Demon Night

Demon Night cover

Explore the seductive corners of the dark, as a forbidden attraction tempts danger under the canopy of the…

Charlie Newcomb worked hard to get her life back together. But all that is shaken when she’s set upon by three vampires desperate to transform her beauty into something evil. Because Charlie is the vital link to something they want—and need. It’s Charlie’s flesh and blood sister, a medical scientist whose knowledge could be invaluable to the predators.

But to get to her, they must first get to Charlie, now under the intimate protection of Ethan McCabe. As her Guardian, Ethan is attracted to her vulnerabilities—as well as her strengths. The closer he gets, the more protecting her becomes not just his duty, but his desire. But will it be enough to save Charlie when the demon night falls?

“[Brook] is truly one of the best voices out there. Sexy, exciting…a dark and sultry world.” –Gena Showalter

“Charlie’s traumatic past has left her believably afraid of her own needs, and Ethan is a brave, sweet guy with old-fashioned ideas about chivalry. Brook gives them distinctive dialogue and paints a fascinating, erotic world full of angels, demons, vampires and ambiguity.” –Publisher’s Weekly

The Story So Far

Are you starting with this book? Do you want a series refresher before starting the next? Catch up on The Story So Far in the Guardian series primer.

<– The previous book in the series

The next book in the series –>

a romance junkies reviewer pick

READ AN EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

Eden, Arizona Territory
1886

“The McCabe boys are coming in, sheriff. From the west.”

A dusty deputy was an unlikely harbinger of doom. Lightning forking across the sky, tremors that fractured earth and ocean-those were portents of ruin.  Two safecrackers were hardly cause for concern, no matter how many lawmen had died in pursuit nor how many jail cells they’d escaped, and so it was several hours before Sheriff Samuel Danvers recognized the announcement for what it was.

Danvers eased up from behind his rosewood desk, tipping his hat back and surveying the young deputy. He’d seen rolls of barbed wire less tightly wound.

“Randolph found their campfire up on Webb Ridge, Deputy Erwin, and the latest report over the telegraph was a robbery in Tucson. How is it that they are coming in from the west?” A wasteland of scrub and desert stretched for a hundred miles in that direction, then a ridge of mountains. There was nothing out there to tempt men, whether sinners or saints or all of those in between.

“They’re circling around, sheriff. Like buzzards.” On each word, the deputy’s Adam’s apple bobbed with the force of his excitement.

Vultures. Danvers liked that description; the McCabe boys likely wouldn’t. If they stepped foot in his town with the intention of bringing trouble, the only carrion to scavenge would be their own.

Danvers’s smile was slow and long, and Erwin visibly brightened beneath it, straightening his shoulders. “Well now, deputy. We’d best show our visitors the depth of Eden’s hospitality.”

Erwin nodded, muttering, “Circling around, sneaky as coyotes. Throwing us off the scent.”

As the deputy undoubtedly hoped, Danvers was pleased by that comparison as well. “It won’t be difficult to sniff them out.”

Danvers adjusted the fit of his vest and collected his pistols from a wooden peg, buckling them around his hips. The holsters were a negligible weight, and the simple threat of their appearance commanded more respect than the gleaming weapons within-so much respect that Danvers hadn’t yet fired them.

But then, most outlaws were cowards at heart, and his deputies were eager to please him.

After donning his neatly pressed jacket, he continued, “If not directly to the bank, where do you imagine a pair of iron workers dry from the trail would go first, Erwin?”

“Madam LaFleur’s, sheriff.”

Danvers paused on the threshold. “Deputy.”

A blush ruddied the young man’s tanned skin, and his lanky form wilted under Danvers’s disapproving stare. “The saloon, sir. They’d have an almighty powerful thirst.”

“Yes.” Men were all too often driven by their weaknesses-thirst, hunger, lust-and surely men such as the McCabes were more susceptible than most. “Round up Singleton and Randolph, Erwin. I’ll expect you in the saloon by nightfall.”

