5 May 2014

Blood Games – The First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Life in the Fast Lane

Early March
Chicago, Illinois

Blood_GamesHe stood beside me as cameras flashed, a man with a long and lean body, deeply green eyes, and golden hair. He wore shorts, sneakers, and a long-sleeved shirt that snugged against the tight muscles of his torso. His hair, which normally brushed his shoulders, was pulled back in a queue, and around his neck glinted the silver pendant that marked him as a Cadogan vampire.

But he wasn’t just a vampire. Ethan Sullivan was Master of Cadogan House.

Even in running shoes, hands on his hips as he stood beneath the yellow arch that marked the starting line, a clock counting down to zero a few feet away, his Masterdom was undeniable. He looked nothing less than a leader of his people.

He glanced at me, an eyebrow arched in his usual imperious expression. “Sentinel. You appear to be enjoying this a little too much.”

I pulled my long dark hair into a ponytail using the elastic on my wrist, my long bangs across my forehead. I was also dressed in running attire—a Cadogan House Track shirt, midcalf running tights, and shoes in eye-searing neon orange that made me smile when I looked at them. But the apparel wasn’t just fun; it was functional. It had to be if I was going to achieve my goal: beating Ethan Sullivan to the finish line.

“It’s not every day I get the chance to best you in front of an audience.”

Ethan snorted, a glint of amusement in his eyes. “I don’t plan to let you best me, Sentinel. But I’m prepared to make it interesting.”

There was heat in his eyes that nearly made me blush. But since we had an audience, I held it in. “How interesting?”

“Dinner. Of the winner’s choosing.”

As a lover of food, I didn’t hesitate. “Done.”

“I wasn’t finished,” he said with a sly smile. “Dinner of the winner’s choosing—in the apparel of the winner’s choosing.”

“I do enjoy seeing you in jeans,” I countered. He generally preferred fancy to casual, but even he couldn’t run in a refined French suit and Italian loafers. But if the look in his eyes was any indication, he hadn’t intended denim, leather, or wool.

He only snorted in response.

It was March in Chicago, and the air still carried the chill of winter. But spring had nearly broken winter’s hold, and a thousand people stood on the sidelines to watch the Cadogan Dash, a race we’d organized to raise money for Chicago’s food bank.

I was the House’s social chair, and I’d been reminded recently about the importance of giving back. So I decided a charity event was just the thing, which was why we were standing in Grant Park on a brisk spring night, preparing to run three miles with a few hundred friends. While Malik, the second-in-command of the House, stayed behind (and separate from Ethan for succession purposes), others gathered in their running gear for a little friendly competition. Luc, the Cadogan guard captain, with his dark blond locks. Connor, a young vampire of my class with the easygoing personality of casual wealth. Brody, a new Cadogan guard with mile-long legs that were probably going to come in handy tonight.

But that didn’t mean the race was just fun and games.

Times had been tough for Chicago’s supernaturals, but humans’ attitudes had seemed to improve over the last few weeks. Ethan had been cleared of charges he’d killed a vampire in cold blood; it had been obvious self-defense, since we’d been attacked at Cadogan House. My grandfather, Chuck Merit, was once again the city’s official Supernatural Ombudsman, helping vampires, shifters, River nymphs, and the like with their various problems. And once again, the fickle pendulum of human emotion had swung to love. Sure, there were vampire detractors. Vampire haters. Vampire conspiracy theorists. But there were also members of the Ethan Sullivan fan club.

Most of the human spectators who’d crowded behind the barrier wore T-shirts bearing Ethan’s image and i heart ethan buttons. But much to my surprise, Ethan wasn’t the only Cadogan vamp with fans in the audience. There were a few fans carrying hand-painted i heart merit signs and wearing #1 sentinel T-shirts, which was cool, if a little unnerving.

A woman on the other side of the barricade held out a glossy eight-by-ten photograph and a permanent marker. “Ethan! Ethan! Can I have your autograph?” Her face was flushed with excitement, her eyes wide with promise.

“Your fans await,” I said with a smile.

“You’re my favorite fan,” he said, and in full view of the cameras, spectators, and news vans, he kissed me.

