Heir to a throne he never wanted, vampire prince Nikolai Diavolos has seen firsthand how power corrupts. Abandoned by his siblings and betrayed by his father, he doesn’t have much use for family—until the Revenant offers him a second chance. Now, he’ll do whatever it takes to prove his worth, even walk through the fires of hell to face the most powerful coven in the country.
Held for months by the Abraxas Coven, Kamara Yamashito is beginning to lose her grip on reality. Nothing seems real anymore. Nothing feels right. She’s hearing things, a stranger’s voice in the back of her mind, a voice that promises salvation, but Kamara knows the truth.
No one can help her.
Nikolai never expected to survive the mission, let alone find his mate within the walls of the compound. Fierce, brave, and resilient, Kamara is everything he’s ever wanted, but freeing her from the coven is only the beginning.
The real fight will be finding a way to save her from herself.
“Let me go!” Kamara screeched, twisting and jerking to free herself from his grasp.
“Not until you calm down.” He shook her roughly. “Focus, Kamara. Listen to me and focus.”
“I’m going to rip your fucking head off,” she screamed.
The man just laughed at her. “I’d like to see you try.” The humor vanished, and his breath fanned against her ear as he bent closer. “Close your eyes, Kamara. All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
The statement made no sense, but in her confusion, she finally forgot about her bloodlust. “What?”
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
He repeated it once, twice, a third time, and with each iteration, her pulse slowed and her breaths evened to a slow, deep rhythm.
“That’s good,” he encouraged. “You try.”
“All that we see or seem,” she whispered, “is but a dream within a dream.”
“Good, Kamara. Again.”
He had her repeat the mantra at least a dozen times before he finally released her head and relaxed his hold around her middle. “Better?”
She nodded. “Thank you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” A draft blew in through the thin crack of the window, brushing against her bare skin and causing her to tremble. “Um, why am I naked?”
“That was how we found you, and it seemed a little too invasive to try to dress you while you were unconscious.” As he spoke, the stranger released her, then removed the fleece, plaid blanket from the bed so that he could wrap it around her shoulders. “Roux brought up some clothes for you, but she said they’ll probably be too big.”
“I’ll make it work.” Holding the edges of the blanket, Kamara kept her back to him as she secured the fabric around her and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “It was you, wasn’t it? You’re the one who saved me.”
Steeling herself, she finally turned to look at the man who had invaded her dreams for years, and gasped. After seeing him night after night while she slept, she thought she had memorized every detail of his features, but those illusions hadn’t prepared her for the reality.
High, prominent cheek bones complemented his angular jaw, and his straight, aristocratic nose turned up slightly at the tip. Thick eyebrows a shade darker than his golden hair framed eyes the color of smooth milk chocolate speckled with amber that shined in the sunlight.
He smiled as he watched her study him, his upper lip just a little fuller than the bottom. His fair, flawless skin beamed with radiance, and she couldn’t detect a single blemish, scar, or pore to mar its perfection.
Standing tall, his shoulders back, spine straight, he remained motionless while she continued to examine him. He wasn’t doing anything more than breathing, but there was something about the way he carried himself, with an air of refinement that she hadn’t seen since the Purge.
“I’m the one who found you, yes.” With one hand over his stomach, he bowed slightly at the waist. “I am Nikolai Diavolos.”
“Kamara Yamashito, but I guess you already know that.”
His smile brightened a degree. “I do, but it’s a pleasure to finally be properly introduced.”
She could say the same, but for significantly different reasons.
“I dreamed of you,” she whispered. Unwinding one arm from the blanket, she reached out hesitantly, skimming her fingertips along the curve of his jaw when he didn’t pull away. “How is that possible?”
Nikolai didn’t have an answer for her, but he doubted she was really looking for one. Her mind was a whirl of thoughts and questions, many with him at the center. It pleased him more than it should have, but he checked his emotions and minded his tongue. She didn’t yet know what she meant to him, who she was to him, and they had much more pressing things to discuss first.
Taking her hand, he pulled it away from his face and brushed a kiss over her knuckles. “Come, Kamara.” He motioned toward the bed. “Sit with me. Tell me what you can remember.”
