I let Micah and Nathaniel each take an arm. Yeah, I couldn't get to my weapons fast, but what was waiting for me in the next room wasn't a problem that guns and knives could solve. It was a problem that only diplomacy, witty banter, and sly seduction could maneuver us through. We were so screwed without Jean-Claude and Asher.
THE ROOM WAS all gold and white and silver from the drapes to the couch, the love seat, and the two chairs framing the empty white brick of the fireplace. It looked denuded without the picture of Jean-Claude, Asher, and their lost love, Julianna. A picture painted about five hundred years before I was born. Yeah, the wall looked bare, but the room didn't. The room seemed positively drowning in vamps and shapeshifters. I really did not want to play hostess without Jean-Claude. Really, really didn't.
Stepping into the room I gave them the smile I'd learned at work for clients. The smile that was bright and shiny, and only reached my eyes if I pushed hard. I pushed hard, but my hands were literally clutching at Micah and Nathaniel, as if they were the last pieces of wood in the ocean. I finally realized that I was scared. Scared of what? Polite banter, cocktail party talk? Surely not. I mean, no one here was going to try to kill me. Usually if no one tried to kill me, or I didn't have to kill anyone else, it was a good night. So why the major case of nerves?
Micah was introducing us, while I tried to get a handle on this sudden outbreak of rabid shyness. It wasn't like me. I didn't like small talk and parties with strangers, but I wasn't shy.
Clay and Graham took up their posts at our backs. There were more of our guards scattered around the room, but none of them could help us with the part that was scaring me.
Micah leaned in and whispered, "Anita."
I did the long blink, the one that means I'm thinking really hard, and trying not to show it. You have to know what it is to spot it, honest. "Welcome to St. Louis, and I hope our hospitality will be better from this moment on." There, that wasn't horrible. Point for me.
One of the vamps came forward smiling. He wasn't much taller than me, but broad enough through the shoulders that he looked almost misshapen. The way some short bodybuilders do in suits. "We are all Masters of the City here, Ms. Blake; we all know that some business cannot wait for niceties."
He just stood there, waiting, smiling, pleasant. It was my turn to prove that we weren't country bumpkins. To prove that we did indeed know the niceties. I got myself loose from Micah and Nathaniel. I stood on my own two feet and offered him my hand. "Welcome, Augustine, Master of the City of Chicago." Jean-Claude had described everyone to me, so at least I was pretty sure who I was talking to. That was all I was sure about.
Most master vamps tried to be scary, or mysterious, or sexy. This one smiled wide enough to flash fangs, and said, "Auggie. My friends call me Auggie." His hair was short, blond, but still had lots of small, stylized curls to it. The haircut didn't match the suit and the approach.
He took my offered hand gently in his, as if I were too delicate to touch. Some muscular men do that. Usually it bugged me, but tonight I was okay with it. He turned my hand over and began to raise my wrist to his mouth. I did not raise my own arm. You end up hitting people in the face when you do that. I'd been practicing with Jean-Claude and Asher. My hand had to sit passive in his as he raised my wrist toward his mouth. He was a Master of the City and I was just a human servant. If Jean-Claude had been here, it would have been Auggie offering up his wrist, but I was officially outranked, so I got to offer up.
He bowed over my wrist, and raised his eyes to me at the same time. His eyes were a gray so dark they were almost black. But they were just eyes, and I could meet them. Most masters aren't used to humans doing that. Auggie's eyes widened at it, and I think my smile slipped from welcoming to just a little bit arrogant. That I could meet his eyes with impunity made me feel better, more myself.
His lips curled into a close, secretive smile, not at all the wide grin he'd greeted me with. He laid his lips against my wrist, where the blood runs shallow below the skin. Even then it was just lips on skin, then he kissed my wrist, and a little jolt of power went through my body. It tightened things low and intimate in my body. Tightened them so quick and hard that it caught my breath, and made me stumble.
