BLOOD HUNTER SERIES - Book Two by Nina Croft
Breaking assassin Jonathon Decker out of a maximum security prison on Trakis One seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, pursued across space by the two most powerful factions in the universe, the crew of El Cazador are having second thoughts. They’d like to give him back. Unfortunately, that no longer seems an option.
Jon is used to working alone. Now, he’s stuck on the space cruiser El Cazador until he can work out just what he’s supposed to know that puts him on everybody’s most-wanted-dead list. He’s not happy that the crew includes a runaway priestess with designs on his virtue—such as it is. Jon likes women, but he gave up the role of protector a long time ago, and Alexia, High Priestess of the Church of Everlasting Life, is an accident waiting to happen.
After twenty-four excruciatingly boring years of doing her duty, Alex is finally having some fun. She never meant to run away—it was a rash impulse—and she means to go back—eventually. But first, she’s going to squeeze enough excitement out of the situation to last her a lifetime. And what could be more exciting than a stunningly gorgeous werewolf?
Meanwhile, the Church are chasing their missing priestess, and the Collective are pursuing their escaped assassin. Being hunted has never been more deadly…or more fun.
© 2011 Nina Croft
Twenty-four years ago…
A pair of sickle moons hung low in the sky, casting a sullen, bloodred glow insufficient to light the path. High Priest Hezrai Fischer swore under his breath as he tripped over a tree root and only just prevented himself from sprawling on the ground in an undignified heap.
“How much farther?” he snapped.
“Not far now, my Lord,” the guide murmured soothingly. He’d been saying the same words for the last hour.
The procession wound its way up a steep track cut into the side of a mountain, on what had to be the most godforsaken planet in the known universe. Sweat soaked his robes, and every muscle ached from the unusual exercise. “Why here?” he asked the world in general. “Why couldn’t she have been born on some nice, civilized planet?”
“God works in mysterious ways,” Sister Martha said softly from beside him.
He gritted his teeth as the words hovered on his lips. Personally, he would have preferred a little less mystery and a little more common sense from God. Biting back the blasphemous thought, he peered sideways at his companion. She had no trouble maneuvering up the track, seeming to glide in her long, black robes. Her face was serene; only the subdued glow in her eyes hinted at her excitement.
Left to him, he would have chosen a different companion. Sister Martha always set his teeth on edge, but as the head of the Order of the Sisters of Everlasting Life, it would be her duty to take charge of the new priestess. He hadn’t been able to think of a reasonable excuse to leave her behind.
The old High Priestess had died a month ago. They had immediately sent out seekers to all the inhabited planets to search for the new vessel; a baby girl born at the exact moment of the old priestess’s death into whom the holy spark would have been transferred.
“We’re here, my Lord.”
“Here” appeared to be a tiny hovel. Dull orange light flickered from the single window. He smoothed his robes, raised his fist, and banged on the wooden door.
It was opened seconds later by one of the brothers. “My Lord.”
Hezrai nodded brusquely. “They know we are coming? Have they agreed?”
“Yes, my Lord. For one thousand credits, they will hand over the child.”
“They should hand her over for the glory of the Church,” he snarled.
“They are not members, my Lord, but they are poor.”
Hezrai detected a slight censure in the words; he’d ignore it for now, but made a mental note of the man’s name. “Let’s get this over with.”
He followed the brother into the house, though “house” was an ambitious word for the single, dingy space he found himself in. The air held a sharp, sour smell, and he wrinkled his nose.
At the far side of the room, a man and a woman huddled together. The man held a baby in his arms.
“At last,” Hezrai muttered. Perhaps now they could finish this and get back to civilization. He stepped closer and peered down at the baby. He didn’t know much about babies, and wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but some sense of holiness at the very least.
“Are we sure?” It was an ugly little thing with a squashed up face, strange gray eyes rimmed with black, and a shock of dark red hair. Hezrai frowned. “Has there ever been a red-haired priestess?”
“Not that I remember.” Sister Martha sounded dubious. “Can we see the sign?”
The father parted the robes. A purple birthmark showed clearly on her right thigh in the perfect shape of a cross.
Hezrai nodded. It was enough for him. “Make the transfer.”
He waited, tapping his foot on the rough wood floor, trying to ignore the stench of the place. Finally, the transaction was complete. “Right then…Get the girl and let’s go.”
The parents hadn’t said a word, but now the mother stepped forward. “Please, I don’t—”
Her husband halted her with a hand on her arm. “Shut up, Lisa. There’ll be other babies.”
