To Mom, for absolutely everything
As always, I'm thankful to be able to work with such a wonderful, talented, and supportive group of people who believe in the Gardella books.
Many thanks to Marcy Posner, for holding my hand and always believing in me and my work, and helping to make my dreams come true.
I'm so grateful, too, to be working with Claire Zion on this and other books—thanks for always "getting" what I'm trying to do, no matter how clumsy it might be, and helping me make it better. Also, big thanks to Kara Welsh for believing in this series and supporting it, and to Tina Brown for always being so patient. I'm so appreciative of everyone at NAL for everything behind the Gardella books, especially the art department, for creating the most fabulous covers ever, and the marketing and sales staff, who help to get my stories out there.
Once again, I have big hugs for the women of the Wet Noodle Posse, who are always there to celebrate the ups and downs of this business, and to Holli and Tammy for plodding through each chapter and watching me tear my hair out. Thanks also to Jana, Janet, Delle, Mary, Christel, Kelly, Larry Y, Danita, and Bam.
And, finally, much love to my family.
One month after she lost her husband, Victoria took to the streets of London.
In the darkest part of night, whilst the rest of the city was safely tucked away and the bulk of Society had repaired to the country for hunting season, Victoria Gardella Grantworth de Lacy, Marchioness of Rockley, strode alone through the slum known as Seven Dials.
Dullness permeated her bones. Dispassion and numbness, laced with deep, gnawing grief and rage, caused her limbs to move soldierlike, one foot in front of the other. It was not only in deference to her status of mourning that she wore black from head to toe, but also to allow her to meld with the shadows, in and out, to be seen if she wished to be seen; to become one with the darkness if she did not.
She wore men's clothing for ease of movement and because they smelled like her husband. She also wore them as a silent protest against the strictures of Society that demanded she sit in her dark-swathed home and do nothing for a twelvemonth. Her lips curled humorlessly at the thought of what the ton's matrons would say if they only knew.
The beaver topper, tall enough to tuck her thick braid up into, had also been Phillip's. She had smelled his rosemary-scented pomade on it when she first placed it on her head. Now the comforting, familiar, painful scent was lost in the stench of horse droppings, human waste, and other refuse that littered the streets of one of London's worst neighborhoods.
These streets were narrow and close, with buildings built barely a man's width apart. Windows were fairly nonexistent, and every other structure had hanging shutters or sagging doors, or both. Carriages and even hacks were a rarity, especially in the early hours of the morning, when it was still dark and the ruffians and thugs were on the prowl for an unsuspecting mark.
Victoria knew she would not find vampires to hunt tonight. They had all fled the city with their queen, Lilith, a month ago.
No, Victoria did not expect to find an undead to stake tonight, but she wanted to. Oh, she wanted to. She needed to.
She needed to feel the blood coursing through her body again, the blood that felt as though it had slowed to a crawl and sat, stewing, like a scum-covered pond, in her veins. She needed to move, to exert, to feel again. She needed revenge.
She needed absolution.
Victoria turned the corner and immediately ducked into the shadow of the old brick building she skirted. Across what passed for a street in this area of London, she saw two figures.
One, a tall, burly man. The other, a slender young woman; a girl, really, for she barely reached the man's armpit. The half-moon stippled light over the street and illuminated them quite well. Victoria could see that the girl was frightened, pleading, struggling… whilst the man, using the ease of his bulk and height, manhandled her against the wall, holding her by the throat as he groped her breasts, tearing away the bodice of her dress. Her small hands pulled and scratched at his hairy arms, alternately trying to cover herself, pull his hand from her neck, and bat his other hand away.
Victoria glanced around as she let herself into the light, easing from the shadows. There was no one in the vicinity; whether the girl had been brought here by the man, or whether she'd become lost on her own, it appeared as though there was no one to help. She whipped off Phillip's hat and let the long braid fall along her spine. She wanted him to know a woman was going to bring him to his knees.
Ignoring the stake in her deep inside coat pocket, and disdaining the knife she had strapped to her thigh, Victoria walked up behind the man, silent as a cat, and gave a powerful kick to the base of his back.
With a cry of rage he spun, his meaty hand still closed around the girl's neck… until he saw who'd accosted him. He released the girl, who slumped to the ground, and reached for Victoria.
