The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Thirteen)

They would travel to Miami to pick up their charter plane to get to the Council Gathering in South America. While they could have flown the entire distance, vampires hated to fly. He didn't know if it was the similarity to a large coffin, or the fact they were sepa- rated from the earth, but Jacob made arrangements for Mr. Ingram to drive them to southern Florida. They left during daylight hours, so the limo with its darkened rear windows had been pulled up to the door and Lyssa had ducked into it, using a cape to go from the house to the car. Bran had stood at the gate, watching them leave. He'd chased them down the drive but re- luctantly obeyed Lyssa's compulsion to stay as the gate closed. As they pulled out, she turned and watched the dog out the back window, laying her hand on the glass as if she were touching his furry face and the faces of the other siblings who came to join him. Jacob reached out and covered her other hand with his, squeezing with reassurance. In truth though, her sudden apprehension wor- ried him. We've prepared as much as we can, my lady. We're ready. It will be all right. She gave him that absent smile that told him he didn't know what the hell he was talking about, not having ever been to a Council Gathering.

He couldn't argue with her on that, of course. They'd be spending three days among over two hundred of the most powerful vampires in the world. Overlords and Region Masters most of them, though there were others, like Lord Brian, invited because of their status. The political positioning and volleys would be fierce. Among a host of other vital issues, she had to convince the Council to grant permanent residency status to her fugitives and get through the meeting without raising any suspicions about her health. With such somber thoughts on her shoulders, it didn't seem pos- sible to offer anything that could draw her mind away from it. So he rummaged in his knapsack and withdrew a small box. "Travel chess or 101 Games You Can Play on the Road?" You're incorrigible. But he did win another small smile. She of course slept during the full daylight hours, waking late afternoon. They kept the screen between driver and passengers open and conversed as any travelers would. With her dry wit, Lyssa even got Mr. Ingram to laugh about the tragic foibles of his son. They lis- tened to him talk proudly about how John had become his class's top speller and was making friends in the school he'd transferred to when he moved in with his grandfather. Ingram blamed Jacob for causing a business tax crisis in his house with Whiskers' propensity for shredding anything paper. Then he and Jacob exchanged ideas on home improvement when he mentioned he was building a work- shop at his small house. At dark Lyssa had them stop at a closed produce stand and take several oranges. She gave Jacob a hundred-dollar bill to leave tucked under the chicken wire with a note of thanks. When they passed a group of bikers that included a large woman riding behind her boyfriend in only a thong and a leather fringe jacket, Jacob reminded Lyssa she still hadn't allowed him to order her some appropriate biker wear. He won a narrow glance and a death threat that made him grin and Elijah laugh. Jacob reflected there was something quietly stirring about travel- ing on the highway with only the lights of other late-traveling mo- torists strobing across the paleness of her face, outlining the curves of her body and then plunging her into darkness again.

She didn't say much, seeming to prefer to listen to them talk. The men both picked up on that, occasionally soliciting a comment from her out of politeness, but knowing she would speak if she desired to do so. At length she curled up on the seat again, pillowing her head on Jacob's thigh. When she tucked her fingers beneath the column of it, he laid a hand naturally along her side, fingers on her hip. It had been two and a half weeks since her annual kill. Her strength and vitality seemed to have improved with no further episodes, but in the last week he'd noticed her doing this, not only sleeping during daylight hours but taking a one- or two-hour nap in the middle of her "day. " She'd explained she wanted to make sure she was as rested as possible for the grueling hours of the Council, but he knew the real reason. She was anticipating weak- ening again. Like a terminal patient who'd waited too long to seek treatment so that the treatment was not as effective, the annual kill and third mark were not likely to carry her as far as they would have if she'd acquired them six months ago instead of a handful of weeks. He should have listened to Thomas, come to her side sooner. Do not worry about what cannot be changed, Jacob. And the an- nual kill has helped a great deal. I am just conserving the energy it has given me. Never fear. The brutal images of that night still haunted him. The way Carl Ronin had struggled against his hold, his eyes white. When he real- ized he had no chance of escape, the fear of death was in his eyes. With his prescience, Jacob could feel every nuance and change in the man's emotions like a roar in his head. The desire to live was the strongest of man's emotions, a primal instinct that rose to the fore- front when it was challenged. It made Jacob wonder about the knight . . . Him, when he was the knight. Had the internal screams of men dying around him been louder than the outer din of an army in full-pitched battle? He was glad not to have that memory. He'd gone to church, lit a candle for Ronin, asked his forgiveness and then put it aside to take care of his lady. There'd been too many details he was handling on her behalf now, too many loose ends he was tying up for her.

