“Victoria, why do you have a gun?” Riley asked as he dropped down beside his camouflage-adorned companion.
She was seated cross-legged on the thick bed of pine needles, a scoped rifle resting across her lap.
“Thank you for coming with me,” she said in her sweet, high-pitched voice. She flipped her shining red curls over her shoulder, pulled a dark blue rag from the deep pocket on her thigh, and began to lovingly buff the gleaming wood of the stock. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, Riley. After James was killed by those perverted Cullens I was a bit … out of sorts as you know.”
“A bit,” Riley agreed with a harsh laugh, remembering when she had attacked and bitten him. “That three days of burning was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life. I thought I had died and gone straight to Hell.” He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips for a lingering kiss. “But then I saw my beautiful angel. It’s been pretty damn good since then.”
“I’m sorry for that pain, but we all go through it.” She cocked her head to the side and looked over his light brown hair, pale skin, and bright red eyes. “Do you think it was worth it?”
“It was totally worth it. I was really confused at first, but you helped me. You know, I’ve really missed you these past few months.”
Victoria’s eyes dropped to their clasped hands. “I had a lot of thinking to do. I care for you and found I didn’t want to risk you. I had to make sure you would be okay.”
“I’ve done all right. You taught me how to dress myself without shredding my clothes and showed me how to hunt.” He gave her fingers a squeeze, released them, and settled his hand on her knee. “Though it’s not hard to hunt humans—they’re everywhere and so damn stupid. Most of them have no sense of self-preservation. Just pluck them off the street. The hard part is hiding the bodies, but you taught me well.”
Riley smiled at her as he stroked her knee. “After that, using a phone without breaking it wasn’t so hard. You don’t have to worry about me, Victoria. I’m doing all right, though it would be nice to hang out with you for a while.” His imploring eyes softened as he gazed at her.
“I’d like that, too.” She turned back to the rifle. “I had to leave you for a while to figure out my options and do some reconnaissance.” She sighed. “I considered creating an army of newborns to go after the little human, Bella Swan, but I thought they would be more trouble than they would be worth. Remember I told you about the Volturi?”
“I remember everything you told me. They’re like the kings of the vampires or something.” He lowered his back to the ground, clasped his hands behind his head, and settled farther into the bracken of the forest to observe the beautiful red-haired vampire.
She ran the rag down the deeply blued barrel and back, and her crimson eyes turned to Riley’s. “Those vampire kings,” she said with a sneer, “watch for suspicious activity. Many newborns in a small area cause a lot of deaths that can be difficult to cover up.” She returned the blue rag to its pocket and reached into another, retrieving three glinting bullets. “During my study of the human girl, I discovered there are werewolves that live near the ocean. I’d never seen any before. When we’re finished here, I can show them to you.”
“Children of the Moon? I’d like to see them.”
“No, they’re different from the ones I told you about before. These protect humans, and they can change from men to wolves any time they want—they don’t have to wait for the full moon. There’s even a female. As wolves, they’re as tall as horses and they’re nearly as fast as we are, but they can’t swim very quickly, or climb trees.” Victoria batted her long lashes at him. “It was fun for a while, and I learned quite a bit listening to them in their human form, but I’d grown tired of teasing them. I got what I wanted.”
A satisfied smile spread across Victoria’s lips. “Yes. Information and …” she paused dramatically as she reached into yet another pocket and pulled out three long, black, curved items and held them up so Riley could see them. “… these.”
“What are they?” Riley’s nose scrunched up as he peered at the softly gleaming objects that were as long as his fingers.
A chuckle worked its way through Victoria’s throat. “They’re the nails of the largest black wolf. I quite enjoyed ripping those toes off his left rear foot. Take one and keep it on you at all times.”
Riley reached for one of the claws and brought it closer to study it. He wrinkled his nose. “It stinks. It’s kind of cool you have a souvenir, but what good are they? Is he crippled?”
