One man can fulfill her destiny…the other can fulfill her fantasy.
To quell the rise of evil vampires, Liberty Van Helsing must embrace her newfound Hunter destiny. But she has a great deal to learn, and Eli Barkley—the vampire who has been teaching her—has already betrayed her once. Her goal is to shut Eli out of her life and become a better hunter on her own—and to focus on her new romance with hot Australian, Ryan Kelly, a human she can trust.
But when a rogue vampire begins savagely killing young women, the authorities insist Liberty work with Eli to find the murderer. Liberty must overlook Eli’s epic betrayal and find a way to get along with him if they are to stop the unknown maniac and protect innocent lives.
Yet, the more time Liberty spends with Eli, the more her unwanted attraction to him grows. She starts to question her feelings for Ryan—are they real, or could Eli be ‘the one?’ As Eli and Liberty delve further into the murders, clues surface that point to Eli as the culprit. Can she trust him now? Or will she have to plunge a stake into his heart, breaking her own, just when she’s learning to believe in him again?
Sang Croc Island – French Polynesia
The night breeze blowing in from the ocean brought with it the intoxicating aromas of suntan oil and blood. Although there weren’t a lot of humans on the beach now that dusk had fallen, the heady scent of the rich, red fluid was strong enough that the vampire could still smell it just beneath the surface of their flesh. He drew in a breath and slowly exhaled. Delicious.
The sliver of moon drifted in the black sky and shone on the white sand, providing enough light so that, even if he weren’t a vampire, he could still see clearly.
He strolled along the beach, blending in with the handful of human tourists hanging about. He’d been itching for the sun to go down, had barely slept all day. He was hungry. Jonesing for a feed. Mostly, though, he was anxious to put the next phase of his plan in motion. Slow and steady. Wasn’t that how the tortoise had won the race?
He strode across the soft sand, looking out at the glassy surface of the ocean—a sight he would never see the way it was meant to be seen, in sunlight. The cruel irony of being a vampire on a tropical island wasn’t lost on him.
Ah well, while he was unable to enjoy the daytime, fortunately, beautiful, tasty women were always out in abundance, even after darkness fell.
Evidence of his prediction came when he spotted two girls in barely-there bikinis at the edge of the ocean. They kicked water on one another, giggling and squealing in oblivious delight.
Girls. They were the easiest.
They passed a bottle of Lambrusco back and forth, chugging straight from the neck. He grinned. How fitting. In a matter of moments, he would be chugging straight from the neck.
He approached silently, not speaking until he was within a foot of where they frolicked. “Ladies? Enjoying yourselves?”
They turned startled eyes on him. The expression on the tall brunette’s face became a flirty smile. The shorter of the two still looked wary.
“Tons,” the brunette said. She held out the bottle. “Want a sip?”
His lips spread into a grin. “More than you can imagine.”
She laughed and released the Lambrusco into his grip. He put it to his mouth and drank. The wine was a cheap, sweet red. The taste couldn’t compare to the sweet red of the blood flowing through the girls’ veins. Veins he would tap into shortly.
“Skyler, we’d better be heading back to the hotel,” Miss Blond, Short, and Skeptical said to her friend.
He moved closer to the blonde and walked into the ocean, ignoring the unpleasant feeling of water-soaked shoes. He stared down, letting his eyes capture hers. “Why is that? The party’s only just begun.”
She swallowed audibly, and the pulse in her neck jumped. Excitement bloomed in his chest. He hadn’t been sure which one would die, but now he knew. This one had spunk. She would not only taste delicious, conquering her would be more exciting.
She started to look away, but he gripped her chin in his fingers. “What’s your name?” he asked softly.
“Mine’s Skyler,” her friend said from behind him, as if he hadn’t just heard the blonde call her by name. “She can go back to the hotel if she wants and—”
“Silence!” He whirled on the brunette. She blinked at him in hurt confusion. Sensitive little thing. For God’s sake. It wasn’t like he said her bikini made her look fat.
Still holding the blonde’s chin, he focused on the brunette’s eyes. “Look at me and listen carefully.” He kept his voice low, commanding. “Stand there quietly and don’t move. Don’t make a sound until I tell you it’s okay. Understand?”
“Hey,” her blond friend said. “You can’t tell her what to do.”
He let out a frustrated breath. Mesmerizing two chicks at once was not an easy feat.
He turned back to the blonde and made sure they were eye to eye. Made sure he had her complete attention. “You will also be quiet. Do exactly as I say. Understand?”
A frown marred her brows, but she gave a quick, jerky nod. Barely under. Good. He didn’t want her too docile when the time came.
Back to the brunette, he said, “No matter what happens, no matter what you see, you won’t make a peep. You won’t move. Got it?”
She nodded and immediately quieted. The only sounds were those of crashing waves and distant conversations of other humans.
“Your name?” he demanded again.
“Patrice,” she finally muttered.
“Well, Patrice, because you’re so enticing, so remarkable, you will have to be sacrificed. But take solace in the fact that your friend will be spared.”
She blinked rapidly. Her mouth dropped open, and little mewling sounds came out. “What? I…you’re going to…?”
He released her chin and gripped a handful of hair at the back of her head. “Not a sound, I said.” She fell silent, and he reveled in the terror-filled eyes. So easy.
