Dane Mitchell watched the others in the large ballroom carefully. According to the rules of the summit, each monarch was allowed only one Were guard to accompany him or her to the major social gatherings. Not surprisingly, the Were guard was not allowed to attend “official” meetings; those were “vampire only.”
Of course, Dane knew that his master, Russell Edgington, was fully capable of dealing with any threats. Indeed, Russell Edgington was the most powerful being in Rhodes! But the Alpha Were still took his duties very seriously and was ready to do anything to aid his master. Russell’s previous Alpha, Cooter, had been loyal as well, but Dane hadn’t felt that he was worthy enough to serve such a great king as Russell. In fact, in Dane’s opinion, the pack’s quality had spiraled downward because of Cooter’s excessive V usage. For this reason, if Cooter hadn’t been killed, Dane would have challenged him in a few years. Simply put, Dane had not been made to follow; he’d been born to lead a pack.
Dane clenched his fists as his eyes roved the room. The Alpha felt his strength and aggression flowing through his veins, amplified by Russell’s blood. The vampire had given the powerful liquid to Dane only an hour before—directly from this wrist. The Were had been honored to receive such a distinction. Of course, Dane was also smart enough to know that the taking of vampire blood needed to be done in moderation—only out of duty and necessity and not because of uncontrolled addiction. He’d worked very hard to instill more discipline into his pack during the last months, and—with many members—he’d succeeded.
However, there were still some undesirables—like Debbie Pelt—who were out of control. Dane frowned as he thought about her. Russell seemed to want to keep her around, but Dane thought she was more-less a waste of space. She’d pissed him off earlier that same day when she’d behaved as if she were the leader of the group he’d sent ahead to surveil the hotel. And then she’d wanted to be the one to accompany Russell to the gathering.
Dane scoffed. Debbie was a loose cannon, but he knew that he would need to keep a muzzle on her for only a couple more days—until Russell was ready to make his move to take over the Vampire Council. Hell—with any luck—she’d do something asinine during the battle and get herself killed.
And, if she didn’t, Dane planned to “help” her along.
The Were smiled at that thought and at the promise of the fight to come. Of course, his main role wouldn’t be eliminating the more powerful vampires. Dane knew that he had limitations, even with V adding to his strength. But Dane still had an important role. Russell had him in place to make sure that any Weres and/or younger vampires fighting against his monarch were dealt with quickly and summarily.
With that in mind, Dane studied the others of two natures at the function. Like him, they were ostensibly there to keep an eye on their monarchs—to protect them. However, Dane knew that their real function was similar to his own: to observe and assess their monarchs’ potential enemies.
Not surprisingly, most of the Weres and other shifters at the gathering were Alphas, making Dane’s own skin crawl with the desire to shift and then challenge them. Of course, he refrained—as did the other shifters in the room. Thankfully, the moon was a mere crescent in the sky.
Dane noted the Weres that he figured might actually challenge him. One, who was with the Queen of Wyoming, was looking back at him, sizing him up in return. Dane had heard the Were’s name spoken: Mustapha. Dane nodded at the man, who—in turn—nodded back as an acknowledgment that they would have preferred to be fighting each other for dominance rather than making “nice” in a room full of vampires.
Dane moved his gaze around the room before resting it on an older Werebear, a female. This, in and of itself, was odd since most Were groups were strictly patriarchies. Still, Dane could tell that the She-bear was formidable, despite her gender and age, and she was looking around the room with wise eyes. Dane was just wondering whom she was affiliated with when King Mitchell of New Mexico sauntered over to her to share a few words.
Dane was slightly disappointed. Neither Mustapha nor the She-bear was at the summit guarding an enemy of his master. Thus, he wouldn’t get to test their metal. But he reconciled himself, knowing there would be others. His gaze next fell upon the familiar frame of his lover, Hallow. She leered at him, though she didn’t approach him. Hallow didn’t want their relationship to be in the public eye until the war had been fought and won. Plus, Dane knew that she, too, was on duty—monitoring for any signs of magic.
Still, he couldn’t wait to openly claim her. To breed with her.
Their firstborn cub would be formidable indeed!
His attention was drawn from his lover when two queens entered from opposite ends of the large room.
Dulcina of Texas.
Freyda of Oklahoma.
Dane smiled to himself, ready to witness a vampire soap opera play out before his very eyes. He might have served a worthy vampire, but he still enjoyed watching other fangers make fools of themselves.
King Mitchell knew well what his role was for the night—to add to the intrigue swirling around his “love triangle.”
To build the interest in the next night’s trial.
To keep the attention away from those allied against King Russell Edgington.
In truth, Mitchell didn’t mind being the center of attention, and he enjoyed good drama. However, he did find it distasteful to have to pretend to desire Freyda. Oh—she was a beautiful woman, and he’d enjoyed seeing her on her knees as she blew him during her last “courtship” visit to his state.
But he’d wanted to put tape over those pretty lips at every other moment of her visit.
