I WAS alone, and that was death for a warder. Fortunately I was not fighting demons at the moment but was instead drinking, which could be dicey in a few hours considering the mood I was in. But even as drunk as I was, I recognized my friend Ryan’s boyfriend sitting with some guys on the other side of the bar. I wondered if he was out to pick somebody up, hanging with his friends until he spotted the one-night stand he would leave with. He was probably cheating on Ryan the way my hearth, Frank Sullivan, had been cheating on me. And my buddy would never know until it was too late, until he caught them. Yes, Julian Nash was out cruising—why wouldn’t he be? What was his boyfriend’s heart worth when leveraged against a hot body in his bed?
Sitting there, nursing either my fifth or seventh—I had lost count hours ago—scotch and water, I watched Julian laughing. All the guys with him were about his age, the camaraderie obvious, probably coworkers having drinks after work. I realized after a minute that I wasn’t the only one watching the five men. I was used to scanning a room, in the habit of looking for threats, so I saw the man at the bar, three stools down from me, staring. I thought it would take me some time to see where his interest lay, but when Julian rose to get another round, the man studied his progression from the table to the bar with absolute unshakeable intensity. And I understood. Julian Nash was a treat to look at. A lot of men in the bar would have had him in their sights. Once they talked to him, the desire would be even greater to have him. He was funny and smart and, most of all, kind. I liked him immediately when I first met him. I really hoped he was just having drinks with friends and not looking to get laid. Even one more disappointment would be too much.
“What can I get you?”
I looked back down the bar and realized that the tall man I had noticed before had, as I suspected he would, leaned close to Julian and propositioned him. The hearth of my fellow warder smiled wide. My stomach flipped over with dread.
“I’ve got mine, thanks.”
“Well, then have a seat, and the next one’s on me.”
“Actually I’m having drinks with friends”—Julian smiled warmly—“but I’m very flattered.”
He was out with his friends and was not on the prowl. It was stupid how happy the little piece of news made me, but I was, as ridiculous as it sounded, still a romantic at heart.
“Have dinner with me.”
“I’m having dinner with my boyfriend after this, so no, thank you.”
The man suddenly seemed unsteady in his chair.
“Are you okay?” Julian sounded concerned as he picked up a martini with an onion in it and a highball glass that was halfway filled.
“I’m fine,” the man told him, shaking his head like it needed clearing. “I’d just really like to have dinner with you.”
“And I told you no,” Julian repeated, turning.
The guy rose fast from the barstool and moved around in front of him. This would be the true test, because standing there, gifting Julian with a wicked smile that lit his emerald eyes, the man was tall, dark, and very handsome.
“Are you sure?”
“I am, but again, I’m very flattered,” Julian said softly, stepping around him, starting back for the table.
I snickered, and the man turned at the same time and caught me. It was not one of my better moments and one I could have normally covered, but my reflexes were shot for now.
I coughed to clear my throat but couldn’t help smiling. “Nope.”
He squinted at me before he came toward me.
“Sorry,” I apologized up front. Handsome really didn’t do the man justice. “But”—I chuckled—“you never had a chance, man.”
“No? Why’s that?” he asked, his eyes sweeping over me, darkening, the hunger infusing them. I was not Julian Nash, but apparently I would do.
“His boyfriend is really hot.”
He looked like I’d slapped him.
Nobody killed heat as quickly as I could. It was a gift, really, my sort of blunt blurting of the truth that no one ever wanted to hear. The very handsome man was appalled, and then he recovered.
“Is that right?” he snapped at me, the voice that had been interested seconds before now icy cold.
“You watch Ryan’s Rundown on Channel 5?” I asked him, trying not to slur my words.
“Sure. Everyone watches Ryan Dean,” he said irritably.
And they did. The ex-model-turned-television-host was too charming and too hot to not have a religious following. He was also a very scary sword-carrying demon hunter. “He sleeps with Ryan Dean every night,” I said, pointing after Julian. “You think you got a chance?”
His scowl was dark.
“Oh, what the fuck?” came the growl from behind the Adonis.