She needed his focus, and she'd have it. Time was too short for anything else. As he raised his eyes to the mirror, he met Mr. Ingram's gaze and knew that the driver was as cognizant as he was of the significance of her nap. "You know, " Elijah said after a bit, "my mother died of cancer. Some people, you just can't figure it, because they don't de- serve that. They just don't deserve it. " That was nothing but the simple truth, though Jacob appreciated what it took for Mr. Ingram to say it. He knew the man still viewed Lyssa as something of a creature of darkness. He could hardly argue with that. The men maintained a companionable silence for the next hour, letting her nap undisturbed. When she woke, she fished about and found one of the oranges. As she began to peel it, she kept her bare feet tucked under Jacob's thigh, her gaze considering him beneath her lashes as if she was still drowsy. Elijah began a discussion with Jacob on which nailer was best for laying a hardwood floor. He answered, keeping his eyes on her, sensing the shift in her mood. Her fingers coaxed the skin from the flesh of the orange, her knuckles getting moist from the abundant juice of the homegrown fruit. Her hair was in a twist over one shoulder, the edge brushing the top of her thigh, outlined by the way her skirt lay upon it. Her toes curled, pressing into his thigh muscle. Moving his hand to her an- kle, he stroked the delicate bones there. When she raised a slice, she leaned forward, apparently wanting to feed him. As she caressed his lips, her fingers grew moist with his saliva as well as the juice of the fruit. He couldn't resist a nip that caught a finger. As he drew it deep in his mouth to suckle it, her eyes glowed like a cat's at him through the darkness. "So, Mr. Ingram, why does it make a difference what kind of nailer you use to put down hardwood floors?" She said it with a smile in her voice, but she had an entirely different expression as she extended the next slice of orange to Jacob. Take it from my fingers. I want to feel your mouth again. Did you know some vampires don't allow their servants to eat or drink except from their Master or Mistress's hand? Ever. To underscore their bond.

He met her gaze in the shadowed gloom of the backseat. That focused intensity she was so good at projecting washed over him with the same arousing effect of feeling a gush of warm, wet response between her legs spill over his fingers. Do you think I need a reminder? No. But I like making you dependent on my will. He considered that. She'd worked one foot even deeper beneath his thigh, and the movement of her toes teased the flat base of his testicles constricted in his jeans. It's a long trip, my lady. It is at that. How long do you think you can stay hard for me? When do I ever stop? Though her mouth curved, she continued her peeling. Offered another slice. This time after he took it, he captured her wrist in his hand, held her there. They stared at each other in the darkness. Slowly, he moved his mouth to her palm, feeling her nails curve in, the points pressing against his eyelid and the soft, vulnerable tear duct as he suckled her pulse, let his thumb stroke the same terri- tory, the network of highly sensitive nerve endings he knew were there. He'd tried not to make the first move, but this maddening prox- imity to her was more than he could resist. Since that explosive com- ing together after Carl, she'd been withdrawn. The intensity of that night had been far over the top of what he'd ever been with a woman, and he'd realized it had broken new ground for his lady as well. When they next came together it would be there, this different level between them, and she apparently hadn't been ready to face that. She'd kept him busy with preparations and the handling of her day-to-day affairs. That level of activity was all that kept the hunger for her at bay. He'd had the overwhelming desire several times to as- suage it in the quiet darkness of his own room, usually in a half sleep when his hand moved to himself without conscious thought, dream- ing of her body, her touch. Oddly, it was worse when he was away from home. She'd sent him on a couple of out-of-town trips, for he was now accepted as her agent, her assistant to the highest level, and not just to the perception of her vampires.

She trusted his judgment without requiring her consultation on most things, simply allowing his voice to become her own. Now, with her pulse pounding beneath his hand, he wouldn't deny the savage need anymore unless she refused him. Fortunately, he sensed she was ready to embrace it as well, whatever form it would take between them. I'm curious, Sir Vagabond. Did you . . . Assuage often? My mind is open to you, my lady. You know all. He felt her there like her hair or lips, brushing him in light, pro- vocative touches. You didn't. No, he hadn't. He'd pulled his hand away from himself, chosen a cold shower when he'd needed it. You seem surprised. You've never demonstrated such . . . A submissive characteristic before. Waiting for your Mistress's permission. It was that. But it was more than that. I wanted only you, my lady. After experiencing the wet, hot silk of your pussy, my cock finds my rough hand a woeful substitute. "I do not find your hand that way at all. " Lifting it, she pressed her face into his touch. Her left eye,most of her nose and half her lips disappeared behind the cover of his palm and fingertips. He noticed then the screen was up, likely raised by a compulsion she had sent Mr. Ingram or just the man's perceptiveness. "When our flight lands, it will be daylight and I'll sleep on the plane. But when we rise at sunset, I have to meet with the Council first thing. Without servants present. " She cocked her head. "The Council and several other high-ranking vampires meet on the first night to discuss issues of more confidential concern to our kind. It's a courtesy, mostly an overview of the things we'll hear over the next three days and those things we won't, but will manifest themselves. " A slight smile touched her lips. "A briefing, if you will. " "I remember, my lady. " He moved his touch to her calf, his fingers teasing under the hem of the skirt, finding her knee. Her gaze held his steadily, but he noted her lips parted at the provocative touch.

"When you go to our rooms to get us settled, " she said, her voice throaty, "you will . . . Assuage your need. I want to see you in my mind with your hand on your cock, stroking yourself to release. " Enough was enough. He was only human, after all. Ignoring her breathless laughter in his mind, he reached out and dragged her across the seat to him, clamping down on her mouth with his own. He knew that was what she wanted, though he didn't know if it was his psychic intuition, their mind link or just the bond between the two of them. Soul mates. Those disturbing words again, planted by Thomas. He didn't know if it was true, but he couldn't deny it seemed like he knew her mind better than his own. Raising his head, he met her gaze. "My lady . . . " "Sssh. Give me what I need, Jacob. It is just us here. Soon I shall have to be very different, very cold. I'll have to remind you that you belong to me in ways that are not comfortable to you. It is our way. But for now, take my woman's heart. Hold it for me so I'll be able to find it again after this is all over. " Dropping his hand to her waist, he curled his fingers under her shirt, felt the soft skin stretched over the smooth valleys between her ribs. Moving up to the satin of her bra cups, he brushed them with his thumbs. When he took the shirt over her head, he watched the way her clipped-back hair formed a twisting spiral as it funneled through the neckline and then fell back to her shoulder, down her now mostly bare back. Spanning her skin with his large hands, the tan skin against the pale unblemished, he put his lips on the top of one curve, his jaw brushing her. Her breath held, her teeth biting down on her lips as a distracted smile of pleasure curved them. Her fingers rested on his shoulders. For once they didn't dig in, just held as if she were seeking an emo- tional anchor.

Her skin was so sensitized that if he teased one small part of her with tiny touches of tongue and lip, he knew her body would begin to quiver, like ripples in a lake that expanded and be- came a wake on a shore from that one minute disturbance. She knew how to draw an extraordinary level of sensual enjoy- ment from the simplest acts, and he'd been a good student. He could bring her to climax with this one contact because of how deeply she could focus on it.

But that wasn't what she needed now. He put his hand between them, freed himself from his jeans and found her beneath her skirt, bringing it up to her hips so he could slide his finger under the band of the silk panties she wore, move the crotch aside and test her wet- ness. She was slick and warm already. When he guided her onto him, she sank down on his length with a noise between an animal sound of acceptance and a murmur of contentment, completion. She tightened on him, inch by torturous inch. When he had her fully seated, he put his arms around her, pressing her against him, her head down to his shoulder. Her arms shifted to wrap around his shoulders, almost like a child being carried home in an adult's arms. Following instinct, he began to rock, slow, sliding strokes up inside her. Wrapping a complex dichotomy of desire and comfort tightly around their bodies, a lullaby of searing sensation. Her hips moved on his, circular desire, tightening, releasing, lifting, lowering. He nuzzled her neck as she moved her grip to his hair, his trimmed beard making friction across the top of her left breast, eliciting a soft, shuddering sigh. He'd never wanted anything to go on forever so much, this mag- ical journey through the night in the quiet solitude of a moving car, baptized by the lights of the passing vehicles. The soft sound of In- gram's preferred slow groove station came through the back speak- ers. Jacob's release built with hers on every stroke as they moved in perfect harmony on a star-kissed sea of their own world. It was a sweet ride, holding her body close, feeling her move with him, her cheek pressed against his hair, her grip there alternately tightening and stroking. He was sure Mr. Ingram knew what was happening back here. Somehow, despite the fact he'd never formally taken Lyssa's offer of a job, Elijah had become part of the journey they were on, a journey Jacob was all too aware had an end. Mr. In- gram knew it, too, and maybe that was why he was with them still. Sometimes, despite all the reasons a man's mind told him he needed to avoid a situation with a woman, his heart overruled him. No mat- ter the pain or danger, this was the course that called to him.

"Jacob. " A soft murmur of sound, her voice breathless. He took her up high, down slow, stroking her with his full length, despite the fact he knew he was going to explode in no time from such exquisite slick torture. She liked to squeeze, liked to feel the ridge of him push through her muscles. "Ah . . . " He kept it slow as her hands began to jerk in their hold on him, her body tightening, ready. He held her to his pace and she let him, didn't try to take the lead, smiling even through her strain, acknowledging the wonder of it. He wasn't even sure if he was in the lead or if they were in fact on a tide that was inexorably, rhythmi- cally, pulling them both toward their destination. A cry broke from her lips, but he kept pushing her down on him, again and again, until her whole body was quivering, rocketing with the intensity of the climax he was inflicting on them both at such a pace. When he began to come, he banded his arms even more tightly around her, burying his face in her neck, pressing his lips there as he surged strong and hard into her pussy, piercing her deep, giving her a taste of pain with the vibrating pleasure of her aftershocks. Her teeth scored his ear, responding. He smiled, closing his eyes as shud- ders racked through him. He let himself be content to hold her then, knowing his lady never told him false. At the next moonrise, they'd be at the Gather- ing, where everything would be different. She'd given him this to remember.

And just as she'd asked, he had her heart in his safekeep- ing, beating in his own chest. He was sure of it.

Jacob stretched his legs after they deplaned from the private jet on a narrow landing strip. They were somewhere in Chile or Argentina, but he knew little else about the location of the Vampire Gathering. The stronghold where they'd hold the annual Vampire Gathering was secluded, another hour's travel by off-road vehicle. Lyssa had said the private resort getaway was located on the coast and backed by the lush, temperate rain forest of this region. She'd explained that the resort belonged to Lord Mason, a vam- pire Jacob knew was one of the older ones at over six hundred. He was rarely seen, choosing to live in seclusion in the Saudi desert.

