Hungers of the Heart
DRAKE HAD BEEN living in Baltimore for almost a month, and he still hadn't fully moved in to his new house. The place had belonged to a fledgling Killer Gabriel had dispatched when he'd taken over as Master of Baltimore, and no one had set foot in it since its owner's death. So far, Drake had spent most of his time cleaning out the detritus of six months' neglect and repairing the worst of the damages. It appeared the former occupant hadn't been much of a handyman. Or a housekeeper.
Tonight's task was to get rid of the hideous peeling wallpaper in the first-floor bathroom. He'd feared he'd have to steam it off--a tedious and time-consuming process--but when he started pulling at one of the strips, it tore away easily from the wall. Unfortunately, the wall beneath the wallpaper was painted a dreadful shade of puke green. Drake was beginning to hate this damn house.
He'd just torn off the last strip of wallpaper--along with a big patch of the ugly green paint--when his doorbell rang. He stuffed the wallpaper into the trash, then tried to rinse some of the sticky, pasty mess off his hands as the doorbell rang again, repeatedly. A quick psychic survey told him there was a vampire on his doorstep. He hoped it wasn't Gabriel--he was feeling too surly right now to keep his tongue under control, and Gabriel usually rubbed him the wrong way within the first five minutes of any conversation.
His hands were still sticky, and he would probably have to use Lava soap to get all the paste off, but whoever was ringing the bell didn't seem eager to wait.
Drake exited the bathroom and headed for the front door, realizing it couldn't be Gabriel. If Gabriel wanted in this badly, he would have used his telekinetic powers to unlock the door. The doorbell was now accompanied by the sound of a fist hammering against the wood.
"I'm coming!" Drake shouted as he hurried through the living room, temper flaring. He doubted whoever was at the door could hear over the constant ringing and banging.
He didn't bother looking through the peephole, instead flinging the door open as soon as he'd unlocked the last lock.
The temper that had been simmering in his chest died down instantly when he saw Jezebel, Gabriel's fledgling and lady-love, standing on his doorstep with red-rimmed eyes and tear tracks on her cheeks. Now that she wasn't pounding on the door anymore, her arms were crossed over her chest and her shoulders hunched in what looked like a defensive position. She looked small and miserable and frightened, and foreboding buzzed through Drake's body. He quickly stepped aside to let her in.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Jez stood in the foyer and shivered. "Gabriel's missing."
Drake frowned, then took her by the arm and guided her into the living room. She didn't seem capable of moving on her own, and her eyes were distant, as if only a fraction of her attention was focused in this room. He had to press down on her shoulders to get her to sit on the couch. Then he took a seat next to her.
"What do you mean, missing?" he asked.
She blinked, and her eyes finally focused on his face. She shivered again. "I mean I can't find him anywhere, and when I try to communicate with him, I get nothing."
By some quirk of Gabriel's unusual birth, his bond with Jezebel was much closer than the usual bond between a master and fledgling. They were able to sense each other's emotions to some extent, and they were able to communicate telepathically.
"I can still ... feel him. He's alive. But I can't reach him." She looked at Drake with wide, frightened eyes. "What can that mean?"
"Maybe he's blocking you for some reason." Drake could well imagine Gabriel trying to block her out if he was doing something she wouldn't like. But Jezebel shook her head.
"This feels different."
"Did he have any plans for the day that you know of?" Another of the many differences between Gabriel and "normal" vampires was his ability to tolerate the sunlight. Most vampires grew progressively more tolerant as they aged, but Gabriel had been able to travel about as freely as a mortal man since puberty.
A tear leaked from Jezebel's eye and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. "Not that he told me. He came to bed with me this morning, and when I woke up at sunset, he was gone." She sniffed loudly, then swallowed back tears. "We have to find him."
"I assume you tried calling his cell?"
She gave him a look of pure annoyance. "Of course I did."
He made a placating gesture with one hand. "I was just making sure. You looked pretty distraught when I first opened the door." She still looked miserable and frightened, but she wasn't much of a weeper. When the initial shock wore off, she would leap into action with reckless abandon. It was the "reckless" part that worried him.
"If someone's hurt him," she said, "I'll kill them."
Jez wasn't a Killer. In fact, as far as Drake knew, she'd never killed anyone, mortal or vampire. But the look in her eyes said she meant what she said.
