Tia Quinn peered over Bailey Brown’s shoulder, glaring at the computer screen. “Are you finding anything?”
“It’s what I’m not finding that’s interesting.” Bailey’s fingers jabbed at the keyboard with machine-gun bursts. “Someone’s working pretty hard to cover their tracks.” The desk chair creaked as she shifted her meager weight. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
“No.” The comment someone had posted to In Like Quinn, her humble contribution to independent investigative journalism, had alarmed her so much that she’d immediately called her friend, Underworld Council member Scarlett Fontaine, for advice. Two hours later, Bailey Brown, one of the world’s foremost cyber-security experts, had knocked on her front door. “I’m not imagining things, am I?” Despite moving from Minneapolis to bucolic, sleepy Stillwater a couple of months ago, she still felt a perpetual itch between her shoulder blades.
“‘Sebastiani Labs’ so-called board of directors must be called to account for their illegal acts, and for abandoning the old ways,’” Bailey read aloud. “‘If you don’t expose them, I will.’” She tapped her finger against the screen. “The comment was posted in ILQ’s financial news section, which makes it look vaguely on-topic, but…”
Their gazes locked. Sebastiani Labs was a privately held, wildly successful technology behemoth that had its fingers in many, many pies. The company didn’t trade stock, didn’t seek contracts, didn’t advertise its wares, and…its board of directors secretly doubled as the governing body of Earth’s non-human species.
“Should we delete the comment?” she asked. Tia had strong feelings about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but the fact that humanity had shared Earth with extra-planetary beings for thousands of years was a closely guarded secret—a secret humanity was nowhere near ready to learn.
“Deleting it might start an online shit-storm and draw even more attention,” Bailey said. “This isn’t your garden-variety troll harassing a woman for having an opinion on the Internet. Let’s call Lukas.”
Tia glanced at the clock. Scarlett was nearing the end of a perfectly normal pregnancy, but her bondmate, Lukas Sebastiani, was a wreck. Right now, they both needed all the sleep they could get. “This can wait until morning.”
Bailey shook her head. “He’ll be pissed if we don’t call.” She plucked an unusual-looking phone from the side pocket of the heavy computer bag she’d brought with her—one of the whispered-about, super-secure Sebastiani Labs prototypes?—and pressed a button. Being Bailey worked for Lukas at Sebastiani Security, and did some consulting for both Sebastiani Labs and the Underworld Council, it was probably safe to take her word for it, but…
“Hey, Lukas. I’m at Tia Quinn’s place.” There was a long pause while Bailey listened to Lukas’s reply.
He was probably grilling Bailey about why she was at Tia’s house in the first place. Lukas had serious reservations about Scarlett’s friendship with an investigative journalist, someone whose very occupation required that she expose information the powerful would prefer stay hidden. But damn it, Lukas should know by now that she’d never publish anything that would put their culture’s most precious secrets at risk.
“Someone posted a comment at In Like Quinn earlier today that feels a little off.” Bailey listened again, and then read the comment aloud. “Yeah, Tia saw it and called me.” Bailey neglected to mention that Scarlett had served as the middleman. “I haven’t been able to track the comment back yet—I don’t have the right tools with me—but once I get back to the office, I can… Oh, you’re at Valerian’s? You’re practically down the street.”
Bailey planned on driving back to Sebastiani Security yet tonight? Talk about working vampire’s hours. Didn’t the little human ever sleep? And speaking of not sleeping, why was Lukas Sebastiani, the Underworld Council’s Security and Technology First, meeting with Valerian, the elderly Vampire First, after midnight on a weeknight?
Bailey covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand. “Lukas wants us to meet him at Valerian’s place.”
She nodded her agreement, trying to hide her excitement. Valerian lived less than fifteen miles away, in an old mansion perched high upon the rocky ledges of the St. Croix River. He’d been fighting illness for nearly a year, and very little information had been released about the true state of his health. She’d tried to squeeze some information out of his Second, Wyland, at Rafe Sebastiani’s gallery show last winter, but the chilly, tight-assed vamp had shut her down cold.
“Let me close things down here,” Bailey said to Lukas, already capturing screen shots. “We’ll see you soon.” The exquisite fire opal ring Rafe had given Bailey flashed in the light as she ended the call. Bailey and Rafe had just returned from an extended honeymoon. No way would Tia have thought that driving a tricked-out RV from Minneapolis to Alaska, then camping out for a couple of months, would have interested either of them. But then again, being newbonds, they probably hadn’t left the RV very often.
