There was much in the world that Coraline Gordon feared: a revival of the revolution, being claimed by one of the countless vampire clans, dinner parties…but nothing compared to what she was about to put herself through now. Who would have imagined the most frightening event in her life would turn out to be seducing her husband?
Cora glanced out her car window at the luxurious high-rise hotel as she mentally rallied her courage. It shouldn’t be such a difficult task to entice one’s own husband—probably wouldn’t be for any other wife—but Winston was a cold man, hard to read, fearsome at times. She knew if she didn’t find a way to please him, she’d eventually be tossed back out on the streets where he’d found her. By his recent treatment, she wondered why he had married her in the first place. Was it because she’d been so destitute as to be indebted to him for her new station? Had he merely desired a picturesque wife, one that he’d molded perfectly to his taste? She’d been so pliable, wanting to please him. She hated to think she’d somehow fallen short. That he’d given her up as a failed experiment.
There had been a time when she’d cared for him more than anything, maybe almost loved him…in the beginning, anyway. Goddess of light and dark, had it only been seven months ago? She still did care for him. Craved his attention. But it wasn’t the same. Soon after their week-long honeymoon, he had grown distant, burying himself in his company: Gordon Exports.
She disengaged the motor and tugged the key from its slot.
Her hand froze just inches from the ignition as indecision warred in her mind, tempting her to start the car back up and peel away before there was no turning back.
She sighed. She had attempted to be the dutiful wife, did everything in her power to make herself presentable to his wealthy friends and acquaintances. Yet somehow she had been found lacking. No longer was she invited to the gatherings, shindigs, and charity events that Winston often attended, even though she always donated the max that he would allow.
Had his friends discovered her paltry origins and unanimously shunned her for it? Subsequently, had that caused Winston to see her as the street urchin she once was? Or was there another reason for her being cast out of his society?
If only he’d inform her of what she’d done wrong, she would strive to fix it. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t changed so much of herself already. Her once ragged sandy-blonde hair now gleamed from the regular high-end salon treatments. Her skin was kissed by the medically induced tan that was guaranteed never to fade. All the hair but that on her head and brows had been permanently removed, leaving every inch of her like silk.
She was finding there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to regain the acceptance she’d only known for a short while. Which was why she now sat in the vintage Aston Martin that Winston had given her as a wedding present, clad in thousand-dollar lingerie that was hidden only by a long elegant trench coat. Cliché? Maybe. But she wasn’t adept at being sexy, so she had to go with what she’d seen in movies.
After pocketing the key, she checked her makeup in the rearview mirror and straightened the sleek, dark wig she’d purchased this morning. Around her, folks bustled in and out of stores that lined the street. The outdoor seating area of a nearby café was packed for lunch.
She opened the car door and swung her legs out, making sure the tall heels of her knee-high boots found solid purchase before she pushed to a stand. Her heart thumped against her ribcage, but she ignored the meager protest as she crossed the parking lot.
The lobby of the five-star hotel was typical in its splendor. Gargantuan crystal chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling, gold-plated embellishments rested over banisters and other surfaces, beautiful artwork decorated the walls—no doubt originals, refurbished. The first few uprisings had devastated much of the world’s art. What wasn’t destroyed had been purchased, stolen, and horded up by wealthy collectors.
She couldn’t help but note the stark contrast of her well-to-do surroundings to the one-room shack she’d shared with several other street urchins not so long ago. The gap between the rich and poor was likened to an ocean of quicksand, nearly impossible to cross without a helping hand. And if one did manage to claw their way out of the muck, any new-found status depended on the good favor of a wealthy patron.
For her, that patron was her husband, Winston.
She hadn’t openly sought his favor, though she had always thought him handsome. She would spy him here and there, strolling the streets of her neighborhood with a barrage of bodyguards while he prospected the land for new properties, or some such. No, he had come to her, wooed her, seduced her with promises of a better life and possibly a family. She had been so easily enamored. Then again, like most of the women from her district, a snap and crook of a finger would have swept her off her feet.
But it was her, not them, that Winston had set his sights on. To her that he had promised the world. Yet now those promises felt like trying to grip a puff of smoke in her palm.
