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Chapter One

Lili would never see the sun again.

It wasn’t the first time she’d had that thought during her eighteen years on the earth that felt shorter by the second.  It wasn’t even the first time she’d thought it that night.  Barely five minutes ago she’d been cowering behind a giant mattress blocking a flight of stairs in the feeble hope it might slow the vampires who’d come to kill them.  The same men who’d been with her almost all of the other times she’d been convinced her life was over had hidden with her but in a less useless way.  Gabriel had rushed for a gun hidden in the closet even with his broken right arm.  His light brown skin had gone pale from the pain, silky black hair more a mess around his face than its usual neat curtains.  He’d fired over the mattress barricade with his liquid brown eyes narrowed in concentration.  She struggled to remember when in the few weeks she’d known him personally she’d seen Gabriel choose to use his left hand over his right.  The resulting blank had terrified her.

His husband, Charles, had pulled her against his broad chest and sheltered her with his body.  It couldn’t make a difference.  A vampire had the strength to punch through his chest to snap her neck if they were in the mood.  She’d just seen her auntie impaled through the heart and left staring blank-eyed at the night sky.  Lili had pressed her face to Charles’s dark skin, letting herself pretend it would help.  After having spent one shootout conscious and another totally out of it after taking a bullet in the side, she honestly preferred to not have to be aware of their looming deaths.

Then came the moment she had started to recognize in all these conflicts they’d managed to survive.  Help arrived in the form of Zachary Platt.  She felt a surge of relief at his deeply sad blue eyes and completely wrecked nest of raven hair.  He looked like he’d had a worse night than they had in his blood-streaked suit.  If she hadn’t known his tie had been white to start with, she wouldn’t have guessed it seeing him now.

For a precious, short blip in time she’d had hope.  Auntie Mara had been standing downstairs, paler than she should be but living.  For all that Lili’s parents were alive, her auntie was her only real family.  She had imagined running to hug her and hearing a few reassuring words in Tagalog that everything would be all right.  Then it had all gone wrong.

Charles had pulled her over his shoulders, hands gripping her right leg and arm to keep her steady as he trudged quickly through the shelf of the infinity pool then straight over the side into a section of the Hollywood Hills that hadn’t been meticulously groomed.  Before the mansion she’d called home for half of December dipped out of sight, Lili twisted her head to look.  On the lawn behind them a line of vampires stood between where Gabriel and Charles were fleeing with an improvised Lili-shaped backpack and a pale, wan figure perched on the patio stairs leading towards them.  She’d only had a few seconds in the house to notice the expression on those vampires’ faces.  She knew Auntie Mara and Zachary best but the same fear she’d seen in their eyes had been shared from the doctor who’d treated her in the desert to the immortal who was in charge of every vampire in Los Angeles.  Even the woman she’d heard had visions of the future looked grim and it wasn’t only that she’d been covered head to toe in blood.

These were some of the strongest people she’d ever met.  Between them all there had to be at least a thousand years of experience.  Despite that, her last glimpse of them looked exactly like a last stand against an enemy they couldn’t hope to defeat.  If the psychic thought they were doomed, Lili had to come to terms with the realization that this escape down the hill probably wouldn’t have a happy ending.

She closed her eyes and ignored the unhappy soreness emanating from the wound in her side that hadn’t totally healed.  It was just another thing she wouldn’t be able to finish.  Weirdly, even with all her brushes with death, she felt like this was the first one where she had time reflect on what she’d never get to do.  It was the little things that stuck.  Maybe because they were the ones she’d had some control over?  Stupid or not, she instantly wished she’d taken a little time to dye her hair magenta.  It’d been next on her list of colors to try and now the body she’d leave behind would have obvious black roots with a dye that had faded to a pale amethyst further down.  Anyone who looked at her would think she’d deserved what she got because clearly, she never took advantage of the time she’d had anyway.  This was probably what her parents had expected would happen to her when she came out to them.  Well, she doubted they’d picked vampires as the cause of death, but a young death wouldn’t surprise them.

