Twice Bitten – Chloe Neill

It was the beginning of Route 66, the spot where “America’s Main Street” began to traverse the United States. Buckingham Fountain, the heart of Grant Park, was named for the brother of the woman who donated the fountain to the city of Chicago. By day, the fountain’s main jet shot one hundred fifty feet into the air, a tower of water between the expanse of Lake Michigan and the expanse of downtown Chicago. But it was late now, and the jets had been turned off for the night. The park was officially closed, but that didn’t stop a handful of stragglers from walking around the fountain or perching on the steps that led down to Lake Shore Drive to take in the view of the dark and gleaming waters of Lake Michigan. I checked my watch. It was eight minutes after midnight. I was here because someone had been leaving me anonymous notes. The first ones mentioned invitations. The last one had invited me to the fountain at midnight, which meant the mysterious someone was eight minutes late. I had no clue who had invited me or why, but I was curious enough to make the drive downtown from my home in Hyde Park. I was also cautious enough to show up with a weapon—a short pearlhandled dagger that was strapped beneath my suit jacket on my left side. The dagger had been a gift from Master vampire Ethan Sullivan to me, the Sentinel of his House of vampires. I probably didn’t look the part of the stereotypical vampire, as the Cadogan House uniform—a slimfit, well-tailored black pantsuit—wasn’t exactly the stuff of horror movies. My long, straight, dark hair was pulled into its usual high ponytail, dark bangs across my forehead.

I’d donned a pair of black Mary Jane-style heels which, my preference for Pumas notwithstanding, looked pretty good with the suit. My beeper was clipped to my waist in case of House emergencies. As House Sentinel, I usually carried a katana, thirty-odd inches of honed steel. But for this meeting, I’d left my katana at home, thinking the sight of a bloodred scabbard strapped to my side might inspire a bit too much attention from human eyes. I was, after all, in the park after hours. The members of the Chicago Police Department were going to be curious enough about that; a three-foot-long samurai sword wasn’t going to instill much confidence that I was here only for introductions and conversation. And speaking of introductions . “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” a voice suddenly said from behind me. I turned, my eyes widening at the vampire who’d addressed me. “Noah?” More specifically, it was Noah Beck, leader of Chicago’s Rogue vampires—the ones not tied to a particular House.

Noah was bulky—broad shoulders topping a muscular frame. His brown hair stood up in spiky whorls. His eyes were blue, and tonight his jaw bore a trace of stubble. Noah wasn’t cover-model handsome, but with the build, strong jaw, and slightly crooked nose, he could fill the leading role in an action movie with no problems. He was dressed, as he usually was, in unrelieved black: black cargo pants, black boots, and a snug, ribbed black T-shirt to replace the long-sleeved version he’d worn in cooler weather. “You asked to meet me?” “I did,” he said. When a few seconds passed without elaboration, I tilted my head at him. “Why not just call me and ask for a meeting?” Or better yet, I thought, why not call Ethan? He was usually more than willing to send me into the arms of needy vampires. Noah crossed his arms over his chest, his expression so serious that his down-thrust chin nearly touched his shirt. “Because you belong to Sullivan, and this meeting isn’t about him.

It’s about you. If I’d signed those notes, I figured you would’ve felt obligated to tell him about the meet.” “I belong to Cadogan House,” I clarified, making it known that I didn’t, contrary to popular opinion, belong to Ethan. Not that I hadn’t considered it. “That means I can’t guarantee I won’t spill whatever you tell me,” I added, letting a small smile curl my lips. “But that depends on what you tell me.” Noah uncrossed his arms, slipped a hand into one of his pants pockets, and pulled out a thin red card. Holding the card between two fingers, he extended it toward me. I knew what it would say before I took it from him. It would bear the initials “RG” and the white stamp of a flower-like fleur-de-lis.

