Authors: Lauren Dane
But she was more than a pretty shell. Blast it all she wasn’t even beautiful! Not like the ridiculous perfection of the female form she’d killed in his parking garage. It was that essential spark within her, the surety he had that there was simply no one else in the universe who was like her, that drew his attention to Rowan Summerwaite over and over.
Not just the sex, though it was extraordinary, he had to admit. If it were just the fucking, he’d do it over and over until he lost interest. No, it was the whole of her.
He enjoyed being with her. Found himself wondering what she’d think of this or that situation as he moved through his day. This was an entirely new situation for him. He had to admit that when he’d found out about the killing in the parking garage, so soon after they’d broken the rules yet again and had sex in his penthouse, he’d been knocked off balance at the clash of the different aspects of his world.
He’d felt guilty. As if he’d betrayed his people by his attraction to her. And he’d gone to her and made it all worse by hurting her when he knew he was wrong.
“If you’re going to resist resting, at least feed.” Alice strolled in.
“I did.” He waved her away but she only sent him a raised brow as she sat to watch him pace.
“Are you truly worried about what he’ll do when he arrives?”
“No. It can never be ruled out entirely, he is who he is after all. But I’m doing all I can.” He would have received permission to be in Las Vegas but his people couldn’t hunt. And, he realized, The First wouldn’t do it for fear of weakening Rowan’s position. Most likely Clive’s, as well. Vampire politics never ended.
“He’s coming here to help her. You know that.”
He nodded. “Yes, I suppose so. He feels loyalty to her. To her family. They served him for a very long time.”
“More than that. She’s captivating in her own way.”
“Doesn’t matter. She’s not a Vampire.”
Alice laughed. “She’s more than that. She has all the affectations of a Vampire. Quick. Brutal when necessary. Vicious. She is a predator with a sharp mind. And she’s a Hunter, which makes her irresistibly forbidden to you. On top of all that, she’s a human Vessel for a Goddess. I did research before we arrived here. There have only been four documented cases of this in all recorded history.”
As if he was unaware of how singular Rowan Summerwaite was. It still didn’t change anything. “What is your point? I’m aware of what she is.”
“My point is you want her and you’re trying so hard to deny it you’re going to bollocks it all up. She is, beneath all the other trappings, a woman. If you continue to pretend you aren’t interested in her you may just succeed in making her think that’s the case.”
This was not the discussion he should be having with his assistant. “If I don’t stop this killer, we’re all at risk of being exposed. For real this time.”
She raised one perfectly manicured brow at him. “Yes. We will be eventually. With cell-phone cameras and Twitter and media at your fingertips every moment of the day it’s bound to happen. Don’t avoid the subject, Clive, I’ve known you too long for this silly evasion. You need her for more than just this case.”
“The last thing the Scion needs is to be romantically associated with a Hunter. I have enough complications in my life.”
Alice waved it away as if it were inconsequential. “She’s every inch your match. No Vampire could ever be. Too complicated. Too many politics. No human can, they can’t keep up and eventually they all get crushed by their association with us. So what then? Weres? Sure if it weren’t for that whole we hate them/they hate us stuff. Other paranormal beings like Dust Devils and mages? Face it, Clive, the two of you are perfect for each other. Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it, the truth is the truth even if you pretend not to believe in it. Lastly, you’re quite strong enough to hold this seat, no matter the challenger.”
She stood. “Now if you’re sure you don’t want to feed, I’m going to advise a sleeping draught and some rest.”
If he gave up on this, she’d cease talking about Rowan. “Fine.” He held his hand out and took the mug she’d proffered and then gulped it down.
“Go on then. You’ll be notified when he arrives. China has all the preparations covered. Extra security is in place now.”
She walked out with the same brisk, efficient manner she had coming in and he headed to his bedchamber, locking the door and settling in.
Even before sleep took over he thought of Rowan as she’d been that night. Her blade in her hands, muscles coiled for action, the light of her mission seeming to glow from her skin. Magnificent and furious. It didn’t really matter that she wasn’t for him. He wanted her anyway. He’d have her anyway.
