The suburb in the village of Hinsdale just west of Chicago was the type of neighborhood that made Naomi cringe. Each house she passed was bigger and more lavish than the last, as if the residents were in competition to show off who had the most fortune.
And it was clear that the owner of the sprawling mansion at the very end of a private road won the award for Top Over-Compensator.
Beyond the large wrought-iron gates was a Mediterranean-style mansion that looked like it’d been plucked straight from the Hamptons. It stretched over a piece of property that could house an entire subdivision of equally large homes. And stepping out of the elegant double doors making up the entrance was a mere waif of a woman who looked as out of place as Naomi felt.
Her closest friend and ex-comrade of many years wore plain yellow scrubs and a white lab coat that was far too big for her small frame. The sight made Naomi snort behind the mask that covered the lower half of her face. She stepped out of the rental car as Siovon strolled up to her.
“You look comfortable,” Naomi drawled.
Siovon grinned. “I wouldn’t live here if I couldn’t feel comfortable in my own home.” She waved a slender hand toward the entrance. “Come in. I’m surprised you showed up this time.”
Naomi snorted again, following Siovon with caution. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her. Quite the contrary, in fact. Siovon was like a sister to her, one she trusted with her life.
No… Her hesitancy had everything to do with the fact that Siovon wasn’t alone in that mausoleum of a home. She was the mate of Lucian Gordano—a powerful clan chief who ruled more than a fourth of the United States. Not only was he a ruthless badass whose very word was law, but he was also the firstborn child of Cyrus Gordano, the almighty vampire king. That made him one of the most feared demons around.
And with that grand title came a horde of devoted clansmen assigned to protect every inch of his property. While they were good about staying out of sight—no doubt following Siovon’s commands—Naomi still sensed their eyes on her. She’d never ventured to a vampire’s lair, not unless it had been to kill one of them.
Something she’d promised Siovon not to do tonight. Damn it all.
“It’s not like you gave me much of a choice,” Naomi grumbled, studying the layout of the grand mansion. She lightened her voice to mimic a higher pitch. “Come over and get the medicine yourself. I have sooo much work to do, what with pleasing my hubby and groveling at his feet.”
Siovon chortled. “First off, I do not sound like that, nor have I ever said any such nonsense. Second, I wanted you to see my lab. The contractors just finished the repairs last week, and Cyrus ordered a shipment of all sorts of herbs and ingredients and… Well, everything, really.” She led them down one hall that had a single door at the end. “And the best part? No one is allowed to enter without my or Calysta’s permission—not even Lucian.” She punched in a series of numbers on the touchpad. Seconds later, a metal latch unlocked and she swung the door open.
Naomi raised her brows, amused at her friend’s excitement. The vast room was like a laboratory from a sci-fi movie. Multiple shelves lined the perimeter, all filled with large glasses of herbs, plants and other earthy products. A portion of another wall contained a refrigerator with glass doors that held all sorts of vials. The steel door next to it was what she assumed to be a walk-in freezer. There were also a half-dozen rolling tables, metal slabs jutting from the walls and glass cabinets encompassing cauldrons, ceramic pots, beakers and lots of scientific equipment that was clean and ready for use.
“This is impressive, Siovon,” Naomi murmured in earnest. “Frosty really went all out for you, didn’t he?”
Siovon beamed with pride. Her hair was styled in the same short pixie cut she’d had when Naomi had first met her decades prior. That, plus her short stature, dainty features and wide eyes, made her look like she couldn’t harm a fly if it bit her on the nose.
Unbeknownst to others, she was all warrior, despite her wish to be peaceful. The battle with Sierra and her zombie Rogues a few months prior had proved that Siovon’s new life of peace hadn’t corrupted her deadly skills. Since then, her life had just…evolved.
For the better, of course.
She had been reunited with her sister after a ten-year absence, found the love of her life—in a vampire, of all things—moved into a lavish house and had her mate’s family to call her own. It wasn’t too bad for someone who’d once been an empty shell of an assassin.
