“You have the prettiest eyes.” The human woman brushed one raven lock away from Lucas Thane’s temple before she raked her fingers through the shorter hairs at the back of his head. She gazed up at him as he leaned over her in bed. “They’re so dark they look midnight blue.”
Lucas barely listened to her words. The girl was a golden-haired beauty with bountiful curves and milky skin. She’d come to his bed a willing—no, eager
—donor. Now she lay naked on top of his covers, served up like a fresh delicacy. At the moment he was more hungry than lustful, though the two appetites were never far apart for a vampire.
Instead of reaching for one of the pale-pink nipples she had exposed, he ran his fingertips over the top swell of her left breast. “Right now these eyes see how delicious you look.”
Would she taste as good? He ran his lips over the pulse point in her neck. She trembled beneath him, and he could tell she was nervous despite her bravado. Some vampires enjoyed a hard shot of adrenaline in the blood. It had the same effect as a human drinking several cups of espresso. Lucas had never enjoyed the bitter flavor, though, and preferred those he fed from to be relaxed. Or aroused. Best to take the first sip quickly and ease her past her fears.
Opening his mouth, he felt his fangs slip through his gums until they formed twin erect points. His mouth watered, and he drew a deep breath to inhale her personal scent. The faint, familiar odor that hit his nose had him silently cursing. Damn. He was powerful enough he could go several nights without drinking blood, but denying himself wasn’t a comfortable experience. And it looked like he was in for some discomfort.
He curled his lip in frustration, which no doubt made him look like the monster she thought he was. “You would have made a fine actress. Such a shame your life is about to be cut short.”
A spark of fear flashed beneath the woman’s sultry facade, but she proved his point by turning her reaction to good effect. “What? They s-said you’d only take a little. P-please don’t drain me dry.”
He heard her pulse quicken until the cadence vibrated in his ears. The sound of her tight swallow was even louder.
Lucas wondered if his smile was as sad as it felt. “A single vampire couldn’t possibly drink you to the point of death. That’s a myth. Several vampires feasting together, on the other hand…” He turned his head toward his closed bedroom door. “Guards.”
He didn’t have to shout the word. He was master here, and his personal guards were never far away. The door opened almost instantly. His second in command and oldest friend was the first to walk inside, though Carmine and Ugo, the guards on duty, were right on his heels.
Zander wore an exasperated look as he took in the scene. “Another one?”
“Yes. The Human Rebellion is tireless.” Lucas stood and addressed the girl. “I don’t have to kill you. Your fellow humans already did that when they injected poison into your veins.”
She stared at him for a moment before she let her mask fall. The hate that contorted her face stole whatever beauty she possessed. “It’s worth it to kill you bloodsucking scum!”
Lucas suppressed a wince at her shrill pitch. He’d expected the verbal attack, but what she did next took him by surprise. With her nails, she ripped shallow furrows along the inside of her forearm—not enough to do real damage but sufficient to draw blood. Then she launched herself out of the bed and attempted to force-feed him by smearing her blood across his mouth. He supposed she thought the smell would be irresistible. Even if he had been tempted to lick his lips, there wasn’t enough tainted blood there to harm him.
His guards caught her and dragged her, still naked, toward the door. He heard Carmine tell her, “Easy now,” and the man’s pity was obvious in his voice. Either of his guards could have broken her bones with a flex of their fingers, but they kept their grips firm without hurting her. She continued to shout epithets at Lucas, which he ignored as he turned to his friend.
“Take her to Natalia to be examined.” Natalia was their resident scientist and a vampiress loyal to him. “Perhaps we can learn something more about the Rebel poison before the girl dies.”
Zander nodded to the guards holding the human.
Although rage infused the woman with incredible strength, she was no match for vampires. He watched his men haul her away, and then all was quiet.
“Such a waste.” Lucas ducked into the bathroom to wipe the contaminated blood from his face.
The dark sapphire in his signet ring—the symbol of his authority as the master vampire here—winked back at him in the mirror. It was the same color as his irises, which the girl had admired. If she was foolish enough to believe he could drink a human dry single-handedly, she’d probably be shocked to learn he had no difficulty casting a reflection.
He returned to find Zander still in his bedroom.
His second in command crossed his arms and glared at him with steel-gray eyes. “This has to stop. You can’t fight a battle on every front. A lot of good it will do you to master this city, only to die of blood poisoning from some human suicide donor. What is this? The third attempt?”
