Blood Cross Chapter 8

I am not prey!

I studied our hostess, Bettina, Blood Master of Clan Rousseau. Rousseau was a beautiful woman of mixed race heritage, mostly African and European, and I had learned early on that she had entered this country as a slave. Perhaps through this warehouse, where she now was hostess. It seemed the kind of ironic situation that would appeal to a vamp.

Vamp lore said that Bettina had pleased her master, who had later turned her, freed her, and made her his second in command. When he died in 1915 - crap. Wasn't that the year Bruiser mentioned being the last vamp war? - Bettina had moved into his position of power. Of course, I'd heard other stories too, but I hadn't found anything in the woo-woo files to verify any of them.

Bettina stood five-four or five-five in heels, had more curves and cleavage than aPlayboy bunny, and oozed seduction. She had tried it on me once, asking me to her bed. I was so not going there. Clan Rousseau's blood-master took Bruiser's hand as if to shake, but pulled him close. "George," she said, pressing her cheek to his, her accent exquisite even in the single word.

"Lovely lady," he murmured, pressing his cheeks to both of hers in a manner that seemed Old World and LA current at the same time.

Bettina turned to me. "Our brave hunter," she said.

When I offered her my hand, Bettina gathered up both of mine instead, holding them between us as she stepped close, way inside my personal space, her hands and mine bumping our bodies. Unlike most vamps, who wore minimal perfume, Bettina was drenched in it. Beast retreated from the stench and I tried not to breathe. There was no avoiding her gaze, however, when she looked up.

Liquid dark eyes pulled at me. Vamp pheromones, hunting pheromones,crap ,seduction pheromones spiked on the air. I could smell them even buried beneath the bottled fragrance. She leaned in closer, up and against me, our hands trapped and brushing our chests, her mouth at my dress's low neckline.Ick . Bettina leaned in, pulling me down for a little cheek dusting the way she had given Bruiser. Or a blood kiss.

I am not prey!Beast warned. I tensed. No way was Beast letting me back away. She bared her teeth and claws. Flooded my system with adrenaline. Prepared to attack.

But Bettina didn't try to bite me, nor did she do the cheek-to-cheek thing; she sniffed me. As if I werefood . I held my two selves still and fought down anger and insult.

Bettina blew out a breath that went down my dress front, cold, dead air, and stepped back. She said, "The Rogue Hunter is welcome tonight, as a guest of Pellissier's blood-servant, and as one claimed by the Blood Master of the City. My home is honored."

Claimed?I blushed hotly. Leo's blood scent claimed me for him, and I had a feeling it would be stupid and dangerous to deny that status. Could others try to claim me if I declared myself free? Was there something I was missing here? Maybe I should be less ticked off with Bruiser. Or maybe I should hurt him in retaliation.

Bettina stepped back and I figured we were done, but she smiled and squeezed my fingers. She haddimples . How creepy was that? "I asked that the Rogue Hunter call upon me when the unpleasantness of the old rogue hunting my kind had been settled."

She held my gaze, and when she spoke again, it was haltingly, choosing her words with care. "Yet, though you defeated him, I have not received such a call. I am disappointed.

Youwill call upon me?"

I had a feeling she was trying to convey something more than her words themselves, but I had no idea what. As if she sensed that, her grip loosened and her tone returned to coy persuasion.

"I still wish to know you better, who you are,what you are. Should you tire of Leo and desire . . . employment . . . when your current contract is concluded, you will call upon me. An accommodation can be agreed upon, I am certain."

Accommodation in her bed and as her dinner. As a fangy toy. Not gonna happen.

Before I could say it, she stepped back again, into her place in the one-vamp receiving line, and released my hands. Bruiser retook my arm and we moved on. "Well, well," he murmured. "Leo did say you smell like dessert."

Beast is not food!"That was seriously freaky," I murmured back.

"So what are you?" he asked. "Why do you smell so tasty to them?"

"A blood meal with killer legs?" I said, hoping to deflect his curiosity.

"Yes, but you smell like sex, blood, violence, and challenge, according to Leo. Which, for a vampire, would be dessert with killer legs."

"Mmmm." I wasn't going to respond to that one. I smoothed my hair back again and stopped, my hand at my face. Beneath the reek of Bettina's perfume, I caught a whiff of the rogue maker from her palm. I looked back at Bettina. She had shaken his hand. He?

Yes. I was pretty sure. And that meant he was here. I whirled back to Bettina. She was staring at me. And she inclined her head as if to agree with something, but what? I sniffed. The odors were rich and intermingled, the smell of gaslight and smoke riding over it all. No scent of the rogue maker lingered on the air.

