Publisher: Hailey Edwards
eBook release date: 5-28-19
Print release date: 6-6-19
The Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy, Book 6
The Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy, Book 6
Savannah has fallen to the vampires, and it’s up to Grier to take out their leader, Gaspard Lacroix, and restore peace. Lacroix might be more powerful and immune to her magic, but she’s got a plan. Too bad it’s got holes big enough for a new threat to waltz through while the city is on her knees.
Now Grier must risk her very soul if she hopes to slay her enemies and prevent her world from going up in flames. But salvation comes at a steep price, and she’s not the only one who will pay. The cost just might break her, and the man who owns her heart.
How to Wake an Undead City Excerpt
The aged paper crinkled, but I forced my fingers to still before the last message crumpled in my fist. I set the stack of notes two best friends had exchanged when I was just a bulge on my mother’s waistline aside and let the ache of revisiting their friendship wash over me in waves that lodged a knot in my throat and left Woolworth House in a tizzy over the spike in my emotions.
“Here.” Linus patted the nearest wall, comforting the old girl, then crossed the bedroom that used to be his before my things started migrating down the hall. “Drink this.”
“I didn’t know Linus’s Shake Shack delivered,” I teased. “Do I tip the delivery boy or…?”
Leaning down, he brushed his lips over mine. “That will suffice.”
How he always started his day looking so refreshed when I was the one who slept for eight hours never ceased to amaze me. The dark wash jeans molding to his butt I suspected had been tailor-made for him. The fitted navy button-down highlighted his lean musculature and brought out the blue in his eyes. The cuffs, as usual, were rolled up, exposing his corded forearms. But there was nary a loafer in sight. He wore sneakers that matched the exact shade of denim in his pants, a feat I would have claimed impossible.
He had gathered his dark-auburn hair at his nape with an elastic, and my fingers itched to set it free, to comb through the silky length. Those same fingers twitched with ardent longing to trace the smattering of freckles sprinkled across the bridge of his nose and cheeks, particularly the daisy beneath his left eye.
You just can’t trust them.
Not around Linus anyway.
“Thanks.” I sipped the breakfast smoothie, but not even the rich flavor of my favorite berries spiked with a shot of Vitamin L could soothe away this persistent hurt. “Maud knew.” That was the lump I couldn’t swallow, the most recent lie stuck in my craw. “All that time, she knew George Lacroix was my father, and she didn’t tell me.”
“Maud says in the letter she didn’t know his people.” He raised his hands to ward off my temper. “That could mean she didn’t know his family name, or his clan name. She never called him George outright, but she must have known that much since your mother visited her.” His arms fell to his sides. “It’s hard to say without more letters, and this was the last one from that period. There’s no other mention of a George or a G in any of their later correspondence.”
“Their next exchange is from years later, long after I was born.” I patted the mattress, and he sank beside me into a ray of sunlight. Unable to resist the rare treat of touching his sun-warmed hair, I toyed with the gilded tassel at his nape. “He would have been dead by then. That must be why his name doesn’t come up again.”
“I wish I had brought you answers instead of more questions, but I thought you would want to read them.”
“How did they get back here?” I leaned my head on his shoulder, breathed in the familiar scents of fresh-cut mint rubbed between a thumb and finger and the tang of old pennies, and relaxed against him. “Maud must have made good on her threat. She picked up my parents and brought them here. Mom must have had her half of the letters on her. Maybe she forgot them when she left? Then Maud found them, filed them away with hers?”
How many times had Maud relived these old conversations? How often had she wondered if she might have altered her best friend’s fate—my fate—by acting sooner or not at all?
Regret. Grief. Sorrow.
Holding on to these faded letters spoke of soul-searching that failed to reveal any new answers for Maud, or for me.
“Hey.” Amelie bounded into the room. “Oh. Sorry.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “The door was open…”
The invitation into his space, into his arms, was pure Linus, and I wouldn’t change how the gesture filled my heart from corner to corner with simple welcome, even if it meant others got drawn in too.
“We’re just skimming old letters.” I gestured toward the yellowed pile. “What’s up?”
