This is for Molli, the fastest beta in the west—er, or anywhere, for that matter, and KA, for answering our horse questions even though she was on her way to Hawaii. As always, thanks bunches, ladies.
This is also for Joy, who is the only person we actually hang out with who’s allowed anywhere near Wilder.
Satira would have been on a horse and halfway into the sunset by now if the lift from the laboratory hadn’t broken.
Steam from a broken pipe billowed up from beneath the lift’s cab, heating the metal walls until sweat slicked her skin and curled wild strands of her hair. The furnace that powered the lift would burn through its fuel before dark, but that wouldn’t help her now. Not with the temperature rising and the new bloodhound due within the hour.
At least she had her tool belt. Satira pried the last corner free from the panel covering the lift’s controls and sent it clattering to the ground. The floor was hot enough now to be uncomfortable, even through the thick soles of her boots. She dug her teeth into her lower lip and eyed the tangle of copper wires, wishing she’d paid more attention the last time Nathaniel had tried to teach her how their elevator worked.
There’s more to life than weapons, my girl. How many times had he said those words, his gentle old voice chiding and fond at the same time? Nathaniel wasn’t content with life as a Guild inventor. He wanted to bring modern comforts to the wild plains, as if people who dared live along the border had time to worry about steam-powered carriages and flying machines when vampires stole through the night.
They might not care, but Nathaniel did. He cared hard, about damn near everybody, and it made it awful hard not to care right back. Especially when she shifted aside the bulk of the conductors and found a tiny diagram, etched in Nathaniel’s precise hand.
One phrase jumped out. Pressurized doors. Satira followed the diagram back to the coil that held the doors closed while the lift was in motion. A little more work with her screwturner revealed a tiny lever, and she whispered her thanks to her ever-organized mentor as she flipped the switch.
With the pressure released, the doors responded to the spring wedged between them and popped open, letting in a welcome burst of cool air. Satira dragged in a deep, grateful breath, then let it out on a curse when she realized the doors had opened with the lift trapped between floors.
Worse, she was staring at an expensive, dainty pair of heeled satin slippers. “Oh, damn.” Ophelia was too ladylike to kneel, but she did bend at the waist, tendrils of her long blonde hair spilling down over her shoulders. “Surely you’re not doing what I think you’re doing, Satira.” Wilder’s Mate
The floor sat just below eye level. Satira scooped up the saddlebag she’d filled with weapons and ammunition and hoisted it up, her arms straining under its considerable weight. “Can you help me with this?”
Her friend took the bag. “I’m not giving it back.”
“Ophelia.” Satira tucked the screwturner back into her belt and lifted her foot, balancing it precariously on the low railing inside the lift’s carriage. “At least help me get out? The floor’s getting hot from all the steam.”
“Reason enough to confine oneself to taking the stairs, is it not?” Ophelia had never considered Nathaniel’s inventions to be particularly reliable. Perhaps her concerns held merit, if one broken pipe could wreak such terror. Satira caught the edge of the floor and struggled to lift herself up without touching the too-hot walls. “Next time I’m sure I will. Please, Ophelia?” It wasn’t her friend’s soft hand that reached down and gripped hers. It was a strong hand, tanned and rough, followed by an even rougher voice. “You must be Nate’s little one.” Damn it all. The bloodhound was early.
He dragged her up to the floor as if she weighed nothing, deftly maneuvering her body so she didn’t bump her head or scrape her skin on the hot metal. After he set her on her feet, he stepped back to study her through narrowed eyes. “Why are you dressed like a boy?”
If she’d had any feminine pride left, it would have withered under that assessing gaze. He was dark and forbidding, a large man wrapped in the savagery of a hound. Some hid their other natures well, but this one… Satira met his eyes, and a beast stared back.
Not a man to be trifled with, which made the reply that tumbled free reckless. “Why are you dressed like a man?”
But he only raised one eyebrow in a slow arch. “You’re not going to fool anyone with that getup.
You’ve got tits.”
Ophelia smothered a noise that had to be a laugh, so Satira crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her traitorous friend. “You could have warned me he’d arrived.”
“You didn’t exactly ask, did you?”
No, she hadn’t, not that asking would have done any good. Ophelia would be pleased by the arrival of the one man who could lay waste to Satira’s desperate plan—if she let him.
She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Squaring her shoulders, she met the man’s gaze again. “Are you here to go after Nathaniel?”
For some reason, the corner of his mouth twitched. “Let me guess. You want to go with me.” The sorry bastard was laughing at her. Pride turned her spine to steel as she dropped her arms. Let him stare at her breasts until his eyeballs fell out. “Yes. I know more about Nathaniel’s weapons than anyone else alive. And I can use every damn one of them.”
“I reckon that’s so.” He nodded quickly, just a little, almost as if the gesture had been meant only for himself. “You do what I say when I say it. Got that?”
She’d expected more argument. Bluster, maybe, or to be told to put on a dress and mind her tongue. A fatal mistake, because it meant she still judged him as a man. She knew better than to ascribe a man’s motives to a bloodhound.
Agreeing to obey one’s orders implicitly was another mistake, but one not so easily avoided. Tense seconds ticked by as she listened to the blood pounding in her ears and wondered if she was foolhardy enough to step across that line, to trigger that savage instinct that would put her completely at a beast’s mercy.
