As a member of his clan's kill team, Liam McCathal helps rid the world of undesirables. It's the perfect job for a vampire of his talents--except that lately, Liam is getting a little too good at it. Which is why he's back home to "cool off," when Mai walks into his antique store and changes everything.
Liam's not in the habit of making friends--least of all with beautiful, exotic human females. But something about Mai ignites a spark he hasn't felt in over a century. When Mai's uncle is killed and her father threatened, Liam takes on a ruthless crime boss and puts every vampire in Clare Point in danger of discovery. But it seems more than one clan in Clare Point has its share of secrets. . .
"A nice formula of suspense, mystery and romance." --Romantic Times on Immortal
"A setting worth returning to." --Publishers Weekly
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By V. K. FORREST
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Colleen Faulkner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLiam smelled the perversity on their hands even before he flew over the wall into the courtyard of the palais in the Marais district of Paris. He knew what the Gaudet brothers were, what they had done, what they had gotten away with for two decades, but he had not expected such a stench.
Liam landed on the stone wall and gazed down into the courtyard, slowly flapping the wings of the raven he had become. Black, beady eyes focused on the iron bars in the windows he would have to slip through. Even among shape-shifters, Liam was an oddity. Not only could he shift from his human form to an animal form of his choice, but he could shift from one animal to another, as easily as a human shrugged off a coat.
Night after night, Liam relived the nightmare and it always began here: the stink of the Gaudet brothers' sins, the soft beat of his own wings, the reflection of pale moonlight on the old glass.
What happened next in the nightmare varied. Sometimes Liam felt his body rise and glide into the night air, wings spread. Sometimes he relived slipping easily through the bars in the window, a quiet gray mouse. But always the blood came. Always black and putrid, oozing from the stone walls. From their eyes. And the screams of the children. It was always the cries of the children that brought him out of a dead sleep.
Liam started, his eyes flying open as he gripped the thin sheet with stiff, cold fingers, his body bathed in perspiration. Darkness enveloped him; the sheet had become a death shroud and he threw it off. Had he screamed out loud again? Or was it just the screams of the tortured children in his head?
Trembling, he pushed up and off the narrow cot and stumbled, nude, to the bathroom. With a shaky hand, he pulled the string on the light overhead and the single, bare bulb threw pale, ugly light on the mirror. He leaned forward on the stained porcelain sink and gazed at his face: the face of a killer.
Yesterday at the local diner while he'd stood in line for his tuna on wheat, no pickle, he'd heard one of the old bats talking about him. They gossiped as if he wasn't there, standing behind them at the cash register. She said he'd been sent home to Clare Point in shame. She said that she'd heard the General Council was going to pull him off the Kill Team for good this time.
A cooling-off period. That's what he'd been told it was when they'd come for him in the dingy walk-up in Montmartre. Then they'd had the nerve to escort him all the way home to Clare Point, as if he would have disobeyed orders and gone into hiding if they hadn't. Which, of course, he would have.
Liam brushed his fingertips over the crucifix he wore around his neck, then spun the antique faucet handle and splashed cold water on his face. Then he washed his hands. As if he could ever wash the blood off....
He had disobeyed a direct order the night he had flown into the Gaudet courtyard. He'd broken multiple rules in the ancient book.
... Even before he had broken their bones.
Liam shut off the faucet and ran his hand through his dark hair, glancing into the mirror again. Black, heartless eyes looked back at him, the raven's eyes. He turned away. What if they really did pull him off the Kill Team? A hundred years, the penalty for his disobedience if it came down to punishment, was a hell of a long cooling-off period. What would he do then? He couldn't imagine living here in this silly little town with its silly little problems. Not after lifetimes of travel. Not after the things he had seen. The things he had done. He had the highest kill count of any man or woman in the sept; he was good at what he did and they knew it. The Council wouldn't really pull him off the Kill Team, would they?
The sweat on his body had dried and suddenly he was cold. Shivering, he went back to the small, bare room, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a hoodie, then slipped on his running shoes. Just as the sun rose over the lip of the ocean, he burst into the cold morning air and ran, ran for his life, for his salvation. It never worked, of course, but you couldn't blame a vampire for trying.
After a five-mile run along the beach, Liam showered, ate a piece of cold pizza from a box on the counter, and went down to the antiques shop below his apartment. He'd been a purveyor of antiquities for more than two hundred years, although nowadays he was an antiques dealer. When he wasn't stalking serial killers and pedophiles. It was easy enough work, a good cover when he was forced to return home, and it allowed him to pay his bills and travel at his own expense rather than the sept's.
Liam bought things all over the world—some new, some already antiques—and shipped them home. He acquired items that struck his fancy: clocks, paintings, sculptures. He'd bought three Model T trucks in 1925 for $281 each. He had sold the last one only the previous year for so much money that he was almost too embarrassed to accept the cashier's check. Almost.
