They came. They saw. They obliterated. And then she met him.
Survival of the fittest has a new meaning and mating a vampire hadn’t ever been a part of beating dangerous fantasy creatures away from her door. No. Running for her life was what Naomi Smith was used to. But hot sex with a nine-hundred-year-old vampire might just shuffle the deck and shove her face first into a new reality.
They came. They saw. They obliterated.
Two years after the Paranormal Apocalypse.
Syphon pump? Check. Naomi Smith adjusted her portable generator beside the pump that had saved her life on more than one occasion. She sent a silent prayer of thanks to her father for always being prepared for anything. And by “anything” he even meant gathering supplies that would help him survive the apocalypse.
A scowl marred her brow. She wished the apocalypse had involved nuclear warheads and foreign invasion.
Her dad couldn’t have imagined what had happened.
Not that he’d actually expected to see the apocalypse first-hand in his lifetime. Still, he was a child of the sixties and the Cold War. He’d told her stories about bomb drills when he was in school and his parents being glued to the television whenever there was a supposed threat from the former Soviet Union.
Her father had most likely never expected the real apocalypse to come in the form or fashion of a paranormal infestation—an infestation that was both overwhelming and so far from normal it wasn’t even funny. It was inconceivable.
A shiver raced down Naomi’s spine. For a split second her greatest desire was to sit and cry; she wanted to have an old-fashioned tantrum and scream, “It’s not fair!” Tears hovered at the edge of her vision as the urge boiled inside.
She sucked in a breath between her clenched teeth and shoved the useless emotion aside.
Control was key to survival.
Exhaling sharply, she tilted her head to the side. For a moment her eyes didn’t focus on anything. A shadowy vision of a long-ago time involving families doing normal things, such as running to the 24-7 minimart for ice cream or sodas, roiled through her imagination. Those days are over.
Suddenly, she snapped her brain back to reality. So exhausted that her teeth hurt, she shook herself out of her morbid musings.
She could sleep when she died.
Grabbing the rag she kept stuffed next to her emergency food rations, she surveyed the contents of her trunk. She wiped the oily liquid from her hands that tinkering with the pump had left behind.
Twenty-four months ago, she’d have gagged at the smell of gas coming off her hands. Today it was par for the course.
Other things—not so much.
Stretching out the aching muscles of her neck, she wrinkled her nose at the smell of her own stench. Acid reflux wasn’t a condition; it was a state of being. Her hard swallow against the bile rising in her throat was as commonplace as all the running she’d done since they had arrived.
A shiver raced over her. She closed her eyes for the briefest of pauses, wanting to give in to the fatigue. Once more, she snapped them open and attempted to put herself in order.
God, I hurt.
When was the last time she’d actually slept? Dozing behind the wheel in fits and starts did not count. The question didn’t matter; it was simply a stalling of the inevitable. Knowing what she had to do, she gave herself a mental shake. Get to it and get on with it.
She stiffened her spine. Her bravado fled before her next exhalation.
If it wasn’t a case of run fast-forward for the sole reason of escaping danger today just so she could come face-to-face with a different form of evil tomorrow, she’d have just given up a while ago.
Even if she wanted to—she wouldn’t.
Refocusing her eyes on the contents of the spacious trunk, she again tried to stretch out the tightly knotted muscles twanging in her neck. They only coiled tighter; a boa constrictor would be more merciful. She sighed, trying to power through the moment. “Ouch!” She hissed. The knotted pain brought her attention back to taking inventory.
Automatic handgun? Various knives? Check. Pipe bombs? Check. Plastic explosives? Check.
Prepared to die? Maybe, maybe not. Was any day a good day to die?
Her gaze landed on a spattering of blood dappling the top of the rear quarter panel. A souvenir from her last encounter with a paranormal. She, who used to scream over the occasional spider or mouse, had graduated to the big leagues—with honors. Yay, me. I’m a big girl now.
She tossed the rag onto the stuff just before she fisted her hand. Her initial gut instinct was to wipe the smudge of blood from the glossy-black paint. Naomi cleared her throat as she slammed the trunk of her 1970 GTO, Judge, closed.
Soon she’d have to ditch the vehicle. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes. Be honest with yourself. Her heart ached as she lovingly traced her finger across the dust-ridden car.
Her shoulders slumped as she thought about abandoning the car. What with gas availability in the outlying areas getting sketchy at best, or downright dangerous if you happened upon a station inhabited with a hive of vampires or a throng of ghouls, she knew she was about to lose this mode of transportation. And that fact killed another tiny slice of who she’d once been, the security and roots she’d put down. She should have known she would never escape the nomad life of an army brat.
