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Adrian Phoenix lives in Oregon with her three cats and travels to New Orleans whenever possible.
Just two simple words spoken into air fragrant with the homey scents of toast and cantaloupe, yet they fractured the club’s late-morning peace and iced Heather Wallace’s spine.
Never expected to see him in New Orleans, let alone Club Hell. Did he come on his own or did the Bureau send him?
Heather finished rinsing her plate in the sink behind the bar, turned off the water, then, pulse pounding, swiveled around to face her father. The weight of the Colt snugged into the back of her jeans did little to comfort her.
Special Agent James William Wallace stood in the entrance beneath the neon BURN sign, red light winking from the lenses of his glasses and gliding along the shoulders of his tan trench coat. Shadows cast by the dim overheads hollowed his cheeks, making him look older than his fifty-seven years.
The last time Heather had seen her father had been at the FBI field office in Seattle, where he’d tried to convince her to abandon the truth and sell her soul to the Bureau, and where Heather had also learned that the lying bastard had used Annie to spy on her, promising his long-ignored bipolar daughter that they’d be a family once more.
Of course, Annie hadn’t known he’d sell Heather’s secrets. Or that he’d lied.
But Alexander Lyons had known, and had shared the information with Heather before he’d held her at gunpoint, before he’d triggered Dante’s programming, before Dante had remade him into something . . . else.
Your dad contacted a member of the Shadow Branch and told this person that Dante Baptiste saved your life without using his blood. So the SB decided to bring you in for tests to determine what he did to you and how.
“Whose dirty business are you doing today?” Heather asked, wiping her hands dry against her jeans. “The Bureau’s or your own?”
“The traditional greeting is still ‘Hello, good to see you,’ I believe,” James Wallace replied. A sardonic smile slanted his lips. His gaze slid past Heather. “I admit, I’m disappointed in you, Annie,” he said.
The cold icing Heather’s spine deepened. She turned her head to look at her sister. Wearing a fuzzy purple bathrobe, her blue-black-purple-colored tresses bed-mussed and pointing in all directions, Annie sat perched on a stool at the polished counter, her blue eyes wide with shock. She lowered her cream cheese–slathered bagel from her mouth. “How the fuck did you get in?” she asked.
“Well, given that you didn’t leave the door unlocked like I asked, I had to find my own solution,” James Wallace chided, his tone a wagging naughty-naughty finger.
Heather stiffened. “You called him?”
Mingled guilt and defiance flashed across Annie’s face. “I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. Fuck.” She looked down at her bagel, then pushed the plate away. She seemed to find the bar’s surface suddenly fascinating.
“Jesus Christ! He asked you to unlock the door and you didn’t tell me?” Heather stared at her sister, her pulse pounding at her temples. “Didn’t tell any of us? What the hell were you thinking?” She slapped both palms down on the counter in front of Annie’s shoved-away plate. The abrupt, harsh sound echoed throughout the club. “Look at me, dammit!”
Annie lifted her gaze. Defiance had won the war over guilt in her blue eyes. “But I didn’t unlock the door,” she protested, “so I thought that ended it. I only called him to let him know we were okay. In case he was worried or something.”
“Dammit, Annie. Shit.” Anger Heather didn’t have time for—not now, but later, oh, hell yes, we’re going to have it out—burned a hole in her gut. She blew out a frustrated breath, then looked at their father. “Trust me, he wasn’t worried,” she said, voice grim.
James Wallace shoved his hands into the pockets of his trench. “That’s where you’re wrong,” he replied. “I’ve been worried since the moment I learned you’d disappeared. And before that—from the moment I realized you’ve been protecting a vampire. Lying for him. Covering up for him.”
“That’s pretty damned funny coming from a pathological liar,” Heather said.
“That’s not you talking, Pumpkin.”
“I’m pretty damned sure it is.”
“No. It’s not. It’s that bloodsucker, not you. And I plan to free you from Dante Prejean and his influence. Help you redeem yourself.”
“His name isn’t Prejean, it’s Baptiste. And you’re wasting your time,” Heather said, her voice tight, knife-edged. “I don’t need or want your so-called freedom or your goddamned redemption.”
