The doorman at the ground level of Dumont Tower touched his earpiece, his leather-clad index finger delicate against the metal. His coat looked as it did every afternoon, as if he’d removed it from a sea of unwrinkled tissue for just this one day. He wore his top hat perfectly straight; his face exhibited a kind of blank confidence that never let on that the archaic accessory might be slightly bizarre in the context of the current century. Across the street, from a perch atop a mailbox fused shut back when postal service ended, Tajo Maddox mused that it hadn’t seemed bizarre for some time now.
Yes, even the humans understood that with immortality came tradition. The styles, philosophies and behaviors of earlier centuries infused this latest incarnation of Los Angeles, blending modern and old-fashioned in a pastiche that made the place unlike any other; that made it Crimson City. And as the humans lost ground to the vampires and werewolves and found themselves in jeopardy from the other races they themselves had helped empower—the demons from the plane of Orcus, the mechs from the humans’ own military labs—the present borrowed an ever-increasing number of elements from the past.
One thing hadn’t changed for years: The richest and most powerful group in Crimson City was still the Dumonts, one of the pureblood vampire clans collectively referred to as primaries. They’d had centuries to perfect their operations, and it showed. From this doorman at the bottom of Dumont Tower to whatever the hell went on in the penthouse war rooms at the top.
Tajo’s own group had not enjoyed the luxury of time. The Rogues were new players in Crimson City. Glancing down at Hayden Wilks, Bridget Hathaway, and Jillian Cooper sprawled along a concrete riser beside him, he had to marvel at how far they’d already come. Especially for a bunch of mercenaries and freelancers used to working alone.
They hadn’t organized into an actual team until recently. It wasn’t easy surviving as a rogue in Crimson City. You had no backup, no clan or family to run to for an army of help. People assumed the worst—that you had no sense of honor, no sense of mercy. People who wouldn’t dream of killing a primary seemed perfectly able to justify killing a rogue. What really talked in this town, what safety really demanded, was power.
So a bunch of rogues teamed up. The idea of thumbing their noses at the rigidity and insularity of the purebred clans by forming a mixed species superpower appealed to the rebel in all of them. They’d even chipped in and bought an underground club to turn into a headquarters. They’d dubbed it the Rogues Club, and just like that the city was put on notice. Except, not everyone had noticed. Yet.
Tajo jumped off the mailbox and sat down next to Hayden. The two cased the area in mutual silence, waiting, wondering, wary. Without turning away from her surveillance, Bridget stuck her hand out; Hayden took a last puff and gently laid his cigarette in the V of her fingers.
Jill leaned back as Bridget took a drag, coughing and waving away the smoke even as she darted nervous eyes to the dove cooing on the overhang above her head.
Yeah, this was a solid bunch, a good team. In time, they’d be great. In time, they’d be ranked right up there on the Crimson City power scale alongside the Dumont vampire primaries, the Maddox werewolf clan from whom Tajo had long ago exiled himself, and most certainly the human government that had once seemed so indestructible.
“Time?” Hayden asked.
“About three minutes since you last asked. Maybe you could ask Jill to get you a watch for your birthday,” Tajo muttered.
Hayden turned back to Tajo. “I’m holding out for something more personal,” he said with a cocky tip of his head.
Tajo followed the gesture to Jill, who was sitting by Bridget on the end. She fiddled with her field glasses, then pointed them up the facade of Dumont Tower for the umpteenth time. Two seconds later, she lowered them and looked down, a wounded expression darkening her face. Jill was supposed to be thinking about the Rogue job, but it was obvious it was her doomed bond with Marius Dumont making her search the Tower so intently.
Tajo kept his mouth shut this time, wishing he hadn’t joked about it. Hayden had been circling Jill since she joined the Rogues. So far, his interest seemed to be as much about revenge against the Dumonts as it was about the girl herself.
Tajo’s gaze shifted to Bridget. He and she had tried out a thing, had some fun together, and decided they were better suited as friends with the occasional benefit. Tajo still admired her and her bad-ass fearlessness, but like Hayden, the girl had something truly dark inside of her and Tajo wasn’t sure her allegiance to the Rogues would hold. Especially since she’d once worked inside the human species’ headquarters.
Bridget leaned forward and looked both ways down the street. “Anyone else starting to think no-show?”
