“We can’t be sure without getting a look at his neck.”
“You gonna ask him to roll back his collar to give you a peek?” the second man said. “He fits the description and he just came out of the warlock’s club. Let’s grab him and ask questions later.”
“He’s not alone.”
“Are you afraid of a girl? Probably some tart our golden boy pulled off the dance floor. Just knock her down, snatch the kid, and we’re out of here.”
With a languid stretch I draped my arm around Shay and curled him toward me. A curious, flirtatious smile appeared on his lips. He glanced at my bursting cleavage again. A sudden low ache made me stumble, sending hot blood up my neck to scorch my cheeks. Then one of the men uttered a low, lewd sound, bringing me back to the street. I shook my head and dug warning nails into Shay’s shoulder, trying as much to focus myself as distract him.
“There’s trouble. Those guys are following us.”
I took care not to say “you.” It was still unclear to me what this boy did and did not know about his connection to our world.
“What?” Shay pulled his eyes off my curves and began to turn his head.
“No!” I hissed. “Keep walking. Look straight ahead.”
When I pulled him tight against my body, his heart fluttered. So did mine; my eyes found his lips, tracing their shape.
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
My blood was boiling.
I murmured in his ear: “When we get to the end of the block, I want you to run. Get back to the club. Tell the bouncer there’s a problem out here. He’ll send help.”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” he protested.
“Yes, you are.” I smiled at him, letting my sharp canines catch the glow of the streetlamp. “I can handle myself but not if I’m watching out for you at the same time.”
“I have a cell; shouldn’t I call 911?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“I won’t leave unless you promise me something,” he said. It took all my will not to nip his shoulder like I would a misbehaving pup.
Why isn’t he afraid of me?
“What?” My heart was pounding, both from the heat of his closeness and the possibility of an attack.
“Meet me tomorrow morning,” he said. “On the mountain. You know where.”
“That’s not a good—”
“Meet me.” He cut me off. “Promise or I stay.”
We were almost to the corner. “Not tomorrow! Sunday morning. I’ll be there.”
“Sunday?” He clasped my fingers.
“Promise,” I whispered, squeezing his hand briefly, and then I shoved him forward. “Get out of here. Now!”
He grinned before dashing around the corner. The rush of footsteps came from behind me. I whirled and spread my arms wide, obstructing their path.
“Out of the way,” the first man said gruffly.
He raised a hand to shove me aside. I whipped my fist low, catching him with a sharp jab in the stomach. The air whooshed from his lungs and he doubled over in pain. Now that he was close, I caught his scent: not human.
All the heat in my body gave way to an icy flood. I couldn’t believe I’d let them get so close. My distraction could have cost me my life. Shay was even more dangerous than I’d imagined.
The second man lunged at me. I dived for the sidewalk, rolling out of his reach, and shifted into wolf form. A string of oaths rippled off his tongue.
“They’ve got Guardians watching the kid, Stu.”
The first man recovered from my blow; his hand dipped into his long leather coat, and he moved into a crouch. His lips curled in disgust. “Let’s see what you’ve got, fleabag.”
Something glinted in his hand. I caught the twitch in his wrist just in time to dodge, and the dagger clanged along the sidewalk. I bared my teeth and leapt on him. His scream cut off as my jaws closed, crushing his windpipe. His blood poured into my mouth, molten copper. When I felt his heart stop beating, I raised my muzzle.
The other Searcher stared at me, his face contorted in horror. I dropped my nose low and stalked toward him. He made the mistake of turning to run. I hunched and then rocketed from the pavement. My teeth tore into his hamstring. He fell to the ground, shrieking, before he rolled over and brought his hand up. I yelped as brass knuckles drove into my shoulder. The blow was enough to bruise and enrage me but not to cripple. I barreled into him, pinning him against the sidewalk, eyes fixed upon the throbbing pulse at his throat.
I froze at the sharp voice in my mind. Two Bane elders loped up beside me.
Efron wants him alive, if that’s still possible.
I shifted forms, catching the startled Searcher in the jaw with a heavy blow. His head dropped to the sidewalk; his eyes lolled back unseeing.