“Fourth.” Lucas shrugged, knowing it would rile his friend.
He’d known Zander for several decades now. The man was a natural-born vampire who’d left Ivana’s protection to follow Lucas. They’d survived many battles together, and they knew exactly how to irritate each other.
Zander’s pupils contracted into tiny points, even though the electric lights in the room were dimmed low. “This is serious. You’re the first turned vampire to ever become a master, the ruler of the Mid-Atlantic Territory. The Rebels are out to kill us all, and they’ve got plenty of sympathizers here thanks to the last master’s reign of terror. Don’t underestimate the humans.”
“Believe me, I won’t.”
Unlike his friend, Lucas knew what it was like to be human. He’d lost his mother when he was ten. She’d been murdered by a gang of rogue vampires who’d broken into their manor house in the darkest hours of the night. Lucas and his father would have joined her fate if not for Ivana, a vampiress with a sharp mind and an even sharper sword. She hadn’t been the master of her own territory then, but she’d put down the rogues. Ivana had saved their lives not just that time, but later too. She’d offered her protection while they’d dealt with their grief, and she’d brought them to the New World with her. Once she’d taken over the Northeastern Territory, she’d turned his father and taken him as her groom. When Lucas was grown and disease had threatened his life, the pair had converted him together.
So Lucas had a unique perspective. He’d seen both the worst and the best of vampires. He understood the fear and hate that festered among the humans of the Rebellion, though he wished they’d stop trying to kill him.
“You need a drinking partner,” Zander said, finally getting to the point. “It’s time to find a companion you can trust to meet your needs.”
Lucas flashed a bit of fang. “And whom do you suggest? A human sycophant who will beg me to turn her? Or maybe one of the dozens of vampires in this city who undermine me at every turn? The older vampires are resistant to change in the best of circumstances, and they detest the fact that I was made a vampire, not born this way.”
The turned vampires, or Nouveau vampyre
, were considered lower-class among most of their nation. Ordered about and treated like servants, they were afforded little to no respect. Thanks to the power Ivana and his father had given him, though, Lucas had the strength to fight for more. He had the backing of vampires who’d sworn allegiance to him, but this class war would take time. Lucas had been master here for two years, and he was just getting started.
“I told you I’d exchange blood with you until you find someone else.” Zander made the offer in an exasperated tone, though Lucas noticed his friend broke eye contact.
Neither of them wanted that. Though Zander was bisexual, Lucas wasn’t, and the two of them were friends, nothing more. Feeding brought with it an inescapable intimacy, and his second in command was already spoken for.
“Thank you, but I prefer a partner with breasts.” Lucas’s mind flashed back to his toxic donor’s perky nipples.
Zander grinned. “I do too, half the time. Why don’t you do what I did? Pick up a couple of humans at a blood bar, quarantine them for a few days to make sure they’re clean, and then keep them.”
Lucas snorted. “You’re forgetting the part where you swooped in and saved Drew and Maribeth from the clutches of that pervert Vilmos. Then you spoiled your humans rotten before you turned them into insatiable sex fiends. Oh yes, and they were humans who lived under the benign government of Ivana and my father, so they had no prejudice against vampires to begin with.”
“I did not turn them into sex fiends,” his friend protested. “All three of us turned into sex fiends after repeated feedings. I can’t wait until you meet the right drinking partner and wind up the same way. At least you’ll be in a better mood.”
“I wouldn’t be in a bad mood now if I’d gotten breakfast.” With a side of sex.
“My point exactly. As long as you keep feeding from different humans, you’re vulnerable. You shouldn’t have to worry about your next sip being your last. We’ll find you a partner.” Zander made this announcement sound like a decree.
Lucas was known for his ruthlessness, his lack of mercy in a fight, but even he knew to quit arguing once his friend got stubborn. A frightening vision of Zander as a matchmaker flitted through his mind.
He shook the disturbing image away and changed the subject. “Is everything still quiet along our southern border?”
“Mostly.” Zander finally uncrossed his arms. “A few vampires have gotten rowdy, but our forces have dealt with them.”
“I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried. I expected Tavarius to contact me long before now.”
Gyula Tavarius was the master vampire who currently had a stranglehold on the Southern Territory. He was a true fiend, as sadistic as he was old. Rumors of his cruelty echoed throughout the nation—lurid tales of how he liked to play with his food. The things Tavarius had done to women and children were horrifying even by the most depraved standards.
