A Place to Run

PROLOGUE (Matt)

 

     Grace Lynn Cartwright. Age 22. Freelance copy-editor. Consanguinea.

             I looked up from my phone. The girl on the arm of the vampire walking up to the Italian restaurant was the same from the picture Sheppard sent me: wavy brown hair, fair skin, round face, big eyes. I looked down at my screen and back to the girl. She was even wearing the same brown leather jacket.

             Lord knows she smelled like a consanguinea—sweet and heady—but the rotten vampire scent clinging to her was cloying. This was the third time she’d gone out with him in just two weeks. And she had been fed on. Recently. Probably while they were out last night. I scrolled through the contacts on my phone to my alpha’s number. He answered on the first ring.

             “Is she safe?” He was concerned.

             I growled, “You didn’t tell me she was his sheep.” I should kill that bloodsucker for even touching her.

             “I was afraid of that.” Sheppard’s voice was reserved. He ignored my anger, as usual. “Are you certain?”

             “Of course I am,” I retorted, my face twisting with disgust.

             She laughed at a comment the vampire made, squeezing his arm and pressing her body against him.

             “This is the third time he’s taken her out in two weeks, the vamp’s disgusting scent is all over her, and she seems pretty friendly with him.”

             “Dammit!” Sheppard sighed. “He can’t try to turn her, Matt. It would kill her,” he paused, “or we would have to.”

             I knew he’d hate to lose a consanguinea that way. With only seven or so born to every generation, they weren’t exactly abundant.

             I stretched and cracked my neck. “Then I’ll step in.” I lowered my voice to an almost inaudible whisper, “Killing him here would be easy.”

             “Matthew,” Sheppard said sternly, “people aren’t ready for us. Just stay close to her and keep her safe.” He stressed the last three words needlessly. He had already told me to protect her, and I wasn’t about to let that bloodsucker have her without a fight.

             Silence fell between us. He knew I was still on the line, but he gave me time to cool. The girl and the vamp had disappeared into the restaurant. I was confident he wouldn’t try anything in the eatery for the same reason Sheppard didn’t want me storming in there. Our war with the vampires had been raging for the better part of 2,000 years, and so far, most of humanity had remained blissfully unaware of the things that go bump in the night. It wasn’t our call to make. Besides, Americans usually choose the nuclear option when presented with a problem they don’t understand. They’d kill more of themselves than us, and we were just trying to keep them safe from the vampires who would otherwise wipe them from the face of the planet.

             “Fine,” I agreed finally, settling into a spot against a corner of the building across the street. I could easily keep an eye on the front door of the restaurant from my vantage point.

             “Keep me updated,” Sheppard replied and ended the call.

             Making a sour face, I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and inhaled the scent of the wet city after the rain from this afternoon. Clearly, he chose the public space to avoid a confrontation with me, but it wouldn’t save him if he made a move on her.

             So I waited, leaning against my corner. And since the vamp couldn’t take her out the back door of the restaurant without arousing suspicion, I kept my eyes on the front.

             The younger, bar-hopping crowd started to filter in when Grace and the vampire finally left the restaurant. I pushed off the corner and paced along behind them, blending with the crowd as best I could. The downtown area slowly filled with twenty-somethings looking to drink and party and fuck, their too-heavily-applied perfumes and colognes mixing to a nauseating note. The vampire steered her along with him as they walked down the sidewalk, his arm looped around her waist. She laughed at his jokes and I followed them.

             After a short distance, they turned onto a largely empty side street and he paused, looking over his shoulder. I pressed myself into a shadow. I’m not the stealthiest of our pack, but Sheppard had insisted that I be the one to follow and protect Grace. He said I would be the best choice if the vampire decided to fight. He wasn’t wrong.

             “What’s wrong, Frederick?” she asked him.

             Frederick. Good. A name to track. He smiled in my direction and then down at her. They resumed walking.

             “Nothing at all,” he said. “Downtown just stinks of wet dog tonight.”

             It was all I could do to stay put, but I bared my teeth at his back. “It would be my absolute pleasure to kill you where you stand, bloodsucker, but it would scare your little sheep away and bring an abundance of unwanted attention.” His supernatural hearing was more than enough to allow him to hear me, despite the distance between us.

