Bestselling author, Dianne Duvall, returns with the sixth book in her exciting and addictive Immortal Guardians series – Shadows Strike!
Fog stole across the ground and curled cool fingers around Heather Lane’s ankles. Shivering, she pried her gaze away from the e-book on the tablet in her lap and studied her surroundings.Tall, dark, hulking trees surrounded the small clearing in a cylinder of dense foliage her eyes couldn’t penetrate. A full moon had set about an hour ago, leaving behind blackness and twinkling stars occasionally obscured by wispy clouds. Slouched in her comfy tailgating chair, Heather glanced at her watch. 5:43. The sky would soon begin to brighten with dawn. Until then, lawn lights encircled her like a fairy ring, providing ample illumination.
It was so peaceful here, the quiet and dark beauty loosening the knots stress tended to lodge in her shoulders.
She dropped her gaze to her tablet once more.
A faint rustling sound distracted her.
“Please let that be birds or squirrels up, foraging about early,” she murmured.
Unable to locate the culprit, she lifted her feet and propped them on the portable footstool that matched her chair. She really didn’t want to encounter any less-cute members of the rodent family. Or snakes. But if she did, she might as well make it harder for them to skitter or slither up her pants leg.
A breeze whipped the fog into a mild frenzy, carrying with it a noise that seemed out of place amongst the chirping of crickets, croaking of frogs, and scuttling of squirrels.
Please, let it be squirrels.
Heather tilted her head to one side, listening.
Seconds later she heard it again.Was that . . . voices?
Setting her tablet aside, she sat up straighter and lowered her feet to the ground.
A faint shout floated on the night. Then another. And another. Words indiscernible.
Her eyes fixing on the forest to the west, Heather tucked her tablet into the backpack beside her chair.
Branches snapped in the distance, the pops and cracks increasing in volume as if some huge creature barreled through the forest toward her.
Heart hammering in her chest, she slipped her hand deeper into the backpack and curled her fingers around the grip of the Walther PPQ 9mm she kept hidden there.
Thuds. Curses. Grunts. Branches still crackling. Foliage rustling.
She rose, withdrawing the weapon. What the hell was coming?
Dark figures burst from the trees on her left.
At first, she couldn’t determine what the hell she was seeing. Even with the lawn lights aiding her, it looked almost as though a blurry tornado had spiraled into the clearing. Then . . .
Her eyes flew wide as the tempest’s movement slowed.
Men. Seven of them. With eyes that glowed brighter than the stars above.
As they noticed the lawn lights, half of them paused to examine their surroundings.
Eyes that glowed and long, glinting fangs that didn’t look like the cheap plastic store-bought fangs she saw each year on Halloween. These looked real.
The other half of the men fought some foe dressed all in black, circling him like hyenas and darting in to strike whenever they saw an opening.
The vibrant blue gaze of one of the males who had gone still latched onto Heather. His lips stretched into a sneering smile.
Raising the 9mm, Heather aimed it at him, hoping she wouldn’t have to pull the trigger.
Red liquid splattered one side of the sneering man’s face.
She swallowed. Was that blood?
Two men fell limply to the ground behind him.
Yeah. That was blood.
The figure in black stilled and looked her way. He was well over six feet tall with broad shoulders encased in a long black coat. Large hands clutched gleaming sais that dripped crimson liquid. His handsome face—bracketed by short, wavy black hair—might as well have been carved from stone. Dark brows. An angular jaw shadowed with stubble. Luminescent amber eyes that caught and held hers as his lips parted, revealing fangs that rivaled those of his opponents.
“What the hell are you waiting for?” he growled. “Shoot them!”
He sprang back into motion. Blood sprayed as two more . . . vampires? . . . fell beneath his blades.
Ignoring his fallen comrades, the sneering vampire took a step toward Heather. Then another. Then shot forward in a blur.
Heather stumbled backward and fired her weapon.
Brah! Brah! Brah! Brah!
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
Heather jerked awake. Heart racing, she glanced over at her alarm clock and threw a hand out to hit the button. 5:00.
When the annoying beeps ended, she slumped back against the covers and waited for her heart to stop slamming against her ribs.
Frustration pummeled her.
She would never feel rested as long as she kept battling freaking vampires in her sleep!
Tossing back the covers, she stomped into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Seriously, who dreamed about vampires?
Heather zipped through her morning ablutions.
She didn’t even read vampire novels or watch vampire movies, yet almost every night she had the same damned dream.
