with Maggie Shayne, Marjorie Liu, and Alyssa Day
Lucas Marsden has faced nosferatu before and survived, but he doesn’t know how to defeat the demon who hunts the vampires in his community…
But he knows exactly what he wants from the beautiful Guardian sent to protect them.
“Once again, Brook plays with the notion of free will on multiple levels, adding hope to her dark world of demons and nosferatu, and substance to a genre that is too often dismissed as fluff.” — Nicola, Alpha Heroes
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.
READ AN EXCERPT
Will you tell the court the events leading up to the night of August twelfth?
He couldn’t remember. Lucas Marsden glanced from the hammer in his right hand to the nail through the back of his left, and had no idea how he’d managed to pin himself to the backstage scaffolding–or why, despite his three years of law school and countless hours studying proper witness examination techniques, it was Perry Mason’s made-for-TV query that echoed in his head.
Or why he answered it.
I was dismantling the set from our latest production at the Paradise Theater– The wound stopped bleeding; pale skin healed over the head of the nail, embedding it into his flesh like a round hungry tick. —The Glass Menagerie, which was doing well until last month, when our lead actress, Olivia Jordan, was murdered.
And could you describe the nature of this murder?
She was staked out in the forest, decapitated, and left to burn to ashes in the sun.
She wasn’t just an actress, was she, Mr. Marsden? And her death is the reason why you’ve nailed yourself to a four-by-four–
And the reason why he interrogating himself with leading questions. Jesus Christ. He wasn’t as strong as he’d thought; the cow blood had already turned him into an idiot. With a shake of his head, Lucas focused.
Drops of perspiration gathered at the dark hair near his temples, over his brow. The scent of his blood lay heavy in the theater’s stifling air. He’d not yet fed that evening; typically, the fragrance would have aroused the bloodlust…but a month without a living food source had slowed its response.
And, apparently, damaged his hearing and psychic senses–he did not notice the woman until she appeared in his peripheral view. Endless tanned legs, sun-streaked blonde hair, and probably not even of legal age to drink.
Or to drink from.
Thank God his eyesight still functioned; Lucas wasn’t as certain about his brain. He was suddenly grateful he was stuck to a post–the ache in his fangs told him the bloodlust had decided to rise, after all.
Fortunately, his flesh didn’t react in the same way. She was edible, but obviously human. The last thing he needed was for the vampire community to learn he’d lost control and taken one.
His hearing worked, too: the even thrum of her heart reverberated in his ears.
Lucas frowned, struck by the peculiarity of that steady beat, the smoothness of her expression. She was alone in a pitch-black theater with a strange–and by no means small and harmless–man, and she didn’t evince the slightest fear. Nor could he feel any in her psychic scent.
He couldn’t sense anything from her. The animal blood must have muddled his ability to read her. Or she possessed a disturbing level of vapidity, and there was nothing to read.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, forcing away his unease. How many gorgeous young women had arrived at the Paradise since Olivia had been killed? The drama department at Southern Oregon University was bursting with them, and he’d received several inquiries from actresses up in Portland and Seattle–all eager for a chance to tread the boards at one of Ashland’s private stages. Granted, most of them did not come in at midnight, but he usually wasn’t impaled on a nail. “The theater is closed until next season. We’ll be holding auditions in October.”
Her gaze held his before dropping to his hand, and his apprehension returned, knotting in his gut. His estimation of her age increased drastically. Those quiet blue eyes didn’t belong to an insipid young woman…and no human could have made out his shape so clearly in the darkness.
“I’m not here for an audition,” she said in a voice made of clarified honey: thick and sweet, the tones golden and clear. A smile deepened the indentation in her top lip, emphasized the lush curve of the bottom. A cupid’s bow. He’d thought such lips were as mythical as their namesake, but now he realized that any vampire who’d encountered them had likely hidden the woman away and fed from her mouth for eternity.
She approached him slowly, as she might have a trapped animal. She wore those strappy sandal-things Olivia had sighed over in magazines, ordered, and then left in their boxes at the bottom of her closet. Wine-red ribbons wound from ankle to knee like a ballerina’s slippers gone wild, the ends dancing the length of her sleek calves.
Her heels clicked against the floorboards. How had he not heard her come in?
“I’m here to help. Though I didn’t expect it to take this form, or for you to need it so quickly.”
Lucas looked up from her feet, swallowing hard. “Psychiatric help, I hope. I apparently suffer from a severe self-persecution complex.”
“No.” Her smile widened; her teeth formed a straight white line. No fangs.
Careful to keep his own from showing, Lucas pressed his lips together, bent his head, and concentrated as he returned the hammer to the loop in his carpenter’s pants. It shook against his thigh before he steadied it and slid the handle through.
She wasn’t a vampire; perhaps she’d grown up too quickly, and it had left that long-lived patience in her eyes.