Naomi was happy for her. She truly was, but she couldn’t halt the twinge of envy that always pierced her heart every time she spoke to Siovon. Naomi didn’t have any illusions of a perfect life with a perfect mate and an even-more-perfect family. Still, she couldn’t help but wish she could trade spots with her dear friend, if only for a day.
Hell, for just an hour.
She wondered how it felt to be worshiped by a loving companion, someone who’d dedicate his entire existence to pleasing her and keeping her happy.
An image of silver hair and pale blue eyes flashed in her mind, followed by a longing that she ruthlessly squashed.
I am not going there, she growled to herself. I am so not going there. Not again.
Shaking off the depressing feelings she’d been forcing away for weeks, she hopped on to one of the steel slabs. Her feet dangled from the floor as she waited for Siovon to retrieve the vial of medicine she’d come for.
When Siovon paused with a raised eyebrow to look over her shoulder, Naomi only then realized that her friend had been talking the whole time. She gave a slow blink. “What did you say?”
Siovon huffed. “Are you listening to me?”
Naomi shrugged. “No. Sorry.”
“I asked if you wanted to stay for dinner. Calysta is still with Keegan, looking for a jinn, and Lucian will be working late.”
Naomi widened her eyes in mock surprise. “The leech isn’t going to be glued to your side? I’m shocked.”
“Oh, trust me. It wasn’t his choice. I told him he’d have to find somewhere else to sleep if he shirks his duties again.”
“Ah, the old no-cooch-for-the-pooch threat. Works every time.” Naomi glanced around the room. “Thanks for the offer, but I have things to do. Maybe next time.”
“A job, huh?”
“Nah. My contract ended a week ago.”
Siovon looked shocked and froze in the middle of pouring some kind of liquid into a vial. “Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
Liar, her mind whispered.
The assassin’s guild had been her home since she’d been age nineteen. Though their methods of dealing with insubordination and failed missions were rather gruesome and painful, they’d saved her life. The vigorous training she’d endured had helped her become stronger, bringing her a long way from that frightened, weak little girl she’d once been. Killing targets for a living had become the only life she knew. And for a while, she’d been content, though that wasn’t something she wanted to do forever.
Oh, she didn’t share Siovon’s tender heart that craved a life of harmony and cupcakes and rainbows, not even a little.
Her past held a noose around her neck, and it was high time she faced it.
“Are you going to sign another contract?” Siovon asked.
“Well, what are you going to do?”
Naomi shrugged again. “Dunno.”
Siovon let out an annoyed huff. “You should consider working with me and Caly. We’re going to open a clinic-slash-pharmacy soon, so extra hands are always welcome. In the meantime, Cyrus is paying us an assload of money to find a way to reverse Rogueism among vampires.”
Naomi lifted an eyebrow. “You think you can do that?” Rogues were the class of vampires who had given in to their bloodlust. They were nothing short of rabid beasts, and since there was no way of restoring their sanity, Cyrus’ law demanded the execution of them on sight. Siovon had conveyed her surprise to Naomi about his request for her to seek a solution that would help those lost souls find their way back to their former way of being.
Frustration caused Siovon to frown as she glanced at a table holding several beakers containing different color liquids. “I’m not holding my breath on it, but I’m doing my best. From what I’ve learned about Rogues, there’s always some kind of trigger to make them snap—losing a mate, starving from lack of blood, being tortured, et cetera. I think it’s a brain function that clouds the mind with only the most basic needs remaining—hunger and attack mode, like how rabid animals are. I hope I can create some kind of anti-rabies vaccine and modify it to work the same for Rogues. If I can—”
Naomi opened her mouth on a wide, obnoxious yawn. “I get it. Nerd talk here, rabid Rogues there. Let’s skip the schematics.”
Siovon tsked. “Well, you asked.”
