July 5, 2011
ONE TASTE IS ALL IT TAKES
For those who feast on blood, Jillian Conrad is a fatal attraction. After being injected with a serum that made her blood both irresistible and deadly to vampires, she was used as a pawn to assassinate the vampire king. Now, the vampires want her eliminated.
Hunted and unable to return to her old life, Jillian desperately seeks to prevent the poison in her veins from killing her. And she must find a way to help her dhampyr protector, Declan, whose exposure to the serum has split his personality into one part uncontrolled desire, and one part stone cold killer.
But an even greater danger is rising. The Amarantos — a secret society of vampires — is seeking the infant daughter of the slain king to complete their quest for true immortality. And if they succeed, no one, living or undead, will escape the darkness.
“Bloodlust offers up non-stop action, steamy encounters, and engaging characters that walk the razor’s edge between light and dark. Rowen’s foray into a new dark, gritty world is a brilliant success. Bloodlust is an adrenaline rush!” –Larissa Ione, New York Times Bestselling Author
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C h a p t e r 1
Ravenous was the perfect name for a place like this.
I’d arrived at the seedy North Hollywood bar a half hour ago. A friend had sent me an email earlier today asking me to meet him here tonight at ten o’clock because he, “had to talk to me about something very important.” So here I was — ready, willing, and able to talk.
But by ten-thirty he still hadn’t shown. And I was getting worried.
Maybe he’s dead, a little voice in my head whispered.
My chest tightened at the thought. No, he was too smart. Too wily. Too young and cocky. I refused to allow myself to believe he’d let himself get killed. Tonight he could possibly have the information that would help get my back life to normal.
Where are you, Noah?
My attention shifted to a blond guy in a leather duster approaching the far left of the small dance floor. A heavy metal tune had begun to blare through the speakers, making it difficult to concentrate. Even in the dim light of the club, his skin was so pale it seemed to faintly glow, easily making him stand out from the rest of the crowd. He scanned the few dancers, coming to rest on a petite redhead wearing a micro-short leather skirt.
When he smiled I saw the subtle glint of fangs beneath his upper lip.
She noticed him looking and smiled back at him, thrusting her ample chest forward — the universal easy-girl’s signal for, “come and get me, bad boy.”
The girl had no idea this bad boy was a vampire.
“For fuck’s sake,” I said under my breath. “Don’t be so stupid.”
Two weeks ago I thought vampires didn’t exist. But they do. There were those who preferred to keep their distance from humans, but others like this one, well…they were just really hungry.
The redhead was going to die.
I wasn’t psychic. I had no special supernatural powers, no super strength, no otherworldly abilities — but I knew her fate. I saw it in the vampire’s pale gaze as he flicked a smug look at his friend also standing at the edge of the dance floor.
A large part of me didn’t want to get involved. I had my own vast and varied problems to deal with. Plus, not to judge a book by its cover, but girls like this one, seemingly alone and vulnerable at this kind of dive, would likely find trouble sooner or later. If she couldn’t protect herself, if she had no one around to keep an eye on her, then I didn’t think her future was a bright one.
But it didn’t mean I was just going to let this monster make her his nightcap.
After another quick scan for the missing-in-action Noah, I slid off the tall stool and began weaving my way through the rough-looking crowd toward the exit. The vampire and the girl were now dancing together, if you could call it that. His hand closed on her ass under her short skirt, pulling them groin to groin as he pressed his lips to her throat. It looked sexy — kind of romantic, even — but I knew it wasn’t. Or it wouldn’t be for long.
I froze in place as a horrible thought occurred to me. He was going to bite her right in front of everyone.
I wanted to walk away, pretend I hadn’t seen the vampire, leave this club and contact Noah another night, but I couldn’t do that. I’d never be accused of being a sweet and soft-hearted woman who wanted to help the helpless, but if there was a problem that was standing right in front of me and I might, possibly, be able to do something about it, then I had to. My conscience wouldn’t allow otherwise.
“I really don’t want to do this,” I whispered to myself.
But I did it anyway.
I forced myself to walk close enough to brush against the vampire. He immediately caught my scent and released the girl.
I kept walking. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to know he was now following me. He was the mouse and I was the cheese. It didn’t really matter what I looked like, how I filled out the thin white tank top I wore, or how long my legs were under my skirt. I was irresistible.
Believe me, I wasn’t saying it to be vain. I wished like hell I didn’t have this particular affect on the bloodsuckers.
I exited the club. Even though it was hot air that brushed against my bare arms and legs, I still shivered. I picked up my pace, ignored my racing heart, and walked toward the parking lot out back of the bar.
