– 1 –
The world below us was dark, cities glowing in orange grids like electrical circuits strewn across black canvas.
“It is a beautiful world, Sentinel.”
I shifted my gaze to the vampire across from me in the cabin of his House’s luxe jet.
Tall, with golden hair that brushed his shoulders and eyes like cut emeralds, Ethan Sullivan sat in the ivory leather chair with the bearing of a Master. He was one, head of Chicago’s Cadogan House and a member of the newly created Assembly of American Masters. It wasn’t the position he’d hoped for, but it was certainly the more democratic one—he was now member of a democratic congress, rather than an imperial king.
The psychological and physical testing he’d gone through had been grueling, and it didn’t help that we’d been tracking a killer at the same time. The debacle had concluded with another bang: a note had been left in our Cadogan apartments purporting to be from Ethan’s own maker, Balthasar, who was supposed to be long dead. There’d been no other sign of him, but we’d been walking a knife’s edge of tension since we’d found the handwritten message.
Those had been only the most recent episodes in a long and dramatic year, and we needed a break. So we were heading west to spend a few days in Elk Valley, a quiet town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, at the mountainside retreat of an old friend of Ethan’s. We hadn’t previously traveled together for reasons unrelated to magical drama, and I was both excited and apprehensive. But in the best possible way.
“It’s a big world,” I said. “I like to fly because it reminds me how huge the planet is and how small we are by comparison. I like that idea—that we’re inconsequential, so our troubles are inconsequential, too.”
A corner of his mouth lifted. “You could never be inconsequential, Merit.” He glanced out his window, traced a knuckle across the glass. “But I take your point. Living in darkness reduces our visibility, seems to narrow the world. Up here, thirty thousand feet above the earth, you are reminded of its magnitude.”
“The wine is making you poetic.”
He looked at me again with heat and fire, smiled with lazy confidence. “Shall we see just how poetic it can make me?”
The cabin door shushed opened and a petite brunette with a tidy cap of hair and navy skirt and jacket walked forward with a tray. “Refreshments, sir? Ma’am?”
Grinning, Ethan gestured her my way. “If she’s awake, she’s hungry.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, holding up a hand to decline. The denial was mostly for form and principle, since the tray of petits fours and one-bite tarts looked amazing.
The flight attendant nodded, straightened again. “Please let me know if you change your mind. I hope you’re enjoying your vacation so far?”
“It’s only just begun,” Ethan said. “But so far, so good.”
She smiled and nodded, then shushed back into the staff area, leaving us alone in a floating room of expensive leather and burled wood, seven miles in the air.
Ethan smiled, crooked a finger at me.
“I’m not coming over there,” I told him. “We’re not exactly alone.”
He arched an eyebrow, his signature move. “I believe I can manage not to ravish you for the duration of the flight, Sentinel. Just come sit with me.”
I wouldn’t say I was the lap-sitting type, but it wasn’t often we found ourselves with time to relax together. So I stood, crossed the small space between our chairs, and let him wrap me in his arms.
Since we were officially on vacation, I’d forgone my usual leather jacket and pants—the uniform I’d adopted as Sentinel of Cadogan House—and paired a pale pink wrap sweater with jeans and flats, a combination that made me look more ballerina than vampire warrior. But even a warrior needed a night away from her sword, away from the battles and political intrigue that always seemed to find us.
“My Sentinel,” Ethan said, as he reclined the chair and dimmed the lights. Bodies entwined, we watched the world turn beneath us. “It has been a hard winter. Let us welcome the spring.”
I closed my eyes, relished the scent of him, the maleness. His cologne was sharp and clean, and it overlaid the softness of soap and the slightly spicy scent that made him him. He was everything warm and familiar, and I still marveled that he was so decidedly mine.
I smiled as his arms tightened around me. “So what will we be doing in Elk Valley, Colorado?”
“Beyond the obvious?” he asked, nipping my earlobe. “There will be long walks, beautiful vistas, rolling rivers in which we can dip if it’s warm enough. And, considering your particular interests, some exquisite dining.”
“I am more than the sum of my culinary desires.”
He chuckled. “I never doubt it. Most of all, Merit, we can be ourselves. Man and woman without politics or chaos between us.”
“That sounds pretty good.”
“It will be. I intend to spoil you, Sentinel.”
“You keep saying that.”
“So I do. Let’s see how well I keep my word.”
# # #
“What,” I asked an hour later when we stood on the tarmac, “is that?”
It was a monster of a vehicle. Heavy-duty, square frame. Big tires and lots of ground clearance. The exterior was so blindingly orange I was half-surprised it didn’t emit its own light.
“That,” Ethan said, stepping beside me, hands on his hips and a decidedly alpha gleam in his eye, “is our ride.”
“Because we fear a zombie apocalypse? And we hope they’re color-blind?”
“Because we need the four-wheel drive. We won’t be sticking to paved roads on this trip.”
I had mixed emotions about roaming through the woods of Colorado. Not because I was afraid of the forest; I was a predator, after all. Even if the view was limited, darkness was familiar to me, and forests home to any number of things I could best if the need arose. Night was our territory.
But because to get there, I’d have to ride in the Orangesplosion.
“I’m calling it the Orangesplosion,” I announced to Ethan.
“Do what you must do,” he said, assisting the steward in loading our bags, then opening the passenger door for me. “And as your Master, I’ll do as I will.”
That came as a shock to precisely no one.