Fifteen minutes later, clad in a comfy black jogging suit, she tied her sneakers, looped her backpack over one shoulder, grabbed her tailgating chair, and headed out onto the back deck. Cool air washed over her as she strode toward the handful of steps that led down to the backyard. A bucket full of bright solar-powered lawn lights awaited her at their base. Snagging the handle, she tromped toward the trees that bordered the back of the property.
The dream had begun haunting her about a year earlier.
A whole year of the same dream over and over again, never varying.
A year of that hot, dark, and dangerous vampire clad all in black ordering her to shoot the other vampires.
Vampires, for crap sake!
Grumbling beneath her breath, she trudged through the trees that thickened into forest, letting the lawn lights show her the way.
Discovering the reason behind the dream had become an obsession. She had to find some logical explanation for it, because the roommate she’d had in college—a psychology major who had psychoanalyzed everyone she had met and their pets—had thought the recurring dream a symptom of some mental illness when Heather had asked her about it.
“Mental illness, my ass,” Heather griped as, minutes later, she stepped into a clearing.
Stepped into the clearing. The one from her dream.
Heather still couldn’t believe she had found it. She hadn’t even thought it real, had assumed it a fictional manifestation of she-didn’t-know-what in her dream. She might not have ever found it if she hadn’t finally located a house farther away from town that she’d wanted to rent and had just happened upon the clearing while scanning satellite maps for nearby waterways that—in heavy rains—might flood the rental property. (She had lost almost everything she’d owned in a flood once. She wouldn’t do it again.)
She had no idea who owned the property that bordered the small parcel she had rented, unwilling to buy in the current housing market until she was sure she wanted to make North Carolina her home. Or if anyone owned it. But as soon as Heather had signed the lease and moved into her new home, she had begun to visit the nearby clearing in hopes of finding . . .
Well, she didn’t know what. Something to explain why she kept dreaming about the place. And once she had begun visiting the clearing, the battle scene that continued to replay itself over and over again in her dreams had—in rare instances—been supplanted by surprisingly erotic dreams about the vampire in black. Dreams of his hands roving her body as his lips devoured hers, his bright amber eyes full of passion and possession.
She swallowed. Yeah. She needed to get to the bottom of the damned dreams.
Dropping her backpack near the center of the clearing, Heather set up her chair and the footstool that came with it.
At least no one had bedeviled her about trespassing. Yet.
She created her fairy ring of lawn lights and set the bucket aside. Fog stroked her ankles as she surveyed the peaceful meadow. Stars sparkled above her like diamonds. The moon, however, had already sought its bed.
Satisfied with the lights, she sank down into the chair and retrieved her tablet from her backpack.
The recurring dream of fighting vampires in this clearing might not be a sign of mental illness, but she wondered if coming out here before dawn every damned morning might be.
What the hell was she thinking?
* * *
Ethan rolled down the window of his Rimac Concept One and embraced the remainder of the night as he sped toward David’s place.
His own home had been too quiet of late. Lisette, the woman with whom Ethan had been smitten for the past century, had married a year or so ago and spent all of her time with her husband Zach . . . something that still grated a bit. And Ethan’s mortal Second, Ed, had a new lady love with whom he spent a great deal of time.
Without Lisette or Ed, Ethan’s only company at home was silence.
David’s house, on the other hand, always bustled with activity. Love. Laughter. Mischief. Mayhem. Life was never boring at the incredibly powerful elder Immortal Guardian’s home. Ethan was never lonely at David’s home.
So, yet again, Ethan found himself speeding toward it as dawn approached.
The metallic scent of blood assaulted his nose, riding on the breeze that buffeted him.
Hitting the brakes, Ethan brought the car to a halt on the road’s dirt shoulder and cut the engine. The quiet of the countryside enfolded him as he stepped from the vehicle and drew in a deep breath.
His lips curled. Vampires. He couldn’t tell how many. The vamps’ scents were nearly indiscernible beneath the blood of their recent victims, which no doubt coated them liberally.
Ethan’s acute hearing picked up the vampires vying to see who could brag the loudest about the atrocities they had committed as they had drained their victims of blood.
Reaching into the car, Ethan retrieved his sais from the passenger seat and closed the door. Long strides carried him swiftly across the street and into the trees beyond.
The night sky would soon begin to lighten with daybreak. Ethan wanted to be comfortably ensconced in David’s place before then, so, putting on a burst of preternatural speed, he raced after the vampires.
He made no effort to conceal his approach, just tore through the forest. Let the vamps wonder what the hell was coming. Let them fear the predator who hunted them as their victims had feared the vampires.
Ethan slowed when he saw them.
Seven. Hell. He hadn’t expected that many.
Seven would be a challenge.
Seven could be a problem.
