The Sentinel Wars
Justice has never known freedom. She woke up ten years ago, naked and alone with no memory of who or what she was. Since then, she’s been a prisoner, compelled by powers she doesn’t understand. She’s roamed the country, doing whatever the fates demanded of her, good or bad. Completely alone.
Ronan is starving to death. Like all the Sanguinar, his survival depends on finding the dwindling traces of blood left behind by an ancient, magical race. Weeks ago, Justice saved his life and since then, it’s been her blood he craves, her face he dreams about.
As evil closes in on all sides, threatening the only stronghold the Sentinels have to protect them, Ronan must find a way to gain Justice’s trust and free her from the dark powers that control her. Because if he can’t, the next person she is compelled to kill may be him.
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Read the Sentinel Wars in Chronological Order
Justice had encountered a wide variety of scumbags in her line of work, but this kind was her least favorite—entitled, arrogant, self-important assholes who thought they should have whatever they wanted simply because they could afford it. They didn’t care who they hurt so long as the object of their desire was in their greedy, little hands.
A walking case of ‘roid rage in a suit escorted her past the nurses’ desk, down a bland, beige hallway back to the waiting room.
While a vacant doctors’ office wasn’t exactly the normal meeting spot for black market dealings, the setup did offer some benefits. The place was a rats’ nest of turning hallways and small rooms. Only the thugs working for Chester Gale knew which room their boss was in, forcing any would-be attackers to check behind door after door for the right one.
Justice could have turned around and gone back to exam room six where she’d met him moments ago, but her guess was the man in charge had already moved from one whack-a-mole hole to the next, just in case. That’s what she would have done if she had a pile of people looking to kill her.
Too bad she wasn’t one of the would-be assassins. At least not today.
If she’d been here to kill the black-market crime boss, God, karma, the fates, or whoever the hell controlled her, would have already forced her to take him down, armed or not. That the entitled asshole still breathed was proof that she still needed the link to dark dealings his scumbag ways could provide.
The suited thug escorting her reached behind the giant, u-shaped nurses’ station and handed over a clear plastic shoebox.
Justice retrieved Reba first and checked her Glock to make sure it was still loaded and ready to deliver deadly force. No way was she trusting these goons not to fuck with her only sure way of taking them down.
Once she was satisfied that Reba was unmolested, she tucked the .40 cal. in the back of her jeans.
Next, she grabbed the small, leather-clad box and flipped it open. Inside was the majority of her payment in the form of a silver ring. The surface was etched with a chaotic jumble of lines that might have been some kind of bizarre writing, but just as easily have been the scars of a garbage disposal gone rogue.
She had no idea what the ring was for, but now that she had it, she waited for that gnawing itch at the back of her brain to fade, indicating her task was complete.
It wasn’t. The powers that had sent her here weren’t done with her yet, which worried her. Who knew what the fates wanted if the ring wasn’t it.
The brown paper sack was next. She peered into it and saw a banded stack of cash. There was no sense in stopping to count it now. If the remainder of the fee she was owed for services rendered wasn’t all there, the only way she was getting the rest was by spilling blood. No amount of cash was worth that kind of trouble—not when her task wasn’t yet complete.
No rest for the wicked.
The meaty thug held the empty plastic shoebox and stared at her with a blank expression only hard drugs or incurable stupidity could create. “We’re done here.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a dismissal.
Justice tucked the ring in the bag of cash and shoved it in her back pocket to leave her hands free. Again, just in case. Then she turned and went past an empty check-out desk and down the hallway that led to the waiting room. She caught a fleeting glimpse of another guard near the door she’d come through earlier. He was poised inside the last room along the hall, peering through a gap no wider than a pencil. The space behind him was dark, and the only reason she’d been able to see him at all was because a glitter of fluorescent light from the hallway caught his eye.
She didn’t stare. There was no point in it. She knew this guy was here to make sure she left—under her own steam or by force. The dead look in his eye said he wouldn’t really care which.
At least he wasn’t bloodthirsty, like some of the assholes she dealt with.
Her escort punched in a code on the electronic lock and opened the door that led into the waiting room.
“Next,” he said, bored.
Justice gripped her sack of loot tighter and kept walking. The itch at the base of her skull was starting to buzz.
Whatever the fates had sent her here for, it was close.
When the thug saw who waited, his tone perked up. “Boss has been waiting all day for you. Quite a lucky find you have there.”
Justice walked past the young man whose turn it was to offer up his prize for cash. He still had pimples and hadn’t yet managed to fill in the patches in his scraggly beard. A baseball hat hid his eyes, but his eager grin was unmistakable. “When you’re as good as I am, you don’t need luck.”
“She’d better be the real thing, or that fucking grin will be missing a few teeth.”
“She is,” said the young man, all confidence and swagger.
It wasn’t until Justice passed him that she saw what it was he’d brought to sell the entitled scumbag Chester Gale.
A little girl trailed behind the punk, sucking her thumb. She was too old for the habit, maybe four or five, but the stark look of fear on her tear-stained face made the childish trait completely forgivable.
Her blond hair was a mess, and her big blue eyes stared up at Justice in a silent plea for help.
The buzzing in the back of Justice’s skull turned to a full-out roar. Jet engines and rock concerts screamed through her head, nearly driving her to her knees.
This child was the real reason she was here trading trinkets with men who were best used for fertilizer.
Justice was no hero. She had done a lot of shitty things in the ten years of her life she could remember. Chances were she’d done even more before that. But never once had she looked the other way while entitled assholes traded money for terrified children, screaming fates or not.
She couldn’t stand the thought of adding that to her long list of sins.
Instincts took over before a coherent plan could form in her mind. As she passed the man, she scooped up the little girl in one arm while pulling Reba from her waistband.
