When we entered the room, he was trapped by endless handshakes, backslaps, and conversations. Everybody wanted something, and Leslie, apparently, was the man who could get it. I smiled. I said hello and nodded graciously at congratulations for having landed Leslie. For the most part, the party-goers ignored me after Leslie made introductions, which made it impossible to ask questions. I had to assume that anyone bold enough to approach Leslie directly had to be important, but most of them were so intent on complaining to him, that I didn’t catch their names or titles.
I found the ceiling to be more interesting than their conversations, but I tried to be attentive. I yawned as a short, plump vampire argued his point on a slave trade gone sour. In soothing tones, Leslie informed him that if he filed a formal complaint, the case would appear on the docket at the next judiciary meeting. I decided that, if I stayed by Leslie’s side, I would likely learn nothing, and the mission would be a waste of time other than to establish the two of us as mates.
Interrupting the vampire’s lecture on proper trade protocol, I said to Leslie, “I should mingle.” Concern flickered in his eyes, but he patted my hand and kissed my cheek to excuse me.
It was next to impossible to tell who lived here and who didn’t, so I set about learning whatever I could. In my mind, I drew a map of what I knew of the house. I crossed the dining hall, stopping to accept compliments from vampires and humans that I passed. Most of the human women bowed to me.
I struck up a few conversations, but chitchatting was time-consuming. Judging by the elaborate wall clock, it took me half an hour to warm up my marks enough to learn a master’s name or a house location. By the end of the hour, I decided that most of the vampires and humans that lived in Maison Benoit weren’t present at the gala.
I made my way over to the fireplace and snagged a glass of champagne from a waiter. While I stood there enjoying the wine, I scanned the crowd. Pretty creatures in pretty clothes, it was all so wasteful. In one corner of the room, I spotted a cluster of young human women, so I set my glass on the mantle and made my way over to them.
At my approach, all but two of them scattered into the crowd. I stopped before the one that looked oldest, maybe sixteen years, and offered my hand. “Hello, I’m Lily.”
“Hi,” she said and accepted my hand. “I’m Jennifer.” The other girl cleared her throat, and Jennifer waved for her to go. “Mrs. Wells,” she whispered, “it’s not proper for us to speak to you.”
My eyes went wide. “Why? Did I do something impolite?”
“No, ma’am, it’s just that you’re Judge Wells’ mate and we’re…you know.” When I raised my eyebrows in question, she blushed and said, “We’re slaves.”
In her dress the color of a golden apple with matching elbow-length gloves, Jennifer looked just as proper as I did. “You’re not just some slave. I’ve never seen a slave in a dress as pretty as that,” I said and offered her a smile.
She blushed again. “No, ma’am. I’m…we’re Luc’s girls.”
Girls? He had a group of six? I turned to see if I could spot the others. They were nearby, eavesdropping, and close enough for me to see the bite marks on their necks and arms. When I turned back to Jennifer, I noted that she had a semi-fresh one where her breast swelled above her dress. I thought about my fake bite mark, which was clearly visible to anyone who wanted to look. Jennifer’s bite didn’t look very deep. Perhaps Luc just liked to nibble a lot.
Jennifer’s dress looked like it would be very hard to walk in, much less run, which was what she suddenly looked as though she wanted to do. Her shy smile became forced, and terror sprang into her eyes as she spotted something over my right shoulder.
“You must be Lily.” When he spoke, my spine stiffened, and it felt like every hair on my body stood on end. With the French accent, the name came out Lee-Lee.
I turned to face him and went on the offensive. “Why is that?”
His eyebrow lifted. “I make it a point to make the acquaintance of all Guillame’s guests.” When I only blinked, one corner of his mouth turned up. “And Travis did an excellent job describing you, though he hardly did your beauty justice.”
“I see. Then you must be Luc.” Leslie hadn’t told me how I should introduce myself without him around, so I went with tipping my head toward him. Since Luc wasn’t angry or displeased, I decided my method of acknowledging him was acceptable.
He was taller than Leslie and muscular. A black velvet ribbon held his light blond hair in a thick but neat tail at the base of his neck. He was a lovely man, not quite on level with Leslie but beyond the usual vampire allure.
“Enchanté,” he said and lifted my hand to his lips. He kissed the back of it very carefully. His mouth was wide like mine, with thinner lips that were dark pink, and his fangs were out a bit. His eyes, yellow-green like a cat’s, latched onto mine. “Monsieur Wells was lucky to find such a beautiful mate,” he purred. He still held my hand, and I thought it was probably unforgivably rude for me to yank it free.
