Pick Your Poison . . .
BLACKTHORNE BLOODLINES #1
“Bring me another. This one’s empty.” I let the woman in my arms fall to the floor, her pulse weak and thready. She might survive if they took her to a hospital and gave her a transfusion. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I was free. Free of the chains of my mother’s humanity, of my father’s royal bloodline, and of the pain my heart would not let me escape. Now, I was a vampire prince. Not a half-breed. Not a bastard son.
“I’m bored,” I said to no one in particular as I nudged my donor with the toe of my left shoe. My right leg was splayed over the arm of the mockery of a throne I’d set up in the main hall of Midnight Rose Manor. It was the estate I’d been gifted for services rendered to the crown. Over the last few months, I’d taken to holding a farcical version of court here in Salem. They came to me, offered willing donors, and I gave them what they wanted.
I stared down at the writhing couples before me, locked in various states of intimacy. The crowd was made up of a few vampires who’d latched onto me simply because of my name and title. They weren’t my friends, not even my allies. These vampires were climbers. They wanted what my title could offer, a place in the Blackthorne vampire court. But they brought me women to fuck and feed from. Men to toy with while I took their women. In turn, I offered a place for them to be who they were without fear of discovery.
“I said, I’m bored.” My voice was loud, but they were too far gone.
Standing, I adjusted the cuffs of my sleeves and frowned when I saw a spot of crimson marring the white fabric. “Bloody hell, that won’t do.” With a sigh, I stepped over the woman I’d fed from and strolled toward the staircase. If they didn’t have another donor for me tonight, I’d have to find one the old fashioned way. Hunting.
But first, I needed to change.
* * *
The air in the pub was thick with the scent of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. It covered everything in a film that ruined the night before it even got started. A band in the corner played dreadful renditions of country music, and if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought this was my own version of Hell.
“You look a little out of place, handsome.” The busty woman from behind the bar sized me up. She was pretty with big…eyes and a wide smile. “What can I get you?”
I grinned and turned on the charm. “I’m from out of town. Here for a business trip. Got a bit bored of the hotel bar.”
She lit up like a firework at the sound of my accent. “Where are you from? You sound like a prince.”
Oh, if only she knew. “My family comes from England.” I leaned against the bar and reeled her in. My heart beat in a slow cadence as I locked my gaze on hers. “What's your name, love?”
She sighed, and blood rushed to her cheeks. “Candace... but you can call me Candi.”
“What if I want to call you mine tonight, Candi?”
“I'm off at two.” Her voice was low and sluggish—the power of my gaze keeping her locked in my thrall. Honestly, it was like shooting fish in a barrel these days.
“And if that's simply not soon enough? I need you now, in the alleyway. You’re too lovely to waste any more time with this nonsense.” My hands pressed hard on the surface of the bar top. If I wasn't cautious, I'd leave palm-sized indentations in the wood.
Candi swallowed and glanced around the room. “Lisa! I’m taking an early lunch.” She didn't look away from me for long, and when Lisa gave her a clipped noise of acknowledgment, Candi was around the bar and sidled up to me in a heartbeat. “Okay, bad boy. You’ve got thirty minutes to rock my world.”
I sighed. This was ridiculously easy. My chuckle turned to a full-body laugh.
“What's so funny?” Annoyance clouded her tone, but I simply shook my head, and the two of us kept walking until we were in the alley.
Under cover of darkness, I pushed her against the wall and let a low groan free from my chest. “You have no idea how much your world is about to change.”
I ran my fingers over her collarbone and up her neck. Candi shivered and sighed. “You’re so hot. Hotter than any of the guys I’ve seen come through this town.”
“Candi, do me a favor, love?”
She leaned into me. “Anything.”
“Do shut up.”
I didn’t let her respond. My fangs descended, and I dropped my lips to her throat, piercing her skin with my teeth before she had a clue what was happening. She let out a moan of pure ecstasy, her fingers clenching my shoulders over and over as I drained her slowly, letting the life leave her bit by bit.
I heard the shuffle, just a light brush of shoes on pavement, but it was enough. Releasing Candi, I let her sag against the wall, dazed and still caught up in the rapture my bite brought her. Two figures stood at the mouth of the alleyway, one hulking and stinking of testosterone, the other more slight, but with power radiating off her.
“It’s rude to interrupt someone in the middle of a meal.” My tone was light and unaffected, but on the inside, I was annoyed. I was going to ruin another shirt if I had to kill them.
“You should have thought about that before you took someone in the middle of town, Lucas.” The man’s voice was low and deep, not one I recognized, but that meant little.
