Blood Hunters, Book 1
Natural enemies, deadly attraction
A sequel to the Awakened by Blood trilogy
Mihaela, a fearless vampire hunter secretly haunted by loneliness and childhood tragedy, finds it difficult to adjust to the new world order where vampires are not always the bad guys. She’s taking a much needed vacation in Scotland when she sees a little boy being chased through the streets of Edinburgh. Rescuing him brings bigger problems – two vampires from her past: Gavril, who killed her family; and the reclusive and troubled Maximilian, gifted Renaissance artist and one-time overlord of the most powerful undead community in the world. Maximilian once saved her life and now needs that favor returned.
The earth moves for Mihaela in more ways than one. From Scotland to Budapest and Malta, she races against time to prevent a disastrous, vampire-induced earthquake and save an innocent yet powerful child – all while fighting a dreadful attraction to Maximilian, her only ally, whom she can’t afford to trust. For Maximilian, the hunter becomes a symbol of renewed existence, as he struggles to accept his past and rediscovers his appetite for blood and sex – and maybe even happiness.
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The vampire stood silhouetted against her bedroom window.
Quicker than thought, Mihaela grabbed her stakes and leapt off the bed, poised to defend and kill, just as she was trained to. Her heart hammering in her breast, she faced the intruder: tall; slender; untidy dark hair falling forward over cheekbones that looked sharp enough to cut. Maximilian.
His lips parted, revealing his fangs as he walked toward her through the pale shaft of moonlight. He wore jeans and a faded black tank that clung to his lethal body. Mihaela plunged both stakes together from different angles, to give herself more chance of piercing his heart. Although she didn’t even see his arms move, both weapons were torn from her fingers and hurled onto the carpet.
The vampire reached for her, not to kill, bizarrely, but to take hold of the neck of her nightshirt and rip.
Time slowed and stilled. Naked, she stood in front of him, and they stared at each other.
Christ, he was gorgeous. Like a punk fallen angel, with all the beauty of youth and the sheer, powerful sex appeal that can only come with age. Six centuries of age. Even other vampires didn’t trust Maximilian. Everyone hated him. He was beyond the pale. Perhaps that was why she’d always felt this ridiculous attraction she’d never, ever admit to.
She lashed out at him with her bare hands, but he caught her fists easily, jerking her against him. Her struggles were useless, his strength too great. She felt his erection between her thighs and gasped at the surge of excitement enveloping her whole body. It was wrong, deeply, utterly wrong, and yet when he bared his fangs and bent to her neck, she couldn’t prevent the yearning, the dreadful, naked lust.
He pushed against her, and she fell backward onto the bed, helpless under his weight, panting with as much arousal as fear.
He lay between her legs. His mouth nuzzled her throat, and she was appalled by how good it felt. Then, without even speaking a word, he pushed into her body and bit into her vein, and she fell immediately into orgasm…
Mihaela sat up with a cry. Her heart thundered. Sweat trickled down her forehead and between her breasts. Between her damp thighs lurked the ache of pleasure and frustration. But at least her room was empty and the window closed. And her chaste T-shirt still clung undamaged to her body.
With shaking fingers, she pushed her hair back from her hot face and lay down on the pillow.
It wasn’t the first time she’d dreamed of the vampire Maximilian since he’d saved her life so casually. She just prayed it was the last.
In the gathering dusk of the winter afternoon, a small child weaved among the tourists and shoppers of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with curiously adult intent. He wore a bright green anorak, and his untidy, sticking-up hair was a distinctive, almost white blond, even in the uncertain streetlight. Watching from the window of the cozy coffee shop, Mihaela remembered him. She was sure he was the same boy she’d noticed earlier in Prince’s Street. It hadn’t been clear then which of the scuttling adults he belonged to, although it had crossed Mihaela’s mind that the answer was none of them.
Frowning over her coffee as the boy darted between car headlights and dodged two large shopping bags, only to bolt through a gap between buildings, Mihaela again received the same impression. She supposed that he must live nearby. Still, he couldn’t have been more than six, and to Mihaela it was criminal to let so young a child roam the city streets, in potential danger from speeding traffic and every passing stranger. Especially in the dark.
