I thought my newfound freedom would allow me to shake off the stink of New York City and start a new life somewhere else, a place where nobody knows me as Death Bringer or Britt the Bloody. A place where I’m not associated with ridiculous prophecies.
Looks like fate has other plans.
When the city is attacked, I find myself on the wrong side of the border. The only option is to take up arms alongside my vampire overlords and fight my way out. It doesn’t help that Alaric is by my side, reminding me of exactly what I’d be leaving behind.
My instinct is to fight for myself—for survival—but at some point I realize I just might be fighting for a hell of a lot more.
Red Rook is the second book in the Midnight Empire: The Restoration trilogy.
If you missed the initial series, be sure to start with Wild Knight, Midnight Empire: The Tower, book 1.
Release date: May 19, 2022
Publisher: Red Palm Press LLC
Print pages: 238
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
I couldn’t believe the nerve of this monster.
“I’m not paying twenty dollars for a used suitcase,” I insisted.
The seller splayed his arms. “Then I guess you’ll be leaving your precious cargo behind because that’s the going rate. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
I angled my head to admire the blue suitcase. The seller was right, damn him and his high-pressure tactics. The suitcase was the right height and sufficiently sturdy to accommodate some of my taller weapons and there was no way I was leaving them behind.
The seller jabbed a finger at George, who was perched on a nearby awning. “Throw in the baby dragon and I’ll make it fifteen.”
“The phoenix is not for sale. How about a banana?” I reached into my bag and produced the yellow fruit.
His gaze flicked to the banana, and I noticed his tongue dart out to swipe his lower lip. “Any other fruit?”
I thrust the offering forward, along with fifteen dollars. “It’s delicious potassium and fiber. What more do you need?”
“Deal.” He took the banana and the cash, and let go of the suitcase, which immediately toppled over thanks to a bum wheel. I’d have to see if Liam could fix it before I left town.
The suitcase bumped along the sidewalk behind me as I dragged it back to my apartment. “Let that be a lesson to you, George. It pays to haggle.”
The phoenix burped a response. I wasn’t insulted. He did that a lot. I got the impression he suffered from some kind of acid reflux on account of the fire brewing inside him at all times.
We crossed Ninth Avenue and continued straight across midtown. It was only when we crossed Eighth that I realized I had a tail.
I drew to a stop. “Hey, George. Keep an eye on my suitcase.”
The phoenix required no further explanation. He swooped down and landed on the handle, ready to take the purchase airborne if necessary.
I whipped around to confront my stalker. Grabbing him by the throat, I shoved him against the nearest wall. The move clearly took him by surprise. He wasn’t even holding a weapon.
“There are dozens of women walking the streets at this hour and most of them don’t have a miniature bodyguard. Why choose me?”
I took a good look at him. Under six feet, medium-build, hazel eyes. Pretty nondescript as far as stalkers went.
“I’m not here to attack you,” he wheezed.
I squeezed harder. “You make a habit of sneaking up on women and don’t intend to attack them? You need a more productive hobby.”
He made no move to defend himself. “Trinity Group sent me.”
Trinity Group. Well, Olis warned me this would happen. The Director of Security for House August was also a wizard involved in a secret organization determined to bring back the sun.
I released my grip and took a step back. “Tell your people what I already told Olis—I’m not interested and I’m moving.” I angled my head toward the suitcase. “Imminently.”
He rubbed the tender part of his neck. “We want to invite you to attend a meeting.”
“Then send a letter, not a stalker.”
“You know we can’t put anything in writing.”
The mere existence of their group would be considered an act of treason. Restore the sun and you inevitably condemn vampires to the shadows once again. No more Houses. No more vampire rule, hence treason.
“I won’t be here to attend any meetings. Sorry.” I wasn’t really sorry. I had no desire to get mixed up in species politics. I had my freedom now and I intended to make the most of it. What that entailed, I’d yet to decide.
“They’ll consider you the enemy,” he said.
“So I’ve been told.” Olis had issued the same warning when he told me about the Trinity Group and his belief that I was a necessary part of their plan. I’d expressed the same level of interest then—zero. I’d spent my life taking orders from others, first as an assassin and then as an indentured servant. Now that I’d earned my freedom, I wasn’t rushing to entangle myself with a group that wanted to use me as a weapon, which was essentially what the prophecy foretold.
“You’re a witch. You should want this,” he said.
“You don’t know anything about me. You have no idea what I want.”