# # #
The sun might have been down, but the moon was high, a gleaming disk of white that blazed above us. We drove through narrow valleys surrounded by tree-covered slopes, then moved into the mountains, tracing curved roads that rose gently upward. Ethan had lowered the windows, and the trickling of a stream to our right became the music of our journey. I glanced up at the tree-dotted hills, remembered a family trip to Aspen when we were younger. My brother, Robert, my sister, Charlotte, and I had skied with abandon down hills I should have been too young to attempt, but I’d been too enamored of the speed to decline. I’d gotten a broken arm for my trouble.
But the skiing wasn’t the point . . . The trees were.
“Those are aspens, right?” Aspen stakes were the only kind that could kill vampires.
“They are,” Ethan said, both hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, as he maneuvered the vehicle around bends he probably could have handled better in his own sleek Ferrari. But the Orangesplosion had been his choice.
“Is it ironic that you chose for our vacation a place full of tools for vampire hunting?” And the type of tool, I thought, that had once brought him down and turned him to ash.
“It is,” he agreed. “But that’s Colorado, or this particular part anyway. And I’ve no intention of being staked now or later.”
I didn’t doubt he was earnest, but I still knocked on the dashboard to ward off bad juju. I’d seen too many things in my year as a vampire to doubt the danger to him—especially considering his new position—or the efficacy of precautions, even superstitious ones.
Ethan turned onto a side road, asphalt becoming bumpy gravel and hairpin turns. The sound of the creek grew louder, joined now by the tumble of rocks beneath the car. We snuck by a sheer granite wall that was so close to the road I could have reached out and touched rock or the water that trickled down it.
One more curve, and the road opened suddenly into a wide valley between aspen-covered hills. In the middle of the meadow stood an enormous log and stone building, precisely the type I’d expected to see in the wilds of Colorado. Huge beams, giant boulders, and a roof made of red metal sheets folded together at the seams like architectural origami. The steep roof pitched at angles here and there, and the entire house glowed golden as if every room was filled with candles.
A porch extended across the entire front of the house, its railing made of wide hewn logs. A stone patio sat to the house’s right, scattered with heavy wood furniture and adorned with a stone-surrounded hot tub that steamed in the chilly spring air.
“And here we are,” Ethan said, pulling the car to a stop in the wide, curved drive. “Welcome to Ravenswood.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, opening the door and hopping out onto ground still soft from recently melted snow. I crossed the patterned stone walkway to the porch.
The word “Ravenswood” was burned into the wood of a thick sign that hung from two hooks above the door. The silhouette of a raven, just as dark, perched above the second “o.” I wrapped fingers around one of the beams that supported the porch’s wide roof, the wood cool and slick as plastic. Adirondack chairs were situated here and there, and a swing of the same hewn logs hung from the far end. I imagined passing a night rocking in the swing, book in hand, Ethan at my side.
Still. While the style of the house wasn’t surprising, the size was. I glanced back at Ethan. “I thought we were staying at a guesthouse.”
He grinned. “This is the guesthouse.”
“Damn,” I said. “How big is the main building?”
“Large,” he said, gesturing to a path that led downhill and into the woods. “The house is through the woods, should you need to goggle,” he added with a grin, then pulled the bags and our scabbarded katanas from the back of the vehicle before closing the hatch again. He handed the katanas to me, then pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the heavy wooden door.
“Welcome to your vacation, Sentinel.”
The house’s décor echoed the exterior. Wood floors, log walls that gleamed like honey, and at the end of the long front room, an enormous fireplace that rose two stories to the vaulted ceiling. The furniture was leather and oversized, arranged to face a wall of windows that opened to the valley beyond.
A glass door led to a wooden deck that flanked the window wall and mirrored the one on the front of the house. I opened it, walked outside, gasped at the view. The valley spread before us like a gift, mountains rising high on either side, a small river moving sinuously through the middle until it disappeared into the distance. Green had begun to sprout through ground spotted with snow, and the entire scene was illuminated by a moon that hung heavy in the sky.
Ethan’s body pressed warmly against mine, wrapping his arms around me as I stared greedily at the view, memorizing every outline, every boulder and crag and curve of trickling water.
“Perhaps the world isn’t so narrow after all,” he said.
I nodded, smiling as a warm breeze, the breath of spring, rustled my long, dark bangs. “Maybe not.”
We stood there together for a long, quiet moment, until our eyes had adjusted to the darkness and our ears to the unusual silence. Chicago wasn’t a quiet city. Even Hyde Park, which was miles away from downtown, had a constant level of noise. Air traffic from Midway, cars, neighbors, dogs, sirens.
At first, there was nothing. But as our ears grew accustomed, sounds emerged. The slip and fall of water around rocks. Wind rustling through grass, frogs and crickets hiding among the spears of it. The creak of wood as the house settled, as if it, too, was relaxing into the darkness.
The sudden pealing of the doorbell was an explosion of sound. It rang once, then again, with obvious urgency.
Ethan cursed, released me, glanced back.
I instantly went on alert. “Who knows we’re here?”
“No one in the state, as far as I’m aware, other than Nessa and her husband.”
Nessa McKenzie was our host, the owner of Ravenswood and its accompanying main house, the leviathan that lurked down the wooded path.
I followed Ethan to the door, waited beside him as he checked the security peep and pulled it open without a word.
She stood in the doorway, a vampire in the form of a voluptuous brunette.
Her hair, a dark mane of curls, pitched forward over one shoulder. Her eyes were big and brown, and streaks of blood stained her hands and her dress.
“Nessa,” Ethan said, with obvious surprise and concern as he looked her over. “What’s happened?”
“It’s Taran,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “He’s dead.”
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