In his thirst for revenge, the vampire Deacon has betrayed the demon-fighting Guardians. But Rosalia is in love with him and willing to fight by his side—even if she has to stand against her fellow Guardians to save him.
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The string quartet in the corner of the ballroom slipped from a sleepy minuet into a sleepy waltz. Rosalia lifted her champagne flute to her lips to cover her sigh. Thank God for the demons. If not for their conspiring, boredom would have killed her by now.
The small circle of humans she'd joined burst into laughter. Rosalia smiled vacuously in response. She hadn't heard the joke, but no one at the gala would expect a reply, anyway. She'd changed her dark hair to a wispy, baby blond, donned a vapid expression over soft features, and paired them with an insubstantial pink dress for that very reason: She wouldn't be expected to talk. She only needed to stand and look pretty. So she stood with humans she didn't know in the center of a chateau ballroom, watching three of Belial's demons solidify an alliance.
Others watched them, too. Some humans glanced in their direction; some stared. Rosalia could not blame them. Like every demon she'd known, they'd disguised themselves in sinfully handsome human forms—sensual lips and blade-straight noses, black hair glinting under the crystal chandeliers, as if they'd each used an advertisement in a men's fashion magazine as a template. With a backdrop of priceless paintings mounted on gold-painted walls, they formed a would-be triumvirate with Bernard and Gavel as the base and Pierre Theriault at the top.
Of the three, Theriault ranked the highest in both Belial's army and Legion Laboratories, the corporation that both concealed and supported their activities on Earth. Two years ago, when the Gates to Hell had closed, preventing Belial from overseeing the demons that remained on Earth, Legion began to serve as a communication network. Through it, one of Belial's lieutenants issued orders and received reports—until he'd been slain by the Guardians. Now, with no clear successor to the lieutenant and no contact from Hell, Belial's demons were maneuvering for his position, and all of them were arrogant enough to imagine themselves in the spot. But if Bernard and Gavel thought they'd ride the wake of Theriault's ascent, they were as foolish as he was. Theriault's particular brand of arrogance bordered on stupidity.
No, Rosalia amended. Not bordering stupidity. He'd flung himself over that line the second he'd begun discussing the alliance in a public room, and using English instead of the demonic language. Good Lord, the idiocy. Though the chateau was just north of Paris, perhaps fifteen people out of the hundreds in the ballroom didn't understand at least rudimentary English.
Even if Theriault imagined that the string music floating over the room and the crowd's chatter would conceal their voices from humans, he hadn't made sure there weren't any Guardians or other demons in the vicinity. Though strong enough for Rosalia to feel, Theriault's psychic sweep hadn't penetrated her mental shields. At that shallow depth, her mind would seem no different from a human's.
Careless. Stupid. Rosalia had many reasons to slay the demons, but at this moment, making the consequences of that carelessness the last thing they ever saw was the most tempting reason to shove her swords through their eyes.
But she wouldn't slay them. Not tonight. She'd come to the gala to observe Theriault, and to judge how much of a threat he'd be if he led Belial's demons. Not much. But it hadn't been a wasted trip. She'd overheard repeated mention of one demon standing in Theriault's way, one he'd considered too powerful to take on alone: Malkvial.
She hadn't yet learned who Malkvial was. Rosalia didn't know many demons by their true name, only by the human identities they used. She needed to find this one out, soon, either by listening in on Theriault or by other means.
A soft crackle sounded in her ear, and her attention shifted. The noise indicated that Gemma had opened the microphone connecting the tiny receiver bud in Rosalia's ear to the surveillance van outside the chateau. Rosalia couldn't perform a psychic sweep without revealing herself to the demons, but she hadn't gone in blind.
Rosalia possessed her share of arrogance. But unlike some demons, she was neither careless nor stupid. At least, not most of the time.
"Mother, infrared is picking up either Davanzati or Murnau approaching the chateau. He's moving south across the grounds. On foot."
Davanzati or Murnau. Code words for vampires and nosferatu. Though the receiver's volume was probably too low for a demon to hear unless he was standing next to her, Rosalia wouldn't risk drawing the demons' attention. Both demons and Guardians could hear everything said in the ballroom, but they couldn't listen to everything. Even if whispered, however, certain words and names pierced background noise like a candle lit at midnight.
