thought it looked a little like blood against the backdrop of white, and she shivered as a subtle feeling of foreboding stole over her. It was shattered when Jason flashed his smile, stabbing the pamphlet with his finger. “Found it, babe!” Julia leaned forward, and he drew her in next to his body. She looked at the page he was pointing to. “Gnome Chapel.” She cocked her brows. “Really, Jason?” He smiled, nodding. “That's just switching out one creepy audience member for another,” Cynthia said with revulsion. “Nah, baby,” Kevin said, pulling her tight against him and pressing a kiss to her temple, almost crushing the bouquet of lavender flowers she held. “Hey! Watch the flowers, graceless.” Cyn giggled. Kevin grabbed the bouquet, jerking it up over his head and slamming his lips against hers, his free arm coming around her back and pressing her harder against him. Julia had agreed that gnomes were creepy, too. She'd looked up at the bigger-than-life-sized Elvis statue and sighed. Choices, choices. But anything is better than Elvis. **** Now Julia leaned her head back against the scummy seat of the cab, fingering the fine chain at her neck, the sterling sliding with her restless stroking. The chain held a ring. Tears threatened to fall as Julia thought of the symbol of eternal love. Jason had insisted on buying the rings. He had purchased bands of indestructible tungsten—a metal made of carbide, gunmetal gray and polished to a mirrorlike shine. He had said it couldn't be scratched, dented or bent. Like their love. "Perfect," he'd said, squeezing her as he had slipped it onto her finger. Their clergy in the Chapel of the Gnomes had been smiling at them, his mouth full of missing teeth. Vegas, a class act. She didn't want a big diamond. She just wanted him. He'd said that later, after they got settled, he'd get her something to go with the plainness of the band. He would never have the opportunity to make good on that promise. The cabbie stopped a scant five minutes after they'd left the terminal. “I let you off here. Eight dollars,” he said without verbs. Julia frowned. Don't speak English, fine by me. But be civil. She handed him a twenty, and he gave her the change. She slid out of the taxi and found herself on a cement sidewalk surrounded by a wall of people. She didn't make eye contact with anyone but went to the first bus she saw and showed the driver her five bucks, six dimes and one penny. “How far?” she asked. He searched her face. “How far do ya need to go?” he asked, kindness in his eyes. Julia paused, aware of a line forming behind her. “As far as this will get me,” she said, leaving it in his hands. He nodded. “Let's play it by ear, okay miss?” She nodded, so grateful for the unexpected kindness that she felt her eyes glisten again. She had turned into an absolute crybaby. All it took was him saying that one phrase Aunt Lily had used, and Julia's home, which was so far away, came to the forefront of her consciousness. She swiped at the wetness on her cheeks and gave him a watery smile as she moved to the back of the bus. She sank down in the seat, putting her knees up on the seat in front of her, and looked out the window. As she gazed through the filthy glass, the bus pulled away in a plume of noxious exhaust, leaving the depot for parts unknown. Julia shut her eyes, remembering. * Jason had kicked open the door of their hotel room, and it had slammed against the wall. Julia had shrieked laughter as he crossed the threshold, her dress swirling around their bodies. He slapped the door closed behind them and dumped her on the bed. She almost bit her tongue—she was laughing so hard—but managed not to by a slim margin. They'd used fake IDs and had had quite a bit to drink, and Jason was stubbornly hanging on to the notion that they could wait one more night until they were in their new apartment in Anchorage. “I don't want our first time to be in a seedy motel in Vegas, Jules,” he said, dragging his lips down her neck in a path to her collarbone then pressing them against her mouth again. The pearls getting in the way of his mouth, he moved them aside with a finger and lavished her with his attention. Julia didn't care that it was seedy. She pulled him down into the cradle of her body. Her husband. The word had a surreal quality. She tried to grab onto the newness of it, but it slid through her mind like smoke. He smiled down at her, his tie askew, his muscular arms pressing her to him. He nuzzled her neck, “No,” he whispered. “We wait until we are in our home.” Jason wanted everything to be perfect for her and said she was worth it. At home, there would be no booze to muddle their thoughts, and they'd be in their own digs. Julia sighed with frustration. “I had awesome lingerie!” He raised an eyebrow. “Cyn?” Julia caved. “Yeah, it was her idea.” She smiled sheepishly. “But you still bought it?” She nodded, blushing. Just thinking about the skank ensemble Cyn had approved made her flush with embarrassment. “Wow, it must be hot, judging by that look.” He searched her face, running a tender finger over her cheekbone. “We have the rest of our lives. Let me hold you next to me all night. That'll be a first, along with a ton of other stuff.” They grinned at each other. Julia had thought she could live with that plan. Patience, she thought. But they hadn't had the rest of their lives. It was her biggest regret: she'd never been with Jason even once. * Julia woke with a start, darkness all around her. She was completely disoriented and swallowed the scream that rose in her throat as someone leaned over her, gently shaking her shoulder. It was just the bus driver. Her memories came flooding back. Escape. No money. Going nowhere. “We're here,” he said softly. Julia rubbed her eyes. “What time is it?” she croaked, her voice rusty after sleeping so hard. He looked at the humungous watch on his wrist. “Straight up five o'clock.” He looked at her, straightening. “My shift's done, and we've traveled my whole route. Twice. This is the end of the road.” Julia looked up at the sign that read, “Valley Bus Transport. Welcome to Kent.” “Where is this?” He looked around. “It's Kent,” he pointed to the sign. “Outside Seattle.” Julia had familiarized herself with the Seattle region and understood immediately the driver had just kept her safe and warm in the bus while she slept part of the night away, driving in a big circle. She stood, looking at him. “Thank you.” He nodded. “You got a place to go?” She shook her head. “I can give you a ride to a women's shelter.” Women's shelter? Is that what he thinks I need? He watched as emotions ran through her, and he slowly nodded. “Yeah, I think you're running. I think you're running from a man.” No, not a man. But it was close enough. He didn't want to know what she was really running from. “It's a deal,” she said, deciding to take her chances with the human. It was better than the alternative. She walked out of the bus with him. CHAPTER TEN William William took in the filth of the air, his acute senses filtering the smells that did not concern him. There were many, but amongst those, there was a faint taste on the air. Julia's. He swiveled his head in Pierce's direction, his nostrils flaring as they transitioned from scenting to anger. Pierce had been a dolt, letting her slip by. His anger rode him hard, making his body tenser—even more than was typical for him. Every moment she was alone left her vulnerable to attack. By the pungency of her aroma—and the scent of his blood, still in her to the slightest degree—he judged she was within a fifty-mile radius and east of their current position. He opened the door to the SUV, leaving the bus depot behind them without a backward glance. “East,” William commanded to the runner who had met them. His eyes met Pierce's in the rear view mirror. They sped off, the blackness of the SUV melting into the night. * Julia Julia wasn't the hugging kind of girl, but she gave a big one to the man who had let her sleep for hours on his bus—Alfred. He gave her an awkward pat on her head and told her to take care of herself. She turned as she heard the engine roar in his pickup truck and then soften as he pulled away. Julia looked around. The moon was full, its brightness and the yellowish glow of the streetlight making Julia feel strangely vulnerable, on display. She clutched her toiletry bag tighter and moved toward the building. Julia walked through the door, passing under a sign at the threshold of the that read, "Freedom Affirmed." Once inside, she found a receptionist on duty. Her hair was in a severe bun, glasses perched on the end of her nose. It was her eyes, full of knowledge gained from hard experience, that finally relaxed Julia. Eyes that were seasoned tended to ease her. “Hello dear,” the receptionist said in a pleasant voice, her birdlike eyes taking in Julia's appearance. Julia was aware of all her odd look—her dyed hair, the crazy getup, the lack of luggage. She guessed she was pretty much fitting whatever stereotype there was. “Hi.” The woman raised an eyebrow as she came around the desk to greet Julia. “I'm Shirley.” She stuck her bony hand out and Julia took it, giving it a gentle shake. Shirley's eyes searched hers and finally she said, “I guess you need a place to stay for the night?” Julia nodded. Only one night? Crap. She'd have to figure it out day by day. Shirley must have seen how dejected she felt. “We offer transitional services. We will help you find a job, another residence.” Julia sighed. She was terrified of William and Pierce finding her. It wasn't rational. After all, once she got on the bus, her trail disappeared. Or that was what she told herself. But Julia had been with the vampires for almost a year, and their five senses were beyond normal human capacity. Julia remembered how easy everything was for them. William was a runner, chosen specifically for tracking. He was engineered to find her. Julia shuddered, and Shirley gave her a look of sympathy, misinterpreting it completely. She took Julia's arm, and they walked together to her room. * Shelter Julia was as settled in as she was going to be. She looked around the room. Actually, it was a shared room, hardly more than a closet. The bathroom served two rooms with two women in each. The girl she shared with was at her new job and poised to leave the facility the next morning. Julia looked longingly at the bathroom. She was dying for a shower. She went through the clothes that Shirley had provided. There were enough for a week. A plain, black duffel had been provided, courtesy of a sponsor of the shelter. The clothes were simple but comfortable and fit well—a miracle. Julia was heavier than she'd been when the vampires had thought they'd lose her from malnourishment. But as Julia caught sight of herself in the harsh reflection of the florescent lighting that rode the top of the vanity mirror, she blanched. Even to herself, she looked hideous. Large bruise-type circles held court underneath her large, golden eyes. Her hair was a startling black, the ends hacked unevenly about her shoulders. It was her ribs—each one countable and her collarbone standing at attention—that let her know how desperate she still looked. How had she looked before? Julia didn't want to know. She turned away and cranked on the hot water for the shower, the needles slamming into her hands, which were still cold from the outside. The tingling of the warmth woke her skin up as she pulled the stopper, and the spray rained down, beating the porcelain tub below. Julia stepped in, parting her lips, letting the water fill her mouth and run down her chin. The warmth and privacy made her want to cry with relief. She hadn't realized how intrusive her lack of privacy had been when Susan had been her caretaker or how oppressive William and Pierce's presence was. She was so grateful she could hardly stand herself. Julia almost shrieked when she glanced down while rinsing the shampoo out of her hair and saw the tub filled with black. What the hell? She quickly toweled off and ran to the mirror. She swiped her forearm across the middle, and there she stood, her wet hair like dark gold, a black wash hanging on but mostly gone. Shit. There went her great disguise. Julia sighed. It figured that she would have grabbed the wash-out-gradually dye. She turned away in disgust. Jerking on the nightclothes, which consisted of panties and an oversized shirt, she slammed her body into the bed. She was certain she would fall right to sleep. But she didn't. Instead, thoughts of Jason filled her head the way they always did before sleep took her. * Then: Fire and Ice They'd flown down on the small plane from the Anchorage Airport. Julia was stoked, knowing they would touch down in Homer soon. The only small glitch was that Jason wanted to meet up with Kevin and Cyn one more time at their spot on the beach. Kevin was likely burning the hell out of the driftwood as they flew. Julia wanted Jason all to herself. He laughed as she cuddled closer, his finger alternately tracing and swirling her wedding band. “It's a sendoff, Jules. Don't get your hot panties in a twist.” Julia rolled her eyes. “They are super-cute panties, buster. Not that you'd know!” She gave him a playful elbow. He retaliated, tickling her without mercy. She shrieked in the confines of the plane, and some of the other passengers gave the pair stern looks. They offloaded and ran to the parking lot, the mountains a backdrop behind Jason's car, the stubborn snow clinging to some of the nooks and crannies at the top. Julia sucked in a lungful of the freshest air in the world, happier than she'd ever been. Vegas had been an assault on all her senses—filthy, noisy, dirty, and everything that wasn't home. Jason opened the door for her, she climbed in, and they roared off to the spit. Cyn and Kevin were waiting, and she could see the fire from the beginning of the spit, the flames rushing up to kiss the darkening sky. It had been an omen. Julia's mind protected her from touching the memory that lay next—the one she couldn't bear to think of, the one that was stealing her breath, robbing her of life, and making her heart pause in her throat. Julia finally fell into a fitful sleep as the vampires closed in around her. * Vampire The four of them surrounded the human cattle, eyes glittering darkly at their prey. They could not afford to be circumspect. All four would need to be well fed when they finally came upon Julia. William signaled to Pierce, and they flanked the victim. A pleasure to dispatch, William thought, remembering how they'd come upon him abusing the woman who Robert now eased into thrall as they moved toward the human scum. William licked the tips of his fangs as they tore through the tender flesh of his mouth. The smell of blood wafted to their nostrils. “Listen scary dudes,” the man said, defensively, “that bitch wanted it. I was only givinʼ her what she was begginʼ for… you get my meaning.” He grabbed his crotch in an obscene gesture. “Yes,” Pierce mused, “the abuse of her face tells us of her joy.” William hissed, moving toward the man with sure footing. Stalking closer, he jerked the foul human next to him until his rancid breath filled the intimate space. “The innocent do not defend their actions. ” “Thou dost protest too much,” Pierce added, the ghost of a smile riding his lips as he moved toward their prey. The other runner, Andrew, allowed his talons to tear through the tips of his fingers and used them like the small daggers they were, piercing the tender flesh of the man's back. The human's gurgled response matched the widening of his eyes. “What are you?” he whispered, his eyes bulging and distended as Andrew kept him skewered like a shish kabob. “Death,” William answered, his fangs lengthening. He reared and then struck true, as did Pierce, and Andrew's talons accentuated the holes caused by them. Robert left the female in thrall, dazed and uncomprehending. In a blur of speed, he was at the male's side, and he dropped to his knees beside him. Working to the inside of his thigh, he tapped the vein with a vicious push of his fangs, piercing even the thick denim the human wore. He rolled his eyes up and met those of his comrade, Andrew, who shared the foul meal. The blood was delicious, its host lowly. The vampires fed, and two miles away, Julia lay sleeping—but not peacefully, never that. CHAPTER ELEVEN Julia never actively thought about the day Jason died. She did everything within her power not to. That was probably why her subconscious took over and made her dream about him, attempting to excise the memory like a wound that would never heal. She was too exhausted to fight it anymore. Julia was not in the vampiresʼ clutches, and she'd had a shower and even a little food. It made sense to sleep. She needed to sleep. Julia felt her body slide off into that strange midway point between true wakefulness and that of deep slumber. Her mind floated, circling the last things she had thought about. As she slipped into REM sleep, her body jerked as if it were falling, landing about where she'd left off in wakefulness. Julia knew where she was going and began to struggle toward consciousness again, as if she were at the bottom of a lake, swimming to the surface. But sleep was victorious, sucking her back underneath the waters of her dreams. * Then She and Jason had been almost to the spit when he'd gotten the text from Kevin. Jason turned to Julia. “That's not their fire, babe.” She arched her brow, looking at the blaze far down on the terminus of the spit, a glowing beacon. “Who else would start that monster?” He laughed. “They want to go to that spot by the woods. More private.” Jason waggled his brows. Right. Translation: let's make out. But now that they were married, she was going to do more than that—and without an audience, thank you very much. She sighed. Some wedding night. She folded her arms across her chest, brooding. “Listen, hun. It'll be fun. It won't get light until—when? One a.m.?” The land of the midnight sun, Julia thought. He wrapped his hand around her neck, massaging away the stiffness of the travel, catching little glances when he could, driving with one hand. Julia guessed she'd forgive them. He was giving up his apartment, after all. Tonight was their last night before heading up to Anchorage. Just thinking about facing Aunt Lily the next day filled her with dread. Even knowing Lily would be relieved to see her go didn't make it better. Jason looked at her with concern then swung his attention to the road ahead of them. He took the turn for the small stretch of beach where they liked to hang out. Only the four of them knew about how to find it. He squeezed the back of her neck, and she felt the strength of his hands, which had always been gentle with her. Julia thought of Terrell. These were the same hands he had used to murder their teacher—and to defend her. “Jules, stop thinking about what Lily's gonna do. It'll be fine—you'll see.” He looked at her quickly then parked the car above the slope that led to the beach. The beach lay below a steep ravine lined with spruce trees that camouflaged the fire. They didn't need anything special to get down there, but it would be a bad fall if they didn't watch it. Jason had taken her carefully by the elbow and they'd used the rigid and deeply grooved soles of their boots to assure their footing as they descended to the rocky beach. * Vampire Andrew and Robert paired as did William and Pierce—silently. They'd worked together as a quad before. They scented Julia easily. William never went anywhere without his quarry’s scent. In this case, he possessed a scrap of an original piece of clothing, never laundered. He allowed his runners a deep whiff before they picked up the faintest scent coming from their current position. “I say one-point-two-four kilometers,” William said, lowering his face. Pierce laughed. “So literal, William.” William gave him a look, and Pierce's amusement faded. They studied him, and he looked at each of their faces in turn. “Follow me.” They ran, staying to the border of the buildingsʼ flanks. The shadows embraced them soundlessly, the peppering of blood on their garments invisible in the dark. * Before The dusk lingered in Alaska for what felt like forever. Summer nights were one long siege of twilight. Julia hadn't minded. The veil of false darkness provided the perfect backdrop for a sky the color of bruised violet with a sprinkling of the brightest stars flung about. Venus hung like a shimmering anchor at the horizon. She had planted her bony butt on a huge piece of driftwood Kev and Jason had hauled to a safe proximity to the blazing inferno. Cyn had been naughty and brought champagne. Julia would have loved to protest but couldn't. After all, they were celebrating her nuptials. Hard as they tried, it was inevitable that Lily would come up into the conversation. “I'm just saying you're not obligated to give a big defense, Jules,” Cyn said, her legs crossed at the ankles, resting her back against Kevin. The wash of the firelight warred with the sun burning low in the horizon, making a fiery halo around them. Julia shrugged. Cyn wouldn't understand. She felt that she owed Lily. Taking in her eight-year-old niece had never been Lily's goal. Actually, Julia wasn't sure what had been her goal. She'd made it abundantly clear it wasn't raising her brother's daughter or having a surprise family. Jason kissed the top of her head, and she buried her toes—already encased in woolly socks—into the sand, which had been warmed by the fire. Her XtraTufs were thrown to the side. “She's got a point, Jules,” Jason breathed against her temple. “I know she does. But Lily did take me in when my grandma couldn't. She was the only one that could. Other than a foster family.” Cyn shuddered. “That's like goddamn Russian Roulette.” Kev nodded. Everyone knew that foster care could land a person with some shit family. “Yeah, Jules. I heard about some girl who was like Cinderella in her family. They made her label every scrap of food like she was gonna steal it or something. Big-time lame. They just wanted the government money every month.” “See?” Julia said, looking at Cynthia. “It could've been worse.” Cyn shook her head, her huge hoops catching the light that swirled around them, a mix of burnt orange from the sky and fire mingling together in an eerie wash. “If you say so. I still think she was a big-time troll with you!” She kinda was. But Julia still wanted to remember Lily in the best light she could. “She's got all my stuff, too.” Cyn's face broke into a grin. “Now, that's worth some suck-up, Jules.” They laughed and then Cyn said, “I'm sorry your grandma isn't here anymore.” Julia was sorry, too. Summers at her grandma's place had been the only break from the grind of living with Lily. Grandma had taught her things she'd never forget. “Didn't she have your name?” Kev asked. Julia smiled. “Actually, I had her name.” Kev shrugged. “That's what I said.” The little details of things like that sailed right over his head. They smiled and made plans for the next day. Julia and Jason would go by her house and see if they could charm their way in after their hasty elopement and zero communication. That is so not going to happen. Cyn broke a mood that had slid far away from celebratory by jerking the champagne glasses out of her backpack. Kevin got the champagne out of his beat-up cooler, the ice rattling and clinking. Cyn put a cube in each plastic cylinder. The glasses had been made to look like cut glass and winked as though they were on fire from the light of the blaze. Julia smiled. Cyn had thought everything through to the last detail. “Nice glasses,” Julia said. Cyn smirked. “I know, right? I couldn't let us be déclassé even at the beach!” Kevin filled Cyn's to the brim, and she plopped a full strawberry on the top, where it floated like a jewel inside the glass. The bubbles in the golden liquid mesmerized Julia. Everyone's glasses fizzing with champagne, they lifted them, and the four flutes met in a clink of celebration. They took sips, eyeing each other above the rims. Cyn did an obscene job of tonguing her strawberry in full view of Kevin, moving it back and forth in her mouth while twirling the stem like a provocative handle in her capable fingers. “Come here,” Kev said in a growl, grabbing Cyn around her slender waist and pressing her against him. He put his lips to the half of the berry that lay between her teeth then jerked the stem with his teeth and spit it onto the pebbled beach. He met her lips with his, eating the berry as he sucked the kiss right out of her. Cyn groaned and flung her arms around Kev's neck, and the two of them staggered over to their log of driftwood, oblivious to Jason and Julia. Kevin threw his arm behind him so they wouldn't topple, but as they sat down in a heap, he fell backward on the sand anyway. Jason and Julia laughed at their friendsʼ lust-ridden dance. It would have been better if Kevin had not been on his back with his girlfriend when the werewolf had appeared. * Vampire Stealth was the order of the night. He eyed the building carefully, taking in the name: Freedom Affirmed. William's lips curled. They wouldn't understand real freedom if it introduced itself with a handshake. He spoke in a voice that could not be heard by humanity. The decibel level was too high for humans. In the distance, a stray dog lifted its ears and whined softly then took off in the opposite direction of the disturbing tones of the unnatural. Canines had instinctual reactions. This one recognized the threat for what it was and ran in the direction of safety. The other runners whipped their heads in the dog's direction, responding in kind. They made their way to the structure, converging at roughly all four corners. Their progress was deliberate and insidious. They would not make a spectacle of their presence. William had the barest sense of unease. He hoped that Julia's abilities continued to lie dormant. If they awoke during her acquisition, that would change things dramatically. Such a change would be very bad for all. Blood Singers were unpredictable at best. At worst, they were dangerous. He hoped that Pierce and the others would heed his warning: “Be vigilant. Be aware. They may have scented her hours ago. They may already be in the area. Werewolves.” * Julia's eyes rolled wildly beneath lids that were clenched in horror. She was watching what had happened that fated evening as a movie before her. Her subconscious replay unrolled, unbidden and uninvited, and she watched. * The werewolf had moved into full view of the teenagers, not in a crouch but as a half-man, half-wolf creature, only partially changed. His advantage as a soldier of the Were was his form. He and the other soldiers of his race were aptly suited for the acquisition of Rare Ones. For that task, he would need to subdue the others. His keen sight, albeit only in shades of gray and black, assisted him in his forward motion. Immediately, he allowed his senses to take in the threats. His night vision allowed him to acclimate automatically, dismissing the glow of the fire. His nostrils flared, bringing the myriad of scents necessary for successful acquisition. If he had been in human form, he would have laughed. One of the males might have posed a problem if he had been coupled with his comrade, who stood beside the target. But he lay prone beneath a human female. A female clearly in heat, the werewolf scented. He would dispatch him first then move on to the primary target—the mate of the Rare One. This assessment took mere seconds. From Julia's perspective, the werewolf's attack had taken hours. As if in slow motion, the creature had leaped forward in one long stride. The muscles underneath the dove-gray fur were a ripple of sinew and tendon, perfectly synchronized—and uniquely suited for harm and brutality. Cynthia screamed when she looked up at the muzzle of the strange beast. Yellow eyes blazed out of its face as it flew through the air, body seemingly suspended. She tried to scramble off of Kevin, but he was already reacting, pushing her away. And then Kevin was buried underneath a monster—a thing of legend come to life, the heat of the fire at his back. He tried to roll the creature off of him, using the thing's momentum against it, but it was steel and fur with Kevin pinned underneath it. Kevin looked desperately at Cyn, and he yelled at her to run. And then his head was severed from the column of his neck, blood spouting out in a spray that splattered Cynthia, who lay on the sand behind him. She closed her eyes as the droplets of copper splashed her face. Then she opened them and looked at Julia, stunned, vomit dribbling from her mouth. Julia screamed for her friend. Then Jason was there. He rammed the twisted metal rod they used for marshmallow roasting into the creature's side, and it reared back from Kevin's body with a howl, backhanding Jason as if he were as insubstantial as a feather. Jason grunted as he landed on the sand six feet or so behind the creature. Then the werewolf was on him, and he shouted, “Julia, run!” before the beast sank its talons his neck with its talons, squeezing. Julia felt her bladder spasm even as she ran to Jason's side, ignoring his directive. He was her husband. The thing with fur, standing over seven feet tall on its hind legs, had a hand that was half paw and all talons, encircling the delicate flesh of Jason's neck. His other hand rose in a high arc, readying to deliver the killing blow, claws like spears poised. “No!” Julia screamed. Its eyes shifted to hers as she ran to Jason. It seemed to pause. Then the hand swept down, the nails like knives glinting in the dying light of the fire. In a blur of light gray, something barreled into the werewolf. But not before a second mouth of gore opened in Jason's throat, blood welling and falling as his neck was opened in a deep slash of crimson. Julia ran to her husband, sliding in the sand on her knees as she crumpled beside him. Tearing off her jacket, she ignored the rawness and finality the wound represented, crushing the soft material against it in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. She could hear the creature fighting. She didn't know who or what it was fighting against, but she dared not look behind her. The sound of meaty flesh being battered was all around her. The lapping of the waves did nothing to silence the music of their violence. Her eyes met Jason's. She saw his death in them. “Run,” he said out of his ruined esophagus. Tears ran down her face in a stream, never stopping. “Shh… don't… talk, Jason.” Her voice trembled so badly she could hardly speak. His eyes urged her to escape even as she stayed. Cyn wailed something in the background, but Julia couldn't make out the words. She realized belatedly that shock was settling in like an old friend, and she recognized it. Oh yes, she did. It was hauntingly familiar. She thought of the crash that had stolen her family. Julia heard a sound and looked up. A man met her gaze, his hands buried wrist deep in the bowels of the creature that had attacked Jason. The gore splatter reached his shoulders, and his hands were entwined in the thing's entrails, which were like bloody worms that pulsated and glowed pearlescent in the firelight. Julia swallowed, his deep-cranberry gaze the last thing she saw as she turned her face away, heaving the contents of the airplane food as far away as she could from Jason's body. Her quaking hands pressed the cloth against his wounded throat. Julia felt heat coalesce, rising from her feet and eclipsing at the roots of her hair, and she collapsed in a dead faint next to her fallen husband. * The Rare One's hands fell away from the wound, and the blood came alive again, soaking the cloth of her hoodie, turning it from gray to black. The full moon rode the sky over them, a cruel governess. The vampire runners closed in and scooped up the limp body of the Rare One. The acquisition had been a success. They left in stealth, as they had arrived. * Julia's eyes snapped open, her mouth clamped to stifle the scream that had almost erupted. Tears that had dried in sticky lines on her cheeks were the evidence of a dream she had hoped to never face. A nightmare. She was so tired she ached. Looking at the glowing red numbers of the clock, she saw that she'd only been asleep for a few hours. It read 2:16 a.m. She held her body still and listened. The sense of unease she had felt earlier deepened. Julia knew that something was wrong when she heard the barest noise in the hall. But it was the primal alert sounding off inside her breastbone that told her what had found her. Vampires. They had come. She had to get out of the building. She rose, shoving her feet into her shoes. She didn't even put on pants. She ran to the window and lifted it silently, the breeze ruffling the hem of her nightshirt, raising goose flesh on her skin in a rush. She looked down. The lawn was at least fifteen feet below her. She didn't think it was jumpable. But as her skin began to itch in warning, she knew that it was a matter of time before they had her. She surveyed her room quickly. If she survived tonight, she could return in the daylight, when the vamps would have to rest, and retrieve her things. She fingered the ring on her neck like a talisman. Julia looked down again and, closing her eyes, crouching on the windowsill, she shoved off. She sailed through the air, preparing herself for the landing, her hair unraveling behind her. As the ground rushed toward her, Julia tried to brace her fall but landed hard, rolling on her ankle as she fell. She screamed deep in her throat as ribs were bruised and her ankle sprained. Her head had landed on the soft ground with an impact that would have crushed it had it been a hard surface. Driven by fear, Julia leaped to her feet, swaying while her vision remained in triplicate. Her ankle shrieked in protest as she began a hobbling run. Her goal: the woods that bordered the back of the property. She made the tree line, her lack of adequate clothing making her shiver just shy of having her teeth chatter. She didn't want that. They would hear. Julia entered the forest, dragging her leg behind her, clutching her ribcage as she jogged in an ungainly lurch. * William palmed the lock on the door, thankful that it was of vintage origin. Those almost always yielded to his influence. The tumblers shifted against one another smoothly and unlocked at his behest. He opened the door and was greeted by the sight of gauzy curtains, like taunting fingers, waving their mocking salute to him and the other runners. “She is gone,” Pierce said. “She could not have gone far,” Andrew said for only the vampires to hear. Robert shrugged. “We track her. It is not difficult—she is but a girl.” William turned glittering eyes to Robert, a newer runner. “I am sure that is what the Were are considering, even as we speak it.” He made his way to the window that Julia had escaped from. As he gazed down, he estimated the distance as perhaps five meters—too great a fall for one of her stature and disposition. Blood Singer or no, she was but an evolved human swathed in fragility. He turned in profile, the moonlight chiseling his features like marble. “She will be injured. Slow. Let us make haste. Moonlight is wasting.” The runners converged at the window. William leaped from inside the small room, exiting the portal with lithe grace, crouched in midair. He landed with the barest hop, his nose skyward. His head snapped down, and his face turned to look behind and away from the building. The woods stood in unrelieved black, jagged points meeting the sky scape. William felt the vampires land at his back, fully fed, energized to pursue. He thought of Julia, precious and vulnerable. Alone. He hovered over the possibility of the Werewolvesʼ presence. Without turning, William took the lead, running headlong, following the Rare One's scent like a moth to a flame, her fragrance a bell ringing like a clear chime for him to hear. Only him. CHAPTER TWELVE Were Joseph used his eyesight in the gloom as the tool it was, piercing the darkness like a laser. He searched for their salvation. Lost over a year ago to a number of blunders, she would not be unrecovered again. With five Were, they had the upper hand since the vamps generally traveled by quad. And they were closing in fast. The girl was crashing through the brush. They waited for her to stumble into the meadow where they stood. She would fall into their arms like a ripe plum. Joseph restrained a howl, turning his luminescent gaze to his first, Anthony, who nodded back, his muzzle lifting slightly, revealing teeth honed for tearing, biting, and killing. The other three Were flanked them, partially obscured by trees. They blended so well that it would take one of the supernaturals to see them without night-vision goggles or some such. Joseph growled softly. “The blood drinkers draw close, as well.” Tony snorted. “Let them come.” His paws tightened into cruel fists, his talons still short but battle lust imminent. Joseph's primary enforcer was fearless and not nearly as controlled as himself. He'd need to dig deep within himself for control once he was faced with a Rare One. Such beings brought out the very basest primal urges with the Were. Tony had scoffed when they'd told him that. But he had never been on the acquisition of a Rare One—only Blood Singers. It was not the same. The comparison could be made that it was like an appetizer of crackers as opposed to caviar. They waited. As the breath stilled in their bodies, Julia burst out of the haven of the woods, the fingers of the branches reluctantly releasing her from their care. Her injuries assaulted the acute olfactory senses of the Were, alerting and arousing them simultaneously. They advanced toward her position. * Julia Julia rushed forward, her foot tangling on a root as she ran and she fell, her palms biting into the dirt. The needles and branches scraped her palms without mercy. She threw herself into running again, the fir boughs whipping her as she tore through, the smell of cedar filling her nose. Her lungs burning, Julia could see through the gaps in the trees. An open meadow was just ahead. She ran toward the clearing. If she could just get out of these woods, she'd be free. She threw herself past the tree line, her breathing ragged, her ankle a throbbing stump she dragged along. Julia was met by five werewolves. This time, she knew exactly what they were. Their eyes bored into hers, and she felt something integral shift inside her and the open, a flicker of emotions assailing her. It took Julia but one confused moment before she understood that she was tuning into one of the Were soldiers within the tight group, whose emotions were leaking on her like a wayward radio signal. She felt lust, power, and greed—not in that order. She turned to run back into the safety of the woods and was met by William and his team. Trapped. They walked out of the forest's border at a smooth and unhurried gait. Julia felt her bowels hiccup. Her palms instantly glazed with sweat, her throat threatening to close. She felt a fear so profound she couldn't breathe. The runners didn't look at her. Rather, they looked beyond her to the Were. Julia began to shake. She had nowhere to go and could feel anger from the vamps and a primal surge of adrenaline from the Were. The emotions collided, with her in the middle of them. She was their emotional sandwich. Overwhelmed, she collapsed to her knees, a pain in her chest. She met William’s eyes. They flicked to hers then locked back onto the Were. She began to crawl away, tears dropping to the grass that was already drenched with dew. The wetness soaked her knees and the hem of her nightshirt. Julia was suddenly struck with the fact that she was out in the middle of nowhere in a strange place with nine creatures of legend, and she was half-naked. She flipped over and, in one motion, pulled the shirt over her knees to the tops of her feet. Her teeth did chatter then. Her ankle throbbed with the beat of her heart. Julia watched one of Were step forward. She knew instinctively that he was their leader. William circled him. Their talons, almost identical, slid out from the tips of their fingers. In the moonlight the vampire's looked black and the werewolf's a light sable. “Save yourself, Blood Drinker. No one need know that you released the Rare One this night,” the Were ground out, the timbre of his voice sounding full of gravel. William smiled. “We would never let this one go. We lost sight of her for one moment.” He spread his hands, feigning reason, and continued. “She is our salvation.” “Ours as well. We can breed her. What do you offer?” The Were asked this as a statement, his teeth revealed in a snout that was almost human except for the teeth like ivory razors—ready to close at the least provocation. “It is an impasse, then?” William asked, already crouching. The Were backed away, swishing his tail as a command. With a gnashing of teeth, the Were sprung on the vampire, and a war of fang and claw began. Julia watched in horror as the vampires began to fight for their lives, outnumbered five to four. She was the prize they fought over, an injured and sodden mess, huddled in a ball with fear riding her like a shroud of mist as an uncertain dawn approached. * William William sprang, fangs unsheathed, launching himself at the leader of the Were. Wrapping himself around the torso of the beast like a steel vise, he sank his fangs deep, the foul taste of its flesh like acid in his mouth. He hung on tenaciously. Even as Joseph sank all ten talons along his vulnerable flank, William worried the Were's shoulder, grinding his teeth closer to the vulnerable bone that lay beneath. Joseph stifled a howl of rage. He launched his claws into the vampire's side, digging deep. He lifted William into the air, as if he were lifting a flagon by its handle, and flung him away, releasing and retracting his claws as he did. The vampire landed with a practiced roll and sprang upright, blood trails leaking everywhere. Like ten minigeysers, they flowed, the blood resembling black oil in the moonlight. * Joseph howled in triumph—the drinker was wounded quite badly. But the Were was distracted as one of his soldier's head's flew by in his peripheral vision like an errant bowling ball. His nostrils flared, and he was stung by the awful smell of another drinker quite close. Joseph gave an instinctual evasive lean as claws missed his exposed throat by millimeters. He reacted even as he leaned, swiping his right paw in an upward arc, releasing the full length of his claws as he did. The talons sprang from the stubs of his fingers and gutted the vamp as he leaped to finish the swipe that had not been true. The second vampire's face had a surprised look as Joseph held him suspended, midleap. Joseph retracted his claws, and the vamp fell at his feet on the long grass of the meadow. With his left hand, he made the final cut to sever the head. That bastard drinker could have healed a disembowelment. He can heal nothing without a head, Joseph thought with brief satisfaction. The head rolled to join the fallen Were, and Joseph turned in the melee, blood spray and gore littering the pathway as he began to move toward the girl. Belatedly, he realized that Tony had already made his way to her against express orders. Joseph was the only Were allowed to touch the girl. Already, Joseph could smell Anthony's unshakable lust, riding an unstoppable urge. He would crush the girl if he reached her first. The sharp claws of Joseph's feet sprung from the pads, spearing the soft earth beneath him. He spun, using his finely honed balance. On the balls of his feet, he surged forward, each paw landing, gripping, and shoveling a spray of dirt behind him. Even with his incredible speed, he could see he wouldn't reach the girl in time. For the first time as a soldier of the Were, he experienced an emotion he had only heard about: fear. And underneath that, panic. * Julia Julia thought she'd known terror. She thought she'd tasted it. She had not. Sheer horror took hold of her now. Something even scarier than William approached, though not at a dead run. The creature advanced with purpose, a light in eyes that glowed in the pale moonlight like a cat's. They were fixed on her with a look she couldn't recognize. Finally, as he was almost upon her, she could read his face and knew what his expression meant. He looked as if he wanted to consume her. Julia gave in to her intense fear, screaming so loudly her voice left her, and then hoarse shouts were all she could give out. She scooted backward on her haunches with an energy she didn't realize she possessed. Her modesty forgotten, she scuttled back like a spider, using just her hands and feet. Still, he came. CHAPTER THIRTEEN William William’s sides burned as if on fire. The wounds inflicted by the Were were deep, the poison released from Were talons flowing through his system, weakening him. He needed blood. And his group was outnumbered. Andrew was gone. He heard a hoarse voice, hysteria riding it like fine wine. Normally, a scream like that one would have incited a tornado of blood lust but not tonight. The girl at the source of the screaming was his to protect with his life—by any means necessary. William shifted into the form that would allow him to travel faster. That ability was his only gift, the single thing that separated him and identified him as having the blood of a Singer running through his veins. His injured body fought the change. William forced it upon himself, his body losing shape and molding into that of a raven. It was twice the size of the majestic bald eagle. His eyes remained deep cranberry, a color not found in nature. His ebony wings unfolded to a span of nearly ten feet. He rose, partially healing as he lifted from the ground, his clothes in a shredded pile at his feet. Lack of blood, coupled with injury, made William sway in the air. His focus sharpened when he was greeted with the image of Julia struggling in the brutal embrace of the Were. The creature was clearly in the grip of breeding lust. William pointed his sharp beak at the pair. Folding his huge wings against his body, he sailed down like an onyx torpedo. * Julia Julia sprung to her feet just as Tony grabbed at her. She did a move that surprised both of them: using her elbow—the hardest part of her body—as a weapon, she jerked it up into the half-human face that was so close to her. Tony unknowingly helped by leaning into her just as she jabbed it forward. Her elbow connected with his jaw, and it stunned him for a moment. Julia spun and began to run. Her ankle screamed, and she ignored it. Something grabbed her hair from behind and lifted her off the ground, making her scalp shriek and burn. Torquing her neck, the Were wrapped hands around the strands and drew her against his body, almost tenderly. She could feel the strength in those hands, and she knew they could crush her windpipe. The Were's other hand tore her nightshirt collar to hem, using only the tip of one claw. It fell at their feet in a pile, and he moved his hold from her neck to wrap her upper arms. “I will breed you, Blood Singer,” it growled out between impossibly long teeth. Julia was fully panicked now. Looking down, she saw the part that made him male in full view. She used her hand like a weapon, clawing at his face and kicking out. He shook her so hard her teeth rattled, and she saw stars, her head lolling about on the stem of her neck like a fragile flower. Out of her trembling side vision, Julia felt air rush past her, and another of his kind bore down on the first, making him release his hold. The claws slid away without purchase. Julia fell to the grass, her knees bending under her like a folding chair. As she gazed up at the night sky, the sounds of tearing flesh, along with growling and yipping, reverberated in her ears, and a great black shape appeared above her. Julia lay there, the wetness of the grass soaking through her panties and camisole. She saw that the shape was a great bird, whose eyes watched her as it hovered overhead in ebony glory, revealed in outline by the full moon. She didn't even scream when its talons pierced her shoulders, lifting her into the air. The pain was a numbing horror as unconsciousness washed over her body. The last thing Julia remembered was an unearthly howl of anguish. Then there was only blackness, the pain in her shoulders a trail that beat after her. * Joseph Joseph closed his muzzle with a snap, the howl echoing in the openness of the clearing. The small body of the Rare One was clutched to the drinker like a dark token in the sky. One Were and one vampire lay in bloody heaps, his first on the ground, heaving from exertion and in the throes of shaking off the breeding lust—with difficulty. The fool. The remaining vampires bled back into the forest seamlessly, their bodies melding so closely with the shadows that their forms were indecipherable. Another failed mission. He looked at Tony with unveiled disgust. Maybe it would have gone similarly without this transgression. He did not know. What he did know was the drinker had shifted. Joseph's intel had not discovered that skill amongst the runners. He must have Singer blood running in his veins. The rat bastard. They needed that Singer badly—before a fully blooded vampire could breed her, a practice the Were had heard about as rumored legend only. Joseph was beginning to wonder if there was some truth to it. He jerked his head at the three remaining Were, indicating their dead comrade. They hefted the body. The vampire's remains lifted in the light breeze like a pile of ash at the mercy of the wind. Joseph and the others turned to go, Tony bringing up the rear, his hand buried in the hair of the fallen Were, carrying the head like a macabre purse. He felt Tony's unfriendly stare on his back, malice taking shape behind him like slow-moving poison, insidious and progressive. * The Kiss of Seattle Burning. On fire. Julia was on fire. Her eyes popped open and she wanted to scream. Instead, out of a mouth so parched her lips were cracked, she moaned. Her shoulders were one burning mass of flesh. She cracked open an eyelid and saw fuzzy shapes moving silently around the room in filtered ambient light. A presence came close to her, and she flinched. “Shh, you're safe,” a female voice said. Right, Julia thought in exhaustion. She hadn't felt safe since the day Jason died. Another blurry person— a male who made Julia feel a sense of comfort— came to stand next to the female. “We will have to put that shoulder back.” Julia watched as they looked at one another, her vision doubling. She felt a gentle hand at her wrist and a bulging piece of cloth placed in her armpit. A fist was wedged up underneath it, and as Julia's arm was pulled, the fist punched upward. She shrieked. The pain was at once piercing and awful. Julia sank back into unconsciousness with a hitching sob. * William looked down at her, his hand sliding from its placement underneath her shoulder. The joint was back in its rightful place, and the pinched look she had worn since her arrival was gone. He breathed out. “She is so frail,” Claire said. William took in Julia's bizarre hair color, the paleness of her skin, the touch of blue in her nostrils and lips. “You will need to give her more blood.” Claire's eyes searched his, troubled. “Every drop I give her binds us tighter.” “Perhaps, but if you don't, she will heal humanly slow. In agony.” Her eyes moved over the telltale mark on the girl's forehead. William scowled. Claire seemed to know things that she should not. She knew what his life's goal had been. What it had always been. His hope was written in the Book of Blood—the vampire equivalent of the Bible. A Rare One would save the race from the brink of extinction. A union between a vampire of Singer descent and a Rare One would bring the tenuous hope of offspring. William wanted that quite badly—children who were as strong as vampires, possessing all the abilities but without the need to drink blood, living feral in the cover of darkness. Yes—who would not wish for that and long for it? Julia bore the mark. A half-moon-shaped scar like a small kiss of flesh hovered at her temple. It was the symbol of the Rare One. It looked very much like the moon—pure white. William’s hands balled into fists, guilt sweeping over him as he took in the gauze dressings, already discolored by Julia's blood. He had almost torn her shoulders off in flight. When she'd fainted, well… it had been a near disaster. Her dead weight had hung like meat off a hook. He held his eyes closed, willing the image of her broken body to disappear. He had brought her into the bowels of the underground—the forgotten city that lay beneath Seattle. The lair of his kiss. He looked above him, watching the feet of the passing pedestrians as they walked over glass that was a foot thick. Scuffed and cloudy, it had a vague purple hue, garnered by a century of sunlight he would never behold. He sighed and looked at Claire, who had stubbornly folded her arms across her chest. The granddaughter of a Rare One, she should have been renamed Stubborn One. William came by his own tenacious streak honestly: Claire was his cousin. His fangs elongated, and he placed the twin points against his wrist. Sweeping sideways, he made a clean cut like two, razor-thin lines, and blood welled, almost black. Squeezing his wrist to prompt the flow, he used his other hand to massage Julia's throat. As the drops fell, her full lips parted, and the first trembling drop held itself suspended for a moment like a glittering gem then fell. As the blood found its way inside her mouth, she stirred, her throat convulsing and swallowing. Without waking, her hands moved to the offered forearm, small and like carved ivory against even his pale flesh. her grip was weak as a kitten's. William leaned closer, the pull of her mouth against his flesh an erotic tether that bound him to her. She drank, and William resisted his impulses. They were many. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Julia awoke naturally, her body aching. As she became aware incrementally, her internal system didn't hum with fear but with a subtle calmness. She never felt calm. Her eyes snapped open and were met by a stare that matched her own. She had never known anyone to have eyes the same shade as hers and was momentarily speechless. Julia tried to sit up, and the room spun. The arm of the woman who that stare belonged to rose and pressed her back against the pillows that were stacked behind her. She opened her mouth to speak, and the woman stood, leaning forward. She pressed a cup with a straw against Julia's chapped lips. “Drink. You're dehydrated.” Julia drank. It was the best water she'd ever had. It was refreshingly chilled, and it coated her parched throat like the first spring rains in the desert. She tried to gulp, but the woman took the cup away when Julia would have had more. “Small sips. We don't want that stomach of yours giving up the blood inside you.” Julia's expression changed, and the woman saw it. “Don't even start, Julia.” Julia narrowed her eyes, and the woman said, “The only reason you're not on that bed writhing around in pain is because of the blood William gave you.” She cocked an eyebrow. “I'll bet,” Julia croaked out, her voice raw from screaming. “He didn't want to.” The woman stood. “I forced him. It's bad enough for you to transition into our coven. We don't need an injury slowing that assimilation. ” She looked at Julia. “I'm Claire.” Julia nodded in greeting. Claire obviously knew who she was. Julia felt a comfort in her presence, true. But she had reason to distrust her. She could sense what was around her: vampires. And not a few. They were legion. * Joseph Maggie fussed over Tony. Joseph would have left his small injuries alone. Let him deal with them. He continued to seethe as she ministered to the long gashes that crisscrossed Tony's torso. She was disinfecting the open wounds. Vampire venom was poisonous. Joseph smiled, thinking of the one he'd speared with his claws. The vampire would be feeling some serious pain. Delirium would be his friend as he flew with the Rare One. A troubling thought occurred to him: what if that vampire had injured the Singer in his pain-induced stupor? Maggie stood back, critically looking at the dressed wounds. “I think you may live another day.” She clucked like a mother hen. Joseph looked at her, his anger softening. It was not her fault that he was pissed at Tony. She was doing her job—attending to the Were soldiers. There was one less tonight. His headless body cooled in a shed on the Were compound. Lawrence would want a full report, and then a ceremony for the fallen comrade would be arranged. It fell to Joseph to explain to Colton's widow the news that her mate was gone. Joseph hung his head. After a long moment of reflection, he planted massive hands on his jean-clad thighs. Standing, he stared at Tony, waiting until Maggie bustled out of the room. He watched her walk away and turned to Tony, stabbing a finger in his direction. “I have duties to attend to, but you will answer to Lawrence. Our Packmaster will be made aware of what you elected to do—allowed yourself to do. It is you who jeopardized this mission.” “You can't blame me for everything,” Tony said with derision, his upper lip curling back slightly. Joseph came forward, and Tony sprang to his feet. They crashed into each other, knocking a lamp off an end table. As it slammed to the floor, shards flying everywhere, Joseph took the six-foot-three Tony down in an armlock that drove his elbow into the other man's sternum, the windpipe compromised. Joseph felt the change hovering in a dim corner of his brain, and his vision changed, his facial bones rearranging in a disconcerting claylike movement that had the room filling with the sounds of their shifting and tendons popping into their new arrangement. But it was just his face and hands that changed. The rest of Joseph remained as it was. He slowly removed his arm from the throat of the soldier who had acted on impulse. Joseph replaced it with his transformed hand—a claw nearly a foot long in variegated and mottled browns, creams, and tans. “I can, and I will blame you,” Joseph said on a growl, his throat partially changed, his teeth gleaming with killing intent in a mouth that now had a muzzle covered in gray fur. His gold eyes, round and large in his wolf form, peered at Tony. “You were without control so near the Singer. You begged me for this assignment but refused to be desensitized.” “I would not harm her!” Tony growled back, mindful of his own change, which bore down on him enough to make sweat bead on his upper lip. The restraint he employed made him ugly. “Rape is harm!” Joseph barked at Tony. “We are meant to breed her!” Tony said, exasperated. “Not without the ceremony. Not without the proper testing. She cannot be with any wolf. She must be properly matched, properly mated. Do you not see?” Tony did not. He narrowed his eyes on his Alpha. He would give anything to be the Alpha. He could not think for the scent of the Singer. How had Joseph stood it? One day the position would be his—by whatever means necessary. There was a noise by the door, and Adriana rushed in, landing a solid kick to Joseph's side with her full werewolf strength. His rib bruised instantly, robbing him of some of his breath. “Goddammit! Adriana! It's not what it looks like!” Joseph said, removing the threatening claw from Tony's throat and leaping to his feet, one hand on his rib. “Oh! You aren't over-disciplining one of our wolves?” His sister yelled at him from a foot shorter. Her eyes flashed, and her small hands were planted on her hips. “Get rid of that ridiculous half-wolf face you're sporting, and get your ass to Lawrence's chamber this instant!” Tony smirked, and Joseph whipped his head in Tony's direction and gave a low growl. Tony's smile faded. “Ugh. You dummy! Why don't you just pee on him and get it over with? That's not how you do it. Watch me—you know, your smarter sibling.” Adriana turned to Tony, who she was not nuts over, but fair was fair. “Tony, would you please go to Lawrence within the next half hour and give him a full report of what happened on the mission?” Tony struggled to his feet, giving as neutral a look to his Alpha as he could manage. “Happy to.” His stare spoke volumes. Joseph sighed, his ribs squawking with the movement. “Adriana, you weren't there. You didn't participate in the mission…” Her ponytail bobbed as she nodded her head. “Right, because I am a lowly female!” Her face reddened. There was no way that Joseph wished to engage in this tired argument again. If she had been male, she would have been Packmaster. As it was, she practically ran the den. Their father had made him promise to watch over her. It was essentially a full-time job. And she was vaguely nose-blind. His nose was the keener of the two, and he wished that she'd trust him. She let her emotions run her actions sometimes—such as now. “Adi—” he began. “No.” She stomped her foot. “Tony is injured.” She swung her palm toward Tony, who was all but healed. After she turned back to Joseph, Tony grinned. Sometimes wolves needed to sort things out physically. Too bad the females were not seeing that necessity. Joseph was the Alpha, so he saw it. He regretted what he had to do. He opened his jaws wide and latched them onto her vulnerable neck, growling low in his throat. “Argh,” Adriana yelped. Joseph was careful not to break the skin. As she thrashed around, he subtly followed her movements so her skin would not tear. She grew still. He unclamped his muzzle, regarding her with eyes like spun gold, his gaze gentle but stern. “Let me be Alpha, sister.” She rubbed her throat, where many small red indentations marred the creaminess of it. Tony was silent, letting the two siblings hash it out. “This is how an Alpha operates,” Joseph said. “You are Alpha as well—it should not come as a surprise.” “Ugh! You're so unreasonable! Such a he-man! Hate it!” She flung her arms up in the air and stomped off. That went so well. Joseph sighed, making his ribs twinge. “Move, soldier.” He pointed ahead of him, and Tony walked that way. Joseph followed the blazoned path his sister had scorched on her way out, moving to the Packmaster's chamber for debriefing. What a joyous occasion would be had by all, he thought, as his face and hands melded back into their human mask. * Homer, Alaska Detective Truman was crouched down on his haunches, letting pewter sand run through his fingers. It was a year later, and he still couldn't get the scene out of his mind. The blood, the body… the aftermath. They were still no closer to solving the crime than when they first began. Truman stood, looking out over the vast ocean, the snow-capped mountains of the Kenai Fjords in ominous grace, a backdrop to a tousled sea that had whitecaps everywhere he looked. He sighed, standing and kicked a large pebble. It bounced off a large piece of driftwood. The stains of blood that covered the wood had come to look like so much spilled coffee with the passage of time. He'd go by the girl's apartment. He liked to visit Cynthia Adams. She never got angry at his questions—unlike the Caldwell family. He couldn't force their cooperation, but he would have thought they'd want to find out who took their daughter-in-law. But they didn't want to know. They no longer had a son, they'd said. And they'd certainly never considered Julia Wade part of their family. Technically she was his wife. The marriage license had been validated and duly noted. She was Julia Caldwell now, wherever she was. If she was even alive. Detective Karl Truman hiked up the small ravine, swiping branches aside. Some of the larger ones were broken off at the trunk, sap covering their amputated stumps. He didn't pause in his climb to wonder what might have snapped a branch the size of a man's wrist off at the base. The police looked for rational explanations to murder and disappearance. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Julia was working into a routine of sorts, steering clear of the vampire that had “saved” her. Her arms were functioning again, and she had full rotation. The scars from the talons were almost gone. She looked in the mirror, running a finger over the shiny pink wounds. They faded each day. Julia would brush her teeth, and her eyes would move back to the reflection of them in the glass like a magnet to steel. She knew more than she had before, and she wished she didn't. There was no escaping this place. She felt the inevitability of her circumstances closing in around her, and it gave her an almost suffocating feeling of claustrophobia. Julia tapped the toothbrush on the edge of an old-fashioned pedestal sink, shedding the remaining water from the bristles. She turned the spigot sharply to the left, and the water dried up, a shaky drop falling and hitting the basin with a dull plop. She skewered one of the four holes in the toothbrush holder— attached to the wall—with the base of the brush, and without looking at her reflection again, she walked away. Julia knew the routine. Claire would knock as she entered the room. They'd have breakfast together. Julia would fight panic attacks, and Claire would lend some of that calm she had in abundance, and Julia would live another day. But she was just existing. She was good at inhaling and exhaling. She'd become an expert at that since Jason had died. The vampires were biding their time. Julia knew they were grooming her, and she knew what she was now—she was some prophesied genetic key that would unlock the prison of their existence. She was the answer to them not being vampires anymore. Julia didn't really think it was that damn simple, but they fed her what they wanted her to know, their version of what was happening. To listen to Claire explain it, it was some kind of honor. But she'd heard one of the vampire guards discussing humans. Humans were cattle to them. Food load. Without humans, the vampires would starve to death. The Blood Singers were an essential element to the genetic diversity of the humansʼ blood. Without this superior faction, intermixed with the regular population, the blood quantum, the quality of the blood quantum would be compromised. In essence, Blood Singers brought the quality of the blood to a level that made all human blood palatable to the vampires. While vampires were ruled by blood and darkness, the Were were ruled by the moon. She was a jealous mistress, governing their changes at her whim. And that whim was when she was full. No more, no less. Julia's lessons had begun. Through Claire, Julia began to understand her role and why she never would have been allowed to live with Jason as a spouse. Blood Singers did not intermarry. The purity of their blood was needed to balance the precious blood quantum. Mating with each other would upset that balance. Singers were so rare that it was typically not a problem. Claire had mentioned a figure: one one-hundredth of a percent of the global population. That meant Blood Singers numbered around nearly seven hundred thousand souls. That seemed like a lot to Julia, but spread over the seven continents, it was barely sustaining the vampires. They existed in greater numbers. That was why the two factions had converged on their group at the beach. They would never have allowed the union. She and Jason had married in secret. But the vampires had been watching, and they accelerated their plan because of Jason and Julia's elopement. Julia guessed the plan hadn't included Jason's death. Claire had explained Julia's parents—in detail. Both Blood Singers, they had been taken before they could have more children. It hadn't been an accident, but providential. As it happened, the one child they did produce was a daughter. The manifestation of their combined recessive genes was Julia. She was the Rare One, the unique female, promised to change the face of the races, able to produce Lightwalkers. If bred to the Were, their offspring would be moonless changers. The moon's control would be gone after several generations, the compulsion to be her slave no longer there—bred out. Julia felt like the prized mule. Then there were the supposed abilities. Supernatural abilities. She thought about the conversation she'd had with Claire the previous day. * “How can you stand it? Living here… with them?” Julia had asked, her arms folded across her chest, rubbing her skin as if she were cold. She wasn't cold, just freaked out and unhinged. Everything Claire had told her reverberated around in her skull like a pin ball. Rare One? Blood Singers? One of hundreds of thousands of people? “I have little choice. This is the place that I have come to belong. I've been here many years.” “What about my parents? Were they expendable? And Jason?” Julia spoke in a low voice, her arms by her sides, trembling slightly in her anger. Claire lifted a shoulder. “It is not typical. One in ten thousand is a Singer. That your parents found one another… that you found and married a Singer…” She looked at Julia. “It's unprecedented.” Wonderful. Julia's parents were dead. Jason was dead. And all because vampires wanted their food all pretty and tasty. Fancy cattle. That was all the Singers were to all of them, vampires and Were alike. Julia told Claire that. She shook her head. “We are more. The quality of our blood and the fabric of our genetics are not the only things we have to offer, Julia.” Her eyes searched Julia meaningfully. “Have you ever had flashes of intuition? Feelings of a precognitive nature?” Julia sucked in her breath. She'd always known who was phoning as soon as her hand touched the receiver. What the next song would be on the radio. When there'd be a pop quiz in school. Now that everyone sent texts, she'd get a vibration before it rang—not from the cell but from within her body. She'd always just chalked it up to one of those things. It sure as hell was one of those things. It just wasn't the thing she'd been thinking. * Can you hear me? Claire asked. Her lips weren't moving. Icy fingers brushed inside her head and Julia shivered. The feeling of an itch not quite being scratched hovered in her brain. “What did you say?” Julia asked out loud, sure that she was imagining things. People didn't have telepathy. Can you do this? Claire asked, her voice breathing through Julia's mind. I don't know, Julia replied, aiming her thoughts at Claire like a well trained archer. She must have hit the bull's-eye because Claire smiled. I thought it might be possible. It is spoken that the Rare One will come to possess all the talents for our people. Julia backed away, stunned. It was too much to take in. A wave of calmness stole over her, making her feel slightly numb, drugged. “Stop doing that!” Julia yelled. “I only wish to help. I'm part of you. We all are,” Claire said, her rich chestnut hair falling around her shoulders as she came at Julia. Julia stumbled, falling backward. She felt something well inside of her, rushing to the surface like a bubble of oxygen sliding to the surface of a pool of water. She allowed it to leave her, bursting on Claire. Julia hadn't meant to hurt her. Claire looked as if an invisible ripple had plowed into her, and she slammed into the wall just inches from the hearth that boasted an old fireplace. It was full of jagged rock. Claire slid down the wall, stunned. Julia got up off the floor, rubbing her arms again, her body flushed, her head light. She began to move toward Claire when the door slammed open, and William was there, glancing at his relative leaning against the wall where she'd been thrown. Julia hopped over the back of the couch where she'd been sitting, and he was flying over it and underneath her before she could jump to the ground. She screamed, and he crushed her to him. Her chest tightened painfully. The proximity to him unbearable. She could feel it like silken tentacles pulling taut: the call of her blood to his. The consumption of his blood was a pulsating thread that bound them—like a song, a blood song. While the guard at the door watched, the vampire Julia hated held her against himself as if she were the most precious treasure in the world. And she knew that to him, she was. * Julia Julia was goddamn done with the coven. She was considered a flight risk. Gee, ya think? So, they had her guarded all the time, day in and day out. There were humans, called “intimates,” who were the day slaves of the vampire underworld. They guarded her when the vampires slept. While awake, the vampires guarded her. Julia was frustrated. She wanted to leave her room. It didn't matter that it was beautiful and all her needs were met. So what? She was little more than a bird in a gilded cage. She and Claire had come to an uneasy truce. She would teach Julia to harness her abilities, and Julia would not use them against her. It should have been simple, but it wasn't. Julia was already planning on honing said skills and getting the hell out of the coven. She wasn't stupid, though. Julia knew that learning what those abilities were and practicing them with someone that also had them… well, it made sense. She decided to bide her time. Not that there is a plethora of options, she thought dejectedly. Claire came to her one day with the news that she had been there a month, and it was time to meet the leader of the Seattle Coven, Gabriel. He was Claire's brother, a Rare One. If Julia had thought the odds of running into one of her kind slim, meeting another Rare One was even slimmer. Claire had explained that out of the almost seven hundred thousand people who were potential Singers, only one percent of those were the coveted Rare Ones. Wonderful. Julia didn't think that her blood status had helped her in the slightest. It had just gotten the people she cared about dead. A tightening of her chest came on the heels of that marvelous revelation. The vampires were old-school. Claire told her there would be a ball, of sorts, like an old-fashioned “coming out.” Julia would be the guest of honor—their stolen prize, the blue-ribbon winner, the prize Heifer. They didn't need to milk her, just breed her. But to whom? She'd never let one of the bloodsuckers touch her. It was only afterward that Claire told her William had “blood shared,” saving her indescribable agony from the wounds he'd inflicted and allowing her to heal quickly. Not my problem. If they hadn't chased her, he wouldn't have had to use everything he had to get her here. Julia thought of the feeling of the talons piercing her flesh, her bone the next layer beneath the biting claws, and shuddered at the memory. It was William's fault she was here. * Debutant William studied his reflection, securing the matching cufflinks on his custom-made button-down. It was burgundy silk, woven against the grain to produce a slight sheen with movement. Claire said it brought out his eyes. The eyes that met his reflection were the deepest shade of red, just shy of black, his pupils inky dots in their center. But they were not always so. Depending on the circumstance, they could appear reflective and silver. He lowered his sleeves after adjusting the links just right. Sterling squares with a beveled and scalloped edge were pierced with a starburst that held a brilliant blue sapphire chip in its core—an heirloom from his father. He sighed. Sometimes the pomp and circumstance of these ceremonies weighed heavily on him. William thought of what Claire had told him. Julia was resistant, distrustful. In her youthful naivety, she thought that she could fool Claire into thinking she was compliant. William had warned her this was not so. Julia had a steely resolve, never forgetting a wrong enacted upon her. That was why those whiskey-colored eyes followed him with indifference. Julia was not immune to the fire that burned in their veins from the blood share. Her blood called to him. She had tasted of his, so now she had a fraction of the feeling of the song that he held within himself for her. She listened to his blood as a melody. Her blood to him was a symphony. There really was no comparison. William turned from his reflection, forbidding his despair to take over. This was the Greeting Ceremony. Aside from Gabriel, there had not been one in his kiss for three centuries. That was rare indeed. He slipped quietly out of his chamber, hesitating outside her door, apprehension at her proximity making his step falter. He drew himself together. He could not abide a slip of a girl commanding a warrior of the vampire. William strode off, never glancing back, his desire behind him, his plan ahead. * Julia Julia turned her head in midstroke of the hairbrush when she felt the familiar tightening inside her breastbone. “What is it?” Claire asked, locking her gaze with Julia's in the mirror's reflection. Julia unconsciously rubbed her chest as she stared at the door, her breath held in her throat. “I don't know,” she whispered. But she did know. William stood outside the door. She was deathly afraid he'd come in. She was even more afraid because she wanted him to. Her body crawled with the need to be near him, the chemical aspects of the blood in her body more than they had been. Twice now, he'd given her his blood. Each time, it had been life saving. It was the quantity that mattered. When the amount of his blood in her system reached critical mass, she would be left with no choice. Claire had explained it was part of the mating process. The fact that he had given her blood twice drove them closer to being mated, whether he was right for her or not—and whether she wanted it or not. “After the greeting ceremony is over, then there will be a courtship within the circle of eligible vampires.” Julia couldn't believe how ridiculous it all sounded. A little more than a year ago, she'd been a high school senior, secretly engaged and then married. It had been pretty unforgettable. She'd been on a path of life so different from this one she could never reconcile the two, however much she thought about it. Now, she would be handed over to the best mate in the vampire contingent—the one with whom she could produce the most desirable offspring. “The sooner you accept your placement here, the better off you'll be,” Claire said, admiring Julia's gown. Though trying to hide her scowl at Claire's words, even Julia had to admit it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever worn. It was the palest champagne, almost a soft tangerine. Her ginger-colored hair shone above it. Claire had seen to it that her hair had been expertly cut around her shoulders, where it curled softly. “We keep your hair down for the greeting. No need to be provocative this first time. It will be hard enough for them as it is.” Right, Julia thought. The blood lust. * Murmured voices reached Julia's ears as she swept in with Claire, the vampire guard and Clarence, trailing behind them soundlessly. The voices stopped instantaneously, an ominous silence filling the cavernous space. Julia looked up, not being able to help noticing a central strip of ambient light that was perfectly spaced. Large grid-like skylights lined the ceiling of where she stood. Rectangular in size, they housed many thick glass circles. Dark spots would appear above them with regularity. It was mesmerizing. The vampires stared at her as she brought her gaze down from the ceiling peppered with glass. A man came forward, and instantly Julia felt her body respond. It was not sexual. It was synchronicity. This man was kindred to her. She felt more related to him than she'd ever felt to her flesh-and-blood aunt. He smiled, and it was sun breaking through clouds. For the first time since her arrival, she felt something slide into place—something that felt like home. He was tall, and she had plenty of time to assess him as he came toward her, his copper hair slicked back and tied in a navy silk band at the nape of his neck. He had a slight accent when he said, “You are Julia.” He formed it as a statement although it was truly a question. She nodded, the hair sliding around her bare shoulders. Her nervousness felt like a caged animal yearning for release. “Welcome!” he said in a booming voice that echoed against the stone walls. Julia fought not to jump as she looked around and faced the crowd of vampires. There were so many they lined the walls, some lingering in the tall, bricked archways, two feet thick, at the threshold. Julia's eyes searched the crowd. Many faces were expressionless, and a few held contempt. Julia swallowed. The neutral faces lost that expression as they tracked the small movement of her throat like vultures circling a dying meal. Gabriel continued, “Here is the one our warriors have brought to us—the first Rare One in three centuries, here now for the prophesied continuation of our race. It will be she who allows daywalking. And so much more.” He turned those golden eyes—so much like Claire's, so much like Julia's—to hers. “Please welcome Julia Wade into our kiss.” He stepped back with a flourish, and Julia sat there pegged, feeling like a butterfly pinned to a board. Examined. Scrutinized. It was beyond awkward. She wasn't anyone's savior. Julia was herself. That was all she was. She stepped forward. Brave beyond measure, or foolish—she didn't know which—Julia said, “It's Caldwell. Julia Caldwell.” At that moment, she met William’s eyes, and there was anger in them. Julia was sure that he wanted her to move on with her life. The husband she loved had been dead for over a year, the relationship never consummated. Well, there's more to love than having sex. Otherwise,, there'd be a ton of people married to more than one person. She was still married to Jason in her heart. Dead or alive, he still held it in his hands. Warm and beating. Her guts clenched thinking about being here. She swung her head to the leader, Gabriel. He seemed to read her emotional barometer at that moment. “Caldwell, then. Please”—he looked over the crowd, who had begun to whisper to each other at her correction—“make Julia feel welcome amongst us.” She sighed, giving one more glance to William, and moved to Gabriel's side, resigned but not beaten. Never beaten. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Everywhere Julia looked, she saw blood. It filled the elaborately cut crystal punchbowl in the center of a table, which was easily twenty feet long. Stemmed glasses of every configuration stood around it like sentinels. The color wash cleverly hid what the glasses would contain once they had been filled: blood—human blood. The goblets looked as if they were on fire, backlit from the sconces, which lined the stone walls at a man's height—or in this case, a male vampire's. There were not just male vampires at the event but female, as well. Not many, but they were there. She could feel their discontent like a weight on the nape of her neck, her skin crawling with it. They were not happy with Julia's presence. Well, neither was she. They could rein in their attitude because she didn't want to be there any more than they wanted her to be. William came to Julia, taking her elbow, and it felt as if a match had been touched to flame, the heat of his contact with her bare arm igniting it neatly. It drove up her arm in a fine line of warmth, reaching the middle of her chest where it burst like a bubble. She gasped, catching her breath, and watched William’s jaw flutter as he clamped down on his reaction. “Let go of me,” Julia hissed quietly. William turned to her, hissing back, “I will not coddle you.” Her eyes narrowed on him, and he continued. “I did what I had to in order to protect you. I am so sorry you do not see what is beneath your nose.” His crimson eyes searched hers with neatly contained rage. “I want you to at least accept that I was doing my duty. Your acquisition was something I was tasked to accomplish. It was not personal. I did not kill your husband. That was the Were's interference and was typical of their kind—no planning, just reactive brutality in the heat of passion. They could not do a job done with finesse if a gun barrel were pressed to their collective heads.” Julia ripped her elbow out of his grasp. It made her madder when she realized he could have kept her wherever he wanted. She thought of what had happened with Claire. She immediately wanted to do the same with William. To him. But through the stone wall. She smiled at her thoughts. William looked at her and smiled back grimly. He could almost feel her intent, the blood union singing between them. Her thoughts were not known to him, but her emotional signature was loud and clear. William removed his hand as if scorched. “Fine.” He leaned into her face from inches away. “Know this, Blood Singer. Everything I do, I do for you. If it were for me, it would be so different.” He ran a finger down her jawline, and Julia shivered involuntarily. William turned on his heel and stalked off. He left Julia just inside the threshold of one of the archways with vampires everywhere. She did not know any of them, and she suddenly felt that she'd been a little too dismissive of him. She glanced around uneasily, noticing Clarence of the guard was within ten feet. He was ghosting her movements. He'd follow her into the bathroom if she let him. Julia wanted to tear her hair out. There was no privacy—nothing but living in a fishbowl. Gabriel approached. He gazed at her intently for a moment, looking almost dashing in his navy suit. A crisp shirt in warm white was accented with a soft tangerine tie. Julia recognized the color immediately. It was the same as her dress. They matched. Great. Gabriel watched her with such tenderness that Julia dropped her eyes. She was determined to not make friends. She wanted to belong to herself. Julia felt his finger before it touched the underside of her chin and lifted it to his gaze. “I know how you feel. I understand.” She moved her face away as his hand fell to his side and whispered, “You don't know how I feel. Claire told me that my parents and Jason were taken because Blood Singers can't intermarry. It was only a matter of time before they would've broken Jason and me up!” Julia tried to be quiet, but many of the vampires turned their faces to her and Gabriel, the conversation ringing in their ears. “I do not wish for this to be the place for this conversation,” he said, deftly swinging the conversation away from the heat of her anger. Fine. So convenient for him. Gabriel took Julia out of the archway of the pass-through. She looked behind her at a long corridor filled with many wooden doors like the one that that kept her prisoner in her chamber—thick and impenetrable. I'll leave this place. She straightened her spine and walked away with Gabriel. He took that as acquiescence and looped her arm through his. Julia schemed as they approached a circular group of vampires. She plastered a phony smile on her face, hoping William would not be among the crowd. Hopefully, he was off sulking somewhere, licking the wounds she'd inflicted on him. Julia's smile turned genuine. * Were Lawrence was beyond displeased. They'd had two failed missions. The reacquisition of the Rare One would need to be executed with the utmost stealth. And the vampires would be extra vigilant after the first two attempts. “It matters not that Tony behaved rashly. Ultimately, it was your responsibility as acting Alpha, Joseph.” “I know that,” Joseph said. “I don't want to see Tony receive discipline, Packmaster.” Lawrence's nostrils flared, and his eyes changed from their standard brown to a liquid gold—the eyes they all had when the heart of the wolf beat inside their bodies. “You speak true,” the Packmaster intoned, his eyes becoming the flat, human brown they usually were. “But he must be desensitized before the next mission.” He looked at Joseph and Tony. “Which will be soon.” Lawrence stood straight, aware of his lean body, tall and graceful. He ran a hand through his unruly hair, and he made it worse by combing it with his fingers. He pulled a map of sorts from his desk drawer and used his tapered fingers to smooth it out. “Come,” he told them. They did, bending over to see what lay before them. Joseph's face whipped up in shock. “This is where the coven is located? In the middle of downtown?” Lawrence slowly nodded, tapping his nose. “As it has been since the great fire of 1898.” He sighed. “My grandsire trained me when I was but a wee wolf.” Lawrence indicated a height of a human toddler. “He told me, Ê»Lawrence, you must know where your enemies hide.ʼ” He looked as serious as Joseph had ever seen him. “But we don't fight them, Packmaster,” Joseph said impatiently, stating the obvious. "What is our actual plan of action?” Tony laughed at Joseph's statement. Joseph growled softly in his throat, heat infusing his esophagus. The change hovered, as it always did at the moon's zenith. “We do not challenge, Alpha,” Lawrence corrected, giving Tony a growl that echoed Joseph's. Tony's eyes slid away from the both of them in a submissive response. With a satisfied expression on his face, Joseph turned his attention back to Lawrence. “There is a difference. You ken to what it is, eh?” Lawrence said. Joseph nodded. “I do, but I think we'll have to beat them at their own game.” He looked at his Packmaster's face for a lingering moment then continued, “I have wolves that can gather intel and return to us with a method of acquisition for Julia Caldwell before they know what hit them.” Joseph punched a balled fist into his open palm, the sound of it filling the small space. “Excellent. But first, you may be cognizant of the numbers.” “We need at least fifteen strong. We outnumbered them by one and still they escaped,” Tony elaborated, speaking out of turn. But he's right, Joseph thought. “Our numbers matter not. The one vampire had Singer blood. He shifted as an evasive tactic!” Lawrence's brows shot to his hairline. “You would have captured her without this unexpected… event?” “Abso-fucking-lutely,” Tony said, and Joseph frowned. Lawrence chuckled, looking Tony square in the eyes. “We cannot afford to lose even one soldier.” He turned his attention to his Alpha. “You are in charge of desensitizing your wolves. Do it, and do it quickly. We need to be ready for the soonest opportunity. Reconnaissance at the lair of the blood drinkers is essential. Establish time lines for their habits. Follow their intimates.” “Yes, Packmaster,” Joseph said, but he continued to eye Tony suspiciously. The two werewolves strode out side by side. The Packmaster watched the pair, sensing the rancor between them. He knew he had struck a match to their tempers. That was the way of it. Tony was volatile, but if he felt he was wolf enough to take Joseph in a fair challenge, let it happen. Lawrence would not cripple his unit of soldiers because the Alpha used caution as a shield. He would force their innate aggressiveness to the forefront. Besides, Tony was obviously wanting a higher position in the pack. Lawrence could smell it. And his nose never lied. * Vampire Julia allowed herself to be led by Gabriel's arm to the small group of vampires, their dark eyes tracking her like falcons. She could feel the material of her long gown swirl around her legs as she moved toward them, light and shadows giving their expressions a similarity to one another. “These are your potential suitors, Julia,” Gabriel said, not even bothering to offer the introduction in a softer light. He may as well have said, Take your pick of breeding stock. Julia crossed her arms underneath her breasts. She was vaguely aware that the posture moved her hair away from her bosom, offering the expansive creaminess of her skin as a delicacy before the vampires who were already looking at her as though she was their favorite meal. One gasped in response to her subtle movement. Gabriel chuckled, waggling his finger at the group. “I have said that when a female came amongst you, you would have to sit on your fangs.” He chuckled at his own joke. Julia scowled at his words. Not funny. “Now, now, Julia. Don't look like that—I was simply lightening the mood.” Julia's attention returned to the loose circle. There were five of them, all dressed similarly. One of them stood in the shadows, but then he came forward, and the ambient light from the strange glass windows of the ceiling cast light like the moon on his face, and she took a step backward. It was William. William saw her sharp inhalation and how she retreated a step. Was he so abhorrent? Wasn't their blood share supposed to feel good to a Singer? He fought not to tighten his fists and tried to appear relaxed—even as his warrior brethren sniffed at her like the dogs of the Were. He swallowed the anger that threatened to engulf him. Julia turned to Gabriel. “I will never consent to anyone here.” She whipped her hand around at the vampires. “I don't want to be bred. I don't care if you boys never walk in the light. Maybe there's a good reason you don't.” She looked at each face, with perfectly chiseled features made out of the same mold. Only William looked different—more human. She shoved that thought aside. Gabriel's patience was thinning. “These are the vampires who possess the blood of a Singer in their lineage—although, you may breed with any vampire, or be mated with any. A Rare One may beget a child with any vampire. But it is the blood of a Singer that will allow the recessive genes to intermingle and produce the life blood of our coven.” “What?” Julia nearly yelled. “Light Bringers,” Gabriel said. Tears threatening, Julia said, “You can't force me to do this! Why would you want to? You're a Rare One too!” “I am not female,” he said with a logic that made her want to slap his face. She looked around for a face that understood, finally landing on William's. His held compassion, but she didn't want that. Not from him. She whirled away from the group, hiking the skirt up, the material a silken bunch in her fist, and ran for the archway. She slapped the first door she saw and entered a bathroom, small and private, with a love seat just inside the door. She sank down on it. She cried into her hands and abandoned all hope. Julia didn't know what to do or how she'd escape. She made her sobs quiet. She wouldn't give the vampires in the hall the satisfaction of hearing her sadness. They were the cause of it. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Julia dried her cheeks with a vicious swipe. Disgusted with herself and her feelings of hopelessness, she stood and walked over to the mirror. Julia looked at her red and swollen eyes, the tracks from her tears making streaks where makeup had been. Claire had insisted on that makeup. Her hands gripped the rolled porcelain edge of the sink basin, the coolness a contrast to her body's heat. Her head hung almost to her breastbone. How many times had Jason held her up when she felt as though she couldn't live another moment with Aunt Lily. When her constant nagging and distrust were more than Julia could bear? Resolve took hold within Julia. She needed to get through each day here and formulate a plan. One day at a time. If she could gain their trust, even by some small measure, maybe she could find a way to escape—especially as her powers grew. Without actually causing her harm, how would they stop the advancement of her abilities? Claire was the one who had told her she was entering her adolescence as a Blood Singer. Almost twenty seemed too old for that, but Singers lived longer. They were immortal in some cases. Julia had not asked the burning question—the one that had trembled on her lips: Was she immortal? Would she live forever? It still seemed surreal. She kept going back in a mental circle to her last point of reference of a year ago, when the biggest plan was getting married to her high school sweetheart. And now she was faced with paranormal powers, vampires… werewolves. The enormity of it all was overwhelming. If the reality weren’t staring her in the face, she'd believe she was crazy. Her skin began to crawl, prickling. Julia jerked her head up and met the stare of a female vampire in the reflection a heartbeat before she struck, her fangs sinking into Julia's shoulder, the tips meeting her collarbone. Julia cried out, the pain greater than even the effect of William's claws had been. “Hold her, Edna,” a male voice said casually. The pain burned like liquid fire. Acid in her flesh. Julia was trying to scream around the fangs as, with bulging eyes, she saw the male walk toward her. The scream died in a mouth that had become dry with fear. He had been one of the males in the group of “choices,” she realized wildly, on the verge of hysteria. “The female doesn't want you, fragile human. She hates you,” he said, his eyes liquid pools of silver, reflecting like dull nickels. Those eyes tried to suck her under, but Julia felt the pull slide off harmlessly. “Thrall will not work, dolt,” another male said, meeting her eyes in the mirror. Julia saw that the bloodied wound was leaking into the bodice of her tangerine dress, turning it red. An evil sunset bloomed on the gauzy fabric. The other male's eyes widened, and he bent over her shoulder, lapping at the blood like a cat with cream. “Ahh,” he crooned. Lap, suck, gulp. Julia watched as the male's throat convulsed. He licked at her skin while the other one watched. “Her blood is exquisite. I have never tasted the likes of it.” His eyes rolled to meet hers in the reflection, in a shade of silver so light they looked glacial. They were going to take Julia's blood where she stood, Edna the vampire anchoring her throbbing shoulder to force her placement. They would feed. The other male moved in, eyeing her throat as if mesmerized, his body one tight line of tension. Julia became desperate. She had next to no training, having about bashed Claire's brains in the other day in a reaction so pure, so unexpected the vampires had been pacing themselves since. Panicked, Julia tried to remember what it felt like to engage that telekinetic ability. It was so new to her she didn't even know where to begin—especially with her heart in her throat from sheer terror. Julia felt disjointed and lacking the cognitive reasoning for an adroit attack. When the vampire who'd licked at her met her eyes, Julia let out all her bottled-up rage and emotions, focusing them like a spear. The hell with finesse. Choke, she thought with a mental shove. She launched a counter strike at vamp number one. When he staggered back, blood spewing out of his mouth, she turned her attention to number two. Feeling an elemental push that echoed the first strike, Julia used that seething momentum and blasted the neck biter just when he would have sunk fangs into her erratically beating pulse. His head had reared back, twin spiked fangs shining like creamy pearls, prepared for the strike. She saved herself by seconds. The female latched onto her shoulder harder. Julia's arm went numb to the wrist and she couldn't suppress a whimper as the female gave Julia a smile around the fangs that were buried in the flesh of her shoulder. There was a commotion outside and the door slammed open. William’s frantic eyes met hers and in a moment of profound weakness, blood covering her upper body, the loss of it more than she could adequately fight, Julia whispered, “Help me.” * William William looked around for Julia. Ah—there she went, stalking off to mope in the restroom. He sighed. He told himself for the hundredth time that she was but an infant. Still, her behavior took some getting used to. She did not see William as the protector he was. If she would but allow it, he thought, clenching his jaw. He looked a moment longer to make sure that Clarence was a discreet distance from the restroom and went back to his conversation with Gabriel. “Give her time, William,” the coven leader said. “I have watched her this past year. I fear she cares not for her own life. She still mourns the husband who is no longer.” Just saying those words made William angry. He was determined to speak his mind to Gabriel. “I think she uses his death as a crutch. He has been gone for one year past. She has been told the facts of his death. The Were delivered the death blow—not vampire. She would not have been allowed the union in any event. Two Blood Singers together!” Ridiculous. Gabriel nodded in agreement, his expression mirroring William's own. There could not be inbreeding amongst Singers because of the negative impact on the blood quantum. And more importantly, to waste a Rare One in that way, to squander it? Not during his reign. He clapped William on the back. “She will understand more as time goes on. Julia will come to understand that she is too rare a jewel to wander about, taking her chances in the outside world. It is here that is her destiny. Here is her safety. Also”—he looked into William's eyes—“now that her adolescence is upon her, every Were and vampire from here to the ends of the earth would smell it on her. Her childhood afforded her some protection. No longer.” Gabriel made a severe cutting gesture with his hand at the exact moment that William felt pain pierce the highest area of his shoulder. He stood so quickly the chair that he had sat upon turned over and fell, the wood hitting the cobblestone floor with a resounding crack, echoing in the space. William met the eyes of his fellow vampire, their faces without expression. He whipped his head in the direction of the restroom. A lone foot could be seen sticking out of the dark corridor. Clarence’s. Julia was no longer under guard. William sprinted in a burst of speed that made its own breeze, lifting the tablecloth that held the crystal and blood. He burst through the door, the wooden frame bending under the force of the swing. He was greeted by Julia's whiskey-colored eyes, strained and wide in her paling face. William was struck by the tears that streamed down her cheeks and the terror on her face. William's eyes fell first on Edna, a viperous female then found the two that would have vied for the position of mate to Julia. Two fewer contenders. He picked out the head off the interloper whose fangs were bared before Julia’s exposed throat, venom for the strike dripping off them as he prepared to strike. The moment seemed to pause. Julia looked into his eyes with what he had longed for, had been beyond hoping for: fear filled their depths… as well as longing. She wanted him. In that moment, she gave in to the blood bond between them, and her terror made her raw to it. He answered with a look that took mere seconds to convey. It was her voice, though, that struck his soul like a bell that chimed. “Help me,” she gasped out, her eyes deep pools of drowning amber. He did not hesitate. William punched his right hand into the back of Edna, talons extended. In gasping from the entry wounds, she inadvertently released her fangs from Julia's shoulder. Julia slid to the floor, using the pathway of the female vampire like a helpmate, her hands grasping the female's gown. Julia rolled over onto her back, the blood from the wound running backward, pooling in the hollow of her collarbone, and dripping to the floor where her burnished red hair lay like a fan atop the stone. William hesitated, hating to kill a female of the vampire, but she had proven to be without scruples. He tore his talons from her back, and she fell to his feet, gasping, all five nails having punctured her lungs in a most grievous manner. William let Edna lie on the stone floor like a gasping fish. He turned his attention to the vampire whose hands were around his throat in the universal choking gesture. What was this? The male was choking on the blood he had consumed. William swung his gaze to Julia, the fragrant smell of her blood filling the space, making him almost light headed with bloodlust, his throat tightening painfully. And he was a quarter Singer. The others would never be able to abstain from her as she lay vulnerable and bleeding. There would be a blood riot. The evidence of such was at his feet. The vampire he had beheaded, lying as a pile of ash and blood, was the eighth slayed. Never having been exposed to a Rare One, they were virtually helpless before the song for her blood. Hearing noise at the door, William turned, simultaneously moving toward Julia. The vampires moved as a unit, talons extended, fangs sprung free of their houses of flesh. They came to where the delectable smell of fresh blood was released—a quality without compare. It was as if a thousand-year-old bottle of wine lay breathing—on a cold stone floor mere paces away from consumption. * Julia Julia looked up and saw a monster with fangs the size of her pinky fingers dripping a clear fluid tinged with red. Talons as long as her forearms stood at deadly attention. And then, like small swords, they began to slice whoever drew near. Their motion in a blur of darkness was too fast for her to follow. Julia became aware of moisture falling on her bare skin like rain. She opened her eyes and a head fell beside her shoulder with a meaty thump. The dead eyes, once gray, turned into a collapsing wall of flesh and bone. As she looked on in horror, it began to disintegrate into a mass of ash. It was the eyes she'd never forget. Or the creature William had become, fighting the vampires that would have killed her. They came, one after another, as blood drenched her gown and she lay helplessly at his feet. William slashed and stabbed as injuries were rained down on him, and then five overcame him. Julia whimpered, having never envisioned herself dying that way. At that moment, Julia realized she wanted to live—had always wanted to live. Her eyes met William's, pleading. She knew she didn't deserve his help. But she was sorry. She didn't want this life, this existence. Nevertheless, he was dying to defend her. * William was overcome. He had dispatched fifteen, losing all hope of the guards helping him through the crowd of rabid vampires overrun with blood lust. The higher functioning of their cerebral cortex was gone. When the five overcame him, he saw Julia torn from beneath his feet by two fanged brethren. One held her as the other prepared to strike, losing his grip twice as her body was slick with the blood of the massacred. She was weak as a kitten—any fool could see—her wound not closing up. The blood-clotting properties of the vampire saliva were not working. Of course, Edna would have not used hers willingly. Julia was bleeding out. William was struggling against the vampires, beyond reason and rationale when he heard her soft whimper like a plea—bereft, hopeless. Her eyes met his again, the blood bond reverberating in his body, pressing him to take action beyond his capabilities. William did, smashing two of the vampiresʼ heads together hard enough for their brains to splatter against the inside of their skulls and leak out their ears. He threw himself on his feet and launched to Julia's side in a fluid, gymnastic movement, his fist punching out as he did. The vampire who had fangs a millimeter away from her throat lost them from the impact of William’s fist even as William's talons swung to take the head of the one who restrained her. * Julia Julia saw William come. A shaky exhalation escaped her as she lay in the arms of one vampire while the other prepared to chew her throat out. The one who held her dumped her head on the floor so hard she saw lights twinkle above her. And then William was there. Their heads fell on either side of her body, and heat suffused her. Julia knew she would pass out and had but moments to express herself. William crouched above her protectively, and she raised her arm weakly. She clutched his clothing. He glanced at her then looked away, tensing his body for the next onslaught. She tugged again. “Julia, lie still. You have lost much blood.” “Thank you,” she whispered on her final breath. Her vision dimmed to a pinpoint. The last coherent image was William—whose face she didn't hate anymore. His mouth moved, but she couldn't hear him. An enveloping softness encased her as she floated away like a dandelion seed on the wind. Julia slept in a pool of her own blood and that of others—many others. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The Den of the Were One Month Later “Do you see her?” Joseph asked impatiently. “Yes,” Tony responded, dropping the night-vision binoculars. “It is easy to make her out, Joseph. She is so much smaller than the blood drinkers.” Right. Joseph knew that. But his anxiety was full tilt. It had been a month since their orders from Lawrence to execute reconnaissance on the vampire kiss. They had done that. It had been troubling to smell injuries on the Rare One. When they had first begun their covert stakeout, they could smell fresh wounds. They were concentrated on the female, but also one other, the vampire that who could turn into a raven. He had been injured, as well. It was only speculation, but Joseph felt something terrible had happened within the coven—something that allowed a freedom that was almost brazen in its disregard to her safety. Although, they did flank her five deep on either side. Joseph was still sticking with the number fifteen. Fifteen of his entire soldier contingent should be enough to bring her home. The Rare One would assimilate into his den. She would not automatically be his. But he would butcher any Alpha who took challenge. Joseph would be victor. He must. The whelp of the Were had to evolve, or the race would be lost. He squeezed his hands into fists, mourning the moon's shape. It was waxing—two weeks yet until they could bring the change. Joseph and Tony watched the small female figure bounce as she ran, with the huge blood drinkers looking to the four corners of the earth. Joseph growled low in his throat. The vampires were unaware of the sound, but Tony heard and answered. It would have been a howl had the moon been full. * Julia Julia's lungs burned—but in a good way. What had started out as nightly walks when the city slept had turned into jogging. Now she ran. Her vitality returned incrementally, night by night. She shuddered, thinking about how her life had almost ended that fateful night on a floor of ancient cobblestone built for humans and infiltrated by vampires. Claire had had to provide blood to save her life. William could not give it. The third blood share would have mated her to William—whether she wanted it or not. Forever is a long time to hold a grudge. But she was immortal only if she had blood quantum. Too much blood loss, and her life would be gone. Julia wasn't sure she believed them. There was no such thing as immortality, right? Then her mind burdened her with the discoveries of the past year, such as the existence of werewolves and vampires. As if that isn't crazy as hell. Julia wiped sweat from her brow and glanced at William, who didn't sweat, of course. He never broke stride. Neither did the other nine who ran with her—or rather, jogged. They could run, but she could only do what she was doing now. It was hopelessly slow. She was a foot shorter than them, and not vampire. “Are you well?” William asked. She smiled shyly. He was beyond solicitous. Julia had allowed herself the barest crack in her plan. As she had begun to figure it, with all that time recuperating to help with her decisions, she had two evils: the one she knew and the one she did not. The vampires had come clean—or as clean as they ever would—by explaining to her what her options were. Her alternative of escape seemed so remote—and so potentially unsuccessful. Julia couldn't help but feel defeated, beaten down. Her chances of survival if she were to get away would be slim. For starters, there was no camouflaging the scent of what she was. That was by far the largest obstacle standing in the way of her freedom—or, at least, her true freedom. Secondly—and this was a terrifying prospect—the Were searched for her just as hard as the vampires would. If she did escape, the likelihood of her being reacquired by another coven or den of the Were was high. She literally could not find sanctuary. Her heart grieved for Jason. Her pragmatic nature instructed her thought processes, and she moved toward survival. And it seemed she had many years to survive. She'd been off a million miles away and finally answered William. “Yes, I'm fine.” He looked at the others and gave them a command outside the decibel range of human hearing. Then he took her by the elbow, and they slowed. She still felt slightly weak but nothing like the way she'd felt when they had taken the first shuffling steps into the outside air. The smell of it had been cloying, foul—and rich and wonderful. Freedom had a smell, and Julia had breathed deeply of it. So long, she'd been underground, held captive in the original thirty-one blocks of Seattle's great city. While the cattle walked overhead, their predators living underneath their feet. Julia thought about what Claire had told her over a month ago. * Julia had awoken and met Claire's stare. She'd never felt so weak, not even when she had refused to eat for months and when she had to be bathed like a baby by Susan. She felt cold to her marrow. “You've lost a tremendous amount of blood from the attack,” Claire had said in her calm way. Julia looked at her, willing her lips to move, but they didn't cooperate. Claire smiled and stood. She brought a cup with a bendy straw in it. As Julia sucked on the plastic tube, cool, clean water saturated her mouth and tongue, which was swollen from lack of use and circulation anomalies. Finally, when she'd had her fill she asked Claire, “What happened?” Claire looked away for a moment, a blush of pink lighting on her cheekbones. Her skin was as fair as Julia's. Julia realized she was embarrassed. “Things got out of hand. A few of the contenders… could not control their bloodlust.” She looked at Julia, who returned the stare without expression, willing her silently to go on. After a pause, she did. “We did not foresee it. But they were quite premeditated. Gabriel and I—” Julia huffed at the leader's name, immediately begrudging his authority. As Julia saw it, he had no authority over her. After all, he was nothing more than a glorified kidnapper, using the weapons at his disposal to manipulate the vampire outcome—for their benefit, she thought sourly, not hers. His weapons of choice were… the vampires, of course. Claire continued through Julia's insolence as if it didn't exist. “We thought there'd be sufficient protection because of their Singer lineage, but it wasn't enough.” Claire looked at the hands that were wringing themselves in her lap. When she raised her eyes, Julia she saw they were glistening, the tears unshed. “There are so few vampires that are capable of breeding with a Rare One.” She gulped and struggled forward. “Now, there are fewer.” So what? Julia thought. It wasn't as if those were such great guys who had assaulted her. Whatever. She said as much to Claire, and she nodded reluctantly. “We know this now. It had been centuries since a female Rare One had entered the coven for this purpose. We didn't anticipate the pull.” Julia crossed her arms again as she looked up at the shadows that passed across the glass skylight of her room. Why was sunlight allowed to penetrate their lair if it were such a problem? Claire followed her gaze, smiling. “We have our technologies.” Julia's eyebrow cocked in question. Claire gave a little shrug. “They cannot live outside the confines of this space during the day. But we have one that formulated a chemical wash for the glass.” She threw a palm in the direction of the only window in the room. “So…” Julia's sudden realization of what the shadows were struck her almost dumb. “Those are people? They are walking over our heads?” she asked incredulously. Claire nodded. “They do not know of our existence. It is like being hidden in plain sight. You understand this concept, no?” Julia did. She'd had a babysitter, before her parents were killed, who would hide everyday objects in plain sight. Julia remembered at one point how the babysitter had hidden a sewing thimble on the top of an old TV antenna, and it had been an hour before she'd spied it—metal on metal, almost invisible. She couldn't suppress a small smile at the memory, nodding at Claire. Claire returned the smile, although she couldn't have known its origin. “It affords the kiss the greatest protection.” Julia looked at the shadowed feet, crossing the glass with a foot's separation between their life and death. They never knew. Julia shivered. “The solution blocks the UV rays.” “Couldn't that clever guy make a sunblock or something?” Julia asked, a little bit of snark creeping into her tone. Claire's smile faded. “That was unsuccessful.” Julia didn't press, but judging by the expression on Claire's face, there'd been a few vampire torches. Julia withheld her smile. An image of William on fire came to her mind. Just a few days ago, that visual might have given her a lot of satisfaction. Now… her heart had shifted. And while she did not hate him anymore, she wasn't sure what she felt. She thought of flying over the meadow, leaving the Were that had attacked her behind, the claws bound to her shoulders like excruciating hooks. She thought of his fierce expression as he fought the vampires who would have bled her dry. Julia was ashamed. He was what he was—a freak of biology. As she was. Jason was gone, forever. It was in that moment that Julia decided for neutrality with William. He had not shown her harm. On the contrary, he had shown much more. His yet unknown role made her uncomfortable, but that couldn't be held against him. In the end, William had been right. Jason had been killed by the Were, not vampires. Julia had sighed, looking once more above her head. The cattle had moved across their concrete pasture, unaware of the vampires below. * The Present William smiled down at Julia. Cautious hope took hold of his soul—if a vampire had such. She looked infinitely better than after the attack. He was right as rain in less than a fortnight. But Julia's tenuous situation was held in the fragile balance of the twilight of death. It took much to kill a Rare One. But the two who had been in the race for betrothal might have ruined it by hurting her. Forget that notion, William thought. They'd almost killed her. He could hardly bear to think upon it. He had already claimed Julia in his heart. He had not the right. But love chose its own pathway, mindless of the change. Love hath no master. He took in her lush mouth, the pulse that beat at the hollow of her throat more attractive than any show of flesh could ever have been. He swallowed, reining in his emotions. William had had two centuries to perfect his lack of expression. He'd found that a year and some days with Julia had undone it all. The careful procedure of schooling one's expression in the way of the vampire was lost. He thought it might never be regained. His heart seized with panic as a scent wafted through the night air. In an instant, he pulled Julia against him, scenting their surroundings, her water bottle hitting the ground with a thud, the water leaking out over the black pavement like a crystal well. Broken. * Julia Julia's heart slammed into her ribcage. William’s hands wrapped around her arms like steel bands, cool against her fevered skin, which was still warm from the run. “What is it?” Julia asked. Pierce lifted his nose to the air. “Wolves, William?” “I do not know. But”—he looked at the nine that were gathered together, his eyes glittering in the weakness of the lights that illuminated the street where they stood—“it is the only moment of my existence wherein I wish for their sense of smell.” There was uneasy laughter even as the vampires looked around them for the perceived danger. A few tense moments passed, and William's shoulders finally dropped into a more relaxed posture. “Well?” another vampire asked—Robert, Julia remembered. William shrugged, his eyes tight. “I do not know what it was, but I very much wish to head back.” They agreed, but Julia protested. “They would never think to find me here.” William looked down at her, his face cut marble in the whitish-blue light of the streetlamp. “It is that mentality that will hasten your taking from our kiss. We do not underestimate the dogs. Their passion makes them dangerous.” He looked into her eyes then elaborated. “Sometimes I will have a moment of…” William deliberated on his wording. He finally settled on, “intuition.” Julia looked at him. “Is that because of the Singer blood?” He nodded. “The shifting to raven is the single most powerful element I gained from my genetics. Sometimes, although it is not always trustworthy, the moments of intuition have made me a better fighter.” “How?” Julia asked, allowing herself to be tugged along as they made their way back to the underground city. “Instinctive.” “You fight with… training or…?” He glanced her way then looked around again, still slightly tense. “I use what has been given to me. I know because of my Singer heritage that I can shift to raven form, and sometimes I anticipate.” Julia had to ask. With nine other sets of vampire ears to the ground, honing in on her words, she forged ahead. “Anticipate what?” He stopped, looking down at her for a moment. His gaze uncomfortably intense, he answered, “Danger.” Oh. She looked around, sensing nothing. “Let us be gone from this place.” * The Were's sense of smell allowed a great distance to be maintained while still triangulating the vampire position. The Were came upon the plastic bottle that had been dumped. It was too perfect to believe. The vampires had been sloppy by allowing anything she touched to be discarded by any means other than fire. Of course, vampires did not like fire. A grim smile overcame Joseph's face. He reached to pick up the discarded bottle, scenting it for the Rare One. Julia Caldwell's scent floated around the mouth of the bottle like the most exquisite fragrance imaginable. He held the bottle triumphantly while motioning with his hand for the four other Were to gather round him. They did, each scenting the bottle, familiarizing themselves with her smell. The scent of the Rare One, the Mistress over even the moon. As her unique signature filled their flared nostrils, five pairs of eyes spun to gold in faces that were no longer quite human. Joseph lifted his face to gaze at the moon, whose mocking form was halfway to full. As small yips of excitement broke out in the circle of men, the tone changed to a quality that made the pigeons flee their roosts. The noise caused the fear-and-flight reaction as surely as a primal alarm going off. The Were returned to their den, an empty bottle as so much trash, carried in the fist of the Alpha. Joseph clutched it tighter as he ran. CHAPTER NINETEEN Two Weeks Later Julia stretched until every vertebra cooperated by popping. Ah, so much better. She wasn't happy yet. But for the first time since Jason's death, she felt a form of contentment. She was sure it had a lot to do with the daily runs. Her body was knitting itself stronger each day, and she was thankful. William had not pressed his advantage when it would have been easy to, and Julia had noticed. William and she had lunch together each day now. Actually, she ate lunch, and he drank blood. It was an uneasy alliance, but he had to receive nourishment too. And she couldn't negate what he had done for her. With his blood. It was yesterday's lunch that rolled around in her mind. She couldn't believe what he'd told her—the revelation that Claire was his cousin. William was one-quarter Blood Singer. His ancestry lent him the paranormal stripe that allowed him to shape-shift, to have those little moments of awareness that were other. Julia had been curious, picking at the meal before her—salad and salmon. The coven provided only the finest meal for their trophy. Julia squelched the thought even as it formed. She needed to think of the coven as her benefactors, or she'd never achieve any happiness. She sighed, and William's eyebrows rose in question. “It's about Claire.” She looked at him—stared, actually, trying not to notice how handsome he was, how well built, how… everything. Heat rose to her face, and she knew without a mirror that she was blushing. “Well, she is my cousin.” He dropped the bomb as though it was of the least consequence. “Are you kidding?” Julia nearly shouted. He shook his head, the corners of his mouth already turning up. “You are!” she huffed, folding her arms across her body. “I promise, I'm not having you on. It is true.” Julia searched his eyes for the joke, and finding none, went on. “How is that? She looks like she's ten years older than me?” William paused then said, “Once a Singer mates a vampire, if there is enough blood quantum, she takes on some of the properties of her mate. In this case”—his eyes met hers—“immortality.” Julia thought about it, almost stunned into speechlessness. “So, Claire's like… hundreds of years old?” “Technically, that is accurate.” “Just tell me, William.” “She is three hundred and six.” Julia gasped. That makes William… “I am only two hundred and twenty.” So young, Julia rolled her eyes, stifling a giggle. William laughed from his gut. Though he was usually serious, Julia found that she was able to lighten him. “Yes, Claire is quite wise.” Julia turned her fork over and under, over and under until William put his finger on the tines. He met her gaze. “What are you thinking?” “I wonder why we look a little alike, Claire and I?” William leaned back in his chair, drumming his tapered fingers on the bare wood of the table, thinking. He seemed unaware that he smoldered at her, in her. The blood share's tenacious grasp still clung like reluctant glue. “Gabriel has said there is a common region that the Singers hail from in antiquity.” Julia waited. William shrugged. “It is just a hypothesis. But it may explain the similarities in their looks.” He looked at her briefly. Then, glancing at her half-eaten plate, he finished his thought. “Blood Singers are generally fair complexioned with some degree of red hair. But not all of them. Some can be quite dark.” “How do you know this?” Julia was thinking that Jason hadn't had that coloring. “It was a cross-checking method we employed as runners. If the scent did not convince us, the coloring, as it were… well, it was almost fool proof.” Julia was fascinated, remembering her mother's hair ablaze with copper fire. She recalled it perfectly. Memories of the accident crowded the inside of her skull in a dull press, but she shoved them away forcefully. “Gabriel is originally from Scotland.” Ah. Julia had wondered about that brogue he spoke with. “Have you heard of Stonehenge? Located in England?” She nodded. It was pretty famous. In high school, they'd studied it briefly in World History. “That is where the biggest concentration of Singers reside. They fan out in many directions, but it is there that they proliferate.” Julia smiled, not withholding her sarcasm. “Then why don't you guys do a road trip and net them all?” William's smile faded, and he shook his head. “In concentrations as big as the one at Stonehenge, they become powerful.” His eyes were serious again. “So, they can bring a can of whoop-ass?” William smiled at her vernacular. “Yes, they can bring whatever they please. That is why we concentrate on mostly immigrants, diluted by centuries of outbreeding. Sometimes, as in your case, we strike a pureblood. Any Singer over half-pure is worth acquisition.” Julia thought about all that he'd said. “So, why am I not… psychic or some other cool thing like that?” William chuckled, crossing his legs at the ankle. “You will be many things.” He shrugged. “It is different with each Singer. A Rare One is an anomaly—hard to find, and more difficult to speculate about.” “What can Gabriel do? He's the coven leader. He's a Rare One,” Julia said, thinking he may have mojo. A buttload of it. Julia watched William think about his words and was struck anew by how very deliberate he was with his thoughts. He never just blurted stuff out. The way she did. She smiled unconsciously, and he returned her grin, his fangs hidden. “He is male.” William looked down to his long-stemmed glass, the bagged blood distributed inside the glass as an affectation. Like a beer out of a frosted mug as opposed to straight out of the bottle. She waited, and he continued. “He has some paranormal talents… but it is the females who possess all of what a Rare One could offer. Eventually, you will be many things. Manifest many things.” Julia looked at him. “Besides being able to make vampires choke on my blood and heave helpful people against walls, what else is there?” She was only half joking. Julia wanted to know what to expect. William shrugged a muscular shoulder, the button-down shirt hiding nothing. She'd give vampires this: they were all pretty spiffy to eyeball. “It has been some time since a Rare One has been in residence. It will be all conjecture at this point. But… there have been things in legend. Those are telekinetic ability, telepathy, super-human strength.” He finished, ticking off each ability on his fingers then resting his hands on his thighs. Julia liked the last one and smiled. He chuckled, guessing her transparent thought process. “That's usually reserved for males.” Oh. “Limited healing. And of course, there are the genetic properties of the Rare Ones. They will allow the supernaturals to become more, better.” William leaned forward, all intensity. “Just think of the ramifications of being vampire but not ruled by bloodlust, by the night.” He swung his palm to encompass their immediate area. Julia watched an internal fire ignite in his eyes and realized the vampires felt trapped by their existence. That what made them other also stifled them in isolation. It made Julia profoundly uncomfortable to realize two factions thought of her as a savior. But she hadn't asked to be a Rare One. Instead, she had just wanted a normal life. She looked in William’s earnest eyes and sighed. At least she hadn't been taken by the Were. From what William told her, they cared very little for the Rare One's comfort. He had told her about this on one of their many runs before she'd been able to do much but shuffle along. * William On one of those early runs, William had looked down with tenderness at the top of Julia's head. He'd allowed himself that luxury when she was not aware of his regard. She'd looked up, and he'd instantly schooled his expression into one of neutrality and adopted a teaching tone. “You ask of the Were. They also find the Blood Singers critical. Even a Singer who has as little as one-quarter blood quantum can give them additional days to make the change. They cannot aspire to be moonless changers. But they can have more days to use her call.” He kicked a random pebble, and Julia stopped, turning to look at him. The streetlamp reflected off the damp patches of asphalt, the city still humming all around them. The deadest hour of the night had the least people but cars were still rushing past, dim noise and the smells of a city that never quite rested a backdrop to their hushed conversation. She crossed her arms and huffed out a breath while the other vampires formed a loose circle around them, maintaining an ever-vigilant protective perimeter. “So, what you're saying is that vampire and Were compete? They run around, gathering up the purest of the Singers—to what? Make sure they have more power?” William thought it sounded dire when she put it like that. “It is for the betterment of both. We think their methods are heathen. But the consequence is identical. What they gain, what we gain…” He let his sentence trail off. “What do we gain, William?” Julia asked, her eyes searching his, her palm on the center of her chest. He held her gaze but with effort. There was little that the Singer gained except that her mate would be devoted. There was additional protection. He sighed, raking a distracted hand through his hair, frustrated. “You have the security and protection of the coven,” he finally answered. Julia snorted. “Oh, yeah! That's worked so well. I could tell how secure I was when those fangs sank into my collarbone—on top of my scars from your raven claws. I feel so protected.” William gripped her shoulders, cupping them firmly in hands that wrapped them front to back. “There will always be rogue vampires. There will always be vampires among our kind who take, who do not follow rules or hierarchy. You do understand that? Is it not the same in the human population?” “It's true,” Julia responded, squirming a little in his grasp. “But if I'm so special, why did they try to hurt me? Believe me, it hurt.” William knew. He had been barred from giving blood a third time. As her kind said, the third time would have been the charm. It would bind her to him without choice, without consent. A union filled with resentful compliance was not acceptable. Not to him. In the end, she had been given a transfusion. She smelled off for two weeks afterward. He had told her that she smelled like someone else until her body's natural cycles and rhythms had righted themselves. “I'm so sorry that I didn’t smell tasty for a week or two,” she'd said, rolling her beautiful eyes at him. William had smiled. “It is better for me. Not your pain and suffering at their transgression,” he added quickly to avoid confusion as her brows came together in a frown. “But because their attack on you proved my mettle. You know the man I am.” Julia shook her head in correction. “You are not a man. You're something else.” William said sadly, “I am more man than you could ever know.” Julia had looked into his face, and William had not been able to mask the sincerity of his feelings—or his desire. She'd shifted her gaze from his as they walked away together, the vampire guard swarming around them. * Taking Joseph gave Tony a subtle flick of his tail, but it was scent, not motion, that let Tony know to flank the group of vampires. One among the Were remained unchanged. A new threat faced them. They had smelled what threatened during their last reconnaissance. The Rare One was entering her awakening. She would be dangerous. One of his wolves would nail her with the gun—a gun that had a dart filled with a sedative. It could stop an ox. In this case, it would stop the Singer from using what made her unique against them. That she stayed willingly with the kiss of drinkers was worrisome. Very worrisome. She was unmated. Joseph knew that. Her smell told him. They moved toward the group stealthily. They were sure and confident—ready for combat. * Julia Julia was nervous. She was usually anxious now. Gone was the easygoing nonchalance of her former life. Knowing what she was had stripped her of that. Not knowing what her future held, or knowing the expectation others had for her future had cloaked her as surely as the warm puffy coats of her Alaskan existence before. William watched her pace, her unease a contagious thing. Finally, he could bear it no more. “What is it? What is troubling you?” His arms were crossed, his face in shadows as he leaned against the wall in her chamber. She took in his form—his athletic build accentuated by the casual attire and his tight black T-shirt stretched across a broadly muscled chest. Black sweatpants hugged hips and legs that were finely honed by exercise and the perfection of what he was. Julia stopped. She felt the pull there between them like a rope of warm taffy, always taut, never breaking. She felt dumb explaining it. “I know that the exercise is good.” His expression encouraged her, and she realized she was starting to care a little for William. She didn't know how she felt about it, but after almost eighteen months, he and Claire were really all the contact she had. She went on, stumbling over the next part. “Before the thing… happened.” Julia flicked her eyes to his. He would know what she meant. He waited in pregnant silence. She swallowed. “I felt a sense of…” He arched his eyebrows. “Foreboding?” She nodded, relieved he understood. “Yes.” He straightened. “You sense that now?” She nodded again. The foreboding was a vibration in her body, humming in an ominous way she hated. And the headaches were back. Turning, she walked closer to him voluntarily for the first time. * William William watched her move, a graceful, slow-burning flame with eyes and hair a liquid gold that ignited a torch within his soul. He stuffed his emotions deep inside, giving her his pleasantly neutral face. It was something that was now a daily challenge. Before, it had been made easier by her indifference. He did not feel that from her right now, in this moment. Julia came very close to him. Reaching out, she placed a small hand on his arm, and he stifled the gasp that tore from inside him as their flesh connected. Her eyes moved to his. “I'm not afraid of you anymore. I don't know how I feel, but I know you'd protect me.” It took every ounce of willpower not to touch her back—caress the face he had caressed mentally a thousand times before. How badly he wished to do it with his hands. Instead, he forced them against his side, remaining unmoved. “Today, I'm afraid. Even this near, this protected. I don't want to be with the Were.” Julia knew however bad this new life was, that the alternative with them would be worse. William stiffened. “We would never allow that. They have tried for you twice, and failed. They would never succeed.” She shook her head, the ginger of her hair sliding over shoulders encased in the smooth nylon material of her exercise gear. He watched the silken strands and wanted to run his fingers through them. The low light of the skylight made it glow a soft red. William suddenly wished he could see it in the sun. He imagined it would be quite red. “They may succeed,” she said. He looked down at her as she looked up at him. “No,” he said fiercely, his emotion overwhelming his sense. He wrapped both his hands around her forearms. “It cannot be precognitive. If that were so, they would have tried for you months ago, when you were more vulnerable.” William felt her watching him, and it took every bit of willpower to hold himself back. His nerve endings were on fire. * Julia stared at him. He didn’t believe her. She'd be given her nightly exercise, regardless of her misgivings. Maybe she had a case of nerves. Maybe her unbearable loneliness was in the way. She felt the heat from her body emanating toward his. Still, that small space separated them. She noticed his hands encasing her arms, and suddenly her eyes were on his lips. Julia's mind trembled at the possibility. Her emotions and intellect warred in a heated battle. Julia felt him holding back, waiting for her to act. She would have to decide if she wanted him. William would not make that decision for her. Julia felt her emotions—her guilt over Jason, his death, their unconsummated marriage—unraveling. Missing him felt like misery in the pit of her stomach. She knew that what she was beginning to feel for William was wrong. But she could only go on so long with the constant loneliness. William was right: he had proven himself. She was the one who needed to move on. Her decision made, Julia stood on tiptoe. Using lips that hadn't kissed in almost two years, she brushed a featherweight's press over the softness of his mouth. Julia's eyes were closed, one hand on his chest for balance. She didn't feel his response, and her skin flushed with embarrassment. She began to draw away. Then she felt his hands move off her arms and snap around her body, jerking her against him. His mouth moved over hers with a barely contained hunger, eating at it until she opened it for him. He lifted his mouth just long enough to say, “I will always protect you, Julia.” “I know—” she began, but his mouth came down on hers again, and she twined her arms around his neck. The heat that moved between their embrace felt overwhelmingly natural. Too natural. Julia pulled away just as there was a knock on the door, and William's arms released her reluctantly. She watched William’s face. He followed the progress of her hand as it touched her mouth, swollen from his kiss—bruised from his affection. Guilt assailed her. “Come in,” she said, relieved for the interruption. Pierce entered the room. “It's time.” He looked from William to Julia. The broken tension lay dangerously all around them like shards of glass. * William William was angry at the knocking. The sweet scent of Julia filled his nose and his senses wailed to take her, to make her his. Their first contact was more overwhelming than even he could have imagined. That she initiated it, that their blood share was all but washed away, made it all the sweeter. He looked upon her as she pulled away, guilt and desire mixed up in her features. He had a pang of regret then shoved it away. He had not taken what she'd loved away from her. It was the Were that had stolen her husband's life. In their haste to acquire her, they'd killed a Singer unnecessarily. It had been a long time, almost two years of patience and frustration. If he could finally be joined with her, if she would possibly be open to a courtship, he would not dissuade her. And his competitors were fewer. Actually, the horrible attack of Julia had tightened things up considerably in the coven. He glanced at Pierce, coming to his senses as if emerging from a fog. He shook off the lethargy of his desire with difficulty. Gabriel wished for Julia to exercise, to be away from the coven. Even William had to admit that she was progressing better with the exercise. But her words of disquiet were troubling. William did not make assumptions. He wished to be as confident as possible, but to discount a Rare One was not prudent. William considered himself pragmatic—and ruthless. Always ruthless. He turned to Pierce. “Let us take an additional five runners.” Pierce's brows came together. William answered his unspoken question. “Their presence will ease Julia.” He turned and smiled at her. She gave him one of her rare genuine smiles. He loved seeing it on her face and smiled back. * Julia looked at William and was instantly relieved. He had not discounted her warning. He was more than a protector now. She wasn't sure what he was becoming, but in that moment, a small space in her heart softened and a fissure formed, allowing William in. CHAPTER TWENTY Run Julia wiped sweat off her brow, running with a thousand vampires at her side—or at least, that was what it felt like. She'd told William that the Were were sniffing around, and so far, they had seen nothing. Julia was feeling foolish. She decided to tell him so. She knew that they didn't need fifteen anymore. Five was probably enough. He smiled and kissed her forehead casually, calling off the vampires for the following evening's run. Her sense of impending doom lessened. It had been a full week since she'd mentioned her uneasy feelings to William. It was so similar to what she'd felt before Terrell went madder than a March hare—as Aunt Lily would have said—that she'd felt compelled to speak. Now, she just felt like a dumbass, getting the vampires wound up because she had an emotional hiccup. Julia needed to be stronger. She smiled at William. Julia thought there would be a ton of awkwardness between them, but he'd been solicitous, touching her subtly day by day. A slow bridge of small intimacies—one on top of the other— was building. She came to find herself looking forward to the subtle touches and glances, anticipating them. If anyone had told her that she was going to be crushing on a vampire two years ago, she would have written the letter to have that person committed. Yet there she was. She hadn't forgotten Jason, but the pain was less acute. Julia was also not certain of her path. She knew in her mind that Jason was gone, and that this weird new life, however much she hadn't wanted it, was what she had now. Julia realized she needed to move on. A vision of Jason's face, once so clear, had turned fuzzy at the edges. She felt herself all at once profoundly sad again. It was not just losing him in reality but also the memory of him slipping away day by day that tore at her heart. * William stood, watching the myriad of emotions play over her face. Having made a study of humanity in the past two hundred years, he knew some of what the issues she was reconciling herself to. Damn the Were, William thought for the hundredth time. She would have been separated from her husband regardless. However, his death had marked her. Even now, she struggled. “Julia.” William looked at her, the sadness clinging to her like greedy fingers and thought that she looked so fragile and small standing there. The hopes of his race depended on a young woman barely more than a girl. Julia swung her face to Pierce and the other three and nodded. She was ready. She focused her considerable will on the moment, not on the past. * They were deep into the run, her body singing in muscular tension and heat. The vamps were barely on a jog. Julia felt as though she was practically sprinting. They climbed the steep hills of the city as if they were the Swiss Alps. An occasional car sputtered by, the gears grinding together in the ascent. When they reached the area of the famous Nordstrom's, they stopped, the loneliest part of the night embracing them as they stood in a loose group. William grabbed the water bottle from a small backpack that hung between his shoulder blades. He handed it to Julia, and she gulped a few swigs, admiring the building. Cyn would have died ten deaths to go shopping there. Julia's melancholy stole its way inside her again. Her face tilted to take in the vertical sign. It was completely black except for the letters in ivory. She noticed it was lit from the sides, the characters softly illuminated. Julia grappled for a life that was no more until Williams interrupted her thoughts. “Let us go back.” She nodded and was struck dumb with a pain so acute, so widespread that she gasped and fell to her knees. The five vampires took their eyes from their posts to assist her. As Julia lay sideways on the concrete sidewalk, the sign poised above her head like a guillotine, she saw the Were slide out from the dark corners the city provided. There were many. Julia whispered through her pain, which she now recognized as an alarm come too late, “Werewolves…” * Joseph and Tony watched, alongside the remaining nine Were, as the small group of vampires allowed Julia Caldwell to rest. Six long days they had waited for the vampiresʼ complacency to reestablish itself—for their perfect moment of opportunity. Finally, it had come. Joseph took in the sight of her. Her golden hair was swept back in a ponytail, and the navy athletic gear looked black to his wolf vision but was so soft a color in the darkness he knew it was blue. Watching her drink water, he felt her awareness of him before she did. “She will know we are here soon. Be ready.” He gave Tony a significant glance, and Tony raised the dart gun in acknowledgment. “I'm not gonna fuck this up. I told you,” he said in a growl. Joseph turned his snout to Tony, and their golden eyes locked on each other. “See that you don't. We won't get another opportunity like this one.” Their eyes held for two heartbeats more until Tony broke the stare, his status in the group firmly set. Not Alpha. Joseph swept his eyes among the other Were soldiers, and they gave him the subtle eye contact he required. The affirmation that let him know they were ready to battle the vampires. On his scent command, they released their bodies from the shadows and stepped out into the open. * William knelt beside Julia, stifling his rising panic. The first thing that flooded his mind was her warning, nary a week old, in which she had told him of her unease. He had listened, acted. But now he saw the alarm on her face and realized that the Were had chosen their time, and it was now. William tenderly brushed the hair that had come undone away from Julia's temple. He stood and readied himself for what the Were would bring. The four who were with him spread and flanked his position. With a last glance at Julia, he stepped in front of her. The look blazing in her eyes scorched a path in his mental imagery and made his insides clench. Trust. Julia trusted him. As he gazed out and counted eleven of the enemy, he hoped that the sentiment was not misplaced. * Julia reclaimed tenuous control of her body and stood on shaky legs. She was fatigued by the run and numb with fear. She backed away from the vampires who were in front of her, and her eyes met the Were that stood beyond them. One in particular captured her attention: the rapist. Julia backed away until her butt collided with the travertine façade of the building. The night was as dark as they came, the streetlights illuminating the Were in patches then disappearing as the dark embraced them again. Julia didn't take her eyes off the one. He was the biggest, the most intense. She immediately understood that he wasn't the leader. Then she saw it. In his hand he held something—a gun. What? They were here to kill her? Julia was utterly confused. The two groups were not, however. As she held herself up against the wall they wordlessly charged each other, the Were making excited yips as their supple muscles flexed and bunched, readying to spring against the vampires. Julia thought she'd just slip away while they fought. She couldn't be taken by the Were—her mind shuddered at the possibility. She began to feel her way along the building's smooth contours, until her hand curved around the corner. She turned her face into an alley so dark she couldn't see where it ended or how high the sides were. She stepped into the darkness, the war behind her raging in a clash of supernatural strength and will. * William advanced on the leader, swiping with talons that sprung from his fingertips in a blur of motion faster than anything he had mastered before, the pulse of his feelings for Julia a thing that beat in his brain independently of his heart. The need to protect her was instinctive. He saw one of the runners fall in his peripheral vision, a gaping wound in his body. Still, he would heal, William thought as he leaned away from a strike and simultaneously punched a hole of his own in the chest of the nearest Were. Fear gripped him. Julia was no longer a warm presence at his back. At the same time, he saw one of the largest of the dogs break from the group and lope off to the side, a spider gait with fur, pursuing something—or someone. William turned in the direction of the lone Were just as Joseph used his half-wolf paws in a swinging arc, bringing them down across William's back, knocking him forward into a rough patch of cobblestone, revealed by damaged asphalt. William’s hands bit into the unforgiving street as two more of the Were assailed him. They pummeled him into submission. Before he lost consciousness, he tore the head from the neck of one, and warm blood sprayed his face. He gulped without thinking, the grievous wounds inflicted by the Were repairing as he drank the arterial spray of the enemy. His death repairing the worst of William’s injuries, a cycle of rejuvenation that was as old as time. * Joseph saw the vampire leader take the head off his third and howled. Before Joseph could kill the vampire covered in blood at his feet, his second growled, “Tony.” It was enough. Joseph shot away from the vampire, his soldiers tearing the other vampire limb from limb, and humanity slumbered. While humans slept peacefully, the battle ran in the city street, painting it with inky blood. * Julia ran alongside the wall, more tired than when she'd been running for exercise. The terror at the possibility of being taken poured an adrenaline nightmare into her body, making her extremities numb with it. She clipped her ankle on a pallet that was standing upright before she could see it and yelped softly. She heard a noise behind her, the softest scrape, and put on a burst of speed, her hand leaving the wall. Julia sprinted, the heat and lack of air in her lungs whistling a tune as she tore forward. Up ahead, she could see a tall fence. Without a backward glance or thought, she grabbed onto the smooth, circular metal fencing and jumped the first row, digging her shoe into the hole and climbing. Julia didn't hesitate when the first piercing sting of something in her shoulder twanged and bounced. When the second bit her in her upper thigh as she climbed, tears began to run down her face, the fence design in sharp contrast to the streetlamps beyond. The holes from the fence made shapes on her face, circles of light spearing her as she climbed. She realized with soft horror that she had begun to climb more slowly. Julia told her hands to grip the cold metal. Her foot missed the next hole and slipped. The tears came harder, dripping off her jaw and falling to the ground before her. She stopped seven feet above the ground with three more yet to finish. The razor wire at the top formed a spiral of hopelessness she couldn't overcome. Julia's vision began to dim, the grayness of the night encroaching on her. She clung to the fence, her body no longer climbing. Pressing herself against it, she hung on for all she was worth. As her legs folded beneath her, and her fingertips slipped away, she fell in a graceful arc to the concrete below—to her death, she knew. Julia didn't react when she heard the excited yelps and yips of the Were beneath her. Jason was dead. William was gone. She was in the same position she had been when she'd started: sole protector of herself. Julia didn't land on the unforgiving concrete below but in a steel cocoon lined with fur and muscle. She looked up into eyes that shone like liquid gold. Her vision dimmed as she threw up her arm to defend herself in the last way she could before she faded into drug-induced oblivion. * Joseph had stared at Julia during the moment of wakefulness she'd had before she sank into the sleep of the drugged. His stony heart had squeezed in response to her weak attempt to defend herself against him. Did she not know that she could not and that there was no need? Joseph gave the signal to move out of the area even as he tightened his hold on the Rare One. They needed to exit. The blood drinkers would come en masse when the others didn't return with the Singer. Their margin for error this night was slim to none. He ran, the burden of the girl negligible. Tony ran beside him, managing to carry out the task without a hitch—perhaps a first. As they passed where they'd warred, Joseph saw the ash and blood lifting in the wind as a light rain began to fall, cleansing the proof of their battle. One troubling thing remained: a single vampire lay undisturbed, covered in his werebrother's blood. Joseph faltered, debating on whether or not to return and finish him. His experience whispered at the possibility that this one would be a problem in the future. Then he looked down at the sleeping girl in his arms. He clutched her tighter. Better to fight the devil that you know rather than the one you do not. He renewed his fast gait, smoothly leaving the city behind for the mountains beyond. They would address that worry if and when it came. For now, the Rare One would become part of the pack. The den would be balanced once again. Joseph would have smiled as a human. As a Were in his half-wolf form, he lifted his partial snout to the sky and howled a baleful note. It resonated in the city as they left the buildings of concrete behind, the other Were a symphony in chorus with him. They ran to the den—to freedom from their warden, the moon. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Underground Seattle William’s abused body struggled to heal even as he debriefed Gabriel and Claire. Their eyes and bodies were dread-filled. But not as much as he was. William was so full of self-recrimination he could hardly breathe. A thousand what-ifs swirled in his mind—not the least of which was the elaborate plan the Were had executed. The instant he had stood down and allowed fewer runners for the daily exercise, the Were had pounced. As it was, when the runners had been sent to find the ones who hadn't returned, only William had been left. Four runners were dead. Only two of the Were had been killed. They had woefully underestimated the cunning of the Were. They thought them without the intelligence for strategy. They had been quite wrong. And now, because of assumptions, the Were had Julia. William had needed the blood of three humans to help him recuperate. Even with that much, a gorge-worthy amount, William was still not at his peak. Gabriel paced in front of him, wearing a frenetic path in the floor of William's chamber. “It does no good at this point to place blame. It is I who wished for Julia's exercise, for some semblance of normalcy.” Claire placed a hand on his shoulder, and he stopped. “None of us could have known this would occur,” she said. She pleaded with him to see reason, to not blame himself. Easier said than done. “Julia knew,” William said quietly. “She knew what was about. But she was so young in her ability, so new to trust…” He let that last trail off. It was her newfound trust that cut deepest for William. They'd had a mere week of moving toward the end that he had envisioned all along. And now she faced a situation that was not ordered, but rather, unprotected and unfit. The Rare One would be treated without regard, her abilities and genetic makeup used as a tool to further the dogs. Of course, she had originally seen the vampires in a similar light. Not that William blamed her—yet. He had never been forthright enough about his feelings for her. He had thought it too soon to regale her with his regard. He'd only hinted at it. Now he wished he had been more bold. He startled Gabriel and Claire as he punched one fist into his open palm in anger, sitting up from his hunched position in the seat of his room. Nausea and dizziness swirled around him, but he hung on. He would not succumb. He would keep his focus on the rescue of the Singer. Julia. His future bride. * Julia Julia woke up slowly, feeling as though she'd been run in the washing machine on the spin cycle. Like, a hundred times. She sat up, and her head spun and throbbing pain latched into her temples immediately. Julia felt like hell, her mouth a sandpaper legacy with a chaser of dragon breath. God, yuk. She slowly opened her eyes, taking in her surroundings. She was so disoriented she forgot where she was for those few seconds, the pain of her head and acute thirst the distractions that called her attention. That didn't last long. The thing that greeted her as the memories of yesterday crashed into her consciousness like a train without a brake was a large pane of glass. A forest beyond stretched without end. Huge Western Red Cedars stretched as far as the eye could see, filling her vision, the sweep of their emerald-green branches caressing the ground with an unseen wind that lifted and moved them in a soundless dance. Julia looked down at her body. The tracksuit was gone. Instead, she wore a camisole and pajama bottoms. In one of the most surreal moments of her life, she noticed that there were sparkly unicorns covering the material in the palest blue and silver. Huh. She was being held by werewolves who had dressed her in unicorn pajamas. A single tear escaped her eye and made a pathway down her face. The weirdness of her life was making her so claustrophobic she wanted to go back to sleep and never wake up. A knock came at the door, and Julia ripped the sheet from the bed up to her chin, turning to face the door at the same time. A girl came through the entrance, maybe about her age but oh, so different. She wasn't human. How did Julia know? It had to be those spinning golden eyes, their slow rotations screaming other—or otherworldly. Julia just stared. It was rude, but at this point it didn't matter. She was tired. She ached so badly that she felt as if she'd been beaten. She waited quietly. “Hey,” the girl said. Julia sat there, saying nothing. The girl fumed and finally sighed. “Listen, I know my brother put the he-man moves on you. I tried to tell them it was the wrong way to do it.” She flung up her hands and started pacing the room. “He's such a pain in the ass! Alpha this, Alpha that. Well, eff that.” She spun on her heel and faced Julia. Julia leaned away. She waved her hand in front of Julia. “You don't need to worry about me.” She plunged her hand against her chest earnestly. Right, Julia thought, doing an internal eye roll. That's what all the supernaturals said. Not worrying had worked out so well in the past. The girl shoved her hand out for Julia to shake. “My name's Adriana. I already know who you are, of course,” she said rolling her eyes. Julia put a tentative hand out to shake, and Adriana pumped it vigorously. “This is awesome. Finally, they will quit talking about battles, acquisitions, and all that happy horseshit. I'm so completely sick of all their chest-beating bullshit I could puke.” Julia did a slow blink, gradually taking back her hand. She thought Cyn might have been reincarnated in Adriana. Or they were secret cousins or something. She didn't think Adriana had a filter. No, Adriana didn't have any internal alarm that pinged when she'd said to much or was about to. And… Julia was certain that Cyn hadn't been a werewolf. Julia ignored all the really important questions, and gulping, she asked, “Are these”—she lifted some of the loose pajama material in her hand and met Adriana's eyes, which were brown for the moment—“yours?” Adriana nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. You were in some hot-ass jogging getup, so I thought you should be in something more comfortable after being nailed with the juice.” “The juice?” “Yeah, that crap they stuck you with that makes you conk out.” She looked at Julia, waiting for comprehension to dawn. Then she frowned and went on. “Here's the deal. They pegged you with the mega-tranquilizers to get you away from the vamps, right?” Julia nodded, slightly dazed at the force that was Adriana. “So, now you've got a colossal headache, and you're so thirsty you could die, right?” “Yes,” Julia nodded, her thirst roaring back to life at the mention of it. “You can borrow those as long as you want, and I've got water.” From behind her back, she brought a water bottle. She gave it to Julia, who uncapped it and started to chug it down. “Whoa, pony. No gulping. My brother'll have my ass if you start doing the psychedelic yawn all over the place.” Julia gave her wide eyes. Adriana chuckled and began mimicking what must have been her brother. “I need you to be as disarming as possible, Adriana. Do not do your normal”—she mimed choking herself and went on in his presumed voice—“energetic behavior. The Rare One needs time to transition.” She whipped her palm around dismissively. “Blah, effing blah. You'll be fine, right?” Was there another option? Adriana stared at Julia, taking in her attire, the wild hair, God knew what else. “Huh. Well, let's get you cleaned up. You look like ass.” But tell me how you really feel. Julia followed Adriana as she pushed open the adjacent bathroom door. Definitely like Cyn. * Were Lawrence, Tony, and Joseph were in a heated debate. As usual, Tony was the one questioning each decision. “I took the Rare One down. She was escaping!” Tony said, his teeth bared in his human form, the wolf peeking out around the edges. Well, goddamn—bring it, Joseph thought as the muscles of his neck and shoulders corded and bunched in response to the subtle posturing. “Enough!” Lawrence roared. The Packmaster's face was etched with grim lines of fury He glared at the Alpha and his first as minutes passed. The moment swelled awkwardly, a palpable pressure building until it was on the verge of bursting. The Packmaster broke it. “Save it for the ritual. That is the time to fight for the Rare One. Right now”—he swung his direct look to Joseph, tense with the fighting instinct—“your sister is with Julia Caldwell?” Joseph gave a terse nod, thinking of all that could mean. His sister was… willful. Tony grunted. They looked at him, and he threw his muscular arms up in the air. “She is not the best at being welcoming. She is the most Alpha of all the females.” He had a look on his face as though to say, Clearly, she is the least mild choice. “But she is female. That is what the Singer needs—reassurances. Another female will bring her a measure of comfort,” Lawrence said. Joseph winced. He wasn't sure if Maggie wouldn't have been a better choice. Too late now. Adriana had roared in there like a flaming inferno, singeing everything in her path. He shook his head. Lawrence shrugged, looking at the two men. “She will not intimidate. That is what the goal is here.” “She will still hold us responsible because of the dead Singer,” Tony clarified. Lawrence palmed his chin, thinking. “She may hold us to blame, even if our soldier had not attacked her mate. But much time has passed. Perhaps her love for him fades.” He shrugged. “It does not matter. She is here now, she has not been claimed by the vampire.” Tony and Joseph exhaled sighs of relief. That would have been an unbreakable bond, her relationship with a vampire negating her abilities to assist them. It had been a near thing. The entire pack knew it. Lawrence looked from one to the other of them. “She has one month. Even now I smell her readiness—her becoming.” They nodded. Her presence was at once exciting and unbearable. Lawrence didn't know what it had been like for the blood drinkers, but she was a heady thing amongst the pack. “Yes, Packmaster,” Joseph said, and Tony chorused the goodbye simultaneously. They walked away together, their shoulders touching. Soon, it would be fists in the ring, a fight between them and others bringing the den closer to the reality of a moonless tide. A lone howl broke the stillness of the woods where the den thrived. Joseph and Tony gave a wary look in the direction of the call. Then they turned away, neither commenting on the sound or its origin. It was the call of the feral. * William A handful of days had gone by, and William felt himself again, sparring with some of the other runners. The ones lost in the battle with the Were created a void in the ranks that would not be easily filled. Especially Pierce. He had been a true warrior, responsible for the deaths of two during the siege that ripped Julia from their hands. William lunged forward, his hands meeting in a destructive vee aimed at the vampire runner who grappled with him. He was met with impervious resistance as their arms collided like flesh-encased steel, the smack of the hit resounding in the acoustics of the underground space. The brick and mortar of the cavernous accommodations echoed hollowly. Vampires normally took one breath to a human's four, but that was not the case when fighting. Both runnersʼ actions and speed created a blur of muted color as they swung at each other underneath the ambient glow of the skylights that acted as a fractured ceiling of light. The humans that walked the surface lived unaware of the predators that fought below. “Again!” William shouted as the runner tried to beg off another round. William lost his temper, grabbing his comrade around the throat and jerking him against him, his fists like clamps of unbreakable titanium, buried in the folds of the shirt he wore, tearing it as he pulled. Suddenly, Gabriel was there, and William straightened. He turned to the runner. “Go.” The runner left. Gabriel looked at William, whose chest was heaving, his fists clenched like battle-ready hammers. “Enough. Beating your fellow runners into the ground will not return her to you.” He began pacing, the shadowed feet of the humans above them throwing speckles of darkness over his face as he moved. * Gabriel stared at William, half in shadow. He glanced upward at the skylight where the humans walked all day, and sighed. He knew what the loss of Julia meant to the kiss. He could not imagine what the loss meant when love was twisted inside it. “I understand the loss of Julia may be more—” “You do not,” William said in a hiss, his hand planted on his hips, his breathing finally settling into the normal rhythms of his kind. “You cannot. I waited for her. I was patient,” he seethed. “And now this!” William threw up his hand. “She is with the dogs now. Being subjected to…” William’s expression was thunder contained. Gabriel strode to William until their chests almost touched. “We will reclaim her.” “When?” William asked, his brows falling heavily over his eyes. “Before the moon comes full again.” They both understood the significance of the moon's cycle. The dogs would try for her, the ritual coming full circle. There would be no choice for Julia in their world. The Alpha—whichever wolf killed the other—would be her mate. It was their way. Uncivilized mongrels. * The Feral The meat appeared again like clockwork, his tortured mind dismissing its grief for the greater need of sustenance. He leaped forward just as the arm retracted through the hole—the only source of light and air in the place where they kept him. He growled low in his throat. Talons leapt free of his fingertips, and he plunged them into the prey that squirmed on the end of the knife-like tips, which were as sharp as finely honed razors. He cut its throat with his dominant left hand and caught the lifeblood as it sprayed from the death slice. When the creature's life hung from a string, he sliced the body open, neck to crotch. The steaming entrails became his next feast. He fed. Satisfied, he flung the corpse in the pile in the corner of the metal room. The food settled and began to work its magic on his body, his senses springing to life, his sense of smell the most keen of all. A dim memory was upon him, and he felt compelled to move. He did, as dropping to the ground, he reversed his wolf into his human form again. His hands bit the ground, and he allowed his body to assume a plank-like position. He raised and lowered himself until he lost count, and the rivulets of sweat ran off his face and pooled beneath him. * When the female returned to collect his dead meals, their eyes met, and she looked away. He was above her. Even he understood that. She was behind a partition that was made of a clear substance. His mind knew from somewhere before that it was called acrylic. It was two feet thick. Even he couldn't overcome its strength. He was very strong now. He smelled the fear on the female through the holes that were drilled like Swiss cheese in the clear wall. When he lifted his nose to scent her, he caught another scent, very faint. It caused the wolf that rippled underneath his human flesh to roar to the surface in a grinding purge that blew his body apart, skin and tendons tearing in a sickeningly painful mesh of wolf and human flesh. His half form emerged, seven feet tall and covered with a deep wine-colored coat of fur. In the light of day, it would have looked like the sun had set on his back. He howled. The scent of the female was one he knew. He despaired. He rushed the partition, his talons scraping the acrylic where deep grooves appeared like quartz scars on its surface. The female backed away. Soon, she would run outside the door and close the bolt that barred entry—and escape. The werewolf howled and bayed until his voice box no longer cooperated. The female covered her ears and ran away, hot tears beating a burning trail down a face that held but one expression: shame. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Julia undressed and stepped into the shower, the hot spray hitting her body, the aches lessened but the headache remaining. There was absolutely no peace as Adriana kept talking while she bathed. Thank God for opaque glass. “You're probably wondering why I can't be somewhere else while you're de-scuzzing.” Actually, Julia totally was wondering that. “Gotta keep an eye on you. The boys are all frothing at the mouth about you escaping. Like that's even remotely possible. Duh.” Julia could feel Adriana rolling her eyes. Julia rinsed her hair and body, eyeing the razor. She'd have loved to do a full groom. Now wasn't the time, though. How could she even give a crap about shaving when a pack of werewolves were sniffing around? Julia guessed that she was getting used to her strange life. It made her want to cry again. Just as she thought she might lose it, a skinny arm stuck a towel through the shower curtain. “For your hair,” Adriana said. Hmmm. Julia wrapped her head in the towel and stepped out, naked. Adriana tossed a second towel into her hand, walked to the vanity, and busied herself with getting the necessities out: toothbrush, paste, floss, comb. Julia patted dry and wrapped herself in a towel that had been washed with the same detergent Aunt Lily used. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from crying again, the taste of copper filling her mouth. She widened her eyes to keep the tears from falling. Adriana turned with a grin. It dropped like a sack of stones when she saw Julia's expression. “You're not gonna start bawling or something? Like, right now? Because I'm not equipped for female sniveling.” That stopped Julia's tears and made her grin despite herself. “Good. You had me worried.” Julia said, “You don't seem very…” “Werewolfy?” Adriana asked with a sarcastic lilt to her voice. Julia nodded. “Yeah, that.” “Well, what did you expect anyway? All shaggy mutts howling at the moon or some shit like that?” Her hand held her hip and eyebrows rose to her hairline. She was ready to fight. She is hell on wheels. “I didn't know. I just woke up.” She shrugged. It was impossible to explain. Adriana smiled. “It's okay. You'll get used to me. It's the boys you'll have to keep an eye on. You're like their bitch in heat.” So subtle, too. Hell. Adriana saw her expression. “Nah, it's not that bad. Can't you feel her?” “Feel who?” “The moon, silly. She's not full. You're safe till then.” Her eyes became warm, the brown fading to a molten chocolate, and Julia saw the wolf underneath her human flesh. It was disconcerting as hell. Julia knew she shouldn't ask. She did anyway. “Ah, what happens then?” “Nothing special. My brother and a bunch of other wolves will fight to the death to mate with you.” Julia's hand flung out and grabbed the vanity to steady her sudden vertigo. The other hand clamped onto the knotted towel at her breast. “Are you okay?” No. I am definitely not okay. She started a slow stagger that led to falling. The wisp of a werewolf caught her and looked down on her with a flicker of compassion. Just as Julia was sucked into unconsciousness, she heard Adriana say, “We're gonna have to toughen you up.” Julia's eyes fluttered closed, and she slept dreamlessly and deep. * Were They looked down at Julia as she slept. New jammie bottoms had replaced the others, which were dirty. “How'd she do?” Joseph asked his sister, resisting the urge to tuck her dark-blonde hair behind her ear the way he'd done when she was a whelpling. She wouldn't appreciate it. He smiled at his reflection. Adriana looked up at him and scowled. “Obviously, great! She fainted when I glossed over the mating ritual.” “Glossed over?” Tony asked. She waved her hand around. “I just mentioned, yʼknow, you guys were gonna fight to the death over her and she'd be with one of ya. No. Big. Deal.” Adriana put her hands on her hips, daring them to contradict her logic. Tony's mouth opened and closed and Joseph put his a palm on his forehead and scrubbed his face. “What?” she all but shrieked. Julia turned, moaning in her sleep. “See! She's gonna be fine. Better to have radical honesty, guys. You should try it sometime. Works like a charm with the chicks.” “Yeah, I see that!” Tony said, clearly pissed. Joseph knew it had been a mistake to have his sister be the first one who greeted the Rare One. * Julia opened her eyes and saw two men standing over her bed. She scuttled into the corner where the wall met one side of the headboard. She clutched the sheet and hoped for some handy telekinesis. And why the hell hadn't that come when she needed it last night as the tranquilizer darts flew? She winced where she'd bitten the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. No worry over tears right anymore. She was pissed instead. “Who are you?” Julia ground out, her voice hoarse, her body tensed. Adriana grinned. “See? She's just fine. You jackasses got off on the wrong footing, and now you're gonna have to romance her,” Adriana finished, supremely satisfied with herself. Julia and the two werewolves glared at Adriana from separate corners. “Fine!” she fumed. “You guys can figure it out on your own. Good luck with that!” Adriana took a look at Julia, shook her head, and marched out the door, slamming it off its hinges on the way out. The one who seemed to be in charge, who looked a little like Adriana, cringed when the wood slapped together with a resounding thwack. “That, ah…” he began. “Nice family,” Julia said. The larger werewolf laughed. Julia looked at him, and his smile faded. She was acutely aware of being in a bedroom, wearing nothing but a cami and jammie bottoms, with two men she knew to be werewolves. She pulled the sheet up higher, clutching it underneath her chin. The first man—probably Adriana's brother—watched when she moved into the corner defensively. He seemed distressed about it. “Julia,” he started and then abruptly stopped. “Let's get some food.” “Yeah, okay. Just as soon as you gents get out of this room and let me get dressed.” Her eyes searched theirs, the one that hadn't said much giving her pause. He was a big guy even without being a werewolf. Julia was guessing he had a foot and over a hundred pounds on her. There was something in his eyes—the predator never really left them, she decided. She was going to keep him—all of them—in her sights, for sure. They left the room, and Julia ran over to the door and slid the bolt to lock it. Like that's going to be any help. She took her hand away. It had a slight tremor. Julia spied some clothes on a lone chair in the corner and pulled the drape as she passed in front of the window, shutting the forest from sight. Her head snapped up a few seconds later when a plaintive howl sounded. It pierced her gut. There was something so sad about it. Tears actually flooded her eyes at the mournful call. What was wrong with her? She shook it off with difficulty. Julia dressed. She moved toward the door and put the flat of her palm against the wood, calming her wildly beating heart. She pressed her forehead to the wood for a moment, closing her eyes tight, her mind touching on William and just as quickly shoving the thought away. He couldn't help her now. She slid the bolt back, opened the door, and walked out of the sanctuary into the unknown. * He knew the routine and would bide his time. They assumed that he was crazy. They were right. But he was also determined. He had something worth escaping for. He now knew so much more than he had, the memories of others a part of the fabric of who he was now, centuries of genetic thought processes and experiences crowding his skull. They kept him in this holding cell to study him. They fed him, allowed him to kill, and forced him to exercise and maintain a standard of hygiene. Not that he cared. He had died that night. Now he waited to be reborn. The feral watched the lock turn, and three of his kind came inside. They came in greater numbers than before, since he had taken the head of one of them. “Time for your bath, feral,” the larger of the three said without compassion. That would be the first of them he would kill, he thought with satisfaction. His patience had become its own force to be reckoned with. Soon, they would taste it. He repressed a low growl, some of it escaping like a breeze in the quiet room. * Joseph looked at the feral warily, his eyes flicking to Tony's. “It's not helpful to call him Ê»feral,ʼ and you know it. He can't help what he is any more than you can. Now, let's herd him in there and get it over with. And be careful.” Joseph eyed the wolf in front of them. While big in human form, he was huge as a wolf and was one of the rare reds. It was a shame that he couldn't be part of the pack. But he'd been turned, not born. That branded him other in the pack's eyes. He had all the benefits of the Were but without the protection of the den at his back. He was an anomaly—and feral. His mind was nearly gone. Who could blame him? Tony snorted a laugh. “He is not Alpha to me!” He rolled his big shoulders in a muscular shrug of irritation that would have been impressive, but next to the huge red wolf, it just wasn't. “Are you sure?” Tony looked at the rare red Were that stood in front of him, spinning emerald eyes laying an unspoken challenge at his feet. He thought he was Alpha enough, those eyes said. Tony flicked a glance at his Alpha. He wasn't sure, but he sure wanted to test the theory—sooner rather than later. Instead, Tony threw a palm out at the large walk-in shower meant to accommodate all things not human. The feral allowed his shape to melt into human form again with so seamless a transition that Joseph sighed. He and Tony looked at the feral with envy. The moon did not rule his Change—only theirs. * Julia Julia let her legs swing back and forth as she pushed scrambled eggs around on a plate with big blue flowers on it. The cook, or mom-of-everyone, started to chatter again but Julia was only half-listening. “Eat up now, hun. Keep your strength up!” She busied herself, wiping her practical hands—toughened by a thousand meals cooked and ten thousand dishes cleaned—off on her apron. She plopped her elbows on the breakfast bar opposite Julia. “Dontcha like what I made you?” Julia did like the food, but her appetite wasn't top-notch—not by a long shot. Let's recap, Julia thought. Husband killed almost two years ago. Best friend gone. Taken by crazy vampires because I'm some kind of genetic prodigy. Check. Then kidnapped by crazier werewolves. Please eat and exchange pleasantries. Riggghhht. She was so into that. Not. But she made small talk anyway. “I do… like it. I'm just a little tired after the whole getting kidnapped thing. That'll make hunger…” She trailed off, and Maggie picked up the thread of her thoughts easily. “Unimportant?” Julia quirked her eyebrows. Maggie smiled. “Oh, right. Yeah, I guess.” Julia forced another bite in her mouth, everything tasting the same. Adriana stalked in and grabbed a couple of grapes from a fruit bowl, popping them inside her mouth. Chewing vigorously, she said, “Hey Maggie, what's for breakfast?” Maggie slapped her hand as she went for more fruit. “Good for you, but you need some protein in your craw. You know the routine.” Adriana glared at Maggie and she glared right back. Interesting dynamics with the werewolves, Julia thought, remembering how civilized everything was with the vampires. With the Were, everyone was passionate, yelling, and boisterous, hitting each other… different. Julia thought about it more. She had almost forgotten the bloodletting episode with the vampires. That hadn't been civilized. She repressed a shudder. Julia watched the girl and the older woman circle each other warily, and she resisted the urge to push away from the bar and get out of the way. “Sit your rear end down and stuff some breakfast down your pipe before the men come. They'll clean everything out, you know.” Adriana parked her butt next to Julia's, sullen. “Okay.” “Humph!” Maggie said, ladling a plate with twice as much as she'd given Julia and sliding it across to Adriana. She dug in with gusto. When half the plate of food was put away, Adriana caught Julia staring. “What?” she asked, shoveling in more food. “It's just… so much food…” Julia began, looking at her own barely eaten breakfast. She shrugged a slender shoulder. “Gotta fuel up. Eat more as the moon waxes.” Julia cocked a brow. “You know—” slurp, gulp, “—getting bigger?” She looked at Julia as if she were mildly retarded. “I understand what a waxing moon means,” Julia said, insulted despite herself. “Well, thank God. I was starting to really worry about you!” she said, giving Maggie a significant look. Maggie nodded back. What? She wondered if they thought she was dumb or something. Julia frowned as the two werewolves from before came into the kitchen. Julia did get up then. She backed up against the wall closest to the door she had used to enter the kitchen. Their eyes flicked to hers, and she did not miss the subtle flare of their nostrils. That was a creepiness factor of about one thousand. They were scenting her. Her eyes met Adriana's, and she smirked then added, as if Julia needed clarity, “Bitch in heat, baby, bitch in heat.” Nice. Julia flattened herself even harder against the wall. Adriana's brother glared, and Adriana blithely ignored him, gulping some more orange juice and stabbing a sausage that was impaled on the tines of her fork. While the one werewolf smoldered at Adriana, the other stared at Julia, his eyes boring into hers. She shifted uncomfortably underneath that gaze. His eyes weren't right. * Tony watched the Rare One with barely contained ownership. She'd have to bow to him. He would be Alpha to her. He didn't care what Lawrence said. Maybe he was Alpha enough to take him, but the Packmaster didn't get to play in the sandbox. Tony's lips curled in a predatory smile. The bitch Rare One would free him of his status in the pack. He would be able to change at will, the moon nothing to him. No pull, no more domination. He could taste the freedom that she'd provide. And all that bullshit about honoring Singers? That was for the old ways. It was going to be his way. Tony looked at her again and saw that she interpreted some of what he was thinking from the expression in his eyes. He hooded his gaze and looked away. Better not to let her in on my plan. As it was, Joseph was Alpha enough to understand what he wanted. Tony hated looking away from her first. He didn't want to give her the impression that her gaze was dominant to his. After all, she was a weak female. She was of rare blood, but female nonetheless. * Julia backed farther against the wall. The look the big Were gave her scared her. She saw Adriana catch the glance between the two and shoot her arm out in a sucker punch that landed expertly in Tony's solar plexus. He issued a satisfying grunt that caused his gaze to swing away in anger toward Adriana. * Tony felt the swing a moment too late, his gut unprepared. That bitch Adriana swung at him and landed a nice one in his breadbasket, stealing most of his breath. Embarrassment washed over him instantly, and before he knew what he was doing, he was after her—with his Alpha, who was also her brother, in the room. Tony saw red. A lesser wolf and a female had humiliated him in front of a potential mate of the most important order. Tony would crush her. * Julia responded without thinking, watching the wolf's huge hand ball into a fist as it rose above the mouthy Adriana. The power that was not harnessed correctly—without finesse, without will—came to the surface in a surge of brilliance, bursting inside her in a flash of interior light. Without thinking, Julia directed it at the large wolf. He spun where he stood, as though an invisible wood plank had been leveled at his raised fist, and swung hard, making brutal contact. He staggered against the breakfast bar and away from Adriana, his back slamming into the fridge, a storm of magnets clattering to the floor like hail. His eyes snapped up and met Julia's. She knew the remnants of what she'd done stood in the room between them. Hell, even she could feel an almost static energy zooming and ricocheting around them, pinging off the walls. “Holy shit! That rocked! You clocked Tony's ass!” Adriana said, jumping up and raising her fist into the air triumphantly. Adriana's brother was on Julia before she could move, sweeping her behind him as Tony fell in the spot where she'd been standing. Julia screamed, held against one Were while the other's jaws snapped around him to get at her. She saw Tony's face between the sliver of the other one's arm and the wall that he stood against. Tony had changed, the eyes luminescent and golden in a face that had elongated into a snout with silver fur and many teeth. He was like a crocodile—one that didn't crawl on the ground and was nearly seven feet tall. “She's shown defiance!” Tony roared, drool and spittle flying out of a mouth filled with teeth the size of her pinky finger. Adriana yipped behind him, and he whirled on her. She was pathetically small compared to Tony, all white with silver-tipped fur, her eyes an unnerving glacial color, gold blazing through them like lightning. “Adriana, no!” The other wolf went for his sister in protection even as he left Julia there in the doorway threshold—vulnerable and unprotected with a half Were's anger directed at her. * Tony turned and saw his opportunity to subdue this female—now, before she embraced ideas of superiority. Her fragility was attractive. He would not crush her, but she would feel the sting of his superiority. Oh, yes. He sprung from clawed feet that missed purchase on the tile floor of the kitchen, and as he slipped, he regained his balance at the last moment and leaped for her. * Julia saw that muzzle coming for her and couldn't get whatever telekinetic power she possessed to work. It was as though she was out of gas. She turned and ran. The wolf's hot breath on her neck, her fear tightened her bladder and made the food she'd just eaten rise in a tide of gorge. * He paced the cage they kept him in, and when his acute hearing detected raised shouts, he allowed his nose and facial alignments to shift to wolf. Only those. That was all he needed to gain an answer for what was happening outside the confines of this place. His nose became a snout, and many layers of scent came to him instantly. He pressed his new wolf snout against one of the many holes in the wall, and fear touched him. Female fear. He knew the flavor of it. He knew who was frightened. The wolf burst out of his human form, the force of his change spraying what he had been moments before around the room in a splattering gunk of flesh and bone. The blood mixed with the liquid that had facilitated the change landed against the clear wall and slipped down to pool at the ground. He howled a warning of such rage and power that the birds roosted in the trees in midday, avoiding whatever had made that sound by seeking refuge at the highest point of the forest. * Julia heard a howl of rage that made her steps falter just as clawed hands that were now half paws as big as her head wrapped her upper arms and jerked her back against a body that emanated an impossible heat. It blazed against her back as she struggled to get away. Then the other Were stood in front of her. Joseph, the brother of Adriana, she thought with random wildness. “Let her go!” Joseph growled out. * The need to mark the Rare One pounded a steady beat in Tony's head. He could hear nothing else. He knew the Alpha had spoken, but the fragrance of the Singer had sunk its talons into his soul, and the call of the wolf was on him. He couldn't shake it and began to tremble with his needs. They were many. He opened his jaws wide to take her throat into his mouth. She must submit. The pain was immediate. He felt something strike him in the back of his head, and his hands loosened on the Singer. Tony tried to take her to the ground with him, but as he fell sideways in slow motion, the Alpha grabbed her and pressed her against himself. * Adriana held the cast iron skillet in delicate hands that were half-wolf. With grace, Adriana had skipped up behind the werewolf twice her size, swung the pan above him as she jumped vertically, and landed the skillet soundly on the crown of his head. Tony began to slip, his hold coming away from the Rare One's arms, and Joseph grabbed her when she would have fallen with Tony to the floor. He pressed Julia to his chest and murmured the things people said to soothe when there wasn't a hope of it. * Julia met Adriana's wide eyes and thought maybe she'd bitten off more than she could chew. Hardy-har-har. She pressed her eyes shut, smelling the male aroma of the wolf:; pine, earth, and the faint smell of cinnamon. But it was the haunting shout of another wolf that echoed in her mind, the sound of it still following her thoughts. Somehow, he had interfered with Tony hurting her. It had sounded so sure—like a warning. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Adriana pointed to a semi-conscious Tony. “Bull's-eye!” Julia looked at her, amazed, and Adriana laughed. “He gets kinda enthusiastic and needs a slow down.” Yeah, a cast iron skillet would do it. Joseph slowly released Julia and turned her to face him. She was immediately struck by his eyes, which were an impossible hazel, at once gold, green, and a rich root-beer brown. Rainbow eyes. She realized she'd been staring and cast her eyes down. Joseph chuckled. “You're not afraid of me?” Julia shook her head. Oh yeah, she was afraid. But given that he'd just rescued her from enthusiastic Tony, she guessed he was okay. He looked at his sister, his hands leaving Julia's arms with a caress, and she shivered, as though a goose just walked over her grave. It was a creepy sensation but also like an itch on her back that had just been scratched. Totally weird. “That'll be a hell of a thing to smooth over, Adi,” he said, exasperated. Tony was writhing around on the floor. Joseph watched him and scrubbed his face again. Julia had an idea he did a lot of that when it came to his sister. Adriana smiled at him. “He was outta control, and your ass was too slow so… Adriana to the rescue!” she shouted to the rooftops. Julia stood awkwardly between them in the kitchen, a werewolf at her feet, one beside her, and a possible female ally. Funny how life works. * One Week Later Moonlight streamed through the skylights, shattered pieces like broken glass on the cobblestone floor of the underground of the Seattle kiss. William looked at the pass-through, which led into one of the long halls, the bricked archway perfectly framing Gabriel. He had an abiding scowl planted on his face—for good reason. William was busy packing and readying himself to reacquire Julia. It was but one week from the full moon. They were not yet ready for acquisition, but each moment they drew closer to the moon's fullness, their enemy grew stronger—and on their territory, no less. No, the time was now. He and Gabriel had argued. But as the leading runner, William had pull, and his thoughts held weight. And as Julia's potential mate, he had even more pull. Claire had sided with him as well. Gabriel pushed away from the brick and walked over to where William stood, shouldering a small backpack. “You do this at your own peril. You realize how closely guarded she will be?” William nodded. “I do. Even now, kept by the mongrels, day by day they grow closer to their heathen ceremony. No”—he shook his head at the multiple visions that greeted him—“she will not have that end. Not Julia.” Not his Julia. * Julia Julia was in her room again at the Were compound. That was how she saw it. Her routine was the same every day, and it reminded her eerily of the vampire. Except for William. She found she missed him. At first, he'd been nothing but a captor. But he became someone she had grown to care about and to have an easy friendship with. She was acutely aware that she'd grown to depend on his protection. She had not felt that sense of security since Jason. Her chest got tight, and Julia took deep breaths. Her capture and his death were combined in a memory of unbearable agony. One bright spot was Adriana. Julia liked Adi, so she called her by her nickname. She remembered the conversation exactly. * “You can call me Adi too, yʼknow,” she'd said, putting some clothes away in the drawer, her eyes doing a peripheral check of Julia's reaction. “Okay, thanks.” “Do you… do you always go by Julia?” Adi had asked. Julia looked down, feeling sad. Finally, she shook her head. “No. I had a friend…” Julia covered her mouth with her cupped hand for a moment, and Adi broke the sadness with, “No waterworks, just tell me your nickname.” Her whiskey-colored eyes met Adi's brown ones. “Jules. That's what my friends called me.” “Tell me about them.” It was the first time someone had actually given a crap about Jason, Cyn and Kev. She told Adi all of it. How cool they'd been, how much she missed them, how she and Jason had gotten married in the Gnome Chapel. That brought an instant smile. “Really? That's a no-shitter.” Adi had thought for a moment, her chin planted in her palm. Then she brightened. “At least it wasn't in that creepy Elvis Chapel.” She grimaced and Julia laughed until her sides hurt and tears were streaming down her face. Adi looked at her with curiosity, her palms spread at her sides. “What the hell, Jules? Doesn't everyone think there's something alarming about a dude in white polyester and tassels? And the man tits? Ugh!” She hissed in emphasis. That made Julia laugh harder. When she had some semblance of restraint, she held up a finger and replied, “That was my only requirement.” She wiped the tears. “What?” Adi asked, confused. “I didn't want to get married at that damn chapel with The King in attendance.” “King my ass,” Adi muttered. “Cyn didn't like him either.” “Was she pretty cool?” Julia nodded, their gazes locking. “She was the best,” she replied wistfully. * Homer Truman slapped the file against his thigh as an officer approached him. “Detective Truman!” He shifted his weight in the large chair that swiveled behind his desk. “Yeah?” Karl Truman asked, looking at the disheveled beat cop. The name on his tag read, Daugherty. Truman had sent him on a last-ditch wild goose chase. The seasons were changing, and after almost two years, the weather was finally cooperating for his purposes. Truman had thought of something that had been missed when the Caldwell scene was canvassed two years ago. Well, almost two years. Those trees. The trees stood on either side of the rugged path that led down to the beach. He'd seen them a thousand times, but the dream he'd received last night had been a revelation, the break he hadn't been able to get from returning to the scene of the Caldwell murder a hundred times. Daugherty jerked up the evidence bag like a prize won at the carnival. It was clear, inside it were three or four long hairs. Truman didn't know it then but they weren't left by a bear. They weren't human. That dandy little footnote would be inscribed later. The first real smile of the day broke over Truman’s weathered face and the beat cop smiled in return, relieved beyond words that his boss wasn't gonna chew his ass. Today. They beamed at each other, and Karl reached for the bag, its precious cargo so light but oh, so heavy. * Three Months Prior The talons stroked Cynthia's throat, and she shuddered. She'd been asleep in her bed on the day that the cop—Turner, Tucker, whatever his name was—had come by to visit her and ask questions again about Jason's murder. And Jules's disappearance. Her answers were always the same. The visits from the creatures were always the same. The day after Jules had been taken, they'd come inside her bedroom window and silenced her immediately. They said things—terrible things. But she believed them when they told her if she said anything about what really happened, she would get the same fate as her boyfriend. Now this one came again. Cynthia didn't care what it said. She thought it liked causing her pain and fear. Her only consolation was that if they had Julia—really had her—they wouldn't be so worried about discovery. Cynthia wasn't the same girl she'd been before. She didn't care about fashion or fun. She wanted to escape from Homer and move somewhere new. Somewhere they couldn't find her. As she lay pinned on her bed by the creature that ground out its demands, its filthy half paw wrapped around her throat, its fetid breath encasing her in rot, it instructed her on what to say. “Keep to the story. Repeat what it is,” it growled at her. At least it was only the one this time. “I… it was a bear attack.” Her eyes flicked to the beast, whose eyes were golden and spinning in an immense head with fur the color of the sea on a stormy day. “That's why there was so m-much… bl-blood,” Cynthia said, her voice trembling from the memory of the blood, the carnage, and her boyfriend's decapitated body, paces from where she lay. He squeezed her throat and the breath wheezed out of it. “And…?” the werewolf that held her on the bed asked, giving her a teeth-rattling shake. He released the pressure so she could utter the final lie. “I passed out from the shock. I never saw what happened,” Cynthia recited mechanically. It smiled a grin filled with teeth meant to maim, tear, and kill. It suddenly released his grip, and her hand went to her throat automatically. The tears fell in rivulets, dampening her pillow. Cynthia had seen everything that happened—all of it. She didn't like slasher flicks anymore. She knew horror was real. Cynthia watched the Were leave through the window as it had before. She made a promise to herself in that moment. She'd move to where they couldn't find her, somewhere different, anonymous, big. Like Seattle. Perfect. She'd forget what had happened in a fresh environment, Cynthia told herself. She studied her meager belongings in her studio apartment. She rose from her bed and began to pack at three o'clock in the morning, long past the witching hour. * Julia Adi and Julia ran. They had no privacy of course, but they ran anyway. It felt so like the exercise Julia had taken with William and the other runners. But the Were could keep up in their human form. Julia hated having Tony at her back because she knew, deep down, that he really didn't have her back. William had been open about his intentions, about the history, and the Book of Blood. The Were had been covert, not that it helped—Adi told Julia everything she wanted to know and things she didn't. She was a treasure. If Julia had met her in other circumstances, they could have been friends. But even now, Julia planned her escape. She ran on a dirt path, made wide by use, the dappled shade from the trees making the ground look like a puzzle of light. Julia felt the heat of the sun even through the trees and thought about how different it was from Alaska. There was a distance in that part of the world as if the sun held its rays back, stingy with its warmth. Here in Washington, the kiss of its heat was all around them, and she reveled in it. She'd miss it. Julia didn't care if she was important. She wanted freedom. She'd stayed awake these past few nights thinking about that one one-hundredth of a percent of Rare Ones who breathed the air on this earth. Why couldn't she belong to them? Why couldn't she belong to herself—free to choose her own path, her own destiny? There was no one to give her any council. They all wanted a piece of her blood—a song that rivaled all others, a genetic match of perfection to balance their needs. They had no regard for her needs. They drove up the last hill, their legs pumping furiously, Adi barely breathing as she whispered to Julia, “You know that swine Tony?” Julia huffed, her legs grinding up the incline. “Yeah?” “He put me in the dog house and now I'm off babysitting your precious ass,” she said, sprinting ahead. Oh shit. Julia poured on the speed and caught up, running alongside her. “What do you mean? He scares me,” she said quietly, mindful of the ears pricked behind them. “He's made me give a squirt of pee on occasion,” Adi said dryly. “But not without payback, if you feel me.” She gave a smug smile, and Julia nodded. She felt her. She'd only been a couple of weeks in the den, but already, she wondered why Adi wasn't in charge. She sure thought she was, but Adi hadn't gotten the memo. But in reality, Julia had grudging respect for Joseph. He was stern and gentle and supervised the pack with great fairness. The Packmaster… he was a different story. Julia hadn't liked him much better than Tony. Julia remembered their brief meeting. * Lawrence had circled the Rare One and was surprised at her. Hardly more than a girl, she had looked no different than any other female. But for her smell, she could have been any college-aged student, roaming around. But her smell was like the most rare perfume, small in quantity and potently lethal. Agitating. Julia Caldwell drove under his skin and stayed there. The moon as his witness, he would be most glad when the Ritual of Luna and the mating were finished. He would lose one of his wolves and gain a legend. Freedom was within their grasp. Having a Rare One would solidify their leadership in the Pacific Northwest region forever. A self-satisfied smile had curled his lips as he met Julia. He saw that she regarded him with distrust. No matter—hers had been an easy life. * Julia had watched him assume everything about her in a glance and knew that he might be Packmaster, but to her, he was presumptuous, as well as just plain wrong. She had a trick or two up her sleeve. They thought her awakening powers were not fully formed. They assumed that when she'd heaved Tony against the fridge, she had been too much of a novice to do anything further to defend herself. They were wrong. Julia was executing the equivalent of push-ups when she was alone in her room, levitating herself and all that was in her space. She'd become quite good at it and had developed finesse, pushing herself for control in the short time she'd been there. Claire would have been proud. Julia gulped against the lump that formed in her throat. She glanced at Adi, who nodded back. Time to turn around. They turned where a great log had fallen, its form caved in with a secondary seedling growing out of the decomposition. Julia looked beyond it, into the deeper woods. It was there that her escape lay. As Julia and Adi ran, the werewolves fell in beside them, and Julia could feel the emotions around her. There was no way to block it out. She could not gain one ability without others showing up. She had never wished for anything more in her whole life: another one like her. A Blood Singer. * Four Days He heard them as they came back from exercise and pressed his snout against the acrylic partition, which was made of a vile material that smelled like rotting plastic to his most sensitive organ. He smelled the female of his kind that fed him and the other. He would know her fragrance anywhere. But it had changed. Something about that familiar scent was altered. It didn't matter. Soon enough, when the moon was ripe and full, he would escape this place. He mourned what would be done to see it through. But in the end, it would be worth it. * One Day Adriana slipped into the kennel where the feral was kept and instantly felt the guilt grip her. She hated seeing him. He was the most beautiful of the Were she'd ever seen, with a coat so deep a red it was like wine, eyes so green they shimmered like emeralds. In fact, Adi didn't think there were jewels that looked as good as his eyes. But she'd been there the day he'd knocked off the head of her whelpmate. He was dangerous—and crazier than a June bug, as her grandpa would say. She had extra feral duty because she'd walloped that shitwad Tony in the head with the pan. No thanks that I saved the precious Rare One from a mauling. Oh, no. It's, “Adriana, Tony is superior. You need to show deference…” Blah, effing blah. Deference, my ass. Tony was a pain in all their butts. She figured she'd done everyone a favor. He had a very small brain, and after she'd thwacked his head, she hoped that maybe the swelling would enlarge it enough so he'd think. Nah. Fat damn chance of that. He was back to asshat status as soon as he woke up. The dick. Why he was even in line for the Ritual was beyond her. None of the men could see his cruelty. He wasn't good with the whelplings. He had to remind them constantly that he was dominant. Yeah? So what? They knew that. They didn't need their asses handed to them day in and day out. Adi fumed inside the kennel, which was really a huge outbuilding. Her eyes went at once to the feral. He was in human form and she thought that unusual. He could partially change at will and didn't need the moon. However, he was invincible when it was full. Nobody entered then, unless there were three or more of them. They'd learned that the hard way. Adi felt guilty that he didn't get food or water one day a month. Actually, she didn't agree with keeping him like a zoo animal. Just because he was turned didn't mean that he was inferior to them. * He watched her approach him warily, very small for a female of his kind but wily, yes… very clever. * In his human form he stood six foot two with athletic build and sandy-blond hair. But the eyes were not green. She didn't know why they were not gold during the Change like everyone else's. The Packmaster didn't know why he was a red. There were so few. Adi had a speculation about it. The Alphas weren't keen on listening. Her brother would though. She would tell him tonight. Adi looked behind her for a moment, thinking of Julia. What if…? No, it was too weird for words. It was impossible. Sacrilegious. She went forward with the food. It squirmed and whimpered in her clasp, its fate etched in its eyes. * He began to salivate before she pushed it through the slot with her wrist and part of her forearm vulnerable to injury. The man sprung forward, scooping the prey out of her grasp, and lightly scratched her with his talon as she withdrew. Their eyes met for a moment as she snatched her arm back through the narrow distribution slot. She cradled the arm against her chest, the blood from the scratch soaking her T-shirt beneath. * Adi had never been gladder for the two-foot-thick partition. She knew who would be the victor between the two of them if he escaped. He was more Alpha than any she'd ever known. For the first time in her life, Adriana was scared of another wolf. And she didn't scare easily. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR William did not have the kiss at his back. Gabriel wanted Julia back but not at any cost. It was a conditional desire. William's was not. She would be his. Not the dogsʼ, not some other hapless runner with Singer ancestry. His. He waited in the woods, the night but a promise, his brazenness in the darkest part of the forest a testament to his desire to retrieve her from the clutches of the mongrels, for tonight was their ritual. When the moon wept her fullness on the Were, they would change. They planned to feed and to consummate their hold on the Rare One. But for as long as William took breath, they would not succeed. * Blood Singers Brendan The Singer looked in both directions and turned to his sister. “I smell a vamp in these here parts!” Jen rolled her eyes. Not everything was a joke! “Shut up, they'll hear you.” She folded her arms across her chest and gave him a look as if to say, Are you kidding me? Brendan chuckled, grabbing Jen in a bear hug that left her without enough oxygen. “Knock it off!” she hissed. “This is serious!” Brendan nodded soberly then went off in a fit of hysterical laughing. Jen stalked off. Brothers. She had three of them, all Singers, all with plenty of air between their ears. She was the only sane one in the family. Brendan followed behind her. “Don't be mad. It's just—” He shrugged. “The intel says we've got a Ê»big dealʼ Singer wrapped up with the Were, but they've been wrong before.” Brendan made a bunch of noise kicking a stone that sat in a nest of leaves. * William turned his head, hearing a small sound not of nature half a mile east from his position. He stood, trapped in the shadows, the sun a dangerous heat, high and bright above the safety of the forest's canopy. Had it been night, he would have discovered who made the racket. But because it was daytime, he had to remain where he was, steeped in frustration and anxious for the next step. His nemesis, the sun, rode above him. All thoughts lead to one: Julia. * “Would you stop being so loud? If you know there's a vamp around, why would you provoke him?” Brendan grinned, even though she took all the fun out of his antagonizing. “He'll fry like a tiki torch, sis. I want a front seat for that performance.” He smiled wistfully, and Jen rolled her eyes again. Her brothers had a death wish! He saw Jen's face and laughed. “Nah. He'll have to park his ass in the woods or some skulk position like that until twilight comes. There's no moving until then. I'm just yanking his undead chain.” Brendan stretched his long body, and tight muscles corded and flexed with the movement. Jen wanted to punch him. She had a two-part reason for this. One, he was just that sure of himself. Two, he could eat enough food for five people and still look like a GQ model. She scowled at him, and he grinned wider, his teeth flashing white in the semi-gloom of where they stood in the woods. “You remember I've never been wrong before, right, smart-ass?” “Ooh, language!” Brendan warned, the smile still plastered on his arrogant mug. Jen contained herself with effort. “Listen here, buster. I'm part of that Ê»intelʼ you blithely discounted. I'm precog—” Brendan muttered under his breath, “A hell of a lot more than that.” “Huh?” Jen said, narrowing her eyes on his. Brendan threw his hand against his chest, fingers splayed. “What? I didn't say anything.” Right, Jen thought. There was a noise down low from their position, and Jen caught the flare of Brendan's nostrils just as he swung his head toward where the Were poured through a wide pathway, opposite their position, with two females. The siblings crouched down simultaneously, peering through the thick foliage hugging the base of fir and cedar trees that grew like mighty companions. The fragrance was thicker than the air around them. Their eyes stayed trained on the enemy. “What are they?” Jen asked in the softest voice, barely above a whisper. “Were. And…” Brendan extended his neck, lifting his chin, nose in the air. “All Were but one of the females. She's Singer.” Jen smirked in triumph. No kidding? Singer, huh? Like I said. Brendan caught her self-satisfied look but ignored it. “There's something more.” But when they looked again, the group had disappeared inside the compound. “Damn!” Brendan said, pounding a fist on his jean-clad thigh. “Almost had it.” “Had what?” “What flavor she was,” he said, grinning again. “Girls aren't ice cream!” Jen protested. Brendan's smile widened. “News to me.” Jen punched him a good one in the arm. She used her knuckles the way he'd taught her. He leaped back as she swung. It was a glancing blow, but she'd made him flinch. That felt good. She felt like a tiger on the prowl. Brendan looked at her, rubbing the red spot she'd made, and smiled. **** The Ritual of Luna Adriana looked at Julia and thought she cleaned up pretty well. She eyed her critically, taking in the all-white ensemble. She couldn't help but connect the dots of symbolism. Virginal lamb led to slaughter. Actually, she didn't really know about Jules's background except she was still sort of hung up on her husband. The guy had been dead how long? For freakin' ever. Like, get over it yesterday. But Julia had hardly been able to get through talking about him to tell Adriana her story. Even she had to admit Julia hadn't had the greatest life. Parents dead at eight. Sent to live with crappy and resentful relative. Soulmate husband bled out by rogue Were. That was troubling to Adriana. Why had the Were taken out the Singer? It was an amateur's move. She couldn't understand why he'd been a target at all. Any idiot whelpling knew that a werewolf could subdue a human without killing him. Hell! One of the Were could subdue four humans. It puzzled her. Something smelled funky, and she'd have loved to find out the cause of it. Of course, Adriana knew from experience that when she started sniffing around, her nose got slapped. That pissed her right the hell off. “Adi?” Julia asked. Huh?” Adriana jerked her head up. She'd really been a million miles away. “What were you thinking about?” Lots of secret speculation. “Just distracting crap.” Partial truth. * Julia had the distinct impression that Adi had been thinking about something interesting. She turned and looked at her reflection in the mirror and couldn't help but think of Cyn. She'd have died to see Julia wearing white. It just wasn't her color. She'd been told it was symbolic. The dress had been made for her. Actually, it had been a standard size and altered to fit her. The bodice was simple and crossed underneath her breasts, leaving the tops exposed, and narrowed to her waist where the full skirt flared at the hip and fell to what Aunt Lily had called “ballerina length.” Thanks to Cyn, she knew that meant just above the ankle. The material was some kind of chiffon, filmy and light, opaque and lovely. Julia wasn't nervous about their ritual. Her plan had been the same all along. She had her telekinetic skills down. When the werewolves were distracted by their fighting, she'd split. The chiffon getup was as retarded as they came for a badly hatched escape plan, but she'd spied keys, and she would use them. Could she hop in a car and drive away in princess white? Yeah, she could. She'd miss Adi. It figured that she'd bonded with a female werewolf in the den of iniquity. Geez. She turned away from her reflection but couldn't help asking Adi, “You promise your brother will… beat Tony?” Adi nodded her head enthusiastically. “He'll kick his ass.” Julia gulped. “What if he kills him?” Adi shrugged. “No loss for me. Besides, if he thinks he's Alpha enough to fight the big dogs, he can get all froggy and jump on the lily pad.” Julia smiled. Adi was so like Cyn it made her heart ache. She turned away before Adi could see her expression. * But Adriana did see Julia's expression. She frowned as she followed Julia outside toward the pavilion. Unease was forming in her mind. Something was wrong. Adriana would be watchful. But first, she had one final chore to screw with after she settled Julia in her position within the ring of the pavilion. * William William stayed upwind of the mongrels and prayed for the breeze to stay as it was. He watched the sun sink low in the sky, washing the branches a sunset color. The trees looked as if they were weeping, crying tears of blood. The visual analogy made William's smile. Time grew short. He was ready. * Julia stood by herself as people began to fill a great open gazebo. It was actually ancient in its composition. Great pillars held the roof above it, a hammered copper so green that not an ounce of its original bronze color showed through. The pillars had been made of marble, and the materials used were the most incongruous she'd ever seen. Here, in the middle of an old forest full of trees more than one hundred years old, stood a structure that would have been more at home in Rome. She looked at the scarred marble tiles at her feet, streaked with veins of gray and speckles of gold. The grout must have been some shade of white at one time, but now had a dove-gray hue from age. All eyes were upon her when Lawrence approached. Julia took a step backward. His physical presence was so overbearing, his personality the same. Mega creeper, Julia thought, and not for the first time. Goose flesh broke out on the skin of her arms, which were bare to the weather. It was warm enough for what she wore, but in the presence of the Packmaster, she felt cold. The chill of death sank its bite into her bones. He ignored her unease and turned Julia in the direction of the crowd like a prize breeding mule. How flattering. Julia had an excellent view of the seating built in a circle all around her. It rose out of the ground as an integral part of the pavilion, each seat a curved unit higher than the last. None of the faces were friendly. All were somber. Julia guessed that some were not happy with the fighting and death. Or with her. She'd never been popular. * Tony and Joseph watched the fragile beauty of the Rare One, who was showcased in her rightful position in the pavilion, the Ritual of Luna nearly begun. Their faces turned to the sun sinking behind the mountains—night and day balanced on the finest scale. Finally, it tipped to night, and the moon winked its pale face into existence. The glory of her fullness exerted an irresistible pull, and the men changed into their otherness in unfurling brutality. Flesh and bone burst, shifted, and sloughed onto the ground at their feet. Their snouts came together, five in all, the challenge in their eyes unmet for a few moments more. They trod out to the pavilion, to their destiny. * Julia watched them come, and her arms gripped the side rails of the great chair the Packmaster had forced her into as though she were royalty or something. She guessed she was to them. Soon, she thought. Soon. * The feral heard the fight begin just as the female entered his prison. He swung his head in her direction as she looked around in confusion, obviously distracted. * Normally, full moon duty on the feral would have gone to someone else—or several someones because of the danger—but Adriana had gotten nailed with it because of her stunt. It'd been worth it. Adi entered through the heavy door, her eyes sweeping the cage. She panicked. Where had the feral gone? Oh no! He escaped? Without thinking about anything—her safety, protocol, anything—Adi slapped the slot open and felt around for the alarm, and a steel band of screaming pain latched on to her wrist. Her arm was pulled through the slot with such viciousness that it dislocated her shoulder. Adi howled in warning and pain, her voice reverberating in the cloistered space. No one came. The wolves were fighting in the ritual. No werewolf was within range to assist her. Adriana opened her eyes as tears ran down her face for the first time in her life. She grimaced and stared into the green eyes of the red wolf. “Sorry,” he ground out, snagging the code card off her neck with a jerk. It snapped the tether, and he stood, pressing the slick thinness of it into the locking mechanism. The door slid away with a whisper, and he stepped through. * The feral glanced down at the female Were and hesitated. He hated that he'd hurt a female. It had been frighteningly easy—and very wrong. But another female he knew lay beyond that point. He turned and followed the scent of fighting, the moon—all of it—lending her energy to him. It thrummed through his body and made his muscles align for finer dexterity in motion, preparing him for fighting. His form became all wolf seamlessly, a rare transition of speed and smoothness. He growled low in his throat. He was ready. William stepped out of the tree line at the same time that a great red werewolf, one he had never seen in battle or otherwise, appeared. They stood opposite each other, and their gazes locked for a swollen moment of consideration. William sprinted to the pavilion just as the feral rushed toward the exact point. Neither noticed the pair of Singers who calmly walked toward the stage—where blood ran like a river, dripping down steps that had been white marble but moments before and veins that had run gray now ran crimson. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Two of the werewolves lay dead in a pile of their own gore with wounds so deep their bodies had been eviscerated, while three others circled each other, swiping and surging forward in a dangerous game of avoidance that no one could win. It isn't a game, Julia wailed inside her head, feeling shock eat away at the edges of her mind. Joseph was wounded and Tony more so. The third Were had rolled into a submissive posture when Tony went toward his throat, merciless and opportunistic. He stilled as if halted by an invisible hand and turned as Joseph did. Their noses alerted them to the new danger at hand. Julia was turning to look at what could distract them from the important task of killing each other when the scariest creature entered the stage. He was bigger than Tony. Bigger than life. Julia gasped and got up from the chair, unsteady from the trauma of the fight. Watching it play out in front of her like a surreal movie had been almost more than Julia could stand. But she had stood it. Joseph yelped a plaintive command. “Adi!” Even in his half-wolf form, the worry for her was apparent. Tony spared him a glance, and knowledge filled eyes that were only half-wolf. Both Were stood nearly seven feet tall on their hind legs. In pose, they mirrored the giant red Were who faced them. Julia skittered behind the tall chair, her hands gripping the back until they turned white and grew numb. The huge wolf looked at her, and Julia felt something stir deep within her and the fear melting away as they continued to gaze at each other. She was on the edge of an epiphany when the Packmaster yelled, “The feral! I call total rights!” What? Julia thought, her hands having fallen away from the chair. She'd actually taken a step toward the great creature, the emerald eyes sucking her in, when she heard a voice she knew so well. “Julia!” William. Relief poured through her, suffusing her body with renewed energy. She snapped her head in the direction of that voice, finding his eyes of reflective silver staring her down. At that moment, pandemonium erupted all around her, the melee closing in with the sureness of the cycle of the moon. * Singers Brendan saw the wolves tearing into each other and thought that for all their fierce strength, they weren't the brightest bulbs in the shop. He and Jen had waltzed into the pavilion hardly noticed, thanks to the rabid Were and the loner vamp. Interesting combo, those two. Brendan was scenting the area, counting what the odds were, when he hit on a scent he could not identify. Puzzle pieces of scent recognition sifted through his massive storage banks of finer scents. Then he knew. His gaze fell on Julia. Brendan felt as if he'd been hit between the eyes with a two-by-four, sucker-punched. All thoughts ground to a screeching halt. His head swiveled to look at Jen. She didn't know. Brendan said, “She's the one.” His hands trembled with the knowledge. “What?” Jen shrieked over the noise. "We don't have time for his melodramatic crap. We need to get the Singer and get out!" Jen looked into his eyes and grabbed his forearm. A pathway of emotion flowed between them, and her eyes widened, her head snapping in the direction of the girl in white. “No way,” she breathed. Brendan nodded. “Way.” “Shit, we needed more back up.” “Yeah,” Brendan agreed. He didn't correct her on her language. They moved toward Julia, the rarest of them all—the one who'd been prophesied to lead their people to autonomy and freedom. The visual of the small girl in white didn't match the version of fairy tales they'd been raised with. A powerful Singer will be revealed. A woman. Our queen. Brendan gulped, thinking about how many of the enemy were around them. He would have to bring out the big guns. * Julia took everything in, and then her chest tightened, and she searched the faces even as wolves circled the great red Were she had been mesmerized by. William came for her as wolves attempted to restrain him. It was impossible, with the distraction of the feral wolf, the vamp… and then Julia saw the pair. A girl with strawberry-blond hair and freckles and a man with bronze hair, deep-brown eyes, and dusky skin that was striking against the deep red of his hair. But it wasn't those things that caused her breath to hitch. She knew what they were instinctively. They were Singers. Like her. Julia moved toward them. It felt as if she were coming home. * William had a moment's regret that he would need to dispatch the pair of Singers, obvious relatives of each other. He stabbed a Were in the middle of its Change, and the blood of the fallen made the marble slick at his feet. He went for the Singers, who had almost reached Julia. She moved to meet them. That would be very unfortunate if they were to touch one another. * Julia's eyes widened as she saw William sprint for the backs of the Singers who advanced in her direction, just seconds from reaching her. She called out a warning, loyalties torn. She cared for William, but these were her people, and she couldn't let William hurt them. * Brendan scented the vamp and turning casually, almost too late. He flung his hand out at the soles of the vampire's feet as he sprinted for them. His intent was clear: he aimed to kill. Fire leaped and drove its heat up the legs of the vamp. That'd get his full attention. Brendan turned dismissively, his eyes already searching for the Singer. Blood Singer royalty. That was when the feral Were barreled into him, knocking him off his feet and crashing into one of the marble columns. There was no give to stone, Brendan realized, his bell soundly rung. Using the last of his consciousness, he lit this dude up too. Nothing happened. He saw the Were flung away but not before he'd scented him. The recognition of what he was caused Brendan to halt in surprise, everything else falling away. It can't be. But it is. Jen hollered, “Come on! That's the best I can do. I can't hold that sucker!” She had a hand wrapped around the Singer's wrist. Huge amber-colored eyes in a small, oval-shaped face stared up at him. Holy hell, Brendan thought. Maybe it's love. He was drowning in a sea of gold. “Snap out of it!” Jen shrieked. Right. The vamp was on fire, and the red Were was struggling against ten of his own. The two wolves who worked hardest to restrain the feral were tracking Brendan with their eyes. Time to shake and bake. * Joseph broke away from the feral and bounded after Julia and the two others of her kind. But he was in full wolf form, and his paws slipped on the gore of the marbled surface of the pavilion. He fell twice then finally gained purchase. He was almost upon them when the other Singer flicked her palm at him, and he was thrown backward against one of the pillars of the pavilion. A fissure formed, running from the impact spot of Joseph's body up to the roof. * Julia ran, the manacle of the girl's hand hurting her wrist. What hurt more was the lone howl from the pavilion. It made Julia's heart ache. She closed her eyes tight and felt strong arms come around her, picking her up even as they jogged. The girl's hand released her. Julia didn't look back. Visions of William on fire and the red Were struggling to get to her kept swirling in her head. She didn't know why it mattered, but it did. She gazed up into the face of the person who held her, seeing only a strong jaw and eyes trained straight ahead. She felt the heat rise from her toes and let it overwhelm her, consciousness slipping away like a leaf on the wind. * Brendan felt the Singer's weight change as it went from live to dead weight, and he grunted with the stress as he jogged. He was profoundly strong, as all post-puberty Singers were. But an almost full run with dead weight? That was challenging. “Don't fuss, brother,” Jen said, sprinting with him to keep up, a smile locked into place. “We've got company.” Jen said it as if there were some flies that needed swatting instead of fifteen Were chasing after them. And gaining. Brendan redoubled his efforts, sprinting. His lungs were a burning inferno, begging him to stop. But this was where it counted. This was what he'd trained for, and he wasn't going to give back this precious cargo. She was the final hope for his people. The brush crashed behind them as they reached their transport. The night's coolness had moved in, and he could scent the exhaust that plumed into the air like a spiral of smoke before he saw it. Brendan instantly identified it as their transport. The door was already flung open. Michael screamed, “They're up your ass!” Thanks for the clue, braniac! Brendan reached the open door, slid open to accommodate the Singer, shoved her into waiting arms, and turned, a downward arc of talons making a breeze next to his face. Hell! That was close. There would be no fighting at close range unless Brendan had the element of surprise. He didn't. That was long gone. A big monster was coming for him now, a half-wolf form with all the dexterity of a full human shape but the strength and speed of pure wolf. He was up shit creek. But then Jen was there. Her face covered in sweat and her palm straight out in front of her body, her arm plank stiff. She held back the first siege of the Were by her will alone. Her body trembled with the effort, sweat gliding down her neck and soaking her shirt. “How long?” Brendan shouted beside her, trying to light as many on fire as he could. They all got nailed at the feet. It was a temporary measure at best. He was a Tracker, not a Pyro. The secondary ability was awesome sometimes for deflection. Like now, when we need a mondo distraction. “Get in!” she hissed. "Okay." Hell… so touchy. He saw around ten more burst out of the woods. As he got into the vehicle, he grabbed Jen around the waist and hauled her against him then slammed the door closed. He banged on the roof with his fist. “Go!” Rafael floored it even as the van rocked with the first Were hitting the side with enough force to partially lift the wheels off the trail. Shit! Brendan looked down at Jen, who was swiping hair away from her temple. She was totally spent. “Can she?” Michael asked, an unconscious Singer in his lap. “Nah!” Brendan shouted over the gnashing of teeth and talons on the exterior of the van. The sound was like nails on a chalkboard of metal. “She's totally gassed!” “Dammit!” Michael laid the Singer on the blanket at his feet and got busy. He threw himself into the front seat, his face mired in concentration… and ten vamps appeared in front of the van. Rafael had laid on the gas, but the wheels were spinning without purchase. The Were crawled over the vehicle like ants on an anthill. He hissed in a breath, “What the hell?” “It's okay. It's me,” Michael said. “Just drive!” Rafael did, as the Were slid off the van to deal with the perceived threat of their primary enemy. The Were attacked the vamps, which the van slid through as if they were ghosts. Because that was what they were. Michael had executed his tactical advantage to perfection. He was one of their best Illusionists. The van screamed out of the Were stronghold, spinning up dirt as it roared off with the four Singers and their treasure, who was barely hanging onto tenuous liberty. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX Singers Julia felt as though she'd been run over by a truck—a couple of times. She cracked open one eyelid, feeling the heat of the sunlight before it fell on where she lay. She looked around at yet another bedroom, her surroundings different than those of the vampire or the Were. She was in a funky-shaped space. The bed stood in a portion of room that jutted out, where three windows faced the outside, her headboard against the central one. She rolled over, gazing at the window. She moved a gauzy white curtain aside, and sunlight struck her like a weapon. Julia squinted. Rolling hills and green-carpeted valleys that kissed a faraway forest greeted her stare. It was beautiful. A pond shimmered in the distance, swans floating on the surface like feathered jewels. Julia sat back on her haunches, her heels digging into her butt. She looked down at what she was wearing and was beyond thrilled to see that she was still wearing the white gown. So… they'd dumped her in a bed with the dress on and the whole deal. Perfect. She swung her feet over the bed and stood on a wood floor that had planks five inches wide and very red in color. Her gaze swept the room, and she noticed two doors. Julia guessed one led to a bathroom. As she approached them, she chose door number one and turned a crystal knob, faceted like a large diamond. Slightly loose in its brass housing, it turned smoothly and swung open. A tall narrow window with jewel-toned stained glass let in sunlight broken by colored patterns. The light cast on the floor looked like a shattered rainbow. Julia spied the commode, a pedestal sink, and a sinfully large claw-foot tub. Awesome. She used the facilities and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and grimaced. That was when she noticed an army of trolls had marched through her mouth and longed for a toothbrush. More than that, though, she wanted to know where she was. For the first time, she was happy to be somewhere new. These were her people. Julia had finally come home. Jen folded her arms across her chest. “You're not going up there.” They could hear the girl walking around, using the bathroom, exploring. Brendan shrugged. “Why not? Don't want me to hog your find?” They'd been arguing all morning, which wasn't too atypical because she was so goddamn stubborn. Brendan was busy seething when Michael breezed in. “Is hotness awake yet?” he asked, rooting around in the ancient fridge for something to snag. "I'm so hungry that I'm pretty sure I'm digesting my own spine.” Michael's whole head was in the fridge when Jen replied, “None of you doofuses need to go hassle her. She's new. We—heck, we kidnapped her! Maybe she needs time to… acclimate or something.” Michael jerked his head out of the fridge, banging it hard on the top. He grimaced, looking at the dent from the one hundred and twelve times he'd hit his head in the same spot. “Listen.” He held up a finger. “We saved her precious ass so she better be grateful. I say socialization is in order. And who'd want to do the Were-bride routine?” Michael rolled his eyes and gulped juice out of the carton. Brendan narrowed his eyes on his brother. “Listen, I got dibs. I did all the hard work. You just poofed some vamps to distract the Were. I ran with her!” Brendan's keen sense of smell alerted him too late. The girl had appeared in the doorway, the most forlorn and sad expression he had ever seen covering her face. Shit. They all started to talk at once, but she stopped all conversation with, “I'm sorry. You rescued me. I thought that you… that I was wanted…” She burst into tears. Jen glowered at her brothers. God! They were so inept! And Brendan was the big-deal Tracker. He couldn't scent her fast enough to curb his words? Idiots. Jen popped off the kitchen stool, punching Michael as she walked past. “Hey!” he mock-yelled at her. The girl looked up, tears shimmering in those eyes. They were like gold topaz, Brendan noted a little dreamily. Jen grabbed the hands that the girl was trying to use to cover her face. It had to be embarrassing to be where that she wasn't wanted in the ridiculous white dress, her hair six ways to Sunday. “No, no,” Jen crooned, throwing a dirty glance at the two guys, who stood behind her looking contrite. “Don't listen to my stupid brothers.” She looked up at the girl earnestly. “They always sound dumb.” “Yeah, that's us. Dumb,” Brendan said dryly. “Yeah, that,” Michael agreed, swinging his longish dirty blond hair out of his eyes. The girl gave a small smile. “So, you guys… do you want me to leave?” Her lip trembled again. “Because I can't go back there,” she said in a low voice. Brendan, looking alarmed, approached her too quickly. She backed up, and he stopped. “No. You don't—we don't want you to go back to the Were… or the vampires. We're all about sucking you into our world. It's where you belong.” Michael nodded. “Why would you think that we wouldn't want you?” The girl shrugged. “You sounded like you were kinda mad.” Jen shook her head. “Nah! That's the way they always sound.” “Like smart-ass meets anger management?” The girl was definitely okay now, a smile breaking through her tears as though they'd never been. Jen smiled in return. “I'm Jen,” she said, sticking her hand out, and the girl shook it. Brendan and Michael came forward. “And these are the dummy duo, who you've had the misfortune of meeting already,” Jen said, but the humor in her voice took away the sting. “We're not always dumb,” Michael said, taking her hand and giving it a gentle squeeze then dropping it. “I wouldn't know how to be dumb.” Brendan winked, but he didn't shake her hand. Instead, he drew her into a hug that pressed her against his body, melding her form to his. He said against her hair, “We've been looking for you for a long time.” He drew away, the happiness radiating from every pore so hot that even Jen could feel it. “Me?” the girl asked, putting her hand to her chest. They nodded. “Why? I mean, I don't know you guys.” She looked at them expectantly. “It's not who you are—it's what you are,” Michael said. The girl folded her arms. “Okay, I give up. What am I?” They looked at each other uneasily, and the girl asked again, “Come on, spill the secret! I know I'm a Singer…” She threw out her hands. “I know I'm theÊ»Rare One.ʼ I've known that for a while.” Her hands dropped against the fabric of the dress after the air quotes. “Rare One?” Michael shook his head. “I don't know what that is, but you're not that to us.” Jen said, “You're more than that.” The girl looked at them. She opened her mouth to speak, but Brendan cut in. “You are Queen.” The girl staggered back a step. “What?” she asked dully. “Queen of whom?” “The Singers. You are Queen of the Blood Singers.” Her eyes rolled and her knees started to buckle, but Brendan caught her easily. He looked down at the girl who had fainted into his arms and felt his heart clench. He hated feeling weak. She already had a piece of his heart. It beat slower for the loss of that chunk. Brendan didn't even know her name—not that it mattered. Love was an errant master, choosing its object without reason or rationale. **** Pack Adriana screamed at her brother—for him and at him. “Hold still, Adi!” He jammed his leg into her armpit and wrenched the arm back in before she could stiffen up more than she already had. Tears of pain rolled down her face, and Joseph swiped them away with the pad of his thumb. “Shhh. It's okay,” He gathered her against his chest. “It's not okay, Joseph, and you fucking know it!” Tony paced, and Joseph's face shifted. That was automatic when an Alpha felt challenged. The Change asserted itself subtly beneath his skin. Adi saw her brother's face shift. “It is at your feet where the fault lies. You insisted that Lawrence give her the worst punishment!” he responded, his anger roiling underneath his skin with weight, with purpose. Tony turned to face him, his posture wary and tight. Joseph carefully untangled himself from Adriana, shifting her weight against the acrylic wall that had held the feral. He faced Tony, walking toward him on a slow prowl. Adi watched as her brother's body shifted to bursting, the moon's power waning but not nearly enough. “Me? She is the one who pushed the boundaries! It's always her. And she is always coddled. Now, the Rare One has escaped with the Singers, the feral has escaped, and that vamp runner killed five of us! Five!” Tony's scathing stare burned a pathway across Adriana, and she growled low in her throat. She didn't care that he outmatched her by a hundred pounds and a foot of height. She hated Tony. He smelled bad. She smacked her uninjured palm against the clear wall and boosted herself to standing. “I will take responsibility for the feral. I panicked. I thought he'd already escaped. But”—her stare gave dominant weight to her words, and she watched Tony visibly bristle at its significance—“I will not accept the strange shit that went down while I was injured—substituting for you, so you could fight my brother and also stick me with that chore on the full moon!” Her eyes shifted from one to the other. “I am not a Ê»favorite,ʼ” Adi said, using air quotes. “I was pressed to do the worst chore at the worst time because I let my alligator mouth overload my canary ass.” Joseph barked out a laugh. “She's right.” The tension in the empty holding cell slipped down a notch. “Like any one of us could have known a vamp was skulking around, all Lone Ranger and then the coincidence of the feral escaping. Oh!” she yelled into the strange acoustics of the room, “let's not forget the darling Singers who waltzed in during the bloodiest and most distracting ritual ever conceived and snatched Jules right from underneath our very noses.” She seethed, the fingers of her index and thumb a hair's breadth apart. They'd been that close to holding on to Julia. “And—” she continued to rant. Tony crossed his muscular arms, rolling his eyes. “Shut up and listen!” Tony growled. “This female never knows when to shut up. Someone should teach her a lesson.” Adi's lips pulled away from her teeth, another growl reverberating between them. “Enough!” Joseph roared, startling them both. His eyes landed on his sister. “Finish now, then we go to Lawrence. This whole incompetent mess will need to be explained.” “I was just going to say that fifteen of our wolves trailed the Singers, and still… we didn't get her back,” Adi said. “So?” Tony said with derision. “So, I think they're more powerful than we've been trying to convince ourselves.” “Ha! Bullshit. They're human, and they can do some parlor tricks. It's not real strength. Who do they call leader?” Tony's words echoed into the silence. Adi rolled her eyes. He was such a goddamn know-it-all. “What of the Book of Luna?” Joseph asked. Tony didn't bother with reading that old crap. It was the new order. The only thing he'd wanted was to become a moonless changer. That he'd believed in plenty. And now the little Singer had slipped between his claws like water through a sieve. But she would be within his grasp again. Adi nodded. “They are a force of their own. You know that! Look what happened a few hours ago? They fooled you, Tony!” Tony glowered at her. He'd almost had that male Singer, but it was as if the Singer had eyes in the back of his head. Tony shook his head, thinking about it. “Yeah,” he ground out. “Don't know how. I almost had him.” He smacked his fist into his opposite palm, his dark eyes flashing. “Scent Tracker,” Joseph said in a flat voice. Tony whipped his head in Joseph's direction, his eyebrows hiking. Adriana nodded. She and Joseph had both been trained in the precepts held within the Book. Tony threw his hands up. “I give up. Drop this secretive shit. Just. Tell. Me.” He pegged his hands on his powerful hips, frowning at them. “A sense of smell a thousand times more powerful than ours,” Joseph said. “Impossible,” Tony breathed out, thinking of his multilayered scent awareness. It was so overwhelming he had trained himself to tune out most scents. It was too much. But one thousand times more sensitive? He couldn't wrap his mind around it. He scoffed at the possibility. “I know, right? It's—” Adi began. “Unbelievable!” Joseph agreed, nodding. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever. But what about the ten vampires that just flashed into existence and were ghosts when we attacked?” Explain that, Tony thought. Adriana laughed, and the men turned to her. When she finally stopped, she said, “Vampire mirage.” Joseph sighed. “Not helpful.” “What exactly was it?” Adi asked. Joseph shook his head. "I'm not sure. But it had been a superb deflection on their part. Too good." “Well, it was pretty fucking effective!” Tony said. “I could smell the vamps. Smell them,” he said through clenched teeth. Joseph gave a sound low in his throat. “No, that was the Tracker, assisting… the other one.” “They can work in tandem?” Adi asked, a look of amazement on her face. Joseph nodded. “Looks like.” Then he paused. “But a more likely reason for the two is family.” “What?” Tony narrowed his eyes. “I speculate for that pair to work as seamlessly together as they did, they'd have to be family.” “What about the bitch with them?” Tony asked. He conjured up an image of her in his mind: small, pixie-like features, hair blondish—though it had been hard to know for sure in the moonlight. It silvered everything. Except the red Feral. His fur had shone like blood spilled. “Her too,” Joseph said. Tony's nose was unaffected by his sight. He'd know the Singer female the next time he smelled her. Hell, he'd know them all. Tony's fists curled. “I'd love to have another chance at those three.” “Soon,” Joseph promised. “What about the female?” Adi asked suspiciously. “Especially her,” he said with barely contained desire. Joseph scowled at him just as another Were entered the holding pen. “Lawrence is waiting,” he said, shyly glancing at Adriana. Adi rolled her eyes and flounced out, pushing by the Were. He watched her as she disappeared. Joseph followed, and Tony came last. As he passed the other Were, slightly younger than himself, he whispered, “You don't want her.” The Were leaned back with a puzzled expression. There were few Were females, and she was a good-looking one, too. “Why?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. “Untrainable,” Tony said, stalking off behind the siblings. **** The Feral The feral lifted his head from the fragrant entrails of the deer, the meat a fresh and tasty smell that permeated his olfactory senses, stirring a deep and profound hunger. He howled and then fed. The moon, on the wane, hung above him in a blanket of velvet, the stars like diamonds. They glittered as the moon supervised her charge. When at last he finished, his body demanded rest. He dug out a place of safety in the deepest part of the forest. The feral burrowed underneath his self-made nest. He needed to ready himself for the next leg of his journey. Finally satisfied with his sleeping place, he lay down. Sleep came for him, and just as he slid into the embrace of unconsciousness, he thought of her. The female. He had to have her and she, him. He was certain when they had connected under the roof of the great structure that she'd felt it, too—the pull of one to the other. They were meant to be together. Forever. He slept, the moon keeping her own counsel. * The Pavilion William screamed inside his head as the Were held him, their talons biting into his dead flesh. He saw the Singers tear Julia out of his grasp and that of the Were. Hope slid away like rain on a tin roof. William Changed were he stood, his raven form protecting him, assuring his survival. The Were let go in surprise, not ready for the smallness of his form. They rushed to grab him at the same time he rose with a sharp caw, circling above their position. His eyes, many times sharper than in his vampire form, tracked the Singers. And he watched the pursuit of them by the Were. He followed, his blackness the perfect camouflage against the night sky. He saw all: when Julia fainted in the arms of the Singer as he ran. When the fetid breath of the Were caressed the back of the one who held her. When ten of William's kind suddenly appeared then vanished as if they had never been. Defeated, William flew to a safe distance then Changed back into the form that would return him to the kiss with the least effort. Even as he ran, his mind turned over his next move. If he had been one to play chess, his sight would be set on one piece and one alone: The queen. * Julia Julia opened her eyes and was instantly met with melted chocolate. His eyes. Her thoughts were still muddled and fuzzy. Oh, wow. I fainted a second time. This is becoming a trend. She wanted to find a rock and crawl underneath it. “Hey you,” Brendan said, pushing a stray hair away from her temple. “I feel beyond stupid.” “Well, we're even then,” he said, his lips curling up at the corners. She smiled at him, and he grinned back. Suddenly, Jen's face showed beside his. “You're okay. Big shock is all.” Yeah, that. Biiiigggg shock. Two hunky dudes, also Singers, had kidnapped her and taken her away to… where the hell was she anyway? Michael said from the foot of her bed, “You're somewhere in the Olympic Peninsula.” Julia frowned. “Kinda cagey.” “Kinda cautious,” Michael quipped. Brendan patted her head as if she were a small dog, and stood. “Gotta keep things secure. Nobody knows anything. That's how we like it.” “Uh-huh, uh-huh. That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, we like it, uh-huh, uh-huh,” Michael said, swiveling his hips in a distracting way. “God… ewww. I hope that's not actual singing you're attempting?” Jen asked, looking mortified. “Oh yeah, I can do Karaoke with the best of them,” he said with a hip thrust and hop. Julia giggled. Brendan frowned. “Are you okay, asshat? ʼCause…” He looked expectantly at Julia. “Julia,” she said, and he smiled and gave her a wink. “Julia is not impressed by your” —he swung his palm around—“gyrations and attempts at singing.” “I don't know…” Julia began in a drawl. All eyes went to her. “For pure entertainment value, it's about a seven.” “Out of what?” Michael asked hopefully. “Fifty, retard!” Jen yelled, punching him in the arm again. “Ow!” Michael raged then turned to Julia. “Did you see that abuse?” Julia nodded cooperatively and grinned. Jen grabbed the boys and dragged them out of the room. “Get ye out!” she yelled, shoving them outside and turning the lock. “Sheesh!” Jen fumed. “They're so… so…” “Funny?” Julia asked. Jen sighed then gave her a sidelong glance. “Maybe. But if you tell them I said so, I'll poke your eyes out. Their heads are already so fat they wouldn't get through doorways if you stroked their egos even the tiniest bit.” Julia smiled. “I promise—no fathead air pumps allowed.” “Right!” Jen said, stabbing the air with a finger. “Now”—she looked at Julia critically—“can we deposit the dress in file thirteen?” “Huh?” Julia asked, bewildered. Jen laughed. “Sorry. I have some strange expressions.” She sure did. “Trash. Let's throw it away.” She looked at Julia. “Unless you want to keep it for some reason?” Julia looked down at the soft folds of pure white. “No.” But as she said it, she was reminded of Adi and felt a stab of guilt and sadness. She sure would have liked to have said goodbye to her. She was relieved not to have to be in some whacked-out forced union with the Were, but… she missed having Cyn around. She missed Adi. Shit. I just put out an engraved invitation for a pity party and RSVP'd myself. Dammit. Jen seemed to pick up on her mood. “Hey!” Julia turned to look at her, the melancholy riding her like an unwanted friend. “Get out of the getup and get a shower. We'll suck up some grub and walk around the complex some. I bet you've got a ton of questions.” Jen looked at her expectantly. That sounded good. “Sure.” Julia walked to the bathroom, and Jen handed her some clothes. “You'll have to wear my stuff until we figure some clothes out for you.” She looked up at Julia. “I guess my pants will be capris on you,” she said, winking. Then she was gone. Julia stood under the spray, taking the longest shower of her life, the windowpanes casting puzzle pieces of color across her body as she washed. Julia cried, the rain from the showerhead washing away her tears. She cried for everyone. William. Cyn. Adi. But the heaviest tears were for Jason—always him. * “Did you get a good cry?” Jen asked Julia. She thought about lying. For about three seconds. “Yeah.” “Good,” Jen said, clapping her on the back. “Let's have a look-see, okay?” After a breakfast of fruit and scrambled eggs, they walked outside. There were so many places to look Julia didn't even know where to begin. Julia turned around and immediately located where her bedroom was. The house was breathtaking. It looked like a house of gingerbread but on a big scale. It was Victorian, maybe turn of the last century. Julia knew because she'd lived in an old house—before, when her parents were alive. She waited a moment to let the grief dissipate then returned to studying the structure. It rose like a brightly colored wooden jewel, the forest an emerald backdrop behind it. On the extreme left was a turret that rose from ground to roof. Three windows formed a bay of sorts. Each one was eight feet tall. The glass, wavy from age, looked as if water coated its surface. At the turret's peak spun a weather vane, the arrow pointing in whatever direction the breeze blew. “Wow,” Julia breathed reverently. “Ah! That old thing,” Jen said, unimpressed. Julia swung her head in Jen's direction. “What? That's like the most gorgeous house ever! And I have the best room in the house,” Julia noted. She couldn't believe she was actually there when just yesterday she'd been with the Were. Julia shook her head, freeing the remaining cobwebs of her memories, her life. “Maybe that's true. But the house? Ugh! Nothing works—it moans, it moves, it creaks!” She threw up her hands. “I think it needs to be razed, and we need to get something in here so when my brother flushes a commode my shower doesn't scorch my butt off!” “Noooo! I love it!” Julia said as she felt Jen pull her arm, leading her away from the stately home. “Forget it. Look on your own time at the rust bucket. For now, let's go to the paranormal school.” Julia stopped, tugging her arm back. “What?” Jen looked at her. “You know. It's where us Singers train, learn, etcetera.” She put her hands on her hips, staring at Julia, waiting for the light bulb to go on. Wait a second, Julia thought. “Train, for what?” “To nail the vamps and shifters. They can't tame our rears. We're independent.” Julia was getting that part. “To Ê»nail the vamps and the shifters?ʼ” Jen nodded impatiently. “And beyond that?” Julia asked, feeling a point of clarity may have slid by her unnoticed. “To rule the world, of course,” Jen said, winking. Of course. Julia followed Jen to a large building that had once been a barn. She didn't think she wanted to be queen of that—or queen of anything. CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN Cynthia Cyn stepped off the plane into the well of people flowing from one destination to another and felt instantly lost like a bottle in the ocean. The current traveled in whatever direction it pleased, and she was its captive. Get a grip, Cynthia. Her breathing was finally getting under control. She looked around, and someone jostled by her. Cynthia's backpack swung, and she moved alongside one of the great, cylindrical concrete columns, pressing her pack and herself against it. There, she was out of everyone's way—for the moment. She'd left everything behind. The backpack weighed about a thousand pounds with the things she couldn't part with—such as the wedding photo. Cynthia gulped back the lump in her throat. Tears ran down her face. She was vaguely aware of people staring at her, but she didn't care. She missed Jules so much it hurt to breathe. She couldn't even think about Kev and Jason. With them gone, she felt as though a limb had been amputated Cyn swiped her face, surprised at the wetness she found there. She tore off in the direction the sign pointed to, toward the bus depot. She arrived at the fork in the great corridor, people flowing past her on either side, and chose the town that sounded the simplest. Actually, she remembered vaguely that it was a city. Kent. * Truman Karl Truman went through the studio apartment in the seediest part of Homer, kicking the thrown drawers and papers as he went through. The whole fucking place had been tossed by someone. Or many someones. He turned to the beat cop. “Daugherty!” The cop jumped as though he'd been goosed. “Yeah, Detective!” His eyes were bulging fish bowls in his face. Truman frowned. Good kid, but not too bright. “Is our team here yet?” He scratched his head. “Yeah. I called it in.” Truman was getting a head of steam and had just opened his mouth to let Daugherty have it when the forensic team came through. The first specialist lifted the yellow tape and scooted under it. His name badge, crooked, read Alexander. Turning, he lifted it for the others to pass underneath. “Whatcha got, chief?” Hell. Truman hated being called chief. He wasn't a damn Indian, for cripe's sake! He neutralized his expression with an effort. He beckoned the Alexander over, and the specialist joined him, squatting down at the windowsill height. His eyes flowed over the deep gouges that ran the length of the sill. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “Yeah.” Truman leaned into him expectantly. “I don't know what did this!” Alexander said. “Bear, right?” Alexander snapped his plastic gloves on, the powder coating wafting up to Truman's nostrils, the familiar smell resonating from a thousand crime scenes, the memory trigger the same: it was time to work. Alexander put a fingertip across the groove. His eyes met Truman's, and he shook his head no. “No way. This is something…” His eyes went to the groove again and then lit with excitement. “Wait!" He rummaged in his toolbox and took out a tool that looked like an instrument for cleaning teeth but wasn't. He began carefully scooping the groove. Finally, Truman thought, watching the process as if it was an archeological dig. Alexander brought out the smallest sliver of something. “What is it?” Truman asked as the two other members of the forensic team huddled around them as if they were getting ready for a football play. “Claw,” Alexander said, his eyes meeting his team. “From what?” Truman asked, eying the shard, which was twice the size of a pinhead. “Don't know. But I've never seen anything like it.” He met Truman's eyes. “Not a problem! We'll type this puppy and get the results back to you.” Alexander smiled. One of the other forensics specialists said, “Nah, let's not type it. There's no blood or other fun here.” He looked around at the trashed apartment. There was not a shred of evidence to support violence of the human variety. “Besides, what can it be anyway? Bigfoot?” They all laughed at that. Yeah, fucking hilarious, Truman thought then said out loud, “That's horseshit. Any idiot knows there's no such thing as Sasquatch and that other happy crap!” The specialist laughed again, carefully collecting samples to type for DNA. Truman sighed. He figured it was a long shot. There'd probably been some spoiling meat in here somewhere, and it was as simple as a pack of wolves trying to get an easy meal. He gazed outside through glass so filthy it was gray. The forest mocked him, stretching into eternity. Hell, it could have been anything. Truman knew animals tried to get into the apartment. But who had gone through every nook and cranny of this dump? What had they been searching for? And more importantly, where the hell had Cynthia Adams fled to? Because she had fled. He was sure of it. Like she was escaping something. Running. There was too much stuff just left behind, abandoned. But why? Truman stared out the window, gnawing on the tip of his ballpoint pen. Answers—he needed answers. Like, yesterday. **** William Claire repeated herself. “Hold your temper! I didn't say that I could locate her, only that it was possible.” William paced. He had returned empty-handed, and Gabriel had not been surprised. Because Claire was a Precognitive, she had simply known that his quest was impossible. At the time, William had thought it was strange that Gabriel was not pressing other runners into service to assist him. Gabriel laughed from his gut. “It is not as if you were prone to listening. I told you not to go. We knew the location of the dogsʼ stronghold. Yet still, you would not listen. Your own cousin, a known Precog—” William strode to Gabriel, who straightened, knowing the tenor of the vampire he faced: volatile, fresh, angry. “No. She could give nothing of substance. It was all vague.” He threw his arm out. “I would never be content with that as Julia's end. Ambiguity? No!” “But William, I knew she would be safe,” Claire said. William nodded. “Oh yes! She is quite safe… with the other Singers. How long do you think it will be before one of them recognizes Julia for who she is and what she is to them?” There was no response from them. William faced Claire. “We have no evidence of where the Singers may be? It has always been our policy to not interfere in the balance. But now, that scale has been tipped. And not in our favor, I may add.” He lifted his brows in question, and Gabriel sighed. “All right”—he lifted his palm up—“you've made your point. We will call in a Locator.” William was surprised. He did not think there was a Locator in their kiss. “We will have to.” He looked at Claire. “I have not been amongst their kind… my kind. What is the contemporary vernacular for asking to borrow?” Claire nodded her understanding. “Call in a favor.” He nodded. “Yes!” He snapped his fingers. “That's it. We will call in a favor to our sister kiss and borrow one of their Singers who locates. That will help us find the Rare One.” “And what will they ask in return?” William asked. Gabriel sharpened his gaze on William. “I do not know. But rest assured it will be something.” William nodded, knowing that vampires did not solicit favors. They took what they wanted, needing no one—an autonomous group unlike any other. Except the Were. There was always the Were. “Yes. It will be that,” William agreed. Claire nodded. “There is always recompense.” The question was what and how much they would expect in payment. Not a pound of flesh—no, not that. But payment by blood would suffice very well. * Julia Julia had spent a lot of time that morning with her mouth hanging open while the boys—as she thought of the brothers—Brendan and Michael—and their spunky sister, Jen, gave her a tour of her newest home. The barn looked like a red stop sign in a field of green. Fresh and iconic, it stood like a stoic anchor about ninety yards from the Victorian house. It seemed innocuous from the outside, but when they went through the small doorway, she entered another world. It was as if they remained hidden in plain sight. The floor was white, as well as the walls, the desks… it was weird. Then Jen spoke. “Weird huh?” Julia nodded without speaking. Then she couldn't help herself and asked, “What's with the monochromatic thing?” “Helps us batten down the mental hatches, girlie!” Girlie? Julia laughed despite herself. “Really?” Brendan joined in. “Yeah. Keep everything one color, no distractions. Helps with training.” Michael nodded in agreement. There were partitions that separated the “rooms.” One of the rooms wasn't quiet, and its mats weren't white. They were blue and red. Blue in color… and red with blood. Julia stopped. There were three guys fighting, and they were really going at it. One man had an open cut above his eyebrow like a second mouth, and it was splattering blood everywhere. “Wait a sec—” Julia began. “Training,” Brendan interrupted. Julia's face turned sharply to his. “Is this what you do? I mean—” Julia hesitated, “—to each other?” Just as she asked the question, the instructor, whose back had been facing her, turned. Julia was instantly sure he was one of the brothers—the missing one because Jen had said she had three. He looked a little like Brendan, but the hair wasn't red at all. It was black, and he was clearly the eldest. He was tall, broad, and built like an ox. He'd have fit right in with the wolves. Julia assimilated these details in seconds. And in the next second, those thoughts were driven from her mind when he grinned at her and charged. Fear surged through Julia's body, beginning at her gut and throwing a tingling shot of what felt like electricity into her extremities. Her fingers and toes prickled uncomfortably when her telekinetic power flowed out of the hole that the fear had made, hitting the man as he advanced toward her at a dead run. Julia felt the wall of her power slam into him while he walked through it as if it had been mist. Next thing she knew, Brendan had barreled into her, smoothly rolling her out of the way of his locomotive relative. “Knock it off, Scott!” Brendan yelled even as he came for them again. Julia didn't even think. She jerked fifteen feet into the air, taking Brendan with her. She wasn't sure which part was better, Brendan's face or his brother's. “Well, I'll be damned!” Scott said with a laugh. “Maybe she's not a useless figurehead after all!” “Hey! Mannerless! Way to go on the introductions!” Jen said, smacking his beefy arm. “What? It's my job to assess new talent,” he said innocently. “She's our queen, asshat,” Michael said in a droll way. Scott paused. Julia and Brendan were still suspended in the air, and it was taking its toll. Julia was shaking in Brendan's arms. In Brendan's arms! Julia was suddenly acutely aware of being held by a guy she'd just met who was überattractive. Julia lost the tenuous grip on her ability, and her focus shattered. They fell, and she yelped, bracing for impact. Before they hit the hard concrete floor, which was painted an obscenely bright white, their progress was halted in a sickeningly explosive lurch. Julia looked around as she was gently lowered the remaining half foot to the ground. Jen's arms were out, power emanating from them. But she was looking only at Scott. “You stupe! Really? Look what almost happened? How would I have explained to Marcus that our queen's guts were strewn around the ground because you were Ê»assessing?ʼ” She hit him again and folded her arms across her chest, stewing. Jen huffed then noticed that Julia watching her. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I mean, about the guts and brains part.” “It's okay,” Julia said, scooting away from Brendan and standing. She gave a wary look at Scott, and he looked back with steady eyes, so brown they looked black. “You know,” Julia said, “if there's any truth to this royalty thing, I'm demoting your ass first.” Scott threw back his head and howled laughter. Finally, when he could speak, he said, “I think I like her.” “Not that it matters!” Jen said, still pissed. Brendan and Michael looked at their brother. Michael asked, “Don't you have someone's ass to kick or something? Stop stomping all over Julia, and get over there and train!” Scott walked over to Michael until their faces were inches apart. “Whatcha gonna do about it if I don't?” Suddenly, there was a ten-foot stack of cow shit, and Scott was in the middle of it with only his head peeking out of the top. “Michael!” he roared. Brendan, Jen, and Michael started to walk away, but Julia couldn't get past Scott howling and buried in a pile of manure that smelled so bad that Julia had to breathe through her mouth, her hand covering her nose. “Hey!” Julia called after them, and all three turned. “Aren't you going to… you're going to leave him like that?” She didn't know whether to laugh or help him out of his predicament. They nodded, grinning. “Yeah, he'll be free in about twenty seconds.” Michael said. “Too bad it couldn't last longer,” Jen muttered to herself just loud enough for Julia to hear. “Let him sing in his own shit for a minute,” Brendan said. Julia followed as Scott bellowed, “Payback's a bitch!” When they had walked to the end of the building, Julia turned. And there Scott stood, the manure gone. Not a speck of it remained. But the eyes that had bored into her back had not been friendly, and they weren't friendly now. Julia suppressed a shiver. Turning her back to Scott, she followed the friendlier part of the family, leaving the discomfort of the encounter behind her—for the time being * Introspection Julia watched the swan paddle on a small lake then shifted her eyes to the Olympic Mountains. They reminded her of home, a little. There were a few rocks that acted like small boulders that rimmed the shore. It was heavily pebbled with smaller rocks, not sand, but wonderful all the same. What was especially delicious was the time alone. It had been overwhelming to see and learn all the new information about herself, but she needed a breather. Julia got the distinct impression they had kept the walking tour short for her benefit. There were so many classifications of abilities she had stopped trying to memorize them after the first ten. There were main abilities and all their subabilities. It was too much. Her head had buzzed with the sheer wealth of knowledge. One thing she did understand was that Scott, the brother who didn't like her, was a Deflector and a highly skilled martial artist, as well. He could cancel out another Singer's ability. As with his brother Michael, it was powerfully effective but only for a half-minute or so. Then there was Jen. She was telekinetic but in a different way than Julia—or maybe not different, just much better. Then there was the post-puberty strength that came into play. That ability was only for the males. But God was just, and the female Singersʼ abilities were usually stronger or, at the very least, longer lasting. So, the males and females were pretty evenly matched. Julia skipped one of the flat stones, and the swan startled, flying a few feet and craning its elegant neck to give her a disdainful look. Could swans be angry? She sighed and sat down on the boulder again then picked up a stick and twirled the water, her chin in her palm. Then there was Michael. She felt her whole face break into a grin. That scene with the shit had been priceless. Beyond funny… even if Scott hadn't been laughing. Payback's a bitch. Julia threw the stick in the water and stood. She began to pace the shore, thinking about Brendan. He'd been the one to carry her from the Were. How had he found her? He said simply that he was a “Tracker.” It didn't fully explain things. He also said he had a crossover ability. Pyrokinetic. Julia was reminded of that Stephen King novel, Firestarter. She'd mentioned it to Brendan who'd laughed and said, “Nah, that's some trashy fiction story.” Right. The novel's plot hadn't seemed so implausible when the feet of ten werewolves were on fire. That had seemed pretty legit to her. Her mind landed on William. He'd been trying to free her, too. But the more Julia thought about it, the less “free” it felt. She cared for him… but the reality was she'd be the bird in the gilded cage again. She almost was a bird in a cage of the Were, as well. It wouldn't have been gilded though. Julia thought of Tony and shuddered to think there was even a slim chance that she'd have been forced into a union with Tony. She understood instinctively that he'd been bad, evil maybe. And it hadn't just been Adriana's misgivings. Julia had had plenty of her own. She sighed. She felt as though she was shuffling a deck of cards, afraid to cut the deck. Julia heard a noise and turned, her hand at her heart, startled. She smiled when she saw who it was. Brendan. He walked toward her, his bronze hair a low-burning flame with the sun lighting it from behind, his eyes like onyx with the sun at his back. The mountains framed his silhouette as he approached, and Julia felt heat rise to her face, seeing the evidence of his combative training on every square inch of his body. He waved at her as he drew closer, and she lifted her hand in return. Julia already felt more at home with him than she had a right to. CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT The feral saw the two beside the lake and could hardly contain his territorial urges over the female. She was his, and another was beside her, putting his hands on her. That male would die. The feral would enjoy tearing at the soft flesh of his neck, the hot spray from the blood coating his muzzle in a satisfying spray of fragrance. With an effort that was almost painful, he retreated into the depths of the forest, his snout scenting their whereabouts. He would be cautious. The male who was with her had an advantage that the feral recognized and wished to cripple if he could. The male was something other than human. The feral did not know how he knew this, but when he had been near the male and the small female, their kinship had been apparent, easy to scent. But the feral's chest had tightened uncomfortably with a sensation he could not identify. When he had the male in his grip, he would ascertain what that enigmatic detail was. * Brendan Brendan watched Julia from a safe distance. She wore her discontent readily, he thought. Brendan sighed. He couldn't contain the fam, and knew not to even try. It was obvious Julia felt off-kilter, unsettled. Who wouldn't? First the vamps took her then the Were. He didn't know much about her past. They'd find out more later. After all, she was their queen. Marcus had raised them on the legend, as his father had before him. He'd demand to know more. She didn't look very queenly. She was slim and of average height for a female. Her coloring was different. Brendan slowed his pace, studying her. Julia had a unique, soft golden-red hair color. But it was her eyes that took his breath away. They matched her hair, depending on the light. They were amber in indirect light, but in the sun, they rivaled the orb's brightness. He walked toward her, and she jumped as if he'd startled her. He gave a short flick of his fingers, sort of an unconscious waving of the white flag. She waved back, and he smiled, walking the rest of the way toward her. He was puzzled by the expression on her face. For a moment there, she looked as if she was assessing him. Taking his measure as a man. Brendan's smile widened into a grin. Now, that he kind of liked. When he reached her, and she didn't seem resistant, he took Julia into his arms, giving her a brief hug then releasing her. She smelled like a ripe piece of fruit, and he instantly wondered if it was the shampoo or her. Brendan stepped back, reluctantly letting her go, his fingers trailing lightly down her arms, causing goose flesh to rise where their contact had been. Then it hit him: a smell so strange he couldn't name it. But it was familiar. Brendan swung his head in the direction of the woods that bordered the opposite side of the lake. * Julia leaned into the hug that Brendan gave her and sighed. She allowed herself that moment's peace then stepped away. Her chest tightened horribly. Her loneliness constricted her heart. She was desperately alone. At least, it felt that way. As a matter of fact, in only a few more days, it would be two years since Jason died. Tears threatened at the thought of that anniversary, but they were chased away by the sudden expression of wariness that washed over Brendan's features. Julia looked around, frightened. They'd said she was safe! She whirled on Brendan just as he grabbed her. “Let's get outta here!” he said, dragging her after him. “What is it?” she asked, half jogging. But he didn't answer until they had traveled the short distance to the house. When they bounded up the wide, wooden steps and were nearly at the front door, he turned and took her shoulders. “There's something in the woods!” His eyes searched hers, the grip cupping her shoulders almost painful. “What?” she cried. Was it vampire? Were? What the hell… trolls? Could there be more mythological creatures springing to life to kidnap her away from the one group that she actually belonged to? Jen stepped out the front door, letting the screen crack back against the wood frame. The noise of it reverberated everywhere. She took in Brendan's expression. Her eyebrows came together. “What's wrong?” Jen looked from Julia to Brendan. Julia said, “How did you know there was something wrong?” Jen flicked her eyes at Julia. “It's a sib thing.” Julia waited. Finally Brendan said, “It's that Were from the compound.” Jen rolled her eyes. “Thanks for clearing that up, bro! What, there's like, a hundred or something?” They looked at each other, and Julia watched their expressions. Jen spoke first. “You mean that giant red one?” He nodded. “Yeah, that's him.” Julia remembered almost going to him—the connection had been so strong. What could it mean? Jen looked at her. “This is some of the awful crap that can happen.” She sighed and looked at Brendan again. His eyes turned away from hers. They were trained on the woods beyond the lake. At that moment, Scott and Michael came walking from the big barn that acted as Training Facility for Singers. There wasn't a laugh or smile on their faces. Not that she'd expected one from Scott, but Michael had been downright jovial in the two days since she'd been with them. Julia looked at all of them. “Okay, I give up. What's lurking around in the woods that has everyone's collective underwear in a wad? You guys are scaring me!” Brendan said, “We think—” Jen glared at him, and he shook his head, resigned. “I think that we have a Singer who's been turned.” Julia stepped forward. “I don't get it. Turned how?” Michael shook his head. “Not how—what.” Julia sat there and let the idea take shape, blooming in her head like an ugly flower. Her eyes snapped to Brendan's. “Wait a second. You're telling me that we've got someone out there that was one of us, and now some Were or vamp has… changed them?” Scott nodded. “Yeah, that's about it.” He folded his muscular arms across a barrel chest. Jen turned to Brendan. “You're sure, Bren?” “Werewolf,” he said tersely, and Jen's shoulders drooped. “They're the worst.” “What's with all this? It can't be saved?” Julia asked. Brendan shook his head. “It's a he.” It was a man. A Singer like herself, turned. Her gaze swung back to Brendan's. “Did he want to be a werewolf?” Scott answered, “Doubtful. The attacking Were would've known he was a Singer. Don't know why they'd do a Singer. After all, they need Singers to produce”—he lifted his fingers in sarcastic air quotes—“a Rare One.” His eyes met hers. They were filled with loathing and derision. Somebody wasn't happy with her status. Like I can goddamn help it! What the hell had she done to piss in his Wheaties? The putz. Julia felt her eyes narrow as angry heat suffused her face. He glared right back at her. “What's your problem?” Julia asked. Scott met the challenge in her words and stalked toward her as Brendan put her behind his back. “What are you doing, Scott?” Brendan ground out. “It's her fault! He's after her!” His eyes found all of theirs and then went back to Julia. Well, she wasn't going to hide behind Brendan. She came from behind him, and Brendan said in a low voice full of threat, “Don't you hurt her.” “Our queen?” he asked mockingly, putting his hand to his chest and looking at Julia as if she were a piece of garbage on the bottom of his shoe. “Never! She is safe as a sleeping babe in the cradle of her mother's bosom!” he snarled, barely contained rage making his face more handsome, not less. “Stop it, Scott!” Jen hissed. “No!” he yelled back, and Jen flinched. Julia got right up in his personal space, defying common sense as he was at least six foot three and built like a brick shit house, all brawn and anger. “I can't be that safe because I don't have a mother.” She poked his solidly muscled chest with her finger for emphasis, and he didn't move a centimeter. “I don't know what I did to get on the top of your shit list, but I assure you it wasn't on purpose!” Julia was shaking with rage but continued. “I watched my husband die.” Their eyes widened while Scott's narrowed. “My best friend is gone forever, my parents dead. I was with the vampires, then the Were, and now I'm with you. I have to be queen? Of the Blood Singers? Maybe I don't want the job!” And with that last comment, she pushed him in the chest, but it came out more like a slap, harder than she meant it to be, like hitting a tree. Her anger overrode even the pretense of self-restraint. He wrapped his huge hands around her small wrists and jerked her into his body. The siblings were too late to help or to stop it. The moment Scott touched her, the branding fire of his flesh on hers was complete. Neither expected it. Neither welcomed it. Julia's soul bound to Scott's in one earth-shattering moment of clarity, as natural as the breath she took. She felt their beings knitting together, and she gasped. It was almost painful. He breathed out, “No.” Even as he staggered back, his hands went for her again, but Brendan was there. “What's wrong with you, Scott? What are you doing?” Jen and Michael looked at each other then at Julia. She was breathing shallowly, her body a throbbing mass of unquenched desire, longing, and absolution. Her eyes never left his. Julia didn't even like Scott. Then Marcus, their leader, was there. He looked from one to the other of them, instant understanding riding his face, their unity a thing that sizzled in the air all around them. “Soul mates!” he proclaimed. Julia looked from the leader and obvious father of the family as she leaned weakly against Brendan's chest, her back pressed against his warmth and comfort, her eyes fixed on Scott's. His were filled with anger and hate directed at her. They couldn't be soul anything. It was obvious Julia wasn't someone he wanted, respected, or liked. She tore herself out of Brendan's arms and ran inside the house. Taking the steps two at a time, she rushed into the bedroom they'd given her and slammed the door, using the old-fashioned skeleton key to lock it. She backed away until her thighs pressed against the bed. Julia sank down into the mattress, the firmness of it a temporary cradle to her sadness. Could things get any more screwed up if she'd wished for it? She put her face in her hands and cried, while off in the distance, she heard a howl. * Singers “Tell me,” Marcus said, his eyes like slits on his grown children. “And it better be good.” Everyone began talking at once. Finally Michael took the conversational reins. “Brendan came back with news of a Singer turned Were.” “What?” Marcus roared, his eyes casting a wide net at the surrounding area. Brendan shook his head. “It's in the woods for now. But it will find its way here. Soon.” “Male?” Marcus queried. They nodded. Marcus looked at Scott. “I understand your sentiments about the Queen—that you've never adjusted to the idea of it.” Jen rolled her eyes. “Adjusted, Dad? Try anarchy! That'd be more like it.” She looked at her oldest brother. He was so sure of himself. Nothing ever bothered him. He fought with a skill unmatched by any other Singer in their quadrant. He was the number one Deflector of their band of Singers and then one female Singer—the Queen—came to them, and he lost his status of independence. That was what a soul-meld would do. The irony wasn't lost on Jen. She felt a little sorry for Scott. It would suck hating his soul mate but being bonded to her anyway. And Julia impressed Jen as independent. She felt a smile curl her lips. “And now I'm bound to her!” Scott roared, his lip curling with distaste. * Above them, Julia listened from the window that was ajar. It was fine that Scott didn't want her. He was stubborn and mean and—ugh! Julia didn't even like him! She'd do better on her own. She felt confident enough with her telekinetic ability to get by. Julia didn't want to be queen. And she didn't care if there was some “soul-meld” or whatever. She couldn't get out of being a Blood Singer or a Rare One. But she didn't have to be in this place with someone who hated her. She looked around her room. A profound melancholy slipped through her, her being still tingling from the encounter with Scott. Julia shoved away how painfully right it had felt to be in his arms for that one moment. He hated her anyway, so it didn't matter. Julia grabbed the only coat in the room and slipped out quietly, heading down the staircase that exited the back of the house. It had once been a little-used servant's staircase. She used it now with circumspection. Julia slipped away without listening to the rest of the conversation. * Marcus looked at his eldest son and sighed. Scott had excelled at everything, his training, his ability, his… conquests. But stubbornness was his biggest flaw. Scott had fought long and hard to let the legend of the Queen of the Blood Singers die a natural death. She did not exist, he'd argued—it was only legend. But Marcus remembered the reverent way that his father had discussed her Coming. He knew that Julia was the Queen. If her scent was not sufficient confirmation, she had the mark of the moon branded on her forehead, as foretold. The pearly crescent shone at her temple, a testament to her position among them. Scott could deny it until he was blue in the face. But Brendan was one of their finest Trackers. His nose never lied. Then there was the soul-meld. His eye's met his son's. Only Singers of royal blood could soul-meld. It was a double confirmation. “Hate her if you will, but remember this”—Marcus spoke to all of them but directed his words at Scott—“she has been through many traumas. We don't know what or how many. What did she tell you?” Jen told him what Julia had said to Scott. Marcus threw up his hands. “So what we have here is a Singer who lost a husband.” “Infant bride,” Michael muttered, and Marcus's brow cocked. “Nothing,” Michael said but couldn't hide a smile. “And she was held by both factions, Were and vampire?” When Marcus looked for confirmation, Brendan nodded. “Then”— he began to pace the wooden planks of the covered deck, and some squeaked with age as he passed—“she is kidnapped by her own people, told she is queen, and treated abominably by my eldest son.” “Twice,” Marcus said, looking at Scott, who glowered back, the barest hint of shame creeping into his expression. * Scott folded his muscular arms across a chest that proved his time on the mat. “Okay, I guess I could have handled it better,” he said, still trying to stop his guts from churning. His entire body yearned to get back to her. He hated the loss of his independence. “Uh… duh!” Jen said. He glanced at her, and she continued. “Unless anyone objects, I suggest you get your dumbass up there and apologize!” Marcus scowled at Jen but let it go. “From all accounts, Scott behaved badly. And to a female Singer—the Queen, no less! It could hardly have been worse.” Scott said, “I hate feeling trapped. She made me feel…” “Complete?” Brendan asked with just a hint of envy. Scott thought about it. Yeah, he guessed she had, but she'd blindsided him. He'd been totally—no, completely—unprepared for a soul-meld. But dammit, he had reveled in his independence, refused to go on the wild goose chase of an acquisition for another Singer. Let his hotdog brothers and sister do it. And look what the cat had dragged home. He looked up at the window of her bedroom, feeling miserable. How could he fix it? Did he want to? He realized belatedly he may have misjudged her. Badly. Scott remembered those huge amber eyes looking up at him in anger, wounded by his careless words. He'd fallen right into them—as soon as she was inside the circle of his arms, he couldn't think of anything but her—and the protection of her. He sighed and began to walk toward the front door. “Wait,” Marcus said, and Scott turned, a question on his face. “She needs extra protection from this Were.” Scott's siblings turned to look at their father. When he had their full attention, he resumed. “You understand how dangerous a turned Singer is. The Queen will be like a homing beacon.” Brendan nodded, understanding. “He'll be a problem, all right.” Scott's heart began to speed, his intuition kicking in. Already, his thoughts were on Julia. Where was she at this very moment? He was instantly pissed that he gave a rat's ass. He felt as if his mind were tearing in two. His intellect rebelled against what his soul was compelled to execute… and feel. Julia, it screamed. Where is Julia? Scott shook his head to clear it from the fuzziness of the duality of his nature. “Why?” Scott heard himself asking despite himself. Michael hadn't paid attention to this part of his training and shrugged, but Jen had been an apt pupil like Brendan, and she said, “It breaks the mind of a Singer turned. His mind is gone. He'd want to belong with us but wouldn't know how.” “He'd hurt Julia if he got his hands on her,” Brendan said. “Those Singers that have been turned are crazy as hell.” Marcus nodded. “As descriptions go, that's a good one.” Scott's hand clenched the solid brass knob of the screen door, and it creaked in protest under his abusive grip. “So, let me get this straight. This… feral werewolf was once a Singer, got nailed by a Were attack, and is now scenting after Julia.” “Yeah,” Brendan said. Scott scoffed. “Let it try. I'll rip its paws off and scratch his own ass with them!” Michael laughed. “What's so damn funny?” Scott asked, his eyes narrowing. “A couple of things, I'm guessing,” Brendan said. “Enlighten us, please,” Marcus said in his droll way. “First”—Brendan held up a finger—“Scott didn't give two shits and an eff about Julia—hated her, as a matter of fact.” Brendan waited for a dissenting comment or grunt. When none came, he continued. “Second, the visual of you tearing off the paw of the Were that we saw at the compound and scratching its…” Brendan shook his head. “No, pal. Sorry. He's big-time feral in his pants.” “And just big-time!” Jen agreed. “He's the biggest Were we've ever seen. Red, different.” Scott frowned. So? “In other words, it may take more than your pissed-off attitude to subdue this fella!” Michael said. “Ah—” Marcus began, and they all looked at him. “That's where you're wrong.” he said slowly. “When a soul mate's partner is threatened, there may be more in the arsenal than what the Singer was bestowed with at birth.” Scott's hand dropped from the knob. “What do you mean, Dad?” “I mean that it is your singular purpose to protect and nurture her.” Marcus's eyes speared Scott's. “She is in the gravest danger right now, at her most vulnerable. Until this feral is caught and disposed of, he will not stop until he has her.” “Will he kill her?” Jen asked. “I do not know," Marcus said. “But ask yourself this.” They leaned forward to hear his last words. “Does anyone want to find out?” Hell no! A primal yell sounded from deep within Scott, and against every intellectual imperative, his feet strode through the doorway and flung him up the stairs toward her room—toward Julia. * Julia threw branches away as they scraped past her. She crashed through the brush that threatened to stab her viciously. She was furious. The more she walked, the angrier she became. It was useless, though. Being angry didn't matter. Letting go of the Singers and what she was did matter. Every step she took was a greater distance between she and Scott, and in her mind, she was happy. But her heart grieved. She felt a little the way she had after Jason had died. But how could that be? She didn't even know Scott! In fact, he'd made a point of being an ass! Julia rounded a stand of trees, and she stopped in her tracks. A massive Were stood in front of her, his green eyes pegging her intensely. She hauled in a lungful of air to scream, and he was on her, his hand that had talons twice the length of her fingers wrapping her mouth and tickling her ears. Julia's vision grew dim, her fear making her bladder burn for release. As her world faded to gray, the last thing she saw were those emerald eyes staring at her. * The female lost consciousness, and the feral pressed her light body to his. He turned and ran, covering more ground than she could have on her own, his half-wolf form perfectly suited to the dense conditions of the forest. The burden of the female was an abiding comfort. It was the only time he had felt a sense of peace since he'd become… whatever he was now. CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE Scott put his hand on the multi-faceted knob, the crystal a solid weight under his palm, and turned it. The five-panel door swung inward on its own momentum. His eyes swept the sunlit room, missing nothing. Julia was gone. His heart thudded to a stop, the words he'd spoken crashing back into his mind with the weight of the ages. He found the flaw in the room: the window was open a crack, maybe two inches. The white curtains, like billowing fingers of smoke, fluttered with the breeze. He walked to the window, his siblings entering Julia's room behind him. He stood at the window, the low sill pressing against his upper shins. Scott could clearly hear the voices of various people from a distance, the strange acoustics of the oddly formed bay accentuating the noises and amplifying them. Julia would have heard everything he had to say about her down below—including his tone of hate and disrespect. Scott hung his head, curling his hands into tight fists. He understood that she must have left before he had wrestled his emotions into some kind of basic order and prepared to right his wrong and give her some neutral deference. Now she was gone and possibly in danger. Grave danger. Scott turned his back to the window. He spied something of hers and picked it up. It was a hoodie. He crushed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of Julia, his chest tightening with soul recognition. His deep brown eyes flashed to those of his siblings and father. “She's gone.” Guilt rode him mercilessly. “Great,” Jen said. “You pushed her away,” Brendan accused. “You think?” Scott's eyes were twin holes of burning fury—at himself. “I screwed up. I got that. But now's not the time for talk.” He speared his brother with a look. “Can you find her?” “Absolutely,” Brendan said then paused for a heartbeat. “The better question is: has he found her?” They were all quiet for a moment with silent agreement. Then they turned and rushed out the door. Julia's hoodie was gripped in Scott's fist like a lifeline. He had never been so focused in his life. He needed to find her. All the bullshit legends of his childhood that he'd discounted—Singer royalty, soul-melding, all of it—was no longer legend. It was his new reality. They ran down the back stairs, the very ones Julia had used a mere hour before. Bursting out of the back door, Brendan tracked Julia to the forest's edge. His grave stare focused on Scott. “What?” Scott asked. For the first time, terror sank its teeth into his psyche. Scott had never had need of fear. It was an alien emotion for him. Until now. “The feral's in these woods,” Brendan said, using the very words that Scott had not wanted to hear. “Does he… has he…?” Scott's grip on Julia's sweatshirt made his knuckles turn white. Brendan gave a single nod. Scott yelled. The feral's sensitive ears picked up a rage-filled bellow. He swiftly widened the breach between the Singers and himself. He picked up his pace, the girl in his arms unaware of who carried her. Or who followed. **** Were Adriana felt as though her ass had been handed to her—as usual. She always felt that way when she was done “visiting” with Lawrence. She kicked a rock on the way out of his chamber. The word “chamber” wasn't really accurate. His quarters, as she preferred to think of them, were huge. She'd never been in his actual bedroom. They always met in his cavernous library, his great desk was like a mighty wooden ship in the center of a sea of books. She always felt like her own ship was sinking. This time, he'd reamed her up one side and down the other. Tony had come up smelling like a rose—as always. It really rubbed Adi the wrong way that she was every bit the fighter he was, but when it came down to talon-to-talon, he'd best her. Her fists tightened. She had twice the heart that he had. But he was just that much bigger than she. If skill and training were equal, someone with all those pounds and muscle would be victor. It was the opposite of fair. Sometimes she hated being female. Adi liked the one thing she had over him, though. Ironically, it was her gender. Tony was destined to mate with a female Were. He was second to her brother, Joseph, the most powerful Alpha in their region. Because of his station within the werewolf hierarchy, she should have looked at Tony as top on the list of potentials. That was how he'd looked at her until she made it clear she thought he was a Loser with a capital L. Now, his mate options were limited to females other than her. But Tony didn't really want a mate. He wanted a female Were trophy to parade under the snouts of all the other male Were that couldn't be mated to a female Were. There were too few. She smiled. Adi enjoyed bristling Tony's fur every chance she got. He was so full of himself. Like today. He'd painted his role in the escape of the feral in such a way it made it sound as if she'd been irresponsible. That was not the truth. The truth was that he'd passed off a difficult chore to a female at the worst point of the month. And the feral had shown her a kind of mercy, tearing her shoulder out of its socket yet not killing her. Not so crazy after all. Then there was the other question about the feral: who was he really? Why the interest in the Rare One? Because no one could convince Adi differently: if he'd wished for escape earlier, he could have had it. No. He'd wanted Jules. Adi would have staked her life on it. Tony followed her out with a smirk, whistling. The asshole. Then Joseph came, casting a look her way. She waited, and he walked over to her. “You know, if you'd be a little”—he rolled his eyes skyward, searching for the perfect word—“softer with Tony, he'd cut you some slack.” He shrugged. “No,” she responded shortly. “He can kiss my ass!” Adriana folded her arms across her chest. “I'll never suck up to him. Besides”—she looked at her brother again—“did you see how he made me look in front of Lawrence? He never does or says the right thing. Every verbal angle he plays is uttered for his benefit, never anyone else's.” Couldn't her brother see that? Joseph said, “Tony is self-centered. But he's my second and an excellent fighter. It doesn't matter that you can't get along with him. You two will just have to reach some kind of mutual understanding to coexist.” “Whatever!” Adi responded in a loud voice. “I'll just avoid his obnoxious carcass and try for civility.” She rolled her eyes then nailed Joseph with a solid stare. He raised his brows in question, and she plowed forward, changing tactics. “Who is the feral?” Joseph sucked in his breath. “I can't say, Adi. I've been sworn to secrecy. You know that. We've been over it and over it—” “It's for the safety of the pack,” she interrupted. “Blah, blah. Yeah, whatever. I gotcha. But I want to know why we would even keep a feral.” Her eyes shifted to his, searching, and a wild idea began to form. It couldn't be… “Does he have something to do with Jules?” It was the barest flicker, but Adi caught it and snapped her fingers. “Tell me!” Joseph sighed, holding up a palm. “We thought that if the Rare One needed… encouragement, we could use the feral.” Adi scrunched her brows together. That didn't make sense. They stared at each other for several moments. She knew that Joseph could see her confusion. “How? How could he coerce…?” Joseph told her. It took almost a half hour, and when he'd finished, only the birds in the trees could be heard in the deafening silence that his revelation had left behind. Her slap against his skin rang out, startling the birds, which perched on high branches to exchange the safety of the trees for that of the sky. “How could you?” Her voice shook with contained rage. Joseph let her slap him, hanging his shoulders in helpless guilt. “I should have fought harder against it.” Adi's eyes narrowed on him. “Whose idea was this?” Joseph didn't answer. His eyes were answer enough. Of fucking course. Adrianna stalked off in search of Tony. Joseph tried to grab her arm to stop her, and she tore it away from him, turning on him like the wolf she was. “Don't touch me! It was unforgivable.” Her eyes locked on to him. “You know what? It's good that the Singers took Julia. Maybe somebody can treat her like a human being instead of something to be manipulated. We don't deserve her.” She strode off in search of Tony. Joseph watched her go, his self-loathing a solid weight in his body. In his soul. **** William William was hopeful. He clapped the Locator on his back as he left the kiss with a thank-you and the blessing of their lightwalker, Gabriel. A huge favor in the future was his collateral. It would hang over the coven's head. But if he could regain Julia, it would not matter. Their kiss's prosperity and importance would be solidified forever. The Locator turned, giving William his steady regard. “You have the map?” William nodded, and the vampire gave the barest smile of acknowledgment. “I wish you the best fortune in locating your Singer.” They both knew that Julia wasn't just any Singer. But neither said it openly. They had put their competition aside for the moment, but a sister kiss trying for the Rare One was not beyond the scope of possibility. William was keen on not forgetting that basic fact. He closed the door behind him and strode to where Claire and Gabriel waited. Gabriel looked up as William drew closer. His finger stabbed the map. “The Singers have powerful blocking in place from our location. But”—his eyes met William's—“the Locator was quite sure that this is the general region.” They all studied the area. It was mountainous and densely wooded. Perfect cover for retrieval by vampires. William assembled runners. They packed their gear and went out on their last mission. If they could not retrieve Julia this time, he knew that his window of opportunity would have closed to nothing. Once she was in the womb of the Singers, it would be an impossibility to get to her. They afforded formidable protection that even his will and determination could not combat. He imagined she would be important to them, as well, though perhaps not labeled “Rare One” as she was with the vampires and werewolves. Maybe for them she was something else entirely. Julia would be royal among their kind, William decided. She would be like a queen. * The Feral The feral swept the hair that had fallen across the face of the female away from her eyes and studied her. It made a sweet longing like the finest blood rise unbidden within his wolf form. It was almost enough to make him slide back into his human shape. But not yet. His strange, half-human form was the one he instinctively realized was best for the distance he needed. Even now, he could feel his kind chasing after them. They wanted the female. He clutched her tighter to his body. Soon, he would need to feed and would have to leave her unconscious and unprotected for a time. He scowled. He moved smoothly with the tiny female in his arms, a sense of rightness and purpose propelling him naturally. He searched until he was satisfied, finding the perfect den in which to hide her. Then he tucked her inside the small rock crevice. He backed away, his hunger a gnawing monster in his belly. Before he could compromise his strength further by lingering over her, he fled in search of prey. That would keep him busy for longer than he liked. * Julia woke up with darkness all around her and was chilled to the bone. She had a coat, but the damp coolness of her environment had sunk into her bones and weighed her down. She put her hands out in an exploratory movement and hit something solid. All around her, Julia could feel solid weight. She smelled the earth surrounding her. The space felt like a tomb. Julia panicked, scraping the confines of the dark cave, whimpering in fear. But before she lost it totally, her memory slid into place, and she realized what had happened. She remembered the great red werewolf. Actually, his fur was like wine. Not that it mattered. She closed her eyes tightly. What was she doing here? Where was he? What had he put her in? Calm thyself, Julia! Her lips set in a determined line, Julia lifted her head as high as she could without hitting the ceiling. Ambient light reached her eyes, and she could just make out her toes like twin hills in the distance. Julia thought that she might have been stuffed in some kind of hole. For safekeeping. She gulped, trying not to think of what that meant. Maybe a tasty meal for later? Julia shuddered at the thought. She needed to get the hell out of there! She experimented, wiggling around, and discovered that the only place of escape was where her feet were. Well… she couldn't move at all. She had maybe six inches on all sides. It didn't matter. She'd never been more scared since that night—since Jason—but she wasn't going to give up yet. She began to wiggle her butt like an inchworm, bunching her muscles then scooting forward, inch by inch. Julia knew when she made headway because she could see better. Finally, her legs were free of the hold, and she was able to bend her knees and drag her body farther, stabbing her heels into the dirt at her feet and pulling herself out incrementally. In less than five minutes, she was free. Even the dappled sunlight through the canopy of trees was bright and full of glare after the utter darkness of the hole she'd been in. Julia turned, squinting, and looked at where she'd been. It was a narrow slot at the base of a natural rock formation, barely more that a crevice. No one would have ever seen her unless they knew she was there. Julia stood, and the pins and needles of returning blood flow almost brought her to her knees. But she persevered, breathing slowly in and out. She was tired of fainting, being kidnapped, and being told who she was and what she was going to be and do. She was Julia, and she was going to be okay. Julia turned and walked away, casting a glance behind her as she went. She didn't have the vaguest clue where she was, but she was going somewhere. She headed west, where the sun rode above the mountains. At least she had a direction. Julia hoped it was not the same one the Were had used. **** Homer The phone buzzed shrilly beside his ear, and he snatched it up, his irritation rising like the tide beyond the window of the police station. “Truman,” Karl answered in his gruff voice. “It's Alexander,” the chief forensic specialist said. “Hello! Sing me the tune I like to hear.” “Okay. Well, I don't know if it's what you want to hear, but it's what I have.” Confusing, but okay, Karl thought. “All right. Lay it on me.” “I've got the sample DNA typed, but it's broad because I can't get a specific on it.” “Cut the cryptic shit, and just give it to me straight.” “Canine genome.” All right—just as he'd figured. No big surprise there. “Okay, wolves then.” Silence. Karl could almost hear the static on the normally clear lines. Alexander cleared his throat. “Listen, this is going to sound completely insane.” Karl waited. “But the classification is not entirely accurate.” “What are you saying, Alexander?” “I'm saying you've got yourself a new class of canine here.” “What, Bigfoot?” Karl gave a short bark of a laugh. Alexander didn't laugh. “No. Not Bigfoot.” “Then what?” This is crazy! “Something else. Something so different we don't know where to put it.” Karl leaned forward, his chair creaking under his weight. “Okay, give me what you know.” “Okay, more insanity. Ready?” “Hell yeah.” Karl tapped his ballpoint on the desk, listening. When Alexander was finished, he whistled low in the back of his throat, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his face. Finally, he said, “A guy could lose his reputation over what you're postulating.” “Yeah, no shit.” “So, what's the plan?” Karl asked. “Well, first off, I think the larger question is what are these things? Listen Truman, meet me back at the scene. With some additional measurements, I may have more answers. Who knows?” “Like, what kind of measurements?” “Size, for starters,” Alexander said. “And?” “Intelligence.” They were quiet for a full minute, the line buzzing between them. “You're not suggesting these things are the same ones that tossed that dump, are you?” “I am,” Alexander said. “Holy shit,” Truman breathed out. “Yeah.” * Cyn The driver looked as the forlorn girl entered his bus. When she told him where she wanted to go, he was somehow reminded of that waif of a girl a few months back—the one with the whiskey eyes and phony black hair dye. He wondered how she was doing. The girl said, “Kent.” He nodded. “I know just where to take you.” “Good.” She turned away and headed to the back of his bus. His