An identical card had been left in my room in Cadogan House, but I still didn’t know what it meant. “What’s ‘RG’?” I asked him, returning the card. Noah took it, slipping it back into his pocket. Then he looked around, crooked a finger at me, and began walking toward the Lake. Eyebrows raised, I followed him. That was when the history lesson began. “The French Revolution was a crucial time for European vampires,” he said as we walked down the steps that led from the park to the street below. “When the Reign of Terror struck, vampires got caught up in the hysteria—not unlike humans. But when the vampires began to turn over their fellow Novitiates and Masters to the military, when they were guillotined in the street, the members of the Conseil Rouge, the counsel that governed vampires before the Greenwich Presidium took power, began to panic.” “That was the Second Clearing, right?” I asked.

“French vampires squealed about their friends to ensure their own safety. Unfortunately, the vamps they turned over to the mobs were executed.” Noah nodded. “Exactly. Conseil vampires were old, well established. They enjoyed their immortality, and they weren’t eager to become mob victims. So they organized a group of vampires to protect them. Vampires willing to take aspen for them.” “A vampire Secret Service?” “That’s not a bad analogy,” he agreed. “The vampires who were asked to serve named themselves the Red Guard.

” Hence the RG. “And since you gave me the card, I’m guessing you’re one yourself?” “A card-carrying member, quite literally.” We crossed the street to the lawn in front of the Lake, then walked across grass to the concrete shoreline. When we stopped, I glanced over at Noah, wondering why I was getting the history lesson and the details on his secret life. “Okay, interesting history lesson, but what does all this have to do with me?” “Impatient, are you?” I cocked an eyebrow. “I agreed to a secret midnight meeting you didn’t want my Master to know about. You’re actually getting profound restraint.” Noah smiled back slowly, wolfishly, his lips gradually spreading to reveal straight white teeth— and needle-sharp fangs. “Why, Merit, I’m surprised you haven’t guessed yet. I’m here to recruit you.

” It was a full minute before he spoke again. In the meantime, we stood in silence, the two of us staring out at the Lake and the bobbing lights of sailboats near the shore. I’m not sure what he was thinking about, but I was contemplating his offer. “Things have changed since the RG was founded,” Noah finally said, his voice booming in the darkness. “We make sure the Presidium doesn’t overstep its authority, like a check and balance on the power of the GP. We also ensure the balance of power between Masters and Novitiates stays relatively stable. Sometimes we investigate. On rare occasions, we clean up.” So, to summarize, Noah wanted me to join an organization whose main goal was keeping Master vampires and GP members from having too much power, or from using that power indiscriminately; an organization whose members spied on their Masters. I blew out a slow breath, something tightening in my stomach.

I didn’t know Ethan’s position on the Red Guard, but I had no doubt he would see my joining them as the betrayal of all betrayals. Serving as a Red Guard would pit me directly against Ethan, charging me, a Novitiate vampire, with watching and judging him. Ethan and I didn’t have an easy relationship; our interactions were an uncomfortable tug-of-war between our being confidants and colleagues. But this went far beyond our usual brand of mutual irritation. In fact, it was exactly the kind of thing Ethan already feared I’d do—spy on the House. He may not have known about the RG invite, but he knew my grandfather, Chuck Merit, served as a supernatural liaison to the city of Chicago, and he knew my family—the Merits (yes, Merit is my last name)—was connected to Seth Tate, mayor of Chicago. Those ties were close enough to concern him. Involvement in something like this would be the icing on the conniption-fit cake. And that begged an interesting question. “Why me?” I asked Noah.

“I’m only two months old, and I’m not exactly warrior material.” “You fit our profile,” he said. “You were made a vampire without consent; maybe because of that, you seem to have a different kind of relationship with your Master. You’re a child of wealth, but you’ve seen its abuses. As Sentinel, you’re becoming a soldier, but you’ve been a scholar. You’ve sworn your oaths to Ethan, but you’re skeptical enough not to blindly follow directions.” It was a list of traits that probably made Ethan nervous on a daily basis. But Noah seemed convinced they were just the kind of things he was looking for. “And what is it, exactly, that I’d be doing?” “At this point, we’d like a latent player. You’d remain in Cadogan House, stand Sentinel, and stay in communication with your partner.

