His past is a mystery, even to him-a werewolf with memories so lost in a fog that even the Hunter's healers cannot help him. More than a century ago, Toronto awakened on an unfamiliar street, naked and alone- and dogged by the unanswered questions of his enigmatic existence.
The vampire Sylvia is no Hunter. She's a mercenary who just barely skates this side of what the Hunters consider acceptable. All she wants is to hunt her quarry, and make a lot of money. Her newest prey is a devious killer. But her newest complication is of a more intimate sort: a blonde, blue-eyed werewolf who interferes with her plans in so many exquisite ways.
“The one thing I wanted him to do was die. And he wouldn’t. I mean, he had that fucking heart attack and I thought, finally, this is over. And what happens?”
Bent over her drink, the brunette smiled a little as she listened to the conversation between the two women. Maybe it was morbid of her—it was definitely a morbid discussion to eavesdrop on, but gloomy bits like that were one of the few things that amused her.
Her name was Sylvia . . . at least for now. She toyed with her glass of wine without drinking more than a sip every few minutes, more focused on the discussion than her drink.
“Oh, come on, Faith. He’ll die, sooner or later. We all do, right?”
Faith, a pretty blonde with pretty blue eyes and pretty curls and pretty, plump breasts shifted on her seat and sighed. “Um, this is about him. And he’s not going fast enough. I’d like him to kick it early enough that I can still enjoy my life before I’m too damned old and ugly. Damn it, this wasn’t what I’d planned on.”
Idiot. Sylvia set her wineglass down and checked her purse once more. The woman was an idiot. That’s all there was to it. Shifting around just a little, she studied the friend. The poor woman looked uncomfortable, but she was trying to hide it.
Faith didn’t even seem to notice as she leaned in after a quick glance around the bar—it wasn’t even a subtle glance. “That’s why we’re here. I’m looking to meet this . . . person. Apparently she takes care of problems.”
“Problems?” The friend was looking more and more nervous with every passing second, Sylvia noticed.
Some people talked about doing stupid shit.
Others actually tried to go through with it. Faith was dumb enough, arrogant enough to try and go through with it.
“Yeah.” Faith worked up a convincing little sob. “He hits me. All the time. He doesn’t leave marks, because he likes to show me off. But I’m so tired of being hurt . . .”
“Faith, you’re not . . .” Her friend tried to laugh, but it fell flat. In the end, she just cleared her throat and asked, “What are you talking about?”
A cold glint appeared in Faith’s eyes. “Doing what’s necessary. And it’s not like I can divorce him, either. There’s that damn prenup and everything. And if I screw around on him? I’m screwed.”
“Look, this isn’t funny.” Her friend didn’t just look nervous now; she looked outright sick. “I know you don’t much care for the guy, so just divorce him. If you disliked him that much, you never should have married him.”
She reached into her purse and grabbed some money, threw it down on the table. “You can sit here and feel sorry for yourself alone. I don’t want to—”
Faith snaked out a hand, curling it around the other woman’s wrist. “Sit down,” she said, her voice cold. “You think I called you just so you could whimper and whine? I need somebody with me tonight and it’s going to be you.”
“I don’t want to be with you,” the other woman snapped, trying to jerk away.
“Tough shit.” The smile on Faith’s face now was cold. Cold, mean and ugly. “Because if you’re not, I’m going to spill your secrets.”
The woman went white.
“Faith, this is insane.” The woman was trying not to cry now. “Just divorce him or something. You can’t . . . you’re going to . . .”
“I’m just trying to make sure I have a nice, easy life.” Faith shrugged, unconcerned. “Just like you have a nice, easy life. It’s only fair.”
Fair. Fair? The absurdity of the conversation was almost enough to make Sylvia choke on the wine. Except she’d actually heard more absurd shit in her long life. After all, she was an assassin—very often, people didn’t have good reasons for wanting to see another person dead.
“Fair . . .” Sylvia lowered her glass of wine to the bar and spun around, studying the blonde and her friend. “Life really doesn’t have a great deal to do with being fair, does it?”
Sylvia James leaned back against the bar and crossed her legs, an amused smile on her lips, keeping a hand on her purse. “I mean, if you wanted to talk about fair, we could talk about the fact that it wouldn’t be unfair to expect a woman to actually abide by the vows she took.”
Faith went white, and then red. Not quite so pretty now that she was pissed. Sylvia smiled. She was going to make the woman even angrier shortly.
Next to Faith, her friend squirmed uncomfortably. “Hey, lady, we’re just . . .”
