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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Preview of "Danse Macabre" (Shadows in the Water Book 3) by Kory M. Shrum


Prologue

Lou held tight to the top of the trucks as they plowed east through the winter night. Snow fell from the black sky, illuminated momentarily by headlights.
A bright moon loomed overhead.

Lou took a breath and faded through the frosty roof of the truck. When the world reformed around her, she was crouching between the two front seats and the men who occupied them.
She pulled her gun and put a bullet in the driver first. The truck careened, rumbling off into the frozen field. 
The passenger was trying to grab the CB, but one shot splattered his brains across the window. The bullet passed straight through the head and into the wall of the truck. The hole whistled as air leaked through.
Lou shoved into the driver seat and wrenched open the door. She pushed the body out into the snow and slammed on the brakes. They screeched and squealed as it slid to a stop on the packed ice.
Then Lou was gone again, fading through the shadows into the next truck in the caravan. These men were as easy to dispatch at the first. But then the other trucks were stopping, brakes squealing. Men spilled into the night and ran toward Lou on either side of the caravan. She remained in her seat until the last moment.
Then she slid through the dark to the truck’s underbelly. Her knee pressed into the cold snow as the men tore open the doors and wrenched out the bodies.
Lou spared a bullet for every leg she could target—five in all. Then she shifted through the dark again to the front of the next truck.
As the men scrambled, trying to find the source of the attack, Lou picked them off one by one until only she prevailed. 
The caravan idled in the desolate road. No noise remained but the gentle hum of engines and the crunch of frosty grass beneath her boots. No witnesses saw the twenty murders, except the large, unblinking moon.
She opened the back of one of the trucks and peered into its belly. Pallets of heroin sat crammed in tight, each laden with plastic bricks.
She tossed in a grenade and slammed the door shut. She escaped to the next truck before its expected Boom! lifted all four wheels off the snow.
Then she did it again and again, watching as each truck was thrown flaming into the air before crashing down again. She felt the heat even from a safe distance. 
She watched the drugs burn.
As the flames died to a lazy smolder, Lou searched the glowing moonlit fields. Silence rang in her ear. She counted the bodies heaped on the snow, their blood sprayed out behind each. It gave the impression that they had fallen from the sky, landing broken.
Something moved.
One hunched form dragged itself away from the wreckage. Lou closed the distance, white smoke fogging in front of her face. 
It was a young man, shot and bleeding. The snow beneath him was black with it.
“Будьте добры!” he cried. On his back, he held his hands out in front of him like a shield. Bright crimson burned in his cheeks and his eyes shone in the moonlight. Snow collected in his blond hair.
“I don’t speak Russian,” she said, and pointed the eye of her Beretta. 
“Please,” he said again. “I didn’t want this. My father—”
The shot rang out. He spoke no more. 

1
Two Months Later
Lou woke with a start. Bolting upright, she found herself on the edge of her mattress, her feet bare on the cool wooden floor. She stared at her blood-crusted arm, at her flaking skin without seeing it. 
Instead she saw the boy on the snow. It had been the same dream for months. When she’d finally fall asleep, she’d find herself in the snowy night again. Every detail of the dream had felt real. The frost on the back of her neck and the warm blood steaming on her hands.
And it always ended the same way. From the flat of his back, he begged for his life. The moment before she shot him, he’d turn into her father. She pulled the trigger anyway. 
It was the gunshot that sent her careening into wakefulness.
Her head hurt. Her upper back hurt. She rolled her neck and elicited a thunderous crack up each side.
She shouldn’t have engaged that sixth attacker in the parking lot last night. Not in her condition.
She could still smell the beer on his breath as she’d wrenched his head back, staring into his wide, fearful eyes. But she hadn’t pulled her gun, hadn’t been able to.
What was the point?
Every night this week she’d roamed the streets. Sometimes she walked for hours through the most dangerous districts she knew. If anyone made the mistake of approaching her, she’d take them on.
Not with her gun. She’d slam her fist over and over into muscle and bone. She’d split skin—her own and theirs—until blood ran.
