“I still can’t get over how beautiful you look,” Rick whispered in Brigid’s ear.
“I don’t know whether to be flattered or punch you,” she deadpanned.
They were still standing in the reception line. There was a lull since the local politicians had huddled around his parents and showed no signs of moving along. There was that fake laughter Rick hated, although everyone was making nice. He took the opportunity to turn and give Brigid another onceover.
“Stop!” she huffed, and her cheeks flushed.
She was beautiful. There was no other word for her. The black sheath dress she wore cut severely off the shoulder, all angles, then fell in a straight line to the floor. It made her look even taller, and with the way she held herself, she looked as regal as any Queen. Pam hadn’t liked being left out of the shopping expedition, so she’d made up for it by ambushing Brigid with a hairdresser. There were a good five inches gone, still leaving plenty of hair arranged to fall elegantly over the cloth of the dress. “One minute I think I’m standing next to a movie star,” Rick told her, “and then you smile and you’re my Brigid again.”
“I’m always just your Brigid,” she told him, but he could tell she was flattered.
Rick glanced up the line. The politicians were still glad-handing, now with King Stan. Rick and Brigid had both been formally introduced to the Kings and their Seconds at the informal reception last night. It had been late, so they hadn’t stayed long. It was just as well. Stan was crowing about his having his own telepath and the Mississippi King seemed intent on bombarding Rick with images. Rick knew enough to guard his reactions, but one had included his Father. It was sexual and graphic enough that Rick was certain it was genuine. He hadn’t meant to, but he flinched enough that Brigid noticed.
“Most everyone is here,” Rick said, shaking off the memories. “Come on, let’s go dance.”
“You’re sure?” Brigid asked, even though she was already moving.
The music was good and the dance floor was humming. If there was one thing people in New Orleans did well and often, it was dance. One number led to another and Rick soon lost himself in the sweep of waltzes and the breathless movement of polkas. The dress Brigid wore had a long slit up one side, and she wasted no time dropping her heels, so she could twirl around the floor with him.
Before long there were other familiar faces dancing. Pam was dancing with Indira, the Sheriff they met yesterday. Peter appeared. He’d declined the reception line, preferring to socialize with the band, but now that Karin was freed up from her official duties, they were taking advantage of his not playing music to move in each other’s arms. Mr. Hermosa swirled by. None of the Hermosa kids were there and Rick found himself missing George and Maddie. He felt a tap on his shoulder and Rick turned to face his Father. “If I may,” and Rick headed over to the room with the buffet table while his Father whisked Brigid away.
It was dazzling. The presentation was all about decadence. There were silver platters tilted just a bit to give the impression of overflowing and wines and punch flowed through ice sculptures. On either end of the table were different fountains. These also looked to flow through ice, but they were actually warmers and the liquid was Royalty. Rick glanced toward the dance floor. Brigid was laughing at something his Father said and the dance seemed nowhere near done, so he grabbed a goblet and filled it. The blood was perfectly warmed and was spiced with something. “Say it,” Pam said from beside him. “Say your sister knows how to throw a party.”
“It’s amazing,” Rick told her. “You’ve really outdone yourself!”
“Sookie does get some of the credit,” Pam told him. “She put her all into this. Max and I chose the setting, but she brought in the guests. You should be proud of her.”
“I am,” Rick replied. His eyes swept around until he found his Mother, dancing with King Stan. “I don’t see the attraction,” he said aloud.
“What are you talking about?” and Pam turned to see where he was looking.
“I don’t find him especially funny,” Rick continued. “I mean, what’s he got to offer? He’s King, so what?”
“It’s all about alliances, Baby Fang,” Pam scolded. “Texas is big and though Stan may look weak, he’s gobbling up territory. He just took over New Mexico and Arizona might be next.”
“Took over, like he killed people?” Rick asked.
