Authors: Lindsay J. Pryor
Part of the Blackthorn series:
Published by Bookouture
An imprint of StoryFire Ltd.
23 Sussex Road, Ickenham, UB10 8PN
Copyright © Lindsay J. Pryor 2014
Lindsay J. Pryorhas asserted herright to be identifiedas the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-909490-18-5
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events other than those clearly in the public domain, are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Withveryspecial thanks to:
Aimee, Anita, Fiona, Incy, Jane, Kelly, Linzi, Tima and Traceyfor your openly-unremitting support for Blackthorn.You ladies are incredible.
Every reader who has got in touch to share your enjoyment of the books so far – you make more of a difference than you know.
for your continuing dedication both to this series and to me as a writer. I’msoproud and fortunate to be a part ofsuch an awesome publisher.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LETTER FROM LINDSAY
This was not good. This was not good at all.
Just when she thought the night couldn’t have got any worse, Jask Tao walked into the equation.
Sophia glowered into the lycan leader’s exquisite azure-blue eyes, his dark lashes a sharp contrast to the untamed fair hair that fell around his defined, stubbled jaw.
‘You need to let me go,’ she said, as he remained crouched in front of her at eye level, his firm grip on her jaw as unrelenting as his gaze.
‘And why would I want to do that?’
It undoubtedly sounded like a ludicrous suggestion, surrounded as she was by four lycans, her outstretched wrists roped to the rusted rings embedded in the dank, subterranean walls. But she said it anyway. ‘I’m warning you – you’re making a mistake.’
He examined her pensively – those uncompromising eyes betraying his angelic, albeit rugged, appearance. He let go of her jaw and stood up, his candlelit shadow looming on the moss-encased walls of the ruins.
It had been three days since Marid had abducted her – ambushed her. The sleazy vampire knew about The Alliance. And if word was out there about the covert operation, the others were at risk too. She’d already wasted the time Marid had held her hostage, let alone the past three hours she’d been trapped down there since he’d sold her on. She needed to get back to the rest of the group. She needed to warn them.
But more than that, more than anything, she needed to find out what the hell was going on with her two sisters.
She glanced at the two dead vampires lying on the stone-slabbed floor ahead – the vampires that had bartered with Marid over her like she was nothing. Her skin crawled as she thought back to the way they’d grinned conspiratorially at each other as they’d tied her to the wall. And she’d known from the malicious look in their eyes, let alone the conversation they’d had whilst drinking and laughing at the table, they’d planned far more than just a feed.
But the events that had followed had been a surprise to everyone.
She’d realised what had happened the minute the shock had subsided. There was only one explanation – only one type of blood that killed a vampire that quickly and that painfully: serryn blood.
She sure hadn’t been a serryn before she’d entered that chamber – the leech, Marid, had proven that point. But the evidence spoke for itself – the vampires’ bodies now twisted and contorted from biting into her, her blood having imploded every one of their veins. It had taken only seconds for her toxic blood to penetrate their systems.
She knew only too well from her research that only serryns caused that reaction – a rare bloodline of witch long thought extinct. Just as she knew there was only one way anyone not born a serryn would become one – the so-called curse jumping from an older sibling to a younger one if the former committed either of the two serryn taboos: suicide by their own hand, or falling in love with and consummating that love with a vampire. Right then, both ideas seemed as implausible as her big sister Leila being a serryn in the first place.
If the indisputable proof hadn’t been plain in front of her, she would have laughed off the possibility. Now she needed to knowexactlywhat was going on. Forget The Alliance’s rules about no outside contact – this was family. Not only was her little sister, Alisha, in trouble, but now seemingly so was Leila.
Which meant, even more so, that she had no time to waste on lycans.
She glowered back up at Jask.
Feet braced apart, hands low on his lithe hips, she had no doubt his stature was imposing enough when stood eye-to-eye with him. The last thing she needed was her forced submissive position on the floor exacerbating it.
It wasn’t helped by the fact she knew more about the uncomfortably good-looking lycan than just his zero-tolerance leadership – he was bad-tempered, temperamental, and fiercely protective of his pack. And – though it was irrelevant it slipped into her mind anyway – rumoured to be proficient in bed. He was certainly well-equipped enough to live up to his reputation – his jeans temptingly fitting those solid thighs, his biceps distractingly taut through his shirt, those rolled-up sleeves exposing well-toned forearms. She lingered over the brown leather straps wrapped around his wrists, matching the ones around his neck, a small platinum pendant nestled in the hollow of his throat.
She glanced at the other lycan beside him: Corbin Saylen – Jask’s second in command, with a reputation as equally uncompromising. He had a presence all of his own, stood there, arms folded, his grey eyes locked on hers.
But then, when you were one of the minority third species in Blackthorn, you had to have a reputation to survive.
‘Get in here and tell me what happened,’ Jask demanded, summoning the two lycans from beyond the doorway.
The one she knew to be Rone entered first. On appearance they had to be twenty years younger than Jask – but it was as impossible to tell with lycans as it was with vampires. Rone and his comrade, Samson, had deliberated over what to do with her for the best part of an hour after gatecrashing the vampire feast gone wrong. They’d paced the room, arguing over whether to just leave her there. Despite having tried to barter with them, she’d seen their faces and that was finally enough for them to relent into calling for backup. Backup being Corbin and, from what she had picked up from overhearing their panicked phone call, and despite their protests, Corbin deciding to inform Jask.
‘We were across at the warehouse,’ Rone stated. ‘We heard the noise she was creating so came out to look. She was putting up a hell of a fight.’
‘And then?’ Jask asked.
‘We saw them bring her down here.’
‘And knowing you never interfere in vampire business, you walked away,’ Jask added, the disapproval emanating in his eyes.
‘We were going to,’ Samson said.
‘But it was two on one,’ Rone interjected. ‘They were getting violent with her.’
Jask looked back at Sophia, but she knew he wasn’t looking at her – he was examining the evidence of the cuts and grazes on her face. ‘The vampires do their thing, we do ours,’ he said, looking back at Rone and Samson.
Sophia raised her eyebrows at the indifference in his words. Seemingly his reputation as a heartless bastard was equally justified.
‘That’s the only way the segregation works and you know it,’ he added. ‘We have enough to do in protecting our own, without trying to save every helpless victim in this district.’
She nearly protested at the victim remark, but resolved to keep her mouth shut. All that mattered was getting loose.
‘We thought she was just a girl,’ Rone explained. ‘What did she do to them? I’ve never seen vampires go down that fast. It was all over within minutes.’
‘Just be grateful your discovery is sufficient enough to save me ripping into you right now. What were you doing on this side of the district?’
The two youths glanced nervously at each other.
‘We had a deal going,’ Rone declared, instantly dropping his gaze to the floor in response to Jask’s thunderous glare.
‘A deal? With vampires?’ he asked, distaste exuding from his tone.
After a moment’s hesitation, Rone gave a single nod.
Jask exhaled with exasperation. ‘So there’s someone who knew you were here?’
‘What if they think this was something to do with us?’ Samson asked, echoing the line of thought that had no doubt provoked Jask’s further irritation with them.
He took two steps towards them. ‘Thisis why you don’t come here.Thisis why you stay in Northern territory.Thisis why we’re going to clear up this mess and get you back to the compound so I can deal with you properly.’
He removed something from his back pocket, flicked open a switchblade that glinted in the candlelight as he turned to face her.
Sophia braced herself as he expertly sliced through the ropes that bound her arms to the wall. She barely had time to rub her throbbing wrists or rotate her aching shoulders before he’d grabbed her by the upper arm and tugged her to her feet as if she was weightless.
‘Corbin, get her up to the bikes,’ he said, shoving her towards him. ‘We’ve spent too long here already.’
She was a little unsteady for a moment, but quickly regained her balance as Corbin wrapped a firm hand around her upper arm.
She refrained from struggling, knowing she stood a hell of a better chance one-on-one against Corbin if Jask and the other two remained distracted for long enough.
As Corbin led her towards the door, Jask stepped over to the table to pick up what was left of a bottle of whisky and the remains of one of the burning candles. It took no imagination to work outhowhe planned to get rid of the bodies, especially all traces of serryn blood.
Corbin tugged her out into the corridor before she could see any more.
His eyes were fixed ahead, his grip on her arm unrelenting as she tried to match her strides to his. His shoulder-length hair blew in the mild breeze as they turned the corner. Tall, broad and with the lithe strength of all lycans, they may have been no match on appearance, but she’d taken down bigger than him.
Just as she’d take Marid down when she caught up with him again. Because she would. And the sharper the object she used to say what she had to say, the better.
The stone corridor seemed endless. She hadn’t seen much of it on the way there – she’d spent too long slamming her heels or fists into every available inch of soft flesh on the two vampires who had dared to drag her down there.
The stairwell, when they eventually reached it, was as narrow as she remembered, her knees having scraped against stone as one had held her legs, the other restraining her arms around her as they’d carried her bucking and protesting down there.
Now Corbin pushed her up ahead of him, his size forcing him to be more behind her than next to her, but he didn’t let go of her arm.
As soon as she saw moonlight on the steps, she tried to yank her arm free. ‘You’re hurting me.’
‘Then keep moving.’
‘Seriously,’ she said, stopping abruptly. ‘Just give me a second, okay?’ She wrenched her arm from his as she feigned weakness. ‘I don’t feel too good.’ She slid down the wall to collapse onto the steps.
He let go of her just for a second.
It was what she needed.
She snapped her head towards the top of the stairwell and faked a look of shock. As she’d hoped, it was enough to evoke his curiosity – a luxury of a split second when his eyes were averted from her.
With both hands she grabbed his lower leg and yanked with every ounce of strength she had left.
Corbin’s startled gaze met hers as he slammed his hands onto either side of the wall to brace himself.
It granted her another split second to slide along to the middle of the step, to pull back her leg before slamming her foot hard into his groin.
He instinctively bent over double and lost balance. He tumbled backwards, but she didn’t stop to watch.
She turned and clambered up the remaining steps, her thighs heavy as she struggled to her feet to take the last few steps two at a time.
She heard Corbin’s voice echo up the steps behind her – one single call: ‘Jask!’
She fell up the last step, her palms scuffing concrete. The dark and barren wasteland loomed ahead – nowhere to hide for at least seventy feet to where the outline of some old factory buildings lay in the distance against the overcast night sky. She had to get to them. Hiding was no use with the lycans’ proficient sense of smell, but something would be there that she could use to defend herself. Damn it, the outskirts of the east side of Blackthorn were renowned for their reclusiveness.
Like a runner at the start of a race, she lunged forward, taking off with as much speed as her aching body would allow. She kept her attention firmly on the closest building, her eyes blurring against the cold night air, the terrain rough and uneven beneath her boots.
She told herself not to look over her shoulder, not to dare lose her pace for one moment, but instinct overwhelmed her.
She turned to see an outline closing in on her from maybe only forty feet behind.
Her heart lunged and she ran faster, her throat parched and constricted. She ignored the shooting pains in her chest, the laceration of agony in her side that under any other circumstances would have forced her to stop.
But common sense screamed in her head – she couldn’t outrun a lycan even on the best of days. She had to conserve what little energy she had left if she ever wanted to escape.
She forced herself to stop despite her instincts urging her to keep running.
She struggled to catch her breath in the few seconds she had as she turned to face Jask coming to a standstill a few feet away.
He clearly hadn’t expected her to stop. The dance of amusement in his eyes almost masked the irritation, had the latter not exuded from him so intensely. ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough fights for one night?’
‘I’m not going with you,’ she said through annoyingly ragged breaths.
He raked her swiftly with his gaze. ‘So you seem to think.’
‘Walk away, Jask, and save yourself the trouble.’
She could have sworn she saw another glint of amusement in his eyes.
‘Walk to the shed over there with dignity,’ he said, cocking his head over his shoulder. ‘And we can forget you tried to run on me.’
‘I have a better idea. Go join your puppies and bike it back to your Northern pound. You’ve got no business being here. And you’ve gotnobusiness with me.’
He took a few steps closer. ‘I’ll let that first comment go, on account of it being a stressful night for you. But as I’mmakingwhat’s in those veins my business, you either be a good girl and do as you’re told or I’ll be a bad lycan. Your choice.’
The sincerity in his tone, the slight darkening in his eyes, made her stomach jolt and, to her distaste, not just with apprehension. She rolled back her shoulders, preparing herself for battle. ‘You’ve got to get to it first.’
He raised his eyebrows slightly, only this time a smile escaped – a stunning, fleeting smile that ignited those azure eyes and annoyingly only enhanced his handsome face further. He rested his hands back on his hips. ‘Seriously?’
It was one mocking look too much.
She closed the gap just enough to lift her leg with lightning speed, less than an inch from making impact with his chest before he moved his foot just as swiftly, swiping her other leg from under her, causing her to hit the floor.
Leaning back on braced arms, she stared up at him; not so much as a hint of a glitch in his composure.
It was a move she’d developed to perfection, and he’d kicked it from her as if it was nothing. His self-assurance riled her as she looked squarely into his unperturbed eyes.
Feeling an alien flush in her cheeks, she moved back slightly to forge some distance between them before getting to her feet.
She was going to wipe the smug look off his face.
But as she lifted her leg again, he knocked it aside, as he did her right fist and then her left as she tried twice to strike him.
Since she’d joined The Alliance, Zach had taught her everything she needed to know about one-on-one combat – if not to take an opponent down completely, then at least long enough to get away.
She paused for only a split second before increasing the onslaught, hitting out at him with clean and precise moves, only to have him fend them off swiftly and accurately before knocking her leg from under her again.
She fell back down, brushed her hair from her eyes in irritation before glowering up at him.
‘You’ve spent too long fighting vampires, honey,’ he said.
The playful challenge in his eyes incensed her. The mocking in his tone, the derision in his eyes, triggered her indignation more.
She knew better than to fight unless she was in complete control of her temper but this was now just as much about pride as escaping. Instead of taking the moment she needed to escape, she got back to her feet.
She picked up pace, using every move she had been taught in quick succession, catching him several times but never with enough force or at the right angle to make any impact.
‘Are you scared to fight me?’ she demanded, frustrated by his purely defensive moves.
‘You want to exhaust yourself, you go ahead.’
She sped up, increasing the speed of her moves, adrenaline pumping as she went at him harder. He missed a couple of her shots, allowing her to make impact with his chest and knee, but it was nowhere near enough to take him down. She knew she was being less precise, fuelled by her anger rather than tactics.
And this time, when he kicked her legs from under her, he purposefully went down on top of her.
She lifted her knees nimbly against her chest, ready to use the remaining strength in her thighs as leverage to force him off her, but he instantly closed the gap. He forced her thighs to part either side of his hips, spreading her legs further with the power of his, locking her ankles down to the ground with his own at the same time as pinning her arms to the ground either side of her head.
Despite the futility, she tried to writhe and buck beneath him, but not one inch of his hard, tensed body was moveable.
Gasping, she let the back of her head hit the ground, panting as she looked up into his eyes, every inch of her resounding in umbrage at her helplessness.
‘Done?’ he asked, the calm in his eyes infuriating her as much as the effortlessness with which he held her to the floor.
She tightened her hands into fists. ‘Get off me,’ she all but growled.
‘Are youdone?’ he repeated, his tone taking on an impatient edge that escalated her agitation.
She defiantly held his gaze, feeling every inch of the power behind his body, the heat emanating between them. As he watched her a little too intently for comfort, mesmerising her with his quiet confidence, she felt another unfamiliar stirring. ‘If it means you’ll get those feral hands off me, yes, I’m done.’
She grudgingly stilled as she awaited his response; gazed at the masculine lips that hovered inches from hers before looking back into his eyes.
He lowered himself a few inches, his biceps straining distractedly against his shirt. ‘Vampires might bite, honey, but lycans tear. You might want to bear that in mind next time you try and take me on.’
With only another moment’s linger on her gaze, he released her wrists, eased off her, grabbing her arm to pull her to her feet along with him.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got yourself into,’ she declared, unable to suppress her indignation.
‘You can tell me all about it back at the compound,’ he said, only to hoist her up over his shoulder.
Her cheeks flushed from the blood rushing to her head, let alone the humiliation. ‘Put me down!’ she demanded, slamming a fist into his back as she tried to kick at his groin.
Her retaliation only evoked him to hold her tighter though, her clenched fist barely having any impact on his solid back.
She glowered down at the ground that swayed beneath her, forced her elbows into his back to regain some kind of control, but they reached the shed in no time.
He slid her down onto her feet, catching her forearm as she stumbled with the motion.
Rone and Samson were already helmeted up and astride their motorbikes in the far corner.
Corbin stood nearer by, his arms folded as he smirked in amusement at Jask. ‘She’s going to be a lot of trouble. Are you sure she’s worth the effort?’
‘You know me – I love a challenge. Taming could become my new favourite pastime,’ Jask said, tugging her over to the nearest motorbike. He unhooked something from the seat, and turned to clasp one cuff of the handcuffs over her right wrist.
He lifted the helmet off the seat and shoved it on her head, before guiding her astride his motorbike. Sitting in front of her, he pulled her other wrist around his taut waist, cuffing her hands together at his lap, the position forcing her intimately against his back.
She clenched her hands and fought against leaning against him. But she was given no other option as Jask revved the engine.
Sophia quickly found somewhere to rest her feet and braced herself just as they sped off, kicking up dust behind them.
Sophia held on tight as Jask’s bike ripped through the barren outskirts of the east side of Blackthorn, the wasteland and abandoned warehouses soon replaced with the high-rise, compacted buildings that enclosed the district’s hub.
Blackthorn: just one rotten core of thousands more. Cores set up and partitioned off to contain the third species since their outing eighty years before.
The Global Council, a panel of humans elected as advocates for their own race, had done so as their promise for safety forallhumans. What were once cities, towns and villages had been disbanded under the regulations into socially segregated areas now called locales – the third species contained in the nucleus of a further three encircling districts. Contained until they’d proved themselves safe, as they so claimed.
And each locale was managed by its own law enforcement division ensuring that happened. Established as part of the Global Council’s regulations, the Third Species Control Division was responsible for maintaining order amongst the vampires, the lycans, and whatever other third species crawled the dark streets in their patch.
But the system was failing.
Not least because therewasno segregation anymore. Not unless you were part of the elite – humans who had earned their place in the far reaches of the locale, across the most highly guarded of all the borders in the exclusive third-species-free Summerton. Or even Midtown – the next notch down. The rest of the humans were forced to live in the under-privileged Lowtown, mingling with the third species allowed to reside there, right next to the now weak borders of the infested Blackthorn.
Back when the regulations were put in place, residents of Lowtown had been promised that, despite being given the dregs in terms of provisions, opportunities and medical care, they would at least get protection. But along with many other changes in the authorities’ priorities, the resources to fulfil that promise soon dwindled. And vinegar was only smeared onto the wound of their neglect by the fact that some third species, such as the Higher Order – vampire royalty – were deemedmoreworthy than humans, their privileged residence in Midtown a painful contention.
For too long now, humans outside of Summerton and Midtown had been nothing more than by-products of a deteriorating system. The authorities had long lost sight of what was really going on – both Lowtown and Blackthorn now rife with corruption under the rule of a few pivotal third-species leaders. Worse, those same authorities no longer gave a damn about the humans caught in the crossfire.
And very few had opportunities to improve their situation, especially financially. Those that did were ousted with threats against themselves or their families if someone bigger or better connected wanted to take their place. Because with opportunities so few anyway, only the very toughest survived or those who were in with the right cliques.
Subsequently, a selfish human society had formed. Humans learned survival of the fittest by down-treading, down-beating, threatening, bullying and controlling even their own.
As a result, increasing numbers of humans opted to live in Blackthorn instead – to become permanent residents in the protective cocoons created by their vampire owners or, as they liked to call themselves, sires. It was a derogatory and controlling term that Sophia loathed. But that’s how the feeder-vampire relationship was, no matter how they painted it. The sires fed and housed their human feeders and, above all else, gave them protection in a place where the latter was top of the hierarchy of need. Without protection, you didn’t survive long enough to need food and shelter. In the wrong hands, you’d rather starve.
It was a part of the Blackthorn culture that sickened Sophia and one that she’d long believed the TSCD should do more to control. But feeders never grassed on their sires. Treachery was dealt with brutally. And with no way of ever getting out of Blackthorn or Lowtown, they knew only too well that the authorities were the last ones able to help them. Once you fell, you just kept falling.
Which is why The Alliance, a cohort of human vigilantes, had taken it upon themselves to succeed where the authorities failed. Which is why Sophia worked Blackthorn every night, weaving her way into the third-species underworld. For the past ten months, she had mingled in the very abyss of it, seeing for herself that, like mould, its rankness was seeping into every aspect of the district and that it had to be stopped.
The Alliance would bring back equality forallhumans. And it would start with ending third-species control in Blackthorn – the bullying, the blackmail, the protection rackets. The Alliance would bring down the key underworld players one by one. Control would be regained. The humans forced to live in Lowtown or Blackthorn would finally be safe, just as had been promised by the very authorities who had since abandoned them.
Ifshe could get back to The Alliance to warn her colleagues their furtive operation had been exposed.
Whenshe escaped the uncompromising lycan leader she was cuffed to.
Through the darkened shield of Sophia’s rain-spattered visor, the streets were nothing more than blurred, opaque shades of grey against the backdrop of the pending dawn. The throbbing growl of the bike drowned out the noise that consistently permeated the dense core of the district – not least the low, rhythmic thrum of bass music that could be heard even at the periphery of Blackthorn where they were heading.
Despite her suppressed senses creating a sense of detachment, let alone the surrealism ofwhoshe was cuffed to, she couldn’t escape reality entirely. Her head may have been cocooned in the visor, but her body certainly wasn’t – her arms locked around the lycan leader’s toned waist, her chest pressed up against the heat of his solid back. Jask must have been laughing to himself at her attempt to take him on out on the wasteland.Ifhe was capable of laughing, that was. From what she’d heard, a sense of humour was one department he was severely lacking in.
Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t be around long enough for any of it to matter. This was just a temporary setback. And that’s what she had to keep telling herself to stop the tightness in her chest developing into panic.
Not that her panic couldn’t be justified considering where she was being taken. But, for now, it was panic suppressed by curiosity. Insight into the compound was something a rare few outside of the lycan community ever had access to – unless Jask planned on you never getting out again. She had no doubt he intended the same for her. But he’d learn soon enough.
Avoiding the complication of navigating the motorbikes through the compacted and overpopulated hub, the lycans wove through the backstreets and alleys. And despite her indignation at being manacled to her captor, even she had to admire the smooth proficiency with which he controlled the powerful machine. The lycans’ reputation for swift responses and superior spatial awareness was unarguably confirmed as Jask and his pack skimmed through narrow gaps and skirted obstacles before Sophia even had time to process what they’d passed.
But then the whole of the past three days had been difficult to process – ever since she’d woken up flat on her back on a stinking mattress. She’d woken groggily and with a heavy dose of disorientation from the blow to her head. Woken to a vampire feeding on her, her inner thigh wet from her blood and his saliva.
The restraints that held her to the rusty metal bed-frame had left her helpless. And if there was one thing that sent her temper soaring, it was being helpless. Despite her weakened state, she’d bucked and cursed and threatened.
Marid had responded with a sharp slap to her face, adding to her humiliation. And she’d glared back at him with gritted teeth despite the tears welling.
She’d been convinced it was all over for her. Not least in the hours that had passed. And, at times, she’d wanted it to end. Contemplated if death was better than the pain. The pain that she had lived with for years which was nothing to do with Marid.
Then when Marid had finally told her she wasn’t just another in his long line of human victims – those kidnapped and sold on for profit to the underworld – that he knew of The Alliance, and that he was next on her hit list, she’d turned her anger inwards. She’d been overheard mentioning his name, no doubt when she’d had a drink too many. Somewhere along the line she’d been stupid, careless, reckless – all well-established traits that she’d always known would eventually be her downfall.
And she had no doubt they would have been if two other vampires hadn’t turned up to collect her. Two vampires that had apparently heard whispers that Marid had got his hands on an Alliance member. And luckily, if there was one thing Marid valued more than vengeance and a free feed, it was money.
She only wished she possessed as much insight into the mystery that was Jask Tao.
They swept past the carcass of the museum that marked the entry into the northern side of Blackthorn – lycan territory.
Kane Malloy ruled the east of Blackthorn and Caleb Dehain the west, with both vampires rumoured to have vested interests in the south. Both had become far too powerful. Both were top of The Alliance’s hit list.
As for Jask, he may have been leader of a minor third species in comparison, he may head up a pack that kept themselves to themselves, but he wasn’t to be underestimated. This was reinforced by the fact he’d recently courageously spoken out against the Third Species Control Division and played a significant part in exposing their corruption.
Worrying enough had been Jask’s unprecedented appearance in court two weeks before to do so. An appearance that had corroborated the claims of the Vampire Control Unit’s golden agent, Caitlin Parish, that the elite subdivision of the TSCD had used two of his lycan pack as pawns in an attempt to bring down their most wanted, Kane Malloy.
Even more troubling was proof that, with the authorities having been brash enough to take on the notorious master vampire, not least because of the potential aftermath for the human residents of Blackthorn and the surrounding Lowtown,no onewas safe from their insane judgement.
Not only had even more mistrust of the authorities descended on Lowtown and Blackthorn; many had been left uneasy that the whole situation was anything but concluded despite the prosecution and incarceration of those responsible.
More so, Jask’s alleged association with Kane Malloy in bringing the TSCD to so-called justice had left many nervous of what a collaboration like that meant for the future of Blackthorn. Any vampire and lycan associations or conflict made the authorities nervous – and those suspected of such were ousted and incarcerated.
And now there was Jask claiming he’d found her at the perfect time. Nothing good could come from lycans having a serryn – not where keeping the peace with the vampiric community was concerned. On top of everything else, the last thing the humans in Blackthorn needed was to be trapped in a civil war between the third species.
Which was why being up close and personal with the usually inaccessible Jask Tao didn’t have to be a disaster. Instead, she needed to turn it around to the perfect opportunity to find out not just what went on inside the lycan compound, but what was currently going on inside Jask’s head.
As they weaved closer and closer to the lycan compound, even the comparatively quieter streets had their fair share of revellers spilling out from the closing bars. A few inebriated residents stepped in front of the bikes, and Sophia tightened her grip on Jask as he and the others swerved effectively around them.
Jask took a sharp right down a back alley, skimming through a gap in a chain-link fence before slowing his pace as they arrived at the far side of a courtyard.
Coming to a standstill outside corrugated metal doors, he switched off the ignition as the others drew up behind him.
Sophia took a moment to collect herself – her body still buzzing from the reverberations of the engine, adrenaline still pumping from the ride, her heart pounding. She had to stay calm – not let him see or hear her fear.
Jask promptly unfastened Sophia’s cuffs at his waist as the corrugated door was pushed open from the inside. Easing off the bike, he gave the lycan now looming in a doorway an acknowledging nod before turning his attention back to Sophia.
Despite her conviction during the ride that this was all under her control, self-doubt took the lead again.
‘You want to walk this time?’ he asked as she freed herself from the enclosure of the helmet.
Regardless of the unnerving heaviness of her legs as she dismounted the bike, the amusement in the cocky bastard’s eyes grated too much. ‘Whatever makes you feel more masculine,’ she said, refusing to disguise her sneer. ‘You’re the one with something to prove it seems – not me.’
But she had no doubt that the glower in her eyes had gone no way to match the one in his.
‘Keep your head down and your mouth shut,’ he warned as he led her over to awaiting door.
‘Recent graduate, were you?’
His eyes narrowed questioningly as he looked across his broad shoulder at her.
‘From charm school,’ she quipped, sensibly breaking eye contact again before sidestepping him and slipping through the doorway first.
The desolate, wide corridor loomed ahead.
As the door scraped to a close behind her, Sophia kept her head up, her shoulders back and her strides purposeful, Jask alongside her.
‘I like what you’ve done with the place,’ she remarked, the fluorescent tubes above buzzing in the silence. ‘Very institutional.’
She looked across at him and sent him a glib smile in retort to another of his frowns, before she glanced over her shoulder to attempt to make eye contact with the younger lycans.
They hadn’t just stumbled on her like they’d made out to Jask and Corbin. The two vampires who’d held her had beenawaitingthe arrival of two others – two lycans, from what she’d overheard.
But not once had Rone or Samson mentioned The Alliance or her role in it. Yet neither had any other lycans turned up.
She could have used her suspicions as a bargaining tool back in the ruins but had quickly resolved that if they truly didn’t know, disclosing her links to The Alliance was potentially more suicidal than keeping her mouth shut.
Now what she needed to know was, if theyhadlied to their lycan leader, why? More importantly, how she could turn it to her advantage to get out of there.
But there was no way she could catch their eye without making it obvious with Corbin between them. She’d have to practise a little bit of uncharacteristic patience.
Jask pulled open another corrugated door and led them into what resembled a warehouse.
Two groups of males looked up from tables on opposing sides of the room. One cluster abruptly ceased their conversation. The other momentarily suspended their game of cards. All gave Sophia the once over.
As Jask marched her across the room, she struggled to keep her arms lax by her sides – the temptation to wrap them protectively around herself overwhelming under the oppression of their stares. Instead she looked a couple of lycans direct in the eye as she passed, swiftly giving them an equal once-over by way of retaliation.
As they reached another door on the far side, Jask keyed a code into the security panel before pushing the door open.
They stepped into a courtyard encompassed by chain-link fences – their twenty-foot height overshadowed only by further chain-link fences some fifteen feet beyond. The latter were at least fifty feet in height and topped off with coiled barbed wire – a sight made increasingly ominous by the eerie glow of dawn pending from behind the dense clouds.
Dawn meant another night gone. Another night wasted when she needed to get back to The Alliance. More importantly, to make contact with her sisters.
‘If a subtle sense of paranoia was the theme you were aiming for, it worked,’ she added, as much to ease her own tension in the dominating silence as maintain a mask of nonchalance.
But this time Jask didn’t acknowledge her as he led her directly to the door opposite, keying in another code. The door made a sharp buzz before opening automatically. He stood back and indicated for Sophia to step through first.
She entered a low-arched, red-brick tunnel, her eardrums struggling to adjust to the oppressive enclosure. As the door clunked shut, a terrifying sense of disquiet encompassed her. Instinctively she picked up pace towards the open exit some twenty feet away, not least because of the unsettling echo of lycan footsteps close behind her.
The last thing she expected to enter was a large, open space, let alone be faced with greenery.
Apart from a scattering of hardy trees on the outskirts of Blackthorn – trees surviving despite the odds against the unrelenting polluted atmosphere – greenery was non-existent in Blackthorn. Occasional glimpses were only fractionally more apparent in Lowtown. Greenery was a privilege reserved for Midtown and, not least, Summerton, her true home – the latter having an abundance of parks, fields and woodlands.
But here in the lycan compound, in what was once an affluent city hotel, was not only a green lawn, but a scattering of small fruit trees.
She stood in the corner of the quadrant and scanned the three-storey building ahead, as well as the adjoining two-storey building to her left, both dark and geometric against the swirling mass of clouds. The sky appeared even heavier there, closeting the compound and encapsulating the cold bite that crept with the subtle breeze. A breeze that stirred a damp and earthy aroma evoked by the recent rainfall.
The place was scattered with lycans. Some relaxed on low walls and steps, others gathered at picnic tables, chatting in clusters. But it wasn’t long before she caught their attention, her hands involuntarily clenching at her conspicuousness.
‘Take them to the holding room,’ Jask said to Corbin, referring to Rone and Samson. ‘I won’t be long.’
Corbin nodded, shooting Sophia a glance, before cocking his head towards Rone and Samson as an indication for them to follow.
Her pulse rate increased a notch. Jask wanted her alone. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.
She followed Jask around the paved periphery to the left whilst Rone and Samson were led to another tunnel on the far right of the quadrant. And from their perturbed faces, their leader was certainly living up to his reputation.
As Jask cut across the corner before continuing along the path to the three-storey building, she mindlessly rubbed her wrists – the wrists he had pinned so easily. Humiliation consumed her again at the recollection, as did the knot of nerves in her stomach as he led her up the broad stone steps to the impressive stone-arched entrance and through the open front doors.
Passing through a tile-floored entrance hall, they entered the lobby. Sophia stared ahead at the sweeping central staircase – one which she had no doubt would have been breathtaking in its day. At its pinnacle, the galleried landing split into two either side of a distant, dominating arched window.
Just like outside, lycans mingled in clusters – some reclining in worn armchairs, others strolling leisurely through the open doorway to the left or heading out of sight down the corridor to the right of the foot of the stairs.
She followed Jask across the mosaic floor, past an ornate stone fireplace to her right, and what would have been the reception desk to her left. Ascending the stairs alongside him, her attention was drawn to the opaque glass dome that crowned the ceiling, until the scorch of stares was too much to bear.
She glanced over her shoulder to see every pair of piercing eyes watching her. Even the lycans descending on the opposite side of the staircase frowned in curiosity as they passed.
She tugged at her knotted bobbed hair behind her ear, rubbed her thumb beneath what she assumed were now clown eyes, before glowering back at them. ‘What the hell do they think they’re staring at? Anyone would think they’d never seen a woman before.’
‘Number one, you’re with me, number two, you look a mess, and number three, you reek of vampires,’ Jask declared. ‘Everyone in this building can smell you coming from a hundred feet away.’
Despite his insults coming without so much as a glance in her direction, she still flushed with embarrassment. But she promptly reminded herself it didn’t matter what anyone thought of her – least of all what Jask or any other lycan thought of her.
As they reached the top, she was tempted to turn and perform a theatrical curtsey for her captive audience, but Jask didn’t give her time as he took a sharp left across the galleried landing.
He opened the only door on that side and she stepped in behind him, her heartbeat audible in her ears as he sealed the door behind them.
She took a steadying breath, taking her eyes off him only to scan the enclosure.
Aside from a cluster of three armchairs in front of the dominating window to her right, the fifty-by-thirty-foot room was void of furniture. Even the window was bare, doing nothing to hold back the muted early dawn glow across the exposed floorboards.
Jask kicked off his boots, his bare feet now silent as he led the way towards the jacquard bottle-green curtain ahead.
He brushed it aside to reveal a room about half the size of the last one, only this one had a much more homely feel.
A large, deep-pile rug lay against the wall to her right, conquered by a mass of floor cushions, pillows and a duvet. Clearly the rumour that lycans didn’t sleep in beds, preferring to nest down on the floor, was true.
Another window dominated the wall ahead – this one a bay and housing an impressively deep window seat. But again, it was void of curtains. It seemed privacy wasn’t an issue for lycans – not within the pack at least.
They passed scuffed, white-glossed inbuilt wardrobes as Jask led her to another curtain in the middle of the wall to her left. He tucked the fabric up on a hook and indicated for her to step inside.
She crossed the threshold into a bathroom. A shower cubicle big enough for four sat ahead, the white plastic curtains pulled back but still covering the sides left and right. A toilet was tucked in the top left-hand corner of the room. In the top right-hand corner, were two adjacent sash windows. A lengthy vanity unit containing a sunken sink spanned the rest of the wall to her right.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the broad mirror that sat above it – a small figure in loose, unflattering black clothes with skin too pale for her mussed, dyed-black hair.
‘Strip to your underwear and shower,’ Jask said.
Her heart skipped a beat. She turned to face him as he leaned against the door frame. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
He folded his arms, the taut bulge the position evoked reminding her of his strength. ‘I want the war paint off your face so I can see what I’m really dealing with, and the repulsive vampire scent off your skin.’ He cocked his head towards the cubicle. ‘Now.’
She exhaled tersely. ‘Screw yourself, Jask. Go find some other way to sate your guilty little pleasures – I don’t strip for anyone.’
He held her gaze in the silence.
She held her breath.
A split second later, his chest was a solid wall against her back as he pulled her to the floor between his legs. He looped his ankles over hers, spreading them with his. Locking her arms to her chest, he unlaced one of her mid-calf army boots.
‘I ask nicely once but never twice,’ he said, as he tore her boot and sock from one foot before swapping hands and unlacing the other. ‘If you want to continue being a belligerent little madam, fine. But you need to know I’ve no qualms treating you like one.’
He discarded her other boot and sock before lifting her to her feet with ease.
Arm locked around her waist, he carried her into the cubicle and switched on the shower. He let go of her only to yank her sweater and T-shirt up over her head, casting them aside. Re-pinning her arms pinned around her waist, he retained a faultless hold despite her furious kicking as he reached low down her abdomen to unfasten her combats.
‘You can’t do this!’ she said through gritted teeth as she tried to buck futilely against him.
But as she lifted her feet to the wall to give herself leverage, she only gave him easier access to tug the clinging, soaked fabric down to her knees.
‘No?’ he asked. ‘Then you clearly didn’t learn from your lesson the first time.’
He pushed his foot down between her knees, taking her trousers the rest of the way to the floor. Lifting her out of them, he kicked them aside.
He reached for the shampoo bottle on the nearby shelf as she tried to elbow him away. Squeezing some onto her hair, he rubbed it in, using some of it to wash her face.
Sophia spat out bubbles, the shampoo stinging her eyes as she was forced to close them, let alone keep her mouth shut to avoid the foul taste.
She winced as it stung the wounds, scuffs and grazes from both her encounter with the vampires and the rough treatment of Marid who had made it quite clear he preferred his goods silent – something she’d had a lifelong difficulty with.
‘I trust you can finish yourself off?’ he said, finally letting her go.
She spat the last traces of shampoo from her mouth and hurriedly rinsed her stinging eyes with water before turning to see he had exited the shower. Through the thin fabric of the curtain, she could see his dark shadow in the corner of the room as he stood staring out of the window.
She ran her trembling hands back through her hair and rubbed her eyes until there were no more smudges of the heavy grey eye make-up she always wore.
Once she’d soothed the sting in her eyes, she sulkily grabbed the shower gel and gave herself a wash down. Although she wouldn’t admit it to Jask, she was equally as keen to freshen up after being locked in a filthy room on that putrid bed for the past three days.
She glanced back at the shadow beyond the curtain and felt another flush of embarrassment at the state she’d been in, but immediately quashed the needless emotion.
She rinsed and turned the shower off, but as soon as she turned to look for something to wrap around herself, Jask was back at the opening.
She’d never been particularly shy about her body, and even less so serving with The Alliance – stripping off and tending wounds was a regular occurrence. But something about Jask’s unashamed appraisal whilst she stood in her sodden, thin black underwear gave her a sense of unfamiliar inferiority that didn’t rest easy.
‘Do you own a towel or do you just shake dry?’ she asked as she thrust up her chin, her gaze locked defiantly on his. She placed her hands on her hips. ‘Or would you like to admire me for a little longer?’
He persisted, taking in every inch of her to the point she nearly lost her temper. Until she realised what he was doing. He was checking her inner arms, wrists, neck, thighs, stomach, ankles. He wasn’t examining her for his own satiation – he was looking for bite wounds.
Of course – he assumed she was an experienced serryn and was assessing how many vampiric encounters she’d had recently.
She had almost forgotten what she was now. What she had become. After the night’s events, let alone the previous three days, it had barely registered.
She should have been ecstatic and overwhelmed by the power that now, for a reason she had yet to uncover, flowed through her veins. For years she had dreamt of one day finding a serryn still alive – their blood the ultimate weapon against vampires and subsequently a platinum resource for The Alliance. And the whole time Leila – her sensible, shy, reserved big sister – had been harbouring a secret she would never have seen coming.
A secret she may never have discovered if something hadn’t clearly happened that very night to cause the serryn line to jump to her.
