The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Sixteen)

T he courtyard where the evening's entertainments were being held was in the center of the castle. The area was cobblestoned and embedded with elaborate fountains that sparkled with lights under a sky filled with stars. Tall maypoles with fluttering, colorful ribbons marked out areas for groupings of lords and ladies and the various entertainments. Jugglers moved in and out of these bound- aries, handling flame torches whose arcing paths and rush of sound gave the night a mystical flavor. Servants of both genders in various harem wear performed graceful, sinuous belly dances and acrobatic feats for their intently watching vampire audience. Musicians and bards played flutes and steel drums in different corners. There were even carnival tricks Jacob recognized, like the eating of fire. On the outskirts of these areas were small tents for the jewelers and craftsmen his Mistress had mentioned. He saw the blacksmith in one corner doing a busy trade with his branding irons. It reminded him of a cross between the Faire they'd attended and a medical convention with pharma- ceutical vendors waiting patiently on the outskirts. He found his Mistress easily enough. In the center of the court- yard the largest marked-out area was for the Council. Divans for the members and his lady had been provided, as well as cushions for those they invited to join them around the most dramatic of the en- tertainment displays.

The snug silver wraparound dress she wore had a fan train in the back, the point of which drew attention to the top point of her but- tocks. The back of the dress was low enough to drive a man to dis- traction wondering if he'd get a glimpse of that provocative dip at the tailbone. Her hair was done as he'd dressed it, though they'd agreed on a twist over her shoulder that complemented the onyx stone necklace she wore and matching onyx and diamond earrings. The way she reclined on her hip, the dress hugged her body and cre- ated a pleasing,curvy terrain from her shoulder to her slender ankles, one of which was adorned with a thin diamond anklet. She wore silver ankle-strap sandals. With one hand lying loosely on her hip, she could have been Cleopatra. More than one man was eyeing her appreciatively, even though there was of course no shortage of beau- tiful women. She simply stood out. He looked at her and saw the vampire queen, a warrioress. A cruel tyrant, a gentle nurse. A girl. A cold, haughty bitch, a generous and loving woman. A woman who loved fiercely. She'd stayed by a husband who'd been lost to violent madness. She'd shielded Thomas with her own life and risked all the power she was now trying to protect, all for the benefit of others. Nothing ever just for herself. Except perhaps for the one time she'd reached out a hand into the fiery desert sun to draw a knight back into her embrace. He shifted his attention to the central entertainment. Twelve fe- male servants, all naked and kneeling in a circle. To enhance the impression of a flower in the best Isadora Duncan tradition, they were curled forward, their elbows and arms stretched out, foreheads pressed to the stones. Since they all had long hair in various colors, the hair was fanned out in a perfect shape, trimmed to form scallop- ing around the outer edge of the circle. Real flower petals in different hues were scattered over their backs. In the center of the circle formed by their bodies stood twelve black men of extremely dark complexion, also naked. They had their heads bowed and arms around each other's shoulders so the overall effect was of a white-petaled flower with a brown center, like a daisy scattered with color from those strewn petals.

He'd found Debra at last. She was one of the prostrate women. He recognized the others as equally midlevel-ranked servants. It was too much to hope the purpose of the artistic arrangement was just for aesthetic enjoyment. Noting that the servants of the Council members who had ar- rived were kneeling at the feet of their respective Masters and Mis- tresses, he eased into the circle of divans and did the same at the feet of his Mistress. His palm itched to run along the silk-clad line of her hip and feel her bottom through the thin material. His lady had an exceptional ass. While he was all too aware after his conversation with Devlin what wasn't advisable, he wanted to give her some kind of tactile awareness of his presence. You think I don't feel your heat the moment you come into a room, Sir Vagabond? In answer, he did ease his hand onto her foot. He braced his thumb on the thin heel, his fingers lightly curled over her ankle. Sitting there as regal as the queen she was, so beautiful most men would never dream that they'd have a right to touch her, he couldn't help but think of her sleep-rumpled in his arms, soft and yielding, her fangs in his throat, her slim hand resting on his chest. As beauti- ful as she was now, he thought she was perhaps even more beautiful like that. You are stroking my ego. The ego of an old, old woman. He stifled a smile, maintaining the solemn mien expected, though he wondered if the others were conducting similarly entertaining di- alogues with their Masters or Mistresses. You are ancient, my lady. As a goddess is ancient. You are why the word timeless exists. Charmer. Stop preying on me with your distracting thoughts and behave. He turned his attention to observation. Lyssa had one invited guest. Sitting on the cushions next to her divan was Lady Daniela. Devlin had arrived, though he stood at attention to her at the outside of the circle. Daniela was leaned forward, the ladies head-to-head, sharing murmured confidences. Because he picked up a rare easiness in his lady's manner toward Devlin's Mistress, the way most women might treat a friend, Jacob studied the woman with interest.

Daniela was gold to Lyssa's raven. Her hair was like the spun gold of fairy tales, dressed in beads and ribbons. She wore a Roman- type garb, soft white silk, the fabric defined by a crisscrossing of silken cord with tassels of gemstones made to complement the beaten gold collar around her throat and pendants at her lobes. Her eyes were deep blue, enhancing the soft beauty of her face. There was a good-naturedness there that seemed unusually revealing for a vam- pire. He knew enough not to underestimate any vampire, however. Even one who looked as if she should have a flock of bluebirds chat- tering over her head. He suspected each vampire tailored his or her strengths to enhance their allure. For Lyssa, it was her dark mystery. For Lady Danny, it was disarming goodness. Looking at the blond vampire, Jacob suspected she could con- vince a man that he'd found a treasure to take to his bed as well as home to meet his parents. Whom she could easily drink for lunch. Lord Uthe had arrived, filling the last empty divan. When he gave a slight bow to Lyssa, she nodded in return. Jacob had ex- changed many correspondences with Uthe's servant over the past couple of months, so Jacob knew Lyssa rightly recognized him as the strongest force for stability on the Council. Lord Belizar rose, drawing the attention of the gathered circle and those beyond it. The courtyard began to quiet down. The indi- vidual entertainers withdrew to the outskirts, making the dual ring of servants, the "flower, " the center of attention. "Now that all Council members, servants and their guests are here, we have a special entertainment planned. " His gaze flickered over Jacob. "Many of you witnessed the fine display of weaponry this afternoon. Lady Lyssa's new servant is indeed a credit to her, a wor- thy opponent. As such, we are going to pay him a special honor. He will be the main focus of our event this evening. " Oh, holy Christ on buttered toast. At Belizar's gesture, the black men moved forward and knelt, one man behind each woman.

A motor engaged, eliciting a murmur from the assembled, because the men had been concealing a sculp- ture anchored on the mirrored center of a dais that now rose to form a new center within the flower arrangement. The sculpture was a smooth, stylized version of a reclined nude male body, with all the dips necessary to drape a woman over it in a variety of provocative poses. The nude body also had an erect, angled phallus. "Lady Lyssa's servant is commanded to choose any petal among this flower of slaves and bring her onto the dais to ser vice him to climax with her mouth. " Belizar did not even deign to look toward Jacob as he delivered the edict. "As Lyssa's servant is ser viced, the lower tier of men will stoke their lust in the succulent fruit kneeling before them. When they prepare to climax, they will do so simultaneously. An impres- sive display, if they manage it. " He bowed in Lyssa's direction. "As with all of our games, my lady, I offer you a wild card you may utilize at any point. To give your ser- vant an inspired and prolonged performance, we now offer him an aphrodisiac, in case he has the common human fear of performing in public. " Laughter swept the crowd. Jacob glanced toward Lyssa, but her expression was neutral, her mind silent, telling him she expected him to do what was being asked of him. Christ. A masked servant was allowed inside the circle of divans. She stepped to Jacob's side with a deep curtsy of deference to Lyssa. It was not an easy maneuver since she was having to keep her back ramrod straight. Around her throat was a silken garrote attached to a silver cup. The cup floated on top of a bowl of crimson fluid held in her cleav- age by way of a rigid parallel harness that squeezed the generous breasts and distended the nipples. Jacob noticed that when he lifted the cup, he would have to either bring her close enough to press her breasts and the rest of her against him, or the garrote would choke her. "The restraint is designed by our own Lady Marquet from the Canadian provinces, " Belizar explained. "It is available for order through her servant if you like it.