I felt movement at my back, but I shook my head. My voice was breathy, but I said, "No, I'm all right. It's okay." I felt rather than saw everyone pull back. I had eyes only for the vampire still hovering over my wrist. I didn't pull away from him. I looked into his eyes, until I saw that they were like the sky when it goes black, just before it falls down and destroys everything you own. But I wasn't just a human servant gaining all my power through my ties to Jean-Claude. I'd come to him with partial immunity to vampire gaze, and what I did next was my power, my magic. Necromancy.
I put a little bit of power down my hand, into his skin, like you'd push someone away who'd invaded your space. I told him, metaphysically, Back off.
He pulled his hand away, dropped that strange gray gaze. His breath came out in a sharp sound. "I apologize if my little push of power caused you discomfort, but I am trying to behave myself, Ms. Blake. Forcing me to show more of my power might not be wise."
He raised his face as he finished, gave me a glimpse of a face that was no longer boyishly handsome, or cute, in an ordinary sort of way. Now his face was simply beautiful. The bone structure more delicate than it had looked a moment ago. The eyes were rimmed with a lace of dark lashes. If I hadn't spent the last few years staring into Jean-Claude's lashes, I'd have said they were the prettiest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a man. Only the color of his eyes remained unchanged. That extraordinary charcoal gray with its shades of black.
I stepped back enough to look him up and down. His body was the same, and not. He was still short, for a man, but the suit fit him better. I'd gone suit shopping with enough men to know expensive when I saw it. It had been made for his body, and when a short man lifts enough weights to get an upper body that broad, it needs to be made to fit. But the suit looked good now, sleek and stylish, rather than fitting oddly.
He'd been using mind games to appear less beautiful and more ordinary. All I'd meant to do was stop him from doing what amounted to metaphysical foreplay. What I'd done instead was strip him of his camouflage.
I shook my head. "I've seen vamps waste energy to make themselves scarier, but never to appear ordinary."
"Yes," a woman's voice said, "why would you hide so much of yourself, Augustine?" I looked at the woman who went with the voice. She sat on the white love seat, tucked in very close to the only other vamp in the room who made my skin tighten when I met his eyes. The man was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and handsome in an ordinary sort of way. After looking into Augustine's face, it wasn't really fair to compare. But I knew who he had to be.
"Welcome, Samuel, Master of the City of Cape Cod. As Jean-Claude's human servant I welcome you and yours to St. Louis."
He stood, and he hadn't had to. He could have made me come to him. His hair was a dark, dark brunette, almost black, but I'd spent too many years staring at my own hair to mistake it for true black. The careless fall of short curls reminded me of Clay's hair. Cut well, but not fussed with. He was taller than Nathaniel, but not by much, maybe five-seven tops. He looked neat and trim, well-built but not obviously muscular in a simple black suit. He wore a nice green T-shirt underneath it. If Jean-Claude had dressed him, it would have been silk, and closer fitting. The T-shirt, like the suit, hinted, but hid more than it showed. A thin gold chain graced the neck of the shirt. On the end of the chain was a very old coin set in more gold. The coin was one of those ancient pieces they find in shipwrecks sometimes. Or maybe the shipwreck imagery came because I knew what his animal to call was: mermaids. No, really, mermaids. Samuel was unique among now-living vamps in his animal to call.
His wife was one. The man and woman standing behind the love seat had to be merpeople, too. I'd never actually met any of the sea people before.
I fought the urge to look away from the vampire in front of me. I mean, I'd seen vamps, but mermaids, that was new. I offered Samuel my hand. He took it more solidly than Auggie had, like he'd shake hands well. Then he raised my wrist to his mouth. Like Auggie, he rolled his eyes up to gaze at me as he did it. Samuel's eyes were hazel, pale brown with an edge of grayish green around the pupil. The green shirt brought out more of the green, so his eyes were almost an olive green, but they were definitely hazel, not true green. But then I had high standards for true-green eyes.