She laughed lightly. “No, he’s not crippled. He runs nearly as fast as he used to. In his wolf form, he does have four legs. As a human, he does limp.” She put the remaining two wolf claws back in their pocket and patted it. “The things you learn when you just wait and listen. My poor departed friend Laurent found out quite a bit about the Cullens before he managed to get himself killed by the wolves. The tiny Cullen, Alice, has visions of the future, but somehow they’re based on decisions. Edward Cullen can read minds, but only the thoughts at the front of your mind, and Jasper Hale can feel and influence emotions. I heard their little human speaking to a wolf-boy named Jacob Black, and she also discussed the powers they have.” Victoria chuckled again. “The Swan girl became quite good friends with Jacob after her beloved Edward left her. He recently came back. Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself!” She waved her delicate hand in the air. “For needing to keep their existence a secret, they all certainly do a lot of talking where someone could hear them.” From a pocket in her jacket, she pulled out a folded cloth. Like her clothes, it also had a tree limb and leaf print. Part of it was made of nylon mesh. She shook it out and worked it over her head, carefully tucking in and covering her bright hair.
Riley propped himself up on one elbow. “What’s that?”
“Human hunters can be interesting creatures. They haven’t fangs, speed, or strength, but they work hard at trying to outwit their prey.” Victoria adjusted the hood so that only her eyes showed through the opening and all of her hair was hidden. Riley could easily see her face through the printed mesh. “This is a hood the humans wear when they go turkey hunting. Turkeys have excellent eyesight. This netting helps to hide any movement of the human’s face. I learned this while watching a group of hunters. It seems they use shotguns to hunt those birds, but they also had several rifles with them, boxes and boxes of shells and bullets, and quite a few cases of beer.”
Victoria smiled again and tugged at the hood. She raised her eyebrows at Riley and bowed her head. “Anyway, when the wolves are near, little Alice cannot see the future. I’ve tested it with the claws. I’ve followed the human and made definite decisions to rip her arms off and nothing happened. I’ve hidden near the high school and decided to burst through the doors, grab Alice herself, and tear her head off. Nothing.” She dropped her hands to the rifle. “Then I decided to use this.” She levered open the chamber, inserted the first long bullet, snapped the lever back into place, and repeated her actions to load the remaining two bullets.
She sighed and looked down the mountain. “I can tease the wolves all I want, but I can’t get very far onto their precious reservation. I run past their borders. They growl and snarl and chase me. I leap into a tree or jump off the cliff into the ocean and get away just like I always do.” She sighed again, turned the rifle and ran one finger along the wood grain. “It all became very mundane. But Bella spent a lot of time there while her precious Edward was gone. Since he’s been back, she hasn’t gone to see her furry friends. Pity, really.”
“We could go together,” Riley suggested.
Pursing her full lips, Victoria displayed a pretty frown. “It seems since Edward has returned, he either can’t read minds any longer or he’s so wrapped up in his human, he’s just not listening.” She shrugged.
“That would be a good thing,” Riley said with a nod. “Some more of these claws could come in handy.”
“Yes, they would, but I don’t want to risk it yet, Riley. The wolves can be very dangerous. They did kill Laurent. I found where they tore him apart and turned him to ash. The Cullens don’t know about you, and I don’t want your scent near the border the wolves patrol. We’ll have our chance.” Her eyes widened in surprise. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. These hunting hoods would work just as well in the water to hide my hair!”
“And our faces.” Riley grinned mischievously. “So what’s with the gun?”
“The Cullens and the wolves suspect I am here to get at their human pet. They expect me to attack her personally—as vampires normally do.” Victoria lifted the rifle from her lap and twisted around until she was lying on the ground. She brought the rifle butt to her left shoulder, gripped the forestock firmly in her right hand and propped her right elbow on the ground. “They would never expect a vampire to use a human weapon.” Her eyes shifted to Riley again. “I loved James, and I had a difficult time after they stole him from me. I still have … moments when I can hardly bear his loss.” She paused for a moment to rein in the nearly overwhelming grief, closing her eyes and shaking her head slowly. “I’ve mourned him. I’ll mourn him for the rest of my life, but I don’t want his death to be in vain. That insignificant girl is just a human and all those vampires are protecting her. Edward says he wants her, but he refuses to change her into a vampire. She’s good enough to dally with for a time, but—” Victoria frowned in thought. “I don’t understand it. They left, but they came back to her. If she was important enough to come back for, why hasn’t he bitten her? I’ll tell you why—because she’s not good enough to be given immortality, and he knows he’ll grow tired of her. Or he’ll eventually drain her. She’s a momentary distraction. It’s not the forever love like I shared with James.”