The child let out a startled squeak, then started to wail. The punk who’d been ready to sell her spun around to see what had happened to his prize. The armed guard pulled his weapon and aimed it at Justice.
Before the barrel of his handgun had steadied, Justice fired a round in the center of his meaty head.
Red pulp blasted open the door behind him so hard it banged against the wall. The child-stealing fucker in front of her had his own weapon in hand now.
She acted without hesitation. The only thought in her mind now was how to get her and the girl out of here alive. Whoever else had to die to make that happen, well, just add them to the pile of bodies in her wake.
Justice squeezed the trigger of her Glock again just as the punk fired.
She felt a punch of force shove her back, but no pain. It would come. Soon. Been there, done that. She had only a few seconds before it did.
The little girl screamed louder. A ragged, gaping hole appeared under the punk’s left eye as Justice’s bullet tore through flesh and bone. He crumpled where he stood, like a puppet with the strings cut.
She backed up toward the exit. Her car was parked outside. All she had to do was make it that far. Ricardo, her beloved Maserati, would do the rest of the heavy lifting.
The armed thug previously in hiding had come out to do his job. Only a couple of seconds had passed since she’d snatched the kid, but it was long enough for him to have steadied his aim.
“Stop,” he said, his tone as cold and still as a frozen pond.
She didn’t waste her breath. Nothing she could say would change what he was about to do.
Justice spun around so that she was between the gun and the girl, then sprinted out the door, toward Ricardo.
Another round slammed into her body, hitting just above her hip. Her leg seized up for only a split second, but it was long enough to send her sprawling onto the sidewalk.
Late afternoon sunlight hit her face. Cold winter air swirled around her head. The little girl had rolled away and was screaming even louder. The building was by itself, separated from the nearby restaurants and gas stations—likely by design. Traffic slid by a few hundred feet away, but if anyone noticed what was happening, she couldn’t tell. No one blew their horn or screamed for someone to call the police.
Blood wet her clothes now, and the pain of her wounds began to slip in between the cracks in her adrenaline. She’d been shot before. She knew what was coming.
But not yet. Just a few seconds more…
The door had shut behind her—a single, thin sheet of glass between her and the next round aimed her way.
The armed guard stepped close enough to the door that she could see his thick head and shoulders through the tinted glass. Her hands were shaking now, but Reba would make up in power what Justice lacked in aim. Her target was big and close.
And a fraction of a second too slow.
Justice fired again. Glass shattered. She didn’t pause long enough to see if her aim had been true. If it wasn’t, she was already as good as dead.
She scrambled to her feet, grabbed the little girl’s arm, and bolted for her car on unsteady legs.
Ricardo welcomed her with a heated embrace. Sun-warmed leather seats cushioned her fall as she tumbled in behind the wheel. The little girl was unceremoniously pulled in over Justice’s lap, dumped over the console, and into the passenger’s seat.
“Get on the floor,” Justice barked, just as the first wave of searing pain washed over her.
She gritted her teeth and punched the ignition on her Maserati.
Blood welled from her abdomen. More slickened the seat beneath her. Already she could feel her strength fading.
She had to get the girl away from here—as far away as she could manage. Nothing else mattered, not even the lingering itch at the base of her skull compelling her to do whatever the fates demanded of her next.
As far as she was concerned, the fates could go fuck themselves.
With one hand pressed against her abdomen to slow the bleeding, she gunned the engine and tore out into early rush hour traffic.
The little girl cowered on the floorboards, sucking her thumb between snuffling sobs. Spit and snot leaked down her face to mix with her terrified tears.
“Everything is okay now,” Justice lied in a ragged tone. “What’s your name?”
The pain had reached its zenith and was currently burning through her guts like fire.
The child stared up with big, blue eyes and mumbled something around her thumb.
“Take your thumb out and try again.” Justice did her best to keep her voice gentle, but she knew the pain had given it a growly edge.
The girl did as she was told. Her pudgy hand gripped the seat and left behind a smear of slobber across the handstitched leather. “Pepper.”
“Where are your parents?”
Pepper’s face melted into the kind of agony only death could create. “He hurt mommy.” Once the words left her mouth, the thumb went right back in and she started rocking as she cried.
Justice didn’t dare ask about the girl’s father. She didn’t have the strength to torture the poor kid all over again.
The itch at the base of her skull began to spread and strengthen.
Whatever it was that made Justice do the things she did had the worst timing. Didn’t the fucking fates know that she was bleeding, hoping to outrun armed killers, and toting a child who was probably a recent orphan? A child who had some value to a man who valued only a very narrow subset of objects?
Ancient, magical objects.
How the hell did a kid barely out of diapers qualify?
Justice had no idea.
Another wave of dizziness spun her head, and she knew she was running out of time. She briefly thought about going to a hospital but knew the fates wouldn’t allow it. They never had.
She was going to have to keep going and hope Ricardo kept her from running into any of the cars crowding around her.
The itch began to burn. She was going the wrong way. Wherever it was she was being compelled to go, it wasn’t north.
Justice took the next exit heading east. As soon as she did, the burning at the base of her skull faded. Her guts still felt like they were being ripped out through her navel, but even that was dying down to a manageable level.
It was her growing weakness that scared her.
If she ran off the road and killed the girl or passed out and left her stranded on the highway, things could go from bad to worse.
Miles slid by in a foggy daze as Justice tried to get her shaken brain to come up with a plan.
Pepper had worn herself out crying and was now curled up on the floor, asleep. Sundown was coming soon, and with it, all the snarly, fanged Synestryn would come out to play. She was bleeding enough to know they’d come sniffing around for a bite.
She had to get rid of Pepper before that happened. But who could she trust to take the kid off her hands?
Ronan’s beautiful face entered her mind as if begging her to reach out to him. Instead, she shoved the image away with a feral snarl.