On the contrary, Mitchell had long been wanting to align with Dulcina, whose beauty was matched by her intelligence and elegance. Though neither one of them desired a monogamous relationship, theirs was a match based upon both genuine affection and respect; plus, they shared the same wariness about the direction in which some of the monarchs in the states surrounding theirs were heading.
When Mitchell and Dulcina had been called to meet in secret with Roman, their concerns had been confirmed. Now king of both Mississippi and—for all intents and purposes—Louisiana, Russell Edgington was leading a faction including the monarchs of Nevada, Arizona, and Indiana. Likely also aligned with Russell were many of the kings and queens from the south, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma. According to Roman, the insane, ancient king wanted to eliminate the Authority members that had made mainstreaming possible, as well as the monarchs who continued to support that movement. Clearly, Russell also had designs on taking over several states, including Texas. And, apparently, Russell felt that Freyda could easily manipulate Mitchell to go along with all of Russell’s plans.
The King of New Mexico scoffed. As if.
Though he was known as being laid-back and something of a playboy, Mitchell was no “follower.” He was actually a great supporter to mainstreaming, and his state had functioned very well following the Great Revelation. He’d always been good at finding common ground between groups, which was probably why he had a good relationship with the large Werebear group in his state. There was also a small group of shifters near the Mexican border, but Mitchell let them stay mostly to themselves—as they preferred. In his state, however, there was not the usual ambivalence between his vampires and the two-natured, nor would he allow the supernatural elements to victimize humans. He required that his subjects keep the peace or move elsewhere.
Most of them stayed. And stayed in line.
Mitchell kept his countenance calm as he said a few words to Elina, his most trusted Werebear ally. Her son, the alpha of the Werebear group, had been injured a few days before, and Elina had stepped up to lead the Werebears who were guarding Mitchell at the summit. In truth, Mitchell was glad to have her in charge. He respected her son, but Elina was a more cunning warrior in the vampire’s opinion.
And—when it came to a choice between cunning and power? Mitchell always preferred the former.
Even as Elina assured him that all was well, Mitchell saw that Russell Edgington was studying him—more like ogling actually. Putting on his most charming smile, Mitchell nodded at the king, who licked his lips in seeming invitation.
With difficulty, Mitchell held back his distaste. Oh, he’d fucked plenty of men during his long years, but Russell was his enemy and—among other things—the ancient vampire wanted to kill Dulcina, along with the Authority members after they revealed their identities at the Masquerade ball planned for two nights hence.
Apparently, once the Authority was out of his way, Russell intended to establish himself as an emperor, overseeing the various kings and queens as if they were his minions—and ultimately manipulating and controlling them by evoking the antiquated vampire religion of Lilith.
In truth, Mitchell was afraid of Edgington, scared shitless actually—not that he was capable of bowel movements anymore. But he wasn’t about to let himself be controlled by a madman. And he wasn’t about to let the world slip into the rigid dictatorship that Russell promised.
Not without a fight.
By contrast, Roman had very different plans for the future—plans that Mitchell fully supported. After the Edgington threat was dealt with, Roman wanted to make the identities of the Authority Council members public. Most—though not all—of the Councilors were kings or queens, and they were anxious to spread the duties of the Authority around. They had decided to follow the European model, where vampire monarchs rotated in and out of the leadership body. What had stopped Roman up to this point had been the fact that kings like Edgington would have used such an opportunity to manipulate the “Democratic” system and to take the vampire agenda back into the Dark Ages.
King Mitchell knew that Roman was being aided by powerful vampires—other than Dulcina and himself—including even the Ancient Pythoness herself! The lady was rumored to be coming out of her seclusion in order to attend the Masquerade—in a show of support for her child Roman’s agenda.
Not surprisingly, Russell’s faction was planning to strike as soon as the reveal was made. However, they were not aware that Roman’s group knew of their intentions and would be ready for the fight. King Mitchell recognized that the battle would get bloody, but he also believed that he was on the “right” side, a side that he was ready to die for.
But that was two nights away! And, for the moment, he had the role of a lothario to play.
Mitchell smirked. It wasn’t that he shied away from necessary fights; however, he’d always been more of a lover than a fighter.
He caught the gaze of Freyda and then looked toward Dulcina, making sure that they were both watching him. Of course, Dulcina knew exactly what he was going to be doing, for she had a role to play too.
Mitchell hoped that she’d sharpened her nails.
The New Mexico King smiled his most caddish smile and then sauntered over to a woman that neither of his two potential wives cared for: Sophie-Anne Leclerq.
It was time to stir the hornets’ nest.
“Dearest, Sophie-Anne,” Mitchell leered. “You are a vision!”
Talbot laughed gleefully as he saw that Dulcina and Freyda were both fuming over Mitchell’s attentions toward Sophie-Anne.
“And you look very handsome, but I believe that you are up to no good, you rogue,” Sophie-Anne flirted back.
