Fire rolled through her veins.
Julia groaned and turned over. Her arm brushed something furry. She smiled, pulling it closer. Her cat, Jameson, often crawled onto the bed with her for an early morning cuddle. Just one problem. Generally cats were soft and warm, not as stiff as a board. And Jameson had been dead years. She’d buried him under the bushes at the bottom of the garden.
Her eyelids snapped open, and she came eye to eye with a dead rat. Its throat had been ripped out. Screaming, she threw it away, scrambling backwards until her back hit the wall. The floor around her was littered with more rat corpses. All were missing most of their throats, the white of bone showing stark in the darkness. Some were missing their heads.
Her chest heaved as she tried to suck in air, but her lungs wouldn’t co-operate. She brushed at her chest, as though the rat was still there, and froze when her hand touched sodden fabric. With growing horror, she looked down. Her clothes were soaked with blood. Down her chest, splattered on her legs. Her hands and wrists were covered in a thick coat of red.
She was covered in blood. Rat blood. Bile rose hot in her throat.
“Ohnonononononono.…” She moaned.
Turning to the side, she emptied her stomach in a wet, liquid splash against the dirty floorboards. Blood. Nothing but blood and the occasional lump of flesh. Then she saw the rat head, its beady little eyes fixed on her, and darkness swam up to claim her.
She fell backwards, her head hitting the floor with a hollow ‘thump’. She didn’t care; her consciousness separated from her body as she let the fire consume her. Fangs and claws she could cope with. Ripping the heads off rats and draining their blood….
She’d rather die. Hell, she’d just lie here until she did.
Time passed. She felt the sun move in the sky overhead, and as it sank towards the horizon, the lethargy lifted from her limbs. The fire eating her from the inside out remained. Constant. Inescapable.
She groaned as the smell of blood taunted her, rising from the cold rodent corpses and where it had soaked into the floorboards. Hunger joined the heat, gnawing at her gut like the rats she’d killed. The pain was so sharp, she was sure the rats had come back from the dead to wreak their revenge on her.
With a whimper she tried to brush them off her stomach, but her hands batted at nothing but fresh air. She could feel their teeth in her flesh. Their sharp claws dug at her skin, tearing it up to get to her guts.
Bleary-eyed, she tried to concentrate as the room swam in and out of focus. It was empty, derelict with boards over the window. A vague memory of her flight the night before flitted through her head. She’d hidden here as the sun rose, a haven of darkness from the numbing orb above.
Anger surged, and her claws punched free of the end of her fingers. Those fucking rats were toast. She’d teach the little bastards it was a bad idea to bite a vampire. Shit, if she’d bitten them, had they turned into vampire rats? That was all she needed, fucking vampire rats eating her guts.
It was an effort to lift her head. Cold sweat rolled off her in waves as she forced her muscles to co-operate. She blinked, forcing her eyes to work. There were no rats. Her stomach was covered in nothing but her own t-shirt. Frantically, she snatched at the hem and yanked the top up to look beneath. Stiff with blood, the shirt came away with a soft tearing sound. She winced, steeling herself to look at her stomach. When she did, her eyes opened wide.
There were no wounds. Instead, smooth, undamaged skin met her gaze. She pushed a hand against the flesh. Perhaps her eyes weren’t working right. She could feel the little assholes biting her. At the touch, she realized they weren’t. Not unless there were some in her stomach trying to get out. The clawing, biting sensation was coming from within her.
Rolling to her side, her forehead rocked against the splintered floorboards. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, burning her skin before dropping to the wood below. She’d eaten rats. Rats. Talk about scraping the bottom of the fucking barrel.
The tear plopped onto the wood with a splash. She frowned as the sound almost deafened her. Like someone kicking a door down, and feet storming up stairs. Were there stairs here? An image of stumbling up a flight or two swam through her fractured memories. Or had that been back at the house? The little one she’d rented to escape Buddy. No. They’d been too wide.
“Julia? Oh my god, Julia!”
Yeah, now she knew she was going nuts. She could have sworn she heard Brett’s voice. Heavy boots thundered over the floorboards she lay on, kicking up dust. Another tear fell, then another. It couldn’t be Brett. She’d left him behind in violence, in a warehouse a lifetime away.
“Oh sweetpea, what have you done?” The sound of his voice eased something deep in her soul, but the endearment tore at her heart. The tears fell faster as his strong arms wrapped around her. She tried to fight him.
“No, don’t.” She moaned, knowing he’d seen the rats. “I’m a monster…leave me alone.”
He ignored her, hauling her into his lap right there on the blood-soaked floor. His lips pressed kisses to her temple. “No, my love. You’re not a monster. Never that. The real monster is out there. And I’m gonna rip his throat out, I promise.”
