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Crimson & Steam

Paranormal Romance

Book 4 in the Crimson City Series

“An outstanding, amazingly-written thrill ride!” ~ New York Times Bestselling Author Sherrilyn Kenyon

Crimson & Steam is part of the Crimson City paranormal romance series featuring delicious love stories and non-stop action in a city full of vampires, humans, werewolves and demons plus a whole host of hot heroes and bad-ass heroines. This book is about Jillian Cooper and the vampire Marius Dumont, two star-crossed lovers who have been tracking each other since the beginning of the series. Crimson & Steam also explains how the werewolves and vampires and mechs ended up in Los Angeles in the first place! An “origin” story, if you will. I hope you enjoy the read! xo, Liz

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Crimson & Steam

is part of the Crimson City Series. The reading order is as follows:

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Crimson & Steam

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CHAPTER 1

The four leaders of Crimson City’s glittering vampire world looked rather out of place, dressed half in battle armor and crowded into a ramshackle safe house located on the border between the vampire and human strata. The windowless room barely had space for chairs and the table that held two bottles of red wine, a water pitcher, a tray of glasses and a rather unremarkable bowl of mixed nuts.

“Well, certainly no one will think to look for us here,” Kata Marakova sniffed. She abandoned the idea of removing the elbow-length gloves she wore under her gauntlets; there was too much dirt around. “Really, St. Giles. Lovely of you to step up and find us a place with some privacy, but is this your idea of a joke?” She puffed away at an exotic cigarillo, ignoring the bits of ash floating off the end into the dusty air.

Next to her, Rafe Giannini slumped in his chair and poked through the bowl of nuts now resting on his chest. Elegantly rumpled, he looked as though he’d rather be playing lawn tennis and quaffing cocktails than worrying about affairs of state. But if he sometimes appeared disengaged, he was always listening. After a moment, he selected a macadamia nut and devoured it.

On Marius’s right sat Dominick St. Giles. Neat, precise, and perfectly attired in one of his bespoke European suits, the patrician vampire just barely concealed the fire inside that always kept him near the boiling point. He was holding court with the other two, pushing his agenda: the likelihood of a full-scale war breaking out in Crimson City, this time between the humans and the werewolves.

So far, so good, Marius thought. At least he’d managed to force the heads of the three other vampire houses here to powwow, rather than being forced to discuss things in a public forum where paranoia and fear would make sure nothing ever got done.

Marius Dumont was the leader of the Vampire Assembly—his cousin Fleur had stepped out of the spotlight due to her health—and consequently he was the ranking member of this meeting. As head of state he had the power to negotiate with the leaderships of the humans, werewolves and mechs that also populated the city. He had a mind to use that power before it was too late. In the past, an uneasy peace between Crimson City’s denizens was the most any vampire leader had managed to achieve. Marius knew his people could do better. He could do better. For them.

Kata turned away from her debate with St. Giles. “Are you sure looking out of town is the answer, Marius? Should we take another look at Crimson City’s werewolves? Where do you personally stand with the Maddox clan?”

“The Maddox werewolves have always been our—“

Marius, it’s me.

Marius paused mid-sentence, blinking against the smoke that clogged the cramped meeting room air. Jillian? Oh, god—let her be safe.

“What?” St. Giles narrowed his eyes at Marius across the table. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” Marius replied.

Marius?

Kata frowned. “It would be helpful, darling, if you could try to pay attention at your own meeting.”

Marius shook his head as if it might clear away Jillian’s voice. Three pairs of eyes glittered curiously at him from around the table. “It’s nothing. I thought I … heard something.”

“I made sure the room was secure,” St. Giles snapped.

Marius gave a curt nod. Jillian was fine. He needed to focus. If he didn’t get the three other houses to fall into line, any alliance with werewolves would never survive. “As I was saying, the Maddox werewolves here in Crimson City have always been our best allies.”

“Then why aren’t you marrying one of them?” St. Giles asked. “Why House Royale? Their interests are in New York, not Crimson City. I guarantee trouble if you set your sights on one of those Asprey bitches.”

