The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Five)
Thomas had said it might take time to gain entry into her household. He'd come up with several different strategies for Jacob to execute over time, the manicure being just the first. So while Jacob had not planned to be unsuccessful this night, he'd been prepared to deal with it if he was. However, Thomas hadn't known there was something wrong with her. Having seen the strange disease which had taken her servant, Jacob felt his heart clutch with dread, his mind filled with questions. All of his plans to be patient were blown away by the fact she obviously needed a protector far more than Thomas had realized.
But the way she'd looked up at him, trusting him at least for this moment, pushed away the disturbing thoughts. He propped her gently in the chair and retrieved from the pine cabinet several things not necessary for a manicure. Forearm gauntlets carrying a variety of silver-tipped wooden shafts and small knives, and a nine millimeter handgun. He shucked the hose, thrust his legs quickly into a pair of worn jeans and tugged on a pair of boots under them before putting the gun in its belt holster on his back waistband. Quickly he laced the gauntlets to his forearms and checked the triggering mechanism. Shrugging on a long-sleeved navy blue shirt, he buttoned enough buttons to hold it on and conceal the gauntlets and gun, though it was loose enough to allow him access to them.
At least there was one good thing about her loss of consciousness. He was certain when he reached for the weapons she would have put his face through a wall, suspecting he was a trap sent by her enemies. The truth might elicit the same reaction. He just didn't feel their first meeting was the appropriate time to mention that among his many past career choices he'd been a vampire hunter. He'd hoped for a more casual and affable moment to interject that into the conversation, though now he was wondering if the woman ever had a relaxed moment.
This one had been forced upon her. Bending, he scooped her up in his arms. As her head rolled inward, her cheek pressing to his chest, he had the gratifying and humbling experience of knowing she'd relinquished all control to him. The gods always had a backwards way of offering opportunities to prove oneself.
When he got to the foyer, he found the limo was in the middle of the parking lot under a lamp. Prompt and ready as she'd said.
"Is she okay?"
Martin, the security guard, spoke from the reception desk. Jacob nodded. "She drifted off. I'm going to make sure she gets home. " Trying to sound casual, as if it were nothing unusual. He'd worked it out that Martin had accepted him as Max's replacement for the evening, but he knew this could easily stretch the boundaries if he acted as if anything were amiss. "Max warned me sometimes she nods off like this. Late hour and all. Think she's on some of those designer mood drugs for anxiety. "
"She's an odd one, she is. Rich folk. " The guard shook his head.
"Her limo's here. Can you go out and ask him to come right to the door?"
Martin immediately rose. "Sure. Be right back. "
As the guard left through the glass doors, Jacob felt his charge rouse.
"Put me down. "
Glancing down, he saw she was looking at him like an irritable cat who'd found herself in the jaws of a drooling Labrador.
"You fainted, my lady. "
A self-mocking smile touched her lips. "Just like a Victorian heroine. Put me down, Jacob. "
He let her feet drop to the floor but kept his hands at her waist, supporting her as she swayed. "I'm not living up to the formidable image I'm sure Thomas described, " she commented. "He said you were harmless as a kitten. " He recalled vividly the way she'd shoved him to his knees earlier with barely the pressure of two fingers. Responding to her arch look, he added, "I'm sure your past is littered with men foolish enough to underestimate you, my lady. I won't be one of them. "
He still saw the traces of red in her eyes like the banked fires of Hell. "It seems I should learn not to make the same mistake about you, " she said. "Only time will tell, for both of us. Your hose… Where did you learn to wear them?"
It was an odd question for the moment, but he responded automatically. "I used to work the Faire circuit, my lady. As a jouster and sword fighter. Sometimes a juggler and a fool. I've been in the circus as well. "
"That's where you picked up your courtly mannerisms. " She blinked at him, and he nodded.
"Yes, my lady. "
"You're a drifter, then. Did Thomas explain this isn't a job for a vagabond?"
It riled him, perhaps because he couldn't deny it, but he managed an even tone. "I've never left a person who needed me by their side. Or at their back. " Except my own brother. He shoved that 'thought and everything that went with it away. "I won't fail you in that regard, my lady. "
The lights of the limo passed over her as it turned into the covered entranceway. Instinctively he shifted before the glaring light could strike her sensitive eyes.
"I'm walking you to the car at least. "
"Not taking me all the way home? You still owe me my manicure. "
He stopped. "That's what I'd like to do, " he said, barely daring to hope. "If you would allow it. "
"Are you up to the challenge? For what it could mean? There will be consequences, whether I end up accepting or rejecting you. "
Her green eyes were suddenly quite sharp and focused on his. In their depths, he saw the very real threat, but beyond that he saw a wealth of possibilities. Things that made her warning similar to a tree falling across the mouth of a waterfall. The water of his desire would simply rush under and over to fling itself over the edge in order to experience the euphoria of the descent.
Over the months of training, Thomas had forced him to thoroughly analyze all the paths his life had taken to be absolutely sure he wanted to embark upon this one. Jacob had come to the conclusion all those paths had converged to lead him to Thomas's door. But now he wondered if Thomas suspected her illness. Had he hoped Jacob would lose his heart to her so quickly that when the truth was known he would be willing to lock his destiny with hers, no matter the consequences? Or had Thomas known Jacob had lost his heart to her long ago?
She was gazing at him. He realized they'd been standing there looking at one another for several minutes. "Perhaps I'm rushing you?" she asked.
"No. No, my lady. " Without hesitation now, he took her hand and raised it to his lips, feeling how much colder she'd gotten in just the past few moments. When he registered the rigidity of her limbs, he understood. Pain. She was fighting pain and likely the overwhelming desire to succumb to unconsciousness to escape it. Keeping his grip on her hand, he tried to convey with warm pressure she had someone in her corner.
