Estelle LaMarche has never pursued power for its own sake. But now that she’s been made seneschal, responsible for vampire queen Wavena’s entire military, she’ll do her duty. That means devoting herself to planning the war against the Dawning. Protecting her kind. And resisting, at any cost, her distracting desire for Stephan Daker, the masquerada lieutenant with whom she shared one unforgettable night . . .
AN UNQUENCHABLE PASSION
Even wounded and grieving after a devastating battle, Stephan hasn’t been able to get brilliant, beautiful Estelle off his mind. Yet how can he know which feelings are truly his, when Estelle’s powers of compulsion are so strong? Unwilling to trust his desire for her, Stephen tries to keep his distance as they work together. But when Estelle’s brother is kidnapped by their enemies, he’ll join her in a conflict that will decide the fate of humanity itself . . .
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Estelle LaMarche stepped into a snowdrift, felt cold wetness slide down the back of her boot, and swore. Early snow had coated Toronto like glazed sugar and she should be tucked up on the couch with a hot chocolate instead of trudging to the drugstore.
Her phone buzzed angrily in her pocket and she ignored it as another spike of pain entered her temple, cruised around her brain, and decided to linger in her sinuses. Vampires weren't supposed to get headaches. For a hundred years she'd never had a headache. Now she was on her way to buy the biggest bottle of headache pills she could find. She didn't even know if she'd be able to metabolize it. After all, she didn't absorb nutrients from food — though like others of her kind, loved the experience of eating — so what's to say acetaminophen would help?
It had to. Otherwise she would go on a killing spree.
The phone went off again and she had a brief but intensely pleasurable fantasy of tossing it into a deep slush puddle. Instead, she turned into the sheltered doorway of a bulk spice store and yanked it out of her pocket to check the message.
As she suspected, it was nothing important. In the few months she'd been the acting seneschal major, Estelle had quickly learned that as well as dealing with her normal duties she was the dumping ground for the problems no one else wanted to solve. How had her mentor dealt with this and remained sane?
Cressida had wanted to be seneschal and had been good at it. Maybe that was the difference. It seemed that no matter how much Estelle worked, she was only treading water. Every decision led to another ... and another. With each came the risk of being wrong, of creating more problems on top of the ones she already had.
Fingers freezing, she tapped out a quick reply. Speedy response was her friend these days as she tried to avoid showing any exploitable weakness. Her mother had been kind enough to pass on that she had heard that everyone thought Estelle was too young and inexperienced for her role, nowhere near the leader Cressida had been.
That dealt with, she promptly stepped into another puddle, further wetting her feet and increasing her exasperation, then opened the door to the welcome warmth of the drugstore. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust from the early evening dark to the store's harsh light.
"Didn't expect to you see you here." Minh Nguyen, one of the rare humans aware of the supernatural arcane world, popped out from behind a colorful display of shampoo bottles. His cheeks were bright red from the cold and his pompom hat had been pulled down to the tops of his eyes. "Thought you were in Orlando."
"Came back to Toronto a few days ago." Estelle pulled off her cashmere magenta gloves — a recent splurge — and stuffed them into her pockets. Her new role required her to split her time between Toronto, where Eric Kelton, the masquerada Hierarch, had established a war room for the fight against the Dawning, and Queen Wavena's vampire base back in Florida.
Minh pushed his hat back. "I ran out of peanut butter." Although Eric owned a huge place nearby, Minh had insisted on renting the top floor of a house that reeked of pot and Febreeze. Estelle had visited once and appreciated its homey feel. Not as stylish or calming as her own minimalist black and grey apartment, but nice for a young human.
He joined her to stroll up and down the aisles in a friendly silence. Estelle pawed idly through some lip liners and picked up a shimmering green eye shadow. "Incredible how things change over time," she said. "My first cosmetics were like paste. I looked like a ghost."
Minh stopped rubbing his finger on the gold powder on display and stared at her in shock. "They had makeup back then?"
Estelle pretended to slash him with a lipstick. "How old do you think I am, boy?" They moved to the next aisle, where Estelle grabbed an abandoned basket and threw in a few bottles of headache pills before adding in antacids.