“You, my dear, were just avoiding a whole shitload of trouble,” Sylvia said, resting an elbow on the bar, flicking her a glance before looking back at Faith. “You, on the other hand . . .”
“Bitch, why don’t you mind your own business?” Faith narrowed her eyes.
“My own business?” Arching a brow, she slid off the stool and sauntered closer to the table the women shared. “Maybe we should just get down to business then . . . ?” Without waiting for an answer, she reached into her purse and withdrew a small digital recorder, hit the play button.
Faith’s voice, recorded two days ago, came out.
And Sylvia didn’t need supersensitive hearing to hear Faith’s breath catch as her eyes darted to the recorder and then back up to Sylvia’s face.
“Now, Ms. Dwyer, what were you saying about minding my own business?” With one hand resting on her purse, she leaned over the table, peering into Faith’s dazed eyes. “You called me. I told you I’d be here. I told you to take precautions. I told you to be discreet. I also told you . . . no lies.”
She paused and sipped her wine, studying the dark red liquid, desperately wishing it was something else. “Now I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes. You weren’t discreet. You didn’t take precautions. And . . .” She drew her voice out, studying the woman through her lashes, watching as the blood slowly drained from Faith Dwyer’s face. “You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie.” Faith blinked, rapidly working up some pretty convincing tears. “My husband beats me. All the time.”
Convincing. But not convincing enough. She reeked of lies. Humans couldn’t lie very well. Not to somebody like Sylvia, at least.
More than a century ago, she’d been made into a vampire, and she’d spent quite a few years refining her skills. One of them was learning how to read people—fellow vampires, other freaks in the world . . . mortals. This woman was lying. Vampires could smell a lie the same way a human could smell spoiled milk—lies didn’t smell much better, either.
“You’re lying,” Sylvia said gently. “I’m already pissed . . . don’t make it worse. I’ll be sending this on to the cops.”
“You fucking bitch. You can’t.” Faith stood up, shaking her head. One hand curled into a fist at her side.
Sylvia saw the muscles tensing in her arms and she chuckled, slipping the recorder back into her bag and stepping back. “I’d think twice if I were you—remember what you hired me for. Do you really want to try to grab something from me? Or worse, hit me?”
Then Faith decided to change tactics. Tossing her head, she settled back in her chair, legs crossed lazily. She studied Sylvia with practiced boredom. “That little thing doesn’t prove jackshit. Just a couple of voices . . . doesn’t even sound like me. Why waste our time? Look, I’ll just pay you the money and we call this quits.”
“So you can try to hire somebody else later down the road? I don’t think so.” She stroked a hand up the buttery smooth leather of her cross-body sling bag, patted it. “You see, I have this little problem with women who try to paint men as abusive, when the men aren’t. It just makes it that much harder for the real victims, you know. The recording will go to the police . . . as will this.” Sylvia pulled another device out of the concealed pocket in her bag, this one a sleek, little digital video recorder.
Sylvia loved that device. She hit a button and after it had rewound enough, she showed the display to Faith. It had captured the blonde’s pretty face with crystalline clarity, as well as her voice. It played a few seconds before the recording stopped and then Sylvia hit the record button again, careful to keep it angled away from the friend. She hadn’t gotten the woman on video earlier and she wouldn’t this time, either.
So far, the woman was only guilty of bad judgment in friends. No reason for her to suffer overmuch for that. “So, Faith Dwyer, wife to the Honorable Justin Dwyer, is sitting here and we just heard her discussing with an unknown party plans to have her husband killed—she was going to pretend to be an abused wife, if I’m not mistaken. Anything to say, Faith?”
“You whore!” Faith lunged for her.
Sylvia sidestepped, laughing. “Oh, that was perfect. I bet your husband’s lawyer is going to love this.” She stopped the recording and took a moment to wag the device at her before tucking it safely away. As the woman came for her again, she delivered a quick, easy jab, sending the icy bitch straight to the floor.
Behind her, she heard the bartender pick up the phone and calmly start to dial. She’d warned him earlier there might be trouble. And she’d paid him an extra hundred to keep calm if she had to get . . . physical.
Things had just gotten physical. He’d kept calm and earned that hundred. But it was time to go.
While her friend continued to stare, her mouth open in shock, Faith sprawled on the floor moaning, her pretty blue eyes dazed. Sylvia knelt down at her side and waited until that fog started to lift before she said anything.