"I'm going out to the car now, " she said. "Follow two paces behind. Appear a bit besotted, as if you're someone I'm taking home to feed me. "
"My lady, you can't walk without help. " She straightened, though he saw her features tighten with the effort. He had to stomp on the compulsion to override her protests and carry her to the car. She was too weak. He could feel it.
"I must never appear vulnerable to my watching enemies, or even those who call themselves my friends, Jacob. Do you understand? It's the most important rule of my world. "
"Then let me try this, my lady. I think it will serve your purpose. "
Standing in the doorway, in full view of the parking lot, he reached out his other hand. Bemused, Lyssa took it. He drew her to him, closer, closer, until he brought her all the way to him, their fingers loosely linked so she was brushing his thighs with her nails. Bending his head, he nuzzled her cheek with his lips, her fair skin with that knightly fringe beard and moustache. It smelled faintly of coconut oil, explaining the unexpected and appealing softness of it.
"I can do 'besotted' quite easily with you, my lady. "
His eyes were brilliant, almost too painful for her to look at in her present state. "You're making me… Dizzy, " she whispered. Leaning into him, she felt his pulse hammer against her like a mob pounding at a castle gate. He was right. She wasn't going to be able to walk to the car. The medicine was kicking in fully and it would rob her of her full strength for at least two hours. Her consciousness as well. She'd truly been a fool to go out tonight. It was getting so much harder to predict when the attacks would come.
"Jacob… If I can trust you, if you have any regard for me, for the promises you offered… Get me home. "
"Put your arms around me, " he said with sharp urgency. She complied, gripping his shirt as her strength deserted her. Did he know where she lived? Had she told him that? What about Bran? Oh, sweet Jesus, she hadn't told him about Bran.
Jacob caught her up in his arms a moment before she sagged, a fluid movement that would appear like the impulse of an impassioned lover. Keeping her tilted in to him, he tucked his head over hers so it wouldn't drop back and show she'd truly lost consciousness this time, something he knew by her boneless weight. He took small nibbles at her lips, breathing on her lashes as he strode to the limo, nodding reassuringly to an intrigued Martin as he passed him. "Lock it up. I'll get my things from Max tomorrow. I'm taking her home. "
And hopefully by tomorrow he'd have his lady's help in reassuring Max with a plausible story when the man called in a panic after learning some stranger had taken his place for her manicure.
The driver, Mr. Ingram he assumed, was a black man of intimidating size and about fifty years. He'd opened the car door for them. His brow knitted at the picture they made, but Jacob did not acknowledge him as he eased her across the backseat and ducked in after her.
Ingram blessedly didn't say anything, just shut the door. It gave Jacob a moment to settle Lyssa against his side and take another quick glance at their surroundings through the black-tinted windows. The salon was located off of a reasonably quiet downtown side street, a good distance from the nightlife that would be kicking into high gear as they approached midnight. But his sixth sense was fully active, telling him her concerns were warranted.
There might not be vamps out there, but their spies surely were.
Lady Elyssa was the Vampire Queen, the last living descendant of the original royal clan of the Far East. Her relationship to the ruling Vampire Council was similar to the British royal family to Parliament, for the vampire monarchies had died out several centuries ago, but she had significant clout due to her physical prowess, extensive Region and wide variety of powers. She had helped create the Council and the delicate network of laws that kept the predatory nature of vampires from ensuring their own extinction.
In the vampire world, brutality and civility constantly played a chess game for influence. Low-level war games were common and acceptable ways to prove oneself and acquire more territory. Without the influence of vampires like her, there would be no balance. Even now, a new threat was rising. There was increasing dissatisfaction among the ranks of "made" vampires with the established order set by the "born" vampires who ran the Vampire Council and most of the Regions. However, despite her great value to the vampire world and the enemies she'd accumulated, the stubborn woman kept no entourage, living a life of relative solitude, particularly since the shocking death of her husband,about which only she and Thomas had known the truth. And now Jacob, entrusted with the information before Thomas's death.
"Ma'am? Do you wish to go home now?" Jacob looked up at the driver, whose gaze encompassed both of them. "Ma'am?" he repeated.
"She's sleeping, " Jacob responded. "Yes, she wants to go home. "
"All due respect, sir, you're not my client. She doesn't look asleep. She looks like she passed out. A lady like that has a lot of secrets. I don't want to know any of them, but I aim to see her home safely. "
When Jacob shifted, the driver's eyes sharpened, warning him.
"Son, I've got a Beretta up here, pressed against the seat cushion. You can get out of the car without her, or you can tell me something that will convince me you should stay. You and that semiautomatic you have under your shirt. "
"Good… Driver. "
Jacob glanced down and saw Lyssa's catlike eyes were open, fixed on the man. When she lolled her head around to look at Jacob, her features were so perfect and delicate she could be set on a shelf with a trio of china dolls. He would have to look twice to make sure she was real. But when a man felt the energy around her, it was forcibly clear how alive she was.
"He's… Mine. Okay. Take us home. Keep me safe. Good driver. Must sleep now. Won't wake for a while. "
Her eyes drifted closed, her head falling back on Jacob's shoulder. In the same movement she nestled in under his chin, letting him tighten his hold over her shoulders. One hand latched loosely inside his shirt front, her fingers brushing his bare skin. The other hand drifted into his lap across his thigh, her touch an inch or two from his groin.
Whether her affectionate body language was done strategically to reassure the driver or from her own desire, Jacob didn't know, but it did the trick.
As the driver raised a brow, Jacob heard the Beretta uncock. Mr. Ingram shook his head. "If you ain't hers, son, you're soon going to be. Hope you know what the hell you're doing. "
Jacob wondered the same thing himself. As they pulled out of the parking lot, he felt burned to ash by her touch and those two simple words.