CHLOE NEILL - Orion Books

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2 ø Chloe Neill. I had no clue who had invited me or why, but I was curious enough to make the drive downtown from my home in Hyde. Park. I was also cautious ...

A ChicagoLand Vampires Novel

Chloe Neill

Chapter One

3 JOin the Club

Early June Chicago, Illinois

I

t was the beginning of Route 66, the spot where “America’s Main Street” began to traverse the United States. Buckingham Fountain, the heart of Grant Park, was named for the brother of the woman who donated the fountain to the city of Chicago. By day, the fountain’s main jet shot one hundred fifty feet into the air, a tower of water between the expanse of Lake Michigan and the expanse of downtown Chicago. But it was late now, and the jets had been turned off for the night. The park was officially closed, but that didn’t stop a handful of stragglers from walking around the fountain or perching on the steps that led down to Lake Shore Drive to take in the view of the dark and gleaming waters of Lake Michigan. I checked my watch. It was eight minutes after midnight. I was here because someone had been leaving me anonymous notes. The first ones mentioned invitations. The last one had invited me to the fountain at midnight, which meant the mysterious someone was eight minutes late.

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I had no clue who had invited me or why, but I was curious enough to make the drive downtown from my home in Hyde Park. I was also cautious enough to show up with a weapon—a short pearl-handled dagger that was strapped beneath my suit jacket on my left side. The dagger had been a gift from Master vampire Ethan Sullivan to me, the Sentinel of his House of vampires. I probably didn’t look the part of the stereotypical vampire, as the Cadogan House uniform—a slim-fit, well-tailored black pantsuit—wasn’t exactly the stuff of horror movies. My long, straight, dark hair was pulled into its usual high ponytail, dark bangs across my forehead. I’d donned a pair of black Mary Jane–style heels which, my preference for Pumas notwithstanding, looked pretty good with the suit. My beeper was clipped to my waist in case of House emergencies. As House Sentinel, I usually carried a katana, thirty-odd inches of honed steel. But for this meeting, I’d left my katana at home, thinking the sight of a bloodred scabbard strapped to my side might inspire a bit too much attention from human eyes. I was, after all, in the park after hours. The members of the Chicago Police Department were going to be curious enough about that; a three-foot-long samurai sword wasn’t going to instill much confidence that I was here only for introductions and conversation. And speaking of introductions . . . “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” a voice suddenly said from behind me. I turned, my eyes widening at the vampire who’d addressed me. “Noah?” More specifically, it was Noah Beck, leader of Chicago’s Rogue vampires—the ones not tied to a particular House.

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Noah was bulky—broad shoulders topping a muscular frame. His brown hair stood up in spiky whorls. His eyes were blue, and tonight his jaw bore a trace of stubble. Noah wasn’t cover-model handsome, but with the build, strong jaw, and slightly crooked nose, he could fill the leading role in an action movie with no problems. He was dressed, as he usually was, in unrelieved black: black cargo pants, black boots, and a snug, ribbed black T-shirt to replace the long-sleeved version he’d worn in cooler weather. “You asked to meet me?” “I did,” he said. When a few seconds passed without elaboration, I tilted my head at him. “Why not just call me and ask for a meeting?” Or better yet, I thought, why not call Ethan? He was usually more than willing to send me into the arms of needy vampires. Noah crossed his arms over his chest, his expression so serious that his down-thrust chin nearly touched his shirt. “Because you belong to Sullivan, and this meeting isn’t about him. It’s about you. If I’d signed those notes, I figured you would’ve felt obligated to tell him about the meet.” “I belong to Cadogan House,” I clarified, making it known that I didn’t, contrary to popular opinion, belong to Ethan. Not that I hadn’t considered it. “That means I can’t guarantee I won’t spill whatever you tell me,” I added, letting a small smile curl my lips. “But that depends on what you tell me.” Noah uncrossed his arms, slipped a hand into one of his pants pockets, and pulled out a thin red card. Holding the card between two fingers, he extended it toward me. I knew what it would say before I took it from him. It would bear the initials “RG” and the white stamp of a flower-

