Circle of Blood Book One—Read Ch. 1-2 below!
Welcome, and thank you for checking out Circle of Blood Book 1: Lover’s Rebirth! Please be aware that this novel contains descriptions of graphic violence and graphic sex. Also, swearing. If you’re okay with the subject matter, read on and enjoy!
-R. A. Steffan
HUMAN BLOOD ALWAYS TASTED sweetest when the world was falling apart around you. That indisputable fact was one of the great ironies of vampirism, Tré reflected. It was a bone-deep truth that spoke to the bottomless well of darkness within his soul—if he could still lay claim to having such a human thing as a soul, at any rate.
Once, he had been Vladimir Illych Romanov III, a man of importance, respected by all. Now, he was merely Tré, a shadow hidden among shadows, lost in the night.
What was left of Tré’s soul was little more than a tattered flag planted on a barren, muddy hill where the battle had already been lost, and the war had moved on to richer, more fertile fields. A remnant. An overlooked scrap too unimportant to bother tearing down and burning.
Yes, that was his soul in a nutshell. His soul, and the souls of his fellow vampires.
The unremarkable blond-haired, hazel-eyed young human currently slumped in Tré’s strong grip shifted restlessly, a low moan slipping free from his throat. Tré could feel the vibration beneath his lips, through his sensitive fangs.
Reluctantly, he disengaged. Around him, the shadowed corridor at the back of the seedy New Orleans nightclub slipped back into focus, the sound of jazz replacing the low, steady shush-shush, shush-shush of a human heart pumping blood through veins and arteries.
A few drops of that sweet, sweet blood dribbled from the neat bite mark over the kid’s jugular before the healing power of Tré’s saliva sealed the two small, circular wounds. Tré swiped the trickle of red with his thumb and licked it clean.
Destroying the evidence.
His victim that night was a typical Midwest frat boy, drawn to the Big Easy by the siren call of plentiful alcohol and loose morals in the run-up to Mardi Gras. He’d made the drunken mistake of wandering off on his own after his friends decided to head back to their hotel, and now he’d become lunch for an apex predator.
Fortunately for him, however, the days of Tré’s uncontrollable bloodlust and hunger were long past. This particular plain-faced prey animal would live to enjoy his hangover in the morning, with nothing more than an additional bit of weakness and dizziness to encourage him to make better life choices in the future.
As if the phrase better life choices had been some sort of mental summons, Xander chose that moment to stick his head around the corner.
He took in the scene and raised an eyebrow. “Oy, fearless leader—stop playing with your food, and let’s get a move on. Sun’ll be up soon, and even the rioters over in the Lower Ninth Ward are probably ready to call it a night at this point.”
The broad vowels of Old London were out of place amongst the rich Creole drawl of the city’s natives. Other than that, however, Xander fit right in with his tailored trousers, leather shoes polished to a high shine, and black silk shirt open at the neck—a shameless hedonist to the core.
Xander’s pupils were blown wide and dark. Tré wondered if he’d managed to find a heroin addict to drink from tonight.
The blond frat boy grunted and scrubbed a shaky hand over his face. “Oh, wow,” he said. The voice of middle America. The wholesome boy next door. “Sorry I checked out on you like that, bro.” He reeled a bit, and Tré steadied him. “Not sure what happened there. Maybe I had… had a bit too much to drink?” He laughed awkwardly. “So… um, right. Sorry. What were we talking about, again?”
“It’s not important,” Tré told him. “You have your phone?”
The boy fumbled in his pocket and nodded, still dazed.
“Call a cab,” Tré ordered, making eye contact and placing a bit of will behind the words.
The frat kid nodded. “Yeah, I’ll… uh… I’ll just call a cab now, I think. Anyway, it was good hangin’ with you, man—”
Tré didn’t bother to reply, already turning away to join Xander as they headed for the back door of the club.
“You seen Duchess?” Xander asked, as they exited into the humid winter chill of the Louisiana predawn.
The lazy energy of the city at night prickled against Tré’s skin, sharper than usual and with a heavy air of anticipation that he didn’t much like.
“Not since she disappeared into one of the back rooms earlier, with a couple of boy toys in tow,” he said, unconcerned.
“In her element, then,” Xander observed. The words were wry. “Guess she’ll make her way back in her own time. Or not, as the case may be.” He took a deep breath, as if scenting the air. “Something’s off today. S’like a storm coming. But not an actual storm, you know? Can’t say I’m too broken up about it. It’s getting boring just waiting around for something new to happen. You can feel it too, right?”
