Bonded by Blood
Author:Laurie London

Bonded by Blood - By Laurie London

CHAPTER ONE

MACKENZIE FOSTER-SHAW spotted the cemetery sign at the last minute and squeezed the brakes, spinning out her white Triumph motorcycle in a spray of dirt and gravel. She meant to lean into a sharp, controlled turn, but the back tire lost traction and she almost had to lay the thing down.

Crap, the rocks hadn’t looked that loose. Irritation at her carelessness momentarily replaced the uncertainty riding in with her as she sprang from the bike. After examining the chrome for chips and seeing no damage, she felt the hard lump of anticipation return, but she swallowed and tried to ignore it.

She yanked off her helmet and squinted into the shadowed interior of the cemetery. Even in the late afternoon sun, little light penetrated the heavy canopy of fir trees.

“I’m liking this so far,” she said to herself as she tossed her sunglasses on the seat. But she knew better than to get her hopes up too soon. Hope didn’t pay the bills, nor did wishful thinking.

Situated on a forest access road, miles from the main highway, the cemetery was certainly ancient enough. The county register listed it as one of the oldest in the region. How long had it been since anyone visited this place? Ages ago, probably.

She started to unzip her leather jacket, then hesitated. Like most people in the Pacific Northwest after months of gray skies and the unending wetness of winter, she didn’t need much of an excuse to strip off the layers. But with one glance at the bushes she’d need to traipse through, she zipped it back up. Those vivid green leaves couldn’t camouflage the barb-covered vines eager to hook anything within reach. Especially bare skin. Besides, it was probably cooler and wetter inside the trees.

She grabbed her camera from the saddlebag and fiddled with the settings, not bothering with the flash attachment. The client was adamant the pictures needed to portray the ambient lighting and convey an oppressive, haunted feeling. “Hopefully, this location will work for them.” It was the fourth or fifth graveyard she’d visited in the past two weeks. If it didn’t, she was screwed because she was totally out of ideas.

Bear Creek Pioneer Cemetery was etched in once-white paint on a crooked sign at the side of the road. After shooting a few pictures, she scanned the area for a pathway and noticed a slight indentation in the underbrush. She’d do her sketches and take measurements of the road later.

Her boots crunched on the gravel as she slung the camera strap over her shoulder and plunged into the blackberry bushes. Good thing she’d kept her riding leathers on. Both the jacket and the pants. Sharp thorns and stickers grabbed hungrily at her arms and legs, but they weren’t able to gain purchase on the thick hide.

As she stepped into the small clearing, the still, dank air clung to her face. Tufts of tangled grasses crowded around the crumbling headstones in the middle of the cemetery, but at the edge, the bushes covered them completely. Oppressive? Most definitely. Her stomach lurched with excitement, but again, she quickly tamped it down and got to work.

Opening the tripod, she balanced it on the uneven ground next to a stone cross. Something about it made her hesitate. The name was no longer legible and she paused to run a finger over the weathered, rough surface. Who was buried here, gone and forgotten? A man? A woman? A child?

She must have stared a little too long because her sinuses began to itch. She wrinkled her nose, tried to sniff away the sudden heavy weight pulling at her heart, but it didn’t quite work. Would someone wonder about her, too? What she looked like. What kind of a person she was. How long from now? Months? Years, maybe? If she were lucky. But the thing was, there’d be no body in her grave.

Stop. Just stop it. Quit being so damn morbid. Normally she was pretty good at not thinking much about the future. Why worry about something completely out of her control? It had to be all these depressing cemeteries she’d been visiting lately.

She took a deep breath to change the unproductive air in her lungs, screwed the camera in place and exhaled, wrenching her mind back to the present where it needed to stay.

With every satisfying click of the shutter, the outside world became only what she could see through the view-finder. The gravestones, the trees and the quiet loneliness.

When she finally stopped to examine the results, her pulse jumped like it always did when she captured something magical through the lens. They were good. Really good. Much better than the other locations. When she got to one particular image, she hesitated. The lengthening shadows stretched out over the headstones and mounds of grass like the distorted, tortured lines of Munch’s painting, The Scream, and her spine prickled.

Or maybe it was the wind.

A slight breeze found its way into the open collar of her jacket, tickling her neck and ears, and stirring the branches of the watchful trees. She shivered and brushed her hair away from the lens.

Zombies? Dead eyes and insatiable cravings? She could totally visualize rotting hands stretching out of their graves here. Would Hollywood think so? That was the fifteen hundred dollar bonus question.

She twisted her hair up, clipped it off her neck, and dropped to the forest floor. Although it hadn’t rained, moisture lingered everywhere and the ground smelled woodsy beneath her. She rolled over onto her back, again thankful she’d decided to keep the jacket on. A few wispy fronds of grass brushed her cheek and she batted them away. Twisting the lens to focus on the treetops, she—

A sound sliced through the silence of the graveyard and she froze.

