Nightsiders, Book 6
Bound by blood, sealed in secrets
A half-blood Rider, Timon has a duty to anyone under his protection, but his intense attraction to scientist Jamie McCullough is complicating his latest mission. In a moment of desperation, he makes a difficult choice. His bite heals her—and creates a bond that neither of them can resist.
As she heads for a conclave convened to create new peace between humans and vampires, Jamie carries a secret that could secure peace everlasting. But before she has a chance to reveal it, she’s accused of bringing a vampire-killing virus to the negotiations. Though Timon is willing to pay the ultimate price to save her, can he first win the ultimate challenge of her trust?
Read an Excerpt
During the fifty years following the post-War Armistice between the Opiri and humanity, the world slowly began to heal. As ruins crumbled and wilderness took the place of old towns and cities, both humans and vampires had to make difficult adaptations and hard choices.
In the earlier days of the “cold war,” human Enclaves, usually built out of cities that survived the War, paid tribute to the Opiri in the form of “blood-serfs,” criminals sent to the Opir Citadels in return for the cessation of blood raids on human communities. Citadels and Enclaves continued to spy on one another via half-blood agents—the Opiri’s “Darketans” and the Enclave’s dhampires—operating in the neutral Zone between cities, and skirmishes continued to break out between them, challenging the uneasy truce.
Over time, two significant trends put an increasing strain on the Armistice: the gradual reduction and eventual end to the practice of blood tribute, and the formation of new “mixed” colonies, in which Opiri and humans lived together in relative peace and cooperation.
This cooperation, however, was largely confined to these smaller communities, and communication between Enclaves and Citadels remained erratic until the rise of the Riders, a brotherhood of half-blood horseman whose work it was to carry messages and escort travelers across the western half of the former United States of America. Known for their skill in wilderness survival and fending off rogue Freeblood packs as well as human raiders, the Riders gained a reputation for trustworthiness and complete neutrality. Facilitation of contact and travel among human and Opir cities led to new alliances and discussions of a permanent peace, one in which the “mixed” colonies would provide an example of coexistence across the entire western region.
Thus, the original Conclave was born: a meeting of delegations from every major Citadel, Enclave and mixed colony in the West. The Conclave was to be held in the neutral area of the former city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was to be the first such meeting since the signing of the Armistice, and the Riders were to take the role of peacekeepers and upholders of the Conclave’s laws.
Though hope ran high for the success of the Conclave, there were many who resisted the idea of an ultimate peace and the cultural changes that would become necessary to sustain it.
—Alice J. Armstrong
Introduction to A Matter of Blood: A History of the First Conclave
“Can you see who they are?”
Jamie McCullough squinted against the bright April sky, her eyes following Councilor Amos Parks’s pointing finger. “They’re on horseback,” she said to her godfather. “They must be—”
“The Riders,” Senator Greg Cahill said, talking over her. “It’s about time they showed up here.”
Here, Jamie thought. Far from the southern border of the San Francisco Enclave, even beyond the Zone that marked the no-man’s-land between Opir Citadel and human territories.
But people did live in this land, where wild cattle grazed among the pre-War ruins, alongside deer and pronghorn antelope. Small colonies, well-fortified, with mixed human and Opir residents; pure human settlements, always ready to defend themselves against raiders both human and nonhuman. And human and Opiri who stayed on the move, hostile like the Freeblood raiders or unaligned like the Wanderers.
Then there were the Riders. Skilled fighters, neutral in their loyalties, always half-bloods and always male. They were the men who rode fearlessly across the West in their tight-knit bands, carrying messages and escorting travelers and colonists through the dangers of the wilderness, facing down rogues, raiders and wild tribesmen. Both humans and Opiri hired them, sometimes even to communicate with one another.
Today they were coming to escort the San Francisco Enclave delegation to the grand Conclave in the old state of New Mexico, a journey of a thousand miles. With the wagons and frequent stops, it would take about two months of hard travel to reach their goal.
But without the Riders’ protection…
“They’re coming fast,” Greg said, his hand moving to the gun at his hip.
Too fast, Jamie thought. The thundering of hooves was shaking the ground under her boots. By now they should be slowing down, prepared to identify themselves. As they came closer, Jamie noticed that they were wearing hoods.
Riders weren’t full-blood Opiri, who had to protect themselves from the sun. Most of them would subsist on blood and were faster and stronger than ordinary men, but in other ways they were very human.
These horsemen covered their entire bodies under heavy coats and cowls and gloves.
“Raiders,” she said, her voice catching on the word.