She pulled herself up—after all, she was in Edinburgh on holiday to relax, not to save the world that could get along perfectly well without her interference—and gave a self-deprecating smile into her cup as she finished the last of her coffee. She tried not to wrinkle her nose, but British addiction to Nescafé or its several clones was a taste she could not share. Still, the brew had been warming against the northern December chill, and she liked the novelty of hanging around in cafés without discussing work or debriefing informants. She liked just watching the people go by on the ancient, cobbled street, huddled against the icy wind while she luxuriated in warmth inside.
She had nothing to worry about, she reminded herself as she rose and pulled on her hooded sheepskin jacket. Or at least nothing that couldn’t wait until she left Scotland to face the music of home. She so needed these two weeks of real, normal life to get her head straight. So far, she’d had three days. And the damp, insidious charm of Scotland seemed to be working. She felt more relaxed than she had in months.
“Pardon me, miss, are you local?” a man’s voice asked from the next table.
Mihaela paused in the act of picking up her bag and glanced over her shoulder. The speaker was American by his accent, somewhere in his thirties, maybe, and good-looking enough to turn heads. And he was smiling at her.
“No,” she answered, distantly from habit. “I’m just visiting.”
“Me too. I’m trying to find the Writers’ Museum, and this map just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Mihaela glanced downward at the crumpled map open on his table and couldn’t help smiling. It had been stuffed into pockets and folded so often that much of the detail had worn away.
“I passed a sign for it, further up that way,” she offered.
“Have you been there?”
“No, not yet.”
“I’m going to try and make it tomorrow.” He smiled at her again as he crushed the poor, abused map back into his pocket. “I hope you don’t mind my saying, I love your accent. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Chicago in the US. You enjoying Scotland?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
He smiled and rose to his feet. “Me too. Amazing country. Anyway,” he added as they edged their way together to the door, “maybe we’ll run into each other again. Maybe even at the Writers’ Museum.”
Mihaela cast him a quick glance of appraisal. He was casually dressed in a thick sweater and windcheater, perhaps a tourist, perhaps a businessman relaxing after some deal or other. Whatever his story, his blue eyes were bright and hopeful, and she sensed a fellow lonely spirit. And the possibility of holiday romance. Flattering, intriguing—and quite novel for Mihaela, who’d known little but one-night stands with total bastards.
She let her lips tug upward. “Maybe. If either of us can find it.”
His rather charming laughter ushered her out the door into the dark, biting cold. Smiling, because she just might be tempted to come back to Edinburgh tomorrow, she turned to say good-bye—and caught sight of the fair child again, darting out between buildings and rushing down the road.
Frowning, Mihaela followed his progress with her eyes. In the thicker darkness, he looked tiny and unspeakably vulnerable, his fair head bobbing and glinting under the streetlights. Another movement caught her attention—two adult male figures emerging from between the same buildings and setting off at a run in the same direction as the child.
Alarm bells went off in Mihaela’s head. The men could have been family members, chasing him to bring him home, but something in the way they moved, their carefully controlled speed, the power of their running legs, spoke chillingly against it.
“Good-bye,” she said, a little too abruptly, remembering at least to cast the friendly American a quick smile before she too sped off down the hill.
There was no point in even telling herself not to get involved. Relaxing on holiday was suddenly irrelevant because no one could see a child in danger and do nothing. And Mihaela was terribly sure now he was in danger. Although she carried no detector, in this case, she didn’t need one. The figures pursuing the little boy were vampires.
Mihaela had been fighting vampires all her life. She’d accepted long ago that she would die doing so. Hunting the undead was her raison d’être, her life, her job for more than ten years. It was even, indirectly, the reason she was here in Scotland. Because everything had changed in the last three months, since the fight to defend the Budapest library. On that shattering night, at great personal risk from both sides, three vampires had stood with the hunters and fought against their own kind.
Now, doing what she did best—tracking the undead through dark, unknown streets— Mihaela almost felt nostalgic for the days when the relationship between vampire and hunter was clear, when she’d needed a reason not to kill a vampire.
She was part of a very old and secretive world-wide organization whose prime duty was to protect humanity from the undead. And she was damned good at it. At the age of twenty-five, she’d risen to be a member of the elite first team in eastern Europe, which boasted the highest density of vampire population in the world, and now, six years later, she’d grown formidably strong and fast as the result of her kills.
