Complying slowly, Riker set Nicole on the ground.

As he straightened, he cut a let’s do it glance at Myne. In an instant, Myne was in motion. He took down Toilet Brush and another dude before Riker could land his first blow.


Oh, but when he did, the sound of the VAST officer’s jaw breaking was like a stiff shot of bourbon. The officer flew backward, his weapon flipping into the air.

Riker snagged it one-handed and whirled, jamming the butt of the rifle into the gut of another ass**le who made the mistake of trying to use a shock stick on him.

Spinning, he laid out another guy with a boot to the chest, but as Riker landed, he took a blow to the kidney, followed by a sweeping kick to the back of his knee. He grunted as he hit the ground, narrowly avoiding a shot from the VAST guy’s AE- rifle. One bullet from that particular Daedalus weapon modification would torture its victim for hours as it delivered a series of powerful electric shocks through the body, burning organs and flesh. Vampires had a fifty-fifty shot of surviving. Humans had nil.

Riker shoved his palm into the guy’s throat and watched with satisfaction as the human went down, futilely gasping for air through his crushed windpipe. A sudden spray of blood splashed on the lawn in front of

Riker, and he glanced over to see Myne standing over the decapitated body of one of the agents, his fangs buried deep in another’s throat.

The remaining humans either were dead or wouldn’t be recovering anytime soon.

“Come on.” Riker scanned the horizon for more humans, but so far, so good. “The next wave will be here any minute.” And they’d have better training, deadlier weapons, and greater numbers.

Nicole lay where he’d put her, still unconscious, her long strawberry-blond locks spilling over the gras like blood, her bottom lip swollen from biting it. He gathered her in his arms, aware that he hadn’t held a female this way since his mate. But Terese had been smaller. Lighter. Much more fragile. And where Terese had smelled of rosewater, Nicole’s warm skin carried ahint of crisp pears.

What. The. Hell. Why in the world was he comparing the two? They were opposites. Human and vampire. Tall and petite. Evil slaver and innocent victim.

“Hunter’s going to kill you,” Myne said as he fell in next to Riker.

“He’s not going to kill me.”

“But he’ll lecture you with Hunterisms. A dead buffalo can’t cross the plains, or some shit. You might as well be dead.” Myne wiped one of his blades clean on his pants before sheathing it. “You know the rules. No humans at headquarters who aren’t food.”

“Who says we aren’t going to eat her?” Riker gave him a sideways glance. “And since when do you care about vampire laws?”

Myne’s gaze raked Nicole, contempt—and hunger—gleaming in his eyes. “Since I decided I don’t want to see you dead over some lowlife human.” Riker cocked an eyebrow, and Myne snorted. “That wasn’t a declaration of love or anything. The clan needs you. You’re one of their best fighters.”

Their best fighters. Riker didn’t miss the way Myne didn’t include himself as a member of the clan, even after decades of living among them, fighting beside them.

The woman moaned, a delicate noise that should have tugged at the one heartstring Riker had left. Sure, it was frayed, barely hanging on, but what remained sometimes vibrated with a faint sympathetic echo of times past.

Times when he’d had a mate, a child on the way, and hope for a future.

But thanks to Nicole’s family, he now had none of these, so not even her whimpers could conjure a shred of sympathy from Riker.

With a sudden, angry growl, he leaped onto the fence. Nicole shifted, burrowing her face into his neck so her cold nose prodded his skin. Of course, she’d be chilly—he’d taken her out of her warm house and into the freezing late-fall temperatures, and she was wearing only a cream turtleneck and gray slacks with chunky-heeled dress boots. Not that he felt bad. Not when she stood for everything he hated about humans.

Hell, given her youthful appearance, she was probably using one of her company’s products, an antiaging serum called “vampire juice” that her scientists had developed to extend human life spans.

Unfortunately, the process took away centuries from vampire life spans.

How many vampires had lost their lives to “juice” extraction? Not to mention to decades of experimentation before the antiaging therapy had been perfected.