“Yes,” Tré said. “I can feel it, too.”
Xander drew the night air into his lungs again, and rolled his neck from side to side, the vertebrae popping one after the other. “Damn. That was some really good smack, Tré. Even second-hand. We should totally go clubbing more often.”
Around them, the city held its breath. Waiting.
* * *
These days, Delaney LeBlanc dreamed in riddles.
A swirl of hazy, nonsensical images. The touch of a hand, rough calluses dragging against the soft skin of her cheek as she smiled and pressed into the contact. Whispered words in a half forgotten language. Children’s laughter. The purr of a cat and the excited yip of a dog. The chatter of voices speaking words that seemed both strange and strikingly familiar. If she listened just a bit more closely, she’d be able to understand them, she was sure—
Della woke with a start, dizzy from the series of disconnected scenes that had haunted her sleep. Rolling onto an elbow, she glanced at the glowing red numbers of the clock on her bedside table and groaned.
“Argh! It’s four-thirty in the morning. What the hell, brain?” she rasped, the plaintive question disappearing into the silent room around her. The darkness did not reply.
Her long honey-colored hair, insane from restless sleep, was plastered against her face, a tangled mess on top of her head. Flipping it back, she sat up in bed and started to comb her fingers through it, attempting to soothe her raw nerves with the mindless, repetitive motion. As the tangles came free, she closed her eyes, carding her fingers slowly through the heavy length. Feeling her heartbeat gradually slow.
The dream had made no sense, but it had still felt so real. Della couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she’d had the same dream before, many times, always culminating in waking up early with this disconcerting feeling of loss and need. It was almost as though she were seeing images from someone else’s life. Someone she had long forgotten, like a childhood friend.
Of course, that was absurd. She had grown up in suburban New Jersey. None of her usual playmates had spoken a different language. And that part of the dream was very clear in her mind. What perplexed her most, however, was that she felt she should have no trouble understanding the voices of the happy children who chattered away in—what language could it be?
She had no idea. It didn’t sound like French, or Spanish, or German, or any language she’d heard people speak in the real world.
Probably something I’ve made up, which is why I feel like I should be able to understand it, Della thought with a yawn. Dreams are weird. It’s just my subconscious blowing off steam. I hope.
Della decided that her subconscious must be really messed up, given how bizarre her nighttime visions had grown of late. Sometimes, she felt like she was going honest-to-god insane, a feeling heightened by the stress and anxiety she had been under recently.
Not wanting to start her thoughts down that particular path this early in the morning, Della threw her legs over the side of her bed and stood up, toes digging into the deep shag of the carpet. With the ease of long practice, she flipped on the lamp beside her bed without looking and straightened, reaching for the ceiling, as high as her arms would go.
She stretched her short, five-foot frame as far as she could, feeling her joints pop and crack in protest. Wriggling her toes, Della concentrated on the sensations under her feet and throughout her body, dragging her attention away from the dream images and into the present. Where it belonged.
Focus, girl, she coached herself, trying to shake the disturbing remnants of her subconscious delusions. Life goes a lot smoother when you pay attention to the real world, not an imaginary one.
When she felt awake and more or less calm, she padded across the bedroom and slipped out into the main room of her dark apartment. The gloom this morning felt oppressive. Not at all like the cozy, sleepy stillness that had greeted her early morning habits in years past. This darkness felt malicious and full of intent.
She suppressed a shudder and fumbled for the light switch. With her living room bathed in the harsh yellow light of cheap, compact fluorescent light bulbs, Della blinked and glanced around, checking for an intruder. She felt like she was being watched from the shadows, yet she was completely alone in her apartment.
She sighed, suddenly weary.
Jesus. I’m getting paranoid. Maybe I need to go to the doctor for something to help me sleep better, because this is getting ridiculous. If I don’t get at least a few uninterrupted of hours of rest tonight, I’m going to start hallucinating pink elephants instead of imaginary burglars.
Della stifled an ugly snort of laughter at the irony. She already felt like she was losing her mind without adding sleep deprivation on top of everything else.
“Coffee,” she muttered aloud, heading into the kitchen to brew a pot. Maybe she would go into the office early today and get a few reports done. Might as well be a productive insomniac.