To cover her reply, Rosalia turned as if searching the crowd. "You don't know which it is?" she murmured.
Both vampires and nosferatu would register a lower temperature on infrared than a human or Guardian, but nosferatu were huge. Most towered at six and a half to seven feet in height.
"He's tall, but I don't think he's tall enough for Murnau. He's not close enough for me to be sure, though."
"When he is, let me know."
A nosferatu posed a problem. People would notice it. Enormous, with pale and hairless skin, pointed ears, and fangs twice as long as a vampire's, nosferatu were bloodthirsty, evil creatures. Even if it dressed to pass as human—difficult beneath the bright lights in the chateau—and even if people refused to believe what they saw, its presence would stir fear and revulsion. But Rosalia doubted a nosferatu would try to blend in. If one was coming, then it was coming to kill. To protect the people here, she'd have to slay it, revealing her presence to the demons. Then she'd have to slay the demons so they couldn't report that a Guardian had been watching them. She didn't want to give Belial's demons any reason to unite against the Guardians, and she'd prefer not to kill Theriault yet. No matter how little his chances of leading his brethren were, the infighting over the lieutenant's position benefited the Guardians. Even an incompetent demon might provide a distraction for Malkvial and prevent him from quickly uniting the others.
If a vampire was coming, though…
Rosalia glanced back at the demons. Bernard and Gavel were taking their leave of Theriault, agreeing to circle among the guests. Satisfaction emanated from each. Demon business finished, now they were conducting Legion business, building human contacts.
Perhaps one of them intended to continue demon business, though. Six months ago, Belial's lieutenant had ordered the slaughter of Prague's vampire community; since then, fewer vampires willingly aligned themselves with the demons. But there were still some vampires who sought either power or protection from the demons—and the demons had their own uses for vampires who were willing to break the Rules in exchange.
The Parisian vampire community had resisted Theriault's attempts to make an alliance, but maybe a dissenter was in their ranks. A foolish dissenter, if he'd come alone. A human crowd provided some protection if the demons turned on him, but not much.
The soft crackle came again. "Mother, I have visual confirmation. It's Davanzati."
A vampire. "Anyone I know?"
"Yes." The hesitation told Rosalia that Gemma was thinking of a way to describe him without saying his name. "Six months ago, he stayed one day in your bedroom and left the same night."
Deacon. Rosalia's champagne flute tilted in nerveless fingers. Her breath corkscrewed painfully through her lungs. Her mind could hardly comprehend it—Deacon, here—but the ache filling her chest said her heart had already taken it in.
Deacon was here.
And still alive.
She hadn't known if he was. Once the leader of the Prague vampire community, he'd betrayed the Guardians in a desperate gamble to save his people, and lost. Belial's lieutenant and a second demon, Caym, had done everything to destroy Deacon without actually killing him. Caym had beaten Deacon bloody, crushed his bones and his pride, then held his community and lovers hostage in exchange for information about the Guardians. As a result of that information, a Guardian had been killed—a woman Rosalia hadn't known well, but had liked very much. After learning of the Guardian's death, Rosalia had watched Belial's lieutenant use Deacon to transform a human murderer into a vampire, then finally break him by showing Deacon the ashen remains of his companions. Though Deacon had managed to slay Caym, Belial's lieutenant had stopped the vampire by stabbing an iron spike through his forehead, and had left Deacon for the Guardians to find and kill. But Irena, a Guardian and the friend Deacon had betrayed, had stayed her hand, and Rosalia had taken him to her home in Rome. She hadn't known what she was going to do with him. She only knew why she'd taken him.
Deacon had rescued her. Once, ninety years ago, and again more recently, when she'd had an iron spike through her own head and three nosferatu feeding from her throat. And so she owed him.
When they'd reached Rome, Deacon had still been unconscious, healing from the damage to his brain. She'd taken him to her room and had left him to his daysleep. When she'd returned, night had fallen and Deacon had already gone. Gemma had reported that he'd walked out the door without saying a word.
