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Meriel didn't say a word until he had closed the master suite door, shutting out the party so that only a rumbling echo of the music still reached them. She stood, immobile, and looked at the bed for a moment before turning accusing eyes at him.
"It's not fair," she said, her voice shaking the tiniest bit. "You demand that the candidates not feed for a week, and then you bite me and give me only a taste ... All that so I'll be too weak to defend myself!"
Surprised by the resentment in her words, Aidan stared at her for a couple of seconds before laughter bubbled to his lips. "Not my idea," he said simply.
Walking over to the sitting area and the low table in the far corner of the room, he poured blood from the jar that had been left on an electric warmer.
"None of this was my idea," he explained. "But when you get as old as I am, you'll see that traditions and rites can take heavy meanings for the people who put their lives in your hands. Trying to put an end to these games is like trying to feed from a child. It may be easy, but it's not worth the aggravation of the protests that follow."
He held the glass out for Meriel. "Sit with me," he said when she came to him.
She gave him a suspicious look but took the glass from him with a slight nod of thanks before giving it a tentative sniff.
"It's human," he said as he sat in the armchair.
He rested his cheek against his fist and watched her gulp down the blood. At her questioning look, he gestured to the jar. Her hands shaking a little in her haste, she helped herself to more blood before finally sitting down on the armchair facing him. This time, she sipped on the glass as though it were finewine.
"Is it from your servants?" she asked in between sips.
Aidan couldn't remember the last time someone had inquired where the blood came from. "No. We buy what we reheat. The servants will offer if you ask, though. Just try not to kill them. Good service is a pain to find."
She observed him thoughtfully. Aidan's eyes trailed from the fresh bite mark on her neck down her satin-clad body. She had toed off her shoes, and as he watched her she tucked her legs beneath her on the sofa.
"Is that it?" she asked, sounding a little wary. "No other rules?"
He laughed again. She just kept surprising him. He hadn't thought it was possible anymore after so many concubines.
"Why, do you want rules?" he teased.
"No," she said quickly. "I just thought..."
She didn't finish. Her eyes turned to the bed fleetingly before settling on the jar of blood on the table.
"You just thought I'd keep you locked up at the foot of my bed, never to see the night again for ten years. Is that it?"
She grimaced. "Something like that."
That didn't surprise him. It seemed all his concubines came to him with the same preconceptions. At least, now he knew why Meriel had been such a reluctant candidate.
"The cars are in the garage," he said with a slight shake of his head. "Keys are in the ignition. You're free to take your pick and go to town as often as you want. The remote for the gate is in the top drawer of that dresser, as are several credit cards. Again, take your pick."
Her expression wavered between incredulity and astonishment.
"You can redecorate the house if you want," he continued. "Not my office, though. And be warned that if I don't like it, I'll have it fixed. I'd leave my childer's rooms alone too if I were you. Some of them can be ... territorial."
She mulled over the words for a moment. Aidan didn't mind. She could look for the trap as much as she wanted; there wasn't one. He had long ago moved past word games. She, on the other hand ... He detailed her features as she thought. She started nervously biting her bottom lip before realizing what she was doing and stopping. Such a simple gesture, and yet it told him a lot. She was still a young vampire; it was impolite to ask how long ago a vampire had been sired, but Aidan would have bet she hadn't had her fangs for more than five or six years. She had learned a lot in those few years, though. Aidan knew her sire's reputation. The fact that Meriel was alive was proof enough that she could learn fast.
"Can I invite friends over?" she asked at last, her eyes giving no indication to how interested she was in the answer.
"Provided that they remain on the first floor."
She didn't react, and fired another question. "Can I travel?"
They rarely asked so fast...
"I can't leave the city," he reminded her.
She frowned. "Is that a no?"
"You remember your vows, don't you?"
"My presence at your side," she quoted, nodding to herself. Her eyes narrowed and she added, "In your bed, I presume."
Again, she briefly looked at the bed. She took her bottom lip between her teeth for a second before finishing her glass in one long swallow.
"There's a second master suite next door," he said, keeping his voice neutral. "I'll sleep there until you invite me to join you in here."
She had been leaning to place her glass on the table, and froze mid-movement at his words. This time, the incredulity was all Aidan could see.
"You and I are bound not to take other lovers," he said as he stood. "The next ten years are going to be really long if you are not attracted to me."
The glass made a soft clanking noise on the wooden table. "You could force me," she pointed out, standing as well and crossing her arms beneath her chest. Her hardened nipples were pushing against the fabric of her dress.
"Where would be the fun in that?" He grinned and walked around the table. Standing by her side, he ran his fingertips against the curve of her neck. "Plus, you are attracted to me."
Her skin erupted into goosebumps beneath his fingers. "And you to me," she retorted.
He was glad she didn't try to deny her attraction, and saw no reason to lie about his own. "I am, yes. I like your lips."
She chuckled, though her amusement sounded a little strained. "Is that all you like about me?"
His fingers trailed up over her jaw and to her mouth. He traced her lips with the tip of his index finger. "I like how you bite them when you're uncertain. It makes me want to have a taste, too."
She blinked and swallowed hard. The wariness in her scent had all but disappeared, replaced by timid desire. Curious as to how she'd react, he cupped her face in his hand, leaned in and kissed her.