His words were rewarded by sharp looks and hissing by those around them. “Jeez, you’re an idiot!” Pam scolded again. “Come on!” and she pulled him back into the main hall but along a wall where no one stood. “You have got to learn to control what comes out of your mouth when vampires can’t pretend not to hear! Be aware of your surroundings! It’s not a hard lesson!”
“Yeah,” Rick grunted. “You’re right. I’ll do better next time.” He didn’t really mean it, but it was the kind of thing that got his relatives to move on.
“If you’re asking whether taking New Mexico involved killing their King, no one knows. The story is the King was happy to abdicate. The gossip is he ended up riding off into the sunset, literally,” and Pam tapped her manicured finger against her goblet. “Finally dead men tell no tales.”
“If that’s what happened, then why is Mom dancing with him?” Rick asked.
Beside him, Pam huffed. “You really don’t get it, do you?” She glanced at his Mom before saying, “You think your Mom is so lily white? I’m sure I don’t know how many people she’s killed. Vampire, human, Fae; it’s a long list, Rick, and I, for one, don’t believe her killing days are over. I’ve seen her in action. She saved my life, more than once, and I can tell you for a fact her aim is true.”
“And what are we talking about?” Russell seemed to appear from nowhere. He looked at Rick in a way that made Rick want to punch him. “You really do look like your Father,” he said. The King had that same image in his head again, the one where Eric was on his knees. Rick refused to react, but his palms were sweating.
“Real chip off the old block,” Pam laughed. Rick could tell Pam wasn’t buying into Russell being friendly, and he liked his sister all the more for it. It gave him the time he needed to throttle in his telepathy, and then a little more effort to turn it off completely. “Of course, Rick is under Tania’s protection in addition to our Sire’s,” Pam was saying.
“Northman does have a reputation for protecting his own,” Russell replied. “Did I hear mention of your Queen’s tendency toward violence? I’m hoping now that she’s a vampire herself, Sookie finds less reason to kill our kind.”
“Lorena deserved it and more,” Pam was smiling but her tone was frosty.
“Lorena was a little extreme, but she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Disciplining your progeny is a Maker’s prerogative. That little stunt Sookie pulled had people questioning my ability to offer them hospitality.” Russell bared his fangs, then settled back in the next instant. “Still, that’s all behind us now. No one came looking for restitution and now Sookie is your Queen.” Russell pursed his lips, “Also a Maker in her own right…in a manner of speaking.”
Russell ran his eyes over Rick in a way that was, frankly, appraising. “So, tell me, young Rick, what are you planning to do once you finish with your human schooling?”
‘Not working for you!’ Rick thought. “I don’t have any particular plans,” he said aloud. “Of course, it’s just my first year. I have some time to figure it out.”
Pam cuffed Rick companionably, “I’m betting he comes into the family business.”
“Doing what?” Russell asked.
“Who knows?” Pam shrugged. “He’s vampire, he’s smart.”
“But,” and Russell winked, “surely, our Rick has gifts.”
“None I could tell you about,” Pam laughed, “but he’s young. Maybe he’ll grow into some.”
“My Mother says it’s rude to ask a vampire about their gifts,” Rick offered. When Russell’s eyes narrowed, Rick pulled on his most innocent face. “I’m learning our customs. I grew up among humans. It’s important for me to learn as much as I can so I don’t offend someone out of ignorance.”
“Of course,” but Russell didn’t look fooled.
Karin drifted their way, “Rick, I think Brigid’s looking for you.” It was the excuse Rick needed and he didn’t hesitate. He saw Russell make to step forward, but Karin seemed to deliberately block the King’s way. Rick was sure there were more words being exchanged, but he didn’t stick around to hear them.
“I thought I’d lost you altogether,” Brigid sighed when he took her hand.
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.
Brigid glanced around before saying, “They’re not so different than us.”
Even shielding, Rick could see it wasn’t true. “You need to learn to look below the surface,” he told her. Together, they headed toward the main entrance.
“Don’t you think you should tell your parents?” Rick looked over to where they stood. Russell Edgington had rejoined them.
