Read an Excerpt
Out for Blood
By Kristen Painter
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Kristen Painter
All right reserved.
Paradise City, New Florida, 2067
Deep in sleep, Chrysabelle curled against a cold, steely form that paralleled her own. The oddness of that burrowed through her consciousness and tugged her toward the surface. She reached behind her. Her fingertips collided with a hard midsection.
A body. In her bed.
Years of comarré training kicked in. Coming awake, she twisted and looked directly into dark, familiar eyes. She stared, a thousand responses firing across her synapses, the foremost being relief. She blinked twice and shed the remnants of sleep enough to find words. “You’re in my bed.”
Mal nodded, irises sparking silver. “I do have to sleep occasionally, you know.” A lilting smile curved his mouth. “I’m glad you finally woke. How are you feeling?”
She ignored the question, not sure enough of an answer to give him one, and pushed to a sitting position, gathering the coverlet around her. In doing so, she exposed him. He wore only pajama bottoms she didn’t recognize. The names scrawled over his skin glared back from his chest and arms. Somehow she managed to look away, scooting to the edge of the bed until her toes touched plush ivory carpeting. “How long have I been out?”
“Not long. About a day and a half.”
She rubbed her forehead, then pushed the hair out of her eyes. “That’s long enough. What happened? I don’t remember much beyond going to see Atticus, then…” She squinted, trying to think. She’d gone to Dominic’s signumist to replace the signum Rennata had stripped off her back. Before that, they’d been in New Orleans, retrieving the ring of sorrows. She’d needed the ring’s sacred gold for her new signum. But her memory faded not long after she’d lain down on Atticus’s table. After the first puncture of his needle. She shook her head. “There’s nothing after that.”
“Nothing?” The bed moved as he shifted. “You’re sure?”
“Positive.” She kicked her foot out, rubbing her toe through the carpet fibers. The signum arching over her foot glinted back. “Everything fades to black after Atticus started stitching the signum into me.” She rolled her shoulders, examining the way her body felt. There was an eerie lack of pain. She turned to look at him. “I take it you brought me back here when he was done?”
Mal nodded. “After Atticus said it was okay to move you. Velimai helped me get you settled.”
“Did anything else happen? I should be in pain.” A lot of it. “It takes longer than a day and a half to recover from new signum.”
“Yes, something else happened.” Mal growled his displeasure. “Not long after we got you into bed, you decided you were well enough to visit the Aurelian. I only found out because I smelled blood. Velimai and I had to break the door down. That’s when we discovered you’d opened the portal on the bathroom floor.” He shook his head, eyes flaring silver. “Of all the foolish things. You should thank that wysper. She made me go after you—”
“What?” Chrysabelle cringed. Why didn’t she remember any of this? “You went through the portal again? You know what happened the last time—”
“Chrysabelle, the Aurelian killed you. I found her cleaning blood off her sword and you on the floor, bleeding from a gut wound. No pulse. No breath. You were dead.” He peered at her more intently. “Or at least I thought you were.”
“Obviously, I wasn’t.” Or was she? That might explain why she couldn’t remember anything. But how was she alive now? “Besides, you knew I was going to go see her to find out as much about my brother as I could. That was the whole point of getting the signum.” But how had she found the strength for a trip to the Aurelian so soon after getting them? There was no way she would have been healed enough for that. She hugged the coverlet a little tighter and turned to see him better. “Do you know if she told me anything?”
He looked down at the bed for a second, then shook his head slowly. “You told me she knew your brother’s name but wouldn’t say it so you could hear it, or something like that. I wish things had gone differently for you. I really do.” A black determination shone in his gaze. “If I ever see the Aurelian again, I will kill her for what she did to you.”
Fortunately, Mal would never get that chance, so his threat didn’t worry her. “Not telling me my brother’s name isn’t really a crime punishable by death.”
“She killed you. How is that not upsetting to you?”
Chrysabelle spread one arm out wide. “Do I look dead? You must have misunderstood what happened.”
Tension tightened his jaw. “I misunderstood nothing. I carried your lifeless body back here.”
“Maybe I just passed out.”
“And had no heartbeat and no breath?” He rolled his eyes. “Is cheating death a comarré power you never told me about?”
“No, of course not.” She pulled her arm against her side and hunched her back, her skin suddenly too tight. The need to stretch was overwhelming. “There has to be an explanation for what happened.”
“There is. You were dead.” With a shake of his head, he lay down again and stared at the ceiling. “Stop ignoring what happened.”
But she wasn’t ready for that truth. It implied things had gone wrong with the gold. That melting the ring of sorrows hadn’t removed its power like it should have. If she didn’t concede something to Mal, he’d never let this conversation end. “I’ll admit everything’s not a hundred percent right.”
“When is it ever?” He shoved off the bed and padded across the room to stand by the French doors going out to the balcony. He pushed the curtains aside. The sun had just set, leaving the world awash in purple shadows. He peered out, then let the curtains drop and turned back to her, crossing his arms over his bare chest as he leaned against the doors.
She tossed the coverlet aside, wrapped the sheet around her like a strapless dress, and walked to him. “Let’s not go looking for trouble. I survived a killing blow. That’s something to be thankful for.”
“I agree, but”—he shook his head—“you don’t seem like yourself.”
Her brow furrowed. “In what way?”
“The way you…” He shrugged. “It’s nothing, I guess. Just the leftover stress of it all. Never mind. I’m sure you’re fine.”
She ignored his sarcasm. “Absolutely.” But she wasn’t and she knew it. He was giving her an out, but he didn’t believe his words any more than she did, and that knowledge hung in the air between them. A shard of thought pierced her mind, but it was a shadowy, hollow awareness she wasn’t ready to acknowledge. And telling Mal her suspicions would only mean he’d rant and rave. That would solve nothing. What was she going to do? Have the signum removed from her skin because of a hunch? Having them torn out once was enough.
“You’re still a bad liar.”
She tried to smile. “See? Nothing’s changed.” She rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I’m starving.”
His eyes went completely silver. He turned toward the balcony as his face shifted into the hard, angled mask of a noble vampire.
She lifted her chin. “So are you. I felt how cold you were when you were beside me.”
He kept his eyes focused on the horizon. “I’m fine.”
“Now who’s the liar?” The urge to touch him, to soothe him, surged through her. Instead, she walked back to the bed and occupied herself with straightening the coverlet. “Let me get a shower, then I’ll get you some blood. Will you ask Velimai to make me something to eat?”
His face human again, he nodded and looked toward her. “Of course. I guess you’ll want to see Damian after you eat. He’s at the freighter, guarding another—”
“Tatiana’s comar is at your freighter?”
“Yes. I know you don’t remember, but you said his name before you passed out. You must want to talk to him about something.”
She sank down on the bed and tried again to recall what the Aurelian had told her, but nothing came. “I must have thought he could help me find my brother.” She shook her head. “I’m not up to seeing anyone yet. Maybe in a day or two. Right now, I just want to shower, eat, and feed you. Then I need to do some thinking.”
He tipped his head to one side as if suppressing the urge to say something. “Your call, but don’t you think it’s possible the Aurelian told you something Damian might be able to help you with? Maybe he knew your brother?”
She shrugged his words away. “Without knowing more than the singular fact that I have a brother, how can he help me? I have no name to give him. No idea who my brother’s patron might have been. Nothing.” She sighed. “It’s so frustrating.”
“What if Damian is your brother?”
She glared at him. “He’s not. Don’t you think I’d know if he was?”
“No, I don’t. You didn’t even meet him when he was here. How could you know?”
