Home > First Drop of Crimson (Night Huntress World #1)(3)

First Drop of Crimson (Night Huntress World #1)(3)
Author: Jeaniene Frost

She couldn't let that happen. "I'll find him," Denise said. I don't know how, but I will.

Raum traced his fingers along her arms. Her skin crawled in revulsion.

"I believe you mean that. But as extra incentive..."

His hands tightened around her while a ferocious new pain erupted inside her. She could hear herself screaming, but over that was Raum's careless laughter.

"Try not to die, will you? I've only just started."

Spade wrinkled his nose as he turned down Denise's street. Something foul reached him even through the ventilation system of his car. His eyes swept the road, expecting to see a car with a smoking engine or a roof being tarred, but there was nothing. The smell worsened as he pulled into Denise's driveway.

Spade reached into his satchel, pulling out two long silver blades that he concealed in each sleeve. Then he got out and walked up to the front door. Once there, he inhaled deeply near the frame.

The stench of sulfur filled his lungs, enough to choke him if he were human. Spade expelled his breath with a curse. Only one creature could leave such a smell in its wake.

Denise MacGregor wasn't imagining things after all, but she might not be alive for Spade to tell her that.

He leveled the door in one kick and then burst through, rolling at once to avoid any attack. Denise was crumpled on the floor near a couch, but Spade didn't rush to check on her. He glanced around the room, assuring himself no one else was there. Nothing but the sounds of her breathing and heartbeat.

He checked every room and closet upstairs and downstairs, but found nothing. Satisfied that he wasn't walking into a trap, Spade went to check on Denise.

She was unconscious, wearing only a robe with the belt untied - and she stank of sulfur like she'd bathed in it.

Spade's lips thinned into a grim line as he peeled back the robe. He'd been prepared to find the worst, but surprisingly there were no signs of an assault. It looked as though the demon had come, knocked her out, and then left.

Spade closed her robe and smoothed away the damp mahogany hair that covered her face, shaking her lightly.

"Denise, wake up."

It took a few tries, but then her hazel eyes opened, focused on him - and widened in panic.

"Where is he? Is he still here?"

Spade kept a grip on her, making his voice soothing. "No one's here but me. You're all right."

Denise let out a harsh sob. "No, I'm not."

She pulled up the sleeves of her robe to expose her forearms. Spade couldn't stop his curse as he saw the star-shaped shadows marking her skin.

Denise was correct; she wasn't all right. The demon had branded her.

Spade sat on the closed lid of the loo in Denise's bathroom. She'd insisted on showering, even though he'd had to carry her up here. He'd offered to help her wash but she flatly refused. Humans. As if this was any time for him to feel voyeuristic.

He refused to leave the bathroom, though, stating he wouldn't have her death on his conscience if she slipped and broke her neck while trying to get out of the tub. Denise responded bitterly that the demon told her she was beyond mortal death after being branded. Spade wasn't sure that was true, so he'd taken her robe, leaving her with no other option but to sit on the tile floor and tug the shower door closed.

He could see her hazy outline against the smoked glass. Hear her fumble about as she went through what must have been all her soaps and shampoos. The air filled with different perfumes, overpowering the lingering scent of sulfur. Spade closed his eyes. He'd have to get Denise to a safe place soon. It was doubtful the demon would leave only to come right back, but she couldn't stay here.

"I need a towel."

Spade pulled out two, handing the bigger one through the crack she'd opened in the shower. Once she'd wrapped it around herself, he opened the shower fully, ignoring her protest, and lifted her up, using his free hand to rub the smaller towel against her dripping hair.

"I can do this myself," she said, pushing at him weakly.

"Under normal circumstances, I don't doubt it," he replied, carrying her to her bed. "But you had a demon nearly give you fatal cardiac arrest, then force his essence through your body. No one would be on their feet after that, so quit arguing and let me help you."