“Like, they forgot? Impossible. We just set this thing up a day ago.”
“Do you hear escort sirens?” Hayden asked, cocking his head.
Jill and Bridget were human; they wouldn’t be able to hear anything from too far away.
Tajo frowned. “I hear ‘em. Jill, did you check the press slate before we left?”
The former newspaper reporter still made full use of her old contacts. She pulled a folded paper from the pocket of her hoodie and scanned the document. “If there’s anything going on with the Dumonts this morning, they aren’t advertising.” She looked down the street. “Now I can hear them. And see them.”
Four heads swiveled as the cadence and sounds of everyday street activity abruptly changed. Tajo’s watch ticked loudly in the silence. The hour turned and a chorus of horns blared out in four-part harmony.
Several blocks away, a caravan turned the corner and started toward Dumont Tower. The Rogues watched slack-jawed as a set of guards jumped from security runners fused to the chassis of a white limousine to block regular traffic and push back pedestrians on all sides.
The caravan inched toward them, first a set of black, smoky-glassed cars, then a choreographed mass of white horses, red plumes and shiny brass horns. The white limousine came next, the runners still carrying a set of guards on one side. And then the bookend, a second set of black cars.
The guards continued to hold the traffic; the pedestrians strained forward to get a better look.
Tajo narrowed his eyes, trying to get a read on the miniature flags fluttering from each side mirror on the limousine. “Jill, can I borrow your field glasses?”
Jill pulled the set from her neck and passed them down. Tajo flipped off Night Vision and focused on the flags, whistling low as he made out their provenance. “New York, New York.”
“Really? Is it someone for the Power Summit?” Bridget tried to grab the glasses, but Tajo darted out of the way, shifting the sights over to get a peek at the limousine’s side window, cracked a third of the way down.
“Zoom?” he asked.
“The long thingy on the right,” Jill said. “It’s a new model.”
Tajo zoomed in. A strand of blond hair fluttered out the small window opening and a row of delicate fingers curled over the glass, one sporting a delicate gold royal crest. “No kidding!”
“What?” Bridget asked. This time, Tajo let her take the glasses.
“East Coast werewolf royalty is what. The Dumonts must be serious about this werewolf alliance.”
“That’s not exactly news,” Jill said bitterly. “Except, I thought the lucky girl was already living at Dumont Tower.”
“There were three princesses born to New York’s werewolf House Royale if my memory serves me right.”
“Three werewolf brides for three vampire brothers,” Bridget said. “Almost poetic—if it didn’t smack so badly of cheap mail-order bride.”
“Something tells me this one doesn’t come cheap,” Tajo said. “She’s probably worth a lot in political currency.”
Jill took the glasses. “All three pairs plan to marry? It just doesn’t seem….”
Tajo guessed she wanted to say “fair.” Instead she said, “Necessary.” “There’s no question matching all three of them would make a bulletproof alliance stretching coast to coast.”
Hayden folded his arms across his chest, one of his fangs curling over his lower lip as the cavalcade continued forward. “East Coast style. Nice. Can’t say I’ve ever seen the Crimson City dogs show up the Dumonts like that.”
Tajo nodded, his gaze fixed on the limousine door where the crest of House Royale shone fresh and bright. Seeing it there was something of a shock, the way it trumpeted the superiority of the pureblood werewolf in a kind of splashy, overdone way Keeli Maddox’s primary clan would likely have eschewed.
Though Tajo hadn’t allied himself with Keeli’s clan for years now, he felt a strange pride at seeing a werewolf crest displayed so blatantly in the streets of Crimson City. Note to the Dumonts and everybody else, it seemed to say: Wealth and power are not the domain of only the primary vampires.
Werewolves and vampires were naturally distrustful of one another. It was why the alliance between the primaries of the two species always seemed so fragile. And so susceptible to external pressures like rogue interference.
Across the street, the doorman leaned out to watch the limo move easily forward in the empty, blocked-off street.
“This does beg the question,” Tajo said, looking up at Dumont Tower. “Pureblood werewolves en route to an engagement party with pureblood vampire primaries … so what the hell are a bunch of mutts like us doing in the mix? Our rendezvous point is less than five yards away from kiss-kiss-will-you-marry-me, and we happen to get a no-show on our job. Anyone else smell a setup?”