“Well, the warmth of human women …”
“Please! I know how gratifying it can be to have a little fun before draining them. The males have their own appeal—they just don’t have the … stamina. And they are so fragile. Luckily, their sexual release makes their blood taste so sweet. Quite a bit different from the effect fear has on the flavor.”
Riley grunted in agreement.
“Now, we wait,” she murmured with a hint of a smile playing about her red lips. “It won’t be long.”
“Wait?” Riley asked as he rolled from his back to his stomach to be closer to his lover and sire.
“See the little humans driving into the parking lot of that store down below? As we speak, they are streaming through the doors like cattle through a chute. See that picnic table to the right of the store? Our quarry sits there every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday when she’s on her break. She’s taken to sitting on the table and putting her feet on the bench. That just makes it easier for me.” Victoria’s chuckle was the tinkling of crystal bells. “Today is a special day. The sporting goods store is having a sidewalk sale. Bella, and the other humans that are wearing the bright orange vests, have been setting up their wares on the sidewalk and to the side. The humans will mob this event like the beasts they are, and the Cullens will be hovering around the sweet Bella as they always do. There will be plenty of witnesses.”
“Witnesses to what?” Riley asked, lowering his voice.
“The fall of the mighty Cullen Coven.” Victoria’s chiming laugh rang out again. “When his singer’s blood is splashed across their little human friends, will the extraordinarily controlled and arrogant Edward Cullen be able to resist its call? Or will the scarred male or his bony little female be the first to taste her and expose their secret to the world?”
From the corner of her darkening crimson eye, Victoria could see the malevolent grin spread across her companion’s face.
“Ahhh. Here they are.” Victoria rested her cheek against the smooth wood of the rifle’s stock and peered through the mounted scope. “The rail-thin female frolicking about with her so-called warrior mate,” she said with contempt. “Next are the blonde beauty and the all-brawn-and-no-brain male, and then …” she trailed off. “Ah ha. Right on cue. The pretentious mind reader and his little human trollop.”
Riley winked at his lover and turned his sharp gaze toward the group of vampires and their pet as they made their way through the crowd of humans milling about, and gathered around the wooden picnic table.
The target, Bella Swan, stepped up onto the bench, placed her backpack on the center of the table, turned and sat down, opening a small brown paper bag. The auburn-haired Edward Cullen stood at the end of the table, hovering over her, and placing his hand on her back.
For a moment, Riley wondered how the human could breathe surrounded by vampires like that.
Victoria took in a slow breath. “See how the pet’s master clings? And it appears to be time. Number one—fire in the hole.” She gently pulled the trigger. There was barely any recoil when the weapon fired as she held it firmly to her shoulder.
Bella Swan jerked, flinging her lunch bag away and falling backward across the table.
Behind her, a blonde human female clutched at her side and fell to the ground, knocking over a display of glittering fishing tackle.
Victoria quietly gloated to herself. She recognized the blonde. It was just dumb luck the young female was a known school chum of Bella’s.
It was a good shot. Blood splattered across the pale face and body of Edward and the nearby browsing humans. The bullet had gone through the top of Bella Swan’s shoulder and struck Edward’s hand or arm, spinning him away from her before striking another. Edward halted several feet away and just stared at the scarlet coating his hand and dripping from his fingers.
Victoria levered in the next round and chose her next victim. Dressed in a blaze orange vest, he was an employee of the store and one of the human males that Victoria had seen frequently in the company of her main target.
When Victoria fired, the spiky-haired male spun and toppled over a kayak, smearing his deep red blood across the bright yellow.
The other humans began screaming. Some grabbed others and dragged them away. Others fell to the ground, shrieking and covering their heads with their hands. A few threw their companions to the ground and dropped on top of them, shielding them with their own bodies.
