Southern California, Present Day
DECLAN SPRINTED into traffic and across the street, dodging cars effortlessly as he ran. Blair bolted after him.
Cars were speeding through the street, horns blaring when they were cut off by other vehicles traveling in from intersecting thoroughfares. Squealing tires followed almost immediately in the wake of all the various tones from the horns. The noise was ear-shattering, and the commotion caused by traffic lights out of control was almost impossible to comprehend. Blair was running after Declan at such a high rate of speed that headlights and streetlights appeared as streaks crossing his path. It was dizzying.
One car swerved wildly, and Declan was cut off, nearly running right into its bumper. The cacophony of horns and tires increased trifold. Blair was willing to bet most of the drivers never saw Declan weaving through the pandemonium since he moved so quickly.
“Bastard,” Blair grumbled.
Blair was a vampire, the same as Declan, and could see Declan’s actions though human or werewolf eyes weren’t able to. Too bad Blair couldn’t mimic Declan’s smooth moves. A car careened around a corner and right into Declan’s path. He jumped up, slid across the hood on his ass, and hit the pavement running without missing a beat.
Blair hated him.
Blair’s actions were less than smooth, and trying to keep up, even though he was the faster runner between them, made him feel horribly inept. His attempt at Declan’s move over and around the cars resulted in Blair’s face narrowly escaping an intimate meeting with the pavement.
Growling, he shoved off the ground and raced after Declan. They were chasing a human; it shouldn’t be this hard to catch the guy. The man was smart; he was using the flow of traffic, or, more precisely, manipulating the traffic to stay ahead of Declan and Blair. Whether he knew he was being chased by vampires, or even believed they existed, Blair had no idea. Now wasn’t the time to figure it out either.
Where the hell was Forge? Shouldn’t Blair’s soul mate be dropping from a rooftop or charging from some alleyway to tackle this asshole they were chasing about now? It was Forge’s usual MO, and Blair suspected Forge liked doing things that way.
Trouble was, he wasn’t doing it now.
They were separated by enough distance it wasn’t possible for Blair to hear Forge. The transmitter in his wristband wasn’t working. They were both vampires and soul mates, so they shared a very powerful emotional bond, each experiencing the other’s emotions. Their bond wasn’t going to help with details on their exact position, however. Blair suspected the traffic-light hack wasn’t the only hack going on right now. Their wristbands relied on radio frequency, as well as Bluetooth, and something was being used to jam their transmissions.
Blair would have to figure that little detail out later. He was preoccupied with keeping up with Declan and their suspect right now. Maybe he and the fourth member of their team, Lucas Coate, a werewolf bonded to Declan, were more reliant on the technology they used daily than their mates, but Jonas Forge and Declan had been born long before the use of electricity, let alone wearable wireless communications. They’d worked together as intelligence operatives without such tools and without the Internet. Blair really wished they’d get on with showing off those skills about now.
Declan rounded a corner, and Blair raced after him. There was less traffic on this street. Surely they’d catch up to the man they chased. The guy hit the fencing around a construction site at a full run, leaping halfway to the top and scrambling over the top before he jumped to the ground.
Barely breaking stride, Declan bent his knees and cleared the fence in one bound, landing neatly—and on both feet—on the other side. Blair heard him mutter something in French that sounded very unkind. The fact that they couldn’t catch a human who was slower and weaker, with worse eyesight in the dark, was clearly pissing Declan off.
Those details were certainly pissing Blair off. “Any time now, Forge,” he mumbled. The frustration he felt from his mate told Blair that Forge and Lucas weren’t close by and were struggling to get a fix on their location. Didn’t that just make their situation even better?
Blair tried to hurdle the fence Declan-style, but his leap fell short, and he slammed into the top rail, doubling over it with a grunt. He grabbed it and swung over but didn’t land nicely on his feet. Instead he dropped into a disorganized heap in the dirt. Blowing out a growl, he got to his feet and sprinted after Declan again.
Declan stopped at one end of the site. It looked like some sort of upscale apartment complex and appeared to be one of those places with stores, wine bar, restaurants, and loft apartments—all with a convenient parking garage underneath. Blair remembered seeing them referred to as lifestyle centers.
