I adore the Dark Protector series, especially the arc of the Seven. I’ve loved Benny since he first appeared in this story and was so excited to get his book!
The smell of the earth, deep and true, centered her as she traversed the hastily created tunnel. It probably said something about Karma that she preferred darkness, muddy walls, and being underground to any other circumstance. Battery-operated lanterns had been dropped haphazardly along the trail, their artificial light dancing across the packed dirt walls, highlighting minerals she couldn’t name as she descended quickly, the swish of her skirt the only sound she made.
She bent her head, trying to stay in the moment and not panic at the job to come. One she was no more prepared for than she had been for mating a Kurjan general nearly two centuries ago. Or was it closer to three?
Taking a deep breath, she turned the corner and faced the cell. The cell that had been dug just the day before, in case it might be needed.
The male was sprawled across the ground, so large he could probably spread his arms and reach the cement blocks on one side and the steel bars on the other. If he’d been conscious. Bruises mottled his face and neck, while a wound bled freely beneath his jaw. Blood ran past his ear to pool on the dirt beneath him.
She couldn’t breathe.
It really was him. Despite the bruises, blood, and dirt covering his face, she recognized him from more than three years ago. He’d tried to pull her into a helicopter with him after he’d attacked the Kurjan stronghold where she lived. He was bad, he was the enemy, and yet…he’d saved several kidnapped human females from the Kurjans. The Kurjans were an immortal species more powerful than any other. It had been a miracle that the male before her had succeeded in taking those gifted human females away from the Kurjan nation. He’d almost taken her at the same time, but she’d fought him.
Had he thought he was saving her? Had he hurt those human females? Were they now in worse danger than they’d faced when captives of the Kurjan nation?
She waited patiently, as she’d been taught. The guard would get to her when he had time. The medical supplies in her pack became heavy, so she set them down, stepping closer to the bars to study the male.
Benjamin Horatio Lawrence Reese. He was a vampire-demon hybrid, large even for his kind. At about six-foot-seven, or maybe eight, he was as tall as many Kurjans. The wideness of his torso tapered down at his waist, matched by the length of his legs. His boots had to be a size eighteen, and his hands were big enough to cause colossal damage. Oh, she’d been hit before, but one punch from him and she’d be dead.
He could never learn how much she already knew about him. How she’d been preparing for this day for three years—since he’d tried to take her from another Kurjan holding. Her home. With the Kurjans, since she’d mated one centuries ago and thus had become immortal, even though she’d started out as a human female.
A see-through figure hovered behind the male.
Karma sighed. “Loti? I thought you’d moved on.” She’d helped the Kurjan spirit accept his fate after he’d been killed in a training accident, or so she had thought.
The kid, his hair black yet see through, rolled his eyes like any teenager. “I’m going now. Just wanted to say goodbye.” Then he stiffened. “The guards are coming. Good luck.” He wisped out of sight, and hopefully out of this world to the next one.
The air changed, and Karma stiffened as the guard made his way down the tunnel, his white hair glowing as he came closer. He was a Cyst: one of the elite soldiers and spiritual leaders of the Kurjan nation. A single line of white hair bisected his pale scalp, leading down to a long braid. His eyes were a deep purple tinged with red, and he spared her not a glance as he unlocked the cell and then stepped back.
She took a deep breath and entered, wincing as the coppery smell of blood assaulted her nostrils. Then she dropped to her knees and reached inside the pack for the materials that would
clot the bleeding wound. The hybrid must’ve been badly injured in the skirmish if he was still bleeding.
A ghost popped up in the other cell, and she ignored him. He was wavering in and out of her sight and would soon cross over; there wasn’t time to help him.
The second she touched Benjamin’s head, his eyes opened.
He was fully alert in a second, his deep eyes a strange metallic color. “Karma,” he murmured.
She drew back. He remembered her name? Nobody remembered her name.
“Do you need blood?” she whispered, leaning closer, even as the guard locked the cell door and disappeared down the hallway, leaving her alone with the enemy. Right now she was useless to the Kurjans, so if the prisoner killed her, they’d find a plan B.
“No.” Benjamin sat up, looked around, and put his back to the cement brick wall. His impressive body seemed to take up all the space in the cell.
She shook her head, her lips trembling. “You must be badly injured, or you would not have been captured. You need blood.” It would hurt if he bit her, and he’d have to be quick to avoid touching her skin for long.
“I let them take me. I’ve been searching for you for three years.”
God. The Kurjans had been correct. He really had been looking for her. He’d been caught twice and both times had asked about her, so it wasn’t like he was keeping it a secret. “The baby? Rose?” Karma held her breath. When Benjamin’s people had attacked the Kurjan holding, she’d gone with her instincts and forced him to take a toddler who had been kidnapped by the Kurjans—and she’d paid for that decision. “Is Rose well?”