Rosalia had thought he'd left to die. He'd been broken. She'd felt his despair when he'd realized all that he'd lost; he'd welcomed death when the demon had shoved the spike through his forehead. She'd been certain he'd face the sun the next morning.
But he was here, instead. Why? Never would he ally himself with Belial's demons. The launch of a new skin-care line and this party couldn't interest him. She couldn't picture him mingling comfortably. The people glittered; conversation sparkled. Deacon wouldn't.
Had he somehow known she would be here? Rosalia's heart gave a heavy, slow thump. Hope bubbled within her bloodstream. Ruthlessly, she squashed it. Deacon couldn't have known she'd intended to observe Theriault tonight.
Or could he?
If he had known, he wouldn't recognize her like this. Not with blond hair and this baby face—
Rosalia closed her eyes. Stop. She wouldn't let her thoughts head in this direction. Whatever his reasons, he wasn't here for her.
"He's at the rear of the chateau, Mother. I've lost him on infrared."
A vampire didn't need an invitation to enter a building, but he did to gain admittance into this gala. So did a Guardian. She'd come through the back disguised as one of the caterers. Though Deacon couldn't shape-shift, he could easily climb the exterior wall to the second floor or speed through the doors unseen.
She opened her eyes. The demon Gavel was approaching her group, his gaze fixed on the CEO of a cosmetics company standing beside her. Rosalia excused herself and threaded through the crowd toward the refreshment table, smiling brightly and nodding at anyone who met her eyes. She joined another group of humans at the side of the ballroom. Now that Theriault, Bernard, and Gavel had split up, she needed a wider angle to keep an eye on them. It also let her see both the enormous staircase that led from the second floor, and the main entrance from the gallery—the route Deacon would take if he approached the ballroom from the back of the chateau.
Assuming, of course, that the ballroom was his destination. And if he didn't come, she would not seek him out. She'd spent most of her life trying to save her brother, Lorenzo, from himself. She refused to spend the rest of it on another lost cause, no matter how much she owed him.
But she could thank God he was alive. She'd allow herself that.
She waited. Around her, the humans' laughter and voices seemed too loud. The musicians finally switched to an arrangement with a quick tempo, but every draw of their bows sawed across her senses.
She glanced at the wide marble staircase. He wasn't there. Disappointment weighted her chest. Accustomed to the feeling, she ignored it.
Returning her gaze to the ballroom, she watched the demons and saw their calculated expressions and conversation win over their companions. Would they recognize Deacon? Only Belial's lieutenant and Caym had used him, but he'd led Prague's community for more than six decades. Other demons might have seen him before.
If these demons gave any indication that they knew Deacon, she'd kill them—Theriault's alliance and Malkvial be damned. A lone vampire was nothing but sport to their kind. She wouldn't stand by and watch them play.
She looked toward the gallery. Even in this crush of people, Deacon's height would make him easy to spot. He wasn't there.
Had he been delayed? Was another demon or a vampire at the gala, one that neither she nor Gemma had detected? She should wander through the other rooms and see.
Rosalia headed for the gallery, her gaze sweeping the stairs. Sweeping over the vampire descending the steps.
Sweeping past him.
Her heart galloped. She continued walking. Don't stop. Don't react and draw attention to him. Her focus traveled the length of the ballroom, but her mind remained locked on that brief glimpse. She'd been right. Even here, Deacon didn't glitter. He stood like an unpolished stone pillar amid sparkling diamonds. His dark dinner jacket stretched over shoulders as wide as a blacksmith's. He'd unbuttoned his shirt at the collar, revealing pale skin that could have belonged to an unfinished marble statue—possessing the strength, but none of the smooth perfection of a completed piece. Before he'd become a vampire, Deacon had earned his money boxing, and his transformation had physically frozen his appearance. His body was still heavily muscled. His dark brows and hard mouth formed uncompromising lines on a face roughly sculpted by both nature and occupation. A beard shadowed his jaw; he obviously hadn't shaved in months. And… had he cut his hair? She wanted to look again. She forced herself to continue smoothly across the floor. The click of her heels drummed in her ears.
