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TO BLACK WITH LOVE: Quentin Black Mystery #10 by Andrijeski, JC (1)

Prologue

How You Like Me Now?

HE RAISED HIS head, gasping, bringing his body back to a vertical line in a single, fluid motion.

Even that simple act exhilarated him.

Contentment washed over him as he licked his lips, then wiped his mouth. Rivers of pain and pleasure ran through him as he did, shivering his skin, along with a jolt of energy so intense, he jumped a little on his heels, rotating his neck like he was in the boxing ring.

The contentment didn’t last.

It never lasted.

Within seconds, heat swam through his veins, bringing a stinging, charged discomfort to his skin, to the very liquid of his blood.

He fought with the heightened sensations, trying to manage them, to control his emotional reaction to the intensity––fighting that half-drunk, see-sawing aggression that went with it. He tried to find a way to stabilize inside it, but some part of him rebelled against that, too, finding it stupid, pointless even.

It really was like being drunk, or seasick maybe, but the clarity that came with it, filling his mind with alternate scenarios, thoughts, ideas for expressing that intensity made it more difficult to fight against, not easier. The ground beneath his feet never fully stabilized, but continued rising and falling on a series of steep hills.

His mind floated above that, trying to find ways to push that sensation in various ways, looking for ways to scratch that itch.

His skin heated more, the longer he stood there, fighting it.

That was in spite of his cooler blood, the relative silence of his physical body. That heat, that feeling of life and discomfort ratcheted up his restlessness more, increasing the desire to move, to continue moving, to continue acting, feeling, fucking, cutting a swath through time and space, cutting a swath through life and death.

Of course, some of that might have been the blood he just drank.

That wasn’t all of it, though.

He wasn’t done.

The woman with him, who still knelt over the second human they’d dragged into that dark, moldy alley behind the bar, laughed, looking up at him.

“Don’t get any ideas,” she chided, her eyes and cheeks flushed scarlet. “I can see those wheels turning. Practice calming down, my love. Practice self-control––”

“Fuck calming down.” He spoke without thought, like he did most things now. His eyes slid back to hers, as cold as his voice. “Fuck self control. I’m not done.”

“You are done,” she said. “No more kills tonight, my love. I already let you go over the number he gave you. You know he’ll know.” Her mouth quirked, exposing a shockingly white fang. “You also know he’ll punish me, not you.”

“If I’m already over the limit, what does it matter?” he said. “Punishment is punishment. It doesn’t fucking matter. Two or twenty, it makes no fucking––”

“Help me finish off this one,” she coaxed.

When he grimaced, shaking his head, not wanting to share a half-dead kill, the warning grew prominent in her voice.

“Waste not, want not, my love. You are not allowed to kill for sport.”

That rage and heat in him worsened.

He wanted to argue with her.

He wanted to point out that no one policed Dorian’s recreational activities. No one policed Nairobi’s, or Miguel’s, or Brick’s… or hers, for that matter.

Most of all, he wanted to shove her off that business suit-wearing asshole she was drinking from and snap his neck. He’d watched the bastard fuck her while she drank, moaning in French, completely oblivious to what was happening to him.

Guy was pathetic.

He disgusted him.

Even now, those blue eyes rolled towards him, staring up at him with a maddeningly stupid look on his face. He saw the pleading there, the request, animal-to-animal, for help, for mercy. He just wanted to kick the man’s pale, whining face in.

He didn’t want to think about what it was about that vulnerability that angered him so much. He didn’t want to think, period––not like that, not about navel-gazing bullshit that wouldn’t do anything but piss him off.

He wanted to snarl at her until she agreed to come with him.

That, or he just wanted to turn around, break into a full run while she was still finishing off the blue-eyed loser in the pinstriped suit.

She could catch him, though.

Any one of them could catch him. He’d learned that the hard way.

He still wasn’t as fast as the rest of them.

Just from her tone of voice, he knew she’d try to take him back after this, to that same, mind-fuckingly boring apartment with the twenty-foot ceilings on Rue de l’Universite with the view of the Eiffel Tower. Inside that apartment, he could hear every single goddamned sound from every single goddamned apartment above and below theirs in its entirety.

Inside that apartment, he could hear every sound from the street.