“Freebloods,” Amos said, speaking of the wild troops of masterless rogue Opiri. He signaled for the others in the party to retreat to the wagons, while the four armed soldier escorts, led by Sergeant Cho, moved forward to position themselves between the horsemen and the rest of the delegation.
“Jamie!” Greg said, dragging her down behind a wagon. “Do you want to end up as some vampire’s meal?”
She winced at the pressure of his fingers on her upper arm. She mumbled an apology, but Greg had already moved away to shout orders as if he, not Parks, were in charge. The older man, grim-faced, caught Jamie’s eye and nodded. She smiled at her godfather to prove that she wasn’t afraid.
This wasn’t like that other time. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t a child. And she wasn’t helpless.
Someone pushed a gun into her hand. “You’ve had training,” Sergeant Cho whispered, crouching beside her. “Aim for the heart or between the eyes. Don’t fire wildly—take your time.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Jamie said.
Cho squeezed her shoulder and quickly moved away. Jamie’s hand trembled on the grip. She wasn’t a killer. This was a mission of peace. For it to be born out of violence…
She’d barely finished the thought when the first horse barreled past her, hooves kicking up clods of dirt as the air filled with the smell of horse sweat and leather, and a sharper scent she thought must be the Opir rider himself. He didn’t stop to accost her, but a moment later she heard a cry and a shot. More horses flashed by; more shots followed, but the shouts were more of anger and defiance than pain.
Finally it was her turn. The horse reared up beside her, nostrils flaring, while its rider’s eyes seemed to burn down on her from beneath his hood. She raised the gun, and the raider knocked it out of her hand with no effort at all.
“Please,” she said, addressing him as calmly as she knew how. “I don’t mean you any harm.”
The horseman laughed. It was an ugly sound. He swept down and grabbed her arm, pulling her halfway into the saddle. His hot breath beat on the back of her neck. She closed her eyes, preparing herself for the bite.
It didn’t come. He wheeled his mount around and rode away from the wagon, pinning her in place against him. When he stopped and let her slide to the ground, it was clear that the raiders had won.
Jamie counted. Five raiders, and ten in the delegate party. All ten were still alive, though one of the soldiers, Corporal Delgado, was lying on her side, nursing her arm. Three of the raiders were busy binding the wrists of their captives while the other two remained on their mounts, rifles resting on their thighs.
But Jamie saw no blood, except the little on the soldier’s arm. The raiders had won almost without trying.
They’re keeping us in good condition so that they can get the most out of us, Jamie thought, too numb to feel fear. This was a disaster of the highest order. Not only had the delegation been stopped before it truly started its journey, but now its members would serve as a food source for the raiders…kept alive for God knew how long, until they were too weak to keep donating blood. And then…
“This isn’t necessary,” she said, speaking clearly and loudly enough for everyone to hear. “We’ll be happy to share our blood with you until our escorts arrive.”
Her godfather, hands already bound, gave her a warning look. Greg’s face was dark with anger, and the soldiers stared at her as if she’d gone crazy.
The presumed leader of the raiders, one of the two watching on horseback, turned the black circle of his hood toward her. “It is a great comfort to know that you’re so willing to serve,” he said mockingly. “We would not wish to force you.”
“We are expecting others,” she said, refusing to let herself be intimidated. “Riders. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They call themselves the Brotherhood, and they’re very good fighters. But there’s no need for more violence, if you’ll only accept our offer and then leave us in peace.”
The leader of the raiders whistled through his teeth. “You speak for all these humans?”
“I speak for them,” Parks said, his wispy gray hair floating in the breeze like a halo. “I’m President of the City Council of the San Francisco Enclave. We’ll give you whatever you need.”
Speaking a language Jamie knew to be rooted in ancient Greek, the leader addressed his mounted companion. The other Opiri gave an appreciative laugh.
“Put no faith in your Riders,” he said to Jamie. He called to his companions, who gathered up their human captives and forced them into a small space close to one of the wagons. She thought the raiders might take them on a forced march to whatever hideout the Freebloods kept as their base, but instead they left one guard to watch over the humans and retreated to the shade of one of the big oaks to the side of the track.
Waiting for night, Jamie thought. But they still could have taken blood from any of their captives, and did not. Jamie listened to the harsh breathing of the young medic next to her and tried to catch her godfather’s eye. But there were too many others between them, and there was nothing he could have done.
From a place of detachment she had fostered long ago, she recognized her own terror. It was perfectly rational to be afraid, under the circumstances…even for someone who had never faced a hungry Opir before. Especially just after sunset, when one of the raiders came to untie her and lead her under the oaks.