“We discussed this. What sort of life will she have here? With the Church, she’ll have a chance—a future.”
Hezrai rolled his eyes. Yeah right, they were doing this for the infant, nothing to do with the thousand credits. He really hoped the woman wasn’t going to be difficult. Before she could say another word, the man edged closer to Hezrai and shoved the baby into his arms.
Hezrai almost dropped it.
Now he knew where the disgusting smell was coming from. Staring down into its red face, he tried to feel some religious awe. This was the High Priestess returned to them. She blinked at him from intense gray eyes, screwed up her features, and screamed, nearly bursting his eardrums.
“Quiet, child.” He made an effort to keep his voice even. If he gave in to his natural inclination and screamed back, he suspected it would do more harm than good.
She shrieked louder.
“Give her to me.” Sister Martha held out her arms.
A second ago, he would have gladly handed her over; now that the sister had asked, he tightened his grip and gritted his teeth. “The child belongs to God now. She must learn obedience.”
The baby quieted, her lips curving into a sweet smile.
“There, you see, she just needs discipline.”
She opened her mouth and regurgitated vile smelling, half-digested milk down his pristine black robe.
That was the moment Hezrai Fischer began to hate the brand new High Priestess of the Church of Everlasting Life.
Where the hell am I?
Jon’s head throbbed, and his mouth tasted like shit. He shivered with the cold, and then a moment later sweat broke out on his forehead. Nausea roiled in his gut. He rolled off the bed, landed on all fours, and retched. There was nothing in his stomach, but he stayed, head hanging low while he attempted to piece together what was going on.
He was alive, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
Shaking his head, he tried to clear the haze from his mind. Cryo always did that to him—left his reactions slow, his brain sluggish, and the rest of him feeling like crap.
What the hell had happened?
The last thing he remembered was being captured, and his last thought had been that he was as good as dead.
Instead, he was here. Wherever here was.
It appeared to be a cabin—not a cell, and he wasn’t restrained in any way, but his inner senses were screaming danger. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and caught the lingering scent of death on the air. Not the usual sort of death that vanished with time, but the evil, blood-sucking sort that refused to lie down and rot.
A sharp buzz shrilled through the cabin, and his muscles tightened. He forced himself to relax as he realized someone was outside. At least they were being polite. He stumbled to his feet, swayed, and supported himself with one hand flat against the wall until his legs steadied beneath him.
Goddamn cryo made him as weak as a puppy. He was also naked, so he grabbed a small towel from the bed and wrapped it around his hips.
At the door, he peered into the monitor. A boy stood in the corridor, skinny with a shock of dark red hair and big gray eyes. Shifting from foot to foot, the boy had a bundle of clothes tucked under one arm and a tray of food balanced on the other. Jon’s stomach rumbled.
After locating the panel beside the entrance, he pressed his palm to it and then stood aside as the door slid open and the boy shuffled inside. Up close, the kid only came as high as Jon’s shoulder—he must have been fourteen, fifteen at the most. At the sight of Jon, his eyes widened and his gaze flicked down over Jon’s body before fixing somewhere to the left of him.
“Yes?” he snapped when the boy said nothing.
His gaze shot back to Jon’s face then settled on his chest. “I’m Al, the cabin boy.”
“I brought you some clothes. And we’ve had supper, but earlier you said you wouldn’t eat with a piece of Collective…”
Christ, he couldn’t remember, though it sounded like the sort of thing he would say. He hated the Collective. Not as much as he hated the Church, which wasn’t really saying much. Forcing his mind to concentrate, he struggled to remember where he was and how he’d gotten here. A vague memory of the boy showing him to the cabin earlier flickered through his mind. There had been some talk about the Collective, but Jon had only just come around from the cryo, and he hadn’t been paying attention.
Al nodded. “Anyway…I brought you some food. Though the captain says you’re not a prisoner, and if you stay on this ship, you eat with her crew.”
Jon had no intention of staying on this ship or eating with the crew. At the first opportunity, he was away. He had a bloody double-crossing bastard to hunt down and exterminate.
“If I’m not a prisoner, I presume I’m free to leave.”
“I suppose so. Though you don’t have a ship, and we’re in deep space, and…” Al shrugged a shoulder. “There’s a meeting tomorrow to decide what we should do. Skylar says the Collective will come after you.”
“She’s Collective, but she said she was your sister—that’s why we broke you out of prison.”
Well, that was really sweet, except he didn’t have any family. So what the fuck was going on? “I don’t have a sister.”
