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MOXIE

By Selena Kitt


High school senior, Moxie, agrees to be moral support for her friend, Patches, who is totally enamored with a college boy, so she says yes to a double date, even though she has to lie to her parents to do it.

But Moxie wasn’t counting on lying about her age to get into an X-rated movie, and she definitely wasn’t counting on her date’s Roman hands and Russian fingers, or the fact that the pants she’s borrowed from Patches are several sizes too small. By the end of the night, Moxie finds herself in far more trouble than she bargained for!







BOOK DESCRIPTION

Never again…

Poppy swore she’d never be with a vampire again, but she’s beginning to think there might be one exception…

Poppy withdrew into the Alaskan wilderness to escape the immortals who wanted to drain her life, her will, her very soul... but when her long-lost sister reaches out with a desperate plea, Poppy knows she'll do anything to save her. Even accepting the help of a bold, brash, and far-too-fetching vampire stranger…

Never again…

Ulrich swore he’d never drink the blood of a human again, but he’s beginning to think there might be one exception…

Ulrich is a different kind of vampire - a rogue who lurks deep in the northern caverns under the ice. There’s only one thing that can bring him out of hiding. Revenge. And perhaps the tempting scent of one inexplicably irresistible woman…

Never say never…

Thrown together by fate, haunted by their past, and tempted by the forbidden, they must race together in an uneasy alliance to rescue the ones they love. But what waits for them is worse than their darkest nightmares... the one thing that could change forever the balance of power between vampires and humans on Earth...







BLOOD COURTESAN: HOOKED


Selena Kitt

Michelle Fox


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Starring

Anikka Albrite

Mick Blue

Sara Luvv

A.J. Applegate


Directed by Kay Brandt


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CHAPTER ONE

I hadn’t heard from my sister in years, and when I finally did, it was over two continents and four-thousand miles. It wasn’t by phone or email or text or even snail mail.

I heard Lily screaming.

My sister’s cry came like a shockwave, passing through me with a shuddery blast of heat. I dropped my camera with a small scream of my own, then swore silently to myself—silently, because I had the sudden feeling the pack of wolves I was photographing had heard me.

From my vantage point, I couldn’t see them without the aid of technology. Late November in the Alaskan tundra had brought the dark days with it, and even at noon, the landscape was little but shadow. As an albino, with my light-sensitive red eyes and white-blonde hair, I was happiest in the dark.

But with no sun to light my way, to spy on the wolves, I had to rely on night vision. The wolves, on the other hand, had built-in night vision, and even though they were a relatively safe football field away—I had an amazing zoom lens—their eyesight and hearing were far keener than mine. I found my camera in the snow and quickly brushed it off.

Although I was concerned about the wolves and their whereabouts in the dark after giving away my position—situational awareness was a life-or-death thing for an Alaskan wildlife photographer—the scream still echoing in my head shook me more.

You’re dreaming. You’re hallucinating. You should have taken that stupid phototherapy Doc Downing wanted to write you a prescription for. So what if you felt ridiculous wearing it? Maybe you wouldn’t be hearing voices now…

But no rationalizing could stop the shivering that had nothing to do with cold.

I lifted my camera and peered through the viewfinder, looking for movement. The wolves were gone from where they’d been. So they had heard me. Probably went underground into their den for safety’s sake. The pups weren’t full grown yet, but they were big enough to travel. They’d been roughhousing outside the den, the alpha and his mate watching like proud parents when—

Poppy!

I kept ahold of my camera this time, but my heart squeezed at the desperation—the fear—in my sister’s voice. I sat, pulling my knees up against my chest, trying to control my suddenly-frantic breathing.

Everyone said that twins had a special, “psychic” connection—especially identical ones. But we were fraternal twins, and as different as two people could possibly be. To think we were “connected” in some way was crazy. Even if we were, how come I’d never had an experience like this before? I hadn’t seen Lily since we were little, never heard a peep from her, whether inside my head or through any other medium.

But if it wasn’t really Lily’s voice in my head, then… well, what else could it be?

“You’re going bonkers,” I muttered, checking my camera and trying to shake off the sense of overwhelming dread. I had gloves on, so it was hard to tell, but everything felt okay. Hopefully there were no hairline cracks. I’d have to check with a flashlight when I got back to camp. “Completely off your nut. Been out in the damned cold too long.”

Poppy, please! He’s going to kill me!

My head snapped up. “Lily?” I whispered, looking around in the darkness—as if I’d just missed a figure walking toward me, waving their arms and screaming. That’s really what my rational mind expected to see—my sister on the Alaskan tundra, calling for help. “Is it really you? This is Poppy…”

But there was no one. Just me and the wind–and, somewhere out there, the wolves.

And yet, there came an answering voice in my head. Yes! Yes, Poppy, it’s me! Oh, thank God, listen, I need you to come. I’m—

That’s when I heard a low growl somewhere to my left, close—too close. It was a sound that made goose flesh prickle my arms and my whole body tingle. Sound receded—including Lily, if it had really been her at all—and I was suddenly very aware that I was completely alone out here. Thankfully, I wasn’t only armed with a camera. I had my .308 Weatherby—and it was big enough to kill a polar bear.

I’d never killed any living thing with it. But I realized that today, I just might have to.

Damnit, Lily, you always got me into trouble…

If it hadn’t been for the distraction, I would have noticed the wolf’s approach. And I knew it wasn’t alone. Wolves in packs hunted in packs. The alpha and his mate had probably heard me, caught my scent and had come to check out the threat to their den.

I was in real trouble.

I put my camera down and felt beside me for the cold steel of my rifle. It was the only thing that might get me out of this—and I wasn’t sure it could do the job. Yes, it could bring down a polar bear. A single polar bear. But four or five adult wolves at close range? I wasn’t Annie Oakley, by any stretch of the imagination. I would probably have time to shoot one wolf before the rest of them were on me.

