Chapter One
That morning, two hours after she received an anonymous e-mail that included an address and a short message, Maggie Wren boarded a flight from San Francisco to New York. Accompanied by the hellhound that Maggie’s employer had demanded she bring with her, she arrived at JFK in midafternoon. The address led her to a brownstone in Brooklyn. Despite the busy streets and the glaring sun that exposed her movements, she picked the lock at the front door and dismantled the security system.
With a silent hand gesture, she instructed the hellhound to check the first level. Upstairs, the first two bedrooms stood open and empty, except for a shirt and jeans strewn over the floor of the second. Maggie kicked through a third door when she found it locked.
Her target—Geoffrey Blake—was sitting naked on the wooden floor, handcuffed to a radiator. He’d drawn his knees up and rested his back against the wall beneath a lace-curtained window. Although her foot slamming against the door could have woken the dead, his eyes remained closed.
Maggie swept the room with her gun before shoving the weapon into the holster beneath her blazer.
She crossed to Blake’s side, retrieving her lock picks from her jacket’s inside pocket. He wasn’t completely naked, she noted. Her gaze skipped to his black briefs as she crouched and reached for the handcuffs. Yellow smiley faces grinned up at her from the elastic waistband.
“At least someone is happy to see me,” Maggie said. Or maybe the smiley faces were just thrilled to be hugging his muscled abdomen. Smug little bastards.
“I would be,” Blake replied in a deep, dry voice, “if I could see you.”
He raised his head and opened his eyes, revealing irises of light blue—and no pupils. From rim to rim, the color was solid.
Maggie’s fingers twitched. The metal pick slipped out of the keyhole and jabbed his wrist. Shit. She murmured an apology, her mind racing.
Blind. Yet nothing in Blake’s dossier had indicated it. How had he kept the disability unlisted on his official records? Why keep it hidden?
And why hadn’t Maggie’s employer prepared her before she’d flown across the country to rescue him? More than that—what the hell had her employer been thinking by letting Blake come to New York alone? Had he actually expected his nephew—a man who couldn’t see, for God’s sake—to track down the woman who’d disappeared from a New York hotel room two days ago?
That the woman was Blake’s sister was even more reason not to have sent him. Caring too much led to carelessness. Which, Maggie thought, was probably why Blake was handcuffed to a radiator.
But at least his blindness explained why her employer had insisted that she bring the dog.
“You didn’t know,” Blake said.
Maggie worked at the lock, pulling herself out of assignment mode and slipping back into the deferential courtesy required by her newest occupation: household management and personal security.
Which, she’d often thought, was just a nice way of saying that she was a butler with a gun.
She popped the first cuff, moved on to the second. “Mr. Ames-Beaumont must have considered your blindness irrelevant to my objective, sir.”
“Is it relevant?”
“No, sir.” She had to get Blake out of here, either way.
“Sir?” His faint smile didn’t soften his strong features. The beginnings of a dark beard shadowed his jaw. His nose, Maggie thought, would have done a Stoic emperor proud. “If you are calling me ‘sir,’ then you must be the recently acquired—and, according to Uncle Colin, the already indispensable—Winters.”
There was no point in correcting him. She’d been called more offensive names before. And she didn’t know why Ames-Beaumont had taken to calling her “Winters,” but considering the salary he paid her, she’d decided that he could address her however he wished.
The billionaire owner of Ramsdell Pharmaceuticals had high standards for his employees—and the closer to his family those employees were, the higher those standards were.
And he’d called her indispensable. Not easily disposed of and replaced. She’d never been that before.
But she couldn’t afford to acknowledge the warm glow the secondhand praise brought, or the despair that it would change.
Yes, “Winters” was much better than what he’d soon be calling her.
“You are correct, sir.” Despite the tightening of her throat, her voice remained even. “I am.”
“Of course you are. And, of course, when we finally meet, I am like this.” Blake gestured at himself with his free hand. “Do you know why you’ve found me half-naked? Do you know what this is?”
Finally meet? He’d said that as if they’d communicated before. Maggie was certain they hadn’t. Blake had been in Britain since she’d begun working for his uncle three months ago. Before that, he’d traveled as often and as extensively as she had, but they’d never been in the same place at the same time—with one exception, four years ago. Maggie hadn’t seen him then; she would have remembered. And he couldn’t have seen her.
So whatever he meant by “finally,” it had little to do with her. More likely, it referenced a conversation between him and his uncle—perhaps the one where she’d been described as indispensable. “I don’t know, sir. What is this?”
“This is karma. This is every negative thing I’ve done, coming back to take a big bite of my ass.”
The tightness in her throat eased. She strove to match the light tone his response invited. “That is unfortunate. Particularly as, in my professional opinion, the consequences of your actions are worse than you imagine.”
“Why do you say that, Winters?”
“Because you are much more than half-naked, sir. And although I have many talents, protecting you from mystical kar mic forces is not one of them.”
He tilted his head, as if weighing that. “So chances are, I’ll lose my shorts before we’re done.”
She ignored the little jolt in her stomach as his smile widened, carving crescents beside his mouth. In the humid air, his overlong hair had curled over his forehead and at his neck and ears. Combined with the smile, his dishevelment was unexpectedly appealing.
