“Yeah.”

Well, shit. Her experience with sex seemed so vanilla now. “I was fourteen.”

He slipped his hand down, trailed a finger over the skin of her hip that peeked through the blanket.

“That’s young for a human.”

“Yeah, well, I was a wild child. My mom was an addict and my grandparents were in a nursing home, so I was living in foster care with people who couldn’t control me. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, and I did it with my boyfriend after we got drunk at a party.” She slid a glance at him, but he didn’t judge, merely watched her curiously. “It kinda hurt. Was over in about three seconds. Earth didn’t move. So I wasn’t in a hurry to do it again. Right after that, my mom got clean and got custody of me, and I was so busy for two years that I sort of forgot about boys.”

“Then what?”

It went against her nature to talk about this stuff, but his touch soothed her, coaxed her, lulled her into a place that felt foreign . . . but somehow right. The way he touched her cut right through all her defenses and left marks on her that couldn’t be seen but were there nevertheless. Why he would waste his time with her, an enemy who had clawed her way out of the gutter only because Ky had rescued her from the life of a rodent, was beyond her, but for now, she wouldn’t question his motives.

“My mom was killed,” she said quietly. “I went to yet another foster home, and one night, my foster dad came into my room.” Eidolon’s hand that had been stroking her hip stilled, and a low-level rumble came from deep in his throat. “We fought. I took off. Later, he was found dead, and a warrant was issued for my arrest.”

“I’m glad you killed the bastard.”

“I didn’t. He was beat up, but alive when I left him. I think one of the other kids he molested killed him while he was incapacitated.” She shrugged, and his hand went back to stroking her.

“What did you do after that?”

“I lived on the streets. I did what I had to in order to survive. It wasn’t pretty.”

Silence stretched between them. Maybe she shouldn’t have told him the truth. Maybe he was disgusted. Yeah, a demon who once kept a sex slave, disgusted. Please.

His fingers closed around her ankle, and she found herself lying on the floor again, his heavy thigh pinning hers down, his chest covering hers. “Is that what you’re doing now?” he murmured, his warm, strong hand stroking her cheek. “Are you doing what you have to in order to survive? Are you f**king me because you need a roof over your head?”

Tay’s first instinct was to get angry. But she was suddenly too tired to fight anymore. Especially because he knew she wasn’t sleeping with him in order to have a place to stay or to get protection or money or whatever. He wanted her to admit that something had changed between them, that she’d wanted him, not what he could give her.

“Please don’t make me answer that.”

He drew her close, and for a moment she reveled in his embrace, something she doubted he gave often. It was certainly something she didn’t get often. Come to think of it, it was something she’d really never had. She couldn’t remember a single instance where even her mother had hugged her. It wasn’t that her mother hadn’t loved her, but there had always been a wall of guilt between them, one her mother had constructed out of the shame she’d felt for abandoning Tayla, a wall Tay hadn’t been able to topple no matter how hard she’d tried to bring her mom into the secret mother-daughter fantasy Tayla had dreamed of. The one where they were best friends. Where they could bake together and laugh at chick flicks while curled up on the couch on Saturday nights.

Yeah, her fantasies had been lame, but anything was better than the reality of cleaning up her mom’s puke and hiding her crack pipe from the cops.

Anxious to escape the memories as well as the man who was making her think about them, she pushed away from Eidolon . . . and froze as the floor lit up beneath them.

“What is that?” She sat up, found that they were inside a pentagram, outlined in blue lights.

Eidolon’s expression went stony, completely flat and emotionless. “Make yourself comfortable for a while. I’ve been summoned for punishment.”

“For what?”

“For killing a human.”

Seventeen

Eidolon had never liked vampires. Not after what they’d done to Wraith. Not after what they’d reportedly done to their father when Eidolon was just two years old.

