It was not the cool breeze that made the hairs on the back of Ami’s neck rise, but the low bestial growl that accompanied it.
She froze, one arm extended in front of her, fingers tightening on the DVD case poised half-in half-out of the movie rental quick-drop slot. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms. Adrenaline surged through her veins and sped her pulse.
Swiveling to face the source of that disturbing warning, she surveyed the parking lot behind her and found it empty save for her shiny black Tesla Roadster. Orange and brown leaves swirled and tumbled across patched black asphalt that still glistened in places from a midnight shower. Whole Foods, Blockbuster, and the other businesses in the strip mall had long since closed for the night.
She glanced to her right. East Franklin Street was deserted ... as it should be. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a college town. At roughly 3:20 on a Sunday night (or Monday morning), students and professors would be snug in their beds, catching Z’s in preparation for an early start to the work or school week.
Ami relaxed her death grip on the DVD and let it thunk down atop the myriad of other movies and games that had been returned. She took a step toward her car. The growl sounded once more, seeming to buffet her and ruffle her bangs alongside the northerly wind. Deep and full of menace, it was not the complaint of some irritable house pet left too long in the elements. No dog produced this rumbling. Something larger did, bringing it closer in tone and texture to that of a lion or a tiger.
Another growl answered it, not as impressive as the first, but nevertheless disturbing. Then another. And another. And another. Frowning, Ami reached into her jacket, withdrew the Glock 9mm Seth insisted she always carry, and approached East Franklin Street with caution.
It definitely came from the north. Not from the darkened businesses across the street, but from the bike trail to their right that veered left into the trees behind them. A snarling infused with such violence and fury one might think a lion were battling a pack of wolves.
Just as she reached the edge of the parking lot, odd shick, ting, and clang noises joined the fray.
Ami darted across the street and raced down the bike path. Tall trees formed spires on her right. A small meadow with a radio tower lay on her left, but soon surrendered to forest. When it did, Ami slowed to a brisk walk and entered the denser shadows. Her heart pounded. The babbling of a brook she couldn’t see teased her ears.
Ten or fifteen yards in, she left the path, headed into the trees, and began wading through the undergrowth. Fortunately, it had rained earlier. The autumn leaves beneath the canopy were still damp and muffled her footsteps.
Up ahead, small lights flickered like fireflies. Amber. Green. Blue. Silver. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in pairs. Moving and shifting. The length of time they remained visible varying.
Ami swallowed hard and questioned her sanity as she came to an area where the trees thinned. She paused, concealed by the denser foliage on the perimeter.
Ahead, too small to be called a clearing, lay a patch of land the size of a two-car garage that just happened to be treeless. In its center, a fantastical scene unfolded that—for many—would defy belief.
The flickering lights she had spied swam in and out of focus as the faces that housed them moved so quickly to and fro that they blurred. Men, who were clearly more than mortal men, engaged in a surreal battle that resurrected her first description: a lion facing down a wolf pack.
The lion—a dark, menacing figure in the center of the storm—bore glowing amber eyes and long black hair that floated around his head like tendrils of smoke as he spun, fought, and slashed at his attackers with a speed that brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons Darnell had shown her.
No other creature could move so swiftly.
The pack of wolves—growling and snapping like their namesakes—also bore glowing eyes, theirs green, blue, and silver. Though they all, like the immortal, were garbed in midnight hues, their hair varied. Blond. Brunette. Auburn. Long. Short. Shaved. Spiked. Pulled back in a ponytail. They, too, moved faster than humans ever could, darting in and striking at the immortal with indistinct motions, then leaping back and pausing to gauge the damage and let their comrades have a shot, their blades dripping crimson liquid.
Though they couldn’t match their enemy’s speed and strength, the vampires outnumbered the immortal ... eight to one as best she could count. Ami could only make out individual features when the vampires paused between strikes.
She discerned none of the immortal’s features because he remained in continuous motion, his swords or sais or whatever blades he wielded defending him from assaults on all sides.
Ami reached into her left pocket, palm sweating, and pulled out a cylindrical aluminum silencer that was longer than the Glock itself. Keeping her gaze on the conflict before her, she screwed it onto the barrel. The top-of-the-line suppressor would reduce the explosive expulsion of each hollow-point bullet to a mere click that would not rouse residents slumbering in the houses and townhouses beyond the trees.
