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|A Blood Seduction(Vamp City #1) by Pamela Palmer|
There were so many ways they could get caught, but the more careful they were, the more likely they'd remain free. So she stood there, out of sight of anyone who passed by, watching, listening to the sporadic sounds of this dark, dangerous city - a bloodcurdling scream, a horse and carriage.
Was Arturo looking for her? If Grant was right, he knew Zack had been moved to the gladiator camp. Would he try to catch her there?
You think of me, cara, but your emotions do not cry out for help. You are safe. Or you believe yourself so. For now.
The sound of Arturo's voice in her head was becoming almost familiar. And not altogether unwelcome. As long as he stayed in her head and didn't show up in the flesh.
She glanced at Marcus, breaking the no-talking rule. "Have you ever heard of a vampire speaking in someone's head?"
"You mean telepathically?"
"I guess. But it only seems to go one way."
"You've got one talking to you, now?"
"He's drunk your blood."
"A couple of times."
"I've heard of weird connections forming when that happens, but it's not common."
She sighed. "The story of my life."
As long as you remain in Vamp City, I will search for you, tessoro, you must know that. I will find you. There is no escape, Quinn. Come back before you fall into hands that will harm you.
As if she ever would, knowing he'd only deliver her back to Cristoff. No, she was getting Zack out of V.C., that was all there was to it. Or die trying.
Zack tried to parry the blow with his wooden training sword, but his arm was like rubber, his opponent too fast, too strong. Paul slammed his sword against Zack's ribs, then against his calf, knocking Zack's leg out from under him. Zack hit the ground hard, the collision rattling everything inside him that hadn't already come loose, shooting pain up his spine and into every cut and bruise he'd suffered since his arrival in the gladiator camp yesterday.
Was it only yesterday? This has to be the longest fucking day in my sorry, fucking life. And it isn't over yet.
Paul thrust the point of his training sword against Zack's throat, forcing him onto his back. "Dead. Again." With calm satisfaction, the shorter man turned away, heading toward the water station. In the movies, this was the point when the downed hero would jump up and take the asshole from behind. Right. He was certainly no hero. And if he had that much energy left, he wouldn't have been knocked down in the first place.
Instead, he lay back in the dirt with a grimace, his ribs aching, his muscles on fire, his lip split in three different places, one eye swollen nearly shut from a blow he'd taken last night during his very first sparring match.
He'd fought as hard as he could every fucking time, but he just didn't have it. He closed his eyes against the burn of humiliating tears, pressing the heels of his hands against the lids until he got control. Fuck. He didn't stand a chance.
The Games, they called them. A fun time for the vampires, maybe, as they threw humans into the ring like slaves in the Roman arenas, ordering them to fight to the death.
The thought of it had his stomach churning, and had ever since he first learned what the Games were, since he first realized they were sending him in there like some joke. Useless, the vampire had called him. I'm not fucking useless!
Though, yeah. He was. He couldn't even save himself, let alone his sister and his best friend. Useless didn't begin to describe the worthless piece of shit he'd turned out to be.
If there was any good news, it was that his death would almost certainly be quick. In the arena, they used real swords. Every blow he'd taken today would slice right through him. When the time came for the real fight, he'd die fast.
And there was no doubt in his mind. In two days, he was going to die.
Quinn tipped her head against the dusty window frame, peering out at the empty street and that strip of crime-scene tape that marked one of the hot spots, as Jeff called it. One of the places where the sunbeams occasionally broke through, blending the two worlds in such a way that apparently she alone could travel between them. She and whoever was holding on to her as she walked through.
At least that's how they thought it worked.
And the six slaves in this deserted house with her were all counting on that being true. They were counting on her to free them of this place once and for all.
She was hungry - they'd eaten the last of the little bit of food they'd brought in the packs a couple of hours ago - and crazed with the need to head for the gladiator camp. If a sunbeam didn't break through soon, they might just lose their ticket home. It was all she could do to stay here waiting when she knew where Zack was. But she'd promised to help the six slaves with their escape back into the real world, and this deserted place was the perfect spot to send them through. If the earth would only rumble.
Jeff appeared on the stairs, followed by the three slaves who'd been watching through the upstairs windows.
"Looks like we're calling it quits," Marcus said quietly.
Finally. She pushed away from the window and went to meet Jeff as he reached the foyer. "It's time to free Zack, then we'll all go through together."
Jeff shook his head. "It's going to be dark in an hour."
Quinn scoffed. "How can you possibly know that?"
Marcus came up beside her. "He's right. You learn to read the light, and it's nearly sunset in the real world."
Dammit. To. Hell. "So now what?"
"We're not far from that safe house. We'll get dinner there and spend the night, then set out again in the morning."
"To the gladiator camp." It wasn't a question. Tomorrow, she was taking charge, and if they didn't like it, they could find their own way home.
Jeff didn't reply. Instead, he turned to the others, motioning them to gather 'round. "The safe house is a Slava hideout. Say nothing about Quinn's being a sorceress. If they find out, they may send for the vamps in order to keep her here to save V.C. and their own skins." He turned and motioned them to follow.
After hours of frustrated boredom, fear once more ate at Quinn's nerves as the now smaller group darted across streets and down alleys, dodging a passing carriage and hiding from a pair of strolling Traders. Finally, down another block, they turned into an alley and came to what appeared to be just one more broken-down doorway. But when Jeff pushed aside the door that hung partly off its hinges, another, far sturdier door appeared behind it.
Jeff rapped lightly on the wood in four places with an even more distinctive series of taps and knocks than the ones she'd heard before. A small section slid back in the middle of the door, just enough to reveal a pair of eyes. Feminine eyes that turned angry. "What do you think you're doing bringing so many here?"