It sucked that no one would know her death had been part of an ancient, supernatural struggle that went back to the two original vampires millennia ago.  Somehow, when she’d first tried to help keep a box of ashes out of the hands of a cult desperate to bring back their homicidal creators, she’d assumed she would go down as a hero.  If you fight the good fight that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Except Lili had never exactly fought the good fight.  She’d been kidnapped twice and shot.  The best she’d done was set a house on fire, which didn’t really offset the fact that she was now a literal albatross around Charles’s neck.

Plus, if that creepy, pale person in the house had been who she thought it was, they’d all failed trying to save the world already.  Both halves of the Fount, the beings responsible for all vampires, were officially back in business.  The first half she hadn’t worried about since anyone named Spencer who stared at you like they were a little spooked just from hearing you breathe was a hard soul to work up fear towards, even if her auntie had recounted the tale of the their one-person massacre in the desert when she’d been out of commission.  No, she’d conserved most of her terror for a monster who would start a war upon its rise between the progeny who’d stayed loyal and those who hadn’t.  If it had properly come back, the efforts to hide its remains and prevent this exact scenario all for nothing, then Lili would be one of the first human casualties.  She just wished she’d been able to contribute something before it all ended.  It seemed like the only human in this who’d really held her own, and coincidentally would probably also be the only one left alive who knew what had happened to them, was Prudence Whitby.

That was when it hit Lili that she hadn’t seen Pru with Zach, which almost never happened these days.  They’d gone together to the negotiations with the Las Vegas vampire reps, a negotiation that had apparently blown up.  She’d been the only person who knew where the Fount’s ashes were.  If Pru wasn’t here, but the Fount was, then there could only be one cold, horrible reason.

Lili squeezed her eyes tighter against the burn of tears leaking down her cheeks.  The last night of her life was turning out to be the worst one.  She felt Charles squeeze her arm reassuringly when her chest started to hitch with compressed sobs.  His voice was breathless from trying to run down a steep hill both safely and quickly, but he tried to murmur comfortingly all the same.  A few feet away she heard Gabriel let out a pained gasp as the bumpiness of their path jostled his broken arm.  She remembered watching it snap when he’d tried to pull the steel poker from her auntie’s chest and her assailant had stopped him with all the effort it would take to open a bag of chips.

This whole time they’d been pretending to be capable of going toe to toe with vampires when the truth was all they had on their side was luck.  A truth that struck her heart and made her sob out loud was that part of that luck had been Pru’s aim.  Without her they never would have lived this long.  Without her they wouldn’t live much longer.

A strong wind blew Lili’s hair into her face, strands sticking to her tear tracks.  Then a voice she’d been certain she would never hear again said, “Quick, hand her to me!”

Lili was passed into her auntie’s arms and not even the blood coating the front of her green knit sweater could stop her from holding on so tight she might have hurt a human.  Luckily, her auntie hadn’t been human for more than a hundred years.  She proved that by immediately taking off at an impossible speed that felt like being in a convertible with the top down doing a hundred miles per hour.  The wind carried the words Lili couldn’t help but say over and over again.

“You’re alive.  You’re alive!  I can’t believe you’re alive.”  She felt compelled to keep saying it, as though stopping would make the words a lie.  When they came to an abrupt halt in the middle of a quiet street, she’d just finished another repetition when she heard a mirthless chuckle in response.

“We won’t be for long if we don’t get the hell out of here,” a man with the faintest traces of an Irish accent replied.

Lili turned her head to look and was surprised to find that not only had her auntie survived but every one of their defenders had made it except Zach.  Her lower lip wobbled at the thought he wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world without Pru anyway.  She tried to concentrate on the people who’d lived.  Dr. Tanner stood near Charles, having just released the arm he’d had around his waist.  His wavy black hair looked particularly windswept around his chiseled features and dark skin.  The psychic vampire she thought might be called Jackie was staring off at the horizon with a frantic look in her whiskey eyes, brown hair falling out of its neat bindings and tumbling around her shoulders.  Most surprisingly of all was the head of Los Angeles, Liam O’Connor, gently cradling Gabriel.  His suit was in just as bad a state as Zach’s had been, which was a thought she needed to stop having before she started crying.