“You don’t get it—of course you don’t,” her father said, stepping down from the entrance’s mouth and into the club proper. “That bloodsucker has messed with your mind and your loyalties. You no longer know what you want. You’re no longer in control of your own life. You’ve even destroyed your career because of him.”
“You’re so far from the truth, I don’t even know where to begin,” Heather said. “But I’m not going to bother, because you’ll never understand that every action I’ve taken has been my choice. So . . .” She reached back for her Colt and locked her fingers around the grip. “You need to leave. I have things to do.”
It was nearly noon, and Heather kept expecting to hear the thump of the streetside doors as Jack or Eli or Emmett Thibodaux arrived to add more warm bodies to their daytime security detail.
C’mon, guys. Now would be good. Before things escalate.
She’d be even happier if Lucien De Noir were present, but he’d gone to the fire-bombed plantation house to meet with the insurance adjuster. But some things could never be compensated for—not even in blood. When Guy Mauvais had orchestrated the house’s destruction, his henchmen burning it to a smoldering pile of rubble and ashes, Dante hadn’t just lost the home he’d shared with Von, De Noir, and the others, he’d also lost Simone, his chère amie, in the gasoline-fueled blaze.
“You’re right,” James Wallace said, voice strained, “I don’t believe any action you’ve taken since meeting Prejean has been your own. You’re lying to yourself, Pumpkin. You’ve chosen nothing.” He walked across the wood floor, headed for the bar. The clean scent of his Brut aftershave preceded him. “That’s just what Prejean or Baptiste or whatever name the bloodsucking bastard goes by wants you to think. But I’m going to put an end to that.”
“No, you’re not.” Heather slipped the Colt free and swung it around in a two-handed hold, leveling the muzzle with her father’s chest. Her aim was steady despite the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Hold it right there. Not another step.”
“Heather,” Annie breathed.
James Wallace halted and lifted his hands into the air, palms out. One eyebrow quirked up. “Is this necessary?” he asked.
“Sadly, yeah,” Heather replied. He might be her father, but he was also the man who’d sold her out to the SB.
“We’re blood, Heather. Family,” her father said, his words calm and matter-of-fact. “Human. That should count more than a roll in the sack with an inhuman, bloodsucking scumbag. He’s not human, and never will be.”
“Right now, that’s a point in his favor,” Heather replied. “And you’re wrong about what he is.”
Von’s words, spoken a lifetime ago, were etched into her mind: He is the never-ending Road.
And that never-ending Road Slept upstairs in the bed he and Heather shared, his hair a silky night-black spill across the pillow, with Eerie nestled beside him on the red velvet comforter in a fluffy orange kitty-ball.
Silver and Von Slept as well. All three nightkind lost to the narcotic embrace of Sleep. All vulnerable. And all beyond her ability to awaken.
Heather flicked the Colt’s safety off, her heart drumming against her ribs.
“You can’t shoot Dad,” Annie said in an incredulous near-whisper.
“His choice,” Heather said. “If he turns around and leaves, then I won’t have to.”
Resolve tightened her father’s jaw, deepened the lines bracketing his mouth. He touched a finger to the base of his ear. “I can’t leave without what I came for,” he said.
Com set. Lying bastard isn’t alone. The sound of heavy boots against wood echoed from the entrance hall. Tac team.
“Annie, get your ass upstairs,” Heather snapped. She kept her gaze locked on their father. Sweat trickled between her breasts. “You’re not taking Dante,” she told him.
“It’s not Dante I want,” James Wallace replied as black uniformed and masked figures armed with assault rifles dashed into the club, red neon from the BURN sign flickering over them as they passed beneath it and spread out. “I’ve come for you, Pumpkin.”
Heather stared at her father, her pulse pounding. “Don’t you know what they’ll do to me?”
Genuine pain flickered across James Wallace’s face. “Whatever’s necessary to save you,” he said, his voice husky.
