“What the hell?” I screeched, stepping onto soggy carpet. Putrid water squelched and flowed around the soles of my battered tennis shoes, staining them a very nasty brown. My living room was a swamp of filth and muck. I covered my mouth. The smell was worse than the dumpster behind the Seafood Shack. And that said a lot.
“Miss Bailey!” George, the maintenance man for the apartment complex, poked his head out of my closet-sized kitchen. “Miss, you can’t be in here. We’re trying to get the water shut off. But this is dirty water. It’s not safe.”
He wore black rubber waders and gloves and held a giant wrench in one hand and a radio in the other.
“The sewage line in the apartment above yours. It leaked.”
“A leak? This looks more like an eruption.”
“I’m very sorry. Everything here is ruined.”
No shit. My living room ceiling was now in the middle of my floor. Water dripped from the edges of the still-remaining pieces of sheetrock onto the couch I’d found on a curb down the street. Not a huge financial loss, but it was my only piece of furniture other than my bed. I moved so often, I didn’t have the money or the time to collect any other decor.
Sooner or later, he would show up. He always did. This time it had been sooner. Thankfully I’d spotted his car outside the restaurant before I’d gone in for my shift this morning.
My abusive ex Kevin Holt was an investigator for the SECR (Southeast Coast Republic), and the good ol‘ boys there always seemed to help him figure out where I’d gone. I’d changed my last name a half-dozen times, but it didn’t seem to matter. His tenacity was an admirable trait for a man in his profession, but exhausting in a stalker.
So I just kept moving. Eventually he would get tired of chasing me. Right?
Four years and he hadn’t tired yet. I thought running to the Texas Republic would slow down his hunt. Maybe even make him give up on ever finding me.
He hated Others and Texas was full of them. The other three republics had banned Others from becoming citizens. Texas, joined by Louisiana, New Mexico, and Colorado, opened its doors to all, avoiding both riots and economic turmoil. It went about its business while the rest of the states were nothing more than dictatorships under the guise of republics. At least that’s what my tenth-grade history teacher told us before he was removed from his position for being a sympathizer in the SECR. It also helped that Texas was a major supplier of oil and gas. The other three republics depended on those shipments.
Someone hollering from my kitchen distracted George long enough for me to tiptoe as best I could around the mess and into my bedroom. More of the ceiling looked like it was about to come down, so I had to move quickly.
Other than the stuff on the floor—which unfortunately was almost everything—nothing else was wet. It was tough to keep things off the floor when you didn’t have money for a dresser.
After stuffing my purse with a few of the dry clothes hanging in the closet, I darted to the bathroom, but gagged at the stench and quickly closed the door on that disaster. If it smelled that bad, I didn’t need it.
The mucky carpet sucked at the soles of my shoes, threatening to steal them off my feet as I hurried out the front door. It was the end of most of my meager belongings. I tried not to think about it. I had to get moving.
Out of habit, I studied the parking lot for Kevin’s large, blue pickup truck.
Nothing. At least he hadn’t tracked me here…yet. Maybe I still had a chance to shake him.
Fate was giving me a double kick in the ass out of Fort Worth. I just wished I’d had more than three months to recoup from the last move. I didn’t even have enough money for a bus ticket.
There had to be a better way to survive in this world.
I made it safely to the park behind the complex and stopped for a moment to catch my breath.
A warm breeze tossed my long bangs back and forth across my face. I was trying really hard not to wallow, but despair crept in. He’d gotten so close. What if I hadn’t seen his truck? I wiped a tear from my cheek and shuddered. My hand rubbed my shoulder, remembering the pain I’d been in when I ran the first time. He’d been so angry.
I never saw the bat coming.
* * *
A storm loomed on the horizon.
The sun was setting, turning the sky fiery shades of orange. And the wind had picked up, too. I could smell the rain in the air. Sticky. Hot. It curled around me, squeezing like a boa constrictor, threatening to choke the last spark of life from my tired, worn body.
My eyes fluttered closed and my head did the nod thing, jolting me back awake. I couldn’t afford to fall asleep. Not out in the open. Gravel crunched behind me and I stumbled to my feet. A burly giant of the Fort Worth Sheriff’s Department was about ten feet away.
“You can’t sleep here, ma’am.”
“I know.” I hurried down the path away from him. I wouldn’t be the only homeless person he chased out of the park that night. The coming storm would do most of the grunt work for him, though. The homeless would flock to the train yard and overpasses to avoid the coming downpour.
I didn’t have that luxury. Hitting the road was my only choice, but walking the highway at night was stupid. I needed a safe place to rest until morning.