While she struggled, Liam was talking again.  “Jack, humans with you at your place.  The rest of us are going in separate directions.”  He’d always looked boyish to Lili but there was only command in his soft brown eyes.  She guessed more than a few centuries worth of birthdays would do that to someone.

Auntie Mara completely ignored that command.  “I won’t leave Lili.”

“Do you want to draw a hungry, indiscriminate Fount to your niece?  We’ve already made a target of ourselves by sticking together.  Her best chance for survival is not to make any one direction more appealing than the other.  Two vampires in one car would be the definition of appealing,” he said as he carefully set Gabriel onto his feet and strode further down the road.

“What car – ?” her auntie began to argue when a midnight blue Corvette swung around the corner onto their street at reckless speeds.  The screeching of the breaks as the driver came to an abrupt halt to avoid plowing into Liam rang harshly through the air.

A college-aged white boy stuck his head out of his open window, expression switching from relieved to furious.  “What the fuck, man?  You can’t just stand in the street.”

Liam rounded the car and reached through the window, pulling the now panicking driver out.  “You know, if you’d been wearing a seatbelt that wouldn’t have been so easy for me,” he noted as he dropped the boy on the asphalt.  “Start running before you get eaten.”  One quick flash of his eyes flooded with black and a hint of white fang was enough to send the guy screaming away from them.

“You’re lucky that kid was high,” Dr. Tanner said, urging Gabriel and Charles to the car with Auntie Mara following reluctantly.

“He wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” the woman Lili was increasingly certain people called Jackie said.  “Seriously, we’re doused in blood.  Anyone who misses that is too impaired to drive.”

Gabriel flashed an attempt at his standard charming smile.  “Making the roads safer for everyone.  That’s Liam.”

“As my favorite human present, you get the front seat,” Liam proclaimed as he threw open the passenger side door.  On closer inspection, the car only had two seats with a little space in the back where two people could squish so really, the only reasonable place to put a man with a broken arm was the front.  Liam quickly folded the seat down so Charles could crawl into the back and then looked expectantly towards Lili.

Auntie Mara tightened her grip.  “I can’t – ”

“Do you think I want to be parted from Jacquelyn tonight?” Liam demanded, waving his hand at Jackie who came to his side and caught it, threading their fingers together.  A little of the brimming frustration eased but the urgency stuck.  “We’re all going places we don’t want to be because they’re the safest option we have.  If she can’t be with her daughter, why do you think you should get to be with yours?”

Daughter was technically a more accurate term than niece, although it required a lot of greats in front of it.  Still, Lili didn’t think she’d ever think of Mara Navarro as anything but her auntie.  That didn’t mean that belief went both ways since as Lili was passed back into Charles’s arms there was an anguish in her eyes that she felt belonged particularly to mothers.

From there Gabriel and Dr. Tanner got in the car in a rush and they were speeding out of the hills at a probably illegal pace.  The tiny space in the back would have been tight even if she hadn’t had to share it with a super built dude over six feet tall.  The first time she’d met Pru’s friends she’d wanted to know them better.  She just hadn’t pictured this much closeness this quickly.

Lili remembered then how Pru’s face had lit up when they’d visited Auntie Mara’s antique shop, the warmth between the three of them as they’d hugged.  Her eyes spilled over with tears again.  “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

“Gone?  Honey, who’s gone?” Gabriel asked, pausing in the delicate task of negotiating a seatbelt across his arm.

The bottom dropped out of Lili’s stomach as she realized they hadn’t put together the same clues she had.  She had to tell these men that Pru, really more their family than their friend, had died.  “Pru.  She’s – ”

“Fine,” Charles interrupted, wrapping an arm around her shoulders for comfort.  “Lili, I didn’t know you weren’t close enough to hear.  I asked Zachary where she was when he showed up.  She’s fine.”

