Authors: Kerrelyn Sparks
Tags: #paranormal romance series
To all the Love at Stake readers,
you amaze me!
You have kept the Undead alive
for fifteen books!
s you can see in the dedication, my characters and I owe so much to our readers. Thank you for all the fantastic support and encouragement you’ve given me over the years! I’d also like to thank the booksellers and librarians who have promoted my series and the romance genre in general.
Many thanks also to the professionals at HarperCollins, who make me look smarter and cooler than I could ever hope to accomplish on my own: my editor, Erika Tsang, and her assistant, Chelsey; Tom of the Art Department, who continues to gift me with the most amazing cover art; Pamela and Jessie of the Publicity Department; and many more who work behind the scenes. A big thank you to Michelle Grajkowski of Three Seas Literary Agency, my number one cheerleader. And my thanks also to Shelley and Peggy of Webcrafters, who built and maintain my website and design the artwork for my ads and swag.
On the personal side, I am blessed with ongoing support and love. My dear friends and critique partners, Sandy, M.J., and Vicky, are the best! And my husband and children inspire me, make me laugh, and keep me strong. You have my undying love and gratitude!
hen Zoltan Czakvar entered the armory of his Transylvanian castle, his gaze automatically shifted to the arrow that had killed his father. Barely visible where it was mounted on the far wall, the arrow still made him stop in his tracks. Still made his nerves tense. Dammit. He should rip the bloody thing down, toss it into a fire, and be done with it.
Since he was a man who prided himself on never quitting until a job was done, the arrow served as a painful reminder of his one major failure. He’d never found those responsible for murdering his father and destroying his village. Unfortunately, those events had transpired in 1241, so any chance at success seemed long gone.
He had tried. God, how he had tried. Starting at the age of fourteen, he’d traveled with that damned arrow for years, desperately searching for anyone who might know where it had originated. A curious design was carved into the wooden shaft of the arrow, making it unique. But no one ever recognized it. It remained a mystery to this day, mocking him and reminding him of all he had lost.
With a sigh, he set down the ice chest he had carried down the dimly lit spiral staircase. When this part of the castle had been completed in the fifteenth century, this cavernous room in the cellar had become the armory. The medieval pikes and battle-axes were gone, but an assortment of swords and crossbows remained, along with a modern array of firearms and ammunition.
Like most of the castle, the cellar was now wired for electricity. He switched on the lights. Although the far corners of the room remained dark, the nearby walls gleamed with an impressive display of swords that reflected the light and eased his sour mood. Like loyal friends, they had served him well over the centuries. A good sword was still the weapon of choice for him and his older undead companions. His modern friends were different.
He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes until the appointed meeting time.
The supplies he’d brought down the night before were neatly arranged on the long wooden table. A few knives. A box of cartridges for an automatic handgun. Another box filled with some shotgun shells and hand grenades. And a long box containing modern arrows. He moved the ice chest to the end of the table. The dry ice inside would keep the bottles of synthetic blood cold for days.
“Hey, Zoltan,” a voice emanated from the spiral staircase. “Are you down there?”
. It was Howard, his new security guy. Zoltan turned to face the huge were-bear as he bent over to keep from clonking his head on the low entrance into the room. “No need to check up on me. I’m fine. I thought you were taking your wife out to eat.”
“I am. She wanted to clean up first.” Howard’s sharp gaze wandered about the room, then lingered on the supplies on the table. “So this is the armory.”
“Yes.” A week ago, Zoltan had hired Howard’s wife, Elsa, and her team of renovation experts to do some work on the crumbling east wing and tower. They’d jumped at the chance to feature a real Transylvanian castle on their home improvement television show. Meanwhile, Howard had barely seen his wife for the past six months, since he’d been stationed in Japan. His boss, Angus MacKay of MacKay Security and Investigation, had asked Zoltan to accept the were-bear as his new head of security so the couple could enjoy some time together.
Zoltan knew that was only an excuse. For the last three centuries, he had served as Coven Master for Eastern Europe. One of his duties was protecting his constituents from the evil vampires known as Malcontents, so he’d pissed off his share of enemies over the years. More recently, he’d broken up a band of Malcontent human traffickers. Angus was worried they would seek revenge, so he expected Howard to do a complete overhaul of the security measures at both the castle and Zoltan’s townhouse in Budapest.
Zoltan had reluctantly agreed. How could he decline, when Elsa had begged him to agree with such a hopeful expression? She’d been excited all day, waiting impatiently for her husband, who had arrived about an hour ago. Bad timing, as far as Zoltan was concerned, since he had a secret meeting scheduled to begin in eight minutes.