The clock read four o’clock, as in PM, early—or late, depending on your perspective—for necromancers to be awake.
“Your escorts have arrived.” She chewed on her ragged bottom lip. “Boaz is downstairs.”
Ah. That explained it. She must have stayed up late or woke early to visit with her brother.
“Great,” I said, proud when I didn’t wince upon hearing his name.
Two days ago, Gaspard Lacroix, my paternal grandfather, marched on my city. That is to say, Savannah.
Falling for the Potentate of Atlanta had turned me downright territorial.
Savannah was my home, my refuge, but she wasn’t just mine. She belonged to all of us. And we all wanted her back.
“There’s not much time,” Amelie prompted. “They’re cutting it close. Two hours until dark.”
Vampires emerged after the moon rose and began hunting the streets for dinner. There were too few Elite as it was, and not many more sentinels. The reinforcements Linus had requested were slow to arrive, a steady trickle unable to staunch the wounds of a city under siege.
After sunset, every man and woman in uniform pounded the pavement to keep the casualties to a minimum. But the vampires had started targeting humans in other ways. Cutting power supplies, poisoning water sources, siphoning gasoline.
They were, quite literally, draining the city dry in every sense of the word.
If we lost the light, we lost our armed transportation until tomorrow, and Savannah couldn’t afford many more lawless nights.
Already the Society’s official cover story had been debunked. Humans might be willing to buy that a hurricane necessitated an emergency evacuation. After all, this was coastal Georgia. But while tornadoes popped out of thin air, hurricanes…not so much.
Only the barricade manned by sentinels was keeping the curious and the furious from their homes. Too bad that didn’t help with the humans trapped in Savannah, who had been unable to evacuate thanks to poor health, lack of funds, or sheer stubbornness.
Daytime was safe enough, for the most part. Nights were getting bitter, and bloody.
Traditional means had gotten the Elite no closer to rousting Lacroix from city hall. He was simply too well fortified to be forced out like an annoying splinter wedged in the Society’s heel. And, thanks to his ability to compel vampires to join his cause, the numbers were on his side.
The Lyceum itself remained secure, due to the Grande Dame’s forethought prior to its evacuation, but that also meant we were cut off from using the tunnels running beneath the Lyceum to infiltrate the building from beneath.
All this meant it was time to pursue nontraditional means.
We needed more allies who were naturally immune to Lacroix’s influence. In a word, we needed gwyllgi. Lucky us, we knew just where to find the largest pack in the southeast. Between Linus and me, we would convince their alpha to play ball, no matter how slim Lethe judged the odds of her mom joining our team.
And the odds got longer from there.
Our petition for an audience with Alpha Tisdale Kinase had been granted, under the condition we groveled in person, and that meant a return to the dreaded Atlanta. That was bad enough, but while Linus and I were asking our neighbors to borrow sugar, I got the dubious honor of holding out my beggar’s cup to my grandmother, Dame Severine Marchand, in the hopes she would fill it with an education on the goddess-touched condition. The CliffsNotes version anyway.
For Lacroix, an ancient, to wear a pendant for protection against my kind, I must be capable of bringing him down.
If Plan A failed, I was a solid Plan B.
“We’re packed and ready.” I pushed out a long breath then let Linus pull me to my feet. I turned to Amelie, whose eyes shone with a determined light, and let the worry come. “Are you sure you guys will be okay here alone?”
Woolly was packed to the gills with guests, and she was thrilled about it, but I still worried for them.
Neely had refused to budge, and that meant Cruz wasn’t going anywhere either. Busy having the time of her life, Marit was doing her best to convince one of the gwyllgi with a passing resemblance to Hood that she was mate material. Amelie had no choice but to stay. Neither did Oscar, or Woolly. For the last two reasons, I was grateful I would be leaving my home in the capable hands of friends who were more family to me than my own blood.
“We’ve got shelf-stable food and candles if the generator goes.” Amelie flashed a silver lighter on her palm to show they had that covered too. “We’ve got enough clean water to keep our throats wet and the toilets flushing thanks to the creek out back.”