He won’t kill you, she thought, fighting panic as she was brought to stand before the leader. It isn’t in his best interest.
But when he flashed his very sharp teeth at her, she shuddered in spite of herself.
“You said you’d offer us your blood,” he said. “Is that all you’re prepared to give for your freedom?”
Jamie tilted up her chin. “I will do whatever is necessary to avoid more violence.”
“Quite a brave little human.” The Freeblood sneered.
She took a shaky step toward him. “Do you know why we’re here?” she asked. “We’re on our way to a meeting among dozens of Enclaves and Citadels and colonies, a Conclave to reach a new agreement for peace among all humans and Opiri. If we succeed, you’ll never have to hunt for blood again. There would be plenty of places where humans will give blood willingly, and—”
“You assume we want such a peace.” The leader grinned. “Come here.”
Jamie hesitated. Her escort pushed her toward the leader. She stumbled, began to fall, saw the leader jump up before he could catch her.
For an unknown period of time she lay on the leaf-littered ground, half-dazed. Again there were shouts and cries, hooves striking hard earth. This time there were no shots.
The others got free, she thought. But the voices she heard were not familiar.
A hoof stamped down next to her head, an inch away from striking her temple. She froze. The horse’s leg moved away, and a boot came down in its place. A strong, very masculine hand descended to grip her shoulder.
“Are you all right?”
She looked up through her tangled hair. An uncovered face stared down at her, but all she could see were a shock of dark hair and vivid violet-gray eyes.
“You’re late,” she whispered.
“Yes,” the Rider who rescued Jamie said. “I apologize.”
He helped her to her feet, brushing leaves out of her hair. Jamie put her hand up self-consciously and stepped back, making sure that her footing was solid.
There was just enough moonlight filtering through the tree branches for her to get a better look at her rescuer. His features were handsome from what she could see of their lines—his chin firm, his cheekbones high and his gaze direct and curious. He had a Rider’s legs, firmly muscled, and his shoulders were broad under his shearling coat. He wore two knives: one in a sheath at his waist and a smaller one in his boot. His rifle was slung over his shoulder by its strap.
“Is anyone hurt?” she asked, trying to look past him at the wagons.
“Only the soldier who was wounded before,” he said. He flashed her an utterly unexpected grin. “The raiders are gone, and they won’t be returning.”
“I have to see my godfather. Councilman Parks.”
“Of course. I’ll take you.”
“That won’t be—”
She didn’t get a chance to finish. He looped his arm around her shoulder, half supporting her, and led her out from under the trees. There was no remaining sign of the raiders, except for a few abandoned weapons and broken earth where Opiri and half-bloods had struggled.
The night had grown dark, but her escort’s steps were sure, and someone had lit lanterns by the wagons. Her godfather appeared before she reached the nearest wagon, his eyes filled with alarm. Her savior let go of her.
“Jamie?” Amos said. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” she said. “I think I have this man to thank for that.”
She turned, but the Rider was gone.
“Come and sit down,” Amos said. “Our escorts have sent the raiders running, but they want us to remain together.”
Peering into the darkness, Jamie tried to make out the newcomers. “How many have come?” she asked.
“Four,” he said, guiding her to the nearest wagon.
“Almost evenly matched,” she said.
“The Riders seem to be very good fighters, as promised,” Amos said. “They didn’t even use their rifles.” He helped her sit beside the wagon. “I’ll get you something to drink.”
“You have other work to do, Amos,” she said, squeezing his hand. “I’ll be fine.”
He crouched beside her. “You should never have spoken up as you did.”
“It was worth a try,” she said.
“You know better than anyone what they could have done to you,” Amos said, cupping her cheek in his hand. “And in spite of your one experience with an Opir, you’re still naive about so many things. I should never have let you come along.”
“How many times have we discussed this, Amos?” she asked. “It’s not just because of my mother. I’m a scientist, and I can’t hide forever. Too much of the outside world is still unknown to us, and someone has to keep a record of what we experience and observe. Whatever I learn will help us at the Conclave, and afterward. I believe in this peace.”
Amos sighed. “I know. But promise me that you won’t do anything so foolish again.”
She smiled unevenly. “I promise.”
With a slow shake of his head, Amos rose and walked away. Jamie released her breath. She wasn’t sure if she’d been truthful with her godfather. How could she be sure what circumstances would arise on their journey? Sometimes even a scientist had to take risks.
For her, even stepping outside the Enclave had been a kind of risk. She’d hidden herself away in her parents’ lab since her father’s death, avoiding all contact with the world outside the Enclave, missing even the most average social experiences most other young women her age took for granted.
