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By TAWNY TAYLOR APHRODISIA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One "I'm sorry, miss." The bank teller glanced down at her computer screen, her smile so stiff it looked like it was chipped out of concrete. "Roslund, I can't complete your transaction."
What? Regan Roslund blinked her confusion.
The woman waited for a moment, then cleared her throat and hit a button, sounding the chime that called the next customer. When Regan, who was too stunned to respond, didn't move, the teller glanced at the gentleman standing at the head of the line, giving him a wordless invitation to step forward.
She couldn't have her money? Why not?
The brush of the strange man's shoulder against hers finally pulled Regan from her shocked silence. Anger shoved confusion out of the way and took over. It burned a path through her body, from her toes up to her forehead, then back down again and sent adrenaline rushing through her body in wild, churning waves.
Had that teller just told her she couldn't have her money? Money that rightfully belonged to her?
Yes, she had!
Ho boy. Look out, little lady, you're about to get an earful. "Now, just wait a minute," Regan said, pulling in a nice long breath so she wouldn't run out of lung power before she'd told this teller a thing or two. Was this any way to treat a valued customer? She'd been doing her banking here since she was in diapers. Her lungs at full capacity, Regan gave the customer beside her an apologetic half-smile, then turned to the teller and let it rip. "What do you mean you can't complete my transaction? I'm only asking for a thousand dollars. I'm not asking to clean out the entire vault. Is there something I need to know? Are you declining all withdrawals today for some reason? Are the computers down? Has there been a bank scare à la the Great Depression?" she blurted in one long tirade, her voice rising with each word until the teller gaped with openmouthed shock, like a goldfish being loved too hard by a toddler, and ran for cover-most likely behind the nearest manager.
Instantly, the customers in line started murmuring their speculations to each other. Was the bank in trouble? Would they be able to cash their checks? They had children to feed! House payments to make! Surely this couldn't be happening in this day and age.
Within seconds, a woman with a sharp chin and a sharper scowl stepped into the teller's position at the faux granite counter and asked Regan to please meet her at a nearby doorway for a private conversation.
Regan eagerly agreed. Now she would get some answers.
Once inside the closet-sized office, Regan took a seat, flopped one knee over the other, straightened her skirt, and waited for the manager's plea to keep her from inciting a riot.
Of all the nerve, holding her money hostage! There had to be a law against that.
The woman sat forward, planted her elbows on the desk between them, steepled her fingers under her pointy chin, and said in a cool voice, "Miss Roslund, I gather this may come as a shock to you, but we cannot allow you to withdraw any funds today because your account is empty."
Empty, empty, empty ...
The word echoed in Regan's head, snuffing out whatever else the woman said. The manager's red-lined lips were still moving, but all Regan could hear was that one word, empty. Her account had no money in it? Where'd it go?
Regan felt her eyebrows bunching up, the tension giving her an instant migraine. Great. She had no money, and now she'd be bedridden for the next twenty-four hours with a migraine. So much for lunch with the girls. So much for lunch, period. "What? How? When?" She shook her head and tried to make her mouth form more than one word at a time. "There must be some mistake. How could my money be gone? Last I checked, there was at least thirty thousand in there. Plus, it's July first. The interest from my other accounts should've been processed by now. They're always transferred on the twenty-fifth of the month."
The woman looked a little forlorn as she shook her head. "There's no mistake. No deposits were made on your behalf last month. And the funds that were in your account were transferred to your investment account a little over a week ago. By your fund manager, I'm assuming, since I'm guessing you didn't request the transfer yourself."
"Huh? That makes no sense. My fund manager, Mr. Davis, has been handling my affairs forever. He's never taken money out of this account, at least not any significant amount. A few thousand here and there, maybe. And he's never missed a deposit."
"Perhaps you'd better take this matter up with him." The woman stood. "I'm sorry. There's nothing more we can do for you today."
"Yes. Okay. Thank you. I think," Regan said, shaking her head and standing. She felt like she'd been beaned in the temple with a brick. Kind of spacey, unstable. She followed the woman from the room, then, her mind bobbing on her churning thoughts like a buoy in the gulf during a hurricane, she walked in a daze from the bank, got in her Jag, and drove home.
She kicked off her Manolo Blahniks at the door, dropped her purse on the console, swallowed a couple painkillers dry, and went straight to the phone in the kitchen. What the heck was this all about? Was Mr. Davis sick? Had he been on vacation and missed the deposit?
Granted, she had friends who had warned her not to trust anyone with her money, that she should always know where it was and what it was invested in. But even though she'd tried once or twice to learn about investing, the whole thing intimidated and confused her. Margin calls and stock options. Blue chips and NASDAQ. It was a foreign language. Impossible to understand.
Besides, what did she need to know all that junk for? She had a reliable financial manager. Smart people knew their weaknesses and compensated for them by hiring professionals to handle the things they couldn't. Mr. Davis had always done an outstanding job. He'd been keeping her in Jaguars and Armani for years. He was the best. He was ...
