Dare Me

Dare Me

Parker Blue

September 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-323-8

Book 5 of The Demon Underground Series

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Someone is hunting shadow demons.

A magical amulet is trying to control Val.

A sexy cowboy vamp is tired of waiting.

When unknown demon hunters from a dark religious sect focus on killing Shade, Val’s ex-boyfriend and shadow demon, she has to bury her feelings of rejection and do her job as Paladin for the Demon Underground. But protecting Shade is more difficult than she ever imagined.

Shade is fighting his own internal demons as long-suppressed memories begin to surface. Lola, Val’s inner succubus, can barely suck, which leaves Val dangerously weak. Austin, Lola’s vamp of choice over Val’s objections, insists his job is to protect the Paladin regardless of Val’s opinion on the matter. Fang is distracted by the impending birth of his pups.

Val is distracted by Austin and the tangle of feelings she has for two gorgeously irritating guys who couldn’t be more different.

When she learns the demon hunters’ shocking identities, Val will need all her allies ready, willing and able to help her fight. Even with luck, the cost of saving the world may be more than Val can bear to pay.



"I love this series! I can’t help it. It’s so unique and fun and exciting! You know, I think Val, other than being what she is, is so human sometimes. She started out in the beginning of the series a girl, with a small knowledge that she has some demon in her blood.. . .It’s been an amazing ride so far and I can’t wait for so much more! . . . This one was definitely an emotional ride for me. I was so mad, then sad, then excited, then worried. And now, I’m still a little shocked but I can’t wait for so much more! And seriously Austin is HAWT! Like I LURVE him. Damn, I’m on team Vamper, which is surely not my usual pick LOL But after getting a few sneak peaks into POVs from Val, Shade, and Austin, I can’t help it. Having those POVs has made things so much more intriguing! . . .Val deserves to be happy, even if she has to risk her life all the time for everyone else, so I sure do hope we get MORE MORE MORE, SOON SOON SOON! I love love this series and I cannot wait for another great ride! 5 EXCEPTIONALLY PHENOMENAL PAWS!” — Happy Tails and Tales

"If you haven’t checked out this series you should! It’s very good with lots of great action and characters. This is a great addition to the series and I can not wait to see what happens next. Dare Me is awesome!
I give it 5 BITES!” — Books with Bite



Chapter One


I GLANCED UP and down the dark, threatening road, lit only by an anemic flickering streetlight. "Why can you never find an evil bloodsucker when you really need one?” I muttered. Here I stood, female, a mere eighteen years old, alone but for a small dog in a scuzzy industrial area of San Antonio, looking like a prime victim. Why couldn’t I get any action?

Fang, the small dog in question, poked me in the leg with his nose. Hey, you’re not exactly helpless with me by your side.

Yeah, but they don’t know that. Especially since we had the advantage of communicating telepathically. And I’m not exactly without skills myself.

Fang, part hellhound, part scruffy terrier mix, and all snark, snorted. Yeah, I know. But Val Shapiro without mojo is kinda like... a regular human.

As if I needed a reminder. A month and a half ago, on Christmas Eve, I’d had to use a spell in the Encyclopedia Magicka waaaay too many times to exorcise demons not only from my enemies, but friends and allies as well. Ever since, my own personal demon, Lola, had been weak and wimpy inside me. Hard to be part succubus when I couldn’t even... suck.

That was the disadvantage of using the spells in the encyclopedia. The more I used a spell, the stronger it became, making any other spells or magickal abilities harder to access. Weird balancing act, especially since I hadn’t been able to rebuild Lola’s strength yet. After all those spells, my succubus was only at about ten percent power.

And whose fault is that? my own Jiminy Cricket wannabe asked.

"Shade’s,” I muttered. Everything had been going along just fine until my supposed boyfriend, the totally hot shadow demon, turned cold and distant. No sucking any lusty male energy from him, not when he’d been in a mood since Christmas. And all I’d done was leave him with another succubus... because he asked me to. Men. I’d never understand them.

You could feed on Austin, Fang suggested, waggling his eyebrows. He’d be more than happy to be your studpuppy.

Yeah, that was the problem. The hunky cowboy vamp was only too willing, and it kinda bothered me. Especially since I enjoyed it a tad too much myself. It felt like cheating on Shade.