My hands trembled as I slowly rolled to my side, taking the rifle with me. Squinting in the darkness, I saw the night-flash of two eyes.

Four.

Six.

Eight.

And I knew there was at least one wolf behind me, the one that had growled.

That’s not right. There are only four adults in the den. They wouldn’t bring the pups out. Where did the other wolf come fr—

The attack came so fast, I wouldn’t have had time to even get one shot off. The full weight of a wolf’s body, giant paws stabbing my gut, was like being hit by a train. I couldn’t even scream. In the darkness, I could only see the flash of its eyes, but I could feel the heat of its breath on my face, and I did the only thing I could think of—I reached up to push against the wolf’s chest and rolled. It was like trying to roll a boulder off me, but somehow, I managed to unbalance the animal and tip it into the snow.

Five wolves. I was surrounded by five wolves in the middle of the Alaskan tundra, and there was no way out of this I could see. But my survival instinct was strong, and I clutched my gun and kept rolling. I knew I was headed in the direction of the wolf who’d given that scary, low growl, but at least it was away from the four others.

I was on my belly when the wolf I’d tipped off attacked me again. This time it was no exploratory pounce. He was out for blood, teeth ripping at my parka, looking to sink into my flesh. His jaw snapped onto my shoulder and I screamed, the sound small and pathetic across empty miles of land. I was so far from town, so very far. The local sheriff knew where I was, but right now that was no comfort except that they’d know where to find my body.

I struggled to crawl in the snow, grasping blindly for my useless rifle, and then I remembered the knife in my boot. My fingers closed on the hilt just as the wolf turned, his teeth closing around my thigh.

Some part of me was out there, watching this all unfold in a dream-like haze. I’d seen wolves take down prey enough to know what was happening. The alpha would pin and paralyze me—and the rest of the wolves would move in to tear at my brachial and femoral arteries with such precision, you’d think they’d taken an anatomy class.

It was over.

I had seconds, not minutes, before I was going to die, and the only thing I could think of was Lily, my sister—her voice in my head a distant memory. I couldn’t “feel” her anymore, like I had before. Whatever connection had been there—if it had been there—had been broken.

But I called out to her anyway. Not out loud, because I couldn’t breathe with the two-hundred-pound wolf on my back, and I couldn’t see anymore, either. Even in my head, my voice felt far away, distant, as if my “self”—everything I’d ever associated with “me”—was slowly slipping away.

Lily, I love you. I’m sorry. It should have been me.

Then the weight of the wolves became unbearable, but there was no pain. Just an impossible weight, paws digging into my back and thighs. I could feel jaws clamping down around my body, teeth worrying the thick parka that shielded me from the cold, and there was nothing I could do to save myself.

Then, suddenly, I could breathe again. The snarl and growl of the pack moved off me and, with great effort, I rolled onto my side, my breath coming in big, whooping gasps. As soon as I could see more than the black stars dotting my vision, I tried to get to my feet.

It wasn’t an easy task. I stumbled, head spinning, as something hot ran down my leg. The wolf’s teeth had punctured my skin, even through my thick gear, and I was bleeding inside my heavy suit. I hadn’t felt pain at the time, but I did now. I couldn’t stay upright—the world was spinning too fast, tilting on its axis, spilling me onto my hands and knees in the snow.

Snarls and yelps of pain came from nearby. Something was different about the wolves—they were fighting in earnest—and as I squinted at their moving shapes in the darkness, it finally clicked.

The wolf that had growled beside me wasn’t part of this pack. It was a lone wolf and his growl hadn’t been for me, but aimed at the pack of four who had been hunting me. It had been a challenge—maybe a warning—and now they were fighting over the prey.

Me. They were fighting over me.

I had to get the hell out of there.

For a moment, I actually considered grabbing my camera and the rest of my equipment, but the epic wolf battle going on near it changed my mind. My rifle was lost somewhere in the snow under the wolves’ feet. I decided that all those things, however expensive, were replaceable.

I was not.

As much as I wanted to bolt across the snow, I crawled away on my hands and knees, still too woozy and nauseous to trust myself upright. My first foray into standing hadn’t gone too well—I definitely wasn’t ready for running–and creeping away while they were all distracted seemed like the best way to stay unseen.

I glanced back in the twilight, frowning at the flash of eyes and the writhe of fur. The lone wolf that had growled beside me seemed to be winning, as far as I could tell. The other wolves were easier to see, their fur silver or gray, but the giant black wolf was like a shadow that swallowed them all.

I’d been following and watching these wolves for weeks, photographing their pack interactions and getting to know the individuals from afar, and despite the fact they’d attacked me, part of me felt bad they were being hurt on my account. It wasn’t natural that one lone, large wolf could take down an entire pack, but from the howls of pain I was hearing, that’s exactly what seemed to be happening.

That’s when the black wolf looked back at me and snarled, as if telling me he hadn’t forgotten I was there. That once he won the fight, he was coming for me.

That gaze, and the threat of my own imminent death, finally propelled me to my feet. Limping through the deep snow, I moved as quickly as I could away from the sounds of fighting, knowing that to the victors–or victor–would go the spoils.

Namely, me.

The natives said a lone wolf wouldn’t attack a human—although a pack might, if it felt threatened. I knew that firsthand now—I’d been the idiot who’d alerted them to my presence. I was miles from Barrow—which had recently been rename the native Utqiaġvik, although it hadn’t quite caught on yet—and had hiked out here and set up camp so I could watch the wolves.

But now I was injured.

And being hunted.

