Authors: Debra Dunbar
Tags: #templars, #paranormal, #vampires, #romance, #mystery, #magic, #fantasy
SOLARIA AINSWORTH WAS BORN A TEMPLAR
, destined to take up the mantle of responsibility and duty as her family’s Order had done for hundreds of years.
Except she refuses to take her Oath of Knighthood.
Barely making ends meet in Baltimore, Aria finds it difficult to obtain gainful employment with no work experience and skills in jousting and swordsmanship. Just before she’s served an eviction notice, the Mistress of the local vampire family offers her a job—to research a magical symbol. It’s an easy task for a woman who has spent every moment of her life either in armor or with her nose in ancient manuscripts. The money’s good, and the seven day deadline should be no problem.
But when her research reveals a sordid connection between the vampires and a mass murder, Aria needs to decide who is in the right and worthy of her protection. Modern Templars believe only God should judge, but Aria must do exactly that or watch the Baltimore streets run red with blood.
Copyright 2016, All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Give thy servant an understanding heart
to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and evil.
1 Kings 3: 9
HE SUN HAD
set by the time I made my way out of the theater. Mist, heavy in the muggy summer air, made the streetlights seem as if they had halos of gold. Music thumped from a club down the block, and the faint aroma of steamy garbage hit my nose.
Baltimore. My new home. A city where it seemed the streetlights were the only things with halos.
The play had sucked. What had possessed me to go see an artistic rendering of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia, set to Bernstein-style music no less? Ugh. Just, ugh.
what had possessed me. Boredom. It was Wednesday night. What else was I supposed to do? Certainly not hang out with friends or go on a date like normal people. No, I was watching people die in three acts. The actors, their careers, the audience. I think a little bit of my soul died in that theater.
And now I faced the prospect of driving through the less-desirable portions of the city, thinking about jaundiced, feverish people coughing up blood clots. Driving back to my tiny, ratty apartment, where I’d sit the rest the evening alone, sleeping and counting down the hours until I put on a scratchy polyester shirt and khaki pants, and went to my minimum wage job.
Why did I think this was a good idea? The whole thing, not just the crappy play. My days were one mind-numbing hour following the other. It was minimally better than the life I’d left back home. No wonder normal people turned to drink and drugs.
It was a sad commentary on my life that I felt a jolt of excitement to see a man standing beside my car, obviously waiting for me. He wore leather several shades darker than his skin with a chain belt. Kinky. Weird. If he’d have been a human, I would have pulled the mace out of my purse in preparation to defend myself. Since he was a vampire, I instead got out my car keys.
Yep, they were very useful when it came to gouging and scraping skin, but it was the heavy, 14-carat gold Celtic cross that hung from the keychain that would serve me best in a fight. Not that I
to fight a vampire. The gold cross and a few quick spells were all I had to combat his superior strength, speed, charisma, and those darned pointy teeth.
I could sense vampires who were within a reasonable proximity to me. By sight, definitely, although there was nothing particular about them that should have made them stand out from the other humans. No, it was something else, some kind of sixth sense, some weird feeling that crawled up my back every time one was near.
He turned and I recognized the broad cheekbones and the dark eyes. Dario.
Vampires liked to hang out around the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. I’d seen this one in a lot of the pubs where friendless women like me passed the time, no doubt trolling for tourists to eat. I’d seen him enough during the last six months that I’d started sending over Bloody Marys and leaving notes at his table with “type O Negative” and the phone number of the local blood bank.
My harassment wasn’t one-sided. He liked to respond by sending me drinks loaded with those little plastic swords, or napkins with drawings of demons dragging off nuns and stick-figure knights chopping the heads off dragons. Lately he’d begun signing his artwork, which was how I knew his name. That was pretty much
I knew. In spite of the drinks and notes, we’d never spoken. Dario kept to his side of the pub, picking up a different woman each night. I stayed to my side, drinking cheap beer and eating happy-hour food.
Dario usually wore jeans and T-shirts, or the occasional khakis and button-downs—whatever helped him blend in best with the humans. I had no idea why the sudden Village People homage.
I snickered. “On your way to a bondage club?”
Even with his sudden lack of fashion sense, I had a weird fascination with this vampire. He didn’t try to bite me, and I didn’t try to cut his head off, which shouldn’t have been enough to give me a thrill every time I saw him. Yes, he was always picking up women right in front of me, but that didn’t dull the joy I felt every evening that I ran into him. Better them than me. The dude was total eye candy, but I wasn’t desperate enough for male companionship to allow someone to chomp on my neck.
And it’s not like we really had much in common, what with him being a creature of the night and me liking to be in bed by two a.m. at the latest.
He ignored my jibe regarding his outfit. “Leonora needs to see you.”
“Who?” Was Leonora one of his dreamy-eyed blood donors? Because I was not up for a threesome, tonight or any other night.
“The Mistress? The leader of the Baltimore
. The vampire equivalent of a werewolf pack or a witch coven. I hadn’t known the local leader’s name, which was a dumb move on my part, especially since I’d been sending one of her family alcoholic beverages pretty much since I arrived.
And yes, the thought that a vampire Mistress wanted to see me sent a cold chill up my back—one I tried to hide with a show of false bravado. “What, she wants me to make her a chai latte with an extra shot of plasma?”
Dario’s face remained expressionless, as usual. In spite of my attempts, I could never get him to crack a smile. Or even scowl. “No. She needs to consult a Templar.”