A pang of sickness lingered at the back of her throat. Leila had to still be alive. Shehadto be.
‘Turn around,’ Jask said. ‘Put your hands on the wall, bend forward and open your legs.’
She inhaled deeply, nearly gave him a mouthful of expletive-filled abuse but, despite what he thought, shehadlearned her lesson. Temporarily, at least.
She turned, placed her hands flat against the white tiles, spread her legs slightly and leaned forward just enough that he could see both the backs and inners of her thighs.
‘Let me know when the thrill is over,’ she said.
But when she looked over her shoulder, he’d already draped a towel over the rail above and was removing a shirt from the hook by the doorway.
He threw it at her.
‘Get rid of the underwear and put that on.’ He turned away. ‘You’ve got two minutes.’
Stepping outside, he let the door curtain drop back into place.
Jask stood in front of the window seat, arms folded as he looked out beyond the fences and barbed wire. Dawn had defeated the darkness on Blackthorn’s horizon, early sunlight diminishing the shadowed recesses of the compound.
From the pivotal viewing point of his quarters, he looked left, down at the archway that led to the outbuildings where Rone and Samson had been taken. He didn’t have time to wait around. He needed to get down there and find out as much as he could of exactly what they had been doing on that side of Blackthorn, let alone what mess there could still be to clear up.
But clearly his idea of two minutes and the serryn’s idea of two minutes were two entirely different things. The bathroom was silent and it sure as hell didn’t take a woman more than two minutes to put a shirt on.
He pulled away from the window and drew back the curtain to the bathroom.
She was sat cross-legged on the vanity unit, her small frame swamped in the towel, arms lax in her lap, her head resting back against the wall. She stared back at him – her brown eyes still brimming with anger and resentment, despite the lack of harsh makeup to emphasise such. Make-up without which, as he’d suspected, she was even prettier.
Her sodden combats, sweater and T-shirt were draped over the rail to dry. Her exposed slender shoulders still revealed the straps of her bra.Hisshirt had been thrown to the floor.
As aggravating as her non-compliance was, he’d give her spirit its due. He rested his forearm above his head against the architrave. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘I asked you a question.’
Her gaze remained unflinching. ‘Give me multiple-choice answers and I’ll pick one.’
A pang of irritation sliced his chest at her insolence. But it was fascinating insolence all the same – especially from something two-thirds of his size, let alone in her situation.
He folded his arms and rested his shoulder against the doorframe. ‘I’ll just call you serryn then, shall I?’
‘It’s the closest you’ll get to the truth.’ She broke eye contact only to assess him slowly from feet to chest.
He’d changed into a dry shirt and jeans in the time it had taken her to do the exact opposite. But that wasn’t the reason for the serryn’s appraisal. She was checking him out – and unashamedly so. He would have laughed had the blatancy of the act not been so intentionally defiant.
‘You’re even better-looking in the flesh than they say you are,’ she said, those eyes locking on his again.
Coming onto him in his private quarters, or mocking him – both were intrepid acts. But then he had to remind himself thiswasa serryn he was dealing with, despite how small and helpless she looked. In Blackthorn, neither of the latter meant a thing.
‘How long have you been working the streets of Blackthorn?’ he asked. ‘Only I haven’t heard whispers of a serryn on the loose.’
‘That’s because I’m good.’
‘So good that you got caught?’
She frowned. ‘That’s not how it was.’
‘Then how was it exactly? Only going from the lack of recent bites I saw on you, you’re not very successful.’
‘Is that even possible for a serryn? I understood you’d go with anything.’
Her eyes flared, but almost undetectably had he not been looking so closely. ‘What exactly does any of it have to do with you? The vampires are none of your business, right? That’s how it works around here – you stay in your little pound and they run Blackthorn. Which raises the question as to what I’m doing here.’
‘You’ll know when I want you to know. Until then, you’ll do as you’re told – starting with getting dressed.’
She used the leverage of one arm to lower herself nimbly from the vanity unit, the other hand keeping the knot of the towel at her chest. She stopped in front of him.
‘Becauseyou’regoing to tame me, right?’ She dared to smirk as she echoed his words from in the ruins.
It was a smirk he’d seen once too often for one day.
As she sidestepped to slip past him, Jask braced his arm across the doorway.
‘Did I say I’d finished with you?’ he asked.
She took a step back, but not out of intimidation it seemed – instead to look him direct in the eyes. She folded her arms, emphasising the enticing upward curve of her small breasts now brimming the top of the towel. ‘Why, Jask? What have you got planned next? Strip me all the way this time? And then what? You lycans like to come across all civilised, but we both know what you are underneath. You scratch behind your ear and howl at the moon with the best of them, I bet.’
Her ignorance, intentional or otherwise, was about as appealing as the way she looked at him as though she’d fallen face first into sewage.
‘You’ve got a lot to say for yourself for someone in your predicament, serryn.’
‘I’ve got a lot to say for myself whatever the predicament.’
His heart rate hitched up a notch. The first signs of tension formed in his chest. He kept his fists clenched to remind himself not to allow his talons to slide out from beneath the protective covering of his nails.
Corbin had been right – she was going to be hard work. And despite his light-hearted remark back on the wasteland for Rone and Samson’s benefit, both he and Corbin knew the gravity of the situation. The fact was that hedidneed to tame her – and tame her he would. And that’s what he had to keep his focus on – not on the blood pounding from his heart at the arrogant witch staring him down. Not on the thought of other circumstances, another time, when she’d have spent the next few minutes on her knees begging for his mercy – and doing whatever he asked of her to secure it.
He’d let his pack down before by letting his instincts take over – and he wasn’t going to do it again. Which was why, first and foremost, he needed to work out exactly what he was dealing with.
Jask took a couple of steps towards her but she didn’t flinch.
She didn’t just have spirit; she appeared to believe she was titanium-coated – her inherent gift deluding her with a sense of impenetrability that, if the rumours were true, was characteristic of all serryns. Seemingly their spat in the shower hadn’t quelled that confidence, nor had losing to him out on the wasteland.
But even he had to admit she’d put up a decent fight out there. If her moves hadn’t been so learned, so predictable, she may have got one or two more to make impact. She’d soon discover though that her toned, nimble body wasn’t anywhere near as invincible as she liked to believe – not if she continued to look at him with such contempt.
‘You smell better already,’ he said. And it wasn’t a lie. Not only did she smell good now that her own scent took over but the closer he got, the better she looked. Her eyelashes, now free of thick black mascara, were fine but generous and with a feminine upward kink. Her earth-brown eyes were glossy despite being bloodshot – the latter either from the recent onslaught of soap or too many sleepless nights. Haughty eyes that were perfectly complemented by her delicate, slightly upturned nose. But it was those full, shapely lips that spoke too quickly and too cuttingly that would cause her the most trouble if she wasn’t careful.
She frowned. ‘I bet you really enjoyed that, didn’t you? Stripping me like that.’
‘I was fighting to contain myself.’
Her eyes narrowed in defensiveness. It seemed she took sarcastic insults less well than losing in combat. ‘I bet you say that to all the girls. Youareinto girls, aren’t you, Jask? Or is there something between you and Corbin you’d rather not share?’
It was an impulsive retort. A revealingly childish retort.
It was his turn to smirk. ‘You’re nothing but a kid, are you?’
Her eyes flared again. ‘I’m twenty-nine, you patronising git.’
‘Like I said – nothing but a kid.’
Her folded arms tensed, revealing any slight against her status was another button-pusher. ‘The reputation that precedes you is quite phenomenal, Jask. I must admit I was a little worried when I knew you’d been called. But you’re nothing but a pretty boy hiding behind the rumours, are you?’
He’d already had enough questions forming during the return journey about how she’d allowed herself to be manacled to a wall by two vampires. But now it seemed she was as poor at handling herself as she was them.
She certainly wasn’t what he’d ever imagined – the mature, smooth, seductive females he’d always understood serryns to be. She got frustrated too quickly. Was impatient for control. She was too erratic, too impetuous – particularly in response to any of her weaknesses being exposed. Let alone too temperamental and emotionally vulnerable, from the way those eyes brimmed with self-preservation.
Her serrynity was undeniable – the macabre evidence on the floor back in the ruins proved that – but her adeptness at using it was questionable. And that was the last thing he needed.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been called pretty,’ he said, resting his hands low on his hips, skilfully diverting her attention there. ‘And it’s been alongtime since I’ve been called a boy.’
It could have been a hint of a blush he’d seen – or a symptom of her anger.
Her gaze shot back to his. ‘Like you said, I’m too used to fighting vampires.’
From what he’d seen in the shower, she certainly had a few minor scars to confirm it. But aside from the fresh wounds to her neck and arm from the vampires in the ruins, there was only one other slightly older set on her inner thigh.
‘Don’t make this any harder on yourself than it needs to be, serryn.’
As unpredictable as she was, he didn’t expect her to flash a playful smile in response. And he didn’t need to feel tension now tighten in his groin as well. Thoughts switching to the sexual potential her kind was notorious for was most definitely one distraction he could do without.
‘That sounds like an enticing promise,’ she dared to say, that unsettlingly sexy smile lingering. She closed the gap between them. ‘Why, what bad things are you planning to do to me, Jask? Are all the rumours about you true? Are you really as insatiable as they say? Only you may have a few thousand years of evolution under your belt but I’m right, aren’t I, about the animal still lurking inside? And unleashed during the sex act more than any other time, right? I hear you got so carried away once that you tore your partner’s throat out. Is that true? Only Ilovea bit of risk between the sheets.’
As every part of him stiffened, he resolved to add painfully naïve to her profile. ‘Been with a lycan before, have you?’
Her tongue played over her top teeth, drawing his attention to her lips. ‘No. I never thought it worth my while. But being around you is changing my mind.’ Shedaredto look him direct in the eyes as she said it. ‘For you I coulddefinitelymake an exception to the rule.’
He promptly added suicidal tendencies to the list. ‘Is that right?’
‘You’re very restrained, Jask. Just like you were back on the wasteland. That kind of self-control is an extremely attractive quality. But tell me, what does it take to break it?’
Confident words. Confident stance. But he’d seen the way she’d looked at him as he’d pinned her on the ground. For that moment, she’d panicked. Being out of control had scared her. And now he’d seen enough to know that smart retorts and gaining the upper hand sexually were her most trusty defence mechanisms.
Only she’d learn that self-control and restraint, fortunately for her,werenow his most trusty defence mechanisms. And no smart-mouthed, attitude-laden little witch was going to make him lose what he had spent decades refining.
Not now. Not when he needed it most. Not when his pack needed it most.
‘Take the rest of your clothes off,’ he said. ‘Or Iwillstrip you. And I will drag you naked down the stairs, through the lobby and out onto the green, where I will rope you down and spread you on the lawn for all my pack to see. If you think I’m joking, you keep glowering at me like that.’ He stepped around the back of her, picked up the shirt she had discarded and slammed it against her chest as he drew level again. ‘Or you can do as you’re told.’
Her scowl deepened as she bunched the shirt up in her hand, but it only took a few more seconds for her to choose the smart option.
She abruptly turned away from him, away from the windows. Lowering the towel to her slender waist, she unfastened and slipped off her bra with curt movements before tugging on his shirt and letting the towel drop to the floor. She fastened the buttons before turning to face him again. Eyes fixed on his in the only act of defiance she had left, she bent over to yank off her knickers before dropping them to the floor. But the whole sullen act was ruined as she folded her arms, the too-long shirt sleeves flapping over each other adding an unintentionally comical touch.
But he wouldn’t let himself smile. Thiswasabout taming, not playing.
He gathered her wet clothing from the rail before scooping up her underwear from the floor.
‘What are you doing with those?’ she asked.
He turned away from her and pushed back through the curtain.
‘Hey!’ she called after him.
But he was already through the next curtain and approaching the door, collecting his boots along the way.
‘You can’t just walk off with my stuff!’ she protested as she swept through the curtain behind him.
Less than an hour and already every one of his nerves were sparking.
He slammed the door behind him and locked it before heading back towards the stairs.
He glanced over his shoulder as he heard something make contact with the door from the other side. And this time his smile reluctantly broke through. Grating though she was, she was undeniably entertaining.
Another time, another place, another him, and he could have spent the next few hours reminding the serryn that, though lethal to vampires, she was in a lycan den now.
To some extent, he still could.
He descended the broad steps, handing the bundle of wet clothes to one of the lycans he passed at the foot of the staircase. ‘Incinerate those, will you?’ he directed, before making his way back outside.
* * *
Sophia pursued Jask across the outer room, but not in time to stop him slamming and locking the door behind himself.
She turned the handle regardless, but it didn’t budge. She slapped her palm against the doorplate in frustration before turning and slamming her bare heel against the base of the door.
‘Bastard,’ she hissed under her breath as she marched back into the bedroom.
She stood at the window and looked to the exit beyond. From what she had seen while heading in and from what she could see now, the rumours about impenetrable security were true. And with security like that, let alone with lycans dotted around everywhere, there was no way she was getting out of there unnoticed.
Even if she had been a witch long enough to know any spells off by heart, let alone had access to what she needed to perform them, Jask was guaranteed to have the place surrounded by wards to prevent any semblance of casting. He would never have left her unbound if not.
If Rone and Samson couldn’t get her out, she was screwed.
Theywere who she needed –aftershe’d worked out why Jask wanted her. Because one way or another, more was at stake here and she needed to find out what.
Her heart skipped a beat as Jask headed out from the lobby and down the steps, his fair hair blowing in the breeze. She rolled up her dangling sleeves before folding her arms, irritated at how she trembled. But after her close encounter with him, she wasn’t entirely sure it was just out of anxiety or fury.
She’d been speaking the truth when she’d said he was even better-looking than the rumours – even if she had said it to wind him up, a refusal to be intimidated. But he was mostdefinitelymore than just a pretty boy. Jask Tao was in a league of his own. And his calm resolve in the bathroom, despite her prodding, was one trait that left her far too unsettled for comfort.
Composed, methodical and controlled – Jask was aggravatingly everything she wasn’t. Worse, she was already sensing the one-upmanship that only fuelled her irritation further.
He sat on the steps for a moment to lace up his boots, leaving his jeans bunched up against them as he descended the rest. As he crossed the quadrant towards the arch to the left, she admired his broad shoulders, the perfect triangle to his taut waist now a visible shadow as the early sunlight shone through his shirt – a shirt that skimmed his pert behind. And those arms that had held her down so easily, despite now being lax by his sides, still oozed power.
Lycan or not, that was one bedroom encounter she could do with experiencing – but the fact hewasin that other league only exacerbated her barely contained frustration. Especially when he looked at her as though she was nothing more than a convenient commodity.
She watched him disappear through the arch where Rone and Samson had been taken and rested her hands on her hips as she turned around to scan the room.
First plan was to get to a phone. She’d try and call Leila or Alisha – find out what the hell had been going on. And then she’d call The Alliance and warn them.
She knew it was probably a long shot, but she’d try anyway. She rooted through his bed before searching the sole piece of furniture in the room – the chest of drawers nestled in the corner by the window. As possessions clearly weren’t a preoccupation for Jask, it was less than a minute before she turned her attention to his wardrobe.
She stood on tiptoe as she fumbled through the top shelf, finding little amidst a few sweaters and miscellaneous items. She prized apart the clothes on the rail, checking pockets, until she came to a few dresses tucked away in the far left-hand side. It seemed Jask didn’t sleep alone despite the rumours he didn’t have a mate. She quashed the stirring sense of disappointment. No wonder he was so contemptuous of her advances – it appeared the third-species leader had something of a rare honourable streak.
She turned her attention to the bathroom. She pulled out the drawers of the vanity unit, finding most of them empty aside from some scent bottles along with some hair accessories and a few brushes – clearly belonging to the same female who owned the clothes. She picked up the nearest brush and examined the fair hairs it had trapped. She glanced back at her muss of dark hair in the mirror, before throwing the brush back in the drawer and slamming it shut.
She picked up her boots and marched back through to the lounge, but there was nothing theretosearch. She needed to look further afield.
Kneeling in front of the door, she upturned her left boot and slid the heel aside. Removing the pins hidden inside the hollow of the heel, she cast the boot aside again.
It was a basic lock and ridiculously easy pickings. Unlocking it within seconds, she turned the handle and opened the door ajar slightly to peer outside.
All was quiet.
She tucked her head through the gap and peered out fully onto the landing.
Countless bedrooms lay in the hallway beyond. And she knew from the fact they were only on the second floor that there were even more bedrooms above. Someone had to have left a phone around somewhere.
She got to her feet and opened the door.
But stopped herself crossing the threshold.
Giving away her escapology skills at that stage was not going to be helpful – not until she could guarantee contact with Rone or Samson. Not until she found out what they knew and, more importantly, what their motivations were for hiding it from Jask.
Strategy was more important than ever.
She closed the door again and relocked it. She tucked the pins back into place and sat on the floor to pull both boots on. She laced them up before resting back against the wall, stretching her legs out and crossing one over the other.
He may be stronger, but she was smarter.
Shewouldturn this to her advantage. To the advantage of The Alliance. To the advantage of their cause.
She may have failed to take down powerhouse vampire, Caleb Dehain. The notoriously most wanted Kane Malloy may have remained as consistently elusive from the authorities as always, let alone from The Alliance. But she was right in the heart of lycan territory now with third-species ringleader number three.
An assassination from the inside was the last thing anyone would expect. And if that wouldn’t send a message to the untouchable underworld, the likes of Caleb Dehain and Kane Malloy, nothing would.
* * *
Jask headed to the arch on the far side of the green and strode through the short tunnel. He passed the gate to the greenhouse on his left and then the oak on his right, the centuries-old tree marking the middle of the courtyard partially concealing the outhouse beyond.
Turning the handle, he pushed open the weighty door and crossed the bare foyer to the holding room opposite.
Rone and Samson sat at the table with their backs to the door. Corbin sat in a chair opposite them, leaning back against the wall. The atmosphere was dense with sullenness.
Samson immediately looked across his shoulder as Jask closed the door behind himself. But Rone remained facing forward.
Usually he’d take the head of the table, but this time Jask took the seat beside Corbin instead so he could look Rone and Samson direct in the eye.
But both youths kept their eyes lowered.
Jask knew he shouldn’t be allowing himself to be so personally affronted by the fact Rone was involved yet again. But the youth’s habit of walking into danger, especially so innocently, irritated too much. This time, even Corbin – usually the youth’s advocate – was going to struggle to justify his behaviour.
‘What was the deal?’ Jask asked.
Samson glanced at Rone, the latter finally meeting Jask’s glare.
‘A few herbs,’ Rone declared.
The revelation was worse than a stab to the lungs, the breathlessness making Jask’s chest clench. It was an act worthy of banishment. There was a time when he would have embraced getting Rone out of his sight, but now he was actually facing the prospect, it only made him feel sick. ‘You weresupplying?’
Both youths glanced nervously at Corbin whose upright posture now echoed Jask’s disapproval. Corbin who equally knew of the punishment for the unthinkable crime against their pack.
Wide-eyed, Rone switched his attention back to Jask and nodded.
‘You were supplyingthiscommunity’s herbs? The herbs we fight to keep alive. That ensurewestay alive. The herbs that allow the only semblance of freedom we have left. You were selling them off to vampires? And in Kane’s territory ofallplaces?’
‘It was a one-off,’ Rone said, struggling to maintain eye contact under the weight of his leader’s glare. ‘I swear. A vampire approached us. She said she only needed a few. She needed to sell something on to some witch in order to get something to help her kid out. I felt sorry for her.’
‘So you struck a deal?’
Rone looked back down at the table.
Something wasn’t right. Something in his story didn’t ring true. Not just that, but he could read far too much in the youth’s eyes. It was a story they’d concocted whilst awaiting his and Corbin’s arrival, no doubt. As if Rone couldn’t disfavour himself to Jask any more, the youth was daring to lie to him.
‘And that’s who you went to meet?’ Jask asked. ‘Some lone female vampire in an isolated part of Blackthorn?’
Rone looked back at him, but dropped his gaze just as quickly as he seemingly realised how flawed the possibility was. ‘We didn’t want to be seen. And she was desperate.’
No vampire female would have been that desperate and they all knew it. They’d been up to something else. But they weren’t ready to talk yet, for whatever reason.
But they would.
Because that reason for holding back worried him more – and not just for the pack. Something told him Rone had got in over his head this time, and his resulting protective instincts were irritatingly kicking in against his will.
‘What’s her name?’ Jask asked, his glare burning into Rone’s lowered head, his mop of fair hair covering his eyes. Harsh impatience edged his tone as he turned to the other youth instead. ‘Samson?’
‘I don’t remember,’ Samson said, glancing up from under his eyelashes.
Whatever was going on, it was bad enough for thembothto risk being avoidant.
‘So I’ve got no way of tracing this mystery vampire?’
‘We thought the less we knew about each other, the better,’ Rone said, his continuation to lie escalating both Jask’s furyandconcern.
Jask rested his forearms on the table and leaned forward.
Sensing his leader’s irritation, Corbin leaned forward to mirror him – the cautionary measure one he rarely took anymore.
It was sign enough to the youths that they had overstepped the mark. How little chance they’d stand if Jask took the decision that he wanted the truth instantly. Under those circumstances, Corbin would be his reasoning head. Or from the way the youths glanced at Corbin, they certainly seemed to hope so.
‘You know the implications if it leaks out we’re willing to sell our substances,’ Jask said. ‘You know what threat that puts us under from the authorities. That’s why the answer is no. The answer isalwaysno. No negotiation. You showed weakness. Your stupidity tonight could have massive implications – a ripple we cannot control. If the Lycan Control Unit hear of this they will come in and rip every herb from this place, then what do we do? Morph and be shot down on the streets? Or go on the Global Council’s meds and be filled with whatever shit they secretly put in those things? Our herbs are our lifeline and you know it.’
Neither youth dared look up.
‘What do you know about the serryn?’ Jask asked. ‘The one you so happened to stumble on.’ Though, more worryingly, he now believed that a coincidence even less than the existence of the mysterious female vampire.
‘Everything we saw, we told you,’ Rone said, still unable to make full eye contact despite the change of focus.
‘You were down there at least an hour. You’re telling me she said nothing to you?’
Rone shook his head. ‘Other than to try and persuade us to let her go.’
Jask looked from Rone to Samson and back to Rone again. ‘I’m casketing you both for twelve hours.’
Their gazes snapped to Jask’s in an accumulation of abject panic and horror.
‘No,’ Rone gasped instinctively.
‘You chose outsiders over your pack. That is unforgiveable. Worsened by the fact you may have jeopardised our freedom. You know the rules. You protest and it becomes twenty-four.’ Jask stood. ‘Immediate effect.’
He could feel Corbin’s disapproval burning into him, but his second in command didn’t say a word. Instead, he followed suit and stood.
Samson reluctantly did the same, the whites of his eyes upsettingly exposed.
Rone pushed back his chair and stood more slowly. This time he did dare to meet Jask’s glare long enough to make his umbrage obvious. But he at least had the sense to remain tight-lipped as he followed Jask out of the room, Corbin bringing up the rear.
Jask took a sharp left down the few broad steps to the stone corridor, dawn light paving the way from the high, rectangular windows nestled deep in the stone above. Their footsteps were the only things to break the ominous silence as they passed the first and then second door on the left.
Opening the third, Jask stepped inside the forty-foot-square cellar. The walls left, right and ahead were lined with upright caskets – five in total.
Striding past the stone table that lay central to the room, Jask chose the casket to the right.
No lycan could handle being contained. And the smaller the space, the greater the torture. It was a punishment he rarely had to use. A punishment that sickened him.
But the youths had to learn responsibility for their actions. Rone, in particular, needed to accept that his past wouldn’t save him from being treated like every other pack member.
Corbin stepped up to the wall directly ahead of the door, selecting the middle of the three caskets. He summoned Samson, whilst Jask summoned Rone.
Knowing any protest was futile, the two youths did as they were told, backing up inside the encasements.
Jask and Corbin proceeded to regimentally strap in their ankles, calves, thighs, hips, waist, chest, arms and shoulders, before finally strapping their necks.
Rone looked Jask in the eyes, his sense of being betrayed overshadowing his fear, but still said nothing as his leader closed the casket door.
Discomfort lodged in his chest and throat, Jask crossed the room and stepped back out into the corridor. He stared up at the windows, at the shadows of the dead climbers behind the misted glass.
He had to ignore the guilt. He’d do what he had to. This would make the point that the line was never, ever to be crossed. Something more important than ever with recent events.
Corbin stepped out behind him, locking and sealing the door before hanging the key back on the hook. ‘You okay?’
Jask turned to face him. ‘Something else is going on, Corbin.’
Corbin slammed the viewing window shut. ‘I know. Are you thinking the same thing, I am?’
‘That this is a set-up?
‘Like I said on the way there, it’s a big coincidence, Jask. Five days ago a witch tells us the only way to save our pack is to find a serryn, and then one just turns up? What were the chances? Let alone one who managed to get herself manacled to a wall despite being alive and kicking. Maybe fate finally decided to cut us some slack, but I’m not convinced this is as easy as it looks. I hate to be the one to say this, but what if the witch who told us a serryn was the solution had lied? What if the witcheswantedher in here?’
‘The witches in this district have nothing to gain by going up against lycans.’
‘Butwewent up against the TSCD, Jask. We both know they’re only biding their time before they get back at us. You saw the look on Xavier Cross’s face when you gave evidence against him. His division would have had Kane Malloy in the bag if you hadn’t scuppered their plans. So what if history is repeating itself? The TSCD used us to get to Kane, so what’s to say they’re not using the witches to get back at us? They know as well as we do that if word slips out that we’ve got a serryn hidden away here, we can kiss goodbye to our peaceful pact with the vampires. What if somehow they tricked Rone and Samson into being a part of that, and those two have only now realised it?’
Corbin stepped closer to Jask, his tone lowered.
‘It makes sense why they’d opt for casketing instead of coming out with the truth, Jask. Especially Rone. You know how much he wants your approval, reluctant though he is to admit it.’
‘Which is why he thinks it’s okay to insult me by lying to my face.’
‘Which is why he’s scared every time he messes up.’
‘Which is why he should have learned by now to stop messing up.’
‘I hate to do this to you, Jask, but doesn’t he remind you of someone?’
‘I learned from my lessons.’
‘And from what I hear, you ran wild for years when you were his age on the way to learning those lessons. He doesn’t have that liberty.’
Jask looked across at his friend. ‘Which I don’t need reminding of. And which is why he needs to learn to fall in line before he ends up dead or this pack ends up in trouble.’
‘So instead of this,’ Corbin said, cocking his head back to the chamber behind, ‘scare the shit out of them. It might be unpleasant but less unpleasant than this – and we’ll get to the truth a hell of a lot quicker. We don’t have time to waste here, let alone if wehavebeen set up.’
‘I’m giving them time to think. I want them to come out with the truth themselves, Corbin. I want them to accept it’s their responsibility to do that. If Rone’s got any pretentions about one day leading a pack of his own, he needs to learn to put that pack first. So I’m not going to wrench it out of them. Not yet.’
‘Do you think they know we need a serryn? Do you think that’s why they were there?’
‘You saw as well as I did their shock at seeing what she is. Whatever reason they had for being there, I don’t think it was to collect a serryn.’
‘What about her? Has she said anything?’
‘I’ve held off until speaking to them.’ Jask headed back along the corridor and up the steps. ‘Now it seems I have no choice.’
‘And if you’ve torn off more than you can chew with her? There’s a reason no one fucks with serryns, Jask. And we don’t have time for maybes. Perhaps we need to focus on finding another way.’
‘In the next six days? Like we have been for the past five?’
‘As opposed to you getting her full co-operation in less time?’
‘If I can’t persuade her, I’ll find leverage andmakeher do what I want.’
‘They don’t care about anyone or anything. You know that.’
‘Thereisno other way, Corbin. Theonlyway is through that serryn.’ Jask held out his hand. ‘Forty-eight hours and she’ll be doing whatever I want.’
Corbin forced a smile at the familiar playful challenge as he took his friend’s hand, despite them both knowing the severity of the situation.
They’d survived worse. And they’d keep surviving – one way or another.
‘Forty-eight hours and I reckon you would have killed her out of frustration,’ Corbin declared, sealing the deal, the concern emanating from his eyes despite his acceptance.
‘Such little faith.’
‘Not at all, Jask – I just know you. Better than anyone, remember? One way or another, that serryn will be out to break you. Just you make sure you get what we need beforeyoubreak her.’
Sophia sat on the window seat, her legs stretched out in front of her along its length. A light frost glistened on the window rims, the thin pane doing more than she would have anticipated in limiting the penetrating breeze whistling against the glass. Laughter emanated below, breaking the silence as lycans made their way up the steps and into the lobby.
She gazed out at the tightly knit buildings beyond the compound – at the myriad of rooftops, the weak early morning sun catching their crescents, not least the spire of an old church she knew lay as derelict as many other buildings in Blackthorn.
She knelt up and slipped her fingers under the sash window’s handles. It took a surprising effort to lift. She locked it into position to make sure it didn’t slam back down on her before bracing her arms on the window frame to peer out. The drop was at least twenty-five feet below and not so much of a hint of a climbing plant or trellis for her to cling on to. She twisted her neck to look up at the overhanging roof. Maybe if she was desperate…
‘You’d clear it if you were a lycan.’
She flinched, whacked the back of her head on the window before glowering over her shoulder to see Jask stood behind her.
‘But I wouldn’t risk it,’ he declared, as she ducked back inside. He leaned past her and slammed the window shut, his arm almost brushing her legs had she not drawn them back so abruptly. ‘Even if you did get out of here, you’re not getting out of the compound. And you know it.’
She rubbed the back of her throbbing head as she eased back against the wall. ‘We’ll see, shall we?’
He sat at the opposite end of the window seat, facing her. He stretched the leg nearest to her along the length of the seat, trapping her between him and the glass. Bending his other leg to his chest, he rested his forearm loosely on his knee, creating an irritatingly casual pose.
But it was a pose she equally hoped was reassuring. Because if Rone or Samson did know anything about The Alliance and had finally disclosed it to Jask, she was sure there was no way he would have retained his current composure.
‘Clearly personal space doesn’t mean anything to your sort,’ she said
‘Not when it’s my space to begin with – no.’
She dropped her hand from the back of her skull, despite it still hurting. ‘How characteristically territorial.’
He rested his head back against the wall, assessing her from under those dark lashes. There, in the tepid morning sunlight, the depths of his azure eyes glimmered in all their beauty – his pupils remaining characteristically dilated despite the light. It was a shame sharks circled beneath their enticing surface. Because, despite her stomach knotting, she’d heard too much of what lay behind the handsome exterior to be contemplating what those lips tasted like.
Despite it being justifiable, killing him was still going to be a terrible waste.
‘Have you got a problem with lycans, serryn?’
‘Like I said before, I’ve never really given your kind much thought,’ she said, dismissively looking back out of the window, annoyed to feel a glimmer of intimidation at his silent contemplation.
‘Those vampires didn’t know what you are. Or they wouldn’t have been stupid enough to take you down into those ruins,’ he remarked, clearly wanting to get straight to the very point she needed to avoid.
The point that the serryn line had jumped to herwhilstshe had been chained up.
‘Why did you leave it that long before making them bite? If you were unconscious, fair enough. But from what Rone and Samson tell me, you were very much kicking. Why wait until you were chained up, minimising your chance of escaping?’
She needed to make her brain fire quicker than it was, made eye contact again to grant herself an extra couple of seconds. ‘I made them bite as soon as I could.’
Jask’s eyes brimmed with scepticism, but he still retained that patient resolve.
There was no way she could let him discover that she had been a serryn just a matter of hours – firstly because she suspected he needed an adept serryn for whatever she’d been kept alive for and, more significantly, not when it would evoke the inevitable questions ofhowit had happened. Until she knew her little sister, Alisha, was out of Blackthorn, let alone that Leila was okay, she was saying nothing.
‘I got myself in a mess,’ she added. ‘It happens. And I got out of it.’
‘My pack got you out of it, you mean. Or you would have stayed chained up until the next batch of vampires found you, with the evidence of what you are spread all over the floor. I hear vampires can do some nasty stuff to serryns.’
‘So can those who want to use serryns against vampires, right, Jask? Is that why I’m here? Doesn’t that break that pact of peace you have going on?’ In that instant, her purpose to him became all too probable. She’d already said to The Alliance that she had the feeling it wasn’t over. ‘Unless that’s what you want. Is this something to do with Kane Malloy?’
His eyes flared just at the mention of his name, seemingly confirming her fear. ‘Why would this be anything to do with Kane Malloy?’
‘Do you seriously think I don’t know about that? It’s been on every channel and station this past two weeks.Everyoneknows about it: you and the master vampire collaborating to expose the corruption in the Third Species Control Division. I read the reports of you giving evidence of how those three agents used two of your pack to kill Kane’s sister – all in their attempt to finally incarcerate their most wanted vampire by sending him on a rampage against you.’
Jask’s eyes narrowed slightly, clearly not liking her insight. For those moments, it gave herherturn at the one-upmanship she craved.
‘Only rumours are that you weren’t happy you had to give evidence,’ she added. ‘That you only did because Kane Malloy backed out of whatever deal you two had. Of course, no one knows what that deal was. But knowing what I do about your species, it’s all an eye for an eye with your kind, isn’t it? I’m guessing you wanted those responsible dead, not least the mastermind behind the plan, the nowex-head of the TSCD, Xavier Carter. But more than that, you also wanted the only link between all four dead: the golden agent of the Vampire Control Unit, Caitlin Parish. After all, there’s no better way to stick it to the ones responsible than to do the same to the one they all cared about. A pawn for a pawn, right? Only rumour has it things got hot between her and Kane, leaving you out in the cold with his change of plans inherfavour. I’m guessing I’m here because you want to turn that back around. Why else would you need a serryn, Jask?’
‘That’s a lot of speculation.’
‘But you’re not denying it.’
‘You think you’re capable of taking on Kane Malloy?’
Not a chance. An hours-old serryn against one of the most notorious vampires in Blackthorn – he’d rip her apart as soon as look at her. But she didn’t need Jask to see any indication of that. If thatwashis plan for her, she was useful to him. And as long as she was useful to him, she stayed alive. And the longer she stayed alive, the better chance she stood of finding out everything she needed to before taking him down – let alone staying alive long enough to find out what was going on with her sisters.
And if hewasplanning a retaliation against Kane, something that would be seen as a retaliation against all vampires, Blackthorn was about to implode. The consequences for the humans caught in the middle didn’t bear thinking about. And now she had been granted the perfect opportunity to do something about it.
She just had to make sure she came across as everything he was expecting. One slip of vulnerability and she was defunct. And that meant dead.
‘You clearly think I am or I’d be dead already,’ she said. ‘Come on, Jask – admit I’m right. Maybe we can come to an arrangement quicker that way and save us both some time. Why else would you need to tame me if not to make me co-operate? And you’dneedme to co-operate for this one, wouldn’t you?’
She was sure she saw a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. ‘You still haven’t told me your name.’
‘Tell me why you want me.’
‘How long have you been in Blackthorn?’
She couldn’t let her frustration at his deflection get the better of her. The notorious closed book that was Jask Tao would have to break at some point to get what he wanted. ‘Long enough.’
‘How many vampires have you killed?’
‘I’m working towards all of them so, as you can see, still a long way to go.’
‘Where are you from? Originally.’
Disclosing where she was from wasn’t going to have any impact. And she could hope it would go some way to placating his curiosity enough to stay clear of the more revealing questions. ‘Summerton.’
He raised his eyebrows slightly. ‘Really?’
‘Don’t sound so surprised.’
‘And what did you do to earn that privilege?’
‘I had a special talent for keeping my head above water. Still do.’
She was sure she saw another hint of a smile, clearly from the irony of the statement in light of her predicament.
‘Summerton to Blackthorn,’ he said. ‘That’s quite a lifestyle switch.’
Sophia lingered over his lips as he spoke, catching glimpses of those well-formed, powerful canines. Just like their wolf heritage dictated, they were said to still use them to kill when they needed to. It may have been a rare occurrence, but the potential was there. And from the way he had brought her down on the wasteland, let alone manoeuvred her in the shower, they were also as physically adept as their reputation dictated.
She glanced down at his hands held lose on his knees. Strong, masculine hands. His underlying talons, hidden beneath his nails, were as retracted as his canines, but they’d extend soon enough if he wanted them too. Just as he could have snapped her neck in seconds if he’d chosen too, let alone been more than capable of ripping her heart out – a rumoured personal favourite of lycans wanting to add a personal touch.
‘Not unlike you wolf-boys – once running wild, now locked in here,’ she said, meeting his pensive gaze again.
His eyes narrowed slightly. ‘I’m a lycan – not a wolf.’
‘Are you embarrassed of your heritage?’
‘Managed by your special herbs, right? Those of you who don’t opt to take the meds issued by the Global Council, that is. But take all of that away, and you have nothing left but the animal inside.’
‘And the human too.’
‘Still soulless though,’ she reminded him. ‘Having nothing but a shadow where your soulshouldbe, just like with the rest of you third species.’
His eyes narrowed a little again. The silence became thick between them. But to her relief he broke away a few seconds later, easing off the windowsill.
‘I’m going down for breakfast,’ he said, stepping away. ‘If you’re not into being force-fed, I suggest you join me.’
Under any other circumstances, she would have told him exactly where to anatomically shove his breakfast. But following him meant getting out of the room, seeing more of the compound and hopefully Rone or Samson. Besides, she was starving – and her stomach frequently won over her pride.
She crossed the room behind him. ‘How very civilised. Usually I have to sleep with someone before I get a free breakfast. Or maybe you lycan boys need sustenance to build up the energy? I can work with that.’
He opened the door, stepping back to allow her to exit first, his frown his only response before he followed her out.
‘You know, you’re really going to have to develop a sense of humour if we’re becoming roomies,’ she said. ‘Actually, are your kind even capable of laughing or does it just come out as a growl?’
His fingers encircled her upper arm. She lost her breath as he slammed her back against the door, his grip not easing as he equally pinned her there with his glare. But she knew it was anything but fear she felt as heat rushed to the pit of her abdomen.
‘Quit,’ he said, ‘with the irritating remarks. I’m trying to be nice. You’re not making that easy.’
‘I’m not an easy kind of girl,’ she said, her throat too dry for comfort. But she wouldn’t look away. She wouldn’t break from those entrancing eyes, those rapidly dilating pupils – now almost encompassing their azure bed – a sure sign of his annoyance.
‘Then I suggest you learn. Quickly,’ he said, the tips of his extending razor-thin talons purposefully on the cusp of embedding themselves in the flesh of her upper arm.
‘Sir, yes, Sir,’ she quipped, but refrained from saluting despite the temptation.
He frowned again as he pulled away.
A part of her felt a scratch of disappointment.
She regained her breath, checked the imprints on her upper arm, impressed he’d managed not to draw blood, before following him across the landing and down the stairs.
There were less lycans around now and those that were, were heading through the open doors to her left. The sound of chatter echoed through from the room beyond, along with the clink of cutlery and the distant aroma of freshly cooked toast. Her stomach grumbled. Marid had barely fed her and the crap he’d served up had been hard to swallow.
She followed Jask towards the open doors into the wood-panelled dining hall, seated lycans filling the multitude of tables that spanned the room.
She stopped abruptly at the threshold as more slipped past her. Amidst the buzz of chatter were an increasing number of glances in her direction, a few suspended conversations as others stopped to scrutinise the stranger in their midst.
She scanned for any sign of Rone or Samson. But there was none.
