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I leaned my head against my hand and barely restrained a huge yawn. "This is going nowhere fast."
Jack handed me a coffee, his expression grim. "No one said breaking a mage's defense would be easy."
I sipped at the hot liquid in the cup. It couldn't be called coffee because it just didn't look, or taste, anything like it. Still, if it served the purpose of keeping me awake, I'd drink a gallon of the muck.
I eyed our captive through the one-way glass. Maisie was currently being interrogated by both a specialist in magic and a specialist in "interviewing" techniques. I'd seen the interviewers in action on several occasions over recent months, and knew their methods could get extremely gruesome. Unlike regular police, the Directorate didn't have to worry about prisoner rights. If the person being questioned posed a threat to the human population in any form or shape, then the Directorate could basically do what they wanted to get the required answers. Except, of course, if the person involved was human or part human. Then it got trickier.
Which was probably why the techniques being used today had been pretty mild so far. Maisie might be a mage of extreme power, but she was also human. By law, the Directorate had to tread cautiously.
My gaze moved to the spindly woman standing in the corner of the room. I hadn't even known we had a whole section of people specializing in magic, and I'd been working here for nearly eight years. Right now, she didn't seem to be doing a whole lot, but sweat was beginning to dot her creased forehead, and the white stones surrounding Maisie had taken on a glow that reminded me vaguely of the heat shimmer that rose off a road on a long hot summer day. Whether it was caused by our mage, or Maisie's powers testing her defenses, I wasn't entirely sure.
"How much longer do we have before Marg starts to weaken and the stones loose their ability to contain Maisie?"
Jack shrugged. "Marg will signal when her strength is giving out. As a general rule, she can last four or five hours if she's doing nothing more than boosting the strength of the warding stones."
"Why don't we just raid her mind telepathically?"
"I tried earlier, when you were talking to Quinn."
And hadn't that provided a whole lot of information. Quinn had never been free and easy with information, but right now, he was making like a clam and getting irritatingly amused when I got angry about it. Rhoan was currently in the process of having a little chat with our silent vampire, but I very much doubted he'd have any more success than I did. "And?"
"And, her shields are unlike anything I've ever come across. I've asked Director Hunter to come down and assist me."
That raised my eyebrows. After eight years of being here, I'd actually catch a glimpse of the elusive Director Hunter? "She's not exactly hurrying."
"She's interviewing Quinn first."
"Ah." And according to the weird hierarchy and honor system vamps had going, Quinn, being younger in vampire years than Hunter - though heaven only knew if he was younger or older in real, since-birth terms - was ethically obliged to answer any and all of her questions. "She could be hours, then."
"Could be. Quinn may be younger, but I think he's almost as powerful."
"Which means what?"
"That while he may be obliged to answer, he can't be forced. It all really depends on Quinn following the rules."
And vampires never followed the rules unless it suited them. I sipped the brown muck for several minutes, then glanced at my watch. If I didn't get some sleep soon, I was going to be a baggy-eyed wreck tonight. And that was never a good look.
"Why don't you and I have a crack at her?"
Jack glanced at me, and I swear there was a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. "Are you feeling up to it?"
"No, but if it's the only way to get out of here and get to bed, then I'll give it a shot."
"Good." He rose from the chair immediately, and that gleam became more pronounced. I had a sudden, very powerful feeling of falling into a well-laid trap. And it had me wondering if he'd even asked Hunter to come down and help, or whether it was a nice little ruse to get me to volunteer. But I didn't bother asking because I just didn't have the energy to get mad right now.
I only wanted to get home, even if the cost was playing Jack's game and stepping just a little bit more into the shoes of a full-fledged guardian.
"I'll hold her mind still and open," he continued. "While you weave your way inside and see what you can find."
"Okay." I drained the remainder of the brown muck then put the empty cup down on the bench. "Let's do this."
I followed him into the interview room, and stopped slightly behind him. Maisie's gaze skimmed us both, and a slight sneer touched her pale lips. "What, two people not enough to break one little blonde? We've got to add a couple more?" Her voice was sharp and irritating, and yet, once again, the way she phrased her words had that odd sense of familiarity scratching at my senses.
"And people fear the guardians," she continued. "What a joke."
Jack glanced at the specialist interrogator, and without another word, she left the room. "Last chance, Miss Foster. Are you going to answer our questions willingly, or shall we do it the hard way?"