Even if she did want to contact him—which she didn’t—there was no way she could. It’s not like she had his phone number. He was the one who chased her, not the other way around.
And if she did find him, then what? No way was she handing a child over to a man who drank blood.
She wished she had a friend—just one single person she could trust.
But friends weren’t something Justice could have. The one time she’d tried had taught her that lesson so painfully, she’d never tried again. The only things she could count on were her gun and her ride. So she, Reba and Ricardo were going to go find Pepper some help before she ended up in a place worse than whatever Chester Gale had in store for her.
Justice searched her mind for a solution, but her head was foggy and her body was fading. The bleeding had slowed, but she couldn’t tell if that was because her wounds had begun to close, or if she was almost out of blood.
Thoughts of Ronan filled her thoughts again, and this time she was too weak to shove them away.
She could feel him somewhere east of here. She didn’t understand how she could tell where he was—maybe because he’d drank so much of her blood a few weeks ago—but his presence was like a glow against her skin she could feel but not see.
To him, she was prey. Food. And yet she couldn’t seem to get him out of her mind. How screwed up was that?
Finally, when she was too dizzy to drive straight, even with Ricardo’s help, she exited the highway at a rest stop miles from anywhere interesting.
Two semis sat in the upper lot for truckers. The lower area was for smaller vehicles, and completely empty. Justice parked near the bathroom and simply breathed as she waited for someone trustworthy to stop. No way was she handing Pepper over to a couple of truckers who might or might not be involved in human trafficking. It was better to wait for a family with kids or an elderly couple to come by and hand over Pepper to them.
Justice was almost out of strength to do anything. If she moved, she was sure she’d start bleeding again. Based on the puddle at her feet, she didn’t think she could lose much more.
Pepper was still asleep on the floor, curled up in a space the perfect size for her tiny body. Now that she wasn’t screaming, she was adorable, with soft, blond curls and chubby cheeks.
Whatever those scumbags were going to do with her, Justice was glad she’d stopped it. Maybe saving a little girl wasn’t her usual job, but she didn’t care. If saving an innocent child was her last act on this spinning ball of dirt, then so be it.
That was the thought that filled her mind as the last of her strength faded and the lights winked out.
Ronan jolted awake, certain that something was wrong.
The sun hadn’t yet set, leaving him weak and groggy. He searched the small, windowless basement he’d taken shelter in for signs of what had startled him but found nothing. He was alone. There were no sounds of intruders or smells of danger nearby. He was as alone now as he had been when he’d laid down at sunrise to rest.
He lay motionless on a narrow cot and concentrated on the deep feeling of unease that rippled through his limbs. Had it been just a rare dream? Was this lingering wrongness some strange figment of his sleeping mind?
He waited to see if the feeling would dissipate, but instead, it grew stronger, deeper.
The need to get up and move buffeted against his left side, as if whatever had caused his unease was screaming at him from the direction of the setting sun.
The minutes ticked by in agonizing slowness. His nearly constant hunger swelled as his usual feeding time neared.
Normally he slept through the worst of the day’s hunger, but he was awake now, too rattled to fall back asleep.
Just a few more minutes. That was all he had to endure before he could leave and go hunting for the blood he needed to sustain him. He’d already located a young couple nearby who contained the traces of ancient magic he craved.
His work on Project Lullaby had brought these two together only a few months ago. They were madly in love, and with a bit of effort on Ronan’s part, they would soon be expecting their first child—another life to keep him and his kind from suffering the slow death of starvation.
The idea that the couple would never have met without him, and that he was taking away their freedom to reproduce as they saw fit, no longer bothered him. There was a time when he would have been loathe to interfere with the free will of blooded humans, but that day was long gone, right along with the deaths of too many of his kind.
The three races of Sentinels were at war with Synestryn, and Ronan was far too pragmatic to concern himself with what a handful of humans wanted or didn’t want. If he and his kind died off, the Theronai would soon fall. Once their swords were no longer protecting humankind from the influx of hungry demons who used humans as food, then petty concerns like whether or not a single couple fell in love or had a child in their own time would hardly matter.
Everyone had their place in this war, like it or not. Ronan’s was to ensure that the bloodlines his Sanguinar brothers and sisters needed to survive were strengthened. Cara’s and Doug’s job was to have as many children as possible. In exchange, Ronan would make sure that their family lived long, healthy, happy lives.
Whether or not they agreed to this arrangement was irrelevant. At least that’s what Ronan told himself whenever his dying conscience let out one of its few remaining gasps of outrage over his meddling. He wished the thing would just die and leave him in peace. Manipulating lives was so much easier without it.
Another flutter of urgency buffeted his side, and this time, he knew it was no dream.
Someone was in trouble—someone whose blood bond to him was strong.
Ronan forced his weak body to move and retrieve his cell phone from his pocket. It shifted around inside his too-loose jeans before his cold, clumsy fingers could corner it.
He looked at the screen. No calls. No texts. He had email, but it was all offers for products promising harder, longer erections and people wanting to give him millions in exchange for his bank account number.
He opened the app that showed him the location of all known Theronai, Slayers and Sanguinar near him. Nicholas had created the program to help foster cooperation between the races, but with so many people now at Dabyr, there were only a handful of Sentinels still outside of the fortress walls.
Ronan saw only three dots on the map that spanned from the eastern edge of Kansas City to the western side of Columbia. Two of them were moving along I-70, east of him, and the other was curving along rural roads, heading north toward home. All of them were Theronai, and none of them had called to ask for help. Not only that, but none of them were to his west.
But someone he knew was.
He’d fed from her recently, though the savage way he’d ripped at her skin and sucked out her blood was far too violent an act to be considered merely feeding.
He’d brutalized her. Used her. She’d saved his life and he’d nearly killed her in the process.