"Let's not jump to conclusions just yet," he counseled. "Gabriel's damn hard to hurt. I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason you can't reach him right now. He'll probably be in touch soon. It's only been, what, forty minutes or so since sunset? Maybe time got away from him and he hasn't realized you're awake yet."
But Jez shook her head. "If he were planning to go out, he would have told me. Especially if he was going so far away we couldn't communicate."
Drake wasn't so sure. Gabriel was an autocratic, controlling bastard, and though there was no question he loved Jez, Drake could think of any number of reasons why he'd neglect to share his plans with her.
Jez skewered him with a piercing stare. "Did he tell you he was planning to be away?"
The thought was laughable--Gabriel wasn't big on sharing. "He didn't mention anything."
Jez looked suspicious. "I'd better not find out this is some kind of male conspiracy to protect my delicate sensibilities."
Drake couldn't help smiling. "You won't. I swear, he didn't confide in me. But I still think it's too early to get upset. I'm sure he wouldn't intentionally worry you like this, but he's as capable of making a mistake as the next man. Why don't we head back to your place and wait to see if we hear from him?"
She leapt to her feet with an impatient grunt. "I can't just sit around and wait!" She started toward the door, but Drake cut her off before she reached it. She was more on edge than he'd realized, because she actually lowered her fangs and growled at him. "Get out of my way, Drake."
He kept his voice low and soothing. "Hold on a minute. You can't just go dashing off by yourself without a plan."
"Watch me," she snapped, trying to dodge around him.
If Gabriel really was in some kind of trouble, then Jez was clearly no match for the enemy. And whether Gabriel was in trouble or not, if Drake let her rush into danger, Gabriel would kill him. He once again blocked her path, this time grabbing her arms to hold her still.
Her eyes practically glowed with fury. "Let go."
Of course, if he manhandled Jez in an attempt to keep her here, Gabriel would probably object to that, too.
"Please, Jezebel," he said, trying to imbue his voice with all the calming, soothing qualities Eli always did. "Let's go back to your house first and make certain he hasn't called and left a message. If he hasn't, we'll go looking for him together."
Without some clue as to where he might have gone, it would be a fruitless search, but perhaps it would appease Jezebel long enough for her good sense to return. Drake let go of her arms while holding her gaze.
Her fangs withdrew as he watched, but there was still an unmistakable glint of anger in her eyes. "All right," she agreed, her voice clipped and brusque. "But don't get in my way again. Understand?"
"Sure," Drake agreed. He hoped it wouldn't come to that, but he'd do whatever he needed to do to keep her safe while Gabriel was gone.
With one more warning glare, Jez stepped around him and jerked his front door open.
AS LUCK WOULD have it, they didn't have to set foot in the house that Gabriel and Jez occupied to get their first inkling of what might have happened to him.
Drake didn't recognize the couple who were sitting on the steps leading up to the columned doorway of the palatial Federal Hill house. But from the way Jezebel gasped, he thought he could venture a guess as to their identity.
The woman was a petite, dark-haired beauty with a pale complexion. The V-neck of her clingy burgundy sweater revealed a great expanse of what would have been cleavage had she not had the breasts of a teenage boy. Sitting one step behind her was a sullen-looking young man in an expensive Italian suit, his shirt unbuttoned to display as much of his chest as the woman's.
The woman stood up gracefully despite a pair of stiletto heels that added four inches to her height. Her companion remained sitting, his eyes now fixed on Jezebel. The smile on his face was best described as unwholesome. He ran his tongue suggestively over his full lips.
Jezebel ignored the man, instead coming to a stop with her legs shoulder width apart, her arms akimbo. Drake stepped up beside her in silent support, keeping an eye on the dangerous-looking male.
The woman smiled, an incongruously sweet expression on her face. "Why, Jezebel dear, is there a new man in your life?" She gave Drake a mocking once-over, then nodded in approval. "I must commend your taste." Her English held a trace of an accent, though Drake couldn't place it. German, perhaps?
"Get the hell away from my house, Brigitte. And get your boy toy off my stairs." Jezebel sounded deceptively calm, but every nuance of her stance radiated tension.
