Kidnapping frail yet defiant human Perrie—for her own protection, of course—brings more trouble to vampire Raphael than he expected. She wants love and friendship; he demands obedience. Will the secrets and lies at the heart of the Dark Empire tear them apart or is their passion strong enough to redeem Raphael and unite them forever? Dark Empire #5
Cover art by Tori Minard from photos by
© Branislav © Ostojic, © Shirophoto , and © Akv2006
Enchanted Lyre Books
His blood was some of the most delicious she’d ever tasted, sweet and coppery and rich on her tongue. Daranda reached for the slave’s eager sex as she drew another mouthful of the life-giving fluid in his veins. Her hand closed around his hard cock. He moaned, his heavy arm sliding around her waist. Normally she wouldn’t tolerate such familiarity from a slave, especially one on loan from a courtier, but he tasted so good she didn’t particularly mind. This time.
Her long, mahogany hair slid around them like a dark curtain, shielding them from the rest of the court as she drank. Of course, everyone in sight knew what they were doing and that was a good thing. Her vampires needed to see her taking blood, publicly, with pride. They needed to see that there was nothing of shame in the vampire life.
Some called her queen of the vampires, although she had nothing but this shabby little kingdom on the fringes of Atlantean society, a place where her kind were compelled to wear a mark showing their status. All vampires on Atlantis must keep a gold hoop through one of their eyebrows so that anyone could see what they were. Shameful. Someday these humans would regret how they’d treated her and her people.
She licked the wounds she’d made and released the slave. He took her hand, pressing it against his sex once more. Daranda jerked out of his grasp and slapped his face hard enough to leave a red mark where her hand had been. He pressed his palm against his cheek.
“Your pardon,” he whispered.
“Go now. I’m through with you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
He rolled off her lap and scuttled off, head hanging low in shame and dismay. He was lucky she hadn’t taken any harsher measures with him. According to the courtier who’d loaned him, he was new and had yet to learn his place. She gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. If he were hers, he would already know where he belonged. He would never dare to touch her without a direct order.
Her assistant cleared his throat as he stepped forward from the shadows of a lemon tree. “Your Majesty, the emissary to the mainland has returned.”
She pushed her hair away from her face and stared at him. “Returned? Then he isn’t dead.”
“No, Your Majesty. Shall I send him in?”
“Yes, yes. Immediately.”
She straightened on the bench, arranging her hair in a more dignified fashion. The emissary had left her court several years before and they’d heard nothing from him since. All had assumed he’d died somewhere on the mainland, perhaps at the hands of the foreign vampires she’d sent him to contact but more likely due to attack by human.
The mainland humans were nothing but savages who fought with sticks and stones and wore animal skins and the crudest of woven fabrics. They lacked any sort of written language or industry. They worshipped gods who looked like animals and were little more than animals themselves. Dangerous animals.
Their simplicity didn’t stop them from hunting her kind during the day, when they were at their weakest, vulnerable to the burning effects of the sun. Many had died at the hands of those primitives.
Why vampires would choose to dwell among near-beasts like that was beyond her. They could come here to Atlantis and live a civilized life, yet they continued to wallow in their disgusting surroundings. Well, perhaps now that she’d sent them an invitation they would better understand the advantages of joining with her.
The emissary, a man named Godru, entered the garden with a stiffness to his gait that almost made him look human. He must have been through quite an ordeal, if he still suffered from an injury. Normally vampires recovered quickly from any wound, especially if they drank a little human blood.
Godru looked quite a bit the worse for wear, in ways other than a lame leg. His brown hair had grown long and rough, and he wore the silken Atlantean tunics awkwardly. Would he be more comfortable in poorly tanned skins? She pressed her lips together. He should have taken the time to make himself fully presentable before coming before her.
He stopped directly in front of her and made a deep bow. “Your Majesty, I have returned from the mainland.”
“I see that. What was their answer?”
“I met with five separate groups of vampires over the course of three years,” he said.
“Yes, wonderful. What was their answer?”
Godru shifted from one foot to the other, his gaze sliding away from hers. “They…expressed reservations.”
“Reservations?” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“You must understand they’ve been completely autonomous since the founding of their colonies. They dislike the idea of giving up their right to make independent decisions.”
“They do, do they?”
He swallowed audibly. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And their answer? You still haven’t told me.”
Godru swallowed again. “No. Their answer was no.”
Her nostrils flared. “I see.”
“I tried every tactic I could. They were obdurate. They threatened me, Your Majesty.”
“Indeed?” She pressed her lips into a flat line. “I’m surprised you made it out alive, then.” He must not have tried hard enough, or he’d be dead.
“The last group almost killed me. I survived only to carry this news to you.” He bowed deeply again.
“And the reason they gave was…”
“As I said, they value their freedom. All insisted to me they’d rather die than give it up.”
She drummed her nails on the seat of the bench. “They told you this?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
He was holding something back. She could feel it in the tension between them. The mainland vampires had said other things, probably highly insulting to her, and Godru hesitated to repeat them. Wise of him.
She drummed her nails again. So they’d have nothing to do with her, would they? She’d done the courteous thing and sent invitations. She’d tried to be reasonable, but one cannot reason with people who are as deeply irrational as the mainland vampires appeared to be. She needed a new tactic.
“Thank you, Godru. You may go.”
He bowed again, so deeply that his forehead almost touched the tiled floor of the courtyard. “It is my pleasure and honor to serve you, Your Majesty.” Then he scurried backward out of the garden, looking as if he thought he’d barely escaped with his life.
Daranda sighed. She stared blankly across her courtier’s garden, hardly seeing the lemon trees and roses that grew there or the brightly dressed courtiers who lounged beneath them. The tinkling sounds of a fountain and a woman playing the lyre faded as she considered the disaster Godru had just placed in her lap.
She’d had such hopes for his mission. He’d gone off loaded with gifts for the vampires he went to meet, well supplied with friendly messages of greeting from her and invitations to join her and her people on Atlantis. Yet they’d refused.
Didn’t they understand what they were doing when they denied her? Didn’t they care about the future of vampires in a human-dominated world? Even in Atlantis, their position was uncomfortably precarious. On the mainland, among the savages, life for vampires was dangerous at best, a constant struggle for survival. Humans disliked and mistrusted their kind, and during the daylight hours they were easy to kill. That put them at a severe disadvantage. Yet the fools had no interest in joining their strength with hers for the good of all. They clearly had little vision.
What she needed was a way to bring that vision to them, a way to make them see the truth. But how?
Her assistant, Alsek, settled next to her on the bench. “I’m deeply disappointed, Your Majesty.”
“As am I.”
“What will we do?”
She surveyed the crowd of courtiers and human slaves. They had a sophisticated little society here, but it was truly at the mercy of the humans. And Atlanteans hated vampires, barely tolerated them. The mark was obvious evidence of that. Any security her people felt here on Atlantis was illusory, something that could be destroyed at a moment.
One sunny summer day, all vampire windows could be thrown open, flooding their sleeping places with poisonous light. Roasting them in their beds.
A dark memory bubbled up from long ago, giant-like adults shouting, children crying, huddling beneath a mean little table while their elders tried to kill one another. Daranda suppressed a shudder. Those days were long gone, the humans mere dust in their graves. Only she remained. She and her memories.
But chaos was forever present, forever threatening everything she’d built. Holding it at bay sometimes seemed to take every drop of strength she possessed. And those ingrates on the mainland had the gall to reject her. Idiots.
Her agitated gaze fell on a pair of young men she didn’t know. One was blond and beautiful, with strikingly blue eyes. The other, equally beautiful, had nearly black hair and exotic, pale eyes that reminded her painfully of another man, another idiot who’d rejected her. Niko. This newcomer looked so much like Niko he could almost be his brother.
“Alsek, who are those two? The one who looks like Niko and the blond with him.”
“The blond is Garek, an Amaki. His companion is called Ravki.”
Ravki. An unusual name, rather barbaric. Like Niko. “Is he related to our Dacian friend?”
“He’s Niko and Laila’s son,” Alsek said.
Her gaze sharpened. “Is he indeed?” She’d heard rumors of a son, but hadn’t known whether to believe them, given that both parents were vampires. Her kind almost never conceived.
“They say Laila is half-Amaki and he has some of the powers of her people.” Alsek crossed his arms over his chest. “He grew up among them, if my sources can be believed.”
“I would very much like to talk to this young man.”
“Shall I fetch him for you?”
She rubbed her chin. “No. Not yet. But find out as much as you can about him. Especially what sort of powers he has.”
“It will be done, Your Majesty.”
Niko had never given her the time of day. He’d set up a rival vampire colony, allied with his wife’s Amaki relatives. He seemed to believe himself better than other vampires, merely because he refused to engage all his vampire powers. As if that made him morally superior. She’d long despised the man, and here was his son, mingling with her court. Did the boy know where he was? Did he know who she was?
A vampire with Amaki powers would be ever so useful. The Amaki could control the minds of others, create illusions and see events in the past and future, among other talents. A man like that could help her convince the mainland vampires to join with her. A man like that could help her control her populace so much better than she could on her own. Yet his connection to Niko made it unlikely he would agree.
“Do you think this Ravki could be suborned?” she said softly.
“I don’t know. I think he would require a great deal of convincing,” Alsek said.
“Yes. I imagine so.”
How should she go about convincing the son of her greatest enemy to assist her in controlling all the vampires in the world?
* * *
The party was much bigger than Ravki had expected. Men and women clustered beneath sweet-scented flowering trees, along the edges of a trickling fountain, and on benches all throughout the extensive courtyard garden of the Atlantean villa of their host, all of them dressed in the finest silks. A beautiful woman with long, straight, black hair played a golden lyre. Another buried her face in the neck of her male human companion, drinking his blood.
He’d never imagined so many vampires in one place. Back home, his mother and father were the only vampires he even knew, besides himself, and he was only half vampire. He couldn’t fly, didn’t need to drink blood to survive, yet he couldn’t tolerate sunlight either. He had all the weaknesses of a full vampire and none of their powers.
These people who surrounded him were presumably all full vampires, except for the human slaves among them. His parents, Niko and Laila, didn’t approve of slavery, but in Atlantis, it was common.
One of the women gave him a long, appreciative glance. His friend, Garek, elbowed him in the ribs. “She likes you.”
Ravki blushed. “She’s just curious because I’m new.”
The woman’s attention had already shifted to golden, blue-eyed Garek.
“It’s you she wants,” he said.
“Maybe she’s looking for both a vampire and an Amaki.” Garek winked.
He’d come to Atlantis for experience and here it was. Garek was an ideal companion in that regard, since women everywhere threw themselves at the Amaki prince. They loved him, and he loved them back. Ravki, on the other hand, got all tangled up in himself when an attractive woman approached.
“I—uh—I’m going to see what food they have.” He glanced around for the refreshments.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Garek snagged Ravki’s arm. “She’s getting up. She wants to introduce herself.”
Gods of old. He never knew what to say to strange women. Ravki waited, feeling as dumb as one of the potted trees, while the auburn haired female stood and glided toward them.
“Good evening.” She looked him up and down again. “I’ve never seen you here before. Are you knew to the city?”
Was it that obvious? His face burned and he knew he’d turned the color of a hot coal. “Yes.”
“We’ve been here just a few months,” Garek said.
“I hope you like it here as much as I do,” she said.
“Oh, we love it. Don’t we, Ravki?”
“Yes. Sure. We do.” Idiot.
She laughed. “It can be overwhelming if you’re from a smaller town.”
“Yes,” Ravki said.
She tilted her head. “Are you vampire? You seem…but you’re not quite. I can’t place you.”
He shrugged. “My parents are vampire. I’m only half.” Or something like that. It was hard to assign a proportion to his vampire-ness, since his mother had conceived him when she was still human but had borne him after she’d transformed.
“I see,” the woman said, her eyes crinkling in apparent bafflement.
“I’m Amaki,” Garek said.
“Are you indeed?” She leaned closer. “I’d be careful who you tell. Atlanteans are extremely hostile to your people.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” He grinned at her.
She flushed, staring up at the handsome Amaki who never seemed to have the least trouble flirting with any female who crossed his path. How did he do it? Ravki had been watching him for a couple of years now and still hadn’t mastered the trick, probably because he continually worried about what the woman in question thought of him.
The auburn-haired beauty laid her hand on Garek’s forearm. “Does the empress know you’re here?”
“I have no idea.”
“She may not welcome you. Tread carefully, my friends.”
“We’ll do that,” Garek said.
Her hand turned caressing. “You know, I have a lovely villa of my own, with a lovely garden. It’s far more private than this. Would the two of you like to see it?”
Garek glanced at him with a smile. “Ravki?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “That sounds good.”
“Come with me, then. We’ll make our own party.”
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
Throwing a party shouldn’t have to be an exercise in black ops, but Perrie Underhill knew the doorman in her building was one of her mother’s spies. He stood at the all-glass doors in his dark blue uniform, looking all friendly and professional at the same time, flashing that warm smile, but she knew the truth. He took money from her mom to keep an eye on her.
The place had been built sometime in the nineteen-eighties, but the lobby had been remodeled not long before she’d moved in. They’d gotten rid of all the glossy eighties brass and put in slate floors and giant Asian-inspired planters full of tropical plants. Enormous modern chandeliers lit the space, making it glow from the outside. She loved the effect every time she came home after dark. Really she loved almost everything about her building, especially the fact that she lived alone for the first time in her life.
If only the doorman wasn’t part of her mother’s plan to keep her perfectly, horribly safe at every single moment.
Perrie sighed and adjusted the tote bag slung over her shoulder. She was twenty-four years old, for crying out loud. She shouldn’t have to sneak in and out of her own apartment building like she was doing something wrong just because she wanted to have a few friends over. Her mom meant well, of course, but sometimes she wished she’d lay off the overprotection. It wouldn’t stop the inevitable from happening, anyway. Nothing would.
Every day of the past week, she’d sneaked in a few more party items. Some decorations here, a little food there. That way she could take it in under the doorman’s nose and he wouldn’t realize what was going on. Besides, it made things easier to carry so she was less likely to get dangerously winded. This afternoon was going to be her last trip before the big event, just a quick jaunt to the corner grocery to pick up a selection of cheeses. Real cheese for her friends, soy cheese for her.
I should have invited Raphael.
Perrie shivered at the thought of sexy, urbane Raphael Black in her little apartment. He was older, although how much older she couldn’t tell. His face looked kind of young, but he carried himself with so much self-assurance and poise, he seemed almost to belong to a different world. She’d met him one evening at a floral shop, where he’d been looking for some flowers for a friend. Somehow, she and Raphael had ended up having coffee together and seeing a concert as well.
After that, they’d met for coffee a few times. Their conversations always seemed to be full of tension she didn’t really understand, almost like there was something else going on under the surface. Something he knew about but at which she could only guess. He was beautiful and mysterious and way out of her league.
Raphael would never fit in with her handful of girlfriends, which was why she hadn’t invited him. That and the fact he made her strangely nervous, made her whole body tingle and buzz until she was so jittery she said things she shouldn’t and made a fool of herself.
Her cell phone rang. She glanced at the number, hoping it wasn’t her mom catching her out. No, it was her best friend.
She paused at the elevator to answer. “Hi, Missy. I’m just going out to get the cheese now.”
“Why don’t you let me do that?”
“I want to do it. Just this once, I’d like to do all the work.”
“But it’s so hard for you. I’d be glad to help.”
“I know, and thanks. But I really want to do this myself.”
“You’re going to overdo it.”
She rolled her eyes, even though her friend couldn’t see it. “Now you sound like my mom.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not right.”
Perrie bit her lip. “It might be my last chance. It’s not that big a deal, anyway. I’m only going about two blocks to the deli. Even I can handle that.”
Missy sighed. “Okay. I guess I can see your point. Just be careful and pace yourself.”
They laughed as she cut the call.
Mrs. Bates, her neighbor from down the hall, came in the front door swinging her cane in that jaunty way that made Perrie suspect she didn’t really need it. The elderly lady waved at her with a cheerful smile. “Hello, Perrie, dear. Where are you going tonight?”
“Oh, just out to run an errand.” She purposely avoided looking at the doorman.
“You’ve been doing a lot of that lately,” Mrs. Bates said.
Perrie smiled in a conspiratorial way. “It’s an excuse to get some fresh air.”
Her neighbor laughed. “I understand.” She patted Perrie’s forearm. “Just don’t overdo it.”
“I won’t.” It was sweet of Mrs. Bates to worry about her, but she didn’t need it. She knew her own limits.
“By the way, I got a new kitten yesterday.”
Perrie grinned in delight. “Really? Girl or boy?”
She couldn’t have a pet of her own. Well, she could, but what would happen to it after she died? Her mom would have to take it, and her mom was so busy she didn’t have time to care for an animal. It wouldn’t have been fair, so Perrie made do with her friends’ and neighbors’ pets.
“A girl,” Mrs. Bates said, her dark eyes twinkling. “Her name is Sugar. You’ll have to come over and meet her.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“Speaking of Sugar, I’d better get home and make sure Sammi hasn’t eaten her.”
Sammi was Mrs. Bates’ other cat, a nearly-grown gray tabby. “They’re not getting along?”
“Sugar loves Sammi, but Sammi hasn’t made up her mind yet.”
“Well, I’d better let you go, then.”
Maybe she could get a cat of her own. It would be so nice to come home to a warm, furry welcoming committee. Mrs. Bates could take it after Perrie was gone. But Sugar and Sammi might not like the new addition, and then there would be trouble. Besides, lately she’d been spending more time than ever in the cystic fibrosis clinic and at the hospital; any pet she got would be neglected. She’d just have to content herself with visits.
Perrie strolled sedately to the door. She kept her movements slow and graceful; slow because she had no choice and graceful because she wished she did. Have a choice, that is. Maybe if she moved lyrically enough, people would notice that and not how sluggish she was. Maybe she wouldn’t look like a centenarian, even if she felt like one most of the time.
The doorman smiled and winked at her. “Out for a night on the town?”
Wouldn’t you like to know? “Just an errand or two.”
If she revealed her party plans, he’d relay them to her mother and then, probably within an hour, she’d get a phone lecture about preserving her strength and avoiding stress and how important that was to her health. If her mom was really upset, she might even march over here and deliver the lecture in person. The apartment where Perrie had grown up was only about a fifteen minute walk away, which made it awfully convenient for lecturing purposes.
Her mom loved her, she knew, and had done so much for her. But she seemed to think that if she just rolled Perrie in enough bubble wrap and monitored every breath, she could create a normal lifespan for her daughter. That normal lifespan wasn’t going to happen. Perrie had always had a severe form of cystic fibrosis, and with the bacterial infection she’d acquired a few years ago, her condition had worsened immeasurably and made her ineligible for a lung transplant. She was dying. There was nothing anyone could do.
Before she died, she wanted to plan and hold a party in her own apartment. Was that really too much to ask?
“Take care of yourself out there,” the doorman said, opening the door.
“I’ll do that. You be careful, too.”
He just laughed. He didn’t think he had any reason to be careful, and he was probably right. Perrie glided through the door he held open and walked onto the sidewalk.
The unseasonably cold weather they’d had recently had just given way to spring, and the air was warm although the sun had already set. She took a deep breath of the sap-scented air and promptly began coughing. Damn this stupid disease. It made even the simplest things feel nearly impossible.
Whatever. She wasn’t going to let CF stop her from enjoying the evening or throwing a party.
Raphael Black had an espresso in his hand and Molotov cocktails in the pockets of his greatcoat. He sat at a window table in the Bean and Bagel coffee house and watched the entrance to Perrie Underhill’s apartment building across the street, waiting for her to emerge. She might not come out tonight, but he hoped she would because until she did he couldn’t throw the Molotovs.
They were an updated form of the guerrilla classic, made with chemicals that wouldn’t ignite until he threw the bottle, breaking the glass and exposing the mixture to air. There would be no betraying flame to give away his position or alert the humans—and more importantly, the vampire empress’s spies—to his intentions. Just the sound of shattering glass as they hit the wall of his target building, followed by a sudden burst of flame and smoke. A useful diversion, one he hoped would turn the attention of the spies in the wrong direction. Away from Perrie.
The uniformed doorman opened the glass front doors of her building with a flourish and she walked, smiling, out onto the sidewalk. Raphael tensed, his hand nearly crushing his paper coffee cup. She walked with her usual slow grace, her golden hair gleaming under the streetlights, the full skirt of the old-fashioned coat she wore swaying with her movements.
His mouth went dry. Would this work? It had to work. Otherwise, she’d end up in the hands of the empress, a woman without a single speck of compassion.
Daranda wanted Perrie, mainly because he’d showed an interest in her. He’d brought the slender human into danger by exposing her—even if accidentally—to his brutal world. Now it was up to him to save her.
He rose from his table and went casually to the door, tossing his cup in the trash as he passed. Perrie walked so slowly that she’d only made it to the corner of her building, which meant she was still too close for him to throw the Molotovs. He didn’t want her exposed to the fire, yet he needed her close enough so Daranda’s spies would be confused and lose track of her.
Raphael spotted one of them at the far corner of Perrie’s building, lurking there and watching her progress up the street. The humans probably couldn’t see him, but to Raphael he was as obvious as if he wore a neon sign on his head announcing his presence. The fellow reeked of vampire, and he could only be there for one reason. Daranda had warned him she was watching Perrie; now he had proof.
He reached into his greatcoat pockets and produced the incendiary devices. With his vampire strength, it should be easy to toss them across the street. If only the damned humans would get out of the way. They crawled all over the place, having gotten out of their office prisons at the crack of five o’clock. Their presence would provide plenty of witnesses, for good or ill.
Perrie was almost at the florist shop now. A small knot of suited businessmen—or more probably, corporate drones—stood in front of her building, talking and gesturing with the coffee cups they held. They were between him and the building and they showed no sign of moving anytime soon.
Daranda’s spy emerged from the shadows of the corner to follow her.
So be it. He didn’t have time to wait for the humans to move.
Raphael tossed the Molotovs in quick succession. They hit the side of her building, a few feet from the front door, in a double explosion of flames. The suits yelled, trying to dash out of the reach of the sudden fire. Somewhere a woman screamed.
Was it Perrie? He could hardly see her in the billowing black smoke. She could have been hit by flying glass. Daranda’s man broke into a run. Raphael dashed across the street, heedless of the cars, darting between the heavy autos as if they weren’t even moving. He needed to get to Perrie, now, to ensure her safety.
The explosion came just as Perrie passed the florist. It wasn’t much of an explosion, really, just a tinkle of broken glass and then a loud whoosh, but someone screamed and that scared her. Another whoosh closely followed the first. More people screamed.
She threw an alarmed glance over her shoulder. Flames ate at the front wall of her building, the orange and yellow flicker barely visible beneath a thick cloud of dark smoke. For God’s sake, what was going on?
Cars honked, at what she didn’t know. Pedestrians rushed back and forth, both toward the scene and away from it. Everyone seemed to be yelling at once.
The smoke drifted up the street. It stank of unfamiliar chemicals. She put her hand over her nose and mouth, but it still filled her airways and she fell into a new fit of coughing. Her lungs hurt. This was not good.
She opened her tote and fumbled blindly for one of her inhalers. Whether the explosions were part of some terrorist act, the revenge of a disgruntled employee, or just a prank, she needed to breathe.
She couldn’t find the inhaler. Her fingers met her wallet, three bottles of medications and supplements and her cosmetic bag. No inhaler. Could she have left it at home? She’d taken a bunch of things out so she’d have room to hide the food she’d planned to buy.
The smoke stung her eyes and made it as hard to see as it was to breathe. All around her, people ran and shoved and yelled in panic. She backed up until she hit the brick wall of the building behind her and brought her hand to her mouth just in time for another coughing fit. Her party might not happen after all.
The deep male voice made her look up to see a tall figure emerge from the smoke and the jostling crowd. Darkness obscured his face, but his form looked familiar. Her fear faded against the sudden excitement of being near him.
She frowned up at him, trying not to look as foolishly thrilled as she felt. “Raphael? What are you doing here?”
“Helping you.” He extended a hand toward her. “Come with me.”
She slid her hand into his. It was only the second time she’d touched him, beyond a quick brush of fingertips over a coat sleeve. The warmth of his skin sent an electric surge of awareness up her arm.
He led her away from her building, his long legs eating up the ground so fast she stumbled and started to fall. His grip on her hand almost yanked her arm out of its socket and the smoky air made her lungs hurt. Perrie bent over at the waist, coughing helplessly into her palm. Raphael turned toward her with an impatient growl.
“We don’t have time—” He broke off, crouching next to her. “Are you all right? You’re ill. We must get away from all this smoke.” He scooped her into his arms and strode up the street at such a brisk pace that she threw her arms around his neck.
Through the fine wool of his suit jacket, she could feel the steel-hard muscles of his body. Perrie turned her face against his lapel, struggling to control her cough. The last thing she wanted was to hack all over his beautiful, Italian-looking charcoal suit, yet she couldn’t seem to stop.