Minh eyed her basket. "Feeling okay?"
"Your eyes look like a raccoon." He gestured helpfully to the deep dark circles on her face in case she didn't understand.
Oh, she did. Foundation could only cover so much. "My mascara smudged in the snow," she lied. Vampires didn't require much sleep but she needed more than she was getting. Too many of her nights were spent staring at the ceiling, thinking about the ongoing battle with the Dawning, malcontents now under the control of the powerful masquerada Ancient Yangzei. Brooding on how much she didn't want to be the seneschal and the many ways she could screw it up.
Wishing Cressida was alive, giving orders with her usual firm authority.
Hoping no one would figure out she had no place being in charge of a houseplant, let alone the entire vampire military apparatus.
Trying not to think about Stephan.
She muffled a sigh. Stephan Daker, the masquerada lieutenant. Gorgeous. Kind. Intelligent. The fling they'd had last year now felt like the distant past, and they'd settled into a cautious relationship that focused on their joint professional priorities, like saving the world from a devastating war.
Their night together was no more than a pleasant memory. A very arousing, exciting, stimulating memory that insisted on intruding when she saw him. She poked at a bag of early holiday chocolates. Stephan had been away on Eric's northern training base for the past two months but she'd seen him during the occasional video conference. Although he acted like the same Stephan, competent and in control, she'd seen the tension that had settled on him like a cloak.
If only he'd let her help him.
Minh cleared his throat and she flushed. "You done?" He held a jar of extra crunchy peanut butter.
"Want to get a drink?"
"Hell, yes." Vampires, thank God, could feel the effects of alcohol with the added benefit of no hangovers. She perked up. Maybe the headache pills would work after all.
They paid, and Minh led the way out and down the street. He paused at a coffee shop, then shook his head and ushered her into a bar.
Estelle leaned back against the padded back of the banquet bench. "You're not on duty tonight, I assume."
"On call, so one or two won't hurt me."
"What do you think about working for Eric?" After the battle with the Dawning, Eric had offered Minh a choice — return to his old life after having his memories wiped or join Eric's team. The human hadn't hesitated.
Minh winced. "That Mai woman beats my ass every training round. Say what you will, those masquerada are tough mothers." He glanced at her. "Stephan especially."
She didn't want to talk about Stephan. "There's always a place at Wavena's court if you want." The vampire queen had taken a shine to Minh.
"Yeah, no," he said. "Not sure I want to hang around a bunch of people who see me as lunch."
"Please. We have some control. You'll note I haven't tried to bite you once."
"Only because you have no taste for prime meat." He grinned at her over the glass and she had to laugh. Minh was only twenty-five, but he'd lived a hard life. Part of why he'd been attracted to the Dawning was its promise of immortality and power, so appealing to one who had little to hope for.
"You could turn," Estelle said.
"Could, but don't want that any longer." His voice was firm. Minh had been one of the Dawning's failed attempts to transform humans into shape-shifting masquerada. He'd been lucky — many others had died during those experiments. "How're you doing being seneschal major?"
"Acting seneschal major," Estelle corrected. When Cressida had been killed in battle Estelle had been given no choice but to take on the role she'd spent decades training for and years avoiding.
"Fine, but it's not like there's another one of you around." Minh ordered another drink and Estelle nodded at the bartender's unspoken question. She definitely wanted a second. She focused for a moment, feeling the bartender's mind but as she was about to nudge him to a larger pour, she caught Minh's disapproving glance and pulled back.
"Sorry," she said. "It's hard to remember you folks don't like when I do that." Vampires didn't think twice about using their compulsion over humans to get slight advantages.
"Thanks. What about the job?"
"It's okay," Estelle said, sidestepping the issue of her promotion.
Minh checked his phone and frowned.
"Getting called in. Someone didn't show up for his shift."
Estelle stopped her drink part-way to her lips. "Missing? Who?"
"Jimmy. One of the guys supposed to be on patrol." Minh put his phone away. "Could be nothing, but they want me in with the others to take a look."