“Who are you to tell me what to do? You clearly know who I am. The only one who holds any jurisdiction over me is the King. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? Ruler of all, blah, blah, blah, and so on.” A strange warmth covered me, joined by a buzzing in my brain and a thickness on my tongue. I rolled my head and watched as the world moved a beat slower than it should have. “What’s happened?” My words were thick and slurred. God, had they drugged Candi before I got to her? “How?”
“Give him a moment. Don’t go near him until we’re sure he’s out, Tarron. A clumsy lion is still a lion.”
The woman’s voice echoed in my mind, familiar somehow. My limbs were leaden, weighing me down, bringing me closer to the ground than I wanted. I stared at them, their features distorted by the drug and the shadows. Then I raised my hand and made a claw with my fingers. “Rawr, bitch.”
I hit the ground and fought to keep my eyes open, even as their footsteps grew closer. But I couldn’t move my arms to tear them limb from limb as I wanted. I couldn’t do a damn thing. They wrenched my wrists behind me, clamped something across both, and hauled me to my feet. But not before attaching some kind of muzzle over my nose and mouth. Oh, I would kill them at my earliest opportunity.
They dragged me across the damp, uneven pavement, and Tarron opened the rear of a large black SUV. “Throw him in, cover him in the silver net. Can’t take any chances with this one.”
The woman gripped me tighter. She was terribly strong and smelled quite like a dog I once knew. “I know how to handle a vampire.”
“But do you know how to handle a Blackthorne?” I slurred.
Her eyes, a startling color of violet I hadn’t seen in far too long, bored into mine. My head swam, and I wondered whether I’d truly lose consciousness. “I’m well-versed in the Blackthornes, Lucas. That scar on your back should serve as a reminder.”
“Rowena?” I whispered as she shoved me into the back of the vehicle and tossed a silver net across me.
“You didn’t think you’d live out your days without paying for everything you did to my pack, did you?” she snarled, and I heard the wolf inside her begging for release. “Your time is up.”
Then she pulled out a syringe and slammed a needle into my thigh, pumping me full of something that burned like fire and dragged me down into darkness all at the same time.
“You hit them where it counts, boy, or don’t come back to the manor,” my father spit from his chair in the study.
“They haven’t moved on us. They’ve only established their pack nearby. We’ll start a war if Cashel and I go after them.”
Cashel shifted on his feet and walked toward the crystal decanter filled with a mixture of blood and fine bourbon. “He’s right, father. They haven’t infringed on our territory, haven’t made any sort of threats. We’d be attacking without cause. That might anger the council.”
The king rolled his eyes. “The council does what I tell them.”
“I’m not talking about the vampire council.” Cashel poured himself a glass, then one for me. “The High Council. The one that oversees the goings-on of all creatures. The one that keeps us all from going extinct.”
Father sat up straighter. “How do you know about them?”
“Mother told me. Before she was taken by sun sickness.”
My stomach churned at the mention of the plague slowly killing our kind. A madness we couldn’t cure that drove the afflicted mad enough they’d walk into the sun.
I didn’t know anything about this mythical council on high, but my ears certainly perked up. “Who are these council members?”
“Three from each species, chosen by an archangel, who meet in a protected citadel none can find.”
“Vampire, witch, shifter…” I listed all the creatures I knew of.
“Demon, angel, incubus, succubus…” Cashel hummed as he pondered.
“And the Fae. Those are the only ones who count enough to be included.” Father stood and strode to the same decanter Cashel had used. “Twenty-four unbiased beings, working to keep us all alive.”
“How are they unbiased?” I asked. “Vampires are born hating shifters and witches. It’s part of our DNA.”
“No. We’re taught from the time we first open our eyes, whether as born or made vampires, what we should hate.” Cashel downed his drink and set his glass on the small table. “So, Father, do you still want to go forward with your attack on this new shifter pack?”
Father sighed. “I don’t like how close they are. I can smell them. I can hear their wretched howling at the moon.”
“That’s the problem with new neighbors. You never know how loud they’ll be.” I laughed at my poorly timed joke.
“If you think you’re getting away without going over there, you’re sorely mistaken, my son.” Father was in front of me quicker than my eyes could track. “We’ll just have to make sure they…throw the first punch. Do your best to goad them. We’ll be ready for anything they toss our way.”
I gritted my teeth and nodded, turning on my heel before he could see the anger in my eyes. Then I left the room, not releasing the guard I’d placed over my thoughts until I was out of the manor house and running through the grounds. I should have stayed in London this time. But when the Blackthorne king calls, you come. He’ll find you no matter what.