He could hear every word, every clink of glass and metal, every scrape of shoe, every exhaled breath, every rustle of clothes and hair. He could hear every muttered curse, every nervous sniff, every tap of toes or fingers. He could hear hinges creak and squeak, bells jangle, footsteps creak as someone entered one of the surrounding shops, townhouses or bars.

He heard the wind rustle the leaves of trees planted along the street.

He heard every plane, helicopter, bird and insect in the goddamned sky.

Every smell from within a roughly five-mile radius reached him through those fifteen-foot French windows.

He felt every drop of perspiration and rain bead down that glass.

Most days, being locked inside and bombarded by everything on the other side of that glass, plaster, wood and metal made him want to smash his way through the wall with nothing but his fists. More than once, he’d been tempted to crash through one of those windows, to run and run and keep running until that coiled spring inside him finally relaxed.

He knew the rules.

He’d been punished before.

He’d been punished many times––over and over again.

The memory of those punishments, of what they’d entailed, checked him even now, despite his words to the woman a few seconds before.

Brick had promised to punish her this time… and to make him watch.

The older vampire said he clearly didn’t care enough about his own skin, so Brick would try punishing her instead, see if that worked better.

Remembering that now, he felt his fangs extending.

He fought to control that surge of rage––to at least to keep it off his face.

He was still standing there, trying to decide which thing to do, whether risking punishment might be worth it anyway, whether he might have other options, when she was on her feet, beside him again.

Wiping her mouth, she looked up at him, that scarlet ink coloring her irises.

He could see so well in the dark, he forgot it was night half the time.

The sun was too bright; it hurt his eyes, blinded him.

It was like swimming through a goddamned forest fire––

But he didn’t like fire.

He didn’t even like thinking about fire, or trees, or trees on fire.

He focused back on her crystal-like eyes.

The crimson color there did something to him.

Unfortunately, that something didn’t relax him in any way.

Seeing the difference in his stare, she smiled, squeezing his arm.

“Want to go see a movie and fuck?” she said, glancing down the alley towards the road. “It’s early yet. Not even eleven o’clock. We don’t have to feed. There are other ways to entertain ourselves, little brother.”

When he looked down after following her gaze, she smiled wider, coiling her arm tighter around his, coiling her leg around his as she pressed her body up against him.

“You stayed,” she purred at him. “I thought you would run again, but Daddy was right. You’d rather be punished yourself than see me punished. What a good boy you are.”

He grunted, but felt himself hardening under her purr.

“Want to go to the park and fuck?” she offered, smiling wider, quirking an eyebrow at him mischievously before he could answer. “Or a church? Or we could find a nice sidewalk café? I’d like to reward you for being such a good boy. Your jealousy earlier, with that feed, already had me all hot and bothered, lover.”

He let out another half-amused grunt.

“And brought out your inner exhibitionist, clearly,” he said.

“Is that a smile?” She tugged on his arm. “And since when is my exhibitionist ‘inner’? Or yours? You’re the one who wanted to do it on the steps of the Notre Dame last night.”

He let himself be pulled, let her lead him down the alley, towards the relatively lit end, where streetlights colored the road ahead a goldish-orange.

The nuances of the colors distracted him briefly, as well as the floating particles of drizzling rain, confused by traffic headlights and wind, twirling in the circular beams of light above the road.

He heard a radio from a nearby window, a woman laughing, a television blaring… but his eyes never left the shifting colors from the rain, streetlights, cars, flickering neon signs and pedestrians walking across the rain-slicked pavement.

He watched the colors and shadows swirl on the road, like liquid light.

He tried to remember what month it was.

October? November?

“It’ll get easier,” she told him, softer, hugging his arm. “I promise, my love.”

His eyes moved off the colors and gradations of light.

He looked at her, staring into the gradations of scarlet in her irises.

“Maybe I don’t want it to,” he said.

She quirked that dark eyebrow above her wide, large eyes––eyes that would be doe-like if they were a different color.

“You don’t want it to get easier?” she said, her voice still coy.

He wasn’t in the mood for coy. He might be in the mood to fuck, but he wasn’t in the mood for coy, for flirting, for letting her distract him, or treat him like a child.

He was sick and tired of being fucking managed.

“When are we going?” he said. “When are we going back?”

He didn’t mean back to the apartment.

He didn’t mean the church.

He didn’t mean anywhere in Paris.

She seemed to know that, maybe just from how he asked it.

She didn’t answer at first.