“Ready?” Stuffing away the last of her equipment, Bailey zipped up her computer bag.
“Yeah. I’ll follow in my car.” They walked to the front door. As Tia grabbed her purse and keys, the house’s ancient air conditioner gave a mighty wheeze. The thing was on its last legs—one more thing to replace in this money pit she’d bought in haste, but had come to love.
They stepped outside. “Damn, it’s hot.” Bailey swiped at her temple with the inside of her wrist.
Tia surreptitiously scanned her surroundings. She didn’t see anyone, but…
She pasted a smile on her face. “You and Rafe came home to one of the hottest Augusts on record.” The sun had set hours ago, but it was still a muggy and miserable eighty degrees outside.
Bailey pointed a key fob at Rafe’s Jeep. Headlights flashed and the doors unlocked with a ka-thunk. “We didn’t want to miss Coco’s birth, and there’s always so much work to do.”
Bailey’s tiny smile made every journalistic instinct stand at attention. “Coco?” she asked. Lukas and Scarlett had named their daughter in utero? What a scoop. Too bad she couldn’t publish it.
“Scarlett’s had massive hot chocolate cravings throughout her pregnancy, and she and Lukas started calling the baby “Cocoa Bean” as a joke.” Bailey opened the Jeep’s driver’s door. “Once they found out the baby was a girl, the name kinda stuck.”
Tia yanked the detached garage door open. “Cute.” And it was something she should already have known. Too much time had passed since she’d talked to Scarlett.
“Do you know how to get to Valerian’s?”
“Yeah.” She’d never been inside Vamp Central, which was only fifteen miles away, but her mother’s lavish descriptions made the place sound more like a museum than a private home. With her luck, she’d probably spill something on a centuries-old rug or carpet. “Go ahead.” She waved Bailey on. “I’ll be right behind you.”
As Bailey pulled out of the driveway, Tia got into her own car. As she backed out, she absently reached to the sun visor for an automatic garage door opener that wasn’t there. “Crap.” Braking to a stop, she slammed the car into Park, turned it off, pulled the keys from the ignition, got out of the car, and managed to close and lock the garage door before the Civic’s automatic headlights dimmed. The automatic garage door opener and motion lights she’d bought at Home Depot last week were still in her trunk. Though perfectly capable of installing them herself, she’d probably end up hiring the job out.
Her new neighbors already thought she was odd for mowing her lawn after the sun went down.
She had human neighbors. A lawn to mow. Appliances to replace, a house to maintain…activities she’d never envisioned mere months ago, before… “Shit,” she whispered, scoping out the surroundings yet again. Sparing a final, wistful thought to the anonymous, maintenance-free condo she’d been forced to leave, she backed out of the driveway and followed Bailey’s tail lights.
“Wyland, please. I’m fine.” With a final, skeleton-rattling cough, Valerian waved him away. “Sit down. Enjoy your wine.”
Wyland glanced at Lukas, who’d risen from the oversized chair by the fireplace when Valerian’s violent coughing jag started. Lukas looked as concerned as he felt.
“Both of you. Sit.” Valerian twitched his mohair wrap closer to his neck. “I survived The Black Death. A nagging respiratory ailment won’t finish me off.”
Wyland wasn’t so sure. Was Val even aware of how long he’d been sick? When a man was over nine hundred years old, months probably passed like finger snaps, but he, who’d watched Val cough, wheeze, and struggle for breath, had felt each day pass with acute, painful precision. No treatment he’d tried, no medication he’d prescribed, had helped very much. Thankfully, the old standby—copious amounts of rich, healing blood—still provided Val with some relief.
While Lukas talked to Valerian, Wyland went to the glossy bar transplanted from one of Valerian’s favorite English pubs, pulled a plastic bag of blood from the small refrigerator, and set it in the warmer. Studying the wine rack, he selected a robust merlot, removed its cork, and poured a measure into a glass the size of a small goldfish bowl.
“Lukas, you look tired,” Valerian said. “When was the last time you slept?”
Lukas sipped from his bottle of Summit Pale Ale. “I’m fine, Val.”
