Stalk the Darkness
Book 19 in Guardians of Eternity
In New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Ivy’s thrilling new romance, a vicious evil stalks two Guardians of Eternity, waiting to attack where they never expected . . .
Becoming a vampire nearly killed Satin. After decades in hiding to reach fighting strength, she swore never to be weak again. Instead, she flings herself into the joys of life. Like “combat practice” with Marco, the owner of the wildest club outside of Chicago. Getting a workout with the sizzling Were is the ultimate no-strings-attached pleasure. Until a chaos-strewing demon leaves Satin with an impossible, infuriating diagnosis: Vampires don’t get pregnant.
Marco prides himself on being the perfect Were—strong, savage, and barely housetrained. But with Satin gone on her mysterious quest, he’s compelled to follow. This raven-haired warrior might be his mate for all eternity. But a dark presence hovers around her. If Marco and Satin can’t solve its riddle in time, there won’t be any future to worry about . . .
Read an Excerpt
Every demon in Chicago could recognize Satin. It wasn’t just the fact that she was a stunningly beautiful vampire with thick black hair that tumbled down her back and a pale face dominated by eyes the precise shade of aged cognac. Or that she managed the Viper Pit, the most exclusive demon club in the city. It was the thunderous power that vibrated around her reed-slender body. The sort of power that was usually reserved for a clan chief.
Her notoriety meant that she was rarely challenged. By anyone. Something she appreciated when she was working, but it did ensure that there wasn’t much variety in her life.
Standing at the edge of the clearing, Satin absorbed the pulse of her surroundings. If her heart could beat it would be thumping with excitement. Instead, it was her fully extended fangs that throbbed in anticipation.
The night air was laced with the scent of her prey. A rich male musk that was unique to pureblooded Were. It whispered of power and sex and the most delicious pain. Relishing the raw, primitive sensations that vibrated through her, Satin stepped out of the thick fringe of trees and allowed the moonlight to bathe her in silver.
When she’d first sought out this secret club that sprawled over a hundred empty acres an hour south of Chicago it had been to scope out the competition. Viper, the local clan chief, and owner of the Viper Pit wasn’t a male who shared his territory. If the Were was attempting to steal their customers, then she would shut him down. Permanently.
It had only taken one visit to realize that the Hunting Grounds was nothing like Viper’s club. There was no elegant building, no plush booths, or beautiful waiters delivering the finest champagne while soft music played in the background. This place was woodlands and overgrown fields and meadows that were shrouded in layers of magic. The demons didn’t come her to mingle or seek their eternal mates. They came to hunt and fight and enjoy meaningless sex with complete abandon.
Even better, the owner of the club, Marco, had strict rules that kept the bloodshed to a minimum. Every guest was there of their free will and any of them could call a halt to the game whenever they wanted.
It was a place for the most powerful demons to test their strength against each other without fear of lasting consequences. And if the night ended with a bout of sizzling sex…so much the better.
Which was exactly why Satin had returned over and over again. There were few creatures who could match her in a one-on-one battle. Perhaps Viper or Styx who was the current King of Vampires. And there were even fewer demons could stir her icy passions to a fever pitch.
On cue, a large male joined her in the clearing.
She hissed, as always stunned by the sight of Marco. Even for a pureblooded Were he was tall with broad shoulders and muscles that rippled beneath his white silk shirt and black slacks. His dark hair was cut short, emphasizing the chiseled symmetry of his features and his eyes that were as dark as the pits of hell and circled with a rim of shimmering gold. It was the brutal heat and savage strength in the air when he was near that enticed Satin. He was not only the local pack master, but he was a cousin to Salvatore, King of Weres.
A perfect opponent.
In more ways than one.
Marco flashed a smug smile, folding his arms over his impressive chest. “I knew you would be here tonight.”
Satin felt a stab of irritation. Was the jerk implying that she was predictable? Or that she simply couldn’t stay away? Either one pissed her off.
“You can read the future? Impressive.”
His smile widened. “I can’t read the future, but I can read you.”
The air dropped by several degrees. “Doubtful.”
His nose flared, a hint of his wolf flashing gold in the depths of his dark eyes. “I can smell your hunger.”
“Actually, I ate before I left my lair,” she drawled.
“You’re not hungry for food.”
“You’re hungry for me.”
He was right, of course. It’d been nearly a week since she’d last visited the Hunting Grounds and she’d grown increasingly restless. As if she had an itch she couldn’t scratch. But she’d have her fangs extracted before she was going to let him know he’d struck a nerve.
“Of course, you would assume every female desires you.” She lifted her hand to her lips, as if stifling a yawn. “Males are so predictable.”
He tilted back his head, sniffing the soft breeze. “I can smell it in the air.” His voice thickened with his own desire. “But it’s not just sex. You want to prove you can match me in combat. And what better night to prove your superiority than on the night of the full moon?”
Satin stilled. She wasn’t a werewolf. She didn’t pay attention to the cycles of the moon. But she couldn’t deny the possibility that he was right. There might be an inner instinct to seek out this male when he was at the apex of his powers.
It didn’t change anything, did it?
No. Of course not.
Satin spread her arms in a mocking gesture. “I know one thing I didn’t come her for.”
He arched a dark brow. “What’s that?”
He blinked, as if caught off-guard by her response. Heat prickled through the clearing, then with a flash of his snowy-white fangs, he lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers.
“Fine. Let’s do this.”
Satin smiled in anticipation, reaching up to make sure her hair was still tightly braided. She didn’t want any distractions. Before coming to the Hunting Grounds, she’d changed out of her designer gown and three-inch heels. The black spandex pants and sports bra clung to her rail thin body like a second skin and the soft leather boots were designed to allow her to move in complete silence. Perfect attire to kick some sexy Were ass.
Striding forward with the bold assurance of a predator who was at the top of the evolutionary ladder, Satin kept close watch on Marco. He pretended to be an arrogant brute like most of the customers at the club, with more ego than skill, but Satin wasn’t fooled. He was a lethal competitor who could shift into his wolf form at any moment.
Marco pulled back his lips, revealing his razor-sharp fangs that could rip through flesh and bone. The sight of them ignited a blast of desire that seared through her. She’d discovered a shocking addiction to fangs and claws and hot male skin pressed against her naked body.
They met in the center of the opening, the air sizzling with an electric energy that sent the local wildlife scurrying for cover. It was a battle between Titans, and no one wanted to get caught in the crossfire.
For a long moment they stared at one another, allowing the anticipation to build to a crescendo. Then with a blur of motion Satin was leaping forward, crashing into the male with enough force to knock him backward. With a grunt, he grabbed her arm, flinging her over his head as he regained his balance. Satin twirled to land on her feet and swiftly reversed his grip on her arm to yank him toward her. Marco growled, his eyes burning with the golden fire of his wolf as he snapped his teeth a breath from her face. Satin flashed her own fully extended fangs, a sharp chill clashing against Marco’s ferocious heat.
A heady musk teased Satin’s senses, promising pleasure beyond her wildest dreams. She leaned against Marco’s hard body, pretending to melt in submission. Marco released another growl, wrapping his arms around her slender waist as he lowered his head.
Using his distraction to her advantage, Satin whirled in a circle, kicking out to sweep his legs out from beneath him.
Blindsided by her move, Marco did a complete back flip before he was flowing to his feet and pouncing toward her. Grabbing her by her shoulders, Marco leaned down to speak directly against her ear.
Any other time or place, Satin would have punished a male who dared to give her orders. She had a low tolerance from bossy creatures. No, not low. Zero. Zero tolerance. Even Viper took care when he was requesting her to deal with a task for him.
But this was part of the game. The rare occasion she could release the rigid grip she kept on her emotions and give into her primitive desires.
With a speed impossible to track, Satin was flowing toward the nearby trees and disappearing into the shadows. Behind her the howl of a wolf pierced the night. Satin laughed as she raced through darkness, feeling the press of Marco’s power just behind her. It was exhilarating.
The scent of wolf was laced on the breeze, but the footsteps that were gaining on her were human. Marco had never shifted during their encounters. She didn’t know if it was because she was a vampire and he feared reminding her that they were natural enemies. Or if he simply didn’t have ample control when he was in his animal form.
Leaping over a fallen log, Satin was about to double back when hands grabbed her from behind.
Satin felt herself lifted off her feet and then tossed on the mossy ground. She didn’t struggle as she landed flat on her back. Instead, she studied Marco in silence as he crouched over her, his dark beauty emphasized by the feral glow in his eyes.
His wolf was just below the surface, watching her with a ruthless desire that was tangible. He was gloriously, decadently sexy.
And for tonight, he was all hers.
She stretched up her arms, wrapping them around his neck before she was using her leverage to flip their positions. In one smooth movement, Marco was lodged beneath her and Satin was perched on top, her legs straddling his hips.
A slow, wicked smile curved his lips.
“Do you always have to be on top, cara?”
She grasped his silk shirt, holding his smoldering gaze as she ripped the silk material to expose the smooth expanse of his chest.
Her fangs throbbed with an unexpected hunger. What the hell? She had a sudden, violent urge to drink his blood. As if she was starved for the taste of him.
No. She squashed the dangerous thought. What she wanted from this male was nothing more complicated than a primitive release. Anything else was a product of the adrenalin pumping through her.
Focusing on the raw passion that pulsated between them, Satin scored her nails down his chest. Not hard enough to cut through his skin but enough to wrench a groan of pleasure from his lips.
“You’re rough on a man’s wardrobe, cara,” he murmured, his Italian accent thicker than usual.
“Are you complaining?”
He reached up to grasp her stretchy sports bra. With one yank he had it over her head and tossed on a nearby brush. Then he cupped her breasts in the searing heat of his hands.
“No complaints,” he assured her. “No complaints at all.”
Satin shivered, drowning in his rich musk.
“Your wolf is close tonight.”