Amos had called her naive, and maybe she was. But she had hope for the Conclave because of the words her mother had written in her journal—and because of what she had learned in the laboratory. A secret she believed might make all the difference at the meeting.
If she could present it at just the right time.
Rubbing her arms against the chill night air, Jamie found herself looking for her rescuer again. She caught a glimpse of him speaking to his fellow Riders, all four of them dressed in the same shearling coats tanned the color of wheat and with the wool side turned inward. He was tall and stood confidently, with an athlete’s bearing, and the other men listened attentively.
He must be the leader, Jamie thought. And judging by the rugged, competent looks of the other Riders, that would mean something.
But he was also a half-breed. Half-Opiri, needing blood to survive. Expecting to take donations from the delegation to nourish him and his followers over the long weeks.
Her turn to donate would come, too. But she wouldn’t think about that yet. For now she could honestly say to herself that this half-blood didn’t frighten her. He was living proof that not all Opiri were violent hunters.
She reached inside her jacket to touch each of the two hidden pockets, one containing her notebook, the other her mother’s journal. She pulled out her notebook and drew a quick sketch of the Rider, trying to catch the firmness of his profile and the way his mouth curved up at the corners when he smiled at something one of his men had said.
About six-three, she wrote beside the sketch. Lean and agile, but well-muscled. Darketan, with Opir teeth, human features and ability to walk in daylight. Hair dark auburn, eyes gray with violet tint; purple indicates Opir blood. Small scar above left eyebrow.
And handsome, she thought, her pencil hovering above the page. She couldn’t write that in her notebook.
She woke from her thoughts when the half-blood broke away from his men, clearly looking for someone, and stopped when he found Greg. The two men began to speak softly, Greg gesturing with obvious irritation.
Tucking her notebook away, Jamie inched her way toward Greg and the Rider leader. She was able to get close to them without leaving the partial cover of the wagon, and knelt beside the rear wheel to listen.
“…so late,” Greg was saying, his voice pitched high. “Do you have any idea what they could have done to us?”
“I can only apologize again,” the Rider said in a steady voice. “It was very bad timing on our part.”
“And will you be ready the next time?”
A tense silence fell between the two men. Jamie stared at the Rider’s profile. Moonlight rested on the planes of his face and shadowed his pale eyes.
Be careful, Greg, she thought. The Riders might be completely neutral, allied with no one group or race, but instinct told her that this Rider wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. And Greg was acting like a fool.
“The Councilman’s goddaughter was forced to go to that barbarian,” Greg said, fists clenched. “He could have sucked her dry, or worse.”
Light played on the Rider’s lower lip as the corner twitched upward. “She’s obviously a brave young woman. Have you spoken to her?”
Greg’s jaw bunched. “I was just on my way to see her.”
“Then I won’t hold you up any longer.” The Rider stepped gracefully aside, gesturing for Greg to walk past him. Jamie ducked under the wagon and crouched there, breathing a little fast.
Greg stalked away, but Jamie continued to watch the Rider as he scanned the camp and set off again with long, ground-eating strides. Jamie scooted out from under the wagon and followed him at a discreet distance.
Her godfather was talking with the two medics, Akesha and Don, when the Rider found him. Amos broke off with a reassuring smile and gave the half-blood his full attention. Jamie joined her friends, pretending to listen to their excited retelling of the attack as she focused on the other conversation.
“Didn’t realize I was talking to the wrong man,” the Rider said as he shook her godfather’s hand. “The Senator gave me the impression that he was in charge here.”
“He would,” Amos said with a slight smile. “But it doesn’t matter. It would be difficult to stand on ceremony over such a long journey.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” the Rider said, releasing Parks’s hand. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. My name is Timon, of the Kestrel Band.”
“Timon,” Amos acknowledged. “Needless to say, I’m very pleased to meet you. There’s no danger of the raiders returning?”
“None.” Timon glanced around him. “I’m told there were only minor injuries. Is there anything else we should know about?”
“It’s all under control, thanks to your men. And I want to express my gratitude for what you did for my goddaughter.”
Timon made a dismissive gesture with a gloved hand. “I did nothing but help her up after the raiders fled. She’s a brave young woman.”
“I wish I could send her back.”
“Why?” Timon asked, cocking his head.
Jamie tensed, but she missed her godfather’s next words when Don raised his voice to relate some particularly exciting moment of the battle between raiders and Riders.
