A vampire and a scientist’s fates are passionately entwined in a race against time in this thrilling romance in the #1 New York Times bestselling “utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic” (Angela Knight, New York Times bestselling author) Black Dagger Brotherhood series.
In the venerable history of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, only one male has ever been expelled—but Murhder’s insanity gave the Brothers no choice. Haunted by visions of a female he could not save, he nonetheless returns to Caldwell on a mission to right the wrong that ruined him. However, he is not prepared for what he must face in his quest for redemption.
Dr. Sarah Watkins, researcher at a biomedical firm, is struggling with the loss of her fellow scientist fiancé. When the FBI starts asking about his death, she questions what really happened and soon learns the terrible truth: Her firm is conducting inhumane experiments in secret and the man she thought she knew and loved was involved in the torture.
As Murhder and Sarah’s destinies become irrevocably entwined, desire ignites between them. But can they forge a future that spans the divide separating the two species? And as a new foe emerges in the war against the vampires, will Murhder return to his Brothers... or resume his lonely existence forevermore?
I’m going to kill it, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Rick Springfield—no, not the singer, and could his parents have done a little better on that one?—got up on the queen-size bed and rolled this month’s Vanity Fair into a weapon. Good thing the Internet was sucking up ads and magazines were shrinking in size because he got a tight roll on the anemic pages.
“Can’t we just let the bat out a window?”
The helpful suggestion was posited by the “Jessie’s Girl” he wanted to impress—her name was Amy Hongkao—and so far the weekend away had been good. They’d left Philly Friday at noon, both of them cutting the work day in half, and traffic hadn’t been bad. They’d arrived at the Eliahu Rathboone B&B around eight, collapsed into this bed he was currently trying to balance on, and had sex three times the following morning.
Now it was Sunday night and they were leaving tomorrow early afternoon, barring any snowstorms up the coast—
The bat came gunning for his head, and it flew in the manner of a moth, all discombobulated flapping with the flight path of a drunk. Pulling up memories from Pee Wee baseball, Rick got his stance set, hauled back on the Vanity Fair slugger, and gave a good swing.
The goddamn bat bobbed out of the way, but his arms kept going, all aim, no target, throwing him into a lurch that was right out of the Concussion Handbook.
Amy caught him by bracing against his outer thigh and pushing, and he threw out a hand for the first steady thing in his vicinity—her head. As her hair twisted up under his sweaty palm, there was cursing. From him and her.
The bat came back and dive-bombed them, all how-you-like-me-now-douchebag. And in a fit of manliness, Rick shrieked, recoiled, knocked a lamp over. When it crashed, they lost nearly all the light in the room, only a glow at the base of the door offering any frame of retina reference.
Talk about going to ground fast. He hit that bed like a duvet, falling flat and dragging Amy with him. Wrapped in each other’s arms, they panted hard, even though there was nothing romantic about the contact.
Nope. This was an aerobic workout to that old school “I Will Survive” song.
“It must have come down the chimney and out of the fireplace,” he said. “Don’t they carry rabies?”
Overhead, the scourge of room 214 did the rounds at what Rick hoped was, and stayed at, the ten-thousand-feet molding level. And all the flapping and squeaking was surprisingly ominous, considering the damn thing probably didn’t weigh more than a slice of bread. The darkness, however, added a threat of death that was primordial: Even though the manly side of him wanted to solve the problem and be a hero—so he looked better than he actually was to a woman he’d just started dating—his fear demanded that he outsource this catastrophe.
Before their first weekend away together became a viral story about how you needed to watch out for bats or you ended up with a fourteen-day course of shots.
“This is ridiculous.” Amy’s breath was Colgate-minty and close to his face, and her body felt good against his own even though they were in dire bat-stakes. “Let’s just make a run for the door and go downstairs to the front desk. This can’t be the first time this has happened, and it’s not like that’s Dracula—”
Their door swung open.
No knock. No sound at all from the hinges. No clear indication how it had become unlatched because there was no one on the other side.
The light from the hall plunged in like a hand of safety to the drowning, but relief was short lived. A shape materialized from out of thin air to block the illumination. One moment there was nothing between the jambs, the next, an enormous silhouette of a long-haired male figure appeared, the shoulders powerful as a heavyweight boxer’s, the arms long and muscled, the legs planted like steel beams. With the light coming from behind, there was no seeing the face, and Rick was glad for that.
Because everything about the arrival and the size and that scent in the air—cologne, but not fake, not out of a bottle—suggested this was a dream.