“Full moon.” The words came out as a guttural rasp, his hands skimming down her ribcage to slide beneath the waistband of her pants. “And you.”
Satin wiggled, helping Marco strip off the thin spandex. He muttered a curse as he fumbled with the lacing on her boots, but Satin didn’t mind. Their sex was always hard and fast. She enjoyed having a minute to admire his fierce male features and the bulge of muscles beneath his smooth, golden skin.
Once she was naked, Satin ran her palms down his rock-hard stomach, investigating each ripple of his washboard abs. Even for a pureblood Were this male was a beast. White-hot passion flared through her as the heat of his body seeped through her bare skin, igniting the fire that had smoldered since she’d arrived at the Hunting Grounds and caught his scent.
Savage impatience replaced her desire to savor the moment and with zero guilt, she grabbed his expensive slacks and ripped them off his body. He could send her the bill to have them replaced. She relished the sensation that she was unwrapping him like a long desired gift.
She grinned at the sound of his soul-deep groan. Her wolf liked it rough.
She froze. No. Not her wolf.
Just a temporary boy-toy to sate her hunger. She’d forget all about him the second she found a new diversion.
Refusing to consider that this was anything more than sex, Satin leaned down to press her lips against his chest, using her lips and fangs to stir his desire to a fever-pitch.
She liked him hot and bothered.
“Satin,” he ground out, his fingers digging into her lower back as he spanned her waist.
In answer, she wrapped her lips around the tip of his rigid erection. The taste of him exploded through her. A spicy musk that was tastier than ambrosia.
“Now,” he abruptly barked and Satin realized she’d pushed him to the edge of his control. Positioning herself over him, she slowly slid onto massive length, feeling stretched to the limit as she at last had him fully inside her.
“Now,” she agreed, bracing herself as he lifted his hips off the ground and began to pound their bodies together with glorious abandon.
Satin tilted back her head, her gaze blindly locked on the star-splattered sky as ecstasy cascaded through her. It was stunningly perfect. As if Marco had been created just to sate her deepest needs. Releasing the tension and aggravations of the past week, Satin gave herself completely to the barbaric coupling.
But as her orgasm loomed, she lowered her head, locking her gaze with the golden fire in Marco’s eyes. In the midst of the chaotic hunger threatening to consume her, he was her touchstone. The only truth in a world that was spinning out of her control.
That’s when she felt the sharp press of his claws raking down her back and a primal cry was wrenched from her throat as the pleasure-pain vaulted her over the edge into utter bliss.
Three weeks later
The mansion on the outskirts of Chicago was an impressive sight. It was a massive, sweeping structure that consumed a vast amount the manicured grounds. Inside there was plenty of the mandatory marble and gilt with fluted columns that might have come straight from Greece. It was the sort of place that should have belonged to a hedge fund manager who skimmed money from his clients and smuggled drugs with his yacht on the weekends.
Instead, it was home to a far more exotic power couple. The current King of the Vampires, Styx and his vegetarian werewolf mate, Darcy.
Currently Styx was watching the tiny gargoyle pace across his office. Levet was barely three-foot tall with large fairy wings and an impressive ability to scrape his nerves raw. Styx on the other hand stood well over six foot with the chiseled beauty of his Aztec ancestors. His long black hair was held from his face with thin gold bands, and he was covered from neck to toe in leather. He wasn’t trying to look like a badass. He was a badass.
Settling on the corner of the massive desk, Styx folded his arms over the broad with of his chest, wishing he’d never gotten out of bed.
Being the Anasso—the official title of the leader of the vampires—meant that he spent the first few hours of each night dealing with the endless squabbles between various clans or complaints from demons about a vampire damaging their property or committing violence against them. It was an expected annoyance.
But after sending away the last petitioner and preparing to spend some quality time with his lovely mate, Styx had been cornered in his office by the tiny gargoyle. He’d tried to order the annoying creature to go away, but Levet had immediately started babbling about his Aunt Bertha and Hong Kong and blah, blah, blah. Or at least that’s what it had sounded like to Styx.
“Stop,” he finally snapped, rubbing his temple. “You’re giving me a headache.”
Levet came to a halt, regarding him with a curious expression. “Do vampires get headaches?”
It shouldn’t be possible. Vampires were impervious to human sickness. But there was no denying the throb behind his right eye.
“Only when they’re being besieged by a chatterbox who keeps yammering about people I don’t know and have zero interest in.”
Levet blinked. “How can you not have interest in my Aunt Bertha? She is tres fascinating.”
Styx scowled. He’d heard the gargoyle babbling about his aunt, but he’d assumed he was making up the wild stories.
“Of course she’s real.”
“And she’s in Hong Kong?”
“Non. She was in Hong Kong, but I caught sight of her last night near Navy Pier when I was test-driving Viper’s new Jag.”
Styx blinked. “Viper asked you to test-drive his new Jag?”
Levet’s tail twitched at the question. “Perhaps he did not specifically ask, but I assumed he would desire a friend to ensure it was in good working order. And he is lucky that I did. I discovered several scratches on the bumper when I eventually returned it to his garage. He should contact the dealer and complain.”
Styx rolled his eyes. “When Viper finds out you destroyed his car he’s going to have your head chopped off and mounted as a hood ornament.”
“Destroyed is such an ugly word.” Levet clicked his tongue. “Besides, what Viper does not know does not hurt moi, right?”
With a shake of his head, Styx dismissed the hope that Viper might rid the world of the gargoyle once and for all. Levet always managed to survive. Like a cockroach. Only more irritating.
“And I should care about your Aunt Bertha because…?” He turned the conversation back to the original reason Levet was in his office making him nuts.
“Because she wasn’t in her gargoyle form.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Would it be unusual if you woke up in the shape of a dew fairy?”
The overhead chandelier flickered as Styx released a small thread of power. He could destroy the entire electrical grid of Chicago if he wanted.
Levet held up his hands, as if sensing he was treading on Styx’s last nerve. “I am worried at her.”
Styx swallowed a curse. The sooner he could get the stupid creature to spit out what he wanted the sooner Styx could get rid of him.
“What shape was she in?”
“She looked like a human.”
“And you have no idea how it happened?”
“Non. When I first saw her in Hong Kong she said she woke from one of her epic naps to discover she’d been transformed.”
“Is she in danger?”
Levet wrinkled his snout. “I am not sure.”
Styx stared down at the miniature demon. Levet aggravated the hell out of him, but he couldn’t deny a small amount of sympathy for being born different from other gargoyles. He wasn’t only a fraction of the normal size, but his large wings were as thin as gossamer instead of leather and his magic was sketchy as hell.
“Why do you care?” he demanded. “I thought your family banished you from the Gargoyle Guild?”
“They did.” Levet heaved a gusty sigh. “Which was much worse than my mother attempting to kill me.”
“So why help any of them?”
Levet shrugged. “Aunt Bertha is the only one who ever showed me any kindness.” The gargoyle paused before clearing his throat. “Besides, she might have a teeny tiny habit of causing disasters.”
Uh oh. A bad feeling formed in the pit of Styx’s gut. Levet was notorious for creating chaos. If he was worried about his aunt, then things were bad. Really bad.
“You know…” Levet gave an airy wave of his hands. “The Ice Age. The Great Fire of London. The break-up of the Beatles.”
Styx shuddered. “Obviously she’s related to you. Which means she’ll be fine even if she does destroy Chicago.”
“Not in her human form. She is too vulnerable to be wandering around alone.”
“If that’s true, you have the skills necessary to track her,” Styx pointed out the obvious. “Knock yourself out.”
Levet stomped his foot, his hands on his hips as he glared the long distance up at Styx. “You owe me.”
“I owe you?” Styx lifted a hand to touch the spot where he’d been recently injured. “You hit me on the head with a rock.”
“Oui.” The gargoyle revealed zero regret for nearly splitting open Styx’s skull. “To save you from the evil vampire. In fact, I have saved you from several evil creatures. You owe me double. Or triple.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t exaggerating. Over the past decade the irritating demon had revealed an astonishing talent for possessing the magic necessary to battle back a variety of enemies. Styx, however, was more concerned with the reason Levet wanted help in chasing down his relative.
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Levet widened his eyes. “Moi?”
“Spit it out,” Styx snapped. “Now.”
The sparkling wings drooped as Levet heaved a small sigh. “I cannot locate Bertha.”
There was a long pause, as if the gargoyle was reluctant to confess the truth. “I presume she has placed a protective spell around herself to avoid my detection.”
“That’s possible?” Styx demanded in genuine surprise. It hadn’t occurred to him that there might be a way to avoid the pest. Probably because vampires detested magic with the force of a thousand suns. “More importantly will she provide me with the same spell? I’m willing to pay whatever she asks.”
“I’ve never been more serious.”
Levet gave another stomp of his foot. “Are you going to help me or must I speak to Darcy?”
Styx grimaced, conceding to the inevitable. His beautiful mate would nag at him until he did what Levet wanted. She had a ridiculous soft spot for the creature.
“I’ll help,” he grudgingly conceded, leaning down to pluck a hair from between the gargoyle’s stunted horn.
“Hey.” Levet rubbed the spot, glaring up at Styx. “Why did you do that?”
“I need something connected to the gargoyle. You should have the same DNA.” Styx tucked the hair in the front pocket of his pants before pointing his finger directly in Levet’s face. “Once your aunt has been located all debts between us are cancelled. Got it?”
“Oui. I got it.”
“Good.” Styx headed toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Levet called out.
“To find the one vampire capable of tracking a gargoyle who doesn’t want to be found.”
The lodge at the Hunting Grounds wasn’t the biggest or most elegant demon club around. The main floor of the split log building had a long room with a massive fireplace where the customers gathered before a hunt, a large bar area, and kitchens. The second floor was reserved for Marco’s private rooms as well as his office.