My hand went instinctively to my right wrist, covering the red cross tattoo symbolic to our Order. We all got one once we started Knight training. After a few weeks of covering it with wide leather bracelets I finally gave up, figuring no one would recognize the mark for what it was. Apparently I was wrong.
“I’m not a Knight.”
“Obviously.” His lips twitched.
Oooo, a less than subtle smack-down. It wasn’t quite a smile on the vampire’s face, but I’d take it. And I figured if he was smiling, then this request for my presence wasn’t likely to end in my death. Although with vampires, one never knew.
Templars and vampires didn’t have good history. Nine hundred years ago we’d slaughtered them by the thousands. I’m sure many of them remembered that, and the ones young enough to not have lived through the massacres would have heard the tales. We’d come to a truce back in the nineteenth century, but we weren’t what you’d call friendly by any definition of the word. Metaphorically speaking, they stayed on their side of the bar and we stayed on ours.
Yeah. And I’d been sending one of them drinks for months. Clearly I liked to live dangerously.
“So what does Leonora want with a non-Knight Templar?”
“That is not for me to say.” He gestured toward the black SUV parked next to my ancient Toyota Camry.
I could refuse. If he tried to force me I could poke him with my gold cross keychain, run as fast as I could and scream for help. Of course, even if I got away I’d be facing an evening sitting alone in my shitty apartment staring at the walls, thinking about yellow fever and waiting for a bunch of bloodsuckers to sniff me out. That truce should guarantee my safety, but in reality there were no guarantees. I couldn’t think of anyone in my Order who had any sort of business with vampires—nothing to give me an indication of what to expect at this “meeting.”
“I need some promise as to my safety.” I might like to live dangerously, but walking into a house full of vampires without at least a pinky promise was beyond even
He sighed dramatically. “Have I attacked you in any dark alleys to date? In spite of your provocative advances I’ve kept my distance. I promise you’ll be safe—from me, from Leonora, and from the other vampires at the house. There. Feel better?”
Advances? Provocative advances? I felt my face heat up. Friendly teasing, maybe. Provocative advances, no. In spite of his reassurances, I hesitated.
“Look, you’re a Templar. As tasty as you look, dining on you carries a price that none of us are willing to pay. Now get in the car.”
By price he meant the wrath of my family and Order if I was attacked in violation of the treaty, although I got a weird feeling he was also alluding to something quite different. Either way, I’d run out of arguments, so I walked over to the passenger side of the SUV and climbed in.
Dario slid into the driver’s seat and started the car. As we headed to the north end of town, I debated texting someone to let them know where I was going. Who, though?
Going to see the vampire Mistress. Call in a Knight if I’m not back by morning
wasn’t the type of message that would be received well by any of my coworkers at the coffee shop. And my family… No, I was flying solo on this one.
“Templar or not, one more word about my attire and I rip your throat out.” There was a sort of dry humor to Dario’s voice not mirrored in his expression. I was perversely thrilled to be eliciting
kind of emotion from the vampire, no matter how violent his threat.
“So I can’t sing YMCA?” Baiting this vampire had become my new hobby. Hopefully Dario wouldn’t take my teasing as additional provocative advances.
“Not if you want to survive the night.”
“Joking.” I was going for some sort of dark vampire humor. I was trapped in his car. He’d already threatened my life. I figured I might as well keep going and see the extent of a vampire’s funny bone.
“I gotta ask, do you guys ever turn into bats and fly around?” Once the Halloween decorations came out, I wanted to stock up on some rubber bats to send his way with the Bloody Marys.
He looked offended. “No. Do you?”
“I’m working on it. Flying, that is. It would save me a ton in gas costs, not to mention auto insurance. Although if I was going to choose an animal, I’d pick something better than a bat. A raven would be a good choice since I’m living in Baltimore.”
It wasn’t a total lie. Transmogrification
on my bucket list. Not that I was likely to reach that level of magical power in this lifetime.
The vampire shot me an appraising glance. Go ahead. Let him think I was some kind of Gandalf with boobs. Hmm, what else could I pester him about? I’d seen him consume food occasionally as well as normal human beverages. Dario turned his eyes back to the road and it was my turn to stare at him. I could make some crack about holy water, or ask if last Sunday’s sermon had touched his soul in the same way it had mine. Or if he ever found himself stepping carefully around picket fencing, just in case he tripped and impaled himself through the heart.
“Why are you staring at me?”
“I was wondering if you like garlic. Like garlic bread, or white pizza, or spicy marinara because no one actually just sits down and eats garlic. I don’t think anyone could do that, vampire or not.”
“Are you asking me out to dinner?”
.” That, I did not expect. The idea of me asking a man out, let alone one who had, for all intents and purposes, probably been dead for hundreds of years, was inconceivable.
Unsurprisingly, Dario misinterpreted my mangled protest.
“I like Italian food.” He turned to face the road, his voice bland, expressionless. “Is tomorrow night good?”
Was he joking? Oh wait, this was Dario, the vampire whose face seemed permanently botoxed into a rigid state. “Ummm…” I tried to think of an excuse, but nothing came to mind. All I did every evening was watch television and cook up Ramen noodles, or sit alone at some bar drinking the cheapest beer they had. Tonight’s theatrical production had been a rare adventure.
is quite nice, and they have a chianti I particularly like.”
I opened my mouth only to snap it shut. Holy shit. I had a date with a vampire. Centuries of us slaughtering them, and them occasionally killing a few of us, and I had a date with one. I didn’t think the truce meant we were free to date. Hmm. I wasn’t confident enough in Dario’s ability to accept rejection to correct his mistake and the prospect of some decent food
sway things in favor of this date.