Brasen had his Browning Hi Power drawn as he strode deeper into the murky underground beneath Charlotte, North Carolina. So far he and the other vampires with him hadn’t seen any sign of Taspar Tong’s men, but he knew the enemy was burrowed somewhere within the three-thousand-odd miles of storm drains and tunnels. Taspar was like a rat. The ancient vampire traveled wherever the hell he wanted and made himself at home in other people’s territories. Right now, Taspar and his army were an infestation in the Mid-Atlantic Territory, which belonged to Brasen’s master, Lucas Thane.
Brasen had started out as a foot soldier for Lucas when the man had called for recruits. Those born with fangs generally thought of those who were turned—the Nouveau vampyre
—as lower-class servants. Now that Lucas was not only master of his own territory but married to Alexandra Gage, the Southern master, turned vampires were finally getting more respect. Having proven his loyalty and abilities in battle, Brasen had become one of Lucas’s most trusted guards.
Although this usually meant he stuck close to Lucas, sometimes he liked to take the fight to the enemy. Taspar had already attacked his master’s house twice. Brasen wasn’t going to wait for the threat to reach their doorstep a third time.
Beside him, Jaide froze and cocked her head as if she had heard something farther down the tunnel. He caught the faint scent of roses from her chestnut hair and took in the lovely curve of her cheek and jaw in profile. The vampiress already had her pistol drawn, and her expression was one of intense concentration. He’d gone still the moment she had, and so had the men who followed them. The water level was up to Brasen’s ankles and flowed hard enough to tug at his boots. Because of this constant trickle—as well as the road noise from above and the way everything echoed down here—it was hard to pick up a footstep or other sound, let alone determine where the noise originated. The only advantage was that Taspar’s men wouldn’t be able to hear them, either.
Brasen peered through the darkness for any hint of movement. He was glad he had a vampire’s enhanced vision. Light spilled through grates and manhole covers from the streets above, but these bright patches were few and far between. When nothing stirred, Jaide started forward again. He noticed she didn’t relax, and neither did he.
This place could easily turn into a death trap. Some passages had no light at all, and it was clear this labyrinth had been built in stages at different times. There were square sections and round ones, parts made of concrete, and others constructed from stone and masonry. Some of the oldest areas were shafts left over from when gold mining had been popular. Adding to the noise distortion were side tunnels that split off the main pathways like branches of a river. These offered plenty of places to hide and made searching down here ten times more difficult.
The ironic part was that humans had originally used some of these tunnels to avoid vampires while moving around after dark. Newspaper companies and other businesses with early starts had found them especially useful, as well as high-priced couriers who made deliveries when no one else dared venture out. Of course, that had changed the moment the first bloodsucker found his way down here. Now there could be hundreds of Taspar’s men lurking somewhere in the dark—all of them armed to the fangs.
That’s why Brasen had his pistol in hand and a long dagger holstered against his thigh. The two men he’d chosen to come with him, Faust and Orrick, looked equally prepared for trouble, and he knew he could count on them to guard his back. Faust had fought beside him during the takeover of the Mid-Atlantic Territory, and Orrick had once saved him from drinking from a suicide donor—a human who had laced her blood with a drug that could kill a vampire. He would trust either of them with his life.
Brasen was still getting to know the Southern master’s people, so he didn’t have quite as much faith in them. Graham was a big vampire with ginger-colored hair and pale eyes, and the man could handle his weapons. He’d joined them down here because he had been a surveyor and mapmaker before he was turned. While the storm-drain system had been charted by the humans, it was easy to get lost down here. Graham kept them oriented so they could search the tunnels systematically.
Somewhere aboveground, Alex’s personal assistant, Melody—a young vampiress known to everyone as Mel—was helping mark access points as part of their masters’ plan to seal off the tunnel system. Mel had been the first to alert them to the security risk of these underground corridors, and she knew the terrain from personal experience. If they could bar up all means of egress, then maybe they could turn Taspar’s lair into a dungeon.
Brasen glanced at Jaide again. She was one of Alex’s guards and the only female warrior in the house besides the Southern master herself. He wasn’t sure how he felt about having her with them. She dressed like a man in black pants, boots, and a T-shirt, and her only accessories were her shoulder holster and the short sword strapped to her back. Muscle definition stood out beneath the honeyed skin of her arms, and she was almost as tall as he was.