“No,” he told Brigid. “Thalia’s near the door. I’ll let her know.”
“Are you all right?” Brigid asked.
Rick stopped their progress long enough to look into her eyes. “I’m fine. I’ve just had enough of Vampire Central for one night.”
He could see Brigid trying to understand. He was tempted to peek in her head, but it would break his promises to himself, and then he remembered Eric’s words. “I think maybe I should tell you some things about me,” he told her.
She frowned, but then said, “So, I guess we won’t be inviting Hunter.”
Rick felt a quick stab of jealousy, but then squelched it. Hunter had done his best to be charming, still, Brigid was his Brigid. She hadn’t shown his cousin any particular interest. Her offering now was her being kind. Rick glanced around until he spotted his cousin. “I don’t think he’ll be leaving any time soon,” Rick told Brigid.
Across the room, Hunter Savoy had an arm draped around the waist of a tall, blonde vampire while he kissed the cheek of another. Rick had teased his friend, George, about sleeping around, but Hunter took things to a whole new level. Brigid’s mischievous grin was all the agreement he needed, so after telling Thalia he was going to show Brigid around, he pulled her toward the elevator.
“I’m not sure how you’ll take this, but I want you to know who we are,” he told her.
When the doors opened below, the feeding couches were empty. They would be populated later when the party was winding down, accommodating those who needed to feed before seeking their rest. “What is this place?” Brigid asked.
“It’s where we feed when we’re here,” Rick answered.
“But,” and she looked around. He knew what it was she was seeing; the couches and beds, the chairs and alcoves. “So… How does it happen? You call ahead? What if there are other vampires down here? I mean… There’s a lot of…”
“Beds,” Rick filled in. “It’s usually pretty tame. It won’t be later. Whenever there’s a party, a lot of donors are brought in. They’ll start arriving in another couple hours. In the old days, they brought them right into the party, like an open bar.”
He could see Brigid was shaken. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“I want you to see them for what they are,” Rick replied.
She looked at him in her direct way, “Well, aren’t you vampire, too?”
“Yes,” he told her. “I don’t behave the way the older ones do, but you have to know, when you’re not around, this is my life when I stay here. I come downstairs…”
“To feed and fuck donors?’ Brigid asked.
“No!” Rick realized he’d gone too far. “No, we don’t all feed and fuck. I don’t!”
“You think I don’t realize you need to feed?” Brigid challenged. “You think I don’t see no one upstairs except for people like me eating? I don’t know why you’re doing this. You say you’re vampire, and then you decide it’s necessary to shock me so that I won’t like vampires.” Brigid eye-rolled, “Come on, get me out of here. Take me somewhere your Mom likes to hang out. You want me to see how vampires live? Your parents are good examples, if you ask me. Take me somewhere they spend time when they aren’t being display vampires.”
Nodding, Rick took them both back the elevator and all the way to the top floor. He walked her down the corridor to the family rooms where he and his parents watched television or talked. The furnishings were as he remembered, except for one thing. In place of the coffee table he remembered, there was the piece he and his Father had worked on over Christmas. “He finished it,” Rick said aloud.
“What?” Brigid asked, and then, just as quickly, “This place is so beautiful.” It was. The furnishings had changed a little. They were less modern and more comfortable. It was in the small details. In some ways, it reminded Rick of his living room in Chester.
“That table,” Rick explained. “I told you my Father gave me tools for Christmas, well, we spent the rest of the holiday working on it. It wasn’t quite done when I left, but it looks like Eric finished it.”
“Putting it there where they could always see it,” Brigid completed for him. She stood close, wrapping her hands around his arm. “They have it, you know? That special thing between them? It makes me happy just to be near them.”
“I’m a telepath,” he confessed. He stole his arm around her and held her against him. “Like Hunter.”
“Oh,” Brigid said softly, and then, “I guess that explains a few things.”