“The gwyllgi pack will be hard on your resources.” But they were a goddess-send when it came to protecting what I was leaving behind, however short the trip. “Remind them to hunt before they hit the fridge. There’s plenty of wildlife to keep their bellies full.”
More than a dozen gwyllgi originally from the Atlanta pack, the same hotheads who’d come to Savannah demanding Lethe’s head on a platter after I killed Ernst Weber and she killed his sister Tess, had sworn themselves into her service.
Predators in those numbers would put a strain the local wildlife, but that only motivated me more.
“Does that go for Lethe too?” A hesitant smile accompanied the question. “Or does she get special privileges?”
The former bestie checking on the current bestie left me twitchy with awkwardness.
“Ah, no. I would never get between Lethe and food unless you’re tired of having hands, arms…” I shrugged, “…a head.”
“We’ll secure resources once we’re out of the city,” Linus cut in, nudging me along. “We’ll have them delivered to the barricade so the Elite can transport them to Woolly. She will act as a distribution hub for the Society. The Elite will hand-deliver food, clean water, and medical supplies to anyone in the city.”
Using our linked hands, I tugged him into me and brushed a tender kiss across his lips.
Heat flushed his cheeks, sparkling in his eyes. “What was that for?”
“For being you.” I kissed him again, slower. “For caring.”
This was my mess, my family’s mess, and I couldn’t thank him enough for helping me clean up after them.
“As much as I love watching you guys make out,” Amelie said, averting her gaze, “I hear your window of opportunity slamming shut.”
With a quick nod, I whipped a modified pen out of my pocket and popped in a fresh cartridge that smelled of copper and herbs. Before Linus could protest, I drew what we had nicknamed the impervious sigil on the side of his throat, right below his collar, in a tempting hollow I had learned turned his knees to jelly when I nipped him just hard enough to make him gasp.
I told myself it was his delicious reaction, not the thin pink scar, that caused me to fixate on that spot. The smell of his skin caused water to pool in my mouth, but the mark was a brutal reminder that I had almost lost him. That Odette, who I had loved as family, almost took him from me.
Angling away from him while I composed myself, I slid on a backpack stuffed with necromantic paraphernalia before he read the undercurrents of my upset and delayed us longer to soothe me.
Eager to start referring to this trip in the past tense already, I was rearing to go…and get back home.
Leaving Savannah, and my friends, vulnerable went against every protective instinct I possessed.
After a final check of its contents, he slung a messenger bag across his shoulders. We were traveling light on the first leg of our journey. All clothes and supplies would be purchased outside Savannah, a cringeworthy expense that left my palm too damp to hold the debit card I would soon be swiping.
Though the truce with Amelie might still be fragile, I couldn’t stop myself from crossing to her and gathering her in a tight hug. “Be safe.”
“You too.” She squeezed me hard, tears in her voice. “I’ll protect Woolly until you get back.” Drawing away, she wiped her cheeks dry with the backs of her hands. “I won’t let those fangy bastards touch one shingle on her roof. I promise.”
Around us, the old house groaned, softening toward Amelie despite her best attempts at keeping her at arm’s—floorboard’s?—length.
That made two of us.
While the old girl was paying attention, I stepped into the corner and pitched my voice low. “Tell Oscar we’ll be home soon.” I patted the wall in front of me. “Make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”
Ghost boys and full sunlight don’t mix. He and I had already exchanged our goodbyes, but even if he was more than three times my age, he was still a six-year-old boy at heart, and this trip preyed on his abandonment issues.
As he had pointed out, multiple times, I could have brought him along in the dented brass button Linus had anchored his spirit to, but he would be safer here with Woolly than with me.
The old house rustled my pant leg with a warm gust from the floor registers, a promise she would do her best to direct Oscar’s energy toward positive outlets.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” I told Eileen, who slept beneath a blanket treated to protect her from UV rays on her podium.
I hit the stairs behind Amelie and Linus, and we entered a living room that made me squint against the sun pouring through the open curtains.
Craning my neck, I spotted the Torreses in the kitchen preparing an early dinner that made my stomach rumble. Music poured from Neely’s phone as he enacted his favorite moves from some celebrity dance show while Cruz looked on, amused. Several hours into their day, they had moved past the coffee I so desperately craved and onto sweet iced tea.