A memory stirred in Estelle's mind, someone at Wavena's court mentioning that an older vampire had left without warning. At the time she thought it was nothing, but ...
She put her Manhattan down. "I'll come with you."CHAPTER 2
Stephan Daker sat in his room, examining the scar on his left shoulder. It had taken a long time to heal, but the arm was finally functional after his injury in the Dawning battle six months ago. Not that it had been smooth sailing. Masquerada had enhanced healing abilities and could recover from anything short of complete limb removal or multiple organ failure, but this injury had taken its sweet time. He'd been clucked at and frowned over in multiple offices, asked to do the same motions and gestures, then poked and prodded until he'd felt like an object rather than a man.
For a long time, he'd struggled to even lift his arm as he worked his way through masquerada doctors. "There's not anything wrong physically," the last man had noted. "May I invite you to try meditation? I've seen it work wonders on these types of injuries, which might have, let's say, intangible roots."
It was all in his head? All those years he'd worked to claim ownership and control over his own body and his own mind had resulted in nothing? Even now, Stephan congratulated himself on answering politely, instead of inviting the guy to stuff a yoga mat up his ass. He'd walked out and told his arm, in no uncertain terms, that he'd had enough of its fucking shit.
He'd hired the biggest, baddest trainer he could find and told her to have no pity. Two months later, he could make a fist. Three months, he could lift his arm up to his shoulder.
Now he was back to normal. Physically, anyway. Mentally was another story. He stared at his unpacked bag. He'd returned from Wagosh Island — the masquerada's northern military compound — a few hours ago. As he expected, it had been a bleak visit. Memories of the battle with the Dawning forces and Tom's disappearance had cut in at random times, short-circuiting his focus. Losing Tom had hit him hard, leaving him with a guilty pain in his chest so deep and sore that it was like living with a dagger in his middle.
He'd experienced loss before, too much loss. Why was this so difficult?
Perhaps he'd simply hit his limit. Perhaps there was a finite amount of misery flesh and bone could take and he'd run out.
Thankfully, training the new cadets had kept him busy during the days. It was the nights that were killer, so quiet compared to the city that his mind had nothing to distract itself from the whispers that surrounded him.
The voices of the multitude were back.
It had been years since he'd become aware of those echoes, the collection of lost souls stolen by the masquerada Ancient Yangzei. They'd learned more about the multitude since their last fight with Yangzei and the Dawning and none of it was good. They appeared to be partial souls, stolen out from their bodies when Yangzei took on their owners' physical appearance. They were caught in a dim, unknown realm, unable to move on.
They were, however, able to make noise and now formed a maelstrom threatening to draw him in, drown him with their mournful laments of loss and need, punctuated by calls for help. This evidence of their endless torture was another reason Stephan wanted to cut Yangzei into a thousand pieces.
A door closed down the hall. Was it embarrassing for a three-hundred-year-old man to have roommates? Probably. Maybe he'd feel better in new surroundings, more like himself. The last six months had left him emotionally flayed.
Estelle LaMarche hadn't helped. He stared at his hand again, and forced the fingers into the stretches his trainer insisted he do three times a day. He'd had a single mind-blowing night with Estelle before war had dropped on them, and since then it had been nothing but business. Even while he was in Wagosh Island, she intruded on his thoughts. A sweater she'd left behind after the battle smelled of her lilac perfume and he'd had to package it for the mail drop so he wouldn't spend half the day standing there and breathing it in.
One thing held him back from sitting down with Estelle and hashing this out, to find if this — whatever they had — was something that could go somewhere.
He had no idea if the feelings were his.
Well, obviously they were his in the sense he was the one experiencing them, but where had they come from? Estelle was a vampire, but more than that, she was the best of the best. Whereas most vamps couldn't manage much more than wiping thoughts of a feeding from a human, Estelle could go in and do ... things ... to a mind. What if she was manipulating him?
For what reason? The more rational side of him spoke up from whatever hole it had been hiding in for the recent past. Why would she want to waste energy on a miserable, useless asshole like him? A guy who left his friend behind in battle? Who heard voices?
Who was pathetically self-pitying?