When she was growing up, Della had never once fantasized about being the receptionist for a small insurance company in New Orleans. Yet, despite all her good intentions, here she was, stuck in a dead end job and with no prospect of changing that fact or moving on to better things.
Life had been going okay until just a few years ago. For a given definition of okay, at any rate. Her family was kind of a train wreck, admittedly. Her older sister had been killed in a car crash when Della was ten, and the strain of the tragedy had eventually driven her parents apart. Her mom eventually remarried, to a guy Della could barely stand. Her dad had pulled away, to the point that her only contact with him was an occasional stilted email on her birthday or Christmas, when he didn’t forget. With her grandparents dead and no real contact with her far-flung aunts and uncles, she was essentially alone.
That was all right, though. She loved her parents, of course, but it was a remote, intellectual sort of love. The kind that was better served by distance. When she’d headed off to college, rather than homesickness, she’d felt… relief. She’d graduated four years later with a degree in graphic design and started working for a greeting card company, putting together cover samples to be vetted by a panel of marketing analysts.
The job was great, the money was decent, and she lived comfortably in an apartment about two miles from work. On beautiful days, she had been able to walk there with a friend. Even though it seemed like everything was going perfectly, Della had struggled with feeling out of step with the world around her. It was a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like the calm before a thunderstorm.
Maybe that was why she had a lot of trouble understanding—or sympathizing with—her peers’ petty concerns about boyfriends, hair, drama, celebrities, and fashion. Oh, she would smile politely and tell them she loved their new outfits and would exclaim in horror when her friends complained that their most recent dates never responded to their text messages, but on the inside, Della had a deep longing for something more. Something real. Something that had meaning beyond the shallow, two-dimensional lives the others around her seemed to be leading.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
She’d had a couple of good years at the greeting card company before the market plummeted suddenly and they had been forced to downsize. Della’s job was eliminated and she was laid off with a modest severance package.
The memory still brought the ridiculous burn of tears to her eyes. She swiped a hand across her face and shoveled spoonful after spoonful of coffee grounds into the white filter. She needed something strong this morning to combat her sleepless night.
“Coffee should put hair on your chest,” her late grandmother used to say, while making a brew so bitter that Della’s jaw hurt while she drank it.
The memory brought a wistful smile to her lips as she started the brewing cycle. Soon, the smell of fresh coffee wafted through her kitchen, waking her more effectively than anything else could have.
If there was one thing that defined Della, it was her ability to survive. She had taken some hard knocks in life, but she prided herself on her ability to come up swinging every time. After being let go from her job in Hoboken, Della decided that it was the perfect opportunity for her to pursue a secret dream she had long harbored in the back of her mind.
Della’s father’s family had originally come up from New Orleans in the early 1900s. She had never been able to visit the city as a child, but after learning about her family’s history, she became fascinated by the rich culture and vibrant soul that seemed to explode from the seams of the city, as if it could not be contained.
Even though she had no connections there, she had packed up all of her possessions in one small moving truck and driven southwest until she reached Louisiana. Within a few days, she found a relatively inexpensive apartment a few blocks away from A.L. Davis Park, and applied for several jobs in the design field.
It quickly became apparent, however, that she needed to set her sights lower. She settled for a receptionist position with Lighthouse Insurance Company, telling herself it was only until she landed something better. That had been more than a year ago. And, although she was fond enough of her coworkers and her boss, the pay was barely sufficient to keep her afloat in the small one-bedroom apartment she rented.
The benefits are very competitive, I think you’ll find. She could practically hear the weary hopefulness in the owner’s voice as he’d conducted her second interview—hoping that she’d accept the position; hoping that he wouldn’t have to go through the hiring process again a month from now.
And so, there she remained. Too loyal to leave the company for another dead-end job outside of her field. Too poor to look for a different place to live. Feeling like she was way past her expiration date. Her life was boring and quiet, yet not the quiet of peace. It was the quiet of vague, half-hearted desperation, struggling beneath a thick layer of inertia. Della knew she was just waiting for something big and inevitable to happen, even if she had no idea when it would occur or what form it would take.
How long can I keep doing this? It was the constant mantra in her life. What happens when I can’t any more?
Of course, it wasn’t as if she thought she was the only one. No, Della knew that it wasn’t just her life that seemed to be teetering on the edge of some precipice. She could barely turn on the television without hearing horrific stories of rapes, kidnappings, stabbings, mass shootings, bombings, and natural disasters that claimed the lives of innocent people going about their day-to-day business. The growing wave of fear and violence was like an infection, spreading across the world, into every town and every city.