Having humans in the house was so weird. They were so perky before dark. It was unnatural. Even Keet dozed in his cage, uncovered since he had started attacking the sheet I used to cover him during the day the way a dog might shred its bedding. At least, from the growls, that’s what I assumed was going on.
I really needed to chat with Lethe about how to behave around impressionable parakeets.
With a coquettish flutter of his lashes, Neely convinced his husband to give him a turn around the room. I didn’t interrupt their moment to tell them goodbye. I left them attempting a tango that promised to send them both crashing to the floor if they didn’t get their legs untangled. But then again, maybe that was the point.
Since Woolly still enforced her Boaz ban with relish, we had to meet him and his team on the front lawn.
The sun was so…sunny.
Already my skin felt hot, itchy with the promise of a burn, and I was nowhere near as pale as Linus.
Amelie stayed on the porch, honoring the spirit, if not the letter, of her house arrest, and waved to her brother from there. The casual goodbye told me they had already done their catching up before she fetched us.
“We need to get moving.” Boaz kept his tone distant, his manner professional, and I was glad for it. “I borrowed six men to get you two out, but we need them elsewhere at dusk.”
Unsure of my reception, given our last encounter, I stepped lightly. “Trouble downtown?”
“The looters are at it again,” he said briskly. “Chaos breeds opportunity.”
The conversation died a quick death after that, and I kicked dirt over its grave.
“Take one step, Grier Woolworth, and I’ll rip out your throat. You know I will.” Lethe strode from the tree line with her freshly trimmed and dyed blue hair swinging, sharp green eyes narrowed, and a cheeseburger in each hand. “As soon as I finish this.” She popped the remainder of one in her mouth and gulped without chewing before pocketing the second. “You were going to leave without saying goodbye? Are you serious? Do your donut promises mean nothing?”
“Do you remember the conversation we had about me telling my nocturnal friends goodbye last night?”
“Hello?” Palms up, she spun a tight circle. “The sun is up there, and I’m down here.”
“You’re not half as smart as I thought you were if you believed for one hot minute you were getting past her,” Hood said conversationally as he trailed his mate with a sandwich bag full of her favorite cereal in hand that he shook to get her attention.
Eyes the tawny brown of crushed pecan shells looked on her with adoration. Hood dwarfed his mate, but Lethe’s attitude put them at the same height. The sandy-blond dreads that once reached the small of his back now brushed his shoulders. She must have given him a trim while they were playing salon in the hall bathroom.
“I’ll bring you a dozen maple bacon donuts, the cake ones, if you can forgive my oversight.” I crossed to her, and our hug pressed her baby bump, which was getting larger every day, against my abdomen. “I’ll make it a double if you spare me one.”
“Hmph.” Her breath smelled like pickles when she huffed in my face, but a calculating glint sparkled in her eyes. “I suppose I could forgive you if you also bring me one dozen cherry cordial cream filled donuts. From Clancy’s.” Her nose shot up in the air. “I will accept no substitutions.”
Thirty-six donuts. In exchange for one. Yep. That was Lethe math for you.
“Remember.” Hood clamped a big hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let Tisdale intimidate you. She can smell fear. Don’t make eye contact. She’ll view it as a challenge. Don’t lie to her. She’ll rip out your tongue and beat you to death with it if you try.”
“You’ll be fine.” Lethe pried Hood off me so he could deal her snacks. “Mom’s not that bad.”
Hood just stared at her.
“She hasn’t killed that many…” Abandoning that line, she chose another. “Midas will have your back.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Um, yeah,” she mumbled around a mouthful of cereal Hood provided. “You do.”
“You didn’t really think we’d let you go alone,” Hood asked, chuckling at my budding scowl.
“This isn’t pack business,” I said gently. “You don’t have to draft Midas to shadow me.”
“You’re pack,” she said sweetly, “that makes it our business.”
Lethe held out her hand, and Hood dumped more cereal in her palm.
“She’s a slow learner.” He clicked his tongue. “That’s what we get for adopting a necromancer.”