Wyland assessed Lukas with a professional eye. Sympathetic morning sickness had plagued Lukas throughout Scarlett’s pregnancy. He had dark circles under his eyes, he’d probably lost the thirty pounds his bondmate had gained, and despite it being high summer, he looked pale and drawn. Worrying about Scarlett on top of his crushing workload was going to put Lukas in the hospital. Thankfully, she was due to deliver within a week or two.
“Bailey should be here in a couple of minutes,” Lukas said around a jaw-cracking yawn. “Thanks for letting us meet here tonight.”
It was too much to hope that Lukas might consent to a quick exam before Bailey arrived.
“As for the reason you drove here in the first place,” Valerian said, “do you need to speak with me privately?”
Wyland blinked. “I’ll give you a moment.” Between his physician’s duties, legal work, and serving as the Underworld Council’s Vampire Second, there was very little information he wasn’t privy to, but—
“No, I need to speak with both of you—or rather, I need to show you something.” Lukas glanced at him. “Valerian, you’re the repository of our culture’s tribal knowledge, and Wyland’s familiar with the materials in our archives.”
“And as long as she’s on her way, I’d like to get Bailey’s take, as well,” Lukas continued. “She…notices things. Connects some odd dots.”
Yes, she did, and etiquette be damned. During the long hours he and Bailey had worked together on the massive effort to digitize their archives, Rafe’s little hacker bondmate had certainly connected his dots, coming up with some uncomfortably accurate conclusions. The little human probably knew more about him, and his past, than anyone save Valerian.
When the warmer chimed, he plucked the bag of blood from the water bath. After drying it with a tea towel, he punctured the bag with a plastic spout, poured the warm blood into the wineglass, and swirled. He hadn’t seen Bailey since she and Rafe came back from Alaska. He should try to talk her into an exam as well. Was her perforated ulcer healing as expected?
Stepping out from behind the bar, he delivered the wine to Valerian. He was a fine one to lecture Lukas and Bailey about job stress. Between hospital rounds, office hours, legal consulting, time spent working with the archives, Underworld Council business, and the vicious commute between Marine on St. Croix and downtown Minneapolis, he hardly had time to eat or sleep.
The majestic doorbell rang. “I’ve got it, Thane,” he called toward the closed kitchen door. Though Thane considered hospitality his purview, there was no need to interrupt him when Wyland was standing right there. He crossed the foyer, disengaged the locks, and opened the thick wooden door. “Bailey, right on schedule—oh.” Tia Quinn? Why had Bailey brought an investigative journalist to their home?
Why this investigative journalist?
“Hi, Wyland.” Bailey kissed both his cheeks and cheerfully popped him on the arm with her tiny fist. “How’s it hangin’?”
Before he could take her to task for her grammar-impaired reference to his genitalia, she’d brushed past him to greet Valerian. His smile lit up the room like a Saturnalia tree.
“Hello, Sir,” Tia said, hesitating slightly before extending her hand. “I don’t know if you remember me. We had a short conversation at Rafe Sebastiani’s gallery show last winter.”
He remembered. Her hair and lips had been the color of ripe eggplants, and her curvy body adorned entirely in black, as it was tonight. During their short conversation, as she’d subtly tried to pump him for information about Valerian’s health, he’d felt a distinct sexual stirring—something that hadn’t happened in well over a century. Tonight, her hair was auburn, the color of mulled wine, with unnatural green tips.
Why had his dormant sex drive awakened for a wild child who changed her hair color on a whim? Maybe he was having a mid-life crisis.
“Sir?” she repeated.
Hearing the word ‘sir’ from her lips was…withering. With a little mental shake, he took her black-nailed hand. To not acknowledge another vampire, someone whose interests he represented on the Underworld Council, would be unspeakably rude. “Of course I remember you, Ms. Quinn.” In the tradition of younger vampires more thoroughly assimilated into human culture, Tia Quinn’s parents had given their daughter more than one name.
Tia Quinn’s parents were younger than he was.
She wrinkled her nose at his formality and smiled up at him with eyes the color of roasted coffee beans. He hadn’t imagined the rings of vivid leaf green surrounding both pupils. “Please, call me Tia,” she said.
“And I’m Wyland.”
She looked at him strangely. “Of course you are.”
And now she thought him addled. He sighed. What was she, thirty to his three hundred plus? Apparently his dusty libido didn’t find her youth a serious impediment, because the fantasies he’d had about her after their last conversation were absolutely debauched. He withdrew his hand from hers. “Why are you here, Ms. Quinn?”
