Temperance sucked in a deep breath and sighted along the barrel of her enhanced crossbow. A light mist coated the weapon with glistening drops. Her vision narrowed on her prey, edges blurring until all she saw was the bastard’s handsome, smiling face. An icy fingertip tightened on the trigger, but she didn’t squeeze. Not yet.
She swore softly, her exhaled breath-taking form in the chilled air. Despite his visibility, Stefanos, heir to House Meloss, had too many lifestylers and sycophant posers surrounding him. She couldn’t get a clear shot. And she didn’t have enough firepower to take them all down. Even if that had been her intention. The pranic vampire community had its share of wannabes. Those who thought that by being close to her kind, they could be changed. Brought over. As if it really happened that way. Still, even in their foolishness, they didn’t deserve to die.
Her lips twisted. Most of them anyway.
Raucous sounds of shrill, feminine laughter and husky, masculine rumbles filled the night air. A curvy redhead dressed in a bright blue dress that shimmered when she moved, wrapped herself around Stefanos’ tall, lean frame. She slid over him as if she was a snake and he was food. Willing food, she observed, as he bent his head to the woman’s and took her lips. His hands traced a path up and down her body and cupped her breasts through the flimsy fabric.
“Bastard,” Temperance muttered.
The man truly deserved to die. While her sister lingered in a coma after what he did to her, he flitted about like a bee from flower to flower, plucking all the farking nectar he could. Tonight she would succeed. She had to.
Even as the redhead and bastard ravaged each other, the crowd surrounding him shifted and opened her access to him.
“Move asshole,” she growled. All Stefanos had to do was turn that golden head just a little bit to the left and she’d have him. Finally.
Suddenly, instead of her golden-haired target, a dark-haired figure slipped into her focus, standing between her and Stefanos.
I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.
The man’s mind speech flowed, low and dark, stroking her mind with a velvet caress. Behind the silky sensation, steel threaded the touch. Temperance started, barely keeping her finger from jerking on the trigger. Shit!
She threw up a mental shield and tightened her defenses, preventing further intrusion. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She knew better than to lower her shields around pranics.
“Get the hell out of my head, fruitbat,” she snarled.
A rich chuckle warmed her mind. Even though she spoke out loud, she knew he heard her. Mind speech was beyond her abilities. She could receive; she couldn’t transmit. Not directly. Didn’t mean other pranics couldn’t pick her up. The sour taste of old bitterness filled her mouth. Another way she didn’t fit in.
Ah. I see you aren’t without abilities of your own. His mental voice stroked her mind with a heady, masculine caress. Fingers of seductive energy sought entry. I understand why you were sent, Temperance.
Gritting her teeth against the touch of his qi, his vital energy force, she stiffened. He knew her name. Bestia! How the hell did he know her name?
I know all about you Temperance Helina Vashti of House Nevaeh.
Her breath caught in her lungs. Was he reading her mind? Through the shield? Impossible. Still, he’d certainly responded as if he read the question running through her mind.
Shaking off her uneasiness, Temperance stared through the crossbow’s modified scope. Around the man’s head, a seething scarlet and silver aura set him apart from the lackluster blues, browns and blacks surrounding him. How could she have missed those vibrant sparks of color?
She took a steadying breath, her eyes trained on the man. If her senses hadn’t gone completely haywire, she locked gazes with a Mradu. A Warrior, a very powerful Warrior, who stood between her and the energy-sucking parasite she’d come to kill.
The Mradu stood at least a foot over the majority of his companions. Tall with broad shoulders and a powerful presence she felt even through the glass, metal and space separating them. Black hair, as dark as her own, gleamed in the lights outside the busy restaurant. His bold features held an edgy sensuality as if he were always in control.
“Who the hell are you?”
Let’s keep introductions for another day, shall we?
Even his mental voice, filled with cool authority, cut into her mind with precision. The beginnings of a migraine flared; a warning stab of pain. The price she paid for prolonged exposure to psychic energy; for not being Awakened.
For being different.
“That’s not really fair. You know my name.” She fought the nausea, keeping her tone light. Casual.
Inside? Another matter entirely.
Each time her target shifted position, the interfering Mradu stayed in her line of sight as if he knew each move she planned to make. Her jaw tightened. He kept her from doing her job. Her duty. The only thing she could do to serve her House. Muscles knotted in her calves from her crouching position.