“True.” She crunched thoughtfully. “She is cute, though. And she pays in meat. I’d say we still came out ahead on the deal.”
“We need to move this along.” Boaz raised his voice over our conversation. “We’re losing the light.”
“Take care of you.” I stole a marshmallow off Lethe’s palm. “And baby.” I crunched loudly while she snarled. “And Hood.”
“The first rule of survival in any pack is you don’t steal food from a pregnant gwyllgi,” Hood chided me then topped her off. “She’s not herself when she’s hungry. She would feel terrible for ripping out your throat to reclaim what you stole. Eventually.”
“Boaz is right.” Linus rested his hand at the small of my back. “You two will have to continue this via text message.”
Lethe fished out the exact shape and color marshmallow I had stolen then threw it hard enough to leave a dent where it bounced off my forehead. “Bye.”
Lip curled, I did my best Lethe impersonation. “Grr.”
“Pups are so cute at this age.” Hood reached over to ruffle my hair. “Keep working on the growl. You’ll be scaring birds out of trees before you know it.”
Annoyed, I snapped my teeth at him, but it only made him smile wider.
Applying gentle pressure, Linus guided me away from the Kinases before we started a food fight on the lawn that would end with Lethe trawling the grass for snacks later.
Boaz grunted what might have passed for thanks, then set out without another word.
Happy to pretend he and I shared no history, that this was strictly business, I followed him to a nondescript black SUV. If I studied his smooth gait, his easy strides, for longer than was polite, Linus didn’t notice. He was too busy conducting his own visual examination.
Questions must be itching his brain over how Boaz had regenerated his leg from the knee down. The healing sigils I scribbled over him hadn’t been recorded. There had been no time. For now, they were lost. Along with any answers about what I had done to Lethe and her unborn child.
“Step up,” Linus said, drawing my attention to the open vehicle door. “Grier?”
“I’m good.” Shaking off thoughts of Boaz, I took Linus’s hand and let him help me onto the bench seat.
An SUV wasn’t so different from a van. I could do this. Just a short trip to the barricade. Easy-peasy.
Slowly, drawing in breath through my nose and blowing it past my lips, I settled into the small space.
For once, I saw the use in window tinting as the dark interior cut out the harsh daylight. As my vision adjusted, I noticed the four Elite crammed onto a bench seat behind us. Ahead, Becky rode shotgun.
“Good to see you, Grier.” She pinned on a hesitant smile. “Linus.”
The fact she was Boaz’s partner couldn’t be held against her. It’s not like she volunteered for the honor. Unless getting saddled with him was a punishment. In which case, I bet she’d learned her lesson. “Hi, Becky.”
“Always a pleasure,” Linus returned, the austere mask of Scion Lawson sliding in place as Boaz eased behind the wheel.
“The last time I saw you,” I engaged her, eager to steer the conversation away from hot-button topics, “you were marching with Lacroix.” Her undercover work with the Elite had saved many lives, mine included, and she would accomplish more good before this was over. “I expected you to be tucked in city hall with him.”
“I’m safe in my foxhole as far as he’s concerned, waiting on sunset. He asked me to stay on the outside, to keep an eye on things. For once, I was happy to oblige. I pick up my orders from the Elite daily, and nightly I run interference with the vampires.”
Frowning, I wondered, “When do you sleep?”
“I can get by on an hour here or there.” She rolled up her sleeve to reveal a sigil tattooed on her forearm. “This keeps me alert. I’m sure there’s a technical name, but we call them insomnia tattoos.”
Wistfulness had me sighing after the design. The next twenty-four hours promised to be brutal.
“One of yours?” I asked Linus, who studied her arm with a tight mouth.
“The design is unfamiliar.” His pinched expression made me chuckle. “It must belong to a competitor.”
Unable to resist teasing him, I leaned in. “You have competitors?”
“Fiducial tattoos require, as the name suggests, a certain amount of trust. They’re too individualized to be mass-produced, so their margin for profit is slim.” He picked imaginary lint off his pants. “Everyone has an upper limit for stimuli, one you can’t exceed without their body shutting down to preserve itself. With fiducial tattoos, you must learn your clients, their needs, and tailor the design to suit them. The time requirements alone made dismissing that area of study an easy decision.”