Kata leaned over, wicked humor flashing in her eyes. “You know how it is. All of Crimson City’s good bitches are probably taken. But perhaps Marius is on to something— Tajo Maddox also ran off with an Asprey.” Her lush mouth curled into a smile, white fangs exposed and gleaming hungrily. “I saw Maddox without a shirt once, and for a werewolf he was quite—”

St. Giles glared her into silence even as Rafe started laughing. “At least they were both werewolves,” the former grumbled.

“If you think about it,” Rafe suggested, still chuckling, “if Marius marries this Asprey dog, their alliance will make the Crimson City vampires and werewolves practically family.”

St. Giles looked ill.

“Let’s not bait him,” Marius said.

“Too late,” growled St. Giles. “Let me remind you, Marius, that not all of us view rogue males like Tajo as friends—nor the females as possible lovers. Some of us take our responsibility as house leader more seriously.”

“Easy, now, boys,” Kata murmured as Marius poured himself a glass of wine, working desperately to keep his fingers from throttling St. Giles. There was no mistaking the dig: Jillian Cooper was a rogue human, and St. Giles’s insinuation was a direct attack.

Rogues—this was the name given to those renouncing dedicated allegiance to their own species. Some of those rogues had formed a mixed-species alliance called the Rogues Club. Marius considered the loose union of vampires, werewolves and humans complementary to the House of Dumont’s goal of achieving peace among all species. The other vampire houses were less enthusiastic.

Marius, can you hear me out there? It’s Jill.

Marius tensed. He could not remember a time she’d called to him so blatantly. He’d always just known when she needed him and had gone to her. He should have felt her fear if she were truly in danger, not just heard her voice in his head.

Across the table, Rafe lifted his legs and set them on an empty chair, crossing them at the ankles. He admitted, “I’ve got to go with St. Giles on the rogue issue. I don’t know why being a traitor to your own kind makes you more trustworthy.”

St. Giles’s face hardened, his eyes burning as he leaned over the table and addressed Marius. “Do you trust the lover who has cheated on someone else to be faithful to you thereafter?”

“Be very careful, Dominick,” Marius growled. “You know not of what you speak.”

Kata and Rafe glanced uneasily across the table at each other.

“We should have called a meeting of the Primary Assembly,” St. Giles declared, his voice rising. “That’s the point of the Assembly: that every vampire in Crimson City gets a say.”

Marius gritted his teeth. “That’s not what this is about.” He slowly stood.

“Here we go again,” Rafe muttered, rubbing his thumb over a dirt smear on his black leather shoe.

Marius took a deep breath and put his hands on the table, and leaned down to speak in St. Giles’s ear. With deadly calm, he said, “Your constant complaints about who runs the Assembly are getting tiresome. I’m aware that you’d like to have the House of St. Giles in control, but that’s not what this meeting—”

St. Giles leapt up, standing toe-to-toe with Marius as he batted away his chair and it crashed to the ground. He clenched his fists. “I can get the votes I need to run the whole show whenever I want. You run things now because you Dumonts look strong, but don’t assume you’ll have power forever.”

“Do you really think this is the time for internal squabbles?” Marius asked.

St. Giles smiled. “I’d just be careful not to show any sign of weakness.”

“Is that a threat?” Marius bared his fangs.

“I’m putting you on notice, is all.”

Rafe interrupted in a drawl, tossing a nut in the air and catching it in his mouth. “You’ve been putting him on notice for years.” Still chewing, he added, “If you want control of the vampire Primary Assembly, put it to a vote already.”

Kata took a drag of her cigarillo and exhaled a perfect set of rings into the air. The three other vampires fixated on the dissipating smoke, and she said, “It’s quite a risk for you, Marius, this marriage business. I think you’re mad to do it, even for the sake of peace. We all know how close the vote was when the House of Dumont was first elected to lead us. Old Lucien got the votes he needed because yours is the oldest house, and therefore the purest. Now you want to muddy your genes with a dog?”

“The House of Dumont is interested in peace. I would be a hypocrite not to enter into an alliance with a werewolf because I wanted to preserve ‘vampire purity,’” Marius said. “The concept is ludicrous and counterproductive, no matter what our people believe.”

