Authors: Regan Summers
© 2014 by Regan Summers
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for the readers.
like I’d been swallowed by a dry-mouthed python that had shed its last skin only to emerge an eye-searing shade of fuchsia. I turned one last time to check in the bathroom mirror that my strapless bra wasn’t showing. It wasn’t, which meant that, after the hour I’d spent wriggling into this floor-length monstrosity of a dress and applying makeup, I had nothing left to do. Nothing but face the inevitable. My shoulders slumped. I sank down onto the closed toilet seat and dropped my head into my hands.
“What are you doing?” Malcolm asked from the doorway.
“Thinking about pink snakes.”
“Is that a euphemism for something dirty and…wretched?”
“Wretched, yes. Dirty, no.” I raised my head.
The candlelight in the bedroom behind him warmed the auburn undertones in his dark hair. He was about a month overdue for a haircut—why vampire hair kept growing while the rest of their bodies simply maintained, I’d never understand—which made him look deliciously unruly. Suits might do it for some girls but I’d never rolled that way. I was starting to get the appeal of tailored black lines and a crisp white shirt, especially when they were stretched around his broad shoulders. At least he wasn’t decked out in one of the god-awful costumes he’d been forced to wear before big, bad Bronson returned to Santiago, when Malcolm was running things in the master vampire’s stead.
If hooking up with a vampire on the sly was occasionally awkward, being with
authority figure for the region’s undead population had been downright uncomfortable. Things were better now. He was no longer surrounded by a buzz of secretaries, messengers, and soldiers whose loyalty barely belonged with him and decidedly did not extend to me. He’d only handed the reins back to Bronson a couple weeks ago, but the Master had shut him out almost immediately. Rather than trying to drum up support with the influence he’d gained, Mal had walked away. Power was vital to vampires, and it had been a startling relief to see him do it. It was one thing to tell yourself the vampire you were with was different than all the others—feeders and fawners did it a dozen times a day. It was something else to be more proud of him than I’d ever been of a man in my life.
Which made tonight’s reentry into the vampire world even tougher.
“That is one hell of a suit,” I said. “How about we skip this thing so that I can get a better look at it? You know, admire the lining and stitching and whatnot? Maybe go inspect the factory where the cloth was woven.”
“The options are attendance or…attendance.” He finally noticed what I was wearing. Lines formed between his dark brows and his lips pursed. “Stand up.”
I shimmied so that the gown fell to hide the boots I wore beneath it. I’d shoved the fancy box bearing patent leather pumps with ninety-inch heels under the bed. Hopefully master vampires didn’t require stilettos on the feet of those who attended them. That’s what the invitation I’d received had said. That I was invited to
Master Bronson during his Welcome Back party, which was already underway downstairs. Of course, the invitation was mandatory, but I had no idea what the “attending” might consist of. Hopefully it wasn’t anything more than a stiff drink and bad small talk. Hopefully I wasn’t the stiff drink.
“Nervous?” Malcolm asked. He leaned against the doorjamb and dropped his hands into his pants pockets. I swirled black eyeliner around my eyes, and then over my forehead and up to my hairline. Why make myself up if I couldn’t add a little distraction to the design? The flickering candles, stretched out beneath the mirror, made the lines look like they were swimming.
“Shouldn’t I be?” I asked, hoping for a reassuring
This is only a formality, like shaking hands with the families at a wedding
, or a more reassuring
Let’s get the hell out of here and, oh, by the way, you never have to be around another vampire except me ever again
Instead he said, “Yes. He’s…fickle.” His tone implied he’d wanted to use a different
word. “The good news is that he has a hundred people to talk to tonight and we have a flight to catch.”
Ah, yes, the other unpleasant thing I had to look forward to. We were going back to the United States—yay!—to track down a homicidal sucker with a malevolent hard-on for me and Mal—boo!
Mal straightened and his hand rose toward me before he redirected it, smoothing his narrow black tie. He gestured me past and I skimmed the wall to avoid touching him. We were avoiding contact, due to something about scents and offending Bronson. The whole idea of vampires smelling my extracurricular activities was repulsive. The idea that it would bother someone powerful was also not comfortable. And not being able to touch Malcolm made me want to jump him. Twice.