Riker could feel his rage mounting again. He hated humans. With the passing of his human brother ten years ago at the age of seventy-six, he’d lost his last connection with humanity. And the human race had lost their last decent member.

But if he was honest with himself, he could admit that vampires weren’t exactly a race of sweet kittens, either.

He allowed himself a grim smile as he carried Nicole off the grounds and into the forest, because she was going to learn firsthand about juice extraction. And he planned to be the one to show her.

Chapter 5

Hangovers sucked.

Groaning, Nicole rolled onto her back. She didn’t even attempt to contain a wince at the aches in her joints and the throbbing in her head. Maybe it was time to lay off the gin and tonics for good. She didn’t indulge often, but when she did, she often forgot that a mere two drinks could put her on her butt.

A heavy hand came down on her shoulder, and she groaned again. Last time she’d felt this crappy—after a company party celebrating her return to the U.S.—it had been Chuck who’d found her. And who had teased her mercilessly for weeks.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.”

“Screw you.” She shrugged away from his grip, squeezing her lids tight to shut out any light that would launch her straight into Migraineville. Chuck had thought it was funny to turn on every light in her house before shaking her out of dead sleep on the couch.

A horrifying thought wormed its way through the hangover haze: he’d also brought one of his servants with him. Chuck didn’t go anywhere without a vampire to wait on him hand and foot.

Dammit. She’d sworn to never again be caught in a vulnerable state with a vampire around. She’d told him they weren’t allowed in her house, and if he went against her wishes, she’d assign him to the farthest reaches of nowhere, in one of their one-man-team sales offices.

That was assuming Daedalus’s board didn’t hand her over to the authorities or find a way to boot her out of the company.

“You’d better not have a damned vampire with you,” she muttered.

She swore the air temperature dropped ten degrees. “Honey,” came the husky, southern-accented female voice, “I have an entire army of vampires with me.”

Pain forgotten, Nicole snapped her eyes open. The blurry image of a woman’s face hovered in front of hers.

Beyond her head, pinpricks of light shimmered from what appeared to be a ceiling made of stone and . . . roots? She blinked, bringing a little focus to her vision.

The woman peered down at her, her dark skin creating indistinct lines in the background, which was definitely composed of stone, roots, and what looked like packed earth.

Maybe this was a dream.

The rock jamming into her spine said otherwise.

But how had she gotten here?

Riker.

The breakin at her mansion came back to her in vivid -D—her terror at the sight of Riker, the feel of Ginsu’s fangs scraping her neck, and the masculine, smoky scent of Riker’s skin.

“Where . . .” She swallowed, grimacing at the raw scrape of her voice on her throat. “Where am I? Who are you?”

One black eyebrow popped up. “Aw, you can’t even guess?” A smile joined the amused cant of the woman’s eyebrow. “You’re in a vampire stronghold.

And I’m a vampire. Basically, you human scum,” she said, her smile widening to reveal glistening, deadly sharp fangs, “you’re in your worst nightmare.”

------------

The piercing scream caught Nicole off-guard, drilling into her head with laserlike intensity until it felt as if her brain would explode. Only when the vampire slapped Nicole hard enough to roll her onto her side did she realize that the scream had come from her own throat.

The female leaned close, her eyes glinting like silver fishing lures caught in the sunlight. “I have a bizarre condition that makes me go into murderous rages when I hear screaming,” she whispered. “So don’t.”

Nicole nodded, swallowing the fresh scream that had built in her lungs.

“katina.” A familiar male voice froze Nicole to the cold ground. “I’ll take it from here.”

The female vampire inclined her head sharply and stood with effortless, sinewy grace. “She’s all yours, Rike.” katina pegged Nicole with a look so full of hunger that she should be drooling. “But when it’s time to eat her, share the wealth. The skank looks like she has rich blood.”