“I had no choice.” Becky shrugged, her spine rigid beneath his censure. “We do what the job requires.”
“Wearing that, you’ll drop dead on your feet. Without warning.” Pulling back, Linus compressed his lips. “Depending on that design is more dangerous than any field assignment.” Eyes hard on the spot where the inferior work had been done, he frowned. “I’ll think on a solution, in thanks for what you did for Grier. But warn your colleagues, and don’t bet your life on that ink’s ability to keep you lucid.”
“Thanks,” she grumbled with reluctant appreciation. “I’ll get the word out.”
The illusion of a leisurely Sunday drive evaporated when we hit the main drag and all the shattered store windows came into view. Groceries had been dumped in the streets to rot, clean water in bottles and jugs dumped and tossed aside, electronics looted, and furniture destroyed in the whirlwind of depravity that swirled around the vampires each night.
As we passed Madison Square, I noticed the Sergeant William Jasper monument had been knocked off its base to make room for the vampire I had turned to stone while visiting Lacroix’s former manner. As far as statements go, I wasn’t sure what this one said unless they meant to paint their fallen as heroes.
“This has to stop,” I murmured, exchanging a look with Linus. “We have to stop this.”
“We will.” Eyes gone black and depthless, it was the potentate who stared back at me when Linus closed his fingers over mine, black mist dancing across his knuckles. “We have a plan, and it will work.”
Hearing his certainty bolstered my confidence, but I couldn’t dismiss the dread brewing in my gut. Tisdale Kinase wouldn’t be my harshest critic. No, that honor would go to Dame Marchand and her granddaughter, Eloise.
Eloise would never forgive me for the role I played in her twin sister’s death, but Heloise had intended to present me to her grandmother on a silver platter. Taz was the only reason Heloise hadn’t dished me up, but fear of Marchand retribution had forced her underground to escape the repercussions.
The sensation of being watched dragged my attention to the rearview mirror, where Boaz stared at me.
Quirking an eyebrow, I waited on him to tell me what was on his mind, but he switched his attention to the road while muscle bunched in his jaw as he chewed over whatever he had no intention of sharing.
“What’s your ETA on supplies?” Becky shifted to her left, angling toward us. “How soon should we have transpo in place?”
“Expect the first convoy to arrive within six hours,” Linus answered when I deferred to him. “Our first priority will be supplying the city in our absence. Our people must come first.”
“Our?” Boaz tightened his hands on the wheel. “This isn’t Atlanta.” He ground his teeth. “This isn’t your city.”
“You’re right.” I tapped his shoulder until he flicked his gaze up to the rearview mirror. “It’s ours, all of ours, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep Savannah safe. That includes accepting aid from a visiting potentate, who was born and raised here, to keep her on her feet until we can knock Lacroix off his.”
“Think of Adelaide,” Becky said with the rhythm of an oft-repeated phrase. “What would she say?”
“That I’m being an ass.” He sighed through his parted lips. “But she always thinks I’m being an ass.”
To keep from agreeing with his absent fiancée, I pasted my polite-interest face on. I had honed it to wear during particularly odious speeches given in Maud’s honor, usually at award dinners, which made Linus chuckle as if he remembered the exact expression and its purpose from all those years ago.
“Goddess, is that Detective Russo?” I pressed my nose against the glass. “The Elite might want to shadow her. She believes there’s something hinky about how Maud died. The city closing for a hurricane that wasn’t is going to ping on her hinkdar. She’s like a dog with a bone. She won’t let go once she sinks her teeth in.”
“We’ve been wiping the short-term memories of the human first responders and escorting them past the barricade,” Becky informed us. “She must have slipped through the checkpoints.” Pulling out her phone, she punched in a number. “I’ll get her picked up before she ghosts again.”
A rolling boom sounded in the distance, and I pressed my hand to the glass. “What was that?”
The noise reminded me of cannon fire during the reenactments held at Old Fort Jackson.