Hayden nodded. “Not my favorite smell,” he growled, his bared fangs sparkling under the white light of the moon.
“Who’s our client?” Bridget asked.
“Humans. Needed a solid mercenary team to handle some quick business, but wanted to meet the team first.”
“Anyone I know?” she pressed.
“I got the gig through a middleman—a human middleman I’m going to have to beat the crap out of next time I hit Bosco’s.” Tajo sighed. “I should have known the money was too good to be true. Sorry, guys.”
“No biggie.” Bridget picked up her messenger bag and strapped it across her chest. “It happens. And we have to take some chances. God knows our team needs the funding. So, I guess we’re outta here?”
“Yeah.” Tajo whistled and rotated two fingers in the air. “Round it up. We’re out of here.”
Everybody except Jill stood. “I want to see her,” she blurted.
“No, you don’t,” Hayden said, pulling on her shoulder. “Come on.”
“I’ll catch up with you at the clubhouse,” she said, her shoulders squared.
Tajo sent Bridget a pleading look, and she squatted down next to Jill. “Marius’s fiancée is already up there, Jill. This is just one of her sisters.” She dropped her voice and added, “Don’t torture yourself.”
Jill’s cheeks suddenly burned red. She mumbled an apology and began gathering her equipment.
In the street, the first set of black cars passed them by, then the horses, and finally the limousine pulled up at the tower entrance. To Tajo’s surprise, a trio of vampire security men moved around the chaos and headed directly toward the Rogues. Tajo looked in the direction of the main camera mounted by the front door of Dumont Tower and waved.
“We’re leaving,” he mouthed.
The vampires pulled their weapons and changed course to help secure the perimeter of the area, while support personnel moved in to receive the royal guest. Bridget let out a breath. “I thought they were coming at us.”
“Ready,” Jill said.
But Tajo didn’t move. Frozen in place, he watched a small, blond female step out of the white limousine, almost fairylike in her wispy, delicate looks. Two bodyguards closed in on either side. The doorman spoke into his microphone, then bowed deeply to the werewolf princess as she looked around curiously. Her handlers tried to hustle her inside, but she flung their hands away, pointing at an adwriter hovering low. Maybe they didn’t use them in the New York City skies yet.
The guards were pulling at her now, their fingertips barely grazing the princess’s elbows, trying to move her without really touching her. She wasn’t having it, her head swiveling from left to right as she took in the surrounding sights and sounds. Tajo smiled just watching her.
And that was when he smelled it. The stink of imminent danger separated itself from the dark scent of unrest normally lying thick over the city. Trouble was, the smell of the tools of war had become so pervasive in Crimson City that it was often hard to distinguish remnants of a prior event from those yet to make their mark.
“Tajo?” Bridget asked.
The smile disappeared from Tajo’s face as the odor of danger clogged his nostrils. Beside him, Hayden flinched.
“Don’t hurt her,” Tajo murmured to no one in particular, his eyes fixed on the princess’s lovely face. Unaware, unafraid, her eyes wide with excitement.
The dove above Jill’s head cooed softly. Dumont Tower’s lobby exploded in a storm of fire.
The Rogues dove for cover, the lot of them immediately covered by a fine layer of silt and shattered glass. The pedestrians who’d stayed to gape at the princess ran in all directions, making it impossible to see who was who, what was what … and who had fired shots.
The alarm system blared. Smoke billowed into the street. The horses in the caravan went crazy, rearing and bolting, their plumed handlers abandoning their brass horns as they tried to secure their charges. The sky filled with the shadowy forms of vampires taking flight off the balconies rimming each level of the skyscraper.
A gust of wind cleared the air in front of Tajo long enough for him to get a read. Residue peppered the white limousine; the head of a gargoyle from the building’s facade lay in a crater on the hood.
Tajo collected himself enough to climb to his knees and crawl to the nearest body in the street. No pulse. He looked around. The princess was nowhere in sight. His chest still heaving from the shock, it was all he could do to focus on the lives of his teammates. The ground and the dead bodies were riddled with shrapnel, and he could smell that the metal had been dipped in silver nitrate. He was the only werewolf of the group, and while the shrapnel could have wounded them all at this distance, the silver itself could kill only him. Leaping to his feet, Tajo quickly checked his exposed skin and confirmed his armor had not been penetrated. He’d been close enough to the concrete barrier to miss the worst. Lucky. Very lucky.