New Orleans was no different. In fact, it seemed like in the last few months, things here had gone from bad to worse. There was rioting and violence in the city almost every night now, occurring at rates that baffled FBI crime statisticians and forensic psychologists. No one could explain why everything seemed to be going wrong all at once.
“It’s like living in a freaking war zone,” one of her coworkers had said in frustration, after being mugged outside a restaurant the evening before. “All we need now is for another hurricane to hit us. That would just be icing on the cake.”
Della could only nod sympathetically and murmur vague agreement. Things really were out of control, as if more and more people were losing their minds and turning into wild animals, preying on the weak.
Well, at least she wasn’t alone in the losing her mind department.
These depressing early morning thoughts swirled around her brain, not helping with the fuzziness caused by lack of sleep. She sighed and rubbed gritty eyes. Since her damn coffee wasn’t ready yet, she’d have to take more direct action to shake the fretful worries still clinging to her like shadows.
“I need a shower,” she told her goldfish, Jewel, who was swimming sedately around her fishbowl. Della wasn’t allowed to have pets other than fish in her apartment, so she talked to the little creature like it was a dog or a cat. It felt good knowing she had something to come home to, even if it was just a stupid fish.
Fifteen minutes later, she was slumped forehead-first against the cool plastic liner of the walk-in shower. Hot water pounded against her back, relaxing tense muscles that felt like they had been knotted for weeks. Afterward, as Della flicked water off her skin with a towel, she caught a whiff of coffee coming under the door of her small bathroom.
Wrapping up in a fuzzy robe, she walked out into the kitchen and poured a much needed cup. Despite the scalding temperature, she took several deep gulps, feeling her eyes water from the heat.
Thank God for coffee. Now I’m finally ready to face this day.
* * *
At five minutes to seven, Della unlocked the office door and slid inside with a sigh of relief. She hated walking alone through her neighborhood in the early morning darkness to get to her tram stop, but thankfully most of the crazies seemed to have either gone home or passed out in the gutter by the time she ventured forth today.
The streetcar operator looked about as frazzled and red-eyed as she felt, but he’d at least spared her a strained smile when he glanced at her phone to check her thirty-one-day RTA pass as she boarded at Third Street, in the Garden District. The tram was nearly deserted. She huddled in a seat near the back, cardigan wrapped around her body to hold the late February chill at bay.
One transfer to the Canal Street line, followed by another ten-minute walk, brought her to the unprepossessing brick and concrete building that housed the insurance agency. There was a musty smell in the air as she flipped on all the lights. The carpet was old and as the humidity started to rise in the mornings, the smell would begin to rise as well.
Her desk was neat and comfortingly familiar, with the picture of her family—before a drunk driver had taken Jaymie away from them—set in a modest frame near the back edge. Her area was situated near the front door where she could greet any visitors, but could also assist the insurance agents with anything they needed, back in their offices. Besides her direct boss, Rich, there were three other women, two agents and an office manager, along with two other men who worked at Lighthouse.
It wouldn’t be long before her coworkers would begin arriving, she knew. She was looking forward to the hustle and bustle of people around her. The noise would be welcome after feeling as though the silence around her was pressing on her, like someone trying to suffocate her with a pillow.
To dispel the image and the unnatural quiet, Della flipped on the small radio she kept on her desk. She always turned the station to the oldies, because they rarely played any current news reports. She was beyond tired of hearing about all the death and violence around her. She didn’t need a reminder of it every hour of every day.
The sound of the music relaxed her. It helped to keep some of her jitters at bay. Even so, she was really happy when Ryan and Sean showed up an hour and fifteen minutes later.
“Good morning,” Della said, knowing her smile must look forced and unconvincing.
They both murmured good morning, Ryan yawning widely behind his hand.
“You’re here early,” Sean observed.
“Yeah, couldn’t sleep. Thought I might as well be productive.”
“That’s mighty enterprising of you,” Ryan answered in a deep southern drawl. His kind brown eyes twinkled at her as he made his way towards his office.
Della turned back towards her computer screen and started sorting through emails. She flagged a few on her to-do list, and decided that she could get started on this month’s expense reports.
The day passed without serious incident, although after the first couple of hours, the familiar tedium seemed to bore into Della in a way that nearly drove her crazy. By lunchtime, she wished she could go home, but then she remembered that she was likely to face another lonely and restless night of disturbing dreams.