He’d expected her to hesitate, but she simply adjusted the blanket around her and crawled onto the mattress, sitting in the middle of the bed with her legs crisscrossed. Confused by her easy compliance, Nikolai watched her for several heartbeats before joining her, easing down on the edge of the mattress to give her space.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. I remember a room with red chairs.”
The showing theaters in the cinema.
Nikolai had never made it inside one, but the scene Thea had described sickened him. Rows and rows of heavily sedated humans, all connected intravenously to blood bags and saline drips while old, black-and-white monster movies played on the big screen.
He’d never thought to question where the Coalition acquired the blood bags they distributed to the vampire regions. Naively, he’d assumed they’d come from donors, as had been the arrangement in Trinity Grove. Humans donated blood in exchanged for protection and resources. What the Abraxas coven had built made his skin crawl.
“What else?” he asked, relieved when his voice remained calm and even. “Do you know why you were in that white room?”
Her eyebrows drew together to form a shallow V over the bridge of her nose. “I was…I…” Trailing off, her brow smoothed and her eyes widened. Both hands flew to her neck. “I was attacked.” Her bottom lip trembled. “He bit me.”
Nikolai had guessed it would be something of that nature, but hearing it firsthand triggered something inside of him he’d never felt. Growing up, he’d willing accepted the brunt of their father’s abuse, placing himself between his younger siblings and the king as often as possible. When his brothers and sister had fled Trinity Grove to escape their father’s tyranny, he’d been relieved to see their suffering end.
That had been nearly a decade ago, and while he kept tabs on them, he hadn’t seen or spoken to them in all that time, afraid any contact would lead Elias to them.
His sister had begged him to come with them, but his place had been in Trinity Grove. Not only had he provided a distraction in his siblings’ absence, but he’d been the only person standing between Elias and those under his sovereignty.
While Nikolai had little influence over his father—given the opportunity, the king would just as soon see him dead—he could accurately say he knew Elias Diavolos better than anyone. The king was prideful and vain, desperate for power, and paranoid that someone would take that authority from him. It hadn’t been overly difficult for Nikolai to use that paranoia to maintain a semblance of balance and redirect his father’s ire.
Of course, it had been much easier before the Purge, when the need for secrecy about their kind had been paramount. After the spread of the virus, there had been nothing to temper Elias’ brutality, but still, Nikolai had stayed. He’d stayed because Trinity Grove was his home, because it was where his mother had lived and died. He’d stayed because, despite everything, he’d clung to the hope that things could get better.
Since the Purge, he’d seen all manner of atrocities that had both saddened and angered him, but he’d never felt the kind of blinding rage he did in that moment. Someone had hurt his mate, and when he found out who, they’d pay for their transgression in blood.
“Do you remember who attacked you?” His blood boiled, his heart pounded, and he couldn’t hold back the low growl that punctuated his words.
Kamara’s head snapped up, and she stared at him for several seconds, the strangest little smile playing over her thin lips. His conscience told him not to do it, that it was an invasion of privacy, especially since she didn’t yet know or understand that connection between them.
He had to know what she was thinking.
“His eyes are so dark when he’s pissed. I’m not scared, though. Why am I not scared?” She tilted her head one way, then the other, still studying him. “I feel safe with him. Which, of course, is batshit crazy. I don’t even know this guy. Still…”
Nikolai couldn’t resist. Gently, he reached toward her, watching her for any adverse reaction, and pressed his palm to her cheek. His fingertips brushed against her hairline, while the heel of his hand cradled her jaw, and it scared him a little how utterly tiny she was compared to him.
“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” he said, more in control of his emotions now. “I would never hurt you, cara mia.”
“I know.” She leaned into his hand and sighed. “It doesn’t make any sense, but I feel it.” With another heavy sigh, she sat up straight, forcing him to drop his hand. “To answer your question, I don’t know who attacked me. I know it was a male, but I couldn’t tell you what he looked like.” She ducked her head, peeking up at him through impossibly long lashes. “I’m sorry.”
“None of that.” Selfishly, he didn’t like that she hid her face from him. Slipping a knuckle under her chin, he tilted her head up and smiled. “None of this is your fault. Don’t ever be sorry.”
“I remember something else.”
