DAIN EYED me as I drove his 1950s Mustang through the streets of Los Angeles, the nightlife in full swing around us. I pretended to ignore him and tried not to rear-end anyone when the stoplight forced everyone to play ride-the-bumper. He rarely let me drive his car, so I did my best to prove he could trust me to do it alone.
“LA is such a skeezy city,” I said as I watched a scantily clad prostitute slide into the car of a horny client.
Hope she didn’t end up like the victims of Jack the Ripper.
Dain snorted. “And you love it as much as I do.”
I smiled at him. “But not for the reasons most people do.”
“What? You didn’t come here to become rich and famous and end up working as waiter at some fancy restaurant?”
I laughed. Jerk. He knew for a fact that wasn’t in my mind when I’d arrived here years ago. LA hadn’t been a destination, merely a stop on my nomadic journey through the States, escaping a life of abuse and fear.
The light turned green, and I inched the car forward.
“You better watch yourself,” Dain said, his tone turning serious. “Don’t get too comfortable with our… clientele.”
I flicked a glance at him before turning on the blinker and bearing right.
“Why are you telling me things I already know? Besides, who says I’m comfortable with the bloodsuckers and furries?”
“I have eyes, kid. You take too long to deliver the packages and sometimes return with gifts from Her Grace.”
I felt my hackles rise and bared my teeth. “You timing me, old man? Whatever happened to making sure our clients are repeat customers? Whatever happened to building relationships? You really think I’m stupid enough to refuse a gift from a vampire duchess?”
“You’re only stupid if you think the gift doesn’t have strings attached. Remember our number one rule: our loyalty can’t be bought. We’re free agents, Vulcan. The vamps don’t own us, and neither do the wolves. Our services can be purchased, but not our lives.”
“Jesus, stop with the lecture! I thought you fucking liked Her Grace.” I gripped the steering wheel painfully, wondering why the old codger was making such a big freaking deal of it all.
“I respect her. There’s a difference.”
“You’re acting like I haven’t lived and worked with you for the past three years!”
“It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the dangers of what we do and who we do it for. The vampires, the werewolves, and the other supernatural beasts that own the night. The bloodsuckers and furries, as you called them, own this town, kid. Don’t forget it. Also don’t forget the slayers out there who don’t appreciate humans working for their mortal enemies.”
I hunched my shoulders and glared at the cars around us. “I’m not stupid.”
Tense silence filled the car. Even I heard the hurt in my voice through the layers of anger and indignation.
“I know,” Dain said after a long moment.
“Then why are you suddenly lecturing me?”
Dain turned his head to look out the side window. He was an older guy in his sixties, bald, dark as a black jaguar, with stormy gray eyes sharper than most twentysomethings. His hands were scarred and burned from decades working with a hammer and forge, bringing shape and life to lumps of metal. I was in awe of his skill and dedication and his willingness to take me on as his apprentice.
“I won’t be around forever.”
I narrowed my eyes at him as I stopped at another light. I was in front, for once, and gave him my full attention.
“No duh, dude. Wait, you aren’t going to tell me you have cancer or something, right?”
He snorted and rolled his eyes when he looked back at me. “Nothing so melodramatic, kid. I’m just stating the obvious. I won’t be around forever, and I have to think of the future of my business and my property.”
“Well, sure, but—”
I didn’t get any further. The car behind us suddenly rammed into our back bumper at full speed, throwing us into the four-way despite our light still being red. I smashed my foot into the brake, already knowing it was too late. A large semi loomed toward us like a hungry monster, and there was no time for either of us to change course or prevent the inevitable.
The semi smashed into the passenger side, and the force flung me to the right, the seat belt preventing me from falling onto Dain. Screaming metal and rubber were the only things I was conscious of for a time. I didn’t know how long I was blind and deaf, but when I came back to awareness, my vision spun, and my heart thundered over the sounds of sirens. I gradually took stock of myself as my vision settled. I lay mostly on my side, the seat belt digging into my neck. I moved my head hesitantly and realized it lay on Dain’s arm.
“Dain?” I croaked.
Answer me, dammit!
My fingers trembled and felt swollen to ten times their usual size, but I managed to release the seat belt. I flopped down a couple of inches and groaned as my body protested every movement. Taking careful breaths, I shifted and pushed myself up enough to get a better look at Dain.
Blood. There was so much blood. I touched his arm, squeezed.
“Sir, can you hear me?”
I turned around and vaguely regarded the man staring at me through a hole where the driver’s door should have been. Funny, I hadn’t even noticed him pry it open, my entire focus on Dain.
“Dain. It’s Dain.” I couldn’t think of anything else. I didn’t want to.
“Sir, let me get you out of here. Come on.”
I shook my head, instantly regretting the movement. I cringed as my neck protested and tightened, and pushed down the nausea.
“No. Dain.” I stretched closer and leaned over to peer at his face. His eyes stared blankly, his mouth slightly open in surprise.
The sound that escaped me belonged to a wounded animal. Even as the rescue worker tried to get my attention, I managed to release Dain’s seat belt, and then I simply tugged him into my arms, blood and all. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything except holding my friend. My father in all the ways that mattered, all the ways that counted.
The only one to truly give a damn about me.
I held his lifeless body and only realized I was crying when it became more and more difficult to breathe. I pressed my face against his stiff shoulder and sobbed.
I vaguely felt the rescue worker touch my shoulder, but he didn’t tug me or try to take Dain away. Despite my many hurts, I would have killed him if he’d tried. More time passed, I couldn’t be sure how much, before a sultry feminine voice penetrated my despair. The French accent gave her away. I lifted my face and turned my head, instantly spotting Her Grace, Josette Jacquier, The Duchess of California.
Transplanted from her native France, Her Grace retained the noble title given to her before the French Revolution of 1789. Since she was the head of LA’s vampire coven, an elder of the covens in America and Canada, and one of the oldest vamps alive, no one had a problem addressing her the way she was accustomed to being addressed.
She was tiny but fierce and had the rescue workers backing away as she approached me. I could only stare, still crying, unable to stop the tears and grief. Her expression was somber as she leaned down and touched my shoulder.
“You need to let him go now, Vulcan. You know you must.”
“No.” I held him tighter.
She cupped my dirty cheek in her cool, smooth hand. “Yes. Let go of him now, Vulcan. Dain is dead.”
I moaned and shuddered. Hearing the words, knowing the truth, was a knife to my heart, to my gut.
Despite her deceptively delicate hands, Her Grace easily pried my arms away from Dain’s body and, with preternatural strength, tugged me fully out of the car. I sat on the pavement as the rescue workers carried Dain’s body out and away. She crouched beside me despite her exquisite dress and ran a hand gently over my short hair.
“I am sorry, my dear.” It sounded like she meant it.
A whimper escaped me. I curled my knees close to my chest and wrapped my arms around my legs before burying my face in them.
Dain’s last words resonated in my mind even as Her Grace gently laid an arm across my shoulders. I turned my head and peeked at her. I suspected I was the only one to notice the slight sheen of red in her eyes. Her mouth was slightly open, and the police cruiser lights reflected off her extended fangs.
“Who did this?” I managed to ask. This was no accident. No fucking way.
“Whoever they are, they will feel our wrath.”