The thread of prejudice had woven itself deep into the fabric of his soul, but his upbringing had given him enough of a sense of logic to realize that not every vampire was the same. He’d been fond of Nancy, some of his hardest-working staff members were vampires, and he’d enjoyed all of the female vamps he’d bedded.

But he would never feel anything but contempt for any member of the Vampire Council. Worms and cowards, all seventeen of them. He’d love to get even one of them under his scalpel.

Outside the hospital, of course.

They’d summoned him through his personal portal, as they always did, though they probably hadn’t expected him to respond so quickly. This was the first time he’d seen the summons when it came, and he’d taken only a few minutes to shower and don a robe. Tayla had asked questions, but he’d avoided them, telling her only to help herself to whatever she wanted in the kitchen and make herself comfortable.

Now he stood in the Vampire Council chambers, where they stared at him, their haughty asses planted in gilded, thronelike chairs arranged in a semicircle around the portal that had brought him here. Red and black tapers burned in copper candelabra, adding to the mystical and theatrical atmosphere. If there was one thing vamps loved, it was drama. Hollywood had invented the Gothic vampire melodrama, and the vamps had adopted it as fashion.

Eidolon really, really did not like vampires.

Come forward.

The mental compulsion came from the Key, a silver-haired vampire named Komir. Eidolon resisted the command, willed his feet to remain where they were. He was here to answer for a crime, but this wasn’t his species’ Council, and f**k if he was going to obey as if it were.

“My respect for your work only goes so far, incubus,” Komir said, and Eidolon smiled.

“My medical work, or my work on the females of your species?” It was something Wraith would have said, which seemed appropriate, given that Eidolon was here to pay for Wraith’s transgressions.

“Both,” a female to the right said, her voice an appreciative husky murmur he suspected would go even huskier just before cl**ax.

“Silence, Victoria,” Komir snapped, and then gestured to one of the two burly enforcers flanking Eidolon.

“Escort him to the platform.”

The platform that was stained with the blood of countless others, that would soon be stained with Eidolon’s. Again.

“Hold,” he said. “One of yours was recently taken by Ghouls. What do you know of them?”

Komir’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you care?”

“Because the victims end up in my hospital, dead or dying.”

Victoria sighed. “More vampires are killed by The Aegis every day than are taken by the black market operators in an entire year. We don’t care. Neither should you.”

Idiots. Shrugging off his robe, he strode na**d to the platform without the aid of the enforcer thugs. He cleared his mind as he mounted the stone steps and stood beneath the reinforced wooden structure from which chains dangled. Numbing himself out was the only way to deal with this and, probably, the only way to survive.

A massive warrior vamp, whose name Eidolon didn’t know, stood. “Your brother Wraith has taken more than his limit of humans this month. Are you here to receive his punishment?”

“I am.” Though he’d really like to know how they always knew when Wraith killed a human. Thousands of vampires existed in the world, and they couldn’t all be policed. Yet the Council seemed to keep a running tab of Wraith’s kills. Granted, Wraith took pleasure in flaunting them, but still . . .

“The incubus is ready.” Komir’s lip peeled back to reveal fangs as sharp as a 33 gauge hypodermic needle. “Let it begin.”

The twenty-four hours were up. More than up, and since Eidolon hadn’t called, Gem was taking matters into her own hands. She’d have done it sooner, despite her promise to the other doctor, but she’d been stuck at the hospital on a sixteen-hour shift.

Shift over, and she was going to confront Tayla, and she was going to do it now.

She took the stairs to Tayla’s apartment two at a time. As she topped the second-floor landing, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She crept to the apartment door, listened.

No noise from inside.

Still feeling the tingle of goosebumps crawling over her skin, she turned the doorknob. Unlocked. The door creaked open.

The rich, fresh odors of blood and death swirled around her, soaking into the walls and becoming another layer of scent in the ancient apartment, which had been ransacked. She entered, noted the boxes in the corner. No, not ransacked. Packed. Someone was moving Tayla’s things out.