A cry? A growl?

She patted her jacket pocket and felt the reassuring hard lump of her handgun.

Maybe it was just the squeak of tree limbs protesting against the wind. Of course it was. With shaking hands, she pushed herself to a sitting position just to make sure.

When she heard it again, she scrambled to her feet.

An animal. Definitely not a tree limb.

She held her breath and fixated on the spot at the edge of the cemetery where the noise originated.

A mound of leaves and branches moved. Twenty feet or so in front of her.

Her pulse thundered behind her eardrums. It was probably just a raccoon. But didn’t they hiss? She took a step backwards, her gaze unwavering.

A badger? They were mean sons of bitches. No, this definitely didn’t sound like the one that crawled into their tent on the last camping trip with her father all those years ago. This sounded bigger, different.

Her breath came out in shallow bursts as she glanced behind her. Okay. Her bike was about thirty steps away then up that slight embankment through the sticker bushes. If she ran, would the thing chase her? If she moved slowly, would it even follow? No, it was probably even more scared of her. She eased the camera strap around her neck and—

She heard it again.

This time it was unmistakable.

“Help me.”

The pile of leaves shuffled, falling away to reveal a man hidden underneath. With a hand outstretched to her, he writhed as if in pain.

A man? What the hell? Here in the middle of nowhere? Should she run for help? Should she walk closer?

Even from this distance, she could see his brow furrowed in agony, his eyes desperate and hollow. He didn’t appear to be in any shape to harm her. Besides, she had her gun.

Recalling her mother’s stern warnings over the years, she paused. This couldn’t have anything to do with her family, could it? Her cousin Stacy’s face flashed in her memory along with the faded one of her father. But this wasn’t the big city, nor was it summer. Two critical elements. Usually.

She placed a cool hand to her throat, the racing tempo of her heart slowed just a little, and she considered her options. Maybe this was his version of “here little girl, help me with my puppy.” Clear out here though? It wasn’t like this place got a lot of foot traffic.

He dropped his arm and his mouth moved silently. God, he really seemed hurt. She had to do something; she couldn’t just leave him.

She pulled out her cell phone, punched 911, and kept a finger above the Send button. Shaking off myriad notions of zombies and cemeteries, she strode forward to the edge of the trees.

The man lay on his back, half-hidden under the leaves and branches, his clothes covered in dirt. Given his disheveled appearance, he looked like a vagrant. But as she raked her eyes over him, she noted his expensive-looking boots and pale blue dress shirt, and he, too, was wearing leather pants. Most definitely not homeless.

Torn and muddy, his shirt was unbuttoned, ripped open actually, revealing a dirt-smeared but well-defined chest. Some of his shoulder-length dark hair, tangled with bits of leaves and debris, seemed to be partially captured in a ponytail, but she couldn’t be sure from this angle. His eyes, an electrifying shade of ice blue, pierced through her. She stopped a few feet away.

“What happened to you? Are you hurt?”

“I need…your help.” His voice, slightly accented, was clearly laced with pain.

At that moment, the wind picked up and swirled at her feet as if urging her to move. The leaves around him danced on the air and settled slowly back to the ground. Stepping closer, she heard his sharp intake of breath. His eyes widened at first then narrowed to slits, and he shrank backwards into the leaves.

He couldn’t be scared of her, could he? He was a tall man, athletic and powerfully built. Why would he be afraid of her?

“Stay away,” he ordered. Given his condition, his forceful tone surprised her.

She didn’t understand. Why the sudden turnabout? He clearly needed her help. He had to be hallucinating. How long had he been here anyway? Squatting down to appear less intimidating, she tucked her phone in her pocket and stretched out her hands like she would to a frightened dog. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you. I can help.”

Then she saw it. A hole in his mud-encrusted shirt. She hadn’t noticed it right away because it was fairly small, the size of a quarter maybe, and he cradled his arm as if it were injured.

“Oh my God. Is that…blood? Have you been shot?”

As she sprang to his side, the last thing she remembered was the way his pupils suddenly dilated. Like a shark rolling back its eyes when it bites.

D IOS MIO . What have I done?

Even in his weakened condition, his senses dulled from the blood loss and the daylight, Dominic Serrano had caught the woman’s scent before he saw her or sensed her energy trail. A mesmerizing fragrance wafted in the air around him and woke him from his stupor. He should have known though. He’d been in and out of consciousness all day, but he still should’ve known. Should have recognized it. What an idiot.

He had kicked off some of the branches when he spotted her, not more than a few paces away, and watched as the tall, slender woman took pictures of the old headstones. Her movements were graceful, almost feline, as she swung her body around for different camera angles. When she recklessly flipped those loose curls behind her shoulders to reveal a long shapely neck and large hoop earrings, he almost stopped breathing.