There are those who of course choose to make our water girl stand her ground while they drink, testing her fortitude and trust as they cut off her air. Others prefer to bring her very close and allow her hands to wander as they will. " The masked slave had brown eyes and carefully trimmed nails. A birthmark on her right breast. A gasp swept through the crowd as Jacob drew the knife he carried beneath the back waistband of his slacks. The torchlight flashed off the blade as he sliced through the garrote strap. With anger, he noted the deep marks on her throat caused by those who'd done as Belizar described. Feel her pussy, Jacob. Lyssa's voice echoed in his head. Obey me. Reach between her legs and feel her. Reluctantly, he did. The girl watched him with heavy-lidded eyes that suggested prolonged exposure to inhaling the libation beneath her nose might be as effective as drinking it. She was soaked. At his faintest touch she shuddered, parting her lips. "Your servant is still young enough to be affected by puritanical qualms, Lady Lyssa. " While Belizar's voice suggested he was simply amused by Jacob's reaction, the hard look in his eyes when Jacob turned his attention to him did not. "But there is a pleasure in that as well, " Lady Helga, another Council member, pointed out. "It's intriguing to watch them learn and lose such inhibitions. " Jacob decided that all that was missing was a set of bars dividing the humans from the vampires. And one of those gumball machines which, for a quarter, would provide a small handful of food to feed the zoo animals, or in this case, the zoo humans. With vicious satisfaction, Jacob tipped the bowl, watched the red fluid rush down the girl's stomach, over her shaved mons and down her thighs to her bare feet. Turning away, he bowed deeply to Lyssa. "I need no such aid, " he said. "Just the pleasure of my lady's attention and command will keep me hard more than long enough. " At the appreciative reaction from his audience, Belizar's jaw tightened. But he inclined his head. "Very well. Choose the woman you desire, Irishman. "

He'd been a showman most of his adult life. He'd learned enough about vampires to know what they appreciated, though it was a dan- gerous line to walk. Jacob raised a brow and pivoted more fully toward Lyssa, giving her a deliberate look. A smatter of amusement and applause passed through the group. "Every man's choice, " Lord Uthe called out. "But not an option, servant. Choose from the flower. " Others from outside the canopy had gathered to watch the enter- tainment, reminding him of his time in the circus, though the per- formances offered had been nothing like this. Jacob suspected Carnal was out there, but he didn't look for him. He really didn't want to know if the bastard would be watching this. My lady, would you choose? She shook her head and surprised him by speaking. "I want to see your choice. " Quelling an uneasy feeling at the lightness of her response, the faint smile on her lips that seemed stiff to him, he began a slow walk around the outer perimeter of the "petals. " As he considered each one, he kept in mind the entertainment of his audience. He paused, considered, moved on, increasing tension and speculation. There were some bets being placed. All the women were beautiful. Their raised haunches had been oiled to a high polish, same as the bodies of the dark-skinned men behind them who had set their fingers against the white flesh of the hips, preparing to drive deep. Either these men were specifically se- lected for their equipment or the stereotype about black men was exponentially true. It was not going to be an easy entry for most of the women. Even worse, Belizar was now explaining that the men would be fucking the asses of the women displayed before them. Because of that, each woman selected was a virgin to anal sex, which would add a dose of pain and some anticipatory fear to the mix. Part of him abhorred it. Part of him was grudgingly fascinated. He himself had been repeatedly aroused by all the games vampires devised to plumb the depths of human sensuality. He couldn't deny the mores of a lifetime had been challenged considerably in his lady's service.

Seanna had stated it as much less than a day ago. "It makes you hot, doesn't it?" What he was being commanded to do was an empty, purely phys- ical performance of his cock. It couldn't compare with the deep ful- fillment, the perfect solitude of being deep inside his lady while next to the fire blazing in her bedroom or lying in her bed together. But even as he thought it, he knew he couldn't rationalize this moment to the purely physical. Being commanded to perform for his lady's plea- sure did have an emotional component to it. It roused a primal fury and lust in him he was incapable of explaining. With her eyes on him, he could get erect, could perform almost any sexual act required of him in public. Lord knew she'd tested him enough to know that. The most recent memory of it was less than two weeks ago. She'd been at home, for it was daylight, but it was getting near twilight. He'd taken Bran with him on errands and had given him a break in a public park. They'd been running. Stripping off his T-shirt to play tug-of-war with the garment, Jacob had tussled with the dog. When he finally stopped, collapsing onto the grass in a shady group of trees on the edge of the mowed green, he'd felt her wake, reaching out with a mental touch to confirm awareness of his whereabouts. There'd been a pair of women nearby, having a picnic. He hadn't really noticed them until Lyssa saw them through his eyes. She reg- istered what he had been oblivious to, their surreptitious, apprecia- tive glances. His Mistress had commanded him to lie back on the grass. He'd been covered by distance and the shadow of the tree's canopy so that no one else could see him but them. She'd com- manded him to open his jeans, under which he wore nothing, lie there with one hand behind his head and stroke himself with the other as if he thought no one was watching. Despite his discomfort, his lady had made it a command, her purring voice spurring him on, telling him how wet he was making those avidly watching women who were pretending not to notice so he wouldn't stop. In the end, they were openly staring, and he was staring back, watching all the subtle, lovely signs of arousal. Peaked nipples, hands absently pressing to their throats, touching their own lips. The shift of their bodies, the tightening of thighs.

When he told his lady later he'd expected them to run screaming for the cops about a man exposing himself in the park, Lyssa had merely smiled. "Timing and presentation are everything to a woman, Sir Vagabond. And to vampires. " So now as he strolled with apparent casualness along the diame- ter of the circle, he let his fingertips graze the bare backs of his pet- als, his touch whispering along their napes, catching the actual petals scattered there. They were on a slightly raised platform as well to put them at a better angle for being fucked by the waiting black men, so they were right at the level of his hand. Round and round the merry-go-round, slowly. Blond hair, silky brown, deep black. He paused once more by a redhead, then kept going. Now as he walked, he unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it loose. Stripped off his belt as he removed his trousers and shoes, letting the strap swing from his hand. As he shrugged off the shirt, he held on to it, along with the belt. When he reached Debra, he was naked. Bending, he took her hands. With his heightened third-mark senses, he knew she was cold, though mainly from nerves. So he brought her to her feet be- fore him and threaded her arms through the sleeves. He looped the belt around her wrists, knotted it so he could place his hand on the joining point to walk through the space she'd just vacated and use the offered shoulder of the man behind her to step onto the dais. By the time they'd done that, another woman took her place as a petal to close the circle again. The shirt came down to Debra's bare thighs, the open front mak- ing a delectable display of the crescents of her breasts, her shaved and oiled mons. He heard some murmuring, sensed the vampires' surprise at his choice to restrain her hands, play Dominant to her. It was all for show. You intended to choose her all along. Yes. He answered his lady, picked up on something dark in her thoughts, but couldn't investigate it further as Belizar's voice cut through the silent conversation. "I'm certain Lord Brian will appreciate your interest in increas- ing his servant's experience, since he has so little time to do so. " Get on with it, you old bastard, Jacob thought.