And as more and more eyes turned to her, she started to feel like the only one in fancy dress at a party. Stood there swamped in Jask’s shirt, naked beneath, her skinny legs thrust into her tough army boots, heat rushed to her cheeks. She instinctively smoothed down the back of her hair, but it took only a second more to resolve to retreat.
But Jask was quick, grabbing her wrist.
‘I’m going to get some fresh air,’ she declared, with a single attempt to yank her wrist free.
‘You’ll stay where I can see you.’
‘Let me go,’ she warned.
But his hold only tightened as he turned to face her head on, his back to the room. ‘If you wanted everyone’s attention, you’re getting it. You seriously think I’m going to let you walk away now that everyone has seen this little battle of wills?’ He leaned close to her ear and whispered, ‘You are one more defiant glare away from me publicly putting you over my knee. How much humiliation do you want in one day?’
‘Bastard,’ she hissed.
‘You’d better believe it,’ he said, lingering on her gaze a second longer than was needed. An unsettling intimacy that was reinforced as he slid his hand down from her wrist to encompass her hand as he turned away – a hand that was surprisingly gentle despite the harshness of his words.
He led her around the periphery of the room, letting her go only to place his selection from the buffet table onto the compartmental tray he held.
Resentment coiled in her stomach to the point she finally lost any semblance of appetite, despite how enticing the smell of the herb-infused toasted bread and sautéed potatoes were. Instead, she opted for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice along with a bread roll, before following behind Jask.
But whereas he headed over to the table at the back of the room, Sophia held back. Seeing an empty table for four against a wall, she opted for that.
She placed her juice on the table, yanked out a chair and plonked herself down, glowering over to where Jask was pulling out a seat beside a blonde female. Corbin, his back to Sophia, was sat opposite them both.
The blonde eyed her with curiosity as Jask leaned forward to say something to Corbin, Corbin glancing across his shoulder in Sophia’s direction.
They were clearly talking about her. Worse, they were smiling.
She looked down at her bread roll before glancing back up to meet the blonde’s gaze. The beautiful female swiftly responded with a hint of a friendly, if not slightly wary smile. With her baby face, full lips, sun-kissed complexion, and enviably waist-length braided hair that trailed over her full chest, she was everything Sophia wasn’t.
No wonder Jask had found it so easy to turn down her advances, to be so dismissive of her flirtatious remarks. It must have beenherclothes and fragrances in his room.
A knot of embarrassment, of envy, formed in her chest as Jask draped his arm around the back of the blonde’s chair whilst he continued to talk to Corbin. She instantly wanted to hate her, but the female who glanced back at her again was only trying to make her feel a little more comfortable – one female reassuring another, despite the species divide, that she understood her awkwardness.
So Sophia forced a hint of a smile back. She had to at least let her know she appreciated her effort if nothing else – even if she clearly was Jask Tao’s mate.
But as Jask recaptured her gaze, one laced with the triumph of having got her in there, even if not to sit with them, Sophia tore off a piece of bread. And plotted how to even the score.
* * *
‘Is she not willing to mix with our kind?’ Corbin asked.
Jask placed his breakfast tray on the table as he pulled out the seat beside Solstice.
Sitting down, he looked across at the serryn.
She looked so small sat alone at the table for four – shirt held down between her thighs with one clenched fist, her long, shapely legs slightly parted, her heavy mid-calve boots unflattering to their slenderness. Her scowl darkened her eyes, her body tense with resentment. He would have found it amusing had it not been so childishly annoying.
‘I think that might have been asking too much,’ Jask remarked, tearing his gaze away to focus his attention on eating.
‘Why’s she in your shirt?’ Solstice asked.
‘A small lesson,’ Jask replied.
‘And from the death stare she’s giving you, I’d say this is round three to you,’ Corbin declared with a smirk.
Jask smiled back.
‘Round three?’ Solstice asked, her gaze switching between her companions.
Jask swallowed a mouthful of food. ‘Will you get some clothes for her, Solstice? And leave them up in my room. Anything else you think she might need as well.’
‘So she’s staying a while?’
‘Long enough for her to need to get dressed.’
‘Is this what the call was about earlier? Is this why Rone and Samson are in the chamber?’
‘They crossed the line,’ Jask declared.
‘Did they do something to her?’
‘No, but they found her where they shouldn’t have been.’
‘Vampire territory?’ Solstice glanced across at the serryn again, eyes wide with concern. ‘Was she attacked?’
‘Did Rone and Samson intervene?’
‘Not exactly. Not that Rone and Samson should have been there to see it in the first place.’
‘Which is why you’re angry with them.’
‘They know the rules, Solstice.’
‘So do you, Jask. You made them. So what’s an outsider doing in the compound?’
‘She has something we need.’
Jask took a mouthful of bread, chewed and swallowed as he glanced at Corbin before returning his attention to his food. ‘Like very precious blood.’
Solstice frowned. She stared at Jask before glancing at Corbin, looking for his confirmation too. Her eyes flared, her fair eyebrows knocked up an inch. ‘No.’
‘In the flesh,’ Corbin confirmed.
‘But I thought they were extinct?’
‘Rumour is they are,’ Jask said. ‘Yet clearly not.’
Solstice lowered her voice as she leaned closer. ‘And you brought her backhere? She came voluntarily?’
‘Not exactly,’ Jask said.
Solstice snapped back a breath, her gaze switching between them both again. ‘Are you both crazy?’
Jask took a mouthful of food. ‘She can’t do anything.’
Solstice lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘She’s a serryn, for goodness sake. Is there anything more lethal? Need I remind you we have young ones here, Jask? You know what her kind are capable of doing to them. And what if she takes one of them hostage or something to get out of here?’ She flashed an accusatory glare at Corbin before staring back at Jask. ‘Have you thought of that?’
Jask looked across at the serryn again. Her knees were now locked together, her feet slightly parted and in-turned. She was halfway through her bread roll, tearing off pieces, chewing them with her head lowered, her bobbed hair partially covering her face. The prospect of her being the most dangerous, not least vicious witch there was seemed improbable. But he couldn’t be fooled. ‘She’s not that stupid.’
‘Trapped in here with no other option? You don’t knowwhatshe’s capable of. And if the vampires get word we have a serryn here… Kane or Caleb…’
‘We have no choice.’ Jask glanced at Solstice then lingered on Corbin before turning his attention back to his food.
‘What does that mean?’ Solstice asked. Her attention switched to Corbin. ‘What’s he talking about, Corbin?’
Corbin glanced at Jask to acquire his approval. ‘We need a serryn,’ Corbin told her. ‘That afternoon, after what happened to Nero, when we both headed out, we saw a witch. He told us there’s a supply of turmeric here in Blackthorn. Enough of a supply for what we need.’
Solstice’s lips parted slightly, her grip on her spoon tightened. ‘But I thought there was no more turmeric here. That we had the last of it. Is it not still banned?’
‘Oh, it’s still banned,’ Jask said. ‘Andstill illegal to trade.’
‘And now we know why,’ Corbin added.
Jask took a mouthful of water. ‘Which is why we have to play this carefully. They get one hint that we don’t have enough this time around, and this is over.’
Solstice frowned. ‘No way. I know those bastards at the Global Council are willing to stoop low, but seriously? You think they knew we’d need it at some point? How?’
‘This is proof that they know far more than they’re letting on,’ Jask said.
‘All this so-called respecting our heritage and they’ve just been biding their time, haven’t they?’ Solstice said. ‘They’ve been waiting for our supplies to run out.’
‘And they can keep waiting. Becauseifthe witch we met with is telling the truth, I also know where it is,’ Jask explained.
‘Then why don’t we have it already?’
‘That’s where the serryn comes into it,’ Corbin said.
‘The supply is with another witch,’ Jask announced. ‘And, as we all know, they’re a tricky bunch when it comes to dealing with the third species – especially with a lengthy penitentiary sentence looming over them for even looking in our direction. So if I storm in there and create attention, we’re going to have every witch in this district baying for our blood, plus risk word getting back to the authorities that we’re in trouble.’
‘And they’ll force us to go on the meds,’ she said. ‘Or incarcerate us.’
‘Exactly,’ Jask said. ‘But a serryn going in to collect it is a whole other story. The witch will have no choice but to hand it over without question. Defying the most superior of witches is justifiably punishable by death apparently.’
‘IfJask can tame her enough to co-operate, that is,’ Corbin added. ‘Because if she leaks word of any of this whilst she’s in there, it’s over for us.’
Despite the high odds, Jask could feel the weight being lifted off Solstice’s shoulders. But it only added to the weight on his own. ‘That’s why there’s no guarantee yet.’
‘But if there’s hope, the pack have a right to know,’ she said.
‘And when I’m convinced that the solution is obtainable, I will tell them. False hope is crueller.’
‘Even false hope is better than no hope.’
‘This is my decision, Solstice.’
Her flawless brow crumpled as she glanced with concern over at the serryn again. ‘And in the meantime you’re going to give her open access to the compound?’
‘Locking her in a room won’t help me get her on side.’
‘But this will?’
‘Jask knows what he’s doing,’ Corbin assured her. ‘You know that.’ He looked over his shoulder as the serryn pushed back her chair and stood, attracting all their attention. ‘Which might be a good thing as it looks like breakfast is over.’
Jask watched the serryn skirt the periphery of the room back towards the buffet table.
‘Jask, I’m sorry but youcan’tjust let her walk around,’ Solstice declared. ‘You might be able to handle her, but think of the others.’
The serryn stepped up to the cutlery trays and, in plain sight, removed a knife.
Jask’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Minx,’ he hissed under his breath.
Corbin looked across his shoulder again then back at Jask. Even his eyes turned grave for a moment. ‘You can’t guarantee she’s not going to use it, Jask.’
‘She’s looking for a reaction, that’s all.’
Instead of returning to her table to finish her drink, she slipped out of the doors.
‘She’s also got an impulsive streak,’ Corbin reminded him. ‘I landed on my arse in those ruins because of it, remember? If you’d told me a little thing like that would shove me down a staircase, I would have laughed in your face. We still know nothing about her.’
Jask caught a glimpse of her out the window, heading down the steps and out onto the green. ‘She knows I can easily get the knife off her.’
‘And what if she hides it somewhere for later?’ Solstice asked, her fair eyebrows raised again, her eyes echoing rebuke.
‘Shit,’ Jask hissed. He shoved his half-empty tray away, hating the fact he was going to have to respond. And that by doing so he was doing exactly what she wanted – showing he was worried, that he was acknowledging her potential.
It was a game of kiss-chase, and he was chasing.
He pushed back his chair and stood.
‘Like I said, Jask – hard work,’ Corbin declared with a wink, before plunging a chunk of bread into his mouth as Jask reluctantly left the table.
* * *
As soon as she’d done it, she’d wished she hadn’t. Reaching for the knife was one of her frequent do-now-and-think-later moments. She’d gain nothing from it other than get Jask’s back up, but even that seemed a better option than letting him continue to sit there so smugly – let alone with the blonde by his side.
Sophia stepped out into the fresh morning air. The invigorating breeze swept across the quadrant, something intolerably biting still accompanying it now that the overcast sky masked any hint of sunshine that had broken through earlier.
She took the steps down onto the path, holding down her shirt hem as the breeze caressed her thighs. She looked left towards the archway where Rone and Samson had disappeared earlier and it took only a split-second longer to decide that was exactly where she wanted to go.
She had no doubt that Jask was watching as she made her way along the path past the dining-room bay window.
He had to have seen her take the knife. She’d hardly been subtle about it. She also had no doubt of how ineffective it would be if Jask took her on, despite how adept she was with her primary choice of weapon on the streets. The blade, unlike the six-inch serrated edges she usually dealt with, didn’t stand a chance of making enough of a wound before he got it from her.
But that hadn’t been her intention. Walking past the cutlery had simply been too much temptation. She’d had to make his heart skip a beat at the very least – a small yet satisfying triumph on her part.
Now, in the metaphorical as well as literal cold light of day, it seemed painfully immature. A move that was hardly going to encourage him to let her roam freely around the compound like she needed to.
There were times when she hated her impetuousness. But there was something about him, something that triggered her need to prove herself to be anything but weak or vulnerable.
Stepping through the arch, she glanced left beyond the gate at what looked like a run-down outhouse. But it was what lay ahead of her that snagged her attention. Beyond the wide-girthed oak was a single-storey stone outbuilding.
She crossed the stone slabs, the paving cracked and buckled from the tree roots forcing their way through the earth like contorted spines. Surrounded by the array of plants, albeit many now nothing more than bark shells, was like entering a whole other world a hundred miles from urban Blackthorn.
She turned the handle on the single deep-set door. When it didn’t budge on her second or third attempt, she stepped back to examine the two barred windows either side. Either the intention was not to let anyone in, or not to let anything out. She peered inside to see an empty foyer. Ahead to the left was an ajar door. Parallel to the right of it was a passageway leading off into the dark distance.
Strolling around to the far left of the building, she lifted herself onto tiptoes to peer through another barred window. An oak table sat near the far wall, six chairs splayed around it.
Running her hand over the dead climbing plant that encased the stone wall, Sophia continued around to the back. Behind the building was another outhouse beyond, this one derelict. Another barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence stood behind that – the only division between the compound and the demolition site beyond.
And beyond that was the border into Lowtown – the way back to what her life once was. Not that she’d ever get that back. Not that she’d ever–
She slammed to the ground, losing the knife as she broke her fall with her splayed hands.
‘Fuck,’ she hissed beneath her breath, debris grazing her bare knees and palms. She scowled back at the distended root that had been responsible for tripping her.
‘Enjoying your tour?’ a familiar, painfully masculine voice asked.
Jask had pursued, so that was most definitely one point to her – even if disapproval emanated from his stance as he stood a few feet away, arms tightly folded.
She reached for the knife, the glint amidst the turf unmistakable. If he hadn’t seen her take it before, he sure knew now.
She pushed herself to her feet and dusted down her grazed knees, flinching as she made contact with the minor wounds. ‘It’s better than sitting in a room full of lycans and experiencing Pavlov’s experiment first-hand. It was putting me off my food.’
She hadn’t meant it to come out so cuttingly. Part of her hadn’t meant for it to come out at all. She glanced at him warily, wondering if maybe she’d overstepped the mark this time.
Jask didn’t just frown, he scowled. ‘I didn’t give you permission to leave the room,’ he stated, unfortunately too matter-of-factly not to pique her irritation.
She placed her hands, the knife, behind her back. She scraped an arc through the dirt with her boot as she tauntingly looked up at him from under purposefully downturned lashes. ‘Does this mean you’re going to threaten me with another spanking?’
The last thing she expected was to see a hint of amusement at the mocked submissive pose.
‘I’m getting the feeling more and more that a hard spanking is exactly what you need. What is it they call that – negative reinforcement?’
Either he meant it, or he was actuallyplayingwith her. She wasn’t entirely sure she could handle the latter. But whichever, he was definitely making fun of her. Andno onemade fun of her.
She folded her arms to mirror him. ‘But that would show weakness, right, Jask? Relying on your brute strength because you can’t manage me any other way.’ She sauntered past him. ‘What a real let downthatwould be.’
‘If you wanted my undivided attention, you only had to ask,’ he remarked, as her shoulder skimmed his upper arm.
His arrogance, let alone a need to disprove the uncomfortable truth of his words, evoked her to turn and face him as she reached the corner. ‘Most would interpret me leaving the room as wanting anything but.’
‘If you hadn’t decided to take a knife with you, maybe.’
‘This little thing?’ She twirled it tauntingly in her fingers for him to see. ‘I’m hardly going to be doing much damage with this. Not worried are you, Jask?’
He frowned again. ‘Why do you do that?’
‘Defy me when you know I can do something about it.’
‘Physically maybe.’ She shrugged. ‘But like I said, what’s impressive about that? You said you could tame me, but what you clearly meant was suppress and oppress me. And you need to learn I don’t respond well to that. Let this beyourfirst lesson,’ she said, heading back towards the courtyard.
And also a lesson to her to keep herself focused – not sate her urge to provoke the lycan leader purely to get the upper hand for a few moments.
She had to remind herself of his potential intentions towards Kane Malloy and the implications for Blackthorn. She had to stay on task and not make it personal.
‘You’re going to be here a few days, serryn. So youwilllearn how to behave in my presence.’
A familiar and unavoidable surge of adrenaline flooded her system.
Keep walking, Phia.
But on irritation-induced automatic pilot, she slowly pivoted on her heels.
Jask was leaning against the corner of the building, the resoluteness in his eyes unflinching.
‘How tobehave? Sorry, Jask – am I not as submissive as your lycan females? Would you rather I bend over now and wait for you to take me at your leisure?’
He raised his eyebrows slightly. Worse, he dared to give her the once-over. ‘You’re a hell of a lot more irritating than lycan females, that’s for sure.’
‘Why, because I stand up to you? Because I’m not afraid to say what I think?’
‘You say that with pride. Honey, five-year-olds say what they think. Knowing what to say and when is called being an adult.’
Something inside her sparked. ‘Don’tpatronise me.’
‘Then stop scowling at me like some sulky teenager. You look ridiculous.’
Her thoughts flashed back to the female sat beside him in the dining hall. As insecurity flooded her, the spark ignited.
Shehadwanted his attention. And part of her hated herself for that immaturity, let alone the fact he seemed to be picking up on it.
And he had called her ridiculous because of it.
She exhaled tersely and turned away to stop herself closing the gap and kicking him hard between the legs. ‘Fuck you, Jask.’
‘My point exactly. One bit of criticism and you retaliate.’
She spun to face him again. ‘Who thefuckdo you think you are, huh? You may have all of them cowering in fear of you,’ she said, thrusting a pointed finger back towards the main building, ‘but not me,’ she added, slamming her hand to her chest. ‘Arrogant tosser,’ she muttered under her breath as she turned away again.
‘Youreallyneed to learn some manners, serryn.’
She closed her eyes. Pressed her lips together for a moment. ‘Oh, my apologies,’ she said as she turned to face him just briefly enough to curtsey. ‘Fuck you, Jask,please.’
‘I’m willing to let the knife incident go, but walk away from me and therewillbe consequences.’
She stopped again. She didn’t want to. But she did. She turned to face him once more. ‘Is that right?’
He pulled himself away from the wall. ‘I won’t have you talking to me like that.’
‘No?’ She opted to be the one to close the gap between them. ‘Then what are you going to do? Only the way I see it, I’m still alive because youneedme alive. So is this how it’s going to be? I don’t toe the line so you threaten to punish me? There’s one problem with that,’ she said. ‘I’m likely to enjoy it.’
But, this time, far from looking affronted, even irritated, his eyes glimmered with something else. Something she hadn’t expected to see. Something that told her he was only too willing to test the theory.
She instinctively stood up straight to let her five-foot-seven-inch frame match his stature as best she could as he consumed the personal space left between them.
‘Like you enjoyed me holding you down on the wasteland?’ he asked. ‘Like you enjoyed what I did to you in the shower?’
‘Made you feel good did it – controlling someone half your size?’
‘I didn’t have to restrain you to control you just now though, did I? Yet not only did you stop walking away, you came back.’ His eyes glinted with triumph. ‘I’d call that progress, wouldn’t you?’
Her heart pounded at the intimacy of his proximity.
‘I’ve made my point twice about who’s in charge here, serryn. If you push me, I’ll prove it once and for all.’
Her stomach flipped, the prospect as unforgivably enticing as the lycan who dared utter the threat. ‘You know,’ she said, holding his gaze, tilting her mouth up towards his to regain some semblance of control. ‘This whole alpha leader-of-the-pack thing is sexy enough, but when you get all masterful it’s just too much.’
He almost broke a smile. Almost. ‘You’re not as hard as you like to think you are, little girl. You might play at being tough, but that’s all it is. I saw you crumble when I pinned you down. You can’t handle me any more than you can handle yourself.’
She gazed into his eyes as they searched deep into hers. He smelt dangerously earthy – something between freshly cut grass and humid rain. She hadn’t noticed it before, but now it felt all-consuming. ‘Pin me down again and see.’
‘You’re out of your depth, darling.’
The term of endearment, despite its intention to belittle, still struck her deeper than it should have. ‘And you don’t want me to prove you wrong. I’m so much easier to handle if I’m scared of you, am I not?’
He leaned closer so his lips almost touched hers. ‘You know when I said I tear? I wasn’t kidding.’
‘Tease.’ She lifted her mouth to his, as close as she would dare without physically touching him. ‘I don’t mind not playing gentle. Let’s see if the pack leader is as badly behaved as his reputation dictates. Right here. Right now.’
As their breaths mingled, her stomach clenched, every nerve ending tingled.
But that cold, calm gaze made it all too obvious that he had no attraction towards her. His restraint was insulting. Worse, it was humiliating.
He pulled back with a smile and brushed past her, daring to turnhisback onher. She wanted to ram the knife into his behind just for the arrogance of it.
Just for the pain of his rejection.
For the defeat.
Damn it – round four to her only to have him claim it back again.
She clenched the knife handle tighter as she watched him leave. ‘I actually pity you, locked away here in your cage, spouting your propaganda to your masses!’ she called out. ‘The evidence speaks for itself. The barbed wire. The guards. You’re scared of what’s out there. You’re hiding. Everyone knows it. You may be the big pack leader in your cage, but you’re the vampires’ bitch and bitch to the TSCD, and you know it.’
Jask turned to face her again – a six-foot solid frame of lycan proficiency. That, let alone the look in his eyes, was enough to make her temporarily stop breathing.
But she squared up ready to face his retaliation – the humiliation of his rejection still scorching too deep for her not to.
‘What did you say?’ he asked, his narrowed eyes fixed on hers.
Shut up, Phia. For fuck’s sake, shut up.
But she’d ignored the voice of reason too many times for it to win through on this occasion.
‘You heard me,’ she said. ‘Impenetrable, huh? The powers that be still managed to get to two of your own though, didn’t they? And reveal just what you lycansreallyare beneath the surface. We all know how they butchered Arana Malloy – excuse of no meds or not. And what happened after still proves you’re nothing but a pawn in the big boys’ game and everyone knows it. Putting those responsible away in the safety of the penitentiary when you know you should have dealt with them yourself is evidence enough. That incident didn’t just show the VCU for what they are, it showed whatyouare – doing Kane Malloy’s dirty work for him. Only I didn’t see him in the courtroom, defending what your kind did tohissister. You’re clearly twisted around his little finger as much as that agent Caitlin Parish is.’
Jask took a step back towards her. ‘You really think it’s wise to stand there goading me?’
She clenched the knife handle tighter. ‘Struck a nerve, Jask?’
‘Brutal killer though you may be, serryn, you’re nothing but a sex toy in the hands of the right vampire – just remember that. Don’t tempt me into turning you into mine.’
She laughed. She wished to goodness she hadn’t. ‘Really? And how far are you willing to take it? Only you don’t want to start what you can’t finish, Jask. Not with me.’
‘Does every survival instinct not tell you that tempting a predator in his own territory is a really bad move? Or does that serryn arrogance make you numb to it?’
‘Because youaretempted, aren’t you, Jask?’
This time he did smile. Only this time the smile was laced with nothing but contempt. ‘Sorry to bitterly disappoint, but I like my females a little more…’ he raked her swiftly, dismissively, ‘mature,’ he said, pulling away again.
‘Yeah, or maybe you don’t know how to finish the job, more likely!’ she yelled after him. ‘You have me right where you want me and you can’t see it through. Guess that comes with being able to lick your own balls, right?’
When he turned to face her again, her stomach jolted, a trail of expletives trampling each other in her head.
‘No need to ask how it’s going,’ Corbin called out, approaching fast from the courtyard.
Jask remained at a standstill, despite the flare of anger still glowing in his eyes, his jaw tense. But it was the way he clenched his hands that troubled her the most. Hands that, despite concealing the talons she had no doubt had emerged, told her she’d messed up big time.
And it was made even more troubling by the concern in Corbin’s eyes as he noticed too.
‘As you can see,’ Jask said to him. ‘She’s still in one piece so I haven’t reached my limit yet.’
She wasn’t so sure.
Neither, seemingly, was Corbin, by the urgency with which he moved in beside him. ‘Not quite the quick taming we were hoping for though?’
‘Temporary setback,’ Jask declared, breaking from her equal glare in a clear attempt to disconnect himself from the moment. ‘Due to an excessive amount of sexual frustration seemingly.’
Further mocking was the last thing she could handle right then. ‘Fuck you!’ Sophia snapped. ‘And your boyfriend!’
Corbin exhaled tersely. ‘No need to ask if you’re ready to exchange rings. That’s some temper she’s got. What did you do to her, Jask?’
‘It’s more a case of what I didn’t do.’ He dared to look back at her. ‘Isn’t that right, honey?’
Embarrassment heated her face. She turned her attention to Corbin. ‘I bet you know how to satisfy a woman, right, Corbin? Only your boyfriend here isn’t up to the job. I’m starting to wonder who the real alpha around here is. You want to show me?’
Corbin’s eyes widened. ‘Wow, sweetheart, you’ve got some nerve.’
‘You think I’m kidding. Don’t worry; pretend-alpha-boy there can watch. He might learn something.’
‘Is she for real?’ Corbin asked, as he and Jask exchanged glances.
Jask folded his arms with a shrug. ‘Like I keep saying – too long chasing vampires. Maybe you should take her up on her offer? Let her know what she’s been missing.’
Her stomach wrenched at Jask’s easy dismissal.
Corbin appraised her swiftly. ‘She’s not my type. Too much to say for herself.’
‘I can silence her for you, if it’s a distraction.’
‘But then I won’t be able to hear her scream.’
‘Shall I get you boys some tea and biscuits while you chat?’
They both looked back at her at the same time.
Her stomach flipped. She tightened her grip on the knife, her arms stiff by her sides whilst resolving to add that moment to her well-established list of reasons to hate herself.
Jask looked back at Corbin. ‘Do you know any other female would dare stand there and goad us both?’
‘She’s got spirit, that’s for sure.’
Jask smirked. ‘She wantsyoufirst. She clearly knows the difference between a warm-up and the main show.’
Corbin grinned at his jibe before they both looked back at her.
She had to tell herself it was fine. She was calling their bluff and they were calling hers. Or she was being dangerously naïve and she was rapidly getting herself into a situation she wasn’t getting out of easily. Not without a massive swallow of pride at least.
Because there wasnoway Corbin was touching her.
‘In that case, maybe you should go first, Jask,’ she said. ‘Then at least I’ll have something to help me get over my disappointment.’
Jask raised his eyebrows slightly.
Something was seriously wrong with her. If she’d suspected it before, now she knew for sure – especially as the lycan eyes that glowered back at her only made her body ache more for him. The thought of what he could do, what he was capable of, evoking tingles of anticipation.
Jask was swift and efficient. He closed the gap between them in an instance – one arm sliding behind her back, locking her arms behind her in the process before he scooped her up in his, keeping her legs secured against him with his infallible grip.
But instead of carrying her behind the building, he turned around and marched back across the courtyard towards the quadrant.
‘Put me down!’ she demanded.
‘Trust me, I’m tempted,’ he said, his glower fixed ahead, his fair hair blowing in the breeze. ‘In more ways than one.’
She tried to wriggle but it was useless.
‘Petulant, obnoxious, irritating…’ he muttered.
Turning left out of the tunnel, he marched along the path, Corbin close behind him.
Jask kicked open the double doors into the nearest building, both giving way easily to his onslaught.
As he burst inside, the echo immediately filled her with a paralyzing fear.
The darkness exacerbated her fear enough, light kept at bay by the debris covering the glass roof. But it was the dark reflective surface below that overwhelmed her with abject terror. Her pulse reached painful rates as he stepped up to the edge of the swimming pool.
‘No!’ she gasped.
But there was no hesitation from Jask.
Her stomach vaulted as he threw her in.
She plunged deep into the pool, the cold liquid rushing over her. Her body went into shock. Water filled her mouth. Horror consumed her as she was sucked into the depths.
All she could see were the reeds again, a flashback to the sensation of falling from the tree branch into the lake, her twelve-year-old body consumed by icy water.
In her flashback, there was nothing but her and the darkness again. Nothing but powerlessness. Nothing but the lake plants coiling around her legs, around her arm as she fought for the surface, tightening their hold and restricting her as she’d helplessly flayed.
In the there and now, she reached the surface, but failed to snatch enough air before the weight of her boots dragged her down again. She was too consumed with fear to unlace them and kick them off. Too weak in her panic to fight.
Those boots may as well have been those plants that had coiled around her as a child, and she was weak again.
And gulping water only escalated her panic, her frantic snatching at the water’s surface forcing her to sink further as she tired quickly. She lost sense of time, of place, of the situation.
She barely registered something heavy slide into the water beside her.
Feeling restriction around her waist, her first instinct was to lash out. But the arm that held her, that pulled her towards the surface, was strong, unrelenting, skimming her through the water, lifting her out of it seconds later.
As her back met a hard surface, she curled onto her side, hoisted herself up onto her arms, her palms flat on the floor, her head downturned as she coughed up water.
Shivering and trembling, she gasped for breath, fear-induced tears tightening her throat and accumulating in her eyes.
As soon as she felt strong enough, she struggled to her feet, unable to look at Jask as he pulled himself out of the water beside her.
Because she didn’t have to look at him to know it was Jask who’d saved her – even in her panic she knew that hold.
She brushed dripping hair from her eyes as she stumbled away, marched back towards the doors, past Corbin, yet another humiliation too much to bear for one night.
* * *
Leaning back on both arms, his legs stretched out in front of him, Jask gave Corbin the nod to let her pass.
‘Told you you’d try to kill her,’ Corbin remarked as he strolled over to join him.
‘How was I supposed to know she couldn’t swim? She grew up in Summerton for fuck’s sake.’
Corbin looked back towards the door where she’d disappeared. ‘Summerton, huh? Bit of a comedown – privileged princess to Blackthorn serryn.’
And a bit of a comedown from an overconfident, mouthy, arrogant serryn to a shaken, vulnerable girl, from the way she’d fought back the quick onset of tears.
Guilt sliced through him with a serrated edge. Guilt he was determined to suppress. She’d had it coming. Besides, she’d got off lightly compared with what he could have done to her for her provocation.
The cold water had done them both some good.
And maybe him more than her as he’d watched her storm away – the evocative sway of those feminine hips, his sodden shirt barely covering and clinging to that shapely behind.
She had no idea justhowlightly she’d got off.
But he wasn’t going back there. He wasn’t returning to being the lycan who acted without fear of consequence. The lycan who indulged his own needs rather than those of his pack. Because from the way every instinct in him was firing, if anyone was capable of inciting a setback, it was that serryn.
He pulled himself to his feet, caught a glimpse of his friend’s raised eyebrows. ‘What?’ Jask asked.
‘She had you right where she wanted you – you know that, right?’
And the fact that hedidknow it only made it worse. In a split second a battle of wills had become about pride – not just lycan pride, but male pride. She’d not just dug the knife in, she’d twisted – and she’d dared look him in the eyes as she’d done it.
And the fact she knew exactly what to say to get that reaction evoked a sense of vulnerability in him that he despised.
‘I was perfectly in control.’
‘She’s poison, Jask. It’s true what they say. If you were a vampire, you’d be dead now.’
‘But I’m not a vampire, am I?’
‘No. You’re the leader of this pack and we need you. She pushed your buttons out there. You know how dangerous that is. I saw the way you looked at her. Worse still, I saw the way she looked at you. If this becomes about you and her and not her and this pack, you’re heading for trouble.’
‘She called me the TSCD’s bitch, Corbin. Kane’s bitch. She looked me in the eye and told me giving evidence in that courtroom made me a coward.’
Corbin exhaled tersely. ‘If that’s what’s got you so riled, you know better. She’s screwing with your head. It’s what they do – vampire or not.’
‘Is she? Or is she saying what everyone out there is thinking – that I can’t protect my own?’
‘See – that’s what I mean.No onebelieves that.’ Corbin stepped closer. ‘Everyone knows you did what you had to, to free Tyler and Malachi. And being a part of exposing the TSCD’s corruption showed you’re not scared of anything. It showed that we look after our ownandthat we won’t be pushed around. She’s jibing where it hurts, that’s all. She’s testing for weaknesses and you’re letting her. What she thinks doesn’t matter and you know it.’
He stared down at the dark water. But it did. What that serryn thoughtdidmatter. Reputation was everything in Blackthorn and if she believed it, others did too. And if others believed it, he needed more than ever to show hecouldprotect what was his. He had to do his job. He had to protect his pack. And she wasnotgoing to be the one to change that focus.
‘Jask,’ Corbin said. ‘Reassure me again that there’s not another motive underlying bringing her here.’
‘And like I said last time you asked – as if I’d be that obvious.’
‘Really? Only your reaction to what she said proves just how much it’s been eating away at you this past two weeks since Kane disappeared. This whole collaboration between you and him was supposed to be about preventing a civil war, not instigating one. So if hehasgone soft on Caitlin Parish, you don’t want to cross that line. If she’s told him you threatened her outside that courtroom, he could already be baying for your blood.’
‘Then he can come and face me. Because what we’re dealing with now does not change the fact that he allowed those responsible to go to trial instead of killing them as we agreed. It makes us look like we have a chink in our armour. It makes it look likeIcan’t protect this pack. It’s bad enough that I owe Tyler and Malachi fourteen years of their lives whilst waiting,trusting, that Kane would see our plan through, but his letting us down at the last minute has put us at serious risk.’
‘Ifhe has let us down – we still don’t know that.’
‘But we do know our survival depends on us not being seen as an easy target in this district, Corbin, and that vampire has undone everything we have worked for to keep our pack safe. I wasted fourteen years of not enacting my own vengeance only because I trusted Kane when he said he had a better way. So Kane and I arefarfrom over. But if it makes you feel better, I can assure you I’ll deal with Kane only when I have time to deal with Kane. For now, he’s the least of my concerns if I can’t get that serryn to do what we need.’
Because as much as the prospect of sending the serryn after Kane had crossed his mind on seeing her, thiswasabout farmore than that, especially as his attention reverted to what he’d almost missed – something that was either paradoxically a ray of light or a pending disaster.
‘You saw those tears, right?’ Jask asked.
‘They weren’t fake.’
He rested his hands on his hips. ‘Serryns don’t cry, Corbin. That’s why those little droplets are even more valuable than her blood. If thiswasa set-up by the witches, they would have sent in their best. Those tears prove she’s most definitely not that.’
‘So you think wehavegot lucky?’
‘But if she can cry, she’s got a vulnerable side. That makes her more tameable, surely?’
‘Or she’s not tough enough to do this.’
What he needed was a hardened serryn he could meld. A complication of vulnerability, however advantageous for that, he didn’t. Especially not from the way he’d felt something he had no right feeling when he’d seen those tears in her eyes.
‘So which is it?’ Corbin asked
Jask looked back towards the doors. ‘I’ll have to push a little harder to find out, won’t I?’
‘I know that look,’ Corbin said. ‘Don’t make this personal. Serryn or not, physically she’s still just a girl. If you lose yourself again, this pack will be lost. For good this time. Don’t you forget that.’
Six days previous
The agent from the Lycan Control Unit sat on the opposite side of the table from Jask. The other two guarded the exit from the compound’s outer room, guns held diagonally across their chests. They stared ahead, keeping their eyes averted.
‘Where’s Kinley?’ Jask asked as the unfamiliar agent clicked open his collection of metal briefcases.
‘Agent Kinley is off sick.’ The agent declared it too curtly for Jask’s liking, let alone that he remained focused on taking out the various vials and foil sheets of medication instead of having made eye contact yet.
‘Kinley hasn’t taken a day off sick in twenty years.’
‘Then clearly he deserves one.’ The agent skimmed through the electronic pad he held in his hand. ‘But I can assure you I know what I’m doing.’
Jask was seconds away from slamming the electronic pad from his hand, seconds away from grabbing the agent around the throat and dragging him across the table towards him. The whole system was insulting. Having to play ball with the authorities to secure what little freedom they had left was derogatory enough. But the agent’s attitude was adding to Jask’s building irritation, not least during what was already a bad night. ‘Which is why you haven’t looked me in the eye even once in the past ten minutes – a basic courtesy us lycans expect.’
The agent looked up at him. His eyes flared slightly, confirming to Jask that his glare had been appropriately interpreted. ‘Agent Harper,’ he said. ‘With my apologies.’
Not entirely convinced on the sincerity of the latter, Jask nonetheless followed the routine of laying the inside of his forearm out between them albeit whilst his glare remained on Harper’s.
Every month it was the same. First came the blood test that would invariably show Jask had refused to take the issued meds, instead remaining with the pack’s own concoction to control their condition. Jask would then be asked how many of his packhadtaken the meds. He would confirm the names of those who had opted in – those who, unbeknown to the TSCD, were the rare few allergic to their herbs but who didn’t want to go through morphing like others in the same situation.
Tyler and Malachi had been two of those. They’d relied on the meds. Meds that, true to the Global Council’s claims, stopped them morphing. But both lycans, as well as the handful of others who opted in, still retained their hostile, argumentative and impulsive edge during the lunar phase – unlike with the lycans’ own concoction – which only added to Jask’s concern as to what the meds truly contained.
The fact that Tyler and Malachi had subsequently been targeted by the TSCD despite their co-operation, that the TSCD had used the volatile edgetheirmeds failed to suppress as evidence against them in the Arana Malloy trial, had seemed even more cruel.
Because no lycan wanted to morph, any more than any allergy sufferer wanted to experience the symptoms, no matter how natural to their physical chemistry.
Therehadbeen historic warriors amongst them who had embraced it in the past, for whom surviving the pain of the initial changes physically and emotionally had marked them as superior. Superior because it took decades to learn to manage the pain, let alone decades to develop self-control as baser urges took over. But that was back in a time when lycans were allowed to run free to develop those skills.
Now they were “managed”. Now they’d be shot on sight. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to conceal themselves. Nowhere to safely embrace what they were. Nowhere to hide their mistakes in the process.
Harper wrapped the strap around Jask’s forearm before the inbuilt device punctured a tiny wound via an automated needle.
Jask didn’t flinch.
He and Kinley had the system finely tuned after so many years. And Kinley understood respect.
Harper read the readings, inputted the data into his handheld device.
The exact same questions always followed.
‘How many pack members?’ he asked as he unstrapped the device from Jask’s arm.
‘Two hundred and seventeen.’
‘All your pack are accounted for?’
‘Internal or external disputes?’
And all the while, Harper continued to input the details.
‘How many opting in this month?’ he asked.
‘The usual four.’
Then the rights would usually be read next as the meds were issued. Then would come the herb check. The agent would assess the quantity, growth and usage of the herbs and spices grown in the greenhouse. Jask would confirm none had been shared beyond the compound and that every remaining lycan in the pack was taking them to prevent morphing. Further random blood tests would then be done to ensure there was evidence of such in their systems.
Two hours later, the agent would leave.
But this wasn’t just any month.
This was a month of two full moons – an occurrence every two to three years. The strength of the morphing was greater, their bodies not having had a chance to recover fully from the last. It meant an altered and more intense remedy from the norm – both in terms of their own concoction and the meds issues by the Global Council.
So of all the times Jask could have done without the newbie showing up, it was then – not least as it wasn’t just any blue moon either. This was the thirteenth blue moon before the new cycle began again – the most potent time for his kind.
And things had already gone wrong. Not that he was going to give the agent any indication at all of that.
But a newbie meant the potential to be more thorough. A newbie wasn’t as easy to read as Kinley had become.