Raising the Glock with her right hand, she supported it with her left and waited.
A blur of movement solidified into a blond vampire who halted—aqua eyes gleaming, bowie knives dripping—on the fringes of the pack.
Ami fired twice.
Blood sprayed from his carotid and femoral arteries. Dropping his weapons, the vampire emitted a garbled croak and clamped his hands to his neck in an attempt to cease the gush of his life’s blood.
A vampire with shaggy brown hair appeared next to him.
Ami fired thrice more, striking the new vamp in his carotid, brachial, and femoral arteries.
All six remaining vampires stilled and glanced at their injured colleagues, who sank to their knees as they bled out faster than the virus that infected them could heal their wounds.
The Immortal Guardian paused and unerringly met Ami’s gaze.
For one split second, her heart stopped, and everything around her fell away, out of focus, a dark void. All but the immortal.
His hair settled on his shoulders and tumbled halfway down his back and chest in wild disarray, concealing much of his face. His eyes, viewed through the tangles, glowed a vibrant amber beneath raven brows. Dark stubble covered a strong jaw spattered with spots and streaks of scarlet. His full lips parted, emitting great gasping breaths interspersed with the rumblings of a lion, and displayed white, glinting fangs.
It was, perhaps, one of the oddest moments of Marcus’s existence.
Well, odd might not be the correct word. Vampires still moving in packs larger than twos or threes was odd. Vampires remaining lucid enough to organize the ambush he had plunged into was odd. At least, it had been up until a year and a half ago.
This was surprising.
And very little surprised Marcus Grayden.
Panting, losing blood from dozens of cuts and gashes that had not had time to heal before more were inflicted, he stared at the instigator of this fortuitous pause.
He had expected to see a Second decked out in black vampire-hunting togs. Instead, his fascinated gaze landed upon a sweet, undeniably feminine face with a halo of bright orange curls. Wide green eyes as vivid as emeralds peered out of concealing foliage and met his.
She was pretty. And small. And seemed to radiate innocence. Were it not for the weapon extended before her, he would wonder if he weren’t imagining her.
Who was she? What was she doing here?
The clothing she wore labeled her a civilian—snug jeans, loose sweater, dark jacket—so why wasn’t she screaming? Why didn’t she shoot him? Why was she helping him instead of fleeing or firing at them all?
Marcus lacked the time to speculate further. He sensed the instant the six remaining vampires located the petite assassin and drew back his arm.
Ami watched the immortal swing a gleaming short sword at the vampire nearest him as all six vampires searched the trees for a glimpse of her. The head of a third vamp hit the ground at roughly the same moment Ami realized she had been spotted.
Sheer terror ripped through her, shocking her heart back into action and ramming it against her ribs in a panicked triple-tempo. Three of the five remaining vampires resumed their clash with the immortal. The other two turned their furious attention upon her.
Ami squeezed the trigger again and again and again, firing blindly into the blur their bodies became as they raced toward her. Or tried to race toward her. Hollow points did a lot of damage internally, bursting open like flower blossoms upon impact. And a semi-automatic could fire a lot of hollow points in a very short time.
Amy emptied the clip, filling the vamps’ torsos with the ten remaining bullets. As the two vampires stumbled and hesitated, she ejected the clip and drew another from her pocket.
One vamp—head shaven—recovered faster than the other, leaping toward her with a feral sound as she slid the new clip into the grip.
An unfocused shape swept between them: the immortal, moving so fast the breeze created by his passing yanked the hair back from her face. The bald vampire, nearly upon her, bounced back as though he had hit a wall. Cuts seemed to open on his flesh spontaneously as the immortal’s short swords flashed.
Shaken, Ami slammed the clip home, advanced a bullet into the chamber, and raised her weapon.
Two of the three vampires the immortal had been fighting had fallen. As the immortal halted, the two who had pursued her both fell, limp, to the ground. The sole surviving vampire took in the rapidly decomposing bodies of his companions and fled.
The Immortal Guardian turned to face her.
Ami swallowed hard and looked up at him. Way up at him. At six foot one or so, he towered over her own five feet. Her fear did not lessen, though she knew it should. Immortals were the good guys. Immortals had rescued her from the monsters who had locked her in a hell of their making. Immortals had taken her in, helped her regain her sanity, protected her, and given her a home.