Even so, he felt her sigh, through his and her skin.

When the sigh ended, her voice shifted from flirty to neutral.

“When you’re ready,” she said.

“I’m ready now.”

He didn’t realize how aggressively he’d spoken until she came to a stop, right before she glanced up at him, her chest rising and falling in another of those sighs. He knew it was theater to a degree. Vampires didn’t need to breathe. Still, most of them still mimicked a lot of human behaviors, either out of habit or camouflage or both.

“No,” she said simply. “You’re not.”

“Says Brick,” he growled.

“Says Brick,” she confirmed with a nod, frowning up at him. “Who is, I might remind you, in charge. Not only of you.”

She rolled her eyes at whatever expression came to his face.

“You can’t blame Brick for everything, you know,” she said, irritated. “He asked all of us. It’s not only him who believes you’re not yet ready. I believe it. Nairobi believes it. Dorian believes it. Miguel believes it––”

“Why?” he said. “Why am I not ready?”

She frowned, a faint crinkle appearing between her eyebrows.

“Why are you asking questions you know the answer to?” she said. “No amount of hunting satiates you. You’re barely able to control yourself when you feed. You can’t control your emotions at all. You’re impulsive, indifferent to exposure, unmeasured in your response to the majority of the stimuli you encounter. You’re angry. You attacked Dorian the other day and actually managed to hurt him…”

She grunted, smiling a bit, as if in spite of herself.

“…No mean feat, by the way. You’re still disobeying Brick almost daily. He hates punishing you, and you’ve forced him into it four times this week already––”

“All right,” he growled. “I get the point.”

“Why are you so anxious to go there?” she said.

Her voice sounded open that time, frank, without any of the guardedness it held before.

He heard the genuine curiosity behind her words.

“Why?” she repeated, when he didn’t answer. “Just tell me why, my love. Help me to understand. Perhaps I can help Brick to understand, if you explain it to me.”

He grunted, clenching his jaw. “Somehow I doubt Brick needs a primer as to my reasons.” Scowling at her, he added, “You just told me to stop asking questions I know the answer to. Why don’t you do the same?”

“Because I don’t know the answer to this question, my love––”

“Bullshit!” He turned on her, rage and heat once more filling his chest. “Why? Are you really asking me why? Are you fucking serious? Why the fuck do you think?”

Her expression didn’t move in the face of his anger.

When he finished speaking, she only shrugged.

“I really don’t know, though.” Her voice still sounded more frank than angry, and now openly puzzled. “I avoided my home, the place where I was from, for years after I re-birthed. I avoided it for decades. I had no desire to go there. I had no desire to see any of those places or people. He made me go back. He decided I needed it, so I went. But if he hadn’t ordered me there, if he hadn’t insisted on accompanying me, I may never have gone back.”

She meant Brick.

He knew she meant Brick.

“We’re different,” he said. “Clearly.”

Still looking up at him, she squeezed his arm, but continued frowning at him openly.

“But why?” she said gently. “You still haven’t answered me. Why do you want to go back there? It is painful to go back. For all of us. Nothing good can be found in looking back. Leave the past where it is… where it belongs.”

He didn’t answer her.

She shook his arm.

“Why, Naoko? What is there for you, in San Francisco?”

He flinched, just in hearing the name of his city of birth.

Hearing that bothered him far more than hearing his birth name, Naoko. He already felt the longer, Japanese version of his name suited him better than the shorter, Anglicized nickname his human friends had called him before.

His brethren seemed to agree.

None of them called him Nick.

No one had, not since the transition.

He still didn’t have a vampire name, though––not a real one. Brick told him he’d be given one when he “came of age,” whatever the hell that meant. Traditionally, the sire gave that name. Typically, it had some historical relevance to the community.

Brick told him he already had one picked out.

“You know what is there for me,” he said, answering her question belatedly. His eyes flickered down the alley. “And you know why I want to go there, Lucia.”

Without another word, he resumed walking towards the rain-slicked road.

Gripping his arm, she strolled with him, silent.

He felt her eyes on him, studying his face, his eyes, his body.

He didn’t return her stare.

Holding her arm in his, he watched the colors morph subtly over the road. He watched artificial light play over glass, plastic, metal, asphalt, wood––like they were all part of the same, complicated musical instrument playing color instead of sound. He shifted his eyes from object to light particle to object, tracking how differently it all looked to him still, how much he could see, how much he remained aware of in his periphery, despite his laser-like focus.