“Immortal Guardian,” one managed to snarl a second before Ethan struck.
Having only been transformed a hundred years ago, give or take, Ethan was only slightly faster and stronger than the vampires. But his thoughts remained clear, unclouded by the insanity that plagued the latter, and he had been trained by a master swordswoman. Most vampires, on the other hand, were former college students who had been turned after getting drunk or high at a party and becoming easy prey. So most had spent their free time in sedentary pursuits, screwing around on the Internet and playing video games, before they had been transformed.
Their lack of combat training evened the playing field a bit. For every wound the vampires inflicted, Ethan inflicted four. His sais swept their flashy Bowie knives aside, tore clothing, and parted flesh. Cries of pain, coupled with roars of fury, abounded as they crashed through the underbrush. One vampire sank to his knees, but stumbled back up again.
Ethan swore. Remaining in constant motion, he drew blood from every opponent.
Light glimmered through the trees up ahead as he swept a weapon from a vampire’s bloody hand and pressed forward.
Now what? he wondered as it grew brighter.
* * *
Heather glanced at her watch. 5:43. About this time in the dream, vampires would burst into the clearing and freak her the hell out. As usual, she’d give it a few more minutes, then pack everything up and—
A faint rustling sound intruded upon the night.
Her heart gave a little leap.
“It’s just a squirrel,” she murmured. But . . . it was 5:43. In the dream, she always heard a rustling sound at 5:43.
She eyed the trees to the west with trepidation.
A breeze ruffled her bangs and scattered the fog at her feet as the first voice reached her.
Her heart began to ram against her rib cage as a faint shout followed. Then another. And another. Words indiscernible.
Heather’s hands began to shake as she shoved her tablet into her backpack and drew out her Walther PPQ 9mm.
Branches and twigs snapped and crackled as something plowed through the trees toward her.
Oh shit. This wasn’t really going to happen, was it?
Thuds, curses, and grunts increased in volume. Foliage rustled.
Rising, Heather backed away, raised her 9mm, and aimed it at the shadowed evergreens. Chest level. Her finger near the trigger. Ready to squeeze it at a moment’s notice.
Dark figures burst from the trees.
As in the dream, she could see little more than a blurry tornado of motion, spinning across the meadow, knocking over a couple of her lawn lights.
Fear consumed her. Adrenaline surged through her veins. Her breath shortened as she eased back another step.
The tempest’s movement slowed. Seven men swam into focus with blood-soaked clothing, glinting fangs, and eyes that glowed blue or green or silver. Seven men who bore the exact same features as the vampires in her dream. Seven men with fingers curled around the hilts of big-ass knives with which they seemed intent upon slaying the eighth.
And the eighth . . .
Garbed all in black, he stood nearly a head taller than the rest. His short black hair was mussed. His face and clothing, like theirs, bore streaks of blood. His chest rose and fell with rapid breaths that emerged from lips parted to reveal fangs as he swung deadly sais at his opponents.
One of the blue-eyed vampires took a step toward Heather, drawing her wide-eyed gaze. A sneering smile that chilled her blood stretched his thin lips.
Two of his companions fell to the ground behind him.
The man in black looked her way. Glowing amber eyes locked with hers. “What the hell are you waiting for?” he growled. “Shoot them!”
He sprang back into motion, attacking two more.
Ignoring his fallen comrades, the sneering vampire took a step toward Heather. Then another. Then blurred as he shot forward.
Heather stumbled backward and fired her weapon.
Brah! Brah! Brah! Brah!
The vampire stumbled to a halt, four holes now decorating his torso, but he didn’t go down. Fury and pain contorted his sneering features.
“The arteries!” the handsome, amber-eyed warrior shouted. “Hit the major arteries!”
Too terrified to ignore him, she fired again, hitting the sneering vampire in the carotid and femoral arteries. When another vampire raced toward her, she shot his blurry form several times in the chest until he slowed and she could see him better, then sent a bullet through his carotid artery.
Both vampires fell to the ground as a third vampire sped toward her.
Heather fired her Walther again.
Brah! Brah! Brah! Brah! Click. Click. Click.
Shit! She was out of bullets.
The vampire was but a breath away when something swept between them and knocked her down.
Heather hit the ground hard. Dirt and weeds abraded her hands and elbows. A flurry of motion erupted a few feet from her face.
Grabbing the 9mm she had dropped, she scrabbled away and dove for her backpack.
More grunts and thuds and hisses sounded behind her as she upended the pack and rifled through the contents in search of her spare magazine.
Grabbing it, she ejected the empty magazine and shoved the full one home.