Or a nightmare.
The figure brought up a hand to his mouth—or seemed to. Maybe he was taking a dagger out of a chest holster?
There was a pause. Then he held his forefinger forward.
Against all odds and logic, the bat came to him as if called to a master, and as the winged creature landed like a bird, a voice, deep and accented, entered Rick’s brain as if pushed into his skull not through his ears, but via his frontal lobe.
I don’t like things killed on my property, and he is more welcome than you are.
Something dropped from that finger. Something red and frightening. Blood.
The figure disappeared in the same manner it arrived, with the abrupt speed of a quick-stepping, panicked heart. And with the light from the hall no longer invaded by the figure, the path of happy-place yellow illumination pulled out from the darkness the guest room’s patterned rug, and their messy, open suitcases, and the antique dresser Amy had admired so much when they’d first arrived.
So normal, so regular.
Except the door closed on its own.
As if it had been willed back into place.
“Rick?” Amy said in a small voice. “What was that? Am I dreaming?”
Overhead, footsteps, heavy and slow, crossed the floorboards of the attic. Which should have been empty.
Another memory from childhood now, and not of the city park and its Little League diamond and the striped mini–Yankees uniforms he’d worn with pride. This one was of his grandmother’s farmhouse, with the creaking stairs, and the second-story hall that made the hair on the nape of his neck stand to attention . . . because it led to the back bedroom where the girl had died from consumption.
Wheezing. Labored breath. Whispered weeping.
He had woken up to those sounds every night at 2:39. And each time, although he had been roused by the ghostly gasping, although the struggle for air was in his ears and his mind, he was aware upon his sit-up-fast of only silence, a dense, black-hole silence that consumed the echoes of the past and threatened, with its gravitational pull, to swallow him as well, no trace of his younger self left behind, just an empty twin bed with a warm spot where his living body had once lain.
Rick had always known, with the razor-sharp surety of a child’s self-preservation, that the silence, the horrible quiet, was the moment of death for the ghost of the little girl, the culmination of an endless, tortured cycle she re-experienced every night at precisely the moment she’d passed, her will losing the battle as her body’s functions failed, her long slide into the grave over, her end arriving not even with a whimper, but with a dreadful absence of sound, absence of life.
Scary stuff for the nine-year-old he had been.
He had never expected to feel anything close to that confusion and terror as an adult. But life had a way of special delivering packages that ticked to your emotional address, and there was no refusing the service, no way to not sign and accept them.
The past was permanent in the same way the future was always just a hypothetical, two ends of a spectrum where one was concrete and the other air, and the instantaneous now, the single real moment, was the fixed point from which the weight of life hung and swung.
“Is this a dream?” Amy said again.
When he found his voice, Rick whispered, “I’d rather not know for sure.”
Upstairs in the attic of the old mansion, Murhder re-formed and walked over to one of the dormers. As a vampire, he supposed his rescue of the bat, who was lapping up the welling blood on his forefinger and incapable of comprehending the breadth of salvation just rendered upon him, could be termed a professional courtesy.
Assuming you went by human mythology.
In reality, there was not much in common to be had. Vampires needed the blood of a member of their opposite sex to be at optimal strength and health—a nourishment he had not had for many years, and a requirement that he had been forced to forage for from lesser sources. Most bats, on the other hand, lived off of insects, although clearly, there was an exception to be made for what he had offered this present mammal. The two species were as separate as dogs and cats, although Homo sapiens had linked them through all manner of books, movies, TV, and the like.
Opening one-half of the arch-topped window, he extended his arm and shook the bat free, the creature winging out into the night, crossing over the shining face of the risen moon.
When he had purchased the Eliahu Rathboone B&B from its original owner, some century and a half prior, he had intended to live in it alone during his dotage. Not how things had ended up. Twenty years ago, as a result of his breakdown, he had been in the prime of life yet the throes of insanity, burned out and very much crazy, ready to wander empty rooms in the hope his mind followed the example and moved out the soul-destroying images that were cluttering up his memory banks.
No such luck. On the alone front, that was. The house had come with staff who needed jobs, and returning guests who wanted the same room for their anniversary every year, and bookings for weddings that had been made months in advance.
In an earlier incarnation of himself, he would have fucked all of it off. With everything that had happened, however, he hadn’t known who he was anymore. His personality, his character, his soul, had been through a trial of fire and failed the test. As a result, his superstructure had been collapsing, his building coming down, his once strong and resolute construction of character turning to rubble.