He yanked her to him and tugged her head back. With a growl, he protracted his fangs and drove them deep into her flesh.
Hot sweet blood with just a hint of wine flowed into his mouth. He nearly moaned in satisfaction. The feeding was good…great, but being another step closer to exacting revenge…well, that was about as good as it got.
She struggled silently, clawing at his shoulders, trying to shove him away. Nice. He liked a little fight. But the fight soon fled. Her body went limp. The flow of blood slowed. Her heart no longer pumped it to him. He released her, and her body hit the water with a splash.
He turned back to her friend, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks. Her body trembled violently, but she remained silent, standing where he’d left her.
He ignored the flicker of sympathy crowding its way into his soul. He was a vampire, after all. It was in his nature to feed…to kill. No room for a conscience. No room for weakness.
He stalked to the brunette and grabbed her shoulders, looking down into her eyes. “Listen carefully,” he said. “I want you to wait ten minutes, then run up the beach, screaming. Report this to the police. You understand?”
“Good. And this is what you’ll tell them…”
Liberty Van Helsing could almost believe last night had been a dream—that she hadn’t hunted vampires, hadn’t actually killed vampires—had it not been for the aches in every muscle of her body and the bandage on her arm that covered a bullet wound.
Business was slow at the tiki bar. But of course her boss, Jerome, wouldn’t let her off early. The Perfect Getaway had to be fully manned at all times, with the bright smiling faces of a staff eager to serve. All she felt like doing was going home and pulling the covers over her head, sleeping for a week.
“How are you making it?” Ryan Kelly spoke at her shoulder as she loaded plates from the warmer onto a tray.
Her pulse quickened at the sound of his voice. She glanced up to find his dark eyes roaming over her from head to toe, worry evident in their black depths. “I’m fine.”
He frowned. “I don’t think so. Tell me how you’re really doing.”
She swallowed back a lump of tears. There’s no crying in vampire hunting…
She’d learned less than a month ago that she was a descendant of the vampire hunter, Van Helsing. She’d traveled from her small Oklahoma hometown to this strange island to meet the father she’d never known existed. And gotten so much more than she bargained for. Her father passed away before she really got to know him. And here she was, destined to take up where he left off. Hunting and slaying vampires when she was barely out of high school, had never even had a fist fight, and the sight of blood made her hurl. Some hunter she was.
“Well, how I’m really doing is, I’m a little freaked about what I did last night.” She brushed a hank of hair behind her ear. “My arm hurts like hell, and I’ve barely slept. Better?”
He shrugged. “More honest, at least.” He covered her hand with his. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you through this. You know that, right?”
She nodded. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
He pointed to the tray. “Let me take that. You don’t need to be lifting with that arm.” He took hold of the tray and scowled at her. “You should have called in.”
“I’m fine. I can get this.” She tugged on the tray, but he didn’t release it. “Ryan, you can’t coddle me. And you can’t do my job. You’re tending bar tonight, and I’ll just have to suck it up. Jerome would’ve had a hissy fit if I’d called in.”
“Bloody dingo,” he muttered.
Liberty smiled. Although she didn’t understand all of his Australian idioms, she was sure the insult fit their boss perfectly. “Come on, get behind the bar, and let me do my job. I appreciate your concern, but if I’m going to be a hunter, I need to suck it up, get tougher.”
He winked and flashed his adorable grin, making the laugh lines around his eyes more pronounced. “I like you soft, just like you are.”
Warmth spread through her belly, and she smiled self-consciously. “Thanks.”
She liked Ryan. Maybe not as much as he liked her, but he was ten times better than the cheating boyfriend she’d left behind in Oklahoma.
She lifted the tray and instantly regretted not taking Ryan up on his offer. Her wound screamed with the weight, even though she was using her good arm to bear most of it.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she headed to the table. Female laughter shrieked through the room, and Liberty knew exactly where it came from.
She smiled at her customers, but inside she seethed. Eli was here with two girls. How dare he show his face after what had happened last night? It wasn’t like the Getaway was the only bar on the island.
“Jerk,” she mumbled under her breath. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked the two couples she was serving.
“We’ll have another round.”
“Coming right up.” She put the empty tray on the rack and started toward the bar to order the drinks, glancing at her other tables to make sure they didn’t need anything, and tried to ignore Eli Barkley.
But in spite of her determination, her eyes strayed to his table. He was leaned back in his seat, arms draped on the backs of the bamboo chairs on either side of him. Each chair held a female—one blonde and one with flaming red hair—both with envy-inducing curves.
Eli’s dark blond hair was in its usual disarray, his silver eyes glinting as he laughed. His pose was relaxed, like nothing had happened. Like she wasn’t in the room. Like he didn’t give a damn.
Fine. She didn’t give a damn either.
Lips compressed, she stalked to the bar. “Two margaritas, a hurricane, and a Bloody Mary.”
Ryan peered at her, eyes narrowed. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just that Eli is getting under my skin.”
“Did he say something to you?”
“No,” she admitted reluctantly. “I just think he could have picked a different place to drink and whore around after what happened last night.”
“You know, it’s really not his fault. It was kind of a dick move for me to tell you he used to be one of the Evil Ones.”