Harper slid the familiar packs across to him. ‘As you’re aware, your pack members are recommended to start the course two days from now for exactly nine days. Any morphed lycans found on the streets will be instantly terminated. Any word of morphed lycans here in the compound will be removed, as will your herbs. Meds will subsequently be obligatory for all. You remain with the right to use your own methods, the right to manage your own condition but you do not, however, have the right to put anybody within the boundaries of Blackthorn or Lowtown at risk. Can you confirm you understand that, please?’
‘And, as the head of this pack, you confirm you are willing to take responsibility for all lycans under your domain?’
‘And you understand that should any lycans be found to have morphed, the LCU now reserves the right to remove you from this compound for prosecution as a result of…’ he glanced up at him, ‘previous events.’
The fact that there werestillthose who blamed his pack, his leadership, for the incident with Arana Malloy stabbed him deep. But this was not the time for confrontation. This was the time to get the agent out as quickly as he could so he could get back to deal with what had happened with Nero.
So he could work out what the hell they were going to do.
‘I understand totally,’ Jask said, through gritted teeth.
The agent typed into his device once more. ‘Then I’ll move straight on to the herb calculations,’ he declared, sealing his cases again. He pushed back the chair and stood. ‘Lead the way.’
Sophia burst through the poolroom doors out onto the quadrant. Cold rain snapped at her face and legs. Legs that trembled, barely holding her up as her feet slipped and squelched in her sodden boots.
She stopped only to unlace them and kick them off before clutching them against her chest, her bare feet melding with the turf as she marched back across to the main building.
She came to a standstill in the lobby, her hair dripping, her sodden shirt clinging to every curve, adding to her shame as all eyes locked on her.
It was the last place she wanted to go, but right then she had no idea where elsetogo.
She marched up the stairs and took the sharp left to Jask’s room.
She slammed the door behind her and stood in the morning light, her whole body shaking from the shock, the cold.
She headed straight to the bathroom and turned on the hot water, yanking the curtains shut behind her and attempting to unfasten the shirt buttons as she stepped under the spray. Though only lukewarm, it burned and stung, prickling her skin as she waited for the shivers to subside. Her numb, trembling fingers were useless. In fury and frustration, she tore the shirt over her head, quickly becoming aggravated as it clung to her skin and got entangled in her hair. She growled in frustration as it painfully tugged at her roots until she finally yanked it off.
She let her tears fall – there in the privacy of the shower, there where they would be easily lost amidst the spray.
Recollections of the lake only brought thoughts of her sisters too painfully to the forefront of her mind again. How her older sister, Leila, was always there when she needed her – always the backup, always the calm influence, always the one picking up the pieces. Leila who’d dived into the water to save her that day, despite being the one to warn her not to be messing around on the tree branch anyway.
But Sophia didn’t listen – she never listened.
There was only one thing, ironically, that kept her alive long enough that day – the very behaviour Leila had tried to curb. It was a trick she’d learned from a young age. Whenever she didn’t get her own way or Leila told her off, she’d hold her breath. Hold her breath until she’d turn blue. It was cruel. Looking back she knew just how cruel.
Death had become too real to them all at too early an age. Leila had been nine when their mother had died; Sophia had been six, Alisha just two. Leila had taken it the hardest. Leila took everything the hardest – or so everyone thought. Sophia had heard her sobbing some nights in the privacy of her bedroom. She used to cry too when she heard her, not that she’d ever let Leila know, or their grandfather who had assumed the carer responsibility for the three young girls.
But then Leila had made the mistake of taking on the replacement maternal role – something that Sophia, in her grief, had resented. And in her moments of anger, she’d turn that very fear of death back on Leila. She’d hold her breath for as long as it took to get her own way whilst Alisha, their baby sister too young to understand her sister’s manipulative act, would stand and scream for her to stop.
The same screams of panic Alisha had let out as she’d watched her twelve-year-old sister fall into the lake. Screams that had become muffled as Sophia was dragged deeper under the water, deeper into the darkness.
She’d always been a strong swimmer. With all the lakes and rivers in Summerton, it was a must, let alone when they’d travel through the other locales to get to the ocean.
And that’s what had made the whole experience even more terrifying – that something she was so confident in was so easily snatched out of her control. Something that turned out to be stronger and more powerful than her. What had always been her safe place had nearly killed her that day, hurting like the betrayal of a lifelong lover or best friend.
But as she’d sunk to the depths, she’d felt Leila grab her.
She should have died in the seconds that had followed, but seeing the determination in Leila’s eyes had convinced Sophia to hold on longer than should have been possible. Seeing her big sister defiant against the elements – seeing, for the first time, just how strong Leila was – had kept her fighting. Because Leila never gave up. As she’d yanked and tugged at those reeds with all her strength, Sophia saw just how admirably calm Leila was under pressure. Not least as Leila had switched from tugging those reeds to meticulously unthreading them – every now and again looking back at her sister, urging her to hold on, reassuring her that she’d be okay.
And she’d loved her sister in those moments. Loved her silent strength. The sister that she had jibed and resented, had proclaimed as weak, soft and a pushover, became her heroine.
But a heroine was something Leila should never have had to have been. Wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been forher. What happened to their mother was down to her – down to Sophia. Their mother would have never been in Midtown that night if Sophia hadn’t been the catalyst.
And she’d punish herself every inch of the way if that’s what it took – because nothing would ever,evermake her feel better.
She’d been told it had been a nasty accident at the time. It had only been a few years ago that she’d searched the press and found out it had, in fact, been a vampire who’d killed their mother, despite having always been reassured that Midtown was a safe place.
The authorities had lied.
Just as the vampire royalty who had been allowed to live in Midtown were equal liars, claiming they meant no harm to humans. Because one of them had murdered her mother. Behind their shield of deceit and respectability, one of them had slaughtered Claire McKay.
And the authorities had covered it up – worried that flaws in their precious system would be exposed.
She slammed her hand against the tiled wall.
And now she finally,finallyhad the chance to do something about it – embrace the powerful blood flowing through her veins to wreak the revenge she needed. Instead, she was trapped. Worse, she was messing up any chance of getting out. All because of her stupid pride, of the stupid impetuousness that had torn her family apart in the first place.
She rested her forehead against the tiles, letting the water trickle over her as she sobbed every last tear out of her system.
She needed to be smart like her sister, not arse-kicking at every opportunity.
She would get nothing from Jask in the short time she planned on staying there if she kept throwing obstacles his way. But she couldn’t help it. Something about him grated too deep. Something that made her hairs prickle just at his presence. Whether it was his reputation, the very nature of what he was, or the fact that he was so perfect as to be unobtainable whilst making her feel about him the way she did.
Something about being near him made her act stupid – like a schoolgirl irritatingly kicking the chair of the boy she fancied. But she needed to curb it. Fast. This wasn’t about her. This was about The Alliance. This was about her sisters.
She’d find Rone and Samson. And if theydidknow about The Alliance, she’d tell them they were getting her out of there or she’d blow their dirty little secret.
And then, when her escape was arranged, she’d take out Jask without a moment’s hesitation – somewhere isolated, somewhere where his last moments would seep by slowly enough for him to realise she’d got the upper hand in the end.
When she was done, when she was drained of all tears, she exhaled a steady breath. She switched off the shower and pushed her hair back from her eyes. Yanking back the shower curtain, she grabbed the towel she’d chucked to the floor earlier and wrapped it around herself.
She stared at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot, the skin beneath them puffy from tiredness and tears. She hated herself without make-up – had been hiding behind it since she was thirteen. The exposure felt uncomfortable more now than ever. It would have been the perfect excuse to pile on the black kohl and dark eye-shadow – another thing Leila had always hated.
But then Leila was as much the china doll as their little sister Alisha was straight out of every teenage boy’s dream. And she was neither.
She turned on the cold water tap and scooped water onto her eyes. Any sign of distress would do her cause no good. If Jask did plan to use her against Kane, he’d know he needed a skilled serryn to do it. And skilled is exactly how she’d come across. She might have only been a serryn a matter of hours, but she had sure as hell spent long enough studying them to know how they operated. In her quest to one day track one down and plead with them to join their mission, what she hadn’t learned about serryns wasn’t worth knowing.
Except that her sister had been one.
She towel-dried her hair, untangling knots with her fingers, noticing how much her naturally fairer roots had come through, how much the dye had faded. She was a mess – inside and out. No amount of serryn blood flowing through her veins was going to make a difference unless she got a grip fast.
She rubbed the back of her hand under her nose, rolled back her shoulders with a flick of her head and straightened her back.
She pushed aside the curtain to the bedroom, and her stomach somersaulted.
Jask was by the wardrobes, sliding his wet shirt down his arms. The sunlight graced his lightly tanned skin with an amber hue, the contrast of shadows defining every muscle on his sculpted torso and flexed biceps. She glanced at the dominating tattoo on the inside of his upper arm – the mark of his lycan clan. She’d never got close enough to see one before, but she’d heard they all had one – only to be burned off if they ever betrayed their pack, banished to survive in Blackthorn alone.
And that was the very thing she had over Rone and Samson should they not play ball – the very reason they wouldn’t want to be exposed as liars to their leader.
She clutched her towel knot to her chest and looked to the window seat, locating the source of the mouth-watering aroma. He’d brought a tray of breakfast with him.
‘You might need this,’ he said.
She glanced back across her shoulder to accept the out-held T-shirt. Without meeting his gaze, she turned back into the bathroom – the perfect excuse to allow her longer to reduce any evidence of her tears.
She slipped the T-shirt down over her head before tugging the towel away. She looked over her shoulder to check her reflection in the mirror. At least it covered her modesty, even if not much else. Approaching the vanity unit, she leaned forward to check her complexion and eyes again, but stood abruptly as Jask emerged through the curtain behind her.
Determined not to draw attention to her still-scarlet eyes, she tried to slip past him, but his insistent forward steps backed her tightly up against the counter in a move that was as intimidating as it was proficient.
As he caught her jaw in one hand, she was tempted to slap his hand away. But she clutched the vanity unit instead, reminding herself that a change of approach was needed – along with a hefty swallow of pride. Especially as Jask too seemed to be upping his game.
He pressed his thumb under her chin, tilting her head up to him.
Teeth clenched, jaw tense, she allowed her gaze to meet his.
He stared deep into her eyes in a way she was sure no one ever had, the passing seconds painful before he eventually spoke.
‘All that make-up, the dyed hair, the attitude – who are you trying to be, serryn? Or more to the point, who are you tryingnotto be? What made you dislike yourself so much that you needed to become someone else?’
Her heart pounded from the acuity, the bluntness, of the questions. Thathehad been the one to notice. ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘No?’ His gentle grip on her jaw didn’t falter. ‘All this goading talk, these retorts – you’re just used to striking first, putting up the defences. But those instilled deflections you have reveal far more than you want them to.’
‘I’ll add therapist to your lycan skills, shall I?’
‘You’re scared; you retaliate. You feel threatened; you retaliate. You’re embarrassed; you retaliate. Because you can’t handle showing any sign of weakness, can you? Anything that shows just how vulnerable you are.’
‘Fuck you, Jask – there’s nothing vulnerable about me,’ she said, finally knocking his hand away.
But instead of backing off, he splayed his hands on the counter either side of her hips, his chest almost touching hers. ‘That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it? So what is it now? Scared? Threatened? Or am I just too close to the truth?’
There was that scent again.Hisscent. A scent that caused a stirring deep inside her. ‘You’re so far off the mark I’m embarrassed for you.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re just one little coil of defensive rage. So, whatisit you’re so angry about?’
‘I should be out there on the streets doing my job and instead I’m stuck in here with you.’
‘Out there fucking whatever vampire will have you, right?’
The disdain in his tone cut deeper than she knew it should have. ‘Is that a hint of judgement in your tone, lycan? The holier-than-thou attitude that comes with you wolf-boys only having the one mate?’
‘Lycan females know how to keep their males happy and vice versa – what’s wrong with that?’
‘I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it. You clearly like to play it safe. It’s sweet.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve been with a lot of vampires, so I understand why you’d feel threatened. They may be the scum of the earth, but they sure know how to satisfy a woman. I can see why they’re a notch above you wolf-boys. All that safe play with just one female doesn’t quite give you the edge to know how to handle someone like me.’
‘I knowexactlyhow to handle you.’
‘Sure of that, are you? Only I think you’re so busy reading between the lines, you’re missing the sentence on the page.’
He frowned a little, but the hint of a smile won. ‘You’ve got such an attitude problem, serryn.’
‘It’s one of my best features.’
‘I’d say it was those brown eyes. When they’re not scowling at me.’
His compliment threw her for a moment, but he absorbed her silence quickly.
‘How have you survived so long with such an inability to read a situation?’ he asked.
‘I read situations just fine.’
‘Which is why you thought it okay to try and goad two lycans in a desolate part of this compound. Which is why you thought it was okay to provoke me.’
‘Like I said, you need to develop a sense of humour.’
He frowned again. ‘You think what you were trying to incite me to do was funny?’
‘I never said that.’
‘And you dared to callmearrogant. Is it really what you wanted? To be taken up against some dirty stone wall? By me?’
She stared deeper and longer into his eyes in a way she knew not many would dare,refusing to be intimidated by the sudden domineering silence as he awaited her response. A question to which she wasn’t sure there was a right answer. If there was, she couldn’t find it under the weight of his unrelenting gaze.
‘That’s a lot of erratic breathing for an experienced sexual predator,’ he said.
‘At least you can admit that’s what I am.’
‘I wasn’t referring to you.’
Her stomach flipped for all the wrong reasons.
‘Have you heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf?’ he asked.
‘Of course I have,’ she said, her breath, to her further irritation, catching in her throat.
‘You know the moral of the story then?’
‘You think I’m faking?’
‘Notthatmoral. I’m talking about the one whereby if you summon a wolf enough times, eventually one will appear.’
Despite her fight to stay calm, she couldn’t stop her pulse from racing. A pulse she knew he could hear – something which she had no doubt was sealing his satisfaction.
‘And I’ve whistled enough times, right?’ she said, refusing to be intimidated by the look in his eyes, the proximity, his unflinching attention.
‘Not quite,’ he said, his gaze tracing down her throat, to where his T-shirt hung loose around her neck, exposing part of her collar bone.
‘Rest assured, lycan, I havenointention of sleeping with anything that stinks of wet dog hair.’
His smile was betrayed by his terse exhale. ‘So if I came on to you, you’d turn me down, right?’
‘Not fast enough.’
‘Because you’ve got to be the one calling the shots, right? But tell me,’ he said, looking keenly back into her eyes, ‘what naïve part of you thinks I’d let you?’
Her heart skipped a beat. She’d had enough threats on the street, but they’d never looked at her the way he did then. Andthey’dnever stunned her to silence.
‘You look surprised,’ he added. ‘I thought I was nothing but feral beneath the surface. I thought you said you can read situations.’ He leaned forward just a fraction, but enough to force her to lean back if their lips weren’t to meet. ‘Only you don’t look so sure now.’
‘It’s called indifference, Jask.’
He almost smiled before sucking air through his clenched teeth. ‘I couldsoeasily prove you wrong.’
‘Maybe. And maybe I’d agree to you trying, if I didn’t have some semblance of taste.’
‘And like I said, some of us get mistaken for sweet and honourable when we’re anything but.’
‘Or so you’d like people to believe.’
‘I’d give it ten minutes before you’re screaming my name.’
‘I’d give it five before you’re screaming for your mother.’
This time he gave her a brief flash of his canines through his semi-smile. ‘Your reaction in the poolroom showed me everything I need to know. As do those vulnerable, bloodshot eyes.’ He gave her the quick once over before he pulled away.
It was the last thing she needed to hear. The last thing she needed him to believe. Just as she needed not to have faltered the minute he’d turned up the heat. ‘What, so you think a fear of water makes me weak?’ she called out before he reached the threshold.
‘No,’ he said, tucking the curtain aside. ‘The fact you don’t know when to listen, that you’ve got to do everything your own way, needing to always be in control – that’s what makes you weak.’
She frowned, unease tightening her chest. ‘I make you anxious, don’t I, Jask? That’s why you keep walking away.’
‘The only thing that makes me anxious is potentially losing my temper with you and killing you. And I can’t let that happen.’
‘Why, Jask? If thisisabout Kane, tell me,’ she said, closing the gap between them again, her bare feet padding on the tiles. ‘If I’ve appeared at just the right time like you said I have, why are you wasting it?’
‘I’mnotwasting time. I’m just doing what I have to.’
‘Which is what? Taming me? What the fuck does that mean anyway? If you want me to do something for you, tell me now. Then maybe we can actually get somewhere.’
‘We’re already getting somewhere,’ he said. He cocked his head out into the bedroom. ‘Now get in there and get something to eat before you pass out on me. Unless you’re so proud that you’d rather starve than keep up your strength.’
He’d walked away – proof enough that claiming ownership wasn’t half as rewarding as earning it for him.
Round five. Round fucking five to him.
But food was good. Food was calming. Food was a break away without admitting defeat. Food was a distracter.
She stepped up to the threshold, but didn’t cross it as he brushed past her and headed to the sink. Instead she leaned against the doorframe, determined not to show any sign of intimidation in the wake of his threat. ‘Are you going to join me?’
‘I’m going to get some sleep.’ He reached for a toothbrush and applied some paste from the pot by the sink. ‘The same as you are after you’ve eaten.’
She looked across her shoulder at the makeshift bed that was now dangerously inviting. And all the more so with the prospect of him being in it. ‘With you?’ she asked, looking back at him.
He glanced in the mirror, his eyes momentarily meeting hers as he started to brush.
He bent over and spat out some paste. ‘Even lycans need to sleep. Or is that one of the rumours you missed?’
Her gaze raked his taut back, his tight waist, his pert, masculine behind through his wet jeans as he leaned over to rinse before standing back up to continue brushing.
She folded her arms. ‘So it’s true your sort sleep in the mornings then?’ Met with his silence, she added, ‘Dawn and late evenings are the best hunting times, right?’
He bent over to rinse his mouth under the tap again. He wiped his mouth on the towel before discarding it back onto the vanity unit. Not making eye contact, he strolled past her, unfastening his belt buckle as he did so.
Without registering what he was crossing the bathroom to do, she remained mindlessly mesmerised by the male perfection that sauntered past her.
‘You planning on watching me urinate as well?’ he asked as he reached the toilet. ‘Or are you going to drop the curtain on your way out?’
She blushed and backed off. Stepping into the bedroom, she let the curtain drop into place.
She stared back at the bed. If he’d wanted her, if he’d meant the threat, he would have taken her. But he didn’t want her. That much was clear.
The fact that serryns were supposed to be the most inherently seductive of all the species – irresistible to vampires, but with an acquired charm to affect any species on some level – seemed like a joke now. Either that or, uncharacteristic to his reputation, Jask Tao truly did have something of an honourable streak.
She sat on the window seat beside the tray – salad, chopped fruit and garnished potatoes with a couple of slices of bread. All no doubt grown and prepared in the compound. It was one thing she had to give the species credit for – they worked hard on what small fragment of land they had, avoiding, where they could, the crap that the Global Council allowed to be delivered into Blackthorn. The herbs and spices that they grew, of course, were different – they were a necessity, whereas what lay in front of her was a luxury. A luxury he was willing to share a fraction of with her. She felt a small fragment of guilt.
She took the first mouthful of food as she glanced back out across Blackthorn – not just a prison for humans but, though she hated to admit it, the third species forced to reside there too.
But they weren’t her concern – and still didn’t excuse the way they lorded themselves over the district. And Jask was an integral one of those.
She looked back across her shoulder as she heard movement, just in time to see Jask slipping out of his wet jeans. Distracted by thighs and a behind as toned and powerful as the rest of him, she unintentionally tipped the balancing food from her fork, the spillage irritatingly interrupting her viewing as she wiped her lap.
When she glanced back up, Jask was in bed. He eased down onto his back, one leg bent, his lax arm behind his head emphasising the strength in his torso and biceps, the blankets resting enticingly low on his waist.
She took a few more mouthfuls of food, his closed eyes allowing her appreciative gaze to linger comfortably whilst she felt another pang of envy towards the blonde in the dining hall.
‘So is it true about why you lycans sleep on the floor – so you can pick up the vibrations of intruders? Some old inherited wolf thing?’
She was met with silence.
‘Do you take the meds or are you one of the ones who embraces the darkness inside?’
‘Because that’s all our so-called shadows are to your kind, aren’t they, serryn?’ he said, not even flinching. ‘Darkness. Never mind what we do, what we say; those shadows are our moral death sentence, in your eyes.’
‘Basic law of religion.’
‘This set-up is nothing about religion – it’s about politics and power, nothing more.’
She took a few more mouthfuls. This was not the time to be antagonistic, and for once she’d do herself proud. Besides, maybe sleepiness made him more amenable. More open.
‘Do you sleep for long?’ she asked, changing the subject to one less contentious.
‘A couple of hours.’
‘But more sporadically and frequently than vampires, right?’
She drank from the glass of water as she looked out of the window, hesitating before asking him the next question. ‘So what’s the love-hate relationship between vampires and lycans all about?’
‘There is no love-hate relationship – only what your authorities portray. We’re not as attuned to difference as you are.’
‘But you have a pact of segregation.’
‘An enforced segregation – your authorities’ way of making sure there’s some division between the third species in each district. They wouldn’t want us joining forces, now, would they?’
‘It’s not like you’re going anywhere.’
He looked across at her, his azure eyes ignited by the weak sunlight. But he didn’t say anything as he rolled his head back into position and closed them again.
She pushed the tray aside and wiped any trace of food from the corners of her mouth. ‘Do you have a spare toothbrush?’
‘Top drawer of the vanity unit.’
She headed back into the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, smoothed down her hair, took a few steady breaths, used the toilet and stepped back over to the curtain.
She pushed it aside, sauntered across the floorboards and stepped onto the edge of the soft, plump rug. ‘Where am I supposed to sleep?’
Without opening his eyes, without moving anything other than his right arm, he pulled the duvet aside to expose a space next to him.
Right next to him.
Her heart skipped a beat.
‘I’ve had better chat-up lines,’ she remarked, trampling over the cushions to slide into the place he’d reserved.
She lay down beside him and pulled the duvet to her chest. She looked up at the ceiling as she wriggled to get into a more comfortable position.
As his silence persisted, she looked back across at him. ‘You’re taking a big risk lying there with your eyes shut.’
‘Why, what are you going to do – stab me with my spare toothbrush?’
‘I’m still a serryn. I might not be toxic to you, but I’m still lethal.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
‘You’re an arrogant bastard, you know that?’
‘I’ve been called worse.’
‘I bet you have.’ She lingered on his stubbled jaw, the leather straps around his neck, the small platinum pendant nestled in the hollow of his throat, before sliding her gaze down his bare chest, to where the duvet sat low on his hips. ‘Are you naked under there?’
‘Does it bother you?’
‘No. But it might bother your mate.’
It was an intentionally searching question but when he didn’t answer, she gazed up at the ceiling rose.
Despite all her boasting, she’d only had five partners. For two of those, she’d been too drunk to remember much. So had they. Then there was Daniel – her friend she’d fallen into bed with too many times now. But they understood each other and it never needed to get complicated. Because the last thing she ever needed was complicated.
And now there was Jask under the covers beside her. Naked. But clearly with no intention of sleeping with her whatsoever. His silence made sharing his bed feel horribly clinical, horribly detached.
She pulled the covers over her chest.
‘Have you ever been with a human?’ she asked, unable to take the silence.
‘They sob a lot.’
Her gaze snapped across her shoulder at him.
‘I think it’s the pace,’ he said, not having flinched. ‘Apparently it’s true that we’re feral. During the sex act more than any other time.’
He opened his eyes, looked across at her, his lips curling into a hint of a smirk as he echoed her jibe from earlier.
He’d taken notice of what she’d said. And this time he’d retorted with humour. It wasn’t just her stomach that jolted, it was her heart.
He closed his eyes again and turned his face back towards the ceiling. ‘Or I could just be bullshitting you. Must be rubbing off.’
All she could do was stare at him. Stare at the perfection that lay beside her who, more troublingly, clearly had a sense of humour after all.
‘I don’t bullshit you,’ she said.
He looked across at her again, his eyebrows slightly raised.
He rolled onto his side in one easy, fluid movement, the blanket over him falling dangerously low – not low enough to expose himself fully, but to confirm, from glimpses below that hard, flat stomach, he was surely naked – and totally at ease with it. ‘You seem to forget we’re different to you, serryn – that we pick up on things you don’t. Whatever words come out of your mouth, they can’t hide the hitch in your breath or the telling change in your pulse rate.’
She rolled onto her side to face him, lying within inches of him. ‘And what’s my pulse rate doing now?’
His gaze lingered on hers in a way that felt fatally intimate.
But she wasn’t going to be the first to look away – not when he was that close, not when she would have given anything for him to lean forward at that moment, to know what those lips felt like against hers.
‘Turn around,’ he said softly.
She laughed, but with more uncertainty than she’d intended. ‘Yeah, right.’
‘Not scared, but not stupid either.’
‘And I only ask nicely once, remember?’
She searched his eyes for the part of him that had almost seemed accessible for a brief while, but it had gone again. The lycan giving orders was back. The lycan who expected to be obeyed.
And a part of her that was unavoidably curious, that refused to show she was scared, did exactly as he asked.
As Jask spooned into her, his erection nestled against her behind, she felt an uncharacteristic surge of panic, of excitement, the intimacy stunningly disconcerting. His thighs felt strong and warm against hers, his solid chest moulded against her back, his breath caressing the nape of her neck.
But rather than seduction, all his movements seemed to be about settling down – the way he pulled a pillow beneath his head, flattened his palm against the duvet just in front of her chest, trapping her against him.
He was lying close enough to feel her every move.
He wasn’t closing in for sex – he was closing in for sleep.
It was just another in a long line of insults.
‘I don’t need to be restrained,’ she said, resentment leaking into her tone.
‘And I don’t need you wandering around the compound while I’m asleep.’
‘You could lock the door.’
‘I still wouldn’t trust you.’
‘So Idomake you anxious.’
‘You want to provoke members of my pack like you provoke me; I won’t be held responsible for their actions, but for now I need you alive. And like I said, I need some sleep. So do you.’
She rotated to face him in the small place he had left her between his chest and arm. ‘So that’s it?Thisis what I turned around for? So you could sleep?’
He turned her back around, pushed her wrists together, his leather wristbands brushing her skin. He pinned her wrists to the floor with one hand as he looped his leg over hers, keeping her still as he pressed himself tight against her again.
‘You sound disappointed,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, when I get that desperate, I’ll be sure to let you know. But well done for doing what you were told.’
She stared ahead at the window, but it wasn’t anger that ignited her, that she’d done exactly what he’d wanted her to. The hurt overruled it – hurt as she hung on the worddesperate.
Her throat tightened, the final blow making her feel too sick even to retort. Instead she stared out of the window, at the dense clouds that threatened more rain – a familiar sight in Blackthorn.
Three days earlier
The knocking resounded through her dreams, stirring her from the comfort of much-needed sleep. Sophia winced, shielding her eyes from the bedside light Daniel switched on.
‘What the hell…?’ she groaned.
The knock resounded again, this time harder, more impatient.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ Daniel hissed, clearly nursing as much of a hangover as hers. Drink that was no doubt responsible for him ending up in her bed again.
Sophia forced herself into a seated position. ‘I’ll get it,’ she declared, pushing her hair back out of her eyes.
But Daniel was already tugging up his jeans and yanking on a T-shirt as he padded across the tiny Blackthorn bedsit Sophia now called home.
‘Phia, open up!’ The familiar voice demanded, banging the door again.
‘That sounds like Abby. What the hell is she doing here at…’ she looked at the clock, ‘four in the morning?’
‘Only one way to find out.’
Daniel yanked open the door.
Abby stood clasping a brown A4 envelope in her hand, her stout arms folded across her chest. Her narrowed eyes momentarily widened as she stared up at Daniel then into the depths of the room at Sophia still in bed. ‘Exactly how long has this been going on?’ she asked, striding across the threshold.
Daniel closed the door behind her. ‘Morning, boss.’
Sophia pushed both hands back through her hair, clutching her head for a moment, still struggling to come round. ‘Like that’s any of your business.’
‘Whatever happens in my teamismy business,’ she said harshly, glimpsing at Daniel now leaning back against the sink.
Sophia stared across at the envelope Abby threw down on the tiny, round dining table. ‘What’s going on?’
Abby yanked out a chair, her large brown eyes emanating annoyance. ‘This is what is known in the trade as one almighty fuck-up, Phia.’
As Daniel lifted the envelope, Sophia pushed aside the duvet. Grabbing her dressing gown from the foot of the bed, she tied it over her sweatpants and T-shirt on her way over to join her colleagues.
The look in Daniel’s blue eyes told her it wasn’t good.
Sophia reached for the photos he had started to discard on the table. She frowned at the numerous shots of Jake Dehain in the bar, laughing and joking over a bottle-strewn table.
Jake Dehain – Caleb Dehain’s younger brother. The Dehains who owned the most successful club in Blackthorn and ruled the west side of Blackthorn with an iron fist. Integral in the district’s third-species underworld, they’d been on The Alliance’s hit list for quite some time, and the night to strike had finally come twenty-four hours before.
And though Caleb frustratingly hadn’t fallen for their bait, Jake had – drinking their honeytrap to death, a process that killed any vampire. And she had no doubt Jake had suffered a painful death as the dead human blood penetrated his system – Trudy having given what short time was left for her disease-riddled body for the cause. Trudy who hadn’t warranted adequate medical assistance along with other humans abandoned to Lowtown. It was her way of taking down the system. Her only sense of control left – signing up with The Alliance.
‘What are you showing us these for?’ she asked.
‘Because these were taken three hours ago. Exactly twenty-four hours after Jake Dehain apparently bled Trudy to death,’ Abby announced, the tension in her voice contracting the tiny bedsit even more. ‘So do you want to tell me how the hell he’s still alive?’
Sophia stared at the picture, flicked through the next and then the next. Pulling out a chair, she sank onto the edge. ‘But it’s not possible. I saw it. I saw the footage. I saw her die. I watched her pulse rate diminish to nothing. I heard her last breath. I saw him collapse beside her. I saw it all. Right to them burning her body in the incinerator.’ She looked up at Abby. ‘We all did.’
‘I know. So how the fuck is that vampire still walking and talking?’
Sophia shook her head, frowning in confusion. ‘I don’t understand. We must have missed something.’
‘I put you on this job because you promised me you could do this, Phia. We had one shot.’
Phia kept flicking through the pictures in desperation. ‘Trudy was dead,’ she said. ‘He killed her.’
She’d stood beside Daniel in the safety of the van as they’d watched Jake lead Trudy into the outer rooms inside the club, at the same time keeping an eye on Jade trying to tempt Caleb in the same way. They’d monitored Trudy’s readings – pulse rate, respiration – as he’d fed. They’d watched her slip away. And they’d watched her body being cremated when the aftermath had been discovered by Caleb less than an hour later.
Just as every reading had told them Jake had consumed way above the safe quantity of blood from which there was no way back.
‘Then it seems she died for nothing then, doesn’t it?’ Abby declared.
‘Ease up,’ Daniel warned. ‘This isn’t her fault, Abby.’
‘Then whose is it? I put Phia in charge of this operation – aftersheinsisted she was capable.’ Her glower snapped back to Sophia. ‘You should have pulled her out the minute you saw Caleb wasn’t taking the bait with Jade. You should have aborted. You knew the arrangement: Both brothers or neither. No suspicion raised.’
‘But Caleb did take the bait for a while. How was I to know he wasn’t going to go all the way? Jake had already left with Trudy. It was all underway. We had no way to stopwithoutraising suspicion.’ She stopped on the photograph of Jake, his arms wrapped around a petite blonde on the dance floor, her back to the camera.
‘You assured me you could do this, Phia. You’ve let me down. You’ve let the whole of The Alliance down.’
‘Whoa!’ Daniel said, cutting in. ‘That isn’t fair. Phia spent weeks planning this. And you would never have agreed if she hadn’t proved herself over and over again these past few months. It should have worked. She can’t account for Caleb’s taste that night. And like she said, weallsaw what happened to Trudy.’
‘Just as we can all now see she gave what life she had left fornothing.’
‘Trudy knew what she was doing; she knew what she signed up for and the risks that it might not work,’ Daniel said. ‘She wanted this. Not living out her last months in too much pain to care.’
‘What she wanted was a dead vampire,’ Abby snapped.
‘Then that’s what we’ll give her,’ Sophia cut in.
‘And how do you suppose you’ll do that?’ Abby asked. ‘Walk right back in there? Pick up where you left off? Just how many girls have we got willing and able to give their life for this? Trudy was gold dust and we wasted her. And if you think I’m letting Jade back in there only for the same to happen to her, you’ve got another thing coming. We had one shot and you blew it.’
‘There are other ways,’ Sophia insisted.
‘What – put a silver bullet through both their heads; stake them in the middle of the bar? That kind of defeats the covert element in this case, right?’
‘I’ll find a way.’
‘Too late,’ Abby said. ‘We couldn’t afford to mess this one up. The Alliance needs to go underground for a while.’
‘But we don’t have time for that. We’re finally making headway.’
‘Weweremaking headway. Which is why I’m suspending you from the next target, Phia.’
Sophia snatched back a breath. ‘What? You can’t!’
‘I can and I will. I want your head down and you out of the way. Because if we mess up this next one, The Alliance is finished.’ She looked across at Daniel as she stood. ‘Two days and we reconvene. You’re heading up the next one, Daniel. Unless you’ve got a problem with that?’
‘Who is it?’ Sophia asked.
Abby only glanced at Sophia before looking back at Daniel. ‘We’ll reconvene in two days.’
She exited the room, slamming the door behind her.
Sophia sat in the silence, her attention returning to the array of photographs.
‘Bitch,’ Daniel hissed quietly as he resumed his seat.
‘She’s right though,’ Sophia said, as she rifled languidly through the photos. ‘I fucked up.’
‘Phia, you said it yourself – we saw what Jake did. It should have worked. And how the hell were you supposed to know Caleb wouldn’t take the bait with Jade? Can you help it that he wasn’t in the mood?’
‘Vampires are always in the mood for a free feed,’ she said, sifting through.
‘Caleb’s tricky. Everyone knows that. He’s got girls falling at his feet all the time. I’m not having you take the blame for this. If Abby thinks–’
Sophia froze. She picked up the photo, her hand trembling.
‘Phia?’ Daniel leaned forward, trying to catch her attention before he craned his neck to see what she was staring at. ‘Phia, what’s wrong?’
‘Fuck,’ she whispered. ‘The pretty blonde on the dance floor was now head-on to the camera, gazing drunkenly up at Jake, her arms wrapped around his neck. ‘That’s my sister. That’s Alisha.’
Daniel took the photo off her to stare at the image.
A split second later, Sophia was on her feet. She yanked open the kitchen drawer, rooted around and pulled out her phone. She paced the room, the phone pressed to her ear. ‘Pick up,’ she said sternly. ‘Come on!’
‘What are you doing?’
‘What do you think I’m doing?’
Daniel tried to snatch the phone from her. ‘You know the rules, Phia – no outside contact. That’s not even Alliance property. You know the risks–’
‘Fuck the rules!’ Sophia snapped, shoving him back. She raked her fingers through her mussed hair. ‘If either of them have touched her…’ she muttered, disconnecting from the pre-recorded message for the third time before re-ringing. ‘Alisha, it’s me,’ she said to the answer phone. ‘Call me as soon as you get this. Straight away, you hear me?’ She disconnected and typed in their home number.
‘You made contact. Phia, this is unacceptable.’
Sophia paced as the phone rang. ‘Something’s wrong,’ she said. ‘Leila always answers.’ As the tone rang monotonously, she slumped back into her seat. ‘Come on, Lei, where are you?’
‘Phia, when you signed up, you signed up to disconnect all ties. That’s how it works.’
‘Pick up!’ she hissed. But when Leila failed to answer, she disconnected, her hand falling limply to the table.
‘Phia!’ Daniel snapped.
‘No, Daniel!’ She slammed the photo back in front of him, her finger pressing on the image of her little sister. ‘This is my sister. My little sister – right here in Blackthorn with the worst fucking vampires since Kane Malloy, so don’t cite rules at me!’
‘What are you doing now?’ he asked as she marched to the wardrobe.
She yanked off her dressing gown and pulled out a T-shirt, black sweater and combats.
‘You’re going out?’
‘Too right I’m going out.’
Getting dressed, she tucked her phone in her trouser pocket.
She met his troubled gaze. ‘Where do you think?’
He grabbed her arm as she swept past him. ‘No way. You arenotgoing back to that club.’
‘Dawn will be here in the next couple of hours. My little sister is in that club right now. And I’m going to get her.’
‘Did you not hear what Abby said? She told you to lie low. Phia, this could jeopardise this entire operation. It sure as hell will jeopardiseyourplace in the operation.’
‘I won’t implicate anyone else.’
Daniel slammed the door shut as she opened it. ‘You know better than this.’
‘What I know is that my sister is in trouble.’
Daniel dragged her back over to the table, picked up the picture of Alisha again. ‘She looks fine,’ he said emphatically. ‘She’s probably on her way home as we speak. You go barging in there and you could blow this whole thing out of the water. For once, think about what you’re doing. Give it another twenty-four hours. Give it time until we get a clearer picture.’
‘Alisha might not have twenty-four hours. I’m going to the club,’ she said. ‘And I’m getting her out of there. Now.’
Sophia opened her eyes to the saffron hues of the descending sun and rolled onto her back to see Jask had gone.
She pushed back the duvet and crossed to the window, the floorboards warm from the late-afternoon glow.
Jask was down on the lawn, dressed in a sweat top and sweatpants, his back to her, the breeze sifting through his hair as he ran the length of the lawn.
She kept her hands cupped around her neck as she curled onto the window seat to watch him.
He dropped to do press ups, twenty she counted, before he got back up, resuming his run. But this time he only ran half a length before stopping to unzip his sweat top, tearing it off to reveal a fitted black vest top that clung to every hard curve.
She whistled under her breath, accompanied by an ache of frustration, then a flush of embarrassment at how she had behaved a few hours before.
And the sense of embarrassment only escalated when she saw a small child run at him. She was a pretty little thing with long blonde ringlets that bore too much resemblance to the female she’d seen in the dining room – the female who now approached Jask from across the green.
Jask bent forward to catch the child, lifting her in his arms with ease, every muscle flexing as he held her above his head. The little girl giggled hysterically as he supported her by her shoulder and ankles, effortlessly easing her up and down as if weight-lifting.
The blonde female was equally laughing, her hair blowing in the late afternoon breeze. And, as she pulled level, Jask eased the child back down onto the floor only to wrap his arm around the blonde’s shoulder, kissing her affectionately on the temple as the child skipped off again.
She’d never really thought about it before – having a family. But realisation panged painfully that now she was a serryn, it would never be possible, her serrynity rendering her barren. She wasn’t sure the implications had sunk in yet. But then she never saw herself having children anyway. Leila was the mother figure. Alisha would nestle up with some doting partner somewhere and probably equally have an entire brood of idyllic mini-hers.
Even before her serrynity, she’d always known she’d never be mature enough to have kids anyway. She’d stick with being be the irresponsible aunt always off on her adventures. If she ever lived long enough to see her nieces or nephews. If Leila and Alisha survived long enough to have them.
Now, watching Jask with the child and his mate made her feel like even more of an outsider than she always had. The Alliance claimed the third species were a freak of nature but, stood at the window gazing out, it only confirmed what she’d always believed – thatshewas the one who was the freak.
The Alliance had done something to help with that. It wasn’t just about being able to do something; it was about being a part of something. And the need was only reinforced as she witnessed the community in front of her. An insular community as self-sufficient and interdependent as they appeared to the outside world.