“Rowan,” David murmured as he shook her awake.
She straightened, having fallen asleep at her desk. A quick look at the clock told her she’d only been out about an hour and a half, but it had to be enough.
“He has sent a lieutenant.”
“He’s here?” She stood, alarmed. Jack was there, what if he saw The First before she got the chance to warn him? Theo could handle himself, and it was Vegas after all so strange-looking people weren’t exactly rare. But she’d rather not have that moment.
“No. He’s sent an envoy.” David shuddered. He tried to hide it but she saw it anyway.
“Don’t tell anyone, but they’re not as bad as they make people think. Especially if you’re not their quarry.” She spoke while she brushed her hair and efficiently braided it to keep it out of her face. He refrained from saying anything else but handed her a warm washcloth, which she took gratefully.
“She’s awaiting you in the formal living room. Mr. Elroy is still sleeping. What would you like me to do about that situation?”
“Keep him asleep until I’m gone at the very least. If he does awaken, strongly suggest he stay here because I need to speak with him.”
“This meeting with…The First is about Mr. Elroy?” David paled.
“It’s more than that.” She paused a moment. “Not just for him, but for the investigation.”
He nodded once. “Of course. You’re right. I’ll watch over him to keep it that way until you are gone. Is there anything else I can do for you? Do you need an escort of some kind?”
If she couldn’t handle this without an entourage or bodyguards, she wasn’t fit to hold her position.
She gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror and then looked back to David. “No, thank you. I’m fine. I’ll ring if we need anything, but I imagine I’ll be going to meet him somewhere. He’d be in there scaring people if he’d come along. He’s not really the wait-in-the-lobby sort.”
The look of amazed horror on David’s face cheered her up.
“I’ll be fine. If he was here to harm me, I’d be harmed.” True enough.
A quick bow and he left, she knew to be away from their visitor.
Nadir hadn’t changed much from the last time Rowan had seen her. Among the oldest of Theo’s staff, she was the only one of his lieutenants to ever speak in public, though they all did in private.
Nadir wasn’t her real name of course. No more than Theo was The First’s real name. But beings as old as she tended to reinvent themselves at least once every few centuries.
She turned to face Rowan as Rowan entered the room, bowing slightly, a smile marking the far corner of her mouth. “You’re tired. You know how you get when you need sleep.”
Rowan took Nadir’s outstretched hands, squeezing them, exposing the mark on her wrist. “I’d be getting more sleep if Vampires stopped killing humans. The paperwork alone steals hours a night.”
“We’re incorrigible, I’m told. Good thing you’re around to keep us in line.”
Rowan snorted. “I think you scare them more than I ever could.”
“I’ve got a few years of practice on you. He’s here, staying at Die Mitte. He’d like an audience. Can you meet with him now?”
Though it wasn’t really a request, Rowan appreciated that Nadir made it sound like one anyway. She nodded. “Of course. The honor is mine.”
Nadir paused as Rowan slid the blade home and straightened. With one long assessing look and a slow blink, she told Rowan she was pleased. It warmed her even as it shouldn’t. The feelings of Vampires shouldn’t mean a damned thing to her. But what should be was irrelevant.
“Shall I meet you there?” Cars had always made Nadir nervous, Rowan remembered that. And frankly, if Rowan could fly, she totally would.
“That would be fine. I will be waiting to escort you to him.”
Ha! Awesome. Rowan nearly laughed out loud imagining how uncomfortable all the Scion’s little toadies would be with one of The First’s lieutenants lurking about.
She’d gone over her talking points already, all she could do was make her arguments and hope he listened. She’d have to give something up, she knew that. What it might be only Theo knew.
Using the time it took to travel over to Die Mitte, Rowan centered herself, got herself together and pushed her emotions as far down as she could. It was important to remember he was a Vampire. Theo would not be swayed by passion or upset, even anger.
He’d raised her to be one of the best, and so she’d be.