The appeal of this place wasn’t the lodge, it was the rolling fields and thick woodlands that were populated with wild animals, fish, and fowl. Plus, there were always plenty of curs who were hanging around, prepared for a good fight with any demon who needed to blow off steam. All he needed to offer was plenty of privacy and strict guidelines that kept the bloodshed to an acceptable level.
Currently Marco was pacing from one end of his office to the other. It was a large room with floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the nearby meadow. Unlike many demons, a pureblooded Were enjoyed sunshine and fresh air. More importantly, the windows allowed him to keep a constant watch on his considerable investment. The furniture was carved out of wood and reinforced to bear the weight of demons. Overhead the ceiling was open beamed with muted lighting and at the far end was a stone fireplace that was big enough to roast an entire pig.
It reminded him of his lair he’d left behind in Italy. It’d been hard to leave their traditional hunting grounds, but with his cousin, Salvatore, in Kansas City, he’d made the decision a year ago to try his luck at the American dream. And he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The Hunting Grounds had expanded from a hundred-acre farm with a decaying barn and brackish pond to a thousand-acre playground with the lodge, private cabins, and a huge lake with an island in the center that could be reserved for fights between his more aggressive demons. It prevented the lesser creatures from being accidently caught up in the battle.
The initial success of the Hunting Grounds was a result of Marco’s hard work and innate knowledge of the inner most desires of his fellow demons. But the expansion of his business was increasingly in the hands of the manager he’d brought in a few months ago.
Troy was…well, Marco hadn’t exactly decided. To say he was an imp, was like saying Liberace was a piano player. Or that the sun was warm. Troy was as large and muscular as Marco with long hair that shimmered like fire as it flowed down his back. He had bright green eyes that smoldered with a sensuality that he shared indiscriminately with the various guests. Most unnerving was his wardrobe. Leather, lace, feathers, or nothing more than a thong. It was always designed to shock. The first day they’d met he was wearing a tiger-striped spandex onsie that stretched tight over his body. Too tight.
He wasn’t the sort of creature that Marco would have expected to enjoy the often tedious tasks of operating a business. He was too flamboyant, too flighty, too…extra. But Salvatore’s mate, Harley, had mentioned that her mother had opened a strip club in Chicago with the help of Troy and it had become a raging sensation. In fact, they now had a chain of them across the states and Europe.
Marco was ambitious enough to want the same global expansion. Or at least he had been. Until the past three weeks.
Now he didn’t know what the hell he wanted. Well, besides a few hours of sleep that wasn’t plagued with strange nightmares. And the ability to concentrate on work without being interrupted with thoughts of a certain female vampire. Oh, and if someone was handing out wishes, he’d take a nice bottle of double-oaked bourbon from the highlands of Scotland. It wouldn’t solve anything, but it would smooth the annoyance of the nightmares and relentless obsessing over a female who’d ghosted him.
He was on yet another circuit around the office when the door was shoved open and Troy stepped inside. Marco came to an abrupt halt at the sight of his manager. This evening he was wearing black and white striped spandex pants and a sleeveless vest made from a thick, white fur. His hair was braided and decorated with metal feathers studded with rare gems.
“I have the list of supplies that need to be ordered,” Troy said, waving the clipboard he held in his hand.
Marco scowled. “Not now.”
“That’s what you said yesterday. And the day before. And the—”
“Are you deliberately trying to piss me off?” Marco interrupted.
“I’m attempting to manage your club and make both of us a great deal of money,” the imp chided, his emerald eyes hardening. Troy acted like a flighty, exotic butterfly until it came to money. Then he was a lethal opponent. “Something I’m very good at. Or have you forgotten why you hired me?”
The imp was right, of course. He’d asked Troy to become the manager because he could help Marco create his empire. Unfortunately, he wasn’t currently in the mood for empire building.
“Do your managing elsewhere,” he commanded. “I’m busy.”
Troy pointedly glanced around the empty office. “Polishing the bottom of your shoes on the carpet? Practicing you manly growls and very explicit Italian curses?”
Marco drew back his lips to expose his extended fangs in a blatant warning. Troy, however, remained unimpressed, the pungent scent of plums suddenly thick in the air. Marco felt a violent urge to punch something. Or someone. But even as his hands curled into tight fists, he heaved a harsh sigh. He was part wolf, not jackass. He was obviously being unreasonable.
Striding forward, he grabbed the clipboard and scanned the long list of supplies.
“Double the amount of ambrosia. We’ve had more fey creatures than I originally anticipated. And…wait.” Marco glanced up as he reached the bottom of the list. “Why are there two vats of grog? They cost a fortune.”
“I convinced the local orc tribe to use the Hunting Grounds to celebrate their annual tribute to the goddess.” Troy smiled with smug satisfaction. “You’re welcome.”
“What does this tribute include?”
“Best not to ask.”
Marco scowled. He didn’t like the sound of that. “They’re not going to destroy my club, are they?”
“Are you a betting man?”
The air prickled with a sudden heat as his wolf stirred inside him. For Marco this place was a steppingstone to greatness. For his animal it was the place he called home. And no one screwed with that.
“Easy.” Troy lifted a slender hand. “I required a deposit large enough to rebuild this place if necessary. Orcs are crude and smelly and have rocks as brains, but they are willing to pay to honor their goddess.”
Marco resisted the urge to cancel the ritual. As Troy said, they usually had large amounts of treasure and they were willing to spend it. If this could become an annual occasion, he could make a small fortune.
“Is that all?”
Troy shook his head. “The staffing schedules still need to be completed, plus we need to interview for a new bartender.”
Marco swallowed a curse. “Can you deal with that?”
“I can.” There was a deliberate pause. “But only if you agree to my request.”
“If it’s money—”
“It’s not,” Troy interrupted, his brows arching as if struck by a sudden thought. “Although I never say no to money.” He shrugged. “Or sex. Or designer shoes.”
Marco snapped his teeth. “Troy, what is your request?”
“I want you to find Satin and get her out of your system.”
It was the last thing that Marco had been expecting. A low growl rumbled in his throat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Troy rolled his eyes. “Then let me clarify. You’ve been in a foul mood for the past three weeks. You snarl at anyone unfortunate enough to cross your path. You’ve put your fist through walls. You busted windows and ripped through the priceless tapestry in the main lobby. And now you lock yourself away for endless hours, pacing and muttering. Either you have rabies or you’re missing the beautiful vampire who no longer comes to play with you. Go.” Troy waved his hands in a get-the-hell-out-of-here motion. “Find her.”
Marco folded his arms over his chest, his wolf pressing against his skin. It was bad enough to be obsessed to the point of insanity with a female without the realization everyone was aware of his enthrallment. It was…embarrassing.
“I hired you to manage the club, not to offer advice on my private life,” he snapped.
“The club is what I’m concerned about,” Troy insisted. “You have scared off our bartender, the tribe of wood sprites who tended the grounds, and at least a dozen customers. You won’t have a business for me to oversee if you don’t get her out of your system.”
Marco spun away. Dammit. He’d been so focused on his tangled emotions that he hadn’t allowed himself to consider the price his club was paying for his foul mood. Not just the physical damage, but the destruction of the atmosphere he’d carefully cultivated. This was supposed to be a place of electric excitement where everyone was there for a good time.
Like Vegas for demons.
“And how do you suggest I do that?”
“Do you want written instructions or a demonstration?”
With a low hiss, Marco headed for the door. Enough was enough. He was going to find Satin and…
Actually, he didn’t know what was going to happen once he found her. He’d worry about that when he was standing face to face with the aggravating leech.
“Take care of the club. I might be gone a few days,” he called out as he jogged out of the office and toward the nearby stairs.
Once he was outside, he halted in the shadows of the lodge and tilted back his head. With his gaze locked on the star-spattered sky, he called on his inner magic.
Hot, searing pleasure jolted through him. A combination of pain and ecstasy as his bones popped and his muscles stretched. There was nothing that could compare to shifting into his wolf. It was a primal force that expanded from the core of his soul and exploded through him.
Seconds later, his human form had been transformed into a large wolf with dark fur and golden eyes. With a howl of sheer relief at being out of his office and on the hunt, Marco put his nose to the ground and headed toward Chicago. Satin would no doubt be at the Viper Pit. But he’d taken less than a dozen steps when he slowed at the realization that he could actual ‘sense’ Satin. Not by the usual means. He couldn’t smell her or feel the cool wash of her power. No. It was as if there was a mental connection between them that was tugging him in the opposite direction.
Marco briefly hesitated. What was happening? A trick of his fevered obsession? Or something more nefarious?
Impossible to know until he finally managed to track her down. Turning to the west, Marco released another growl and loped in pursuit of his delectable prey.
The small town in central Oklahoma appeared oddly trapped in time. The red brick buildings lined the cobblestone sidewalks with old-time saloons and mercantile shops. The focal point, however, appeared to be a large white temple. Bertha had no idea what it was used for, and zero interest in finding out. Instead, she headed toward the edge of town.
Walking along the narrow creek that was bathed in moonlight, she at last stopped next to a dead tree trunk that had been weathered to a pale gray. Lifting her hand, she pressed against the layer of magic and slowly stepped through the illusion.
Instantly she was standing in the hidden demon bar. Like the nearby town, the taproom was trapped in the past. The large wooden building had an open beamed ceiling and worn floors with roughly carved tables and chairs scattered through the narrow space. It smelled of stale ale, wet fur, and what she suspected was troll farts.
Wrinkling her nose, Bertha halted in the center of the floor. She’d been in worse places. Then again, she’d been in better ones. Much better. But it wasn’t the stench or the sense of decay that hung heavy in the air that caused her to turn in a hesitant circle, her brow furrowed with confusion.
She was still turning when a male voice intruded into her bewilderment. “Are you lost?”