He sold the items out of the little antiques shop when he was in town; otherwise, he advertised them and had someone in Clare Point make the actual sale. Internet sales were his latest venture. It had been three years since the last time Liam had been home, but he continually sent items back to the States so the place was stacked tall with shipping boxes, most never opened.
When Liam had returned to the loving bosom of the vampire nest, he'd been warned by the General Council leader that he'd be in Clare Point for at least a few weeks. He was to be interviewed and his case investigated. While imprisoned in the sleepy seaside town, he thought he might as well make use of his time and dig through some of the mess. He had a warehouse, too, but right now, he couldn't imagine even walking into it.
Thinking he'd start small, this morning he'd just picked a pile of boxes and begun to open them. They were pretty old boxes. Inside, he found all sorts of kitchen gadgets, which he organized on shelves along one wall of the shop. It was dusty, boring work, but he didn't mind; he liked the solitude. His reward for his diligence throughout the morning was the box he'd just opened. Inside was a brand, spanking new 1936 KitchenAid stand-up mixer. Still in its original packing. If memory served, he had three more somewhere.
Pleased with his find, Liam was searching for an electric outlet behind the impossibly piled-up counter when he heard the little bell over the front door ring. Surprised by the melodic sound, he turned. He must have left it unlocked when he returned from his run this morning. "We're closed," he called. "Read the sign."
"Sign says open." A gorgeous Asian woman turned the dusty sign around so that it now read OPEN on the back of the door.
Liam frowned. It must have flipped when he slammed the door. "I'm still closed," he told her, trying not to stare.
Liam didn't like HFs. Human females. Well, actually, he liked them a lot. Which was exactly why he stayed away from them. This one was stunning: late twenties, early thirties, tiny, with long, dark hair, brown eyes, and a rich skin tone. Her face was oval with sensual lips. Cherry ChapStick. He could smell it from here. He loved the taste of cherry ChapStick on a woman. She looked delicate. Fragile. But there was a fire in her eyes, fire and a definite hint of amusement.
"You know, I've been coming here for the last five years hoping to catch you open."
"Too bad you caught me closed again," Liam deadpanned. He stood where he was, not trusting himself to walk toward her. If he did, he might reach out to touch the silky black hair that had pulled loose from her ponytail and fell to frame her exquisite face. There was an equal chance he'd bite her in the neck. Then he'd have to erase her memory, deposit her on the curb, and hope no one saw him. He was already in enough trouble as it was. They were a messy business, humans, which was, again, why he stayed away from them.
"That a '36 KitchenAid? Wow." She walked toward him with little or no sense of self-preservation. Of course, she didn't know he was a vampire; they rarely did. "Brand new? You've got to be kidding me. You know, this was the first year they downsized them, making them practical for homes." She drew her small fingers over the white enamel and Liam found himself wondering what it would be like to feel her fingertips caress his bare skin.
She was pretending to look at the mixer, but he knew she was looking at him. He had that effect on women. All vampires did, on some level, even the old guys and gals. There was something about vampires that tragically drew humans to them, even though they never recognized them for what they were. Vampires accepted this age-old truth but never quite understood it.
He blinked, clearing his head. "You an expert on the history of the KitchenAid mixer?"
"Not an expert. But I love kitchen appliances. Kitchen gadgets, too: glass fruit reamers, oyster servers, ice cream knives. I sell antiques in a shop in Lewes." She looked at the electric plug he still held in his hand. "So, does it work?"
"I ... I don't know."
"You going to plug it in and see?"
He was just about to give a smart-ass reply when a car horn beeped loudly out in the street. Through the filmy storefront window, he spotted a minivan. It honked again. Louder.
"That's me." She glanced at the window, then back at him. "Actually, it's not me. It's my dad. We're late for lunch."
"Senior citizen. What can I say?"
She opened her arms and he imagined the feel of them around him. He didn't know what was going on here. He wasn't usually like this. He was never like this. Not with an HF. But she kept looking at him and he couldn't keep himself from looking back.
Again the horn.
"I better go," she said.
He hesitated, then pushed the plug into the outlet and switched the mixer on. The motor purred.
She turned back to him, smiling. Her face lit up the room in a way that made his black heart ache.
"It works," he said, stifling his own enthusiasm. There was no need to be too nice. Nice got you in trouble.
She glanced around as she walked toward the door. "You sure you're closed? You have some amazing things here. Oh, my God! Is that a Neuchâtel clock Le Castel?"
"Where?" He followed her to the door, trying not to get too close to her. It was the smell of HFs that he loved. Not just their blood, but their skin, their hair, their sweet body scents; it was everything about them. The smell of their shampoo, their hand cream, even nail polish. Liam knew right then he should walk away. Play it safe. He wasn't good at safe.
"There!" She pointed to a pile of junk. "Inside that nasty birdcage."