Stop this. Get something to eat. He went to the door and opened it in time to duck Eric's knuckles.
Already keyed up, his body reacted automatically to defend himself but he pulled back in time to avoid punching out his Hierarch. Never a good career move, even when you had a century's worth of seniority. "What the hell are you doing?"
Eric lowered his arm. "Sorry. I was about to knock."
"Yeah, I saw that." Stephan ran a hand over his shaved head. "Next time ..." he trailed off.
Eric's dry voice forced a reluctant smile from Stephan. "Text."
"I tried to text. You didn't answer."
"My phone was turned off."
Eric sighed. "Downstairs, Stephan. We need to talk."
Stephan followed, wondering what it was about those four words that never heralded good news. "Have you noticed that no one ever says 'We need to talk' when they win the lottery?"
"You didn't win the lottery." Eric led the way to the war room where his consort Caro Yeats sat surrounded by computers. When she saw Stephan, she looked up with a wide smile. As usual, though, her gaze moved almost immediately to Eric. Stephan could almost feel the energy sizzle across the room.
Caro shut down her laptop and rose with her usual grace. Her dark wavy hair tumbled down her back and Eric ran his hand over it as she passed them, his eyes lingering on her as she left. A small dart stabbed Stephan's chest. Envy?
"Sit." Eric pointed to one of two low club chairs in the corner. "Coffee?"
"Whiskey." He was drinking too much but what the hell. He was done work for the night. "Is there food?"
He glanced at the side table and saw Eric had already anticipated him. A decanter, two tumblers and a plate covered with small sandwiches waited for them. Stephan took one with real pleasure, mentally thanking Eric's extremely thoughtful cook. "She even cut off the crusts," he said. It was the small things in life.
"Cynthia likes you." Eric poured two generous drinks, then leaned back, creaking the leather chair. "Plus she knew you probably wouldn't have stopped for food onyour way home."
He hadn't, so he took another. "Any updates on the Dawning? Yangzei?"
Supernatural arcana had a fundamental rule — to remain hidden from humans. The Law kept them safe from humanity's overwhelming numbers and had survived for hundreds of years; Stephan, Eric, and the others were determined that it should exist for a thousand more. The Dawning disagreed, wanting to both burst out of the shadows and take their — assumed — rightful role as the rulers of humanity.
The Pharos Council, now under the control of Miaoling Chui, was fully occupied in tracking down transgressors of the Law and dealing with the consequences. Luckily, the masquerada had infiltrated most human institutions and were able to keep proof of arcane existence hidden when cock-ups inevitably occurred.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Masked Longing"
Copyright © 2018 Alana Delacroix.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I’ve really enjoyed the previous two books in this series with their very unique paranormal characters. The focus here isn’t the usual Shifters, Fae or Vampires ( although admittedly they are a part of this world) but those known as Masquerada who can quite literally transform at will. For the select few this can be advantageous as they can become how they wish to be seen but there’s always the danger of losing ones true self . This book picks up following the realisation that an ancient Masquerada is loose in the world and determined to “out” those of the arcana world to humans meaning it’s imperative that the races unite to stop him. Steven doesn’t truly trust the Vampires and yet it’s his duty to work with them. He might have conflicting feelings when it comes to Estelle but of one thing he’s certain and that is he doesn’t want her messing with his mind. Estelle finds herself thrust into a role she’s not sure she really wants and would love to confide in Steven but he just pushes her away. Allies seem difficult to trust as the plans of those known as the Dawning start becoming clearer and no matter what at some point hard choices have to be made but at what cost ? I’ve held off writing this as if honest after the last book I’m disappointed. The relationship felt forced and really didn’t light my fire. Steven didn’t seem to be in love with Estelle and frankly Estelle just seemed to go her own way regardless. Once I got past the initial third of the book the story actually started to take off and I did enjoy trying to work out who to trust and who was a thoroughly bad egg but alas the romance and lack of character development just let it down. It lacked the passion and humour of Cormac the hero in Masked Desire although admittedly it does move the overall plot along. This voluntary take is of a copy I requested from Netgalley and my thoughts and comments are honest and I believe fair