             He laughed and pulled Grace closer to him. She welcomed the closeness and looped her arm around his waist as well.

             “This is nice,” she said wistfully, “I haven’t been able to go out much since my friends moved away last year.”

             His smile was feral, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Well, you just call me anytime you wanna go out. My treat.”

             “I can’t always let you pay for everything,” she said.

             He laughed again. “Freelancing is paying you more than beans now?”

             “Hey!” she said sharply, stepping away from him and smacking his bicep. That was a dangerous thing for a human to do; the vampire could simply snap her arm for the pleasure of it. “At least it keeps the roof over my head and the lights on!”

             Frederick made a placating gesture, but his smile remained predatory. “I wasn’t trying to offend you, Grace,” he said, looping his arm around her waist again. “I just don’t want you to have to stay in all the time. You gotta live a little!”

             “Which is why I’m here with you, now,” she said, brushing a wayward strand of hair from her face and leaning her head against his shoulder.

             They were headed to the Chateau, the club where the vampires met their sheep in the night. Dammit. I couldn’t let her go in there, but I certainly couldn’t go in there myself without backup. It would take too long for Sheppard and the rest of the pack to get here, and we hadn’t made a move on this club yet for tactical reasons. The vampires sorely outnumbered us in there, and there were countless more in the den and tunnels underneath the club. We’d lose nearly everyone if we attacked it straight on, nevermind the amount of sheep that would be slaughtered in the fight.

             Frederick nodded to the bouncer, a solid linebacker of a vampire clearly meant to intimidate. He ushered the girl into the club and smiled back over his shoulder at me. The thumping bass got louder, and wisps of fog and smoke curled out of the door as the bouncer pulled it shut again. He smiled at me too.

             “Looks like you lost your prey, little wolfie,” he taunted. “Best run back to your pack now.”

             Not an option. Frederick would likely bleed her dry in that club and she’d thank him for the pleasure of it. Balling my hands into fists so tight it cracked the knuckles, I bared my teeth at the bouncer. “Nah. It just turns out that you should’ve taken the night off.”

             In just a couple of quick moves, he was unconscious. I threw his body through the doorway as the techno drum and bass thumped in my chest. The whole place stank of fog machine smoke and the rot of vampires. The bouncer’s body slid to a stop onto the dancefloor. The patrons, predominately human sheep who had been drugged into elation, ignored the intrusion. The seventeen vampires spread around the club, however, did not. They went unnaturally still as I stepped over the now groaning bouncer.

             He was regaining consciousness. Confidence was going to be the only thing that would keep me alive now. So, I kept moving, my steps even and purposeful as I zeroed in on Frederick’s location. If the vampires decided to attack, I would die. I’d take maybe as many as four or five down with me if I got lucky, but I would still die.

             I stalked to the booth where Frederick and Grace sat with another vampire and his prey. Empty shot glasses were on the table and each of them had a round of a pale green liquid in hand. This was one of only a handful of places in town where you could get real absinthe. Grace and the other woman drank as I approached, but Frederick and his friend sat motionless, glasses still in hand. Both their eyes narrowed and, though they didn’t move, I could tell they were ready to fight.

             “You must have balls of steel, pup,” Frederick said coolly, “to come in here with no backup.”

             Grace noticed my arrival with a start, nearly dropping her shot glass as she did.

             “I’m not here to fight,” I said through gritted teeth, despite every cell in my body screaming to do otherwise.

             The friend smirked at me. “That’s a shame.”

             Grace turned her face away from me and leaned toward Frederick. Using her hand as a screen, she used a quiet voice. “Look at his face.”

             No one could miss what she was talking about. Half my face had been torn up in a fight ages ago, leaving deep, nasty scars and a milky left eye. I could only see the most basic of shapes and contrast out of that eye, though my vision out of the right was perfect. I winced anyway, I’d have to stay further out of sight after tonight, assuming she and I lived through this.

             Frederick smiled his feral smile at me. “Then what are you here for, if not to fight?”