I scanned the central area of the warehouse and breathed in the mingled scents. The front half of the building was one huge open area with three-feet-thick, old-brick walls, a slate floor, and thirty-inch-diameter brick pillars holding up the second floor, which was fifteen feet overhead. Gas flames lit the area, flickering in the air-conditioned, artificial breeze. Whatever its use in the past, the entry floor was now set up for entertaining, with a serving area to the right big enough to seat a hundred at the long table, which was currently pushed against the wall. Scores of chairs lined the room's walls. I could see no one who might match the faint scent on my hand.

However, the air was redolent with meat and spices.Food! Beast thought. "Later," I murmured, as if to myself. Bruiser looked my way, but I pretended not to notice. The table was laden with food for humans, and humans were gathered along it, spearing smoked salmon, ribs, something that looked like lollipops but smelled like lamb, kabobs, shrimp, fried seafood in bite-sized pieces, and boudin, a Louisiana favorite, onto plates. There were veggies and a multitude of breads and cheeses too, not that I cared.

To the left was a place set up like a parlor, with couches, chairs, tables, and a fireplace scaled to fit the warehouse, burning huge logs that looked custom cut. Bruiser led me left, to pause partially behind one of the round pillars. The seating area was decorated with French and Spanish antiques, lots of burled wood on cases holding paintings and priceless objets d'art. The upholstered furniture had sweeping lines, tufts, tassels, skirts, and gewgaws - art deco and art nouveau maybe, fancy, like something that might be seen in an old black-and-white movie. Yet everything was dwarfed by the scale of the room.

Midway to the back half of the warehouse was another area, marked off by rugs tossed on the slate floor, and here vamps and humans sat on large pillows, talking and smoking, bohemian-style. The scents were overpowering here too, pepper, parchment, fresh mint and camphor, dried herbs, subtle perfumes, and a hint of mold, though that might have been from the old building. Underlying the vamp smell were traces of fresh blood from recent feedings. Beast didn't like that stench, and hissed deep in my mind.

There were eight clan blood-families in New Orleans and it was dizzyingly difficult to keep their political and social divisions straight, but it was something I needed to know as rogue-vamp hunter in their territory. Pellissier, Laurent, Bouvier, and St. Martin were in one political alliance, with Mearkanis, Arceneau, Rousseau, and Desmarais in the other. The clan homes of the latter four blood-masters were in the Garden District, and once upon a time, they had all been thick as thieves. But from the social groupings tonight, it was clear that the alliances were changing, the vamps gathering in odd clusters. All was not right in the world of the blood-sucking predators.

I spotted Rafael Torrez, the small, black-eyed scion and master of Clan Mearkanis, and self-proclaimed enemy of Leo, in intense conversation with two unknown vamps - an overdressed guy in a red costume and a vamp with a scarred face, the wound recent and still healing.

I heard the word "Leo" from the little group across the room. And "clan," and "true-death." From the way his body tensed, Bruiser heard too. I asked, "What do they get if Leo suddenly dies or is defeated in war?"

"I'm not sure." His eyes crinkled at the corners as he scanned the room. "If Leo names a new heir and solidifies his political base, then at his true-death his power would move to his successor, who would become master of the city. Of course, the new master would then have to hold it by his own wits and might. But if Leo holds off naming an heir, if something shifts in the political alignment, if we go to war and vampires start dying, it all becomes . . . difficult."

I had a feeling that "difficult" was an understatement. I tugged him away, to the table with human food, as in food for humans, not a table full of humans to feed vamps.

Having vamps around tended to make such distinctions tricky. The sexual tension between Bruiser and me and the atmosphere in the room had left me starved. "I need to eat and then mingle," I said, "to see if any of them smell like the young-rogue maker -

wear that perfume I noticed," I amended. I'd never been good keeping lies straight.

I handed Bruiser a crystal plate and filled mine with smoked pink salmon. Beast panted within me.Better raw , she said, and sent me a vision of a mountain lion's claws grabbing a dappled trout from a stream. I hadn't known Beast fished, but it did seem like something all cats liked, whether a tabby from an aquarium in a New York City apartment or a mountain lion from a cold mountain stream.

Bruiser looked at the heap of salmon on my plate and tilted his head in surprise, amusement, and vague condescension. The expression was uncannily like Leo's, and I wondered how many decades one had to live with a vamp to pick up his mannerisms. It could be seriously disturbing. "I like fish," I said, defensive. "And I'm hungry."

"Of course," he murmured. He handed me a square of folded linen and two pieces of gold-plated utensils and said, "Fish service."

I looked at the short, stout fork and the butter knife as I followed him to the back of the warehouse. "Yeah?" I turned the heavy utensils over, mentally comparing them to the pressed metal stuff we had used in the children's home. I was still looking at them when Bruiser placed a flute of white wine in my hand. I looked up, surprised. The back half of the Old Nunnery warehouse had probably once been offices, large cubicles open to each other at floor and ceiling for airflow. The first cubicle had a bar set up. I took a sip and even I knew this was the good stuff. No wine in a box for the vamps. I tasted the salmon and it melted in my mouth. Well, not really, but I didn't have to chew much.

