Hey! If you haven’t read book 1 then STOP NOW! I don’t want you to be hit by spoilers. If you’re up to date with the series then whoot! Get your sneak peek on!
The drive to the House of Vitae was mostly a silent one, not for want of trying on my part, mind you, but Drayton was determined to keep conversation limited. If I’d known helping him push back his demon would result in this distance, I would have … still done it, damn it. The atmosphere was strained. The memory of what had happened in the dungeons hung between us. I’d seen him stripped bare, out of control. I’d seen the darkest part of him, and although he was grateful for my help—he’d said as much—there was obviously a part of him that was ashamed. Maybe it was time to open up and talk about it? Just push the issue and clear the air instead of tiptoeing around the subject. I slid a quick glance his way. His jaw was tense, and his eyes were on the road in total focus; a little too much focus, if you asked me. Yeah, maybe talking about stuff could wait.
It was strange having my shields partially down, but Drayton had made it clear that going to visit the Sanguinata reeking of human was a bad idea. Besides, it was best to keep the number of people who knew about my shielding ability to the minimum. Ambrosius’s words echoed in my ears, his assertion that I controlled the hunger whether the shields were up or down. He’d been silent since the Arachne’s attack underground. Was it strange that I missed his voice in my head?
A huge set of iron gates came into view with the words Domus Vitae emblazoned across a crest on their arch. The crest was a shield depicting a serpent and a sword. Neat script reading perpetua vita aeterna et sapientia ran along a plaque under the crest.
“Life everlasting and wisdom eternal.” How the heck did I know that?
Drayton shot me a curious glance. “You learned Latin?”
I shook my head. “No. I didn’t.”
The gates swung soundlessly inward with the help of two silent, stoic-faced guards. They stood back, stiff and distant in their purple livery, as we drove through the gates.
“We’re expected,” Drake explained. “I called ahead.”
“You have the warrant, right?”
He nodded tightly. “I do, but they don’t know that. This is a social call.” He slid a warning glance my way.
Bane had made it clear that we were to do this one by the book. “Drayton, Bane said—”
“Look, let me just try it my way first, okay?”
I blew out a breath. It was impossible to make a valid argument with so little information on the Sanguinata or this dude, Dorian. There was no choice but to follow Drayton’s lead. I was a newbie to the Protectorate, and although Bane had released me for patrol, this was still meant as an observational learning exercise.
Drayton steered the Rover through the entrance and down a neat cement pathway bordered by clean, crisply kept gardens. The roses looked black and gray in the moonlight, but they grew here in abundance. The fact that any plant life grew in Midnight was still a mind boggle, but the magic of Arcadia was strongest in this district, whether due to the concentration of nephs or the ministrations of the Order of Merlin, who knew. It just was.
The driveway seemed to stretch forever. And were we on an incline? “How much farther is the house?”
Drayton’s lips lifted in a wry smile. “The house is just over this rise.”
What was with the emphasis on the word house? We reached the top of the rise, and my question was answered. House of Vitae was no house; it was a freaking castle—a castle with a huge-arse moat around it.
“Right?” Drayton snorted. “The Sanguinata have some serious money and clout in the city. We do not want to piss them off.”
Good to know.
We hit the bottom of the rise, and Drayton sped up a bit down the long stretch of road leading up to the bridge spanning the moat. Water gleamed in the silvery rays of the moon. A dark shape cut through it, slipped under the bridge, and came out on the other side.
I craned my neck to try and get a better look at it, but it dove underwater. “What the heck was that?”
“Dorian’s little pet.”
“I would not call that little.”
“Yeah, Mitch has grown a little since I was last here.”
“That’s what Dorian calls it.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
We slid under the archway into a stone courtyard, and Drayton parked the car. Balustrades depicting beautiful women and men in poses of a sexual nature dotted the pretty quad, and ivy crawled up the stone walls as if desperate to reach for the moon. A stone archway and a brick wall cut off the courtyard from the main castle.
