Available Now: Chapter 6 - Part 14

Draft: The Zodiac Heir

Hour of the Zodiac 1

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Tentative blurb: The sole heir to the Gemini throne Judicaël must find his true mate to rule the Zodiac lands after his father's death. But when his mate—a young human female—threatens to gain too much influence over the future King discontent stirs among the royal family. Now, Jud must betray his own race to save his future for humans and zodiacs share a past that is written in blood.

Ushered into a world of steam engines and fantastic creatures, Sarah doesn't know what to think of the enigmatic stranger who seems to prey on her deepest desires. But when a price is put on her head and she finds herself hunted by a cold-blooded killer she must decide whether to keep her distance from the Zodiac heir or embrace the safety she can find only in his arms.


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Chapter 1

The Shadow of London was on fire.

Where was she?

Jud huddled further into his rain jacket, his eyes scanning the throng of Friday night partygoers rushing in small groups from the lit up tunnels of Embankment tube station to the bar across the street. Just another man caught unawares by the downpour providing dubious relief from the never-ending drizzle that was as much a hallmark of London as the putrid air, rank with the smell of brine from the river at low tide and the scent of urine not even the frequent showers could wash from the ageing bricks of Hungerford Bridge.

A string of drunken bellows pierced the patter of drops exploding on the flooded street, drawing Jud's attention to a group of men jostling each other as women flaunted their scantily clad bodies in a display unheard of in the Zodiac world.

Next to him Leo shook his golden mane, dislodging a spatter of water droplets and dowsing Jud in the cold spray. "Bloody rain."

Jud abandoned his hunt long enough to shoot his best friend a bemused look. "Five-and-twenty years and you're still bemoaning the London weather. One would think you'd be used to it by now."

"If I live to be two-hundred, some things I'll never get used to."

"Dying's a good one." Sleazer flicked the remainder of his hand-rolled onto the concrete with slender fingers, his long, wet hair slicked back from his narrow face, his gaze tracking the expiring glow when the stub hit the wet kerb and came to a rolling halt. "You're out of your fucking mind if you think your father, the King, won't find out about this. He'll skin us alive."

"He'll skin you alive when he hears how you address his son," Leo growled. "You're out of your fucking mind, Your Royal Highness."

Jud shoved hard at the Lion's shoulder. "You know how much I hate my title."

"You hate it with a ferocity you deign not to explain." Leo shrugged off Jud's attack without so much as moving an inch. His eyeshine gaze reflecting the lights of London Eye bouncing wildly on a storm-lashed River Thames held Jud's in an uncomfortable stalemate only the Lion could get away with. He had earned the right the night he had saved a young Jud from a herd of rogue bulls. To this day, Leo was shamelessly using his freedom every chance he got. "Hate it all you want, Zodiac heir, we cannot choose what we're born to be." He nodded at the moving shadows of Hungerford Bridge. "Pet assassin." His eyes settled back on Sleazer, his teeth flashing white in his too handsome face. "Imbecile."

Sleazer abandoned all efforts of kicking the waterlogged butt into the gutter and took a threatening step towards the golden hunk whose aura lit up even the grizzliest night. At his full height Sleazer fell short of the other man by a foot and a half. He lacked the muscular build that made Leo a giant among his own race. He lacked the strategic genius that made Leo the leader of the Royal Lion Guard and Jud's personal security detail.

What he didn't lack was a confrontational personality that urged him to push when backing down was advisable. "Watch your mouth, pussycat?"

Next to Jud Leo went preternaturally still. "What did you call me?" The thread of steel underlying the question was distinguishable even above the shouts and whistles from across the street.

The Lion could be a most charming companion. Until he ripped your throat out.

Sleazer's gaze darted away. He licked his lips. "You heard me."

"He's giving you a chance to rethink your statement before he relieves you of your teeth." The heavily accented voice belonged to the last man in their group. Almost invisible against the dark of the night Maverick was the only one who didn't mind the pelting rain running in rivulets from the red brick pile buttress at his back and straight into the open collar of his jet black rivet coat. "Care to re-phrase?"

"I'm not a coward." Sleazer jutted out his chin, his knuckles pushing visibly against the pockets of his worn biker jacket that sported decorative studs and snaps, but missed its usual pocket watch dangling from the right pocket strap.

"A fool then."

Sleazer spit a stream of dirty saliva in Maverick's direction. "Careful, water creature. You're only tolerated in the Gemini kingdom."

Maverick didn't move but the air around them crackled with carefully restrained tension.

Jud's hair stood on end. Even the Lion shifted uncomfortably.

"This is the City of London. No Zodiac law here. I could gut you like a fish and nobody would blink an eye."

Sleazer paled. "You wouldn't dare."

"Wouldn't I?"