The Banes shifted back into their imposing human shapes. I recognized one as the bouncer from Eden.
“Impressive,” he murmured.
I shrugged, wincing at the throb of pain in my shoulder. The bouncer took a step toward me.
“It’s nothing,” I replied, though the lingering pain from my opponent’s blow was more intense than I’d expected.
The Bane frowned. “Did he hit you with his flesh or a weapon?”
“Weapon.” My eyes darted to the unconscious Searcher’s hand. “Blunt, not sharp.”
“You’ll want Efron to take a look at you. Searchers enchant their weapons. Could be more damage than you think.”
The other Guardian gathered the Searcher’s limp body in his arms. The bouncer nodded at him. “Let’s go. Back door. Get word to the front office: we’ll need someone to dump that other body. I’ll get the Bane heir; Efron wants him to see this too.”
I followed the hulking men through Vail’s deserted streets to an alley that ran between Efron’s nightclub and the other businesses on that block. The pulse of music and rush of heat made my shoulder throb. We moved through darkened back halls lined with storage closets but ended up outside a door I recognized from earlier in that night. Efron’s private suite.
“Wait here,” the bouncer ordered.
The door opened once again and the bouncer’s head poked through the slight opening.
“Efron wants you inside.”
He opened the door just enough for me to pass by him and stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Efron Bane stood at the center of the room talking on his cell phone. Logan hovered over the unconscious Searcher; a cruel smile floated on the young Keeper’s lips. The Bane elder who’d carried my attacker back to the club stood just to the side of the couch. Lumine sat nearby in a high-backed leather chair and sipped a glass of sherry. The oak doors opened once more and the bouncer, followed by Ren, entered the room.
“Heard you bagged a Searcher.” Ren came to my side.
I nodded, running my tongue along my teeth as a reflex. I could still taste the man’s blood.
“Sorry I missed that.” His gaze became troubled. “Are you hurt?”
“A bad bruise,” I said. “Nothing to brag about.”
“Ah, Renier. Thank you for coming so quickly.” Efron slipped his phone into his pocket. “That should do it. We can begin.”
“Where’s Shay?” I hadn’t seen the boy anywhere in Efron’s office.
“Bosque drove him home. The encounter with your assailants—um, I believe he referred to them as ‘muggers’—shook the poor child terribly. Best to get him safe in bed.”
“Of course.” I tried to keep the confusion out of my eyes. So the Keepers wanted to keep Shay ignorant. I couldn’t puzzle out what the boy’s place was in all of this. I wished I could see him to be certain he was safe.
Efron moved close to me; I fought to stay calm. “My guards say the Searcher used a weapon against you.”
“Where is the injury?” His eyes narrowed.
“Take off your jacket,” he ordered.
I swallowed my fear and complied, letting the leather jacket slip from my shoulders. The movement shot pain deep within the bruised muscles and along my spine. He took my arm in a rough grasp. I gasped as the wound throbbed again. Ren stiffened next to me, a growl rippling from his chest.
Efron’s glance flickered to the alpha, a disdainful smile ghosting across his lips. He examined the dark purple splotch on my shoulder, muttered a curse, and hooked his finger at my mistress. Lumine rose from her seat and walked over. When she looked at the wound, her lips curled back. Efron nodded.
“Their enchantments are getting better. This won’t heal on its own.”
Lumine caught my chin in her slender fingers. “You need pack blood. Where is Bryn?”
Ren spoke before I could. “She can have mine.”
Lumine’s eyes widened. “Well, well. How very gallant.”
She smiled at Efron. “It seems our young alphas have already bonded, my dear. That’s encouraging.” Her eyes moved over Ren. “Though I hope you haven’t been . . . inappropriate with my girl,” she said, licking her lips.
“Of course not, mistress.” Ren’s dark eyes sparkled.
Logan abandoned his watch over the Searcher and wandered over to his father.
“What’s this?” His gaze flickered from Ren to me, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Your alpha has offered to heal Calla by gifting her his blood.” Cold amusement trickled through Efron’s voice.
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to see how this works.” Logan’s lips split in a mocking grin. “Such an unusual ability you Guardians have. I almost envy it.”