And if a tiny part of her remained secretly unfulfilled, that didn’t matter, because she knew she was doing good work, protecting people not just from vampires but from the terrible knowledge that there were monsters in their midst.
Then, not much more than a year ago, an unworldly academic researcher called Elizabeth Silk had accidentally awakened the vampire Saloman, last of the pure Ancient race from which all modern hybrid vampires were descended, and Mihaela’s world was turned on its head.
But although Saloman’s power was more frightening than anything the hunters had had to deal with in living memory, and he quite candidly sought to rule the world, he hadn’t started the war with humans that the hunters feared more than anything. In fact, he instilled discipline in the chaotic vampire communities, laid down rules, and compelled obedience—and vampire-related murders drastically reduced.
The downside, of course, was that vampires were coming out of the shadows. And that too suited Saloman’s plan, because he wanted a return to ancient times when vampires had walked among humans, living in harmony—at least according to Saloman. When he’d fought to preserve the hunters from his own kind, they’d had to acknowledge he had a few viable points.
So now Mihaela and the rest of the world’s hunters had to adjust to the fact that vampires were not automatically for killing, not unless they proved themselves to be a threat. The hunters and the vampire overlord, Saloman, were working together toward a strategy of coping with the inevitable human “discovery” of undead existence, a revelation which had already begun spontaneously in the last year as a direct result of Saloman’s regime.
Although Mihaela had believed, mostly, in the new world order, it still felt weird, unholy. And when Konrad, her friend and team leader of many years’ hunting, had come to her with his proposal, she’d been appalled by the wrenching of divided loyalties.
He’d arrived at her bright, blessedly normal apartment one evening, about a month ago, restless, anxious, but with a new purpose and determination in his step, in the very way he carried himself as he strode into her living room and accepted a mug of coffee.
Konrad was an impressive man: strong, principled, determined. His life, Mihaela’s, and that of the third member of their team, István, were bound by common cause and mutual reliance. They’d saved each other’s lives and dressed each other’s wounds countless times. Rugged and serious, Konrad paced her small living room, holding his mug in both hands, then turned abruptly and fixed her with his intense blue eyes. She was glad to see all that vitality back, for since the library fight, he’d been listless, sullen, even obstructive, way beyond the normal disagreements with which the team often confronted missions. Mihaela began to hope that at last he’d come to terms with the new alliance, the new world. And then he spoke.
“It isn’t right, Mihaela,” he burst out. “We should be killing them, wiping them off the face of the planet. Starting with Saloman. Instead we’re holding hands with him, giving away vital information and getting nothing in return. This alliance was always wrong. It’s only working for them by turning us soft enough to be finally defeated, and then there’s nothing left to prevent vampire supremacy. Can you live with that, Mihaela?”
Mihaela shrugged unhappily. “It takes some adjustment. But we have to face reality, Konrad, not what we think should be the case. And the reality is, word is getting out about vampires, slowly but surely. We can’t prevent that now. We can only work with Saloman to make the ‘outing’ as peaceful as possible.”
“You sound like Saloman,” Konrad sneered. “Or Elizabeth.”
“Well, they were the only ones talking any sense before the library fight,” Mihaela retorted. “If Saloman hadn’t ignored our rejection and come to our aid anyway, we’d all be dead, and Luk and his vampire cohorts would be on the rampage.”
Konrad brushed that aside with an impatient wave of one hand. “It may or may not have influenced the outcome. Either way, it should have been nothing more than the temporary alliances we’ve occasionally been forced into before. I can’t believe Miklόs, even the Grand Master, are seriously considering this as long term. It’s disastrous for us, for humanity.”
“I don’t think so,” Mihaela said stubbornly.
“Don’t you?” He walked over to the sofa where she sat, and stared down at her. “Really? Have you considered that you’re blinded by Saloman’s civilized veneer? By the fact that his creation Maximilian saved your life?”
Mihaela looked away. She didn’t want to think about Maximilian, most enigmatic and reclusive of the undead, whose story had always captured her curiosity. The fight in the hunters’ library had been the only time Mihaela had ever seen him up close. Made by Saloman himself, he was six hundred years old, had once ruled all the vampires of eastern Europe, and yet he’d looked like some carefree youth in his torn black tank and jeans, his wild, dark hair falling forward across a face so perfectly beautiful in its masculinity that it seemed angelic.