A bloodstain marred the floor near the godawful orange couch. Humans wouldn’t see the soiled area, but it was there. Recent. It had been cleaned up within the last hour.

Where was Tayla?

Voices in the stairwell jammed her heart up into her esophagus.

“Shit, man, did you leave the door open?”

“Don’t think so.”

The unmistakable sound of metal blades clearing weapons’ housings echoed in the hallway.

Slayers.

A chill went through her, a bone-deep cold she hadn’t felt since she was a child and her parents had shared Aegis horror stories. The nightmares had plagued her into her teens, had come roaring back with a vengeance when she learned her own sister had become a slayer. A butcher.

A monster.

Gem shot to the bedroom, which was empty. No furnishings, no boxes.

Nowhere to hide.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s been here,” a deep voice said.

“Who would steal anything from this shithole?”

Laughter belonging to several people filled the tiny apartment.

“Let’s just get this done. We have demons to string up.”

A wail of terror welled in Gem’s throat. There were five of them, at least. She might feel comfortable going up against one, maybe two. But five trained killers? She was outnumbered, outgunned, and she definitely didn’t have a death wish.

Quiet as a were-rat, she slipped into the closet. The restraining tats circling her neck, wrists, and ankles burned, making themselves known. Inside, her inner demon was clawing to get out.

She prayed it didn’t get its wish.

Tayla put her time alone in Eidolon’s condo to good use. Mainly, she snooped, partly to learn more about him, and partly to keep from thinking about what had happened between them.

Because what had happened had shaken her to the core. She’d needed him. Wanted him. Had let her guard down and couldn’t get it to come back up. He’d exposed every single one of her vulnerabilities, and somehow, she had to find a way to mash them back into the place she’d been keeping them.

Shaking off the thoughts she’d been trying to avoid, she went back to snooping while Mickey followed her, chattering endlessly as he explored every nook and cranny.

Eidolon’s living room, decorated in masculine browns, greens, and leather, revealed nothing except that he had expensive tastes.

A search of the den turned up little more than what was on the surface—wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with medical titles and strangely bound texts, most of which she couldn’t read.

Her stomach growled before she made it to either of the bedrooms, so she detoured to the kitchen. The contents of the fridge were a surprise; not that she’d expected quarts of blood and Tupperware containers full of brains, but the fresh fruits and veggies, lunch meats, and soy milk didn’t match up to her expectations. Then again, mixed in with the ketchup, margarine, and jars of pickles were containers she didn’t recognize, marked in languages she didn’t know.

Probably the brains and blood.

She reached for a package of sliced ham, but a thumping noise drew her up short. She closed the fridge door, snagged a knife from the block on the counter, and slipped quietly into the hallway. Easing along the wall, she followed the sound of raspy breathing, her heart pounding painfully in her chest.

Knife ready, she stepped into the den. Eidolon was on his hands and knees just outside the circle, every inch covered in blood, his head hanging so she couldn’t see his face.

“Oh, Jesus.” She crossed to him in three strides and sank to her knees in front of him. “Hellboy?”

A shudder wracked his body. She wanted to comfort him with a touch, but where? Deep slashes scored the skin of his back, his arms, his legs . . . even the soles of his feet had been laid open like overplumped hot dogs. Bone and muscle erupted from the shredded flesh, and blood dripped to the floor in a gentle patter of grotesque rain.

“I’m taking you to your hospital.” Unsure exactly how she was going to accomplish that, she pushed to her feet because she had to do something.

“No.” His voice was low, gurgling, as if he’d been flogged on the inside as well as the out. “Call . . . Shade.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” she said, but when his only response was to shudder again, she ran to the foyer, where he’d left his cell phone on a shelf.

With trembling fingers, she cycled through his address book to Shade’s cell number, and dialed.

“What’s up, E?” Shade’s voice, deeper than Eidolon’s, echoed in her ear.

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