She certainly carried herself like a warrior, but there was no disguising her beauty. Despite Brasen’s attempts to ignore her appeal, he was hyperaware of Jaide. He wondered what her hair would look like freed from its tight braid, and he wanted to run his fingers through it to find out if it was as thick and silky as it appeared. Her coral-pink lips, with the bottom slightly plumper than the top, were an enticement, and once or twice he’d sworn he saw a spark of sexual interest in her hazel eyes.
Unfortunately, there were good reasons to fight the attraction. For starters, they lived in the same household. Any tension or issues between them would affect everyone, and they were highly placed among their masters’ guards. There had to be respect, which ruled out a quick tumble or anything casual. Many vampires were chauvinists, and he didn’t doubt that Jaide had to work twice as hard to make it as a soldier. He didn’t want to jeopardize her position with the other men. If he decided to pursue her, he would be signing on for a serious courtship.
A splash to Brasen’s left made him corral his wandering thoughts. He pivoted to face the possible menace. His trigger finger tensed when a small bit of motion caught his attention, but then he spotted a large rat scurrying in the opposite direction. Too bad it wasn’t the two-legged vermin they were looking for. He eased up and made eye contact with Jaide, who gave him a crooked smile to indicate this was probably what she’d heard earlier.
They all knew better than to speak. Despite the cover of the water, they didn’t dare give away their position in case Taspar or one of his soldiers was nearby. Instead, Brasen shot Graham a questioning look and followed the man’s hand signal for them to take the next right.
Brasen moved forward and noticed that Jaide matched his steps beside him. Graham followed next, while Faust and Orrick fell back to guard their rears. Everyone remained focused until they reached the end of the corridor. They took a final turn that eventually brought them back to the main tunnel where they had started.
Breathing a little easier, Brasen stowed his pistol and leaped up to grab the edge of the storm drain that led to the street. He pushed the grating out of the way and hauled himself out into the fresh night air. Looking at the brick buildings and lights up here, it was hard to believe there was a whole other world below.
He remained perched along the gutter and held the metal grate out of the way as he offered his hand to pull out the next person. A warm tingle shot up his arm as soon as Jaide’s palm hit his, but he fought not to betray his reaction. He hoisted her up. She was all grace and athleticism as she slipped through the opening and got to her feet. Graham had a much tighter fit when he came out, followed by Faust and Orrick. Brasen dropped the grate and immediately scanned the street.
Not far from here was a blood bar called the Hornet’s Nest, which until recently had bustled with activity. Humans looking for a thrill had visited the place after dark and had volunteered to feed the local vampires. Security had guaranteed their safety, and cheap alcohol had assured a steady stream of business.
That had all stopped a couple of weeks ago after it was discovered that Taspar and his men were using the blood bar to meet their nutritional needs. There had been a nasty shootout that had scared the human patrons, and Taspar had gotten away and escaped into the underground passages. Now this whole area was nearly dead after dark, which was a slap in Lucas’s face. The Mid-Atlantic master had worked hard to enforce human rights laws among their kind so that the citizens felt safe to do business and move around after sunset. This was a nasty setback.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” Orrick announced. “It will take us forever to search all those passageways.”
“We’re immortal, remember?” Faust teased him. “We’ve got time.”
Jaide wore a small smile, though she was clearly frustrated too. “Alex is hoping to coordinate with her brother and his new police force. Wess is trying to convince the city and county governments to help us bar up the outside access points to these tunnels as a matter of public safety. The humans can work on that during the day and speed things along.”
Brasen noticed she spoke matter-of-factly and not with a great deal of optimism. Wess Gage—like his sister before she’d been turned—had been part of the Human Rebellion. The Rebels had started out with the mission to protect humans against bloodsuckers, but they’d become as bloodthirsty as those they hunted. Now they aimed to destroy anything with fangs, whether the vampire in question was a threat or not. They were responsible for the suicide donors and had also developed poison darts filled with lethal coagulants that could take down a vampire. What the Rebels didn’t know was that Natalia, a scientist and vampiress who worked for Lucas, had recently discovered an antidote.
“I don’t trust Wess a hundred percent,” Orrick announced. “He started out as our enemy.”
“Yeah, but he’s changed his view of vampires since discovering his sister is one,” Jaide said. “He even stuck up for Alex against their father.”
Everett Gage, who was a captain in the Rebel Army, hadn’t handled his daughter’s immortal state very well. Rather than negotiate a truce with Alex, Everett was now more determined than ever to wipe out their kind.