His eyes were glued to her; he was powerless to peel them away. But his heart thundered against his ribs and he hardened instantly when she bent forward and wrestled with her hair. Closing his eyes for a moment, he imagined her standing over him, straddling his body with those long legs.

What the hell was he thinking? For God’s sake, he needed to ditch the fantasy shit and figure out how to— She fell to the ground and all he could do was stare.

With a knee bent and a boot heel wedged into the forest floor for traction, she shimmied and wriggled, aiming the lens at the distant treetops above. And, sweet Jesus, he imagined her body squirming like that beneath him.

His sudden erection surged like a battering ram against the seams of his pants and he hurried to adjust the tight-fitting leather. But the minute he moved, scorching jolts of pain shot from his injured shoulder and he cried out in agony.

The woman sat up and looked in his direction.

Shit. He held his breath, remained motionless, and hoped she’d leave without seeing him. What the hell was wrong with him? He certainly didn’t need another goddamn complication. But his arm lay awkwardly at his side, the throbbing intensity getting worse.

Sucking air through his teeth with a hiss, he inched his good arm over his stomach to reposition the bad one, but the instant shattered bones grated against torn muscles and infected tissue, he couldn’t help it.

He groaned again and she stared right at him.

Think. Think. It was getting late. Not much time before the Darkbloods would be back. They knew they’d shot him and they knew what he’d stolen.

With his barely functioning willpower, the woman was vulnerable to him. He would require more than the use of her cell phone as powerful urges simmered below the taut surface of his sensibilities. He tried not to feed from humans much, but at this point he was out of options. He had no other choice.

He called out to her and licked his dry lips. With that long hair cascading past her shoulder blades, it would encase his face as he drank from her, tickling his nose and giving his hands a luxurious anchor. He’d take just enough of her blood and energies, then send her away with memories of nothing. God, he was parched.

Although he sensed her fear, she came toward him with purpose in her stride. She moved with confidence, stepping over obstacles with a strong, even pace, unaccustomed to being afraid. Her curious green eyes locked onto his and he could think of little else except the mesmerizing sway of her hips. She stopped several feet away and appraised him.

He was about to ask her about her phone when his world caved in around him. The wind picked up and with it came her scent, swirling innocently in the leaves at first, then bashing him across the forehead like a lead pipe.

Dios mio. Sangre Dulce.

He wanted to pump his legs. To scramble away from her. But his muscles were like stone. He was virtually paralyzed.

She was more than just vulnerable, he realized. She was in terrible danger. Not just from him, but from the Darkbloods. She had to run. Get away. Now.

He clamped his eyes shut, tried to block out this nightmare. What were the odds a rare sweetblood would be the one to find him? Their blood was almost irresistible to his kind. Yes, how goddamn ironic was that? He wouldn’t drink from her. He couldn’t.

Once he tasted the blood of Sangre Dulce, especially in his present condition, there’d be little hope of a successful Stop and Release, a fact he knew only too well. Baser, primitive instincts would take over and the immunity training, required of all Guardians with the Agency, wouldn’t do him any good.

“Leave me alone.” He clenched his teeth to keep his fangs from elongating, but it was no use. As they stretched from his gums, his control ebbed away.

When she leaned close and he smelled her sweet breath on his face, all rational thought vanished. The animal lying dormant inside knew just what to do. A hidden store of energy coursed through his veins and he pounced with the practiced grace of a tiger, rolled her to her back and enveloped her body with his. Before she could scream, he pressed his palms to her temples, entrancing her in the age-old trick of his kind to subdue its prey.

She would remember nothing of the terror. Nothing of the pain. Nothing of him. That is, if she survived.

Her eyes closed and her head lolled backward, exposing the smooth delicate skin of her neck to him. In one swift movement, he tossed aside her camera, yanked the jacket off one shoulder and tore the neck of her T-shirt.

With a growl, he plunged his teeth into her flesh.

Pulling hard at her vein, he consumed mouthful after mouthful of her warm, beautiful nectar. He’d never tasted anything so glorious. So sweet. So utterly perfect. Good God, it was as if she were created solely to nourish him. Her fresh scent overpowered his nostrils as her blood filled his mouth and danced on his tongue. Suckling like a baby at the breast, his whole body shuddered in ecstasy and euphoria embraced him as a lover.

Without breaking their contact, he slipped a practiced hand to her cheek and temple, and her concentrated warm energies sluiced into his body, rejuvenating him with shocking speed. The cocoon of her fragrant hair captured his breath against her neck, making a heated and welcoming hollow for his face, and he pushed her deeper into the pile of forest debris with the weight of his body.

A small voice at the back of his head told him to stop, but he shoved it aside.

He’d fed directly from humans before, probably more than he cared to admit, and he’d absorbed the energies of thousands, but never were any of them like this. He heard about the taste of sweetblood, all of them had, but no verbal description even came close to this delicious reality. And her energies? He’d never experienced anything like them before. There was nothing he couldn’t do with her in his body, he realized. Impossible no longer existed.

