Dark Debt, the eagerly awaited next instalment in Chloe Neill’s fantastic Chicagoland Vampire series, is out in March, and we’re very happy to be able to share the opening chapter with you today. The chapter originally ran on Chloe Neill’s website and you can read that post here.
A vampire never gets old. But neither do his enemies. When a figure from Ethan’s dark past makes a splashy debut in Chicago, Merit and her Master don’t know whether he’s friend or foe. But they’ll have to figure out soon, because trouble is brewing in the Windy City.
There were two seasons in Chicago: winter and construction. If it wasn’t snowing, orange cones narrowed the Dan Ryan, or lower Wacker was closed. Snow and traffic defined our lives as Chicagoans.
Nested within those seasons were the other activities that defined life for many in Chicago. During baseball season, it was Cubs versus Sox. During tourist season, you served them, you screamed at them, or, if you worked at Billy Goat’s, both. During summer, the beaches were open. And for a few spare weeks, the water of Lake Michigan was even warm enough for a dip.
Not that I’d had much occasion to sunbathe or swim recently. They didn’t make sunscreen strong enough for vampires.
But when spring rolled around and construction cones popped onto asphalt like neon flowers, even vampires shook off winter. We exchanged quilted jackets, electric blankets, heavy boots, and balaclavas for tanks, sandals, and nights in the warm spring air.
Tonight, we sat on a blanket on the grass at Milton Lee Olive Park, an expanse of green and fountains near Navy Pier honoring a soldier who’d given his life to save others, and won a Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. A burst of spring air had warmed the city, and we’d taken advantage, finding a quiet spot for a picnic to celebrate the end of a long, cold winter. At two o’clock in the morning, the park was definitely quiet.
Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House and now one of twelve members of the newly established Assembly of American Masters, sat beside me on a piecework quilt, one knee bent, one leg extended, his hand at the small of my back, rubbing small circles as we watched the lights of Chicago blink across the skyline in front of us.
He had a tall and rangy body of hard planes and sculpted muscle, and golden blond hair that just reached his shoulders and surrounded honed cheekbones, a straight nose, deep-set green eyes, and imperious eyebrows. I was his Novitiate and the Cadogan’s Sentinel, and I was utterly relieved that winter had finally weakened its grip on the city.
“This is not a bad way to spend an evening,” said the girl on the blanket beside ours, her striking blue hair drawn in a complicated braid that lay across her shoulder. Her Cupid’s bow mouth was drawn into a smile, her hand clasped in the long fingers of her boyfriend’s. He was well built and shaved-headed, with piercing green eyes and a generous mouth. And, like her, he was a sorcerer. He had a thing for snarky T-shirts, and tonight’s gem was black with keep calm and fireball in clean white text across the front.
Mallory Carmichael was my oldest friend, and Catcher Bell was her live-in beau. Catcher worked for my grandfather Chuck Merit, the city’s Supernatural Ombudsman.
“No, it’s not,” I agreed. “This was a very good idea.” I sipped from a bottle of Sweet Summer Blood4You, a blend of blood and lemonade that I enjoyed against my own better judgment. The drink was good, and the air was sweet with spring and the scent of white flowers that drifted down from the trees like snow, forming constellations on the new grass. Ethan’s hand warmed the skin on my back. This was as close to a day at the beach as I was ever likely to get. And it was a pretty good substitute.
“I thought some fresh air could do us good,” Mallory said. “It’s been a long winter.”
That was the understatement of all understatements. There’d been murder, magic, mayhem, and too much mourning to go around, including episodes that had put Mallory in the hands of a serial killer and nearly cost Ethan his life. He was fine and she was recovering, and the incident had seemed to bring her and Catcher even closer together.
Even the vacation Ethan and I had just taken—a trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado that should have been filled with relaxation, elk watching, and plenty of sex—had been interrupted by a century-old feud between vampires and shape-shifters.
We’d needed a break from our break, so we’d sipped and snacked with Mallory and Catcher on the goodies Margot, the House chef, had packed. Grapes, cheese (both regular and almost preternaturally stinky), thin crackers, and small cookies coated in lemony powdered sugar with just the right balance of sweet and pucker.
“You’ve been eyeing that last lemon cookie for seven minutes.”
I glanced back at Ethan, gave him a dour look. “I have not.”
“Seven minutes and forty-three seconds,” Catcher said, glancing at his watch. “I’d grab it for you, but I’m afraid I’d lose a finger.”
“Stop torturing her,” Mallory said, carefully picking up the cookie, handing it gingerly to me, then dusting powdered sugar from her hands. “She can’t help her obsession.”