“Merci, but I’m sure you exaggerate, Monsieur. It’s the dress and cosmetics.”
I continued to hold his stare. Even though my insides quivered, he needed to see that I wasn’t some weak woman he could intimidate. I willed the hand he held to stay dry and steady.
“Au contraire. Vous êtes une belle femme, et je pense…feisty.”
I can be, I thought. “Je peux être.”
I smiled at him ruefully. Beautiful and feisty—Luc gave me the impression that he either enjoyed a challenge or enjoyed the thrill of breaking a human with a strong spirit. I tried to give him my coolest stare.
“You speak French, yet you are clearly American. Where did you learn our language?”
“Around.” For all I cared, Leslie could tell Luc that he had taught me. The less said about my past the better.
Letting my hand drop at last, he turned to glare at Jennifer. “You are still here?”
She wrung her hands and shifted from one foot to the other. “I know it isn’t proper, but we,” she swallowed, “we were just talking.”
At his glare, she shrank before him, which made me stand up even straighter and hold my shoulders back slightly. The movement brought his attention back to me.
“I wonder,” he said as he ran a finger over the bite mark on my neck. I tensed involuntarily. Because the cords in my neck stood out, I raised my chin slightly. “Yes, I wonder.”
I couldn’t stand to be touched by him a moment longer, so I stepped back from him briskly. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your last name.”
He grinned wickedly and stepped toward me again. When he tried to take my hand again, I put it behind my back. Luc’s grin became a smile with more fang. “Oui, feisty.” His eyes danced with excitement. “I have lived with Guillame for so long that I go by the surname Benoit. However, all my friends call me Luc, as you did.”
This time, he grabbed my hand and kissed it again. “Are you my friend, Lily?”
I swallowed hard and tugged at my hand. He held it harder and lifted his other hand to capture one of my curls. I gave him a hard stare, and eventually, he let go.
“Such eyes. Oh, I am quite sure Monsieur Wells enjoys you. His fangs are long, no?”
“Is that some kind of euphemism?” I asked, and Luc bellowed with laughter.
When he brought himself under control, he grabbed one of Jennifer’s arms. “Cherie, I have business to discuss with Guillame.” He kept his eyes locked on mine as he pulled her into a rough kiss. “Enjoy your chat with Lady Lily.” He released her and stared at me as he backed away from us and into the crowd.
I felt like I needed a bath, and I rubbed my hand down Jennifer’s bruising arm. Her lower lip bled from two holes where Luc had bitten her. He hadn’t even bothered to seal the wounds.
Jennifer swiped at them with a napkin she took out of her small purse. To cover her fear and embarrassment, she babbled about the history of the wall clock I had used to time my conversations. I tried steering her toward topics of more interest to me, but when her nerves looked thin, I backed off. As I tried to locate Leslie among the crowd, Justin joined us.
“Jennifer, this is my friend Justin.”
She curtsied to him. “How are you, sir?”
“I am well. Thanks for asking.” He smiled at her, and she relaxed. “That’s a lovely dress.”
Justin held out two glasses of wine. The calming effects of the glass of champagne were long gone, so I grabbed the glass he offered and downed it. When a waiter drifted by, I grabbed another glass. This was much stronger stuff, and before the second glass was drunk, my face was warm, and I felt great. When I spotted Leslie walking over to join us, I smiled hugely.
“How much did you have to drink?” he asked, eyeing me.
Justin held up his hands. “I only gave her one glass, I swear. Apparently, she can’t hold alcohol.”
“Not wine anyway, but I can hold you.” I poked Justin in the chest. I was about to prove it to the small group watching us when Leslie gathered me close and whispered in my ear.
“We know you can, my lovely flower, but you shouldn’t announce it to the Florida vampire elite.”
“I like that,” I whispered back and on impulse, I flicked my tongue over his earlobe.
“What?” His voice trembled, and I felt drunker for the power that gave me.
“‘My lovely flower.’ It’s nice. I always thought my name sounded like an old lady name.”
“Lily, I need you to focus. Now, tell me, how many guards were on the roof?”
Asking a tactical question brought me out of my wine-induced fog. “Fifteen that I saw. Why?” I leaned back and stared into his eyes.
“Good to have you back.” He kissed me lightly. “Now, I’d like you to meet Benoit.”