Don't turn around yet. Find one of the servers and—
There. A waiter in a white jacket paused beside a matron wearing gold silk. Rosalia downed her champagne, circled the waiter, and lifted a new glass from his tray, sliding in next to the matron.
Deacon had reached the bottom of the stairs, but remained on the last step. His gaze searched the crowd.
She glanced at the demons. None were looking toward the vampire, and so she did, studying him from beneath her lashes.
He had cut his hair. Though it was longer than the first time she'd seen him, a member of the American naval service and his brown hair regulation short, six months ago the dark length had touched his shoulders. Now he had just enough to slide his fingers through, but not enough to grab a handful. A vampire's hair grew slowly; it'd be another ninety years before it reached his shoulders again.
Though the cut was tidier and less distinctive than his long hair, he still appeared slightly disheveled. With his shadowed jaw and unbuttoned collar, many men would look like they'd just come from bed; Deacon looked like he'd prepared for a fight. One side of his shirt collar had escaped the jacket, as if he'd dragged off his tie just before coming here. Now the points of his shirt collar were uneven. It bothered her. Her gaze kept flicking back to them. She wished he'd fix it, if only because an orderly appearance would make him less remarkable amid all of the glossy perfection. But even if he knew how crooked the collar was, she doubted that it would occur to him to adjust it.
In her cache, she carried a tie for her son, Vincente. It would take only an instant to pull it from her mental storage space and into her hands. She could approach Deacon and offer to tidy him up.
To amuse herself, she imagined his reaction. She was still smiling when Deacon's searching gaze touched her and immediately moved on.
Well. She'd expected that, hadn't she? Rosalia swallowed champagne past a throat gone tight. He never recognized her. Not his fault, really. Until six months ago, when he'd led the Guardians to the catacombs where she'd been trapped for a year and a half, an endless fount of blood for a nest of nosferatu, she'd never appeared to him as herself; before that, she'd never approached him with the same face twice. The form she used tonight was new, too.
His jaw flexed as if he'd clenched his teeth. After a moment, she realized he was no longer searching the crowd. She looked to see who he'd focused on.
She should have guessed. A man like Deacon would not rest until he'd avenged his people. The two demons who destroyed his community were dead, but not all of Belial's demons were. One by one, he would hunt them down and slay them.
For a vampire, it was an impossible task. Perhaps he might slay two, or ten, or fifty. Eventually, though, one of the demons would kill him first.
Deacon had to know that. And so he was not only seeking revenge. He still sought death. It just wouldn't be in the face of the sun. He'd go out fighting, instead of broken.
Good for you, preacher. Rosalia mentally lifted her glass to him as she took a sip of champagne. She understood the need to avenge her people, no matter how impossible the odds. So she still wouldn't try to save Deacon from himself—she wouldn't—but she could help him a little.
And make sure he didn't get in her way.
"Mia piccola bambina?"
She heard the laugh in Gemma's response, as she did every time she referred to the young woman as her tiny little girl. In her bare feet, the lanky blonde stood at eye level with Rosalia in heels, and Rosalia's current fashion-model height was only slightly taller than her natural one.
"I want to know where he's staying, his financial situation. Where he's been in the past six months and who he's been with." Rosalia hadn't looked before, afraid that she wouldn't find anything. "He came alone, but does he have a new partner? Who is he feeding from?"
He must have been feeding. After two or three days without blood, a vampire began showing it—pale, tired, and thin. None of those described Deacon. Neither did careless or stupid, so he'd likely already fed that night. His psychic blocks were good, but he wouldn't risk the demons sensing his bloodlust by coming in hungry.
So he'd either found a new vampire partner or was using different human women each night. He'd been forced to do that before, while his consorts had been held hostage. Offer the women so much to drink that they won't remember. Heal the bite, so that even if they do remember, they won't have evidence. Rosalia thought he must hate that. To her knowledge, he hadn't been to bed with anyone he didn't want since Camille had transformed him. Soon after he and Camille parted ways and he'd taken over the community in Prague, Eva and Petra became his lovers and companions. But the bloodlust wouldn't give him the same choice if he fed from strangers. If the woman was interested, he wouldn't be able to stop his response. He'd have sex with her.
