The intent, I think, was perfectly innocent. We’d been called together, the vampires of Cadogan House, for a demonstration of self-defense techniques. It wasn’t unusual that we were training—vampires were expected to be able to fend for themselves. After all, thousands of years of living beneath the human radar tended to make them a little paranoid. And Ethan and I were enjoying our own (also perfectly innocent) training sessions as I learned to wield my vampire strength.
But Ethan decided that circumstances (i.e., Celina) necessitated more training. I hadn’t been equipped to take on Celina when she’d shown up at the House a week ago to attack me. And if I, the vampire Ethan was convinced was stronger than most, couldn’t do it, he was understandably nervous about the safety of the rest of Cadogan’s 319 vampires.
So I’d made the trek from my second-floor room to the sparring room in the basement of Cadogan House. Lindsey, a fellow House guard and my bestest vampire friend, had joined me so that we could learn how to better protect ourselves from the Chicago’s brand of vampire crazy.
Of course, we hadn’t expected to get a peep show in the bargain.
“Dear God,” Lindsey breathlessly said, as we stepped into the sparring room. We stopped at the edge of the tatami mats that covered the floor, lips parted and eyes wide as we surveyed the sight before us.
Two vampires in the prime of their immortal lives moved across the floor, muscles flexing as they grappled, bare-handed, in attempts to throw the other down. They were sparring without weapons, no swords or steel, using hands and feet, elbows and knees, and the extra physical bite of being vampire.
And they were both half-naked. Both sparring barefoot and shirtless, wearing white, martial arts-style gi pants, the gleaming gold disks of their Cadogan House medals around their necks.
Lindsey’s gaze was locked onto Luc, Captain of the Cadogan House guards. Luc was a former cowboy turned vampire soldier, complete with broad shoulders, fuzzy chest and curling, sun-streaked hair that he suddenly stopped to push out of his face, muscles tensing as he moved.
And across from Luc, his opponent: Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House and the 394 year-old vampire who’d brought me into the world of the fanged—without my consent, but admittedly because my other option had been a speedy death. He stood a little over six feet, and the top half that six feet—the long, lean line of flat stomach and high pecs, the trail of blond hair that dipped down from his navel and disappeared into the waistband of his pants—glistened as he swiveled for a roundhouse kick.
Luc, I think, was supposed to be playing the attacker, but Ethan was doing a fine job of holding him off. For all the Armani suits and supermodel-good looks, Ethan was a skilled warrior. Something I’d recently been forced to remember, when I’d swung my katana at his throat a few nights ago.
As I watched him fight, goosebumps pebbled my arms. I assumed my blue irises were shifting to silver as heat began to rise through my body, the fire fanned by the sight of Ethan in motion, dipping and weaving and spinning as he faced down his opponent. I wet my lips, suddenly blood-thirsty even though I’d had convenience blood, bagged by our supplier (Blood4You) less than twenty-four hours ago. And more importantly, I’d taken blood directly from a vampire only a week ago.
He’d fed me during the final chapter of my transition to vampire, when I’d awoken with a thirst for blood so strong I would have killed to get it. But I hadn’t needed violence. Ethan had offered his wrist willingly and I’d taken full advantage, watching his eyes silver as I took the nutrition that somehow sealed my transformation to predator. To vampire.
I smoldered as I watched him, as his muscles shifted and flexed, as he moved with the slinking grace of a panther. I could have justified the warmth in my belly, called my reaction a consequence of my now fully-functioning vampire biology, the result of watching a predator in his prime, or a Novitiate’s attraction to the Master who made her.
But that didn’t do Ethan Sullivan justice. Not even close.
He was almost too handsome to be real. Blond hair framing that gorgeous face, cheekbones that New York models would pay for, eyes that shone like chips of emerald. Six feet of golden skin stretched taut over muscle, and I could attest that all six feet were equally perfect. I’d caught an accidental glimpse of Ethan mid-satisfying his former mistress, who’d betrayed him to join Celina’s band of merry evildoers.
It wasn’t hard to imagine that he was the top of whatever chain of predators we belonged to. Not when you watched the long, lean line of him moving across the room.
