“Isn’t it great?”
Rafael Santiago wasn’t a religious man in any sense of the word, but as he read the short story Jeff Brinks had published in the SF magazine in his hands, he felt a deep need to cross himself…
Or at the very least club the college student over the head until he lost all consciousness.
Keeping his expression carefully blank, he slowly closed the magazine and met his Squire’s eager look. At twenty-three Jeff was tall and lean with dark brown hair and brown eyes. He’d only been a Squire to Rafael for the last two years since Jeff’s father had retired. An eager young man, he’d been good enough at remembering to pay bills on time, run Rafael’s business and help to protect his immortal status from the unknowing humans. But the one thing Jeff had wanted more than anything else was to publish one of the stories he was always scribbling on.
Now he had…
Rafael tried to remember a time when he’d had dreams of grandeur too. A time when he’d been human and had wanted to leave his mark on the world. And just like him, Jeff’s dreams were about to get him killed. “Have you shown this to anyone else?”
Damn, but the boy reminded him of a cocker spaniel puppy wanting someone to pet his head even though he’d just unknowingly pissed all over his owner’s rug and best shoes. “Not yet, why?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, stretching the words out and trying to mitigate some of the sarcasm in his tone. “I’m thinking the Night-Searcher series you’re starting might be a really bad idea.”
Jeff’s face fell instantly. “You didn’t like the story?”
“Not a question of liking it really. More a question of getting your ass kicked.”
Jeff furrowed his brow and by the baffled look it was obvious the boy had no idea what he was talking about. “How do you mean?”
This time there was no way to keep the venom out of his voice. “I know they say to write what you know, but damn, Jeff… Ralph St. James? Night-Searchers? You’ve written the whole Dark-Hunter legend and I really resent your making me a Taye Diggs clone. Nothing against the man, but other than the occasional bald head and a diamond stud in the left ear, we have nothing in common.”
Jeff took the magazine from his hands and flipped to his story before he skimmed a few lines. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Rafael. This isn’t about you or the Dark-Hunters.”
Uh-huh. Rafael looked back at the story again and even with it upside down his eyes fell straight to the scene. “What about this where the Taye Diggs lookalike Dark-Hunter is confronting a Daimon who’s just stolen a human soul to elongate his life?”
Jeff made a sound of disgust. “That’s a Night-Searcher who found a vampire to kill. It has nothing to do with the Dark-Hunters.”
Yeah, right. “Vampire who just happens to steal human souls to elongate his life as opposed to the normal Hollywood variety where they live forever on blood?”
He squirmed a bit. “Well, that’s just cliche and I wanted to do something different. It’s so much better to have vampires who have really short lives and then are compelled against their wills and by a hatred, fired by envy, that causes them to lash out at the human race. Makes it so much more interesting, don’t you think?”
Not really. Especially since he was one of the people caught up in that battle. “That is also the reality we live in, Jeff. What you just described is a Daimon not a vampire.”
“Well maybe I borrowed from the Daimons a little, but the rest is all mine.”
Rafael flipped to the next page. “Uh-huh. What about this part here where they sell their souls to the Norse goddess Freya, who is a vibrant red-headed femme fatale dressed all in white, to get revenge on whoever caused them to die?”
Jeff squirmed a bit more. “That’s not Artemis, that’s Freya.”
Rafael shook his head. “For the record, unlike Artemis, Freya happens to be a strawberry blond. But you were right about one thing. She is gorgeous and highly seductive. Definitely hard to say no to her.”
“Oh.” Deepening his scowl, Jeff looked up. “How do you know all that?”
Rafael grew quiet as he remembered the night he’d met the Norse goddess and she had tempted him well. That had definitely been one hell of a day… “Freya’s the goddess who hand selects warriors for Valhalla. Or in the case of myself, she wanted to take me off with her to her own hall and add me to her harem.”
“And you chose to fight for Artemis instead, what kind of stupid are you?”
