Demon's Kiss (Page 9)

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“An…assassin?”

Roxy and Seth both turned to see Topaz standing in the doorway, staring at them, and then at Reaper, in blatant disbelief. “That doesn't make sense, Seth. That's not him.” She shook her head. “Okay, okay, maybe I've only known him for a day-but we spent hours and hours in that van. He may have a mean streak, but he would never go after you like that.”

“I know,” Seth agreed. “That…I don't know what the hell that was, but it wasn't him.”

Roxy thinned her lips. “It was never him. But he was recruited young, trained and systematically programmed.”

“Programmed,” Seth repeated idiotically.

“As in brainwashed,” Topaz said. “Am I right, Roxy?”

Roxy nodded, her eyes sad. “That rage you just witnessed-we're pretty sure there's a word, or maybe a phrase, that triggers it. And if there is, then there's another one that stops it. But we don't know what those trigger words are.”

Seth frowned down at his unconscious friend, then hunkered low and scooped Reaper's oversized carcass up off the carpet. “So this has happened before, then?” he asked, moving toward the sofa, where he deposited the man.

“Yes. I've seen it happen three times now.”

“And you don't remember any particular thing being said about the time he freaked out on you?” Topaz asked, her tone bordering on disbelief.

Roxy lifted her brows, annoyed at what had sounded like an accusation. “Do you remember any particular thing that was said just before it happened this time?”

Topaz frowned, searching her memory. “I…no. There were hundreds of things. We were all talking, and Seth was flipping channels on the damned TV.”

“Exactly. That's the way it always is.” Roxy sighed, and took a blanket from the back of a nearby chair, carried it to the sofa and laid it over Reaper. “It must not be a common word or phrase. This really is a rare thing. It's been a decade since he left the agency and was changed over.”

“And in all those years, it's only happened three times?” Seth asked.

“I said I'd only seen it happen three times.”

Which wasn't, Seth realized, an answer. “He ever hurt anybody?”

Roxy met his eyes, nodded once, said nothing.

“He ever…kill anybody?”

“It was his job to kill people,” Roxy said.

“I meant after he left the job. During one of these…episodes.”

Roxy straightened the blanket over Reaper, though it was already straight enough. Stalling, or maybe deciding whether or not to reply.

The silence got longer, tenser, and it was Topaz who broke it, with a whisper. “Why do you think he always works alone?”

Seth shook his head. “Could be a hundred reasons. You don't know it's-“

“I think that's enough with the speculation. Neither of you knows shit, and guessing is a waste of time. I told you what I did for your own protection. You want to know more, you're just gonna have to ask Raphael when he wakes up.”

Seth bit his lip to keep from asking still more questions about Reaper's past and condition. Instead, he said, “When do you think that will be?” he asked.

“Couple of hours. And it's nearly dawn now, so he's out for the day. By sundown he'll be fine.” She looked around the room. “He can sleep right where he is,” she said. “I can draw those heavy shades. They must have them in place for optimal viewing of their fancy-schmancy projection TV. Lucky for us. You two may as well go find yourselves a place to rest.”

“You're staying in today, right, Roxy?” Seth asked.

“Well, I might make a run for some supplies, take a look around town. I'll be safe, it being daytime and all.” She sent Seth a wink. “Besides, I have to admit I like the idea of taking that Shelby for a spin.”

“Don't scratch her.”

“I'd sooner scratch the Mona Lisa, Seth.”

“God, the way you people go on,” Topaz muttered. “It's a car. And it's not even a Mercedes or a Porsche or a Ferrari.” She took Seth by the arm. “Come on, I'll help you pick a room.”

He looked at her, utterly baffled.

She made a face, rolled her eyes. “Well, you haven't been at this very long. I don't want the scent of toasted fledgling all over the house when I wake up.”

“Who do you think you're kidding?” he asked. “You like me.”

“Dream on. I just don't want to deal with Reaper waking up hungover and pissed off at me for letting his rookie recruit charbroil himself.”

“You like me, Tope.”

“Screw you. And stop calling me 'Tope.'”

“By the way,” he said, “I'm gonna need my Noisy Cricket back. You can ask Roxy for another.”