“Hmm.” Bertha considered the question as she aimlessly wandered toward the back of the room. The imp looked vaguely familiar, although most of the fey looked alike. This one had flame red hair that he wore in a short spikey style and a pale, narrow face with large emerald eyes. He was dressed in black leather with a wide gold band around his neck. Like a dog collar, only studded with emeralds. “I haven’t decided,” she told her companion as she crawled onto one of the high stools.
The male blinked. “You haven’t decided if you’re lost?”
Bertha placed her elbow on the smooth wood and planted her chin in her open palm.
“I suppose it depends on your definition on lost,” she pointed out.
“Is there more than one definition?”
“I don’t know where I am,” Bertha admitted. “But then again, I’m not sure where I’m going.” She’d been quite happy spending time in Chicago with her nephew, Levet. At least as happy as she could be in her current form. She’d been indulging in various entertainments around the city, including a strip club called Sophia’s Menagerie that had the most delicious pureblooded Were dancers. Then a strange voice had started to whisper in her mind. It insisted that she had to leave Chicago and travel west. At first, she’d ignored the stupid thing. She didn’t want to go west. If she decided to leave Chicago she would go to Paris and visit her family. But as the voice had become more and more insistent, she’d been unable to sleep. And then her appetite had disappeared. That was unacceptable. Life was not worth living without cheesecake and roasted pork and deep-dish pizza. Mmm. Pizza. At last, she’d given into the inevitable and began her long, tedious trek. Anything to shut up the voice. So now she was standing in this remote bar with no idea why. “If I don’t have a destination can I actually be lost?” she concluded.
“I…” The male seemed to struggle for words, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say. That happened a lot. Bertha assumed that other creatures were dazzled by her deep thoughts and unique philosophy. Finally, he cleared his throat, his gaze skimming over her. “This isn’t a place for a female like you. Not once the nearby fighting pits are closed and the crowd comes here to celebrate their victory. Or more likely, to drown their sorrow. There’s another bar in Tulsa that you should check out. They serve lots of fruity punch in coconut shells with umbrellas.”
Bertha frowned at his suggestion before heaving a sigh. She forgot that she wasn’t currently a seven-foot-tall gargoyle covered with gray skin coated in moss and leather wings that had the span as wide as this bar. Instead, she was smaller than the majority of demons with a delicate structure that made her appear as fragile as a dew fairy. Her pale gold hair was twisted into wild spirals to her shoulders and her eyes were a misty gray. Only the faintest outline of ephemeral wings revealed that she was something other than human. At the moment she was wearing a sheer gown with rhinestones that floated down to her ankles because she liked the sparkles. She hadn’t bothered with shoes.
“I don’t like fruity drinks.” She pointed toward the iron vat that was brewing over an open fire in the far corner. “Get me a grog.”
“Grog?” The imp appeared shocked by the request. “Are you sure?”
“Please stop asking me questions.” Bertha pressed a finger against her temple. There was a pain directly behind her right eye. “I really need that drink.”
The scent of gingersnaps laced with granite swirled through the air and the imp hurriedly backed away. Clearly, he could sense her thunderous power despite the fact she was doing her best to keep it leashed. It occasionally leaked out. Like the gooey marshmallows in a s’more when you bit into it. Mmm. S’mores.
“One grog coming up,” he muttered, grabbing a tankard and dipping it into the steaming vat.
“Make it a double,” Bertha called out. If one was good then two was better, right?
The imp did a second dip of the tankard before returning to the bar to sit it in front of her. “Double grog.”
“Thanks.” Bertha grabbed the tankard and downed the contents in one gulp.
The fiery liquid seared down her throat and hit her stomach with an explosive impact. Bertha parted her lips to release a belch that sent flames flying, accidentally melting the empty tankard. She dropped the lump of bronze on the floor as the male hissed in shock.
“What are you?” he demanded.
She belched again. This time it was thankfully fire free. “A gargoyle.”
The imp blinked. Did he have something in his eye? That was always a drag.
“You don’t look like a gargoyle.”
“Right?” Bertha glanced down, giving a sad shake of her head at the sight of her pathetically weak body. “I don’t know what happened. I fell asleep on a mountain in Nepal. I think there was an earthquake. Or maybe I was magically attacked. Whatever the case, I woke up a century later buried beneath a ton of rubble and in this human shape.”
“Gargoyle…” The male studied at her in disbelief.
Bertha shifted uncomfortably on the stool. “Are you going to stare at me all night?”
“Nope.” Holding up his hands in an apologetic gesture, the imp backed away. Most fey creatures were terrified of gargoyles. With good reason. “I’m just going to stand over here until you need me.”
“Probably a good idea.”
Bertha drummed her fingers on the bar, impatiently waiting for the urge to move along to hit her. That’s how it’d been happening. She felt an odd tug that led her from location to location. Sometimes she would stop for an hour or so to eat or drink. And, of course, during the day she would rest in a spot with plenty of shade. She might not look like a gargoyle, but she would turn to stone in the sun. But as soon as she woke, she would be moving again.
“Well?” She at last snapped.
“I didn’t say anything.” The words came from the imp who was now plastered against the back wall.
Bertha glared in his direction. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Oh. Right. Okay.” The male forced a stiff smile to his lips. “Carry on.”
With a click of her tongue, Bertha swiveled on the stool until she was facing the door. She didn’t want to be distracted again.
“Hello. I’m waiting,” she said out loud.
“For what?” This time it was the voice in her head.
“Not yet. You need to get ready.”
Bertha scowled. She didn’t like this place with its smell of troll farts. Especially now she could feel a sharp chill in the air. It was causing goosebumps to crawl over her too delicate skin.
“Get ready for what?”
The word whispered through her mind at the precise moment the door was shoved open, and a tall, slender vampire with black hair pulled into a braid and pale features set in lines of grim determination entered the bar. Bertha whistled in appreciation as she allowed her gaze to skim over the female’s red leather vest that laced up the front and the stretchy yoga pants. If she was going to be stuck in this body for more than a few years, then she was going to need to develop a kick-ass style. Maybe this female could give her some tips.
The vampire narrowed her cognac eyes as she caught sight of Bertha. “There you are.”
“Am I?” Bertha glanced down. “I suppose so,” she conceded, glancing back at the female. “Although it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? The reality of existence.”
The female made a sound of impatience. “You’re Bertha, right?”
“Yes.” Bertha tilted her head to the side. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Satin.” She cast a quick glance around the room, as if searching for potential enemies. Only when she was satisfied that there was no beyond the imp lurking in the corner did she move forward. Bertha silently applauded her caution. A woman could never be too careful. “Styx sent me,” she informed Bertha.
“Styx?” Bertha searched her brain. At last, she hit on the most reasonable guess. “The band?”
It was the leech’s turn to be confused. “What band?”
“You said that Styx sent you,” Bertha reminded her. “I’m sure the river to the underworld didn’t send you, so it has to be the band. I’m not stupid.”
The female rolled her eyes. “Styx is the Anasso.”
“Oh.” Anasso was the official title to the King of Vampires. The last that Bertha had heard about the Anasso was that he’d gone bat-shit crazy and was hiding in some cave near Chicago. Of course, now that she actually thought about it, one of the king’s most trusted guards was named Styx. He’d obviously decided to give himself a promotion. “I must have slept through the overthrow of the previous king. No matter.” She waved her hand in an airy motion. “What does he want?”
Satin shrugged. “Something to do with your nephew.”
“I have several dozen nephews. Perhaps hundreds. Who keeps track?”
Bertha heaved a sigh. When she’d left Chicago she’d placed a protective spell around herself. Until she knew exactly who or what was leading her around like a puppet, she wasn’t going to put Levet in danger.
“I should have known,” she muttered. “He is quite special to me, but he can be annoyingly persistent.”
“So I hear.” Satin jerked her head toward the door. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” Bertha arched her brows. “Go where?”
“I just told you.”
“No you didn’t. You said that Styx—who isn’t the band or the river to the underworld— sent you and that it was because of Levet. But you never mentioned going anywhere.”
“I’m taking you to Chicago.”
Bertha slid off the stool. An argument was brewing. And since vampires were nearly as stubborn as gargoyles, there was a better than average chance things could get ugly.
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
The temperature in the bar dropped by several degrees. “This isn’t a debate. Styx wants you in Chicago and that’s where you’re going.”
Bertha folded her arms over her chest. “No.”
“I’m not leaving here without you.”
“Then you’re staying, I guess. I’ll warn you, there’s more than a whiff of troll farts in the air.”
Ice crawled over the wooden floor. “Why are you being so stubborn?”
“Because I’m on a mission.”
“I’m not sure yet.” Bertha wrinkled her nose. “But I think it might be important.”
Satin glared down at her, the line of her jaw hardening as she revealed a hint of fang. “This is bullshit. I don’t have the energy to argue.” She reached down as if intending to grab Bertha by the arm. “Let’s go.”
Bertha hurriedly darted to the side, holding out her hand in warning. “Stay back. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“As if you could.”
“Not a female in your condition.”
“Just come with me and…” The annoyed words trailed away as Satin absorbed Bertha’s words. “What do you mean? A female in my condition?”
“You know.” Bertha leaned forward, whispering in case the leech didn’t want anyone to know her secret. “The baby.”
Satin blinked and Bertha sighed. Yet another demon blinking when she was talking to them.
“Baby?” The word fell awkwardly from the female’s lips.
“Oui. Le bébé. Pequeño. Il bambino,” Bertha clarified.
“I understand the word baby,” Satin snapped. “What I don’t understand is what it has to do with me.”
It was Bertha’s turn to blink. Was this a joke? Was the vampire truly oblivious to the fact she was pregnant? Or was she attempting to pretend ignorance to fool Bertha? A waste of time, of course. Bertha had detected the presence of the child the moment the female had walked through the door. She could not only hear the heartbeat, but it was a soft ball of warmth in the center of the icy leech.