St. Giles just shook his head and smirked.

Why do you not come? From somewhere across the city, Jillian’s summons interrupted once more. Her heartbeat pounded a rhythm into Marius’s head.

He forced himself not to let his agitation show, instead anchoring himself in the meeting, where he really needed to keep his attention. He could see the schemes already being birthed in St. Giles’s mind. “Yes, Dominick. You should welcome this risk. Support me in this marriage alliance, and we’ll have a longtime peace … or my failure could put the House of St. Giles in control.”

“When do you need to give the Asprey werewolves an answer?” Rafe asked.

“Tonight.” Marius looked around the table. “I need to give them a response tonight.”

Kata smirked. “They say marriage really isn’t something one should rush into.”

“Don’t you take anything seriously?” St. Giles snapped, shaking his head.

“I’m trying to lighten the mood,” she retorted. “And if you want to be taken seriously, St. Giles, stop always saying there’s going to be some war or another. Stop, shall we say… crying wolf?”

Rafe laughed so hard he choked on the wine he’d been swilling.

“He’s right, though. There is always danger,” Marius admitted, wearier than he could ever remember feeling. “That is what I’m trying to end.”

I need you!

No! Marius thought back, finally snapping, wincing and pressing his palm against his temple. He could not go to Jillian now. If she were truly in danger, it would be one thing, but not now. It was so confusing: he sensed her distress yet not the nature of what she faced. He had a duty to his people, and he needed to maintain the control that had kept him so long from his heart’s desire—what would keep him from her for his entire existence. No matter what, he could not go to her until this matter was decided.

“Marius?” Kata asked suspiciously. “Are you—?”

“God damn it!” He slammed his fist down on the table, and Kata lurched back in her chair. “There is no time for any of this.” He stared around the table. “Will you support my marriage or not?” he thundered. “I need an answer.”

As if she had all the time in the world, Kata swiveled in her chair and jammed the spent end of her cigarillo into a piece of broken body armor she was using as an ashtray. “I would appreciate it, Dumont, if you would not raise your voice at me.”

After a pause, she continued. “It isn’t like you, Marius. You’re so edgy, it’s making me nervous. Now, as for your question … I don’t mind letting you try once more to salvage peace in this city. We don’t have much to lose. Maybe your marrying an Asprey werewolf is the answer. I’m willing to find out. At the very least, we won’t have to worry about the dogs teaming up with the humans anymore.”

She was crying; Marius suddenly sensed it. Jillian was crying. He looked desperately around the table, wanting to finish this meeting, wanting to get to her. “This is an opportunity to show the humans that nobody is teaming up against anybody,” he said.

“Yeah?” St. Giles asked. “How does this wedding do that?”

Marius cleared his throat and moved his hands under the table, balling them into fists. Crying was not the same as being in danger, he told himself. You’ve made her cry before, god knows. Many times. Jillian was never in danger then.

Calmly he answered, “We do the wedding openly, Dominick, in a positive spirit. Everybody will be invited—vampires, werewolves, humans, mechs. And not just the humans who’ve helped us in the past. We’ll invite members of their current government. We include everybody. It has to start somewhere.”

“Bullshit,” St. Giles sneered. “The humans will see this wedding as an act of aggression, not as some sort of ‘Kumbaya’ moment, even if they’re included. They’ve been looking for an excuse to invoke Total Recall. We can’t give it to them.”

“Total Recall?” Rafe spoke up. “That old plan? For one thing, that would mean a lead-up to all-out war. For another, do you really think they could get anyone to sign a loyalty oath these days? There’s more interspecies tolerance than ever in this city … even if that’s still not quite enough.”

“If the human government is smart, they will see this wedding gives them an opportunity for unity,” Marius argued.

“The human government has never been smart,” Kata said. Then she cocked her head toward Marius and winked. “But I do love a good wedding.”

Marius turned back to the glowering St. Giles. “The message this marriage alliance will send is ‘All species united’—but I promise you that the subtext will make it clear we vampires are not doing this through weakness.”