I just can’t win, no matter what I do, she thought miserably. She really was starting to feel like she was losing her mind. Maybe I do need to go see a doctor or something. This can’t be right—I don’t think normal people feel this way all the time. I just need to sleep. That would make everything a hell of a lot easier.
“Hey, Earth to Della. Can you hear me?” The voice was mere inches from her ear, and startled her into a flinch.
“Huh? Oh, sorry Alice.” Della stared up at her co-worker’s face like a deer in the headlights. Alice stared back, looking distinctly concerned.
“Della, are you okay, honey? You seem really out of it today,” Alice asked, her brow furrowed.
Della wondered how long she’d sat there staring into space. The look of worry seemed out of place on Alice’s thin face—her friend was usually upbeat to the point of being annoying.
“Yeah, sorry,” she said quickly. “I, uh, just haven’t been sleeping that well in the last few weeks.”
Alice frowned in earnest. “Uh-oh, why’s that?”
Della sighed. “I wish I knew, to be honest.”
“Well, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call me, okay?”
Alice smiled at her and turned towards her office. Della watched her go, thankful for the presence of at least some friendly faces in her life. Even if they seldom socialized outside of work, it was about the only thing she had going for her these days.
By the time six o’clock rolled around and everyone had cleared out to head home, Della was completely exhausted. She could barely keep her eyes open as she turned off all the computers, locked the doors, and walked towards the first of the two trams that would take her back to the nearest stop to her apartment. It was an unseasonably cold evening in February, and Della shivered against the chilly gusts of wind blustering against her back.
As she was walking toward Canal Street through the deepening dusk, she followed a group of commuters, most of whom were clutching their bags and jackets to themselves, trying to stay out of the wind.
“I haven’t felt this cold here in years,” one woman commented, turning up her coat collar.
“Well, it’s definitely not a record low,” her companion answered, “but I’m ready for our typical balmy weather to come back. This is gonna be hell on the new palm trees Jim and I just had planted in the back yard.”
Della felt like she was two minutes away from falling asleep on her feet, which probably explained why she reacted so slowly to what came next.
A group of people dressed in black with masks pulled down over their faces barged onto the street from a side alley. They were all clutching handguns, and one was holding what looked like an assault rifle, cradled against his chest like a baby.
Several gasps and cries broke out as the crowd stuttered to a stop, pressing together like a squeezed accordion. The gunman standing at the front raised his weapon in the air and screamed, firing two shots into the sky. His eyes were crazed, and unhinged laughter spilled out from the blank mouth opening of the dark balaclava.
Pandemonium broke out around Della, who was standing frozen with shock, her eyes glued to the gunmen. The crowd that she had been following scattered in all directions, screaming and pushing and shoving against each other as they ran. The sharp retort of gunfire shattered the evening.
Above Della’s head a window shattered, raining glass down on her. A large, burly man with a bushy beard slammed into her in his attempt to get away. She staggered as his huge frame plowed into her and she began to fall. Miraculously, he paused long enough to grab her arm and keep her from hitting the ground. With his help, she was able to steady herself on her feet. Before she could wrap her stunned brain around the idea of thanking him, however, he fled down the sidewalk towards the corner.
Della took a few stumbling steps after him, still dazed. Her breath was ragged in her lungs, which burned with pain as she tried to pull cold air through her mouth.
This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening.
Her brain was stuck on an endless loop, unable to jerk free from the terror spilling onto the street around her. Her vision was tunneling and she couldn’t focus on the figures rushing past her and out into the street. Car horns blared, tires shrieking as several vehicles crashed into each other, trying to avoid the panicking people now flooding into traffic.
Della knew she needed to get away, but it felt like her legs were mired in quicksand. She couldn’t run and she felt an enormous pressure constricting around her chest, as if she were being suffocated.
Oh, God. I’m going to die right here on this sidewalk.
The thought ripped through her mind like a lightning bolt. The adrenaline burst that accompanied the terrifying realization propelled her forward so quickly, she almost fell to her knees again. Still mindlessly following the man that had stopped her from falling, Della tried to make it to the corner.
An explosion of sound seemed to fill Della’s awareness, and the man with the beard crumpled to the ground ahead of her. At first, she didn’t connect the two things—not until she saw the bright red splotchy patch blossoming over his gray jacket.