He’d met her gaze for only an instant as he’d straightened from the kill that had saved her, an instant of stillness in the vicious battle that raged around them. His eyes, the fathomless, secretive eyes of the very old, had burned into her. Something had stabbed at Mihaela, sharper than a vampire’s fangs, a tug of fierce, animal attraction that was almost grateful recognition. Because she’d imagined a flicker of answering warmth in those impossibly cold eyes.
It had terrified her. More than death at the hands of the vampire Maximilian had just saved her from. Somehow, she’d managed to nod her gratitude. Maximilian had whipped away, the muscles rippling in his naked arms as he thrust backward with his elbow into an attacker and plunged his stake into the back of another vampire.
He moved like a dancer. A lethal, murderous dancer. Across the battleground, and, later, across her hot, frustrating dreams.
She shook his image away. “I’m not blinded by anything,” she retorted.
“Aren’t you?” Konrad sat down beside her, leaning forward to peer into her face. “So how would you feel if you ran up against the vampire who killed your family? Would you accord him the same courtesies?”
“He is a murderer,” Mihaela snapped. “Of course I’d kill him.”
“Perhaps he’s reformed,” Konrad sneered. “Like Saloman himself. Mihaela, when this all goes wrong, we need to be strong. Miklόs and Lazar are going to be useless. They’re completely in Saloman’s pocket now.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but Konrad was still talking.
“I want there to be a strong group of us still at the center of things. Hunters who haven’t lost their way in all of this, who stick to the original values of the organization without being bound by its current controls. Hunters who’re prepared to do the right thing—kill vampires. I’m forming a force now, not a breakaway group yet, not until it has to be, but a group within the network, remaining true to its ideals, who can counteract the damage of all this—tolerance. I want you there with me, Mihaela.”
Many things about Konrad’s proposal had churned her up. The bitter, vengeful part of her that still wanted payback for the crimes against her family, as well as for all the other atrocities she’d witnessed over the years, wanted to join Konrad in his destructive quest. This was an older, stronger loyalty than the fragile bonds forged with Elizabeth and the overlord Saloman himself. And she didn’t know what to do.
So when Elizabeth, sensing her stress, had offered her the use of her flat in Scotland to get away from it all, she’d jumped at the chance.
This—pounding down a dark city street in pursuit of vampires—was Mihaela getting away from it all. Once a hunter, always a hunter.
Shadowing her quarries with swift efficiency, keeping them in sight without getting too close, Mihaela had time to think, savagely, that perhaps Konrad was right in his belief that all vampires everywhere should be exterminated. At this moment, watching vampires hunt a child, he certainly seemed closer to reality than Elizabeth’s daydream of toleration and integration.
Hands in pockets, both curled around lethally sharpened stakes—training overcame everything, and she never traveled without at least two wooden stakes—she followed with grim determination, swerving down side-streets and through ill-lit alleys and narrow flights of steps.
Oddly, even in quieter territory, the vampires made no move to close in on the child. Did they sense her following? Were they being circumspect, or luring her into a trap? Most vampires avoided tangling with hunters if they could avoid it; killing one simply brought too much trouble down on their heads. But since Saloman’s revolution, they were all behaving differently. In many ways, they were less afraid than they had ever been, and since they’d never been exactly timid or shy of bloodshed, this scared the hell out of Mihaela.
She had no idea where she was. Following along a dimly lit alley, she saw the vampires halt at the end, where it seemed to open into a wider back court. Slipping silently closer, she thought it looked like a delivery area for shops or, judging by the smell, more likely a pub.
The vampires paid her no attention. Keeping them in her wary vision, Mihaela cast a few quick glances beyond them. The boy was there, standing in front of a man sprawled on a metal barrel, with his back leaning against the wall of the pub. On the wind, she caught the child’s voice, high and excited, though she couldn’t make out the words.
The man on the barrel sat very still, with the sort of boneless flop she associated with the very drunk. Was this the child’s father? Was this who he’d been looking for all day on his own? Mihaela’s heart went out to the boy. She squashed her upsurge of anger against the irresponsible piss-head of a father. She had to protect both of them now from the hovering vampires.