“It’s okay,” a deep voice spoke behind her.
Advancing the first bullet into the chamber, she spun around, sat on her butt, and aimed the weapon up at . . . the vampire clad in black.
Bending over, he braced hands that still clasped sais on his knees and nodded toward the corpses on the ground at his feet. Beneath her horrified gaze, the bodies began to shrivel up like mummies. “It’s okay,” he repeated. “It’s over.” Crimson liquid speckled his handsome face. His clothing glistened with damp patches.
Heather adjusted her aim, sighting his carotid artery down the barrel. But her hands shook so violently now that she doubted she could even hit the trees behind him.
He started to straighten, but halted mid-motion and emitted a grunt of pain. Sheathing one of his sais, he reached behind him to feel his back, then swore. His nostrils flared as he drew in a deep breath and clenched his befanged teeth together. He made an odd, jerky movement with his hidden arm, then brought his hand back into view, now clutching a short knife.
Heather stared. Had he just pulled that thing out of his back?
He slung it at one of the deteriorating vampires. “Asshole.” Sheathing his other sai, he pressed a hand to his side and limped toward her. “I’m sorry I knocked you down. Are you okay?”
“Stop!” she blurted. “Don’t come any closer.”
His steps halted. He squinted down at her. Frowning, he reached into his coat.
Heather touched her finger to the trigger. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
He froze. In slow, incremental movements, he raised the hand he had pressed to his side and held it bloody-palm-out toward her. “Easy,” he crooned. When he withdrew his other hand from his coat, he held up a white handkerchief. “I just need to wipe my eyes. Blood keeps dripping into them and blurring my vision.”
When he seemed to wait for a response, she gave a jerky nod. “Go ahead.”
Heather scrambled to her feet while he wiped his eyes, turning the pristine cloth red. She hadn’t realized until then that a deep gash marred his forehead. Blood did indeed trail down over his dark eyebrows into his eyes.
As soon as he cleared his vision, the dark warrior from her dreams narrowed glowing amber eyes at her.
* * *
“Forgive me,” Ethan said, realizing he had made a mistake. “I thought you were Nichole.”
The woman before him appeared to be in her mid-twenties and bore the same height—about five foot five or six—and slender build of Sean’s Second, Nichole. The woman’s hair was about the right length—halfway down her back. She was garbed all in black. Although, now that he could see her better, he noted that she wore a slim-fitting jogging suit rather than the black T-shirt and cargo pants Seconds tended to prefer. Instead of black combat boots, colorful sneakers encased her small feet.
“You can lower your weapon,” he told her. Was he so coated in blood that she couldn’t identify him? “I’m Ethan. I’m immortal, not vampire. Are you . . . ?” He tried to think of any Seconds in the area whom he hadn’t met. “Are you Aidan’s Second? Or Alleck’s?” He couldn’t remember if their Seconds were male or female.
The woman didn’t respond, just stared back at him with wide brown eyes so light they almost appeared golden. She was pretty. Fresh-faced and makeup free like the girls of his youth. Pale skin lightly dusted with freckles, a pert nose, and lovely lips.
Her aim never waivered.
Unease trickled through him. “You are a Second, aren’t you?”
She inched backward, her gaze darting around the clearing as though seeking some avenue of escape.
Ah hell. “At least tell me you work for the network,” he damned near begged.
She muttered something beneath her breath. Something about a dream.
He frowned. Maybe she had hit her head when she had fallen. “Are you all right?” he asked as he raked his gaze over her. “Are you injured?” He hadn’t thought any of the vampires had touched her, but he had been distracted. If one had bitten her, it would explain her being less than lucid. The glands that formed above the fangs of vampires and immortals during their transformation released a chemical similar to GHB under the pressure of a bite.
But this woman didn’t seem drugged. She didn’t appear acquiescent. She didn’t look as though she were about to pass out. She looked alert. Very much so.
She just seemed a little . . . off.
“Miss? Are you injured?” he prompted again and took a careful step toward her.
“Who are you?” she demanded, tightening her hold on the semi-automatic until her knuckles turned white. “What are you? What are they?” She nodded at the vampires, who would soon be no more than piles of clothing once the virus that infected them devoured them from the inside out in a last, desperate bid to live.
“Please lower your weapon,” Ethan said, infusing his voice with as much calm and reassurance as he could. “I won’t hurt you.”
A laugh of disbelief escaped her before she bit her lip, brow puckering.
Hell. As much as her hands shook, she’d shoot him eventually if he didn’t take the gun away from her. Unwilling to lose more blood than he already had, Ethan leapt forward in a burst of preternatural speed and yanked the weapon from her hands.