Al shrugged again. “Anyway, you should stay here. The captain will keep you safe.”
Jon didn’t want anyone keeping him safe. He worked alone, and he liked it that way. But it occurred to him he should find out a little about where he was, who had gotten him out of prison, and what they wanted in return.
“Where is here?” he asked. “What is this ship?”
“It’s the El Cazador. El Cazador de la Sangre.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “What sort of shit name is that?”
“It’s old Earth talk. It means The Blood Hunter.”
Jon breathed in deep and caught again the lingering scent of death. “Well, that figures. Who’s the captain?”
When he didn’t get an answer, he frowned. “Well?”
Jon belatedly realized Al was still juggling the clothes and the tray and looked about to drop both.
“Sorry, I…here.” The boy held out the tray, and the bundle tucked under his arm tumbled to the floor. Jon took the food and put it down on the small table by the bed, his stomach rumbling again as the smell drifted up. Then he picked up the clothes. Black pants and a black shirt. After dropping the towel, he pulled on the pants. They fit—just.
He glanced up. Al stood frozen in place, staring as though he’d never seen a man before. Jon ignored him and shrugged into the shirt. It was tight across the shoulders, but it would have to do. He’d chucked his own clothes down the recycling shoot to rid the cabin of the stench of prison.
Al was still gawking at him. Jon opened his mouth to tell the boy to piss off when a loud crash rang in his ears, and the ship jolted sideways. Jon reached instinctively for the kid, wrapping his arms around his skinny frame as the force hurled them both to the floor. He crashed, and Al landed on top of him.
Swearing, Jon gripped the boy’s shoulders, intending to toss him away—he wasn’t in the business of protecting anyone these days—but another shock hit the ship, flinging them across the room. This time they came to rest with Al beneath him.
Jon stayed still, waiting. Al wriggled, but he ignored the movement. If the ship was hit again, the floor was the best place to be.
“I can’t breathe.” Al’s voice sounded weak, and a small hand pushed between them and shoved at Jon’s chest.
After a minute when nothing else happened, Jon levered himself up slightly. For the first time he really studied the face beneath him. The gray eyes, the irises circled in black, thick dark lashes, creamy skin, the small nose, and the wide mouth. Something wasn’t right. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and allowed his other senses to take over.
When he looked again, the new knowledge must have shown because Al’s eyes widened with panic. He wriggled again, but Jon held him still, his hands curved around a narrow waist, then slowly he pressed his hips down. Shock held him immobile.
Al shoved hard. This time, Jon didn’t try to hold on. Instead, he watched through narrowed eyes as Al twisted from beneath him and scrambled to his feet.
“I have to go find out what happened,” he said, his tone breathless, and then he whirled around and vanished through the door.
Jon sat on the floor, his back against the wall and watched as the “boy” disappeared. Though one thing was for sure—Al was no boy. He remembered the curve of her waist, the feminine cradle of her hips. She was also older than the fourteen or fifteen years he’d first guessed. He shifted in the too tight pants, frowning at the unfamiliar ache in his groin. How long since he’d allowed a woman to affect him that way? Too many years to remember.
Jon dismissed the thought. It was none of his business what or who Al was. He just wanted off this ship. Preferably before someone blew it into tiny pieces. At least the attack appeared to have stopped. He pushed himself to his feet and glanced around the room.
“Shit.” His dinner was on the floor.
Alex hurried down the narrow corridor, but when no more blasts hit the ship, she slowed her pace and finally came to a halt.
Holy Everlasting Life.
Her heart hammered against her rib cage, but she was aware it had nothing to do with the attack. This wasn’t fear racing through her blood. Her body tingled where he had touched her, and the imprint of his fingers burned at her waist.
Closing her eyes, she pictured Jon as he’d appeared when she opened the door. His huge body hardly covered with that tiny little towel. She swallowed and wiped her clammy hands down her pants. Her breasts ached where she’d bound them tight beneath her shirt, and she had to resist the urge to run her hands across them. What would it feel like if Jon…
She was a sick woman. There was no doubt, and she should probably fall down to her knees and pray. But she didn’t want to pray.
He’d been so big and bulky with massive sloping shoulders, a lean ridged belly, and long muscular legs. His shaggy hair had hung down to his shoulders, a blend of dark brown and gold, the colors repeated in the stubble on his chin and the smattering of dark hair over his chest.
And when he’d fallen on top of her he’d felt hard. Everywhere.
Had he known?