Her heels clicked over the marble floor as she crossed to the elevator. Inside, she tugged her tie-belt snugly around her waist and then pressed the button for the ninth floor. Winston was in room nine-eighteen. She knew because she’d ordered the room for him before he’d left on this trip.
When the doors slid closed, she took a succession of rapid breaths. Anxiety siphoned the moisture from her throat. She swallowed, feeling her pulse rise. It was being boxed in that did it to her. She still wasn’t used to the fast-paced world of the upper class. The majority of the lower classes kept to the outskirts and dilapidated districts that had been most affected by the recent wars—the areas that remained neglected, some buildings still half falling down. Surprisingly enough, it was safer for them there, where they could watch each other’s backs, where gangs ruled both by brute force and strength of number. Those who braved the city limits were either outcasts, junkies, loners, or criminals looking for a score. Either way they risked much.
She’d been a loner, for the most part.
Gangs might be safer when dealing with outsiders, but they did no good when the threat came from within. Which it often did for the weakest of the bunch.
The glassy doors opened, and a bit of her anxiety waned. As she stepped out of the elevator, a wave of dizziness assailed her. Though the floor was as sturdy as could be, her body instinctively knew how far it was from the true ground. The sensation was odd, but fleeting. Still, nausea rolled through her. Her nerves pushed adrenaline through her veins like a battering ram as she made her way down the empty hallway.
She told herself that most the buildings of today were made to withstand a nine-point-zero earthquake as well as bomb impacts. There was little chance she’d relive the terrifying disaster that took her parents and baby brother all those years ago.
Since that terrible day, she’d always hated tall buildings. She hadn’t set foot in one till Winston came along—it just so happened most his business was conducted in tall buildings.
Just outside room nine-eighteen, she swallowed hard, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. The walls weren’t closing in. The ceiling wasn’t about to crash down on her.
Winston always scoffed at her phobia. He called it ridiculous and embarrassing. She agreed her fear was irrational, but not unfounded. All the same, he’d instructed her to “get over it.”
Right now, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. Her heart had already started its familiar staccato beat, her breaths shortening. She felt hot, and a light sheen of sweat formed across her forehead. She leaned one hand on the doorjamb.
She mentally cursed. The very last thing she portrayed at this moment was sexy. Perhaps she should attempt this seduction thing when Winston returned home. As it was, he would take one glance at her and burst into laughter.
She was about to turn back down the hall when the soft murmur of voices from within the room gave her pause.
Oh, goddess, she hadn’t considered he might have visitors. He was on a business trip, after all.
Another sound filtered through the door…a giggle of sorts, followed by a string of words Cora couldn’t quite make out, yet her instincts sprang to life. The voice—the female voice—had sounded overtly sensual. Winston, for that was surely his deep tone, responded with a rough chuckle.
Her mind delved into a dark place, a place where every issue that had cropped up between her and Winston suddenly made sense.
But it couldn’t be. Infidelity was one thing in high-society that was still frowned upon. Fear was making her jump to conclusions. Surely he was just in a business meeting or schmoozing clients.
Phobia forgotten, she raised her fist to pound on the door just as the door at her back whooshed open. Strong fingers clamped around her wrist. She started to turn to see who had stopped her and why, but the large hand left her wrist to cover her mouth. At the same time, a thickly muscled arm wrapped around her midsection and yanked her backwards. She managed a single muffled cry before she crossed the threshold and the heavy door closed her in. Her limbs flew into a panic before her brain could make sense of what was happening. She thrashed wildly, bucking to get free. But for all her struggling, her abductor might as well be made of stone.
While the man kept her still, another man dressed in dark clothing moved into her line of sight. The gun he held in her face inspired immediate capitulation. She stilled, eyes wide, heart pounding. Her own terrified gasps echoed in her ears.
In his other hand, he held up a badge. Her mind was too panicked to read the words on it, but the unique oblong shape was all too familiar. Vampire Enforcement Agency.
Another whimper crawled through her throat.
“Yeah, you know what this is, don’t you?” The dark-haired man at her front said.
She managed a weak nod. Her abductors hand was still tight against her mouth.
“So you’re going to cooperate, right?”