“Yeah, well, in retrospect it was a bad bargain on my part. But at the time Artemis was offering me vengeance on my enemies it seemed so much more appealing than being Freya’s love slave… which gets back to Freya being Artemis in your story.”
“But you just said she’s not Artemis and she comes after warriors too. So it could happen. She could make a bargain like the one I wrote.”
And icicles could grow on the sun. Freya collected warriors, she didn’t send them back to the mortal plane to fight Daimons/vampires. Artemis did that. But not willing to argue the point anymore when it was obvious Jeff didn’t see it, he moved on to the next similarity. “And what about this? Jesus, boy, couldn’t you come up with something better than a bodily function to name me, was a Carribean pirate, son of an Ethiopian slave and Brazilian merchant…” He glanced down to read the description. “At six six, Ralph was one to intimidate anyone who saw him. With his shaved head that was tattooed with African tribal symbols given to him by a Shaman he’d met in his travels, he walked the earth as if he owned it. But more than that, the black tattoos blended at times with this dark brown skin, making the two of them seem indistinguishable from each other as if he bore some kind of alien skin.”
Unable to read another word of the description that was so eerily close to himself that it made him want to choke his Squire, Rafael let out a disgusted breath. “While I’m both flattered and highly offended, I can assure you, this won’t win you a Hugo or Nebula nomination.”
Jeff pulled the magazine out of his hands again in a highhanded manner. “I resent that. I think it’s a great story. And you don’t exactly have those tattoos either, now do you?”
Rafael’s right eye started twitching from the aggravation. “I have intricate scroll work tattooed up my neck to the base of my skull and like Ralph-” he growled the word. “I have them on both arms. They’re close enough to what you describe. No matter how you disguise this trite bullshit, it’s my life, Jeff. Penned in an awkward manner. It’s things I didn’t want to see in black and white print. You’re lucky after three hundred years that I’ve mellowed. In my human days, I’d have slit your throat, pulled your tongue through the opening and left you tied to a tree for the wolves to eat.”
“Yes,” he said, taking a step toward the overgrown adolescent, “and effective. Trust me, no one betrayed me twice.”
“What about the guy who killed you?”
Rafael’s eyes flared as he fought his urge to kill the boy. It was a damn good thing that he liked Jeff’s father and the man had served him well for over twenty years. Otherwise Jeff would be meeting with an “accident” right about… oh, now.
Taking a deep breath, he asked in a tone that belied his anger. “I only have one more question. What’s the circulation on this rag?”
Jeff shrugged. “I don’t know. About 150,000 worldwide, I think.”
“You are so dead.”
“Oh come on,” Jeff said, dismissing the very real danger he was facing. “You’re overreacting. No one else will ever mistake this for the Dark-Hunters. No one.”
Those words had no sooner left his mouth than Rafael’s cell phone started ringing. He checked the ID to see Ephani. An ancient Amazon who’d crossed over almost three thousand years ago, she was definitely an acquired taste. But even so, he liked her a great deal. Pulling the phone off his belt, he answered it.
“What’s up, Amazon?” he asked, stepping away from Jeff while his Squire continued to admire his story in the magazine.
“Hey Rafe. I-um… I’m not sure how to break this to you, but do you know what your Squire’s been up to lately?”
Deciding to play it cool, he cut a glare at Jeff. “Writing the great American novel, what else?”
“Uh-huh. Have you ever read one of these novels he’s been working on?”
“Not until today, why?”
She let out a long sigh. “I’m assuming you have a copy of the Escape Velocity magazine with his story in it, right?”
“Good then it won’t come as a shock to you to know that my Squire just left and she’s heading over to your house to have a talk with Jeff. If I were you-”
“Say no more. He’s leaving the country even as we speak. Thanks for the call, Eph.”
“No problem, amigo.”
Hanging up the phone, he narrowed his eyes on Jeff. “That was Ephani warning me that you’re about twenty minutes from dying.”
Jeff’s face turned stone white. “What?”