“Wyland, don’t be rude to our guest.” Valerian was on his feet, supported by Bailey on one side and Lukas on the other. “Tia.” He extended both wrinkled hands. “How nice to see you, my dear.”
Leaving him standing by the door without a backwards glance, Tia crossed to Valerian, took his hands, and gently kissed both papery cheeks. Wyland watched her take mental notes, her sharp reporter’s gaze recording every detail of Valerian’s appearance: his ruddy skin tone, the luxurious mane of silver hair, his satin smoking jacket, the shawl, and the wool-lined leather slippers he wore even in the summer heat. Yes, Valerian was having a good night. Having guests—young guests—obviously agreed with him.
As Wyland closed the heavy door and re-engaged the security system, he watched Tia treat Lukas to a thorough physical assessment before they, too, kissed each other’s cheeks—the traditional greeting he apparently hadn’t rated. Well, it was better all the way around if she kept her distance, because Tia Quinn had a bad habit of sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. Like Bailey, she saw too much. As an investigative journalist, it was her job to see too much—a fact that both Valerian and Lukas seemed to have forgotten.
After offering them a libation—Diet Coke for Bailey, merlot for Tia—he rejoined the group. By some trick of fate, the only open seat was on the settee next to Tia. “Your wine,” he said, extending the glass.
“Thank you.” As she accepted it, the heavy ring she wore on her left middle finger clicked against the crystal stem. Hammered gold, with strands encasing a green stone, the ring managed to look simultaneously ancient and modern. She glanced at his hips, and then at the open space on the firm cushion next to her. “There’s not a lot of room here, is there?”
His teeth started to tingle. If she looked at his groin again, he’d embarrass them both. “We’ll make it work.”
Her sudden off-kilter grin lit the room. “Do you watch Project Runway?”
As he sat, his pressed khakis brushed against disintegrating black denim. The high, curved back of the antique Adams settee embraced them, pressing them together from shoulder to knee.
She smelled like VampScreen and lilacs.
Tia looked around with amazement. “This room is…” Her voice trailed off as something on the nearby bookshelves caught her eye.
It was a common reaction. Their home, with its hodge-podge decor spanning centuries, frequently left visitors speechless. Georgian tables supported Art Deco lamps, Beaux Arts cozied up to Eames, and Moroccan tassels brushed against Windsor chairs and Federation hutches. Several pieces of current-era furniture, like the oversized shabby chic chair where Lukas sat, were recent additions. Not long ago, he’d finally convinced Valerian that the furniture pre-dating the Reformation, along with many of the rare books and manuscripts stacked haphazardly on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, should be moved to the Archives for preservation and protection. On the night he and Val had selected which tchotchkes and objets d’art would remain on display, memories and stories had poured out of his mentor like an uncorked cask of wine, especially when they’d sorted through Valerian’s precious collection of tintypes, cameos, daguerreotypes, and photographs. People he’d known, people he’d loved and lost.
So many people loved and lost.
Tia’s eyes widened. “Is that a Fabergé egg?”
“Yes.” The Tsar had given him the priceless, bejeweled object as thanks for his counsel—not that Nicholas had followed his advice.
She looked, wide-eyed, around the room. “There’s so much history here.”
To one so young, it was history, but to him and Valerian? It was simply their life. He and Val had first sat side-by-side on this very settee almost three hundred years ago, at Valerian’s London residence. Wyland had spent years—decades—studying medicine, law, business, and history by candlelight, reading until his eyes stung with fatigue. He’d become Valerian’s apprentice. When the American Civil War broke out, Val named him the Vampire Second, and then moved to America, trusting him to serve as the Council’s European liaison. Wyland glanced at a particular photograph on the bookshelf, then quickly looked away.
Look how well that had worked out.
When Lukas murmured something that made Val laugh out loud, something pinched in his chest. Time had a way of passing, regardless of one’s wishes. He no longer had centuries, or even decades, before he’d have to take Val’s place.
There was such care in Tia’s voice, even after he’d been rude to her. He cleared his throat. No more reverie; it was time to start this impromptu meeting. Time to get Tia Quinn out of his thoughts, out of his house, and out of his life.
Lukas beat him to it. “What’s up?” he asked Bailey.