The job, Maggie. “We’ll try to avoid that, sir.” Though unlocking the cuffs required touch rather than sight, she focused on her fingers. “Your uncle sends his regrets that he wasn’t able to come.”
“I could hardly expect a vampire to catch an early-morning flight to New York.”
Perhaps not a normal vampire, no. Even if one could rise from his daily sleep, he’d burst into flames at the touch of the sun. But Colin Ames-Beaumont wasn’t a normal vampire, and so he could have come—but his fiancée couldn’t travel during the day, and the vampire would never leave his partner unprotected.
“I was the most expedient option,” Maggie explained.
“How fortunate for me.”
Fortune had nothing to do with it. After reading the e-mail, she’d convinced Ames-Beaumont to send her, citing the same qualifications that had led him to hire her: a level head, weapons expertise, and a history of successful troubleshooting missions.
But Maggie hadn’t mentioned the “You can stop me, Brunhilda” written in the e-mail beneath the brownstone’s address, or that she had a very good idea who’d done this to Blake.
She grazed her fingers over Blake’s inner wrist as she opened the second cuff. He was perspiring in the stifling room, and his skin was warm. Warm, but not hot—and so not belonging to a shape-shifted demon acting as a decoy.
Blake’s large hand caught hers. It was difficult to remember that his eyes were sightless when he stared into hers with such intensity. “It’s good to know that you’re who you say, too.”
Maggie didn’t point out that she’d said her name was Winters. “There’s a needle mark on the inside of your elbow.”
Blake released her hand. “He took blood.”
That was . . . strange. “How much?” She didn’t think it had been too much; Blake’s color was good beneath his tan. “Can you walk? Were you drugged?”
“Yes. Some sort of sedative.” Blake lifted his jaw, exposing a swelling on his neck the size of a bee sting. “I was on the sidewalk outside my hotel. He pushed me into a taxi, told the driver I was drunk. I blacked out after that.”
And his abductor hadn’t tried to avoid being seen. Not a good sign. There were three primary reasons a criminal didn’t hide his identity: he wanted to be caught, he assumed he’d never be punished . . . or he already knew he wouldn’t get out alive.
“‘He’? You’re sure? And not a demon or a vampire?”
“Yes. Male. Human.”
That’s what she’d been afraid of. Demons were forbidden to physically harm humans, and so couldn’t do anything except tempt and bargain. Vampires weren’t bound by the same rules, but were helpless during the daylight hours.
But a human could be dangerous at any time—especially if it was the man Maggie suspected it was.
She prayed it wasn’t James. If it wasn’t, that meant she hadn’t made the wrong decision three years ago when she’d let him go. But if James had sent her that e-mail, if he’d abducted Katherine . . . she might have to really kill him this time.
And then flee to save her own life. When Ames-Beaumont discovered her deception and her connection to the man who’d endangered his family, the vampire would kill her.
After she sent his nephew home in one piece, perhaps he’d make it quick. And if she found Katherine, maybe Ames-Beaumont would let Maggie go.
Or at least give her a head start.
“Your clothes are in one of the other bedrooms,” she said, and stood. “Let’s get you dressed and head out.”
“Did someone come with you?” Blake asked.
Maggie glanced over her shoulder. Inside the bedroom, Blake was hitching his jeans up over a backside that, even chewed up by karma, still looked damn good. With his tall, leanly muscled build, all of him looked good.
But not flawless. A puckered scar marred his upper left shoulder. There hadn’t been a scar in front, so the bullet hadn’t punched through. Removing it would’ve required surgery, yet there were no gunshot wounds or hospital stays listed in his medical history.
According to his profile and the pile of write-ups from his supervisors, Blake did nothing at Ramsdell Pharmaceuticals but dick around behind his desks and research stations. According to his body, he did much more than that.
Maggie wasn’t surprised by the evidence his body offered. Although she hadn’t anticipated his blindness, she’d assumed there was more to Geoffrey Blake than his frequent transfers between Ramsdell’s international subsidiaries suggested. Even if nepotism and family connections had played a part in Blake’s employment history, Ames-Beaumont would never have relied on an incompetent man to lead the search for Katherine.
So Geoffrey Blake wouldn’t be inept—and no stranger to dangerous situations.
“No,” Maggie finally answered. “Except for a dog, I came alone.”
Blake cocked his head before giving it a shake. To Maggie, his silence seemed to be of confusion rather than just caution.
Or was it disorientation? She continued, “We’ll have your blood tested to make sure the drug—”
“No.” Blake turned, pushing his dark hair back off his forehead. “The Ramsdell offices in New York don’t have labs. We don’t send my blood anywhere else. I’m fine.”
She couldn’t blame him for his paranoia, not after he’d already had his blood stolen. “Very well. Are you ready?”
As an answer, Blake walked unerringly toward her. Guided by the direction of her voice, Maggie guessed. When he drew close and stopped, she had to look up at him. That didn’t happen often, whether she was in boots or bare feet.
Her gaze skipped from his knees to his ribs to his throat. A single blow would eliminate her height disadvantage.