Both good and bad vampires inhabited the island. The EO’s not only fed, but drained the life from some of their victims—and they turned as many humans as they could each full moon night, which was the only night a human could be turned. Her job was to hunt them and prevent them from multiplying so the island wouldn’t be overrun with their kind.
She compressed her lips. “No, it was a dick move that you didn’t tell me in the beginning. I had a right to know who would be training me. Who I’d be spending hours alone with.”
“Yeah, but he’s different now. He’s on our side.”
Her gaze went back to the table. Irritation tightened her voice. “I think Eli is only on Eli’s side.”
Ryan slid the drinks onto her tray. “He’s not a bad sort, really.”
The friendship between Ryan and Eli baffled her. A thoughtful, sensitive human and a lying, heartless, jerkwad vampire. Go figure. She stole another glance at Eli and his companions. “Who are those girls?”
“I don’t know the blonde, but the redhead is Grace. She’s a…friend…from Eli’s past. They met during the Civil War.”
The Civil War? Even though she knew of the existence of vampires, she couldn’t help but be stunned at the reality of it all.
“How old is Eli?” She’d never asked the question. It hadn’t really occurred to her that he could possibly be centuries old.
“Twenty-one in human years. In vampire years, he’s about two-hundred and fifty. He was turned in the 1700’s.”
She shook her head. Unbelievable. He’d been around in the Revolutionary War. It seemed implausible, but she knew it was true. The last month had taught her that nothing was beyond the realm of possibility.
“I know.” Ryan grinned. “Hard to accept, right? It took me a while. I would say you’ll get used to it, but I still haven’t.”
“I totally get that.” She took the tray of drinks to her table and dropped the check. “I’ll take care of that whenever you’re ready.” Maybe they would get the hint. It was closing time, and there were only a few customers left, Eli and his friends included. At least they weren’t in her section. She could go as soon as her last table left.
“Here, we’ll take care of it now.” One of the men offered her a credit card.
Relieved, she accepted the card. She could finish up her closing duties and take off. Finally.
After clearing her section and settling her money for the evening, she headed to the parking lot.
Her first several weeks on the island, she’d had to depend on rides from others. But Antoine—the manservant she’d inherited from her dead father—had insisted she have her own transportation, and they’d purchased a nearly-new blue Corolla for her use. She was still nervous driving in a strange country, but it was damn convenient to have her own wheels.
The Perfect Getaway sat on the beach, and the parking lot was lined with palm trees and red and pink hibiscus plants. The scent of vanilla orchids hung in the air. Such a paradise, yet it held such darkness and evil. She shivered.
She jumped at the sound of Eli’s voice. Speaking of darkness and evil…
She turned a glare on him. He stood directly behind her, hands shoved in his pockets, yet he’d been in the bar only seconds ago.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped. She looked back at the tiki bar. “How the hell did you…?” She shook her head. “Never mind. You’re a vampire. You move with the speed of light.”
He grinned and slanted his upper body toward her. “Yeah, but we’ve got all that darkness brewing inside. Ironic, isn’t it?”
She swung away from him and took hold of the door handle. “Whatever. I’m tired, so you’ll understand if I don’t feel like hanging out and bantering with you. Besides, your dates are waiting for you.”
She snorted a laugh. “No. Sympathetic. Better them than me.”
“Why is it I don’t believe you?”
“Maybe because you’re delusional?” She gave him an overly sweet smile before turning away to jerk the car door open.
“I see you’re still pouting because I didn’t tell you I was once a big, bad vampire.”
“It doesn’t matter. You warned me early on not to trust you. I should have listened.”
“And now you should put on your big girl panties and get over it. You’re a hunter, Liberty. You need to toughen up.”
Toughen up? Was he kidding? She’d risked her life last night, had worked her ass off training, and he was calling her a wimp. To hell with him. She started to slide into the car, but his voice stopped her.
“You can be mad at me all you want, but you can’t completely shut me out.”
“Watch me,” she bit out, not turning around.
“Let me ask you something. What difference would it have made if you’d known in the beginning?”
She slammed the door and whirled on him. “At least I’d have known who—what—I was dealing with.”
“Would you still have let me train you?”
“I’m not sure. But I had the right to know. To have all the facts before making that decision.”
“If you had chosen not to let me train you, how do you think you would have fared last night? Not knowing the truth was for your own good.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “Yeah, and I’m sure you’re all about what’s best for me.”
“Look, you’re going to have to put all that behind you. Like it or not, you still need me.”
“No, I don’t. I’ll keep practicing. I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t take that chance. If I hadn’t saved your ass last night, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Just like him to throw that in her face. She huffed out a sigh of irritation. “Thanks, but from here on out, I can take care of myself.”
He stepped closer, backing her up to the door. The only way she could get away from him was to climb inside the car. But she didn’t.
“What’s wrong?” He raised his eyebrows, amusement lifting the corners of his mouth. “Are you afraid of me now?”
She tilted her chin up and met his eyes. Eyes that were molten grey in the semi-darkness. “Not afraid. Pissed off. There’s a difference.”
He chuckled. “Well, it’s nice to know I have an effect on you.” His gaze dropped to her throat. “Your pulse is beating like crazy. Right here.” He stroked a finger down her neck, sending heat skittering over her flesh. Damn him. She sucked in a breath and clenched her teeth.
