Tegonni rose from the plush chair and paced the elegant hotel office. She again considered bailing on this meeting, but each time she turned to Father Morgan to tell him she’d changed her mind, worry lines creased around his gray eyes. She understood. He didn’t want to be responsible for a parishioner’s death, even a vampire’s.
The priest brushed a silver curl of hair off his forehead. “It’s just full dark, so I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. He was so pleased you wanted to meet.” Though his smile was nervous, he managed a soothing tone of voice. “Try to relax.”
She sat back down. Relax. Right
. She hadn’t told him she was here against Jaime’s orders. She’d explained not meeting the vampire in the Lightworker offices as a “safety measure.” He’d raised a brow, then shrugged his slender shoulders and agreed to set up the meeting in the vampire’s business office.
She rubbed damp palms over her slacks. This might still blow up in her face. She hoped Fernando Amaral was worth the risk.
Low voices sounded outside the door before it opened, revealing a tall man in an elegant business suit. He spoke to someone in the reception area. “Thank you, Phillip. I’ll call if I need you.”
When he turned, she recognized those rich tawny eyes immediately, as well as the solemn face. Both she and the father rose as he walked in.
Amaral grasped and kissed Father Morgan’s hand. “Father
,” he said with reverence.
In person, Amaral was even more striking. She pulled her gaze away from the attractive lines of his body revealed by the tailored suit and focused on a professional assessment. His skin was a toffee complexion, lighter than her mocha coloring, but hardly the paleness most might associate with vampires. In fact, she’d take him for human if she didn’t know better. An interesting trait, and one that could have allowed him to get close to Father Morgan and the Lightworkers without revealing his true species. Yet he’d been honest. Her heart calmed as she was reassured of his sincerity.
The vampire turned to her with a closed-lipped smile as Father Morgan introduced them. Tegonni, having never met a vampire before, shook off a mix of relief and disappointment at not getting to see his fangs. “Fernando, this is Ms. Ellis of the local Lightworkers. She’ll be...counseling you before you make your final decision about taking the Eucharist.”
Fernando’s expression gave nothing away of his thoughts as he looked at her. She thought she caught the movement of his eyes flickering over her body, but it was too quick for her to be sure. The slow, charming smile he gave her was definitely flirtatious. She smoothed her shirt, nervous under the handsome vampire’s scrutiny.
After a moment, he gave a slight bow. His voice was mild, silky, and rich with a lyrical accent she placed as Brazilian rather than Spanish. “Dr. Ellis, I’m surprised and pleased the Lightworkers would take the time with me. I truly am grateful, despite my tardiness. I had to handle a small business matter straightaway.”
The combination of his voice and his intimate observation brought heat to her cheeks and a flutter to her stomach. Very unprofessional.
“Fernando manages this hotel,” Father Morgan said. “And he’s quite generous with his financial support of the church.”
“Ah...wonderful.” She gave the priest her attention, happy for an excuse to break eye contact with Fernando.
He beamed at her and Fernando. “Well, I’m sure you’re eager to get started, so I’ll leave you to it.” After Fernando kissed his hand again, the priest grasped his arm. “Son, you have more faith and devotion in you than many humans. Consider the possibility Heaven loves you as you are.”
“Only a possibility, Father? See, even you cannot say for sure.”
The priest didn’t respond. He gave Fernando’s shoulder a pat before walking out of the office and closing the door.
Tegonni stared at her new client with curiosity niggling at her brain. “Is that why you want to take communion? To prove Heaven loves you?” She normally would have started with casual, getting-to-know-you questions, but she couldn’t let this perfect opening slip by.
He turned from the door, his jaw set. “Partaking of the Eucharist is the only way to know.”
She took a deep breath. “You don’t wish to die?”
One side of his mouth lifted in a sad smile. “Yes, Dr. Ellis, I do. I already know Heaven does not--cannot--love a vampire. Just as it cannot love a demon or the Demon Lord who created my kind. I do not want to go on as an unlovable thing.”
“If you are so sure, why were you looking forward to meeting with me?”
