Not curling her lip in disgust took every ounce of strength and the last bit of patience Lia Hampton could muster. Bad enough they walked down an alley stinking of urine and stale blood. She in her newest designer shoes, no less. The stench was almost enough to cover the cloud of alcoholic vapors floating from Syler.
He weaved next to her, each step threatening to take him down. Still, he persisted. In less than a week they wouldn’t be able to do this any more. He figured they owed it to themselves to live it up while they could. As usual, she went along without protesting. What would be the use? What Syler wanted, he got.
Another wobbly step sent him crashing into her. The collision caught her unaware and she stumbled into the side of the brick building.
“Syler!” She cursed vehemently. “Watch yourself!” Lia inspected the new scuff mark on her black shoe, tamping down the bubbling anger directed at her best friend.
Shadow blocked the light as someone stepped toward her. A rich voice asked, “May I offer my assistance, prima lux?”
Without hesitation, she placed her hand into the one extended toward her. A small crackle of static electricity stung her fingertips. Startled, she pulled her hand away from the guard, finally raising her eyes to meet his. The frustration with Syler she planned on unleashing on the innocent guardsman died on her lips.
A whole lot of good-looking male stood next to her.
They’d been out for two hours now and sad to say, this was her first really good look at the new guard under bright light. The men rotated so often she rarely got a chance to get to know them anyway. But for this one, she should have made an exception.
Clear gray eyes stared at her for a moment longer than propriety allowed, but long enough for her to be stunned by them. Lupine eyes, she recognized. That didn’t matter. His coal black hair was pulled tight into a ponytail, ensuring a clear view of his rugged tanned face. Everything about him, the off-center crook in his nose, the jagged lines of his jaw, the dark shadow of stubble screamed masculinity.
And every female part of her body responded.
“Hello!” Syler called. A giggle escaped his lips. “Gods be praised, I think the prima lux has finally discovered the opposite sex.”
She whirled on him as heat flared over her cheeks and down her neck. To her chagrin, Lia could only sputter her indignation. All of the smart assed come-backs she had in her arsenal fled like traitors.
Syler pushed past her, almost sending her into the side of the building again. She recovered her balance in time to watch him sashay toward the guard. The seductive sway of his slender hips meant she wasn’t the only one to ogle the handsome male this evening.
“Too little, too late, sistah,” he tossed over his shoulder at her. At least, that’s what she thought he said. He slurred a couple of the words so badly she had to replay them in her mind a few times before she could translate.
The guard caught her attention with his eyes before his gaze landed back on her approaching friend. She would have laughed at his panicked expression had she been sure he couldn’t handle Syler. Something about him suggested he knew exactly how to handle himself.
“Sire?” He took a step backward, maintaining a respectable distance.
Syler stumbled forward, perhaps on accident, but knowing him, probably not. The guard caught him before they both tumbled to the ground. He tried to upright the younger man, but Syler remained fastened to him. The guard held himself ramrod straight as the vampire inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of his neck.
“Hi ther—,” Syler started. He released an ear-piercing screech, followed by a hiss. Suddenly, he couldn’t back away from the guard fast enough.
“Tainted!” He spat. He turned back to Lia, fury radiating from him. All previous evidence of insobriety wiped clean away. “Why your family insists on using such filth as part of their protection, I’ll never know.”
“Syler, mind yourself. That is uncalled for.”
Years of training allowed Lia to keep her voice low, contained. He might not have cared if the callous words affected anyone around him, but she did. The guard couldn’t help being born a werewolf, the same as she couldn’t help being born the daughter of the leading vampire in their community. Hell, there were some days she would have traded places with one of the lowborn in a heartbeat.
“I did not mean to offend, sire,” the guard said. The were kept his gaze down as he spoke. Lia stared at him because the supplicant posture was all wrong. It just didn’t fit him. The man probably never apologized for anything in his life. A minute passed before he glanced up, but she caught the defiance burning in his gray depths before he dropped his face again.
No. The man never needed to apologize before. She’d bet money on it.
“My apologies also if I have offended, prima lux.” Syler cut his blue eyed gaze to the guard for a moment. He sighed as he swooped down in a deep bow to her. “I sometimes forget my place.”
His words and actions cut her to the bone. She wanted to scream at him that they were friends. He did not have to use her title or bow to her. Never had to apologize for his outrageous behavior. It was why she loved him, why she tolerated everything he did. He was one of the few people who didn’t put on airs in her presence. One of the few people who made her forget her station, if only for a short time.
Now she had two men standing next to her, looking as if she spent the day horse-whipping them. How had the good time of the last two hours turn into this?
“Let’s just keep going, okay? We still have hours to go before I have to return home.” She grinned at Syler, knowing he wouldn’t resist the call to a good time. “I plan on closing down the clubs this night!”
He returned her rueful smile, cocking a painted eyebrow. “You’re right. I haven’t had a human in a while. Might as well close down the end of this very sad era with a slow dance and an even slower fuck.”
And just like that, her foul-mouthed, flamboyant friend was back.
