The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Eight)

Damn adjustment, " Jacob grumbled as his third arrow went off " the mark, missing the twenty-foot-distant target. He glanced down at Bran. "You know, she could use a couple of Labrador re- trievers. Unless I need a moose pulled down, you're pretty useless. " Bran gave him an unreadable expression. Jacob wondered if he'd learned his inscrutability from his Mistress. He retrieved the arrow himself, checked the sheath again, re- checked the arrow to ensure the closely trimmed feathering was unmarred. As he suspected, it was the launch mechanism. As he made another adjustment to it, Bran raised his head, gave a menacing growl. Before Jacob could turn and seek what was raising the dog's hackles, the radio on his belt beeped, telling him there was someone at the gate. The roof contractor wasn't expected today, but he supposed a miracle could have occurred and they'd arrived a day early. Of course, Bran typically didn't react in a hostile manner to ser vice people. He acted intimidating while they were here, but Jacob harbored the suspicion that was purely an act for the dog's personal amusement. The wolfhound knew the difference between a threat to his Mistress and a visitor the way Jacob knew the difference between black and white. Which was why his brow creased now, noting the dog's rigid stance.

He pulled on his sweatshirt and unclipped the radio. "May I help you?" A pause, long enough that he almost repeated the question. Before he could press the button, he heard a female voice speak hesitantly. "My lord Carnal wishes to pay his respects to Lady Lyssa. " Oh, bloody fucking hell. He'd forgotten entirely. Gideon's visit had disrupted the week's schedule. While there was nothing to be concerned about, for the house was well prepared for guests, he would have preferred some mental preparation to deal with Carnal. The first night he'd met Carnal had been outside of the area mall. The man had been the sick playmate of Lyssa's late husband, Rex. Carnal had cleverly played on Rex's dementia until it culminated in a horrifying night where Rex had tortured Lyssa and allowed Carnal to sodomize her. According to Lyssa, it was all part of the political games vampires played, but her reaction to Carnal's appearance that night said her feelings about the situation ran much deeper. As ex- traordinary as his Mistress was, she had difficulty accepting she could feel violated and revolted as much as any rape victim. But then, victim would never be a label Lady Lyssa Wentworth would tolerate for herself. Jacob now understood the reason for the pause on the radio. Car- nal had expected Lyssa to answer and intended to speak to her di- rectly. At the sound of Jacob's voice, the vampire had quickly changed tactics and made his servant respond, not deigning of course to speak to the hired help. Which meant Carnal had not been certain Jacob would make it as her servant. Well, he knew now. "Hold on one moment and I'll see if my lady is taking visitors. " It was just before sunset. In another half hour it would be twi- light. She might or might not be up. His lady was not necessarily a . . . Morning person was not the right term, but early evening just didn't have the same ring. My lady? It was as easy as picturing her in his mind and thinking the words, but it still amazed him how clearly she came through, as if standing right beside him. The second mark had given him a hint of that clarity, but it was nothing in comparison to the third. Yes.

He waited, knowing she would simply look into his mind and pick up the situation like a snapshot. The pause drew out. He won- dered if she'd forgotten as well. Of course, sometimes she relied on Jacob to remind her of her schedule, and he'd been woefully off his game since Gideon's visit. I'll look forward to punishing you for that. He rolled his eyes, even as he felt his groin tighten at the sultry implication of her words. At this rate, that particular appendage of his was going to fall off. His sense of humor didn't last long, however. Despite the teasing comment, she still hadn't given him an answer. "Shall I send him away, my lady?" he ventured at last, though he knew he might get snapped at for interrupting her thoughts. Know- ing how long a vampire could deliberate without it being considered rudeness, Carnal might even now be enjoying a sip from his servant, or mixing her blood with a cup of wine in his vehicle, anticipating at least a fifteen-minute wait. With someone of Lyssa's standing, it could be longer, though nothing about Carnal suggested he was the patient sort. In fact, Jacob had sensed from him that resentful under- current often emanating from the type of person who thought they were entitled to a corner office, even though they'd quit high school and barely put the time of day into their current low-end employ- ment, thinking it beneath them. Power. Carnal wanted more power. He thought he could handle it better than anyone else, which made him a danger to those who actually did have more power, like his Mistress. Who might underestimate him, assuming if he didn't have the energy to prove and earn his worth, he would lack the energy or cleverness to steal the title from someone else. Do not fret, Jacob. I never underestimate Carnal. Or anyone, for that matter. Show him to the main hallway. There are no chairs there. He will not be staying long. But we must observe the ritual cour- tesy and share a drink. He prefers brandy. I wish my current wine. Yes, my lady. When he waited long enough to be satisfied no fur- ther communication was forthcoming, he clicked the radio again. "Please proceed to the main door. "