“Where’d he go?” Blair was a bit breathless.
Declan held one hand up and cocked his head, saying, “Shh… I think….” He pointed out a direction. “Over there. Hear him?”
Blair nodded and ran with Declan through the partially built complex. Thuds and pings echoed around the area and bounced off varied textured surfaces. It was difficult filtering the exact location of the sounds, but Declan seemed to be following a determined path. Blair followed Declan. Blair was the guy who did the research and ran the tech end of their team. He was stay-in-the-surveillance-van guy, not go-out-into-the-field guy. Those roles belonged to Declan and Forge. Blair liked the van and wanted his job back.
Being in the van was going to have to wait, for now he had this job. Everything had gotten mixed up and out of whack with this assignment, which was what left Declan and Blair chasing an annoyingly slippery human through a construction site.
The trail Declan followed took them up an escalator or, more to the point, where an escalator was in the process of being installed. When they reached the top, Declan waved Blair to the right, and he took a left. Blair didn’t question Declan’s instincts and concentrated on the sounds around him. Footsteps: his, Declan’s, and two other sets, not one.
“What the crap?” Blair muttered. The footsteps were going in two different directions, which was why Declan had them split up. Blair stopped and glanced around. It was dark in here, but vampire sight didn’t require much light. Up one level and farther to the right, something moved. Blair sprinted in that direction. He gave up on Declan’s fancy leaping and bounding moves and took the stairs.
Halfway up he stopped and turned around. Holding his breath, he stood and listened. Forge was always telling him to utilize the strongest sense a vampire had—his hearing. Right now what he was hearing didn’t make sense. Blair might never be the warrior Forge was or the spy James Bond wished he was, like Declan, or a man such as Lucas who adapted to and was comfortable in every social situation. But he wasn’t without his own skill set.
Warning bells were ringing in his head. It took him a few seconds to narrow down the cause: a series of clicks and a barely audible whine. Blair checked his wristband again. Still no signal. He turned in a slow circle. Now he heard no footsteps other than Declan’s, and he had slowed to a walk. No one was speaking, but Blair did hear breathing. Three distinct patterns. One he recognized as Declan. The other two were in close proximity to each other, and at least one of them was the man they’d chased in here. The layout of the building and the materials used were making it difficult, since sounds were bouncing off partially constructed walls.
He looked down at the main level. Declan had come back into view and was gazing up at Blair. He shrugged and spread his hands wide.
Another series of clicks and a buzz.
Blair tried his wristband a second time. Neither that, nor the earbud he wore, was working. He had no signal, but someone did, and it was a private system—that much Blair had already figured out. Noise from the transmission came to Blair in bits, but nothing he could make sense of. Yet he felt he should recognize the noise.
After moving down the stairs a few steps, Blair stopped and listened again, then shook his head very slightly.
A different noise, a snapping sort of sound, made both him and Declan look to the left. Declan held up his hand and stalked silently in the direction of the sound. Blair knew the sound but couldn’t place it.
“Shit,” he said, only loudly enough that Declan was the single person who would hear him. Blair started running down the steps. The hair along the back of his neck rose, and a shiver worked down Blair’s spine. Whatever that noise was, it meant danger. He was sure of it.
Blair shouted, “Declan!” He dove off the side of the steps and launched himself at Declan.
Declan turned in time to catch Blair. At the same time, a low rumble started beneath their feet. The floor vibrated, and the low rumble erupted into a deafening roar.
“What the—” Declan hissed as Blair wrapped both arms around his shoulders and used his momentum to shove them both backward.
The flooring several yards from them opened up. Brick, metal, and glass dropped through to the parking level below, creating a deafening roar. Dust and dirt billowed up from somewhere beneath them. Declan pushed off the floor and spun them around and away from the blast. A brilliant flash of light struck, and then dust and debris turned everything hazy and dark. The stores and wine bar disappeared as Declan and Blair were plunged down, along with chunks of cement, into the cavernous depths of the parking garage.