When I’d stumbled far enough away that I couldn’t hear them anymore, I stopped, sitting back on my heels and catching my breath. I still felt dizzy and lightheaded, and my leg was sticky. Blood. How much, though? I had a long way to go back to town. It would be just my luck to bleed out before I reached the town line.

I sat in the snow, pulling one of my gloves off with my teeth and wincing at the bone-chilling cold. I inspected my snow pants, seeing the puncture marks. Blood was already staining the fabric. Sharp damned teeth, I thought bitterly, feeling the wet, stickiness on my thigh. I could smell it, sharp and tangy, like sucking pennies, something Lily and I had done as kids.

I supposed it wasn’t strange I’d turned to Lily in that moment before possible death. The memory of her French-braiding my hair at night, her fingers small and skilled, her touch tender and gentle, came back with a painful twinge. Would I have thought of her at all if I hadn’t heard her in my head? She was the last person in my life who had really loved me.

A howl split the air, jarring me back to the present. Get your ass moving, I told myself, sniffing and blinking away the water from my eyes before it froze on my cheeks. Or you’re not going to have one to move.

I reached into my pocket, my fingers already numb from cold, and found several of the cloths I used to clean my camera lens. I folded them into a thick rectangle and slid them down my snow pants, pressing hard against the wound on the inside of my thigh. If he’d bitten any harder, he could have pierced my femoral artery. But considering I was still alive—if a little dizzy—I knew he hadn’t.

Something caught my eye and I lifted my head to see four shadows moving in the distance—the wolf pack slinking back to the den. That meant the big, black wolf had either been killed—or had won.

The latter thought made me shiver—never mind the cold. I left the cloth on my thigh and yanked my glove back on. It didn’t matter how much I was bleeding now if I ended up dead. Struggling to stand—keeping warm out here meant a whole lot of layers, making it tough to move—I made it to my feet, my gaze searching the flat, frozen landscape for cover, but nothing grew here except lichen.

There was no way I could outrun a wolf. I had to pray that he’d lost the fight with the pack—which seemed reasonable, given it had been four on one. My breath streamed in front of me as I trudged through the snow, trying to ignore the ache of the pain.

It wasn’t just the wound in my leg—my bones felt like liquid under my skin. Nothing was broken, but I hurt all over. My ribs were on fire and I hoped the weight of the wolf hadn’t caused any internal damage. The way he’d jumped on me, I imagined organs popping inside of me like grapes.

Not that any of that mattered—I would either make it back or I wouldn’t. Doc Downing could take care of the rest, either way.

I might have made it all the way back—I was pretty determined when I wanted to be—if Lily hadn’t called me again.

This time it was the psychic equivalent of a nuclear bomb. It wasn’t just a flash of heat—this was like dynamite going off in my head. There was no message—nothing but noise and pain like firecrackers or a thousand angry bees trapped inside my skull. I grabbed my head, dropping to my knees and writhing in the darkness, unable to help the rising cry escaping my lips. The pressure in my head was a trapped echo, a strident scream for help without words, and I knew it came from Lily.

Maybe if I answered her, it might make her stop.

Lily, it’s me. It’s Poppy. What is it? What’s the matter?

I wanted to ask where in the hell she was—but one thing at a time. I waited, wondering if I could talk on this psychic line like she could. Would she hear me, like she had seemed to before?

You must come, Poppy. You have to. Alaric is going to kill me if you don’t. Please. Please. PLEASE!

The name Alaric made my breath turn to glass in my throat.

Not Alaric. Anyone but him.

POPPY!

“Okay, you don’t have to scream.” I moaned and squeezed my head harder, hoping my brains weren’t leaking out my damned ears. Come where, Lil? Where are you?

There was just silence. Only the sound of my rapid heartbeat in my ears. I listened to it thudding, waiting quietly for a response. The silence stretched too long. Had our “connection” been cut? How? By what?

Sighing, I opened my eyes, and found myself face-to-face with the big, black wolf, his upper lip drawn back in a silent snarl.

Then it was my turn to scream.


CHAPTER TWO

“Don’t eat me,” I whispered, as if the animal could possibly understand my plea.

I held perfectly still, the wolf’s shaggy head hanging low over mine. His black lips drew back, and he sniffed at my wound. I let out a little whimper, but I didn’t move. He could smell the blood on me. I was done for.

The wolf circled, sniffing along the length of my body, down to my boots and back up again to my face. He cocked his big, shaggy head, his dark eyes, gold-rimmed and strange in the dimness, peering into my face. He seemed more curious now then menacing but I still wished I had my rifle.

Or my camera.

My last, dying shot would be of those gold-rimmed eyes that seemed to hold the answer to every question, every mystery ever known to man or beast. Those eyes held me still, even as my mind told me to bolt. They pinned me to the cold, frozen ground, but instead of cold, I felt warm. Warm all over.

I gasped when the wolf put one paw on the other side of me, sinking a few inches into the snow next to my shoulder. Then his body straddled mine, locking me underneath his gigantic frame, and he lowered his big head to sniff underneath my parka. There was hardly enough room for the two of us, but as he nosed further, my zipper came down, exposing my neck to the cold—and to him.

“Please,” I pleaded, although who I thought I was talking to, I didn’t know.

As if he’d heard me, the wolf lifted his head, but he was licking his chops, those glittering, gold-rimmed eyes meeting mine. I should have been terrified—and part of me was—but another part of me was completely engaged by this giant, ferocious creature. I had the desire to reach out and touch him, but I didn’t.

Then, the big, black beast threw his head back and howled. There was no moon to howl at—just a dark velvet sky sprinkled with a million glittering diamonds—and further away, there came an answering call. One howl, two, three, more—joining the black wolf’s song.

