Cynthia Leighton sped down the dark highway, hands clenched on the steering wheel, the roar of the engine drowning out the sound of her frantic breathing. Her eyes flicked anxiously from the nearly empty road to her rearview mirror, where a pair of headlights had suddenly appeared, racing closer in the predawn blackness. Already pounding adrenaline spiked even higher, as she floored the gas pedal and the big SUV leapt forward in a gratifying burst of speed. She stared at the headlights, low to the ground, the cool blue of an expensive sedan, and coming on way too fast. It would be on her in seconds. Was it him? Had he discovered her deception and come after her?
She gripped the wheel tighter, hands spasming a painful protest, as the sedan came up hard on her tail, so close she could barely see the headlights any longer. She swerved suddenly, trying to throw him off, convinced he would ram her if that's what it took. The SUV threatened to roll, tilting on two wheels as she skidded into the next lane, the seat belt cutting into her neck as she struggled to keep him in view.
The big sedan zoomed past, the driver not even glancing her way as he sped on to his own destiny—one that had nothing to do with her. Cyn slumped in the driver's seat, swallowing the hard ball of her fear, feeling the chill of the air conditioner as sweat coated her body. Why had she ever thought it was a good idea to get involved with more vampires? Had she expected them all to be like Raphael—beautiful, lying bastard that he was? Sure, he'd broken her heart, but all those Boy Scout virtues, like honorable and trustworthy, applied to him too. Powerful as he was, he ruled his territory with the loyalty and respect of his people, rather than fear.
But that's not what she'd found in Texas. No, here she'd discovered the very face of evil—Jabril Karim, Vampire Lord of the Southern territories and as despicable and vile a creature as she'd ever met. A vampire who enslaved those he desired and destroyed anyone who got in his way. And right now, that included Cyn ... and the vampire hiding in the cargo compartment behind her, a vampire whose very life depended on Cyn getting to the airport before Jabril discovered they were gone.
She pressed harder on the gas, treading a fine line between speed and caution. She dared a glance at the clock on the dash. It was nearly sunrise. If she could just make it until then, they'd be safe.
She drove faster.
Houston, Texas, four days earlier
Jabril Karim watched silently as his lieutenant, Asim, slipped through the study door, saw him jerk to a confused stop when he noticed his Sire studying him from his seat behind the desk. Asim's narrow chest swelled with an indrawn breath as he fought visibly to contain his fear and Jabril smiled, perversely pleased.
"Well?” he asked in a bored tone.
"No one has seen Elizabeth in two days, my lord,” Asim said, cringing slightly as he delivered the unwanted news. “And the guards have no record of her coming or going through the gate in that time."
Jabril pushed away from his delicate Chippendale desk and crossed his legs. “So, the little one has escaped,” he said thoughtfully, smoothing the fabric of his trousers over one knee. He glanced up at Asim. “She won't succeed, of course. She belongs to me and, fortunately, the American law is on my side in this instance. But...” He raised a cautionary finger. “How to retrieve my property before it's too late?"
"I shall arrange a search,” Asim offered eagerly. “She cannot have gone far."
"Possibly. But human children have great freedom of action in this country and, besides, Elizabeth can look quite mature when she chooses. I am reluctant to do so, but I fear we may need to engage someone to undertake this search for us. One who understands the society better, perhaps someone who specializes in these runaway children?"
Asim frowned. “There are such people, of course, if you think it wise. I will contact your lawyers and find out who handles these things. Let them earn some of the money you pay them for doing nothing. A private investigator, perhaps—” He gave his master an alarmed look as Jabril barked out a laugh. “Sire?"
"A private investigator, Asim! This is too perfect. You recall that unfortunate business on the west coast recently? Rumor has it Raphael used a private investigator, a very private investigator from what I hear, but one who resisted even that arrogant bastard's charm."
"You would hire a woman?"
"Oh hardly, Asim,” he said with a dismissive flip of his fingers. “Talk to the lawyers and find a proper man for the job. But call this woman of Raphael's anyway. I want to meet her, and that bastard's ego could use a good pricking. Do you think he would mind sharing?"
"I think he would rather share with a snake, my lord,” Asim said with a sharp smile.
Jabril laughed again, an unpleasant sound. “Just so, Asim. Just so. Let me think ... it was Cynthia something. Lawson or Layland, or some such. Do you recall?"
"Leighton. Cynthia Leighton. Her father is Harold Leighton of Leighton Investments."
"Really? Well, isn't that interesting? Raphael moves in higher circles than I thought. All the more reason to take a look. Can you locate her?"