Brasen wasn’t the trusting sort, but he agreed Wess had earned the benefit of the doubt. The human had, in essence, defected from the Human Rebellion to start a new group. His goal was to create a joint human and vampire police force to eradicate the real monsters like Taspar Tong. Of course, people didn’t get over their fears and prejudices overnight, and it would take time to reach the level of cooperation Wess and his sister envisioned. If the humans could help catch Taspar, though, then Brasen was all for it. Wess already had Taspar’s second in command, Ion Petrescu, in custody. Hopefully the vampire would spill something useful soon.
“In the meantime,” Brasen said, “we’ve got motion-activated cameras along the main tunnel closest to the blood bar. Taspar is arrogant enough that he might come back to his old haunt, at which point I’ll organize a welcoming party for him.”
His companions voiced their agreement with this plan as they headed back to the SUV they’d arrived in. Brasen walked around to the driver’s side and got in.
“I’ve got shotgun,” Jaide immediately announced.
The other vampires grumbled.
“Why should you get shotgun?” Orrick complained.
She looked him square in the eye, though Brasen noticed she kept her body language nonaggressive. “Because I called it first. Besides, I have long legs.”
Faust snorted. “Yeah. Anyone ever tell you you’re built like an Amazon?”
“Nope,” she said drily. “Never heard that one.”
Graham chuckled as he climbed into the backseat. He was by far the most easygoing vampire Brasen had ever met, though he’d seen what the big guy could do in a fight. The other two men got in, but they weren’t nearly as gracious about it.
“Careful, Faust,” Orrick said. “For all you know, she might be
one of the original Amazons.”
Jaide glanced at him from the passenger seat as Brasen started the engine and pulled out. “I’m not that old, thank you very much.”
“So how old are you?” Orrick asked.
“Old enough.” She was doing that half grin again, which made Brasen wonder if she ever fully smiled. “Don’t you know not to ask a woman that? You never ask a woman’s age or her weight.”
“Yeah, but we don’t think of you as a woman,” Faust retorted.
Brasen shook his head. Were they blind? Jaide was all woman, with long hair a man could spread across his pillow and enough curves to tantalize his wandering hands.
“That’s because I have bigger balls than you,” she shot back.
It was the kind of trash talk the guards often exchanged, which showed they thought of her as one of the guys. Brasen knew his life would be easier if he regarded her the same way, but he couldn’t.
There was a quiet murmur from the backseat as Graham talked on his cell phone to check in with Mel. The Southern master’s young assistant was traveling separately with Eryx, who was her lover and one of Alex’s guards. Brasen only caught part of the conversation, but he gathered the pair hadn’t run into any of Taspar’s men while surveying the aboveground entry points to the tunnels. Everything had stayed quiet tonight.
“I hate these hide-and-seek games,” Jaide muttered.
Brasen looked at her before returning his attention to the road. “I do too. Give me a straight-up fight any day.”
“I hear that.” She angled herself in her seat to give him a once-over. “Of course, I’d expect nothing less from a Browning man.”
He snorted. His pistol was a comfortable weight under his arm, and he could see she carried hers in a similar fashion. While his Browning Hi Power had a chrome frame and slide and a walnut grip, hers was an upgraded model in jet black—as strong and sinfully beautiful as its owner.
“Some people don’t like a single-action pistol,” he pointed out.
“They obviously don’t appreciate the intimidation factor of hearing someone cock one.” She continued to watch him drive. “Even hardened vampires will often freeze at the sound. Not that I usually wait that long to ready my weapons.”
“Safety for us is different than for humans. We’re more likely to get shot by an enemy because we’re too slow to respond than we are to suffer an accidental discharge.”
She hummed in agreement. “You know, Alex loves to brag about her Colt M1911, but the 9mm Browning Hi Power holds almost double the ammunition and has some of the Colt’s best features.”
“It was John Browning’s last design,” Brasen said. “He literally died in the shop while working on it.”
“I didn’t know that. Vampire attack?”
“Heart failure,” he answered.
She fell silent, and he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He enjoyed talking to her and finding shared interests, but he didn’t want to treat her like just one of the guys or have her see him that way, either. It was humbling to realize he couldn’t think of much in the way of conversation that didn’t relate to work. Maybe that was for the best. After all, he hadn’t made up his mind to pursue her yet. Had he?