Della was moving, but she felt like her arms and legs were made of lead. She stumbled towards him, completely horrified at what she was seeing. The man was face down, gagging and gasping for air on the sidewalk, his breaths coming in terrible, wet rattles. Della knelt down beside him, the spreading puddle of his blood soaking into her dress pants, and she placed a hand on his back.
Before she could even begin to help him, she felt him shudder and go completely still.
Della’s heart was pounding so hard and fast, she felt like it was going to leap out of her chest, yet the thumping in her ears was sluggish, and everything around her seemed to be moving in slow motion. The gunmen were making their way in her direction. More explosions of noise echoed against the facades of the tall buildings around her. More bodies were falling to the ground. Terrified shrieks seemed to reach her ears as if she were underwater, muffled and distant. Yet Della remained on her knees, unable to leave the still body under her shaking hand. Sudden, crippling grief poured out of her for the man who had helped her—however briefly—at the cost of his own life.
Fuck this, Della thought savagely, anger surging behind the sorrow. She’d heard on the news that experts now recommended fighting and throwing things at gunmen in a mass shooting situation, rather than trying to flee or hide.
The man’s messenger bag was lying on the ground next to her, as well as a small, decorative metal trashcan that must have been knocked over when people stampeded through the outdoor seating area of the café nearby. With fumbling fingers, Della reached for the strap in one hand and the trashcan in the other. She stood in one swift movement, bracing herself for a fight to the death, adrenaline lending her muscles a sudden, unexpected strength.
One of the gunmen was just behind her; she could hear his excited breathing and then the press of cold metal against her back.
“Are you ready to die, little kitty?” he sneered in her ear.
Her answer was to plant her feet and swing the bag and trashcan around so fast that the gunman, who was clearly not expecting her to fight back, didn’t have time to duck or get out of the way.
As she spun, Della felt her makeshift weapons make contact with the man’s shoulder and side. He let out a loud oof as the air was forced out of his lungs. The impact caused him to take one heavy step to the side, but he didn’t fall and he didn’t drop his weapon. Della dropped the bag but clung to the trashcan, raising it in both hands like a bat.
The gunman swore at her and pointed the gun straight at Della’s face.
Completely terrified, she threw the trashcan at him as hard as she could, which caused him to lower the gun so he could knock it aside before it hit him.
“You’re going to regret that, bitch!” he growled, lunging for her. Della stumbled backwards, trying to get away, but he grabbed her shoulder and spun her around, wrapping his arm around her and pressing the cold barrel of the gun against her temple.
DELLA HELD HER BREATH and gripped the meaty forearm that was wrapped around her chest with clawed hands, trying desperately to pull the man’s arm away. Even if she had managed to rip herself free, though, she knew that the minute she made a move to get away, the gunman would blow her head off. She simply held on, fingernails digging into the heavy black material of his shirt, feeling the seconds tick by one at a time, like dripping molasses.
With the gunman behind her, she could see the chaos on the street again. At least ten bodies lay in pools of blood. The dark red puddles seemed to shimmer under the streetlights. It was as though a heat haze had descended on the block, making everything waver in her vision. Her eyes flickered around, going in and out of focus, searching for any sign of the police or a SWAT team. Praying for help.
There was no one. She was alone with the dead, and the deadly. The other gunmen were chasing stragglers down the block and shooting bullets into fallen bodies. They blasted out windows of shops, including the one she and her captor were standing in front of, which caused him to yell in anger at his comrade.
“What are you doing, you stupid fuck! Trying to get me killed? Point that damn thing somewhere else!”
Della gasped aloud, despite trying valiantly to remain silent. She could hear a dull whine developing in her mind, an all-pervasive buzzing noise that drowned out any thought of defending herself. Panic was flooding her, followed by shock, preventing her from formulating any sort of coherent thought.
“Now, time to deal with you, pretty kitty,” the man said, jerking Della from behind so that her feet slipped out from underneath her. He dragged her backwards towards the building as she scrambled to find her footing.
“Let me go,” she pleaded.
“Not until you’ve fucking paid for that little trick with the trash can, whore,” he said, spinning her around to face him. His breath was hot and smelly on her face. She gagged and fought to get away from him, desperate for fresh air.
He slammed her down on the ground, and her head hit the pavement with a sharp crack. She sprawled there for a moment, stunned by the blow. Lights popped in front of her eyes and Della lay completely still, forgetting where she was or what was going on around her.