What I wanted was a future I could never have, which was one of the reasons I’d decided to leave New York and create a life for myself elsewhere. New York was ruled by House August and House August was ruled by King Alaric. The vampire was…
No. I couldn’t let my mind go there. We couldn’t have the relationship we deserved. The king would have a rebellion on his hands if he chose a former killer of vampires as his queen. Yet I couldn’t bear to stay here and watch him choose someone else, as he inevitably would. Leaving was the right thing to do for both of our sakes.
I grabbed the handle of the suitcase. “I’m heading back to my apartment now, where I will be planning the route to my new life. Please tell your friends I would be happy to attend their meeting, but, alas, I’ll no longer be geographically desirable.”
“They can be very persuasive,” he said.
I leveled him with a look. “I promise I can be more so.”
The expression on his face suggested he knew about my magic and didn’t wish to be on the receiving end of it. Smart guy.
I turned away from him and continued the trek to my apartment. George hovered closer to me now, seemingly concerned that more Trinity Group members would climb out of the woodwork. I wasn’t worried. I’d be gone by the time they sent their next recruiter.
I entered the apartment and gasped at the sight of a werewolf in my kitchen. “What the hell, Liam?”
My best friend held up a key. “I came by to return your spare key.”
I propped the suitcase against the sofa. “Keep it. Maybe you’ll hit it off with the new tenant.”
“Doubtful.” He gestured to the map spread across the small dining table. “Still deciding?”
“Yeah.” I’d been looking at the map every day for two weeks in an effort to make a decision on where to go next. I couldn’t bring myself to commit to a location. Too big. Too small. Too rural. Too cold. Too quiet. Nowhere was just right.
“You could swing past the Wasteland and check on Twila and the children.”
“It’s definitely on the list of options.” The Wasteland was formerly known as Washington D.C., the nation’s capital. After the Great Eruption, the area had been overtaken by monsters and an ambitious wizard until recently when my friends and I intervened.
“Have you heard from Meghan? Maybe you could crash with her, too.”
“Haven’t heard from her.” Not that I expected to. I’d met the werewolf when she tried to avenge the murder of her husband, a vampire I’d been hired to kill. To the surprise of both of us, we became friends—sort of.
Liam rummaged through the meager contents of my fridge. “I know I’ve said this a hundred times, but you don’t have to go.”
“I know. It’s a choice.” I folded the map. “You should head out. I need to get ready.” I’d foolishly agreed to one date with Alaric before I left the city. We’d settled on a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, mainly because it fit Alaric’s hectic schedule.
Liam closed the refrigerator door holding a broken wedge of cheese. “I assume you’re wearing the black dress.”
“What else?” It was the only nice piece in my wardrobe thanks to Alaric. He’d bought the dress for me when we were involved the first time around. It fit like a glove, and I felt like another woman wearing it. Not a blood witch. Not a former assassin. Not a recently freed indentured servant.
I loved that dress.
“Don’t take any weapons,” Liam advised. “They’ll ruin the illusion.”
“What illusion is that?”
“That you’re the kind of woman who wears dresses and attends Broadway shows.”
I snorted. “I’d give you my ticket, but Alaric might object.”
“Object? He’d have me executed for interference with getting laid.”
“I don’t think that’s a law.”
Liam cast a forlorn look around the apartment and I knew he was contemplating a future without me. I knew because I was doing exactly the same thing.
“I’ll let you get dressed,” he finally said. “I want to hear all about the show tomorrow. I hear the vampire who plays Mercutio is hotter than a volcano.”
“I’ll try to take a picture for you. Do you have any plans tonight?”
“I’m meeting this guy PJ for a drink later.”
He nodded. “I met him through a matchmaker that used to work in-house for one of the bigger packs.”
The werewolf shrugged. “I’ve learned to temper my expectations.”
As he started toward the door, he attempted to slip the map under his shirt. I cleared my throat. Wordlessly, he returned the map to the table and left the apartment.
I hurried to change for the show. If this was the last night Alaric would see me for a long time, I wanted to look my best. I’d developed a sense of honor—but I also had an ego.
Once I was dressed, I peered into the oven where I kept a stash of weapons. Sighing, I closed the door. Liam was right. Weapons clashed with the dress. On the other hand, weapons were like my security blanket. I needed something. I opened the oven door and selected a 10-inch dagger. Hiking up my dress, I strapped the dagger in my garter. There. No one would be the wiser.
A knock on the door made my heart skip a beat. George wisely flew out the window to give us privacy.
“Coming, Your Majesty,” I called in a singsong voice that sounded nothing like me. One dress and I was suddenly Snow White.
I yanked open the door to greet Alaric. His signature scent hit me first—grapefruit and frankincense. The vampire wore his medium-brown hair wavy and slightly disheveled. He looked more royal than usual in a charcoal suit with a red tie.