Several minutes ticked by while Siovon worked the finishing touches on Naomi’s medicine. It was a mix that suppressed her succubus needs. While she didn’t require daily sex to survive, like full-blooded succubi, if she went more than a couple of days without it, her body would start to turn on itself.
She always chose to suffer through it until the pain became too unbearable. She’d rather that than to give into the needs that had caused her so much misery in life.
Yeah, a sex demon who hates sex. Go freaking figure.
“I’m done,” Siovon murmured. She plugged a cork into the opening of the bottle and handed it to Naomi. “Seriously… What are you going to do now that your contract is over? You can teach a martial arts class, you know—show others how to fight and defend themselves. Luc’s brother Cassander owns a popular demon gym that’s always looking for skilled instructors. They even have cage matches once a month that have large-award prizes. Well, those fights are for men, but I’m sure I can talk Cass into at least considering holding some for women.”
When Naomi said nothing, only stared at the six-inch bottle in her hand, Siovon’s smile faded. She was calculating, and it wouldn’t be long before she found whatever it was she was looking for.
“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Siovon questioned.
Naomi pulled a small piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Siovon.
She studied the drawing with a frown, twisting and turning it several ways before glancing up. “What am I looking at?”
Naomi returned the paper to her pocket. She didn’t even have to glance at it. She’d spent countless hours eyeing the image, trying to figure out its meaning. It was an eye of Horus, the ancient Egyptian symbol for peace and prosperity. However, the eye itself was backward and flipped in a way that made it near impossible to tell which side was correct.
“It’s a symbol.” Dread settled like a cold weight in her gut. “A few years ago, I came across a man who had it tattooed on his shoulder. We were after the same target, so, of course, he and I got into a brawl. I won, in case you’re wondering, but he ran away before I could get any information out of him. I just let it go.”
She tapped at the paper tucked away in her pocket. “My last mark had the exact same tattoo on her inner wrist. She was a member of some demon group that was distributing goods on the black market.”
Siovon tilted her head. “Okay, so she and that guy had the same tattoos. They could have been from the same group and that symbol is their insignia. But what does that have to do with you?” She narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “Don’t tell me you want in on the underworld scam. The black market has some pretty twisted shit going on, Naomi.”
Naomi snorted. “I may be a killer, but I have morals—hypocritical as that may sound.” She shook her head. “I thought perhaps it was all just a coincidence—and maybe it still is—but I’ve seen this symbol years ago.” She sucked in a deep breath, steeling her nerves for the worst part of her revelation. “My mother had a pendant just like it.”
For several long moments, the two of them just stared at each other in silence. Siovon’s shock had been expected.
Naomi had once lived with her mother in a small corner of Tartarus that was solely inhabited by furies. All furies were female and pureblood, so long as they reproduced with humans, yet Naomi was an anomaly. Her mother had been impregnated with incubus sperm, though no one had known the truth until Naomi had reached maturity and her succubus side had come out. Her mother had been deemed a traitor to their kind and had been executed, while Naomi had been sold into demon slavery.
She’d been a snooping child when she’d found the pendant, but her mother had scolded her with a strict demand to never bring it up again. However, after coming across the same mark on people who might or might not be linked to a group of black marketers, she had to know if it was all tied together.
“I don’t know what to say,” Siovon murmured.
Naomi blinked up at her with a wry smile. “If you say something pitiful, like you’re sorry for my loss, I will hit you.”
Siovon flicked her bangs out of her eyes. “This is bizarre. Are you sure it’s the same symbol? If your mother was associated with outsiders—”
“Then it’s likely her death wasn’t because of me being born.”
“That’s not what I meant. If you go down this path, you might discover answers that are better left covered.”
“I’m aware of that.” She hopped off the table. “Siovon, I have lived with guilt for so long. I’ve spent years blaming myself for her death. I need closure or else I’ll never be able to move on. And even if don’t find the answers I’m looking for, at least I can say I tried.”