No wonder she’d kept well out of his reach since that night.
He could feel her presence glowing and warm, like he imagined the forbidden sun would feel against his skin. At dawn, when he lay down to wait out the weakness of day in some dark hole, he would position himself so that he was broadside to her and able to absorb as much of her warm presence as possible.
She was always on the move, constantly running toward something or possibly away from him. He’d tracked her for weeks, and rarely gotten closer than a dozen miles.
She wasn’t hampered by daylight. She rarely stayed in one place for more than a few hours. He wasn’t even sure she slept. What he did know was that every night when he woke, she would always be moving away from him, her head start ensuring that he could never quite catch up with her before he was once again trapped by the sun, weak and exhausted.
Except today. That thread of her that remained inside of his cells, connecting them, was still. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t running from him. In fact, she was closer than she’d ever been before at this time of day—close enough he might be able to find her. Touch her.
The mere idea sent a heady rush of excitement sweeping through his wasted body. It was too good to be true, and perhaps even another trap that would leave him bleeding and unconscious like the last time he’d met her.
In a sudden wave of fear, he realized that the deep stirring of wrongness he’d felt was coming from the same direction as her. It was her blood that had woken him.
Justice was in trouble.
Panic set in and stole what little warmth he possessed. His body was slow and stiff, but he forced his thin limbs to move and push himself upright.
He couldn’t see the sun, but he could feel it sucking power from him and sapping his strength.
How much longer until sunset? He wasn’t sure. Only minutes, but too many. Too fucking many.
He managed to stand upright, but the effort left him shaking. He hadn’t fed well since Garet a few days ago, and his work sapped his strength.
There was always someone who needed healing—the injured and sick—and he was responsible for the health of a lot of innocent children. He’d helped create them, but they were still too small to repay him in blood.
One day they would be fully grown and become a source of power, but for now, they were a fragile crop not yet ready to harvest. Until they were, Ronan and his kind had to suffer in the hopes that their future would be better than their present.
He only hoped that in the meantime his weakness didn’t cost someone their life.
A sense of urgency flapped around his head like raven wings and made his heart beat faster. He didn’t have time to wait for the sun to set. He had to move now.
On joints that felt old and brittle, Ronan climbed the basement stairs into the two-story house above. It was vacant—a safe house meant to serve as refuge for those who fought the war against Synestryn.
The wooden floors were scarred and gouged with use, but clean. The air smelled of disinfectant and the remains of a meal cooked days ago.
He’d made sure the curtains were drawn before he’d gone to sleep, but even the filtered sunset blazing against the western windows was too much for him to stand.
His eyes burned. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His skin seemed to shrivel as if looking for a place to hide.
If even one single ray of that light touched his bare skin, a Warden would be summoned and Ronan would be killed. There was no way he could fight one of those giant, crystalline warriors as weak as he was.
Each breath was a struggle, as if he were sucking in air through a mile-long straw. His lungs were tight and aching, and his heart raced in an effort to spread his weary blood through his body.
He stumbled on the leg of a kitchen chair and spilled to the cracked vinyl floor. It was cold and stole what little heat he had left.
Even the constant warmth coming from Justice seemed to fade.
That was the thought that got him moving again, despite his pain and weakness. She might not like him. Hell, she might even hate him. But she was the only hope he had in an otherwise hopeless life.
He barely knew her, but if anything happened to her, he wasn’t sure he’d survive it.
He needed her blood, her power. He needed her warmth.
He needed her.
It took several more tries before Ronan was able to get back on his feet.
His van was parked in a garage that had been added to the century-old house a few decades ago. The space was small, but he’d managed to cram the van in and rush inside just as the first rays of sunrise had peeked above the eastern horizon.
Small windows in the east-facing garage door let in the golden glow of sunset, but nothing more. No direct rays from the west could touch him here. He was safe. Weak, but safe. And once he got behind the wheel of his van, the magically-enhanced windows would make sure he was protected from Wardens, if not weakness.
He hit the button to raise the garage door but would have no way to lower it once he pulled out his van. He’d call a gerai to come secure the house later, but now his complete focus was on dragging himself the last few feet to his ride.
Climbing up into the high vehicle was exhausting. His loose clothes drooped on his frame as if he were no more than skin-covered bones. A deep, constant ache thrummed in his chest now, but he couldn’t tell if it was his heartbeat or his instincts begging him to hurry.
Justice’s glow was fading fast.
He lurched out of the garage into the last few blinding rays of sunlight. He wasn’t sure how he managed to steer onto the gravel road through the stinging tears blurring his vision, but he was speeding away toward the closest highway, a trail of dust billowing behind him as the last tendrils of light were swallowed by the rolling hills in the west.
With the remains of the toxic sunlight fading, his strength returned, and with it, more fear.
She wasn’t dead. That was the thought that kept him sane. Whatever had happened to her had left her still and weak, but she wasn’t dead.
Each mile that passed seemed to take a year. He broke every speed limit, uncaring about the consequences. His van wasn’t sexy, but it had been designed to be a workhorse, carrying the weight of tradesmen and all their heavy tile, carpet or tools. With only a small amount of medical equipment and supplies in back, all that power went into speed. He rushed onto the interstate and into the trailing end of rush hour traffic between Kansas City and Columbia.
With a brutal push of compulsion, he forced human drivers to get out of his way. Even the highway patrolman he passed gave him plenty of room as Ronan shoved the man’s mind full of an image of flashing ambulance lights and sirens where the speeding van had been.
Even though he grew closer to Justice, he didn’t feel the blood bond they shared getting stronger. It was as though she were getting weaker at the same rate he got closer to her.
He was going so fast, he missed the rest stop exit. It wasn’t until he felt her presence sliding past him that he realized where she was.