Sundown.

Vixen rose and stretched, after sleeping all day long, which was what she did every day since they'd changed her over. But the nights were worse. At least when she was asleep she was unaware of time passing. It went quickly, painlessly. Oh, but at night…All she could do was pace the cell in which they kept her. Pace, back and forth, this way and that way. Eight steps from one side of her cage to the other. Only six from front to rear.

It was maddening. She needed room. She needed to run, to jump and play. She needed sunlight and meadows and field mice to chase. She needed freedom. It had been days since they'd taken her outside.

“Good, you're up.”

Vixen wasn't surprised by the female voice. She'd sensed Briar's approach long before the young female had flung open the noisy basement door and stepped inside. She was wary, though, never allowing herself to forget how much Briar liked to inflict pain. Vixen thought maybe it made her more at ease with her own inner wounds.

“Yes, I'm up.”

“Gregor says I have to take you out for some exercise. But I'm telling you right now, if you try to get away from me, I'll make you hurt in ways you can't even imagine. Understand?”

“Yes. And I believe you.” But Vixen knew she would try anyway. It wasn't in her not to try. Her freedom was too precious a thing to give away so easily.

“Great. Here, come up close to the bars.”

Vixen eyed what Briar held in her hands. A leather collar with a metal loop through it, and a chain attached. It was the sort of thing she'd seen dogs wear, while being led about by their human owners. She blinked, and moved no closer. “I'm not a dog.”

“No shit. But you can wear the collar and leash like one, or you can sit on your ass in your cage for the whole night again. Your choice.”

She wanted to rage at Briar, to lash out with claws and teeth, to draw blood, but it would do no good. Instead, she subdued the urge and moved closer to the bars.

“Turn around, press your back right up tight-that's it.” Briar reached inside, and with rapid, heartless movements, she buckled the collar around Vixen's neck, yanking it tight. Too tight.

Vixen tugged on it with her fingers, but it didn't help. “Please, loosen it,” she asked.

“No.” Briar opened the cage door. “You can breathe, that's all that matters. The tighter it fits, the quicker you'll come to heel when I jerk on your leash. Oh, and this baby has added benefits, too. See this?”

Briar held up a tiny device, black, plastic, with a button on it. As she did, she smiled slowly. “Wanna see what it does?”

Vixen shook her head slowly from left to right.

“Oh, come on. I'm dying to. Aren't you even curious?”

“No. I'll be good, I promise.”

Briar sighed and dropped the device back into her pocket. “I hope you try to get away at least once. I really want to see how the shock collar works on you.” She shrugged. “Then again, I suppose I don't have to wait for you to try to get away, do I? I can jolt you any time I want. As often as I want. Can't I, Vixen?”

Vixen lowered her head. “You could. But then what would be my incentive not to try to get away? If you're going to hurt me either way…?”

“Hmm. You're intelligent, for an animal. Just be aware, it has sensors. If you try to take it off or shift without permission, it'll jolt you hard enough to kill you. Come on.” Briar swung open the cage door, snapped the chain to the collar and led the way across the basement. They went up two stairs, to the large, loud door. It was steel, and it creaked and groaned as it opened, banged and clanged when it closed. Vixen had come to hate that door. But once through it, they went up another set of stairs, then through a door at the top that opened to the night.

Vixen stood there for a moment, just breathing in the fresh, clean air. She smelled a thousand scents, far more even than she would have as a fox. And she could hear everything, as well, every bird, every insect, every animal skittering through the fields and forests that surrounded this place. She could identify all of them by their sounds and their scents.

“We'll walk out across that field and back. All right?”

Vixen turned to Briar, and she knew her eyes were wide and pleading, but she didn't care. “Can we run?”

Briar narrowed her eyes at Vixen, then looked out across the field. “You see that gnarled tree at the far end?”

“The apple tree? Yes.”

“If you go one step beyond that tree, I'll use this remote to shock you. It sends a bolt of electricity out of that collar and straight into your neck. Do you understand that?”

“It would hurt,” Vixen said.

“It would put you down on the ground, it would hurt so much.”