He searched for another reason for her visit, and his addled mind came up with, “The air-conditioning system, then.” It had failed earlier in the week, but Lucas hadn’t found a repairman with an open schedule in the midst of the August heat wave.
“No.” She stood next to him now. She was tall, her chin on level with his throat. Her gauzy white sleeve brushed his forearm as she lifted his hand from the hammer and studied the tremor in his fingers.
His palm was cool, and in the stagnant theater a light film of perspiration had settled over his skin. A human would call his touch cold, clammy; this woman didn’t give any indication that she found it disgusting.
“How long have you had the shakes?”
Dark beads circled her neck, dripped between her breasts to her waist. Her burgundy shorts tied closed below her navel with a large bow; a wide satin band around the hem of each leg held them tight against her upper thigh, the material between billowing slightly like a pair of old-fashioned bloomers.
But there was nothing old-fashioned or prudish about the long stretch of bare leg beneath.
“They started two days ago.” He closed his eyes. Her skin was warm; lifeblood pulsed just beneath the surface of her upturned wrist. “You have to leave, miss. Now.”
“You can’t hurt me.” A gentle prick at the flesh covering the nail in his opposite hand accompanied the statement. Tepid crimson blood trickled from the reopened wound. Surprised, he looked up again.
A dagger glinted in her hand before disappearing. Lucas blinked, certain he’d been mistaken.
“What would you say your mental faculties are at? Sixty percent? Seventy?” She pinched the head of the nail between her forefinger and thumb. The wood screeched as she pulled. Quick, merciful–he barely felt the rip of the flesh that had healed around it. She slanted a glance up at him and dropped the nail to the floor. “Are you typically so unresponsive? You haven’t completely descended into ‘big dumb ox,’ but hammering yourself to scaffolding doesn’t venture into genius territory, either. What has it been: two weeks or so that you’ve been drinking the animal blood?”
He must be hallucinating. First Perry Mason, and now a ridiculously strong, impossibly perfect human who knew far too much about vampires. “A month.”
Her head tilted as she regarded him; her lashes were thick and black. He couldn’t smell any mascara. She didn’t have any odor, except the light scent of sunshine and heat and blood.
“A month? That’s an extraordinarily long time for a vampire to–” A crease formed between her dark golden brows. “Are you nosferatu-born?”
Nosferatu. A white naked hairless figure. Enormous and skittering out of nowhere in the depths of the cave: pointed ears, gleaming fangs. The tearing of flesh–Olivia’s screams. A teenager in a monk’s robe, wielding a sword.
The images flashed in front of him; this time Lucas was certain they didn’t exist. It was a memory, a nightmare. One he’d had far too often in the twenty years since his transformation.
“Lucas? Are you well?” Her frown disrupted the bow of her lips. “Where’s your partner?”
Dead. Grief and remembrance centered him. He wasn’t a dizzy, drooling boy faced with a sexual fantasy come-to-life; he’d stop acting like one.
The pale skin on the back of his hand closed again. He wiped the blood onto his navy t-shirt and said flatly, “You know who I am. What I am.”
She nodded slowly. She slid her thumbs into the front of her waistband; her fingers fanned across her lower abdomen. Her weight rested on her right leg, her hip cocked. Her relaxed posture didn’t indicate wariness, but he could almost feel the speed and readiness coiled within that lithe frame.
“Yes. Lucas Marsden, formerly an officer with the Salem Police Department. A graduate of Willamette University’s law school, and a prosecuting attorney for Marion County, but after two years, you gave up your position in the DA’s office. Now, you are the owner of the Paradise Theater, and head of the vampire community in Ashland, Oregon.”
Probably not either for much longer. “But you aren’t here looking for a role. Are you searching for immortality?”
If so, she’d arrived at exactly the right time; he was almost desperate enough to be reckless in selecting his new consort.
And if desperation weren’t enough, the temptation in the slow curve of her lips might be. “No. I found that several centuries ago.” She untucked her right thumb, held out her hand. “I’m Selah. I’m a Guardian.”
“A Guardian.” Lucas clasped her hand briefly before letting it go. “And what is it you guard, Selah?”
“Humans, usually. But a lot of things have changed of late.”
He arched a brow. “You protect vampires now?”
“Typically, I slay those who end up crossing my path.” Before he could respond, she shook her head and continued, “Typically, those who cross my path are not part of a community, but are endangering humans.”
His tension eased. He’d had to do the same to several rogues; and in the last three months, more than the past twenty years combined.
“If you aren’t here to kill us, then–” He stopped himself. Was he truly having this conversation? With a warm sun-kissed woman possessing a vampire’s strength?
But her touch had been real; so was the unwavering blue stare she leveled at him. “I believe you have a demon in Ashland, Mr. Marsden, and I have every intention of slaying it.” Her gaze swept his length. “But you won’t be much help to me like this. Where’s your partner, or someone you can feed from?”