Maybe, but much more entertaining, isn’t it? A pause, then he continued, I will not let you assassinate Lord Meloss. Consider him under my protection. The light edge of his tone faded.
Temperance rubbed her temple with one hand, the migraine crashing into full-fledged birth. The man’s power slammed against her shields, the hard points of his energy searching for any weakness. Any chink in the armor she built for protection.
Thank the Veil for her mother’s training in shielding. Helina Vashti had wanted her powerless, ungifted child to have the ability to protect herself against psychic assaults. With this warrior, it took all Temperance had to keep his energy at bay. So much raw qi beat against her, without the barriers she’d fall under his barrage.
“What makes you think I’m here to kill Stefanos?” she challenged. “Maybe I’m here to kill you. Or the stout nil standing behind you in the obnoxiously red vest.”
Ah, but then you would have pulled the trigger before now.
“Could be there are too many witnesses.”
You aren’t really worried about that, are you? His rich tone remained mellow.
No, damn it, she really wasn’t. But she should be. Not because any of the police officers also milling about Stefanos could find her if she didn’t want to be found. Because shooting a House Lord in front of witnesses with a vamp-enhanced crossbow was sure to cause unwanted attention. Especially when said House Lord went up in a literal flash of light. Bad for business, her Uncle Dimitrios would say.
Bad for the Houses if humans found out they existed.
As much as I’ve enjoyed our little interlude, I’m afraid our pleasant conversation is at an end.
As she stared, the gray eyes of the Mradu brightened. Before she could further tighten her shields, an arrow of energy struck at her like a heat seeking missile. The spear smashed into her shields, the potent force of his qi tossing her backward onto her ass. The crossbow flew from her grasp, hit the concrete and skittered across the floor to the other side of the roof.
Son of a bitch! Ignoring the stabbing pain in her tailbone, she pushed off her hands, grabbed her spare, non-enhanced rifle and sighted on the area. Just in time to see the man’s dark head ducking into a stretch Hummer, for God’s sake, parked where her target once stood.
Just before disappearing, the black-haired bastard lifted his gaze, his intense look slamming into hers. She flinched, yet held her ground.
I look forward to the next time we meet, Temperance Vashti.
By this time she could no longer see his face, however she clearly heard his amusement. Temperance swore again and lowered the rifle.
Who the hell was that man? Mradu, definitely, but of what House? Meloss? Possible but not likely. She’d not heard the House boasted such a powerful warrior. She suspected that, if he’d wanted, the Mradu could have killed her with that qi lance. Come to think of it, why hadn’t he?
She was under no illusions he knew exactly why she was there. He could have eliminated any further threat by killing her. Sure, her father would then send someone else in her place. She was the best but that didn’t mean she was irreplaceable.
Especially one like her – a Potential with no potential. No hint of power. A mundane. Being Marek’s daughter only meant she was not necessarily expendable. Oh no. Just, not a great loss.
Her shoulders sagged. At times like this, she felt so tired. Not physically, but mentally. She lifted her face to the stars and sucked in a deep breath of chill night air. The air seemed to freeze its way to her lungs, cooling the sharp edge of pain that threatened to enlarge the holes in her heart.
Without warning, a soft brush against her senses warned her of another intrusion. But this one was completely welcome. And terrifyingly hopeful. Raina. She’d recognize her sister’s distinctive mental signature no matter how weak it was. Temperance sucked in another breath. Held it. Her gut knotted briefly, the migraine forgotten.
Raina? She tried mind speech even knowing the chances of her sister picking it up were non-existent. The gentle touch came again.
Temperance strained, trying to grab and strengthen the connection. In the three months since being attacked and drained of her qi until she fell into a coma, Raina had given no sign of being present. This was the first time she’d reached out. Almost as fast as the touch came, it went. Tears threatened to spill. Oh God, Raina.
Temperance raised a shaking hand and swiped at her eyes. Five years younger than her twenty-seven years, Raina had only been eight when their mother died. Thirteen year old Temperance had promised to protect Raina. Promised to always watch out for her.
Temperance had nowhere near the level of power Raina possessed. In fact, once her younger sister had Awakened, very few Warriors and even less Priests were her equal. Their father had great plans for Raina. Plans the overly indulged heiress hadn’t agreed with.
Plans she’d sought to disrupt through her involvement with the heir to House Meloss, Stefanos. The last conversation she and Raina had, Temperance could tell Raina had fallen in love with the golden-haired playboy and believed he loved her back. What would Raina make of the man who’d taken her energy to the point of death?