My stomach growled as I hurried along, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since the night before. I usually ate at the restaurant for free after working my shift. The tantalizing scent of hamburgers and fries drifted on the breeze from the restaurants up the hill and I sighed.
I had avoided Kevin for now, but a strange guy in a suit had been following me for the last few minutes on the park path. I’d only noticed him because he seemed so out of place. No one walked through the park in a full suit. Especially not in the sweltering heat of a Texas August.
I looked over my shoulder again and saw nothing. Strange, he’d been there only a few moments ago. The sound of his dress shoes on the concrete had been very distinct.
Throwing the strap of my large purse over my neck, I started jogging again. Sweat ran down my face, between my breasts and soaked the back of my shirt. Everything clung and rubbed uncomfortably in the nearly unbearable humidity.
There was a huge bus station only a couple blocks away. It was grand central for the city of Fort Worth. I should be able to get a little catnap and a snack from a vending machine. Plus, it was public. Maybe the creepy-suit-guy would wander off for an easier target. I might be having a shitty day, but I knew how to run and he shouldn’t be able to keep up in that heavy wool.
The stairs leading up the hill and out of the park were only a few yards away. I never looked back. Taking them two at a time, I cleared the two-level flight in only a couple of minutes. Another glance over my shoulder assured me the staircase was still empty.
There were street lamps along the sidewalk from here to the bus station, lots of cars and some foot traffic. People and cars meant safety. Black market traffickers wouldn’t snatch someone on a busy road.
A nice-looking Mustang pulled up alongside me, but I kept walking, focusing on the large bus station straight ahead. The soft whir of the passenger window sliding down made my heart race.
Only one more block.
I could make it one more block.
I had to.
“Hey, baby. You need some money? I could really use a drink and you look delicious.”
A vampire. Great. I wasn’t some common blood whore. I’d never been that desperate and I still wasn’t. “Not interested.” I turned away from him and focused on the bus station doors.
“Your loss, baby. I could rock your world.”
Yeah, right into the grave or into a cage. Girls who hooked on the street were the ones who always went missing. A good whore knew to find a brothel to protect her from being sold as a slave.
The black Mustang peeled out, and I released the breath I’d been holding.
A few more steps got me to the sparkling glass doors of the bus station. I waited for them to slide open and then I slipped inside, shivering at the blast from the AC. The cool air conditioning felt like the restaurant’s walk-in freezer compared to the hot sticky mess outside, and all the sweat on my body and clothes crystalized instantly. It would be a long night in these arctic-like temperatures. I didn’t have anything in my bag but a couple of extra tank tops, a few pairs of underwear I’d snatched from my bed, and a pair of yoga pants. The smelly jeans I wore were the warmest thing I had. Too bad my sweatshirt had been in my flooded bathroom.
It was crazy that I had to worry about being cold in Texas—in August.
I crossed the lobby to the snack machine and put in a few quarters. It was the last of my cash after paying my rent yesterday. One lonely bag of animal crackers fell into the basket. I took my snack to the nearest bench and tucked my legs under my body. People were less likely to sit down next to me with my legs taking up so much space. Plus, the putrid smell from my apartment still lingered on me and was less than desirable. I didn’t even want to be next to me.
As my head did the nodding thing again, I let myself drift a little this time. I needed a few naps this evening if I was walking out of Fort Worth tomorrow.
My eyes opened and refocused every time I heard the front doors slide open, making napping very difficult. But being surprised by someone was not on my agenda. Survival meant not being caught unaware.
People came and went. No one bothered me. No one asked me why I was there. The doors opened again and a sense of dread spread through my being, not unlike the sickening feeling I used to get when Kevin came home from work.
Into the station walked creepy-suit-guy. Brown curls brushed against his shoulders and his skin was dark. His eyes glistened an inhuman shade of lavender in the florescent light. Holy shit! He was a Djinn. No wonder I’d lost him in the park a couple of times. Teleporting, creepy psychopaths. They were always on the governments most wanted lists. I would’ve stood a better chance with the horny vampire in the Mustang.
A few people looked up when he walked in, but no one said anything. Most of them moved to the opposite side of the lobby. Djinn weren’t on the list of friendly Others. They were diabolical and evil and most everyone knew to avoid them. Their lavender eyes, if not hidden by contacts, made them easy to recognize. Though most didn’t even try to hide what they were. They enjoyed the fear their presence elicited—fed off of it.
A moment later, the door opened again and the picture of male perfection entered the bus station, right behind the creep. He had wavy, blond hair, unnaturally bright jewel-blue eyes, and broad shoulders. His chest tapered to a narrow waist and what could only be washboard abs hidden beneath a casual polo shirt. As much as I avoided men, this one was worth a double look, even if he was a vampire.