He nodded. “Her Squire, Celena, Ms. Blood Rite, I-kill- anything-that-breaks-formation, is on her way over here to have a word with you. Since Celena isn’t real big on conversation, I’m taking that as a euphemism for her kicking your ass.”
Rafael paused as those words conjured one hell of an image in his mindÃ¢â‚¬â€œ Celena kicking his ass in that pair of stiletto corset boots she often wore while wearing nothing but a thong… Yeah… that was something he definitely wouldn’t mind.
A native of Trinidad, Celena had the most perfect mocha complexion he’d ever seen. It was so smooth and inviting that it begged a man to taste it.
And her lips…
Angelina Jolie had nothing on her. She moved slow and seductive like a cat and he’d spent more than his fair share of time wanting her to rub that lean, curvy body of hers up against his.
But unfortunately, she was a Squire and he was a Dark-Hunter. By the rules of their world, she was off limits to him and though Rafael didn’t give two shits about most rules, Celena lived for them.
It was a crime against nature in his opinion.
“What do I do?” Jeff asked.
“Well not to insult a man who looks like a rocket scientist in comparison to you but- Run, Forrest, run.”
If it wasn’t for the fact that as a Dark-Hunter Rafael was impervious to illness, he’d swear a migraine was starting right behind his left eye. “Get to the basement and hide there. Don’t make a peep and don’t leave until I tell you it’s safe.”
Jeff nodded before he ran for the door. Two seconds later he was back. Rafael watched him with a frown as he searched around the room until he located the baseball bat he’d used yesterday at the batting cages. He picked it up and cradled it to his chest before he headed back toward the basement.
“What are you doing?”
Yeah, right. Celena was highly trained and deadly. A whack with the bat would only piss her off an instant before she jerked it out of Jeff’s hands and beat him with it, but far be it from him to tell Gomer that.
“Hide well,” he said, exaggerating his voice.
Jeff nodded again before he dashed down to where Rafael’s bedroom and living area was.
Pressing the heel of his hand against his brow where the imagined pain seemed to be located, Rafael glanced around the parlor of his Victorian house to make sure that Jeff hadn’t left anything like his underwear laying about. The boy was a good Squire in that he kept up the appearance that someone lived in the house who actually aged, but he seriously sucked when it came to general housekeeping.
At least for once the place was decent. Except for the Xbox that Jeff had left stretched from the plasma TV to the leather sofa. Turning it off, he’d just put the game away when he heard a fierce knock on his front door.
Rafael straightened his shirt before he sauntered over to answer it. He could already see Celena’s curvy outline though the frosting on the glass. The porch light highlighted her medium brown hair that she wore pulled back from her face to trail in a ponytail of small braids from the crown of her head.
Her lips were perfect and outlined in dark red glossy lipstick. She had catlike almond-shaped eyes and an attractive mole right above the left arch of those lips.
Damn, she was the finest looking woman he’d ever seen. Opening the door, he gave her the sexiest smile he could. “Hi Celena.”
But she was all business. Her dark brown eyes didn’t even glance his way. They went straight past him, into the house.
That finally succeeded in getting her to look at him, but then she quickly glanced away and continued to search the house with her gaze. “What do you mean, you don’t know? After dark, a Dark-Hunter is always supposed to know the whereabouts of his or her Squire.”
“Ah, c’mon,” he teased. “You don’t really tell Ephani every place you go after dark, do you?”
“Of course I do.”
She tried to step past him, but he quickly blocked her way and kept her outside on the porch.
“So what do you want with Jeff?” he asked in a nonchalant tone.
“That’s Squire’s business.”
“Really? I thought anything that concerned a Hunter’s Squire also concerned the Hunter since he’s my partner in a purely platonic sense.”
The edges of her lips twitched as if she found something funny about his words.
He couldn’t explain it, but he really wanted to see a full blown smile from this woman. “What?”