Brett rocked the crying woman in his arms and looked around the room in horror. The place stank of blood and death. Dom kicked aside a furry corpse and crouched next to them. He reached out to place a hand over Julia’s forehead.
“She’s burning up,” he murmured and looked around. “She’s fed, but not enough to carry her through this. Shit.” He looked up at the two others. “Find something for her to eat. Now.”
Frederick’s expression creased. “Find something for her to eat.… Like a human? What the hell? They’re not like fucking tacos, you know? We can’t just drive through and pick one up.”
“No.” Brett surged into movement, standing with Julia still tucked in his arms. “No humans, no more fucking rats. I’ll feed her. Me, no one else.”
As one, all three turned to look at him. The tense silence stretched out between them.
“You sure, man?” Dom looked at him directly. “Bloods…their first meal.…”
But Brett wouldn’t be dissuaded. “She’s already fed.”
Dom shook his head, concern wrapped over his features. “That wasn’t a meal. She’s not eaten enough for it to matter. If you feed her—”
“Then she’ll be a Blood with our abilities. Which means no one and nothing will be able to fuck with her.” Brett’s voice was harder than he’d ever heard it, which scared even him. “And I don’t know about you, but if McCoy is trying to breed uber-vampires, I can’t think of anything more awesome to do for her. Can you?”
He wasn’t looking for approval or consent, but still he breathed a sigh of relief when understanding filtered across three sets of hard features. Fredericks nodded. “Actually, that’s a damn good idea. Our world is a hard one, and she needs to be hard to survive. If she can. We don’t know if she’ll survive feeding from you.” His eyes searched Brett’s. “Are you prepared to put her down if it does belly-up?”
“It won’t,” Brett said firmly. He didn’t know how, but he knew it would be okay. It would all be okay. “But yes, if anything goes wrong, I’ll deal with it.”
“Good.” Evan smiled, a rare expression on their somewhat serious leader. He turned to look at the window. No light leaked around the wood boarding it up. “Okay. Night’s on us. Let’s find somewhere more salubrious, shall we?”
They left the derelict building en-masse, Julia safely carried in Brett’s arms. In the dead of night, no one gave them a second glance. Any that did met hard looks from pale eyes that made them quickly decide to be inquisitive somewhere else. Like the other side of the city.
They moved quickly, Brett muttering reassurances against Julia’s hair. She was quiet, but her temperature was still up. She’d been out of it since he’d picked her up. Worry threaded through him, speeding his steps up when Dom turned towards a cheap hotel. The four of them loitered outside the main building as Fredericks sorted rooms. Even though Julia was swathed in Fredericks’ fleece, they could do without an observant clerk getting a good look at her, since she had an active missing persons report out on her.
Less than five minutes later, Brett shouldered opened a door and breathed a sigh of relief at the clean state of the room. He shut the door with his boot and strode right into the shower.
“Just a moment, sweetpea. We’ll get you all cleaned up.” He set her down on the toilet seat and switched the shower on. The water was hot, filling the room with steam, and he stripped off, dropping his clothes over by the door before reaching for her.
Her clothes were stained and crusted with blood, so he didn’t bother removing them. Instead, he simply lifted her and stepped into the shower. The spray was more powerful than he’d expected for a standard room. Instead of the tepid dribble, it blasted his shoulder and side with a thousand needles. He turned, using the breadth of his shoulders to shield his precious burden.
Standing still, he closed his eyes and absorbed the rightness of the moment. With her in his arms, he felt complete. Content. Even…happy? The water battered his shoulders, the hard spray massaging tense muscles.
But, just as he couldn’t protect her from the life McCoy had dragged her into, he couldn’t protect her from the water forever. He needed to get the blood off her, get her clean and fed. He would have added ‘into bed’ to that list, the arousal circling his veins and trying to restart his heart warning him that no matter how much rat blood she coated herself in, she would always be irresistible to him.
Slowly he turned, letting the spray hit her little by little. She moaned, nestling closer to him as the water hit her, but almost as soon as she’d tensed up, the heat made her relax. With a sigh, she rested her head against his shoulder and let it wash over her. Murmuring reassurances, he slid her down his body, using his larger form to support her. With swift movements he stripped the sodden clothes from her, silent thanks running through his head that Dom had gotten her sweats. The stretchy fabric was easy to strip off and ditch at the other end of the bath.
Maneuvering her so that her arms were around his neck, he pinned her in place with a forearm around the back of her shoulders and reached for the complimentary bottle of shower gel. Dumping the contents into his hand, he rubbed it over her back, smoothing it around to her hips to get the dried blood off her skin. The water ran rusty brown around their feet.
She murmured, the softest of sounds, but one that gladdened his heart. Some Bloods didn’t survive the conversion. Or rather they did, physically, but their minds were shattered beyond repair. Broken and mad, they were pitiful creatures locked in their own nightmares, attacking anyone and anything that came near them. Julia had found food—rats—but when the SARAs found her, she hadn’t attacked. In the brief moment of lucidity before the fever had taken her again, she’d cried for the monster she thought she’d become.