The air cleared as he bore her farther away from her building. It felt cool and clean against her skin. Normal city smells of wet pavement and a touch of car exhaust replaced the ugly chemical stink of the fire. Her coughing just kept on and on, though, making her shoulders shake with each painful repetition.
She reached into her bag to rummage with a trembling hand for her fugitive inhaler. Where was it? Where was it? She never should have rearranged things in the tote.
Finally, her hand closed around the smooth plastic disc of the inhaler. She pulled it out, her hand still trembling, and started to shake it.
Raphael’s pace slowed. “What’s that?”
She couldn’t answer because she was in the middle of a dose. She had to hold her breath to let the medicine do its work. Unfortunately, the smoke had so affected her that she couldn’t hold it for long before she began coughing again.
“Medicine,” she said between coughs. “I have lung problems.”
He seemed to accept that explanation, as he continued carrying her through the darkening streets. While she’d been distracted with her inhaler problem, they had left her street for a side road with which she was unfamiliar. The buildings on either side appeared to house mostly offices, with the exception of an Asian noodle house, already doing brisk supper business.
“Where are we going?” she said, and began coughing again. She reached into her tote, this time for some cough drops. She needed to get that cough under temporary control before she tried another dose of the inhaler, or it wouldn’t do her much good.
“My place,” Raphael said.
She located the cough drops, unwrapped one hurriedly and popped it in her mouth. “Why not just a restaurant? That Asian place looked fine.”
“My place will be safer.”
She didn’t know him all that well. They’d met a few times for coffee and once had gone to a concert of medieval music together, but he was little more than an acquaintance. Not someone whose home she wanted to visit, at least not when she was alone with him.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Let’s stop here.”
“No. Too dangerous.”
“How could it be dangerous? We’re a long way from whatever happened back there.”
“I have reason to believe the incident was aimed at you.”
“Me? Why would someone target me? I’m a nobody.” Sure, her mom had money, but she personally had very little, and besides, her family was not well known. The idea of someone trying to—what? assassinate her?—was too silly to be believed.
Her breathing had calmed enough for a second dose of the inhaler. Perrie shook the container, while Raphael carried her farther and farther away from her home. She put the inhaler to her mouth and drew in a deep breath, holding it. She wanted to argue with him, but if she couldn’t breathe, arguing was out of the question. Better to get her coughing and breathing under control first.
His pace had slowed as they got farther away from the main street. He had told her once that he lived in the neighborhood, but this particular area did not look residential at all. Now that her coughing had abated, she noticed how few people were on this street, whether in cars or on foot. It was nearly deserted now that they’d passed that restaurant.
Until now, she’d thought of Raphael as a normal guy. A bit mysterious, maybe, even eccentric in his formality, but basically normal. A nice guy. Now she wondered. What did she really know about him? Only what he’d told her, and that could all have been lies.
“Put me down, please. I’ll be fine now.”
“I’m fine with carrying you. We’re not too far away.”
“Raphael, I don’t want to go to your place. I don’t know you well enough.”
“You won’t be safe enough anywhere else.”
“I don’t believe that attack was aimed at me. Why would it be?”
“You’ll just have to trust me.”
Trust him? Did he really believe she ought to trust someone she hardly knew when he wasn’t listening to her and was taking her to a part of the city she didn’t know at all? There were no witnesses here that she could see. He could do anything to her and no one would ever know.
“You’re scaring me. Put me down right now.”
“Perrie, don’t try to fight me. You can’t win.”
The apprehension that had been fizzing in her veins turned to fire-and-ice terror. She wrenched her body, shoving her hands against his broad chest in an attempt to make him drop her. Her efforts had no apparent effect. He merely continued on, as if she hadn’t moved a muscle. She pounded against him with her fists, beating on his suit front. He glanced down at her, a frown creasing his handsome forehead, but his pace never slowed.
“Help!” She screamed as loudly as she could. “Help me! He’s kidnapping me!”
Raphael did slow this time. He gazed down at her, still frowning. She could see the crease between his brows, even though the light here was quite dim. His gaze caught hers and held it captive. She tried to make her eyes move, to look away, but her body refused to obey her. Panic surged and she made another attempt to wiggle out of his grasp. Again, her body refused to obey.
The tension bled from her as abruptly as if she’d been injected with tranquilizers. Her arms and legs, her whole body, went limp in his arms. What had he done to her? She’d never experienced anything like this before.
“I did not want to have to do that,” he said, “but you left me no choice. I can’t allow you to hurt yourself or bring attention to us.”
This evening was getting weirder by the second. What did Raphael Black want with her? Did he really think he was protecting her?
Was he insane? She’d never gotten that vibe from him before, but that didn’t make it impossible. Perhaps he just hid it very well, playing sane even while suffering from some major delusions.
She opened her mouth to argue, to convince him to let her go, but the words refused to form. Instead, she simply lay in his arms and gazed up at his dark, forbidding face. He was still the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, with a face like a fallen angel, but the features that had once filled her with a nameless excitement and admiration now only terrified her. A beautiful lunatic was still a lunatic. And this one, she suspected, was dangerous.
He took a left into an alley. No streetlights lit this black canyon between buildings. She could see very little, just a hazy glow at the far end of the alley, where it intersected another larger street. This was even worse than the road they’d just left. There truly were no witnesses here, not even street people. She and Raphael were the only ones on this deserted strip of pavement. She was lost. She couldn’t even cry out, couldn’t lift a finger or wiggle a toe to prevent him from doing what he wanted with her.
He paused outside a heavy looking metal utility door. A security pad was mounted on the brick wall next to the door. He punched in a rapid code. A tiny green light appeared, followed by a loud click from the door. Raphael opened the door, revealing nothing but blackness beyond, as if it gave onto some bottomless pit. He carried her into the blackness, letting the door slam shut behind them.
She ought to be terrified.
She was terrified. Yet her body remained limp and relaxed, her heart rate slow and steady, like it would be if she were asleep. Only her mind shrieked of danger, of doom, as Raphael descended down and down into the nameless darkness.
Raphael battled the urge to clutch Perrie to him like a prize he’d won in some country fair contest of skill. Putting her under had frightened her. He could sense her agitated thoughts, although her body remained soft and pliant. If he could have gotten her inside the palace any other way, he would have done it, but the stakes were too high to play around. Her screams would have attracted Daranda’s spies, or at least eventually led them to him. He couldn’t have that. For her own safety, he must make it seem as if she’d disappeared.
The palace was quiet tonight. A low murmur of female voices came from the under-seers’ dormitory, but no other sound disturbed the silence. She might not be able to hear those female voices, considering she was human and her hearing was necessarily less than acute. To her, this place would be like a cold, dark tomb.
He looked down at her face, nearly hidden from him in the darkness. “I swear to you that you will come to no harm,” he said. “I would never hurt you, Perrie.”
She said nothing, of course, but he could still sense her thoughts fluttering and banging about in her mind like a wild bird trapped in a box. How could he reassure her? When this situation had arisen in the past…no. This particular situation had never arisen before. When he’d taken women in the past, he’d done so with the intention of making them pets and completely subordinating their will to his. What he did with Perrie was unprecedented, at least for him.
He brought her directly to his private quarters, opening the door and laying her on the bed without bothering to turn on the lights. He knew where everything was, so he didn’t need light to find his way through the room. When she was safely resting on his bed, he removed around the room lighting a few electric lamps. Perhaps with some light, she would feel better.
Returning to the bed, he sat down beside her and took her hand in both of his. “I really am only trying to protect you. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”
He released the hold on her mind.
Perrie shrank from him, tugging at her hand as if his touch pained her. “This is your place?”
“Yes.” He gave a curt nod.
Her gaze darted around the room, touching on nearly every object but resting nowhere. “I want to go home.”
“You know that’s not possible.”
Her gaze met his, then fell to her lap as she struggled to sit. “What are you going to do to me?”
“I don’t believe you.” She crossed her arms over her chest, almost as if she were hugging herself.
“I can’t tell you everything that’s going on,” he said. “Just that an extremely dangerous associate of mine is looking for you. She has threatened to grab you. I want to ensure that never happens, and the only way I can be absolutely certain that you’re safe is if you’re here with me. That’s all this is about.”
She frowned at him. “I thought you hated criminal activity.”
“It’s not always the criminals who are the most dangerous.”
Her frown deepened. “Who is this woman? What would she want with me? I’m a nobody, like I said.”
How much should he tell her? He didn’t know if she would welcome him and his desires or be repulsed by them. He took a breath, steeling himself for her recoil. “You’re not a nobody to me.”
She blushed so violently her face looked red even in the dim lighting of his quarters, but she didn’t cringe or show any sign of genuine distaste. “So she’s using me to get to you?”
“Why not just go to the police? Wouldn’t they help you?”
If only she knew how little power the human authorities had in this situation. But he couldn’t tell her.
You’ll have to tell her eventually. She’ll find out anyhow, living here with you. She’s an intelligent woman; she’ll figure it out on her own if you don’t explain things.
True. However, he wasn’t ready to bare all just yet.
“This isn’t a matter for the police. They would be no use at all.”
She studied him as if she’d never seen him before. “I don’t understand any of this. I thought you were a nice, normal guy.”
He shook his head regretfully. “I’m neither nice nor normal.”
“What are you, then? Some kind of mob boss? Is this your secret underground lair?” She spoke in a sarcastic, half jesting tone.
If he told her the truth now, she wouldn’t be able to handle it. “Mob boss is closer to the truth than I would like.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you can’t involve the cops. They could put you in a witness protection program.”
Raphael almost laughed. A witness protection program for vampires—what an idea. “The police don’t have enough power to protect me from this woman. No-one does.”
Except, possibly, Niko and Laila. But he would never go to them. No matter how bad things got, his parents and their false sanctuary would always be out of the question for him and anyone associated with him.
Perrie toyed with the deep purple, nearly black bedspread. “I was supposed to have a party later tonight. The first party I’ve ever thrown. My guests are expecting me.”
“You can’t go home. It isn’t safe.”
“My building has great security. This woman you’re talking about wouldn’t get past the front door.”
He reclaimed her hand, stroking the silky smooth skin on the back. It felt so good to finally touch her this way. He didn’t want to stop. Ever. “Her agents can go anywhere they like. I promise you, Perrie, I don’t do this lightly. If I could let you go home, I would.”
It was the truth. Having her in his palace was a fantasy of his, but one he’d never meant to enact. She was a disruption, a distraction from his normal life and duties. Right now, more distraction was the last thing he needed or wanted. Yet here she was, sitting on his bed as if she belonged there. That sense of rightness was the worst part of it, fooling him into thinking thoughts of love and domestic bliss.
Gods of old. Love.
He would simply have to work harder to keep everything on an even keel. To keep everything normal. Her sojourn in his home didn’t have to turn everything upside down, did it? No. Love was a lie, anyhow, a story told to keep men and women docile, full of foolish hopes that kept their minds off their real troubles. He knew better. He would continue with his usual life and activities, and Perrie would simply have to adapt herself to him.
She gave the room another nervous inspection. “Where are the windows?”
“There aren’t any. We’re underground.”
Her mouth opened. “So this is your secret underground lair.”
“In a manner of speaking. all right, yes. It is my secret lair, although I like to call it my palace.”
She snorted with laughter that had a disturbing hysterical edge to it. “My God. Things like this never happen to me. Nothing happens to me.”
If he hadn’t listened to the whining of his newly rediscovered conscience, it would have happened a lot sooner. He’d desired her, dreamed of having her for a pet since that snowy November night when he’d first seen her. Scruples he’d forgotten he possessed had held him back, until now. Until Daranda forced his hand.
Perrie leaned forward, clasping her hands together, her delicate fingers twisting nervously. “The thing is, I’m sick. I need my meds and stuff, or I could…get a lot sicker.”
Her tone suggested she’d been about to say something else, something worse. He focused intently on her face, trying to read her expression without intruding on her mind. “Just how sick are you?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not catching.” She gave a forced-sounding laugh.
“I have cystic fibrosis, okay? It can be controlled with medications and physical therapy.” She followed this pronouncement with a false smile to go with her false laugh.
“What is cystic fibrosis?” He’d heard of it, but since it was a human disease he hadn’t paid much attention.
Her fake smile dimmed. “It’s a genetic condition. My body doesn’t make some of the enzymes I need and I get really thick—um—mucus. It’s really kind of disgusting.”
Was that all there was to it? She was holding something back. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing.” She gave a careless wave. “I just need my stuff. I can’t do without it. When I have a relapse, it gets really nasty. You’ll regret it, I promise you.”
“I’ll send someone to your apartment for your things.”
“Oh.” She blinked, linking her hands again. “Um…that’s really nice of you. I didn’t expect you to go to all that trouble.”
“You just told me you can’t do without them.”
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t mean—I thought—”
“You thought I’d let you go home.”
Her gaze dropped to her clasped hands. He waited for her to deny it or attempt an explanation. She said nothing.
“Perrie, we don’t know each other well, but please believe me when I say you’re important to me. I care about your safety. I wouldn’t bring you here for any other reason. Having you here is a tremendous distraction for me. I’m a busy man and you probably won’t see much of me, but I do have an extensive library you’re welcome to use.”
She stared at him, looking as if she couldn’t decide whether to be insulted or relieved. “You really didn’t bring me here for…um…romance?”
He couldn’t prevent the heat from climbing into his face. “By romance do you mean rape?”
She simply looked at him, her silence answer enough.
“No.” His voice came out rough. “I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t do that to you.” Even if he wanted her more than he’d wanted any other woman in the world, he wanted her to reciprocate, to want him in return. No falseness, no mind control.
“Okay,” she said. “I get it. And I don’t blame you.”
What? “Blame me?”
“Nobody wants the skinny sick girl.”
He gaped at her. Was that how she saw herself? “Are you insinuating that you want me to…take you?” It wouldn’t be rape if she wanted it.
“Never mind.” Perrie made that wave gesture again. “I’m still a little shaken up over all this. I’m not thinking clearly. Okay, I’m a lot shaken up. What happened back there, anyway?”
Another silence descended while she stared at him again, her eyes uncomfortably perceptive. “How do you know that?” she said finally.
“I saw it.”
She jolted forward, her frown turning ferocious. “You could have been hurt!”
Was she worried about his safety? The irony of that almost made him smile; at the same time, her misplaced concern for him made him glow inside. It took every ounce of his self-possession to resist drawing her into his arms and kissing her.
“I was in no danger.”
“How can you say that? You could have been splashed. Set on fire.”
“I wasn’t that close.” He smiled, brushing the back of his hand along her petal-soft cheek. “Thank you, though.”
Perrie closed her eyes. “I’m so confused.”
So am I.
“Everything’s going to be fine. I won’t let Daranda hurt you.”
She covered his hand with her own as she fixed him with a solemn gaze. “Why does she want to control you? Can you tell me?”
Raphael sighed. “It’s a complicated story. The short version is that I work for her and she suspects she’s losing control over me. That she’s losing my loyalty.’
“Is it true?”
Yes. No. “I’m not sure.”
“Raphael.” Perrie squeezed his hand. “You’ve got to let me go. I have family who’ll worry about me. It’ll kill my mom if I just disappear. I can go home, get my stuff and leave town for a few weeks. Go stay with relatives or something.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Absolutely not. You must stay here.”
“So you’re kidnapping me. Abducting me. Holding me prisoner.”
“You’re not a prisoner. You’re an honored guest.”
She got to her feet, arms crossed over her chest. “Guests can leave whenever they want to.”
“Not if they’re in danger.”
“Yes, Raphael, even then. It’s my decision to risk this Daranda chick. Not yours. You don’t own me. We hardly know each other, for crying out loud.”
He stood, towering over her slight form. “You’re not leaving. That’s my final word.”
“How are you going to stop me?”
“The same way I stopped you before.”
Her elfin chin came up. “If you force me to stay, then I’ll be your prisoner. Are you forcing me?”
Raphael swallowed. He didn’t want this, but she was being so unreasonable. “If I must.”
Daranda awoke from a deep sleep with painful jolt. Someone had her shoulder in a hard grip and was rudely shaking her. She groaned, shoving at the hand.
Dim sunlight illuminated the room, finding its way around the shutters on her windows. It wasn’t enough to burn anyone, but it made sight possible. It also irritated her eyes and made her hide her head beneath her pillow.
The shaking continued. “Your Majesty, please wake up.”
Who? She batted at the intruder. “If you value your life, you’ll go away.”
He kept jostling her. “You made me swear to awaken you.”
Gods of old. It was Alsek. What did he want?
Daranda groaned again, emerging from the pillow, and rubbed her eyes. She peered up at him. He was fully dressed and looked offensively alert.
“Yes, all right. What is it?” she said ungraciously, sitting up. The male pet next to her snored on, completely oblivious to their visitor.
“The messenger from the royal prison is here.”
The dregs of sleep clinging to her mind fell away in a rush of excitement. She pushed her hair from her eyes and got out of bed. “Find me my robe.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Alsek fumbled around in the dim light of the room until he found the garment. Daranda finger-combed her hair while she waited. The royal prison had finally sent word on the situation with Ravki. She’d begun to think they had decided not to accommodate her, in spite of the fact she’d provided generous bribes along with her friendly request that the vampire be arrested. She’d been pondering how to punish them for their lack of cooperation, but perhaps they’d redeemed themselves. For their sakes, she hoped so.
Alsek produced the robe and helped her don it. “Thank you. Fetch some wine and whatever is in the kitchen to eat and bring it to my office.”
He scuttled off to do her bidding. Daranda slipped her feet into the thin shoes she’d left by her bedside and set off for her office. Her body sang with anticipation. Had they taken him? She’d been waiting for news for nearly a moon.
The messenger was a rotund man with greasy brown hair and a stained tunic. He stood in the dim light of her shuttered office looking like an animate heap of trash and smelling like one too. They certainly hadn’t sent their best man. Perhaps the wine and food were unnecessary.
She swept into the room with a cool nod and took a seat behind her desk. “You have news for me?”
He gave a nervous jerk of his head. “Yes, Mistress. I’m to say that we captured the vampire Ravki just after noon today. He’s being held in the royal prison as you requested.”
She smiled. “Very good. Do your superiors know he’s there?”
“He’s on a list of minor criminals, Mistress.”
She frowned. “Minor?”
“We didn’t want his case to be examined closely, so we thought it best to label him a petty thief. That way he won’t be noticed by anyone in charge.”‘
“I see.” The fellow was cleverer than he looked. “Have you begun questioning him yet?”
“No, Mistress. He’s only been in his cell for a few hours and he was severely injured during the capture.”
She frowned. That sounded bad. “Severely injured? How severely?”
“They’re only like very bad sunburns, Mistress. I don’t think he’s permanently damaged.”
“I hope not. I won’t pay if he’s been permanently injured.”
“Come back to me when you’ve begun the questioning.”
The messenger bowed. “Immediately, Mistress.”
“Good. You may go.”
She waited until he’d vacated the office to grin. At last, she had Niko’s son.
He would never know she’d arranged for him to be arrested. All he’d ever know was that she’d rescued him…after an appropriate time of pain and despair, of course. Without the despair, the rescue would have little meaning.
Daranda clasped her hands, smiling broadly. At last, her scheme was truly beginning.
Ravki’s body burned. The fire seemed to have gotten inside his skin, even into his muscles, and he couldn’t get it out. Although the air that flowed over his bare skin felt cool and clammy, still he burned. The City Guard had taken him and Garek during the day, using the toxic sunlight as a weapon against Ravki and rendering him helpless to defend himself. Garek they’d shot with poisoned darts to rob him of his Amaki powers.
Now Ravki couldn’t see anything at all. Nothing. Black emptiness extended unfathomably before his eyes, without even the faint glimmer of starlight or a distant torch to illuminate his surroundings. Where was he?
An echoing plink-plink-plink came from somewhere nearby, but he couldn’t make out the direction. It sounded like water dripping on stone. The echo suggested there was some amount of open space around him, but without the use of his eyes he couldn’t be sure.
As a half-vampire, he was accustomed to darkness. Still, this complete absence of light was ominous. It must mean he was boxed up somewhere, in a cell or inner room with no windows.
The air held a strong odor of mildew with a fainter hint of human waste, blood and vomit. He was in a prison. That was the obvious explanation—a prison belonging to the City Guard of Atlantis. Maybe even the Royal Prison itself.
Niko and Laila would get him out. They had powerful friends among the Amaki. It wouldn’t take them long to miss his regular reports home and come looking for him, and when they discovered where he was, they’d get him out. He simply had to be patient and endure until then.
Light flared in the distance, hurting his eyes. Now he could see the blocky stone walls of the cell, the rough surfaces slimy with fungi, and the dirty rotted straw strewn across the floor. In one corner was a pile of rags and a pail. At the other end of the cell, a barred door gave onto a passageway.
A man was approaching along the passageway. Ravki jumped to his feet, ignoring the howl of pain in his scorched arms and legs. Someone was coming. Perhaps he could reason with the man, or at least find out what was going on. Why he and Garek had been taken.
The light grew so intense he couldn’t see in its glare. He shielded his eyes with the flat of his hand as he shuffled toward the door, iron shackles and chain clanking behind him.
“Who’s there?” His voice sounded ruined from the screaming he’d done.
“You’re awake,” said a coarse male voice. “They were afraid they’d burned out your tongue.” He chuckled.
“My tongue?” He’d been that badly hurt? He couldn’t remember.
“Can’t question a man who can’t talk.” The guard chuckled again.
Ravki’s gut twisted at the thought of questioning. “I have nothing to hide.”
“They all say that.”
“But it’s true! I don’t even know why they took me. I haven’t done anything. I’ve only been in the city for a few months.”
“Just an innocent country boy come to see the sights, eh?”
“Except you happen to be half vampire and part Amaki. Not so innocent after all, are ya?”
“I’m a law-abiding man and I’ve done nothing wrong. I want to speak to someone in charge immediately.”
The guard laughed. “Right.”
He shouldn’t invoke his parents’ names. They might get him into deeper trouble rather than helping him. Niko and Laila were notorious in Atlantis, for reasons they’d never shared with him.
Ravki lifted his chin, putting on the imperious expression he’d seen his father use when he was particularly annoyed. “Get me the head of the Guard immediately. There’s been a mistake.”
“That sunburn must have cooked your brains, boy.”
“I need to speak to him. Now.”
“Oh, you’ll speak to someone soon enough. Don’t you worry.”
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
Perrie took a deep breath, trying to master the panic and fury boiling up in her. He stood there looking sophisticated and commanding in his dark gray suit, his perfectly cut hair with just the right amount of tousle in the nearly-black curls. The explosion and carrying her through the city had made hardly any impact on him. He even smelled good—not of cologne but of a healthy, clean male body. He looked like—smelled like—any woman’s dream date. But he wasn’t a dream; he was a nightmare.
She couldn’t do this. Couldn’t sit back and allow him to take her over this way. Who the hell did he think he was, anyhow? Who’d asked him to protect her, to interfere with her life? It sounded like she wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place if not for him. If he really cared about her safety, he’d have stayed the hell away from her.
Make a run for it. But don’t show him you mean to run.
“I don’t want to be forced,” she said calmly.
“Then quit resisting me.”
She heaved a heavy sigh and let her shoulders slump. “all right. I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“No. You don’t.”
Raphael’s shoulders relaxed, too, and he turned slightly away from her. In that instant, she darted around him, putting every last drop of energy in her sick body into reaching the door. Everything took on a weird clarity, as if time slowed down. The dull sound of her feet thudding on the carpeted floor, the paintings hanging on the walls, the pools of light reflecting off the aubergine walls and making them glow like gems. She noticed the door had been painted in a celestial theme, with a dark blue background and silver stars. It was beautiful.
Her hand met the door handle, also silver to match the stars. She yanked on it, opened it. A heavy, wool-clad arm snaked around her waist and jerked her backward against Raphael’s body. Her head whiplashed backward and slammed into his chest.
“No, you don’t,” he growled.
Perrie screamed in rage. She flailed her arms and legs, desperately, with no skill and no plan except to make him drop her. His grip merely tightened until she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her fists, her heels, thumped against his body while her voice rose louder and harsher than before in scream after scream. Then the wheezing and coughing started, as her lungs went into spasms.
She couldn’t breathe. Had to get away. Had to get away. Had to…
“Perrie, stop it.”
She stopped. Her limbs went limp and she sagged in his grasp, as if he’d found and pushed an off switch she didn’t know she had. Her lungs opened up a little, allowing air and oxygen into her system.
“I won’t allow you to hurt yourself. If you can’t or won’t cooperate, I’ll have to control you.” He picked her up and laid her unresisting body back on his bed.
She stared up into his pale eyes. They looked spooky, outlined with thick black lashes that made them startling and otherworldly. She could almost believe he could control her mind with his, given the way he looked at her.
“If you want to be able to direct your own actions, you’ll have to prove to me you can be reasonable.” He turned on his heel and left her alone in the dark, silent room.
Why had she pushed him so hard? Perrie lay on Raphael’s bed and stared at the deep purple canopy above her because she couldn’t do anything else. He’d put her back into that bizarre tranquilized state again, laid her on the downright Medieval-looking bed and left the room. The only thing she could move was her eyelids.
