Authors: Kristin Miller
|Last Vamp Standing|
|Vampires of Crimson Bay |
True love is put to the test in the third book in Kristin Miller's Vampires of Crimson Bay series.
Tortured by demonic voices, Dante's soul is as black as they come. But when he meets Ariana—an innocent vampire fighting demons of her own—he second-guesses everything he's ever known about sacrifice, passion, and soul-scorching love.
Before Dante wages war against Crimson Bay's greatest threat, he must make a choice: love Ariana the way she deserves, risking her life in the process—or fight to protect her, unleashing the monster he's determined to bury.
Kristin Miller is the author of the Vampires of Crimson Bay series, a paranormal series featuring a blood war between vampires and shape-shifters, from Avon Impulse. She lives in Northern California with her family.
Last Vamp Standing
HREE IN THE
“Love isn’t about finding someone you can live with . . .”
I’ll whisper you the rest.
UGE THANKS TO
my editor, Esi Sogah, for believing in my work and this series. Thank you for your enthusiasm, insightful comments, and spot-on feedback. I’m deeply appreciative for you and the entire Avon team.
To my wonderful agent, Nalini Akolekar, for pushing me to be a better writer, encouraging me when I need it, and not laughing when my book ideas zigzag out of control.
I’m beyond blessed to have wonderful friends who support me through this crazy journey. Aggie Smith, A.J. Larrieu, Lisa Sanchez, and Vanessa Kier, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without your eyes on my work, it’d be a train wreck. Thank you to Monica Wunderlich for being a guiding light and making me laugh over stupid shit. Huge, colossal hugs to Laurie Kormos for brightening my day each time we talk . . . over dinner. Always over dinner. You ladies, each one of you, are shooting stars.
Thank you to my family—I could never fully express my gratitude for everything you’ve done though I’ll continue to try. I’m a lucky, lucky gal to be surrounded by such amazing people.
To Justin, Kelli, and Gavin, my hearts, my world . . . thank you for being over-the-moon excited when Mommy has good writing news. For cooking and cleaning so I can finish up another chapter. And for turning a blind eye when the laundry basket overflows during crunch time.
a human with no vampire or therian blood
bonding ceremony in which one partner is completely drained of life, then refilled using their partner’s blood. The ceremony often leads to deaths of one or more partners, giving the traditional marriage vow “till death do us part” more weight.
the heightened state of awareness post-draining
vampire royal appointed by khissmates; the vampires in which they govern
vampire who has transcended from this life to the next with the ability to move between dimensions
safe place where vampires sleep during the day
group of vampires living together under a leader who may or may not be their common sire
magic wielded by vampire elders. These powers can include time-warping, telepathy, light control, and orbs of protection (though usually not all exhibited by the same elder).
a being that drinks blood for nourishment in place of food. They must have one or both parents with vampire blood in order for the vampire traits to show. Death by sunlight, draining of blood, stake, or blade to the heart.
shape-shifters by blood able to shift into any living thing. They must have one or both parents with therian blood in order for their shifting traits to show. Death by blade to heart or decapitation.
group of khisses that work together to protect their species from the therians who wish to exterminate them
clinic owned by Dylan, where vampires learn to be productive members of society and fly under therian radar. The clinic organizes Bloodlust Therapy, Outreach homes, and Bloodlust Drinkers’ Anonymous meetings.
powerful demonic being, half of an elder’s spirit
The Grimoire of Truth. Ancient tome preserved by the elders that contains the prophetic scrolls and maware revelations for the entire race. Thought to be lost during the Crimson Bay Massacre of 1912.
ANTE THREW UP
his hand to guard against another one of
attacks. “You finished yet?”
She thwacked him again, right across the shoulder. And again, upside the back of the head for good measure. She couldn’t have thought she was actually hurting him. “I wasn’t ready to leave, dammit, take me back!”
“That’s not happening.” He shooed her with an annoyed wave of his hand, glad the shakes and chills had finally subsided. “Now just calm down, would you?”