Clive awoke long before the elevator doors opened to admit Alice. He’d showered and dressed, preparing himself for what would likely be a trying evening. He’d even fed. The First had most likely brought his own people and would offer some to Clive as his host, but it never behooved a body to gorge on a gift.
More importantly, it paid to be well rested and fed before one dealt with a being as powerful as The First.
Alice entered the room in her brisk, efficient way, a phone in her ear, instructions being issued in a clipped voice, her gaze taking in every detail even as she took notes on her ever-present yellow lined pad.
“Be sure to keep the hotel stocked with donors for our visitors. Yes. Of course he brought his own, that doesn’t mean we won’t extend our hospitality. Really, do not make me educate you on something you should know by now.”
Clive relaxed, finding her utter implacability comforting.
“Settle their donors on the same floor. Keep the kitchen on the eighteenth floor fully stocked and staffed. The rest of their retinue will be arriving in three hours. I expect to be hearing from you within the hour when you report all these details have been taken care of.”
Absently, she tapped the button to end the call and shook her head. “I do say, some of those boys downstairs are not terribly bright.” Alice looked him up and down before nodding smartly. “Nice choice. The chocolate in the tie brings out the green in your eyes.”
He sent her one raised brow.
“I don’t see why that observation is such a bad one. She’ll be here momentarily. Nadir will meet Rowan in the lobby and escort her to The First’s apartments.”
He paused to admire the way she managed to work in that bit about Rowan, even as she gave him pertinent information. More than his employee, she was his friend. His family in a very real sense. There were very few people he ever let this close to his life and she was one of those few.
“I do appreciate you, Alice. Thank you for the job you do. I’d be rather lost without you.”
Her laugh made him smile. “You would indeed, Clive Stewart, and so I must stay. Everything is in place. China has taken care of all the extra security. Their rooms and suites are all being prepared. We’ve got the transportation on the way to the airport now. The First will meet with the Hunter alone. You’ll be sent for when he’s ready.”
He knew he frowned, even as he told himself not to. Such a shoddy emotional mistake would get him punished if he wasn’t careful.
“Will she be alone or attended?” He knew the answer, but asked anyway. If she came with any attendants she’d be meeting with her foster father as one of his protected. But she was here as the Hunter. She’d come alone and in doing so, tell everyone she had no fear, no doubt in her own abilities to kill any one of them if threatened.
It fluttered his pulse for a brief moment.
“She’ll arrive shortly. Alone.” Alice took another phone call before turning her attention to Clive. “Imagine what it would be like to face him after all this time.”
He had thought of it.
“How many Nation Vampires will be staying in my hotel and for how long?”
Alice sniffed delicately but slid a file his way.
The large double doors slid open silently as Rowan and Nadir approached. The First’s guards were there, waiting. Recht inclined his head as she passed. He’d been good to her in his own way. Had protected her when he could.
The others looked on, a small group, most likely just part of his retinue. Theo rarely traveled, but when he did it was with no less than fifty people. Because his ability to hunt and travel around the area would be limited by whatever agreement he’d made with Hunter Corp, he’d most likely be traveling with more rather than less.
Enzo stepped toward her, taking her hands. “He’s waiting for you through here.”
He sat near the fireplace, the golden light licking over his pale skin, casting shadows on his face and against his hair. At first glance he appeared to be an older, distinguished gentleman with nice clothes and some money. He wore soft leather loafers she knew were hand-crafted in Italy. The jeans were designer of course, the sweater would be cashmere.
He’d posed himself for greatest impact and even knowing that fact didn’t dim it for her.
Longing hit, twisting in her belly as she remembered that once in her life she’d been undaunted, despite his erratic behavior, she’d trusted him. He’d been her father, even as he still remained utterly not human.
He stood, all his energy gathering and flexing around him as he did. He was beautiful to watch, powerful and graceful. Old enough that his charisma and attractiveness were a snag, even without him trying. It was impossible not to watch him when he was in the room.
She dropped her gaze, turning her wrist outward, exposing her family mark.
She’d given him that because it would have been offensive to them both to pretend her being his foster daughter wasn’t a huge part of why she had this very unusual access.