A demon? How many holes did she think the animal blood had riddled in his brain? Lucas clenched his jaw, embarrassment and frustration rising hot within him. And anger, though–like the bloodlust–it was slow to respond. “I’ll show you.”
He didn’t believe her.
Selah followed Lucas Marsden through the sleeping city. She’d scented his odor coming from a Jeep parked in front of the theater, but they traveled on foot.
Was he testing her? If so, she was probably learning more of him than he did of her. He must be nosferatu-born; though tall and broad-shouldered, with a lean swimmer’s build, those physical traits were only indicative of his human life. Normal vampires–those transformed by an exchange of blood with another vampire–couldn’t have moved as swiftly as he did, no matter their shape.
And it was a fine shape indeed. Selah watched it as she jogged along behind him, not bothering to conceal her appreciation. She hated walking, loathed running, and if she had to follow him at this between-hate-and-loathing pace, she might as well get as much pleasure as she could out of it.
If she teleported them there, it might have persuaded him that she spoke the truth. But Lucas was at the stage where he was aware he wasn’t thinking clearly and so doubted his perception; such shock-and-awe tactics could push him over the edge and convince him she was nothing but a figment of his imagination.
Taking more time wouldn’t hurt, and considering the direction they were heading, she suspected she wouldn’t like what he had to show her–and the farther they went, the more certain she became of their destination.
She shook her head as they left the smooth pavement behind, entering a wooded area north of the city. The sharp fragrance of pine sap, the sweetness of ripening blackberries, and the rich scent of volcanic soil rose around her.
Her heels would catch on any protruding root; she vanished her shoes with regret, and created boots that matched his. They clomped, though she tried to keep her steps light. God, she despised jogging.
Lucas turned to glance over his shoulder, his dark brows lifting in surprise. He no longer radiated anger and shame, but curiosity. Good. He wouldn’t be difficult to work with, once he’d fed. A month of animal blood, but his shakes weren’t in the advanced stages, his verbalization coherent–it should only take one or two feedings for him to return to normal.
But no matter how handsome his face and figure, Selah hoped it wouldn’t have to be from her. The last time she’d been a beautiful vampire’s meal it had ended…badly.
Lucas came to a sudden halt, scenting the air. Tension gripped his form. Drawing up beside him, Selah caught it on the faint breeze, metallic and dark: vampire blood.
She focused, performed a psychic sweep of the forest around them. Only the Gate, resonating its soothing hum within her–and tinged by sulphur and rot. Nothing unexpected.
But a demon could hide its psychic presence from her. From both of them.
“Stay here,” Lucas said softly. Without much apparent effort, he suppressed the trembling. His palm rested steadily on the hammer at his thigh.
He must be accustomed to his orders being followed; assuming her compliance, he took a step forward.
“Lucas.” Selah stopped him with her hand on his forearm. The muscles were cool and hard beneath her fingers. She brought in a sword from her invisible cache of weapons; his breath caught when it appeared in her grip. “Have you any fencing experience?”
He stared at the sword for a long moment. His throat worked, and he swallowed before saying hoarsely, “I had to take on the part of Laertes for an evening.”
“Stage fighting?” She smiled. How was it that almost everyone she knew–vampire, Guardian or halfling demon–had such a dramatic streak? “We don’t want to pretend to hurt him.” A semi-automatic pistol replaced the sword. “Can you shoot?”
He recovered quickly. “It’s been a while, but–” He took the gun from her, efficiently chambered a bullet. “–yes.”
“Aim for the head, especially the eyes. Shooting him won’t kill him, but it will slow him down. Don’t hesitate to use it. It might keep you alive until I can get to you. Go ahead; I’ll be at your back.” She could still watch for an attack from the front, and protect them both if it came from behind.
Armed now, his attention never strayed from his search of the forest ahead of them. She’d always liked that in nosferatu-born vampires: their predatory instincts.
The crunch of pine needles was loud beneath their feet. There was no possibility of hiding their location with silence when they had to walk–he must have realized it, too.
“What are you? What’s a Guardian?” he said quietly, just as they came upon break in the trees, allowing a glimpse of a small clearing.
A body lay in the center. The odor of blood was overpowering.
A vampire who hadn’t yet fed might be distracted by such a strong scent; no vampire could control the bloodlust. And already, she could feel the hunger and need heightening within him.
With barely a thought, Selah formed her wings. The white feathers shone beneath the silvery moonlight, increasing her mass and providing a bright target. Hopefully, it would divert attention away from Lucas.
“We’re like angels–” She slanted Lucas a quick glance, found him staring at her. His emotions slid from disbelief to wonder and fascination, underscored by wariness and the nascent heat of his bloodlust. “–only much better.”