eyes followed her in the rear-view mirror. She wore some funky boots. They looked like hard-core fisherman boots, reaching to her calves. Ugly suckers, shit-brown in color. Huh. They didn't really seem to go with the rest of her. He shifted his eyes back to the road, putting the great bus into gear. It ground out of park and into first gear, a plume of exhaust hailing its departure. * Cynthia leaned back, pushing her knees against the seat in front of her. She let her legs dangle, and right before she closed her eyes, she caught sight of Jules's boots on her feet. She smiled through her tears. I'll never forget you, Julia. After a few moments, Cynthia fell asleep, exhaustion taking the reins for her, the tears drying on her cheeks as she slept. * The bus driver drove his route twice, the same way he had with that other waif, giving the girl time to rest. When he was a couple blocks away from the women's shelter, he stopped. This is as good a place as any. He jerked the lever, and the bifold door opened with a burst of compressed air. Cynthia's eyes snapped open, and she noted that she was the sole person on the bus. Her eyes met those of the bus driver. She stood, her eyes flicking to the name embroidered on his uniform: Alfred. When she came to the front, she lowered her head and peeked out the bus door at a building a couple of blocks away. She could just make out the sign: “Freedom Affirmed.” She looked back at Alfred. “Where am I?” His kind eyes remained steady on hers. “Kent.” She nodded. “Right, okay.” Cynthia began to descend the short bus steps as she heard the driver's voice behind her. “That place up there will give you a couple daysʼ peace.” There is no peace for me, Cynthia thought. But she turned anyway and looked into his kind eyes. “Thanks. I'll check it out.” Alfred smiled and nodded, pushing the lever, the bus door closing with a snap and an air-driven hiss. Cynthia watched the bus glide away. The only proof it had ever existed was the exhaust cloud in its wake. Turning, she headed for the building. It's as good a place as any. Cynthia quickened her pace toward the building and a new life. * Julia Julia walked quickly and made progress. However, she grew thirsty, her tongue swelling like a tumor in her mouth. She became so parched it was all she could think of. Shading her eyes, she looked up at the sun. Julia guessed it was well past noontime. As she hiked, the sun would move behind clouds, casting deep shadows in the forest. Julia's mind played tricks on her, and she felt alone and scared… and foolish. Mostly just scared, she decided. Finally, Julia thought she heard the tinkling sounds of moving water, and when the forest floor grew greener and the topography of the ground at her feet began to slope away and downward, Julia figured she'd hit the jackpot. She grabbed branches to steady herself as she finessed her way down a short but steep ravine toward the sounds of a small stream. It was probably a river in Washington, but by Alaska standards, it was a creek. She knelt by the crystal-clear water and made a cup with both hands, letting the slow-moving water run over the top then capturing the refreshing goodness in her already cold flesh. Ignoring her intellect, she gulped greedy sips. After she'd drunk her fill, Julia stood, wiping her hands off on her jeans. She turned and carefully made her way up the small ravine, refreshed and rejuvenated. She abandoned the tree cover and entered an open meadow, stopping for a moment as the sun came from behind the clouds, beating its warmth into her as she stood in the open. Julia closed her eyes, lifting her face to the sun, and reveled in the stolen moment of warmth. When the first pain began to pierce her guts, she gasped, folding her arms across her belly protectively. What is this? She groaned out loud, holding herself. Julia felt the water she had drunk not thirty minutes before churn in her stomach like curdled milk. A chill rolled over her skin, and she began to shiver. Goose flesh rose, and she trembled again. Julia looked around, feeling ill. Maybe she drank too much at one time? This was the worse possible time to get the flu or some other crap. No worries—just the big bad wolf after me. She didn't think being Little Red Riding Hood was very funny. Zero amusement. Julia pressed forward, clutching her stomach as she walked. Her eyes searched the dim forest. She might have to find someplace to hide until her insides felt better. She moved into the soothing coolness of the forest as the first cramp tore into her, and pain rode her like a wave coming to shore. * William William and his five runners made haste. As soon as twilight had dropped its veil of protection over the city, they had left the shelter of the kiss. The cattle parted like the Red Sea. Even in their ignorant stupor, there was some biological imperative that kicked in, a primal alert of sorts. When the vampires evacuated their lair, the steps leading to the street a yawning concrete hole of uncertainty and darkness, the humans moved aside unconsciously, giving the vampires a wide berth. William moved quickly, Gabriel's words ringing in his head. Do not engage a large group of Singers. He had asked, "What is too many?" There had been a pregnant pause, and then Gabriel had responded with a question. "How many is too many at the Were stronghold?" William had understood. Had it not been for the feral Were, he might have stood a chance, even with the pair of Singers. He was not certain. He shrugged the thought away. Julia and he were connected, and William had Singer ancestry. He had alliance and blood-share in his favor. However small a portion his Singer ancestry was, it would cast weight to the positive for him. He swiped Gabriel's words away with a dismissive mental shrug. Gabriel did not fully understand battle reasoning. The Were, for all their flaws, did. In the heat of battle, decisions were made, some lacking in any rational foundation. Nevertheless, they were deemed critical then, in that moment. There might be a moment that arose in just that way in the next few hours, and William would be reactive. It was the only thing he had not allowed himself in prior instances. He had thought it a luxury. Now he recognized it for what it was: necessary. If he wanted Julia, he would have to use his emotions as his barometer, not his rational mind. This was not the time for mental negotiations. It was the time for action. Their noses were on keen alert as they made their way toward a remote spot on the Olympic Peninsula. William had chosen the runners for ancestry instead of warrior prowess with the ability to shift. They all shift now. To the casual observer, they would look like black wings and bodies, flying against the backdrop of the night sky. Only the eyes would give an observer pause. They were crimson, like blood. CHAPTER THIRTY Catalyst Julia rolled over onto her side, her body shuddering in response to the movement. She realized she'd made the gravest, most novice mistake in the world. She had drunk water from a creek untreated. Did her Alaskan upbringing teach her nothing? Dumb! She had beaver fever. Julia had consumed a ton of creek water, and now it felt as though someone was taking her insides out with a spoon. Worse, she wasn't throwing up or… the other. But a fine fever was there, securing a good foothold. And climbing higher. Julia remembered that when she was young, her mother had said she was a “burner,” one of those kids who got rid of being sick by jerking her core temperature up to an insanely dangerous level. Julia shivered, crawling back into the crevice of an old log. The wooden embrace was full of sodden leaves and God knew what else. She flung her arm out, bending it at the elbow to fit inside the tight space. She shuddered, as she put the bare skin of her forehead against the cold wetness of her jacket, dampened by her environment. Julia fell into a fitful doze, her body intermittently shaking from exhaustion and sickness. She was completely vulnerable and alone. The cougar had scented its prey in the meadow. It followed the female back to where she lay inside a downed log in the forest. The cougar slunk closer, knowing that the prey was weakened—and safely inside the cougar's territory. The animal prowled toward the log. It scented danger too late. * The werewolves moved in with typical stealth, tearing the cat's large head off its shoulders even as it turned to swipe. They executed the maneuver with precision and accuracy. Wasting nothing, they feasted on the most delicate part of their kill, leaving the remainder for possible consumption later. They were wary. Many scents were all around them—that of the enemy… and others. What lay within the folds of the log was too precious to be dispatched by the dumb creature of the forest, a lowly cat. They moved to the log and peered inside. * Vampire The ravens lit upon the branches of the trees. They had not discovered the scent of the Singer but that of the dogs. Circling the position, spying the group of four Were with the sharpness of their raven eyesight, they settled on the highest branches. William sent out an alert to the others, a single cawing tone of specific meaning. They fell to the ground as a well-oiled machine, from thirty of forty feet of height, their wings melting into deadened flesh and bone as they dropped. It was a beautiful symphony of purposeful landing that began with feathers and ended with feet, which touched the earth with a silent hop. * But the ravens were not silent enough. The Alpha amongst the Were snapped his head up, his senses on full alert. His snout swung toward the three he'd brought with him, and he turned to his first, giving a snort. The other Were scooped the girl out of the log. The Alpha scented her sickness and paused. She was very ill. He breathed deeper. Maybe not permanent? It didn't matter. The time to move was now. He went in the opposite direction of the scent that had accompanied the soft noise. Vampires. They would not recapture his precious cargo. The Were began to move away in battle formation, the Alpha at their back, his half-formed hands at the ready, the Rare One in the arms of his second. * The Feral The feral moved from his discovery with precision and energy, the meal he'd consumed affording him the speed and agility that would be necessary to find the female. He knew he should never have left her. She had escaped him. Judging by the tracks in the rock cave, she had wiggled out. Her small frame had allowed maneuverability. The feral ran hard, smoothly evading every obstacle, his form perfectly suited for the environment in which he traveled. He hit upon her scent and stopped short. It had changed. She was sickened by something. He scented deeper. She had drunk water and had the sickness that humans were susceptible to. It was not possible for him to be affected. He moved forward, scenting the many nuanced odors ahead of him. He welcomed the challenge of their presence. There would need to be many to keep him from the female. Mine, his mind said. Mine. **** Scott Scott stopped suddenly. His hands went to the hard planes of his stomach. “What is it?” Jen asked, her breathing labored. They'd been nearly running since they'd discovered Julia's disappearance. Scott felt a dull pain in his guts and bowels and a burning in the back of his neck. He described it to Marcus. “She's sick, and that's what you'd feel.” His father's tone was ominous, knowing. Scott wanted to get moving, but Marcus explained briefly, “A soul-meld is more than a pairing of Singers. It's an awareness of each other.” He made his hands collide, the fingers lacing together. “She has encountered”—he waffled his hand back and forth—“something, and she is ill.” Scott's teeth clenched together. This was just getting better and effing better. “Well,” Brendan began. “She's sick, all right, and the Were have her again.” Scott's eyes locked with Brendan's, sweat running down between his shoulder blades, chilling as his skin dampened in the cool night air. Then Brendan said the thing that made Scott's blood run cold. “The feral is out there”—he lifted his nose to the air, pushing a good amount of an invisible fragrance right underneath his nose with his palm—“vampires and werewolves.” “Wait! Flag on the play!” Jen yelled, throwing a flag on an imaginary football field. They all turned to her. Jen planted her hands on her hips. “What, more werewolves? The feral?” Brendan nodded. “Yeah, I'd recognize wet dog anywhere. And the red feral—he's his own tomato. The vampires—well, we know what they smell like.” “Shit,” Scott responded definitively and began jogging in the direction they'd been heading, impatient to get to her. “Scott!” Marcus yelled after his son. Scott whirled around. “No! I'm not waiting another second. It's already been too many seconds.” The siblings all looked uneasily at each other but followed him. He couldn't think until he had Julia safe. His change of heart was breathtaking in its completeness. * Julia Julia moaned, the constant rocking motion waking her. She wished she hadn't awoken. She looked up into a pair of eyes she hoped to never see again. Tony. It didn't matter what form he was in, she'd recognize his stench anywhere. She swore he grinned when he saw recognition dawn on her face. Julia tried to struggle in his grasp but was too weak by far to do anything. “Stay still,” he said in a low growl. “You're sick.” Julia felt hot tears she couldn't afford to lose run down her face. Helpless again. Grief crashed into her like an earthquake. It shook the very foundation of her soul, and nothing but despondency remained. * Tony looked down at the flushed face of the Rare One. He could scent her displeasure at being held by him coming out of every pore of her body. Even if she'd been well, she couldn't have fought him. Except for her gifts, she was helpless. She was helplessly female and ill in an intoxicating mix that made his perverted heart speed. He could feel the presence of the Alpha at his back and didn't care. Tony had never been one to follow rules. He'd have her, squirming and fighting. It'd be amazing. He crushed her against himself, and she made a pained sound and beat at his chest weakly. * Scott felt a great hopelessness well up inside him that was so foreign to his nature he interpreted it for what it was: Julia. And on the top of it all, he felt fear, discomfort, and pain. Someone was hurting her as she succumbed to illness. Scott's hands tightened into fists of rage. His fists knew how to deliver punishment, and they would do it soon. Scott increased his pace to a sprint. His Singer strength, endurance, and speed were on a par with the Were as well as the vampires. His siblings and parent followed in a rainbow blur of colors, their hues mixing inexplicably as they drew closer to Julia. Their familial footprint as they advanced into battle was formidable. Dangerous. * William and the others chased the trail left by the Were as they ran, Julia's scent mingled with the wolvesʼ. Her scent was off. Now that he had shifted back from raven form, William's senses seemed almost dulled, even though he knew they were a hundred times more sensitive than those of humans. He sped with every thought, every fiber of his being trained to overtake them and rescue Julia. * The feral watched those of his kind take the female. She was sickened and unable to defend herself from the one Were he hated most, the one who had taunted him. That Were had given him hose showers that had bruised his skin with the force of the spray and had given him prey that was spoiled or infirm. Yes, the feral would know his foul odor anywhere. A tingling rush of fighting adrenaline surged through him. The feral charged from the left, crashing out of the brush, as a thought came to him. They are nearly nose-blind to have not scented me this close. His step faltered for one half a second when he recognized the female Were he'd harmed in his pen. She traveled with them. A moment's peace touched him as he realized she was whole and well again. That peace fled as he barreled into the Were who led. The feral's talons sliced the neck as he launched a counterstrike, one against four. Joseph spun too late as the assault came at his third from the front. He couldn't believe he hadn't scented another Were this close. It was completely unexpected. He growled at his sister, “Run!” She would be crushed by the red. Every protective instinct Joseph possessed punched to life, his reaction automatic. * Adi ignored her brother and ran toward where Tony held Julia, the feral having ripped three holes in the leading Were's vulnerable neck. As he dropped from the killing blow, his blood blanketing the forest with crimson, Adriana leapt. Her arms were outstretched. Tony casually tossed Julia toward the ground. She landed in Adi's embrace, and they fell together on the soft forest debris. The feral met her eyes for one moment, and she cringed backward, scooping Julia closer in her arms. Her brother and Tony circled the red. His coat shone like fire burned down to embers, and she knew they would kill him. It made her chest tight to think it. Adi shook it off. What was wrong with her? He was feral. He had hurt her. But deep within, something stirred and responded to him against every precept and instinct. Adriana did not wish for his death. She turned her attention to Jules. She was burning up, moaning and thrashing. Adriana forced her human form to return. As difficult as it was to change to half wolf, it hurt more to go back to human so quickly, a brutal energy siphon. But she didn't want Jules to see her and be afraid. Adi held Jules in her arms, and the feral and werewolves circled each other just as the vampires entered the glade, and a troop of Singers broke out of the forest opposite them. Oh shit! Adi thought. We'll never make it out of here alive. Julia opened her eyes just then, and her fevered stare latched onto Adriana. “Adi,” she said weakly. “I'm here, Jules,” she said, wiping sweaty strands of hair out of her face. “Don't let them… hurt me.” Never, Adi thought, rolling the small bundle that was Julia into a hug and standing without effort. After all, she was a werewolf. She faced off with the vampires and Singers, her grin making her look like a wolf in sheep's clothing. CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE Reckoning Scott stared at the female werewolf who held Julia. Their queen. His. He growled. He didn't know where that primitive utterance had come from, but he rolled with it instinctively. He saw the vamps at the same time the werewolves went after the big red guy. Lots to do here. Scott was always game, his body practiced and ready for violence. It moved forward of its own volition. William saw the group of Singers and paused. His nostrils flared, and he recognized something about the one that led—his scent was slightly different. William was a runner. He was bred to recognize the Rare Blood in Singers. Julia was pure. But this one had enough quantum for William to respond. Every tracking instinct tingled inside him even as Julia was in his sights. Who was this Singer? The one William stared at launched himself with the speed of a Singer who was trained, seasoned, and in the prime of his life. He hurtled toward Julia. * Julia rose to consciousness as if swimming from the bottom of a pool but without the benefit of alertness. She was in a fog, the fever stealing her cognitive reasoning, making her slow and thick feeling. She watched the scene unfold from the cradle of Adi's arms. * Scott came toward Julia in a flash of brilliance, The tailwind of colors behind him she intuited as being the rest of his family. From Julia's left, William and the vampire tore toward her, the feral howling in misery. The tone of it told her all she needed to know. He drove to get to her, kept at bay by Tony and Joseph. But maybe not for long. * Julia made the most difficult decision of her life, but she knew it would solve the current problem instantly. Her mind sought what it needed, and when she found it… the metal flashed in the gloom of the forest, making its way to her as if by invisible strings. She grabbed the hilt of the stolen weapon, her telekinetic ability bringing it to her in a rush of surprise to all. The supernaturals in the forest stilled their movements. The desired effect was instantaneous. Marcus watched his utility knife, which he routinely wore at his hip, come unlatched and spin away from his body, lurching toward Julia hilt first. Julia caught it in her hand, flicked it open, held it to her own throat, and screamed hoarsely, “Stop!” Adi looked down at Julia. “No!” “Let me down, Adi.” Her voice was steady. Adriana did as she was asked, and Julia slid down the front of her body and swayed on her feet, her head swimming with pain and vertigo. Julia looked at William, who stood as still as a statue. “Do not,” he whispered. “None of us wish for this end, Julia. This is not the answer.” * Scott stopped breathing when he saw the metal gleaming against the pale throat of the Queen of the Blood Singers. The fibers of his being pulled taut to the breaking point while his soul shrieked inside him. He made a move to step forward, and Julia's gaze shifted to his. “Don't even try it. I know you hate me,” she hissed, her strength ebbing, her hand shaking from the strain of keeping it steady. The fibers of his being cinched tighter in discomfort. Her safety was in jeopardy by her own hand. Scott stood poised to launch himself at her the moment her attention wavered, the pain of not touching her unbearable. It was unlike anything he'd ever known. Every bruise, every battle wound—nothing compared. Julia backed away from all of them, her back touching the trunk of a tree. They stood, all eyes tracking her progress, knowing that a false move could end her life. Then what would they have? What would she be? Dead. As the tears began to flow, Julia realized that nothing good had happened to her since Jason's death. Her lower lip trembled, and her hand shook as she determined that this was the best answer for her after all. She was tired. So tired. Joseph and Tony saw her expression first as they were the closest. But it was the feral who acted, his half-wolf form slipping off him like water sheeting off glass. He sprang forward, human again for that moment. The moment of truth. Julia saw him, and her heart stalled in her chest. She dropped the knife, all thought of death forgotten. The knife speared the earth at her feet, and she staggered forward without thinking. **** Kent Cynthia thanked the nice lady with the sad eyes for the room, nodding in all the right places when she said it was but a transitional respite. Blah, blah, blah. Cynthia got it. A place to lay her head on a pillow, none of the creatures in sight. They couldn't have followed her all the way to the outskirts of Seattle. She breathed a sigh of relief for the first time in what felt like forever. She opened the door to the dark room and saw a bunch of plaster repair and the evidence of damage all over the place. The lady turned to her, the chain that hung off her glasses catching the light. “Don't mind the mess. We're doing a touch of remodeling.” Cynthia looked around her. Looks like more than a touch. The window looked the worst. She walked over to it, seeing the remnants of hand-blown glass, wavy and warped, encased in a solid wood frame. Hairline fissures scattered about the center were taped so they couldn't splinter further. She turned her head and saw the old lady's face in profile. “What happened?” The woman shrugged her shoulders, hauling the shawl she wore more firmly around her hunched shoulders. “We're not sure. But there was a young woman who stayed here a few months past.” She looked down at her sensible shoes and the pantyhose, which were an unnatural tan color. She suddenly looked up with guilt and muted horror. “She, uh… we think she was taken.” Not much of a shelter! Cynthia thought, looking at the damage of the room more closely. She asked, “By whom?” The woman shrugged, backing carefully out of the room, giving her a nod as she left, and closing the door softly behind her. Conversation closed. Cynthia looked at the windowsill more closely. Her chest tightened in a clutch of pain, her breath leaving her body. She traced the marring left in the wood of the sill with a hand that shook so badly she grabbed it with its mate to steady it. She gave a shaky exhalation. It wasn't who took the girl but what. Cynthia snatched her hand back. She looked outside, beyond the glass and the unkempt yard below to the forest. It was dark and quiet. A perfect hiding place—for them. Cyn backed up until her legs hit the mattress and sat down. She stared at the window. It looked as though she might have escaped one horror for another. Breaking her stupor, she rummaged in her backpack until she found what she was looking for. She lay down on her back, her finger running over her one photo, a habit of comfort these almost two years past. She never missed a night without looking at them. It was Vegas. Just the four of them: she and Kev, Jason and Jules. Before. Jules was dressed up for once, Jason's arm slung comfortably around her shoulders as if it belonged there. Cynthia's eyes stung with unshed tears, hot and unwelcome, as she looked at Kevin. When they ran down her face, she didn't wipe them away but pressed the photo against her chest. Her heart. She missed them so much she felt as though her heart would never stop breaking. That was why her chest hurt so damn much all the time. Her heart was broken in shards inside her. Cynthia covered the photo with both hands and put her head to the side of the pillow, stifling her sobbing from the other inhabitants of the women's shelter. * Truman Truman looked at Alexander, their eyes meeting a final time. “I can't believe this. I know you're telling me all this but I can't…” Karl tapped his head. “Wrap your head around it? Yeah, tell me about it!” Alexander responded, nodding. Karl Truman fought the urge to take his small note pad out of its home in the upper pocket of his button-down and clasped his hands together instead. “So they're…” George Alexander nodded. “They're big suckers, standing on hind legs.” He made his palm flat and put it a foot above his head. “That makes these guys about seven feet tall.” Truman whistled. “So, they're dexterous?” “Very. They had no difficulty pawing through this apartment, turning knobs, unlatching windows. No…” He paused, not a hint of humor in his voice, giving Truman the full weight of his eyes. “They used the doors and windows. They have higher reasoning, no doubt.” George tapped his temple. Truman thought about his words instead of blurting just anything out. “How high?” Alexander paused for a beat. “Maybe like us… maybe.” He scratched his head and turned his back on Truman, pacing off to the window, gazing at the forest that stretched interminably beyond their position. “They are something else.” “What are you saying, George?” Truman walked up to him, getting right in his face. He was going to make Alexander spill this info if it killed him. The specialist's green eyes met Truman's. “I'm saying we have real-life werewolves.” Truman staggered back a step. “No,” he said, getting a physical reaction of heat climbing his body uncomfortably. His mind had spun around the possibility of it but had eventually dismissed it as too unreal. Alexander paced toward him, ticking off the facts on his hand. “Canine genome, DNA match, size, aggression, higher reasoning…” Then after a pause, he let the final bomb drop. “The saliva tells us the final piece.” Real enough. Truman leaned forward despite not wanting to, his heart in his throat, the evidence warring with his disbelief over anything that was not concrete, normal, sane. “Human genome,” George Alexander said quietly. Truman stared at Alexander, and he returned it. The moment swelled with portentous knowledge, belief solidifying. Half human, half wolf. Werewolf. Alexander was reminded of one of the first precepts he had learned in med school: “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don't expect to see a zebra.” In this case, that was all he heard—zebras. CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO Jason. Maybe her eyes deceived her, but Julia's heart knew. She had watched as the feral melted away and a nearly naked Jason ran to her, fending off her killing blow. She crashed into him, her arms snapping around him. His body felt at once shocking familiar and foreign in her embrace. In a moment, she knew something was wrong as pandemonium broke loose all around her. The different factions came together at once in a collision of claws, talons, and speed. Julia was prone before she could move or breathe. Jason's now-human hands encircled her throat, her feverish skin burning against his cooler flesh. She frantically searched eyes that didn't know her. They were crazed and full of heat and hate. Who is he now? Julia shrieked inside her mind. Her head swam, and she began to grow dizzy, her stomach cramping as Jason—her husband from another life, another time—began to choke her to death. * Scott saw the feral return to his human state and launch himself at Julia. Scott bounded toward the feral werewolf just as he began to strangle Julia. The feral's mind was obviously broken. * William understood who it was the instant the red Were changed into human form. He had seen photos of Julia's former husband. But this was no longer the husband she knew. His mind was gone, the wolf in control even while he was human. Few Singers could overcome the transition to Were or vampire. It was never attempted. The results at this moment a confirmation of the dangerous consequence, the theory borne to fruition. William charged Jason Caldwell at the precise moment as Joseph and Tony. * The vampires and Were collided, and the forest grew still except for the sounds of flesh tearing and the battering of one against the other. Scott landed on the back of the Singer, aiming a blow to stun him. The vamps and Were fought behind him while his siblings formed a protective wall around him. * Jason felt the blow on the base of his neck, numbing in its accuracy and force. He began to slide away from the woman whom he'd been strangling. He recognized her too late. Jason fell beside her, meeting her eyes. Puzzle pieces of memories came from a blizzard that twirled without pattern to a solid stream of consciousness. This was not any female. This was his wife. Julia. What had he done? He moved to get up, and one of his kind leaped on his chest, knocking the wind out of him—but not before her eyes had met his, and Jason saw the one who had hit him pick Julia up as the Were and vampire beat each other into the forest floor, blood covering everything under five feet high in a spinning tornado of gore. Black and red ran together like a poisonous lake. He watched the blood of his kind and that of his enemy run together, his consciousness slipping away, the blow successful in its intent. Jason's last memory was Julia being taken from him by the arms of a large man while others like him surrounded them in a cocoon of protection, the vampires and Were dying all around him. He turned his head and looked at the female Were above him as his eyes closed, exhaustion from the Change and the revelation of what he'd done and who he was dropping him like a stone into a tumultuous sea of nothingness. * Jason fell away from her, and Julia sucked in a lungful of precious air, a hitching sob the next sound that escaped her, her abused throat on fire. Jason had tried to kill her! It was worse than his death. He'd lived, but it wasn't him. Two palms cradled her face and forced her to focus on the one who had saved her from certain death, first by her own hand, then by the hands of one who had once loved her. The electric shock of Scott's hands against Julia's skin instantly cooled the fever and stopped the internal turmoil of her stomach. She felt him lift her from the ground, strong arms wrapping her against his body, and he turned. A silent command rose from him like a sigh, and the others gathered around him like soldiers. Julia's head burrowed against his chest, her eyes just clearing his strong arm where they met the stare of Tony, dead vampires at his feet. William was nowhere to be seen. Joseph was dead, and Tony was the new Alpha. Fear rose in her instantly. Scott ran in the opposite direction, and the group they left behind became smaller in her vision. Jason and Adi were on the forest floor together, Jason unconscious and unaware, his head held by Adi. Adriana's eyes were all for Tony, the victor over the vampires, whose sights were solely set on Julia. Tony threw his head back and howled into the still air of the forest, his rage filling Julia's ears, reverberating inside her soul like a discordant note of music. * Scott's arms pulsed around Julia, tightening with protection. He picked up his pace. The mongrel would never touch her again. He'd stake his life on it. THE END Julia has been ripped from the escape she'd planned for herself. When she awakens to discover that her reality has shifted to include a supposed soul-meld with a man she hates, and who hates her... she rebels. Julia doesn't want to be captive in a gilded cage. Broken from the horrific events surrounding her friends, Cynthia migrates to the very city that Julia resides, determining to find her as the police follow the bread crumbs she's left in her wake. The Feral has come full circle and must begin a new life from the shadow of the old. His placement in the hierarchy of the pack is uncertain when he finds that he has an integral enemy and a pack member to protect. Can the vestiges of Julia's former life be restored so she might reunite with her one true love or has that door closed forever because of supernatural circumstances beyond their control? BLOOD SONG A Blood Series Novel Book 2 New York Times Bestselling Author TAMARA ROSE BLODGETT All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2012 Tamara Rose Blodgett No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental. www.tamararoseblodgett.com TRB Facebook Fan Page Edited suggestions provided by Stephanie T. Lott Cover Design: Claudia McKinney Photographs: DepositPhotos Photography: Oleg Gekman DEDICATION: Cameren Who pressed me to finish, Blood Singers, back in 2007—when it was only a dream. Without his encouragement, this work would not have come to fruition. William and Julia: She listened to his blood as a melody. Her blood to William was a symphony. There really was no comparison.... ~Blood Singers CHAPTER 1 The pain was beyond what she could easily deal with, her guts twisting without mercy. Julia dry heaved into the commode for the twelfth time as Jen held her hair away from her face. Jen stabbed a wet washcloth in front of her and Julia grabbed it, swabbing the inside of her mouth. “You're gonna need some food and water...” Jen began to nag. Julia held up her hand like a stop sign, “No water,” she whispered, her hair falling forward again in limp strands. Jen rolled her eyes. Can we have some GD self-preservation already? she wondered. “Listen, Julia... we have regular tap water here, ya know, you're not gonna get the shats,” Jen said, straightening. Julia groaned, gripping her stomach with her hands. “Listen,” Jen's voice softened, “let our Healer have a look.” “I'll be okay,” Julia shuddered as someone began to pound on the door. “Yeah... ya look so good,” Jen agreed sarcastically, noticing how pale Julia was, how her hands trembled as she pushed her hair behind her ears. Shock, dehydration and lack of food covered her like a well-worn coat. “Hey!” Scott shouted from the other side of the door. “What's going on in there!” The door shuddered under the assault of his fist. Julia rolled over on her back, the cool hexagon-shaped tile pressing against her feverish cheek as she threw her forearm over her eyes. “Tell him to take a hike!” Julia hissed. Jen grinned. If it weren't for the circumstances this would be truly wonderful. She had never thought she'd live to see the day when her asshat brother would get all flustered and brought to heel with a soul-meld. Bliss. The door shuddered again from his pounding. “Julia!” Jen heard the frantic note in his deep voice and walked to the door. “Quit it! She's okay,” Jen said through the door, loving his discomfort in a way that was barely legal. “Let me in, sister,” Scott delivered with quiet menace. Fine, she thought, sighing. Jen wrapped her hand around the glass knob and it rattled as she turned it. Jen swung the door open and Scott roared past her into the bathroom where Julia lay on the floor. Scott had sat on his hands all morning, worried about Julia, hating it. Hating her. She'd irrevocably changed his life and it didn't matter that Julia was his, the whole thing had been thrust on him. But Scott couldn't stop thinking about her. He could feel an echo of her pain, her emotions. It was kinda suffocating. She was ill and his body moved to where she was like a satellite come to orbit. Where Julia was Scott needed to be. His emotions didn't really matter. The loss of choice is what got on Scott's last nerve. Though that riot of emotion began to slip away when he saw the Queen of the Blood Singers on the floor, looking pale and fragile, her warm blond hair acting as a silken rug around her. Julia was so weak she didn't even acknowledge his presence, her face in profile, one cheek pressed against the bathroom floor. Scott could feel her indifference, as Julia could feel his contrary emotions. Soul-meld stuff. But it was her plight that spurred Scott to move to her side, his big frame folding beside her. Julia looked up at Scott and fought the soul-meld, even as their insides came together in a perfectly synchronized mesh of relief. Their parting was not a natural situation. Their unity was. She watched his hand move to brush a hair away from her face and Julia said, “Don't,” in a low voice. “Why?” Scott asked, frustration creeping into his tone. “Because I know you don't want to,” she replied, still lying on her back. “Julia... don't look at me like that.” His eyes bore down on hers with care, concern and anger. Julia hiked herself up, glaring at him when he moved to help her, his hand falling away. When she was upright she said, “I'll look at you any way I want. After all,” she cocked her head and pegged him with her bourbon eyes, smoldering with heat, hatred, “soulmates, right?” she spat with derision. Jen sucked in the oxygen that remained in the room. It wasn't much. “Actually, it's soul-meld,” Jen stated unhelpfully. Julia gave her a withering look. “Feeling better, pet?” Jen asked with sarcasm. “No!” Julia said. Then glared at Scott harder. Just having him close to her had regulated her body. The illness from her creek episode was there but his nearness eased her physically. She effing hated it. Scott's eyes narrowed on her, Julia's body language clear and resolute. How could he be bound to her? He was definitely not the committing type. He didn't choose this path. Julia read his expression. “Don't worry about it Scott. You were the Big Ass Protector. You've done your Boy Scout Duty, you can dump my ass now.” “Julia,” Jen threw up her hands, feeling sorry for her brother against her will. No... nothing was stopping him, Scott thought, his eyes roving her angry features, those golden eyes flashing at him inside her pale face. He could feel how sick she was but more than sickness, Julia was stubborn. His body ached to make hers right, Scott's hands clenched at his sides in the effort not to touch her. It wasn't about choice. Fate had chosen for them. Through blood. Through destiny. They were blood chosen. And Julia was his. His to protect, his to take care of. Eventually, his to love. It was a mandate from deep in the fiber of his being, inexplicable... irrefutable. As Scott looked at the thunderous expression on Julia's face... so obviously against her will. “She won't see the healer,” Jen told Scott. “The hell she won't,” he stared at Julia and she glared back. “You can't make me!” she yelled, two feet away from his face. “Well, sweetheart,” Scott said, placing his palms on either side of her hips and leaning into her personal bubble, he loomed over her, “we're not in Kindergarten anymore and You. Will. Be. Healed,” he roared at her, the fine hairs by her temple moving with the power behind his voice. Shame washed over him when he felt her response as a hiccup of fear. Julia was scared of him. Scott backed away as she continued to stare at him. “Argh!” Scott grunted in frustration to her anxiety, raking his hand through his hair, her eyes holding something more than her irritation. Fear. Fear of him. Scott stalked off, slamming the door behind him and Julia collapsed on the cold tile again, the hot tears she shed warming the coolness beneath her, the small energy she'd received from Scott's presence departing like smoke through a crack, and with it, her vitality. Julia fell asleep where she lay, in a small heap on the bathroom floor, tears sticking to fevered flesh. Her dreams played like a sick nightmare she couldn't escape from. * Scott Scott paced in front of his father, Marcus, the leader of Region One of Blood Singers. He threw up his hand, the energy from his anger racing around the office inside the Learning Compound and pinging back to the pair like a blazing boomerang of emotion. Marcus stood, his coal black hair so like the son's. Scott charged back and forth in the small space like a bull with a red cape waved in front of him. “Calm down!” Marcus roared in a voice full of command, authority. Marcus did not need to yell to be heard. As a point of fact, he knew that authority was not about control gained through violence and shouts, but respect through experience. Scott stopped, his chest heaving, his hands buried in the front of his jean's pockets, his jet-black brows dropped like a brick over eyes that were so dark a brown they were like chocolate ink. “Why?!” Scott shouted. “I was fucking fine without this,” he ripped his hands out of his jeans and flung one toward the house where Julia was. Still ill. Her sickness pressed on him like a weight he couldn't bear. It was all he could do to not be next to her. Taking care of her. “Language, Scott,” Marcus said. “Dad... come on.” “You are twenty-five years old and can use whatever colorful metaphors that come to mind. But bear in mind there are many here now who look to you as an example.” Marcus spread his hands away from his body, imploring his eldest to see reason. It would be the plow against a tough field. Of all his offspring, Scott was the most stubborn. “They're not here now and I don't stand as an example before you.” “Good habits begin now, Scott,” Marcus stated. Scott bowed his head, reining his anger in. When a full two minutes had passed he locked gazes with his father. “Did you know?” Scott looked at him with a dumbstruck expression. “Did you know this was real? That I would be a part of this dumbass destiny equation?” Marcus stared at him. He deliberated, but in the end he decided the time had come to tell Scott the truth. Scott watched his dad fold his hands behind his back and many things happened at once: Julia took a turn for the worse, he could feel his sister coming for him and his father had a look that said that there was a grave secret. Scott literally felt like a fist was clenching in his guts. Julia, his soul whispered. He was helpless; Scott did the only thing he could. He went to her. * William William felt his jaw flutter from clenching it so tightly and slammed his fist down on the table that had stood in the same position for the hundred years he had been part of this coven. It shook beneath his rage, rattling. “How can you just...” he waffled his hand from side to side, Gabriel's glower telling him of his apathy, “let her go,” William finished in a low voice. Gabriel stood, as tall as William at six foot one and as their noses nearly kissed, Gabriel turned the tables on William with, “How many must perish for one?” Damn, he's got me there, William thought. William shoved the black hair from his gray eyes, his gaze darkening to pewter. “She is a Rare One. We must sacrifice much for her,” William argued logically, his eyes searching Gabriel's, praying for a break, a flicker of anything that might advance him toward another rescue attempt. “William, I do know how you feel about Julia,” Gabriel began but William interrupted him. “You do not,” William warned in a voice warmed by raw emotion. As if the hundreds of years he had lived as vampire without emotion had suddenly caught up and come crashing down on him at once. Gabriel sighed in frustration. He did not wish to give her up any more than William. But her presence within the coven had already cost them over thirty vampires. Soon, there would not be enough left for her prophesied abilities and traits to help their species. Julia Caldwell had become a liability. Claire came forward and touched her cousin's arm. William stared at her; he found the intrusion unwelcome. As Claire began to speak the males listened, William the most reluctantly. When she was done William's head hung. “I refuse it.” William looked from one to the other of them. “She is part of me.” He put a fist to his heart. “Do you not see it?” he asked, looking at Claire who had tried to reason him out of going after Julia again. Loving her. He could not be reasoned with. William would not. “Do you not feel it?” he asked, his vampiric voice reverberating in the enclosed space, stone walls all around them, the sound beating Gabriel and Claire's eardrums like a subtle weapon. Claire covered her ears, wincing and William inclined his head in apology. “I am sorry, but I cannot be governed by numbers. Julia is not a number to me.” His gaze pierced them like lasers beams that tore the skin aside, seeking marrow. “Her blood is a chorus of voices that sing to my soul.” William locked gazes with the leader of his kiss. “I will never be in harmony as long as she is not with me.” William stalked out of the room, banging the solid wood door behind him with a resounding shudder. “It is the blood-share,” Claire said mournfully. “He is lost because of her blood.” “It is much more than that,” Gabriel said as he slipped a most modern device out of the pocket of the black slacks he wore. Claire gave him a quizzical look and he shushed her with a look. Gabriel had a plan. William would eventually forgive him. Someday. * Northwestern Pack Lawrence was at a complete loss. His primary Alpha, Joseph, had been killed during the failed acquisition of the Rare One, his sister was out of her mind with grief, and he had the Feral and Anthony at each other's throats. Literally. Sometimes, he wished for any job other than the one he held. Instead, he showed up and executed his position as Packmaster of the Northwestern den. Even if it killed him. Which it almost certainly would someday. His morbid joke notwithstanding, it was time to establish order in the pack once again. He looked at Adrianna, the most Alpha female he had ever met and felt a pang of sympathy. Normally, her abrasive nature was so punishing on his senses he was fine with his brusque treatment of her in return. But two things stood in the way of his usual tactics with her. One, she was the most eligible female wolf in the den. Two, her brother had just died before her eyes. Murdered by their most grievous enemies. Brutally. Then, as females went, she had lost the Rare One and now had a double loss to contend with there. Moonless abilities aside, the Rare One had almost been more trouble than she was worth. Almost. Lawrence's gaze flicked to the Feral. Right, he self-corrected, Jason, his mind restated. Yes, the Singer's husband. Unconsummated. He and Tony had an intimate discussion on smells. And as the case may be, now that Tony had a firm grasp on both the Feral's scent and that of the Blood Singer, Julia, he was beyond certain they did not co-mingle. Lawrence was not privy to the intricacies of their relationship. Only that they had not allowed the circle of their vows to close. This was a crucial detail to the Were. Lawrence thought, not for the first time, how terrible it had been that Julia had been taken on the eve of the Ritual of Luna. If they could have just.... Ah! He shook his head, his thoughts turning to the mess at hand. The arguing before him a sure distraction. It was Tony and the spry Alpha female (as usual), Adrianna- Adi. Lawrence sighed, flicking another glance at the Fer... Jason. His body was stock-still and his deep hazel eyes were hooded. They were distant and... contemplative. Lawrence shouted above the two, “Enough!” Adi turned, “I will not be under Tony!” she huffed, folding her arms underneath her breasts. “Yes you will,” Tony said in a voice so low she could barely make it out. Lawrence did not hear the softly spoken dark promise he made. Jason did, his eyes shifting to Tony, still Jason kept his own counsel. He wasn't talking about hierarchy, the dick hole, Adi knew. He was talking about putting it to her. “You'll never touch me, with your dick or anything else!” Adi yelled at him, frustrated. She knew that Lawrence hadn't heard the sexual threat. But she had. It had been meant for her. “Adi!” Lawrence roared, pegging her with his gaze. “Stop this behavior. He is your dominant. You must understand that now that Joseph is... gone,” he swallowed over the awkward wording, “that there must be another to replace him. It is the way of it. As it has been for millennia.” Lawrence's gaze softened and Adi responded, switching tactics for once and trying to be a female instead of an Alpha. It wasn't a simple transition. “Please... Packmaster,” her eyes flicked to Tony's, “he means me harm.” Lawrence scoffed, foolish female, he thought, but he schooled his expression for her benefit. Adi saw the flicker of the emotion on his face and knew she'd lost before he uttered his next words, “He would never harm a female Were, Adi. Think on it.” Lawrence searched her face, waiting. Finally, when she didn't reply out of sheer disbelief and stubbornness, Lawrence added, “There are too few of you to ever trifle with your safety or protection. As it was, your brother did not show good judgment when he took you along on the raid for the Singer.” Lawrence met Tony's eyes. “It is a mark in Anthony's favor that you were returned unharmed.” Adi seethed in frustration, her wolf roiling dangerously close beneath her skin, stretched taut to bursting. Tony would be him and Lawrence would allow it with Joseph no longer serving as a buffer. Adi turned to the Feral and his nostrils flared, picking up her scent change. And she suddenly remembered when he had awoken in her arms only to be knocked into Timbuktu by Tony, who was only too happy to do it. They couldn't have him popping her arm off like his favorite drumstick again. Although, Adi didn't have the sense of that anymore. His desperation to escape and be feral had slid away, she thought. Adi studied Jason Caldwell in human form with his borrowed jeans and a T-shirt that read, When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth. It didn't nail her funny bone in the slightest: A) there were no such thing as zombies and it was the lamest thing on the planet to consider it B) she was spoiling for a fight. Her good humor had deserted her. He stared blankly back. Jason made no effort to speak, having ignored everyone and everything. Including her. He was almost robotic. Where the hell was he in there? she thought, searching those brooding eyes. Why did he go after Julia? Wasn't he in love with her? Adi would never forget the look on her face when she told Adi about their romance, their secret marriage. That horrible night when he was attacked and apparently killed by the Were. Presumed dead. But not. No, now he was a rare red Were. One of very few. Of course, it wasn't every damn day when Singers got turned into other. Whether it be drinker or claw. Adi would never forget the look on Julia's face when he decided to choke her to death either. Where was she now? And who in the blue fuck were those crazy-ass Singers that had shown up, kicked ass and taken names? What was their fairy tale story? Lots of questions, not enough answers. Story of her damn life. CHAPTER 2 Merlin surreptitiously wiped the bead of sweat that slid down his skin and dampened the collar of his long sleeved button down. He had met Gabriel, as requested, in the outdoor eatery where the cattle grazed in their concrete pasture. Pioneer Square was the backdrop to their covert meeting. Even with the shade of the umbrella above the table and using sunblock with the highest zinc count, a light smolder played across his skin. It was microscopic, humans would not ken to it but it would have been obvious to a supernatural. It was obvious to him; he was experiencing mild discomfort due to the slow broil of his body. Yes, as the leader of the Southeast Kiss he was part Singer, part vampire. He could tolerate daylight, but it was a near thing. An almost allergic reaction would settle on his body and he itched for the night, the relief it afforded him. Not that Merlin would admit that to the Rare One before him. Impervious to the time of day, he could do all that vampire could, even more as a point of fact. However, he did not need to drink blood. It was a shame that the male Rare Ones were sterile in their breeding potential with other vampires. It was the females that were so precious. And the Northwestern Kiss that Gabriel presided over had procured one. Then lost it. Most puzzling. Gabriel lightly drummed his fingers and looked at the pale leader opposite him and realized that the politics of their meeting had already begun. He steepled his fingers, his shoulder length hair sliding forward in golden waves, framing startling eyes that were the deepest amber. He pierced Merlin with his shocking golden gaze and said what he hoped would end it, repay their coven. “I have come to offer recompense for your assistance with the location of the Rare One.” Merlin cocked a pale blond brow, his Singer heritage lending him a fair complexion. He would have traded that in an instant for tolerance to full sunlight. Alas, it was not so. The only advantage he was afforded was the echo of humanity of his outward shell. But his internal composition was creature of the night. The human façade served as a wonderful window dressing for many things, he supposed. Merlin came back to the comment at hand. It would not do to become distracted while dealing with another coven leader. “And what do you offer, blood?” Merlin guessed, disgruntled. When Gabriel outlined the payment and what Merlin would need to accomplish that task, Merlin thought on it for a long moment, his stare never breaking from Gabriel. Finally, he replied, “Agreed.” “When?” Gabriel asked. “Soon.” “How do you plan to execute this?” Merlin gave the first smile of the day, “Carefully, old friend.” Gabriel said what he thought, “We are not friends.” His whiskey stare lanced Merlin as those eyes traveled the Singer vampire. Merlin spread his hands harmlessly away from his body. “But we are not enemies.” Gabriel grinned unexpectedly. “True.” “Will this be a gentleman's promise? Will this relieve my coven of recompense by blood or other?” A formal question asked in the old way. It caused a valley in the conversation. Merlin's eyes became hooded. “You have my word of honor.” “I will take it,” Gabriel said, sticking his hand out. Merlin slipped the coolness of his inside Gabriel's grasp and for one moment their flesh pressed together in promise. However dark. It was done. * Cyn She handed the voucher to the manager of the Red Robin restaurant she was applying at, holding her breath. This was the fifth place she'd stopped at. Everyone had ready excuses for their inability to hire her. But what Cynthia saw in their eyes was condemnation. They thought she was some kind of loser. One of those women that stayed in an abusive relationship. Weak. Too stupid to function Without the Loser. Well, she wasn't that. Cynthia wasn't too sure if that was always the case with the stereotype. In the space of two days in the shelter there wasn't one chick she'd met that fit the “weak woman” mold. The battered woman, yeah. But not weak. Fear didn't mean weak. In her mind, the women there had been the smart ones. So why was everyone treating Cynthia like she was lesser? It rubbed her the wrong way. “Yeah, I think I've got something for you.” The manager nailed her with a level gaze, though not unkindly, “It's not going to pay your bills though. You'll have to get a low income spot on a list...” he trailed off, but not before digging around for a pen and paper. He wrote down a name and slid it across the restaurant booth's table. She looked into his eyes, “Why are you helping me?” He shrugged, looking uncomfortable as a dull brick red climbed up his neck to suffuse his cheeks with heat. “My sister, yeah...” he scrubbed his face and finally finished, “she had some trouble with this guy....” “I gotcha,” Cynthia interrupted, nodding. This dude had firsthand experience. That's why he'd blown past her voucher from the women's shelter. He'd had some experience. It made him compassionate. Cynthia wanted to cry, the tears burned the back of her eyelids, begging for release. She bit the inside of her cheek instead, the pain bringing her back to center. The manager stabbed the name and cleared his throat, “Call that guy, he'll have something temporary for you until... until I can give you more hours.” “Tell me your name again,” Cynthia asked as a statement. “Alan. Alan Greene,” he replied, a smile making the corners of his eyes crinkle in a pleasant way. Cynthia stood and held out her hand, he shook it in his much larger one and she swallowed hard. Suddenly she was missing Kev. He studied her and she blurted out, “Did it work out? I mean, the thing with your sister?” He looked at her a moment longer then responded, “Yeah.” She caught something in the universal language of his body, a tenseness. “Is she okay?” Alan nodded. Cynthia stood there, the busboys, waitresses and customers swallowing their conversation in the din of the peripheral noise, “What about the asshat?” Cynthia asked. He grinned at her suddenly and it was sun breaking through the clouds, she instantly noticed he had an open face, an attractive one. “He won't be bothering anyone again,” Alan finished on an ominous note. It rang with finality. Cynthia released the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. Cynthia walked out with a job and a sense of closure. She had escaped the weirdness of Alaska and she was safe here. She wondered where Julia was? She thought back on the old woman from the shelter, Shirley. Cynthia fingered the scrap of paper with the name on it. Could it be? Nah, it was too wild to even exist as a possibility in her brain. Yet... it circled around in her mind, finally coming full circle. Could Julia be alive? Here. Right in this very place that she lived now? Somehow, Cynthia didn't think that she was dead. If Jules was dead she'd know it. Wouldn't she? Cynthia walked up to the bus depot and plunked down on the bench, chin in hand. Lost in thought. While only a half mile away, a lone scout of the Were stood poised, the scent he'd been given to track within his grasp. The girl had been located. * Anchorage Karl Truman stuffed his considerable girth into the tin-can accommodations of the coach seating in the airplane and grunted uncomfortably in his seat. He hated traveling. Especially on the department's dime. However, when the top brass had heard the findings, there'd been no expense spared. They'd booked the flight before he could take his next breath. Retrieve Cynthia Adams. Like yesterday. She was a loose cannon and they needed to get a hold of her before she ran her mouth about her nocturnal visitors. It had come to his attention that it was a national security issue. The government wouldn't want the public panicking. About creatures roaming the same streets as them. Creatures that were violent, strong, dangerous... fast. Mostly, everyone was nervous because of their intellect. Chief forensic specialist, George Alexander, had blown the lid off all their hopes. Mainly, point and shoot. Hell, now they were relegated to rounding them up like brilliant humans with fur. Truman shoved the bullshit politics out of his mind. He needed to stay focused on the the task at hand. Cynthia Adams. If he found her, he'd get answers. He'd beg for silence. If begging didn't work there were other methods. They'd been relayed in glaring detail to him by the higher ups. Oh yes indeedy. He'd been given a stern talking to. He had one directive and only one: bring the girl in. Somehow, chasing after a twenty year old girl that was innocent of any wrongdoing just to put the squeeze on her seemed wrong to Truman. It rang a bell of alarm. He scrubbed his face, raking a hand over his cue ball head, a few wisps of hair remaining to mar the shiny dome it was; he was so close to mandatory retirement he could taste it. Hell, after this assignment was wrapped, he'd essentially be done. Why he had to keep poking at the snake with his stick was beyond him. He should have just accepted Caldwell's death unquestionably. Instead, he'd dug and rifled until an ugly and vital truth had been unveiled. Werewolves. As if that wasn't enough of a shocker, if those existed what other things went bump in the night? Truman wondered. Truman's train of thought was derailed when the blinking light and annoying buzz sounded. He buckled in, heaving another sigh. He'd be in Seattle in four hours, hotel booked. The local police had an APB out on the Adams girl. He'd scoop her up in no time. Then what happened after he safely ensconced her in the bosom of Homer PD wasn't really his problem. At least that's what Truman told himself. Never underestimate the power of denial. Truman had never been great at self-delusion. And it was no different now. He popped a couple of Tums in his craw, grinding his teeth against the powdery false sweetness. He closed his eyes to ride out the red-eye, an uneasy sleep falling over him. Only his eyes restlessly rolling underneath his lids gave away his disquiet. * Julia Julia moaned, laying on the floor. After Scott left, her condition had worsened. Now, she tried to sit up with thoughts of hauling her body to the bed crowding her head. When Jen saw how weak Julia was she said, “Okay, you're just being stubborn now. I'm getting the Healer!” Jen began to stomp away then turned, “Has anyone ever told you how stubborn you are?” Julia looked at her from her hands and knees, head hung low. Her question didn't really need a response but Julia gave her one. It was in her head but she shot it at Jen like a cannon through the fog of her fever. About a hundred and two times, she thought at Jen. Jen paused at the door. “What did you say?” she whispered, her shocked eyes wide. Julia sat back on the tile, slapping her hands by her hips. “Did ya hear me?” “A hundred and two times?” Jen asked, feeling ridiculous. Julia slowly nodded. “Yeah, that's it.” “Oh my gawd, you're a telepath!?” Jen asked, jumping up and down, clapping. “Apparently,” Julia said in a sullen voice, the bathroom spinning while she hung on by a thread. Jen's expression fell suddenly. “Julia... hey! Julia!” But Julia didn't hear her, she'd fallen over onto the tile, her head smacking the surface. Scott tore toward the main house, the Victorian rising up in his vision like an ominous jewel. If he'd been less graceful he'd have smacked right into Jen. Instead, he grabbed her by the arms. “What's wrong?!” Scott asked. “I can't feel her!” Jen shook her head. “I don't know, she passed out, she needs a Healer!” “Damn,” Scott seethed, “she's so effing stubborn.” “Yeah, well, she's that and she's unconscious so let's get her some treatment, dumbass.” Scott left Jen in his dust and ripped up the steps two at a time, propelling himself by way of the thick wooden banister to get Julia help. If she'd have it. The hell with it. Even if she wouldn't. Scott threw the door open and spied her on the bathroom floor. He was instantly by her side, scooping her small body against his much larger one. Her skin scorched him and her eyelids fluttered open. Scott pushed a stray hair out of her face, his hand so large against it he nearly palmed the entirety of it. “Jason,” she said in a whisper. It was like a slap to Scott, it caused a physical reaction, his gut clenching. Why would she ask for her husband? That fucker who had tried to choke her? What was she thinking? Scott grit his teeth together and stood with her in his arms. Her body had grown thin, her skin too pale. Jen rushed into the bathroom. “I got the Healer, he's on his way.” “Thank God,” Scott said. Julia opened her eyes and saw that Scott had her. He went to stroke her cheek and she screamed, “Jason!” Her delirium was in control, her consciousness mixed with the past, the present mingling with a reality that no longer existed. The beach scene unrolled in her memory; it became real to her again as she relived it. And in that moment, Julia was in anguish, her inhibitions stripped by her illness. The call went out and was heard. By many. The one she intended and others she did not. * Jason Jason's head jerked up and he stood. He'd felt that horrible sense of tearing in his chest, like an open wound that wouldn't close. It felt like salt had been rubbed in the most tender spot of his chest. The throbbing ache intensified for a moment then faded. He couldn't help but think about Julia. Somehow, the feeling had that taste to it. The feel of her was all over it, coating it in her smell, her memory. His shame. Because that's what he had. A boatload of it. No matter how many times he rolled it over in his head, it still came back the same. He saw it all in technicolor: his shift to human in response to her threatening her own life. Then, he had some kind of confusion when she had touched him and he was back on that beach, reliving the attack and all he could see, all he could feel was the pulse of: kill, kill, kill. When he'd come around and seen it was Julia, his wife, it was too late. He'd been hit from behind and he'd watched helplessly as she was taken by that black haired son of a bitch. The one that had eyes like inky dots, soulless. He'd given those eyes to Jason and in them he'd seen the threat that lay there. If he wanted to ever have Julia, he'd have to go through that guy. He'd tear though that arsehole like melted butter, his wolf whispered inside his brain without pause, without conscience. Well... if Jason could forgive himself for what he'd done to Julia, he would sure as hell find his way back to her. Back to where he belonged. By her side. * Vampire William felt the tug of the blood-share jerk through the musical instrument that he was connected to. The melody of Julia's blood was known to him by memory. By his heart. It sung to him and he triangulated her position instantly. Their bond was but a whisper now, not a screaming symphony but a note now heard during his waking hours. And when he slept. William moved toward the location. Without the backing of his coven, without runners to support him. One objective in mind: Julia. He didn't waste time, there was an undercurrent to the binding... as if it was compromised. That was not exactly it but a closer idea did not present itself. Somehow, she was in physical jeopardy. William redoubled his pace, moving through the miles without slowing. Toward that weak pull. When a ripple of agony drove William to his knees he recognized the summons for what it was: A call for assistance. I'm coming, Julia, he responded in his mind. * Scott Scott looked down in horror as Julia screamed for Jason, her cry a hoarse plea even to his own ears. Like Scott was the enemy. Like he'd hurt a hair on her golden head. Brendan rushed into the room. “Why is she screaming?” he asked, scanning the room for threats. “She's delusional... the fever,” Jen shrugged just as the Healer came into the room and Scott tramped down his temper with an effort that was ugly. Cyrus looked at Julia, eyes only for her. “Why wasn't I called earlier?” he asked logically, his pale green eyes sweeping the siblings. Jen ducked her head under the scrutiny. “She didn't want anyone helping her,” she responded a trifle defensively. Cyrus put his hands on her torso and Julia whimpered, trying to bat his hands away. “Don't touch her,” Scott growled out. “Are you shitting me, Scott? What's wrong with you?” Cyrus' level stare penetrated Scott. Scott didn't even know, but another male touching her was un-effing-acceptable. Brendan barked out a laugh. “Hey He-man, why don't you piss off and let Cyrus get her better?” In a flash, Scott had Brendan against the wall and Jen was there, pandemonium breaking out in the room, Julia groaning at the commotion. Michael strode in and took in Scott laying their brother out against the wall asked, “Do you need to be in another pile of shit, bro?” Jen said, “Yeah! This is so not helping brother!” Scott only saw red, when he heard Julia moan he lit off after Cyrus and Jen whipped out her hand, jerking, literally, the rug out from underneath him. Scott pinwheeled his arms and fell, landing on his back on the unforgiving wood floor, the air whooshing out of his lungs. Cyrus shook his head then looked at Jen, noticing Scott was moving a little slower. That'll happen every time ya can't breathe, he thought. It wasn't often Scott was taken down a peg. It was about damn time. Even the mighty shall fall. “I heard. Soul-meld, huh?” he chuckled. Jen didn't think it was very funny right now, giving Scott a nervous glance. Six foot three inches of very pissed off Singer male. Ah... yeah. Zero comedy factor. “Territorial-much, right?” Michael said from the door, ready to whip up a handy Illusion at the slightest sign that Scott would beat on Cyrus. “Keep him at bay, would ya?” Cyrus asked, his pale hands moving over Julia's torso and he sucked in a breath as Scott got onto his hands and knees like a raging bull, shaking his head from side to side, Jen expected him to start foaming at the mouth or something. “She's quite ill. She...” he looked puzzled then he straightened. “What did she do?” Jen told him that she'd gulped down half the creek and he shook his head. “That is mostly it but she's got a tie... and it is making her sick.” The room grew quiet. It was Scott who asked the question, his voice hard. “What tie?” “To a blood drinker,” Cyrus said in a flat voice. His eyes looked at each sibling in turn. “There's not much good news to this. But,” he paused in the deafening silence of the room, “at least she doesn't have enough for a permanent binding.” Scott had calmed down enough through her physical assessment that he could ask the question, “Who?” Cyrus shrugged. “Does it matter? She's been given blood, regardless of the reason, and it has allowed a blood-share to establish.” “Okay, so?” Micheal said, taking a resounding chomp out of the apple he held, the crack of it reverberating in the space. Brendan rolled his eyes. “What?” He shrugged. “I'm hungry.” Scott glared at him. Cyrus grinned, the siblings got along so well, he thought. He continued, “Well, the inherent trouble here is that it's like a homing beacon. The deliverer of said blood, could in theory, find her.” “Let him come,” Scott said. “No one will hurt her again,” he said as Julia slept comfortably, his spirit soothed by the worst of her acute agony being gone. “It's not about hurting her Scott,” Cyrus' steady gaze locked with Scott's as a dawning horror came over him. Jen said, “The third time is the charm, right Cyrus?” He nodded. “That sucks ass,” Brendan said, stating the obvious. Cyrus folded his hands and his head sunk a little. They looked at him in silence. Finally, he said, “There's more.” “Oh, happy day,” Jen said dryly. “Do you know if she was,” his eyes searched theirs, “exposed to a Were?” “No!” Scott nearly shouted and Julia squirmed on the bed. He knelt by her side and put his hand on her cheek and she nuzzled against it in her sleep, giving a contented sigh and Scott's heart squeezed. When she wasn't awake to fight it, she wanted him. She felt the rightness of them. “No,” he quietly said again. “Well, she has been exposed. She is not Were but she has a blood-binding with a Were.” “You can tell all this how?” Brendan asked. Cyrus scoffed, “I am a Blood Singer, ya dunce. It is what I do as Healer. The blood tells me its secrets. Nothing is hidden,” he finished in a matter of fact way. It was rudimentary to him. It was shocking to the siblings, each for different reasons. Here was their precious Queen, prophesied to return to reign on high with an apparent soul-meld to Scott. Julia was also bound to a mystery Were and a vampire. A blood bind was a serious thing amongst Singers. What would it mean for a pureblood? A rare Queen? Where were these elusive supernaturals now? Would they come for her? Those questions plagued the group, but none more strongly than Scott. Let them come, he thought again. They would meet their deaths. CHAPTER 3 Tony walked toward the Feral. He would always be the Feral. It didn't matter fuck on ditty that Lawrence was forcing his integration within the pack. Tony would never welcome him. He'd been partially responsible for the loss of the Rare One. Pulling that fucked up episode at the last... strangling her? Why Lawrence had forgiven that stunt was beyond Tony. But integrate him he did. Tony remembered the conversation exactly. “It is our fault that he was turned. Our sister den in Alaska sent the wrong soldier for a sensitive task. He ignored the obvious, tried to kill the Rare One's mate...” “Not mate, Packmaster,” Tony corrected neutrally. Lawrence inclined his head in acknowledgment. “True, unconsummated but following the laws which govern the humans.” “Let us speak plainly,” Tony gave him steady eyes, “she's not been bred to any male. She is mated to no one.” Lawrence sighed. “In any event, he was attacked, then before the Were could rectify it by ending him, the vampire came and left that one for dead.” “Then we had to come in and save their stupid asses. Their incompetence... argh!” Tony said, fisting his hands. That had been a colossal cluster fuck. Their gazes held and Lawrence said, “So you see, my new Alpha, we cannot turn him away, making him rogue, simply because you're uncomfortable with his origins. He was not meant to live. Now he does and he will have a place in the pack. And,” Lawrence lowered his voice, “he faces enough prejudice because of his lineage, he does not need the new Alpha to stir the pot.” Yes, Tony thought, the fabled Red. That was also in The Book of Luna. “Are you thinking about the Book?” Tony asked. “I am.” “It is legend,” Tony scoffed, dismissing the tale like he did every tradition of the Were. It was bullshit. He needed to be the biggest and baddest, taking everything that was rightfully his. That was pretty much everything he wanted. Case closed. His logic was irrefutable. Tony thought he made a perfect wolf. Their species was all about the strong prevailing. He was all about that program. Lawrence gave a low growl, filled with menace and Tony's wolf slammed up to the surface. If the moon had been full, he would have burst form right there in the office. “It is not legend. It is coming to fruition. The history is now. The legend is becoming, Anthony.” Tony had skimmed over every history of the Were he could. He'd bullied his whelpmates into letting him crib notes while his instructors were none the wiser. Now he was struggling to have a point of reference. Fucking marvelous. Lawrence smiled. “Being Alpha is not always about brute force.” That was news to Tony, who had had fantastic luck with just that method in the past. Lawrence continued, “It is about embracing our history, keeping our traditions and safeguarding our females so that we may continue. You would do well to begin that if you have a hopes of succeeding me one day.” Oh yes, Tony had every intention of doing that. And the hell with the history. Fuck chance, fuck hope, you make your own future. It was a precept that Tony was ruled by. “The Book foretells the Rare One, and how one such as she is drawn to her like a magnet, a perfect puzzle piece finding its mate. It speaks of a red that will come, bound to the Rare One, but sent to save our race. And the Blood Raven.” Tony's eyes flicked to his Packmaster's. “Tell me of this raven.” “Blood Raven.” Tony huffed in impatience. Lawrence closed his eyes in a long blink then quoted from the Book. Even Tony recognized the Old Language: “He that holds the blood of the Singer and seeks the night by wing, will share the song that binds with the Rare One. The Blood Wolf, a rival of no small means; mingled blood of both running in her veins.” Holy hell, Tony thought. It's that damn Red Were and that freakin' vamp that can switch into a raven. Somehow, they threatened the future. His future. Tony knew how to take care of that. Like he had a million times before. Lawrence studied Tony's face as the words soaked in. Tony lifted a massive shoulder, toned from years of training. To kill. Tony was very good at that. Killing. “So?” he asked without expecting an answer. Lawrence frowned. Perhaps Tony was not keen enough intellectually to understand the significance? “The book has chronicled the Rare One. She has come. She is connected to the Red. Jason.” His eyes stabbed Tony's. “Further, the vampire who has enough Singer blood to bring on the change? He is somehow bound to her as well.” Tony gave him a blank look. “She is the key. Julia Caldwell. We acquire her, and set her to be with the Red. Once she is mated, no others will vie for her. She will be ours, a Singer transformed, A Rare One mated to a Red. The circle of blood will be complete.” Tony did an internal eye roll. Whatever. He'd see to whatever needed to happen, and get that effing Singer. Heat roiled around underneath his skin just thinking about her escape. He'd been that close to nailing her. At least Joseph was out of the way. He smiled. He'd made that work to his advantage. Hopefully, his part in that would never be discovered. “What about those Singers that took Julia?” That was really the only detail that he hadn't ironed out, made sense of. He was undaunted, as usual. He'd just ramrod through everything and have his way. Also per usual. Lawrence paused for so long Tony opened his mouth to repeat his question again. “He has been mentioned in the foretelling as well.” That damn book again, Tony thought, seething. “It says: There will be one that is a true pairing, borne of the same ilk, traversed by lineage, blood rite and power.” “Huh?” Tony hated the old language. Just Spit. It. The. Fuck. Out. “It means that there is a Singer that is her equal, a male that hails from a blood line that complements hers; a soul-pairing if you will.” Now that was a brand of shit he didn't hear very often. He played nice for Lawrence though. “Right, so how do we deal with this?” “It's simple, you befriend the Red, take a contingent of our finest reconnaissance and reacquire the Rare One.” Tony liked that plan, minus a Were. A red. He'd take care of him like he took care of Joseph: permanently. “You can count on me,” Tony said, looking the Packmaster right in the eye. Because, to Tony, it was a reality he believed in. Therefore it was truth. The delivery would be different but the results the same. That Singer would submit to him. His will. His dominance. He was so not done with that bitch. Not by a long shot. Lawrence smiled, relieved. It was most excellent that he had an Alpha willing to do the dangerous missions without faltering. He just wished that his nose didn't smell the scent of lies in the room. Which of those that he'd spoken were truths were not known to Lawrence but his disquiet deepened. He was unsure how safe the rare Red would be on a mission with Tony. Lawrence was a fatalist. He would allow destiny to assert itself. Whatever would be, would be the choice of the fates, not his. And he had deliberately left the most important scripture from the book out of the retelling to Tony: “The Rare One, in a force of blood union, will bring those that seek unity together, as they were meant to be from time immemorial.” That was better left to the ignorance that Tony excelled at. Jason watched Tony come toward him with wariness. He had treated him like shit when he was holed away in that pen they'd kept him in. Now he was welcome? Yeah, he'd believe that when he saw it. Besides, he'd seen what he'd done to the other Alpha in the woods. He thought he'd gotten away with something. A coward's win, at best. Jason, unlike Tony, had been perusing the great hall which held the history of the Were. His people now. His heart constricted in his chest. His other life was so thoroughly gone. Kev dead. Cyn... God knows where and his Julia... no longer his. He stared at the approaching Were and knew he slept amongst enemies. In fact, the only one that had been even vaguely welcoming was that hell-cat, Adi. Jason couldn't help but feel a little protective over her. It's like she antagonized everyone, keeping them at arm's length. He was familiar with that modus operandi. It reminded him a little of Jules. She'd kinda done that. After her parents' death, she'd shut down the part of herself that trusts. Hopes. Jason liked to think that he'd given her back some of what she lost. He knew that if they'd been able to continue on the path they'd chosen, she'd have experienced joy. Release. True happiness. Now, she was...? He absently rubbed his chest. Somewhere. Tony scented the Red. Dammit, he loathed his ass. He was just different enough in his genetics, his line, that Tony couldn't get a bead on him. He took a deep, calming breath. He needed this pudwhacker. He needed him to come, feel like he was a part of it. Then, when the timing was perfect, he'd bleed him out like so much bad meat. At least, that was the loose plan for now. Tony was nothing if not adaptable. Jason felt Tony try to scent something on him and could smell his frustration. Maybe he was just different enough from Tony that there was something that was inhibiting his sense of smell. Tony's eyebrows lowered. The Feral's Singer lineage was blocking him. It sucked to be nose-blind, he wasn't used to it and it fouled his mood even more. “Listen,” Tony began, raking a hand through dark hair. His brown eyes held no warmth, no expression. Whatever Tony felt never reached those merciless eyes. He was robotic in a way that creeped Jason out. “It's been, what, a couple of weeks since the Rare One was taken by the Singers...” “Julia,” Jason said in a low voice that was at once soft and filled with authority. Tony stared at him. “Yeah. Anyway,” he glared at Jason. “We need to train for reacquisition.” Jason's heart leapt in his chest. Then crashed. He spoke carefully, with deliberation, “I do want her with me. But,” he spread his palms out, “because of my confusion... I don't think she'll go anywhere with any of us. And she was here before. She wasn't happy. Adi told me.” Jason hadn't come up with a plan to fix his unfixable blunder. He didn't think force was it though. “It doesn't matter. She belongs with us,” Tony said in exasperation, like that bitch Adi had anything to say about it. “Jules needs to be where she's safe, happy,” Jason said like it was the most obvious conclusion in the world. Tony gave him an incredulous expression. Two heartbeats went by, then about three more, the silence rolling out. “You're a fucking pussy, Feral.” Jason reacted before intellect could warn him, his snout bursting out of a face that had been human seconds before, moments before. With talons sprung he leapt at Tony. Tony met him in a kiss of smacking flesh and they rolled on the ground together. Jason wrapped his taloned fingers with sure finesse around Tony's thick neck, his wolf eyes, spinning wheels of green came within a dizzying inch of Tony's face. “I'm not a fucking pussy,” Jason said, his voice sounding like falling gravel. He lifted Tony's head and slammed it on the floor for emphasis, “Don't you see? You selfish prick! I love her!” Jason screamed in Tony's face then stood, his chest heaving, a fine layer of hair like climbing fire sprung from his skin, looking like crimson fuzz. “I love her!” he repeated in a low bellow of agony, his palms out by his side, his head thrown back, the many teeth that lined his snout glowing as his words morphed into a mournful howl. Tony looked at him from the ground, mesmerized. What wouldn't he do if he could partially change without the moon. That's when that female bitch, Adi, came running in and he smiled. His thoughts turned to depravity on a dime. The first thing he'd do was nail her. Oh yeah. He'd force breed her. His smile turned into a grin with the thought of it. With any luck she'd get pregnant with his pups. Life was good. Adi screamed into the open barn where Jason spent so much of his time before and skidded to a stop when she saw that dipshit, Tony, sitting on the ground with a stupid grin on his face. There was something creepy about it, she thought, but was distracted from dissecting the idea when she saw Jason's half-wolf, half-human form in front of her. “What?!” she yelled at no one and everyone. Jason turned that fiery green gaze at her. She watched as he melted back into his human form, the wolf features sliding into the sandy-haired hazel-eyed, six foot two inch guy that she'd come to know. Seeing his half-wolf form had brought back the memories of that day when he'd done the rubber band on her arm. Her fear flared briefly, then receded as Jason gave her a small smile of comfort. It left his face when his gaze shifted to Tony. There was an awkward silence. Then Jason ended it. “I'll go.” He stalked out of the training barn, leaving Tony on the floor with that considering smile on his face. When Adi turned on her heel and followed Jason out Tony grinned in triumph. It had been handled expertly. Jason was too weak to assert dominance over Tony, but he'd pressed all the right buttons to position the Feral right where he wanted him. Under his thumb. Perfection. * Julia Julia awoke, feeling well and perfect. She met deep eyes that were nearly ebony, full of concern and conciliation. “Hey,” Scott said softly by way of greeting. “Hey,” Julia croaked, her mouth like a desert. Scott placed a bendy straw in a cup with a lid, and she gave him a look and he laughed, it was like musical stones (if there were such a thing) and she took that in. There were new feelings awakening in her like a slow trickle. Trusting him, she bent over the straw to sip water that was pure, uncontaminated. “Ah,” Julia moaned with pure bliss, the cool water chasing the dry mouth to a distant memory. “Good?” Scott asked, a dimple asserting itself next to white teeth, full lips and... Julia blushed. His nearness, coupled with what she knew, was... overwhelming in the extreme. “Hey,” he raised a massive palm in mock-truce. “Do you think we can go a minute or two without fighting?” Julia didn't really know. She'd give it a shot. Her lips quirked up. “I think so,” she said dubiously. Scott chuckled and took her hand in his. He was a big guy, Julia noticed, her small hand disappearing in his mammoth one. Scott didn't know he was intimidating. He was just him. Scott was accustomed to his size, taking charge, making things happen. He was a package deal, the physique matching the psyche. Scott was at a loss with Julia. This small woman had turned his existence upside down. His anger was spent. Scott was seeing things a little more clearly. Julia had been through a lot. She hadn’t had the convenience of a huge ass family at her back or training about who she was from the beginning. The reality had been different for Scott. He'd always known he was a Blood Singer. His role had been laid out perfectly for him, his path absolute. Scott knew what he was and what his life held. Or, he thought he had. Now, as he held the hand of their reluctant Queen, he realized that role was changing. Whether they liked it or not. And now was the time to help someone else. In this case, Julia. She needed him. She didn't need his uncertainty and anger. Julia deserved more. Her needs pulsed in a direct pathway to his soul. She didn't have to speak, he felt what she wanted, what she'd never had. Scott determined he would give it. Or die trying. Hope. That's what Julia wanted. Scott could do that. He grinned at her and after a moment, she gave a tremulous smile in return. CHAPTER 4 Lawrence looked at his second and waited. Finally, he said, “That is most excellent.” Emmanuel smiled in return. He was not the keenest fighter but his nose was unparallelled amongst their den. He'd found the girl in less than a day. When their sister pack from Homer had communicated her departure the entire national Allegiance of Were was put on point. She was but one female, unless she traveled through Canada, Seattle was the logical stopping point. It was common for the good of the pack that a background check was done on all persons of interest. She was no exception and simply knew too much. However, in having uncovered her dire financial situation and ascertaining that she did not have the means to have traveled further than where she currently resided, they had discovered an interesting fact. There was a sizable nest of Blood Singers in the Homer region. Of which she was unknowingly a part. Cynthia Adams had Singer blood. It was almost too convenient. Their Alaskan counterparts had done some digging and there was a more than random concentration of the rare human sub-species. The why of it all was not certain, but it did give the supernaturals pause. It was no wonder that a Rare One would crop up with so many in that region. Then, of course, it was most logical that they would gravitate toward one another. “What have you discovered?” Lawrence asked Emmanuel. Emmanuel told him. It took a half hour and when he finished there was a full silence, almost pregnant. It filled the great library of the history of his species. Finally, Lawrence asked, “Do the Homer Were understand what is all around them? The treasure?” Emmanuel's brows drew together in a frown. “What are you asking?” “Not asking, Manny, planning.” The light bulb burst on inside his head with a shouting leap of brightness that blinded the interior of his skull, chasing all other thoughts from his brain. “You propose what? To force their change?” Lawrence nodded, he loved dealing with Manny. Most pleasant. Unlike his Alpha, who was all about brute force and making things mold into his personal agenda, Manny thought things through carefully. That was why he was sent on this sensitive mission after the Adams girl. “I do. After seeing what the Feral is... I think we could capture the region if we had command of ones as powerful as turned Singers.” “Yes,” Manny began, thinking it through furiously, “however, you remember what Jason Caldwell was for months. He was untrainable, brought down to his basest instincts. Like a house stripped to the studs.” “Ah... but the foundation was there for him from the beginning. The trigger was the Rare One.” Emmanuel palmed his chin thoughtfully. True... but, “What if they do not desire the change?” he asked logically. “Since when do the Were consider free will? We take. That is what we do. We are a species ruled by instinct. Let the vampire intellectualize their existence to death,” Lawrence gave a low chuckle at his own pun. “See where that gets them. While they are embracing their ambivalence, we shall be molding our future to benefit the Were.” He closed his open hand in a fist in front of Emmanuel's face. “Cynthia Adams will be the first amongst many. You will pick our finest warriors, journey to the north, scoop up as many Singers as you can scent. When they return, we will make them ours. Absorb them into the pack. Just think,” Lawrence's eyes took on the sheen of zealotry, “what if there were more like Caldwell?” He rubbed his hands together, thinking of the spoils a Singer turned Were would grant them. Emmanuel did not bring up the point that it was expressly against the precepts for the Book of Luna that a Singer be deliberately turned. After all, they were a part of the chain of beings on this earth, to alter that natural occurrence by force seemed sacrilegious to Manny. Dangerous. “We do need the Rare One, but why not accelerate the benefits that she would give us by the inclusion of more of her race? It is too precious by far to not grab while we can.” Manny was not sure. It could be that once a large enough percentage of their pack possessed turned Singers, there would be other complications to deal with. “And the females,” Lawrence breathed. That was the best point of all to Manny. The other points of power and taking needed to be weighed carefully; he himself favored caution. For a Were, that mindset was rare. Possibly he was second to Lawrence because of his temperament. It was the polar opposite of Tony. He was all brash and in the moment. “Yes,” Emmanuel conceded with a sigh. “It would be a huge benefit to have female Were.” Lawrence nodded, his face setting into grim lines. “Our ratio, as you know, is four to one. Alphas are killing themselves in the annual Mating Rite. There would be much less death....” “Yes,” Manny agreed. “We might abolish the rite entirely if there were sufficient females.” Lawrence inclined his head. “I remember the days when mating was arranged between families...” “When Were were not forced to mate with human females of mixed Were heritage,” Manny finished for him. They looked at each other. Finally Manny said, “When?” Lawrence thought about it, opening his wolf to the moon, still distant, halfway to full. “Two weeks. Let us give the Singers the best opportunity for change that we can offer.” Emmanuel nodded. He was not thrilled with kidnapping the girl, elaborating on what she was, frightening her worse than she'd already been terrorized in Homer. He glowered, thinking about the Alaskan pack. They were near-renegade. Their packmaster led with a volatile hand. Manny was not impressed. He knew what tactics they'd employed on the girl. He also knew them to be a sloppy bunch. As if to bring that point home, Lawrence's next comment confirmed his worst supposition. Emmanuel began to leave the room when Lawrence stopped him with his next comment, “The human police track her as well.” Manny stopped, turning. “No,” he said, his spirit slumping. Human involvement always greatly complicated things. Usually it necessitated more casualties. Of that, there was no doubt. “Yes. Oh yes,” Lawrence said. “Furthermore, we have reason to believe the Alaskan Pack has been neglectful in their efforts. It seems they may have left some proof of our existence.” That was the worst of news. Emmanuel knew what that meant for him. “I will take care of that, Packmaster.” “Include Anthony,” Lawrence directed. Manny paused, schooling his expression with an effort. He tried to never work with Tony unless forced. As he was at present. “Yes, Packmaster.” Lawrence smiled in relief. Between his chief enforcers he would see the human police dispatched and a Singer female added to the ranks of the pack while diversifying the lineage. Though the real feather in his cap would be the capture and future mating of the Rare One with the Feral. Jason Caldwell, he reminded himself. It was hard to shake his initial impression of the wolf. He was other, so foreign to Lawrence, he couldn't even scent him for Moon's sake. “Excellent. Be well, Emmanuel,” the Packmaster said. “Be well,” Manny replied, his expression changing as he turned his back, bracing himself for the conversation he knew he must have with Tony. He dreaded it. * Scott Scott was careful not to touch Julia, that seemed to make everything so much worse for her. For him. When he touched her, it was like a great sucking energy engulfed them both and suddenly he found himself with his environment melting away. Yeah, he'd ease them into this incrementally. Julia moved slowly for her. She was so ravenous she could hardly think, whatever they had in that huge kitchen of theirs that wasn't nailed down she called dibs. Scott hid a smile, so many of her basic emotions were leaking all over the top of him. He didn't have too much trouble clamping down on the urge. Mainly because she was starved and walked beside him like a fragile golden shadow. He looked her over as she was slightly ahead of him and she didn't notice his scrutiny. She was so young yet as a Singer. Her Awakening had just begun. Julia didn't sense him near to the degree he did her. Though she would soon. With training, she would Become. So much more. He took her elbow, careful to touch her where the clothes covered her skin. She started a little and looked up at him. “Sorry, jumpy,” Julia said, letting the curtain of her hair cover her profile, hiding her from Scott. “Understandable,” he replied. Scott ignored her posturing and instead strode to the fridge as she eased onto a stool at the breakfast bar. The whole kitchen had been gutted and remodeled extensively. It actually resembled a commercial kitchen now. It was the only thing that made sense with this many people living at the compound. He got out the fixings for making a sandwich and balancing the whole load in his arms, smacked his head on the top of the fridge. “Damn!” he howled, the pickle jar slipping from his grasp. Then just as suddenly, it hovered in midair and Scott's eyes flicked to Julia. “Seems like there's a lot of hard heads here,” she said, a trifle smug. Scott straightened, kicking the fridge door closed with his foot. As he did, the jar floated to the surface of the counter and with the barest tap, settled on the ocean of granite. “Yeah,” Scott said and grinned. And just like that, it was okay. They had a moment of looking at each other that was comfortable. They weren't fighting. He wasn't saving her. She was safe. With him. Scott kept grinning, far beyond when he should have stopped, hope replacing uncertainty. It was a good day. * betrayal William watched the sister coven's soldiers surround him and knew that he had been betrayed even as his mind denied it. He could not accept that for a bit of politics and numbers he would be derailed from what he sought. Julia, he intoned, despair engulfing the only tender spot he guarded in his heart. And guard it he did. For it was all he had to offer her once she was within reach. However, now was not the time for reflection. William crouched, hissing. They came. He readied. He was a warrior in his own right. Singer and vampire both. Let them come. * Sea-Tac Airport Karl Truman exited the plane with as much speed as a lumbering guy his size could manage, running a hand over his bald head as he was thrust into the terminal with the throng of people. They didn't notice him standing there, instead the herd jostled by him, clipping him with their parcels, purses and carry-ons. Karl opened his mind to that instinct that always drove him. The one that had made him top in the state for closing cases. It was almost beyond chance. Almost. He checked his paperwork after throwing his coat and carry-on into the nearest hard ass chair at the gate. He ran his finger down the geographical possibilities and finally settled on Bellingham or Kent. He had a sense of Cynthia Adams. Before the Caldwell Incident (as Truman thought of it) she had been quite a little fashion girl, a wanna-be socialite. She'd want to get lost in a big city. After Seattle, which Truman dismissed as too big (she was a Homer girl and that was its own breed there. Actually, that was true of Alaskans). He was left with the other cities that were still large but not the biggest. After dragging his ballpoint over Tacoma and marking it off the list, he had narrowed it down to two. Bellingham was looking less likely because it was two-plus hours north of Sea-Tac. But Kent... he let that city's name roll around in his head, pinging back and forth until it began taking shape. Was it possible? Truman felt like he was almost standing in front of the state map with a push pin in one hand and his eyes closed. Like pin the tail on the donkey. In this case, it was more like pin the location on the map. Mind made up, he hefted his crap in one arm and with his normal vigor and determination huffed to the car rental carousel. He'd go through that hassle first, then he'd hole up where he thought she'd go. Kent. Yeah, he liked the sound of it. There was that thread of something there. Enigmatic, steadfast. Some cops called it gut instinct. Whatever it was, it had always worked for Karl. His mom used to tell him when he was a little runt that he was a sensitive kid. He could always find stuff. Being a cop was a natural thing for him. Like breathing. That's why this Caldwell thing wouldn't let go. It had been swimming in his head for two years. When it came together he had been relieved. His gut never lied. Truman followed that now, without a plan, with his nose leading him by mental scent alone. It was one that only Truman could smell and he alone. He got in his cheap, police-provided rental and drove to the city he'd circled in red sharpie on the map, getting stuck behind a big bus on the way. Truman followed behind the stinky sucker for a time and while he looked at it, he saw its route listed on the back light up sign: East Hill, Valley, West Hill, Scenic Hill. Something lit like a match to a striker and his mind circled around the almost-epiphany. Buses. No money. Desperation. That was it! Truman smacked the wheel with a meaty fist, the steering column shuddering under his enthusiasm. She'd used the buses. Truman grinned, his cheeks making a noise with his sudden facial switch. He'd nail the bus drivers. How many had that circular route through that city? Probably a handful. He knew deep down that the Adams girl would have taken a bus that was just going to Kent. Not Renton, Covington or even Federal Way. That significantly narrowed his search. It was a long shot but he was going to throw a strike, not a gutter ball. He could feel it. The rightness of his chain of thoughts coming together neatly. That's how it always was when he caught the scent he was searching for. Suddenly the long plane ride and the shitty travel receded and all he could feel was the pulse of the chase. Here I come, Truman thought, here I come. * Cyn Alan squeezed her shoulder as he walked by and she shot him a grateful smile. Cynthia had been at the restaurant a week and felt like she was just now getting her bearings. She'd called the guy he'd recommended, and well... the place was kinda ghetto but it was clean and she felt safe. For once. Cynthia shoved away thoughts of Kev and her former life. The only personal item she'd brought with her was the wedding photo. Well, that and a few well-loved books. Like Twilight. She loved that book. Cynthia gulped, thinking about how the novel had been better before she'd found out that werewolves were real. She gave a small shiver like a goose had walked over her grave. Cynthia came back to the conversation at hand, her feet hurting at the end of her eight hour shift. She'd already gotten more hours from Alan, but thirty hours a week wasn't going to get her into a real apartment. Oh well. “Miss, I'd like that ranch on the side and the burger on a plate,” Mr. Frump commanded. She kinda wanted to jam her pencil up his ass and restrained herself with an effort. Unfortunately, once she'd committed the words into her head they were like a giant TV screen in her brain and the visual of Frump running around with that unpleasant leaden wedgie wouldn't leave her. Cynthia's Mona Lisa smile turned into a grin. Frump frowned and she laughed. God it felt good. She hadn't