Cowards and coyotes waited to slink in under the cover of darkness; the McCabes wouldn’t be any different.

Danvers stepped out onto the stoop. The main street curved snakelike through Eden, east to west, and the sheriff’s office was at the head of it. The sun hung low over the flat roofs and peaked facades lining the street, washing the graying buildings with pale gold, casting deep shadows in between. The jagged ridge of mountains on the western horizon appeared lavender-and were quickly deepening to purple.

“You’d best hurry, deputy,” Danvers said softly.

Erwin darted past him, and dust flew from his gelding’s hooves as he sent it galloping down the street. Gathered in small groups in front of the general store, several of Eden’s citizens turned to watch his winding progress, their concern etched in tight lines near their mouths.

They needn’t worry. Danvers had single-handedly delivered Eden from corruption; he wouldn’t allow the little piece of heaven he’d created for himself to be desecrated by the likes of the McCabes.

He walked loudly down the board sidewalk, alerting the watchers to his approach. He answered their nervous greetings with an easy smile designed to assuage their fears.

These were good people, worth saving: the women in their clean, bright calicos and fresh skin and modest glances; the men with their work-roughened hands and solemn mustaches that always gave the appearance of a frown. Even the whores lounging in Madam LaFleur’s parlor across the street had the decency to cover their wares with proper clothing-and Danvers had made clear what would happen to men who treated them poorly. No one dared lift a hand or belt, and not one whore had sported a bruise in years.

And for years, he’d had to decline their offers of payment. Their gratitude was enough, and eventually, the wariness that lingered in their eyes would fade.

Pride. He shouldn’t feel it, but he did. It was a fine place, Eden. And, though it wasn’t as lush as its namesake, the heat suited him.

The interior of Hammond’s Saloon was dim, but Danvers had no trouble making out the faces of the men seated around the tables and at the bar. Apparently, they’d already heard of the McCabe boys’ approach; their expressions told Danvers they were eager for a kill, eager to collect the bounty on the outlaws’ heads.

He’d have to disabuse them of that notion. Mobs, pandemonium, chaos-they were anathema to him. Men couldn’t live without order; Danvers provided them with it. And he’d continue to provide it, even if it had to be in spite of them.

His gaze swept over the waiting men, and he delivered his pronouncement in a low voice. “We’re just locking them up to await the circuit court’s judgment.”

Everyone deserved judgment.

The men were disappointed, but the hunger in their demeanor transformed into a willingness to wait. Their conversations resembled the gossip of women.

“-I hear tell they killed seven men up in Laramie-”

“-can bust through a safe in ten seconds. Ain’t no jail that can hold ‘em-”

“-they call the elder brother Long McCabe, on account of he’s almost eight feet tall-”

Rumors, suppositions. Danvers sat at the bar and waited for his deputies to return. They wouldn’t be persuaded by hearsay; he’d taught them that observation provided facts, and to study well what they saw.

Appearances were rarely deceiving.

From outside the saloon, he heard the heavy tread of booted feet. Danvers was not given to superstition, but the sound suddenly spoke like an omen, the fist of God falling like a hammer against his skull.

He looked toward the batwing doors. Silhouetted against the orange sky was the tall figure of a man, his shoulders as broad as a blacksmith’s.

And Sheriff Samuel Danvers was absolutely certain that his little piece of heaven was soon headed straight for Hell.

CHAPTER ONE

“So this cowboy walks into a bar-”

To Charlie Newcomb’s relief, a chorus of male groans drowned out the rest and her automatic please God, kill me now response died afterplease God. There were days she’d rather stab a cocktail umbrella through her eardrum than hear another “walked into a bar” joke.

Thanks to the group of bachelors roosting at the end of her counter in Cole’s Hard Time Bar and Grill, this had just become one of those days.

“No, wait. Wait!” Her tormentor’s voice was abnormally loud, but Charlie knew it wasn’t just the drink. He’d been obnoxious before she’d set the first reduced-calorie beer in front of him. “It’s a good one.”