“Tia asked me to look into a comment someone posted at In Like Quinn earlier today.” Reaching into the side pocket of her computer bag, Bailey pulled out several pieces of paper and passed them around.
In Like Quinn had a financial news section? The last time he’d glanced at Tia’s website, the front page had featured a picture of a young pop star’s latest unfortunate tattoo.
As the last piece of paper reached them, Tia passed it to him without comment. He glanced at the story’s headline—something about Wall Street corruption—and then at the comment Bailey had printed. “‘Sebastiani Labs’ so-called board of directors must be called to account for their illegal acts, and for abandoning the old ways,” he read aloud. “‘If you don’t expose them, I will.’” He looked at Bailey. “Do you know this person’s identity?”
“Not yet. Looks like whoever it is used a burner account.” Bailey’s eyes snapped with annoyance. “I’ll do more digging once I get back to the office, but someone’s working harder than the average bear to disguise their identity.”
While Bailey and Lukas launched into a detailed technology discussion, he picked apart the message. ‘Sebastiani Labs’ was self-explanatory. ‘So-called board of directors’ could indicate either generic disgust with the board’s decisions, or very specific knowledge about the board’s true nature. ‘Called to account for their illegal acts?’ Which illegal acts? According to whose laws? Called to account how? By whom? What did the commenter expect Tia to investigate? And did the commenter mean ‘old ways’ in a general way, or The Old Ways? In their culture, the second phrase had a specific, shameful, meaning.
Tia took a sip of wine. “I feel stupid bothering you about this, but the comment felt…off.”
“Yeah,” Lukas said. “We need to look into this.”
Bailey shot Tia a look. “I told you so.”
“Okay, but I don’t get it.” Tia’s husky alto voice vibrated into him where their arms and thighs touched. “My regular readers know that financial reporting isn’t my beat. The financial stuff, the celebrity news, the political stories, are aggregated from other sources. I have content-sharing arrangements in place with dozens of other writers and journalists.”
If he remembered correctly, music used to be her beat. She’d gotten her start writing reviews for music magazines like Rolling Stone before shifting her focus to investigative journalism.
“There’s no way the person who commented could be sure I’d even see what he or she wrote,” Tia continued.
“What are you working on right now?” Bailey asked.
“I just finished a series on data privacy—thanks for the sources, by the way,” she said to Bailey. “Now, I’m researching human trafficking, with a regional slant. I’m interviewing a young woman who recently escaped a sex trafficker who forced her to work in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. After so many arrests at hotels and motels here in the Twin Cities, a lot of procurers are now doing business from private homes.”
He and Lukas exchanged a glance. Stephen, the incubus who’d nearly killed Lukas and Scarlett several years ago, had murdered a man at just such a location as his need for death energy had escalated. Stephen had somehow escaped their most secure psychiatric facility and was still at large. Somewhere along the line, Tia would probably contact their police commander for information, but when she did, she’d hit a brick wall. Gideon Lupinsky couldn’t—wouldn’t—comment on an open case.
He’d call Gideon himself to ensure it.
“Are you taking safety precautions?” Lukas asked Tia.
“I know how to take care of myself.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
No, it didn’t. Despite its squeaky-clean reputation, the Twin Cities had the same problems as any large metropolitan area. In addition to the residential sex clubs, gangs had staked out turf in north Minneapolis. There were areas of the city where no law-abiding person wandered after dark.
Tia Quinn probably considered those areas her workplace.
“What do you carry?” Lukas asked.
Not ‘do you carry,’ but ‘what do you carry’—an interesting assumption on Lukas’s part. Wyland skimmed Tia’s body. Where in the world would she carry a weapon where no one could see it? Her Vlad Drac T-shirt clung to bountiful breasts, and faded black denims hugged her dangerous curves. She wore a pair of those hideous rubber flip flops—black, with her toenails painted to match—so she couldn’t hide a weapon in her footwear.
She gestured to the battered leather purse sitting on the floor next to the settee. “Stun gun.”
He reluctantly approved. The defensive weapon would temporarily incapacitate only the assailant, and not cause irreparable or fatal harm, but…why did she have to put herself in danger in the first place?
“I’ll have Jack give you a call,” Lukas said. “He teaches self-defense.”
She raised a brow. “I’m well-trained.”
“It never hurts to practice. When Scarlett and her band were still touring, she worked out with Jack all the time.”