Heather shook her head. Not according to the headline provided to the press by FBI ADIC Monica Rutgers: TRAGIC MENTAL ILLNESS CLAIMS FBI STAR PROFILER HEATHER WALLACE. Not unless “whatever’s necessary” meant involuntary commitment to a mental institution, followed by a convenient and tragic suicide.
“Trust me, neither the Bureau nor the Shadow Branch are interested in saving me,” Heather said. Adrenaline poured through her veins, made her aware of each breath she drew, aware of the position of each agent in the room. She was surrounded and outnumbered.
What would happen to Dante and the others once she’d been taken down?
She didn’t know if she could awaken Dante from Sleep through their bond, but she had to try. Tightening her grip on the Colt, she closed her eyes and funneled her adrenaline-fueled awareness into her link with Dante.
His scent of burning leaves and November frost permeated her, perfumed her senses, then she felt the razor edge of his nightmares scrape against her mind. Heard the drone of wasps. Her breath caught in her throat.
He’d been Sleeping easy—for a change—his beautiful, pale face relaxed, when she’d reluctantly slipped free of his heated embrace and risen from their bed. Before leaving the room, she’d placed a lingering Sleep-well kiss on his lips.
Dual pangs of apprehension and sorrow pierced Heather as she realized her wish hadn’t come true; once again, the past raged through Dante’s mind like a monster hurricane, a tidal surge of dark and dangerous debris running ahead of it, scouring away his hard-won quiet, his scraps of peace.
What Von had told her in their motel room in Damascus coiled through her memory.
You’re Dante’s life-line, doll. I’m sorry you had no say in getting bonded to him, but you quiet the storm inside a him. And that’s a damned good thing.
It looked like her father was intent on severing that life-line.
An echo of pain—Dante’s pain—bled in through their bond and whispered against Heather’s thoughts as she tried to wriggle her way past his shields and into the wasp-droning darkness he did his best to keep locked away from her.
<DANGER! WAKE UP!> she sent, banging mental fists against his shields. <BAPTISTE! WAKE—>
Something stung Heather’s left shoulder, hitting with all the force of a knuckled punch, shattering her concentration. Her eyes flew open. A dart protruded from the front of her snug cornflower-blue sweater. Cold oozed down her arm and into her chest. She looked at her father as he lowered the trank gun. She tasted the drugs, bitter and icy, at the back of her throat.
“Dad! What the fuck?” Annie cried. Leaning across the counter, she plucked the dart from Heather’s shoulder.
“Get out of here, Annie,” Heather said, her words already slurring. The room took a slow carousel spin around her. Her stomach lurched. “Find Jack . . .”
“You’re not going anywhere, Annie,” James Wallace said. “Stevenson, hold her, please.”
“Fuck you, you lying, motherfucking sonuvabitch!” Annie yelled.
A stool clattered to the floor. A wordless shriek of fury followed as someone—the unlucky Stevenson—grabbed Annie and attempted to hold on to her. Heather didn’t look, keeping her attention focused on James William Wallace instead. She blinked as his trench-coated figure blurred, then tripled.
“Heather, listen to me,” her father said, his voice low but firm. “Put your gun down before you—”
Heather squeezed the trigger. The Colt’s retort cracked through the air like thick ice breaking apart on a lake, the sound rippling from one end of the club to the other. James Wallace, all three blurred copies of him, dove to the floor.
“Christ!” her father cried.
Heather concentrated on keeping the Colt upright and in both hands, concentrated on steadying her aim. But she found herself going up, then down, as if riding one of the spinning carousel’s horses. A loud clunk drew her gaze to the floor. Her Colt rested on the hardwood, its muzzle pointing at a plastic bucket full of bar rags.
The room whirled, a runaway carousel, and Heather stumbled, then fell. Stars supernovaed in blue and green through her vision as her head bounced against the floor. She heard Annie scream her name. She stretched her fingers toward the Colt, darkness nibbling at the edges of her vision.
<Baptiste . . . Dante . . . wake . . .> But Heather’s desperate thought bounced back from a wall of drug-charged static, unreceived.
The carousel spun her into a starless night.
© 2011 Adrian Phoenix