He’d certainly spotted something he hadn’t been expecting, and she’d seen the shock in his eyes. They were beautiful eyes—amber with thick lashes. Skylar had told her Jon was an assassin, but nobody with eyes like that could be really bad.
Alex forced herself to move on. She needed to get to the bridge and find out who’d shot at them. Was it the Collective? Had they found Jon already?
When she reached the bridge, the rest of the crew was already there. Only the Trog was missing, but then he never left his engine rooms unless the captain gave him a direct order. No one paid Alex any attention as she edged into the room.
As usual, Janey was busy on her console, tapping away with her perfectly manicured fingernails, ignoring the rest of the crew. Daisy sat in the copilot’s seat, watching the others and twirling a strand of long green hair that had come free of her ponytail.
Rico’s long, lean, black-clad figure lounged in the pilot’s chair. Skylar stood beside him, matching in her black jumpsuit and knee-high boots. One hand rested possessively on Rico’s shoulder, the deep purple ring he had given her sparkling on her finger. They scanned the monitors while Tannis, the captain, paced the floor, her hands jammed in the pockets of her tight black pants.
“Great, just great,” Tannis muttered, not quite under her breath.
Rico rolled his eyes. “Get over it.”
Tannis scowled and jabbed a finger at Skylar. “You do know this is all your fault, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Skylar snapped. “And you know how I know? Because you already told me. Lots of times.”
They glared at each other; both were tall women and they stood eye to eye. A quick stab of jealousy poked at Alex, and she tried to stretch a little taller. Not that it would do much good.
“Well, do something about it,” Tannis growled.
“Like do that mind-reading thing with your Collective friends and persuade them to hold off blowing us into pieces.”
“And whoever that ship is out there”—Skylar waved a hand at the monitor—“they’re not Collective.”
Rico swiveled around in his chair. “What? Are you sure?”
“Believe me, if it was Collective, I’d know.”
Alex believed her. Although they hadn’t known it until earlier that day, Skylar was a member of the Collective.
Five hundred years ago, Meridian, a rare radioactive element, had been discovered on Trakis Seven. Meridian had the ability to bestow immortality on those lucky enough to afford its exorbitantly high price, and a new class had evolved—the Collective. Ultra-rich and powerful, they now controlled most of the civilized universe.
That Skylar was one of them still filled Alex with awe.
Tannis frowned. “If it’s not the Collective, who the hell is it?”
“I have no clue.” Skylar smiled sweetly. “But hey, you know what? It’s just possible that everything is not my fault, after all. It’s possible that maybe you’ve managed to piss off quite a few people all on your own.”
Tannis pursed her lips but didn’t answer. “Rico, you got any ideas?”
Rico grinned, revealing the tips of his sharp white fangs. “Could be one of thousands.”
“Well, they seem to have gone quiet. Have we lost them?”
“No. There they are.” Rico swung his chair back around and pointed at the monitor. Alex inched closer to peer around Skylar. The screen showed a ship, getting bigger by the second as it closed the distance between them.
“And it looks like they’re coming back for another go at us. Hold on, everyone.” Rico grabbed Skylar and pulled her onto his knee. “If we’re going to die, we might as well die happy.”
Alex spotted an empty seat, threw herself into it, and fastened the harness. Adrenaline surged through her bloodstream as she waited for the shot to hit them. They might all be going to die in a few seconds, and she had never felt so alive in her entire life.
The ship rocked as the blast struck El Cazador’s stern. For a few seconds, the lights flashed, and Alex’s small hands gripped the armrests tightly, her muscles locked solid. Then the ship righted herself, the lights returned to normal, and Alex released her breath.
“Any damage?” Tannis asked.
“None.” Rico studied the console in front of him. “At a guess, they’re warning shots…so far.”
“Yeah—but warning us of what?”
“They’re trying to comm us,” Janey said. “You want to hear what they have to say?”
Tannis shrugged. “Why not?”
“Just a moment—I’ll put it on speaker.”
“This is High Priest Hezrai Fischer.”
As the familiar voice boomed around the bridge, Alex jumped and the breath caught in her throat. She would have fallen out of her chair if she hadn’t been strapped in. After the initial shock, she froze in her seat and peeked surreptitiously around, sure everyone must be able to see her guilty secret. No one was paying her the slightest attention, and she forced her muscles to relax. Maybe it had nothing to do with her. Maybe it was a huge coincidence. She chewed on a fingernail.
Should she sneak away now? But she needed to know, and besides, she was on a space cruiser heading through deep space; where was she supposed to hide?