Brigitte raised one eyebrow. "Or what?" She looked at Drake again. "Your new boyfriend might be nice to look at, but he's no match for me or Henri."
Henri had dragged his eyes away from Jezebel and was now staring at Drake. The expression on his face didn't change, as if he lusted after both of them equally, though from what Drake understood of him, it wasn't necessarily lust for sex that put that eerie gleam in his eyes.
Other than Gabriel, Brigitte was the only born vampire Drake had ever heard of. Younger than Gabriel by a full two centuries, she was nevertheless more practiced at manipulating the unique bond between a born vampire and his or her fledgling, and Henri was almost as old as she. Together, they were a formidable force, especially considering the weakened state Gabriel remained in ever since he'd rescued Jezebel from some kind of psychic Purgatory. His incredibly powerful glamour wasn't reliable these days, and Drake could imagine him falling prey to Brigitte and Henri if they caught him when his glamour failed.
Jez was practically vibrating with tension and fury. With Gabriel around, she'd always been the voice of reason, the antidote to his fierce and erratic temper. Drake had almost forgotten she had a temper of her own. And her control over it was fraying.
Brigitte giggled, a sound that grated on Drake's nerves.
"Do you think she's going to attack me, Henri?" she asked her fledgling, who finally rose and came to stand at her shoulder.
"Oh, I do hope so." Henri's accent was much stronger than his maker's, and obviously French.
Brigitte giggled again. "Behave, dearest. I have a strong suspicion Gabriel would be unable to forgive us any harm we did to his little plaything."
Henri raised one corner of his mouth in a sneer. "That would be tragic."
Brigitte's brow furrowed in annoyance and she glanced at him briefly. Henri lowered his head but didn't apologize or take the words back.
"What have you done with Gabriel?" Jezebel demanded.
"Don't worry, he's fine. In fact, I've done him something of a favor, as I intend to explain. Would you be so kind as to invite us into your lovely home?"
"When Hell freezes over."
Brigitte's smile remained sweet and innocuous. "You can invite us in, or we can force our way in." She swept both Jez and Drake with a contemptuous glance. "The two of you certainly aren't going to stop us."
Jez didn't look like she was about to see reason, so Drake quickly spoke up.
"Let's hear what they have to say," he suggested. "You know we need to, whether we want to or not."
The look Jezebel shot him was not in the least bit friendly, but he didn't care. She had to know they were outmatched. Besides, they couldn't let Brigitte leave without telling them what she'd done with Gabriel.
With a grunt of disgust, Jez pushed past Brigitte, giving Henri a wide berth as she stomped up the stairs and shoved her key in the lock. Drake had never seen anyone unlock a door with so much fury before. Brigitte and Henri shared a condescending, amused smile, then linked arms and followed Jez into the house.
Feeling like an afterthought, Drake brought up the rear.
The house that Jez and Gabriel shared had belonged to Gabriel's mother when she'd been the Master of Baltimore. Which meant it was palatial in scale and decor. The marble foyer with its grand staircase and carved mahogany balustrade was enough to awe the average American, but neither Brigitte nor Henri spared a glance at their surroundings. No doubt the old and powerful vampires of Europe--so much older and more powerful than almost any in the New World--lived in homes that were literally palaces.
Jez guided her unwanted visitors into the "receiving room," a converted drawing room decorated with the opulence and excess of Versailles, complete with a gilt ceiling. It was Gabriel's mother who had decorated the place, but Gabriel hadn't seen fit to change anything. To say the room was over the top was an understatement, but it did at least catch Brigitte's attention. She examined the genuine Louis XV furniture and the dark, brooding oil paintings that adorned the walls and smiled.
"How very interesting," she murmured. "Somehow, I can't picture Gabriel in his sexy black leather fitting in here."
Both Jez and Henri visibly took exception to the implication that Brigitte thought of Gabriel as "sexy," but she didn't give them time to object before she took a seat on the edge of one of those lovely antique sofas and spoke again.
"As you've obviously guessed, I have Gabriel."
Henri took up a post standing behind Brigitte, both his hands lying lightly on the back of the sofa. Once again, however, his unnerving attention was fixed on Jez, his eyes locked at chest level. Jez was far too distracted to notice, and she took her own seat to the right of Gabriel's seat of honor--an incongruous-looking twentieth-century Stickley chair at the head of the room.