“You are right,” he whispered. “Would you care to help me start a cat fight?”
Sophie-Anne and Talbot—who, of course, had been listening in—both clapped their hands excitedly.
Fish on a hook.
Russell looked on with amusement as his “wife” and his consort both helped the handsome King of New Mexico drive his two suitors into a frenzy. It was a good diversion for them. As for himself, he was busy scoping out his potential enemies and allies. He’d learned from Nan’s spy that Roman wouldn’t be coming to the summit until the Masquerade ball two nights later.
Meanwhile, Russell would be moving all of his pieces into position as well as making sure they had their final instructions.
Their primary targets.
He smiled as he sipped his champagne flute full of warmed Royalty Blended. In truth, he couldn’t have been more pleased with the situation. Even a few months before, he’d been reconciled to the idea that he might have to wait many years before he’d be able to overthrow the Authority, but the perfect opportunity to take power immediately had fallen into his lap—an opportunity that he knew about thanks to his clever child, Nan. He couldn’t wait to officially claim her and to give her a position of honor in his Empire. She had more than earned it with all the information she’d gotten for him.
The ancient vampire exchanged a nod with Lilah, the Queen of Georgia, who’d been predictably pissed off when William had told her that one of her own subjects, Rosalyn Harris, was a Councilor on the Authority. Lilah hadn’t liked the idea of an “underling” ultimately having more power than she did, and she was personally affronted that Rosalyn had been chosen as a Councilor over her—despite the fact that Rosalyn was obviously savvier than the queen. According to William, as Lilah had gotten more and more worked up, it had been easy for him to manipulate the queen into following Russell’s directives, though she had no idea of the extent of his agenda. However, she would be easy enough to control long-term—just as many of the other kings and queens would be.
Meanwhile, Lilah’s role for the Masquerade ball would be limited to doing exactly what she wanted to do: killing Rosalyn. Russell smiled. He prided himself on manipulating younger, dumber vampires like Lilah.
The ancient vampire next focused upon King Johnathan of Alabama. He, too, had been easily malleable, according to William. Johnathan’s specific target would be the King of Illinois, Kibwe, whom Russell also knew was a Councilor of the Authority thanks to Nan. Johnathan had a longstanding dislike of Kibwe because their makers had once feuded over a human pet. Johnathan was older than Lilah, but he, too, would fall fully in line after the takeover.
Russell’s attention was stolen by Freyda’s hissing. He chuckled as he watched the Oklahoma queen and Dulcina squabble over the vampire both of them wanted to marry. Of course, Russell knew that Freyda wouldn’t have to worry about her competition for long. Whether or not the Queen of Texas turned out to be an Authority member, Russell would be making sure that the lovely Dulcina met the end of a stake soon enough. In fact, he planned to do away with at least half of the kings and queens in the country—the ones who wouldn’t be easy to control. Simply put, he didn’t want to have to deal with them.
Next looking at the sour-faced Thalia, Russell chuckled. He had already decided to let her and “Bubba” stay in Wyoming. After all, no one else would want that mostly barren territory, and Russell didn’t mind the vampiress. In fact, he rather liked the fact that she’d never had much to do with the Authority—or any governing body for that matter.
However, other than the square-shaped state she occupied, he planned to redraw the fucking map. He scoffed. He’d always hated the idea that vampires followed the humans’ state delineations. The vampire kings and queens who agreed to follow him would be granted larger territories than they had now, a “reward” that would increase their loyalty.
And, soon after, mainstreaming would be fucking abolished! It was high-time that vampires took their rightful place at the top of the food-chain! And that meant putting humans in their place too!
Russell smiled again to himself. Indeed, it was high-time for him to take his rightful place.
“You aren’t going to tell me about your meeting with her—are you?” Eric asked, running his fingers over his wife’s bare arm. As soon as she’d returned to his side after her visit with the Ancient Pythoness, he’d jetted them to their bedroom, where they’d proceeded to claim each other—vigorously.
Now in the calm aftermath of their love-making, Eric finally felt able to ask her about her meeting, though he intuited that she wouldn’t tell him much.
Still—he needed to ask. Monitoring her swirl of emotions when she’d been away from him had been very disquieting for him.
“No,” she said softly. “I can’t.”
Eric sighed. “Because I’d do something to fuck things up if I knew what she’d said to you?”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
“Are you in danger?”
“Liar,” he said, smirking against her skin.
They both knew that she was in danger; they were both in danger. And, the next night, that danger would increase tenfold.
Eric pulled her impossibly closer. “I,” he paused, “worry about tomorrow night.”
“Me too,” she whispered as she kissed his cool chest, right where his un-beating heart lay.
“But it will work,” he said likely trying to convince them both that one of the riskiest elements of their plan would succeed.
“It will,” she agreed.
“You will come back to me.”
“Yes,” she promised.
“And I will be with you—in the bond,” he said.
“And I’ll be with you, too,” she said. “Always.”