The moon was full and high by the time I reached the edge of our property and found the sprawling estate that served as our vacant next-door neighbors. Well, formerly vacant. I didn’t cross the property line. That wasn’t my plan for tonight. Tonight, I’d stake them out, observe their movements, get a good count of who was there and how many shifters I’d be dealing with.
I caught the scents of at least seven different shifters on the wind. One scent was stronger, more pungent than all the rest. The alpha. The one I’d need to take down over all else.
“Lucas, what are you doing?” My sister Sorcha’s voice was a hiss in my mind.
“I’m only on a little discovery mission. Learning about our neighbors.”
“Come home. You’re alone and at risk with them so close.”
I laughed. “You don’t think I can handle myself around a few pups?”
“I think you are over-confident and lack the courage of your convictions. Besides, Callie and I have put together a better plan.”
The sound of howling and barking caught my ears, getting closer to the house with every beat of my heart. Wolves bounded out of the far clearing, some gray and white, one solid black, another brown as bark, and one practically glowing silver. Their eyes were luminous violet, catching the light of the moon and holding me transfixed. Until they all shifted as I watched, awestruck. I’d never seen a shifter transform. It was nothing short of astounding as they moved smoothly from wolf to human form. All of them naked, without shame, without worry for who might see them.
I stepped farther back into the trees as they went inside their home, but must’ve landed on a twig, because a young woman with hair the color of warm honey flicked her gaze at me, her eyes scanning the area. She was striking in her confidence as her naked body swayed with each step. My trousers tightened in immediate response to her full, firm breasts and the generous swell of her hips.
“Briar, come inside,” a deep male voice called.
She turned her head, tearing her attention from my vicinity. “Coming.” Then she was gone, on her path into the house, leaving me undetected, unexpectedly aroused, and with a devious plan forming that I hoped would mesh perfectly with my sisters’.
* * *
“A ball?” Sorcha stared at me as though I’d grown two heads.
“Yes. A costumed ball, offering our neighbors freedom to hide their identities if they so choose. We can extend the invitation to the witches as well.”
Callie spluttered as she drank from her wine goblet. “Witches too? Are you trying to get Father to kick you out of the family?”
I laughed. “Tempting, but no. A dinner between our two families is not good enough. A group of shifters and vampires together, there’d be no way to prove who attacked first. It would be their word against ours. But, if we are seen as the peacemakers, offering the proverbial olive branch, there’s no way the High Council will be able to prove we were the masterminds behind the destruction of these shifters.” Striding across the music room, I sat at the piano and fiddled with a few keys. “We might even be able to get the shifters and witches to destroy each other, and we won’t have to lift a finger.”
A slow clap filled the room as my father walked through the doorway. “Very good, son. It’s a pity you’re a bastard, or I’d make you third in line for the throne.”
“That’s an honor I’m not interested in. Diplomacy is so boring. I’d rather reap the benefits of my name with none of the hassle of holding court. Not to mention the idea of marrying a princess…” I shuddered, thinking of my spoiled sisters and the other vampire royals I’d been forced to spend time with.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. No pureblooded vampire would have you. Blackthorne or not, you’re a half-breed. There’s no way around it.”
He was trying to get a rise out of me, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “Thank God. Purity is overrated. Have you ever had a witch? They’re more fun than anyone I’ve ever been with. The levitating alone…”
“Ugh, that’s enough,” Sorcha said, holding up a hand. “I don’t want to know what illegal activities you get up to in your time away from the manor.”
Cashel walked through the door with his human pet, Eliana, in tow. The poor girl looked dazed and slightly frightened. She was delicate and desperately enamored with my brother. “Brother, are you scandalizing Sorcha again? You know she’s keeping her virtue for her wedding night.”
“It’s better than spreading myself around the world. How many bastards have the two of you fathered over the last century?”
My chest tightened. She had a point. I opened my mouth to speak, but Father held up both hands. “Children, children, you’re scaring our pet. Now, Eliana, darling, why don’t you come with me? It’s time for you to make a donation.”
The woman’s large, dark eyes locked on Cashel, and my brother simply nodded before murmuring, “Go. You’ll be fine.”
I could see the anger in his eyes, though. He didn’t like sharing. Not with my father, not with anyone. But Eliana was our only possible cure for sun sickness, and we still hadn’t been able to nail down whether her blood truly held enough of the magic we needed. My half-siblings had already lost their mother, and our brother Callum was sick now. Everything hinged on Eliana. None of us could afford to fall for her.