But not before those monsters had done irreparable damage to her psyche.
Ami forced herself to lower her weapon, but could not lessen her grip on it or still her trembling.
The immortal studied her in silence. His clothing was torn in numerous places and wet with blood, both his and the vampires’. Though his hands still grasped short swords in loose, comfortable clasps, one arm hung at an odd angle.
“Are you injured?” he asked. His voice, soft and deep, carried a British accent.
Unable to find her own, she shook her head.
“You know what I am, what they are,” he commented, motioning to the deceased vampires with a tilt of his head.
“Yes,” she squeezed past her tight throat. “Are you ... are you all right?”
He nodded and glanced in the direction of the fleeing vampire. “I’ve one more to take care of.”
“Do you want me to call in reinforcements?”
A wicked smile curled his lips as he began walking backward in the direction of his prey. “And spoil my fun? No, thank you.”
Something about that smile, the dark anticipation that filled his handsome features, produced a flutter of butterfly wings in her belly.
“Am I correct in assuming you’re a Second?”
She opened her mouth to respond in the negative.
Seconds were humans who worked with immortals and protected them during the daylight hours when they had to scorn the sun. All were very carefully screened to ensure their loyalty and underwent extensive martial arts and weapons training. They were also a lot like Secret Service agents and wouldn’t hesitate to give their lives to save that of their Immortal Guardian ... which was why Seconds were almost always male. Apparently most immortals tended to be old-fashioned and found the idea of a woman’s sacrificing her life for them too unpalatable to bear.
The sudden bleating of her cell phone made Ami jump and snap her mouth shut.
She fumbled for the phone.
The immortal looked over his shoulder, his eagerness to begin the chase evident.
When she glimpsed the caller ID, Ami barely suppressed a groan. “Go ahead,” she urged the immortal and waved to the bodies of the vampires, which were shriveling up as the parasitic virus that infected them devoured them from the inside out in a desperate bid to live. “I’ll take care of this.”
Ami brought the phone to her ear and answered in as normal a voice as she could produce after the past nerve-wracking few minutes. “Hi, Seth.”
The immortal’s eyebrows flew up. No doubt his preternaturally enhanced hearing had allowed him to listen to the bass-baritone greeting of the leader of the Immortal Guardians ... as well as the affection that laced it.
“You’re late. Where are you?” Seth continued.
“I, ah ...” Ami surveyed the bloody clearing, considered how assiduously Seth guarded her safety, and thought it best not to worry him. “I ... just stopped to return the movies Darnell and I rented last night.”
A grin split the immortal’s face, evoking such an appealing transformation that Ami could only stare, speechless.
Apparently reassured by her acquaintance with Seth and Darnell (the Second of one of the most powerful immortals) and titillated by her evasion of Seth’s question, he winked, offered her a cocky salute with the sword in his uninjured arm, then seemed to vanish into thin air as he took off after the vampire who had gotten away.
The tension that she hadn’t realized had tightened nearly every muscle in her body disappeared with him, leaving her with an almost light-headed, giddy feeling.
“Everything all right, Ami?”
“Everything’s fine,” she said and meant it.
Not only had she managed to confront a stranger—a strange man—without giving in to the panic that usually consumed her in such instances and either fleeing in terror or dissolving into a pathetic, quivering lump; she had actually helped said stranger defeat the group of vampires who had attacked him.
Jubilation laced with tremendous relief flooded her. Seth was right. She really was getting better. Those monsters hadn’t broken her.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, so happy now she could’ve danced. “Sorry I’m running late. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“All right. Be careful.”
“I will,” she chirped and returned the phone to her pocket with a grin. Unscrewing the silencer, she dropped it in her pocket and slipped the Glock into its holster.
As she left the trees and approached the decomposing vampires, her grin turned into a grimace. Blech. She had never before witnessed what happened to vampires when they were destroyed. The scent resembled that of an overflowing city Dumpster on a hot summer day. The vampires she had shot had disintegrated completely, leaving only empty bloody clothing and weapons. The others were rapidly decaying, shriveling up like mummies, then collapsing in on themselves like balloons having the air sucked out of them.
A slight shudder shook her.
Did this happen to immortals, too, when they were destroyed?