But taking him out wasn’t necessary; getting him out was. “Have you trained with guide dogs?”
His expression tightened, but she couldn’t read anything in his face. “Yes. Uncle Colin sent one with you?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Maggie backed into the hallway and called out, “Sir Pup!”
The hellhound trotted into view and clambered up the stairs, his tongues lolling from each of his three enormous heads.
“We need the harness,” Maggie said as he reached the landing. “You’ll escort Mr. Blake downstairs and to our vehicle.”
Sir Pup brushed past her hip and padded into the bedroom, his black fur gleaming over heavy muscle. His middle head looked Blake up and down. His right examined the room, and with his left, he turned to glance over his shoulder at Maggie.
She had no doubt that the expression pulling at his lips and exposing razor-edged teeth was a grin.
Her eyes narrowed. “You won’t take him anywhere but to the vehicle and through the airport,” she ordered. “And you won’t leave him anywhere, either.”
The hellhound’s grin lengthened. Oh, damn. Most likely, she’d just added another idea to whatever mischief had already been percolating in his heads.
She returned her gaze to Blake and frowned. His skin had paled to a sickly gray. When he weaved on his feet, she stepped forward and caught his elbow.
“Mr. Blake?”
He visibly gathered himself. His chest rose on a long breath before he echoed, “Sir Pup?”
Maggie began to nod, then realized Blake wouldn’t see it. “Yes.”
“The hellhound? The one that my uncle watches from time to time?”
Actually, it was the other way around. Sir Pup was the companion to Ames-Beaumont’s closest friend, and it was true that the vampire sometimes let the hellhound stay in his mansion. But it was the hellhound who watched over Ames-Beaumont; Sir Pup helped Maggie protect the house on those days the vampire succumbed to his sleep.
Demons were the only real threat to Ames-Beaumont while he slept, and they had nothing to fear from Maggie’s gun—but Sir Pup’s venom could paralyze a demon, and his massive jaws could easily rip one apart.
Maggie was not willing to reveal the details of Ames-Beaumont’s security, however—even to his nephew. She said only, “Yes.”
“In his demon form?”
He wasn’t, thank goodness. But if Blake knew that Sir Pup had a demon form, then it was no wonder he’d been so pale a moment ago. Maggie was used to the three heads, but she didn’t think she’d ever be comfortable with the giant, terrifying hound he could become.
“No. Right now he looks like a three-headed black Labrador.” A very large black Lab. When Maggie knelt beside the hellhound, her eyes were level with his shoulder. “Once we’re outside, he’ll shape-shift back to one head. Sir Pup, the harness?”
The guide apparatus appeared in her hand. Sir Pup’s invisible, formless hammerspace allowed him to store almost any object, but even a hellhound couldn’t make a retriever-sized harness fit over a bear-sized torso.
“And shrink, please,” Maggie said, rolling her eyes. The hellhound was being a pain in the ass by forcing her to ask him to shift into a smaller form.
Probably, she thought, so that Blake wondered exactly how big the hellhound had been. Though Sir Pup was friendly enough to be considered a bad hellhound by Hell’s standards, he still enjoyed making people uneasy. He just had a better sense of humor than most hellhounds—and was less likely to tear out throats first, and eat the rest later.
Or so Maggie had heard. She’d never been to Hell, and so she’d never met any other hellhounds. If her luck was good—and if every negative thing she’d done in her life didn’t land her in the Pit as soon as she bit the big one—she never would.
And if her luck was very good, she’d never run into another demon, either. After discovering that her previous employer was one, she’d had enough of them to last her a lifetime.
She adjusted the last harness strap and gave Sir Pup a scratch behind the ears of his left head. His dark eyes glowed faintly crimson before rolling back in ecstasy. A freakishly powerful and terrifying hellhound, sure—but pettings and food were two things guaranteed to make him more biddable.
“Don’t leave him anywhere,” Maggie murmured, “and I’ll see that Ames-Beaumont buys out a butcher shop for you.”
Apparently satisfied with that bribe, Sir Pup pranced to Blake’s side. Blake curled his fingers around the harness handle.
“Why would it be a problem if he does lead me out to the middle of nowhere? You’ll be there.”
Blake had heard her? There was obviously nothing wrong with his ears. “I won’t be,” Maggie said, moving into the hall and gesturing for Sir Pup to follow her down the stairs. “I’m taking you to the airport. He’ll accompany you on the plane.”
“What plane?”
Maggie stopped beside the front door and glanced through the window. Her gaze skipped from vehicle to vehicle, from person to person. She didn’t recognize anyone, and no one tripped the instinctual alarm in her gut that, over the years, she’d learned to trust.
Of course, it had let her down a few times, so she kept her hand on her gun.
“Sir Pup, you have too many heads,” she reminded the hellhound before answering Blake. “I’ll charter a plane to take you back to San Francisco. Mr. Ames-Beaumont can look after you while I—”
“Not a chance,” Blake said.
“—find your sister,” Maggie finished over him.
“Find her where? Do you have information about where he’s taken her that I don’t?”
She opened the door. “No.”
Not yet, anyway.