“I don’t read you!” Rick stammered. “I made myself a promise, almost as soon as I met you, that I’d never dip into your head. I…” and he let her go, falling heavily onto the couch. “I guess I didn’t want to know what you thought about me, and then I liked you too much to pull things out of your head that way.”
“You should have told me sooner,” Brigid told him.
“I know,” and Rick sighed, “I’m sorry.”
She bit her thumb, thinking, and then made up her mind. She sat beside him and leaned against him, allowing a wonderful sense of well-being to flow through him the way it did any time they touched. “Why are you telling me now?” she asked.
“Something my Father said over dinner the other night,” Rick answered. “He reminded me that partners…lovers, don’t keep secrets from each other.”
“I like your Father, Rick,” Brigid told him. “He goes out of his way to make me feel comfortable.”
Rick sighed again, “Yeah, you have to believe my Mother isn’t usually this way…”
“I like your Mother, too!” Brigid interrupted. “She’s had you all to herself for a long time. Don’t be too hard on her.”
“I love you,” Rick said, his feelings front and center, and Brigid came willingly into his arms. They kissed for a long time before she settled back, her head against his shoulder.
“If you’re a telepath, why don’t you do what Hunter does? To hear him tell it, he’s got more money than he knows what to do with. He’s got friends now. His services are in demand. He can fly all over, see places. Why not do that?”
“It’s worse than that,” Rick laughed shortly. “Hunter reads humans, which is great. I read everyone, which is kind of unheard of.” Rick glanced at Brigid, “You can’t tell anyone about me. It’s like having too much of a good thing. Hunter can do what he does because he’s got limits to his gift. Me? No limits, and that’s dangerous in our world.”
Rick felt her concern through their tie. “Someone knows about you, Rick. I mean, your parents know. What about Pam?”
“Thalia knows. The Hermosas, too,” Rick nodded. “They’re all sworn to my parents with a blood oath.” Rick shrugged, “Vampires take their blood oaths pretty seriously. You might have noticed, loyalty is a big thing with them.”
“Does Hunter know you can do more than him?” Brigid asked.
Rick thought about it, “No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“I think we should keep it that way,” Brigid said. She didn’t explain, so Rick didn’t ask. He thought she was right. Brigid looked around, “Well, what do you want to do? We could go back downstairs or head back to the apartment.”
“You offering sex?” Rick teased.
Brigid laughed. “You know there’s always sex, but that can happen anytime. Why don’t you take me downstairs and dance this beautiful dress around the floor a couple more times, and then we can say good night to your parents like polite people?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the telepath thing sooner,” Rick apologized again.
“So am I,” Brigid scolded. “I love you, Rick, but I mean it, no more secrets.”
“No more,” Rick agreed, though he knew it was a promise he’d have trouble keeping.
“For the first time, I feel like a Queen.” Sookie’s face was glowing. Her eyes were alight and her fangs peeked from under her lip. The Kings had left as had Rick and his friend. The musicians were still playing downstairs and would until the sun chased vampires to their rest. It allowed Eric and Sookie the excuse they needed to retreat to their rooms.
“You were magnificent,” Eric agreed. He allowed his hands to glide over the swell of her hips before ghosting up to start working the zippers and hooks.
“I think the humans had just as much fun as anyone.” She sighed as he freed her from the built-in bra. Her back arched slightly and Eric ran his fingernails up the column of her back, but she stepped away. “I really followed the whole business thing. Natural gas is big money, isn’t it?”
“It’s the new gold of the north,” Eric nodded.
“And you really think that land you own has deposits?” and Sookie pulled a bag of Royalty from the little refrigerator in the corner and twisted the top so she could pour it into the jar.
“The land we own is in the middle of the deposits. The survey crew will be able to confirm it, but yes, my Sookie, it’s likely we will soon be richer.” Once she’d finished microwaving and shaking, she offered him a glass, but he declined. “No, Lover. A glass won’t be enough. I need to go downstairs soon, and so do you.”