Yet she couldn’t pull her gun.
The cold, quiet rage she needed to lift her Beretta from its holster never came, never overtook her the way some demon overtook its host before feeding.
She blamed Konstantine. And her aunt. Even King was far from innocent. They’d churned these waters. Now it was too murky to see where she stood.
Her father’s vision of the world had been easier.
Here were the bad guys. Here were the good. 
When she’d found the desire to pull her gun, her mind was the betrayer.
What if he has a child at home? What if she loves him? What if killing him breaks her the way Jack’s death broke you?
Her mind had taunted her with these unanswerable questions and the man at the end of her Beretta’s sight had run. He’d run from the bar parking lot into the darkness and she’d let him go, finding she could only watch him disappear. 
The heat, the thirst to kill had left as quickly as it came.
The insomnia wasn’t helping. How could one have a clear head with endless sleepless nights? When was the last time she’d slept? When was the last time she’d actually put her head on this pillow, closed her eyes, and let the exhaustion take her?
Sleep had eluded her since her aunt Lucy died. Three months of nothing more than power naps, and treating her body like a punching bag.
It’s going to catch up to you, a familiar voice warned. It was her father. She didn’t need advice from the dead.
They weren’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. She dragged her hand down her face, trying to get out from under the weight of this exhaustion.
A knock sounded through her apartment.
I’m dreaming, she thought. She regarded the front door as if she’d never seen it before. 
Perhaps that was because in the six years she’d lived in this apartment no one had ever knocked on it. The only person who had even known the address was Aunt Lucy. This wasn’t Christmas Eve. No ghostly visits scheduled.
A second knock tapped out its rhythm and her heart leapt to life in her chest. She was awake and someone was here.
Without thinking, Lou crossed her living room. She passed the sofa and glass coffee table, and stepped into her empty linen closet. Her back pressed into the bare wooden walls. 
The darkness softened around her, falling away. She slipped through it.
Another set of walls formed around her. She pushed open the door and stepped into the empty apartment down the hallway. This kitchen reeked of pine-scented cleaner. Her bare feet padded silently across the cold floor. Once she reached the front door, slowly she cracked it enough to see her own door down the hallway.
It was a boy knocking.
He was eighteen maybe, with a courier bag slung over his shoulder and a bicycle helmet hanging in one hand. Shifting his weight, he sighed, clearly annoyed. 
He rapped on her door for a third time before calling out. “I’m not a Mormon or anything, okay? And I don’t want to sell you shit. I have this letter for you.” He held the letter up to his face, squinting at the small print on the front of the envelope. “Ms. Thorne, I need you to sign for it.”
Lou eased the apartment door closed. 
As if you would have shot him anyway, a cruel voice chided. You haven’t shot so much as an empty can in months.
The vacant pantry returned her to her own apartment. It took only a breath to slip through the darkness again and find her warmer home as she’d left it.
She placed her Beretta on the kitchen island as she crossed to the door. When she opened the door she found the hallway empty. The kid was halfway down the hall.
“Hey,” she called out. “I’m here.”
He looked relieved, even though he had to come back. “Thank God. This building has a thousand steps and no freaking elevator. No offense, but I didn’t want to come back.”
She only regarded him, extending her hand for the letter.
“Oh right.” He pulled a plastic blue ink pen from behind his ear. “I need you to sign this sheet.”
She waited for him to pull the folded sheet of paper out of his coat pocket. She signed it against the door jamb, the grain pressing through the paper and making her letters wobble on the page.
“Thanks,” the kid said, his thin lips pulling into a bright grin. “Here you go.”
He handed over the envelope. It was cream, a nice thick paper with red lettering in the top right corner. Her name was printed in black ink, slanting forward.
Hammerstein, Holt and Locke Attorneys at Law it said in the return corner. And Lou was wondering if she was going to have to murder a band of lawyers tonight.
The kid was staring.
Lou followed his gaze to the Beretta on the kitchen island and then to the blood drying on both her arms. She didn’t think it was the thick, black grime under her nails that had doubled the size of his eyes. She looked like she’d clawed her way out of hell.