So eager, are we? He glanced toward Lyssa when he heard his lady's acid thought, but she was not looking at him. She was studying Debra intently, somewhat like a cat examining a quivering mouse. She seemed par- ticularly absorbed in the way his shirt hem grazed her thighs. Debra wasn't cut out for this, and no matter what Seanna said, no amount of training was going to do it. His precognitive ability told him she was one step away from a full-scale panic attack. She would shame her Master, and that terrified her even more. Her hands were shaking under his. Maybe this was part and parcel of learning to be a servant in the vampire world, but he wasn't sure if he could have done any of it from the beginning if his lady's mind wasn't inside his own, helping him get through it . . . She is not going to be harmed, Jacob. She's just learning to over- come her inhibitions to serve the pleasure of her Master. What about you, in that park, doing what you thought you couldn't do? You got hard and came solely because of my voice in your mind. Goaded by those women's eyes on your cock, the way they stayed glued to the way your hand was rubbing yourself. Exactly. I could do that because you were there. It makes a differ- ence. And Debra was a woman. Where the hell was Lord Brian to help steady her? Protect her. She has a different type of Master. One I'm sure that makes her ap- preciate you all the more. My lady? Tend to your task and stop whining. You're irritating me. Frowning, he nevertheless had to do as she bid, for Belizar chose to add another element to the mix. "Over the course of a century or two, Lady Lyssa has taught us all manner of ways to get along with one another, how to mend fences. " Belizar flashed Lyssa a smile that made Jacob want to roll his eyes. "There is some animosity between our two servants as a result of their conflict, Lady Lyssa. To get them to shake hands and be in accord again, Malachi will join your servant on the dais. While the lovely Debra takes your servant in her mouth, Malachi will take the other end.

As it is obvious she needs some tutelage to understand total surrender, he will apply his sizeable cock to her far too tightly clenched ass. A virgin hole because our esteemed Lord Brian wishes only to fondle the sphincter of his microscope. " More laughter from the Council members. From what Jacob had seen of Brian, he suspected the man would have stood up well to the razzing, perhaps even expected it. Debra, however, was another mat- ter. Her shaking was growing by leaps and bounds. Jacob managed to keep his reaction passive even as he suppressed the desire to snarl. When Lord Belizar gestured, Malachi moved from his side. The platform started to rise again, taking them up several more feet to increase the sense of being on a stage before the entire courtyard gathering. What little color remained in Debra's cheeks drained out. Her eyes, fastened with intent desperation on Jacob's chest, were getting glassy. He tightened his hold on her. "Don't you dare faint, " he ordered gruffly. As Malachi came toward the dais, her head began to turn to- ward him. Jacob took a firmer grip on her bound hands, placing the other hand behind her neck to bring her up against the warmth of his body. Roughly he covered her mouth, demanding the kiss. He put all the seductive charm he had into it, coaxing her lips apart, moving his tongue inside, his fingers playing over the pulse on her wrists. He knew she was a true submissive, because most of the fe- male servants were. So he used that knowledge, administering ro- mantic, tiny caresses of her nape with his fingers, overwhelming her with the sweep of his tongue in her mouth, nibbling on her lips with his teeth. His thumb passed over the place on her throat he suspected was Brian's preferred area because of the faint depres- sions there. Pressing her body against him, he gave her his heat, let her hear his heartbeat. "Easy, " he murmured onto her lips. "Obey me as you obey your Master and it will be all right. I'll take care of you. " Her eyes sought his, no longer reflecting the self-possession of the scholar but the fear of the woman, grasping at his reassurance. "Lie down, " he said with quiet authority, guiding her so she was on her stomach, lying on the body of the sculpture. Reaching between her thighs, he dragged his fingers through her pussy lips to find her wet despite herself.

She rocked against his hand, a soft gasp coming from her. He guided her onto the sculpted erect cock, easing her down onto it as she gave a moan. It stirred the crowd, for Jacob felt the collective energy rising with her arousal. When fully seated on it, her hips were tilted up. The sculpture's knee was bent, splitting the seam of her legs so they had to be braced on either side, positioning her for a perfect anal penetration and allowing her no way to resist the invasion. The statue had a raised hand. Into its palm, he guided her chin so she could take his cock in her mouth at a straight angle. Her breasts hung down, just the tips of her nipples grazing the face of the sculpture, stimulating her further. The scent from her cunt was getting stronger, even as ner vous tears started to trickle down her face. Reluctantly, it reminded him of Seanna's words. She could be tearful and aroused at once, the situ- ation stoking her need to be dominated. She'd allowed Jacob to step into the surrogate role, obviously realizing she needed something to anchor her so she didn't embarrass Brian. As Malachi was given a hand onto the dais, Jacob spoke in a mut- ter. "You hurt her, and I swear I will shove that spear up your ass. " Malachi's teeth bared in answer. Jacob noted his nose was almost healed, revealing how long he'd been a third-mark servant. The Mediterranean man's hands immediately went to Debra's buttocks, opening her up and using his thumbs to prod at his destination. He leaned down, putting his lips to her spine as she quivered. To distract her, Jacob caught his hand in her hair, easing his length between her parted lips. She suckled him instantly, almost too roughly as Malachi apparently probed with his fingers and earned a jerk of response. He sent Jacob an unrepentant grin when Jacob flinched. Amusement swept through the watching vampires. "An oral bit, if you please, " Belizar called out. "No. She doesn't–" Jacob's protest was overwhelmed by the supporting calls of the crowd. One of the black men was handed the metal contraption. He gestured Jacob back and Jacob reluctantly complied, forced to watch as the large dark fingers put it around Debra's head, easily quelling her attempts to pull back.

The circular metal ring was inserted past the upper and lower bridge of her teeth and buckled to her head so her mouth was kept open wide, allowing a man to slide himself in and out as rapidly and deeply as he wished. Malachi raised the fingers of his other hand, which he'd swept over her cunt lips, taking them away glistening. "Her tears may be protesting, but her pussy's not, " he observed loudly. "New slaves are the sweetest. So afraid of their own responses, so overwhelmed by them. Feed her your cock, Jacob. Let's make her scream together. I want to feel her ripple around me, even as she gags on your big dick. " Jacob registered the shuddering of her body, the quick jerks of her hips. While he abhorred the man's attitude about it, Debra was powerfully stimulated. By the time she leaves here, she'll have been brought to climax so many times, she'll start internalizing the intense pleasure of being a submissive. Now he hoped Seanna was right, be- cause he couldn't deny his own response to the situation. He was hard as granite. He slid his cock back in, felt her lips strain to close over him around the bit. The ease of going unencumbered past her teeth was too tempting. He slid along the wet flat edge of her tongue where it rubbed against the underside of his cock with perfect friction in its restrained state. He knew the moment Malachi began to enter even without look- ing, for Debra tensed. "Tight little dry ass, " Belizar's servant said silkily. His voice dropped down low, ensuring his words, like the sudden malevolence in his eyes, were only registered by Jacob. "I'm going to ram you hard, tear that virgin hole so you never forget my cock, never forget that a woman was made to submit. Think you're so smart . . . Well you're not so smart about this, are you?" Damn the niceties, Jacob was going to tie the man's dick in a knot, after he broke his fucking neck. Debra's voice vibrated against his cock, a sound of pain and fear. He wasn't going to stand by and see a woman brutally raped. No matter his conflicting feelings about the games of Domination and submission and the wavering lines they painted between consent and force, he knew where the line was at this moment.