“No sounds, no sudden movements. Got it?”
One more nod.
“Put your hands up. My partner Mason here is going to remove your coat and search you for weapons.”
Her hands shook as she obeyed. Undoubtedly, both her captors could hear the sudden rushing of her pulse. The man at her back, Mason, released her, circled around, and then pulled her tie-belt lose. She flushed and lowered her gaze to the floor as her coat fell open.
The men stared at her partially see-through bustier with a strip of black coverage over her breasts and matching sheer micro mini that revealed black string-bikini underwear. Leather boots that reached above her knees completed the ensemble.
“What did he do,” Mason asked his partner, “order another hooker?”
Mason’s hair was a slightly lighter brown than his companions, but cut just as short. Both men were taller than her by a half foot at least, and it was easy to imagine the compacted muscles that lie beneath their dark suits.
“When did he manage that?” his partner countered.
To her, Mason ordered, “Drop the coat and kick it toward Trent.” He gestured to the other man with his head.
She let the coat slip over her shoulders and then shoved it away with her foot. Trent lowered his gun to retrieve it and began digging through the pockets.
“Hands on the wall.” Not giving her much time to obey, Mason turned her around by the shoulders.
Her palms met the wall. A second later, a set of firm hands traveled along her sides and down each of her legs before retracing their steps and moving toward the undersides of her chest. Her jaw clenched. Clearly there were no weapons hidden on her person. How would she even manage such a thing?
Next, Mason pulled her arms behind her back, and metal cuffs bit into her wrists. Her stomached dropped three floors down. She wanted to ask why she was being arrested, but she was too terrified to form the question. If these men truly were vampires, simply looking them in the eye could be seen as a direct challenge.
He maneuvered her to sit on the edge of the bed.
Trent tossed her coat to the floor and held up her ID.
A set of brightly lit monitors in the corner of the room caught her eye. One displayed a split screen of the hallway from either end. The second showed different angles of a room similar to the one she was currently in. On the bed, two figures lounged. A man and a woman. The woman was dressed in a sexy outfit, not unlike her own. The man was…Winston! Shirtless, arms behind his head, smiling like she’d never seen him smile. A familiar giggle erupted from a set of tiny speakers as the woman on the screen ran her hand along his chest and then toward the clasp of his trousers.
Cora’s jaw dropped. The sting of betrayal tightened the muscles in her throat.
Mason glanced at the screens, then back at her. He gripped her chin between his thumb and forefinger and tilted her head up, capturing her hurt gaze. Something like recognition fired behind his eyes. “Oh, shit. It’s his wife.”
Confusion mounted and she took in his features, wondering from where he might know her. He had a sharply angled jaw, a bit wide, but it fit his face perfectly. His nose was nearly straight with only the slightest bump that added a dangerous cast to his already glowering expression. His eyes were an odd bluish-grey color with the appearance of being backlit.
His brow furrowed.
She tore her gaze away, realizing she was staring directly into his eyes.
“Coraline Gordon,” Trent announced, handing him her ID.
Mason didn’t even look at it. Instead, he reached out and tugged the dark wig off her head. Golden locks tumbled over her shoulders.
A ripe, guttural curse made her jump. She glanced up for only a moment, wishing she hadn’t. Mason’s jaw was locked tight, his eyes bright with fury. A hint of his fangs verified his species.
She cringed and studied the floor as if it held the key to her survival.
A whistle rang out from Trent’s direction. “Nothing against Marissa, but with a wife like that…?” He shook his head. “And the man’s only been married for what? A few months?”
“Enough,” Mason barked and turned toward the surveillance screens. “We have movement again.”
The split screen of the hall showed three males in dark clothing, each carrying a black duffel bag, walking toward the camera.
“Dammit,” Mason sighed. “This floor is supposed to be off limits to occupants.” He looked to Trent. “Did we confirm that with the front desk?”
Trent’s gaze widened on the screens. He pulled out his gun. “They’re not here for a stay.”
As the men glided swiftly down the hall, they opened their duffels and retrieved from within an automatic weapon. They stopped at room nine-eighteen. The one in front slammed his foot into the door, busting it open. Gunfire erupted. One half of Winston’s head explode while blood splattered onto the bed and walls behind him.
Cora felt dizzy from the sudden raging of her heart. A scream rang out. Had that come from her? A second scream filtered through the monitor’s speakers.
“Shit!” Mason yelled. “Get down!” He pushed Cora off the mattress to the floor. With her hands still cuffed, she landed on her shoulder between the bed and the wall farthest from the door. Her body curled into a ball automatically.
The maelstrom of gunfire that came next seemed to last forever, though in hindsight, it was probably only a few seconds. The other woman’s scream went silent, but echoed faintly in Cora’s head. Was she dead? She was having a hard time processing that.
The only thing Cora was able to comprehend was the fact that she couldn’t get enough air. What she did manage to suck into her lungs was tainted by the dusty scent of the carpet near her face. Her body shuddered violently and the cuffs dug into her skin, but she didn’t dare move. Didn’t dare draw attention to herself.
The gunfire ceased.
Who were the victors? She couldn’t tell. Moreover, she didn’t know what would benefit her more: if the strangers had survived, or the vampires.
One thing was undeniable. Winston was dead. She closed her eyes and tried to shake the gruesome image of his death away, but it seemed stained into her mind.
She began to hyperventilate.
A voice came back into the room, possibly Trent’s, sounding sullen. “Human officer down, dead on scene. Suspect has been taken out by three unknown assailants.” He paused. “It looked professional. One is still alive, just barely. Mace is questioning him now.”
There was another pause.
“Yes, sir. Mm-hm. There was another complication. The suspect’s wife showed up just before the assailants. We don’t know if it’s connected…Oh really?” He paused. “Oh, shit. Are you serious?”
“Serious about what?” Mason’s voice sounded from the hall. Footsteps announced his reentry.
Trent’s voice went low. “It’s possible this wasn’t an isolated incident.” Then he went back to his normal tone. “Yes, sir. Be there within the hour.”
“He’s dead,” Mason said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t get anything out of him. What do you mean this wasn’t an isolated incident?”
“That’s all he said. Said he’d brief us when we bring in the wife.”
The room went silent. She could practically feel their gazes slip to her. Her heart stopped dead before jack-rabbiting out of control. Oh, goddess! They were going to take her in. Humans who crossed the VEA didn’t just go to jail—they disappeared. Panic iced her veins.
“Okay,” Mason said. “You go inventory the crime scene. I’ll take her down to the car.”
At some point, Cora had managed to mold herself into a tight corner of the small space, but that didn’t keep Mason’s strong hands from lifting her up off the floor. With both palms on her shoulders, he steadied her and didn’t let go till he seemed sure she wouldn’t fall back over.
“Turn around,” he ordered. When she did, he added, “Don’t move.” Then he uncuffed one of her hands.
The urge to wring her fingers around her free wrist was strong, but she kept as still as possible.
The familiar fabric of her coat came over her shoulders. Mason guided her arms though the sleeves and then turned her back around to face him. He snatched the belt string and tied the trench closed. “If it so happens you’re here by coincidence, you picked a hell of a day.”
If her voice box had been working she’d have told him that was the understatement of the year.
Once more, he cuffed her wrists behind her back and then guided her by the elbow out into the hall. Red splotches decorated the previously spotless walls. A body slumped lifelessly on the floor. A frightened noise escaped her lungs, and she stumbled. Mason held her steady and rushed her forward.
In the elevator, after the doors slid closed, he studied her for a long while. She tipped her head down and became like a statue, except her breaths heaved erratically. The weight of his gaze was nearly physical. She was acutely aware of who in this small space was the predator and who the prey.
Vampires functioned on a different level than humans. They were twice as strong and thrice as primitive.
After another moment, his hand stretched toward the panel, and he pressed the button marked G for garage. This time, the ride down was not fast enough, but finally, the doors parted, revealing a badly lit space stuffed with vehicles. As he tugged her forward by the arm, her heels clicked loudly against the concrete. The sound bounced off the solid concrete walls.
He led her to an unmarked black car and then situated her in the back. She was surprised by his gentle treatment of her thus far, but then, there could be witnesses anywhere, cameras. Vampires liked to keep vampire business behind closed doors.
He slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine, but kept the car in park. In the rearview mirror, their gazes locked before she turned her eyes down. The silence stretched on, and she took the time to assess the unfortunate turn of events. More likely than not, her old life was forfeit, her future precarious. Winston, for whatever reason, had caught the eye of the VEA. Never a good thing. And now he was dead.
She felt as though she should be experiencing more sorrow over that fact. In truth, she only felt numb. Maybe she was in shock. Maybe her survival instinct was overruling her emotions. Unwanted thoughts from the past bubbled up from the back of her mind.
After the disaster that had made her an orphan, she’d been rendered a street-beggar at the age of ten. While scrounging for scraps in a back-alley dumpster, she’d caught the attention of a low-level vampire soldier.
She had tried to run, had managed a laughable attempt, but he’d caught her throat in a death grip. Not a breath later, his fangs had pierced her shoulder. When he was done nearly draining her, he’d introduced himself as one would a new acquaintance. “I’m Edgar. What’s your name?”
Through her sobs, she’d whimpered out a shaky, “Coraline.”
Then he’d tried to hypnotize her into following him, only to find her immune to vampire compulsion. A surprise to them both. His crazed blood-drunk eyes had grown excited. To this day, she couldn’t say why that had enamored him so. Or why it made him want to torture her. Her only explanation was that vampires were sadistic by nature.
She mentally skipped over the worst of her captivity. That was where she’d learned how to go unnoticed by vampire kind, how to be still and quiet and the importance of averting one’s gaze. That was where she’d learned they were more like animals than humans.
She thanked the goddess that he hadn’t abused her in a sexual manner, though he did make threats of the kind. At the time, he seemed more interested in making her his personal snack pack.
Edgar had been a kind of foot soldier for a militia clan meant to squash the human uprising. When his leader discovered her chained in Edgar’s quarters, he ordered a tribunal. Apparently no one in that particular clan could claim a human without express permission from the higher-ups. Edgar had made his case with her cowering by his side in front of his entire clan. He’d revealed her affinity to resist compulsion and claimed to want to keep her for further study.
Whether it had been extreme luck, or merely that Edgar was genuinely disliked by his superiors, the commander refused his request and ordered her immediate release. He’d called her a liability before bringing up that she was a minor. Cora was surprised to learn they did have some laws against such things. However, she might never understand why they hadn’t just killed her then and there.
Edgar had protested and openly challenged the leader’s decision. The result was Edgar’s blood coating the walls. Her child’s mind must have blocked out his execution, but the horror often slipped back to her in dreams.
After disemboweling Edgar, the leader had turned to her, and simply said, “Go.”
Her thoughts were disrupted by the passenger side door opening. Trent folded himself into the seat. “Forensics has arrived. Clean up team’s not far behind. Let’s go.”
Mace watched the little human in the rearview mirror with too much interest. He always watched her with too much interest, which was why he often considered transferring to another case. Yet in all the months he’d been tailing Coraline and her rat-bastard husband, something had stopped him from doing just that, even when his unexpected infatuation had nearly blown his cover a few weeks back.
What the hell was she doing here?
Dressed like every guy’s wet dream, for shit sake!
He slammed the car into reverse and then peeled out toward the exit. Trent didn’t comment on his aggravated maneuver. His partner was too busy contacting Rolo, the newbie assigned to watch the Gordon house while Mace, Trent, and Marissa set up this little sting.
Marissa, though only human, had been a tough cookie, willing to snuggle up to that slime in hopes of garnering information on his dealings. Her chief was going to be pissed about losing one of his best over a vampire blood smuggling case.
The humans rarely cooperated with the VEA as it was. Now they’d be less likely to do so than ever, especially after this particular clusterfuck.
Trent’s tone was clipped when Rolo answered, clearly not wanting to give too much away with Cora in the back. “You seemed to have lost something, Rolo,” Trent hissed into the phone. “What the hell?”
With his superior hearing, Mace caught Rolo’s answer through the tiny speaker. “What are you talking about?”
Trent sighed. “Where are you?”
“I’m where you told me to be, but I’m a little busy right now.”
A faint round of gunshots vibrated the phone’s speakers from the other end of the call.