As I ate - wolfing down the fish, Bruiser watching me with a slightly superior attitude, and me ignoring him - we moved into a short, wide hallway. A group of vamps in formal wear paused and stepped to the side as if to let us pass. As we drew even, two vamps dressed in almost-but-not-quite matching red silk gowns started toward me; the others followed their actions as if one brain controlled them. In unison, they sniffed the air.

Beyond them, in the shadows, Rafael Torrez stood. He was smiling slightly, but he didn't come closer. He was watching, his posture expectant.Crap .

My hackles rose and I stopped, turned to face the vamps closest, my back to the brick wall. Their eyes began bleeding black. Fangs snapped down. Beast flared through me and I sniffed back at them, scent-searching. For a single moment we faced each other.

Me with a plate half-full of food. Hands full. Adrenaline shot through me as I analyzed my defenses in an instant. The plate was glass, easily shattered, and vamps bled well.

Stakes close, in my hair. Wall at my back. I breathed out, muscles going loose and ready.

The female vamps in the scarlet silk sheaths looked me up and down, slowly, as if committing me to memory. I didn't think they were looking over my dress to gauge the quality and cost. One of the male vamps moved toward us, flowing slowly in that inhuman balletic glide the old ones can do. He looked predatory and graceful and dangerous as hell, despite his green and red plaid cummerbund and little matching pocket hankie, the colors clashing jauntily with his fangs.

I tightened my fingers on the plate, ready to toss it in distraction or shatter it into a quick blade. Ready to reach up and pull the stakes in my hair. My hands itched with the need todo something, now . Bruiser stepped to my side. Placed a proprietary hand on my spine. "The Rogue Hunter," he said, not the first time it had been phrased like a title.

The vamps, six altogether, fanned out, making a semicircle, boxing us in. Everything went cold and sterile. I realized they had been watching for me.

Offense is the best defense, I thought. Beast snarled deep inside me.

With a spinning motion, I slung my dinner plate to the brick floor. It shattered at their feet. Three of them jumped, startled or to miss being splattered with salmon, marking them as untrained and easily ignored. I focused on the remaining vamps. Beast leaped into my eyes and I growled, hands in my hair. Gripping stakes.

"Jane. No," Bruiser said softly, his voice carefully expressionless.

My hands stopped, nested in my braids. My heart beat like a broken drum.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the shadow move, the shadow that was Rafael Torrez, Blood Master of Mearkanis. Without lifting my gaze away, I took in this new threat.Great. Now what?

Rafe placed a hand on the shoulder of Plaid Guy. "No," he said.

Plaid Guy paused. His eyes were emerald, his pupils widening to black, snuffing out the green. His mouth opened in a little snarl as the new master of Clan Mearkanis came even with him and looked me over, a small smile on his pretty face. Dark, delicate, he walked the way a fencer or dancer might, feet placed with precise balance. "Not now."

Rafe stepped in front of the small group, hands clasped behind his back, and looked me over as though he might make an offer. "George, your master keeps such intriguing pets."

My eyebrows reached my hairline. "Pets?" I spat.

Rafael laughed and nodded to Bruiser. "George."

"Sir," Bruiser said, tone neutral.

Rafe turned and moved through the six vamps. They swiveled on their heels and followed him. And were gone, leaving Bruiser and me alone in the hallway.

"That was seriously freaky," I said.

"Yes. More than you know," Bruiser said, musing. "The Mithrans facing you were from two different alliances. I think this was . . . indicative. Those two in the red dresses -

Lanah and Hope - belong to Adrianna of St. Martin, who is allied with Leo. Nasty pieces of work, they are, but with the scent-marking, they should have protected you. A game is being played here, but I don't know what it is." He glanced at me, that small smile hovering on his lips. "You do create interesting situations, Jane Yellowrock. How many stakes do you have in your hair?"

"Not one," I said, lying and telling the truth all at once. I had more than one, so "not one" was the truth. Sorta. I was going to have to get down on my knees and confess a whole lotta half sins, nearly sins, and wanted-to sins. Guilt wriggled under my skin.

"And crosses?" he asked dryly.

Not willing to lie outright, I said, "One tiny one you nearly dislodged in the limo."

Bruiser glanced at the plunging neckline of my new dress and his mouth did that little twitch of a quirk. "It's well secured, then. Keep it that way."

I looked at the shattered plate and salmon at our feet. "Sorry about that."

"It let us see who flinched."

I grinned. "It did, didn't it?"

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