She was ready for him. The blood was moving in her, her hands poised, her knees bent to give her stability, just as Kritanu had taught her. The rage she'd swallowed for weeks bubbled to the surface. Her breathing quickened.
The man spared her a nasty smile, then lunged. Lithe and swift, Victoria waited until the last moment and sidestepped him, grabbing his outstretched arm and using the force of his weight to propel him around, her braid flying. The tiny vis bulla she wore gave her the same superior strength and speed as the undead she was used to fighting, and enabled her to slam a man thrice her weight face-first into the brick wall.
He crashed into it with a satisfying "oomph," but Victoria was not finished with him; she was not ready to contain her exploding emotions. Ignoring the wide-eyed look of the young girl, who'd slunk off to the side and away from the activity, she whipped the would-be rapist back around. Her nerves zinged with energy, her breath came in deep, drawing gasps, her vision edged red as she slammed a fist into his cheek. He stumbled, but righted himself and, with a guttural cry of fury, swung an arm that was thicker than her thigh.
Victoria blocked him with one strong, slim limb, and used her other fist to smash toward his face. His expression blared surprise and shock, but he ducked her blow and bent, spinning, then rose with a blade in his hands.
The world slowed to a crawl and raced ahead at the same time.
Victoria remembered smiling, remembered the feeling of contentment that settled so calmly over her as she reached for her own knife. She recalled the ease with which she withdrew it from the garter on the outside of her trousers, the feel of it in her palm… not so unlike the weight and thickness of a stake. An ash stake.
It was like coming home. It was like being released from some deep, dark confine. She burst free.
She thrust and sliced and slashed. Images burned in her mind as she flowed in and out of the positions Kritanu had taught her, the ones that had become second nature to her in the last months. The memories—of Phillip, of Lilith, of the myriads of red-eyed vampires she'd fought—all melded, intermingled with this attacker's face, still frozen in shock and then pain… and then emptiness.
It wasn't until she raised her arm to strike yet again and saw the dull red streak of blood over the tendons of her hand that Victoria came back.
She froze, looking at her hand. There wasn't supposed to be blood. Vampires didn't bleed when they were staked.
She realized she couldn't catch her breath, that it had escaped and was jolting her body into deep heaves with each inhale. Her shoulders jerked up and down; her lungs burned. Her arms and legs shook. Her eyes and nose leaked.
Victoria looked down. She was holding a knife, not a stake. A knife dripping with blood. Her hand was not only streaked, but dotted, splattered with blood in a horrific pattern. She was kneeling… kneeling over a massive body that no longer moved.
His eyes were open, dull and glassy, and blood covered his chin and cheeks, even his lips, in the same ghastly pattern that was on her hands. His chest barely rose and fell.
Victoria stared down at him and gingerly pushed to her feet.
She looked at the knife. She would have dropped it, but her fingers would not release the hilt. She shoved it into her pocket, still clutching it, and looked around.
The girl. She dimly remembered the girl.
But there was no one. No one to see what she'd wrought, what the rage and devastation had done when it erupted from her.
Victoria looked down at her hands again. She'd killed before… but she'd never had blood on her hands.
Eustacia Gardella heard the noise before the man sleeping beside her did. She reached automatically for the stake she kept beside the bed, rolling off the mattress with an agility that belied her eighty-one years. Kritanu, his black hair shining in the moonlight beaming through the window, shifted and woke at her movement.
He saw the stake in her hand and then his dark eyes met hers, silent; then he too slid his wiry body from beneath the sheets. He reached for the knife, and Eustacia felt him behind her as she turned to slip from the room.
The noise had been faint, but her sensitivity as a Venator allowed her to recognize and process danger and warning much more acutely than an average mortal. She had heard something once, and then nothing more.
Despite the fact that she did not sense the presence of an undead, Eustacia gripped the stake like the hand of her lover, and moved down the stairs swiftly and in silence. There was only one other servant, Charley, and he would not have awakened.
She had half descended the stairs when she saw the figure standing in the grand entrance of her home, recognized her, and her breath seized.
"Victoria!" she cried, lifting her night rail, bunching its soft linen with her grip on the stake. "What has happened?"