Jill was the next to get up, in spite of Tajo barking orders to stay down. Her hand shielding her eyes, she looked upward. A trickle of blood wound down her cheek as she robotically patted the pocket where her reporter’s pad had once lived.
He swung around, trying to see through the haze. Evacuations were already in full swing as the alarms continued to sound. Already, a squad of vampires attended to the flames at lobby level, a second group shoring up the infrastructure. Vampire medics raced to their injured; werewolves went for their dead. And nobody, it seemed, had found the princess yet.
“Tajo, over there. Get her!” Hayden shouted, pointing at the pile of bodies in the street. The vampire himself was busy tending to a shrapnel wound in Bridget’s thigh, a wound, from what he could tell, caused by a bronze plaque blown off the side of the building. Bridget was pounding her fist against the pavement and swearing a blue streak—something about yet another scar, which had to mean she was okay.
Tajo called out to Jill and gestured to the bodies. Her eyes half closed against the filth in the air, she leaned over, grabbed one of the dead bodyguards’ legs and helped pull several corpses away. The princess lay facedown against the concrete, her forehead pressed into the cushion of her bloodied left hand. Tajo and Jill looked at each other and nodded, then slowly rolled her over on the count of three. She opened her eyes, looked up at Tajo and smiled the sweetest smile he’d ever seen. Then she passed out again.
“Can I get some help over here?” Hayden yelled, struggling to lift the thrashing Bridget to her feet. “We gotta get her to medical, ASAP.”
Tajo nodded at Jill. He could smell the Dumont guards bearing down on him; a glance up showed they were already ringing a circle around him and his friends, waiting for one of the Dumonts themselves to arrive. Once Marius showed up, Jill would be useless.
“Go help him,” he said.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Jill asked, gesturing to the unconscious princess. “ ‘Crimson City, we’d like to introduce you to the Rogues—capital R.’”
“You’d better believe it,” Tajo agreed, lowering his voice a notch. “An asset like this drops in our laps, I think we run with it. In this case, with her. Go on and help Hayden. This isn’t her blood. It’s her bodyguards’. I think she just knocked her head.”
Jill reached up to the utility belt slung low around her waist, unclipped two cartridges, tossed them to him, and moved on. Pocketing the ammo, Tajo bent to his knees and swept the hair from the princess’s face with his free hand.
She was the picture of innocence—all milky white skin and a smattering of freckles across her nose. But she was on her way to being a pawn for the primary
vampires and the other dogs, and it was only a small detour to being a pawn for the Rogues instead.
Letting her bruised cheek fall gently against his shoulder, Tajo gathered her in his arms and stood, nearly falling backward with her in the next moment as Marius Dumont, Fleur Dumont, and Dain Reston careened down through the swirling dust and slammed to the pavement in front of him. Framed by the backdrop of Dumont Tower smoking and sparking in the dark, they formed an impressive front.
Tajo held his ground. With the princess held in one arm, he pulled his pistol from its holster and pointed it directly at Marius’s chest. The gun was ridiculously tricked out to look impressive and deadly, which, of course, it was when it worked properly, but this seemed to have no impact whatsoever on Marius. The vampire fixated on something—or someone—over Tajo’s shoulder.
No one said anything. Tajo, Fleur, and Dain followed Marius’s gaze. Jill looked up from where she helped Hayden hoist their injured teammate to her feet. Her eyes seemed to lock with Marius’s, though the expression on her face remained blank. The cut on her cheek oozed a line of blood, razor-thin and hardly noticeable with everything else going on. Or so it would seem.
A smile twisting his lips, Tajo looked around at the three vampires. “Um, anybody gonna give me shit here, or can I go on my way?”
Fleur and Dain exchanged looks. Fleur glanced impatiently at her cousin and said, “Marius, go check on the war room.”
Marius looked at her in surprise, but without saying another word, took himself away.
“This mess your doing, Tajo?” Dain asked.
“Fair question. But, no. My team got set up.”
Fleur stretched out her arm to touch the princess’s face.
Tajo stepped back out of range. “She’s fine. As you can see, I’m busy saving her.”