Not when you watched the tiny, glossy bead of sweat that was slowly—ever so slowly—traced its way down the middle of Ethan’s flat abdomen, one brick of muscle at a time, just threatening to slip into the waistband of his pants.
Ethan felt the attraction as well. He’d offered to make me his mistress even before Amber decamped to join Team Desaulniers. We’d shared a couple of kisses, but I’d managed to resist taking him up on the rest of his offers. Ethan wanted me, without doubt. And I wasn’t stupid enough to argue his attractiveness, which was undeniable.
But Ethan was also completely infuriating—slow to trust, easy to accuse—and still not entirely sure how he felt about me. Not to mention his baggage: his smug sense of superiority and his willingness to use those around him, including me, to meet political goals. There was also the fact that our last kiss had occurred less than twenty-four hours before I’d broken off my fledging relationship with Morgan Greer, the vampire who replaced Celina as Master of Navarre House once Ethan and I managed pull out a confession. I’d walked away from that kiss with fire in my blood and guilt in my heart.
Surely I could find a relationship with a better concoction of emotions. That thought in mind, rationality returning, my blood began to cool.
“It should be illegal for smug vampires to look that good,” Lindsey said, clucking her tongue.
“That is so true,” I quietly agreed, thinking a little less hotness would make my relationship with Ethan a lot simpler. I lifted my gaze away from the fighting vampires to scan the rest of the room. The balcony that ringed the sparring room was filled with vampires, men and women. The women, and a few of the men, stared at the action below them, eyes hooded, cheeks flushed, all of them enjoying the sights below.
“On the other hand, they’re the ones creating this pec-tacle.”
I slid her a glance, arching an eyebrow. “Pec-tacle?”
“You know, like spectacle,” she paused to point at her breasts, “but with more dude nipples. Do you disagree?”
I returned my gaze to the Master vampire who was currently leaning over to pick up a bokken, a wooden practice weapon, from the mat. Muscles clenched and tensed as he moved, nipples pert on his muscular chest.
“Far be it from me to disagree,” I said. “They have created quite a pec-tacle. And when they put it out there like that, they can hardly expect us not to look.”
Lindsey gave me a nod of approval. “I don’t know where the bravado comes from, but I like it.”
“I’m trying it on,” I whispered back, which was true. The transition to vampire hadn’t been easy—psychologically or physically—but I was beginning to get the hang of it. I’d essentially gone through the physical Change twice, since the first time around hadn’t quite taken. (Ethan, in a fit of guilt, had drugged me through the first transition, which apparently forestalled the complete change.) And that was on top of the fact that I’d moved out of the Wicker Park brownstone I’d shared with my former roommate—and former best friend—Mallory, and into Cadogan House. I’d managed to hold my own when dealing with my parents and their fusty friends, a step I’d taken at Ethan’s request when we were trying to keep vampire raves out of the press. And, not counting the two times I’d faux-battled Ethan, I’d managed to subdue Celina approximately fifty percent of the times that she’d come looking for a fight, which wasn’t awful, as batting averages went.
With that excitement under my belt, here I was. A new vampire in the historic position of Sentinel, guarding the House against creatures both living and dead. I’d gone from graduate student to vampire fighter nearly overnight. And now Noah Beck wanted to be the one to capitalize on that.
Although Lindsey said my name at least a couple of times, it was the jostling that finally did it, that broke me from the memory of my meeting with Noah, brought me back to the Cadogan House training room, to Lindsey, who’d nudged me with her shoulder to get my attention, and to Ethan, who stood before me, hands on his hips, shoulder-length blond hair tied back, green eyes on me, one eyebrow arched condescendingly. Luc was nowhere in sight . . . and all eyes were on me.
“Um, yes?” I asked.
The vampires snickered.
“If you’re finished with your daydreams,” Ethan said into the silence of the room, “perhaps you might consider joining me?”
“Sorry, Liege,” I muttered and stepped out of my flip-flops, then onto the mats, sheathed katana in hand. I was already in my training ensemble—a black sports-bra type top and yoga pants, no shoes.