“I don’t appreciate having my time wasted, sweetheart,” Sylvia said once Faith was looking at her. The arrogance she’d seen was gone now, replaced by fear and worry. Good. “You don’t want to be married? Listen to your friend . . . file for divorce. But don’t lie to get me here.” Rising, she went to take a step away when Faith clamped a hand over her ankle.
“You can’t go to the cops,” Faith said, the fear in her eyes taking on a desperate slant. “I . . . shit. I’ll pay you, damn it. Just don’t tell them.”
“Sorry. I don’t do bribes or blackmail.” She shook Faith’s hand away and kept walking.
Behind her, Faith sat up, pushing her hair back. At the sound of the sirens wailing out in the streets, she blanched and shoved upright onto her feet. “I’ll tell the cops it was your idea,” she said. “If you turn that in, you look as bad as I do—since you agreed to meet me.”
Sylvia paused at the side exit door and looked back, chuckling. “But I was never here, sweetheart. The cops don’t even know who to look for.”
“I’ll tell them. I’ll give them your name, your phone number . . . everything.”
“My name? My number? Faith, darling . . . do you really think either of those is real?” She smiled. It was a lovely, rather disturbing smile. “They’ve been looking for me for years . . . I’m nothing but a ghost.”
But she’d been evading them with ease. Sylvia had learned how to hide when she’d been running for her life, certain the monster who’d created her would change his mind, come looking for her. That never happened, but it had taken years for the fear to fade.
Years before she finally stopped hiding in the shadows.
Before somebody had all but forced her to stop cowering in those shadows.
Then, she had to learn to hide for a different reason, as she became a predator in her own way. A killer for hire, one who hunted other monsters. Sometimes, people came to her for revenge, sometimes people came looking for justice . . . and she’d learned to hide her trail very, very well.
Hours later, Sylvia let herself into the little apartment that was the closest thing she had to a home. It wasn’t leased to Sylvia James—she used one of her other aliases, Alice Sanders. Boring, simple Alice.
Boring simple Alice and Sylvia had one thing in common . . . they only existed on paper. Kind of like the guy in Shawshank Redemption. She loved that movie . . . something about it just clicked for her. She’d escaped from the hell that had been her life. Andy Dufresne had escaped from the hell that had been his prison after he’d been falsely accused of murder. Both of them escaped. She had adopted a new persona—or ten. He had adopted a new persona.
Of course, Dufresne had kept his cool a lot better during his imprisonment than Sylvia had.
The “James” part was completely made up. Sylvia, however, was her real name, one she’d chosen for herself, years and years ago. She used it from time to time. She should probably shift away from it again for a while, but that was a problem for another night.
For now, all she wanted to do was sit down, relax with a better glass of wine than she could find in any bar and just zone out. It had taken hours to deal with that nasty mess involving Faith Dwyer. The vapid little bitch—she’d really thought she could hire Sylvia to kill her husband just so she’d inherit? Of course, it wasn’t the first time, but it still pissed her off.
“Stupid cow,” Sylvia muttered as she headed into the bathroom. She needed a shower. She’d managed to feed, but it had been late and she hadn’t had the luxury of being choosy. Now she smelled like the inside of a beer keg. She could blame that on Faith Dwyer, too.
The woman probably had her hands full right now. No doubt she was telling lots and lots of lies, and causing her lawyer many, many headaches while her husband’s lawyers rubbed their hands together.
The husband . . . bent over, she paused in the middle of unzipping her boots. She hoped the man hadn’t really loved his wife too much. Whether he’d loved her or not, though, this must be one of hell of a sucker punch. He might have been wishing Sylvia had taken the contract.
But there was just no way.
There were, Sylvia knew, more than a few killers-for-hire who would have taken the job. They killed for the thrill of it, for the hell of it, for the fun of it or for the money.
She didn’t operate that way—she killed because it was what she did. She was good at it. But she was selective. Very selective. Abusive husbands, yes. She’d actually killed her first abusive wife a few years ago. That had been a head-spinning job, for certain. Abusive spouses were fair game. Abusive parents? Absolutely. Any type of abuser, if she knew the abuse was real.
Killing an abuser was one thing that did satisfy her. Others . . . it was just a job. Drug-dealers and other criminals fell in a gray area for her, but if they were involved in areas that could affect kids . . . well, they were playing a dangerous game. No reason kids should have to suffer the risks.
She didn’t get involved in political messes, not unless there was another issue involved. Human politics, human concern, she didn’t give a damn.
She didn’t kill just to kill.
Just like she didn’t kill to feed.
A vampire had to have standards.
A killer-for-hire had to have standards.