Vampires and immortals were both infected with the same rare virus that first conquered, then replaced their immune system. It leant them greater strength, speed, and longevity, healed their wounds at an accelerated rate, and kept them from aging. All good things. But infection with the virus also left them with an unfortunate photosensitivity and a sort of severe anemia.
Immortals and vampires, however, differed in one very significant way: immortals had been something more than human even before the virus had transformed them.
Born with far more advanced and complex DNA than ordinary humans, they called themselves gifted ones ... at least before their transformation. They didn’t know why they differed genetically from humans. They knew only that the thousands of extra DNA memo groups they possessed bestowed upon them wondrous gifts and talents others lacked and enabled their bodies to mutate the virus that infected them, eliminating the more corrosive aspects.
Immortals, for instance, did not suffer the madness that swiftly descended upon vampires, whose brains were damaged by the virus’s assault. They also didn’t fall into the deep, coma-like sleep vampires did when the sun rose.
Wrinkling her nose, Ami picked up a bloody shirt using only her thumb and forefinger. Immortals were not destroyed by extreme blood loss either. Instead, they slipped into a sort of stasis or hibernation not unlike that of a water bear until a source of blood came along.
“Well, there’s no avoiding it,” she muttered. Since she lacked gloves, she was going to have to get her hands dirty. The clothing she would bury in one or more of the strip mall’s Dumpsters. The sticky, crimson-coated weapons she would collect and store in her Roadster’s trunk. She couldn’t do anything about the bloody ground. Hopefully another autumn shower would come along and wash it clean.
Kneeling down, she began to gather the clothing into a rancid pile.
Thank goodness she had some hand wipes in the car.
Marcus staggered through the front door of his two-story home, closed it, and leaned back against the cool wood.
Eight. Eight vampires had worked together and attacked him in a surprisingly well-choreographed battle. There had been none of the usual clumsy, swinging-wild bullshit. These vamps had actually seemed to have undergone some sort of instruction.
He snorted. Not that their measly talent could ever equal his own. He had trained with a master swordsman. No fanged slacker with a machete could match his skill.
Weary, he let his head drop back against the door.
The vampire he had chased after leaving the redheaded pixie had led him to two others. The two new guys had brashly stood against him. The third had taken off running again while his latest cronies fell.
Marcus could have gone after him ... again ... but, wounds stinging, had decided to call it a night. He’d get the bastard tomorrow. Or the next night.
A steady pat pat pat drew his attention. Looking down to seek its source, he noticed several crimson puddles forming around his feet.
He started toward the kitchen with a groan, peeling off his long coat and letting it fall in a heap on the bamboo floor of the foyer. The dark T-shirt and jeans he wore beneath bore numerous tears and holes. Like most other immortals, he always wore black when he hunted so any insomniac or nosy neighbor who might witness his return wouldn’t see the blood.
And there was quite a lot of it tonight.
Lacerations that should have already healed but couldn’t because he had lost too much blood covered his entire body. A vamp had dislocated one of Marcus’s shoulders. And every migraine-inducing throb of his left leg increased his certainty that his fibula was broken.
It seemed to take him half an hour just to limp his way around the island in the center of his roomy kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door, Marcus leaned down with a groan, pulled open the specially designed meat compartment drawer, and swore foully.
Shoving it closed, he slammed the refrigerator door with a grunt and contemplated his options.
He could either go out again and feed the old-fashioned way or suck it up and admit he needed help.
Marcus stumbled out of the kitchen, across the foyer, and into his living room.
He’d go back out again. Just as soon as he got his second wind.
Gingerly, he lowered himself onto his comfy six-foot cream-colored sofa, closed his eyes, and exhaled a long sigh.
His eyes flew open. Who the hell was ringing his doorbell at—he glanced at the clock on the mantel—4:31 in the morning? And how had he not heard the person’s approach? Was he that weak?
Well, he wasn’t expecting anyone, so whoever it was must be up to no good.
And when he stopped leaning on the freakin’ doorbell and decided to break and enter, he would be in for a rude awakening.
Marcus perked up a bit at that. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to go out after all. He could just feed on the burglar.
If the burglar would get off his ass and get to the bloody burglarizing already!
Bing bong bing bong bing bong.
Growling, Marcus flung himself from the sofa and stalked over to the front door.
Okay, he didn’t stalk. It was more of an agonized, yet determined half-lurch half-skip he would no doubt regret; but pain and the doorbell prodded his temper.