“Dios,” Rico muttered, “it’s the goddamn Church. Have I mentioned how much I hate the Church?”
“Frequently,” Skylar said drily.
Five hundred years ago, the old religions had almost died out, but that had all changed with the discovery of Meridian. While not everyone could afford that route to immortality, everyone wanted to live forever, and the old beliefs had gained a new popularity. The Church of Everlasting Life offered the masses a cheaper, if less reliable, alternative with its promise of an afterlife in paradise. They had quickly grown until they were now the second most powerful faction in the civilized universe.
Tannis opened her comm link. “So, you’re a High Priest. Big deal. Whatever it is you’re selling, we don’t want any.”
Hezrai ignored the comment. He’d always been excellent at ignoring what he didn’t want to hear. Which included most of what Alex had ever said. She and Hezrai had existed in a state of mutual animosity for as long as Alex remembered. Longer than that even, according to Sister Martha. Apparently, Alex had thrown up all over him at their first meeting and things had only gone downhill from there.
“We believe you have something that belongs to us,” Hezrai said. “We want it back.”
Wasn’t it just like him to refer to her as an it? He’d never seen her as a person.
Rico glanced around the room. “Anyone got a clue what he’s talking about?”
“No idea,” Tannis said.
Alex shrank into her chair and tried to make herself very, very small.
All her life, except for the last three months, she had done her duty, and it had been hard—every single day a struggle against the stultifying boredom of ritual and routine. Even so, this time away was only ever meant to be temporary. She’d always known she had to go back sometime. There were people who believed in her, had given up their lives for her. But was it so wrong to want to see a tiny bit of the world before she returned? To live a little?
Yes, she’d go back. But just not yet. There were things she had to do. An image of Jon’s nearly naked body flashed across her mind—important things.
Tannis ran a hand through her short, dark hair. “They’ve obviously fucked up and confused us with someone else. We have shit that belongs to them.” She was silent for a moment as she considered their options. “As far as I’m aware, at the present time we’re not holding any illegal contraband on the ship. Why not let them board, check things out, and maybe they’ll piss off and leave us alone.”
Alex sneaked another peek around the room and found Skylar watching her, her inhuman violet eyes speculative as she studied her. Skylar raised one eyebrow, and Alex sank lower into her chair and tried to keep her expression blank.
Skylar swung around to face Tannis. “You really think that’s a good idea?”
“You have a better one?”
“Well, it would be hard to come up with a worse one. You’ve a couple of GMs on board—including yourself by the way—as well as someone the Church believes is a close relation to the antichrist.”
Rico grinned. “Hey, sweetheart, you referring to me? Because I’ve got to tell you—me and the antichrist—we’re not actually related.”
“Tell that to the Church,” Skylar suggested sweetly.
GMs stood for genetically modifieds. Captain Tannis and Daisy were both GMs—or abominations as the Church referred to anyone with less than a hundred percent human DNA. The Church had exterminated most of them in the Purge—one of the Church’s policies Alex had never believed in. Unlike Hezrai, who pursued it with maniacal zeal.
Daisy was a plant hybrid—she was green and could photosynthesize, which Alex thought was amazingly cool. El Cazador had picked up her damaged escape pod in deep space after the experimental station where she’d lived had been attacked and her family exterminated by the Church.
Tannis’s mixed heritage was a little less obvious but still clear in her skin—luminous ivory run through with shimmering iridescent lights—and her yellow reptilian eyes. No one knew where Tannis came from, except maybe Rico, and she never spoke of her past, but she also never made any attempt to hide her genetic modifications, which was unusual given the genocidal climate fostered by the Church.
As for Rico, well, the Church didn’t have an official stance on vampires. In fact, Alex had never even believed they existed until she’d met Rico. It had been a shock—one she hadn’t yet fully recovered from.
“We could make ourselves scarce,” Tannis said, gesturing to Daisy and herself. “Janey can deal with this High Priest. They can poke around a bit, satisfy themselves we don’t have whatever it is they think we have, and hopefully that will finish it.”
Skylar glanced briefly at Alex. “No.”
She had to know. But how?
“No?” Tannis asked, her eyes narrowing so the pupils were no more than black slits.
Skylar stood her ground. “You made me security officer. This is a security issue, and I say no one from the Church is coming on board this ship.”
Tannis released an exaggerated sigh. “So what do you suggest?”
Skylar turned back to Rico. “Get us out of here.”
He grinned. “You know, I love it when you’re bossy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just go.”
