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    CHAPTER 1

    Titanium spikes slashed the fighter’s face, spraying blood across the floor of the steel cage and thrilling the crowd of cheering spectators inside the underground fighting arena. Gritty industrial music pounded from the dance club upstairs, bringing the din to a deafening pitch as the long match between the pair of Breed males built toward its finish.

    Carys Chase stood near the front, among the throng of avid spectators as Rune’s fist connected with his opponent’s face again. More shouts and applause erupted for the undefeated champion of Boston’s most brutal arena.

    The fights were technically illegal, but highly lucrative. And since the outing of the Breed to their terrified human neighbors twenty years ago, there were few sporting events more popular than the outlawed gladiator-style matches pitting a pair of six-and-a-half foot, three-hundred pound vampires against each other in a closed, steel mesh cage.

    Blood was essential to Carys and her race, but sometimes it seemed mankind was even more thirsty for it. Especially when the spillage was restricted to members of the Breed.

    Although even Carys had to admit that watching a vampire like Rune fight was a thing of beauty. He was dangerous grace and lethal savagery.

    And he was hers.

    For the past seven weeks—since the night she’d stepped into La Notte with a small group of friends and first saw Rune battling inside the cage—they had been practically inseparable. She had fallen fast and hard and deep, and hadn’t looked back for a second.

    Much to her parents’ dismay. They and her twin brother, Aric, had all but forbade her to see Rune, basing their judgment on his profession and reputation alone. They didn’t know him. They didn’t want to know him either, and that hurt. It pissed her off.

    Which is why, with a full head of steam and a stubborn streak inherited from both of her parents, Carys had recently moved out of the Chase family Darkhaven and in with her best friend, Jordana Gates.

    Leaving home to get her own place hadn’t gone over well, particularly with her father, Sterling Chase. As the commander of the Order’s presence in Boston, he, along with the Order’s founder, Lucan Thorne, and the other district commanders, were the de facto keepers of the peace between the Breed and mankind. No easy task in good times, let alone the precarious ones they lived in now.

    Carys understood her father’s concern for her safety and wellbeing. She only wished he could understand that she was a grown woman with her own life to lead.

    Even if that life included a Breed male who chose to make his living in the arena.

    All around her now, the spectators chanted their champion’s name. “Rune! Rune! Rune!”

    Carys joined in, awed by his domination of the fighting ring even as the woman in her cringed every time fists smashed on flesh and bone, regardless of who was on the receiving end. And she could admit, at least to herself, that being in love with him had made her hope for the day he might decide to climb out of the cage for good.

    No one had ever beaten Rune—and more than a few had died trying.

    He prowled the cage with fluid motion, naked except for the arena uniform of brown leather breeches and fingerless gloves bristling with titanium spikes. The sharp metal ensured every blow was a spectacle of shredding flesh and breaking bone for the pleasure of the crowd.

    Also crafted primarily for the entertainment of the sport’s patrons was the U-shaped steel torc around the fighters’ necks. Each combatant had the option of hitting a mercy button inside the cage, which would deliver a debilitating jolt of electricity to his opponent’s collar, halting the match to afford the weaker fighter a chance to recover before resuming the bout.

    Although Rune had been the recipient of countless juicings when he climbed into the ring, he had never stooped to using the mercy button.

    Neither did his opponent tonight. Jagger was one of La Notte’s crowd favorites too, a black Breed male whose own record of wins was almost as impressive as Rune’s. The two fighters were friendly outside the arena, but no one would know it to see them now.

    Being Breed, Jagger healed from his injuries in seconds. He wheeled on Rune with a deafening roar, plowing forward like a bull on the charge. The contact drove Rune back against the cage. Steel bars groaned, straining under the sudden impact of so much muscle and might. The spectators directly below shrieked and shrank away, but the fight had already moved on.

    Now it was Rune on the offense, tossing Jagger’s massive body across the cage.

    Game or not, the clash of fists and fangs brought out the savage in just about any Breed male. Jagger got to his feet, his lips peeled back from his sharp teeth on a furious sneer. His dermaglyphs pulsed with violent colors on his dark skin. He rounded on Rune, amber fire blazing from his eyes as he crouched low and prepared to make another bruising charge.

    Opposite him in the cage, Rune stood tall, his massive arms at his sides, his stance deceptively relaxed as he and Jagger circled each other.

    Rune’s Breed skin markings churned with raging colors too. His midnight-blue eyes crackled with hot sparks as he studied his opponent. Rune’s fangs were enormous, razor-sharp tips gleaming in the dim lights of the arena. But beneath the sweat-dampened fall of his dark brown hair, his rugged, granite-hewn face was an utter, deadly calm.

    This was Rune at his most dangerous.

    Carys’s breath stilled as Jagger leapt, catapulting and cartwheeling in a blur of furious motion across the ring. One foot came up at Rune’s face like powerful hammer, so fast, Carys could hardly track its motion.

    But Rune had. He grabbed Jagger’s ankle and twisted, dropping the fighter to the floor. Jagger recovered in less than an instant, pivoting on his elbow and sweeping Rune’s legs out from under him with another smooth kick.

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