Drake hesitated, not sure where he should sit, and Brigitte looked distinctly amused. His usual seat was to the left of Gabriel's, but he didn't like the symbolism of leaving the seat of power empty.
Knowing it was going to piss Jez off big time, Drake nonetheless dropped into Gabriel's chair. Brigitte smiled in what looked like satisfaction, and Jez glared at him in outrage.
"I see someone's tired of playing second banana," Brigitte said.
Drake managed a casual shrug, though internally he squirmed in discomfort. He'd been "second banana," as she termed it, his entire life. It was a role he was accustomed to, felt comfortable in. But there was no such thing as a vampire democracy. With Gabriel gone, someone had to take charge. Being more than a century older than the next oldest of Gabriel's Guardians, that task fell to Drake.
"I'm not one for delusions of grandeur," he said with what he hoped was nonchalance. "But I'm the second in command, so if Gabriel's not here, I'm in charge."
Brigitte's smile only deepened. "Maybe you'll find the position suits you. Maybe you wouldn't be terribly disappointed if Gabriel remained gone for a good long time."
Jez shot to her feet, but before she got more than a squeak out of her mouth, Drake seized her with his glamour. "Sit down, Jezebel," he said, then used his glamour to enforce that order. She glared at him even more fiercely, but he knew he was doing the right thing. With Gabriel in danger, she was going to be far too emotional to play nice with Brigitte.
Brigitte laughed. "What an impressive display," she mocked. "Did you see that, Henri? He was able to subdue a baby fledgling."
Henri touched his tongue to his lips again. "I'm very impressed."
"Are you going to waste more time playing games, or will you get to the point?" Drake asked, keeping his hold on Jez while pretending to ignore her.
Brigitte shot him one of her terribly sincere-looking fake smiles. "If you know anything about me, Jonathan, you should know that playing games is one of my favorite activities."
Drake was startled enough that he lost his hold on Jez.
"Jonathan?" Jez asked, curiosity temporarily replacing anger.
Brigitte looked at Jez and raised one shapely brow. "You sound surprised, dear. Did you not know the identity of your sweetheart's second-in-command?"
"My name's Drake!" he snapped while mentally he did his best to regroup. How the hell had she learned his name? Even Eli hadn't known it.
"Indeed," Brigitte agreed. "Jonathan Drake. Mother, Eloise Stewart. Father, Connor Drake. Born a bastard in New York in 1872. Shall I continue?"
It simply wasn't possible for her to know this. The only people who knew his true identity were in New York. The mortals among them were long dead, and considering the dreadful violence of the neighborhood where he'd once lived, it had seemed likely the vampires who'd known him would also be dead by now. Apparently, that wasn't the case.
Dammit. In the space of a few heartbeats, he'd allowed himself to lose total control of the conversation--and of himself.
What did it matter if Brigitte knew his full name? And what did it matter how she'd learned it? Pull yourself together, he commanded himself.
He reached out with his glamour once more and captured Jez, then ruthlessly shoved aside all the questions and doubts that hammered at him.
"Tell me what you've done with Gabriel and what you want."
Brigitte pouted. "You're no fun."
"I'm devastated to hear that."
She laughed with what might have been her first hint of genuine humor. "I can see it breaks your heart. But I'm sure you'll provide entertainment eventually."
"And you're beginning to bore the hell out of me. Where is Gabriel?"
"He's safe," she said once again. "You might not appreciate my methods, but I do have his best interests at heart. I need him, and he's no good to me dead."
Brigitte was under the misguided impression that because she and Gabriel were both born vampires they were somehow soul mates, or at least natural allies. And Brigitte desperately needed an ally. In the Old World, born vampires were slaughtered at birth. Gabriel had managed to live only because Eli had kept him hidden and then fled to the New World when his existence became known. Brigitte was allowed to live because her mother was one of Les Vieux, the oldest and most powerful vampires in all of the Old World. Like Eli, Les Vieux were physically bound to their homes but could create illusory avatars of themselves that could travel the length and breadth of the territories they controlled. Being illusions, these avatars were indestructible.
