Burned by Fire has been uploaded. It should go live any time but Amazon says they can take up to 72hrs. Regardless, it is done. I can finally sleep! Here’s chapter 9 of CbF. Hope everyone is having a great weekend!
Forty minutes. Forty minutes on hold, listening to I don’t even know what—music from way before my time—being shuffled from one unhelpful vampire to another, but I’d finally secured an appointment to meet with Rebecka at eleven tonight. I knew damn well they were jerking my chain with all the runaround, but that was the way of vampires.
Especially Rebecka. She was the mistress at the Cove, the Coven’s secret hidey hole.
Well, it wasn’t really all that secret. The Cove was an old historic building built in 1901 that boasted eclectic architecture and beautiful landscaping. From what I’d learned, Rebecka and the rest of the local vampires began occupying the mansion about five years ago, shortly after the Awakening.
Where they had lived before, no one knew, but they were here now, and I doubted they would be moving any time soon.
Before all things paranormal came out, the Cove was used by a non-profit organization. Rooms were often rented out for events and tours were offered to the public. Now it was rare for any non-vampire to ever enter the establishment. Vampires couldn’t enter homes without being invited. Since the mansion had no permanent residents, vampires were able to come and go as they pleased, but they were a bit touchy about uninvited guests.
I always assumed since they weren’t able to enter the homes of others, they didn’t want others coming into theirs.
It made sense in a twisted, jealous sort of way.
At 10:55 p.m., James and I pulled up to the elegant mansion nestled south of Upriver Drive. Small pockets of light glowed between shrubs and stones, lighting the sweeping lawn and its rich, lush grass. Even though it was dark out, every piece of molding and every detail in the stained glass windows could be seen. It was breathtaking.
I hadn’t realized I was staring until I heard James slam shut the driver’s side door. Clearing my head, I followed suit and exited the Mustang. James came around and stopped beside me as we both gazed ahead. Taking a deep breath, I pushed back my shoulders and took measured steps up the stone pathway with James by my side.
The temperature had dropped once the sun went down, and I wished I’d taken the time to add an extra layer beneath my leather jacket. The moon hung high in the sky and illuminated the street around us.
It was eerily quiet. No sounds of traffic, no insects chirping. Just endless silence that had my nerves on edge. I casually brushed my hands along the handles of my daggers, hanging low on my hips in their leather sheaths.
Their soft weight added an extra measure of comfort as I headed straight into unknown territory. I told myself I was walking into a lion’s den, but really, this was far worse. With lions, they at least still had a heart.
When we reached the front door, I admired the woodwork once more before administering three solid knocks.
James and I waited in silence as the distinct sound of high heels on wood flooring grew progressively louder.
The door opened on silent hinges to reveal the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She towered over me by a good five inches, with a figure most women would die for––thin, but not too thin, wide hips, narrow waist, curves in all the right places. Wearing a floor-length navy dress, she looked like a movie star, if such things still existed after the Awakening.
“Follow me,” she said in a cultured voice.
James and I stepped over the threshold and followed at an appropriate distance. I flicked my gaze at each doorway we passed, waiting for the boogeyman to jump out at me.
When he didn’t, I forced myself to relax and turned my attention to the woman’s long red hair that cascaded down her back. The color was striking but most likely came from a box. It was too vivid to be natural.
Her heels clicked on the hardwood floors as we made our way to the main sitting room in the home. Taking my gaze away from her, I looked around to admire the beauty that was the Cove while also taking inventory of all exits. Every vampire here was a potential threat, so having more than one escape route was a necessity.
The entryway appeared to have its original floors and woodwork. The craftsmanship was beautiful, and the rich beams on the ceiling were hard not to appreciate. The hall was devoid of windows, though, and none of the doorways we passed looked like exterior door.
All of the light fixtures looked original as well. It didn’t appear that Rebecka had made any modifications upon acquiring the mansion, which was to my benefit since I knew the layout from having visited it when it was open to the public.
The beautiful cream and gold wallpaper dotted with accents of red were rather remarkable next to all of the deep rich woods and plush draperies. The draperies were new and had likely had been relined to block out the sun during daylight hours.
There was a reason that legend said vampires couldn’t go out in the sun, and they were almost right about why. The truth of the matter was that newer vampires were able to withstand the sun’s harsh rays for longer since their bodies contained more moisture.
If they’d been undead for fewer than five years, they could typically withstand sun exposure for anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, as long as it wasn’t direct. Any older and a vampire’s skin would begin to wither. If they were out for more than a minute or two, they would die.