Sookie frowned, “I know you’re right, but everyone will be down there…”
Eric frowned, too. The feeding area would be crowded, their guests exchanging one dance for another. Those who desired more discrete feeding would make arrangements, but the open couches and high spirits would lead to more than camaraderie among their kind. “I can call down, try to arrange someone in your private room,” Eric offered, trying to keep his disappointment from the bond. The truth was there were certain sorts of donors who requested this duty. The tips were big and the exposure, especially for those hoping someday to become vampire themselves, priceless.
“Better do it soon, or we won’t be able to reach anyone,” she answered, walking away from him toward their closet.
Eric dialed the room and when no one answered, he tried Pam’s phone. Sookie came back, wearing her robe. “Things are already underway,” he told her. He couldn’t help it. He enjoyed these nights, and the thought of taking his woman while watching others had him hardening. “It wouldn’t take long, Lover, and I wouldn’t share you.”
“And I won’t share you!” Her fangs clicked down and Eric hardened more, basking in her jealousy.
“You have never seen an orgy,” he purred. “As vampire, the sensation is overwhelming. The smells, the sounds.”
“We went to an orgy, don’t you remember?” she scolded.
“They were ugly people,” and Eric was beside her, stroking the swell of her breast through her robe. “They smelled bad. You were repulsed.”
“Weren’t you?” but Eric could feel her thin note of interest.
“Why do you think I took you outside? You were the only one worth having,” he soothed, his fingers stroking, provoking. “But, Sookie, downstairs is something different.”
“I couldn’t!” she gasped as his fingers dipped under the cloth to find her core.
Eric pulled his hand back, tracing her cheek instead. “I will protect you, Lover. You are mine and I won’t allow any other to have you.” Sookie’s eyes were wide. “You are delightful!” he teased. “You are curious, aroused even, yet you hold back because you still can’t admit your desires.”
“Nice people don’t do that!” she snapped, but it was more guilt than true outrage.
“I’m nice,” he hissed, nipping her earlobe. “Come with me, my Queen. Protect me while I feed.”
“You are the biggest bullshitter!” Sookie hissed, but her hand found his and he knew he’d won.
Eric slipped into soft pants before pulling Sookie after him. He held her close on the way down, knowing what awaited them, and he wasn’t disappointed. The elevator doors opened to a mass of writhing, laughing bodies. Guards made sure there were no problems. Donors who were truly injured caused problems. The smell was delightful, the heavy scent of sex blending with the bright copper of blood.
As soon as they stepped from the elevator, they were approached. “May I be of service?” He was tall and broad-shouldered. There was something about his jaw that reminded Eric of Herveaux, and he was pretty sure Sookie noticed, too.
“What do you say, Sookie?” Eric whispered in her ear as he ran his hands down her arms. “Will this one do?”
She was shivering, her senses going into overdrive. “I guess,” she gasped.
“It will be easier for my wife if you sit on a couch,” and Eric jerked his chin at one of the guards. “Ask that couple,” and he gestured toward a couch where the occupants appeared to have finished. The donor, a woman, smiled at him, but the vampire she was with took her by the hand and led her toward the back of the room.
The donor they’d chosen preceded them, sitting and then reclining, lifting his chin so they could both have access. “How many have you fed this evening?” Sookie asked him. Her voice was tight, and Eric could feel her struggle.
“No one,” he told her. “I just arrived.”
Eric’s eyes narrowed. He was pretty sure the man was lying. It was like that sometimes, flirting with death in their hopes of being turned. “I am here, Sookie,” Eric assured her. “I’ll monitor you. You won’t hurt him.”
“Eric, you said you needed to feed,” she protested.
“And I do,” he assured her, “but I can wait. You are hungry. I feel it.”
“It’s not for blood!” his Sookie huffed. The way she said it was so sassy, Eric threw his head back and laughed. Eric held her hair so he could watch her strike. There was something sexy in the way her small fangs pieced the man and he rubbed himself against her. The man was touching himself, offering, but Eric knew his Sookie’s hands were for him.