“Not a monster, sweetpea. Never a monster.” His voice was soft, almost below hearing. She could hear him. He knew she could. Awareness had come back somewhere between getting her in the shower and him starting to wash her skin. She also hadn’t attacked him yet, which was a good sign.
“Real monsters are the ones who wear human skins and the ones who use their power to subjugate others. The ones who seek out that power in order to do so. You ate a rat—”
“Rats.” Her interruption was soft, but made him smile anyway. She had to correct him. That was a sign his Julia was still in there.
“Okay, rats. You had yourself a rat-fest. That doesn’t make you a monster. You know that in some parts of the world rats are a delicacy?” Confident that she was supporting her weight now, he slid both hands down her back. Spread them out over the luscious curve of her ass. “Some villagers in the ass end of beyond somewhere would be so jealous of you.”
“They’re welcome to them. Rat tastes bad.” She chuckled. Soft puffs of air against his throat that made his body tighten. All he wanted to do was pick her up and carry her into the other room, lay her down on the bed and bury himself in the heaven of her body again. The one night they’d spent apart had felt like a nightmare. He couldn’t wait to join with her again.
After she’d fed.
“Okay.” He tilted his head to the side, cupping the back of her head to bring her lips against his throat. “How about we see if I taste better?”
She stilled, the utter lack of movement a clue to her shock. Then she shook her head, lips brushing against his neck. “No, I can’t. I’m not…not one of them. I won’t do that.”
“Listen to me, Julia.” He fisted his hand gently in her hair, pulling her head back so he could look into her eyes. They were black on black, the color all gone now that she’d fed. Any blood, even rat blood it seemed, was enough to flip the switch. “The one thing I’ve learned after everything that I’ve been through is that shit happens. Shit happens and you deal with it. You have to deal with it, because that is what matters. How you deal with it determines what you are.”
He unclenched his fist to slide his fingers through the wet strands of her hair. “You’re not a quitter, not you. Never you.”
“How do you know that?” Her eyes searched his desperately. “You’ve known me what… two days?”
He smiled, cupping her jaw to reach down and place a gentle kiss against her lips. “The second I saw you hiding from that Blood I knew everything I needed to know about you, sweetpea. You’ve been hiding a bad-ass survivor under all that cuteness. The type that eats nails and spits razor-blades. The type that takes what life has given her and uses it to protect others.”
Something flickered in the back of her eyes, and she smiled. “Nails, huh? Put like that, rats don’t sound that bad.”
She reached up, smoothed delicate fingertips over his cheek. The soft touch was a small slice of heaven, and he wanted more. Far more. “So…what does a bad-ass survivor do now? Find these Bloods and go postal with these?” Her claws slid free with a soft snick.
He turned and kissed her fingers, lips grazing against the lethal talons. A small shiver rolled down his spine. “She levels up.”
“Levels up?” She laughed. “You were a gamer?”
“I might have partaken a little of certain first person shooters.…” he ducked his head, grinning at her. “I’m not admitting anything else, mind.”
“Uh-huh. A little.” She nodded, obviously not believing him. “Okay. Define ‘leveling up’ for the non-gamers here.”
A shudder hit her, but the loud rumble from her stomach clued him in that it wasn’t from pleasure or the feel of his body against hers. She needed food and fast. That rat blood would only hold off her hunger so long.
The smile dropped off his face, his expression serious. “Okay. Bloods have a particular set of innate abilities. The claws, the fangs…you can’t turn into a flock of bats or anything like Dracula or vamps in films. But…other abilities can be set. It’s all down to what you eat first. What blood you drink. Bloods that drank from humans? Nothing interesting. So Dom said they fed some with big cat blood. They got bigger, meaner, started to display feline traits. Same with wolves. Apparently they even tried croc blood, but those subjects freaked out.”
She tilted her head to the side, the cogs working behind her dark eyes. “So, I’m going to develop a liking for sewers and cheese?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Dom says you didn’t ingest enough for a full feeding. So…we’re gonna level you up. I’m not a Blood, Sweetpea. You know what they used us for?”
She shook her head, gaze riveted on him.
“We kill Bloods.” His voice was low. Serious. “We killed anything and everything they put in front of us. Speed, strength, viciousness…nothing can go up against us. So…you feed from me, you level up. And when we go in after McCoy—”
The low snarl started in the back of her throat, her words thickened by the heavy fangs that had dropped into her mouth. “I’m going to rip his throat out.”
He pulled her closer and tilted his head to the side. “Then level up, and let’s go get the motherfucker.”