So, if you won’t feed on Austin, and you can’t feed on Shade, how are you gonna build Lola back up?

Well, if an evil bloodsucker would just show up, I’d feed on him. No guilt there. I walked down the street a ways, hunching my shoulders, letting my eyes dart around as if I were scared there was a boogeyman around every corner. Hello, anyone there? Helpless victim here.

Fang helped, trotting along beside me, his tongue lolling out for all the world like he was a brainless toy. So, with Lola down for the count and your strength and speed gone, just how are you going to fight any vamps who might show up? I mean, I’m good, but I do like some backup.

I have the amulet, I reminded him, fingering the crystal teardrop hanging on a chain inside my shirt. Dina, the power-hungry succubus who tried and failed to rule the Demon Underground, had used the amulet to enhance her succubus abilities many fold, even controlling men after they left her presence. With the crystal, I could enhance Lola’s abilities until I could get her back up to speed. I didn’t really want to use it, but I had no choice.

I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to rely on that thing, Fang said. You don’t know anything about it.

I knew enough. I glared down at him. Would you rather leave, go check on Princess? I’m sure she’d love that. After all, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was heavily pregnant with Fang’s puppies.

Fang shuddered. Gimme a break. I just escaped from her for a few hours. Do you have any idea what it’s like dealing with a pregnant hellhound?

I suppressed a grin. I had a pretty good idea. Princess was demanding at the best of times. Pregnant, she must be a real bitch—pun intended. Ah, poor Fang. You—

But I didn’t get to finish that thought as something big, strong, and incredibly fast slammed me up against a brick building. I felt a sharp pain as fangs pierced my neck. What? No foreplay?

Crap. I tried to fight back, but my strength was gone, and he had me pinned. And now that he was within Lola’s field, he was enjoying it waaaaay too much.

Fang clamped his jaws on the guy’s ankle, but he was wearing heavy boots, and Fang couldn’t get a grip. Fear surged through me, and I shoved Lola into the vamp, yelling, "Stop,” but Lola was too weak. It only made him pause for a moment.

He tried to control my mind, keep me quiet. Big mistake—his. That gave me access to his thoughts, and I realized what a cold killer Bruce here really was, how many defenseless people he’d murdered.

How could I stop him? The amulet! Concentrating, I called on it and tried harder. "Bruce,stop,” I commanded, trying to control my panic.

That did it. He froze, fangs still at my neck, then cursed and jerked away, swatting at his rear. No wonder. Fang had jumped up and clamped his jaws on Bruce’s butt.

"You can let go,” I told Fang. "I got him.”

Yeah, I know. But he pissed me off.

Fang gave one more shake then let go. The big bloodsucker stood there, awaiting my next order, my blood dripping from his fangs, and his blood dripping from his butt.

Anger surged through me, and I snatched a stake from my back waistband. Damn it, he’d almost killed me. I wanted to shove the pointy end through his heart but stopped myself. First, I’d drain every bit of energy I could out of him. I put my other hand on his chest and concentrated. Sinking Lola’s energy tendrils into his chakras, I let lust for my succubus fill him then tried to pull his energy into me.

It was like sucking molasses through a straw. Lola couldn’t draw hard enough, so I used the amulet to augment her puny strength. Oh, yeah, that was the ticket. The flow eased right up, and all that luscious energy surged into the empty wasteland my chakras had become. It was weirdly unsatisfying but more of a rush than usual. This could get addictive.

Val, watch out, Fang yelled.

Another vamp was suddenly on me, yanking me away from Bruce.

"Leave him alone,” she yelled.

She? Oh, crap. Lola wouldn’t work on a woman. What weapons could I use on her?

Oh, yeah. Him.

"Stop her,” I told Bruce.

He tried, and if I hadn’t half drained him, he’d have had no problem. Instead, they were pretty evenly matched.

Don’t just stand there, Fang said. Stake them!

Yeah, I would, but they were moving too fast. If they’d just oblige by standing still for a moment...

Instead, their fight shoved them into me and knocked me off my feet. Crap. I hated being so helpless, without the strength I’d leaned on for so long.

Suddenly, a blur whizzed by me, yanking the stake out of my hand. Another vamp had joined the fray, staking first Bruce then the woman. I scrambled to my feet. What the heck...?