Clear and dark in the sand. "A pause to the game, please. " Lyssa spoke abruptly, halting Mal- achi's forward progress and Jacob's murderous intentions. "Lord Be- lizar, I believe you offered me a wild card on this little game of yours. " "I did, Lady Lyssa. What would you suggest to enhance our plea- sure?" "A fourth participant. Of my choosing. " When Belizar inclined his head, Lyssa crooked her finger to someone outside the Council circle, nodding as a silent question was apparently asked and answered. She made the gesture more imperi- ous. The murmuring intensified as Devlin stepped to her side. "Strip and join Jacob on the dais, " she ordered. "He'll tell you what he wishes you to do. Then you all may proceed with Lord Beli- zar's desire. " Devlin stepped back a respectful distance from Lady Lyssa's di- van and bowed. When he stripped off his clothing, he revealed his impressive organ, reminding Jacob of how monstrous the thing was. At the smatter of applause, Devlin grinned, turned in a dramatic circle to display himself. "They grow 'em big Down Under. When I crack a fat, the ladies run screaming. " He winced in the middle of a wink. "Ah, my lady doesn't appreciate my demonstrative nature. She says if I know what's good for me I'll get my arse up on that plat- form. " Lyssa had given Jacob a tool to use, no pun intended. He had no idea what she wanted him to do with it, or if she just had that per- verse vampire curiosity to see how he would use it to change the game. Her mind was closed to him. And when she shut down, he was all too aware that usually meant he was in some kind of trouble. Without any clues to solve that, he focused on the issue at hand. Keeping his cock firmly seated in Debra's mouth, he grimly reflected it was serving as a pacifier of sorts. She was trying to suckle and lick at it as best she could with the bit, such that he had to grit his teeth to focus.

Moving his hand over her hair in a part-tender, part-rough caress, he reminded her he was still in charge, her well-being as firmly in his hands as her body was. Malachi began to step back, his irritated look conveying his dis- pleasure at being replaced and made to perform some lesser role, but Jacob shook his head. "Stay where you are. But don't move yet. You're going to fuck her. " God knew he wasn't going to break Debra into anal sex on Devlin's cock. Jacob met the man's dark eyes. Like a pet who'd been too long with the same Master, Malachi had adopted his lord Belizar's con- temptuous stare. Jacob took private, vicious satisfaction in watching it vanish from his face with his next words. "After you're inside of her, Devlin is going to ram that cock of his up your ass. Then you can fuck Debra to climax. You do anything I even think crosses the line, causes her any pain, I'll tell Devlin to dish you out three times the same until your ass bleeds so thick everyone here could dine on it. " He'd never demanded one man fuck another, but he wasn't al- lowed to put Malachi's head through the wall. Perhaps he was not so different from Malachi. The longer he spent in the company of vampires, the more he found himself adapt- ing to the different mores and violent rules of their world. When under the orders of their respective Mistresses, Devlin's rank was far below Jacob's. Jacob had the right to make demands on him in this setting, so he had. It affected his liking of Devlin not one bit. He anticipated sharing another "stubbie" with him later. Hell, probably a whole "slab" after this. He wanted to know Debra's position on global warming. But right now a whole different set of rules applied. Devlin seemed to have no difficulty accepting the direction. The affability was gone, and he looked far more dangerous than Jacob had yet seen him. His eyes glittered, the red- and brown-streaked hair falling around the planes of his strong face. Perhaps through Lyssa's communication with Danny, he'd picked up what was going on. "I like that idea fine, " he said, moving a step closer and pressing a bare thigh to the back of Malachi's leg.

"Haven't had me a good prison rape in a long time. You're the pretty poster boy of my dreams. " Ris- ing on his toes, he put his mouth close to Malachi's ear. "You know the best way to reeducate a dickhead who thinks violence is the proper way to treat a woman? Fuck him until he cries like a little girl. " Malachi trembled with fury and dared a glance at his Master. Ja- cob saw that Belizar and Lyssa had locked gazes. His lady had that same faint smile on her face, but it did not detract from the coldness of her eyes. If Belizar pulled Malachi out of the game, he was as much as admitting it wasn't a game. Not that anyone here appeared to be under the delusion that their games were ever in fact simply games. Make Malachi stay up here, and he'd get ass fucked by a much lower- ranking servant, a passive insult that Jacob had a feeling was Lyssa's payback for Belizar's earlier affront of Malachi trying to kill him. He wondered if that was the true reason Devlin was up here. Not to ward off harm from Debra, but to settle the unresolved nature of the power play between the two vampires. As he'd been told, the Gathering was an opportunity for new slaves to be taught what it meant to truly sub- mit. Perhaps, like the other vampires, she'd not seen anything wrong with Debra's rough initiation. Perhaps there was no wavering line for Lady Lyssa and the other vampires on the Dominance and submis- sion issue. Maybe there was no line at all. No. There was a line. He thought of the servant he'd seen being branded earlier. The arousal, the lack of fear. He also remembered his lady's words about Carnal and Melinda. If I'd known what he was going to do, I'd have stopped him . . . He let the image and words bol- ster his belief. Belizar cut his glance back to Malachi. When Malachi's jaw flexed, Jacob felt a surge of cruel triumph, knew the man had been given the order to stay on the dais. Jacob inclined his head to Devlin. "I believe"–Devlin took his sizeable cock in one hand and put his other on Malachi's back, pushing him so he had to bend forward, taking him inch by resisting inch to a curve over Debra's body–"you have some lubricating to do, hmm?"

Malachi reluctantly lifted the crystal bottle that had been pro- vided. He uncorked it, drizzled the oil between Debra's buttocks. "Work it into her now. Easy. Very easy. There's a pleasure to initi- ating a lady to a proper arse fucking. She'll come like she's never come before, eh, darling?" Jacob blessed the sexy, soothing cadence of Devlin's accent as he felt Debra's lips convulse on him, her hips lift in an unmistakable welcoming move. Her eyes lifted and locked on Jacob's face, how- ever, as if the contact was giving her the courage to believe he would do as he said. Take care of her. He began to work himself in her mouth again, dividing her atten- tion between the two stimuli of taking him into one opening while they prepared the other. The straining movement of her hips indi- cated her pussy was busy milking the sculpture's shaft. Her toes flexed on the dais, pushing herself up and down in involuntary response. "There you go. " As Malachi began to ease into her opening, Dev- lin put his hands on the man's hips, a warning. "All the way in, one slow inch at a time. " Debra groaned, vibrating against Jacob, making it difficult to fo- cus. The undulation of her tongue became more frenetic, despite the fact it was restricted somewhat by the hold of the bit. When Malachi made it past Debra's inner muscles, moving care- fully, gently, Devlin took a more secure grip on the side of the man's throat and waist and shoved his own now-oiled cock between Mala- chi's cheeks. Malachi gasped, his powerful thighs trembling, his eyes tearing. A curse slipped between his lips. "Oh, there we are, balls deep now. Good thing your Master's stretched you before or we might have had some messiness then. Bet that burns like a son of a bitch, don't it?" Malachi grunted and Devlin started crowding him, putting his thighs in tight behind the other man, applying pressure as Malachi began to sink, slowly, gradually into Debra's rectum. As Devlin rocked, Debra writhed. Jacob gripped her hair hard, stroking in and out of her, trying to control his own reaction at the feel of her wet mouth forced to take him in deep. Her hips rose to meet Malachi's as he did his task as it was meant to be done, kept focused by Devlin's slow pumping in and out of him.