I just never thought this would be my lot in life—or this would be normalcy.
She took in the sign for Interstate 95 while understanding she didn’t have any recourse but to soon rid herself of her father’s baby.
Not really. No. The car wasn’t her father’s baby. That was a lie. Just one of many.
Who’d been the one to clean, polish, and maintain the Judge while he was saving the world from terrorism? Not dear old Dad and not big brother with his motorcycles and girls to keep him busy.
No. It was she who’d lovingly cared for the Judge. It was her baby.
This is so unfair. She bit her lower lip to keep from shrieking in outrage. Come on. Keep it together.
After all, what would her father, Master Sergeant Scott Smith, say? She knew exactly what he’d say.
Buck up, and don’t be a whining pussy.
She highly doubted her long-deceased father would consider this a “buck up” situation. If he’d lived long enough to witness the carnage wrought from zombies and the likes, he probably would have said that this was a “run like your ass is on fire and pray for your fucking life” sort of existence.
Still, she needed to get the hell away from the gas station. Brush and other plant life had done a good job of reclaiming civilization. It all looked the same to her, green crap that hid potential dangers. Young pine trees obscured the line of sight between the broken front of the convenience store and any other long-abandoned businesses.
She was living every episode of all the post-apocalyptic movies that she’d stayed up late watching before this mess happened. Rundown buildings were now the norm. The occasional dried-up rotted corpse lay haphazardly at the edge of a parking lot. Not zombies—she always double-checked that first. Broken down cars and litter added to the macabre desolation.
She took in the highway sign once more. It was the first she’d seen in forever. One sign pointed in the direction to New York. The other pointed her toward Atlanta.
It was a shame that she had no clear idea of her actual location. Was she in Virginia? North Carolina? Naomi wished she’d been a better geography student in school. A GPS would have been nice. Satellites still worked even if most phone carriers were down. She’d given up on small electronics because of the hassle of keeping them charged. That and the dependence on the failing equipment was dangerous. Now, where to go?
The Deep South? Out-of tune banjos strummed ominously in her head.
She snorted with derision as the theme song associated with everything redneck and depraved made another pass through her imagination. You gotta be kidding me.
Her boots crunched on the loose gravel as she moved toward the front of the car. Only one direction for her to go. North.
At least I won’t find myself combating a bunch of hillbilly werewolves or, worse, southern-fried zombies who want to serve up a steaming hot bowl of Naomi Jambalaya.
What she wouldn’t do for a nice hotel room and a hot shower. Seriously, she’d give her right arm for a little normality like 24-7 minimarts and a working washing machine. Her gut told her to go to a city, to hide in the masses. Her common sense laughed at that notion.
What the hell was she thinking? Millions of years of evolution had apparently gotten cross-wired somewhere.
There was no way of safely entering the major metropolises. They’d been the first to be infested—overrun—conquered. Sodom, Gomorrah… Babylon? Her tired brain felt like a hamster on a wheel trying to find a comparison. It didn’t matter. The result was still worse than any horror movie. It was biblical—Revelations, being left behind after the Rapture, scary.
Lovingly, she slashed her gaze over her car. Her heart beat a little slower when she imagined herself walking away from it, leaving it on the shoulder of the highway.
Where to go? What to do?
She was about to use up her last tank.
How do I escape this hell? Maybe a horse?
A fucking horse? Really? Oh, God. She might as well follow the sound of banjos. Not.
Blowing out a ragged breath, she closed her eyes for another quick tick of her watch. Goose bumps rose on her arms. “This is flipping crazy.” Actually, it was as if the whole world had teetered on the brink of insanity just before giving up a big shout of surrender. Then, before the whole scream had fallen off, the world literally pitched all mortal-kind from a cliff.
Governments fell within a year.
People raced out of towns within six months of the first zombie appearing on their streets.
As if zombies weren’t bad enough?
Naomi mopped the dampness from her face with her hand. She nibbled on her lower lip. Her original plan had been to try to get to her brother, Mike, stationed in Newport News, Virginia. Still, that had been in the early days when people double-locked their doors at night and carried loaded guns during the day. Back in those days, she could still get gas. Hell, even her debit card had worked, and although she would often camp comfortably in the backseat of the Judge, she was totally thrilled with the hot meals that came by way of diners, drive-ins, and dives.