“Two reasons. One, the father hinted you were seeing me without the permission of your superior, and that intrigued me.”
She suppressed a frown. Of course Father Morgan had guessed.
“Two, I want to ask a favor.”
“Oh?” What could he want from her?
He smiled and gestured toward the two high-backed chairs in front of the picture window. “Shall we sit?
Deciding to let him explain in his own time, she walked to the chair nearest the large, sturdy-looking oak desk and sat. “Of course. Please, call me Tegonni.”
He remained silent, and she looked up.
His golden eyes, shimmering with an inner light no human could boast, gazed back. “In all my years, I have never heard your lovely name before.”
Tegonni chuckled. “That’s saying a lot.”
“May I ask its origin?”
Personal disclosure was within the bounds of the client-counselor relationship. It fostered rapport and mutual trust. She ignored the swell of happiness the thought of sharing a bit of herself with him inspired. “Well, the short version is my father went through a ‘back to our African roots’”--she made finger quotes in the air--”phase when I was fourteen. Besides converting us from Catholicism to Haitian Vodoun--and insisting my sister and I wear nothing but kaftans--he also legally changed our names.” Fernando raised both eyebrows as he sat in the chair opposite hers. “Quite the conversion.”
She wondered if the notion of voodoo scared him, and she smiled at the irony. A vampire thinking she was an evil doll-touting voodooist. “Yes and no. In Haiti, Vodoun overlaps with Catholicism quite a bit. Something to do with the slaves who practiced it being better able to hide it from their Catholic masters. It gets a bad rap, but it’s not as scary as its reputation.”
“Perhaps not, but I have experienced something of this personally. I visited Haiti in the sixteen hundreds. I found the priests and priestesses to be surprisingly powerful. Their gifts didn’t always come from Heaven.” He tilted his head. “You practice this?”
“Some of it. Mixed with a generous dose of Wicca.”
“Ah, a much more benign path. So, your father made you change your name?”
“Oh we loved that part. Mom named me Thelma after her grandma, so picking a new name was a relief. Mom was less than happy about the whole thing.” She shrugged. No need for him to know the messy details.
chose this name? I’m intrigued. What is its meaning?”
“Nothing I’m aware of. It’s the name of a heroine from an African play. The show was on the story of Antigone, but I can’t tell you much about either plot. I just liked the costumes and dancing.”
“Well, I know nothing of the African play that inspired you, but the Grecian daughter Antigone sacrificed her life to stand against the state and do what she felt was right to honor her dead brother.”
“Ah, a rebel. I’m afraid I don’t live up to my namesake.” She laughed.
He smiled as he sat back and crossed his legs. “Actually, the name suits you, Senhorita
Tegonni. You have challenged the authority of the Lightworkers on my behalf. I certainly hope, however, you don’t think of me as a brother.”
Tegonni gave a startled grunt. “Mr. Amaral--”
He waved a hand. “Please forgive my teasing, but I so enjoy your blushes.”
She looked down at her hands as she smoothed them over her pants. She tried to put on a neutral face, but her lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile. My, he is a charmer
. She surprised herself with how pleased she was with his attentions. She needed to redirect this conversation.
Before she could change the subject, he continued. “I pray you don’t share Antigone’s fate. The state had its way in the end, executing her to make an example and keep its minions obediently in their place.”
This new line of conversation was as surprising as his flirting. Executed? She chortled. “Jaime is quite the taskmaster, but I’m pretty sure she won’t have me killed.”
He stared at her without the slightest bit of humor. “Don’t overestimate the Lightworkers’ benevolence because they are on Heaven’s side. Politics govern all thinking beings, and Heaven has its enforcers like any other government.” He paused. “Why are you risking censure to meet with me?”
She leaned toward him. “You seem sincere in your desire for redemption. My job is to try to help in any way I can, even if it’s not possible.”
He nodded, brows creased. “That is why you are helping me. But why are you going against your superior to do so?”
“Because she’s wrong.”
A slow grin curled his full, inviting lips. “See? You are like Antigone.”