She never would have guessed he lived in a place like this. It was so quiet down here, like a mausoleum or funeral home. When her dad died, the place where they held his funeral had been just like this—still and cold and musty-smelling, like there wasn’t enough ventilation. Yuck.
Everything around her looked beautiful and luxurious. Like he’d had some high-priced interior designer in to put a fancy gloss over the essentially depressing hole he called a home. Sorry, a palace.
God, what have I gotten myself into?
He must be a hypnotist. Something like that. How else could he have so much control over her body, her mind? Only she’d never heard of a hypnotist who could influence people with only a look; usually they had to talk, give instructions. Maybe he’d slipped her a drug somehow.
Whatever he’d done, his actions confirmed her suspicion that he was not a good guy at all. She’d gotten mixed up with a major creep here, and she couldn’t see a way out. Especially since she couldn’t move. It would be hard to escape without the use of her arms and legs.
I’m going to die anyway. What can he do to me that’s so bad?
Honestly, she didn’t want the answer to that question. There was plenty he could do. Torture. Rape.
He said he’d never do that to me.
Did she believe him? She didn’t know what to think anymore.
The door opened. In her peripheral vision, Perrie watched Raphael and a dark-haired young woman carry several bags into the room. The woman gave her curious sidelong glances as she brought her burden to the club chairs.
“We have your things,” Raphael said. “If we missed anything, we can go back for it.”
Already? How had they gotten all the way to her apartment, gathered all her stuff and come back in such a short time? She tried again to speak. Her lips wouldn’t move.
Raphael came to the bed, sat beside her and picked up her hand. “You’ll be safe here.”
She wanted to glare at him, but her face remained absurdly relaxed. Serene, when inside, she raged. He might not want to rape her body, but he was doing a damn good job with her mind.
Yet, as angry as she was, she still tingled all over at his touch, his nearness. Were these feelings normal? She had no others she could compare to Raphael. Sure, she’d had a boyfriend in her late teens, but they’d done little more than kiss and he’d never affected her the way Raphael did. Men didn’t normally touch her or flirt with her.
“Do you need anything else, sir?” the young woman said.
“That’s all for now, Diane.”
The woman left without another word. Didn’t she care that her boss—roommate—whatever he was—had kidnapped Perrie? Apparently not.
“I’m going to release some of my control over your mind,” Raphael said. “But not all of it. You’ll be able to move and speak normally, but you won’t be able to fight me. You’ll feel compelled to obey me.”
She merely stared at him.
He frowned. “Try to talk.”
“You fucking bastard.”
Raphael blinked. He frowned again. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. I don’t know what you’ve done to me, but it needs to stop. Did you ever think your drugs might interact with the ones I’m already taking?”
His lips twitched. “I haven’t used any drugs.”
He shook his head. “Nothing so crude.”
“Do you get off on making women helpless?”
His face darkened, flushed with anger or maybe shame. Had she hit on the truth with that remark?
“This isn’t about getting off,” he said coldly. “I will protect you, even if you don’t want it. Even if you fight me. If you’d co-operated, I wouldn’t have had to do this.”
“Well, shame on me. I guess I should’ve trusted a man I barely know who took me to a weird basement against my will. What was I thinking?”
He folded his arms, still frowning. “I had no idea you could be so difficult.”
“Get used to it.”
“By the way, you can sit up now.”
Perrie jack-knifed up, glowering at him as if she could injure him with just the force of her gaze. “I suppose you expect me to thank you for the privilege.”
“I expect you to obey me.”
She clutched her rage to her, holding it like a shield between herself and the terrified despair that lurked just beneath her surface. “You are a serious creep.”
His face darkened again as he drew himself up with the most autocratic tilt of the chin she’d ever seen. “You will speak to me with respect.”
Perrie opened her mouth to blister him with some choice swearing. The words wouldn’t leave her throat. She wanted to say them—shout them—but she couldn’t.
“What are you?” she said in a choked whisper. “What have you done to me?”
If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought he looked sad. Then his chin came up and his lips flattened and he transformed back into the icy prince of darkness he’d been before.
“I can control your mind,” he said, his tone as frigid as his silvery eyes. “Because I’m a vampire.”
Her thoughts caught and stuck on that revelation. She almost laughed at the idea. Vampire? No. He must be crazy. Completely and totally nuts. Vampires weren’t real. They were myths, boogie-men in the same category as zombies and werewolves, Hollywood caricatures. They were…they were…
“I don’t believe you,” she croaked.
“It’s why I live underground. No sunlight can get in here.”
His eyes held no mockery. “Yes. I’m afraid it’s true.”
She’d heard of people like that, who imagined themselves vampires and went to the extreme of drinking human blood. Her mouth lost every drop of moisture. “You drink blood?”
God, that was disgusting. She couldn’t even eat cooked meat. In fact, she didn’t eat cheese, eggs or milk, either. The thought of consuming the flesh of another living being made her want to retch. Blood? There was no way on earth she could ever swallow a mouthful of blood.
“Yes.” He opened his mouth wide, displaying perfect white teeth.
Then two needle-sharp fangs, like those of a viper, descended over his canines. Perrie jumped and gave a little shriek. She recoiled from him, pressing her back against the headboard of the bed.
He’s a vampire. A real vampire. “My God.”
The fangs retracted. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Then you won’t drink from me?”
He gave her a heated, predatory look that made her ache between her legs even while her heart raced in fear. “I’d like to. I think you’d be delicious. But you’re not well enough, so I won’t. It would weaken you too much.”
She shouldn’t be intrigued by the idea. It was sick. Wrong. Yet part of her wondered what it would be like.
“You don’t kill your victims, then?” Her voice sounded shaky.
“No. And we prefer to call them donors. We only need to take an ounce or two every couple of weeks to keep our health.”
“I guess that’s supposed to reassure me.”
He gave her a speculative look. “I can make it so you’re perfectly relaxed and serene. No fear at all. Would you like that?”
His face shut down, all expression gone. “Very well.”
“My thoughts and feelings should belong to me, Raphael. Anything else is way too creepy.”
“Fine. I already agreed.” He slid off the bed. “It’s time for you to eat. Come with me.”
What did vampires eat, anyway? Besides the blood. Surely he couldn’t provide normal food for her. She didn’t want to know what he was going to try feeding her, yet she got off the bed and put her hand in his anyway. She had no choice. His will overpowered her desire to hide under the bed covers and never come out.
He led her by the hand into the hallway. It felt colder out there, but maybe that was just the way it looked. White subway tile, glossy and hard, lined the walls. Some of the tiles were chipped and the grout looked grayish, making her wonder how old this place was. What building lay on top of them? Did the people upstairs have any idea what went on down here?
“What are you going to make me eat?” she said, her voice coming out sullen and resentful. She seemed to be on a roller coaster of emotions. If only she could find a way to exit the ride.
“Whatever you like.”
“I’m a vegetarian. A vegetarian.” Take that, vampire.
How sad. She was reduced to using her dietary choices as a weapon. Pathetic, really. Besides, he could force her to eat anything just by ordering her to do it.
“I’m sure our cooks can accommodate you. If nothing else, we should have plenty of bread, cheese and fruit.”
“I don’t eat cheese, unless it’s soy cheese. I’m a vegetarian. No animal products.”
“Well, we probably have some peanut butter. Will you eat that?”
He sounded maddeningly unperturbed. If she’d hoped to throw him with her food restrictions, she’d failed totally.
Her mind finally noticed exactly what he’d said. “How many cooks do you have? How many people live down here?”
“About twenty-five, and we have three cooks.”
“Are you all vampires? Are there more vampires in other places?”
He smiled wryly. “Yes, there are more vampires. Thousands of them. Most of us here in the palace are, but we have a few humans to provide blood and run daytime errands for us. Our cooks are all human.”
“Okay.” Of course, it wasn’t okay at all.
Her world had changed in the course of a few seconds from one where everything made sense and was fairly predictable to one where mythical creatures disguised themselves as humans. This new world was ugly and terrifying, full of predators. She gave Raphael a sneaky sideways glance, half expecting to see smears of blood on his lips. How could he do it?
He’s not human. He doesn’t have the same feelings we do.
How had this happened to her? She normally led the most boring life. The only interesting events were medical ones, and she’d gladly skip those. She’d never even had sex. She was probably the only twenty-four year old virgin in all of Jefferson.
It wasn’t that she had no interest in sex, but she saw no reason to torture herself with something she wouldn’t be able to enjoy for long. If ever. Being sick made her drive less than urgent anyway. And besides, men didn’t want to make love to her. She never attracted male interest. Until now.
I’m not so sure about now, either.
He had looked at her like he wanted to devour her, but that was probably her blood he desired, not her sex.
The hallway seemed to go on forever, past a long procession of flat, identical metal doors until it turned a corner to the right. At the end of the new section, double wooden doors suggested a different kind of room from the others. Raphael pushed the doors open, ushering her into a large dining room.
One long table dominated. It really did look like it belonged in a palace, with its gleaming inlays and finely wrought legs. The chairs marching down its sides had tall, straight, formal backs. A huge chandelier dripping with crystals hung over the middle of the table, and two long centerpieces of white roses and white hydrangea punctuated with pale green candles decorated its top.
A plump middle-aged woman with a long, perfectly white apron tied over her jeans and t-shirt bustled out of a back room with a wide smile on her face. “Evening, sir. I see you have a new pet.”
Perrie froze. Pet? She stared up at him with round eyes.
“Yes,” he said easily, as if he hadn’t just agreed she was the equivalent of a new puppy. “She’s a vegetarian. A vegetarian. What do you have that doesn’t include meat?”
“Standard breakfast food is the easiest until I can get more groceries in. Does she eat eggs and dairy?”
“How about peanut butter toast?”
They were talking about her like she wasn’t there, or was too stupid to follow the conversation. Plus, how did he know she liked peanut butter? She hadn’t responded when he suggested it, so he must have guessed. Or maybe he’d just made up her mind for her again. Bastard. She took a little satisfaction from the fact he couldn’t stop her from thinking the word, only from saying it.
He pulled out a chair and gestured to it. “Sit down.”
Perrie sat. He pushed her chair in, just like gentlemen did in old movies. People still behaved that way?
He told me to sit and I did. It hadn’t even occurred to her to resist the command.
I’m a pet.
“Yes, you are,” Raphael said.
She glanced up at him, startled. “What?”
“You’re a pet, at least for now. It’s safer that way.”
She licked her lower lip. “Would you care to define the word pet for me?”
Ravki, son of Niko, looked thinner than the first time Daranda had seen him. Blood, sweat and other substances matted his once-glossy black hair to his skull and his face was nearly unrecognizable beneath the swelling and bruises. One eye was nearly swollen shut. His lips were split, distorted.
A guard loomed over his huddled shape, wielding a cat against his back. The metal-tipped tails of the cat made a whishing sound with every strike and left brilliant crimson stripes in the filth covering his back. He jerked and gasped each time the flogger struck him.
She stood in the rank corridor of the prison and gazed through the bars at him, his beaten body dimly illuminated by a single oil lamp on the floor of his even ranker cell. This place stank of blood, urine, mold and despair. If he wasn’t so important to her plans, she never would have come here. But, then, neither would he.
Stepping back to ensure she would be hidden in shadow, Daranda leaned closer to the man at her right side. “Has he broken?” she whispered.
“No, Mistress. He tells us nothing.”
She stifled a sigh. It spoke well of his strength and integrity that he wouldn’t spill his secrets, even under torture, but it made her job so much more difficult. And it risked his being severely damaged.
With luck, no permanent injuries would occur. She didn’t want him destroyed…merely undone. For a while. Long enough for her to sweep in and rescue him, restore him to the world above, and offer him anything his poor, bruised heart desired. Surely even Niko’s son wouldn’t be able to resist that.
She had to be sure, though, that he was vulnerable enough for her plan to work before she rescued him. If she did it now, there wouldn’t be enough incentive for him to come over to her side. Others had rejected her offer. She would ensure that he did not.
“Do you wish us to continue the interrogation, Mistress?” the guard whispered.
“The same questions?”
“Yes. That will be fine.” The questions were of no real significance anyway.
“He has asked to speak with someone in charge. We didn’t notify you because you said you wished to remain anonymous.”
If only Ravki knew what she did for him, what a glorious future awaited, he’d be as excited as she was. But telling would spoil the work. Chances were far too high that he wasn’t ready to hear about that future and wouldn’t believe her even if she explained it to him.
She nodded. “Well done. I hope you haven’t given him even a hint of my existence.”
“No, Mistress. We tell him he’s here because the king is cracking down on vampires.”
“Excellent. Carry on, then.”
The man stopped whipping him and crouched next to the prisoner, glancing back at them before returning his gaze to Ravki. He poked the young creature with the toe of his boot. Ravki groaned. The pitiful sound was almost enough to make her regret sending him to this place. But not quite.
Somewhere in the higher reaches of the prison, a man screamed. Ravki had heard that particular scream so many times he almost felt he knew the person who made the sound. But he didn’t. He’d never even seen the poor bastard’s face. All he knew of the man was his pattern of shrieks, starting low, no more than a loud groan, and rising in volume and pitch until he sounded more like an animal than a human. Or a vampire, for that matter.
Did Ravki’s screams sound like that?
As the other prisoner’s voice rose through the darkness in a nerve-shredding wail, malevolent yellow light appeared from the far end of the passageway. Ravki shuddered, pressing himself back against the rough, damp walls of his cell. He was the only person on this level. They were coming for him again.
He started to shake.
Get hold of yourself. You’re a man, not a little boy.
But he couldn’t seem to control the tremors that attacked him. His stomach lurched, and he nearly threw up the nasty, moldy bread he’d gagged down at his last meal. It wouldn’t be long before he was puking in earnest.
Where were his people? Where had they put Garek? Did his parents even know where he was? Were they looking for him?
What do you think, fool?
He’d lost track of the nights down here where he couldn’t see the light of stars and moon. There was no way to know when one night passed into the next. The darkness covered everything, penetrated everything, made time meaningless. His existence was nothing more than a blur of pain and loneliness and boredom and terror and more pain.
Still, he knew it had been a long time. A very long time. His hair, now matted with unspeakable filth, reached past his shoulders and his beard came down almost to his nipples. Several moons, at least, must have gone by since they’d thrown him in this pit. His parents should have found him by now, if they were looking.
Why wouldn’t they look? Of course they’d searched. They must have. Yet here he was.
They’re not coming for you. No-one is.
The light swamped his cell, forcing himself to close his eyes in self-defense. The jailer rattled a key against the lock of his door. Ravki’s mouth lost all moisture and his stomach threatened to heave. It was time.
The usual two stomped into his cell to unchain him.
“What do you want with me?” he said in his rusty voice.
“You know that. We have more questions.” The guard had a smile in his voice.
If only he could shove all the man’s teeth down his throat. Maybe then he wouldn’t smile. Maybe he’d never laugh at Ravki again.
He forced himself to remain still. Fighting did him no good. He’d tried it, tried everything he could think of to overpower the men who brutalized him, but with iron chains on, his already weak Amaki powers were useless. “I’ve already answered all your questions.”
The guards yanked him to his feet. “Then we’ll have to ask you again.”
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
The savory perfume of fresh bacon wafted up from the plate just placed before Raphael, making his mouth water. Yet he didn’t take a bite. Instead he gave Perrie with her irritating questions a quelling look that never failed to intimidate his under-seers. She wanted to know what a pet was. Perhaps he should have kept her just a bit deeper under his control.
“A pet is a human kept by vampires.” He kept his voice deliberately nonchalant.
“Okay.” She held his gaze steadily. “For what reason?”
Under the circumstances, his desire to touch her, to taste her and listen to her moans of pleasure, was ridiculous. She was looking at him as if he was a villain.
He swallowed against a throat suddenly dry as charnel house dust. “To provide blood and…other things.”
A faint crease appeared between her pretty brows. “Such as?”
He bit back an impatient sigh. She wasn’t making this easy. “Sex,” he said without looking at her.
“You keep them for blood and sex? So they’re slaves, essentially.”
“No. They’re not slaves.”
“Do they have a choice? Do they volunteer to be pets?” A hint of testiness had crept into her voice. His control wasn’t as complete as it ought to be. Why?
“Sometimes,” he said reluctantly.
“Sometimes. So, not usually.”
Now he did sigh. “No, Perrie, not usually. Most humans are too afraid of us to volunteer.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
He frowned at her. “I won’t be using you that way. The normal rules don’t apply to you.”
Even if he wished they did. The sex part, at least. Since she was sick, he wouldn’t think of taking her blood, but sex… No. It was too dangerous to his peace of mind. Love was a lie, but a seductive one, and sex with Perrie might just addle him enough to make him believe.
“But everyone else will think they do,” she said. “They’ll think we’re…you know.”
“Yes.” He shifted uneasily in his seat. “They must, to keep Daranda from realizing…”
No, she wasn’t making this easy at all. He took a breath as he stared down at the pressed white linen tablecloth. “That you’re special to me. She’ll understand my taking a pet. Anything else will arouse her suspicions. You’ll be safer as a pet.”
“It’s funny you would say that, because I don’t feel safe at all,” she said, giving him another level look.
Gods of old, was he really sitting here discussing feelings? Was he overriding his lust for a beautiful woman simply because…he didn’t even know why he was doing it. Avoiding emotional entanglement? Truly, was that his reason?
The restraint was more than out of character. A sense of unreality came over him. This wasn’t his life. This whole conversation belonged to someone else, as if he’d merely dropped into another man’s body for a brief sojourn.
“I know,” he said. “It’s regrettable, but what can I do?”
“You could let me go.”
He made an impatient gesture. “That was a rhetorical question. You know I can’t.”
“Of course you can. You just don’t want to.”
Raphael glowered at her. “You’re right. I don’t want to risk you ending up at the mercy of a woman who wouldn’t hesitate to take your blood, offer you sexually to whoever wanted you—and there would be many—and even torture you if she thought it would prove amusing.”
She tilted her head. “Why do you work for her if she’s so terrible?”
He took another deep breath for patience. “She’s the ruler of a great empire. Such rulers must be absolutely ruthless.”
“Torturing people for your personal amusement goes way beyond ruthlessness.”
His nostrils flared. She was proving much more difficult to control than he’d expected. He’d imagined her sweet and docile, like all his other pets, not continuing to argue and contradict him even after he’d put her partially under. Granted, she was arguing in a calm, polite manner, but it was arguing nonetheless.
“Daranda is from an old school of leadership.” He bit the words out as if they pained him. “Many of our people are nearly as ancient as she is. She must use methods they will understand and respect.”
Her forthright gaze never wavered. “Are you from the same school?”
His face grew hot, although he couldn’t say why, except she clearly disapproved of Daranda’s methods. He didn’t need to justify himself to this tiny human girl, a girl who’d lived no more than an eyeblink in comparison to his long existence. What did she know of empires and rulership?
“I’m not nearly as harsh as the empress, but I do not tolerate nonsense, either.”
She pursed her beautiful lips, distracting him from the subject at hand. “So my questions are nonsense?”
“Your resistance to me is. I’m trying to help you, Perrie. Why are you making it so difficult?”
She blinked a couple of times, her hand tightening on her glass of milk. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an explanation. I deserve to know what’s going on, why you took me and what you plan to do with me.”
She wasn’t a vampire, had never heard of the Dark Empire before this evening. He must remember that and be patient with her. Also, he needed to get his mind off her enticing scent, the gentle curves of her body. She was—still—not for him.
“I’ll give you as much information as it’s safe to give,” he said. If only she could appreciate the enormous concession he granted her.
“I need to get a message to my mom.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Raphael, she’ll worry about me. She might think I’m…that something awful has happened to me.”
“Better that than she should be exposed to Daranda’s agents.”
“If they know as much about me as you’ve implied, then she may have already been exposed.”
The girl was impossible. The image he’d had of her had been utterly inaccurate. He’d fooled himself. He should have known it—infatuation was never a good way to measure another person’s character. Despite his new insight, his hands ached with the need to reach out and skim them over her, run his fingers through her hair.
Irritation at himself made his voice sharper than he’d intended. “No messages.”
“Can’t I just tell her I’m staying with a friend?”
“After which she’ll want to know the name of the friend and why you can’t get cell phone reception.”
Her brow wrinkled. “There’s no cell reception here?”
“The walls are thick and we’re underground. It’s patchy at best.”
“Still. I could send her an e-mail.”
“No. That’s my final word. Now eat your breakfast.”
Her lips tightened and her eyes dropped. She looked as if she might cry. Raphael picked up his fork and took a bite of his scrambled eggs. Her life had just taken a radical turn into what was for her uncharted territory and she might as well face that fact now.
“Eat, Perrie. You need to keep up your strength.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with an undertone of mockery. But she put a bite of toast in her mouth, so he let the disrespectful attitude pass.
They ate in silence. He had fine cooks and provided them with the best, freshest ingredients, so he expected the food was better than her usual fare.
Her continued resistance was a puzzler. He’d never met a human who had so much strength of will, with the possible exception of Susan Chandler. The adoptive mother of rogue vampire Kayla Chandler, Susan had shown a strange—no, startling—desire to take care of him.
Her attempt to mother him when he’d come to her door with the intention of invading her mind and stealing the secrets of Kayla’s escape from the Dark Empire had nearly destroyed him. No-one tried to take care of him; most people were so preoccupied with avoiding him they never even suspected he had needs like anyone else.
Susan Chandler had torn down his defenses with her offers of dry clothing, hot food and sympathetic company. He still hadn’t recovered. Now he seemed to face the same kind of resistance in Perrie Underhill.
She was dangerous to him, to his peace of mind and perhaps even to his carefully established place in the world. He glanced covertly at her as she chewed a bite of peanut butter toast, her table manners as delicate and refined as the rest of her. How odd that until now he hadn’t seen danger coming from her, only to her from him. Yes, he’d known her presence in his home would be distracting and inconvenient, but he’d completely missed the threat she truly represented.
Perrie can be contained. I won’t allow her to destroy my life’s work.
Perrie drummed her fingers on the immaculate arm of Raphael’s club chair. He’d left her alone in his quarters—with a guard posted at the door, of course—while he went off to “tend to some professional matters.” What matters were those? Torturing people? Reporting to his evil freakazoid boss?
She stood up and paced the room…slowly, the way she did anything physical. Raphael had a fine collection of paintings on his walls, everything from Italianate chiaroscuro to impressionist landscapes to complete abstractions. They must be worth a major fortune. Each piece had a little art lamp mounted over it and the room looked like a gallery, or maybe a museum.
It was a strange room for a strange man. There was something almost impersonal about it, even with the the art collection and the unusual eggplant color on the walls. He’d said he had a large library, yet she didn’t see any books. No clothes littered the space; everything had been carefully tucked away. Other than the paintings, she saw no hint of personal interests.
Did he even have personal interests? Hobbies? Spare time? Friends? She would have asked him if he’d stuck around long enough. The way he’d left felt like he was escaping her presence.
What a laugh. She’d be more than happy to solve that problem for him by taking herself home. He was the one responsible for the situation, after all.
Perrie checked her watch. It was seven o’clock already. Her friends must be wondering where she was. Someone had probably called her mom and turned her into a frantic mess. Had she called the police yet? They might even investigate, given Raphael’s Molotov cocktail stunt.
“He promised me a library,” she grumbled to herself. “And there isn’t a book in sight.”
What kind of books would a vampire collect, anyway? Did he have a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel?
I’ll bet he doesn’t own The Sun Also Rises. She snickered.
Maybe he had Heart Of Darkness. Dante’s Inferno? Or the Anita Blake books. Sookie Stackhouse. She loved those. Did he even read fiction?
I don’t know anything about him. She couldn’t even be sure how much of what he’d told her previously was truth and how much was a smokescreen to make him seem normal.
The door burst open and he stalked into the room, his gaze so predatory she backed up two steps and ran into one of his chairs.
He frowned ferociously. “I told you I won’t hurt you.”
“Well, you look really mad.”
His brow relaxed. “I was only thinking about something I need to do.”
“Okay.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Where are those books you promised me?”
He looked surprised. “I forgot to show you the library.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I apologize. I’m not accustomed to having guests.”
He was bound and determined to keep up the pretense that she was a guest. Perrie chose not to argue the point with him. This time. She’d bring it up again, though, probably very soon.
Raphael offered her his arm. “Come with me. I’ll show you where it is.”
She slipped her arm through his. She still had on her coat, and he wore a suit jacket, but contact with him seemed to burn anyway. Their bodies were so close. Inches apart. Less than inches, really—maybe just one. Her whole right side seemed to tingle with awareness of him.
Even if you weren’t sick, he wouldn’t be boyfriend material.
She couldn’t help smiling. Raphael boyfriend material? He wouldn’t fit into any category of normal human relationships she could conceive. He was more like some kind of dark force of nature than a person.
But he must have feelings, like everyone else. I know he does—I’ve seen them.