He turned hard, into the wide, weedy median, then crossed oncoming traffic and all their blaring, angry horns to slew onto the exit ramp.
When he saw the sleek, red Maserati, he knew it was hers. She had an affinity for speed, and there was no question where he would find her.
Ronan parked beside her car and jumped out of his van without bothering to shut off the engine. It took only seconds to run to her door, but those last few feet seemed to stretch out like an eternity.
Her head was slumped sideways at an awkward angle. Her loose, black curls obscured her face. Still, he knew it was her. If he’d seen only a single strand of her hair or one inch of her caramel colored skin, he would have known her.
She was his. She didn’t want to be, but that changed nothing. He didn’t know how he knew that she was meant for him, but every cell in his body screamed the truth.
And if he lost her, there would never be another woman like her, no matter how many more centuries he lived.
Her posture was limp and wrong. Not asleep, but unconscious.
Her engine was running, but the door was locked.
“Justice,” he said, filling her name with a strong compulsion to respond.
She didn’t, though he couldn’t tell if it was because she couldn’t, or because his power of compulsion didn’t work on her. It never had.
Without hesitation, he slammed his pointy elbow into the glass. The window broke into blocky, sticky bits that glittered in her hair like snowflakes.
A child’s terrified scream assaulted him, and it was only then that he realized that Justice wasn’t alone.
Curled up on the floor on the passenger’s side was a little, blond girl. Her mouth was stretched on a wail of fear, and her blue eyes were just as wide. Blood smeared her clothing but didn’t soak it the way Justice’s clothes were soaked.
“It’s okay,” he said in a low, gentle voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. Hush now.”
This time, the gentle compulsion laced around his words worked.
The girl quieted suddenly, her cries turning to strangled sobs and little sniffs.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his power urging her to respond truthfully.
The child shook her head and sucked her thumb. She looked scared, but unhurt.
Justice wasn’t as lucky.
The smell of blood rose out of the sports car. Lots of blood. Rich, intoxicating blood filled with magic and power.
Ronan’s fangs lengthened, and the hunger in his belly bloomed into a ravenous pain. A snarl escaped his throat before he could stop it, which made the child’s soggy sobs grow louder.
He ignored her, jerked the door open and crouched to inspect Justice’s wounds.
Blood soaked her shirt and pooled on the floor beneath her seat. He could hear her pulse, weak and too fast as her heart struggled to keep oxygen flowing through her empty veins.
She didn’t have much blood left to spare, but he had no choice but to take more. He was too hungry and weak in this state to do anything but watch her die.
Before he could waste seconds she didn’t have, he brought her wrist to his mouth and bit deep.
Only a few drops. As powerful as she was, that was all he needed to jumpstart his system. At least that’s what he told himself.
But the second her sweet, potent blood hit his tongue, he knew a few drops would never be enough. He could drink an ocean of her power and still want more.
His chest thickened with muscle. His scrawny arms regained their natural shape, growing as strong and healthy as they had been in his youth. Clothes that had been baggy stretched to fit perfectly, and all the weakness and lethargy of starvation disappeared.
He became a mindless animal, consuming her sweet elixir in heavy, loud gulps. It was only when he felt her heart flutter that he realized just how far he’d gone.
She was on the brink of death, hovering on the razor-thin line between this life and the next. Even one more drink, and he feared the damage would be irreversible—Justice, gone from this world forever.
That was the thought that caged the hungry animal side of him behind thick, sturdy bars, clawing and biting to get free.
He willed the puncture wounds in her wrist closed, then sent part of his essence into her body to find the source of her bleeding.
She’d been shot twice. The bullets were still lodged in her flesh. One had chipped away a fragment of hip bone. The other had nicked the blood supply flowing to her kidney. That was where most of the blood was coming from.
Ronan gathered his power and sent it out into her to mend her torn flesh. He shoved the bullets from her skin and healed the damage from the inside out. He fused that chip of bone back in place and stayed hovering inside of her to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.
As soon as the damage was repaired, he sped the process of replenishing her blood supply. She’d need fluids to make the magic work, but once he’d issued his demand to her cells, they would obey and keep doing so for days.
The warmth of her mind curled around him and lured him to go deeper, but he didn’t dare. She was too weak, and he worried that if he started unraveling the mystery of who she was and where she’d come from, that he’d never stop.
He’d already violated her once. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
When he was satisfied that her flesh was mended, he backed out of her body and into his own.
Normally, he was always relieved to return to his own flesh, but this time it was different. His own skin seemed colder, thinner. All he wanted was to be back inside her, basking in her warmth.
The child watched him with wide, untrusting eyes.
“What happened to her?” he asked.
“The bad men shot her.”
Her pale brow wrinkled in confusion, as if Ronan were an idiot. “Because they’re bad.”
That was as good an explanation as any, and probably as much of one as he was going to get until Justice woke.
They couldn’t wait here. The smell of her blood would draw demons to them. And she needed more medical attention than he could provide in this too-public rest stop. There weren’t many people here, but there were a few truckers in the second parking lot, and plenty of traffic on the interstate. Some nosy driver could see something suspicious and come investigate at any moment. If that happened, Ronan would have to use the precious power he’d gained from Justice’s blood to send them away with no memory of the event.
He didn’t have enough strength to waste even a drop—not until he was sure Justice was going to be okay.
Ronan picked up Justice’s limp body. A bloody paper sack fell out of her back pocket, but he didn’t stop to see what was in it. He set her in the back of his van on top of a narrow, waterproof mattress. This wasn’t the first time he’d had a bloody patient to tend, and cleanup was far easier when one took a bit of precaution.
Her beautiful face was lifeless and slack. The hot vitality she normally exuded was gone, leaving her looking far too young and helpless—too weak—which didn’t suit her at all.
He couldn’t let her die. No matter what it took, he was going to nurse her back to health until she was strong enough to battle monsters singlehandedly again.
Maybe this time she wouldn’t bash his head in with a flashlight just so she could escape his company.
He looked at the terrified child and offered her a smile. “Come with me. Everything is going to be okay now.” He powered the words with a trace of reassurance and a desire to trust him.
The last thing he needed was for the child to run off covered in smears of Justice’s blood. Not only would she draw human attention he didn’t want, she’d also draw the attention of any hungry demons in the area.
The child got out of the car and came around to stand beside him.
“Get in and sit down,” he said.
She did as he asked.
Ronan closed the van’s door and started an IV to feed Justice the fluids she so desperately needed. He fastened thick woven straps over her body to keep her from rolling around, and to make sure that if she woke, she wouldn’t fling herself out into traffic just to get away from him. Once that was done he moved Justice’s overnight bag from her car into his.
Ronan called Dabyr as he wiped off his hands and pulled a clean shirt from the store of clothing he kept in the van. Nicholas, an unbound Theronai and all-around tech guru, was manning the phones.
“I need someone to come fetch a Maserati,” Ronan said as he stripped off his bloody coat and shirt.
“Why? Did you kill a speed demon?” Nicholas’s deep voice lilted with good humor. After all the man had been through, he’d managed to hold onto the core part of himself that could still laugh.
Ronan had no idea how he managed such a magical feat.
“I found Justice,” he said as he wiped the blood from his long, black leather coat as well as a few smudges on his chest where it had soaked through his shirt.
“The concept, or the woman you’ve been chasing after for weeks?”
“The woman. She’s injured. Lots of blood. Public place. I need to get her away from here before any demons show up.”
Nicholas’s tone went serious. “I see your location. I’ll send Slade and Vance that way now. Leave the keys.”
“But they’re human.”
“I know. But Joseph has ordered all the sword arms to stay close to home until the babies are born. He’s not taking any chances with a surprise attack.”
Nika’s child was the first offspring of a Theronai couple to be born in two centuries. The baby was due any day. Iain and Jackie’s child would come soon after. No one wanted to take any risks with either mother or the children. Nearly every fighter available was poised inside Dabyr, ready to defend the newborns with their lives.
“I understand,” Ronan said. “But there’s blood. I had to break the window to reach Justice, and it’s only a matter of time before demons smell it.”
Nicholas grunted in agreement. “I’ll make sure the boys know that they need to proceed with caution. They’ve both been training a lot and aren’t half-bad with a sword.”
“They’re still human. The car isn’t worth their lives.”
“Seeing as how they’re young twenty-somethings and said car is a Maserati, I’m not sure they’d agree, but I’ll give them a stern warning.”
“Are you coming home?” Nicholas asked.
“As soon as Justice is stable. And I’ll be bringing a child as well.”
Ronan pulled on the clean shirt and buttoned it. “I don’t know who she is or why Justice has her, but until I do, I’ll keep the girl close.”
“Good luck. Safe travels.”
Ronan hung up.
He caught the mistrustful gaze of the little girl. She sat on the floor by Justice’s head, petting her curls as if she were a beloved puppy.
Ronan stretched out his arm toward her. “Take my hand,” he ordered with a faint wisp of compulsion.
The child put her chubby fingers in his, and as soon as she did, he sent a thin tendril of himself winging through her limb and into her mind.
The blood covering her clothes wasn’t hers. She had been terrorized, but not physically harmed. She’d seen her mother die, though she had no understanding of what death meant. She’d been forcefully taken by a man with blurry features under a baseball hat. He’d shouted at her and scared her. She remembered something about him telling her she had to be good on their trip, that he was taking her somewhere fun.
Even at the tender age of four, she still hadn’t believed the killer.
Ronan couldn’t figure out where the young man had taken her or why, but as soon as the child’s memory lit on Justice’s beautiful face, she’d thought she was meeting a princess.
The girl was jerked away bodily by the princess. Then there was more gunfire and screaming. The child was shoved into a car. After that, she saw nothing until the sound of breaking glass woke her.
Whoever she was, Ronan wasn’t going to learn why she was here until Justice woke.
“You’re going to come with me now,” he told her gently. “I’ll make sure the bad men can’t find you again. Buckle up. We’re going to take the princess somewhere safe.”
The child nodded and did as she was told.
Ronan left the bloody Maserati behind and merged onto the highway headed west.
The little girl had buckled herself into the passenger’s seat, since there were none in the open back of the van. He didn’t know if she was big enough to be riding up here without a booster seat, but it was the best he could manage under the circumstances.
Her little feet stuck out straight. One of her sparkly pink shoes was missing, the other untied.
“I’m Ronan. What’s your name?”
“Is that your last name or your first?”
“Pepper Louise Sullivan. That’s all my names, but don’t say them.”
“Because it will make you mad. Mama always gets mad when she says all my names.”
A twitch of a smile played about his mouth. He checked the rearview mirror to glance at Justice.
Blood smeared her chin. Her smooth skin was waxy and sallow. Even so, she was still the most beautiful woman—human or otherwise—he’d ever seen.
He wanted to stare at her and drink her in, but Pepper pulled his attention back to the road.
“How many times can Mama die?” the girl asked.
Ronan glanced at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I can die three times in my game before I have to wait to wake up. How long will Mama have to wait to wake up?”
His heart squeezed hard, leaving a dull ache in his chest. This poor girl had seen her mother die but didn’t realize it was forever.
He was going to have to explain it to her soon, but for now he’d let her hold onto her childish hope that her life as she knew it would somehow miraculously keep going on as it had been. These were the last few moments of peace she’d have before reality crushed her spirit under its heel, and he was going to let her have them.
“Do you know why you’re here, Pepper?”
“Because you told me to get in. Your van is bigger than Mama’s. Where did your chairs go?”
“I’m like a doctor,” he said. “This is my doctor’s office. I had to take out the seats to make room.”
She wrinkled her nose at that. “You don’t look like a doctor. Where are your glasses?”
“We don’t all wear glasses.”
“Oh. Ok.” She wiggled her sparkly shoe.
He drove a few miles down the road and parked outside a nearly abandoned outlet mall.
It was fully dark now, with only the orange glow of security lights slipping through his front windows. The back of the van was lightless out of necessity so he could sleep in here if there was no other shelter to be found.
“After this, can we have dinner?” Pepper asked.
She nodded. “The bad man said I was loud so I couldn’t have lunch.”
Ronan found a granola bar and a bottle of water and gave them to her. “I need to help Justice now. You stay in your seat and eat, okay?”
She nodded and ripped the foil wrapper open with her teeth. As she did, her sleeve shifted and he saw a ring-shaped birthmark on her wrist.
Shock rippled through him, but he kept it from showing on his face. Years of keeping secrets had taught him to control his expression as well as the best poker players on the planet.
This tiny child was a female Theronai—a rare and precious creature that had the power to save countless lives.
If she lived long enough to do so.
At least now he knew why bad men wanted her. In the wrong hands, she could be a formidable weapon. In worse hands, she was simply a rich source of food and power.
And in the worst hands…there were unspeakable things that could happen to a girl her age if the demons got their claws on her. Ronan had seen it before.
Little Tori had been taken when she was eight and fed toxic blood that altered her body so she would be capable of carrying the offspring of Synestryn. She’d spent a decade in the dark, poisoned, starved, tortured and raped. When his people finally found her, she was no longer a sweet, little girl. She was violent, bloodthirsty.
His kind had spent gallons of precious blood in an effort to fix her. Cleanse her body. Heal her mind. Every effort failed because there wasn’t enough left of the girl she’d once been to save. She was twisted and dark. Irrevocably broken.
She’d been sent away to another world for her own safety as well as that of the innocents living at Dabyr.
As far as Ronan was concerned, even that distance wasn’t far enough.
He looked at Pepper and made himself a silent promise to keep this child from the same fate. Whatever it took.
“You will be my lookout,” he told her. “If you see anyone coming toward us, tell me right away.”
She nodded around a mouthful of granola.
Ronan slipped into the back of the van to check on Justice.
Her pulse was stronger and slower, thanks to the fluids. She was going to need more, but it was a start.
He laid a hand on her forehead and sought out her mind.
The feel of her skin under his fingers was its own kind of magic. How often had he dreamed about being close enough to her to touch her? She was so smooth and soft on the outside, which warred with her prickly temper and complete lack of trust.
He would have been content to spend the night tracing his fingers over her skin, but that wasn’t going to heal her. He had to focus, no matter how much he ached to get lost in the smooth softness of her body.
Ronan gathered himself and sent a trickle of himself into her mind to check on her.
Lethargy and confusion still swamped her thoughts, but she was drifting quickly upward, out of the thick swamp of unconsciousness.
He needed to get rid of the bloody clothes—hers and Pepper’s. Until he did, the scent could draw countless nasties to them. And while he was now strong enough to take on a small number of demons, he didn’t want to waste the energy he needed to heal in battle.
He undid the restraints holding her on the mattress, unlaced her leather combat boots and pulled them from her feet. They went into a black trash bag, along with her bloody socks. He tried to keep a professional distance as he unbuttoned her jeans and slid them down her long, curvy legs, but the task proved to be impossible.
She was simply too beautiful. He couldn’t put her in the untouchable category of patient, but rather she stayed firmly fixed in place as his deepest, darkest fantasy.
He eased off her jacket then extended a claw and sliced away her shirt, rather than jostle her to remove it over her head. Before he could strip the bloody fabric out from under her, she opened her eyes and grabbed his hand.
Pale, silvery-green eyes stared up at him in shock and anger. “Don’t.”
Her voice was weak, but the look of challenge she gave him was anything but.
“It’s okay. I’m just getting rid of the blood,” he said, flicking a glance to the front seat where Pepper sat munching on her snack. “The demons will smell it and come for her.”
Justice’s grogginess seamed to fade from one instant to the next. She sat up and took in her surroundings in a sweeping glance.
“Where are we?”
“Not far from the rest stop where you passed out.”
“I need to go. Take me back to my car. Now.”
“You’re in no shape to drive. Or make demands.”
Her grip on his wrist tightened. Her voice was quiet but filled to the brim with the promise of violence. “Listen, bloodsucker. Either drive me back to my ride, or I’ll shove you out in the dark and take yours. Your choice.”
“I saved your life, and healed your wounds, and this is how you thank me?” he asked.
She closed her eyes and let out a long breath. The grip on his shirt loosened and she leaned back against the wall of the van. “You should have let me die. I was so close to escaping this bullshit.”
The child stared at them with wide eyes. Her mouth went slack and a chunk of oats fell from the corner.
Ronan gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s just a game we play. Don’t worry. She’s not really mad.” That last bit was laced with a strand of compulsion meant to ease Pepper’s nerves and calm her fear.
She nodded and started chewing again.
He jerked his hand free from Justice’s grasp and pulled the light-blocking curtains closed. It wouldn’t do much to block sound, but at least the child didn’t have to see the defeated look on her princess-turned-rescuer’s face.
“You don’t mean that,” Ronan told Justice. “Tell me what’s going on. Maybe I can help.”
Her breasts swelled beneath her modest bra as she sucked in a resigned breath. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“Why do you have the child?”
“Hell if I know. I haven’t been told yet.”
“Told by whom?”
She closed her eyes. “No idea.”
“Where did you find her?”
“Some asshole was selling her to some guys I know.”
“Yeah. I knew they were lowlife scumbags, but I didn’t know how low. Guess I’ll need to kill Chester Gale now. No way I can let him live.” That last part was delivered with the kind of sigh meant to accompany a distasteful chore, like mopping up a after a leaking toilet, or cleaning up the mess left from a broken trash bag.
“Who are they? What did they want with her?”
She let go of his wrist and waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll deal with it.”
“You’re in no shape to deal with anything. And we really do need to get rid of those bloody clothes. You need to change.”
Ronan cleaned his hands on a wet wipe, then pushed her overnight bag toward her.
“You brought my clothes?” Her tone was skeptical, mistrusting.
“Would you rather wear mine?”
Instead of answering his question, she motioned toward her arm and the tube feeding fluids into it. “You should know that human drugs won’t work on me.”
The idea that she knew that bizarre fact posed more questions than it answered.
“There are no drugs in the bag. Just saline,” he said.
She started picking at the tape holding her IV in place. “So this raging headache I have going is all my own, huh?”
“Dehydration. It will pass if you leave the IV in. So will some of your weakness.”
Another heavy sigh burst out of her and she slumped back against the wall, eyes closing.
Ronan couldn’t help but stare at her body. Even with the bloody bra and panties, even with smears of sticky rust staining her smooth, dark skin, she was stunning.
She was all long and lean, like a predatory cat. Smooth, slender lines curved into sinuous shapes that drew his eye to the swell of her breasts and the shadows between her thighs. Curving, feminine muscles hugged her frame, lending another layer of beauty and intrigue.
She was built like a warrior maiden of old, hard where she had to be and soft everywhere else. She bore a few scars to mar the perfection of her skin—including puncture wounds at her neck that he’d inflicted but had never been given the chance to heal—but even those he found alluring. They made him want to delve into her mind and bathe in her past, to see all the things she’d faced that made her the woman she was now.
He didn’t know why he was drawn to her so completely, but since she’d saved his life a few weeks ago and fed him her blood, he’d spent every waking moment working to find her again so he could say what needed to be said.
“I am so sorry I hurt you, Justice. There’s no excuse for savaging you like I did, but I promise you it will never happen again.”
As he gave his vow, a heavy, comforting weight settled over him and bound him to his word.
She cracked open one pale green eye and studied him. “That was a stupid promise to make.”
“Not stupid. Necessary. I’d take back what I did to you if I could, but—”
“You were starving,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I was food.” A heavy sigh, then a mumbled, “Fucking fates. They’re the ones to blame. They sent me to you that night to be your meal, though I guess to be fair, I let it happen.”
“Fates?” he asked.
She waved a hand. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Justice nodded to the IV. “Can I take this out yet?”
“I don’t suggest it. That’s the fastest way barring magic to get you back in fighting form.”
“Fine. I’ll leave it in until we get back to Ricardo.”
“It’s probably already gone.”
She sat up, expression tight with anger, fists tighter. “Gone?”
“I had to break a window to reach you. Blood was everywhere. I couldn’t leave it sitting there to draw demons, so I had some gerai come get it.”
“I don’t know who or what gerai are, but they’d better be damn careful not to hurt my baby.”
Ronan wasn’t sure how careful two young twenty-somethings would be behind the wheel of a car like that, but he decided to keep that worry to himself. “I’m sure your precious car will be fine. If not, I will replace it.”
“Where are they taking him?”
“Ricardo,” she said, as if here were brain damaged. “Where are they taking my car?”
“Your home? Was this all some elaborate trick to get me behind the walls where you could hold me prisoner?”
If only Ronan had met her under better circumstances, if only he hadn’t hurt her, used her.
But he had, and now he had to pay the price for his actions, no matter how little control he’d had over them at the time.
He gathered up his patience and forced it into his tone. “Dabyr isn’t a prison. It’s a safe place. A stronghold against the Synestryn. You’ll be safe there.”
Another wave of weariness crossed her features and she sagged. “I don’t get to stay in one place. Already the fates are nagging at me to get moving.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Wish I knew,” she said with a longsuffering sigh. “All I know is that I get this itch to do things. If I don’t obey, then the itch turns into a burn, and that turns into searing pain. I’ve learned my lesson enough times to know that obedience is the only way to keep from suffering. So that’s what I do.”
“Which do you do? Obey or suffer?”
She let out a long sigh. “Depends on my mood.”
Ronan had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded horrible. To never be in control of your own actions? To never be able to simply choose to be still? His life often sucked, but that, he couldn’t imagine.
“And these fates?” he asked. “What do they want you to do now?”
She shrugged. “Who knows? All I know is that I need to get back to Ricardo so I can go wherever they want, whenever they want.”
Ronan nodded. “Okay, then. I’ll take you home, to Ricardo. Then we can figure out what needs to come next.”
“You can’t get involved,” she said.
He kept his gaze on her eyes, rather than letting it float down to her sweet breasts, or the mysterious shadows at the cleft of her thighs.
It had been a long time since he’d had energy to waste on wanting a woman, and he’d never wanted one the way he did Justice. Resisting the need to soak in the sight of her was almost more than he could stand.
“I already am involved. And until you’re strong enough to go alone, I’ll take you wherever you want.”
“How do I know you won’t turn vampire on me again?”
He flinched at the use of the derogatory term but kept his hatred of it to himself. “I gave you my word not to hurt you. If you know anything about our kind, then you know that’s binding.”
She studied him for a long time, as if sizing him up. Finally, she gave him a single nod. “We’ll try it your way, but only because I’m too woozy to drive. But it’s only fair to remind you that while you made a promise to me not to hurt me again, I didn’t do the same. One wrong move, and I’ll kill you as easily as I did the ten men before you. Understand?”
Ronan did, and for some reason he couldn’t name, the defeated look on her face broke his heart.