The look of utter disdain that washed over the man’s face was very amusing. Watching him turn slowly to the voice, I nearly lost it.
“Malic,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt.
“Graham,” my friend said, the irritation right there for anyone to hear as he took a seat beside me.
They didn’t even look each other in the eye, but the loathing, even without it, was overwhelmingly obvious. Graham made a noise in the back of his throat like just being in the same room with Malic made him sick. Malic’s patronizing scoff was just as telling.
Graham turned on his heel and left. He threw a fifty on the bar as he walked by it but didn’t stop even when the bartender called a thank-you after him.
“God, that guy hates you,” Marcus Roth, another of my friends and a fellow warder, said as he took a seat on the barstool on my left.
“Like I give a shit.”
Marcus’s knee bumped mine, and I felt his hand on my thigh, patting me, just for a second. He was worried. They all were. “You need to work on your people skills.”
“I didn’t hit him. That’s as good as it gets,” Malic told him, a dark scowl on his face.
“But why do you let that asshole get to you every time?”
“I dunno. He just rubs me the wrong way.”
“How long’ve you known the guy?” I chimed in with my innocuous question.
“Long enough. He’s a dick,” he told me, squinting at me. “And Leith was right—you look like hammered shit.”
“Thank you very much.”
I turned to Marcus, and I was instantly sorry I had. His dark eyes never missed anything, and at the moment he was concentrating his considerable powers of observation on me.
“Me and Malic are headed over to my place to eat and then go patrol. Come have dinner with us.”
There was something wrong with that sentence.
I ran it back in my head, processing his words, trying for the life of me to figure out what was wrong with what he was saying.
There was something.
Come eat. Come eat…. Wait. “I thought Joey hated Malic. How’re you taking him home?” I asked, realizing how long that had taken me. My brain normally worked a lot faster. I was really trashed.
He shrugged. “Apparently I missed the obvious. Joe didn’t like Malic because all this time, he thought that Malic wanted me.”
I squinted at him.
“Just don’t say it.”
“Huh. So for, what—five years now, almost six, your hearth, the guy you love more than anything, thought your best friend wanted to get down with you.”
“Dylan.” Marcus sighed. “Malic found his hearth; Joe spent one night listening to the lovebirds together and confessed everything.”
I did the slow pan to Malic.
He rolled his eyes before flipping me off.
“When did I say that that’s what it probably was?”
“I think it was five years ago,” Marcus offered from my left.
“And when did I say that you should just tell Joey that you love Marcus like the brother you never had but that’s all?”
“Same time,” Marcus chimed in.
“Uh, fuck you both,” Malic told us, lifting his hand to get the attention of the bartender.
I leaned my head forward, raking my hands through my thick curly hair that now fell to my shoulders. It needed to be cut. I also needed to shave. I had gotten lazy about the stubble on my face and now, after a month, maybe two, had a beard and mustache to show for it. Like it mattered. “You guys don’t need to babysit me. I’m not gonna kill myself.”
“Come eat.” Marcus repeated his offer, hand on the back of my neck, massaging gently.
“No.” I smiled. “I’ll let Joe bond with Malic. They lost a lot of time.”
“They bonded,” he assured me, “and Dylan’s the one my boyfriend’s in love with now. Compared to him, Malic and me are both chopped liver.”
And I understood that. Dylan Shaw, Malic’s newly discovered hearth, was as close to candy as any man could be. At nineteen he was devastating; by thirty he’d have the world at his feet. What I liked best about him though was not his ethereal beauty but his loyalty. It was a trait I had come recently to admire.
I was a warder, and I hunted demons. Every city had a sentinel, and every sentinel had five warders, a clutch, that he commanded. Warders, because we basically lived in a cesspool of filth and evil, had to be able to come home at the end of each day to a sanctuary. The hearth of a warder, their mate, provided that. For two years the man I came home to was Frank Sullivan. He was it, my whole life, the guy who made my loft off 18th Street in Potrero Hill the place I wanted to be more than anything. And then three months ago I had tracked a demon, was racing across rooftops after him, and had come to a dead stop before I could vault to the next building.