Kill him, the cruel voice taunted. You can’t let him go. He could tell someone. He could bring them back here.
“Anything else?” she asked him, searching his eyes for danger.
He shook his head vigorously. “Nah, we’re cool.”
He backed away. 
You’re making a mistake. He could end you tonight
Yet Lou didn’t move.
“H-happy New Year,” the kid said and ducked through the door beneath the marked EXIT sign as if he expected her to give chase.
New year, she thought, closing and locking her front door.
A BOOM, HISS rose suddenly.
The first firework of the evening exploded in the sky, raining orange ribbons of light over the dark Mississippi river.
She turned the envelope over and slid a thumb under the flap.


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Out for Blood (Blood Vice Book 8) Chapter 1 Preview


At some point in nearly every girl’s youth, she fantasizes about being a princess. She dresses up as Cinderella for Halloween or has a royally-themed birthday party. She beams at pet names like Daddy’s little princess. Longs for a regal homecoming crown in high school.
Sure, it’s a tired cliché. But that doesn’t seem to matter to millions of girls the world over. The animated princess movies keep rolling out, and the costumes and tiaras continue to sell. If they knew what being a princess was really like, I was sure it would reduce most of them to tears. If they knew what being a vampire princess was like, they’d run screaming.
Vampire princess. Before my rude initiation into undead society, I imagined the only place I would have found such a title acceptable was on a cheap, all-in-one costume kit. The kind that filled the seasonal isles of grocery stores around Halloween. I never expected the title to apply to me, or that it would weigh so heavily on my heart.
I stood as still as a gargoyle in the BATC war room, doing my best to pay attention to Dante’s discussion with the Blood Vice generals and council representatives seated around the massive table. Ursula had excused herself hours ago. I was beginning to regret not slipping out with her. I was too invested now. Too curious and equally terrified.
Dante sat at the head of the table. I had a perfect view of him from my corner behind Ursula’s empty seat. Even as the new unofficial Princess of House Lilith, I did not feel right about sitting with and discussing war with centuries-old vampires. A vampling’s input would mean nothing to them. Less than nothing. 
Tonight, I was here to listen and learn. To be an extra pair of eyes and ears for Dante. We had far more questions than answers, and after Kassandra’s betrayal, it was hard not to suspect that our enemies had infiltrated the Vampiric High Council, as well. What other households had the Freeblooders wormed their way into?
Notah Álvarez, alpha of the largest pack in St. Louis and the Midwest representative of the American Alpha Association, sat to Dante’s left. I’d never met the man before, but Mandy had helped find his daughter last year after the girl had been abducted and buried alive. 
Notah was twice Dante’s size with long, dark hair and proud features that spoke to his Mexican and Navajo heritage. He wore a necklace of animal teeth and turquois over his suede dress shirt.
“The Moreau Pack have always been outliers,” he said, addressing the council’s concerns regarding which werewolves could be trusted to assist Blood Vice. “When Marcel began attending alpha conferences, I knew he was up to no good.”
“And yet you did nothing,” Lord McCoy injected. I couldn’t decide if the statement was more question or accusation. Notah didn’t seem to take offense. We’d mostly moved beyond the blame game and were well into brainstorming counterattack strategies.
“I kept a careful eye on the Midwest packs Marcel attempted to endear himself to,” Notah said. “The Raymores in Kansas City and the Rosco Pack in Denver are among those I’ve maintained tabs on—though given Marcel’s recent attacks, I fear he relies on covert agents to carry out the worst of his dirty work.”
“Yes,” Dante agreed. “His public associates are sloppy henchmen, serving only to distract from larger threats.”
Sloppy or not, there was power in numbers. The firefight that went down at the Hearty Harem warehouse proved that much. And the threat had felt significant enough when the building caved in on top of Mandy and me. Still, I tried not to take Dante’s words too personally.