I started to argue, but by then my mouth was full of cookie. “Not an obsession,” I said when I was done. “Fast metabolism and rigorous training schedule. Luc has us on two-a-days now that Ethan’s been upgraded.”
“Ooh, Ethan two-point-oh,” Mallory said.
“I think technically we’re now at Ethan four-point-oh,” Catcher pointed out. “Human, vampire, resurrected vampire, AAM member.”
Ethan snorted, but even he didn’t argue with the timeline. “I prefer to think of it as a promotion.”
“You get a raise out of it?” Catcher asked.
“In a manner of speaking. I’ll nearly be able to afford to keep Merit in the culinary style to which she’d like to become accustomed.”
“You’re the one with the expensive taste.” I gestured to the bottle of wine. “Do I even want to know how much that cost?”
Ethan opened his mouth, closed it again. “Likely not.”
“And there you go.”
“A vampire cannot survive on Italian hot beefs and Mallocakes alone.”
“Speak for yourself, fancy pants.”
“I’m not fancy,” Ethan said imperiously. “I’m particular. Which is actually a compliment to you.”
“He did pick you after four hundred years of wild-oat sowing,” Catcher said, earning an elbow from Mallory. He grunted, but he was smiling when he lay back on the blanket, hands crossed behind his head.
“You make it sound like Ethan picked her up at a farmers’ market,” Mallory complained.
“That would require Merit to eat vegetables,” Ethan said, grinning at me. “Could you differentiate between a rutabaga and rhubarb?”
“Yes, but only because my grandmother made the best strawberry-rhubarb pie I’ve ever tasted.”
“I don’t think that counts.”
“Oh, it counts,” I said with a nod. “That pie was sublime. I’ve got solid culinary chops.”
“My culinarily chopped vampire missed a spot of powdered sugar,” Ethan said, leaning forward, swiping his thumb across my lips just slowly enough to heat my blood.
“Get a room,” Catcher groused. He was grouchy but loyal, and had followed Mallory through her stint as a Maleficent wannabe and on to the other side. He was also unfailingly dedicated to my much-beloved grandfather, which gave him points in my book.
But I still gave him the much-deserved stink eye. “Do you know how many times I’ve seen you naked? You and Mallory considered the entire house your personal love shack.” Mallory and I had been roommates once upon a time, before Catcher had moved into the town house we’d shared, and I’d moved into Cadogan House to escape the nudity.
“Your”—I waved my hand at his body—“rod and tackle touched pretty much everything in the place.”
“My body is a wonderland” was his only response.
“Be that as it may,” Ethan said, “Merit is not your Alice. I’ll thank you to keep your rod and tackle away from her.”
“Nowhere near my agenda,” Catcher assured him.
Ethan’s phone beeped, and he pulled it out quickly, checked the screen.
Every phone call put us on high alert, because a ghost—or someone pretending to be one—had staked a claim on our lives. That ghost was Balthasar, the vampire who, on a battlefield nearly four hundred years ago, had made Ethan immortal and nearly turned him into a monster in his own image. Ethan had escaped his maker, made a new life for himself, and believed Balthasar had died shortly after he had escaped. Ethan hadn’t yet told me the details, but he hadn’t indicated any doubts about Balthasar’s death.
And yet, three weeks ago, a note had been left in our top-floor apartments in Cadogan House. A note purporting to be from Balthasar, who was alive and excited to see Ethan again.
A note . . . and then nothing.
He’d made no contact since then, and we’d found no evidence he was alive, much less in Chicago and waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc, to wage war, to exert control over Ethan once again.
So we waited. Every phone call could be the call, the one that would change the life we’d begun to make together. And there were so many more calls these days. The AAM was still working out the operational details, but that hadn’t kept vampires from lining up outside Cadogan House like vassals, seeking protection, requesting Ethan’s intervention in some city dispute, or offering fealty.
And vampires weren’t the only ones interested. Chicago was home to twenty-five percent of the country’s AAM members, and humans’ fascination with Ethan, Scott Grey, and Morgan Greer, who headed Grey House and Navarre House, had ballooned again.
It was a strange new world.
“So, not to interrupt the mirth making,” Mallory said, “but there’s actually a reason we asked you guys to come out tonight.”
“Who says ‘mirth making’?” Catcher asked.
“I do, Sarcastasaurus.” She elbowed him, with a grin. “And we’re here for a reason?”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “But I’m going to need that on a T-shirt.”
“I was just thinking that,” I said. “And you’re making me nervous. What’s going on?”
Catcher nodded. “Well, as it turns out—”
As it turned out, Catcher was interrupted by an explosion of noise, our phones beeping wildly in obvious warning.