Rafe leaned forward with an outstretched hand and shrugged. “Well, the wedding’s your funeral. I’m con—”

“Not so fast,” St. Giles interrupted. He pressed the other vampire’s hand down onto the table before Marius could shake it. “Is no one going to address the elephant in the room?” He stepped back and crossed his arms on his chest, glaring at Kata and Rafe with disgust. Marakova’s smile gave nothing away. Giannini swirled and sniffed his wine with an air of overblown insouciance.

St. Giles slammed his fist down on the table. “Oh, come on, people! We all read the papers.”

Marius felt red-hot anger building inside him. He hid it. “The gossip pages should hardly be counted as fact.”

“In politics,” St. Giles replied, “nothing is irrelevant, least of all gossip. Let’s break this down. So, you’ve convinced a werewolf to marry you. What happens to your vaunted alliance when that werewolf discovers your taste for humans is focused on one particularly juicy piece of ass?”

Rafe laughed, hiding it as a cough.

“There’s no need to be vulgar, Dominick,” Kata spoke up, though the corner of her mouth twitched in a half smile.

St. Giles looked around the table and held out his palms. “Seriously, what happens to peace when our werewolf princess finds out about Jillian Cooper?”

“She has nothing to do with this,” Marius growled.

“Oh, really? I’m not going out on a limb to ally with a bunch of crazy mutts only to have them turn on me because you can’t keep your junk up the right skirt. Our status with the dogs is currently stable. This move could turn them all against us.”

Underneath the table, Marius clenched his fists so hard his knuckles cracked. “Jillian Cooper is not an issue. That gossip column has created an affair where none exists, and I can assure you that not only is it a media fantasy, but also that the Asprey werewolves are aware of the truth.”

Kata sat forward. “You must be more careful, darling. For all you know, Ms. Cooper has been feeding the paper with your private affairs. She is a reporter, is she not? I know the papers lie—I’m in them all the time. But St. Giles has a point. I believe I speak for everybody when I say that if you want us to champion your alliance, you’re going to have to stop sleeping with that human girl.”

Marius shook his head. “We need to end this discussion,” he growled. “I am not sleeping with Jillian Cooper. I have never slept with Jillian Cooper. I never will sleep with Jillian Cooper. It is a gossip-column fabrication, and I’m certain she has told them nothing.”

“Oh, come now,” Kata said. “I’d be less shocked if you told me you were actually a mech. I’d believe they could be so cold. All that metal….” She shuddered delicately. “I don’t give a damn what you do with whom behind closed doors,” she continued, “but I do care about your honesty. I will not be lied to.”

Marius grabbed a wine bottle and flung it across the room. It struck the far wall and smashed; glass and wine sprayed everywhere. He uttered a sharp bark of laughter, running his hands up the back of his neck and into his hair. “So, whether or not you support this marriage alliance comes down to whether or not I lie and tell you I slept with Jillian Cooper.” He shook his head in disbelief.

The three other vampire leaders stared at him in shocked silence. Then St. Giles actually grinned. “You never had sex with her,” he realized. “Seriously.” He clearly enjoyed his adversary’s discomfort.

“Seriously,” Marius admitted. His heart broke a little as he explained. “I’ve hardly touched her at all. Those rumors are ancient. A kiss, yes. Long ago. And I’ve been called to her side many times, but always to rescue her from danger. It never went beyond that. I consider myself a friend and her protector. That’s all.” And his words held a truth that cut Marius as deep as any wound he’d ever experienced.

“I think we’ve heard enough,” Kata said. With a softness in her voice that suggested she understood more than her words expressed, she added, “Look, if you’re volunteering to marry a dog, be my guest. As long as I don’t have to do it. Dirty beasts. As I said before, Marius … I’m with you.”

“As am I,” Rafe said.

Everyone looked at St. Giles, who finally gave in. “I’ll back you on this, Dumont. But you owe me one.”

“Thank you,” Marius replied, standing and sketching a formal bow. “Thank you all. I will not forget that you have put your trust in me. I….”