“No one can be spared to take her back to your Enclave,” Timon said when she could hear him again. “But she’ll be all right. There are four of us now, and we expect three others to join us before we reach old San Jose.”
“Rest assured that I won’t be doubting or questioning your judgment,” Amos said. “We’re in your hands.”
“Thank you, Councilman,” Timon said, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “Given what’s happened, I think we should wait for dawn before we set out…allow your people plenty of time to sort through their experience today. They’ll be better prepared for the next occurrence, if there is one.”
The next occurrence, Jamie thought. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been warned. The volunteers had been drilled a hundred times. But it was one thing to imagine and another to experience.
Timon obviously knew that.
Jamie mumbled something to Akesha and Don and retreated back to the wagon. Its solidity, and the medical and laboratory equipment it carried, gave her comfort. People were building a small fire, and she observed the activity with a strange lassitude, as if it were happening in some other universe. She watched the other Riders move easily through the temporary camp as if it belonged to them. They had probably been in hundreds of such camps before, guiding and escorting travelers between Enclaves and colonies and even Citadels.
“You should be with the others.”
Timon settled into a crouch beside her…he smelled of warm sheepskin and horse and something subtle but deeply pleasant. He smiled at her, his eyes searching hers with an intensity that took her aback.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Jamie said, her heartbeat quickening. “After all, you said I would be all—”
She broke off, realizing what she’d been about to reveal. She didn’t stop soon enough. Leather creaked as Timon shifted, and she felt rather than heard the rumble of amusement in his throat.
“I knew you were listening,” he said. “You’re not very good at hiding.”
Her skin felt hot, and she barely prevented herself from raising her hands to her cheeks. “I’m sorry I eavesdropped,” she said.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “What made you so interested in hearing what we were discussing?”
She swallowed her unease. “I’ve never met a half-blood before,” she said.
Dark eyebrows lifted. “You live in an Enclave with dhampir agents, and you’ve never met one?”
“I’ve seen them, of course. But I never had any reason to be near them. And you’re not a dhampir.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a Darketan. My mother was an Opir, and my father was human. With dhampires, it’s the opposite.”
“I know that.” She felt hotter than ever. “I don’t know much about the Riders,” she said in a rush, “but you aren’t all Darketans, are you?”
“We have a few dhampires,” he said. “Does that make a difference?”
“Not at all.”
“You’re just curious.”
“I’m a scientist,” she said, as if that would explain everything. “I’m on this expedition to learn.”
“What kind of scientist?” he asked.
“Biologist, among other disciplines,” she said. “My mission is to observe as objectively as possible.”
“Then you have no stake in the outcome of the Conclave?”
“Of course I do. I believe in what it stands for, what it will mean if it succeeds.”
“I’d always heard that the San Francisco Enclave has had very poor relationships with the nearest Opiri communities.”
“No Enclave has suffered more from the war than ours. We provided blood-serfs to the Opir Citadel Erebus for many years before it became impossible to continue. They have not accepted the change gracefully.”
“Then why are you so sure the other Opiri want peace as much as you do?”
With an effort, she held his gaze. “You must know why we humans have hope. Opiri across the West have had to adapt to the lack of serfs as a source of regular blood. Many Citadels have gone from feudal societies where the strongest rule, to communities where resources are shared rather than fought over.” She looked away. “You, surely, have seen this yourself in your travels?”
Timon shrugged. “I’ve seen every possible way that humans and Opiri have adapted. That doesn’t mean that a change this massive will be easy.”
“I understand that you Riders don’t care if a lasting peace is achieved.”
“We’ve been hired to act as security at the Conclave. Our neutrality can’t be in question, but it’s to our benefit if things go smoothly.” He studied her face from the tip of her chin to the crown of her head. “How often have you been outside the Enclave?”
“What did my godfather say about me?”
“That you have little experience with the outside world. He’d like me to keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t need anyone to take charge of me.”
He laughed, his white teeth gleaming. “It’s no imposition, Ms. McCullough,” he said lightly, removing his gloves. “Some things are worth looking at more closely.”
Is he flirting with me? she thought in confusion. “What do you see now?” she asked, far bolder than she meant to be.
“Fishing for compliments?” He grinned. “You must know you’re beautiful.”
Oh, God. “I…” she stammered. “I wasn’t—”
“Hasn’t anyone ever teased you before?” He grew sober. “Maybe you don’t even know it. I’ll tell you something else about yourself—you’re a brave woman. But that doesn’t mean what happened didn’t have an effect.” He took her hand, and Jamie realized that her fingers were trembling.
“That’s why you shouldn’t be alone,” Timon said, his thumb stroking the back of her hand.
