Andrea Cole had been hunting demons and vampires since she was eighteen, almost since the day she'd dropped out of college and returned home to witness both parents being torn apart by demons before her eyes.
That was nine years, a hundred kills, and two dozen broken bones ago.
Killing evil creatures had never bothered her.
But tonight was different.
Tonight she might have to kill the love of her life.
She gripped her wooden stake so hard that she was surprised it didn't crack.
Silently, she eased down the damp, narrow staircase that led to an underground chamber beneath the Oregon billionaire's mansion.
The human scumbag was in league with demons who The Aegis, a society of human warriors who protected the world from evil, had been watching for two years.
Andrea's division, a special vampire investigative unit, had concentrated all its efforts on bringing this guy down, starting with the vampires he harbored on his property.
Beneath it, anyway.
Recently, an Aegis Guardian had disappeared into the bowels of the mansion.
Under the pretense of delivering a kitchen order from a local bakery, Kaden had snooped around and gotten lucky when he spotted the butler opening a secret panel in the pantry.
He'd followed the butler down a staircase, speaking softly into his hidden microphone to describe everything he saw.
At the bottom, he'd found himself in a giant chamber filled with torture devices, several filthy cells, dozens of tunnels and, unfortunately, more vampires than he could combat.
Andrea had listened in horror as Kaden was overwhelmed. When the sound had cut off, something inside her had died, and she'd done nothing but live and breathe revenge ever since.
And now, revenge was within her grasp, because at this very moment, there were twenty Guardians swarming the mansion grounds, armed to the teeth and working on three separate missions.
One: Capture the billionaire scumbag, Blake Alden.
Two: Kill as many vampires as possible.
Three: Find Kaden.
Find Kaden so Andrea could kill him.
The thought rolled through her on a wave of nausea.
Maybe he was okay.
Maybe the vampires hadn't turned him.
And maybe she was freaking delusional, because she knew damned good and well they'd done it.
Vamps got off on torturing Guardians -- or worse, turning them.
Nothing amused bloodsuckers more than dropping an enemy headfirst into their worst nightmare.
Cautiously, she stepped out of the stairwell and into a huge, cavernous basement.
From the stone walls hung wicked-looking implements of torture.
The floor was dirt, so not a basement, exactly.
It was more of a cave, with cells carved into the walls.
The doors were solid slabs of metal, with only a small, eye-level slotted window shot through with steel bars.
Ahead were tunnels she'd be willing to bet led to living spaces and dozens of exits that would come out all over Portland.
Behind her, six Guardians filed out of the stairwell.
"This is weird," Zach, a newer recruit, whispered.
"There's no one here."
"They might have been tipped off."
Andrea moved toward the cells.
"Or it's a trap and they're hiding.
Zach and the others disappeared into the tunnels, leaving Andrea to clear the immediate area.
The first cell was empty, the shackles on the walls hanging dejectedly from their chains.
Some sort of spindly, man-sized demon occupied the second, cowering in a corner and trembling.
A colleague would dispatch the pathetic creature later.
She moved on, slowing when the small hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she side-stepped a dark stain on the ground.
Her gaze tracked automatically to the ceiling.
Above her, dried-flesh-crusted meat hooks swayed, grotesque even in the dim light from the wall sconces.
And there, in the corner, were Kaden's boots and shirt.
Andrea's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach.
Where was he?
Forgetting caution, she checked the third cell.
The fourth cell.
The fifth cell...dear God, the fifth cell.
Inside, sitting with his back to the wall, wearing only black cargo pants and a metal collar around his neck, was Kaden.
Andrea's breath lodged in her throat, her pulse went double-time, and though she knew better than to hope, she did exactly that.
His head swung around, his gray eyes bright and wide with surprise.
His dark blond hair was alternately grooved and spiky, as though he'd been thrusting his fingers through it, and his tan skin was marred by fading bruises and cuts.
If the vampires had had him for the full two weeks he'd been missing, she was surprised he hadn't been hurt more.
Then again, maybe they had put him through hell, but he'd healed already, thanks to a vampire's rapid regeneration abilities.