Debra made a strangled sound. "Not until I come, " Jacob or- dered. "Your Master trained you. You know the rules. Don't shame him. " She made a noise, half assent, half sob, in her throat. As Malachi fucked her ass, her wobbling breasts were rubbed in a ruthless fric- tion against the face of the statue, the ridges of its brow and nose. Her nipples were erect and hard, such that Jacob indulged himself by reaching down and pinching one. Her hot breath expelled, gusting against his balls. He increased the power of his strokes, matching Devlin. As Devlin had gotten well seated, Malachi had adjusted and now they were moving in sync, Malachi losing some of his fury to the power of forcibly provoked lust. Jacob's control slipped another notch as his Mistress fed him the sight of it through her eyes. He didn't know if she wanted him to see them as she was seeing them, or if she was too aroused to guard her thoughts, but the effect was the same. The torchlight had been angled to focus on the dais, making the musculature of the three men gleam. Devlin had a broad, rippling back, tight, hard buttocks that were rhythmically clenching as he fucked Malachi. Malachi's arm muscles stood out in cords as he neared climax and gripped Debra's ass even harder. His body curved over her, his chest rubbing against her lower back, his face almost pressed into her nape. Debra's mouth was held open, restrained by the metal bit, her body draped and spread over the statue, her pussy impaled on the alabaster white cock so her juices were running down it like a fountain against the sleek marble. Malachi's big cock moved in and out of her, her thighs spread so wide the attendees could see her stretched pink openings. And then there was Jacob, his cock glistening as he pulled it out of Debra's mouth almost to the head and then shoved back in again,distending her cheeks, making her throat work, her helpless fingers curling against the restraint of his belt. As if this wasn't enough to make him spurt, the black men, their oiled bodies gleaming, had taken hold of the "petals" and lifted their hips so they were straight legged.

Each woman's ankle crossed over the woman next to her, an organic binding that would make the vi- bration of their movements ripple throughout the whole circle. The men drove their cocks in as the women's voices, aroused by what was going on above them, cried out in unison. The noise rose and con- nected them, creating an aphrodisiac Jacob suspected was far stron- ger than what had been around the slave girl's neck. The women threw their heads back at the same time, the flow of hair like the toss of a sheet of silk in the air, a rippling wave of multi- ple colors. The men wrapped their big hands in it like reins, holding them at painful, revealing angles, breasts hanging down loosely and quivering from the shock as the men's cocks pounded into them. The dais was turning–when had that happened? His gaze was full of the tableau from every angle, thanks to his lady and his own eyes. A dozen pale female asses, bobbing up. Dark, tightly packed ass muscles clenching as the men beat their cocks into the tight rosebud channels.

Devlin's head dropped back on his powerful shoulders as he shot his load into Malachi. Malachi cried out as it pushed him over. Debra's gasp, her desperate look, got through to Jacob as she worked herself furiously on that stone cock. "Please . . . " the word was garbled with her mouth full of him. "Come, " Jacob snapped, and she screamed as her body instantly released, a flush sweeping over her skin as Malachi continued to fuck her, drawing out the sensation. Jacob came against the back of her hoarsely crying throat, reveling in the vibration he felt against the sensitive head. He kept going, stretching her jaws, knowing they must be aching, but knowing that, too, was part of the pleasure of being a sub. Pushing you past the point where you thought you could go. After all, his Mistress had done it to him. Again. The long, con- tinuous shot of his semen down Debra's throat told him he hadn't failed her. As one, the men in the circle below pulled out and took their or- gans in hand for one, two quick strokes. The women spun around on their knees, their arms braced behind them, knees spread wide, bodies rising in an arch, heads tipped back. The men's release shot against their breasts, so much like a fountain it couldn't help but impress the assembled gathering.

The viscous white fluids spilled down the women's flat bellies, pooled in their navels and slowed like molasses, drawing the eyes down to the smooth mounds. Jacob's cock convulsed once more and Debra moaned, taking him to the last drop. Brian didn't know what a lucky bastard he was. "Jesus, " Devlin gasped, propping an elbow in between Malachi's shoulder blades. Reaching down, he stroked the side of Debra's hair and then even rubbed the back of Belizar's servant's neck with an absent affection, as if they'd just been two squabbling siblings. He was studying the aftermath of the "petals" and black men below them. "Can you imagine how awful it was to practice that? My woman would have had to wear protective goggles. My cock's got no sense of direction at all. " Malachi pressed his forehead to the center of Debra's back. Jacob heard a grim chuckle from him. "I suppose the only way you're go- ing to beat my ass in a sport is by fucking it. Get that mutation out of me, you great fucking horse. " "Well, you asked for it by being a right fucking arsehole, didn't you? When she can think straight again, I think you better offer the lady an apology and a drink. " When Devlin removed himself and helped Malachi straighten so he could pull out, the conversation continuing between them, Jacob knelt before Debra. Unbuckling the bit, he eased it out of her mouth, soothing her jaws with his fingers as he did so. Her nose was run- ning, her eyes tearing. He took a section of his shirt and dabbed at her. "All right, then?" She nodded, her eyes full of wonder and exhaustion. He doubted she could even rise from the sculpture. "You were beautiful. Outstanding. Where's your Master?" he asked. Worthless piece of shit that he was. "Makeshift lab. He's still testing some things. " Devlin looked down at himself in disgust. "Men, " he muttered. "Vile creatures that we are. I'm going to go clean up. Now my lady's lovely arse is clean as–"

"Devlin. " Lady Daniela had risen from her cushions. Her eyes were alight with rebuke, as well as bright lust, a promise that par- tially explained why Jacob's new friend was suddenly in a hurry to excuse himself. In that regard, Jacob noted that their verbal exchange had gone largely unnoticed. After raising their glasses in tribute to the perfor- mance, the Council–in fact most of the attendees–had been impa- tient to find an outlet for the overwhelming wave of lust that had saturated the courtyard. He was surrounded by an out-and-out orgy, much less aesthetic than what had been orchestrated for their enter- tainment, but no less stimulating. Many vampires were taking their servants outright, or allowing themselves to be ser viced the way Ja- cob had been. There were groupings of three and four, even five, and the sight couldn't help but begin to stir him to life again. His gaze found his lady, still reclining on her divan, watching him,her dark eyes glittering. A still point in the storm. There was empty space around her, for no vampire would dare to approach her uninvited, no matter how strong his lust. Though he wanted to go to her, he was mindful of his duty to Debra. Helping her down from the platform, he freed her hands from the belt to rub her wrists. He pulled on his slacks, but when she made to take off the shirt, he shook his head, buttoning up several of the buttons, pushing away her protesting hands. Framing her face, he kissed her forehead, calling one of the masked servants to his side. "Escort this lady back to Lord Brian's quarters to await his return. " To her, he murmured, "Council's busy. Keep your head down, get out of here and you won't be missed. You've had enough for one night. Put a hand over your mouth like you're nauseous and no one will stop you. No shame to it. You've earned it. Screw 'em. " She nodded, her expression too dazed to argue. He slid her hand through the masked servant's arm. Once he made sure the man un- derstood his orders, he sent her off with a gentle pat to her bottom, a reassurance he felt she needed right now. When she reclaimed her Mensa-shattering mind, he'd enjoy teasing her about it. Now all he wanted was to be near his lady and hope not to attract any more attention tonight.