Her great-niece stood in the foyer, looking up at her in the dim light always left burning in the gold lamp beside the stairs. Dark streaks on her face and hands, and the wide, shocked eyes that stared up at her told Eustacia part of the story.
"I didn't want to go home looking like this." Victoria's voice sounded remarkably calm. "What would the servants say?"
"Cam, what has happened?" Eustacia wrapped her gnarled fingers around Victoria's cold, stained ones and gently tugged her toward the sitting room.
Kritanu, bless him, had whisked a blanket from its trunk and settled it around Victoria's shoulders. "I shall make some tea," he said in a voice just as soothing as the Darjeeling he would no doubt bring.
"I nearly killed him," Victoria said, looking at Eustacia with eyes like olive pits. "There was a lot of blood. I didn't know what to do."
The words were simple, calm, logical. She stood straight and relaxed. But the expression in those eyes had Eustacia's brows drawing together. She directed her niece onto the davenport and settled herself next to her. "Tell me what happened, Victoria."
"I went out tonight. I didn't expect to find any vampires—I know Lilith took them all with her—but I went out anyway. I needed to."
"You needed to do something." She repeated the words purposely, hoping they would help drain the shock from her great-niece's eyes. "Of course you did. You are a Venator."
A brief smile flitted over Victoria's face. "Max said that. The night Phillip… died. He said I was truly a Venator."
"Did he?" Eustacia's protege, Max, had left for Italy immediately after the tragedy, and she had not yet heard from him. The tension between him, an experienced Venator, and Victoria had been palpable. She found it interesting that Max had given her niece such a compliment; for he'd been so adamant that she would be more concerned about beaux and balls than vampires and stakes. "So you went out. Tell me what happened. Whose blood is this?"
"I almost killed a man. I don't remember doing it, Aunt Eustacia. He was going to rape a woman, a girl, and I stopped him. He was very big, much bigger than I. We started to fight, and when he pulled out a knife, I took mine out too… and the next thing I knew he wasn't fighting back. There was blood everywhere. There's never been blood." Her eyes were vacant again, and Eustacia's heart squeezed as she looked into her niece's beautiful face. Her brave, smart, strong, lost niece.
How many times had she regretted making her a Venator and bringing her into this world? This world of violence and evil?
But she was here, and they needed her. She and Max and the other Venators needed Victoria if they were ever going to destroy Lilith, Queen of the Vampires. The destruction of the evil that stalked their world was worth every sacrifice, great and small. Eustacia had lived this truth for more than sixty years.
Victoria would live it too. Eustacia just wished she had not experienced such a great sacrifice, and so very, very early.
"No, there's never any blood," she replied, selecting the last comment to respond to.
"It sickened me. He… I left him there. I didn't know what to do."
"Victoria. Listen to me. The man was attacking a girl, and you saved her. You helped her. And he would have cut you if you hadn't cut him. You had to protect yourself."
"I did. But I didn't have to slice him to ribbons!" Then, finally, the tears came.
Eustacia held her, feeling the jerks and heaves of her delicate shoulders as if they were her own sobs. This had been a long time in coming, since Phillip's death, and she was relieved Victoria had finally released the grief and anger that had built up inside of her. Losing her husband less than a month after marrying him, and in a horrific way, had caused her to withdraw and cloister herself away. At least tonight she had found a way to confront some of those emotions.
But what a terrible way to do it.
After a very long time, after the heaves turned to small jerks and then to gentle little hiccups, Victoria pulled away. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks blotchy. Tiny brown ovals splattered her face, and one long streak edged her jaw. Some of her dark curls had come loose from their single braid, curling wildly around her face.
Victoria began fumbling with the shirt tucked into her man's trousers, yanking it free and pulling it up and away from her belly. Eustacia cast a quick glance, but Kritanu hadn't yet returned.
"I can't wear this. I can't let it control me."
Eustacia knew what she was talking about. Victoria lifted the shirt and there, resting in the hollow of her navel, was the vis bulla, the holy strength amulet worn by Venators. Vampire hunters. Crafted of silver from the Holy Lands, the small cross had been soaked in holy water from Rome before its small matching hoop was pierced through the top of Victoria's navel, just as Eustacia's own vis bulla had been when she had accepted her duty as part of the Gardella family legacy. She still wore hers, of course. A Venator never removed the vis.