He’d spoken to her of his family problems once. Conflicts with his parents had upset him so much he’d shared with her, even though he obviously wasn’t much of a guy for sharing.
They passed the female guard at her door, who watched openly as they walked down the hall toward the dining room. She would probably hear anything Perrie said to Raphael, and he didn’t seem like the kind of person…being…whatever-he-was…to want his private business shared with employees. So she kept her mouth shut until he stopped and opened one of the doors along the hallway.
Inside was a generous room lined to the ceiling with bookshelves along its walls. More shelves, these only waist-high, stood in rows taking up most of the rest of the space, leaving just enough room for a seating area with plush chairs and a loveseat. A beautiful Oriental carpet covered the ugly utilitarian flooring. Side tables held reading lamps. There was no TV or any sign of a sound system. It was an old-fashioned, low-tech library. Most of the books looked old, too.
“Wow. You weren’t kidding,” she said.
“Some of these books are in languages other than English, and some are very old.”
Perrie turned in a slow circle, taking in the rows and rows of leather-bound books. “They look like it. Is it okay for me to touch them?”
“Go ahead. You can look at and read anything in here that interests you.”
His face, so stern and forbidding, softened. “You’re very welcome.”
She took a steadying breath. “Raphael, remember when you told me you were having an argument with your parents?”
The frown returned. “Yes?”
“Was any of that true?”
His face relaxed again. “Yes, it was.”
“Even the part about them taking in criminals?”
“Yes,” he said guardedly. “The people they help are criminals according to Dark Empire law.”
“For what? What kind of crimes have they committed?”
He made an impatient gesture with his head. “I don’t have time right now to go into it.”
“I’m trying to understand your life. Your world.”
“You don’t want to understand it, trust me.”
Now it was her turn to frown. “Yes, I do. You’ve involved me in it, and I want to know more about it.”
He gave a sigh, as if she was imposing on him. Perrie refrained from rolling her eyes. But she wanted to.
“Fine,” he said. “Have a seat and I’ll answer a few questions. But then I have to get back to work.”
She chose a chair at random and curled up in it, tucking her feet underneath her. “What kind of work do you do? You don’t torture people, I hope.”
“No.” He unbent enough to smile faintly as he took the chair across from her. “I don’t torture anyone.”
“What’s your job, then? You said you were a consultant.”
“I’m a seer. The seer of the Dark Empire.” At her clueless stare, he continued. “My under-seers and I use special crystals to scry, to see where the citizens of the empire are committing treason. Also, we look for people who have unlawfully transformed themselves into vampires.”
“So you’re kind of like a psychic spy? Like secret police or something?”
He nodded curtly. “Yes, I guess that description will do.”
“Like the KGB with crystal balls.”
Now he looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.”
She thought it was pretty accurate, given what he’d told her. Soviet secret police…vampire psychic spy informant. “But you’re looking for people who aren’t loyal enough, right? And what about this unlawful transformation? What’s that?”
“Daranda only allows vampires to be made through her bite. If a human transforms voluntarily via magic, he or she is deemed a rogue and eliminated.”
Perrie rubbed her temples. “So it’s possible for a human to do—what? Some kind of magic spell that will turn you into a vampire? Could I do it?”
“You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Because I would have to report you and then she’d send assassins after you.”
“Why does she even care? I’d think it would make her more powerful to have more vampires running around.”
He shifted his weight in his chair, propping his chin on his hand. “She wants to have direct control over every vampire created. Those who make themselves don’t answer to her. They’re dangerous. They live by no law but their own.”
“She sounds pretty dangerous too.”
“She has to be, in order to maintain her power.”
“Don’t you think she could offer some incentive to join the empire and be civilized? Something better than a threat of death, I mean. Like, I don’t know, come over to our side and you’ll have these benefits.”
He smiled in a condescending way that made her bristle. “Benefits? Such as what?”
“I don’t know. What do vampires need?”
Raphael pinched the skin between his eyebrows. He looked kind of pained. “It’s complicated. Too complicated to explain completely right now. As I told you before, Daranda rules in the old way because it’s what her people understand.”
Was it really that complex, or was he trying to brush her off?
“Okay, maybe later,” she said. “So what happens to these traitors? Are they killed, too?”
“Yes, definitely. They’re usually hauled before the imperial court and publicly executed.”
She caught his gaze and held it, willing him to look at her. “Are they tortured?”
Raphael took a deep breath, his lips tightening. “Usually, yes.”
“So you send people to be tortured and killed.” Now they were getting to the heart of the matter. It was an ugly heart, one she wished she didn’t have to see, but she needed to know the truth.
“Perrie, it’s not that simple.”
“I’m just trying to understand what you do. With no bullshit.” She wanted to know the kind of man she’d secretly been crushing on for the past few weeks, even though the knowledge made her cringe.
“The job I do isn’t easy. I don’t always like it. But it is necessary to the continued health of the empire. If that offends you, I’ll simply have to live with it.”
“I wouldn’t say it offends me.” Appalls would be a better word.
“Maybe I’m reading you incorrectly, then. You seem offended.”
“I don’t believe in torture,” she said.
His black brows descended again. “Not at all? Not even to obtain vital information?”
“First of all, my understanding is that people being tortured will say anything to get it to stop. So I don’t think vital information is likely to come out of it. Second, it’s obvious to me that your so-called traitors aren’t being tortured for information. They’re just being horrifically punished. So, no. I don’t believe in it.”
“So-called traitors,” he growled.
Perrie shrugged, trying not to show the little charge of victory she got from his obvious agitation. “I only have your word that they are. And I’m not sure your Dark Empire is worthy of loyalty, anyway.”
His lips tightened, his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed to slits of fury. “The empire is more than worthy of loyalty. It’s all that stands between an orderly world and complete annihilation.”
He looked like he wanted to wring her neck. She resisted the urge to cringe from him. He wouldn’t respect her if she showed fear.
“Why is that?” she said, so calmly she almost fooled herself.
“Because vampires must be regulated. What do you think would happen if we let thousands of our kind loose on the world with no laws, no rules to guide their behavior? They could attack and drain humans at will with no consequences. How many of your kind would die? And how long before you humans realized what was going on and retaliated?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” It did sound dire.
“Clearly not.” He expelled a breath and shoved his fingers through his hair. Messed like that, it looked even sexier. “We use harsh methods to protect both our people and yours. We don’t want war.”
“Neither do I.”
“I’m sure you don’t.”
“Look, Raphael, I’m not trying to argue with you. I just want to understand what’s going on here.”
“I’m sure you are. However, you must trust me. Trust that I know what’s best.”
She sat up straighter. “Why should I trust you? You lied to me and kidnapped me. Think about that. Would you trust someone who had done that to you?”
He had such a way of looking irritated with her. “That isn’t a fair question and you know it.”
“Yes it is!” She slapped her open palm against the arm of her chair. “You seem to think you’re a special case. That rules shouldn’t apply to you. But they do, Raphael. I trusted you once, and you betrayed that trust. Like I said before, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you enlighten me, that you explain your world to me. How am I supposed to understand what dangers there are for me if you won’t tell me?”
By the end of her speech, he had his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his eyes narrowed and angry again. “I did explain the dangers and you refused to listen. If you will not be reasonable, I’ll have to put you under.”
“I thought you already did that.”
“More deeply under, then. I don’t normally allow my pets so much freedom of thought and action.”
She snorted. “Is that supposed to make me feel privileged or something?”
Raphael shook his head. “I don’t know how to talk to you.”
“As an equal. Try that for starters.”
He raised his brows. “You’re not my equal.”
At that, Perry could only stare at him with her mouth hanging open. Had he really just said that? Unbelievable. Sure, she’d known people who acted like that, but most of them had better sense than to say it out loud.
Raphael stood. He gestured at the bookshelves. “Choose a book and we’ll go back to my rooms.”
“Is that an order, sir?”
She was beginning to hate him. She got to her feet and walked to the nearest shelf, scanning book spines slowly. He had The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, all volumes. He also had The Golden Bough, also all volumes. A random selection of books of poetry followed. She did not feel like reading poetry tonight. Then her gaze fell on a copy of Jane Eyre. She pulled it from the shelf. Opening the cover, she found it had been printed in the mid-19th century; maybe it was even a first edition.
She looked up at him, still holding the book reverently in her hands. “Can I have this one?”
“Of course,” he said impatiently. “I told you you could read anything in this room.”
“All right, then.”
Without another word, he turned on his heel and stalked to the door. Perry followed him meekly. He thought she was impossible. She thought the same of him. He wasn’t at all the man she’d imagined him to be. Her image of him had gone from sexy and urbane to male chauvinist dinosaur, not to mention possible imperialist pig.
I didn’t know you were a political radical.
She wasn’t, really, but his rigid and unbending attitude about the torture issue and power in general rubbed her the wrong way. How would he feel if someone tortured him? He didn’t know what it was like to be powerless, at the mercy of something so much bigger than you that you couldn’t ever hope to win against it. He claimed his job was difficult, but how hard could it be? He turned people he didn’t know over for torture, never endangering himself.
She stewed about it all the way down the hall and into his rooms, where she settled into one of the club chairs, opened the book and buried her nose in it as if he wasn’t even there. It was petty of her. She didn’t care. She could hardly look at him right now without wanting to throw something, preferably right in his face.
“If you need something,” Raphael said, “ask the guard for it. I’m going out.”
“Can I ask when you’ll be back?” she said stiffly.
“No, you may not.” He strode from the room, shutting the door calmly behind him.
Raphael was on fire, and helpless to do anything about it. Chains bound his wrists and ankles, so tightly he couldn’t even move. He thrashed against the bonds, fighting without hope to loosen them. They wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t see the flames, but he could feel them getting closer and closer, hotter and hotter. Just as the pain became intolerable, he awoke.
Gods of old, it was just a dream. But he was still uncomfortably hot, still caught in some kind of trap. Something weighed him down. He flexed his arms against the thing that impeded him, and realized it was a woman’s body. During the day, Perrie must have wrapped herself around him in her sleep. She generated an enormous amount of heat for such a tiny thing.
He’d come home in the morning to find her already asleep in his bed, although still fully clothed. He’d climbed in beside her. It was his bed, for one thing, and besides, everyone in the palace needed to believe that she was his pet in truth. If he slept elsewhere, they would know there was something peculiar about the arrangement.
Gently, he moved her arms from him. One slender leg lay curled over the top of his. He lifted that, too, and placed it on the mattress. She murmured and rolled toward him again, one arm slipping around his waist. Her small breasts crushed against his chest. Instantly, his cock rose, pulsing in its eagerness to get inside her. He’d never responded so viscerally to a woman before.
He’d been deprived of sex for too long. The last woman he’d taken had been Emma, a human pet in Daranda’s court until she’d escaped along with vampires Jared King and Rebecca Darmstadt. Emma had been sweet, although terrified of him. She hadn’t aroused a fraction of the lust he felt for Perrie, however.
In the dim, golden glow of his night light, she looked like an ancient goddess of the spring, as if some divine being had fallen into his bed. He lifted his hand and brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek.
Her golden-green eyes opened and she stared sleepily at him. Her small pink tongue emerged, swept across her lips. Raphael’s heart pounded so fiercely he felt dizzy with it. He leaned down, bending his head to hers. Their lips met and clung briefly. She could have protested—he had allowed her enough freedom of will to do that much—but she said nothing. He brushed her lips with his again and her breath caught. She wanted this.
He teased her mouth, coaxing her to relax, to respond. At first, she remained still beneath his caresses. Then her lips gave a slight, almost imperceptible movement beneath his. Raphael moaned in encouragement.
Perrie’s arm slipped around his shoulders. He cupped her face in his hand. She was so small, so delicate. He glided his tongue along her lips and she opened for him. An invitation. He plunged into her, tasting her, moaning at the slick glide of tongue on tongue, her quickened breath, the subtle undulating movements of her body. His cock throbbed so violently it hurt.
He wanted nothing more than to sink deep within her, to feel her inner muscles stroking him, tightening around him. To lose himself in her. But unless he put her under more fully, it was too soon. He’d acquired all of his under-seers by pretending to court them. Some he had not seduced, but many he had, and the experience had given him some insight into women’s psyches. Something told him Perrie would not thank him later, if he took this encounter all the way, their relationship still being in the early stages.
With a harsh groan, he forced himself off her, forced himself to sit up. He ran the fingers of both hands through his hair, then clutched his head, his breath still coming rough and fast.
Perry scrambled away from him, all the way to the other edge of the bed. Her eyes were wide, confused. “I thought you didn’t want me.”
“Whatever made you think that?”
She winced at his harsh tone. “You said—”
“I said I didn’t bring you here to rape you. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you.” He laughed, but without humor. “I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you. It’s all I can do not to leap on you, force my way into you.”
She swallowed hard. “I don’t want that with you.”
“You can’t lie to me about such things. I can smell your desire.”
She blushed so brightly her face looked crimson even in the low lighting. “Maybe my body is…you know…but that doesn’t mean I want to be your whore.”
He dropped his hands and stared at her. “My whore?”
“Yeah. Your sex slave. Isn’t that what pets really are?”
She’d said something like that the night before. He hadn’t taken her seriously. But maybe she really believed what she was saying.
“That’s not how it is.”
Perrie shook her head. “Proving once again that denial is not just a river in Egypt.”
He squinted at her, baffled. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
For an instant, she looked amused. “You mean you’ve never heard that expression before? Do you ever hang out with humans? Ever watch TV?”
“Not unless I have to.”
“I can tell. How old are you, anyway?”
“Thousands of years.”
Her mouth fell open once again. She blinked a few times. Her eyes darted around the room as she apparently tried to make sense of what he’d just told her. “Are you for real? Thousands of years? What the—where did you come from originally?”
He met her astonished gaze with a level stare. “Atlantis.”
Perrie laughed. “No way.”
Raphael shrugged. “Believe or disbelieve me as you like. I’m going to take a shower now.”
He got up and went toward the bathroom. At a choked sound from behind him, he paused and looked back over his shoulder. She was staring at him, again with her mouth hanging open. Her face was even brighter red, although he wouldn’t have thought that possible before. She clapped her hands to her mouth.
“What is it?”
“You went to bed with me totally naked.”
“That’s how I always sleep.”
The hand left her mouth and covered her eyes. “I can’t believe it. I just slept with a naked man.”
“You’ve never slept with a naked man before? Do your men usually keep their clothes on when they’re with you?”
“My men? I don’t have any men. I’ve never seen a naked man except in pictures.”
“Yes, you have. You’ve seen me.”
Luckily, with his back turned to her, she couldn’t see the raging cockstand that still plagued him. Perhaps he should rethink his sleeping naked policy, because with her in the bed beside him, nudity would inevitably lead to sex.
Ravki couldn’t make his feet work properly. The guards didn’t care; maybe they even liked him better this way. It gave them another excuse to drag him from his cell and down the corridor to the torture chamber instead of letting him walk like a man.
I walked. Once. Somewhere else. I walked.
He thought that was true, although the memories were hazy. He must have walked, talked, moved freely like a normal person, must have known the wind in his hair and the open sky above him. There had been that other place…many other places. A long, long time ago. But they were so hard to picture.
Would he walk to the chamber if he could?
A vague image of fighting came to him. His fist slamming into the jaw of another man. Then clubs hammering him into submission, beating him down to the floor. Had that really happened, or had he only dreamed it?
The guards hoisted him to his feet and hauled him toward the door of his cell. Under his breath, Ravki began the litany to the Dark, softly so they wouldn’t hear him. The meaning of the words…what were they? Why did he feel this compulsion to repeat them? He didn’t know.
The litany was important. Necessary.
By the time he reached the middle, they’d manhandled him all the way to the torture chamber door. He used to vomit here. That memory was clear, although it hadn’t happened for a long time. The door was the place to vomit. One of the places.
They tossed him on his back on the broad table in the center of the room and strapped down his wrists and ankles to keep him from struggling. He looked up at the familiar faces of the only people he’d ever known. No, that wasn’t right. There had been others. Other people. Another place. But where?
Above. Under the sky.
They didn’t want me. They left me here.
His jailers wanted him. They liked spending time with him, looked forward to being with him. They always told him so. They’d sprouted a lot of gray hair in the time he’d been with them. Or was that his…imagination? Hadn’t their hair been solid black when he’d first arrived?
Ravki blinked up at them. They weren’t going to flog him this time…he didn’t think so, anyway. Because they had him on his back. For flogging, they put him on his belly. So it would be something else. Maybe rape. They could do that face up or face down, and it was one of their favorites.
But neither of the men brought out the grease. Instead, one of them brought over a shiny new knife, grinning down at him as he displayed it.
“Do you like it?” the guard said. “It’s new. Very sharp. I can hardly wait to try it out on your hide.”
Ravki closed his eyes, resigned. They were going to cut him again.
“Did I show you the pouch I made?” the guard continued. “Your skin makes some fine leather.”
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
Under the stinging hot spray of the shower, Raphael relieved the ache in his sex with the use of his right hand. It wasn’t as good as a woman, but better than blue balls. Afterward, he scrubbed his skin viciously, as if he could remove Perrie and all the other complications of his life that way.
You could remove her a lot easier by simply letting her go home.
But he knew he wouldn’t. Letting her go was no better than handing her directly to Daranda. He couldn’t do it. He would continue protecting her, even if she hated him for it.
When he’d almost rubbed his skin off, he toweled himself dry, walked back into his bedroom, and stopped short. His onetime friend, now enemy, Garek, sat in one of the club chairs opposite Perrie. The blond Amaki—his people were also known as fairies—glanced up at him in the middle of a sentence and smiled.
Raphael glowered at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Visiting. What does it look like?”
“It looks like an invasion. How did you get in here?”
“One of your lovely under-seers let me in.
“Who was it? I need to talk to her.”
“I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” Garek said, spreading his hands in a calming gesture.
“Then you shouldn’t have done it.”
He glanced at Perrie. Once again, she had turned crimson, and was hiding her face from him. The back of her neck was a brilliant red. Oh,for pity’s sake. Her modesty was becoming tiresome. He went to his closet and found a dressing gown and slipped it on before returning to the conversation area.
He took a seat next to Perrie. “What do you want, Garek?”
“I came to let you know that our offer is still open.”
“I can’t leave the empire. You know that. You need to stop asking.”
Garek merely smiled. “And then I met Perrie.”
Something about Garek’s tone of voice made Raphael tense. “She’s mine. Leave her alone.”
“Ravki, you know me better than that. I love Callista. Besides, I don’t steal women who belong to other men.”
“Then what is your interest in Perrie?”
“She’s human,” Garek said. “She’s here against her will.”
Raphael turned his gaze on Perrie. “You told him that?”
“I sensed it,” Garek said. “There’s too much iron in these walls for my powers to be effective, but I can make educated guesses.”
“Your education is lacking, then. She’s in danger. I’m protecting her against Daranda.”
Garek’s dark gold brows rose. “How can you protect her against your own empress?”
“She can’t run the empire without me and she knows it.”
Garek shook his head slowly. “Why don’t you let Perrie come with me? She would be safe with us, safer than she is here.”
Raphael shot to his feet. “No!”
The Amaki gazed serenely up at him, unmoved by his show of temper. “Shouldn’t this be her decision to make?”
Perrie turned her head to stare at Raphael, her face unreadable. Did she actually want to go with this miscreant, a man she’d only met a few minutes ago and a betrayer at that? But then, she probably didn’t know of Garek’s past association with Ravki—er, Raphael—and the way he’d conspired against him.
Raphael took a calming breath to master his rising anger. “She stays with me. That’s final.”
“Perrie, is that what you want?” Garek said.
“I want to go home. But Raphael says Daranda will send people after me if I do.”
“If you come with me, she won’t be able to reach you.”
She gave the Amaki a wary glance. “I don’t know.”
Raphael set his hand on her shoulder. “She stays with me. If you try to take her, you’ll regret it. I won’t let you steal her from me the way you stole Callista.”
Garek frowned. “I didn’t steal Callista.” He sighed. “Okay, perhaps I did, but it was only because I needed her to understand the truth about herself. I would never hurt her, and I would never hurt Perrie either.”
“Truth? What truth? Callista was one of my under-seers. You had no right to her.”
Garek steadfastly held his gaze. They’d been close as brothers once. Not too long ago, Raphael’s father, Niko, had said Garek still loved Raphael. Was it true? He didn’t think so, but the possibility made him vulnerable to the man’s blandishments.
“Callista is my life’s heart,” the blond man said. “She is the reincarnation of the only woman I ever loved before her, and I couldn’t let her remain in ignorance. She wasn’t happy with you, Ravki. She was miserable and afraid and didn’t know how to safely leave the empire.”
Had she truly been so unhappy? Why not? You are.
Raphael glowered defensively. “Don’t blame me for her maladjustment.”
“You were the one who brought her into the empire, and under false pretenses at that.”
“I did not—”
Well, yes, he had. He’d tricked her and all his other under-seers into a relationship with him that wasn’t what they’d thought they were getting and from which they could never extricate themselves. They’d believed he was courting them, romancing them, when in reality he’d been softening them up for the pressure he’d later put on them to join his team. He’d done it for the good of the empire, but the fact remained that he’d been untruthful with them.
The flush of shame that followed this thought carried even more anger with it, and he leaned forward to loom over Garek’s chair. “Get out.”
The Amaki showed no sign of nervousness or intimidation. He looked over at Perrie. “What do you want? I’ll take you with me if you’d like, or I’ll leave you here. It’s up to you.”
“I-I don’t know,” Perrie said. “I don’t know you. I…I think I’d like to stay here.”
Garek nodded. “Very well. I’ll be going then.”
He stood with irritating calm, turned and walked toward Raphael’s door. On the way out, he extended a card to Raphael. “Good evening to both of you. If you need me, this is the number of my cell phone.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Take it anyway.” Garek kept holding out the card.
“Didn’t I tell you to leave?”
The Amaki shrugged and dropped the card on the floor. Raphael bent to retrieve it and give it back, but the Amaki could move with as much swiftness as any vampire and he was through the door before Raphael could complete the action.
The door clicked gently shut behind Garek. Raphael turned to Perrie. She shrank away from him, pressing her back into the chair. What kind of expression did he have on his face? He took another calming breath and attempted to relax his facial features.
“I’m pleased you decided to stay here,” he said. Not that she’d really had a choice. He would have fought Garek for her, and won.
She studied him, her lips and the skin around her eyes tense. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Did you bring that Callista woman and your other under-seers into the Empire by lying to them?”
Again, why didn’t you put her further under?
He drew another deep breath in through his nose. “It’s complicated.”
“Uh huh,” she said with disgust. “Like the torture thing is complicated. It’s all too much for my little girl brain to understand, is that it?”
“No. This has nothing to do with your gender.”
“I don’t know whether to believe the things you tell me or not. You’re constantly trying to gloss over the truth. Don’t think I can’t see it. I may be young, but I’m not stupid. I can tell when you’re giving me the runaround.”
He sank into the chair beside her and closed his eyes. “Perrie—”
“Don’t even think about lying to me. If you’re going to lie, then just save yourself the trouble and keep your mouth shut.”
He opened one eye and peered at her sidelong. “That’s rather harsh.”
“Difficult times call for difficult measures.”
His lips twitched in spite of himself. “They do indeed.” Before he knew what he was doing, he gave an all-too-revealing sigh. “Yes, what he said is true. I lied to them.”
“God, Raphael. Why?”
“Because I needed under-seers. My work is vital to the health of the empire. Minor ethical considerations sometimes have to be put aside for the greater good.”
“Minor ethical considerations? You lied to those women. It sounds like you ruined their lives.”
“I gave them life. Without my influence, none of them would have become vampires.”
“Did you ask them first if it was what they wanted?”
“Yes. In a manner of speaking.”
Perrie shook her head. “You should have been a politician.”
“I am a politician of sorts. I’m the second most powerful person in the empire. That’s why I told Garek Daranda wouldn’t dare openly oppose me. She can’t afford to lose me.”
“Getting back to your under-seers, does the end always justify the means for you? Is there anything you wouldn’t do for the empire?”
His face burned again. With luck, her human eyes wouldn’t pick up the change in color in the dimly lit room. “I’m not sure.”
“It’s easy to judge when you’re not in my position, when millions of lives don’t hang on your decisions.”
“Maybe that’s true.” She rubbed her forefinger across her lips, drawing his attention to them. “But it still bothers me that you don’t seem to have any kind of ethical bottom line. Or whatever you want to call it. It’s like there’s nothing you won’t do.”
“I wouldn’t turn in a friend,” he muttered under his breath.
He massaged his temples, refusing to look at her. “There was a woman, recently. A friend of mine.” Insofar as he had any friends. “She was committing treason. I—I should have turned her in, but I didn’t.”
He could almost hear the gears in her mind turning.
“Did you love her?”
“No. She wasn’t that kind of friend. I just couldn’t bear to think of her being tortured.” He still couldn’t look at Perrie. What shamed him most, the fact he’d failed to report Rebecca or the fact he’d reported so many others?
“Well,” she said quietly. “That’s something, I guess.”