His eyes were half-lidded as he watched me, gold smoke rising from the depths and bursting in a warm flash that, if I hadn’t known better, I might have mistaken it for a trick of the light. Vampire eyes glowed when they were angry or otherwise passionate, and Mal definitely wasn’t angry. My body sped up its countdown of restraint, then threw the clock on the floor and stomped on it.
“It’s inconsiderate of you to look at me like that when you know I can’t touch you,” he said.
“Like what?” I peered through my lashes and licked my lips as I passed him. He made a low growly sound, and I slipped through the doorway as a thrill skittered through me. It was a heady thing, knowing I could inspire a reaction from him, that sometimes with no thought at all, I could claim all his attention.
Malcolm had lived over a hundred years, surviving stronger and crueler vampires, by controlling situations while slyly making them think they were in charge. Which was why I wanted to make him lose control so badly that it was going beyond a fanciful wish and veering into bad habit territory.
And then I remembered where we were and pulled myself together. El Arquero. The premier blood lounge in Santiago, Chile, and Master Bronson’s current headquarters. It was like a modern art gallery that vampires happened to live above—impeccable, impersonal, and cold. The cold was generated by the vampires themselves, by the twisted current of energy that quickened their undead bodies and minds. The decorating was probably the result of someone who sported a permanent scowl and non-ironic beret and didn’t like “messy” things like colors or nature or bean bags.
Wall sconces lit the wide hallway, and the tall white candles tried in vain to warm the blue-gray carpet and matte charcoal walls. While some of the staff at El Arquero knew that Malcolm and I were together, I was human and therefore generally beneath their notice. Tonight, people would be paying attention, which meant that the gelled faux hawk and black-lined pink-and-purple fish-scale makeup wasn’t just for show. It was my disguise, distracting the eye and distorting the appearance of my bone structure, hopefully enough that the vampires who saw me wouldn’t be able to identify me out of costume. I’d also cocktailed up some essential oils to hide my real scent, which was why I smelled like a lemongrass plant that had made sweet, sweet love to a cinnamon stick.
“You’re beautiful,” Malcolm said.
“You like the dress?”
thing I’d like to set on fire if I didn’t think the flames would blind me.” He smiled from the other side of the hallway, his dimple making an adorable appearance while his whiskey-brown eyes lightened again. “I noticed you went with the unscuffed and barely bloody boots tonight. An elegant choice.”
“Nothing says haute couture like lug soles.” We descended through a stairwell, our voices echoing slightly. “Is this going to be awful?”
“Hundreds of upper-echelon vampires assembled to flatter and curry favor with the Master? What could possibly be awful about that?” His tone was light, but tension streamed out of him.
He didn’t patronize me with reminders not to look other vampires in the eye or reveal personal details. I’d spent years couriering for them so I knew how to avoid the usual pitfall: spilling information that they could use to bait or coerce me into service. And we were trying out a new kind of relationship, one in which we trusted each other. No withholding, no doubting. Of course, nobody had kicked the door down and tried to kill us recently, so the arrangement wasn’t yet battle tested.
In the past few months I’d also learned to hide the fact that I couldn’t be influenced. Vampire glamour was a powerful and insidious thing, and resistance to it was rare enough that vampires—curious, brutal bunnies that they were—would be intrigued by my immunity. It was a pain in the ass since suckers habitually influenced humans. Like, over everything. The club’s cleaning crew kept
me to let them take my trash. As if I was going to fight to keep garbage. So then I had to act all twinkle-eyed and make like them extracting my refuse was, oh gosh, the best thing ever! I did, though, because the last thing I wanted was more sucker attention. Or overflowing trash cans.
We reached a door and Malcolm paused, his hand on the handle. From the other side came the sounds of low, live jazz, laughter and conversation, and clinking glass. Beneath that pulsed a subliminal roar of vampire energy—cold, turbulent, and aggressive. Malcolm’s gaze dipped to my throat and his expression hardened. A shadowy ripple moved through him.
