Authors: Moira Rogers
This is for Anne. This might be our twentieth book with you, but it definitely won’t be our last. Thank you.
For the first time in five years, Diana wasn’t the most dangerous person around.
She ducked a blow that would have connected with her jaw and growled as she plowed into Hunter’s midsection. He barely even flinched, his only reaction a low grunt. His fist swung around a second time, headed for her unprotected side.
She was faster, and she’d obviously have to use that to her advantage if she ever hoped to hold her own in a fight with another bloodhound. She spun away, narrowly escaping the blow, and danced back, panting.
This time he didn’t follow. Instead he braced his hands on his knees and watched her, eyes narrowed. “You’re a quick fucker, aren’t you? Suppose you’ve been doing this longer than I have, though.”
She eyed his muscled arms and shoulders and snorted out a laugh. “Being fast is the only way I can stay on my feet, you big ox.”
A rough laugh grated out of him. “Good. Keep being fast. My woman’ll give me the cold shoulder for a week if I land one of these punches on your smart mouth.”
Yes, Ophelia seemed to appreciate and respect the innate differences between men and women. “Just remind her I’m no lady. She’ll forgive you.”
“Not likely. Plenty of women here who aren’t exactly ladies, and I doubt she’d look kindly on me hitting any of them.”
Not even a woman who turned into a beast with the full moon. “Wilder won’t look kindly on us shirking our training because we’re afraid to bust a few lips and noses.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid to.” If anything, his eyes gleamed as he straightened. “Ophelia might be confused, but I’m sure as fuck not. All these new instincts I’ve got are telling me one thing, plain and simple—you’re a bloodhound.”
She could sense it about him too, an overriding feeling that he was competition, another predator she had to best when it came to the inevitable hunt. “Then that’s what matters.”
“Mmm.” Without warning he spun again, one huge hand slamming toward her gut.
Too late to avoid it, so she took the punch and met it with one of her own, striking his jaw with her fist as the breath whooshed out of her lungs.
Boots scuffed on the dirt as the world spun around her—Wilder, identified by scent and even
before he spoke. “That’s enough for today. Go wash up for supper, both of you.”
Sometimes, she felt like a child instead of a grown woman, but it was Wilder’s job to train them all, keep them alive. So she nodded and slapped Hunter on the back as she passed him. “Next time, I’m whooping your ass.”
Hunter grunted and rubbed his jaw. “Don’t let her knock you upside the head. She packs a wallop for a little thing.”
Diana took the porch steps two at time before turning to grin at him. “I’m not a little thing, remember? I’m a bloodhound.”
Inside the house was dark and cool, the electric lamps unlit in the waning sunlight. She felt her way down the hall, turned the corner and bumped into a wide chest. “Sorry—”
Large, careful hands caught her elbows. “Are you all right?”
“Nate.” A shiver raced up her spine. Awareness, different from the other hounds, but not quite like the vampires she’d fought and killed, either. “I’m just a little out of breath, that’s all.”
His mouth tugged down into a frown. “Hunter hit you.”
He must have been watching. “And I hit Hunter. It’s part of our training.”
If anything, his frown deepened. “He’s twice your size. At least.”
“I held my own.” She flexed her aching hand. “Got in a few good licks.”
“I suppose you did.” Nate took a step back, though his presence still filled the narrow hallway. “You don’t feel the same as them, you know.”
She’d seen photographs of him before, distinguished and silver-haired, nothing like the man who stood before her now. Everything about him was dark—his hair, his eyes, and especially the glower that clouded his face.
Even his words.
Diana shook herself. “You don’t feel the same as the others, either. But that’s not quite what you mean, is it?”
“No,” he acknowledged, and a hint of a smile broke through. “You’ll have to forgive me, Diana. I’ve never let manners get in the way of an intellectual puzzle.”
“Is that what I am?”
“Aren’t we both?”
She shrugged. “I really haven’t given it much thought.” In his case, perhaps she should have. He was at least part vampire, and she’d been created to fight them, kill them if necessary.
“Whereas I do nothing but think. I’m told it renders my conversation tedious at times, but I’m simply grateful I’ve regained the ability to think at all.”
“Tedious? Hmm.” It was the last word she’d have used to describe him, though she was honest enough to admit perhaps that had more to do with how much she enjoyed looking at him than anything else. “We’ll have to talk more, and I’ll let you know.”
He watched her as if he suspected she was joking. “I should think the hours you’ve been forced to spend with me thus far would have been trial enough. I almost feel guilty asking if you could find some time tomorrow to help me with the journals.”
Diana brushed aside the stab of pain that accompanied the mention of her mentor’s diaries. “Who better to help you make heads or tails of Doc’s research?”
Nate’s hand settled on her shoulder. “I’d understand if you found it too painful. Most of it I could work out on my own, given enough time.”
Was she so transparent? “I’m fine. Really, I’d be glad to help.”
“If you’re sure.” He squeezed her shoulder before letting his hand fall away. “I owe you a debt as it is. If you hadn’t helped me untangle some of his later entries, Satira and I wouldn’t have found the key to synthesizing the blood substitute.”
“I was glad to help.” But she’d said that already. Something about his proximity tied her tongue, left her silly and stammering, and she took a step back. Away. “I should get cleaned up. If I sit down at Caroline’s table like this, she’s liable to dump a pitcher of water over my head.”