“I’m referring to the one you’re currently carrying, of course. There’s no use in pretending it’s not there. Not with me.”
“Did you hit your head?” Satin demanded even as she lifted a hand to press it against her gently rounded stomach.
Bertha gave the question serious consideration. “Numerous times. Would you like me to list them all?”
“No.” Satin released a hiss of annoyance. “I’m a vampire.”
“True. What does that have to do with hitting my head?”
“Vampires sire off-spring with their bite.” Each word was slow and concise, as if Satin assumed Bertha was too stupid to comprehend what she was telling her. “They don’t have actual children.”
Bertha boldly strolled forward to touch the hand that Satin cradled over her stomach. “Then why is there a baby in here?” Bertha’s eyes widened in surprise, suddenly realizing why the baby was putting out such a fierce heat. “Oh. A Were.”
The female’s lips parted in shock. “Did you say Were?”
“Pureblood.” Bertha pursed her lips to whistle in admiration. The kid was already more powerful than many full-grown demons. “And very strong.”
Satin knocked Bertha’s hand away, her fangs fully exposed. “Impossible.”
“You can keep saying that, but it doesn’t change the fact you are expecting a baby.”
“It has to be a spell,” Satin muttered, speaking more to herself than Bertha. “Some sort of illusion.”
“Non, not an illusion. The baby is very real.” Bertha paused, abruptly noticing the energy that pulsed around the vampire. She hadn’t sensed it until she forced herself to directly concentrate on the female. As if it was deliberately deflecting attention. Hmm. Odd. “But there is magic,” she murmured.
Satin appeared predictably unnerved. Vamps hated magic. “What kind?”
Bertha lifted her hands in a gesture of confusion. “I can’t tell, but I suspect that it’s connect to the evil presence that’s shrouded around you.”
“The…” Satin struggled to get the word past her stiff lips. “Baby?”
“Not directly.” Bertha couldn’t sense evil in the child. It was attached directly to the vampire. “It’s seeped into your very essence,” she said.
Satin jerked. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Perhaps a curse,” Bertha suggest. “Or a demonic possession. Or a…” Bertha lost her train of thought as the familiar voice spoke directly into her mind.
“Time to go.”
She stomped her foot. “Stop yammering in my head. You made me forget what I was going to say.”
“Bertha, feel the air,” the voice warned with a harsh insistence. “Get out of there.”
Bertha paused, closing her eyes to allow her senses to spread outward. Instantly she encountered the sizzling heat of an approaching Were. No. Not just a Were. A super-duper pissed off pureblooded Were who was on the hunt of the female he considered his own. Only an idiot would get involved in the looming confrontation.
“Perhaps you’re right,” she muttered, grabbing the skirt of her gown and lifting her hand over her head. “Au revoir.”
With a snap of her fingers, Bertha created a portal and in the blink of an eye she had disappeared.
Satin watched in a numb disbelief as Bertha stepped through a portal and vanished from the bar. Or at least Satin assumed that it was a portal. As a vampire she had no ability to detect magic. Which meant that she couldn’t follow the strange gargoyle.
Probably for the best. Satin was too busy processing the shocking claim that she was carrying a baby to wander into unfamiliar territory. The last thing she needed was to blindly stumble into a trap.
Standing in the center of the room, she ignored the imp was regarding her with a wary gaze. Her thoughts were focused on the strange heat that burned in the center of her body.
It wasn’t the first time she’d felt it. It’d started three weeks ago. The night after her pagan coupling with Marco beneath the full moon. At first, she’d thought that it was caused by her growing addiction to the male Were. That’s why she’d stopped going to the Hunting Grounds. The mere thought that she might not be in control of her emotions was horrifying. She was ruthlessly independent. No male would ever change that. But avoiding Marco hadn’t eased the weird sensations. In fact, the heat had started to spread, as if there was a fire burning in the pit of her stomach. And worse, the massive powers that she’d come to depend on were slowly being leached away, leaving her feeling…vulnerable. A sensation that hadn’t tormented her since the days she’d been a fledgling vampire cowering in her dark cave.
Her hand absently pressed against her stomach, feeling the soft bump that had made her choose the stretchy yoga pants instead of her jeans.
Was it possible?
It shouldn’t be. No vampire had ever given birth to a baby. But there was no denying there was something strange happening to her. Not only the heat inside her and the relentless drain on her powers, but Marco’s scent that remained embedded in her skin. Add in her expanding waistline and it all combined to suggest that the Were had done something to her. Something that was screwing with her body.
On cue a potent musk swirled through the air. A surge of anger laced with treacherous anticipation raced through Satin as she whirled toward the door. A second later it was slammed open and a gorgeous male stormed into the bar.
“At last,” Marco snarled, prowling directly toward her. He was wearing black slacks and a white silk shirt that should have made him look civilized. He’d even combed his short, black hair until it laid smooth against his head. But not even a human would think this Were was civilized. His eyes glowed with the power of his wolf and the air snapped with his animal energy. “You can run but you can’t hide.”
Satin was moving before she had the opportunity to consider what she was doing. Grabbing him by the throat, she hauled him across the floor and pinned him against the wall.
Marco scowled, by oddly he made no effort to fight against her hold. “Easy, leech,” he warned.
Satin glared at his elegantly sculpted features. Why did they have to be so perfect?
“Tell me what you did to me.”
“Did to you?” He arched a brow, his eyes darkening as if he was recalling their time together. “In detail? Or just the highlights?”
“You used some sort of animal magic on me.”
A slow, wicked smile curved his lips. “You’re welcome.”
“This isn’t funny,” Satin hissed.
“Look, I don’t know what the hell you’re…” Marco’s words trailed away, his nose flaring as if he’d caught an unexpected scent. He leaned his head forward, sniffing her.
He ignored her command. “You smell like Were.”
His words intensified her anger. “Because of you.”
“Me?” Marco narrowed his eyes. “I haven’t been near you in weeks.”
“Your magic did something to me.” Satin muttered a curse as Marco knocked aside her hand that was holding him captive to lean down and press his nose against her belly. “I told you to stop that.”
“A baby?” He froze, his heat suddenly thundering through the air as he straightened to regard her with a shocked expression. “My baby.” He made a harsh sound, like he’d just taken a blow to the gut. “Impossible.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Seriously.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Really?” She glared at him. “You’re responsible.”
“Yes.” Satin’s icy anger cut through the thick heat in the room. “You put your baby inside me…somehow.”
His brows snapped together at her accusation. “That’s absurd.”
It had sounded absurd when she said the words out loud. Like she was telling a cheesy fairytale. Unfortunately, this was all too real.
“Careful, dog,” she warned.
“If it was possible to put my child in random females, I would have been a hundred pups running around,” he said, his voice harsh with barely suppressed emotions. “The Weres have struggled for centuries to procreate. Even after Salvatore destroyed the wolf spirit that was draining our powers, we have precious few babies. Each child is a miracle.”
Satin paused. From the second that Bertha had spoken the word ‘baby’ she’d been too overwhelmed to think clearly. And she was still overwhelmed. But his fierce words forced her to actually consider her accusation. It was true that the Weres had struggled for centuries to have pups. Salvatore had eventually turned to science to help create babies and even then, their powers were muted. They had hopes that the future would be brighter, but she had to admit that if they had the ability to magically create off-spring they wouldn’t waste the opportunity by putting one into a vampire.
With an effort, she tried to control the panic that was lurking just below the surface. “If you aren’t responsible for the insanity happening to me, then why are you here?”
Marco cleared his throat appearing oddly uncomfortable at her question. “I think we have more important matters to discuss.”
She eyed him in suspicion. “Why did you follow me?”
His jaw tightened. He was an alpha male who was used to other creatures eagerly trying to please him. She’d witnessed a few fall to their knees when he strolled past. They certainly never talked back. But he no doubt sensed she was on the edge. In truth, she was way over the edge.
“I wanted to know why you stopped coming to the Hunting Grounds,” he grudgingly answered.
She waited. When he didn’t continue, she frowned in confusion. “That’s it?”
“How did you find me?”
“I’m a pureblood Were.” He shrugged. “I could follow your scent to the pits of the netherworld.”
“You tracked me eight hundred miles to discover why I wasn’t at your club?” She didn’t try to disguise her disbelief.
“I take my customer service very serious.”
Satin took a step back, her hand covering her stomach in an instinctively protective gesture.
“This is a trick,” she muttered. “It has to be.”
“What’s a trick?”
“You appearing at the exact moment that I’m told about the baby.”
“Told?” Marco didn’t bother to insist on his innocence. Instead, he studied her with a puzzled expression. “By who?”
“A gargoyle told you about the baby?”
Satin was vaguely aware that she sounded like she’d lost her grip on reality, but at the moment she didn’t care. She was suddenly remembering that Bertha had told her more than just the fact there was a child inside her.
“Yes,” she murmured in distracted tones.
Marco stepped toward her, his expression worried. “Are you feeling okay?”
Satin stiffened. Not at the implication there was something wrong with her, but by the fact that this male was showing her concern. She wanted to be invincible. The bad-ass of all bad-asses. Not a damsel in distress.
“No, I’m not feeling okay. And it’s all your fault.” She flashed her fangs, grabbing the small stone she’d hidden in the pocket of the leather vest.
It might not be fair to blame this male for her troubles, but she wasn’t in the mood to be reasonable. Her life was spiraling out of control. Someone had to be punished.
And then, she needed answers.
The gargoyle had said that she could sense the baby, along with another presence. She had to know what it was, and how the hell she could get rid of it.
“My fault? That’s…” Marco bit off his frustrated words as he caught sight of the crystal she clutched in her fingers. It glowed to life as she tossed it directly toward him. There was a brilliant flash before the spell hidden in the crystal exploded and Marco was trapped in strands of magic. Satin had intended the snare for Bertha in case she proved to be a problem. Right now, it was more important to leash the Were so she could return to her hunt without having him hot on her trail. Marco growled in frustration, struggling against the invisible web. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ll deal with you after I find the gargoyle.” Satin whirled around and headed for the door.