” I lifted my eyebrows. “My partner?” “We work in pairs,” Noah said, then bobbed his head at something behind me. “Right on cue.” I glanced back, just as the vampire reached us at the shoreline. He was well suited to spying; even with my improved hearing, I hadn’t heard him approach. This vamp was tall and lean, with longish auburn hair that just reached his shoulders, blue eyes set beneath long brows, and a chiseled chin. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a collar, the bottom tucked into his jeans. Tattoos ringed each bicep —a flying angel on one arm, a slinking devil on the other. I wondered what he was conflicted about. The newcomer nodded curtly at me, then looked at Noah.

“Merit, Sentinel, Cadogan House,” Noah said to him, then glanced at me. “Jonah, Guard Captain, Grey House.” “Guard Captain?” I asked aloud, shocked to the core that the Captain of Scott Grey’s own House guards was also a member of the Red Guard. A vampire in a position of trust, whose purpose in the House was to guard the Master, to keep him safe, moonlighting for an organization with an inherent distrust of Masterdom? I guessed it wasn’t the kind of thing Scott Grey would be thrilled to learn. And seriously—was I channeling Ethan Sullivan or what? “If you accept our offer,” Noah said, “Jonah will be your partner.” I looked over at Jonah and found his gaze already on me, his brow furrowed. There was curiosity— but also disdain—in his eyes. He apparently wasn’t too impressed with what he’d seen so far of the Cadogan Sentinel. But since I wasn’t interested in going to war with Ethan and thus had no plans to become Jonah’s partner, I managed not to care. I shook my head at Noah.

“It’s too much to ask.” “I understand your reticence,” he said. “I know what it means to take the oaths to your House. I’ve taken them, too. But for better or worse, Celina’s been released. I’d lay short odds on our futures being decidedly more violent than our recent past.” “Not great odds,” I solemnly agreed. We’d put an end to the killing spree of Celina Desaulniers, former Navarre House Master. We’d promised the city of Chicago that she was tucked away in a European dungeon, serving time for arranging those murders, but the GP had put Celina back into circulation. She no longer had control of Navarre House, and she blamed me for that inconvenience.

She’d come back to Chicago annoyed about her incarceration and eager for a fight. Noah smiled sadly, as if he understood the direction of my thoughts. “The sorcerers have already predicted that war will come,” he said. “We’re afraid that’s inevitable. Too many vampires have too much pent-up animosity toward humans to keep peace forever—and vice versa—and Celina has done a bang-up job of rousing them. She plays an unfortunately good martyr.” “And that doesn’t even touch the shifter issue,” Jonah pointed out. “Shape-shifters and vampires have a long, bloody history, but that’s not stopping the Packs from heading to Chicago.” He glanced at me. “Word is, they’re meeting this week.

That fit with what you’ve heard?” I debated whether I should answer, thus giving away a precious bit of Cadogan House-gleaned information, but I opted to tell him. It’s not like the info would be kept under wraps for long. “Yes. We’ve heard they’ll be here within the week.” “Reps of all four Packs in Chicago,” Noah muttered, eyes on the ground. “That’s like the Hatfields moving in with the McCoys. A centuries-old feud, and the warring parties camping out in the same city. It reeks of trouble.” He sighed. “Look, “I’m just asking you to consider it.

The only thing we’d ask of you now is a commitment to remain in Cadogan House on standby until . ” Until, he’d said, as if he believed a coming conflict was inevitable. “You’d remain latent until we can’t keep the peace any longer. At that point, you’d have to be prepared to join us full-time. You’d have to be prepared to leave the House.” I’m sure there was shock in my expression. “You’d want me to leave Cadogan House without a Sentinel in the middle of a war?” “Think a little more broadly,” Jonah put in. “You’d be offering your services, your skills, to all vampires, irrespective of their House affiliation. The RG would offer you a chance to stand for all vampires, not just Masters.” Not for just Ethan, he meant.

I’d no longer be Ethan’s Sentinel, his vampire. Instead, I’d be a vampire who stood apart from the Houses, from the Masters, from the Presidium, in order to keep the universe of vampires safe . and keep Celina and her rabble-rousers at bay. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the request or the RG. “I need time to process this,” I told them. Noah nodded. “This is a serious decision, and it deserves serious consideration. It’s about your willingness to step outside your House to ensure all vampires are well protected.” “How can I reach you?” I asked, and wondered whether that question alone meant I’d crossed a line I wouldn’t be able to step back from. “I’m in the phone book, listed as a security consultant.