We exited the vehicle and waited. Long minutes passed, and then the echo of boots filled the courtyard.
“That’ll be Dorian’s butler, Jeffery,” Drayton said.
How many times had Drayton visited the Sanguinata, and why? A slender, somber man appeared under the arch. He stopped and pressed his heels together. “Please, do follow me.”
He led us through the arch and a set of thick, wooden double doors into a brightly lit stone entranceway. Unlike the mansion, the castle was spotless and modern inside. Someone had gone to a whole lot of trouble to get this place in order. The walls had been plastered and hung with pretty landscapes and portraits of severe, beautiful people. The floors were carpeted in thick pile, muffling our footsteps as we slipped through corridors and up stairs. So many little details to take in, but my attention was on the exits—the windows that were too high up, and the doors that seemed to be locked. As we took twists and turns, my mind made a mental map in case we should need to make a hasty escape. Drayton seemed familiar with the castle, relaxed even, but I knew enough about Drayton to know how easily he could slip in and out of the chilled persona he liked to don. And with my shields semi-down, the tension buzzing beneath his mask was static against my skin.
We stepped onto a foyer on the third floor. Double doors again, this time cream with ornate brass handles, barred the way. Jeffery walked briskly toward them and flung them open.
The hum of voices and the tinkle of music drifted out to greet us, followed closely by the scent of roasted meat and something else, something coppery and tangy.
“Master, your guests have arrived.” The butler bowed and then ushered us into the room. The chamber was long, and we entered at one end. On either side were two long banquet tables occupied by nephs—Sanguinata, no doubt. Gold, cream, and crimson were the themes here, and no windows, it seemed, unless they were hidden behind the thick velvet drapes that spanned the length of the wall to our right. Heavily made-up humans dressed in flimsy garments worked the tables, serving and … Wait, was that a Sanguinata filling her wine glass from that human’s wrist?
“Stop staring,” Drayton whisper-hissed.
Tearing my gaze from the display, I focused on the cream tiled walkway that cut between the tables. It led to a man lounging on what looked like a mini throne. It was even set on a dais. He was blond and powerfully built, which he obviously liked to show off, as he wasn’t wearing a shirt. His eight-pack was on display, and his bare feet were propped up on a cushy footstool. A small table sporting a bowl of fruit was placed within reach. A pale, ornately-dressed woman sat on a chair to his right, and a human female sat on the floor by his throne. She was dressed almost indecently in a see-through nightgown. Her feet were also bare, and gooseflesh peppered her skin. Her hair was clean and shiny, though—the only part of her that looked healthy. Other than that, she looked like she was about to topple onto her face. Wait, what was that red pipe peeking out from under her hair?
“Drayton, how good to see you,” Dorian said. “It has been too long.”
“Indeed.” Drayton inclined his head. “How have you been?”
“Oh, you know, surviving.” He lifted something to his lips, the red pipe … Not a pipe, a fucking straw.
He sucked on it and waved us forward. Taking my cue from Drayton, I walked closer to the imposing Sanguinata, coming to a halt about three meters away.
The human at Dorian’s feet groaned, part in protest, part in ecstasy. Dorian ran a hand over her head. Her eyes rolled upward, and then her lids drooped. She slumped against his thighs. His lips turned down in disgust, and he jostled his leg, sending her toppling to the floor.
My chest tightened and I took a step forward. Drayton gripped my arm and squeezed in warning.
“I despair,” Dorian drawled. “If we don’t win the games this year, I fear we shall all starve.”
The gathered Sanguinata chuckled, but the sound was more polite than genuine. As if laughter was the expected reaction. I thought they needed the blood to survive due to a deficiency, not to use as a food source. I tried to catch Drayton’s eye, but he was resolutely fixated on Dorian.
Dorian smiled, but the action was cold and devoid of any real emotion. “Jeffery, please take this one away and bring me a fresh one.”