After glaring at him for a few moments, she planted her hands on her hips like a pissed-off little teapot. At least she wasn’t hitting him. He supposed it was progress. To think that not twenty minutes ago at the elder black market, Dante had wanted her hands all over him. Ask and ye shall receive, right?
Stifling a laugh, Dante sat forward on his haunches, rubbed his aching head, and tried to slow her words down.
Take me back.
“Why on earth would you want to go back there?”
“Why on earth would you think I would need your rescuing?” She mocked him, a stubborn yet downright adorable pout pushing out her heart-shaped lips.
The elder black market wasn’t exactly the slime-slathered gutters of San Francisco, but it was a far cry from the Hilton. She’d been captured. Bound. Restricted from using her mawares. That bastard Juan Carlos was beating her around. She’d been
for Christ’s sake!
He’d saved her.
Only as Dante looked around from his position, squatting in a mound of wet, muddy earth, and spotted an unfamiliar forest and a woman who looked like she’d rather kill him than thank him for removing her from that place, he realized he looked more like the one who needed saving.
To hell with that.
Mustering all his strength, Dante tested his legs by shooting one out from beneath him, kneeling on it, then following suit with the other. He crouched in the mud, listening to the elder take sharp, quick breaths over him. When he finally got to his feet, he regained his balance by grasping onto a thick Douglas fir tree on his right. Teleporting always wiped him physically, but this time his head felt painfully muddled. Like he’d chop off his left leg for an adrenaline drip.
Dante looked around. They were in some sort of tiny clearing, surrounded by fir trees with a hollowed-out mud pit in the middle. From where they stood, the forest went uphill in every direction until the land crested just out of sight, no doubt leading to hundreds of other tree rings and mud pits. Thick trunks popped up like daises through moss-clotted earth. No city sounds buzzed on the cool midnight air. Was that salt he picked up on the breeze? Ocean? They were far from San Francisco, Dante figured that much right away. But the ocean? How far had he traveled? Pain seared through his temples. Disorientation must’ve been fucking with his head.
Although teleporting wasn’t an exact science, he’d like to think over his fifty years on this earth he’d learned a thing or two about it. But he’d never, not once, teleported to a place he’d never been.
And for the life of him, he couldn’t remember his head ever hurting so damn much.
“Hel-lo?” she asked, leaning into his line of sight to catch his eye. The long braid of her ponytail swung to and fro like one of those freaky pendulums in psychologists’ offices. His mundane parents had insisted on taking him to dozens of those places throughout his childhood to figure out why he wasn’t “normal” like the rest of the kids.
Why doesn’t he sleep? Why doesn’t he ever eat?
That was before he realized being abnormal wasn’t always a bad thing.
“I asked you a question,” she said, louder, with more fire behind it. “What the hell kind of right do you have to scoop me up like some knight in shining armor? Did you hear me ask for your help?”
No. He hadn’t. He couldn’t remember hearing much before her voice, actually. Although anger was pitching her tone octaves too high, causing his ears to ring, it was still the most beautifully ringing orchestra he’d ever heard. Like wind chimes blowing in the soft southern breeze. “I thought I was doing you a favor.” He heeled his boot against a tree and scraped off a clod of mud, thinking about how off-target her questions were. She should’ve been asking
he’d teleported. Not
. But he sure as hell wasn’t about to pony up any information she could use against him.
“Some favor,” she said, swiping smatters of dirt off her robe. It was so dirty, the burgundy had turned gunpowder-brown. “Next time you might want to ask the damsel if she’s in distress before you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
With a swish of her braid, Miss Priss hiked up the heavy swells of her robe, spun around, and high-stepped over a fallen log to the outskirt of the circle. As she made her way out of the small ring of fir trees in a very straight and determined line westward, Dante realized he had no idea where the hell he was. Or how to get back. Yet she didn’t seem to have any confusion about which way to go to get out of the thicket. She trudged uphill, in and around scattered rows of trees, with purpose.