The lycans may have been the minority species, but they were intensely tight. It’s what made them so powerful. So impenetrable. And it was no easy feat keeping a naturally wild species under control – in excess of two hundred of them. But under Jask’s guidance, his zero-tolerance policy, they were managed. And managed well it seemed.
She watched as the little girl now ran towards Corbin as he headed down the steps to join them. He cradled her in his arms before dousing her in kisses.
They were clearly close, Jask and Corbin. Admirably so. Both having each other’s backs at all times.
Bait Jask though she may have over his decision to disclose the truth about the TSCD’s set-up, even she knew he’d done the right thing. He’d done what he had no choice but to do if those responsible for the cruel murder of Arana Malloy were to be convicted – especially when Caitlin Parish’s accused involvement with Kane brought the accusations into question. Jask had done what was right for his pack to secure the freedom of two of his own.
The female peeled away from Jask only to kiss Corbin lingeringly on the lips, the second-in-command’s hand sliding down her waist to tap her behind.
Her heart leapt.
The blonde female wasn’t with Jask, she was with Corbin. And bets were, from the way the child had responded to Corbin, she was his too.
She knew she had no place feeling relief, but she couldn’t help it.
Corbin sauntered back up the steps, the blonde and the child with him, leaving Jask alone and kicking at the turf.
This time she felt a deeper pang inside – a pang at sensing a familiar loneliness.
But empathy was dangerous. Especially now.
Regardless, as Jask looked up at the sun before following them up the steps, Sophia’s stomach clenched with anxiety. She hurried into the bathroom and smoothed down her hair. With little result, she grabbed the brush she had seen in the drawer and swiftly worked her bob until she got a shine. She brushed her teeth and headed back into the bedroom.
She perched on the edge of the window seat, expecting Jask to make an appearance at any point. But he didn’t.
A few minutes later, disappointment hitting harder than she was comfortable with, she wandered into the living room. There, draped over the chairs by the window, were clothes – female clothes. She picked through the three tunics, before being distracted by the noise through the open sash window ahead.
Hearing yells, she slipped between the armchairs to look out.
There was a whole other patch of land behind the building, maybe a couple of acres. Surrounded by barbed wire, not unlike the rest of the compound, brick walls lay beyond.
Clusters gathered along the edge of what looked like a marked pitch of some kind. At either end, twenty-five-foot-high metal scaffolding housed jutting hoops at the top.
A game was about to start – she could hear that from the shouting and the excitement.
Jask and Corbin, amidst a group of about twenty others, were getting into position at either end.
She watched on in fascination as it all kicked off. It involved three balls the size of footballs – one oval, two round. There were two teams, both vying for top and bottom lines as well as sidelines. Some balls were carried up to the hoops, the lycans moving with admirable speed and agility as they were pursued to the top.
She didn’t recognise the rules. She didn’t recognise the game. At first it looked like chaos, but then what Sophia saw was the ultimate in teamwork – each team monitoring the location and position of each ball, each member having to be vigilant of what others in their team were doing – defenders, chasers, blockers. It was enthralling to watch. It was fast, ferocious and the most exquisite teamwork she had ever seen in a sport.
Because itwasa sport – an easy-going, enjoyable sport that showed not only how close the lycans were, but just how physically impressive. She homed in on Jask in particular, open-mouthed at his speed and nimbleness – the way he climbed the frame and hooped the ball before dropping from the full height as if he were just jumping down from the bottom step of the stairs.
And as he flicked back his hair, rolling his shoulders and letting every muscle ripple as he shouted orders at the others, she let out a slow and satisfied sigh.
Until she caught a glimpse of Rone leaning against a tree in the distance.
Her heart pounded. It was her opportunity – Jask and the others distracted, Rone clearly not a participant.
Now was the time to use her escape tools. She slipped off Jask’s T-shirt and pulled on one of the tunics. She hurried back into the bedroom to grab her still-sodden boots for the tools hidden in the heels and made her way over to the door. She checked the handle first and was shocked to find it unlocked.
Not wanting to waste time deliberating, she left her boots behind and hurried barefooted out into the corridor and down the stairs.
It was dead in the lobby – and she had no doubt where everyone had gone.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, the yells and cheers echoed from her left.
She turned at the foot of the stairs, past the dining hall on her right and continued on down the hallway, past another room on her left before reaching another mosaic lobby, this one much smaller.
The door was open, the late afternoon air and cheers wafting towards her. The sun, already touching the horizon, was now a rich but dark amber glow in the distance. There were a few curious glances in her direction as she made her way down the steps but, on the whole, it was if she wasn’t there.
Rone looked across from the tree, but made no attempt to approach her.
Sophia hurried over to him. ‘We need to talk.’
‘I have nothing to say to you,’ he declared, looking back ahead at the game, his blue eyes narrowed, the curls of his fair hair wafting in the breeze.
‘Good, then that gives you more time to listen, which suits me just fine. You lied to Jask.’
Rone’s attention snapped back to her, his panic barely concealed. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, brushing past her towards the way she had come.
She caught his arm. ‘Yes, you do. You told Jask you stumbled on me by accident. We both know it was anything but.’
He glanced over his shoulder to see that, even amidst game, they had caught Jask’s attention.
‘Not now,’ he hissed in a hushed voice. ‘Later. I’ll find you. Keep it shut.’
She glanced back across at Jask who had now stopped, his hands on his hips as he faced their direction.
‘There might not be a later,’ she said as he continued walking away. ‘Rone!’
She folded her arms and turned to face the pitch. Jask had reverted his attention back to the game, but there was no doubt there would be a follow-up. Before that, she needed to make the most of the opportunity. She pulled her sleeves down over her hands and pursued Rone back up the steps.
Skimming through the lobby, she reached the bottom of the stairs. She glanced anxiously around but they were very much alone. She followed him, ascending two at a time. ‘You know, don’t you? You know what I’m a part of.’
He stopped. Turned to face her. His eyes flashed with concern, with shock, but not confusion.
Hedidknow – and he wasn’t denying it. And she needed to make the most of it while she could.
‘You came to the ruins for me,’ she continued. ‘I know because those vampires were expecting lycan company. I heard them say it. You were going to interrogate me just like they were. Only you don’t want Jask to know or you would have told him already.’
He looked around warily. ‘Have you told him any of this?’
Finally the confirmation she needed. ‘Of course not.’
‘Make sure he knows about the existence of The Alliance, you mean? Seriously?’
‘But if you already knew we knew about you, why didn’t you say anything when we said we were going to call Corbin?’
‘I seem to remember you debating whether to just kill me outright. It hardly seemed smart to add to your reasons whilst I was chained to a wall. And I didn’t exactly plan on sticking around when he and Jask turned up.’ She pulled level. ‘Why not just tell him?’
He tried to turn away but she caught his arm. She may as well have tried to handcuff him from the way he recoiled and wrenched free.
‘I heard them talking, Rone. You’d been willing to pay for information with your herbs. That’sveryrisky business. Is that why? Is that why you don’t want him to know?’
His eyes flared. He lowered his voice even more. ‘If you’re smart, you’ll keep your mouth shut.’
‘If you’re smart, you’ll want me out of here to make sure that happens.’
‘You get me out of here or I’ll tell him.’
‘And expose your Alliance? I don’t think so.’
‘He’s got to find them first. But he knowsexactlywhere you are. You think I’m bluffing – you try me.’
He had another quick scan around the lobby below, wariness in his eyes. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said, turning back up the stairs.
She grabbed his arm again. ‘What’s to think about?’
‘Jask finds out about this and I’m out of here. Do you know a lycan’s odds in Blackthorn without their pack?’
‘Exactly. So you don’t need a mouthy serryn on the loose around your boss, do you? Youneedto get me out of here.’
‘You think it’s that easy? Even possible?’ He looked around warily again. ‘The longer you spend talking to me, the less likely I am to put my neck on the line.’ He yanked his hand away. ‘I’ll find you later.’
‘And a phone. I need to get to a phone.’
But he was already making his way back up the stairs.
She exhaled with impatience and made her way back down. Stopping on the bottom step, she gazed at the doorway ahead, her arms folded. Puffing out her lips before letting out an unsteady exhale, she strolled across the lobby and wandered outside.
Skirting the empty quadrant, she headed back through the arched tunnel, only this time she decided to take a left through the gate.
She stepped over the thick branches of old rhododendrons stretching onto the worn path, ducking out of the way of a few branches before opening the wooden slated door into the outbuilding. She pushed aside the rubber strips that reminded her of those found in an old hospital and stepped into the enclosure.
The comforting humidity wrapped itself around her immediately. The room was awash with greenery, heat lamps suspended from the ceiling and strung from the walls, sprays of water resounding from her left. The windows were blackened out, the plants surviving on the bright, artificial light that bathed them.
A female busily tended to the plants she was watering, her long, slender fingers gliding over their leaves as though she were dressing a small child’s hair. Sensing Sophia, she glanced up, her blue eyes flashing wariness. But she said nothing.
Perspiration lined Sophia’s brow as she continued through the varying plants, past the potted shrubbery. She slid back the glass doors to expose another chamber, this one filled with natural light. Water trickled somewhere in the distance, plants reaching the ceiling from their artificially created beds, a narrow laid path leading through further shrubbery.
She’d heard how self-sufficient the lycans were, but this was the proof. It was certainly true when it came to managing their condition – their response to the lunar cycle an allergic reaction managed only by a remedy of herbs that their ancestors had discovered, which counteracted their condition.
They’d been allowed to continue growing them even after the regulations, but the meds devised by the Global Council were always on standby. From what she’d heard, their intention had always been met with scepticism by the lycans. Especially as the meds were born out of research by the geneticists who had first explored lycanthropy – through experimenting on “volunteers” to devise their own version of managing the condition. The research allegedly funded by the Global Council who had once wanted to create their own breed of lycans to send into locale cores to manage vampires.
‘You smell funny.’
Sophia stared down at the source of the voice.
Large, grey lycan eyes stared back up at her.
‘Is that right?’ Sophia remarked, turning to face the child.
The child that had giggled furiously as Jask had lifted her over his head nodded, oblivious to the potential offence of the statement.
‘Maybe it’s because I’m human,’ Sophia added.
‘What’s your name?’
The little girl’s eyes widened.
‘P-H-I-A,’ Sophia explained. ‘You can spell, right?’
The little girl nodded. ‘I spell every day.’
‘So what’s your name?’
‘Nice name.’ She looked over her head. ‘Where’s your mother?’
‘Watching the game.’
Sophia took her opportunity to be sure. ‘And your father?’
‘Is that Jask?’
The little girl put her hands to her mouth to mask her giggle. She shook her head.
‘Jask isn’t your father?’
‘Uh-uh,’ she said, shaking her head again.
The little girl smiled, flashing Phia a hint of the protruding canines indicative of their kind, and nodded.
And Sophia smiled back – for more than one reason.
‘Tuly, come here!’
Tuly looked over her shoulder as the blonde female closed the gap between them, her hand held out for Tuly to take – the female Sophia instantly recognised from the dining hall, and from the quadrant with Jask and Corbin.
‘I’m talking to Phia,’ Tuly declared. ‘She’s human.’
‘I know what she is,’ the female declared, her hand stiffening as she kept it held out in summons.
‘I’m not going to do anything to her,’ Sophia declared, unable not to feel affronted by the concern in the female’s eyes.
‘Tuly!’ the female said again, her eyes flitting anxiously from Sophia to her daughter.
With a sigh, Tuly pulled away.
The female instantly swept her up to rest on her hip.
‘I told her she smells funny,’ the child whispered in her mother’s ear.
‘She smells different, that’s all,’ the female said. She looked back at Sophia, apology for her daughter’s blatancy clear in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry.’
Sophia shrugged. ‘I’ve been told worse. Believe me.’
The lycan eyed her swiftly. ‘You found the clothes then,’ she said, a little more appeased by having her child in her arms. ‘Jask asked me to get you a few things.’
Sophia clutched the hem and splayed it by way of acknowledgement. ‘Thanks.’
‘I’m Solstice,’ she said. ‘And you’re obviously Phia.’
‘P-H-I-A,’ Tuly spelt out.
‘Go and play on the green,’ Solstice instructed the child before putting her back down on the floor.
Tuly flashed Sophia another smile before waving and skipping away.
‘She’s a sweet kid,’ Sophia declared. ‘Direct but sweet.’
‘All the same, I’d rather you not talk to her.’
Sophia rested her hip against the nearest worktop. ‘I’m guessing you know what I am then.’
Solstice warily held her gaze before nodding.
‘I thought it was vampires who were supposed to be nervous of serryns,’ Phia remarked, ‘not lycans.’
‘I know enough of your kind to know you’re not safe near anyone. Jask has his reasons for letting you wander around, but I just ask that you stay away from our young.’
Sophia exhaled, surprised at how offended she still felt, not least by how Solstice still looked at her like she was some kind of monster. But even she knew there was no greater monster out there than a fully fledged serryn. ‘Sheapproachedme.’
‘We’re not used to strangers here. She’s going to be intrigued. Let alone a human stranger. But this is a safe environment and we would like to keep it that way.’
‘Then talk to your pack leader; he’s the one keeping me prisoner.’
‘Not without good reason.’
‘A reason you know?’
Solstice frowned warily. ‘I know when to not ask questions.’
Sophia folded her arms. ‘Wow, you lycan girls really are under the thumb, aren’t you?’
It was Solstice’s turn to look affronted. ‘Not under the thumb. It’s called trust.’
‘You can call it what you like. I’ll call it a dictatorship. Jask still has the final say on everything, right?’
‘He’s a great leader. A strong leader.’
‘Not one who can protect you all of the time though. What happened with the TSCD only proves that.’
Solstice took a brave step towards her. ‘What happened with our pack was a set-up. Jask did the right thing to protect us, but don’t mistake it for weakness. I saw the way you looked at him at breakfast. You need to treat him with more respect.’
‘He hasn’t exactly earned it.’
‘Take some friendly advice – tread carefully, Phia. Those eyes of his might be pretty but what lies behind them isn’t.’
She turned away, making her way back through the plants.
Sophia knew she should have left it there, that she shouldn’t have pursued. But she couldn’t help it. ‘You’re with Corbin, right?’
Solstice glanced over her shoulder but kept walking.
‘So who’s Jask with?’
Solstice didn’t look back as she made her way back through the sliding doors into the next room.
‘Your alpha has got a mate, right? I’ve seen her clothes in his room.’ Sophia followed her over to the front door. ‘Don’t tell me she’s left him. Run off with a vampire, maybe?’ she added, hoping her light retort would get the lycan to respond.
‘She’s dead,’ Solstice said, turning to face her. ‘Ellen’s dead.’
Sophia stood outside the outhouse, uncertain whether the chill that crept over her skin was from the comparative rapid drop in temperature compared to the humidity of indoors, or a chill of a different kind.
It wasn’t just what Solstice had said before walking away – it was the sadness that had leaked from her eyes as she’d uttered it.
Whoever Ellen was, she had mattered to her too.
And no matter how she had intended the remark, Sophia felt the painful stab of shame.
She wanted to ask when, how. Maybe even just to apologise instead of standing there in gawping silence. Not that any of it mattered. Not that she had any place caring at all.
But to her detriment, she did.
She curled her toes against the cold, rough stone before strolling back down to the gate. Not sure where to go, what to do in light of the revelation, she looked left at the outhouse she’d tried to explore earlier. She resolved to make another attempt – needing the distraction if nothing else.
Careful to avoid tripping over the tree roots, she reached the door. She turned the handle, only this time it gave and creaked open. She glanced warily over her shoulder at the courtyard behind, checking she was alone before stepping inside.
There was a further temperature drop inside as she closed the door behind her. What was left of the late afternoon light leaked through the small, deep-set windows left and right, igniting the glittering dust motes. But even that fragment of light was fading with the encroaching twilight.
Her pulse raced to an uncomfortable throb, her ears attuned to any sound – any indication that someone else was in there. But only silence echoed back.
She peered into the open room directly ahead, at the table and vacant chairs she’d seen earlier, before heading down the corridor to the right.
She dragged her hand along the uneven stone wall as she descended the broad wooden steps. Even less light filtered through the four high-set oblong windows – the thick branches outside blocking the diminishing light as if darkness consumed that part of the building early.
She turned the handle on the first door on the left and warily pushed it open. Half-empty wine racks dominated the periphery of the dark room within, storage boxes piled up in the centre. She found similar in the next room along only this time it was stacked not only with bottle racks, but crates and barrels too.
She turned the handle on the third door.
Her heart leapt at what looked liked upright coffins lining the walls ahead as well as to her left and right. But each lay open and empty, exposing straps within as well as what looked like the equivalent of a moulding to fit a human form.
She tentatively crossed the threshold, checking behind the door before stepping further inside.
She passed the central stone table, not failing to notice the straps that hung limply from that too.
Stopping in front of one of the coffins, she examined the soft, brown strips of leather – seemingly positioned to bind the neck, forearms, wrists, waist, hips, thighs and calves. She reached out to touch one.
‘They’re for punishment.’
Sophia’s heart leapt a fraction before the rest of her did. She spun around, her startled gaze snapping to the doorway to where Jask stood in the opaque light. He was still in the same clothing he’d worn out on the pitch but his hair glistened as if he’d showered.
‘Lycans hate to be contained,’ he said. ‘We’re extremely claustrophobic. Once you’ve been in there, you don’t usually commit a misdemeanour again.’
‘You put yourownin these?’
‘They’re as much a deterrent as in active use.’
There was something different about him – almost as if he’d been struck with a new vigour with the pending nightfall. If it was possible, he seemed sharper, more relaxed – almost more alert to her.
She withdrew from the coffin. ‘That’s a somewhat tyrannical approach for someone who’s supposed to care about his pack,’ she said, folding her arms.
‘That’s a somewhat condemnatory tone coming from a serryn.’
‘We do what we have to.’
He leaned back against the wall just inside of the door. ‘What youchooseto do.’
She strolled towards the table, sending a wary glance in his direction.
She wondered how long he’d been without Ellen. What had happened to her. If they’d been together long. Why he’d not found another. All questions far too personal for her to dare ask. And questions she had no place pondering.
Facing him, she perched against the end of the table nearest him and cocked her head towards it. ‘A bit kinky, isn’t it?’
‘You want to try it for size?’
‘Is that your thing, Jask? Strapping people down?’
‘Does that worry you, Phia?’
Hearing her name slip from his lips for the first time sent a shiver through her.
‘That is your name, right?’ he said, a glimmer of amusement lacing his eyes. ‘P-H-I-A, Tuly tells me.’
He seemed further amused by her silence as she struggled for a retort.
‘Do you want to see inside one of the containment rooms?’ he asked. ‘As you’re clearly curious as to how things run around here.’
‘You have morphers?’
Now thiswasa useful piece of insider information. A very illegal and subsequently risky piece of information that he shouldn’t have been disclosing to her.
He took a step back into the corridor, hand held out to his right.
There was something behind his eyes that spoke of a challenge – a challenge that she had the feeling was a test. He glanced down at her chest then back in her eyes, clearly having sensed the escalated pulse rate – clearly wanting her to know as such.
He expected her to say no.
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Why not?’
She followed him out of the room, feigning as much nonchalance as she could as he led her to the final door in the corridor. He descended the worn, wooden slatted steps into the darkness below, Sophia close behind.
There were no windows in the subterranean level. And it was cold, much colder. The silence was unearthly, the scent of damp rife.
He switched on three wall-mounted lights as he led the way, the cord still swinging as she passed, the white light only adding to the chill of the narrow stone corridor.
They passed metal door after metal door both left and right, until Jask stopped at the one in the far left-hand corner.
He pushed it open, indicating for Sophia to enter first.
As she stepped over the threshold into the darkness, she heard another click. More soft white light entered the room, but not enough to reach the corners.
What resembled a prison cell dominated the top right-hand corner of the room – maybe twenty-by-twenty-foot square. The two inner walls were stone, the two outer ones bars that were drilled into the floor and ceiling. A single door entered the side directly ahead. It was best described as a cage and she guessed that, technically, that’s exactly what it was – only the entrants were voluntary.
‘How many of these are there?’ she asked, looking down at the double mattress on the floor within.
‘Ten along this stretch. More than enough.’ He indicated towards the open door. ‘Try it.’
She looked across her shoulder at him as he drew level, the wariness in her eyes undoubtedly visible.
He headed over and stepped inside ahead of her.
After a moment’s more hesitation, knowing only too well that he could have dragged her in there if he’d wanted to, she followed behind him.
Though only separated from the rest of the room by the bars, it felt more confined in there, even with the door open. The feeling was oppressive – as if decades of negative energy had been stored up in one tiny place.
She tried to ignore the sudden sense of claustrophobia as she stepped deeper into the cage, deeper into the darkness.
‘How long do they spend in here?’
‘Two days before the full moon – that’s the really tetchy time – the day during and then the recuperation days after.’
‘They sleep it off. Eat. Relax. Then spend the rest of the month like anyone else.’
‘Are they the ones that refuse to take the herbs?’
‘Only one. The rest are the unfortunate ones who are immune to the remedy.’
‘So it’s true. There are some it doesn’t work for. But they won’t take the meds?’
Jask leaned back beside the exit. He coiled his hands around the bars above his head, the motion emphasising the curves of his bare arms, his solid shoulders, the toned chest beneath his black vest.
She wasn’t sure if the relaxed stance was supposed to create the same effect in her. From her flush of arousal, it had failed.
‘If the Global Council offered you pills, but they refused to tell you anything about what they contained – would you take them?’ he asked.
‘Those who refuse should be declared. Those meds are obligatory for the immune ones. The LCU would rip this place apart if they knew. What you’re doing is dangerous. You’re putting this community at risk. What if one got out?’
‘Have you ever heard of a morphed lycan on the loose in Blackthorn?’
‘The two that killed Kane Malloy’s sister,’ she reminded him. She stepped up to the threshold of the dark recess in the top right-hand corner and peered into the tiny space that housed a metal sink directly ahead, a toilet around the corner before the room ended in a shower.
‘That was different, as you well know. Theydidopt into the meds and were starved of them.’
She turned to face him. ‘But you let them take them. Doesn’t that go against your lycan code?’
‘As opposed to forcing them to face morphing?’
‘Is it really that painful?’
‘For the first twenty or so times, if the body doesn’t give in before then. Females of our species say it’s ten times worse than childbirth.’
She raised her eyebrows slightly as her imagination filled in the gaps as it so often did, having never experienced the latter, and now never having the prospect of experiencing it. ‘So what about the one you mentioned that refuses both the meds and your herbs? Why do they opt for it?’
‘Because there are still some who think it is intended. I have to respect their viewpoint.’
‘No, what you have to do is keep your pack in check. What you’re doing here is irresponsible.’
‘I’ll try not to lose any sleep over your concerns.’
Now that she had seen it all, she should have left. Or at least attempted to. But she didn’t want to. Instead, she leaned against the wall opposite him, her hands at the small of her back. She glanced around the cell, trying to envision spending four days down there. ‘So what about you? Do the herbs work on you, or do you spend each full moon down here?’
He wandered over to the mattress against the wall and picked up what looked like a small tennis ball. He flipped it in his hand before bouncing it against the floor on his way over to her. ‘The herbs work on me.’
He bounced the ball against the wall she leaned against, it rebounding back for him to catch easily in one hand.
‘Haveyou ever morphed?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said, throwing the ball against the wall, this time right next to her. ‘When I was younger. Before the regulations changed our freedom to do so. Before I had the responsibility of this pack.’
‘How old are you?’
He raked her swiftly with his gaze as if debating whether to answer. ‘A century and a half, plus some.’
‘You lycans get about five years to every one of ours, right? But you stay at your peak for most of it – like the vampires do.’
‘Something like that.’
The repeat bounce and rebound of ball becoming rhythmic, a thud not unlike her own pulse rate, as if he was tuning into it and showing her so.
‘That was an impressive performance earlier. The game,’ she said, trying to ignore what she guessed was now a clever taunt – rebounding and catching, rebounding and catching, the rhythm becoming hypnotic.
‘It’s good for teamwork. Good for focus. It helps the young ones to channel and develop their responses. It gets them to be aware of each other and their pack. It was a game that we used to use to train for hunting.’
His rhythm picked up pace, her pulse rate ironically doing the same in the otherwise dominating silence.
‘You used to hunt?’ she asked, trying to stay focused.
‘When I needed to.’
He glanced at her. ‘When I needed to.’
She felt herself prickle at the subtle intimidation. ‘And why would you need to? For food?’
‘Trust me, you don’t taste that nice.’
‘But tell me, is it true there was talk of the Global Council trying to get you on side when they first brought the regulations into being? That they wanted to develop you into being the perfect fighting machines for their cause? Faster, even better responses and the animalistic lack of conscience to rip your enemies apart – they wanted you to help keep order amongst the vampires and back up the Third Species Control Division. Like police dogs, only more expendable. But that you all refused despite the extra privileges like they offered the vampires’ Higher Order?’ She looked around. ‘Admirable to your own maybe that you declined. But many would say stupid. Still, you secured a nice kennel here. Very cosy.’
She expected him to bite at that one. But he didn’t. His calmness only added to her unease – like the steady gaze of viper just before it strikes.
‘It’ll do for now,’ he said.
‘For now? Don’t tell me you’re one of the optimists who believe this system is temporary? Do you believe these vampire prophecies?’
‘I know it won’t always be like this.’
‘But surely if the vampires come into power, it’ll be all over for you.’
‘Sounds like more speculation to me.’
‘I’m just stating the obvious.’
‘We may be in the minority in this locale, but don’t mistake us for the underdog.’
She couldn’t help but smirk. ‘Your words, not mine.’
He picked up pace with the ball, almost as if he knew the personal jibe had escalated her heartbeat a fraction more – the act in itself provoking a further increase.
Unlike humans, the third species could control their peripheral nervous system. Always had been able to. The vampires were particularly adept at managing their heartbeat, speeding it up if they chose to, or more frequently slowing it down – the same as they could hold their breath. It was used often in attack so that the enemy couldn’t hear them coming. The lycans weren’t as efficient at it as the vampires, but were certainly capable of it to some extent.
Just as they all had accelerated healing. Nothing near the rate of the Higher Order – vampire royalty – though, who had secured their place in Midtown with their offer to help the human race. An offer as flawed as the Global Council’s intentions by writing their privileged position into the regulations – for as long as the Higher Order remained useful.
‘Have you been in this area since the beginning or were you one of the ones shipped in when the regulations came into being?’ she asked.
‘I was shipped in.’
‘Where were you from originally?’
‘Western region. Like many packs, mine were separated. A collection of us were sent here.’
‘Is it true that the Higher Order never consulted other third species over the outing? That they just went ahead with it?’
‘You must hate them. Especially with them subjecting you to all of this. I mean, it’s okay for your lycan buddies in locales where they’re in the majority, but you really got the short straw, didn’t you?’
‘We do okay.’
‘But you could do so much better. Still, it was a very clever idea of the Global Council – always ensuring there was a minority group in every locale: make sure none of you rebel against the other. Civil war in one locale and the minorities suffer in another, right?’
‘Ingenious,’ he said, his tone laced with sarcasm as he picked up pace with the ball again.
‘So, how come you assumed leadership when you came here? There must have been others vying for the position.’
‘One or two. We managed to work it out.’
‘Did you fight to the death? I hear that’s what lycans do.’
He glanced across at her. ‘Does Corbin look dead to you?’
‘He fought you for the title?’ she asked, unable to conceal her surprise.
‘Amongst others.’ He looked across at her. ‘You look shocked.’
‘Because you’re so close.’
‘We fought fairly. I won. Corbin had the option to leave the pack if he chose. Or he could be my second in command.’
‘And he doesn’t mind that you won?’
‘It’s not done for personal accolade, Phia. It’s done to decide who is best to lead the pack. It’s in all our best interests to choose the most suitable.’
‘I bet that was quite the battle.’ She paused. ‘What would you have done if Corbin had won?’
He frowned, clearly never having been asked the question before.
‘Because you wouldn’t have stuck around, would you?’ she said. ‘You would have chosen to leave.’
‘And what makes you say that?’
‘Some want to be leaders, some are born that way. You’re definitely the latter. I don’t think you’re capable of playing second in command.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Are you going to deny it?’
He bounced the ball against the wall again.
‘So doyouthink the right lycan won?’ she persisted.
He frowned. ‘What kind of question is that?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I’m curious as to why you let those lycans set up for killing Arana hand themselves in when you clearly knew the truth. Why not tell them to go to a higher authority? Why let them stay inside for fourteen years?’
‘And what higher authority is that, Phia? The Global Council? Because they’re the only ones higher than the TSCD, as you well know. And even if I did have the ways and means to get direct communication with them, they’re really going to send one of their impartial investigators in here to interview two lycans with the sole purpose of exposing corruption amongst the very system they put in place, aren’t they?’
She shrugged. ‘Caitlin Parish exposed them and she worked for them.’
He continued to rebound the ball off the wall, but now he was doing so a little harder.
‘Do you think it’s true what some are saying?’ she asked, the perfect opportunity having arisen again. ‘That she’s sleeping with Kane Malloy?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That would be really fucked-up, wouldn’t it?Reallyfucked-up. Them sleeping together – with everything her father, her stepfather, let alone her boyfriend did in setting up Kane’s sister. Come on, Jask. Spill. You were involved with him. You must know. What really goes on in Kane Malloy’s head, huh? Putting those agents behind bars just doesn’t feel right. It’s not his style, from what I’ve heard.’
‘Everyone’s got an opinion on Kane’s style.’
‘But youknow, don’t you?’
‘Youask too many questions.’
‘I have a curious nature. It’s an affliction. And this isn’t your style either, is it, Jask? Tucking those responsible away with the very authorities you despise as much as the rest of Blackthorn does. I know you would have liked to have dealt with them personally.’
His gaze lingered. ‘Like I said – you ask too many questions.’
She hesitated, wondering how far to push it. But these were questions everyone was asking. Everyone who had watched the court case as avidly as she did. And the more insight she got into the psychology of those self-nominated third-species leaders, the better, especially with the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach – instinct telling her Jask still wanted retribution.
‘I’m right though, aren’t I? This isn’t over,’ she said. ‘Putting those agents behind barswasn’tpart of the plan. Not yours anyway. Why do I get the feeling it’s not just the TSCD who aren’t happy about Kane and Caitlin’s liaison? Why do I also get the feeling Kane’s not the only one who wanted Caitlin dead? But that agent stuck her neck on the line for you, Jask. She turned in her family, let alone her boss, to do the right thing.’
‘Orshe did what she could purely to save the lives of those she cared about. Depends how you look at it.’
‘You think she played both you and Kane?’
‘I think we’ve discussed this enough.’
‘But aren’t you just a little concerned that now you’ve given evidence against the TSCD, now they know you knew all along about the set-up – that you disclosed the truth to Kane in the first place – aren’t you scared they’ll turn on you?’
‘With everyone knowing where to point the finger? No one wants an inter-locale outbreak. That’s what will happen if they come after us.’
‘Maybe they’re just biding their time.’
‘Maybe.’ He paused for only a second. ‘What were you talking to Rone about earlier?’
Her heart skipped a beat. ‘Just getting acquainted with the pack. Being friendly. Is that not allowed either?’
‘It didn’t look friendly to me.’
‘It’s very early days to be jealous, Jask.’
‘Considering you talk in your sleep, not at all.’ He glanced at her again, a glimmer of playfulness leaking through the only thing to ease her tension just slightly. ‘So let’s try again,’ he said, turning his attention back on the ball. ‘What were you talking about?’
‘I told him what I thought of him for not letting me go when I asked him to.’
‘So you won’t need to talk to him again, then?’
‘Is that a direct order?’ she asked, finding it hard to curb her indignation that hestillthought he could control her. ‘Worried I’ll start corrupting your pack? Oh no, hold on – they’d have to be desperate, right?’
She surprised herself at how heavily his comment from earlier still weighed on her mind when it had no place holding any weight at all.
And, from the look in his eyes, the unintentional exposure of hurt had surprised him too.
‘I was tired earlier,’ he said. ‘Irritable. I shouldn’t have said that.’ He caught the ball as it bounced back, only this time he discarded it back onto the mattress. ‘You’re a beautiful girl. It’s just a shame about the attitude – and the whole serryn thing.’
As he caught her eye, her stomach flipped. Stunned by the lack of mocking in his tone, struggling to come up with a retort, she dropped her gaze.
In the sudden silence, she realised just how accustomed she had come to the beat of the ball. Its absence now created a sense of flatlining and all the panic that came with it.
She looked up as she sensed his approach, the shadows enveloping him. She tensed as he pressed his hand against the wall beside her shoulder.
‘Only you don’t act like a serryn,’ he added.
She dared to look him in the eyes. She had to. ‘Met one to know, have you?’ she asked, a question that hadn’t occurred to her until then.
‘No. You’re my first. But I know enough about them to know there’sdefinitelysomething not right about you.’
‘And whatwouldmake me right, Jask?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe a little less sensitivity.’
She raised her eyebrows slightly. ‘You think I’m over-sensitive?’
‘I think you feel far more than you should.’ He stared searchingly into her eyes. ‘I don’t think you’ve been at this very long. In fact, I’m fairly sure you haven’t.’
He eased her hand from behind her back. But until she knew his intention, she didn’t protest.
He held it up, palm facing him. With the same hand that held hers, he used his thumb to gently prise each of her fingers from their clenched position to expose the flesh beneath.
‘I hear that the more vampires you have sex with, the stronger you get,’ he said.
She’d read of it too. But she’d read many things about serryns she’d yet to test the theory of.
‘So, as I’d class your attempts against me on the wasteland, in the bathroom, not least on the way to the poolroom as futile, maybe that tells me something too.’
He eased back her ring finger, just enough to make her flinch.
She kept her defiant glare locked on his, determined not to show her panic at what she sensed was the pending torture she had anticipated.
She needed to get out. And not just because of that. He was getting too close. Far too close. And if that was the real reason he’d brought her down there – to interrogate her – then she was rapidly heading towards being screwed. Not least if he decided to drop the well-behaved lycan act fast before she found an exit clause.
Because if he did decide to turn on her, if he did decide enough was enough and he wanted answers, she had no doubt he knew exactly how to get them.
‘There’s one way to tell, you know,’ she said.
Before she had time to think it through, before she had time to regret it, she lifted herself onto tiptoes until her lips were less than an inch from his – those firm and shapely masculine lips that she had longed to taste.
Her heart pounded, a shiver raking down her spine as her mouth finally met his.
She wanted to run her fingers through his hair, plaster her other hand against that hard chest as she consumed him.
But this wasn’t personal.
She expected him to shove her away, to withdraw at the very least, but he didn’t.
But he didn’t respond either other than to take the pressure off her finger.
And sheneededhim to respond.
In the seconds that passed, as his lips gradually became more pliable, as he allowed her tongue to meet his, she almost forgot herself. His lips were surprisingly smooth, his mouth warm but fresh, his breaths enticing against her lips. And when he did finally reciprocate, her heart leapt at the connection.
She almost forgot everything as he eventually re-struck the balance, pressing her against the wall, both hands flat against it either side of her head. And as he kissed her back with perfect pressure, took control, his tongue overpowering hers, shedidforget her intention.
But from the way she instantly sparked, from the heat pooling between her legs, she couldn’t risk lingering any longer than she needed to.
Mid kiss, she bit, puncturing his lower lip.
Jask winced, his fingers instantly meeting his bloodied flesh as he recoiled, allowing her to slip past him.
She backed up towards the open cage door as he spun to face her, his shocked gaze meeting hers.
But regret and guilt were the last emotions she needed to feel, despite them consuming her.
She spat his blood from her mouth. ‘I’mnot that desperate either,’ she said, before turning away towards the open door.
She needed to stop shaking. She needed out of there.
But she’d barely pivoted 180 degrees before he caught hold of her upper arm.
She looked back at him as he too spat the blood from his mouth. Only there was something deeply feral about the way he did it – almost as feral as the look in his eyes.
Her stomach flipped.
He didn’t need to say anything. The grip he had on her arm told her all she needed to know. There was making a mistake and then there were almighty Phia-style fuck-ups. And this was most definitely the latter.
Yet as he glared at her, all she could ask herself over and over again was why she didn’t feel the slightest bit afraid.
Damn it if he didn’t press every single one of her lethal little buttons.
Her arousal surged as he licked the inside of his wounded bottom lip, his gaze unflinching. But no more so than when he tutted in a way that was entrancingly sexy, not helped by his eyes betraying something behind the anger.
‘Apologise,’ he said softly.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t bite harder.’
He exhaled off the back of a fleeting smile that should have chilled her to her core. But as Jask backed her up against the bars, all she could feel was the heat accumulating at the pit of her abdomen again, let alone between her legs.
As her back met metal, he clutched the bars either side of her shoulders, trapping her. ‘Apologise,’ he said again, his tone lower.
Her pulse throbbed in her ears, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off him. She lifted her lips to his. ‘I’mnotgoing to apologise and I’m sure as hellnotgoing to beg for mercy. So do something about it or walk away.’
‘You’ve flipped the lid on that self-destruct button so many times that you can’t even close it anymore, can you?’
‘You think you’ve got me worked out? Well, ditto. Twice you’ve walked away from me, Jask. You’re all talk, all threats, but when it comes down to it, you can’t come up with the goods.’
He leaned an inch closer. ‘And what goods would they be?’
‘We both know what I’m talking about. What is it, Jask? Can you only do it with lycans? Are they easier to please? Are you scared of me? Or is it being unleashed that scares you? Only I know the responsibility of this pack weighs heavy on you. I know it controls you. I know you’re itching to break free.’
‘Because you’d know all about responsibility, wouldn’t you, serryn?’
‘That’s just it, isn’t it, Jask? The real reason I get to you so much is because you envy me. I remind you of what you could be. What you used to be. A time before the regulations when you used to be able to run wild – have what you wanted, when you wanted. Only now you make everyone toe the line because it makes it easier for you to do the same, doesn’t it? Because your rules aren’t just about keeping your pack safe; they’re as much about keepingyourselfcontained. You despise me because there’s a need in you and I remind you of it. I irritate you because I take you places you don’t want to go. I make you feel things you don’t want to feel. It’s notmewho has self-hatred issues – it’s you. So tell me, what areyouhiding from, Jask?’
The flare in his eyes before they narrowed again, the fierce dilation of his pupils, told her she wasn’t wrong.
He grabbed her wrists, pushed her hands above her head, forcing her to arch her back, and drew her closer to him, his sweatpants soft against her thighs. ‘Maybe you read situations better than I give you credit for after all.’
She tried to curb her shallow breaths, arousal making her stomach hurt as he held her there, staring deep into her eyes in the silence.
‘Butdon’ttry and compare us, serryn,’ he warned. ‘Serryns don’t feel. You switch your emotions off like a light. It’s what helps you do the things you do. Perform the acts you do. The dirty, nasty, sordid little acts that define just how toxic you are.’
She couldn’t deny that he was right – switching off was exactly what serryns were renowned for. And maybe that was what was happening now – maybe that was why she dared to goad him. But he was wrong that her kind couldn’t feel, because she was most definitely feeling something. Something every bit as dark, dangerous and unpleasant to acknowledge as the room they were in. Something that was real. Just as Jask was real. Just as the situation was real. A situation that she knew was spiralling out of control.
But she didn’t care.
Only she did care that the connection she felt in that moment was one that she should never have been feeling with a third species. She couldn’tallowherself to feel it. But she couldn’t stop it any more than she could stand on the track and stop a speeding train.