She sagged against him, as if it had taken all her remaining strength to put up that last bit of fight. Spade kept his arm around her, bracing her next to him as he dried her hair with one hand and held her towel closed with the other. Her eyelids fluttered, her head tilting to rest on his arm. It left the smooth expanse of her throat mere inches from his lips.

Spade fought back a sudden urge to trace her pulse with his mouth. It had been over a day since he'd eaten, but hunger wasn't his only motivator. A muscle flexed in his jaw. He'd hoped time would eliminate the strange draw he felt toward Denise, but clearly, it was still there.

He'd first seen Denise when he went to Crispin's holiday party over a year ago. Spade walked in, and the first thing he'd noticed had been a dark-haired woman, her head thrown back in laughter over something Cat said. The woman glanced in his direction a moment later, as if she'd felt him watching her. Her full mouth was still open in mirth, but it was her direct gaze that snared his attention. That, and the unfamiliar charge that went through him as he stared.

"Who's she?" he asked Crispin.

Crispin followed Spade's gaze and let out a snort. "Sorry, mate. That's my wife's best friend."

And with those words, Denise became off-limits. She was human, and Spade had only two uses for human women - feeding or casual shagging. Since Denise was Cat's friend, indulging in either would be an insult to Crispin. Spade had stifled that odd twinge as he glanced back at her, but she'd already turned away to smile at a tawny-haired lad. It was almost a relief when Crispin told him she was also married. He truly had no reason to give her further thought.

But now Denise was widowed, wearing only a towel, and in his arms. Hard to ignore the draw he felt toward her under these circumstances.

She's not for you, Spade reminded himself sternly.

Still, no harm in noticing she was lovely. Her hair appeared darker while wet, and her complexion was roses and cream. The harsh smell of sulfur was gone, leaving her own scent of honey and jasmine to rise through the other perfumes covering it. Looking at her clad in the towel, her eyes closed and mouth slightly parted, was far more enticing than when he'd seen her na**d while he'd been checking her for injuries.

Spade forced himself back into a businesslike mentality. "Let's get you dressed," he said. "Once we're some where safe, I'll contact Crispin. Tell him where he and Cat can collect you."

Denise's eyes snapped open. "No."

"No?" Spade repeated, surprised.

She gripped his hand with more strength than he thought her capable of. "You can't tell them. Cat will drop everything to go after Raum, but he's too strong. I - I saw what he's capable of. I can't let her fight him, and if she knows about this, she'll try."

"Denise." Spade made his voice very reasonable. "You can't just wander around pretending you don't have demon brands on you. You have to find a way to remove them, and - "

"I know how to get them off."

Spade's brows went up. Did she now?

"The demon wants me to find an old relative of mine named Nathanial," Denise went on. "Seems Nathanial hocked his soul and then ran off without paying. The demon thinks he's hiding out with vampires or ghouls. If I find Nathanial, bring him to Raum, I get these brands off and Raum leaves the rest of my family alone."

Spade found his voice amid his amazement. "And if you don't deliver this Nathanial to the demon?"

A shudder went through Denise. "Then Raum's essence keeps growing in me...until I turn into a shape-shifter like him."

Chapter Three

Denise glanced away from the road. If she wasn't in such dire circumstances, she was sure her life would be flashing in front of her eyes. Spade drove like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic with dizzying efficiency and no regard for the speed limit. When she'd pointed out that if he kept it up, a cop would soon pull him over, Spade had only smiled and said he was hungry anyway.

She had a feeling that he wasn't kidding.

To avoid looking at the blur of cars and scenery passing by, she studied Spade instead. His hair was pure black, lifting in what looked to be a natural spike off his crown to hang in shiny waves down to his shoulders. Brows the same inky color framed burnt-amber eyes. Both were in vivid contrast to his skin, which had the beautiful crystal paleness that marked him as a vampire. Even sitting, he was obviously very tall, but his height didn't look awkward on him as it did with some people. No, Spade towered over people around him with a straight-spined confidence, his long limbs moving with grace and precision. Deadly precision.