That sobered me up more than anything else he could have said. It took us a while to get to him. Several people stopped Leslie along the way to chat or compliment him on any number of things, including me. He kept me close by his side, and I made sure to rub my hand along his back. I found it wasn’t so hard to act anymore.
“Ah, Leslie,” someone called in a French accent much less pronounced than Luc’s.
“Guillame.” Leslie, with a huge smile plastered to his face, turned and shook hands with Benoit. “I see you are living well in the new house.”
“We certainly have more room here.” Benoit’s smile was a mirror image of Leslie’s. “It has been some time since you’ve been to Florida for a visit. Ah, ten, twelve years? It’s nice to have you back, for pleasure I hope.”
“Yes…pleasure,” Leslie decided, shaking hands with Benoit. I rolled my eyes. I wanted to pinch my nose, as if something stank, but decided it was overly childish. Sensing my disapproval, Leslie ran his hand down my back. “That last time was a nasty bit of business. Glad it all worked out.”
“If we don’t uphold our laws, how are we to remain civilized?”
“We can’t. Guillame, I’d like you to meet my mate, Lily.”
Benoit finally noticed me. He had sleek, dark hair, almost black, and it was longer than Luc’s. His eyes were the color of wet pine bark, and they shone like highly polished metal. A strange look passed over his face. I certainly wasn’t what he expected.
“Lovely.” He took my hand and kissed the back of it, much as Luc had. Something beyond us caught his attention, and he called, “Ah, Mon Coeur, come say hello to Monsieur Wells and meet his mate.”
“Mister Wells, I’ve heard so much about you,” said the owner of the warm, soft voice from the bathroom.
As I congratulated myself on correctly guessing her position in the hierarchy, I peered around Leslie and nearly choked. Walking toward me in a stunning dove gray gown was my sister, Aster, and she was a vampire. Her golden hair was in perfect Sleeping Beauty ringlets, and her eyes, as blue as a jay, stared at Leslie. I quit breathing, and I heard my heart pounding in my ears. I must have been gripping Leslie tightly for he turned to me.
“I’m going to be sick,” I squeaked and scurried in the opposite direction as fast as I my dress would let me.
I heard Leslie say something about humans and too much wine, and it felt like everyone was staring at me, even though I knew they weren’t. My face felt hot, and my body felt cold.
When I made it out of the room into a long corridor with high windows, I turned left. I had no idea where I was going. The house was a maze, and I ended up bursting through a pair of (ha, ha) French doors onto a veranda. The air was cool and sharp. Inhaling deeply, I tried to steady myself.
“Don’t be sick, don’t be sick,” I repeated to myself.
Too many questions poured through my mind. Among them, the five big Ws: who, what, where, why, and when. My guesses were Benoit, turned her, in Miami, she’s demur and beautiful, and while she was still young. I pressed my fists onto the concrete railing and used the pain to focus.
“Too much wine, Lily?” Luc asked as he stepped out of the shadow of the house.
I swore and turned in his direction. With his pale skin, the moonlight was enough for me to see him, and it chilled me.
“Yeah, and I missed the restroom.” I looked quizzically toward the doors. Luc moved to put himself between the doors and me. I ordered myself to stay loose. If I couldn’t take him down completely, I would still put up a hell of a fight. “I didn’t want to have an accident in Monsieur Benoit’s lovely hallway.”
“Lily.” Luc sighed and took a few steps closer. “What is so special about you?”
“Nothing.” I tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go except into the railing. My bottom bumped against it.
“Oh, I very much doubt that. I should’ve gone with my instinct and had Travis bring you to me the week before you made your announcement.” He bit his lower lip and looked at my chest before slowly raising his eyes to meet mine. “My mistake, and Monsieur Wells just won’t give you up, no matter what we offer him. He won’t even share you.” He took another step toward me.
“Lucky for me Leslie likes me so much, as I’m certain I don’t want to be shared.”
Luc laughed quietly. “I think it is a bit more than just liking you. I like Jennifer, but I would trade a hundred of her for you.” He reached out to touch my hair, and I slapped his hand away from me. It was enough to make my hand sting, so his probably stung, too. In the moonlight, I saw his smile. “Such heat! Monsieur Wells must enjoy playing with fire. Well, he isn’t here, but I am, and I want to play.”