By the time he straightened again, my cheeks were pink and Ethan’s admirers were screaming with gusto. Apparently it didn’t matter whom the golden god kissed—the sight of him kissing was enough to send them into a frenzy.

Given the look of intensity in their eyes, I doubted they’d have felt any compunction about kicking me out of the way to get a little closer to him.

“Go ahead,” I told him. “Go see your admirers. Sign some autographs. It’s good PR for the House.”

He slid me a glance, smiled. “Not concerned one of the fans will try to sweep me away with words of love?”

“Oh, they’ll try to sweep,” I said. “But I have no worries you’ll come back to me.”

His smile was meltingly handsome. “Because I love you without measure?”

“Of course,” I said.

Also, I had the car keys.

We needed the good PR while we could get it. I had a sinking suspicion the tide would turn again; humans always looked for scapegoats. Supernaturals made easy targets.

Humans weren’t our only problem. Cadogan House had recently left the Greenwich Presidium, the European council of vampires that ruled European and North American vampires—but we hadn’t left behind the drama. The GP was a hot mess. Some council members hated our House; others hated humans. It was an organization generally out of touch with the modern world.

And Ethan, who’d moved forward to commune with the crowd, was petitioning to take charge of it. He’d filed the paperwork a week ago. Which was awkward, since the GP already had a leader—Darius West, a powerful vampire whose unfortunate involvement with an American serial killer had stunted him emotionally, an impressive feat for an immortal. After ensuring the House and its finances were in order, Ethan announced his candidacy, and we’d heard nothing in the interim.

Darius had options. Vampires loved rules, and the Canon, the volumes of vampire law, laid out three official responses to Ethan’s “Honorable Challenge.” (Vampires also liked capitalizing things.) According to the Canon, Darius could give back snarky words, a response “by Wit,” which I imagined would have been something like “Bring it” or “You just got served.” Darius could challenge Ethan to a duel, presumably by katana, since that was the favored vampire weapon, or by “account of All Houses,” which basically meant that Darius could call out all the other vampire Houses to gang up on ours.

He hadn’t done any of those things yet, and the silence was more unnerving than an outright attack would have been. In the interim, Ethan called the Masters of the Houses that allied with Cadogan—whose insignia were mounted above the Cadogan House door—shoring up his support.

We’d decided to move forward with the race, but we were certainly, obviously keeping a close eye on Ethan. Because I was Sentinel of the House, his safety was one of my priorities. And I had allies in the crowd: my grandfather’s employees—Catcher Bell, a sorcerer, and Jeff Christopher, a shifter—as well as the undercover members of the Red Guard, an organization of vampires created to keep watch on the GP and the twelve American vampire Masters.

Catcher’s girlfriend and my non-vampire best pal, Mallory Carmichael—a sorceress in her own right—stood with Jeff and Catcher, her blue ombré hair in a high topknot, a small Cadogan pennant in her hand. She waved the pennant at me, her blue eyes smiling, and gave me a very enthusiastic thumbs-up.

The RG members wore Midnight High School T-shirts to indicate their affiliation. They included my tall, handsome, and auburn-haired RG partner, Jonah, who stood near a woman vigorously shaking her décolletage at Ethan as he signed autographs. I gave the woman the stink eye, but her gaze skimmed right over me. I wasn’t the object of her affection.

“They just pretend we aren’t here.”

I chuckled at the vampire beside me, a woman with a blond ponytail, hot pink shirt, and black running tights that skimmed her long legs. She was Lindsey, one of Cadogan’s guards and Luc’s sweetheart. And Luc had plenty of fans of his own, men and women who giggled each time he flipped his tousled curls out of his eyes. From the cheeky grin on his face, he didn’t seem to mind the attention.

“The humans or the vampires?” I said.

Lindsey snorted. “Good question. I’m not sure Luc could pick me out of a lineup right now. Especially not when she’s showing off the kids.” She nodded toward a woman with pendulous cleavage and luclicious tattooed in black script across her chest.

“He’s never going to stop talking about that,” I agreed.

