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EXPOSED EXCERPT

Chapter One

Stupid. So very, very stupid. Because only stupid people did stupid shit like this. Of all the foolish things I’d done throughout my life, this one took the cake. Only someone with a death wish ventured into Fuller Park this time of night. I kept telling myself it was my job. I had to be here. But that was a lie. My job had nothing to do with this. In fact, if my boss ever caught me here, he’d fire my ass. 

No, the truth was that I needed to be here. I needed to learn the truth. 

Maybe then I would find some peace. 

Movement at the edge of the park caught my attention. I ducked behind a bunch of damp bushes, wet with rain, and lifted my camera. 

Got you, you bastard. 

The second my target stepped into the frame, I started shooting countless photos of one Jeremy Allen—drug peddler extraordinaire. I held down my finger and engaged burst mode, recording him as he stalked across the sodden ground, as he came to a stop in front of a small playground and checked his watch, as he glanced down the street in search of whoever he was meeting. 

Easing off the shutter-release button, I peered over my camera. From back here, Jeremy looked almost…normal. Nothing about him screamed vampire. Not that I had any idea what a vampire actually looked like. Generally, my line of work focused on humans. Vamps rarely partook in drugs, let alone pushed them.

But recently, things had changed, and I meant to catch them in the act. Jeremy and his so-called associates had ruined my entire life, and I intended to make them pay for what they’d done. 

Which meant tonight had to go perfectly. I couldn’t botch this. 

I’d taken everything into consideration, including my location. Close enough to hear, but not too close to be overheard. A delicate balance when dealing with vampires. I’d also made sure to stand in the rain to hopefully mask my scent. So far, it appeared to be working. Thank goodness. If they found me…no. I refused to let that happen. This game didn’t end until I said so. Until every last photo of these murderous bastards ended up on my boss’s desk. 

Jeremy’s shoulders tensed as he turned toward the playground. Frowning, I lifted my camera and peered through the viewfinder, zooming in to watch as someone new approached. He moved with an elegance most humans lacked, more like a shadow than a man. Another vampire, perhaps? My informant had told me Jeremy was selling tonight, but not to whom. 

The shadow began to take shape, melting out of the darkness. I studied his length as he strode forward, the collar of his black woolen pea coat popped high enough to obscure the lower half of his face. But his eyes chilled me to the bone. Pale. Predatory. Hungry. Unlike Jeremy, everything about this one screamed vampire. The way he watched Jeremy with an unerring focus, how he scented the air as he approached, how the dim streetlight refracted off his gaze. 

I licked the rain off my lips, then snapped another photo, riveted by his presence. He slowed to a stop, his hands plunged deep into his pockets. The journalist in me wondered what he had stashed in there. A gun? No. Vampires tended to steer clear of those. Why bother when bullets were nothing more than minor nuisances? A dagger, then? I’d heard talk of ancient weapons forged for the singular purpose of slaying vampires. Silver daggers that expelled holy water. Nasty little things from the sound of it. Not that I wouldn’t have minded owning one right now. 

“You’re late,” Jeremy whined. 

So, the shadow was the buyer then. My stomach dropped. Why this revelation disappointed me, I couldn’t say. Maybe because he seemed too clean for this world. His coat was crisp and new, his hair perfectly coifed, if a bit wet. Compared to Jeremy, who looked in desperate need of his next fix, the shadow seemed more an investment banker than a user. 

“Deal with it,” the shadow growled. Damn, even I shivered. His voice rumbled like the distant thunder, barely hiding his disgust. “Where’s the package?”

Jeremy’s shoulder twitched. “Where’s my payment?” 

The shadow’s eyes narrowed. After a sharp breath, he drew his hands out of his pockets. Oh, he had something in there all right. But it wasn’t money. 

I focused my camera on his hands and snapped a picture of bagged blood. Ugh. Vampires. My lip curled. I should have expected the payment would be something more macabre than money. 

Jeremy let loose a guttural growl as he snatched the bag from the shadow’s hand. “This the right stuff?”

“Obviously. Now, where’s my package?” 

Jeremy lifted the bag to his nose and inhaled, his eyes fluttering shut. “Female, thirteen…and untouched,” he whispered before an odd cackle spilled past his lips. “Perfect.”

My stomach roiled, and my mouth gaped open. They were dealing in underage blood? Holy shit

“The package,” my mystery man snapped.  

Jeremy slipped an emaciated hand into his back pocket and fished out a battered cellphone. He flipped it open and illuminated the screen, then typed out a message. Even with my zoom, I couldn’t see the words. Once finished, he pocketed the phone and silence descended over the park. I’d heard rumors that vampires could go deathly still, but I’d never imagined this. The only sound was that of the light rain dusting the grass. 

After a few tense moments, Jeremy lifted the bag to his mouth. With a savage snarl, he tore through the plastic and drained the entire contents in three swallows. I almost gagged when the blood slid down his gullet and spilled over his lips. 

Oh, God. I pressed my fist to my mouth and drew in a steadying breath. The shadow’s upper lip curled into a disgusted sneer. So drugs were fine in his books, but not the blood of young girls? 

Jeremy drained the entire bag, then tossed the crumpled remains aside. His shoulders rounded with relief and he stretched out his neck as they continued to wait for the package. The minutes dragged. My knees ached from kneeling on the wet ground, and my fingers were chilled to the bone. Though it was only drizzling, the weather made this whole endeavor miserable. Images of a hot bubble bath invaded my mind, but that sort of comfort would have to wait. No hot bath until I delivered these photos to my boss. 

“This is taking forever,” the shadow grunted.

I nodded along with him.