“Stevens, you dumbshit, there’s no such thing as a good one,” someone said as Charlie began unloading the small dishwasher beneath the bar, and she felt an instant of hope. A possible ally existed among the assholes. “Yo, bartender lady!”

Charlie turned, flipping the highball glass in her hand to the rack near her hip. Her ally cocked a dark brow.

“More peanuts, Blondie?” He pushed a wooden tri-pod bowl through a pile of shells littering the mahogany surface and loosened his red tie with his opposite hand. “I have to fortify myself for the upcoming bullshit.”

Just lovely. “Sure thing,” she said. Her sneakers crunched over the floor. How had they gotten the shells on this side? Flicked them over when she wasn’t paying attention? Gorillas.

“Okay, so this cowboy, he walks into a bar and sits down, right? And then he realizes that it’s a gay bar, but he’s real thirsty, right? So he says, ‘what the hell, I’ll stay anyway.’”

Charlie was better than this Stevens guy if she didn’t slam the refilled peanut bowl into his face.

Telling herself that didn’t make her feel better.

“And so he starts to order his drink, but the bartender, he says…hey, Blondie, hold on. You should do this part.”

Stevens’s hand came perilously close to hers as if he intended to detain her. Charlie paused in the middle of scraping the broken shells from the counter into a small wastebasket and gave him a Look.

She’d had to use it before. It was effective, that Look, even on drunks. A narrowing of her eyes, a tightening of her lips, and it said, Touch me and I’ll kill you.

Or cut off their drinks, which was sometimes the more dire consequence. But Stevens and his friends weren’t yet intoxicated-just warmed and loosened.

“Ah,” Stevens said, blinking slowly. His hand resembled a quivering mouse when he pulled it back to curl around his mug. “Do you want to do the bartender’s part?”

No. But she knew from experience that a Look was one thing; outright rejection, another. Easier just to play along than risk them moving from obnoxious to belligerent.

“All right.” She set down the trash bin, wiped her hands on the towel tucked into her lap apron. God, how many of these things had she heard? Not many with cowboys, though. Mostly priests and rabbis. She took a stab. “So the bartender says, ‘Before I serve you a drink, you have to tell me the name of your penis.’”

Stevens’s mouth didn’t move much, but his eyes-slightly red, slightly watery-turned down into a frown. “You’ve heard this one.”

“Well,” Charlie said, suddenly wary. The two beers she’d given him over the past hour weren’t usually enough to inebriate a guy his size-but he might have been drinking somewhere else before meeting up with his buddies, and the alcohol just now kicking in. “Yeah.”

“Fuck. You guys, she’s already heard this one. That fucking ruins the whole joke. Forget this shit.” He tipped up his mug, looked down into it. Empty. “I need another one of these, Blondie. Try not to fuck that up.”

The clench of her teeth could have ground peanuts to butter. Like hell she’d serve him more.

“Yo, Stevens. Ease off, man. It isn’t her fault.” Her ally. His tie now hung limply around his neck, but she managed to restrain herself from reaching over and yanking it tight again when he added, “Listen to her. She’s sick or something. Couldn’t get off for the night, Blondie?”

His tone was sympathetic, but his assumption scraped her already-raw nerves, and the rasp in her voice deepened along with her frustration.

“No.” Charlie pointed to the jagged white line crossing the bottom of her throat. She’d ripped out the sleeves and collar of her Metallica t-shirt, and the resulting boat neckline was low; she couldn’t believe they’d missed the scar. Unless she was wearing a turtleneck, she usually couldn’t get new acquaintances to look at her face. “The Emerald City Slasher.”

His eyes widened; so did Stevens’s and the others’. “No shit? Thaddeus White, right?”

She nodded. “Seventeen years ago. I was twelve.” Hopefully they were too loose and warm to recall that the Slasher had fixated on adult women, not kids.

“How’d you get away?”

“I had to saw through my ankle. Then I crawled to a neighbor’s.”

“Holy shit.” The exclamation made the rounds, and two of the jerks actually tried to lean over the bar for a look at her legs. Did they think she’d pop off a prosthetic foot for them?

