Laylah was tired.
She was tired of the dark, cramped tunnels sprawling beneath the northeast corner of Missouri that she’d been running through for the past two days.
She was tired of being chased by an enemy she couldn’t see.
She was tired of her stomach cramping with hunger and her limbs screaming in protest at her relentless pace.
Reaching a small cavern, she came to an abrupt halt, shoving her fingers through the short, spiky strands of her brilliant red hair, her black eyes searching the shadows for her pursuer.
Not that she expected to actually catch sight of the frigid pain in her ass.
Vampires not only possessed supernatural speed and strength, but they could shroud themselves in shadows, making them impossible to sense, even to most demons. It was only because she had the power of Jinn blood running through her veins that she could detect the relentless leech following her mad dash through the tunnels.
What she didn’t know was…
She shivered, her mouth dry. Christ. She’d thought she was being so clever when she’d initially allowed the vamp to catch her scent. She’d hoped to lure him, along with the other intruders, away from Caine’s private lair.
Not that she gave a damn about the cur, but she’d hidden her most precious treasure at his estate, and she couldn’t afford to allow any creature with the superior senses of a vampire, or even a full-blooded Were, near her secret. She’d thought the demons would give chase for a few hours and then grow tired of the game, hopefully returning to Hannibal or even St. Louis.
But her hasty plan had fallen apart right from the start.
The Were had continued on his path to Caine’s lair, and the vampire had refused to give up, no matter how far or how fast she’d run.
Now she was too weak to call upon her shadow walking powers, and too far from Caine to call for his help.
“Oh, screw it,” she muttered, planting her hands on her hips and tilting her chin in unspoken defiance. “I know you’re following me, vampire. Why don’t you just show yourself?”
A warning chill thickened the air, prickling painfully over her skin.
“You think you can give me orders, half-breed?” A dark, sinfully beautiful voice filled the cavern.
Laylah’s heart missed a beat. Even with her demon blood she wasn’t immune to the ruthless sensuality that was as much a part of a vampire as his lethal fangs.
“What I think is that I’m done running,” she gritted. “So either kill me or go chase someone else.”
“Ah. Then you’re confident you’ve managed to lead me far enough away?”
“Away?” Laylah stiffened, licking her suddenly dry lips. He couldn’t know. No one knew. “Away from what?”
“That is what I’m wondering,” the dark voice drawled. “It must be of great importance.”
Laylah forced herself to suck in a deep breath, refusing to panic. The stupid vamp was simply trying to press her buttons. Everyone knew that they loved to toy with their prey.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Hmmm. Have you ever watched a quail?”
She felt unseen fingers brushed her nape, the cold touch ironically sending a bolt of heat straight to the pit of her stomach. She whirled around, not surprised that the predator had disappeared.
“The bird?” she rasped, belatedly wishing she was wearing more than a pair of cutoff jeans and a muscle shirt. Having so much skin exposed was making her feel oddly vulnerable.
Not that clothing would halt a determined vampire.
It wouldn’t matter if she were dipped in cement and wrapped with barbed wire.
“When a predator approaches the nest, the mother quail will feign a broken wing and dash away to lure the danger from her chicks,” her tormentor murmured, his voice seeming to speak directly into her ear.
She instinctively stumbled backward, her mouth dry with a sudden fear.
“The only quail I care about are baked and served on a bed of rice.”
“What are you trying to protect?” There was a deliberate pause. “Or is it who?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Is it a lover? A sibling? A child?” His soft chuckle grazed her cheek as the sharp leap of her pulse gave her away. “Ah, that’s it. Your child?”
Laylah bunched her hands into fists of frustration. He was getting too close. She had to distract the bastard.
“I thought vampires were known for their courage,” she deliberately taunted, willing to risk a battle she couldn’t win if it would keep her secrets. “Are you such a coward you have to hide in the shadows?”
The chill thickened, the danger a tangible force in the air. Then, the shadows directly before her stirred, and the vampire slowly became visible.
Laylah reeled, feeling as if she’d just been punched in the gut.
All vampires were beautiful. And sexy.
Wickedly, indecently sexy.
But this one…
Reminding herself to breathe, Laylah allowed her gaze to skim over the elegant features that revealed his Polynesian ancestors, lingering on the slanted eyes that were a brilliant shade of honey and the inky black hair that had been shaved on the sides, leaving the top to form a mohawk that fell past his broad shoulders.
Her gaze lowered, that vicious awareness twisting her gut at the sight of his half naked body barely covered by a pair of khaki shorts.
Damn the annoying leech.
Had he deliberately left his body on full, wondrous display? After all, he had to know it would make her fingers twitch with the desire to investigate the smooth muscles of his chest. Or wait… maybe she would go down the flat plane of his stomach…
Lost in her helpless response to his sensual beauty, she was jerked back to the danger of her situation as the demon stepped far too close, his fingers casually stroking along the curve of her neck.
“Have you never been told the dangers of provoking a vampire?” he murmured.
A chill inched down her spine, but she forced herself to meet his hypnotic gaze.
“Do you intend to drain me?”
