Book VII of the Vampire Queen Series
(Can standalone in series, but reading Vampire's Claim first may enhance reader's experience)
Released July 2011
As servant to vampire mistress Lady Daniela, Elisa’s devotion is unwavering—until Lady D makes it clear that the children entrusted to Elisa’s care may be destroyed, if they cannot be integrated into the vampire world. Elisa’s young charges are vampires of such potent desires as to belie their youth, given to a reckless bloodlust that makes their assimilation nearly impossible. But Elisa has one desperate option.
His name is Malachi, a Native American vampire who is a legend for his work with rehabilitating feline predators. With his primal understanding of the rules of survival, he is the fledglings’ last hope. But it is Elisa who is feeling the heat of his irresistible animal instincts. Now, as Malachi struggles to control the children’s impulses, he opens himself up to those of Elisa—and the passion they all share for the night could seal their fates forever.
© Copyright 2010-2011 - All Rights Reserved
As Elisa got out of the plane, she looked for him, this Malachi. He was not a Region Master or even an overlord, so he bore no lord or ladyship title as did Lady Danny. Elisa decided she would use Mr. Malachi until he indicated otherwise. She wasn’t unhappy about Thomas’s presence with her, though. The weight he brought as Lady Lyssa’s human servant—Lady Lyssa being Region Master of the southern United States, as well as a consultant to the current Vampire Council and the last royal blood of the vampire clans—would be helpful, even knowing Thomas would not stay long from Lyssa’s side. Three days… She had to convince Malachi to let her stay, to convince Danny it was okay as well.
For one thing, she couldn’t bear to go back to the station and see the empty spot that should have been Willis. Riding the stock in, or whittling in a chair leaned back against the barn. Tipping his hat to her with a lazy smile when she came out to beat the rugs. If she went back, she’d have nothing to do but being a maid. Having the children had filled her days and nights. It kept her from thinking so much.
Once being around vampires, it wasn’t difficult to spot one. The exceptionally graceful, predatory way they moved, the intense focus of the eyes. And of course, every single one of them was beautiful beyond words. It should get tiresome, her senses unaffected by it. Perhaps because of his unexpected appearance, that wasn’t the case when the island’s owner made his appearance, striding toward the plane.
Even the untitled vampires she’d met took care to appear as aristocracy. Well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken. Most had lived long enough to accumulate money, education, making themselves appealing to human prey if they didn’t have a servant for a regular bloodsource. In contrast, Mr. Malachi wore jeans and workboots, an untucked and snug-fitting dark T-shirt. The outfit was no more formal than what Dev or Willis might have worn for their stockman duties. Black hair, unruly and brushing his shoulders, looked like a lion’s mane. He had an aquiline nose, the features of a hawk. He was an Indian.
When Danny bought her a book about the United States, they’d compared Western Australia with the American Wild West. In the pictures of the Native Americans whose tribes had once been scattered over the United States, the resemblance was unmistakable.
A black stone carving of some kind of cat, threaded on a braided strip of leather and worn around his neck, only added to the impression. When she at last focused on his dark brown eyes, he possessed a predator’s strength and authority in his focus, but it was far more...primal. None of them were exactly what she’d call gentle or safe, but he had an untamed look that said he’d always be more at home among wild animals in a dense forest than among his own kind. A strange thought.
He stopped before them, gave Thomas a curt nod. “My greetings to your lady.”
“And hers to you. She thanks you for assisting Danny.” Thomas cleared his throat, his gaze flashing with amusement. “She says one of these days she expects you to stop playing with your kittens long enough to visit a cat with real claws.”
“It may take me a century or two to find that kind of courage.”
Elisa drew in a breath, not expecting the quick flash of a male grin that showed fang tips. But then Malachi’s glance turned toward her, and the deceptively approachable expression was gone. “Where are the fledglings?”
“They’re in the plane,” she said. “We didn’t wish to unload the children until—”
“They are not children, girl.” He cut across her. “You are a child. They are vampires. For the very brief time you’ll be here, you will not call them children.”
“You haven’t even met them yet,” she retorted. “You don’t know what they are or aren’t.”
“Elisa.” Thomas put a quelling hand on her shoulder, but Malachi had already stepped forward, bumping her toes, moving her back a step with his greater height. He wasn’t heavily muscled, but there was a lean, tensile strength to him that suggested he spent a great deal of time doing manual labor. Another thing vampires didn’t do. But daring a brief look into his face, she revised her earlier opinion. He might be different, but she saw that full blast of dominant authority a vampire could quickly bring to bear in the face of a challenge by a weaker opponent. What was the matter with her? She’d been trained better than this, but they’d barely stepped foot off the plane and now he assumed—
He settled a strong hand on her throat, tipping her chin up. She froze all over. “In time, I will ask you questions, and I will hear your thoughts. But I’ll make the decisions, and you’ll follow them instantly. You will not question me. If you have difficulty with that, I’ll stick you back on this plane and we’ll cut our three-day ordeal two days shorter. Understood?”