“Enough,” Eric whispered when he heard the man’s heart alter rhythm. She did him proud, never hesitating. She licked his neck, taking the last few drops into herself. “Come,” and he pulled her toward the far wall. From here, his Queen could watch those around them. He felt her need building.
“Majesty!” It was a young woman this time. She was already naked and she kept her eyes on Sookie.
“Do you wish to feed from her?” Sookie asked. He could feel her hesitation.
“Only if you wish it,” he replied softly. “I can wait.”
Sookie turned in his arms and her robe opened. He could feel her bare breasts against his chest. “You are saucy!” he grinned.
“You need to feed?” she asked slyly. “Do it.”
“Come close,” he instructed the woman. It was awkward, reaching over Sookie to pierce the woman’s neck, but Eric understood Sookie’s need to stay between them. He didn’t feed long, just enough to take the edge off. “Thank you,” he said formally before returning his attention to his wife. “Now as for you!”
It was a matter of seconds to have her back against the wall and her legs open. “Hold on,” he growled. They had made love this way before, just never surrounded by others, and he watched Sookie close her eyes. He knew even without seeing, her other senses would paint the picture all too clearly. She was on overload and her orgasm caught her almost before he started. “Now, now,” he tutted, “let’s see if we can do better than that.”
“Don’t you share me!” she hissed, and his face turned serious.
“I will never share you, Lover,” he reassured her, and when her eyes opened, he held them as he took her, slowly and deliberately, in a way that let her know that even in a room full of Lovers, she was his only one.
Her mouth fell open and as her eyes met his, he felt something within her shift. Suddenly, unexpectedly, his darling Sookie transcended from who she was to the pure being of vampire. There was no longer any hesitation; Sookie was, in that instant, entirely with him and in her environment. “Yes!” she hissed and then there was no longer Eric or Sookie. There was only them, together, joined inseparably by cock and tooth and blood.
“Did you see them?” Betty Jo was picking up his clothes. She didn’t need to, but some part of her enjoyed mothering him. To tell the truth, Russell Edgington enjoyed having her do it.
“I never expected him to bring her down to the feeding room,” Russell answered. “Anyone could see it was her first time.”
“She didn’t embarrass herself,” and Betty Jo held up his shirt, which was ripped.
“Bring it home,” Russell sniffed. “I don’t want to leave any part of me here.” He glanced around at his room, “You’re giving her too much credit. ‘Queen’ Sookie isn’t really one of us. I don’t think any vampire deserves to be called such until they’ve reached their first century. Not that the niceties worry Northman. You can see how he takes the rankest among us and names her Queen.”
“She was more formidable when she was human,” Betty Jo sniffed. “Granted, she behaved well last night, but still, she didn’t share. I can’t see her holding her own tonight, not when she’s surrounded by monarchs.”
“This meeting should be dreadful,” Russell agreed. “Any newcomer would be acceptable in a crowd, but the Ball’s over. She will have to mind her manners. I, for one, am not interested in pretending this is normal, definitely not for Northman!”
“It’s so difficult being around the newly-turned. They have no finesse,” Betty Jo sniffed.
“Frankly, it’s an affront to all of us,” and Russell started pacing. “I was chosen. The Pythoness herself called me out, Sophie-Ann as well. We were selected as leaders because we earned our place!”
“I didn’t like Felipe de Castro, but he deserved his throne,” and Betty Jo sat, allowing her boss room, knowing he liked space while airing his grievances.
“At least Northman got his crown the right way,” and Russell pointed at a light fixture that featured metal spikes. “I’ve seen him fight. The Viking knows his business. There’s nothing weak about him when he’s holding a sword. He’s all vampire then.”
“Then, what happened to him?” Russell’s Second asked. “His Maker was legend; he turned two successful vampires himself. Pam and Karin are progeny anyone would be proud to call their own.”