A ghost of a touch at the top of her head. He murmured in a language older than any spoken today. He’d gone off into that dreamy place he did sometimes. When he’d been overcome with nostalgia.
“Leave us.” He switched to German.
No one hesitated, they simply moved toward the doors in an orderly fashion as they’d been ordered to.
“Sit. I’ve ordered tea. Enzo will bring it soon with those little cookies you like. You’re thin.” He sniffed as if that were some deliberate thing on her part to annoy him.
She sat. “Have you rested enough?” she asked out of habit. Out of true concern. A wholly different part of herself came out in his presence. It puzzled, comforted and alarmed all at the same time.
Enzo brought in the tea and, automatically, she began to prepare and pour out. As she had three times a day from the age of four. The scent of the bergamot in his Earl Grey mixed with the cream and sugar she added. The heat rose with each circle of her spoon. One tap and she handed it to him along with the saucer.
He wore a far-off smile for a breath or two, pleasure on his features as he drew the delicate flavor of the tea in. A sip. “Perfect. You haven’t forgotten. It’s a trial, petal, to get someone who understands the subtlety of a proper cup of tea these days.”
She let her breath out and began to make her own cup of tea. “I’m sure Enzo does a fine job. He’s the one who taught me, after all.” They’d been bred to serve. Generation after generation. Tea making was only one of the things Rowan and her kin excelled at.
“Before work, I would speak to you about some things.”
She looked up, letting him have her gaze and her attention, knowing he could take her over whether she looked at him or not. She had to trust he wouldn’t.
“You left without saying good-bye, Rowan.”
Ruthlessly she shoved all her emotions away. “You had my parents executed, Theo. Good-bye seemed to be imputed when I left.”
One imperious brow rose, disgust on his face plain. “Do not waste my time by hiding your emotions. You are human, no matter that you share your consciousness with a Goddess at times, or that you are from a long line of servants to my House.”
He wanted to see emotion? Fine, she’d give him some. “I will not play for your amusement. You killed them and then you lied to me about it for nearly sixteen years. I found out and knew I could no longer give you my service willingly. And so I left. There was no need for farewells.”
“And do you think I had my beloved Augusto killed to torture you? For, as you’d say, kicks?”
When he said her father’s name, she didn’t want to hear the affection there. “I think it doesn’t matter why you decided to kill him, or my mother. The outcome is the same, is it not?”
He nodded and something that looked an awful lot like sorrow crossed his features.
“But it does matter why. To me. To you. To them. Would you like the whole of it?”
He hadn’t made her beg. This surprised her. And though she wanted it not to be true, it moved her too. Being with him left her off balance. They were both on shaky ground and that above all things was why she was there.
“Yes, I would. Please.”
His irises flared just a bit.
“You know that the Servants have rules. An ages’ old history and complicated set of rules to keep things running. Your father knew the rules. He had an intended, the woman who was supposed to bear his child and strengthen the progeny of his line.
“He met her, your mother, while accompanying me on a trip to London. She was there with the Mother Acolyte apparently and they took up an affair very quickly.”
His eyes focused on something a long time ago. Her heart beat so quickly she felt a little light-headed.
“We were there for four months and by the time we left, you were in your mother’s belly and Augusto could have left it alone. But she came to a nearby hill town and he continued to see her. They got married and still I never knew.” He laughed a moment, jagged.
“It wasn’t until you were born that I began to suspect. His scent had changed, you see.”
“Because of her?”
He focused on Rowan, blinking his surprise. “Because of you. Power has a scent. Servants from lines such as yours, well you all have a certain scent to us. Your father had grown up in my household. I knew his scent. Could have picked him out of a crowd from three miles away. Your mother didn’t change his smell. She had her own of course, but I have those with magickal abilities in my retinue.”
Enzo brought in more tea and withdrew just as quickly. Rowan poured out as she worked for calm.
“But when you were born he changed. His
changed. He was not only my protector, but biologically driven to be yours as well. His loyalties changed in a way my bond to him recognized.”