“Mal,” Thomas said. Malachi cocked his head toward him. Only a faint flicker showed in Thomas’s face, but the vampire glanced back down at her. Then his hand was gone and he’d taken a step back. While his face remained implacable, she realized why Thomas had spoken. She was shaking, and there was a swirling panic in her chest threatening to cut off her air flow.
Damn it. Firming that chin he’d handled so familiarly, ignoring the quaver in her voice, she spoke. “Mr. Malachi, I’ve served a vampire since I was seventeen years old. I’ll have no problem being respectful and obedient to your wishes, but I also have a responsibility to these…young vampires. They’re mine,” she added with determined stare that locked with his gaze, despite the breach of vampire-human etiquette. I’ve paid in blood for the privilege.
* * * * *
Danny had described Elisa as an obedient and efficient servant, naturally submissive. She was trembling like a leaf, her hands knotted together like a frayed rope. When he’d stepped into her space, she’d given every indication she’d bolt, but she’d dug in and stood fast under his touch. She had soft skin.
This was the one that had been violated. Christ. Her foolish defiance had driven it right from his mind. He took stock of the paleness from recent serious injury, the flash of automatic terror at an aggressive, unknown male. Danny was a fool for permitting her to come. She wasn’t up for this. Grudgingly though, he acknowledged the fortitude it had taken to make this kind of trip and to continue to champion them.
On the other hand, she could be a complete mental case. A smile tugged at his lips, unexpected. One could say the same of a vampire who chose to live away from his own kind and play nursemaid to “kittens”, as Lyssa had taunted him.
How many scars had healed on his body from his missteps with his cats? At the beginning, while he was learning their ways, how often had he gone down under them? He could be considered prey with one wrong communication of body language or scent. It was unexpected to see that same history in her eyes, misguided though it was. A vast difference existed between a vampire’s mind and a cat’s. And a woman’s was entirely incomprehensible.
“You’re absolutely correct. I’ve not yet met them.” Gesturing, he directed her toward the plane. “Take me to them.”
* * * * *
Mal strode into the cargo area and came to a halt, gazing about the silver semi-circle of cages. The six reacted in myriad ways to his arrival. Three bolted to the back of their cages, silent, skulking shadows. In contrast, the one that looked the oldest moved forward, baring fangs. Holy Christ, Ruskin had taught them nothing. Their fangs couldn’t retract, permanently locked like saber-toothed tigers. The sickness that twisted in his gut now was what Mal felt when a half-starved juvenile lion was brought in, some misguided idiot’s pet or the whipped failure of some circus. He had an active dislike for humans, but before him was the reminder that malicious brutality and unforgivable ignorance weren’t limited to them.
That didn’t change what needed to be done here, though, so he made sure neither his scent nor his expression emanated such sympathy. Instead, he glanced at one of the handlers. “How do you open the cages?”
“A combination on this control, sir.” The man pointed at it.
Mal nodded. “Open his cage.” He gestured to the most aggressive fledgling.
Mal cut a glance in the man’s direction, but Thomas was already attending to it. “Obey him,” he said. The monk put a reassuring hand on Elisa’s quivering shoulder. Her eyes had moved to the young snarling male, then skittered away, her skin paling further.
“Open it,” Mal snapped.
As the cage door retracted, Elisa fully expected Leonidas to leap out. Anticipating that, her body refused all rational thought, going rigid with the desire to bolt. Instead, moving faster than she could follow, Malachi was already in the door, chest to chest with the gangling boy. Leonidas was a few inches shorter, but had the lanky length of a teenager who’d been starting his growth explosion when he was turned.
Baring his fangs, Mal snarled in a way that made Leonidas look like a house cat standing up to a fully grown lion. Leonidas attempted to snarl back, but fear suffused his expression. Malachi moved into him so the boy shuffled back, further and further, until he was in the corner. However, Malachi continued to lever the advantage until the boy was shrinking down onto his knees under his looming body, cowering.
“There’s no reason to be that cruel,” Elisa muttered, starting forward. Thomas clamped down on her arm anew, but then Mal spoke.
“Elisa, come here.”
She’d intended to come a couple steps and admonish him. Faced with the actuality of coming into that cage, something happened to her feet, as if they were lodged in concrete.
Mal, his gaze still locked on Leonidas’s bowed head, stretched out a hand in her direction. “Trust me, Elisa. You are coming to me, not to him. Nothing will happen to you. Look at me only. Do not make any eye contact with him.”