But as he moved toward her, she deliberately tilted her head away from him, exchanging a comment with Lord Uthe, apparently the only other vampire not engaged in carnal activity. When Jacob knelt at her feet in just the slacks and attempted to lay a hand on her foot as he had before, she drew it away without looking in his direction. Puzzled, he rested his hand on his knee, waiting. She glanced at him over her shoulder. "Where's your shirt?" "I let Debra keep it, " he said, knowing full well she had seen Debra's departure. Was she hallucinating again? Before he could blink, she'd sat up on the divan and had her hand on his throat in an unforgiving tight grip, restricting his air flow. Her nails dug into his flesh, bringing him nearly off his knees. "I see most things quite clearly, slave. " He had to force himself not to try and pry her loose or defend himself in any way. It was always a struggle to submit to her when she was in this mood, but apparently his attempt to do so now ratch- eted up her temperament further. It swept through him like heat from a volcano blast.

Good. He could feel her fury. Lyssa wanted him to feel it. She was angry. Enraged. Not because Jacob had rammed his cock down a woman's throat in front of her. Not because he'd come as a result of her wet tongue and the overwhelming vibrations of sex all around him. Not even because he'd thought Brian a very lucky man. All of that meant nothing. He'd championed Debra. Protected her. Of course, championing and protecting a woman were second nature to Jacob. Lyssa wasn't special in that regard, and she didn't need his protection and cham- pioning anyway, damn it. She'd expected no less than the ferocity he'd shown when Malachi threatened the girl, though the ruthless- ness of how he dealt with it had surprised her as much as she'd felt it surprise him. Perhaps like Thomas, he was learning a little too much from his Mistress. No, what bothered her was that Jacob had chosen Brian's servant.

Out of a dozen women, he'd chosen her, as if he had a preference for her above the others. She was cold, so he'd put his shirt on her. He'd stood there before her, before this whole assembly, as if they did not exist. As if Lyssa did not exist. He'd threaded her arms through the sleeves, freed her hair from it and took her hands, bound them in the belt in a simultaneously uncompromising and gentle way that had gotten the juices of every woman watching flowing. As Lyssa had watched them stand there, her Irishman and the shy scientist, she'd seen the potential chemistry, the type of girl he would have loved, even married if his destiny hadn't taken him to a vampire queen. Debra or someone like her could have given him children, a lifetime of quiet, domestic and enduring love. Lyssa had given him a death sentence. She hated it, hated the tender way he'd treated Debra, the regard he'd shown her . . . It didn't matter that she knew his thoughts, his heart. There were some things that were instinct, not rational, and no amount of mind reading would convince her they were false. "My lady. " Lord Uthe's quiet voice. Not interfering, for another vampire would never interfere with a disciplining between Mistress and servant, but he was tactfully drawing her attention to the fact Jacob's breath was laboring. She dropped him. Slapped him. It startled Jacob so much that for a moment, anger lost footing to hurt. While he bowed his head, he sensed Uthe's too shrewd regard and cursed his inability to mask his reaction more quickly. "For having your servant such a short time, lady, " Uthe observed carefully, "his confidence in your bond appears extraordinarily strong. Perhaps it's time you consider another lover, if not a hus- band. You know servants can get the wrong idea of their place in a vampire's household quickly. " At least Uthe had a strong enough sense of self-preservation he didn't imply that Lyssa was subject to such influences. Jacob expected she would have incinerated the other vampire in the mood he felt pouring off her. But his lady respected Uthe. He was a peer, while Jacob was the mortal apparently not worth even her attention as she turned her back on him, leaving him on his knees, trying to breathe again.

"My servant has simply been overwhelmed by all the stimuli here. I'll take care of reminding him of his place. Thank you for your advice, Lord Uthe. " The frostiness of her voice seemed to reassure the man, for he moved away with a nod, giving her privacy to deal with the infraction she perceived her servant had committed. "That was my shirt, bought with my money, " she snapped. Jacob wanted to rise, dare her to knock him back down. He didn't want to have her standing over him as she did now, rising off the divan, but he fought through the anger, knowing there were eyes on them. "A shirt? I'll be happy to pay for the shirt, my lady. If that's what's truly bothering you. " What the hell is bothering you? You care for her. You chose her. You looked at her . . . The way you've looked at me. Like he would protect her, no matter what the cost was to him- self. Lyssa turned away from him, not waiting to see his reaction to such ridiculous thoughts. He was human. Debra was human. Ser- vants were servants. She'd never demanded a servant be wholly mo- nogamous, damn it. My lady. When his hand brushed her side, she didn't turn, but she didn't move away. His grip curled around her forearm, slid to her wrist, then to her hand, his fingers twining with hers. Suddenly she didn't want him on his knees, didn't want him like that, even as the tiny part of her brain that was still rational knew it was better for him to be so. Despite the fury that had rolled through him like a wave at her contempt, Jacob had stayed on his knees, demonstrating his loyalty was greater than his pride. But it wasn't his loyalty she doubted. She turned. His shoulders were bare, still gleaming from the per- spiration he'd generated. She knew every line of that elegant body, knew how it felt pressed against her while his cock slid in and out of her pussy. She knew the many expressions of his blue eyes, the taste of his lips. She didn't want to share him with another woman like Debra. One too close to what he truly deserved. She didn't want to share him with any woman. Ever again.

Studying her face, he slowly rose. Which put him much closer, standing before her, holding her hand, their bodies almost touching. Her breath was rapid as she tried to keep a handle on her reaction, but she knew he saw everything. During their performance, even as her anger built, so did her desire, and when Jacob had come, when Debra had screamed, she could have come simply by imagining Jacob stroking her deep, hard. "Come with me. " He altered his position so he stood beside her. Lifting her hand, he moved them into a sedate walk where she ap- peared to be leading, rather than him pulling her along in a spurt of physical reaction she could feel thrumming through his muscles, the wake of the emotional response rippling through him. It reminded her of a day he'd built a rack to equally space and anchor the dogs' food bowls. The structure would catch and divert the overflow she always complained about crunching underfoot. So excited by the modifications he'd made, he'd caught her hand and tugged her through the kitchen to the side door to see it, making her laugh at his eagerness. He'd been like a six-foot-tall child who'd forced her into a trot to keep up with his long legs. Her lover, her innocent child, her servant. Her protector. He navigated her past the wide variety of very intimate couplings occurring and took her to the outskirts of the tents, to the canopies of the craftspeople. At first she thought he was bringing her to the jeweler whose collar she had described, but instead he stopped be- fore the blacksmith. The man was in Lord Mason's employ and helped maintain the grounds year-round. He also cared for the two Arabians Lyssa knew Mason stabled on the property. "My Mistress needs to punish her servant, " Jacob said quietly. "Somehow he has made her doubt he lives only to serve her. " The man nodded dispassionately and gestured to the myriad irons displayed on velvet. "The larger brands hurt more, my lady, " he explained.

"They of course leave no permanent mark unless you use your blood. That also intensifies the pain considerably, but it will heal to a scar on a fully marked servant in less than a night's time. You will not find your use of him hampered. "

"I beg you to use your blood, my lady, " Jacob said, looking into her face as if there was nothing else for him. Lyssa felt like weeping. "Set your hand on me, brand me as yours so you will have no doubts. Wherever you desire. " "When you wish to do it, my lady, each of these designs is already in the fire. " The blacksmith nodded to the vat behind him. "They're sketched in the handle. Simply take your preference and hold it to his flesh as long as you like. " The man was then called to explain some of his other offerings to another vampire overlord. Jacob's hands went to his trousers and he dropped them, leaving him naked from neck to ankles before her. If it will ease your mind and keep you from having a shred of doubt in your soul, my lady, then do as you will. Despite her wish to appear indifferent, the vision of Debra in his shirt rose in Lyssa's mind. She knew it was pathetic. Childishly dan- gerous and cruel. But if she didn't hurt him, test his willingness to suffer for her, this feeling would not abate in her chest. And she didn't care for the feeling one bit. She wanted it gone. Hands laced behind your head. He did it without hesitation, though he certainly knew what she was capable of doing, where she might choose to place the brand. Bringing her hand to her lips, she bit into the Venus mound of her palm with one fang. He waited. His jaw firm, his eyes steady on hers. She found her- self perversely aroused as if she were on the pinnacle of climax, even as the pain radiating from her heart made it seem as if a bed of nails pierced her insides. He was aroused, too. In his thoughts she saw his memory of the branding he'd witnessed earlier, how it had intrigued him in a disquieting way he hadn't expected. Seeing him getting harder at the idea only fueled her need to mark him this way. Claim him visibly. Lifting the closest brand from the fire, she let the blood run down her palm and drip onto the white-hot metal. Those blue eyes never wavered. Reaching up, she curled her hand on the back of his neck, under the soft hair. Locking her green eyes with his, she pressed the brand to the inside of his left hipbone, above the pubic area.