He felt it then: Jillian’s true fear. If danger had not been present before, it was now. Marius clutched at his heart through his clothes, then quickly dropped his hand, forcing himself to relax. His peers were watching, and this was the very relationship he’d just disavowed. He dashed from the table.

Kata raised an eyebrow. “Can’t we at least enjoy the afterglow?” she called, lighting a fresh cigarillo.

Marius had already slung his gun belt around his waist and donned his battle gear. A moment later he was out the door, and in a swirl of black he stepped off the side of the safe-house platform and plunged out of sight.

 

CHAPTER 2

Marius flew swiftly down the vertical run of Crimson City, leaving behind the buildings of the vampire strata, thrust up like sword blades into the sky. Maneuvering deftly between the garish digital consoles of the news and advert drones winking against the darkness, he plowed straight through the smog layer, slowing only when he neared the city’s midsection.

Jillian’s heart was beating too fast. He could feel that through their almost otherworldly connection—a connection he’d never been able to explain, beyond that innate pull of protector vampires to the one special person with whom they were bonded. Soul mates, Jillian called the two of them. Marius did his best not to think of it that way.

Anxious to land, Marius closed his eyes and used his mind to home in on her position, quickly adjusting course to land in the three-species DMZ known as the Triangle. He chose an empty alley, alighting softly on the concrete, and immediately backed into the shadows. His long black coat fluttered around his legs. Staring unseeing at his leather boots, he probed the night with his senses.

Here at ground level, human scent dominated, and traces of others also began to build. Marius could almost feel the massive underground labyrinth seething with werewolf life beneath his feet. Perhaps the impending alliance between the werewolves and vampires would finally bring the dogs up in greater numbers. Most had been loath to travel to the vampire strata—not without some dark purpose, anyway.

Moving the placket of his coat aside, he slowly pulled his gun from the holster slung at his hip, and from the opening of the alley checked the street beyond.

Marius?

Jillian’s thought was panicked, truly panicked. Marius burst into a sprint and ran like a wild animal through the streets, following her scent, following the turmoil that called out to him from her very soul. He’d had to finish that meeting, but god damn it if he’d waited too long and she was—

He found her on a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, just inside an alcove. Tempted to run straight for her, his mind registered the return of those infernal UV lampposts the human government was constantly installing and uninstalling, depending on the perceived threat from above. These installations were more than just a simple deterrent: while vampires could wear special cosmetics and drink chemicals to ward off daytime UV, the halos of light emitted by these fixtures were deadly.

Carefully bypassing the nearest lamppost, Marius steeled himself for the worst. Raising his weapon, he slipped into the alcove where he knew he would find her. She stood frozen, silent, her face obscured by shadow.

She swayed slightly, and Marius ran forward. “What is it?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her toward some dull light oozing from a nearby store’s half-broken bulb. “Did somebody hurt you?”

She shook her head, eyes wide. Her face was streaked by mascara, and strands of her velvet brown hair were plastered to her neck, her skin wet with tears where the collar of her crisp white shirt fell open. Marius ran his fingers across that damp expanse, closing his eyes against the dark desire to bury his fangs in her throat. How he’d longed to taste her blood.

“You’re not in danger, then?” he whispered. “I felt you calling. It was … strong. Strange and dark.”

“I called for you,” she admitted, covering his hand with her own. Her pulse leapt, seeming to match his own.

Marius looked behind her into the darkness. “I don’t understand. Did somebody try to hurt you?”

She didn’t speak for a moment. “No. I just … I needed you.”

There was no ambient danger. Suddenly Marius understood that while her sorrow was genuine, the rest had been faked. She had lured him here. There was no real peril. Such a situation had never happened. She had never before lied to him.

He braced himself and took in her expression. Her face was composed, but tears slipped uncontrollably from her eyes. Which showed he was not being fair: though the physical danger was a lie, her panic was not entirely fabricated.

He slowly brought his fingertips to the curve of her face, and teardrops ran over them. Jill’s lips trembled.

“I heard…,” she began, unable to finish the sentence.

The words Marius needed to speak were just as difficult. He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her body, squeezing tight. “I have to marry her, Jillian. I can see nothing else that will accomplish so much good for so many.”