His mouth quirked as his green eyes raked over me. “I’m not sure I can handle you in a dress. I might want to…” The gold flecks in his eyes seemed to brighten. “I don’t think you want to know.”
“Tell me after the show.”
“Actions speak louder than words.” His gaze continued to linger on me in that predatory way that made me simultaneously want to flee and succumb. When his hand slid down my hip to the side of my thigh, I didn’t object.
“What’s this lump I feel?”
I smiled up at him. “Isn’t that supposed to be my question?”
“Seriously, Britt. What is it? You know you can’t bring a weapon into the theater. Security will notice and we’re trying not to draw attention to ourselves.”
I edged away from his hand. “It’s only one little dagger. I can’t leave them all at home. New York is a dangerous city.”
“And you’re a dangerous witch, or have you forgotten all your lovely nicknames?”
I hadn’t forgotten. Death Bringer. Britt the Bloody. They were far from lovely, but they were accurate.
“It’s for your protection,” I said. In truth, it was out of habit—a habit I wasn’t ready to break. Now wasn’t the time to be complacent. I was about to venture into the big, wide world on my own. I had to shore up my defenses, not let my guard down.
Alaric leaned over and whispered my name. His lips brushed my earlobe, triggering a pleasant shiver. I was so caught up in the moment that I failed to object when he lifted my dress and liberated the dagger from its hiding spot. I was still relishing the feel of his hand on my bare skin when he held the blade in front of my face.
“This is prohibited in the theater.”
“No, saying ‘Macbeth’ is prohibited in the theater. When they say, ‘Is this a dagger I see before me…,’ you can answer in the affirmative.”
“We’re seeing Romeo and Juliet.”
I snatched the dagger from him and looked down at my attire. “I can’t put it back where it belongs without hiking up my dress.”
He smirked. “I volunteer as tribute.”
I glared at him while returning the dagger to its hiding spot. “Good thing I wore a garter.” I hoped the sharp blade didn’t poke me in the thigh the rest of the evening.
Alaric tilted his head to observe my legs. “I didn’t realize you were wearing stockings.”
“Then why wear a garter?”
I offered a vague smile. “To give your fangs something to do later.”
His eyes blazed with hunger. “How thoughtful.”
“You have the tickets?”
He patted his jacket. “All set.” He offered his arm. “Shall we?”
“Are you sure you want to do this? It’s a public outing.”
“You’ll be pleased to know I haven’t told anyone I’m attending, not even my security detail.”
I wasn’t sure ‘pleased’ was the right word, but I understood. I was the one who refused to attend his coronation ceremony because I didn’t want to do anything that might undermine his authority. Royal vampires didn’t have witches as consorts, and they certainly didn’t have former indentured servants. As a mistress, yes, but not as an official partner.
“Olis won’t be happy with you,” I said.
“Olis is never happy.” He adjusted his tie. “I’m incognito. What could go wrong?”
“You’re a pretty recognizable figure. Don’t you think they’ll figure it out?”
“The only one who knows me well enough will be on stage. She’s one of the stars.”
“Let me guess. Ex-girlfriend.”
He smirked. “Is there any other kind?”
I was tempted to punch his arm, but I resisted. Alaric was king now. I wasn’t sure I could punch him even in jest without some goons toppling me.
As I locked the door, Liam emerged from his apartment down the hall. “Don’t you look gorgeous,” he remarked. “You look nice, too, Britt.” The werewolf sauntered toward us. “Am I supposed to genuflect or does our shared history cancel out any formalities?”
Alaric looked down at him. “I suppose I’ll overlook your transgression this once.”
“Think of it this way, with me leaving town you’ll probably never see each other again,” I interjected.
“Stop saying that.” The werewolf shot a pleading look at Alaric. “Can you command her to stop saying that? She’s not going anywhere.”
Alaric grunted. “As though I could command her to do anything.”
Liam shook his head, disappointed. “Some king you are.”
“Be careful what you wish for. If I were anything like my father, your head would already be on a spike for insolence.”
King Maxwell’s murder had been a shock to everyone. As a vampire, Alaric had believed he still had many years before his ascension to the throne. He hadn’t felt ready to wear the mantle of responsibility. Ultimately, he had no choice. His mother, Queen Dionne, recognized her own inability to rule and passed the crown directly to Alaric.
Liam’s gaze slid to me. “He’s not like his father, right? We’ve established that.”
I nodded. “Come see me tomorrow before I leave.”
Liam walked toward the stairwell. “More lies,” he called over his shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“He’s going to be very sorry when he shows up in my empty apartment later this week,” I muttered.