A second boom hit closer, and a plume of asphalt erupted on our right.
“Those bastards planted another minefield.” Boaz gritted his teeth. “How did the sweepers miss this?”
“They didn’t.” Becky scowled out her window. “I checked this route at noon, and it was clear.”
“Call it in.” Boaz slammed his palms against the wheel. “They’ve got humans doing their dirty work. That means no routes are safe without inspection prior to use.”
“You want to help the city?” One of the guys from the back leaned forward, swinging his head between Linus and me. “Drop some of your inheritance in these potholes, yeah? These bastards don’t even have to dig. They just drop in a homemade boomer and kick pebbles over the top.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said dryly, but it got me thinking.
I hadn’t considered what I might do to improve the city. I never had a reason to involve myself in its maintenance. Until now, when my family, and our feud, was wreaking havoc. Unless I stepped in, checkbook in hand, the city might not recover for years after another few days under siege.
A third boom rocked the vehicle, and I found Linus’s hand with mine as a fourth and fifth ignited beneath us. With a scream of wrenching metal and shattering glass, I was flung against the window where my head cracked on the trim before blackness engulfed me.
Except unconsciousness didn’t claim me, Linus did. His midnight cloak wrapped me tight as he cushioned us while the SUV rolled, setting off other mines and igniting a twisted pinball game that blasted us from one side of the road to the other.
When the creaking frame rocked to a stop on its side, I couldn’t tell where we ended up until Linus dissipated enough to let me see through the gaping maws of former windows to the pockmarked road behind us.
“Roll call,” Boaz growled from the front seat, the driver side of the vehicle resting flat against the pavement.
“I’m alive,” Becky wheezed, head limp on her shoulder from where she hung in her seat belt. “I think.”
Boaz twisted in his seat for visual confirmation that Linus and I were both still breathing. “The gang’s all here.”
“We have to move.” Linus unfastened my seat belt, and I dropped into his arms. “Whoever set those might be watching to see who tripped them.”
Smiling my thanks, I shifted my focus out the windshield. “What are the odds the vampires’ humans knew to reseed this area in particular?”
“This was random.” Becky hissed out a curse as she freed herself. “This trip wasn’t cleared through official channels, if you catch my drift. No one except for the six of us knew it was happening, and the four guys in the back didn’t know until fifteen minutes before we tagged them.”
The four guys in question grunted as they cut themselves free of their seat belts, but their mouths were set in grim lines, and their eyes glinted with barely restrained violence and the need to give back as good as we had gotten. Flowing like water, they climbed out of the wreckage and moved into position to flank the vehicle while scouting the area.
The SUV groaned and rocked as Becky accepted a hand out from Jung then fell into position.
“The vampires tend to hit the main drags and the most logical alternate routes. All this means is they’re doubling down, a nightshift and a dayshift. Twice the fun for us.” Boaz hauled himself out the window and sat perched on the SUV’s side. “Wait by the vehicle until we come for you.”
His boots hit the ground, and he ordered his men to fan out, sweep the area.
Linus boosted me through my smashed window, careful of the teethlike glass shards, and I swung my leg over the side. I dropped to the asphalt, and he hit a second later. Following Boaz’s orders, we crouched together with our backs to the undercarriage. Laughter hitched in my chest when the quick examination I conducted on him left us with our gazes clashing after he finished his own visual sweep over me.
“You’re all right,” he said softly, a reassurance for himself.
“You saved me.” I rested my hand against his cheek, his cool skin contrasting the hot sun overhead. “Again.”
“Even damsels such as myself manage a rescue once in a long while.” A tiny smile played on his mouth. “You’ll balance the scales soon enough. You always do.” He tapped the side of his throat where his spent sigil was smudged beyond recognition. “I could argue you already have.”
Much to his amusement, I located my pen and drew a fresh impervious sigil on him in a less-distracting spot before we took turns rooting through our supplies to see what had survived the impact.
The word echoed six more times, from six different directions, before they converged on us.