However, he loaned the property to the Vampire Council for their purposes, apparently having no desire of his own to visit it, but equally having no desire to relinquish it. Mason and Lyssa had a history. Jacob had seen at least one cor- respondence from the vampire to her. Though he hadn't been privy to the contents, he knew it had somehow contributed to the events that led her to give him the third mark. Thomas had also told him something of Mason. Years ago, Lyssa had wanted Mason to be more involved in the Council formation, but Mason apparently was not a joiner. He wanted nothing more than seclusion and turned away from the notion of "civilized" vampires. Lyssa had been disap- pointed, perhaps even feeling a bit betrayed by the friend she'd hoped she could count on. Since that had been so long ago, she'd obviously gotten past it enough to exchange correspondence with him again, but that was all. Jacob had tried not to be selfishly glad of that. Thomas had im- plied there'd once been something more between the two of them. If not for Mason's aversion to vampire society, it might have been Ma- son instead of Rex that Lyssa would have chosen for marriage. You don't court me, Jacob. You serve me. He pushed that memory away, knowing he needed to be steady and balanced as they stepped out onto the tarmac to meet a full complement of Council members. For the next three days he would be surrounded by creatures that saw him as food, a sex slave, an in- ferior being, a tool. For his lady's benefit, he would have to perform accordingly. Knowing his lady, that performance could take many forms. And most of them would make him ner vous as hell if he dwelled on the possibilities at all. Humans were expected to satiate vampire desires as sexual sub- missives on many different levels. At the Gathering, that aspect of a servant's role was turned to high volume. Until now, except for the dinner with Lord Tara, Lady Richard and Lord Brian,most–though not all–of his submission to his lady had been private. He suspected that would not be the case here. While he didn't agree entirely with Debra's assessment of it, he knew on one important level she was right.

His lady loved him and had told him she did, something unique to a vampire-human rela- tionship. She also viewed him as her servant, expecting his obedi- ence. While she trembled under his touch, she wouldn't hesitate to physically hurt him if he defied her to the point of blatant disrespect. And he understood that. Accepted it in a way that wouldn't make sense to Gideon or anyone else. Perhaps it only made sense to some- one who had the mind-set to be a human servant. Now he stood at her back, a deferential few feet behind while she exchanged greetings. A meeting of hands, a brush of the lips across the cheek. A contingent of humans stood back, waiting as well. From their appearance, he knew these were not the human servants attached to these Council vampires. The overlords invited to the Gathering were not of equal rank. Therefore those of the lower ranks might have their servants pressed into all sorts of duties during the Gathering–cleaning, waitstaff, bellhop ser vices. While he and Lyssa had discussed that, she had neglected to tell him how these servants would be garbed. The group of men and women waiting for direction had ex- tremely attractive bodies, noticeable because they wore little on them. Their individuality was denied them because they wore full head masks with nose and eye openings, but no mouth opening. From the stretched concave curve in that area, it appeared they wore ball gags beneath so speech was not possible. They could only re- ceive and follow orders. Each wore a modified form of chastity belt where the genitals were visible but caged by a closely fitted wire mold. Other than those two items, they wore nothing else. It made him terribly grateful he was attached to a high-ranking vampire. Never mind that their identities were safeguarded by the masks. He was sure it was not for their benefit, but a practical con- sideration for their Master or Mistress, so no one could identify their servant and try to manipulate them for political benefit. He would not be commandeered for any services of which his lady did not approve. She'd also made it clear he was to follow only her direc- tion and to never, ever let his guard down once they were off the plane. As two of the humans were ordered to move and claim the baggage of another vampire who had just arrived, he noticed some- thing else.

The men's cocks were hard and erect in the caged wires that pressed the engorged shafts against their bellies. The women's eyes were wide and flared, their bodies obviously being kept in a stimulated state, the wires over their pussies wet with their arousal. As they turned, bent, he saw the chastity belts were fitted with dildos inserted into all available openings, depending on gender. It was the type of discomfort that vampires enjoyed inflicting, allowing them to inhale the scent of human arousal to stoke their own desires. He pulled his attention away from that back to his lady. Accus- tomed enough to the internal stratus of vampire society not to ex- pect an introduction, he nevertheless was conscious of a penetrating assessment by each vampire who stepped forward and greeted his lady. They'd gone over each member of the Council thoroughly, so he had no problem recognizing each one. He'd also gotten impres- sions of them through his many communications with their servants over the past month on his lady's behalf. He noted names, body lan- guage, the shift of eyes, the level of deference exhibited and his lady's reaction to each. The last one who stepped forward was Belizar, the head of the Council and obviously of Russian Cossack stock. With steel gray eyes and swept-back hair streaked with silver, he had an aura that said he had no problem removing the body parts of anyone who crossed him. He had a throbbing power hard to ignore. His gaze swept over Jacob, then again to Lyssa as he stepped back but retained her hand. "Lady Lyssa, you do us great honor by being here. I'm pleased to see you've at last overcome your grief to take another servant. May it please you one day to feel the same about another mate. " From the grip he had on her hand, there was no doubt who Beli- zar felt that should be. And of course an allegiance between the head of the Vampire Council and the last Far Eastern vampire of royal blood would make logical sense to everyone present. No one would think it an inappropriate implication. No one except Jacob, who knew the wound in her heart from Thomas's loss and Rex's betrayal was still deep. Not to mention the fact it had resulted in a death sentence hanging over her.

From the ripple of feeling he picked up from her, he wondered if this was what she'd dreaded the most. Not the life-and-death politics and the worry that the disease would make itself known here, but the re- minder of what she'd lost to reach this point. She'd had a lot to deal with since it had all happened, but when all was said and done, she was still a grieving widow, on several levels. He had to quell the urge to take a step closer behind her, to let her feel the reassurance of him at her back. Lyssa drew her hand away with an easy, light smile that betrayed none of that ripple of reaction. "I've no plans in that direction right now, Belizar, but your kind wishes are much appreciated. It's lovely to be back at Mason's home again. Will we be honored by his pres- ence?" "With Mason, nothing is ever certain. " This dry comment from one of the female Council members. Lady Carola from Germany. "Often we don't know if he's alive or dead. " "Break into his private wine stock and we'll know. I think he's injected a drop of his blood into each bottle so he'll know if it's dis- turbed. " This from Lord Uthe, a tall, ascetic-looking denizen of the night with dark eyes that looked toward Lyssa with a friendly, re- served affection that did not raise Jacob's hackles the way that Beli- zar had. Uthe was the unofficial second in command of the Council, bringing a razor-sharp shrewdness to augment Belizar's charismatic, volatile style. Belizar glanced toward Jacob. "Take your lady's things to her room. These servants will take you there. " Jacob executed a slight bow. "The offer of assistance is appreci- ated, but I take orders only from my Mistress, my lord. " Based on his experience with Carnal, he supposed he could have been more diplomatic about it, using his mind link with Lyssa to verify this was what she wanted him to do, but Jacob wanted no mis- understandings about whom he served. Belizar's eyes flashed. In them Jacob saw he had the arrogance and sense of superiority possessed by vampires Jacob and Gideon had fought in the past.

Only in his case, his superiority was likely justified, bolstered by experience.

The experience of ripping off the arms of humans who'd annoyed him. But Jacob had been sure to have nothing in his voice to suggest the comment was anything but obliging the directives of his Mis- tress. Belizar was picking up the subtle male undercurrent, but Ja- cob's tone was courteous enough to make him uncertain if he was being challenged by a mere human. That arrogance was working in Jacob's favor. And you said I didn't know how to play politics, my lady. While she didn't respond, he thought he felt a flicker of amuse- ment from her. It certainly wasn't coming from Belizar. The head of the Council shifted his gaze back to Lyssa, a dismissive gesture. "You are far more fortunate in the loyalty of this servant than that murderous traitor. " "In more ways than one, " Carola murmured, giving Jacob a thor- ough appraisal that reminded him uncomfortably of old charcoal drawings of Jamaican slave auctions. If she reached out to check his teeth, she was going to pull back a stump. "There's entertainment and sport in the resort area until dawn, Lady Lyssa. Once he's settled your things, perhaps your servant could join in for the viewing plea- sure of us all. " "After our meeting, " Belizar reminded her. "We have quite a full agenda. I hate to rush you when you've only just arrived, Lady Lyssa, but I want you fully briefed on what we will be addressing over the next several days. " "Let us proceed to it now, then. " Lyssa turned to Jacob. "Take my things to my room; get us settled in. I'll meet you in the resort area when we are done. " "If you wish your servant to participate in the games, Lady Lyssa, he will need to be suitably attired, " Belizar said. "My servant, Mala- chi, is already there. As you'll recall, there's none that can match his skill. It's been a while since he's had a worthy new opponent. Would your servant be worth his time?" Standing behind his lady, Jacob couldn't see her face, but he saw her shoulder lift in an indifferent shrug. "I think it far more likely that Malachi will not be worth Jacob's. "

The Council members shifted, feral smiles showing their appre- ciation. Belizar's eyes sparked at the challenge. Lyssa turned to Jacob again. "It should take you less than an hour to settle us in our rooms. After that, I expect you to strip off every- thing and go to the resort area, passing your time there until I join you. "

Jacob put his hand on the door latch, took a deep breath. His mind told him to turn the bronze handle, but he decided to give himself the liberty of ten more seconds before he strode out into the palatial hallways of Mason's castle in nothing but his skin. Maybe another ten minutes. Would ten hours be pushing it? An hour earlier, as he'd traveled to this room with his escort of masked servants, they'd passed a variety of vampires and higher- ranked human servants. Most of the humans were clothed. Though some were in fairly sensual and accessible garments, it was still cloth- ing. The vampires of course were fully dressed. He realized quickly the chastity belts were a protective rule of sorts for the domestic servants. They were apparently required to submit to the liberties any random vampire wished to take with them. He passed one outdoor lounge area by a pool where a masked servant was on her knees being made to stroke a standing male vam- pire to climax. At the same time the vampire suckled on the breasts of another servant who was straddling the shoulders of the one ser- vicing his cock. Jacob remembered Debra's admonition that some servants be- lieved they were the same rank as their Master or Mistress, rather than just property to use as they wished. If a Master or Mistress, re- gardless of rank, wished to subject their own servant to a masked servant's status, they could. He supposed what he was seeing was a damn good reason for servants attached to higher-ranked vampires to toe the line, to avoid such a fate. Even so, many vampires, male and female, gave him openly spec-ulative looks as they passed, examining him as a piece of attractive flesh they might get the opportunity to sample. He forced himself not to flinch from the whispering touch of fingers along his hip, the curve of his buttock.

