Harlequin Nocturne (March 4, 2014)
ISBN-13: 9780373885916 ♦ ISBN-10: 0373885911
Humans and vampires stand on the brink of war in this gripping series by New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard
In the crumbling outpost of San Francisco, a fragile truce is threatened by an assassination plot. Half-dhampir agent Phoenix Stryker has the beauty, brains—and blood—to infiltrate the vampires’ secret society and save the city. But once she’s in, she finds that her target, the assassin Drakon, is not the monster she expected. Handsome, honorable and irresistibly attractive, Drakon will stop at nothing to save his people—and protect the woman he needs even more than the blood that keeps him alive. Now the key to the world’s survival may lie in their dangerous alliance….
Read an Excerpt
For the first time, the director smiled in apparently genuine amusement. “You’re beautiful, Agent Stryker. Most men would consider you very desirable, regardless of species. You wouldn’t have been considered if you didn’t have most of the advantages dhampires possess. And your blood shouldn’t be addictive to Nightsiders, either…which could be a mixed blessing.”
“But it’ll still attract them,” Phoenix said. “And I can use that.”
“It’ll be at your discretion whether or not you wish to reveal your dhampir heritage at any point during the mission,” Chan said, “but remember that you are not to engage Drakon or his followers unless you have no other choice. If the enemy recognizes what you are and fails to believe any of your cover stories, there won’t be anyone to get you out.”
“And you have to remember that though you’re still stronger and faster than humans, you’re at a disadvantage in a head-to-head with most other dhampires and certainly all Opiri, with very few exceptions.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m grateful for your confidence in me.”
“Frankly,” Chan said, chewing on her stylus, “I was against it. I think you still have something to prove. You were an orphan, mother dead by suicide, no other living relations. Your father’s legacy is all you have to define yourself. During this mission, you have to put all that behind you.”
“Ma’am, I’ve always—”
“You’re not out there to be a hero, Stryker, only to complete the mission as outlined in the briefing.”
“I understand completely, Director Chan.”
“I hope you do.” Chan sighed. “The Committee believes you can handle this. But again I must ask: are you prepared to carry out this mission with every asset at your disposal, without qualms or emotional involvement?”
“If there are any doubts,” Phoenix said stiffly, “perhaps it would be better if another agent is assigned.”
“No. The Committee has faith in you, and I’ll have to do the same.” She typed a quick note on her tab. “There’ll be a more detailed report, your eyes only, waiting for you in your quarters, outlining your cover stories and the support you’ll receive from the Agency. Not to be shared with anyone, is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. Very clear.”
“Then you’re dismissed. Be prepared to move out at 0100 hours tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, Director.” Phoenix rose, turned and walked out of the office. Her heart was pounding, but not with fear. She’d have a chance to show them again. She wasn’t that weakling orphan anymore, and she would never stop proving it.
No matter what it took.
“Move them along,” Drakon told Brita, all too aware that it was only a few hours until dawn and there was always the chance that the authorities would be waiting for just the right moment to strike. There were only a few secret ways in and out of San Francisco that remained unknown to Aegis and the Enforcers, in those less regularly patrolled areas along the Enclave’s southern Wall and right in the heart of the Fringe.
That, Drakon thought, was the only reason this passage hadn’t been discovered. Even the Enforcers were wary of the Fringe, since more than a few had died here.
Brita hustled the last few emigrants out of the concealed hole in the Wall and had a brief word with the hired gun who was to escort them to the boat. Drakon didn’t trust the man, but the coyotes knew better than to betray the Boss they knew as Sammael.
They knew he would hunt them down and kill them. They didn’t know he was an Opir.
They didn’t have to.
“Done,” Brita said as the others sealed and hid the exit with heaps of trash and artfully scattered pieces of twisted metal and broken concrete. She slapped her hands together as if to rid them of something she hadn’t wanted to touch.
“Damn it, Sammael,” she said, “you know this isn’t worth the risk. The crew is starting to question why they should be involved in this at all.”
Scanning the other members of his crew, who were just finishing their work, Drakon smiled coldly. “We’re paid well enough,” he said.
“Sure, by the ones with rich relatives who don’t want members of their family deported to Erebus,” she said. “But what about the ones you help for free?” She jerked her head toward the hidden passage. “Some of them didn’t have a single Armistice dollar to their names.”
“Why should you care, Brita? It hardly affects you.”
“It’s dangerous. Just like every time we make a trade, the crew thinks about how much money they could get for the product you save for the Scrappers out of your own cut.”