I followed Ethan to the middle of the floor, aware that nearly seven-dozen vampires were following our movements. He stopped, stood before me, and bowed. I did the same.
“It is important,” he began, loud enough for all to hear, “that you be prepared, should the need arise, to fight. And to master that fight, you must first master the steps. As you also know, our Sentinel hasn’t yet mastered the art of sparring—”
He paused just long enough to give me a pointed look. So sparring wasn’t my thing. I was good at the katas—the building blocks of vampire swordfighting. I’d been a ballet dancer, and there was something very dancerly about the moves. They were positions, forms, steps that I could memorize and practice and, by repetition, perfect.
Sparring was different. Having grown up with my nose in a book, I had no experience at fighting beyond a couple of experimental kickboxing classes and a few run-ins with Celina and her assorted minions. I knew my weakness—I spent too much time trying to think through the fight—trying to find an attacker’s weaknesses, to exploit them, and all the while keep from overthinking the fight. That had become even harder in the last week, as I’d worked with Luc to keep the cacophony of smells and sounds that threatened, post-Change, to overwhelm me, down to a dull roar.
“—But her work with the katas is unparalleled.” He arched an eyebrow at me—half challenge, half-insult—and took a step backward. “Sentinel,” he said, voice lower now, the order just for me, “Katas, if you please.”
“Liege,” I said, then lifted my sword in both hands, my right hand on the handle, left hand on the sheath, and moved my hands apart, unsheathing it with a quick whistle of sound, light glinting from the polished steel. I walked to the mat, and placed the lacquered sheath on the edge of it.
Then, with all the confidence and bravado I could muster—easier now that I’d been asked to join a secret corps of vampire warriors—I returned to him, faced him, and gripped the katana in both hands.
“Begin,” he ordered, and took steps backward, giving me room. There were seven two-handed katas and three more single-handed moves. Those were new to me. But I’d been practicing the traditional katas since I’d become a vampire, and, frankly, I wanted to show off a little. In the week that we’d been working together, he’d only seen me practice the katas in traditional fashion—one kata at a time, my movements timed and precise. But that’s not all I could do . . .
I bladed my body, katana poised before me. “Fast or slow?”
He frowned. “Fast or slow?”
I smiled cannily beneath my fringe of bangs. “Pick your speed.”
“Vampires?” he asked aloud, but his gaze on me. “Fast or slow?”
There were “slow” stragglers, but the majority requested “Fast!”
“Fast, it seems,” he said.
I nodded, closed my eyes, centered my weight, and moved. The first kata, sword arcing across my body, then returning to the center position. The second, a downward strike. The third and fourth, combinations. The fifth, sixth and seventh, two-handed moves in combinations with spins and parries.
In traditional form, when the focus was on precision and control, each kata took ten or fifteen seconds.
But done “fast,” I could run through the entire set in twenty seconds. I’d learned my speed from my former trainer, Catcher, a sorcerer with a penchant for katanas and swordfighting. (He was also, not coincidentally, Mallory’s boyfriend and my grandfather’s employee.) Catcher demanded that I practice the moves over and over, thinking repetition would force the muscle memory. It had—and it had allowed me to use my increased vampire strength, speed, agility, to push the forms into a single dance of movement so quickly my body blurred with the speed of it.
After I’d challenged Ethan in our second duel, Ethan decided he needed to supplant Catcher as my trainer. But he didn’t know how much Catcher had taught me . . .
I finished the seventh form, spun to a stop, sword between my hands, perpendicular before my body. The lights above us caught the gentle curve of the steel, the entire room suddenly silent.
“Do it again,” he said, his words barely audible, a glint in his eyes. I didn’t mistake the glint for lust. Although the chemistry between us was keen, Ethan was unambiguously, ubiquitously political. Always maneuvering.
And I was a weapon.
I was his weapon.
That glint? Avarice, pure and simple.
“Liege,” I said, tilting my head in acknowledgment, and went back to the beginning position.
I completed the moves again, sword arcing perpendicular to the floor, slicing downward, an across-and-up combination, then the arc-and-spin combinations, the backward thrust, the overhead strike. I ended in the final position.