“Looks like we’re walking the last half mile,” Boaz informed us as he gazed across the pitted asphalt. “Step where I step.” A thin sheen of sweat coated his skin, but I didn’t think the heat was to blame. “Unless I’m blown to bits.” His smile was full of bravado, but I saw through the strain to the memories churning behind his eyes. “Then you go around me.”
Unable to let it go when the past had sunk its teeth in him, I grasped his arm. “Are you okay?”
“This is the job.” He pushed out an exhale. “I can do this.” He reached down, rubbed the top of his left thigh, right where his prosthetic used to fit. “You can always grow me another one, right?”
“Um, don’t count on it.” I let him go. “The first time was a fluke.”
“Figures.” He hesitated, then offered me a thinner smile, but a genuine one. “Thanks. For…everything.” He dropped a brotherly kiss on top of my head. “I’m the same man with or without the leg, but you saved my life, Squirt.”
Tension strung my spine tight as a bowstring at the unexpected endearment, once so familiar, but I shrugged off my discomfort. This—a return to normal—would be a blessing. For all of us.
When Boaz turned to rally his troops, I caught Linus staring at him, but it wasn’t a territorial thing. Curiosity had rekindled in those dark-blue eyes, and I elbowed him in the side before Boaz noticed and took offense to the bug-under-the-microscope routine.
Heat blossomed in Linus’s cheeks at being caught, and I couldn’t resist the urge to kiss the pinkest spot.
A throat cleared behind us, and I turned to find Becky wearing a goofy expression. “Ready?”
“Linus?” I held out my hand for his, and he laced our fingers. “Let’s do this.”
Eyes going tight, Becky took point, and I fell in line behind her. Linus followed me, and a guy flanked each of us, on both sides, with Boaz bringing up the rear.
We had almost reached the barricade when rapid gunfire peppered the air.
“Take cover,” Boaz yelled as the Elite shuffled Linus and me to relative safety behind an overturned semi that had met the same fate as our SUV.
Eyes on Linus, I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood, but I didn’t ask him not to go.
Midnight swirled around him, engulfed him, and his cowl covered the bright auburn of his hair. But instead of nudging me into the darkest shadows or the deepest recesses, he held out his hand, inviting me to join him.
If I hadn’t already been hopelessly in love with him, I would have fallen then.
“One second.” I palmed the pocketknife I had no intentions of returning to him and opened a wound across my hand. Dipping my fingers in the stinging cut, I painted protective sigils down my arms, waiting until a solid wall of air formed Kevlar-dense around me. “Okay. I’m ready.”
The Elite exchanged concerned looks that slid toward Boaz, telegraphing their worry he would skin them alive if I got hurt. While I appreciated the sentiment, I was learning to take care of myself, and I never felt more bulletproof then when Linus stood beside me.
Together, we stepped out into the open. Within seconds, bullets pinged off my wards and his body.
Heart pounding in my ears, I blocked out the fear slicking my palms and broke into a sprint, aiming straight for the source of the attack.
Light glinted to my right, sun dancing along the edge of Linus’s sickle-shaped blade.
The enemy wore black fatigues and dark face paint.
Neither stood a chance.
Linus took their heads with a clean arc of his scythe, and they rolled to a stop in a crater made by their own bombs.
With silence restored, Linus remained standing over the corpses, his shoulders bowed under his burden.
“They would have killed us, all of us, if they had gotten the chance.” I rested a hand on his shoulder, and black mist licked up my wrist. “They almost did, thanks to that minefield.”
“I hate when you see me like this.”
“I’m glad you let me.” I bent my forehead until it rested against his spine. “It means you’re sharing all of yourself with me.” I rubbed my cheek against the wispy fabric of his cloak. “No masks. Not between us.”
When he turned, the mantle of potentate evaporated, and he searched my face for a long moment before nodding. Though it was habit for him to withdraw until he resettled into his skin, he didn’t make it far. I shackled his wrist with my fingers and led him back to where the Elite huddled in wait for us to signal the all-clear.
“We got out of bed for this?” Becky shot Boaz a scathing glance. “They can take care of themselves.”
Sharing a look with Linus, whose fingers twined with mine, it felt good to finally say, “Yes. We can.”
Copyright © 2019 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved