Lucien sprawled against the scratchy nap of the sofa. His chest heaved when Kate’s mouth released the opening he’d made above his left nipple. The cut wept blood, but her boneless weight told him she already slept, too weak to notice or care.
He closed his eyes.
His head fell back against the couch’s spine.
He’d wasted precious weeks circling Krystiyan’s search parties and Garrick’s ruthless hunt to reach his closest shelter, a derelict basement in Chicago’s K-Town. Then he’d shut out the world to nurture and tend to her for five hellacious nights.
He’d cared for the injuries David had inflicted. He’d comforted her through the agony of the transition, murmuring into her hair, stroking and soothing her. He’d coaxed precious drops past dry, cracked lips as hour passed to hour and night melted into night. In the beginning, he’d marveled at how eagerly she’d feasted. Those brief periods of hunger had galvanized him while they’d been on the run, but hope had since become a vague memory.
He was losing her.
During the daylight hours, the pallor of her skin blanched to bloodless alabaster. The purpling of her bruises had intensified, and the slashed skin on her back had ceased knitting. Most telling, Lucien had forced her to feed for the past two days. Before, feeding had been instinctive. Though weakened, she’d fought for survival.
He ran his fingers through her long, dark hair, comforted by its softness. “I’m sorry, bébé. So sorry.”
Once they’d gone to ground in Chicago, he hadn’t dared leave her. Garrick prowled, closer by the day, and though Lucien didn’t know what had happened to Malachi, whether his partner lived or died, he knew Krystiyan hadn’t followed the vampyr elder. The dark master pursued him and the woman instead. Both Garrick and the master tracked him through the scent Lucien couldn’t avoid leaving in the human prey he trailed behind them. The Russian’s foul odor soon joined Garrick’s seductive scent to permeate Chicago’s West Side.
Lucien couldn’t hunt.
His strength deteriorated with each feeding he missed, and he’d missed too many. He felt the loss in the deadweight of his limbs, the lethargic beat of his heart. Fatigue crept over him, through him, and saturated his every pore and muscle.
His options had dwindled to a blur his mind refused to process.
He needed blood, but he couldn’t feed while their predators were so near.
He couldn’t run from them either.
Kate’s transition had grown more difficult—and dangerous—every night they’d spent on the road to Chicago. He’d flee if he could, but she wouldn’t survive if they ran again. Better to starve than allow Krystiyan to snare them on open ground. And Garrick? Damn his conniving, manipulative soul! Luc would fight him, inch by cursed inch, before allowing the vampyr elder to take her so readily.
Instead, Luc had gambled that he was strong enough to sustain them until the search wavered.
He’d been wrong.
He planted a kiss on the crown of her head.
He must call Garrick.
“I have fed richly, Luc, glutted myself for you and the woman both.”
His eyes flashed open.
He tensed, tucked Kate against his side.
A startled growl emerged from his throat.
Garrick’s eyebrow arched. “You would have called, and I would have answered.” He lifted his arm and slashed at his wrist with sharp incisors. “I found you first.”
The metallic scent of his blood burned Lucien’s nostrils. “Stay away from her!”
“She’s dying.” Garrick shoved his streaming wrist toward him.
Lucien flinched from the first blow of a battle he knew he couldn’t win, but instead—
Garrick’s fingers dripped sweet crimson.
With the first splash on his lips, Lucien fastened one hand to Garrick’s meaty forearm. He held it in his tight grasp, and bending to the wound, he drank.
Had he been so dry? So cold?
He hadn’t noticed.
But as blood poured into his ravenous mouth, he recognized the disorientation hunger had wrought in him. If he—a three centuries-old headhunter—was so frail, how much weaker would his ward be?
“Restore yourself, and your ward will feed from you.”
She would live.
She must live.
Lucien clamped his teeth into the wound, satisfied when Garrick’s breath hissed at the roughness.
Within moments, Garrick’s strength seeped into his drained body, first as a trickle, then as a flood. Nerve endings snapped. His heartbeat doubled, tripled, until his heart pounded against the wall of his chest as the power of the elder vampyr’s blood stirred it to brutal life. Flush with the virus that made them vampyr, Garrick’s blood singed his veins like an electric current and so filled him with life, with energy, and blessed God, the power, Lucien sucked greedily.
“Drink deeply. The woman will need it.”
With the first urgent demands of his hunger appeased, Lucien slid his fingers into Kate’s hair. Cradling her scalp, he guided her mouth to the opening he’d made on his chest.
She sniffed at fresh scarlet gurgling from the cut, her nose wrinkling. They hadn’t time to wait for Garrick’s blood to steep inside his, but traces of Lucien’s familiar scent would tempt her. It had to.
Kate traced the wound with the tip of her pink tongue.