“You can’t leave me here!”
Satin jogged through the darkness, wanting to put space between her and the Were before she had to find a place to wait out the daylight. After that she would use her powers to find the gargoyle and demand the answers she needed.
Marco had called the baby a miracle. The gargoyle had suggested it was a curse. Her hand moved to touch her stomach and she grimaced at the heat that burned through her skin. Miracle or curse? Right now, it felt like both to Satin.
Styx was seated alone on the private balcony overlooking the dancefloor at Viper’s club. It was nearing dawn and Viper was busy convincing the thinning crowd to spend the last of their money on drinks or the gambling tables before seeking out their lairs. Styx needed to head to his mansion on the outskirts of town. Dawn was less than an hour away. But his mate, Darcy, was visiting her twin sister who’d coming into the city for a visit, and he had no doubt that she would lose track of time. Returning to an empty bed held no appeal. Odd considering he’d spent centuries sleeping alone.
So, he lingered, sipping the last of the expensive scotch that Viper had reluctantly offered him. Reluctantly because Styx never paid his tab. There had to be some perks for being king, right?
Attempting to decide if he should order another drink, Styx scowled in annoyance as dusty stench of granite assaulted his nose. A second later, Levet flapped his way over the railing of the balcony and landed on the table.
Styx jumped to his feet. “What the hell are you doing?”
The aggravating gargoyle pointed toward the nearby staircase. “I am here with a red-light special.”
“Red-light special? What’s that mean?”
“You know.” He twirled his hands over his head. “Warning, warning, warning.”
“Warning about what?”
“Salvatore just burst through the front door. And he does not appear to be happy.”
Styx arched his brows in surprise. The King of Weres was supposed to be at the Hunting Grounds with his mate and pack of pups. At least that’s where Darcy said they would be when she took off to visit with them. Styx hadn’t tried to convince her to stay home and have them come to her instead. The Were children worse than full-grown adults. The last time they’d visited it had been like having tiny tornadoes whipping from room to room, destroying everything in their path.
“What is he doing here?” he muttered his thoughts out loud. “I thought he was staying with Marco.”
“Perhaps it is mutt night.” Levet waggled his heavy brows. “Do you comprehend? Not Ladies Night, but mutt because—”
“Yeah, I get it,” Styx interrupted, glaring at the ridiculous creature.
Levet snorted. “I have encountered trolls who have a better sense of humor.”
“Not now, gargoyle.” Styx spread his feet, his hands clenched at his side as he caught the unmistakable stench of Were. A shame he’d left his big sword at the house, but then again, that wasn’t his most formidable weapon.
“Oui,” the gargoyle surprisingly agreed, hopping off the table. “It is probably time for me to depart.”
There was blast of heat in the air as Salvatore’s power filled the club, sending dozens of lesser demons running for the exits. It sizzled and popped when it encountered Styx’s icy energy.
“Don’t move,” Styx warned, a savage thrust of violence beating through him as Salvatore, the King of Weres stepped onto the balcony.
The pureblooded Were was smaller than Styx and attired in a Gucci suit. He had elegant features and black hair that brushed his shoulders. At a glance, he didn’t appear to be a match for the Anasso. In fact, looked like he should be on the cover of a fashion magazine. But one peek into the golden-brown eyes revealed the smoldering hunger of his wolf. Not to mention the searing power that thundered around him like a forcefield.
The two kings had made a tenuous peace treaty. Not only because Styx’s mate was a Were and twin sister to Salvatore’s mate, but they both understood that the eons of war between the two species had caused irreparable harm. In the modern world it was important for demons to work together for the good of all.
Still, it hadn’t been easy. And they both knew that the smallest incident could destroy the temporary ceasefire.
“Salvatore,” Styx muttered as the Were halted directly in front of him, his wolf barely leashed.
“Did you approve the attack on my cousin, leech?” the male growled.
The overhead chandeliers flickered as Styx struggled to contain his temper. No one talked to him like that. No. One.
“Let’s start this again, dog.” He snapped his fangs together. “Good evening, Salvatore. How are you? Is Harley having a nice visit with Darcy?”
Salvatore ignored the sharp edge of warning in Styx’s tone. “One of your minions assaulted Marco. I want to know why.”
Styx scowled at the ridiculous accusation. “He runs a fight club, doesn’t he? His business is literally getting attacked. If he doesn’t like it then tell him to open a bakery.”
“He wasn’t at the club,” Salvatore snapped. “He was lured away by a bloodsucker who led him straight into her trap.” Salvatore stepped close enough to surround Styx in his heat. “If he’s harmed, I’m going to hold you personally responsible.”
Styx hissed, releasing enough of his powers to shatter the overhead chandelier and cause the balcony to quake beneath their feet. Just a small reminder that could flatten the entire city if he wanted. Distantly he was aware of demons screaming in fear, but his gaze never wavered from the feral glow of the wolf in Salvatore’s eyes. The Were was a breath from shifting and all hell breaking lose.
“A vampire doesn’t need a trap to kick the ass of a mangy—”
Without warning the rich smell of plums cut through the heavy musk in the air and a tall imp stepped from behind Salvatore.
“Perhaps I should explain,” Troy the Prince of Imps announced, smoothing his hands down the one-piece leather jumpsuit that was studded with silver stars.
Styx battled back the urge to toss the flamboyant creature over the edge of the railing. He was familiar with Troy. Along with the fact he was often as annoying as the gargoyle who was currently hiding beneath the table.
“Explain what?” he demanded.
“I’m currently managing the Hunting Grounds for Marco.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“In oh so many ways,” Troy drawled. “But my point is that my employment at the club is the reason that I was in contact with Marco shortly before he went off the grid.”
“Went off the grid?” Styx sent a suspicious frown toward Salvatore. “I thought you claimed he was attacked?”
Salvatore pointed toward the imp. “Continue,” he commanded.
Styx narrowed his eyes. “From the beginning.”
“As I said, I’ve been managing the Hunting Grounds over the past couple of months” Troy said. “Very successfully I might add. Soon I will have it expanded to locations around the world just as I did with your mother-in-law’s strip clubs and my own coffee shops…” His arrogant boast faded away as both Styx and Salvatore released low growls of impatience. “Ah. Not interested, got it. Back to my story.” He cleared his throat. “My position as manager offered me the perfect opportunity to watch the relationship between Marco and Satin.”
“Satin?” Styx muttered the name in surprise.
Troy nodded. “She came at least twice a week. Sometimes more.”
Styx hesitated. He wasn’t close to the female. Like many vampires she was aloof and fiercely independent. But, he did know that she was a ruthless manager who was utterly loyal to Viper. There was no way that she could be cheating on her employer with another club.
“She’s a professional,” he finally said. “She was no doubt checking out the competition.”
Troy tossed his long, fiery hair, a taunting smile curving his lips. “Oh, she checked it out. Repeatedly and intimate detail.”
Styx wasn’t amused. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know…” Troy pursed his lips, as if blowing a kiss in his direction. “Her and Marco.”
Styx ground his fangs together. Darcy was helping him with his anger-management issues, but no demon could be confronted with a moody hound and pest of an imp without wanting to rip out a few throats.
“I presume you’re implying they were lovers?”
“It was more than that,” Troy insisted.
Troy hesitated, as if considering how to explain what he’d witnessed. “It was like they were obsessed with each other. So obsessed that when Satin suddenly stopped coming to the club Marco was a mess.”
“You said they, but obviously it was just the dog who was obsessed if she decided to avoid him,” Styx pointed out, unable to believe that Satin could ever be anything but icily detached.
Troy shook his head. “It wasn’t just Marco. I’ve seen a million lovers over my long life. Those two…”
Styx felt a surge of impatience. “What?”
“They were destined for one another.” A visible shiver raced through Troy’s surprisingly muscular body. “Whether they liked it or not.”
Instinctively, Styx and Salvatore share an uncomfortable glance. They would never be besties, thank the goddess, but they were both leaders who cared about their people. And when they started hearing words like ‘obsessed’ and ‘destined’ it set off all sorts of alarms. Lust was one thing. Compulsion was another.
“What does any of this have to do with me?” Styx asked.
“When Satin stopped coming to the club, I suggested to Marco that he discover why she had disappeared.” Troy grimaced. “It was that or having him sedated. His temper was somewhere between volatile and catastrophic.”
“Typical dog,” Styx retorted. “Always foaming at the mouth.”
Salvatore flashed a smile that didn’t reach his smoldering eyes. “I’ll be sure and share your opinion with Darcy.”
“Any hoo,” Troy quickly interrupted the brewing battle. “Marco left the Hunting Grounds and last evening he called to say he was on Satin’s trail.”
“He was stalking her?” Styx hissed.
“That’s one way of putting it, I suppose,” Troy reluctantly agreed.
“My cousin has no need to stalk women,” Salvatore snarled. “They swarm around him like bees to honey.”
“That’s another way of putting it.” Troy heaved a loud sigh. “Can I continue?”
Styx flashed his fangs at the imp. “Make it fast.”
“I spoke with him a few hours ago. He’d reached a town called Guthrie in Oklahoma, which I think is…” Troy waved a slender hand. “In that direction. He told me that he’d managed to track down Satin to a small demon bar.”
Styx turned his attention back to the angry Were. “I can imagine that she wasn’t happy to discover she was being hounded by an ex.”
“Unhappy or not, she had no right to imprison him,” Salvatore growled.
“Imprison him? What the hell are you babbling about?”
It was Troy who answered the sharp question. “Shortly after I spoke to Marco, I lost contact with him.”
“What contact?” Styx asked.