"Good afternoon, Davis Investments," answered a cheery female voice.
Regan sat on a bar stool, pulled a paper napkin from the holder, and tucked the phone between her shoulder and ear to free her hands. She tore a long strip off the napkin. "Hello. This is Regan Roslund calling. Is Mr. Davis available? I need to speak to him about a rather urgent matter."
"Oh dear," the woman said on the other end. The sudden lack of cheeriness made Regan's belly twist. She ripped another piece off the napkin. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Davis isn't ... available right now-"
Not available? Darn it! "This is an extremely urgent matter," Regan interrupted. She shredded one of the strips into confetti as she added, "Could you please interrupt whatever meeting he's in and tell him I need to talk to him? Now. I'll hold. Please." She could feel her heart starting to skip a beat here and there. Sweat beaded on her upper lip. She dabbed at it with what was left of the napkin. What was going on? Something had happened. Something big. Something bad.
"I'm sorry," the woman said, sounding extremely sorry. Sorrier than sorry. "I can't do that because ..."
"Because?" Regan repeated, sensing the woman needed a little nudge. Unable to keep her hands still, she made more confetti.
"Because ..." The woman sighed. "He's gone."
"Gone?" Oh God! "Gone." Stop it. She tried to catch her racing breath. Gone wasn't necessarily bad. Gone just meant out of the office. Yeah. Gone didn't mean gone forever. Dizzy from lack of oxygen, she snatched another napkin from the holder and began ripping it apart too. "When will he be back?" Feeling, like the walls were caving in, she abandoned the napkins and bar stool in favor of pacing the floor and staring out the back window. Her cat, Matilda, was doing her best to catch a bird that had dared take up residence in the tree next to the deck. Fortunately for the bird, Matilda was too chubby from overindulging in fresh salmon to do more than howl like a fool at the base of the tree trunk.
"I ... I don't know. He seems to have ... vanished," the woman said, sounding quite upset by now. Her voice vibrated like she was sitting on a washing machine during the spin cycle.
"Vanished?" Regan repeated, wanting to be sure she'd heard right. Her brain wasn't registering the facts at the speed they were being dealt her, and they weren't being dealt all that fast.
"Yes, Ms. Roslund. He seems to have disappeared."
Disappeared? Oh God! This was a bad gone. This was the worst kind of gone. Maybe. "Well ... wow. Okay. Um. Do you think this is a bad thing? I mean, did he maybe just forget to tell you he was going on vacation? Or could he have had a family emergency?" Please say yes!
"I doubt it. You see," the woman said. "not only has he vanished, but so has the money from almost all of his clients' accounts. I've been on the phone with clients all morning. The money is gone. Vanished without a trace. The police were here, asking me all kinds of questions. I don't know what it all means."
I do. It means he's gone. It means I'm destitute.
Regan's heart hit the floor. This wasn't happening. It was a sick joke, or a stupid mistake, or ... or a nightmare. "Mine too? Is my money gone?" she squeaked through a throat that was a hairbreadth shy of closing off completely.
"My guess is if you've called because you're having trouble accessing your accounts, then, yes, it's gone. I'm very sorry," the woman stammered. "I can give you the name of the police detective-"
Her eyes burned. Her stomach did several loop-the-loops. Her whole body started quaking. Her tongue tied itself into a knot. She struggled to untie it. "No, no. I'll ... I need to ... I'll call back a little later. Thank you. Good-bye." Regan didn't wait for the woman to respond; she just hit the END button. She didn't need to hear another word; she knew enough.
For the first time in her life, she didn't have even two nickels to rub together. And no family to turn to.
What the heck would she do if her money didn't show up? No work experience, no skills-unless power-shopping was considered a marketable job skill. How would she keep herself from starving to death? For some reason, she was pretty sure her bachelor's degree in liberal arts wouldn't get her very far in Detroit's tight job market.
The phone still clutched in her hand, she ran to her office and ripped out every financial document she had in her possession. There had to be some money stashed somewhere that Davis hadn't found. Stocks, bonds, gold? Jewelry? Anything that could be sold to keep a five-foot-two, one-hundred-ten-pound girl in food for a few months. Surely that couldn't take a whole lot. Twenty thousand, maybe?
"Why hadn't I listened to my friends? I'm such an idiot." She dropped her forehead onto the desk, letting it land with a dull, jarring thunk. Her brain threatened to burst through her eye sockets. "Why, why, why didn't I listen to them?" She lifted her head, a single piece of paper stuck to her sweaty forehead. She jerked it off and, grumbling, scanned the contents.
What was this? An answer to her prayer? "Thank you, Aunt Rose!"
"You have to."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"I'm the king." Shadow Sorenson pushed himself up from the leather recliner and resumed the pacing he'd only moments before abandoned. How had his life gotten to be such a mess in such a short time? Completely out of his control. "I don't have to do anything I don't want to."