"They're runaways, Barbara. They need shelter."
"No." The eyes moved away. Quinn expected the little slider to slam closed any moment, but Jeff was quicker.
"I bring news."
The eyes reappeared, sharp with interest. "What news?"
"Of the sorcerer."
The little slider slammed shut.
Quinn turned sharply to Jeff. Hadn't he told everyone to not say anything about her?
He lifted his hand with a small wave, a silent don't worry.
The door opened, and a woman with long phosphorescent hair, dressed in one of the Little House on the Prairie dresses, stood back to let them in. "You'd better have something useful, whelp, or you're all out on your ear. It'll take half of our supplies just to feed all of you."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Jeff said under his breath, then led the way inside a fairly large space that looked like it could have at one time been a storeroom. The walls were made of stone, the ceiling, low-hanging wooden beams. The floor was hard-packed dirt overlaid in places by wood-slat flooring. A long, rough-hewn trestle table sat in the middle of the room, chairs all around. Along the edge of the room, small curtains had been hung from the rafters, sectioning off privacy corners for many of the inhabitants. This place, too, smelled of mold and mildew, the air humid and damp. Not exactly the Ritz. But there were no windows, not a one, and a good six oil lamps cast a comforting amount of light.
"Do you see another way out?" Marcus asked close to her ear.
"No. Maybe behind one of the curtains." A single escape route was never a good thing. If the vamps found them, they were trapped. And yet what choice did they have but to stay here? They were out of food, out of water, and she didn't have a clue how or where to scavenge for more.
She hated being dependent on others, hated feeling so helpless. All her life, she'd been a take-charge person, but it was difficult as hell to take charge when she felt like a babe in the woods. And, for all practical purposes, was one. And these woods had big, scary, bloodsucking monsters inhabiting them.
You sense danger, cara. Be wary of everyone. Each has his own agenda. Be very, very careful, Quinn.
Arturo's voice was but a low whisper, though a frighteningly clear one, as if he stood at her shoulder, whispering in her ear. As if she needed his reminder to trust no one. All she could do was take the opportunities that came her way and pray she could find a way to make the most of them. Trapped inside a jail cell, she'd been all but helpless. At least out here, she stood a fighting chance.
Barbara started leading them across the room, where more than two dozen people, all with that glowing phosphorescent hair, sat or stood watching the newcomers with as much wariness as Quinn felt. Jeff took another route, leading them instead to a corner, where he plopped down on the dirt. Barbara scowled but turned away in a huff. One by one, the small group slowly sat in the dirt around Jeff, Quinn joining them.
"The first thing I'm going to do when I get out of here is take a shower," one woman muttered.
"I just want to stand in the sun."
Jeff grunted. "I want a huge platter of barbecue ribs and a gallon of ice-cold beer."
"Hug my babies," Celeste replied.
Marcus glanced at Quinn. "You?"
What was the first thing she wanted to do when she got out of this place? Honestly, it didn't matter as long as Zack and Lily were with her. But the others were waiting for her answer, so she gave them one. "Get a change of clothes."
Marcus smiled, but his eyes told her he'd read her hesitation right. Her situation was a lot more complicated than the rest of theirs.
"I know your answer," she told him.
His smile died, a fierce flame of love lighting his eyes. "I'm going to hug my wife and hold my child."
The strength of his emotion both bothered her and yet resonated deeply. But hers was a devotion to brother, not spouse. Not child. Could she possibly feel more strongly, or be more weakened by love than she already was? She never wanted to find out. But she would find a way to get Marcus home.
Quinn rose and moved to where Jeff sat, pushing her way between the others to sit beside him. "Are there escape routes out of this place if we need them?"
He stared into the room, neither acknowledging her question nor answering it.
She leaned forward, turning until she was in his face, her voice low. "Are you afraid that if you tell me how to escape, I will, leaving you behind? I wasn't the one who ditched in that stable, was I? I'm not you, Jeff. I'm not only looking out for myself. If you want my help, you're going to have to start working with me. You're going to have to trust me and start giving me a reason to trust you."
She sat back and waited for him to reply. Because she had little doubt he knew another way out. And if the vamps attacked, he'd escape, leaving the rest of them to fend for themselves.
Finally, he leaned close, his mouth nearly against her ear. "There's an escape hatch at my back, which is why we're sitting here instead of where Barbara tried to seat us."
"Where does it go?"
"To a hallway that leads to the back alley. The spring latch is at the base, where it connects with the floor. You can't see it, but you'll feel it with your fingers. If the vamps raid the place, run for it. It's one of three such escape routes, but the Slavas in this group know them all. The vamps will see us disappearing quickly enough. Most won't escape. Be one of the first to reach the door, and you will. Probably."
When Jeff pulled back, Quinn met his gaze with a brief nod. Then she rose and returned to Marcus's side.
"Did you learn what you wanted to?" he asked quietly.
"I think so. If I tell you to stay close, don't argue."
He smiled at her. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Several minutes later, a man strode across the room toward them, and Jeff rose to meet him. "Richard."
The man was perhaps the oldest she'd seen in Vamp City, over fifty, his phosphorescent hair graying at his temples. "What's this about news of a sorcerer?"
Several of those in her group tensed, but Quinn kept her face impassive as she watched Jeff. He wouldn't give her away, not unless there was something in it for him. And best she could tell, he still wanted to escape.
"There's news that Cristoff has found the sorcerer to save Vamp City."
"They say he's old, older than you."
Richard's expression tightened at the dig, but he remained silent, encouraging Jeff to continue. Quinn relaxed back against the stone, settling in for the tall tale.
"They say he's a descendant of Blackstone and far more powerful than either of Blackstone's sons, but that he's making demands and refusing to cooperate until they're met."
"What kind of demands?"