According to Gabriel, Brigitte's mother planned to keep her alive only as long as her power remained manageable. But Brigitte had grown powerful enough that she feared for her life and had thus fled to America. She had some vision of teaming up with Gabriel and storming the castles of the Old World when they were old and powerful enough to destroy Les Vieux. The fact that Gabriel wanted nothing to do with her didn't seem to have sunk in. Or perhaps it was her supreme arrogance that convinced her that one day, she would win him over.
Drake felt his hold on Jez weakening despite his superior strength. He flicked his gaze in her direction, willing her to hold still and keep quiet even as he let her go. He hoped she had enough functioning brain cells to realize she only amused her adversary by her too-obvious reactions.
"Tell me exactly what you're keeping Gabriel safe from," Drake demanded, and Jez stayed silent.
Brigitte lost her perpetual smile, her eyes suddenly grave. "My mother is sending a delegation to America. They plan to capture me and take me back home. And, since they know Gabriel's here, they'll want to take care of him, too. Only him they'll just kill."
Jez made a low growling sound in the back of her throat. "And how do they know Gabriel's here?"
Brigitte covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes widening in mock distress as she gasped. "Oh, dear. I think I may have let that slip last time I talked to Mother."
Drake restrained Jez with glamour once more, knowing she wouldn't be able to keep silent in the face of that revelation.
"Why would you do that?" Drake asked. "If you have his best interests at heart, as you claim."
She rolled her eyes. "I have my own best interests at heart first." She looked over her shoulder at Henri. "Why are the pretty ones always so stupid?"
Henri tore his eyes away from Jezebel's chest and met his maker's gaze. "You are pretty, and you are not stupid."
She fluttered a hand at her chest. "You're such a charmer!"
He snorted, then went back to his examination of Jez's breasts. It was really beginning to get on Drake's nerves.
"One would think you'd never seen breasts before," Drake said, knowing he should keep his mouth shut but unable to resist. He made a show of glancing at Brigitte's nonexistent cleavage. "Then again, maybe you haven't."
Twin spots of color warmed her cheeks, though Henri didn't acknowledge the taunt with anything more than a dirty look. However, he stopped staring.
"Are you ever going to get to the point?" Drake asked.
Her cheeks still rosy, Brigitte answered in a flat voice. "The point is I have Gabriel somewhere safe, where my mother's delegation can't get to him. And, coincidentally, where he can't help my mother's delegation get to me. Their plane should be arriving in Baltimore any moment now, and they will most definitely want to speak to Gabriel. Naturally, they will promise to leave him alive, but they'll be lying. And they'll think you're lying if you tell them you don't know where he is. The good news is their antiquated rules of engagement will insist they defeat the local master before harming his people or hunting in his territory. The bad news is if they get desperate enough, they'll ignore the rules.
"I want you to know that whatever they might promise or whatever they might threaten, you don't want them to catch me. Because, you see, if they do, then you'll never find out where I've hidden Gabriel. Let me assure you, he won't be escaping from where I've put him. Do you have any idea how long it would take a vampire of his age to die of starvation?" She shuddered theatrically. "Not a good way to go."
Jez's eyes widened in distress, though Drake's glamour wouldn't allow her a more dramatic display.
Drake shook his head. "What do you want of us? What will it take to get Gabriel back?"
Brigitte smiled. "I don't expect you to take on the delegation. They are well out of your league. But any efforts you can make to hamper them will go a long way toward assuring Gabriel's safety.
"You'll get Gabriel back when the delegation has been defeated, one way or another." She gave him a sly look. "Unless you decide that seat feels comfortable, in which case I would be happy to negotiate alternate terms."
He felt Jez's eyes on him but didn't dignify Brigitte's statement with a reply.
With a satisfied smirk, Brigitte rose, and Henri hurried around to the front of the sofa to offer his arm, which she took.
"We'll see ourselves out," she said, and allowed Henri to steer her toward the door. Then she pulled up. "Oh, wait!" she cried. "I almost forgot." She disengaged her arm from Henri's, then fished a folded piece of paper from her pocket. She held the paper out to Drake.
"This is for you," she said, her eyes glittering with some expression he couldn't interpret.
When he didn't take it, she let the paper fall to his lap. With a satisfied little sigh, she returned to Henri and allowed him to escort her to the front door.
Copyright © 2008 by Jenna Black