Briar bit on her lip as she looked over the blooded note. The message was short and simple, nothing to look too deep into, but as the second ticked by Briar couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. Dante hadn’t been where she left him. She had assumed he went home, but when she arrived at the house and found it empty, she knew something was wrong.
Welcome to London, Darlington.
It was all the note read. It had nothing to do with Dante. Nothing to do with her. It was a taunt from a vampire who knew they were being hunted. But it was all Briar had to focus on as she waited for Rena and Clyde.
Sighing, she placed the piece of paper on the coffee table, rubbing her sweating palms onto her skirt. Perhaps he got distracted. Perhaps he went a different route that took longer than expected. There was really nothing to worry about. It was what she tried to tell herself, but with the hunters roaming the city it was hard to believe.
Dante was a full-grown man, probably much older than he appeared, he could take care of himself. He was a vampire, immortal, dangerous.
Briar laughed to herself, rubbing her forehead. As if she, a normal human girl of eight-teen years of age, needed to protect him. The thought was absurd. Foolish. Unnatural.
Yet, her smile faded and her chest grew heavy.
Why had she left him in the carriage?
The front door clicked open and Briar jumped up, only slightly disappointed when Clyde entered, followed by Rena. Behind them, she got a glimpse of fresh snowfall. Looking out the window, she wondered when it had started snowing again, and for how long it had been going on.
“Briar, are you alright?” Rena asked as she entered the living area.
Although she wanted to nod, Briar sat back down on the couch instead, staring at the carpet. “Have you by chance seen Dante?”
“We haven’t seen him,” Clyde said. “We thought he would be here with you.”
Rena sat down beside her. “Is he missing?”
“I don’t know,” Briar said, shaking her head. “We were on our way to the house when we heard a scream. I told him to stay in the carriage when I went to investigate but when I returned he was gone. He wasn’t here either.”
Clyde crossed his arms, realization in his eyes as he must now understand her swift departure the moment he had arrived at the body only a few hours prior. “Where else could he be?”
“Anywhere, really.” Briar scoffed, taking the note from the table to give it to Clyde. “What do you make of this?”
He took it. “That our killer is familiar with the hunter, but that we already knew.”
“Is it from the leader?”
“Most likely.” He handed the note to Rena. “But it doesn’t tell us much besides it being a taunt.”
“Should we talk with Darlington?” Rena asked, looking up from the note. “He is an expert at hunting vampires, perhaps we would have more luck finding this leader and preventing them from entering London if we team up.”
Clyde scoffed, sitting down in Dante’s chair. “We can do fine without him.”
Briar pressed her lips together. Although she wanted to agree with Clyde, Rena had a point. Darlington, although a strange figure, knew more about vampires and how to hunt them than any of them did. He was familiar with the leader and the clan as well. She might not have liked the impression he left, but he was a valuable asset.
“I agree with Rena,” she said eventually. “Darlington knows what he is doing, while we are blindly chasing something we barely understand.”
“Speak for yourself.” Clyde leaned forward, clearly agitated. “I haven’t spent months with this clan to get some pretentious hunter to push my hard work aside.”
“Then start being helpful,” Briar snapped. “Quit being so secretive and tell us what you know.”
He glared at her for a long moment before speaking. “The clan is waiting for their leader to give them permission to enter. I was sent ahead with her and I am the one who is prolonging them from entering. The leader is ready but I was able to convince her to give us another week.” Sitting back, he gave Briar another pointed look. “And we better find a way to stop them before the end of it.”
Briar clenched her fists. “And you haven’t told us you had direct contact with the killer because . . .?”
“She wasn’t the one we were targeting before,” Clyde said through gritted teeth. “There is still a single fanged vampire out there that I was not aware of either.”
“Then our next move is simple,” Rena interrupted before Briar could snap at him again. “Ambush the leader, interrogate and imprison her, and let Darlington handle the rest of the clan.”
Clyde opened his mouth, ready to dismiss the idea, but no sound passed his lips. Briar blinked at Rena as well. Could it really be that simple?
“And what about Dante?” Briar asked instead.
“His name will be cleared, and if not, he could always take on a new identity with that new appearance of his.”
Shaking her head, Briar turned to face Rena. “No, I meant, what of him now? He still hasn’t returned.”
“I don’t think we have to worry,” Clyde said before Rena could answer. “He probably got caught up somewhere, he’ll be here any moment. If not, he’ll return later tonight.”
“You sound so certain.”
“After spending as long a time as I have with a clan, you’ll understand that once one goes missing for a few hours or days, they are not the one you should be worried about.”
Briar’s stomach twisted uncomfortably. “Dante is different.”
“Are we pulling that card, now?” Clyde raised his brow, somehow seeming as much annoyed as amused.
The words sounded silly the moment she said them, she was well aware, but it was all she could say to ease some of the dread in her stomach. So many thoughts rummaged through her head. It was hard to pay them no mind.
“Clyde,” Rena warned, placing her hand over Briar’s. At least Rena was still on her side. “If he doesn’t return tonight we will look for him in the morning.”
Standing from the chair, Clyde crossed his arms as he went to stand closer to the fire, staring into it. “It’s hardly worth wasting your breath over.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Rena suddenly snapped, releasing Briar’s hands to stand. “Can’t you set your personal feelings aside for a single second?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.” His voice was even as he spoke, his eyes still on the flames. Briar had expected him to snap back, considering the mood he was in. She watched Rena as she took a calming breath herself, placing a hand on his arm.
“Wouldn’t you be equally worried if I were to disappear all of a sudden?”
Meeting her gaze, one corner of Clyde’s mouth turned up. “Perhaps I would.”
“As would I for you.” Her other hand came to rest on his hand, which instantly released the tension from his shoulders. “So please, Clyde, be a little more compassionate.”
Letting out a long breath through his nose, Clyde nodded. “Alright, we’ll look for him tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Briar said, though it did little.
They left later that evening. Without Dante, they did not discuss much of this potential plan of capturing the leader. If they were going through with it, they needed him and his insights. Eventually, Rena announced her parents wanted her home earlier than usual, especially after the afternoon’s murder. Clyde being the gentleman he claimed he was—though Briar thought the term love-sick-fool would describe it better—insisted on escorting her home.
Every time Briar thought of leaving, she would insist on staying for another fifteen minutes. Just in case. She couldn’t remember the last time a person had been on her mind for this long. Not even when the Ripper was terrorizing the city was she as scared for another as she was now.
Glancing at the front doors, Briar gave herself another fifteen minutes. Then she would leave. But after half an hour she was still seated on the couch, her lids heavy with sleep. Another fifteen minutes and Briar had made herself more comfortable, and another five later she had fallen into a dreamless sleep.