Something about him was too right. In that dark, dank cell, nothing else mattered. She refused to think about what she was doing. She refused to look beyond the haze that encompassed her.
She’d fallen from that branch again, only now the dark depths were captivating.
‘So what are you going to do about it, Jask?’ she asked softly, caressing his lips with her uncontrollably terse breaths. ‘Are you having dirty, nasty, sordid little thoughts of your own? Only I’ve seen you with Tuly and Solstice. You’re not the type to act on them.’
‘Not with my pack, no. But as you keep reminding me, you’renotone of my pack, are you, Phia?’
She broke from his gaze only to linger on the brown leather straps that held the pendant to his neck. A pendant that had glinted in the white light and captured her attention.
She looked back into his eyes. But to her shock, to her disappointment, he pulled awayagain.
Didn’t just pull away, but exited the cell.
She felt a whole new panic. A panic evoked by a sense of loss, an excruciating sense of frustration that knotted her stomach.
She pulled herself away from the bars and turned to face the cell door, trying to work out how the hell she could summon him back without laying herself on a platter.
Because she couldn’t let him walk away. Not this time.
But Jask didn’t leave the room. Instead he stood there, his back to her.
Her heart pounded as she waited for him to turn around again. As she waited for him to say something – something that would give her a clue as to what to do next as they both remained shrouded in silence.
Jask stared out of the open door – the door that led to the corridor and beyond. The door that heneededto walk through. The door that would lead him away from her.
More significantly, the door that would lead him away from himself – from what was resurfacing.
She’d been lucky he’d caught her looking at his pendant. The pendant that was an intentional stark reminder of what happened when he cut himself loose and thought only of the desire inside.
Because in those moments he’d wanted Phia. As she’d stared him in the eyes and fearlessly challenged him for one final time too many that night, he’d wanted to finally confront her as himself – not the sensible pack leader.
Corbin had been right. This wasn’t to get personal. But damn it that it already felt that way. And licking the already healing wound on his lip only reminded him of the last time someone had left him with the metallic taste of his own blood.
He hadn’t even hesitated in what he’d done to them – their broken, torn body almost unrecognisable as human by the time he’d finished, by the time Corbin had found him, inebriated, angry and unfocused, as he had so many times over those months.
That same heat now flowed through his veins again. A heat that reminded him just how liberating doing the wrong thing could be.
And there in that cocoon, for just a little while, he could unleash himself again. He could remind himself how it felt – like filling his lungs with fresh air, or a primitive yell in an empty valley.
But Phia was the last one he should have been considering it with – not just for the sake of his pack, but for the sake of himself. The way she made him spark, something he had felt too infrequently not to recognise, only increased the risk of him taking it one step too far – and he knew what that could mean for them all if it went wrong.
And that’s what made crossing the threshold the right thing to do.
But for too long he’d taken the option of the right thing to do.
And the fact itwassuch a risk only incited him more. Her ragged breaths and fast-beating heart echoing in his attuned ears were already too much temptation.
He didn’t have to walk away as long as he could remember who he was now. He could prove to them both that he didn’t have to walk away to control himself. It was a gamble, but he’d just have to make sure thatshebacked down, not him.
It was why he’d taken her down there after all – to test her metal under pressure. To see if she really was as inexperienced at handling herself as he thought. Time was rapidly slipping away and Phia needed to accept that she was vulnerable before he could even begin to tame her. And this was the perfect place and opportunity for both.
He closed and bolted the door, slid the viewing window shut, creating a private, dark little space that would echo the one now throbbing back to life inside of him.
He walked back towards her, closed the cage door behind him and looked his prey square in the eyes.
For the first time, she took a step back.
It should have been enough. He should have walked away, having gained the upper hand that easily.
But as his tingling lip reminded him, she hadn’t lethimoff that kindly.
‘Backing off already?’ he asked, his tone laced with taunting as he continued to close in on her.
‘You’ll back down before I do.’
Despite her wariness, she still had the gall to fight.
He smiled fleetingly. ‘Okay, so I was wrong – youdon’tread situations as well as I’ve given you credit for.’
‘So what’s this? Your idea of foreplay?’
‘Nowhere near.’ He closed the gap between them, heard her pulse pick up a notch despite her efforts to the contrary. He strolled around the back of her, wondering how long she’d be able to handle it before turning to face him. ‘Question is, are you going to beg me to leave?’ He raked her hair back from her neck to purposefully caress her ear with his breath. ‘Or invite me to stay?’
Her breaths were more ragged, his proximity behind her clearly having had the effect he had hoped for.
But she didn’t turn around. She didn’t even step away. ‘Are you looking for a get-out clause, Jask?’
He lowered himself a little to place his palms flat against her cool, firm thighs just below the hem of her tunic. A sensual and intimate move he had not yet allowed himself.
And it felt dangerously good.
As he slid the fabric upwards, he could feel her subtle tremor, the goosebumps now swamping her skin nothing to do with the chill of the room. Stood fully again, he lifted the tunic up over her behind so her exposed flesh met the brushed cotton of his sweatpants. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he gripped one wrist to trap her against him, against his arousal, while he slid the back of his free hand down her cleavage.
‘No,’ he said against her ear again. ‘I’m offering you a final opportunity atyours.’
Instead of laughing, retorting with abuse or finding an excuse to break away, she slidherfree hand into the limited space between him and the small of her back. Easing her hips forward just the fraction that his restraint would allow, she weaved that same hand into his sweatpants and into his shorts.
His erection jerked as soon as she made contact, as soon as she dared to coil her chilled fingers around his heat.
He involuntarily caught his breath, but so did she.
‘Call my bluff, Jask,’ she said as she dared to squeeze, ‘and I’ll call yours right back.’
He loosened his hold just enough to allow her to turn around to face him, but she didn’t withdraw her hand. As he kept her hand at the small of her back, she smoothed the palm of the one that still held him lightly over the tip of his erection. Spreading his wetness with an easy glide down his full length, she stopped only to grip him at the base. She even dared to press closer, her lips almost touching his.
‘Is thisyouridea of foreplay?’ he asked, searching deep into her dark eyes.
‘I dare you to let me go down on you,’ she said, her gaze unflinching.
His heart jolted, as did his erection within the confinement of her skilled hand. The sensation it evoked was raw, summoning the feral instincts that he needed so desperately to keep contained.
‘Daring?’ he asked.
She smiled – a taunting, provocative, sexy smile. ‘I bite, remember?’ She lifted her lips a fraction closer. ‘When you least expect it.’
This was how vampires fell – the look, the smile, the coax. But he was no vampire – something she needed reminding of. Something he needed to remind himself of.
He slid his free hand up her neck, curled his fingers into her hair, and got enough of a grip to make her catch her breath again. ‘You’re not going to bite,’ he said, his breath mingling with hers.
Her eyes flared slightly. ‘What makes you so sure?’
He released her hand at the small of her back only to tighten his arm around her. He lifted her as if she were weightless, slammed her against the bars behind, his hand in her hair protecting the back of her head from the force.
Trapping her there with the pressure and angle of his groin, her thighs forced around his waist, he pushed her hands either side of her head, encircling her wrists and most of the bars they were held against with the span of his hands. And to remind her of her vulnerability, he tilted his hips a little, just enough so that his hardness pressed tauntingly against the most sensitive part of her sex – just enough to show her he knewexactlywhat he was doing.
‘BecauseIbite back,’ he said, his lips inches from hers again. ‘Only harder and deeper. And if there’s anything that’s going to bring out the feral in me, it’s that first taste of blood.’
Her breathing hitched, her eyes flaring slightly again. But then those enticing eyes became hooded. There was no retaliation. No fight.
Instead, she crossed her legs around his back, coiled her toes into the waistband of his sweatpants and slid them down a few inches along with his shorts, her smooth heels gliding over the curve of his solid behind, not breaking from his gaze for even a second.
Damn it, she was good. And the first inkling that he had underestimated her started to unfurl.
The feel of his freed erection against her, even though her thin tunic was still a barrier to skin on skin, sent a bolt of static through him. Even more evocative was that she was already damp. Her mouth was parted in anticipation. Her heart was pounding against her chest.
She wasn’t scared, she was aroused.
And that was thelastthing he needed.
‘Come on, Jask,’ she said softly. ‘What are you waiting for? This isn’t a guided tour. We both know the real reason you brought me down here.’
It had been as much an attempt to give her some insight into their cause as to see just how fearless and proficient a serryn she really was.
Only now she was demonstrating that she was both of the latter – which only reinforced his reason to stay in control. Because now he really couldn’t afford to lose her. Now hehadto pull back, not least because the way he was burning inside had nothing to do with her purpose for his pack.
‘And what reason is that?’ he asked.
‘I think you like me being defiant,’ she whispered. ‘It turns you on, doesn’t it? That’s one sordid little secret you can’t hide.’
And it did turn him on – the way she dared to stand up to him, to challenge him, to provoke him in a way so few ever dared. ‘You’re like a wind-up toy. I’m just curious to know how far I can twist before you snap.’
‘Becauseyou’realready snapping, aren’t you? The fact I’m pinned to this cage tells me that. But I’m not scared to see you for what you are, Jask. Go on,’ she goaded, resting her head back against the bars to look him direct in the eyes. ‘Hurt me.’
But those two words were too telling. Two words that could so easily be fulfilled had they not been contradicted by the look deep in her eyes. ‘Is that what sex is to you, Phia – pain? Or do you want me to make it that way so it drowns the real feelings out?’
She frowned, but he didn’t give her time to retort before he pulled her from the bars. He slammed her down onto the mattress, pinning her onto her back with effortless and efficient ease before resting on all fours above her.
It felt good to have her beneath him. And it felt good to look her in the eyes as he did so. Too good.
Keeping a grip on her wrists, he lowered himself so his lips nearly touched hers again. ‘You picked the wrong one for the job, Phia.’
Because thatwasn’twho he was now. Not now his pack came first. From then on, his pack would always come first.
The pack that had, during his road to self-destruction, remained loyal against the odds. The pack that had tolerated his mood swings and outbursts. That had still respected him despite him disappearing days at a time. They’d tolerated his negligence, his lack of focus, his sullenness. And they accepted him again without question when he’d finally broken through the darkness enough to resume his full duties. Duties that Corbin had loyally assumed, before handing them back to him without challenge.
Phia had asked if he’d ever questioned whether the right alpha had been chosen. During those times he had severely doubted it. Now he’d finally prove himself wrong – and she was the test. Because she was the only one, in all those decades since, who had made him doubt himself again.
‘Because I don’t play that way,’ he added, nearly tagging onanymore, before wisely pulling away instead.
He yanked his shorts and sweatpants back into position. And, as tough as it was, he turned his back on her, his frustration and unsated need berating his decision.
* * *
Sophia lay there breathless, her hands lax either side of her head. But as he opened the cage door, she forced herself up onto her elbows. ‘Wait!’
It was the last thing she should have said, but it came from somewhere deep, somewhere raw, somewhere uncomfortably honest.
Jask didn’t turn around, but he did stop. He coiled his hands around the bars either side of the cage doorway, creating tension in every finely honed muscle of his back, shoulders and arms.
Never had someone turning their back on her filled her with such a sense of emptiness. Never before had she made the first move to stop it happening.
But never had she wanted someone so badly that she was willing to swallow her own pride.
‘Then don’t play,’ she said, surprised how much she meant it. ‘And neither will I.’
He turned to face her, his expression indefinable.
After a few seconds of contemplation, he stepped back towards her, back to the foot of the mattress, and gazed down at her.
She lay her head back down, her hands either side of her head again. Despite having never felt more exposed than if she’d lay there naked, she looked him direct in the eyes. It was a dangerously submissive pose, but one she could only hope would snag him.
‘All you know is game-playing,’ he said.
‘You didn’t have to bring me down here.’ She knew it was risky – pushing things whilst he still looked contemplative. But she lifted her foot regardless, sliding it slowly up his firm, muscular thigh. As she reached his groin, pressed slightly against his hardness, she expected him to flinch. But he didn’t.
Hours before, she would have taken the opportunity to draw back her leg and slam her foot hard into him just because she could – just because it would be another impulsive move that would make her feel okay for that split second.
But now, looking up into those eyes, at the perfection that stood above her, she knew this wasn’t about pride – this was about self-worth. Because, for the first time in as long as she could remember, she believed she deserved not to have him walk away from her. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than him – and she was going to get him. She was going to get Jask Tao exactly where she wanted him.
Just as she knew she needed to sate whatever dark craving she was developing for him. She needed to get back on task, and her head was always clearer after sex. And if there was one thing she needed to pull her plan off, it was clarity – not the chaos she was feeling then.
‘It’s just you and me now,’ she said. ‘No one need ever know.’
But as she applied a taunting amount of pressure to his erection, Jask caught hold of her ankle. He eased it aside but, to her relief, he didn’t let go. Instead he lowered to his knees. He slid his hand up the back of her calf with the motion, behind her knee, to grasp the back of her thigh as he leaned over her, his free hand pressing into the mattress beside her shoulder.
‘You’re a tease,’ he said, his tone laced with something enticingly calm despite the look in his eyes.
‘If you didn’t want this too, you would have kept walking,’ she said, trying to keep her breathing steady as his hand moved up her outer thigh up to her hip, pushing her tunic up with the motion.
‘I’m not disputing that,’ he said, before easing back on his haunches. He equally clutched her other hipbone with his now free hand in a lethally possessive move. And as he gazed down between her legs, at her exposure in the shadows, his unashamed blatancy made her stomach clench. She swallowed harder than she wanted to, the tension building in the pit of her abdomen. But she felt no temptation to recoil or cover herself despite her toes instinctively curling into the mattress.
Sliding his hand up her cleavage to clasp her throat, he leaned over her again. But there was no pressure in his hold, just a move that allowed him to glide his thumb over her lips before tucking it into the breathless parting.
‘Go on then,’ he said, looking deep into her eyes. ‘Bite now. I dareyou.’
The challenge sent her heart racing, but as he slowly unbuttoned her tunic at her cleavage she lay mesmerised and unflinching.
He watched every button he released reveal a little more of her flesh until he finally pushed both folds of fabric aside, exposing her fully to him.
She was lost. As his hand encompassed her breast, his thumb gliding over her already hardened nipple, she clenched her hands. And as he cupped the side of her jaw with his other hand, pressed his thumb a little deeper between her lips, as he lowered his head to take her held breast hungrily in his mouth, she let out an uncontrolled groan she never thought possible.
Her raw response clearly not having gone unnoticed, he left her breast damp and cool as he rested that arm back on the mattress. He removed his thumb from between her parted lips only for his to hover less than an inch away again. But he didn’t kiss her – he kept that mouth a cruel, taunting distance away.
Instead, his azure eyes didn’t flinch from hers as his free hand disappeared below their waists.
Sophia flinched as his fingers met her sex.
And as he instantly applied painstaking pressure to her tender clitoris, she gasped, jolted, her head fuzzy.
‘Fuck,’ she hissed, almost silently.
‘That’s the idea, isn’t it?’ he whispered. And without taking the pressure off her clit, eased a finger inside her.
She flinched again. But despite her involuntarily tensing, Jask went anything but easy, pushing deep into her in one slow but unrelenting move.
She had no idea what he was doing once he was inside her, but it evoked goosebumps all over her body, made her eyes water, her body shudder. And all the time, he kept staring deep into her eyes, his thumb simultaneously working her clit to the point she could barely breathe.
For a split second she thought she was going to have to ask him to stop, to break the intensity just for a moment. But as a dark glint appeared in his eyes, accompanied by him sliding a second finger inside her, she gritted her teeth and clenched her fists for fear of coming too soon.
* * *
Hehadto stay incontrol.
As much as he wanted to spread her thighs further and feel the most sensitive part of him sink into her wet heat, that was one step too far across his self-imposed line.
This was about taunting and toying with her. It was about showing her how easily he could control her climax with every subtle and manipulative movement of his fingers, knowing when to apply pressure and when to withdraw, where to touch and how. She needed to know that experience had taught himmorethan enough, despite her previous coaxing. Just as instincts told him how to read what she liked and what she didn’t – just how far to push and when to stop.
And Phia gave everything away so easily in each small, hitched little breath, the opening and closing of her eyes, how far she parted her lips, how much she arched her back, how deep she was willing and able to take him.
Because from the way she was responding, sex with him wasn’t just about power and control as was indicative of serryns. Phia was emotionally engaged with what he was doing to her.
The serryn who arrogantly thought she could handle him. The serryn who he needed to get inside the head of to be able to tame, to persuade her to do what he needed in order to save his pack, was giving him just that. The serryn he now knewsomuch more about. And he needed to keep his focus on turning that to his advantage.
But pushing two fingers deep inside her tight, restrictive warmth set his own arousal dangerously close to the edge.
He pulled back onto his haunches again to try to ease his tension, only for Phia to lethally arch her back even further, emphasising her concave stomach.
It was a reminder that a serryn body was for two purposes only – pleasure and killing. And despite the poison that coursed through her veins, it was no danger to him. Just as he could spill inside her a hundred times to no effect but to sate his own need. And right then that wasexactlywhat he’d wanted.
And he wanted to look her in the eyes as he did it – something he hadn’t afforded himself in as long as he could remember.
Dare to forge that connection as he came inside her.
And it was getting harder to deny that she looked more beautiful than ever, masked partially in shadow, partially in light, arousal emanating from her glossy dark eyes, her pretty lips full and swollen. With her arched body, her arms having fallen limp beside her head, her slender, shapely thighs parted wide for him, she was more than bewitching – she was perfect.
And the sheen her arousal had created against her inner thighs, the wetness that masked his fingers, told him just how muchshewas losing herself in the moment.
He should have walked away at that point. He should have brought her to climax and left her there on the mattress – sated his own need alone somewhere else in an uncomplicated, self-satisfying act.
But he wantedher.
And as he firmly massaged her swollen breasts, rubbing his thumb across her hardened nipples, as she groaned in response again, it was his turn to swallow harder than he should.
This time her raw response made him teeter. Now the female who lay so openly beneath him was far more than a commodity.
He wanted to pick up the pace. Needed to pick up the pace.
In frustration, he plunged his two fingers as deep inside her as he could go.
He thought it would be the breaking point – that she’d finally fend him off. But she only arched her back more and cried out, her eyes tightly closed, her frown deep, a little flushed, lost, and never more stunning.
Her defences were truly down. In that moment, she was his. And there was no way he was walking away from that.
He looked back down between her legs, to where he fucked her exquisitely with his fingers and knew it was nowhere near enough for him anymore. He needed to be inside her. He needed to part those thighs as far as he could and compel her to take every inch of him.
He looked back at her to see she was looking at him again, gazing up at him with her molten brown eyes in a moment of complete understanding.
It was his last chance to walk away.
But he should have known he was a fool to think she was that tamed. A fool to think he’d broken her yet.
‘That the best you’ve got?’ she whispered, those full, wanton lips again curled in that defiant smirk, arousal seeping through a breathlessness that was unable to mask her intoxicating impatience.
To coax him further, she dared to further part the smooth, slender thighs either side of his hips, reminding him of the willing body that lay vulnerable beneath him.
Skilfully, slowly removing his fingers, he leaned over her again. Resting both hands either side of her head, he looked deep into the eyes that burrowed back into his, silence enclosing the room.
‘Far from it,’ he said. ‘ButI’min charge here –notyou.’
* * *
It was a statement that made her stomach jolt – that and the look in his eyes.
His trail of slow, hard kisses down the length of her neck, the scuff of his stubble against her tender flesh, the coaxing rake of his slightly extended canines, had her clutching the mattress either side of her hips. And as he took her breast in his hand again only to squeeze, to suck harder than he had last time, the detectable lengthening in the talons that dug into her only reminded her of exactlywhatshe was goading.
She’d almost forgotten what he was, seeing no difference in their species in the minutes that had passed.
But she knew no male of her own species matched up to him. No male ever made her spark with such a painful burning that he could have plunged those canines or purposefully extended talons into her flesh and she wouldn’t have even cared.
Because those eyes that looked back into hers againwereferal, but intoxicatingly laced with something so much more. Something that created a sense of assurance in her even as he gripped the top of her open tunic double-handed, yanking the fabric halfway down her arms. She couldn’t take her eyes off him as he cupped her neck with both hands before sliding them firmly down over her breasts to her waist.
Just watching his admiration created a sense of liberation, a paradox to the makeshift restraint he had created with her tunic.
Because hewasadmiring her.
And it was the only thing that stopped her recoiling in on herself as he pressed his palms against the inside of her thighs, pushed her legs that inch further, gazing down at her with even more blatancy than last time – more than any of her other lovers had dared.
But Jask had no such qualms.
Her arousal escalated to lethal levels. The frustration of the throb between her legs left her not caring what she said or what she did.
She’d be right in what she’d said to him: No one would ever know. Whatever happened, this was between them. And it would stay between them. He wasn’t going to live long enough to share it.
But this time, the very thought of killing him created a pang. The very thought of being the one capable of bringing an end to Jask Tao. Because lying there, beneath him, she wondered how the hell she could do it.
One thing she knew for sure – there was no way she was going to be able to look him in those eyes when she did.
Even less so when he backed up, only to lower his head between her parted thighs, his mouth against her sex making her cry out again.
As he kept her thighs apart with his shoulders, there was nothing coaxing in the way he went down on her, nothing coaxing in the hand that slid up to gently grasp her throat again. His tasting of her was hungry, the workings of his tongue as he licked her and delved inside her ravenous like she’d never experienced.
She reached for something to grab but met nothing but the mattress before slamming her hands down onto his broad, strong shoulders. She dug her nails deep into his firm flesh before fisting his hair in her hand as his tongue found her clit, his mouth working her relentlessly.
It was finally one step too far – more than she could take.
As a warm tear trickled down her cheek, she felt herself peak, her climax flooding her.
Shuddering, she expected him to pull back from her release, but he didn’t. His hand only slid from her throat to take hold of her breast again as his mouth still worked her sex, his tongue remaining deep inside her as she came, as he forced her to orgasm again and again until she had nothing left to give.
Body aching, extremities tingling, she’d never trembled so much during climax. Had never felt so detached from her own body.
But even that didn’t seem to be enough for him.
He leaned over her again as he stayed between her thighs, slid her tunic back into place on her shoulders so he could pin both hands above her head. ‘You will look at me the whole time I’m inside you,’ he said. ‘And you will not look away until I’m done.’
Her heart pounded. Her skin prickled.
As he pushed into her, everything in that moment stopped. Everything became a haze. Nothing felt real.
His thrust was exquisite. Steady but forceful, breaking inside her in one complete move, his breath held as tightly as hers.
She tightened her fists, her nails digging painfully into her palms, but she wouldn’t look away from him even as she cried out.
Didn’t dare look away from him.
Didn’twantto look away from him.
Looking back into those eyes as he thrust again, filled her completely, revealed far too much to her. The stirring she felt inside was not one she could afford to feel. She couldn’t afford to feel anything – not for him. Not there, not then.
Because it was terrifying. Her own feelings were more terrifying than the authoritative lycan who held her down and pushed satisfyingly deep into her.
She reminded herself she could handle the rules – she’d lived by them long enough. She didn’t get attached. She never got attached.
More than ever she had to get used to it – now that she was a serryn, it was all her life would ever be. One encounter after another. They’d bite. They’d die. She’d move on. She had to harden herself to it.
It was just sex. Good sex. Incredible, satisfying sex. And she needed to take it for what it was. She just needed to savour the moment – some lust-filled, power-driven act on both their parts.
But something told her it was more for him too. Something that made it all too dangerously intense.
His thrusts were deep, hard and unrelenting as he consumed into her with an impatience that matched her own. And as his pace increased, it almost felt like he was punishing her.
Or punishing himself.
She lost sight too quickly of which. Either way, she didn’t care. Rough, unremitting, incessant though he was, she lost sight of the discomfort amidst her own arousal. Even as he held her wrists tighter, used his free hand to hold down her hip as he dug his nails deep into her flesh, prevented her from moving even a fraction of an inch, she only wanted more.
His final thrusts were powerful. And with his eyes unflinching on hers, he came.
It had never offset a climax of her own before, but the very fact he came so hard, so fast, so powerful as he growled under his breath, had triggered her whole body to jolt with the onset of yet another climax. A climax that lasted and lasted as he purposefully prolonged the agony, the ecstasy, by staying deep inside her.
And as he spilled, as his gaze remained embedded deeply with hers, she had never felt so exposed. She had never felt like anyone had ever understood her.
Jask eased off the mattress and pulled up his sweatpants and shorts.
Sophia was finding it harder to get to her feet, so he caught her upper arm to help her up before she had time to protest. She stumbled a little but managed to get off the mattress without losing her balance.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
‘Course,’ she said, shrugging him off emotionally and physically.
But he knew she was anything but okay from the way she could barely make eye contact before exiting the cell and crossing to the door.
He knew he’d hurt her, but at the time he hadn’t cared. He could have broken her in two for all it mattered when his climax consumed him.
Because he knew, as he thrust deep into her, that he’d let himself down.
It was the first time he’d looked a female in the eyes during the act since Ellen. All the others he’d kept turned away, or had buried in their neck or stared at the ceiling or the wall – anywhere but at them. Anything to stop that final engagement in what he was doing. Anything to ease the guilt and sense of betrayal he would always feel whenever he shared an act so dangerously binding.
He reached to his throat to clutch the small pendant between his thumb and forefinger.
He’d meant to withdraw. At the crucial moment, he’d meant to withdraw. He always withdrew, letting the toxicity inside him spill to the floor.
Now discomfort clenched his chest when he realised how weak he had been. Not just that, but how easily he’d managed to push aside thoughts of his dead mate for the first time.
He hadn’t thought of Ellen at all in the latter moments. Hadn’t seen her face and imagined being with her. All he could see was Phia. As she’d lay beneath him he’d thought only of exciting her, thrilling her, exploring her, of bringing her to climax to reveal the real her – for reasons he now knew were more terrifyingly personal than his mission.
She hadn’t just lostherself in the moment; he’d unforgivably losthimself. Intentionally or not, in less than an hour, whatever was going on between them had turned into something else. Something that now knotted the back of his throat and made swallowing hard.
She’d got him right where she wanted him. If he’d been a vampire, hewouldhave been dead.
He raked his hand back through his hair as she silently disappeared out into the corridor.
He tongued the inside of his lip again where she had bitten him.
Bitten him in more ways than one.
But her response hadn’t been calculated. She was just as much in shock.
He thought about catching up with her but he realised he had nothing to say. Or more likely too much to say without a clue where to start.
He had to cut it dead there and then. However she was feeling was not his concern. His only concern was getting her where he needed her and doing what he wanted.
But as he headed out into the corridor to find she had gone, she left only a dark void behind. It was a feeling he’d promised he’d never let himself relive.
And he had no right reliving it through her.
He rested his hands on his hips and hesitated for a moment before taking the steps up into the second corridor. Something in him hoped she’d be there waiting. Even another spat, her glaring indignation and defensiveness, would be better than the silence that had consumed the space between them before she’d left.
But she wasn’t there.
He marched past the storage rooms, back up the steps into the lobby. But instead of heading outside, he turned right into the holding room.
He kicked a chair across the room, kicked another before slamming his clenched hands down onto the table, his head lowered. The knot at the pit of his stomach was a heavy weight, rooting him to the spot.
He’d gone too far. And now the guilt coagulating in his veins made his heart ache.
He’d been irresponsible, selfish, self-sating. He’d broken every self-inflicted rule.
And he hadn’t punished her for making him feel the way he did – he’d punished himself.
He spun around and punched the wall, grazed his knuckles, grasped the back of his head with tightly interlinked fingers as he paced the room.
He turned back around to see Corbin stood silently in the doorway. His friend’s lowered brow, the concern in his eyes, negated the need for him to say he understood.
‘I just passed her out on the quadrant,’ Corbin remarked.
Jask’s scent on her would still have been potent.
‘Then you’ve seen she’s still in one piece,’ Jask replied, with a hint of defensiveness he knew betrayed too much.
Corbin stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him. He leaned back against it and folded his arms. ‘Did it serve a purpose?’
‘Only to confirm what her tears had told us: she’s an inexperienced serryn.’
‘But is she experienced enough for what we need?’
‘I don’t know.’ He leaned against the wall opposite Corbin, his head resting back against it, his injured knuckles throbbing at the small of his back.
‘So you’ve learned nothing new?’
Jask held his friend’s gaze, as difficult as it was, amidst the silent enclosure of the room. ‘You don’t need to spell it out to me, Corbin.’
‘I’m not, Jask. Seems to me by the smell of blood in this room that you’re spelling it out to yourself.’
‘Are you questioning my judgement?’
‘You bet I am. That’s what friends do, right? That’s what your beta’s responsibility is to do. And I take my responsibilities very seriously.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘You know that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that looking at you, you know you’ve overstepped the mark. And if you know that, then that means you have. What happened?’
Jask snapped his gaze away.
Corbin pulled from the door to take a couple of steps closer. ‘Jask?’ Separated by silence, he took another step closer. ‘Talk to me.’
But shame prevented him. Shame in admitting to his friend, to his beta, that he’d almost lost control. That he’d thought only of his selfish needs in those moments. That he’d abandoned his pack again, shunted them aside to indulge himself with the last female he should have even been considering breaking his vow with.
‘You’ve held it together for so long, Jask,’ Corbin said. ‘She sparks something inside of you. I get that. I’ve seen it. But the Jask we need has learned to walk away. If you need satiation, there are plenty in this compound who will willingly do that – who would see it as an honour, a privilege. You don’t need her, you don’t need–’
‘I didn’t need her; I wanted her,’ he said, looking back at Corbin.
Corbin’s eyes flared. ‘Youthoughtyou wanted her. And now it’s out of your system, right?’ He exhaled tersely when met again with Jask’s silence. ‘Of course it isn’t – because we both know you too well, don’t we?’
‘I wanted her like I haven’t wanted anyone in a long time.’
The mention of her name, especially slipping from his best friend’s lips who had loved and respected her as much as Jask had – even if in a very different way. The sense of betrayal only escalated, forcing Jask away from the wall again, away from the truth.
‘There may be similarities – even I can see that. The way she stands up to you. Her passion. Her stubbornness. But she’s no Ellen, Jask,’ Corbin said quietly. ‘She will never even come close.’
‘And what good has searching for another Ellen done me?’ Jask said, spinning to face him, anger, resentment and tears knotting his throat from the truth seeping out of his trusted friend’s lips to utter what he already knew.
Corbin frowned. ‘Jask…’
‘So I can have any female I want out there. So what? Have I not had my fill already? Does it sate the emptiness? No. Maybe for the few moments my instincts take over, when each time I think I’ll come out of it cured of her, but all is does is carve another piece out of me. Because I feel nothing at the end of it, Corbin. With them or with any other female out there. And then comes Phia – and I feel anger and frustration and irritation and desire – and all of those, as detrimental as they are, are intoxicating against the nothingness I have lived with for decades. This pack might need me, Corbin, they might need me the sensible, resolute, level-minded leader, but I’m stillmeinside. And, with her, I had a short time of remembering what that was like.’
Jask pulled out a chair and sat at the table, his head in his hands for a moment.
He heard Corbin pull out the chair adjacent to his, but he said nothing.
‘I looked her in the eyes, Corbin. When I was inside her, I looked her in the eyes.’ He glanced across at his friend. ‘I stayed looking in her eyes even as I came. And I did it because it felt right and it felt natural. And I felt connected again. For those moments, I didn’t feel lonely anymore. And now I feel sick to my stomach because I know I have to rip that feeling away again or risk letting this pack down again. So just let me have my short time of self-indulgence before I do what I have to do. Because I will, Corbin. Iwillcome good for this pack. So don’t you dare look at me like you doubt it.’
‘You’re this pack’s alpha,’ Corbin said. ‘You’re alpha by proof and by choice. I never doubt you. Even those months when you were abseiling down into the darkness on threadbare rope, I still had a grip on it because I knew you’d come back. We all did. Because that darkness was never going to be stronger than you. It was never going to consume you completely. And the fact you came out of it only proves more why you deserve to lead this pack. Why every single lycan in this compound, despite seeing you at your worst, at your lowest, would never even have considered electing me over you. And that’s the difference between us – that’s why you deserve this position. Do you remember what I told you when you were at your lowest – that night I had no choice but to lock you in that cell until you calmed down – drunk, bruised, blood on your hands? I meant it. I wouldneverhave come back from what you did if I’d lost Solstice. It would have finished me. But you’re still here because you’re stronger than me. Than all of us. And you will come good for this pack. I know it. Then this will all be over.’
Jask held Corbin’s gaze – the loyalty, the belief gazing back at him through steadfast grey eyes convincing him he meant every word. ‘I’m upping the ante,’ he said. ‘Tonight.’
Corbin nodded. He reached out to rest his hand on Jask’s shoulder and squeezed.
* * *
Sophia wrapped her arms around herself and made her way across the quadrant to the main building.
The grass was damp and cold beneath her feet, the breeze chilling the perspiration that still coated her skin, her body trembling as she fought to block out what had happened.
The distant low thuds of the clubs, now revived in Blackthorn’s hub with the pending darkness, brought her back to reality. One of those clubs belonged to the Dehain brothers. The very brothers who should have been dead now had The Alliance’s plan not gone wrong. The club where her little sister could still be.
Damn Marid for pulling her off task that night of going to confront Caleb for herself. Damn him for selling her on. Damn them all that she’d ended up in the compound with Jask. Tempting, obstinate, delicious, pain-in-the-arse-perfect Jask Tao who had now proven himself to be as proficient in bed as he was with everything else.
Her scowl deepened.
Never would she let anyone that close, she’d promised herself.
What had happened between them didn’t matter, she kept repeating over and over in her head. But the ache low in her gut, the stab in her heart, told her she’d failed the only time detachment had ever really mattered.
She ran her fingers back through her hair as she added yetanotherthing to her list of reasons to hate herself.
The very first had been Tom. She’d known exactly what she was doing but she’d still had all the fragility of a sixteen-year-old taking a step too far. She’d fallen hard, fast and deep for him as they’d shared three weeks of summer together. She’d thought she was in love, but had been in those early stages when the lines were so easily blurred. A love he’d reciprocated by boasting she’d been nothing more than a training ground.
She’d hidden away, curled in on herself, until she’d walked past him one day in the canteen and overheard him claim it was time he had a go at her little sister, Alisha. He’d almost suffocated as she’d slammed him face-first into his spaghetti bolognaise; especially as it had taken three of his mates to eventually pull her off him.
Ricky had been next. It had ended with the word “mistake” being used. He’d added that she was too complicated. What he’d meant was too much like hard work for what he wanted in return. And she was too proud to allow herself to be anyone’s inconvenience.
The other two relationships started as a drunken disaster and ended as a drunken disaster.
Then there was Daniel. After a night of barely escaping with their lives, survival instincts had kicked in. It had been a one-off that had soon become an un-discussed habit.
And recollections of Daniel reminded her exactly why she was there.
She hadnoexcuse for taking her eye off the ball. For letting it cross her mind that killing Jask wasn’t going to be as easy as she first thought – especially as one of those reasons was unforgiveable.
Worse was knowing that he wouldn’t have looked twice at her if it wasn’t for those pheromones, or whatever it was that seeped out of serryns making them irresistible. It was those chemicals and not her that had eventually incited him. Clearly they were potent enough to attract even lycans, whatever legends stated to the contrary, or there’s no way Jask would have looked twice at her. And once he realised that, he’d despise her even more than he already did.
She took the main steps up into the lobby. Her persistent trembling, she was sure, wasn’t just down to the adrenaline rush.
She stepped up to the buffet table, poured herself a glass of water, grabbed a peach, an apple and a handful of raspberries, and headed to the back of the room to take a seat.
She should have taken a shower first, but she wasn’t ready to go back to his room. Aside from the more pressing hunger, the dehydration, a small part of her didn’t want to rid herself of Jask’s scent just yet.
She worked her way through the peach between generous gulps of water, casting her gaze to the darkness outside. The quadrant was as quiet as indoors, no doubt many of the lycans having headed into Blackthorn already.
She couldn’t help but wonder if Jask would do the same. She knew he wasn’t an every-night sight in Blackthorn, but he still ventured out of the compound regularly enough. Whether that was for business or pleasure was anyone’s guess.
The thought of the latter made her stomach coil.
A pack leader without a mate was free to take pleasure as he chose. And from Jask’s performance down in the cell, she knew she’d been naïve to mock him for inexperience – something he had clearly intended to prove to her. Because he had no other reason to take it as far as he did, aside from the pheromones, other than to prove himself stronger, more proficient, more experienced than her.
And he’d made his point – infallibly.
She sucked her peach stone dry and dropped it in her empty cup, popped a few raspberries before twisting the stalk on her apple. She took a bite just as she looked up to see a familiar pair of large grey eyes staring back at her from across the table.
Tuly was clutching a book to her chest, her small hand encompassing a collection of pencil crayons.
She smiled, flashing Sophia those canines again – the only thing that reminded her that the child staring back at her was far from human.
Tuly eased up onto the chair beside Sophia. Placing her belongings down, she opened the book up and flicked through some of the pages.
‘Does Solstice know you’re here?’ Sophia asked, noticing for the first time that Tuly’s nails were far too long for someone so young.
Tuly shrugged, already preoccupied with her book. ‘You smell like Jask.’
Sophia felt herself flush, struggled for a response.
‘Are you his new mate now?’ Tuly asked, glancing across at her.
The very prospect filled her with an alien sense of warmth she had no right feeling. ‘No. No, I’m not. You’re not supposed to talk to me,’ Sophia reminded her.
Tuly sent her a hint of a mischievous glance. ‘Do you do everything your mother tells you?’
Sophia couldn’t help but smile at the child’s belligerence, despite never having had a mother long enough to be able to answer.
Tuly looked back at her again. ‘You do have a mother, don’t you?’ She looked back down at her book. ‘Or is it different with serryns?’
‘Who told you I was a serryn?’
‘I heard. I listen all the time.’ Tuly turned another page and started to colour a half-finished picture. ‘Do you?’ she asked, looking back up at her. Only this time her gaze lingered as she awaited Sophia’s response.
‘Have a mother? Not anymore.’
‘Is she dead?’
Tuly frowned, her eyes emanating more empathy than Sophia would have thought capable of one of her kind, let alone for her age. But then Sophia never spent any time around kids of any species. ‘How did she die?’
‘She was killed by a vampire.’
Tuly continued to colour as if Sophia had announced the death had been from a traffic accident or illness. The fact it was a vampire attack seemed as commonplace as any other way to die.
‘So are you on your own now?’ Tuly asked.
A wave of unease flooded through her. The questions seemed innocent enough, as did the stumbling across her in the communal area. But there was still that little niggle that she could have been sent there – an irresistible undercover spy.
‘Yes.’ The statement wasn’t completely untrue. She needed a diversion. She looked at the drawing of the male and female under the tree, the male pushing the child in the swing that hung from one of the branches. The sun was bright, a lake in the distance. The grass was littered with tiny pink and red flowers. ‘What’s this?’
‘Where we’re going to live,’ Tuly announced matter-of-factly.
Sophia didn’t have the heart not to play along. ‘You’re moving?’
‘One day,’ Tuly announced, a frown marking her brow from the sheer concentration of her colouring.
‘Somewhere like this?’ Sophia asked, placing her apple aside and resting her folded arms on the table as she indicated towards the drawing.
‘Summerton,’ Tuly declared.
A knot forged in her throat. ‘Summerton?’
Tuly nodded before swapping her blue pencil crayon for a pink one. ‘This is Corbin,’ she said, tapping the male figure with the end of her pencil, ‘and Solstice.’ And then she tapped the girl on the swing. ‘And this is me.’ Tuly stopped to look up at her. ‘You’ve heard of Summerton, haven’t you?’