He said it like he was asking for a refill on a cocktail. The butler reappeared as if by magic, which, who knew, it may just have been. He gathered the human into his arms without effort. She probably didn’t weigh more than a child. Blood trailed from the tube, spattering the floor as he carried her from the room.
My stomach turned.
What the fuck?
The rest of the Sanguinata continued with their meals, sipping crimson fluid from crystal cut glass. Blood … They were drinking blood, probably taken from the humans serving them. Why had I thought that humans donated blood and that was that? I’d never expected them to be treated like blood bags, to be fed off directly.
“Don’t worry, little neph,” Dorian said. “We do not bite.”
I blinked at him. He was talking to me. “You don’t?”
He shrugged. “Of course not. That would be against the district laws.”
Someone to my left snickered.
Dorian was lying.
Beside me, Drayton tensed. Why wasn’t he saying anything?
“So, what is the real reason for your visit, Drayton?” Dorian leaned forward, plucked a grape off the table, and popped it into his mouth. He chewed slowly. “Tell me, what is it I can help you with?”
God, I wanted to smash the smarmy look off his beautiful face.
Drayton sighed and held up his hands. “You got me, Dorian. Can’t get anything past you. But it’s actually something I was hoping to help you with. Give you a heads-up.”
“Oh, really?” Dorian sat up a little straighter. “Information, eh? We love information, don’t we?” He transferred his attention to his court, and a hearty murmur of agreement skittered across the gathered. “Go on.”
Drayton winced. “It seems like one of your Sanguinata has been attempting to recruit humans.”
Something dark flitted across Dorian’s face, but it was gone too quickly, replaced by an appropriate expression of concern. “No.” He placed a hand on his heart. “That cannot be true. One of mine would never break the law in such a blatant way, especially when we know what’s at stake if we do.”
He was lying. Again. It dripped from his voice and settled around him like a bad smell. With my shields partially down, it was easy to pick up on the untruth. Drayton tensed. Had he sensed it too?
“Well, it’s happening,” Drayton said. His tone remained easy and light. “We spotted him at The Deep just over a week ago.”
“A week?” Dorian’s brows shot up. “And you leave it till now to come and see me.”
“We had another case to deal with that couldn’t wait.”
“Ah, yes. The underground tunnels and the monstrous spiders.”
Man, news got around quick in Midnight.
“So, tell me. What did this lawbreaking Sanguinata look like? You know most of my men. Is it someone here?” He waved an arm to encompass the room. “Point him out and I shall read his memories.
They could do that?
Drayton turned to me. “Serenity?”
“You didn’t personally see the lawbreaker?” Dorian said. He focused his attention on me. “Your colleague did. The new member of your team.” He smiled, flashing fang. But while Bane’s fangs gave me delicious shivers, his just turned my stomach.
“Yeah, I saw him.” I lifted my chin. “I can identify him too.”
I swept my gaze over the Sanguinata to my left and to my right, searching each face for the one that was etched in my mind. My brain was funny that way, capturing details like a photograph when I needed it to and, sometimes, even when I didn’t.
Damn it, the culprit wasn’t present. “He’s not here.”
Dorian stuck out his bottom lip in mock sorrow. “In the absence of a positive identification, I’m afraid all I can do is reinforce the rules at our next meet. Give the house a talking to.”
“And when is the next meet?” Drayton asked evenly.
Dorian’s lips twitched in amusement. He ducked his head and studied his nails. “The night before the games.”
This was all a joke to him. My face heated in indignation. The fucker had no intention of doing anything to stop the illegal recruitment. Drayton had been right about being able to get him to talk without use of a warrant, but not using the warrant had also given him a sense of security. He was toying with us, thinking there was nothing more we could do. Drayton had asked me to take a back seat on this one, but there was no way I was letting that smarmy fucker get away with breaking the law. Dorian deserved a rude awakening.
I ripped the warrant from Drayton’s back pocket and fanned myself with it. “Sorry, not good enough. I suggest you call a meet immediately. Now. Right here, so I can find the perpetrator and you can punish him.”