Before he disengaged the driveway gate, he sprang onto one of the retaining walls, gaining a view through the screening of the crepe myrtle branches. The car was a Jaguar sedan with darkened windows of course, probably specially treated to filter out the UV rays. When the gate closed and the security field reengaged,Jacob dropped off the wall and headed for the front drive. He wasn't ex- actly a credit to his lady in his current dark jeans and Harvard sweatshirt, but it would have to do. He wasn't going to let this one out of his sight to primp. Oh, Jacob? Yes, my lady? You'll need to lock Bran and his siblings in the garden shed. Bran is not fond of Carnal. As he reached the curve of the driveway, his step quickened, as much from his lady's words as from the sound of Bran's thunder- ous, furious barking. Lyssa's mild comment was an understatement. As the rest of the pack milled restlessly, the dog was circling the car. No, not just circling it. Lunging up to slam his paws on the passen- ger window like human fists and snarling, saliva flecking the glass as he attempted to scrabble in and get at the occupant behind it. It at least told Jacob where Carnal was in the car. The girl was apparently driving. "Bran. Bran!" When Jacob caught the dog's collar and hauled him off, he had to do a quick circle to keep the dog from turning on him. He snapped at him in Gaelic and Bran went to a sullen growl, show- ing his teeth, his eyes fierce, his concentration on the car unbroken. Jacob managed to lead him off, but the dog resisted every step, try- ing to get loose. The farther they got from the car, the more fiercely Bran struggled, until Jacob was strangling him. He paused, contem- plating the dog's desperate need to protect. My lady . . . Bran. Obey. Her voice was sharp enough that it reverberated in Jacob's ear- drum with a painful vibration. Bran subsided to a lower growl and allowed himself to be led off, even though his posture made it clear he was unhappy about the situation. Jacob wasn't too happy about it, either. The other dogs followed them to the garden shed. When he got them locked in, Bran stood at the dusty window staring at him, panting in distress.

Jacob found it hard to turn his back on the animal. When he returned to the car, he nodded, made the all-clear ges- ture. The door opened and Carnal stepped out, his expression irri- tated. "A servant who cannot control a simple mongrel doesn't seem much of a boon to my lady Lyssa. " Bran's bloodline was far purer than anything Carnal could ever hope to have, but Jacob curbed the barb. Not so much for diplomacy, but because he'd also known a lot of mixed-breed dogs with far more integrity and value than the piece of garbage fouling Lyssa's drive- way with his presence. "I didn't see you jumping out of the car to take him on, and last time I checked, you're an all-powerful vampire. " Jacob locked gazes with the vamp, just as he'd done the night they'd first met, even when his Mistress had ordered him to lower his eyes. He'd earned her wrath for the defiance, but he hadn't regretted it, particularly later when he'd found out what Carnal had done to Lyssa. Carnal's lips drew back. "You haven't learned manners yet. I shall speak to your Mistress about that. " Jacob ignored him, circled to the other side of the car and opened the driver's side door, finding he had to do so gently, for Carnal's servant had a death grip on the handle. "It's okay; I put them up, " he said reassuringly. When the girl looked up into his face, he bit back an oath, suddenly remembering Gideon's warning. She wasn't even eighteen years old. Perhaps barely past fifteen. Nevertheless, he offered her a hand out of the car, mak- ing it clear he had manners aplenty for those deserving of it. "Melinda, stop being a sniveling coward and come here. " She withdrew her hand from Jacob's and went around the back of the car to walk obediently behind Carnal as Jacob led them to the door. Seven girls . . . Young women he seduces, then traps . . . Sixteen- year-old runaway . . . She was a beautiful creature with pale white-gold hair, green eyes and a body far too lush and tempting for a minor, all full breasts and curvy hips.

