Harrison’s enjoyable seventh Elder Races paranormal (after Kinked) takes a trip to the Vampyre demesne in San Francisco. The Vampyres are hosting their annual audition and auction for new human attendants. Running away from a dangerous Djinn, Tess Graham reluctantly offers her skills for auction and attracts the attention of Xavier del Torro, who serves the Nightkind King. Despite her fear of Xavier, she agrees to train as his attendant, understanding that she must eventually offer her blood without hesitation. The epitome of a Spanish nobleman, Xavier hides his interest in Tess behind politeness and professionalism, but he can’t help but be impressed by her determination to conquer her fear of his kind and succeed as an attendant. When she leverages his political connections to save herself, she also captures his heart. The world contains a great many different beings and types of magic, but even casual readers will be able to follow along and enjoy this fun and affecting episode. (Sept.)
On the run from her former employer, Tess knows that she’s vulnerable on her own amongst the Elder Races. That’s why she decides to audition to become the human attendant of a powerful Vampyre of the Nightkind demesne. But while her position affords her the safety she seeks, her protector turns out to be more than she bargained for.
The right-hand man of the Nightkind King, Xavier del Torro is both terrifying and alluring. While his true nature frightens Tess, she can’t ignore the appeal of his innate sense of integrity and self-restraint. Thrown into Xavier’s world, Tess must quickly learn to navigate the dangers—both to her life and to her heart. But the biggest threat comes from her own past...
Praise for the Novels of the Elder Races
“A dark, compelling world. I’m hooked!”—#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward
“Harrison delivers an epic story of myth, mayhem and love that is sure to keep readers satisfied and breathing fire!”—Fresh Fiction
“Thea Harrison is a master storyteller.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan
Read an Excerpt
Vampyre’s Ball, New Year’s Eve
Cautiously, Tess peered at the crowd through a side stage door. She might be able to control her behavior, but her body told a different story. Her mouth had dried out, her heart pounded and her palms had turned clammy.
All the monsters were beautiful. Vampyres loved beauty, and they were some of the most celebrated in all of the Elder Races.
Charismatic and elegantly dressed in black tie and couture gowns, Vampyres filled the banquet-style great hall. Some sat at large round tables in the middle of the floor, but many stood and mingled. Human attendants wove through the clusters of glittering creatures, doing the bidding of their patrons.
Most of the attendants were dressed in subdued, discreet clothing, but there were a few standouts, such as the dark haired woman wearing a diamond collar that flashed with brilliant fire. Barefoot, she wore a silk, champagne-colored sheath dress. The paper-thin material of the dress was short, barely covering the woman’s ass. Sapphires studded her leash, the end of which hung negligently on the slim wrist of her Vampyre patroness.
The redheaded Vampyre wore a black velvet evening gown and a haughty expression. She never glanced at her collared attendant, who shifted and turned to keep flawless pace with her patroness, rather like a well-trained dog. As the pair faced Tess, she saw that the collared woman wore a small, private smile. She didn’t look abused, and her creamy skin appeared flawless. If anything, she looked like she enjoyed being on display.
To the sides of the great hall and up on a mezzanine level were more private areas where the most powerful of the elite could lounge in comfort. Any Vampyre who was anybody of note in the Nightkind demesne attended the annual Vampyre’s Ball, even the Nightkind King himself, Julian Regillus.
Tess checked the number on her ticket. When she had joined the candidates, the line had gone out the back of the building and down the alley, but she’d finally made it inside. Now there were only three people ahead of her.
A new candidate took the stage. She had a California-girl style of beauty, tall and leggy with long, blonde tresses—yes, tresses—that had been styled to fall in thick waves around her perfect heart-shaped face and slender shoulders. Green eyes sparkled with a coquettish vivacity as she slipped off a short, red dressing gown. Totally naked, she spun in a circle on five-inch, nude-colored stiletto heels. Taking the microphone from the human, middle-aged emcee, she began a catwalk strut across the stage while she talked.
“Hi everybody, I hope you’re all having a wonderful evening! My name is Haley, and I’m so excited to be here with you tonight! I’m twenty-one years old, and I’m working on my bachelor’s in sociology at Berkeley. . . .”
This was like an X-rated version of America’s Got Talent, except with Vampyres.
A tension headache began to throb behind Tess’s right eye. She hadn’t thought she was a prude, but the other woman had just disrobed as casually as if she were about to step into a bathtub in her own home. Haley was the same smooth honey tan all over. Nothing jiggled or dimpled anywhere. Her breasts looked like perfect, gravity-defying circles glued to her slender torso.