“I won't go past the apple tree,” Vixen said. Then she looked to the right of the tree and said, “Or any farther east than…”

“The boulder, sitting there. See it?”

“The boulder,” Vixen said with a nod.

“Okay. Go ahead. Run till you drop for all I care.” Briar unsnapped the leash and took a seat on a fallen log and nodded. “Go on, would you?”

It occurred to Vixen that she could shift forms, slip the collar and escape. But, no. The change would take too long. Briar would see her, then shock her.

Vixen was afraid Briar would use the device in her pocket just to amuse herself, but maybe not. At least she could run. She took off then, racing into the field, shocked at how fast she could move now. The cool lush grass felt good on her bare feet, and the air rushing past her face had never smelled as sweet. She neared the apple tree and came to a halt, then turned three cartwheels, before racing off to the east, all the way to the boulder.

When Briar didn't send any bolts of pain shooting into her, she began to relax a little more, and even caught herself smiling as she played in the meadow underneath the stars.

Once, she looked back, and thought she saw her captor smiling as she watched. But Briar quickly turned her head away.

Vixen frowned, sniffing the air, puzzled by the lack of evil she had felt just then. Usually it was the only thing she could sense coming from the black-hearted female. But just now she'd caught the faintest trace of what felt like…a tear.

Seth heard female laughter and wondered just what the hell Topaz thought was so damn funny. But when he shot her a look, she was straight-faced. Not even smiling.

“Look, all I have to do is pretend I'm in trouble,” Roxy insisted. “I'm a good actress. I can project fear enough to have any vamp in the vicinity pick up on it. I know I can. Then they'll come to help me out, and I'll pick their brains about the rogue band-subtly, of course-and-“

“And if they are a part of the rogue band?” Reaper asked.

“You guys can follow them after they leave me.”

“Right,” Seth said. “Right after they rip out your throat.” Laughter again.

He glared at Topaz. “Something funny over there you'd like to share with the rest of us?”

“Nothing funny about it. Vampires can't hurt the Chosen, Seth. Everyone knows that. It's just gossip that this gang does that. I don't believe it's possible. Vamps never hurt the Chosen.”

“Yeah? And the Chosen never live beyond their thirties. Everyone knows that, too,” he said, with a nod toward Roxy.

“Are you implying that I look as if I'm beyond my thirties?” Roxy stared at him with wide eyes full of mock indignation.

“I'm just saying-” He broke off. That laugh again. Sweet, soft, childlike. He looked around the room and saw that it wasn't coming from Topaz. Or from Roxy, either.

“Seth is right,” Reaper said. “Roxy, we cannot let you risk your life to locate them.”

“Does anyone else hear that?” Seth asked.

“Hear what?” Roxy frowned at him, then seemed to listen. Everyone else followed suit.

“It sounds like someone laughing. A woman,” Seth said.

Now the others were looking at each other, speculation in their eyes.

“I've been hearing her for ten minutes now. It's like-Hell,” he muttered as realization dawned, “I think it's her.”

“Her, who?” Roxy asked.

He looked at her, then at Reaper. “She's one of us-or maybe one of the Chosen, I'm damned if I can tell which. I think she's in trouble.” Or he had thought so, the last time he'd felt her presence in his mind. The laughter he was hearing indicated something altogether different.

“If there were one of the Chosen in trouble nearby, Seth, we would all feel her need,” Reaper explained.

“I think I may be a little more…connected to her than the rest of you are.”

Reaper lifted his brows. Topaz lowered her chin, fixed her eyes on Seth and blinked rapidly, affecting an attitude of “I don't fucking believe this,” without saying a word.

Roxy moved closer to Seth and put a hand on his shoulder. “Whatever this is, it's getting to you, isn't it?” She turned to face the others. “Reaper, why not take a drive with Seth? He can steer you toward this chick, whoever she is. Maybe you'll pick up on something.”

“We need to be tracking the rogues, not chasing down every distraction we come to along the way,” Reaper said, and he sounded frustrated as hell.

“She's close. And I'm going after her,” Seth said. “Either way.”