“Stop pushing. I’ll talk to him, I will. Just not yet.” She rolled her shoulders again, trying to alleviate the uneasiness coursing through her. Mal’s insistence wasn’t helping her mood.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” He studied her as if she might suddenly grow a third eye.
“I’m well enough, considering,” she lied, nerves fraying slightly. “Please, just leave me alone to shower, okay? I’ll feel better after I eat.”
He held his hands up and headed for the door, grabbing a T-shirt off the end of the bed as he went.
She sighed. She’d apologize for snapping when she went downstairs, but he must understand she wasn’t quite herself at the moment. Why did he have to push so hard?
When the door closed, she walked to the bathroom, dropped her robe, and stared at the signum Atticus had replaced. Nothing about them looked any different than her other marks, and yet she knew that the gold had changed her. For better or worse remained to be seen.
Chrysabelle wasn’t fine—that much Mal knew. Her glow was different. Darker. He also knew that what she didn’t want to talk about—the power from the ring of sorrows being somehow responsible for her surviving the Aurelian’s sword—wasn’t just going to magically wear off. He never should have put his blood into her, never should have let her get the signum replaced, never should have let her go to the Aurelian alone. Never never never. Weakling.
He snorted in anger as he plodded down the steps from her suite, half agreeing with the voices. As if he had any control over any of those things. He’d no more let her die than she’d let him stop her from doing what she wanted. And now there was a price to pay.
How high a price? Who knew. But having the ring’s power coursing through her had to mean more than just keeping her alive when her life was threatened. That was too simple. He ducked into the hurricane shelter room that had served as his sunproof sanctuary and changed into his T-shirt, jeans, and boots. Power had a way of exacting a price for its use. Tatiana was proof of that. So are you.
He shut the door behind him and headed down the hall and into the kitchen. Velimai, the wysper fae who’d been Chrysabelle’s mother’s assistant, sat at the table with a cup of tea, scanning her e-reader. It was good she’d stayed on after Maris’s death. He didn’t like Chrysabelle being alone in this huge house, and with Velimai’s vampire-killing voice, the fae offered good protection should Tatiana come calling.
Velimai looked up when he came in. She signed something he didn’t understand, then pointed toward the upstairs.
“Yes,” he answered, guessing at what she’d asked. “She’s awake. And hungry. And a little cranky.” Who wouldn’t be around you?
The wysper offered him a wry smile, set her reader down, and headed for the refrigerator. She pulled out a few things, then gave him a questioning look and a nod toward Chrysabelle’s rooms as she went to the counter.
He pulled out a chair and sat, his back to the wall. “She’s in the shower. Should be down shortly.”
Velimai stopped seasoning a steak to give him a good, long look. She slowly mouthed, “You look tired.”
“I am.” Tired of always being at odds with Chrysabelle’s stubbornness. “And frustrated. She doesn’t want to talk about what happened.” He tilted his head back until it touched the wall, then closed his eyes. “Or what’s still happening. Or going to happen, depending on how you look at it.”
Two soft clinks on the tabletop brought his head back down and opened his eyes. Velimai tapped the top of the whiskey bottle she’d put there with a squat glass, then glided back to the range where the grill was heating.
“Thanks.” What he really needed was blood, but that could wait. No, now. He’d had enough practice in delaying his own gratification. Another hour or so meant nothing. He poured a couple centimeters of whiskey into the tumbler and tossed them back. The burn felt good. Substantial. Something he could quantify. Unlike Chrysabelle, who continued to bewilder him. “We’ll have to discuss it sooner or later.”
Velimai nodded. The steak sizzled as she laid it over the grill, the scents of searing, bloody flesh reminding Mal of his human days. A muted whir filled the room as the vent kicked on to suck up the smoke. She put down the tongs she’d been using, came back to the table, scrawled something on an e-tablet, then held it out to him.
She’ll talk when she’s ready. You & I know it’s the ring in her system. Maybe your blood too. But what can you do until she’s ready? Fight with her? No use.
Mal set the e-tablet down and leaned back. “No use is right. I just can’t help but wonder what the final cost of all this is going to be.”
Velimai sighed and went back to the steak.
“The final cost of what is going to be?” Chrysabelle cinched her robe a little tighter as she entered. Her hair was dry. Maybe she’d changed her mind about showering. The look in her eyes said she understood perfectly well what they were talking about.
He didn’t want to fight with her. Do it. But neither did he want to ignore something so critical. Velimai glanced at him, her expression plainly asking him to drop it. But he couldn’t. This was too important. This was Chrysabelle’s life. Her future. “The final cost of what’s going on with you. With the ring’s power in your system.”
“The ring’s power was destroyed when Atticus melted it down. I told you I’m fine. If you can’t accept that, maybe you should go.”
He canted his head to one side, trying to quell his building frustration. “Chrysabelle, don’t be—”
“It’s my house,” she said quietly. “I’ll be whatever I want to be, understood?”
He rose, thankful there was no sun in the sky to keep him captive here. “Let me know when you’re ready to be someone who wants to face reality, because if you think the ring’s power and my blood in your system aren’t somehow responsible for you still being alive, you’re wrong. And we need to figure out what else it means before something new happens. Tatiana’s still out there. The first sign of weakness in you and she’ll exploit it. You think she won’t?”
Her face went slightly ashen. “You don’t want me to have a moment’s peace, do you?”
“Of course I do.” He tried not to growl in frustration but failed. “I just want to figure this out. To help you.” Help yourself. Bite her. Drain her.
She crossed her arms like a shield against him. “Yes, I know how you help. Like the time you followed me to the Aurelian. And the time you put your blood into me to save my life. Your help is never really that helpful, is it?”
He came closer, staring down at her maddening glow. “You’re still breathing, aren’t you?”
“Yes. And I’m tired of the air smelling like vampire.” She turned away. “Go home, Mal. When I’m ready, I’ll come find you.”
Every cell in his body ached to fire back, but he stayed silent despite the voices trying to pry his jaws open. He stalked out of the house and slammed the door behind him. The voices raged like drunken carnival revelers.
Maybe the voices were right. Maybe it was time to let Chrysabelle go. Let her deal with her life on her own.
If only he could get his heart to agree.
Corvinestri, Romania, 2067
She is the most remarkable child, isn’t she?” Tatiana gazed into the perfect face of her daughter, Lilith.
The kine doctor swallowed and glanced at Octavian, who sat in one of the nursery’s rocking chairs. “Yes, she is… exceptional. If you wish, I could test a sample of her blood, make sure she carries no human defects.”
“Defects?” Tatiana scowled. “What is that supposed to mean? The only spot on her is the birthmark on her hip.” She pulled down Lilith’s pantaloons enough to show off the perfect crescent moon shape.
The doctor inhaled and took a step back. “Nothing untoward, I promise you. It’s just that human children are immunized against human diseases. We have no way of knowing if Lilith needs these things or not.” He smoothed the pockets of his white coat. “I meant no disrespect of any kind. Clearly she is a… superior being.”
Tatiana kept her gaze on him, narrowing her eyes slightly and saying nothing until he squirmed a little more. Kine were so easy to control. “No blood tests.”
“My love,” Octavian said. “The tests might not be such a bad idea. We want the best for her. That includes the best care. You don’t know what she might have picked up from her mother.”
Tatiana turned toward the vampire who’d become inseparable from her since his recent turning. She’d come to rely on him far more than she’d ever relied on anyone else. It unnerved her, but she chose not to dwell on it. “You think she could be in danger from a human illness?”