His face contorted with the effort to remain silent, his upper body going rigid. The muscles drew up tight and hard, close to the skin. His hands became fists behind his head, the biceps flexing to the consistency of smooth rock. As his fingers clenched, her hand curved on his neck was drawn in to the bond, his fingers holding hers, locking them together in a knot of reaction. It reflected the tor- turous snarl in her heart, the way she'd felt watching him and Debra. His flesh was burning, tears glistening in his eyes from the effort of maintaining his stillness. Several times tonight she'd dwelled on the fact that he was her servant. It had served as a reassurance, something to bolster her strength and courage. With this act, he was telling her he knew he was hers as well. One hundred percent, irre- vocably. As a human, man, lover, as a living, breathing being. He considered all of it only hers, to do with as she would. He'd hurt her by doing what he'd been told, in that unique way that made him who he was. The man she wanted like no man or vampire she'd ever met. In return, she'd hurt him deliberately, slapped him, forced him to prove himself, punished him for making her feel this burning pain in her heart she didn't understand. With an oath, she pulled the brand from him. She extricated her fingers from his while he gasped, holding the pose she'd demanded and managing the pain. He couldn't help but capture attention. A powerful man standing before his Mistress, his slacks a soft pool at his feet, the upper body displayed in fine detail by his subservient position with the hands locked behind the head. But that was all physical. Being a slave, subject to another's will voluntarily with all one's heart, was not defined by postures or brands. It was in every- thing he did, and she'd come to count on it. Until tonight, she'd never let him know how much, but he'd known just how to answer her fears. She was a fool. Her gaze coursed down to the brand. For the next few hours un- til it healed, the pain of it would be fierce. She'd placed the brand at his hip because she wanted to have her hands on it when she rode him, scrape her nails over it. If she took him in her mouth, she would abrade it with her hair. She'd wanted it close to his cock so he'd always know to whom that powerful organ belonged, along with the rest of him.

"An unusual choice, my lady, " the blacksmith said, returning to them. "As a permanent mark. " It was a Christian cross. Stepping forward, she ran her fingers lightly over it. Jacob sucked in a pain-filled breath, but because he knew his pain aroused her, she didn't stop, the rising agony in her breast an odd contrast with the gentleness of her touch, the razor edge of her nails. "Perhaps I should have chosen something else. " Her voice was strange to her, almost broken, and Mason's man gave her an odd look. Jacob shook his head and lowered his hands. Brushing one along her hair, he cupped the line of her face. "A symbol of faith, my lady. You couldn't have picked a better one, for my heart is faithful only to you. You are my religion. " It was also a symbol of sacrifice. Taking on her sins. The insidi- ous whisper from her own mind had the power to gut her. She drew her head back from his touch, giving him a sharp look. In response, Jacob returned his hands to his head, dissipat- ing the curiosity of the blacksmith. Taking the edges of his slacks in her hands, she brought them back up, zipped, fastened and belted them, cinching the strap in tight until she earned a grunt of pain. Smoothing her hand over his cock, she fondled his testicles. Knowing the brand was burning fi re under the tight yoke of the belt even as he began to get hard again under her touch sparked other needs. Gods, Jacob was right. She was a piece of work. She knew Jacob had wrestled with the possibility that her brief moments of vulnera- bility toward him might just be the progress of the disease, not real. She found she couldn't tolerate the idea of that doubt. Or the con- flicting feelings he was making her feel right now. "You're forgiven, " she said abruptly. Nodding to the blacksmith, she handed him a folded bill, a tip for his ser vice. Then she pivoted on her heel with deliberate regal indifference and moved away from her servant. Jacob didn't know which was worse. The throb of the brand or his continued failure to make her understand.

Maybe the two things were the same, one a physical manifestation of the emotional. Everything she let him offer her was a gift to him, not a sacrifice. Her willingness to let him be with her forever was the Paradise he'd always sought. The emptiness that had followed him throughout his life had dissipated the night she'd given him the third mark, gone as if it had never haunted him. And yet she couldn't accept what that meant to them both. She'd always been a woman whose relationships were fraught with politics and often peril. Perhaps Thomas's beliefs had gilded their memories, making them believe what they wanted to believe. However, to know his bond to her was true he only had to remember the present, the handful of weeks they'd had since he'd become her servant. He'd expected her to be a queen, an infuriatingly arrogant fe- male vampire, but there were many things he hadn't expected. Her watching him when she thought he didn't know. While he was doing repairs, cooking, reading. He'd even sensed her presence sometimes when he napped, a lazy, pleasurable vision at the edges of his dreams. Finding her fast asleep by a window. The Secret Life of Bees had been open in her lap as the rain trickled down the stained glass be- hind her, painting her pale face in translucent rainbows of color. Hiking her dress around her knees like a young girl to squat barefoot in a rain puddle. All for the pleasure of catching a frog and holding the creature in the palm of her hand. She'd coaxed him closer to dump the hapless amphibian down the front of his shirt. Then she fished it out to spare the disgruntled animal harm. Her fi ngers had caressed, girlishness disappearing into a wild sen- suality that had them drenched and coupling on the back lawn. He remembered rain drumming on his bare shoulders, her heels clutched over his hips, her body arched so he could suckle rainwa- ter off her throat. To hell with it. As she left the courtyard, he cursed under his breath and went after her. The stone defiles that allowed exit from the courtyard were strung with fairy lights to guide the way.

Jasmine flowers woven into the cords allowed vampires to be guided by their scent. In this corridor there was an alcove with a wall fountain installed. An elegant frieze had been propped behind the bowl in the hollowed-out area, depict- ing a medieval lady among a meadow of stone flowers. His lady had stopped at the frieze, her fingers resting on the lip of the bowl of water. The area was narrow and dim, providing privacy, the shadows protecting them from too close a scrutiny. Good. He didn't expect his approach to be equally camouflaged, but when he caught her slender arm by the elbow and whipped her around, her green eyes widened in startled reaction. While she'd felt him coming up behind her, Lyssa hadn't ex- pected this. She'd assumed he would stand quietly behind her, await- ing her cue of where she wanted to go next, what she wanted of him. She'd expected him to try to soothe the tides of her emotions stirred up by his branding, his touching of Debra. Instead, he yanked her up to her toes and took her mouth with his own, giving her a tide of passion so strong it went beyond usual response into the realm of a blood bond. Her hand clutched the edge of the stone fountain, cracked it as her grip convulsed in reaction. Catching that hand, he unerringly put it on his hip, right over where the brand was, squeez- ing his hand over hers so her fingers dug in, causing a ripple of re- sponse to shudder through his body. Even as the pain shot through him, he gathered her more firmly to him with an arm cinched around her waist, so close his fingers wrapped around her hip and grazed the edge of her stomach, pressing on her sensitive navel re- gion beneath the thin silver dress. Through it, she could feel all the heat of him. Every hard, insistent curve of muscle and the press of his groin. When he raised his head at last, his eyes were blue fire, made incandescent by the lights, his mouth a hard line. "Only you, my lady. I'm all yours. " Say it to me and mean it. How could any woman take a man away from Lady Elyssa Wentworth? Say it. "Mine, " she whispered. "All of it. Not just this. " He increased the pressure of his pelvis against her, making her thighs tremble. "Nor this. " He inclined his ead, indicating his mind.