She shook off the pleasant tingle that his praise--and smile--elicited. “I don’t think so. I’m not willing to die.” She looked away, regretting her words. Though they were true enough, telling a client she would allow him to be unfairly judged in order to save herself didn’t inspire trust. She peeked back up, gauging his reaction.
Laughing, he rested an elbow against the chair’s high arm and slid his chin onto his open palm. “No, I wouldn’t expect that. I’m the one courting death.”
She gave him a smile she hoped conveyed compassion. “Shall we talk about that?”
He swept his free hand before him. “Of course. Where would you like to start?”
Tegonni relaxed as she settled into the familiar role of counselor. “Perhaps we can start with how you came to be Catholic. I know your human foster father had a relationship with your mother, and raised you after her death. How did he--a man mated to a bloodborn vampire in the fourteenth century--manage to hold on to his Catholic ties? Did your mother keep him as a slave?”
His tone clipped, he said. “No. My parents loved one another.”
She gave a single nod, and gestured for him to go on.
“Forgive me. Your question is valid. Even today, many vampires keep humans against their will, or at least in such a mental fog from their bite that the human’s free will is gone.”
“But not your mother?”
“No. She viewed my father, and in fact most humans, as equal to vampires. She respected his values and beliefs. However, you’re right. While with my mother, he wasn’t very active. I remember going with him to church a handful of times.”
“Her attitude is a rare one. Do you share it?”
“Let’s just say I believe equality is a complex concept. My mother’s issue was being naive and idealistic. Danger didn’t stop her from being vocal about her beliefs or intervening on a human servant’s behalf. My father said her compassion was the quality he loved the most.”
He spoke calmly now, but he’d clearly been angered by the perceived slight against his mother. He must have strong emotions about her death. She didn’t know the details surrounding it, but she wondered if the vampire had been a victim of political intrigue. Naive vampires didn’t last long. She waited for him to continue.
“When we lived in Castile under vampire Clan Eshan, our kinsmen treated us well due to Mother’s close relation to the Clan’s Governor. She was a younger sister, but she wasn’t active politically, or in line to be Conduit.”
“A position a female relative of the Governor or Governess takes on. A rather important one. If there’d been any chance of her rising to the office, my uncle and the Clan Council would have tried to sway her from her views or had her removed. However, since she was politically unimportant, they considered her no more than an annoyance. An expendable one.” He stared off, curling his fingers into a fist.
When Fernando remained silent, she prompted him. “May I ask what happened to her?”
He clasped his hands tight, the only indication of how much the topic upset him. “My uncle, like so many ruling vampires, had agreements with the human government. Due to some dispute, an archbishop threatened to try a member of our court for blasphemy if Uncle did not capitulate to his demands. Uncle refused. Even after mother was taken.”
Tegonni sucked in a breath. “She was...executed?”
“Yes. For witchcraft.” He laughed bitterly. “I suppose the archbishop thought it a great joke. So many inquisitors were skeptics and didn’t believe in magic. They were looking for heretics and blasphemers, not spellcasting witches or other creatures of hell. Nevertheless, how else could they explain fangs, her issue with light? The need for blood?”
“I’m so sorry, Fernando. I’m not knowledgeable about the Spanish Inquisition, but...well, her trial must have been terrible for you and your father.”
He smiled, his eyes soft. “Thank you, Dr. Ellis. I don’t remember much, but I’m sure she wasn’t tortured. The archbishop spared her that, at least. Or perhaps the church wouldn’t allow such means. This happened almost a hundred and fifty years before the tribunal you speak of. Different rules perhaps.” The smile faded, replaced with lines of anguish. “She was, however, turned over to the local authorities to be burned at the stake.”
A pang squeezed her chest. Though he referred to a long-ago event, the pain on his face was raw, fresh. She didn’t know how to respond to a historic barbarism coming to life. The same as any other trauma
. She gathered herself, grateful for her professional instincts. She sat, her posture open, and her expression sympathetic, letting him continue when he felt ready.
“After her death, my father turned on my uncle. Father hated him for abandoning her. Father took me home to Portugal. Flor da Rosa, a small town. Once reconnected with his old family and neighbors, he became involved in the church again.”