“At least you have your own fans. There’s one very delectable man who hasn’t taken his eyes off you. Your two o’clock,” she said, and I glanced casually over.

He had dark skin and a shaved head, a sprinkling of goatee beneath his generous mouth. His eyes were wide set and deeply brown. There was a small crescent-shaped tattoo near the corner of his left eye.

His gaze was direct, curious, and focused on me.

I looked back at Lindsey, mouth open. “He is stunning.”

She nodded. “See? Fans of your own. As long as Ethan doesn’t see him and beat him to a bloody pulp for staring at you, we’re good. And even if he does,” Lindsey said with a grin, stretching out one calf, then the other, “your backup fan club is right over there.” She gestured to the Ombuddies, as we called Jeff and Catcher.

“They aren’t fans; they’re family.” Maybe not genetically, but certainly in spirit. And considering Catcher’s yes, i hate everybody T-shirt, despite their personality quirks.

“Besides. They’re on the job.”

“Speaking of, any twinges?”

Vampires preferred to fight with katanas, and my own weapon had been tempered with my blood, giving me the ability to sense other weapons nearby. I’d mentally calibrated my senses to ignore the hidden blades carried by the RG members, and thus far, the crowd was clean.

“Nope,” I said, scanning the bystanders, who smiled and snapped pictures. “All’s well so far. Hopefully it will stay that way.”

Lindsey snorted. “Darling, we’re vampires. It will definitely not stay that way.”

An unfortunate but valid point.

“All right, runners,” said the race director through his bullhorn. “We’re less than a minute away from the start. Please get ready.”

“Good luck,” Lindsey, said, squeezing my arm. “We’ll be right behind you.”

I nodded. “You, too. Keep a sharp eye.”

She winked. “The sharpest.”

Ethan joined us, retying his hair with a bit of leather cord, and we moved to the front of the pack of runners, who were stretching their hamstrings and turning at the waist to loosen up.

He smiled at me, and I pushed down a bolt of lust that speared through me—and kicked up my heart rate better than any warm-up session.

Ethan leaned forward, elbows and knees bent. “Ready, Sentinel?”

“Always,” I said with my own cocky grin. I rolled my shoulders, mirrored his stance, and prepared to move.

“Get set!”

“Dinner will be poulet à la bretonne,” Ethan said, an obvious threat that I think involved French chicken.

“Hot wings,” I countered, and Ethan shuddered.

“Go!” said the race director, and the shrill blare of an air horn filled the air.

I pulled up every ounce of strength I could manage and jumped off the line, inching out steps ahead of Ethan and trucking it down the street. Vampire strength varied. Some vamps were superstrong and superfast; others were barely stronger than humans. Fortunately, I was both. And so was Ethan.

I’d decided to make an aggressive start, to push out and try to get an early lead on him. I had to hope I could keep up the pace and wouldn’t run out of steam before the finish line.

Two blocks down the road, I realized that might have been wishful thinking. He was taller than me, with longer legs, and as strong and fast as they came. He matched my pace, sidling alongside me with determined eyes and an easy smile.

Boeuf bourguignon, Ethan silently said, activating the mental link between us.

Tater Tot casserole, I challenged. He wouldn’t beat me at that game. I was tall and trim from years of ballet and my vampire metabolism, but I knew food the way Ethan knew investments and European shoes. I could match him threat for threat without breaking a sweat.

A good thing, as the run was accomplishing that pretty well. We moved like machines, each joint and muscle moving precisely and so quickly our bodies blurred.

I couldn’t see the rest of the pack, but I could hear them behind me—the frontrunners bunched a few yards behind us, apparently content to let Ethan and me battle for the lead.

And battle we did. He wasn’t going to give me this win, or submit to a dinner of chip-laden casseroles or meats on sticks. But he hadn’t made a weak vampire; I wasn’t one to give up, either. I glanced at him, saw the sweat that beaded on his forehead, tightened my core, and moved. Even as I scanned the dark street for threats, I pushed forward.

As a pseudo member of the House’s guard corps, I trained every day, and I was pushing to inch ahead. Centimeter by centimeter, I took the lead, my blood pumping and heart pounding. Two feet, then three.