Long legs. Wearing a pair of tight hip-hugger leatherlike pants and a snug silken shirt under which she wore no bra, she ex- uded sexual provocation, a heady mixture with her obvious inno- cence. A temptation to a man with a conscience, an open invitation to one without one. That night at the mall, Carnal had referred to his "new" ser- vant, which told Jacob she was just as young as she appeared. He was agreeing with Bran's assessment more and more, and feeling uncomfortable to boot with the inability to do anything for the girl. If it wasn't her, it would be another. The Council set an age mini- mum of twelve on human servants, and even that was a struggle. There was a curious deadness to his lady's comment, injected into the boiling cauldron of his thoughts. Bring them to the hallway, Ja- cob. I will deal with this and then we can be rid of them. He could think of more effective methods to be rid of at least one of them. However, keeping what he hoped was an impassive expres- sion, he opened the door, gestured. Carnal strode past him with barely a glance. Melinda followed, her throat working ner vously, lips pursed together as she attempted to saunter in a way Jacob was sure Carnal had taught her, trying to emulate the sexual confidence of a much older woman. "My lady will meet with you in her main hall. " He indicated the direction. Carnal flicked a look at him. "Fine. I know the way. You can go back to your duties. " You wish, you prick. "My lady has requested my attendance. " Not exactly true, but she'd indicated he should make sure brandy and wine were there, after all. Carnal's eyes glittered, his lip curling. With a jerk he turned on his heel,headed for the hall. Apparently he wanted to make it clear he didn't care for being shepherded in like a supplicant, instead of being met by Lyssa herself as an honored guest would have been. Lyssa's visitor had an inflated sense of his own importance. Lyssa had never encouraged it, Jacob was sure, so he knew it must have come from Rex. It was possible Thomas hadn't known all that had transpired to make Carnal so much more significant after Thomas's exile.

During Jacob's training, Thomas had only mentioned in pass- ing the tall, dark-haired vampire who strode ahead with such hostil- ity emanating from him. No. Not hostility. Meanness. Violence. Everything that com- pelled his brother to hunt vampires practically vibrated off Carnal. A barely restrained bloodlust, a low trigger point. Jacob knew the only thing that stopped Carnal from attacking him was the fact he was here for other reasons, and Jacob was under Lady Lyssa's protec- tion. Vampires like Carnal were usually the easiest to kill, relatively speaking, because of their absolute conviction of their own superior- ity. It made them careless, easy to set up. Get him, Gideon. Almost as soon as he had the thought, he withdrew it. He didn't want his brother near Carnal without him to watch his back. Never underestimate Carnal . . . His lady's advice echoed in his mind. Melinda moved quietly behind him, but she glanced at Jacob sev- eral times. Giving him a shy smile, she pushed her hair over her shoulder, the move of a high school girl attracting a boy's attention. Her smile faltered as he drew closer, keeping pace with her, his size and obvious maturity apparently a little intimidating to her. Even so, she surprised him when she slid her hand into the crook of his elbow, her fingers tracing a light pattern on his biceps. He had to suppress the urge to remove her touch. Perhaps the kindness he'd shown her at the car was the first she'd experienced at someone's hands for a while. He didn't want to imagine the type of groups Car- nal ran with. He certainly didn't want his head assaulted with such images that included Melinda. The fingers that held on to his arm had nails embellished with tiny flower stickers. He felt sick. "You'll come to no harm in my lady's house. " They'd reached the main hall, so he gave her hand a light pat before he extricated him- self, not unkindly, to go to the wine rack and uncork Lyssa's favorite to breathe. He lifted the brandy snifter from the side bar. "My lord? A drink for you and your servant?" "She requires nothing. " Carnal watched his servant with a gleam in his dark eyes. Oddly, Melinda had followed Jacob and now stood as close as possible without hampering his elbow while Carnal stood across the hallway. She reached out again, her fingertips whispering against the side of Jacob's body, along the line of his hip. "Except perhaps you. She's an erotic little creature. She'll fuck any man if he stands still long enough. Very malleable. She can pretend to be even younger. Suck on your cock as if she's a babe with a thumb in her mouth. " Jacob set the brandy snifter down harder on the side bar than he'd intended. Melinda jumped, her fingers trembling, even as she struggled to maintain a come-hither expression. Trying to feign what could not be feigned. She managed only to look frightened when Jacob sent her a quelling look. However, she held her stance. Probably because she knew there was a greater threat to her in the room than Jacob's annoyance. He had no idea what the hell was going on here. If Carnal thought he could get his child servant to distract him enough to leave him alone with his Mistress, the ploy was pitiful, transparent. And re- volting. "I'll pour my own brandy, " Carnal said abruptly. That was fine by Jacob, for he had no desire to wait on the crea- ture. He moved away from the bar. Melinda thankfully stayed, wait- ing for her Master. "She seems young to have such advanced appetites. " Jacob paced off several feet and crossed his arms, keeping Carnal under close scrutiny as he examined the brandy choices. Carnal cast Jacob a disparaging glance. "A teenager's sex drive is far closer to a vampire's appetite than an adult's. I can fuck a woman in her thirties to death in no time. While the innocence of the young is often tedious, it can also be very . . . Intriguing. Teaching them about unnatural desires. " He lifted a bottle, uncorked and opened it to sniff. "Their hormones are too strong to allow their morality or narrow upbringing to hold out against the craving for long. Melinda is special in those areas. You've not lived until you've watched her tears fall in delicious shame as she's writhing, her legs spread, her body on the brink of an orgasm I'll make her wait hours to have. " He was just going to have to kill him. It was as simple a thing as knowing that the dogs would need dinner in an hour. Kill visiting vampire, dispose of body–preferably by burning–then feed the dogs.