It had to do with the lack of water contained in their bodies after the change and the sun causing extreme dehydration at an accelerated rate.
I’d seen a vampire die from sun exposure. Several years ago, when I was visiting Seattle, Washington, the local Coven decided to make a demonstration. I wasn’t sure what the crime had been, but the Coven tied a vampire to a post in the middle of Pike Place Market with silver infused chains and left him for dead. He’d struggle aimlessly to free himself and pleaded with onlookers to help. But no one was willing to risk the Coven’s wrath to save him.
When dawn came, and the sun began to rise, the vampire’s skin began to boil and blister. Within minutes his body withered to a dry husk. Within an hour, he deteriorated further, and nothing but ash remained. It was a ghastly sight, and the stench of burnt, rotting flesh was one I’d never forget.
We made our way out of the entryway and up three small steps into the parlor. The room was just as beautiful as the previous one, but was much lighter. The walls were a buttery cream and the ceiling heavily adorned with hand-painted scroll-like patterns.
The fire beneath my skin came to attention at the sight of Rebecka. A reminder that we were in the presence of a very real threat. I took a deep breath and urged my fire to remain calm. After some effort, the flames inside of me subsided, and the temperature in the room visibly dropped.
James gave me a concerned glance, but I chose to ignore it.
Rebecka sat in a Victorian-era chaise near the fireplace, a small leather-bound book in her hands. She conveyed the image of beauty and serenity. Both of which I knew to be complete fallacies. Rebecka was a cold hearted, malicious bitch. The beauty she showed on the outside disguised the ugliness within.
Dressed in a floor-length cream silk dress with her blonde hair pulled back in an elegant updo, curls tumbling around her face, she looked as if she were born in the Victorian era. For all I knew, she had been. There was always an air of sophistication about her despite her youthful, almost child-like appearance.
I knew she’d heard our arrival, enhanced vampire senses and all, but she ignored our presence, keeping her focus on the book in her hands.
She sat with a stillness that only a vampire could achieve, not bothering to make the minute movements, like blinking her eyes, that would set most non-vampires at ease.
James and I stood in silence beside one another, waiting for her to deign to acknowledge us, while the woman who’d led us here made her way closer to Rebecka.
It was never a good idea to interrupt a vampire. Their tempers were fickle things, and I knew her blatant disregard for our presence was simply a power play to assert control over the meeting.
Real mature, right? You’d think that after hundreds of years she’d have learned to play nice.
After several long seconds had passed, Rebecka placed the worn book on the empty seat beside her and rose to her full height next to the fireplace, the warm glow casting small shadows across her face. Vampires were notoriously afraid of fire. I was surprised she had chosen to light a fire in the first place, let alone stand so close to it.
Another tactic perhaps? Something to show she was afraid of nothing. Or I could just be reading too much into it.
I always wondered if Vampires were like reptiles with their cold blood and inability to warm themselves. Their skin was always cool to the touch. Unable to lay out in the sun’s warming rays, maybe the fire offered some semblance of comfort?
“Irina, what a pleasant surprise it is to have the Pack Hunter and his human companion grace our humble home,” she said in a sweet, musical voice.
She wasn’t fooling me one bit.
The woman beside her, Irina, offered a tight nod. Her welcoming demeanor now shut off since she didn’t have to play guide anymore. She didn’t look the least bit pleased by our presence.
I guess James’ status as Hunter wasn’t such a secret after all. How the hell had everyone else known he was the Hunter and I hadn’t?
“Thank you for seeing us on such short notice,” I replied. My hands itched to pull out my blades, but I kept them firmly at my sides. If I attacked Rebecka, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I would leave the Cove alive.
Rebecka’s assessing gaze quickly swept over me before she turned away, having decided I wasn’t worth her attention. That was the thing about vampires—they were always so self-absorbed. So assured of their own power and abilities that humans like myself didn’t even register on their radar.
That was okay. I was just fine letting her believe I was nothing more than a weak human, even if it did chafe at my pride.
James stood vigilant beside me. I’d expected him to step forward and take the conversational lead after Rebecka’s obvious dismissal of me, but he remained silent and still as a statue though his eyes flickered from liquid mercury to smoke grey faster than my eyes could track.
His wolf wasn’t happy to be here.
James was positioned exactly one step behind me and slightly to my left, almost as if he were standing guard. As silence hung in the air, I watched Rebecka’s lips thin in irritation. A very telling sign on a vampire, since in most cases their patience was near endless.
