Authors: Alyssa Day
Tags: #Humor, #Mystery, #Fantasy, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Adult, #Vampire, #Urban Fantasy
To my mother Charly.
Hurricane Ike demolished your house,
but it couldn’t diminish your spirit.
e’re late.” Connor greeted her with a disapproving frown.
“So?” Vanda Barkowski returned the Scotsman’s frown as she stepped into the foyer of Romatech Industries. “I’m not a harem girl anymore. I don’t have to come running whenever the great Master snaps his fingers.”
Connor arched a brow. “Ye were sent an official summons that clearly stated the East Coast Regional Coven Meeting would start at ten o’clock tonight.” He locked the door behind her and punched some buttons on a security pad.
Was she in trouble? That “official” summons had worried her all week, although she hadn’t let anyone know. She would have arrived sooner if she’d been allowed to use her Vamp skill of teleportation, but the summons had warned her not to teleport inside Romatech. Such an act would trigger the alarm, interrupt the meeting, and result in a hefty fine. So she’d driven from her nightclub in Hell’s Kitchen with a detour first to Queens to pick up some costumes she’d had custom made. The traffic had been awful all the way to White Plains, leaving her much too tense. Damn, she didn’t want to be here.
She took a deep breath and fluffed up her spiky, purple-dyed hair. “Big deal. So I’m a few minutes late.”
“Forty-five minutes. Late.”
“So? What’s forty-five minutes to an old goat like you?”
“I believe it is still forty-five minutes.”
Was that a glint of humor in his eyes? She chafed at the thought of being considered amusing. She was tough, dammit. And he should have been insulted that she’d called him an old goat. Connor Buchanan didn’t look a day over thirty. She would have considered him very handsome if he hadn’t fussed at her so much over the years.
She adjusted the black, braided whip she wore around her waist. “Look. I’m a businesswoman now. I’m late because I had to open the club and run some errands. And I need to get back to work soon.” She had a meeting scheduled at eleven-thirty with all the male dancers so she could give them their new costumes for the month of August.
Connor looked unimpressed. “Roman is still yer Coven Master, and when he requests yer presence, ye’re expected to arrive on time.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m quaking in my little boots.”
Connor pivoted toward a table, causing his red and green plaid kilt to swing around his knees. “I’ll need to search yer handbag.”
She winced inwardly. “Do we really have time for this? I’m already late.”
“I check every bag coming in.”
He’d always been a stickler for the rules. How many times had he reprimanded her for flirting with the guards at Roman’s townhouse? Well, just one guard. A mortal day guard who worked for MacKay Security & Investigation. A deliciously handsome day guard.
Connor worked for MacKay S&I, too, so he knew guards were never supposed to fraternize with their charges. As far as Vanda was concerned, that old rule needed to be tossed out. Ian had gotten involved with his mortal guard, Toni, and her love for him hadn’t weakened her one bit. In fact, her love had empowered her, enabling her to kill Jedrek Janow in spite of the Malcontent’s attempt to stop her with vampire mind control.
However, when it came to security at Romatech Industries, Connor had good reason to cling to his precious rules. Since the nasty Malcontent vampires hated the friendly, law-abiding, bottle-drinking Vamps, they also hated Romatech, where the bottled blood was manufactured. They’d managed to bomb Romatech three times in the past.
Vanda sighed. “I didn’t bring a bomb. Do you think I would blow myself up? Do I look crazy to you?”
A glint of humor sparkled in his eyes. “I believe that will be determined at the coven meeting.”
Damn. She was in trouble. “Fine.” She tossed her hobo handbag on the table. “Knock yourself out.”
Heat crept up her neck as he rummaged through her bag. God, she hated embarrassment. It made her feel weak and small, and she’d sworn never to feel vulnerable again. She lifted her chin and glared at Connor.
“What’s this?” He pulled out a scrap of fabric that looked like a stuffed yellow tube sock with a large brass nozzle on the end.
“It’s a dance costume. For Freddie the Fireman. That’s his personal fire hose.”
Connor dropped the thong like it was on fire, then resumed his search of her handbag. He pulled out a sparkly flesh-colored thong with fake ivy twisted around the tube. “I hesitate to ask…”
“Our theme for August is ‘Hot Jungle Fever.’ Terrance the Turgid is doing an ode to Tarzan. He’ll swing across the stage on a vine while he’s stripping.”