He shrugged and pushed out of the rocker to stand beside her. He stroked his finger down Lilith’s pink cheek, his eyes sparking silver. “We don’t want to take any chances with our precious girl, do we?”
If only Tatiana’s own father had cared so much about his daughter. Lilith wasn’t even Octavian’s blood. “No,” she said softly, drinking in the fatherly affection he displayed toward her adopted child. “Only the best for her.”
Octavian smiled and gave her a wink. “Only the best for both of you.”
The doctor visibly relaxed. “So you would like to proceed with the tests?”
Octavian nodded, his face suddenly stern. “Harm this child in any way and I’ll kill you myself.”
“Yes, my lord.” The doctor paled. “I’ll just get my bag.” He shuffled away to rummage through his things.
Octavian guided Tatiana toward the divan. “Sit. You’ll both be more comfortable.” She did and he sat beside her. “Any word from Lord Edwin on this ball the House of Bathory is giving in your honor?”
She shook her head, unable to keep a slight smile off her lips. “You’re trying to distract me.”
He leaned back and crossed his legs. “Is it working?”
“Maybe.” She shifted Lilith from her arms to her lap. “He sent word earlier. I meant to tell you. The ball is a week from today. At Lord Syler’s mansion in Čachtice.”
Octavian wrinkled his nose. “Slovakia? Can’t say as I find that appealing.”
She laughed. “You’re such a snob. It’s lovely, I assure you. And in hosting this ball, Syler confirms his alliance with the House of Tepes.”
“Yes, but it means we have to travel.” His gaze lit upon Lilith. “We must be heavily guarded. Every precaution taken.”
A subtle throat clearing interrupted their conversation. The doctor stood before them, syringe in hand. “I’m ready whenever you are.”
Tatiana took a voluntary breath. “I want to know everything you’re going to do before you do it.”
“Of course, my lady. I’m simply going to do a heel stick and extract the blood from there. I doubt the child will like it, but in one so young, it’s the best way.”
“Very well.” She moved the blanket swaddling Lilith so that her little feet were exposed.
The doctor pulled a nearby chair closer and sat, then swabbed Lilith’s heel with antiseptic. “Keep her still as best you can.” He held her foot in his fingers and slid the needle in.
Lilith’s eyes flew open and a piercing wail erupted from her throat. The doctor winced. Tatiana raised her hand to shove him off her child, but Octavian caught her wrist before she could strike.
“What are you—”
“This must be done.” He shook his head, eyes bracketed with concern. “It hurts me to hear her cry, too, but it’s for the best.”
“For the best,” the doctor reiterated. “Almost done. There now.” He slid the needle out and twisted a cap over it to seal the vial. “There, there.” He patted Lilith’s stomach.
She caught his finger in her tiny, flailing fist and latched on. The doctor smiled. She brought his finger to her mouth and began to suck on it.
“She’s just hungry,” he said. “That’s all—What the…” He tried to yank his hand away, but Lilith held fast. He cursed. “She’s bitten me. The little beast has her teeth in me!”
Octavian leaped up. “How dare you!”
“Beast?” Tatiana snarled as her face shifted and her fangs descended. She clamped her hand over the doctor’s arm, holding him in place. “You took her blood. Now she’ll take some of yours.” She pulled him closer so she could aim her silver gaze into his mud-brown kine eyes. “Apologize for calling her such a horrible name or you’ll pay with more than blood.”
The doctor trembled, his eyes flicking from Tatiana to Lilith to Octavian. “I… I apologize for my disrespectful comment. It will not happen again.”
Tatiana tightened her grip, causing the doctor to whimper as his bones ground together. “You’re lucky to still be alive, kine.”
Octavian snorted in agreement.
“Yes, my lady.” The doctor nodded, doing his best to get as far away as he could while in her grasp.
A popping sound announced the release of his finger from Lilith’s mouth. Blood trickled from two red pinpoints on the pad of his index finger.
Tatiana released him as well. “Go now while you still can. I want those results immediately.”
The doctor gathered his things with great haste, depositing the vial of blood into his waistcoat pocket. “Of course, my lady.”
Octavian kissed her cheek. “To make sure that’s all he does with her blood, I’ll accompany him back to the lab and stay until the tests are completed.”
She nodded. “A wise decision.”
He took the doctor by the elbow and began to escort him out. “And don’t think I won’t kill you if you make one false move.”
Tatiana curled Lilith into her arms and rested farther back into the divan’s depths, comforted by the knowledge that she was no longer the only one with her child’s best interests at heart.
Everglades, New Florida
Creek notched the kickstand down on his V-Rod and hopped off his bike. The last time he’d been out to his grandmother’s had been in a last-ditch effort to keep Chrysabelle from bleeding out after having her signum stripped off her back. As a tribe healer, his grandmother had known what to do, but Mal hadn’t liked it. Neither had Chrysabelle.
This time, Creek was the one who needed help.
He climbed the steps of the small, wood-paneled house to knock on her door. Not that there was a need to announce himself with Pip around. His grandmother’s fifty-pound mutt barked like the house was on fire anytime a person, vehicle, or gator got within a few yards of the place. “Pip, settle down. Mawmaw, it’s me, Tommy.”
One last bark and the door opened. “Shush, Pip, you’ll wake the dead.” Rosa Mae Jumper peered up at Creek through the thick lenses of her glasses. “I know who it is.” She smiled and held her arms out to him. “Come here, child.”
He gave Pip a quick head rub, then bent to embrace her, inhaling the soft violet scent of the homemade sweet acacia perfume she wore. “How are you, Mawmaw?”
“Just fine.” She let him go only to take his hand and lead him into the kitchen. The aroma of browned meat greeted him, making his stomach grumble. “I’ve got a venison roast in the oven. Sit down and you can eat supper with me.”
“A whole roast? I thought Mom was still on night shift.” The table was set for two. “You and Pip eating formal tonight?”
Without looking at him, she tsked. “Foolish boy, that setting’s for you. I knew you were coming. Don’t I always?”
Yes, she did. He smiled and took a seat at the kitchen table while she went to the oven. Mawmaw knew all kinds of things that most people never had a clue about. He hadn’t planned on eating here, but she’d be more amenable if he did. Plus, eating her cooking was no hardship after his years of prison food. Damn, he was glad the KM had gotten him out of there, even if they did hold it over his head like a thousand-pound weight.
While they ate, he got her to tell stories from his childhood and managed to keep the conversation to lighter topics, but the way she looked at him said she wasn’t that easily fooled. At last she cleared the plates, set a pan of scraps down for Pip, and motioned for Creek to join her on the back porch. He took the rocker next to her, the paint worn off the seat and arms from use. She lit a cigarette and offered him one.
He shook his head. “Those’ll kill you, you know.”
She inhaled long and slow before letting out three perfect smoke rings. “So will those damned blood eaters you chase after.”
He laughed softly. No hiding anything from her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m sure you don’t. Just like I don’t feel the air of power coming off you.” She took another puff. “Nice of you to visit.”
In other words, get on with it. “I need your help, Mawmaw.”
“You tired of working for those people?”
He shifted. The way his grandmother sensed things… “Those people got me out of jail. Paid Una’s tuition.” Kept his sister, Mawmaw, and his mother safe, too.
“You didn’t answer the question.”
He sighed and watched a red hawk float on a thermal. “Sometimes, yes, I am bone-tired of working for them, but a deal’s a deal.”
Time to change the subject. “I need a charm made.”