"If you could do anything more than contain me, I think it would have happened by now. We both know your pet magician cannot hold the strength of the circle for long, and then I will be gone."
Power touched the air, a tingly, spidery flare of electricity that flowed like wildfire across the room. Its center was Jack, not Maisie or the Directorate's magician, and its touch had the tiny hairs along my arms and the back of my neck standing upright.
"People are always underestimating the Directorate," he said softly, as the net of power flowed up and around Maisie. She stiffened, her eyes going wide as her body became immobile. "It is never to their benefit to do so. Go, Riley."
I blew out a breath, then closed my eyes and carefully shut down my other senses, until my only awareness was of Maisie and the net of power that blazed around her. Slowly, carefully, I touched the net telepathically. The thrum within it was potent, a distant thunder that seemed at once forbidding and barely controlled. Like a storm about to break.
It was frightening, in some ways. I'd always known Jack was powerful, but I'd never felt just how powerful, even during our training sessions. And yet, he'd admitted himself that he was far less so than Quinn. In some ways, it proved just how much Quinn had been hiding from me - and how much more he was capable of. God, curtailing the urges of a werewolf had to be a walk in the park for someone with that much power. No wonder I hadn't been aware of what he was doing.
I skimmed the surface of Jack's power, riding it like a wave, using it as a ramp to enter Maisie's mind. Her outer defenses were already laid open and bare by Jack, her surface thoughts an easy read. But it wasn't surface thoughts we wanted or needed.
I pushed on, moving beyond the reaches of Jack's control, into the deeper recesses of Maisie's mind. It was there I discovered what Jack had meant earlier.
Maisie's telepathic defenses weren't in the form of a wall, or mental "glue," or anything else that I'd come across before. Hers were more in the form of a spider-web - interconnected, fragile in appearance, yet sticky and extremely strong. Breaking one strand didn't mean I was through - I had to break all the connecting strands before I could go deep into her mind. Which was why two people were needed - one to hold her, and one to break her.
Even so, it was hard work.
The web seemed to thicken near the center of the mental shield, the threads becoming more tangible, harder to break, the closer I got to the deep recesses of thought. Sweat began to trickle down my spine, and an ache began to make itself known behind my closed eyes. A migraine in the making.
During my early months of telepathic training with Jack, I'd often been left physically and mentally exhausted, but like any sort of training, time and constant practice had provided some sort of mental fitness. This was making me feel like a rank beginner again. Every ounce of strength I possessed was being channeled into trying to breach Maisie's unusual defenses, and my limbs were beginning to tremble with the effort.
Then, with the suddenness of a rubber band snapping, the tenuous webs gave way, leaving me mentally shaking but floating free in the rush of Maisie's deep consciousness.
Only Maisie's spirit or soul, or whatever that part of human consciousness was called, wasn't there.
Someone, or something, else was.
And it was aware and waiting.
The attack came with a suddenness that was staggering. I had a brief feel of femininity, a taste of ancient power, then let out a yelp as my whole body recoiled from the sheer anger and force behind the mental punch.
Hands grabbed my arm, holding me upright, then Jack was beside me - a huge cloud of power and fury that might not be as ancient as the being inside Maisie's mind but every bit as dangerous.
The ancient spark stilled instantly.
Riley. It was an order and a question, all in one, and said in a way that suggested I'd better damn well hurry.
I licked my lips, and mentally pressed forward again The presence in Maisie's mind might have been held defenseless, but she was still very much aware.
Who are you? My question seemed overly loud in the darkness of the mind held captive, echoing as if we were in an empty cavern rather than deep human consciousness. The thought had goose bumps chasing their way down my spine, and I had no idea why.
Then the darkness seemed to stir. I sense something familiar in your thoughts.
The voice was old, and again, there was something in the way she pronounced words that scratched at my instincts Something in the soft lilt to her words that was almost recognizable.
Tell me who you are, or I will kill you.
Amusement spun through the darkness. You cannot kill me. Even he cannot kill me.
I frowned. He who? Jack? Do not underestimate our skills.
Do not overestimate your own skills. You have no power to kill me. No skill. Those few who possessed such skills died a long time ago.