I reached out to control him before he could turn on me, too.

I’d barely sunk my energy tentacles into him when he turned and winked at me from under his Stetson. "You don’t need to do that, darlin’.”

Austin. I should have known. I felt a pull from the amulet, urging me to yank the annoying cowboy under my control, but I ignored it. Instead, I said, "Oh, yeah? Dare me.” I yanked another stake out of my waistband and held it high in my fist.

He dropped his bloody stake by the vamps’ bodies. As it clattered on the pavement, he sauntered toward me, hooking his thumbs in the loops of his jeans. He raised an eyebrow and grinned at me, daring me in return to take him on.

What’s the matter, Val? He just helped you.

That was the problem. I didn’t want to be indebted to the sexy vampire, especially since he always seemed to be amused at my expense. When he was a couple of feet away, I said, "Stop right there. Have you been following me?”

He slowed. "Seems that way,” he drawled.


He moved closer, not at all afraid of me or my weapon. "Because you need me.”

Yeah, right. "I’m Val Shapiro, the Slayer, the Demon Underground’s Paladin protector. Why would I need you?”

His gaze slid toward the bodies he’d staked then back to me, inviting me to make the connection myself. He didn’t have to say a word.

Crap. He was right. I dropped my arm and tucked the stake back in my waistband. "Okay, so I lost some of my mojo. I’m trying to get it back.”

He raised an eyebrow again, now even closer. "By getting yourself killed? What were you thinking?”

I was thinking I was bored out of my mind. My roommate, Gwen, recently turned vamp without her consent, had moved out of the townhouse to live with the good vamps in the New Blood Movement. Shade wasn’t talking to me, Micah was busy rebuilding the Demon Underground, and even Fang spent more time with Princess than me.

Poor baby, Fang crooned in my mind. She’s lonely.

Oh, shut up. Out loud, I said, "Well, Micah hasn’t really figured out how to use me yet, and I don’t have anything else to do. Why do you care?”

"Because we—the Movement and the Underground—need you.”

"So why have you appointed yourself my protector?”

"You need me. Until you’re better able to defend yourself.”

I touched the wound on my neck where the vamp had pierced my vein. It was still bleeding. That had been close. Too close. Maybe he was right. Damned if I’d admit it, though. "As soon as I’m at full strength, I’ll be able to defend myself just fine.” That snack on Bruce had only added a little to Lola’s tank.

Austin moved even closer and looked down at me with a slow, sexy smile. "I can help with that.”

Oh, jeez. "I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I murmured, taking a step back. Unfortunately, that put my back up against the wall.

"Why not? You need to rebuild your succubus powers so you can be the Slayer again.” He placed his arms on both sides of my head and leaned into me, then licked my neck, slowly, sensuously.

Whoa. Sensations thrilled through me. Sensations I had no business feeling. Not with Austin. I jerked away. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

"Using my saliva to stop the bleeding on your neck.” He grinned and tried to look innocent. "What did you think I was doing?”

I gulped then glared at him. "Trying to make me uncomfortable.”

Trying? Heck, he succeeded, Fang snarked.

Austin gazed down at me, his eyes hooded. "I’m here. I’m available. Use me, Val.”

I swallowed hard and tried not to show how uncomfortable I felt. "No. You enjoy it too much,” I snapped and shoved my hand into his chest to keep him at bay. Sharing lust with my boyfriend was okay, and making bloodthirsty killers drool over me so I could drain them of their sexual energy was only fair. But sharing lust with someone I didn’t date and didn’t stake... it just seemed wrong.

He backed off, and his expression went blank. "On the contrary. I don’t enjoy it at all.”

Huh? Lola plus male equaled lust. No exceptions to that equation. I let out a disbelieving snort.

He shrugged. "Oh, you can make my body enjoy it, but unless you’re controlling me, my mind is my own.”

Confused, I asked, "What does that mean?”

One side of his mouth quirked up. "My body might feel satisfied, but no real man enjoys... that... without pleasuring the woman who helped get him there.”

Whoa. The sudden visual made my eyes widen. Oh, crap. I was in waaaaay over my head.

Now there’s an understatement, Fang said with a chuckle.

Austin reached out and fingered a strand of my hair. "Let go, Val. Live a little. Let me show you—”

But I didn’t get to hear what he would have said, because my phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my pocket and answered it, turning away slightly so I wouldn’t have to see his expression. "Hello?”