Dorian’s eyes narrowed and his lip curled. “What is the meaning of this?”
I unfolded the paper. “Oh, this?” I widened my eyes as if surprised to see the warrant in my hand. “This is a warrant giving us authority to question everyone we see and search the premises in an attempt to locate the lawbreaker.”
“Serenity…” Drayton’s tone was laced with warning.
“No, Drayton. We tried it your way, but this isn’t a social call. This is official business.” I crossed my arms. “I suggest you cooperate, Dorian. You wouldn’t want a copy of this warrant to find its way to the House of Mort, would you?” I tapped my chin. “Wouldn’t that mean forfeiting the games this year?”
Dorian’s already pale expression paled even further, and the gathered broke out into excited whispers.
Dorian slumped back in his seat and waved a hand in my direction. “There is no need for a meet. I may have an inkling who the perpetrator is. He will be reprimanded.”
His word wasn’t going to cut it with me. “Maybe we should—”
“Enough!” Drayton snapped, his eyes blazing down on me. He slowly turned his head to look at Dorian. “Thank you. Your assistance in this matter is very much appreciated. This will stay between us. I give you my word.”
Dorian pinched the bridge of his nose, doing a great impression of someone stricken by remorse. “This is most embarrassing, highly irregular, but you have no idea how difficult the past two years have been for our kind. There will always be weak links in the chain, but please trust they will be purged.”
Drayton smiled tightly. “And that is all we ask. Best of luck with the games.” He gripped my hand, a sign that we should leave, but the doors behind us opened and a whirlwind of kicking and screaming was dragged into the room.
Dorian sat up straight, his eyes lighting up at the sight of the golden-haired female who was flinging every cuss word she could muster into the air.
“No. Let me go. I want to go home. Let me go!” She thrashed and bucked in Jeffery’s arms.
I caught a glimpse of her face—the curve of her jaw and the arch of her brow. Jesse?
No, it wasn’t my sister, just someone who looked similar.
Jeffery, the butler, dropped her on the ground by Dorian, and she was on her feet in a second, her arm winding back to strike the lord.
“Stop!” Dorian’s voice was a whiplash command.
The woman’s hand halted an inch away from his face. “I fucking hate you. I hate you all. Let me go. I don’t want to do this. This isn’t what I signed up for. It isn’t what any of us signed up for. You can’t just keep us here.”
Her hand dropped to her side. Dorian’s thin lips curled in a cruel smile, and a moan rippled across the room, almost sexual in nature. Something was about to happen. The anticipation was a buzz in the air. Dorian turned the woman to face us, gently swiping her hair away from her neck. His tongue flicked out to moisten his lips, and his lips peeled back. There was something marring her creamy skin.
“Bite marks.” My eyes widened.
Dorian’s lips dropped over his fangs, hiding them from view. “Jeffery, you fool, you forgot the needle and drip.”
Jeffery inclined his head and hurried from the room.
The woman’s body trembled with impotent fury, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Her body was locked in stasis by Dorian’s command, but her gaze dragged to me. Rage and imploration mingled to stab at my heart. Fuck this shit.
“Let her go, Dorian.” The words dropped from my lips like ice chips.
Dorian’s jaw tensed. “Excuse me? You dare to order me?”
There it was, that primal edge that had been missing from this encounter all along, buried under a persona of civility—the lethal glint in his dark eyes, the pinprick of crimson that spoke of unbridled rage and insanity.
“This human belongs to my house. She belongs to me.” His cultured tone had slipped into something guttural.
“Serenity,” Drayton said. “He’s right. She agreed to this. She signed a contract.”
I rounded on him. “Agreed to being bitten? To being used as a walking fucking blood bag? You do see the bite marks, don’t you?” I waved a hand toward the servers. “You do see what the fuck is happening here, don’t you? Donating blood is one thing, but this … This is fucking insane.”
Drayton’s jaw flexed. “I’m sure Dorian has addressed the oversight with regards to the biting.”