Sure, it was the pits to wash her hair in restaurant restrooms or at highway rest stops—still, there had been some version of the status quo one could count on. You just watched your back and prayed nightly that you didn’t become another tic-mark in the “infected” column or carrion for the kinds who dined on the recently deceased.
A shiver raced up her spine. Tears gathered in her eyes as dread pooled in her stomach. There was no escape because there was nowhere anybody could hide from them. When was the last time she’d even seen another human? Sluggishly, she recalled the screaming crazy guy a couple of weeks ago. One moment he was preaching the end of the world to the squirrels—old news. The next time she looked up from her nap, gross, twisted vulture-women were tearing him apart. The only thing Naomi could do was slump lower in the seat and hope they didn’t notice her. The screams were the worst…
An unholy howl in the distance brought her around. Werewolf? Necromancer? Ghoul?
She had no way of knowing. Tilting her head to the side, she attuned her hearing to determine from where the sound had come.
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Get the lead out and just go.
It wasn’t the first time she’d come to grips with “the new reality” of human existence nor had she come up against a paranormal kind that hadn’t wanted to make dinner out of her. Dinner or “perpetually” dessert.
The idea she might become some hive’s sex slave turned her stomach. Hell would freeze over before she would allow herself to fall under a vamp’s power.
Vampire. Satyr. Fairy. Pick a name. Freaks—all of them.
Her hand dashed to her 9mm slung low on her hips. Anxiety and the feeling of a thousand pairs of eyes measuring her for a grave sent a skittering chill up her spine.
Pure terror or paranoia? She wasn’t sure.
Audibly swallowing, sleep deprivation finally catching up to her, she scurried toward the driver’s door.
Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. Another howl broke the burgeoning dusk, rising and falling, only to be answered by another. This sound closer and more terrifying than all get-out. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. A hunt.
The sick sensation that she might be surrounded soundly clocked her upside her head. Panic infused her being. “Come on. Come on.” She fumbled with her keys. The clink of shifting through her key ring shouted in the car and echoed in her ears. Why the hell did she even keep her old keys anyway? Damn lazy habits were going to get her killed and eaten! Her pulse skyrocketed when a fresh baying howl sounded even closer to the car.
The first tear traced down her cheek. Her heart really ached. Every muscle in her body throbbed. She didn’t want to be prey, to go down like a damn rabbit.
So exhausted that not only her teeth hurt but also her toenails, she leaned her forehead against the steering wheel. Panting breaths huffed from her throat. The urge to just sit there and sob overwhelmed her.
Don’t you give up, you whiny pussy bitch. The memory of her father saying those very words before he died shot through her. Granted, he’d delivered that tidbit of insight to her when she wanted to quit high school and follow in her brother’s military-issued footsteps. You give up, and you’ll be no better than that cunt of a stepmother you like so much.
Actually, she’d never liked her stepmother, but what the hell, or more so, what did he care as the agony from stage-four lung cancer broke through his painkillers? If she was brutally honest with herself, her father really hadn’t ever cared about her or her brother.
Nope. He was too busy chasing bimbos and being a big, bad Army guy.
The spurt of anger flew through her so fast that she was suddenly rejuvenated. It wasn’t the first time she’d used her childhood to fuel her will to live. She highly doubted it would be the last. Dear old Dad’s final legacy—a crappy childhood and the Judge.
Jabbing the ignition key into the slot, she twisted it with a vicious jerk. Before she even put conscious thought into what she was doing, she slammed the gearshift into drive and pounded her foot down on the accelerator.
The Judge fishtailed when the rear wheels accelerated over the loose gravel. Correcting the wheel, she punched the accelerator again. The only thing she wanted was out.
Sadly, there wasn’t a way out. Howling hit her ears as if it was being fed through stereo surround sound. The werewolves were closing in.
Slamming both her feet on the brakes, she knew her heart was going to beat out of her chest when two vampires materialized out of nowhere to stand right in front of the Judge. What the hell? She puffed out huge gusts of air while her heart was about ready to thrum from her chest. They’re tag teaming me! You cheating bastards!
This day had just gone from bad to worse.
Pure and virginal panic flew through her system.
Instincts kicked in.
She levered her right hand on the passenger’s seat headrest and prepared to back up. “Oh, this is just fucking wonderful,” she muttered once she’d turned her head back to the gas station. Two more vampires materialized behind her.
“Damn it!” Four against one. She was woefully outnumbered with more joining the party.
Slamming her left foot down on the brakes, she huffed in exasperation. Her right foot gunned the beefy motor. The Judge shifted forward. Last stand? It was a curious question, but not out of context. A lonely western tune whistled through mind; it was the O.K. Corral on steroids.