“Aren’t we running?” he had asked sarcastically, doubling back down off the ledge when he had realized I was no longer in hot pursuit.
I couldn’t move at all. I was frozen where I stood.
He was not a demon, specifically, but a creature I wanted to kill nonetheless. A being I had to slay in order to keep Malic safe.
“What has you so mesmerized?”
My mouth opened, but no words came out.
But I couldn’t. I could only stare.
I felt hot, wet breath on the back of my neck, heard him inhale deeply as I pointed with the tip of the ornate rapier in my left hand.
Across the chasm between the buildings, on a marbled, opulent-looking penthouse patio, stood my hearth, accountant Frank Sullivan, and his top client, Rene Favreau. The night had started out being about saving Malic, but now I was going to have to kill him for ever introducing Frank to his buddy.
“What am I looking at, warder?”
I couldn’t even push air through my lungs as I watched the two men kiss. And it wasn’t the tentative first kind but the one where you knew what you were doing because you had done it so many times before. Rene’s mouth slanted down over Frank’s, and he took possession, one hand fisted in his hair, the other cupping his ass.
“Oh, he’s enjoying that.”
The words tore me open. I whirled, swinging the rapier, ready to take the kyrie’s head.
“Touchy,” he said, leaping back and sideways, easily evading my hasty attack.
“Your kind killed my family!” I roared at him.
“No,” he clarified, his voice calm, deep, and husky.
“Yes!” I snarled out my murderous rage. It was the only thing left in me as I thrust forward.
He maneuvered around me. “The day you pulled me off Malic, you screamed that obscene accusation at me, that a blood demon killed your family.”
I advanced on him.
“And I grieve your loss, warder, but it has nothing to do with me.”
“Kyries and blood demons are the same thing,” I assured him, my tone icy as I swiped at him with roundhouse swings.
“Nope, wrong.” He smiled wickedly, his extended canines glinting in the moonlight. “Kyries are born in purgatory, all demons in hell. Demons have no finesse; kyries know the difference.”
I growled at him.
“And we’re the savages?”
I lunged at him, the rapier swinging wildly, splitting the air with a whoosh of sound, fast as a whip. But he was an excellent swordsman and deflected me effortlessly with his Chinese jian, parrying, thrusting, and driving me back. I looked for a weakness, for a misstep, but his stance was solid, and I found no opening.
His voice brought me from my murderous rage; my eyes flicked to his face.
“Again I say, I am sorry for your family, warder, but a kyrie is not a blood demon, and my kind had nothing to do with their deaths.”
I rolled forward, ready to take his head off.
“I want you to acknowledge the truth, warder.”
There were no words as I charged at him, but he moved fast, too fast, and my momentum carried me forward toward the edge of the twenty-four-story building. Before I could recover my balance, he had me.
I was shoved down to my knees, a hand fisted in my hair so that my head was yanked back hard, my throat bared even as he focused my gaze back across the yawning space to the patio.
They were inside, the sliding glass door closed now, the drapes drawn. But the light was on and made everything transparent. Rene Favreau, whom I had always liked, would not have thought to pull the blinds. They were up too high, and the building Raphael, the kyrie, and I were on housed offices. He would not have imagined that anyone was looking. But I was. I was looking, and when Frank, my partner, my love, stepped naked from the bathroom and was thrown down onto the bed laughing, I thought my heart would stop beating at that very moment. He invited Rene just as he had me, on hands and knees in the center of the bed.
“Is he wagging his tail, warder? What do you call that?”
I struggled, hands on the thickly muscled forearm of the kyrie.
“Is he your hearth, warder?”
I would not cry in front of a monster, in front of a creature meant for killing.
Something broke inside my chest; I felt a cog come loose as I dragged in air.
“Warder,” he said, his voice thick, “when you pulled me from Malic as he lay in my arms and I drank his blood, I turned and sank teeth into you. Do you recall?”
I didn’t, and as I watched the shadowy figures blend, combine, become one, I could not be made to care.