Lili and Alexander were dead. Really dead. The attack that had claimed their immortal lives and destroyed the queen’s manor in Evergreen was clearly the larger threat.
Dante had felt the prince’s death the night of Laura’s wedding, when he’d inherited the Eye of Blood. Then the captain of the Blood Vice division in Denver had called with the rest of the horrific news. What was left of the queen’s harem and staff were crowded inside the base infirmary and spare barracks.
All the pride and prestige that had inflated my ego after uncovering Arnie Moreau’s harem food service bomb scheme was gone. Sucked straight out of my soul until only the bitter throb of failure remained. The evidence had been there plain as day. And like every day since my death, I had missed it entirely. 
Bart Haulette, the patsy Arnie had used to conduct his terrorist plans through, had human roots in Denver but no pack ties. Yet he’d been making regular trips to the Mile High City, confirmed by his girlfriend who’d worked at the Nightfall Opera House.
Instead of another harem food service, Haulette had set up a housekeeping business front in Denver under a stolen vampiric identity. He established employment with the royal family months prior to the incident in St. Louis, and by the time the attack on the queen’s manor went down, Haulette’s people were long gone, their base of operations vacated and bleached clean.
We had nothing. And this tired meeting in the war room was getting us nowhere.
Notah’s brow creased. “However trivial a role the other packs play, Marcel’s drafting methods are…troubling. I have it on good authority that he was a catalyst to the Raymore alpha’s death. It’s how Marcel assumed full control of their pack—”
“That’s hardly surprising,” Lord Sorano said. “But we are not here to discuss retribution for a slain traitor.” 
Vanessa’s grandsire looked down his bony nose at Notah as if he hated sharing the table with a werewolf even more than sharing the room with a vampling. Any time he spoke, my pulse quivered in my throat. He’d spared me a fleeting scowl upon his arrival but had avoided making eye contact since. I was glad for it.
“No, of course not.” Notah ignored Lord Sorano’s sour expression and directed his reply to Dante. “But it may be useful to know Marcel’s intentions. You’re familiar with Spero Heights?”
Dante nodded but then took notice of the confused faces scattered around the table. “A small, supernatural community in the Ozarks,” he explained.
“Small in numbers, perhaps,” Notah said. “When Devin Raymore’s pregnant mate sought asylum in Spero Heights, Marcel hired witches to assist him in retrieving her.”
“Witches?” Sergeant Carmichael’s nose crinkled. She and Notah were the only wolves in the war room—along with eight vampires and two half-sired humans—though being a fellow shifter didn’t appear to earn the alpha any brownie points with her. “You expect us to squirm over a few magic dabblers?”
Notah opened his hands and laid them palms-up on the table. “I expect you to examine this information and consider the possibility that if Marcel is willing to work with witches, he might also be consorting with other shifters—or worse—the fay. We must exercise caution.”
“We are not without our own wild cards.” Dante’s eyes flicked to me.
I could guess who he had in mind. But Dr. Delph, Spero Heights’ psychic therapist, wasn’t exactly what I would’ve called a wild anything. He was more of a faded, dog-eared tarot card. If we brought someone like him into this battle, sure, he’d be able to read the enemy’s mind—right before they bashed in his.
“These witches killed Raymore’s mate,” Notah said. “Then they carved the pups out of her.” He paused at Carmichael’s sharp intake of breath before going on. “Word is, Spero Heights’ new pack showed up to even the score. They’re very loyal to those they offer refuge.”
“And the pups?” Carmichael asked.
“Unaccounted for, though some suspect one of the Raymore deserters delivered them to Spero Heights for their own safety. The pack has yet to announce a new leader,” Notah added. “The Raymore namesake is nearly extinct, but Marcel has promised to help them…reclaim Devin’s twin heirs in exchange for the pack’s allegiance to the Freeblooders. Whether their intentions are to groom one of the pups to become alpha or to tie up loose ends before assigning a new head family is still unclear.”
At the mention of twins, I thought of Selena Chase and the pair of car seats I’d spotted in her truck. If I had babies in need of serious protection, I could think of no one better for the job than the she-wolf Roman and I had met in Spero Heights. She was fierce. Just the memory of her intimidating gaze sent a tremor up my spine. 