BLAIR BLINKED. At first everything around him was obscured and murky, and then the darkness surrounding him receded and his vision began to clear. He barely had time to grasp the sight of rubble, bent metal, and broken glass through the dust-filled air when pain slammed into him. His breath stuttered, and he gasped, trying to fill his lungs. Sharp, strong spears of agony drove from his right leg through his abdomen and spread across his chest, clamping around him like a vise. Clawing at whatever he could wrap his fingers around, Blair struggled to find purchase and pull himself away from the pain. His cheeks were wet, and his teeth alternated between clenching and chattering. Nothing quieted his shaking belly, and his mouth felt like it was filled with sand.
“Blair. Blair… shh… shh… it’s okay, be still.” Declan was in front of him. He ran a hand over Blair’s hair, then rested it against Blair’s cheek. “Take a slow, deep breath.”
Blair struggled to focus on Declan and come up with a reasonable explanation for Declan touching him in such a manner. Declan used his other hand to grab one of Blair’s hands and hold on to him firmly. When Declan knelt and shifted closer, Blair tried to move too.
A wet, garbled scream burst out of him. Declan jumped closer and pulled Blair’s head against his shoulder, then clapped one hand over his mouth. “Shh, Blair, breathe. I know it hurts.” He gripped Blair’s bicep for a few seconds before moving on to rub Blair’s chest.
Blair grabbed Declan’s arms and tried to lift himself away from the pain. “I can’t move. Declan, I can’t move,” he sobbed the words out.
“Calm down, Blair. Just take a few deep breaths and let them out very slowly. Trust me,” Declan ordered softly. “Look at me and breathe deeply.” Blair tilted his head and met Declan’s gaze. “Good. See, you can move your head and arms.”
“I-I c-can’t w-walk.” Blair’s voice came out a whimper.
“I know.” Declan gently turned Blair’s head so he was looking at his legs, or where his legs should be. “You’re trapped. The fact you can feel means once you’re loose, you’ll be able to move and walk. You’re a vampire. You’d have to have one helluva spinal injury, or have your legs amputated, to prevent you from healing and never walking again. Take a few more deep breaths and try to tell me exactly what you feel.”
Stuttering breaths in and out, Blair closed his eyes and leaned his head back, taking comfort in Declan’s presence. “Wet. Something is wet by my leg, and my right leg hurts so much.”
“Sticky and wet?”
Blair nodded and sniffed. “I-I’m s-sor-sorry.”
“You have nothing to be apologizing for. Is the wetness in one spot?”
“I think it’s getting bigger.” Blair sucked in air and opened his eyes again. “I’m bleeding. I’m going to bleed out and die. I don’t want—” He tried pulling in more oxygen, but it was suddenly impossible to breathe through what felt like tight bands tightening down around his chest.
“Blair!” Declan said sternly and held one finger up in front of Blair’s face. “You are not going to die. You’re a vampire. Bleeding out takes weeks.” He sat back and ran one hand through his hair. “I know you’re scared and in pain, but we both have to stay calm. Lucas and Jonas are out there”—he pointed up—“and they are looking for us. I can feel it. They’ll find us.” Closing his eyes for a few beats, Declan sighed. “Right now I need you to focus on our problem and stay calm. Someone is here with us. Can you do that?”
Blair gulped and nodded. Declan patted the side of Blair’s head and smiled. He twisted on his heels and seemed to be searching for something.
“I will get you out of here,” he said, reaching for something out of Blair’s line of sight, Declan turned back to Blair and handed him a slice of metal rebar. “Grip this and try to stay quiet. Have you ever seen a woman give birth?”
Blair shook his head. “No.” His voice came out more of a squeak than a word.
“You pull in a very deep breath like this.” Declan took a breath, and his chest expanded. “And blow out like this.” He exhaled a quick series of short bursts. “Then repeat.” Waving his hand in a get-moving motion, Declan said, “Now you.”
Blair’s expression no doubt reflected how dubious he was. Declan nodded and raised his eyebrows. Focusing on Declan’s face, Blair did as instructed.