“I had thought to come back in the night and steal Malic away, drag him to the pit with me, have him see hell, chaos, the rings, and all the planes. I crave a mate same as you, warder, need one perhaps even more desperately. I’ve heard that warders go mad, eventually curl up and die without a hearth, but kyries… we vent that madness. We share it. If we are unloved, we turn solely to hunting and find solace only in killing.”
I heaved out a breath.
“And one day, we become that which we hunt.”
The shadows parted, one rose, and the other extended arms as the room went dark. I wanted to howl in pain, but there was no air.
“But Malic’s blood was not sweet; it gave me no sustenance, and taking it was not a joy. Had you not come when you did, I would have fulfilled my promise to him and taken little. But in your fervor, warder, in your panic to free your friend, your shoulder moved beneath my fangs.”
I nodded because suddenly I did remember. I had found him drinking from Malic, and all I could do, all that mattered, was saving my friend from the fate that had taken my family from me. I had leaped forward but had missed Leith moving at the same time. When he tore the kyrie from Malic, I found myself between the two men. Malic’s blood was pumping from the wound that I would admit that Leith created when he separated them, and I had enough time to roll sideways and take the impact of the kyrie’s bite deep into my right shoulder.
“Your blood”—his voice rumbled deep in his chest—“unlike Malic’s, is the sweetest I have ever tasted.”
I had felt the kyrie’s hands turn to claws as he clutched me tight. Arms and legs were wrapped around me as his mouth found my neck. I had been frantic to get away. I fought for my life, and even after we were separated, Ryan had me pinned to the bed so I wouldn’t go after him. Marcus was holding Malic together, pressing his bloody shirt to the man’s throat. Leith was calling for Jael. The room had spun, the images blurred as I separated my past from my present, not sure if the screaming was me or Marcus.
I hadn’t told anyone what had happened; no one had seen the bite, too focused on Malic. They saw me struggling with the kyrie, but no one knew the blood was mine. I didn’t want to worry Jael, my sentinel. He had been concerned that the kyrie would come back looking for Malic. I didn’t want to add in the anxiety for me as well.
“It is you I hunger for now, warder.”
Everything blurred as my eyes filled with hot tears.
My head was tipped sideways. A wet tongue slithered from shoulder to ear, tasting, licking, lips pressed to my skin before teeth. Even the bite did not move me, infuse me with the will to fight. The tug of skin, the first swallow—even then, I was frozen from what I had just witnessed.
My family had been taken from me by a blood demon, by a pack of them. The warder of the city I lived in at the time, I had grown up in, Knoxville, Tennessee, had found them and killed them. I was twelve when I went to live in San Francisco with my Aunt Gail. At sixteen I met Jael. One of his warders was sent to Paris, and he needed a replacement. I felt the call, his call, the stirring inside the moment I saw the man. He was like a surrogate father to me; I didn’t want him worried that a kyrie wanted to drink my blood. I kept it to myself and hunted Raphael down alone. I would have killed him, but then I saw Frank.
“Is your heart so broken that you would gift me with all your blood?”
I would have tried to kill him at least. Kyries were preternatural bounty hunters; they were not the easiest things to dispatch.
“Tell me your blood is mine to take, warder.”
His question brought me from my thoughts.
“You think you found me, but the truth is… I let you.”
“Of the two of us, I’m the true hunter. You protect; I hunt.”
I couldn’t think. His tongue slid over my punctured flesh, soothed it, and eased away the sting, the heartbeat of raw, pulsing pain.
“I wanted you to find me,” he said softly. “I hoped.”
“You taste like heat and life, warder.” He breathed the words in my ear. “I will devour you, and you will be mine. I’ve never ached like I do now. Only speak the words, and I will take you from this place, from this pain. Only speak the words.”
“What words are those?”
“Take me. Tell me to take you, and I will.”
I shivered hard because it was tempting. Death and oblivion sounded okay. “You want me to let you kill me?”
“No, warder,” he breathed over my skin, his nose slipping down the side of my neck. “You mistake my desire for you as a desire for your death. I don’t want to kill you; I simply want you to be mine.”
The darkness in him was the only thing I understood at that moment, but I wasn’t ready to tumble into the abyss. Not yet. “Go away. Please,” I begged him, screwing my eyes up tight.