When he came for me, I pulled out the punch dagger and kicked. I missed him and cursed the stupid dress for it. He kept coming, so I shoved the dagger into his left peck and twisted. I hadn’t taken into account the tuxedo, so I managed to take a large hunk out of his jacket and only a little bit out of him. With my left hand, I dug my nails into his cheek and raked them down his face to his chin. He snatched my wrists and propelled me into the side of the house.
The impact knocked the breath out of me and the punch dagger out of my hand. He shook his face to clear it of the stray pieces of his hair that came free of his ribbon. As I watched, the scratches vanished. The shallow hole in his chest began to close. He looked down at the dagger and wiggled his eyebrows at me.
With so much conviction I believed myself, I said, “If you bite me he’ll know,” and struggled against his hold on my wrists.
“Of course he would. I’m not going to bite you.”
With little effort, he drew my wrists together behind my back and clasped them both in one hand. He sniffed at my face as he pressed me into the wall, bending my shoulders back into an awkward position. I yelped from the pain, and Luc used the opportunity to kiss me, viciously, jamming his tongue in my mouth. I bit him, his lip, tongue—whatever I got my teeth on—and hard enough to draw blood. Quickly, I twisted my face to the side and spat. He laughed at me.
“No, no, I would trade a thousand Jennifers for you.” I inhaled deeply to scream, but his hand clamped over my mouth and nose, shutting off my air supply. “Be a bonne fille. Don’t scream now. It would be such a waste to have to kill you.”
I struggled to breathe, and he waited until I was to the point of passing out before he let go of my face and pressed his body into mine. I felt him hard against me as his fangs extended. His free hand roamed down to the split in my gown and pulled it up almost to my hip.
“You’ve just been in season. I can smell you. Wells thinks he can bring you in here and waft you under my nose. He had to know how badly I would want you.”
His fingers skimmed up my leg, over the garter, and stopped long enough for him to smile. After this brief pause, his hand slithered up between my legs. Out of instinct and fear, I fought to get free.
“La Belle Fleur,” he whispered as he pressed his face against my neck.
He didn’t bite me, but his fingers hooked around my panties, and he tore them free of me. Once the barrier was gone, he slid his fingers inside me. He wasn’t hurting me physically, but I sucked in a breath and held it. My eyes widened when shifted his face so he could suck each finger as if dipped in something delicious.
“Just a hint now, like honeysuckle. I can’t imagine how sweet your blood must be.”
After a second taste, he pressed the side of his face to mine. My shoulders screamed in pain again, but I did not. I refused to make any noises that might excite him more. Luc positioned himself so that he stood between my legs. Then, I heard his zipper.
No, no, no. Fight! Every muscle, every bone screamed at once, and I struggled with everything I had in me.
“Luc,” said Benoit. At some point, he had come out on the veranda, and now, he had his fingers at Luc’s throat.
“I want her,” Luc growled.
“Damn you, she is a Wells, and he refused. I have given him my word. I don’t want him as an enemy.” Benoit looked at me and then Luc. “Is she worth me ripping your throat out, old friend? I’ll have to if you persist.”
Luc smiled at me. “Oh, Guillame.” He looked up into the sky briefly and then smiled at his friend. “I think this one would be worth it.” He licked the side of my face before releasing me. I was in shock, but I managed to edge around him and started toward the doors. “Some other time, La Fleur Douce. You come to me when you’re ready to play, oui?” He blew me a kiss.
I raced back inside as fast as the dress and heels would allow me. I had no idea where I was going, and when I nearly smashed into Selene, I grabbed her forearms.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. “Leslie has Aster looking all over for you.”
At the sound of her name, a new wave of nausea passed over me. I gripped Selene’s arms harder and dragged her against the wall. “No. Get me out of here, Selene. I mean it. I’m going to go completely ape shit in about one minute.”
She believed me because she put her arm around me and hurried me toward another door. We were outside, on a different veranda. How many freaking verandas does this house have? Selene had a tiny, cordless phone in her hand. She spoke into it so quickly that her lips blurred. A beat, maybe two, after she put it back in her purse, Leslie’s arms closed around me.
“Leslie,” I said the name as if he was my savior. “Get me out of here.”
I pinched my eyes shut. He never let go of me, not even when we got into the limo, which took far less time than I expected. I shivered from cold and shock and rocked myself in his arms until it felt like I would explode with fury and grief. I wrenched myself free of him and began ripping the pins out of my hair.
“Aster,” I screamed into the interior of the limo.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” I chanted. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“What is it, Camellia?” Leslie grabbed my upper arms and shook me gently.
“She was my sister!”
END CH7, P2