Skank? Nicole planted her palms on the hard— packed dirt floor and sat up. “You have no idea, you bitch.” Probably not the brightest thing to say in this situation, but then, Chuck often teased that the default mode for Nicole’s tact switch was set to off.

Riker went down on his haunches in front of her, and her heart skipped a beat. Maybe two. He was as imposing as he’d been at the mansion and as huge as she’d remembered as a child. Always before, when she’d thought about him, she’d wondered if her memory had exaggerated, if maybe her small size had made him seem bigger.

But no, if anything, he was larger than she’d remembered, an intimidating figure clad in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black leather jacket that didn’t do enough to conceal the weapons stashed on his body. Worse, he was even more handsome, and how twisted and sick was it that she thought anything about this bastard was attractive? He was a vampire. One who had killed his own mate.

Yet she couldn’t deny his savage beauty, his chiseled cheekbones and full, crimson lips. Sterling eyes framed by thick lashes a few shades darker than his messy blond hair. A jaw as strong and sharp as a knife blade . . . or a vampire’s fang.

“I’d be careful about slinging around insults if I were you,” he said. “Can’t think of many that can’t be thrown right back in your face.”

Nicole could think of several. Bloodsucking fiend.

Fanged monster. Every dentist’s nightmare. It was probably best to engage her tact switch, though. Chuck would be proud.

“Where are we?” She peeled her gaze away from him long enough to scan the surroundings. “What is this place?”

Now that she was sitting up and the blur in her vision had cleared, she could see that her initial impression was correct. She was in some sort of underground chamber. Faint light streamed through the tiny barred window in the door, allowing her a chilling view of chains and shackles secured to slabs of stone in the wall.

But what truly freaked her out were the rows of skulls, some human, some vampire, high up on one wall.

“You’re at my clan’s headquarters.” Riker flicked his tongue over a fang and grinned at her involuntary flinch. “In what we affectionately call the prey room.”

Terror tightened around Nicole’s chest like a steel band. Breathing became a luxury as fear put a strangle— hold on both her lungs and her memories. This was like something straight out of a horror movie, and while she’d expected nothing less from vampires, seeing it firsthand chilled her to her bones.

Calm down. Remember that vampires are as afraid of you as you are of them. The words of her therapist came back to her in a rush, easing her anxiety but only a little.

Riker didn’t strike her as being afraid in the least. But then, she’d dedicated her life to learning about vampire physiology, not psychology, so maybe she should trust what her therapist had said. Plant some doubt into him. Some fear. Then, maybe then, she could regain a measure of control.

And if worse came to worse, she had a weapon.

Clearing her throat, she shoved herself to her feet.

Riker rose with her, much more gracefully.

“I don’t think you know who I am.”

“Really.” He folded his thick arms across his chest.

“Enlighten me.”

She lifted her chin to look him directly in the eye.

“Since you broke into my house, you must know I’m a member of one of the most powerful families in the world.” His expression remained impassive, but she didn’t falter. Even before she’d taken over at Daedalus, she’d still been involved with the company, and she’d earned her stripes in boardrooms full of stone— faced executives and shark-eyed lawyers. “But you made a fatal mistake, because I’m also the CEO of

Daedalus Corporation. If the authorities aren’t aware that I’m gone already, they will be shortly, and I promise, very soon you’ll have the weight of every law enforcement agency on top of you. Not to mention

VAST and, most likely, every private bounty hunter my brother can hire.”

Riker might as well have yawned, he looked so bored. “I’m shaking in my human-skin boots.”

Son of a—Had he just said human-skin? She looked down at his brown leather work boots. “Are those really . . .” She couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Made of the soft, supple skin of a human orphan

I stole from the loving arms of a caregiver?” When she nodded, he laughed. “The fact that you believe we’re such monsters says a lot about you.”

Right. Because the fact that he and his friend broke into her house, murdered her colleague, and kidnapped her didn’t lend any credence to the monster thing. “So prove me wrong. Let me go.”

“After you arrange for Neriya’s release.”

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