The animal lowered his head and he shook it, like a dog does when he comes out of swimming in a lake, but instead of water spray, there was light. I cried out, holding my hands in front of me as if it might protect me from the radiant shower of sparks but nothing rained down on me. It was as if the golden color in the animal’s eyes had traveled through his body all the way into his fur. It shook itself furiously as I squirmed in the snow, trying wiggle away from the display, closing my eyes against it.

“Poppy.”

The sound of my name made me gasp and I opened my eyes to see a man in a dark black parka propped over me.

What the hell?

Where did he come from? And how did he know that name? I hadn’t been called Poppy by anyone in years. Legally, my name had been changed to the plain and boring “Sarah” long ago.

Then I remembered Lily’s call. She’d spoken that name. The only name she had ever known me by.

I tried to sit, but my head swam when I did, and I sank back again with a little moan.

“Wh… who are you?” I whispered, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Because some distant part of me already knew.

“Should I change back?”

Everything in me stopped. I stared at the man who threw off his fur-lined hood.

“The wolf?” I swallowed, shivering. I didn’t know if it was from cold, now, or something else. “You’re a… shifter?”

There were strange things in the world—like twin sisters who could talk to each other over long distances. The natives had spirit animals and swore some of them could shift into their likeness. But I’d never met a shifter before.

“No.” His white teeth—they were just as white as the wolf’s—flashed in a smile. “Not a shifter. Something else.”

“What then?” I stared at him, amazed that he was traveling in just a parka—no scarf, no hat. Not even any gloves, I noticed, when his face drew closer to mine, and I turned my head away with a little whimper. “Who… what are you?”

His cheek was cold against mine as he scented me again, like the wolf had done. I knew I should have been terrified—maybe more terrified of the man than I had been of the wolf—but it was those eyes. Those same, gold-rimmed eyes of the wolf. I stared into them as he pulled back to look at me. I got lost in them somehow, forgot myself, forgot everything, even the fact that I was miles from civilization, alone with some man-beast.

“How do you know my name?”

He just tilted his head and looked at me. He made my body feel soft, fluid, like I was melting underneath him, despite the cold. Those eyes… those strange, hypnotic eyes. They drew mine back to his, and the more I looked, the deeper they became. They were bottomless. I could drown in those eyes.

“I said it, didn’t I.” I flushed, remembering talking out loud—to Lily, but he couldn’t have known that. I must have looked like a raving idiot.

He nodded slowly at my response, glancing down at my neck, exposed now, my parka unzipped. “You’re injured?”

“The wolf.” I blinked up at him, the realization sinking in. “You… you were protecting me?”

He gave another short nod. I shuddered, trying to look away, but I couldn’t.

“Who are you? What… what are you?” I asked again.

This time, he gave me a full smile, and even in the dimness, I could see the answer to my own question in the sharp points of his incisors.

I might not have been familiar with shifters, but I knew his kind well. They’d enslaved my mother and had taken my sister—it should have been me, Lily, it should have been me—and of the many reasons I’d come to Utqiaġvik, the most important had been the desire to never see one of his kind again.

He’s a vampire.

Well, that was just my luck, wasn’t it?

I’d escaped the jaws of a wolf only to be saved by another—who was really just a vampire in disguise. A bloodsucking bastard who wanted to feed on me, who would keep me, like a fine wine, locked in his lair, so he could use me again and again at his whim.

I would have preferred to be eaten by wolves.

“Don’t touch me,” I hissed, pushing at his chest with my hands—he was like a rock, an immovable object. “Get off me!”

“I won’t hurt you.” His mouth turned down, brow knitting in clear confusion. “I saved you. Remember?”

“For what?” I snapped, twisting beneath him, trying to wriggle away. “So you can have a blood slave? No thank you. I’d rather be killed by wolves.”

He chuckled, that smile revealing more of those gleaming fangs. They were retractable, I knew. He was showing them to me on purpose.

“I’ve been clean for three years.”

“Clean?” I raised my eyebrows at that.

“I haven’t had blood in three years,” he clarified.

“Three… years?” My eyes widened and my pulse quickened. I felt it fluttering at the hollow of my throat like a butterfly trying to escape. “Don’t vampires die without blood?”

“We’re immortal.” His dark eyes were like burning embers in the dimness. “We don’t need blood. We just… crave it.”

I didn’t like the way his eyes glittered hungrily even in the sparse light. I felt like a juicy steak pinned under a lion’s paw. And I really didn’t like the way my body seemed to respond to being trapped beneath him. His shoulders were so broad, they entirely blocked out my view of the stars, and his weight was painfully pleasant. He was one, big, lean mass of muscle poised above me, a presence larger than the entire universe. I tried to remind myself not to fall for the whole “vampire thing,” but I was way out of practice and it wasn’t easy.

“Well, good for you, for controlling your cravings.” I tried once again to get him off me, but pushing against his bulk was futile. “I’ll just be on my way, so I don’t trigger you or anything…”

He rolled quickly off me—for a big man, he was incredibly graceful—standing and offering his hand.

I just glared at it—and him.

“You won’t make it back today,” he told me matter-of-factly. “I’ll help you collect your equipment. Your tent. Your camera.”

I frowned at that. “I can do it.”

“Yes, but can you also defend yourself against a pack of wolves?”

Ugh. His logic was… too logical.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” The vampire sighed. “I’m not going to hurt you. Will you please let me help you?”

Why? That was the question I wanted to ask, but didn’t. He’d saved me from a pack of wolves but was he any better? Because this creature holding his hand out to me was just another wolf in vampire’s clothing. How could I trust him?

“Because you’re out here alone,” he said softly, reading my mind. Damned vampires and their literal mind-reading capabilities. Some of them were better at it than others, and this one was clearly good at it. “And it’s not safe.”