"Of course, my lord."
"Excellent. Tell her nothing on the phone, Asim. Insist she come in person; stress the delicacy of the situation."
"And if she refuses?"
"Oh, she won't refuse. Humans love a secret. And we are so very good at keeping them."
Cynthia Leighton trudged up the boarding ramp, following the rather substantial h*ps of the lawyer who'd been her seatmate and self-appointed best friend for the better part of the morning. More than three hours of listening to him drone on about his latest fascinating (yawn) triumph in the world of tort law. Cyn wasn't the kind of girl to make friends easily, but she did try to be polite. The lawyer had strained even her best intentions. Fortunately for him, the screeners had made her leave her pepper spray at the security checkpoint in L.A. When the Houston terminal came into view, she hoisted the strap of her backpack higher on her shoulder and took a firm hold on the telescoping handle of her carry-on bag, intent on a clean getaway.
The lawyer made a final play, pausing near the Jetway door to suggest she join him for a celebratory drink at his hotel. Cyn gave her watch a pointed glance—it was barely past one in the afternoon. She smiled her regrets and rolled away, quickly losing him in the crowded airport. Had the guy really thought she'd be interested in a little afternoon romp? Did she look that desperate?
Huffing an exasperated breath, she focused on the overhead signs, looking for baggage claim. Not that she had any bags to claim, but that's where the limo driver had promised to meet her. Following the general flow of the crowd toward the down escalators, she was struck by how all airports looked alike. No matter the supposedly unique architectural details they touted, it was still the same endless, long corridors filled with hard floors and wide open spaces that bounced all that noise around until you could barely hear yourself think, much less make out the latest garbled boarding announcement. She blew out an exhausted breath as she finally stepped onto the escalator, her gaze falling on a sign that welcomed her to Bush International Airport. What was it with politicians anyway, always rushing to put their names on everything? She couldn't think of a single politician who deserved his name on a sewage treatment facility, much less a major airport where everyone had to look at it all the time.
Geez, what a grouch! You need a drink, Cyn. No, what she really needed was a good night's sleep, one untroubled by dreams of a certain vampire lord. So what was she doing in Texas, about to undertake a job for yet another of the so-called undead? When the call had come two days ago, all she could think of was getting out of L.A., at least for a while. Putting a state or two between her and Raphael had seemed like a good idea, since nothing else seemed to work. Besides, half of her work as a private investigator was for one vampire or another. Most of it was pretty tedious stuff, tracking down old bank accounts and young relatives, but this new case had possibilities. Maybe it would be interesting enough to wipe away the lingering memories of sparkling black eyes and a slow smile. She sighed. Probably not.
A man approached as she stepped off the escalator, his plain black suit, white shirt and black tie screaming “limo driver” as clear as day. “Ms. Leighton?” he asked.
Cynthia gave him a somber assessment, a little surprised that he recognized her. She'd expected a sign, not a personal greeting. “Yes,” she admitted. “How did you know?"
He smiled, a fleeting flash of teeth that changed his face completely for a brief instant. “I didn't, not for sure. Mr. Asim gave me a description, but he was pretty vague.” He shrugged. “You looked right."
That obviously surprised him. “He works for Lord Jabril Karim, I thought—"
"Oh. We spoke on the phone, I guess.” Which didn't explain how he knew what she looked like, but then nothing about dealing with vampires was ever simple or straightforward. “Okay,” she said. “So, how do we get out of here?"
"This way. Can I...” He reached to take her backpack.
She shifted so it was out of his reach. “No, I'll carry this. You can take the suitcase, thanks. How far to the hotel?"
The driver collapsed the handle on her small suitcase, picking it up instead. “About thirty minutes, but Mr. Asim directed me to take you right out to the estate."
"Did he? How nice for him.” She smiled to the take the sting from her words. “Unfortunately—” She paused. “You never told me your name."
"I've always liked that name—my first crush was a Scott—so I'll tell you what, I don't want to cause problems for you, but I got up before dawn this morning to catch my flight, after which I spent nearly two hours getting through check-in and security only to find myself trapped in a narrow metal cylinder with a f**king lawyer who was bleating directly into my ear for over three hours. I'm tired and I'm cranky and I haven't had a decent night's sleep in a month. So I'm going to the hotel, but I'm perfectly willing to take a cab if that gets you off the hook.” She didn't mention that she was also set on going to the hotel because a package would be waiting for her there. A package that included her weapon of choice, a 9 mm Glock 17 handgun. Cyn had no intention of visiting a strange vampire unarmed.