His eyes narrowed. Too many women found Jack Kirkland, Sebastiani Security’s big, blond managing partner, appealing—and damn it, now Lukas was staring at him. There was no hiding one’s emotional state from any incubus or succubus, much less one of Lukas’s skill. Lukas plucked emotional energy out of the air, absorbed it for sustenance like humans digested food or vampires drank blood.
Why did the prospect of Tia physically grappling with Jack annoy him so much?
Her big toe brushed his pant leg. Nerve endings, dormant for years, sat up and blinked. When blood rushed to his penis, he choked back a groan at the barely-remembered sensation. Setting the piece of paper on his lap to disguise his condition, Wyland tried to ignore Tia’s wine-wet lips as Lukas asked her questions about her website. His jaw throbbed, but he kept his fangs from shooting down through sheer force of will.
“Speaking of The Old Ways…” Lukas reached into the battered messenger bag sitting near his feet, extracting a piece of paper stored flat in a clear plastic bag. “This…screed arrived with the latest batch of Scarlett’s fan mail.”
Though Scarlett hadn’t performed in public since the night Stephen killed her sister Annika, she still had a rabid fan base—and unfortunately, with it, all the security problems that accompanied fame in this era. When Lukas handed him the bag, he saw an adhesive tag affixed to the corner. The item had been logged as evidence.
When he read, he understood why. The word-processed document, two paragraphs long, invoked The Old Ways against Scarlett and Lukas’s “unborn half-breed abomination.”
Glancing at Tia, he passed the packet to Valerian. “We shouldn’t discuss this matter with a reporter present.”
Valerian waved a regal hand. “Tia knows what ‘off the record’ means.”
One, no one had actually said it yet, and two, he wasn’t so sure. A threat made against the unborn child of two Underworld Council members was a pretty big scoop. “Ms. Quinn, this conversation is off the record.”
Her gaze gored him like a bull at Pamplona. “Ya think?”
“Wyland, take a chill pill,” Bailey said.
Lukas speared a weary hand through his hair. “He’s just doing his job.”
Yes, he was—and no matter how alluring he might find Tia Quinn, the protocol was clear. The safety of their people depended on him remembering his responsibilities. “Ms. Quinn, this conversation is off the record. Do you understand?”
Her fingers skimmed her inner forearm, where a phrase he couldn’t quite read was tattooed onto her pale skin. “All topics having to do with our culture have been, and ever shall be, off the record,” she said. Each word was precisely spoken, sliced with a razor-sharp knife. “Do you require a signed affidavit?”
“Your words have been witnessed by three sitting Underworld Council members. That won’t be necessary.”
She angled her body away from him, the tilt of her chin reminding him of royalty displeased. He was certain she hadn’t meant to expose her neck to him quite so alluringly, but she had, and it was. The sexual charge that zinged through his system was completely and utterly inappropriate.
Tia seemed startled when Valerian handed her evidence bag. After reading the message, she flipped the packet and looked at the envelope, also stored in the bag—something he hadn’t done. “U.S. Postal Service, downtown Minneapolis zip code and postmark.”
Lukas nodded. “Adhesive stamp, so no saliva, but we’re testing it for prints. There are no fingerprints on the paper itself. The paper and ink are disgustingly generic. That leaves us analyzing content, which is why I came here.”
“I’m sorry for barging in,” Tia said.
Speak for yourself, Lukas.
“The fact that you and Scarlett are having a baby has been well-publicized, even in the human press, but this mention of The Old Ways? The mention at ILQ?” When Tia tapped her pursed lips with her index finger, her ring caught the light. “That’s us. That’s Underworld.”
Wyland’s brows rose. “I wouldn’t have thought someone your age would be aware of the phrase.”
“I am an investigative journalist, and reasonably well-informed.”
If looks could kill, he’d be dead on the floor.
“Hey.” Bailey waved her arms in the air. “Human here. What are The Old Ways?”
How could he explain their ancestors’ practice of euthanizing newborns who exhibited severe physical abnormalities? Marooned on an inhospitable planet with no hope of rescue, with little medicine and even fewer options, their ancient ancestors had made unspeakably painful decisions for the good of the tribe. He knew better than to judge an ancient culture by contemporary standards.
But he did.