But so far, she saw no signs of him being turned.
Maybe, just maybe, everything would be okay.
God, please let it be okay.
"Kaden, don't move.
I'm going to get you out of there."
He lurched forward, only to be drawn short by the chain linking his collar to the wall.
Panic put a chilling, grim light in his gaze.
Dread draped her like a shroud, suffocating her last breath of hope.
She knew what he was going to say.
She didn't want to ask, but the question fell from her lips before she could stop it. "Why not?"
"Because," he said, opening his mouth to reveal two extra-long canines, "I'll kill you."
Kaden Quinn braced himself for Andrea's reaction.
The sight of the stake in her hand put ice cubes in his blood, but whether his reaction was an instinctive one brought about by his new vampire status, or whether it was because he was a Guardian who knew exactly what that pointed shard of wood would do to him, he didn't know.
What he did know was that he'd been here for two weeks, tortured for the first five days and then turned into a vampire on the sixth.
Oh, and he was starving.
Andrea's gorgeous brown eyes glistened with tears.
"No," she rasped, shaking her head so hard her ebony hair slapped her pale cheeks.
Her curses echoed through the chamber as she worked the slide-lock on the cell door.
She was going to kill him.
The knowledge should have comforted him.
Upon becoming a Guardian, every Aegi swore that they would never allow themselves to be turned into any kind of monster -- not vampire, were-beast, or demon.
If you had to take your own life in order to uphold that vow, you did it.
Kaden hadn't been able to make good on his promise -- he'd been knocked unconscious during the battle, and by the time he came to, it was too late.
He'd awakened to find himself hanging from hooks outside this very cell.
The physical torture hadn't been nearly as bad as the mental torture.
The alpha vamp, an ugly bastard named Cedric, kept threatening to turn him.
When Cedric finally latched onto Kaden's throat and began to drink, Kaden had prayed for death.
The alternative had been too horrible to imagine.
Then his nightmarish imaginings had warped into reality when Cedric opened a vein in his own wrist and, while another vamp held Kaden's mouth open, forced him to swallow Cedric's blood, activating the turn.
Kaden had drifted into blackness.
When he'd come to the next night, his heart no longer beat.
He'd expected to feel different, as if getting dead and sprouting fangs would turn him into an insane, evil beast.
But nothing had changed.
He still thought Andrea was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
He still hated vampires.
Oh, sure, his senses were more acute and the sound of Andrea's blood rushing through her veins was making his mouth water, but he felt like he could handle being with her.
He'd warned her anyway, because what if he was wrong?
What if she got close and he jumped on her, ripped into her neck, and let that sweet lifeblood pour down his throat?
Anticipation spiked, and lust stirred his sluggish body.
While he drank, he'd take her, would fist his hands in her thick black locks and pump into her until she begged for mercy--
He blinked, realized he'd been caught up in that crazy fantasy.
He was freaking starving.
The vampires hadn't fed him, but he'd had to watch when they brought unwilling humans to the basement to feed.
He'd been horrified, yet at the same time, he'd also been overtaken by cravings and fascinated in a way that filled him with disgust.
Andrea was inside the cell now, crouching, the stake at her side.
He eyed it warily.
I was just..."
Thinking about sinking my shiny new set of fangs into you.
Cursing, he shoved his fingers through his hair.
"Look, it's not safe for you here.
Get your team out."
"The place is empty.
I think they knew we were coming."
Adrenaline screamed through him in a stinging, hot rush that couldn't have jacked him up more if he'd shot it directly into his veins.
"It's a trap."
He leaped to his feet, startling Andrea to hers.
"I can't just...leave you."
Her voice broke, and his heart along with it.
She'd faced an awful choice the day her parents died -- stay, fight, and die...or flee, leaving them behind to perish.
Her decision had been made when her father ordered her to save her sister -- who had died anyway, leaving Andrea with a lifetime of regret.
She shouldn't have to make a similar choice now, but it was much too late for that.
His eyes latched onto the stake.
He should tell her to kill him.
He was a monster.
But he didn't want to die.