I trembled with humiliation. Ren glowered at Logan but kept silent.
“Are you sure this is necessary?” I fixed my eyes on the Persian rug beneath my feet.
Even as I asked, I knew it was. The pain had begun to make my arms quiver. I felt nauseated; it was as if the wound were full of venom that wormed from my shoulder into my stomach.
“The Searchers have obviously used their seclusion to hone their skills, which is unfortunate. Now it seems they’ve found a way to undermine our finest weapons.” Efron smiled. “That means you and your pack, Calla dear.”
Ren rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. “It’s all right, Cal.”
But I don’t want to be a spectacle for them!
I racked my brain for any other solution, coming up with none.
Before I could object, he raised his bare arm to his lips. When he drew it back, crimson rivulets slid along his skin toward his wrist. Ren stretched his arm out to me. I turned my back on the three hovering Keepers. I drew a quick breath, took his arm in my hands, and covered the wound that marred his pale skin with my mouth. His blood ran over my tongue, down my throat. The liquid was hot, sweet as honey but with a smoky bite. Sparkling warmth traveled through my veins. The throbbing pain in my shoulder subsided and then disappeared.
Ren’s hand cradled my head. His touch brought me back to the room. My cheeks flamed as I turned back toward my mistress. She nodded in approval, eyes flickering over my now-unmarked shoulder.
“Lovely,” Lumine murmured. “Such a perfect match. We’ve outdone ourselves.”
Efron put his hand on Logan’s shoulder. “A fine inheritance indeed.”
The boy smiled at his father and then glanced at Ren and me, assessing us.
The bouncer appeared beside Ren and handed him a first aid kit.
“Thanks.” Ren tore open a wrapped square with his teeth and slapped a bandage over the puncture marks on his arm.
“Since that’s been taken care of.” Efron swept back through the room to where the limp form of the Searcher sprawled. “Lumine, would you like to do the honors?”
She had taken a few steps forward when Logan darted toward the couch.
“May I?” he asked.
My mistress blinked at the boy but then smiled.
“Of course.” She gestured for him to approach the unconscious man.
Efron snapped his fingers. The Bane elders moved into watchful stances on each side of the Searcher.
Logan placed his hands on the sides of the man’s temples. The boy’s lips moved rapidly, murmuring an incantation that I couldn’t understand.
The Searcher’s eyes fluttered open; he drew a ragged breath and sat bolt upright. Logan smiled and backed away. The man searched the room wild-eyed.
“Where am I?”
“I think we’ll be asking the questions, friend.” Efron stepped forward.
The Searcher cringed back into the couch. The Banes snarled, and he whimpered like a caged animal. “Stay away from me.”
“Is that any way to treat your host?” Efron continued toward the trembling man at a measured pace. “After all, you are in my home. You’ve violated my territory.”
“It’s not yours, warlock.” The Searcher spat; his fear seemed to give way to outrage. “Where is the boy?”
“That is not your concern.”
“He doesn’t know, does he? Who he is? That you took Tristan and Sarah? What you’re going to do?” The man’s gaze continued to travel with desperation through the office, at last falling on me. “So it was
slave bitch who killed Stuart.”
Ren snarled and leapt forward, shifting in midair into a dark gray wolf. He crouched low and stalked toward the couch.
“No,” Efron said. Ren stilled but continued to glare at the Searcher.
Efron smiled coldly. “You’ll soon wish a Guardian had taken your life as well. But I think we can find a more interesting end for you. My apologies, Renier.” He waved the alpha off. “I’m sure you’d love a taste of our friend’s flesh. I promise you’ll have the chance to avenge your mother another day.”
Ren shifted back into his human shape and returned to my side; a haunted expression shadowed his face. Lumine crossed the room, smiling at the prisoner.
“I’m not afraid of you, witch,” the Searcher hissed, making an obscene gesture.
“So crude.” Lumine drummed her fingers on the back of the couch. “Time to teach you some manners.”
She raised her hand and drew an intricate pattern in the air. When she finished, a flaming symbol hung suspended before her. The design contracted, pulsed twice, and then exploded outward. The shadowy incarnation of a wraith hovered before Lumine.