Ready to scare the holy hell out of whoever his new tormentor was, he yanked the door open, then drew up short. “Oh,” he grumbled. “It’s you.”
Unfazed by Marcus’s surly greeting, his visitor arched a dark brow. “Feeling a tad cranky, are we?”
Marcus muttered something disparaging beneath his breath as he turned away and started the long hobble back to the sofa.
Behind him, Seth entered and closed the door. “Care to tell me what happened tonight?”
“In a minute,” Marcus bit out, gritting his teeth against the pain. Oh yeah. His leg was definitely broken.
“As you will,” Seth replied in an accent Marcus had never been able to place. Russian? Middle Eastern? South African? None of them seemed quite right.
He glanced up as Seth strolled past, his hands clasped behind his back. Though Marcus was six foot one, Seth stood a head taller. His black hair, pulled back into a wavy raven ponytail, damn near reached his ass. His nose was straight, his jaw strong, his eyes so dark a brown they appeared black.
Like Marcus, he was cloaked in midnight. Black slacks. Black mock turtleneck. A long black coat. All of impeccable quality and fit. The skin left exposed was tanned and flawless.
Marcus scowled after him. He could’ve at least offered to help.
“I’m making a point,” Seth said in his deep voice.
Great. “Stop reading my thoughts.”
“As soon as you quiet them.”
Marcus said nothing as he continued to make slow progress toward the living room.
Seth was the self-proclaimed leader of the Immortal Guardians. Their mentor. Their justiciar if any should stray beyond the boundaries he set for them.
One by one, he had sought them all out when they were fledgling immortals, most transformed against their will, and shown them a new way of life. He had explained what vampirism was: the result of a parasitic or—as he put it—symbiotic virus that altered their bodies in miraculous ways, yet left them needing regular infusions of blood. He showed them how to temper that need in a manner that strengthened them.
He taught them. He trained them. He guided them.
He was the first, the oldest (though he didn’t look a day over thirty), the most powerful among them. So powerful that, unlike the others, he could walk in daylight without suffering any ill effects at all.
Marcus grunted as he collapsed back against the sofa cushions, grimacing when he realized how badly he was staining them. “I don’t suppose you have any blood on you.”
Seth smiled placidly as he leaned back against the mantel. “None with which I care to part.”
Of course. Marcus would have to do something soon. He still bled from several wounds and continued to weaken. With no convenient burglar on hand, he would have to go out and feed.
“Why did you say you were here again?”
When Seth’s smile turned calculating, Marcus felt a twinge of unease. “There is someone I’d like you to meet.”
Ami nibbled her lower lip as she waited for Seth’s summons. Glancing down at her wrist, she cursed softly when she realized no metal glinted against the material of her navy-blue sweater. She’d forgotten her watch again.
How much time had passed since Seth had entered the attractive two-story home? Ten minutes? Twenty? Fifty?
She walked from the front porch, down the long sidewalk to the driveway and back. The house lay several miles outside of Greensboro, where homes were few and far between and neighbors resided far enough away that they could neither be seen nor heard.
The house before Ami boasted reddish brick with a connected two-car garage. A brass kick plate adorned a shiny black door. The yard ... could really use some attention. Leaves and pine needles had piled up. What grass remained visible needed mowing, weeding, and edging. Left to their own devices, grass runners crept across the sidewalk in an attempt to bury the pavement. Ami absently kicked at one as she passed it for the fortieth or fiftieth time.
Her breath frosted on the cool air. Shivering, she wished she hadn’t had to discard her jacket earlier to keep Seth from seeing the blood stains on it.
Seth’s warm voice finally filled her head. Would you please join us, Ami?
Wiping suddenly damp palms on her jeans, she smoothed her sweater, checked her curly, red hair to ensure it had not escaped the neat ponytail that barely reached her shoulders, then picked up the small cooler Seth had left and resolutely approached the front door.
She raised her hand to knock, then froze when she heard the distinctive bing bong of the doorbell. Blinking, she looked down at the small glowing button she hadn’t depressed. The doorbell had rung, hadn’t it?
She lowered her hand. This time she had actually seen the button move in and out as it rang itself. Surely Seth’s doing.
If he had wanted her to ring the doorbell, why hadn’t he just said so?
Bing bong. Bing bong.