Sophia nodded again, trying to ignore the discomfort in her stomach.
Tuly turned her attention back to her picture. ‘They have trees there – proper big ones with lots of leaves, and lakes, and hills, and flowers, all different colour flowers and bees that collect their honey from them and birds…’ she reeled off the list like she was reciting her Christmas present list. ‘And I’ll put food out every day for them so they can eat and have lots of baby birds and I’ll look after all of them.’
‘You like birds?’
Tuly put down her pencil crayon to flick back through the pages. She opened a double-page spread with loads of images of birds cut out and glued from magazines. ‘That’s a blackbird,’ she said, pointing to the central picture. ‘A woodpecker. A pied wagtail. A starling. One day I’m going to see them all.’
Sophia’s throat constricted, but she wouldn’t let Tuly see the impact her innocent hope had had. ‘Where did you get the pictures?’
‘In the attic. Sometimes I find things in shops – when I’m allowed to go out.’
Like her, Tuly would have been born after the regulations. Unlike her, she would never have seen green fields or breathed fresh air. She’d known nothing outside a dense world ruled by fear and control, on filthy streets with the dregs of opportunities. And still she sat there, the optimism shining through her that one day it would be better.
Tuly went back to the page she had been colouring. ‘There was a blackbird that lived here once. It used to sit on the top of the greenhouse. It used to sing at dusk and at dawn. I’d sneak bread out from the kitchen when no one was looking. Then, one day, I found it dead in the bushes. Nothing pretty ever lives long in Blackthorn.’
Sophia interlaced her fingers and held them against her mouth to fight back the threat of pending tears.
The little lycan looked up at the same time as Sophia did to see Jask stood in the dining room doorway.
Her heart leapt at seeing him again, then sank as he looked to have been midway in conversation with the female he was facing – a female he just as quickly resumed conversing with as if Sophia wasn’t even there.
‘Uh-oh,’ Tuly said, closing her book and gathering up her pencils. ‘Trouble,’ she said, rolling her eyes. Eyes that looked far too playful and beyond her years not to make Sophia break a smile despite feeling like doing anything but.
It was a long shot but, just as Tuly eased down off the chair, Sophia had to ask. ‘Did you know Ellen?’
Tuly gathered up the last of her pencils as she shook her head. ‘She’s dead.’
‘That’s right. Do you know what happened to her?’
Tuly sent a wary glance at the door where Jask glanced across his shoulder at her again, his hands now on his hips as he continued to talk to the dark-haired female. Tuly clutched her book and pencil crayons to her chest in one hand before stretching up on tiptoes to reach Sophia’s ear. She cupped her hand over her mouth. ‘He killed her,’ she whispered.
Something inside her plummeted.
‘Jask,’ Tuly whispered. ‘Like I said – I’m always listening.’
Sophia snapped her attention back to the doorway where Tuly hurried to join Jask. He rubbed Tuly affectionately on the back of the head, saying something before tapping her playfully on the behind.
As Tuly skipped away, he glanced back at Sophia, his eyes locking on hers all too fleetingly before reverting his attention to his companion.
Sophia still stared at him open-mouthed with shock. Tuly had to have got it wrong. She had to have misheard. It wasn’t possible. Jask wouldn’t do that. Jask wasn’t capable of doing that.
But if that was what she had come to believe, then things weren’t just getting complicated – they were a mess.
And as he moved a couple of inches closer to his brunette companion, listening intently to whatever she was saying, her jealously told her the mess was intensifying. Especially when hurt and disappointment struck deep as, instead of coming to see her, he followed the brunette out of sight, his hand on the small of her back painfully intimate.
As she stared at the now vacant doorway, she knew she needed out of there. She had to forget about gaining information. She needed away from Jask. Away from the intensity, the confusion, the constant battle of wills that left her exhausted. She needed to distance herself from the strength of feelings evolving inside and give herself a sense of perspective again. Jask was the last thing she needed and she had no doubt she was most certainly the last thingheneeded.
Her stomach jolted as she caught sight of Rone.
He looked around warily before indicating for her to join him out in the lobby.
Shoving back her chair, she hurried as much as her tired, aching legs would allow, the muscles in her thighs already feeling overstretched.
‘I’ve been looking for you. Let’s talk,’ he said, wrapping his arm around her elbow, veering her past the stairs and shoving her inside the first room on the left.
Sophia glanced around the bare confines, shelved out as what she guessed had once been some kind of library, before looking back at Rone.
He was twitchy, anxious. ‘I might have a way I can get you out of here,’ Rone announced, keeping his voice low despite the closed door, despite his close proximity.
Her heart skipped a beat, the prospect irritatingly not filling her with as much relief as it should have, not least, she had no doubt, following her resolve to take Jask down before she did so. ‘Go on,’ she said, clutching the shelf behind her for support.
‘There’s a tunnel. It’s rarely used unless we need to get through Blackthorn unnoticed.’ He stopped abruptly. ‘I am literally risking my life exposing this to you. And you will owe me, do you understand?’
She nodded. But it was a risk – a huge risk, and one that made her uneasy in light of the fact he was sharing it with her nonetheless. If it wasn’t for recent events, she may have been more guarded. But if a lycan leader could kill his own mate, there was no wonder the youth was frightened of the potential of Jask learning he had lied. If she wanted evidence of Jask’s tyranny, it was in the youth’s actions now. Just as she saw in his frown, the subtle flaring of his nostrils, that he sensed Jask’s scent on her the same as Tuly had. Yet he said nothing, the threat of her intimacy with the leader no doubt adding weight to the youth wanting her out of there – fast.
‘Where is it?’ she asked.
‘I want your word,’ he said, his blue eyes wide and resolute.
‘You’ve got it.’
‘The Alliance are to have nothing to do with us. They leave this pack be. Understood?’
‘I mean it. I know your organisation went after Jake and Caleb Dehain. Anyone willing to go after them is crazy enough to come after this pack too. And if we lose Jask, we lose us all. We’re finished here. And I’ve no doubt your Alliance knows that, right?’
‘So why mess with us, Rone? Why get involved at all?’
‘Why do you think?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I was going to save you. I was going to make a deal with you to leave us be. Until I saw what you were and realised it wasn’t going to be that straightforward.’
‘And the vampires that were holding me? What were you going to do about them?’
He raised his eyebrows slightly, not needing to answer.
‘You were going to kill them? You were going to blow the truce with the vampires? No wonder you didn’t want Jask to know.’
‘We wouldn’t have had any choice.’
‘But what if they’d told someone you were meeting them there? They would have known you were involved.’
‘The whole thing was undercover. And they didn’t want whoever they were working for to know they were taking a backhander from us.’
‘Whowerethey working for?’
‘I don’t know.’
She’d overheard the vampires talking of getting the job done – of finding out, from her, everything they could about The Alliance: names, locations, future plans. It had panicked her enough at the time that they’d wanted more than just simple vengeance by torturing and killing her. But this was the terrifying confirmation she’d dreaded – it wasn’t just Marid and those two vampires who knew about The Alliance; the latter had been working for someone else – someone who was still out there. ‘You have no idea who it is? They said nothing?’
‘I didn’t ask,’ Rone said. ‘That’s your problem not mine. So if you get out of here, we’ve got a deal, right?’
He was taking a risk that she would keep to her word. But it seemed to be a risk he was desperate enough to take. And the very fact hewastaking that risk sent a further laceration of panic through her. He was scared Jask would get the truth out of her. He believed Jaskwouldget the truth out of her – eventually.
All the more reason for her to take whatever opportunity she could to get out of there as quickly as she could.
She nodded. ‘I told you – I give you my word.’
Whether she would keep it or not didn’t matter then.
‘Jask’s on duty at the main doors tonight,’ Rone explained. ‘He’ll be occupied for about five hours between nine and two. That’s your window. The tunnel entrance is in the greenhouse, second room in. It’s hidden under a mat. I’ll get the key and open it. You’ll have until midnight until I lock it again. I’ll leave a torch amidst the plants and the other things you need on the steps inside. You’ll see a door ahead. That’s the one you take, only lock it behind you. You can slide the key back under it.’
‘How long is the tunnel?’
‘It’ll take you about forty-five minutes at a good pace. It’ll eventually bring you out of a ventilation tunnel in a warehouse Jask owns on the west side.’
‘Sounds straightforward enough.’
‘Not quite. It’s not the only tunnel down there. You have to know what you’re doing. Believe me, you don’t want to take a wrong turn. I’ll leave a map for you to use if you get beyond the midway point.’
‘If? Why, what’s at the midway point?’
Her stomach flipped. ‘The lagoon?’
‘It’s an overspill from the river. An underground water supply. It’s clean, so it’s not going to kill you. As long as you can swim. You can swim, right?’
Her pulse picked up momentum. Water. It had to be water. ‘Course.’
‘The lagoon is no more than forty feet across but it goes down about a hundred. Once you’re under, you need to swim straight ahead–’
‘What do you mean “under”?’ she asked, not even bothering to conceal her panic.
His eyes flared with concern, a sure sign he wanted her out as much as she wanted out herself. ‘You said you can swim.’
‘I can, but…’
There could be no buts, whatever her pounding heart, the sickness at the back of her throat, her clenched chest dictated. ‘How far? How long will I be under for?’
‘About twenty feet, then you’ll come to an air pocket.’
She nodded, hoping it would abate his unease as much as hers.
‘Swim upwards,’ he said, ‘and grab that air while you can. When you go back under, you’ll need to take the tunnel to the right. It’s pitch-black down there so make sure you get it right. You take the middle one or the one to the left and you’ll swim about fifteen feet before you realise they’re dead ends, only you won’t have enough breath to get back. Once you take the tunnel, you’ll need to swim another twenty feet then you’ll be out. I’ll make sure I leave you a knife too for that part.’
‘A knife?’ It was the only statement to override the fear already clenching her chest.
‘Like I said, there are other tunnels down there. And things happen there that not even Blackthorn is fit to see.’
Her pulse raced. ‘Are one of thosethetunnel? The one that runs under this entire locale, even between locales? Is thatreal?’
If the urban legend was true – that there was an underground system that crossed districts, that evaded the barriers put in place by the Global Council – then the prospects truly were as terrifying as the search into finding them had constituted. A search that had led to rumours being quickly squashed by the authorities as mere scaremongering.
She remembered the newsfeeds from when she was younger – when reporters went down into the so-called tunnels with researchers and law enforcement teams. They always came up against a dead end. Just sewage or drainage systems, they’d claimed – not used for anything other than their intention. Others whispered of secret concealed doorways and tunnels, but none were found. So the tunnel had remained an urban legend. Until now.
And she’d know where it was.
‘I don’t know,’ Rone said, though she didn’t believe him. ‘But I do know the network down there is a labyrinth, so don’t be getting any smart ideas. Keep on the path and you’ll be okay. Don’t veer off course and donotunlock any doors. Being a serryn might save you from any vampire run-ins down there, but you come across a rogue lycan and you’re going to be grateful for that knife. Let alone if you come across a con. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you we’re talking murderers, sex offenders – real scum of the earth.’
The cons: the hard core of the criminal underworld. The convicts deemed too much to handle for the penitentiary in Lowtown. The ones beyond rehabilitation. The ones subsequently abandoned by their authorities and banished to fend for themselves in Blackthorn as food supplies, let alone punchbags, for the notoriously less tolerant third species. It was an attempt on the authorities’ part to be a deterrent. But ‘out of sight, out of mind’ seemed to be the Global Council’s motto. Once in, they never came out – tagged so that even an attempt to cross the border into Lowtown would release a lethal neurotransmitter straight into their system. It was a brutal approach, but another so-called ‘necessity’.
The cons were easy enough to spot – all marked on the inner wrist, sometimes spanning the forearm, with a sequence of numbers that specified the crimes they had committed. Many chose to hide the tattoos, some went to extreme lengths to remove them, but it was the ones who openly exposed their history who were the ones to be wary of. They wore it like a medal and, in turn, that made them the ringleaders. The fact it made them more of a target for vampires – the ones who resented the dregs of humanity invading their territory – made them even more intrepid. They lived every day on the edge and never expected to make it to the following dawn. Those who did became more arrogant each day.
They hung around mainly in the south – the parts not owned by the Dehains or Kane Malloy. On the whole they could be avoided and, up to now, she had done so successfully.
‘You come across any of those and you’re not getting out,’ Rone added.
Suddenly his motivation for disclosing that exit route made even more sense. ‘Is that what you’re hoping? That I won’t make it out? That your problem will be solved?’
‘I’m telling you your only way out of here. It’s up to you whether you take it. But if you do get through, remember our pact. And if you don’t…’ He shrugged.
‘And when Jask finds me gone? He saw me talking to you, Rone. He’s not stupid.’
‘But neither will he have proof. He’s not going to kill me without proof.’
‘And is that what he’s capable of – killing you?’
‘There’s nothing Jask isn’t capable of.’
‘Like killing his mate Ellen?’
Startled, Rone retracted like he’d been scorched. ‘Do we have deal or not?’ he asked, his tone now laced with hostility. Hostility that made her want to escape the confines of that room even more.
It seemed Ellen’s death was a sensitive issue for everyone.
She nodded. ‘We have a deal.’
But he still didn’t look relieved. ‘Be out in the quadrant at ten and I’ll give you the nod when it’s done. After that, you’re on your own.’
Sophia pushed open the door to the poolroom, the subdued echo instantly rebounding off her eardrums.
She kept a safe distance from the edge of the pool as she headed to what she guessed, and hoped, was the shallow end.
Stood a couple of feet from the edge, she stared ahead at the sheen of still black water. Her insides twisted, her palms already coated in perspiration at the very prospect of what she was going to do.
‘Come on, Phia,’ she growled under her breath. ‘It’s water. Just water.’
The very substance she had spent much of her childhood gliding through with ease, winning trophies for her school and out-swimming the best of them.
She needed to swim again. She needed to feel control again. More than anything, she needed to get her head back under water and own it.
She stepped up to the water’s edge. She’d have to feel ground beneath her feet. If she didn’t, she knew she couldn’t do it.
She sat on the edge of the pool and tentatively slid her legs into it, the cool darkness instantly encompassing them.
But she withdrew from the abyss as quickly as she had entered it. She recoiled her thighs back against her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around them.
There was no way she could do it.
But the other option was to stay in the compound. To be used by Jask however he saw fit. To leave her sister in the hands of Caleb and Jake Dehain. To let The Alliance work out for themselves that their cover had been blown, if it wasn’t too late already.
Abby had said they were only going to lie low for two days. That time was already up.
And all she had to do to avert disaster was get into some harmless swimming pool.
She slipped her feet back into the water and clutched the pool’s edge. She stared down into the darkness. No underwater plants, no fallen branches, no uneven lake bed.
She yanked her tunic over her head, took a steadying breath of grit determination and eased herself sideways into the tepid water.
She felt that same wrench of fear in her chest. Earlier it had felt as though the metaphorical plaster had been ripped off painfully fast. Now it was being dragged off an excruciating millimetre at a time.
Still clutching on to the side, she tentatively lowered herself into the water until a knobbled surface met the soles of her feet.
Her pulse raced, her breaths erratic as she rested her head on her forearms whilst she counted to three – not once, but twice before she built up the courage to let go and to turn around.
Aside from the ripples she had created, the water remained perfectly placid.
She lowered herself slowly until she was covered to her shoulders. But still she remained plastered against the wall as she crouched like a small mammal hiding.
Or an army operative under cover.
Because that’s what she was. She was a soldier. A fighter. Not a coward. Never a coward. But as she stared at the dark water around her again, nothing could suppress the panic.
She needed to try and walk. She needed to face the darkness and walk through the water.
Counting to three, she moved cautiously forward whilst maintaining her crouched position.
She kept her eyes wide and wary, feeling forward with her feet before resolving whether to take another step or not. She ploughed deeper and deeper until she gradually had to stand to keep her head above water, the ripples and occasional splashes less audible than her own breathing.
When she was finally at her full height, she paused for breath.
She should have stuck to the side of the pool – she knew that. But there was no use in a safety net. She needed to get over herself and fast.
She took another step forward, and another, her eyes fixed ahead at the depths.
She was going to get there. She was going to feel nothing beneath her feet and she wasn’t going to panic.
Like riding a bike. Like tying up shoelaces. Once learned, never…
She lost her footing, the incline too unexpected, too slippery, too severe, for her not too. She slipped backwards, the water rushing over her face.
She kicked, instinctively pulling herself back from the precipice, her arms flapping ungraciously, causing the water to splash down on her like rain.
She swam as fast as she could to the side, to safety.
She slammed her forearms onto the pool’s edge, her head buried in her arms again, shock stealing the energy she needed to pull herself out of the water completely.
She let go only to clutch the back of her ankle, her calf – both throbbing and stinging from what she had no doubt was a nasty graze.
But she wouldn’t let the tears consume her – not this time. She bit them back, she bit everything back that made her want to give up. Because she wasnotgoing to give up.
She’d let the shock subside then she’d try again.
She pushed her hair back from her eyes and lifted her head, stared at the boots that stood less than two feet away. She flinched and looked up to see Jask gazing down at her.
‘Skinny-dipping alone in the middle of lycan territory. Very brave.’ He crouched down. ‘Facing a few demons, Phia?’
‘A girl has to find a way to pass the time somehow.’
He smiled. She wished he wouldn’t. That coupled with recollections of his body pressed against hers, the magical fluidity of his fingers, the sound of his voice playing over her skin, only exacerbated the tension filling her chest at being faced with him again.
He stood up. He pulled his T-shirt over his head before unfastening his jeans at the same time as kicking off his boots.
She recoiled back from the pool side as he slid off his shorts. A split second later, he dived smoothly and fluidly into the depths of the water.
She spun to face him as fast as the water resistance would allow.
The surface rippled but he didn’t come up. She couldn’t see any hint of him at all. Her breaths were shallow as she scanned the surface of the water, turning left and right for any sign of where he might appear.
Only seconds could have passed, but it felt like minutes.
She spun one hundred and eighty as soon as she heard the splash behind her to see, to her relief, Jask rising out of the water.
She watched him in silent awe as he waded the few feet towards her, the water barely covering his hips, his upper chest and shoulders glistening. The shadows emphasised every curve in those powerful arms as he brushed his hands back through his hair. The same perfect body she’d had sex with only a couple of hours before. The possibility seemed unreal.
He shook his hair, getting rid of more droplets – though she wouldn’t have put it past him as his mocking of her earlier jibe about shaking dry.
‘So what happened earlier?’ he asked, drawing level. ‘You can clearly swim.’
‘I panicked, that’s all.’
He waded in front of her before pushing himself fluidly back into the water, far enough that she knew he was treading water above the precipice that took her under.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Just something that happened when I was a kid. No big deal.’
‘It looked like a big deal.’
‘What does it matter?’
‘Because it does to you.’
The hint of compassion in his words threw her. But she dismissed it only as him wanting to know what went on in her head.
But there was no way he was getting close again.
‘I fell in a river, that’s all,’ she said. ‘I got caught up in some plants.’
‘How did you get out?’
‘I just did.’ She stared back into the scepticism in his eyes. More so she realised her simple explanation only exacerbated what could now be deemed as a major overreaction earlier. ‘If you must know, I used to be a brilliant swimmer,’ she declared to save some face at least.
‘I could swim two lengths whilst holding my breath.’
‘Not bad for a human,’ he said, swimming back a little deeper.
‘Easy, Jask. That was almost another compliment.’
‘Third of the night.’
She realised she had been – only now she had let it slip. ‘I’m attentive to detail.’
He swam back towards her, barely making a splash. ‘Then you would have noticed I’m also good swimmer,’ he said, stopping in front of her. ‘That’s one similarity we definitely share with our heritage.Verycompetent in the water.’
‘I had noticed.’
‘More than capable of rescuing you again should you need me to.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself – it’s hardly the Atlantic Ocean.’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘So why are you too scared to swim to the deep end?’
‘No. I’m just acclimatising.’
He moved forward from the precipice and stood up. He held out his hands for her to take.
She stared at them then back up at him. ‘What?’ But the look in his eyes said it all. ‘Like I’d trust you.’
‘If I wanted to drown you, I’d hardly have to drag you into the deep end to do it.’
She looked at his hands again, then back at him.
‘I ravished you brutally in my cellar,’ he said with a playful smirk. ‘The least I can do is help restore your confidence in water.’
‘Ravish? How very gentlemanly.’
‘Oh, we both know I’m no gentleman. But Iammore than capable of stopping you from drowning. Come on, Phia,’ he said. ‘You’re anything but weak. And I know you’re itching to prove it.’
She looked at his hands again. It was a dare she couldn’t help but rise to. She reached out and let him take her hands in his, the gentle strength in them surprisingly reassuring. Hands that had so expertly brought her to the peak of climax. But, somehow, this felt even more personal.
He stepped backwards until she sensed he was standing on the edge of the precipice again.
He caught hold of her hips and pulled her close. ‘Wrap your legs around me.’
‘A little intimate, don’t you think?’
‘If you want to see it that way,’ he said. ‘But I’ll have a better hold on you.’
He lowered in the water, his gaze unflinching.
After only a moment’s more hesitation, she wrapped her legs around him, trying to ignore his arousal despite the coolness of the water.
She gripped his upper arms as he eased back into the water. But Jask treaded the depths with natural competence, one arm helping him keep balance, the other around her waist.
‘I’m sorry I caused you so much distress throwing you in here,’ he said.
The sincerity in his eyes, let alone his second apology of the night, momentarily took her aback. She shrugged. ‘What was the alternative – being put across your knee like you threatened earlier?’
‘You would have deserved it after the way you spoke to me and Corbin. You and your death wish.’
‘You weren’t going to do anything.’
‘Know that for sure, do you?’
‘Like I said, I’ve seen you both with Tuly and Solstice. I must say, I’m very impressed with the reputation you guys keep up on the outside, considering.’
‘Everyone has their dark side, Phia. Me and Corbin no less.’
And some darker than most it seemed, if Tuly was telling the truth.
‘I was still proved right though, wasn’t I? You’re quite the lover, Jask Tao.’
‘And you were a lot more responsive than you should have been, Phia. Than your kind’s reputation dictates. You should have been able to switch off in there. But you didn’t.’
‘Faking isn’t difficult in my line of work.’
There was something that flashed in his eyes. Something that she couldn’t read. ‘There was nothing fake about that.’
‘Had enough experience to know, have you?’
‘I think you know that answer for yourself now.’
He held her gaze until she felt the need to look away.
‘Tell me the truth, Phia. You haven’t been in Blackthorn long, have you?’
She couldn’t go down that route again, not with how dangerously close he’d started to veer towards it in the cell. And especially not now that she was on the cusp of getting out. ‘You’re convinced about that, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve seen the evidence of what you’re capable of, but out there on the streets every night? No way. You’d be dead already.’
‘You keep forgetting vampires aren’t immune like you.’
‘I would have heard something, Phia.’
‘Why? You think people really care? You think anybody cares what goes on here in Blackthorn? Vampires die every day – there’s not the time, resources or inclination to investigate them all. It’s a serryn’s perfect playground. And like I keep saying – I’m good at what I do.’
‘You’re too soft. The way you reacted when I held you down on the wasteland, when I threw you in here, your reaction in the cell – there’s nothing anywhere near hard enough in you.’ He paused. ‘Why leave Summerton behind for this?’
‘I have my reasons.’
‘Reasons other than being a serryn?’
‘A serryn that you clearly need. Come on, Jask – confession time. I think it’s time you let me in on why, don’t you?’
But this time he didn’t cut her dead. This time she saw a glimmer of a smile in his eyes. ‘What’s it worth?’ He eased her off him to encourage her to tread water for herself whilst still keeping a hold on her hands. ‘Keep your eyes on me,’ he said. She tried not to panic, but couldn’t help but squeeze his hands tighter. Once she started to reach a controlled rhythm, he continued. ‘So, what’s it worth?’
‘What it’s worth is time. The way I see it, we’ve reached stalemate. Only I don’t want to be here any longer than you want me here. So you tell me what you want me for, and maybe we can come to an arrangement.’
‘No arrangement. No deal. You’re just going to do as I tell you.Whenthe time comes.’
She started to wonder if she had been way off course with the Kane Malloy theory. It would have been insane for him to go after the master vampire – a risk to his entire pack with very little gain. There was something else. Something she was missing.
Unease coiled in her chest again. ‘So how long exactly are you planning on this so-called taming taking?’
‘And are you going to kill me when you’re done?’
His silence, his steady gaze, evoked her irritation too much.
‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘is that why you killed Ellen? Did she not do as she was told either?’
He stared at her, shock evident in his eyes. And something else.
But he didn’t deny it.
Only in that moment did she realise how desperately she needed him to deny it.
‘I think the word you’re looking for is murder,’ he said. ‘That’s what it’s called when you plan it, isn’t it? When you know what you’re doing?’
Panic sliced through her chest at his confession. ‘So it’s true?’
‘Yes, it’s true.’
He turned away and swam fluidly and silently back over to the side.
Only when he had exited the pool, when he had gathered up his clothes and left the room, did she realise she was treading water alone.
Jask stood outside the poolroom, his hair drying in the breeze as he toyed with the leather-strapped pendant at his neck.
Ellen’s pendent that represented the bloodline that may as well have died with her that day.
Hearing the facts of his soulmate’s demise uttered so cuttingly, so callously, had evoked only a defensive backlash from him. Not least coming from Phia. He’d wanted to shock her for her intrusion – for daring mention what she knew nothing about with such condemnation in her eyes. And clearly hehadshocked her.
But it had been the truth.
And she’d seen as such, judging from the alarm in her eyes – worse, the repulsion. But he hadn’t expected that repulsion to wound him so intensely. He hadn’t expected the disappointment in her eyes to hurt.
Someone had been speaking out of turn. And he’d find out who.
But first he needed to be there for Blaise, having been in the process of following her when he’d caught a glimpse of Phia entering the poolroom.
As he looked towards the tunnel that led to the outbuilding, he knew that was where she was. She’d been so distressed when he’d bumped into her in the foyer that he’d had to lead her away, not least with Phia watching on from the dining hall.
Blaise had been building up to going down there for too long now, and despite Jask’s insistence that she didn’t need to face it alone, he knew that’s what she would do.
He headed across to the tunnel, through the courtyard and past the tree. Entering the building, he made his way down the steps and along the passage.
Taking a left down into the containment rooms, he opened the third on the right – the one Nero always used.
Always ahead of the rest of the pack, Nero’s morphing was out of sync by two weeks. His kind were rare, but a gift in terms of getting the balance right every time for the rest of the pack during those times when the concoction needed altering.
This time it had failed.
Blaise was sat against the wall to his left, her knees to her chest, her arms wrapped around them as she stared ahead at the open cage, her long brown hair almost covering her face.
‘Do you want me to leave you be?’ he asked.
She shook her head. ‘No.’
Jask closed the door behind him and crossed the room to join her.
Slipping in behind her, she shuffled forward to allow it, before nestling back between his splayed legs as he wrapped his arms around her.
She rested her head back against his chest, her attention on the cage unflinching.
It had been filled with her screams the last time they’d been in there.
It had been routine at first – giving Nero the concoction. Only this time something had gone wrong. This time something was out with the mix. Not only had there not been a high enough dosage of aconite to help stop the morphing; there had not been enough turmeric to counteract its toxicity. So not only had he morphed; he’d been in agony – dying shortly after.
The time most likely for errors to occur was always around thirteenth moon when the balance was so volatile. But none of them had truly been prepared for it to happen to their pack – the first time it had happened since they’d been forced into the confines of Blackthorn with the regulations.
It had been a horrendous way to go. And Blaise had been stood there watching it all. Blaise who had been devoted to her soulmate for twenty years.
If it hadn’t been for losing Nero, all of them would have taken the concoction in just over a week. And it would have killed nearly all of them – certainly the ones who had avoided ever morphing before.
But that was no consolation to Nero now, and certainly no comfort to Blaise. In the five days that had followed since the incident, nothing had been of comfort to her. The pack were there for her, as they always were for each other, but what she really wanted had been cruelly snatched away.
It would have been a tragic enough incident before the regulations, but now it was a disaster. In the past, they would have been able to travel far and wide to find whatever herbs and spices they needed – anything they hadn’t grown for themselves. But nothing got into Blackthorn or Lowtown anymore without going through analysis at the Midtown and Summerton borders. What were once common herbs and spices were now rarities or no longer accessible beyond Summerton, not least due to the fact the TSCD had zero-tolerance policies on exchange and selling of herbs in order to keep the witches in check.
Only now he knew it was more than that – reinforced by Solstice’s suspicions back in the dining hall. The authorities tolerated the lycans’ ways, but only because they knew it wouldn’t last forever. One day, the herbs they already monitored each month would eventually stop growing or they’d have insufficient and fail to access what they needed – like turmeric. Then it would be either the meds, or morph and be slain.
Now the herb regulations didn’t feel targeted at the witches at all. Now it felt much more personal. And the authorities would already be on the road to success if Rone and Samson hadn’t found Phia in the ruins.
As angry as he still was with him, he had to face the fact that Rone had come good. He felt a glimmer of pride for the first time ever – something that felt even more uncomfortable than his overly stern hand with the youth.
‘I say we morph,’ Blaise finally said. ‘If we stop avoiding what we are, the Global Council would have nothing over us. Screw the regulations; let’s run amok on the streets. Let’s break down those barriers. No other species is physically stronger than a lycan morphed. Let’s show them once and for all.’
‘Blaise, you know this is about survival. They will shoot us dead in the streets before we even get that far – those of us strong enough to even survive the morphing. This pack has too many who have never attempted it. They won’t know what they’re doing, where they are, their own strength. You cannot run an army like that and an army is what it would take. The consequences don’t bear thinking about.’
‘And what happened to Nero doesn’t bear thinking about.’
He could hear her heaving breaths, the rapid rise and fall of her chest as she started to get upset again.
He wanted to promise her that one day it would be different. That somehow they would get out of the cage that was Blackthorn and Lowtown. But he couldn’t.
But he could tell her Nero hadn’t died in vain. That there was some hope – at least for the immediate future.
‘The serryn can get us what we need,’ he said.
She was still for a moment. Then she turned in his arms. ‘What?’
‘After what happened to Nero, Corbin and I went to see a witch. We’ve got lucky. He told us there’s still a supply of turmeric here in Blackthorn. That a witch has a secret stash she has kept concealed from the authorities. That a serryn can demand it.’
Blaise frowned. ‘That’s why you have her here?’
‘She’ll help us?’ Blaise asked.
Bolshie, stubborn Phia who had no intention of playing ball whatsoever.
‘I’m making sure of it,’ he said.
And as she turned back around, he held her with a renewed determination that this would not happen to the rest of his pack.
That despite the odds, hewouldsucceed. No matter what it took.
Sophia sat on the bench, a blanket she had found in the foyer wrapped around her upper body as she stared up at the clouds, the moon an ethereal glow behind them.
The quadrant was deathly quiet, only a handful of lycans having passed her in the past hour. She scanned the barbed wire skirting the fence ahead then returned her attention to the exit tunnel where she knew Jask was on duty in the outer room beyond.
Movement to her left caught her eye as Rone emerged through the tunnel from the courtyard. He strode along the path behind her, sending her only an almost undetectable nod as he passed on his way back up the steps and into the lobby.
Sophia stared back ahead at the exit tunnel.
She should have just sloped away, but she couldn’t. She had a job to finish. And before that she wanted, needed, final answers.
And in the three hours since he’d left her alone in the pool, she’d practised several lengths to rebuild her confidence. She’d also found the perfect place for their final confrontation.
Dropping the blanket, she crossed the quadrant, marched through the tunnel and to the gate.
‘I need to talk to Jask,’ she declared to the lycan marking it.
She was braced for persuasion, but he opened it without question, letting her through.
She stepped through the corrugated door he had equally opened for her, her attention immediately locking on the table ahead.
She hated the way he took her breath away. How he made her pulse race just to look at him.
Jask was sat with six others, all in the middle of a card game. She caught him mid-laugh before he knocked back a mouthful of beer – a laugh that seemed cold considering his earlier confession in the pool.
She hadn’t been able to get it out of her head – how he had just admitted to it. Why she had been so taken aback, she had no idea. She knew his reputation. She knew the rumours. The façade of the responsible pack leader was no mask for the brutality of the creature required to make sure his own survived that long in Blackthorn. He was no different to the others – to the other third-species underworld leaders who ran the district with a merciless hand. He was of the same ilk as the likes of Kane Malloy and Caleb Dehain – eyes and looks of an angel and a core as rotten and corrupt as the district they inhabited.
Andthat’swhat she’d keep at the forefront of her mind to finish the job.
She hovered awkwardly until he met her gaze, his eyes narrowing slightly in curiosity before he returned to his game.
She stepped closer to the table, the lycans with him glancing at her but seemingly not daring to linger for too long.
‘Something you want?’ Jask asked, his attention on his cards.
‘Can I talk to you?’
He threw down a card and leaned back, resting his arm on the back of his companion’s chair. ‘About what?’
A few of the lycans smirked.
They wouldn’t be smirking soon.
‘If you ask nicely,’ he said, before taking a mouthful from his bottle.
She exhaled tersely at his taunt.
‘Please,’ she said, the very word grating as she uttered it, as she swallowed a jagged lump of pride.
He knocked back another mouthful of beer before discarding his cards onto the table. ‘Sure,’ he said, standing.
He led the way out of the door, beer still in his hand. Closing it behind him, he turned to face her. ‘Let’s hear it.’
She looked across at the guard ahead. ‘Can we go for a walk?’
He knocked back another mouthful of beer, licked it from his lips as his eyes narrowed contemplatively on hers.
To her relief, he cocked his head towards the tunnel.
As they exited into the quadrant, she walked the path alongside him, her arms folded so he wouldn’t see the tension in her hands. Fortunately he didn’t press her to speak for a little while, which only granted her more time to get him where she needed to.
But it didn’t last.
‘Are you going to get to the point?’ he asked as they passed the pool, heading towards the tunnel that led to the courtyard and outbuildings. ‘Only I’m on duty.’
‘I wanted to apologise,’ she said, grateful that he at least kept walking.
They exited the tunnel and passed the greenhouse – exactly where she planned to make her escape as soon as she possibly could.
As soon as she’d said her goodbye – in more ways than one.
Her pulse rate picked up a notch. She had to stay calm – steady breaths and steady pace. She couldn’t raise his suspicion one iota.
‘For being so insensitive in the pool,’ she said. ‘I clearly offended you for you to walk away like that.’
She led the way past the oak and the outhouse before continuing to the single-storey derelict building behind it.
‘You’ve done nothing but offend me ever since I brought you here, serryn. Why apologise now?’
‘Because some things are unforgiveable.’ She glanced across at him before she wandered around the back of the building. She stepped up to the chain-link fence and gazed out beyond the demolition site to the distant glow of Lowtown.
Jask moved in alongside her. ‘Forget about it,’ he said, as he wrapped his fingers through the wire and took another mouthful of beer.
She had to keep him there long enough. She had to keep talking. ‘Do you ever go into Lowtown?’
He handed her his bottle so she could take a swig.
She would have preferred something stronger, but she accepted.
‘From time to time,’ he said.
She took a mouthful and handed it back to him.
‘You?’ he asked.
‘From time to time.’
‘The fact you apologised tells me you understand what family means. Do you have family back in Summerton?’
She nodded. But she didn’t elaborate. Sharing her story was a no-go zone. Not even Daniel knew. But then that was part of the agreement in The Alliance – no one ever disclosed anything. It was the most essential component to prevent ever being traced.
‘Is the serryn need in yousogreat that you can turn your back on your own?’
‘We all have things we have to do in life.’ She glanced at him before looking back ahead through the wire. ‘You should know that. Besides, they’re better off without me.’
He turned to face her side-on, leaning his shoulder against the fence. ‘You say that like you mean it.’
‘Did you do something?’ he asked, before taking another swig of beer.
She backed up against the wall. This was the time forhimto open up, not her. ‘I was always doingsomething.’ She slid down to the floor and crossed her legs.
He settled down alongside her as they both gazed out over the darkness, the distant thrum of bass emanating from the hub from far beyond the compound behind. She rested her head against the wall and stared up at the night sky, the clouds sweeping past the half-moon, any hint of stars clouded by pollution.
It was nothing like lying on a blanket of green in the hills of Summerton, staring up at the clear sky as Leila explained all the constellations. Explanations that inevitably ended up with her talking to herself as Sophia and Alisha instead opted to roll down the hills, their squeals and laughter breaking the peace.
And all that time, Leila had been hiding a secret – if she’d ever known what she was. There was still the chance she hadn’t. But too much was falling into place.
Back when Sophia had first discovered a vampire had been responsible for their mother’s death, everything had changed. Like dye in a clear pool of water, the need for vengeance had polluted her veins. Her search for vampire weaknesses had inevitably led her to discover the existence of serryns – a rare species of ancient witch whose blood was poisonous to vampires. Seductresses who would hunt them down, torture them and kill them.
The prospect had excited her at the time, and she’d become fixated on trying to find one despite rumours they were now extinct. She’d openly told Leila of her intentions, but Leila hadn’t shared her excitement. Infuriatingly, her big sister had told her to let things go or, worse, had met her rants with pure silence.
She’d never understood why Leila didn’t have that same need for vengeance. Now all she wanted to know was why, if she had known what she was, she hadn’t done anything about it.
But at the time, she’d had no reason to think anything of it. Instead, she’d ignored her big sister more and more as her trips to Lowtown became more frequent.
On her first venture into Blackthorn, she’d met Daniel. He and a couple of the others had rescued her when she’d been cornered by a vampire. They took him out swiftly, efficiently and bloodily.
She’d been enraptured by their control, their fearlessness. Less than a month later, she’d joined them. And she’d never looked back.
But now her head ached with the need for answers about her family. To find out what had been going on whilst she’d been away those past ten months.
That was personal though – this was business. And the former wasn’t going to happen until the latter was dealt with.
She’d made a pact. A pact with The Alliance, who had given her a purpose, put a roof over her head, honed her skills and set her on the path to vengeance that she so desperately needed.
And here she was alone with one of those very underworld leaders that they spent weeks, months even, planning to get access to. She’d been handed an opportunity like The Alliance never had. There would be consequences, of course. Rone would know it was her – that The Alliance had been responsible. Whether he would disclose how he knew though and that, subsequently, he had allowed it to happen, was unlikely.
She reached down to the heel of her boot, where her folded blade was concealed in the opposite heel to the pins. It might have been small but it was effective. Right angle, right force, right place and he’d be gone.
She’d return to The Alliance not only as their ultimate weapon, but with one underworld leader down and only two to go. She’d like to see Abby’s face then.
But as she looked across at him sat silently beside her – those beautiful azure eyes locked on the demolition site ahead, that stunning profile, that body that had made her feel like no one else had, that mind which seemed to somehow tune seamlessly into hers – she wavered again.
The reminder, the truth of what a monster he was, was exactly what she needed to make her plans easier.
‘So you meant it when you said you murdered your mate? You weren’t just saying it?’
He met her gaze, albeit fleetingly. He knocked back the remains of his beer. ‘Why?’ he asked, returning his gaze ahead.
‘Did she do something wrong?’
‘Yes.’ He paused. ‘She made a mistake wanting to be with me.’
She placed her numb hands flat against the cold, stone ground. ‘How did you kill her?’
‘In a blood bath,’ he said. ‘More blood than I’ve ever seen.’