“So much waste. So many lives forever changed,” Valerian murmured. He looked at Bailey. “You’re familiar with our culture’s origin story?”
She nodded. “Your ancestors’ spaceship crashed in northern Minnesota several millennia ago, marooning the passengers, forcing the surviving incubi, succubi, vampires, Valkyrie, were-shifters, sirens, and faeries to fight for survival in the dead of winter.”
Wyland half-listened as Valerian told Bailey of their history, the story passed from generation to generation unchanged—until last summer, when Lorin Schlessinger had made the archaeological discovery that had thrown their oral histories’ timeline into complete disarray. The otherworldly lockbox Lorin had found at the Isabella site had yielded a big a surprise: extra-planetary technology lying next to three-thousand-year-old native wild rice. It boggled the mind.
“When I was young and I’d misbehaved,” Tia said, “my parents joked that if only The Old Ways were still in vogue, they could wring my neck with impunity.”
“Wrung necks and smothering were the preferred methods of dispatch,” Valerian said matter-of-factly, “but rarely did one’s own family perform the grisly task. My predecessor, Sigurd…”
Wyland stilled. There was exactly one reference to Sigurd in their entire Archives: his death announcement. Valerian never spoke of him. He’d assumed this was because Val had few, if any, memories of the man.
Clearly this was not the case.
As Tia took Valerian’s gnarled hand, offering comfort, he observed Val from a great mental distance, and through the long lens of time. Why hadn’t Val ever spoken of Sigurd? Why were there no artifacts, no written records, and no mention of Sigurd’s life and accomplishments, in their Archives?
Damn it, he’d been so focused on the documents present in the Archives that he’d never questioned why some materials might be absent. Val had some explaining to do.
Tia gestured to the letter. “But the baby is healthy, right?” Worry was etched on her face. “It’s been too long since I talked to Scarlett.”
“She’s fine. They’re both fine.” After a pause, Lukas added, “I’m sure she’d love to see you.”
The invitation sounded reluctant, rusty. She quirked Lukas a crooked smile Wyland couldn’t interpret.
A red stain crept up Lukas’s neck.
Well. Wasn’t that interesting.
“So, back to the letter,” Bailey said, looking at it. “The writer is suggesting that Lukas and Scarlett kill their ‘unborn half-breed abomination’ because Scarlett is a siren and Lukas is an incubus? That’s really fucked up.”
Lukas took another swig from his beer bottle. “As if most of us don’t have mixed ancestry to begin with. At this point, species designations are almost beside the point.”
“Don’t let Krispin Woolf hear you say that,” Bailey muttered. “He’d demand your resignation.”
Lukas snorted. “Let him try.”
Underworld Council representation was species-based and tended to run along powerful family lines, but little Coco Fontaine, the daughter of two sitting Council members representing different species, was a game-changer. Never before had two family dynasties merged in such an overt manner. He’d spent countless hours poring over Council records, bylaws, and succession planning documents to assess her precise status.
The child wasn’t even born yet, and she’d already given him his first silver hair.
“It sounds like whoever sent this letter might share the Alpha’s opinion,” Tia mused. “Have you been able to connect Krispin Woolf to the Genetic Purity League yet?”
Shock rocketed through his system. “What do you know about the Genetic Purity League?” Or about Krispin Woolf’s suspected leadership of the organization?
“I know that a couple of years ago the GPL petitioned the Council to demand that the law be changed to require bondmates to register their relationships. Krispin Woolf’s preference for wolf/wolf pairings is well known.” She looked at Valerian, and then, reluctantly, at him. “Thank you for voting that one down.”
“Who is your source?” Lukas snapped.
Individual members’ votes were supposed to be confidential.
“I’m not about to reveal who my source is, dude.”
Lukas might be wearing jeans and drinking a beer, but one of his subjects had just called a sitting Underworld Council member ‘dude.’ It was completely unacceptable, regardless of how well Tia and Lukas knew each other.
Just how well did they know each other?
Lukas set his beer bottle down. “Tia, if we have a security breach within the Council—”
“You don’t. This information didn’t come from the Council.”
“So it came from the League itself?” Lukas pressed.
Tia paused, considering her words. “My source read a draft of the proposal several months before you received it—and before you ask, no. I will not reveal the person’s identity.”
There weren’t too many civilians Lukas couldn’t bully into submission through sheer size and attitude. Apparently Tia Quinn was one of them. She didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by Lukas’s pissed-off glare.