His lips twitched. “Tell me about the child.”
“It’s yours?” He paused, his fingers drifting to the pulse that hammered at the base of her throat, an intense concentration etched on his beautiful face. “No. Not yours. You are as pure as an angel.”
Genuine fear speared through her heart. Damn the interfering leech.
“Leave me alone,” she breathed.
The honey eyes darkened with a dangerous hunger. Laylah wasn’t sure if it was for blood or sex.
“A beautiful angel,” he husked, his arms wrapping around her to yank her hard against the strength of his body. “And I have waited too long to have a taste.”
Unable to halt her panic any longer, Laylah’s unpredictable powers lashed out, the electrical charge that filled the air enough to make the vampire leap back in wary surprise.
“I said, leave me alone,” she hissed, wrapping her arms around her waist.
A dark brow arched. “Well, well. You like to play rough?”
“I don’t like to play at all,” she snapped. “What do you want from me?”
“My first intent was to capture you so you could be brought before the Commission.”
She jerked at the threat, her powers abruptly faltering at his threat. She’d been hiding from the official leaders of the demon world for two centuries. To be taken to the oracles that made up the Commission was nothing less than a death-sentence.
“I’ve done nothing to earn such a punishment,” she attempted to bluff.
“You very existence is worthy of punishment.” The vampire smoothly countered. “Half-breed Jinns have been forbidden.”
Laylah squashed the familiar anger at the sheer injustice. Now was not the time to debate whether or not she should be exterminated for the sins of her parents.
“You said that was your first intent,” she said, her voice thick. “Have you changed your mind?”
A dangerous smile curved the vampire’s lips as he reached to trace the plunging neckline of her shirt, his touch searing a path of pure pleasure.
“Let us say I’m willing to postpone our journey with the proper incentive.”
“Do you need me to demonstrate?” he murmured, his lips softly brushing over her mouth.
“No…” she choked, attempting to deny the piercing need that lashed through her.
Gods. She had been alone for so long.
So very long.
“Tell me your name,” he whispered against her lips. “Tell me.”
“Laylah.” He said her name slowly, as if testing it on his tongue. Pulling back he studied her pale features, his hands skimming down her sides to grasp her hips and boldly press her against the hard evidence of his arousal. “Exquisite.”
Laylah clenched her teeth, ignoring the sizzle of excitement racing through her blood.
“I assume you have a name as well?”
There was a brief pause. Not surprising. A name in the hands of a magic-user could give them power over a person. Then he shrugged.
It suited him. Ruthless. Powerful. Stunningly male.
“Great.” Placing her hands against the steely hardness of his chest, she arched back to meet the honey heat of his gaze. “Let me make this perfectly clear, Tane.
I don’t use sex as a bargaining chip. Not. Ever.”
Expecting him to be angered by her blunt rejection, Laylah was unnerved when his lips curled in a smile of pure anticipation. Hauling her tightly against him, he spoke directly into her ear.
“Now let me make this perfectly clear, Laylah,” he whispered. “When we have sex it will only be after you have begged me to take you.”
It was the explosion of awareness that flared through her lower stomach as much as his arrogance that pissed her off. After all, vamps were flaming narcissists. He would naturally assume she was frantic to jump his bones.
No, it was the fact he was right that made her want to punch him.
“Never going to happen, bloodsucker.”
He smiled with wicked promise. “Want to bet, mongrel?”
She shoved him away, wrapping arms around her waist in a protective motion.
“If it isn’t sex, then what do you want from me?”
Damn. Were they back to that already? He was supposed to be distracted.
Well, she could easily correct that.
No matter what the sacrifice.
“Could you be a little more vague?” she deliberately taunted.
“Most lesser demons have the sense to show respect when in the presence of a vampire.”
“You’ve already let the cat out of the bag that you intend to haul me to the Commission to be put down like a rabid dog, so what the hell?” She shrugged. “I might was well have a bit of fun before I go out.”
His slender fingers stroked the hilt of his knife. His big-enough-to-slice-off-her-head knife.
“I can promise you that trying to provoke me is not the sort of fun you want.”
She curled her lips in what she hoped was a sneer, but might very well have been a grimace of terror.
“True, the sort of fun I want involves a piece of wood with a very pointy end decorating the center of your chest, but for the moment I’ll take what I can get.”
Braced for his punishment, Laylah swore when he did precisely what she didn’t want.
Instead of striking out in fury, he stilled, his expression intent. Just like a predator about to pounce.
“Intriguing,” he murmured.
“You’re desperation to keep me from discovering your secret.” He reached to trace a finger down the line of her stubborn jaw. “I should warn you that you’re games only make me more determined to find out what you’re hiding.”
Laylah spun away from his piercing gaze. What the hell did she have to do to get this vampire off her back?
There was an icy chill as he moved to stand directly behind her.
“Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you kill Duncan?”
“I…” She licked her lips, her hands pressing to her stomach at the familiar sickness that rolled through her. She didn’t want to remember Caine leading her through the secret tunnel and into the small cabin next to the Mississippi River.