Pip came out licking his chops and flopped at Mawmaw’s feet with a contented sigh. She stared out at the swamp that made up her backyard. “What kind of charm?”
He dug into his shirt pocket, extracted the three black feathers he’d been given, and held them out to her. “This kind.”
Pip lifted his head and gave a short, growling bark.
Rosa stopped rocking. The ash on her cigarette grew a little longer while she studied his offering. At last, she tapped the ash off and set the cigarette into a coffee cup filled with a little sand. “I don’t know what all you’re involved with these days, Thomas, but that’s nothing for you to play with.”
“I’m not playing. I need the protection.”
“You need to leave that woman alone.”
“It’s too late for that now.”
She turned enough to see his eyes. “It’s never too late.”
He stared at the words HOLD FAST tattooed across his knuckles. “It is. I saved her life. She’s sworn to protect me now.”
His grandmother dropped her head as if praying, her eyes squeezed tightly closed for a moment, and she sighed hard. When she raised her head, Creek swore there were tears in her eyes. She held out her hand. “These are from her?”
He gave her the feathers. “Yes.”
She turned them over in her fingers. “This is dark magic, child. And dark magic can’t be trusted. It’s fickle. Like a woman.”
“I know. That’s why I’m here. She told me to come to you.”
All expression vanished from her face as she looked up at him. “Did she call me by name?”
“No,” he reassured her. “She didn’t say your name.”
Relief lit her eyes. “Maybe she truly doesn’t mean any harm, then.” She turned the feathers over again, looking for what he didn’t know. “They feel… false.”
“They’re real. I saw her pull them from her hair.”
“Not what I meant.” She frowned. “I’ll make the charm. You’re going to need it if what you’ve told me is true.”
“It is. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
She gave him a sideways look. “But you’d step over the truth if you had to.”
“There are some things you shouldn’t know.” Like the full details about his work as a Kubai Mata, defender of mankind, killer of othernaturals, and enslaver of desperate mortal men.
She got out of her chair. Pip was on his feet a second later. “Yes, I know, it’s for my own protection.” She motioned with a tip of her head back toward the house. “Come inside. Let’s get this charm made.”
An hour later and missing a little blood, Creek rode away from his grandmother’s, the charm dangling from a leather cord around his neck. He’d promised to visit more often but knew that promise was emptier than he meant it to be. His life was unsettled, his time not his own, and judging by the flock of ravens overhead, none of that was about to change any time soon.
Paradise City, New Florida
“Yes?” Lola Diaz-White looked at Valerie, her administrative assistant, and away from her inbox, currently overflowing with e-mails from citizens expressing their fear or in some cases harassment from their human neighbors or their disapproval of how she was handling the othernatural situation from both sides, or reminding her elections were less than a year away. It was enough to make her wonder if reelection was worth it.
“Alden Willamette is here to see you, and the police chief is still waiting.”
Willamette was a city councilman. No doubt he’d been getting the same kind of e-mails she had. He was a good man, honest, and one of her most stalwart supporters. She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stave off the headache building behind her eyes. “Send Alden in first.”
The man came in a few moments later, shutting the door behind him. “Lola.”
“Alden. Please, have a seat.”
He stayed standing. “I’m fine. This won’t take long. I’m sorry about this, I really am, but”—he reached into his suit jacket, pulled out an envelope, and laid it on her desk—“effective immediately, I’m resigning.”
Her jaw slacked. “You can’t just resign. It’s not like you can be replaced that easily.”
“I’m sorry. I am. I didn’t mean to do it this way. Things just came to a head these last few days. As of today, though, I’ve tied up all my loose ends.” With a labored sigh, he finally sat. A thousand emotions rolled through his eyes. “Lucinda’s fae. Three-quarters.”
Again, Lola’s jaw went south. She sat back slowly. His wife had always been unnaturally beautiful. His daughters, too. And there had always been… something curious about them. His revelation explained so much. “I understand you have a lot to deal with, but why does this mean you have to resign?”
He looked up, the only emotions left on his face anger and pain. “We’ve been married twenty-one years and she never bothered to tell me until the night of Halloween when she couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. Now she’s taking the girls and moving to New Orleans. Says it’s a haven city and the only safe place for them.” He ran a hand across his face. “Do you know there are three fringe vampires in our neighborhood? Three. They look at my girls like they’re sizing up their next kill. And Kaleigh—you know teenagers—she’s ready to fight every time she thinks her little sister is being threatened.” He stood and walked to the windows. “Lucinda’s right about moving them. She and I have a lot to work through, but my kids are the innocents here.”
“I understand that more than you know.” She joined him at the windows. Being mayor meant she had power, but Lola had never felt so helpless in her life. Despite her connections and her pull in this city, she was no closer to holding her grandchild in her arms. Her half-vampire grandchild.
He glanced at her, but she didn’t elaborate. Her grandchild was her business. “I’m sorry to see you go.”
“Thanks.” He frowned. “I’ll be here another day or two if you need me.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just take care of your family.”
He was quiet as he turned toward the door. Then he stopped. “You know, if I could become one of them, I would. It would make everything so much easier.”
The words startled her, because she’d begun to wonder the same thing. “You would?”
“Absolutely. They’re faster than us, stronger than us, they outlive us. Why would anyone not?”
“A varcolai killed my daughter.”
“Because your daughter was human. If she’d been othernatural, she’d have at least had a fighting chance.” He shook his head. “Face it. They’re superior. I’d rather join them than become a slave to them.” He held his hands up. “Mark my words. The tide will turn. Humans will become vampires as much as they can because that’s the only choice. Fae and varcolai will side against them. War will come if peace isn’t found first. Being in a haven city seems more and more like the only way a mortal like me will survive.”
She said nothing, just stayed at the windows after he shut the door behind him. His words slowly soaked into her. She turned and stared into her city. The fall of twilight meant the city looked almost normal, but during daylight it was impossible not to notice the damage left behind by Samhain night. The broken buildings and scorched streets were being repaired, but life would never be the same for any of them after that night. Would people desert her city if she couldn’t protect them?
She leaned her head against the glass. How could she protect her citizens when she was as vulnerable and human as they were?
Maybe Alden was on to something about humans becoming vampires. It was like he’d somehow sensed the small thoughts creeping into her mind. Her excursion this evening might help her make sense of it all. Maybe show her the right decision. Or present her with an opportunity. She already knew what her abuela would say.
At Police Chief Vernadetto’s voice, she turned. “What can I do for you?”
He gestured toward her desk with the hand that held his hat. “Did you read my report?”
“No, not yet. I’ve spent the day wading through e-mails and taking phone calls from concerned citizens. My apologies. Can you sum it up?” She went back to her desk, sat and began to dig out the paperwork.
He nodded. “Long story short, several of my night patrol teams have been repeatedly harassed—hunted, you might say—in the bayside area. To the point that they’ve all requested reassignment unless they’re allowed to use deadly force. Problem is, I can’t get any human officers to go down there.”
“And the teams that are being hunted? What are they? Varcolai?”
“Varcolai are the ones doing the harassing. My teams are all fringe.”
“Vampires? Being harassed?”
“Most nights the odds are twenty to two. Not even a vampire can deal with that many shifters.”
She shook her head. Her city was in deep. “What’s your solution?”
“Deadly force. Make an example.”
“And cause a riot.” She tapped her fingers on the desktop. “Pull whatever varcolai patrolmen you have and put them down there. Let them deal with their own kind.”
He nodded. “Will do.”
She was about to ask why he hadn’t done that already when Valerie buzzed the intercom. “John and Luke Havoc are here, ma’am.”