Lucien’s body clenched.
The violent bite of his teeth hurt Garrick, but Lucien couldn’t help himself. His former partner had abandoned headhunting—abandoned him—when the temptation to turn had drawn perilously close. Garrick had said killing had become attractive to him. Too alluring. So he’d laid down his sword before he became what they fought to destroy—a monster.
Lucien had understood.
But he’d missed him, missed his mentor and friend.
And God have mercy, he’d missed Garrick’s blood.
He couldn’t break free, would savor the feast he’d yearned for. The anticipation of Kate strengthening, taking the undiluted power of elder blood from his veins, maddened him. “Drink, chère. Please.”
Her mouth flitted over the opening.
Lucien yanked his from Garrick to sever the link, but his old partner shoved his wrist forward, forcing his blood into Lucien when Kate gently suckled. Lucien’s back bowed, nearly unseating her, but Garrick clamped down on her shoulder to hold her to the wound and maintain the intimacy of the connection.
Lucien shouted rage. He choked on hot blood forced past his gritted teeth. Garrick’s presence speared through his mind, searching for Kate. Lucien cursed, marshaled his power to protect his ward while she took the sustenance she so desperately needed from him.
Garrick’s will battered his. Determined. Violent.
Nausea coiled like vipers in the pit of his stomach. He clawed at Garrick’s wrist, fighting to wrench it away.
Garrick must not reach Kate.
The son of a bitch would fry his brain before he’d allow the link with her.
“Only a moment, Luc. Just to be sure…”
“Get away from her!”
When he launched his body forward, toward his mentor instead of away, Garrick stumbled. His wrist fell from Lucien’s mouth. Kate slid from his chest. Once his fist connected with Garrick’s jaw, Lucien’s gaze darted to where she’d curled into a fetal ball on the stained linoleum.
Cracked and crumbling plaster spilled to the floor when Garrick crashed into the wall. “Enough,” he shouted.
Lucien scooped Kate from the floor and sprinted for newspaper-covered windows—their only chance for escape.
Garrick lashed out his hand and shoved them toward the sofa. “No!”
Lucien used his momentum to pivot, angled his body between Kate and the danger Garrick represented. His lips curled to a sneer. “I’ll see you dead first.”
“Hold, Luc.” Garrick stepped back, hands raised. “Hold!” Blood slid in a vermillion trickle from his wrist. “Krystiyan is three blocks away. He’ll slaughter us.”
“You won’t take her.” Lucien let Kate tumble to the ratty cushions of the sofa and reached behind it to slide his sword free from its snug hiding place. “I’ll have your head first.”
Garrick’s blue eyes, blank, dead, studied him long minutes. He fell to his knees and clasped his hands at the base of his spine. He bent forward, dark hair fanning at the nape to expose his vulnerable neck. “If you want it, take it.”
Lucien tightened his grip on the hilt.
His stance widened for the more powerful blow.
Every instinct inside him screamed for the kill.
That horrifying impulse made the sword bobble in his grasp.
He shook his head, stunned.
Kate was his ward. The responsibility fell to him to ease her transition to vampyr. She was his to care for, his to guide and protect.
That and no more.
Only dark masters forced females to remain with them. Or God forbid, forced a sick travesty of what mating should be. Images flashed through his mind—the masters he and Garrick had hunted together, the vampyr Lucien hunted still. David, who had taken Kate, tortured her…
He dropped one hand from the hilt of his sword to reach for her. “Kate?”
“The others, Luc. They will not be far behind.” Kneeling on the floor, Garrick peered at him through thick, dark lashes. “I won’t take her from you, but they will. They’ll kill you to take her.”
Lucien stooped until his fingers brushed her pale cheek.
“Where will you run that I can’t find you? That Krystiyan won’t? Let me help. Kill me or let me help you.”
“You can’t have her.”
Garrick’s steady gaze never left his. “No. Not yet.”
Pain exploded inside him.
Right or wrong, Lucien couldn’t bear the thought of losing Kate. She could save Garrick’s life, but the need to keep her for himself, his and his alone, still ripped at Lucien’s gut. His eyes squeezed shut as he fought for control. Sweet darkness beckoned, the darkness of never, ever letting her go.
But that was a battle to be fought later.
For now, his old partner was right.
Kate must be protected.
He wasn’t strong enough to guard her alone, and among his brother vampyr, there was no one Lucien trusted more than Garrick. They must work together—again—to defend her. Take her where Krystiyan and the others dared not follow.
He lowered the sword, dropped it to the floor with a deafening clang. He lifted Kate into his arms. “If she doesn’t accept you—”
“I’ll beg you for death.”
Lucien prayed, when the time came, his integrity would be as strong. “All right.”
* * * * *
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