A throat cleared behind her. Her savior had come. Charlie turned; Old Matthew’s determinedly solemn frown wrinkled his raisin-dark face. “You want to take that break now, Charlie?”

“God, yes,” she muttered and limped past him. Just before she reached the ‘employees only’ door, she heard him telling Stevens and company that, when probed too deeply, the memories of the Slasher were liable to send her into a psychotic rage.

Good Old Matthew Cole. He’d likely have them gone by the time she returned-or at least moved to a table in the restaurant.

She grabbed her navy pea coat from the hook inside the break room, slid it on, and dug her knitted cap from the pocket before slipping out through the kitchens. The heavy length of her hair against her back annoyed her, but she didn’t untuck it from beneath her collar. Trapped as it was between the coat and the wool hat, it’d be as flat as a one-dollar beer by the end of her break.

But flat could be fluffed; drowned rat could not.

Rain misted over her face and sparkled beneath the halogen security light. Cardboard wilted in the recycler to her left. The lid on the brown dumpster was up. She grimaced, imagining the sodden garbage, and tipped it closed. The clang shot through the alley, disturbing a yellow-striped cat and echoing in her ears until she reached the gated stairwell to the roof.

The gate was wrought iron, with a metal screen to prevent anyone reaching through the bars to the interior knob. As a safety measure, only the outside knob locked-if someone dropped the key over the side of the roof, they could still open the gate from the inside.

Every Cole’s employee had access to the key, but Charlie was one of the few who used it, even when-as now-the air was cool enough to nip at her face, but not enough to make her shiver. Luckily, in Seattle, extremely cold days were as rare as a perceptive drunk.

The top of the stairwell was dark, but the light above the bar’s kitchen door shined through the gate, casting shadowy diamonds against the rough brick wall. Charlie ran lightly up the stairs, her feet slapping tinny chimes from the aluminum treads.

In the middle of the roof, a few potted plants edged an Astroturf carpet and surrounded a porch swing better suited to a verandah in Savannah than atop a bar in the trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. Small firs from a Christmas tree farm flanked the swing’s support posts. A white string of lights spiraled around the evergreen branches, though the holidays had passed four months earlier. Steam floated from the ventilation hoods over the kitchen and caught the streetlights in front of Cole’s, then dissipated as it rose. The scent of grease and fried potatoes it carried did not fade as easily.

Old Matthew called the roof garden his little piece of heaven; when Charlie had utilized the sand-filled planter that doubled as an ashtray at the end of the swing, it had been hers. Still was.

She’d kicked the habit, but the scene was too good not to revisit. Though the old movie theater across the street obscured most of the downtown skyline, there was just enough glitter to offer a lovely view.

The chill from the seat soaked through her black cotton pants, but the canvas awning had kept it dry. A push of her foot sent it swinging, and she fished her cell phone from her coat. For the space of a few seconds, the rocking tempo perfectly matched the ring of the phone.

Jane answered on an upswing. “Char-lie.”

Charlie’s brows rose. She’d heard a couple of men say her name like that, but never her older sister. “I’m just checking to make sure you haven’t forgotten about lunch tomorrow.”

“Nuh-uh. I wrote it on a sticky. It’s stuck on the fridge at home.”

‘Fridge’ was kind of a moan, too. Charlie unwrapped a piece of gum-not the square kind anymore-and folded it over her tongue before she said, “Actually, I wrote it. You just stuck it.” At home? “Are you still at the lab?”

“Yeah.”

Charlie rolled her eyes. “Did you remember to eat today?”

“Uh-huh. We ordered in. Sushi. And wine.” A giggle came through the earpiece. Jane didn’t giggle.

“You’re with Dylan,” Charlie guessed. “Isn’t this why you moved in with him? It still shocks me that Legion doesn’t dock you both for…what’s the word? It starts with F.”

“Fraternization?”

