Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen

Damali didn't say a word as she stood by Carlos's side on the top step of the castle's grand entryway, Harold and Evelyn three steps below them, watching the entourages dismount from the choppers. It was a spectacular sight as they watched each master inspect the staff lines, not trusting the skills of the master that had walked the line before him. Paranoia was thick in the air. She was just beginning to understand the whole twisted culture of the vamp empire.

Everything meant something. Every conversation was about power shifts, even play was about the acquisition thereof, or to show prowess and ward off an attack. The way they ate, they way they spoke, the way they made and betrayed alliances, the way they had sex - made love was too nice a phrase, this shit was carnal. Primal, beneath the polished exterior.

One by one, she sized up the targets. The first to arrive had been the Chinese ambassador. He was slim, muscular, of moderate height, and wore a very understated navy blue suit, white shirt, silk tie, and dark shades and a large insignia ring on his left hand where a wedding band might have been. He looked like he had been in his late thirties when he had turned, and he carried himself like the King of Siam. His gaze was mildly haughty but civil. His wife, however, was over the top. Damali had to give it to this female. She was all that.

Wrapped in a raw silk red sari trimmed in gold, she had a body like she could dance the seven veils and start a war. She had large, dark brown eyes set in her perfectly proportioned, beautiful face. Her jet-black hair hung in a long straight wash of silky onyx down her back all the way to her behind. Her skin looked like it had a faint hint of bronze beneath, and her cultured voice had an opalescent quality to it that practically shimmered as she spoke. She nodded before she bowed, her eyes seeming to hold a lethal secret. But her aloof air was like that of a pampered, arrogant, pedigreed cat�bored, but watching everything. Damali could feel that she was old... real old. Okay, didn't want to sit next to that one in the chopper.

But when the Transylvanian couple appeared, Damali squeezed Carlos's arm. His carriage screamed old power and entitlement. Looking down his nose with a scowl, his dark gray eyes narrowed as he whipped off his shades, his military formal cutaway tux not showing one crease. His chest was affixed with medallions and crests that boasted a long lineage. He walked with broad shoulders back as he strode down the lines with an air of superiority.

His auburn hair was swept back from his forehead in waves that reached his shoulders and as he walked he shook his hair back, his Romanesque features making him look like a cross between Czar Nicolas and Timothy Dalton. His stride proclaimed him a thoroughbred, and the power that exuded from him almost broke the staff lines as he passed each one, said, "That will do," and moved on.

Then came his mate, perhaps. Damali wasn't sure if she was his first wife, or just a lair kitten he'd brought along. She was the most genteel-looking, fragile creature she'd ever seen. Her blond hair shone in the moonlight as she stepped beside him, her eyes were blue ice, her skin as white as porcelain, and her clothes simple elegance. Just a sheath of crŠme, a whisper in the night, that made her seem more like a ghost than a vampire.

When the African master exited his helicopter, Damali almost turned around and walked back into the castle. The master looked to be maybe forty-five, tall, blue-black handsome, six foot seven if an inch. She could feel Carlos bristle as she studied the chiseled features of the master's hard-set jaw, but his profile nearly made Damali's breath catch. Have mercy.

Brother held his head so high and his back so straight that it looked like he'd been carved out of black marble. As he escorted his woman to the lines, the strength in his forearm literally rippled up the steps beneath his black linen soft-structured suit. His mate was stunning. Her long neck held her stately head high. Her skin was the color of powdered cinnamon, not a blemish to be seen, and she was swathed in trailing gold silk so fine that it nearly glowed. Her dark, beautiful, mysterious Ethiopian eyes made one wonder if they'd painted her likeness in ancient Egypt. They both had the presence of majestic lions - seeming afraid of nothing, fully sated, extremely patient, power exuding from their very fingertips.