“I’m sure you’re eager to be with your wife,” he told the were-bear, “so I’ll give you a tour of the castle tomorrow evening. Or, if you like, my assistant, Milan, can give you a tour in the morning.”
Howard nodded. “I just met him upstairs. He . . . talks a lot.”
Zoltan winced inwardly. No doubt Milan had been trying his best to keep Howard from coming downstairs. “Why don’t you take one of my cars into the village? Milan can show you where the garage is.”
“He already offered to do that.” Howard frowned. “You know, as your new head of security, I have to tell you I’m shocked by the lack of it around here. I’ve spotted only one surveillance camera, outside by that iron gate—”
“The portcullis, yes.”
“And it’s not working.”
“I see, well . . .” Zoltan walked toward him, motioning toward the staircase. “We can discuss it tomorrow. Enjoy your evening.”
Howard didn’t budge. “As far as I can tell, everyone in the castle knows you’re a vampire.”
“And that restaurant you recommended—I called to get directions, and the guy asked if I was staying at the castle with the local Vamp.”
“There was no need to call. There are only two streets in the village and one restaurant. You can hardly miss it.”
“That’s not the point! Zoltan, how many people know you’re undead?”
He shrugged. “Quite a few, I suppose. This is Transylvania, after all.”
“It’s too big of a risk. You should do some of that mind control stuff and erase their memories.”
With a sigh, Zoltan glanced at his watch. He only had six minutes. “It’s their memories that provide my security. The people in this area know that they and their ancestors have been safe for generations because of me. I’ve protected them from Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Hungarians, Prussians, Germans, Russians, and countless gangs of thieves and brigands. The villagers would never let anyone harm me. You might call them my first line of defense.”
Howard tilted his head, regarding him curiously. “So that’s why the mortals I talked to claim you’re a hero? Even so, I have to object—”
“So do I. If I’m such a bloody hero, why am I alone?”
Howard scoffed. “How would I know? I’m worried about your lack of security, not your lack of nookie.”
“Eloquently put.” Zoltan motioned toward the staircase. “And on that note, you shouldn’t leave your wife waiting.”
“I’m serious about this, Zoltan. It doesn’t matter how many loyal friends you have. It takes only one enemy to kill you.”
“Indeed.” Zoltan gestured again toward the stairs. “We can discuss my imminent demise tomorrow. Have a good evening.”
“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want me down here?” Howard asked.
“He doesn’t want you to see me,” a voice said from a dark corner.
With a groan, Zoltan turned toward the Vamp who had just teleported in. “You’re early.”
“I’m starving.” He stepped into the light, dropped an empty ice chest on the table, and retrieved a bottle of synthetic blood from the full ice chest.
Howard stiffened. “Russell.”
The ex-Marine gave him a wry look as he wrenched the top off the bottle. “Howard.” He took a long drink.
Howard’s gaze narrowed on the items on the table, then switched to Zoltan. “How long have you been supplying him?”
Zoltan shrugged. “About two years.”
Frowning, Howard crossed his arms. “You mean since the time he went AWOL?”
“Thereabouts. Would you rather he starve to death? Or be forced to bite people?”
“We’d rather he report in every now and then,” Howard growled.
Russell paused with the nearly empty bottle an inch from his mouth. “Don’t mind me. Just keep talking about me like I’m not here.”
Howard shot him an annoyed look. “You think we don’t worry about you? Angus keeps sending J.L. and Rajiv to China to search for you.”
“I know.” Russell finished the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ve had to bail them out of trouble a few times.”
Howard snorted. “They wouldn’t have been in trouble if they hadn’t been looking for you.”
“I didn’t ask anyone to look for me.” Russell snapped a new clip into his handgun, then wedged it under his belt. “I suppose you’re going to tell Angus I was here.”
Howard glanced at Zoltan. “You never told Angus about this?”
Zoltan shook his head. “I don’t work for Angus.”
“He’s your friend. And he’s Russell’s sire.” Howard turned to the ex-Marine. “Aren’t you supposed to have some loyalty toward him?”
“He didn’t change me.” Russell stuffed the pockets of his old coat with more cartridges for his handgun. “Master Han did. Angus just finished the job. It was Zoltan who took me in and helped me adjust.”
“We would all help you,” Howard insisted. “Do you think we wouldn’t feed you? Or give you supplies?”
Russell dropped the shotgun shells into a worn canvas bag. “You would, but there would be a price. You would expect me to answer your questions.”
“It’s called cooperation. We’re on the same side, you know. We all want to see Master Han dead.”
