New York Times bestselling author Kerrelyn Sparks delivers the exciting conclusion in the Love at Stake series, where a Marine-turned-vampire finds love with the shifter princess forbidden to him . . .
Russell wakes from a coma to find he's become a vampire. Now he has a thirst for revenge. Determined to hunt down the master vampire who turned him, he's used to working alone . . . until he meets Jia. She is after the same vampire for murdering her parents and insists she can help Russell on this mission.
Reluctantly, he agrees, and sets up some ground rules:
Rule #1: Their partnership is strictly business. If he holds her a little too close . . . if she looks at him with those exotic eyes . . . well, that has to stop.
Rule #2: He's in charge. Jia isn't used to taking orders and questions every move he makes. So he stops her the only way he knows how.
Rule #3: Don't fall in love. But the kiss that was supposed to quiet her awakens something else in him . . . something forbidden. Because Jia is engaged. To someone else.
Book 16 will see the end of Master Han. Killing him for Christmas is my gift to you all!! Since there will be peace in the vampire world, I'm taking a vacation from the gang and letting them be happy for a while. I do have some other ideas for them, so the halt will probably be temporary. Meanwhile, I have some other ideas that have been bugging me, so I'd like to give them a try. I truly appreciate all the support and love for the series, and I hope you’ll join me for some new adventures!
“Sparks brings the 16-book Love at Stake paranormal romance series to a deeply satisfying, delightfully swoon-inducing close….As Russell and Jia team up, their relationship grows organically into a rich romance full of vulnerability and tenderness. The detailed story is filled with callbacks to the earlier books, but first-time readers will have no trouble picking things up, while fans will want to go back and savor the entire series from the beginning.”
Publishers Weekly *Starred* Review
Shrouded in the dark, and half hidden behind the thick trunk of an oak tree, Russell Ryan Hankelburg carefully aligned the trajectory of his arrow to the exposed neck of Master Han. Steady, Russell reminded himself in response to the adrenaline pounding through his veins. No point in acting like a human. He wasn’t one. Han had made sure of that, and now the bastard would die for it.
For over two years, through hot, humid jungle and over cold, windblown hills, Russell had tracked his prey. Finally, in the next few seconds it would all be over. His quest for revenge. The culmination of all his rage, the vindication for all he had lost, and the sole purpose for his sorry undead existence.
The clearing where Han stood was about fifty yards away, and a dozen guards stood around the perimeter, four of them holding torches. The flames licked at the overcast night sky and flickered off the polished gold of Master Han’s mask. How many times had Russell envisioned ripping the ridiculous piece of metal off the evil vampire’s head? In the best-case scenario, he imagined tearing it off before delivering the final blow so he could watch Han’s face as the Master Bastard realized death was only seconds away.
What good was revenge if it wasn’t acknowledged? Han needed to know that it was Russell who would end his life and turn him to dust.
Han stood at the far side of the clearing, outside the wooden palisade of a camp in northern Myanmar. He was wearing a black Kevlar vest over his red silk robe to protect his heart. If Russell’s arrow failed to pierce the vest enough to kill Han, the bastard would simply teleport away.
Fortunately there was more than one way to kill a vampire. So Russell aimed at the neck instead of the heart, hoping that a ripped carotid artery would incapacitate Han enough to keep him from escaping. Then Russell could teleport straight to him, rip off the mask, and sever Han’s head with one final swing of his sword.
The dozen armed guards were probably supersoldiers, mutated by Han’s demon buddy, Darafer, and they were going to be a problem. Even so, Russell couldn’t take them out first. Their deaths would alert Han, and the cowardly cretin would teleport away like the last few times Russell had come close to killing him.
Russell gritted his teeth with impatience. So close, but still unable to shoot. Han was standing next to the kidnapped dragon shifter, practically hugging him as he taught the young captive the proper stance for drawing back a bow. With a silent curse, Russell lifted his finger off the trigger of his crossbow.
He’d seen the boy once before, so he recognized him. Since dragon shifters aged twice as fast as mortals, Xiao Fang looked about twelve years old. In mortal years, he was only six. Russell wasn’t sure what the kid’s mental age was, but he was certainly young enough to have been traumatized by recent events. Darafer had captured the dragon boy over two months ago and delivered him to Han. Since then, Russell had been spying on all thirty of Han’s camps, hoping to catch a glimpse of Han and the boy.