Sleazer's gaze snapped to Jud before bouncing back to Maverick. "I'm a member of the Royal Family."

"Second in line." Maverick's assessing gaze never left the other man. "My loyalty is to the King, my friendship to the heir. You are nothing to either man."

"I'm their blood."

"Blood doesn't betray blood."

"I've never betrayed a soul in my life."

"You're betraying your King every time you nip at his son's heels like a rabid dog. You're betraying the heir whenever you eye his title like a piece of fine meat you want for yourself."

"He hates his fucking title. You heard him yourself."

Maverick's face registered disgust. "Your disloyalty alone warrants your death?"

Sleazer sucked in a wheezing breath. "Cousin?"

Jud ignored the naked panic in Sleazer's voice. Someone was always panicking when Maverick was around.

He allowed his cousin to squirm for a moment longer, before he gave a small shake in the direction of his dark friend. "Only the rain will be painting the streets black tonight."

They couldn't afford to attract attention. Not here. Not now.

The King wouldn't sacrifice his only son to satisfy the law. But Jud could very well wish he had.

The last time his Zodiac ancestors had trusted the human race with their existence, their population had been all but wiped out. A mere dregs of the thriving society of old, they had been forced to live in the Shadow of this great city ever since.

Maverick's lips curled in a mocking smile. "His Royal Highness wishes you well. So be it."

Sleazer fumbled another cigarette out of his pocket and lit the tip with trembling fingers. "Blood is thicker than water."

"Don't count on it."

Jud barely acknowledged the low rumble of sound coming from the Lion to his left, his whole body snapping to attention.

Gemini.

His head turned in the direction of the sound that wasn't a sound at all but an awareness that made his skin tighten, his gut clench. Adrenaline pumped through his system.

Where was she?

A snarl escaped his lips when the crowd shifted before he could get a look at his quarry.

He wanted to tear apart the clusters of people huddling together under umbrellas so tight it was difficult to distinguish where one form ended and the next one began. He wanted to plough through the crush of human bodies the way an ox ploughed through a field, until he found the one who was his. His mate.

"Jud."

"What?" Frustration gnawed at his insides, as he tore his gaze away a second time to glare at the Lion.

"Over there."

A group of young men standing a chain away were all dressed in dark blue trousers and crisp white Oxford shirts. Jud didn't need the reminder of his own brocade button jacket bearing the royal crest or Leo's dark brown tweed vest to realise they were standing out among the human crowd like peacocks in a henhouse.

"How long have they been watching us?"

"Not us." Maverick pushed away from the brick buttress. The men scattered to congregate again a second later, more than one looking a mite green around the gills. "They're watching me."

"They're scared spitless."

Leo shot the obvious leader of the group a narrow-eyed glare. "They should be pissing their pants. We all know Sleazer was about to and he's been used to Maverick's curse for years."

Sleazer stomped the second butt into the ground, mumbling under his breath.

The Lion ignored the show of temper. "Something's not right. We should go."

"We're staying."

Gemini.

Jud's head whipped around. She was here. He could feel her presence in his blood. In his veins.

"Jud, reconsider, I beg you."

Jud slashed a hand through the air, silencing the Lion. He could feel the pull that had driven him to come here tonight. To defy the King's orders. To risk not only his life but the life of his companions. He was not going to lose her a second time.

He craned his neck.

There.

A crop of short blond hair. A small nose buried in a scarf that she had tucked securely into her leather synth jacket. Black jeans, looked as if they had been painted onto long, toned legs and flowed into a pair of stiletto boots. Her arm was tucked securely into the crook of an elbow. A male elbow.

Jud's vision hazed red. He took a step, drawing up short when Leo blocked his path. "Jud—"

Over the Lion's shoulder Jud watched the couple disappearing into the bar.

"I'm going in." The snarl coming from his mouth was barely recognisable as his own voice.

"The hell you are."

Jud bared his teeth.

"Cute." Leo didn't budge.

Behind him Sleazer shuffled his feet. "Sod this, cousin. 'Tis not worth it."

"I concur."

Jud drilled the Scorpion with a look that would have crushed a lesser man. "You wanted to kill him."

"Still do. Doesn't mean he's wrong."

"Someone is." Leo cocked his head, his eyes tracking Jud's every movement. "You should have gone for my throat thirty seconds ago. Maybe she's not your ma—"

Jud's fist buried into Leo's jugular. "She is."

The Lion crumpled to the ground, coughing violently. Jud didn't waste time checking on his friend. He veered off to the side, long legs eating up the distance to the bar. Water splashed his shoes and soaked into the hem of his trousers. He barely noticed.

"You know he let you land that strike." Maverick's casual strides easily matched Jud's despite their difference in height and determination. "Still hate your title?"