She pressed her face into his coat. “I—I didn’t bring you here to ask you not to marry her. I’ve given up on that.” She went still and silent, and then her face slowly turned toward his. “Give us one night. That’s all I ask. I know you won’t give me more, and I won’t ask it, I promise. But, Marius … give us one night before you say your vows. I feel your presence everywhere, all the time, and I know you feel mine even stronger. Just give us both one night before you cross the line forever. Before it’s truly impossible.”

Her hair tangled in his fingers, and her tears ran down his wrists. Marius stared into Jillian’s eyes, and his lips moved so close to hers that they breathed the same air. Warm, sweet air.

“You know I can’t.”

She flinched, pulling sharply away. “Can’t? One night? It can’t be because I’m human. Your cousin Fleur married Dain. He’s human. She shattered that code of conduct, so—”

“It’s more than that. And you’re worth so much more.”

“But I want—”

Marius shook his head, cutting her off. Summoning whatever fire remained in his soul, he spoke with the coldest conviction he could muster. This was his destiny, and he would accept it. “I must join the vampire and werewolf houses in this alliance. My life is not my own to give. I will marry Tatiana Asprey. I will never have you. There is no more to be said.”

They stood in silence. Marius held himself back from basking in the warmth that radiated from her body, from indulging the craving that called out to every part of him. “I never meant to hurt you. Please … please find someone else,” he whispered.

She pressed the back of her shaking hand to her lips, blinking rapidly. “There will n-never be anybody else,” she choked out. “Not really. I’ve tried to forget you so many times. But you won’t take me, and you won’t let me go.”

“I am letting you go.”

“On paper. Through words. But everything else will be the same, and you know it. We were meant to be together, no matter what you do. This is our last chance. Why won’t you admit that?”

With Jill sobbing, Marius did not trust himself to speak.

“I know you would never betray your wife,” she went on. “When you marry her, this is over. We will never know what could have been. Never! And we’ve never even—”

Marius grabbed her roughly by the waist. “You don’t understand. One night with you and I could never marry her. And you know I must. I must.”

Jill was silent for a long time. At last, a strange look came over her face and she shoved him back with all her strength. “All these years, what the hell have you been doing? Why did you leave flowers on my doorstep?”

“Jillian, I—”

“Is this just a game to you? You know that everybody talks. You know what they say about me.”

He’d never made any promises. When Jill took up with another, he’d never once complained. He’d never let himself. Just as he’d never let himself find physical solace anywhere else. Jill’s misery and his own had been his fault, his alone.

“It’s never been a game. I….” Marius reached inside his coat and retrieved something. He saw Jill’s face soften. She took the dried flower gently in her hands. The bud had once been pure white, a blossom from one of the unmarked bouquets he’d taken to leaving at her door. He’d known it was misleading, given their situation, and yet he’d wanted her to know someone was watching over her, someone who cared. The white roses seemed a symbol of their bond: unmarked, pure, timeless.

“I kept one,” he murmured. “They will always make me think of you, and when you see them, they should remind you what is always in my heart. I won’t pretend that this bond between us means nothing, but it cannot mean more.”

He reached out to retrieve his precious token, but she dropped it to the street, grinding it into the pavement with her shoe. “Symbols, tokens, unspoken understandings … Show me how you feel just once with your mouth and with your body. This is our last chance,” she begged.

He stared at her, silent.

Her expression hardened. “Coward,” she spat. “Do I have to make it really easy for you, so you can’t refuse? Should I just rip my clothes off and beg?” She pulled the tie holding together her wrap blouse, and the fabric cascaded away. “Screw me here in this alley, Marius. Please.”

“Jillian, don’t!” Marius’s blood raced. Exposed neck, pale shoulders, pink-tipped breasts—all delicate flesh and the black lace of her transparent bra. He’d never seen Jill this way. He’d only dreamed of it.

“I will. I’ll beg,” she continued. “I’ll do whatever you need to make this okay. I’m not afraid of what we have. Why the hell are you?”