She had to mean the priests of Aedh. Why else would the spirit of the priest even be here, if not to deal with an ancient threat? Question was, how was Quinn involved in all this? What was his obligation to the priest? What was his connection the ancient spirit holding Maisie's body captive?
What have you done with Maisie? Even though I asked the question, I had a pretty good idea that whatever or whoever Maisie had been, she was not now in residence in this body. Which, in a sense, was a good thing. We were not now restricted by the chains of dealing with a human.
And God, the mere fact that I was even thinking that made me want to puke.
The mortal who once inhabited this flesh has long gone.
Did you kill her?
Amusement ran through the void. You cannot kill a soul. You can only restrain or destroy. The voice paused, as if to add significance. This incarnation will be her last.
Another chill ran through my body, yet I couldn't really feel sorry for Maisie. Not if she was truly responsible for bringing this evil, and the others, into being. Tell me your name.
My name is Caelfind O'Cuinn.
Why was that name familiar? Where had I heard it... then it hit me. O'Cuinn. Quinn's real surname.
Suddenly his secretive ways were making a whole lot more sense.
So, you are related in some way to Quinn?
I formed his picture in my mind, and the presence laughed. It was a mocking, spiteful sound. Ah, my foolish little brother. He thinks he had my mind and body frozen last night while he attempted to breaks me.
As we have broken you?
You merely hold my body and defenses captive. My deep thoughts are still my own, or I would not he answering, now would I?
Couldn't argue with that, I supposed. Why did you raise Azhi Dahaki?
I needed the strength of the three-headed dragon to raise the eternal destroyer.
And why would someone like Maisie want to raise someone like you?
Because in darkness there is strength. Maisie wanted power. I granted her that.
Then you killed her. Or killed her spirit.
The equivalent of a shrug ran through the darkness of Maisie's mind. There is a price to be paid for the granting of one's desires.
And what is the price you paid? Alienation from your family? A life spent in the netherworlds of hell?
I have gained immortality. She made a disparaging sound. And my family has dedicated their worthless lives to ridding the world of both myself and the god of darkness. They cannot see the futility. Cannot admit that darkness exists because humanity itself exists, and that to erase one, you erase the other.
Well, I wasn't seeing the connection myself. I mean, humans could be a pain in the ass sometimes, but I very much doubted they were the sole reason for evil's existence. So you're saying Angra Mainyu cannot be destroyed?
He can never be destroyed. Not for as long as there is one human living and breathing on this earth.
With her words came a sense of power, of force. As if she were trying to make me believe that, and nothing else. If that was her intent, then it backfired, because all I could think of was the fact that while this all-powerful god of darkness was still alive - if a spirit could be deemed such a thing - he'd been trapped in the nether regions of hell for hundreds, if not thousands, of generations.
And if it had been done once, it could be done again.
We need to finish this, Riley.
Jack's mental tones were cracked, evidence of the struggle he was having to contain the being inside Maisie's body and mind.
I blew out a breath. Tell me how to rid this world of your dark master, or I will hill you.
Try. You will not succeed. Kill this body, and my spirit will simply claim another.
Annoyance ran through me. But then, overwhelming arrogance and a supreme sense of superiority did tend to get on my nerves. I'd put up with far too much of that during my years with Talon.
The mere thought of him had an idea sparking deep inside. A horrible, hateful idea that part of me - the part that had seen the remains of too many women mutilated by this evil and her so-called associates - rejoiced in Jack, am I technically free to do what I wish with this woman now that we've confirmed Maisie is long gone?
I opened my eyes and looked at the one-way glass. "Get me a threaded sheet knife."
The sheet knives were a Directorate special. Basically, they were thin, clear sheets of plastic that were as rigid as steel and could slice through just about anything - flesh, metal, or wood - with ease. The threaded sheet knives were almost identical, only they were made of a special compound that reacted with blood and disintegrated to reveal the silver strip that ran down the heart of it. Ideal for pinning werewolves and other shapeshifters to human form - a fact I knew for a certainty, having done it to Talon.
If a threaded sheet knife could hold the soul of a werewolf to human form on the night of a full moon, it could surely hold a demonic spirit to human flesh.
It was worth a shot, anyway. Talking and threatening was getting us nowhere fast.
I glanced around as the door opened, and a security officer stepped in and handed me a knife. As he left, I held up the knife.
Amusement ran through Caelfind's thoughts. Am I supposed to feel threatened by something so flimsy?