She jerked free, alarmed by his touch. “When are you going to need us to donate blood?” she burst out. “I need time… I mean, you should warn people beforehand, so they have a chance to…”
She trailed off, deeply embarrassed. Timon looked at her in silence for a long time, as if weighing her words for some hidden meaning. “Are you afraid of me, Ms. McCullough?” he asked.
“No!” Jamie folded her arms across her chest. “Why should I be?”
With a soft sigh, Timon extended his hand again. “You’d better come with me,” he said.
A cool breeze whispered past her ear, lifting a strand of dark brown hair. “Really, I’m—” she began.
“You’re cold. You need the company of your own kind.”
He squeezed her arm, the slightest pressure of reassurance. Jamie allowed him to pull her to her feet. Her initial unease at the contact had already begun to fade. In fact, the pressure of his fingers felt like something solid to cling to in a world that had lost its moorings.
Before she knew it, she was among the people already settled around the fire. They made room for her, and somehow a warm blanket found its way over her back. Timon’s hands pressed into her shoulders briefly.
“Get plenty of rest,” he said, his breath caressing her cheek. And then, as before, he was simply gone, and she was left bewildered and feeling not at all objective.
I’ve just met him, she thought as someone passed her a handful of hard crackers. I don’t know anything about him.
Except that he was handsome and strong and brave—much braver than she could ever be—and that he’d taken care of her as if she were a friend.
When the others finally spread out their bedrolls to sleep, she pulled out her notebook.
He asked me if I was afraid of him, she wrote.
I don’t know.
She closed the notebook and lay down on her bedroll. Before she closed her eyes, she saw Timon again, watching her from the other side of the fire. His gaze was the image she carried with her into sleep.
And into her dreams.
At first light, Timon and his Riders gathered their charges and started south on the well-worn track parallel to old Route 101. The highway itself was buckled and pierced by shrubs and small trees, making travel over the old asphalt difficult.
The pace was slow, as Timon had expected. The horses drawing the three wagons moved at a deliberate pace, since the delegation had only one set of replacement animals for each, and the people walking their mounts beside the wagons were just as slow. It was better that way; Timon wanted them fit for the entire journey, not worn at the end of it.
He had been riding beside Councilman Parks for some distance, learning all he could about the delegation and the San Francisco Enclave. In all his time as a Rider, he’d never been part of an escort for the coastal Enclave, perhaps because the humans there kept largely to themselves.
Like Jamie McCullough.
Timon fell back, reining his horse toward the rear of the caravan. She rode quietly beside one of the middle wagons, constantly scanning the low, oak-studded hills and the marshes alongside the southern stretch of San Francisco Bay, occasionally jotting in her small notebook.
Keeping his distance, Timon considered what was wrong with him. From the moment he and Jamie had met beneath the oak, when he had helped her to her feet and looked into her wide blue eyes, he had felt a shock of attraction. It hadn’t seemed to be such an odd reaction at the time; she was stunningly lovely in spite of her seeming lack of awareness of her own attractiveness. Her dark, wavy hair hung past her shoulders, though she had worn it in a severe ponytail or braid since their first encounter; her face was a near-perfect oval, with full lips and slightly arched brows that ideally suited the shape of her eyes. She was petite, but her body was curved in all the right places, and she moved with a natural grace.
A scientist, he thought as he maneuvered his mount to the other side of the wagon. Officially, Parks had told him, she was both his aide and one of the medics accompanying the equipment that was to be the core of a human infirmary at the Conclave. The Councilman spoke with pride of her work in the laboratory, searching for cures for human diseases.
But she obviously was naive. She had no skill at hiding her feelings or guarding her words, and the way she’d behaved with Timon hinted at something more than mere inexperience with half-bloods. Her outburst about donating blood told him that either she’d been more deeply affected by her brush with the “raiders” than even he had guessed…or something else had happened to make her fear the act.
Many humans did, associating the giving of blood with slavery and compulsion. But it seemed personal with her, and he had no desire to make her more afraid of him.
There was no reason he should be riding so near her now, studying her profile and the way she frowned slightly when she made a notation. Especially when he considered the other women he’d known, in the settlements or among the Wanderers he and other Riders often met in their travels. The experienced, worldly women who were all too happy to accommodate his needs while he happily accommodated theirs.
If Jamie had been different, if she’d been anything like those other women…
But then there was Cahill.