“Again,” Declan said when Blair finished. Blair nodded and repeated the action. When he was done, Declan asked, “Feel better?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Good. Now I want you to keep doing that.”
“What are you going to do?” Blair asked.
Declan stood up, removed his suit jacket, and laid it to the side. “I’m going to see if I can get what I think is a big piece of the wine bar off of your leg.”
Blair managed to look at his legs. From his pelvis down, he was covered by a huge chunk of concrete. “It looks heavy.”
Declan chuckled. “Yes, it does. Hang on to that piece of metal and breathe.”
Before Blair could think about what Declan was about to do, Declan grabbed an edge of the concrete and metal frame and grunted, straining to ease the thing off Blair. Gripping the rebar so tightly Blair pressed dents into it, he dragged in big breaths and panted them out again. Declan’s face turned red, and the muscles of his neck and arms corded and shook.
Declan glanced at him. “Anything?”
Blair shook his head and dropped the rod. “It’s not budging.”
Declan released the edge of the concrete chunk, straightened, and stood with his hands at his sides, breathing hard. “I’m going to need help with this one, mon ami.” He put two fingers to his lips and turned silently to the left, then the right, before pointing to the far side of the parking garage. Elevator doors had been set in, but Blair could see there was no elevator yet.
Stones bounced loose from somewhere above them. Declan dropped to his knees and inched closer to Blair so he was hidden by the rubble.
“Big rats,” Blair muttered. “I hate rats.”
Declan grinned and nodded. “As do I. You up for this?”
“Yes. Don’t get hurt.” Blair winced as he shifted and panted a few more times. He gripped and released the edges of the concrete block a few times. “You promised to get me out.”
“Make it sound good.” Declan kept low and crept away from Blair to another pile of rubble, then slipped out of sight.
“Shouldn’t be too hard.” Blair put his hands flat on the ground to either side of him and lifted his weight up. All the progress the deep breathing and panting had made evaporated in a barrage of agony. Blair shouted, then clenched his jaw tight. When the wave of dizziness passed, he pleaded, “Is anyone there? Help me, please. Someone?”
Declan crouched low in the shadows. Lucas had once described the difference between Declan and Forge perfectly. Forge would come at an opponent head on. Declan was, in Lucas’s words, the “deadly assassin of the night.” He’d disarm and disable an adversary before they ever knew he was there, and he had a spectacular repertoire of means to accomplish those ends.
Blair almost felt sorry for anyone approaching and threatening him. Almost.
The human they’d chased moved cautiously out of the elevator space. He looked one way then the other as he walked in Blair’s direction. Blair reminded himself he’d been human a few short years ago.
From behind his back, the man pulled a gun and brought it in front of him in what Blair recognized now as an assault position. Coming to a stop opposite Blair, the man used one foot to shove against the chunk of concrete. Blair shivered and looked up at the man. He gulped in a breath and gagged.
The man smirked. “Where’s your buddy, and why were you chasing me?”
“I’m bleeding,” Blair whispered. The gun discharged, and a bullet ricocheted off the concrete, sending a spray of dust and stone slivers into the air. Blair flinched, then hissed in a breath and stifled a sob. “Help me. Please?”
“How the hell did you even survive that fall?” The man’s eyes narrowed, and he raised the gun, taking aim at Blair’s head. “Tell me where the other guy is and I’ll make it fast.” He moved a few feet to the side and glared at Blair. “What were you two chasing me for? And why were you in the other building?”
“Why were you in the…?” Blair cringed and his voice cracked and broke. He heard Declan moving into position behind the man. “He left me. The b-bastard. W-we were there to….” Blair sucked in a succession of breaths, tilted to the side as much as possible, and groaned out one long sigh, then slumped down.
The man’s heartbeat ramped higher audibly. “Hey, no. Tell me what you—” He garbled some odd noise, his words abruptly cut off.
Blair opened his eyes and turned his head to watch. One minute no one stood behind the man, and the next Declan was there with one arm around the guy’s chest, holding him in place. His other hand gripped the man’s chin.