“Whatever has infected him, it’s affected his eldest as well. Did you see the way Karin the Slaughterer was treating her pet?” Russell didn’t wait for an answer, “Northman should insist she either train him better or turn him! It’s intolerable that he was included in any conversation in his current state!”
“I couldn’t believe she brought him into the reception line,” Betty Jo agreed. “I will say the creature had the sense to leave almost as soon as she placed him there!”
“I wouldn’t call him a creature,” Russell growled. “The real creature is the dhampir!” The King shuddered, “It makes my skin crawl to be anywhere close to it. The right thing would be to end it.” The King’s lip curled, ‘The polite thing would be to keep it far away from the rest of us, but does Northman do what’s expected? No! Instead he parades his freak, mocking us with it, allowing it a pet of its own!”
“What do you expect?” Betty Jo shrugged. “A misbegotten child from a misbegotten Queen.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was witchcraft!’ Russell hissed.
“Perhaps it is,” and Betty Jo gave him an arch look. “You know what Tania says. The creature is a regular guest with Fran Miller, the witch.”
“Sookie Stackhouse stayed with her as well,” Russell mused. “She bore the creature under that woman’s roof.”
“It makes sense.” Betty Jo stood now. “Think about it! Stackhouse was known to consort with witches even before she left for Boston. Northman was respectable. You received him as did others, and then he met her.”
Russell stared into the night. “They did fight the witch wars,” he mused. “That doesn’t sound like someone who uses witchcraft to get what she wants.”
“Who knows what someone might have paid to be spared that night?” Betty Jo suggested. “Remember when she showed up and ended Lorena?” Russell made a sour noise. “How did she survive the staking at Club Dead? Was it just luck, and how did she spirit Compton out of your Palace without any of your Weres being the wiser?”
“You think she had help from a necromancer?” It was an appealing idea, one that soothed Russell’s wounded pride. Russell’s phone buzzed. “Bartlett,” he sighed. “I have to take this.”
Betty Jo used the time her boss was in the other room to tick through those she’d talked with at last night’s Ball. It had been many years since she’d spent time with Pam and her assessment was little had changed. Pam joked and gave the appearance of being light-hearted, but little got past her. Maxwell Lee was the same. He greeted and flirted with everyone in the room, the unofficial host since the Ball was in New Orleans. He’d danced with her twice, all the while extolling the enticements of his City while at the same time roaming his hands over her, searching for weapons.
Rasul was someone she recognized. She’d tried prying some of Michigan’s secrets loose, but he was close-lipped. So was Indira. They’d let slip that they’d been in contact with each other when Indira was in exile in Minnesota, but that was it. Rubio Hermosa was there as well. He looked none the worse for his near-final-death experience. Betty Jo hadn’t liked Bill Compton. She wasn’t sorry he was dead, but everyone heard about his skewering Hermosa to the floor with silver. The story she heard was the vampire had managed to survive for three days, even with daylight creeping toward him. There weren’t many who could have done so. Betty Jo herself had been chained in silver and kept in a room where sunlight poured in one side. It had been excruciating and she’d only had to endure it one day.
“He’s bitching because I told him not to come,” Russell growled, holding up his phone so she’d know who ‘he’ meant.
“Why would your husband want to be captured on their televisions?” and Betty Jo shook her head.
“Someday he’ll thank me,” Russell sniffed. “Isaiah, too. My kingdom lies directly next to Northman’s. I couldn’t decline without raising suspicions, and now my face has been splashed all over their media. We were on the news, walking into the Ball. That’s how Bartlett saw it.”
“Surely, they didn’t identify you by name,” and Betty Jo felt a frisson of worry.
“They did!” Russell snapped. “And our titles! I don’t know who told, but someone did, and now we have lost our anonymity! Not even the dignity of calling us businessmen! They identified both Stan and me as fellow Kings!”