Every vampire had their own special skills that warped the limited rules of humanity. Mal’s premier talent was being able to pass as human. So long as he kept the foxfire glow in his eyes to a minimum, humans didn’t get the heebie-jeebies around him. I hadn’t known right away, despite my sensitivity.
He blurred in my vision and, in the instant it took me to blink, he became a little taller, a little broader in the shoulders and thighs. And his face…gone were the dark patches beneath his eyes and the shallow laugh lines. His features were more prominent—the straight and longish nose, the flushed lips curling up at one corner. His skin was smooth, nearly translucently pale. He was perfect. Perfectly undead.
For twenty seconds I could do nothing but stare and suck air. I’d caught a sliver of the energy he’d shed, and it was enough to make my heart gallop and my blood fizz. Or maybe that was the way he was looking at me, head inclined toward mine, eyes intent—the amber center nearly glowing gold inside of a darker ring.
“I hate that I’m taking you to him,” he whispered. So much anger in so few words.
I opened my mouth to ask what our options were and he shook his head then straightened and ran his hands through his hair.
“Wait two minutes,” he murmured, giving me one last look—this one appraising—before slipping through the door. It slammed behind him, closing on the chaos of sound beyond. I counted the grains of wood to match the passage of time while my brain continued to fritz out in reaction to his transformation. When he passed as human—moving slower and suppressing that jagged vampiric power—I could almost pretend he wasn’t different and dangerous. But it wasn’t his natural state. It was the mask he wore to move more easily among my kind and to blend with me.
Time ran out and, before I could work myself into a full-on freak-out, I opened the door. I got two steps into the formally attired, jewel-encrusted, fully befanged crowd when a figure stepped in front of me. Large, broad, and imposing, he was also ugly and scowling disdainfully.
“Hey, Eladio,” I drawled. He was El Arquero’s bouncer, for lack of a better term, and a friend of Mal’s. That friendship had yet to extend to me.
“The Master will see you now,” he said through his heavy accent. Eladio was from Santiago but his English was excellent—much better than my new Spanish—when he condescended to use it. Many of the others around us were speaking Spanish, and other languages I understood even less. I recognized a few of the suckers from when I ran deliveries in Alaska. They’d migrated south with Master Bronson, waiting out the long summer days. A bout of homesickness rolled through me. I missed the jagged mountains surrounding Anchorage and the smooth silhouette of Sleeping Lady Mountain across the inlet. I missed the way the low blueberry bushes caught at my legs when I went hiking and left purple stains on my socks.
Heads swiveled as I passed and tongues darted out, dabbing at lips, tasting the air. Limbs and bodies moved in a disharmonious blend of human and vampire speed, inspiring a primitive flight reaction in my body. I didn’t have a car, didn’t have my laminate badge telling them I was a courier—protected under human law and human-vampire accords—and had no weapons on me. The dress left my arms, shoulders, and neck bare, and while a few minutes before it had only irritated me, it now made me feel exposed. That was, no doubt, intentional. As if Bronson wasn’t already miles stronger than me. I dropped my shoulders, lifted my chin, and stared at the exact center of Eladio’s back as the crowd parted around us.
The downstairs of El Arquero, the public area, was considered neutral ground to the factions in the region, though negotiations with Bronson himself were rumored to be pretty one-sided. That was the case with Malcolm. He hadn’t fulfilled a contract and ended up locked in servitude. Tortured, I reminded myself, before he was bound for two decades. I blew out a breath. Twenty years was a long time, but he was close to being released. Only two more years.
Sometimes it seemed like forever.
Eladio sidestepped briskly and I rocked to a stop in front of Master Bronson. Think of the devil and the devil appears, wearing a hip-length black leather jacket over a dark, high-necked shirt. He wasn’t the tallest guy in the room—not quite six feet—but he radiated energy like a furnace blowing cold air. After about thirty seconds, during which time the room went silent, I remembered how to breathe. Then he smiled without showing his teeth, his lower lip curving sensually, and I forgot again.
“It is good to see you, my dear,” he said. I chanced a glance at his eyes and saw nothing dishonest in his expression. If anything, he looked happy to see me. Like
happy, as if we were friends instead of the five-hundred-year-old vampire who controlled most of the natural resources of Alaska and Argentina, and his former pawn.