Most movement was away from the bleeding girl on the picnic table.
The front doors of the store sprang open and slammed against the block walls, shattering the glass. A mustached man, dressed in a dark blue police uniform, sprinted through the opening. Victoria’s pleased grin twisted into a smirk, and she squeezed the trigger for the third and final time.
The police officer stumbled, crashing into a large white box with the word “ice” painted in blue across the front. The man grabbed his bleeding thigh and staggered away, leaving behind streaks and smears of dull red over the freezer. He continued toward the side of the building. The stampede of panicked humans split around him to avoid his lurching gait.
None of them seemed to realize their police chief was injured and bleeding.
The reaction of the vampires was fascinating to Riley and Victoria. The tiny female, Alice, started toward her wounded human and stopped with a jerk, her hands going to the sides of her head, and clutching her short black hair. Rosalie, the tall blonde female, covered her nose and mouth with her jacket and backed away, her eyes bugging out as she took in the carnage.
The two males, Jasper and Emmett, leapt over the table—the blond landing just past the end of the table, and the huge, dark-haired one tackling Edward to the ground.
Jasper stood with legs spread, his hand extended toward Emmett and Edward. He pulled something from his pocket and held it to his ear. Victoria thought it might have been a phone as he seemed to be speaking into it. His head slowly turned until he was looking up the side of the mountain where Victoria and Riley hid.
“The little one with the short black hair looks like she’s been hit with a stun gun. Do you think the blond male can see us?” Riley asked in a whisper.
Victoria chuckled. “No. He turned back to his coven-mate’s pet. He’s probably calling his coven leader or 9-1-1 for assistance. Perhaps he didn’t realize the Forks Police Chief was already there.” She laughed out loud. “They are still surrounded by all the humans. The useless Seer is probably trying to figure out why she didn’t see that her friend was going to be injured. Poor, poor Edward,” Victoria said, with a little sympathetic mew and pouting lips. “The big one is working so hard to keep Edward from attacking the love of his life.” Then she smiled and her face lit up with glee. “Oh, I hear a siren. It’s time to go.” Victoria was instantly on her feet. She ejected the last spent shell from the chamber and snatched it from the air with lightning fast reflexes. “Always retrieve your brass.” She bent over and scooped up the other two. She kissed the brass casings and secured them in her pocket. “I’ve picked out a nice tree to hide this rifle in. Humans are stupid, but they might manage to find their way up here to look for evidence. But they’ll be searching the ground for foot prints and shell casings. Come along.”
Victoria spun and jumped up into the trees, Riley following closely behind.
“So, she’s dead now, right?” Riley asked. “It’s over?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t shoot to kill her, or any of them, though any gunshot wound could be lethal to them—they’re so fragile. I’m unsure about the girl behind Bella, although it was such a thrill to get two humans with that first shot! It must have ricocheted off Edward. Well, anyway … our dear Bella should survive, unless her beloved gets loose and drains her.” Victoria bounded gracefully to the next tree. “In front of all those people.” She laughed as she scaled the next tree one-handed and stopped near an elongated knothole. Bracing her feet on a wide branch, she broke the scope off the top of the gun and dropped it in. She upended the hunting rifle and began to feed it, barrel first, into the hole. When it hung up, she gave the butt a sharp smack and it disappeared within the heart of the fir.
“I thought you wanted her dead. Why didn’t you shoot to kill her?” Riley clung to the trunk below her.
“I have more plans,” she murmured. Peeking into the large knot, Victoria smiled again, dusted off her hands, and looked down at Riley. “I’m not sure she’ll live, but it looks like the Cullens aren’t going to attack. It was always a possibility. We’ll hear soon whether she and her father survived.”
Riley’s eyes grew wide in shock. “That cop was her father?”
“Oh, yes.” Victoria reached for Riley’s hand and drew him up to her side. “He was still moving, fighting desperately to reach his wounded daughter, so I don’t think the bullet went through bone. It’ll take months, but we’ll wait for them both to heal, and then I’ll shoot her again.”