The morning light washed across her face, painting her pale skin gold. Michael smiled and brushed the stray lock of hair away from her cheek. She looked so much younger in sleep, almost childlike.
Yet the image was a lie. Nikki was an old spirit in a young body. Her parents’ death and her brief time with Tommy had forced her to grow up far too early. She’d lived through the nightmare and somehow survived. Maybe now that she’d finally confronted her memories and guilt, she’d be able to do more than that. Maybe now she’d live—and love—without fear.
He eased his arm out from under her head and watched her snuggle into the blankets. Lord, he didn’t want to leave her. Not now, not in the future. But he no choice about either. He ran a hand through his hair and looked away. This morning had been a mistake. He should never have touched her a second time, should never have let their minds entwine so strongly. For now he could no longer deny he was human, with human wants and needs.
He’d played with fire and lost his heart.
He rose from the bed and moved across to his clothes. Jasper had to be his first priority, now more than ever. He couldn’t risk the fiend capturing her again. Anger washed through him, and he savored its taste.
It would help him hunt this morning.
But anger did little to erase Jasper’s stain from her mind. While her mind might merge with his and make them one, Michael knew he could never hope to control her.
But neither would Jasper. He’d do whatever it took to prevent her becoming a puppet to Jasper’s desires. Even if it meant killing her. At least then Jasper wouldn’t be able to call her back from the dead.
It was only his own victims he could recall.
The thought sent a chill through his soul. He heard soft steps coming down the hall, and tensed. After a moment, he realized it was only Jake. He finished buttoning his shirt, then moved back to the bed.
Bending, he gently kissed her cheek. She stirred and murmured something, but her thoughts were full of warmth and contentment. For the moment, at least, she was free from Jasper’s taint.
But how long would it remain that way?
He had no idea, and it worried him. If Jasper called—truly called with the full force of his vampire abilities—what would happen? In three hundred years of existence he’d met no one who could resist such a call. But then, until Nikki, he’d met no mind he could not fully control. Maybe her psychic strength would give her an edge where all others had failed.
Damn it, he had to find Jasper first and kill him. And Monica was the key. If he knew his enemy, the teenager would be on her own by now. Jasper very rarely kept his women, turned or not, for more than a week or so.
But she would know where her master was, and one way or another, Michael intended to get that information out of her before she died.
* * *
After several hours of aimless driving, he finally had to acknowledge their quest was futile. Nikki was right—they needed her help. Lyndhurst was a damn maze; Monica could be anywhere.
Michael rubbed his chin wearily, then winced as the sun caressed his arm. He shifted uncomfortably in the seat, and glanced at the clock on the dash. It was nearly ten.
“Let’s call it a day,” he said into the silence.
Jake gave him a quick look. “Why?”
Michael shrugged. “I can’t take much more of the sun.”
Fear washed through the silence. He crossed his arms and controlled the urge to touch Jake’s thoughts.
For the first time since he’d turned, he wanted someone to accept him without any sort of force. He smiled slightly. Nikki was a bad influence.
After a moment, Jake cleared his throat and gave him another quick look. “Where to, then?”
He glanced at his watch again. It would take them too long to get back to the hotel. He gestured to a small bar just ahead. “Feel like a drink?”
Jake’s grin was slightly forced, but at least he was making the effort. And it would be good to sit back and wait out the day’s heat with an icy beer. If he couldn’t be with Nikki, at least he could sit and enjoy a drink—a normal pastime in his otherwise abnormal life.
Jake stopped close to the entrance, and Michael climbed out. The sunshine raced heat across his unprotected flesh. It was a warning he dare not ignore.
He ran up the steps and ducked inside. The interior of the bar was dark and cool and smelled of sweat and stale smoke. It didn’t matter. All he needed was someplace to wait out the worst of the day. He ordered two drinks from the disinterested barman then moved across to a table hidden in deep shadow.
Jake sat opposite him and took a sip of his beer. He smacked his lips in appreciation, then gave Michael a shrewd look. “So,” he said, “just what do you plan to do about Nikki?”
He knew Jake wasn’t referring to the fact that they’d left without her. The man saw too much. “What’s this,” he asked lightly. “A little fatherly inquisition?”
Jake shrugged. “I’ve known her a long time. I don’t want to see her hurt.”
“Neither do I.” He took another mouthful of beer, but its taste had soured. “When did you two meet?”
Jake smiled. “When she was sixteen. She saved my life.”
He raised an eyebrow in surprise. “How?”
“I was tracking a runaway for his parents and got cornered by his gang. Nikki came out of nowhere and faced them all down.”
It was easy to imagine the skinny little ball of fierceness she must have been. He smiled slightly. Nothing much had changed. “So, she was a hellcat even then.”
“But a vulnerable one,” Jake said sharply. “Her toughness is just a shell.”
Like he knew she had problems with trust, that she feared commitment because everyone she’d ever loved had died. The knowledge didn’t make things easier, or help him decide how to proceed.
Not that he could proceed.
He met Jake’s gaze squarely. “I’m here to do a job, nothing more. Nikki knows that.”
“Women are strange folk, buddy. What they know and what they understand are often two very different things.”
True. But that wasn’t the case with Nikki. She didn’t want him close, didn’t want anyone close. She might concede to physical attraction, but would definitely allow nothing more. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem here.”
“Until the last few days, I would’ve agreed with you. But you’ve cracked her shell, and no matter what either of you might say, I have eyes. I can see what you’re both denying.”