The bloodlust wouldn't always rise and overwhelm his free will, and not every woman he fed from would desire him. So it wouldn't always happen—but it would happen often enough that he must feel as if the bloodlust controlled him.
Her gaze fell to his uneven collar again. Maybe that was where he'd lost his tie. Some woman's bedroom. The restroom in a Parisian bar. An alley.
Her fingers flexed. She needed to fix that collar.
Gemma broke in, her voice holding a hint of apology. "It will take me longer to send that information to you than it used to, Mother."
Oh, God. Rosalia's throat closed. Grief hit her so hard that only practice and discipline kept it from showing. Once, a team of vampires would have been in the van with Gemma. More would have been at a converted abbey in Rome, which they'd all shared and called home. She'd trained all of them, had raised most of them, and had known some for more than a century.
Not just a team. Her family. And they were all gone. Slaughtered by the nephilim, a race of demons that Rosalia hadn't known existed until six months ago. While she'd been trapped in the catacombs beneath a church, with a spike through her head, the nephilim had killed her friends and family. They'd slain every vampire in Rome, including Lorenzo, and she hadn't been there to protect them. But Gemma had. She'd been in the abbey when the nephilim had come, and because she was human, she'd been the only one to survive.
Gemma still woke up screaming from the nightmares.
"Oh, Gemma, I am so sorry. I was not thinking." Because she could hardly bear to think about it. "Tomorrow morning, we'll begin looking together."
"Vin's coming up tomorrow. He'll help."
"And have it all to me before you've finished breakfast." She forced the lightness into her tone. Her son would help, but only because Gemma would ask him to. Ten years ago, he'd left the abbey without looking back. He'd still be gone if not for his relationship with Gemma—and if he could convince Gemma, he'd disappear from Rosalia's life again. But he hadn't yet, and she thanked God every day that her son had fallen in love with a woman as bullheaded as he was. "Will he be staying the weekend at the hotel with us?"
"Yes. He will, and he'll like it."
Gemma's determined tone brought Rosalia out of her grief, made her smile. She glanced at Deacon, gathering her calm and her courage. "I am on my way to speak to Davanzati."
"And I'm turning into a mouse." Except for an emergency, Gemma would keep radio silence until Rosalia put space between them again. "Give him hell, Mother."
She didn't have to. Belial's demons had already put him through hell, first when they'd beaten him, then when they'd killed his people. None of those marks were visible, but Rosalia knew they were there. Just as hers were.
Deacon had remained at his vantage point on the stairs, his posture casual, his elbow braced on the wide marble banister. Though he must have been aware of Rosalia's approach, he didn't acknowledge her until she was a few paces away. He glanced down, his eyes the muted green of the sea lying beneath dark clouds. She put on another dazzling smile and directed it right at him. He looked toward the demon again, dismissing her.
She glided up two steps as if she intended to pass by, then slipped behind him. Propping her hip against the banister, she reached down and rested her hand against his cool fist. Before he could react, she said, "You do not intend to do it here, do you? With so many humans as witnesses?"
His big body stiffened. She could almost feel him weighing his response. Her skin was warm, not the feverish temperature of a demon's or the cold touch of a vampire's. That left human or Guardian. When he inhaled, she knew he was testing her scent—or trying to, beyond the redolence of perfumes and colognes saturating the air. She'd sprayed her own floral fragrance to conceal her lack of odor, and with every breath, she took in the pine and bergamot that masked his. One so earthy, the other a light tingle lifting through her senses.
To her delight, he raised her hand to his lips and sniffed. The tension leaked from his form. His mouth setting into a hard line, he turned his head, looking at her in profile.
"Of course you would not," Rosalia answered for him, though she guessed he was preparing to respond with, Haul off, lady—Guardian or not. She withdrew her hand and touched his back, where she could feel the short swords strapped beneath his jacket. Vampires had no cache to store their weapons. They had to physically arm themselves. "You are just observing him, I think. You plan to finish it later, when the element of surprise is yours. And you will defeat him, because he is arrogant… and he could not know how strong and fast you have become."