Members of the CPD perched on motorcycles blocked intersections, waving and whistling as we passed. The blocks sped by, the concrete and glass of downtown Chicago, the cafes and tourist shops. Humans lined the streets, some curious to get a look at us, and some with nastier signs that claimed our appearance signaled the end of the world. Since vampires had lived among humans since the dawn of time, the logic was disappointingly faulty.

We turned onto State, sped toward the Chicago River and then across the bascule bridge that crossed the road. Ethan was only a step behind me, probably on purpose, drifting in my wake to make his effort easier.

But I wasn’t interested in making it easier for him.

One mile passed, then two, in much the same way. My legs began to heavy and tire, but I ignored it, pressed on, pushed harder. Maybe it was wrong or childish, but I wanted to win. I loved and respected Ethan, but tonight I wanted to beat him. I wanted to blow past him at the finish, triumph in my victory, and celebrate with food so fried, battered, and processed that it was hardly recognizable.

We made our final turn onto the straightaway that led to the finish.

Eyes trained on the arch, I narrowed my gaze, using every muscle in my body to propel my feet along, faster, faster, faster.

But then I heard them, the fans screaming at the finish line. “Ethan! Ethan! Ethan!” They were cheering for him, hoping for him to win. Waiting for him to win. He was their superstar.

I wanted to beat him . . . but not nearly as much as they wanted him to win. My winning would be fun for me. His winning would be fun for all of them.

I gave myself a moment to grumble, to accept that what I wanted—to beat him well and thoroughly and make him eat midwestern casseroles until ranch dressing oozed from his pores—wasn’t anything I had to have.

I could give him this win, a victory for him and his admirers. A boost for his ego and a solidification of their fandom. Human fans weren’t something to take for granted. Although I could live without the fan fiction.

But, I thought with a grin, while I could give him the victory, I was sure as hell going to make him work for it.

And work he did. I pushed faster, increasing the pace, my feet pounding so quickly my toes went nearly numb. I heard his footsteps behind me, his fierce and labored breathing, the scent of his cologne rising from his warm and nimble body.

I waited until we were five feet away . . . then dropped back a step. That was enough.

Ethan snapped through the royal blue ribbon at the finish with me only steps behind him. The crowd erupted, cheering like the Cubs had won the pennant.

Chest heaving, Ethan glanced back at me, eyebrow arched, a grin pulling up one corner of his mouth. His body gleaming with sweat, he was quite a sight.

“I believe I won,” he said, all but beaming as he moved toward me, frantic women screaming his name. They might have been screaming—and offering to give him children and undergarments—but he kept walking toward me. In the bigger scheme of things, I had won.

He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Well done, Sentinel. It was a good effort.”

“I did my best,” I said, hoping my humility seemed genuine. Because inside I was reveling in the fact that I probably could have beaten him. And that was an accomplishment all its own.

“And now I get to eat fancy French food I can’t pronounce.”

“It’s never as bad as all that,” he said. “I’ll ask Margot for suggestions.”

Margot was the House’s chef. “No snails,” I said. “Or anything with more than four legs. And nothing that resembles a spider.”

“Your list is as curious as your palate,” he said, “but I’m sure she can come up with something interesting.”

“Congratulations!” said the race director, pumping our hands energetically before offering the race medals. The silver medals were shaped like the outline of Cadogan House, the ribbons wide navy blue grosgrain. I dropped my head while he placed the medal around my neck, then watched as he did the same to Ethan.

“Amazing show,” he said, but looked chagrined. “Do vampires keep records? I’d have done an official tabulation if I’d known—that was just so fast.”

“No worries,” Ethan said, glancing at the board that marked our final time. “We were fast. But there are faster vampires.”

“Well, in any event, damned impressive.” He pumped Ethan’s hand with enthusiasm. “If you decide you’d like to train, make a run at them, I’d be happy to work with you.”

“I appreciate that,” Ethan said, and the director disappeared to greet the others who’d crossed the finish line.

That’s when I felt it: the telltale tingle of metal—of a gun—moving near us.

flourish

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