She tensed, for the vampires began to move, not fast as they could, but with an air of slow, unstoppable determination. She drew in her breath, running swiftly forward. But other shadows were moving in the yard too. On all sides, they detached themselves from the darkness, advancing on where the boy stood talking to the drunk, who at last lurched to his feet, finally aware of the danger.
Picking up speed, Mihaela acknowledged something was very wrong here. There must have been twelve vampires altogether. Too many for this country, this city, this small meal of one adult and a child. What the hell was going on?
The boy turned around to face his attackers, took one circumspect step backward, just as the drunk launched himself at one of the vampires. The god of the inebriated must have smiled upon him, for by some miracle of luck, his fist connected with one an instant before his foot kicked another to the ground. Or perhaps he was just used to brutal pub brawls.
Mihaela didn’t wait to find out. Focusing on the fair head of the boy, she staked the vampire in her path—a recently fledged weakling, for she barely felt his strength adding to her own—and sped toward her goal. His companions seemed to feel his death, though, for some of them turned to stare at her.
One flew at her, snarling, his fangs white in the blackness of the yard. Mihaela kicked him, hard, and staked him as he doubled-up, lashing out with her free elbow at another vampire who tried to take advantage of her distraction. They weren’t expecting a hunter, or it wouldn’t have been so easy to kill him, but by now they’d all have her scent.
Given vampires’ superior speed and might, a fight with a human could have only one realistic end—unless that human was a hunter. Not only trained to counter vampire speed, hunters could also grow far stronger than ordinary humans, because with every vampire kill, they gained some of that vampire’s power. Of course, vampires also gained by killing each other, especially if they took the blood of their victim. Plus, they grew more powerful with age.
Mihaela was a strong hunter. But there were just too many of them here. She had no chance. Her only hope was to get the humans away and somehow frighten the vampires off.
She shouted, “Run, kid! Get out of here!” Where’s the bloody father? He should be with him… Dodging a vicious blow from another of the vampires, she made out the drunken parent, falling under a hail of kicks and punches. A flash of a car headlight winked through from the road beyond, just as the drunk sank his teeth into one of his attackers, who exploded almost instantly into dust.
“Oh shit,” she whispered. She couldn’t look away as he heaved himself to his feet, hurling one of his attackers into the rest and lashing out before they fell on him again.
No human drunk, but a vampire; an extremely powerful one that she really, really didn’t want to see here.
She paid for her moment of stunned distraction as a vampire cannoned into her, knocking her off balance and snarling for her neck. She stabbed him with a backward thrust in the thigh that surprised him enough to let her make the kill. He was stronger; his energy flooding into her almost made her gasp.
So the numbers were reduced, but the boy still stood by the barrel, flattened into the wall, his eyes wide. Mihaela couldn’t fight them all, and she didn’t trust the powerful vampire currently being beaten to a pulp by his fellows.
“Police!” she yelled at the top of her voice. “Help!”
It was hardly likely to bring the cavalry galloping to their rescue, but at least it gave the vampires pause. Which was interesting. She’d wondered if they’d care about such attentions. After all, there were still enough of them to deal with the coppers who, even if they came, were unlikely to turn up mob-handed on a Tuesday afternoon.
“And there are more hunters coming,” she informed the vampires more quietly, as she kneed one in the groin and pushed him into the crowd.
Stumbling back, he recovered and glared at her. His muddy eyes flashed venom.
Mihaela’s world reeled.
Suddenly she felt not a seasoned vampire hunter at all, but a child facing a monster of unspeakable proportions as her world collapsed and died around her in blood and horror.
The vampire, a stocky being with thick, rough brown hair straggling down to his neck, grinned. Just for an instant, she could have sworn recognition gleamed in his red-tinged eyes. Then, as if he’d given some silent order, which he probably had, all the vampires backed off. One grabbed her by the throat on the way past. She swiped his legs away with her foot and staked him as he landed on the ground. The pressure on her throat vanished with the vampire, and she whirled to find the lead vampire advancing on the child.
Springing forward, Mihaela threw herself between them.
“No,” she said, both stakes pointing straight at the vampire’s chest from different angles. “Not this time.”