So he had let the humans continue to come and work and sleep and eat and argue and make love and live around him. It was the kind of move someone who was lost in the world made, a Hail Mary that was uncharacteristic and desperate, a maybe-this-will-keep-me-on-the-planet from a person in whom gravity was no longer all that interested.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, it was a horrible lightness to be insane. To feel like a balloon on a string, no ground under your feet, only a thin tether tying you to a reality you were imminently going to slip free of.
He closed the window and walked over to the trestle table he spent so many hours at. No computer on its old, chipped surface, no telephone or cell phone, no iPad or flat screen TV. Just a candleholder with a lit length of beeswax . . . and three letters . . . and a flat envelope marked FedEx.
Murhder sat down on the old wooden chair, the spindle legs protesting his weight with a creaking.
Reaching into the folds of his black shirt, he pulled out his talisman. Between the pads of his thumb and forefinger, the shard of sacred glass, wrapped in bands of black silk, was a familiar worry bead. But it was more than something for an anxious hand to toy with.
On its long silk cord, he could extend it out such that he could see the glass, and presently, he stared into its transparent face.
Some thirty years ago, he had stolen the piece of a seeing bowl from the Temple of Scribes. Totally illegal to do so. He had told no one. The Brotherhood had gone up to the Scribe Virgin’s sanctuary, where her Chosen were sequestered, to defend what should have been sacrosanct from invaders who were of the species. The Primale, the male who serviced the sacred females to provide next generations of Brotherhood members and Chosen, had been slaughtered, and the Treasury, with its inestimable wealth, had been in the process of being looted.
As always ill-gotten financial gain had been the mens rea.
Murhder had chased one of the raiders into the Temple of Scribes, and in the course of the ensuing fight, several of the workstations, where the Chosen peered into the crystal seeing bowls and recorded the goings-on down on earth, had been crashed into. After he had killed the felon, he had stood among the ruination of the orderly rows of tables and chairs and wanted to weep.
The sanctuary should never have been defiled, and he prayed that no Chosen had been injured—or worse.
He had been about to drag the body out onto the lawn when something had flashed and caught his eye. The sanctuary, being on the Other Side, had no discernible light source, just a glow across its milky white sky, so he had been unsure what had made anything wink like that.
And then it had happened again.
Stepping through the debris and bloodstains, he had stood over the glass shard. Three inches long and wide, in a lozenge shape, it had appeared as a dead combatant on a field of war.
The thing had done it a third time, that shimmer sparking up from nowhere.
As if it were attempting to communicate with him.
Murhder had slipped it into the pocket of his combat vest and not thought of the shard again. Until three nights later. He had been going through his gear, looking for a missing knife, when he’d discovered it.
That was when the sacred glass had shown him the beautiful female’s face.
So shocked had he been with what he’d seen that he’d fumbled the shard, cutting himself as he dropped it.
When he’d picked the thing up, his blood had turned the portrait red. But she was there all right—and the sight of her carved a piece of his heart out. She was terrified, her wide, scared eyes peeled open so that the whites showed, her mouth parted in shock, her skin pulled tight over her features.
The vision chilled him to the bone and promptly invaded his nightmares. Was it a Chosen who had been hurt during the sanctuary break-in? Or some other female he could still help?
Years later, he had learned who it was. And failing her had been the final blow that cost him his sanity.
Tucking the sacred shard back under his shirt, he looked at the FedEx envelope. The documents inside had already been signed by him, the inheritance left by a relation he only vaguely remembered renounced and sent further down the bloodline to another recipient, also someone he was only tangentially aware of.
Wrath, the great Blind King, had demanded them be executed. And Murhder had used that royal order as a pretext to get an audience.
The three letters were the thing.
He brought them closer, pulling them across the varnished wood. The writing on the envelopes was done in proper ink, not the stuff that came out of Bics, and the lettering was shaky, the hand wielding whatever instrument had been used palsied and therefore only partially controlled.
Eliahu Rathboone House
Sharing Cross, South Carolina
No street address. No zip code. But Sharing Cross was a little town, and everyone, including the postmaster, who was also the postal deliveryman and the mayor, knew where the B&B could be found—and was aware that people at times fancied communication with a dead figure of history.
Murhder was not, in fact, Eliahu Rathboone. He had, however, put an old portrait of himself down in the front hall to mark the property as his own, and that had ignited the false identification. People “saw” the ghost of Eliahu Rathboone on the grounds and in the house from time to time, and in the modern era, those reports of a long-haired, shadowy form had spurred amateur ghost hunters and then professional ones into coming and obtaining footage.