She studied his eyes to try and work out if it was a wind-up – but the eyes that glanced back at her emanated nothing but truth.
‘Did she betray you in some way?’
‘She would never have betrayed me.’ He moved to stand. ‘Ever.’
But she caught his forearm, her fingers barely reaching either side, reminding her how badly a one-on-one battle could end for her.
‘Then why?’ she asked.
‘Why are you so interested?’
‘Who wouldn’t be? An alpha murdering his mate – it’s not exactly commonplace, is it? You’re supposed to be the most loyal of all your species.’
‘According to the rumours?’ He pulled his arm free and stood. But instead of walking away he turned to face her. ‘Your kind knows nothing. Nothing about us. Nothing about the truth. You and your Summerton education. You’ve no sense of the real world, just like the rest of them, serryn or not.’
She stood up, needing to be as close to eye level as she could. But she kept the wall behind her for balance. ‘Don’t patronise me, Jask. I’ve lived here long enough. I’ve seen what it’s like.’
‘Really? And yet youstilljustify your actions.’
‘I can justify thembecauseof what I’ve seen.’
‘Because of whatyourkind has created. You think you know what it’s like because youchooseto live within these boundaries? Take a look around – areallook around at this so-called temporary measure. This was never going to be anything other than one giant experimental pod; one third-species-sized rat maze. They created this tomakeus implode – to make us exactly what they want us to be. Like a caged animal in a zoo being prodded with a stick, they stand back and justify how aggressive we are so they can give cause to keeping us contained. And thenyoucome into the mix. You’re not even one of them. You talk about my kind being some kind of half-breed – what are you? Human with extra skills? No, you’re nothing but the second species to them. And when they’ve finally found a good enough reason to wipe us off the earth, they’ll start on you. For as long as your kind are in charge, we’re all fucked.’
‘You’re wrong,’ she said, the breeze blowing against her already chilled skin. ‘It wasyourkind that upset the balance by coming out in the first place. We contain you because we’re the best species on this planet at self-preservation – and wewillwin in the end.’
He stepped up to her, pressed his hand to her shoulder, trapping her against the wall. ‘Is that right?’
She held his gaze as he slipped his hand between her arm and her side, sliding his fingers down her ribcage, finding the soft flesh that would give him the easiest upward thrust to her heart.
‘Like now?’ he asked. ‘Your arrogance, your need to be right, your need to justify your actions pressing you that one step further with a species already about to snap? Do you know how easily I could tear your heart out from you right now if I chose to?’
Her breath hitched, the feel of his now lethally extended talons digging into her flesh through her tunic. ‘You need me,’ she said, searching for a reason for him not to, for one moment believing,reallybelieving, him capable.
He slid his hand up her abdomen, over her breast to her throat, his thumb pressing her chin up so she was forced to look him deep in the eyes. ‘Keep reminding me of that,’ he said.
She subtly slid her leg up the wall, her hand ready to meet her heel as he glided his thumb along her jaw line, his gaze not flinching from hers.
‘And I’ll remind you that if I wanted you dead, you’d be dead,’ he said, ‘whether I need you or not.’
She slid her fingers over her heel, pressing on the ball of her feet to create enough of a gap behind it that she could slide the hidden encasement open.
‘But youaregoing to work for me,’ he added.
‘And then you’ll kill me anyway, right?’
He slid his hand gently down her throat. ‘I’d advise that whatever weapon you’re reaching for right now, that you don’t.’ The breeze blew lightly through his hair, a sharp contrast to the steadiness of his gaze. ‘Unless you want me to show youjusthowferal I can be.’
Her fingers halted on her half-open heel. Only now she realised her hand wasn’t just trembling, it was shaking.
The battle drums of Blackthorn’s hub now seemed a painfully long way away. Everything felt a painfully long way away, alone there, trapped between the fence and the wall, in the dark with the lycan who stared coolly back at her.
‘In fact, I’ll show youexactlywhat untamed is,’ he said, his lips dangerously close to hers. ‘Unless you hand it over.’
Less than a few hours before, she would have looked him straight in the eye and defied him. And had absolutely no doubt she would have paid the consequences. Badly.
Just as there was a time when she would have taken a punt and tried to ram that blade into his throat regardless.
A time when she thought she had nothing to lose. When she despised herself enough not to care about the consequences.
But she learned one quietly terrifying thing in that moment: sheneededto live. What she did at that moment, the decision she made, mattered – not just for her, but for those she had left to care about.
Intentionally or unintentionally, Jask Taohadtamed her in some way. But she’d be damned if she’d let him know.
And there was absolutely no way she was sticking around now to give him long enough to find out.
She removed the small blade from her heel, keeping her breathing as controlled as she could as she placed it in his open palm. ‘Another time,’ she said.
‘I’ll hold you to that.’
Jask held her gaze for a moment longer before he backed away, walked away, without another word.
Just as Rone had promised, the trapdoor in the greenhouse was unlocked.
Inside was silent. Even the water sprays had ceased for the night.
Lifting the trapdoor, Sophia stared down the wooden slatted steps into the darkness. Hesitation cost time, and time was something she didn’t have.
Collecting the torch Rone had left her amongst the shrubbery – a diver’s torch in preparation for its task – she took the first two steps down. She shone the light around the depths, the vast space having far too many objects for there not to be the potential for something to be hiding behind them. Keeping watchful, she reached up to close the trapdoor behind her, sealing herself in the darkness. It was quiet enough down there to hear a page turn, her only comfort the beam of light – but even that could only ignite one corner at a time.
She sat on the bottom step and collected the taped-up plastic bag that contained dry clothes and, hopefully, the map out of there. It also had a cord, clearly so she could attach the bag to herself whilst she swam. Next to it was a knife. She pulled the heavy blade out of its encasement, the impressively sharp edge now jutting 180 degrees. Rone sure knew how to pick his weapons.
Shining the beam back around the room, she rested it on the door ahead – the entrance point to the tunnel.
She made her way over, sending the occasional wary glance over each shoulder. She should have been used to the dark, but there was no denying it was an inherent fear no matter how accustomed she was to it.
She unbolted the door and reached for the key on the hook beside it. The internal lock mechanism giving way echoed in the silence, momentarily overwhelming the blood pounding in her ears. Fortunately, the door opened silently.
She shone the torch into further darkness.
It looked like nothing more than a tunnel through rock but then, from what Rone had told her, that’s exactly what it was.
She stepped into the dense chill. Closing the door behind her, she stood for a moment, her breathing ragged.
‘Come on, Phia,’ she whispered. ‘You’ve been in darker places than this.’
She held the torch beam ahead.
The tunnel was no wider than four feet, no higher than seven.
‘Single-file only,’ she whispered again, muttering to herself as she always had when she was frightened as a child.
The temptation to leave the door open behind was immense. But she did what Rone had instructed. She locked the door behind her and slid the key back through the tiny gap at the floor.
‘No going back,’ she muttered as she replaced the torch with the knife, ensuring she held the weapon in her best hand, the ray of light in the other, the plastic bag tucked under that arm.
And she took her first step forward.
‘There’s nothing to worry about until you get to the other side of the water,’ she whispered, putting one foot in front of the other. ‘They don’t come this way. Nothing comes this way. Twenty minutes, that’s all. Just twenty minutes to the lagoon.’
She picked up pace, the beam allowing her to see at least thirty feet ahead.
At least there were no corners at that part, not for a good way in.
She swallowed hard against her arid throat. ‘You’re made of stronger stuff than this, Phia McKay. Much stronger.’
Keep it going. Keep it going.Only now she said it silently in her head, anxiety muting her speech.
The torch indicated she was veering right and before long she was veering left.
One way in. One way out. And nowhere to hide should something come the other way.
But nothing was going to come the other way. Rone had assured her there was minimal risk until she got beyond the water.
She picked up pace, striding ahead as fast as she could, the distance she needed to cover passing too slowly.
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Approaching fifteen at least.
As the tunnel became more twisted, she slowed down a little for fear of knocking herself out cold on a wall, before it opened up again. The walls spread, the ceiling now beyond her reach.
But she kept her pace steady. She ploughed forward, the beam bouncing off the walls, off the floor.
Until there was only a wall straight ahead, nothing but rock beneath.
No more tunnel. And no lagoon.
Her stomach clenched. She came to a standstill.
It was a dead end.
She shone the beam around more erratically for a smaller opening. Nothing but rock. Nothing but rock and a locked door behind her.
He’d tricked her. Rone had tricked her. The double-crossing…
She growled under her breath, kicked a rock against the wall ahead and turned away just as she heard the plop.
She spun back around.
Ripples spanned the small pool ahead – a pool that had been so perfectly still, it had been nothing but a mirror to the rocks around it.
Sophia warily stepped closer as the water began to still again – water that seamlessly reached the rock’s edge.
Her dark and cold abyss of a way out.
Her heart leapt.
Dropping the bag, knife and torch to the floor beside her, she untied and slipped off her boots before sitting cross-legged at the water’s edge. She stared down into the darkness, her heart pounding, her hands coiled around the rock. She closed her eyes, muttering to herself as she psyched herself up.
Opening her eyes again, she grabbed the plastic bag and used the cord to tie it around the small of her back. She eased herself from the edge into the cold water, shivers shimmying up through her body.
Once submerged to mid-waist, she grabbed the torch and, most importantly, the knife.
She mouthed from one to three, and slipped into the darkness.
As soon as the cold water enveloped her, she knew there was no going back.
Eyes wide open, she held her torch ahead as steadily as she could whilst clumsily pushing herself through the water in moves that were too erratic and energy-draining in their urgency.
She kept veering ahead as Rone had told her. But having suspected he had betrayed her once, the paranoia was now at the forefront of her mind that she’d hit a dead end – that the air pockets were a lie. She’d know in her final seconds that he’d got one over on her, his problem solved.
She couldn’t expect anything less, and had been naïve not to consider it before. She’d threatened him. She’d threatened to expose him, and subsequently he’d made up some lie about her being able to get out of there to be rid of her.
But she’d taken the only chance she could. If she didn’t get out of there, if she couldn’t save her sisters, The Alliance, then she may as well drown.
The pain started to consume her chest at the lack of oxygen, the light-headedness kicking in, her body taking over her mind as it punched her into accepting she needed oxygen.
She kicked harder, knowing the panic that consumed her was not going to help.
Rone had said it was at the midway point.
She kicked to the surface of the darkness, slamming the back of her hand up through the water, the panic taking holding as she hit rock every time.
She clutched the knife tighter, fearful of dropping it – fearful of never getting out of the tunnel without it, even if she did get to the other side of the lagoon.
She kept slamming her hand above her head, kept finding rock, her whole body starting to jerk in desperation for air.
She slammed her hand upwards again, but this time broke into cold air.
She pushed her head above the surface, and took the deepest and most desperate breath she had since that day in the lake.
She pressed her torch-holding hand to the rock as she used it to help balance herself, to curb the panic as her legs kicked erratically beneath the surface.
Regaining her senses, she took in the small dome in the rock – the small crevice providing air from somewhere. But the regular supply didn’t mean she could stay there, even if the thought did cross her mind for a split second. Her body would freeze, her stationary position already evoking blood supply stagnation further than in just her extremities.
She needed to get back into the darkness, back into the cold depths and face the final twenty feet.
She closed her eyes, took as many deep breaths as she could.
And pushed herself back under the water.
The second part was more difficult – her body working less fluidly. She knew she couldn’t hold her breath as long the second time, already tiring quickly, the extra effort to make her body move consuming more energy.
But she kept the torch ahead, kept veering right just as Rone had told her, pushing through the water, her legs exerting themselves to keep her momentum going.
When she suddenly hit rock, her knuckles scraping against the stone, she took in a mouthful of water in her panic.
But her instinct was to swim upwards.
She kicked hard, sliding up the wall, seeming to get nowhere until suddenly her head pushed through the surface water into the darkness of a tunnel.
She swam forward, dropping the knife and torch onto the side of the rock. She coughed and caught her breath, her forearms pressed down onto the hard edge.
It took her three attempts before she was able to lever herself out. Even then she could only manage to flop onto her side before rolling onto her stomach. She buried her head in her forearm before her survival instincts kicked in; before she reminded herself to tune into the potential threat of her surroundings.
She grabbed her torch and shone it into the darkness ahead.
There was no sound and no movement.
Rone had explained that most wouldn’t venture down that part of the tunnel. Territory ruled just as much down there as it did on the surface. But she couldn’t count on it and she certainly couldn’t risk taking a wrong turn.
Shivering, she eased onto her knees and unfastened the cord around her waist. She ripped open the waterproof bag and took out the dry tunic and the map, a light pair of ballet-style shoes hitting the floor.
She angled the torch so it remained down the tunnel as she hurriedly tore off the sodden tunic clinging to her wet skin. The friction was painful as she drew it over her numbing flesh before casting it aside.
She slipped on the fresh tunic, too big for her, but that was probably better out there on the streets where she was going.
She waited for her feet to dry as she grabbed the torch again and studied the map.
There was no way she’d memorise it. This required her keeping it open at all times.
She slipped on the ballet shoes and stood up, leaving everything else behind – everything but the torch, the map and the knife.
The first part of the map said straight ahead for at least fifty feet, ignoring every turn off to the left, each of those branching out elsewhere. She prepared herself for the worst as she pressed on ahead, even her quiet footsteps painfully conspicuous in the silence of the tunnel.
Not that her silence would make any difference if there were rogue lycans or vampires milling around the tunnel – they’d smell her coming from over fifty feet away. But right then, for the first time, they seemed like the least of her worries. Because what she dreaded, as much as any third species, was the potential threat of the humans thatchoseto lurk down there.
Rone had been right in saying they were the lowest of the low. The Alliance had trained her to pick out the cons and to avoid them at all costs. In the cons’ eyes,theywere the humans that owned Blackthorn and would be as resentful of The Alliance’s presence as the third species themselves.
She tightened her grip on her knife as her sudden sense of vulnerability consumed her. She slowed every time she reached a recess, taking a defensive stance, the blade ready in her hand, her heart pounding wildly, the adrenaline pumping.
It had always been her weak point in combat. Zach had tried so hard to calm her down – warning her that the escalation of her pulse rate and breathing not only made her more clumsy and less focused, but also incited her third-species opponent more. It also made her seem weaker than she was – something she couldn’t afford to present.
Because she wasn’t weaker. She was impulsive and at times irrational, but she also had a determination that made her a relentless opponent. Some days it had been all she’d had.
She kept her back to the wall as she moved further and further along the tunnel. She checked the map, ensuring she was going the right way. But she wouldn’t move her back from the wall – not with the potential of anything coming up behind her, from in front or from the sides.
She quickened her pace, stopping every now and again to read the map before proceeding.
Suddenly the compound felt like a safe place. Being near Jask felt safe. But she rejected the thought as soon as it entered her head.
Nothing about Blackthorn was safe. Nothing about Blackthorn had ever been safe. Safe was something that no one but the elite could afford to feel. In fact, under the new systems,nohuman felt safe.
That was the point behind The Alliance – to break the system. To destroy the likes of Jask.
But still she couldn’t help her mind wandering to how he would feel when he found out she’d gone. If he would suspect Rone. What punishments he would inflict on him.
What punishments he would inflict on her when and if he caught up with her.
Or if that last moment with himhadbeen the last moment.
Sophia took a left at the end of the tunnel and then veered right. It opened up for a while in width and height before closing in on itself again. Some sections were man-made – bricked in with cement. Others were natural rock cocoons where nature had paved the way centuries or thousands of years before. The whole place was a warren. A maze known only by those who used it.
Following the map, she ploughed on until her feet registered an incline. Her torch caught a metal grid two feet off the ground to her left.
As she crouched down to peer through it, she saw nothing but crates beyond.
She tucked the torch in her mouth and removed the grate before warily sticking her head out.
It was a warehouse just as Rone had said.
Slipping through the gap, she peered up over the top of the crates in front of it. The place was empty. Regardless, she kept alert as she crept around the side and into the open.
She hurriedly crossed the warehouse, stepping out into an alley.
She stared up at the night sky as the clouds blew past the moon, then turned to face the alley opening. She needed to know where she was – where the tunnel had brought her out. She could tell from the volume of people, let alone the noise, that she was near the hub. And that meant she wasn’t too far from home.
But she couldn’t go home – that she had already resolved. As much as she wanted to feel a fresh shower and get into familiar clothes, she couldn’t risk it. If they knew who she was, they also knew where she lived. It was a risk she wasn’t willing to take.
She knew exactly where to go instead.
Stepping out of the alley, she scanned the neon signs and the landmarks. Seeing the clock tower of the museum in the distance, she headed straight towards it.
Sophia climbed the familiar graffiti-stained stairwell of the tower block.
The competing thud of music, of action films, of raucous voices resounded from behind closed or ajar doors as she ascended four flights of the dilapidated building.
She clenched her hidden knife as a group of youths passed her, one knocking her shoulder, the others turning around to mock her clothing. But she kept her mouth shut, her focus on the task in hand, not on a pending assault or dying on the cold, hard steps.
Daniel’s bedsit was the first on the left.
Sophia stepped up to the splintered door. Heart pounding, breaths shallow, she pushed it open all the way before looking inside.
The place was badly smashed up. No sign of Daniel. Fortunately no sign of blood or law enforcement tape either.
She knew it was as pointless as it was risky banging on doors for answers, or even requesting a phone. Just as she knew there was one more place she could look for answers if the operation had gone wrong.
She turned on her heels and hurried back down the stairs, knocking shoulders with a couple she passed, her thoughts too focused elsewhere to acknowledge their verbal retaliation.
She headed back out onto the street, the flutter of palpitations consuming her chest. If her suspicions were right, the longer she stayed on the street, the more at risk she was.
But there was no way she could even attempt to get to the safety of Summerton. There would be all the awkward questions at the security offices, not least because Leila would have undoubtedly registered her as missing. She’d have been detained for sure, and then there was no way she’d be able to help anyone whilst locked in a cell for at least forty-eight hours of investigations.
But if Leila was in Summerton, or Alisha even, then they could get toher.
She needed that phone. More than anything, she just needed to hear their voices. She just needed to hear that they were okay – that she’d made a terrible mistake, an overreaction, and they were both home and well.
But her instincts told her it was dangerously wishful thinking.
She marched to the right before taking a sharp left down a side street. Reaching crossroads, she took another left.
There was only one place shewouldbe safe.
She’d only ever been there once. They all had only ever been there once. But the location had been engrained in their minds – each with the hope they’d never have to use it.
She passed the rows of residential houses, most of them boarded up, many front doors broken open by whatever species chose to call them home.
As she’d done on the way there, she kept her head up as she moved through the crowds. A lowered head and lowered eyes meant victim stamped on your forehead. It was about averting your eyes, but not avoiding eye contact. It was aboutlookinglike you had a sire in Blackthorn, even if you didn’t.
Some sires, eager to climb the power chain, sent their own feeders out to look for fresh human blood to add to their brood. If you got stopped, you looked them straight in the eye and told them you were taken. It was about knowing enough names on the street to know who to claim you belonged to. Most would remain cautious if you were convincing enough.
It was how The Alliance had started finding out who Blackthorn’s key players were in the first place. They’d infiltrated the furtive feeder system – finding out who the leading sires were. They’d lost some of their own along the way. Offering yourself up as a feeder was dangerous territory. But theyhadgot answers.
They’d gathered the names, used them when they needed to and then picked them off one by one. The operation had been going for fourteen months – slow but steady was the fight. Each one was done a different way – each made to look like a suspicious accident. The Alliance weren’t about accolade – they were about getting the job done.
Sophia crossed the street to avoid the crowd of males lurking around the steps of one of the dilapidated Edwardian terrace town houses. With vampires it was the loners to fear. With humans it was the crowds to watch for.
With the former, the sense of her new power should have been liberating but she was already starting to doubt herself. She struggled to keep her focus on the hustle and bustle as she weaved her way through the crowds. The laughter, the shouts and the jostling were as disorientating as the neon lights flashing and reflecting on the damp pavements. But not as disorientating as her nerve endings firing involuntarily, the hairs on the back of her neck alert to the potential all around her.
She had walked through those crowds countless times but had never felt more alive. More aware. Something in her had changed. Instead of wanting to avoid the vampires she rubbed shoulders with, she wanted to stop, to grab hold of one of them, lead them into one of the dark alleys, make them bite...
She forced herself out of her daze, clutched the knife she held concealed amidst the folds of her tunic.
She guessed control would become easier with practice – the very reason serryns needed some kind of training to turn them into efficient predators rather than responding to their own desires all the time. The latter never lasted long – serryns, renowned for needing the next rush, becoming more and more impulsive to their eventual demise.
She wouldn’t be like that. She’d manage it.
She had to keep walking, she had to keep going. She had to keep her focus on where she needed to be.
But as she glanced over her shoulder, as she saw the crowd on the steps had disappeared, she walked a little faster.
She subtly glanced at the glass windows opposite to try and catch reflections, but there were still too many around to determine whether she was being followed or not. The only way she’d know was when she got somewhere quieter.
She tightened her grip on the knife.
She had the choice to look over her shoulder again and let them know she had noticed, or to walk on pretending to be oblivious.
As the crowds started to thin out, she opted for the former.
At a glance she guessed there were four of them.
Her heart pounded a little harder, a light-headedness trying to suppress the panic.
Four of them and one of her. Four vampires and she might live long enough once the first one took a bite. But four humans – that would come down to brute strength.
She pressed her lips together and quickened her pace slightly – not to get away from them just yet but to build up a steady pace.
She counted it down.
As soon as she turned the next corner, she hit full sprint.
If there was one thing she had always had on her side, it was speed – at least against her own. And when it came to four human males and her, she’d outdo them every time in nimbleness alone. They might have seen easy pickings in her, but she saw a group she was going to outrun whatever it took.
Sophia turned left and then right, slipping through the chain-link fence and navigating her way nimbly around the boxes and rubbish.
It wasn’t long before her pursuers were no longer silent. Instead their whoops and yells, like hounds in pursuit of a fox, echoed down the streets behind her.
In their eyes, this was mere sport – a sadistic hunt to the finish. Her life, what may have been left of it once they’d finished, nothing more than a game. She may have been one of their own but, for them, there was no loyalty to their own species. To them she was just another piece of entertainment.
She flicked out the blade as she ran, easily clearing obstacles whereas one closing in crushed them, slowing him down for a moment.
With every amount of energy she had, she sprinted until her chest ached.
With the wind in her ears and the adrenaline pumping, she struggled to remember how long it had been since they’d fallen quiet. Since the sickening goads and whistles had stopped.
But it was enough to make her finally slow her pace and turn around.
There wasn’t sight nor sound of any of them.
She leaned forward and rested her palms on her thighs to catch her breath whilst remaining on her guard.
But they didn’t reappear.
She felt a sense of disquiet as she stared into the darkness ahead, like the sudden silence before a volcanic eruption.
But nothing happened.
Knowing she still couldn’t rest on her laurels, let alone that the route had taken her ten minutes off course, she did an about-turn and picked up pace again.
Keeping to the other side of the street, she passed the cinema on the right. It was used mainly for shows of another kind now – live performances that rumours dictated rarely ended that way.
She kept close on the heels of one group so as to look to be a part of them, veering off again as soon as she passed the dwindling crowds.
She crossed in front of broad stone steps that led to the empty shell that was once a church, before taking a right down the cobbled street that ran alongside it, past the rusted fleur-de-lis-topped railings that enclosed its grounds.
The cemetery still housed a hundred or so graves – graves from decades that had long passed. Even the sanctity of burial was no longer allowed. Now, bodies, especially the third species, were mainly cremated. Human ashes, except for those of the cons, were stored in crems in Lowtown – unless you were a resident of Summerton or Midtown. Both had beautiful churchyards. Summerton and Midtown residents were allowed to be buried. Just as they were allowed the best medical treatment, the best education, the best opportunities, the best of everything.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to her mother’s grave. Or her grandfather’s. Leila had always gone every week without fail. Every Sunday afternoon when she wasn’t working at the library, she’d head there with her flowers. Sometimes Alisha would go with her too.
Sophia had accompanied them both only once – Leila having insisted on all three sisters going together for their mother’s birthday one year.
Sophia had spent the whole time hovering a few feet from the graves, her arms wrapped tightly around herself as she looked anywhere but at the inscriptions on the headstones. She’d even opted out of her say in that – shrugging and saying she’d go with whatever Leila and Alisha thought.
She’d stood and listened to the wind in the trees, the irony of the peacefulness compared with the death her mother had had.
All because of her.
She’d always felt like a traitor stood there – like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. Only this criminal had a knotted throat and barely held-back tears.
At times she’d wondered if that’s why Leila had encouraged her to go – some sadistic way of making her face up to her guilt.
It was part of the reason she lashed out at Leila so much – because deep down she knew if she hated herself as much as she did, then surely Leila must hate her too. She never admitted to it, but Leila knew the cause of their mother’s death as much as she did. Leila knew her unruly, arrogant, selfish little sister was responsible for putting their mother in the position in the first place. And somewhere deep, Leilahadto despise her for it.
She took another left and slipped through the loose board in the sealed-up doorway. It was one of a multitude of old factories that had never been claimed – one of the many abandoned buildings that didn’t suit anyone’s purpose.
Only this one suited The Alliance’s purpose perfectly.
The sliding and scraping of the wood echoed around the vast, empty interior, but her footsteps were barely audible as Sophia made her way across the concrete floor to the elevator shaft directly ahead.
They’d made their bolthole, their safe house, in the old offices above.
If anyone was there, they would have seen her coming on the CCTV hidden in the crevices. Whether the elevator descended or not would tell her that – otherwise it would be a heck of a climb up the exterior of the girder-structured shaft.
But as soon as she’d reached the base, the metal cogs kicked into action.
Her heart leapt.
She moved from foot to foot as she waited for its descent.
She saw his trainer-clad feet first, then his loose-fitting jeans. As Daniel appeared fully in view, as he slid back the cage door, she lunged to greet him the same time he did her.
It was something she’d never done before – reach for him in any genuine sign of affection. But to see him alive and well, let alone for her to have got there in one piece, brought reality home hard and fast.
‘Shit, Phia,’ he exclaimed, squeezing her against him. ‘I thought you were dead.’
She pulled back from his hold so she could look in his eyes. ‘Same here. I’ve just come from your place.’
‘I had word I had unwanted guests before I even got up there. Phia, one minute you’re hurtling after Caleb Dehain and then you’re gone. I thought he’d killed you. Where have you been?’
‘Long story. Word is out there about us, right? That’s why you’ve all come here?’
His grave blue eyes held hers, something behind them making her uneasy. He pulled the gate back across and flipped the lever to trigger their ascent. ‘Let’s get upstairs first.’
She watched the girders scrape past and glanced warily across at him. He looked pale and drawn, as if he hadn’t eaten properly for a couple of days, hadn’t seen a glimpse of sunlight. The bags under his eyes told her he certainly hadn’t slept. It was all the confirmation she needed that their secret had been uncovered – let alone the fact he was there in the first place.
Daniel pulled open the gate, Phia stepping out first and heading towards the open door. As he hurriedly locked and secured it behind them, Sophia glanced into the kitchen, at the piles of tinned food and water. But it wasn’t just the reality hitting her that unnerved her – it was the silence emanating from the lounge beyond.
She continued along the hallway before entering the main room. She skimmed over the empty battered sofas ahead, the vacant chairs and table to her left. There was no sound of voices in the makeshift bedrooms beyond, no echo of a shower running. There were no strewn around mugs except for one sat alone on the tarnished coffee table ahead.
Unease took a painful hold on her chest. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘Sit down,’ Daniel said softly, resuming his place in the dip of the tattered sofa.
On autopilot, she sank next to him, her body turned to face him fully. ‘Dan?’ she asked again, her heart pounding.
He took a steady intake of air. ‘They’re gone, Phia.’
It took a moment for the word to sink in. ‘Gone? What do you mean, “gone”? Gone where?’
‘Some might have made it into Lowtown.’
He moved to stand. ‘I’ll get you a coffee.’
She grabbed his arm before he had chance to rise more than an inch. ‘Dan, what the fuck is going on?’
For a moment he said nothing as he stared at the coffee table. Then his eyes met hers. ‘They’re dead, Phia. Nearly all of them. Dead. The Alliance is finished.’
Caitlin Parish stepped through the cornered-off apartment, her colleagues milling about – mainly forensics gathering up whatever evidence they could before the rest of the investigative team stepped in.
As she assessed the room, the blood splatters on the wall, the corpse strapped to a dining chair in the small bedsit, it was one hell of a way to spend her first two hours back at work.
The response had been cold enough that evening as she’d returned to the Vampire Control Unit for the first time in two weeks. For the first time since the trial that had exposed the corruption of the three agents, let alone the head of the Third Species Control Division, determined to bring down their most wanted vampire, Kane Malloy.
The vampire whose bed she had just come from.
The office, always a flurry of activity and noise, had fallen silent the minute she’d stepped into it. All eyes had been on her as she’d made her way across to the desk she hadn’t sat at since the court case, since the scandal had outed.
The scandalshehad outed.
She’d glanced around at one or two glares of disapproval – colleagues she’d had enough of a battle with over the years to prove her worth in the VCU and not just in the interrogation room.
Now they’d emanated the hateful “I told you so” look. A look she knew she’d have to get used to. Fast.
She’d sat at her desk and fired up her computer before tearing the sticky note off the screen.
Vampire whore, it had said.
Never had two words cut her deeper.
‘Or just whore,’ a whisper echoed behind her. ‘A dirty little vampire-loving slut.’
She’d wanted to turn and march over to confront the faceless voice, to slam the paper on his desk. Instead, she’d scrunched up the note in her hand, adjusted her chair and logged into her computer.
Before marching straight to Morgan’s office.
‘You can’t do this,’ she’d said as she’d stood at the threshold to his office.
He’d looked up from his pile of paperwork, pen still poised in his hand. ‘Welcome back, Agent Parish.’
‘You said it,’ she’d declared, closing the door behind her. ‘AgentParish. So would you like to tell me why I’ve been put on shadow readingonlyfor the next month?’
Morgan sighed and threw down his pen. A resolute sigh that had told her it was the precise response he’d been expecting. But hehadbeen her street partner for eighteen months. And shehadbeen his senior.
He’d leaned back in his chair and held his hand out towards the one on the other side of his desk.
Caitlin had promptly accepted his offer, perching on the edge, her forearms on the desk that her stepfather had once occupied almost seven days a week for over a decade. Occupied, until she’d told the court exactly what he, her father, and her ex had done to Arana Malloy under the toxic influence of the head of the TSCD, Xavier Carter.
‘I can’t let you back out there yet, Caitlin.’
‘Why do you think?’
‘I did the right thing, Morgan – and you know it.’
‘But unfortunately for you, ninety-five per cent of the Vampire Control Unit think you’re wrong. Probably ninety-five per cent of the entire Third Species Control Division.’
‘Since when did what’s right and what’s wrong work on a majority-decision-only basis?’ She’d unscrunched the paper in her hand and smoothed it out on top of the paperwork. ‘See this? Is this right?’
‘People are still upset.’
‘No, Morgan – this is ignorance. And I don’t get bullied by ignorance.’
‘It’s not about what’s right or wrong in this. It’s about the fact I can’t guarantee your safety.’
‘No one wants my back, right?’
‘Caitlin, I don’t need to spell it out to you. They don’t care about your motivations or your reasons for what happened. They don’t care about what really went on. All they see is that you betrayed your unit. You took a vampire’s side over the side of your own. Worse still, you chose to sleep with him. Any respect you had gained in this unit is gone. Besides, upset in the team is the last thing we need right now. I’m trying to keep morale high and the VCU united for the bastards out there who think we’re broken. I’m doing what’s best for the team. So I’m sorry, Caitlin, but if you want to stay a part of this unit, you have to take what I give you.’
‘So you tuck me away. Pay lip service to my return to work. And what does that achieve other than you proving you’re nothing but a nodding dog to every agent out there who thinksthisis acceptable?’ she’d said, slamming her finger on the paper. ‘Is thisreallyhow you want to start your career – keeping your head down? Tellthemthat they either accept me ortheycan reconsider their place on this team.’
‘And that’s what you’d do in my position, is it, Caitlin?’
‘Too right, I would. Because with it I would be proving to every single person out in Lowtown and Blackthorn that the Vampire Control Unit, let alone the Third Species Control Division, is not an all boys’ club of scratching mutual backs and looking after your own. It’s about doing what we’re paid to do, which is protecting those streets with the most impartial and effective agents we have. And I was and will continue to be this unit’s most effective agent, Morgan – and you know it. You stick me down in one of those shadow-reading rooms and I will lose total respect for you. Because you will prove that this whole system, just like they’re saying out on the streets right now,isa lost cause. You have a chance to change things, Morgan.Reallychange things. And you can start right now.’
She’d leaned back in her chair, her arms folded, her glare fixed on Morgan.
He’d held that gaze for a moment then shaken his head slightly as he’d looked back down at his paperwork.
She’d not dared move, her breath baited as she’d awaited his response in the passing seconds.
He’d slipped a thin cardboard folder out from under his pile of papers and dropped it in front of her.
‘It’s the eighth one in three days,’ he’d said. ‘All tortured before death. All totally unrelated as far as we can tell other than the fact all the victims are human.’
‘Tortured for what?’
‘We don’t know. With no survivors, no witnesses and no one on the street talking to us, we’re clueless.’
‘Retaliation for the trial?’
He shrugged. ‘A possibility. What’s interesting though is that their fingertips were burned off to slow down identification. At the very least, whoever it is, they’re buying themselves some time, which tells us there could be more to come.’
She’d flicked through the papers. ‘What about dental records?’
‘There were no dentures left to analyse.’
She snatched her gaze back up to him. ‘So basically we have nothing until DNA results come through?’
‘This is the DNA report on the first two,’ he said, pulling out the yellow sheet amongst the white. ‘One victim came from Midtown, the other from Lowtown.’
‘No sign of it.’
‘Then what were they doing in Blackthorn?’
He’d shrugged. ‘That’s the big question. So, are you up for the job,AgentParish?’
She’d smiled and gathered up the folder.
‘Just look out for yourself,’ he’d said, easing back in his chair. ‘Tyrell’s already on this case so he’ll be your partner. I don’t think he’ll give you any major problems, but you’re still on your own now. And that’s no way for a VCU agent to be.’
She’d stood up. ‘I’m not quitting, Matt,’ she’d said, clutching the folder against her chest. ‘I know that’s exactly what they want me to do, but I’m not walking out of here.’
He’s sent her a weary smile. ‘As if I should have expected anything less.’
Now, in the dingy bedsit, she stepped up to the chair, up to the body. She crouched down to look up at the face. It was badly beaten. She glanced down at the fingertips that had been burned off just like the others. All the teeth with missing.
She stood back up again.
‘I take it we have nothing again,’ she said as an open question, her attention still on the body.
When she was met with silence, she glanced around at her so-called team.
Carl, who she’d worked with in forensics for long enough, just shrugged.
They’d always had a good relationship, but now he struggled to maintain eye contact with her. She excused it as her own paranoia setting in at first, but his response was too uncharacteristic to his usual free-flowing concise and insightful analysis. It wasn’t helped by him glancing at some of the others in the room, as if needing their approval.
Others who remained equally silent.
As if someone had jumped on her back, she felt the weight of their reproach.
‘Do you have a problem in solving this case?’ she asked, staring straight back at Carl.
His eyes, laced with resentment at being confronted, finally met hers.
‘Because if you’re struggling to do your job, I can organise a replacement,’ she reminded him.
It was a foolhardy statement – one that wasn’t going to win her or regain her any fans. Not that either were a battle she was going to win anyway. But she was going to do her job properly. And if that meant reminding her colleagues who was in charge, then that was what she’d do.
‘Male, late twenties,’ Harry, one of the investigators, said as he handed her a plastic evidence bag with the ID open inside. ‘This had fallen down the back of one of the drawers. It’s the first time anything has been left behind. We don’t know if they were in a hurry, got slack or were just disturbed. His name’s Mark Turner. Formerly of Midtown. Good education. Plenty of money behind him. He had no reason to be here. We’ve done all the standard checks. His system is clear of alcohol and drugs. There are no bite or syringe marks, so he wasn’t a feeder. Like I said – he had no reason to be here.’
Caitlin scanned the information on the ID. ‘I want to know more about his background. I want to know about any political influences. I want to know if he was here on a cause.’
‘A cause?’ Carl asked.
‘These attacks are down to a third species,’ she said. ‘So I’m guessing Mark here, along with the others, has offended someone somehow. Until we find the link between the victims, we’re not going to know.’
‘Cons are proficient at staging crimes like these – shifting the blame.’
‘The lab reports show from the angle, force and indentations that the victims’ jaws were removed by hands, not tools. Besides, up until now this whole operation has been meticulous. From the way each of the victims was tortured, someone wanted something from each of them. This is clinical, not personal. And it’s professional. This was a mission.’
‘I’ll see what I can find out,’ Harry said.
‘And flag the files up to the Unidentified Species Unit. We can’t assume only vampire or lycan involvement. We might have something else on our hands.’
‘Why don’t you just ask your boyfriend for help?’ someone piped up.
She scanned the room, detecting the smirks, before locating the officer guarding the door.
‘He knows all about this kind of thing, doesn’t he?’ the officer added. ‘Torturing, maiming, killing? Maybe he had something to do with it.Maybehe thinks he can get away with it now he’s got someone on the inside to cover his arse for him.’
She turned to face the officer at least twenty years her senior but five ranks her junior.
‘How about you produce a statement to that effect?’ she suggested, biting back her aggravation. ‘And submit it for consideration, if that’s your genuine suspicion?’
‘So you can get him into the interrogation room all over again? Oh no, you don’t need to, do you? You can strap him up in your own private den now. Or is it true that you like him to strap you up?’ He looked around the room and smirked. ‘I think that’s where we’ve been going wrong all these years, boys. She’s not frigid.’ He glowered back at her with his cold, grey eyes. ‘She just likes it rough. Vampire rough.’
Pulse racing, chest tight, she stepped up to him. ‘I’mmorethan capable of setting my personal feelings aside. If you’re having difficulty doing the same, maybe you’re not emotionally up to the job.’
The eyes of the nameless officer narrowed in hatred, despite it being the first time they had ever so much as exchanged words. He was the silent voice of everything that was wrong with the TSCD – quick to judge, quick to condemn and, typical of bullies, quick to make sure as many others as possible did the same. And he did so with a sanctimony that was the ultimate irony. ‘When we’re alone, I’ll show you just how much I’m up to the job.’
Her stomach flipped, queasiness at the very suggestion only adding to her indignation. ‘Is that a threat?’
‘Not that anyone in here has heard,’ he replied.
She looked around as all eyes rested sullenly on hers.
‘No one wants you here, Parish,’ he added. ‘So why don’t you go and shuffle your papers like some good little secretary and leave the real work to the men who know how togiveit to the vampires, not roll over andtakeit.’
She glowered deep into the officer’s eyes.
In the silence of the room, no one defended her. No one spoke up. No one moved. Hardly anyone breathed.
She brushed past him. ‘I want everything on my desk before the end of the shift,’ she said before turning to face the room again. ‘Unlessyouall want to be the ones rolling over and proving everyone right who thinks the TSCD have lost their touch. I sure as hell won’t be.’
She headed back to the stairs in the derelict tower block. She fisted her trembling hands and struggled to calm her breathing, not least when she heard laughter inside, even some congratulatory comments and a slap on a back.
Face flushed from humiliation, from anger, from the injustice, she headed back down the stairs, unable to stop even for Tyrell for fear of her barely held-back tears giving way.