Despite the body language protests of his trio of female porters, he'd insisted on taking two of the heaviest suit- cases. Their bulk allowed him to innocently fend off some of the more adventurous vampire hands he encountered. He realized again just how vital Lyssa's protection and name were to him as he saw a vampire casually catch hold of a porter's harness straps and jerk her around to tease her generous breasts to hard points for the amusement of another female vamp. The servant stood do- cilely, though he was sure she was a total stranger to both vampires. Being around vampires in the human world could be perilous, certainly. But here where the turf was all theirs, their dominance as Masters was undeniable, the charged, barely leashed energy of their sexual cravings feeding the undercurrent of violence that was in- separable from a vampire's nature. It gave Jacob a heavily compressed sense of uneasiness in the vitals, despite the irony of the event's main purpose being to honor the Council, a symbolic bow to their success in creating a "civilized" vampire society. At the same time, he couldn't help comparing the structure of the Vampire Council with that of business conferences held for hu- man professions. Away from home and the typical settings of their day-to-day life, people tended to have lower inhibitions. Like those conventions, this one would conduct business, but play would occur as well. With human servants half-clad or pretty much unclad ev- erywhere one looked, the play was bound to get pretty intense. The palace itself stoked such imaginings. It was something out of Arabian Nights. Huge urns overflowing with flowers in passionate colors, fountains with erotic and often disturbing statuary. In an open courtyard, they'd passed one over eight feet tall. Demons rap- ing a nymph, penetrating her with organs that appeared to be of a life-threatening size. Her hand pressed against the nearest one's fanged and deformed face, trying to stave off the inevitable. It was horrible, but having been around vampires long enough, he knew the idea of her resistance was what made it erotic to them. The water artfully trickled over her thighs, as if despite her repugnance and re- sistance, her body was lubricating itself for them. For surrender.

Given all that, could he be blamed for the fact that, once in the room, he'd dawdled? He had to set out his lady's toiletries, arranging them in accordance with her needs over the next several days. Freshen her clothes with the ridiculously mundane items of steamer and iron, sprinkling the lavender she liked into the fabric. Set out her makeup and brushes where he'd have them readily to hand. He'd removed his clothes, but done a quick run through the shower, touched up his shave and beard and brushed his hair. Even though he'd rather smear himself with pig manure to keep all those strange hands as far from him as possible, he knew he had to be pre- sentable to honor his Mistress. Now he stood at the door, his hand on the latch, and he wasn't sure if he could do it. Jacob, you have not obeyed my will. Her voice was a soft breath in his mind, the barest of whispers. I'm just fortifying my courage, my lady. I find it a little more diffi- cult to do this when you're absent. Humiliating to admit, but there it was. Too many vampires appreciative of a tight ass around here. He sensed her smile, but an intensity of purpose, too. I've never known your courage to falter. You shall conduct yourself well. How- ever, I'm referring to what we discussed in the car. What I commanded you to do when you got to my room. Jacob withdrew his hand from the door. "Now, my lady?" I am sitting in one of the most boring and self-pretentious gather- ings you can imagine. Carnal, for all he is a monster, is at least in- teresting. It appears it will go on for at least another two hours. What do you think? Her voice turned to a purr and he suddenly, vividly, imagined her hands on his cock, her moist lips opening to take him in. Stroke yourself for me, Jacob. Go back into the shower and turn on the water. I want to see it run over your muscles as they tense, as your very tight ass clenches and you pump yourself with your hand. I want to see the images in your mind, your fantasizing about me . . . A pause. And I would suggest, at least for this, you do indeed fantasize about me. He grinned despite himself at her dry tone, and some of the ten- sion lessened. "I would not dream of doing otherwise, my lady. "

I like it when you speak aloud like that. You come through even more strongly. I can feel your voice vibrating through my body. Go to the shower, Jacob. I need to feel your desire. He complied, moving through the large suite of rooms, past the canopy bed draped with velvet. With his cock already hardening, it was easy to imagine lying upon the mattress with her, rolling her under him, spreading her white legs, sinking into her as he wrapped his hands in her miles of hair. Yes . . . When the shuddering sigh ran through her mind, it rip- pled across his skin. I'd like that. The bathroom also had its share of sensual offerings. A large Ja- cuzzi tub big enough for three or four people, a double-headed shower and jets that came out of the walls. He adjusted the tempera- ture and stepped in. Get your hair wet. In a chamber nearly a quarter mile away on the extensive palace's grounds, Lyssa sat at a twenty-foot-long ornately carved table that had once graced the hall of a Celtic king. The full Council and two other high-ranking guests, including her, listened as Belizar ran down the agenda of business that would be covered in more detail over the three-day Gathering. Since she was already well aware of most of the items, listening with only partial attention was not detri- mental. However, as Jacob filled the screen of her mind, she hoped Belizar wouldn't stop to ask her any questions. As the water poured over Jacob's skull, his hands rose, the auto- matic gesture to slick his hair back. She could see him in full, deli- cious detail, blocking out everything else. The long muscular body, the running water sculpting each muscle of his curved biceps and chest. The sectioned stomach muscles, the flex of his buttocks as he shifted. His cock was erect now from her soft persuasion and the vi- sion of what she wanted him to do. She lingered over every detail of his body, down to the arches of his feet. The toes she'd curled her own around to warm her feet when she let him stay with her at night. Too few times. For the past hundred years, perhaps two hundred, she'd never let her mind be distracted from a meeting such as this. There'd been too much at stake.