After a few quick maneuvers, including one that still had Alex’s pulse thrumming, they left the cruiser far behind. Alex loosened her grip on the arms of her seat and breathed again.
“Piece of cake,” Rico murmured. “The Church hasn’t a clue about evasive tactics.”
Would that be the end of it?
Alex didn’t know, mainly because she was still reeling with shock from the idea that Hezrai appeared to be making a genuine effort to find her. That was unexpected. Oh, she was important in the Church’s hierarchy, and no doubt, it was embarrassing for them to have mislaid her. But she’d thought they’d keep quiet, and later she’d be able to slip back as though nothing had happened.
As usual, none of the crew was taking any notice of her, so she stood slowly and edged out of the room. But as she turned at the entrance, she sensed someone watching her. She was sure it was Skylar but kept her gaze fixed on the floor. Only when the door shut behind her did she break into a run and head for her cabin.
Once inside, she activated the lock, scooped up Mogg, and sank onto the bed. She stroked the soft black fur of his head. Mogg was a cat, like they used to have on Earth. Well, sort of. They’d become friends on Trakis Twelve, and Alex had smuggled him aboard El Cazador—she wasn’t sure how Rico would feel about animals on his ship. For all she knew, vampires might like cat blood—it wasn’t a risk Alex was willing to take, so she kept Mogg well hidden in her cabin.
The buzzer sounded.
Glancing at the viewer by the bed, she wasn’t surprised to see Skylar standing outside. Alex bit her lip, trying to decide whether to ignore her, but she couldn’t stay locked in here forever.
She had to face this. The buzzer came again, and she sighed.
After tucking Mogg under the bed, she rose to her feet and placed her palm to the panel until the door opened.
When Alex had first met Skylar, she’d thought her the most beautiful woman ever, with her long blond hair and silver tube dress. Now without the wig and wearing a fitted black jump suit and a laser pistol strapped to her waist, she still looked beautiful, but strong and tough as well. She was everything Alex longed to be, and a familiar shaft of jealousy prodded her in the gut.
“Hey, kid,” Skylar said. “You want to talk to me about anything?”
For a brief moment, she thought maybe Skylar didn’t know, hadn’t seen beneath her disguise. But the hope faded quickly under Skylar’s pointed gaze.
“Well?” Skylar prompted.
Alex stepped aside and allowed her to enter, but Skylar stood just inside the room and glanced around the small space. “Shit, this place is a mess.”
The room was a little untidy; Alex usually didn’t notice. She loved her cabin the way it was—she’d never had her own private space before. Back at the Abbey, privacy had been an unknown concept. She’d had people to pick up after her, to clean her room, bring her food—her every need catered to. Everything kept perfect. It had driven her mad. Now she preferred a little chaos.
Shoving her hands in her pockets, she stuck out her lower lip in her favorite “cabin boy” expression. “I like it like this.”
Skylar shrugged and opened her mouth to speak, but Mogg took that moment to stroll out from under the bed.
“Hey, you’ve got a cat.” Skylar stretched out a hand. Mogg hissed and leaped lightly onto the bed, where he sat watching them, his tail twitching.
Skylar cleared the clothes off the single chair and sat. “Come on, Al. Talk to me.”
Alex sighed and sank down onto the bed, stroking Mogg as she thought of what to say. “How did you know?”
“I knew you were a girl almost from the moment we met. I think you’ve only fooled the others because you’ve perfected the art of being invisible.”
She thought about what Skylar had said and a faint glimmer of hope awoke inside her. “So you don’t actually know who I am.”
“Sorry, kid. You’re Alexia, High Priestess of the Church of Everlasting Life.”
The glimmer evaporated.
“It came to me tonight,” Skylar continued. “I knew you looked familiar. I’d seen the comms—they’re all over the waves.”
“Apparently you went missing, and they want you back. The comms hinted that you’d been kidnapped though. Anyway, there’s a picture—which doesn’t look a lot like you—and they’re offering a big reward. Tonight, it clicked. Rico said something about your reasons for hiding being your own—”
Shock tightened her gut, and her gaze flew to Skylar’s face. “Rico knows?”
“Not who you are, but what you are.”
“Has he known all along?”
“No. You might be a good actor, but you slip occasionally—he got interested.”
It was over. Skylar was her friend. She might have been willing to keep her secret, but not the vampire. “Are you going to tell him?”
Annoyance flicked her nerve endings. “I’m not a kid. I don’t think I’ve ever been a kid.”