“Drop it,” Declan snarled. The man struggled, and Declan gave him a small jerk. “I was sixteen the first time I killed a man with my bare hands. You’re responsible for my young friend here being hurt. Drop. It.”
The man sucked in a breath, but his fingers opened, and the gun fell to the ground.
“I will kill you. You have the choice of it being quick and painless—here one minute, not here the next. Or….” Declan moved his hand and pressed against the man’s neck. “Feel where my thumb is pressing in? Enough pressure there will sever your spinal cord.”
“Fuck you. You can’t really—”
Blair watched as Declan tightened the arm he had around the man’s rib cage and jerked up with enough force to raise the guy’s feet off the ground for a few seconds. His face turned red, and he gulped.
“Getting hard to breathe? I’m a vampire. That makes me strong enough to crush your rib cage and snap your neck.”
“You’re delusional,” the guy grumbled.
Declan’s eyes changed to a solid moss green, and his fangs dropped. He turned the man’s head far enough to see him. “Whether or not you believe in our existence is irrelevant. Who are you working for?”
The man spit at Declan.
Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Declan said, “Hollywood makes it look so smooth. One twist of his neck—” He gave the man’s chin a jerk. “—and the bad guy just falls dead. No pain, no fuss, no muss, no real knowledge of what happened to him. Just dead. In reality, you’d lie there, conscious, unable to move and fully cognizant of the fact that you’re suffocating.” He shook his head ever so slightly. “It must be horrible—knowing your lungs aren’t working and being unable to draw a breath. Yet your mind knows what’s happening.” Declan ripped at the guy’s shirt collar with his fangs. “But one bite in the right spot and you’ll bleed out so fast you’ll never suffer, never know.”
“I’m not telling you anything,” the man ground out.
The muscles in Declan’s arm tensed, and Blair thought he heard ribs cracking.
“It would be a shame if one of your lungs were punctured. Air in your chest cavity is an atrocious feeling.” Declan moved so he was speaking into the man’s other ear. “If you’re going to continue in this line of work, you really should learn more about human anatomy.” He shrugged. “A little tip.” He relaxed his grip on the man’s chest. “Now, answer my questions.”
“I-I w-was only supposed to verify the Wi-Fi was out in the building and a private network would still be operational.”
“Who was screwing with the traffic signals?” Blair asked.
When the man glared and kept silent, refusing to answer Blair’s question, Declan must have pressed harder into the guy’s neck with his thumb because he spit out a funny hiccup sort of sound. “Answer him,” Declan snarled.
“My job was to come here and meet up with another man. I only had one name: Black. He was testing things here, and I tested the lights.”
Declan met Blair’s gaze as if he was waiting for Blair to ask another question. Instead Blair shivered and rubbed his eyes. His vision wavered for a few seconds, and then the sound of Declan’s heartrate changing made him concentrate harder.
“Test for what?” Declan asked and raised his eyebrows. Blair nodded once, confirming that was a good choice of questions. The man shook his head, and Declan tightened his grip around his chest. Blair heard the guy’s heart rate shoot up as he struggled to suck in a breath, squeezing his eyes shut as if to deny the reality of what was happening to him.
“I don’t know. I’m telling the truth. That’s all I know.” The man pushed the words out with an obvious effort, and his voice had a breathless quality to it. “Black told me what part of this building to avoid and to meet him in a bar, Hooley’s, a few blocks from here, by midnight.” His voice cracked and he uttered a wet, sobbing sort of sound. “Please. That’s all I know.”
Declan sucked in air and sighed it out slowly. He tensed and shifted his weight again.
“No, no…. I told you everything!” The guy was crying, and the more he struggled, the less he could move.
Declan dipped his head and bit down on the man’s shoulder, inciting even more screaming and begging. In a movement so fast only Blair could see it, Declan let go of the man long enough to spin him around. One quick step to the side, then back, and Declan cranked back his arm and punched the man in the head. Blair winced as the guy dropped like a stone, out cold.