Jacob stepped forward. Carnal turned away, missing the menacing gesture, though from Melinda's indrawn breath, Jacob knew she didn't. The brief flare of hope in her eyes, quickly extinguished, nearly choked him. "Lyss–Lady Lyssa. " Carnal stumbled over the greeting, though Jacob suspected he clearly remembered she'd rescinded her hus- band's permission for Carnal to call her familiarly. "I thought I heard you come in. Though of course you're such a delicate, quiet creature you've probably been standing there for quite a while, listening to me educate your young servant on our ways. " Jacob turned. His lady stood at the end of the hall, framed by the ten-foot-high, arched, stained glass window there. St. Francis of As- sisi raised his hands to offer food to over a hundred differently col- ored birds hovering in the sky around him. Bursts of sunlight in rose and gold glass outlined them and haloed her. While it was now dark, she had outside lights positioned to allow enjoyment of the stained glass even during the night. Wearing black slacks with a slim belt and gold blouse, her hair up, she looked tailored, self-contained. Even from here, though, Jacob could feel the latent energy pulsing around her. Restless. Dangerous. An elegant diamond bracelet draped the thin bones of her wrist. Diamond studs adorned her double-pierced ears. A vampire had to pierce her body each time she chose to wear post jewelry, since once the posts were removed, the openings healed completely. Lyssa re- moved her earrings every morning. Female vanity had always been a remarkable thing to him, but his lady's devotion to it had brought him to a new level of admiration. When she inclined her head to their visitor, it was a cold gesture. Jacob couldn't hear any thoughts from her. All her shields were tightly locked down, but his intuition sensed those currents of en- ergy circling in the air of the room like the closeness of an impend- ing thunderstorm. Carnal had moved toward her. Vampire rules of courtesy re- quired a distance of ten feet unless the higher-ranking vampire in- vited the other vampire within that personal space boundary. Jacob noted that Carnal stopped at the proper distance and then took one additional step, as if he were mocking the rule.

Or her. Lyssa did not remove her attention from his face. "What is your business in my territory?" "As you know from our meeting at the mall, I am only passing through, my lady. A trip to the Midwest. Your husband was kind enough to acquaint me with many of the western territory overlords. I've been doing some fortunate trading of talent and resources over the past year. " She studied him in silence. The quiet of the hall began to have a weight to it that pressed in on Jacob, made him itch for a weapon. Carnal cocked his head. "While I am merely observing the ritual courtesies you demanded, I was hoping I might interest you in shar- ing dinner with me. " "I am otherwise engaged. " Carnal's back was to Jacob, so he saw the slight lift of the shoul- der. When the vampire moved back to the side bar, his countenance was accepting, cordial. "Since you have no immediate need of my company, then, allow me to pour your wine and we'll complete the formality. " He glanced at the bottle. "Your preferred vintage has changed. When Rex lived, you preferred muscatel. Port. This is barely more than grape juice. " "It's made with an exotic flower, only available in one place in Asia. " As far as Jacob could tell, the only part of Lyssa's face moving was her lips, an eerie effect. "The blooms must be cut at the end of the spring season. Exactly one hundred bottles have been made in the three-hundred-year life of the tree. It grows in the memorial gar- den of a great teacher, Yang-Sun. I studied with him. He taught me much about patience. Inner silence. Balance. " Carnal paused. Jacob shifted so he could see the angle of focus between the two of them. As she reached the last sentence, Lyssa's pronunciation had become more exact. On the last word he saw the tips of her fangs. Her eyes glowed in the dim recesses of that end of the hall. While Jacob's section was modestly lit, she'd apparently purposely put herself in shadows. "There is one pure note of silence within ourselves, " she continued.

