My belly was enormous.
That wasn’t insecurity or ego or exaggeration. It was plain and simple fact.
I was thirty-seven weeks—or about eight months—into my pregnancy with the world’s first vampire baby. I was lucky to be expecting and excited to see my daughter. But I was sick of being pregnant.
I missed seeing my feet. Drinking caffeine. Sleeping on my back. Fitting into my leather jacket. Snacking by choice, not necessity. And I was tired of having Baby Sullivan, the watermelon of attitude we called “Peanut,” constantly kicking my bladder.
In just a few weeks—assuming a vampire gestation lasted as long as the human variety—we’ll get to meet her.
I really couldn’t complain. We were both healthy and, so far, growing a vampire had followed the typical stages of growing a human. Given we’d have had to guess how to fix any problems, I was doubly grateful there hadn’t been any.
I waddled my way through the main hall of Chicago’s Cadogan House, preparing for one of the routines I’d created for myself over the last few weeks. Those included an obscenely large breakfast, a nightly walk around Hyde Park, and a brief workout with my katana so I didn’t completely lose my skills—although swinging a sword with a bun in the metaphorical oven wasn’t exactly poetry in motion.
It was walk time, so I’d paired a stretchy black shirt with leggings, a light jacket with a pocket for my phone, and tennis shoes. I’d pulled my long dark hair in a ponytail to keep it out of my way. It was my exercise uniform.
I reached an open office door and looked inside.
He stood in the middle of the room, suit jacket and tie discarded, white button-down fitted over every bit of hard flesh and muscle. His hair, golden to his shoulders, was tucked behind his ears, his green eyes narrowed as he frowned at the papers he held.
Ethan Sullivan was the Master of Cadogan House, the vampire who’d made me, and the Liege to whom I owed my allegiance. And for nearly a year, my husband.
“Problem?” I asked, walking toward him.
His head lifted, the furrow between his brows relaxing as he smiled at me. Ethan’s skills with a katana were deadly, and his gorgeous face was nearly as powerful. His nose was straight, his cheekbones honed, his mouth full and skilled, much to my delight. And like an exclamation, his wide emerald eyes were topped by sharp and decisive brows that signaled his mood better than nearly anything else.
“Hello,” he said when I reached him, then dropped his gaze my belly. “And how’s my girl today?”
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” My tone was dry since I was well aware he wasn’t talking to me. Lately, Ethan had nearly as many conversations with my abdomen as he did with me.
“Your mother appears to be in a mood,” he said.
“Her mother’s face is up here.”
Ethan lifted his gaze. “I was talking to her face.”
“I realize that. What were you frowning about?”
He tapped the documents with a finger. “The first draft from the mayor for the proposed agreement with the city.”
I looked at the papers distastefully. Cadogan vampires had saved Chicago several times over, but those efforts hadn’t always been damage-free. The scratches and dents weren’t our fault—we didn’t manifest the dragon that nearly knocked over the Water Tower—but we were more involved than most of Chicago’s other supernaturals, so when the mayor wanted funds to repair the destruction, she looked to us. Given the most recent harm had been done by a millionaire whose estate had plenty of money for repairs, we had trouble feeling sympathetic. But we were good citizens, so we’d agreed to negotiate.
The final deal was probably going to involve our staying out of future adventures, which wasn’t proving to be a problem lately. Chicago had been mostly battle-free in the post-dragon era. I hadn’t taken the katana out of the training room in weeks, partly because I was taking early maternity leave as Cadogan’s Sentinel and partly because there hadn’t been a need for it. And while I was glad Chicago had found peace, it was weird to shift from monster fighting to diaper-brand debating.
“Jonah’s coming over to discuss?” I asked.
Jonah was the captain of the Grey House guards, one of the other two vampire Houses in Chicago. Navarre was the third. Neither Grey nor Navarre would sign the contract with the city, but since the terms could potentially affect all three Houses, Scott Grey, Master of his eponymous House, had requested an opportunity to discuss them before the documents were executed. Jonah would review on Scott’s behalf.
“While I engage in the torture that is municipal negotiations, you’re going for your nightly constitutional?”
“I am,” I said.
“You have your phone?”
“I do. Not that I need it. The only exciting thing that’s going to happen on this little walk is a little more gossip from Mrs. Plum.”