Now she was a wild card. Not that she’d give two shits about our cause. And I was certain she wouldn’t abandon her post in Spero Heights or the babes in her care. If only Marcel had promised the Raymores he’d tangle with her first instead of us. Maybe we’d be spared the trouble of dealing with him at all.
Lord Sorano cleared his throat, drawing the table’s attention once again. “We should seek out these lost heirs ourselves in order to buy back the Raymore’s loyalty.”
“For shame, William.” Lady Peyroux shook her head. “You would have us stoop to their level? We, the ambassadors of order and civility among our people?”
“What do you know of war, Louise?” Lord Sorano’s hateful gaze found her at the opposite end of the table. “Your toxic flowers notwithstanding, perhaps these unsavory endeavors are best left for those with the stomachs to carry them out.”
“Tread carefully, my lord.” Lady Peyroux’s dark eyes narrowed. “Your empire relies upon my toxic flowers.”
Dante ended the spat with a slash of his hand. “The pups will remain wherever they may be. If the Raymore’s loyalty is so easily shifted, it is not worth our time or energy. Besides, we have Marcel’s brother.”
After news of the attack in Evergreen reached the council representatives escorting Arnie Moreau to Denver, they’d gone straight to the BATC hidden under the airport. It was the most secure location for a prisoner who could communicate telepathically with his sinister alpha brother. 
The bat cave was also the safest place for House Lilith now that the Freeblooders had gotten a taste for our blood. Regardless, being here made me feel like a coward. I was just thankful it had been the council who’d requested the meeting venue. Apparently, being in the same building as a member of the royal family right now wasn’t considered good for one’s health.
“We are back to the drawing board then.” Lord Sorano scoffed. 
As much as he unnerved me, I found his frustration relatable. I was ready to get out of here and do something useful. And if there was nothing constructive to be done, I was happy to take up space somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Dr. Marquis, the half-sired dean of Renfield Academy, folded his hands over the table. “If I may, Your Highness?” he asked Dante. 
The new title of prince wasn’t yet official, but everyone had adopted it as if to win Dante over. Except for me. I could see how much the idea of taking his sire’s place wounded him. The way the lines in his face deepened at every reminder.
“Yes, Dr. Marquis,” Dante said, nodding his approval.
“Every werewolf at Renfield Academy has taken leave from training in order to join the Cadaver Dogs in their search of St. Louis,” Dr. Marquis announced.
“Same for the werewolf cadets here,” said Sergeant Carmichael. “They’re assisting in the Denver sweep.”
“So what?” Lord Sorano threw his hands up. “You expect us to sit and stay like good little dogs? You forget who you are dealing with.”
“We will carry on, as is expected of us,” Dante said. “Beginning with the Imbolc celebration tomorrow night.”
“Do you think that is wise, Your Highness?” Lady Peyroux asked, a gentle note entering her voice.
I’d posed the same question to Dante before the meeting. His reply had not changed, but he delivered it with less venom and conviction this time.  
“We must present a strong front and not let our enemies take more from us than they already have.”
“This attack must be countered,” Lord Sorano insisted.
“And it will be.” Dante pressed his lips together and took a slow breath. “But as Lady Peyroux said, we are the ambassadors of order and civility. Our traditions and ceremonies are the cornerstones of that order. We will not sacrifice them on the altar of wrath.”
But it was wrath that boiled in all our veins, and no amount of pomp and circumstance would quell our desire for vengeance. I just hoped the time Dante was buying us would be enough to yield something useful.



Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Flesh and Blood (Blood Vice Book 7) Chapter 1 Preview

I could not get my fangs to suck back up into my gums.
I crinkled my nose and tried to think of unappetizing things, but all I could come up with was cold cow blood. A line of drool spilled over my bottom lip, thanks to my mouth hanging open like an idiot. I wiped it away with the sleeve of my coat and made a slurping noise that only kids who wore retainers had a good excuse for.