I contemplated his statement—and him—weighing my options. Slowly, I took his bare hand with my gloved one, still marveling that he could survive out here without proper clothing. Then I remembered—he was already dead. Or undead.

“I’ve never heard of a vampire being able to turn into an animal,” I said as we headed back toward where I’d been camped.

“Most of them can’t.”

“So that’s… what? Your special super-power?” I snuck a quick glance at his profile. He’d left his parka hood down but mine was up and I had to peek around it to look at him.

“Something like that.” He saw me looking and smiled, not revealing fangs this time.

But that’s how vampires were—they could blend into our world. You’d never know they were vampires unless they wanted you to know. Aside from the whole frying in the sunlight thing…

I gasped, stopping in my tracks. The vampire stopped, too, looking quizzically at me.

“No sunlight.” I blinked at him, incredulous. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? “You came up here because there’s no sunlight.”

“Yes.” He nodded, and his jaw tightened, his lips drawing into a thin line for the briefest of moments. “That’s one reason.”

“Stupid me.” I smacked my forehead, rolling my eyes. “And I came up here to avoid vampires.”

“Did you?” His eyebrows went up.

“How many of you are up here?”

He laughed, a sharp, bright sound. “Just me.”

“How do you know?”

“Trust me. We know.”

We’d reached the site where the gray wolf had attacked me, and I shivered involuntarily. The vampire put his arm around me and I shrank away. He frowned but let me go as I gathered up my camera, stringing it around my neck. Then I slung my rifle over my shoulder. It couldn’t kill the vampire, but I felt safer with it anyway.

“Thanks for… everything.” I cleared my throat, not looking at him, but rather down the incline where I’d pitched my tent. I could barely make it out in the dimness. “I’ve got it from here.”

“I don’t think you do.”

My head came up sharply and I glared at him. “I don’t need your help... anymore.”

I added the last as a reluctant afterthought.

“Who’s Lily?”

His question took the breath from my body. I sputtered but didn’t answer him.

“Is she your sister?”

How did he know? I might have said her name—and my own—during that whole weird psychic-hotline experience, but I was sure I hadn’t mentioned our relationship. At least, I was pretty sure.

“Has she been calling out to you?” He touched his temple, looking at me so knowingly, I wanted to smack him.

“It’s none of your business.” I straightened my shoulders and drew myself up to full height—barely five-feet, even in my boots—and turned to go.

“She’s a redhead,” he called after me and I hesitated in my defiant stalking away. “Pale. Freckles. Green eyes. Smooth, gorgeous curves—like a racetrack. About up to here on me.”

I turned to see him holding a hand about shoulder height.

“I hear she’s an acquired taste.” His eyes, with those gold-rims, had found mine again and I felt frozen in place. “A little like… licorice?”

“Absinthe,” I whispered, swallowing hard. “You know Lily. How do you know Lily?”

“Paris.” His gaze didn’t leave mine, and even though it was twenty-below, I felt like I was sweating under my parka. “About three years ago. Before I got clean.”

Clean. That word again—as if blood was some kind of addiction he’d managed to kick.

“Is she still there?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“She’s in trouble.”

“So I gathered.”

I bit my lip, remembering her screams for help. Had this vampire heard them? But, of course, he had. Vampires could read people’s thoughts. They could also bind you to them and compel you to do anything they wanted. All they needed was to give you a little of their blood.

I’d wondered for years where my twin had disappeared to, after we’d been separated. I’d prayed she got away from our life as blood slaves, as I had. I’d hoped she hadn’t been sucked into the world of the blood courtesans—women who voluntarily offer themselves to vampires for money.

It was an entirely different thing from being a blood slave—our own mother had been a blood courtesan for years—but my experience with vampires had never been the greatest, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with their kind anymore.

I’d hoped Lily, too, had gotten away, and was living her life far away from vampires.

Had she escaped and been pulled back in by Alaric? I wondered. Just thinking about him made me feel nauseous. If Lily was with Alaric, she was in trouble. Whether she was living the life of a blood courtesan or not. Alaric didn’t pay attention to vampire “rules,” such as they were. He did what he wanted. He took what he wanted. Consequences be damned.

“You can trust me.” The vampire—I didn’t know his name and I didn’t want to—spoke softly, startling me out of my reverie. “I can help you. Let me help you.”

“I don’t want your help.” My chin rose, defiant, and my mother’s voice—I hadn’t heard it in years—filled my head. Poppy would cut her nose off to spite her face.

I swallowed, looking around, glancing at the vampire, wondering if he’d heard that, or if it was just my mind playing tricks on me. He didn’t give any indication that he’d heard anything. He approached me slowly, like a man edging toward a wounded animal.

“You may not want my help.” He had caught up to me now but made no move to touch me. “But I think you might need it. Your sister, too.”

“How can you help?” I pondered this question even as I asked it. He’d given me an idea of where to look, but what good was he to me otherwise? As far as I was concerned, letting a vampire “help” me was like having a Rottweiler guard a pot roast.

“I speak forty languages,” he told me. “Including French. If she’s still in Paris, I know exactly where to look. And if she isn’t, I know who to ask to find out.”

I didn’t say anything to that. What could I say? He had a point. About forty of them.

“And…” he added casually. “I have enough money to fly us around the world a few thousand times if that’s what we have to do. So, let me help you.”

Why?

That question popped up in my head again as I stared at him, wondering what in the hell I should do. I didn’t ask the question out loud, but he answered it anyway.

“Because you’re alone,” the vampire said again. “And it’s dangerous out there.”

I kept up my strong, proud ruse a moment longer before my shoulders drooped. I didn’t know where Poppy was, didn’t have a clue how to help her, even if I could find her. This vampire said she was in Paris—or that was the last place he’d seen her, at any rate. But that didn’t mean she was still there. I could ask her, maybe, via that supernatural sibling connection, but then what? What could I do, if she was being held?