The sound of gunfire above her jerked her back to reality. The man standing over her had shot at a car that had driven by, blowing out the windshield and passenger-side window.
Della clapped her hands around her head and curled into a ball, her ears ringing from the repeated blasts so close to her.
Suddenly the man was back, kneeling over her and yanking her arms away from her body. She fought back furiously, swinging and clawing at every square inch of him she could reach. He used his body weight to pin her legs down and pressed the gun against her cheek.
“Lie still,” he commanded.
Della struggled for a moment more, but went limp when he pressed the barrel harder against her face.
She looked up into the face of pure evil, seeing his cold, blank eyes gazing back at her. There was only dark mirth and chilly indifference to be found there. She knew with complete certainty that she was going to die any moment now.
Out of nowhere, a mist descended around the site of carnage, swirling as if caught in a high breeze, even though everything in the night had gone completely still. It wrapped itself around the man crouched over her, flowing across his face. He jerked his head to the side, completely bewildered, and tried to swipe at the fog. His fingers passed straight through it, but the mist blew on towards the middle of the street, drawing his gaze. By the way the other gunmen were staggering around and waving their arms, Della guessed that something similar had happened to them.
The mist seemed to solidify in a dense patch in the middle of the blocked street, coalescing to reveal five dark figures. A strange aura of power radiated from them. Several of the gunmen backed away, raising their weapons.
“What the fuck, Benson?” one yelled in confusion in the direction of Della’s attacker.
The man called Benson grabbed Della by the hair and dragged her to her feet. She shrieked in pain, clamping her hands around his and scrambling desperately for purchase, trying to find her feet and support her weight.
“Don’t just stand there! Kill them!” Benson roared, making Della flinch in fright.
All at once, the shadowy figures burst into motion. Their speed was inhuman, Della realized with a jolt. No one could run that fast, not even if they were being pushed by a huge dump of adrenaline. They were moving unnaturally fast, almost as if they were flying towards the cluster of gunmen.
Della watched in open-mouthed awe as two women in the group launched themselves at the man carrying the assault rifle. He stumbled back in shock and fired off several rounds, all of which missed the newcomers and buried themselves in a building across the street with an explosion of brick dust. One of the women used a powerful blow to turn the barrel of the rifle towards the ground and slammed her fist into the man’s face. His nose erupted in a gush of blood. He fell back onto the ground and both women landed on top of him.
The man who appeared to be in charge of the group of newcomers surveyed the scene with startling light gray eyes that seemed to glow silver in the low light. He effortlessly swiped the legs out from underneath the gunman standing closest to him before his pale gaze fell on Della and her captor. Benson growled and raised his gun, pointing it at the man with a shaking hand.
“Help the woman,” the silver-eyed newcomer said, apparently unconcerned by the threat. His tone was deep and rich. Crushed velvet over tempered steel.
Somewhere in the back of Della’s overwrought brain, she realized that he had the most amazing voice she had ever heard. She would have probably gone weak at the knees if she weren’t already shaking like a leaf in a high wind.
Della heard a rushing sound and blinked. When she opened her eyes, a large man was standing in front of her, looking at her attacker with the intense green eyes of a hunting tiger. He took a calculated step forward, fists clenched as if he were about to strike. Benson stepped backwards, pulling her with him, and Della could feel him trembling against her. He fired off another deafening round from his handgun, and her would-be rescuer jerked to the side as it hit him in the chest, under the clavicle.
To Della’s utter surprise, the man did not crumple to the ground. Instead, the wound only seemed to make him angrier. He surged forward, grabbing Benson by the head with both hands. Benson dropped Della, who fell to the ground as her tormenter began to scream and struggle wildly, waving the gun around. She rolled quickly out from between the two and watched, horrified, as the newcomer lifted Benson from the ground by his head and threw him into the nearest wall, face first. He crumpled to the ground—a discarded rag doll, lying in a heap on the dirty pavement, obviously unconscious. The man with the gunshot wound in his chest walked over and stomped his heel down on Benson’s face, assuring that he would not be getting up again.
The crunch of his skull smashing made Della’s stomach churn. She felt bile rising in her mouth and coughed, trying not to vomit. She crawled backwards on her elbows, using her feet to propel her, trying to get away from the grisly tableau.
The movement seemed to catch her rescuer’s attention. He walked forward slowly, his hands raised in a peace token, and dropped to one knee next to her.