The bedroom closet in Casey Poe’s apartment was dark, but enough light seeped through the slats on the door that Mandy took notice of my condition. The whites of her eyes swelled as she glared at me.
“You didn’t drink enough blood before we left,” she accused in a razor-sharp whisper.
“Did too.”
“I told you to have a second pot.”
“I had three,” I hissed.
“Must be the adrenaline then,” Mandy said, her voice dropping lower. She readjusted herself in the small nook we’d made between the hanging clothes. “You haven’t been out of the house in a good while.”
I nodded, refraining from speaking again as my elongated eye teeth made the act uncomfortable. Besides that, if I accidentally cut my lip and spilled fresh blood, our hiding spot would be blown all to hell. The werewolf we waited for would scent us long before he entered Casey’s apartment.
I still wasn’t convinced that the activated carbon we’d dusted onto our clothes would fix that, but Mandy had insisted it would make any lingering trace of us smell like ancient history. She’d also said that the pile of dirty laundry on Casey’s bed was strong enough to draw flies from the next state over.
Thank goodness the girl was such a shitty housekeeper. At least breathing through my mouth meant that I didn’t have to endure the odorific fog hanging in the air.
Mandy squinted down at her watch. Again. Her nerves were just as itchy as mine. We’d both be getting our asses chewed when we returned to the duke’s manor—though if our suspect made an appearance tonight, the backlash would be tenfold.
Can’t have your blood and drink it too, I reminded myself. Saving the day—or night—was worth the royal reaming that was sure to follow.
Casey Poe was Phillip Salinger’s daughter. The half-sired minion Kassandra had sent to kill off Dante’s potential scions had knocked up another donor-in-training at the blood finishing school he’d attended as a teen. Casey’s mother had died giving birth. She never outed him as the father, and he’d decided not to officially claim the child either—not after being accepted into the Duchess of House Lilith’s personal blood harem.
As sleazy as that made Phillip in my book, I respected him for keeping tabs on the girl. Dante had granted me access to Blood Vice’s resources and permission to investigate after Phillip and Kassandra had been coffin-locked. I wanted to know how the duchess had done it—how she’d convinced someone to commit such awful crimes and forfeit their life for hers.
Was it blind devotion? Blackmail? Hypnosis?
Between Blood Vice’s private DNA library, their back door into Interpol’s DNA database, and Phillip’s online search history, I’d pieced together the big picture.
Casey’s youth had been far from ideal. She’d played musical foster homes until her seventeenth birthday, then dropped off the grid until five years later, when she ended up in a Chicago hospital after being viciously raped and left for dead. The news article about the incident mentioned a series of similar attacks in the area, and the only other survivor had been murdered the day after she was released from the hospital.
The creep was covering his tracks. Blood Vice only stepped in if a crime was glaringly supernatural or wild animals were suspected, especially in a big city. By not shifting, he’d managed to keep the evidence within human jurisdiction—until I’d taken a closer look at Casey’s lab results.
Spawning non-consensual werewolves was punishable by death. If the guilty party wasn’t pledged to a pack, then the sentence was carried out by the Vampiric High Council.
A second article that turned up in Phillip’s search history detailed how Casey had made a miraculous recovery before going missing from the hospital. From there, she dropped off the grid again, though Phillip’s bank account statements were noticeably lighter from then on.
He’d sent gift cards for groceries, signed her up for a subscription butcher box under a fake name, and made rent and utility payments for the apartment—which, while not the fanciest of abodes, was close to a conservation area where she could run during full moons. Phillip had taken care of everything for her.
Right up until All Hallows’ Eve when he’d been laid down for a long, velvety nap.
I should’ve turned the information over to the duke and Blood Vice. But the last time Dante had allowed me to help with a case had been…anticlimactic. He’d pulled me at the first sign of progress—after I had made a significant discovery. Like snatching a baby bird out of the sky before it could fly more than two feet from the nest.