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like fleur-de-lis. An identical card had been left in my room in Cadogan House, but I still didn’t know what it meant. “What’s ‘RG’?” I asked him, returning the card. Noah took it, slipping it back into his pocket. Then he looked around, crooked a finger at me, and began walking toward the Lake. Eyebrows raised, I followed him. That was when the history lesson began. “The French Revolution was a crucial time for European vampires,” he said as we walked down the steps that led from the park to the street below. “When the Reign of Terror struck, vampires got caught up in the hysteria—not unlike humans. But when the vampires began to turn over their fellow Novitiates and Masters to the military, when they were guillotined in the street, the members of the Conseil Rouge, the counsel that governed vampires before the Greenwich Presidium took power, began to panic.” “That was the Second Clearing, right?” I asked. “French vampires squealed about their friends to ensure their own safety. Unfortunately, the vamps they turned over to the mobs were executed.” Noah nodded. “Exactly. Conseil vampires were old, well established. They enjoyed their immortality, and they weren’t eager to become mob victims. So they organized a group of vampires to protect them. Vampires willing to take aspen for them.” “A vampire Secret Service?” “That’s not a bad analogy,” he agreed. “The vampires who were asked to serve named themselves the Red Guard.” Hence the RG. “And since you gave me the card, I’m guessing you’re one yourself?” “A card-carrying member, quite literally.”

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We crossed the street to the lawn in front of the Lake, then walked across grass to the concrete shoreline. When we stopped, I glanced over at Noah, wondering why I was getting the history lesson and the details on his secret life. “Okay, interesting history lesson, but what does all this have to do with me?” “Impatient, are you?” I cocked an eyebrow. “I agreed to a secret midnight meeting you didn’t want my Master to know about. You’re actually getting profound restraint.” Noah smiled back slowly, wolfishly, his lips gradually spreading to reveal straight white teeth—and needle-sharp fangs. “Why, Merit, I’m surprised you haven’t guessed yet. I’m here to recruit you.”

It was a full minute before he spoke again. In the meantime, we stood in silence, the two of us staring out at the Lake and the bobbing lights of sailboats near the shore. I’m not sure what he was thinking about, but I was contemplating his offer. “Things have changed since the RG was founded,” Noah finally said, his voice booming in the darkness. “We make sure the Presidium doesn’t overstep its authority, like a check and balance on the power of the GP. We also ensure the balance of power between Masters and Novitiates stays relatively stable. Sometimes we investigate. On rare occasions, we clean up.” So, to summarize, Noah wanted me to join an organization whose main goal was keeping Master vampires and GP members from having too much power, or from using that power in-

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discriminately; an organization whose members spied on their Masters. I blew out a slow breath, something tightening in my stomach. I didn’t know Ethan’s position on the Red Guard, but I had no doubt he would see my joining them as the betrayal of all betrayals. Serving as a Red Guard would pit me directly against Ethan, charging me, a Novitiate vampire, with watching and judging him. Ethan and I didn’t have an easy relationship; our interactions were an uncomfortable tug-of-war between our being confidants and colleagues. But this went far beyond our usual brand of mutual irritation. In fact, it was exactly the kind of thing Ethan already feared I’d do—spy on the House. He may not have known about the RG invite, but he knew my grandfather, Chuck Merit, served as a supernatural liaison to the city of Chicago, and he knew my family—the Merits (yes, Merit is my last name)—was connected to Seth Tate, mayor of Chicago. Those ties were close enough to concern him. Involvement in something like this would be the icing on the conniption-fit cake. And that begged an interesting question. “Why me?” I asked Noah. “I’m only two months old, and I’m not exactly warrior material.” “You fit our profile,” he said. “You were made a vampire without consent; maybe because of that, you seem to have a different kind of relationship with your Master. You’re a child of wealth, but you’ve seen its abuses. As Sentinel, you’re becoming a soldier, but you’ve been a scholar. You’ve sworn your oaths to Ethan, but you’re skeptical enough not to blindly follow directions.” It was a list of traits that probably made Ethan nervous on