Now, those couldn’t be natural.
Tess glanced down at herself. Not that she was going to strip down for anybody when it was her turn to take the stage, but even with her clothes on, it was perfectly clear that everything about her was horrendously average.
The best thing anybody could say about her body was that she was fit, and even then, she did jiggle in a few places. Her straight, dark hair was cut into a sensible bob, but she was two weeks overdue for a trim. She wore faded jeans, black shoes with flat heels and a black sweater, mainly because it was the only outfit she had left with her that was still clean.
The Vampyres continued with their conversations. Not a single one in the crowded hall looked at Haley. No one lifted a bidding paddle.
Tess turned her attention to the mezzanine level. She could just see the Nightkind King’s strong, rough profile as he talked with the monster sitting opposite him. The Vampyre with him appeared to be a young man, with nut brown hair pulled back in a simple ponytail and a pleasantly nondescript, mild-mannered face.
His appearance couldn’t be more of a lie. Xavier del Torro was one of the most notorious of all the Vampyres, a feared hunter famous in all of the Elder Races—and famous among humans as well—and Julian’s right-hand man. Neither del Torro nor the King glanced at the stage.
Haley worked hard for her allotted two minutes. Her routine was polished, professional and raunchy, and it left the onlookers in no doubt. Clearly she was ready and willing to do anything to become a Vampyre’s attendant. When the buzzer sounded, she swept up her discarded robe and exited stage left with a bright smile and a cheerful, Miss Universe pageant-style wave.
The next candidate walked onto the stage with quick, jerky movements. This one was a man in his forties dressed in a department store suit. He looked tense and so uncomfortable, Tess’s muscles clenched with empathy. She could relate.
When the emcee handed the candidate the microphone, he cleared his throat, pulled out a photo and held it in the air. It wavered visibly in his unsteady hand. In the photo, a girl grinned at the camera, her head tilted to one side.
“My name is Roberto Sanchez, and I am here on behalf of my beautiful daughter Cara. Cara is fourteen years old, and she is in the hospital. She has childhood leukemia. She was in remission for three years, but now the cancer has returned. Please, I am begging you—someone have mercy on her. If you would only agree to be her patron, you could help to heal her. She’s a good girl. She can work hard for you, if only she felt better. . . .”
Tess winced. Sanchez was breaking several of the rules that had been handed out on cards to those candidates who had been lucky enough to get a ticket and now stood in line, waiting for their turn on the stage. All medically based petitions must go through the visa application process at the Bureau of Nightkind Immigration.
The annual Vampyre’s Ball on New Year’s Eve was an occasion to make a different kind of petition altogether, a kind of massive job screening process where Vampyres of standing might choose to take on human attendants to add to their households.
Supposedly the relationship between a Vampyre patron and his human attendants was a mutually beneficial arrangement. The attendants assured the Vampyre a steady blood supply in addition to working to support the household as a whole. In return the Vampyre offered his protection and assured that the attendant would have a safe, secure place in which to live, and a long, healthy life. There was even an outside chance that a candidate might become a Vampyre himself one day.
Both opportunities were rare. According to the website FAQs that Tess had read, the Nightkind demesne in the United States received over ten million visa applications a year from humans hoping to be turned, while the number of newly created Vampyres each year was the tiniest fraction of that and strictly controlled by the Nightkind demesne working in coordination with the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.
Probably Sanchez had already applied for a visa for his daughter and had been turned down. Clearly desperation had pushed him onto the stage.
Just as it would push Tess, when it was her turn.
The next few moments were excruciating, and not just because of the rawness of Sanchez’s pleading, although that was bad enough.
The worst was that the Vampyres did nothing.
Nobody moved to interrupt Sanchez. The emcee did not order security to remove him. Nobody turned to look at the pleading man or raised a bidding paddle. They all acted as if he did not exist.
A sickened anger tied her stomach in knots. This was horrendous, degrading, and it didn’t matter that cold logic said there could be no good way to handle candidates like Sanchez, or that his petition had been doomed from the start. The number of visa applicants was overwhelming to begin with. If the Vampyres gave into one Sanchez who broke the rules, they would never be able to stop the flood of others.
She didn’t know what was worse—their show of indifference or the humans who chose to abase themselves onstage.
And I’m one of them, she thought. She wiped her face with a shaking hand. How in God’s name could I have ever thought this might be a good idea?
Scratch that, I never thought it was a good idea. It was my only idea.
The reason was simple. When you pissed off the devil, you ran out of options real fast.