Russell’s eyes flashed with anger. “He’s
Your kind of help just gets in the way. You’re too damned busy trying to save his soldiers—”
“They’re mortal,” Howard argued.
“They agreed to join him in exchange for their superpowers.” Russell slid a new knife into each of his boots. “They made their choice. It’s not my problem if they have to pay for it.”
“Their superpowers came from a demon, so when you kill them, they go to hell.”
“Like I said. Not my problem.” Russell hooked the hand grenades onto his belt.
Howard sighed. “Will you at least go to Japan to see what’s happening? I’ve spent the last six months there with our team of doctors and scientists. They’ve turned more than a hundred of Master Han’s soldiers back to normal.”
Russell scoffed. “Brilliant. Now they have only nine hundred to go.”
“Howard?” Elsa’s voice called down the stairs. “Are you there?”
“Just a minute!” Howard paused at the entrance to the stairwell. “Come back tomorrow night, Russell, so we can talk.”
“No thanks.” Russell opened the box of arrows.
Howard frowned at Zoltan. “I’ll talk to you when I get back from dinner.”
“No hurry. Enjoy your evening.” Zoltan watched as the huge were-bear wound his way up the narrow stone staircase. “The minute he’s out the door, he’ll call Angus.”
“If he waits that long.” Russell swung the quiver off his back and set it on the table next to the box of arrows. “I’ll just fill this up and be on my way.” He glanced at Zoltan. “Are you going to be in trouble now?”
Zoltan snorted. “What can Angus do to me? If he’s in Japan, it might already be daylight there. He’ll call me when he wakes up so he can grouse at me, but in the end, he’ll thank me for taking care of you. He’s not a bad guy, you know.”
Russell gathered a handful of arrows from the box. “We have different priorities.”
Zoltan nodded. Angus and his employees, like Howard, wanted to protect mortals from bad vampires, but Russell simply wanted Master Han dead. The evil warlord had attacked Russell during the Vietnam War, leaving him in a vampire coma for forty years. When Russell had been discovered in a cave in Thailand, Angus had completed the transformation process so Russell could wake up and join the ranks of the Undead. For the last two years, Russell had been searching Master Han’s massive territory, waiting for his chance to kill the evil vampire.
Russell shoved an old arrow aside to make room in the quiver for the new arrows. Zoltan blinked, hardly believing his eyes.
“Wait!” He lunged toward the quiver. The feathers of the old arrow looked familiar.
He pulled it out, his heart racing at the sight of carvings on the staff. Had he found a duplicate after eight hundred years? He zoomed over to the arrow mounted on the wall so he could compare the two. The arrowhead on the new arrow was modern, but otherwise, the two were exactly the same.
He turned to Russell. “Where did you find this?”
A wary look crossed Russell’s face before he turned away to finish stuffing the quiver with new arrows. “I wouldn’t know. I teleport all over southern China, northern Myanmar, and Tibet. And I scavenge along the way. I could have picked it up anywhere.”
“You have to remember.” Zoltan approached him. “It’s important.”
Russell swung the quiver onto his back. “I have no idea.”
“You’re not trying.” Zoltan gritted his teeth. “I have to know—”
“I can’t tell you.”
Zoltan’s heart stilled. Russell was purposely keeping his face blank. “You mean you
“I have to go.” Russell grabbed the ice chest. “Thanks for the supplies.”
“Wait!” Zoltan leaped forward and latched onto Russell’s arm just as he began to teleport.
As soon as they materialized, Russell shoved him away. “What the hell are you doing?”
Zoltan quickly regained his balance and looked around. Countryside. Treeless, rolling hills. Yellowish grass nearly to his knees. A half moon and countless stars gleaming in a clear sky. “Where are we?”
“You shouldn’t have come. Go back home.”
Zoltan showed him the arrow, still grasped in his right hand. “This is the only clue I’ve found in almost eight hundred years. Tell me where it came from.”
A streak of anger sizzled through Zoltan. “I’ve been helping you for two years, so you will tell me—”
“Dammit, Russell!” Zoltan clutched the arrow tightly. “It’s because of an arrow like this that I became a vampire. I couldn’t stand the thought of dying without knowing what happened. I had to stay young and healthy to keep searching for the truth. I gave up my mortality for this, so tell me where you found the damned arrow!”
A pained look crossed Russell’s face. “Fine. Two weeks ago, I was following Lord Liao and a troop of soldiers when they were attacked by a smaller force. I figured the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and they were taking some heavy casualties, so I helped them. We killed most of Lord Liao’s soldiers, but of course, he teleported away. I was wounded and fell unconscious. I would have died when the sun came up, but they saved me.”