He knew, without looking at her, she didn’t like his answer.

She didn’t like it at all.

“What exactly do you plan to do?” she said finally.

When he didn’t answer right away, she prodded him, shaking his arm lightly with strong fingers.

“When you see her? What will you do, Naoko?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you want to see her anyway?”

He looked at her, his mouth and lips curving into a frown. “What the fuck is this?” he said. “Jealousy?”

She blinked, once.

Then shrugged.

“Maybe. Would it bother you, if it was?”

He let out a grunt, not bothering to hide his thoughts on that.

She squeezed his arm tighter, pulling herself closer to his body.

“Just tell me,” she coaxed. “What will you do? Kill her? Feed on her? Put her head through a window? Because you know Brick likely won’t approve any of that.”

“I’ll know when I see her.” He gazed down the last stretch of alley, his jaw clenching slowly as he thought. “I’ll know what I want to do then. For now, I just want her to see me.”

Thinking about that, he felt his fangs extend inside his mouth, sharp against his lips and tongue. Rather than calming him down, it brought that heat up all over again––the rage, the tension in his body and limbs, that intensity of energy.

If the female vampire noticed, she didn’t react.

She didn’t answer him at all at first.

He could practically feel her thinking, turning over his words.

Then, after he assumed she’d decided to drop it, when they were on the verge of reaching the mouth of the alley, she let out a half-amused grunt of her own.

“I see,” she said, her voice musing. She added in a dry voice, “How you like me now? Is that the idea?”

He turned, looking at her.

Seeing the glint in her crystal and scarlet eyes, the faint quirk in her lips, the arched eyebrow, he let out a short laugh, unable to help it.

“Something like that,” he said.

Looking at her, at her long, black, half-curled hair, her red lips, her crystal and scarlet eyes, her lusciously curvy body in the clingy, wine-colored dress with the low-cut neckline exposing her olive but deathly pale skin––he felt another body part of his start to stir.

“Let’s go to the church,” he said, squeezing her arm against his side. “I’ll pick where after that.”

Quirking an eyebrow, she shook her head in amusement. She gave him a knowing, half-bemused smile as they entered the main street.

“Aren’t you picking where now, my beautiful, handsome, sexy Naoko?”

“It was your suggestion first,” he reminded her. “I’m being accommodating.”

She laughed again, a real laugh that time.

Even so, she followed after him willingly enough.

By the time he got her inside her favorite church, it was dark enough that he dragged her past the pews after breaking the doors’ locks.

Ignoring the wooden benches altogether, along with the velvet ropes separating them from the altar, he brought her up the stairs until they stood directly under the famous painting of the gold Jesus on the domed ceiling over the altar.

Shoving her down on the white tablecloth of the altar, face first, he yanked up her dress, pleased when he saw she hadn’t bothered to wear undergarments, apart from the garter that held up her stockings. Without waiting, he angled his cock into her from behind right as he sank his teeth into her neck.

She moaned…

…and sensation washed over him.

The feeling was so intense, so incredibly intense and intimate and subtle and just so damned mindblowingly fucking good, it managed to distract him for real that time.

Even more than feeding, this calmed that raging heat in him.

It calmed him––at least in the moments it was happening.

Every part of him focused.

Every sense rang and vibrated with stimuli.

The blood, the feeling on his cock, the feelings on his mouth and throat and tongue, the aggression, the flood of memories, thoughts, and feelings as he drank from her, the intensely pleasurable sensations flooding every particle of his skin––

It was enough. It was finally fucking enough.

That hole inside him briefly filled.

Only one thing calmed it in him more.

The hunt created a peace in him unmatched by anything else he’d found. When he was hunting, his mind and heart went utterly still. The minutes and seconds, even hours where he stalked them, before they’d succumbed, before he’d taken that first, heart-stopping bite––that worked even better than sex.

When they stumbled out the doors of the Sacré-Coeur a little more than an hour later, their clothes looking significantly more rumpled, both of them with fully scarlet eyes, their extended fangs changing the shapes of their mouths, he dragged her down the hill with him by the hand.

The rain had finally stopped.

The cobblestone streets were slick, puddled here and there, but the air was drier, and the light changed because of it.