Somehow, responding to the sure authority in his voice, her feet were moving, a blessed miracle. One step, two step, and she kept her eyes locked on Malachi. Was his hair long enough to braid, she wondered. Did he put feathers in it? Of course, this was the 1950s and Indians did not run around half naked on horseback with feathers in their hair, but she made herself imagine Malachi in such a way, anything to keep her mind away from what she was doing.
He’d be breathtakingly bare, on the back of a pinto. His bowstring drawn back to his ear, an arrow ready to fly. He’d be painted with symbols for a good hunt, wearing only that and the stone necklace on his upper body. Those brief leggings that showed the muscular curve of buttock would be his only clothing. The horse wouldn’t have any tack, man and horse as one, which fit with her idea of Mal as more wild creature than vampire.
As distractions went, it was a good one. It wasn’t the first time she’d used visual image to get her through a moment, but it was the first time since that terrible night she’d used imaginings like this. It made her want to scowl. Bloody vampires and their pheromones, as Danny called them. But if it did the trick, got her to him, then so be it.
She hesitated at the threshold, and then she was over it, placing her trembling hand in the grip of his. She tried hard to stare just at him, but then, nervously, her gaze skittered to Leonidas.
The boy struck. Elisa screamed. A flash of movement, a resounding thud and cry of pain. Not hers. Malachi was holding Leonidas against the bars of the cage. One long-fingered hand squeezed his throat, the boy’s feet half a foot off the floor. She had somehow ended up against Malachi’s chest, her face buried into it, his other arm curled protectively around her.
“Look at me, Elisa.”
Taking a breath, Elisa managed to get to his throat, her eyes glued to that dark stone totem in the bronzed hollow. She was used to pale vampires. When his fingers tightened along her back, she felt that odd dichotomous shudder again. Don’t touch me. Please touch me.
As Leonidas choked against his hold, she wanted to tell him to ease up, that he’d proven his point. But she did as Mal told her to do, at least for this volatile moment. They could argue about it later. Gathering her courage, she raised her gaze to his face. Without looking down, Malachi eased his hold on her, guided her around so she was facing Leonidas. She kept her head turned to stare only at Malachi. She wasn’t sure if it was because he hadn’t told her to do otherwise, or she couldn’t do anything else.
Mal let the fledgling’s feet touch the ground. As he loosened his hold, he bared his fangs again, a rumble coming from his chest, unmistakably a warning growl. The young vampire capitulated to it, going down until he was crouched in the corner again on his knees, his eyes downcast.
“I will taste your blood tonight, every one of you.” He swept his gaze over the room. “You will be marked by me as a sire, and I will have access to your minds. If you want to live, I will find complete submission to me there.” As he moved his grip on Elisa, she tried not to shake harder. He curved his fingers in her hair, an easy, stroking touch that startled her, because it was unexpectedly soothing, despite his fierce, steel-muscled posture. “And this is mine.”
When she would have jerked her head up, his hand tightened in her hair, warning her to stillness. Lifting a booted foot, he pressed it against Leonidas’s chest, drawing the boy’s attention and holding him against the cage wall.
“With one push, whelp, I can crush all your ribs. Rip them out of your chest and stake your heart a good dozen times. You’d live long enough to feel pain such as you’ve never felt from anyone. You ever even look at her in a way that displeases me, that will be your fate. She is mine, and that’s the end of it.” Malachi passed his attention over the assembled cages, making sure he had the acknowledgment he wanted from each. As he did, he gathered her hair in one hand, and tilted her head to the left.
“What—” But she had no time to react before he’d pierced her with his fangs, taking a draught of the blood she had to offer. Her gaze briefly locked with Jeremiah’s, squatting in the middle of the cage, his eyes intent on her face. Then he looked away.
The shock of it rippled down to her toes as Mal marked her. Dropping his hand to her waist, he caressed her there, while her body warred between panic and something not like panic at all. Dizzy, she leaned into him, and the warmth of his arm came across her chest as the electric stimulus of a marking burned through her blood.
You’ll be safe from them from here forward, fierce Irish flower. But you are still getting on that plane in three days.
Holy Mary. He’d given her the first and secondmarks, as smooth and easy as she’d ever seen it done. He was in her mind now. She should have felt violated, and part of her perhaps did, but another part felt something she’d experienced for only a short time during Danny’s employ. So short that the terrible incident with Victor had made her think everything before that night had been a lie, or something she’d never feel again.
She felt safe. Despite her mortification, it made her begin to cry again, but she pressed her face into his T-shirt that smelled like animals, grass and man, and let the tears absorb there.
He didn’t seem to mind.