“Hey beautiful,” the vampire said from close behind me. “What’s your name?”
I forced myself to look coyly over my shoulder. “Sorry, I don’t talk to strangers.”
“Oh, c’mon, don’t be like that.” He was right next to me now and he stroked a long strand of black hair off my forehead, pausing to roll it between his fingertips. He held it up so he could inhale its scent and his eyes darkened with lust and hunger. “Damn, you smell good. Where are you going, honey?”
I shuddered. “Back to my motel room.”
“We can keep you company.” He glanced at his friend — dark hair, sallow skin, and a slow smile stretching his gaunt cheeks. He bared his sharp fangs as if he didn’t care who saw that beneath his human facade he was a monster.
I’d just wanted to lure the vampire away from the girl. I didn’t want this, but it did come with the territory. I tried my best to stay calm. “I don’t want company. Really, just leave me alone.”
“And what if we don’t want to leave you alone?”
“Then you’re in serious trouble.”
He grinned at that, then inhaled deeply and thin, dark veins branched along his jaw line and down his neck. Each vampire showed their hunger slightly differently — it was like their fingerprint, and along with their fangs it revealed them to be much different from human. The black of his pupils spread out to cover the pale gray of his irises.
His hand shot out and he grabbed me by my throat. I clawed at his arm as he dragged me around the corner into an alleyway, and then he threw me roughly at his friend.
“Hold the bitch still,” he snapped.
I tried to struggle against him. I’d hoped very hard it wouldn’t come to this, but I’d overestimated how much control a hungry vampire had. Fear laced through me as the blond’s lips peeled back from his fangs.
“No, wait — my blood –” But I wasn’t able to finish my sentence. He wrenched my head to the side so violently he easily could have snapped my neck. I gasped in pain as his fangs sliced into the soft flesh of my throat.
The vampire’s friend had grabbed my left breast and was squeezing it so hard that tears sprung to my eyes.
“She tastes incredible,” the blond growled as he slurped at my blood.
A moment later, he gasped and pulled back from me, his black eyes registering surprise now that he realized that my incredible blood came with a bit of an aftertaste.
“What’s wrong?” his friend asked.
“I don’t know.” The vampire’s mouth gaped open and he touched his lips, looking down at the unnaturally dark crimson color of my blood on his fingertips. His brows drew together in confusion before he staggered back a few steps from me.
When he screamed, fire poured out of his mouth. In mere seconds, the only thing that remained of Thirsty Vampire #1 was a fall of fiery ash, turning the hot July night into a Christmas card from hell.
The paralyzing affect disappeared and I clamped my hand to my neck to stop the flow of blood. I felt weak and my legs threatened to crumple beneath me. I had to struggle to remain standing. The vampire’s friend moved his shocked gaze to look at me. His hunger showed along his hollow cheekbones, the sallow skin etched with a spider web of dark blue veins, his eyes soulless and black as pitch.
“You’re the one I’ve heard about, aren’t you? Your blood is poison to us.” His voice was a whisper, but his hands were clenched, his jaw tight. Anger and grief flashed through his eyes as he came at me, not waiting for my answer.
He wasn’t going to bite me. He was just going to kill me just as I’d killed his friend.
Before his hand did more than brush against my throat, someone grabbed him, spun him around, and a scarred fist slammed into his jaw, knocking him backward.
“Don’t fucking touch her,” the man attached to the fist growled. His gaze flicked to me, resting on my injured throat for a split second, before returning to the vampire.
I pressed back against the cold wall as the vampire recovered quickly and launched himself at his attacker. Silver flashed, too fast to fully register. The blade sank into the vampire’s chest right up to the hilt. He attempted to pull it out, but didn’t have enough time. His hands burst into fire along with the rest of his body and he exploded outward into another ashy cloud.
The knife clanged to the pavement and the man crouched to snatch it up and slide it into the sheath he wore at his hip. Then he glared at me through his right eye. The left was covered by a black patch. He’d lost the eye a long time ago in another fight with a vampire in which he hadn’t fared quite as well as this.
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. I finally released it and inhaled shakily.
He was well over six feet tall, heavily muscled, and covered in ragged scars, including those on his face, branching out from where his eye patch sat, down his cheek and jaw and along the left side of his neck. His dark hair was cut very short, almost shaved. He wasn’t the type of man you wanted to meet in a dark alley like this. Not if you valued your life. Declan Reyes was scary as hell.
I finally allowed myself to relax just a little bit and I wiped my tears away.
He came toward me and roughly brushed the hair back off my neck. “Let me see.”
I reluctantly pulled my hand away from the bite wound.