“I can see it.” He dropped his hand, and his gaze locked onto hers. “No matter how much you’d like to be, you’re not immune to me, Liberty Van Helsing.”
She swallowed hard, trying to slow her racing pulse. “I need to get home. Let me go.”
His lips curved in a grin, and his voice lowered to a near whisper. “I’m not touching you.”
Eli stepped out into the balmy darkness with his two companions. They’d closed down the tiki bar and had to vacate. Besides, it lost some of its appeal once Liberty left. Tormenting her was so much fun. She was so quick to rise to the bait. Her moss green eyes would darken, and her full lips would tighten. Her chest would rise and fall with angry breaths…
He inwardly groaned. Yeah, fun to torment. That’s why he screwed with her. It had nothing to do with his wanting a reaction from her, any kind of reaction as long as her focus was on him. Pathetic. What kind of self-respecting bad ass vampire would let a slip of a girl like her consume his thoughts?
But like it or not, she had. Now he’d pissed her off and she might not agree to let him continue to train her. If she didn’t, she would die. It was that simple. There was no way she had acquired the skills she needed to be a true Van Helsing. Now that the Evil Ones knew of her existence, she had more to worry about than the feeding frenzy during full moons. She’d have to watch her back nightly. Not to mention, the EOs’ big bad leader, Rupert, was now focused on her and would stop at nothing to make her his. She definitely needed Eli’s help, but she was too damn stubborn to accept it.
“You’re not thinking of that little Van Helsing girl, are you?” Grace’s whisper penetrated his reverie. “She’s cute, Eli, but looks to be way more trouble than she’s worth.” Her eyes raked the blonde walking in front of them. “Besides, we have something much more pressing at the moment.” She winked. “Dinner.”
Eli chuckled. “You always did have a thing for blondes.”
She shrugged. “They taste…sweeter somehow.”
He and Grace had met in 1863. He’d joined the Union out of boredom and met her when the savage group of soldiers he’d aligned himself with had raided her Georgia plantation. They’d slain her servants and her husband, then decided to have a little fun with Grace before killing her too.
Although having a conscience was not usually his forte, something about her quiet terror, the attempt at courage reflected in her dark brown eyes, her soft flesh…the blue vein visible along the side of her pale neck, he’d had a change of heart. He’d turned on his men. In a matter of seconds, he slaughtered all five of them. Grace had been more terrified than grateful.
“What kind of monster are you?” she’d stammered, her voice rising with panic.
“The kind that saved your ass.” He’d jerked her to her feet, stared into her eyes, and mesmerized her into being compliant.
He had to wait for a full moon before he could turn her. That was five days away. During that time, they remained at her plantation. He fed on her, had sex with her—after a few days, she’d initiated it, he hadn’t had to mesmerize her for that. Then on the full moon, he’d turned her. They’d been close friends and occasional sexual partners since then. Once in a while, she popped in to hang out and party with him.
As was the way in the vampire procreation process, since he’d turned her, she’d taken on his characteristics and had been as cold-hearted and bloodthirsty as he when he’d been one of the Evil Ones. Once he switched sides, he’d convinced her to subdue her murderous instincts. With a lot of coaxing and a bit of commanding, she’d come around to his way of thinking. But, like him, she had to constantly fight her dark urges.
“We’re not going to kill her,” he told her now.
She pouted but gave a brief nod. “I know that. I’ll control myself, I promise.”
They’d been walking along the beach and had reached the edge of the water. The blonde stopped and turned to face them. She was in her late thirties with the worn, desperate look of someone who’d partied too much too soon and was heading toward burnout.
“So?” She lifted a brow. “Are we going to do something insanely risky or not?”
Grace’s husky laughter filled the night. “Oh my dear, you have no idea how insane…or how risky.”
Liberty nestled deeper into the beach towel lying on the soft white sand. A cool breeze drifted over her exposed flesh, even though the warmth of the sun beamed down. Ryan’s strong hands rubbed sunscreen onto her back and shoulders.
She almost didn’t think about the insanity her life had become. Or her run-in with Eli the night before. Or the fact that she missed home, missed her mom so much it was a physical ache. She would call her mother when she got back to the house. But right now, she just wanted to bask in mindless bliss…
“Liberty?” Ryan’s hands slowed.
“Hmmm?” she murmured, not opening her eyes. Why did he have to spoil the moment with talking?
“Are you going to let Eli continue training you?”
She let out a heavy sigh. Especially talking about that.
She rose and reluctantly dislodged Ryan’s skilled hands. “No. I don’t trust him.”
Ryan sat back on his haunches and beseeched her with his dark brown eyes. “If you don’t, you could get hurt. Or worse. And it would be my fault.”
She stood and brushed sand off her black two piece. “How would it be your fault?”
Ryan rose to his feet. “Because I told you the truth about him. If I hadn’t, you’d still let him train you.”
“Ugh. Do we have to talk about Eli on such a beautiful day?”
“Not if you at least promise me you’ll consider it.”
She hesitated then, realizing it wasn’t a commitment, said, “I’ll consider it.”
He smiled, his white teeth flashing against his bronze skin. “That’s all I ask.” He took her hand. “Now, come with me.”
He tugged lightly, and she followed him down the beach until they were knee-deep in the warm, translucent blue-green water.