“Again,” he ordered a third time, and I obliged.
By the time I’d run through the katas in sequence again, and then done seven or eight repetitions of one or two favorite katas at his request, my chest was heaving with the effort, my hands slippery around the rayskin-wrapped handle of my sword. I glanced up, saw that the vampires who’d settled for space in the wooden balcony that ringed the training room were learning forward, arms on the balcony rail, curiosity in their expressions. They tended to look at me that way—either, because of my strength, as a curiosity or, because of my unfortunate habit of challenging Ethan to duels, as a freak.
For what it’s worth, I was really planning on breaking that habit.
“Well done,” he quietly said, then addressed the balcony. “I believe that answers more than a few questions about our Sentinel. And while she’s on stage,” he tilted his head toward me, “anything our new Social Chair would like to add about upcoming Cadogan events? Picnics? Mixers?”
The blush spread to the roots of my hair. Ethan had named me House Social Chair as punishment for challenging him. As punishments went, it was pretty light. But it was also mortifying, and it took me a moment to get myself together.
“I’m thinking about something for summer solstice. A barbeque, probably. I thought we’d invite vampires from the other Houses.”
The room went silent as Ethan considered the idea—and his audience waited for the verdict.
“Good,” he finally said with an authoritarian nod, then looked back at the crowd. But his expression changed to something much more serious.
“We believed, at one time, that our superiors believed as we do, had learned as we had, that assimilation was best. That staying under the radar was the best way to ensure our survival and to keep peace with the supernaturals around us.
“To some extent, Celina has made that impossible. With all due respect to our friends in Navarre House, she has sought, at every opportunity, to increase our profile, to alienate us from humans, and to alienate us from ourselves.” In a rare moment of humanity, Ethan looked down at the ground, worry furrowing a line between his eyes.
“We are on the brink,” he repeated. “The brink of what, exactly, remains to be seen. As it stands, we’ve been gifted with a time of peace and relative tranquility, a time in which the Houses have blossomed financially. Our coming out, by hook or by crook, for better or worse, has put us back in the public eye. A public that hasn’t always been kind toward us. Whether our pseudo-celebrity will last—who knows?
“As for now, and as you may have heard, the shifters are preparing to meet this week in Chicago. We’ve been informed that during this convocation, they will decide, for one and all, whether to stay in their respective territories or to remove to their ancestral home in Alaska. If they go, and the tide turns against us—Well. I don’t need to remind you about our shared historical experiences with shifters.”
There was mumbling in the crowd, a spike of discomforted magic in the air. Shifters had retreated before when vamps had been in trouble. Vamps blamed shifters for the resulting deaths, and vampires now feared that if the human tide turned against us, shifters would do it again, leaving us here holding the supernatural baggage.
“As you know, we don’t have formal allies within the Packs. They have avoided such ties. But my hope remains that should we face animosity, or anger, or fear, they will agree to help us.”
A male vampire stood up. “They’ve never helped before!” he shouted down at Ethan.
Ethan regarded him thoughtfully. “They haven’t. But suggesting that they ‘owe us’ hasn’t worked. We will do what we can to form new connections between us. And in the mean time . . .”
He paused, and the room was silent as the vampires waited for his next words. My issues with Ethan notwithstanding, he knew how to work a crowd.
“In the mean time,” he continued, “I ask you, not as your Master, but as your brother, your colleague, your friend. Be careful. Mind the company you keep. Be aware of your surroundings. And most of all, don’t be afraid to come to me. Any of you. Anytime.”
Ethan cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his voice was crisp, clear and Master-like again. “Dismissed,” he said, and the vampires in the balcony beginning to file out of the sparring room.
Ethan walked toward us. “My apartments,” he told Luc, then glanced at me. “You, too.”
“Your apartments?” I asked, but Ethan had already turned away, smiling politely at a vampire who’d trekked down from the balcony. I didn’t know her, but her goal was obvious enough in the cant of her hip, the subtle play of her fingers as she pushed her long, dark hair behind her ears. She leaned toward him and asked something. He laughed and chuckled politely, then began explaining—with visual aids—how to correctly position her hands on the handle of her sword.