“Send them in.” She stood. “Chief, if you’ll excuse me, I have another matter to attend to.”
He nodded and left as John and Luke entered.
John dipped his head in greeting. “You sure you want to do this?”
“Positive.” A frisson of emotion zipped up Lola’s spine. “This child is my flesh and blood, my familia. There is no question about what I’m willing to do to get her back. None. And I owe it to Julia.”
“I get that. Family is important to us, too,” John answered. “You ready, then?”
“Yes. Let’s go.” She would have gone on her own if she didn’t recognize the foolishness in that.
“Wait,” Luke said. “I know I’m new to your employ, but I still have to tell you this is one of the dumbest things you could do.” John started to say something, but Luke held his hand out to silence him. “But if it were my kin, I’d do the exact same thing. I just don’t want you getting hurt. You have a city to run, after all.”
“A city in which both human and othernatural citizens are looking to me for guidance. If I show fear in this situation, what will they think? How will they take it if their mayor is too cowardly to face a vampire even if it means rescuing her grandchild? I must do this.”
Luke nodded. “I understand.”
She straightened a little, buoyed by his words. “He has no reason to hurt me. We are joined by blood now. We share a common interest.”
“He may see you as a threat,” John said. “And not to belabor the point, but he’s a vampire unlike any other. He can daywalk. He lives in a freaking abandoned church, a place no other vampire can comfortably set foot. He’s not predictable in any way.”
“Then we are alike in that manner, because I doubt he expects me to come to his door.”
“No one expects that,” Luke muttered.
“That’s the point,” she responded. “Now take me to Preacher’s.”
“Welcome, sir.” The butler bowed and moved to the side to let Doc enter his new home. Leaving the freighter behind wasn’t something Doc was completely ready to do, but since he’d killed Sinjin and become the Paradise City pride leader by default, moving into Sinjin’s old crib was kind of a requirement.
“Lose the sir,” Doc said, his gaze roaming the penthouse, trying to take in every bit of the lux joint at once.
“Yes, sir. Er, my apologies, si—” The butler stiffened, his face reddening.
“No worries.” Big worries, actually, but Doc wasn’t going to give the man grief for doing his job. Figured Sinjin had a butler. Man always did have a big feeling about himself.
The penthouse spelled that out pretty well, too. Made perfect sense this was where Sinjin had lived. Leopards liked height. Doc was no exception to that. What he didn’t like was everything else that came with this joint. Like the butler. Like being leader of the Paradise City feline varcolai pride. And being husband to Sinjin’s old lady. That last bit was not sitting well with Fi, not that anyone could expect it to. Doc had spent the last two days trying to calm her down, when he should have been here, figuring a way out of this mess.
Wasn’t like he’d planned on taking Sinjin out. Doc shook his head, no longer seeing the fully loaded pad around him but instead replaying the fight between him and Sinjin, the moves slowed down in his head, each punch, kick, roll, and grab like part of a choreographed dance that had gone horribly wrong when he’d suddenly gone up in flames and turned Sinjin into barbeque. The memory of that night brought a rush of heat to Doc’s skin. He popped another ketamine just to be safe.
Why the hell had Sinjin thought that framing the vampires for fake comarré deaths was a good idea? The beef between Sinjin and Dominic wasn’t a secret, but killing off Dominic’s counterfeit comarré was no way to go about settling things. Doc had no love for the vampire either, but those girls didn’t deserve to die for it. No one did. Except maybe Dominic.
Now the mayor had even more ammo against othernaturals, especially since the first fake comarré killed had been her daughter. Dammit. This was such a mess. Doc didn’t know where to start fixing things. When he hadn’t been calming Fi down, he’d been searching for a loophole that would free him from being pride leader, but he’d found nothing. If the pride leader challenged you and you took him on in a fight and killed him, you were the new pride leader. Plain and simple. Black and white. Done deal.
“Sir? I mean…” The butler cleared his throat. “How would you care to be addressed?”
“Doc is fine.” How much did a place like this cost anyway? Did the pride really have that kind of cash?
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that.”
Doc turned to the butler. “Look, I don’t feel comfortable having a butler, so we both need to compromise, you dig?”
The butler nodded.
“You have a name?”
“Good name.” Doc nodded. “My grandmother would have approved.”
Isaiah smiled. “Thank you. May I call you Mr. Mays, perhaps?”
With a deep inhale, Doc shook his head. “You call me Mr. Mays and I’ll be looking for my father. How about you call me by my full name, Maddoc.”
“Such a civilized name for an alley cat,” a voice purred. Another feline presence filled the space, and Doc turned, his gaze landing on the person who’d caused the heartache in his relationship with Fi these past few days.
Isaiah gave her a little head bow, then held his hand out toward her as he addressed Doc. “Maddoc, this is Heaven Silva. Your wife.”
Velimai’s mood hadn’t improved since Chrysabelle had thrown Mal out, so Chrysabelle walked outside to meet Creek after the guard at the front gate had called with his arrival. She perched on the fountain’s edge in the center of the circular drive, trailing her fingers through the water and listening for the sound of his motorcycle over the fountain’s gurgling.
The bike’s rumble preceded him and a few seconds later, he drove through the estate’s open gates and parked a few feet away. He climbed off the bike, set his helmet on the seat, and smiled. “It’s good to see you. You look healthy.”
“Good to see you, too. And I am healthy. I guess. What brings you by?” She had nothing against small talk, but her mind was elsewhere.
“Straight to it, then.” He sat beside her on the fountain’s wide ledge. “Look, this is hard for me to tell you, but try to remember at this point, I’m just the messenger. I want you to understand that.”
“Okay.” Had to be Kubai Mata business. Creek always seemed so apologetic about it. “What’s going on?”
“Samhain evening, my sector chief informed me that the Castus have the vampire child.”
She nodded. “We already know that.” She’d kicked Mal out and yet she’d just said we. Like the two of them were a unit.
He nodded. “I figured you did.” He worried a small hole near the knee of his jeans. “The KM want you to get the baby back.”
“Why me? Why don’t they send their own warriors in?”
“We’re too obvious. Too detectable. Nobles would scent us out immediately—if we even got past the city wards.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Those sacred brands? They make our blood smell sour. Ask Mal, he’ll tell you.”
She shook her head. “The KM has resources. They could figure something out.”
He sighed. “They have figured something out. That they want you to get the baby back. I’m sorry, Chrysabelle. I know you probably have no desire to go back there.”
She studied him. The bend of his mouth and the way he sat a little hunched over told her he wasn’t enjoying this. “And if I refuse?”
He dragged a hand over his Mohawk. “They’ll start by eliminating Mal.”
She laughed sharply. “If the nobility can’t kill him, I’d like to see the KM try.”
His gaze shifted and his voice lowered. “Then they’ll come after you. I’m powerless to stop them.”
Anger ripped through her. “I’ve done nothing to them. They have no reason to involve me in this.”
He sat back. “That’s not totally true. You haven’t returned the ring of sorrows to them.”
“Why should I even care about returning a ring to an organization I know so little about? If I even still had the ring.”
He stood and paced a few steps away. “I don’t know much about them either, and half of what I do know, I question.” He raised his hand as if to stop himself from talking.
“Then why keep working for them?”
He looked sideways, like someone might be watching. “I owe them, Chrysabelle. Big-time. For my freedom. For things they’ve done for my family.” He shook his head. “They own me. At least for a little while longer.”
“No one should be indebted like that.” Her anger with him defused. She understood exactly the position he was in. “You have to find a way out.”