In the meantime, we haven’t spoken, and you’ve never met Jonah. Tell no one—friends, relatives, colleagues. But consider this, Merit: Who needs a Sentinel more? The vampires of Cadogan House, who have a corps of trained guards and a powerful Master at the helm . or the rest of us?” With that, he and Jonah turned and walked away, fading into the darkness of the night. CHAPTER TWO FIRE IN THE BLOOD One Week Later The intent, I think, was perfectly innocent. We’d been called together, the vampires of Cadogan House, for a demonstration of self-defense techniques. It wasn’t unusual that we were training— vampires were expected to be able to fend for themselves. After all, thousands of years of living beneath the human radar tended to make them a little paranoid. And Ethan and I were enjoying our own (also perfectly innocent) training sessions as I learned to wield my vampire strength. But Ethan decided that circumstances (i.

e., Celina) necessitated more training. I hadn’t been equipped to take on Celina when she’d shown up at the House a week ago to attack me. And if I, the vampire Ethan was convinced was stronger than most, couldn’t do it, he was understandably nervous about the safety of the rest of Cadogan’s three hundred nineteen vampires. So I’d made the trek from my second-floor room to the Sparring Room in the basement of Cadogan House. Lindsey, a fellow House guard and my bestest vampire friend, had joined me so we could learn how to better protect ourselves from Chicago’s special brand of vampire crazy. We hadn’t expected to get a peep show in the bargain. “Dear God,” Lindsey said breathlessly as we stepped into the Sparring Room. We stopped at the edge of the tatami mats that covered the floor, lips parted and eyes wide as we surveyed the sight before us. Two vampires in the prime of their immortal lives moved across the floor, muscles flexing as they grappled, bare-handed, in attempts to throw the other down.

They were sparring without weapons, no swords or steel, using hands and feet, elbows and knees, and the extra physical bite of being vampire. And they were half naked. Both were sparring barefoot and shirtless, wearing martial arts-style white gi pants, the gleaming gold disks of their Cadogan House medals around their necks. Lindsey’s gaze was locked on Luc, Captain of the Cadogan House guards. Luc was a former cowboy turned vampire soldier, complete with broad shoulders, fuzzy chest, and curly, sun-streaked hair that he suddenly stopped to push out of his face, muscles tensing as he moved. Across from Luc was his opponent: Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House and the threehundred-ninety-four-year-old vampire who’d brought me into the world of the fanged—without my consent, but admittedly because my other option had been a speedy death. He stood a little more than six feet tall, and the top half of that six feet—the long, lean line of flat stomach and high pecs, along with the trail of blond hair that dipped down from his navel and disappeared into the waistband of his pants—glistened as he swiveled for a roundhouse kick. Luc, I think, was supposed to be playing the attacker, but Ethan was doing a fine job of holding him off. For all the Armani suits and supermodel-good looks, Ethan was a skilled warrior—something I’d been forced to remember when I’d swung my katana at his throat a few nights ago. As I watched him fight, goose bumps pebbled my arms.

I assumed my blue irises were shifting to silver as heat began to rise through my body, the fire fanned by the sight of Ethan in motion, dipping and weaving and spinning as he faced down his opponent. I wet my lips, suddenly bloodthirsty even though I’d had convenience blood, bagged by our supplier, Blood4You, less than twenty-four hours ago. And, more important, I’d taken blood directly from a vampire only a week ago. I’d taken blood directly from him. He’d fed me during the final chapter of my transition to vampire, when I’d awoken with a thirst so strong for blood I would have killed to get it. But I hadn’t needed violence. Ethan had offered his wrist willingly, and I’d taken full advantage, watching his eyes silver as I took the nutrition that somehow sealed my transformation to predator, to vampire. I smoldered as I watched him, his muscles shifting and flexing as he moved with the slinking grace of a panther. I could have justified the warmth in my belly, called my reaction a consequence of my now fully functioning vampire biology, the result of watching a predator in his prime, or a Novitiate’s attraction to the Master who made her. But that didn’t do Ethan Sullivan justice—not even close.