I got to mine first, saw Luc’s number, switched it to speaker. “Merit.”
Luc’s nose loomed on the screen. “Sorry to interrupt date night.”
I grimaced at the image. “Step back from the camera. We don’t need to see your sinuses.”
“Sorry,” he said, leaning back so his nose moved back into proper perspective, right in the middle of his very charming face, which was surrounded by tousled blond-brown curls. “You’re alone?”
“We’re with Catcher and Mallory,” I said, then glanced around to ensure that no curious humans were eavesdropping. “We can talk. What’s going on?”
“Media vans at the House. Four of them. Mess of reporters, all gathered at the gate, ready and waiting.” Luc’s pause, matched with his drawn expression, made me nervous. “They’re asking questions about Balthasar.”
We went quiet enough to hear the strains of a lone saxophone being played near the pier, probably a song being sold for tourists’ cash.
“What questions?” Ethan asked.
“They’re asking about a supposed reunion,” Luc said. The answer made T. S. Eliot echo alarmingly in my head. This is the way the world ends.
Ethan’s reaction was as hot and fast as Luc’s had been cautious.
“Double the guards on the gate,” Ethan said. “We’re on our way.”
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him he’d be safer staying put than running toward whatever reunion this Balthasar had planned. But Ethan was a stubborn and careful man. He wouldn’t leave the House to face danger without him, and certainly not when the danger was a monster from Ethan’s own past. Ethan still hadn’t forgotten the things he’d done when he was with Balthasar, or forgiven himself for his own complicity. He was still looking for redemption. And he’d meet that opportunity head-on.
We said our good-byes, and I tucked the phone into my pocket again, tried to mentally prepare myself for what we might face—what Ethan might have to face, and the emotional storm that might rip through both of us.
And then I looked at Mallory and Catcher, remembering they’d been on the verge of making their own announcement.
“Go,” Catcher said, even as Mallory began stuffing food back into the picnic basket. She was playing the trouper, but I could see the frustration in her eyes. “You want us with you?”
Ethan shook his head. “There’s no point in dragging you into this debacle. Balthasar is dead; this is someone else’s ploy for attention.”
Catcher nodded. “I’ll tell Chuck, put him on alert just in case.”
“Be careful,” Mallory said, and squeezed me into a hug.
“I will,” I said, searching her gaze for answers, and finding none. “You’re okay?”
“I’m fine. We can talk about this later. Take care of your House first. Go,” she said when I hadn’t moved, and turned me toward the street.
We went, jogging back toward Grand and the tall man with blond hair who waited for us in front of a glossy black Range Rover with a license plate that read cadogan. He wore a trim black suit and a sleek black tie, hands clasped in front of him.
“Sire,” he said, bowing his head. Brody was a Cadogan House guard who’d been appointed Ethan’s official driver. Luc had outfitted Ethan with all the necessary perks, including the car, which was equipped with a complete security system, a small arsenal, and a comm center.
“Luc called,” Brody said, pivoting smoothly to open the door, one hand on his tie as he waited for Ethan and me to climb into the backseat. He closed the door with a solid thud, then rounded the car and slid inside onto the driver’s seat.
The car was comfortable, and I appreciated that Ethan had extra security, but I missed Moneypenny, my vintage Mercedes convertible. She was currently parked in the basement of Cadogan House, weeping from neglect. I missed the freedom, the quiet, the solitude of a good long drive—as most drives anywhere in Chicago tended to be.
Unless Brody was driving.
“May I?” he asked, meeting Ethan’s gaze in the rearview mirror, not doing a very good job of fighting back a smile. Brody had been a new guard, and he was still pink around the edges. But he did have one particularly enviable skill.
The boy could handle a car.
He was Chicago’s version of the Transporter—master of the smooth ride, but equally adept at weaving and dodging through Chicago’s gnarly traffic. Luc had given Brody a dressing-down the first time he’d ridden with him. But when the time came to assign Ethan a driver, he turned to Brody first.
“If you can get us there in one piece,” Ethan said, and managed not to flinch when Brody dashed into traffic like a cheetah in pursuit.
Brody just avoided nicking a cab, then slipped smoothly into a gap in the other lane.
I’m not sure when I’m going to get used to this, Ethan said silently, using the telepathic connection between us.
You’re just irritated you aren’t the one driving.
I have a Ferrari for just such occasions. And speaking of occasions, what was Mallory’s and Catcher’s production about? She’d looked upset.
I’m not sure, I admitted. But if it was really bad news, I don’t think she’d have arranged a picnic. There were plenty of milestones that might merit a picnic, but I wasn’t sure they’d put that look on her face.