“Before Marco left the club, I placed a simple tracing spell on him.” Troy took a hasty step to the side as Salvatore bared his lengthened fangs. “Only because I sensed he wasn’t thinking clearly. I am a believer of better safe than sorry.”
“You?” Without warning Levet popped his head over the edge of the table. “Since when have you worried about anyone but yourself?”
Styx swallowed a curse. He’d forgotten all about the ugly lump of granite. Which just proved just how focused he was on the potential violence that pulsed in the air.
“Fine.” Troy rolled his eyes. “I was keeping track of him because he owed me money. A lot of money.”
“Finish your story,” Styx commanded.
Troy deliberately turned his back on the gargoyle. “I contacted the owner of the local demon bar in Guthrie,” he told Styx. “He happens to be an old business partner of mine.”
“Of course he is,” Styx muttered. Troy possessed an amazing ability to amass enormous amounts of wealth. It gave him the sort of power that was rare for an imp. “And?”
“And he told me that his evening started fine and then it went to hell when a strange female with pale gold curls and eyes the color of a London fog suddenly appeared.” Troy halted, scratching the tip of nose. “He also said that she had wings that were there but not there. Whatever that means.”
“Aunt Bertha!” Levet cried out.
Troy scowled down at the gargoyle. “I should have known she would be related to you. My friend told me that she had bats in her belfry.”
Levet snapped his fairy wings. “That is…” He paused, wrinkling his snout. “Potentially accurate.”
“Satin seemingly arrived at the same bar not long after…Bertha arrive,” Troy continued. “She was obviously searching for the female.”
“She was,” Styx said. “I sent her.”
“Is she bringing Aunt Bertha back to Chicago?” Levet demanded.
“I’m not sure. There was a rather shocking turn of events.”
The floor shook as Styx imagined Satin being captured, perhaps even harmed by the Were chasing her.
“No.” Troy sent an odd glance toward Levet. “Your Aunt Bertha told Satin that she was pregnant with a Were pup and then she vanished into thin air.”
There was a shocked silence that stretched and stretched and stretched. As if Troy had dropped a grenade and they were all waiting for it to explode. It was at last Styx who managed find his voice.
“What did you say?”
“And then the gargoyle vanished,” Troy murmured.
Styx stepped forward, his hands curled into massive fists that were ready and willing to smash things. Starting with Troy’s too handsome face.
“Easy big boy.” Troy allowed his gaze to slide down Styx’s massive body that was outlined by his leather pants and white silk shirt. “Big, big boy.”
Another chandelier shattered, this one over the dancefloor.
“Um…Troy.” Levet reached out to tug on the imp’s arm. “I would not.”
Troy glanced at Styx’s fangs, his face paling. “Perhaps you’re right.”
“Tell me exactly what Bertha said,” Styx rasped.
“She told the vampire that she was pregnant and that the child was a pureblooded Were. Then she vanished. A second later a Were appeared, who I assume was Marco, and the vampire went feral.” Troy shot a glance toward Salvatore. “She attacked Marco, claiming that he used some sort of animal magic on her. They argued, each convinced the other one was lying, then the vampire tossed a pebble at the Were to freeze him in place before she ran out of the bar.”
Styx tried to process what the imp was telling him. On a logical level he understood the concept of a pregnancy. But not in context of a vampire. For the moment he futilely struggled with the outrageous implications, then he grimly shoved the thought to the back of his mind and concentrated on what he could understand.
“She must have used a snare spell.” He folded his arms over the broad width of his chest. “What happened to Satin after she trapped the Were?”
Troy shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“What about the Were?”
“While I was on the phone with my friend he managed to bust out of the spell and left the bar. I assume he’s back on Satin’s trail.”
Styx stepped toward Salvatore, a layer of ice forming on the nearby table. “If he hurts her”
Salvatore held his ground, his power snarling and snapping as it smacked against the frigid air.
“She was the aggressor, leech. Plus, she is obviously unstable if she thinks that she’s pregnant.”
Styx didn’t bother to remind the Were that it was Levet’s batty relative who’d claimed Satin was pregnant.
“So call him home,” he snapped, his eyes narrowing as Salvatore’s jaw tightened. “You’ve tried and he ignored you,” Styx deduced. “That’s why you’re here. Your hound is on the run, isn’t he?”
Salvatore refused to answer the question. “Call home your vampire and we will clear up this mess,” he stubbornly insisted.
“Non.” Levet flapped his wings, rising until he could perch on the railing of the balcony. “She is on a very important mission.”
“Mission?” Salvatore’s heavy brows snapped together. “What mission?”
“It is all very shush shush,” the gargoyle insisted.
“There you have it. Shush, shush,” Styx taunted, happy that for once Levet was tormenting someone besides himself. “Go find your hound and leash him before I do.”
Salvatore moved until he was standing an inch from Styx, the ripple of his wolf visibly pressing against his skin.
“Listen, you frigid lump—”
“I have a suggestion,” Troy smoothly interrupted.
The two kings turned their heads in unison.
“What?” Styx barked.
Troy casually smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from the sleeve of his jumpsuit, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Styx, however, didn’t miss the sharp scent of fruit. The male was well aware that a bloodbath could erupt at the least provocation.
“Why don’t I go and speak with Marco?” Troy suggested. “He might listen to me.”
“Why would he listen to an imp?” Salvatore demanded.
“I can remind him of what is truly important.”
The Were snorted. “And what’s that?”
“The Hunting Grounds.” Troy glanced from Salvatore to Styx. “Plus, I won’t go charging after him with my alpha ass in a twist causing more problems than I solve.”
Salvatore looked as if he had swallowed a lemon as he studied the imp. Then, he glanced back at Styx.
“He has a point.” There words sounded as if they were being forced through the male’s stiff lips.
He did, but Styx wasn’t satisfied. “I will check on Satin.”
“No.” Salvatore shook his head. “I don’t want you anywhere near Marco.”
“There’s obviously something wrong with her.”
“All the more reason I don’t want you near my cousin,” Salvatore warned. “He’s already in enough danger.”
“I’m going,” Styx snapped.
“Then so am I,” Salvatore retorted.
The building shuddered beneath the weight of Styx’s power, but he managed to keep it from collapsing. More importantly, he forced himself to accept he was going to have to compromise with the mangy mutt. Something more painful than walking into the morning sun.
“Fine.” He pointed toward the gargoyle. “Then Levet will go with Troy.”
Levet widened his eyes in horror. “Moi? Impossible. I must return to Olga,” he protested, referring to the Queen of the Merfolk who he’d been fluttering around for months. “I have been away from her for too long.”
“That wasn’t a request,” Styx informed him.
“No,” Troy interrupted the gargoyle, looking equally horrified. “No way am I traveling with that disaster magnet.”
“I am not the magnesium for disaster.” Levet stomped his foot, pointing toward the imp. “It is you.”
Salvatore glared toward Troy. “Just bring Marco home.”
Marco stretched out his legs, leaning his back against a large rock. Below him a narrow creek cut through the rolling hills that were sparsely covered with a prickly brush. Earlier there had been a handful of human hikers rambling along the remote paths, but as the sun sank over the horizon the land was reclaimed by the natural inhabitants. Coyote, fox and bats searched the barren landscape for their first meal of the night.
Marco was busy with his own hunt. His, however, was far more elusive than a scampering mouse.
Tilting back his head, he studied the entrance to the cave at the top of the peak. He could sense Satin was inside despite her efforts to mute her presence. He didn’t need her scent to track her. She called to him with a siren’s song.
Marco heaved a deep sigh. He was a skilled predator. And even if he wasn’t, it didn’t take any brains to figure out that the time to attack his prey was when they were at their most vulnerable.
Right now Satin was cornered. She couldn’t escape until the sun was completely gone. The perfect opportunity to demand the answers to the questions gnawing at him. But rather than take advantage of the situation, Marco had found a spot where he could keep guard on the entrance to the cave and waited for night.
He told himself that it was a smart strategy. Last time he’d charged after Satin he’d ended up caught in a snare. He wasn’t going to risk stumbling into another trap. Not to mention the fact he was exhausted. He couldn’t remember when he’d had a decent night’s sleep. Add in a wild chase to track down Satin and then the struggle to escape the spell she’d tossed at him…it was no wonder his energy was sapped. It felt good to simply relax for a few hours.
But that wasn’t the real reason he was waiting.
There’d been something in Satin’s eyes when she’d talked about the baby that he’d never expected to see. Fear. He could understand confusion and suspicion and even anger. But the fear was disturbing. He didn’t like the thought his beautiful warrior was afraid. Especially when she was carrying his child.
Marco’s stomach clenched with a sharp excitement. He had no idea what strange magic was at work. Or if it was potentially dangerous. He was simply overwhelmed with a euphoric joy that bubbled through him like the finest champagne.
Not sure whether to savor the sensation or to have his head examined, Marco was distracted by the soft sound of footsteps. With a fluid motion he was on his feet, his inner wolf rumbling in pleasure at the sight of the female who stepped out of cave. The moonlight spilled over her slender body and added a layer of silver beauty to her delicate features. Enchanting.
Desire seared through Marco. A desire that was unfazed when Satin planted her hands on her hips and glared in his direction.
“I can smell you dog.”
Marco stepped forward, a mocking smile on his lips. “I’m not trying to hide…leech.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I knew that Were’s weren’t overly bright, but even you should be able to take a hint.”
“Actually, you’re the one who missed the hint.”
With easy strides, he loped up the steep pathway, ignoring the blast of icy warning that thickened the air. He halted just inches from her rigid body.
“Don’t start something you’re not prepared to finish,” he answered.
She arched a brow. “Oh, it’s finished.”
“On the contrary.” He deliberately glanced down at her stomach, able to detect the warmth of the child inside her. “It’s just begun.”
She flinched, as if she’d taken a blow. “Marco.”