I thought about the bodies again. Conjured the images of the women, their flesh sliced opened, internal organs gone - eaten - while they lay there dying. Revulsion swept through me, accompanied by anger. I grabbed them both, hanging on to the strength of those emotions, using them as shields as I pressed the point of the knife against the flesh over Maisie's left breast, right above her heart.
Tell me how to rid this world of your dark master, or I will trap you for an eternity inside dead flesh.
You cannot do that. Once this flesh is dead, my spirit is free.
Even the immortal can get it wrong occasionally.
I pressed the blade against her flesh, watching as it sliced through cloth and flesh and muscle and bone with ridiculous ease. Her eyes went wide, and pain began to fill the void. Yet it never touched me, held at bay by either the anger in my soul or Jack's steely presence.
I drove the knife deeper, ramming it through her sternum, lodging the point deep in her heart. Blood began to seep across my fingers, blood that was warm and sweet to my nose, stirring excitement through my veins.
No, no, no, part of me wanted to scream, but I pushed it away ruthlessly, concentrating on Caelfind, watching her eyes, waiting for the moment of her body's death, and the realization that she would never be free.
The knife began to disintegrate, and smoke seeped from the wound, lodging the silver deep inside. Pinning her spirit, the way Talon's spirit had been pinned.
Only she didn't scream the way he'd screamed. She merely smiled and waited, her thoughts filled with pain and yet amused.
Until the moment her heart finally gave out, and her body slumped to the floor.
Then she screamed. Screamed like a banshee, until her fury filled my mind and made it almost impossible to think.
Tell me how to rid this world of your master.
My words were little more than a pebble standing against a cyclone, yet still she heard.
He can only be banished by a priest. A priest of Aedh.
And your brother is one?
The last one.
Well, not exactly the last. But perhaps the last still retaining flesh form. And the dragons?
Can't they take over another body, as you can?
She hesitated, twisting in fury. No. Not without my help. Now, release me, as you promised.
I laughed - a harsh and hateful sound - and began to pull back. All these years of serving a dark god, and you still believe in promises?
Her fury followed me, nipping at my mental heels like a rabid dog until the force that was Jack stepped in and stopped her cold. I fell out of her mind, feeling like I was falling from a great height, and found myself on my knees, on the floor, trembling and shaking and sweating.
And then I felt the warm stickiness of blood across my hand, smelled again its metallic sweetness, and my stomach rose.
I pushed onto all fours, scrambled over to the waste bin, and lost every scrap of food and liquid I'd eaten during the day.
When there was nothing left to lose, I collapsed back against the wall and sucked in great gulps of air. It felt like I'd gone ten rounds in the training ring with Gautier, with every inch aching and bruised, and my head pounding. The only thing that was missing was the actual bruises.
It was a good five minutes before I had to strength to even open my eyes. Jack leaned against the rear wall, his hands on his knees as he sucked in air, the skin on his arms paler than I'd ever seen them and his fingers little more than skin and bone. Which just proved how much strength it had taken to hold Caelfind.
My gaze slid on to the stone circle. Maisie's body lay slumped in the middle. Blood gleamed darkly off the front of her shirt, and the thick scent had my stomach twitching again.
Or maybe it wasn't the scent of blood. Maybe it was just the realization of how easily - how very easily - I'd spilt her blood and ended her life.
I might tell myself that I would never be the killer Jack wanted me to be, but the truth was, that skill was already within me.
I could kill, and kill easily, when I had to. When I wanted to. When I needed to.
And do it without thought. Without remorse. And for no other reason than wanting to get home and get some sleep.
Bile burned my throat. I put my hand over my mouth and swallowed heavily, then forced myself to remember the lives Maisie and her cohorts had destroyed.
Because while I might hate what I had done here today, while I would probably suffer nightmares about it for weeks or months to come, the truth was, if it saved just one life, then part of me could not regret it.
As for the part that did... well, at least that proved there was still hope left. Today might have proven that the killer Jack wanted me to be already resided within, but accepting that part of my soul - becoming comfortable with it - was still a ways off yet.
And I had to be thankful for that. Had to cling to it, as fiercely as I could. It was my only hope.
Jack pushed upright with a thick groan. His face was gaunt, cheekbones prominent. A man in serious need of a good feed.
