"New Rochelle?" the driver asked as he careened onto the avenue, headed north toward Central Park.
Shanna glanced back. The SUV was pulling away from the curb. Oh, great. Her taxi made a right turn. She took a deep breath, waited, then looked back. The SUV was turning. Dammit!
She leaned toward the cab driver. "You see the black SUV behind us? It's following us."
The driver looked in the rearview mirror. "No, no. Is okay."
She couldn't place his accent, but his complexion indicated African or maybe Caribbean. She glanced at his ID card. "Oringo, I'm serious. Take a turn up here and see for yourself."
He shrugged. "If you like." He made a left turn onto Sixth, then flashed her a grin. "See? No black SUV."
The SUV turned onto Sixth Avenue.
Oringo's smile faded. "You in trouble, miss?"
"I could be if they catch me. Can you lose them?"
"You mean, like in movies?"
"We in a movie?" Oringo looked around as if he expected to see cameras set up on the sidewalk.
"No, but I can give you an extra fifty if you lose them." Shanna mentally counted her cash. Dang, by the time this ride was over, she'd be almost completely tapped.
"You got a deal." Oringo slammed on the accelerator and zoomed across two lanes to make a right-hand turn.
Shanna fell back against the seat. She fumbled about for a seat belt. This was going to be one hell of a ride.
"Ah, damn! It is still behind us." Oringo swerved into another right turn. They were now going south, the wrong direction. "What kind of trouble you in?"
"It's a long story."
"Ah." Oringo cut through a parking lot and burst out onto a street without slowing down. "I know where you can get a good Rolex. Or Prada bag. Real cheap. Looks like the real thing."
"I appreciate that, but I really don't have time to shop right now." Shanna flinched when the cab ran a red light and narrowly missed getting hit by a delivery van.
"Too bad." Oringo grinned at her in the rearview mirror. "You look like good customer."
"Thanks." Shanna looked behind them. The black SUV was still there, though it had been stopped momentarily by the red light. She glanced at the dashboard clock. It was fifteen past eight. She would arrive at the safe house late.
If she ever arrived at all.
Roman arrived at Romatech at twenty past eight. The Gala Opening Ball was scheduled to begin sharply at nine. He wandered across the ballroom. A swarm of balloons hovered along the ceiling like a colony of black and albino bats. He groaned inwardly. Why did his guests love this ghoulish atmosphere? He certainly didn't feel like partying when everything here reminded him he was dead.
The tables were covered with black tablecloths, topped crosswise with square white tablecloths. Black vases filled with white funeral lilies stood at the ends of each table. The center of each table was left blank for now. That space was reserved for the ice sculptures.
Behind each of the three tables was a black coffin. No satin on the interior. They were actually giant ice chests. Nestled among the ice cubes were bottles of the new taste sensations he was introducing tonight - Bubbly Blood and Blood Lite.
A small stage had been erected on one side of the room,in front of the glass windows that overlooked the garden. The band was already there, setting up their equipment.
A pair of double doors suddenly swung open. Workers held the doors while others wheeled in the ice sculptures. A flurry of activity buzzed around the sculptures. Everyone was excited.
Roman had never felt more depressed. His tuxedo was uncomfortable. The cape - ridiculous. And there had been no word about Shanna. She'd disappeared, leaving him ragged with worry and his tired old heart withered with loss. He'd asked Connor to watch Petrovsky's house tonight. The Scotsman had agreed, even though it meant he would miss the Opening Ball. At least, as far as Roman could tell, the Russians hadn't found Shanna, either.
Radinka strode toward him, her face flushed. "Doesn't it look wonderful? This will be the best party I've ever planned."
He shrugged. "I guess." He noted the warning glint in Radinka's eyes. "It looks great. You did a wonderful job."
She snorted. "I know when I'm being patronized. Your tie is crooked." She reached up to adjust his bow tie.
"It's hard to do without a mirror. Besides, it wasn't in the dress code at the monastery."
Radinka paused. "Then it is true? You were a monk?"
"Not a very good one. I've broken most of my vows." All but one.
She made a dismissive sound as she finished with his bow tie. "You are still a good man. I will forever be in your debt."
"No regrets?" Roman asked softly.
Her eyes filled with tears. "No. Never. He would have died if you hadn't.."
Turned her son into a demon? Roman doubted she wanted to hear the harsh words.
Radinka stepped back and blinked to clear her eyes. "Don't make me feel all mushy. I have too much work to do."
Roman nodded. "We still haven't found her."
"Shanna? Don't worry. She will come back. She must. She is in your future." Radinka touched her forehead. "I have seen it."
Roman sighed. "I want to believe you. Really I do, but I lost my faith many years ago."
"And you turned to science?"
"Yes. It's dependable. It gives me answers." And it hasn't abandoned me like God. Or betrayed me like Eliza. Or run away like Shanna.
Radinka shook her head, regarding him sadly. "For a very old man, you have much to learn." She pursed her lips. "You realize, don't you, that in order to have a future with Shanna, you will have to get rid of your harem."
"Shanna's gone. The point is moot."
Radinka narrowed her eyes. "Why do you keep them? As far as I can tell, you ignore them."
"And you're supposed to ignore my personal life, remember?"
"How can I when you are so miserable?"
Roman took a deep breath. One of the ice sculptures was in place. God's blood, it was the most hideous goblin he'd ever seen. "A coven master must have a harem. It's an ancient tradition. The harem is a symbol of his power and prestige."
Radinka stared blandly at him, unimpressed.
"It's a vampire thing, okay?"
She crossed her arms. "In that case, I hope my son never becomes a coven master."
"They have nowhere else to go. They were raised in times when ladies weren't expected to work. They have no skills."
"They're good at freeloading."
Roman lifted a brow. "They needed a place to live and blood to drink. I needed the appearance of a harem. Overall, the arrangement has worked quite well."
"It's only for show, then? You haven't had sex with them?"
Roman shifted his weight from one foot to another. He reached up to loosen the tie that was strangling him.
"Don't mess it up!" Radinka slapped his hand away. She glared at him. "No wonder Shanna is so angry with you."
"They don't mean anything to me."
"And that is meant as an excuse?" Radinka snorted. "Men. Even as vampires, you're all alike." She glanced to the side. "Speaking of vampire men, they have arrived. And I need to get back to work." She headed toward one of the tables.
"Radinka." She glanced back when he called her. "Thank you. You really have outdone yourself."
She smiled wryly. "Not bad for a mortal?"
"The best." He hoped she knew he wasn't patronizing her. He waited as the men approached. Jean-Luc, Gregori, and Laszlo were in front. Bringing up the rear were Angus and his Highlanders.
Angus Mac Kay was a huge man, a warrior who had mellowed only slightly over the centuries. He was in formal Highland dress - a black jacket over a white jabot shirt with lace at the neck and sleeves. Because of the black and white ball, the Highlanders were wearing kilts that displayed the Scott black and white or the Douglas gray tartan. Their sporrans were made of black muskrat fur. With a nod, Angus dispersed his Highlanders. They spread out to conduct a security check of the building.
In an attempt to look somewhat civilized, Angus had tied his shoulder-length auburn hair into a queue with a strip of black leather. A black-handled dagger was barely visible in one of his black knee socks. Angus never went anywhere without a weapon. In fact, Roman figured his old friend had probably stashed a claymore in one of the potted plants by the entrance.