Spite twisted his face. He even swayed forward on the balls of his feet, and her every nerve prepared for the swiftest action of her life. His ear was covered by his hair, so she still couldn’t be sure. If it wasn’t for the child, she’d have fought him just to get at his ear, and then killed him whatever the result.
The vampire laughed and stepped back.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll get him later.” And he turned and walked away.
Breathing hard, Mihaela glanced round the whole yard. It was impossible to see how far the vampires had withdrawn. They needed to get out of here, fast.
She turned to the boy. “Are you all right?”
The child nodded. Mihaela tried to smile, held out her hand to him with more hope than expectation. He looked at it, then at her face, and then grabbed her hand as if it were his only lifeline. It was.
“I’ll take you home,” Mihaela promised. She began to walk with him toward the far exit, from where she’d seen the car headlights. The “drunk” vampire lay in a still, black heap on the ground. Clearly, he wasn’t dead, though she doubted he was far from it. But Mihaela wasn’t stupid; she’d spent a long time around vampires, and although he hadn’t appeared to be part of the group attacking the child, she couldn’t trust him any more than she would a rabid dog. She gave him a wide berth and hurried on to the road. She’d deal with her conscience later, along with her responsibility, once she’d done her duty by the little boy who must be terribly traumatized by the night’s events.
“What’s your name?” she asked, as gently as she could. Her voice showed an annoying tendency to shake.
“Robbie,” the boy answered easily enough.
“I’m Mihaela. Do you have a surname? A second name?”
He appeared to think about that, then shook his head.
“Okay. Do you know where you live? Is it close by?”
The boy shook his head. “Not really. I walked a long way.” By his accent, he was local, at least.
“You can’t remember your address?”
Robbie thought again. “No,” he said apologetically. “Not now.”
“Ah. Have you moved house recently?”
“I’m always moving.”
Mihaela glanced at him, but he didn’t appear to be sad. Nor did he appear to be overwhelmed or even upset by what had just happened. Shock did funny things to people. Look at her. Two shocks in one incident and she really had to fight to focus on her job, the same job she’d been extremely good at for ten years and more. At least she could neither see nor hear signs of anyone following them—although the skin pricked at the back of her neck in fear.
“Robbie, I’ll have to take you to a police station,” she said, heading in the direction of noise and traffic. “I’m sure the police’ll be able to find your parents.”
“My parents are dead,” Robbie said flatly.
Mihaela swallowed. “I’m sorry. Who do you live with, then?”
He sighed. “Jim and Peg now.”
“Are they related to you? Foster parents?”
“Aye,” Robbie said, not very interested.
“What are you doing out on your own?”
“I wanted to see them, talk to them, ken?”
Ken? Her floundering brain finally latched on to an old conversation with Elizabeth. “Ken” meant “know,” and a lot of Scottish speech was peppered with the word, much as other people say, “you know?”
“See who, Robbie?” Mihaela asked.
He jerked his head back the way they’d come.
Mihaela’s grip tightened on his hand before she forced herself to relax it again. “You know these—people?”
“I ken the one with the broken ear.”
For the third time that afternoon, Mihaela’s world rocked off its axis. A little girl furiously fighting for her life, gnashing at whatever she could reach; the ear of the vampire who’d already killed her parents and sister.
“Coincidence,” she whispered. Her anxiety had unhinged her. Was it really likely she’d come to Scotland to encounter her parents’ murderer after all these years?
It doesn’t matter. I’ll get him later. He’d spoken to her in Romanian. Despite the fact that her words had all been in English. So he was Romanian and recognized that she was. From which it was still a leap to imagine she’d faced her greatest enemy, the vampire she’d almost given up hope of ever encountering again. And let him get away.
It doesn’t matter, she promised him. I will most certainly get you later. Not just to find out but to kill him. Whatever was going on here, and whether or not he was the same vampire who’d killed her family, hunting children was beyond the pale. Even Saloman didn’t condone that.
But her first duty was to the child himself.
“How do you know the one with the broken ear?” she asked.
“I found him. I can hear him. I heard the other one too, the one who’s hurt back there.”
“You hear them?” she repeated, gazing down at him curiously. “You mean—over distances?”
“Aye. They don’t need to speak. I can hear them.”