             “I’m here for the girl,” I said, nodding to Grace. “She’s not safe here, and she’s not staying.”

             All the vampires on this side of the club laughed.

             “There are so many beautiful women in this club.” Frederick gestured vaguely to the dancers in the center of the club. “Any of them more than happy by now to leave with anyone who’s nice enough to them,” he said through his laughter. “But you want mine.” He sobered. “I think not, wolf.”

             Grace inched closer to Frederick, pressing her body against his. Her eyes were unfocused and glazed over, pupils so wide that only a sliver of grey-blue iris circled the black. Clearly there was more in the drinks than just absinthe. She giggled at me, “So you’re my dad now?” Her speech was slurred. “I don’t even know you, man, and you must be on some pretty spectacular drugs if you think I’m going with you anywhere.”

             Spectacular. Impressive vocabulary for someone so high. Frederick pulled her closer to him, as if it were even possible. She was practically sitting in his lap.

             “One of you,” Frederick said, pointing at me, “and no fewer than seventeen of us. You’re lucky you’re still alive.”

             I gritted my teeth. “You and your brood won’t make a move. They all know what Sheppard would do if any of you killed one of his pack.”

             “You guys are too much!” Grace said, laughing obnoxiously now. Frederick handed her his shot, and she drank it down without even a thought.

             I took a slow, deep breath.

             “Now, now. Let’s not make a scene.” Frederick pulled his lips back from his extended canines and brushed the back of Grace’s neck with his fingers. She leaned into his touch. My stomach roiled in anger and I closed my hand into a white-knuckled fist.

             He blurred with supernatural speed and his lips closed on her neck just behind and below her left ear. It was an uncommon drinking place, but the blood pumped almost as easily there as the more common jugular. In wolf form, I’d snapped the necks of more than a few vamps biting through the vein Frederick drank from now. Grace’s dilated eyes fluttered closed and I heard her heartbeat race.

             He was actually drinking from her before my eyes.

             I heard Frederick’s heart start to beat with the rush of power her blood granted him. That heartbeat would fade and stop again as her life-blood diffused through his body, but that would be hours from now.

             Red seeped into the edges of my vision. The growl bubbling from my chest was entirely involuntary. My entire body shook with white-hot fury at his audacity. I reached across the cocktail table and grabbed the front of his button-down shirt, pulling him from her and scattering the empty shot glasses, most of which smashed to the floor. The vampires in the club stood as one, but the music continued thumping and the sheep continued dancing.

             Frederick licked the last of Grace’s blood from his lips and smiled around the club like he had already won the fight. “Let go of me, mutt, or you will die here.”

             I tried to watch the vampires around the club in my peripheral vision. Not a single one of them had moved from their spot, though they all remained standing.

             Something flickered through Frederick’s expression. Was that fear?

             I pulled his face to mine, ignoring the cloying smell of rotten vampire and the sweet metallic tang of Grace’s blood on him. “I’ll kill you for that.”

             “You will try,” he said, meeting my gaze. He lowered his voice to hushed tones, “I’ve never tasted blood as sweet as hers. I will drink from her until she begs me to turn her.” But his bravado was slipping, I could smell the hints of fear lining the rot of his scent.

             Frederick must not have recognized that she was a consanguinea. She would never get addicted to being fed upon like most humans; her bloodline protected her. But if I died here, it would be an hour or more before Sheppard noticed my lack of contact, and Grace could be dead by then.

             “That will never happen.” I gave him a feral smile before releasing him. “Grace leaves with me—now—or I will tear your throat out and let Sheppard get his vengeance for my death by tearing this place apart in broad daylight.”

             He’d lose most of the pack in the fight, but he would wipe out these vampires and their den. My muscles tensed in readiness. My breathing became a deep, even, easy rhythm. The vampires around the club still didn't move. I couldn’t fathom why they hadn’t, but I didn’t try too hard to get into the minds of these slimy bloodsuckers. What I did know is that when they did decide to attack, the fight would be over quickly, and Grace would almost certainly die.

             Frederick smoothed his shirt. “You wouldn’t throw your life away like that.”