“But the church killed your mother.”
“People’s reasoning works strangely sometimes, no?”
“True.” She heard all kinds of rationalizations and convoluted excuses in her work.
“Perhaps Father couldn’t bring himself to hate the faith he carried guilt for abandoning. I am uncertain. Parents don’t always share such things with their children. I do know his hatred for my uncle grew to include all vampires.”
He hesitated. “He did love me. However, he did not accept me being a vampire. After I survived baptism, he believed one day my faith would be rewarded by my soul being returned to me.”
She refrained from saying “Aha.” Daddy issues she understood. Surprising, but then again, why should a vampire be immune to internalizing the expectations of his father? “You don’t seem to believe that’s true from what you said before. What do you
want, Fernando? Not what you think you’re allowed to have, but what you truly want.”
He stared at her, mouth opened, and then rested his head back on the chair. “No one has ever asked. I’m not sure I know the answer.”
“That’s okay. Perhaps you can begin to think about it.”
He looked at the ceiling, remaining silent.
“Shall we move on to something else?”
He inclined his chin.
She leaned toward him, wanting to project support. “Why do you believe you’re evil?”
His eyes refocused on her. “Is it not obvious? I’m of a race forged from the unnatural splicing of demon and human.”
“Yes, you’re part demon, but you’re also part human and raised human. Does any of that count?”
“One drop of evil spoils the gene pool, I think.”
“You truly believe that’s the way Heaven works?”
He didn’t answer, but furrows appeared between his brows. He certainly had harsh standards. No wonder he tore himself apart with such turmoil.
“If you are right, Fernando, then all humans are destined for hell. None of us are pure good. That’s for the angelic Lephiri.”
Frowning, he ran a hand through his hair. Apparently, she’d succeeded in challenging his beliefs. Good. Now they’d get somewhere.
“At least humans can choose to be righteous or not,” he said.
“And you can’t?”
He shook his head.
The muscles of his jaw tightened, and his chin rose defiantly though he didn’t meet her eyes. Was he embarrassed? Hiding something? Her throat closed as she witnessed his vulnerability. She didn’t want to push him too far the first day, but she needed to understand the crux of his self-hatred.
She placed a hand over his. “Fernando. What do you have no choice about?”
His gaze met hers before dropping to her bare throat. He looked away again, but she understood. Of course, the blood drinking.
She contemplated how to proceed. The first step to guiding a client through redemption was assisting them in ceasing their unsavory activities. Usually, she dealt with satanic cults, demon summoners, and rogue witches. People who could walk away from their malevolent lifestyle. But he was right. He couldn’t stop drinking blood.
Looking at the vampire sitting so still in front of her, Tegonni saw a man who had followed his desire to be righteous for centuries even though he had the perfect excuse not to. He believed Heaven would punish him regardless, yet he had not murdered or built a human cult around himself as so many of his kind did. He was resilient and honorable, and Tegonni realized how much she wanted to help him...and feared she couldn’t.
Her chest constricted, and closing her eyes, she exhaled a forceful breath. She always felt disappointment when unable to help a client, but was usually able to accept it as an inevitable part of her job. She knew that wouldn’t be true in Fernando’s case. She couldn’t help feeling he was being unfairly judged, by Jaime and himself. He reminded her of the self-blame and hatred she’d gone through when her mother disowned her. In Mom’s eyes, no amount of Hail Marys could clean the taint of Vodoun ritual. It didn’t matter that Tegonni was a good person, just that she’d become something wicked.
“Are you well?” She opened her eyes to find him gazing at her.
“Yes. Just thinking. Drinking blood is what you can’t control and find evil?”
He maintained eye contact but his face went stony. “Yes. Don’t you?”
She groped for a supportive answer.
“Of course you think it is evil.” He smiled sadly.
She reached out a hand to placate him. “No, I--”
“The truth, Dr. Ellis, please. What do you honestly believe?”
“Well, a vampire bite does compel a person’s will.” Heaven was all about humanity’s sacred gift of free will. Taking someone’s away was worse than murder in many Lightworkers’ eyes. She thought it best not to share these thoughts.