She pulled the hem of her skirt up and leaned back against the brick wall. Marius tried to wrench her skirt down, but she was pulling out all the stops and rudely pressed her palm against his groin. “Don’t try to tell me no,” she murmured. “I know what you want. I know what I feel.”

“Stop, Jillian. Stop!” Marius begged. He forced himself to ignore the pulsing of his erection in her hand and grabbed the ends of her shirt, tying them together as best he could. Without thought, he closed his eyes and pressed his mouth to the crown of her head. “Please,” he whispered. “I never meant to hurt you, and—”

“‘Hurt me…,’” Jillian echoed.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a switchblade. Flicking it expertly open she said, “Hayden gave this to me. Hayden, your worst enemy. At the time I thought it was a really shitty birthday present, but it always seems to come in handy.” Transfixing Marius with her stare, she held the knife to her own neck. “Could you resist me if I made myself bleed for you? I know what it’s like when you smell blood. That means my blood will make you insane, if you feel half of what I think you do for me. You won’t be able to stop yourself, and it won’t be your fault.” She swallowed hard. “I’m not afraid.”

“Enough!” Marius roared, baring his fangs. The switchblade clattered to the pavement. “Enough.” He took her face in his hands. “This isn’t you. This is not who you are.”

Jillian slowly pulled free and backed up, collecting her weapon.

“Do you think this helps?” Marius continued, unable to contain himself any longer. “Do you think I feel no pain? I watch you run around with Hayden Wilks, and you think it doesn’t kill me? He gets to have you in every way that I cannot. It makes no difference that I understand why you’re with him, that you don’t love him. It doesn’t matter, because … yes.” His hands dug into Jill’s shoulders as he struggled to stay in control. “I can feel you. Do you understand? I can sense you. I know when he’s with you, when he’s touching you, when….” He had to look away. “Knowing I could make you feel so much more, that my feelings for you go so much deeper, that you’ve given yourself to someone who doesn’t deserve you because I’m not allowed to have the life I want to live … It makes me feel like dying sometimes. You must understand how much I care about you. But—”

“But not enough,” she interrupted. Then, with a hitch in her voice she added, “Soul mates aren’t supposed to end like this.”

Marius dropped his hands. “I’m sorry.”

Jill swallowed. “Well, that’s it, then,” she said, her voice suddenly too calm. “If your damn honor, your obsession with duty, all the excuses you’ve always used to keep us apart … if you can’t see what you’re giving up, it ends here.”

Marius could not bring himself to speak. Part of him was dying. It was best that that part should die.

Jill lifted her chin and clasped trembling hands behind her back. “It ends here. Don’t ever use our link again. Don’t go ‘probing with your senses’ for me, or whatever you want to call it. Go probe your new bride instead. Stop listening for me, stop watching for me, stop coming to my rescue. Stop leaving me flowers.” She stomped on his dried rose one last time. It was no longer white. “You got it, Marius? You don’t get to be my knight anymore. You’ve lost the right.”

Marius maintained his silence, barely. Just like his composure.

Her shoulder slammed against his arm as she strode past him toward the street. At the last moment, she turned. “I hope your big damn sacrifice is worth it,” she said, walking backward while swiping at her tears with her sleeve. “Someday I won’t cry for you anymore. I’m not as weak as you think.”

“I’ve never thought you weak,” Marius murmured, digging his knuckles mercilessly into the brick wall behind him to stop him from reaching out to her.

“When we meet again, you won’t be able to tell I ever cared, no matter what our stupid bond wants.” Jill stumbled awkwardly on the uneven pavement, then turned suddenly on her heel. After a few quick steps, she sucked in a breath and broke into a run.

Marius stared at his bloodied knuckles, then moved to the mouth of the alcove, where he leaned against a wall to watch the distance between them expand. In the foggy street, Jillian was illuminated in violet-tinged fits and starts as she passed beneath the deadly UV lampposts.

Call out to me, Marius, he heard her think. No matter what I said, call out to me and I’ll swallow my pride and turn around.

It took every ounce of Marius’s strength to fail her.

END OF EXCERPT

Crimson & Steam 

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