When I opened them moments later, I was alone on the roof in the howling wind. I sat there even when the sky opened and poured down icy rain. I couldn’t move. I was rooted there to the spot where everything I knew had come to an end.
“Jacks.” Marcus bumped my shoulder and brought me from the past back to the present.
I turned to look at him.
“Have you even talked to Frank at all?”
“I have,” I told him, coughing.
What was I going to tell him? That Frank had said I was selfish and I had agreed that I was? That Frank didn’t want to be the custodian of our relationship anymore? That the man I loved wanted and needed more than I could give him? “He wants to be happy.” I shrugged. “Who can blame him?”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means that he should be able to count on me listening to him, not just the other way around. He said that all I ever did was take, that I never gave anything back.”
“I don’t follow,” Malic told me.
“He wants more.”
“Caring. I was dragging all my shit home to him day after day and never letting him vent, never listening for what he needed.”
“And so fucking around on you, that was the way to clue you in?”
“He said he tried talking to me and I just never heard him.”
“That’s bullshit,” Marcus growled. “When Joe wants my attention, he makes sure he gets it. And think about that for a minute. Joey is quiet and composed… but if he’s unhappy, don’t we all know it?”
There was no argument. “He hit me with a book the last time because he thought—just thought, mind you—that I wasn’t listening to him.”
Marcus smiled at me. “I always tell him I’m thinking so he doesn’t poke me. But the man’s blind, so he can’t see you and check.”
“Blind my ass,” I grumbled. Technically Marcus’s hearth couldn’t see, but he was one of the most perceptive men I knew. Just by things I didn’t say, he could assess my mood.
“Yeah.” Marcus sighed.
Five, almost six years, and he still got the dopey look on his face whenever he thought about the man he loved. Not that Joseph Locke wasn’t in the same boat; theirs was a love I actually still believed in, as I saw it all over both their faces whenever I saw the two men together. And the banter that went back and forth was a treat to hear. I liked walking places with them. I liked to watch them hold hands, see Joe reach for Marcus not tentatively but knowing full well that his partner would be there. I missed it, the faith and the certainty. It was a blessing to walk through the day knowing that you belonged to someone else. To be let go was something I had never hoped to be.
“I should go home,” I told my friends.
“Come with us.”
“I’m shitty company,” I assured them, “and I’m drunk. I need to go home.”
The three of us turned to find Julian Nash leaning on the bar, gifting us with a smile that translated warmth and interest at the same time. The man looked like home, and I wanted one of my own.
“Julian,” Marcus greeted him. “How are you?”
“Good,” he said as he put a hand on Malic’s back.
Most people were not brave enough to touch the man without being asked. He was scary, plain and simple, and just from looking at him, I could tell that Julian was not intimidated in any way.
“What’re you guys up to?”
“Just checkin’ on drunk as shit here.” Malic tipped his head to me, not saying a word about Julian crowding him or touching him.
My eyes flicked to Julian.
“Me and my buddy Cash are meeting Ry and Cash’s wife, Phoebe, here, and then we’re all goin’ out to dinner. Why don’t you come?”
“Why don’t you all come?”
“No thanks.” Marcus smiled at him, unable not to. “Me and Malic are expected at my place, but I think Jacks going is a great idea.”
I shook my head.
“Why not?” Julian pressed me.
“Because Ryan won’t like it,” I said flatly. He’d much rather spend time with you and your friends than with any of us. He hates us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Marcus told me.
“Oh c’mon,” I groused at him. “I don’t know a man that hates being a warder more than Ry, and because of that, he hates all of us too. You know it and I know it. There’s no way he wants any of us around.”
I leaned over and buried my face in my arms on top of the bar. I was hoping they’d all just go away.
“Actually,” Julian said, his voice low, sensual, as his fingers dug into my shoulders. “You guys are the only family he has, and he kind of likes you.”
I was going to argue, but he was kneading my tight muscles with his strong hands, and dear God in heaven, it felt good. I was used to having someone touch me. I had two years of hand-holding and hugging and leaning and quick pecks and wet kisses with tongue to get over. I was used to being loved physically and emotionally, and to go from getting a full-body hug at least once a day to nothing was heartbreaking. No one had touched me since Frank left.