I liked him even more when he glared at the Djinn and walked straight toward me.
The Djinn frowned and turned away from me, focusing his gaze toward the giant map on the wall to his right.
I turned back to the blond giant who’d settled himself on the bench next to me and smiled. His grin melted right through my frazzled nerves. Why were all these guys coming out of the woodwork when I was just trying to get away from one?
“Where are you headed, kjaere? You know it’s dangerous to be out at this hour alone and so upset. Your pheromones are broadcasting your location to the entire area, especially after that jaunt through the park.”
Pheromones? Shit. I’d heard Djinn were attracted to human anxiety, but I thought vamps just smelled blood. I moved away from him a few inches. It didn’t really help, but it made me feel better.
He was dressed like an average human, loose jeans and a white polo. Nothing fancy or out of place. His accent indicated a little something foreign mixed into his Texas twang. But those eyes gave him away. All vampires had bright, teal blue eyes—like rare gems that could’ve been cut from photos of a tropical ocean paradise.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I hoped he didn’t hear the tremble in my voice. I didn’t want to end up kidnapped and on my way to some foreign slave auction on the black market. Although, being his personal slave might not be so bad. He couldn’t be worse than my ex.
This sexy giant sitting next to me oozed sexuality and dominance—most vampires did. The waitresses at the Seafood Shack were always saying it was the vampires’ confidence that made them attractive. Maybe. Mostly I just appreciated the fact that he acted as Djinn repellant for the time being.
I did my best to stay away from everyone, including the supernatural population. Texas was the only republic of the former United States that allowed Others to be citizens—equal rights and whatnot. I’d lived in both the SECR and the Washington Republic, but the Texas Republic was my favorite so far. People stayed out of your business, for the most part. And there were fewer restrictions on the citizens here than in the other republics.
“Is your bus leaving soon, kjaere?” He was questioning my travel plans again, stretching his arm along the top of the bench behind me. His gaze scanned the room, and I followed it across the lobby to the Djinn, who hadn’t left the map area.
I didn’t think the vampire would try anything out in the open, but his nearness made me nervous all the same. I’d lived in the worst of the worst neighborhoods and people got attacked all the time. Vampires were just careful enough to make the attacks look like human violence now that they were out in the open.
Still, I was a less-than-desirable target for either of these supernatural predators. I smelled terrible and looked worse. My long bangs were plastered to my temples and me and my bag held just enough of the sewage stench from my apartment to make even my human nose wrinkle in disgust. Why the hell were these guys following me?
I’d had just about enough, but when I moved to get up, his deep voice hissed in my ear and I froze. “Be still.”
The command struck a dormant chord within me, making me shiver. But it wasn’t fear I felt. It was something else, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“He is stalking you.”
I knew that. But it’s not like I could pretend the entire day hadn’t happened. I was homeless, still starving, and had no other options than to sit in this freezing cold bus station until the Djinn decided to leave me alone.
“You don’t have a ticket, do you?” his voice rumbled. My jaw quivered and he leaned back, giving me a little breathing room.
I shook my head and stared at the floor. My mind processed through a thousand ideas a minute. Maybe I could slip out a bathroom window and lose them both. I already had Kevin chasing me. Why did these guys have to show up and add more stress to my imploding day?
“Do you have family?”
Again with the personal invasion of privacy. “Who are you?” I snapped. Why did he think I would tell a perfect stranger, a vampire nonetheless, if I had a family who would miss me after he grabbed me. I might think he was drop-dead gorgeous, but I wasn’t born yesterday.
Then he completely surprised me.
He smiled. Again.
Not a little grin. A whopping ear-to-ear smile, like a guy who’d just found out he was getting laid. My heart did a little pitter-patter and some of my resolve melted away, along with my fear. But I was feeling confused, too. Why did he care?
“You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. She was brave like you, kjaere. I admire that. My name is Erick Thorson. I’m headed home after a long overdue visit to my sister in Dallas. When I realized Darius was tracking you, I followed as well.” He nodded toward the Djinn.
His admission seemed quite open, but my inner skeptic still took rein. “So what, you intend to share me with your pal?”
He growled and I saw just a hint of his fangs. “I have no such intentions. I would never share you with any man.”
“I’m not yours to share.” Jerk!
He cocked his head to the side and stared. “No of course not, I meant if you were mine, kjaere.”
The twinkle of amusement in his eyes confused me further. I’d said nothing to amuse him. Nothing to make him think I was his. And yet … I couldn’t erase the thought of being his. Something was terribly wrong with me.
