First Blood

with Susan Sizemore, Erin McCarthy, and Chris Marie Green

First Blood cover

“Thicker Than Blood”

A 2009 RITA® Finalist!

Annie Gallagher is the only survivor of a demon attack that exterminated every other vampire in her city. But she can’t leave before she finds Cricket, a young human girl whose vampire guardians have been killed. Annie needs help, but the rules of her kind demand that she operate in secrecy.

And when help comes, it’s from the one man she never expected…

“…a wonderful novella, with strong characters, an intriguing plot, and–of course–a good dose of blood and sex to boot.” –The Book Smugglers

“…four great vampire stories for readers who enjoy their romances with a bit of bite.” —Romantic Times BOOKreviews

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 –>


READ AN EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Less than two weeks ago, Annie Gallagher would have slain another vampire for this.

She’d followed the human to his home, anyway. He’d turned off the lights in his second-story bedroom, but she continued to wait; she wouldn’t feed from him until he slept. And so for the second time that night, she stood on a sidewalk and stared across a street at a pair of darkened windows–but this time, she didn’t let the ghosts overwhelm her.

Annie blinked and looked away from the house. Not ghosts. Even she didn’t believe that the spirits of the dead haunted the Earth, let alone a pizzeria in Northeast Philadelphia. And except for her father, all of the people she’d been thinking of were still living.

Not ghosts, but phantoms. Memories strong enough to bring the flavor of tomato sauce and mozzarella to a tongue that could no longer taste anything but blood.

Fighting the restlessness and hunger that began pricking the length of her spine, Annie rolled her shoulders within her heavy jacket and tugged at the neckline of her black tank. The body-hugging fabric didn’t tug far, and the movement only made her acutely conscious of the sweat soaking the material.

No air conditioning unit protruded from the face of the brick row home, but she’d heard one rumble to life moments after he’d gone inside. His house would be blissfully cool. But it probably wasn’t yet–and although his psychic scent indicated that he’d finally slipped into sleep, it wasn’t deep. At least ten or fifteen more minutes of waiting stretched ahead of her.

Loitering. Suspicious behavior, maybe, but Annie doubted that she would be noticed by any of the neighborhood’s residents. This part of Mayfair was blue collar to its core, early to bed and early to rise. Even the weekends didn’t see much action after the local bars closed, and it wasn’t exactly bumping with traffic on a Thursday night.

Or, considering that it was two-thirty, early Friday morning.

Thursday, Friday… Whatever, she thought, suddenly impatient with herself. A vampire didn’t move to the same circadian rhythms as the rest of the city, so it hardly mattered what day of the week it was when the sun came up–it only mattered when it went down.

Of course, if it hadn’t been Thursday, she wouldn’t have been standing there now.

Annie closed her eyes. All right. So it mattered. Enough that it hadn’t been the sight of Tony’s Pizza that had stopped her in her tracks when she’d been walking down Frankford Avenue, but the stabbing realization that only a few hours earlier, her mother, her brother, and his family had probably been in the restaurant. Annie’s two nieces, and the nephew she’d only seen in pictures–all carrying on the Gallagher tradition: Tony’s every Thursday night.

Surely they’d kept going after Annie’s transformation and her father’s death. Hell, even before she’d been turned, med school and her residency had prevented Annie from joining them half the time, anyway.

But however many dinners she’d missed since then, there had been enough memories to keep her riveted to the spot, staring into the past and letting the present recede into shades of gray. And even as she’d cursed herself for letting such a little thing–such a bygone thing–get to her, she hadn’t been able to break away until a glint of auburn had burned through the haze of remembrance.

Just another phantom, another bygone. But unlike the first–the jab of pain, the re-opening of an old wound–that flash of color deepened an ache that had been lurking beneath the surface of her skin for six years, leaching into her flesh, her bones.

The man had turned down a side street as she pulled her gaze away from Tony’s, but even in the shadows that pooled between the streetlights, she’d seen his rumpled hair was a shade too brown for auburn. The sun would lift out the red like the glow of a fire.

Just like Jack Harrington’s…although this man couldn’t be him.

He’d rubbed at his face as he walked, and she’d heard the sandpapery scrape of his palm over his jaw. Definitely not Jack, she’d thought, and the startled gallop of her heart had settled into a steady, relieved beat. Mayfair wasn’t Jack’s neighborhood–and she doubted he’d ever gone five hours without shaving, and never looked unkempt. Certainly his white shirt wouldn’t have been untucked, wrinkled, and clinging damply to his back. Not because of the Bureau’s dress code–it was the way Jack had been, on duty and off. He was the poster boy for ‘eager and fresh-faced,’ intent on saving the world, and Annie had loved him for it.

But then, she’d been exactly the same.