“That’s good enough. With the regional head, while you’re at work. Isn’t there a policy against that kind of thing?” It seemed like there should be, but Charlie couldn’t be sure; both the corporate and academic research worlds were mysteries to her. Jane’s descriptions of internal politics, red tape, and the hoops she had to jump through at Legion Laboratories could have been set in another universe.

“Nuh-uh.” Breathily. And her ridiculously articulate-if absentminded-sister was spouting two-syllable non-words.

“Oh, God,” Charlie realized. “You’re fraternizing him right now. Naked?”

“Almost.”

Charlie tried not to imagine that, even though Dylan was…well, yummy. All dark hair and eyes and sinful lips. But he was her sister’s, and they were so cute together. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I couldn’t decide if that would be more awkward.”

“Nerd. You didn’t have to answer the phone.”

“It was you.”

“Aw, that’s sweet. Except now I feel dirty.”

“Imagine how I feel.” The dry tone was familiar-it was Jane.

Charlie grinned at the phone. “Alrighty then. Try not to be naked at noon.”

“I’ll try.”

That ended on a bit of a scream, and Charlie hastily disconnected. The call time flashed up at her from the backlit screen: fifty-six seconds. Her smile faded.

Adding in the minute it had probably taken to come up here, she had thirteen minutes before she had to return. Shit.

She should have brought a book. Or her knitting bag. How long had she been relying on Jane being available when she needed a distraction? God knew Charlie had been dependent enough in her life; she should have recognized the signs by now.

But she shouldn’t be feeling this envy. If anyone deserved happiness, it was Jane. Charlie didn’t know if Dylan deserved her sister, but if Jane was happy with him, Charlie would be, as well.

With effort, she forced away the self-pity-that emotion was addictive, too.

She rocked a little harder, let her head fall back against the cushion, and closed her eyes. Why had she let a guy like Stevens get to her? She never had before. She didn’t know why she was so tense of late-or why she couldn’t shake the certainty that she was constantly under observation. Surely after two months, she couldn’t blame her paranoia on nicotine withdrawal.

At least she could be confident that no one could see her for the next ten minutes. Determinedly, she occupied herself with a game of pinball on her cell phone until she heard a swell of laughter and voices.

Charlie left the cover of the swing and looked over the low wall at the front of the building toward the Heritage, where an old-fashioned marquee declared it “James Stewart Month.” Groups of twos and threes spilled from the theater’s doors, many of them folding their collars up against the rain.

The second show must have ended earlier than usual, or there’d been a problem with the projector-Old Matthew always scheduled her break before any theater patrons straggled in.

Most of the moviegoers turned right, walking down the sidewalk toward Harvard Street and the parking garage. One large group of twenty- or thirty-somethings, males and females in tailored trousers, long, belted coats and chic haircuts, headed straight for the bar. None of them carried umbrellas, but many Seattle urbanites viewed them with disdain-as if getting soaked honored some sacred Cascadian tradition.

A few minutes remained before Charlie’s break ended, but she might as well head back and give Old Matthew a hand.

She walked to the stairwell, hoping Stevens and friends had left-or at least migrated to the restaurant-and hoping that the newcomers wouldn’t offer their own variety of condescending bullshit and a pseudo-intellectual discussion of the film over cocktails.

But two steps down, still enshrouded by darkness, Charlie froze. Thoughts of annoying customers fled. She stared through the gate at the wet asphalt in the alley, her heart hammering in her chest.

For an instant, the shadowy diamond pattern at the bottom of the stairs had thickened and congealed into a human shape.

Around her, the soft pattering of rain steadily increased. From Broadway, the rumble of a bus engine was followed by the gassy release of its brakes.

No voices. No footsteps.

It could have been nothing. Someone using the alley as a shortcut. A person who’d just left the bus, or taken in the movie. Someone in the kitchens bringing a bag of trash out to the dumpster, and she just hadn’t heard the door open and close.

But it had been so fast. Furtive. And though she hadn’t seen anyone cross in front of the gate, the light source was close to the stairs. For someone to have cast a shadow, the person had to be near as well.