"Hi, Val, it’s Micah.”

"Hi, Micah,” I said, letting Austin know this was probably an important phone call. A phone call I had to take which meant I couldn’t possibly, thankfully, continue this disturbing conversation. "Is there a problem?”

"Yes,” he said, surprising me. "Someone broke into Shade’s apartment, looking for him.”

"Is Shade okay?” I asked.

Fang’s head popped up. Princess? Is Princess okay?

"And Princess?” I added.

"They’re both fine,” Micah said soothingly. "But Princess is a bit wound up. I need your help.”

"My help? Why?” Shade wasn’t much fun to be around lately, and neither was Princess. If they were both okay...

"Because you’re my Paladin,” Micah said. "Just come.”

Fang walked toward my motorcycle, shooting a harried glance back over his shoulder. Come on, let’s go.

"All right, I’ll be there,” I told Micah and hung up. Without meeting Austin’s eyes, I said, "Micah needs me at Shade’s apartment.” As if he didn’t already know, with his super vampire hearing and all.

"So I gathered.”

I followed Fang, saying over my shoulder, "You don’t need to follow me. I can take care of this myself.”

"Sorry, Val,” Austin said, not sounding at all regretful. "You just proved you do need help. Until you get your mojo back, you’re stuck with me.” Austin sauntered after me.

"Then who will take care of the bodies?” I no longer worked for the Special Crimes Unit, so couldn’t call on one of their pickup units.

"I texted Alejandro while you were talking to Micah. He’s sending Luis to take care of them.”

Vampires texting... it just seemed wrong somehow.

Behind me, Austin drawled, "And now, if you’re all out of excuses...?”

"Okay,” I said, not at all graciously. "I guess I can’t stop you. But don’t get in my way.”

"Wouldn’t think of it,” Austin said. Then deliberately added, "... darlin’.”

My back stiffened, and he chuckled. "But don’t think this conversation is over. We’ll take it up again when we’re alone.”

Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of.



Chapter Two


I HEADED TOWARD Shade’s apartment, trying to lose Austin on the way. After all, I was on my nimble Valkyrie while he had to follow in one of Alejandro’s big ass luxury cars. It didn’t work, though. Austin knew where Shade lived.

When I reached the apartment complex, Fang jumped off the motorcycle without even waiting for me to take off his goggles and ran to Shade’s place. I caught up with him at the door and took them off.

He pawed at the door impatiently. Micah, Shade, let us in, he broadcast.

Micah opened the door, and Fang and I entered, Austin somehow right behind us. The place was trashed, Shade’s beloved electronics tossed every which way. I tried to read Shade’s face, to see not only how he felt about the destruction, but about having me here as well. Unfortunately, the shadow demon’s expression was covered in swirling gray ribbons of light, like usual. Touching him would make him look like a normal human—a totally hot normal human—but he hadn’t exactly encouraged my touch lately.

Besides, Princess, heavy with Fang’s puppies, was broadcasting exactly how upset she was with the situation, the intruders messing up her space, treading on herdelicate sensibilities, endangering her puppies. Fang tried to console her, but the pregnant hellhound was rather enjoying her whining diatribe.

I couldn’t tell how much of it was true. "Was she really in danger?” I asked Micah quietly.

"Not really,” he murmured as Austin helped Shade pick things up. "She hid under the bed when the two men burst in, but they weren’t looking for her.”

"What were they looking for, then?” I glanced around at the expensive games and computer components littering the floor. Thieves would have taken those, so they weren’t common burglars. "Were they demons? Could she read their minds?”

"No,” Micah said. "But Princess overheard them talking. They were looking for el demonio de la sombra—the shadow demon. Apparently, she picked up a bit of Spanish before we met her.”

Princess had a skill? Who knew?

Micah continued, "Shade wasn’t here at the time, so I guess they took out their frustration on his belongings.”

"Is anything missing?” Austin asked, a battered keyboard in his hands.

Shade picked up an iPad with a smashed screen and sighed. "I haven’t found anything missing yet. Just damaged.” He tossed the broken tablet in the trash.

I glanced at Princess. Fang had one of his paws on hers and was nuzzling the spaniel’s ear. "Did they say why they wanted Shade?” I asked her.