His lips twitched into a half smile. “I believe Hunter and Ophelia are joining us for supper tonight as well, and we all know Ophelia has ideas about appropriate attire.”
serious about dressing for meals, and Diana sighed. She had precious few garments left that suited, and she resolved to do something about that very soon. Surely she could find a happy medium between menswear and lace and ribbons. “Then I’d better change as well.”
Nate cleared her path to the stairs. “I’ll see you at dinner, A—” He bit off the name with an embarrassed cough. “Diana.”
A word so foreign she barely recognized it as a name any longer, much less the one she’d possessed before her transformation. Did he think of her that way, as a weak and traumatized human, an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of reading about her in Doc’s journals?
It could not stand. “Diana,” she said firmly as she brushed past him. “My name is Diana.”
The girl survived. Her name is April.
Sighing, Nate closed the first of Ephraim Phillips’s translated journals. He remembered Ephraim as a brilliant man turned bitter in his prime—but that prime had been so many years ago. Ephraim had already been in his fourth decade by the time Nate had joined the ranks of the Bloodhound Guild’s star inventors at seventeen.
It would have made the man almost eighty when he rescued a young woman savaged by a bloodhound’s crazed attack.
A sweet name for the sweet girl described in the journals’ earliest entries.
No wonder Diana wanted it left dead in the past. Sweetness would get a bloodhound killed.
Boots thumped on the stairs, and Nate shoved the journal aside as Wilder appeared. “Morning, Nate.” He held up a large, insulated metal flask. “I brought you some coffee.”
Even closed, the container smelled of rich, freshly ground beans. Caroline’s doing, and one of the many ways the cook had enriched life at the bloodhound manor since Ophelia had hired her. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Wilder leaned one hip against the edge of the worktable. “Getting a head start on the day?”
He nodded. “I asked Diana to lend me a bit of her time, so I thought I should put my notes in order.”
“Are you any closer to figuring out what he was working on?”
“Hell, I’m still not sure it was any one thing.” Nate set his coffee aside, pulled out his own journal and flipped open to the last page. “There are times I think he was trying to break down the bloodhound formula into its component parts. Isolate each interaction. But that’s impossible, as alchemy isn’t an exact science. There’s a reason they call it magic.”
“I suppose the blood substitute is boon enough.” Wilder slid one leather-bound volume off the stack to be translated and flipped through it with a grunt.
“Yes, I’m grateful for it.” He wouldn’t miss the miserable mornings spent drinking from Hunter, the hound’s blood restoring life and vigor with a brutal force that left Hunter irritable and Nate dazed. Drunk, even. Something magical sizzled in Hunter’s blood, the same
that had clearly intrigued Ephraim about Diana’s. “I think it might be the least of what he discovered, though.”
Wilder quirked an eyebrow. “I’d expect no less from the man who created us in the first place.”
“Created you,” Nate agreed, tapping the stack of journals. “But he didn’t create Hunter or Diana.”
The hound’s gaze sharpened. “Is that what he did? Busied himself with studying what made her different?”
“It seems that way.” After a moment’s hesitation, he told Wilder his own greatest suspicion, the one that had nagged at him of late with increasing regularity. “I sometimes wonder if he hadn’t begun to experiment with some aspects of the formula. Ephraim would have been an old man, Wilder. Older than Diana has described him.”
“How old is old?”
“In his eighties at the time of his death—if he’d aged as he should have.” If Nate turned, he’d catch his reflection in polished steel. The reflection of a stranger—of a man he hadn’t been in twenty years or more. “Not everyone does these days.”
“No, they don’t, at that.” Wilder pulled out a stool and took a seat. “How have you been, Nate? Honestly?”
The first time they’d met, Wilder had been a young bloodhound fresh out of guild training. Though ten years Nate’s junior, Wilder possessed the world-weary air of a soldier, one who’d fought and nearly died before allowing his country to remake him into a new kind of warrior.
They’d become friends over those years, as Wilder came into his own and Nate left the prime of life behind. Then they’d parted ways, Wilder to patrol the border while Nate had come to Iron Creek and found a new purpose—training a bright young woman to use her mind in spite of the Guild’s lowly opinion on a woman’s place.
That girl had reunited them. Satira had charged into the Deadlands with Wilder at her heels and hauled Nate back from the brink of death. She’d also twined Wilder’s heart around her little finger…which meant that Nate’s friend of years past had a new allegiance now.
“Depends on who’s asking,” he said quietly. “The senior bloodhound of Iron Creek? Or the hound mated to Satira?”
“Come on now. You know full well there’s no separating the two.” Wilder leaned forward. “I’m asking as your
Nate scrubbed a hand across his face and sighed. “I’m better than I was, but perhaps not as recovered as I pretend to be.”
Wilder nodded, as if it was exactly what he’d expected to hear. “Is there anything I can do?”
Nate struggled for an acceptable answer. Of all the changes, he’d had the hardest time adjusting to his psychic abilities. Not every vampire possessed such, and those that did enjoyed—or suffered—varying degrees of ability. He’d heard tales of newborn creatures driven mad by the sudden influx of foreign sensory input.
After experiencing it for himself, he believed it. Being surrounded by the low murmur of others’ thoughts was disconcerting, especially when those thoughts seemed all but inescapable. But taking the powder substitute instead of blood had helped to dull those powers, another reason he was grateful to have it.