Although Lucas had never met Tavarius, he had marked the vampire for death. He would have done so as a public service, but conquering the other master’s territory would also cement his power block. Ivana and his father already ruled the Northeastern Territory abutting his domain. Once he took over Tavarius’s area, they’d have the largest span of allied territory in the United States—the whole eastern seaboard. There would be more security for him and those he cared about and better lives for the humans. Of course, the vampire-free states, which sheltered the Rebels, bordered the western edge of Tavarius’s territory, but he needed to take one step at a time.
“Is Tavarius busy fighting the Rebellion?” Lucas asked. “Is that why he hasn’t met me?”
Elder vampires often had a skewed sense of time. When Lucas had defeated the previous master here, he’d expected Gyula Tavarius to arrange a meeting for the typical posturing that came with vampire politics. Instead, there had been nothing. He and the Southern master were long overdue for an introduction.
Zander looked pensive. “Actually, Tavarius is busy being dead. I was going to tell you after you’d finished with the girl. He’d been too damn quiet, so I sent a couple of our soldiers down into the Southern Territory to do reconnaissance. They reported back an hour ago. Rumor has it one of Tavarius’s own vampires assassinated him eight months ago. Since then, there has been an ongoing power struggle, though the new master has killed all his challengers so far.”
Lucas wasn’t sure whether this was good news or bad. “What do we know about him? The new ruler?”
“He has to be very brave and very powerful to have killed Tavarius.”
“Or desperate.” Lucas didn’t know why he made this observation, but as soon as he said it, he was sure it was true. “From what we know of the old sadist, Tavarius wasn’t any kinder to his vampire subordinates than he was to the humans. It may have come down to a simple matter of kill or be killed. But you’re right. The new master has to be powerful to have pulled it off.”
“Which means he’s likely old.”
Lucas shrugged. “Not necessarily. Look at me. I’m relatively young for a vampire.”
“Yes, but you’re an oddity.” Only Zander would dare say so.
“Thanks so much.”
“I’m not sure this new master will be any better than Tavarius,” his friend added. “What few accounts our men were able to gather make him sound as horrible as his predecessor. They describe him as a short man wearing a monk’s cowl—further evidence that he’s an elder vampire. He only feeds from other vampires, not humans, though one guy claims the new master occasionally visits the blood bars.”
“Anything else?” Lucas asked. “A name, perhaps?”
“No name. I don’t think most of the other vampires have met him.”
“Hard to socialize when everyone you meet tries to kill you.” Lucas knew the feeling, though he was lucky enough to have Zander at his back.
“There’s one more thing you might find interesting,” his friend said.
“Rumor also has it the new master was turned, not born. Who knows? You may have an ally, after all.”
Now that was interesting. It was also worth checking out. “Do we know where he’s staying?”
Because each master ruled a large territory, it was common to have several homes spread throughout the region. Lucas was still busy establishing his bases of operation. He was currently in a large house outside Raleigh, North Carolina—a city named after the founder of a human colony that was wiped out by the previous master in the late 1500s.
“He’s holed up in Atlanta,” Zander said. “I’m not certain of the exact location, but I’m sure we could persuade someone to tell us.”
“It probably won’t require much persuasion. If the new master is being challenged almost nightly, then he has to be easy to find. Have the jet prepared and fully stocked. I’ll feed in transit.”
Lucas found owning a private jet, as well as other types of modern technology, to be a great convenience. It was amazing what humans could invent when they weren’t living in constant fear for their lives. He hoped to see more innovation from the people in his territory as he strengthened his control over his subjects.
“Asheville is about halfway and is still within my territory. We’ll fly there tonight.” He moved to the closet to dress and pack. “Tomorrow you and I will pay Tavarius’s replacement a visit.”
“You mean you, me, and a full contingent of guards,” Zander corrected him.
Lucas shook his head. “I’ll have backup on standby, but you and I will go in alone. I prefer not to announce myself or let anyone in the area know I’m coming. It will be easier to sneak in and evaluate the situation if it’s just the two of us. Since I haven’t been invited, the new master might see it as a hostile gesture if I show up at his doorstep with guards. I want to get close to him.”
Disapproval was written in every line of Zander’s face, but like Lucas, his friend also recognized when it was useless to argue. “Is this a friendly visit, or do you plan to challenge the vampire-eating monk?”
Lucas answered with a grin. He needed to know what he was up against before he decided how to proceed. But one thing was certain. He wanted the Southern Territory, and he would take it by any means necessary.