THE STAIRS ENDED in a small room with a door at the other end of it. The door was heavy wood and metal like the door to a dungeon, and in front of that door stood Clay, werewolf and bodyguard. He came toward us, hurrying, which wasn't good. The look on his face wasn't good either. He looked worried.
Graham was all business, the mantle of bodyguardness sliding over him so that that was all that was left. When he actually concentrated on business instead of trying to get into my pants, he was one of the best of the wolves for bodyguard duty. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Clay shook his head. "Jean-Claude isn't with you?" His tone of voice made it half question.
"No," Graham said.
"What's wrong?" I asked, thinking maybe if we kept asking the question he'd answer it.
"Nothing." He looked at me, and smiled an apology. "Nothing except that we've got a room full of guests and no hosts. It's just me and the four other bodyguards in the room. We aren't even allowed to offer refreshments without one of the dominants being present."
"Are you this worried because you think we're being bad hosts?" Micah asked.
Clay seemed to think about it, then nodded. He did that apologetic smile again. "Yeah, I guess I am."
Clay was as tall as Graham, but his hair was blond, curly, and careless. Where Graham took time and attention with his appearance, Clay just didn't seem to care. He wasn't sloppy, just comfortable. He was wearing the same black-on-black outfit, but he'd put black jogging shoes with his slacks, not dress shoes. He looked good, but a little uncomfortable out of his jeans. I sympathized.
"Stupid," he said, "but yeah, I think the evening is starting off badly. I mean, Jean-Claude gets a message and has to run out. The two Masters of the City are all right so far, but the two women are sniping at each other. The muscle, or food, or whatever they are, just stands around looking grim, or pouty-seductive. It has the feel of something that could go south if we don't have someone to help keep it friendly."
I took that last seriously. Clay worked security at Guilty Pleasures, and he was good at spotting trouble before it got started. It made him invaluable at the club.
"Exactly what did Meng Die do to make Asher send for Jean-Claude tonight of all nights?" I asked.
He sighed. "I'm not a hundred percent sure, but it had to be bad or Asher wouldn't have called him away from the other masters."
I could have opened the vampire marks between us and found out what Jean-Claude was doing, but he'd warned me against doing that with new vamps in town. One, we were trying to hide some of my powers under the proverbial basket; two, Jean-Claude wasn't a hundred percent certain that some of the Masters of the City might not be able to listen in to such communications. His phrase: such communications. So, unless it was a true emergency, no mind-to-mind communication until everyone left town.
Did he need my help? No. Not against Meng Die. She was mean, and powerful, but not that powerful. I also trusted her to be smarter than to start shit bad enough that the only penalty would be death. She was like most of the old vamps, a survivor at heart.
Micah was looking at me, almost like he'd followed my line of reasoning. Out loud he said, "Jean-Claude and Asher can handle it."
"You didn't read my mind," I said.
He smiled, that smile that made him seem so gentle. "I read your face."
He raised his eyebrows, and shrugged, as if, sorry.
Nathaniel said, "How can both of you still be wanting to be Meng Die's pomme? She's not dependable."
Graham laughed, a loud abrupt sound that almost startled. "Dependable. I don't want to be her pomme because she's dependable. I want to be her pomme because we are f**king amazing together."
Clay shrugged. "I love her, at least I thought I did."
"You don't sound very sure," Nathaniel said.
"Jean-Claude made us both bunk over with you and Anita a couple of times. Meng-Die was upset, but not that upset. I thought it was because she knew that we'd be back. That I cared about her enough not to be lured away. Then Requiem turned her down because he thought that was why Anita wouldn't take him as her next pomme de sang." Clay's face showed something close to pain. "She went ballistic. Jean-Claude rips us out of her bed, forces us to sleep with you, and she's cool about it. Losing Requiem bothered her, more than losing us."
I watched the look in his pale eyes. That had hurt him. He really did care for her. Damn. "Some women, especially of Belle Morte's line, seem to take rejection really badly. You guys had no choice. Jean-Claude said bunk over, and you had to do it. Requiem chose to leave her. That cuts a certain type of woman, or man, real deep."
Clay put those puzzled, pain-filled eyes on me. "You mean it hurt her pride."
I nodded. "Trust me, most master vamps have more than their share."
He shook his head. "I know you're trying to make me feel better, Anita, but what you've just said is that her hurt pride means more to her than whatever she feels for me. Thanks for trying to make me feel better."
"But I failed miserably," I said.
He actually touched me voluntarily, rare for Clay lately; he squeezed my shoulder, very guy. "Yeah, you really suck at this whole comfort thing, but thanks."
He had never been very handsy, but after he bunked over and felt the ardeur rise in the bed, he'd touched me only when he absolutely had to. I think he was afraid to touch me. The hints of the ardeur made Graham chase me harder. The same kind of hints scared Clay. One man's heaven, another man's hell.
"We should introduce ourselves to our guests," Micah said, "and you need to change shoes."
I sighed. "So we're on our own for this little cocktail party." I knelt down, careful of my hose on the stone floor, and took off the jogging shoes.
"I'm afraid so," Clay said.
"Great, just great." I stood up and let Nathaniel slip the first high heel on, then Micah balanced me while Nathaniel did the other shoe. Four-inch heels, what had I been thinking? I never did like cocktail party talk, but that wasn't the problem this time. I could fake small talk if I had to. The problem was that the two masters in the other room had brought along candidates to be my new pomme de sang.
It was my own damn fault. I hadn't chosen from any of the local talent. I had also expressed concern about bringing this many Masters of the City into our territory. It just didn't sound safe to me. So Elinore, one of our new British vamps, had an idea. A wonderfully, awful idea. Since Masters of the City were coming from all over the United States, why didn't we have a sort of contest? The masters could bring some candidates for my new pomme de sang.
I'd said no. In fact, I'd said hell no, but Jean-Claude had pointed out that I could simply turn them all down. That the chances of my finding someone I liked well enough to keep were slim. He had a point. And Elinore was right, it was a way to get all the masters to behave themselves while they were visiting us. I mean, if you're looking at what amounts to your new inlaws, you mind your manners. I couldn't argue with the reasoning, but it meant that I felt like a piece of prize beef. Or would that be cheesecake?
Why was I such a prize? Because I was Jean-Claude's human servant and he was the first American master to become his own sourdre de sang, fountain of blood. Basically he'd hit the power curve where he was his own bloodline. It was rare, very rare, for any master vamp to hit that level of power, and he was our first in this country. It was a very big deal. We hadn't advertised the fact, but the Vampire High Council over in Europe knew it, and apparently they hadn't kept it entirely secret. We'd gotten a lot of overtures of friendship in the last few weeks. All right, we'd gotten a lot of people trying to align themselves with us. Not the same thing as friendship, actually, but better than the alternatives.
But when I agreed to all of it, I had never dreamt that I'd be doing the first introductions without Jean-Claude on my arm. Shit.
Micah took my arm in his. "It's going to be fine."
Nathaniel hugged me. "We'll help you be charming."
"I'm just not the Cinderella type," I said.
"But you're not Cinderella, Anita, you're the prince. You're Prince Charming."
I stared into Nathaniel's lavender eyes, and felt the first cold hand of fear in my stomach. Me, Prince Charming? There had to be some mistake.
Though I guess if you have to choose between being the woman who is trying to catch the prince's eye, or the prince who doesn't want to be caught, prince is better. Or at least that's what I told myself as Clay led us through the door, and the drapes that formed the walls of the living room.