Jud grunted. He didn't care what had allowed him to gain the upper hand over the Lion. All he cared about right now was his mate on the other side of that entrance, separated from him by a burly six foot four bouncer with a wary expression on his face.

The bouncer hunched his shoulders in an unconscious effort to shield himself from the danger he could sense emanating from the two strangers approaching him at a fast clip. He gave them each a questioning look, eyes flickering with unease when the radio in his hand launched into a static frenzy "ID, please."

For a second, Jud considered the same approach he had with the Lion.

"Think about your father." Maverick's voice travelled no further than Jud's ear.

"Talked out of murder by the King's pet assassin."

"Whatever keeps you safe, Your Royal Highness."

"Whatever keeps you chummy with my father, you calculating arse."

Maverick's lips twitched. "Scorpions don't do chummy."

No, Jud guessed not. Psychopath's rarely did.

He willed his fist to unclench. His fingers unfurled one by one. Jud stared at his open palm. "Impossible."

"Peculiar." Maverick considered the bouncer. "My turn, I believe."

"Huh?" Jud frowned up from studying his hand.

"To test the Lion's theory. Fear is the quickest way to render a human compliant." Maverick's smile made unease trickle down Jud's spine. "A Zodiac, too." He took another step closer to the bouncer, making the human break out in a sweat.

The bouncer held his position. Fool. "I need you to step aside, s-sir." He cleared his throat.

Maverick arched a brow at Jud. "This one wants to die, tonight."

Jud shook his head. Leo was right. Something was amiss here. "Where's Sleazer?"

He turned, searching for the spot where he had last seen his cousin and feeling Maverick come up beside him a second later.

Behind them, the bouncer strangled his radio back to life and engaged in a rapid- fire exchange with the tinny voice on the other end of the line.

"On his way to rat on you." The Lion's fast approaching form cut through the heavy veil of rain. His voice held a rough edge from the blow Jud had dealt him, but no bruise was visible under the heavy beard.

"You should have let me kill him when I offered," Maverick said. "He knows not honour or loyalty."

Jud shook his head. "He's not mine to kill." No matter how overwhelming the urge to strangle the blackguard.

"One day he will be." The Scorpion wasn't ready to give up.

"No harm will befall him on my account until that day." Jud shot the Scorpion a warning look.

"Then he may well outlive your friends."

Jud followed Maverick's gaze to the left where two men in uniforms cut through the crowd. 'Security' was blazing in white, reflective letters on their left pectoral.

"Your father will demand a scapegoat if they find out who we are."

Jud swore under his breath, his eyes cutting back to the bouncer whose posture straightened with every step his backup drew closer. He pointed down the street. "I need you to leave now, gentlemen."

Over the bouncer's shoulder, a flash of blond hair arrested Jud's sight.

"Too late." Leo shifted out of Jud's path as Jud vaulted over the cut-off rope sending the bouncer stumbling backward.

Nobody would be stupid enough to stand in his way, now.

"Milady," he called.

A young man who didn't move out of his way fast enough found himself face buried into the wall.

"Hey!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Jud saw Security drawing closer. Bellows and angry shouts rose above the pounding music as he crashed through another group of humans. Twenty seconds, max.

He would tear the place down if he had to. She was his.

"Milady."

Dove grey eyes latched onto his, halting Jud in his tracks.

Mine. The knowledge blazed through him with a certainty not even death could erase.

If anybody had asked him a year ago he would have sworn it wasn't possible. It shouldn't have been here. It shouldn't have been her. Yet here he was. And here she was.

Jud exhaled a shuddering breath.

A cogwheel he had never known existed inside of him latched into place and started to turn, unlocking the door to something dark. Something possessive.

His vision tunnelled to the perfection of her form, all sound ceased to exist, until the only thing he could hear was the gentle rasp of her unsteady breathing. The precious beating of her heart.

His own heart skipped a beat to start again in time with hers. Lub-dub, lub-dub.

Forever, my dear, you and me.

Her nostrils flared and she gasped a breath. Oh, yes, she could feel the primal attraction, the bond that stretched like filament silk between them. A bond that would become unbreakable. Jud would see to it. Soon.

He saw her mouth open, waited with rapt attention for the first sweet word that would tumble from her lips.

"You coming, babe?" Her companion's arm wrapped around her slender frame.

Jud was in the guy's face before he knew he had moved, his whole attention focussed on the big hand curled around her shoulder.

At his back, heavy crashing indicated his friends had bought him a handful of seconds.

"Release her." His voice was as feral as the clawing jealousy inside him.

"Who're you?" The guy shoved the woman behind his back.

Jud snarled. Someone was standing between him and his mate. Someone was touching his mate.

Someone had many friends.