Dr. Tanner let out a tired, amused sound.  “Not just fine.  She turned up at the house with Spencer and baited the Fount into a fire pit.  She’s the reason any of us got out of there.”

Lili smiled so hard it hurt her face.  Of course, she should have known.  All of Lili’s rescues had required the Pru element.  This one wasn’t any different.  It also answered the question of Zach’s absence.  He would only want to be where she was.

“Then why are we splitting up?” Gabriel asked.

“Because the Fount can’t die,” the doctor reminded them.  “Spencer might beat their counterpart into the ground but that just leaves two ravenous hunting machines who could pick out every vampire’s scent in a hundred-mile radius.  You’re coming with me because my place is stocked with medical equipment.  Jackie’s going back to the ballroom downtown to work with VES and Liam’s heading to their ranch to check on their daughter.”

Lili wondered exactly how badly the meeting with Las Vegas had gone if Vampire Emergency Services needed help cleaning it up.  Then she got distracted.  “Wait, vampires can have kids?”

“Adopted,” Dr. Tanner said.

“And she couldn’t go to her daughter because…?” Charles prompted.

It was dark in the car but even Lili’s puny human eyes saw how grim the doctor looked in the rearview mirror.  “The Fount made its intentions of reclaiming a gifted, direct descendant of its blood very clear.  She couldn’t risk leading a monster to her child.”

When Pru got to know Spencer, the rest of them learned bits and pieces of lore from the time vampires were made.  Apparently, most were descended from Spencer’s blood.  Only a very few, the most wildly gifted and least sane, had come from the other.  Jackie had drawn the short straw on that one.  Lili would choose the ancient creature who liked old movies and boardshorts over the other Fount any day.

“I can’t believe Spencer worked up the nerve to fight,” Gabriel said, resuming his seatbelt struggles.

Charles shrugged.  “Doesn’t surprise me.  We know what it’s like when Pru decides you’re important to her.”

“Makes you want to prove her right,” Gabriel said with a smile closer to his glowing standards.  He trapped the end of his seatbelt between his knees so he could reach over and squeeze his husband’s hand.

Dr. Tanner’s head turned.  “Here, let me get that,” he began, lifting one hand off the steering wheel.

A car whipped out of the darkness and rammed them head on.  Both Charles and Lili were thrust hard into the leather seats in front of them, suffering no worse than bruises.  Dr. Tanner’s nose leaked blood from where the airbag had broken it.  Both of his hands had clamped back down on the wheel although there was no steering left to do.  In front of them all, Gabriel went flying through the windshield and over the hood, body dropping out of sight.

Charles was screaming.  Lili’s throat hurt so she knew she must be screaming too but her ears were ringing so much she couldn’t tell.  Dr. Tanner vanished out of the car with Charles close on his heels, careful in his climb over Lili even when she never would have blamed him for jostling her to get to his husband.  She started to climb out when a new person appeared on the driver’s side, peering in at her with purple eyes.  Terror locked her joints.  The narrow face and features of the vampire who’d kidnapped her two weeks ago glowered at her from a foot away and she couldn’t even squeak.

She’d known Jeremiah was in the city.  He’d come to the meeting since he joined forces with the Las Vegas vampires to help the Fount and turn the rest of the community against the resistance in Los Angeles.  She just didn’t think she’d ever have to see him, much less be trapped in a car as he menaced her.  It was the pick-up area of LAX all over again.

“Get away from her!” Dr. Tanner barked out before swiftly tackling him.  Lili did squeak then, debating whether leaving the car would do any good.

It was almost impossible for the human eye to follow a fight between vampires with any success.  They moved so fast it was like speeding through an action movie.  Two men in equally massacred suits grappled in the dark, a nearby streetlamp the only thing allowing Lili to see a few causes of the pained gasps from the pair of them.  Technically, she knew Jeremiah was older than the doctor.  He had more experience and power.  It didn’t look like anyone told Dr. Tanner that since he held his own, striking with fists and fangs.  For a moment he got Jeremiah pinned to the smashed hood of the Corvette.