After Irena had slain the nosferatu who had been feeding from Rosalia, she'd given Deacon their blood to drink. It had changed him, strengthened him, as if he'd been given a second transformation. Though he was still not as strong or as quick as one of the rare nosferatu-born, Deacon had a brief, important advantage: A demon expected a normal vampire's strength and speed from him. He was the only vampire to have been strengthened that way, so as long as no Guardians revealed that a second transformation was possible, Deacon would always possess that moment of surprise against a demon, useful for both defense and attack.
She watched his eyes narrow. Had he not expected her to know, either? Perhaps no other Guardians but she knew that the second transformation had been successful. Perhaps he'd not realized, until now, who had been speaking to him.
Or perhaps he thought that the Guardian he'd told had spread the information to everyone. If so, she forgave him. He had not known her long enough to understand that she would never rip away a friend's defenses. Particularly when he had so few.
"Yes, I know all of this," she confirmed. "Do you know that two of his brethren, who have just sworn to protect him, are also here?"
Deacon's face didn't give anything away, but his quick, searching sweep of the room did. He hadn't known.
"If you struck against him tonight, it would be suicide. Suicide compounded by failure, when you are not able to finish what you set out to do."
Even when he spoke softly, his voice had gravel in it. "Why would you care?"
Some Guardians wouldn't. They'd prefer to see him dead. Rosalia wasn't one of them. "I have many reasons. One is that it benefits my kind to keep these three alive… for now. Your chance will come again."
He didn't reply. He didn't ask her reason for delaying the demons' deaths. Did that mean he didn't care what those reasons were, or that he was afraid he might care too much and be dissuaded from his course?
"You at least owe us that, do you not?" she pressed.
"I owe my people more."
A fair point, she conceded. And one she wouldn't argue with, so she would leave him to it. Intending to rejoin the crowd, she moved around him and down the steps. "I doubt you will find your opening tonight, preacher. But if you do, take it. I will not interfere."
He caught her hand, palm to palm. She stopped, staring ahead into the crush of chatting, laughing humans. Her heart jumped against her ribs, pounding. If he hadn't guessed before, he must be certain of her identity now. She'd once told him that she'd known he was a chaplain on his ship, and revealed she'd taken vows of her own. No other Guardian knew him that well. Not even Irena, whom he had called a friend before he'd betrayed them.
His grip tightened. His fingers encompassed hers, seemed to draw her into the palm of his hand with that small movement. Rosalia looked back at him. His gaze delved beneath her skin, as if searching for something familiar. She wanted to offer it to him, to wear her own face. She wanted to tell him, I have known you for so long. I have waited for so long.
But there was no reason to make such a confession. Deacon didn't want to know her—and she didn't really know him anymore, either. Thanks to Belial's demons, he was no longer the man he'd been. He sought revenge and death. And she was done with waiting.
He glanced over her head. "Tell me who they are."
The demons. Of course. They were his only concern. They should have been her only concern, too. Unfortunately, she'd been cursed since birth with an overdeveloped sense of gratitude.
"Look to the center of the room," she told him. "The silver-haired woman wearing a floor-length red dress and a fortune in rubies. He is on her left. Very handsome, of course. Do you see him?"
Deacon nodded. "And the other?"
"Four meters behind me. He is the only one in his circle who does not hold a drink."
He blinked, the only indication of his surprise that she'd come to him with the demon so close. His gaze dropped to hers. "You live dangerously, sister."
No. She had never risked enough—and thanks to the nephilim, she'd lost it all anyway. She pulled her hand free. And since she had nothing to lose now, she reached up and tucked his collar into place. She doubted he noticed. "If you need assistance tonight—"
"I don't." His tone implied he'd already gotten everything he needed from her. He looked toward the demon. "So you can haul off."
Anger jabbed at her. She'd expected rejection and understood his need to go this alone, but she didn't deserve that rude dismissal. "Or, as you once told me, 'Get the fuck out of your face'?" When his startled gaze met hers, she smiled sweetly. "It will be my pleasure. Good luck to you, preacher."
To him, and to her. They were both going to need it.
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