Someone had even added, at some point, a little signage at the base of the frame, Eliahu Rathboone and the birth and death dates.
The fact that he bore only a passing resemblance to the human who had built the house centuries ago didn’t seem to matter. Thanks to the Internet, grainy images of antique pencil drawings showing the actual Rathboone were available for viewing, and other than them both possessing long dark hair, they had little in common. That did not bother the people who wanted to believe, however. They felt like he was the first owner of the house, therefore he was the first owner of the house.
Humans were big proponents of magical thinking, and he was content to let them stew in their folly. Who was he to judge? He was insane. And it was good for business—which was why the staff let the lie lay, so to speak.
The letter writer knew the truth, however. Knew lots of things.
They must have seen the B&B on the TV, though, and made the connection.
The first letter he had dismissed. The second had troubled him with details only he would know. The third had determined him unto action, although he’d not immediately known how to proceed. And that was when the King’s solicitor had arrived with news of the inheritance and Murhder had decided upon his course.
He was going to the King for help. He had no choice.
Down on a lower floor, upon the landing of the main stairs, the grandfather clock began to chime the announcement of nine o’clock.
Soon it would be time to go back to where he had escaped from, to see once again those whom he had no wish to cast sight upon, to reenter, for a limited period, the life which he had left and vowed ne’er to return.
Wrath, son of Wrath. The Black Dagger Brotherhood. And the war with the Lessening Society.
Although that last one was no longer his problem. Nor the other two, actually. In the august and ancient annals of the Brotherhood, he held the notorious title of being the only Brother ever expelled from membership.
No, wait . . . the Bloodletter had also been kicked out. Just not for losing his mind.
There was no scenario he had e’er expected to reengage those fighters or that King.
But this was his destiny. The sacred shard had told him thus.
His female was waiting for him to finally do right by her.
Indeed, he bore the weight of many wrongs in his life, many things that he had done to hurt others, cause pain, maim and destroy. A fighter he had been once, a killer for a cause that had been noble but whose execution had been bloodthirsty. Fate had found a way to hold him accountable, though, and now its ruthless will was once again grinding upon him.
Abruptly, the image of a female came to his mind, powerful of body, fierce of will, her short hair and her glowing gray eyes staring at him with a no-nonsense directness.
Not the one in the glass.
He saw Xhex often in his broken mind, visions of her, memories of them together as well as everything that had happened later, the only channel his mental TV was trained on. If he were apprehensive of taking his malfunctioning cognition into the Brotherhood’s orbit, meeting up with that female would ruin him, he was quite sure. At least he didn’t have to worry about running into her. His former lover had been a lone wolf all her life, and that trait, like the gunmetal color of her eyes, was so intrinsic to her makeup that he had no concern she would congregate with anyone.
That was what you did when you were a symphath living among vampires. You kept that part of your DNA a secret from everyone by removing yourself as much as possible.
Even when it came to males you were sleeping with. Males who thought they knew you. Males who stupidly ran up to the symphath colony to free you from captivity—only to learn that you hadn’t been kidnapped.
You’d gone to see your blooded family.
That noble move on his part, rooted in his need to be a savior, had been the start of the nightmare for both of them. His decision to go after her had permanently altered the course of their lives because she had kept her true nature from him.
And now . . . further repercussions, unforeseen and undeniable, had arrived unto him. At least these, however, might lead at long last to a resolution he could take to his grave in some kind of peace.
And on the same deep level that he knew he could not handle this pilgrimage of his, he was aware that there would be no returning from the journey. It was time to end things, however. When he had initially come unto this property, he had had some hope that in time, perhaps he would reenter his body, re-inhabit his flesh, restore his purpose and connection to the common reality in which all other mortals dwelled.
Two decades was long enough to wait to see if that happened, and in those twenty years, naught had changed. He was as unglued as he had been when he had first arrived. The least he could do was put himself out of this misery once and for all, and do it in a righteous way.
One’s last act should be virtuous. And for the female destiny provided unto you.
Rather like leaving a room clean after its use, he would take care to restore order to the chaos he had unwittingly unleashed before exiting the planet. And after that? Nothingness.
He did not believe in the Fade. He did not believe in anything.
J.R. Ward is the author of more than thirty novels, including those in her #1 New York Times bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood series. There are more than fifteen million copies of her novels in print worldwide, and they have been published in twenty-six different countries. She lives in the South with her family.