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House of Cards

The Negotiator Series, Book 2

C.E. Murphy

CHAPTER 1

Humans would call it a catch-22.

He'd read the book the phrase came from, even sympathized with the protagonist, a man desperate to avoid fighting in a war but with no recourse to do so except claim insanity. The difficulty lay in the military's own desperation for warriors. If he said he was crazy and wanted to tight, all the better; they would take him. If he didn't, that was simply normal, and they'd conscript him regardless.

Gargoyles did not find themselves in such situations.

Alban's shoulders slid down as he passed a hand over his eyes. Gargoyles didn't find themselves in such situations, and yet. And yet.

A woman ran on the pathways below him, finding her stride without fear in the March night. She ran as if Central Park were her demesne and the things that stalked it too slow or thick-witted to capture her. She'd done it before she knew he was there, watching and protecting her. She would have continued long since, had he never revealed himself to her.

But he had, and now she knew. Knew about him and his people, and knew that he soared from treetop to treetop, keeping her safe from monsters worse than he. Knew that his nature demanded he protect her, once he'd chosen her as his ward.

He'd walked away from their impossible relationship, certain that leaving was the only way to allow her a life with any meaning in her own world. In introducing himself to her-necessary as it had seemed-he'd also introduced an overwhelming element of danger into her human experience. She had accepted that, even embraced it, but he could not. He was a protector, and to protect her, he had to leave her behind.

Doing the right thing shouldn't leave such a taste of coal at the back of his throat, burned and ashy. For a span of a few brief hours-days, but in a life as long as his, the hours meant more than the days-he'd flown with her, shared laughter and fear, even known the touch of death and the shaking relief of life in its aftermath. Better to let it go, the memory bright and untarnished, than wait and watch as she inevitably realized she could never fit into the half-life that held him captive.

And she, with the safety her clean, well-lit world offered to her, defiantly began her late-night sprints through the park again. She seemed utterly confident-confident of her own speed, confident of the park's gentle side, confident that he would not abandon her despite his protestations.

To his chagrin, she was right.

A gargoyle should not find himself in such a situation.

Muttering a growl deep in his throat, he flexed his wings, catching the wind and letting it carry him higher into the sky than necessary. He was a pale creature against night's darkness, broad wingspan and powerful form easily visible, but humans rarely looked up. Even if someone did, he would be gone in an instant, a flight of imagination so potent few would dare voice it. Rationality and human experience demanded that he couldn't exist. No one valuing his job or social standing would insist he'd seen a gargoyle circling over Central Park, and should the park's less favorable denizens see him, well, no one would believe them, either.

And Margrit, should she look up from racing insubstantial competitors far below, would never tell.

She still watched the sky as she ran.

She knew better. She knew better for a host of reasons, the most obvious being that if a gargoyle watched her, he would keep out of her line of sight so they could both pretend he wasn't there. Twisting to catch him not only invited injury, but collided thoroughly with the other obvious reason she shouldn't watch the sky: to run safely in the park she had to move like she knew what she was doing. Aggressors wanted victims who wouldn't cause a problem. She'd learned to keep her eyes straight ahead and her chin up, ears sharpened for sounds above those of her own labored breathing. She wore no headset when she ran at night; that was a luxury reserved for daylight hours. Running made its own music in her mind, a cadence she could lose herself to. Words pounded out to her footsteps, broken down into syllables. Law review sometimes, but as often as not a single word caught in her thoughts, Ir. Ir. Ir -rah-shun-al.

Irrational.

Alban.

Memories of the gargoyle did more than linger; they waited until she thought she was free of him, then announced themselves again with distressing clarity. Even after weeks of not seeing him, she could bring to mind his strong features and white hair more easily than anyone else's.

Margrit shook her head, trying to chase memories away. The hard motion put a wobble in her run and her foot came down badly, tweaking her knee. She dropped into a walk, swearing under her breath. Her heartbeat ached, less from the run than from wariness that bordered on fear. The park seemed a haven only when she ran through it. Walking off an injury felt like announcing she was too slow and cumbersome to avoid danger.

Worse, though, would be not giving herself the time to recover, and damaging the ligament so badly she couldn't run at all. The idea felt like prison walls closing in. Margrit shivered the thought away, flexing her quads to test her knee. The sharp ache had already faded. She slowed more, then stopped, bending to rub her kneecap. It felt normal, no swelling or stiffness telling her she'd twisted it a moment earlier.

An inconsequential injury, nothing more. Just a twinge to warn her, not something worse that healed itself more rapidly than logic could account for. It'd been the same with nicks from a razor blade, or paper cuts sliced through a fingertip, the last few weeks. The damage had been too slight to justify concern.

Margrit licked her lips as a gag-sweet taste of sugary copper rose in her throat. It carried with it the image of a slight, swarthy man opening his wrist and pressing thick welling blood against her mouth. Only after she'd swallowed convulsively had he looked pleased. Folding his sleeve back down, he'd told her what he'd shared: one sip for healing.

Such a gift as a vampire gave.

Margrit shivered, scrubbing her palm over her knee one more time. It'd been a tweak, nothing more. She straightened, chin lifted in defiance of her own disbelief, before she went painfully still, watching a blond, broad- shouldered shadow parted from the trees.

Hope crashed as fast as it was born, leaving disappointment in its place. The man was younger than Alban, his hair very short and bleached rather than naturally white. The jacket he wore was leather, not the well-cut suit Alban preferred. Anger and fear curdled Margrit's stomach as she took one cautious step back. The man had the height advantage, but she trusted her own speed. She shifted her weight again, ready to spin and run as she took one more step back. Body heat warned her an instant too late, hands closing around her arms. Margrit shrieked and flung her head back as hard as she could. She encountered resistance and crunching bone, the hands on her arms loosening in a bellow of pain and outrage. 'Fucking bitch!' Margrit flung herself to the side, powered by adrenaline and instinct, and made herself small as the first man lunged for her. She rolled to her feet just out of his grasp, heart pounding as she danced backward, making enough space to turn and run.

A bright streak fell from the trees, bringing both men to the ground. Membraned wings, so thin that park lights glowed through them, flared alabaster in the dark, then were gone. A man stood within the space they'd encompassed and lifted her attackers by their napes, clocking their skulls together with slapstick ease. One groaned. The other made no sound at all as they slid bonelessly from her rescuer's grip.

He rose, teeth still bared as if in attack. His breath came hard as he looked at Margrit, frustration darkening his eyes. She nearly laughed, able to read all the reasons for his dismay.

He'd blown his cover. She'd forced him to show his hand again, making him re-enter her life as a physical presence instead of only a wish. But a gap still lay between them, his nature against her own. He'd chosen to accept that divide, even when she would not have.

She had no more idea than he how to bridge the distance, but the desire to do so stung her.

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