She followed Ryan’s gaze, and let out a gasp. She could see all the way to the ocean floor. What appeared to be hundreds of tiny fish—ranging in hues from jade to orange to one that was the color of a rainbow—swarmed around a purplish cactus-like mound.
“Is that coral?” she asked.
“It is. Pocillopora, one of the hundreds of species found in the Pacific.”
“My God,” she whispered in awe. “It’s unbelievable.”
“So are you.” Ryan took her hands and tugged her to him. Their bodies lightly bumped, his warm and hard and damp, hers wanting to melt into him.
He caressed her knuckles with his thumbs. “I’m bloody bonkers over you, you know that right?”
She nodded. “I like you too, Ryan. A lot.” The way her pulse rate accelerated and goose bumps pebbled her flesh, she was feeling more than just ‘like,’ but she wasn’t ready to go there. Not yet.
“I know you have feelings for Eli, too.”
Eli again. She opened her mouth to protest, but he placed a finger over her lips. “You hate him right now, because he hurt you. But I’ve seen the way you look at him. The way he looks at you. I know there’s something there, and it’s okay. Because I’m a very patient bloke. You mean too much to me to give up so soon.”
She smiled. “We’ve known each other barely a month.”
“I know. That’s what makes it so bloody great, right? That we could be this in sync this soon.” He slipped his hands around her waist, pulled her closer.
Her breathing slowed, her heart thumping so loudly she was sure he must have heard it. Her lips tingled in anticipation of his kiss.
“Yeah.” Her voice cracked. “Bloody great.”
He smiled. “You’re gorgeous, love. The golden highlights in your chestnut hair shimmer in the sunlight. Your green eyes look like emeralds…a beautiful day with a beautiful girl. It doesn’t get any better.” His voice lowered. “You know, this is something you could never share with Eli.”
A pang of sympathy pierced her heart. What must it be like to live for centuries in the dark? To never feel heavenly sunlight on your face?
She frowned. “Is this your way of one-upping him?”
Ryan grinned. “I guess so. Sorry. Not exactly the way to be the better man, is it?”
She laughed and ran a hand over the carpe diem tattoo in his right bicep. “It’s not a competition. If it were, you’d be in the lead.”
His eyes roamed her face and settled on her lips. He cupped a hand behind her head, his fingers firm on her scalp, the other hand pressing into the small of her back. He bent his head, touched his lips to hers, and all thoughts of Eli fled.
While they kissed, small fish bumped against her legs—which felt a little creepy and cool at the same time. Ryan’s lips on hers, the deep growl in his throat fusing with the sighs coming from hers, was so different, so…magical. A few months ago, she never could have imagined she’d be standing in the South Pacific kissing a gorgeous guy. Of course, she never imagined she’d be out of Oklahoma. Let alone a world away.
She lifted on her tip toes, parted her lips, and Ryan’s tongue slipped inside. Her knees nearly buckled as she was swept away in a torrent of desire she’d never felt before—most definitely not with Cam. On one hand, she hated PDA, knew she should pull away. On the other, this was the most amazing, scariest, and at the same time perfect thing she’d ever experienced, and she didn’t want it to stop.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered…if they were alone, exactly how would this end? Would she give up her virginity to him? The way she felt at this moment, she would be powerless to resist.
A large bump against her legs made her freeze. That was a big ass fish.
She shuddered and broke the kiss. “What the…?”
“What is it?” Ryan’s muscled chest rose and fell with short breaths.
“Some kind of huge…” Liberty looked down, and her heart stuttered to a halt. Trembles shook her body, and a scream tore from her throat.
A woman’s pale face stared up at her from just below the surface of the water.
“Bloody hell,” Ryan muttered. “Come on.”
He took her shoulders and led her onto the sand. Darkness clouded her vision, and the trembles increased.
He tightened his grip. “Look at me, sweetheart.” His voice was steady, comforting.
She lifted her eyes.
“Go up the beach and grab your phone. Call 1-7.” He gently brushed a strand of damp hair from her face. “Can you do that for me?”
She nodded, still trembling. The second dead girl she’d seen since she arrived—the first one had been at a party Eli had thrown. Even though she’d slain vampires, she wasn’t immune to death. Seeing the girls’ bodies was far different from hunting vampires. That had been for protection, to prevent evil from taking over the island. This was tragic, heart-breaking.
Ryan gave her a gentle push, and she hurried up the beach, tiny sobs working their way from her chest to her throat.
Fumbling in her bag, she snatched out her cell phone and punched in the digits.
While she listened to the rings, she watched Ryan. He shouted at the swimmers, waving his arms and motioning for them to come out of the water. Then he bent and gently pulled the girl’s body onto the shore. Maybe it was a bad idea to touch her, tainting evidence and all, but if he didn’t, she could possibly float away and they’d never find her. She’d no doubt be devoured by scavengers…
Bile rose to Liberty’s throat, and she squeezed her eyes shut to banish the image.
“One-seven, what is your emergency?” A French-accented female voice came on the line.
Liberty’s teeth chattered, even though warmth still blazed down from the sun. “There’s been a…” she was going to say murder, but they didn’t know how the girl had died. “…death. We found a girl. Her body. She’s…”
“Are you positive that she is deceased?”
The bloated, pale face rose to her mind. “I’m sure,” Liberty choked out.