"So powerful that if we stepped inside it, we could blink our eyes and save the world from evil. Or destroy it utterly, like the soul of an un- natural creature never meant to exist. Watch it shatter and blow away as dust. Forgotten. Insignificant. Never to be remembered ex- cept with a child's mocking laughter. " Melinda had crept to Jacob's side again. He couldn't blame her for seeking comfort. The mood in the hall was deadly, and almost all of it was coming from his lady now. The young girl's fingers touched his hand at his side, linked with his fingers. Her breast was pressing against his arm, her hip bone against his buttock. Her breath was sweet and soft on his shoulder. While her physical actions might support the inconceivable things Carnal was saying about her, nothing else did. Melinda had no natural sexual aggression. Either Carnal had her trained to act like a nymphomaniac for his own amusement or he thought Jacob stupid enough to fall for the obvious distraction. But it made no sense. For Carnal to attempt to harm Lyssa in her own home would be suicidal. Carnal pricked his finger with his fang to put several drops of blood in Lyssa's glass. He reached for the bottle of wine as it drained into the bowl. There. As Carnal picked up the wine bottle, the finger next to the pricked finger shifted a minuscule amount. Something wavered on the glass edge. Jacob narrowed his gaze. In the dim light of the hall, he knew the eyes could play tricks, but his intuition made him sure. Carnal splashed several swallows of wine efficiently into the glass. "My lady. " Jacob stepped forward, shrugging away from Melinda. "He put something in your wine. " Lyssa's gaze flickered to him, then back to Carnal. "Your servant speaks out of turn, my lady. He has faulty eye- sight. " Carnal snapped his fingers as if summoning a pet. "Melinda, come here. We shall prove our intentions to Lady Lyssa. When they are proven to be honorable"–he gave Jacob a scathing look–"I hope you'll give me a guest's right to chastise him for the insult. " When Melinda came to him, moving without hesitation but somehow conveying rigid protest in the lines of her body, he curled his hand around her nape, tugging on her hair.

"My little nymph. Sweet child. Try this exotic wine Lady Lyssa says holds the secrets of the universe. It will taste like the best candy. Just like you. " In a blink, his voice had become tender, seductive. Jacob knew vampire allure could disguise even a monster as evil as Carnal, but witnessing it was a jarring step into a different reality. As Gideon said, he easily could coax an impressionable girl to him, bind her before she knew what was happening to her. Obediently she put her lips to the cup, tipping her head back when he exerted pressure on her chin with his thumb. She swal- lowed, then again more frantically as he gave it to her in one draught. It was not much more than a quarter cup, but still too much for the one swallow in which he forced her to consume the rest. "It was a common Inquisition torture, forcing someone to drink too much. " Carnal watched her struggle with the discomfort of the fluid ballooning down her throat into her stomach. Jacob realized Carnal was directing his words to him. An attempt to intimidate or threaten, he supposed. He remained silent and still, though every- thing in him wanted to pull the girl away from him. My lady, your silence is getting damn irritating. Her preternatural stillness at the end of the hallway was just flat-out disturbing. "The Church wasn't allowed to invade the body, cut it open with interrogation techniques, " Carnal continued. "That entirely unspiri- tual practice was reserved to the secular authorities. Therefore, if the Church couldn't obtain a confession their way, they might turn the person over to the local law and see if it could be sliced out of them. But I find the Church's nonsurgical methods were most inventive. " Setting the glass aside, he turned his attention back to the lady of the house. "A waste of your beautiful and rare wine, Lady Lyssa. I hope you punish him severely for this. " Reaching out, he collected the drops of wine that had escaped from the corner of Melinda's mouth. Well trained, she didn't jerk back, but her eyes were wide and mouth tight, anticipating pain. He jerked his head. "Go and stand next to her arrogant servant while I prepare my lady another cup. " Melinda turned and moved toward Jacob. Her eyes were water- ing from the strain of taking down the wine. It was a good thing the wine wasn't more potent.

As thin as she was, Jacob doubted Carnal let her eat much, just enough steroid-laden meat to maintain her breast cup size. Carnal placed two more drops of his blood in the cup and poured another splash of wine, this time in exaggerated, open movements. "So your servant doesn't have another attack of paranoia, " he ex- plained mockingly. "Perhaps he would behave better if you castrated him. You don't need an inferior human cock when I'd be happy to offer mine. A mortal can hardly be expected to have the stamina to please you. " Lyssa watched all of them as if they were part of a play she'd paid money to attend, a silent member of an audience cloaked in dark- ness. Carnal took several steps forward again. Paused at the invisible ten-foot barrier and extended the cup. "My lady?" The night she'd marked Lord Brian, the ritual had been far more intimate. She'd taken the blood directly from his throat, taunting Jacob as he stood silently behind her chair only a few steps away. But she'd needed more of Brian's blood because he was staying in her territory and was under her protection. For Carnal, all that was re- quired were these few drops in a cup to allow her to monitor his movement through her territory. It was an act of surety, part of the whole manual on etiquette governing vampire interaction, a Book of Shadows embraced by each new Council. When Jacob reviewed it under Thomas's tutelage, there were times he understood why many of the younger vampires made fun of it. However, knowing how quickly vampires could revert to unthinkable brutality, he'd come to understand the uncanny genius of it. It had been surprisingly effective in helping vampires govern their bloodlust, for it imposed a detailed, Sun Kingtype aristocratic hauteur on their personal interactions that appealed to them. This was a simple, standard ritual. In the mundane world, no dif- ferent from someone paying a toll. Yet as she stared at that glass, Ja- cob sensed something rising in her, something as unstable as an atom exposed to forces that could cause it to split and become nu- clear.