Nikolai pulled his hand back again and fisted it at his side. He had no right to touch her, and he needed to stop being so careless. “What do you remember?”
“He was there. The guy that attacked me. He was in the white room, and I could hear him talking to me. I knew it was him, because his voice scared me.”
Breathing deeply through his nose, Nikolai waited until he was sure he could speak calmly before replying. “What did he say, Kamara?”
“I can’t remember exactly, but it was something about me being too fragile. He said…” She stared at some point over his shoulder, her eyes glazed, her focus on something only she could see. “He said I’d heal. He said when I woke up I’d be more durable.” Her gaze flew to Nikolai, and her lower lip began to quiver again. “What does that mean? Does that mean—”
Throwing the blanket off, she scrambled off the bed and ran toward the attached bathroom.
“No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”
His heart broke at the anguished tone of her thoughts. Gathering the blanket, he carried it into the bathroom, stopping just inside the doorway. He didn’t want to intrude, but he needed to be close to her, to be there if she needed him.
Standing naked in front of the mirror, Kamara gripped the edges of the pedestal sink as she tilted her head back and opened her mouth to examine her long, pointed canines.
“He did this to me. Why would he do this? Why didn’t he just kill me? I can’t be a…a…”
“Vampire,” Nikolai supplied aloud. Moving to stand behind her, he draped the blanket over her thin shoulders. “Your senses are heightened. Your emotions are erratic. Up one minute, down the next. It feels like someone poured gasoline down your throat and lit a match.”
Meeting his gaze in the mirror, she nodded slowly. “Look at me.”
“I am.” He couldn’t stop looking at her. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Nikolai snorted. “It’ll grow back, cara mia. Besides, you wear it well.”
“That’s Italian, right? ‘Cara mia?’” She arched an eyebrow at him in the mirror, and a knowing smirk lifted one side her mouth. “Are you going to tell me what it means?”
He hadn’t intended to say it, hadn’t even realized he’d used the endearment until she’d called it to his attention. It was just so easy to be around her that he forgot to be guarded. It was too late to take it back, even if he wanted to, and he wouldn’t lie to her.
She continued to stare at him with that cute little smile, but she let the subject drop. “How fast will my hair grow back?”
Nikolai laughed. “You were held prisoner for months. You were attacked and almost died, which led to you becoming a vampire, and you’re worried about your hair?”
Kamara shrugged. “It’s the only thing I have control over.” Some of her bravado faded, and she sagged back against his chest. “I can’t remember most of my time with the coven, which I think is probably a blessing. Being this volatile rage monster sucks, but it’s better than being dead, right?”
“You won’t be a rage monster forever.” He placed his hands over the blanket on her upper arms and rubbed gently. “You can do this, Kamara, and I’ll help you.”
Leaving a toxic relationship and starting over was the hardest thing Phoebe Keller had ever done. Alone, jobless, living out of her car, and completely desperate, she takes a chance on a pipedream—and lands herself right atop the bestseller list. Three years and a handful of bestselling novels later, life is good, and those desolate months are nothing more than a distant memory. But, not all the glitters is gold.
From the ashes.
Coming home from his third tour in Afghanistan, Rayce Hawkins doesn’t quite know where he fits anymore. He has nothing in common with any of his friends, and when they stop calling, all he feels is relief. He can barely make the rent on his one-bedroom, rodent-infested apartment, and his prospects dwindle more every day. Drowning in self-pity and running out of options, he’s ready to give up when he receives a phone call from an old comrade. With four little words, everything changed.
The devil within.
When Rayce and Phoebe meet at a black-tie event for a local charity, their instant chemistry is undeniable, but not everyone is happy about their new relationship. What started as innocent emails and benign gifts becomes increasingly more threatening as a someone in the shadows stalks Phoebe’s every move.
When Phoebe is taken captive, Rayce will do whatever it takes to save her. With the clock ticking and time running out, can he find her before it’s too late? Or will he be forced to watch as his entire life shatters around him?
Bathed by the pale light of a nearby lamppost in the empty parking lot, the decrepit 1973 Chevy El Camino groaned as brisk winds rocked the vehicle and whistled through the broken seal of the passenger window. Sleet pelted against the fogged windshield, freezing to the glass in an icy sheet, and the faded brown tarp that covered the bed flapped and rustled in the gathering storm.