Especially if she was being still held by Alaric.

I shuddered involuntarily, and the vampire’s hand came down on my shoulder, squeezing gently.

I looked up at him and nodded. “Okay. What do you suggest we do?”

“First, you come home with me.”


CHAPTER THREE

When he said “home,” I thought he meant back in Utqiaġvik. I imagined he had a little house like mine somewhere, up on stilts and mostly impervious to the ice, snow and shifting permafrost.

But when he told me to climb onto his back—shifting into the great black wolf once more—and headed in the opposite direction, I wondered where “home” could possibly be. There was ninety-five thousand miles of tundra in that direction but no civilization that I knew of. The only thing north of here was the North Pole and I had a feeling we weren’t going to be visiting Santa Claus.

I don’t know how long we traveled. A half hour, maybe an hour. Time blurred in the darkness, the tundra a vast, endless expanse around us, stretching in all directions. He ran hard and fast, tireless, without hesitation—he knew exactly where he was going. I buried my face in the scruff of his neck to block the wind and clung to his fur, the giant animal carrying not only my weight but the weight of my pack and gear, too.

When he stopped, and I slid off, he was panting from exertion like any dog might, his tongue lolling. Then he shook himself, changing quickly back into a man in a parka, a transformation I found both incredible and unsettling. The man flashed me a smile before reaching past me and pulling at something in the snow. I turned to see him opening a round metal door, painted white to be invisible on the frozen ground. I could see that much in the dimness.

“Ladies first.”

“Are you crazy?” I looked down into the black hole, shivering and backing slowly away. “I’m not going down there… with you…”

The vampire sighed. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“So you keep saying.”

“You’ve come this far,” he reminded me. I reached into the pocket of my parka and pulled out a flashlight. My gaze followed the beam of light to the hole and I saw the top of a ladder. “It’s warm down there. I have food. Water. It’s very comfortable.”

“What would a vampire need with any of those things?” I scoffed. “Food? Water? Warmth? Comfort?”

“This place was intended for the living… not the…”

“Dead?”

“Undead.” He shrugged. “I can stand out here all day, but night will come, and you need protection from the dropping temperatures.”

“I can pitch my tent.” I hugged myself, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. “I’ll be f-fi-fine…”

“Do you really want me to force you?” The vampire tossed his hood back and his eyes pinned me to the spot, gold-rimmed and glowing, even in the dimness. I knew very well he could, if he wanted to. The thought made me shiver even more. “I will, if I have to.”

“Okay, fine.” The thought of Ulrich forcing me got me moving. I went past him toward the open door. He took my flashlight and shined the light on the ladder, giving me a hand as I negotiated it, my pack and gear still on my back.

I made my way slowly down into the darkness, feeling like Alice in Wonderland—only I was climbing down instead of falling—down, down, down. The rungs on the ladder seemed endless. Above me, I heard a great clang and then the sound of a bolt being drawn. I gasped, looking up, but it was all blackness. The vampire had stowed the flashlight. After all, he could see just fine.

“Are you there?” I heard the tremble in my voice.

Then he was there, somehow, beside me, putting an arm around my waist and guiding me down the ladder as if it wasn’t a ladder at all. My feet no longer touched the rungs and the sensation was terrifying. It felt as if I was free-falling into nothing and I fought the urge to scream. I couldn’t help myself. I clung to him.

“Almost there.” His voice was low, right next to my ear.

Then we were on solid ground again. I moved away from the vampire in the blackness, waves of cold coming off the ground. He didn’t feel it, but I did. Still, it was warmer down here than it had been on the tundra.

The vampire flicked the flashlight on again, illuminating a tunnel in front of us, seemingly carved out of the stone. It was wide enough for us to travel down it side by side, but I let him lead the way. I felt better when I knew where he was, and I could see where he was going.

“What is this place?” I wondered aloud, gasping when we came to the end of the tunnel and, like magic, there was suddenly light, yet there were no fixtures that I could see. The walls, ceilings and floor were made of some sort of old, very dark wood, the ceiling high and vaulted. There were several chairs and sofas for sitting, very antique by the look of them. Underneath it all, I heard a gentle humming sound, like machinery buried deep in the earth.

How? I wondered, shaking my head. Impossible!

How had this place come to be?

“Home.” The vampire turned, suddenly pushing the hood of my parka back and pulling off my head covering to gaze at me.

I pushed my hair out of my face with gloved hands, looking back at him. He was quite solemn, and I cringed, waiting for him to comment. Vampires could walk among people and blend in if they wanted to—but I couldn’t. My white-blonde hair and red eyes were a dead giveaway to my condition. I’d worn contacts for a while, trying to blend in, and had even dyed my hair—red, like my sister’s—but once I’d moved to Alaska, I hadn’t bothered. Everyone in Utqiaġvik knew I was an albino.

The vampire studied me so long, I couldn’t stand it anymore and moved to pull my hood back up, but he stopped me.

“Moon flower,” he murmured, rubbing an escaping strand of my hair between his finger and thumb.

“Excuse me?”

“Have you ever seen it?” he asked softly. “Ipomoea. She only blooms at night. Pale, white beauty. Thrives in the moonlight.”

“No…” I swallowed hard, wondering if it had been a mistake to trust him. He had that hungry look in his eyes again, the one that made me feel warm and cold at the same time, as his gaze swept over me.

Then the vampire frowned, looking down at the dark stain on the fabric of my snow pants.

“I need to dress your wound.”

I’d almost forgotten about the wolf attack.

Shivering, I let him lead me through a door into another room, this one clearly a bedroom with a black, wrought-iron canopy bed up on a raised pedestal, the curtains and bedclothes made of thick, black velvet. Again, the room was illuminated the moment we entered it, the soft light coming from somewhere behind the wooden slats, recessed somehow. The room behind us went dark at the same time.