And the dark hunger gleamed in his eyes.
"Control it, boss," I said softly. Warily.
"If I wasn't, you'd be lunch rather than sitting there making stupid statements."
I grinned. "Good to see your sense of humor doesn't leave when the bloodlust rises."
"It will if you keep blathering. Get your butt home, and get some rest, Riley. I'll finish off matters here."
My gaze slid to the body on the floor - to the dark pool of blood beginning to thicken near her body.
Knew it wouldn't go to waste.
I shuddered, and got the hell out of there.
Four hours sleep was never going to be enough, so when the alarm went off at six it was damn lucky it wasn't flung across the room. But the natural irritability that came with lack of sleep increased tenfold when I realized I wasn't alone in my bedroom.
And the warm sandalwood scent told me who it was.
I rolled onto my side. Quinn sat near the window, surrounded in halo of fading sunshine, a dark silhouette of male perfection. Mother nature at her perverse best - for while the bod may be beautiful, the nature of the man left a hell of a lot to be desired.
Though I guess he'd probably say the same about me. And would probably be right.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to thank you," he said, voice soft and oh so sexy.
"For what?" I flung off the sheet and got out of bed. Quinn's gaze slid across my skin like liquid heat, and my hormones reacted accordingly.
"For doing what I could not. Capturing and containing Caelfind."
I picked up a T-shirt from the floor, gave it a sniff to check its freshness, then pulled it on. "We would have all saved time and effort if you'd been honest with us from the start."
"You don't understand - "
"No, I don't," I said, as I stomped out to get coffee. It wouldn't help put out the low-burning fire caused by both Quinn's presence and my own nature, but it sure couldn't hurt my grouchy mood. "There was nothing stopping you from telling me that night the priest made his appearance. Only your own ornery need to do everything your own way."
"There's the pot calling the kettle black," he muttered.
I shot him an annoyed look. Even though he was no longer surrounded by the blinding halo of sunlight, he still looked little more than a shadow because he was dressed from head to foot in black.
Even his dark eyes were shaded. Wary.
Some perverse part deep inside was mighty pleased about that. The other part, the part heated by the growing nearness of the full moon, just wanted to grab him and shag him senseless.
Because right now, the wolf within didn't really care about hurt or anger or anything else. Not when the moon fever was surging through my bloodstream. But once the full moon had come and gone, she would care. She would hurt, and she most certainly would regret having given in yet again.
I couldn't do it. I had to hold firm, no matter what.
Dammit, I had a wolf who cared for me. A wolf who didn't abuse my trust or my feelings. A wolf who longed for the same sort of future as I did.
That should be enough.
It was perverse - insane - to want more.
And yet, deep down, part of me did.
"Look," I said, my voice holding an edge of anger that was aimed more at myself than him, "if you're here to argue, you can just march right out of my apartment. I'm not in the mood right now."
"I'm not. I'm just here to talk."
"Good." I shoved on the kettle, then reached up to grab the coffee from the shelf. Luckily for everyone, there was still some of my favorite left. "Then tell me about the priest in the lane. Who was he?"
He hesitated. "My father."
Well, that certainly explained the odd questions. The old man had been quizzing his son's prospective mate. "Then I know where you got your orneriness from. Your father was as helpful as you were."
He raised a dark eyebrow. "So you actually did speak to him?"
"Yep. What is he? A spirit? A ghost? What?"
"He is a spirit. Of sorts." He hesitated. "He is - was - the gate master. The priest responsible for ensuring the ways into this world from the spirit world remained locked."
"All the ways?"
"Most of them. The priests are magi-sensitive. They can feel when a new gate is being formed."
"So why didn't you feel this one, if you were a priest?"
"Because I was only an initiate, and not fully trained."
The kettle began to whistle. I flicked off the power and poured the water into the cup. "Is that why you became a vampire? Because you needed eternal life if you were to hang about and wait for your sister's reappearance?"
He smiled, a warmth I felt deep inside rather than actually saw. "Yes."
"And it was Henri who turned you." It was a guess, but one I was fairly certain was correct. After all, he'd been friends with Henri all his undead life, and he'd used and abused all the rules, regs, and me to find his killer.
"Yes. He looked after me through the bloodlust."
I nodded. So many things were beginning to make sense, now. "So what, exactly, are the priests of Aedh? What are you?"