“Okay. Please provide your location, and do not touch the body.”
Uh, yeah, no worries. At least not again. Been there, done that.
Liberty spoke quickly, providing the necessary details.
After ending the call, she forced her feet to carry her back down the beach to the edge of the water, where Ryan, head bowed, knelt next to the dead girl like a dejected sentinel.
Later that evening, Liberty stood at the door of the police station, holding the coin Ryan had given her and rubbing her thumb along the impressions, trying to calm her nerves. She took a deep breath, and pushed the glass door open.
She’d never been in a police station before. What did they want with her? She’d answered their questions at the beach. When the call came from the captain asking her to meet him at the station, she hadn’t known what to make of it. Ryan offered to come with her, but she couldn’t lean on him for everything. As Eli so ingeniously put it, she needed to put on her big girl panties.
Ugh. Why did she always have to think about Eli? He was such a pain…she shouldn’t give him a second thought.
“Liberty?” A woman stood next to a receptionist desk. Behind her, more glass doors led into a squad room. “I am Aiata. You may come on back.” She was in her late twenties, pretty, a native judging from the caramel skin and dark, exotic eyes. A long black braid fell down the middle of her back.
Liberty followed her past two desks overflowing with stacks of papers, one empty, the other occupied by a middle-aged man in a uniform.
Aiata stopped at the back of the squad room, in front of a door with a sign reading “Captain Jacquard.” The office windows were glass, but shades covered them so Liberty couldn’t see inside. Aiata opened the door. “Here she is, gentlemen.”
Liberty stepped inside the room and her throat knotted with anxiety. A large-chested man stood from his seat behind a desk and extended his hand. “Liberty, I’m Captain Jacquard. I think you know these gentlemen.”
Rupert Kilbourne lounged in a chair across from the captain’s desk. Next to him sat a guy she didn’t recognize. He was a few years older than she was, fit, dark-haired, attractive.
He smiled and winked. “So you must be the infamous Liberty Van Helsing. Finally, we meet.” He offered his hand, and she shook it. “You don’t know me. I’m Blake, Rupert’s son.”
Oh God, there was an offspring?
Rupert came to his feet and took her hand, bowing. He placed a lingering kiss on the back. “Liberty, my dear, lovely to see you again.” His silver hair and blue eyes gave him a distinguished, handsome appearance, but a glint of evil hovered somewhere amidst all that charm.
She jerked her hand back and resisted the urge to wipe away his touch. Her gaze went to the final occupant of the room. He stood, gave a small mock bow and a crooked grin. “Yes, Liberty, lovely to see you again.”
Liberty looked at the captain. “What are they doing here? In fact, what am I doing here?”
“Please, sit.” In spite of his size, the captain’s voice was smooth, reassuring. “I will explain everything. I appreciate your coming to meet with us.”
“I didn’t realize they would be here, or I would have declined the offer.”
A hard gleam came into his brown eyes. “Then I would have had to come to you. This is a matter of utmost importance, I assure you. Please hear me out.”
Liberty tightened her lips and dropped into a chair flanked by Rupert and Eli. She felt like a gazelle caught between a lion and a cheetah.
Eli leaned over and whispered, “Where’s your shadow?”
The touch of his breath against her ear sent a shiver coursing through her. She shifted away and ignored his question.
“First off,” Captain Jacquard said. “I wanted to tell you how very sorry I am about the incident this afternoon. That must have been quite traumatizing.”
“I am afraid to inform you that this young lady was not the first victim of a similar attack.”
Liberty snorted a sarcastic laugh. “You mean a vampire attack?” She shot a glance at Rupert, then at Eli. “I must say that doesn’t come as a surprise, Captain. There is no shortage of vicious vampires on the island.”
Rupert spoke from her left. “But these are different. Even the vampires of my…persuasions…have certain guidelines they must follow. We try to be—discreet—when choosing our sustenance. Although at times, our nature takes over and, how shall I put this, our vessels do not survive, we certainly do not condone frequent, public slaughter.”
She raised her brows and forced a note of mock admiration into her voice. “My, you guys are regular altar boys.”
A deep chuckle rumbled from his chest. “You are a little spitfire, are you not?” He looked past her to Eli. “You shall have your hands full with this one, my boy.”
Liberty scowled. “He’ll have his hands full? I can’t imagine why. My plan is to avoid him as much as possible.”
“That is what I wanted to speak with you about,” the captain interjected. He was silent for several moments, his bushy brows lowered into a scowl. “You and Eli are going to have to work together to stop whoever is committing these crimes.”
Shock rendered her speechless. When she found her voice, she said, “Work with him? No way.” She shook her head vehemently. “No freakin’ way.”
“Yes, Captain,” Eli said. “I’m afraid Liberty, in spite of her Van Helsing heritage, is a bit of a weakling. She learned one tiny little thing about me, and now she acts like I’m the anti-Christ. In spite of the fact that more innocent victims will die if we don’t stop this person, we need to consider Miss Van Helsing’s fragile emotional state. I’m afraid it will be more than she can handle to work with the likes of me.”