Maybe, just maybe, if she sat next to Evelyn or the see-thru blonde, she'd be okay. The African master's mate, as did the Asian's, looked too ruthlessly cool. She felt fear skitter through her. How was Carlos going to survive in the face of this much concentrated power? He wasn't even risking a transmission in their presence. He obviously didn't want to chance them picking up on even one of his thoughts. Concealment was all at this point. The only thing at the moment she was confident in was that, like her, he'd go down swinging to the bitter end.

"Gentlemen, ladies," Master McGuire said, his voice warm and inviting as he and his wife moved down to the first landing to greet the guests. "Welcome to my territory for a rare and momentous gathering. We are honored to have the newest member of the esteemed Vampire Council as our guest, as he listens to what our topside concerns may be. This is a truly progressive move to bring the nations to the bargaining table in the spirit of detente... very much needed after the Nuit rebellion in North America, which could have destabilized the entire empire. Therefore, permit me to introduce Councilman Rivera, and his wife, Damali."


As Carlos stepped forward and moved down the stairs, Damali could feel her heart constrict. Terror ran through her, and her blood pressure spiked so high so fast that her ears rang. Shit, they could dust her baby right here in the yard, old mob style, and keep right on with the night's festivities. She held Carlos's arm with grace, however, pasted on her best smile, and followed his lead.

"Gentlemen, ladies," Carlos said, so cool that you could see condensation from his breath in the air, "thank you for meeting with me. Allow me to present my wife, Damali Richards, the former millennium Neteru."

The fact that they appeared stunned for a moment helped her performance. They'd probably assumed she was captured, or was another female vamp casting the illusion of the Neteru. But that she'd been introduced as the former Neteru was clearly blowing their minds. However, as old vamps, their reaction was only a millisecond of doubt shadowing their faces, with slight nods of respect in Carlos's direction, before their expressions became stoic again. It gave her a sample of just how in control they were.

Damali glanced at Carlos, then she nodded, smiled, and waited as McGuire positioned himself at Carlos's left side. She knew his move meant something, and she watched him begin to make individual introductions, noting who was presented in which order.

"Master Sheng Xe, and his lovely wife, Lai, Councilman and Mistress Rivera."

The Asian diplomat bowed, his wife followed suit. They both raked Carlos and Damali with an indecipherable look then moved up the stairs and into the castle behind the butler without a word.

"Master Gustav Tetrosky, and his lovely wife, Kiersten."

Initially, this master only nodded, while his wife glanced at Damali, up and down with absolute boredom. Then to Damali's dismay, he tilted his head and held her gaze a moment longer than was appropriate. A new wave of panic brought her breathing to a halt as the master glanced at Carlos, reached for Damali's hand, and brought it to his lips.

"Councilman Rivera, we are honored that you have called this meeting. Your wife is simply ravishing."

Baby please, don't! Damali's mind screamed at Carlos.

"The honor is mine, sir," Carlos said, so smoothly his words slid over the Transylvanian like silk. "I am glad that you could pull away from the pressing matters in your region so that we could get to know each other."

The Transylvanian master smiled, tugged his wife's elbow gently, and left the stairs with a nod.

Damali wasn't sure when she'd begun breathing again. But she was so glad that she only had one more introduction to go. For some reason, this one worried her the most, perhaps because the master was so much larger in size than Carlos and she could feel his ruthless edge in his energy as he neared them. Or maybe it was because she'd had dealings with brothers from 'round the way, and this guy seemed most familiar, diplomat status notwithstanding. Then again, maybe it was because this one had made her man bristle?

"Master Amin, and his lovely wife Alani."

He looked at Carlos and smiled, his head tilting as he assessed Damali, then he dipped into a slight bow to reach for her hand. "Legendary huntress," he said, so sexy and with such authority that her hand quivered, "and Councilman, the pleasure is ours, to be sure."