"I am - was - human."
"Humans can't fly. Nor can vampires who aren't winged shifters of some kind. You may be part human, but you also admitted a while ago that you were something else."
Surprise flickered in his dark eyes. "You saw me fly? How?"
"I didn't see you, I sensed you. Now answer the damn question - what else are you?"
He hesitated. "The priests were not human in any true sense. They weren't even an offshoot branch of the family, as werewolves and shapeshifters are. They were more an energy force than actual flesh."
"Yet they had to be able to take on human form. I mean, you're here, so they could obviously breed, and human conception has basic needs."
He smiled, and my hormones did their usual crazy dance. "Yes."
"So what sort of form did they take?"
"They were tall, and golden and winged. They were often depicted as angels in ancient texts."
That raised my eyebrows. "So where are your wings?"
"Half-breeds never got the wings."
"Just the powers?"
I sipped my coffee, and considered him for a moment. "Did you banish your sister's spirit after I pinned her?"
"No. What you have done is far better. She is trapped in flesh that no longer lives. She can never escape."
"Flesh rots. When it does, won't she be free?"
He smiled again, and this time there was nothing warm about it. Goose bumps ran across my skin. I had to hope that that smile was never directed my way.
"The body will be mummified, then wrapped in silver, and sealed with spells only another priest can undo. She will never escape. Can never return to hurt this world."
Just live in an agony of unlife for the rest of eternity. It was a cruel ending, even for a spirit hell-bent on having her dark master dominate the world. Yet I couldn't work up any sympathy. "Which just leaves us with the dragons and their master."
"Whom I can either banish or seal in flesh, once we flush out his sacrifice site."
"Why is flushing out his sacrifice site important?"
"Because I can use its power to send him back if that's what we decide to do. Then I can cleanse the site to prevent him ever using it to reenter our world."
"I thought your sister was responsible for him being here?"
"She was. But if the gate is not closed, he can come back through."
"Not a good thing."
"No." He paused, then stepped forward, until there was only a hairsbreadth between us. The heat of him, scent of him, flowed over me, through me, filling my lungs, filling my heart, filling my soul. My breath caught, then quickened, and it took every ounce of willpower to remain as I was, to not step forward, into his embrace.
"Be careful in there tonight," he said, his dark gaze on mine and filled with concern. Filled with warmth. "The god of darkness is a very powerful soul, and long practiced in seducing the unwary."
"I could never be counted as one of the unwary." Which wasn't exactly the truth. Otherwise, why would I be standing here, drinking in the scent of sandalwood and man and desire, until all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around him and hold on tight? Why wasn't I running as far and as fast as I could from this man and all the problems he represented?
Because he was my chocolate. It might be perverse, it might be insane, but he was the one temptation I could never, ever resist.
And yet time and again he'd proven he just wasn't good for my health - my emotional health.
I might want him physically, but it just wasn't enough anymore. Even with the moon in full bloom, even with desire battering at my senses, part of me was just tired of it all.
Tired of the fighting. Tired of his constant belittling of the werewolf ways. Tired of simply trying. If he wasn't at least willing to meet me some of the way - and his actions seemed to constantly prove he wasn't - what was the point of us even being together?
I'd once said sex was a very good place to start any relationship, and I still believed that was totally true. But sex wasn't the end-all of any relationship, even tor a werewolf. There had to be more.
Had to be trust.
And the truth was, I just didn't trust Quinn anymore. And that, more than anything he might have said or done over the last few months, was a relationship killer.
I stepped away from him.
He frowned. "Riley - "
"No," I said softly. "I have a job to do, and I need you to leave."
"I have no intention - "
"You have every intention," I said, and a little of the anger that was bubbling deep inside came spewing up. "Do you remember a lady called Eryn Jones?"
"She was my supposed fiancee, so yeah. But what has she got to do with us?"
"You remember what you did to her?"
"I gave her what she deserved but I still don't see - "
"She used a drug on you," I said shortly Angrily. "That changed the way you thought and acted. She made you fall in love with her." I crossed my arms and glared at him. "How different is that to what you're doing to me?"
"It's different." But it was softly said He knew the point I was making. He just didn't want to acknowledge it.
"How is it different?" I all but shouted. "How in the goddamn hell can you stand there and say it's different?"
"She didn't care for me, just my money."