With a red thumb drive clutched in her gloved fist, Phoebe Keller inhaled deeply through her nose, then released the breath past her trembling lips in a plume of smoke.
Everything she owned was tucked beneath the billowing tarp in frayed and soggy boxes. A few clothes, an extra pair of shoes, a picture of her with her parents taken during a family vacation in the Ozark Mountains when she’d been fourteen. Everything else, anything of value, she’d pawned months ago, needing the cash to fuel her ancient car and feed her aching stomach.
Then winter had arrived.
Its icy fingers had stretched across central Texas, blanketing the Dallas area in unseasonably cold temperatures. In the past week, she’d burned through the gas in the El Camino in a desperate attempt to stay warm during the frigid nights, leaving her with barely a quarter of a tank. Food had also been scarce lately, forcing her to find inventive ways to eat.
Saturday, she’d pushed a cart around a nearby discount warehouse store for the better part of two hours, idly dropping items into her basket that she had no intention of purchasing. In that time, she’d made her way to each of the twenty or so stations that offered free samples of things like mini quiche and tomato soup. Then, she’d pushed her partially filled cart into an empty corner before hurrying out of the store with her head ducked to avoid curious stares.
It had been humiliating and completely demoralizing, but it had seen her through another day. She hadn’t eaten again in the two days since, and the warm, spicy scents wafting on the air from the Thai restaurant across the street made her stomach gurgle and her mouth salivate.
She knew of several soup kitchens in the city, and even a couple in the suburbs, but she wouldn’t go there unless she had no other choice. Despite her miserable circumstances, Phoebe realized she was still luckier than most. She didn’t have children to worry about, or anyone else for that matter. As rusted and broken down as her car was, it kept her mostly protected from the elements, and the cracked-leather bench seat of the old El Camino was a lot more comfortable than the frozen ground in a dark alley.
When she’d left her ex-fiancé, Tucker Cromwell, standing in front of their high-rise apartment building in the heart of Dallas, she’d had no plan and nowhere to go, but she’d been desperate to escape the toxic and abusive relationship. For over a year, she’d allowed him to manipulate her, to dictate every aspect of her life, until she’d woken up one day to find she had no job, no money, no friends, and no freedom.
Her mom had died just a year after Phoebe had graduated high school, and her father had followed three years later. Sadly, she had no other family, nowhere to turn for help, but none of that had mattered. She’d been drowning, suffocating beneath Tucker’s ever-tightening fist of control. The relief she’d felt, the weight that had lifted off her chest as she’d driven away, had been worth every cold, lonely, and miserable night since.
This was it. Her chance at a new beginning. Her last hope of getting her life back.
After weeks and weeks of searching for employment and suffering disappointment at every turn, she’d finally landed a position with housekeeping at a motel just off the interstate earlier that day. It was a step in the right direction, and she was grateful the manager had taken a chance on her, but she wouldn’t receive her first paycheck for at least two more weeks.
“It could be worse.”
She spoke the words aloud, her voice vibrating from the cold. It was a reminder, one she gave herself often, that no matter how bad things seemed in the moment, she was still fortunate in many ways. Her car could be impounded, leaving her truly homeless. There were still three days before she started her new job, and in that time, the manager of the motel could change her mind.
She could still be living with Tucker Cromwell.
Yes, things could always be worse.
With another trembling breath, Phoebe opened the driver’s door of the El Camino, wincing when the hinges creaked loud enough to echo across the parking lot. Her threadbare tennis shoes slid over the icy pavement, but she clutched the still open door to steady herself. If she were smart, she’d wait until the winter storm had passed, but unfortunately, time wasn’t a luxury she could afford.
The county library closed in less than an hour, plenty of time to use their computer station to send the most important email of her life. With the thumb drive clutched in her hand, she held her fist over her heart and ducked her head against the howling wind. Using her hip to close the car door, she looked up at the towering building illuminated in hazy amber light.
She could do this. She had to do this.
Besides, what did she have to lose?