Lucia laughed when he leapt over puddles, balancing on a low wall before taking a longer leap down a stone staircase, then off a higher wall to the street below. She scolded him, telling him he was showing too much, that he had to moderate his movements in public, especially when there was no reason not to.

She mostly laughed, though.

She also followed him easily enough, at least until he stopped in front of a black-painted door a few dozen blocks from the church. Seeing the bouncer seated on the leather stool out front, his massive arms folded over a thick chest, she let out a humorless laugh.

“Dancing?” she said, her voice mocking. “Why don’t you call this what it is, Naoko?”

“Which is what?” he said, lifting an eyebrow innocently.

“Hunting,” she said promptly. “This is hunting, Naoko. And you bribed me with sex. You are a naughty, naughty boy.”

“I thought I was a good boy,” he said, that eyebrow still quirked.

“You are far more naughty than good, even on your best days,” she retorted, snorting. She tugged on his hand, her voice coaxing. “Come on, Naoko. Let’s go buy some wine before the shops close. Bring it back for Brick and the others. You know you shouldn’t be doing this. You know you shouldn’t––”

“Just for a few hours. I can’t go back there yet.” Yanking her closer, he nipped her neck with his fangs, feeling another stirring in his cock as he pressed into her. “We’ll find one we both want to fuck this time.”

Looking up at him with those giant eyes, she shook her head, her eyes turning serious as she leaned into him.

“We’ve been out too long already.” At his annoyed frown, she added, sharper, “You can’t be seen, Naoko. You can’t be. You know he’s in Europe, looking for you. I was there when Brick told you he and his people were in Paris not too long ago. If we happened to run into them, if they happened to see you––”

“They’re not looking for me like this.”

She let out a disbelieving laugh. “That’s the exact point, Naoko. Don’t you see? They cannot see you like this. Not until our king is ready for them.”

When he scowled, she added, sharper,

“Are you trying to run into him, Naoko? Black? Because of what you said before?”

“No.” His voice grew more subdued, but colder. “No. I can wait for him.”

Still gripping her against his side, he frowned.

“He probably wouldn’t even recognize me,” he said after a pause. “Anyway, I told you… I saw all the studies Charles did on our kind. I saw the government reports. They believe the venom only adheres to certain genetic types. A group of us had to be tested at Black’s company lab after they’d analyzed the findings of that lab. I tested negative. They don’t know about any other ways to make vampires. They won’t be looking for me like this. They’d look for me in graveyards first.”

Lucia stared at him. “If they saw proof with their own eyes––”

“I’m telling you, they’re not looking for me like this. They either think I’m kidnapped and being tortured somewhere… or they think I’m dead. Brick said as much last night, and he’s got people watching them still.”

Leaning closer, he nipped her throat, drawing a few drops of blood.

He licked them off his lips, groaning softly in her ear.

“What happened to me is a ghost story to them, Lucia my love,” he murmured, pressing his cock against her hip. “A human myth. Like garlic and silver bullets.”

“All of which being the exact things Brick would like to keep them from knowing, brother Naoko… for a long as possible. As long as necessary, anyway.” She frowned, pushing at his chest. “You know this isn’t only about you. There’s a lot at stake… for all of us. He needs you, Naoko. He needs your help with this.”

Naoko shook his head. “He doesn’t need me. He’s got her.”

Lucia frowned. “He can’t use her yet. You know that, too.”

He pulled on her hand, tugging on her to enter the club.

“They wouldn’t come here,” he said, coaxing.

“You don’t know that!”

“Yes, I do. Black would never look for me in a place like this.”

“He’s not looking for you,” Lucia said, exasperated. “You just said this yourself. He’s looking for Brick.”

“Brick would never come to a place like this, either.”

Staring at him, she burst out in an involuntary laugh.

“You are impossible!”

“Come on,” he coaxed. “Just another hour. Two at most. Maybe three.”

“Brick is going to cut off one of my fingers for this––”

“We’ll bring one back for Brick. One he’ll like. I’ll give him head while he drinks from it. He’ll calm down.”

Lucia threw back her head for real, belting out a full-throated laugh.

Still hanging from his arm, which he held tensed at his side, fingers clenched in a fist, she grinned up at him.

“Oh, my darling boy,” she said, relenting as she stroked his fingers. “You learn far, far too quickly. No wonder he’s so fond of you already…”

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