Timon looked forward to where the Senator was riding near the head of the column as if he himself were leading it. He hadn’t quite figured out the Senator’s relationship with Jamie. Most of the time Cahill left her alone, but every so often he would ride back and lecture her as if she was obligated to listen to and obey every word he spoke. Cahill told her, wrongly, that she held the reins incorrectly; he chastised her for falling behind when she dropped back to the middle of the column. And there was an air of possessiveness about him that had aroused Timon’s immediate dislike, though he shouldn’t care one way or another what the humans did among themselves as long as it didn’t endanger the party.
Realizing that he’d been glaring at Cahill’s erect back, he looked toward Jamie again. The horse was still there, walking placidly beside the wagon, but the rider had vanished.
Timon reined Lazarus behind the wagon and rode around it, coming up beside Jamie’s mount. She wasn’t with the animal. He continued toward the rear of the column and Ajax, the Brother riding drag, searching for Jamie with a vague sense of alarm.
He found her crouched at the side of the track, her fingers picking through the green spring grass. She plucked a golden poppy and examined it with great concentration, then set it aside and made a quick sketch of it in her notebook.
With a whispered command to his horse, Timon slid out of the saddle. Jamie looked up as his shadow fell over her, scrambled backward and landed squarely on her rump. A deep red flush tinted her creamy skin.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
It took a moment for Timon to realize that he had been frowning. “It isn’t wise for you to fall behind the column,” he said, offering his hand.
She stared at it as if it were a striking rattlesnake. “I haven’t fallen behind,” she said. “I was only—” Her bright gaze flashed toward the last wagon, pulling away at a steady pace. “Oh.”
He relaxed. “Being absentminded is an indulgence you can’t afford,” he said. “No matter how fascinating you find the local flora.”
Ignoring his offer of help, she jumped to her feet. “I didn’t intend to be so long.”
“Are you always so caught up in your work?”
“I’m not really a botanist,” she said, her voice rising with enthusiasm, “but there are only two in the entire Enclave, and they’ll want to know—” She bit her lip and scooped up her notebook. “I won’t let it happen again.”
He wanted to laugh at her grave pronouncement, but he knew it would sound too much like mockery. “The only way we can protect you is if you stay together,” he said.
“I understand.” She brushed off her pants. “I tied my horse to the wagon. It won’t take me long to catch up.”
“Let’s walk,” Timon said. He gave a short whistle through his teeth, and Lazarus stepped up to thrust his head between Timon and Jamie. He nibbled on Jamie’s hair, and she made a little sound of surprise.
“Lazarus likes you,” Timon said. “That’s quite a compliment.”
“Oh?” she asked with a smile that caught him utterly off guard. “Is he so fearsome, then?”
“Only to enemies.”
She cupped her hand over the horse’s nose. “He’s a very fine horse.”
“Is that your vast experience talking?”
Her smile faded. “Are you teasing me again?”
“I know that you’ve spent your entire life in the Enclave, curing human diseases.”
“Looking for cures, yes.” She began to walk after the last wagon. “It’s a very slow process.”
“And you’ve been happy inside your laboratory?” Timon asked, falling in behind her with Lazarus in tow.
She stopped abruptly and met his gaze. “We don’t know each other very well, Mr. Timon, but I don’t imagine that my happiness can be of much concern to you.”
“You value learning for its own sake.”
She pushed her hair away from her face, leaving a smudge of dirt across her temple. It only enhanced her beauty. “You speak as if the desire to learn is a freakish aberration,” she said.
He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Easy,” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t,” she said in an offhand manner that was far from convincing.
He brought Lazarus to stand beside her. “We’re falling farther behind.” He stretched out his hand. “Ride with me.”
High color flooded her cheeks again, but when he looked into her eyes, he knew it wasn’t from fear. He felt a jolt of awareness spark between them.
The feeling passed in an instant, but Timon knew in that instant everything had changed. Now he could hear the rapid beat of her heart, sense the blood pumping through veins and arteries; he felt drawn to her in a way he never had before, not even when he’d first met her. And she stared at him as if she had never seen his face, her tongue darting out to wet her lips, her eyes wide with sudden realization.
He was certain Jamie had never been with any man. But she was overwhelmed by feelings her rational mind clearly didn’t comprehend. Yet her body knew the truth, on a very primal level that had nothing to do with logic. She was just beginning to grasp what it told her.
And she was fighting that knowledge with every scrap of determination she possessed.
Perhaps that was why she took his hand, let him pull her up behind him into the saddle and put her arms around his waist as he urged Lazarus into a gentle canter. She had something to prove to herself.
Timon could guess what it was. She had set herself the task of observing, of remaining objective. Any strong emotion—fear, anger, desire most of all—interfered with that task.