Four guys congregated around the first. Jud felt his own friends coming up to flank him.

"I assume you have decided against retreat?"

There was the slightest bit of sarcasm in Leo's voice. He knew the legends, knew Jud would die first. He would sacrifice his best friend, his sister, his mother for the woman peering wide-eyed from behind her companion's frame.

"What do you want, man?" The guy kept his body strategically placed, his eyes flickering between them, snagging on Maverick for a moment before coming back to Jud. He knew the Scorpion wasn't the biggest threat. Not this time.

Jud motioned at the delicate hand that had settled on the guy's underarm, trying to hold back one-hundred and eighty pounds of protective male. Trying to prevent the inevitable.

"Her." 

"You want my girlfriend?" The guy's laugh was strained. "You're out of luck."

Subtly painted nails dug into sinewy muscle. "Bradley, shut up."

Jud smirked. She knew. Tallied up against her fragile fingers lying against the wrong shade of skin, the primal awareness she had of him as a man—as her mate—was the only thing that kept her companion alive. For now.

"Hand her over."

"You're nuts." The guy—Bradley—ushered the woman further into the bar.

"Wrong answer." Jud yanked him around and shoved his back against the wall, oblivious to the fist bruising his ribs. His fingers wrapped around tender human flesh, squeezing, choking. Another commotion broke out around them as Bradley's friends charged and met the immovable resistance of Leo and Maverick.

Towards the entrance, Security had regained their feet and was cutting through the slew of partygoers forming a slow circle around them.

"Time to go." Leo sent the last of Bradley's friends sprawling and jerked his head towards the half open doors leading to the kitchens at the back. "Jud."

"Not yet." Jud fought the urge to crush the windpipe he felt moving convulsively under his palm. 

"We must. You're putting her at risk simply by being here. You've made your point."

"Not while he's still breathing." He tightened his fingers a fraction of an inch until Bradley's eyes bugged out, his face turned purple.

It would be so easy, so satisfying to keep going until the air stopped rattling in and out of straining lungs, until the pulse stopped beating under Jud's thumb.

"Is this how it feels?" he asked the dark presence beside him. "This intoxicating sense of power."

Maverick's hand settled heavy on his shoulder, thumb digging into Jud's back until his grip went slack.

Bradley slid to the floor.

"Power is for people who have something to gain from another's death. I don't." He spun Jud around.

"Wait." Jud dug his heels in, surprised at the effort it took him to stop the smaller man.

"She's unharmed." Leo shifted to reveal Jud's mate behind him. 

Jud took a step closer, pride swelling his chest when she didn't flinch away.

"Who are you?" The words came out a whisper.

He placed a single finger on top of her heart, watching a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions darken her eyes.

"You recognise me." He looked at Bradley. "I am what he'll never be. Leave him."

She gave an imperceptible nod.

It had to be enough. For now.

He followed Maverick through the bar's kitchen, out the back entrance, and into the night.

"They're coming after us." Leo was right on their heels.

Jud had already seen the group of men spilling out into the street after them. "We have to get out of here. This place is teeming with people."

"We can lose them in the Gardens." Leo pointed north.

They took off at a dead run, missing their usual speed. The heavy fall of feet pounded after them.

"This way." Maverick veered left.

Before them Victoria Embankment Gardens stretched dark and majestic. The black iron gate was closed for the night.

They vaulted the chest-high barrier, missing the lethal fence finials by inches. Distant shouts mingled with the crunch of gravel underneath their boots as trees and flowerbeds flew past.

A cluster of silhouettes appeared before them, stark against the pale moon illuminating the night.

"Bloody short-cuts." Leo swiped impatiently at the wet hair falling in chunks over his forehead. "Fight or flight?"

Jud didn't miss the quivering readiness of Leo's muscles.

"Chuck a left." They had fought too much already.

"Sanity returns."

With his two friends flanking his shoulders like the the dark angel and the light, Jud jumped another fence, barely breaking their stride as they chased along deserted backroads and narrow lanes. Streetlights glinted off the slippery ground.

"They're falling behind." 

"Not a minute too soon." Leo pointed ahead of them.

Jud's eyes—not as good as his friend's—made out the obstacle moments later. The alley they had ducked into was a dead-end. In the weak light of a flickering streetlamp their shadows quivered on the wall before them.

"Couldn't have found an easy one." Jud eyed the dancing light.

Another volley of shouts erupted a small distance away. One of their pursuers had to have some tracking skills.

"Let's go."

They started running towards the man-high wall, passing dark entryways. Jud felt the humming of the streetlight in his blood. On. Off. Off. On.

On. Off. Off—

The wall was suddenly in front of him. Knowing it was futile he braced for the impact.

On.

The Shadow of London was on fire. 

 


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