“I’m not denying I’m attracted to her, just saying that I’ve been honest with her.” Honest where it counted. Up to a point, anyway. “Believe me, I have no desire to hurt her.”
Jake nodded. “I just needed to know she’s in safe hands. Let’s enjoy our drinks, my friend.”
Michael picked up his beer and made no comment.
* * *
Nikki blinked the sleep from her eyes, then flipped the sheets away from her face. Bright sunshine caressed her skin, filling her with warmth. She felt contented and lazy and, for the first time in ages, happy. Like a big, fat cat rolling in the sun.
Only Michael wasn’t there.
Fear leaped through her. The hotel room was silent, empty. She clenched her fists against the sheets.
They’d left without her.
“Damn you both,” she muttered and flung the blankets aside, climbing out of bed. If they thought they had her beaten, they were wrong. She’d just have to go after Monica alone.
The thought sent a chill down her spine. She ignored it and quickly dressed. Jake and Michael had forgotten one major point—she was still the only person who could accurately pinpoint Monica’s whereabouts.
Or was she? Nikki frowned and walked into the kitchen. Last night she’d seen the enormous power behind Michael’s gifts. He’d never said he couldn’t find Monica. She stopped in sudden horror. Had last night been little more than a convenient way to tire her and make her sleep?
Pain stabbed through her heart. That last time couldn’t have been a lie. Their minds had entwined too closely for any lie to survive.
And yet, with the strength of Michael’s gifts, how could she ever be sure? Tommy had been able to make her believe he cared, and he’d only possessed a tenth of Michael’s abilities.
She crossed her arms and stared at the smoke-stained wall. Why did it matter so much anyway? One night, that was all she’d asked for, all she’d wanted. One night free from Jasper’s taint. Michael had surely given her that.
So why did she suddenly feel so cheated? Especially when she’d been the initiator? She’d only seduced Michael to run Jasper’s dark whispering from her mind. But something in his touch had made her feel cherished. Loved, even.
She closed her eyes at the thought. Because it was nothing more than a lie. He’d warned that he couldn’t love her and that he couldn’t stay. He’d given her last night, but he couldn’t give her anything more.
It was totally foolish to even want something more. People died when she cared too much, and she didn’t want to see him dead.
The kettle whistled shrilly into the silence. She made a cup of coffee then picked it up and walked back into the living room. The newspaper lay on the sofa, and headlines leaped out at her. Three more dead
She took a gulp of coffee, almost scalding her throat in the process. Monica had to be stopped, before she could slake her thirst on more innocents. She put the cup down and shoved a hand into her pockets, dragging out the locket she’d swiped from Trevgard’s. Obviously, Jasper hadn’t bothered searching her when he’d stripped her.
Dark laughter flickered through her thoughts, and her pulse rate jumped. She swallowed uneasily, but knew she had no choice. Monica had to be found. She wrapped her fingers around the locket. A chill chased horror through her mind. Monica’s evil had grown. Images pushed forward, but she held them at bay and sat down.
Only then, after taking a deep breath, did she open her mind to hell.
Darkness flooded her senses. Through it, she heard the faint strains of music… an organ . Frowning, she tried to broaden the view. She needed an exact location, not merely the sounds and images of Monica’s den.
She smiled at the absurdity of it. Yet what better hideaway could Monica find? No one expected a vampire to hide in such a place. Not even Michael…
She jumped. The question sounded so clear he might as well have been standing right next to her. She put her hand on her chest, and took a deep breath to calm the rapid pounding of her heart.
Annoyance seared her. She smiled grimly. Good. Maybe next time he’d think twice about leaving her behind… But there wasn’t going to be a next time, was there?
The sudden wariness behind his question made her wonder if he’d heard her thoughts.
Thank you. He sounded surprised, as if he hadn’t expected an honest answer. We’ll find her, Nikki.
Maybe they would. And maybe she would. The bracelet would lead her straight to the teenager’s lair.
Yeah, right. She rose and called for a cab. Her car was still parked in front of the agency, and, hopefully, she still had a set of knives hidden under the dash. Even if a knife wasn’t an effective weapon against a vampire, she still felt safer with them strapped to her wrist.
She glanced at the time. Two o’clock. She collected her jacket and went outside to wait for the cab.
* * *
Two hours later, she stopped her car opposite an old church and climbed out. This was the place. She took off her sunglasses and leaned against the car to study the church. A priest puttered around in the front garden, tending to a few winter flowering plants. Two old cypress pines dominated the grounds on the right side of the old building, but the back and left side were bare and open.
She squinted slightly and looked at the sky. It was after four, and the sun’s strength was beginning to wane. Michael had said any exposure to the sun was dangerous to the newly turned, but she wanted to be sure of death. The later it was, the less likely that became.
And it wouldn’t wait until Michael arrived. She didn’t question the certainty that he was coming. As he’d warned, the ties between them had been strengthened by their lovemaking, and he was using that connection to find her.
Maybe she should wait for him… But something drove her on, told her she couldn’t afford to.
She locked the car door then crossed the road. The priest moved back into the old building.
How could she rid the church of its unknown guest without raising the priest’s suspicions? She frowned and turned down an old stone path that led through the trees. There had to be a second entrance around the back of the church. Maybe she could get in there.
Luck was with her for a change. She climbed over a small fence and approached the second door. It was locked. She looked around to ensure no one watched, then quickly zapped the door with kinetic energy.
It creaked open. The hallway beyond was dark, still. The murmur of several voices came from a room to her right, and someone moved around in another room further down the hall. Below them all, a sense of evil, sleeping.