If anyone else spoke to him that way, with such matter-of-fact disapproval, he’d be furious. With Perrie, he just felt an unfamiliar aching sensation in his chest, as if something there was being pulled downward and taking his soul with it. How did she do this to him? And why did he tolerate it? He utterly baffled himself.
He stood. “It’s time for breakfast. I prefer to shelve this discussion while we eat.”
Her gaze was too perceptive. “All right. But I’m coming back to it later.”
Perry carefully avoided watching Raphael dress. It was pretty stupid, actually. How many chances would she get, after all, to see a gorgeous man in the buff? And he was gorgeous. Without his clothes, he looked as beautiful and perfectly made as any underwear model. But she just couldn’t look at him.
She got the weirdest feelings when she did. Warm, achy, tingling, plus a butterflies in the stomach sensation that made her think she was about to say something incredibly flaky. It was embarrassing. So much better to simply pretend he wasn’t there until he had clothing on again and she could safely look at him without betraying herself.
He smelled good, too. Whatever bath products he’d used, their scent was unfamiliar to her and a little exotic. It was a faint scent, nothing like the way some men doused themselves with Cologne, and she liked it that way.
She glanced over to the bags he and his under-seer had brought her the night before. One of them held her airway clearance vest. Hers was girly pink. She could see it peeking out of the top of the bag.
“Before I eat, I have to do my physical therapy,” she said.
“What sort of physical therapy?”
“It’s a vest I have to wear. It helps to loosen the stuff in my lungs so I can cough it out. It’s kind of gross, actually, so if you don’t want to hang around, I’ll understand.”
The rustling of clothing stopped. “Do you want me to leave?”
Did she? “It really doesn’t matter to me. Do whatever makes you comfortable.”
“In that case, I’ll stay.”
Perry shrugged. It might be a good thing if he saw her hacking and coughing all over the place. Maybe he would think it so nasty that he let her go. Nah, probably not. At any rate, it served him right if he saw something he didn’t like.
She got up and unpacked the vest. There was a power outlet in the wall nearest the bag. Wow, they were all twentieth century around here. She plugged the vest into the power outlet.
The vest looked kind of like a flotation device when she was wearing it. Only this flotation device produced pressure on different quarters of her torso, which loosened up the thick phlegm that accumulated in her lungs because of her disease. She could have done the same thing manually with a helper to pound on her back, but the vest made her a little more self-sufficient.
She finished fastening the buckles and turned on the compressor. The machine made a vibrating noise that reminded her, rhythmically at least, of a train running over the tracks. Not as noisy, though. When she looked up, she found Raphael watching her intently. She raised her brows at him.
“Does it hurt when you do that?” he said, frowning.
“You mean use the vest?” Her voice came out all silly, vibrating with the movement of the device.
“No, it doesn’t hurt at all.”
His face cleared. “Good. I’m glad.” He’d put on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved, Henley style shirt in dark green, which he fingered nervously. “How often do you have to do it?”
“Several times a day. Usually three.”
He cocked his head, watching her thoughtfully. “Perrie, tell me the truth. How sick are you, really?”
Now she was the one to be nervous. She fidgeted. “Everybody with cystic fibrosis has to do airway clearance every day.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t see how it’s any of your business.”
He frowned at her. He seemed to do that a lot. “Maybe it isn’t, but I want to know anyway. If you won’t tell me voluntarily, I can always pull it directly from your mind.”
“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “every time I start to like you again, you say something like that.”
She heaved a sigh, which also came out sounding ridiculous. “I’m very sick, all right? I don’t expect to live a very long life.”
His eyes, so full of autocratic disdain and superiority, turned sad. He walked over to her and sat down on the floor next to her, taking her hand in his. “Are you dying?”
“You know, a lot of people think that question is pretty rude.”
“Quit trying to avoid talking to me. I want to know.”
Perry glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He already knew. She could see by the look on his face that he’d guessed the truth. She looked down at her lap. “Yes.”
His hand tightened around hers. “How long?”
“I don’t know. Probably not long. Months maybe. A year.” She didn’t want to look at him again, didn’t want to see the pity on his face.
It seemed like forever before he spoke again. “Why?”
She didn’t want to talk about this, but it seemed like he wouldn’t leave her alone until she did. “I have a severe case. I’ve always been really sick. Then I got infected with this nasty bacteria called Burkholderia cepacia. Because of the infection, I can’t get a lung transplant and my lungs are giving out.”
“I’m…sorry.” His voice sounded thick and painful.
“How can you say that?”
“I’ve known forever that I wouldn’t live long.” She tried to pull her hand out of his grasp, but he wouldn’t let it go.
“I don’t like this. You should be healthy. You should live a long, happy life. You’re too young to die.”
“That’s silly. Of course I’m not too young to die. Babies die all the time.” Somehow, the grim words sounded even more grim with the absurd vibrations from the machine added in. She made herself look at him and smile. “See? You didn’t have to protect me after all.”
He said nothing. He looked stricken and she dropped her gaze back to her lap. Meeting his eyes was too difficult right now. He was supposed to be cold and uncaring, the prince of darkness, a vampire mastermind. He wasn’t supposed to look at her as if he would do anything to keep her from dying.
What did he care, anyway? They hardly knew each other.
Raphael lifted their entwined hands, studying her scrawny fingers. He pressed his lips to the back of her hand. “I want to do something to help.”
“There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“Yes, there is. Vampire blood cures every human ill I know of. Let me give you some of my blood.”
She recoiled. “God, no. I don’t want your blood.”
He searched her face with a baffled expression. “Why not? You would be well. Strong. Why wouldn’t you take it from me? Is it because it’s mine?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” She propped her head on her free hand, closing her eyes. “Please don’t bug me about this right now. I can’t think straight.”
After a pause, he squeezed her hand again. “All right. I’ll let you think about it. But please consider it. I’d be glad to do it for you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Her first response to the idea, of course, was utter revulsion. She couldn’t even eat meat. There was no way she could swallow human—or vampire—blood. Besides, he’d lied to her before, at least by omission, and she had to wonder what information he was leaving out in this conversation. What would it do to her, besides possibly curing her cystic fibrosis, to drink his blood? She had no idea and something told her she might not like some of the side effects.
But wouldn’t it be worth any side effects if she could be free of the disease?
Except cystic fibrosis was genetic. How could drinking vampire blood change her genetics? Probably it couldn’t, and she would still have the disease. Granted, if what he said was true, the bacterial infection would be gone and maybe some of the other problems caused by the disease. But she would still have it. She could get sick again. And then she’d be stuck with both cystic fibrosis and whatever it was that vampire blood would do to her.
It all came down to this: she couldn’t trust Raphael.
This time when Perrie and Raphael went to breakfast, there was a bunch of women already in the dining room. A wave of sound, of feminine voices, met her at the door. They filled the dining chairs, chattering and laughing to each other. They sounded happy. Of course, she had no way of knowing whether the happiness was real or faked. After all, by his own admission these women had been tricked into coming here and living with him.
The dining room was filled with savory scents of sausage, bacon, yeasty bread and the dark perfume of coffee. When she and Raphael entered the room, all conversation stopped. The female vampires turned their heads as one to stare at her. She was used to dealing with strangers in awkward situations. How many times had she walked into a new medical clinic, a new doctor’s office or laboratory? How many times had she met a new lab tech? She’d lost count. And they’d been mostly people who wanted to stick sharp, pointy things in her and draw her blood or inject something into her body. No room full of vampires could intimidate her.
Raphael paused at the head of the table. “Everyone, this is my new pet, Perrie Underhill. Please make her feel welcome.”
The other women all smiled and said, in unison, “Good evening, Perrie.” It was like being introduced to a classroom full of second graders. With fangs.
She smiled politely. “Good evening. I’m pleased to meet all of you.”
Raphael sat her in the empty chair to his right. Soon she had a huge platter of pancakes with maple syrup—vegetarian pancakes, the server assured her—orange juice, and coffee. But there was no way to talk to Raphael without letting all these other people hear what she said.
In a way, that was a good thing. She didn’t want to endure more questions about her health. On the other hand, she would have liked to know more about the effects of vampire blood, even if she would wonder whether everything he said was true.
Most of the untruths he’d told her were by omission, not direct lies. Maybe all of them. So if she asked him enough direct questions, she would probably get the information she wanted out of him. Of course, that was assuming she knew the right questions to ask.
You’re not considering taking him up on his offer, are you?
No, of course she wasn’t. She just wanted more information.
The chattering around her seemed completely trivial. Two of the women were discussing what they’d bought at a recent department store sale. Another clump talked about a popular television show. Down the table, a few of them seemed to be arguing over whether backgammon or chess was the better game. She supposed nobody would talk about serious matters at breakfast, especially when someone new was present. But part of her wondered if they were intimidated by Raphael and watching what they said around him.
As the meal progressed, she noticed the women giving him occasional covert glances. He didn’t seem to notice this. Most of his attention was fixed on his own food. Occasionally, he would look up at his dining companions or glance over at her plate, as if to confirm she was eating. Otherwise, he seemed to pay no attention at all to what the women were saying.
She was fine with being left out of the conversations. What did she have to say to vampires? Besides “let me go home right now,” anyway. She never watched the TV show they were talking about, didn’t play chess or backgammon, and—well, she could have discussed clothes, but didn’t care to at the moment.
She realized she was still angry with Raphael for taking her, and all these women for not caring. They were fine with her being psychically controlled by him and forced to become his sex and blood slave. So far, she didn’t think much of their world. They seemed to have a complete disregard for individual rights and feelings. At least, the rights and feelings of humans as opposed to vampires.
She’d tried reading Jane Eyre last night, but couldn’t get into it. She’d always loved that book. Right now, though, her usual ability to identify with Jane’s sense of isolation and imprisonment was just too much. She wanted light, fluffy entertainment. Escape.
As if he’d read her mind, Raphael said, “did you enjoy your book last night?”
“It was okay, but I’ve read it before.”
“Well, there are plenty more in the library.”
“I don’t suppose you brought my tablet?” With the tablet, she could send her mom an e-mail and let her know she was still alive.
Raphael gave her a considering look. “No, I didn’t. Do you need it?”
“I can use it to buy books that I can read. You know, new books. And I can surf the net with it.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
She set her fork down with an audible click. “Oh, come on, Raphael. How is my surfing the net going to give Daranda a chance to kidnap me? Or are you trying to bore me to death?”
“Now why would I want to do that?” He tapped his table knife against his plate. “I might consider going back for a few more of your things.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
In her peripheral vision, she noticed the nearest vampires watching her and Raphael in seeming astonishment. Whoops. Maybe she should be less assertive around them. She was supposed to be one of these pets, and they probably didn’t do a lot of talking back. Honestly, she didn’t think she could carry that off for very long.
A woman with blond hair in a pixie cut approached Raphael. She looked scared. In her hands she carried a sheaf of papers. They looked like some kind of flier, the type people staple to telephone poles when their cats go missing. “Sir?” she said hesitantly.
“Yes?” Raphael barked.
Did he really have to sound so mean? Perrie wanted to shake her head at him in reproof, but that probably wouldn’t go over well. It might even encourage him.
“Sir, Miss Underhill’s mother is searching for her. She’s been seen in the neighborhood, asking questions and passing out these.” She held out a flier for him.
Perrie bent her head. Her mom must be crazy with worry. She might think Perrie had collapsed somewhere and not gotten the medical help she needed…or maybe that she’d ended up in some hospital where the staff didn’t know her and for some reason they’d failed to call next of kin. But she knew Perrie wore a medic alert bracelet at all times, so there would be no confusion if she did have an emergency in a public place.
Or maybe she thinks I’ve been kidnapped by a vampire prince and I’m being held captive in an underground palace. Nah. Too farfetched.
She raised her head to peek at the flier Raphael was frowning at as he clutched it in his hand. It featured a big, color picture of her, a studio shot taken a couple of years before. She wasn’t quite so skinny in that photo and she had a big smile, like she’d expected to live a normal lifespan and everything. Weird. It almost didn’t look like her.
“She won’t find us,” Raphael said. “It’s impossible. Don’t worry about it.”
“Still, I thought you should know,” Diane said.
“It’s cruel to make my mom worry like this,” Perrie said. “She deserves to know where I am.”
He gave his head a short shake. “I don’t want anyone knowing where you are.”
“She’s my mom.”
“Damn it, Raphael. It hurts me to think of her worrying. Don’t you understand that?”
He gave her an inscrutable glance. “It would hurt her a great deal more if you fell under Daranda’s control. Believe me, everyone’s better off this way.”
She gave a frustrated growl and tossed her napkin on the table next to her plate. “I’ve lost my appetite. I’m going back to the room.”
Raphael grabbed her wrist as she stood. “Don’t be childish.”
“But I am a child according to you. How else should I act?”
He scowled up at her. “I never said you were a child.”
“Didn’t you? Then you must have implied it about a thousand times.”
“Sit down, please.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Sit down or I’ll make you sit,” he said with furiously narrowed eyes.
Perrie’s mouth tightened. He could make her sit if he wanted to. Hell, he could make her do handstands while barking like a dog if he wanted to. With a mutinous glare, she sat.
“That’s better,” he said. “Now eat your food. You need the calories.”
She never should have given him details about her condition.
“Are you ever going to let me go?”
“No. Now eat.”
Perrie’s apartment had a faint floral scent, reminiscent of her. Raphael surveyed its beige walls and carpet, darker beige counter top in the kitchen and bland, white, Shaker-style cabinets. An anonymous rental, like thousands of others in Jefferson. But she’d decorated it with an interesting mixture of cheap but trendy furniture that had probably come from the local discount store and more old-fashioned looking furniture she might have acquired at garage sales. All the hand-me-down stuff was painted white.
On one wall was a poster of a blond young woman dressed in a Greek chiton and holding a pomegranate cut in half, the blood-red seeds spilling out of its heart. Her expression as she stared at the fruit was pensive, as if she hadn’t yet made up her mind what she wanted to do with it. The picture must represent Persephone, the Greek maiden goddess who’d been kidnapped by Hades and brought into his underground realm, but it reminded him of Perrie.
He’d noticed the picture the night before, when he’d come for her medications, but hadn’t paid much attention. It was weirdly appropriate to her current situation. How long had she possessed that piece?
More to the point, where did she keep her tablet? He’d forgotten to ask her. It wasn’t his usual policy to run errands for the women he brought to his palace. Normally, they ran the errands for him. But everything about his relationship with Perrie seemed backward at the moment.
He scanned the jumble of books and art supplies on her dining room table. After digging through the mess for a few minutes, he located the tablet. He turned to leave and paused. Looked down at the things on the table.
During one of their coffee house conversations, he’d seen a drawing she’d made. She hadn’t wanted to show it to him, but he’d insisted. She was talented, and now she was trapped in his palace with nothing to do but read old books and argue with him. Her art supplies might give her some comfort.
He found a cloth shopping bag in her entry closet and filled it with sketch books, her pencil box, a set of pastels and some other odds and ends. Since he wasn’t an artist himself, he wasn’t sure what to bring and what to leave, so he put in everything that would fit. He could always come back for more.
The downward, dragging sensation that had haunted him earlier returned with devastating force. This place and all these things belonged to her, but for how long? She didn’t have much time left, apparently. All the times he’d imagined bringing her into his world, never once had he pictured her dying young.
He could stop it from happening. Put her under, give her his blood while she was unable to protest or even mind. The bacterial infection that prevented her from getting that lung transplant she’d mentioned would disappear instantly. Her genetic structure would remain the same, however. She’d still have whatever had caused the cystic fibrosis in the first place.
The only way to truly cure it would be to transform her into a vampire.
If she won’t take your blood, it’s a safe bet she won’t want to be a vampire either.
How would she react if he forced the transformation on her? Badly, no doubt. She’d hate him for it. He’d never transformed a vegetarian, but it couldn’t be easy for such a person to take to drinking human blood. The act was difficult enough in the beginning for ordinary meat eaters.
His cell phone rang. What now? Muttering Atlantean curses, he fished it out of his breast pocket. “Yes?”
“Good evening, Black. It’s nice to hear from you.” It was Grant Kowalski, Daranda’s personal assistant.
“I’m a bit pressured for time right now,” he said. “What did you need?”
“Our empress is wondering why you didn’t inform her that your human friend has disappeared.”
Interesting timing. Were they watching him? “I wasn’t aware.”
“She thinks you know where Miss Underhill is.”
“I do. She’s with me,” Raphael said.
The silence from the other end was thick with tension. Finally, Grant said “you have her?”
“Yes. I changed my mind about her. She makes an admirable pet.”
“The empress won’t be pleased by this.”
“I know. I simply couldn’t resist Perrie.”
Grant sighed heavily. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Congratulations would be a good start.”
“You think so? I worry for you, Black.”
Raphael’s muscles tightened, but he tried to keep the tension out of his voice. “Oh? Why is that?”
“You know she doesn’t like to be countermanded.”
“I think that in this case she was rather hoping I would. I think she was trying to push me into it.” And he’d jumped to follow her unspoken order, as he’d nearly always done for thousands upon thousands of years. Yet how could he have left Perrie unprotected? He could never live with himself if something happened to her, especially if it was caused by him.
“All I can say is I hope she’s worth it,” Grant said.
“She is. Believe it.”
“She must be quite a woman. You don’t usually take such a proprietary interest in your pets.”
“You only think that because I’ve never had to protect one before. I always have a great deal of concern for my pets’ safety.”
That wasn’t entirely true. He’d protected plenty of women, both pets and under-seers, just not from Daranda.
“Hmm. Well, I don’t look forward to giving this news to our boss. She’s going to summon you to court over this, you know.”
“I expect it.”
“By the way, how is Emma?”
Black had sent one of the court pets, Emma, west with Rebecca and her lover, Jared, when he’d chosen not to turn the two vampires in to the empress. Grant, who seemed to have a crush on the girl, had been livid at Raphael’s involvement in her disappearance.
“I have no idea,” he said blandly. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I know you know where she went.”
“That’s not the same as knowing how she is now.”
He could almost hear Grant gritting his teeth.
“You’re saying you haven’t had any contact with her?” Grant said tightly.
“Yes. That’s what I’m saying.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That’s unfortunate for you, because it’s the truth,” Raphael said.
Raphael chuckled. “Give it up, Kowalski. She’s out of your reach and in a much better place.” For the first time since he’d sent them to his parents, he believed it was true.
Niko and Laila’s sanctuary, near Portland, Oregon, was a better place for humans and perhaps even vampires. During his short visit there, he’d sensed none of the petty infighting, the jealousy and distrust that were rampant in Daranda’s court. How they achieved that he didn’t know, but he was sure Emma was safe there. Rebecca and Jared as well.
So why is it that you’re still here?
The answer was the same one he always gave himself. The empire needed him. He couldn’t leave when so many people, both vampire and human, depended on him. But a little, mostly unwanted voice inside him whispered that he would, if he could.
Daranda had never been so relieved to be home as this night. At last her carriage turned into the small courtyard of her palace; at last the gates slammed shut behind them; at last they were behind her walls, where no-one could interfere with her plans for Ravki son of Niko. She’d waited for this moment for twenty years. Now that it was here, she could hardly contain her glee. Even if the object of all her scheming did smell like something dead and rotting.
The carriage pulled to a halt. A slave opened the door for her. She gestured down at her new acquisition, now sprawled in a putrid heap on the floor of her carriage. “He can’t walk. Carry him in and clean him. Get rid of all that nasty hair.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The slave gestured to people behind him.
More humans came forward and took Ravki by his shoulders and legs. They lifted him off the floor and carefully pulled him from the carriage.
“And send someone out to clean up this mess,” she added.
“Daranda….love…” Ravki muttered.
“Yes, yes. You’re safe now and soon you’ll be clean and fed.” She ought to pat him on his repulsive head, just to give her fake solicitude some authenticity, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch him again. Ah, well, he was too far gone to notice. She’d given him a strong dose of the poppy in the wine she’d had him drink before she’d taken him from the prison.
He would be floating in a happy dreamland for quite a while. Next evening, he might not even remember the incident. How astonished he would be to awaken in a real bed, to find himself clean, to have real food brought to him. How grateful he would be.
The stench of his body lingered in the coach after he’d been removed. Daranda wrinkled her nose as she exited her vehicle. If the slaves couldn’t get it clean, she’d have to acquire a new one, because she certainly was not going to travel around the city of Atlantiri with that horrible smell.
She took a deep breath of the cool, flower-scented night air and smiled up at Alsek, who stood in the courtyard with his hands clasped behind his back. “Success so far.”
“Highly gratifying, Your Majesty,” he said with an answering smile.
“Isn’t it, though? He’s ever so grateful to be rescued.”
“He should be, smelling like that.”
She laughed on a sudden rush of euphoria at her success. “I only hope I won’t need a new carriage.”
“If you do, it’ll be a small price to pay to acquire such a powerful ally.”
Not an ally. She had bigger plans for Ravki. He would be her…devoted slave. Not in name, of course. To all outer appearances, he’d be a powerful and important man. Possibly the most powerful and important man in her nascent empire. But inside, in his heart, he would be her loyal slave, ever ready and willing to do whatever she required of him.
Ravki floated on soft, benevolent light such as he’d never seen. This light didn’t hurt and the people who carried him were gentle. They brought him up a flight of stairs and into a room with white walls and a single oil lamp burning on a little table. In the center of the room was a large tub full of water. He could see steam rising from the surface of the water and smell the piney scent of the rosemary oil they’d put in it.
“Wha—” He couldn’t seem to form his words properly.
“You’re to have a bath,” one of the slaves said.
A bath? Him? Ravki had no time to mull over this startling revelation before they began stripping the rags from his body. A slave took the pile of filth and carried it out of the room between his finger and thumb, as if he could hardly bring himself to touch it. Then the remaining slaves helped Ravki to stand while they rubbed soap all over him and scrubbed him with a rough, wet cloth.
After the wet cloth, they sluiced him with buckets of water. He wondered dreamily if they were doing this because they didn’t want him to dirty the lovely clean water in the bathtub.
The water hit his wounded arms and he yelped, more in startlement than pain.
“Gods of old,” one of them muttered, holding up his injured right forearm. “Look at this.”
“Who did this to you, sir?” another said.
“Guards,” he mumbled. “Prison.”
“Let’s get that cleaned and wrapped that so nothing else gets in the wound.”
Vaguely, he noticed them gently blotting the ravaged flesh. There was pain, somewhere, but it seemed very far away, as if it happened to someone else. Not him. He still floated in the soft light, where nothing hurt at all.
The slaves wrapped the wound with several layers of white linen. Next, they repeated the scrubbing process with olive oil and salt, scraping it off with yet another rough cloth. Someone brought out a pair of shears.
Ravki flinched away from the shiny metal blades. “No!”
“We’re only going to cut your hair, sir,” said the first slave. “We’re getting you completely clean. No-one here will hurt you.”
Ravki stared at the gleaming metal. It looked so much like the tools the torturers had used. They were only going to cut his hair, though. He could allow that, couldn’t he?
He gave a short nod. “All right.”
His body trembled as he waited for them to lift the blades to his head. One of them took a handful of his hair and pulled it away from his scalp. There was a slight tugging sensation and a snipping sound.
“Here, see?” the slave said, holding up a long hank of matted black hair. “It didn’t hurt.”
He swallowed hard and nodded again.
“He’s full of fleas,” one of the other slaves said.
“A head wash should get rid of most of them,” the other replied.
They were kind. It had to be Daranda’s doing, because no-one else had been kind to him, ever.
The rest of the haircut went smoothly. His head felt progressively lighter as they removed the thick mass. He had to close his eyes when they cut off his beard, but he managed to tolerate it.
When he’d been relieved of his hair, they scrubbed his face and scalp the same way they’d cleaned the rest of him. Then they lowered Ravki into the tub. His eyes almost rolled back in his head at the lovely sensation of the water, so warm, gliding over his skin.
He awoke on a soft, soft platform. This wasn’t the room with the bathtub. It was even larger, and the huge platform on which he lay was in the exact center of it. Hard, yellow daylight stabbed through the shutters on the window, sending a few poisonous lines of light across the tiled floor.
There was nothing between him and the walls. Ravki started to shake. A wooden post rose at each corner of the bed to support a tent-like thing above his head. At least he had that to shelter him from the oppressive space in the room.
He pushed himself into a sitting position against the board at one end of the platform. Then he saw there were thick, embroidered curtains attached to the bedposts. Curtains. He reached out and untied the one on his left, allowing the heavy fabric to fall into place. That was a little better. Fortified, he did the same thing on the right side.
Now he had a little cave filled with dim light filtered through the cream-colored curtain fabric, but the other end of the bed was still exposed. Trembling, he crawled down the platform and untied both bottom curtains as quickly as he could. When they finally enclosed him, he let out a sigh of relief. There was only one opening now, at the very foot of the bed. That was all right. It was like the door of his cell. He crawled back to the headboard—was that what the board thing was called?—and sat against it.