Connor tossed the male thong on the table and continued his search. “It does look like a bloody jungle in here.” He pulled out a vine of large leaves.
“Hot Jungle Fever is highly contagious,” Vanda said with a husky voice. “I’m sure we could find a fig leaf just your size.”
He glowered at her.
“All right, a banana leaf, then.”
With a snort, he fished her car keys from the pile of vines and dropped them into his sporran.
“Hey,” she objected. “I need those to drive home.”
“Ye’ll get them back after the meeting.” He crammed the costumes back into her bag. “’Tis shameful for Vamp men to dress—or rather, undress—like this in public.”
“The guys enjoy it. Come on, Connor. You never wanted to take your clothes off in front of some pretty girls?”
“Nay. I’m too busy trying to keep Roman and his family alive. If ye havena noticed, we’re at the brink of war with the Malcontents. And if ye havena heard, their leader Casimir is somewhere in America.”
Vanda repressed a shudder. “I know. My club was attacked last December.” Some of her best friends had come close to getting murdered that night. She tried not to think about it. If she did, the thoughts would mushroom into bigger, more horrid memories.
And she had no intention of reliving them. Life was simple and pleasant at the Horny Devils nightclub, where gorgeous men danced in skimpy costumes, and pints of Bleer could leave the coldest of Vamps feeling warm and fuzzy.
Each night could pass without pain as long as she concentrated on work and kept the past firmly locked in a mental coffin. Days were even easier, for death-sleep was painless and nightmare-free. She could go on like this for centuries if people would just leave her the hell alone.
Connor gave her a sympathetic look. “Ian told me about the attack that night. He said ye fought bravely.”
She refrained from grinding her teeth. It was hard on the fangs. She grabbed her handbag and swung it onto her shoulder. “So what’s the deal? How much trouble am I in?”
“Ye’ll find out.” Connor motioned to the double doors on the right. “I’ll take ye to the meeting hall.”
“No thanks. I know the way.” Vanda strode through the doors and down the hall, her high-heeled boots clicking on the spotless and shiny marble floor.
The unpleasant smell of antiseptic cleanser couldn’t completely mask the delicious aroma of blood. The mortal workers at Romatech manufactured synthetic blood all day. That blood was shipped openly to hospitals and blood banks, and secretly to Vamps.
Roman Draganesti invented synthetic blood in 1987, and in recent years, he’d come up with Vampire Fusion Cuisine. On weeknights, Vamp employees worked at Romatech, making lovely drinks such as Chocolood, Bleer, Blissky, or Blood Lite for those who overindulged. The combined scent of all these drinks lingered in the air. Vanda took a deep, satisfying sniff to soothe her frazzled nerves.
Her superior Vamp hearing caught the sound of crackling static. She glanced back and spotted Connor standing by the double doors. He was watching her progress with a walkie-talkie in his hand. Did he suspect she’d make a run for it? It was awfully tempting to teleport to the parking lot and speed away in her black Corvette. No wonder he’d confiscated her keys. She could always teleport straight home. But they knew where she lived and where she worked. There was no running away from coven law.
Of course, only Vamps who drank synthetic blood acknowledged Roman Draganesti as Coven Master of East Coast Vampires. As she neared the meeting hall, Vanda’s steps slowed. If Roman had some kind of complaint against her, why hadn’t he approached her in private? Why humiliate her in front of the other bigwigs in the coven?
Connor’s softly accented voice carried down the long hallway. “Phil has arrived? Good. Let me talk to him.”
Phil? Vanda wobbled on her heels. Phil Jones was back in New York? The last she’d heard he was in Texas. Not that she was interested. He was just a mortal. But an incredibly handsome and interesting mortal.
He’d spent five years as one of the day guards at Roman’s townhouse when she’d lived there with the harem. Most of the mortal guards had considered the harem a silly bunch of nameless, undead women, connected to their real charge, Roman Draganesti. They had rated the harem’s value somewhere below Roman’s artwork and priceless antiques.
Phil Jones was different. He’d learned their names and treated them like real people. Vanda had tried flirting with him a few times, but Connor, that old grouch, always put a stop to it. Phil had followed the rule of noninvolvement and kept his distance—easy enough to do when he was usually at night school or asleep when she was awake; and she was dead during the day, when he was awake.
Even so, she’d suspected that he was attracted to her. Or maybe she’d just wanted him to be. Harem life had been so damned boring, and somehow, Phil had seemed intriguing.