She cast me a mournful glance. They want to kill my human, she declared.

Fear thrilled through me. Oh, crap. "Shade’s in danger?” When Austin cast me a questioning glance, I told him what Princess said.

Princess let out a snort. He can take care of himself.

Maybe, but if Shade lost his temper, bad things could happen, like popping the cork to another dimension and letting a whole bunch of rampaging evil demons into our world. "Why would they want to hurt Shade?” I asked.

I don’t know. They didn’t say. They got impatient and left, but they’re planning on coming back.

I wanted to question Shade, but he wasn’t real communicative lately. In fact, he was doing his best to act like I wasn’t there. I glanced at Micah, hoping he’d know the answer.

Micah asked for me. "Shade, do you know of any reason why someone would want to kill you?”

Austin raised an eyebrow at that, but I couldn’t read Shade’s expression since he was still all swirly.

"No,” Shade said. "No idea.”

Shade wasn’t the type to piss anyone except me off, so I didn’t have a clue either.

You must protect us, Princess insisted, looking at Micah.

That’s my job, Fang said. And Val’s. You can come stay with us.

What? Whoa. I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with Princess’s whining and Shade’s moods right now.

What’s the problem? Gwen is staying at Alejandro’s, so Shade can use her room.

We had the space, true, but... "Can’t Shade stay with you?” I asked Micah.

"I’ll stay here,” Shade said, biting the words out. "I can take care of myself andPrincess.”

Whoa, he sounded determined... and totally pissed. For some reason, that made Austin smile and quirk his eyebrow in disbelief. Annoying man.

Micah frowned. "But who will take care of that green cloud above your head?”

Oh crap, he was right. The gateway to the demon dimension was forming before our eyes.

"Stop,” Micah ordered.

Instead, the cloud grew, snapping with a miniature lightning storm, and scaring the crap out of me. Once before, I’d stopped a portal from opening to the demon dimension by wrapping my body around Shade, using Lola to distract him before he killed himself. But he wouldn’t welcome that now, and I wasn’t up for rejection.

Use me, the crystal whispered.

Without consciously deciding to do so, I reached out with the amulet to touch Shade lightly, ready to use it to force him to control himself if necessary. It was so easy, effortless, as if the crystal had an affinity with the shadow demon. Maybe it did, since Dina had used it on him before.

Shocked, I realized I could see his expression, even with no one touching him. Did the amulet do that? He looked like a tortured angel, dark blond hair falling into his eyes, and his beautiful face clenched in a rictus of agony as he fought to control his anger and the portal.

"Lock it down,” I said urgently.

"I’m... trying,” he gritted out as he fumbled with his back pocket and pulled something out.

Fear spiked within me. A knife. I knew it, damn it. Shade would rather kill himself than let more demons into the world through his portal and was fully capable of slitting his own throat.

I wouldn’t let that happen. "Drop the knife, Shade,” I ordered. "There’s no need to kill yourself. You can do this.”

I was about to force him with the amulet, but there was no need. Austin was suddenly there, slamming Shade up against the wall.

"Let me go,” Shade exclaimed, his eyes blazing at Austin. The cloud grew.

Austin shoved his forearm against Shade’s throat and used his other hand to grab the wrist holding the knife. "You heard Val. Lock it down, now, or I’ll kill you myself.” The vamp’s fangs descended, and his voice was so menacing, it scared the crap out of me.

But my outrage was even stronger. Was he trying to get us all killed? I leapt forward to yank the vamp away from Shade, but Fang’s voice stopped me.

No, Val, let it be. Austin’s ploy is working.

Ploy? Sure enough, I could see the struggle on Shade’s face as he fought to control his anger. Evidently, though he was willing to kill himself, he wasn’t willing to let Austin do it for him. Go figure.

The knife clattered to the floor, and slowly, the small green cloud dissipated.

Austin backed off, but Shade’s haunting blue eyes were still blazing. He was obviously seething inside, though he managed to keep the cloud from reforming in the face of Austin’s threat.

I gave Austin a nod of thanks. He just shrugged, smirked, and lounged against the wall, arms folded as if nothing had happened.

Remembering what we’d been talking about, I said, "See, there’s no need for Shade to come with us. He has it together.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire, Fang taunted.