The fuck was his problem? Why was he covering for this piece of shit?
Dorian inclined his head. “Of course.”
The woman’s eyes widened.
My pulse hammered in my throat with the need to hurt someone. “How about you let her speak for herself?”
Dorian stepped away from the woman and padded toward me, a panther on the prowl.
Drayton took a step forward to shield me. “We’re leaving. Now.”
Dorian ignored him and kept his gaze fixed on me. “We bid for what we want here. We win and we get to reap. It’s the way of Midnight. Everything is a gamble. I suggest you educate yourself on the ways of Midnight before you get hurt.”
Drayton’s control snapped. “Do not threaten her, Dorian.”
Dorian blinked in surprise. “Or what, Drayton? You’ll fuck me to death?”
The gathered broke into laughter—genuine this time—and Drayton bristled. His hands curled into fists. Shit. As much as I despised Dorian, as much as I wanted to punch his face in, we were in the lion’s den. Two nephs surrounded by at least fifty or sixty Sanguinata.
It was my turn to grab Drayton’s arm. “Let’s jet.”
We turned toward the door.
I spun to face the woman, who, by sheer force of will, had broken Dorian’s compulsion. She fell to the ground, exhausted, her hand reaching for me. “Please don’t leave me here with them.”
She was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. Somebody loved her just as I loved Jesse. I’d thought the winged were bad, but this … This was something else. Rage bubbled up inside me, and my mouth developed a mind of its own.
I approached Dorian, not caring that he was a head and a half taller than me, that his fangs could tear me to shreds, or that we were in his territory at his mercy. Yeah, my mouth didn’t give a shit about that. “You like to gamble, huh? Like to bid and play to win?”
Dorian cocked his head, intrigued. “You want to play, little neph?”
I licked my lips. What the heck was I doing? But the human’s eyes had lit up with hope, and there was no going back now.
“Yeah, I want to play.”
He crossed his arms. “I’m listening.”
“Let me take part in your house games. I win, and every human gets the option to leave if they want.”
“Serenity, no,” Drayton cried.
A tray or something metallic clattered to the floor to my left. I kept my gaze on Dorian, my muscles vibrating with adrenaline. “Unless you’re scared your big, bad Sanguinata players will lose to a girl.” I batted my eyelashes. “I mean, they’ve already lost to the Lupin two years in a row. Maybe you’re just not that good.”
His lips twisted in amusement, and some of my bravado evaporated. What did he have to be cocky about?
“Do you even know what the games are, little neph?” Dorian asked.
Shit. No one had filled me in on the details, but there was no way I was telling smug-arse that. “Of course I know what they are.”
“Damn it, Serenity,” Drayton snapped.
“Hush!” Dorian replied. “Let her speak. She has fire. I like that in a woman.”
Ew. I crossed my arms under my breasts. “Do we have a deal?”
Dorian’s lips peeled back, exposing lethal fangs. It wasn’t a snarl, it was more of a … a come-on? “You have a deal, neph. But I have a condition of my own.”
My mouth was suddenly dry as a subconscious part of my mind picked up on a threat I’d failed to consciously recognize. I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Go on.”
He leaned in so his sweet, coppery breath wafted into my face. “If you lose, you give yourself to me.”
“Serenity, no.” Drayton yanked me toward him. “Stop this. Stop it now.”
But I couldn’t, not with all those eyes on me—the serving girls and boys with their hearts filled with the possibility of freedom.
I gently extricated my arm from Drayton’s grasp and turned back to Dorian. “If I lose, you can do what you like with me. If I win, you let go of every human who wishes to leave, and you change the house recruitment contracts to allow future recruited humans to leave if they wish.”
Dorian smiled smugly, and my hands itched to slap him.
Time to take a step away from temptation. “We have a deal?”
“Oh, yes, neph. We have a deal.”
I hope you enjoyed the peek. Only eight days left peeps! Tick Tock.