"My lady?" Carnal's brow was raised, a slight smile upon his lips. He took a step forward, then another. Coming into her space unin- vited. Her gaze rose, her eyes dark pools holding the capability of destruction. Jacob couldn't tell if it was outgoing, where she might obliterate Carnal, or incoming, something attacking her vital or- gans, destructive to herself. If she wasn't so damn closed off he could tell. His gut wasn't helping him a bit. Something was off. At her lack of response to Carnal, the way she studied him as if he were merely an uncomfortable thought, rather than a physical threat directly before her, it finally came to Jacob. Even when she was shielding her thoughts from him, there was an essence to her that was accessible, touchable. But it was missing right now. A woman who had been violated shut down when con- fronted by her violator. Instinctively, all her defenses would be raised against anything male. Wagons pulling around in a circle, warding against attack from any side. While it hurt him to acknowledge that was what she was doing, Jacob knew it was a survival response. "Don't, " she said through stiff lips, raising a hand to stop Carnal's forward movement. He wasn't sure if she was anticipating him or speaking to Car- nal, but Jacob was already moving, sensing a threat his instincts assured him was there. Formalities be damned; she needed him at her side. A cry split the air, interrupting whatever Lyssa had been about to say. Jacob spun in time to see Melinda drop to her knees and col- lapse on her side, her body convulsing, fingers clutching at the air, throat working. She bucked to her back, her head and heels the only parts of her touching the ground before she flung herself back on her side as if a monster were manipulating her limbs. Jacob lunged to her, yanking the radio from his belt. But it was already too late. Before he could hit the emergency number, her body slowly eased back to the floor, death rattling in her throat, her eyes glazing over. Foam spittle gathered at her lips. "Hemlock, mixed with some other special ingredients to hasten the process, " Carnal remarked. Jacob raised his head, torn between horror and fury as the vampire studied his dead servant with indifference.

"In a vampire, it pro- duces the reputed paralysis, giving another vampire temporary control of him or her. " He glanced over his shoulder at Lyssa, who remained motionless, her pupils wide and dark in the shadows. "There's also an aphrodisiac mixed in, so it's a delightful concoc- tion. Just enough pain to blend with the pleasure of arousing a body restrained by its own muscle paralysis. I thought you might fi nd it enjoyable, as well as appreciate the devious nature of the ploy. I doubt any of your other suitors have been as creative. " He lifted a shoulder, glanced contemptuously at Melinda. "Unfortu- nately, what is pleasurable for us is fatal to a human. But fascinat- ingly painful, even if for a disappointingly short time. Melinda was not a fighter. " He made a face abruptly. "God, the worst thing about human death is the release of the bowels and bladder. However, her blood is still warm and quite tasty, at least for the next few minutes. My gift to you. As you know, young blood is quite sweet. Let me get you a taste. " His eyes glittered at the implication of Lyssa taking blood from his fingers. When Lyssa's attention rose from the girl back to him in reac- tion, he smiled, a slow curve of his thin lips. He began to move toward Melinda, giving Jacob a curt look. "Step aside, servant. " Jacob stood up. Lifting his arm, he fired the arrow from the wrist sheath beneath his sleeve. If he'd gotten the damn adjustment worked out, it would have gone straight through the hellspawn's dark heart. As it was, it lodged in his shoulder, two inches too high, but close enough to wipe that smirk off his face. He had a blink to think another arrow might work and then Carnal was on him, shoving him hard into the wall, a roar of rage blazing hot on him, the vamp's hand on his neck. In the same flash of time, Jacob fell to the floor. Carnal was now on the opposite side of the room, his body plowed into the masonry of the hallway wall. Sheetrock caved in an outline around his body, dust rising around him. Lyssa had hit the side bar in the maneuver and it crashed to the floor, making the thump of his body trivial in comparison to the din of shattering glass on the wood floor next to the carpet runner. Jacob scrambled to his feet.