Alaric nudged me with his broad shoulder. “See? Nobody wants you to go. That means you should stay.”
I looked up at him. “What about what I want? Does that not count?”
His expression softened. “Of course, it does. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.”
Granted, I wasn’t experienced in making life choices. The major ones had been made for me.
As we exited the building, I noticed George circling above our heads in a frenetic fashion. “Buddy, this is a Broadway show. No animal companions allowed.” I didn’t catch the phoenix’s response. I was too busy staring at the glowing red clouds gathered above him. “That’s odd.”
“What?” Alaric followed my gaze.
A gust of wind whipped past us, stirring up dust and debris on the sidewalk.
“Must be a storm front moving in,” he observed.
I continued to stare at the strange sky. “Have you ever seen a storm with clouds that glowed red?”
“Don’t tornados cause that?”
“I have no idea. When was the last time the city experienced a tornado?” The answer was not in our lifetime.
Alaric clasped my hand and squeezed. “I think somebody might be nervous about our date.”
“No, somebody is nervous about a supernatural storm.”
Alaric made a dismissive sound. “If this was a supernatural storm, I would’ve heard from Olis. Trust me, it’s fine.” He wrapped an arm around me, prompting a stream of fire from George. The vampire cut a glance at the phoenix. “Knock it off, Sir George, or I’ll have your knighthood revoked.”
The phoenix seemed agitated. Maybe he was taking the impending move harder than I realized.
We continued along the sidewalk for another block, but I couldn’t shake the unease brought on by the unusual sky. “Are we really walking the whole way?”
He shot me a quizzical look. “Since when do you object to walking?”
I pointed to the angry clouds above our heads. “Since a supernatural storm threatened to dump acid rain on us.”
Rolling his eyes, the vampire removed his suit jacket and covered my shoulders with it. “If it starts to rain, draw this over your head.”
I snuggled under the jacket and continued walking. If I were the sentimental type, I’d make sure to ‘forget’ to return the jacket to him at the end of the evening. The rational part of me knew it was a bad idea. I had to travel light and that included cramming as many weapons as I could fit into my backpack and suitcase. A lone witch couldn’t be too careful.
We entered the theater without incident. No one frisked me or detected my lone weapon. Even better, no one seemed to recognize the king. If they did, they respectfully disguised their excitement.
As we sat, Alaric handed me the program. “Which one is your ex?” I asked, succumbing to my curiosity.
“Minerva has that distinct pleasure.”
“Pleasure, yes. Distinct, not so much.” I glanced at the photo of the beaming blonde. Go figure. I always knew the king had a type. Like most of his conquests, I was a blonde, but my frame was more toned and athletic, unlike Minerva and her ballasts.
“Too bad Minerva wasn’t aboard the Titanic,” I whispered. “Those breasts could’ve saved lives.”
“What makes you think she wasn’t?”
I scoffed. Minerva wasn’t that old. If she were, she’d show off the streaks of white that indicated a long-lived vampire. In fact, white hair was worn with pride by most species. Wrinkles and strands of white or grey told the world at a glance that you were a force to be reckoned with. Approach with caution. I aspired to crow’s feet and a snowy white head.
The show started with an up-tempo musical number that involved colorful twirling umbrellas and a fountain.
“Are you sure this is Romeo and Juliet?” I whispered.
“It’s an updated version.”
Fragments of plaster dusted my sleeve. Instinctively I tipped my head back. “Does the ceiling look dented to you?”
The woman behind us shushed me.
“Rude,” I grumbled. I tried to focus on the actors, but I kept confusing two of the men. The vampires portraying Tybalt and Romeo were physically similar and I wasn’t invested enough in their performances to keep them straight.
Alaric leaned over and whispered, “Minerva’s good, right?”
“Sure.” So far all she had to do was look pretty. Not much of a stretch.
A creaking noise drew my attention back to the ceiling, which was now sagging under the weight of…something. I shifted uncomfortably as a feeling of intense dread washed over me. Larger pieces of plaster plummeted to the floor. A shredding sound followed as the ceiling gave way.
Screams pierced the air as a dark figure dropped from above. With its gaping maw and hefty body covered in coarse hair, it looked like a cross between a werewolf and a rabid bear. The monster landed center stage, and the actors scrambled to escape. The creature searched the audience as though getting its bearings and then unleashed a roar that shook our seats.
I jumped to my feet and hiked up my dress to reveal the garter. The woman beside me released a gasp of dismay.
“You have pearls right there,” I said, motioning to her neck. “Now might be a good time to clutch them.”
I whipped the dagger from its hiding spot and launched myself across my neighbors’ legs to reach the aisle.