Benjamin nodded. “Rose is fine. She’s at Realm Headquarters with a nice family.”
Relief and fear made an odd combination in Karma’s body. “Realm Headquarters?” The Realm was the enemy of the Kurjans. Its people were evil, or so she’d been taught. She’d always
wondered, because lies were everywhere. She held out bandages and antibiotics, although the wound beneath his jaw was already closing as he sent healing cells where they were necessary.
“I don’t need those,” he murmured, studying her with an intensity that shot tremors through her abdomen.
“I don’t understand why you would come looking for me,” she said, sitting back and keeping her knees covered with her dress. The Kurjan leaders had noted that this male kept showing up in different attacks, and he took ridiculous risks for a soldier with his experience. They’d been sure he was coming, based their plan on that knowledge, but she hadn’t believed it. Why would this male put himself in danger for her? “You let them take you hostage?”
“Yes.” Benjamin’s voice was low and rough, hinting at demon ancestry.
She rested her hands on the thin material over her knees. “I don’t understand.”
A bone snapped loudly into place somewhere in his body, but he didn’t even flinch. “Let’s start here. I’m Benny Reese.” He held out a hand the size of a frying pan, as if they were meeting at a village game instead of in a cell.
She hesitated and then slid her palm against his. “Karma.”
His hold and shake were gentle, and he released her before the mating allergy could hurt either of them. She’d been mated centuries ago to a Kurjan, and no other male could touch her for long without both of them developing terrible rashes.
“What’s your last name?” he asked. Another bone popped into place.
She jerked at the sound. “I do not have a last name.”
“Oh.” He looked beyond her at the steel bars securing the cell. “I was out for a while. Where are we?”
“In a temporary holding area where you will be kept until you are transported to a more secure location.” She coughed. “For questioning.”
His smile nearly knocked her over. Even the slight tipping of his lips turned his rugged face from dangerously hard to nearly boyish with charm. Amusement glimmered in his eyes for a moment. “Darlin’, I’ve been tortured before. You don’t need to trouble yourself about that.”
She had bigger things to worry about than the life of this massive hybrid. She allowed herself one moment to stare into his unusual eyes. Oh, many immortals had metallic-silver eyes, gold eyes, even copper or purple. But his were a combination of all argent colors, mingling into a hard-edged glint, even with the humor lurking there. In another time, she might’ve thought him beautiful. She’d learned long ago that beauty could mask the darkest of evils.
Vampires were bad, demons were bad, and this male was a hybrid of both. When he decided to kill her—and he would at some point—she wouldn’t stand much chance of surviving. Yet she still couldn’t comprehend why he’d come for her. “Why are you here?”
“For you. To rescue you because I couldn’t last time.” He stretched out his arms and healed a broken finger in his left hand.
His words didn’t make any sense. “Why?” Surely his ego wasn’t such that he’d risked his life just because she’d rejected his help last time. She wasn’t worth that.
He sighed. “I’d hoped to ease you into the truth, but here it is.” He held up his right hand, showing a demon marking with a jagged R in the center. The R was a crest representing his surname: Reese. Demons mated with a branding and a bite—the marking was transferred from the demon to the mate during sex.
Her mouth dropped open, and she hurried to shut it. “You’re mated?” Why did that thought nauseate her? How odd.
“No. The brand appeared when I touched you three years ago.” His chin lowered, and he studied her, towering over her even as he sat. “When you shoved me away and refused to get into that helicopter with me.” He didn’t sound happy.
She snorted and then quickly recovered. “Impossible. I’m already mated.” Well, she had been mated a couple of centuries ago, although her Kurjan mate had died shortly thereafter. Sometimes she forgot what he had looked like, and that was fine with her. “Your brand must have appeared for someone else.”
“No.” Benjamin looked down at the dark marking. “The mark hasn’t faded a bit, and it’s pulsing like a live wire now that you’re near.”
Oh, Lord. Her research on Benjamin suggested he might be insane. Dangerous and unstable? There was no way she could succeed in this mission. “Benjamin—”
“Benny. Might as well get cozy with me now.” His smile held charm and determination that warmed her in an unexpected way.
For the second time in her life, she let her instincts take over. “Just leave. Take an opening and find freedom,” she whispered tersely, her stomach cramping. “Forget about me.”
“Not a chance.” His gaze ran over her face like a physical touch.
Movement sounded down the tunnel, and she stiffened.
Benjamin tensed and set his jaw. “Get ready, darlin’. We’re about to escape this place.”