He bowed his head as if she had just pronounced sentence on him.
. This was not going well. She did think living off human blood was evil. At least the compelling part. Too bad he couldn’t just stop until she convinced the Lephiri to get back his soul.
“I’d like to continue meeting with you. And I would like you to try something between now and our next session if you are willing.”
He relaxed into his chair and smiled. “Homework?”
“Yep, afraid so. It may not be easy, but I think at the very least, it will put you more in control.”
His smile faded and his features turned wary. “What do you suggest?”
She hesitated, and then plunged forward. “I’d like for you to abstain from human blood and substitute animal blood.”
“You must know animal blood won’t nourish me.”
“Most animals aren’t suitable substitutes, but packs of chimpanzee blood are used to feed vampire prisoners short-term.”
His jaw sagged as he gave her a blank stare. Finally, he said, “I am unaware of Lightworkers keeping vampires jailed.”
“Uh...” She didn’t want to tell him those prisoners only had a brief stay before being executed. “Well, they are criminals.”
“I see.” He didn’t look appeased. “I assume they have broken the law as opposed to Lightworker ideals?”
“Yes, of course.” She hurried on before he could question her further. “There’ve been no problems with the chimp blood that I’ve heard of.”
“I’ve wished for such a thing.” His hands corded with tension. He shook his head. “Packaged blood, human or otherwise, lacks power. I don’t understand how it could provide sustenance.”
“I assure you it does. I keep up with several Lightworker journals including the one the bounty hunter division puts out. I believe the article I read mentioned stasis spells. Plenty of our astral mages are capable of those.”
“Ah, so without Lightworker magic, this would not be possible.” His smile returned. “You will supply me with these prison rations?”
She didn’t much like the term “prison rations.” She didn’t want him to feel they were a punishment, but she let it go. “I will get some to you weekly. Starting tonight, if I can manage it.” She’d need to pull a few favors and avoid drawing Jaime’s attention. “You’ll try it?”
“Absolutely. I’m grateful to you for providing me a tolerable solution.”
“My pleasure, Fernando. I think this is a good place to end for this evening.” Tegonni stood. Things had worked out so much better than she’d expected. His situation wasn’t nearly as hopeless as she’d thought. In fact, if the substitute blood worked out long-term, this case may turn out to be one of her easier ones.
Fernando rose and followed her to the door. “Before you leave, might I trouble you with the favor I mentioned?”
Her earlier curiosity returned. “Of course.”
“Thank you. I’d like you to pass a request on to the Lephiri on my behalf.”
. Most clients were content to deal with the Lightworkers as the human extension of the Lephiri, finding the celestial beings intimidating. “What request?”
“I have been as faithful as I am able to Heaven. You have shown me today that perhaps I’ve done a better job than I realized.”
“I’m glad, Fernando.”
“I’d thought before to ask a concession from them, but now I believe maybe it is my right.”
She patted his arm in encouragement, happy he was being less harsh on himself.
“You asked me what I wanted, not what I think I can have. I want Heaven’s recognition. I’ve tried to be worthy even though it’s impossible. I’d like to request the honor of touching Holy Fire.”
She flinched before she could stop herself. He still wants to die.
Fernando rushed on. “I know the fire is sacred and not used as a weapon, but I wish to touch and die by it as an act of devotion. No disrespect to the father or communion, which would also honor me, but I’d like to witness a true miracle before my death.”
Die he would if he touched Holy Fire. The sacred flame blessed believers, filling their hearts with pure divine light. Human believers. Hellspawn, it incinerated.
He took her hand. “With your gift of the packaged blood, perhaps I can face the Lephiri with something I’ve never had--a clear conscience.”
His smile shined, so hopeful and appreciative, she decided to leave things for now. With him on substitute blood, redemption through the return of his soul might be possible, and his death wish would certainly change. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll talk to you next week.”
He bowed his thanks. “Until then, Senhorita Tegonni.”
She pulled at her hair as she walked out. He was going to be a lot of work.