I couldn’t stomach that again. Not after all the time I’d spent training to be a part of Blood Vice. Not after all the legwork I’d put into this investigation. It was ridiculous. Frilly dresses and regal balls were nice, but I belonged out here, where I could make a difference.
Besides, it wasn’t as though any of House Lilith’s enemies knew what Mandy and I were up to tonight. No one did. We’d kept the simple yet brilliant plan we’d hatched to ourselves for days. Tonight, it was just us—well, us and the big bad werewolf prying open Casey’s bedroom window.
I still couldn’t close my mouth, but I held my breath and silently begged my pulse to find somewhere other than my ears to do its relentless thundering.
Mandy stood perfectly still beside me, eyes level with a gap in the closet door slats. The skin between her brows creased, and I realized that she hadn’t expected this to work. Hell, I hadn’t expected it to work. What kind of creep-o stalker responded this quickly to bait? And years later, at that.
Red flooded my vision, and the man’s outline came into view as he hooked a leg over the windowsill and climbed inside. The fire escape stairwell rattled behind him, and he paused, tilting his nose in the air.
I could smell the tequila that saturated Casey’s bed sheets from the closet. We’d found it in her kitchen and helped ourselves. It was a nice touch, considering the fake DUI claim included in the carpool requests I’d posted online—after sending Casey off on an all-expenses paid cruise to the Bahamas.
At least someone was enjoying my life savings.
When tall, dark, and creepy closed the window behind him, my grip tightened around the silver-pronged stun gun I’d brought with me. My coat felt uncomfortably light, considering I usually kept a .40 in each breast pocket. But shooting up an apartment in north St. Louis would involve the human PD. We were going to have hell to pay with the duke as it was, so I’d resigned myself to the stun gun.
Mandy’s eyes took on a golden sheen as the man turned toward the closet. She could shift in a matter of seconds, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be fast enough to keep us out of Shit Creek if this guy decided that he wanted our hiding spot.
As his head turned back toward the bed, drool oozed from the corner of my mouth, and I instinctively slurped. It was just a small sound, but for a werewolf, it might as well have been a fire alarm.
I shoved Mandy into the shadowy corner of the closet—under the longer items of clothes and behind a cheap wicker hamper—just before the closet door ripped open. It smacked the bedroom wall and rattled as if it might break right off its hinges.
Then a fist connected with my jaw.
My mouth snapped shut at the impact, and both fangs broke the flesh of my bottom lip. Hot blood filled my mouth and dribbled onto my chin. The man’s yellow eyes glowed in the dark as he sucked in a deep breath through his nose.
“Vampire,” he whispered.
I expected the revelation to spook him, but something in his tone suggested that he was more intrigued than threatened. I covered my aching mouth with one hand and thrust the stun gun at his chest, but he caught my wrist, leaving the silver prongs to crackle mid-air.
“Are you here for my girl?” he asked, taking hold of my opposite wrist and prying my hand away from my mouth.
“She’s not your girl.” I spat the words at him, dotting his face with my blood as he pulled me out of the closet.
Though the room was dark, the Eye of Blood picked out the man’s every detail—the thin mustache, a chipped front tooth, receding hairline. He drew my arms apart, forcing me closer to him so he could take another whiff.
“Mmmm,” he moaned. “You have a weakness for the she-wolves.”
I took the opportunity to jam my knee into his groin. Fair fights were for the sparing ring.
A human would have released me and crumpled to the ground. Not this one. A slow, rolling growl that sounded more like a purr rushed past his lips.
“I prefer humans myself,” he said, tightening his grip on my wrists until I felt something pop. “I’ve never had a bloodsucker.”
 Then he wrenched me off my feet. The tips of my boots grazed the ceiling. Half a second later, my back flopped heavily onto Casey’s cheap mattress, and all the air left my lungs.
Before I could regain my breath, the werewolf was on top of me. His thick legs straddled mine, pinning me to the bed. Another grating purr echoed in my ears as he lowered his face to mine, lapping at the blood that had spilled from my mouth and trailed across my cheek. His weight pressed me deeper into the mattress, and I wheezed out a pathetic noise in protest.