“What’s going on?” Trent asked.
“Just a little Mexican standoff. A group disguised as a painting crew broke into the Gordon house. They’re packing some serious heat.” A few more gunshots rang out. “I don’t know where wifey-poo is. She never showed up after I took my shift.”
“We, uh, have the package with us,” Trent said obscurely.
“No shit? She’s with you now?”
“Yes. We’re heading to the police station.”
Cora perked up at Trent’s words. For another frustrating second, she met Mace’s gaze in the mirror before lowering her head. He knew she was from the ghetto, but something in her behavior told him she had a little more experience with vampires than the average human. The suspicion only made her more intriguing.
“Do your best to capture at least one of them for questioning, then meet us at the precinct.” Trent hung up. “Fuck all,” he muttered. “Something serious has just gone down under our noses.”
They remained silent for the rest of the ride. Mace pulled into the police garage and parked as close to the entrance as possible. Before he killed the engine, Trent was already out of the car, opening Cora’s door and helping her out.
Cora had almost cried from joy when she saw the police station. The only reason for them to bring her here would be to hand her over to the human authorities instead of condemning her to vampire justice. She might yet survive this calamity.
Inside, Trent guided her to a room with dreary stone grey walls and a single table with several chairs. Then he undid her cuffs and exited, leaving her alone.
She examined her appearance in the wide, one-way mirror—standard issue, she thought. Her blonde hair was ruffled from the wig that remained back on the hotel room floor. Her light-brown eyes were stark, shell-shocked. And her coat was a little disheveled.
She was insurmountably grateful that the vampire called Mace had been kind enough to allow her to cover the outfit that now seemed like an ode to stupidity.
How had she ever thought it was a good idea to follow Winston in an attempt to surprise him? She should have just stayed home and fretted over his return, per usual. But then, he wouldn’t have returned, would he? Perhaps even now she would have been called to the door by Frederick, the butler, and greeted the police officer assigned to give her the terrible news. She would have cried and mourned and despaired.
Instead, she had to discover just how little Winston valued their marriage. The stinging realization was only muted by the horror of having witnessed his murder. It seemed silly now that she had thought seducing him would be the most terrifying thing she’d endure today.
The reflection in the mirror smacked of so much desperation, hopelessness, and misery, she had to look away. Almost without her willing it, she slipped into one of the plastic chairs, folded her arms on the table, and lowered her head into the dark crevice created by her body.
It could have been minutes or hours later when the sound of the door opening jerked her awake. She hadn’t even realized how exhausted she was until slumber was stolen from her.
“Hello, Ms. Gordon.” A balding man took the seat across the table.
Mason and Trent entered as well. Trent crossed to lean against the wall. Mason stood beside the officer, arms folded behind his back. Why were they still here? A sense of foreboding chased away the last of her drowsiness.
The balding man handed her a cup of water. With shaky fingers, she took it from him and downed a large gulp.
“Has someone come in to take your statement yet?” the man asked.
“No,” she replied.
He glanced at the mirror and then back at her. “Well, I have a few questions for you, but I’d like to get your statement on record first. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
She blinked twice, suddenly nervous. She was going to have to explain why she’d been there. “I wanted to…surprise Winston.” She wrapped her arms around her torso before continuing. “He’s been working a lot lately, and we hadn’t had much time for…romance—”
“Working on what?” the officer interrupted.
She hesitated. “Well, his import-export company. Anyway, I went to his room at the hotel and…” She assumed he knew exactly what happened at that point, but she went through it anyway, all the while avoiding glancing at Mason or Trent. “The next thing I knew, gunshots were going off, and I saw…I saw my husband’s head…um…” Her voice quivered, making it impossible to speak for a moment.
“Can you tell me about your husband’s company?”
She cleared her throat. “Not much. It’s an old company. He inherited it from his parents. They transport goods in and out of the country.”
“What kind of goods?”
“Anything you can think of.”
She paused. “I…I wouldn’t know. It wasn’t something Winston ever talked to me about. Is that why he was being watched? Was he doing something wrong?”
Mason snorted. For a split second, she forgot herself and shot him a glare. One of his sleek eyebrows rose, and she fixed her gaze back on the human officer.