They’d expected to find Duncan hidden there. The cur, after all, was intending to save his own hide by selling out Caine to the King of Weres. But neither had expected the less dominant cur to try and attack. Or for Laylah’s powers to strike out with such force. It was yet another regret, in a very long line of regrets, that Laylah would have to live with. “That was an accident.”
“You fried a cur,” Tane pointed out dryly, “which doesn’t make my heart bleed, but those little accidents are exactly why mongrel Jinn have been banned.”
She shuddered. Did he think that she didn’t try and control her powers? That she wouldn’t give anything to stop another senseless death staining her conscience?
She sucked in the cool, damp air that filled the cave. She had been running blindly the past few days, backtracking and taking side tunnels until she had no idea where they were, but there was no missing the unmistakable scent of a nearby river, which meant they still must be near the Mississippi.
“Caine learned where Duncan was to meet with Salvatore. When we startled him the cur went nuts and attacked.” Her jaw clenched. She had done her best to stay out of Caine’s crazy ass scheme to change curs into purebloods. Why not decide to sprout wings and become a dew fairy? But, Caine had been adamant that he’d been given a vision that revealed he was to become an immortal Were. Personally she’d thought the vision was more likely an overdose of the pharmaceuticals he mass-produced. “I merely protected myself. Or are mongrels supposed to let themselves be mauled to death? Would that make everyone happy? The disgusting half-breed ripped to shreds?”
“A touch bitter?” Tane murmured, but he hands were oddly tender as he stroked a path over her shoulders and down her arms.
Tender, but capable of sending a rash of fire over her bare skin.
“Go to hell.”
“I’ve already visited, sweet Laylah, and I have no intention of returning anytime soon.” He leaned down to press his lips to curve of her neck. “I’ll accept that the death of the cur was an accident.”
If she hadn’t been near the point of collapse she might gone completely mental and thrown herself on the beautiful brute. Her body felt as if it were on fire.
Damned vamp pheromones.
Instead she forced herself to step away from his destructive touch, turning to glare into his too-handsome face.
“Why didn’t you return to Caine’s lair instead of taking off on your own?”
She unconsciously rubbed her arms that still tingled from his touch.
“I knew we were being followed and I assumed that you would follow Caine. I took off to save my own skin.”
“No, you took off to try and lead us away from Caine’s estate.” He deliberately paused. “And the child you are protecting.”
“If you already have it all figured out then why are you pestering me with your questions?” she gritted.
“Because I want to know why you would be willing to sacrifice your life for a child that isn’t yours.”
Tane watched the emotions ripple over the Jinn’s expressive face, annoyed by his unfamiliar fascination.
Granted Laylah was a beautiful creature.
And she stirred his lust to a fever pitch he hadn’t enjoyed for centuries.
But, he had one purpose in following this female.
When he’d first entered the tunnels, he’d been chasing after Salvatore, King of Weres, and the aggravating gargoyle, Levet. They’d gone missing from a cabin in Hannibal and while he would be pleased-as-fucking-punch to let both of them die a miserable death, Styx had been clear he wanted a better relationship between Weres and vampires. And what the Anasso (leader of all vampires) wanted, he got.
So Tane had led Salvatore’s servants in pursuit of Caine and the mysterious demon who had kidnapped them, not surprised when the cur had abandoned his hostages and fled in the futile hope of avoiding his impending death. What had been surprising was the gargoyle’s insistence that the demon he had sensed was a Jinn half-breed.
Suddenly his simple rescue mission had turned into a hunt for the renegade demon. The Commission had a strict policy. Jinn mongrels were to be captured and turned over the moment they were found.
He had been designated to snag and tag the abomination.
Unfortunately, things had gone to hell from the moment he had charged in pursuit.
For two days he’d trailed behind her, ignoring the realization he could put an end to the chase any time he wanted. He told himself it was mere curiosity. Why was the female so determined to lead him away from Caine’s estate? It had to be something worth risking her life for.
But, curiosity couldn’t explain why he had been plagued with fantasies of having the female locked in his lair, sprawled across his bed with her dark eyes glowing with pleasure. Or why even now the thought of hauling her before the mighty Oracles who made up the Commission seemed a sin against nature.
His brooding glance swept over her delicate features. They were frighteningly familiar. As if they’d been seared into his mind.
It made it easy to notice that there was a growing pallor beneath her perfect skin and shadows beneath the midnight beauty of her eyes.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” she was muttering, as stubborn as ever despite her growing weakness.
“What’s wrong with you?” he abruptly demanded.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped, swiftly scooping her into his arms when her knees buckled. He choked back a groan as he was slammed by the delectable feminine heat and the scent of spring rain. Dammit. The female was going to be the death of him. “It’s obvious you’re unwell.”
She trembled, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on her brow. “I haven’t eaten in days.”
Barely aware he was moving, he carried her to the back of the cavern, gently settling her on the dirt floor before kneeling at her side.
Just like a regular Mary Poppins, he thought wryly.
Except he was a cold-hearted Charon. A vampire so ruthless he was feared by his own brothers.