The child was telepathic? Psychic?
“And these—men—called to you to come?” she asked, genuinely frightened for him now.
Robbie frowned. “Today, the man with the broken ear did. But I heard the other one, though he wasn’t talking to me. That’s the way it usually is. The way it was the first time too, with him with the broken ear.”
Mihaela was so involved in the boy’s words that at first she barely registered the yelling of his name in a raucous, female tone. Then, swinging around in relief, she saw a large, fake blonde leaning out of a car that skidded to a halt just beside them. “Where the fu—devil have you been, you wee shi— We’ve been worried sick!”
Mihaela glanced from the hardly comforting woman—who, to give her her due, was hardly likely to be at her best after the anxiety of searching for a lost foster child for the better part of the day—to Robbie, who sighed.
“Peg and Jim,” he said, with resignation rather than fear; but it was enough to make Mihaela feel like a villain for handing him over.
“Who’re you?” Peg demanded with suspicion. In the circumstances, it was natural.
“I found him wandering on his own outside a pub,” Mihaela said. “There was a fight. He could have got badly hurt. He must be very frightened.”
“Him?” Peg snorted. “I don’t think he’s ever been frightened in his life. In the car, Robbie. Wait till I get you home.” As Robbie sighed again and climbed into the car, he cast an oddly wistful smile over his shoulder at Mihaela.
“Will he be all right?” she blurted.
“Oh aye,” Peg said.
“Thanks,” added the car driver grudgingly, leaning over his wife to talk. “He’s always doing this. Runs away as soon as you turn your back. God knows how he got all the way here.”
“Robbie, you mustn’t,” Mihaela said to him urgently as he fastened himself into the back seat. “Don’t go when they call. They’re dangerous. And—” But the car drove off before she’d said all she needed to, all she wanted to.
The boy was safe with his carers, and yet she felt both bereft and frightened for him. She wondered if there was a way to see him again, to check he was all right, for Peg and Jim did not fill her with confidence.
If I were his foster mother…
Well, you’re not. You can barely look after yourself, never mind a dependent child!
Mocking herself, because in fact her parenting skills, or lack of them, had always been irrelevant—vampire hunting was a 24-7 job that didn’t allow the distraction of young family or even the relationship necessary to acquire one—she stood back out of the way of people heading into the pub and tried to drag her thoughts back to the important issues.
She needed to know what so many strong vampires, at least some of them foreign, were doing here. She needed to know if the vampire who threatened Robbie really could get him later, and if he really was her own family’s killer. And…
She came around to it carefully, trying to avoid it and knowing she couldn’t. She couldn’t take the chance.
She turned and retraced her steps back along the road to the alley that led to the pub’s back court. She expected him to be gone. She hoped he’d be gone. She hoped she’d made a mistake in identifying him. After all, it had been dark, and how likely was it to encounter two vampires from her past in one afternoon?
More likely if one of them had made his home in Scotland.
Her heart beat faster as she walked into the yard, hands once more grasping the stakes in her pockets. The dark heap of mostly dead vampire had gone. Which meant, surely, he’d either died or recovered. She swallowed. Neither possibility made her feel good.
She stood still where she’d last seen him, wishing she’d brought a detector, while she quartered the court. She thought the vampires had vanished, but she couldn’t be sure. At any rate, she’d learned long ago never to make dangerous assumptions.
To her left, the barrel no longer sat flush against the wall. There was a gap of blank darkness between. He could be masking. Any of them could be masking. She stared hard at the gap between the wall and the barrel, walking slowly toward it until it resolved into a body.
Without warning, a light came on, shining out from the pub wall. Mihaela froze, waiting for someone to appear, but there was no door as such into the yard, only barred windows and the trap through which beer was delivered to the cellar. Perhaps someone inside had just remembered to switch on the light for security reasons.
Mihaela approached the barrel, withdrawing the stake from her pocket. She gazed down at the injured, blood-spattered vampire, illuminated now like some gothic-novel illustration. Pale skin, dark, untidy hair with just a hint of auburn shining through. He wore a rough wool workman’s jacket over his usual jeans and T-shirt; his arm and one leg were bent at grotesque angles, and he stank of enough alcohol to repel a down-and-out. But it was still, unmistakably, the vampire Maximilian.