My lip curled involuntarily, but before I could get out a snarky comment, I felt a tug on my ponytail. I glanced back.
“Let’s go,” Luc said, “unless you want to keep watching?”
“Ha,” I flatly said. “What did he mean by ‘his apartments?”
“We have a meeting.”
The last time we’d had a meeting, Ethan told me about raves, mass feedings in which humans became unwilling vampire snacks. “About the raves?”
“Not today. We haven’t heard anything else about raves since the attempt to blackmail us went bad. Malik’s working up a long-term strategy. Today we’re talking shifters. Let’s go—unless you wanted to keep watching?”
I stuck out my tongue at Luc, but followed when he headed for the sparring room door.
# # #
The basement of Cadogan House was all business, most of it violent—training room, sparring room, Ops room, arsenal.. The first floor, like the second and third, was about décor. Soft lightening, French antiques, hardwoods, expensive furniture. “Five-star hotel” had been my first impression. The rest of the rooms in the House were equally fancy, from Ethan’s masculine office, to Ethan’s luxe apartments.
We took the House’s central staircase to the third floor. When we reached Ethan’s apartments, Luc grasped the handles of the double-doors in both hands, then pushed them open.
I’d been in Ethan’s rooms before, but only briefly. As far as I could tell, Ethan’s chunk of the third floor had three rooms—the main living room, a bedroom, and presumably a bathroom somewhere in the back. It was as elegantly appointed as the rest of the House—from the hardwood floors to the warmly painted walls; from the onyx fireplace to the expensive, tailored furniture. It looked more like a suite in a fine hotel than the home of a vampire in the prime of his (immortal) life.
This trip, I gave the room a careful look, scanning for hints into the psyche of the Master of the House. And there were plenty of details to peruse; the detritus of his four hundred years of life dotted the room. A bow and arrow hung on one wall. A campaign chair and desk that looked like it would fold for travel, maybe remnants of Ethan’s time as a European soldier sat in one corner. A low buffet-style chest was centered on another wall, a spread of objects on top of it. I ambled over, hands behind my back and surveyed the goods. There were two silver trophies styled like giant cups, a picture of men in early 19th Century garb (but no Ethan among them), and a flat stone with symbols carved into the top.
I glanced up. In one corner of the room, inside a tall, glass case, sat a gleaming Faberge egg.
“Oh, wow,” I said, walking toward it to get a better look. A pendant light shone above it, illuminating the lustrous, spring green enamel and the snarling, golden dragon that wound around it.
“It was Peter’s,” Luc said.
I glanced back at him. “Peter’s?”
“Peter Cadogan.” Luc walked toward me, arms crossed, then gestured toward the glass case. “The Master vampire who founded Cadogan House. It was a gift from a member of the Russian royalty.” He leaned down, tapped a finger at the glass. “Peter was from Wales, and it’s a representation of the Welsh dragon. See the eye?”
I nodded at where he pointed. A softly-carved red gem was placed at the dragon’s eye. Six white lines radiated from its middle .
“It’s a star ruby,” he said. “Beautiful, and incredibly rare.”
“Incredibly expensive,” said a voice behind us. We both stood up and glanced behind us. Ethan walked in, still in his gi pants, but around his neck he’d added a navy towel that bore a silver, monogrammed “C.”
“Shower,” he said. “Make yourselves at home.”
Luc and I shared a glance as Ethan walked toward the double doors that led to his bedroom. He opened one, slipped inside, and closed it behind him again.
“I could have used a shower,” I pointed out.
“I know. I can smell you from here.”
I was halfway to discretely sniffing my shoulder before I realized he was just trying to rile me up. “You’re funny.”
“You were telling me about the egg?”
“Oh,” Luc said, then scratched absently at his temple. “So Peter met this Russian duchess, and they bonded. Completely Platonic, from what I understand, but he did her a favor of some kind. She wanted to repay him, so she commissioned the egg and threw in the ruby for good measure.”