Many of the House’s human neighbors had become friendlier after vampires had saved the city from the dragon and the evil sorceress who’d manifested it. That included the Plums and their matriarchal grandmother. She walked her dog or watered her prized flower beds every night, and I was pretty sure she timed both so she could gossip with me on the sidewalk. Which was fine by me. The Newtons, who lived across the street, were debating whether to adopt a corgi or a doodle of unknown variety, and I needed a pupdate.
It was only mildly disappointing that the puppy debate was the most interesting thing that had happened in Hyde Park in months.
“You’re a brave soldier,” Ethan said, leaning forward to press a kiss to my forehead.
That’s when I saw the box on the conference table. It was wrapped in glossy paper of robin’s egg blue, and tied with a gleaming silver ribbon.
“What’s that?” I asked, and Ethan glanced back.
“A gift from your parents. It was messengered earlier this evening.”
“They’re in Palm Springs,” I said. Neither my mother nor my sister-in-law, Elizabeth, had made it to the family baby shower. My parents had other priorities. My sister-in-law had my brother, who incorrectly believed Cadogan’s meddling had ruined his business opportunities. At least my sister had managed to make it.
“The wrapping is lovely,” Ethan said.
“It’s probably from Trudeau’s.” The luxury department store was one of my mother’s favorites. Partly because they hand-delivered gifts.
I appreciated the gift. But the fact that my parents had left the city for three months while I was pregnant—historically pregnant—didn’t make me feel better about our already rocky relationship.
“I’ll deal with it later,” I said, and turned away. “I don’t need the stress.”
“We’ll open it tonight together,” Ethan said. “And if we don’t like it, we’ll donate it.”
“My mother would hate that,” I said with the grin he’d undoubtedly intended. “Let’s call it a plan.”
# # #
Spring weather was unpredictable in the Midwest. Any given night could be too hot, too cold, or too windy to keep even the most adventurous Chicagoans indoors. But tonight was absolutely beautiful. Clear and warm, with just enough breeze to put the scent of lilacs in the air.
I took the sidewalk across the stately House’s front lawn to the gate, waved at the security guards who let me through. Chicago might have been peaceful, but we’d learned our lesson where security was concerned, and we’d bumped up the House’s protections.
I turned right out of habit, waved at the few paparazzi stationed outside with cameras, and kept my gaze ahead as I took the sidewalk to the corner.
As I walked the next block, I was disappointed to find Mrs. Plum wasn’t waiting at her gate, and the family’s Queen Anne-style house was dark. I checked the time, realized it was nearly one in the morning. Little wonder a human family was asleep at this time of night.
I didn’t mind getting my exercise while humans were asleep. Chicago wasn’t a quiet city, but the early hours of the morning were quieter than most. Hyde Park had houses in a dozen different architectural styles, and I liked strolling among them. It was like a catalog of houses, from a giant gothic mansion with a tower and a turret, to a low and horizontal building that Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed.
I heard a vehicle behind me, and since I’d promised to take care, glanced back. A human in a red baseball cap climbed out of a small dark car with a red pyramidal pizza light affixed to the roof, then pulled out an insulated red bag that appeared to be stuffed with boxes.
My stomach growled audibly, and Peanut moved around.
“No,” I said quietly. “You already ate.”
In response, she kicked my bladder. It probably wasn’t supposed to be a personal attack, but since she was the only person who’d fought me from the inside, it felt that way.
The delivery guy walked toward the house, but his toe caught a dip in the concrete. Tripped by the divot, he lurched forward, boxes flying through the air before landing with a hop and sliding across the concrete like shuffleboard pucks.
He hit the ground on his hands and knees, grimaced in pain before turning to look morosely at the pizza boxes—and probably imagining the money he’d just lost by dropping them.
Hand on my belly, I walked back. “Hey, are you okay? That was a pretty tough fall.”
“I’m fine,” he said, checking his palms before climbing to his feet, then wiping his hands on his pants. “But the pies are probably a total loss. That’s like fifty bucks worth of pizza. Clive is going to kill me.”
Resigned, he took a step forward, but wobbled on his ankle and nearly pitched forward again. I instinctively reached out to steady him, putting a hand at his elbow to keep him upright.
And was surprised when he rotated his arm to dig narrow fingers into my wrist.