"And you caring for me makes it all right for you to try and change my very nature through mind control?"
"I was just - "
I held up a hand "I'm tired of your excuses, Quinn Tired of giving, tired of forgiving. Just get out."
"There's too much between us to just walk away from it. I won't - "
"You keep saying that, and yet you keep trying to change my very nature. Enough is enough. Please, just leave, Quinn."
"No - "
"She did ask nicely," Rhoan said, his voice holding an edge as he crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe "Leave, or I will make you."
Quinn's expression darkened. "This is between me and her - "
"You take her on, you take me on," Rhoan said. "Right now, she doesn't want you in this apartment, or her life. Go, as asked, or I will make you."
Quinn's gaze went from Rhoan to me and back again, and the sudden sense of danger had the hairs along the back of my neck rising. Even though he hadn't moved a muscle, the man standing in front of me was suddenly every inch an old and deadly vampire. Then he shook his head, and the sensation fell away.
"I never took you for a coward, Riley. I guess I was wrong."
"I guess you were." I took a sip of coffee, then added, "But then, you're the one trying to change a werewolf's nature, not me."
He gave me a look that was an odd mix of anger, determination, and regret, then spun on his heel and left. When the front door slammed shut, I sighed in relief.
He nodded. "You sure you want to do what you just did?"
"He was trying to change who I am, Rhoan. I can forgive many of the things he's done, but I can't forgive that."
"For ever and ever, or just for a while?"
"I don't know. I'll tell you when I figure that out."
"Fair enough." He walked up beside me and flicked on the kettle. "I'm your backup for tonight."
"No offense, bro, but I hope you're not my only backup tonight."
"Jack will be there. And the place will be surrounded." He hesitated, and added with a wry grin, "And our enigmatic vampire will undoubtedly be there, if only so he can close the gate."
"The more the merrier." I reached up to the shelf, grabbed the regular coffee, and handed it to him.
Rhoan's tastes weren't as fussy as mine when it came to coffee - even if I'd drink just about anything when push came to shove.
He accepted the jar with a nod of thanks, and tossed some granules into a mug. "You worried about tonight?"
"Yes." I rubbed an arm, and tried to ignore the goose bumps that fled up my skin at the thought of stepping into the den of a dark god and his dragons. "If they felt Caelfind's entrapment, then things could get very nasty in there tonight."
"But they have no reason to suspect your involvement with that."
"No. But Caelfind was a very old being with powers we can only guess at. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that she contacted Kingsley somehow when she was caught."
"If they knew Caelfind had been caught and restrained, then they'd be on the move. So far, Kingsley hasn't stepped from the house."
"As far as we know. He might have access to underground passages or something."
"In the middle of Toorak?" Rhoan grinned. "I doubt it."
"Toorak has sewers, just like every other suburb. There's no saying he hasn't got cellar access or something."
"No, but it's unlikely."
Maybe. But we worked in a world where the unlikely was more than possible. "I'd like to go in there with a couple of hidden weapons. Just in case."
"A set of your special shoes would be sensible." His gaze went to my hair. "And I think we can attach a couple of the threaded knives to some hair clips or something. But we'll have to go to the Directorate to get them."
We had to go back there, anyway. Jack wanted me to try and place some listening devices and micro-cameras around the place. "They'll have to be short knives if we're attaching them to hair clips, and short knives won't reach the heart."
"No, but all you really need them to do is to pin his spirit to his flesh. We can use conventional weapons after that, and let Quinn do his priest banishing or containing stuff."
I nodded and glanced at the clock. It was nearing six-thirty now, and given I was supposed to meet Jin at seven, I was going to be pushing things. Still, I liked the thought of making the bastard sweat a little.
And I certainly wasn't in a hurry to get there, anyway.
I finished my coffee, then pushed away from the bench. "I'll go for a shower, then we can head off."
"Then I'll go pick out an outfit that'll guarantee they won't notice any hidden weapons."
"Great. I'm going to end up basically naked."
He grinned. "When you've got something to hide, show as much flesh as possible. Now go grab that shower, or we're going to be horribly late."
And we were horribly late.
It was nearing seven-thirty by the time I climbed out of the cab. Jin paced the sidewalk in front of Kingsley's mansion, his expression anxious. I had to wonder why - after all, it wasn't like he had to bring a partner or face dire consequences.