Siovon flattened her palm over her heart. “Naomi Sofia Morales, that was the longest I’ve ever heard you talk without mentioning death, torture or kicking someone’s ass. I’m so proud of you.”
Naomi rolled her eyes, though her lips twitched in amusement. “I’m serious. I need to find the truth.”
Siovon nodded and shrugged out of her lab coat. “Very well. I’ll go with you. It could be dangerous.”
“Oh, no, you’re not.”
Siovon paused mid-strip. “Why not?”
“Is that a serious question? For one, you have your own life here, and if we come across any danger, you’ll only sulk and complain if you have to ruin your newfound pacifism. For two, the moment you step foot outside Chicago, your pet vampire will come after us with his entire clan—and I, for one, have no desire to be in the company of Frosty throwing another one of his temper tantrums.”
Siovon’s cheeks tinted pink as she gave a small smile. “I suppose he can be a bit overbearing at times.” Her smile waned. “I just don’t think you should go alone. There’s a chance that other furies are involved, and if they catch you snooping around for answers, they may try to kill you.”
Naomi already knew that but hearing the words aloud stung. The only family she’d ever known had turned their backs on her when she’d needed help and guidance the most. After her exile, the council had threatened her demise if she ever tried to return—not that she’d wanted to anyway. There was nothing left for her there.
Good riddance to every one of those bastards.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said on her way out of the door. She pocketed her medicine and threw her hand up in a casual wave. “‘Careful’ is my middle name.”
“The hell it is,” Siovon grumbled, following her. They walked side-by-side until they were back on the driveway.
Naomi used the key fob to unlock her car door. “Have you ever heard of The Lotus? Chè tracked down an elf who’s a frequent customer there. He wears the same symbol. I’m on my way to see if I can locate him.”
“The Lotus?” Siovon asked incredulously. “That’s—” She broke off her words, a strange expression crossing her delicate features. It had been there one minute and was gone the next, far too fast for Naomi to analyze it. Siovon then smiled and stepped back. “I’ve heard of the place. It’s a popular nightclub that was opened a few months ago.”
Naomi narrowed her eyes. Siovon’s smile sent chills down her spine. It was far too wide, her tone overly sweet, as if she were plotting something. “I mean it, Siovon. You’d better not try to join me.”
Siovon laughed, waving her away. “I promise I won’t. Be careful and call if you need anything.”
Naomi still didn’t trust her friend’s sudden change of heart, but she nodded and slid behind the steering wheel. Seconds later, she was headed down the long drive toward the outer gate.
Siovon’s smile fell when Naomi’s taillights were no longer in sight. Still, she stood on the gravel of the wraparound driveway, staring off into space.
Fear and worry became a living force in her chest, but not because she doubted Naomi could protect herself. No, it was because her friend had been through so much hurt and betrayal that her journey could quite possibly be the one to tip her over the edge of sanity.
However, there was no use trying to change her mind. Naomi would forever be tormented by her past, and if facing her people was her way of finding peace at last, then Siovon had no right to try to intrude.
Still, the voice of reason always won in those types of situations. Naomi was her closest and dearest friend. She couldn’t sit back and let her endanger her life on a mission that could take a turn for the worse. There was no talking her out of it, and she’d just given her word to not interfere.
But someone else can.
“Please, don’t let me regret this,” she grouched as she retrieved her cell phone. She scrolled through her contacts until she found the number she needed. She swallowed her pride and crossed her eyes in frustration. “Please.” Then, she hit Call.
A suave voice that could charm the scales off a snake answered on the second ring. “Yes, sister-in-law. How can I help you?”
She rolled her eyes at his sarcasm, knowing full well her mate’s brother had been annoyed with her the last few months. However, she needed his help, and she knew he above all others would see to Naomi’s protection.
She drew in a deep breath before letting it out. With false cheeriness, she said, “Salvator, darling, how would you like to be reunited with my dear friend Naomi?”