His words, and the sense in them, hit Julia on a soul-deep level. She wasn’t a quitter. She never had been. It was the only thing that had allowed her to walk tall through all the shit with Buddy, the only thing that had enabled her to keep breathing when she’d been taken. Turned.
Brett slid his fingers into her hair. Cupped her head and offered his throat. Hot water hit her shoulder and cascaded down her side, and with his hard body in front of her, she was encased in a warm, safe cocoon.
The need inside uncurled and pulled at her. His heart was beating, the heavy pulse of the big vein in his throat an irresistible lure. Her focus zeroed in on it, and her mouth watered. The scent that had so entranced her when she’d first woken as…this…wrapped around her, and she couldn’t help the small moan that escaped her lips.
Pain sliced through her gums as her fangs descended. A tiny pain, so inconsequential it was immediately forgotten in her move forward. Unable to do anything else, she wrapped herself around him. Her tongue flickered out. Swept over his pulse.
“God, Sweetpea.” His voice was hoarse, his hold in her hair tightening almost to the point of pain. She knew he didn’t mean it, didn’t mean to hurt her, and the fact she had this effect over him fascinated her. She knew he was dangerous. Far more dangerous than she was. Yet here he was, offering himself up to her so she could gain a little edge over the bastards who had made her.
“Yeah.… Do it. Now,” he begged. Lower down between them, his cock pressed hard and heavy against her naked belly. Slippery and wet, sliding over her slick skin. Lust joined the dark hunger that held her captive, and she reached down. Wrapped a hand around his rigid length and stroked up and down.
“Fuuuuuck….” His mouth went slack, and she knew she had him. A thrill of feminine triumph rolled through her. It was a familiar feeling. Carnal. Nothing to do with the weirdness her life had become. It wasn’t linked to Bloods, Re-animates or the shadowy group he called The Project. No, this was the feeling between a man and a woman. Natural. Human when they were anything but. It didn’t matter what they were though, the feeling helped ground her. In that instant she accepted what she was.
Not human. Better than human. Faster, stronger. More dangerous.
She swept a thumb over the head of his cock, pulled her lips back, and struck. Her fangs pierced his skin, sliding through smoothly, and a rush of hot blood filled her mouth. She groaned as the taste exploded through her. The same as the scent that had captivated her, but better. Much better. It wasn’t sunshine and roses, strawberries and cream.
She knew it was blood. Hot and metallic, coppery almost, the taste was impossible to mistake. Before it would have made her gag. Even the smell of her own blood from a cut used to turn her stomach. Not now. Now she crowded closer, wrapping her arms around his neck and lifting a leg to wrap around his as the steady beat of his heart pumped more blood.
She swallowed as fast as she could, the heady rush of the stuff like strong alcohol hitting her system. It infused her body, like it was energizing every cell in a madcap rush through her system, until she thought she’d burst with it.
Still he made her drink more, holding her still when her limbs went slack with the warmth flooding through her. Made her swallow until she was near drunk with it.
“God, that feels awesome,” he muttered, urging her backward until her shoulders hit the cool tile. The small movement caused her fangs to tear his skin and she squeaked in warning, but he ignored her. Instead, he lifted her leg higher, around his hip, and rubbed his rigid cock along the groove of her pussy. She groaned at the dual assault, and lust rose again.
“You doing that, taking me in…that turns me on.” He dipped his hips, rubbing the head of his cock against her clit. She whimpered as sparks of a different kind flew through her veins. Her swallows slowed. The need to have him press home and fill her completely overwhelmed the need to drink.
“I need to fuck you. Hard. Here. Make you mine again. My blood in your veins and my cock in your pussy.”
She nodded, her fangs receding. Before she could pull them from his skin altogether, he dipped his hips, found her entrance and shoved home in one hard thrust.
She cried out, pleasure and sensual pain at being filled so hard so fast tearing through her. But she loved it. Loved the feeling of him inside her. Her back arched, and she forced her body to accept the sudden intrusion.
He didn’t give her time to process. Instead, he planted a hand on the wall either side of her head and pulled back only to push in hard again. And again. Each jackhammer thrust brought a cry of pleasure to her lips. The tension inside her drove higher until the two of them, the feel of skin against skin and his cock in her cunt, were all there was. Her entire world.
She strained against him, urging him to go harder. Faster. Needing something she sensed only he could give her. And only now. Sex as a human had been amazing, sometimes, but the way she was now…she could feel everything.
The climax hit out of nowhere. No run up. No warning. It ambushed her, and she screamed. She tumbled headlong into the overwhelming pleasure that tightened everything in her body in one perfect spasm of ecstasy. One that went on and on, propelled by each thrust of his hips. Then he stiffened, cock shoved deep to pulse his release, and he moaned his pleasure into the curve of her throat.
Then he bit her, the small nip from his blunt teeth tumbling her into a second orgasm, and she knew in that instant that she’d trade anything to stay in his arms forever.