Instinctively, I looked back at his face. I couldn’t see his eyes beneath the bill of his cap, but I could see his fangs clearly enough. He wasn’t a human, but a vampire.
How had I missed that?
Because, I belatedly realized, there was no magic around him. No intangible buzz of power that differentiated us from humans.
He must have understood I’d seen the fangs, because his grip tightened, nails nearly piercing my skin. And that made my heart hammer harder.
“Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it right away,” he said. “I’m a Very Strong Psych. Whether or not you know what I am is entirely within my control.”
Vampire strength was evaluated in three categories: psych, strength, and strategy. I guess genetics had put his eggs in the latter basket. Still, I’d never seen this kind of power before. If I’d known it was possible, I might have been more suspicious.
Because I hadn’t known or looked, this unfamiliar vampire had a fierce grip on my arm.
I might have been physically awkward. But I was a vampire and a mother-to-be, and I wasn’t letting myself or the baby get hurt.
“If you want to keep that hand,” I said, “you’ll let go of me.”
There was something dark in his smile. A cruelty that lifted the hairs on my back of my neck and had me reaching for the katana I wasn’t wearing.
“Exactly,” he said. “You have no weapon, and you’re several blocks from home.” He reached behind him, pulled a gun from his waistband, pointed it at my belly.
I also hadn’t sensed the gun, and should have been able to. Any regret I might have felt was dwarfed by the rush of rage that heated my blood as my own eyes silvered—and the fear that was a vice around my throat.
I put my free hand on my belly, offering what protection I could, and tried to think over the drumming of my heart. I wasn’t without defenses. I was a skilled fighter, fast, and immortal, but he had the muzzle pressed against my abdomen. I wanted to reach for the gun, twist it, and switch our positions. We’d see how he liked it. But I couldn’t risk that. Not yet. I needed a distraction. And in the meantime, I’d have to bluff.
I worked up an expression of fear, let my voice shake a little. “What do you want?”
“Well, that’s an open-ended question, isn’t it? What do any of us want? Fame? Fortune? Peace of mind? I’d like all three, actually, to start. But for the moment . . .” His head shifted toward my engagement ring. “I’ll take that for starters.”
“You need money?” I asked. “I can get you money. My husband—he’s wealthy.” I watched his eyes, saw the burst of excitement that followed my offer.
So this was about money? Or Ethan’s money in particular?
“Oh, I’m well aware. I know you who are, Merit. And I look forward to talking to your Liege.” He said the word with disdain. “And, like I said, the ring makes a good start. But I’m going to need a little more than that.”
His head turned back to my belly, and fury burned through my veins like fire.
“You see, Merit, I have a plan. And that plan involves you, your kiddo, and a very large ransom.” He offered up malevolent smile again. “Unfortunately, I owe some money to some very dangerous people. You’re going to help me out by making sure my pockets are full.”
“Because you’re a hot property. And you’re alone, away from home, without your weapon”—he leaned in and whispered—“and very, very predictable. You made this almost too easy.” He lifted a shoulder casually. “No one in your fancy House is going to miss the money. You’re the one percent, Merit, and I’m just going to skim a little off the top.”
A dog barked in the distance, and his fingers tightened around my wrist. “Let’s go,” he said, and turned toward the car.
Time for the distraction. “But what about the pizza?” I asked, with as much sincerity as I could muster.
“The—what?” He looked back at me, bafflement in his face. He clearly hadn’t expected me to ask about food, which meant he didn’t know me nearly as well as he thought.
His brief moment of confusion was all I needed.
I rotated the arm he held and jerked free, then used my other hand to strike upward against the wrist that held the gun.
Grunting, he kept his grip on it, but the strike had been enough to shift him. I grabbed his wrist, then pivoted so his weapon arm was between us and the muzzle was pointed away from the baby.
“I am pregnant, you asshole.”
He tried to pull away; he was strong, nearly pulling me over. But I’d gotten used to my new center of gravity, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I dropped one hand from the gun and slammed the flat of my hand into his back, just above his kidney. He jerked, and I wrenched the weapon away, stepped back and pointed it at him.
“Rich bitch,” he muttered, and with vampire quickspeed, shoved me backward to run past.
I stumbled, world spinning above me as I fell backward. When I reached out a hand to stop my fall, the gun popped away and skittered toward the bushes at the edge of the sidewalk.
Before I could lever myself back to my feet, his car was zooming away.
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