“Are you not going to speak, dog?” Rebecka said, disgust in her tone.
James remained silent, but I noticed the slight shift of his weight behind me. Without putting too much thought into it, I raised my chin and stared Rebecka straight in the eyes.
“Actually, you’ll be speaking with me,” I took several steps forward towards the nearby lounge chair.
“Do you mind if I have a seat?” Not waiting for a response, I sat down in the velvet covered chair. I crossed my legs, and I leaned back as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
I heard a barely audible hiss come from Irina’s direction but didn’t bother looking her way. Power was all about perception, and I wasn’t going to let these two see me squirm.
I felt more than heard James come up beside me, but I kept my complete focus on Rebecka. The tension in the room seemed to shoot skywards, but I paid it no mind. I had long ago perfected a look of disinterest while on the streets. I learned early on that information was power, but it was reckless to let people know you were looking for it. I would learn more if I acted like I really didn’t give two shits.
“So,” I began, effectively breaking the silence and cracking the thick veil of tension in the room. “We’ve come to request the Coven’s cooperation in a case involving a shifter child that was murdered by a Coven member.”
“No Coven members have committed such a crime,” Irina said through clenched teeth. I knew that would get a response.
My gaze flickered in her direction before returning to Rebecka, effectively telling Irina how little her opinion mattered in this conversation. If it were possible for the undead to flush, I’d imagine that Irina’s complexion would be scarlet with rage.
As it was, I could practically see steam coming out of her ears and had to fight back a smile. I didn’t know her, so I shouldn’t really care whether or not I made her angry, but I had little respect for the vampire race as a whole. Pissing off one of Rebecka’s minions wasn’t beneath me, not in the least.
Actually, there were few lows that I wouldn’t stoop to, to get what I wanted.
“And why should the Spokane Coven assist a human and the Pack?” She sneered the words human and pack. “What benefit does this hold for us?”
“Does the Coven have to benefit in some way in order for you to assist the Pack in bringing a murderer to justice?” I already knew the answer to that question, but it spewed out of my mouth anyway.
“Yes,” she said. “We do.”
The smug look on Rebecka’s face dialed up my outrage, and I saw heat begin to rise in waves from the floor.
“Fine,” I said. “How much do you want? Name your price.” I knew the Pack would pay almost any dollar amount to get their hands on the bastard responsible for Daniel’s death.
Rebecka laughed and a wide grin stole across her features, drawing attention to the twin fangs within her mouth.
“You think you can buy this information? That your money means anything to me? No, dear child, your money means nothing. As Irina said, our Coven had no part in the matter. You may go.” She waved her hand, dismissing us.
I stood from my seat. So much for diplomacy. “I’m not going to let this go. You can’t protect that son of a bitch forever. Whoever it is, they’re going to rot for what they did to that little boy.”
I was seething now. A red haze clouded my vision.
A slow smile creep across Rebecka’s face. I wanted to slap her.
“We’ll see,” she said.
James placed a hand on my shoulder and nodded towards the door. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to punch the information out of her smug face, but I knew that wouldn’t work.
I wouldn’t even make it close to her before I was overwhelmed, and the worry in James’ eyes said he knew it and thought I might attack anyway.
I ground my teeth together. My fingernails broke the skin of my palms as I clenched my fists in an effort to contain my rage. My breathing was heavy, and my skin was now hot to the touch. I didn’t need to take my own temperature to know that I was well beyond feverish and within boiling range.
Frustration burned through my veins as I stomped out of the room. James stayed close, and we passed several vampires who now lined the hallways, each with exposed fangs and malevolent grins.
I jerked the doorhandle and felt the brass melt beneath my hands. Shit.
I pulled the handle with all my strength but it wouldn’t budge. Seeing my problem, James reached down, and with one quick pull, he broke the handle off and tossed it to me.
Showing the evidence of my powers into my pocket, we continued down the exterior steps and headed in the direction of James’ car.
As we approached the Mustang, I made the swift decision to keep walking. At the moment, I didn’t trust myself not to melt the seats or, hell, blow the damn thing up.
James quickly fell in step beside me. As we continued farther down the street, I felt the ripple of heat beneath my skin become stronger. I increased my pace, frantically looking around for any kind of water source. I wasn’t going to last much longer.
“You doing okay?” James asked. I could hear the worry in his voice.
I shook my head, beyond the ability to speak.