“Where are you going?” The question just slipped out. What did it matter where he was going? I needed to get as far away from Fort Worth as possible, and I didn’t intend to go anywhere with him. But a part of me felt like I could.
I had a feeling he wouldn’t let Kevin or anyone else near me. Maybe he could just eat Kevin for me and … what am I thinking? I can’t ask some strange vampire to eat my ex and not expect him to want something in return.
Me, for example.
I took a deep breath and tried to clear the murderous and selfish thoughts from my head. When I looked up, he was still staring. His gaze alone felt all-consuming. Hungry.
My head told me to get away, but the tired, lonely, and beaten woman inside me wanted to trust the kindness I heard in his voice.
“I’m going home to Sanctuary,” he whispered, glancing over at the Djinn again.
That sounded nice. A sanctuary. Somewhere to rest. Maybe a small town would be a good place to stay for a little while. Wait? Was I seriously considering following this vampire home? What if he was crazy? Or hid me away in his place and drank my blood? Or killed me?
His beautiful blue eyes caught my gaze and my worries seemed to vanish into their depths. If he offered, I would totally follow him home.
“What is it like there? Is it small?” I asked.
“You could say it’s on the small side. Less than a thousand souls.” He paused and glanced around the lobby again.
I followed his gaze and noticed the Djinn was gone. A sigh of relief slipped from between my lips.
“He will be back. Darius doesn’t give up that easily.”
“What?” I sucked in a breath. “You know him?”
“We have an unpleasant history.” He reached out and tucked a loose strand of my wayward hair behind my ear.
His touch sent a shiver of excitement racing through my body. When had my fear morphed into arousal?
“You will be safe in Sanctuary.”
I looked down at the floor again and then back up into his mesmerizing eyes. The last of my resistance melted away. I was so tired of running. Maybe it was time to take a chance on a man again, even a supernatural one.
“Won’t he just follow us there?” It sounded too good to be true. Skepticism and an inability to trust anyone had kept me safe from Kevin for four years. Was it wise to give away that control to a stranger? To a vampire?
“The Djinn are not welcome there. He would not dare follow you.”
“How do you manage that?”
“An old enemy of theirs calls Sanctuary home.”
“There’s something worse than a Djinn?”
He chuckled. “There are things much, much worse, kjaere. But nothing you need to fret about.”
Nothing I needed to fret about? Who talks like that? How old was he? No. I didn’t want to know that. It didn’t matter.
“I don’t have money for a ticket, much less a place to stay.” I hated to ask for charity, but there was a first time for everything and I was in a desperate situation. Kevin would be checking bus stations soon and I needed to be gone by dawn, if not before.
He raised an eyebrow and stared for a moment before answering. “I will cover the ticket and you are more than welcome to stay with me or at the Castle. The Sisters are quite hospitable, though you might find their version of entertainment a bit over-stimulating.”
Now what was that supposed to mean? Over-stimulating? And what were the Sisters? Some kind of sex cult? Exhaustion always caused my mind to swim in the gutter.
“Rose can always use help at the café. I’m sure she’d be willing to let you work some shifts.”
A café. That sounded cute and quaint and non-threatening. I could work with that, but there had to be a catch. “Is she a vampire, too?”
“No. She’s a …” He paused. “She would probably rather tell you herself. She’s very protective of anyone we bring into town. You’ll be safe.”
Safe. I craved that word. But it was an illusion. I would never truly be safe from Kevin until one of us was dead.
Erick’s smile faded and a frown replaced it. “Don’t worry about the Djinn. I will keep him away from you.”
Again with the mind reading, though it hadn’t been the Djinn I was worried about that time. What was this guy’s deal? “How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“Humans emit very different pheromones depending on their thought patterns. My sense of smell can pick up on those tiny fluctuations.”
“Can all vampires do that?”
“Only ones who’ve practiced for a long time.”
“This Rose … she won’t care that I’m human?”
“You will be my guest.” He shifted in his chair and his eyes drifted to the floor for just a second.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“There are very few humans in Sanctuary, but I promise you will be safe.”
A small town full of Others. It would certainly be the last place Kevin would look for me. For that I could get on board with just about anything. “All right. But, if someone eats me, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
His blue eyes darkened and just a hint of red ringed the irises. “I can assure you, I have no intention of allowing anyone but myself that close to you.”
I shivered, wondering if he was implying what I thought. Didn’t matter. I would let him fight my battles until I could get on my feet again.
This sex-god of a vampire could have me any which way he wanted, at least until I had to run again.