He exhaled, his words quiet. “I can’t. Not yet.”
“Do they know what I’ve done with the ring?”
She stood, ready to go back inside. “Then tell them.”
Something close to fear shadowed his eyes. “That’s calling down trouble.”
“I can handle it. And I want them to know they don’t control me. So tell them exactly what I did with their precious ring and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Then maybe they’ll leave you alone.”
“Nothing will make them leave me alone.” He spoke the words quietly, his tone resigned.
Her anger on his behalf grew. “In fact, tell them I want nothing to do with them and will consider them enemies if they contact me again.” She turned and headed back to the house.
She spun back around. “I don’t mean you, Creek. You can contact me, but not on their behalf. I like you. You’ve been a good friend to me.” More than that. He’d saved her life more than once. Fought at her side. Kissed her. She tempered her anger for the sake of their friendship. “If the Kubai Mata want that child, they’ll need a new plan. I’m done being a pawn for the greater good.” She paused. “So should you.”
By the time she reached the front door, the sound of Creek’s motorcycle had already begun to fade. She slammed the door behind her and stormed into the kitchen. Her anger wasn’t completely at the KM for wanting her to do their bidding. No, much of it was at herself for pushing Mal away. Velimai glanced up from where she was setting plates of dinner on the table.
“That was Creek,” Chrysabelle said. Like Velimai hadn’t heard when the guard had called. She threw herself into one of the kitchen chairs, her temper darkening with each passing minute. Why was she so afraid of facing things? Why did Mal raise such emotion in her? Answering those questions meant coming to terms with what she was feeling. Something she was so not ready to do.
She wished Velimai would just sign something. Anything to break the stoniness that had settled over the house since she’d thrown Mal out. Velimai sat, intent on her dinner. Chrysabelle cut a bite of steak and stuffed it into her mouth, but all she tasted was anger. Enough. She swallowed and set her fork down. “I didn’t mean for things to go that way with Mal. He just has a way of… pushing my buttons.”
Velimai looked up from her meal, putting her silverware aside to free her hands. How did you mean for things to go?
“I don’t know.” She slid her plate away. “Why do I do that? Why does everything with him have to be a battle? Why does he always find a way to do exactly what I don’t want him to do?” She lifted her gaze toward the ceiling for a second. “Why do I even care?”
You two are very much alike. You need each other. Both seeking something that can’t be found alone.
Chrysabelle pursed her mouth. “Riddles don’t help.”
Velimai shrugged and went back to eating.
Chrysabelle’s appetite was gone, Velimai’s words ringing soundlessly in her head. “I should get Jerem to take me out to the freighter and apologize. Plus I owe Mal blood.” And she could fill him in on what the KM was up to. She stood, dropping her napkin onto her plate. “Will you tell Jerem I need the car? I’m going to shower first, but then I want to go out to Mal’s.”
Chrysabelle turned away and almost ran across the living room and up the stairs. What did Velimai think she and Mal were seeking? Freedom? That was true. But did they really need each other? The thought of being without him upset her. Did that mean she cared for him? If she did, why did she fight with him this way? Why did he always set her off so easily? She would not travel the same path as her mother. Falling in love with a vampire had gotten her mother nothing but years of misery. And ultimately, death. Not that Dominic was so awful, but something had gone wrong between them. Enough that Maris had ultimately chosen to live alone rather than with him.
Chrysabelle pushed through the doors to her suite and didn’t stop until she was naked under the pulsing jets of her shower. She would visit Mal, apologize, and give him blood. Then she might as well talk to Damian and see what she could find out. Mal had said the comar was at the freighter. Why, she couldn’t imagine, but if Mal had done it to keep the comar out of her hair while she recovered, then she owed him one. The floral scent of her shampoo did nothing to soothe her. If Damian was with Mal, where was Saraphina, the comarré who had run away with him?
She rinsed the soap from her hair and skin. Maybe Mal had her, too. If so, Chrysabelle might be off the hook for giving him blood. In fact, if Saraphina stayed with him, Mal wouldn’t need Chrysabelle’s blood at all.
The bittersweetness of that thought brought an unexpected ache to her soul. She leaned her head against the slick marble wall, closed her eyes, and let the water beat down onto her.
Holy mother. Maybe Velimai was right. Maybe she did need him. She shook herself and shoved those thoughts away. There was too much to deal with right now to worry about something as insignificant as feelings. Like finding her brother.
Nothing pressed on her so much as finding him and fulfilling her mother’s wish. After everything Maris had done for her, getting her brother home was the least Chrysabelle could do. To know that she had family, real family—not just the preordained brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles of the comarré life—made her long to know him with a yearning that sprang from her soul. She would find him. No matter what it took.
An hour later, she walked up the gangway to Mal’s abandoned freighter, wearing both sacres, a pair of wrist blades, and a new attitude. She would not let Mal upset her. If he wanted to talk about what had happened at Atticus’s, she would politely steer the conversation in a new direction until such time as she felt comfortable dealing with whatever Mal thought was going on.
The ship, as always, was dark and deserted, lit only by the weak solars that dotted the never-ending labyrinth of passageways. “Mal? It’s Chrysabelle.” As if he wouldn’t know.
She had a general idea of which way to go. Her heightened sense of smell helped a bit, too. Mal’s dark spice pervaded the ship’s space, but it was stronger in some directions than others. She followed the path she remembered in her head, taking a flight of stairs that seemed familiar and taking a turn that looked right, passing corridors and doors that, one after another, seemed to blend together.
Frustration building, she called for him again. “Mal! Hello? Anyone?”
A shimmering image burst through the wall ahead of her and turned into Fi. “Hey. What are you doing here?”
“Fi, I’m so glad someone’s here. I’m trying to find Mal. I think I got a little turned around.”
The ghost girl frowned. “Last I saw him, he was at your house. Did he leave without telling you?”
Chrysabelle sighed. “I may have thrown him out.”
Fi’s face was blank for a moment, then she laughed. The laughter faded fast. “Men suck.”
Chrysabelle’s brows lifted. “Something going on with you and Doc?”
“I take it Mal hasn’t filled you in on what’s been going on?”
“No.” Not that she’d given him a chance.
“Walk with me to the galley.” Fi’s feet hit the floor a second after she became corporeal. She turned down the closest corridor. “Long story, but the short version is he’s the new Paradise City pride leader, and that job comes with a wife.”
Chrysabelle easily matched the shorter girl’s stride. “And you don’t want to fill the position?” She’d thought the varcolai and Fi were crazy about each other, but maybe she’d been wrong.
Fi shook her head. “The position’s already been filled by the previous leader’s wife. When Doc killed Sinjin—who was the one killing off Dominic’s comarrés, in case you hadn’t heard…”
“I hadn’t. Go on.”
“Anyway, when Doc killed him, he inherited everything that had been Sinjin’s. Including the guy’s wife.”
“What?” Chrysabelle stared in disbelief. “That’s rather archaic.”
“That’s pride law. The same set of rules that kicked Doc out of the pride have now put him in charge of it.”
“Wow.” Chrysabelle took a moment to process. What else had happened in the last few days that she didn’t know about?
“Wow is right. Freaking sucks is more like it.” Emotion thickened Fi’s voice. “Where does that leave me?”
“Well, you still love him, right?”
“And he still loves you, right?”
“Fi, come on.”
She blew out a long, hard breath. “Yes, he still loves me.”
“So why can’t you and Doc just explain things to this woman? I’m sure she’ll understand. She probably doesn’t want to be married to Doc any more than you want her to be.”