It was extremely rare to see Han outside one of his encampments, but apparently he’d made an exception for the boy. He was giving Xiao Fang an archery lesson and playing the role of a father figure, no doubt to win the young dragon shifter to his side.
The sad reality was that the strategy might work. Away from his home for over two months, the boy could have fallen prey to the Stockholm syndrome, so that he was now identifying with one of his captors. Master Han probably seemed the safer choice. Safer than the demon Darafer, for sure. And here was Han patting the kid on the back and giving him words of encouragement.
It made Russell’s stomach churn with disgust. For a second, he considered teleporting straight to the boy, nabbing him, and taking him to Tiger Town, where he would be safe. The good Vamps were gathered there with their allies, the were-tigers, anxiously awaiting their chance to rescue the dragon boy and defeat Master Han. One phone call and Russell could have a dozen Vamps and shifters by his side.
But wait. Han was stepping back to let Xiao Fang take his shot. It might be another two years before Russell got a chance like this. His first priority had to be killing Han. In the ensuing chaos, the boy could easily be rescued. And this situation was ideal, since Han and his supersoldiers were all standing perfectly still so as not to disturb the boy’s concentration.
Russell eased his finger back onto the trigger. Die, you bastard.
One of the guards jerked suddenly. As he fell forward onto his face, the soldier next to him stiffened with a cry, then crumbled to his knees.
What the hell? Russell barely had time to spot the knives protruding from the fallen soldiers’ backs when Han jumped on the boy, pushing him down onto the ground. A third knife whizzed past where Han had been standing, embedding itself with a thunk in a tree.
The remaining soldiers shouted, immediately drawing their swords. Han vanished, taking the dragon boy with him.
Damn it to hell! Russell fumed silently. Who were these assholes who had ruined his plans? From the speed and accuracy of the attack, he assumed there were two knife throwers. Maybe three. Whoever they were, they might have trouble escaping the superfast soldiers who were giving chase.
Not my problem, he told himself. The attackers had destroyed the best chance he’d had in a long time. If they were all murdered in the next few minutes, they would never have a chance to interfere with him again.
With a groan, he rested his head against the tree trunk. When had he become such an uncaring prick? Even though he’d been stripped of his humanity, did that mean he had to act like a heartless monster? The attackers were clearly on the same side he was. That made them allies in the war against Master Han.
Damn, but he hated having allies. As long as he was alone, he had nothing to lose.
Maybe the attackers were guys he knew, like J.L. Wang and Rajiv, and in that case, vampire J.L. would have teleported his were-tiger buddy out of danger. But knife throwing was not J.L.’s style. He would have used a rifle or handgun. And he would have wounded the soldiers instead of killing them.
If the attackers were mortal, they wouldn’t stand a chance against ten supersoldiers. An old vestige of Marine honor pricked at Russell’s undead heart. You don’t leave men behind.
“Dammit,” he muttered, hitching the leather sling of the crossbow onto his shoulder.
He levitated to the top of the tree. The soldiers were easy to spot, since four of them were still carrying torches. The four flames of light were weaving through the forest at a speed faster than any mortal could achieve.
He focused on the tree line ahead of the lights, then teleported there. Perched high in a tree, he searched the ground below for movement. Even though the sky was dark and overcast, his superior night vision spotted a runner, lean and lithe, maintaining a fast pace, but not quick enough to outdistance the soldiers.
Only one? He scanned a wide area in case the attackers had fanned out. No, only one was running. Had the others hidden themselves, leaving this one to draw away the heat? A quick glance back verified that the soldiers were gaining on him. Ten against one. It would be a slaughter.
He teleported again to get a closer look at the runner and nearly fell off the tree branch. It was a woman. Her tunic-length top was cinched tightly around her narrow waist. A thick braid of long black hair swayed back and forth as she ran.
Was she one of the warrior women of Beyul-La? They all possessed long black hair and were lean and athletic, like this woman. The warriors of Beyul-La were the guardians of the dragon shifters and had kept them hidden for centuries in a secret valley in the Himalayas. After a battle with Master Han, their valley had been destroyed. Fortunately, the remaining dragon children and eggs had been safely whisked away before the battle. No doubt the women were eager to rescue the captured boy, Xiao Fang. Russell had fought alongside the women before, so he knew how fierce they could be. This one definitely had balls, for it looked like she’d attacked Han single-handedly.