One corner of her mouth lifted into an attractive grin, but it still wasn’t the smile he wanted to see from her. The kind that would light up her eyes and make her laugh. “I was just thinking about Rum, Sodomy and the LashÃ¢â‚¬â€œ the pirate’s credo.”
He laughed at that even though he should have been offended. “Jeff has too much hair for my taste. I much prefer a woman’s smooth skin… the softness of a female body. I never was one to cuddle a porcupine.”
Celena swallowed at the seductive tone in Rafael’s deep voice. The sound of it had always reminded her of James Earl Jones, except Rafael’s was marked by a heavy Brazilian accent. One that sent a chill down her spine.
She knew she had no business even looking at him with anything remotely similar to lust, and yet the man set her hormones on fire. Especially that wicked scent of masculine power tinged with Brut aftershave. It was a deadly combination.
Not to mention the fact that he was wearing a tight black v-neck sweater that only emphasized how perfectly formed he was. It clung to every dip and bulge of every muscle on his body. How was a woman supposed to keep her mind straight when a man like this was in front of her?
Clearing her throat, she forced her thoughts back to business. “Where is he?”
A devilish glint taunted her from the midnight depths of his eyes. “Tell me what you want with him and I might tell you where he is.”
Narrowing her gaze at him, she found it difficult to maintain her outraged anger while he looked at her with that playful air. And that seriously annoyed her. “I’m here to take him into custody and deliver him to the Council.”
“Well that sucks.” Even though his tone was sincere, she could tell he was mocking the Council and their orders. “Bank robbery, handing out the passwords for the Dark-Hunter site, car jacking, mugging, cats mixing with dogs, and now this… writing a short story. High crimes all. You get the rope and we’ll hang him for it. God forbid the whole twelve subscribers of that magazine should actually read a fictional story and think it real.”
She glared at him. How dare he make light of this. “It has a substantial readership.”
“And Jeff used a pseudonym for not only us, but himself as well. It’s nothing.”
“Nothing?” She was aghast at his light tone. How could he write this off as if it were nothing more than a simple hang nail that bothered them? “He’s exposed us.”
“No, Talon getting filmed in the middle of a hissy-fit in New Orleans exposed us. Zarek getting caught on tape exposed us. This is minor. I mean, damn, Acheron was able to cover up all the others with little incidence. This too shall pass.”
Not bloody likely. “This is entirely different.”
“I agree. Jeff is mortal and only has a handful of years left to him whereas Talon and Zarek have an eternity to continue being stupid. Let’s not shorten the kid’s life anymore than we have to, shall we?”
He did have a point, but she hated to admit that. Besides, that didn’t matter. She was here to do her job. Rafael didn’t control her. She was a representative of the Council. “What happens to him isn’t my decision. It’s the Council’s. I’m merely here to collect him.”
“He’s just a kid.”
“He’s only two years younger than I am and he’s certainly old enough to know to keep his mouth shut.”
“Haven’t you ever done something you knew you shouldn’t and then regretted it?”
She didn’t hesitate with her answer. “No.”
“No?” he asked incredulously. “You’ve never once broken a rule, lied or got away with anything?”
“Only once in junior high when my sister came home late because I didn’t want to get her into trouble. Then one week later, she did it again and was injured in a car wreck which taught me the value of lying to help someone. Since then I’ve never told another one. I have integrity.”
“Wow. You have one boring life.”
“I resent that!”
Those dark eyes teased and tormented her with a mixture of amusement and pity. “Resent all you want, but it’s true. How have you managed to live such a perfect life?”
And that she resented even more. “It’s not perfect. It has moment’s of…” she paused as she realized what she’d almost let slip. There were times when she really hated how uptight she was. But every time she’d ever tried to do something that was even remotely fun or even the least bit dishonest, she’d paid for it in the worst sort of way.
Like the time in high school when her sister had talked her into skipping school. They’d no more than driven down the street than her sister had plowed into the side of a Mercedes. Or the one time she’d cut a man off in traffic only to get a flat tire immediately.