He was almost too handsome to be real, with blond hair framing a gorgeous face, cheekbones that New York models would pay for, eyes that shone like chips of emerald. Six feet of golden skin stretched taut over muscle, and I could attest that all six feet were equally perfect. I’d caught an accidental glimpse of Ethan as he was satisfying his former mistress, who’d betrayed him to join Celina’s band of merry evildoers. It wasn’t hard to imagine that he was the top of whatever food chain we belonged to—not when you watched his long, lean lines moving across the room. Not when you watched the tiny bead of sweat that was slowly—ever so slowly—tracing its way down the middle of Ethan’s flat abdomen, one brick of muscle at a time, just threatening to slip into the waistband of his pants. To be sure, Ethan felt the attraction as well. He’d offered to make me his mistress even before Amber decamped to join Team Desaulniers. We’d shared a couple of kisses, but I’d managed to resist taking him up on the rest of his offers. Ethan wanted me, without doubt. And I wasn’t stupid enough to argue his attractiveness, which was undeniable.

But Ethan was also completely infuriating—slow to trust, easy to accuse—and still not entirely sure how he felt about me. Not to mention his baggage: his smug sense of superiority and his willingness to use those around him, including me, to meet political goals. There was also the fact that our last kiss had occurred less than twenty-four hours before I’d broken off my fledgling relationship with Morgan Greer, the vampire who replaced Celina as Master of Navarre House. I’d walked away from that kiss with fire in my blood and guilt in my heart. Surely I could find a relationship with a better concoction of emotions. Once I had that thought in mind, my rationality returning, my blood began to cool. “It should be illegal for smug vampires to look that good,” Lindsey said, clucking her tongue. “That is so true,” I agreed, thinking a little less hotness would make my relationship with Ethan a lot simpler. I lifted my gaze away from the fighting vampires to scan the rest of the room. The balcony that ringed the Sparring Room was filled with vampires, men and women.

The women, and a few of the men, stared at the action below them, eyes hooded, cheeks flushed, all of them enjoying the sights below. “On the other hand, they’re the ones creating this pec-tacle.” I slid her a glance, arching an eyebrow. “Pec-tacle?” “You know, like spectacle”—she paused to point at her breasts—“but with more dude nipples. Do you disagree?” I returned my gaze to the Master vampire who was currently leaning over to pick up a bokken, a wooden practice weapon, from the mat. Muscles clenched and tensed as he moved, nipples pert on his chest. “Far be it from me to disagree,” I said. “They have created quite a pec-tacle. And when they put it out there like that, they can hardly expect us not to look.” Lindsey gave me a nod of approval.

“I don’t know where the bravado comes from, but I like it.” “I’m trying it on,” I whispered back, which was true. The transition to vampire hadn’t been easy— psychologically or physically—but I was beginning to get the hang of it. I’d essentially gone through the physical change twice, since the first time around hadn’t quite taken. (Ethan, in a fit of guilt, had drugged me through the first transition, which apparently forestalled the complete change.) That was on top of my move out of the Wicker Park brownstone I’d shared with my former roommate—and former best friend and nascent sorceress—Mallory, and into Cadogan House. I’d managed to hold my own when dealing with my parents and their fusty friends, a step I’d taken at Ethan’s request when we were trying to keep vampire raves out of the press. And, not counting the two times I’d faux-battled Ethan, I’d managed to subdue Celina approximately fifty percent of the times she’d come looking for a fight, which wasn’t awful, as batting averages went. With that excitement under my belt, here I was, a new vampire in the historic position of Sentinel, guarding the House against creatures both living and dead. I’d gone from graduate student to vampire fighter nearly overnight.