Shadow's younger brother, Stefan, rolled his eyes for the third time in ten minutes. "You sound like a bratty kid. What are you, two?"
Shadow clamped his mouth shut, cutting off another obnoxious, poorly thought out retort. By the gods, Stefan was right! He did sound like a brat.
"Aha! You see? You won't even deny it." Stefan puffed up his chest like a peacock.
Whew, he needed to be knocked down to size. And Shadow knew the guy to do it.
He uncurled his fingers from his ready fist and pushed aside the massive framed portrait of his great-grandmother to reveal a small safe mounted into the library's wood-paneled wall. A few mild expletives slipped past his lips as he dialed the combination, shoved his hand into the safe, and withdrew a small box.
"You know you owe it to Father," Stefan said behind him.
"He paid with his life."
Sharp, hot pain shot through Shadow's chest. Did Stefan have to remind him of that fact every hour of the day and night? Wasn't it bad enough that his own conscience did? "Yeah, yeah. I'm well aware of that. Wish he hadn't, though," he murmured.
"Don't say that," his youngest brother, Rolf, said by way of a greeting.
Shadow spun on his heel and shoved the box into Rolf's hands. "Father always wanted the crown for me more than I wanted it for myself. That doesn't mean I won't do the right thing."
"Good, because my contacts in the western territories tell me that the rebels are gaining support," Rolf said, tucking the box into his jacket pocket. "It's only a matter of time, and we're talking weeks at most, before they're organized enough to be a real threat."
"I won't let that happen. Not again. Our people deserve some stability for a change. I think we've all had enough of the riots and rebellions."
"You're doing the right thing," Stefan said, clapping Shadow on the back.
"Yeah, yeah. I wish it didn't have to come to this. I hate the idea. The fact that I'm literally binding myself to some ... strange human ... just to gain a little strength makes me-"
Stefan gave a sarcastic scoff. "A little strength? By binding yourself to a human, you'll gain the power of all the kings before you. So you lose a little personal freedom in the bargain? What a price to pay to be the most powerful vampire in history."
"Power isn't everything." Shadow escorted his youngest brother to the door.
"Says you," Rolf retorted over his shoulder. "But you're the eternal pessimist. I prefer looking on the bright side of things."
"Someday you'll understand what I mean."
"There's nothing to understand," Rolf said. "You marry the Chosen, you gain the Power. The rebellion comes to an instant halt. There will be no way to unseat you, and everyone knows it. To challenge you for the crown would be suicide."
That was true, and Shadow knew it. According to their laws, in order to unseat a king, a ritual had to be followed. A physical face-off. Man to man. No weapons. A test of strength. Once he was married, Shadow would be so strong, he could defeat any opponent without breaking a sweat.
But he still wondered if that would be enough to gain back his people's support. He might still face leading a group of clansmen who despised him.
Shadow tipped his head toward the door in a silent command. When Rolf didn't leave, he said, "Go ahead. Go see Eudor the mage. Get the spells. He will tell you how to find the Chosen, my bride. It's the full moon." He sighed, not bothering to hide his misery, and sunk into the recliner. "A perfect night for a wedding."
His sister, Tyra, swept into the room like a fresh spring breeze. "What's going on, Quinby?"
"I'm leaving in a few minutes. Getting married," he said flatly.
"Oh! That's wonderful." She did her typical Tyra graceful gazellelike dash across the room and threw herself into his arms. "I'm so happy for you. Where are you going? Can I come too?"
Standing, he gazed down at his beautiful sister. Only seventeen. So young and full of life and spirit. "No, Ty. You need to stay here." At her subtle pout, he added, "I promise to bring my bride up to meet you as soon as I return. I have to go now. You be careful. I don't want anything to happen while I'm gone. Stay in your suite."
"Yeah, yeah. You're such a bossy brother." She smiled and sighed as he gently pushed her toward the door. "Act like a king or something," she quipped over her shoulder. Then she pecked him on the cheek and waved a good-bye as she strolled down the hall toward her suite. "Don't be all bossy to your wife. Women don't like that sort of thing, you know."
"That's it. I've died and gone to hell." Regan stood at the front of the most horrific storefront she'd ever seen. In the semidark of nightfall, the building looked like it had been transplanted from a war zone. Crumbling, dilapidated, just plain ugly. Concrete blocks with chipping gray paint. Or was that supposed to be white? A battered wood door painted a deep purple.
A gaudy neon sign in the hazy window shouted BLACK ROSE in flickering red letters, and tacky purple curtains hung in the window, shutting off the contents of the store from passersby. What sense did that make? Wasn't a window supposed to lure customers into the store, not shut them out? (Continues...)
Excerpted from DARK MASTER by TAWNY TAYLOR Copyright © 2008 by Tawny Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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