Silently, she edged back up to the landing. It might be nothing, and in a moment she’d call herself an idiot-but better than being mugged or raped in a dark alley.

She looked over the back wall, and her breath caught. A man in black stood directly beneath her. Though the halogen light illuminated his long blue-black hair and whitened the skin at his hairline, hands, and the tops of his ears, the depth of the shadow pooled around his feet seemed to enfold him in darkness.

Stopping for a smoke in the rain? Charlie tried to convince herself of it, but he didn’t reach into his trench coat pockets for a cigarette. And he was too still-almost expectant. Waiting.

For what?

So absolute was his stillness, Charlie nearly jumped when he leaned away from the wall, turning his head as if searching for someone. His shadow slid like oil, a dark slick spreading the width of the alley.

Charlie looked in time to see a man and a woman melt out of the darkness beyond Cole’s street-side corner. Gooseflesh prickled her arms. Their steps seemed sped up, like the cartoonish pace of old black-and-white newsreels.

But there was nothing jerky in their predatory glide, nothing comedic. It was too smooth, too quick, too…

Inhuman.

A shiver raced down her spine, drew the skin tight across the nape of her neck. Her breath skimmed in between her lips.

As if he’d heard that soft sound, the figure below tipped his pale face up. His mouth was half-open in a smile. Sharp teeth gleamed.

Long sharp teeth.

Charlie jerked away from the wall and dropped into a crouch. Her legs trembled. Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Had he seen her?

Had she just seen fangs?

She was crazy. Fucking crazy. One strange incident two months ago, and now she was imagining vampires.

She squeezed her eyes closed, willing away the vision of his teeth, hoping her blindness might be his, too. They flew open again when the sing-songy voice drifted up the stairwell.

“Charlotte…”

She was suddenly lightheaded, dizzy. Her inhalations were too fast, too shallow. Hyperventilating. She was going to pass out if she didn’t get a hold of herself.

She forced her breathing to slow, forced herself to think. Had she been panicking like this from the time she’d seen the first shadow?

If so, that might explain why they’d seemed to move so quickly. Her perception could have been distorted.

But he’d said her name. How could he know her name?

She hadn’t gotten a good look at the other two. Her job put her in contact with a lot of people, and she was on a first-name basis with many of them. Had anyone mentioned a costume party? A rave at a Goth club?

But a casual acquaintance wouldn’t know to find her up here, and would only use her nickname.

Still shaking, her breaths ragged, Charlie half-rose from her crouch. She moved quietly to the head of the stairs and peeked around the stairwell housing.

No array of diamond shadows. The stairs were completely dark, the light blocked by the three figures staring up at her through the gate.

Though she could barely see the outline of their features, she was instantly certain she didn’t know any of them.

Was instantly certain those smiles weren’t friendly.

Oh, God. She turned and flattened her back against the brick wall, frantically searching her coat pocket for her cell. The rough corrugated stone dug into her spine.

An eerie screech tore through the air. She realized what it was the same time the first ring sounded in her ear.

Cold wrought iron, bending.

A hard-edged feminine laugh accompanied another metallic squeal, and Charlie’s throat tightened. It wouldn’t do any good to shout or scream. She couldn’t attain any volume, and nothing pitched higher than a middle C would ever come from her scarred vocal cords. Come on, comeoncomeoncomeon-

“Cole’s-”

“Old Matthew! There’s someone in the alley-”

And now deep male laughter, as if they were relishing her fear.

“Charlie?”

“-trying to get up here, hurry hurry-”

Through the earpiece, she heard Old Matthew calling Vin’s name and the crash of the phone to the counter. They’d be out within seconds.

To face these things? Old Matthew was huge, intimidating, and Vin strong and quick, but she hadn’t warned them that whatever they were running to confront might be much, much stronger-

A familiar flat clang almost stopped her heart, her breath. The Dumpster. Someone had jumped on top of the lid. And the rough scraping could only be boots against brick.

One of them was climbing the wall.