~ ~ ~
No lights burned in the one-bedroom, pest-infested apartment on the west side of the city. A deafening silence stretched to every corner of the dilapidated building, interrupted only by the hum of the rusted refrigerator and the occasional scratching from the mice that lived within the walls.
Alone with only the glow of the muted television for company, Rayce Hawkins leaned his head back on the threadbare sofa he’d found by the curb during the last garbage day. The black and tan checkered pattern mostly hid the numerous cigarette burns in the fabric, but nothing could mask the smell of sweat and stale smoke.
A single cockroach scuttled across the scarred coffee table in search of food. Rayce wished him luck. The only thing to eat in the apartment was a can of raviolis and a half-empty bottle of ketchup. Considering he was three months behind on his rent, and the gas company had cut him off the previous week, the raviolis were kind of a big deal.
It had been eight months since he’d returned from his third tour in Afghanistan and ended his twelve years of duty to the United States Marine Corps. Everyone was eager to thank him for his service to the country, but their gratitude extended only so far. No one wanted to take a chance on a combat-hardened man with practically zero civilian job experience. He could dismantle and reassemble a rifle in record time, then hit a moving target at fifty paces. Unfortunately, those weren’t marketable skills when it came to finding gainful employment.
Some employers simply didn’t care about his military history. Others worried about anger and aggression, and a few had even expressed concerns about PTSD. They weren’t wrong, either.
More nights than not, Rayce lied awake, staring at the cracked and water-stained ceiling. Since arriving stateside, he hadn’t slept more than two hours at a time, and only by sitting upright in the corner of his living room and leaning back against the peeling wallpaper next to the window. Just a week after he’d moved into the rundown building, a car had backfired down the street, and he’d spent the better part of four hours curled up under his coffee table, trapped inside his own mind.
Many of his comrades had lost limbs. Some had suffered horrific burns, others had been paralyzed, and just as many had come home in pine boxes. Rayce had returned from the war with a few scars and two pins in his right ankle. He knew he was fortunate, and he should be grateful, but every day, he struggled to find a reason to keep going.
So far, he’d found nothing.
A .357 Magnum rested on the stained cushion beside him, a single bullet loaded into the cylinder. He could do it. He could press the barrel to his temple and pull the trigger, then everything would just stop. The nightmares. The flashbacks. The loss of control, and the anger, and the feeling of hopelessness.
His right hand trembled as he inched it across the couch cushion, and his breath plumed from his lips, each inhalation coming in short gasps. Idly, he wondered if anyone would miss him. He didn’t have any family, and he’d ignored the few friends he’d had until they’d finally stopped calling.
No, there probably wouldn’t be anyone to miss him, but maybe it was better that way.
His fingertips slid over the leather handle of the weapon. His hand stopped shaking the moment he lifted the gun, comfortable with the familiar weight.
It was better this way.
It was better…
His prepaid Nokia flip phone slid and clattered across the coffee table, the small square on the front illuminated in a cold shade of blue. No one ever called him, not anymore. Not friends, not potential employers—his cell phone hadn’t rung in nearly three weeks.
Acting on instinct, moving on autopilot, Rayce lowered the revolver to his lap and lifted his phone, frowning when the caller ID showed no name or number. Flipping the cheap plastic open, he held it to his ear and took two deep breaths before finally speaking.
Only the guys from his platoon in Afghanistan ever called him that. “Who is this?”
“It’s Steele. You sound like shit.”
Lieutenant Dominic Steele didn’t bother with formalities or niceties, and he had little aptitude for diplomacy. He was, however, fair, efficient, and damn smart. He’d commanded Rayce’s platoon on two of his three tours, and he couldn’t have asked for a better leader.
“Thanks, Steele. Always uplifting to hear from you.”
“Cut the bullshit,” Dominic grumbled. “Meet me at that dive bar on the corner down from your place in ten minutes.”
“How do you—”
“Dive bar. Ten minutes.”
Well, technically, it's a re-release. :)
**NOTE: This book was originally published at Nero's Protection under a different pen name. There have been no significant changes.**
Heat Rising is an erotic sci-fi short with an HEA. It's only about 13k (yes, on purpose) but if you're looking for a quick, sexy read, you can pick it up for just 99 cents, or free with Kindle Unlimited!