He could see the door from his position on the bed, so he also saw the new arrival when it opened. A young woman came in, carrying a tray with a steaming bowl of food on it. Whatever was in the bowl smelled savory, meat and garlic and vegetables, bringing with it a flood of memories he hadn’t even known he possessed. Memories of real food, delicious food, so completely different from the moldy and rotten garbage he’d gotten in prison.
The girl approached his bed, staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. She shouldn’t be afraid of him. Didn’t she know he would never think of hurting these people who had saved him?
He mustered a smile, hoping to reassure her. “Hello.”
“I’ve come to feed you.” Her voice came out in a reedy whisper.
“I won’t hurt you.”
“Yes, sir.” She crept closer. She was pretty, with blond hair and brown eyes, her slim figure hidden under a shapeless slave tunic. “Shall I leave the food on the table?”
There was a table? He hadn’t even noticed in his rush to put curtains between himself and the echoing emptiness of the huge room. “No. Put it on the bed, please.”
She blinked, a look of confusion crossing her features. “All right.”
When she set the tray on the bed, he caught a whiff of her fresh female scent. His groin began to ache strangely. “What’s your name?”
“Dari, I’m Ravki.”
“Yes, sir.” The girl set the tray on the end of the bed.
What would it feel like to touch her skin? To bury his nose in her golden hair? A long, long time ago, there had been women. He’d been with women. Or maybe that had only been a dream.
He looked down at the bowl. Stew. It had wine in it and chunks of lamb. With an unsteady hand, he picked up the spoon provided and scooped up a bite. When it hit his tongue, he groaned at the taste of it.
“Is there a-anything else, sir?” the girl said.
She was a slave. She addressed him as sir. Perhaps he could require more of her than the delivery of a food tray.
“I would like you to sit on the bed with me,” he said.
There was a long pause. He could hear the hammering of her heart as she stared down at the floor. She took a breath.
“Yes, sir.” Then she climbed on the bed.
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
When Raphael returned to his quarters, he found Perrie curled up in one of his chairs with the book she’d borrowed the night before. She looked up at him warily, no smile of greeting, no welcoming body language. She almost seemed to think he might harm her. Why couldn’t she understand that he only wanted to protect her?
“I got your tablet,” he said. “And a few other things I thought you might like to have.”
“Thank you,” she said in a chilly voice.
“You’re very welcome.” He set the shopping bag down at her feet.
She glanced at it. Her face took on an intent expression as she unfurled her body and bent forward to examine the contents of the bag. She pulled out the box of pastels and looked up at him, her lips parting.
“You brought my art supplies.”
He nodded curtly. “Yes.”
She examined his face as intently as she had the bag. Slowly she got to her feet. Her hands reached out and grasped his.
“Thank you. Really.”
Her touch was so warm and sweet, he drew her closer to get more of it. She didn’t protest as he ran his hands up her forearms to her elbows.
“I want you to be as comfortable and happy here as possible,” he said.
She looked down, her impossibly long and thick golden lashes like lace against her cheeks. “I know you do.”
“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” he said, his voice gone husky.
She shook her head. “No, I’m not.”
He set his hand beneath her chin, gently tilting her face up toward his. “Yes, you are.”
Before he knew what he meant to do, he was kissing her. She tasted like coffee. Her arms came around his waist, so naturally, as if she’d always wanted them there. He drew her close against him, angling his mouth over hers for a better fit, and she opened for him with a little sigh.
She’d taken a shower. Her hair was still wet underneath, where the thick mass hadn’t begun to dry. Raphael plunged his fingers into her tresses, holding her head still while he devoured her mouth.
She pressed her slender body to his, her arms tightening, palms splaying out across his back. He sucked on her, first her upper lip and then her lower. She moaned.
Raphael’s heart beat so fast he wondered if she could hear it. He could.
She wanted him, really wanted him. There was no coercion here, no vampire mind control at all. And she was responding to him, just as passionately as he’d hoped she would.
He stroked her rib cage with his free hand, making slow circles over her side and along her back. The circles descended until he massaged the slight curves of her ass. She was built like a sprite, long and slender in spite of her relatively short stature, with delicate, understated curves. He loved them.
Her hands moved, too, stroking him hungrily, up and down his back and then farther down, along the upper curves of his ass. But she didn’t stray too far, as if she wasn’t sure she had the nerve to touch him in such an intimate manner. Raphael’s hips surged as she made another foray. He wanted her to grab him, hard. Instead she moved politely away, seeking safer ground.
She would need coaxing, encouragement, but that was fine. He would enjoy tutoring her.
His cock pulsed joyfully as he slipped his hand beneath the hem of her knit top and upward to her breasts. His hand met bare, soft curve instead of a bra. He groaned into her mouth as his thumb found her tender little nipple.
Perrie quivered beneath his stroking thumb. Her breath came in tiny gasps now, her kisses demanding more, her tongue relentlessly seeking his. She was the first woman in memory who’d touched him passionately of her own free will, with absolutely no mental influence whatsoever. Raphael cupped her, molded her, as she clung to him as if her legs might fail her.
She made soft whimpering noises as he ravished her. The bed. He must get her over to the bed, or he’d end up taking her on the floor.
He opened his eyes to orient himself and began nudging her to the side, toward the bed. She didn’t seem to notice what he was doing. She was probably too lost in the feelings he was arousing in her.
At last he’d maneuvered her to the edge of the mattress. The backs of her legs came up against the bed, and Raphael began to lower her.
Perrie’s eyes popped open, wide and darkly dilated with passion. She pulled away from his kiss. “What—no. I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Why not?” His voice sounded so rough he barely recognized it.
“You’re—it wouldn’t be right. Please, we have to stop.”
They were both panting. Raphael’s whole body burned with need, his cock so hard it was painful. He closed his eyes, stepped away from her, and took a shuddering breath. Damn. “All right. We’ll stop. But I still don’t understand.”
“You’re—” She looked embarrassed as she ran a hand through her hair. “You’re my enemy. I can’t do this with you.”
“I’m not. Perrie, I’m not your enemy.” His hand came up, reached out, although he couldn’t remember deciding to do that.
“You need to let me go.” For some reason, her eyes were sad.
She pressed her lips together. Her chin trembled. “I know.”
He took another couple of steps backward. “I want you. That isn’t going to change.”
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she whispered.
He couldn’t speak. Just looked at her.
There seemed to be tears in her eyes. She was getting her way, so why did she cry?
“I don’t know how to be with you,” he said. More naked words spilling out of his mouth, words that should have remained unsaid.
“Can’t you treat me as a friend?”
He swallowed painfully. “Apparently not.”
She folded shaking hands across her chest. “I guess I don’t know how to be with you, either.”
“I wish you weren’t sick.”
Her lips curled up a bit, yet her eyes still drooped. “Me too.”
“Let me give you the transformation. Once you’re a vampire, you’ll never get sick again.”
She recoiled from him as if he’d struck her, her lip curling in disgust. Instantly he wished he could take the words back, make them as if they’d never been.
“God, no,” she said. “I would never…no, I couldn’t.”
“Perrie, it isn’t so bad. You’d become accustomed to it.” Why couldn’t he stop talking?
“No, Raphael. That’s final.”
“You’d rather die than be like me, is that it?”
Her mouth opened and stayed that way for a moment. “No. That’s not it at all.”
“I don’t believe you. I think if someone else offered you the change, you’d take it. Who wouldn’t?”
“I wouldn’t. Raphael, I can’t even eat meat. Even if it’s all ground up and mixed with other stuff and I can’t see what it is, I can’t stand it. There’s no way I could suck blood out of a person’s veins.”
A breath-stealing pain struck him right in the center of his chest. “Please.”
She shook her head, her eyes glistening. “No.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to die. But becoming a vampire isn’t the answer. I wouldn’t last long. I’d starve to death.”
“You don’t know that. Once you’ve transformed, you change. The hunger will compel you to seek blood.”
She cringed. “That’s what I’m afraid of. I don’t want to become that kind of person.”
Her words seemed to confirm his worst fear. “You mean the same kind of person I am.”
Perrie made a slashing gesture with her hand. “This isn’t about you!”
He continued to stare at her, his heart falling down and down until it hit the center of the earth. “Okay. All right. It isn’t about me. But—I need to leave right now. I can’t be here.”
“Great. So you can storm out but I can’t even go for a walk around the block.”
“If I thought you wouldn’t run away, I’d take you with me.”
“I thought you were trying to get away from me.”
He pinched his eyes shut, then opened them again, even though looking at her hurt. “I don’t know what I’m trying to do anymore.” Before he could let any more foolish words come out of his mouth, he turned and left the room.
Perrie staggered to the bathroom and brushed her teeth with a trembling hand. The extravagant marble-tiled bathroom, with its crystal chandeliers and its eggplant colored walls to match the bedroom, gave her a drifting sense of unreality, as if she dreamed the scene instead of living it. The only other place she’d ever seen a room like this was on one of those TV decorating shows—the kind about rock star mansions.
He’d kissed her. Really kissed her. The memory still burned in her, filling her with an ache of yearning so powerful she could hardly think of anything else. She’d almost let him make love to her. Almost agreed to become a vampire. That was how badly he shook her, took her over, swept her up in sensations she’d never even imagined.
I can’t think about this right now. I can’t ever think about it.
Sexual fantasies caused too much pain. They tempted her with visions of a life that could never be hers, so in self-defense she’d avoided them and any experience that might arouse them. But having Raphael in her life made that tactic impossible.
She spit out the toothpaste and rinsed her mouth. What the hell was she going to do about him? She couldn’t get away from him, so avoiding him wouldn’t work for very long. And she had the feeling he wasn’t going to stop asking her about the transformation. It seemed to be important to him for some reason.
Did he really think she would adapt to the life of a vampire? Sticking her teeth in someone’s flesh? Sucking out their blood and swallowing it? Her stomach cramped just thinking about it.
I should try to escape. What’s the worst that could happen? I could die. Hah. I’m going to die anyway.
Exactly. But first she had to get lucky.
She walked through the bedroom and opened the door. The guard turned her head and gave her an inquiring look. It was a different woman today, with long dark hair scraped back in a severe ponytail.
“Um, hi,” Perrie said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lillian.” The woman stared at her suspiciously.
“Can I get some dinner? Lunch? Whatever you call it around here.”
“Of course. What would you like? I’ll call the dining room.”
“I’d rather walk down there. It’s hard staying in one room all the time.”
Lillian continued to stare before giving a short nod. “Okay. I’ll go with you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I’ve been there twice. I can find my way.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She stifled a sigh. They weren’t going to let her walk around on her own anytime soon, it seemed.
Lillian remained quiet as they walked down the long, cold hallway to the dining room. She didn’t even give Perrie the covert glances the other female vampires had. It was like she couldn’t have cared less about her existence. Did she hate it here or was she one of the few who’d come to this life out of a free choice?
The dining room was empty when they arrived. She wasn’t sure if they were early or late, but it seemed no-one else wanted to eat at this hour. The dining attendant, the same one from the first night, bustled out with a smile on her face, though. Was she a volunteer?
“I picked up some tofu for you, Perrie,” she said. “And some tempeh, some rice and beans, peanut butter, soy milk…”
She seemed inclined to go on listing vegetarian-friendly foods.
Perrie smiled back. “Thank you. That’s very thoughtful.”
“We want you to be comfortable.”
So Raphael had told her.
“I thought miso soup and some marinated, fried tempeh for lunch today. Does that sound acceptable?” the attendant said.
“It sounds delicious.”
The woman left for the kitchen and Lillian gave Perrie her first look of interest. “Are you really a vegetarian?”
“How can you not eat meat? Don’t you feel—I don’t know—sick or something?”
Perrie smiled. “I am sick. But, no, avoiding meat doesn’t bother me. I get enough protein via soy products, beans and nuts, stuff like that.”
She shouldn’t have opened her big mouth. “Um, yeah. I have cystic fibrosis.”
“Oh. So that’s what all the medicine and machines are for? Diane told me all about it.”
Lillian frowned. “Why would Mr. Black want you as a pet if you’re sick?”
Good question, even if it was rude. “I don’t know.”
“Hmmph,” the vampire said.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
Lillian gave her another suspicious look. “That depends on what it is.”
“What made you decide to become a vampire?”
Her companion shrugged awkwardly. “I can’t remember.”
Perrie’s brows pulled together. “Really? It seems like a pretty momentous decision.”
“Mr. Black talked me into it. I can’t remember precisely what I was thinking at the time. It was a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
“No, it’s all right.” Lillian shrugged again. “I don’t think I gave it enough thought at the time. It’s not like you can reverse the decision once it’s made. It’s irrevocable.”
The brunette cocked her head. “Why do you ask, anyway?”
“Oh, I was just wondering. You know, because I’ve never met a vampire before. I didn’t even know they were real.”
Lillian gave a short laugh. “Neither did I.”
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. The kitchen attendant brought Perrie’s food and she tasted her soup. It tasted exactly like the stuff she had at the Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood. The tempeh had been marinated in a sweet and sour sauce and was equally delicious.
“Since you asked me why I became a vampire, can I ask you why you’re a vegetarian?” Lillian said.
“Sure.” Perrie finished chewing her bite of tempeh. “When I was a kid, my best friend was severely mauled by a bear at the zoo.”
Lillian’s head jerked slightly, as if in shock, and her lips parted as her eyes went round. “That must have been terrible.”
“It was…unforgettable. She—you could see the muscle and fat in her leg. It looked just like a piece of meat at the grocery store. She never walked right after that, but she was lucky just to survive.”
“How did the bear get out?”
“It didn’t.” Perrie swallowed heavily. “She climbed into its enclosure.”
Lillian pressed delicate fingers to her mouth. “Oh, my God. Why would she do such a foolish thing?”
Perrie shook her head. “I don’t know.” Actually, she knew exactly why, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell this near-stranger the truth—that she’d given her friend the idea herself.
“I guess I can see why you wouldn’t ever want to look at a piece of meat again,” Lillian said.
“Yeah. It was—my mom tried for years to make me eat it, but I couldn’t. She was worried I wouldn’t get enough protein with a vegetarian diet and it would affect my health, but the doctors said I was doing okay. I just have to take some extra vitamins.”
“They shouldn’t keep predators in enclosures that people can climb over,” Lillian said. “Or the animals can get out of. It’s not right. They should have ceilings on them, like cages or something.”
“This place definitely didn’t have enough safety measures,” Perrie said. “It wasn’t that hard for her to get in there, and you’re right. If she could get in, the bear could have gotten out.”
Lillian shivered. “Ugh. I never liked bears.”
“But aren’t you super-strong and everything? A bear wouldn’t be able to hurt you, would it?”
“Oh, it could. It could tear me up really badly, but I’d survive as long as it didn’t behead me.” She gave Perrie a sidelong glance. “That’s the way to kill a vampire. You have to remove the head.”
“You mean a stake through the heart doesn’t work?”
“No. It does tend to make us really angry, though.”
She laughed and after a moment, Lillian joined her. Strange how normal this woman seemed…but, then, Raphael had seemed normal at first too. But he wasn’t, and neither was Lillian. Perrie needed to keep that thought at the front of her mind at all times. Just so she didn’t relax too much and do something stupid.
“You’re not like most pets,” Lillian said.
Perrie glanced at her with a careful smile. “I’m not?”
“No. You’re a lot freer. You talk back to Mr. Black. Aren’t you afraid to do that?”
“No. Should I be?”
Lillian looked around before answering, like she thought someone might be spying on them. “The rest of us are.”
“I don’t think he would hurt me. He swore he wouldn’t.”
The vampire girl looked impressed. “Wow. He made you that promise?”
“Yes. Didn’t he ever tell you the same thing?”
“No. He likes us to be afraid of him. I can tell.”
She thought of the autocratic way he sometimes spoke, the arrogant tilt of his head, and she could almost believe it. “But he’s…well, yeah, he’s pretty bossy, but he’s always been really gentle with me.”
“He’s bossy, that’s for sure,” Lillian said.
“What makes you think he wants you to fear him?”
“The way he talks to us. The way he gets this kind of pleased look on his face whenever one of us acts afraid. You can just tell.”
“Hmm. I’m sorry to hear that.”
She’d had such a rosy, idealized view of him, up until the night he’d kidnapped her. She still found it hard to believe that he’d take pleasure in frightening a group of women, but Lillian really seemed to believe what she was saying. Why would he act that way? Was he an over-controlling creep or a lonely, passionate man too isolated for his own good? Because he did seem incredibly isolated, even though he lived in this “palace” surrounded by women.
“I shouldn’t have said anything. Please, please don’t tell anyone.”
She shook her head. “I won’t. But I don’t think he’d really hurt you.”
Lillian pursed her lips and said nothing.
His eyes frightened her. Even now in her throne room, surrounded by loyal courtiers, he unnerved her. Daranda tried not to look at them, but she couldn’t project her usual air of authority if she refused to meet the gaze of one of her subordinates. So she forced herself to look directly at Ravki.
He was no longer the starving, trembling wretch she’d pulled from the Atlantean royal prison. Something hard and dangerous glimmered in those pale, silvery-green depths as he looked up at her from his kneeling position on her throne room floor. The calculating smile he gave her made her shiver. She manufactured a smile in return.
I ought to be glad. He accepted my offer to join my vampires.
“I have thought of ways in which I might serve you, Your Majesty,” he said.
“Have you?” She arranged her body in a relaxed and languorous pose on her throne, although she wanted to clutch the elaborately carved arm rests.
“It would be my honor, after all you’ve done for me.”
An appropriately grateful attitude, yet he continued to radiate a power that made her nervous. Were the others in this luxurious room made nervous by him? They did seem to give him a wide berth. In the flickering light of the oil lamps, even the figures frescoed on her whitewashed walls seemed to look at him out of the corners of their eyes, watching, wary.
“Tell me your thoughts,” she said.
“You have many servants. Skilled servants.”
Ravki cleared his throat with a cautious glance around him at the attending courtiers. “I have only the greatest respect for their knowledge and…accomplishments. However, if I understand correctly, none of them are of Amaki extraction.”
“No, they aren’t.” She smiled encouragingly. He was already thinking along the lines she’d planned out for him. He might frighten her, but his potential…by the gods, his potential…
Ravki cleared his throat. “I am part Amaki, Your Majesty.”
“Are you?” She affected a tone of surprise.
“My mother, Laila, is half Amaki and I was raised among them.”
“Yes. It makes me rather unusual.”
“Indeed, it does.” Daranda leaned forward slightly. “I have heard wild tales of your mother’s people. The powers they supposedly possess. Are they true?”
“I don’t know exactly what you’ve heard, but it is true the Amaki have many powers.”
The night breeze gusted suddenly through the open doors leading to her enclosed garden, ruffling the long, white curtains that hung there and bringing with it the smell of the sweet-scented flowers just outside and the ocean beyond that. Daranda shivered a little at the thought of the danger she might be letting loose on her court.
“Is it true they can walk through walls?” she said.
He seemed to bite back a smile. “No, Your Majesty. I’m afraid that’s just a tale to frighten children. But they are able to move from one location to another with no travel time by accessing The Between.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s another world that exists side-by-side with ours. Full-blooded Amaki can step into and out of The Between, anywhere they wish.”
“Full-blooded? Am I to understand then that you don’t have this power?”
“No. I don’t.”
How disappointing. That one would have been most useful. But she kept her dismay from showing on her face.
“You’re only one quarter Amaki, yes? Have you any of their powers at all?”
He dipped his recently shorn head. “I do. I have some ability to control minds and I have great skill with the scrying crystal.”
She raised her brows. “Do you?”
“I have seen many things past and future. The present as well. I can view events at a far distance.”
“That is a useful skill.”
Hope shone in his eyes, where before she’d seen a strong lust for vengeance. “I could see your enemies and even know their thoughts.”
Daranda tilted her head, pretending to assess his sincerity. It was important to make a show of thinking carefully about his implied proposal, as if she hadn’t already hoped and planned for this very thing.
“That’s an intriguing notion, Ravki. Are you saying you would spy for me?”
He nearly glowed with sincerity. “I would do anything for you, Your Majesty. Anything at all.”
Present day, Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
Raphael entered Daranda’s richly appointed office with the smugly arrogant expression he knew she hated. He always made sure to wear it whenever they met. He strolled nonchalantly to the guest chair and sank into it without waiting for invitation or permission.
Tonight she wore a black bra beaded with silver and gold beneath her black silk suit jacket. The bra pushed up her breasts spectacularly. Had she worn that just for him? She loved to taunt him with her supposed charms.
He looked at her and smiled. “Good evening, Daranda.”
She frowned at him coldly. “You have grown far too familiar lately, Raphael.”
“Yes. See that you correct it.”
He stroked his jaw. “I’ll have to give it some thought, since I’m unaware I’m doing it.” The lie made him want to laugh.
She glared at him. “You took Perrie Underhill after all.”
“Yes, I did.”
“I told you I planned to bring her in.”
He spread his hands and shrugged. “I couldn’t resist her.”
“That’s no excuse. You knew I wanted her.”
“Your Majesty, I didn’t think you’d mind, knowing I had my sights set on her first.”
Her lips, lacquered red as always, pressed into a thin hard line. “You defied me.”
“But you never told me I couldn’t have her,” he said with innocently wide eyes.
She slapped the top of her mahogany desk. “That’s hardly the point. I shouldn’t have to say it. You should have known.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. We’ve never had an interest in the same pet before. I confess I missed the signals you were sending.”
“I don’t believe you.”
No-one did lately. “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s true.”
Daranda sighed. “We seem to quarrel a great deal these days.”
“There is a lot of turmoil in the empire. I’m sure that’s all it is.”
“Hmm. Perhaps.” She tapped her long, talon-like red nails on her desk. “Have you heard word of your…of Niko and Laila?”
“No. Nothing.” Which, of course, was as complete a lie as any ever uttered.
“I have. They’re expanding.”
He raised his brows. “Are they?”
“We’re going to have to do something, Raphael. Soon. They’re forcing us into direct action.”
He considered his next words carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was set her off. “I was under the impression we were already taking action.”
“No, I mean direct action.”
“Would you care to give me some details?”
She huffed. “Violence, Raphael. War.”
He took a deep breath, then another. Patience. Calm. “You mean to go to war against Niko and Laila?”
“I see no alternative. They’re stealing my people and threatening my power base. They stand in direct contradiction to everything we believe in, every value the Dark Empire holds dear. Their recent belligerence must not go unchallenged.”
“Belligerence? I’m not sure I would characterize their actions that way.”
She lifted her chin, her imperial glare turning icy. “You’re arguing with me again. What is going on with you? I don’t like the changes I’m seeing in you.”
He didn’t like them, either. Yet he had no idea what to do about them. They continued to stubbornly crop up, no matter what he did, said, or thought.
“What I meant was that I’m not sure they mean to be belligerent. I don’t know that they see their actions that way. Perhaps diplomacy…”
She snorted. “Have you gone mad? You’re suggesting that I propose some kind of talks with them? Like a summit meeting? Honestly, Raphael, I never knew you were such a dreamer.”
He folded his hands in his lap. “Do you want war?”
“Perhaps,” she said with a sly smile. “There’s nothing like a good war to unite a fractured people.”
“There’s no such thing as a good war.”
“Again with the arguing. I’m beginning to wonder if you don’t need a very long vacation.”
That was a veiled threat. “Would you like to remove me from my post, Your Majesty?”
Suddenly, what had once been unthinkable sounded almost pleasant. More than pleasant. If only he could shirk his responsibilities and run off with Perrie and whichever under-seers wished to accompany them. They could go anywhere and do anything. Remake themselves and their lives. But it was impossible.
Daranda stilled as the meaning of his words, his own implied threat, sank in. “No. I don’t want to take such a drastic step. At least, not yet. However, I do require you to give some serious thought to your loyalties and ambitions. They cannot be divided.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“Good. Then you’ll work with me as we plan this war.”
No. Somehow he must find a way out of this predicament. He couldn’t say that to her, however; he probably wouldn’t leave the palace alive if he did. No-one openly defied Daranda, not even him.
He hesitated a moment before jerking his head in a nod. “Yes.”
She smiled. “Excellent. And this girl, this Perrie Underhill. You’ll bring her to court.”
He fought back the frown that wanted to form. “When, Your Majesty?”
“Why, as soon as possible. Later tonight would be good.”
“Yes. Very well, I’ll bring her. You should know, however, that she is ill. She cannot be a blood donor or a sexual partner.”
Daranda’s finely arched black brows rose. “Indeed? I’m surprised you would choose such an inferior specimen as a pet.”
“I didn’t know until after I’d taken her. And I plan to do something about her condition, but she is resistant.”
“Then put her under and make her do it.”
“I value her spirit.”
She looked at him askance. “Do you? I can’t imagine why. Spirit only makes them more difficult to control.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I need some spice after so long a string of perfectly docile pets.”
“Ah. I think I begin to see.”
He most sincerely hoped she didn’t.
“Well,” Daranda said. “You’d better get home and prepare her for her first appearance at court. I so look forward to seeing her.”