With each word he spoke, fury built inside Liberty’s chest. She pushed to her feet and whirled on him. “How dare you! Just because I don’t trust you, don’t want to be within twenty feet of you, doesn’t mean I’m a weakling, or fragile. You have a lot of fu—” She halted and took a deep breath. “A lot of freakin’ nerve talking that way about me.” She didn’t know who she was more furious with, Eli, or herself for confirming his assessment and acting like a weakling. She swallowed and continued, “I am not afraid of you. And of course I don’t want more innocent people to die. I’ll hear the captain out, but I would appreciate it if you would stop…baiting me.”
He smiled. “But you rise to the bait so easily. I find it…irresistible.”
The way he said ‘irresistible’ indicated more than just baiting her. A shiver ran down her spine that wasn’t completely unpleasant.
Liberty forced her thoughts away from Eli and sat, directing her attention to the captain. “Of course I will do whatever I can.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste at Eli. “And work with whoever—whatever—I have to in order to stop this person. I’m not sure what I can do that the police can’t, though. What either of us can do.”
Captain Jacquard tapped his fingers on the desktop and frowned. “First of all, the laws on the island are…different. Vampire crimes are to be handled by Van Helsings. After your father’s death, we thought they would fall under our jurisdiction.” His gaze rose and he leveled her a look that was less than friendly. “Now that you’re here, vampire crimes fall to you. I suppose it makes sense. With your hunter skills, and with Eli having been on both sides of the fence, so to speak, the two of you should make a good team. Eli can garner insight into this person’s thinking, his—or her—habits, that we cannot.” The captain’s features sagged, as if he’d aged in front of her eyes. “Additionally, once we find this person, arresting him will be futile. All he has to do is morph into a bat and escape. Or mesmerize our jailers. All manner of options are open to vampires. Which means a different kind of justice is needed to stop this rogue.” He pursed his mouth and his frowned deepened. “We’d hoped to contain this, but these latest murders have drawn media attention. Tourism could suffer. The peace of mind of our residents and tourists will be shattered if we do not put an end to it.”
“I see.” And she did see, but she didn’t have to like the fact that she’d be working with Eli. A hunter teaming up with a vampire? Ridiculous.
“And of course,” the captain said. “My people will offer our assistance in identifying this maniac, but the rest is up to you and Eli.”
Liberty looked at Rupert. “How does this involve you and your son?”
The captain answered for him. “Rupert and Blake want to help because this rogue is endangering their food source and will keep tourists from visiting our island. When your father was alive, the island was in good hands.” His gaze flicked to Rupert. “He kept the population of—dangerous vampires to a minimum. Now, they have multiplied. And as I am sure you are aware, when a vampire sires someone, that new vampire takes on his or her inclinations. Sometimes, they are able to overcome their more—vicious traits, but it is rare. That is another area of grave importance in utilizing your assistance. If you are able to stop this person, their entire line will cease procreating. It will halt any offshoot of evil that might otherwise develop.”
As much as Liberty hated to admit it, the captain made sense. It was settled. She would be working with Eli. What would Ryan think about that? It wasn’t like Ryan owned her, but she cared about him and didn’t want him to worry about her and Eli spending time together. She would just have to make sure Ryan understood that she had no interest in Eli whatsoever. “What’s our first step?”
The captain picked up a baggie from his desk and handed it to her. Inside was a small wrinkled sheet of paper. Liberty smoothed it out through the plastic and looked up with a frown. “I don’t understand. It’s a drawing of a tree.”
“That’s really all we have, other than our eye witness. It was crumpled in her hand. She said the killer gave it to her.”
“What does it mean?”
“We don’t know. Yet. I wanted you to see it in case something similar comes up in your inquiry.” He reached for the bag, and she handed it back. “We need to go over your statement from this afternoon.”
“I already told the officer who came out what happened.”
“Yes, I know. But sometimes after a few hours, new details emerge. So, if you will bear with me, we will quickly run through the events leading up to your discovery of the body.”
“Okay. You and Ryan Kelly were standing in the water. The girl’s body bumped against your leg, is that correct?”
Revulsion at the memory washed over her, and she shuddered. “That’s correct.”
“What were you doing that you did not see the body before that time?”
She lifted her brows, surprised at the directness of the question. “What was I—doing?”
“Yes. You and Ryan were in the water, but I assume you were facing away from the location of the body. What were you doing that kept you from noticing the body before?”
Her insides went cold. She felt Eli’s eyes on her, felt him waiting. She took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “I—we—were…kissing.”
She glanced at Eli from the corners of her eyes. Other than a brow lifted in amusement, there was no reaction from him.
“You and Kelly?” This from Blake. “Well, well, the bloke works fast.” He grinned at Eli. “He scooped the pretty girl up right from under your nose, eh?”
Eli frowned, but didn’t respond.
The captain cleared his throat. “If we can get on with this, please?” He said to Liberty, “What happened next?”
She repeated her story, just as she had to the first responder on the scene. She ended with the part about Ryan kneeling next to the dead girl. About his keeping people away and protecting the girl’s dignity.
“So heroic,” Eli murmured.
Liberty shot him a glare.
“Is there anything else you can think of?” Captain Jacquard asked. “Anyone around who seemed suspicious, out of place? Sinister?”
“No, Captain. I believe all of those—” She paused, deliberately turning to Rupert, then to Eli. “—types were sleeping at the time.”
Rupert burst into laughter. She kept her eyes on the captain.