“Half of the crew were Scrappers themselves,” Drakon said, referring to the poor Fringers who survived on any scraps of food or any other necessities they could find. “It’s not my concern if they have no compassion for their own kind. They obey, and they get their percentage. They don’t, and they face me.”
“And what if they just desert?”
Drakon had given up counting the number of times he and Brita had had this same argument, and he was weary of it. “And go where?” he asked. “To the Preacher? The members of his crew seem to die with distressing regularity. Dirty Harry brings in big hauls, but loses plenty just as big because of his lack of judgment.”
“That’s right,” Brita said, scuffing her worn boots in the dirt. “But you’re assuming everyone in the crew has a brain.”
She knew damned well he assumed no such thing. Brita was one of the few people he trusted with his life, but he had never made the mistake of trusting the rest of his crew.
Listening and watching carefully, Drakon walked away, Brita on his heels. He could hear the others following, relying—as he supposedly did—on their dim headlamps to find their way in the dark. Drakon could never let them suspect he didn’t need the light at all.
He knew there might come a time when he slipped and one or more of the crew recognized his superior strength and his aversion to the sun, no matter how carefully he tried to hide both.
He looked human. As human as any of them, with his genetically altered reddish-brown hair and light gray eyes. That camouflage the scientists in Erebus had given him, but they couldn’t change the essentials of his nature.
“We gonna make it in time to the handoff?” Repo asked, trotting alongside Drakon like a puppy eager to please his master. He was the smallest of Drakon’s crew, and though he was as tough as any of them, he’d been treated like a runt for most of his life, the victim of every bully in the Fringe until Drakon had stepped in.
“They’ll wait,” Brita snapped.
Yes, Drakon thought, the Preacher would wait. He needed the product Drakon and his crew had smuggled into the city. Just as he needed the camouflage that being a Fringe Boss brought him. Drakon, Brita, Repo and the rest made their way through the abandoned, garbage-strewn streets, beyond the pale of the city proper. The meeting place changed every time; tonight it was in the virtually abandoned section of San Francisco once known as the Mission District.
As if they knew what was up—and, inevitably, they did—the Scrappers had fled the area and remained undercover, well out of the reach of the not-unthinkable chance that the Preacher might “recruit” one or more of them, especially unwilling women.
The Boss in question was standing just behind a small fire, the light casting his craggy face in dramatic shadow. Drakon had never been impressed by the Preacher’s theatrics, and they were usually dangerous. A fire in the Fringe was an invitation to the Enforcers.
Aware of the ever-present danger, Drakon approached the fire and signaled for the others, except Brita, to stay behind him.
“Well met, Angel of Darkness,” the Preacher said, smiling through his beard. The band of very dangerous-looking men behind him smiled almost as unpleasantly. “Do you have the shipment?”
Drakon narrowed his eyes at the unexpected brevity of the Preacher’s overture. “In a hurry, Preacher?”
“Tonight’s not good,” the Boss said, his grin never wavering. “Feel it in my bones. Let’s do this.”
Brita stepped forward with the tiny box that held the keys to the storage facility. One of the Preacher’s men, twice her size, looked it over as if he actually doubted what it contained.
Drakon and the Preacher had been trading for over a year, and the other Boss knew damned well that Drakon always stood by his word. The Preacher’s man passed Brita a box in return.
“You sure you don’t want to come over to our side?” the man asked Brita with an ugly leer.
Her lips puckered, ready to spit. “Stand down,” Drakon said softly. “Tell your thugs to keep their mouths shut, Preacher.”
The other Boss shrugged. “Lay off, Copperhead. We ain’t here to buy women.” He nodded to Drakon. “Good to do business with you, as always. Don’t spend it all in one place.”
His crew laughed, all guttural male voices, since female followers were considered property of the crew, not full members. Drakon kept his mouth closed, remembering again not to show his teeth. Though he wore caps to conceal his incisors, he never took unnecessary risks. Whatever Brita might believe.
In spite of his contempt for his fellow smuggler—whose specialty was reselling Drakon’s items at a very marked-up price to “middle class” citizens north of the Fringe—Drakon made the traditional offer of his hand. The Preacher made no attempt to reciprocate.
Brita opened her mouth to say something inadvisable when a woman came running out of the darkness. She halted suddenly when she saw the Fringe crews, looking about wildly as if to seek escape.
The first thing Drakon noticed about her was the cloud of dark hair flying around her panicked face. The second was that she was quite beautiful. And clearly not of the Fringe.
“Shit,” Brita said, pulling her illegal sidearm. “A raid?”