“You should have run,” the doctor hissed through his teeth.  “Isn’t that what parasites like you do?  Flee to bite another day?”

Jeremiah lashed out, cutting deep lines in Dr. Tanner’s throat with his nails and forcing him back.  The purple in his eyes had been swallowed up by black as he growled, “She’s not going to win tonight.  If I have to cut a victory out of the skin of her friends, then so be it.”

Lili could see the violence more clearly now, which meant they’d slowed.  Jeremiah had the upper hand now and was being vicious for sport.  He’d come for them once he’d killed the doctor.  She looked away to try to climb out of the car.  That was when she noticed the outline of Charles creeping around the Corvette with a sparkle of silver stretched taut between his fists.  He huddled at the back of the car, poised for an opportunity.

Lili threw herself into the driver’s seat and hit the radio so hard she cracked the button.  Instantly, the former owner’s taste came in handy since the volume was set to earsplitting and the station featured an artist screaming about taking shots.  The vampires beside the car both winced.  Jeremiah stumbled back a step, hands beginning to rise to shelter his ears.  Instead they came in contact with the silver chain Charles looped around his neck from behind him.  He drew the chain tight as the vampire thrashed, the skin of his throat burning and peeling away at the press of metal.

Dr. Tanner lurched forward, burying his fangs in Jeremiah’s thigh as the sharp points sliced easily through material.  She saw the rapid bobbing of his throat as he swallowed.  Then Charles gave a pained shout, falling to his knees as Jeremiah’s elbow drove so hard into his side she heard the snapping of ribs.  He still didn’t let go of the chain.  It jerked the writhing vampire low, searing so deep into his neck his screams became gurgles.  For just a second, Lili saw fear in his black eyes.  The next thing she saw was an improbable twist of joints as Jeremiah ducked his head under the chain, tore loose of Dr. Tanner’s fangs at the cost of a large chunk of skin, and vanished into the dark.

The sudden stillness, with the exception of the radio Lili quickly turned off, felt unsafe.  She expected Jeremiah to lunge from the shadows and finish them off.  Instead the quiet dragged on until Charles levered himself off the ground with one arm on the car, as he grunted quietly, “Gabriel.”

For once, Lili was the fast one.  She sprung out of the passenger’s side, foot almost crunching the former owner’s phone where it had fallen on the floor as she hurried to the still form of Gabriel.  His eyes were closed.  The glass had left so many cuts across his handsome face she thought immediately of the desecration of art.  When she touched his chest, she felt it rise and fall with breath.  Still, even with all the noise, he hadn’t woken up.

“He’s not moving!”

Finally, the doctor caught up with Charles moving stiffly close behind him.  He peeled one of Gabriel’s eyelids back and whatever he saw had him letting out a displeased hiss.

“We have to get him to a hospital.  I don’t have the equipment for this kind of injury,” he said.

“A vampire hospital?” Lili asked.

“No,” Dr. Tanner said, beginning to gesture before pausing to straighten out a broken finger.  “No, the VES will have to clean up behind us.  We need a human ambulance as fast as possible.”

“I can do that!”  She thrust her hand back into the car, hitting the emergency call button on the college kid’s phone.

Behind her she heard Charles’s panicked voice.  “What kind of injury?  Is he going to be okay?”

“He hasn’t moved since hitting his head and his pupils aren’t right.”

“But… he’s going to wake up.  He’s got to wake up,” Charles whispered.

To Lili’s relief, the emergency operator got on the line with her.  She didn’t want to hear the quiet murmurs of symptoms and statistics.  All she wanted was to believe help was coming.  She wanted to believe it would be enough.  It had to be.  If not, she would have to face the fact that if she hadn’t distracted Gabriel in the first place, his seatbelt would have been buckled by the time the crash happened.

If she had to look Pru in the eyes and tell her she’d unmade all her efforts to keep them safe, it might just kill her.


The Balance Spring is available for pre-order on Amazon.