Chapter Twenty-Four

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Trees swam above me, their interlocking branches like giant black hands. I blinked, dazed. What was I doing on the ground? I tried to sit up and pain exploded through my chin. Something wet trickled from my lip.

Recollection flooded back – the black-clad figure – the punch –

I looked up.

She stood over me, one hand on her hip like she was posing for a photo. I couldn't see her face, but I knew it was her – the mysterious vampire who'd sworn to destroy me. She tipped back her hood at last, and my eyes widened.

"Wait," I mumbled around the pain in my mouth. "I know you."

The blonde woman from the diner, who'd called for my attention when I started zoning out during my first shift at the Waffle House, stared down at me. She'd looked warm and friendly that evening when I'd taken her order, but now her face might have been carved from marble, her eyes plucked from the heart of a glacier.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

She prowled around me like a tiger sizing up its prey. "My name is Rachel."

That meant nothing to me. "What do you want?"

A feral grin split her face. "You, little vampire hunter. I want you."

I wanted to get up, but I felt like I was facing down a wild animal. Staying still seemed like the safer option. "I'm not a vampire hunter, not anymore," I said.

She tossed her head back and laughed. "Leopards do not change their spots, Kiara Morrow, and nor do vampire hunters."

I remembered Noah saying something similar once about Caleb – about how hunting was in his blood and he could never truly give it up. But I wasn't Caleb. I could – had – given it up, and not once had I regretted it.

Somewhere in the distance I heard Ethan calling my name, but I couldn't tear my eyes away from Rachel.

"I came to Dalwick to find you, little Kiara." Rachel eyed me as if I was a specimen in a Petri dish and she couldn't decide whether I revolted her or fascinated her. "I've heard all about the hunter shacking up with the vampire, and I'm here to put an end to it."

Questions flew through my mind, and I grabbed the first one I could. "Heard from who?"

"Quite fascinating, really," Rachel said. "Not long ago, I encountered some clan-less vampires who were fleeing from hunters in Dalwick. They informed me they'd been working under the vampire, Madeleine, in an attempt to bring down these hunters. They also informed me about the little girl who thought she could slither into a vampire clan and infect them with her humanity." She spat the last word.

I closed my eyes. Madeleine. I'd known that some of her rogues escaped after that last fight, but since there'd been no casualties on our side, it had seemed best to leave those escapees to start a new life somewhere. Going after them just seemed like inviting trouble. I'd thought it was the right thing to do – the merciful thing to do, and that decision had come back to hit me in the face. Literally.

Madeleine had been dead for weeks, and she was still managing to screw up my life. I clenched my fists, wishing I could kill her all over again.

Somewhere in the woods, Ethan shouted my name again.

When I didn't say anything, Rachel snarled at me, her eyes shining in the darkness. "You disgust me, little hunter. How could you ever think a relationship between a hunter and a vampire would work?"

"How did you ever think it was any of your business?" I shot back.

"I am a vampire. Anything to do with my kind is my business."

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