“Hmph. I wouldn’t count on that. Pride marriages among the ruling class are pretty old school from what Doc’s explained to me. Sinjin didn’t marry for love. He married for alliance. This woman’s father is the leader of one of the biggest prides in existence. Riling her up would be a very bad thing.”
Chrysabelle looped her arm around Fi’s shoulders. “There has to be a way to work this out.”
Fi shrugged, conveying about as much positive energy as a burned out match. “Whatever.” She glanced up at Chrysabelle. “So what’s going on with you? Doc and I came by to see you, but you were out cold and Mal didn’t want to hear about anything. All he could do was focus on you. He’s into you pretty hard. Like you don’t know that.” Suddenly her face brightened. “Did he tell you how he feels? Is that why you kicked him out?”
“No, that’s not why. I kicked him out because he wanted to talk about something I didn’t. But now I know he was probably right, even if his timing sucked.”
Fi nodded as she stopped and opened a door. “You want a cup of tea?” She stepped over the threshold and flipped on the solars, illuminating the galley.
“Sure. Might as well hang out and wait for Mal.” The last time she’d been in this kitchen, she hadn’t even really known who Mal was. That felt like years ago.
“You can always go relieve Damian for a bit if you want. I’m sure he’d appreciate the break.”
“Mal told me he was here. Relieve him from what?”
Fi filled the teakettle. “He’s guarding that vampiress who defected from Tatiana. Darciana or Dulciana or something.”
A chill settled in Chrysabelle’s gut as she took a seat. “Daciana?”
“Yeah, I think that’s her name. We’ve got her locked up in one of the storage containers in the far hold.” Fi lit a Sterno pot and set the kettle over it. “You know her?”
“Yes, but her husband is the one you have to watch out for. He’s very ambitious. Like a male version of Tatiana.”
Fi leaned against the counter. “According to Daciana, Tatiana killed her husband. That’s one of the reasons she wants asylum.”
Chrysabelle narrowed her eyes. “I don’t buy it.”
“Me neither.” The ghost girl smiled. “You want to go talk to her?”
“I don’t think—”
“You know, she showed up on your doorstep.” Fi waggled her brows. “Wanted us to let her into your house.”
Chrysabelle’s fingers stroked the leather crisscross of her sacre straps. “Did she now.” Annoyance pushed her to her feet. “Couldn’t hurt to ask a few questions, could it?”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Fi capped the Sterno. “What if she refuses to answer you straight up?”
Chrysabelle flicked one wrist blade out. “I can be pretty persuasive when I want to be.”
The rabble split with appropriate respect as Mal shoved his way through the crowd outside Seven. Fools. Wearing his noble face no doubt helped, but the crowd’s respect meant nothing. He was on a mission. Finding a new blood source was the first step in distancing himself from Chrysabelle. Blood blood blood. Loosening her hold on his hunger would make it easier to need her less. Might even help him forget what being next to her in bed had felt like. He hoped.
The fringe working the velvet ropes outside the door held a hand up. “Cover’s a buck fifty.”
“A hundred and fifty dollars? Dominic’s lost his mind.”
The fringe shrugged. “It’s Friday, my brother. All the freaks wanna play, and for that, you gotta pay.”
“I am not your brother.” One of the two hulking varcolai bouncers behind the fringe snickered. Mal glanced up, wishing for the old days when Seven’s entrance was a dimly lit doorway with easy-to-glamour guards. Easy for him anyway. No other Tepes vampire he knew could use their persuasion power on varcolai or fae.
“Not technically, but we are both vampires—”
“Whatever.” Mal pushed past. “Dominic owes me. You want my cover charge, get it from him.” Dominic did owe him, although Dominic might not see it that way. Mal’s blood had taken the place of Dominic’s with the witches. That had to be worth something. Or nothing. Just like you.
Wisely, the varcolai bouncers let him pass. Maybe they knew who he was or maybe they knew Mal’s relationship to Doc. Either way, he entered without further obstruction. Once inside, he quickly found Katsumi. He would have rather found Mortalis, but the shadeux fae didn’t seem to be around.
She arched a brow at him. “Please tell me you’ve come to take on a few new opponents in the Pits.”
“Like hell. Where’s Dominic? I need to talk to him.”
“In his office.” She sidled closer, her jasmine scent creeping over him. “But maybe I can help you.” One black polished fingernail glided down his arm. “What do you need?”
Blood. “For you to back off.” He walked away, shaking his head. Maybe the side effects of navitas had begun to set in. Being resired was known to cause insanity. Tatiana was proof of that. Katsumi seemed to be sliding in that direction.
Someone grabbed his sleeve. He spun, instantly defensive. “I told you—”
A petite blonde, one of Dominic’s comarré, dropped her hand from his arm and bent her head. “I’m sorry to upset you, master. I saw you talking with Ms. Tanaka. I thought you wanted company.”
“Don’t call me master,” he snapped.
The girl cringed and backed away. Her signum, such as they were, gleamed dully in the club’s low lights. “My apologies for—”
“Stop.” Mal sighed. Bloody hell, he was a monster. Yes, you are. “I didn’t mean to… When you first grabbed my arm, I thought you were Katsumi.”
The girl lifted her head. She wasn’t unattractive, but she was no Chrysabelle. “You’re a friend of Ms. Tanaka’s? I see that you’re noble like her.”
He exhaled derisively. “I was noble before her grandparents were born.”
“Of course, sir.” She nodded, her long blonde curls swaying. “Are you in need of blood?”
Yessss… drink drink drink. “Yes, but I need to speak to Dominic first.”
Her eyes widened slightly. They weren’t as blue as Chrysabelle’s. “I can take you to Mr. Scarnato, if you’d like.”
“I can find my own way there.”
Her head dropped again. “As you wish. Have a pleasant evening.” She curtseyed and began to leave.
The voices whined at the loss of the blood, cursing him in every language they spoke. “What’s your name?”
She looked up, hope brightening her face. “Alice.”
He bent slightly, peered into her eyes, and added a touch of persuasion to his voice. “Go home, Alice. Forget this place exists. Go back to school and do something meaningful with your life.”
Her pretty face contorted with insolence. “Don’t use your powers on me, vampire. We’re warded against that. You think Dominic’s stupid?” With a snort, she twisted on her heel and stormed off, her previous coyness gone.
Well. That was interesting. Made sense Dominic would protect his comarré from vampire influence. Wouldn’t want any of them being persuaded to become someone’s pet for free. But fringe didn’t have the same powers nobles did, so who was he protecting them against? Tatiana’s return? Or the newly resired Katsumi? Either way, Dominic was smart. Shady. But smart.
Mal made his way to Dominic’s office. He sensed Dominic was alone. Good. He didn’t want an audience for the conversation he was about to have. He knocked and a few seconds later, Dominic bid him enter. Mal did and saw that he’d been wrong about Dominic being alone. Seated in front of Dominic’s desk was a leanly muscled, dark-haired vampire Mal didn’t recognize.
“Am I interrupting something?” He glanced at the other vampire. Definitely noble, not quite Dominic’s age but not a vampling either. How had Mal not sensed him?
“No, no,” Dominic assured him. “This is Luciano, my nephew. He’s come to help me run things here. Every night, Seven gets busier. It’s good to have family you can trust.”
“Luciano.” Mal nodded at the other vampire. “Are you St. Germain like your uncle?”
“No.” Luciano grinned. “I am House of Paole.”
That explained not being able to sense him. Paole vampires were undetectable to other vampires. Sneaky bastards.