Too many vampires testing the oligarchy of the Coun- cil. Too many battles, both political and physical, for her and Rex to fight. When those were past, there had been Rex himself to fight. She'd heard the songs about living in the moment, living as if there were only one day to live. A lovely sentiment, but if everyone acted as if they were dying, chaos would result. Life was meant to be lived in all its frenetic activity. But somehow a gift was given to the subconscious of someone whose days were truly numbered. For the first time in centuries, she had the overwhelming sense of having a free pass to slow down as the world kept speeding up around her. To open the senses, the mind and soul to all the things she hadn't had time to enjoy as fully as she wished. She hadn't indulged such thinking since the days when she was young and believed she would live forever. Jacob, I want you to sleep with me. From here forward, whenever possible, when you complete your duties, you will come lie with me in the day and sleep. His hands stilled, his head bowed, cocked slightly as if listening to her with his ears. "Whatever you wish, my lady. It would be my honor. You're all right?" Yes. Warmth gripped her at his automatic reaction. To protect. To care. Put your hand on yourself. Bring yourself to climax for me. But do it the way you would if you were alone,doing it without my command. Bracing a hand on the opposite wall of the shower caused the muscles along his back to ripple delightfully, drawing her gaze to the slope of his hip and the straight line of thigh. The ends of his hair were wet silk along the line of his shoulders. It had gotten a little longer this past month and often he'd kept it tied back, too busy to get it trimmed. She could have done it for him, she realized. Would have if she hadn't liked the look of it, blowing around his face when he worked the grounds, or when she threaded her hands through it as dawn approached, a way to soothe herself to sleep. How easy it had been to get used to him in her life. To want him present in every moment. When she'd sent him away on the two-day trip to verify the condition of several safe houses, she'd wandered the grounds with Bran like a ghost, restless spirits needing his grounding presence.

She could admit it, as long as she was only admitting it to her- self. He took hold of himself, curling his hand around the thick length, and began to stroke. He'd put soap in his palm to give it lubrica- tion, and also to goad the vision which filled her mind now. Driving into her slick heat, her pussy taking him deep and snug, a hot, wet fist, her hands reaching for his ass to pull him closer, her nails dig- ging in. She loved the way men thought about sex, rough and unromantic in their minds. Something so vulgar when shouted from a construc- tion site could be so sexy when it was a husky, guttural demand heard in the female mind. Another example of the dichotomous nature of women. Thomas taught you that word. She hid a smile. Not just the word, my lady. The whole sentence. It came up often during my training. I can't imagine why. But the uninterrupted flow of his imaginings distracted her from his teasing. In his vision, her nails dug in hard enough to draw blood. He liked that, liked to feel her savagery. He had no fear of her strength. He trusted her. Now he'd turned her, was holding her on her side and making rhythmic movements of his hips against her buttocks as he held her in the curve of his body. His palm lay flat on her abdomen, the tips of his fingers grazing her clit, making her strain for him even as he rocked her back into him so he would feel the give of her soft but- tocks against his thighs as he thrust in and out of her cunt. His other hand gripped her breast, squeezed, felt the texture of her nipple stab into his palm as he pressed his mouth to the side of her throat, tast- ing her. Vaguely she noted Belizar had moved down two agenda items. She had no idea what had been discussed. She hoped she was correct about her familiarity with them. Her thighs were quivering under the table, her panties soaked. While those in the room could detect arousal, there was so much of it running rampant throughout the castle they simply would think someone had indulged with their servant before coming to the meeting.

She wanted to be in the shower with him, letting him lift her up against the wet tile with his strength as if she weighed nothing. Sometimes she'd chosen an alpha male for her dinner for just that reason, that brief moment when his animal passion would take him over so that he'd lift her, slam her up against the wall of whatever dark place they might be. But now all she wanted was to imagine Jacob doing it, her legs wrapping around him so he could drive in, the tight, almost painful fit that felt so perfect, the exact blend of pleasure and pain to meet her desire for both. All of him inside her. She realized when the same thought reflected back into her that she'd again let him see into her mind, had opened herself so he knew how aroused she was. Are you where you can touch yourself, my lady? No. A pity. His thought was as ragged as she imagined his voice would be, and then she realized she could hear him so vibrantly because he was speaking, just as she'd requested. His hoarse voice echoed in the shower against the rush of the water. "I would have enjoyed feel- ing you come in my mind. Knowing you responded to me even as far away as you are.