“Hey, man, we had nothing to do with it. Somebody obviously wanted the princess dead, and they wanted it to look like we were involved. I mean, how idiotic would it be for us to sit and watch our own assassination attempt like it was a fucking musical?”
Fleur gestured to the princess in Tajo’s arms. “If you were set up, you had no plan to take her. So, why don’t you give her to me and we’ll call it a night?”
“You’ve got bigger things to worry about than me.” With the tip of his boot, Tajo flipped the doorman’s top hat up in the air. Fleur caught the singed accessory. “You’ve got a helluva security breach in there.”
Dain snarled, the kind of uncontrolled reaction of someone who hadn’t been used to controlling his vampire state for very long. Fleur murmured something and he reluctantly backed down.
“She have a name?” Tajo asked.
“Her Royal Highness Princess Gianna Asprey,” Fleur answered tightly. “But I’m sure when she wakes up and stops screaming she’ll let you call her Gia.”
“ ‘Gia.’ Nice.”
Fleur took a step forward, reaching for the girl once more. “You leave here with her, understand you’ll have House Dumont, House Royale, and even Keeli’s werewolves all over your case.”
Tajo stepped back out of her reach again. “Aw, c’mon, Fleur. Did you even look at my gun? It’s a really big one.” He hoisted the slipping princess up again as best he could and brandished his weapon, pointing it straight at Dain. “That’s the thing with women—they just aren’t interested in our toys. How ‘bout you explain that this is a really big gun and it’s going to hurt a lot?”
Dain snarled again, the veins in his neck throbbing, but Fleur held him by the arm.
Once he could overlook; twice was asking too much of an alpha. Tajo narrowed his eyes at Dain, with a rough flick of his wrist switched the cartridge on his weapon to liquid silver, and pointed the gun at the princess’s head.
“Don’t piss me off, Dain. You think I wouldn’t do it? You forget that there’s still honor in fair payback. We know about the rogues you’ve picked off. And I don’t mind putting a bullet in her to set things straight.”
“A mercenary’s sense of honor,” Dain muttered. But neither he nor Fleur made a move.
“Well, this has been great, but Gia and I need to get going,” Tajo said, his gun still pressing into the princess’s temple. “Oh, and Dain … you should think about getting those hair-trigger reflexes looked at.”
Tajo kept moving backwards until the darkness of an alley enveloped them both. Then he turned and picked up his pace, moving as fast as he could with the girl a dead weight in his arms. She was getting really heavy.
The others had undoubtedly taken the transport to get Bridget to medical. Tajo wended his way through the city streets until he felt secure enough to slow down. The Rogues kept a number of safe houses scattered around the city. They’d originally pooled their resources and bought them because most of the members still worked freelance mercenary jobs; it was nice to have somewhere to go when you were on the run and needed to disappear. One of the perks of membership. But as the Rogues became increasingly involved in city politics, those same safe houses were literally becoming critical to their survival.
In the silence of a deserted alley, Tajo sheathed his weapon, shifted the girl into both of his arms, and walked the rest of the way at a more reasonable pace.
The walk gave him an opportunity to get a lead on what exactly he’d just gotten himself into. And with whom. One thing was for sure. A lot of white, lacy fabric kept getting tangled in the zipper of his jacket, and some feathery accessory tickled his arm. The purse hanging from the crook of her elbow banged against his ribs.
As he passed under the gasping wattage of a faulty streetlamp, she came to a little, turning her head, burrowing into his neck. He could feel her mouth against his throat, the damp of her lips burning like a brand into his flesh. Struck by the oddest sense that he’d just been marked in some way, Tajo tightened his grip around her and hurried toward the building entrance.
Focus, Tajo. Focus.
“Hello, knight,” she murmured.
Oh, you’re kidding me. “Hardly,” was all he managed to say. The perfumed scent of her hair mingled with the dirt and the blood on her face and dress.
She either didn’t hear, didn’t care, or had a serious head injury not visible to the naked eye. All she did was exhale a warm throaty “Mmmm” against his cheek and snuggle closer.
“Hello, knight” was essentially how fairy tales started. But this princess was caught in the open in Crimson City, outside her castle. And Tajo wasn’t anybody’s hero.
Hopefully, she’d catch on quick to the whole kidnapping thing and would keep her screaming to a minimum. At least until he’d had his first cup of coffee.