But she must have just imagined it all. She’d been free from the harem for three years now, and in that time, Phil had never bothered to see her.
She paused to listen as Phil’s voice replied on the walkie-talkie. She couldn’t make out the words, but the sound reverberated through her with a surprising sizzle. She’d forgotten how sexy his voice was. Damn him, she’d thought he was a friend. But she’d just been part of the job, easily forgotten once he’d moved on to the next assignment.
She reached for the door to the meeting hall when it suddenly burst open. She jumped back to keep from being mowed down by a buxom woman and a cameraman. Vanda recognized the woman instantly. Corky Courrant was the hostess of the Digital Vampire Network’s celebrity talk show, Live with the Undead.
“I reject this verdict!” Corky screamed, turning to catch the door before it swung shut. “I’ll take this to the Supreme Coven Court!”
“My decision is final.” Roman’s voice sounded firm, but bored.
“You’ll hear about this on my show!” Corky noticed Vanda for the first time. “You! What are you doing here?”
Vanda winced as the cameraman turned his camera on her. Damn. Now she was going to end up on Corky’s show.
She smiled hesitantly at the camera. “Hi there, fellow Vamps. I’m going to the coven meeting. I always go to the coven meetings. It’s our civic duty, you know.”
“Cut the bullshit,” Corky snarled. “You came here to gloat. But I’m not dropping my suit against you, no matter what the Coven Master says.”
Vanda kept her smile glued in place for the camera. “Can’t we all just get along?”
“You should have thought about that before you attacked me!” Corky screeched.
Oh, right. That incident last December at the club. Vanda had leaped across a table to try to strangle Corky Courrant. After all the turmoil that had followed, that little incident had seemed unimportant in comparison. She’d had shrugged it off as one more minor tiff. Vanda had had a lot of minor tiffs over the years.
She faced the camera with a soulful look. “It was an unfortunate mishap, but we can all be eternally grateful that our dear Corky has not suffered from it. Her voice is just as loud and strident as ever.”
Corky snorted, then made a cutting motion to signal her cameraman to stop recording. She leaned close, lowering her voice. “It’s not over between us, bitch. I have a lot of power in the Vampire World, and I’ll see you ruined.” She stormed down the hall, her cameraman scurrying behind her.
“Have a nice day!” Vanda called after her. She turned to enter the meeting hall and noticed how quiet it was. Everyone was staring at her. Great. They’d witnessed that little scene with Corky.
The whispering began. Vanda lifted her chin. She estimated there were about thirty Vamps in attendance. Mostly male. The archaic Vamp world was still run almost entirely by men. Arrogant, stodgy old men who didn’t approve of her nightclub where Vamp men stripped for Vamp women.
She noted the sour looks on their faces. Obviously, they also didn’t care for her purple spandex catsuit or purple, spiky hair. Out of the entire crowd, she spotted one friendly, smiling face. Gregori. Unfortunately, he was seated on the front row. She tightened the whip around her waist and strode down the center aisle.
Roman Draganesti was seated in the big Master chair on the dais. In the old days, the Coven Master sat alone, but times had changed. Roman’s chair was flanked by two smaller chairs. His wife Shanna sat on his left, and the priest, Father Andrew, sat on his right. They were obviously his chief advisors. And both were mortal.
What was the Vamp World coming to? Why had Roman given these two mortals so much power in a world where they didn’t belong? With a disgusted huff, Vanda sat next to Gregori.
Roman acknowledged her presence with a regal nod. Vanda scowled back.
Seated at a table close to the dais, Laszlo Veszto scribbled notes with a fountain pen on antique-looking parchment. He was a chemist at Romatech, but also held the prestigious job of Coven Secretary. Vanda rolled her eyes. He might as well use a quill and inkwell. Or maybe a roll of papyrus and a stick reed.
“Sheesh, get the poor guy a laptop,” she muttered to Gregori.
“He has one,” Gregori whispered back. “But they like to stick with tradition for these meetings.”
“These meetings are a joke,” she grumbled. She supposed Laszlo was still writing down the decision that had upset Corky Courrant. “What happened with Corky?”
“Good news for you,” Gregori whispered. “Roman dismissed her lawsuit against you.”
“About time. I obviously didn’t hurt her throat.”
“Then Corky insisted that it would only be fair for Roman to drop the lawsuit that’s been leveled against her, but he refused.”