"Stay where you are. " Her voice was cool, authoritative. Whatever had held her frozen several moments ago was gone as if it had never existed. His lady was fully present, giving him a cursory look that told him she expected him to obey. She turned her green gaze on the vampire she held against the wall with one hand on his throat. "He's dead, Lyssa, " Carnal snarled, coughing against her grip. "I'll kill him where he stands. " "He is my servant, to reward or punish as I see fit. Marked by me and therefore my property. My slave. " Her voice hardened as did her grip, for Carnal gagged against it. "You may seek what recompense the Council feels I owe you for the insult, but they'll laugh at you for your presumption. This is a failed courtship ploy only, and my young, inexperienced servant took it as a threat upon my life. Such loyalty is a boon. Jacob used to be a vampire hunter, Carnal. It is one of his many talents. " "I was nearly successful in my attempt, " Carnal growled. When he reached over Lyssa's hold, she didn't interfere as he yanked out the arrow with a grunt, let it fall to the floor. Jacob wished he'd poi- soned the tip. Carnal made a visible attempt to rein back his temper, despite the fact she continued to hold him pinned. "I knew whether your servant had perverse tastes or an overinflated sense of honor, the little creature could prove a useful distraction. His focus is con- siderable. Your choice is perhaps better than I first thought. But he's a guard dog, Lyssa, not submissive enough to be your servant. He's too young. Too alpha and temperamental.

"He's not the one in this room I consider inferior to his station. " Her words dropped into the air like ice. Jacob felt the coldness to his marrow. "Ten feet of space, elaborate rituals of courtesy to try to pretend we aren't what we are, " Carnal hissed. "They're sheep for our slaugh- ter. All of mankind should be our slaves. If we agree on nothing else, I do not fathom why we don't agree on that. " He had balls, Jacob gave him that. His lady's heat had turned the hallway into one of the lower regions of Hell. Watching her and Carnal closely, Jacob knelt by Melinda's still and lifeless body. Pick- ing up one of her hands, he verified the lack of pulse.

"You were part of Rex's life that he forced into mine, " Lyssa said to Carnal, her voice flat. "I have no desire to share a conversation with you, let alone anything else. You're not welcome here. " She glanced at the broken glass on the carpet runner, the various spilled wines and liquors staining it, and shifted her attention to the young woman whose postmortem waste was doing the same. "You'll go back to your own territory, taking the shortest route out of mine. If you wish to get to the Midwest, you'll circle around to the west or fly. If you come in my territory again, I'll kill you. " She dropped him, took a step back. My lady, watch out. Jacob sprang up, lunging forward. But even with his ability to anticipate what Carnal was about to do, he was no match for a vam- pire's speed. With a roar, Carnal flung himself on her. As he leaped, Lyssa ducked under him. Catching him midbody, she flipped him, spinning so he ended up on his belly on the carpet and wood. His face pressed against the shards of broken glass while she pinned his neck with one hand and held the arrow he'd dropped against his back. "You think you have the power and strength to woo me, keep me?" She raked the arrow downward, tearing his shirt and finding skin. Kept going, moving over the hump of his ass until the lethal point pressed against a lower, far more vulnerable area. "Perhaps I should fuck you with this until you bleed on yourself, over and over. Bind you in a stock you couldn't escape and watch for my pleasure. Would you like that? Would you?" Her voice ratcheted up into a snarl, startling in its abrupt jerk from silky murmur to abrasive threat. Carnal flinched as she tore the back seam of his trousers with the tip. "No. No, my lady. I . . . I'll leave. I concede. You are far above my station. I should not have presumed so much. " Jacob saw something ripple over her skin, something between disgust and desire. It startled him, for the menace of it crawled over his own skin and stoked the room's already uncomfortable heat. As she blinked and the wall sconces reflected crimson in her gaze, he realized what he was seeing was a war with her own bloodlust. Since she'd been alive for so many centuries, it rarely got a grip on her, but he saw it now.

The desire to rip, destroy and wallow in the blood of her enemy. Carnal must have felt it, too, because at the end of his admission his voice had become unsteady. Jacob found himself fer- vently wishing his lady would lose her infamous control and tear him to pieces, even if she vanquished them all. Carnal cried out in sudden fear as she jerked him up at a painful angle and sank her fangs into his neck. Took a scant swallow and then withdrew, wiping her mouth distastefully with the back of her hand. "You thought I was weak, " she hissed. "That night had nothing to do with you. You were never his equal, never more than his toy. You were his bitch, because I wouldn't be. " Carnal made a low sound of anger, but it was like the hiss of a frightened cat. It subsided entirely when Lyssa added her knee to the small of his back. "If I hear that you so much as took a wrong turn to get out of my territory, I will hunt you down. I will chain you inside a coffin with a handful of nettles stuffed in your mouth, your nostrils"–she flicked them with the tip of the arrow, earning a flinch–"and in your ass. I'll tie them in knots around your cock. Then I won't release you until I can stomach the sight of you. Which may mean forever. Your screams for mercy will be music to my ears. But not as much as your silence, when you realize you're not important enough for anyone to interfere with my will on this. " The venom in her threat was overpowering, touching everything within distance of it. Her whisper echoed in the hallway, pricking even Jacob's bowels with fear. She meant every word, for her blood- lust was spilling into his mind, telling him how strong her desire was to do exactly as she'd said. But in the time it took Jacob to move forward another step, though he was not sure what he was intending to do, she was stand- ing back at the end of the hallway. Eerily in the same pose she'd held when they first saw her, haloed by the gentle St. Francis offering food to the birds. Slowly Carnal rose to his knees, his frightened eyes and the streaks of blood caused by the glass the only color in his face.