That with . . . One . . . Soft . . . Whisper . . . I could compel you to . . . Come. Only by thinking . . . Of fucking you. " Come for me, Jacob. She said it desperately, before he could do it to her. He was close, and she was flushed at the shuddering feel of him, goading the pre-orgasmic state of her body. He'd waited for her command to climax. Did he do it because he knew it spurred her own response exponentially, to the point she almost didn't care if she brought herself to climax in this company? Or because it was his "dichotomous" nature to serve her like this, the perfect submissive, even as he drove her to distraction with his stubborn willfulness and aroused her past the point of good sense with his physical and emo- tional alpha tendencies? His hand curled into a fist high on the wall as he began to come, his lower body bucking hard, the way a man moved when not worried about exercising too much force on his more delicate partner.

He'd never held back much with her, knowing her strength, but she knew he did hold back some, always testing her lead to make sure it was not too much, waiting until she spurred him with fangs or nails. His head bowed down, a grunt of exertion coming from him as he pistoned into his hand. The milky fluid shot against the shower wall in front of him, ran down the tile. It felt as if it had jetted into her, her cunt convulsing sharply, once, twice, ready at the squeeze of her thighs to take it to completion. She wouldn't, couldn't . . . No, my lady. An urgent clip to his thoughts, even as he physically gasped for air. You can't. You are a screamer, you know. The sharp edge of regret was in the humorous thought that stead- ied her enough to pull her back from the dangerous ledge. When she surfaced from her erotic fog, he was leaning against the shower wall, breathing hard, his hand still holding himself. In her mind she rubbed her face against his knuckles there, smelled him. Shared that visual with him. Go out among the others now, Jacob. Think of me and know no shame. Your body is my possession and I want to show it off, let others feel envy at what I possess. Coveting is a sin, my lady. So was gluttony. But apparently she never got enough when it came to her young servant. It's the older woman, younger man thing. Midlife crisis. They've made movies about it . . . I'm going to find a cock harness and leash and make you wear them for the next three days, tugging you behind me like a poodle. She'd turned his mind back to the challenge of exposing himself to others but, as she'd hoped, he was feeling less anxious about it. When the muscles in her stomach loosened at the sound of his laugh- ter, she realized he'd managed to relax her, too. Perhaps he'd known she needed it as much as he had. Like the quick action to pull her back from embarrassing herself, it reminded her that no matter what, he never forgot his duty to her. Never forgot his duty . . . His honor . . . Loyalty. The thought disturbed her. An unexpected anxiety clutched her low in her stomach, dissipating the lingering desire.

When cold fi ngers walked across her spine, it tripped a physical wave of panic for Jacob's well-being. As she forced down the overwhelm- ing urge to get up, leave the table, go and fi nd him, protect him, a vision fi lled her mind. Taking over her senses, it blinded her to anything else as if she'd been picked up and dropped into another world. Blood and sacrifice. Jacob on a . . . Table . . . A cry of agony. An explosion . . . The premonition was gone so abruptly she started, earning a quick glance from Belizar. When she steeled her expression to im- passivity, he continued without pause. Inside, her thoughts scram- bled like an animal in a trap. She'd dreamed of her stepfather's death a week before it hap- pened. She'd dreamed she would lose her samurai guard . . . Two days before it occurred. She'd had one evening with her knight. Three days later, the news came to her that her nightmare of his death had been reality. While she hadn't dreamed of Rex's death, perhaps that was be- cause she'd killed him herself. She told herself Jacob was fine. Near her. Within range of her thoughts. Reaching out, she found him without alerting him to her presence. He was in a courtyard, moving toward the side of the cas- tle where the entertainments were taking place. Finely, beautifully naked, moving with lithe grace, his head up, every inch the servant of a vampire queen. He projected it so well that most of the vam- pires, while stopping for a second or third lingering look, didn't break the boundary of dignified reserve around him. God, he is a treasure. My treasure. Please let no harm come to him. He was fine. He was going to be fine. For Heaven's sake, when she died, he would die, so why should she be panicking over a vision of his death? The night he'd killed Carl Ronin, he'd slowed the car down by a church. He'd studied the smooth sculpture of the Son of God, mounted on a pedestal to the right of the front double doors.

The Virgin Mary had been on the left, her face wreathed in sorrow. "It doesn't have anything to do with holy water or being burned by crosses, does it?" he said quietly. "Why vampires don't go into churches. " "No, it doesn't. " She'd wanted to take his hand, suffering for him, but knew there was nothing she could say for this, no comfort she could offer. She wondered if there was any comfort for the fear she now nursed in her breast, that something might be conspiring to take Jacob away from her. It had to be the disease, playing games with her mind. For the first time, the idea of a recurrence was reassuring. Nevertheless, she kept a part of her mind open to his movements and whereabouts even as she tuned back in to the meeting. "Lady Lyssa, you indicated you had an important item for the Council's deliberation. You have the floor. " "My lords, my ladies. " Her voice was imperious and strong as she rose. From their attentive and respectful expressions she was satis- fied she hadn't cast any suspicions that she'd been dallying in areas far from this Council room. It was the disease, damn it. She shut the door firmly between her mind and Jacob's. "I want to address the issue of permanent asylum for the fugi- tives in my territory. "