“I suppose in a way it’s not a bad thing,” and Betty Jo stepped forward, trying to calm her King. She recognized the signs and if he continued to escalate, things would be broken, and the evening would be difficult. “At least these humans now realize Northman is only one King among many.”
“They saw my face!” Russell snarled. “They know who I am!”
“Well, why shouldn’t they?” Betty Jo asked, raising her voice as well. “Why shouldn’t humans know that there is a true King among them? Why shouldn’t they know there’s someone who deserves their fear and their respect?” Russell’s expression started to shift, so Betty Jo pressed. “When we decided to come out from the dark we knew there would be danger, but in taking greatness, there is always risk.”
“We are their masters,” Russell nodded.
“We have always been superior,” Betty Jo agreed. “Why shouldn’t they learn who we are? Soon enough they will understand the meaning of our names.”
“Bartlett should be thanking me for stepping into the light first,” Russell sniffed.
“Indeed. Isaiah, too. You warned them to stay away because as a great King, a King among Kings, you were willing to take the lead, risking all to forge our way.” Betty Jo smiled, seeing her King warm to the idea. “Not the clown show Northman makes of it, but as a true King.”
Russell Edgington lifted his chin, his temper assuaged. “I was surprised how loyal the Viking’s Sheriffs remain,” and he turned to the mirror. “Did you call the car?”
“I did,” Betty Jo replied. “Fifteen more minutes. I didn’t think you wanted to ride over with Stan.”
“You know me well. I’m sure Texas is already over there, cracking his knuckles, and pretending to be more than he is. Another King by default. His day is coming!” Russell smiled darkly, but then remembered something. “That Thalia. I have never understood the loyalty that ties her to him. She is truly formidable! She alone could make sure the Viking holds his throne, regardless of how foolish he becomes.”
“It’s not just her. Pam Ravenscroft is skilled. Karin? Well, we all know about Karin. No one talks of training, but I’ve seen several of them in action. It’s not as if they forget.” Betty Jo checked the setting on the computer. “It would have to be well-planned. Thalia, in particular, would have to be trapped alone. I’d want one more with me. Too many get in the way. Surprise would work best.”
“If we were to consider changes, I’d suggest using one of the spawn,” Russell mused. “Thalia is almost too loyal. She guards his flank, but she hovers over his ragtag progeny as well. I don’t suppose Northman’s creature has any battle training. He’d be soft and useless…” and then Russell stilled. “I wouldn’t want it harmed, though.” His eyes came together as he thought. “There may be something to what Victor told us. I aimed thoughts at him and I’m sure he flinched.”
“You think he can read vampires?” Betty Jo asked.
Russell examined his fingernails, running through last night. “I tried a second time, but this Rick was wary. Still, it’s possible.”
“If he was capable, he would be a mighty asset,” Betty Jo hissed.
“For someone capable of wielding him,” and Russell sighed. “However, since he can’t be turned, and glamour doesn’t work, the only alternative may be to remove him from the playing field.”
“At the right time,” Betty Jo agreed and they moved toward downtime, lost in thought. “What about the nephew?” Betty Jo asked.
“Hunter Savoy is well on his way to being in thrall to our people,” Russell answered. “He has made arrangements to meet them tomorrow night up north,” and Russell smiled, “at Fangtasia.”
“That place is still open?” and Betty Jo laughed before sobering. “I’d imagine he’s traveling with protection. He’s a money-maker. I’m surprised the Viking isn’t policing his playmates.”
“My spies tell me the demon has been seen in Texas,” Russell drawled, “so it would seem there will be a new babysitter for Northman’s young telepath.”
“The meetings here stretch another few nights. It’s unlikely either Thalia or Pam will be traveling with Savoy,” and Betty Jo started considering.
“Too soon!” Russell scolded. “Still, the dangers this kingdom present to our kind are many. We are not here to make friends and breed. We are here to rule them, but if Northman’s sideshow keeps the humans smiling, so be it. Until we’re ready.”
“Until we’re ready,” Betty Jo agreed.