The monster leaped over the orchestra pit and landed at the start of the center aisle only a foot away from me. Its eyes burned with blue fire. The monster was surprisingly fast given its size. It opened its enormous jaws and roared again like a beast staking its turf.
“Sorry, friend. This seat’s taken.” I sized up my opponent. He was bigger than me, sure, but weren’t they always?
The monster swiped an oversized paw at my face. I recoiled and dodged the blow. The sharp claws could do serious damage and I wasn’t dressed for combat.
“Not the dress,” I warned. “It was a gift.”
I lunged forward and thrust the dagger through the thick hide of its chest. I withdrew the dagger and noticed the blade was clean. Did I manage to miss a vessel?
The monster reared up, preparing to strike.
Alaric appeared by my side, wielding a flagpole. I glanced at the gaping hole in the wall next to the stage.
“Is it wrong that I’m mildly turned on right now?” I asked.
“Only mildly?” He used the pole to poke at the monster and keep it at bay.
The hellbeast dove to the left and scampered over the seats. The remaining audience members scattered like marbles. Dagger in hand, I charged after it. I would’ve preferred something with a longer blade, but ten inches was better than nothing.
If only Liam were here to make an inappropriate joke.
The creature sniffed the air. Its head swiveled left to right as though in search of something.
The actors watched from the shadows of the stage. I noticed Tybalt—or Romeo—wielding a red umbrella as a defensive weapon. My gaze turned to a fanged Alaric with his sleeves pushed up to reveal powerful forearms and a deadly expression. Proof positive that not all vampires were created equal.
I tried to form a connection with the creature, but it was like trying to grab air. I quickly abandoned the effort. I couldn’t risk the beast escaping the theater. The chaos would spill over to the streets.
I jumped on the nearest chair and hurdled across the rows toward the beast. Sensing my approach, it craned its neck to glower at me before releasing a ferocious growl that caused the chairs to vibrate. The subtle movement was enough to throw me off balance. My foot slipped as I ran, and I crashed into the seats.
Alaric zipped past me holding the empty flagpole. He raised the pole over his shoulder and flung it like a spear. Unfortunately, without a point at the end, there was no point. The pole bounced off the creature’s thick hide and dropped to the floor, rolling to rest against the seats.
I ran down the aisle and lunged at the beast’s back. I was vaguely aware of the hem of my dress as it rode up past my underpants. There’d be plenty of time for humiliation later.
Gripping the handle of the dagger, I raised it high in the air and drove it into the creature’s neck. The strike was powerful enough to knock the monster on its side. I pulled out the blade and inspected the metal. Still no blood. How did the creature not have any blood? Blood was my access point to victory.
When the monster turned its menacing eyes to me, I seized the opportunity to strike again. I thrust the blade into its eye and pushed as far as it would go. The monster’s head drooped to the floor.
I turned to Alaric. “I bet you’re glad I brought a weapon now, aren’t you?”
The vampire stared at the monster as it drew its last, shuddering breath. “What is it?”
Apparently, there wasn’t going to be time for a thorough examination either. The monster started to smoke and disappeared in a blue haze.
“Where did it go?” Minerva asked, hesitantly returning to center stage.
I stared at the empty spot on the floor. “Okay, that was a new and deeply unsettling experience.”
Minerva clutched the neckline of her shirt. “Why do these things always happen to me?” she whined.
I looked around the theater. “To you?” I repeated, incredulous.
Alaric offered a friendly wave. “It’s okay, Minerva. The monster is dead now.”
She perked up at the sight of her former paramour. “You saved us, Your Majesty. How brave.”
I rolled my eyes. “If you intend to rekindle that particular romance, please wait until I’m safely out of House August territory.”
“No fear of that,” he whispered.
Gods above. That husky voice was destined to haunt my dreams once I was gone.
“Do you think it got through the ward?” I asked.
“What’s the alternative?”
I waved a hand. “Someone let this guy loose in the city.”
“Or raised it from birth.” Which begged the question—what gave birth to that?
Minerva sat on the edge of the stage with her legs dangling. “Where is everybody? What happened to ‘the show must go on?’”
“It’ll have to go on without us, I’m afraid.” Alaric linked his arm with mine. “Care to accompany me to the compound and we can look into this together?”
I hesitated. “Is that smart?”
“I value your input, Britt. If there’s a security issue, you might be able to help.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
“Because unlike that guy”—he motioned to where the corpse had been—“you are not a monster.”
I hated when he was right. I grabbed his suit jacket from the chair and tightened the edges around my shoulders. “No rest for the wicked.”
Alaric offered a seductive grin. “That can be arranged.”
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