Instant regret flowed through him. She’d always seemed indomitable. As if nothing could touch her. Not even when she was screaming in pleasure beneath him. Now, he was beginning to suspect that she wasn’t nearly as self-assured as she pretended. Even before the child.
“Talk to me, Satin.” He reached out to grasp her hands, his movements slow and cautious. Only an idiot grabbed at a vampire who was on edge. Usually a dead idiot. “Please.”
Astonishingly, she didn’t pull away. Instead, she turned her head, as if trying to hide the vulnerability in her eyes.
“I don’t know what to say.”
Marco paused, considering how to approach the conversation. If he pressed too hard about the baby she was guaranteed to shut him down. Probably best to circle around to the subject.
“Let’s start with what you’re doing out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Why aren’t you busy managing the Viper’s Pit?”
She shrugged. “Styx asked me to track down a missing gargoyle.”
He regarded her with genuine curiosity. “Why you?”
“That’s my skill. Once I have the…” She considered the best way to explain her powers. “The essence of a demon I can follow them anywhere.”
Marco nodded. Each vampire had a unique talent. He’d heard that Viper could split open the earth and, of course, everyone knew that when Styx lost his temper he could take out the entire power grid of Chicago.
“What’s so important about the gargoyle?”
“I’m not sure. She’s related to Levet, so I assume that’s why Styx is involved.”
“Levet.” Marco shuddered in horror. The miniature gargoyle had arrived at the Hunting Grounds the first week that he’d opened. It had taken less than an hour for the creature to burn a hole in his new lodge with a massive fireball and caused a massive riot among the fairies when he claimed the nectar was being watered down. Marco had banned the gargoyle from returning, but he didn’t doubt the tiny bundle of trouble would return whenever he wanted.
“Darcy is fond of him.”
Marco’s lips twisted. The King of Vampires had one weakness. And that was mate. He doted on the pureblooded Were despite their difference.
“That explains the Anasso’s willingness to help,” he said. “Anything to keep Darcy happy.”
Marco studied the elegant lines of Satin’s profile. “You tracked the gargoyle to the bar?”
“Yes.” Her jaw tightened, as if she was remembering the previous evening. “It was supposed to be a routine grab and bag.”
“I cornered her at the bar, but before I could convince her to return to Chicago with me, she started babbling about a baby.”
That strange joy shimmered through Marco. “Our baby.”
“I don’t know what it is,” Satin muttered, pulling her hands from his light grasp.
Marco didn’t bother to argue. She was still struggling to accept the chaos that had exploded in her life. And in her body.
“What else did the gargoyle tell you?”
There was a long silence before Satin grudgingly answered his question. “She said she sensed an evil spirit.”
A blast of fear squeezed Marco’s heart. There’d been a voice in the back of his mind whispering that there was a mysterious magic that created the baby. Probably dark magic. But he hadn’t wanted to believe that this could be anything but a miracle. Now he braced himself to have his hope destroyed.
“No.” She glanced back as his harsh sigh of relief. “It’s somehow attached to me.”
Marco hissed. He’d been worried about the baby, but he suddenly realized that the thought that Satin was in danger was even more troubling. He didn’t have any specialized knowledge of spirits or how they attached themselves to demons, but he had no doubt that they could cause irreparable harm. Maybe even the destruction of an immortal.
Something had to be done. Immediately.
“We need to return to Chicago,” he said, the words clipped as his barely leashed emotions warmed the night air. There was no way he was going let Satin continue her errand when she was being haunted by an evil power. The mere thought made his wolf snarl in fury.
She appeared genuinely confused. “Why would I return to Chicago?”
“Your king surely has contacts in the demon world who can locate the spirit and exorcise it. If he can’t, I’m sure Salvatore can.”
She was shaking her head before he finished speaking. “No, I have to find the gargoyle.”
Marco frowned. “I admire your loyalty, Satin, but—”
“It’s not about loyalty,” she interrupted, her eyes suddenly smoldering with a cognac fire. “I think the gargoyle I’m chasing has the answers.”
“The answers to what?”
“Everything.” She cupped a slender hand over her belly. “Including this.”
Marco battled back the urge to insist on returning to Chicago. Not an easy task. He was an alpha. He barked out orders and expect them to be obeyed. In a hurry and without question.
This female, however, would rip out his throat before she’d meekly submitted to being told what to do. Which meant he would have to use cunning, not brute strength to get what he wanted.
“Okay.” He squared his broad shoulders, preparing for a fight. “Then I go with you.”
“Absolutely not,” she snapped.
If nothing else, she was predictable. And so was he.
“I can go with you, or I can follow,” he said, his tone warning he was digging in his size thirteen boots. End of story. “Either way, you’re not getting rid of me.”
Her brows snapped together. She was just as used to giving orders and having them obeyed as he was.
“Don’t you have a club to take care of?”
“I left Troy in charge.”
“And you trust him?”
Marco considered the question. He hadn’t known the Prince of Imps for long, but he’d formed very specific opinions since Troy had become the manager of the Hunting Grounds.
“With my business? I trust him absolutely,” he assured her. “With anything else? Not as far as I can throw him. Which isn’t very damned far.”
She sent him a frustrated glare. “I don’t want you to come with me.”
“Because I work alone,” she snapped. “I always have and always will.”
“No. You might not want to accept it, but you’ll never be alone again,” he reminded her, his voice soft, but ruthless. “Let me help you.”
Levet wasn’t a demon who complained. Well, not unless he was tired or hungry or trudging through a landscape that was more boring than the netherworld. Or missing the latest episode of the Masked Singer.
Currently he was all of the above. And not happy about it.
And to make matters worse—if that was even possible—he was traveling with Troy, the Prince of Imps.
This wasn’t their first adventure together. They’d worked together to track down a crazed vampire trying to resurrect the previous Anasso. And while they’d been successful, Troy had unfairly held Levet responsible for his debt to a power-hungry nymph who’d nearly killed him.
As if Levet could have known Cleo was a whackadoodle when he asked her for a favor.
“Try to keep up,” the imp growled, taking unreasonably long strides as the climbed the steep slope.
The imp had opened a portal near his friend’s demon club in Guthrie. From there they’d followed the trail west through Oklahoma.
Levet sniffed. “I cannot help that you have legs that are too long.”
“My legs are perfect,” Troy drawled, refusing to slow his fast pace. Levet glared up at him as he scrambled to keep up. The large creature should have looked ridiculous in his tight shirt with fringes on the arms and suede chaps. His hair was tucked beneath a cowboy hat and his boots had spurs on the heels. Instead, he looked like true royalty as he glided through the barren darkness. It was annoying. “Yours are too short.”
“They are not short,” Levet protested. “They are pleasingly petite.”
“Pleasing to who?”
“Doubtful,” Troy muttered, but he’d lost a small portion of his arrogance.
The imp made no secret of his admiration for the Queen of the Merfolk, or his disbelief that the female could be genuinely fond of Levet. It was the one certain way to get beneath the male’s skin.
“I would prove it if we could go and ask her,” Levet said with utter confidence.
“Go.” Troy waved a slender hand. “And don’t come back.”
That’s what Levet wanted to do. He genuinely missed Olga. But Bertha was the only relative that had ever shown him any kindness.
“I have to find my aunt,” he protested. “Besides, Styx was clearly in a pussy mood—”
“Pissy mood,” Troy rudely interrupted.
Levet clicked his tongue. “That is what I said. And it is all your fault.”
Troy halted, bending down to sniff at a rock that protruded from the arid ground.
“How is it my fault?”
“It was you who sent your employee to interfere with the return of my Aunt Bertha,” he reminded the imp. “And you who insisted on going to find the stupid Were.”
“Yes, I volunteered. I certainly didn’t want a yammering lump of stone with me.”
“Fah.” Levet frowned as Troy continued to sniff. “Why are you stopping?”
“Marco was here.” The imp straightened and headed toward the peak of the hill. “He went this way.”
Levet scrambled behind Troy, his claws dislodging small pebbles that bounced down the path behind him. They once again halted and Levet caught the icy scent of a vampire.
“Satin,” he said, easily recognizing the manager of the Viper Pit. She’d always remained aloof, but he’d caught her scent when he was visiting Viper’s cellars to inspect his very fine collection of tequila. “She must have stayed in the cave.”
“Yes.” Troy’s expression was distracted as he crouched down and touched the dirt with the tips of his fingers. “And something else.”
Levet grimaced. He’d been doing his best to ignore the echoes of malignant energy pulsing through the air. He was a big believer in pretending a problem didn’t exist in the hope it would…poof. Disappear.
“Oui,” he reluctantly conceded. “I sense it. An evil.”
Troy lifted his head, glancing around the empty landscape as if searching for an enemy. “It appears to be following them. But what the hell is it?”
Levet didn’t know. Which was odd. There were few creatures in this world or any other that he didn’t recognize. A tingle of anticipation raced through him. It was a mystery.
He adored mysteries.
“I can find out,” he promised, holding out his hand as he concentrated on the vile residue that seemed to hang in the air.
“My magic, of course.”
“Forget it. Your magic is a disaster.”
Levet clicked his tongue. What was the matter with the imp? Didn’t he want to discover what sort of evil they were chasing? Besides, his magic was awesome.
“Do not be a bébé,” he groused, releasing a burst of power.
He expected the magic to solidify the essence of the evil, allowing him to determine exactly what sort of creature had left it behind. Instead, it hit the residue and sizzled like ice being tossed into a fire. Bracing himself for an explosion—always a possibility—Levet was shocked when he instead felt himself being tugged forward. It was like a blackhole had opened up and was pulling everything inside it. Including him and Troy.
“Levet! Stop!” Troy cried out.
“I cannot.” Levet tried to grab at the nearby rock, only to be sucked off his feet and into a swirling pit that opened in the ground directly in front of him. “Sacrebleu!”