“Okay, I guess that’s all there is to do here. I need you and Eli to take care of something before you go. We have the friend of the victim here at the station. She was with the girl when the attack happened. I asked her to come in. I thought the two of you could speak with her. Liberty, you can perhaps put her at ease and get more details from her, being a young woman about her age. And as for Eli….” He scowled down at his desk then raised his gaze. “Eli, I was hoping you could…mesmerize her. Make her forget she witnessed her friend’s death.”
“What?” Liberty couldn’t control her surprise. “You want a witness to forget the details of a murder?”
“Once we get all the information we need, yes.” The captain’s tone was defensive. “Remembering will not do us any good, nor will it benefit her. The media is already having a field day with this thing. I don’t want them talking to her, blowing her story out of proportion, sensationalizing the whole mess.”
In spite of the overlying ridiculousness of the situation, Liberty understood where the captain was coming from.
“So, if that is all then.” Rupert stood and took both of Liberty’s hands in his, pulling her to her feet. Without even thinking, she allowed it. Her brain was too overwhelmed with all she’d learned to be concerned about his touching her. “I believe the two of you will make a great team.” He looked over her shoulder at Eli. “The four of us actually.” A crooked smile lifted his mouth. “Shall we call it an unholy alliance?”
Skyler Simmons was waiting for them in a bleak interrogation room with gray walls and a lone table. She looked up when they walked in. Her face was damp, streaked with mascara. She twisted her hands nervously together atop the table.
Liberty sat across from the girl and introduced herself and Eli. Eli took the chair next to Skyler.
“I’m so, so sorry about what happened to your friend, to Patrice,” Liberty said gently. “I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for you.”
Skyler nodded and wiped her face, smearing the black beneath her eyes. “I—I can’t believe it. I still just can’t…” Shaking her head, she dropped her head to stare at her clasped hands. Her shoulders shook.
“Can you tell us about that night? I know it’s difficult, but we want to find the man who hurt Patrice, and we need your help.”
She drew in a shuddering breath. “Patrice and I were just hanging out. We were drinking a little, you know, laughing, having a good time. Then this guy comes up, this attractive guy…” Her gaze went to Eli and she squinted. “He actually looked a lot like you.”
Eli gifted her with a dazzling smile. “Oh, come now, I’m blushing.”
Liberty rolled her eyes. “You say he looked a ‘lot’ like Eli. Can you be more specific? Describe him to me.”
Skyler leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling. “He was tall, but not mega tall, not like a basketball player or anything. He had sort of dark blond hair and light grey eyes…” Her voice trailed off and she looked at Eli once more. “A lot like you.”
A chill ran over Liberty’s arms. It couldn’t have been Eli, could it? No. No way. He wouldn’t be sitting there playing Mr. Calm and Cool if it were him. Besides, the girl would just say it was him instead of that it looked like him. There had to be more vampires around with that mussed blond hair and those silver eyes…
Liberty took a breath, cleared her throat. “I know this is difficult, Skyler, but can you tell me what he said when he approached? Exactly what happened?”
Hesitantly, tearfully, the girl told her story. “He—he bit her. Oh my God, he tore into her neck, drained her blood, while I just stood there…and…watched.” Her body shook and she turned stricken eyes to Liberty. “I know it seems impossible, but I also know what I saw. A vampire murdered Patrice.” A sob tore from her throat. “Vampires…oh my God. How can that be?” The words ended in a scream.
Liberty rushed around the table and bent to wrap her arms around Skyler. “I’m so sorry. I know what it’s like to lose a best friend.” But not in such a horrifying way as this. No, she knew what it was like to find out your best friend, someone you’d known most of your life, was a cheating backstabber.
Liberty pulled away and plucked a tissue from the box on the table, handing it to Skyler. “Okay, now I want you to sit very still and listen to my friend here. He has something he wants to tell you.”
Liberty stepped back, leaned against the wall, crossed her arms, and watched.
Eli covered the girl’s hands with his. In a low, soft, voice he said, “Skyler, I want you to look into my eyes. Listen to me carefully, okay? Can you do that for me?”
Hesitantly, she nodded, her gaze fixed on him.
“There’s a good girl. I know what you saw was horrible. I know you must have been terrified. I’m going to help you with that. I’m going to take the bad memories, the fear, away. You never saw the man who did this to Patrice, okay? The two of you were hanging out, having a good time, drinking…then you decided to go up the beach to talk to some people. Patrice wanted to stay. After a few minutes, you heard sirens. They told you that Patrice had died, but you didn’t see anything. You didn’t witness her death.”
Eli gave the girl a tender, reassuring smile—one Liberty had never seen him use on her. Maybe he was capable of some decency.
They left the girl in Aiata’s care and walked out into the night. The moisture had become a light misting rain. The island was a quiet, wet, dark oasis.
“Well, we didn’t learn anything helpful,” Eli said. “All we know is that our killer is a devastatingly, handsome, sexy guy.”
“Good Lord.” Liberty huffed out a sigh. “And that he’s full of himself and exaggerates his attributes.”
Eli lifted his hands as if in surrender. “Hey, those were her words, not mine.”
“Uhm, actually they were your words. All she said was that he was attractive, and that he looked like you.”
He shrugged and winked. “That’s all I said too.”
Liberty nearly growled in irritation. Working with him was going to be pure torture.