Skylar ran her gaze over Alex, who managed to hold herself from squirming under the intense scrutiny. When she reached Alex’s eyes, her brows drew together. “No. I can see that when I look—you have old eyes. Just how old are you?”
“Holy Meridian. Really? I placed you no more than fourteen—maybe fifteen.”
She gritted her teeth. “Yes, really.”
Skylar was still staring as though she didn’t believe her.
“I’m little, okay. It makes me look younger.”
“It certainly does. You must be a very good actor.”
“I’ve had to be.” Alex didn’t try to hide the bitterness in her voice. All her life she’d been acting, pretending to be the dutiful priestess while everything screamed in denial. Now she was heading back, and it was the end of her dreams.
It wasn’t fair.
She bit the words back, kept them inside—that was a child’s view of life, and she wasn’t a child.
“Don’t worry—I was always planning to go back. Now you can take me and get the reward. At least the captain will be happy.” Everyone knew Tannis was obsessed with getting enough credits together to pay for the Meridian treatment. Alex attempted a mirthless grin. It was nice to know she would be of some use. Not.
“Do you want to go back?” Skylar asked.
She shrugged. “I told you, I’d always planned to. I just wanted a little more time.”
“So what happened? I take it you ran away—but why?”
Alex leaped to her feet and paced the room. “One day, it all got to be too much. I couldn’t stand it anymore. The predictable routines, the endless rituals, the people. They were all so pompous and good and boring. And I’d never seen anything of the world, and I never would.” She halted in front of Skylar. “Have you ever felt like you’d explode if you didn’t do something…anything?”
Skylar nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’ve felt like that.” They were silent for a minute. “You know, we’re not so different—I’ve run away as well.”
Alex realized she meant from the Collective. Maybe Skylar did understand. “So what are you going to do?”
“It’s not up to me. I won’t make you go back—it’s your decision. You want more time—take as much as you like.”
Hope blossomed inside her, and her lips tugged up at the corners.
Alex’s smile faded. “But?”
“Chances are, your friends will come after us again. They must want you back badly.”
Alex chewed on her fingernail. “I don’t understand that bit. Honestly.”
“Perhaps because you’re their High Priestess,” Skylar said gently. “They love you.”
“Some of them maybe. Sister Martha. But Hezrai hates me.”
“The High Priest we spoke to?”
“Yeah, he’s a pompous old goat.”
“Well, he cares enough to come after you. All I’m saying is you need to come clean. Tell Tannis and Rico who you are, so they can keep away from the Church.”
“They’ll send me back.”
“The captain will want the reward.”
“Tannis likes money, but once you’re crew she won’t give you up. You know she’d die keeping her crew safe.”
“Maybe.” Alex felt a small resurgence of hope. Skylar was right—the captain took care of her people. But while Tannis might be the captain, Rico actually owned El Cazador. “What about the vampire?”
“Rico?” A small smile curved Skylar’s lips, and she stroked the purple stone on her finger. “He won’t be a problem.”
Alex knew Rico had given Skylar the ring. They thought they were in love. Well, as much in love as a vampire and a member of the Collective could be. Alex could see the attraction—sort of. Rico was gorgeous, with his long, lean body and midnight dark hair, but he was also a blood-sucking monster.
Still, Alex wasn’t sure she believed in love. She’d seen no evidence of its existence during her short life. Her own family had sold her to the Church for a measly thousand credits, and while the Church preached incessantly about love, the inner council was actually riddled with political intrigue and petty power squabbles. No, she didn’t believe in love. But she was glad Skylar did if it meant Alex could stay on El Cazador.
And it would be good to stop acting for a while. Her mind flashed back to Jon. Maybe he’d like her if she appeared more womanly. She could stop wrapping up her breasts, which was becoming increasingly irksome. And maybe Janey would help her. Janey knew how to dress and wear makeup…
“What’s going through your mind?”
Alex jumped a little at Skylar’s question and gave a casual shrug. “Nothing.”
“Hmm. So will you tell them?”
“I suppose so.” She took a deep breath. “When?”
“What’s wrong with now?”
Alex could have given her a load of reasons why now was not a good time. Why she needed about a year to prepare herself for the confrontation. Instead, she shoved her hands in her pockets. “Let’s go.”
Rico and the captain were still on the bridge when they got back. Alex’s stomach churned with nausea. What if Skylar was wrong? What if the captain hated her for lying to them? For bringing the Church after them?
She might even throw Alex out the airlock.
Tannis raised an eyebrow in query. “What is it?”
“Al has something to tell you both.”