Sylvia was both, and she’d spend a very long time on this earth—she didn’t want to live with any more mistakes than she had to. She kept her standards pretty high, and when somebody crossed her own personal lines, it was at their own risk. That was a lesson Faith Dwyer had learned earlier.
She couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned, either. Because Sylvia had warned her, when the woman had first contacted her. Be careful. Don’t take risks. Don’t tell anybody else about this . . . and do NOT lie to me. About anything.
Those were the ground rules Sylvia had laid out when she’d made the phone call after the first few e-mails had been exchanged.
Faith hadn’t taken the warning seriously.
That relaxing glass of wine beckoned, but she knew that if she had the wine, she’d want to do nothing else work-related before she settled down to rest. And she needed to take care of business matters first, and start making plans to move on. She’d been putting it off for weeks, and it was time.
If she didn’t get things in motion now, she’d get caught up in another job and then put it off again, and again . . . she excelled at procrastination.
So instead of going for that glass of wine, she settled at her desk to check her e-mail. There were a number of them. Most were from a familiar site—an underground Craigslist for killers sort of thing. She skimmed through them, deleting most without reading more than a few lines. She was, after all, very picky. She wasn’t killing some moron’s “cunt” of a girlfriend, and she wasn’t killing this woman’s husband because he cheated on her.
But one e-mail made her go still.
One had images flashing through her mind . . .
A boy. And images of the boy brought other images to mind . . . images of a man.
That name. Gripping the edge of her desk, she closed her eyes and let the memories dancing in the back of her mind come to her. After a woman’s lived more than a few decades, the memory can get chaotic . . . and Sylvia was over a hundred years old.
A missing child. Toby . . . innocent eyes, sweet smile . . . there. His face. She had never been able to forget that boy’s face. Locking on the memory, she pulled it to the front of her mind and then she looked back at the e-mail, read it through.
The boy’s name was Toby. He’d been killed a year ago.
By one Alan Pulaski.
“Come on, baby face.” The tall, slim blond brandished a knife as he squared off with the other man. His name was Toronto, and he was known for having a wicked temper, a wicked way with a blade and a smart mouth. He moved, graceful as a dancer, to face a man that outweighed him by a good fifty pounds and topped him by nearly six inches.
He was built like a tank, and he stank of blood, sex and violence.
That pissed Toronto off. A lot. He’d just pulled the bastard in front of him off a woman mere seconds ago. Now she struggled to live and Toronto’s partner was kneeling at her side, trying to stop the bleeding.
Curling his fingers at the vampire, Toronto said, “Come on. What are you waiting for?”
The vampire grinned at him, too young and too stupid to realize just how much trouble he was in.
“Get out of my way, fuckhead. You don’t know what you’re messing with.”
Toronto cocked a brow. The boy hadn’t been Changed long. Maybe a year. He didn’t stand a chance against a were like Toronto. “I don’t?” Twirling his knife, he smiled. “I think it’s the other way around, kid.”
“You think that knife is going to hurt me?” He flashed his fangs and gave Toronto a menacing look.
Toronto wasn’t quite impressed, and he had the feeling the vampire was shocked by that. And the idiot also hadn’t given Tor’s knife much more than a cursory look. The knife would hurt him. It was a custom-made Keltec, one that had enough silver in the blade that it would leave any vamp or shifter all but begging for mercy. It might not kill him, but it would definitely hurt. Silver was a bitch.
Yeah, this vamp hadn’t been around long, and nobody had bothered to teach him much, either. Toronto could teach him a thing or two. Before he ended the son of a bitch.
“Actually, I don’t need the knife.” Toronto flung it off to the right with enough force that it embedded itself in the wooden wall, hilt quivering. “I’ll just use this . . .”
He lifted a hand, watched the boy’s face as his hand shifted.
The vampire was every bit as uneducated as Toronto had thought. What in the hell is this? Toronto wondered as he watched the vamp’s eyes all but bug out of his head in shock. It was like the vamp had never seen a werewolf before.
A split second later, the young vamp panicked. It wasn’t much fun when they panicked. Still, Toronto hadn’t done it in the name of fun—or at least not entirely. He’d been looking for information, and he had gotten a little bit.
Lately, more and more Hunters throughout the country were reporting incidents like this. That wasn’t good. A shitload of random, violent occurrences. Too much bloodlust, too little control. Too many who seemed to have lost all humanity—and that wasn’t how it was meant to be. Most vamps and weres had a sense of who could get through the Change intact, who couldn’t. They weren’t to be touched if they couldn’t live through it . . . or come through it sane.