“Hey, now. Easy, there. Are you all right?” His tone was soothing, and very, very British. Della could still feel the aura of raw power radiating from him, which terrified her just as much as the armed man who had taken her hostage. Yet, she could not help but be captivated by his eyes, which seemed almost to glow in the low light. They were mesmerizing, and she realized that she was staring at him like a fool, silent and slack-jawed.
She shook her head, trying to clear it, and raised a hand to her pounding temple.
“Y-yeah, I think so,” she answered in a shaking voice.
He knelt next to her.
“It’s okay. Take a moment. You’ve had quite a scare,” he said, his voice calm and collected. Della’s eyes strayed to the gaping hole under his collarbone, oozing blood that looked almost black in the low light.
“Ah. Yes. Sorry about the gore,” he said, noticing her gaze. “It’s really unfortunate, that. Smarts like hell, actually, now that I think about it.” He winced, lifting a hand to prod at the wound and craning his neck to try to look at it. “Son of a bitch, that’s gonna leave a mark. I do not get paid enough to deal with this shit while I’m sober…”
Della’s mouth was still hanging open, but she couldn’t speak. She looked around wildly, wanting nothing more than to just go home and pretend that none of this had ever happened. She felt a bone-deep weariness underneath her pounding heart, and she was still fighting down nausea that threatened to overcome her willpower.
She could see the other figures walking towards her through the darkening evening, all converging on them.
The gray-eyed leader walked over to her rescuer and looked down at the wound on his chest, a crease of worry forming on his forehead. His hair was dark, falling tousled above a serious brow, sharp cheekbones, and full, sensuous lips.
“Xander, you obviously neglected to duck again,” he said in that deep velvet voice. “We’ve talked about this before, have we not?”
Della felt her heart skip a beat despite her terror.
The man called Xander had a hand clamped over the wound now, trying to stem the bleeding. “That we have. And I believe I made it perfectly clear that we need to keep a flask or two of the good stuff on us when dealing with this kind of crap. If I’m going to get shot through the lung by some redneck shithead with crooked teeth and halitosis, I’d prefer to be considerably more intoxicated than this, beforehand.”
Ignoring the litany of complaints, the leader knelt and reached out a hand to steady Xander, who had started to sway.
“Well, fuck,” Xander said matter-of-factly, and half-collapsed into his friend’s supporting grip. Trying to keep both of them upright, the leader set his hand down hard on the ground for balance. His fingers grazed the skin on Della’s wrist—the barest of brushes.
It was like touching a live wire. An electric jolt shot through Della’s entire body. She felt as though she had been punched in the stomach. Air was forced through her mouth in a sound of shock that was echoed by the leader’s surprised grunt. He jerked his hand away and leapt gracefully to his feet with his injured friend held securely in his grip, staring down at Della on the ground as if he had never seen anything like her.
Their eyes met, and she saw something like dismay flicker behind his silver-gray eyes. His lips parted, as if he wanted to say something to her, but no sound escaped his mouth. They stared at each other for several moments, the wounded man next to him flicking his eyes back and forth between the two. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“Tré?” he asked.
The gray-eyed man did not respond, just continued to stare into Della’s face. She thought she saw recognition flash behind his eyes.
But that was impossible. How could he recognize her? They had never met before. She would have remembered if they had, she was sure.
“Tré,” The wounded man said, more insistent this time. “Police approaching. Time to leave. Unless you’d like to try answering their questions while I bleed out in the back of a human ambulance?”
This seemed to startle the leader out of his reverie, and he broke eye contact with Della.
“Oksana,” he commanded in a hoarse tone. “Wipe her memory.”
“Wait. Wipe my what?” Della demanded, jerking into a sitting position. She tried valiantly to scramble away from the female figure descending upon her. “No. No! Stay away from me.”
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” the woman said in a soothing voice. “Hey, look at me. Relax. That’s it.”
Della felt all the tightness in her muscles start to drain away. She shook her head, trying to clear it, but a dreamy veil seemed to fall in front of her eyes, making everything foggy.
“No… wait,” she said in a weak voice, feeling everything around her grow dim. Grayness seemed to swirl around the edges of her vision and she tried to shake her head again, feeling it flop back and forth in slow motion.
The glare of the streetlights and the chill of the rough pavement beneath her slipped away, sending her into warm, soft darkness.
End of Free Sample
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