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a daily basis. But Noah seemed convinced they were just the kind of things he was looking for. “And what is it, exactly, that I’d be doing?” “At this point, we’d like a latent player. You’d remain in Cadogan House, stand Sentinel, and stay in communication with your partner.” I lifted my eyebrows. “My partner?” “We work in pairs,” Noah said, then bobbed his head at something behind me. “Right on cue.” I glanced back, just as the vampire reached us at the shoreline. He was well suited to spying; even with my improved hearing, I hadn’t heard him approach. This vamp was tall and lean, with longish auburn hair that just reached his shoulders, blue eyes set beneath long brows, and a chiseled chin. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a collar, the bottom tucked into his jeans. Tattoos ringed each bicep—a flying angel on one arm, a slinking devil on the other. I wondered what he was conflicted about. The newcomer nodded curtly at me, then looked at Noah. “Merit, Sentinel, Cadogan House,” Noah said to him, then glanced at me. “Jonah, Guard Captain, Grey House.” “Guard Captain?” I asked aloud, shocked to the core that the Captain of Scott Grey’s own House guards was also a member of the Red Guard. A vampire in a position of trust, whose purpose in the House was to guard the Master, to keep him safe, moonlighting for an organization with an inherent distrust of Masterdom? I guessed it wasn’t the kind of thing Scott Grey would be thrilled to learn. And seriously—was I channeling Ethan Sullivan or what? “If you accept our offer,” Noah said, “Jonah will be your partner.”

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I looked over at Jonah and found his gaze already on me, his brow furrowed. There was curiosity—but also disdain—in his eyes. He apparently wasn’t too impressed with what he’d seen so far of the Cadogan Sentinel. But since I wasn’t interested in going to war with Ethan and thus had no plans to become Jonah’s partner, I managed not to care. I shook my head at Noah. “It’s too much to ask.” “I understand your reticence,” he said. “I know what it means to take the oaths to your House. I’ve taken them, too. But for better or worse, Celina’s been released. I’d lay short odds on our futures being decidedly more violent than our recent past.” “Not great odds,” I solemnly agreed. We’d put an end to the killing spree of Celina Desaulniers, former Navarre House Master. We’d promised the city of Chicago that she was tucked away in a European dungeon, serving time for arranging those murders, but the GP had put Celina back into circulation. She no longer had control of Navarre House, and she blamed me for that inconvenience. She’d come back to Chicago annoyed about her incarceration and eager for a fight. Noah smiled sadly, as if he understood the direction of my thoughts. “The sorcerers have already predicted that war will come,” he said. “We’re afraid that’s inevitable. Too many vampires have too much pent-up animosity toward humans to keep peace forever—and vice versa—and Celina has done a bang-up job of rousing them. She plays an unfortunately good martyr.” “And that doesn’t even touch the shifter issue,” Jonah pointed out. “Shape-shifters and vampires have a long, bloody history, but that’s not stopping the Packs from heading to Chi-

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cago.” He glanced at me. “Word is, they’re meeting this week. That fit with what you’ve heard?” I debated whether I should answer, thus giving away a precious bit of Cadogan House–gleaned information, but I opted to tell him. It’s not like the info would be kept under wraps for long. “Yes. We’ve heard they’ll be here within the week.” “Reps of all four Packs in Chicago,” Noah muttered, eyes on the ground. “That’s like the Hatfields moving in with the McCoys. A centuries-old feud, and the warring parties camping out in the same city. It reeks of trouble.” He sighed. “Look, “I’m just asking you to consider it. The only thing we’d ask of you now is a commitment to remain in Cadogan House on standby until . . .” Until, he’d said, as if he believed a coming conflict was inevitable. “You’d remain latent until we can’t keep the peace any longer. At that point, you’d have to be prepared to join us fulltime. You’d have to be prepared to leave the House.” I’m sure there was shock in my expression. “You’d want me to leave Cadogan House without a Sentinel in the middle of a war?” “Think a little more broadly,” Jonah put in. “You’d be offering your services, your skills, to all vampires, irrespective of their House affiliation. The RG would offer you a chance to stand for all vampires, not just Masters.” Not for just Ethan, he meant. I’d no longer be Ethan’s Sentinel, his vampire. Instead, I’d be a vampire who stood apart from the Houses, from the Masters, from the Presidium, in order to keep the universe of vampires safe . . . and keep Celina and her rabble-rousers at bay.

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I wasn’t sure what I thought about the request or the RG. “I need time to process this,” I told them. Noah nodded. “This is a serious decision, and it deserves serious consideration. It’s about your willingness to step outside your House to ensure all vampires are well protected.” “How can I reach you?” I asked, and wondered whether that question alone meant I’d crossed a line I wouldn’t be able to step back from. “I’m in the phone book, listed as a security consultant. In the meantime, we haven’t spoken, and you’ve never met Jonah. Tell no one—friends, relatives, colleagues. But consider this, Merit: Who needs a Sentinel more? The vampires of Cadogan House, who have a corps of trained guards and a powerful Master at the helm . . . or the rest of us?” With that, he and Jonah turned and walked away, fading into the darkness of the night.

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