As they rode, Timon felt her breath on the nape of his neck, the press of her breasts against his back, the roundness of her thighs rocking behind his. He could smell her hair and her skin and her clothing, a rich mélange of intoxicating scents it was impossible to ignore.
He slowed Lazarus as they caught up to Jamie’s mount, who nickered and tossed his head in greeting. Timon helped Jamie dismount and watched her climb into the saddle.
“You do that very well,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice perfectly steady. “The technique isn’t so difficult to learn, once you understand it.”
“And what do you do when you can’t understand something?”
“I keep working until I do.”
Timon wondered if she’d put so much effort into learning the joys of lovemaking. It would be another new world for her to explore, and the man who guided her through that world…
Would not be him. Jamie had far more sense than he did. He had no business lusting after a woman under his band’s care, especially not one who might have some kind of obligation to another man.
Even an arrogant bastard like Cahill.
“Thank you,” she said, calling him back to himself.
“For what?” he asked, keeping Lazarus well away from her mount as they rode side by side.
“For what you did last night. For making sure I was all right.”
He looked straight ahead, ignoring the dust rising from the track ahead of them. “It’s my business,” he said.
“But I was afraid.”
“You can’t be brave without fear.”
“You speak as if you know what that feels like.”
The conversation was becoming too personal for Timon’s liking. He began to pull ahead.
“Don’t fall behind again,” he called over his shoulder.
If she answered, he didn’t hear. He kicked Lazarus into a gallop and shot forward along the column, past Parks and Cahill and up to the Rider who had taken the lead. Orpheus glanced at Timon, raised his eyebrows, and waited companionably for Timon to fall in beside him.
“Trouble with the humans?” he asked.
Timon schooled his features. “Nothing we can’t handle,” he said.
Orpheus tossed long blond hair out of his eyes. “It’s true that I’ve never seen you have any difficulties with women before.”
With a brief laugh, Timon scratched Lazarus between the ears. “If you’re referring to Parks’s goddaughter, you’ve lost your mind.”
“She is rather beautiful, if you like the quiet type,” he said. “Which, come to think of it, you usually don’t.”
Timon wanted nothing more but to set off on a hard ride well ahead of the column, just to clear his mind and feel the freedom of nothing but open space before him. “The problem with Ms. McCullough,” he said, “is that she’s inexperienced enough to be reckless with her own safety.”
“Ah.” Orpheus nodded as if he understood everything perfectly. “Well, we knew what we were getting into.”
“I’ve seen no sign that any of them guessed that the raiders were our own people in disguise,” Timon said.
“Why should they?” Orpheus glanced over his shoulder. “We needed a way of learning their secrets, and now they think they owe us their lives. They’ll be that much more cooperative.”
“It’ll have to be done very carefully,” Timon said, a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I’ve already spoken to most of the people in the delegation, and a few look promising. But if you have a rapport with the McCullough girl, you should exploit it. Especially if she is so inexperienced.”
Timon wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t like it,” he said. “Cassius never told us who hired us to spy on these people. That isn’t what we do, Orpheus.”
“I know.” Orpheus shrugged. “Our first mission is to get these humans safely to New Mexico. If the San Francisco delegation means some harm to the Conclave, it’s bound to become obvious over the next two months.”
“The fate of the Conclave isn’t our business.”
“We’re Riders. We don’t take sides. But we can’t pretend that a permanent peace won’t affect us.”
“If it happens, there’s no point in worrying about it.”
“And there’s the Timon I know. I was beginning to think you’d turned into Cassius.”
“He can have the leadership as long as we have our freedom.”
“But we still have our duty,” Orpheus said.
Timon wheeled Lazarus around. “We’ll make camp in two hours. I’ll send Bardas ahead to meet the three who are rejoining us.”
He rode back the way he’d come, Orpheus’s words echoing in his head. If you have a rapport with the girl, you should exploit it.
His duty. If he chose to exploit the intense attraction between him and Jamie, he would be turning her apparent innocence against her. Surely she couldn’t know about any dangerous “secrets” hidden by the delegation.
But if she did…
He paused briefly to speak with Parks, ignored Cahill and looked for Jamie again. She was riding beside the two other medics, showing them her notebook as she chattered enthusiastically about some sketch she had made.
He had more than enough skill to seduce her, especially when she obviously had little defense against such attentions. Still, he didn’t know if that was the best way to get close enough to her to question her without giving up the game. A game he most certainly didn’t want to play.
He was bound by the Brotherhood’s oath to protect her as well as all the others in the delegation. But who would protect her from him?