The imperial palace was housed in what appeared to Perrie to be some sort of nineteenth century commercial building, made of brick with fancy stone decorations of gargoyles and acanthus leaves. Raphael’s driver parked the car in a lot around the back and Raphael, dressed in one of his dark and impeccable suits, got out of the car with a strangely hunched look to his shoulders.
He held out a hand to Perrie. “Come along.”
Reluctantly she got out of the car and straightened her coat. He’d told her she didn’t have to dress for this meeting, but she did need to wear formal makeup and curl her hair. That made little sense, but what did she know about vampire etiquette? Or fashion, either.
He took her by the hand, leading her out of the lot and into the chunky brick palace. The foyer bore a strange resemblance to a bank lobby. Maybe it had been a bank in a past incarnation; there was a high counter all along one wall, where tellers might have worked.
The ceiling still had what looked like an original fresco in some kind of classically-inspired design, the details hidden by the dim lighting. Stern-faced men dressed in all-black uniforms and armed with guns and swords stood by the front doors. They jerked to attention as Raphael walked in, their faces even more grim than before. Apparently he did strike fear into the hearts of vampires.
He brought her to the side of the room and an elevator. “You’ll have to leave your clothing here.”
She gave him a disbelieving stare. “Excuse me?”
“You can’t wear clothing in the presence of the empress or her court. You’ll have to undress here.”
Her mouth dropped open. It had been doing that a lot lately. “No. No way am I stripping down. Uh uh.”
“You will do it, Perrie,” he said grimly.
“No, I won’t, Raphael.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the soldiers gaping at them.
Raphael loomed over her, his broad hand coming up to clasp her chin. He tipped her face up and caught her gaze, truly caught it as if in a net, because she couldn’t make herself look away. She was instantly lost in the green-silver depths, fascinated by the thick black outline of his lashes, the startling contrast of it part of his memorable male beauty.
Suddenly she knew she’d do anything for him.
He was the most gorgeous, the most desirable man she’d ever seen. And he wanted her. He’d touched her, kissed her, would have done more if she hadn’t stopped him like the uptight idiot she’d always been.
If he touched her again, she wouldn’t stop him. She’d do whatever he wanted. Because all she desired was to please him, to see that soft, approving look in his eyes and feel the soft warmth of his lips on her mouth.
“Take off your clothes,” he said.
Displaying her nude body would please him. “All right.” She smiled at him and unbuttoned her coat.
Yet once she was naked, her clothes neatly folded and in a pile next to the elevator, he didn’t look pleased. He looked sad. The corners of his eyes and mouth turned down as if he could hardly stand to see her like this and that made Perrie want to cover herself with her hands and hide.
“Don’t I please you?” she said. “You don’t like me naked?”
He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. “You please me more than I can say.”
“Then why do you look so unhappy?”
“I am happy.” He leaned in and kissed her beneath her ear. “There is something bothering me, but it isn’t you. It’s never you.”
“Oh.” Joy filled her as she realized her master truly was happy with her and she beamed up at him. “I’m so glad.”
He gave her a weak smile, punching the elevator button. The doors slid open immediately, as if they were as joyful in pleasing him as she was.
Inside the car, he drew her into his arms and held her against his body as they went up. Perrie sighed happily and snuggled against him. This was where she wanted to be, always.
The floor in the throne room was cold under her bare feet, and chilly drafts came off the bank of huge windows on the other side of the room. The huge, open space was crammed with people. She guessed the ones without clothes were pets, like her, and the ones with clothes were vampires like her master. Then she saw a naked man with his fangs buried in a naked woman’s neck while his hips pumped rhythmically between her legs.
She watched in open fascination. She’d never seen that before, not even in pictures. The man’s bare ass flexed as he moved inside the woman’s body. Her legs were wrapped around his waist, her head tilted back, her mouth open in a continuous moan. She seemed to like what he was doing to her.
The sight of their pleasure made Perrie’s body turn all hot and achy the way it had when Raphael had kissed her earlier. Maybe Raphael would fuck Perrie, too, when they got home. She’d like that. She’d never wanted to have sex before, hadn’t allowed herself to think of it, but with Raphael it would be all right. More than all right.
He glanced back at her with a tug on her hand. “Come along. We shouldn’t keep Her Majesty waiting.”
She tore her attention away from the writhing couple to follow him. Now that she wasn’t watching strangers having sex, she noticed the way the other vampires in the room seemed to go quiet or even draw back as Raphael approached them. They eyed him with tension in their faces and bodies, drawing subtly away from him as he passed them. Why would they fear her master? He was a good man. She loved him. Couldn’t they see how lovable he was?
Obviously, these people didn’t really know him like she did, or they wouldn’t be afraid of him. They’d want to be close to him. She was too happy to get angry with them, but what if their weird behavior upset her master? What if they hurt his feelings?
Perrie squeezed his hand in reassurance. He glanced down at her and smiled and her heart leaped up as if begging for his kiss. She smiled back at him, hoping he could see in her face how much she adored him.
He put a protective arm around her shoulders and leaned in close again. “We’re approaching the throne. When we get there, go down on your knees and bend your head.”
He smiled again, but he still looked sad. Maybe she could think of some way to cheer him up and make him feel better, since the hand squeezing and smiles hadn’t done the job. She needed something stronger.
They emerged from the crowd of vampires and humans and entered an open space. On the other side of this clear area, a small dark-haired woman sat on a carved and gilded chair. She wore a black, silky dress that clung to every curve and sported a nearly crotch-high slit that exposed her beautifully-shaped right leg to the hip. Her long, dark-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders in loose waves and her perfect lips were painted glossy crimson.
Perrie stared at the woman in awe. Then Raphael squeezed her shoulders again and she remembered. She ducked her head and fell to her knees while he bowed low to the empress.
“Good evening, Raphael,” Daranda said in a smoky voice. “I take it this is the new one?”
“This is Perrie, Your Majesty.”
She’s lovely, but a bit skinny for your tastes.”
Oh, no! Did that mean he didn’t really want her? Maybe that was the real reason he hadn’t gone all the way with her earlier that night. He wasn’t being considerate after all, just using her stupid nerves as an excuse to back away.
“She suits me perfectly, Your Majesty,” Raphael said.
Perrie took a shaky breath. Her master did want her.
“Tell me, girl, are you happy with Mr. Black?” the empress said.
Perrie lifted her head. “Oh, yes, he’s the best master in the world. I love him, Your Majesty.”
For some reason, Daranda looked amused at this. “She’s charming, Raphael. I congratulate you.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“I begin to see why you wanted her so badly. But I thought you said you needed a little spice?”
“A little, Your Majesty. Too much spice blunts the palate.”
Daranda laughed, although Perrie had no idea what they were talking about. “Indeed it does.”
“I’m pleased that you approve of my choice,” he said.
“Good. But I think the court would like to see more of her. Does she have any talents?”
“She doesn’t perform, no.”
Perrie sneaked a glance at her master. She would perform if he asked her to, even though she wasn’t very skilled.
“She may not sing or dance, but there is one thing she can do for us.” Daranda had a smile in her voice.
“No,” Raphael said.
“No?” The smile was gone, replaced by an icy tone of warning.
“You know I don’t rut in public,” he said. “Not even for you.”
“That’s most disappointing. I’m sure we were all looking forward to seeing her in action. Shall I find someone else who can do the job?”
Perrie shifted uneasily, rocking her weight from one knee to the other. If the empress wanted her to perform, and her master was in danger by refusing, then she must perform. She must not endanger Raphael. But she couldn’t tell him that without breaking the rule that pets shouldn’t speak unless spoken to.
“Your Majesty, I’m quite sure no-one here would wish to use a pet that belonged to me,” he said smoothly.
The tension in the room tightened almost unbearably. She could feel it radiating off the vampires ranged behind them, even though she’d never thought of herself as psychic before.
“Perhaps not,” Daranda said. “However, your lack of cooperation displeases me. I think you need to reconsider your position.”
“I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
“You do that. Don’t take too long.”
Raphael’s hand tightened on Perrie’s shoulder. “With your permission, Your Majesty, I’d like to take Perrie home now. She has some medical issues that need tending.”
A repetitive tapping sound came from the direction of the throne. It sounded like the empress was drumming her nails on the arms of her throne. Perrie’s throat went dry. If she was that angry, Raphael might really be in danger.
“Very well,” the empress snapped. “Take her home. But you should know I’m rethinking my decision about that vacation we talked of.”
“Understood, Your Majesty. Perrie, you may rise.”
She got to her feet, wishing she dared to look up at his face. He put his arm back around her shoulders and she leaned into the side of his body, both for her own reassurance and for his. She wanted him to know how much he meant to her, how much she cared for him.
On the trip back through the room, she felt a subtle difference in the attitude of the watching vampires. The fear was still present, but there was almost a sense they were gloating. Did they want her master to be harmed? Did they hate him that much? She wouldn’t allow anyone to hurt him, even if it cost her life to protect him. No-one would get to him without going through her first.
She worried all the way downstairs in the elevator and while she put her clothes back on in the lobby. Even the scary soldiers with their guns and swords couldn’t distract her from her worries about Raphael’s safety.
In the car, she snuggled against him and put her arms around his waist. “I was afraid for you, master.”
“Don’t call me that.”
She cringed at his sharp tone. “I’m sorry. I thought you would like it.”
“Well, I don’t.”
She gasped at the pain of his reprimand. “I won’t do it again. I promise.”
After a long minute of silence, he sighed and looked at her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so hard on you.”
Her lower lip trembled. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
“Are you sure?”
He smiled, and this time his eyes crinkled at the corners, so she knew it was a real smile. “Yes, I’m sure, sweetheart.”
Oh! He’d called her sweetheart! She beamed at him, unable to hide her joy. “I always want to make you happy. And I was worried about you. I’m afraid the empress will be mean to you.”
He glanced at the back of the driver’s head. “I’m sure that’s not going to happen.”
Then, to her joy, he bent his head and took her mouth in a searing kiss that was even better than the one they’d shared in his room. She wound her arms around him and kissed him back, rubbing her hips against him to let him know how much she liked it.
He hadn’t wanted to take her in the throne room, with all those people watching—maybe he’d thought she would embarrass him—but here in the car there was no-one to see except the driver. She wouldn’t embarrass him here. She slipped a hand under his coat, then under the suit jacket he wore. His body felt hot beneath her skin, even though there was still the fabric of his shirt between them. Perrie tugged the shirt out of the waistband of his pants and caressed the bare skin of his side.
He gave a long moan as he kissed her. He enjoyed her touch. That was good. She could please him by touching him. She moved her hand down, all the way to between his legs and boldly laid it over his bulging sex. She’d never touched a man there before.
His breath caught. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand away. “Not now.”
“You don’t like me?
“Of course I like you, sweetheart. I more than like you. But this isn’t a good place or time.”
The car made a turn into Raphael’s alley and stopped right in front of his door.
“We’re home now,” Raphael said. He thanked the driver and handed him some cash.
After that, he didn’t say anything until he’d unlocked the door and gotten her inside.
Standing on the pitch-dark landing, he put his arms around her in a tight hug and kissed the top of her head. “The driver belongs to the empress. We can’t speak freely in front of him.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”
“No. No, I’m not mad.”
Perrie clung to Raphael in the darkness of the stairwell. “I can’t see anything, sir.”
“I won’t let you fall.”
“I know you won’t.” She reached up and clasped her hands behind his neck. “Please kiss me.”
“Please. I want you so much, sir.” She tugged on him again and he allowed her to draw his head downward.
She was too bold and she knew it. A good pet waited for her master to choose her; she didn’t fling herself at him. But he didn’t seem to mind, not really, because his lips opened over hers with remarkable tenderness.
She caressed the back of his neck. The skin there felt so hot, his silky hair tickling her hand. His arms came around her, pressing her against the hard column of his body, one hand slipping down to cup and squeeze her ass.
She moaned. Her hips began to move against him in a rhythm that was completely unfamiliar to her, yet completely natural. She didn’t know what she was doing, but it felt good.
Raphael’s tongue took possession of hers, invading her mouth, making her pant in excitement. He was panting, too, as he crowded her back against the wall and trapped her there. His hips bumped suggestively into her, grinding, and she could feel the thick, steely length of his cock against her belly.
She whimpered in eagerness, reaching for his hand and guiding it to her breast. He cupped her, teasing her nipple, and she whimpered again. Yes, like that. Just like that.
Then his hand stopped and she whimpered for a different reason.
“We can’t,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“Yes. Please, don’t stop.”
“You won’t be happy with me.”
What was he talking about? Of course, she’d be happy. She put her hand between his legs and rubbed. His breath caught.
“Please make love to me,” Perrie said.
Raphael groaned. He captured her mouth in a brutal kiss, scooping her into his arms at the same time. She clung to his neck as he carried her down the stairs, down the hall, into his rooms.
He threw her on the bed, stripped off his coat while she still bounced on the mattress, and pounced on her. His hands tore the clothes from her body, tossed them to the floor.
He touched her, stroked her all over, kissed her everywhere his hands had been. He seemed almost delirious, as if an invisible wall had kept him from her and now that wall was gone, demolished by her insistent invitation.
His mouth closed over her nipple. She gasped, arching her back. He suckled her and she cried out at the unbelievable pleasure, like strings of fire connecting her breast with her sex. Every time he pulled on her flesh, he tugged one of those strings and she moaned again.
He moved down, away from her breasts. Perrie opened her eyes, about to protest, when he pushed her legs apart and wedged himself between them. He was staring at her there, where he’d exposed her when he yanked her panties off earlier.
She spread her legs, bending her knees to give him a better view. He let out a sigh and bent his head. And licked her, right up the center of her sex.
Perrie’s head fell back and her mouth opened on a long moan. She’d heard of this, of course, but had never experienced it. Had never imagined she could experience it. It was the most amazing sensation…pure, liquid pleasure.
His hands tightened possessively around her thighs, his thumbs spreading her for his teasing licks. An animal growl emerged from his throat. Did he like what he was doing to her? She hoped so, because she only wanted what pleased her master.
Raphael’s tongue became more insistent, probing the entrance to her sheath. Perrie tensed. She couldn’t help it. No-one had ever—nothing had never—she wanted—
He found an extra-sensitive spot and caressed it, kissed it mercilessly until she exploded with nearly unbearable delight. Her body shook and her voice—she gave cry after high-pitched cry as her fingers dug into the covers beneath her.
When it was over, she gazed at him in a haze of pleasure, her body still quivering with the aftershocks. He crawled up the bed on hands and knees, his eyes heavy-lidded and smoky. A smile played around his lips. He looked very pleased with himself.
“You liked that,” he said.
“Of course I did.”
“I wasn’t sure you would.”
She reached for his jacket. “May I touch you, master?”
He frowned. “Of course you may.”
His vampire speed and coordination allowed him to undress more quickly than anyone she’d ever known, and in another instant he was naked.
Perrie smoothed her hands over the bare, warm skin of his shoulders, his chest. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to him. He tilted his head back with a sigh. He liked it, then.
She tried sucking his nipple the way he’d done to hers. He drew a sharp breath. Staring down at her, he cradled her head against his body while she continued to tease him there. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was surprised by what she did to him.
But that couldn’t be true. Probably hundreds of women had done the very same thing.
“I need to be inside you,” he growled.
“Yes,” she said, smiling.
He pushed her onto her back and positioned himself over her. She spread her legs wide. Soon he would be her master in every way.
His cock probed her entrance. “You’re so wet,” he murmured.
“That’s because I want you so much. And also you’ve been licking me.”
He gave a muffled laugh. “Yes, I have.”
His hips rocked against her. His cock pushed into her body, stretching her in the most unfamiliar but delicious way.
“Gods, you’re tight.”
Perrie rocked her hips in response. He moaned and his hips moved again, in one hard shove. His sex pierced her, forcing its way past the resistance inside her, and the sharp tearing pain in her brought a yelp from her lips.
He paused. “Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine.” She smiled up at him.
But he was frowning. “Perrie, are you…please tell me you’re not a virgin.”
“Not anymore,” she said happily. The pain was already gone.
He bent his head. “Damn, damn, damn.”
Her pleasure ebbed at his obvious distress. “Have I made you angry?”
“No. I shouldn’t have—” Now he tilted his head back, his eyes pinched shut. “Damn it. I should never have touched you this way.” He started to withdraw.
“Don’t leave me.” She clasped her legs around his waist and grabbed him by the shoulders, holding him to her.
She didn’t have enough strength to really make him stay, but her gesture must have moved him because he quivered and moaned and lowered his head to bury his face against the side of her neck.
“Please,” she said. “I need you.”
With a clumsy thrust of her hips, she tried to take him, to drive him to make love to her. He made a choked sound. His hips pushed against her, once. Twice. Perrie pushed back.
Raphael moaned. The single thrusts became a steady rhythm, driving aching delight deep into the core of her body. She held him so close, their bodies rubbing along each other, skin to skin as he moved in her.
A storm gathered in her belly, drawing tighter and tighter, small explosions hinting at a bigger one on the horizon. She gasped and panted, knowing it was almost there, almost there.
His hand slid between them and he touched her between her legs and the orgasm took her in a devastating burst of ecstasy. It flowed out from the center of her and all through her body and she screamed and dug her nails into the skin of his back.
Raphael shouted. She couldn’t understand the words he said. Perrie opened her eyes to see his face twisted up in what looked like agony. He gave another rough-voiced cry and shuddered and hot liquid flooded her.
He muttered something else in that strange language. She didn’t even recognize it, let alone understand the words. But that was all right. He was her master and he’d taken her, at last, and now she truly belonged to him.
He turned his head. His mouth descended on hers in a ravenous kiss. Perrie looped her arms around his neck, kissing him back with abandon. They were completely fused, his body in hers, joined at mouth and sex, and she wished they could stay this way forever. But all too soon he pulled away.
His lips brushed her forehead, her eyelids, the tip of her nose. “My sweet little love,” he whispered. “I’ve wanted this for so long.”
“So have I.”
He kissed her again. “I shouldn’t have touched you, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“But I wanted you to.”
“I know, love.” He sounded so sad. Why was he sad? “Remember this. Remember how good we were together.”
“I’ll always remember.”
“Promise me. Swear you won’t forget.”
“Of course I won’t.”
Raphael withdrew from her body and pulled her close against him, his fingers burying themselves in her hair. “I wish I didn’t have to let you go.”
“Yes, I do.” He drew back enough to peer at her face with sad eyes. “I’m releasing you now.”
“Wait.” She put her hand against his face. His beard stubble prickled her skin. “Don’t do it yet. Let’s just stay here like this for a while.”
“You don’t know how tempting that is. But I’m afraid if I don’t release you now, I might never do it at all. It’s time.”
Perrie’s happy mood vanished. She still felt the tingly glow of sex in her body, yet she wasn’t…at peace. She blinked into the darkness. Why wasn’t she happy anymore? What had happened? Come to think of it, why had she been so weirdly happy in the first place?
He wasn’t controlling her anymore. That must mean he’d been controlling her in the palace, and her buoyant mood was artificial. He’d put her under, made her into a slave. She’d had sex with him, for pity’s sake. Oh, God. She’d had sex with him.
She turned her head and glared at him. “You,” she said in a deadly voice. “You put me under.”
“Perrie, I had to do it.”
Her whole body began to quiver. In rage. “You made me into a simpering little boy toy. How could you do that? You made me act like a ho.”
“You never acted like a whore.”
“Yes, I did! I threw myself at you. God, I can’t believe I acted that way. I pranced around naked in front of a bunch of strangers. How could you do that to me?”
“I made you act like a normal pet to allay suspicions. It was only for a short time, only for the court. Now that we’re home, you’re back to normal.”
“This isn’t my home and it never will be.” She wrenched away from him and tucked the covers around her body to form a barrier between the two of them.
When she thought of the things she’d said and done at the imperial palace…walking around with nothing on, not one stitch! Fawning over him like he was some kind of god. Watching people having sex. That part made her body ache again and she shook her head, disgusted with herself. How could she be turned on by something so—so inappropriate?
How could she have let him screw her? She’d begged him to do it, like some little slut. Never mind the things she’d said at the palace…what about the crap that had fallen from her mouth while she was spreading her legs for him? You’ve been licking me. Ugh. She ought to staple her lips together.
At least you won’t die without knowing what sex is like.
She growled at herself as she threw her legs out of bed and wrapped the sheet around her body so she could walk around without displaying her naked self to him.
She stood up in the cocoon-like wrapping of the sheet. “No. I don’t want to talk to you.” She had to leave. Only where would she go to get away from him? Everything here belonged to him.
“I know you’re angry and I don’t blame you.”
“Wow. How enlightened of you.” Stalking across the room, she grabbed the door of his bathroom and flung it open. It hit the wall with a crash. Childish of her, but it felt good. She wished she had the nerve to break all of his fancy art objects, one by one.
He followed her, stark naked as usual. Did the man have no shame? “If you’d gone in there as your normal self, you’d still be there. You’d be used and abused by anyone and everyone who wanted you.” He took her by the shoulders and turned her around. “Look at me, Perrie.”
She refused to lift her eyes.
“Look at me.”
With her jaw clenched resentfully, she looked.
“You wouldn’t have survived the night. You’d have been degraded in all kinds of ways until you’d lost so much blood you’d have given out. Especially with your condition. I couldn’t risk it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me what you were going to do?”
His eyes were bleak with regret. “I didn’t realize how difficult you were going to be until I told you to undress and you refused.”
“So you’re making this about me again? It’s my fault that I didn’t want to do a striptease for those goons at the door?”
“No. It’s not your fault at all. We simply couldn’t afford to have a scene there. I did what I had to do.”
She could see the logic in that. But she didn’t have to like it. “I feel sick.”
“Do you need your medicine? The vest?”
“Yes. But that’s not the kind of sick I meant. It makes me queasy to think of the way I acted. You made a fool out of me. Worse. You forced me to make a fool of myself. I don’t know if I can ever look anyone in the eye again.”
His thumbs rubbed in slow circles on her shoulders. “Think of it as playing a role. Pretending. We fooled them. Doesn’t that make you feel good, to know we pulled the wool over their eyes?”
Did it? Not really. “I have to tell you, I don’t think much of your world or this empire you’re so hot to protect. What kind of society makes people go around without any clothes? All the time? Treats them like they don’t have any brains of their own? It’s not right.”
“I agree,” he said heavily.
“Yes. It’s reprehensible. I’ve long thought the way we treat our pets is wrong. I don’t argue with the convenience of keeping pets, but they should be treated with a great deal more care and respect.”
“Okay.” Was that why he’d looked so sad tonight?
“You don’t know how tempted I was, from the moment we met, to make you my pet. But I didn’t, because I hesitated to do that to you. I didn’t want to force this life on you.”
She frowned, not in anger but in bewilderment. “But then you did it anyway.”
“Yes. But only after Daranda forced my hand. I didn’t want to do it.”
“I think I said it before. I’m so confused.”
He cupped her face in his big, warm hand, the gesture oddly comforting. “I know. I am too.”
“You are? Why are you confused?”
“Because I don’t know what I want anymore.” He went to the closet and pulled out some of her clothing.
“I can do that.”
It wasn’t really a request. He could word things as nicely as he wanted, but they both knew who was actually in charge here. Everything in this place belonged to him, including the people. If he wanted to choose her clothes for her, he’d do it.
He laid his selections—a pair of black pants and a green cashmere sweater with a V-neck—over the back of one of the club chairs. “Wear this.”
“Are you going to dress me all the time?”
“Not unless you want me to.” He returned to the closet and pulled out some things of his own.
Now why did that remark of his piss her off so much? She turned her back on his nakedness, knowing she was being silly and not caring. Looking at his body made her face burn and she didn’t need the extra agitation. “I don’t know why you’d care how I look.”
“Of course I care, but I don’t want to force you. I respect you.” Rustling sounds followed as he dressed.
“You don’t respect me.”
“It seems all we do is argue.”
She turned around to face him and found him fully dressed. “Maybe that’s because you’re so totally unreasonable.”
“I’m unreasonable?” He advanced on her, glowering, and she backed up a step. “I’m trying to keep you safe and I’m getting extremely tired of telling you that.”
“You wouldn’t need to if you’d stayed away from me. You knew how dangerous your world would be for me, but you kept coming around anyway.”
He came up short, his expression vaguely ashamed. “I know that.”
“Why did you do it, then?”
“Because I couldn’t stay away.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending. She understood the words, but they didn’t make sense. Did he really mean he couldn’t resist her?
He had sex with you. What do you think?
“No-one’s ever felt that way about me before,” she said.
“I’ll bet they did.”
“No.” Perrie shook her head for emphasis.
“You probably never gave them a chance.”
“Yes, I did! Don’t you think I wanted to be pretty, to be liked?”
“I can’t pretend to know what you wanted. I only know that, while you were friendly enough with me, I never got the sense until tonight that you were attracted to me. But you are.”
She blushed. “You shouldn’t say that.”
“Why not? It’s true. Can you deny that you enjoyed what we did?”
“You’re so full of yourself.”
He grinned. “Maybe I am.”
She didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. Her attraction toward him was not something she wanted to discuss, especially after throwing herself at him and practically insisting he have sex with her. She’d rather talk about the empire and their sickening ways.