James reached for my hand. When his skin touched mine, he hissed in pain and jerked back.
“Christ, Ari! You’re on fire.”
He rubbed his palm against his jeans and scanned the surrounding area. I looked at my arms and legs as I half walked half jogged down the street.
What was he talking about? I wasn’t on fire yet. But I was getting there.
James took a deep breath through his nose. On his second inhale, he jerked his head towards the right, and I almost slowed to see what had caught his attention.
“Come on. The river is this way.”
Nodding, I followed him as he picked up the pace to a steady run. He didn’t say anything else, but every few seconds he’d glance over his shoulder in concern.
I desperately needed to release the boiling anger inside of me but I couldn’t. It wasn’t safe. Not here. Not so close to the Coven.
Sweat dripped down my back between my shoulder blades. I was going to overheat, and that was not a good thing. Inwardly I cursed. I was never this on edge. What the hell was happening to me?
I tried to focus on James in front of me. His muscles rippled beneath his skin.
“You’re about to shift.”
Liquid mercury met my gaze over his shoulder. “My wolf needs a release after being around so many vampires.”
We stopped for a quick moment and James quickly shed his shirt. His back suddenly arched, then distorted as the shift took over his form. I’d seen James shift before, but each time caught my breath.
Fur exploded across his skin. Claws elongated from his fingers, and his face contorted into a grotesque mask before taking the form of a wolf’s snout. In a matter of seconds, James was on all fours beside me, his thick black coat glistening in the moonlight.
He took off at a dead run. A pace I had no chance of keeping up with. I followed him anyway. Unable to see him through the dense night but able to hear his howls in the air when he realized I was too far behind.
Finally, the sweet sound of running water caught my attention, and I ran with every ounce of energy I could muster. I pumped my arms and legs as fast as they would take me. I ignored James in his wolf form as he sat on the rocky shore and bolted straight into the river.
Within seconds the frigid water brought my core temperature down to a manageable level. I sucked in a breath of air and lay back, submerging my entire body under the clear surface.
I closed my eyes and focused all of my efforts on releasing the fire burning inside of me. As the seconds ticked by, my lungs began to burn from the lack of oxygen, but I pushed on.
I was anxious to make sure that when I surfaced, the need to light the world around me on fire had abated. Fire ignited beneath the surface causing large bubbles of pressure to burst. My flames were snuffed out on contact once they escaped my hold, but the heat lingered.
When the burn in my chest was too strong to ignore, I rose to the surface.
I sucked in lungfuls of clean air and wiped the droplets clinging to my lashes.
My gaze wandered before finally settling on the concerned face of a black wolf, his head tilted to the side. The water directly around me was still bubbling ever so slightly, near boiling but beginning to wane.
Shame bloomed in my chest, and my anger was redirected at myself. I felt like a failure, a liability to this case. How was I going to find Daniel’s murderer if I couldn’t keep a lid on my own emotions?
I dragged my sopping wet body out of the Spokane River and climbed back up to the main road. I hadn’t realized as I ran that the river was below a small hill, and I struggled climbing back out. My soaked boots squelching in the mud as I slipped with each step.
James gave a yip as I approached, his teeth digging into the leather of my coat as he helped drag me up.
When I reached the top ledge, I peeled my leather coat from my shoulders and slung it over my arm, heaving a sigh. That jacket was the first large purchase I had made after receiving my very first paycheck from Mike. I doubted I could save it, but I’d try anyway.
I fingered one of the holes made by James’s teeth.
“You own me a new jacket,” I told him.
He gave me a noncommittal chuff that almost sounded like a laugh.
I sighed. It was worth a try.
Pushing from the ground, I walked back the way we came. James kept up a steady trot beside me, stopping only to retrieve his clothing along the way.
When the Mustang came within sight, I took in the beautiful car and then my drenched clothing. I heaved another sigh and turned to James. He held his clothing in his mouth, and I looked from him to the car before realization hit.
He couldn’t drive. Not in wolf form.
I bent down next to him, ruffling the fur behind his ears for a brief moment before reaching my hand into the pocket of his jeans.
“You won’t be needing these,” I said, holding his keys up in triumph.
James issued a growl. I had to laugh.
“Nuh ah ah. Don’t be grumpy with me. You’re the one that chose to shift. This is on you. I’m just looking out for you and making sure you get home safely.”
James growled again as I opened the passenger-side door.
“In you go.”
Silver eyes met mine in mutiny, but after a few seconds, he chuffed and jumped inside.