The vampire sat me down beside the bed in a high, black, wing-backed chair. I shrugged my pack to the floor, my shoulders aching, keeping my boots away from the velvet-covered footstool. The snow was melting off them. I studied the room as he went into yet another one that lit up the moment he entered. A bathroom? For a vampire? This place clearly hadn’t been built with only the undead in mind.

“Take off your gear,” he called, rummaging through a drawer.

I stood again, shrugging off my parka. Then I pulled off my boots, wiggling my toes in my three pairs of wool socks. They were still a little cold but slowly starting to come back to life. It was surprisingly warm down here. Finally, I slid down my snow pants, wincing. The wolf bite hurt more now that I’d been reminded of it—and the numb of the cold was wearing off. My snow pants had torn where the alpha had attacked and there was more blood than I had expected drying on the material.

“There must be another way in,” I mused to myself, looking at the enormous bed.

“No.” The vampire gave me a small, fangless smile as he returned, carrying first-aid supplies.

“Then how?” I wondered aloud. “This giant bed…?”

“This was all carved out and then sealed in.” He shrugged off his own parka, tossing it aside as he sank gracefully down to the stool in front of me. For such an imposing figure, it was rather shocking to find his movements so fluid. A man that big, you’d expect to bumble around like a giant in a dollhouse.

It made me wonder what he was like—before he became a vampire. He wore just a well-cut pair of trousers—nothing thermal against the cold—and a white button-down shirt. His hands were smooth and cool as he moved my hair aside to look at my neck and I noticed he was wearing a pair of silver cufflinks shaped like wolves.

“Why?” I winced in pain when his fingertips brushed the wound on my thigh. The fabric of my pants was torn. “What were you sealing out?”

“Vampires.” He smiled again when I gave him an incredulous look. “We did not all ask for this life, you know. Will you remove your pants, please?”

I glanced down, seeing that blood had seeped into the material of my dark gray sweats. Underneath that was a pair of yoga pants and, beneath that, a creamy silk thermal pair of pants. The latter kept me incredibly warm out there.

“I can do it,” I told him, holding my hand out for the first-aid supplies.

“I won’t hurt you,” he assured me softly for the umpteenth time. “I only want to help.”

I sighed, standing and sliding my sweats down my legs. “Fine.”

Slowly, I peeled off my layers, tossing my sweats and yoga pants aside. The last layer was my silk thermal underwear and I gasped when they stuck to my skin, the blood there dried. The wolf’s teeth had only punctured my inner thigh.

When I sat back down in the chair and leaned back, now only wearing a pair of panties on the bottom—along with three layers on top, including a hoodie, a turtleneck and a creamy silk thermal long-sleeved shirt.

“Moon flower,” he murmured again, watching as I leaned back in the chair.

When I put my foot up on his thigh, to give him better access to the bite, I heard his sharp intake of breath. I looked up, seeing his eyes had gone almost completely black. I felt myself starting to tremble like a rabbit, paralyzed at the sight of a predator, as he stared at the puncture wound on my thigh.

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” I whispered, mostly to myself.

“I told you, I abstain,” he said gruffly.

I held completely still as he cleaned and dressed the wound. I studied the room and wondered at this strange, underground lair outfitted more for humans than vampires. This vampire wasn’t like any of the others I’d ever encountered, and I found myself more curious about him than I wanted to be. I told myself to focus on the important thing—helping Lily. This vampire had seen her in Paris and he claimed he had the means to get me there. But what were his real motives?

“Your hair… your skin… is that why you choose to live here?” the vampire asked quietly, drawing my attention back to him again.

I nodded. “Land of the midnight sun.”

“You came up here to hide yourself away.”

“Look who’s talking.” I snorted, and one side of the vampire’s mouth quirked into an almost-smile.

“Kindred spirits, you and I.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Done,” he announced, standing up to take the first-aid kit back to the bathroom. He gathered up our parkas along with my clothes and boots and took those, too.

In profile, he didn’t seem quite as large and intimidating. Those broad shoulders and his towering height were mitigated from this distance and angle. I watched him put the first-aid kit away and wash his hands. When he came out, he didn’t look at me.

“Here, go put this on.” He opened an armoire, pulling a shirt off a hanger—clearly one of his—and handed it to me, not meeting my eyes. “I imagine you’re hungry?”

“You have food?” I stood, blinking in surprise. “Why?”

“Go change.” He nodded toward the bathroom, crossing two meaty arms over his broad chest. “I’ll get you something besides dried jerky to eat.”

I had to admit, something besides freeze-dried food sounded good. Just thinking about it made my stomach rumble. I stood, and the vampire moved out of my way, heading out of the room. I wanted to call after him—but I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know his name!

“Hey!”

He stopped, his big frame filling the doorway, and glanced back at me.

“You know my name. What’s yours?”

“Ulrich,” he said. “Ulrich von Helgrim.”

My stomach revolted, even though I hadn’t eaten since very early that morning.

I ran to the bathroom, barely making it before I retched.

I was still on my knees, shaking all over, when Ulrich moved in behind me, holding my hair away from my face.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Are you all right?”

“No,” I whispered, leaning back and wiping at the tears in my eyes. He loomed over me, and it only then that I saw the resemblance. “I assume Alaric von Helgrim is some relation?”

He nodded, offering me his hand. I took it, wary, and he helped me up. But my knees didn’t want to hold me, so Ulrich supported me as he took me back into his bedroom and sat me in the chair where he’d dressed my wound.

“Who are you?” I asked him, for the umpteenth time, demanding a real answer this time.

“Alaric is my brother.” He sat across from me again on the stool.