“Where’s the package, Jeremy? Don’t make me ask again.” 

“It’s coming, man. Hold your damn horses.” 

The shadow lashed out. Jesus. He moved so fast. One moment, he’d been perfectly still, and the next, he had Jeremy by the throat. I gasped and snapped more photos. I knew vampires were quick buggers, but nothing compared to seeing it in person. 

I lowered my camera and stared at him. He’d finally stepped fully into the light, and his jacket collar had moved, revealing the rest of his dangerously handsome face. 

“You better not be screwing me over.” 

“Asher, come on. Let me go. The package is on its way, I swear.”

Asher. Well, at least I had a name, now. 

Sneering, he lowered Jeremy back to his feet, then grabbed his shirt and dragged him close. “If this is some sort of game you’re playing, I will rip your throat out with my teeth.”  

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. This Asher was nothing like Jeremy. His every movement telegraphed violence. I eyed his coiled arms and bared fangs and decided I never wanted to be alone in a room with him. 

“No games, I promise.” Jeremy untangled himself from Asher’s grip and stumbled backward. He lifted his head and shot a glance down the street. “There, see!” 

I shifted in the bushes, wincing when the foliage ruffled beneath me. I froze, waiting for the inevitable moment of discovery, my eyes squeezed shut in terror. Thankfully, no one’s cold breath beat down the back of my neck. 

Cracking open one eye, I peered through the bushes to find the two vampires thoroughly distracted with one another. No one had even noticed little ol’ me. Relief loosened the pit of nerves in my stomach, and I continued snapping photos. 

A third party entered the scene. The delivery boy, I realized, once I spotted the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. Wow, they weren’t playing around. Though, a part of me wondered as to the purpose of the handcuffs. Judging by Asher’s strength, he could tear the delivery boy’s arm off without batting an eye. 

“Geez, Devlin, what took you so long?” Jeremy whined, rubbing his throat.

Ignoring him, Devlin crouched and popped open the briefcase locks. I couldn’t see it clearly from back here, not even zoomed in, but I caught enough. Bags full of a white product. Salvation—or so it was called on the streets. Cousin of ecstasy, but I didn’t know much else. Only enough to make my blood boil. A drug meant to turn pain into pleasure, it kicked a person’s dopamine and endorphin levels into overdrive until nothing remained but sheer bliss. 

Even while a vampire tore out your throat.

Asher crouched in the street and cut through a single bag with his fingernail. He dipped his pinky into the product, then lifted it to his nose. I watched as his nostrils flared, but he didn’t inhale the product. After a single breath, he nodded and dusted his hands on his pants. 

“Good,” he commented. “Now, where’s the rest of it?” 

The rest? The briefcase was full by my estimation.

“Boss says you get more after he sees more.” 

“That wasn’t the deal,” Asher snarled, his nose crinkling like a pissed-off cat. 

“What, you think a single blood bag is gonna cut it?”

Seriously? They wanted more blood? Didn’t these vamps know there were places you could go to buy that stuff? A whole marketplace sold bags full of it. Humans were more than willing to donate for the money vamps paid. Hell, they’d created the Blood Courtesan Guild for that exact purpose. 

“Boss says this is all you get for now.” Devlin uncuffed himself from the briefcase and kicked it across the pavement. “We can arrange the next deal if you want. But next time, it’s gonna cost ya a hell of a lot more. Fifty pints.”

“And where the hell am I supposed to get that much blood?” Asher demanded. 

“Not my problem, brother. Supply and demand. You want our product? You pay.”

Fifty pints. If the human body only held approximately ten… Wow. 

“Where’s the payment for this batch?” Devlin demanded. 

My gaze darted back to where the crumpled plastic ball sat among the stray rubbish. Seemed I wasn’t the only one to glance that way.

“What the fuck, Jeremy!” Devlin shouted. He whirled toward him and struck, his clawed fingers ensnaring Jeremy’s throat. Bad night for him, it seemed. “You drank the payment?” 

Asher’s pale gaze darted between the two of him, though he seemed unconcerned with their spat. Instead, he reached for the briefcase, snapped it closed, and stood. 

The sound of the clasps drew Devlin’s attention. “Whoa. You aren’t going anywhere with that.”

Darkness whisked across Asher’s face. “Excuse me?”

“No payment, no product.” 

Asher drew himself to his full height, his eyes narrowing on Devlin. “In case it missed your attention, I did pay. Not my fault if your junkie there couldn’t wait to bring the payment to your boss.”

Devlin turned back to Jeremy, his eyes alight with an unnatural blue fire. I gasped and shrank into the bushes in an attempt to make myself as small as possible. I’d never seen anything like that. His eyes practically burned, the blue flames licking at his pupils. A sign of extreme anger, perhaps? 

With a guttural curse, Devlin gave Jeremy a hard shake, his fingers pinching his throat. “You pathetic piece of shit! What the hell am I gonna tell the boss now, huh? That you drank his fucking payment?” Devlin’s lips reared back, exposing inch long fangs that glimmered in the dim streetlight. 

I snapped another photo, capturing the monster on my memory card. The stories I’d heard as a child…of vampires and werewolves and zombies… I’d always known they were real, but seeing it in person was completely different.

His face thinned back until nothing remained but an irate beast. And then Devlin struck, fangs flashing in the night. It happened so fast, I barely caught it. One moment, Jeremy dangled from Devlin’s hand, the next his headless corpse slumped to the wet cement. 

A scream tore past my throat before I could swallow it. Holy crap! The sound echoed through the park, and I watched as the two remaining vampires lifted their head, their eyes burning in the darkness.

Oh, shit.

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