He got to his feet awkwardly. Gone was the mocking smugness. He kept his eyes down as he backed away, and there was a tremor in his hands. When he turned toward his dead servant, he came toe-to-toe with Jacob. "No, " Jacob said. "You won't touch her. " Submission to his lady apparently did not mean submission to a human servant's insult. Carnal backhanded him. Or at least Jacob assumed that was what had happened, for it felt like he was struck in the face by a battering ram he never saw coming. He landed hard on his back nearly twenty feet from Melinda's body. Rolled to his feet at the same time his lady uttered a sharp command. Perhaps his en- raged mind wouldn't have registered it, but she blasted it into his brain the way she'd done with Bran. On your knees, Jacob. Facing me. "My lady–" "Now. Obey me. " Her attention flicked toward him. "Or you will regret it in ways you cannot even imagine. " His jaw flexing with the effort, he dropped to one knee and bowed his head, though confusion throbbed in its clash with the force of the rage welling in him. "You will leave your servant with us. Her blood is mine. " Her gaze remained tinged with red as she leveled it upon Carnal. "Get out. Now. I should have killed you the first time Rex brought you home. " With a snarl, Carnal spun on his heel and stalked toward the end of the hallway. "And Carnal?" When she snapped it out, Jacob had the satisfac- tion of seeing him jump, though the expression he turned to her was sullen. "My lady?" "In two minutes, I will release the dogs. That gives you enough time to get in your car and drive it off my property. Just. Don't tarry. " As the vampire's footsteps quickened, signaling his departure from the hall, Jacob began to raise his head.

"Stay as you are. Stupid, foolish man. " Her tone was scathing as he listened to her move in his direction. "Don't speak until I give you permission or I swear I'll break your neck. I'm out of patience with all of you. " In the corner of his eye, he saw her kneel at Melinda's side. She took the girl's lifeless hand and studied the nails, her own perfectly manicured woman's cuticles catching the dim sconce light as she passed her fingertips over the flowers preferred by the fancy of a child. He didn't know what he'd do if Lyssa did in fact choose to drink from Melinda, but instead she feathered a hand over the girl's forehead, closed her eyes. Wiped the spittle from the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief she had in the pocket of her slacks. "Do you know John 14:27?" Of all the things he'd expected her say, that wasn't one of them. When Jacob shook his head, she spoke the words soft ly. " `Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. ' " She raised her gaze, looked at him then. "There are several trans- lations of the Bible in my library, as you well know. Take her deep into the forest preserve and bury her. Say that over her grave and whatever else you think she'll need for peace, though I think release from Carnal's ser vice satisfies that adequately on its own. " He struggled to get his mind around what she was saying. "But . . . Her family?" "She has no family. Carnal likely bought her from them. There's an underground market for the young for vampires. Somehow, at some point, a favor was done, so there was a binding on a firstborn. It's an old vampire tradition to secure loyalty. Feudal. Taking a firstborn into service, utilizing the trade skills and resources of the family. " "No one will look for her. " Jacob made it a flat statement, know- ing better than to offer it as a question. His lady couldn't give him an answer he'd want to hear. Humans were expendable in the vampire world. Hadn't Debra as much as suggested it? Hadn't his brother left him a note hammering it home this morning? She will never view you as an equal. Even his lady had emphasized it in myriad ways.

She'd just commanded him to bury a young woman like a stray cat they'd found on the side of the road. An act of compassion for certain, but all they would do. A human servant could be buried in an unmarked grave, the death challenged only if the Master or Mis- tress was offended by it. "The grave does not need to be unmarked, Jacob. Mark it any way you wish. " She picked up his thought, of course. At this moment, he could almost hate her. "In your world, I have no value except as your slave. Your prop- erty. " As she studied him in her dispassionate way, he couldn't help but notice she kept her hand on the girl's cheek, stroking her temple. Perhaps Melinda's mother had done that. Imagined her daughter growing up to be married, a mother, someone with a successful ca- reer. Someone who won awards or traveled to amazing places. "Yes, Jacob, " Lyssa said at last. "And that truth just saved your life. "