The joints in my wrists felt loose. My hands and fingers tingled at the lack of circulation, but I hadn’t dropped the stun gun. I squeezed the buttons on either side of the device, taking comfort in the motion despite its uselessness. The werewolf still had hold of my wrists, and now my arms were stretched over the booze-soaked mounds of Casey’s laundry.
Just as the creep’s tongue reached the corner of my mouth, he paused and lifted his head, sniffing the air. I feared that he’d finally figured out Mandy’s scent wasn’t coming from me, but rather the closet where she was likely mid-shift. But then I smelled it, too.
Smoke coiled up from the dirty socks and tee shirts on the bed beside us. I stared at it, just as confused as my assailant—until I realized how close my hand with the stun gun was. The clothes suddenly ignited, and we both gasped as flames reached for our faces.
I tried to roll onto my side, away from the fire, but I couldn’t move. As alarmed as he was, the werewolf refused to let go of me. I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
He brought my wrists up over my head and tried to grasp them in one of his meaty hands. I didn’t make it easy for him, which earned me a sharp slap once he managed the feat. Then he attempted to snuff out the fire with one of Casey’s pillows.
I squeezed the stun gun again, angling the prongs down at the stretch of mattress above us. Without the pile of clothes for cover, he noticed this time.
“Sneaky bitch.” He abandoned the small fire to reach for the device, but he didn’t quite make it.
The bed jolted, and then Mandy’s dark wolf was on his back, teeth sinking into his shoulder. The man garbled out a broken scream. He balled his free hand into a fist and punched Mandy in the muzzle. A whine punctuated her growl, but she held on, jerking her head as she tried to pull him off me.
I bucked my hips, hoping to unbalance the creep. The flaming pile of clothes burned brighter, spreading now that it had been left unattended. It sent our shadows dancing across the walls of Casey’s room and a film of slick sweat over my skin.
I ignored the throbbing pain in my wrists and groaned through clenched teeth as I strained to pull my hands apart. The werewolf’s grip was failing, thanks to Mandy and the fire.
One hand finally sprang free. The creep let go of my other to grasp at the stun gun, but Mandy gave his shoulder another yank. His hand came down on my face instead. My bottom lip seared with fresh pain as he clawed at my face, and I felt the pads of his fingertips roughen against my skin.
He’s attempting to shift. My mind exploded with panic. We were having a hard enough time with him in human form. As a wolf, he’d be ten times worse.
I stabbed the stun gun into the man’s chest. The silver prongs ripped holes in his shirt, and his eyes faded from yellow to dark brown as I lit up his world. My fingers shook violently, but I had enough strength left to squeeze the device until the asshole began foaming at the mouth.
Mandy pawed my arm and yipped at the fire. She pressed her muzzle into the man’s arm as he slumped and began to slide off me, pushing him toward the flames. She intended to use his limp body to put the fire out. At least one of us still had their head screwed on tight.
I did what I could to help. The man’s chest flopped onto the bed beside me, covering the bulk of the retail kindling and blowing hot ash in my face. I scrambled off the bed and to the opposite side of the room before hacking my lungs out.
Mandy shifted and used Casey’s pillow to put out the rest of the flames. When she was done, she clicked on the bedside lamp. Her naked body was spattered with blood and soot, yet she crinkled her nose at the mess I’d made of Casey’s bed.
I wondered how Blood Vice would cover this up for our unaware host. She was a wolf, so maybe the truth wasn’t entirely out of the question. All I knew was that my work here was done.
“So…” Mandy said, taking in the charred sheets and unconscious werewolf. “High-five now or later—after we call this nightmare in and survive the aftermath?”
“Later. Much later,” I said, rotating my bruised wrists.
I was already debating whether I should use my mild injuries to gain sympathy from the duke. I’d receive none from my sire. But whatever cross words they had for me was a small price to pay compared to what Mandy and I had accomplished tonight.
That’s what I told myself anyway as I watched Mandy retrieve her cell phone from her abandoned coat and punch in Dante’s number.