Even Austin raised a disbelieving eyebrow in my direction. Didn’t they get it? I didn’t want to babysit Shade when he obviously didn’t want me around.

Micah gave me a stern glance. "You accepted the position of Paladin, to protect members of the Underground, remember?”

How could I forget? "Yes, but—”

"This is the first time I’ve asked you to fulfill your promise. Are you turning me down?”

When I hesitated, Micah asked quietly, "Do we need to appoint a Lethe instead?”

I winced. No way would I condemn anyone to that sort of existence—part demon, part vampire, and all nut job. Especially since the soothsayers said the only one suitable for the position was Shade. He’d never forgive me. Shoot, I’d never forgive myself.

"You really think blackmail is the best way to motivate her?” Austin drawled.

Micah didn’t take that well. "I’m simply reminding her of the consequences of her actions. What’s important here is Shade’s safety. I thought Val wanted that, too.”

Crap. He really knew how to twist the knife. Austin was right. Micah was trying to blackmail me into doing what he wanted.

No, Fang said flatly. He’s just trying to do his job, taking care of his people. You’re one of the best tools he has to do that. Don’t you want Shade and Princess to be safe?

Now Fang was laying a guilt trip on me? Yes, but—

No buts. You’re the best. With my help, of course.

Shade muttered, "Don’t I have a say in this?”

He sounded annoyed, but the anger—and the cloud—were totally gone. Then he glanced at me, and the pain and longing in his expression took my breath away.

Longing? My heart leapt in response.

Holy cow, it was like laying his soul bare without his knowledge—invading his privacy, since he had no clue I could see his expression now. Not knowing what to think, I released my light hold on him with the amulet. Sure enough, I could only see swirls again where his face was. Interesting.

"No, you don’t have a say,” Micah said. "Not when it means keeping the door to the demon dimension closed. Until we find and deal with the people trying to kill you, we need to keep you safe with Val.”

Guess I didn’t have a say, either.

Look on the bright side, Fang said privately. Maybe time together will help you and Shade kiss and make up.

Somehow, I doubted it. But one thing was for sure—something would come to a head. Maybe that was a good thing. Being in limbo sucked. Knowing one way or another if we had a future together would be better than not knowing at all.

I sighed, accepting the inevitable. Shade did, too, though he must dislike the idea as much as I did.

"Besides,” Micah added, "Shade can use the time to digitize the Encyclopedia Magicka. We need the information in case the books are ever stolen again.”

Was he serious? "You want to put the spells in a computer... where anyone can copy them to the World Wide Web and share them with the world?” What if evil mage demons surfed the Internet? The mind boggled.

"Not all of it,” Micah explained. "I meant just the first book, the one that describes demons, vampires, and other nonhumans, and what we know about them. Digitizing it will give us more access—searchable access—to it, and we can add other things we’ve learned. And it wouldn’t hurt to have Shade put together an index of the spells available to you in the other two books, either.”

"I can do that,” Shade confirmed.

Micah nodded. "We’re not planning on sharing them on the Internet.”

"That makes sense, but I’d rather not use the spells unless I have to,” I protested. "They make Lola even weaker.”

"No problem,” Austin said. "I can hang around to help with your... feeding needs.”

I glared at him. Shade and Austin and me all cozy together in one place? Oh my. "Not a good idea,” I said. "Tell him, Micah.”

Micah looked surprised. "Why? I think it’s an excellent idea. We’d be glad to have your help, Austin, if you think Alejandro can spare you.”

Austin nodded. "I already told Val I’ll protect her until she can rebuild Lola’s strength.”

"I don’t need your help,” I gritted through my teeth. "They’re men, right? I can take care of them with the amulet.”

Go ahead, show them, that small voice whispered. I stroked the crystal teardrop and called on its power, reaching out to Austin. The amulet made using Lola so easy, so pleasurable. All I had to do was slip my hooks into Austin’s chakras and clamp, and he was all mine. "Tell him I don’t need you,” I commanded Austin.

"She doesn’t need me,” Austin parroted obediently.

Could Micah tell I’d used the amulet? He knew when I used Lola. But when he shot me a suspicious glance, I realized he couldn’t.

No, but I can read it in your mind, Fang said. To everyone, he added, She used the amulet to force Austin to agree.