Rico rose smoothly to his feet. He reminded Alex of some sleek predator when he moved, and she had to keep her feet glued to the floor to stop herself retreating. She watched, fascinated, as he came to a halt in front of them and leaned in close to Skylar.
“Can’t it wait?” he murmured. “The ship’s on autopilot, Daisy’s got the next watch, and I had plans for this evening.” He kissed Skylar’s neck. “Interesting plans.”
Alex shivered at the dark promise in his voice—glad it wasn’t aimed at her.
Skylar stepped away. “Later. First…” Turning around, she gestured to Alex. “Al?”
Alex shuffled her feet and cleared her throat as three sets of eyes focused on her. She opened her mouth to speak when everyone’s gaze swung away to stare over her left shoulder.
“Shit,” a deep, gravelly voice said from behind her. “I thought I could smell something rotten on this ship. And here it is.”
“Holy crap,” Tannis said. “If it isn’t ‘little’ Jonny come to visit.”
A low rumble vibrated the air. Alex realized the sound was coming from Rico, and a primeval terror stirred deep inside her. This was what she had feared all along. Darkness glittered in the vampire’s eyes, and his lips curled back to reveal razor-sharp white fangs.
Tension spiraled until it was a tangible force, and Alex was sure it would snap.
Skylar reached out a hand and rested it on Rico’s arm. For a moment, it made no difference, and then the tension drained from him. His muscles relaxed, and a lazy smile replaced the snarl.
“Christ,” he drawled. “Who let the fucking dog on board?”
Alex turned slowly. Jon lounged in the open doorway, arms folded across his chest. He wore the black pants and shirt she had given him. The shirt was open. From the look of it, it wasn’t a fashion statement, he was just too broad across the shoulders for the sides to meet. The opening revealed a vast expanse of golden skin over the smooth swell of muscle, and a slow-burning heat started in the pit of her stomach. She forced herself to look away.
Rico was dressed identically, but his clothes fit, which wasn’t surprising as both sets belonged to him. He was a sleek black jungle cat to Jon’s powerful predator.
Tannis frowned. “Dog?”
“He’s a goddamn stinking werewolf,” Rico said. “And he’s wearing my clothes.”
“A werewolf? No freaking way.” Tannis looked from Rico to Jon and back again. “Really? Do they actually exist?”
“Yeah, they exist.” Rico raised his head and sniffed the air. “Can’t you smell him?”
Alex breathed in deeply but could detect nothing untoward, just a faint musky scent that was far from unpleasant. Jon didn’t appear in the least perturbed by the accusation though, nor was he denying it.
Could he really be a werewolf? Did they even exist? Of course, she hadn’t believed vampires existed before she met Rico. Why not werewolves as well?
Jon pushed himself upright from where he leaned against the doorway and stepped into the room. The bridge was suddenly smaller.
He exuded an almost palpable sense of danger, and Alex couldn’t take her eyes off him as he strolled across the bridge and halted only a foot away from Rico. They stared at each other for long moments while Alex held her breath. They were pretty much the same height, though Jon was broader, bulkier. Alex had never seen Rico fight, but she had heard Tannis talk about it in almost reverent tones. And Jon was bound to be still weak from the cryo. What if he got hurt? The vampire might even kill him. She inched closer to Skylar. Skylar would be able to stop this.
“Get back,” Rico snarled.
For a moment, Alex thought he was speaking to Jon, but it was the rest of them he was referring to. Shaking off Skylar’s hand, he took a step forward.
“Sweetheart—me and the dog have a couple of things to sort out between us. Like why the hell’s he wearing my clothes? So why don’t you sit down, and I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Skylar’s eyes narrowed, then she shrugged. “Beat the shit out of each other if you want to. But he’s bigger than you, darling.”
Rico grinned, flashing his fangs. “Yeah, but I have bigger teeth.”
Skylar glanced across at Jon. “I wouldn’t bet on it.” She stepped back. “Come on, Al. Let’s give the…men some room.”
Alex couldn’t believe Skylar was so calm, and it didn’t look as though the captain was going to be any help either. Tannis had already moved back and was leaning against the wall, an expression of anticipation on her face.
Alex tugged on Skylar’s arm. “Stop him, Skylar.”
“Who? Rico or the werewolf? They look pretty well matched to me. Besides, I don’t think either of them are willing to listen to reason right now.” She breathed in. “Can’t you smell the testosterone in here?”
They were all crazy.
Jon took a step closer. His eyes were changing, glowing amber. Feral.