And now Noah Beck wanted to be the one to capitalize on that. “Merit. Merit.” Although Lindsey said my name at least a couple of times, it was the jostling that finally did it, breaking me from the memory of my meeting with Noah and bringing me back to the Cadogan House Training Room, to Lindsey, who’d nudged me with her shoulder to get my attention, and to Ethan, who stood before me, hands on his hips, shoulder-length blond hair tied back, one eyebrow arched condescendingly. Luc was nowhere in sight . and all eyes were on me. “Um, yes?” I asked. The vampires snickered. “If you’re finished with your daydreams,” Ethan said into the silence of the room, “perhaps you might consider joining me?” “Sorry, Liege,” I muttered, and stepped out of flip-flops and onto the mats, sheathed katana in hand. I was already in my training ensemble—a black sports-bra-type top and yoga pants.

I followed Ethan to the middle of the floor, very aware that dozens of vampires were following our movements. He stopped, turned to face me, and bowed. I did the same. “It is important,” he began, loud enough for all to hear, “that you be prepared, should the need arise, to fight. And to master that fight, you must first master the steps. As you also know, our Sentinel hasn’t yet mastered the art of sparring. ” He paused just long enough to give me a pointed look. So sparring wasn’t my thing. I was good at the Katas—the building blocks of vampire sword fighting. I’d been a ballet dancer, and there was something very dancerly about the moves.

They were positions, forms, steps that I could memorize and practice and, by repetition, perfect. Sparring was different. Having grown up with my nose in a book, I had no experience at fighting beyond a couple of experimental kickboxing classes and a few run-ins with Celina and her assorted minions. I knew my weakness. I spent too much time trying to think through the fight—trying to find an attacker’s weaknesses, to exploit them—while at the same time trying to keep from overthinking the fight. That had become even harder in the last week, as I’d worked with Luc to keep the cacophony of smells and sounds that threatened, post-change, to overwhelm me, down to a dull roar. “But her work with the Katas is unparalleled.” He arched an eyebrow at me—half challenge, half insult—and took a step backward. “Sentinel,” he said, his voice lower now, the order just for me, “Katas, if you please.” “Liege,” I said.

I lifted my sword with both hands, my right hand on the handle, left hand on the sheath, and moved my hands apart, unsheathing it with a quick whistle of sound, light glinting from the polished steel. I walked to the edge of the mat and placed the lacquered sheath on the floor beside it. Then, with all the confidence and bravado I could muster—easier now that I’d been asked to join a secret corps of vampire warriors—I returned to him, faced him, and gripped the katana in both hands. “Begin,” he ordered, and took steps backward, giving me room. There were seven two-handed Katas and three more single-handed moves. Those were new to me. But I’d been practicing the traditional Katas since I’d become a vampire, and, frankly, I wanted to show off a little. In the week that we’d been working together, Ethan had seen me practice the Katas only in traditional fashion— one Kata at a time, my movements timed and precise. But that wasn’t all I could do. I bladed my body, katana poised before me.

“Fast or slow?” He frowned. “Fast or slow?” I smiled cannily beneath my fringe of bangs. “Pick your speed.” “Vampires?” he asked aloud, but his gaze on me. “Fast or slow?” There were “slow” stragglers, but the majority requested “fast.” “Fast, it seems,” he said. I nodded, centered my weight, and moved. The first kata brought the sword arcing across my body, then returning to the center position. The second was a downward strike. The third and fourth were combinations.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh were combinations with spins and parries. In traditional form, when the focus was on precision and control, each Kata took ten or fifteen seconds. But done fast, I could work through the entire set in twenty seconds. I’d learned speed from my former trainer, Catcher, a sorcerer with a penchant for katanas and sword fighting. (He was also, not coincidentally, Mallory’s boyfriend and my grandfather’s employee.) Catcher demanded I practice the moves over and over, thinking repetition would force the muscle memory. It had—and it had allowed me to use my increased vampire strength, speed, and agility to push the forms into a single dance of movement so quick my body blurred with the speed of it. After I’d challenged Ethan in our second duel, he decided he needed to supplant Catcher as my trainer. But he didn’t know how much Catcher had taught me. I finished the seventh form, spun to a stop, sword between my hands, perpendicular before my body.

The lights above us caught the gentle curve of the steel, the entire room suddenly silent. Ethan stared. “Do it again,” he said, his words barely audible, a glint in his eyes. I didn’t mistake the glint for lust. Although the chemistry between us was keen, Ethan was unambiguously, ubiquitously political— always maneuvering.

.

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