Master Amin held her hand a bit longer than was appropriate, and she felt a swift mental invasion push inside her and spread outward to end in a sensual sweep over the entire surface of her skin. Bold! She spied Carlos from her peripheral vision. He was icy cool. She thought she'd pass out when Amin let her see a hint of fang, then drew back and allowed her hand to slowly fall away from his. An outright seduction attempt, in front of all the other masters, and Carlos - a councilman? African men were deep, dead or alive!

Little flecks of light danced across her vision; too much adrenaline had hit her system all at once. The African master's wife followed her husband up the stairs, but glanced back at Damali so cool, so calm, that Damali almost reached up to feel her throat to see if it had been cut. Oh, yeah, she was definitely not sitting next to her.

"Well," the Aussie said too enthusiastically. "I think that went rather well, given the circumstances." He swallowed away a smile and sighed. "After everyone has checked their bags, changed clothes, and consumed the light refreshments in their rooms, we'll begin the hunt."

Damali could feel the blood drain from her face... three new guests, diplomat status... light refreshments... oh, no, no, no, no, not - not three babies!

Her eyes wide, she looked at Carlos.

"How's this transport thing work?" Carlos muttered, not answering her unspoken question.

Damali studied his countenance. Her man had done the steely jaw, give them the no-fear grit thing, but was rattled beyond words. She could tell. But the babies!

Too late, if that's what they've been served. They've been upstairs now for ten minutes.

The response was so low that she almost didn't catch it.

"We take choppers to the Heartland, and there we dismount and each get a vehicle, driver, and ammo. The pilots will drop a coupla carcasses and fire off a flare, then we wait until one of the roos goes for the body, and the chase is on to bring the bastard down," McGuire said, oblivious to their exchange.

"Are we taking five choppers?" Damali said, trying to act like she wasn't worried any longer, and needing to talk about the next big concern she had, namely, being set up in a chopper without her blade.

"Oh, don't worry," Evelyn said, placing a consoling hand on Damali's shoulder. "They're all such bitches when you first meet them, but they do warm up after they get to know you. They are probably a little jealous that you're so young and got made by a councilman. You know how this goes."

Yeah. Whateva. These weren't some jealous chickens from around the way.

"I am not traveling during the hunt with a group of women who disrespect me," Damali said, her hands going to her hips. "It's just not done where I come from."

"If the lady wants to fly solo after you're on the ground, then I see no worries." McGuire turned to Damali, his eyes watery as he wiped his nose with the back of his hand, obviously so high he'd forgotten about his breast-pocket handkerchief. "Usually the ladies all like to ride together so they can root for the guys, that's all Evie meant. She wants you to feel included, but like I told you before, love, whatever you want... all you have to do is ask, and it's so."

The fact that this master had called her hue in front of Carlos�which was waaay out of order, and was sniffing like a cokehead, let her know immediately that her stress from the introductions had spiked the air. Shit. But Carlos was cool, hadn't even twitched a muscle. It made her wonder what he was thinking. Was brother so pissed off that he was just gonna go out in a blaze of glory and try to whack these mugs one by one on the ground, or was he gonna be strategic? That was the important question.

"Baby, what do you think?" Damali asked. If he said, yes, go with the ladies, then he sensed no threat. If he said, no, go solo, then she'd know that there was serious trouble brewing.

"I think you should do what makes you feel most comfortable, honey." Carlos's voice was even, and he didn't even look at her as he spoke. "McGuire will accommodate your choice."

He then turned and walked up the steps. She stared at Carlos's back in pure disbelief as McGuire put an arm over Evelyn's shoulders and threaded another arm around her waist. She moved with the Aussie master who held her in to him tightly. Slack-jawed, she couldn't even speak as she walked up the steps. Nor did she push away the very amorous male whose nose and fangs were just a bit too close to her hair, almost nuzzling it. His hand caressed her waist. Her thoughts were on Carlos's unreadable expression when the introductions had been made. Did he pick up any tracer that would lead them to the key?

"Did anyone ever tell you that you smell so damned good, Mistress Rivera?"

Damali kept walking.

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