He was gonna be in trouble deeper than the mud sucking at his boots if he didn’t bring this elder back to help him decipher the scrolls.
Don’t let her get away.
He scrubbed his hands over his head. “Son of a bitch.”
“Excuse me?” She whipped around, her robe flaring out in a perfect circle before wrapping around her legs. “What’d you just call me?”
“Shit.” Dante closed his eyes tight and lifted his face to the heavens. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
It wasn’t like he expected solace, at least not from the Big Guy upstairs. But he would’ve appreciated a break every now and again. He would recover from the physical energy-suck. His brain would even shift into high gear at some point and stop grinding gears like a beat-up Pinto. But why did it seem like everything was a fucking battle—waged uphill, staring into the sun—against more powerful enemies using superior weapons?
He didn’t know what he expected when he’d jumped her out of the black market. Maybe some gratitude and a rewarding kiss? Certainly not this . . .
She trudged a few steps back down the hill. “A real man, if he had something to say, wouldn’t wait until a woman turned her back before letting his balls drop.”
Oh, Miss Priss had a mouth.
Small pulses of adrenaline tingled across Dante’s chest, settling in his lap. It was like the beginning rush of a fight. An erotic kiss, drawing his mouth open in rebuttal.
Dante took a step closer, holding her mahogany eyes in his sights. “A real man, who saved you from certain death, wouldn’t expect a thank-you in return. He’d rescue your beautiful ass and ride off into the sunset to be virtuous for the sake of virtue.” He advanced, stepping over the same fallen log she had. Shock widened her eyes as he closed the distance between them. She retreated, her back pressing against the wide span of a fir. “A real man wouldn’t try to take advantage of the situation at hand.” She was still as stone, her chin high. Her expression like a marble statue, regal and poised. Her skin glowed luminescent in the soft streams of moonlight peeking between overhead branches. Dante stepped closer still, an odd twinge in his belly humming in anticipation. “But I’m not a real man. I’m not virtuous. And not only would I appreciate a goddamn thank-you for getting you out of that mess, but something tells me you know where we are. Now you’re gonna share that with me or we can keep going round and round all night.”
She shook her head, rubbing it against the bark behind her. Standing over her five-foot-nothin’, hundred-something-bony-pound frame, Dante noticed how small and fragile she looked despite the roughness of her mouth. She had a button nose. Heart-shaped lips that turned up at the edges, even without the trace of a smile. Cute, pointed chin. Looking down upon her, nothing but a breath between them, Dante could hear the flutter of her heartbeat pattering like a bird in the canopy above their heads.
“You know where we are.” He was certain of it. “You’ve been here before.”
“No. You’re wrong.”
“And you’re a horrible liar.”
“You have no idea what you’ve done.” Her breath caught as he pressed against her. The cool glimmer in her eyes simmered down.
“Why not tell me so I can get the hell out of here and away from you.” Oh, how things had changed. To think . . . he’d actually felt something for this elder at the black market. Now, looking into the hard glare in her eyes, Dante realized the feeling he had must’ve been pure pity. She wasn’t strong. She wasn’t a woman to be respected, refusing to give her name when threatened. She was just a spoiled brat with mud on her robe and a chip on her shoulder. “The least you could do is point me in the right direction.”
“Go to hell.” She slipped around the tree and took off up the hill at a dead sprint.
Dante sighed, chewed on his lip and his options. Even if his energy was restored full-force, could he risk teleporting somewhere else—to somewhere he knew? What if he’d jumped to a different dimension completely? Where would he be then? He may never find his way back. And he needed to find a way to contact Ruan. He pulled his cell out of his pocket and tossed it into the mud pit he’d just stepped out of. Another jump, another dead phone. This shit was getting expensive. AT&T was going to own his ass.