h"All of it. Now tell me why the hell you would ever get a daft notion otherwise, woman? Just because I chose to protect an innocent girl. " His kiss had swept away her doubts. Now the impudent comment restored her fully to herself. She pushed away from him, giving him a reproving look even as she let her fingers linger at that place just below his belt. "I don't have to explain things to you, Sir Vagabond, " she re- sponded, tossing back her hair. "You'll do well to remember your place. " But he'd expected–no, demanded–that she mark him, place another visible sign of ownership on him. His thoughts were tangled in her mind, giving her images she couldn't ignore. He was hers. He wanted her, needed her. He cared nothing for anyone but her. I love you, my lady. Capturing her hand, he brought it to his lips. Then he laid her palm meaningfully over his heart. "That's all I ask you to remember as well, my lady. My place is with you. Only you. "

A fter that, the temptation to pass the evening tangled in sheets with Jacob was almost too much to resist. There was an animal edge to her lust she knew she couldn't afford to let control her to- night. But as difficult as it was to resist the need to sate the desire he'd roused, she knew it was the emotions he could evoke that had too much power over her. She had to keep herself balanced, so she made them both return to the festivities. Even so, throughout the rest of the evening, she stayed in close communication with her servant, seeing things through his eyes, hearing his verbal responses as well as sensing his less articulated ones as they worked together as one mind. In its own way, it was as deeply pleasurable as having his body. She was pleased to find a majority of the Council members pre- pared to confirm asylum for her fugitives. Not permanently, as she'd wished, but they were amenable to a twenty-five-year moratorium. The formal vote would occur at Court after the Ball tomorrow night. She also heard snippets of conversations confirming what she already suspected: Carnal and his kind were rapidly gaining support for their belief that immortality made vampires omnipotent and beyond the laws of nature. While it had begun among the younger, made vampires, she was disturbed to hear it gaining ground in more mature ears, those who had not acquired the power or territory they felt they deserved.

They believed they could rule the humans and become the dominant species. At yesterday's Council briefing Belizar had brushed aside her and Uthe's exhortations to address the problem before it got out of con- trol. Feeding on the same arrogance as Carnal, Belizar was too con- fident in the Council's power. After tomorrow night, she would no longer be part of that battle. Perhaps it was the frustrated helplessness in that knowledge, or the dwindling sense of her own self, but she found the savage desire to link with Jacob surged up as if it had never been banked when she finally allowed him to escort her back to her rooms. Almost as soon as the door shut, she tore off her dress, revealing the sheer gray lingerie beneath it. The lingerie he'd picked out and put on her with caressing, teasing hands hours before. When he reached for her, she shoved him down on his back on the bed, tying his hands to the rail with a strip of the dress before she took him in her hand, squeezing the hard, pulsing length of him. He fought her, perhaps sensing her desire for that and perhaps still riding his own frustration with her earlier mood, but before he could yank against the binding to the point it cut off circulation, she removed the panties and bra and straddled him in a quick, lithe move. As she slammed herself down onto him, her thighs spreading wide to take him in hard and deep, her cunt coming in contact with his pelvis, she watched his eyes go vibrant, his mouth tighten. His muscles strained, his upper torso curving up and mak- ing it easier for her hands to touch his chest, his flat stomach. His youth, his strength and pure life. All hers, tragically and miracu- lously both. She fucked him, pure and simple, growling as she did so. At one point, she could almost feel that feral part of her wanting to meta- morphose, let the talons come forth and slice ribbons out of his skin. Since she'd not completely lost her control, she settled for her finger- nails, but she was ruthless with them. Marking his chest, his shoul- ders, listening to him groan in reaction, feeling his cock harden even further inside her as she bent and licked up the smeared blood, stab- bing him with her fangs.

He cried out when she raked her nails across the brand. But still he urged her on, the Irish in his voice as he told her to fuck him, fuck him hard, the way she wanted. The way he wanted. Her flesh spasmed against his rigid flesh, the climax roaring over her. Crying out like a she wolf, long and low, she pounded down on him so her breasts moved generously with her movements. When she craved the press of his fi ngers on her hips, she shredded the restraint, sparking off the iron headboard with her bloody nails. He was ready, rearing up to grip her hip with one hand, taking posses- sion of her breast with the other, his mouth suctioning over her nipple. As her moan elevated to a scream, Jacob bit and came hard inside her, holding her fast on him, letting her feel the electric shock of those fluids jetting on the sensitive areas inside that only wanted more, more, more. Even as she thought she was going to die from the pleasure of it. But when his warm, sleeping body curved behind her and she was alone with her thoughts in the dark, the disturbing revelation intruded again. She had no more battles to fight. Since she'd realized she had the Delilah virus, all her energy had been focused on bolstering the Council and surviving long enough to see her people and territory protected. There was nothing else she could do now that wouldn't take more time than she had. All she had time to face was her own death. As she considered that, over a thousand years of remarkable im- ages pattered against her memory like a quiet summer rain. Rex, Thomas, her parents. The unnamed knight. Jun . . . So many come and gone. So much she'd seen and experienced. There were vampires here who had fought at her side during the territory wars, willing to kill to see Council rule instituted and enforced because they be- lieved, as she did, that a harmonious balance with the human world would ensure the survival and prosperity of their species. There'd been vampires, humans and others who captured her at- tention and remained in her memory because of an admirable action or a simple, witty remark that made an impression.

She'd even been intimate with a handful or so of the vampires here, before Rex. Nothing that lasted, but nice memories. Tonight would be the last time she would see any of them. At least in this lifetime. Such thoughts wafted like fog through her predusk doze and fol- lowed her into a deeper sleep where they became vivid dreams. So when Jacob woke her in the early evening to prepare for the Ball, it was perhaps no wonder she woke with a knot of anxiety in her lower stomach. She wondered if he sensed it, explaining why he watched her with such close concern as he helped her dress. He said little, dispensing his lingering caresses and quiet murmurs about mun- dane things that helped steady her nerves. When he finished helping her prepare her appearance, she told him she would go on to the Ball early. He could join her when he was dressed. He simply nodded, brushing his lips alongside her throat as he made one last adjustment to her dress. "I'll be there, my lady. " Reaching up, she pressed her hand against the side of his cheek, holding him still against her neck a moment before she released him and moved quickly away before he could lift his head and she'd see his eyes in the mirror. His solitary reflection. She sensed there was something going on in his head, but if she was too fragile to look into his eyes, she knew she was far too fragile to look into his mind.

So now she stood on an elevated platform where tables and chairs had been arranged so those not dancing could get a better view once the dancing started. Right now there were only monumental amounts of milling. Political positioning, seductive flirting, friendly acquaintances renewing ties . . . As she stood there, the nostalgia she anticipated feeling gave way to that disquieting roil in her lower belly again, making for a stew of simmering emotions. She found herself wishing she'd waited for Ja- cob. She would have liked to feel the reassurance of his presence at her back. What she really wanted was to be with someone with whom she had a connection.