He glanced back. The ten supersoldiers were closing in. Time to slow them down. He shot an arrow at one holding a torch, and the soldier let out a yelp and fell over, his torch tumbling to the ground.
The flames quickly spread, drawing the attention of the other guards. One of them kicked the fallen soldier into the flames to smother them.
What a shithead. Russell notched another arrow into his crossbow as the fallen soldier thrashed and screamed. A second later, his arrow put the burning soldier out of his misery, and three seconds later, another arrow took out the shithead.
“It’s an ambush!” one of the supersoldiers yelled as he dove behind a tree.
The other soldiers scrambled for cover and quickly extinguished the torches. A dark, tense silence fell over the forest.
Russell readied another arrow, waiting for one of the eight remaining soldiers to venture out. A quick glance toward the woman, and he groaned inwardly. Instead of running, she’d crouched behind some bushes. His sudden appearance must have confused her. She was breathing heavily, twisting this way and that in a frantic attempt to discern his location.
Just run away, he pleaded with her silently. I have this covered.
From her belt, she pulled out a knife. Apparently she was afraid to trust him. He couldn’t blame her. If you trusted no one, you tended to live longer.
He turned his attention back to the eight soldiers. On the far left, one darted to the cover of another tree, too quickly for Russell to take him out. He aimed an arrow at him, waiting for him to make another move. Meanwhile, to the right, another soldier dashed to a tree. The group was obviously trying to surround the woman, and eventually they would if she didn’t make a run for it.
The guy to the far left made another move, and this time, Russell wounded him in the shoulder. He was still alive, but his sword arm would be useless.
Rustling sounds emanated from bushes and trees as the remaining seven soldiers attempted to encircle their prey. The woman slipped her knife back into its sheath, then leaped from her crouch into a full sprint. Russell paused a second, amazed by her speed and grace, but quickly came to when he realized the soldiers were dashing after her. He shot one with an arrow, then noticed another aiming a pistol in his direction. Just as the sound of gunfire echoed through the woods, he teleported away and landed in a tree ahead of the woman.
The six remaining soldiers were gaining on her fast. Enough of this nonsense. Just get her out of here.
He jumped down to the base of the tree. Hidden behind it, he could hear her approaching. Her steps were light, as if she barely needed the ground, but her breathing was louder and tinged with panic. He stepped out, directly into her path.
Her night vision was excellent, for she spotted him immediately and skidded to a stop so fast that she fell back onto her rump.
Russell lifted his empty hands to show her he meant no harm, but within a second, she was back on her feet with her knife drawn and pointed at him. Once again, he was amazed by her speed and gracefulness.
“Friend,” he whispered in Chinese. Her face was partially blocked by her raised knife, and he tilted his head to get a better look.
She pivoted to check on the soldiers behind her. When Russell stepped closer, she whipped around to face him.
He blinked. She was stunning. And not one of the warrior women of Beyul-La. If he’d ever met this woman before, he would have remembered her.
Her golden eyes widened as she looked him over.
Who the hell was she? “Friend,” he repeated and motioned to the crossbow on his shoulder. “I helped you.”
She sheathed her knife but retained her grip on the handle. Apparently, she wasn’t ready to completely trust him. Smart girl. He was still tempted to wring her neck.
The glint of metal behind a bush caught his eye and he grabbed her, pulling her behind the tree with vampire speed as a knife whooshed toward them. With his back pressed against the trunk, he felt the tree shudder with the knife’s impact.
“Let me go,” the woman whispered, tugging at his grip.
He considered complying. After all, she wasn’t his problem. And she’d destroyed the best chance he’d had at killing Han in over two years.
I am not responsible for her, he thought, but he made the mistake of looking at her. Big, golden eyes, flickering with emotion. A beautiful face, vibrant and alive. Delicate, but determined. He had a feeling she was near panic but holding it together with sheer willpower and courage. Something twisted in his undead heart.
I’m going to regret this. He tightened his hold on her, then teleported, taking her with him.