Just when Dante thought he was going to have to follow the elder and come up with some sort of pathetic excuse for an apology, she stopped right at the top of the nearest ridge, spun around, and faced him. Wind ruffled wisps of hair around her face and fanned her robe so that it clung to her body. She was tinier than he’d thought. Curvier at the hips, too. He wondered what else she was hiding beneath the weight of that cloak.
“You can’t follow me, though I can see you’re more stubborn than a mule and will probably do it anyway,” she said, raising her voice so that it carried down to him. “It’s forbidden to pass here, punishable by death.”
“I hardly think—”
“If I tell you the way back to the city, will you promise never to think of this place, or me, ever again?”
Dante couldn’t explain it, but two seconds ago, all he’d wanted was to find a way back to San Francisco and ReVamp. To get out of this forest and back to civilization. Now, the thought of leaving this elder behind, not knowing anything about her, letting her vanish into the night felt . . . wrong.
“You’re not coming back to the city?” It was the only thing he could find to say, though he hated the concern lacing his voice.
She shook her head and clasped her tiny hands together in front of her. “I don’t belong there. Never did.” She looked content in this place. At peace. As if she’d run over the logs in this forest a thousand times.
How did her loathing of him dissipate so quickly? She’d easily lashed out at him with her tongue, been rude without regard. But now, her eyes were softer. Her words feather-light. Even the air around her seemed surreal. As if she was standing behind a veil of water, the waves rolling up and down her body. Was her maware some sort of protective shield? Is that why, now that she was protected, her demeanor changed?
Dante moved up the hill and watched her go rigid again.
“No,” she snapped, throwing up her hands. She glanced over her shoulder as if with one step backward, she’d tumble off the ridge, right into oblivion. “Don’t come any closer.”
The air around her wavered and rippled, as if his movements caused the disturbance in her aura. But he had to know what was going on. Had to understand the switch from pissed-off beauty queen back to the concerned angel he’d first laid eyes on.
,” she whispered, just like she had in the black market, the exact same way that made Dante’s blood still. It had the same soothing effect on him, even now. “I wasn’t supposed to bring you here, please don’t come any closer.”
?” He stilled.
“It’s the Black Moon.”
Puzzled, Dante looked up, peeking between umbrellas of fir. The moon was full, far from blending with the black vastness of space. “What are you so afraid of?”
She pointed through the trees. “Head due east.” Warm currents in her voice wrapped around him, tugging him into compliance. “When you come to a series of warm springs, turn and head north. Within a half-mile, you’ll come to a meadow with two large boulders leaning against one another in the middle.” She whispered now, leaning forward out of the shadows. “Touch them with the palms of your hands and think about where you want to go.” She turned.
“Wait,” Dante said, keeping his voice low, though he didn’t have a goddamn clue why. “At least tell me your name. It’s not like I’m ever going to see you again anyway.” The words stung, although he knew they were the truth.
The slight curve of her mouth lifted into a coy smile that flipped Dante’s stomach. “Ariana.” She glanced over her shoulder. When their eyes met again, the smile was gone. “My name’s Ariana. Seekers are coming.
The air between them rippled with such intensity, Dante thought he was dreaming, although he’d never actually had a dream to measure it against. His mind couldn’t seem to grasp what he was seeing. He could make out Ariana through the fog of air circling her—her mahogany braid tied with a pale blue ribbon, draping down the front of her cloak, her expression downturned—though she was fading. Wavering. Shifting as the air shifted.
Dante reached out, his fingers sinking into the cool air as if it’d transformed into some kind of portal. Then, with a rush of winter wind that howled through the trees, she was gone. The air stilled behind her.
Just when he was about to shadow her footsteps and stand where she stood on top of the ridge, two words echoed through the forest. They reverberated from the soiled earth, the starless sky, off the tall and stoic trees. They came from everywhere, yet nowhere at all.
Dante stopped in his tracks, struck by the knowledge that the words were for him. Feeling somehow vindicated, he smiled and slowly turned down the hill, in no hurry to get back to the monotonous life he dreaded living.