And why didn’t anyone answer? The persistent ringing rattled nerves already stretched taut. Even after a year and a half in Seth’s care, she felt a touch of panic whenever she met someone new. As she had earlier with the immortal, which actually hadn’t turned out too badly.
The door swung inward.
Ami looked up ... and felt a smile lift the edges of her lips as she took in the tall figure who darkened the doorway. For the second time that night, she thought the immortal would be incredibly handsome if his face weren’t tight with pain and his body mangled and saturated with blood.
Ebony hair surrounded his face in tangled waves and fell halfway down his back. His face, arms, and torso bore so many deep gashes that he looked like he had brawled with real wolves rather than vampires with a vicious pack mentality. His right arm had not yet healed. Judging by the way it hung, it had been dislocated. (Having had both of her own arms dislocated in the past, she knew how painful that could be.) And he carefully kept his weight off his left leg. Was it broken?
Broad shoulders, muscled arms and legs, and a narrow waist and hips were all enticingly visible now that his coat had been discarded.
This time, when Ami found herself tongue-tied, it had little to do with fear or anxiety. Especially when his eyes lit up with what might have been pleasure at finding her on his doorstep.
Leaning to one side, she peered past him and saw Seth propping up a fireplace mantel in the next room. “You made him answer the door?” she demanded. Seth was not one to witness the suffering of another without aiding him.
She dared a quick peek up at the less than pleased expression on the man’s face, then looked again to Seth. “Why?”
“I was making a point.”
“Se-e-eth! I can’t believe you!” Frowning, she stepped inside and dropped the cooler. “Here, let me help you.”
The Immortal Guardian closed the door, but made no move toward her. Ami suspected the doorknob might be the only thing holding him upright.
Moving to his left side, she wrapped her right arm around his waist and drew his left across her shoulders. When she glanced up, she found him studying her with piercing brown eyes.
A little shiver of awareness tickled its way through her.
Even bloody and battered he was sexy as hell. He was the perfect height, too—roughly a foot taller than her—so her head came up to his shoulder instead of falling short of his armpit. (Sometimes hanging with Seth and David, who were—respectively—six foot eight and six foot seven, gave her a crick in her neck.)
“Who are you?” the immortal asked.
“Ami, this is Marcus,” Seth answered at the same time. “Marcus, Amiriska.”
“Nice to meet you, Marcus,” Ami said, her eyes boring into his in an attempt to convey her desire to keep their earlier encounter a secret. “Would you like to sit down?”
She thought a touch of amusement entered his gaze, nearly smothered by the suffering his wounds inspired. “Very much so.”
“I would, too, if I were in your condition. Let’s see if we can make it to the sofa.”
They took it slowly. The poor guy must be in total agony. She didn’t understand why Seth didn’t do anything to help him.
“I assume you’re an Immortal Guardian?” she asked to support the first meeting pretense.
He nodded, his strong jaw clenching.
“Then why aren’t your wounds healing the way they should?”
He grunted as she eased him down onto sofa cushions splashed with scarlet splotches. “I haven’t fed.”
When his gaze dropped to the base of her neck, Ami reared back.
“Ami is not on the menu,” Seth intoned behind her. “Ever. Do I make myself clear?”
Ami looked at Seth over her shoulder. “Why didn’t you get him some blood?”
“He doesn’t have any.”
“We brought a coolerful with us. Why didn’t you offer him some of that?” Striding from the living room (it really was a lovely room, spacious and tastefully decorated), she retrieved the cooler and set it on the coffee table. A quick lift of the lid, and she handed Marcus a blood bag.
As she watched, his fangs descended, and he bit into the bag. Some of the tension in his face eased as the fangs siphoned the blood directly into his veins.
Hands on her hips, she faced Seth. “Well?”
He shrugged. “I was making a point.”
“Yes,” Marcus seconded, the bag already empty. “What point?”
Ami handed him another one.
“He needs a Second,” Seth stated.
Surprised, Ami turned back to Marcus. “You don’t have a Second?”
All immortals had Seconds. Seth insisted upon it.
Well, all except for Roland Warbrook, one of the more irascible immortals.
Marcus glared at Seth. “I do not need a Second.”
“You need a Second,” Seth responded implacably.
“I have a Second.”
“Slim is not a Second.”