Maybe not, if she hadn’t owed Nathaniel everything. For the man who’d all but raised her, she would risk her very life. “What you say, when you say it.”
He watched her as if he could read her thoughts. For a moment, she thought he might still say no, but he only held out his hand once again. “My name is Wilder.”
Ophelia watched them both with raised eyebrows and stunned disbelief that would surely break at any moment. Before her friend could protest, Satira reached out and grasped the hound’s hand, any self-consciousness about the work-roughened shape of her hands swallowed by the firm grasp of his callused fingers. “Satira,” she whispered. “I’m Nathaniel’s apprentice.” Wilder released her. “I know who you are. You’ve got ten minutes to gather whatever you need, or I’m leaving without you.” He tipped his hat to Ophelia as he turned. “Ma’am.” She stared after him. “He’s letting you go with him.”
There wasn’t time. Satira closed her fingers around Ophelia’s wrist and dragged her toward the broad staircase that led to the second floor and her suite. “Because I’ll be useful. Nathaniel is famous. Infamous.
We have the best tools for fighting vampires.”
“That man is the best tool for fighting vampires,” she argued. “You won’t be back before the new moon. Do you have any idea what that means, Tira?”
Satira stumbled over the first step, but caught her balance with one hand on the banister. “I lived under a bloodhound’s roof. Levi might have been old—” The past tense tripped her up for a moment, swept her away on a wave of grief, but she forced it down. Levi had been old, for a hound. His death was sad, but not unexpected. “I know about full moons and new moons. I’m not a fool.”
“So what are you going to do when he starts humping your leg?”
Her friend snorted. “It’s a perfectly valid question.”
They reached the landing, but there wasn’t time to pause and argue the point. Wilder would leave without her, and his mission from the Guild had to be to keep their new technology from falling into vampire hands. She was the only person left who truly needed Nathaniel alive.
She turned toward her rooms, dragging Ophelia behind her. “I’m not a virgin, and I’m not puritanical.
I’ve bedded hounds before.”
“Not during the new moon.” Ophelia yanked at Satira’s hand, forcing her to stop. “Be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”
Her friend’s blue eyes held nothing but desperate worry and too much experience for her tender years.
Ophelia never pretended that life as a whore was anything but dangerous, an unglamorous profession that might earn you coin enough to make a life for yourself—if you could hold it together.
Satira’s mother had held it together. Long enough to attract the eye of the bloodhound who bedded her every new moon, more regular than any clock. The beast inside turned men into monsters with the full moon, but a different sort of savagery came to light when the moon fell dark. Sexual hunger. Feral need.
Ophelia would know the answer to the only question Satira dared ask. “Is it violent?” Surely not.
Impossible to imagine Levi laying a violent hand on her mother. And yet…
“No, not exactly. Not like—” Ophelia bit her lip. “The physical demands are almost the least of it. Do you understand what I mean?”
Warmth filled her cheeks as she remembered the last bloodhound to take her to bed. A cocky young stranger, new to his power and full of himself and life. He’d still had an edge, an intensity that expressed itself with dark looks and teasing games. He’d plied her with dominance and control until she was ready to sob from the relief pleasure brought.
Her knees hadn’t worked right for days, and he’d been barely more than a boy. The man waiting downstairs was anything but. “I—I think so.”
“I hope so.”
“I suppose we’ll see.” When they were far enough from town, she’d simply ask him. It wasn’t as if he’d proven himself eager to curtail coarse language in her presence. If letting a handsome man between her thighs was the only way to save the man who’d raised her, she’d consider it a fair price.
She might even enjoy it. If that made her as much of a whore as her mother or Ophelia, her closest friend… Well, she’d been called worse.
At least she couldn’t be called a coward.
The girl came running out of Nate’s house with two bags and a harried look on her face. She’d taken more than the time he’d allotted her, and he would have left, had he not already chosen and prepared a mount for her.
He jerked his head toward the horse. “Saddled this one for you. What’s all that?” Color rose in her pale cheeks. “The things I need to keep myself alive against a vampire.”
“You lame your horse before we find Nate and it won’t matter,” he admonished. “Keep it light.”
Her jaw tightened, but she didn’t flinch away, just turned her back on him to see to her bags as she muttered something that was probably meant to be too low for him to hear. “We’re not all carrying around fifty pounds of muscle and twenty pounds of ego.”
He wasn’t about to let her get away with it. “Which is why you have to do as I say. It’s up to me and my muscle to keep you alive. All the newfangled shit in your bag there isn’t going to get that done.”
“So you’re one of those hounds.” Disapproval dripped from the words, but she dragged open one bag and began to discard things. One or two items she clipped to the wide belt buckled around her hips.
“You’re not interested in anything we have?”
“What?” The words startled him, because he’d been wondering how the hell she’d expected anyone to look at her and see a boy just because she’d put on a pair of trousers. “Weapons, you mean?” Stiff pride filled her eyes as she pulled a heavy gun out of the bag, hefting it with two hands.
“Nathaniel is the best there is. I brought this to show you, but if you don’t want it…” It looked like an automatic-fire revolving rifle, its oversized cylinder chambered with glass rounds that glinted brightly even in the afternoon sunlight. Wilder drew his horse closer to her and reached for the firearm. “What’s in the rounds?”