Traitor. He was supposed to be helping me.

I am, Fang insisted. By calling you on your bad decisions.

"You used that thing?” Micah repeated incredulously and glanced at Austin.

Could they tell by looking at him that he was under my control? To me, Austin just looked more relaxed... and quiet. Just the way I liked him.

"That’s crap, Val. That’s what Dina did to me,” Shade said, frowning.

Chalk up another reason Shade found to be angry with me. I allowed myself a mental shrug. What the heck—what was one more?

"Let him go,” Micah said. "We don’t control friends.”

"I’m just proving a point,” I said defensively. "I’m able to control him easily, like I would any other man who comes after Shade and Princess.”

Fang snorted. All you’re proving is that the amulet is bad for you. I heard it calling to you, urging you to use it.

"So? Why shouldn’t I use the amulet? Didn’t you just say we should use any tools at our disposal? This is my best one.”

Micah’s mouth firmed. "That’s probably what Dina thought, too. Maybe that’s why she turned into a power-hungry dictator. Do you want to be like her?”

No, but I was no Dina. Where was the danger?

You don’t need an artificial aid to protect Shade, Fang said. All you need is Lola. And me, of course. Let him go.

Looked like they’d badger me until I gave in. "Okay, fine.” Reluctantly, I released the vamp, but it was harder than I expected to give up that power. Having Austin around wouldn’t be so bad if I could make him do what I wanted him to. "But I’m supposed to be able to protect the members of the Underground without the assistance of outsiders... vampires.”

But you can’t, Fang reminded me unnecessarily. Forget about your stupid pride and do the right thing.

Oh, all right. I glared at Austin. "Okay, but once I’m able to build Lola back up to full capacity, you’re out of my way.”

Austin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Agreed, if you give up the amulet.”

"No way. I might need it.”

Micah shook his head. "It’s dangerous.”

"Not to mention it’s wrong,” Shade added, his voice sounding tight and ticked.

Yeah. It just made you want to use it more.

"Forget it,” I said flatly. "I’m not going to get rid of a weapon that might help me save Shade’s life.”

"I’d rather die than have you use that thing on me again,” Shade bit out.

Whoa. "I didn’t use it, Dina did,” I said gently.

"You know what I meant,” Shade said, not giving an inch.

Micah and Austin looked just as stubborn as Shade sounded. "Okay, what if I promise to use it only in an emergency?”

Micah and Austin exchanged uneasy glances.

"I can handle it. I swear.” Sheesh. What did they think would happen?

"We’ll try it,” Micah said reluctantly. "But Fang will monitor you. If it gets too strong a hold on you, I’m taking it away.”

Annoyance flared within me. He could try. Too bad the amulet wouldn’t work on an incubus, or I’d force him to do what I wanted.

See? Fang said. That’s the kind of thought you wouldn’t have had before. That amulet’s dangerous.

Was it? Maybe. Maybe not. "I said okay, didn’t I? I just need to rebuild Lola’s strength so I won’t need it.”

"Good,” Micah said. My mulish expression must have tipped him off, because he added, "You’ll accept Austin’s help, Val. As the leader of the Demon Underground, I insist. It’s your responsibility to protect Shade and Princess to the best of your ability. Using Austin is the best way to do that... unless you know of someone else who will volunteer to let you feed on them?”

I glanced at Shade, wanting to use the amulet on him, force him to step up. I resisted it... barely. With no verbal clue from him, I realized that I wasn’t going to get any help from Mister Swirly Face, not even to save his own butt.

"Okay, fine,” I muttered, then changed the subject. "Can the Special Crimes Unit help with finding out who did this?” Normally, the SCU only dealt with keeping the unaffiliated vampires from snacking on the tourists, but they might also be able to find a clue as to who was looking for Shade and why. Maybe even be there as back-up in case Shade’s would-be captors showed up again.

Micah nodded. "I was just about to call Lieutenant Ramirez.” While he was at it, Micah also called in a couple of his people to transport Shade and Princess along with their things to my townhouse.

"Looks like you’ll have back-up for a while,” Austin said. "I need to go back to the mansion, let Alejandro know what’s going on. I’ll meet you back at the townhouse.”

Shade and Austin and me, all together and cozy-like? Oh, joy.

Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to stop him.

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