Charlie shot to her feet, prepared to run. But where? There was no access to street level except the stairs. She whirled in a circle, looking for a place to hide. Nowhere was safe.

The lights from the Heritage penetrated the gray haze of fear clouding her vision. It was only a twenty foot drop or so. Better to risk broken legs and go over at the front of the building than wait around here for…

Her mind shut off before she could contemplate that.

Blindly, she sprinted away from the wall and slammed into another. Pain exploded over her cheek. The impact spun her around, she almost fell, but something wrapped around her chest and pulled her back up tight against a surface as hard as the brick, but warm.

What-?

Not a wall. One of them had gotten upstairs.

It was no use, but she tried to yell, kicking her heels against his shins, elbowing his stomach and chest. Her struggles were as ineffectual as her screams, and she hated the desperate whistling noises she made almost as much as she hated this thing for scaring her.

“Easy, Charlie. Easy.” A male voice. A soft rumble in her ear. “I’ll take care of them.”

It cut through her panic, and she had a heartbeat’s time to see the arm extended over her shoulder, and the crossbow in a large, capable hand. A heartbeat’s time to see the dark form launch onto the roof and the shock on his pale face before the bolt thunked into his forehead and he tumbled back over the side.

The female shrieked, a piercing note of surprise and terror. One of the males-probably not the one with an arrow through his brain, Charlie realized-cried a name like a warning. Gideon? And then running footsteps, boots against pavement, echoing in the alley…so fast.Prestissimo agitato, and the tempo of her heart not much slower.

“Can you stand, Charlie?”

She didn’t know. She couldn’t think of her legs when her entire existence narrowed down to a stranger’s arm and his weapon. The rain beaded on his sleeve, then soaked into the rough weave. There weren’t many dark spots on the material, as if he’d donned the coat in the past minute or two.

“Charlie?”

She blinked. “Yes,” she rasped, and then he was setting her feet down and running silently past her, a tall form in a long brown duster, the split coattails flaring out behind him. A round-brimmed hat shadowed the side of his face as he jumped atop the wall and went over.

Her stomach quaking, Charlie raced to the edge, looked down.

All of them, gone.

Vertigo struck. The world swam dizzily, and Charlie shook her head.Not real. Not real.

She was trying to convince herself of that as Old Matthew and Vin burst through the kitchen door. A shotgun glinted dully in Old Matthew’s grip. They rounded the Dumpster.

“Charlie?” Shock hoarsened the older man’s voice and twisted his face when he saw the gate. He lifted the weapon to his shoulder, turned in a long sweep of the alley.

It took her two attempts to moisten her tongue enough to reply, to stop the chattering of her teeth. “Up here.” It was little more than a whisper, so she added a wave.

She looked into the barrel of the shotgun for half a second, then Old Matthew lowered it. “You all right?”

The weak nod of her head didn’t seem sufficient, but she couldn’t yet move and didn’t want to walk, however briefly, into the darkness. “I’m okay,” she said. “I just really have to pee.”

“You’d better come down first.” Old Matthew’s tone was the same he used with weepy drunks.

Not weepy, not drunk-just numb.

Belatedly, she realized her phone was still open. She clicked it shut. Twenty-one seconds.

She forced herself to move away from the safety the sight of Old Matthew’s and Vin’s familiar faces provided. She wouldn’t be dependent on it. She wouldn’t-

What in the hell was that?

Her legs weakened, and she had to brace her palm against the stairwell wall to steady herself. She shook her head, looked again.

A long white feather lay on the black rooftop, only a yard from where she’d barreled into him. So clean and bright that it appeared to glow, though lit only by dim Christmas tree bulbs and the vapor-scattered streetlight.

“Come on, Charlie girl.” Worry had crept into Old Matthew’s voice; she must have been out of his view for too long.

She swept up the feather with shaking hands and ran down the stairs, through the dark. And it was crazy, stupid-but once the idea occurred to her, she couldn’t let it go.

Perhaps the vampire hadn’t yelled a name, but a word.

Guardian.