He glanced in the direction she pointed. The place was so stacked up with crap, furniture covered in canvas drapes, wooden crates of mysterious stuff from far-off places, and cardboard boxes turned over, spilling their contents, that it took him a second to make out the outline of the clock behind the bars of a birdcage. "I think so."
"You think so?" She arched a dark eyebrow. "You know how much that's worth? You don't even have bars on your windows." She glanced at the dirty, old-fashioned storefront window. "No alarm system. You're lucky no one has robbed you blind."
"We don't see a lot of robberies in Clare Point." He opened the door for her and the bell rang over their heads, strangely melodic to his ears. The truth was, they had no robberies. The vampires of the Kahill sept owned all the property in the town and patrolled their own streets. The occasional burglar who tried to break into a house or store was escorted out of town by one of its citizens, and though his memory was erased, he never lost the feeling that something had scared the crap out of him in Clare Point. Scared him badly enough that he didn't return.
"I wish you were open," the woman said longingly, looking back over her shoulder one last time at the piles of treasures.
The old man in the front passenger seat of the van laid on the horn again.
"Enough, Babbo!" she shouted.
"You're Italian?" It was his turn to lift an eyebrow incredulously. She didn't look Italian.
"Sicilian and Vietnamese. I look like my mom. You speak Italian?"
"A little," Liam answered.
Again the old man blew the car horn. And against all reason, Liam found himself being drawn in to their sweet, mortal humanity and actually chuckling. Even more surprising, he heard himself say, "Maybe another day. When things aren't such a mess. I just got back into the country."
"I don't mind coming another time. When you're open." She studied his face. "But you're not planning on opening, are you? You're just blowing me off."
"No. I'm not." And he meant it.
"So how about if I give you a few days and then I call you? You got a business card?"
"Somewhere in this mess, probably." He looked around, then back at her.
"How about just a number?" She pulled a pen out of the bag slung over her shoulder and dug deeper. "Why can I never find a piece of—"
Her father hit the horn, long and hard, drowning out her voice. "I'm going to kill him," she said when Liam could hear her again. "But I guess that's illegal in this state."
"Most states," he suggested.
She poised the pen over her hand. "Give me your number and I'll get that public nuisance off the street."
He gave her his cell number, already having second thoughts. But then he realized there was no harm in giving her the number. He didn't answer his phone half the time anyway.
"Thanks." She started to back out the door, then took a step toward him, offering her hand. "I never introduced myself. I'm Mai, Mai Ricci. My dad is Corrato. The old coot in the backseat"—she leaned so she could get a better look at the van—"that's his older brother, Donato."
Liam held her hand a second longer than he should have. Her handshake was firm, her touch warm. This close, he could smell the fragrance of her shampoo and he found himself breathing deeply. "Liam McCathal," he said.
"Nice to meet you, Liam." She pulled her hand from his and raised the other, showing him the number written in black marker. "I'll call. Maybe we can do some business. I'd at least like to have a look at that clock."
Liam closed the door behind her, making sure he locked it this time. I'll never see her again, he thought to himself. Just as well. She didn't smell just of herbal shampoo; she smelled of danger.
"So exactly what is the purpose of this stakeout?" Katy stirred her mug with a spoon until it was a whirlpool of creamy white marshmallow and chocolate.
Kaleigh glanced out the window of the coffee shop that was situated diagonally across the street from Alice's Antiques. The lights were out. The sign on the door said CLOSED but she knew Liam was in there. She could feel his presence. She looked back at her best friend and sipped her iced tea. It was early October; it would be cold soon enough. She wasn't ready to switch to wintertime drinks. "It's not a stakeout."
"Feels like a stakeout."
Kaleigh's gaze drifted to the storefront window again. She hadn't seen Liam since she'd been reborn. This was always awkward, seeing people again through this young girl's eyes.
"You know, I heard he had to come home because he ate some bad guys."
Kaleigh cut her eyes at Katy. "Ate them?"
"You know, cannibalized them. Killed them, put them on a spit, and roasted their juiciest parts. Then he ate them."
"You need to stop listening to the gossip gaggle at the diner, Katy. Your brain is turning into rice pudding."
"I'm just saying, that's what they said."
"That's gross. Liam did not eat anyone. Can you imagine how nasty a serial killer would taste?"
Katy made a face and sipped her hot chocolate. "It does sound kind of disgusting. Even for Liam. The weirdo. He's way too dark and gloomy for me." She licked her finger, wiped it on the empty plate to catch any stray cookie crumbs, and popped it in her mouth. "Oh, I brought the book for you."
"I told you, I'm not going to read it. It's stupid."
"It's not stupid." Katy dug into the backpack at her feet and pulled out a hardcover book. "It's the best series that's ever been written." She slid it across the table. "You're the only person I know who hasn't read it, or seen the movies."
Excerpted from Ravenous by V. K. FORREST Copyright © 2011 by Colleen Faulkner. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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