Because of Stefanos, the man Temperance had just let get away, her lovely, gentle sister was in a coma from the life force, her qi, the bastard had drained from her. Her sister’s body rested in an opulent prison of silk and brocade while her mind rested somewhere else.
And Temperance had failed to honor her mother’s dying wish.
Stefanos had to die for many reasons. The one that meant the most to Temperance was for taking her sister from her, and she’d not let her lack of power stop her. She’d have another chance at him.
Her lips firmed, pressing into a thin line. And no uberwarrior would stand in her way.
* * *
Niko settled back into the leather seat, his shielded thoughts whirling with the image of Temperance Vashti. Hidden behind the darkness and too far away for him to actually see her, nevertheless, he’d gotten a good mental picture through her energy signature. Swirls of ochre and amber cut through sapphire. Exotic. Intoxicating.
“What is it, cousin?” Stefanos asked, cutting into Niko’s thoughts. “What has brought that frightening scowl to your face?”
Niko contemplated his cousin, the undisputed if not altogether worthy, heir to House Meloss. Stefanos lounged back, his arms spread across the back of the leather seat. Under heavy lids, green eyes glinted. Ever since he’d taken energy from that girl, the power shone like a beacon, barely kept in check. Niko could almost taste the energy seething about his cousin.
The draining of that girl. A great source of upset within, and without, the House. Even his uncle, a man with little emotional depth, had been considerably outraged at his son’s behavior.
Niko did not know the girl’s name or whether she still lived. The only thing he knew was that Stefanos called her Kisa, a pet name. Supposedly, he also did not know where she was or what House she served.
Since the whole issue started, Niko frequently wondered if Stefanos had known her House, would it have mattered. He reluctantly suspected the knowing wouldn’t have changed his cousin’s actions. Stefanos had always been selfish, and the girl’s power would have proven intoxicating.
In that, Niko could understand the need. Not forgive. Never that. Not when Stefanos’ actions put the whole House at risk. However, Niko appreciated the addictive pull of such energy. Pure, undiluted and mind-numbingly sensual. Much like the female assassin.
Speaking of her . . . “An assassin nearly had you tonight.”
Stefanos lifted an eyebrow. “Indeed?” A half-smile twisted his lips, white teeth glinting in the semi-dark. “Isn’t that why you are following me around like a puppy? To protect me from assassins?”
“Yes, from assassins seeking to disrupt the House from within. Not warriors from other Houses. Blood of Set, Stefanos, the other Houses worry you bring danger to them because you can’t control yourself.”
Stefanos’ lips curled. “You would have done the same thing.”
Niko did not dignify that comment with a response. Yes, he might have been tempted, but he never would have risked disgracing or endangering the House as Stefanos did on too many occasions.
A bark of bitter laughter. “That’s right. Ever dutiful Niko. Always doing what’s best for the House regardless of his own desires.” Stefanos leaned forward. “I don’t plan to live my life that way regardless of my father’s wishes.”
Niko’s turn to lift an eyebrow. “Is that so? And what kind of life would that be? How many girls will you drain to the point of death?” He stopped at the pain that flashed into Stefanos’ eyes then just as quickly fled.
“Is that hard to hear? Good,” Niko growled then continued, “for all we know, she might very well be dead.”
There it was again. That flash of deep, dark pain haunting the shadowed depths. The kind of pain that spoke of extreme loss. And guilt.
Intrigued despite the anger he felt over his cousin’s actions, Niko finished, “keep your head down, Cousin.” He allowed his voice to soften. “I stopped this assassin but I may not be able to stop the next one.”
Stefanos’ lips firmed. “Fine.” His tone had a clipped, steel edge underneath his air of nonchalance. “Just don’t get in my way. You may be the great Mradu Enforcer but I am heir to House Meloss. The most powerful House among the Clans. I’ll do what I wish.”
With that, he flipped open his cell phone and engaged in a conversation with someone on the other side. A woman by the seductive tone edging Stephano’s words.
Nikos frowned but said nothing. He turned and looked out the window. Beyond the shadow of doubt, he knew the assassin, Temperance, would return. Before she’d slammed her shields in place, he’d sensed an iron-willed determination to succeed. And when the fiery-tempered female sent to kill his cousin came again, she’d soon find out just how strong Niko was.