“Damn it, Jill.” His lips thinned. “What the hell did you think you were doing just now? Trying to get yourself killed?”
“They were going to kill a girl in there. Right in front of everyone.”
“So you offered yourself up as a willing sacrifice instead?”
“I thought I could distract them without getting bit. I guess I was fooling myself.”
“Where’s Noah?” He pulled a clean rag from his pocket and held it against my throat.
“He hasn’t shown yet.”
“Then you shouldn’t have stuck around.” He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the bar. “You need to stop trying to protect others all the time. You have to focus on protecting yourself.”
Declan had a tendency to see me as way more altruistic than I actually was. “So I should have just stood by and watched them tear her throat out?”
“Next time come find me first before you decide to play the pied piper to vampires.” He touched my face gently. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” I searched for some emotion on his battle-scarred face — anger, fear, maybe even annoyance — but came up empty.
“We need to go.”
“But Noah –”
“Isn’t here. Something must have gone wrong. We’ll wait for him to contact us again.”
“Don’t you think we should wait just a little while longer?”
“No. Best to cut our losses and try again later.”
I felt the thud of disappointment push away the small amount of hope I’d allowed myself to feel earlier. Declan had chosen to remain outside when we’d arrived just before ten o’clock. While it wasn’t the classiest bar in Los Angeles, the way he looked — like death incarnate, which as a vampire hunter he came by honestly — might have gained us a bit too much attention.
Declan was a dhampyr — human mother, vampire father. While this gave him a great deal of extra strength, it wasn’t nearly the same as being fully vampire. He healed much faster than a human, but every single time he received a flesh wound it left a scar behind as a reminder of the horror he’d been through.
It was Declan who’d kidnapped me, kicking and screaming, from my normal life two weeks ago. It may as well have been two years by how different I felt and looked. It was the Nightshade formula I’d been injected with that had changed my hair and eyes to black. It was the Nightshade that meant any vampire who drank my blood would die a horrible, fiery death.
Declan stopped a dozen feet away and glanced over his shoulder at me. “Are you coming?”
When I moved closer to him he turned his face away so the scarred side would stay in shadows, away from the light shining down on us from the street lamp. The undamaged side of his face showed the man he could have been in a different life — a handsome, if a bit rough around the edges twenty-eight year old. Same age as me. Very different lives.
I wanted to touch him, but I restrained myself. “Don’t hide from me.”
“I’m not hiding.”
“You asked me how I was feeling, so now I’ll do the same. How are you feeling right now?”
His jaw tensed. “I’m fine.”
“The new serum is –”
“Holding strong. Much better than before.”
Better. It wasn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe the experimental drug he’d been pumped full of a week ago.
His now-deceased adoptive father, Carson Reyes, had been very concerned about Declan’s dhampyr nature. So much so that he’d developed a special serum that had to be injected every three hours since Declan was a child. This serum was meant to curb any vampiric tendencies he might have — violence, bloodlust, erratic behavior of any kind. The serum also restrained his emotions so much that he appeared to have none. This made him the perfect weapon who could follow orders to the letter and not give his father or anyone else any problems. He’d been an effective killing machine who felt nothing apart from getting the job done.
Shortly after he’d met me he’d been forced to stop taking his serum regularly when it was stolen. I’d been worried that the violence and need for blood might overwhelm him, but it hadn’t. Instead I’d met a different Declan, one who felt emotions strongly and wanted more from life than merely being a blunt instrument sent out to kill monsters.
Carson was still convinced he was right, that dhampyrs like Declan were dangerous and unpredictable. He’d been developing another serum — one that was meant to be permanent. He’d forcibly injected Declan with it hoping it would save his son from giving into any bloodlust. Ever. But that also meant that his emotions — including love, compassion, and sexual desire — would be permanently dampened.
I needed answers. “I’m going to check the bar one last time.”
Declan shook his head. “Not a good idea.”
I felt the resolve flow through me. It helped me to ignore the stinging pain from the vampire’s bite. “Five minutes, I swear. Wait for me here.”
“Jill, no –”
Before he could stop me, I turned and quickly re-entered the dark and musty interior of Ravenous. Keeping a close eye on my surroundings, wary of anyone who looked suspicious — and, admittedly, a lot of people did — I made a beeline to bar where I’d been sitting at earlier. The newspaper I’d been flipping through still lay closed on the scarred wooden bar top. On the top of page twenty-two I’d seen a small black and white picture of me and a heartfelt plea from Cathy, my older sister, asking anyone who knew my whereabouts to please contact the police immediately.
I forced myself to look away from the newspaper toward the bartender.