Memory flashed in her mind. "You just stand by my buds while your friend and I get in this backseat," the grinning stranger said, grabbing Denise. In the next instant, he was on the ground, nothing but red gore where his head had been. Spade stood over him, his eyes flashing green as he kicked the man's body hard enough for it to dent the nearby car.

Then the worst memory of all. Spade, covered in blood, pulling her away from what used to be Randy. "He's gone, Denise. I'm so sorry..."

She looked away. Better to stare at the nausea-inducing rush of scenery than at him. After all, the whirring of cars outside the window didn't stir her memories as he did. When she was away from vampires, she could pretend Randy really had died in a car accident, as his family believed. But every time she was around vampires, sooner or later, memories of blood and death that she'd tried to suppress came to the surface.

And now she had no choice but to immerse herself in the last place she wanted to be - deep inside the vampire world.

"I'll need to hire someone to take me around to, you know, places where your kind hangs out," she said, mentally calculating how much cash she could get on short notice. "I'd appreciate it if you could refer me to a vampire private investigator or whatever equivalent you have."

Spade gave a look she was fast getting sick of; the kind that said he thought she was crazy.

"A vampire private investigator?" he repeated. "You're putting me on, right?"

"I know you have vampire hit men, so why wouldn't you have vampire private investigators, too?" she flared back. "I can't just run an ad with Nathanial's description on it titled 'Have you seen this soul welsher?'"

Spade's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "No, you can't," he said in a calm tone. "But vampires don't have vampire private investigators. If we want to find someone, we ask our Master to contact other Masters to see who owns this missing person. Then whatever business is sorted out between the two Masters. We have undead hit men for the times when vampires want to skip that formality and don't care about the consequences. It's unheard of for a human to contact other Master vampires in search of someone's property, which is what Nathanial would have to be. And no Master vampire with any self-respect would offer up his property so you could take him to be sacrificed."

Denise hated how casually Spade referred to humans as property. He didn't even seem to be aware that it was insulting.

"Then I'll hire a hit man and just tell him not to kill Nathanial. What will he care, if he gets paid to deliver a live person versus a dead one?"

Spade muttered something under his breath that was too fast for her to catch.

"What?" she asked, with an edge.

He stared at her long enough that she almost snapped at him to keep his eyes on the road.

"No vampire will steal another vampire's property for a human, no matter how much quid you offer. That risks war, whereas killing some bloke with no evidence as to who did it is much simpler. You might be able to get a vampire to blow Nathanial's head off for a fee, but you won't get one to kidnap him."

Denise felt like pounding on the dashboard in frustration. There had to be someone who could help her. Who else did she know that was dead?

"I'll ask Rodney," she said with a burst of inspiration. "He's not a vampire, he's a ghoul. Rodney knows me, so maybe he'd be willing to find Nathanial without anyone knowing who did it or getting messed up in vampire politics."

A muscle ticked in Spade's jaw. "Rodney's dead."

Denise didn't say anything for a long moment. Her mind was too busy rejecting the idea that the sweet, funny ghoul she'd known was dead. Decapitation is the only way to kill a ghoul, she'd flung at Raum earlier. That knowledge made her sick now. Why, why, why would anyone murder Rodney?

"He was a good man. It's not right," was what she said after the silence stretched.

Spade grunted. "Indeed."

Denise wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and not have to think about death for a week. Or a day, or even an hour. But unless she found Nathanial, her family's deaths loomed on the horizon.

She'd have to involve Cat. Bones was a Master vampire and a former hit man, so he had the expertise of finding people combined with the clout in the vampire community. It was the only logical choice - except that Bones would feel honor-bound to save her, if things got too hairy and dangerous. I already got my husband killed, Denise thought dully. How can I live with myself if I get my best friend's husband killed, too?

"We should be in Springfield in a few hours," Spade said. "Once there, we'll stop at a hotel and - "

Denise sat straight up. "You."

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