given a genuine laugh... in like forever. “You bet, sir,” Cynthia said, lightly chewing on her pencil to keep from bursting into inappropriate guffawing. And just like that she thought of Jules again. She had a damn knack for making everyone crack up and get in trouble. Then Cynthia realized something as she walked away from the booth, order in hand; she'd thought of Jules without crying, the happy memory being just that. Happy. Maybe she'd be okay after all. A fragile seed of hope began to germinate in her heart. If not for the possibility of actually seeing Jules again, but maybe of remembering her without the crushing sadness. Cynthia put in her customer's order and then one for herself on the spinning circle of tickets. The discounted meal was all she was allowing herself to eat. Money was tight, she'd deal with the hunger until she had more money. She began to salivate thinking about the rich Banzai burger and fries that Sherry the cook would whip up, her last order of the day was her last customer, the only table left. Cynthia sighed with relief. Tomorrow was her day off and she intended to make the most of it. First stop: Freedom Affirmed. She was going to talk to Shirley. Maybe she could verify if Julia had stayed there. It was such a slim chance, Cynthia knew. Cynthia latched on to that small hope that bloomed inside her, holding on for dear life. She wasn't going to let go. No matter what. * Truman Truman hadn't needed to lean on the local fuzz too much. They'd gotten the word from Alaska. Full cooperation. He was getting a lot of yeses and that's how he liked it. His nose was literally twitching with excitement. He'd buzzed through all the drivers and was down to the last one. The driver was a pudgy guy with thick hair that had once been black and had now edged its way into the pewter category. Truman picked up on his nervousness right away, it was in the set of his hands as he twisted his cap in his thick hands. “I'm Karl Truman, Homer PD,” he stuck out his hand and swallowed the bus driver's in his own. Firm grip, nervous but not a pussy. Truman liked him immediately. Seemed like a good sort. “Good to meet ya,” the guy said. “I'm Alfred,” he elaborated, giving Truman a solid pump then letting his hand fall. Truman pegged him with his gaze and when Alfred didn't waver, drop his stare and met his eyes full on- the twitching became a buzz. He took the picture of Julia Caldwell and Cynthia Adams out of his billfold. It was a graduation shot, their heads covered with caps, the tassels captured in mid-swing, the cold Alaskan sunlight lending a halo effect. Truman put it in front of Alfred's snout. Alfred squinted at it. Finally giving up, he extracted some eyeglasses and put them on. He leaned in and peered at the photo for a long moment. Too long, in Truman's opinion. He opened his mouth to tell him to get the lead out when those eyes flicked to Truman's; he noticed they seemed kind. “Yeah, I seen that girl,” he pointed at the photo. Truman turned around and indicated Cynthia Adams with a finger flick. “Her,” Truman said, satisfied like a clam at high tide. Alfred gave a slight frown and shook his head to the negative. “Nah, her.” With his pointer finger, he carefully pressed it to the shorter girl in the photo. Her golden hair shone almost red in the weak sunlight typical at the beginning of the Alaskan summer, a stray ray exactly falling across her eyes, lighting them in her delicate face. Lion's eyes, Truman thought, the startling amber an unforgettable shade. Truman's eyes snapped up to Alfred the bus driver. “Her?” Truman almost screamed in his face, stabbing the photo. Alfred cowered back at his tone but Truman didn't care. He'd been looking for one girl and found the other. He ignored the bus driver's vehement nodding, his thoughts already on the revelation at hand. Julia Caldwell, presumed dead. But that was wrong. She was here, and apparently, very much alive. CHAPTER 5 Blood Singers Region One Julia swung low, sweeping her leg toward Scott's for the strike he taught her, geared at numbing the largest muscle of the leg. He caught her foot, twisting it and she flipped, falling to the floor and slapping the flat of her palms on the mat, the sound echoing in the cavernous training barn. She'd almost face-planted and flipped over on her back, chest heaving from exertion, her strength was definitely not fully back. Julia hated Scott. He was a Punisher. She grinned at his expression of contained guilt. He wore gloves so he could train her for hand-to-hand combat. Not an easy task with a soul-melded partner. Scott was having to go against his primal nature to protect her while he taught her defense, he didn't need the additional challenge of skin-to-skin contact. “Nice, Scott!” Michael sung, striding by the mat and never breaking pace, “Beating up our Queen. Terrific form, pal, keep it up.” Scott's face took on that tomato color that looked so funny with a man with dusky coloring like his. He was just shy of olive-skinned with an almost Mediterranean skin tone. He looked nothing like the other Singers, who were primarily fair-complected. His huge hands curled into fists and giving a guilty glance at her on the floor he stuck a hand out to her. Gloved, of course. Julia stood with his help and those inky eyes, like smooth stones of the finest honed ebony gazed down into hers. Whiskey met black and he gave another glance at his brother, who flipped him the bird. Julia was getting a little more accustomed to the sibling interaction but much of it seemed like rivalry to her. Scott began to go after Michael and she forgot their promise to not touch each other and put a staying hand on his muscular forearm, the striated muscles rippling under her fingertips. In a tingling rush of almost electric proportions, Scott gasped, groaning. “Julia!” he said in a low voice, charged with emotion and restraint. “I'm sorry,” she apologized and withdrew her hand but Scott was helpless with the sensation of skin-to-skin contact and wrapped her against him. Hard, with almost brutal contact he wrapped his hand in her hair and kissed her forehead, then her nose, then found her mouth and pressed his lips to its softness. Julia squirmed against the intimacy even as she began to press forward. It was almost like a witch's spell, cast by genetics, directed by fate. Using a restraint Scott didn’t know he possessed, he put Julia away from him at arm's length. She was flushed, her vivid coloring reasserting itself as the hiatus of recovery that had spanned this last week had given her vitality back. Scott knew that the flush wasn't from health, but from desire. It burned in her eyes, deepening them to a fine amber. He didn't need to look to know that his eyes mirrored hers. “Sorry,” he whispered. Julia gave a shaky laugh. “It's okay. I just...” she paused then continued, “I didn't want you to pummel Michael.” “I'm trying to give us time. You know what Marcus said...” Julia did and she was embarrassed. She lifted her eyes, their bodies straining for contact, two feet of separation feeling like ten miles. She stayed where she was, looking at the gloves he wore so he could train her. It had been Marcus' idea. When Scott had tried to train her for self-defense, he'd executed his first throw against her and gone and barfed up the breakfast they'd shared. Scott found that he could not touch her in a move that might cause her harm without a physical reaction. In essence, it hurt him to instigate any move or intent that had potential to harm her. Marcus thought it was all part of the fabric of their soul-meld. Of course, he didn't want to hurt her, Julia knew this. She had insisted. Julia didn't want to ever feel weak again. Unprotected. Scott was the highest ranked Singer in the tri-state region for his ability: Deflection. So far, he had no sub-ability like Brendan did (Tracker and to a lesser extent Pyro, as it was affectionately referred to). As Marcus had explained, those secondary abilities could manifest at any time. There was always a primary ability and in the instance of a secondary, it was considered an “overlap” or “crossover,” talent. In Singer terminology whatever a Singer possessed was their “talent.” So Julia had spent the first true week at Region One's compound getting quizzed on her “talents.” So far, her primary was the telekinesis and it appeared she had a low-level telepathy. However, it seemed to work only with other Singers, sporadically at best and was not very powerful. As Julia had discovered, it wasn't uncommon, if a Singer concentrated hard enough, they could communicate mind to mind with other Singers. In fact, Julia wasn't sure why she'd be the pick for Queen. She just wasn't seeing why she “had it.” Scott looked at Julia for another frozen moment then straightened from the semi-slouch he'd adopted to hold her. Julia was really overwhelmed by Scott's size. When he was training her, it took every ounce of her internal fortitude to remind herself: he would not hurt her. The soul-meld thing made it doubly awful. It was like she hovered around synchronicity; it was just out of reach. And, of course, she was desperate to touch it. “Let's go ahead and take a break, I can feel how thirsty you are,” Scott said with a small smirk. He had a devilish sense of humor. Julia wasn't sure if she'd warmed to it or not. But she dished back what she took. It was squaring up awesomely for her. In fact, Julia found it lightened her to banter with him. Scott knew that Julia wasn't as sensitive to his basic needs and it peeved her that she didn't know if he was hungry or thirsty. He couldn't hide his desire though. That smoldered in his gaze, his body, his mannerisms. She couldn't escape that dark knowledge. Sometimes she wished she didn't have it. Scott certainly couldn't help it. Didn't want to. He held out his hand to her and she took it. He cupped her small hand and looked down at the crown of her head, the golden red hair halfway down her back, a cascade of liquid sun. Scott wanted to touch it so bad his chest tightened. Instead he said, “After we get a drink, let's go by and see Marcus.” Julia turned and looked up at him, way up. Scott was nearly a foot taller. “Why?” Scott walked for a few more paces and replied, “He's got some big ass revelation about me. I need to know.” He glanced at her and the weak ambient light that worked its way through the canopy of trees pierced her face just right. God, Scott thought, it's like she's captured the sun inside her. “Scott?” Julia asked. Scott startled, he'd been openly gawking at her and felt heat rise to his face again. This damn soul-meld shit was a force to be reckoned with. He gulped. Hard. “Yeah,” he chuckled, softly towing her after him. He grinned and said, “He'd been about to tell me a big secret,” he lowered his hands from airquotes and continued, “then you were sliding down the sick slope and I took off to help you. I've been so consumed by that I haven't had a chance to get back to it. But I know it's important,” Scott said with certainty, mentally distracted by all the possibilities of what the information could be. Julia stopped walking and Scott felt her fingers leave his gloved ones and a form of grief took residence where they'd been. “What?” his eyes searched her face. “I don't want to burden people,” Julia said, her eyes clear and level on him. “No,” Scott said, moving into her personal space, uncomfortably close. It would have been more natural for them to touch. However, they both knew that it caused... problems. Scott put a piece of hair that floated in the breeze of the woods they were traveling through behind her ear, allowing himself that at least. It was a short path between “the barn” and the Victorian where his family lived, the deepness of the woods their only audience. He cupped her face, the tips of his fingers at her temple and his palm easily capturing her small chin, a fragile egg he held in his palm. “It's not you. You're not a burden. I was just...” So damned worried I barely slept, ate, breathed, Scott remembered but said, “I was assuring your safety, Jules.” “Please don't call me that.” She stepped backward, a frosty silence inserting itself between them, her face closing down. The openness of the moment vanishing. Fuck. Double-fuck, Scott thought. That nickname was off-limits. It's what her friends had called her. From before. Scott's hands fell at his sides and they stared at each other. How could he repair it? He knew Julia needed to talk about the attack against her by her husband. Even thinking about someone other than himself mated to her made his skin crawl and adrenaline pump through his body. He squelched it without mercy. “What do you want me to call you?” “Julia,” she said in a huff, crossing her arms across her narrow body, her full breasts cradled by the movement and he looked at them presented before him like delicious fruit then raised his eyes to Julia. She saw his assessment of her as a woman and laughed. He grimaced, caught. The smile stayed in her eyes and she repeated, “Julia,” more softly and without the force of her earlier answer. Then she looked up at him through her ginger-colored lashes, “Besides, I like the way it sounds when you say it.” She pivoted in the opposite direction, walking ahead on the well-worn trail. Had she just flirted with him? Nah... impossible, Scott thought. But as he watched her walk away, all his female navigation skills going up in smoke when it came to her, he thought maybe she had. Hope sprung to life. Scott grinned, following her small feminine form, the flame burning brighter as he did. While in the deepest part of the woods, vampires slept under cover of forest debris. Waiting. * battle William took the first two easily, gutting one with a well-placed talon, his entrails getting wrapped in the process. He slung the pearly rope of flesh against his mate's neck, and pulled with about half his strength, spearing the vampire in the fleshiest part of his jaw as he fell forward. William tore the talons out of his victims, flying over their bodies and colliding midair with the next vampire who engaged him. There were many. They overwhelmed William. A puzzling trend emerged, they fought talonless, he had single-handedly brought down ten when the remainder held him. No one was more surprised than he when their leader pulled out a weapon that William had never seen used before in any battle in which he'd participated. A gun. The leader lifted it, leveling it on William's chest while a vampire weighed down each of his limbs, and pulled the trigger. It pierced his chest with a meaty thwack and William felt himself go liquid and boneless as he lay there. A strange floating euphoria descended on him and he was paralyzed. “Finally, damn. Gabriel said to take twenty and I almost dismissed his numbers.” William heard their voices casually discuss him as he lay there, frozen by a paralytic drug of epic proportions. Much would be needed to freeze a vampire into paralysis combined with consciousness. The leader stepped over William and raised his fist high above William, the shadow of his bunched hand like a small moon above him. “This is a closed discussion, runner.” With that comment, he struck, hard and quick. William's consciousness slipped away and blackness replaced his thoughts. The vampires took him, his limbs swinging and flopping uselessly as he was carried over the shoulder of one of the survivors. * perseverance William blinked awake, the stone that his body lay on was cold even to his vampiric indifference. He knew where he was even as he willed it not so. Torture chamber. William looked around the dank stone walls and his eyes came to rest on the male in partial shadow in the corner. He stepped into the crude light that made its way inside the stained and foul-smelling room William found himself in, his mask hiding his identity. No surface remained unstained by the gore of others. Their struggles. In vain. No matter. He was vampire, with vampire strength and speed. And ingenuity. William was in grave danger. “Why?” he asked the vampire who was his brother in arms, from different covens, with the same precepts as his own. The vampire rolled massive shoulders into a shrug, and in a voice like polished rock replied, “It is nothing personal, Singer.” “I am not fullblood. I am just a runner. It is them I seek.” “Yet, you found her.” The eyes in the mask bored into William's. “You are the one that discovered the Rare One. Made her partially yours with the blood-share.” A horrible terror gripped William. It was Julia. They would weaken her through him. “I see that you understand our objective.” “Do not do this!” William growled in a low voice, jerking the chains of silver that held him fast against the slab. His torturer gave a grim smile. “You will heal, my friend. We will gain a prize. One day, you will forgive us this transgression.” “Never,” William promised, his gray eyes turning into a storm in his face. He felt burning hatred for his home kiss, having made William the sacrificial lamb and it was unlike anything he had ever known. “We shall see,” the torturer said, moving forward with blurring speed, the barbed whip striking William in the chest, tearing his flesh to the bone in a blinding and skin-tingling shock of pain so acute and numbing William was silent in the aftermath of the strike, his words stolen. His breath. The next thirty strikes put him under. When the icy water struck his face, William wished for death. Prayed for it. If God watched over his kind, he remained silent witness to William's pleas. For they remained unanswered. His blood ran red, dripping into shallow copper-lined troughs that ran the perimeter of the stone slab that he lay upon. It was collected. Every drop. And taken elsewhere, for use on the Singer. Julia's fragile connection to William had been discovered and turned into her Achilles' heel. She remained unaware, but not for long. * Northwestern Pack Adi grinned at Manny when he walked by but his expression remained solemn, her presence unnoticed. She chased after him, tugging on his sleeve. He turned, his face lighting up when he saw her. “Hey, got any good gossip?” she grinned. He shook his head. Adi was quite a handful. But she was a wonderful female alpha. He regarded her. Manny knew that it would take a formidable male to appreciate someone like her. Just as he thought it, Tony strode into the narrow hall that traveled between the great library and the gathering hall, where meals, socializing and yes... gossip transpired. Not that male, Manny thought. In fact, he was the most eligible wolf in the pack but the females shied away from Tony. Adi didn't. Unfortunately, she enjoyed needling him. Foolhardy and provocative at best, dangerous at worst. Manny stepped slightly in front of Adi and Tony's eyes tracked the subtle gesture. Tony smiled, looking at the second. Tony thought Manny was a sucker for the old ways. Treasure the female wolf, guide her, protect her. Blah fucking blah. How about a good domination and plundering? Tony thought. Now that was what he was talking about. His eyes narrowed in consideration of the Packmaster's second. Maybe it'd be a twofer? Possibly he'd get rid of two pesky rivals in one fell swoop. Tony wasted a moment self-congratulating. He always came up with the best ideas. “What do you have?” Tony asked in a brusque tone, giving Adi a once over that made her blush. Not with embarrassment over his brazen lust, but with anger. She'd love to give him a go. It just rankled her ass he could kick hers. Adrianna wished she had a defender. Adi gave an internal shrug; that'd take all the fun out of it. She was just bloodthristy enough to want to feel his bones crunch under her fists, his skin shift and split by her own assault. Wipe that stupid grin off his face. Along with a couple of teeth. Some of what Adi felt must have shown on her face because he stepped nearer to her. Manny didn't even try for subtlety. “Tony,” he said in a low voice that was full of command, fueled by integrity. Tony flicked his eyes to Emmanuel's, then Adi's. He'd felt that bitch's battle lust like an invitation. Tony made a promise to himself then and there. When Adrianna had no one around to defend her, he would take his chance with her. He would take her. Tony wouldn't stop with her either, his mind touching on the Rare One. Julia Caldwell was the ultimate for him. Nothing would keep him from her, not even that red Feral cocksucker. Once he mated Julia, there would be nothing anyone could do to reverse the process once begun. Her willingness was not a prerequisite, Tony thought. The Packmaster could delude himself into an early grave if he thought that Tony would allow that Feral to get his red paws on the Rare One. It was a joke. Tony knew that Manny would uphold whatever stupid one thousand year old law the Were possessed. He was such a fucking choir boy. Tony would be careful, he stepped down with an effort. Emmanuel's posture relaxed when he saw Tony back down. Emmanuel glossed over his odd behavior toward Adi but noted it for future reflection. “We train one week for the mission, traveling the week after for the strike.” Tony gave a curt nod, then turned to Adi. “Will you train, little wolf?” he goaded her with a gleam in his eye. She used werewolf speed, latching onto his nutsack, exerting just enough pressure to let him know she was serious, but not enough to maim. The restraint Adrianna used was not pretty. Tony grunted, his eyes widening in surprise and Emmanuel looked down and away, trying to contain his laughter with an almost painful effort. “You bet your hairy ass,” she said, leveling unhealthy dominant eye contact, and gave a subtle squeeze that made his eyes tear up. He met her stare, his most tender area held in her small hands. Tony's anger became rage, his earlier promise to himself becoming a vow. Soon, he seethed, the ember of the eternal flame of his ferocity permanently stoked. CHAPTER 6 the blood Region One Marcus watched the two come and although they would not see it or consider it, just their mere physical presence was a study in contrast. He gazed through the old glass window pane, their images wavering as they drew nearer, Julia all golden light and fragility, his son all dark towering menace. Marcus sighed. He knew that the aborted conversation from a few days past would need to be finished. How did he reveal the secret he'd hidden from his own children? It had been a necessary falsehood but as he watched his son draw closer, a Singer warrior, he knew the truth would not be well-received. It didn't matter. Scott needed to understand what was behind the soul-meld. It wasn't just chance. It was providence. Marcus noticed that Scott had worn his gloves. Good. They walked inside and it was with a lightness that Marcus had not noticed from his eldest in some time. He realized it was the benefit of the soul-meld. Even if Scott would not admit that he was more complete with Julia than without, it was so. “Father,” Scott began. Julia's smile faded and Marcus hated to see it go. “We need to finish our talk,” Scott said simply and briefly squeezed Julia's shoulder, stripping off his gloves afterward. Scott sat on the overstuffed parlor furniture that went with the age of the house but hurt his ass. Julia sat in the loveseat opposite him, hesitated, then moved somewhat closer to his position in an adjacent chair. The cabbage roses of the material were a true burnt tangerine, the color exactly matched the deepest tone of her hair. “Scott?” Marcus raised a brow, watching his focused eldest become distracted with just her presence. He was slightly relieved that he was free of soulmate status. It would be quite something to combat. Or just give into. Marcus felt the latter would be the better of the two. He paced, folding his hands behind his back carefully, while their eyes followed him. Finally, he turned to face them. “Scott, you are a Singer from a special bloodline.” Julia almost groaned out loud. If she heard “blood” one more time, she was going to slit her own wrists. It seemed that it was the only thing that mattered to anyone. Couldn't they just... she didn't know, talk about anything else? Apparently not, she thought, watching Marcus' grim face. “I know what blood line I'm descended from,” Scott said in a flat voice, nonplussed. Marcus shook his head. “No. You know what I've told you. Or in this case, the truth by omission.” Julia thought this was sounding bad. Marcus suddenly smiled. “I know that Singer Studies wasn't your strong suit.” Scott barked out a laugh, he could have given a shit about school. He was always too active to want to sit and learn. Now fighting skills, combat training? That's what he'd gravitated toward. “There's a reason why you're the top Singer defender in our region.” Marcus' eyes met Scott's. “You are a descendent of The Combatant.” Scott's mind seized. “Wait a sec, Dad... that can't be...” “It is.” “They're extinct!” Scott roared in obvious denial. “Obviously not,” Marcus gave him a significant look. Marcus knew the instant Scott understood what he was. What his purpose was. Before Scott could answer, Marcus quoted scripture out of the Book of Singers: The circle of The Combatant will close around the most guarded treasure of Singers, one that holds the sun in her hand, the moon as her guard. “I'm a Combatant?” Scott asked incredulously. All the puzzle pieces and differences that had been so stark as he matured came to the surface of his consciousness, at once making sense. At last. It was troubling. It was a relief. It was all of that. Julia jumped in, “Wait a sec, guys,” she began. When she had their attention she continued, “First, what's the Combatant? Second, why do you guys both look like a flock of ghouls have landed in the yard?” She gave that more thought. Maybe she shouldn't say that like it wasn't possible? After all, there were vampires and werewolves... and her. Before she could give it too much introspection, Scott answered her, “It was legend. That there was a special...,” he waved his hand out, still dismissing what he obviously hadn't believed. Like her as Queen, he thought suddenly. Then continued, “group of warriors, The Combatant. They would come from the four corners of the world to protect the prophesied Queen of the Singers. They would all have royal blood,” Scott said, making airquotes. Julia still didn't really see the conflict. “So, they're all Rare Ones?” Marcus clarified her speculation with, “They're all of royal descent.” “Wait a minute,” Julia began again, crossing her arms, “shouldn't I be a Combatant? I've got the same lineage that Scott has...?” “No,” Scott said in disbelief. “You're female, you need the protection of all male Singers. The Combatant is made to protect you.” Julia jabbed him in his ribs with her elbow. Men. Scott glared at her, so stubborn, he thought, hiding a smile. Marcus said, “No. There is one Queen every few hundred years. It's the way it has always been.” Marcus met Scott's eyes. “Your mother was a direct granddaughter of the last Queen.” Scott shook his head. “I knew Mom, before she... died.” Julia noticed a deep flutter in his jaw as he mentioned his mother's name. “She was not your mother, Scott.” The silence had its own tangible weight in the room, Julia's eyes acting like a ping pong ball between father and son. Scott's darkened from rage. “Why was I not told the truth?” Marcus spread his arms away from his body. “There was no point in telling you of your true biology unless the need arose.” “So,” Scott stood, jamming his huge hands on his hips, “you were going to just let me go on in ignorance if the whole Queen thing hadn't happened?” Marcus gave a slow nod. “The Combatant is not put into force until a true Queen begins her Awakening. When that occurs, there is no force, except death, that will keep the remainder of The Combatant from coming to close the circle.” Marcus made a perfect circle with his two hands together. A vein in Scott's temple pulsed in time to the beat of his heart. He was connecting every dot that his father put forward. And ones he hadn't. “What about me?” Julia asked, her look going between the two men. “What are they protecting me from? What does this 'circle' mean?” “It is a circle of blood protection. A blood rite.” Julia gasped, standing. “Like that thing the Were was going to do? A mating thing?” “Not exactly,” Jen said from the door. “Nice way to bring it, Dad,” Michael said from behind her. Julia met Jen's eyes. “What does 'not exactly' mean?” Brendan walked in. “It means that once the Guard of the Queen, their circle of protection is in place, no....” “Force,” Marcus interrupted. “Great or small,” Jen added. “Shall harm the treasure of the Singers,” Brendan finished. Julia felt a little light-headed and sat down with a light plop in the stiff loveseat, her hands gripping the ornately carved sides. She was some kind of weird Singer Messiah. But she couldn't be! She was just her. Julia looked at Scott and he gazed back at her, his eyes steady. He wasn't denying it. Shit, she was in trouble here. It felt like the four corners of the house were closing in around her. “I always knew you were weird, Scott,” Michael said, licking his fingers after his foray into the chip bag. Scott scowled. Marcus said to his other children, “He is still your brother.” They looked at Scott. The boys especially. Brendan and Michael had the classic Singer complexion whereas Scott was dark. “Who was my mother?”Scott asked. “It was an arranged... pairing,” Marcus said carefully. “Who was she?” Scott asked in a low voice. “Jacqueline,” he answered in a tight voice. “What?” Jen nearly shrieked. “The Jacqueline?” Marcus nodded and Scott blanched. “That bitch-on-wheels is Dear Old Mom?” “Careful, Scott. Much of what you are is predicated by your blood.” “You mean her blood,” Brendan said. Marcus inclined his head. “I do.” “So, this mystery bio-mom is like, what? A Rare One too?” Marcus nodded at Julia. “But... she's not like 'a Queen',” Julia asked with an airquote. “No. She is not a pureblood. We were chosen to pair because it was thought that the mix of our genetics would have a high probability to produce a Combatant.” “What? Like a stud horse?” Jen asked and Julia thought she had it about right. “All Singers of Rare blood are required to produce one offspring with a male of Rare lineage,” he shrugged like it was the simplest thing in the world. “So what about Ruth?” Scott asked, crossing his muscular arms across his broad chest, the workout gear he wore showing every muscle in stark relief. “Ah, the woman you knew as mother was one I took for love. When you were born, she accepted you as her own. She was raised in the old ways and understood the Law.” Julia began pacing where Marcus had been just minutes before. The siblings and Scott watched her like a group of hawks. “Scott's not special. He's one of a bunch of other what, warriors? Who will come here at some future point, to protect me and do some elaborate blood ritual?” Julia directed her question at Marcus. “And I'll ask again: what are they protecting me from?” “Once the circle is complete, there is no... supernatural group that can hurt you. They can hunt, try, search....” “Flail about,” Michael added with a well-timed smirk. Brendan nodded. “It is the most invincible protection the Singers have at their disposal.” Julia was confused. “I thought there was the big soul-meld thing?” Julia said and Scott's face got that soft flush of red again. “Come on guys, spit it out. Why do you all look like someone died or something?” Julia asked, getting tired of the slow answers. Scott's hands became fists of frustration at his side. “Because when the remainder come, your blood will choose.” “What? Choose what?” Julia asked, that feeling of acute suffocation deepening. “Your one true mate, the King to your Queen,” Jen said emphatically. Julia thought of Jason and how he'd been her husband. The memory of the attack caused a fresh wound on her heart that was slowly bleeding out. She thought of William, and the growing feelings she'd had for him. Even though much of his motivation to be with her did nothing for Julia, gained nothing for anyone but his coven. Julia looked at Scott, her supposed soulmate and realized that he was but one contender amongst other Combatants that may vie for position. Marcus shattered her thoughts with his statement, “Blood chosen, Julia.” Julia looked at him uncomprehendingly. “It is what it means to be Singer. The blood knows all. Your specialness will allow the one Combatant that is meant to rule stand out from them all.” “I thought I was meant to be with...” Julia couldn't say it, she gave a small gesture toward Scott. It was all too new to articulate, too powerful to dwell on. “You will have a measure of blood-recognition with any Combatant, but it is the one that manifests a special trait that will conclusively tell everyone who witnesses that he will be a King, not just a foot soldier. Although,” he cautioned with a raised finger, “there is no shame in being in the circle and not sharing the treasure, but guarding it.” Julia's mind whirled with all the information. She was like... gold bullion or something lame like that. “What trait?” Scott asked, the tension on a tight wire. His body a hard line of stress, pulled taut to breaking. Julia had put stuff together. “How old are you, Marcus?” There was something so off about him, especially the way he spoke. Two full minutes passed before he would answer, finally he said, “Three hundred six.” Julia gaped at him. “How... how it that possible?” she whispered, stunned. “Singers do not age as humans do.” His eyes fairly sparkled with intensity. “Rare Ones, slower still. What gave me away?” “The way you talk,” Julia answered then looked at the others. “Are you guys old too?” Michael raised a hand, some chip dust on the ends. “Guilty.” Jen looked embarrassed. “Yeah.” “Uh-huh,” Brendan said. Scott elaborated, “We're taught modern vernacular.” “So you guys can speak like him and speak like me?” “None so well as Michael. He is flawless in his speech,” Marcus gave the compliment without emotion but Michael swelled up like a peacock at the praise. “Don't get excited, putz,” Brendan snorted, “Dad's giving you a compliment on that because we can all kick your ass.” “Guys!” Jen yelled. “Notch the testosterone down a peg, K?” They looked at Julia and she stared back. “I don't want to know,” she said in a slow voice. She asked the other question that needed a response, “Who's this Jacqueline?” “She is my counterpart. She resides in a different region,” Marcus responded. “She is not well.” “Yeah, she's freakin' mental,” Michael said. “Deranged,” Brendan agreed. “Why did you...” Julia asked. Marcus gave a small shrug, his eyes meeting hers. “These things are arranged since our infancy. It is a pairing based on potential, not love. She was not well then. She should not govern anything. The Singers are generally matriarchal.” Ruled by women, Julia thought. “But that's one chick who shouldn't lead,” Jen said with a shudder. “Why? Why is she so bad?” Julia asked giving a hasty look at Scott. She had not forgotten this was his actual mom. It didn't matter to her that he had never known who she was. She was apparently a person of ill repute. Yet, she had this role in Scott's life he was helpless to change. Julia walked to him and laid her hand on the middle of his broad back and over his tight tee. He exhaled a breath, relaxing under her comforting touch. Then she looked at the rest of the siblings, her eyes landing last on Marcus. “This is Scott's mother,” she began, nailing each one of them with angry eyes. “You're discussing it in front of him like he doesn't matter! You're discussing him like he's just a switch flicked, put into play. His feelings don't matter. That this insane leader, wherever she is, was just an egg donor!” Her eyes narrowed on all of them. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. He's your flesh and blood. He's one of you.” Scott put his hand on the crown of his small defender's head and gave a slight smile. He knew what she was trying to achieve and it caused a tenderness toward her that was almost painful but he now knew his place in the Singer hierarchy. And he was being treated exactly like what he was. He was indifferent, aloof and physically superior for a reason. It was not personality, it was the traits of a Combatant. “I am a Combatant, Julia. Nothing more, nothing less. They're not being unkind. It's actually an honor,” Scott said, letting how he felt about her defending him show in his eyes a little. Julia was so fierce in her constitution. She'd been through so much, yet Julia persevered. His smile broadened. Julia's anger turned to defiance. “You know what? I don't need a... whatever the hell it is!” She pulled away from Scott and the others. “Combatant? Defender? Warrior?” Marcus asked, blatantly stalking toward her like a lion on the prowl. “No! I don't need all that.” Her eyes searched his. Standing her ground. “I need to be me. Defend myself. I won't,” she viciously swallowed the tears that threatened in a painful lump in her throat, “have those things happen to me again. Ever,” she finished the last word with a hoarse ringing finality. Her tone was one of command, strength and certainty. “You might not have a choice, Julia,” Marcus began gently. She ignored him, going on, “Stop belittling Scott. Stop telling me all these 'truths',” she said. “I don't want anyone taking chunks out of someone I care about.” Julia didn't realize she had declared how she felt for Scott to the room at large. She didn't even know it was true until she spoke it out loud. Julia's eyes blazed like twin suns out of her face, her body was resolute, her stature not diminishing her sincerity, her intelligence. Her will. “Spoken like a Queen,” Marcus said with a note of irony. Julia shook her head. “No, spoken like a human being.” She walked out, leaving five Singers staring after a Queen that was beginning to rule and was utterly unaware of it. CHAPTER 7 Sea-Tac Truman lay on the cheap hotel mattress, the thing mainly built like a rock but with strategic lumps and bumps. Like dead rats had been stuffed in there to remind the guests not to get too comfortable with their stay. His right hand held the cigarette loosely, the spiral of smoke making its lazy way up to the ceiling, coating it with its hundredth layer of yellow nicotine. The events that led up to this moment floated inside his head exactly like the smoke that hovered near the dingy ceiling. Karl knew that he was missing a critical piece. Alfred the bus driver had laid the revelation of the last two years at his feet once again, the entire investigation coming full circle. Julia Caldwell lived. That bus driver had made the circuit in his route twice while she'd slept the ride away. Finally he'd let her off at the woman's shelter in Kent, Freedom Affirmed. That's where Truman was headed. He hoisted himself up to a sitting position, his squat legs dangling off the end of the lumpy mattress, taking a last long drag. He stabbed the glowing end of his cigarette out in the glass ashtray that screamed the motel logo at him from its center. He stood, scratching his slightly protruding Buddha belly through his thin cotton underwear tank and shuffled to the shower, stripping his clothes as he went. He could hear the rhythmic drip from the faucet as he stepped inside the shower stall and cranked the lever to as hot as he could stand it. Truman robotically went through the motions of cleaning, completely distracted by his thoughts. After completing his three Ss (shower, shit and shave) he used his handy GPS gadget to find the street names for this place in Kent, jamming another cigarette in his mouth as he did and stabbing the auto window feature. The glass slid down and disappeared as he hung his beefy arm out the window, waiting for the GPS to triangulate his position. Huh, Truman thought, he was actually quite close to the place. But as he looked around him at the traffic, he realized it might take longer because of it. What a fucked up road system here, he thought. It was like the infrastructure hadn't caught up with the population. Or, maybe he was just spoiled because he was from the Last Frontier. Yeah, it was probably that. He flicked his cig with a practiced movement of thumb and index finger and watched as it littered the wet pavement, a constant drizzle soaking the streets, laying gloom everywhere it touched. Depressing state, Karl thought, pulling away from the dump of a hotel. * Cyn Cynthia was deciding what to wear. The weather was weird here. It was September but hotter than hell. September held the promise of autumn firmly in Alaska. Here in Washington, they called it Indian Summer. Whatever that meant. What it meant to her was high 70s and summer clothes. Today though, there was the miserable Seattle drizzle to contend with. Screw doing her hair. Her spiral iron that she'd remembered to jam in her pack wouldn't hold in this slop, her flat iron would straighten her hair but it would just frizz later. The hell with it, messy bun it was. The humidity was startling, she wasn't used to it yet, it was so damn damp. Cynthia smiled, throwing on American Eagle low rise jeans, and with a sad little sigh, she put on light wool socks and Jules' Xtra Tuffs. They were the dumbest boots but when she was feeling down, nothing perked her up like those fugly boots Jules had loved. Gawd, two years ago she would've died before she'd worn these. But times had changed, hadn't they? She sucked back the horrible burning of her eyes, the need to cry pressing in on her from all sides and stuffed her foot into first one boot, then the other. She checked her make-up in the mirror, pursing her lips then rolling them together to expertly spread the colored gloss she wore. And some things never changed. Cynthia left her cramped room that cost her two hundred fifty dollars month to month, closing the cheap door behind herself and not bothering to lock it. There was nothing to steal anyway. And the horrible wolf things were in Alaska. Cynthia ignored the creeping little voice in the back of her head that whispered that where there were some, there may be more. Cynthia shoved it deep down inside herself and went to the bus depot across the street. She was going to get some answers and begin the long journey of finding Jules. Cynthia was sure she was alive. She'd seen that thing kill Kev. She'd seen it swipe half of Jason's neck away. Cynthia swallowed hard, trying not to let the awful memory swell and take hold like it so often would. But Jules had been untouched. Did that mean they'd spared her? Hell, they'd spared Cynthia. She wasn't sure why and it suddenly struck her as odd. Why didn't they just kill her too? They could have taken her off somewhere and done her in. Why warn her? She felt like the answer to those questions were just out of reach, tantalizing her without closure. The stinky bus rolled up and she recognized the driver right away. What was his name? Cynthia wondered, biting her lip. Oh yeah! Alfred, she remembered with a smile, thinking that he'd been the first kind person she'd met here. Well... then there was Alan. She got on the bus and knew something was wrong when he gave her a curious glance, then she could see the light bulb snap on in his face. He gave a slow blink and said almost absently, “I said the wrong girl.” “What?” Cynthia asked, confused. People shifted behind her impatiently and she moved to the side, their coins clattering in the change holder beside Alfred. “The cop from Haller, Honner....” he scratched his head, making his pewter hair stand up straight. Cynthia stared at the errant strand, her stomach dropping in an uncomfortable lurch. “Homer,” she whispered. He snapped his fingers in joy. “That's it!” he said, pleased. “Can ya get a move on?” one of the passengers asked, clearly irritated. Alfred flicked his eyes in his wide mirror that showed the bus' passengers and said, “Keep your pants on, we're going,” he said popping the clutch and Cynthia grabbed the bar that ran along the ceiling to steady herself. The bus swung away from the curb with a stagger, the cloud of fumes pouring out of the back. “What did he want?” she asked loudly, over the noise of the bus. “Showed me a photo of your graduation....” Cynthia's heart leapt in her chest. “What photo?” Had to be Truman, Cynthia thought. Gawd, he was like a damn bloodhound. Alfred shifted gears and the bus made the smooth transition to third gear. He flicked his eyes to hers and said, “You and that other girl. The one with the eyes.” Julia, Cynthia knew, excitement thudding inside her chest with a staccato beat. He gave her a second or two of steady eyes then answered the hope that sung in her heart like a melody. His next comment made it a song. “Yeah, I identified your friend, not you,” he said sheepishly, feeling foolish he'd forgotten her face. His expression lit up and he added, “But he seemed real excited that I'd seen your friend.” Well hell yeah, Cynthia agreed mentally. She was beyond excited herself; she was ecstatic. She sunk down in the seat right behind him and thought. When Alfred pulled up at the depot in the valley, Cynthia saw the women's shelter just two blocks away. It looked so different during the day, not so terrible, ominous. Of course, it made a difference that terror wasn't riding on her back like an ill-behaved monkey. She stepped out of the bus and turned to look up at Alfred. “You in trouble again, missy?” She shook her head, giving him the second genuine smile she'd had since she moved here. “Nah, not anymore. In fact,” her smile widened, becoming a grin, “I think everything's going to be okay now.” Then a cloud passed over her consciousness. “What did he want, do you think?” Alfred shrugged. “Don't know,” he said, staring through his grimy windshield, his face in profile. “Couldn't be good, though, eh?” She nodded slowly. “No, it couldn't be.” “Let's go, driver!” a passenger squealed like a pig in a pen behind him and Cynthia scowled in their direction, wanting badly to give them a manicured middle finger. She restrained herself with an effort. “Better go,” Alfred said, jerking his chin in the general direction of the dissenter. Cynthia nodded then said as she walked away, “Thanks, Alfred.” He grinned, his crooked teeth making his homely face endearing to her. “You betcha, for what?” he asked, his hand on the knob for the door closure. “Hope,” she said simply and walked away before he could respond. * Freedom Affirmed “Listen, I'm not the bad guy here, Ms. Collins,” Karl Truman said, peeved. The old bat. Didn't she realize they were after the same objective? He wanted to find the Caldwell girl. Hell, he wanted to find the Adams girl. His nose told him he was on the right trail but he was getting stonewalled by this old broad. She wrinkled her nose, completely unintimidated. Not that Truman was going for that. But at six foot three and an even three hundred pounds, he was a big guy and accustomed to leaning on folks and they caved. This scrawny bird wasn't one of those. Atypical. Stubborn. A Pain In His Fat Ass. He huffed, she scowled. “Okay, let's start over,” Truman said, rasping a hand over his stubble. He put the photo under her nose again and she studied it. Finally she looked up and said, “Even if I did recognize these girls, I wouldn't confirm or deny anything. You need a subpoena. Even with your police credentials, it would have to be a federal mandate. And my understanding is you hail from Alaska, correct?” she asked her rhetorical question like firing a gun. Shit, let's major in the minors, Truman thought. Her expression softened and she added, “Let's say, in theory,” she paused and he nodded like go on. Hell, he'd take any bread crumb she'd fling his way if it would get him closer to finding the girls, or young women, his mind corrected. They were twenty now. Her eyes pierced him through her grandma glasses which perched on the end of her pointy beak of a nose. “Let's say that there was a girl like that one,” her eyes flicked to Julia Caldwell's image, “who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Ones which could not be explained. Ones which required extensive remodeling.” Truman's heart stuttered in his chest. What the hell? His whole being came on point. She had been here. Julia Caldwell had been here. “Show me this... room.” “It's off the record,” she said as a statement. “As theory.” He nodded, following her. She led the way up the winding staircase, the steps creaking under his weight and when she reached the door he saw that the building had been an old turn-of-the-century dorm of some kind. Many doors were five panel solid fir with crystal knobs and old-fashioned housings leaning precariously from their attachments. She went to the room whose knob appeared like it'd been replaced. There was a modern knob retrofitted to the old fashioned box lock. “This has never worked since our phantom guest left.” She swung the door inward and Truman stepped into the room. He paused, giving his senses time to catch up. He always worked like this. Truman thought of it like getting the flavor of the room. The crime scene. Because that was what this was. Something had happened here. Something violent. His eyes strayed to the window where three whole panes lay intact inside their sashes, the fourth broken, a cut piece of plywood installed where the glass had been. He heard Shirley Collins sigh behind him as she waved a hand toward the window. “It's the final repair. Not many folks cut glass to fit this age of window anymore.” Yeah, Truman thought. There weren't many buildings of this age where he came from. After another moment, Truman walked over to the windowsill and looked at the wood there. It was punky with age, soft. He squinted at it. There, just on the interior edge, were scratches. Like something had used it as a perch for a moment. Something with... claws. His eyes snapped to hers. Then they instinctively fell on the glass, and the unkempt yard beyond, the whole of it rolling like an endless green sea toward the forest's edge. And there, just at the border, a lone figure slipped into the woods. Truman would have dismissed the person immediately. But the boots gave her away. Nobody wore those in these parts. She was Alaskan. He'd stake his life on it. As fast as somebody his size could get down the steps and out of the building, he ran. His body was now an ungainly bundle of raw size. But Truman had been an athlete in his youth. His body remembered those demands. They came to the forefront now, his body graceful in its pursuit of the ghostlike figure he chased after at a jog, his gun belt smacking and rubbing his side uncomfortably. It didn't matter, Shirley Collins' yell as he jogged to the edge of the forest went unheeded. She'd been protecting the girl all along; distracting him with the room while his quarry got away. Well, she wasn't going to get away this time. He ran harder, the embrace of the branches as he sailed into the gloom of trees rough against his clothing, tearing at him like ghostly fingers. Sharp and insistent. * an hour earlier “Why hello, Cynthia,” Shirley Collins greeted the tall slim girl in the funny boots with the haunted eyes. “Hey,” Cynthia said sweeping her glance to the old woman's gaze in a nervous dance before it flitted away, moving on to the rest of the interior. “What can I do for you?” “Yeah, I uh...” she looked at Miss Collins and shuffled her feet, the boots uncomfortably hot for the climate, “I wanted to know if this girl has been here?” Cynthia pulled out an old photo of Julia. She was only sixteen in the shot but it looked pretty close to the way she did when Cynthia had last seen her. A pang shot through her. At least, that's what she had looked like. Who knew what she looked like now? She'd be twenty. Older... like Cynthia was now. Shirley looked at Cynthia and a moment of awkward silence settled over the two. Cynthia could hear a clock ticking, some distant faucet was turned on and then off. Miss Collins opened her mouth, then shut it. “You know that each resident has a right to their privacy.” Cynthia nodded. “I know, Miss Collins. For their safety. But I'm not a threat to Julia. Actually, the same problem was threatening us both. I'd like to find her, somehow. I need your help.” Cynthia gave her earnest green eyes, ones that had dark circles underneath them where none had been before. Shirley deliberated then finally nodded her head. “We're not sure what happened but that room that you just occupied?” Cynthia nodded. “It is where it happened.” Cynthia watched her shiver and didn't think she was aware she had. Shirley Collins' eyes looked off in the distance and then she looked back at Cynthia. “I'm a practical woman, Cynthia.” No shit? Cynthia thought, like she'd would've never got that. “But what I saw that night. What I thought I saw?” she paused. “Defies explanation.” Cynthia figured she'd hit paydirt. After the weirdness that was her new reality, she was ready to believe anything. “When I heard the ruckus from her room I raced up there, thinking it was a Domestic.” Her eyes glazed and she spoke, remembering: Shirley clutched the phone in a bony hand, her finger lightly covering the speed dial for 911. They had the pipeline to Freedom Affirmed and the nearest squad car would detach on her summons, she knew. When she rounded the corner and saw the last of the creatures fling themselves out of the window, a primal alarm sounded. A deep and abiding warning from way down where her humanity had begun just as a spark, and that instinctive warning had been triggered. It had laid dormant until needed. Like now. She raced to the window. Though Shirley had been quick, she wasn't quick enough, she was only in time to see several pale forms move toward the forest in a blur that was against nature. Against all things. When a face turned to look at her as she stood in the window, it was as if the three hundred feet that separated them did not exist. An exquisite sense of calm stole over her, those red eyes glowed into hers, seeing her. Not that it was possible to see her well. Yet, she knew it had. For it wasn't human. It was other. Shirley came away from the window, the face turned and in a breath, disappeared forever. Behind someone. Following someone. Shirley looked at Julia's things on the bed that had been left behind and suddenly she knew. The girl had jumped out the window. Escaping those horrible things. Attempting to escape. Shirley shivered. Whatever brave things she'd martyred herself to long ago slipped away in a fear so acute, so breathtaking, she did something she never thought possible. She succumbed to apathy. She let her cowardice cloak her in indifference. She allowed Julia Caldwell to deal with whatever lurking threat came after her in a wave of terror and retribution and did nothing. Said nothing. Both women had tears streaming down their faces, one old, one young, the crying for different reasons. Still, in the end, they both cried for Julia. “So you see, I can't talk about it to anyone. I am guilty of not helping. Of not reporting it.” Cynthia laid a comforting hand on her frail arm. “It's okay, Miss Collins,” Cynthia said, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. “There's nothing you could've done.” Shirley gave a small lift of her shoulders. “I'll tell you why,” Cynthia said and Shirley waited. Cynthia told her everything. The attack, the nocturnal visits from the werewolves. Her fear. Her misery. Her escape. Cynthia pressed on even when Miss Collins' face showed a range of emotions. It was a compulsion. Cynthia just had to get it out. She'd told no one. And this might be the one person that'd believe her. “Now you know why I ran. If you're a coward, then I'm a bigger one.” Shirley Collins shook her head. “No, sometimes there's larger issues at play than the right or wrong choice. Sometimes, survival plays a part,” she finished significantly. She gave a watery smile through her tears, her shock at Cynthia's story on every line of her face. Which Shirley utterly believed. Maybe because it validated hers. Whatever the case may be, she asked Cynthia to wait while she retrieved something. “Here,” the old woman said, thrusting a bag in Cynthia's hands. Cynthia opened it and saw Jules' stuff in there. Not much. Just her pathetic make-up bag and a few other things. But one item caught her eye. It was the final picture of them together on the spit. Champagne glasses raised high, a deep twilight edging in around them in the land of the midnight sun. Cynthia noticed the champagne didn't look golden like she remembered. It looked like blood against the setting sun. CHAPTER 8 Region Two of the Singers Jacqueline watched her advisor with narrowed eyes. “So, you're telling me that you cannot avail yourself to send a scout on the mere pretense of an errand?” She knew that Victor was capable of whatever deception she was. Why he was hesitant was anyone's guess. Victor raked a frustrated hand through his already mussed hair, crossing a muscular leg over the other, his ankle dangling over its perch on his knee. He leaned forward, in a last attempt to convince his ruler of the need for caution. “Jacqueline, it would be unseemly to send a courier with any news other than that of the annual Gathering.” He settled back against the uncomfortable Victorian furniture in the huge mansion his region used as headquarters. However, it was Jacqueline's tastes that predicated the décor. And who was he to bitch? His place was in the field, carving out their place in the Singer Hierarchy. They were the most powerful region. Well, nearly so. Marcus had a formidable battalion. And now Marcus and Jacqueline's offspring was coming into his own. A Combatant after all. Jacqueline fingered the courier's note which stated simply: Dearest Jacqueline, Our progeny has ended his Awakening and has manifested as a Combatant. As agreed, you are now informed in writing. Yours, Marcus “He was never mine,” Jacqueline seethed, standing in a huff. Knowing a rage was likely, Victor endeavored to head the manic ranting off at the pass. “Now, Jacqueline...” “Shut up, Victor,” she said, crumpling the deeply embossed note on ivory stationery, the scarlet wax seal breaking and crumpling into bits at her feet. Victor shut up. But it cost him. He sometimes wondered why most regions were ruled by females, they were entirely too volatile for their position of importance. Look at this livid bitch he followed. Still stinging over a two-hundred year old dismissal. Jacqueline had never gotten over the rejection of Region One's leader, Marcus. Who had married for love. When his mate died a strange end, Jacqueline had rejoiced upon her death in a way that had strained the bounds of civility. Even for her. In the end, the matriarchal rule of Singers was mandated by blood. As were all things with the Singer. Blood was sovereign. Blood ruled. In the case of royal blood, the females were the bearers of royal blood that could yield a queen if the pairings were assembled with forethought and predetermination. As, obviously, hers and Marcus' had been. Another male Singer had been identified as Combatant. Their son by blood, not by a loving union. Their coupling had been arranged according to the old Law of Blood. Victor's eyes shifted to the desk that was like a huge wooden anchor in the room where they met. Brass, wood, high ceilings and ten inch moldings graced the formal parlor. As did nine other embossed ivory notices like the one Jacqueline had crumpled in her hand. Sitting in a portentous heap on top of the desk, a huge glass paperweight magnified the old-fashioned script like a seeking eyeball. “You know what this means as he is the last!” she hissed up at Victor, her rule having nothing to do with size. She was small, like so many Singer females, but powerful. Her royal blood assured an array of different talents. All of which she'd mastered expertly. To use against others, of course. Jacqueline ruled with tyranny instead of mutual respect. Victor sighed, knowing the day had come and dreading it with every fiber of his being. He nodded. “A Queen has Become.” “A true Queen or the circle would not be complete.” Jacqueline crossed her arms underneath breasts that still retained the bloom of youth, her age notwithstanding, she appeared mid-thirties but was actually over three hundred years. Victor tried for reason where none prevailed, “It is prophesied that the true Queen will bring peace and unity to all species, she will herald the coming together of Claw, Fang and Blood.” Victor held his breath for a moment, hopeful. For he saw a spark of reason in the fervent light in her dark eyes. Then it dimmed, to be replaced with her typical lust. Lust for power, lust to be the only one. The only queen. But she could not be. The circle did not congregate for her protection, but for another. The true Queen, Victor thought. The blood knew, foretold. The blood chose. Julia took a walk, the Singer guards on duty trailing behind her at a discreet distance and she sighed, annoyed. She shouldn't have been and she recognized this basic principle. She was a Big Deal who needed to be Protected. Julia kicked a pebble and it bounced off the bark of a tree and winged into the bushes as she walked, the sounds of the forest a white noise to her. She was surprised by how fast she'd gotten used to the sounds of nature again and it made her a little homesick. Julia needed to get over that and pull up her big girl panties. It had been two years since Homer. Alaska had become a distant dreamlike memory. Jason's attack hadn't been a dream. She walked over to a boulder and sat down, turning her back so that's all the two fellow Singers saw and plopped her chin in her palm, balancing her elbow on her knee. Julia closed her eyes and remembered those hands on her throat, the eyes that had been hazel as a human, now spinning green orbs, the hands like fleshy steel. Blocking her airway. The numbness in her fingertips woke her out of the fog of her memory. Her wet cheeks testified to the grip her love for Jason still had on her. Did she care for Scott? Well sure... she had some unnatural soul-whatever going down. But, according to Marcus, she'd have some weird soul-shit with nine other Singers too. The Combatant. Wonderful. Had she cared for William? Yes, her mind whispered. But maybe it was kidnappee's love, better known as Stockholm Syndrome. After all, she'd lost everything and there'd he'd been, picking up the broken pieces of her life. Julia didn't want to mistake gratitude for love. As she thought of William she felt a terrible pain in her gut. Her hands flew to her stomach. What was this? Just as quickly as it was there, it disappeared. Odd as hell, Julia thought, puzzled. However, when it came to Jason, she had loved him. She had. Past tense. Julia found that she couldn't continue to love someone who tried to kill her, call it self-preservation. Sadness threatened her but behind it was determination. She needed to move on. He was a Were. Very likely a Were with the pack that Adi belonged to. If he still lived. Julia thought of Tony and wondered what would happen now with Joseph gone, Adi by herself. Now, maybe Jason in the mix. When the pain came again she staggered to her feet, feeling like her guts were being ripped out. She ran to the guards, their faces in comical twin expressions of pinched surprise. Julia fell to her knees, giving a low groan. The guards came to her side. But it was Scott that shoved them away and scooped her up into his arms. “No,” she said, batting at him. “Yes,” he smirked, looking down, his face a false mask of gaiety but the worry lurked underneath it all. “Are you still...” he asked, striding toward the house. She shook her head, embarrassed to be held by him. By anyone. Another pain wracked her body and she bit her tongue to hold in the shriek. Scott yelled at the guard, feeling an echo of it in his own body, “Get the Healer.” He ran to get Cyrus. Scott took the steps two at a time, thinking that they'd just gotten over one chaotic event only to have another rear its ugly head. * William William let the stringy blood trail down from his broken fang, which even now was repairing itself, the calcified bone knitting itself as he hung there like a limp dishrag. Of course, they were feeding him all the blood in the world to keep him awake and conscious for the torture. William held his intestines inside the cavity of his body with one hand while the other supported his weight on the bloodied and gore-soaked floor. The pain was such a constant that he was building tolerance. Unfortunately, the one that he'd shared blood with was meant to take the burden of his pain. When his cup became full, it flowed over its bounds, spilling to the other person. In this case, Julia. As close as William could manage it, he determined that today was probably the first day that he could not stifle spillage. It had breached his boundaries, the open hole of his body being the worst injury yet. When Merlin strode in and looked at him without mercy, William understood that things had not deteriorated as much as they could. “He heals?” Merlin queried of the one who wielded the barbed whip. The torturer nodded, wiping the sweat off his brow. It was obvious that torturing was hard work. He had exerted himself in the stripping of flesh, the beating of William's face, and the partial evisceration evidenced in his bulging intestines. Already the swelling that had shut his eye was lessening and William cast a look of such withering contempt that Merlin laughed. “Yes, runner, loathe me if you will, but blame your kiss' leader. It is Gabriel that knew what would be your fate.” “Why?” William asked. Merlin waved his hand around dismissively. “He does not wish the liability of the Rare One in his kiss. He has said she had been... damaging.” William frowned then winced as the cut above his brow reopened. “It is not she which troubles him, but his status as overlord. She well and truly threatens his leadership. So he will sweep her to another coven. Making it your problem.” “We can handle the female, runner,” Merlin said, his eyes narrowing on William. William smiled and Merlin frowned. As if the unworthy male could dream of what it would be like to hold a Rare One in the coven. Did he not even understand their basic history? Had he even studied the Book of Blood as required for a leader of their species? “More,” Merlin said, turning. William's torturer shrugged huge shoulders, the barbs dull from use, from strikes against his flesh. “There is not a surface without wounds, Merlin.” Merlin opened his mouth in a hiss, “Do it. Make it as deep and vile as possible. We need that Rare One. We will make them come to us.” His head swiveled in William's direction. “Does she ail, runner?” William could feel that his pain was less. And it was not all his exceptional healing, aided by his Singer heritage. “I do not know,” William lied. Merlin threw back his head and laughed. “You care for her,” he said in surprise. William stared at the wretched excuse of a vampire, mired in deception, married to greed. “This is actually amusing. I shall watch your degradation,” he paused in his antagonizing, giving William a steady look, “so you know, I gave my word of honor that I would not torture you, that it would be a superficial consequence.” “It is no surprise then, that you partake in the pleasure of my pain, that a promise made to my leader would be broken. If Gabriel is power hungry, then you are drowning in a decadence which is nameless,” William said in a low voice gone thick with rage and blood. He spit it out onto the stone, straightening to his knees, his entrails now held by new skin, his hand that had caused them not to spill, dropping to his side. His gray eyes met Merlin's. “Julia is not a trifle. You may retrieve her but if the circle has come, she will be immune to anything and everything that you bring. All that you bring.” Merlin's eyes narrowed into slits then he turned to Whip-bearer and nodded. The weapon slung behind his massive shoulder and whistling through the air, tore into William's chest, a thousand burning bee stings hitting the area that had just healed an hour before. William flinched, holding the pain in the deepest part of his soul. Yet, no vampire was invincible and the agony escaped, flying on the blood-binding he shared with Julia, going off on a path that led only to her. * Jason Jason sat straight up in his bed, gasping. He clutched his hand to his chest as if a hole had opened there. Holy shit, what the hell was that? He looked down at his chest, feeling the smooth walls of muscle over unblemished and perfect skin and hesitated as another burning pain hit the same area and he winced. What the eff did this mean? He got out of the bed and padded across his room, absently stroking his sternum, the burning like heartburn with a kick and looked out at the woods, the moon casting her shine on everything, causing it to look blanketed in a silver that illuminated everything. A cloud moved across the moon, tearing the luminescence away and when it passed Tony stood outside his window. Jason jumped in his skin and Tony smiled. That fucker, Jason thought, instantly feeling his wolf roil under his skin in a tortuous pull of heat and hatred. The wolf wanted out and the moon's weight and fullness encircled them both, calling to Jason. Summoning him. Jason resisted but it was not without an effort that was an ugly, unnatural feeling. What would have felt right would have been to burst his skin like a bird taking flight. But he wasn't a bird, it would have been his wolf. And he didn't want to be labeled Feral. He wouldn't be, ever again. Jason came to himself and slowly raised his hand, popping the bird at the bastard. Tony's smirk fell off his face like a brick landing and Jason closed the curtain to block his rotten ass from sight. The lurking dickhead. What the hell was he up to anyway? Skulking around the compound. Jason knew it wasn't his security detail shift. But there he was, being a prick. Seemed a natural skill for him. Jason threw himself back on the bed, crossing his ankles and folding his arms behind himself. His mind went right to Julia, as it did every day. He sat stewing as he remembered his conversation with the Packmaster from yesterday. Lawrence steepled his fingers, regarding his newest wolf, a natural Alpha and sighed. There were no good explanations, there was only Pack Law. “The Rare One is the obvious complement to you, Jason. You are both Singers, you have turned, you are a rare Red...” he spread his hands by his sides then leveled Jason with a hard stare. “I believe it is you in the prophesy of the Book of Luna.” Lawrence recited the exact scripture he had quoted to Tony not long ago. But unlike Tony, this wolf was keenly intelligent and not rash. Jason mulled it over, Lawrence could almost see his thoughts washing over his face like a page turned. “That would mean that she is bound to a blood drinker and a Were!” Jason said in a loud voice that was without hope. “And the Singer who chooses her blood.” Jason threw up his hands. “She is my wife,” he enunciated like Lawrence was a little stupid, his voice a vibrating weapon before use. Lawrence stared at Jason, reining in his impatience. “That is not the way of it for supernaturals. She has consummated nothing. Chosen no one.” “She chose me.” Lawrence nodded. “Yes, in your prior human existence, under the human's rules, the laws which govern their species, she was your female.” His eyes met Jason's. “That is no more. Now you are ruled by the moon, by your wolf. She is ruled by her blood.” Jason pounded his fist into his open palm. “It's not fair!” Lawrence nodded again. He was starting to look like a bobble head, Jason thought uncharitably. “How did she get my blood? I didn't break her skin with the... attack,” Jason muttered the last under his breath, the shame infusing him with discomfort. Lawrence palmed his chin, thinking. Suddenly he touched on a thought and asked, “Do you think that she may have consumed or touched some of your blood when you were attacked? It wouldn't take much if it entered a Singer as rare as she.” Jason thought about that horrible night on the beach, how he'd yelled, or tried to yell, for her to run, his throat a bloody ruin. How she'd come over, sliding in tight next to him and shoving her hands against the wound. He'd coughed. Had the blood gotten in her mouth? Her hands? “Do you see? It would only have taken a microscopic amount at the time of your change. You were already Becoming. It was fate. You were meant to be a wolf, the instant the attack transpired, you were turning. She touched you, consumed some of your essence through blood.” Lawrence shrugged. When Jason said nothing Lawrence let his last comment ring in the room like a damning proclamation, “She is a Blood Singer. It is what she is. Their Blood governs them. It always has. It always will.” They stared at each other. Jason asked the one thing he needed to know, he was going crazy not knowing. “Can I get her back?” Lawrence nodded. “If you wish for her to be your mate, you will have to break the bonds that she has with the others.” “How?” Jason asked, already hating the answer. Deep down, he knew what it was. Lawrence smiled. Jason found it to be the thing they accused him of being only weeks before: feral. “I think you know the answer to that, wolf.” Jason did. He walked out, knowing his future, but not embracing it. Never that. CHAPTER 9 Region One Cyrus met Scott's eyes and shook his head. “This is deliberate, Scott.” Scott beat his fist onto the molding that surrounded the door. Dammit, just when they were making headway some other fucktastrophe came along and he had to buck up to the challenge. Hell, he was all about manning up. That was his life, actually. As the first born son of the leader of Region One, he was fine on-diddy with manning up. If he knew what the hell he was up against. But Julia writhing around with phantom pain was un-effing-doing him. Scott tore a hand through his hair and finally said, “What do we do?” His eyes nailed Cyrus, demanding resolution. “This is the blood-binding working its magic.” “Which?” Scott asked in a terse voice. Cyrus shrugged, understanding the entire question in the one word. “I'm guessing vamp.” His eyes met Scott with a cautionary but stamped in them. Scott stilled. “And?” “The Were is going to know. He'll get psychosomatic symptoms as well.” “Well hell, isn't this a fuckburger,” Michael said from the corner and Scott glared at him. “You,” he pointed at Michael, “shut up.” While his brother dreamed of conjuring a fine illusion for him he turned his attention to Jen. “I'm ready for opinions from the peanut gallery.” Jen looked at Cyrus who gazed back. “She needs to reunite with this vampire, break the blood tie,” he said emphatically. “But why is this happening?” Jen asked, using her palm to indicate Julia's pain. “My best guess is he's being tortured to get to her.” The room fell into a heavy silence, Brendan finally broke it, “You mean, this vamp is laying around while someone takes chunks out of him?” Cyrus chuckled. “No. It may not be as simple as that.” “Like he's not a volunteer,” Jen stated. “I'll volunteer. I'll take chunks out of him,” Scott said. “For free. Hell... for fun,” Scott ground out. “No,” Julia whispered, her eyes rolling to his. “He hasn't done anything.” Scott nodded his head in a quick angry jerking motion. “Oh yeah, he's so innocent. Those vampires, such an honest bunch.” “Come on Julia! Think. They are after power, just like the Weres.” His eyes bore down on hers and Julia squeezed hers tight against the condemnation in his. “I understand.” Her eyes snapped open, searing a line of heat on every place they fell. Scott swallowed against the wash of emotion, a backlash of her agony struck him like a whip dipped in acid. “However,” and she looked at each sibling, her gaze landing on Marcus as he entered the doorway, “the Singers don't seem much different to me. You need someone who cares about uniting everyone. So these wars will stop.” Her eyes flared at him then she turned away, both hands laid against her chest. Scott ached to touch her and on Cyrus' nod came forward. “Will it help?” he asked, hating the helpless feeling in his guts. Cyrus nodded then added a cautionary, “I won't lie, it will hurt. You will share in it.” Scott shrugged, his eyes flicking to Marcus' who nodded and answered for Scott. His father used the very words that he'd been thinking. “It is his job as Combatant. To protect the Queen.” Julia groaned and muttered something under her breath. “What?” Jen asked and gave a laugh, thinking she'd heard her just fine. “I said, bullshit,” Julia repeated. Scott knelt beside her and met her eyes. Julia noticed how black his were and shut her own against what she saw there. “Okay,” she said without opening them. The pull against her chest felt unbearable. The urge to cry was a weight she hated but bore, just barely. When she felt the softest touch of his hand on her arm, gloveless, a shuddering exhale left her body and she gave a soft sob of relief. Her whole body unknotted. The pain had been so great, building to a screaming crescendo, that until some of the weight of it was lifted, she didn't know how bad it had become. Julia opened her eyes and saw the tightness in Scott's. His hand trailed fire on her skin as he stroked her arm. When his hand stopped he wrapped his palm around her forearm, his fingers touching. She fell into his eyes, so grateful for the reprieve from the river of pain that was now dammed another hitching sob escaped her. “Julia, shhh... I'm here,” Scott crooned to her, using his other hand to cup her cheek, his fingertips grazing her temple and she nuzzled into his palm, the contact sucking more pain away. When his lips came for her mouth like sleeping beauty waking from a bewitched slumber her lips parted in readiness, her eyes shutting. Heat and silk touched her mouth, moving with the barest touch, the horrible pain sliding away like melting candle wax, an unbearable memory put away. Scott pulled away, feeling the bite of what she felt, the thud of an instrument of torture like an excruciating echo of pain across a psychic distance where space didn't matter before blood. He flinched with the rhythm of it and Julia's eyes widened. “No, Scott. Put it back,” she said, grabbing his hand and clenching it to her chest. “No problem,” he said as the abuse kicked up a notch. Scott turned to Cyrus, never taking his touch away from Julia. “How long?” Cyrus shrugged. “It depends on the healing prowess of the vamp. If he's a good healer. Even now he might be healing it all.” “Wait a sec,” Michael said, tearing a Blow Pop out of his mouth. Scott would have rolled his eyes if he hadn't been dying about then. “Why are they torturing this dude? They're all vamps, right?” He stabbed the sucker back in his mouth. “I can answer that.” A young woman came through the door and Brendan said, “Angela?” She looked at Marcus and he nodded. “I've sensed... the presence of the blood drinkers.” “Vampires 'R Us, huh?” Michael asked, sticking the lollipop back in his mouth, but not before everyone got a load of his blue tongue. Gross, Julia had time to think before Scott gave her hand an involuntary squeeze, his eyes tightening from whatever was being done. To William. Scott gave her a quick glance and getting the basic emotion he whispered, “Don't you dare feel sorry for him.” Julia wanted to take her hand out of his but he held on. “No,” he shook his head. “If I let go, it will all come back to you.” “Do something, Cyrus. It's a circle until the torture of this vamp stops,” Brendan said. “He can't, Bren,” Angela said. All eyes fell on hers but Marcus'. He knew what she would say. “He can't repair what doesn't happen. It's all here,” she touched her head, then let her palm sweep her own body, head to toe. “It is in the blood, a blood-binding is impossible to break from a distance.” “So, he gets the treatment and so does bro and Queenie?” Michael asked the general crowd. Marcus intervened when Scott stood, his hand tenaciously clinging to Julia's. He put a palm up to stay Scott and gave a look to Michael. “If you choose not to be helpful, leave.” Michael shrugged, leaning against the wall. “She'll have to go to the vamps, won't she?” Jen asked in a whisper. Marcus nodded. “No effing way,” Scott said through gritted teeth. He couldn't believe Julia had been bearing this. He rolled his shoulders, trying to shrug off the agony. It clung like a scent. Angela came to stand before Scott. “There is no choice. They'll never stop, Scott.” “Goddammit!” Scott roared into the room, Julia flinching with the sound of his anger. He looked his apology to her but turned to the others. “What the hell do they want?” Marcus sighed. “Julia, son. They want her.” “Well, they're not going to have her. Over my dead carcass.” “They'll probably be happier than hell to arrange that,” Brendan said. As it happened, that was the truth of it. As the Singers despaired over Julia and Scott's situation. Merlin's troop of runners closed in on the Singer compound, the kiss of night having fallen softly on the woods, the grounds. “They're here,” the Feeler said. Angela's eyes grew wide as more of their intent became known. “Ha!” Michael said. “Let 'em try. We're going to kick some undead ass.” “Don't hurt William,” Julia said. Scott looked down at her, seething because of her sympathy. “Why, Julia? Why should I give... should we give two shits about this guy?” “Because he saved me.” “From what?” Scott asked, his eyes searching hers, frustration and pain a mix that made him hold her hand too tightly. He loosened his grip. “The others,” she whispered. Angela, Region One's Feeler, put her eyes on Julia's and gasped, her hand covering her mouth. And Scott shifted his gaze to her. “What?” “They plan a terrible end for her.” “What end?” “An arranged mating. She'll have no choice. None.” Scott gave a vehement shake of his head, gathering Julia against his chest, raising her effortlessly into the cradle of his arms. He was struck by how he'd hated Julia in the beginning, just a short week ago. Or hated what she had represented, a fine line that he'd had difficulty recognizing. She seemed like an intrusion on Scott's freedom, his independence. And in time Scott had come to realize his independence was merely a hiatus from what destiny deemed his future. Julia was his future. Scott wanted her as his soulmate; he knew that now as he stood there, shouldering the pain from a distant vampire as he was tortured so they could get to Julia. As he looked at his father, Scott recognized that at the very least he was her protector. Along with nine other soul-meld candidates. That part he hated. “Where are the others?” Scott asked him. “They come. They draw nearer to complete the circle.” Julia said, “Let me down.” “No,” he said quietly and she did the only thing she could think of. Using her God-given Singer ability she jerked out of his grasp and flew through the open window into a night embraced by vampire, fueled by the power of her mind. Pain slammed into Julia as soon as the connection was broken with Scott and light flashed before her eyes. There was no getting used to the pain. It was its own relentless force, barreling into her without mercy, the buffer of Scott gone. Her concentration shattered under the brutality of it. She was falling and landed against something... someone. Julia opened her eyes and met crimson ones. Ones she knew. Vampire. Then there were Singers everywhere, vampires battling her kind. As a wash of pain lanced her. The vampire that held her dropped her as a male Singer swung a fist at him, fire rolling off his forearm like a wrecking ball, the sunset flames hitting the vampire in the chest and he shrieked into the night, beating his own chest to put out the flames. Another swooped in to grab her and she did as Scott had taught her, the training he gave her in the infant stages but it was enough. She lashed out with her foot, giving a solid kick to his knee and he hissed in pain, his fangs bursting out with a fleshy pop. Julia immediately thought of that night with the vampires in the bathroom and fear bloomed where anger at Scott had been. She'd been played a fool. Then Julia realized that the pain was gone. She scuttled away on all fours as the vampire blurred to her in a rush of speed and she used his momentum against him as she shoved her power at him and he slammed into another vampire. Bowling pins, Julia thought wildly, giving a hysterical giggle as she beat a hasty retreat to the house. She got to the first step of the house and a vicious tug on her head kept her in place as a strong arm like warm steel curled around her waist and lifted her off the ground. Julia gave in to her terror, screaming for all she was worth, her throat feeling like something important tore as she did. Julia felt a crunch and the grip loosened and she began to fall, throwing her arms out in front of her. She knew it was Scott before she smelled him, saw him. Their blood coursed in synchronicity and Julia resisted what she felt even as she did: safe. Scott made her feel safe. It scared Julia. She didn't want to feel safe. She didn't trust safe. Safety was something to be stolen. Then she looked up into his face and gasped in shock. Eyes of black ink, rimmed by red looked at the vampires who approached them. Ten deep. Brendan, Michael and her Singer guards flanked them. But it was Scott who held her attention. Holy shit, Julia thought, stunned despite the circumstances she found herself in, he's like the Incredible Hulk. And he was. Scott set Julia down and she watched as his six foot three frame stretched by inches, his muscles bulging and tearing the black fabric of the tee that he always wore. With an inhuman roar he launched himself at the vampire. His hand touched the first and as he did, he pulled the limb off in sickening twist of tearing flesh, even as two sunk their fangs into his arms. Scott howled, using the arm of the vampire as a club, he heaved the ball joint of the shoulder into the vampire like a battering ram, cracking his jaw like an unhinged gate. His face hung askew as Brendan and Michael went to work, Brendan setting a fire at many feet, but it was the faces that Julia would never forget. The faces of the vampires as they wailed and their skin melted off as she stood there watching. The smell of burning flesh, flesh that had long-since been dead, speared the air and as her nostrils filled with it Julia tipped like a spinning top, her hands biting into the ground, the fresh air that lay right above the vegetation not enough to stop her from puking where she crouched. Julia's eyes burned with the acrid smell. Jen was there patting her back, coughing into the back of her hand. Julia was reminded of Adi as her nose and eyes ran, the little bit of food she'd consumed decorating the weeds. Out of her peripheral vision she saw Scott, an impossibly changed and brutal Scott, become a tornado of violence, tearing the vampires limb from limb as Michael distracted them with his illusions and Brendan lit them up like tiki torches. Julia rocked back and sat on her butt watching the battle unfold. Marcus was amongst the throng, using a sword as long as her torso, his supernatural strength aiding in its use. Julia watched him strike the vampires as they came, nearly as fast as they and she closed her eyes against the violence, repulsed. “What... are we?” Julia began, still watching the images behind her eyelids of the killing like a movie she couldn't turn away from. It was awful. It was necessary. Julia couldn't go back to them. She couldn't stay here. Julia knew that now. Everyone wanted a piece of her. She had to get the hell out of here before these other guys... the Combatants showed up. If she didn't, she'd be royally screwed. No pun on that, she thought bitterly. Scott stopped, his chest heaving, his mind no longer powering his body, his arms were covered in vampire gore, their dead flesh clinging in a mix of blood, sinew and the finer things that held bodies together, dead or alive. In this case, no longer. The undead lay all around Scott like discarded marbles, their pieces scattered around. The battle was over. Scott didn't trust it. His eyes flicked to his father and he tried to speak and found that he couldn't. What the hell was wrong with him? He began to move toward Julia (he'd never lost that sense of where she'd been during the entire battle), then stopped. He lifted his hand and it was as if it belonged to somebody else. It was gigantic. Scott was used to being a big guy, at almost six foot four and nearly two fifty, he used his size and natural grace to his advantage in sparring. But this! Scott kicked the vampire parts out of the way and an errant leg hit the trunk of the tree like it weighed five pounds instead of forty, denting the bark and causing leaves to flutter down in blurry shapes scattered by gloom. Julia screamed at Scott's approach and his step faltered, her terror at his image halting him in his tracks. What was she seeing? He was still himself inside, regardless of what his shell looked like. What she saw was a six foot eight, nearly three hundred pound man that moved like a mountain of muscle, eyes so black they were like ground coal with crimson rims of rage. Scott ran to her, his gait slowed not at all by his size. It was as if he was more graceful in this form, not less. Julia sprung to her feet, turning and he grabbed her. “It's me, Julia. Scott!” he said, finding his voice when he needed it, thank fuck he thought in relief and she swung around hitting him on a chest that felt like heated stone. “Don't touch me!” she screamed, beating on his pecs like a drum. He held her head against his chest and as he did, the battle lust receded and Scott felt himself shrink in a painful sucking pull of flesh and bone. He groaned against the pain, suddenly aware of the absence of the psychic torture that had begun it all. Scott didn't let go, even when tears soaked his shirt. “I've got you, I've got you, Julia,” he said, stroking her hair. Julia knew this, the false warmth of their blood union swirling around her like a fog of comfort. A comfort she didn't trust. Julia didn't know if she could ever trust it. She let Scott hold her in that mind-numbing fog and her eyes met those of the Feeler's, Angela, and Julia knew that the girl had a sense of Julia's mindset. It made Julia even more determined to get away from this place. She didn't want to belong to anyone. Julia didn't want to be Queen of anything. William was somewhere being tortured, there were nine other Singer warriors coming, Combatants she reminded herself. And, Jason was no longer hers. He was lost. And so was she. But Julia knew one thing she could control. That she would control. Her future. Julia let herself be held. Plotting her escape in the arms of a man who had been born to protect her. Maybe even love her. She resisted on the grounds of experience. Love wasn't real. It was a myth. Love died. It always had. It always would. CHAPTER 10 Manny Manny watched the Singer weave through the forest where the capture of the Rare One had been attempted and subsequently failed. Actually, it was less with his eyes and more with the senses he possessed as wolf. His nose rose above his head as he scented the cop that trailed her. Detective Karl Truman would have made an excellent wolf, he thought offhandedly. A low growl tickled around the edges of his mouth and Tony nodded in readiness, flanking his position. There was no need for circumspection. Truman was fully aware of their race. As a point-of-fact, Emmanuel was certain that he did not possess altruistic designs on Cynthia Adams, but plans which included a silence. Her silence. She had now been flagged as a valuable asset to the pack. Inextricably linked to the Rare One and of Singer heritage herself. The nest of Singers were thick in the region she hailed from. A mystery to solve for exploit. Or at least that was the end toward which Lawrence endeavored. Manny moved forward as a twitchy Adi fell into the vee formation of acquisition. If Anthony so much as laid a claw on the Adams girl, Emmanuel was sure that Adrianna and the other male warrior who accompanied him would be sufficient to subdue even one such as he. Manny hoped for that end. But knew it was unlikely. Tony was many things, but at the height of the list was self-preservationist. He was not one to endanger his own hide. They moved into the open meadow just as Cynthia Adams pushed the last of the dense foliage aside and stepped into the unprotected space opposite them. Cynthia moved toward an open area that was just beyond her reach. It was obvious that Kent was a large city and she was surprised that these pockets of forestland still existed in thick belts, tying the suburban areas together like green ribbons of fir and cedar trees. At that moment, it was alder branches she pushed through like weapons as they tore back and whipped her when she passed. She climbed up a rough and narrow path, Jules' horrible boots gripping the loose dirt and small pebbles expertly and she grunted in a laugh, thinking that the dumb things were actually practical. Not that it ever mattered. Beauty is pain, Cynthia thought, the only mantra she still believed in. As she crested the small knoll the branches thinned and she plowed through the last of them and walked out into a wide and treeless field. It contained a sea of long grass, wheaten in color, bleached by the end of summer and the approach of fall. It nearly covered her boots as she stepped through it, parting it as it hissed when it struck her boots in passing. Cynthia saw them immediately and her heart sped up. Normally, there was nothing wrong with passing by a few peeps you didn't know. But this group held a stillness; an anticipatory readiness that put Cynthia on alert. Of course, she was more self-aware than the average bear. Nocturnal brushes with werewolves would do that to a chick every time. She took a step back into the gloomy border of the woods and they mirrored her pace, taking a step forward. Fuck, Cynthia thought, adrenaline beginning a slow and sickening surge in her body, her bloodstream lighting up with the fight and flight response. Truman followed his nose, which in turn, found the girl. And the people. Check that: werewolves. Karl Truman heaved himself out of the woods and looked to his left. And there, in the border of where the thickest part of the woods met the pastureland, stood Cynthia Adams, her skin a pale ghostlike sheet, her eyes wide and shocky. Chest heaving, he followed her gaze and swallowed hard. Before he knew it his hand was not empty, but held his forty-five semi-auto, his grip relaxed and at ease. Only the fine sweat which beaded his upper lip spoke to his nervousness. That was bound to happen with four half-turned, whatever the hell these were. Truman watched the skin on the three melt away and a fine downy coat of fur replaced it, but a thin layer, like someone had taken a salt shaker of fur and spread it liberally. It was the eyes that nailed Truman to the spot. All four had spinning orbs of gold and ebony, save one. One had green, like discs of emerald fire, his fur was a deep, burnished red. Truman couldn't take his eyes off him. He wouldn't dare. Without looking away, Truman spoke to the girl, “Cynthia, come over here now, nice and slow.” Cynthia felt ill. She heard the detective's voice like it was coming from a well. She knew who he was but didn't ask herself how the Alaskan cop had found her. How they'd found her. As Cynthia watched, they began to lope toward the unlikely pair: the cop and the young woman. Cynthia's paralysis broke and she turned to run toward the cop. Truman raised his gun and leveled it on the fucking Sasquatch that was closest. “Come on,” he whispered, “make my day,” he said, quoting Clint Eastwood at the unlikeliest moment. Cynthia jogged toward him and he reached out his left hand, his right tight on his pistol grip. She flung herself the last two feet and his warm palm, dry and strong, clasped hers and with a mighty jerk, she was against his body and she gave a shuddering sob of such abject relief that Truman responded as all males who protect females do. He put Cynthia Adams behind his body and used himself as a shield. They'd have to plow through him to get to her. He could feel the fear thrum through her body to his. “Stay put,” he told her. She nodded then realized he couldn't see her and said, “Yes,” against his broad back. One of her eyes peeked around him, seeing what came and she knew that these were the same kind, species, whatever... that had threatened her in Homer. Though they were not the same group. There were four, one much smaller than the others, but no less fierce. Female, Cynthia thought. The lead werewolf had an inky black coat, matching eyes, and silver tips on the fur, giving it an almost glittery appearance. He moved with purpose and a smoothness that screamed leader. Her eyes roved over the one that was a deep chocolate, his eyes a pale gold, the same color as the female. There was a hardness in him that was absent in the others. It was the red werewolf, in a form that she knew too well that captured and held her attention. He moved with a lithe grace, together but separate from the others, his eyes never leaving hers. Cynthia fought a dizzying sense of déjà vu, origin unknown. The troop stopped, awkwardly standing in front of Truman, a fine tremble had begun in his gun hand. Holding a weapon steady was a fine thing for about five minutes, any longer and even the steadiest hand became compromised. “Detective,” the leader ground out and Cynthia shuddered at the cadence of the deep gravelly speech, her body recognizing it and instinctively recoiling from the memory, the connotation of what it meant to hear those tones. Terror, threats, and brutal paws on her: pinching and poking her into compliance. That's what filled Cynthia's mind. The memories evoked an immediate response from her body, a light sweat breaking out all over her. The brown wolf's nostrils flared. Like he could scent her fear, the female giving Cynthia a sharp glance. The inky black one stopped in front of Truman and continued his speech, the woods a claustrophobic background, closing in, making Cynthia's throat tighten. “Walk away. We will take the girl and you don't have to be hurt. Be smart,” it growled. “Be safe,” Adrianna added, looking from the big cop to the scared girl behind him. Adi knew who she was and gave her a curious head to toe. This was Jules' bestie. The friend that she'd said Adi reminded her of. Adi scented fear and underneath that like fine wine, aggression. Interesting mix. It was the red wolf that cinched it for Cynthia. “You can't run, Cyn. Come with us. We'll get Jules. If it's the last thing I do,” he said, his massive hands that tapered to short claws fisted in emphasis and Cynthia's mind struggled to set the pieces of what he'd said to rights. He'd called her Cyn. He'd referenced Julia. Cynthia tried to come around the detective and get an up close and personal but Truman blocked her path with a beefy arm. “No,” he said in a final way. Cynthia ducked and moved forward as the red werewolf came toward her and a knowledge, low and primitive sung through her. A tingling awareness began as Truman surged forward to haul her back. The red one wrapped a hand that was more paw than palm around her forearm and their eyes met. Cynthia knew instantly who he was. He was seven feet tall and built like a giant red brick shithouse, the bones of his face grown long in the parody of a snout. He held his body a certain way, his expression echoed with breathtaking familiarity. Jason, her mind told her even as her eyes denied what stood in front of her. He'd died. Cynthia had watched his throat vanish under claws that struck deep. Cynthia jumped at the report of the gun firing, high and wide, it hit the red Were just below his collarbone in a meaty thunk of flesh and she yelped, her ears ringing from the sound, his body spinning backward. An arm swung over her head, the speed of its passing causing Cynthia's hair to lift around her face. The chocolate colored werewolf with the hard face backhanded the cop almost casually, his three hundred pound body flying backward like it weighed nothing. “Enough,” growled Manny, eyeing the girl. Sensing her next move he came forward and heat rose from her feet to her head in a sickening rush of nausea. The information that was so vital, so mind altering being discovered in a life-sized werewolf that was now shot was too much to accept. Cynthia felt herself go under, crumpling. As she folded like a deck of cards, the small female caught her. Adi's bottom lip spread, revealing pearly and deadly teeth, as a low growl sounded, the brown wolf slowed his approach. “Don't try it, dipshit.” Cynthia heard his comment even as unconsciousness edged in around her like a whirlpool closing. “Watch your tone, female.” Then Cynthia knew no more, the gray of her mind becoming black. Adi heaved the Singer on her shoulder, her half-Were form easily shouldering the burden. Manny jogged in his half-human, half-Were form to where the detective lay. He scented the detective, his nostrils flaring once, twice. He met their eyes. “He lives.” Emmanuel paused, registering something else, then dismissing it. His eyes swept the group, Adi defiant with their Singer prize, Tony glaring at her. Finally, his glance encompassed the red Feral... Jason. Already his recuperative abilities were taking over. His blood was drying and his flesh pushing out the foreign plug of the bullet. As he watched, Jason's magnificent physique expelled the misshapen hunk of metal and it fell out onto the grass with the barest plop. Jason scooped down to pluck it out of the tall grass and Manny's eyebrows popped. “Evidence,” Jason growled. “Remember,” he tapped an inky black claw, retracted for the moment, against his temple, “I was under his thumb before.” “Ah yes,” Manny agreed, then narrowed his eyes on the girl, temporarily out like a light. “Let us go,” he said. “It's pretty fucking convenient that she fainted,” Tony said with a smirk, it sat awkwardly on his half-wolf face, his deep voice sounding like rough stones rubbing together. He reached out with a claw and lifted a piece of her blond hair. “Don't touch her, perv,” Adi said, jerking her away from his touch. Tony smiled. “I'll be touching her plenty in the future, you can take that to the bank, princess.” Jason moved on the wind, one minute he held a bullet in his hand, the next he'd tossed it at Adi who caught it and lunged at Tony. They smacked together in midair and Jason landed in a smooth roll, taking Tony with him. He used the momentum he'd gained and straddled him, a talon bursting against the side of Tony's throat. “You're not gonna touch her,” Jason said, pressing the tip until the skin broke; a drop of blood rolling down his neck to cling to the dark fur that lay there. “You're just pissed because you didn't get to bang your wife,” Tony said and no one saw Jason's hand hit Tony's face until blood sprayed, landing like crimson rain on the tall grass, speckling it with violence. Manny rushed the pair, scenting the aggression like thick smoke. He put his mouth on the back of Jason's neck and bit down, just shy of breaking the skin. Emitting a low growl he gave the most primitive of commands. Emmanuel hoped that it worked. They needed to return to the den, with the girl, leaving the cop here to awaken without their presence. Jason couldn't think. All he wanted... wished for was to end the wolf under his claw. He could feel the life flow underneath him. Then Tony used his hesitation as invitation to buck him off as Emmanuel released