Thank you for having me here today! CROOKED SHADOWS picks up right where RARE VIGILANCE leaves off, with our human bodyguard Atlas protecting his vampire charge Cristian as they flee to Romania to escape the strigoi hunting them. In this scene, the pair are visiting the safe house of Cristian’s missing friend Radu, hoping to clues to his whereabouts.
The alley must have provided access for city workers, because it was small and cramped and functional, rather than charming. It did run alongside the back fences of several yards though, which was exactly what they needed. They relied on the ambient light from the buildings, the lightning’s flashes, and their own strong night vision to work their way closer and closer to Radu’s house.
“Well,” Atlas said when they finally stopped on the other side of a tall fence, “we found it.”
Cristian gawked up at the security measures at the top of the fence. The wooden slats were cut in decorative patterns, all stake shaped, and two parallel sets of razor wire were set above those. “This seems like overkill.”
The low, amused huff of laughter from Atlas blended in with the thunder. “I’ve seen worse.”
“Travel through some war zones and you’ll realize how far people will go to protect those they care for.” Atlas left him to walk the line of the fence.
Cristian could admit Atlas had a point. His father carefully dug out the nest beneath the Scarsdale mansion they used as their business front; he needed to know their family—those by blood, and those by choice—always had a safe place to return to. This fence was Radu’s attempt to do the same. Whoever used this safe house would rely on him to protect them, and he took that role seriously.
The problem was that they needed to get in, and the fence was definitely made to keep them out. Cristian frowned and stepped back as far as the alley space would allow, craning his head back and trying to figure out a solution. Between the decorative stakes at the top of the fence and the strands of razor wire above them, any intruder was guaranteed to wind up injured. Surely Atlas would have an idea of how to get inside though.
He turned to call to him, only to find the man was gone. Vanished. Disappeared into thin air.
He tried to listen, to pick out the tattoo of Atlas’s heartbeat, but couldn’t through the thunder. He couldn’t catch any scents either.
“Mr. Kinkaid,” he called, his skin prickling. He rubbed a hand over his arm in irritation, refusing to acknowledge the fears rising, and tried again. “Atlas, where are you?”
The grumpy, muffled, “Hold on,” he got relieved the worst of the adrenaline rush, but left him with trembling knees and a disquieting worry over how easily Atlas had disappeared from his sight and senses.
A moment later, the far edge of the wooden fence shuddered and Atlas crawled his way back out of the yard. He didn’t bother to get up, or finish exiting the yard at all. He simply looked over to Cristian. Whatever he saw made him close his eyes and shake his head. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Then, he said again, louder over the thunder, “Sorry. I should have warned you what I was doing.”
“No need to apologize,” Cristian lied through his gritted teeth. “I’m not paid to keep an eye on you.”
Atlas shuffled back through the hole in the fence, though he kept his gaze on Cristian as he did. “Found a way in,” he said before disappearing back into the yard.
“Obviously,” Cristian muttered, though he knew Atlas couldn’t hear him. He walked to the hole and knelt beside it. The wood was freshly broken, the exposed edges pale against the stained exteriors, and Cristian frowned and ran a finger down the long scratches running along the seam in the fence where the first board had been pried free.
“Mr. Slava,” Atlas called from inside the yard. “You coming?”
“I wish. Might help relieve stress,” he said, loud enough he knew Atlas would hear. He hoped the man was rolling his eyes. Bastard deserved it for making him worry.
He crawled through the fence and found himself in a small, well-kept yard. Their entrance was hidden from view of the house by the decorative bushes. Atlas was already crouched beside the edge of the row, eyeing the back of the house with a trained eye.
“Did you notice the marks on the fence?” Cristian asked him quietly, checking the houses on either side for any signs of watchers. No lights on, no shifted window curtains from the few places that could see over the massive fence surrounding the back of Radu’s house. “Those aren’t from strigoi.”
“No,” Atlas agreed, just as quietly. “Probably a crowbar. Means we’re dealing with something else.”
“Is that why we’re crouched here in the dark like two burglars on their first job?”
“I wanted to make sure I couldn’t see movement inside.”
Atlas sighed and rose from his crouch. “The glass is reflective, probably to block the sun.”
Cristian cackled gleefully and stood too. “You couldn’t see inside.”
“Well, I don’t hear anyone in there, so I think we’re safe to go in.”
They crossed the yard quickly and drew up at the back door. It was a monstrous thing, heavy wood with iron hardware that must have been as old as Radu. Atlas grimaced as he ran his hands over it.
“If you want to stroke something, I have a few suggestions other than the door,” Cristian snarked, eyeing the complicated lock. Without a key or a code, they were fucked.
Atlas choked and stopped touching the door in favor of glaring down at Cristian, who knelt beside him. “Really, Mr. Slava?”
“Yeah, Mr. Kinkaid,” Cristian replied, dusting off his knees as he stood. “Want to hear them?”
“N-no. Just—” Atlas sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We just need to get in. Let’s focus on that.”
“Coward.” On a hunch, Cristian grabbed hold of the door handle and tried it.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Atlas breathed when the door cracked open.
Cristian released his grip and stepped to the side, preening a little under Atlas’s amazement. “I bet they had people in and out of here all day, investigating. Someone was bound to forget to lock it behind them.”
“Right,” Atlas muttered. “Forgot. Maybe we aren’t the only ones acting like burglars.”
Cristian shrugged and let him lead them inside. Atlas hated feeling useless, and his training meant he was far more efficient at clearing an area than Cristian could ever hope to be, even with his better senses and reaction time. He obeyed when Atlas ordered him to wait by the door while he did a quick sweep. He tracked Atlas’s wary path through the house and up the stairs through the creaks and groans from the floor overhead. A few minutes later, Atlas returned to him, looking unusually grim.
“You’re going to want to see this,” he said.
(c) M.A. Grant, Carina Press, 2021. Shared with permission from the publisher.
Whitethorn Agency #2
Everyone has secrets. Especially those who live in the shadows.
Cristian Slava doesn’t fear much. After he was betrayed by the man he called an uncle, leaving upstate New York for the Carpathian Mountains of his childhood is more a matter of practicality than fear. With him is Atlas Kinkaid, a former marine turned fierce bodyguard…and fierce lover, albeit a hell of a complicated one.
Cristian’s cunning is tested by the politics and intrigue of the vampire families of Romania, and the warm welcome he and Atlas were assured of quickly turns to ash as they race to unravel the mystery of an old friend’s disappearance. Searching for the missing vampire draws them into a web of betrayal and half-truths that reaches further than Cristian ever could have imagined, and they uncover a string of grisly murders that bear a striking similarity to the attack that changed Atlas’s life forever.
Stalked by the past and uncertain of the future, Cristian learns he does have something to fear after all…
Losing the man he loves.
About M.A. Grant
M.A. Grant has always loved reading and writing, but fell in love with the romance genre when she started working at an independent bookstore in high school. After meeting her husband in college, they began a steady northward migration and are now happily living in the rugged beauty of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. When she’s not calling out to passing ravens or making a cup of tea, she’s writing dark and moving stories.