“I suppose it pays to have friends,” I concluded, then glanced over at Luc, dropping my tone to something a little more serious. “Speaking of Peters, any developments on a replacement for our former colleague?” Peter Spencer had been excommunicated from the House for betraying us to Celina, for assisting in her blackmail plans, and her ploy to create more anti-shifter fervor among vamps, and anti-Cadogan fervor among humans.
Luc busied himself by picking at something on the glass box around the egg. “Not really ready to talk about that, Sentinel.”
I nodded and trained my gaze back on the egg, not entirely surprised by Luc’s reaction. He’d punched a hole into the wall of the Ops Room when he’d discovered Peter’s treachery. The hole had been replastered, but not yet repainted. It was like a stain marking the betrayal. And it wasn’t surprising Luc wasn’t eager to invest in someone else.
A knock sounded at the hallway doors.
“Preparations for our guest,” Luc murmured, as the doors were opened by a man in a white chef’s jacket. He smiled politely at me and Luc, then moved aside so that a second chef, this time a woman in white, could wheel a cart into the room.
The cart was piled with trays, and the trays were topped by silver domes.
It was room service.
“What guest? I asked as, with hotel-like efficiency, the woman began removing the domes and stacking them one atop the other.
She’d revealed a spread of food. Crackers. Cheeses. A rainbow of fruit, from lush berries to slices of buttercup-yellow mango to spring green coins of kiwi. Tiny sausages speared by toothpicks. I had a pang—Mallory loved those things. But since we were still on the outs, thinking about her still hurt. So for now, I focused my attention back on the movable feast, and the tray of small pastries arranged around some kind of pink, poppy-seed-dotted dip.
“The guest is Gabriel Keene,” Luc said. “He’s dropping by to talk to your Liege and mine.”
I gave a soft snort. “I assume that means you’re involving me in shifter shenanigans this week?”
“I’m surprised at you, Sentinel.”
I glanced back. Ethan walked back into the sitting room, then closed his bedroom doors behind him. He was in black suit pants and a white button-up, no tie. The top button was unbuttoned, and he’d skipped the suit coat. With Luc and I still in workout gear, it was practically business casual in here today.
“We so rarely involve you in shenanigans,” he said, then nodded at the woman who’d wheeled in the car. “Thank you, Alicia. My compliments to the chef.”
Alicia smiled, then collected her stack of steel covers. She turned and left the room, and the man who’d held open the doors gave us a final smile as he walked out again, then closed the doors behind him.
“You involve me in shenanigans at every opportunity.”
“She has a point, Liege.”
Ethan clucked his tongue. “Captain of my Guards and he carries the standard of my Sentinel. Oh, how quickly they turn.”
“You’re first in my heart, Liege. You’re first in my heart.”
This time, Ethan snorted. “We’ll see. Well, at any rate, we’ll see where Gabriel’s allegiances lie.”
Ethan looked over the trays before nabbing a bottle of water, twisting off the top, and taking a drink.
“Nice spread,” I told him.
He nodded. “I thought it polite to offer him something to eat, and I assumed I’d have a greater chance of keeping your attention if I fed you first.”
I’d have to give him that one. I loved to eat, and the nonstop vampire metabolism didn’t do much to dampen the appetite. Quite the opposite. “Let’s just remember, Sullivan, that I want you for your smoked meats and your smoked meats only.”
He barked out a laugh. “Touché, Sentinel.”
I grinned at him, then plucked a piece of cheese from the tray and popped it in my mouth. It was rich and earthy, but had that weird aftertaste that fancy cheese always seemed to have. “So,” I began, when I’d nabbed a couple more chunks for good measure, “why’s Gabriel coming to the House?”
“You’ll recall that he wanted to speak about security arrangements for the convocation?”
I nodded. Gabriel had mentioned it when he’d dropped by the House a week ago.
“Well, as it turns out, you were the security arrangement.”
I blanched. “I’m the security arrangement? What does that mean?”
Ethan pulled an olive from the toothpick with his teeth. “It means, Sentinel, that we’re throwing you to the wolves.”