Glancing in the side view mirror, she punched the gas again as she slid the gear shift into drive. I’m not going down without a fight.
Truthfully, she did have the larger weapon—her beloved classic car. The only downside to the Judge was it didn’t have electronic door locks. She thanked her lucky stars that she rarely opened any other door in the car aside from the driver’s.
Conspicuously, she elbowed her door lock down.
Her eyes narrowed when the blood-suckers standing in front of her moved closer. There was only one thing she could do.
She locked her gaze on the predators. “Bowling for fangers it is.”
She didn’t hesitate. Didn’t think at all. Her left foot came off the brake pedal while her right slammed on the gas. There was no hint of emotion in her body as she plowed through the soulless creatures.
Their unholy shrieks broke the night, along with the thuds of bodies slamming against the hood and roof. The natural agility of the blood-suckers amazingly saved them from doing too much damage to the car.
“I hate my life,” she muttered through her clenched teeth. But it was still hers, and she wasn’t handing it over without a fight.
Frowning, she corrected with a quick jerk on the wheel when the car again fishtailed. The roar of the motor drowned out the sudden deluge of fear racing up her body. The squeal of the tires dampened her panicked thoughts along with the sound of her frantic pants.
Checking her rearview, she noted five vampires were chasing after her. Must be young in their evolution. Her musing did nothing to assuage her terror. Nor was she going to disregard the unexpected turn of events. Whoever had been their sire had obviously set them loose without much training.
She wasn’t going to look down on the fact they were untrained. Baby vampires were a hell of a lot easier to kill and escape from.
In the back of her mind, she counted her blessings. If they had been older, she’d have been out of the car and at their mercy by now.
Gripping the steering wheel hard, she didn’t take time to debate her limited options. A few questions did start to niggle at the back of her brain. Had there been six vampires or only five? The question came out of nowhere as she navigated her way up the access ramp.
Damn if she could remember.
What does it matter? Just get the hell out of here. Go. Go. Go. Now. Now. Now.
Silent commands shouted in her head as she drove at breakneck speed toward Interstate 95.
Finally making the rutted macadam of the six-lane highway, she eased up on the gas while she turned on her headlights.
“Holy fucking hell!” The scream flew from her mouth when she glimpsed another figure materialize in front of her.
Swerving to the left, she forced her eyes to stay open when her first reaction was to slam her lids shut and kiss her ass goodbye.
Damn instinct. The obvious conclusion of nearly coming bumper-to-legs with the tall vampire standing right in the path of the Judge was that the sire had arrived. Snapping her head to the left and then the right, Naomi weighed her limited options.
Limited? What were the options? She had Option One—give up. Option Two—take out as many as possible before the vamps ate her. The fuckers would suck her dry, body and soul, if they did not kill her first.
She exhaled sharply as her stomach soured with her impending defeat. Her heart pounded like a battering ram against her ribs, and her shaking hands slipped from the wheel. Blood rushed in her ears like Death whispering, “This, Naomi, is the way you are going to die.”
“Fuck.” Her whisper echoed in the car. She took in the rest of the hive when they lined up with their sire. “Fuck it all.” The world spun around her as too much adrenaline, too little food, and almost no rest came crashing down. Option One sucked the big one.
It was going to take divine intervention to get her out of this mess.
* * * * *
James Carver glared at his best friend’s kid sister. “Stay,” he ordered the vampires who’d congregated around him. “She is not your supper.”
He strode forward. With his instincts on high, he wondered why Naomi hadn’t hit the gas and dispersed them, just like she’d done at the gas station. He shook his head. His gaze narrowed on the pale woman sitting behind the wheel. Shadows dogged her eyes, and she looked like prey as she stared numbly at his nest.
From what Mike had told him about Naomi, she wasn’t a woman to shy away from danger, but she was smart enough to know there was a time to flee and a time to take a stand.
He’d bet his last dollar this was a time she’d have hauled ass, found a nice, quiet spot to regroup, and then head north when the sun rose. It was why her sudden stop surprised him. If it had been him, he’d have just kept on driving.
The hissing and spitting from the nest stopped his thoughts.
Scowling, he held up a hand when his nest began to creep forward. Damnable bottomless pits.
True, he didn’t appreciate this new nest, but there was little he could do about them. Like many elder vampires who had retained a shred of humanity, he’d had to take in many younglings since the Dark Council had made their move on humankind.
Not that he’d agreed with them opening the gates to hell and raising Cain on Earth. It wasn’t as if they’d asked his permission.