The officer continued. “If there’s anything you know regarding what your husband and his associates were into, now is the time to tell us, Coraline. Even if you were involved in any way, we could—”
“Involved in what?” she asked.
The officer shared a look with Mason, and Mason took over. “We believe your husband was involved in the abduction of vampires and harvesting their blood for sale on the black market.”
Cora’s mouth fell open. She didn’t even attempt to wipe away her dumfounded expression. Could Winston have been so stupid as to tempt the wrath of the vampire nation?
“Why would he do anything like that? Gordon Exports is a multimillion-dollar company. He had no need to—”
“Clearly, your husband got bored easily,” Mason said coldly.
Her mouth clamped shut. Was that a dig at Winston’s infidelity?
“It tends to happen when you want for nothing, when you’re handed everything from the time of birth and never have to work for it. There’s no doubt Winston was smuggling vampire blood, but we weren’t sure if he was the mastermind or just a middle-man. Marissa, the woman you saw with Winston, had been seeing him regularly.”
Cora flinched. The corners of her mouth tugged into a frown and a set of salty, burgeoning tears burned her eyes.
Mason’s tone softened. “Her objective was to find out where the blood was coming from and who else was involved.”
“How long had they been…?” She trailed off, staring at Mason’s upside-down reflection in the metallic gleam of the table.
“Since before you,” he replied simply.
Devastation crushed her chest.
“In fact, Marissa had been hinting about marriage just before he met you. You came as something of a surprise, actually…” Mason paused for a moment. “We weren’t sure if you were involved somehow, so we assigned someone to follow you as well.”
Cora’s head jerked up. She’d been followed? For how long? The thought sent a shiver down her spine. “And what did you find?”
“For the most part, it seemed you were ignorant of everything. But several months ago, something was discovered. If a human had been tailing you, it would have gone unnoticed, but…the scent of vampire blood was in your veins.”
Finally, she met Mason’s gaze head-on. Surely he was joking. His deadpan stare bore into hers.
“That’s impossible,” she said.
“It’s a fact. I smell it on you even now.”
She shook her head. “I’ve never even tasted vampire blood, not even when…”
Both males canted their heads, and she knew she would be forced to finish her sentence.
“Not even when I was offered it in my youth.”
After Edgar would brutalize her, he’d tear open his own wrist and present it to her, claiming his blood would heal her if she choose. She had always refused, hoping her wounds would kill her instead.
“You’ve ingested it within the last week,” Mason insisted. “But you don’t have to take my word on it. We’re preparing a warrant to have your blood tested. That will not only confirm what I say, but it could identify which missing vampire it came from.”
Cora’s heart slammed to a halt. What would happen to her if they found something in her system? When could she have possibly ingested vampire blood? And if she had, how could she not have realized it? Didn’t that stuff affect humans in noticeable ways?
She gasped as a memory knocked the wind from her lungs like a blow to the stomach. It was something she wouldn’t have thought twice about had she not been forced to reconsider everything she’d known over the last seven months. She glanced at her right forefinger, at a spot that probably should brandish at the very least a scab, but the skin was smooth and even, flawless.
“What is it?” The vampire asked.
“Last Monday Winston and I were making dinner. He was cutting some carrots, and I reached over to grab the pile next to him. The knife slipped, and my finger got cut. It thought it would need stitched, but Winston wrapped it in gauze and convinced me not to worry about it. Then he finished dinner and poured me a glass of red wine.” She paused at the memory of thinking how kind it had been of Winston to take such care of her. “The next morning, I checked the cut and it was already closing up. I figured it just hadn’t been as bad as I’d originally thought.”
Had Winston been feeding her vampire blood behind her back?
“Blood-laced wine is a popular method of consumption,” Mason replied. “It masks the color and taste.”
“Something happened before that,” she continued as another suspicious memory assailed her. “There was a dinner party at the Montgomery home three months ago. Not a huge event, just a few people I had never met before. Ms. Montgomery had taken me upstairs to show off a new painting of her posing by the pool with her miniature chow. On our way back down, she lost her footing and fell into me. I took a hard tumble and landed wrong on my arm. I remember thinking I must have broken it. It swelled up pretty bad. But same as last week, Winston convinced me to wait before we sought medical attention. We all sat down to dinner and had wine. Before the night was over, most of the pain had dulled and the swelling had gone down. The next morning it was only a little tender.”