“I don’t remember seeing any reference to The Old Ways in the Archive material I’ve worked with,” Bailey said, diffusing the tension.
“It was so very long ago,” Valerian said softly.
And as he’d heard Valerian say many times before, winners wrote history. Valerian, the world’s oldest living vampire, defined the word ‘winner.’ For centuries, he’d been the sole arbiter of which information was stored in their Archives, and which information was omitted.
Anger rose like the tide. What information had Val omitted, and why? Damn it, could he trust any of it?
“Wyland, how much Archive work did you get done while Rafe and I were in Alaska?” Bailey asked. “God, I have so much work to catch up on.”
“We’ve transcribed the written artifacts back to about 1400 AD,” he answered, watching Valerian carefully. They were processing the written archive materials in reverse chronological order, working with the newer, less fragile documents first. The next batch of documents would bring them closer to those dark days Val had mentioned.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help.” Bailey glanced at Lukas. “I’ll be working on the tech unit with Sebastiani Labs’ quantum computing folks.”
Wyland blinked. “You were successful accessing it?”
Bailey shot him a satisfied grin. “I figured out how to turn it on and off, and how to separate it into components, but I don’t know what the hell to make of the chip.”
“So your idea worked.” Several days after its discovery at the archaeological site where their ancestors’ spaceship had crashed, the otherworldly device had somehow managed to access Sebastiani Labs’ secure computer network despite having been buried in a box for a couple thousand years. At that point, Bailey had insisted that any additional work take place far beyond the reach of ambient technology. She and Rafe had driven to the wilds of Alaska, where they’d worked and played while enjoying several months of precious newbond privacy. “Congratulations. Where’s the RV right now?” He shot Val a look. “The Airstream deserves a place in the Archives.”
“It’s parked in Sebastiani Labs’ lower level loading dock,” Bailey answered.
He nodded, satisfied. The vehicle was stored in as safe a place as he could think of at the moment.
“Can I help?” Tia suddenly asked. “With the archiving work?”
He shot her a surprised look.
“Despite the danger you seem to think I court on a regular basis, I’m a research specialist. If Bailey has other priorities—which I hope you appreciate I’m dying to ask about but am not—I can give you a few hours here and there.”
The two of them, working together? His fangs throbbed at the thought. “Thank you for offering, but—”
“Excellent.” Valerian smiled in benediction. “Wyland could use the help.”
He could, but—
“Great idea,” Bailey seconded. Amusement danced in her eyes. “I’m sure Lukas can clear Tia for Archive access fairly quickly.”
“Allow a journalist access to our Archives? Are you bloody delusional?”
Bailey raised clasped hands to her heart as if swooning. “Ah, there it is.”
“Your gutter English. I missed it while I was gone.”
And no one drove him to it faster, damn it—unless it was Lukas’s sister, Antonia.
Tia unabashedly listened, studying him with narrowed feline eyes. As if she suddenly found him…interesting.
Ignoring his body’s blunt response, he looked at Lukas. Though Bailey’s opinion was obvious, she wasn’t a Council member. Valerian had weighed in, but Lukas, the Security/Technology First, would surely put a stop to this madness.
“Bailey needs time to work with that tech unit,” Lukas mused, studying Tia. “Maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Damn it, her mouth was part of the problem.
Lukas detailed the background check process, outlining what Tia’s well-intentioned offer would cost in terms of privacy. As she listened, Tia looked like she’d swallowed one of the crickets chirping in the tall grass outside—or maybe she was starting to realize that she’d be spending time, lots of time, alone with him.
“Do you want to proceed?” Lukas asked Tia.
Tia took a deep breath he could see, hear, and feel. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
As Lukas started gathering preliminary information, he tongued a stinging incisor. Maybe drinking some blood would help.
Rising from the settee, he went to the bar, withdrew a bag of blood from the refrigerator, and poured it over ice cubes. As he drank, he could almost feel Bram’s gaze mock him from across the room, where the old photograph sat on the bookshelf. Could almost feel the weight of Bram’s arm slung over his shoulder, and the curve of Deirdre’s soft hip, as the three of them smiled for the camera.
He turned his back. This time, he’d keep his hands, and his fangs, to himself.
Even if it killed him.
As Tia’s husky laughter stroked him from across the room, he thought it very well might.