“Ry would love if you had dinner with us.”
I was going to start bawling like a baby if I did not get the hell out of there.
“Maybe another time,” I said, fast, jerking up, almost knocking over Julian and the barstool as I stood. I shoved my hands down into my pockets. “I gave the bartender my credit card to run a tab,” I told Malic. “Close it out for me, okay? And give him a big-ass tip. I’ll see ya, guys.”
I bolted around Julian, waved to his friend, Cash, who I recognized sitting at the table, grabbed my peacoat off the coat rack at the end of the bar, and was outside seconds later. Unfortunately I plowed right into Ryan Dean.
“What’re you doing?” he snapped at me.
“Nothing, sorry,” I growled at him. “See ya.”
But he held on, and even though he was shorter than me by a couple of inches, leaner, less muscular, he was just as strong. So when I went to go, he swung me around to face him.
I stared at him, into his hazel eyes, and watched his brows slowly furrow.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” he snapped at me, dragging me a few feet away, still under the awning of the bar so we were not standing in the rain. “You’re drunk off your ass.”
“I can’t have dinner,” I almost whined, my voice cracking. “Ry, I can’t see Marcus and Joe or you and Julian. I just…. It’s stupid but—”
“You need to shave this,” he told me, changing the subject just like I needed him to. I could have kissed him, I was so grateful. He put his hands on my face. “All this—this isn’t you.”
I nodded, and his hand slid around the back of my neck as he leaned my head down into his shoulder.
“For fuck’s sake, Ry, don’t be nice to me.”
“No, you’re right,” he said, shoving me away from him. “That would never do.”
I tried to smile at him, but he was great and didn’t stand there and make me. He just pulled the very confused-looking woman with the jade-colored eyes after him into the bar. I flipped up the collar on my peacoat and ran down the street to the next awning and the next until I crossed one street and then another. I saw a pub I liked and headed for it. Halfway there I saw Simon Kim, my friend Leith’s hearth, get out of a cab and hurry inside. I would have gone somewhere else, but I was out of options this far downtown. Why was I suddenly awash in hearths?
When I looked back up from the ground toward the front door, I saw another man, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Slipping into the doorway of a closed real estate office, I got my phone out and called Marcus.
“Hey, Jacks, did you change your—”
“Didn’t you get a restraining order on that guy Eric Donovan so that he had to stay like a hundred feet away from Simon at all times?”
“Simon. Leith’s Simon. How many fuckin’ Simons do you know?” I asked irritably.
“No, I—oh, you’re somewhere else and—oh. Oh. Yeah.”
He had worked it out. “So if I just saw Simon go in a bar, and that guy Eric followed him, then—”
“Then tell me where you are, and me and Malic will be right there.”
I told him where I was, flipped my BlackBerry closed, and crossed the street to the pub.
It was noisy inside. The game was on¬—Monday Night Football—and it was hard to get through the crowd. Even though I was not small at six-two, two hundred pounds, it was still slow going. Being a warder, I could have plowed through them if I needed to, but there was no emergency. I saw Simon sitting at a small round table toward the back, the pitcher of beer on the table letting me know that he, like Julian, was meeting friends, and I spotted the guy I had tailed at the end of the bar. There was an empty barstool beside him, and I took it.
I lifted my hand to catch the bartender’s eye, and he was there immediately, asking what I was having. I ordered a cognac and then leaned sideways and asked Eric Donovan what he was having.
“What?” He was startled when I bumped him and even more alarmed to have not only my attention but the bartender’s as well.
“What’re you drinking?” The bartender fired the question at him.
“Can’t sit at the bar if you’re not drinkin’,” I told him.
“That’s right,” the bartender agreed, smirking at me before turning back to Eric. “So what’s it gonna be?”
“Uhm, wine, I guess.”
“White wine spritzer?” I teased him.
The bartender snorted out a laugh. “Coming right up.”
“No, wait. I—”
“Shut the fuck up,” I ordered him under my breath.
His head twisted to me. “What did you just—&r