his teeth from Jason's neck. They simultaneously backed away from the red. Jason stood, giving equal attention to both. Emmanuel he respected, Tony, the miserable fuck, absolutely not. It was Adi who summed everything up perfectly. “You just have to say the wrong thing every time.” She looked at Manny. “You're gonna have to tell Lawrence about his King Asshat routine.” Emmanuel sighed then said, “Tony, take the girl, don't touch her inappropriately, and keep your yap shut.” Tony looked at Jason. “We're gonna go, you and I.” “Bring it, dickhead,” Jason ground out. Emmanuel strode to the two. “Listen to me. If he wakes, we will have to kill him. And killing innocent bystanders goes against Were law.” “Yeah, Manny. You're so perfect, so moral,” Tony spit out. “Somebody has to be,” Adi said, then flipped him the bird as a soft drizzle began to fall. Tony's face flushed a deep red and Jason smiled. There would be a perfect time to deal with this jerk. And it'd be soon. Emmanuel gave Adi the nod and she carefully transferred Cynthia to Tony who smiled and used every opportunity to paw her as he placed her in the cradle of his arms, her face pressed against his chest. Jason hated that he outranked him. It wasn't fair that Tony had the flesh of one of his own against his body. He had an instinctive dislike for Tony. Who he knew had been dead set on the Ritual of Luna. Its outcome all for him. Tony had been bound to fight the wolves for Julia. But she was Jason's wife. Jules belonged to him. Were law be damned. It was too new to stick, if struck false. It was Vegas that counted, the memory of their vows still fresh in his head. His heart. A tightly coiled disquiet unfurled as he touched on the memory of his attack against Julia. What if she couldn't move past that? What if he couldn't? Who could? he thought morosely. Jason watched Tony curl a paw around Cynthia possessively and Adi huffed into position. Jason was enjoying the fact that the wound he'd given Tony would be human-slow to heal since it was inflicted by another Were. They began to move, speeding off into the woods. The strips of green that connected suburbia also connected to each other. Where there was forest, they ran, where they ran, the small creatures all around halted their lives of survival as the werewolves made way through the path of nature they foraged in. The Were were the very top of the food chain and the animals of the forest knew it, deferring to their entry. As they ran for the compound that housed their den, the detective that had been unconscious awoke. One word formed in his brain. Pursuit. CHAPTER 11 William William slapped the palms of his hands together, Julia's fear, no- he corrected internally, her terror- fueled his strength. His finesse as a vampire warrior came to the forefront with a stinging clarity that shattered the skull of his torturer quite neatly, if bashed in brains could be considered such. He had planned and executed the move perfectly. When there were no runners to back him. Whilst Torturer was so certain of William's frailty his complacency drove him forward to mockery. William was ready and leapt as Torturer leaned forward to whisper his sweet nothings in William's ear. He never heard anything again, his ears mashed with the remains of his brain, unrecognizable to all that would have noticed. None were there at present. William gave a grim smile as he stepped over his sodden corpse, jerking the chain that was attached to his body which held the iron keys to relieve his cuffs of burning silver. The cool metal slid down the bare flesh of his forearms and his fangs pushed out sluggishly in response to the horrible stinging pain. His energy was so depleted that his fang response was the least of his worries. It would take special blood to relieve the stress of his healing. He needed to feed, and soon. William heard the footsteps even though they made no sound and blurred behind the massive door as it swung inward and Merlin stepped through it. William didn't think, he reacted, as he had been trained for hundreds of years. He stabbed his talon when it burst the confines of his fingertip, simultaneously punching it through the slots of metal that crisscrossed through the airhole that was head height in the wood door. It pierced the skull at the other side. Unfortunately, Merlin was centuries older and twisted away, the hole at his temple beginning to close the wound. William slammed the door viciously against him as he entered. It splintered on impact and he moved around the door as Merlin was pinned against it, his eyes wide, struggling to move through the shattered material. William felt his fangs lengthen and all talons burst simultaneously, the last of his energy catching the scent of ancient vampire blood that coursed through Merlin. It ignited the flame of his survival instinct. Ready for consumption. Merlin flung the door off himself and slashed at William. For all his age, Merlin was not a warrior, trained in strategy, hardened in battle. William parried with his talon, striking in a two punch dual hit, thrusting with the lead talon on his right hand and slashing as he did with his left. Merlin's throat burst like a water balloon and William fell on the geyser that sprayed black blood like an oil strike. Merlin, the coven leader for the Southeastern Kiss, struggled against William at his throat but the battle was over before it had began. William fed until Merlin's flesh and blood grew cold, his body exsanguinated. He stood, observing the corpse indifferently. With a final glance William turned to walk away, his body thrumming with the stolen energy. Then he changed his mind, coming back to the corpse. William gave a slow blink then struck the dead vampire in the face with his booted foot, breaking the skull open at the jaw. What was left of what had made Merlin vampire spilled out to join the remnants of the vile room of torture. There, William thought, that is for costing me precious time to find Julia. William left, metaphorically wiping his feet behind him. When in reality the coven now belonged to him. The Southeastern Kiss was his. Won by violence, beget by treachery. * Region One The brothers were arguing and Julia stood wearily listening to them joke about the battle. Brendan and Michael stacked the vampire parts on a huge pyre, Brendan lighting small patches ablaze with his mind while Michael teased about what parts to burn first. “I say light up their gonads, pal,” he said, raising a fist in the air in triumph. “Shut up, Michael,” Jen said, trying unsuccessfully to give him the signal that maybe it had been a Long Night and he oughta cool it. Michael wasn't one for subtlety and he elaborated, of course, “Ya know, Jen, you're kind of a male-hater, I was thinking their torched dicks would work for you.” His brows popped and Scott gave a chuckle. “I don't hate guys. Well,” she debated for a moment and Julia couldn't help but grin, “smart ones are immune to my assessment.” Michael frowned and said, “Yeah, what I said earlier.” “You agree then?” Jen asked innocently. “Chick trap!” Brendan said, casually lighting the sightless head of the one that had tried to tackle Julia. She gulped as his face disappeared underneath the blaze. “Goddammit! Where's the Negator?” Michael asked suddenly, dismissing the dis on his intellect, his hand covering his nose as he breathed through his mouth. “These vamps smell like ass and puke!” “Here!” a red-headed guy said, awkward and skinny. “Okay pal, can you do something about the smell?” He frowned at Michael. “Hold on to your drawers, doofus.” “Doofus?” Michael opened his mouth and Marcus said, “Enough.” His eyes met those of the red-head. “Paul,” he inclined his head. The smell was the worst that Julia had ever known. Not because it was Eau de Burning Vampire but because it was close enough to the smell that permeated the air at the site of where her parents were killed that she stumbled away as the air got thick with it. Still with death, heavy with rot. Julia backed away and bumped right into a hard chest. She whirled around as Paul worked his magic on the smell and the air filled with jasmine and honeysuckle, though those scents weren't in season right now. Her nose deceived her, the vampires burned but the scent of garden blooms filled the air. Sweat ran down Paul's face, the concentration necessary for the falsehood was obvious. Scott's arms snapped around Julia and she fought their connection, images of his battle lust and changed physique rising up in her mind. “I'm fine, let me go.” Scott reluctantly did and they stood, staring at each other as Singers bustled around them in waves. “I can't help you when you resist everything Julia,” he said. Julia was struck by how helplessness was not an easy emotion on Scott. His frustration and lack of control were unraveling him moment by moment, even she could see it and she didn't know him that well. All the more reason for her to leave. If she were gone, they could all move on. Julia could move on. But as Julia watched Scott search her face, she wondered how much of her basic emotions the soul-meld allowed through. How much did he know? Maybe too much. Julia turned to go into the house and felt a warm hand on the back of her neck and comfort with a chaser of feelings of such perfect rightness bled through that simple touch that she shivered underneath it. Julia could feel him like a line of heat behind her. Every hair stood on end and it was everything she was, everything Julia could do, not to turn into him and climb him as he stood there. However inappropriate the urge was, it was there. It was real. Her intellect fought with her instincts. Something was going to win and she wasn't taking bets on what it'd be. Scott thought again of all that Julia was wrapped up in that fiery package. Their connection flowed from her to him in that closed circuit that he'd never get used to. It ran through his body like an electrical conduit. Scott fought himself not to pull her against him and hold her. He could feel the ghost of it from her as well. Scott opened his mouth to ask her why she fought the pull. Was it Jason Caldwell? Was he still between them after two years and an attack that almost took her life? Or was it the vampire that had first acquired her that she had begun to care about at the very end? Or was it both things, or neither? Was it the blood-binding of the two that made her flicker like an uncertain candle flame? He tightened his grip on the back of her neck, the tiny bones biting into his palm when Angela said, “They're here.” “Excellent,” Marcus said but not like he meant it. Silent as a tomb three black SUVs pulled up in the great circular drive that had seen horses and carriages in the day but now served modern day vehicles. The flames of the burning vampires cast shadows against the vehicles that danced across the surface in an ominous pattern of disjointed shapes. Julia turned, the warmth of Scott's hand lending her that false sense of security, making her itch to throw it off, itch to hold it. When she saw who got out of the vehicles a small voice whispered that things had just gone from bad to worse. Then a real voice confirmed her worst nightmare. “Jacqueline,” Marcus gave the barest incline of his head in acknowledgment. “Marcus,” Jacqueline smoothly unfolded herself from the first vehicle and strode forward, her outfit clinging to every feminine curve she had. She looked over the siblings, who had grown as still and quiet as Julia had ever seen them. She put slim hands on full hips, blooming and ripe and Julia had to remind herself that this was Scott's bio-mom. Of course, one look at her and she would have known their relation to each other. Jacqueline had his dusky coloring, inky black hair and eyes that glittered like polished ebony in the light of the burning dead. “Where is the Queen?” Marcus frowned. “I have sent you the notice we agreed on, it is all that I was required to provide.” She stomped her foot and the troop of huge men came to stand behind her, their expressions varied. One in particular looked almost bored. She cocked her head and Julia moved back closer to Scott even though she'd promised herself to maintain distance. Jacqueline intimidated her. Julia wasn't sure why. She was vaguely threatening somehow. “I want proof.” “Jacqueline,” Marcus began, spreading his heavy palms away from his body in obvious supplication, “the manifestation of the ten Combatants is enough.” She shook her head. “Perhaps she is but a high blood?” “She is not, Mother,” Scott said and Julia cringed as those dark eyes found her. Jacqueline began at Julia's head and worked down her body until she reached Julia's toes then worked back up again. “This is she?” Jacqueline asked, aghast. “Yeah,” Micael said, grinning evilly. Jacqueline's eyes narrowed on him, expecting his deference and his grin broadened. “Michael,” Marcus warned. Michael rolled his eyes, huffing and folded his arms over his muscular chest, he was truly only in his element when he could make fun of others. Julia found she wasn't complaining. Jacqueline moved forward like a cat on the prowl and Julia stood her ground, the woman who approached filled with a confidence honed by centuries of living. The light from the fire caused an orange glow to move with her as she neared and the only thing that made Julia feel vaguely better was that Jacqueline probably wouldn't kill her at this moment. Because Julia could see that she wanted to. Oh yes, it was plain in her eyes. For some reason, her fabled Queenie status wasn't a good thing for Jacqueline. Not. At. All. They stared at each other and when Jacqueline was an uncomfortable foot and a half away, her eyes found a point near Julia's temple and the frown of concentration turned into a scowl. Without turning she said, “She bears the mark,” in a flat voice. “Yes,” Marcus said. The men that had exited the sleek black vehicles came forward, each one a similar size and breadth to the male at her back. And Julia had thought she was physically intimidated by Scott. There were nine other men that stood, towering over Jacqueline and she stood amongst them, unafraid. Utterly unruffled. The one who had seemed indifferent leaned toward Julia and Scott's grip tightened for a painful moment on her neck and the man's eyes shifted from hers to Scott's. “You're hurting her.” Scott lightened his grip and Julia could breathe again. She knew he'd just reacted to the other guy but hell, that'd hurt. “What mark?” Julia asked the group. What in the hell were they talking about now? Her head spun with a new possibility. She didn't want any newness. She was about goddamned done with it. Like a hot dog. Like stick a fork in her done. He recited in a solemn voice, “She will be bound by fang, claw and blood, the kiss of the moon on high against where she lays to sleep. The queen shall bear the mark of the peacekeeping Singer....” “A queen to unite all with her blood...” Jen whispered. “With our bodies we shield thee, with our minds we honor thee,” the quiet voice of the male continued where Jen left off, but it was Scott that finished. Julia listened in a daze of comprehension. “And one shall close the circle of protection as her mate.” It had been said as neutrally as possible but it sounded like a challenge to Julia's ears. “Singer blood shall reign forever,” Marcus finished into a great silence. Awkward didn't even begin to cover it. As Jacqueline's eyes narrowed to slits, Julia's hand rose and she touched the smooth, crescent-shaped scar she still bore from the accident so long ago. How many times had she absently stroked the smooth, white surface and thought of her parents? How many times had Jason kissed it? All the while it had been a mark put there by fate. As dozens of sets of eyes looked at her, Julia knew it was going to get harder and harder to get out of this mess she was in. She wanted to escape now more than ever. As she looked into Jacqueline's death glare, she thought it was escape or die. Not a matter of if but of when. Julia thought this woman was up to making it seem like it happened by accident. A tragic reality. Of Jacqueline's making. * Region One Marcus had hoped that Jacqueline would not feel that she had to make an appearance. As usual, her timing was impeccable, she arrived just as the vampire pyre was in a hot tangle, Paul offsetting the smell with whatever floral combination he normally used for offensive scents. Of course, it wasn't typical to wage vampire battles on the Blood Singer grounds. Where there were some supernaturals, there would surely be more. Jacqueline looked at the fire burning robustly. “Who is masking the dead?” Paul threw up a pale hand, his face still locked down in a mask of stern lines. “Why did you receive vampires here? Where are your guards?” Good question, Julia thought. She was more than a little relieved that the melting vampires were enough of distraction to keep Jacqueline's focus off her. For the moment. Marcus sighed and looked at Julia's two Singer guards. The ones that had followed her into the edges of the forest. Suddenly, Julia understood that if it'd been night, the two would not have been sufficient to keep her from harm. Those vamps would have had her. And where was William? Julia wasn't feeling the pain any more. She knew that Scott wasn't either. She shoved the empathetic connection away for the tenth time that day, her eyes looking over the newcomers. The Combatant. Her Singer guard. There was one in there that would be her real soulmate. That was something she didn't want to stick around to find out who. It could be Scott. What had Marcus said? Oh yeah, The blood chose. Julia looked down at the lace-like bluish veins on the underside of her own wrist, the pulse pushing the skin up in a steady rhythm. From the outside, it looked like everyone else's skin, veins. Julia knew now that it wasn't. She was something else. Someone else. Prisoner of a destiny she didn't want. “They came for her,” Jacqueline said, throwing a palm in Julia's direction, then jerking her head toward the fire. “They did. She has a blood-binding to a vampire.” “Magnificent, Marcus. When were you planning to reveal that? The Blood Rite cannot be rushed. It must take place when she is at the perfect juncture of her Awakening.” Yeah, if I lived that long, Julia thought. Julia looked at Jacqueline then gave Marcus a narrow glance. She just loved the hell out of finding out important information like this. If anyone could just tell her everything at once, she could sort it out as she went. Instead, Julia had to hear it from Scott's semi-crazy egg donor parent. Great. Who obviously was a Big Julia Fan. As evidenced by all the warm greetings. A huge guy came up behind Jacqueline and said, his eyes on the darkest corner of the forest's edge, “Jacqueline, let us move this discussion somewhere private.” Victor's eyes sweeping the Singers that filled the yard, there were so many that the crowd of them almost touched the small lake where Julia had watched the swans only a week ago. It seemed like forever ago when she was taken and subjected to... all that she had been through, her mind recoiling from the events of the recent past. Marcus sighed, he'd hoped this day would never come. Yet, it had. Here were mother and son, the Combatant offspring manifested in the very outcome they'd hoped for when the coupling had been arranged. Marcus knew that in Scott's heart, Ruth was the only mother he'd ever known. That his cold natural mother from Region Two would not be someone he would be close to. If it had been allowed, Marcus would have bowed out. The arranged matings were archaic and dehumanizing. Of course, Singers weren't exactly human. That had been made abundantly clear when Marcus had made mention of his discomfort with the event. It had been soundly dismissed. He looked at Scott standing in front of Julia like a looming human shield of protection, thinking of how he'd morphed into Combatant form during the battle with the vampires and hoped for everyone's sake that her blood chose him. Marcus didn't think that Scott would have the stomach to watch her with another. It was the height of irony that Scott had abhorred the idea of a union, a connection that would rob him of his perceived freedoms. But now, looking at the possessive way he stood behind Julia, he presumed that way of thinking had seen a complete turnaround. There had not been a Combatant manifestation in Marcus' lifetime and he'd only heard of the Coming of the Circle from his father. However, now it was here, in the present and real time, he could see it was not a light and simple thing. When Victor took Julia's hand and she reacted, Marcus understood the circle would not close without strife. Julia could see that she'd be a part of some kind of weird receiving line of sorts and stood there as the huge Singer warriors filed past. It was unnerving at best. At worst, it was embarrassingly awkward. She could sense Scott trying not to growl at her back. Out of everything she'd ever experienced, up to and including her parents' death, this was the weirdest thing of all. They treated her formally, also strange as hell. The Combatant were trained, nervous of the small female that stood before them. She was the peacekeeper of the Singers. Their future, the one who might be responsible for unifying the species. So there would be no more war nor strife. It was a lot for Julia to take in: as the vampire burned in a bonfire, nine Singer warriors took her hand and lifted it to their mouths, pressing her small hand against their lips. Not against the back of her hand but at the inside of her wrist. Where her blood flowed and her pulse beat. When the ninth lifted her hand to bring it to his mouth, his eyes met hers and there was a brief flare in his. Then his mouth was against her wrist and the world tilted, heat rising from her feet to a tingling crescendo of warmth that made the hair lift on her head. Julia felt like she was on fire. The man jerked as if stung, dropping her hand and rubbed his own against his slacks. He didn't look like a warrior, he looked like a GQ model. All chiseled jaw with deep eyes and long sooty lashes, eye color unknown, the gloom sucking away the finer details of coloring. Julia hugged herself, trying to get over the sensation that bordered on a static charge. And she was the plug. She shivered and Scott drew her in against him. Julia let him while never taking her eyes off the newcomer. Jacqueline smiled. It looked cruel on her face. Julia wondered if there was any other expression that she owned. So far, Julia had only seen varying degrees of the one in front of her. Jacqueline pivoted to Marcus, triumphant and sure. “You saw?” Marcus nodded, his heart giving a sickening lurch. Victor's face took on a dawning look of horror. “Perfection. Victor... you are more than advisor.” Jacqueline looked at him slyly, loving the moment, Julia could tell. She was waiting for Jacqueline to jump and down, shouting and clapping with glee. Julia suddenly knew what Cyn would have thought of her: Royal Bitch. She was royal alright. Just not the way she thought of herself. Julia hid her smirk with difficulty. “My advisor is also Combatant,” she finished in a purr. “It looks like that's not all he is,” Michael announced in a sullen tone. “Yeah,” Jen agreed forlornly. Even she felt bad for Scott. Of all the Combatants to manifest... why did it have to be Victor? Pretty boy Advisor to the ice queen. It was a terrible outcome. Jen gave Scott a sympathetic look. Scott held Julia while he wanted to scream his frustration. His horrible natural mother, who governed with a control that bordered on abuse and was certainly on the soft side of sane, had somehow managed to put a Combatant in place as her right hand man. Had she suspected? Had Victor been aware? Scott stared Victor down and he returned the glare with one of his own. It didn't matter. Scott was holding what mattered. No other male was going to get a hold of Julia. No Were. Or Vampire. Singer. No one would have Julia but him. If destiny had pulled the rug out from underneath him, then he'd pick up the pieces that belonged to him. In this case he knew what belonged to him. Julia. CHAPTER 12 Cyn Cyn awoke with her mind a cluttered, cobwebby attic of confusion. She'd been... she struggled through the mess, and the memories came crashing into her. Her eyes popped open as she watched a ceiling fan do its lazy circuit above her. Mesmerized she sat up, the sheet falling to her waist. Cynthia jumped, grabbing at herself. A long breath of relief shuddered out of her when she realized she was still in her clothes from yesterday. The cop. The Weres. Cynthia hopped out of the bed and threw her hand out to steady herself as the blood rushed from her head. Holy smokes, Cynthia thought, where in the blue blazes was she? “Hey,” a flat voice said from the dimmest corner of the room. Cynthia staggered back, hand to her chest, her heart trying to escape. “Who the hell are you?” “Adrianna.” Cynthia couldn't make her out very well but was pretty much ready to tackle her unknown ass if that's what it took. She'd effing had it. Adi came out of the corner, her posture sullen to even the least observant person. Cynthia was not. She noticed the finest details, always had. Cynthia looked her over: she was a small chick, sturdy, short and athletic. Cynthia narrowed her eyes, then sticking a hip out and planting her fist there she asked, “Well?” A reluctant smile formed on Adi's face. She couldn't help but admire Cyn. She was all that Jules had told her she'd be. Here they'd kidnapped her and she was unfazed. She was addressing Adi. No-demanding that she be told who she was speaking with. Adi liked her on principle. Not that it mattered. Jules was gone. A dangerous reconnaissance was being planned so that Jason- the Feral, could retrieve her and reinstate the Ritual of Luna before the Singers claimed her irretrievably. “Okay... Adrianna,” Cynthia responded with tempered suspicion. Adi laughed. “Call me Adi. Jules did.” Cynthia sucked her breath in a gasp. “Where is she?” Cynthia asked, her loose hand becoming a small fist of hope above her heart. Adi lifted her shoulder dismissively. “North of here. With her people.” “People?” Cynthia asked, thinking the scenario just kept getting stranger and stranger. “Yeah, she's a Blood Singer. Actually,” Adi looked down at her sneakered hot pink All-Star feet, “a Rare One.” “Whoa, pony...” Cynthia said, raising a palm. “It's actually wolf,” Adi corrected. “No shit?” Cynthia asked, gulping as she unconsciously took a step backward. Adi grinned. “I shit you not.” “Huh. That's kinda bad for me.” “Nah. We're not asshats like the Homer Pack,” Adi said. “Oh great, I'm so relieved,” Cynthia said in a droll voice. She was so on board with believing that- not. “Listen, Blondie....” “Bite me,” Cynthia said. “Don't tempt me, dollface.” “Hey girls,” Tony said, having smoothly interrupted them after listening in for a few moments. They whirled to face him, a common enemy identified. Cynthia scooted back to where the front of the bed was. She was only a few feet from the girl. The girl werewolf, Cynthia reminded herself. She'd take Smart Ass behind her rather than square off with the big dude in front of her. Cynthia guessed in another circumstance he would have been a hottie. But in the current one he left her cold. Like ice. His face was hard, his complexion dark. It was his size that was so scary. He was six-four if he was an inch. And Cynthia wasn't a shrimp of a girl. She was five-eight in her stocking feet. Cynthia watched Adi tear over there and look up at him, her expression fierce. Hell, Cynthia thought, she postures like a guy. Cynthia took another cautious step backward. She was going to give these guys a wide berth to beat the everlovin' shit out of each other if that's what needed doin'. Uh-huh. Sans her presence. “Way to warm up the new capture, Adi,” Tony said, looking down at her, a smug grin on his face. He did have an eye on Cynthia and that's when she remembered him from the field. He'd been the dark brown wolf. The one that had hit the cop, Truman. Cynthia moved back until her butt hit the wall, her breath coming faster. She was going to have to calm down or she'd hyperventilate. Seeing that small girl take on the much larger male scared the shit out of her. “Oh, and you're so smooth? Who's the one that decked the cop, douchebag? Huh?” Tony put his hands on her that fast, Cynthia hadn't even seen those massive palms of his move and Cynthia yelped. In sympathy, for Adi. He had her by the shoulders and Cynthia held her breath but Adi had it. She watched the female do the unexpected. Any fool could see from casual observation she loathed the dark werewolf but she got closer, fast, then lifted her knee to his groin. Cynthia covered her mouth and gasped as the big male grimaced and grabbed his privates, a low growl boiling out of his mouth. “First. Fuck off,” Adi said and pushed him as he was staggering away, those big hands holding his nuts. “Second, I got this,” she said in a low voice full of barely contained anger and she pushed him again, hard, with the flat of her palms. His hand snaked out and he latched onto her wrist, jerking her off her feet and on top of him as he fell. She went with him. Adi's eyes widened and it was then that Cynthia knew she wasn't a big one for planning. She was a stick of dynamite with a short fuse and this big sucker must light it every time they got around each other. He whipped her over on her back, smacking her loudly on the floor, his knee shoving up between her legs to press against her crotch and said in a low hiss, “Not so clever now, are ya bitch?” Oh crap. Cynthia was going to stay out of it, she really was. After all, this was some Werewolf brawl, right? Cynthia felt her feet move forward. Next thing she knew, she was jogging over there like the dumbass she was. Cynthia landed with a plop on Tony's back, bronco-style and latched onto his hair with both her hands and pulled, using her body weight. All her anger from the abuse of the Were from Alaska rolled over her in a warm surging tidal wave of rage and she tore out a chunk of his hair and he yelled, flinging her off with ease. It was enough distraction for Adi to extricate herself from her supine and vulnerable position beneath him. Like an enraged bull he surged to his feet, head swinging, huge hands in fists of violence at his side. Oh shit, Cynthia thought, that wasn't my finest decision. Then he came for her and she turned her head away, bracing for a pounding, no exit in sight. It was worth it, she thought, shutting her eyes tightly. A noise made Cynthia snap her eyes open. There, from the doorway, came a flash of colors and a bowling ball of human flesh, no more than a muted blur of color as it slammed into the thug above her, rolling them into the wall, plaster giving way in a cloud of dust and powder. “Holy shit, Cyn! Move. Your. Skinny. Ass!” Cynthia gave Adi an almost comical look of sheer terror and surprise and scrambled to her feet, she grabbed onto the hand that Adi held out and the smaller girl tore Cynthia behind her. She was stronger than she looked, as Cynthia's feet lifted off from the surface. “Come on,” Adi yelled, sprinting while Cynthia stumbled after her in an ungainly jog. “Hold on!” Cynthia shouted. Adi skidded to a stop. “What the hell is going on?” Cynthia asked, flinging her hands out. Adi huffed. “I may have been a little overzealous with Tony.” Adi looked a little shamefaced. “Oh effing terrific,” Cynthia said and Adi nodded, properly chastised. Cynthia belatedly wondered if such a thing was possible. Cynthia looked over her shoulder and flinched when a lamp in the bedroom shattered. “Listen,” she pointed a finger at the smaller woman, albeit much stronger, “I will not be a willing mushroom, kept in the dark and fed shit. Tell me what the hell is going on.” Adi's shoulders slumped. “Well, Tony's a prick.” Gee... shocker, Cynthia thought. “So? You can't kick every guy that's a jerkoff in the nuts. We'd have half the male population with a permanent limp.” The corners of Adi's mouth turned up and Cynthia started to smile back. “Ya know, you're okay. I see why she liked you.” Cynthia's smile faded and she got back on track. “Anyway, is he like... a threat?” Gawd, what a stupid question. Obviously! He'd nailed the cop, probably been the one to steal her... the list was long. “Yeah. I mean... I think so but no one will listen. Our Packmaster...” “Who?” “Lawrence,” she met Cynthia's eyes and went on, “he thinks Tony's this great soldier and everything.” “Is he?” “Yeah,” Adi conceded reluctantly. “But he's not a good soldier in the old way. He's brutal and underhanded. He wants power and control and he'll do anything to get it.” Adi's eyes stood in a fierce face, her eyes melting to gold around the edges. Oh hell, did this mean she was going to go all wolf-girl on Cynthia's ass? Like right now? Cynthia took a step back and Adi laughed. “It's okay, I'm not gonna like... burst my skin or anything.” “You looked a little... wolfy there for a sec.” “Yeah. Strong emotion can do that. The eyes, right?” she asked, her human color bleeding into the gold like spilled chocolate milk. Cynthia nodded her head. The noises of fighting stopped and an ominous silence came from the house they'd left. Cynthia glanced away from the house and noticed a great pavilion, marble and veined silver, like a wedge of ancient Rome plunked down in the middle of a forest. It rose like a polished alabaster stamp of antiquity. “What's that?” Cynthia asked, pointing to the marble structure. Adi opened her mouth and a voice to the right of them said. “It's where Jules was taken.” Cynthia looked at Jason. For the first time in over two years. Jason Caldwell was very much alive. But his eyes were different. Ancient. She ran. Cynthia didn't think that her feet even touched the ground as she flung herself into his arms. She buried her face in his chest, tears pouring out of her eyes. “Oh my God! Jason... I thought,” she began. “That I was dead?” he finished, putting her slightly away from him but not letting go. Cynthia nodded her head, her green eyes searching his face, looking, hunting. Finally, she asked, “What? What is it?” Jason didn't say anything, but he let his hands trail down her arms and stepped away. “It's good to see you, Cyn.” Cynthia stepped back. “It's good to see me? What the hell, Jason? I watched Kev die. I watched a fucking creature...” “Hey,” Adi barked. Cynthia cocked a brow at Adi then dismissed her. “A shithead Were come in and tear your throat out.” More tears threatened and Cynthia ruthlessly held them in check, her eyes feeling buggy and swollen, burning. “And Jason... they took Jules.” Her eyes searched his face and not seeing what she expected she went on, “I've come all this way, first to escape the effers in Homer, and then,” she flicked her eyes to his and gave him a level stare, “I found her trail. She's alive, Jason. Alive,” Cynthia said in a fervent whisper. “He knows, Singer,” Tony said from behind them and the girls jumped. Adi opened her mouth to say something flippant and Emmanuel, his lip busted up with a cut above his eye held up a finger. “No- Not. One. Word, Adrianna.” Crap, Adi sulked, her ass was definitely grass. Not that watching this effed up little reunion wasn't funtastic and all... but. She gave another look at Manny and he narrowed his eyes on her. Well shit. She clamped her lips together with a supreme effort. Manny looked away from the spitfire female Alpha with a sigh. She would face discipline. Whether or not she liked it, Adi was not dominant to Anthony. If Emmanuel had not chosen to intercede, things might have escalated in a direction that would have been quite bad. Quite. He looked at the scene in front of him and lamented it. Adi had not handled things well with Tony but seemed to have done well by the newest, weak-blooded Singer. Well... not so weak. Now that the smells of humanity were far-removed in this place, he flared his nostrils, he could smell her blood quantum. She was of fuller blood than they had realized. Excellent, Lawrence would be most pleased. He'd hoped for answers and her Singer ancestry was simply gravy, as the humans were apt to say. Jason and Tony's eyes clashed in a disharmonious glare. Cynthia looked from one to the other and then she gave Jason the full weight of her stare. “What is he talking about? Where is Jules?” Emmanuel coughed and Cynthia ignored him. “Where is your wife?” “She is not his mate, Singer,” Tony said. “The name's Cynthia Adams you... goddamned butt munch!” Cynthia said and got a stab of satisfaction when his gaze darkened on her as Cynthia heard a snort come from Adi's direction. “Stop calling me, Singer... or whatever.” She looked at Jason. Stared at him. “The attack turned me,” Jason said. Cynthia nodded. “No shit, Sherlock.” Jason scowled at her, raking a hand through his longish sandy colored hair. “God, Cyn, do ya have to bust my chops here?” She nodded again. “Totally. Now spill it.” “This... den,” he gave Manny and Tony hard eyes then shifted his gaze back to Cynthia, “kept me penned up like an animal until they kidnapped Julia...” When Jason finished his story Cynthia stood there in shock. The worst news wasn't that he was a bona fide werewolf. It was the attack on Julia. That somehow, in his confusion of the moment, he'd lost who she was and now she was out there thinking he wanted her... dead. “Hell, she thinks. She's gotta think...” Cynthia began. “Yeah, I know.” Jason met her accusing stare. “Don't you think I'd do anything to take it back? Fuck, it's all I think about!” he yelled, stalking in a loose circle, pacing. “Can't take back the deed, man,” Tony said unhelpfully. Cynthia looked at Tony. And making the most immediate character assessment of her life replied, “You're ten different kinds of dicks, aren't ya?” Adi barked out a laugh in the background with startled awe. She could totally see why Jules had dug Cyn. Adi looked at the flushed red of Tony's face with barely suppressed joy, it was almost painful. Her smile turned into a grin as Tony knotted his hands into fists at the female that dared to call him on his behavior. Cynthia Adams dared. And Adi thought there'd be a helluva lot more where that came from. Cynthia and Jason stared at each other, Tony stewing in the background with Manny's hand a staying force against that big shoulder, the tension in the meadow outside the house was breathable, it had weight, substance. Tony glared at the new Singer. Now he had two bitches to teach a lesson. Fine, he was all about the numbers. His gaze went to Adi and he knew that he'd deal with that nut-cruncher first. She was a female Alpha. But he was male. She needed one supreme lesson. Tony knew just when to give it. Then he looked at Cynthia Adams, checking her out from head to toe. She was fine tail, that one. She'd submit too. He could be very persuasive. Finally, he looked at Caldwell. The sentimental prick. Tony would end him. That would effectively end the sap's torture over his faux pas with the Rare One. What Tony had never told him (he never would) was that being Feral, being a turned Singer had crossed his wires so badly it was actually a miracle he hadn't killed Adi when he nearly tore her arm off. That he hadn't killed a human when he first escaped... well, it was a level of finesse that many in his shoes could not have managed and the very reason Julia still lived. Just another reason to hate Caldwell's steaming guts. Yeah. Cynthia looked at Jason, dismissing that dickhead behind her for the moment. “You make me sick, Jason.” Cynthia's lip trembled and she turned away, shooting a withering glance toward the two Were as she passed them. If looks could have killed, they'd be pushing up daisies. As Adi followed Cynthia she heard Jason say softly, “I make me sick too.” Adi turned around and walked backwards, catching his eye, I'll talk to her, she mouthed and headed off before she could see his expression. It was bereft. CHAPTER 13 Truman Truman opened his eyes, the bald sky full of fluffy clouds moving swiftly in the wind as they greeted him from his supine position. He sat up with a groan and touched the knot on the back of his noggin. He looked around and gauged the time based on the position of the sun. The damn place was so gloomy he had to hunt for the light. There, he saw it and figured around three in the afternoon, the cover of trees from the border of the forest shadowing where he lay. Hell, who wore a watch anymore? Now Karl almost wished he had. Who knew where his cell was? A collection of shit had flown out of his pockets when that werewolf had laid him out. Werewolf, Truman said to himself, letting the oddness of the word roll out inside his mind. It was beyond bizarre. Karl Truman didn't know what he'd been expecting. He'd envisioned big dogs the size of ponies. These guys hadn't been anything like that. In fact, not that he had a Handle on Lycanthropy but he was betting they'd been in some kind of blended form. He couldn't wait to talk to George. Yeah, Alexander would know more. He barked out a laugh that returned to him hollowly from the open meadow and closed his mouth with a snap as he tasted stale blood, his big ass sitting at the edge of a field having been cold-cocked by a myth. He'd have to come up with some defensive strategy. Understatement of the century. They seemed unstoppable, plucking Cynthia Adams away from him like a ripe fruit ready to fall. God only knew what they were doing to her. What they'd already done to Julia. Could she be? Truman couldn't finish the thought, shoving it away. It came back like a boomerang, smacking him upside the head. Could Julia Caldwell be a werewolf? Was that small werewolf he'd seen in the meadow where he sat on his keister... could that be her? There were more questions than answers. As Truman got unsteadily to his feet he determined to find out what they were. He'd been tasked with the Adams girl's return and he was a dog with a bone. No pun intended. He'd get it if he had to search every back yard to find it. Hell, he was great at digging. Truman got moving, collecting his cell, keys and coins where they sparkled all around him in the smashed pasture grass like scattered bird seed. He collected it all with a handkerchief and there, on the corner of his cell was a nice fat print. He wondered if the werewolves had a record? He knew it wasn't one of his. Too big. It took up three times the size of a regular print. Truman studied the whirls of the fingerprint. Patterns were one-of-a-kind. If the one that had pawed through his stuff had a record, he'd find out. After all, what was a federal pass for if not to grant him access? Truman whistled as he left, stuffing the cell in his pocket as he went. You can run, but you can't hide, Karl thought. * Julia Julia had never felt this level of awkwardness in her entire life. Victor, advisor to Scott's natural mother, and Scott of the soul-meld stood staring at each other. The tension was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Finally, Marcus broke the fat silence, “Let us go inside with the Combatant.” He looked at Jacqueline significantly and she gave an incline of her head and they walked off together. Julia noticed they had a personal bubble that was wider than most. Frosty. She didn't wait for Scott, she didn't need to, Julia could feel him behind her. She could also sense the Combatant behind her and suddenly wondered when her life got so weird. Oh yeah, when Jason died. But then, he wasn't really dead, was he? Julia let her mind wonder where he was for a moment, then just as quickly let the thought float away. She had bigger things to think about. Like independence. Julia climbed the broad porch steps of the old Victorian and the group made their way into the foyer and ended up in the large, formal parlor. The furniture looked off. It was all comfortable and the colors complemented one another but they were not the age of the house, Julia noticed in her typical, off-handed way but it was Jacqueline who commented, “I see you have not kept the original furniture. I imagine it was...” she waffled her hand as if she couldn't remember a name. “Ruth,” Scott said from behind her and even Julia could her the irritation in his voice. Julia watched Jacqueline as she studied what was clearly a décor blunder. Although there was a parlor in the house too small to use with all these people that did have the old and uncomfortable settees that would have been perfect, a century earlier. She seemed so offended by their absence in this larger and less formal parlor. “Yes, Ruth. Of course, silly of me to forget her,” Jacqueline stated in the most false voice imaginable. Marcus frowned. “She thought the trappings of that era stiff and formal.” “However elegant,” Jacqueline finished. “This is so relevant. This yakking about furniture, but let's talk about Julia and the Combatant and the Closing of the Circle,” Michael said and hearing no dissent from Marcus he looked at his other sibling and Jen added, “By blood.” The murmurings began and Julia didn't know where one person's voice began and another ended until Marcus held up a hand and said to the general room, “Julia has been with us a mere week. We have not had proper time to train her, test her progression in her own Awakening...” Julia held up her hand like she was back in school. Instead of being bored in class and giving half her attention, they had all of hers. The room fell silent and Julia stood firm, even against the unflinching stare that wasn't the least bit friendly by Jacqueline. “How long will this 'Awakening' take? I mean, I have telekinesis... but I was supposed to have more...?” Julia hesitated, not sure what the proper term was to insert there. “Cool skills?” Brendan supplied and she gave him a wan smile. Julia nodded. “Yeah, that's about right.” One of the Combatants came forward, jeans and a tee shirt not hiding the ripped physique underneath the casual attire, made that way through combative training. He didn't take his eyes off her, Julia found it unnerving but two years with the vampires had hardened a steely core inside of her. She used that now to help her remain unintimidated. Actually, her whole life had been a trial of sorts and she was done being scared. “Some of us knew we were Combatant. For you, you have just learned your place amongst the Singers. For us,” he put a fist above his heart, “we have always known what our place was in the order.” It left Julia speechless. And more than a little bit ashamed. Here she was, plotting and scheming an escape and all these people wanted was someone to unite the three supernatural groups. But, they could theorize all they wanted. The reality was different. Julia knew the reality, she'd lived it. The vampires and werewolves were not really human beings. Humanity had been left behind eons ago. They only knew war, power and control. Those were the very laws they were built on. Their precious books spoke to that, hell, that their ultimate goals were kind of alike underscored that peace wasn't possible. Julia looked into the guy's eyes, so earnest, forthright. “Listen,” she began, “you're right, I am new here and I've been through a lot.” Survived more, she added internally. Images of Jason flashed in her mind, splintered fragments of memories shuffled in a haphazard collision that she pushed away. Julia womaned up, going on, “I've been there, lived amongst these groups. They're not like us.” “Nonsense, they are supernaturals. That they shift, consume blood? It is of no consequence. They will be brought to heel like the animals they are,” Jacqueline said dismissively. Julia didn't roll her eyes. Cyn would have been proud. “I don't think you understand.” Julia said slowly, like she was speaking to a small child, “Their basic nature is animalistic but they intellectualize very well. Never mistake what they can do for who they are.” Jacqueline gave a sharp cackle and Julia felt Scott stiffen behind her. “You say you are new, yet you speak as if you hold omniscience in the palm of your hand,” Jacqueline said strolling in a prowl toward Julia. The Combatant moved forward and paced her. Jacqueline slowed, finally stopping in front of Julia, then studied the nine men at her back. “Look at how they shadow me as if I hold a threat to our Queen,” she said, making the name queen sound like a loathsome thing. “Tell me, Julia Caldwell, do you feel threatened?” Julia narrowed her eyes on Jacqueline. “Always.” Jacqueline gave a secret smile and turning away said, “Your caution is good, it will make the Combatant's job easier until you Awake.” Jacqueline turned her face so Julia only saw it in profile. “And Awake you will... soon.” Julia watched her graceful departure and knew that Jacqueline was toying with her, her cryptic comments adding to the feeling of unease. Julia's eyes swept the siblings, Marcus and finally they fell on the Combatant. They were her Singer contingent. For all intents and purposes, her guard. However, the circle remained open. The uncertain timeline of her Awakening prevented its closure. The blood-bindings with both Jason and William impeded everything. Jacqueline's presence was a thorn in the side of all. What was she going to do? Julia thought that if she was tired of everyone and everything orchestrating her life she'd have to take charge of it or leave. In that moment she had the first true epiphany of her young life. She could choose, she was not a bottle in destiny's ocean, the violent current taking her wherever it wished. She was the master of her own fate. Maybe Julia would end up at the same end, but she could choose how she lived it. She met the eyes of the Combatant, Victor's specifically and said, “I don't know what I have to do to be... Queen,” Julia self-consciously rolled her lip, nibbling on it and Jen came to stand beside her, lending her strength, Scott's warm energy that synced with hers so well an abiding comfort behind her. “But I do want to... learn.” Marcus smiled and came forward. “I know that it has been quite a bit to take on.” Julia almost laughed and he saw her expression and smiled in response, subtly acknowledging the understatement of his words. “However, timing is critical and I have not lived all this time to lose sight of the instincts of our enemy.” Julia gave him a sharp look. He sighed, running a hand through his dark hair in a nervous gesture. “They will come. Both the vampire and your... husband.” “She is wedded?” Victor asked incredulously. Oh boy, Julia thought. She so didn't want to explain this whole thing. Again. Or ever. Scott came forward and before she could shut that whole conversation down he said, “He was turned into a Were.” “He was a Singer....” Marcus began and Victor's gaze fell on Julia with weight. “You married a Singer?” “Can't we?” Julia countered and his gaze darkened. “I didn't know about any of this,” Julia swung her arm around her, indicating the general compound she found herself in. Region One, they'd told her. “I see,” Victor said but clearly acted as if some fault rested with her. Well screw that. She walked to where he stood. Just paces away and poked him in the chest. He didn't move, he was a literal mountain of muscle. Julia didn't care. “Don't you dare blame me. I didn't know what I was, I didn't know what he was. We were just a couple of high school sweethearts trying to carve out some existence on this blue marble we call earth. When every stinking weird-ass scenario came into play and bit us in the ass,” Julia said, her body shaking with her anger, her memories, her voice ending on a low note of keening ineffectual rage. Victor's expression softened and he grasped the finger she pointed at him and that flame between the two of them flared to life. Before she knew what had happened, his massive hand was pressed against the small of her back and was pulling her near, his face buried in the crown of her head. “I have waited an eternity for our true Queen, I would never lay false blame at your feet, Julia.” Oh. Dear. Baby Jesus, Julia prayed, this could not be happening to her. Mayhem broke out and she had Jen pulling at her. A knife flashed in the light and then she heard Victor grunt. Julia cried out, “No!” on a low command, torn from her heart, from her soul. If she was a part of more bloodshed, more violence, Julia truly didn't know if she could manage it. The tip of Scott's blade lay buried in the underside of Victor's jaw, a stream of blood cascading down. Julia got pissed, turning on Scott. “Put that away! He is one of ours, Scott! What is your stupid problem?” “His fucking hands on you,” Scott ground out. “Scott,” Marcus said in warning. Julia didn't think, her anger propelling her ability, she hit the blade in a sharp thwack. Not with her body, with her mind. It spun, embedding behind them inside of the ornate molding that surrounded the doorway, making an unpleasant twang when it landed. Scott's eyes widened. “That's right bucko!” Julia said, stabbing him with the same finger she'd just nailed the misbehaving Victor with who was currently being restrained by two other Combatants. “Nobody gets to stab each other! Especially over me!” Julia huffed, her chest heaving. “I'm not that important,” Julia began and when four mouths opened to protest she put up a palm to stop their protestation. “I get it. I'm the Queen,” Julia dropped her fingers from the airquote at the title that still sounded so awkward it hurt. “But I'm just a woman. I haven't had enough time to become accustomed to the idea and I will certainly not be fought over.” “Yeah, I'm on board with that,” Michael said from the corner with a laugh. Julia smiled gratefully at him, his attempt at levity was welcome in the emotionally charged atmosphere. Jen rolled her eyes and Scott glared at his younger sibling's attempt at lightening the tense situation. “If what you're telling me is true, we have two dangerous groups coming to stake their claim on me,” Julia put her palm on her chest, her eyes steady on those gathered. “If our Combatant is fighting each other then they can't protect me from anything. You guys will be so busy beating the crap out of each other that they will get all stealthy and I will be gone.” She lifted her hand and fluttering her fingers, mimed her spirit floating away in the breeze. Julia looked at Marcus next and leveled her stare on him, never wavering. “You know the Singer history, right?” He smiled like of course. “Well, let me tell you about theirs. They have their own Books. Their own laws. And their own rituals.” Her eyes did the circuit and captured each person's eyes until they found Marcus' once again. “You must know that just because I'm not a vampire, I'm not a werewolf... it doesn't matter to them. I have a value to them and the future of their races. With me,” she paused significantly, “with my blood, they have a chance to break the bonds of the moon, the sun.” Victor nodded, giving Scott a look of disdain. Scott's returning glare was just as fierce. When he spoke, Julia was struck by how different the two males were from each other. Where Scott was concise and to the point, rash and virile, Victor was cultured and elegant. But there was no masking the underlying fierceness of the two. They were cut from the same genetic cloth, born to fight, born to protect. Born for her. “She is quite right. If they get their hands on our Queen, it will be more than losing her to another supernatural group. It will give them the advantage that goes beyond nature.” His eyes grew grave and more solemn with each word. “There is a reason why the Were may only change with the moon's fullness. There is a purpose for the vampire, that they only roam the night, when the sun is hidden. If they steal our Queen and through rites of their own, capture her essence and evolve through using this unnatural process...” Victor spread his hands wide. “It could mean the end of humanity as we know it,” Marcus said. “The precarious balance of all the species,” Victor continued, lacing his strong and tapered fingers together, “irrevocably upset. And make no mistake,” his eyes took on the room at large, “we may mimic humans but we are not. We are Blood Singers. We are more.” Julia smiled. Victor had made her point for her. “So boys,” she began and the intense eyes of the Combatant drilled her to the spot, “let's play nice.” They stared for another moment then gave her a salute that seemed almost choreographed. Their right hands were fisted and held in the center of their chests and it looked like a vow. When they spoke the words she wasn't surprised but she was moved beyond words of her own. For Singers, for hope, the Combatant fight for peace through blood and sacrifice, may our hearts align with yours and beat as one. They closed their mouths, all the males pounding their feet in unison on the soft wood with a mighty thud, the beat of it startling Julia. Waking her. In a burst of heat and energy, Julia's Awakening morphed, taking her breath, stealing motion. Witnessed by all. CHAPTER 14 Cyn & Jason Cynthia stalked back inside the house she'd fled under the imminent threat of violence, so pissed she couldn't see straight. Jason's apathy about Julia made her seethe. She wanted to kill him herself. Didn't he give a shit about her? Why wasn't he racing to her known location and insisting they like... have a Do Over? What the hell? She walked into the bedroom, with the debris from the skirmish all around and stood at the bay window, the whole of the compound spread before her. Cynthia wasn't really seeing it, she was zoning out, her mind in another place and time. She thought that if she ever saw Jules again she'd be stoked like a chimney on fire. Cynthia was stoked alright. She folded her hands over her chest, huffing. The deep emerald beauty of the woods was completely lost on her. When Adi's voice came from behind her, Cynthia didn't turn, she just continued to stare ahead. “Ya know, it could've happened to any of us,” Adriana began. “What? Spouse abandonment?” Cynthia heard the female werewolf sigh and huffed a frustrated sigh herself. “He is a Singer, it's amazing he even thinks now. Singers aren't meant to be turned. It's unnatural.” Cynthia turned at the tone in her voice, finally facing her. “What's this 'Singer' thing,” Cynthia asked, unconsciously coming forward. “They're supernaturals like the Were and vampire.” “Vampire?” Cynthia said in a whisper. “Oh... my bad,” Adi said without apology, “listen Cyn, there may be even more... supernaturals. But those are the two other groups besides the Were that I know about.” Cynthia's mind was reeling. Okay, she had seen the werewolves first hand. She got that. But vampires? That sounded like horseshit to her. Of course, werewolves did too. Until you saw them dismember your boyfriend. That was a real convincer. She shuddered and Adi smiled, misinterpreting the gesture. “Yeah, they're effing creepy.” True, Cynthia thought but she'd been shuddering because... well sensory overload for sure. Blood suckers and wet dog. Yuk. Great mix. “Okay, so what are Singers?” Cynthia asked, dismissing the vampire revelation for the moment. Gawd. Adi rolled her eyes. The finer stuff of the groups was just boring. As long as she was included in battles and wasn't made to mate Tony the Asshat, that's all she really cared about. But as Cyn stared at her, she recognized that Cynthia hadn't been raised with all this stuff as normal. “Well, all you humans, you're not all the same. There's a percentage of you that have special blood, genetics. And the vamps need you guys to like, breed with the general population and make their food more yummy.” “It is an issue of sustainability for the vampire race,” Emmanuel interrupted from the doorway. “You're fine where ya are,” Cynthia said, eyeing him up. “I do not pose a threat,” Manny said in a vaguely insulted voice. “Yeah, uh-huh. You guys were non-threatening back in Kent, and were very non-threatening a few minutes ago when you destroyed this room. Yes. Very non-threatening.” Cynthia looked at him, pale blonde brows hiked in disbelief as Adi snorted in the background. She looked at the werewolf and decided he was kinda hot. Well, when he wasn't all wolfy. But he was hotter over there than closer to her. Yup. Manny restrained a growl. Very ungrateful girl. Would she have preferred he allowed Tony, of the lack of preemptive thought, to have gotten a hold of her? Manny thought not. He glared at her. It certainly did not help that she was quite pretty, if awfully pale to be a Singer. He turned a hard look to Adi, who had not paid attention to the Werewolf lore of his people. He sighed, raking a hand through his nearly black hair and turned all of his attention to Cynthia Adams. Adi was not prepared to fully explain things in their true light to the Singer. “What Adi says is essentially true,” he gave her a look and continued, “however, there are degrees of blood quantum.” Emmanuel raised a brow, allowing her to pose a question if she couldn't follow. “I'm blonde but I do have a brain,” Cynthia said, crossing her arms across her chest, clearly pissed. Manny felt embarrassment heat his face. This young woman made a klutz of him and he was keenly aware of it. It was a foreign emotion. “I didn't suggest... I,” Manny began. Adi did a slow grin. She'd never seen Manny get all boxers-in-a-wad. “Can it, Manny. She's just sayin' she's got it,” Adi said. Emmanuel silenced her with a look. “Okay... geez. Chill out.” “Adrianna,” Emmanuel warned. “Argh! I give up!” she huffed, stalking over to one of two things not wrecked and flopped herself down on the bed. Cynthia kept her smile hidden with an effort. Adi seemed to get the males all wound up like spinning tops. A violent group, it was kinda funny really. “In any event, it is a very small percentage of the human population that manifests these properties and we are in a constant search for fullbloods and...” “Blah, blah, blah! Manny, tell her about the powers,” Adi said, flopping back down on the bed. Emmanuel glared at the Tasmanian devil that laid on the bed and went on, “The Blood Singers are a group who possess some extraordinary abilities.” “Me?” Cynthia asked, putting everything together instantly. Remembering she'd been referred to as Singer a few times since she'd been taken. He nodded. “I do not know how much. But enough for us to scent. Actually, we were on reconnaissance to get you for answers and intel of Julia. That you were also of Singer descent was a bonus. As a point of fact, their seems to be a substantial nest in your region.” What? Like a flock of gulls or something? Cynthia didn't like being the bonus. It creeped her but she didn't let on. Instead she posed a question. “Okay,” she said thoughtfully, “how do Jules and Jason figure into all this?” Adi lifted her head enough to meet Manny's eyes and he looked at Cynthia. “Julia Caldwell is quite rare. In fact, she is the prophesied Rare One. She who will free the Were from the call of the moon.” Cynthia couldn't help it, she guffawed, right then, right there in front of the two werewolves. She was gasping and they were glaring. “You guys...” she howled helplessly, clutching her sides, “you're slaying me with this. I know Jules! She's... I don't know, her! You know: Ordinary.” Flunker of Math, Wearer of Atrocious Shoes.... “She is not, Singer. She would be a queen amongst your people. She is a pure blood. It would not surprise me if her parents had been eliminated for the sole purpose of manipulating her future.” That sobered Cynthia up in a hurry. He couldn't know about Jules' parents. Manny smiled at her shock. “Did I hit upon it then?” Cynthia nodded dumbly . “Who... I mean... Jules thinks it was an accident,” Cynthia said lamely. “Yet, she bears the mark of the Rare One,” Emmanuel said. “What? Where?” Cynthia asked. “She's got that crescent-shaped scar at her temple,” Adi said, tapping her own to emphasize the point. Oh my God, Cynthia thought. She knew that scar, she'd seen it a thousand times, covered it with make-up. Cynthia never thought about it before but it was the shape of a moon. Cynthia sat there for a few heartbeats, assimilating the info. “Okay. So let's say Julia is the 'Rare One',” Cynthia paused. “So? I mean, why is there all this fuss. Why did those psycho wolves kill Kev? Why did they tear Jason's throat out and do the sacrilegious changeamatic? Huh? Why do they give two shits about Julia... you guys aren't vampires.” Emmanuel hated to showcase how the Were were like a franchise, it was a point he'd never liked. They were all Were but governed very individually. Each pack had a packmaster who was different from one pack to the next. The Alaskan pack had always acted independently from the Northwestern pack that Lawrence presided over. “The Alaskan pack are asshats.” “Adrianna,” Emmanuel started then realized she was ultimately correct. “What she says is true, if crude.” “I can take crude,” Cynthia said, meeting his stare. Emmanuel let a growl percolate from deep in his throat, her rude dominance something his wolf could not tolerate. “Ooh... I like this,” Adi said. “She got ya by the tail, Manny?” “What's the problem?” Cynthia asked, not looking away. “Drop your eyes, female,” Emmanuel commanded. “No,” Cynthia said and popped him the bird, her middle finger up like a stiff flag. He flashed to her and Cynthia yelped. “Do not force me to subdue you. I am trying to be civilized but my wolf feels no such compunction.” “Well, Try. Harder,” Cynthia said, staring into eyes that were so much spun gold, the orbs utterly not human, a color found in nature but absent in humanity. Emmanuel dipped his head against the exposed throat of the female Singer and wondered how he'd slid down the hill of barbaric. Had he not, just moments ago been explaining a heritage she was unaware of? “Hey Manny!” Adi yelled. “You're making the Alaskan wolves look pretty good right now.” He moved his nose away from her intoxicating scent. She smelled like vanilla and cinnamon. Scents he could stand forever. Straightening, he put her away from him with an effort that bordered on ugly. “Ah... why did I get the wolf treatment? Control issues-much,” Cynthia said, her guts knotting. “He's losin' it 'cuz of your Singer blood!” Adi chortled. Emmanuel glared at Adi. “Deny it, big guy,” Adi teased and he found that he could not refute it. “If there be enough blood quantum, it causes a Were's blood to heat. Emotions surface that would otherwise lay dormant.” “I guess so,” Cynthia said, trying to put this whole event in a box for later reflection. Of course, it was a shade of weird that wouldn't fit so it just kept staying weird instead. Wonderful. “To answer your question, if Julia completed the Ritual of Luna she would, by her mere presence, free many of us of the moon's summons.” “Ah, what does this ritual thing entail?” Cynthia asked. “A bunch of Alphas fight to the death and then she mates with the winner, has a litter of pups and they grow up to be fully moonless changers.” Emmanuel shook his head at Adrianna's recital of the facts and added his bit, “Perpetuating their unique genes for many generations to come,” he added, hoping to balance Adi's starkness. Cynthia backed up until her ass hit something solid and sat down, staring at the two. “Hey,” Adi snapped her fingers and Cynthia gave her a sluggish stare. “Earth to Cyn.” “Yeah?” Cynthia asked, dazed. “Do ya get it?” Cynthia nodded. “I get that I'm being held by a bunch of crazy-ass werewolves that want to make my friend have puppies.” “It's not so bad, Cyn. You can have puppies too,” Adi said in an excited note. Cynthia felt the world tilt, heat infusing her feet and rising to the top of her head. “Oh shit, I think she's gonna faint! Manny, do something!” Emmanuel rushed over to the Singer, her pale skin like a sheet of parchment and put her head between her legs as she perched on the only piece of furniture, aside from the bed, that still remained intact. Cynthia felt better. From between her legs, she could feel the heat of the male werewolf on her nape and asked, “Do I have to have puppies?” Silence met her question and she slowly lifted her head. Her eyes met Tony's. The Prick of the Pack, Cynthia was guessing. “Yes. Every eligible female for the Were will be paired with the ideal mate.” Cynthia stood, Emmanuel a solid presence beside her. “Well, I'm just going to say the words: we're not a very good match, hair ball. I mean, fur ball.” Tony's expression darkened and he replied, “That's okay, toots. I got my eye on another prize.” His gaze slid to Adi and she met his stare head on. Cynthia noticed she never dropped her eyes. Not once. * Truman Truman tapped his foot, waiting for the call from his liaison. The feds were being oh-so-helpful and it was killin' them. They hated working with a statie. Especially from the renegade north. There was just something about being Alaskan that made people think that they were a separate country or something. Truman raised his hand and felt around in his shirt pocket, paused then let his hand fall. He'd given up smoking years ago, having caved only one time recently. But when the stakes got high, he found himself missing it like an old lover. The memory better than the reality. His cell vibrated and he jerked it out of the front pocket of his blazer. “Truman,” he barked and the forensic guy answered in a blasé voice, “It's Tom Harriet.” Karl grunted an affirmative and that was enough to get Harriet blabbing. Actually, with as unfortunate of a name as the guy had, he did okay, shooting details to Truman like bullets. “Listen, detective, I have to say I've never seen anything like this.” Right, and he probably never would again, Truman thought. “You're the fed's boy, right?” Truman asked by way of answering. “If you mean that I work as lead forensic for this jurisdiction, yes.” “So, you know what we're dealing with here?” There was a silence so long Karl opened his mouth to end it when Harriet spoke, “This is not a secure line. I have been asked to give you a message and a contact name.” Well, well, Truman thought, the cloak of secrecy. His hand wandered to his front shirt pocket again and he forced it down with an effort. “Okay, shoot,” Truman said, going to the same pocket again and plucking out a small notepad and his Bic. “Anthony Daniel Laurent.” “He the perp?” Truman asked. “He's the one,” Harriet confirmed. “Give me this guy's stats.” “We have him on file from a fluke. He was pulled over in 1979 for a speeding ticket and when all the records were switched over after the computer age came online,” he chuckled at his own pun and Truman suffered through it, “they transferred it there.” “A print for a speeding ticket?” Truman scoffed, disbelief creeping into his voice. “No, there was a warrant for rape.” Ah, Karl Truman paused, his mind shuffling through the memories of the werewolves in the field. The one who had been hard, that had cleaned his clock with one swipe. He was the violent sort, no surprise there. Against women. Real charmer. “Did the vic press charges?” “That's the funny thing. He had a big family. They all showed at the pre-trial, it's here in the notes. And when the girl showed, she recanted her testimony.” Truman could almost feel his shrug over the phone but it started a dull chime sounding. He didn't know how it mattered but it did. This fucking psycho had the Adams girl for starters. It was connected, vital. He could sense it. And he didn't look old enough to have been a man in '79. Hell Karl had been a couple years from graduating himself. That'd make this Laurent fruitcake fifty-something. Truman thought of the huge and virile creature that didn't look a day over twenty-five, even in his wolfen from or whatever the hell it was. How long did these shitbags live anyway? Too long, he rationalized. Harriet was talking and he realized he hadn't been listening. Shit. “Yeah?” Harriet sighed, irritated by his inattentiveness. “Go to the Starbucks on Benson Street on the East Hill. Do you know where that is? I know you're not from around here.” Truman bristled. “I've got a spinning weathervane in my head. Damn man, I'm from Alaska. That's like an essential instinct.” Harriet gave his fake chuckle like he got it. He didn't. They were soft Outside. It's just the way it was. This guy couldn't scent a turd if it was under his nose. Damn if Truman didn't want a cig. Truman played nice. “Thanks for your help. And, my contact will have the addy? And the plan of attack?” Now that was funny, Karl thought. Tom Harriet didn't laugh and Truman had become astute at reading pauses in conversation. He didn't like the feel of that one. It deepened his sense of unease. “Yes, he will.” “Gotcha. Three o'clock, I'll be there.” “Thank you for your assistance, Detective Turman.” “It's Truman,” Karl corrected. But he was holding an empty line. Tom Harriet had hung up. Huh- chump, Truman thought, heading off for a burger at McDonald's. He checked his cell and it was only one o'clock. The hell with it, he'd go to Red Robin and hit up that manager, what's his nuts? Karl wondered, trying to remember. He flipped through his notepad until he found it, tapping it with the tip of his finger. Alan. Yeah, he'd pump him for some info on the girl and he'd have just enough time to get there and meet the highfalutin' fed. Great timing. * Karl's sharp eyes took in the general circus atmosphere of the best burger joint since forever. It wasn't a fine dining experience but it was a tasty one. His basket came and he asked the waitress for a plate. He always felt like eating out of the basket was a little trough-like and rebelled in his small way. She fetched the plate, dime-sized gauges weighing down perfectly good earlobes, tiger eye stone or some other shit winking in a distracting way which notched down his substantial appetite. Not an easy thing to do. “Doesn't that hurt?” Karl asked, pointing to her earlobe. She looked at him like he was old and crazy (probably a little too close for comfort) and smacking her gum she wrenched the gauge out of her earlobe where it then became a dangling and deflated flesh sack, making Karl's stomach heave in a roll. “These?” she asked nonchalantly while Truman gulped a lump the size of his fist down his throat. “No way! They're the boss. Hotness!” she expounded. Karl could see two dead bodies and eat a Big Mac afterward but this was just wrong on about a hundred levels. She pushed it back through her earlobe, or what was left of it, just as Alan the Manager came walking up. He gave a cursory look at the waitress, whose name was Starr, Truman read on her crooked nameplate and smiled at Truman. Sharp guy, Truman thought. Sharp enough to know there was a strange episode before he appeared but not smart enough to be more discerning with his hire. Alan sat down across from Truman. Karl took his time salting his bottomless fries with the special seasoning and dipped a couple in his side of ranch. He slammed them in his craw and chewed, all the while studying Alan. Alan stared back. Not the nervous sort, Truman thought, mildly gratified by that. Finally, he broke the silence. “Cynthia Adams. What can ya tell me about her?” Alan frowned thoughtfully. “Five-eight, blonde hair, green eyes, slim, rocking hot bod. Scared, desperate. A no-show...” Alan spread his hands out to the side. Truman waited then shifted gears. “Heard you've been through some domestic stuff.” Alan's eyes became wary. “Yeah. So?” “Heard they never found the perp that beat your sister.” Alan stared at Karl. The seconds turned to moments. “You know anything about that?” Alan shrugged. “Nope. But,” his eyes drilled Truman. Hazel ones. Honest eyes. “Good riddance. I hope his dick falls off.” “Nice sentiment, Alan.” He shrugged. “You ever have anyone hurt by violence?” Karl nodded. “Yeah. Can't escape it with what I do.” “Fair enough. Now tell me, no bullshit. Where is Cynthia Adams?” Truman opened his mouth to lie. But in the end, he told the truth. He was so tired of lying. He just couldn't bring himself to tell another. “Taken.” “By who?” Not who, what, Truman corrected. He kept that part to himself. CHAPTER 15 Julia Julia opened her eyelids and two sets of eyes met hers. The plaster ceiling lay beyond their stare and she shut her eyes again. She was on her back, her body tingling like she'd laid in a vat of liquid fire. “What happened?” she croaked. “Give her some room, gents,” Jen said, shoving at Scott and Victor. Suddenly Jen was there, her eyes were the palest shade of grey as they looked deeply into Julia's. “A little much for you?” she asked with just a trace of sympathy. Julia allowed Jen to pull her into a seated position. And here Julia thought she'd licked the old faint at the drop of a hat thing. Apparently not, she grumped internally. “Whoa Nelly,” Jen said when Julia thought to get up. “I'm not a horse Jen,” Julia said, not amused. “I didn't say you were,” she replied, a look of pure confusion on her face. Julia looked at Marcus. Then all the voices of the group ground into her brain and she covered her ears. “Argh!” Julia grunted. “I can't stand this, it's so loud.” Scott reached out and grabbed her arm and blessed silence filled her head where a discordant symphony had been. “Deflector, remember?” he soothed and she nodded. “That was no fainting spell,” Marcus said, palming his chin. Then he looked at the door where Jacqueline had but moments before passed through. He laughed, more to himself than anything. “She knew,” he said, tapping his head. “Knew what?” Victor asked, his gaze narrowing like a laser on Marcus. “She knew that Julia would Awaken. Remember,” he popped his brows, “she is Precognitive.” Victor gave a small lift of the shoulder. “It is the least of her skills.” “But enough of one to predict that Julia was gaining more in her Awakening,” Marcus said with certainty. All eyes fell on Julia. Scott stuck out his palm and she took it. That was better. Well, kind of. They were all eight feet tall but there was something less good about being on her ass than on her feet. Yeah. “Do you feel different?” Brendan asked. “Yes,” Julia said in resignation. “I don't want to. I want to be me.” She realized how that sounded, her whining. She couldn't take it back but clarified, “I mean, I know that this is my calling or whatever but I don't think I'm right for the job. I'm not prepared,” she ended on a lame note. “First things first, Julia,” Marcus said. “We'll have the Negator,” and at his title Paul stepped into Julia's view. Huh, he'd been there the entire time but she'd been so absorbed by the Combatant she'd never even thought about him since he made the torched vamps smell like a bouquet of flowers. Julia gave a small laugh and everyone gave her an odd look. Well, shit was strange. Sorry if she was trying to put it in a box that nothing would fit in. Paul didn't give her an odd look, maybe being a Negator wasn't so hot. Nothing was as fun as her new job description but there were probably jobs in the Singer hierarchy that were the equivalent of flippin' burgers or collecting trash. “I'm Paul,” he said. Julia smiled, it was freaky as hell. Let's just introduce ourselves with the burning vamps outside, the crazy Region Two psycho wandering around God knew where and oh yeah, for specialness squared, let's help the queen! Julia covered her mouth with her hand, she was so near a hysterical meltdown she bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. She knew once it began it might not stop, ever. “I can give you a zap,” he said with finger quotes around the last word, “that'll notch down the ESP fun for a time.” He looked at Julia and when she stared blankly at him he expounded, “You won't hear all those voices.” “No psychic friends network,” Michael enthused from his corner. Right. Out loud Julia said, “That'd be great. It's a little...” “Much?” Jen said and Julia nodded. Then suddenly she thought of something. “Wait... what else can I do?” Marcus gave her steady eyes. “Eventually, if legend is accurate: everything.” Julia stood there like a statue while Paul came forward and with a palm up he silently asked for permission to touch her, his eyes first going to the Combatant's then moving on to her own. “Don't look at them,” Julia said, thinking about gaining powers like changing underwear each day. Marvelous. “I have to. If I touched you now that they're assembled,” he shrugged his shoulders helplessly, “I think they'd hand me my ass.” Marcus sighed. “I believe the dialect training has been embraced a little too strenuously.” Michael snorted in the background and Julia smiled as the voices receded to a dull roar. Now it was just white noise in her head, static. She blinked and when she opened them Paul's stark freckles and carrot hair stood out against his pale skin, stranded there. “Better?” he asked, taking both hands from her shoulders. “Much,” she let out a shaky breath. “But it's a band-aid. I need to get training. I can't live with all your thoughts in my head.” “Not all,” Victor said quietly. Julia arched a ginger brow at him in question and he replied, “The Combatant is always silent to the Queen.” Julia probed his mind, like the slim tendrils of an octopus she sought, gently touching and retreating until she had gone over every place she could feel, every texture that throbbed with his thoughts. “No,” she said, “I can't.” She looked at Scott and he smirked. The same. “Why?” Julia said, then threw out her palms like a ward, “Not that I'm complaining!” “One will be your mate, Julia. You cannot have a truly open relationship if there is absolute telepathy,” Marcus said. “But...” Julia thought about it, “sometimes I would hear a thought from Jen?” Marcus inclined his head. “Yes, a random thought here and there is not unheard of. But this...” he put his own palm out and indicated herself, “this is a full telepathy. During sleep, while awake. Not easily shut down. However, you will learn control. It will take some training and hard work but you can accomplish it.” “Not with the crew here?” Julia clarified and gave a look at all those guys standing there looking expectant. For what she didn't know. Though Julia thought that their purpose was simple: guard and defend. She thought they'd be handy at that. He smiled and shook his head. “No,” he said simply. “Although, the Book does tell of you being able to communicate with them in some way, especially while under duress.” Julia felt fatigue like a hand on her, weighing her down. Even by her own crazy last two years it had been a Big Day. She looked around her and said what was in her heart, “I think I need to hit the hay, guys. It's been... overwhelming.” That was the best she could do. Julia couldn't enumerate all the things that had happened that were doing a world class universe tilt on her but she'd had it. Paul said, “I'll be right next door, Julia.” “Proximity?” she guessed. “Yeah. I'm gonna pretty much be your shadow until you get a handle on this.” “Okay,” she said, trying for not sounding sullen about more freedoms being stripped and missing it by a mile. “Hey,” he said and she met his green eyes, “It's not forever.” “I know,” Julia said, taking a look around her and a last look at Scott as she left the room. It felt a little like an escape. * William William watched the dying embers of the vampires, his mortal enemies burning on the Singer's land and smiled. Technically he ruled them now and thought it most good that they had foolishly tried for Julia amongst her own kind while his torture had alerted them and who knew what else. He knew that his pain had transferred to Julia, which, in turn had given them a course to follow. Merlin's blood had fueled William for part of his journey until he ran across some human scum (there were heavy pickings of the criminal element about) and fed deeply. Satiated, William was prepared. Even now, as night lay as a black cloak he could feel Julia. Her change. It was as his kiss had predicted. Her Awakening was upon her and she was not yet mated. When the final part of her Awakened, he would need to be there, in her presence. Not that he could complain, however, what were they waiting on? Foolish of the Singers, William thought. Of course, how old were they? Did they have any true elders from whom to procure wisdom? Perhaps not. William used his form that few Singers had and shifted to his raven. The merciless grinding of tendon and bone realigning without smoothness, breaking and mending together to mold to that of a large bird, only his eyes remained. If he had been fully Singer, it would not have been as painful. However, he was not. Pain was his penance. He flew, hoping the Singers did not possess a shifter that was his natural predator. If they did, William would be unable to see his objective through. * Julia Julia was ecstatic about the momentary solitude as she lay on her bed, lost in thoughts of Before. Before she was a Queen. When she was a regular chic from Alaska with a stubborn streak of hippie. Tears that she could shed in private rolled down her face. She wanted Cyn so bad she could taste it. What Julia wouldn't do to see her friend again. How was she? Probably still hunting for shoes and handbags, scoping the next hot dude at some college. Or maybe not? Dark thoughts pressed their way inside of Julia and she couldn't help but wonder that maybe, Cyn hadn't moved past the whole thing. After all, Kevin was killed in front of her, Julia and Jason were taken from her as well. Julia lost all three, but so did Cyn. Of course, Julia knew where Jason was. Not really... more like, she knew what he was. And that he was a threat to her now. Julia curled up in the fetal position on her side while Singers roamed, lived, talked and thought all around her. Julia lay in her bed, as lonely as she'd ever been, surrounded by people, knowing none of them, their voices like the low drone of a hive of bees inside her head. Her friends had been her home. Jason had held her heart like a great fireplace in the center of that home. Now Julia was someone but she didn't know who. Julia fell asleep as a dark shape hovered then landed on the deep windowsill of her bedroom window. Its crimson eyes found her in the gloom easily. It sent thoughts of comfort to her as it sensed the duress that her subconscious could not hide. For the blood-binding was very strong this close. Julia stirred in her sleep, heaving a heavy sigh that sounded very much like relief. * Northwestern Were “Use the girl,” Lawrence said, spinning the world globe with a strong and tapered finger, his back to Tony. “She will be excellent leverage. Not only will she be a fine instrument of manipulation with the Rare One, she may even provide some incentive to keep our Feral in line.” “You don't think of him as Jason Caldwell?” Tony asked, loving the possibility of the tide turning against his rival. Lawrence turned. “Ah yes, I do. However,” his eyes were as serious as Tony had ever seen them. “He is a rare red and Singer to boot. No. The reds are renowned for their wildness...” Tony laughed. Lawrence put up a hand. “I understand, all Were are intrinsically wild. It is our very essence. Yet,” he stared off into space, “this is different. They have a tenacious streak governed by emotion. Whether or not that emotion be valid, it is real to them and thereby something they feel justified acting on.” “So,” Tony put up his large hand and began to tick off all the points that Lawrence had made to his Beta on his fingers, “one, take Cynthia Adams. Two, make sure she's used to keep both Jason and Julia in line and what about Adi? She's a pain in my ass.” Lawrence stopped the endless spinning of the globe and gave him knowing eyes. He'd seen deeply and knew who Tony was, what he was. Tony fought not to squirm under the knowledge in that gaze. “Yet you want her?” Tony's heart sped, his adrenaline kicking up a notch and answered, “Hell yeah.” Tony knew how few fullblood Were females there were. Adrianna was Alpha besides. Yeah, she sure as shit would be his. Lawrence grimaced a little at the wording but pressed past it. “It is a pact of sorts that you want?” Tony gave a terse nod. “I get the Rare One, regardless the cost and I get Adrianna. No negotiations.” Tony gave his Alpha a stare that made the more powerful wolf shift in a slide of liquid flesh. Where a human face had been and eyes that were a dull brown, bloomed a snout that surged forward into a muzzle with teeth and eyes that were so pale a gold they shone like the sun. Those eyes were inches from his face as the teeth of that great mouth held Tony's massive neck between jaws of steel and fur. They pressed against the flesh of his throat, just shy of breaking the skin and Tony did a tap out. Lightly affirming his submissiveness to his Alpha by a finger on his flank. Lawrence released him and Tony rubbed his neck where all those teeth had just been. Fuck, Tony thought, I'll be checking my drawers for shit later. “You do not tell me what you will and will not do. I am Alpha,” Lawrence said from a human face with wolf-gold eyes, his voice retaining the rasp of his wolf. Lawrence had made his point. Though Tony wasn't sure if he'd get what he wanted. Lawrence's eyes were hooded, receding to the human brown when he said. “Yes. Regardless the cost, bring the Rare One. Bring me Julia Caldwell. She will be the one that tames the Feral.” He gave Tony a sharp look. Tony thought about it, finally shaking his head. “No. Let Caldwell have her. They will strengthen the pack and by their closeness I will benefit,” he said, closing his hand into a huge fist of triumph, he could rectify all inequalities later. He liked the sound of a wolf harem. That was more his speed. One in which Lawrence wasn't around to worry about. He kept his ruminations to himself. Keeping his own council had never hurt Tony. “What if our Adrianna does not wish for a mating with you?” Lawrence asked as if he didn't know that Adi loathed Tony. “Further, what if Julia Caldwell does not wish to truly be the spouse of Jason both by the human laws and those of the pack?” Tony smiled. “When has that ever mattered?” “Too true, my second, too true. Our days of democracy when the females had choice are over. There are too few for us to mate indiscriminately. Matings must be arranged with careful deliberation.” “You're right,” Tony agreed easily, he had always instinctively understood this. “I know. That is why I am Alpha,” Lawrence said, full of his own importance as he gave Tony the subtle reminder of his station within the pack. Tony hated that. However, until he could take him, he must submit. When he and Adi were mated, they would be a dangerous Alpha pair. Lawrence was without a mate, he would be weakened by the lack of a partner. Tony thought he was expert at exploitation. Tony had learned that there was always someone better, faster, stronger. In the case of himself, Tony had never deluded himself on the strength of his intellect. He knew that Lawrence was smarter. Sometimes cunning masqueraded as intelligence being creative. Tony thought he had that down; it was called strategy with a chaser of patience. He would bide his time. And that time was coming. CHAPTER 16 Cyn Cynthia hoisted the small pack on her back and centered it where it fell neatly between her shoulder blades. Kevin used to call them weapons of destruction. Tears stung her eyes. It was these unguarded moments when grief found a home, slamming into her when she was least prepared, a crashing wave against the bulkhead that eroded at her spirit, her fortitude. Then she caught sight of Jason walking toward her and hardened right up. He put steel into her spine she didn't know she had. The traitorous prick. “Hey, Cyn,” he said cautiously, his sandy hair swinging out of his eyes with a flick of his head. Cynthia turned away and he sighed, Adrianna walking up beside the pair, the silence heavy between them, laden with discord. Tony entered the open area that was the entrance to their den, a simple meadow with an outcropping of stones that looked natural but were, in fact, arranged in an ancient order of salutation that would signal to other Were a warning, or in the case of the Northwestern Pack, a welcome. “Glad to see everyone's getting along,” Tony chuckled like the asshat he was and Cynthia turned to him, pissed. He was a colossal dick. Figures she'd have to go with these chumps. Jason the chameleon and Tony the troll. Perfect. She opened her mouth to enlighten him with a snarky retort and Emmanuel was there. Cynthia's cheeks reddened as he gave her a steady look. He was different and she didn't know how but he made her uncomfortable. “That is not helpful, Anthony,” Manny said, giving him the look he deserved. Tony smirked. Whatever irritated people and got them spun up... well, that was an easy source of amusement to him. When the pain came at his side he whirled, prepared to backhand the offender, as was the way of the Were. It was Adi. “Hey pal,” she said, a smirk breaking into a grin, her hand lowering from the covert jab she'd nailed him with. Tony's hands curled into his fists, instantly pissed, the testosterone surge through his body ten times that of a human male, tempered only by the sure knowledge of his future ownership of her. All of her. The thought of that eventuality made his scowl turn to a smile and he let his look speak for him, using his eyes to undress her, he began at the top of her honey colored head and lingered on all the parts he'd own. Adi was not easily embarrassed but after Tony gave her that smile, chock full of creep with a clear undertone of lasciviousness she backed away a little, her smile slipping as his brightened. That dickwad had something up his sleeve Adi saw. But what? It spooked her, whatever it was. “Cut the theatrics,” Manny told the group at large. “We need to be ready. The drinkers will be. The Singers as well.” His eyes met those of the patchwork quilt of compatriots. He looked at Lawrence's Beta, knowing as Alpha he would not have chosen Anthony, yet Manny was not Alpha. Then he looked at the Feral, a rare red, Jason. Finally he gazed at the skinny blonde Singer, her sad eyes held the fire of her spirit and against his very soul, he was drawn to this one. His soldier's discipline reasserted itself, remembering the directive from his Alpha, he let that command that still rung in his ears slide through his mind again as he looked at Cynthia Adams with barely contained longing. He locked down his expression with difficulty. “You must complete this mission, Emmanuel,” Lawrence's mud brown eyes held his, not a hint of his wolf in sight. Emmanuel sighed, he knew that. But, Singers of enough blood quantum were breedable, mateable. Any wolf with sufficient Alpha as part of their make-up wished to mate. And mate with another female wolf or just as well, a Singer. Singers produced pups that were moonless in some cases. Not bound to Her Call. Only the weak succumbed to a mixed-blood wolf. Or worse, one that was full human. Manny shuddered at the thought of choosing that desperate avenue. A human mating was a dangerous dilution of the Were. Absolute, permanent; taking the wolf out of the human and leaving nothing behind. Perhaps the call of all Singers was similar but he'd not felt this way with the Rare One who had been captured and caused the entire den to become salivating madmen. Insane wolves reigning supreme. “I wish to seek a mating with the Singer, Cynthia Adams,” Manny said, as serious a request as he'd ever made. Lawrence gave a small smile and said, almost to himself, “This is a day for requests, I think.” “What?” Emmanuel asked, puzzled. “Nevermind, wolf,” Lawrence said, waving a dismissive hand to his voiced implication. “You will have to fight for that right. Are you prepared?” Manny gave a low growl. “Who else desires her? Tony?” Emmanuel asked in disbelief but already his wolf clawed for release, the moon but a memory. However, Emmanuel was Alpha enough to be struck by the emanations of change, even though they could not occur this far from the moon's fullness. Emmanuel's war to suppress his wolf showed and Lawrence's lips opened in a responsive growl of his own which followed Manny's, the challenge obvious. Emmanuel struggled with his wolf, it had never been so difficult as it was now. Where females were involved, it was a near thing. It was as if his wolf was always right underneath the surface. “No. Tony is interested in someone else entirely.” “Who? The Rare One?” Manny snorted in disdain. As if a crude wolf like that one should lay a claw on the likes of the purest of all Singers? He thought not. Lawrence gave a secret smile and answered, “No, it is not her he wants.” Emmanuel opened his mouth, made thick with his wolf's proximity and Lawrence made a slicing gesture with his hand, effectively cutting off the question that had hovered on his lips. “It does not concern you. I am just thankful my right and left wolf do not desire the same female.” As Manny was, giving his Packmaster a nod of deference to be so named. “I am counting on you to remain neutral until the successful return of Julia Caldwell.” Lawrence locked gazes with Emmanuel, hammering his point home with his next statement, “You will be favored in mating with Cynthia Adams if you but keep your intentions to yourself.” His Packmaster spread his palms out at the side of his body. “I have given the same expectations of protocol to Anthony as well.” It was settled then, Emmanuel determined. Cynthia would be his in due time. He must complete this mission, then he was first in line to be mated with a Singer with potential. Potential for many things. His nose told him chemistry was the highest on that list. Now to seek her and hope that she would choose him as well. Cynthia watched the handsome wolf look at her with neutral speculation and found herself feeling embarrassed, an alien emotion for Cynthia. So, she reacted like she hadn't been caught noticing him looking at her. She shifted her attention to Adi. “Are we ready?” she asked, effectively dismissing both Jason and Emmanuel from her thoughts. And that jerkoff, Tony. Cynthia had already figured it was in her best interests to keep that chump in her sights. Adi nodded slowly, her mind still on Tony when three other Were approached. One was part of the original Rite of Luna ceremony. Hardened by soldiering for the Were, he had a long scar that bisected his face, a cruel pathway that traversed his eyebrow and came across the bridge of his nose in a jagged snarl of scarred flesh. It had always looked like a lightning bolt to Adi. His name was Buck but they all called him Slash. When she was a whelpling he'd held her on his lap and told her of the wars that he'd fought with the male Were and drinkers while Adi had raptly listened. Never knowing that it was he that had planted the first seed that became the warrior that grew within her. Now, Adi was one of few female wolves that battled. She was a rare female pureblood Were, she was also a soldier. However, her days were numbered. She must breed when she came of age. And that time was drawing near. No matter how much she avoided it, the signs were there. Too soon for the males to take notice but it would only be a matter of time. Then she'd choose a mate. Or they'd choose one for her. It always got Adi riled up to think about it. Not that it mattered. There were quality males in the pack. Unfortunately, a female couldn't help what she was and because Adrianna was Alpha, only an Alpha could be her mate. And those were fewer in number. And what about love? It was discounted in the packs dwindling numbers, arranged matings favored instead. As Adi thought on these disturbing realities, Tony's eyes found hers and she involuntarily scowled at his skulking ass. Gawd how she hated him. He grinned and she flipped him the bird. “Adrianna,” Emmanuel began then silenced her by saying his next comment in a reprimand that pierced her like a weapon, “what would Joseph wish?” Cynthia watched the younger girl's face crumple and she looked at Emmanuel with clear anger radiating out of every pore, the paleness of her green eyes deepening to emerald fire. Emmanuel's heart stuttered to see that anger directed at him. He hated leading sometimes: you simply could not please everyone. As a matter of fact, usually there were more people angered than gratified. He stared at the Singer and she returned dominant eye contact. He'd moved before he knew it, the beat of his instinctive need to dominate this female overwhelming. Manny was nearly lost to it when Adi said into Cynthia's ears. “Drop your eyes!” He was almost on the Singer when those green eyes fell and the anger and need to subdue her cooled to something resembling management. “Control issues-much?” Tony sneered and Adi sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “Don't touch her,” Jason warned Emmanuel and they growled at each other, Emmanuel's ending in a clear snarl. “Don't bother, loser. I didn't ask for your help,” Cynthia told Jason, her eyes cast to her feet. Jason stopped like someone had slapped him and turned on his heel, walking away from the group but in the direction of their mission. Emmanuel took a deep, calming breath, swaying slightly as her scent undid him further. He needed distance. He moved away from her as Tony gave him a considering look. Dammit, Emmanuel lamented, that's all he needed, that sadistic wolf to suspect his feelings or intentions for Cynthia. Wolves were known for searching for weakness. Manny did not wish for Tony to know his. Tony watched the Second to the Packmaster follow after the red Feral in an unnatural and jerky gait. Like his body was doing something against his will. Tony's eyes snapped to the Singer, then shifted to the retreating back of Emmanuel. Interesting, he thought, Manny was hot to screw the Singer. Of all the wolves, he was the coolest cucumber of them all. But not about this. That could prove useful, Tony decided. Very. He followed, the three soldiers and Adi trailing behind. A disgruntled and agitated Cynthia in accompaniment. Slash took the last position. He liked to have his own back. He was also happier than hell to have Tony forward of his position, let him be point. He didn't trust that miserable fuck as far as he could throw him. * Region One “Can I trust you, Victor?” “In all things, you know this, Jacqueline,” Victor replied, even as a curl of disquiet unwound inside his chest. The directive of the Combatant became more insistent minute by minute. He was even now struggling with the simplest things. Ones that would have been automatic now went through an internal cross-check. It was always the same since the Queen had began her Awakening, sparking the closing of their circle. All thoughts led to the question: Would it bring harm to She who Reigns? It was not a conscious deliberation but one by default, instinctive. Jacqueline narrowed her gaze upon Victor, her eyes searching his expression, trying to gauge the truthfulness of his words. Satisfied, she straightened. Her dark complexion smoothed into the deep neutrality she wore like a mask at all times. “She cannot be Queen,” his leader vowed, slamming the back of a slim hand against the fragile crest of the chair that was stationed in front of an oversized mirror in a corner of the old room. Victor wondered if the quarters were chosen with Jacqueline in mind? She did love to gaze upon her likeness. Some of what he thought must have shown on his face and she gave him a sharp look. “What are those thoughts I see on your face?” Her eyes sharpened on him like a falcon. “I am not sure how I will respond to the girl. I am lost to the protection of her,” Victor said, throwing his hands to his sides. “Even now I feel a compulsion to be near her in a bid to assure her safety.” Jacqueline frowned. This was so much more real and difficult than she anticipated. Unconsciously, her hand found the sack