Ami frowned. She had met quite a few Seconds since Seth had taken her under his wing, usually via telephone or the Internet, but none had gone by the nickname Slim. “Who is Slim?”
Seth looked pointedly toward the bay window on the opposite side of the room. Ami followed his gaze to the wicker basket on the floor in front of it. A small black cat that probably wouldn’t weigh eight pounds with a full belly returned her stare with one black paw raised high in the air.
“Um ... is that cat bald?”
There seemed to be substantial bare patches above its eyes ... and across the top of its head ... between its shoulder blades ... on one knee ...
“No,” Marcus denied defensively. “He isn’t bald. He’s ... scarred from fighting with animals twice his size.”
“Oh. Poor little guy.” Ami hated bullies, be they human or animal. And, judging by his ragged appearance, this cat must lure them like rancid meat lured flies.
“Don’t feel too sorry for him,” Seth drawled. “Slim is the one who instigates the fights.”
Ami eyed the cat doubtfully. “Really? Has he ever won one?”
Seth’s dark eyes sparkled with amusement while he and Ami awaited Marcus’s response.
When it came, the words emerged as though they had been dragged from him by force. “I think one ended in a draw.”
Ami bit her lip to keep from laughing.
Slim went back to licking himself.
Marcus sighed and silently wished this night would just end already. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he eased himself into a more upright position. The broken bone in his leg was beginning to knit itself back together. All bleeding stopped as the cuts began to seal themselves.
“Would you like some help with your arm?” Ami asked.
Marcus glanced up to see her soft green eyes shift their focus to his dislocated shoulder. “Sure.”
She was beautiful ... in a fresh-faced, girl-next-door kind of way. Pale, flawless skin free of makeup. Long lashes that complemented her coppery hair. A short pert nose. Lips that were nice and full, but not freaky, plastic surgery full. If he had to guess, he would say she was perhaps twenty years old. Clearly a human. As far as he knew, all gifted ones save one had black hair and brown eyes.
Though small, she was surprisingly strong—she had supported quite a bit of his weight when she had helped him to the sofa—and slender, with nicely rounded hips and full breasts he couldn’t help but admire as she leaned forward to aid him and her sweater gaped enticingly, exposing shadowy cleavage and the white lace of her bra.
Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes. She smelled good, too.
One of her small hands carefully grasped his shoulder. The other took his wrist.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
He nodded, thinking her voice—low and warm—as appealing as the rest of her.
She gave a quick twist. Pain shot up his arm and through his shoulder.
“Perfect,” he gritted out.
Stepping back, she retrieved another bag of blood from the cooler and handed it to him.
She had a pretty smile. The kind it was damned near impossible not to return.
He certainly couldn’t resist it and felt his lips turn up as he bit down into the bag.
He glanced at Seth. Unease again slithered up his spine at the gleam in the elder’s eyes.
“Marcus,” Seth drawled, “meet your new Second.”
Lowering the half-empty bag, Marcus followed Seth’s gaze to Ami.
Her face lighting with curiosity, she looked around as though she expected to see someone enter the room behind her. When no one did, she froze, acquiring a rather deer-in-the-headlights expression of panic. Her gaze flew to Seth’s. As did Marcus’s.
“Ami,” Seth said kindly, “I would like you to serve as Marcus’s Second.”
Her lips parted slightly. “Me?” she breathed incredulously. “Oh no,” Marcus blurted out. “Hell no. I don’t want a Second.”
Seth’s tone turned arctic. “I don’t care what you want. You need one. Tonight demonstrated that very well. And you know the rules. Every Immortal Guardian has a Second.”
“You of all people are aware of Roland’s trust issues, as well as his response to being assigned Seconds in the past.”
Marcus’s gaze slid speculatively to Ami. Hmm. Maybe he could—
“If you’re thinking of taking a page from your mentor’s book and frightening Ami away,” Seth went on, “think again. She’s tougher than she looks.” Harm a hair on her precious head, he warned Marcus telepathically, and I will kill you.
To Ami, Seth said, “I’ll be in touch.” In the next instant, he vanished.
A heavy silence fell in his absence.
Ami bit her lip, brow furrowing. “Do you think he’s coming back?”
Both jumped when three suitcases and several white banker boxes full of what he assumed were Ami’s possessions suddenly appeared around them.
Marcus sighed heavily. “I’m guessing no.”