“I don’t know,” Drakon said, gesturing toward the rest of his crew, who had automatically begun to take up defensive positions. “Get everyone back to the Hold. If there are Enforcers on the way, I’ll—”
Before he could finish, Copperhead went straight for the young woman and grabbed her arm before she could dash off into the darkness. Acting purely on instinct, Drakon moved in, shoved the man out of the way and took the woman from him none too gently.
She gasped as he gripped her arm, and he eased up a little. Her hair obscured her face, but he could see her parted lips, hear her gasping for breath. She’d been running hard for some time.
“Are you—” She swept her hair out of her face with a trembling hand. “Are you the Preacher?”
“That would be me,” the other Boss said, stepping around the fire. “What do you need, my dear?”
Drakon stepped between him and the woman. “I don’t know who you are,” he said close to her ear, “why you’re running, or what you want with him. But you’re not from the Fringe, or you wouldn’t be asking for a Boss who’ll keep you on your back for the rest of your life.”
She stared from him to the Preacher, who smiled enticingly.
“Whatever you need,” the Preacher said, “I’ll gladly provide it, pretty thing.”
“Your choice,” Drakon said, his tone indifferent but the rest of him far from it. Touching her was like making contact with a live wire. His whole body seemed to catch fire, and he could not only feel the blood pumping through her body but smell it, as well. As he could smell the woman’s hair, the clean scent of it, though her clothes were torn and her face splotched with dirt. Her body held the faint musk of perspiration and that indescribable scent unique to women of both species. His cock stiffened, though the time for arousal couldn’t be worse.
Her eyes narrowed, as if she’d felt the physical change in him. For a moment he wasn’t sure if she’d bolt right into the Preacher’s willing arms. Drakon was inexplicably tempted to drag her away, willing or not.
“What’s your name?” she asked, astonishing him with the clarity of her voice and the sudden, fearless intensity in her eyes.
“We need to get out of here,” Brita said, cutting off his answer. “If she’s running from Enforcers….”
“I told you what to do,” Drakon snapped. “Get them home.”
With an openly hostile glance at the woman, Brita signaled to the others. As they melted into the darkness, the Preacher stamped the fire out with one heavy boot.
“I’ll give you five hundred A-dollars for her,” he said.
The woman reached down and gripped Drakon’s hand as if for dear life, and he understood the unspoken message in her eyes. He knew he was acting against sense, against reason, against the dictates of his mission, but he couldn’t let her go. He ran, pulling her with him, making his way easily in darkness that would confound his rivals. “Who’s after you?” he said, not even slightly winded.
“I…” The woman gasped, and it was clear she wasn’t in any state to explain.
“You’re leading Enforcers into the Fringe,” he said.
She didn’t answer, and he didn’t stop until they were far enough into the Fringe that the only illumination came from the scant light of false dawn in the west. He was running out of time.
But he still needed a few answers before he took her into the very heart of his hard-won turf.
As he came to a stop, she bent over, hands on knees, to catch her breath. He saw that her clothing was some kind of uniform, though a very generic one, the kind of standard issue that would be given a city or Enclave employee—known in the Fringe as a govrat, a citizen with a clearance rating high enough for government work.
As she straightened, he studied her face, making a rapid assessment: features somehow delicate and strong at the same time, stubborn jaw, smudges and scratches on her face that did nothing to lessen her beauty. Her body was slender and fit, that of a woman able to handle herself in a fight.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Lark,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.
“Who’s after you?”
She met his gaze, half-defiant and half-afraid. “The Enforcers.”
Exactly what he and Brita had suspected. “Why?” he asked.
“If we don’t move soon, it won’t matter.”
He almost laughed at her bravado. “Why did you come with me?”
“I don’t know. I was told to find the Preacher.”
“They said he could get me out of the city.”
“He wouldn’t,” Drakon said. “You were given very bad advice.”
“Can you help me?”
“If you’re running from Aegis or the Enforcers,” he said, “you’re not my enemy. If this is a trick, you won’t get out of this alive.”
“A trick?” she said with a burble of choked laughter. “What kind of trick?”
Drakon considered that he might have jumped to conclusions a little too quickly. Something about this woman almost convinced him that her fear was real.
“What can you pay for my help in getting out?” he asked.
“Information. But you won’t get it until I know I’m safe and none of your Fringer friends are going to hurt me.”
The sound of fast-moving vehicles thrummed from less than a quarter mile away. Whether she was leading them or running from them didn’t matter now. Drakon seized her wrist again, and they ran until Lark—if that was really her name—was panting hoarsely and beginning to stumble. Drakon turned a sharp corner into an alley. She leaned against him as if she might fall without his support. He wasn’t thinking at all when he put his arm around her.
He could still smell her blood. Almost feel it inside him.