The buzzer sounded. With agonizing politeness, the emcee escorted Sanchez off the stage, and the next candidate came on.
The person behind Tess elbowed her with a hiss, and she eased the stage door closed to step into the wings. Her blood pounded in her ears, and her shaking breath caught in her throat. This was far worse than any kind of normal stage fright, magnified as it was by anger, revulsion and fear.
As if from a long distance away, she heard the buzzer sound. And again.
When it was her turn, she stepped forward and waited just behind the curtain for her cue. If she held herself any more rigidly, she felt like she might break into pieces.
The emcee walked toward her with a practiced smile and a sharp, disinterested gaze. Holding out a hand, he beckoned to her. She walked forward into a flood of hot lights, stopped at the X taped on the floor and faced the crowded hall. Her cold fingers curled automatically around the microphone when it was shoved into her hand.
The lights on the stage had turned the Vampyres into shadowy figures that made them seem even more menacing. She wanted to scream at them, or laugh at the absurdity of the whole scenario.
Instead, the intolerable tension fractured and she iced over with a clear, clean anger. None of them would listen to anything she might say anyway.
Not bothering to raise the microphone, she said in a calm, flat voice, “My looks are entirely forgettable, and I’m smarter than almost anyone here.”
Screw them, if they weren’t able to see what advantages there could be in any of that. Screw all of them.
• • •
On the mezzanine floor, one of the Vampyres turned from his conversation to look down at her.
He raised his paddle.
• • •
Blinded by the bright lights shining in her face, Tess couldn’t see if her words had caused any reaction. She only knew she wasn’t going to stay on the stage for one more moment. She had to go somewhere quiet to try to figure out her next move. Pivoting, she strode to the emcee “Where’s the exit?”
Giving her a strange look, he walked with her to the opposite edge of the stage, where another young woman in an aide’s uniform waited in the wings. Plucking the microphone out of Tess’s hand, the emcee moved on to the next candidate.
Despair weighed down her limbs until she felt as if she were moving through water. She asked the aide tightly, “How do I get out of here?”
Like the emcee, all of the servers and aides at the Ball were human. The woman gave her the same strange look as the emcee had, incredulity mingled with envy, and darkened with the faintest tinge of resentment. “I know candidates can’t see it when they’re on the stage, but you’ve been selected for an interview.”
Tess blinked. She couldn’t have heard that right. The words didn’t make any sense. “Excuse me?”
“Someone wants to interview you.” The aide checked the screen of her iPad then rapidly input something with a stylus. “Go down the hall to the back staircase, then up to the second floor. Remember, one flight up is the mezzanine level. The second floor is two flights up. Your interview will be in room 219. He’ll be with you shortly.”
She was almost getting used to the slightly nauseous tension that clenched her stomach. “Who is it?”
Even as she asked, the aide turned away to beckon the next candidate offstage. As the woman stepped into the wings, she clutched at the aide’s hands. “This is my sixth year auditioning. How did I do? Did someone ask for me?”
Tess turned away. The only way she would find out who wanted to talk to her was by going up to the room. Feeling dazed, she went down the utilitarian hall and walked up two flights of stairs.
The building was old. During the California gold rush, it had been one of San Francisco’s premiere hotels, but it had been partially gutted and renovated in the 1920s to be used for the Vampyre’s Ball.
Away from the glittering elegance of the main ballroom, the building showed its age. Still, the upstairs was a little better than the hallway backstage. There were a few touches of faded glory, in the scratched and peeling gilding on the stairway railings, in the worn carpet, and in the crown molding at the edges of the ceiling.
The upstairs rooms had once been hotel rooms. As the thought occurred to her, she clenched both hands into fists.
Relatively few Vampyres reached enough prominence to support a household of attendants, but when they did, they set their own rules for what happened in their domain. She had heard rumors that in some households, attendants provided more than just blood and assigned work. They also traded sexual favors in return for the kind of lifestyle that a wealthy Vampyre patron could offer.
Even if an attendant never gained the opportunity to be turned, regular bites from a patron boosted a human’s natural immune system, and they could live as long as a hundred and thirty years. There were reasons why Haley had gone naked onto the stage, not least of which was the opportunity to live more than half again one’s own natural life span and to die in one’s sleep of old age.
Room 219 was tucked between others in the middle of the hall. As soon as she gripped the door handle, her muscles locked up and she stood frozen, unable to make herself step into the room and yet not able to walk away, while rapid-fire thoughts snapped at her heels like feral dogs.
This “interview” could be another version of the casting couch scenario.
If there’s a bed in the room, that’s it, she thought. I’m out of here.