Bad things happened when monsters thought they could do whatever they wanted without fear of consequences. Like what this fucker had done. Grabbed some poor woman off the streets, assaulted her and fed.
After he’d finishing dealing with the feral, he turned back and saw his partner Kel cradling the woman. The vampire had his hand, palm sliced open, over the wound in her throat in an attempt to save her life—the blood could close the wound, keep her from bleeding to death.
If she wasn’t too far gone.
She wasn’t bleeding anymore, but she was too still. Too pale.
“Is she going to make it?” Toronto asked.
“I don’t think so.” Kel gave him a sad look. “We were too late—she’s fading too fast.”
Toronto gave a short, single nod and looked away. She’d lost too much blood. Fuck. Yeah, bad things happened with monsters, all right. “It happens that way sometimes.”
Kel swore under his breath viciously. “Happens, huh? Fuck that.”
“We can’t save everybody,” Toronto said, jerking one shoulder in a shrug. He came closer, staring at the woman’s pale face. Her heartbeat was faltering, her skin taking on a waxen cast—that spark of life was already gone. She wasn’t going to make it. It was an ugly, bitter knowledge they’d have to carry.
Kel swallowed, a muscle working in his jaw as he stared at the woman’s face. “Yeah, and you’re okay with that?”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m okay with it or not.” Toronto slanted a look at Kel. “It just is. We can either accept it . . . or go crazy fighting it. But . . . no. I’m not okay with it. It fucking pisses me off. And that won’t help her, either.”
Kel continued to stare at her, his eyes glowing. “I could . . .”
Toronto knew what he was planning even before he said it. “I wouldn’t, kid.” He crouched down, studying the woman.
“But it would save her.”
“No.” Toronto reached down and took the girl’s limp, cooling hand. “She’d either die in the transition or she’d go feral. You don’t want to save her only to have to kill her, Kel.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. That’s not my area, right? But you know.” He paused and then asked quietly, “What’s your gut saying, Kel?”
Kel’s furious glare was answer enough. He knew. She wasn’t strong enough to survive the Change. Not everybody was.
It only took a few more seconds.
Toronto pretended not to see the faint glint of reddish tears in Kel’s eyes. He pretended not to notice the ache in his own chest, too.
No. They couldn’t save everybody.
Hell, some of them were hard-pressed to save themselves.
He’d been trying to save himself for a good long time. He was still trying. And failing.
Thirty minutes later, he delivered a sad, solemn Kel back to the enclave, where the young vampire’s wife waited.
They would have been back sooner, but they had to do some cleanup, including burning the vamp’s body and taking care of the blood at the site. It was all over the damned place. They had to spread a specially made bleach compound everywhere to keep human cops from finding anything funky in the blood left by the vampire. None of them needed the mess that would happen if the oddities in vampire DNA came to light. Or shifter DNA. The chemical turned everything to sludge and no tech alive could harvest anything useable from it.
Toronto’s world was nothing like some of the stuff people watched on TV—his kind weren’t coming out of the closet any time soon. Humans weren’t ready to deal with vampires or werewolves. Especially not when it was a crapshoot as to who would emerge sane . . . and who would emerge a monster after the Change. The monsters were executed. Plain and simple. It might not happen right away—sometimes it took a little while for that thread of sanity keeping the monster in line to snap.
But once it did . . . well, execution was the only option.
This vamp’s creator should have seen that monster looming inside him. It hadn’t been a quiet madness Toronto had seen. No, that fuck had been laughing and gleeful about his bloodthirst, delighting in the way he’d hurt that poor woman.
Toronto and Kel left her broken body back there in the alley.
Her family deserved to know what happened to her, deserved to have something to bury.
He wished he could do more for them, but giving them that answer was something—he knew what it was like to live without answers . . .
A dark, empty maw danced in the back of his mind, tormenting him, along with the ghosts of his earliest memories.
You’ll have to learn to control that, boy. But you’ll do well enough.
He’s going to go feral . . . I’ll put him down . . .
And always, that brutal, vicious hunger . . .
As the edginess crept up on him, he slid away from the others and made his way to his rooms. It took him fifteen minutes to clean up and change his clothes, five minutes to pack a bag and then he slid out the door.
He didn’t leave a note, didn’t let them know he was leaving. Rafe, the local Master, would be pissed.
But he had to get away for a while. Had to breathe. Sometimes, he thought he was going to come out of his skin if he had to stay here . . .
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