“Have you seen a guy in here tonight?” My words came out in a rush. “Early twenties, about five-ten, sort of thin. Light brown hair. Looks a bit like a frat boy?”
He eyed me as he ran a wet rag along the countertop. “Not a lot of frat boys come in here.”
“No shit.” I hissed out a sigh of frustration.
“But, yeah, I think I’ve seen the guy you’re looking for.”
My breath caught in my chest. “Really? Where?”
His gaze moved over my shoulder. “Right behind you.”
I spun around to see Noah standing ten feet away after coming out of the restroom on the right side of the club.
A wide smile spread across his boyish features and he closed the distance between us in a few steps. “Jill, I wasn’t sure if you were here or not.”
I hadn’t realized until this very moment how incredibly worried I’d been that he was hurt…or worse. The last time I’d seen him he’d been recovering from a bullet wound.
“Where the hell were you? You said you’d be here over a half hour ago.”
His smile widened. “Good to see you too.”
I hugged him tightly. “I thought you were dead.”
“I’m not. But, ouch. Be careful. I’m still recuperating.”
“Sorry.” I released him and he placed a hand over his chest wound hidden under his dark blue shirt.
“Don’t worry about it. But if this was a normal world I’d likely still be in a hospital bed slurping up Jell-O cubes.” His amiable expression faded and he touched my face. “Christ, you look like hell.”
I’d take it as an insult if he didn’t look so concerned. “I feel better than I look, believe it or not.”
“You’re paler than last time I saw you. Maybe it’s just the new hair color. I mean, don’t get me wrong. You’re still hot. You’re a hot chick who looks like she hasn’t slept in about a decade.”
“I’ll go heavier on the under eye concealer the next time I enter polite society.”
“Are you in any pain?”
Having poison in my veins came with a whole set of issues, a couple of which were excruciating pain and nausea. I’d been given another drug, a fusing potion, meant to bind the Nightshade with my blood on a cellular level. Since then, things had been better.
“Other than feeling headachy and weary, kind of like a constant low-level hangover, I haven’t experienced any severe pain since taking the fuser.”
“Not yet, you mean.”
I cringed. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“I got more fuser for you so you can take it regularly. I know it doesn’t exactly go down easily, does it?”
“It sure doesn’t.”
The fuser ramped up the pain I felt about a hundredfold before it started to work. As the saying went, it was always darkest just before the dawn.
“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” he said.
“Thank you, Mary Poppins. If I didn’t have to inject it, I’d be happy to swallow a bucket of sugar with it.” I reached for his sleeve to draw him closer when some other rough-looking bar patrons moved past us. “Is that what you wanted to see me about tonight? The fusing potion? I thought you might have some other answers.”
His expression tensed. “Not yet, I’m afraid.”
I felt a stab of disappointment at his answer. “Oh.”
“Waiting vigilantly outside. Armed to the teeth.”
“That’s surprisingly reassuring to know.” He glanced at my neck as I twisted a lock of hair around my finger. “Making new friends?”
I touched the fresh fang marks. Luckily for a newly designated pin cushion like myself, a vampire’s bite healed in a matter of a few days leaving no scars behind. It was small comfort since they stung like a bitch. “You kept me waiting too long. I met a couple guys who liked the way I smelled.”
He grimaced. “Sorry. I take it they’re gone now?”
“Permanently.” I glanced around. “Now that you’re here, I do want to talk to you about Declan’s new serum.”
Noah looked nervously over his shoulder. “Yeah, sure. But…listen, Jill, there actually is another reason why I needed to see you tonight. And it’s not because I enjoy the dulcet tones of Black Sabbath and the smell of sweaty leather.”
“What is it?”
Noah shot another look over his shoulder. “Jesus, Jill, when he contacted me yesterday it scared the shit out of me. It was the last damn thing I expected. He wants to see you, but he didn’t want me to mention that until you got here.”
My heart sped up. “Who?”
Noah met my gaze and held it. “Matthias.”
There was a long moment of stunned silence before I gathered my thoughts together enough to answer him. “He — he’s alive?”
Fresh panic raced through me. “And he’s here? Right now?”
“In the flesh.”
I had the sudden urge to turn and run, to escape this bar as fast as my feet could carry me. But my legs felt like lead.
Matthias was alive. It couldn’t be possible. It shouldn’t be possible.
I turned as if in slow motion to see the vampire king in question step out of the shadows to my left, his pale gray gaze trained on me. My mouth fell open in shock. I couldn’t help but be stunned to see him again — alive and well and standing right in front of me.
After all, I’d been the one who’d killed him.