Mason and the officer shared another look.
“I recall that gathering,” Mason said. “The Montgomery’s home is like a fortified castle. We couldn’t get a man inside. Do you remember the names of everyone who had attended?”
“I was introduced to them all at once earlier that night, but I hadn’t been able to memorize all their names. I might be able to identify some of their faces, but you could just ask the Montgomerys.”
Once more the two men locked eyes.
“What?” She glanced between them.
Mason sighed. “The Montgomery home was infiltrated at the same time those assassins came for your husband.”
“Oh my goddess. Are they…?”
“Dead.” He said it as though he were discussing the weather.
“Hold on, now,” the officer bit out. “I’m not ready for that information to be made public.”
Mason ignored him. He seemed to be gauging her reaction, and she thought she knew why. “Am I a suspect?”
“You would be, if your home hadn’t been targeted as well.”
Her head jerked up, and she again met his intense gaze. “Targeted?”
“The operation was carried out with military precision. Synchronized to perfection. Every suspected conspirator, and several we didn’t even think to add to the list, was executed.”
“Mace,” the officer hissed. “Would you shut your mouth?”
“She’s not involved in any of it,” Mason replied.
“And what makes you so sure? Her home was attacked, but she was conveniently away at the time.”
“About the time Winston married her, tainted blood was circulating through the black market. People were dying from it. I believe he needed someone to test his product on before distributing it to his rich friends.” He gestured toward her.
Her frown grew more pronounced.
Was that all she was? A guinea pig?
She had always wondered why Winston had chosen to marry her when he was constantly surrounded by beautiful, sometimes too obviously willing, women of his own class. Gullible guinea pig made too much sense.
The officer shook his head. “That’s just your opinion until all the evidence is examined.”
Mace shrugged. “Right now, there is no evidence. No leads. Only her.”
The officer sighed. “Ms. Gordon, is there anything else you can tell us? Did your husband ever mention anything about his little side business?”
He stood as if to leave. “If you think of anything, I won’t be far. Someone will be by to take a sample of your blood and then you’ll be free to go.”
“Actually, she’ll be coming with me.”
Cora gaped at Mason.
The officer paused and swiveled his head in the same direction. His jaw tightened, and she thought he might protest.
Mace became stern, as did Trent, their expressions hardening. The three seemed to be having a silent conversation. Or a battle for dominance. If the VEA wanted her, she couldn’t imagine there was anything the officer could do.
Apparently, he’d come to the same conclusion. “She’ll be released into your custody once we get the sample.”
“What does that mean, released into his custody?” She gripped the edge of the table as if she could bolt herself in place.
“This is a VEA investigation,” the officer informed her. A bit of pity seeped out with his words. “We’re only providing assistance.”
She leaned forward. “You can’t let them take me.”
“Sorry, little lady.” He hiked his thumb at Mason, pity quickly evaporating. “These guys are in charge. You know that.”
She did. Since they’d revealed themselves to the world one hundred years ago, the vampires had graciously allowed the human institutions to proceed with almost no interruption, but there was no illusion that vampire law didn’t overrule human law, which was the underlining cause of most of the uprisings.
“But he’ll kill me,” she muttered. Anyone caught with illegally obtained vampire blood was dealt a swift death. No trial necessary.
“I’ve no intention of killing you,” Mason proclaimed.
Terror dropped her heart into her stomach. Then what did they plan for her? She knew first hand that surviving in the custody of a vampire could be even worse than death.
“Can’t I stay here…in a human jail until all this is sorted out?”
Mason narrowed his gaze. “No, you can’t.” Then he addressed the officer in a demanding tone. “Fetch the person to administer the blood test. I want to be on our way.”
The officer’s features pinched slightly, almost like a sneer, but not quite. He left without a word.
Cora kept her eyes lowered to the table. Her tone came out no more than a whisper. “Please. I don’t want to go with you.”
The vampires made no response, which was answer enough.