Darkness licked at his soul as the fragile barrier between strongly held beliefs and suppressed instincts threatened to shatter around him. That voice again, deep in side, roared out like a freight train, calling him back.

Stop. You’re killing her. You’re not an animal.

Oh God, he did have to stop. Her pulse weakened under his lips and he sensed her life energy slipping away. This was wrong. He knew it was.

Releasing her vein, he crouched over her and rubbed his mouth with the back of an unsteady hand. Her scent, her sweet scent, clung to every fiber of his being, seducing him back like an addiction.

A junkie desperate for another fix, he needed more of her. The blood, the warm energies. All of it. No one would know. It’d be easy to keep this secret from everyone. He’d dispose of the body so it wouldn’t be found and she’d be just another missing person. Yes, that could work.

Move away from her. Remember Alfonso.

He pinched his eyes shut, scrambled backward and collapsed next to a tree. With his head cradled between his knees, he pulled at his hair and wished she had never found him.

He raised his head and forced himself to look at what he had done. There she was, nestled innocently in the leaves, unaware of the monster at her feet, her mouth ajar, hair billowing out behind her, and long dark lashes contrasting against the pale softness of her cheeks. He noticed a small mole on her upper lip, or maybe it was a dark freckle. It looked just like the one his mother used to draw on for vanity purposes.

Dios mio. What have I become?

His parents had fought so hard to elevate their kind to more than the thoughtless killers their ancestors had been. And now look at him. If his mother were alive, she’d be horrified at what he had done and everything it represented.

Another gust of wind blew through the forest, stirring the fir boughs into a rhythmic, fanning motion around him. Cool, fresh air brushed against his face, aerating him slightly and clearing out a tiny corner of his mind.

He forced himself to stand and staggered to the edge of the creek rollicking a few feet away. She was a magnet and it took every ounce of willpower to pry himself from her presence. His body cried out, wanting more, but his mind pulled him away.

He peeled off his shirt, thrust his head into the icy cold water, and pulled the tie from his ponytail. The rushing sound filled his ears and refreshed his head. Over and over he rinsed his mouth, trying to rid himself of her taste. He scrubbed his hair, his face, his neck, washing away her smell.

He rocked back on his heels, water dripping onto his bare shoulders, and he took a deep cleansing breath. He knew what he had to do. He was not going to end up like Alfonso. No way. He’d kill himself before he let what happened to his brother happen to him. His parents’ memory deserved more than that.

He doused his shirt in the creek, rubbed the fibers of the fabric together as if he had soap. Then he wrung it out and wrapped it around his nose and mouth like a makeshift bandanna.

When he scooped the woman up, his sudden strength stunned him. She was hardly a wisp of air in his arms. Her lips had a bluish cast to them and her pulse was weak, but she was alive. Thank God. He barely noticed that the agonizing pain from the silver bullet was gone.

There was no time to think about what a monster he was. That he was actually capable of such a despicable atrocity. He would deal with that later. Right now, he had to get her away.

With her scent all over this place, he had no doubt the Darkbloods would instantly abandon their search for him and focus on finding her instead. They’d go ape-shit when they smelled Sangre Dulce. And they had no qualms about killing. None.

He fished her keys from her tight leather pocket and stifled a bitter smile when he saw her juvenile key ring. Then, pausing to retrieve her camera, he cradled her body as gently as he could.

When her head rolled back, he saw two puncture holes on her graceful neck. He had backed away from her so quickly, he hadn’t sealed the wound. Without much thought, he lifted the shirt from his mouth and touched his lips to her skin.

When they drank from a human, they were never to leave an unhealed mark, no trace, no memory. He might be a rebel in the Agency, but he was no fool. Shock registered a moment later, when he realized he’d somehow controlled the urge to feed from her again. Good, maybe he could do this thing.

As he emerged from the forest into the sun of the dead, his pupils tightened and he dipped his head to shield his eyes. He started to step back into the shadows before he realized he felt none of the expected burn and no measurable energy drain. When had he last been outside willingly during this restless time of day when the sun died and his people awaited its disappearance beyond the horizon? Except as a vampire youthling prior to the Time of Change, maybe never. After that point, the cravings began and they lived out their lives away from the weakening effects of sunlight.

Just through the trees, the cemetery signpost leaned into the bushes, its wooden placard dangling in the wind, jeering, mocking him. He bit down on his defiance and strode past. There was a time when he would’ve made the sign of the cross and offered up a prayer, but not any longer. And certainly not today.

He glanced up the dirt road, expecting to see a sassy little sports car or even a truck. Not a freaking white motorcycle. Who was this woman with a Hello Kitty keychain?

Hell, this was going to be interesting.