buried inside the interior fold of the slacks she wore and her anxiety came down a notch. She needed time and circumstance and then all would be well. Jacqueline intimately understood the old ways. Where a true Queen perished in the presence of a female of royal lineage, certain things put in motion could not be stopped. In simplest terms, the momentum of the Combatant would not halt because of the death of the true Queen. Once awakened, the Combatant would defend the new Queen, despite the method of her ordination. By fire, by stealth, unfair or not, Jacqueline would be Queen. Her own flesh and blood would be honor bound, willing or not, to defend her and a slave to her soul would bind to her and obey her in all things. It was really quite perfect. If it were not for the formidable will of the girl. Jacqueline had tasted of her mind when the girl sat unprotected by their savvy Negator. Something, or many things had shaped the girl into a great enemy. Jacqueline had presumed the young Queen to be a wallflower, pampered, with an absent intellect. Instead she sensed a beautiful lamb with the heart of a lion. Julia would not be cowed. However, she could be poisoned. That Jacqueline could manage. And manage it she would. She patted the slight bulge from the package hidden in a secret compartment inside her pants and smiled. “Do not fret, Victor.” She looked up into his eyes, struck suddenly with how beautiful of a man he was. As all the Combatants were. Even her own son, who resembled her, he was the most handsome of all. He would be hers soon enough. Fully. As soon as her wretched nemesis was disposed of they would all be hers. Even her wayward flesh and blood. Who currently looked upon her with barely contained disgust. It would remain her secret. And very soon she would implement her plan. For soon, Julia would be immune to poison and a host of other things. As Queen, once her Awakening was complete, she would be virtually immortal, once begun, the Awakening would not stop until it was complete. Jacqueline couldn't have that. Victor watched that neutral expression have a fleeting look of greed and his unease deepened, his face unconsciously seeking the Queen. He could feel her close by and her proximity quieted his spirit even as his loyalties were torn. Was this the call of the Combatant? To be loyal to his leader but care nothing about anything unless it involved the protection of the Queen? Victor excused himself and compulsively went to where Julia lay sleeping, his leader's eyes boring holes into his back as he did. Soon, Jacqueline thought as she watched his retreating back, soon. * Julia Julia struggled through layers of sleep, eyes following her as branches tore at her clothing, slowing her as she sprinted through the forest, unseen threats all around her. Julia burst into a clearing and it was with the deepest sense of déjà vu she'd ever experienced that she slowed at the sight that greeted her, stunned, expectant. There stood Jason, a great red wolf, his green eyes swirling in a slow twirl, spinning languidly in a face she knew, yet didn't. Beside him was perched a giant black raven, three times the size of the bald eagles that were so prevalent where she'd grown up in the outskirts of the Alaskan wilderness. Its crimson eyes rested on her body intently. Cyn suddenly appeared, standing in front of both. She beckoned to Julia. Julia began to move toward her, Cyn like a salve to her soul, beseeching. Julia was sure Cyn had something she was saying, Julia could see her lips moving but couldn't make out the words. The pair of creatures that Julia knew instinctively were William and Jason flanked her position, slightly behind Cyn, the wolf and the raven, red and black. They looked to be waiting for something. Julia kept her forward progress even as ten warriors stood in front of Cynthia, taking form in the mist that had rolled in at her feet. Instead of appearing startled by their appearance, she began to try to fight through the wall of muscled flesh and Julia ran toward the group, driving toward Cyn, coming home. She saw Cyn scream a warning at something from behind Julia and she turned, facing Jacqueline. Or what was Jacqueline in her dream state. Jacqueline was a beautiful creature. She wore a gown covered in small jewels that sparkled in the deepening twilight of Julia's dream. Her ebony eyes caught the amber of Julia's easily. Julia heard the stampede from behind her of the ones who would protect her from this perfection and every instinct Julia possessed screamed for her to run. Yet she was glued to the spot, her feet leaden, her will held captive by another, mesmerized. Jacqueline smiled then said, “Sleep.” It was said in a silken whisper as Jacqueline raised her palm, where something lay cupped. Shimmering white powder, like iridescent glitter lay in a little pile in the graceful curve of her palm. Jacqueline pursed those beautiful lips and blew a kiss at the twinkling pile toward Julia. It wafted toward her, carried on an invisible wind, seeking Julia like due north on a compass. Julia's senses awoke and she became aware of Cyn screaming behind her, the flap of bird's wings were sounding a roar in her ears, warm fur pressed against her body, muscled arms hauled her against a massive body and all the while the glitter fell over Julia like a blanket. Of snow. Blown by a mouth so red it looked like blood. Julia closed her eyes. And slept. While her protectors wept. CHAPTER 17 Truman Karl Truman gave a hard glance to his right, then left. The sounds of the noisy Benson Street more than a white noise backdrop. And, of course, the effing street wasn't Benson anymore, but just good old 104th. That told him Harriet was a local boy, never bothering to update his internal map, but having it permanently arrested in the 70s or whenever he'd lived in the area. Truman spotted the Suit right away. The guy screamed fed and Karl walked toward him, his mind still with the Red Robin manager, Alan Greene. The bottom line was, he hadn't met a person yet in this town that didn't make his nose twitch. His instincts were screaming for him to stand up and take notice. Those instincts had saved his keister on more than one occasion, he always listened. His nose told him that something was up. The man that approached him was shorter than Truman but built like a brick shithouse, his fed-regulated Men in Black suit fitting awkwardly across the shoulders. The guy saw gym time and it had put him out of range for off the rack clothes. A mirror-lover, this one. Marvelous. They shook hands and took the measure of each other through the handshake like men do. Truman's still came up on the high end and only the tightening of the younger man's eyes told Truman that he'd been surprised by the force Karl could still put out. He wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot. Their hands dropped and the agent said, “Let's do this outside.” Right, Truman thought. Out loud he said, “Good idea.” He gave a palm for the fed to proceed him out of the coffeehouse and the agent gave a small pause then gave him his back as he walked out. Karl gave no man his back. The agent had been smart to hesitate. Karl might look like a slightly overweight middle-aged guy (he was) but he knew how to carry himself. Against human men anyway. The agent turned as soon as the noise of the street numbed the ears of those few bystanders close enough to hear. “So Truman...” the agent, whose name was Ford, like the trucks, spread his palms out at either side of his body to show how harmless he was. Should've been, him being the liaison to the feds for Karl's statie ass but Truman doubted it. He could almost see the hammer fall. “Tell me what your thoughts are.” Truman did. He wasn't sold on giving this smug young pup what he'd beaten the pavement for but they were supposedly sharing info. When he wrapped with the meeting he'd just had with Alan the restaurant guy, the agent covered his eyes with his black wraparounds. Securing his expression as anonymous. He stood from his perch at the outdoor bistro chair and table configuration and so did Karl. “So, we think that we have enough to move forward independently.” Karl blinked. What the blue hell was this? “What do you mean, 'independently'?” Ford stared back at him, his eyes like alien orbs of unreadable blackness. Truman got a sudden and almost painful urge to tear those sunglasses off his face and pistol whip him with them. Ford gave a small chuckle and Truman felt his neck muscles bunch with tension. “We now have a bigger problem on our hands. What we thought was a rare, isolated group to contain... well, it's more widespread than originally presumed.” These dumb asses had known about the werewolves long before he came on the scene. They'd used him like a piece of ass to find the lair and now they would discard him. His purpose served. Truman called bullshittery on that. “Listen to me,” Karl said, stepping into Ford's grill, who held his ground, “I am not going to be dismissed like some errand boy while one of my homegirls is out there with this rabid pack of dogs, suffering God-knows-what indignities.” His eyes bored holes in Ford, who stared back unflinchingly. “You don't care about the girl that was taken, you care about containment and hiding what's out there from the citizens of our great nation. You make me sick.” The silence engulfed the men, the people, cars, buildings and other things melting away. Karl watched the short dark hair on Ford's head lift slightly in the breeze, his large hands, no doubt calloused from weight lifting, planted on his hips. Finally, Ford spoke, “You're out, Truman.” He said the words as a statement, a neat dismissal of execution from the inner sanctum. “You goddamned putz,” Karl Truman seethed, utterly sloughing off the end of their partnership. Which, he realized now, had been more exploitative than cooperative. Ford shrugged in the breeze. “The FBI would like to thank you for your investigative efforts, but they are no longer needed. Further, this cooperative relationship is also no longer necessary. A letter, reiterating the points I've just made, will be sent to your superior and copied to yourself.” Ford turned smartly in the direction of his car and Truman jogged after him. When he reached out to grab the fed's arm, Ford turned smoothly and covertly sucker punched him. Truman was not prepared. People of honor usually aren't. They think from their own perspective, eschewing others' mindsets for the one they embrace as individuals. It nailed him deep, robbing his breath. Karl choked on his own spit. The young agent dipped beside his ear as Karl clutched his gut. “Go away, Truman. Don't go away mad, just go away.” He straightened, Truman eyeing him from his bent position as Ford adjusted his suit like he'd just shrugged it on instead of having punched a fellow law officer in the gut. Karl stood, his hand palming his gut and watched the young agent fold himself into the black SUV, the one that matched his suit, the reflection of the glass the same as his lenses. With a mocking salute, he drove off, the window sliding to seal the fed in his car, the motivations and secrets of the FBI driving off with him. They didn't know Karl Truman very well. That well-placed directive, sealed with a punch, would be summarily ignored. If anything, it put the flag before the bull. Karl saw only red. * Julia Julia's eyes popped open and she sat straight up in bed like a movie-zombie, plank straight with a gasping mouth, minus the rot. She was greeted by... oh, the entire world and she blushed to the roots of her hair, the dream still pulsing in her brain in HD detail. It was Victor that sat at the edge of her bed and she fought tears, her fear as great as any she'd ever known. The remnants of the dream had a precognitive feel to it, jarring her insides like the aftermath of a crash. Julia had always had flashes of precognition. But didn't everyone? Until this crazy Blood Singer stuff had been launched around for her to consider she'd just chalked it up to one of those things. Yeah right. Julia knew better now. Way better. Scott looked down at her, his arms folded across his chest, glaring at Victor, his would-be rival. The truth was, Julia was the real culprit. It was her blood, and hers alone, that would choose a soulmate out of the ten. However, it had been clear to all that had paid attention that the two that had gotten early responses from her had been Victor, and of course, there was Scott. Who right now looked like he wanted to tear Victor's arm off and beat him with it. However, Jen saved the day, shoving aside the Combatant like big trees made of flesh. She got to her brother and stabbed a finger in his chest. “Listen, he-man, take a hike.” He opened his mouth and she instructed in the tone of Riled Sibling, “Now.” Scott's mouth snapped shut and he glowered at her, his eyes shifting between her and Victor. He sighed and stood from the bed, laying palms flat down the front of his perfect pants, a replica of tyrant Jacqueline. Julia thought they looked like twins. She tried to banish the uncharitable comparison but couldn't quite do it. Julia swung her bare feet over the side of the bed as Paul walked into the room full of Singers. “What's going on? Is there some problem?” “No,” Julia said in a flat voice. “Everybody out!” She shooed the huge men out, grumbles and muttering all around. Julia was dressed only in jammie bottoms and a cami, her hair... well, ouch. “They were just leaving Paul,” Julia explained, being careful not to touch anyone's skin. Julia was still feeling the residual weirdness of her Awakening and she'd like to not manifest some other crazy thing while the Combatants were all crammed inside her room like sardines. Scott allowed himself to be herded then when he was nearly out the door he shut it with the flat of his palm and Julia ran to the bathroom, slamming the door in his face. He hit the door with his fist and it shuddered underneath the impact. “Julia,” Scott said in a low voice, full of command, ownership. Which just made Julia feel less like discussing anything with him. Julia felt the pull of him through the two inches of one hundred year old wood and pressed her forehead against the thick panel which had held against his fist. “We need to talk,” Scott said, placing his huge hand, fingers spread against the opposite side and Julia unconsciously mirrored his action with her own hand. “No. I need some time by myself. I've had... a lot to take in Scott. I appreciate all that you've done for me but I have, I need... to get my head on straight.” Jen huffed in the background. Brothers! Men! They just had to press. Jen couldn't even imagine being Julia right now. Almost killed in the meadow, getting sick, the vampire skirmish. Finding out she was essentially the blood messiah of the Singers. It was amazing to Jen that she was even coherent. Then there was the added issue of the worst leader of the thirteen regions making an unannounced visit. Yet, Jen felt for her brother. He'd been independent with his life plan well-laid in front of him. Now he wanted someone he'd never have chosen. Blood ruled all. It was as simple as that. Jen touched Scott's back and he stiffened. “She won't listen,” he growled at her, his forehead still pressed against the wall. “Try not pushing, Scott,” Jen said gently. He turned, his palm sliding off the wood as Julia stepped away from the other side and then someone began pounding on the door which led into her room. “Can it, asshole!” Scott bellowed unreasonably and Jen shook her head. He was so pig-headed that his very nature might be wrong. How could he lead with all that anger? Julia heard Scott yell and her chest tightened with his simmering rage. How could she be linked to this hothead? Why did she give a care that he was angry, frustrated with her inability to be decisive? Julia didn't know exactly but before she explored all of the blood ties, there was one thing that was getting her full attention. The dream. It meant something. Julia needed to talk with someone that could possibly interpret it. That could free her from the wolf and vampire that were tied to her by blood. Julia knew her liberty would never be secure until that was terminated. Somehow, that dream was speaking to that. What was it saying? * Cyn Cynthia would have killed for a shower, the traipsing across the country was the suckiest enterprise she'd ever undertaken. Of course, she was from Alaska and hiking was something where your parents laced boots on your feet in toddlerhood and chucked your chubby ass out the door with the directive: walk. Everyone did and it was ingrained. However, Cynthia had never really taken that to heart, instead embracing her girlie side. In this instance, she missed not being a traditional Alaskan chic. Jules would have kicked ass on this journey. Cynthia sighed, struggling not to become a whining bitch. Adi gave her a light tap on the arm, fresh as a damn daisy and Cynthia fumed. “Tired?” she asked, cocking a golden brow, her tanned face speaking to her time in the outdoors. Cynthia was betting werewolves didn't get wrinkles, bags and other unattractive crap. It put Cynthia in a funk. “Yeah, beat. These Wereguys can trudge to the ends of time but I need some ass planting time.” Adi smiled, whistling. “Hey guys, princess here is tired.” “Thanks, sweet thing, that gets them so ready to like me,” Cynthia said. “Oh... they like ya. That's isn't the problem,” Adi said without a trace of humor. Great, Cynthia thought, just great. The men walked back to where Cynthia stood and it was then that she noticed how other they seemed. When they weren't together you didn't notice that almost buzzing, contained energy that radiated just beneath their skin, present but unnoticed. In a group, they sung with it. A vibrating electricity poured over her as they neared and she swayed with the force of it. “Hey!” Jason yelled, reaching for her and Cynthia jerked away from his hand. And fell against Emmanuel. Emmanuel grabbed the exhausted girl against him, meaning only to catch her and his wolf burst over the top of them both, his change smacking into her like a wall of sodden flesh. Cynthia fell from the impact, landing on her back and took a front row seat to his Change. Brought on by the moon, not full but near enough. But mainly brought on by her touch. Singer called to Wolf, and there Emmanuel stood, in his wolfen form, half-human, half-Were. Seven feet of muscled fur. Cynthia looked around and every male fell to the call. Oh happy day, Cynthia thought in a random fog, like dominoes falling, every male Changed. And Adi as well. Skin sloughed, flesh and bone snapped and reconnected in a noisy chorus of wet sucking and repositioning that Cynthia closed her eyes against, her mind rebelling the visual onslaught in defensive protection. Suddenly, instead of two girls and six males it was a pack of werewolves and one Singer on her back, exhausted and now pretty damn scared. When Emmanuel reached for her, she cringed away, throwing up her hands in a final defensive gesture. The memory of the last werewolf burned into the deepest recesses of her mind. The horror of that moment came alive in a single sweep of terror that caused every part of Cynthia to freeze. She couldn't think, breathe... move. She was utterly convinced she would die now. * William “Tell me, Singer,” William instructed and Jen's glazed eyes held his gray gaze. He tilted her neck to the side then let her chin fall, her body very still against his touch. “She rebels,” Jen answered robotically. “And?” William prompted. “She dreams of you... and her husband.” William frowned thoughtfully. That was not good. He could feel her Awakening. He must complete the blood-share or there would be no chance of a union. As it was, he was now the de facto leader of Merlin's Southeastern Kiss of vampire. Yet, what good was that if he did not have a mate to share it with? With whom he could perpetuate a new order. Daywalking vampire, fueled by Singer blood, his progeny. His and Julia's. And with the exception of Claire, there would be another coven to bring to heel, for what had been brought against him. William returned his attention to the Singer. His thirst was ravenous but he must not overindulge. William needed to be sharp, but was one day out without blood. He eyed this one, strongly telepathic and used what little he had to drill his commands home. Do not leave her side, lure her to an area where the ones who guard her are not near. He watched the Singer flinch. Thrall always had that effect when the one compelled was instructed to do things not of their choosing. Which was often of course. Thrall was almost never used on the willing. Unbutton your sleeve, William instructed mentally, cringing a little when the girl's eyes stood with heavy accusation on his. He stepped forward, as hungry as he'd ever been except during Merlin's torture, and gripping her small forearm he struck deep, the blood of the Singer a coursing melodious roar in his body, nourishing him at the cellular level, his eyes going red in their sockets as he pulled from her. Not common human stock, but pure blood, oxygenated and perfectly balanced for the vampiric body. When her blood reached his deepest core, it burst and combined with their mutual genetics, causing deep wounds from the torture and forced shapeshifting changes to heal instantly, a blanket of soothing rightness cast, binding his body together more strongly than ever before. William lifted his mouth off her forearm and gave her a look of deep respect, his heart heavy when he saw the tears of frustration she shed, her every fiber begging for escape. Yet there she stood, rooted by thrall, laid by a vampire with enough Singer heritage to accomplish such a thing against another. Jen knew in her heart that she was a traitor to Julia. To all Singers. Her Queen trusted her and she would betray that trust because of a damned vampire. Who now held her blood. And the blood of their Queen. Jen's soul shrieked as the vampire stared at her, whispering directions to snare Julia. She nodded acquiescence. Jen had no choice. She closed the sleeve to hide his feeding and walked away with stiff purpose. It was a death sentence, the Combatant would kill her. They would kill anyone who threatened the Queen of the Singers. It was Blood Law, absolute and merciless. Final. CHAPTER 18 Southeastern Pack “He's on to us,” Alan Greene said with resignation. His hazel eyes, rimmed by dark lashes, glared at the Southeastern Packmaster in frustration. David nodded, that's what he'd been afraid of. Their relations with the Northwestern Pack were strained after the problem with their sadistic Were. David would always regret that they'd not taken action when Alan's sister had been attacked by the rogue. Sometimes, avoiding war had a cost that was not felt immediately but well afterward, like endless ripples in a lake after a stone was skipped. “I figured it was a matter of time before someone clever enough connected the dots...” David gave Alan a hard look and continued, “what about our guy at the courts?” “Hard drive trail.” Alan considered briefly, then, “That mongrel attacked Lacey before computers so there was a small amount of records that were input by hand.” “Dammit,” David swore softly. “And after we've tried so hard to assimilate in mainstream society.” “Yeah,” Alan agreed. “And Cynthia Adams?” David asked. “Slash has it,” Alan said and watched blatant relief wash over his Packmaster's face. “Well thank the moon for small favors.” David palmed his chin thoughtfully. “What about the cop from Homer?” Alan laughed. “He's pretty sharp. In fact, he'd make an awesome wolf. He sure has the nose for it.” “Stop dreaming, you know the rules...” Alan nodded, the smile fading. “I do. I'd bank on him having wolf blood in there somewhere though.” They looked at each other for a swollen moment. “That region has a plethora of Singers. Where there's that many Singers...” “There is Were,” Alan added. “And drinkers,” David finished on a somber note. Always them, Alan thought with distaste. David gave a small shrug. Small for a male that was as big as he. “There's a lot of mixed blood in Alaska.” “Too much,” Alan ground out. It was well known how the packs from the last frontier were managed. Badly. David waggled his finger. “Now, now... don't be an elitist, Alan.” Alan rolled his eyes skyward. “It is not my intent, Packmaster,” giving the natural deference accorded his leader. “You of all Were understand the trouble with the mutts. They contaminate everything.” “But a mixed-blood Singer is fine,” David reminded. “Yes,” Alan said as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. David narrowed his eyes on his first. “Just so we're clear, Julia Caldwell is not up for acquisition.” Alan nodded sagely. “Too many fingers in that pie.” David smiled. “We don't need the Rare One. But having the one who is close to her is a very powerful position as well. It is no surprise that she was from Alaska. That everyone who surrounded her was of Singer heritage.” “Yes, no surprise there,” Alan agreed thinking of the unconscious magnet a Rare One would be to others of her kind and waited on the Packmaster's thoughts. David deliberated. “What intel do you have from Slash?” “He nears Region One of the Singers.” David gave a low whistle, heard only by certain creatures. “So the danger draws near.” Alan thought about Cynthia traveling with that abuser with only Slash as guard and a light sweat broke over him. It had taken every fiber of his control not to Change and go charging after her when she was taken. Rather, allowing the kidnapping to occur after her initial arrival in Washington. It had killed something inside him not offering her his instinctive protection. Cynthia was Singer enough to warrant it. He was Alpha enough to seek it. Alan gave a low contemplative growl and his Packmaster smiled in grim agreement, intuiting the exact nature of his feelings. Patience was not a strong suit of the Were. To implement it was always a tenuous thing at best. As was the case at the moment. * Truman Karl Truman loved to dig. When he was digging, as he was now, he was truly in his element. When he stumbled across the tidbit before it was erased forever he was overcome with joy. His nose hadn't lied. Everything was connected. Every damn thing. The details of his investigation came together in a rush of perfection and everything made sense. Karl hadn't been looking for the connection but that shred of memory was enough to give him pause: Lacey Greene was the woman attacked by the perp Anthony Daniel Laurent in the late 70s. She was also the sister of the good old boy manager at Red Robin, Alan Greene. All of this almost forty year old bad blood was a convoluted mess to be found by just the right person. Truman was that guy. He dismissed the commonality of their names because of dates. When in reality, he should have been thinking outside the box on this one. They didn't age like humans. Period. The manager was almost certainly one of the werewolves and he'd been underneath Karl's nose the entire time. No wonder it'd been twitching. Karl thought about it. Werewolves in Homer murder the Caldwell kid, his buddy Kevin and take Julia Caldwell, leaving Cynthia Adams untouched. Then, another group of werewolves hire her at the local burger joint when she arrives in Kent, the very place Julia was taken. Finally, two years later, werewolves kidnap the Adams girl, best friend of Julia. Truman didn't believe in coincidence of this magnitude. Actually, Karl wasn't much of a believer in coincidence of any degree. However, Alan Greene had seemed almost cavalier about the sudden absence of Cynthia Adams, nonchalant with her missing in action status. He'd even asked Karl where he thought she was. The bastard knew, Karl would stake his life on it. He just might. Truman stewed, thinking about every angle, turning each one over in his mind carefully, dismissing the absurd, finally embracing a facet that made sense. There was some cooperative thing going down between wolf packs or whatever the hell they were called. He nodded to himself, that was it. Cynthia Adams was relatively safe. He speculated she was being used like a pawn on a chessboard, an elaborate game played between the packs. Truman was guessing they didn't get along. Not a big leap of logic there. How was Anthony Laurent tied with Alan Greene besides the assault against his sister? Was he one of the wolves that had torn Cynthia from Karl in that meadow? And why would Alan Greene stand by and allow his sister's attacker to take another female? It made no sense. But the truth was there; buried and waiting. He knew it. Karl tapped in one last thing on the anonymous computer at the local King County Library: last known address for Anthony “Tony” Daniel Laurent. A spinning hour glass moved for almost thirty seconds while Karl restrained both the urge to grab a phantom pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and to give the big monitor a whack with his palm. Damn thing. Then the hit came back: Gig Harbor. It couldn't be that easy, Truman thought, they'd have covered their tracks better than that. Of course, nearly forty years ago, they might not have had reason to. In current times, with technology as it was, the wolves had more incentive. Like with cops that had a keen sense of smell. Truman's face broke out in a grin. Hot damn, a genuine lead. He grabbed his lightweight jacket and took off, the door grazing his butt as he exited. * Slash Slash went for the throat of Emmanuel, his imperative to protect the female Singer the only one which mattered. His packmates, which was a misnomer as he belonged by blood ties to another, had Turned and the Singer was in danger. Emmanuel had wrapped the Singer's fragile forearm in his hand, long since springing talons and was immediately blasted in the side by Slash. They rolled in a tide of bristled fur and swiping claws to the left of Cynthia's position. Tony moved in and Adi plunged her mouth into his flank as he bashed her with his half-formed hand, retracting his claws on the backswing so he wouldn't hurt her. Too badly. Adi rolled on the forest floor, dazed by the blow. She was an excellent fighter, but so was Tony, pound for pound, squaring off with him was suicide with their uneven weight and muscle distribution. She lay on the ground, panting, her objective met: distraction. Jason grabbed Cyn and she yelped, stopping the momentum of fur that had erupted in a frenzy of slashing claws and battering hands, with deadly knives flashing like weapons of bone. Jason bellowed in an ear-splitting wail, “Stop!” He backed up, holding a nearly catatonic Cyn, Adi on her side, clutching a gash to her wolfen face while Tony came for him. Bring it, Jason thought. Tony had been begging for an ass-kicking from day one and Jason was happy to deliver. It was one of the other Were who stopped the fighting in a low voice, “They're close.” Tony whirled to face him, his coat so deep a brown it was almost black. “Who?” The other wolf, as different from Tony as night and day, his coat matching the whitish gray of Adi's said, “Does your anger hold you prisoner so that you no longer scent danger?” the other asked without a trace of sarcasm, his eyes straying to the injured female wolf at his feet. Tony scowled, the expression almost comical on his snout. He lifted his face into the air and noticed the smell almost too late. “Drinkers,” Tony growled. Emmanuel and Slash rose from the mess they'd made of each other, blood wounds closing, haphazard gashes reversing their depth, new flesh filling in like bright pink water, plumping the holes as Cynthia watched, slightly nauseous from the sight. Gawd these guys were gross, she thought in a daze. Jason stepped forward, dragging a swaying Cynthia behind him as he scooped up the female that had been beaten by that loser Tony. He wasn't up on Were politics but he was thinking that beating a female, werewolf or not, was frowned upon. He was right in his supposition, the other males circling Tony. “You hit the female,” Slash accused, his eyes shifting to Cynthia briefly, Jason caught it and thought it was weird but assumed he was making sure she was okay. Manny growled at Tony, he'd had about enough of his abuse against females. How many times would Lawrence cover his indiscretions before the Were were disciplined or discovered because of them? He didn't care if Tony was a pureblood, who his parents had been or how great of a soldier to the Were he proved to be. In Emmanuel's eyes, he was a liability, a ticking time bomb. Set to detonate at any moment. “She drew first blood,” Tony said as a weak excuse, indicating his side where a row of perfect puncture marks were even now filling in. Manny gave a disgusted snort and drilled Tony with his eyes. Any male knew that a female was of no concern. Adrianna was barely humored in her war with the Were. It was a well-guarded secret that they allowed her to fight to secure her compliance. Alpha females were a difficult group to corral. Adi was no different. When she was fully grown, she would breed. That is what her true value was. It was callous but factual. However, Tony's mistreatment of a valuable female werewolf would not be tolerated, they were a rare treasure to be safeguarded, not harmed. Emmanuel's opinion was shared by the others as they growled, a prelude to a group attack against an Alpha that needed pack reprimand. Again the gray wolf spoke, “They are but ten miles due north and approaching.” It broke the spell of the impending fight, an uneasy truce brought on by enemies of merit, Tony allowed a stay of execution. For now. Jason uttered a swearword that was almost too low to hear and Cynthia offered an olive branch saying, “I heard that Caldwell.” He gave a small smile and she looked up at him. “Maybe you can redeem your sorry ass?” “That's what I'm trying to do, if you'd have listened to me, Cyn,” he said, trying not to get too hopeful that she'd forgive, that she'd help his hopeless cause to get Julia back at his side where she belonged. “Let us go,” Emmanuel said, allowing no uptick or rapport to develop between the two. He would stake his claim subtly and wherever he could. Jason gave Emmanuel a small frown, he'd been one of the Were that he'd actually liked and now he was peeing in corners, marking his metaphorical territory. Jason deliberated whether he should make a stand. But one thing he knew, when it came to females, any female, unless he had a romantic interest in one, he stayed the hell away. He sure didn't have one inkling of romantic interest in Cyn, she was... like a sister or something. And of course, there was Julia. Jason gave a neutral expression, if such a thing was possible with his half-human face but it worked and Emmanuel relaxed his tense posture. Jason also knew that it was all about subtleties in the world of Weres. Little physical gestures packed a punch when it came to communication. Tony smirked. Saved by the blood drinkers, he thought, an unlikely event. Ah... he led a charmed life. He looked at Adi, marking her with his dominant eye contact. His eyes delivered the message clearly: mine. Adi glared back at him. Her eyes responded in kind: piss off. Twice. They held their stare of animosity for a moment, breaking it only when Jason said for all, “I will carry Cyn.” Protestation broke all around, mainly words delivered in a growling mutter. Emmanuel put up an taloned-hand in silence. “She cannot run and speed is needed. The Singers will have established a form of protection that will be in place as the vampires circle from the east and we position from the south. Let us group near their Region and plan our attack based on timing.” He then looked at Tony significantly and added, “Instead of reactive emotion.” Tony glared at Manny and they all turned and faced north. In only a few hours, they would cover enough ground to put them into attack position. There would be no repeat of the earlier conflict resulting in the near-death of the Rare One. An untenable loss. They ran as the vampires that were now tied to William came from the east. Summoned by him, their loyalties now shifted from Merlin to their new leader, put there by blood and death. By providence. * Julia “Please, sit,” Marcus indicated with a palm, looking at Julia carefully, dark circles underneath her whiskey eyes, her expression anxious. The Combatant were everywhere but inside the room, Julia could vaguely feel Scott and to a lesser extent, Victor. Their presence was softened by Paul. Who, true to his word, had kept the voices of the other Singers to a muted roar. “You had a dream,” Marcus prompted. Julia nodded, sitting in an overstuffed chair that faced the massive desk Marcus sat behind. “Jen told you?” “Yes... she said you wanted to have someone interpret it.” Julia nodded and Marcus added, “I know it is a lot to assimilate, that you are young and have been through a series of traumas. Many of which are quite recent.” Well that about summed stuff up, Julia thought. “And many dreams of Singers are prophetic.” Great, Julia thought. Julia told him about it, the entire thing. Marcus leaned back in his chair, very like a throne, behind his huge desk, one of very few pieces of furniture that matched the age of the house and steepled his fingers. After the ticking of the clock marked two minutes of silence after she had finished, Marcus said, “Everyone is represented. That is what is noteworthy,” he commented thoughtfully. Julia's expression grew puzzled, then troubled as she began to wearily make possible connections. Marcus interrupted her internal deliberations. “The wolf will come, as will the vampire. Those two come into the play of your freedom from the blood-binding. Without them relinquishing you through blood, you will not be free of them, and therefore, cannot reign as you were meant to.” “Jason will kill me,” Julia said, proud that her voice didn't tremble with fear, or with the other emotions she associated with the attack: grief, loss, denial and acceptance. Julia knew that William would not harm her. She had enough time in his presence coupled with firsthand knowledge to know that she was too critically important to harm. The vampires were all about self-preservation. And deep inside, Julia knew that he'd actually cared for her. A subtle thread of memory, like a slice of comfort came to her, almost like a dream and she struggled to capture it but it floated away when Marcus answered her statement. “No,” Marcus said with certainty. Julia gave a little gasp of surprise. He had been there, Marcus had seen what Jason did to her. There was no doubt that if he hadn't lost consciousness at just the right moment she would've been toast. “He is Singer and from the looks of his wolf, a rare type of Were. There is no precedence. I take his actions toward you for confusion during the upheaval of his change in combination with your proximity...” “You're saying... what? That he got bowled over by his emotions, went on sensory overload and momentarily forgot I was his wife?” Julia asked, her voice raised. Marcus flinched but gave a satisfied look toward Julia, thinking not for the first time, how very astute she was for having only lived twenty years. “That's exactly what I am saying.” Julia leaned back in shock. Could it be possible? That Jason was not acting rationally but instead, his wolf and human sides had jumbled at exactly the wrong time and in that sideways moment he'd acted without true thought? It shed light on the event in a whole new perspective. Now what was she going to do? Legally she was married to Jason. Hell, she sure had been married to him in her heart. Things had changed though. He was no longer human but a Were, she had ten protectors in place because she was some kind of royalty for the Singers. Topping that off was a whacko visiting leader who blew poisoned snow at her in dreams and was the biological mother of a possible soulmate that had anger management issues. Julia was screwed six ways to Sunday. She furiously thought about all of it. Finally, she asked Marcus the biggest question that begged an answer, “What can save me from this mess?” Marcus smiled, pleased again by her intellect. She would make a fine leader. If they could get her through to the other side of the Circle of Protection, he thought with a pang of trepidation. “Your blood. It is your blood that holds they key. If we can but protect you a little longer, when you finally Awaken fully... then all hope is not lost.” Julia stared at Marcus, so unlike Scott, but with a similar intensity and said in a low tone, reluctant to voice the obvious, “And if I don't 'Awaken' soon enough?” “Then you are horribly vulnerable until that time.” Wonderful news, Julia realized, feeling a little hopeless. Marcus expounded, “This is why the Combatant stays close. They're protecting you until such time as you Awaken. And I will say this: the vampire and Jason, who is now more Were than any other thing, human or Singer, will come. It is compulsion. You carry their blood and as supernatural beings, that is what binds.” Julia sighed. “The Blood sings and calls to all that carry its counterpart. They will come and we shall be ready.” You hope, Julia thought, leaving the room with more questions than answers. Story of her life. CHAPTER 19 Truman Truman flipped his notepad closed. He left the small convenience store in a subdivision of greater Gig Harbor. The bell tinkled over his head as he exited, the sign missing a T as it swung in the slight breeze above his head. It should have read Arletta Stop & GO! Instead, it read, Arleta Stop & GO! The exclamation mark was a mere suggestion after sixty years of weather and sun. Karl took a look around, finally heading to the spot where he thought there'd be some People of Interest. Or in the case of his perps: werewolves. He leaned hard on the checker, the granddaughter of the people that had owned the convenience store when it was a wide spot in the road. In fact, her family had homesteaded the area back at the turn of the last century, when a felled Douglas Fir could trim a whole house. The conversation had been an interesting one. Karl had the feeling like the hard-miler broad had been waiting for the other shoe to fall and when Truman walked in, it did. At first she put up the typical fight of feigning ignorance but Truman's nose had caught the scent and he was a literal bloodhound. Irene had told him that there was a religious sect that lived in the center of a hundred mile forested patch of land. Religious his ass. They were religious all right, religious about hiding, he figured. Truman remembered what she hadn't said, and how that had sharpened his speculations to a razor's edge. “They don't bother nobody,” her shadowed eyes landed on Truman's significantly. “And nobody bothers them, leastways locals,” she said in a true smoker's grate. Truman was almost jealous as the smoke from her cig curled to tease him, the cloud of gray between them like a lover's caress. God he missed smoking. She had given him a subtle warning to get lost but he wasn't going to bite. He was made of sterner stuff. Irene took a long, hollow-cheeked drag of her menthol and with a practiced flick, landed the one inch ash in the glass ashtray with uncanny precision. Truman noticed the ashtray had a special molded pouch for a matchbook. Old-fashioned. “You got official business with 'em?” she asked, blowing a puff into the air where it joined the general fog of smoke from a thousand other smokes, the ceiling gone from true white to a dim gray. Karl watched the smoke lift and filter along the ceiling, transfixed. He came back to himself with a start. “Yeah, I do. There's a missing girl and we have reason to believe....” “Say no more.” She paused, holding her cig like a joint and took that last, lung-singeing draw before stabbing it out in her ashtray in a vicious crush of ember and tobacco. “Just don't sing about me. 'Cuz I'll be the one that pays, not y'all.” Truman frowned. “I don't think you have to worry about retribution from my official police visit ma'am.” Irene looked at him for a moment, weighing his words carefully while lighting another cigarette with her trusty Bic. “Yeah, I gotta worry. I live here. My family's always lived here. We'll live here after you stir up that hornet's nest and they need somebody to sting. Who do ya think that'll be? Eh?” Truman's excitement over the bone being found gathered a sense of unease at the edges. He'd take all the heat that could be dished but he didn't want to share the entree of danger with innocents. He stared at a bedraggled Irene, rode hard and put away wet, long miles and time etched on her face like an unfortunate roadmap of land-locked isolation in a community that harbored danger. “Don't worry ma'am, the trail won't lead back to you. I give you my word.” Karl Truman remembered her words with a ringing clarity now, they'd wormed into the fabric of his memories perfectly. “It could be more than your vow, officer. Much more.” Irene had not said those words in a thoughtful way. She'd uttered them like a certain promise. Karl shook his misgivings away like a wet dog sloughing water and jammed his key into the ignition, belting up. He drove toward the vague directions Irene had given him, his mind's eye conjuring that waffling cigarette smoke like a prop in the telling. He drove. When Truman reached the long dirt road that wound to nowhere, he parked. Popping the trunk, he dumped his cop shoes for Xtra Tuffs. That'd do anywhere in a pinch. If the terrain had mud, muck or snow, bring it... he was prepared. The wolves who watched his methodical progress were as well. The forward sentry racing to the den. Alerting the pack to the stranger who smelled. Scenting the trouble his presence signified on the wind. * Southeastern Kiss There were no vampires of strong enough Singer blood to Shift. Even if there were sufficient blood quantum to be had, it did not guarantee that knack for shifting that William was lucky enough to possess. Yet, there was one vampire who approached that had enough Singer's blood to offer something else of use. Merlin's former second-in-command, Mason, moved through the silent folds of the forest as a panther, his eyes reflective in the darkness. William turned slightly as he neared and caught the subtle flash of white fangs as he smiled and then it was gone. He was a huge male, as many of Singer blood were bound to be. Mason inclined his head and William answered his unspoken question. “It is done. The female Singer will lure Julia to our preordained meeting point.” Mason appeared thoughtful, his shock of carrot hair blazing even in the night that had fallen around them. “This is our sacred prophesy playing out before us my brother.” William just nodded. The next few hours would seal the fate of all supernaturals. “I can scent the dogs,” Mason said almost offhandedly. William could not, he would need to be in raven form and then he could scent and sight them with ease. How he wished his sight matched that of his other form. Mason was extremely fortunate to have the dual ability that some Singers possessed. He had the Tracking ability, smelling everything for miles. It had been instrumental in William's capture. However, in the end, it was William's sharp intellect which had saved him from the tender mercies of the Southeastern Kiss. Which was now his. William was linked to every vampire who had blood-share with that kiss, the blood of their leader beating within his body, the control of the kiss was now William's by default, by usurpation via the death of their former leader. “How far?” William asked softly. “They approach from the south.” Mason lifted his nose, a pale beacon in the air, his nostrils flaring once then responded, “perhaps ten miles...” he inhaled deeply, bringing air with a coaxing gesture of his hand to his nose, “and they slow.” William nodded, his battle strategy, employed throughout the centuries were assisting his speculations handily. The Were would erect a camp then wait. Timing was crucial. Perhaps there be one in charge of the dogs who was a worthy opponent. Or worse, one with all that violent passion the wolves possessed but driven by strategy, in sync with himself. It was unlikely but William could not dismiss the potential. After all, they were after the Rare One as he was. The Packmaster would have selected those he trusted with such an errand. William opened himself to that faint pulse that marked where Julia was, and even underneath the call of her blood to his, William could feel the tenor of her emotions. What he found troubled him. The fragility of Julia was wound in a knot of anxiety. Almost as if... she waited for something. A bloated portent. Could she be closer to fully Awakening than even he knew? * Julia Julia had her knees tucked underneath her chin, her fingers tracing errant patterns in the pebbles that bordered the lake, the swans long-gone, no water creature in sight, a light breeze disturbing the surface slightly. She had one arm wrapped around the bend of her knees, her mood pensive. She could feel the Combatant at her back, actually Julia could feel their presence like a wall of solid, unreadable blank spots in her head. Where there was the incessant whispering of voices, dulled slightly by Paul there were holes of silence in that vast space. It was where the Combatant dwelt. Her protectors were blanks in her telepathy. Julia thought she should be thankful, instead, she found it vaguely disturbing. Julia picked up a pebble and spun it into the water. Then she pinged three with her mind, smacking them into each other like stone pellets, where they crashed into the surface, shattering the stillness in different directions. It made a mess of the water. It was a reflection of how she felt. She found her mind incessantly circling Marcus' words from before. That Jacqueline was not a threat, that all prophetic dreams were not to be taken as a literal translation. Well, he hadn't been there and it seemed as though Jacqueline was the catalyst for the dream. Yet, logically it couldn't be her that was a problem. Hell, Jacqueline's advisor was a Combatant. Of course, his mind couldn't be read but his actions could. Like now. Julia felt him at her back and that warmth began where he stood, the wall of heat that perfectly fit his body shape pushing her from behind, enveloping her, like a slow burning ember. “Julia,” he said. “Yes, Victor?” she answered, rising. “You knew it was I?” She faced him, nodding. Julia looked up at Victor. It was a stretch, like all the Combatant, they were giants, a foot or more taller than herself. It was his eyes that took Julia back. Seeing him in the nighttime did not do them justice. She'd thought them a dark color, as Scott's were, like black velvet, as his natural mother's were. But no, they were a deep shade of blue, like midnight kissed with navy. His hair was a glossy sand color, wishing to be blond but having that warm hue that comes from brunette. Julia realized she'd been staring and blushed. He had the same effect on her that Scott did. That sobered her. The soulmate crap. Just thinking about it chased away those soft warm feelings of connection that apparently were part and parcel to her lovely lineage. Blood born ties. Victor moved to touch her and she stepped back and his hands dropped by his sides, his clothes were perfection and it suddenly reminded her of Cyn. She was like his fashion slave twin and it made Julia giggle in the middle of the situation and she laughed harder. Victor looked at her like she'd lost her mind. “What is so funny?” Julia held her side, helpless at the ridiculous thought, the sharp eyes of the Combatant drilling her. Julia ignored them. Finally, she was able to calm down enough to respond, “My friend Cyn...” “Whom?” Victor asked. “Oh yeah... Cynthia Adams. We just,” Julia gulped her emotion like a bitter pill, “called her Cyn like a nickname.” “She does have a proper name then,” Victor said, the ghost of a smile on his lips, giving Julia a jab of subtle humor which pleased her. She'd thought he was as humorless as his leader. Humorless people needed to go, Julia thought randomly. “Yes.” Julia smiled then explained further, “She was very... concerned about fashion,” she finished as diplomatically as possible. “And how is that humorous?” Victor pressed. “'Cuz you're a poster boy for fashion,” Michael interrupted them and Julia took another step away from Victor, who frowned at the added distance, turning his displeasure on the other man. “You tread where even angels fear, my friend.” Michael cocked a fair brow, and made like he had two wings on either side of his body and flapped them in a highly annoying parody of the heavenly beings. “Yeah? I'm not much of a poetry fan, pal.” Julia muffled a low groan. “Yes, I gathered that by your general lack of manners,” Victor said, his body going suddenly still. Uh-oh, Julia thought, watching Michael get That Look. The same look all his brothers got and Scott had in spades when their Jimmies were good and rustled. “Let's take a chill pill fellas, we don't need any testosterone surge here with the world showing up for fun soon.” They looked at her and she nodded. “Marcus told me what the deal was. And I, for one... don't want inner sanctum squabbles.” “Nothing would prevent or distract the Combatant from protecting the Queen,” Victor said by rote. “Ha!” Michael snorted in dismissal. Wonderful, Julia thought, sensing the wounded male pride that would need to be assuaged. The rest of the Combatant came trooping up and Julia's heart sank. Michael grinned like the Cheshire cat and gave them a come hither look. Julia knew what he would do before Scott yelled out a warning. It was his wink that told the story for Julia. Suddenly the Combatant were neck deep in stinking piles of manure and Julia was in hysterics, Scott's face an unbecoming purple color. She had always had trouble with the need to laugh at inappropriate times and this was no exception. “Hey guys!” Michael said as he ran at Julia. “I think she'll be okay while you guys brew in a pile of shit for thirty seconds.” “Oh Michael... that is so wrong on about fifty different levels,” Julia barely got out, the laughter giving her an unladylike case of hiccups that wouldn't quit. “Lighten up guys, that's what queenie here needs. You're all brimstone and fire and she needs a break from your meathead asses.” This is bad, Julia thought, seeing the Combatant's faces, Scott and Victor seemed especially pissed. Michael grabbed Julia's hand and dragged her up the small hill and away from some very angry protectors as they struggled to get out of the mess he'd put them in. “She isn't safe,” Scott bellowed from his pile of excrement. Julia covered her mouth to stifle her laughter. “Thirty seconds?” she asked, horrified. Michael flushed a deep red and Julia cocked a brow. “It might be a tad longer,” he said with mock innocence with his thumb and forefinger a hairsbreadth apart to show how much longer. Julia stopped and looked up at him. “How long?” “I got a boost from Paul.” Well shit, Julia thought. “He's a Negator but his secondary is Amplifier.” Julia's hand dropped as laughter burst and she would have replied but Jacqueline walked out and saw the two of them. It corked their humor as effectively as having their tongues cut from their mouths. “I'll let ya go,” Michael said, winking. “Thanks,” Julia said in a droll way, loving him abandoning her for Jacqueline's presence. Loving it. She turned to Jacqueline and hoped she didn't see the Combatant's stinking temporary prison and missed her minute stroking of something in her pocket. “Walk with me, my Queen,” Jacqueline said. Tendrils of unease that had swirled before wrapped Julia instantly and her disquiet swelled and overflowed, hinting at terror, the dream's portentous warning ringing a dismal alarm. It made Jason of the Were stifle a howl, his hackles standing up at bristled attention not far from where Julia stood with her enemy beside her. From the opposite direction William burst from the protective cover the leaves had provided him from the sunlight that still rode above the canopy of the forest. His mouth opened and he hissed involuntarily; his mind set on Julia. She was in danger, his blood hummed with it. It was not from the source he would have surmised it would be. Mason met his eyes and whispered the word to William, twilight was hours away from their rescue of her. Betrayal, he spoke decisively. It was not the wolves that would threaten the woman he needed, the woman he'd vowed to protect, to love. It was a viper in their midst. A Singer of royal constitution and mental instability. In the sure grips of power hunger. In the case of this one: starvation. Frustration sunk its talons into William, his fangs and claws simultaneously punching out of their flesh houses, readying him for protecting something so vulnerable, so precious... and so far away. He hit the ground with his fists, the tremor like a small quake, rousing the small creatures of the forest to flee. Alerting the Were of his anger in a primitive pop of smell and sound. The vampire of the Southeastern Kiss broke from their slumber to assemble, awoken from their light sleep by the tightrope sprung by the emotions of their new leader. Jason growled, feeling the turmoil of the enemy, the reason for it was even more damning. Julia was in danger. This time, it would not be from him. Jason would use what he had become to save her. Then they would be together again. It was meant to be. CHAPTER 20 Truman Karl Truman had walked a solid mile in, the pathway narrowing in a way that screamed that he was lost, his eyes telling him to go back to the car even as his nose spurred him on. Hell, his nose was in a constant state of tremor, forget twitching. That was long past, in favor of a small earthquake of potential discovery. When he reached the jagged boulders, a light sweat covered him. His chest rose and fell like it used to when hiking was fun and not a chore, Karl saw the symbol and his nose grew still. He'd found the metaphorical bone. Chiseled into an outcropping of large stones, a sandy apricot in color, washed by countless eons of rain an inscription read: Lobo de Luna. It was absent of color, if Truman hadn't been looking, he would have missed it. Around the words were the faintest marks, almost tribal in their look, Celtic. He traced a finger over the deep etching. A light buzz traveled up his arm, shooting to his armpit and a bursting heat radiated from the contact. He jerked his hand back like it had been scorched. Truman didn't even flinch when a low growl sounded, unsurprised. He turned slowly and curled his fists in a defensive posture that was as automatic as breathing. They might take him, but he wouldn't be the easiest human they'd ever found. However, it was not what he thought it would be, the next words the strangest of his life. “Welcome home, wolf,” the Packmaster of the Northwestern Pack said in a growl as his humanity left him in a sliding melt of flesh as fur flowed over his body like a match to flame. When the werewolf sunk its teeth like small daggers into Truman's shoulder he didn't even feel it, the numbness descended over him instantly. He felt the bite of the wolf as some would have felt the sting of the black widow. Silent, poisonous. Final. And in the case of Truman, welcome. When the half-breed lost consciousness Lawrence released him and the worn human fell to his side, blood flowing freely and dampening the cool moss of the forest floor underneath where he lay. Lawrence's Change reversed itself seamlessly and his human form reasserted itself, the moon full in one day hence. He turned to his front sentry with a smile. “The plot thickens, Ford.” The FBI agent, or the man that Truman had met, gave a nod of deference to his pack leader. “It does.” “You did well.” “You mean, Packmaster, that my nose did.” Lawrence laughed. “Yes, you are right. However, it was you that scouted him as more than just police.” Ford shrugged, his bulging form no longer hidden by a suit not made for the human form a werewolf held. “It was the way he asked questions of the Southeastern first, the way he dug,” he gave a low chuckle of grudging admiration. “It will be interesting to see what line he manifests,” Lawrence said thoughtfully, palming his chin. Only an Alpha could bring a human to wolf. Impossible if that human did not possess the blood of a Were. Which this human did. He had nearly been too old to turn, having seen almost a half century of the moon's phases. Ford seemed to read his leader's mind. “It was a near thing. His age.” Lawrence nodded, watching the blood slow and begin to congeal against the torn flesh of his upper shoulder, the cop's body twitching as the blood of the Were awoke to the summons his bite had began. Both Were looked to the heavens, a sliver of the sky clearly visible as darkness crept in. The moon would be nearly full this night. Karl Truman would Become. His nose had found more than a clue for him as a police officer, but the call of his brethren. Enough blood to scent the den of wolves where he belonged. Though he did yet know it, Karl Truman's body convulsed in a change from human to wolf. Brought on by circumstance, engineered by fate. * Julia Julia kept a careful distance between herself and Jacqueline, the leader of their sister Region, true mother to a contender for a royal pairing and walked. Julia understood politics, just enough to know she wasn't a fangirl. Really? She was completely the antithesis of who they should be grooming for the role Julia now found herself in. Jacqueline laced slim fingers behind herself as she walked slightly ahead and to the right of Julia. The silence was awkward and thick and Julia allowed its discomfort to roll out between them. Julia was not bothered in the least. She had enough to worry about with all that was here, with all that was coming. This leader's apparent pettiness was small enough to be easily dismissed. Again Julia thought of Cyn and felt a small smile curl on her lips. It was truly wonderful to think about Cyn with happiness instead of that abiding loss. Sometimes, the memories of what had been were powerful enough to affirm a person in the present. Sometimes. “I am royal as well,” Jacqueline said by way of breaking the ice. “I know,” Julia replied levelly. “Then you must understand how much it would benefit the thirteen Regions that someone who possesses both royal blood and the wisdom of centuries behind them... should also lead here, with the Combatant as guard.” She cocked an inky black eyebrow at Julia and she was struck by the same sardonic expression that Scott had used on her. Julia struggled not to superimpose the two people for a moment. The vertigo shattered as Julia righted the two in her mind with an effort. Scott didn't even like his real mom. She'd basically been bred to Marcus to produce a potential Combatant. “That really works for me Jacqueline,” Julia said and watched her carefully made up face contort in an expression of surprise. Julia knew that people with evil intent assumed the same mindset as their own with others. It was comical: Jacqueline thought that Julia must want the position of power as much as she. Of course, Jacqueline was dead wrong. “I don't want to be queen of anything. I don't want to be in some genetic-induced spell of 'love',” Julia said, dropping her fingers from airquotes before adding, “There's just one problem.” Jacqueline's brows rose in her imperious face. “And what might that be?” As if Julia could not have an independent or creative thought unless it came from Jacqueline. Surprise, surprise, Julia thought with her usual sarcasm. “How are you going to be the queen if your own son is a Combatant?” Julia was thinking that incest angle was out. Right? Sort of a no-brainer, Julia reasoned. Jacqueline gave her a glare that spoke to how stupid she presumed Julia to be, “Don't be silly. The blood is sovereign. Any of the Combatant that are not blood-related would be a contender for me as King.” “Then there should be no deliberation. Why do I have to be Queen if you're so hot for the job?” Jacqueline smiled. “Because it is not about choice my dear.” “What is it then?” Julia asked, exasperated by her beating around the bush. “Death,” Jacqueline said, capturing Julia's gaze, their eyes meeting in a tangle of misunderstanding, objectives and purpose. Time stilled, suspended. Then Julia asked, knowing she shouldn't, “Whose?” “Yours,” Jacqueline said, throwing her hand out of the pocket gracefully, her fingers splaying in a perfect card toss. Julia gasped and felt the powder enter her lungs like frozen ice and slipped into a paralysis, falling like a statute, the agony of not being able to brace her fall as the ground gave her body the hardest kiss of her life, knocking the wind out of her. Jacqueline bent down next to her ear, the lips of her mouth a kiss of heat against Julia's skin. “No one can protect you from this. You will awaken too late... my Queen,” she said, the title uttered as a mockery. Julia lay there on the ground, her eyes the only part of her body that could move, the numbing paralysis of whatever Jacqueline had thrown at her slowly hardening every part of her body. However, Julia had been taught the tools of survival through hard life experience and she used that now, shrieking in her mind to any that could hear her mental alert. The one thought that she had was that however much she hadn't wanted to fulfill her role as leader, the demented Jacqueline could not be allowed as a replacement. Then, as Julia's breathing slowed inside the confines of her body Jacqueline whispered something that would damn Julia forever, the memories of what had transpired so long ago, forever changed. “Soon you will meet your parents. Where you should have gone from the beginning. You know what they say about the best laid plans...” she cackled and with a tender finger she stroked Julia's cheek, giving it a painful pinch before she walked away with a pleased sway to her stride. Abandoning Julia on the forest floor. Vulnerable to all that would seek her. They did. As she lay there, the Northwestern Pack and Southeastern Kiss closed in on her position. * Jen Jen crammed her hands against her head when she heard the mental directive. The time has come, Singer, William thought at her. Jen walked out of the door, dropping what she'd been working on. Her consciousness fought his command robotically, even as she used her minor telepathic skills to locate Julia. She was not powerful like a true Locator would be but she knew Julia's signature and found her easily enough. Jen was greeted by the still and snow white form of Julia. Her lips a pale red, her skin like polished ivory where golden hair laid around her like spilled honey. As Jen approached she saw glittering tears falling out of eyes that swam with golden fire. With resolve. Julia was dying. Jen felt something inside her give, tearing inside her brain and the thrall was released in an explosive rip that brought her to her knees. She didn't even bother to get closer to Julia. She ran for safety: Julia's. Jen sprinted for the Combatant. * darkness falls William burst the trap of the earth as twilight gave way to darkness and the internal grip he had on the Singer broke from the hysteria she succumbed to upon discovering Julia. Even now the song of her blood grew weak and William raced toward her location. He did not feel the pain as he Changed in the middle of his bid to get to her. The call of her blood drove his actions in an automatic response he was incapable of ignoring or resisting. He came to her. Wait for me, he intoned, hoping she would be cognitive enough to catch it. * Julia Oxygen flowed into Julia, the heavy hand of weight that'd been on her chest like an hippo had landed was momentarily lifted and she gulped in life-saving air just as in her periphery, like a dream become real, Cyn appeared. Julia blinked. Surely her addled brain played tricks on her? The substance spun like a deadly web for Julia to breathe her last, muddling her thoughts. Her vision. Julia's purpose was growing dim. The Were burst out from their position as Jen ran for the Combatant and Jason let Cyn down from the cage-like hold he'd had her in to get them to Julia. Not a damn moment too early, Jason saw. Marcus came from the other direction and they circled Julia, the Combatant on one side and the Were on the other. When a huge raven, concealed by cover of night flew overhead no one looked up. No one ever does. However, Julia saw the wings above her as she lay on her back and her breathing improved as he neared. It was William. She was suffocating a moment before and now she breathed as Cyn screamed her name. It was the dream, yet not. * Cyn Cynthia saw the dearest friend she'd ever known laying in front of her- found. She ran from Jason and the Were that had taken her, dismissing the group of people who stood on the opposite side of where Julia lay and slid as she got close to Julia, wrecking her pants forever, Jules' fugly boots giving her added traction as they clung and released the unevenness of the forest bed. “Jules,” Cynthia said, eyeing the pale face and bright gold eyes, so like a cat's and she cried tears of relief, lifting a cold and limp hand in hers. What the fuck was wrong with her? Cynthia squeaked. Had she found Jules only to lose her? There was no way in hell, Cynthia decided easily. Cynthia looked away from Jules and searched the crowd of weirdos, her gaze finally locking on Jason. “Well what are you dipshits waiting for? The second coming? Get over here and Fix. My. Friend!” Cynthia yelled at them, her eyes shooting daggers. “I like her,” Michael said and Scott took a swing at him. “You stupid asshole,” Scott seethed as he strode out of the line of Combatants, “It's because of you that she's like this.” Michael looked up from where he'd landed on his ass and shook his head. “Nah, you guys needed to sing in your own shit. Besides, I think it was Mommie Dearest that rode this thing home. Right, Victor?” Victor gave a look of contained terror as the eyes of the nine other Combatant landed on his. “Where is Jacqueline?” Marcus asked quietly, keeping the small but lethal group of Were in his sights. “I am here,” Jacqueline said in a ringing voice, filled with her own self-importance. Julia gave a low moan and Cynthia heard it. They stared at each other for a moment and Cynthia frowned, a low hum starting near her sternum. As if under a compulsion she did not understand Cynthia got closer to Jules and took both her hands. Heat poured out of her as soon as she made contact with more than just a handshake, both her hands gripped around Julia's. William landed near the women, giving a single caw that could be felt in the chests of all that stood. Calling the other vampire like a dinner bell. Jason felt his skin slip and his wolf burst free when the raven landed a few feet from Cyn and Jules. He ripped forward, his claws digging into the earth and spitting dirt as he ran for the women, a bird the size of a small pony edging closer. When its crimson eyes glanced at Jason, he knew. This was the vampire. He ran faster. The raven reached Julia and laid a wing against her head as the wolf pulled her limp body against his. The three pressed the Queen against their bodies. The goal of the trio identical, called by blood, by friendship. By love. Jacqueline was the first to realize what it meant and that her plan had backfired miserably. That destiny could not be denied. That it would reassert itself despite the efforts of the vigilant. The greedy. With a last effort at subterfuge she screamed, aiming ruthlessly at the Combatant, “They're killing her!” As Scott reached forward to wrest the raven away, the wings melted into arms and he got a handful of air. Cynthia Awakened instantly, forcefully; the Queen's blood igniting hers in a panicked wildfire like tumbleweeds used as kindling. Cynthia gasped and didn't question the unspoken request of her body. She knew what she was. Cynthia knew what she must do. She squeezed Jules' hands tighter. CHAPTER 21 healer Cynthia felt everyone melt away as tingling heat filled her body and poured out in a perfect channel of electric fire that surged from her hands to Jules'. Jules was siphoning her energy as fast as Cynthia could make it and she watched it bow her back, Julia's long golden hair illuminated from an internal light that shone as the two women were locked together in a harmony of healing. Marcus approached, then with a look behind him at the Combatant two stepped forward and captured Jacqueline's spindly arms. “Let me go!” she screeched. “No,” one of the warriors growled next to her ear, his massive hand encircling the entirety of her upper arm. Marcus gave a low grunt of satisfaction and the next words on his lips were, “By blood they shall save the Queen. By will they shall free her. One of blooded fang and wing, claw, and the hands of Healing: so shall she be freed.” William glanced sharply at the Singer Elder and then looked down at Julia. Finally, his eyes met those of the wolf's, the green orbs held emotion they should not have possessed. Deliberation not found in nature but in humanity. Julia's husband by human laws cradled her head and making the hardest decision of his life he lowered his snout to her shoulder as William's fangs elongated in readiness. They struck simultaneously: the Were and vampire taking what had been given in error, the Healer neutralizing the damage as it was laid. When the Combatant whose blood was called strongest laid his hands on the Queen of Singers, light burst from the huddle of supernaturals, casting a brightness like the sun that none could look upon. Every being save one threw an arm over their eyes against the glare. Julia's Awakening culminated in that moment: healed, freed from her blood-binding as she became fully Singer and Queen in a rushing torrent of magic and power, bringing every nearby living creature to their knees. Jacqueline had easily escaped with the distraction of the three and was well out of range by that time and sought cover. She was unaffected by the supernatural phenomena that was foretold hundreds of years earlier in the sacred book of the Singer, just out of range. She had tried to circumvent prophesy and failed. * Queen The Circle of the Combatant closed in an ear-shattering pop of power and light, the Singer warriors immediately coming to stand near Julia. Jason, William and Cynthia fell away and a huge hand opened next to Julia. She looked at it and smiled, sliding her small hand into his large one and stood. Her Awakening had brought Julia full circle, her role clear. And with whom she would share it. The fissure that had started in Jason's heart opened wider, a chasm causing it to break as Julia stepped into the circle of another man's arms. William stood as Julia's true mate took possession of her, dwarfing her by his size, his manner staking a claim that no words could have done. He gnashed his fangs as they retracted and the sounds of Jason's howl reverberated in the ears of the gathered. Cynthia wiped the chilling sweat off her brow and gazed at the couple in the moonlight, perfectly compelling in their rightness together, one dark, one golden and a tear slid down her cheek as she watched Jules slip away into parts unknown. Had she come all this distance only to lose the best friend she'd ever had? Scott held Julia's jaw like a fragile egg and saw the acceptance he'd been wishing for there in her eyes. He lowered his head to hers, their lips brushing softly in a kiss so chaste it was air and skin. When Scott lifted his head, his gaze was met by the three groups and he knew what must be done. He spoke and Were, Vampire and Singer lent an ear. * Were Alan ran with the Northwestern Pack seamlessly, a rare red moving amongst them. He was familiar with Karl Truman. Before his Change. Alan Greene moved alongside the former policeman like brethren, his half-human/wolf form lengthening in graceful strides. The same lineage as the Feral who had been captured two years prior in a botched Alaskan acquisition. It had been pivotal in starting the whole miserable ball rolling that they now found themselves steeped in. Alan had known he'd make an excellent wolf. Unfortunately, he was Alpha, as was the case with many Reds. Alan kept his pleasure tightly veiled from Lawrence and Ford, who had received disturbing communique of a possible treaty of sorts with Region One of the Singers. They would acquire Julia Caldwell before the vamps did. Before the Singers put the whole Region in lockdown. Lawrence had bemoaned the news. A treaty was not the way of the Were. War was. The group tore toward the Singer Compound, pouring on speed, the wind a taste of flavors on their tongues. Alan's thoughts briefly touched on the Alpha from the pack they had aligned themselves with and hoped that there was a way to end him. Lacey would always need Alan's protection until such time that an Alpha male could capture her trust. If that could ever happen, he thought, his sister was broken. Yes, Alan determined, he would use cover of the Singer uprising as a perfect camouflage for the demise of the one that had thought to injure a female Were. That Anthony Laurent had risen as high as Beta in the pack reflected poorly on the Northwestern Den. The fool. Alan had simply been biding his time until everything came together in a perfect position to play his hand. Like now. * Northwestern Kiss Gabriel raised his head from the sentries who'd whispered the disturbing news. Dual and deadly. William had been subjected to the most severe torture that Merlin could dispatch, Gabriel's worse fear. He'd meant to waylay him, delay the acquisition of the volatile Rare One. Gabriel could not afford the losses she'd inadvertently brought on his head. The top of his kiss to the bottom, flooded with loss and death because of her presence. Julia Caldwell had not strengthened the position of his kiss as he had hoped but left it weakened. What was even more disturbing was the news of Merlin's death. From the account of his spies, buried deeply within Southeastern's ranks, his guts had been found in a twine about his neck. He had slowly suffocated on his own entrails. His blood level nonexistent. Gabriel paced, his tall body stiffly moving within the cavern-like confines of his gigantic meeting area that was more than living quarters but much like a small house. Because of his Rare One status, no form of sunlight bothered him and his vampiric powers without the need for blood were always at his disposal. That is why Gabriel stood bathed in natural light as the one hundred year old skylights of muted violet glass cast circular shadows on the cobblestone ground beneath his feet. That is where Claire found him when she entered without knocking. She strode to him, arresting his stride as if she called out to him and slapped his face with a ringing that bounced against the walls and back at them in an echo. “You heathen!” Claire yelled, a light layer of spittle beaded on her parted lips, her passion unrestrained. Gabriel grabbed her wrists and held them with a brutal clamp that was instantly painful and she gasped. Then he took her by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake, yelling into her upturned face, “It was not my intent for William to be injured! It was Merlin that broke the bounds of our gentleman's promise, Claire!” His fair complexion instantly gave way to ruddy color, his eyes searching hers intently for understanding. “Yet he suffers! And what of Julia?” she asked, glaring as he released her shoulders and she rubbed her wrists where he'd held them, trying to take away the pain he'd laid there. Gabriel gave her his back. “She is a liability. Let another kiss deal with what she brings.” “You disgust me. It is the vampire that needed discipline in their actions against the Rare One. It was not for William to take on as an individual crusade with not one vampire at his back. Now he is amongst enemies yet again... faced with a Rare One who may...” “He is now the leader of the Southeastern Kiss.” A deep hush fell over the room that lasted minutes. “Oh no,” Claire said sadly. “Yes,” Gabriel said in a low voice. “William will seek retribution against this kiss.” “He will be within his rights to do so.” “If he is in command of Julia, then we will never... we will not have a chance.” He turned, his face in profile and Claire watched him, waiting with her breath held within a breastbone grown frozen with anxiety and cold knowledge. “You are quite right. We need to be ready, as a kiss. For he will come.” “Maybe he can forgive us. Forgive you?” Claire asked hopefully. “I would not,” Gabriel said with finality. Claire hung her head. It was worse than she feared. * Tony Tony felt like the time was nearly perfect and grabbed Cynthia as she stood despondently, watching her best friend become united with another Singer. Tony was nothing if not the most opportunistic of his kind and recognized right away that the Rare One was out of reach. Combining his natural inclination to stealth with his lack of morality he gave a blow to the Singer, who had the handy ability of Healer he'd noted. It caused her to slump bonelessly. His fellow Were and the rest of the contingent were held as a captive audience by the Rare One and the male Singer. He caught her neatly and placed her limp form behind a tree. Tony smiled with satisfaction at the pussy Feral who was all sissified over the bitch that had chosen another. Tony knew how he'd handle that. Yesiree. Easy as pie. Death to challengers. He figured Jason Caldwell was a slow learner. Or maybe he simply was not wolf enough to do what needed doin'. That was great for Tony, while Jason was distracted, there was no one that was keeping an eye on his activities. Adi turned, that phantom instinct that someone was behind her just a second too late as she'd slid to human form, her wolf quiet inside her body. Tony did not, keeping his half-formed shape for just the advantage he laid against her in that moment. She gave the softest growl as his elongated paw struck her. Adi went down, the blow making her vision gray and her last glance giving her the knowledge of her dismal future. And that of Cynthia Adams. Slaves of a Were of ruthless intent. Adrianna watched as her vision diminished to a pinhole and Tony scooped up an unconscious Cyn. Then he came for her. She could see Tony smile in the moonlight as he did. Then her consciousness turned like the night. Black. * Jason and William looked at each other, stepping away from the glowing couple as Scott spoke. His wolf clawed to take action, nearly tearing out of his now-human form. It screamed that his female was being marked by another. Yet he stood there. Because his Julia was no longer his. As Jason listened his anger did not melt, his vehement need to consummate their barely-there marriage didn't diminish. His clarity deepened. “As many of you may be aware, what has transpired here was foretold inside the Book of Blood...” Scott began, Julia tucked underneath his arm, his heartbeat in sync with her own. When Marcus broke in Scott allowed it gratefully, formality had never come easily to him. He wanted nothing more than to take his new mate and get to know her. Scott smiled at his thoughts. Julia thought at him, I hear that! Oh crap, Scott heard himself think. Yeah, that, Julia thought back. Scott locked down his emotions, thoughts. He knew how, he was classically trained for all that. Julia wasn't and he got a tongue-lashing while his father went on. Scott realized he probably deserved it. Marcus ignored the obvious internal conversation between the newly soulmated couple and turned to the crowd; usually and at all times enemies, frozen for a rare moment in time. Perhaps with some well-chosen words, he could gain their attention and the final prophesy of the Book of Blood would come to fruition. Unity between the species. It had been foretold. Perhaps these three groups would come together and a treaty of sorts could begin. One that would be far-reaching, encompassing all the groups and spreading to the four corners of the earth. Peace had always been Marcus' hope. He spread his palms away from his body in a universal sign of non-aggression. “Julia and Scott have been united in the Old Way. Through blood sacrifice and ritual healing, their union has begun, their path laid. A royal pair will come together upon the Awakening of the Queen and the Circle of the Combatant shall close for the protection of the Queen.” Jason's face closed down. There'd never been a chance. It didn't even matter that he'd been injured, become a werewolf. All that mattered for shit. His wife. His wife for shit's sake. She stood in the arms of her supposed centuries portended soulmate and he had to sit there and take this? Jason's wolf dismissed the words of the Singer leader, his nose scenting the dim relation to the huge male that held Julia. Jason counted three heartbeats before he Changed as he rushed them. No male would steal his female, his wolf howled. Jason was buried in there somewhere... but the wolf had taken over and it didn't understand reason. It only understood dominance. The Combatant were too far away and only Scott was close enough to protect his mate. Unconsummated but his. Given to him by fate. Gifted by destiny. As the husband of Julia came in a ripple of scarlet muscle and fur Scott stepped in front of her. His body was a living shield, while skin and flesh sloughed off during Jason's charge like a snake shedding its skin. Julia saw red water flow over Jason and his humanity left and a raging blur of crimson came for them and she screamed, Scott using that incredible strength and speed that all Singer males possessed to protect her. But Julia knew this time that Jason wasn't after hurting her. She had Awakened and did what being Queen had given her. Julia held her hand out and as if an invisible wind could be harnessed, she deflected Jason's progress seamlessly, veering him off course like a sail boat without a rudder. He rolled and crouched in readiness and Julia said in a low voice, full of command, “Enough.” The moment strangled her in the surreal. Reality slipped as she watched the man she had loved in her life before become something different, something alien. Jason howled his frustration and leapt. Julia was startled, having pulled back her power when he'd fallen. She'd thought it was over, reason and logic reasserting itself. She was so wrong. He wrapped his half-formed hand around her small forearm and jerked, bringing Scott with him, his fist connecting with Jason's snout. Julia in the middle. When her arm broke the scream of pain was torn from her throat like a siren wail and the Combatant moved in. The events that transpired had lasted only seconds. Three held the great red wolf down and a fourth got ready to deliver a blow that would have killed him when Julia said, “Stop,” in a low moan of determination laced with pain. The fist held, raised like a boulder of death above the wolf. They faced each other and Julia gazed into the face of the man who was technically her husband. “Stop hurting me, Jason. Just leave me alone...” she said, the first tears of many leaking out of her eyes. Emmanuel came and took in the scene, keeping enough distance to keep the alert of Singer warriors off him. He knew theirs was a lost cause, the Feral having put the whole of everything in jeopardy. Jason opened his mouth and the fist raised higher, he snapped his jaws back together with a teeth grinding clink. “Get him out of here,” Scott said, then added, “before I kill him myself.” He gathered Julia into his arms, carefully taking her broken arm into both hands. Marcus jogged to the pair and looked into his son's volatile eyes. “You can heal her now, Scott. She is your blooded soulmate. It is but one benefit, use it now.” Scott did, knowing instinctively how to react. He had been raised with the Singer training his entire life and used those lessons that he'd not ever embraced before. He used them now. Gathering Julia close he breathed onto the wounded arm as Jason struggled against Emmanuel, the Combatant releasing him to the Were while keeping a watchful eye on him. “It hurts,” Julia whimpered, her eyes trying to find Jason. Jason saw what he'd accidentally done to Julia and was beyond pissed at himself. It was the sadness he felt when he saw her fear of him that killed his spirit. He stopped struggling as the man that should have been him healed her as she writhed in his grasp, the pain Jason had caused gradually lessening, a healing sleep overtaking her as he watched. Jason breathed easier when he saw color return to her pale cheeks, her eyelashes fluttered closed as she began to breathe easier, a slow deep rhythm began. He couldn't contain the growl as the huge male scooped her up, cradling her against his chest tenderly. Jason watched as he tucked her uninjured arm inside his own so it wouldn't dangle and walked off. As he passed Jason he paused, pegging him with a gaze that measured him and found him wanting. “Don't even try it. Julia is mine now. The sooner you get that, the better off you'll be. 'Cuz there's only one other result, wolf.” “Yeah? Because in my book she's still married to me,” Jason said in a voice filled with certainty, ownership. Scott bristled and the Combatant responded to their new King's emotional signature, stiffening in preparation. For whatever may occur. Scott got nose to nose with Jason, their precious cargo the only barrier between them and Jason got a lungful of Julia's fragrance and his soul cried out as his anger flared to life more strongly than ever. The male in front of him was the ignition to the fire of his emotions as a match was to timber. “Not anymore, pal. Man-up. You're in the supernatural world now. We don't play human. Get. Over. It.” Their eyes locked for a moment more then Scott moved away, the cascade of Julia's golden hair swinging back and forth like a pendulum out of rhythm. Jason smiled. Supernaturals, huh? Well, the Singer had played that all wrong. It was the first rule of male anything. Don't drop your eyes from your opponent. First. Jason had not. And in his new world, that meant he was first. First in battle. First in rights. Julia would be his. Soulmate or not. Jason could play supernatural. Hell yeah he could. CHAPTER 22 William William felt the eyes of his liege on him and smiled. All hope was not lost. Even as he thought it he felt more of the Were approach to add numbers to those that were in attendance at present. His eyes easily found Julia as she was carried off by the male Singer and he gave a telepathic order that was simple: Follow them. And with that, the ten vampire who had belonged to Merlin, slid through the seams of the night, following the one who would change their lives. Bringing sunlight to darkness. A living sun to vampire. Liberty for the Were. Peace for Blood Singers. Julia lay sleeping in the arms of the man that was meant for her as enemies closed in from all sides and dreamed about her future with the one male that truly protected her. Yet, she did not know it. Julia slept in her soulmate's arms and dreamed. Her dreams were not of peace but of war. EPILOGUE Cyn & Adi Cynthia groaned and rolled over, her stomach coming up through her throat in a acidic firehose of whatever she ate last. She emptied the entire thing on the dampened moss that had been her pillow moments before. When her vision cleared she took the time to open her eyes and look around. She went to move and her arms were tethered behind her back, shoulders numb to the wrist. That was an alarm clock that the puking hadn't been. Gawd, Cynthia thought, that freak wolf, the pig of a guy, had cold cocked her and here she was. No Jules, no escape, just his dumb ass as company. Cynthia should have been terrified. Yet, she wasn't, she was done. The long battle to escape, buy freedom and safety and eventually find Jules had been for nothing. Instead, she found herself trussed up like a turkey for Thanksgiving. When her eyes landed on Adrianna a spark of hope ignited. That was beyond awesome, maybe between their smart asses they could figure a way out. Adi had a similar reaction but kept her lunch down with a swallowing effort that was as effective as it was gross. Her dirty blond hair hung in lank strips, her clothes covered with dirt. Cynthia glared when she saw the smaller girl's lips had been cut by Tony's hand. Tony came through the trees and saw the girls rousing from the hurt he'd put on them. There was more where that came from, he thought. Cynthia saw Tony slide through the trees, so comfortable with the surroundings her stomach fell. He was a huge guy, six-three at least, his muscles constituting their own damn zip code. Cynthia didn't have the problems of denial that Jules had. She instinctively used the gift that Jules had given her in return when they'd come together just hours ago. She healed herself. Then before Tony could get to Adi, Cynthia reached out and grasped Adi's ankle with one of her long ass lanky arms. Cynthia had never been so glad about her stature as she reversed the damage that had been vested against Adi. Tony was incensed when the blonde Singer bitch tried to help out a female Were that needed a goddamned attitude adjustment. In fact, he was just the Were to do it. He was no stranger to giving females what they needed to keep them in line. His thoughts touched on that sweet piece of ass he'd had when he was barely out of whelphood. What had her name been? Tony wondered, remembering as he rushed toward the bound women. Oh yeah, Lacey. Tony smiled at the memory, she'd been a fighter, that one. Adi's eyes widened as Tony's fist crashed into her temple and Cynthia, who still held fast to her ankle, puked out blood as the wound disappeared from Adi's head. Cynthia was absorbing the injury as he caused it. Tony couldn't have that. “Heal this, bitch!” Tony said, giving her a brutal punch in the gut as he tore the clothes from Adi's body. She couldn't help it, she Changed, her wolf in a panic to get away from another Were with intent to harm her. It was immediate, instinctual. Desperate. Adi tore the bindings from the tree, shaking the leaves from the branches as they landed like green rain on Tony as he tried to subdue Adi with the age-old trick. Violence. Cynthia could not stand by while this insane dickhead raped Adi. She swung her leg up and in a lucky strike that should have never found purchase, she did. The heel of her sneaker struck him in the temple as he fumbled with his own clothing, not in the least deterred by the half-formed wolf Adi had become. Her talons, small and deadly, sprung from her fingertips and she stabbed him high and deep in his ribs. “Let me go!” Adi said, the sound of her voice like pebbles of stone rubbing together. Cynthia did, the healing touch unable to transfer to Tony. Adi heaved him off and tore Cynthia's bindings. Cynthia took a step back, looking up at a girl that was now standing at just over six foot of light gray muscle and teeth. “Shake it off, Cyn! Let's go... can ya run?” Adi asked her and Cyn stood there in semi-shock. Adi's face scrunched up, her delicate snout rippling with the movement and Cyn burst out laughing as Tony flipped over on his back, groaning. Healing. Adrianna turned, landing a rib-shattering kick on top of the stabbing wound. Tony howled and Adi grabbed Cynthia. “We've go to go, this turd will wake up... and then we're in deep shit!” Adi got down on her hands and knees like a small horse and yelled at Cynthia, “Get on! Hang on to my fur...” This is weird as hell, Cynthia thought, leaping unsteadily onto the back of Adi. The weregirl. Cyn gave a giggle and realized that hysteria was the next step and clamped her damn mouth shut. She had to survive this effing mess. She pressed her face against her friend's neck and Adi leaped, running. Fueled by fear, propelled by the healing energy that Cynthia had fed her. They ran into the deepest part of the woods. As Tony woke he staggered to his feet, whipping his face around. Dammit! He screamed silently, his side a throbbing nightmare. He would need to hunt. Unlike that bitch Singer, he couldn't heal shit without meat. And blood. He would hunt. Then Tony would find those female dogs and cut them down. Using methods unique to him. He smiled as he scented the wind for what would give him energy. * Jacqueline Jacqueline smiled, she'd found a wonderful old homestead, falling apart but with an adequate roof and plopped down onto a dusty mattress that was not to her liking but would do until she was able to procure more suitable accommodations. With a flick of her graceful fingers she began a fire from nothing in the deep masonry fireplace that was centrally located in the cabin, enjoying the heat made by her abilities. Which were many. The Region One Singers had been foolish to dismiss her so readily. After all, she had enough royal blood to be something to reckon with on her very own. If things had gone her way just to the smallest degree, Julia Caldwell would have been unable to Awaken before the killing dust could be laid. She would have expired, as planned, and the Combatant and all of the Regions would have been under her power. Now, Julia was in a cocoon of security laid by blood magic that even Jacqueline, with all her scheming could not undo. However, there might be one little loophole that she could yank that would upset that delicate balance before it was fully realized. If she could but stop the mating of her biological son and Julia, if she could halt the inevitable, then the mating of their souls would not occur, but remain unfinished. They needed to meld body and soul. Jacqueline knew that the consummation of their union had not yet taken place, the soul almost always melded first, then the body followed. There was the slimmest margin of opportunity for usurpation remaining. What to do in the ninth hour when her most trusted advisor was now in the protective grips as a Combatant? Jacqueline tapped her fingers against the dusty metal-like cage that held the mattress. When the crashing of bodies moved through the forest Jacqueline commanded the door of the old cabin to open, the hinges squeaking in violent protest to the slamming of the wood against them. Jacqueline saw the new Singer upon the back of the Were, her pale blond hair a horizontal flag behind her, the color standing out like a beacon against the earthen tones of the forest. She rolled a fallen long in the path of the graceful she-wolf, nothing more than a streak of silver and at the last moment it glanced at Jacqueline, giving her eyes that were somehow like the Queen's, gold fire. Then Adi rolled into a broken heap of pewter fur, landing with a hard thump against a trunk of a old growth fir, its sentinel gaze having seen centuries of creatures, this one no different. Cynthia was held in the protective arms of Adi even as she hit the tree and was flung to the side. She sobbed, crawling over to the wounded Were who had become her friend, her lungs crushed, ribs broken. Cynthia reached out and gave her what she had. And found her energy had dried up. Cynthia snapped her head up, looking around and found dark eyes on her face, a hand straight out and pointed at herself. What bitch was this? Cynthia thought. Jacqueline smiled as she smoothly Deflected the Healer's ability with the she-wolf. It was not only the gift of her beauty that she had given Scott, but his Deflector ability as well. She used the secondary ability now, trying to contain the Healer's raw skill. New and untrained, wild like a river running without a course. Cynthia turned when she heard what approached from behind their position. Tony bounded through the low brush, circumnavigating the fallen trees with ease. Jacqueline saw him come and stopped him with a flick of her hand, her primary ability more powerful than almost all Singers. She used that telekinetic discharge with precision and expertise, arresting his forward motion easily. “Well, well...” Jacqueline said, shifting her gaze from the blonde Singer struggling to heal the grievous injuries Jacqueline had caused to the Were before finally appraising the huge male Were. This was most excellent, Jacqueline thought in excitement. Look at how the pawns on her chessboard had arrived. She was ready to play. The time was now. * Slash Slash broke the spell cast by the Rare One, shaking it off with difficulty. He had a job to do and just because she had Awoken, found her blood... whatever, didn't affect his mission. He was to guard Cynthia Adams. It had been a directive from the First of his Packmaster. Slash didn't get distracted by females. In fact, as unions between packs were not allowed, the one female that he wanted was untouchable anyway. Adrianna could never be his. He had watched her from afar since she was a whelpling, assured of her protection in part because of her brother, Joseph. But now that he'd died (under mysterious circumstances in Slash's opinion) she was vulnerable. Very. An alpha female Were was highly sought after. Fought over. Slash knew that he'd have to suffer as one claimed her. And it wouldn't be him, that was for damn sure. He looked around casually for the Singer, scoping for her, unconsciously looking for the pale hair. It was generally easy if he let his eyes bleed to wolf. Which he did. It would show as the palest grey, almost white to his limited spectrum of colors. A slow panic formed as he saw no hair that came close to that almost platinum color she held. What deepened his disquiet to a true panic was Adi being gone as well. He began to run, dropping his clothes as he went when he noticed the one Were missing that caused his chest to constrict painfully. Anthony Laurent was MIA. That could mean one thing and one thing only. He was making some fucking power play. Like he had once before. With Lacey Greene. Slash gave a low growl as he burst his skin and became fully wolf. No half-wolf for him. He needed the moon to guide him as the night gave way to day. Finding his ward was critical. Finding Adi would ease his heart. If that pervert Were harmed a hair on her coat he'd kill him. Slow, like Slash liked. Torture a familiar pastime to those who deserved it. He came by his nickname honestly. So many thought it was because of his face. Some knew it was his skill. He ran toward the scent of the women, Adi's fear filling his sensitive nostrils, his wolf's spirit cringing in natural response to a female Were in peril. He became a streak of deep chestnut, his coat having a vague red hue as the early dawn speared the forest. A streak of his red lineage calling for vengeance. The Red Wolves were the natural warriors of the Were. It only took a drop or two to tilt the scales in his favor. * Were Lawrence stopped suddenly, a spray of dirt spreading around the claws of his feet, his chest heaving. “What is that?” he growled. Alan lifted his nose. “Singer... Were.” Lawrence shifted his golden gaze to the First of another. “Which Were?” “I don't know,” Alan said back. “One female... ah, maybe two males.” “A female? One of ours?” Lawrence asked, eyebrows gone in his partially turned face, his snout bunching in a look of consternation. Alan nodded once, his snout going in the direction of the former cop. He lifted his snout at him in question and the Red wolf that had been human a few hours before growled then responded, knowing that the three would gang up on him. That was the new order, Truman realized, all reason set aside for kicking each other's asses. Interestingly enough, he was down with that. God knew, he'd had to hold back a temperament that was ill-suited in some respects for leading the life of cop. When these wackjobs had changed him forever he'd felt like he was coming home. Karl Truman also found how much he detested being told what to do. But now a scent filled his nose that he knew. He'd been scenting it for months. “Cynthia Adams is the Singer,” he said in a voice that sounded so deep it was a low roar of gravel to the others. Recognizable but unique. Primitive. Lawrence's wolf eyes became slits. “You know this how?” “Remember, he was after her?” Alan asked. Lawrence gave a sharp bark of acknowledgment. “Alright, so we have the Singer we're after and a female Were and two other males.” Lawrence looked at the other males for confirmation. “Cynthia Adams is there,” Truman said, pointing a muscular arm covered in a light coating of red fur in the direction Alan had just scented. Alan gave a mighty shrug, his coat undulating with the movement. “They are there.” “It must be Adrianna,” Lawrence guessed, an unguarded female Were nearly out of the question in the woods. The two wolves became troubled by the implications. Truman interrupted, begging for reprimand and not giving a tin shit, “So what? What's the big damn deal?” Lawrence was just suddenly there. “My first is unpredictable. A thing of beauty in battle, a problem with... certain circumstances.” Karl Truman's excellent mind spun with thoughts, slowly putting together what the leader had said. Finally, unbelievably, he touched upon it. “Don't tell me that Anthony Laurent is out there, with one of your females?” He stepped closer to the pair of Weres, looking from one to the other. “That Cynthia Adams is near that... goddamned rapist?” Alan flinched and Truman caught it. He growled. Damn, he was loving this wolf thing. Karl felt like a new man. Or whatever the hell he was now. “Slash is guarding Cynthia,” Alan said defensively and Karl laughed. It came out sounding like a harsh cough out of his changed body. “Yeah, this guy's been allowed a long leash... for years,” Karl emphasized, pacing. “I say we euthanize him,” Truman said then gave another sharp barking laugh. “Yeah, I like the sound of that guys,” he said and Lawrence gave a growl of warning. “No Packmaster. I won't keep my yap shut. You chose this criminal as your right hand man. A proven female hater. This mess ultimately falls on your head.” Lawrence wasn't used to having his flaws laid out before him so handily and went for the throat of his newest wolf. It took every bit of strength to subdue this Alpha. Lawrence recognized the mistake he'd made as he bit down on the slightly bigger Were. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Karl Truman was going to be a problem. As Jason Caldwell would most likely be. Now he had females to secure and a rogue Were that had probably, no definitely, lost sight of his objective. The mistakes were piling up and as Lawrence let go of the cop's throat and those pale orbs of green landed on his face as he saw what lay in them. The new Packmaster. And ultimately, his own death. Brought on by his complacency and arrogance. They began to walk toward the scent of the Singers and mixed Were; the walk became a trot, then the wolves pressed into the speed of the true wolf, like mixed colored bullets of fur, speeding toward war. * Julia & Scott Julia opened her eyes and was met by Scott's black ones and her insides shifted in tune to his, the rhythm of their heartbeats matching in synchronicity. He pressed his palm against her cheek and she leaned into the strength there. “I didn't know,” she whispered. “Me either,” Scott said in a laugh. He pulled her into a small ball on his lap and pushed her head against his chest, his heartbeat reverberating against her face. Scott held her there for a long moment then Julia pulled away. They laced their hands together and she briefly touched his forehead with her own. “You had to fully Awaken for us to complete the soul-meld,” Scott said, briefly pulling away and gazing into Julia's eyes. “I thought I was gonna kill Victor.” Julia burst out laughing. “I don't think it was meant to be...” “No. And your husband,” Scott growled and Julia put a finger to his lips. “Shh... nothing is the same now,” Julia said, looking down at their knotted hands. “Everything is different now. I mean... I can't help what's happened here.” “Or how effed up my family is,” Scott said, thinking of his mother trying to poison the woman that was meant for him. The bitch. Julia unhooked one hand and stroked his cheek, the heat of the contact driving through both of them like a warm sweet fire without end. Scott groaned when the fragile tie that bound them tightened inside his body, chasing his emotions into the depths of Julia, and her eyes widened, his feelings for her laid bare, nothing hidden. “Don't worry about your mother, or Jason or... whatever else. For the first time, I feel safe.” Scott wrapped his arms around her. He would protect her with everything he had, everything he was. Scott would cherish her. Julia felt the promise flow from him to her, no words were necessary. Julia decided that it wasn't time to ruin her newfound joy and security with talking about the dream she'd just had. William and Jason had stepped down, Cynthia had found her and Julia's bond with her new soulmate was solidifying as they sat in each other's arms. Her dreams didn't come true anyway. Jacqueline's plan of taking over the Regions had failed. Jason and William had saved Julia and given her up. She didn't have to live in fear anymore now that the Circle of the Combatant had closed. Leaving her with Scott. Julia sunk into the warm comfort of Scott's strong arms, thinking how weird it was that this male she'd fought since the day she met him was the one she now recognized she couldn't live without. Her Awakening had taken care of her lingering doubts. Being with Scott was as natural as drawing breath. Scott felt Julia relax against him and gathered her small body against his massive one, a warrior's body. Now a king. Julia shooed away the unease of her dream easily, lulled into a false respite by the proximity of her soulmate. His protection of her formidable. Yet, not absolute. As the precognitive warning was ignored and the war closed around the Singer compound with a surety that would have taken her breath away had Julia looked deeply enough, they stayed where they were. Together and unaware of the danger that neared. THE END Julia has Awakened and in so doing bound herself to her one true soulmate, the king to her queen. The blood-binding, which was foretold between fang and claw, ultimately rescued her from certain death and the Circle of Protection is now complete. Yet, another would-be queen vies for the position of ultimate ruler and believes she has found an ancient loophole that will upset the new balance of potential peace that has been put into play by Julia's prophesied reign. Jacqueline will stop at nothing to achieve her goals, even using the dreaded Were to further her victory. Cynthia and Adrianna form an unlikely alliance to survive against an enemy that now has help for her madness to take shape. Emmanuel, the Feral and Truman find themselves drawn to defend and protect a new order with a past that haunts their efforts. Can Julia and her one true mate bring peace to the species and rescue the ones they love? Will the Blood Singers fulfill their destiny to unite three groups of sworn enemies to come together as one? BLOOD CHOSEN A Blood Series Novel Book 3 New York Times Bestselling Author TAMARA ROSE BLODGETT All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2013 Tamara Rose Blodgett No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental. www.tamararoseblodgett.com TRB Facebook Fan Page Edited suggestions provided by Stephanie T. Lott. Cover Design: Claudia McKinney Photographs: DepositPhotos Photography: Oleg Gekman DEDICATION: My readers, who don't want “easy, uncomplicated, or generic....” Warning! Contains spoilers. Character Index: Blood Singers/talent: Julia- Queen of the Singers; Telekinetic/telepath Scott- Royal Singer Blood; Deflector/Combatant Brendan- Tracker/pyro Michael- Illusionist Jen- Telekinetic Cyrus- Healer Paul- Negator/amplifier Angela- Feeler Marcus- Region One Jacqueline- Royal Singer Blood; Region Two Leader Victor- Region Two/Combatant- Boiler/Flame of Blood Lucius- Combatant Cynthia “Cyn” Adams/rogue- Healer Heidi- Reader Trevor- Deflector Northwestern Were Pack: Lawrence- Packmaster Emmanuel “Manny” - Beta to Lawrence Anthony “Tony” Daniel Laurent- Second to Lawrence Adrianna “Adi”- Alpha female Southeastern Were Pack: David- Packmaster Alan Greene- Alpha male Lacey Greene- sister and female Were to Alan Buck “Slash”- Alpha male Karl Truman- former Homer detective Ford- Alpha male/ FBI agent Reagan- Moon Warrior, Daughter of Lacey Southeastern Vampire Kiss: Merlin- Coven leader (now deceased) William- new coven leader Northwestern Vampire Kiss: Gabriel- Coven Leader Claire- Cousin to William William- Runner/shifter/Singer blood Unseelie fey: Queen Darcel- Sidhe Tharell- mixed Sidhe warrior Cormack- Sidhe warrior Domi- Sidhe warrior Rex- Sidhe Kiel (key-ale)- dragon shifting Sidhe Celesta- Sidhe warrior Delilah- Vampire, third to Julia, half-sister to Scott FEDS: Tom Harriet Tai (tie)Simon CHAPTER ONE Slash/Buck Buck scented the dawn as it broke the canopy of the trees with columns of light that appeared washed by blood. His claws spit dirt behind him in a spray, racing toward the scent of a female who could never be his. And another he was tasked to protect. He was the go-to dog, used for his stealth, and his I don't give a shit attitude. Slash had nothing to live for, there were no matings on the horizon for him, his face was a ruin from battle and his position of Alpha undermined by Alan Greene. He did not hold it against Greene. It was what it was. There could be only one successor. It was the way of the Were and their distant cousin, the wolf. Were weren't picky: if Packmaster was what you sought, you must kill to obtain it. Death didn't bother Slash... but for what? However, want and genetics were two different beasts. The first was intellect; the latter was about biology. And Buck's biology was asserting itself in one fell swoop of animal preordainment. His wolf wanted Adrianna, lone Alpha female of the Northwestern den. His wolf didn't give two shits if she was unobtainable or off limits. There were four subspecies of Were: gold, black, gray and red. Buck knew that his grandsire had been a fullblood red. Depending on how one surveyed circumstance, it gave Slash unfortunate proclivities. Wonderful in war, a detriment in interaction within his den. There might be some logic in the natural counter-evolution of the dwindling red Were population. Perhaps nature strove to eradicate that which was self-destructive. In this case, Slash needed every ounce of red blood he owned. He knew that Tony had taken Cynthia Adams, newly manifested Singer healer and Adi of the Northwestern Pack. That intel was all the motivation Slash needed to pursue their scents. It could be he wasn't alone as a cross scent moved over his path and his paws punched the ground as he straightened to semi-upright, his flesh and bones bleeding into his half-wolf form. Slash lifted his snout. Immediately he found the scent of his packmates. And one other, whom he did not recognize. Slash knew what the unknown Were was in every fiber of his being. Red. Like himself. His human-looking brows lowered over a prominent brow ridge, where green eyes spun languidly, with keen intelligence. And bravery, a common default of that particular variety of wolf. Or stupidity. Slash thought bravery and stupidity were very close railroad ties in his parallel universe. A faraway scream shattered the stillness of his hesitation in the forest. Slash swiveled toward that unnatural sound in the wood full of creatures. It was not the sound of an animal but a female. One who was in peril. Slash ran, and to the east a small pack of Were ran to intercept him. Lawrence, the Northwestern Packmaster and Karl Truman, who had been turned by David's bite of the Southeastern and brought by the blood of the red wolf that was already part of the fabric of his genetics. They too had felt the pull of the Were in one area. They veered off their premeditated course to the Region One Singer compound and instead, made their way to the cloistered and mixed group. * Cyn Holy smokes, Cyn thought, watching as the snake in the grass leader, Jacqueline, made her way toward them at the same time as Tony. Her wary gaze locked with Adi's as Cyn poured her newfound healing energy into the female Were. When the damage made from the telekinetic fall caused by that bitch reversed itself, Cynthia decided right then if they survived this next mess, she was going to hurt them. Permanently. Cyn loved Jules, she did. But where Julia was soft and thoughtful, Cyn was decisive and pragmatic. That translated to: don't fuck with me. Or, better: don't mess with anyone I care about. Cyn didn't know where her fierce loyalty stemmed from and understood on some level it was unreasonable. But things just were what they were, unchangeable like the sun rising and setting. Cyn stood from her crouch next to Adi, the leaves crunching under her feet. She felt rather than saw Adi stand as well, the fur gone, replaced with features that looked heartbreakingly young in the unforgiving light of dawn. The ethereal colors of pink, orange and red covered them as Adi and Cyn backed away from the advancing pair. Adi glanced at Tony and Jacqueline as they drew nearer. “Oh... shit sandwich,” she said in a shaky voice. Cyn barked out a laugh brought on by pure adrenaline and nervousness. Tony got closer, scanning their faces and said, “You bitches are mine.” Gawd, Cynthia thought, he's like a B-rated movie or something. Some of her dismissal of his lack of intellect must have shown because his brows dropped above his eyes, casting them in shadow and hiding them from the first light of the day. She thought he was a dumb ass and didn't mind him knowing it. But, Cynthia flicked her eyes at Adi, then her gaze slid to Jacqueline; poisoner of her bestie, and she felt a frown darken her face. Jacqueline smiled at Cyn but it never reached her eyes. That wench didn't have a legit bone in her body. “Well, well... what do we have here?” Jacqueline asked like she was inquiring about the weather. Tony's gaze shifted to her. “Shut up, Singer bitch.” Jacqueline turned that laser beam of cruelty on Tony and he fell to his knees, hands at his throat. The universal sign for choking was as obvious as if he'd said the words I can't breathe. Adi and Cyn began to back away. Cyn didn't know Adi's exact thoughts but she figured if psycho one and two wanted to go at it, they could. Without Adi and her in attendance. Tony plunged to his hands and knees, his fingers clawing at the forest floor. “Are you going to be a good dog?” Jacqueline asked in a cultured murmur. Tony's body trembled. To be brought low by a female Singer... or any female was a blow to his considerable ego. But as the oxygen left his body and blackness began to eat at the edges of his consciousness, he gave a nod of his head, very like the tap out so popular in cage fighting. Survival was paramount to Tony. When he felt her hand in his hair he cringed, gasping, though there was no breath to relieve him as he hung there-- suspended between consciousness and not. His palms slapped the decomposing earth at his sides. The two females he hoped to denigrate were but a dim memory. Tony was so aware his life hung in the balance. Jacqueline scratched behind his ear, then petted his head. “There, there... you will do as I say... or die,” she warned softly. Sweat beaded under Tony's nose and a low mewling sound broke the seal of his lips, robbing him of even more precious oxygen. “Comply or die,” Jacqueline repeated, her fingers tightening in his hair, jerking his head back with a strength borne of her lineage. Royal blood, mixed with age, gave Jacqueline power she otherwise would not have possessed. The cords on Tony's neck stood out, his face turning purple. His hands beat the damp earth, fingers involuntarily clenching into the dew-kissed soil. Finally, moving against her brutal hold, he gave another stiff nod. His eyes met hers, black meeting black and Tony knew... that he'd met a female who matched him. Who was maybe more than he was. Tony hated it. It also made him terribly aroused, violence and sex were inextricably linked inside him. When death swirled around him, instigated by this Singer bitch, he wanted her. It made no sense, compulsions never did. But it made perfect sense for Tony to embrace it. “I smell your desire, Wolf,” Jacqueline stated. “And I do not rut with dogs like a bitch Were... you stupid creature.” She released Tony abruptly and he fell, the invisible steel band that had been around his sternum instantly gone. He gagged, alternately coughing and sucking greedy lungfuls of oxygen. After his coughing fit settled down into breathing sans choking, Tony looked up. His eyes sought Jacqueline's but her's lay elsewhere. During their power play, the quarry had fled. Tony didn't have to wonder if Jacqueline had wanted the Singer and female Were. He would have. And in that, Tony assumed, they were much alike. Maybe in other ways as well. He smiled. “Nice going... the females have fled,” he spat. Jacqueline lifted one small shoulder in dismissal and replied, “It is of no importance—I have you,” she said, her eyes drilling into Tony's, the black depths like dimly lit obsidian marbles. “And you will use that keen nose of yours to retrieve them.” He stood, coming to her side and showed his neck. Jacqueline laughed. “You need not show me your subservience. I know that I have it,” she said, giving a low chuckle, her hand lifting in the air and closing tightly in a fist at her last few words. Tony frowned, looking down at her. He could crush her; wanted to. He also wanted her in the other way as well. Those two warring impulses were cross-wired in his brain. They always had been. He cocked his head. “Tell me, pure Singer,” he began with thinly veiled sarcasm, “do you have Were in your lineage?” Jacqueline was instantly offended, though her gaze skipped away like a rat that couldn't find its hole. “There are no mongrels in my ancestry.” Tony could smell her lie. “Uh-huh,” Tony responded, and scented of her deeply, his nostrils flaring wide. What he found gave him pause. She might not know, he thought. If that were the case, she was not all that she seemed. “Come... Were,” Jacqueline began to walk away, her body showing that that path of conversation was clearly over. Tony gave a great exhale then followed. “I suppose you have some plan, Singer?” Tony asked in a low voice, the growl of his kind threaded through it as they moved through the forest, the smell of the woods overwhelming to his sensitive nose. Jacqueline didn't feel warned; he could do nothing. Only a certain type of Were was a danger and this Were of the black posed no threat. Less than a threat, if the truth were known. But Jacqueline was all about the tools at her disposal. And that is what Tony was to her. A tool. Jacqueline buried a snicker, though she was quite sure he could scent some of the emotion behind it. However, with her Tracker abilities, she could scent as well. The advantage was hers. After all, he knew not what she possessed and his skill set was an open book. Perfection. “I do have a plan as a point-of-fact,” Jacqueline replied. Tony stilled, grabbing her thin arm. She quirked a brow, looking at his hand on her like it was something filthy. “Bite me,” he said with a smirk. Jacqueline flushed with anger and opened her mouth to deliver a scathing quip when he put a finger to his lips. “They come from the east.” Jacqueline could sense nothing, smell nothing. “Who comes?” she asked instead of the retort she had planned. Tony growled low in his throat. “The Packmaster of the Northwestern den... and one that my nose doesn't recognize.” They stood for a few moments in a wood gone still. The small animals hid as the unnatural predators closed in around them. Jacqueline wondered why she couldn't sense them while Tony wondered what could be done. Their thought processes were not known to each other but were eerily the same. “Ah!” Jacqueline hissed. “Yeah,” Tony agreed. Jacqueline swiveled to him, her skirts swirling and getting caught in the debris of the forest, her eyes flashing like black fire. “Tell me you can do something.” “I can't...” he reluctantly admitted. “What about you? You're this tight-ass Singer...” His airway began to close and his palm flew up in supplication, the bitch stole his breath... and not in a good way. “I didn't mean it as a dis....” It opened with a gasping release. “Jacqueline,” she said in way of off-handed introduction. Tony nodded as he made his hand stay by his sides instead of going to his throat. He wouldn't give the bitch the satisfaction. “I simply meant maybe you could sense something.” “No,” she said curtly. Well, damn- chop my nuts off, Tony thought. Jacqueline paced, a ripple of disquiet building as the scent of the pack grew stronger. Suddenly, Jacqueline knew what to do. “I'll cover our tracks while you squire us away.” “How?” he scoffed. “Is the how of it really important?” she asked, crossing her arms in impatience. Tony could smell the other Were. They'd take them and for some reason, the Singer bitch's skills were down for the count. Too bad she was all up his ass. Why couldn't she have a blank spot with him? His fucking luck. Jacqueline didn't ask his permission and he remained silent. Of course he wanted to know what kind of Singer mojo she had going on. But it was obvious she had the upper hand. For now. He watched Jacqueline's symmetrical features distort in concentration. When Tony's sense of smell left him, he felt blind. He was so used to the million different scents that had always been a part of his existence. “What have you done?” he whispered. “I have the ability to Negate others’... talents.” “I can't fucking smell my own ass. I'm nose-blind,” Tony growled, his fists bunching by his sides. She smiled. “Good. As I don't want to be party to you partaking in an orifice fest.” He scowled at her. “Good? Hell no, we're goddamned blind...” Jacqueline folded her arms again underneath her breasts and Tony's eyes dipped down to take in the sight. She stared at him for a pregnant moment. “You're a crude beast...,” she stated as fact. Because it was. “Tony,” he said in a delayed introduction. “Well, Anthony...” Jacqueline said slowly as she circled him. “I do not have a highly refined mastery as Negator so... the best I could do was blanket a five mile radius. If it were my primary skill, I could have left you in a 'scent bubble' that encapsulated you and left everyone else senseless. Alas, I cannot.” She looked into his eyes and he glowered back at her. Tough broad, he thought with the beginnings of grudging admiration. “Fine,” he said. “Get on.” He burst his skin and it slid off like a snake's. The gunk, blood and sloughed marrow pooled into the absorbent forest floor, dampening it with his transition. Jacqueline tensed at the harsh speed of the change, then went to him. She grimaced as her clothing became ruined with the residue of the change, her hem six inches deep in his human cast-offs. “Where?” he asked in a voice filled with gravel, pained by the rapid change he'd forced on himself. She bent and whispered into his ear. Tony's smile was worn strangely by the face of his wolf. His admiration for Jacqueline grew. She was diabolically clever. Tony might spare her after all... if she could be bent to his agenda. * Cyn and Adi stopped running, their hands on their knees, chests heaving. Cyn had a killer stitch in her side, putting both hands on her side, bending over at the waist as she did. This sucked. Adi stood first. “That blew goats.” Cyn laughed. “Yeah... totally.” “Who is that bitch?” Adi asked, her nose involuntarily moving toward where they'd just come and finding her usually deft senses dulled. She gave a frown, her dark blonde hair falling forward and hiding half her face. Cyn shrugged. “She's the one who hurt Jules.” Adi frowned. “How do ya know?” Her root beer brown eyes earnest. Cyn squirmed from the question. She was gonna sound like a tard. “Well... here's the thing. I just became... something. That Singer thing you were talking about? Yeah, that.” Cyn stood, her breathing still irregular. “And now... well when I healed Julia there was a...” Cyn stopped, her pale green eyeballs rolling upward, thinking. “A... taste to the poison.” “Poison?” Adi asked, her frown deepening to a scowl. Cyn nodded. “Oh yeah, it was poison and somehow, the bearer of the shit leaves their mark.” “Like a signature?” Adi asked. “Yeah. Good call, mutt.” “Huh,” Adi said, head bent, her face speculative. It wasn't a good look. “Hey, I didn't mean anything by it,” Cyn said, backtracking. Adi met her eyes, ignoring the dig. “I screwed up, big time. I should've...” “What? That whack job... she mowed you over with her head,” Cyn said, tapping her temple. “There's nothing you could have done, Adi,” she said, looking down at the much shorter girl. “Yeah,” Adi agreed like she didn't believe it, still looking at her feet. For all her bravado, she sure takes a lot of the responsibility on her shoulders, Cyn thought. The girls stood quietly for a time then Adi said, “It's time to make our way back.” Cyn shook her head. “No, they'll be expecting that. It's not safe.” “It's safe,” a voice said from out of the forest. “Holy shit!” Cyn yelped, stumbling backward and Adi grinned with relief. “What's so damn funny?” Cyn asked, insulted. “I think a drop of pee came out!” “They're Were... and I know them.” Adi's confidence returning in one fell swoop. “Friendly?” Cyn asked, putting a tree trunk in front of her like a shield. Not that it'd do a damn bit of good. She'd seen a Were throw another halfway through a tree, felling it as smoothly as an ax. Yup, things were so not okay if they weren't friends. Then several things happened at once. Two large males moved into the open patch of forest between stands of trees. They were in half-wolf form, which was creepy as hell, but Cyn was getting used to it. Which was its own slice of weirdness. She recognized the first one instantly and was relieved. The second one Cyn recognized seconds later. They were kinda naked so strong eye contact was advised. The answer to the age old question was: no, fur doesn't cover everything. Still, it was like when you knew you weren't supposed to scratch, it made ya itch with wanting to. Cyn realized it was pervy but when a bunch of half-werewolf men were walking around with their macho commando action... well... Then after several heartbeats of scrutiny she began to realize that the third was Karl Truman from Homer. Cyn blinked slowly. Truman stepped forward as she took a step back. “Cynthia Adams,” he growled and Adi cocked a pale brown eyebrow at Cyn in surprise. “Nice to meet you,” Cyn said, adding, “again.” It just couldn't get any stranger. He dipped his chin in a parody of a greeting and it was too much for Cyn, she simply sat down on her ass where she stood. They could figure out what to do with her but there were too many freak-outs presently. Her restaurant manager was a Were. Fucktastic. The cop from Homer who had been hot on her trail was now a Were. They were naked half-werewolves. Weirdness squared. Truman was the same as Jason, his body covered by a shadow of scarlet fur, his eyes were orbs of green in his head... spinning, always spinning. What did it all mean? For her. For them? For Julia. CHAPTER TWO Julia Julia couldn't get enough of Scott. She woke up in his arms, fully awakened. Their soul-meld complete. Or nearly so. He gazed down at her with a similar expression. His eyes, so nearly black they swallowed his pupil, framed a face that was far too serious. “What?” she asked softly, smoothing the hair off his forehead. Scott searched her face, knowing full-well he should tell her. He wasn't sure if the knowledge would improve things between her and the people they were now in charge of leading. Probably not. Julia's hand dropped. “Okay, I know what that look means.” Scott smiled. Busted. Hard to hide things from your soulmate, though their bond was fragile, untried. He lay back down on the bed and Julia rolled over so she was slightly above and on top of him, pushing the fringe of short black hair off his forehead. Her own caramel-colored hair swept forward, tickling his face and he tucked it behind her ear. “Tell me,” Julia said. “Is that a command, my Queen?” Scott asked. Julia's soft smile melted away. “Does it need to be?” Steel taking the place of the golden warmth inside her eyes. He shook his head, looking into those large golden, cat-like eyes. Eyes that changed color according to her mood. “No,” he answered softly. “It's not over.” There, he'd finally said it. “What? Which part?” Her eyes darkened at the implied threat in his words. Scott closed his eyes against the raw look he saw in hers. “The Were and... your former husband... relinquished their hold on you by simultaneously giving you their essence, thereby giving yours back to you...” “I understood that...” Julia said slowly, a furrow formed between her eyes. “What's this about?” His eyes opened, piercing her. “It's been so long since we've had a Rare One that... some of the finer words have gotten lost in the bolder ones.” Julia huffed. “You have been prophesied about. And, in some of the oldest scrolls...” “Like... as in 'dead sea'?” Scott cocked a brow, nodding at her comparison. “It's not much different from the human's Bible... however, we're not ...” “Human,” Julia stated and Scott nodded. “Not entirely. We mimic them but it's not enough. Not nearly enough to claim true kinship. As long as you are truly my mate, the Combatant will be necessary.” “And how would they not... be necessary?” she asked. Then she clarified her question, “What would need to happen so they could just flounce around and do their thing.” Scott chuckled, but his laughter died, his face bleeding to a solemn expression. He paused so long Julia thought he might not answer. She opened her mouth to ask again. His face became pained, his voice a low growling whisper, “You would have to be mated with the vampire and Were as well.” Julia sat up in the bed, shoving away from him like he was a hot coal. “No!” she squeaked, flapping her arms in agitated denial. He gave such a slow nod it looked painful. “I will never do that,” she said with conviction, folding her arms across her chest. Scott watched the bright pink color spread across her cheekbones. Agitated and angry. And underneath that, embarrassed. Scott sat up, scooping her against himself. “It might not be a matter of want.” He paused. “It might be a matter of unifying the species. The Were and vampire will never take a Singer pair seriously as leader unless she is tied to them in more than treaty alone.” Julia tried to let that sink in. Essentially, three husbands. She shook her head, her hair flying around with her physical denial. She'd had a husband- Jason, and he tried to harm her. She'd had a vampire but... no. And then there was Scott... who she felt like one body with, but it was all tied to the meld. Scott caught her tear as it fell, with a sweep of his thumb across the soft skin of her flushed cheek. His eyes bored into hers. “You don't have to even consider this, Julia. I did need to tell you. To keep it from you,” Scott felt his eyes tighten, “would not be fair... to keep you in the dark because of my feelings.” His dark eyes captured hers in his intense gaze as he gave a small shake of his head. “The Combatant are in place so that you have that security... and choice,” Scott said. Julia could hear the sharp click of Scott's throat when he swallowed. Dear God, this was a mess. She searched for something, anything at all that could undo those words that Scott had uttered. But that was the thing about words, they couldn't be unsaid. “Why didn't Marcus mention this little tidbit to me?” she finally asked and realized she couldn't keep the despair out of her voice, no matter how much she wanted to. And maybe Julia didn't. Scott sighed. “We hoped it wouldn't come to this...” Julia put the falling pieces of the puzzle back together. “You mean... you thought they'd die and it would be a non-issue?” He nodded, not bothering to lie. Julia got off the bed, feeling like she'd been had, the bond tightening uncomfortably around her, responding to her emotions. “This is all sorts of disgusting... just sayin'.” Scott stood as well, hands on his hips. “You don't think I hate the idea of anyone...” He paced, tearing his hand through his hair... “God, being with you?” He turned to face her. “I do. I can't effing stand it. However, the warrior in me wants to keep you safe. You're basically immortal if you take the vampire and Were as mates,” he finished in a low, distressed voice, the words torn out from his soul, chunks of himself falling to the ground, irrevocably broken like crystal being shattered as she watched. Julia crossed her arms, her eyes momentarily flicking to sounds that were bursting around them in the yard, then returning to his. “I thought the Combatant was my contingency?” Scott hung his head, his chin nearly grazing his chest and exhaled sharply. “They are. But we are mortal. We have flaws and weaknesses. We're long-lived but not infallible.” Julia stared at him. He moved toward her and like a sunflower seeking that great ball of fire in the sky, Julia unerringly moved to meet him. She could be mad about it all, but she was tied to Scott and he to her. They met in the middle and Scott pressed her head against his chest. “I won't lie, I want you to be with only me. But it isn't my call. It's yours.” He tilted her chin so their eyes met, her cheeks wet with tears of anger... and resignation. Julia realized that she had the illusion of choice but it wasn't true choice as one thought of it. Actual choice meant the implication of freedom... liberty. What was being offered here were two choices, one of ultimate safety and unification as foretold in the Book of Singers, the other was a gamble about unifying the species as foretold but being with her one true soulmate and having the Combatant with no life but safeguarding hers. As Julia saw it, they were suck ass choices. Pretty consistent as her life went. Scott's head swiveled away from hers, his eyes scanning the yard. They widened. “What is this?” he asked in a voice laced with soft menace. Julia came to stand behind him, her hand on his back. No matter what happened in their future, she was grateful for Scott. And it was no small matter that when he took a breath, she knew it. Felt it. “Vampires,” Scott hissed. Julia peeked around his torso and saw bodies swarming with one kind of speed: vampiric. Julia backed away from the window that captured the scene just as Victor slammed the door open, the glass knob striking the wall and shattering like a torpedo meeting its target. “We have been infiltrated with Vampire... again,” Victor said, his eyes roving Julia's form, ascertaining harm meted. Finding none, his eyes sought Scott's. “How many?” Scott asked in a terse reply. Victor hesitated and Scott snorted. “Can't take back the pause, pal.” Right, Julia thought. Already she felt that prickling heat on her skin, adrenaline replacing her jumbled emotions from moments before. The static of the vampire's minds was a harsh white noise. Wherever Paul was, it was too far away; her mind buzzed with them like an angry hive of wasps. “Too many,” Victor answered softly as glass shattered in the lower floor. Julia jumped when she heard the falling pieces, as many feet carried themselves over the glass in a dismissive rush. Vampires felt pain but healed so quickly it didn't matter. They were coming for her. “Where are the others?” Scott asked, subtly moving Julia even further away from the window. She was so close behind him, her nose was practically planted in the valley between his shoulder blades. “They are below, fortifying the ranks of Region One.” Scott's eyes flew to Victor's. “It's just you and me, then?” “It would appear so.” The first vampire appeared in the open doorway and Victor's eyes swept its body as it hissed and launched itself directly at Julia. She pinwheeled backward from Scott and suddenly the vamp staggered in a slow-moving forward plow, batting his hands around his neck. Victor smiled, moving nearer as the wretched thing hit the wood floor with a commanding thunk of forehead to wood. He flipped over like a fish seizing out of water, grabbing at whatever was nearby. Finding nothing, he beat his fists on the wood. Julia regained her balance, stepping closer as the vampire writhed on the ground like a drowning serpent. “No, stay back,” he cautioned Julia, his eyes went to Victor. “Are you what I think you are?” he asked over the shrieking vampire. Julia watched loose tendrils of steam spiral out of every hole the vamp had. Yeah, even that one. He yelped and convulsed like the Exorcist on steroids, his butt popping off the ground. Victor nodded, sweat beading on his upper lip. “I am.” He put his palm out and the vampire who lay five feet underneath it arced his back, bowing it toward the hand that was causing his death. Julia watched the mouth open fully, fangs extended as its dying hiss sounded like escaped steam from a kettle. The male vampire collapsed in death, its body taking on a rubbery look. “What the hell was that?” Julia asked in a shaky voice. The whole event had taken seconds but it felt like an hour. “He's a Boiler,” Scott said with reluctant admiration. Victor gave an indignant huff. “Let us go... we can squabble about monikers once we've eliminated the threat.” He looked back at Julia and Scott, her arm still tender from being broken by Jason... her husband. The whole thing was like brain freeze without the milkshake. They headed downstairs, where it looked as if a rainstorm of glass had just struck. “Holy shit,” Scott said, grasping Julia's hand. Peace crept into her from the contact, the calm a product of their meld, the result a relief. The reality was quite different. A maelstrom of glass flew everywhere the eye could see. Glass on the floor, deadly and glittering rain spinning in front of her eyes. Julia could make out Brendan, his chin kicked their way as he used his Tracker abilities and made their scent amongst a myriad of... creatures. Julia saw them all. William. Jason. The Combatant, wading through the glass, had cuts appearing like small mouths on their flesh as the whirlpool of small shards spun. Scott stopped moving, pulling her behind himself and his stillness gave away what he was about to do. Then the sweeping storm of glass stopped, falling like a crystalized deluge to drop suddenly on the floor. The clinking of it tore at Julia. She threw her hands to her ears to soften the grinding assault of sound. Scott was a powerful Deflector and he'd just negated someone else's ability. Jen jumped from the kitchen. “Scott,” she yelled. “Why'd ya do it?” Scott swung his head out of the way as a vampire laid claim to his arm, talons sinking in. “Kinda busy!” he yelled back and Jen smiled, landing a butcher knife in the gut of the next. “God, they're like roaches or something,” Michael said, waving a palm in front of the next onslaught, a large hole appeared between he and two vampires heading straight for him, fangs too large to close their mouths. “Whatever, come at me...” Michael invited. When they leaped over the hole in the floor, they lost their balance as it was no more than a handy illusion. “Nice,” Jen cackled, jerking the blade out of the vamp and wiping it clean on her jeans. “Can't use this for sandwiches anymore,” she muttered as William came through the door. He was a statue for a breath of time. Then the vampire retreated, their movements like a movie playing backward, arms coming back in against their bodies as their bowed heads followed their bodies out the shattered windows and bent doorframe. The Combatant circled William. Julia remembered what he'd done for her. Tried to do. Persevering through his torture so they couldn't locate her quickly, his sacrifice stalling their appearance. His blood-letting gave her a chance to live after the poison episode with Jacqueline. Her murder of Julia barely thwarted. William turned too slowly as the knife Jen had flung with her mind into one of the vampires, now plunged between his shoulder blades. “No!” Julia screamed, sinking to her knees, a deep ache in her back. Their eyes met. Then Scott was hauling her up, none too gently. “Jen...” Julia said in a whisper... “not him, don't kill William.” “Why the hell not?” she said in a sneer. “Isn't this the one who caused all the trouble to begin with?” Julia nodded. That was true... but she couldn't just execute him after he'd rescued her from a future without choice, sparing her again. These wars had to stop. Jen cursed with disgust, jerking the blade out for a second time in a matter of moments, and shoving her heel into William as she put him on his back. His wounds from the battle, though not grievous, were many. Julia tore her arm away from Scott. It felt like a small death. She did it anyway. Each step dragged more than the last as she made her way to William and away from her soulmate. “Julia,” William croaked, blood welling everywhere she looked. She knelt beside him. “I'm sorry,” she said. The ache in her back worsened in sympathetic response. William frowned through his pain, trying to sit up. “No, just... stay still,” she begged, her eyes searching his stormy charcoal gaze. “Are they yours now?” she asked. He nodded. “When I was tortured by Merlin's Kiss...” Julia gulped, sucking in a breath, blinking her eyes closed seconds longer than necessary. William continued, “And I escaped on the tail of his demise, there was no choice but to appoint me their new leader.” Julia covered her mouth. “Then why are they attacking?” “They attack no longer,” he clarified quietly, giving a deep hacking cough. Julia's eyes pegged the drops of blood that sprayed from that forceful exit from his lungs. “You're dying,” she said. His lack of response was answer enough. Julia turned to Jen with accusing eyes. “Help him.” “No!” she said. “He put me in thrall to get you in a position to... God knows what.” Julia whipped back around just as Scott's hand landed on her shoulder. “It is true. I meant to have you... even still,” William conceded. “But you didn't. I mean, when push came to shove, you decided to release me from the blood bond....” Julia's golden eyebrows shot up. William just nodded, his sooty eyelashes closing around the gray eyes that she'd held on more than one occasion. Eyes she'd trusted. Still trusted. Julia turned to Scott. “We can't just let him die.” “Yeah we can,” Jason said from the door, arms folded across his chest, a Combatant on each side. Julia's heart lurched inside her chest. Scott put both hands on her shoulders. “Go near her and die, wolf...” Scott said. Jason smirked, his eyes moving to Julia's. He took a long lingering look, head to toe. “I'm not gonna kill, Julia... Singer,” he said with derision. “You've been giving it the old college try,” Michael noted. Jason scowled, balling his fists. “Do not,” Victor said. “You are here by our sufferance alone.” His gaze swung to the barely conscious vampire at Julia's feet. “And the same can be said for this Machiavellian drinker at our Queen's feet.” Victor shook his head. “No, I believe we like you where you stand.” “You're a Singer,” Jen noted. Jason scoffed. “Was, dollface,” Jason said, dismissing her as his eyes shifted back to Julia and she flinched at what she saw there. Accusation. Betrayal. Rage. She understood those feelings. Julia had them herself, she just didn’t have the option of luxuriating in them. “This isn't accomplishing dick,” Michael said and the Combatant turned to him. “Whoa, guys... dial it back.” “You,” Michael said, pointing at Jason, “need to figure out how to protect our Queenie here instead of jonesing for doing her in every time you're hanging around.” Jason pursed his lips into a thin line of anger. “Eh-uh. No.” Michael put his finger up, swishing it back and forth. “Don't get your boxer's in a twist or I'll put ya in a pile of shit.” Jason's chin jerked back like he'd been slapped, his face knotted up in a pretzel. “He'll do it too. He's just that much of a putz,” Jen said with a straight face. “Singers,” Marcus said in a commanding voice. All eyes turned to him. “Stop this, we have more pressing things than baiting the local Were contingent.” “Like... where the hell are the rest of them?” Scott said. Julia searched Jason's neutral expression as it turned belligerent. Where was the man she fell in love with? She couldn't find him in the middle of all that rage. “Or... how about William bleeding out?” Julia asked, absently stroking that tender part of her arm. Brendan offered quietly, “Let me get Cyrus.” Thank you, baby Jesus, Julia thought, someone who was reasonable. A minute passed that felt like a year, then Cyrus came, trailing behind a contrite Brendan. “What?” he asked when he saw William's blood pooling underneath him, as still as a statue, whiter than even a vampire should be. “Is this a joke?” Cyrus looked at each Singer in turn and Julia sighed. “No,” she looked Cyrus straight in the eye and he raked a hand through his salt and pepper hair. The soul patch underneath his bottom lip was a solid pure white. “So,” his eyes shot to Marcus', “I need to waste my ability on this drinker.” His brows shot up his forehead in consternation. “Just this one, there's a bunch of dead ones out in the yard,” Michael said casually and Cyrus smirked. “I saw that,” he drawled in happiness, moving to William's other side. Cyrus put his hand on William's chest, a look of distaste settling in. “I forgot how cold these suckers are.” “What does he need?” Julia asked, guilt overwhelming her. “You didn't really just ask that, Jules,” Jen said in disbelief. “Blood, bright one,” Michael said. Julia's face heated with her embarrassment. She'd been too stressed to think of the obvious. “Shut the fuck up or I'll knock your teeth down your throat,” Scott told Michael. “Boys,” Marcus warned. Julia was suddenly glad she was an only child. “Stop,” she said, looking at Michael. “I've had a nasty little shock, you turd, so just... give me some damn time, will ya?” “Yeah, give her time so she can save his carcass,” Jason reiterated. Julia threw a look his way, which he ignored with a small smile. He was stupidly mean and unhelpful. She exhaled, inhaled... calming herself. Scott's quiet presence stood like a warm reassuring line of heat behind her. She could do this. Cyrus gave her a serious look, his watery blue eyes seeming to float in his pale face. “If you want this vamp to live, you're going to give him blood. Your blood.” Julia felt Scott tense behind her. “Is there any other way?” Julia asked, knowing if there were then he wouldn't have suggested it. But she knew it was like lighting a powder keg around here. He shook his head. “He's too far gone,” Cyrus said, dropping the wrist he'd been feeling for a pulse. The hand landed with a dull echo on the bloody wood floor, that glass clinking around it. “Won't this put me in the same place... I was before?” Julia asked Marcus. She didn't want a deepening of any blood ties. Things were complicated enough without volunteering for more problems. Before he could respond Jason piped in from between the two Combatants, whose names escaped her at the moment, “You like us being in that place. Holding your special magic over us so we're your little slaves.” Julia stood, looking at Jason from ten feet away. It might as well have been ten miles, so much distance separated them. She was so sick of his attitude. “How could I have ever loved you?” she asked, William momentarily forgotten. “I don't know... wife,” he said, his gaze level on her face. Jason's anger vibrated through the room like a bullet that ricochets. The flecks of green in his irises burned like emerald sparks with his thinly kept rage. It was crazy, Julia knew it, but he made her feel guilty for everything, which just made her irritation more. I guess ya can't feel guilt unless you own it, she thought. Julia turned her back on her husband; her soulmate steps away. She ignored everyone but Cyrus and William, who lay on the floor, more dead than alive. “What do I do?” Cyrus laughed. “That's easy, just put your wrist above his nose.” Julia's brows came together, her golden hair slipping forward as she began to reach out with her arm but she hesitated. “What'll happen?” Cyrus' smile faded, his expression turning serious. “Biology,” he said simply, just as Julia's arm grazed the tip of William's nose. With a choking roar, William's back bowed, his mouth opening to reveal fangs that sprang from the flesh that held them like ivory hooks now set free. William scooped Julia tight against his body and sunk those deadly fangs into her arm before her next breath, her fear a tangible thing. It was razors in her skin, the ice of them burned as he fed. Julia gasped as he gulped her blood. For the second time inside a twenty-four hours. Jason and Scott came forward. For all his words, Jason's face held the same expression that Scott's did. Fear. Not for themselves. For Julia. CHAPTER THREE Julia felt in perfect balance, the pulls from William's mouth felt... right, good. Then she opened her eyes and two sets of angry ones met hers; one impersonating true black, the other hazel-green. Both possessed indignation and anger in equal amounts. A sure recipe for violence if Julia's experience had anything to do with it. Everything would have been fine had Jason not grabbed the back of William's head as he fed from Julia. William released her with a hiss, his arm wrapping around her waist as he stood and flung his hand out almost casually as it flicked a path across Jason's cheek. Julia watched it split, the blood from the strike flying in a shimmering scarlet arc even as his skin slipped from his body for the change. “Fuck,” Scott said in a miserable hiss as a chain reaction of cross-cultural testosterone spun out of control. Julia looked at her husband as he shed his skin like a snake as blood ran down her forearm where William had taken from her. Large flakes of sloughed skin came away in chunks, blood and other nasty bits plopping to the ground in a wet pile. Large drops of her own blood ran down her palm, pausing on her middle finger to finally land on the war-torn ground. Scott dragged Julia back from the Were, tossing out a command to William as he did, “Close the wound, drinker.” The sound of Jason's change continued to be heard, the great meaty sounds of ligaments realigning, tearing and forming the new pathways of a shape wholly inhuman. William turned Julia and she trembled as his skin pulled taut against a face that was all hollow-eyes and cheekbones, pinched tight with need. Anger and some other emotion she couldn't name, swam within the constraints of his aching expression of want. Jason approached, his head three feet shy of the ten foot ceilings of the large parlor. Julia cowered against William, Scott at her side. Sometimes it was choosing the lesser evil. Jason had proven, even if accidentally, he could hurt her. William had not. Some emotion slid across Jason's face then was gone, like a shadow chased back by true darkness. “She fears you wolf,” William said as he dipped his head to lick the wound closed that he'd caused, his eyes never leaving those of Jason's wolf. When he finished, William lifted his head from Julia's arm. “It is I that takes blood from her veins, yet it is you she fears.” Her wound was already closing, a shaky exhale of relief escaped. Julia's eyes met Marcus' and he shrugged. “If left to your own devices, you will heal all but the most grievous of injuries.” Compliments of becoming, she assumed. Julia held her breath as Jason approached her and William. “Don't touch her,” Scott warned, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with William. Jason swung a face that was decidedly wolfen in Scott's direction, giving a snort that had the thread of a bark through it. “Oh yeah, so you throw her at the vamp so he can suck her dry. You're such a great protector,” Jason said the last word sarcastically, making a grab for the considerable maleness that hung between his legs and continued, “if you had more of this then she wouldn't be near him.” Julia studiously kept her gaze averted. She had never been more intimate with anyone than with Jason, though they had never technically consummated their relationship. Julia clenched her eyes against the memories of those intimacies they'd shared. They were powerful... real. This image of him as part-werewolf obviously didn't agree with what she knew. When she opened them, his spinning green eyes blazed with the memories Julia was trying so hard to ignore, to forget because they couldn't be like that anymore. Dammit. He wasn't going to make it easy. Julia rolled her eyes above her shoulder to Scott, meeting his solid gaze. “You can't be serious... he hates me now.” Scott shook his head, his words for Julia, his eyes flicking to Jason. “Hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is.” Scott stared at Jason. “And this,” he swept his palm at Jason, his seven feet of contained violence, a breath away from a full change, vibrating through the room, “is not indifference. There is only passion in strong emotion. Hate... and love.” Jason made a low sound in his throat gone half to wolf, lowering a face that had a stub-like muzzle. “She smells like you,” Jason said, his nostrils flaring. “Yes,” Scott said simply. “She's my wife,” he answered. “Haven't they already gone over this?” Michael asked the obvious. “Let me go,” Julia said and William did, reluctantly. William, Scott and the remaining Combatant waited to see what Jason would do, how he'd react. Hell, so did she. Julia walked to where Jason stood, keeping the tremble off her body with an effort. After all, Jason had gone from loving husband to strangler and limb-breaker. So sue her, Julia was a little gun-shy. “I smell your fear, Julia,” he said in a quiet growl. She nodded. Julia couldn't hide it... so she didn't bother with a lie. “Yes.” His fists clenched, the short talons digging into palms covered with a gauzy blanket of short crimson hair. “I won't hurt you,” he ground out and she dropped her eyes. Julia wasn't sure she believed him. He gave a disgusted exhale. “I mean... shit. I didn't mean to hurt you.” “Yeah,” Julia replied, that she heard as the truth. “She knows,” Marcus said as a statement. Julia met his gaze and Marcus sighed when he saw her nod. “Okay,” Jason said as his body began to quake. The threat to Julia was over, and his body began to flow back into his human form. To Julia it almost looked like melting candle wax of red bleeding to human flesh. Or what passed for human. Jason gave a deep shudder, swaying a little then his eyes went back to hers as he took great, steadying breaths. Just hazel, no longer the spinning green of his half-wolf form. When he could speak he asked, “What the hell is going on?” Julia told him, his glare including William in the conversation. As she spoke, Julia watched Jason's expression shut down more and more until the last words fell from her mouth. The silence was deafening inside a foyer that had always felt large but was now choked with her awkward announcement. Jason smirked again. An expression Julia was getting used to and not liking in the least. She hated to see it back on his face. “So,” he began, pegging a finger at first Scott then William, “this supernatural bullshit has been explained to me. They've tried to make it seem reasonable...” “They?” William asked, brow cocked. “The pack... drinker,” Jason answered shortly. “Just clarifying, dog.” Jason's eyes narrowed on William, “Wanna go?” William said nothing but his face said it all, his lips pulling back from fangs which lengthened as Julia watched. God, they never quit. She couldn't believe Scott thought to suggest it. She shot a glance his way and Julia had a thought; maybe.... “You meant for them to go at it...” she accused Scott and he had the grace to look vaguely embarrassed. “It has its upside,” Scott replied hopefully. “He thinks we're a couple of slack jaws who will pummel each other into meat tenderizer and then he’d get Julia,” Jason reasoned. Scott didn't like the way Caldwell worked through things so well. “He already has me,” Julia reminded Jason, her voice quiet. Hating to say it, needing to say it. Jason gave her a withering look. “Wrong, babe. You are still my wife, my lawful wife.” Everyone was quiet at this pronouncement. Julia said nothing. There was nothing she could say. “If it was explained to you, you wouldn't say that. Those human laws and cultural traditions do not apply to the supes,” Michael said nonchalantly. Jason looked at him and Michael threw his hands up. “Remember about the shit... that's all I'm saying.” Julia felt her lips twitch as Jen gave a small chuckle. Julia was thankful for his intercession. “I don't give a good goddamned who they apply to,” his eyes went to Julia's and he pointed a finger in her face, his words for everyone and anyone. “She was my wife, she married me. She belongs to me.” “I belong to Scott now,” Julia said, but not like she was entirely sure. Or, that it was entirely what she wanted. Jason laughed from his gut, throwing his head back. “Yeah, you sound like you're so on board.” He looked at the gathered, taking stock of the five of the Combatant, Scott's siblings, William and the other assorted supernaturals in attendance. “You all have your collective titties in a twist because for your 'Queen',” he dropped fingers from his airquotes, “to really stop these turf wars...” “They are more wars of dominance than territory,” Marcus clarified. Jason gave an angry lift of his shoulders whatever, that move said, then continued, “You call the Were—dogs, you guys are the ones peeing in every corner that you can and hiding behind what you think is superior ideology by using Julia as a shield.” He put his hands on his hips and snorted in disgust. “You think you're protecting her,” he used his palm to indicate a silent Julia. “You're a bunch of users.” Julia flinched and his eyes roamed the group, spending a few seconds longer on both Scott and William. “No,” Jason continued in a low voice, “I'm way past indifference... way past rationalizing my behavior.” He stood there, legs spread, arms folded over his chest. “I don't need to share what's mine, but neither did I say I wanted her anymore...” his eyes moved up and down Julia like she was beneath him and she felt stripped bare, vulnerable and lesser... diminished. “I'm sure as hell not going to share her to what?” he threw up his hands, palms out, “unite these messed up groups?” He made a disbelieving sound in the back of his throat, it came out like a stunted laugh. “I haven't forgotten who I am,” Jason said, his hand going to his pec, thumb pressing deeply into the muscles of his bare chest as tattered denim barely clung to his lower body, a semblance of modesty in place. “She has,” he said, pointing a finger at Julia and she lost it. It was the last accusation of how awful, incompetent, ungracious, and uncaring she intended to put up with. His rant hit low and deep, tearing something apart inside her that she didn't know she had. Julia strode to Jason, five feet four to his six feet two and open-palmed slapped him without breaking stride. The ringing of her flesh on his filled the silence with the sharp echo of her anger. It made her palm burn and her wrist ache. “Don't you tell me how wrong I am, how much I suck, and how you don't give a shit about me. I get it.” Julia's eyes struck his like a patch of searing sunlight. “Oh and... FYI, I didn't ask for this.” Her lip trembled with the need to cry and Julia held back, biting the inside of her lip to do it. Jason's eyes blazed as he reclaimed the stride she'd given up, looming above her, the imprint of her palm an angry smear of red on his face. Julia was simply too pissed to be scared, her anger at everything over the past two years was coming to an ugly head. Jason put a tender hand on her skull, smoothing over her hair from the crown to the soft roundness before it dipped to her spine. “I hate you, Jules,” Jason whispered as he began to pull her closer and she nodded, tears rolling despite the blood that filled her mouth to stop it. “I know,” she replied softly. He wrapped her tightly in his arms and kissed her, his breath sucking in as that drop of blood inside her mouth burst between them like a gem of inception. His lips moved away from her mouth as he pressed soft kisses all over her face and Julia gasped and cried, clinging to him and kissing him back. Her hands moved up to link together around his neck and he buried his face into her neck, half picking her up. “I love you,” Jason said against her neck before he allowed himself to be torn away by Scott. Julia watched that slice of vulnerability race like a fleeting cloud across his face. “I know,” Julia whispered for only his ears to hear. Brendan burst back into the parlor, taking one look between Julia and Jason as Michael piped in with a laugh, “Good timing- mucho awkward, bro.” “Right,” he said, dismissing the obvious and looked at a grim Marcus. “We've got another problem.” The Combatant that remained inside came forward. “We've got a sighting of the rogue Were...” Tony, Julia thought and couldn't hold in the shudder. Brendan looked to Scott, “and Jacqueline.” Scott shrugged, his eyes still on Jason, his possessive nature in full throttle. He'd wanted to pry Caldwell's toenails off with a set of pliers. Slowly. He didn't care if the earth opened up and swallowed that conniving bio-mom of his. In fact, he'd welcome it. Sometimes Scott had mixed feelings about her but that wasn't happening right now. “Yeah?” he asked in terse question. “Don't shoot the messenger,” Brendan said and Scott took a deep breath. Walking over to Julia, he put his arms around her shoulders, feeling the tenseness seep out of her. He caught sight of Caldwell's expression. It mimicked his own, hard and tight. Scott lifted his chin at Jason, dismissing the intimacy he'd just witnessed. He knew he couldn't have it both ways. Julia knew the truth. She had tough decisions to make and he wasn't certain he could help her. Judging by what he'd seen between her and Caldwell, he had his doubts. It was obvious to everyone but Caldwell—that he was still in love with her. Scott knew about deep denial, did he ever. “What can you tell us about this rogue?” “Okay, so we're not gonna talk about the pink elephant in the room?” Jason asked, flicking his cool eyes in Julia's direction. Scott shook his head. “No, one disaster at a time. First, we eliminate the threat, then we address... “The weirdness,” Michael said and Marcus frowned. “It's not weird,” Jen began and everyone looked at her. “Well kinda but really, it's about our futures... and what's right for everyone.” No one said the obvious: that what might be the right choice for most, would still hurt some. “Anyway,” Brendan said in a drawl, “Scott's right, we need to attend to this...” he waffled his hand back and forth... “Security breach,” Victor said, his bright eyes were on Jason like a hawk's. “Yeah, what he said,” Michael said and Julia actually watched Marcus roll his eyes and suppressed a giggle in the middle of everything that was happening. Michael saw her small smile and tipped an imaginary hat their way. “Scott and the rest of the Combatant will eliminate the threat,” Marcus said. Scott whipped around, his arm falling away from Julia in reactionary protest. “Victor will remain here, along with the vampire and Were.” Scott's expression was thunder contained. “You've got to be fucking kidding me.” “Temper,” Marcus warned. “I am still the leader of Region One. We cannot have the Rare One outside our fortress.” “It is not as fortified as you suppose,” William said in a dry voice. Marcus turned to look at him, a staring contest no one would win. “True, vampire,” Marcus conceded after several seconds of awkward silence passed. “I am called William.” Marcus nodded and returned, “Marcus.” “Isn't this all amicable and everything,” Jason began, “but you don't know what you're getting into with Tony. I don't know this Jacqueline...” “Bitch-on-wheels,” Jen said then quickly looked at Scott. “No offense.” “None taken, I want her head on a lance for what she did to Julia,” Scott replied. “She is my sovereign,” Victor answered, his voice holding his anger like a warm bath. Scott shook his head. “No, it's Julia now. If you can't make the switch, pal, you're not staying here. There can only be one Queen.” Scott's eyes pegged his father's. “In fact, I am the natural choice. Her blood has chosen mine.” Marcus nodded. “That is true. But you can't take a breath around the others without a fight ensuing.” “Can you blame me?” Scott asked Marcus, incredulous. “No,” Marcus said simply. “That is why you must go.” “Julia knows what choices lay before her. She does not need her soulmate here to cloud the issue. Let her make a clear decision, without fear of reprisal, my eldest.” Scott stood, a hard line of muscle and anger, so pissed he could hardly breathe. His eyes lifted and were met by hers. He could feel Julia's heartbeat. It was his own. “What if the Were tries to hurt her again?” Scott asked like it was the most obvious threat. Marcus gave a direct look at Jason. “It didn't look like you were hurting her a few minutes ago, yes?” Jason gave a sharp exhale, showing Marcus his back. “No,” he said in an explosive word. “The Were will burn if he tries to harm her,” Victor said softly. Jason slowly turned, cocking his head to the side as a muscle jumped in his jaw. “What does that mean?” “He's a Boiler,” Scott said, his voice happier than it should have been. Jason looked at the others as Michael whistled low. “That'll do it.” Victor gave a delicate sniff. Marcus looked suitably impressed. “A dangerous talent, Combatant,” Marcus noted. “Yeah, internal combustion squared...” Michael added and Scott gave him a look. “Okay, give it up...” Jason said in exasperation. “I have the Flame of Blood talent.” “What the hell?” “He can make your blood boil inside of your body. Y'know, human torch time.” Michael smiled, pleased with himself. Jason's face showed shock. “Really?” “Yes.” “Can you control it?” he pressed. Victor gave an amused chuckle. “I have a high degree of finesse.” “Huh,” Jason said, giving Victor a considering look. “Maybe you're not so fast... after all, they tell me I'm a red. We're special. Capable... lightning quick.” “Yes,” Victor agreed, nodding at Jason. He narrowed his eyes. “Do not test me in this.” Jason's stare didn't drop. “Don't interfere,” he returned. “Don't think this is a great idea, Dad,” Scott said. “I will moderate,” William added, his pale gray eyes honest. Julia rolled her eyes. “I think I'll stay in my room.” All eyes went to her. “Just call me after you're done duking it out.” Brendan looked at Julia with more than a little empathy. Her heart beat faster at that expression. Reading any flavor of grief was second nature to her. “What?” Brendan hesitated, the least volatile of the siblings and even she could see he didn't want to give further news. “There was another sighting...” “Who?” Silence edged in like heavy air, constricting her chest. Julia strode to him, her heavy hair a swinging weight between her shoulder blades. She felt like she was moving through mud. “Cyn?” Her eyes widened in expectant hope, her breathing quickened. He nodded. Julia sighed, tears of relief burning her eyelids. It was nice to have tears that weren't linked with sadness for once. “And Adrianna... from your pack,” Brendan said, looking at Jason. “Looks like Tony was a part of it. And now a Were from the other den has pursued them all.” He looked at everyone. “The scarred one,” he added. Julia and Jason looked at each other. The news just kept getting better and better. Out of the frying pan and right back into the fire, Julia thought. CHAPTER FOUR Were Slash watched from his spectator's view on the opposite side as the werewolves came into view with his usual trepidation. However, in moments, aided by the change of the wind's direction he'd be exposed. There was only one that he didn't know. His Packmaster and Alan were present but they had been easy to scent. As were Adi and the newest of Singer ancestry, Cynthia. He stepped out from the denseness of the trees, like an oasis of fur and wildness, a lone island as Were. The others turned to Slash as one, in his half-wolf form. His nose swung to the newcomer, a soft growl slipping out through his teeth as Slash trotted to where the females stood. The newcomer smelled as he did: red. His wolf eyes saw all, his nose warned, alerted and simultaneously enlightened him of the genetic makeup that matched his own. Slash took note of the ticking flesh of the females elevated heartbeats underneath the delicate skin of their throats, though he didn't allow his thoughts to dwell on Adi. For in this moment, circling the new Were was primary. It did not matter that his Packmaster and Alan were in close company. Slash was autonomous for a reason. There was something thrilling and natural about remaining in the background, coming when needed, not drawing attention to oneself. It had always served him well in the past. Now he must know if the new Were was a threat. “Slash,” Alan greeted him in the gravely rumble that all male Were possessed while in between. Slash gave an awkward nod with his snout. He was not a believer in changing to the lesser shape or his human form when there was an unfamiliar. “It's okay,” Cynthia said in a low voice. “I know him.” Slash gave a low growl at her opinion, dismissing her. What could a Singer possibly know with their dulled senses? If she were not a Tracker, her observations and knowledge couldn't help him. But it was Adi who spoke, “It's okay, Slash,” she said, approaching him warily. The new Were suddenly moved forward and Lawrence gave a shrill half-bark of reprimand. “Don't!” he said but it came out like a hoarse cough, a negative shouted from the guttural depths of a throat no longer human but somewhere in the middle. Slash was suddenly in front of Adi, his large head low to the ground, every fang in full relief. Truman backed off, his eyes on the female that stood beside the Were's flank. There was a primal alert that was ringing a warning deep within Karl. He flicked his eyes to Cynthia Adams and knew that she was hanging on by a thread. He backed away and the other Were relaxed infinitesimally. The female Were, who was in human form, had her hand buried in the luxurious multi-colored fur of the one who faced off with him. Was she his? Karl's wolf wondered, the thought as alien to him as his new form. It didn't matter, this whole scenario just got stranger and stranger. Days before, a night before, he'd been a cop. Now he was one of them. Thinking like them. Posturing like them. The two natures were superimposed in a discordant layering on his psyche and Truman felt almost ill with the vertigo of it. He'd adapt, he always did. Or he hoped he'd adapt. Karl thought there was not a lot of patience from the Were with newcomers. Just a feelin'. “Slash,” Lawrence said, “Back down... he is a convert.” Slash straightened, reluctantly drawing away from the hand that offered only friendship and could never be more. He knew that he now matched the form of the two from his pack and... the new one. A red. Slash and the new Were gazed at each other from perhaps twenty feet away. “Welcome,” Slash said. “Some hospitality... thought you were gonna bust my gonads, pal,” Truman said in a light gravely tone. Slash's sudden grin hung strangely on his in between shape, it never translated the full range of human expressions he would be capable of in full human form. Not that Slash thought much of showing emotion. Ever. It was overrated. He turned to Adi. Her human form held the bruises of the last several hours. They were many. “Who's done this...?” he asked her, then his gaze encompassed the female Singer as well, his question now posed to both. He didn't need the answer, he could feel his brows dump above his eyes, narrowing them in anger. The lightning strike of the scar that bisected his face was a red slash across the dusting of fur. “Tony?” Cynthia nodded. “Yes, king dick Were, that'd be him.” Slash smirked and it looked like a grimace on a face with a snub snout, the light chestnut fur like reddish-gold fuzz all over his body. More naked wolf-guys, Cynthia thought. Wonderful. “Anthony Laurent?” Truman offered and Cynthia looked at him curiously. “Yeah, how'd ya know?” Her eyes searched his, the revolving green warring with whatever his human color was. However, Cynthia realized with a start that the memory she had of him was dim. All she could see was the once fifty-year old Homer detective was now some kind of mondo-Were. A ripple of contained agony crossed his face as he bled back to human. So it's not pain-free, Cynthia noticed. Interesting. Cynthia couldn't stop the gasp and she covered her mouth. Truman felt the frown form between his eyes but answered her question regardless of how strangely she reacted. Cynthia Adams would recognize him now, she'd know she was safe. “Laurent was my primary lead. He had a really old conviction. It was floating around in the wrong place; pre-computers.” “Yeah,” Cynthia said softly. “What is it?” Adi asked just as quietly. Cynthia shook her head, her blonde hair floating in strands. “This dude,” she pointed at Karl Truman, “he's a cop from Alaska.” The two wolfen males, Alan and Lawrence, nodded. “We know...” the rough voice of the Packmaster agreed but she held her hand up for silence and he glowered at her, the fur rippling in an unpleasant stripe down the center of a face that held a snout. The image gave her pause but she plowed forward at her own peril—the hell with it. “This is not the Karl Truman I remember.” “I wasn't a werewolf, Miss Adams.” It was clear from his expression that it was as surreal to him as it was to her. Good thing they agreed on something, she thought. Cynthia folded her arms in exasperation. “Ya think? Brilliant no-shittery there, Truman.” “Wait a damn minute... sassy-ass.” Truman stepped forward and Adi gave a giggle, slapping her thigh and his gaze slid to her. “What?” “You get a pass because you're new... but you do know you're naked as a jay bird, right?” Heat flared on Truman's face. Suddenly, all he could think about was his dick hanging out in front of two young women. It was, in a word... awful. If balls could shrivel (and Truman felt that was a certainty) his were walnuts. Alan moved in front of him and immediately Adi's eyes made contact with his own. “He stepped into the middle of everything and got changed.” “Sacrilege!” Slash roared. His eyes flashed and the trembling energy of his change to full form lay like heat above his skin, hanging in that precarious balance between forms. Adi gasped, and like sympathy, her own wolf rose up through the mists of her humanity, begging for release, for escape. “Don't,” she whispered to Slash. He would bring her wolf and she didn't want to change in front of males she didn't know, it was too vulnerable for words. He quelled the need, his anger and wolf so closely linked they breathed the same air, ate the same food. His wolf and his human were interlocked in a way most Were envied. The speed of his change a mere thought, intent- then it happened. It was not enviable now. Adi took a deep trembling breath, stilling that roiling heat that had risen to meet his. She gave him troubled eyes and he confirmed the trouble. “It is Tony who made these marks on your body.” Slash stated it as fact, ignoring the new Were, his body tense until he got answers. Answers enough to know how to proceed. “Yeah, it would have been more too if he could have made it longer but the Queen bitch of the east flew in on her broomstick and screwed his plans,” Cynthia said and Adi laughed. “What she said.” Adi hooked a thumb in Cynthia's direction and Cyn looked at Alan. In the eyes, because the swinging genitalia was kinda distracting. “Hi Boss.” Alan scooped up a pair of shorts off the ground, an open small pack lay on the forest floor as his form fell like a sliding rain of flesh all around him and he sunk into how she remembered him. It might seem all natural to them but to Cynthia, it was the damn oddity of a lifetime. Cyn knew if she dwelled on it too long, she'd go crazy. So she didn't. She watched Alan's ass muscles clench and bunch as he threw on athletic shorts over his nakedness. She fought not to cover her eyes. The more she told herself not to look the more she wanted to. Then he faced her. “Hi.” Cynthia took a deep breath, trying not to glance where she shouldn't, making sense of this as her boss from the restaurant, the dude who’d given her a break, stood as a human, but had just been a werewolf or something. Some break. Cyn wasn't stupid enough to think that Alan hadn't known what she was all along. Who she was. “You knew, you cheese whiz,” she started in, walking right into the wall of his muscled chest and poking him with the tip of her badly chipped acrylic nail. “Yeah,” Alan admitted, looking down into her face. Cynthia was tall, five feet eight-ish, but Alan stood near six feet two. He'd been almost seven feet even, she figured... when he was wolfing it up. Spanktastic. Yet again. She hit him with the finger a second time. “You could have,” stab, slap... “effing let me in on the fun.” Cynthia pushed him with the flat of both palms and he didn't move a centimeter. “When I first worked for you!” she yelled, her palms becoming fists and beating on him. Alan grabbed her small wrists, easily controlling them. “We hoped it wouldn't come to this.” “Well it fucking did!” Cynthia yelled in his face. “Cyn!” Adi said, grabbing her shoulder and Alan released her wrists. She fought not to rub them where they ached from his restraint. Lying prick. Cynthia backed away, laying her accusation all over the top of him with her gaze. Alan sighed as Lawrence came to stand beside him and Karl Truman as well. Lawrence held up a hand that was talon tipped moments before and Cynthia swallowed hard, looking from one to the other of them. “Karl Truman walked onto land owned by the Southeastern Pack and the decision...” “Bad decision,” Adi interjected. “Perhaps...” Lawrence agreed as his eyes slid from Adi's and back to rest on Cynthia. He continued, “At any rate, the decision was made to turn Truman.” “Why?” Cynthia mourned, her palm sweeping Truman. “He was human before... living his life. Werewolves are nothing but a pack of sadistic manipulators with fur.” She turned to Adi. “There's some exceptions.” Adi huffed, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, no offense or anything.” “David of the Southeastern didn't realize the wound would not be a killing one. He thought he was defending his den from an astute interloper.” Cynthia looked at him. “So...” she began slowly, tapping her bottom lip with her damaged nail, “David, the wolf-whatever, was just gonna do his ass—a cop,” she gave him narrow accusatory eyes, “then, he surprised everyone by turning.” There were embarrassed looks between Alan and Lawrence but surprisingly, it was Truman who spoke, “I'm glad they did it. For the first time... I feel right in my own skin.” Cynthia threw up her hands. “When ya have it!” Her eyes were fierce when she met Truman's. “Now you have to follow their weird pack law and crap. This entire supernatural thing blows.” Cynthia ignored Adi snickering in the background. “I think we're way off task here,” Slash interrupted, having quietly turned into his human form. Cynthia was glad to see him, scarred scary face or not, ginormous presence or not: when things had gotten hot as they went to Julia, he'd protected her. “Alan and myself are on loan from the Southeastern for the express task of guarding Cynthia. And now, part of that might loop to Adrianna's protection as well.” Adi grunted in displeasure. “Because of Laurent?” Truman said, making the same intuitive leap of logic as a Were that he would've made as a cop. In his heart, he was still a digger. A digger of clues, one of truths as well. God, he'd kill to have a cig. Of course, that could all change... he'd only had hours to acclimate to what he was. It was weird how natural he felt now. Like his other, human form had been a costume and this was his real self. “Yes,” Slash replied. His eyes moved to Cynthia. “Tell us,” he commanded of her, “and leave nothing out.” Her eyes swept to Truman, then Adi... then finally they landed on Slash. Cynthia told him. How Tony had brazenly taken both women from the semi-safety of the Region One Singer compound, then their luck had allowed them to slip out from underneath him—literally. Jacqueline had tried to cripple Adi, Cynthia had healed her... then while the two enemies had gone after each other, they'd escaped the noose entirely. There was a weighty silence that Slash broke, “Sloppy,” he remarked. This was his area: strategy. Jacqueline might have been accustomed to sitting behind her gilded desk, as leader of Region Two, and merrily delegating her nefarious deeds to her underlings. But when faced with an unpredictable Were of criminal motivation... she had met her match. As vile as Tony was, he was a welcome distraction at just the time they'd needed it. “What?” Cynthia asked. “Are you kidding me? That's all you have to say...? Gawd!” Slash's lips twitched. Willful thing. “I missed you being taken, that fault will always remain with me. However,” he paused and she looked back at him, the scar bisecting the ink of his brow as he cocked it, “I was charged with your protection and was almost upon your position when I picked it up elsewhere... with them.” It was a speech for Slash, though Cynthia didn't know how truly reticent he was. Cynthia crossed her arms as Adi came to stand beside her. “Cyn... normally, I love an alpha male ball bust...” Cyn's brows rose and Adi nodded her head. “Truly... however, these guys... I can vouch for them.” Her brown eyes moved to Slash. “I've known Slash since I was a whelpling and he was always good to me... and Joseph,” she whispered that last. No way was she going to think about her brother's death. Slash stayed where he was when every fiber of his being screamed to be with the female, her sadness a tangible thing between them. God help them if there were ever a rite... which was a real thing. A thing in which the wolves chose each other's mates; not the humans. Then different dens be damned. Males would fall to mate with an alpha female. Age was immaterial, as once Weres were of age, their maturation was slow. Slash was early twenties when Adi referenced the early relationship they shared when she was a whelp. Now that she was entering her wolf's early adulthood, she would be of breeding age, while Slash remained forever looking thirty. He was not, but closer to forty in years walked on this earth. It was the contrary nature of supernaturals, females would look even younger. He allowed his eyes to rove Adi’s form, so small, so determined... so keenly unaware of her own beauty. Was there such a thing as an ugly alpha female? Slash hadn't encountered one. But Adi was special. One such as she could never love a hardened battle-scarred Were from another pack. Slash turned away, shrugging off his internal monologue. He gave the full heat of his gaze to Lawrence, Alan, and the newest member of his pack, Karl Truman. “How long have you been Were?” Slash asked him. “I don't know, about a day...” Karl said with a chuckle. A furrow formed between Slash's brows, damn fast assimilation in the pack. It was troubling that David and Ford were not here. Of course, it was not smart to have both Packmasters gone from their respective dens. Sister dens were vulnerable if leaderless simultaneously. His gaze went to Truman, who was clearly an alpha. Only the strongest could be turned in one day, and behave as if they still had their head about them. Slash looked at the other Were. Then he swung his gaze back to Truman. “Does he know what he looks like?” Truman's gaze sharpened on Slash. Cyn knew exactly what the scarred alpha was asking. She came forward, digging in her back pocket. She extracted: lip gloss, a non-working cell, and finally, a small compact that was part compartment and part mirror. The deep blue enamel of the top had an eight point star etched on the top. “Amazing you can pack all that shit in your back pocket with how tight those jeans are,” Alan said in a voice that struggled to be neutral and Cynthia raised the middle finger of her free hand. “Sit and spin, ya lying jackass,” she replied. Ignoring him, she approached Truman as a glowering Alan stepped back from her. Smarter than he looks, she thought. “Look at yourself,” Cyn said and then glanced at Slash for confirmation and he nodded. Yeah, she thought that was what he meant. He better know what he really was, the whole tamale, not just the good stuff. Karl took the makeup thing from Cynthia Adams and looked at his reflection. Truman prided himself on being a flinty sort- unflappable. Nothing much rocked his boat. But when he got a good look at himself, he staggered back, almost dropping the compact. He was saved from falling on his ass by the Packmaster of the Northwestern den, his arm falling on Truman's with its hefty weight. They probably thought he was getting ready for a hysteria fit. “It is sometimes thus when someone has been changed late in their cycles,” Lawrence said almost apologetically. “What the blue hell does that fancy turn of phrase mean?” Truman asked, raising the mirror again. He walked his fingers over skin now smooth and tight, eyeballing his tight jawline. Un-fucking-real, Truman thought. The gaze of a much younger man was reflected back. Eyes that held the wisdom of ages like a promise, a face that had lived perhaps thirty years. It was a face he hadn't seen in two decades. Truman wordlessly handed the thing back to Cynthia, who shoved it back in her pocket. “It means that you have the blood of the Were inside you or the bite from our Packmaster would have been the last thing you knew on this earth,” Alan stated. “You have the blood of the red running in those veins,” Slash added and Lawrence nodded. “And you just slipped underneath the radar for turning,” Adi said. “How old were you when David chomped on ya?” Truman felt a small smile form on his face at those words. “I was closer to fifty-one than fifty,” he admitted. Adi gave an appreciative whistle, turning to Slash. “Has anyone ever...?” Her pale brown brows rose slowly. Slash shook his head. “If anyone's ever been changed after fifty, I've not heard of it.” “What does it mean?” Cynthia asked, looking between them all. “He's more red than we speculated...” Slash said. Lawrence was back to looking at Truman, who backed away from everyone. What did his lineage of red matter? “Is that a bad thing?” Cynthia asked Truman's internal question out loud, one eye on Truman, who was the only link to her past besides Jason and Julia. “It could be...” Slash said. Lawrence's gaze went from curious to speculative in an instant. “Very.” CHAPTER FIVE Julia “I can't leave you,” Scott said, his forehead pressed against Julia's. When he stood next to her like this... touching, he couldn't conceive of leaving her. Not with the two he told her she'd have to consider marrying. Besides himself. And of course, technically she was already married to Jason. That just bit his ass about a hundred different ways. William and Jason were just beyond the bedroom door, the jagged glass doorknob winking its displeasure in the sunlight. Its fractured presence was the only audience to his goodbye. Julia felt like someone was amputating a body part without a tool, just a slow and painful rendering of flesh and bone. Instead of the million things she wanted to accuse him of, she asked instead, “How long?” Scott closed his eyes against the warm breath of her words at his neck, sick to his stomach at the next hours without her. But a bright spot appeared and he smiled, because some facts couldn't be altered. No amount of deceit and manipulation would work. “Not long. Now that we've melded, to be separated longer than a few days will cause a problem. It goes against everything we know as Combatant to endanger the Queen.” Julia pulled away, her hand coming to his jaw and he grabbed it, holding it against the stubble that peppered it, the cleft at his chin a shadow below his smile. “Then why go? It's stupid. Jason hates me and William... well, that won't work.” “Jason doesn't hate you. But he needs to get his shit in one sock and stop beating you up every time he's near you. I think William,” and he looked straight at Julia, “I hate it- hate.” His intense brown eyes darkened like a storm finally arrived. “I believe he would do anything but cause you harm. He manipulated my sister... took blood from a Singer under thrall... to get to you. No,” Scott shook his head, “he's Singer enough to cast thrall on one of us, Singer enough to breed with and now sovereign over the Southeastern Kiss?” Julia felt like crying. “I don't have to do this. I can just be with you. Only you.” Though Julia felt the tug of her heart that was still Jason. The meld swept her love for him aside like an errant current but it didn't erase the memories. Scott gripped her face inside his hands, the length and breadth palming it. “I don't want you to be with anyone but me. That's why I have to let you go... it isn't want, it's what's right.” “What—what is right?” Scott buried his lips against Julia, the brutal kiss at once tender, deep and savage. Julia responded like a flame to a struck match, wrapping her arms around his neck and he picked her up, arms twining around her waist. Julia came up gasping for air, her skin flushed from the effects of their meld and mutual desire. She gazed down at him, her hair falling forward and touching his face like a spiderweb of silk. “Choice.” Julia stilled in his embrace, searching his serious eyes. “You need to have choice. It's been robbed from you too many times. And your safety is foremost. It must be. I am your Singer soulmate but as the Combatant is charged with your safety, until that is assured, I can't let my selfishness take control.” He feathered kisses on the jaw that was exposed above him. “However damn much I want to. I love you too much to let harm come to you.” The kisses went lower, heat and air along her skin like the shiver of butterfly's wings. Scott let Julia slide down his body and she felt how much he wanted her; it was in his eyes, against her body in rigid desperation, the heat of his hands at the small of her back, the harsh breaths he contained from the force of his will alone. Julia wanted him back. He knew it. Sensed it. Groaned from the lack of consummation. Carefully... oh so carefully, Scott put Julia away from him. “I don't know if I can do this...” Julia said. “I've been brave, I've survived. I thought Jason was dead, now he's worse than dead, he's some kind of crazy werewolf that's got mixed feelings about me... and, we're still married!” she cried, hands covering her face. Scott closed his eyes. When he opened them, he moved another step away from her. Julia's hands fell from her tear-stained face as her eyes tracked his escape. If he didn't leave now, Scott knew he never would. He spun on his heel, wrenching the door open and the remnants of the shattered knob fell on the floor and rolled on behind him. It didn't entirely chase the sound of Julia's crying from him. * Julia didn't know how long she laid on that bed. Her heartbeats slowing to her own rhythm, not Scott's but her own. She didn't eat. Didn't care. Jen came wordlessly in to check on her, then out again. The sun moved in her room like a dial. Pie shaped wedges of sunlight moved relentlessly through the room until only a sliver remained. Finally, Julia sat up and looked at the door, the hole where the knob used to be gaped back at her like a missing eyeball. She walked to the bathroom, shut the door and leaned against it. Julia looked at the shower then shucking her clothes as she walked to the stall, gave the faucet a vicious twist and went beneath spray so hot it nearly scalded her skin. When Julia had washed the grime and guilt from her body she toweled herself off and glided over to the mirror on the river of her sadness. She swiped the ornate mirror's surface using her forearm and the sense of déjà vu was strong as the image stared back. A little older now, a little more raw. Her eyes moved to the crescent-shaped scar that had everyone in a stupid lather and Julia had a moment of wanting so badly to break that reflection. Shatter that tether to the past with her fist. Her hand hovered above the surface expectantly. Julia slowly lowered it; seven years bad luck and all. Besides, it wouldn't undue anything, or help her where she was now. Julia turned away from her image, her belly griping about its emptiness. Julia moved out of her room and the entire household was buzzing with activity. The litter of glass was gone from the battle with the vampires. Workers had tables of plywood set up on sawhorses while one cut the glass to fit the hole in the pane, the other installed and glazed it. They were like a well-oiled machine. By tomorrow, it would be as if it never happened. Paul approached her in the hallway and she gave him a grateful smile. It was amazing what a shower could wash away. Not everything, but enough to eke out another day of pretending to feel human. Paul held out his hand, his carrot colored hair flopping with his enthusiastic pump of her hand. “Thanks.” She cocked her head, releasing his hand. “You're the one who’s keeping it all at a dull roar.” He nodded. “I figured you'd be kind of a wreck with Scott taking off and all.” Julia dropped her chin, her eyes cast at the ground. “Yeah.” “What a dipshit I am!” Paul slapped his forehead. “I shouldn't have reminded you. Cyrus said three days max anyway.” Julia snapped her eyes to his. “What? That's as long as we can be separated?” She took a stab at guessing. Paul gave a small roll of his eyes. “Kinda unprecedented, Julia. One,” he put the index of his right hand and tapped his left with it, “you're the Rare One—big upset.” His light blue eyes met hers and she smiled despite herself. “Two, you have the big Soul Meld with the most volatile Singer at our compound.” Julia's smile became a grin. “Yeah.” “He hated you in the beginning remember?” She did. Interesting phenomena: Jason hated her, Scott had hated her... now it was William's turn. She sighed. “Listen, I'd be a crappy Negator if I didn't dial back your telepathy and lessen the discomfort while he's away.” Julia looked at him. “This isn't going to work, y'know.” Paul grinned, his pale skin and flaming hair made him look almost like a living cartoon. He waggled those orange brows, “Which part?” Gawd. “Pick one,” Julia said, entering the kitchen. She opened the fridge, saw nothing of interest then closed it again. “Nah, this is how you do it,” Paul walked forward and opened the fridge, flashing the contents, then closed it. He repeated it two more times then said on the third try, “It's three times open, that's the charm.” Julia laughed, walked forward and opened the fridge for the second time. Then a third. Suddenly, she spotted a container, hidden in the very back of the fridge filled with mixed fruit. She snatched it, popped the lid, took a whiff and decided it was good enough. “Gross...” Paul wrinkled his nose at her selection, “but see how that works?” Paul asked. Julia smiled and nodded. She grabbed a fork and dug in as she leaned against the edge of the granite countertop, watching the men replace all the missing panes of glass. Paul looked at her, then turned and opened the fridge. He grabbed a slice of two day old pizza and ate it cold. “Now that's gross... ick.” Paul took a huge bite and grabbed a bottle of orange juice and chased the whole load down the food pipe. “Awesome, more like. You don't know what you're missing.” “I don't, do I?” Julia asked in coy disdain, grinning. Suddenly, Paul stuffed the pizza into her open mouth and she squealed, dropping the fruit where it conveniently landed upside down in a colorful splatter on top of the polished wood floor. Julia began to choke, laughing around the slice and tried to fight Paul off as he merrily crammed it in and she landed against the fridge, trying not to pee her pants. She needed the levity, she did. Too bad it was a short term thing. There was a sudden pressure against her body then it was gone, Paul was airborne behind her, slamming into the wall. Julia's half a slice of mashed pizza fell from her open mouth, landing on top of the floor as two large palms smacked beside her on the fridge and she screamed. Those eyes that had once been hazel were now a swirling vibrant green, the green grass of Easter basket shavings. So green. They spun and she whimpered when talons as long as rulers slid against the side of her face. One slithered to the center of her throat where the hollow lay, her heartbeat pushing the tip of it up and down in a staccato rhythm of fear. “Are you hurt?” Jason growled. Julia tried to speak, “N-”-couldn't. She cleared her throat. “No,” she whispered. Then, “Please... Paul...” she remembered, her eyes moving to where Paul had slid down the wall, out cold. “Oh my God, you've hurt Paul!” Julia said, finally finding her voice. Jason had his wife caged with his arms, only his hands were changed. But he could see by Julia's expression that maybe a little of his wolf had bled through in his eyes. His scent was sharpened, maybe a little snout as well he thought. Jason could taste her fear. His own lust and anger brought every emotion to the forefront. Jason hated that he loved her. Julia tried to move and he wrapped his hand around her nape and dragged her against himself. She molded to him perfectly- as she always had. “Let me go,” Julia said, her fear a metallic taste in her throat like spoiled pennies. “Do it... or I will cook you until your entrails boil within your body,” Victor said from the doorway. Jason stepped away from Julia, letting his talons slide back into his fingertips, his scent receptors going dull, his eyes—normal normal. It was that fast. One moment, his wolf rose, then he blinked and he was just Jason again. Keeping Julia at his back, he spun around to the one Combatant that faced him. Victor gave him a chilly little smirk and walked in. Victor flicked a casual glance at Paul as he walked by his slumped figure on the floor then put the kitchen island between the two of them. “Why are you threatening Julia?” he began in a low voice. “Pfft,” Jason said in a dismissive hiss. “I haven't threatened her. Why, didn't ya get the memo, Vic? She's my wife. What kind of husband do you think I'd be... to resort to violence?” Julia looked around Jason's body, trying to subtly scoot out from behind him and his hand snaked out, latching onto her wrist and she yelped. Victor moved without thinking, answering as he swung his body over the top of the granite slab, “A desperate one.” Victor's feet plowed into Jason and he stumbled back as Julia slid to the side and the fridge door collapsed around the impact of Jason's body. Julia ran to where Paul lay. He was coming around, the sounds of the two of them fighting a meaty charge Julia wished she wasn't privy to. “Wake up,” Julia said, giving Paul a light slap on the face. “Wha—what?” Paul's eyes focused on hers, then to a point behind her shoulder. “Julia!” Paul yelled and Julia turned around just as familiar arms took hold of her. William ripped her from the floor and blurred them both to the front porch before Jason and Victor could take their next breath. Memories crushed Julia: William's mouth on her wrist, taking her blood, William saving her from his own people. William. Always William. But night had fallen and the vampire was at his strongest, his Singer blood thrummed through veins where enough of it ran to allow shapeshifting. Now the master of his own coven, William was but looking for opportunity. There would be a score to settle with the Seattle Kiss but that would wait until he and Julia could discuss their options. Is that not why Scott had left his soulmate and prophesied Rare One in their tender care? If not to explore her immortality... the unity that could bridge the groups? He would but speak with her and once he found out what he needed then he would bow out. Or not, as the case may be. * William He flung himself onto the porch, Julia in his arms, dizzy from the speed of his acquisition of her as the Combatant charged the porch. William forced his change with a speed that even he didn't know he was capable of. Black feathers unfurled like soft water, wrapping Julia inside a blanket of heat. William jumped into the air, his talons lightly plucking at her clothing. He did not wish for a repeat of the devastating injuries of their last transport. He sped into a night that was like a gift presented just to him, the squall of Combatants storming after him. He heard weapons leaving their complacent sheathing, shouting and even a hand brushed his talon as he lifted Julia to safety and privacy. “William,” Julia yelled over the rush of air through his wings. The lights from the old grand Victorian glowed from beneath them and Julia felt how chilly it was this high in the sky as the scenery blurred beneath them. “Not yet,” William said, circling an area about two miles north of the compound. Her weight swung like a pendulum beneath him as the ground rushed up to meet them and he slowed his descent. William settled Julia on the ground beneath him and perched on a large stump, clear cut a century before Julia's birth. “They'll come... all of them.” Her voice was furious in its fear. He cursed as his bones and tendons slid back into position. Talons retracted, the sharp beak of his face melted into the familiar features of false humanity he normally maintained. His eyes would be last, glowing red in a pale face framed by hair that blended with the night. William shook off the fatigue he was normally saddled with after the transition, catching his breath. “I know, but in this, I have solitude but for a few moments.” William straightened painfully, then took one step toward Julia. Then another. She met him in the middle with a sob caught in her throat as she gripped the remaining tatters of clothing. “I don't feel him, William.” “The Singer?” he asked, holding her, his hand gripping the back of her silky hair. He felt her nod soundlessly against him. “He's gone after the primary threat and left you to your own devices. He knows that no force, no principality, no matter how great, shall have you.” William put her away from himself, smelling the salt of her tears and if there was ever one that he could ache for, it would be she. William placed a cool finger underneath her chin and lifted it until their eyes met. “He has placed you in good hands, Julia. He knows...” William took his eyes away from hers then felt them unerringly move back to hers. “He knows that I love you.” Julia moved against him again, wrapping her arms around his waist. “I care about you. But love?” She stepped away again, holding her arms away from her small body. “I don't know how I feel about anything anymore. Confused doesn't cover it,” she said, and a shaky, hysterical laugh broke from her throat. William grasped her hands. “Know this: we want you safe, the Singer, myself... even the renegade Were.” Julia snatched her hands away. “Jason doesn't want me safe.” She turned away from him. â&