Gasping, she stumbled backward, then turned to run.
Ethan reached the trees first and turned to face her.
She stopped short. Backed away.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated, voice soft. He could hear her heart pounding in her chest, as hard and fast as the hooves of a galloping horse.
Again biting her lip, she looked around, took in the piles of clothing where the vampires had fallen . . . and seemed to come to some decision.
Turning her back on him, she crossed to the nearest lawn light, bent, and yanked it out of the ground. She went to the next, bent, and yanked it out of the ground, then continued on to the next and the next until she had gathered every single one of them.
Puzzled, Ethan watched her. “What are you doing?”
Offering no response, she dropped the lights into a bucket he hadn’t noticed and started folding up her chair.
“Heather,” she said as she knelt and started shoving the belongings scattered on the ground back into her pack. “My name is Heather, not that it matters.” As soon as she finished, she glanced up and opened her mouth—to ask for her gun back, he suspected—but apparently thought better of it and zipped the pack closed.
Rising, she looped it over her shoulder, grabbed the chair with one hand, the bucket with the other, and started toward him.
Ethan tucked her 9mm into one of the many inner pockets of his coat, then showed her his empty hands so she wouldn’t fear he would shoot her.
Such precaution proved unnecessary. Heather walked right past him and plunged into the trees.
“What are you doing?” When she didn’t answer, Ethan followed. “Heather? What are you doing? Where are you going?” He tried not to notice the sway of her shapely hips as she moved forward in smooth strides, but it had been a long damn time since he had had sex and this woman’s body, hugged so snugly by her soft jogging suit, made him want to strip her bare and—
“I’m going home,” she announced.
Ethan’s eyebrows flew up. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m going home!” she practically shouted. “I’m going home. I’m going to bed. And I’m going to wait for the damned alarm clock to wake me up.”
She really thought this was a dream?
“I don’t know why it didn’t wake me up this time. It always wakes me up at the same point in the dream. Every freaking time. Right after I look down and see that it’s 5:43. All hell breaks loose. I fire my gun. And the alarm wakes me up.” She shook her head, her wavy brown hair swinging into motion and sweeping across her back. “Maybe there was a power outage. I can’t remember the last time I changed the backup batteries in that thing. Or maybe the damned thing just crapped out on me. I don’t know.”
“The clock?” he asked, trying to follow her words.
“Yes. I don’t know why the alarm didn’t go off this time, but it didn’t, and I need to wake up. I really need to wake up.”
“This isn’t a dream, Heather. You aren’t asleep.”
The trees thinned.
Heather exited them, leading him into a backyard that had recently been mown. “Yes, I am.”
“No, you aren’t,” he insisted, thinking this the most bizarre conversation he’d had in recent memory. Beyond the lawn, a quaint little frame house painted pale yellow stared back at him over a slightly warped back deck.
Dropping the bucket, Heather spun to face him. “I didn’t know it was real!”
Ethan stopped short, nearly bumping into her. “What?” She smelled good, too. And standing this close to her, towering her over her the way he did, gave him a tantalizing glimpse of her cleavage.
What the hell was wrong with him?
“I didn’t know it was real, okay?” She motioned to the meadow on the other side of the trees. “I knew the clearing was real. I knew that much. But I didn’t know you were real. I didn’t know they . . . the freaking vampires . . . were real. I thought you were all symbolic or something. I mean, who the hell knew vampires really existed? And I didn’t know I was going to kill two of them. Or that you would slice and dice the others right in front of me. Or that they would shrivel up and . . . and . . . and . . .” Words seemed to fail her. “The dream never went that far because the damned alarm always woke me up!”
She combed her fingers through her hair in an agitated gesture. Noticing that her hand shook, she rubbed it on her pants leg as if the tremors could be removed like dirt. “I just . . . I need for this to not be real,” Heather finished, turning pleading eyes up to his.
“I’m sorry,” he said, fighting an absurd urge to wrap his arms around her, draw her close, and tell her that this was all a dream, that everything would be okay. “But it is real.”
Heather stared up at him for several seemingly endless minutes. “Your fangs are gone,” she mentioned, her voice soft and low now.
“Your eyes are still glowing.”
Because he was attracted to her and, evidently, had lost all control over his body. Not that he could tell her that. “It takes a little longer for their color to return to normal.”
A bird twittered nearby as the sky began to lighten.
“What did you say your name was?” Heather asked.
Another lengthy silence followed.
Oddly, he didn’t mind it. Didn’t feel awkward. Just concerned for her.
“This is real, Ethan?”
She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Then thank you for saving my life.”