Callie watched Eliana go to Father with a longing in her eyes I knew all too well. It was too late for my sister. She’d fallen hard. Poor girl.
“Callie?” I asked, pulling her focus before our father noticed where her eyes were trained. “I wonder if our invitation might be better accepted if you delivered it?”
She forced a smile and nodded. “Likely. I have a…calming presence the rest of you seemed to have missed when our parents shared their traits with us.”
“Shall we say, in a fortnight? Costumed ball. As a gesture of good faith, we’ll provide silver necklaces for all who want to wear them.”
Sorcha cocked a brow. “That will be uncomfortable for the shifters.”
“Itchy. Not deadly. And it’ll make them feel like we can’t bite them.”
She laughed. “As if I would. I don’t eat dog.”
“It might be best if you stayed in the shadows during this ball, sister. We’re trying to play a game with them, and you’ll reveal our cards before we can get control of the pot.”
“And our costumes?” she asked.
“Whatever you desire.”
Callie clapped her hands. “I’ve got just the thing. Gossamer, fairy wings, sparkles.”
Sorcha sighed. “Lovely. I suppose I’ll come up with something. What about you, Cashel?”
He shook his head. “Dogcatcher is out of the question?”
I laughed. “Yes. So is Little Red Riding Hood.” I stared pointedly at Sorcha, who frowned.
“Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I need to hunt before the sun rises. Unlike some of you, I do need the thrill of the chase to keep me focused.” I shucked my suit jacket and removed my tie. “Care to join me, Cashel?”
He shook his head. “I need to tend to Eliana after her donation. Besides, I already fed tonight.”
Callie and Sorcha both shook their heads as well. “I don’t feed on animals. Not unless I’m desperate,” Sorcha said.
I shrugged. “Your loss.”
In a minute flat, I was running through the woods, searching for my prey almost as soon as I stepped through the tree line. The wind carried the scents of pine and musty moss over the underlying earthy odor of old leaves and rotting wood from felled trees. But beyond that, there was life. Blood. A spark of something I needed. I heard the faint thrumming of a racing heart. Bingo.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” I whispered, crouching as I heard rustling in the brush and the distinct sound of four feet hitting the ground as the animal ran.
“Gotcha,” I said, bolting from my position and capturing the warm body of a…naked woman.
“Get off me, you impertinent fool.” She shoved at my shoulders, and her strength caught me off guard, causing me to lose my grip on her and fall flat on my ass.
“What are you doing on our property?” I practically growled the words, but I would have killed her if she hadn’t shifted. I could smell the sharp bite of magic from her transformation.
“I was just going for a run. Sometimes…the pack is too much. So many voices in my head at once. I needed a bit of quiet. I didn’t think I’d crossed the property line.”
She was naked, her curves on full display and streaked with dirt. I couldn’t help myself. My gaze went to her breasts. “You’re lucky I didn’t catch you before you changed.”
“Are you really…” She reached up and brushed her fingertips over my jaw.
“And you were planning to eat me?”
I grinned. “Perhaps I still am.”
Her eyes widened. “They’ll kill you if you do.”
“But you’ll still be dead. That won’t bring you back.”
Her heart raced, the pulse in her throat beating hard enough I could see the movement under her skin. “Don’t you want to know my name before you kill me?”
“I already know, Briar.”
“How? Wait, you were the one watching us after our run. You peeping Tom.”
I laughed. “Only doing my due diligence. A pack of shifters moves in next door to vampire royalty. You have to admit, it’s suspicious.”
My gaze continued to roam her body, her perfectly lush body. Fuck, I was hard. She seemed nonplussed about the whole thing. Cocking her hip, she asked, “And who are you? A guard?”
The lie slipped from my lips as easily as breathing. “You might call what I do something like that. My name is Lucas. I look out for the royal family. Protect the Blackthorne crown.”
“Well, Lucas. I suppose you want to get me off their property?”
Not really. I wanted to see if she tasted as delicious as she looked. I wanted to keep her in my rooms and make her mine in every fucking sense of the word. My heart lurched at the thought. What the hell was that about?
Her eyes brightened. Those startling violet irises. “Oh, you want to feed from me.”
My voice was a harsh rasp I had to force through a tight throat. “Yes.”
“Tell you what. If you can catch me, you can have a taste.”
My fangs descended before she turned away. She underestimated me, and it was going to cost her. She ran, and I chased, and it was thrilling. I let her escape this time, but one thing rang true in my mind.
Briar would be mine.