I remembered the tone of Kingsley's voice when he made the request, and suddenly wasn't so sure.
The traffic noise from the main road began to fade, and the click of my heels against the pavement became more noticeable, carrying sharply across the night. Jin spun, and an almost relieved smile touched his lips. But as my gaze met his dark eyes, I noted the anger there. He might be putting on a pleasant and urbane front, but the creature within was furious.
A shiver ran through my soul. I didn't want to face that anger. Didn't want to feel the consequences of it.
Knew I'd probably have to do both.
He walked toward me, his gait unhurried and yet sexy, that of a man who knew he was good-looking and who knew how to work it. I let my gaze slip downward, unable to help admiring the outer package even if the being within frightened the crap out of me.
He stopped when there were still several feet between us, his gaze traveling idly down my body, making my skin burn and my blood boil. He was close enough that the heat of him, the musky male scent of him, rolled over me, briefly erasing the other scents that filled the night. I breathed deep, letting the musk of him fill my lungs, letting it fuel the moon-spun desire to greater heights. I had a bad feeling I'd need to be at fever pitch to get through this night without giving in to the need to run for the hills.
"I was beginning to think you'd stood me up." His voice was husky, deep, and in his dark gaze, lust now competed with the anger.
A shiver that was part desire, part trepidation, raced up my spine. "Couldn't escape work early, then couldn't get a cab." I shrugged casually. "I figured you'd wait."
He raised an eyebrow. "And why would you be so certain of that?"
I closed the distance between us, until my nipples - erect and hard inside the filmy confines of my little green dress - brushed the silk of his gray shirt. "Because you want me. Badly."
He made a sound low down in his throat, then wrapped a hand around my neck and pulled me close. For the briefest of moments, the memory of who and what he was rose and something inside resisted. Ruthlessly, knowing I had no other choice - that another part of me wanted no other choice - I pushed thought and resistance away. As his lips met mine, I kissed him urgently, giving in to the press of his body against mine, letting sensation fuel desire to greater heights.
His free hand slipped down my back, cupping my butt, pressing me hard against him. After a few minutes, he groaned softly and broke off our kiss.
"You're not," he said, his breath short and sharp, his lips brushing mine as he spoke, "wearing any panties."
"They tend to get in the way of a good time." I ran my hands down his arms, then slid them around his waist. The only way we could get any closer would be for him to slide deep inside. And part of me - most of me - wanted that. I was a werewolf, first and foremost, and sex was high on the agenda tonight. "Are you sure you want to have dinner with your friends?"
It was a question that had to be asked - a question that any normal, fiercely aroused woman would ask. If I didn't, he might think it odd. I just had to pray that he wouldn't take me up on the offer. I needed to get inside that house, discover what I could, and get the hell out. Flying solo with Jin wouldn't achieve any of those. Wouldn't achieve an end to this case, and that was the one thing I wanted above everything else.
"I have to." He briefly kissed my lips, my cheeks, my chin. "But I promise, it'll be worthwhile. John has some delicious entertainment planned."
And what sort of entertainment did a three-headed dragon and his dark lord deem delicious? Goose bumps flitted across my skin, but were quickly drowned under a new wave of need as Jin's touch slipped under the hem of my dress to caress my skin, my butt.
"More delicious than being with me?"
My voice was a husky purr, and a quiver ran through the body pressed so close to mine. "Oh, I intend to be with you. Just not here. Not yet."
"If you don't hurry, I might have to find someone else to satisfy my needs."
Humor flicked through his eyes. "That, too, might yet be accommodated." He stepped back, pulling away from my loose hug, then threaded one hand through mine. "Let's go."
He tugged me toward the house, and ushered me through an open gate. Kingsley's house was one of those modern ones, all concrete and sharp angles. My gaze ran up the monolithic front of the building, and I couldn't help thinking that with its barely-there slashes of glass, it almost looked as if the building had eyes. Dark beady eyes that were staring down at me. Judging me. Eyes that knew entirely too much.
A cold chill ran across my skin. I bit my lip, silently admonishing my imagination. It was just a building. Nothing more, nothing less.
Except that it housed a dark god, intent on wreaking havoc on the world at large.
Not only was I about to step into his den, but I was going to try and bug it.
And I had a bad feeling that if I didn't watch my step, it could be the last thing I ever did.