She had bad karma which kept her perpetually toeing the line. If she’d been Jeff, the moment they published that story she’d have probably died of ink poisoning or something equally as bizarre.
But this wasn’t about her. It was about a man who’d broken his Squire’s oath and he needed to be reprimanded.
Rafael tilted his head as he waited for her to finish her sentence. She was thinking of something and from the darkness of her eyes and the furrow of her brow he could tell it was painful for her. “Of?”
Her expression turned blank. “Nothing.”
Rafael gave her his best smile as he considered a way to save Jeff and to get him the one thing he wanted most… more time with a woman who tempted him.
“C’mon, Celena. Learn to live a little.”
“I have rules to follow and a job to do. Surely even you can appreciate that.”
“But don’t you want to break free and have some fun just once in your life?”
She didn’t answer, but by the look on her face he could tell that he was getting to her. Weakening her.
“Look,” he said, trying to weaken her even more, “let’s make a deal. Give me a week and if I can’t get you to break one single Squire’s rule, I’ll hand Jeff over and let you hang him… hell, I’ll even buy the rope. But, if I do get you to break a rule… one teensy little rule, you’ll let him go.”
She shook her head. “It’ll never work. The Council won’t wait a week.”
“Sure they will. Tell them you can’t find him and that you’re looking for him.”
Her face hardened. “I can’t do that. It’s a lie.”
She was a tough one. He’d never met anyone with so much resolve to do the right thing before. But then again, he’d been a pirate in his mortal life and high moral fiber wasn’t exactly something they had a plethora of. In fact, those possessed of that madness usually found themselves killed off fairly quickly.
It was part of what he found so fascinating about her. How could someone live their life like that? He didn’t understand it and a strange part of himself wanted to.
It was the same part of himself that wanted to know more about this woman other than the fact that she looked edible in those black jeans and crop top, and that she worked for Ephani.
“You know,” he said playfully, “it’s not a lie. You really don’t know where he is and I can make sure that he runs from you for eternity.”
She let out a tired breath as if she were suddenly tired of fighting him. “Why are you doing this?”
For once, Rafael was honest. “Because as stupid as he is, Jeff is a friend of mine and I’m not going to hang him out to dry.”
Celena had to admire that. Many Dark-Hunters could care less what happened to their Squires.
“C’mon, Celena.” He gave her a wink. “It’s the only shot you have at getting him.”
“And if I don’t break a rule in a week’s time?”
“I’ll hand him over.”
She cocked her head as she considered that. Rafael wasn’t exactly known for keeping his word. “You swear?”
She hissed at him. “That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
For the first time, he handsome face turned completely serious. “On my word as a Pirate who died defending his crew, absolutely.”
He said it with such conviction that she found herself actually believing it. Besides, he was right. If he wanted to hide Jeff, there wasn’t much they could do to reclaim him. And knowing the two of them, they’d probably rub all their noses in it too.
“Okay. I’m going to trust you. In seven days, I’ll be back to collect him. Have him here and waiting.”
She turned to leave only to find his hand on her arm, pulling her to a stop.
“Whoa, wait a sec, love. You don’t think it’s that easy, do you?”
“How do you mean?”
That devilish gleam returned to his midnight eyes. “There can be no faith without doubt. No strength without temptation. In order for this bargain to stand, you have to be here so that I can oversee your behavior myself.”
She stiffened at his implication. “My word is gold.”
“And usually mine is pyrite. At the moment, though, to see this through, I want you here to serve me. It’s only fair anyway since you’re the reason I’m being deprived of Jeff’s service, such as it is.”
“Then who will look after Ephani?”
“Call in a substitute. That’s what you would’ve had to do to find him anyway, right?”
Celena was beginning to hate this man. “You can’t be serious.”
“Quite. Now is it a deal, or not? Think quickly before I change the terms again.”
And he probably would too just to annoy her. “Fine, it’s a deal.” And yet even as she said those words, she had the sneaking suspicion that she’d just signed her soul away to the devil.