“Is he coming here?” I looked around, still trembling. I couldn’t help it. “Is this some sort of trap?”

I’d walked right into it. I could have kicked myself for my own stupidity. Living in Alaska had made me wary of wolves and polar bears, but generally, humans were quite kind to each other out here. We had to stick together.

But Ulrich wasn’t human. He was a vampire. And while I’d never met Ulrich before, his brother, Alaric, had kept me and my sister as blood slaves, once upon a time.

And Alaric still has Lily.

That thought broke my heart like nothing else could have.

“No, Poppy, you’ve got the wrong idea.” Ulrich’s brow knitted, and he reached for my hand. I tried to pull it away, but he held it, determined. “I haven’t seen my brother in many, many years. We are… estranged.”

“Estranged.” I echoed his word, frowning.

“He hurt you?” Ulrich tilted his head, searching my face with those gold-rimmed eyes. “And he still has your sister?”

Damn that mind-reading ability.

I closed my mind to him like slamming a door. It had been years since I’d had to protect my thoughts from vampires, but it was like riding a bike. I got right back on and started pedaling. I didn’t want Ulrich to start digging and find out just what role Alaric had played in my past. Thankfully, those were memories I’d buried deep.

“He’s… evil.” It was the only word that felt strong enough to describe a vampire like Alaric.

“Yes.” Ulrich nodded. His hand swallowed mine as he squeezed. “He is. And powerful.”

I nodded, feeling my lower lip trembling, even though I tried to stop it. The thought of facing Alaric again made my stomach clench and roil and I closed my eyes against it.

“You will need my help, Poppy.” Ulrich’s words were true, even if I wanted to deny them. Pitting human against vampire was comparable to human vs. semi-truck. It was a losing proposition. If I was going to find Poppy and get her away from Alaric, I would need a vampire’s help.

“Why do you want to help me?” I studied him as I opened my eyes, wishing I had some of that mind-reading ability.

His mouth tightened. “I have my reasons.”

“You… don’t like your brother?” I guessed.

“I loathe him.” The vampire’s eyes grew so dark they were almost all pupil, with just that strange gold rim around the iris.

“You want to kill him.” Another guess. But I knew I was right, even if I didn’t have the ability to read his mind.

The smile that ghosted Ulrich’s face was brief but terrifying. “It’s the only thing I would leave this place to do.”

I nodded, looking down at my hand in his, mine warm, his cool. I knew the hand that held mine was capable of ripping a human being in half. Of decapitating another vampire with one blow. I didn’t possess nearly that kind of strength. And I was going to need it, where I was headed.

Where are you headed, Poppy? What are you going to do?

But I knew. There was nothing else to do. I didn’t have a choice. Lily was out there, and she needed me. She’d called out to me, for the first time in years. And my worst fear had been realized.

She was still with him, still his prisoner.

His blood slave.

I had to save her.

I’m so sorry, Lily. It should have been me.

“You got a deal, Ulrich von Helgrim.” I squeezed his hand to keep the tremble from mine, turning it sideways in an official, businesslike handshake. “We’ll find my sister—and your brother.”

“You will save her,” he said, pressing his other hand over mine, reassuring me, clearly knowing it was something I wanted very much.

“And you will end him.” I met his dark eyes, seeing in them just how much he wanted that.

What I didn’t tell him was just how much I wanted that, too.


CHAPTER FOUR

After Ulrich left to rustle up some food for me, I dug through my bag for some clean clothes. I hadn’t brought a lot, but I did have an extra pair of yoga pants. Then I went into the bathroom to change, putting on the yoga pants and the vampire’s shirt. It hung to my knees. I left one pair of socks on.

Then I searched for a hairbrush and found one in a drawer. I did my best to brush out all the tangles. My stomach was really growling now, and I headed out of the bathroom, following my nose through the living area, where there was a set of double doors. The lights went on whenever I entered a room and went off when I left it.

Bacon!

I pushed the double doors open, finding Ulrich cooking at a stove. He’d set the table with one plate.

“You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” He glanced over as I slid into a chair.

“Big time carnivore,” I admitted. I was practically drooling. “That smells amazing.”

“Sorry, I don’t have anything fresh,” he apologized, holding his hand out for my plate. I gave it to him, watching him pile it with food.

“I wouldn’t expect you to.” I glanced around the kitchen in wonder. What in the world would a vampire need any of this for? Then I remembered him telling me this place had been made to seal vampires out. Except… he was a vampire.

We did not all ask for this life…

“Thank you.” I took the plate from him, full of bacon and pancakes, and reached for the syrup.

“You’re welcome.” He sat across from me, impassive, as I chomped on bacon and cut up my pancakes. They were fluffy and delicious with just a hint of vanilla.

“Okay, this is weird.” I spoke through a mouthful of pancakes, reaching for the bottle of water he’d placed by my plate to wash it down. “You, watching me eat, I mean…”

“I can go.” He moved to rise but I shook my head.

“No, no, it’s okay.” I waved him back in the chair. “Since we’re in this thing together, we might as well get to know each other a little, yeah?”

He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement to my rhetorical question.

“So.” I chewed thoughtfully. “You’re a vampire who doesn’t drink blood?”

Another slight nod. He seemed to be the opposite of his brother, Alaric. I’d never met a more blood-thirsty vampire in my life. It was strange to me, the idea that a vampire would abstain.

“You didn’t want to become a vampire, then?”

Again, just the slight incline of his head in acknowledgement.

“But…” I took another swallow of water. “Don’t… most vampires… I mean, even if you get turned against your will, eventually you end up … feeding… right? Sort of, you know, embracing your vampireness? Isn’t it kind of inevitable?”

“Indeed.” A muscle moved in his jaw, but nothing else.


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