Dominic leaned back in his desk chair. “Luciano is a caedo.”
A chill skittered down Mal’s spine at the word. He tensed, instantly on guard. He’d been hunted by caedo many years ago. Unsuccessfully, but hunted nonetheless.
Luciano threw his hands up. “Zio, per favore. Why would you tell him that?”
Dominic waved Luciano’s concerns away. “Malkolm is anathema. Like us. You worry for nothing.” He stood and walked out from behind his desk and laid his hand on Mal’s. “This man sacrificed his blood for mine. That is a debt I have not yet repaid. He will say nothing, will you, Malkolm?”
“No.” He kept his eyes on Luciano, who didn’t look quite convinced yet. “So long as you’re not here for me.”
Luciano frowned. “Why would I be here for you? I’m here because my uncle needs me. And because I grew tired of life as the nobility’s errand boy.”
Errand boy? How about killer? Like you. The caedo were an elite force of vampire assassins. They did the dirty work other nobles didn’t want to soil their hands with but were willing to empty their accounts to pay for. “Dominic said you were anathema like us. What did you do?”
Luciano’s eyes sparked silver. “I quit.”
No one quit the caedo. Except by death. That explained Luciano’s reluctance to have his profession revealed.
Dominic gestured toward a chair. “Sit, my friend. Let us share some wine to celebrate Luciano’s arrival.”
“Wine isn’t what I need.” Nor did he need to carry the weight of any more of Dominic’s family secrets.
“Ah, I see. There is something else I can help you with?”
“I need blood. From one of your comarrés.” Damnation, it pained him to say those words.
Dominic went back behind his desk and sat. “I would be happy to do this for you, except…” He stared at Mal expectantly, and when Mal didn’t say anything, he finished, “What about Chrysabelle?”
And there it was. The question he’d known would be asked. Mal sat, buying a little time to form an answer. “She’s still recovering. I don’t want to bother her.”
Dominic lifted his brows. “That hasn’t stopped you—or her—from the exchange in the past.” He shrugged and lifted his hands. “I don’t want to do something that might upset her. You know she’s like family to me.” He leaned toward Luciano. “She’s Maris’s daughter, the comarré I spoke of earlier.”
“Marissa? Si.” Luciano nodded.
What Mal knew was that Dominic wasn’t going to let it drop until he got a better answer. “I need to put some distance between us. Her wishes.”
“Ah.” Dominic absently tapped his fingers on the desk. “She is just like her mother, that one.” His hand went still. “Any time you need blood, you have only to come to me. As I’m sure you would extend yourself to me, should I need anything.”
So a favor for a favor. Fine. He should have known Dominic wouldn’t give without getting something in exchange. Mal had no desire to return to pig’s blood. “Haven’t I proven that in the past?”
“You have.” Dominic pressed the intercom on his desk. “Send one of the best comarré up.”
“Yes, sir,” a female voice answered.
Mal shifted. He hadn’t wanted to do this with an audience, but neither did he want to be alone with a human with an open vein. Chrysabelle could fight him off. One of Dominic’s comarrés could not.
“Do you wish privacy?” Dominic asked.
“No.” He forced himself to relax.
“Please.” Dominic held his hand toward a secluded corner of his office that held a chair, low table, and love seat. “I don’t care to be watched while I dine either.”
Without further argument, Mal got up and went to the seating area. A few minutes later, someone knocked.
“Come,” Dominic called.
The door opened. “You sent for me, master?”
Son of a priest. Of all the comarré Dominic had, Alice was the one who got sent up?
“Yes,” Dominic answered. He pulled a knife from a desk drawer and held it out to her. “Take this, get a glass from the bar, then fill it for my guest there.” He gestured toward Mal. She didn’t look, but Luciano watched with interest.
With a hesitant movement, she accepted the dagger. “May I ask why, master?”
Bloody hell. Mal growled softly, causing her to turn. “Because I can’t drink from the vein.”
“You,” she whispered. A flash of anger passed over her face, quickly disappearing into a mask of obedience. “As you wish.”
“Do you know each other?” Dominic asked.
“No,” Alice said.
“Yes.” Mal crossed his ankle over the opposite knee and leaned back. “I tried to use my powers of persuasion on her in the club. She didn’t care for it.”
Dominic laughed. “I’m sure she explained that my comarré are warded against that. Trying to get a replacement for Chrysabelle?”
“Something like that.” Mal held eye contact with Alice, challenging her to say otherwise. Tired of the games, he pointed to the chair next to him. “Sit.”
She did as he asked, setting the glass on the low table. “Now what?”
“Nick your vein and hold it over the glass.” How simple was she?
“Why not just bite me? It’s so much simpler.”
“I told you I can’t drink from the vein.” Can and should.
Indignation rolled off her in waves. “Do you think I’m not worthy?”
Every muscle in his body tensed. He reminded himself he’d thought this a good idea. “I do not drink from the vein.”
“Alice,” Dominic barked. “Do as he asks without question. Do not make me speak to Katsumi about your training.”
“Yes, master.” Disgust in her eyes, she held out her arm and pricked her wrist with the dagger. She yelped, biting her lip. Red beaded up, perfuming the office with the coppery scent of faded roses. Human blood. She turned her wrist over and the glass began to fill.
Mal waited until the blood was an inch from the top. No point in not getting as much as he could if he had to endure this torture to get it. “Enough.”
“Like I could give you any more,” she whispered, pressing her fingers to her wrist and lifting her chin as if she’d just provided him with the finest vintage wine France had to offer.
He took the glass and chugged it without ceremony. The blood held none of Chrysabelle’s sweetness or power. There was no sharp burst of pleasurable pain as his body came to life, no beating heart, no need to draw breath. Just the sensation of being full and the numbing of the voices, something human blood had always done. He set the glass down and stood. Time to go home. Check on the comar and see about the vampiress being held captive in the freighter’s hold. “Dominic, my thanks.” He tipped his head at Luciano.
“Whenever you need it,” he reminded Mal. Luciano lifted his hand in farewell.
Alice stared up at him intently, obviously waiting for him to thank her as well. “Feel better?”
“Not much.” He hadn’t stopped thinking about Chrysabelle once. “I’ve had real comarré blood. This isn’t it.”
Prick me again and I’ll have your fingers cut off,” Tatiana snarled.
The modiste jerked the pin away from the gown’s bodice. “I’m so sorry, my lady. I will be more careful.”
“Yes, you will be.” Nothing irritated Tatiana more than inactivity. Standing on this platform before these mirrors, being fitted for a gown to wear to the Dominus ball, was not the best use of her time. Not when she could be in New Florida hunting down that comarré whore and finally taking possession of the ring of sorrows. With that power, Tatiana would be utterly unstoppable, and protecting Lilith would be as easy as breathing. If Tatiana still breathed.
Octavian strolled in. His eyes silvered as he took her in. “You look glorious.” He stopped by Lilith’s crib, leaning down to coo soft words and tickle her belly. Pride swelled in Tatiana at how good he was with her. She’d been so right to turn him from the kine head of her household staff to her vampire paramour. “Sweet child,” he whispered. He kissed her tiny fist, then came to Tatiana’s side and kissed her cheek. “Hello, my love.”
“Octavian, don’t keep me waiting. How did her blood tests come out?”
“Everything’s fine. With the strains of vampirism in her system, the doctor doesn’t think any of the usual immunizations will be necessary.”
Excerpted from Out for Blood by Kristen Painter Copyright © 2012 by Kristen Painter. Excerpted by permission.
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