He was rogue, but not the way a mortal would think. No. James wasn’t into destroy first and bow down later, which is what he suspected the Dark Council would ask of their minions at some point in the future.
The governors of the Dark Council wanted dominion over every living paranormal.
He’d die first.
Hell, he’d practically joined the Light Council, but that was his carefully guarded secret. If his nest found out he was currently navigating the proverbial sharp edge of a knife, they wouldn’t walk to the ruler of Virginia, shout about his breaking the covenant, and then wait for him to be taken out of the mix.
James quelled the urge to shake his head. Hell no. They’d run as fast as they could to whoever they knew for sure could defeat him.
Luckily for him, the number of elder vampires in the area was slim. And the few who did reside close by believed as he did. That the balance, which had once held the kinds in check, would eventually be restored. Whether balance was restored by the Elves, supposed keepers of the Earth, or some other supernatural creatures who was yet to show their faces, he wasn’t sure, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to crash and burn with the rest of the Dark Council.
First things first. Get Naomi out of danger and safely to where he’d hidden her brother. “Leave us,” James ordered his nest. “She’s not got enough blood in her body to feed us all.”
Growls rose in a hideous chorus from behind him. “Do not tempt my anger,” he warned. His voice turned to a slithering mash of syllables, informing any who’d care to pay attention that he was losing his patience. If his status as elder didn’t get him obedience, he was not opposed to taking a bite out of any of them. He’d learned long ago that action spoke louder than words.
Peering over his shoulder, he glared his nest into compliance. Reluctantly, they moved toward their home located in Fairfax. “Maybe there is still a God in heaven,” he whispered.
One can only hope.
Making his way to the car, he didn’t bother with pleasantries. Truthfully, she didn’t appear to be any more in the mood to make small talk than he was. The muzzle of a gun came up. Before she could breathe, let alone pull the trigger, he opened the door and relieved her of the weapon without so much as a scratch to the classic automobile.
He stared at the pistol. Instead of following the natural inclination of tossing the semi-automatic away, he tucked it into his jacket pocket. “Tsk. Tsk. And here I stand, willing to take you to your brother.” Purposefully infusing arrogance into his tone, he tilted his gaze to her face. “You want me to do that, yes?”
He’d apparently caught her off kilter. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts. “I…um…sure. Why not?” The small frown marring her brow informed him that she wasn’t buying his generous offer.
“You have every reason to be wary of me, Naomi.” He walked her around the car to the passenger’s side as fast as he could press her mortal body without frightening her further. Not prepared to go into a lengthy explanation of his motives anywhere within earshot of his protégés, he winked at her. “I’ll explain on the way.”
“The door…is locked,” she stammered. A violent shiver of terror shook through her. He didn’t just hear her heart thrumming in her chest—oh no. He felt it too.
His gaze was immediately fixed on the pulsing vein at the base of her neck. A desert dryness infused his throat. Hunger gnawed at his belly.
Exerting every ounce of his discipline, he tamped down on his hunger. “What?” he asked once he realized she was speaking.
“I always keep it locked,” she muttered, confused as she looked around at her sudden change of venue. Defiant color returned to her cheeks as she stared at a point past his right shoulder. Straightening her posture, she put a thread of steel into her tone. “In case of mosquitoes. Big nasty blood-suckers.”
A shadow of a smile lifted the corners of his lips. “Do you now?” The button pushed upward on its own.
Hunger of a different nature infused his system. She smelled—alive. Dirty—yes. But oh so alive.
Swallowing the growl inching up his throat, he pondered her for a few seconds. If her brother was to be believed, Naomi was a good girl, especially where her love interests were involved. Something told James the exact opposite was the real truth. She might not have had many lovers, but she certainly wasn’t a prude.
His fingers itched to brush the wisps of hair from her pale face. His mouth watered at the prospect of uncovering her lush body and sinking himself into her hot pussy. If his heart did beat, there was no doubt in his mind it would be banging in his chest. How many ways could I fuck you? How many ways could I bring you to a climax? Too many to count.
Would you scream my name?
His cock hardened.
A lowly howl broke the night. “We should go,” he murmured. He didn’t bother with the door handle. His telepathy had the door opening on its own.
“Crap on a cracker,” she muttered. She didn’t try to pull away, but he sensed she wanted to run as far and fast as she could from him. “You can’t do that.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “It’s just not fair…”
Fair? How was any of this fair? “I’m sorry.”
“You aren’t supposed to…” She waved her hand at the door.
“I am very old.” It was all he was willing to say.