Shaking his head Declan pulled the denim jacket and hoodie off the guy. “Your reaction was almost embarrassing,” he said to the unconscious man. Next he removed the button-down shirt the man wore, leaving his undershirt alone. Declan used his fangs to shred the lightweight cotton shirt. The action made Blair smile. Forge used his fangs to open beer bottles and packages all the time. This was the first time he’d seen Declan do such a thing. Using the strips of material, Declan tied the man and gagged him, then scooped him up and carried him farther away, leaving him where they could still keep an eye on him.
Declan rifled through the jacket’s and hoodie’s pockets, then tossed the hoodie to Blair. “Put that on. You need to stay warm.”
“Get his electronics,” Blair said.
Nodding, Declan checked the man’s pockets, extracting a phone and wallet from his back pants pockets. He pulled a face and grumbled, then went through the man’s front pockets. “Just the phone.”
“Look in his ears, and take his watch and any jewelry.” Blair managed a small laugh when Declan grimaced further. “Please, man. You and Forge love telling your Civil War story about you with your hand down the unconscious Reb officer’s pants, looking for maps or plans or something.”
Declan arched an eyebrow and pulled the man’s belt, watch, and a ring off. He stopped, huffed a breath, and shrugged. “Jonas likes to tell that story, and he also likes to exaggerate in the name of spinning a good yarn.” Declan knelt and stuck his finger into the man’s left ear, shook his head, and then repeated the action in his right ear. He held up a small earpiece. “Happy now? Or do I have to execute a full cavity search?”
“Tha-that sh-shouldn’t-t be necessary,” Blair said. No matter how hard he tried to control it, his words slurred.
Declan straightened and put the items he held into his pants pocket. He walked back to Blair and bent to retrieve the denim jacket and his own suit jacket from where he’d left them. After folding the denim jacket into a thick pad, Declan wedged it between Blair and the chunk of wall behind him. He took his suit jacket and wrapped it around Blair before he settled on the ground beside Blair and scooted as close as he could. Putting his arm around Blair’s shoulders, Declan said softly, “I know how much it hurts.” He patted Blair’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine, eventually, and this will all be a bad memory. I promise.”
Blair leaned his head back against the makeshift pillow and closed his eyes. “You can get out.”
“There is still at least one other man around here. You’re defenseless like this.” Declan jostled Blair gently. “You need to stay awake so Jonas can feel you and find us.”
Blair inhaled slowly and opened his eyes. He and Forge shared such a strong empathic bond, it was possible for each to use it almost as a tracker. All mated vampires could sense their other halves to some degree; however, Blair and Forge were particularly blessed. Or cursed. Blair chuckled at his own inner joke, but it morphed almost immediately into a stifled sob and whimper.
“He’s scared, Declan. Forge is never scared. Worse, he feels helpless.” Blair’s own emotions careened out of control. “I don’t want to die.”
“Hey, shh, none of that. Vampires are damn hard to kill. You’re not going to die.” Declan shifted closer, and Blair appreciated the comfort he was trying to provide. “You’re going to hurt like hell for a while, and if you lose enough blood, it’s likely you’ll get a little delirious. But… you will not die.”
Blair moved one hand and took hold of Declan’s. “Take care of him, please? Like you did before.”
“Take care of who? Jonas?”
Blair bit his lip and nodded while he squeezed Declan’s hand. “Please.”
“I think you’ve lost more blood than I thought. Of course I would, if it were necessary, which it won’t be since he and Lucas will find us, get us out, and you will be fine. Eventually.”
Blair didn’t really believe Declan, but he was thankful for the man’s effort and kindness. “Why him? Why Forge?”
“You said you changed Forge because you were smitten.” Blair started to giggle; the word always made him giggle. Particularly when he associated it with two men such as Forge and Declan. Two big, tough, take-no-prisoners, stealthy-assassins-of-the-night men like Forge and Declan. His chortling lasted mere seconds before it changed to a small cry. “I want details. It’ll keep me awake. Consider it the request of a dying man.”
“You’re not dying.”
“Declan, I want to know. Please?”
Declan shifted his weight, stretched his legs out, and leaned back. “Fair enough.”
Blair loved Declan’s voice and subtle accent. Mostly he was happy to have something to focus on besides the agony consuming his entire body right now.