And she couldn’t recall making the decision to follow the human; her feet had simply begun to move.

She’d hung back a block, keeping just out of sight, but she couldn’t mistake the scent of alcohol he left in his wake. The odor was too sharp for beer–his drinking had been serious that evening.

Serious, but not heavy. His face had been downturned, as if he’d had to concentrate on the placement of his feet, but he hadn’t staggered. A slow, even stride had carried him past the unbroken line of row homes, past the trash cans and recycling bins caged just off the sidewalk, until he’d reached a block where lawns grew in tiny patches and separated the concrete from the front steps of the houses.

He hadn’t appeared alert to his surroundings, but he didn’t have to be. Unlike some parts of the city Annie had walked through the past ten days, kids did not roam in packs, laughing and hollering, their weapons bulging in their pockets and outlined in the bottoms of their backpacks.

They’d laughed and hollered at Annie until she’d gotten close. Then, like hyenas suddenly aware of a lioness in their territory, they’d settled back, watching her warily.

Her guns didn’t bulge and her blades didn’t gleam, but in the sweltering July heat, her long black coat always drew a second, apprehensive glance. So did her pale skin, glistening with perspiration; her light eyes, searching–and probably shining with desperation. As the days passed, it became more difficult to conceal.

Thankfully, the one she’d followed hadn’t looked around. Didn’t know what waited outside his home.

Five minutes now–and the night would still be young when she finished. There was more than enough time to stop by the clinic and steal a unit of blood. She should; she’d been alternating nights so the packaged blood wouldn’t wear her down too quickly. This was supposed to be a packaged blood night.

But she wanted this one. Maybe it was stupid to allow nostalgia to affect her this way–and maybe she just had little defense against her old life when it teased her with ghosts and darkened windows, reminding her of easier, brighter times.

And maybe she was too damn tired.

Not physically tired–she couldn’t fight the daysleep that came upon her every morning–just soul-weary. She hadn’t stopped for a moment since returning to Philadelphia and discovering that every vampire in the city had been slaughtered over the course of a single night–since discovering that the new life she’d made had been destroyed along with them.

Annie shook herself, straightened her shoulders. Nostalgia, exhaustion, whatever. She had good reason not to go back to the clinic: feeding from a non-living source would eventually make her weak and stupid.

Weak and stupid wouldn’t help her find Cricket.

A ten-year-old girl alone in the city had more things to worry about than vampires, demons, or any of the other creatures who stalked the night; there was hunger, loneliness, and fear.

And hyenas–or, more frightening, the monsters. Hyenas might laugh and holler, but most of it was for show. The monsters hid behind friendly quiet faces, and their smiles were widest when the horrors began.

Annie could easily imagine the unspeakable things that happened to young girls alone–they’d been drilled into her from birth.

Worked a new case today, Annie. A little girl–not much older than you. They had a drawer full of pictures. A girl can’t ever come back from that, Annie, not all the way.

She was just a little kid, and once she was knocked up, he didn’t have much use for her any more. So you make sure you wait until you’ve got his ring, Annie; a man who doesn’t give you one isn’t worth giving anything in return.

A little girl, Annie. Found pieces of her in a bag up off the turnpike.

The stories had always been accompanied by a warning not to trust strangers. Annie had later learned that advice only applied to little girls: she’d grown up, been transformed, and it had been strangers who’d taken her in.

She wasn’t going to repay them by leaving Cricket alone in a city of strangers who might not be as kind as those Annie had found.

Steeling herself, Annie focused, opened her senses, and reached into the surrounding houses. One mind after another–and although Annie had grown up only three blocks away, and had probably known many of these people once upon a time, the flavors of their psyches were all unfamiliar.

No Cricket.

Her head throbbed painfully when she finished. Too many minds in too short a time. Annie had walked through most of the city in the past ten days, touching hundreds of thousands of them, extending herself as far as possible. She didn’t know if–or when–she would hit the edge, but hunger would probably get her there faster.

Sighing, she rubbed her sweat-slick forehead, trying to ease the ache. Another probe toward the second floor of the house touched on the man’s psyche, soft and heavy with sleep.

She started across the street, then paused. Her hand found the grip of her sword, but she didn’t draw the weapon.

Another mind touched hers–dark, searching, and powerful.

Annie threw her psychic shields up full. Probably too late. The barn doors shut, but now someone would know a cow was loose. She waited, her gaze scanning her surroundings, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. No traffic, no one on the sidewalks–and a careful examination of the sky told her that no demons lurked, ready to descend on her from above.

It hadn’t seen her, then, but had only felt her psychic presence. There was no telling how far away it had been.

And she had enough reasons to find Cricket and get the hell out of Philly–but whatever she’d sensed had just given her another one.