             I grinned at him, the potential catalyst for my certain death. “Try me, bloodsucker.”

             He glared at me for a long moment before his eyes flicked around the club at the unnaturally still vampires, ignoring the sheep. His expression fell a fraction before a careful mask went up in its place. Finally, he looked to Grace—who swayed with her eyes closed in rhythm with the bassline. He placed a hand against her lower back, breaking her reverie. “Grace, my dear.”

             “Hmm?” She looked at him with glazed eyes, but continued swaying with the beat.

             “This fine specimen is going to take you home,” Frederick said, gesturing with an open palm in my direction. “Try not to miss me too much.”

             She smiled vaguely, nodded, and clambered to her feet, unsteady.

             “The next time a wolf even steps foot in this club, mutt,” the friend added. “They will be dead before they even cross the floor.”

             Anger continued to pool in my stomach as Grace tottered out of the booth. I held out a hand to her, but she missed when she reached for it, tumbling to the ground in an unladylike heap. I knelt and scooped her into my arms, where she laid limply. She continued to breathe steadily, and her heartbeat was strong. Well, good. Then she was unlikely to die unless these vampires attacked, despite whatever she had been drugged with.

             I looked to the vampire who had spoken. “The next time a wolf steps foot into this club, the pack and I will be along to burn this place to the ground.”

             Frederick glared at me, but his voice stayed level, “You’d dare to throw idle threats even now, you insolent mutt?"

             I gave him my most predatory grin. “It’s a promise, Frederick. Your days are numbered.” Turning on my heel, I stalked toward the door, Grace cradled against my chest. None of the unnaturally still vampires made a move to stop me.

             Tension knotted my shoulders until we’d made it safely into the back alley. The wet and dingy city scent was a welcome relief from the stink of the vampires. Letting out a breath, I closed my eyes in a silent prayer of thanks. That could have gone south fast, but somehow, we’d both made it out alive.

             I set Grace on wobbly feet. She grumbled, but managed to stay upright—if just barely.

             “Come on,” I said, placing an arm around her waist. “Let’s go.” The stench of vamp clung to her, prickling at my nose.

             We had to take the alleys to get back to my car without attracting too much attention. She looked like a strung-out coed, and I wasn’t intent on explaining to law enforcement that I hadn’t drugged her myself.

             She mumbled something about Frederick being a jerk to not take her home himself.

             “You’d be better off staying away from him,” I said softly. “But I’d be surprised if you remember any of tonight.” With any luck, she’d forget my face too and I wouldn’t have to worry so much when tracking her. “Just don’t throw up on the upholstery.”

             I scooped her into the passenger seat of my pride and joy—a cherry red ’69 Chevy Camaro Z28 with a pair of thick black racing stripes flowing back over the top from the hood to the trunk of the car—and buckled her in before getting in myself. The engine roared to life and I backed out of the parking spot.

             “Mm, that V8 engine purrs like a kitten,” she mumbled, stroking the door panel.

             She was appreciating my car now? I don’t think she heard anything I had said to her.

             “Maybe I’ll drive you around town sometime when you’re sober,” I told her.

             She grunted and fell quiet for the rest of the drive. Her breathing was slow and deep, though her heart raced faster than I thought it should.

             Thank God her keys were in her little purse on a string. Inside her tiny, second-floor apartment, I put her to bed, removing her shoes and leaving a glass of water on her bedside table. The pinprick bite marks on her neck had already closed. They would be nothing more than puckered little scars by morning. "Damn bloodsucker," I grumbled.

             I crept out of her apartment only to realize that there was no way I could safely lock her in. I was going to have to keep watch until dawn from the parking lot. Fine.

             Downstairs, I moved my car, backing into the empty spot next to her little purple Honda. It was within easy view of her front door. I reclined the driver’s seat and crossed my arms over my chest. It had been foolish of me to confront Frederick in the club, but the vampire had left me no other option. I got lucky. We should both be dead. Sheppard was going to be livid when he heard about tonight. Frederick and his brood weren’t long for this world.

PROLOGUE

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A PLACE TO RUN is available for preorder now and will be released July 4th, 2019!