“Where there's a Chosen one in trouble, Raphael,” Roxy said, speaking slowly and with apparently endless patience, “there are damn sure going to be vampires, as well. And if it's a vamp in trouble, well, hell, maybe she'll be grateful enough for the assist to tell us what she knows about the local rogue population. This little distraction is as likely to get you information as anything else I can think of.”

Reaper nodded, conceding the point, and Seth felt himself sigh in relief.

“Topaz and I will do some exploring in the opposite direction, see if we can find a few clues ourselves,” Roxy said.

“Be careful,” Reaper said. “Block yourselves well. You don't want them picking up on you.”

“We will, but be aware they're probably doing the same thing.” Roxy glanced at Topaz. “They know we're coming. Tried to annihilate our boys here with a semi the day before we met you.”

“You didn't tell me that,” Topaz accused Reaper, shock in her eyes.

He shrugged. “You didn't ask.”

Topaz propped her hands on her hips. “So is there anything else you've been keeping to yourself that I maybe ought to know about?”

“Nothing I can think of at the moment.” Reaper turned to Roxy. “Seth and I will go on foot. You can take the Shelby. I want you to keep that van of yours out of sight. Understood?”

“Right,” Roxy said with a wink, “like you're telling me what to do now?”

Reaper rolled his eyes and turned to Seth. “Can you home in on a direction?”

“I think so.” Seth led the way, every cell in his body tingling with anticipation. Reaper followed close on his heels.

Vixen felt him before she saw him. She was chasing a field mouse through the deep grass, trying to close her hands around him as he scurried this way and that, always just barely eluding her, when a feeling of eyes on her, a sense of another soul touching her, was so real and so intense that it made her come to a halt. She stopped dead and stood in the field, looking around.

And then she spotted him. He was crouching in the trees, watching her intently. When she saw him, something inside her clenched and tightened. There was another with him. Vampires, both, but the first was young, and still so very human, while the other was older, harder-and dangerous.

“Vixen, what is it?” Briar called.

Vixen quickly looked away, knowing better than to reveal the intruders' presence to that cold, cruel female. She would delight in tossing them both into a cage and torturing them.

“Nothing. Just a mouse.”

Vixen slid her eyes toward them again, willing them to go away, even making a little shooing motion with her hands. Who were they? What did they want?

One-the younger one-touched her in some intensely potent way. She felt as if she knew him. And then she realized that she did. She'd felt him-he was the one! She'd felt him just that one time, but she'd dreamed of him only this morning. Not a complicated dream, just an image. Just his face. And he looked exactly the way he had looked in her mind's eye.

He was coming to help her. He was…he was here solely for her.

She didn't know why. And she had no idea what caused the heavy flood of warmth through her core, or the tightening of her throat or the knotting of her stomach.

But he was important. She was sure of it, even though she didn't understand it. And yet she felt on the verge of tears-and Vixen never wept.

“Come on,” Briar called. “You've had enough exercise for one night. Gregor will be wondering where we are, and I need to feed. Babysitting duty is over.”

“All right.” Vixen didn't dare argue, not when Briar held that device in her pocket.

“You're awfully agreeable all of a sudden,” Briar said as Vixen made her way back through the deep grasses, inhaling deeply to smell the night air as much as possible while she still could.

When she reached Briar, the dark woman snapped the leash back onto the ring on her collar and led her back to the door in the base of the mansion. She'd had her first good look at the place from outside, but could tell very little. Her door and this field were in the rear of the house, and there were trees and vines all around it. It was built of redbrick, and it was massive. Beyond that, there was little to see.

As they went inside, Vixen glanced behind her just once and was troubled when she sensed that the men were following. Fools. They were going to end up as badly off as she was herself. And they would be no help to her then.

If they even intended to help her at all. But while she couldn't be sure that was why they had come, she felt it, on a gut level. The knowledge didn't seem to be coming to her from the older vampire, but from the younger one, it practically poured out to her. A promise, unspoken, only thought, but thought with so much passion and so much will it was unmistakable.

I've come for you. I'll help you. I promise.

I know, she thought back at him, just before the door closed. I've been waiting for you. Just please don't make me wait too much longer.