“I can’t stay with you,” she said. “Not even to be safe.”
His brows came down, like thunderclouds threatening an explosion of lightning bolts. “Yes, you can.”
“I can’t. I hate your world. I hate that you made me take my clothes off. Like I asked you before, what kind of world is this? If you had a daughter, would you want her to be part of it? Or a sister?”
His chin came up. “That’s irrelevant. I have no daughters or sisters.”
“Not even one sister?”
“Brothers?” Didn’t he have a family? Besides those parents he’d told her about and whose existence she was beginning to doubt.
He shook his head impatiently. “No. What difference does it make?”
“I don’t know, I just—never mind. My point is that it’s indecent. Do you know what I saw in that room? People were having sex out in the open! Right in front of everyone else, Raphael.”
“I’m aware,” he said dryly. “That’s what they wanted me to do with you.”
And he’d stopped them. But not for her sake—he’d only been concerned with his own dignity. “Do you expect me to thank you for your restraint?”
“A little friendly acknowledgment might be nice.”
“I’m not thanking you for anything that happened—or didn’t happen—tonight. It makes me sick the way I hung all over you and called you master. Master? Really? I mean, come on!”
“That’s why I told you not to do it.”
“You let me do it the whole time we were in the palace.”
“Yes, for appearance’s sake. At home, I’m not your master.”
She shook her head, still glaring at him. “You’re such a sweet talker.”
“I’m trying, but it’s new territory for me.”
“Now that I believe.”
He took both her hands, the same way he had earlier when he’d proposed the transformation to her. Oh, no, not again.
His gray eyes were so sincere that she could hardly meet his gaze. “Perrie, please let me make you one of us. You won’t regret it.”
“Don’t ask me again. I don’t want to hear it.”
“But it would save you.”
“I can’t believe you would dare to ask me that question after what happened tonight. You want me to be a part of that? Public orgies and—and that bitch on the throne? That Daranda? How can you support her? She’s evil. Evil, Raphael.”
His gaze dropped, the heavy fringes of his lashes hiding his eyes from her. “She is…not the leader I once thought her to be, that’s true.”
“So why do you stay?”
“Because there’s no alternative.”
“There’s always an alternative.”
He glared at her with narrowed eyes. “Oh, really, little girl? And how would you know that? You’re all of what? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? How much experience in world leadership do you have?”
She pulled away from his blistering scorn and he dropped her hands. “You’re right. I have no experience.”
“It’s good of you to admit it.”
“You’re such a sarcastic asshole sometimes.”
He made a sarcastic bow. “Thank you.”
“God, I can’t talk to you! I want out of here. I want to go home.”
Her jaw worked back and forth as she tried to master her sudden rage. “You don’t care about me. You just want to control me.”
“It doesn’t matter what you say to me. You still can’t go home.”
“I’ve already explained it to you multiple times.”
“I’m dying. If she kidnaps me, I’ll die faster. So what?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know what Daranda is capable of.”
She pounced on that. “And you do. So why are you pestering me to join you in your twisted little world?”
“You know nothing about it.”
“I know enough just from what I saw tonight. Look at yourself. Look at the people around you. Do you really believe this stuff is right? You really think it’s okay? I know there’s some good in you, Raphael, and I have a hard time believing that you can overlook the nastiness of this life you’re leading.” At least, she hoped that was true.
“Daranda saved my life. I owe her my loyalty.”
“How did she do that?”
His chest lifted in a deep breath. “I was in prison. A very long time ago. A terrible prison where there was…torture and…other things. She found me, took me out. Offered me the transformation. Without her, I might have died there.”
Raphael had been in prison? An uncomfortable trickle of guilt worked its icy way down into her belly. Maybe he did know something about helplessness, then. Maybe she’d been unfair to him. But, still…Daranda selflessly rescuing him? No way.
“She doesn’t strike me,” Perrie said, “as the kind of person who would do something like that unless it served some purpose of her own.”
He shook his head. “She was trying to help.”
“Was she? Are you sure of that?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re just trying to rattle my cage.”
“I’m trying to get you to look at your life with some honesty.”
“You overstep yourself, little girl.” He sounded as icy as his empress.
“Calling me names won’t change anything. You know you’re involved with a bunch of sickos and you just don’t want to admit it.”
He stared at her, his nostrils flaring, his eyes dark and furious. His mouth opened but he didn’t say anything. He lifted a hand, as if to emphasize a point, but still he didn’t say anything. Then he spun on his heel and stalked from the room.
Perrie slumped into the nearest club chair and put her head in her hands. What a mess this was. She didn’t know why she pushed him, except he made her so helplessly angry sometimes. His rigid refusal to let her go home, his insistence that he was protecting her when he was the one who’d endangered her in the first place…it was all too much sometimes.
She had to get out of here. Go home.
She felt ill, and not just because of shame. Her stomach was queasy, her head fuzzy. She was too hot. She’d probably come down with some kind of virus. Great, just what she needed.
In the end, though, it didn’t really matter. A cold would slow her down, but she wasn’t going to let it stop her from trying to leave.
Would Daranda really bother tracking her to another state? She could stay with friends of the family or relatives, like she’d suggested to him. Heck, she could rent some place all by herself for a while, and only come back when she knew she was near the end. Because by that time, she doubted she’d care what was happening to her body and besides, Daranda wouldn’t find it very entertaining to torture and humiliate a woman who was barely alive anyway.
If she could just find a way to leave, if she could get to her mom’s place, she could be on her way before Raphael even knew what was going on. Did they watch her during the day? She hadn’t thought until now to check.
Raphael wouldn’t be that careless. Would he?
Probably not. But he might, if he thought having her in the bed with him was enough of a control. And if he believed his mental control over her prevented her from attempting an escape. It was worth a try, at least, to wait until he was deeply asleep and then see if she could get out of the palace.
Sometimes it seemed there was no privacy at all in Niko and Laila’s compound, even in their private rooms. Especially when Laila followed Niko up there with a zealous glint in her eye he knew only too well. She wanted something, and it was something he wouldn’t like. Niko leaned against the window ledge of their cozy bedroom and crossed his arms over his chest, preparing for a fight as his petite wife bore down on him.
She wore the footless tights and leotard reserved for her dance practice, so she must have come here directly from her studio. Her curly, dark hair was drawn up in a messy ponytail on the top of her head, but the charming pouf of wayward curls it created failed to soften the granite in her gaze. She meant business tonight.
He bit back a sigh. “How was your dancing?”
“Fine. I want to talk to you about something.”
I know. “Ah? What is it?”
She stopped a few paces away from him, drawing herself up to the full extent of her extremely modest height and lifting her chin. “Ravki.”
“Ah, no, Little Bird. Let’s not go over that again.”
Laila advanced on him. “Why not? Will you put it off forever?”
Yes, if possible. “No, of course not.”
“Then let’s talk about it now.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. He refuses to see us. What can be done?”
She heaved an exasperated sigh. “I’m not sure, but I know we should do whatever is necessary.”
“Why? He despises us.”
Every time he heard his son’s name, it brought back those years he was missing and the devastation of finding out later that he’d joined with Daranda. That he rejected them entirely. Niko couldn’t think of Ravki without seeing Laila crumpling in despair over the hatred her son had spewed at her. The boy hadn’t even bothered to say those terrible things to her face. He’d written a letter.
“Niko, Daranda lied to him. She must have. Someone had to put the idea we abandoned him into his head. If it wasn’t her, then who? Anyway, the point is that he needs to know the truth.”
“Yes, and we already explained matters to him,” Niko said, struggling to hold onto his patience. “He refused to listen.”
“So we tell him again.”
“How many times will be enough for you? How many times must we beg for his attention? He reviled us, Laila.”
“And I know how much that hurts you.”
Niko made an impatient gesture. “It’s not about how much it hurts me.”
“Isn’t it?” She cocked her head, her dark eyes going soft. “You love him so much. I know you do, even if you won’t admit it. But you have to get over your hurt feelings if we’re to save him.”
He resisted the urge to close his eyes in frustration. “My hurt feelings are not the point.”
“Then what is?”
“The things he said about you. The way he hurt you. I remember, even if you don’t. I remember how afraid I was for you. I never want to see that again.”
She took another step closer and reached for his hand. Her touch still excited him, soothed him; she still felt like home after all these millennia. He twined his fingers through hers.
“You’re protecting me.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll always protect you.”
She offered him a gentle smile. His little bird. “I don’t need your protection this time, love. It’s Ravki who needs it, not me.”
“Ravki? He doesn’t want anything to do with us. He loves that monster on the throne.”
“Does he? Maybe he simply believes there’s nowhere else for him to go.”
Niko shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“He’s an intelligent man. Surely he could think of a way to leave if he really wanted to. Obsidian did. Jared and Rebecca did. Many have left the Dark Empire.”
“It’s different for Ravki. He’s Raphael Black, the seer. Someone like that can’t just walk away whenever he feels like it.”
Was she really making excuses for him? “Laila, don’t rationalize his behavior. He’s spent the last few thousand years committing heinous acts in Daranda’s name. He’s had plenty of time to think about the consequences of his behavior, to understand the evil he’s doing. Yet he continues to do it.”
“Yes, but it’s easy to stand outside the situation and pass judgment. We’re not him. We’re not in his place. What do we know about the pressures on him?”
“That’s no excuse.”
She dropped his hand. “Sometimes I think you’re trying to punish him by refusing to speak to him.”
Niko bit back a growl. “This is not about punishment.”
“No,” he snapped.
“You’ve always been so proud.” Her voice, too, held the snap of irritation.
“I’m proud?” Niko said. “What about Ravki? He’s too proud to listen to reason. I’ve tried with him, Laila. But he won’t hear me. I don’t know how to reach him if he won’t even listen to what I have to say.”
Laila reached up to free her hair. The black curls tumbled down around her shoulders, distracting him for a moment. He’d always loved those curls.
“He’s afraid,” she said.
Niko snorted. “Of what? He’s the second most powerful person in the Dark Empire. He has nothing to fear.”
“Yes, he does. Rejection. Hatred. Loneliness. He’s still a person, Niko.”
“Darling, you’re too generous for your own good.”
Laila scowled at him. “He’s my son. For years…no, for centuries, I listened to your advice. Leave the boy alone. He doesn’t want us. He’s made his choice. But I don’t believe that anymore. I believe he needs us, desperately. He needs someone to help him understand what really happened to him.”
Niko crossed his arms again. She just wouldn’t give this up; he should have known she’d keep after him about it, since she’d had contact, however brief, with Ravki a few weeks before. That small glimpse of the son she’d lost must have renewed her determination to save the boy.
“I don’t know what makes you think we’re the ones to help him with that,” he said. “We’re the last people he’d listen to.”
“He spoke politely to us. That’s progress. We can build on that.”
Niko shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t want to think so!” She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. “You’d rather sit here with your pride intact and stew in your resentment than risk looking vulnerable to him.”
His eyes narrowed in anger. “That is not true.”
“Yes, it is. You want all the reconciliation to come from him. You don’t want to offer anything yourself.”
Gods, that was so unfair. “I already offered. He refused.”
“So offer again. If you won’t, I will.”
Niko grasped her delicate shoulders. “You will not go to that tomb he calls a palace by yourself.”
“Of course not. I’d have to have one of the Amaki take me.”
He glowered down at her. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. You don’t go there without me.”
Laila sighed again, looking up at him with that certain expression she wore when she was trying to manage him. “Darling, I’ll do whatever I have to do to save our son. I’m not going to sit on my hands anymore.”
She would, too. This was the woman who’d gone straight to the Dark with her petition when she’d decided she wanted to become a vampire, instead of working with an already established vampire the way everyone else did. Unless he wanted to imprison her for her own protection, he had to face the fact she was going to find a way to reach Ravki, with or without Niko’s approval.
He groaned. “Gods of old. All right, I’ll go and see him again. Not that I think it’ll do any good.”
She put her arms around him, rising on her toes to kiss his mouth. “We’re wearing him down. You’ll see. Eventually he’ll come back to us.”
He was moderately less repulsive than the last time Daranda had seen him, but he still made her skin crawl. Fifteen years had passed while Ravki, son of Niko, had rotted in the royal Atlantean prison, refusing to speak, refusing to be broken. Until finally he’d begged—for mercy, for death.
Even then, she hadn’t freed him immediately. She’d given him a few more years to stew in his despair until she swept in like a merciful goddess—that image always made her smile—and rescued him. It had been one of the most difficult things she’d ever done, entering the noisome pit they called a cell, touching him. With her own hands, she’d touched him. It had taken her a full hour of scrubbing to feel clean again.
Her people had soaked him, scraped the filth off his hide, cut off the tangled rat’s nest of his hair and beard, given him clean clothing to wear. But looking at him still made her feel as if something slimy crawled across her flesh.
He looked up at her with silver eyes full of adoration. Poor boy, he loved her. Just as she’d designed him to do. Daranda extended her hand to him, where he knelt on the floor at her feet, and he leaned forward to kiss her ring.
“Your Majesty,” he said in reverent tones.
“Ravki. Are you fully prepared to take this step? Once taken, it cannot be reversed.”
He bent his head again and kissed her, this time pressing his lips to the back of her hand. Daranda just stopped herself from yanking her hand out of his grasp.
“I am ready, Your Majesty.”
“Then come and sit beside me, and we’ll begin.”
When he lifted his head again, his eyes were blazing with excitement, perhaps even triumph, as well as love. He rose to his feet, still clumsy from his long confinement, and took a seat beside her on the couch. His fingers tapped restlessly on his linen-clad knees.
“What would you have me do now, Your Majesty?”
“Simply hold still and submit. I’ll take care of the rest.”
He gazed at her with near-worship in his eyes. What would he think of her if he knew she was the one who’d consigned him to that awful, stinking place? That she was the one responsible for his two decades of torture and abandonment?
He ought to thank me for it.
Although he smelled pleasantly of sandalwood, Daranda imagined she could still detect the prison stench on his skin. She kept the disgust off her face as she turned to him, leaning against him and stroking the side of his neck.
“Bend to the side for me, Ravki,” she said in a deliberately seductive voice. “You must make room for my bite.”
He tilted his head obediently to the side. He was so willing, so eager to do anything she asked of him. She couldn’t have imagined a better outcome to her project.
She licked the skin on the side of his neck. He was warm and smooth, and the blood coursed temptingly near the surface, begging her to taste. Even so, she hesitated as images of him scabby and reeking in a lightless cell came to her mind.
Do it. The project can’t be completed until you do.
She felt almost as queasy about directly touching his mind, yet she didn’t want to transform him without putting him under first. It could lead to a physical struggle in which he was likely to be injured. Besides, the pain might destroy his trust in her and that would never do. So she cast about for sexual images powerful enough to overcome her natural revulsion toward him.
She’d beaten a man recently and found it highly satisfying, especially since he’d serviced her after his punishment. The memory of him twitching and moaning under her lash made her hot and wet between her legs, and she almost sent both the sensation and the image into Ravki’s mind.
No. That one wouldn’t work. It was too much like what he’d known in prison. She thought a little more. Most of her favorite images involved pain, at least for her partner. Or dominance. A picture popped into her mind of Alsek holding a struggling slave girl face down while he fucked her from behind. Yes, that could work. She gave Ravki the image.
A thin but surprisingly strong arm slid around her waist as he moaned in response. She called forth her fangs and struck him, noting that the satisfaction of his skin’s slight resistance followed by the thrill of fang penetrating flesh was as strong as with any of her donors. Odd. She’d expected to be made ill by him.
Daranda withdrew her fangs and began to take his blood. His narrow hips moved in a primal rhythm as she swallowed mouthful after mouthful of his lifeblood. He tasted shockingly good, better than any human. She could have stayed here with him, drinking him forever.
Her arm slipped around his chest and beneath his armpit, without her conscious intention. She hadn’t meant to embrace him. She hadn’t meant to rub her body over his, either, nor to moan against his throat as she sucked the strength from his body.
Deep in her sex, she ached for him. She trembled for him. If she could only pull away and dismiss him, this disturbing encounter would be over. But she must go on. She had to complete his transformation or all her effort up till this point would be wasted.
She continued drinking long past the point where she was satisfied, until she thought she couldn’t hold one more drop. She kept going while he moaned and sighed beneath her, until his skin grew cold and clammy and his hips stopped moving, until he thrashed in her embrace in a moment of dying panic.
“Hush,” Daranda crooned. “It’s all right. You’re safe with me.”
He quieted in her arms, leaning his head against hers. For an instant, the tenderness she used to feel whenever she transformed a new vampire came over her. That hadn’t happened in many a long year. But it passed quickly as she glanced down at his shaved head and remembered where he’d been, how he’d looked and smelled.
Quickly she used her fangs to slash her wrist so the blood welled freely. She pressed the oozing wound to his mouth and urged him to drink. Thank the gods the deed was almost done. After this, she’d never touch Ravki again.
Present day Jefferson, Pennsylvania:
Raphael charged up the palace stairs and out into the dark alley, his body trembling with suppressed rage at the things Perrie had said. He wanted to punch something. Not Perrie. He would never hurt her, even if she did drive him to madness. But the situation seemed so hopeless, so completely beyond his control, that it made him want to howl.
She dared to call his colleagues, his empress, sickos. It isn’t as if you’ve never had the same thought yourself.
Perhaps he had. But he knew—he was part of it—the situation was far more complex than she could understand. It was easy for a young person with little life experience to be idealistic in her naiveté. Easy for her to criticize the empire when she wasn’t a part of it, didn’t belong there. She had no idea what it meant to be vampire.
Yes, there were things he’d done in which he took no pride. You mean things that make you want to hide from shame.
Yes, he sometimes wished he didn’t have to engage in distasteful activities such as spying and condemning people to torture and death, even if they were criminals. But the empire always came first. Did she think he would walk away from it?
He couldn’t do that. The empire had consumed his entire life, had defined him in the most essential way for so long he could barely remember who he’d been before joining.
There was no empire when you joined.
Even more to the point. He’d been the one man who’d done as much to build and shape the empire as Daranda herself. Giving it up would be like cutting off a piece of his body. And Daranda needed him, even if she didn’t always seem to know it. She understood him. She’d saved him from the horrors of a lonely, painful, and degrading death.
He stopped walking. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t paid much attention to where he was going, and now he stood on a barely familiar corner, staring abstractedly at the opposite side of the street. There was an old-fashioned pharmacy on the corner, closed and dark. The cold, spring air smelled like car exhaust and rain and flowers.
Had Daranda really saved him?
Ever since he’d discovered that she’d lied to him about Garek, he’d wondered what other lies she’d told. But he hadn’t investigated. He’d assured himself he was much too busy to dig up garbage from thousands of years ago, acts that really had nothing to do with his life today.
Perrie’s furious voice insisting that he’d given his life to a worthless society of “sickos” mocked him. It wasn’t true. The work he did was essential, and if Daranda hadn’t saved him, he would never have been here to do it.
He would prove that what the empress had told him was true. At least, he’d prove it to himself. Even if Perrie didn’t believe his findings, he would know and that would be enough. Raphael turned around and went home.
Normally, he’d use his personal scrying chamber for such a session, but that would mean going through his bedroom. Perrie was there. He didn’t want to see her.
Really, Black? You’re avoiding your rooms because of a woman.
Pathetic, but true. He’d use the Communal Scrying Chamber instead.
The under-seers were all in there, sitting silently with their crystals. Raphael stormed through the chamber door, startling most of them into dropping their crystals. One of them screeched. They all stared at him with wide eyes, their faces drained of their usual color.
“I need this room. Get out,” he said.
Without a word, they gathered their stones and scrambled to leave. None of them looked him in the eye as they filed past him and out of the room. He felt an annoying twinge of guilt as they left, looking as fearful as he’d ever seen them.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so harsh. It had gotten the job done, however, and that was what really mattered.
He went to the box he kept especially for use in this room and withdrew the crystal inside. Then he took a seat on a cushion in the center of the room and settled in to scry.
In this room, he didn’t have all his usual equipment, the things he used and the altar on which he placed them when performing his chants to the Dark, the patron deity of all vampires. They were in his personal scrying chamber, which was only accessed through his bedroom. Perrie was there.
Gods of old, he’d fallen low, avoiding his own quarters because he’d quarreled with a woman. Had that ever happened before? He couldn’t remember a time when it had.
At the moment, he’d have to make do with the items in the Communal Chamber, because he wasn’t going back in his room. He couldn’t look at Perrie right now. The gods only knew what kind of idiocy would fly out of his mouth if he did.
He got up and fetched a candle from a long, narrow table on one side of the room. Lit candle in hand, he turned off the electric lights and settled back on the floor to do his chants.
It took him longer than usual to get his mind settled and in the proper place for visionary work, and when he finally did, he spent a long, uncharted while simply floating in the darkness of the astral.
I’m wasting time. Stalling.
Right. He focused his mind on the time he’d spent in that prison. The memories were buried under thousands of years of other memories, happier times, more pleasing recollections. They seemed reluctant to move aside and give him access to the long-gone time of his incarceration.
They’d had him in a cell with no windows. Of course, no windows. They’d known he was half-vampire already, even though he hadn’t taken the transformation. His vampire heritage was why they’d taken him in the first place, that and his connections with Niko, Laila, and Garek. They’d wanted to know all about his Amaki friends.
Gradually, the cell seemed to form around him. He could smell the stench of piss and shit and ancient mold, hear the monotonous drip of water and the low murmur of voices. Somewhere, a man screamed.
Poor bastard. Ravki was only glad he wasn’t the one currently shrieking his agony to anyone who would listen.
Someone stood on the other side of the door to his cell. A woman. In his true memory, he couldn’t see her face and didn’t know her name. But in this vision, he knew her as Daranda, queen of the Atlantean vampires. In this vision, he could see her face quite clearly.
Her lip curled as she gazed at him. In disgust or horror? He wasn’t sure. She rubbed her palms against the folds of her cloak, as if wiping them clean, although she hadn’t yet touched him.
One of the guards stood at her side. “Will you take him, then, Mistress?”
“Yes. Open the door.” Even her voice sounded strangely unpleasant, in spite of its low and sexy pitch.
The door screeched as the guard complied with her order. She picked up her skirts and the folds of her cloak, holding them close to her body as she minced into the cell. She looked like a woman stepping across a filthy street, careful not to soil her clothes or shoes. Of course, the prison was a dirty place…but not that dirty, surely.
His visionary gaze fell on the young man in the cell and recoiled. Gods of old, was that him? He barely recognized the cringing creature within as himself. The boy’s hair, matted with grease, blood and his own filth, hung down his back all the way to his knees. His beard was equally disgusting and equally long, and so wild it nearly obscured his facial features.
Despite that reeking jungle of facial hair, the emaciation in his features was obvious. He’d been starving for a very long time. The rags he wore hardly covered his rangy frame and clearly showed the boniness of him. He looked like a famine victim or a prisoner in a concentration camp.
Bruises marred his face, distorted his lips. His forearms were nothing but a mass of oozing, bloody flesh where the torturers had removed his skin.
He’d forgotten. No, not forgotten…put the memory, the images, away in a tightly lidded box and refused to look at them. Once he’d been freed, he’d never wanted to revisit this place of horror, not even in his mind.
Yet, here he was.
I’m not here to relive the torture but to find out what Daranda was doing.
He removed his attention from his pathetic former self and directed it toward the vampire queen. She was staring at Ravki as if he were the most loathsome piece of filth ever to offend her sensibilities.
Was that how it had been? He didn’t remember it that way at all. He remembered her coming to him, smelling of flowers and beauty, her voice kind, her touch soft. He remembered her reassuring him, helping him walk from the cell, even carrying him when he couldn’t make it on his own. But the visions didn’t lie. She was looking at him as if she hated him.
The chill that stole through him nearly jolted him out of the vision. She hadn’t hated him. She’d rescued him. But the visions didn’t lie.
Daranda bent over and held her hand above Ravki’s head, as if hesitating to put her skin against his filthy hair. After a pause, she lowered her hand to his head and spoke to him in the low, gentle tones Raphael remembered. But once her words stopped, her face changed again, returning to that look of disgust.
He flinched at the hostility in her eyes and lost contact with the memory. For an instant, his field of vision turned black and he floated in nothingness. Then he was in the Communal Scrying Chamber again, staring at the single candle flame.
He blinked. Frowned. That couldn’t have been right. He must have missed something. Perhaps he misinterpreted her facial expression. But the visions didn’t lie.
Raphael rubbed his forehead. The candle had lost half its height while he’d been in the astral. He’d gotten chilled from sitting still so long, and his muscles and joints felt stiffer than usual.
No more scrying for tonight. He needed time to process what he’d seen.
Could Perrie be correct? Maybe Daranda hadn’t been the compassionate rescuer he’d thought her. No, no that couldn’t be true. There had to be more to it, something he couldn’t see. Hadn’t seen yet. He’d keep looking.
Are you sure you want to know?
He wasn’t sure at all. But now that he’d seen a little, he needed to get the rest or it would haunt him forever.
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