She laughed and skipped ahead, but not before raking a heated look over the guard one last time. Her father’s employee or not, he made breaking the rules tempting. He was nothing like Ross, the middle-aged vamp who’d been part of her father’s guards, and their captain, for double-digit years now. Ross skulked behind the small party without commenting on the playful banter, his watchful eyes taking in their surroundings.
The new guard—she would have to remember to get his name later—stepped in place beside the captain. Such a lesson in contrasts, the two men. One weathered but experienced; the other virile and hell, a knock-out. She wouldn’t let his youth cloud her perception of him. The fact she’d been placed in the care of the younger guard spoke volumes of his capability as a warrior.
Syler brought her out of her mental musings when he linked his arm in hers and all but dragged her toward the entrance of the alleyway. The loud thumps vibrating the tinted windows of the buildings started to make rhythmic sense and he bumped hips with her as they stumbled toward the source.
By the time they actually reached the main street, she almost forgot that nights like this were drawing to a close. Next week she would marry her intended and the frivolity with Syler would come to an immediate halt as she assumed her responsibilities to her community. For tonight, though, Lia would party.
She and Syler slipped past the bouncers holding open a velveteen rope without slowing. They frequented the place enough to be recognized on sight. The VIP room would be cleared of anyone already in there by the time they climbed the stairs. The private bartenders would have chilled drinks ready and depending on the concierge on duty tonight, Syler might have one or two pieces of eye candy to scope. Not everything about her pampered life sucked.
It was only when they were halfway up the stairs she noticed the guards weren’t directly behind them.
She looked down on the crowd of bodies gyrating to the pulsing beat. She couldn’t spot them there, either. “Syler, wait!”
Where were they? Since the time she could walk it had been drilled into her to never go anywhere in public without her guards present. She could also count the number of times she broke that edict on one hand. Turning back around, she headed closer to the bottom of the stairs.
She relaxed when she spotted her escorts a moment later at the entrance to the club. The new guard apparently caused some hesitation for the bouncers. Though, something about that bugged her.
He wore her father’s emblem, the blazing sun surrounded by four stars. That alone guaranteed him safe passage anywhere in the city. Anyone who saw it knew the Lugh’s presence by virtue of his staff. They were to be treated with the utmost respect by members of the community, almost on pain of death, otherwise. Either the bouncers were being overly cautious or perhaps, they were new to her community.
She glanced up to see that Syler had already deserted her, probably to begin imbibing—again—on some drink of questionable legality. She could have laughed at that. He behaved as if he were the one to be given away in marriage to someone he despised instead of she.
Lia watched the bouncer’s animated gestures toward Ross. True to some unwritten bouncer protocol, he tensed as the older vampire leaned close, baring elongated canines. The bouncer puffed his chest, but then relaxed his stance when another bouncer joining the discussion backed him. Throughout the encounter, her new guardsman remained aloof. He kept his gaze solidly fixed in her general direction. Their eyes met twice during his visual sweep. The resultant spark of excitement at those moments made her inhale with a sharp breath.
She was in serious trouble if she kept letting his attractiveness distract her. What would her father say if he could hear the carnal thoughts racing through her mind whenever she looked at him? Thoughts that had her wondering just how firm his biceps truly were. Or what lay hidden beneath the second-skin of clothing he wore. Or thoughts that questioned whether what was said about werewolf virility were true.
Lia snorted. Gods, if only her father knew…
When the object of her fantasies looked at her again, his eyes narrowed. He started moving forward, almost as if he’d heard her thoughts. But that was impossible. At least, she thought it was impossible. Who could tell with weres?
The bouncer put out an arm to block his way, but he brushed past it. The guard seemed to be yelling as he pushed through the crowd. The music cranked up in volume, the staircase turning into a conduit of rhythmic vibrations. Over the blaring speakers, she would have been hard pressed to hear a person standing only inches away. It would have been impossible to understand what he said without reading his lips. He was too far away and the room too dark, despite flashes of colorful lights, for that.
Lia glanced around, trying to gauge the reason for his apparent alarm, but nothing seemed amiss. On either side of her, party-goers danced in glittering garments that reflected the kaleidoscope of colors artificially provided by the overhead lights. Here and there, jewelry flashed, almost distracting away from the canines of writhing vamps. Soon enough, humans would be enticing those same euphoric men and women from their energy highs on the dance floor to backrooms where blood would be exchanged for money or sex.
No. Nothing seemed amiss at all.
Only now, the were guard pushed past patrons, shoving aside the cloak of his uniform and drawing his signature curved blade as he attempted to make his way toward her. Real fear sliced through her at the determined look on his face. Either he could see something she couldn’t, or he might himself be coming to spill her blood. Yet another lesson from her father during his reign: betrayal comes easily from those on the inside.
That thought immobilized her for a moment. Then, when she saw Ross trailed behind him by several yards, she wasn’t sure if it wasn’t accurate. If the wolf intended her harm, the old guard would be a minute, two maybe, too late to save her.
Lia backed away from the railing, trying to remain calm yet at the same time assess the situation from all sides. She glanced toward the VIP room, hoping to see Syler waiting for her by the entrance. She couldn’t see past the thick of people crowding the stairwell, much less the very top.
“Excuse me,” she muttered to no one in particular. She just needed to get through to the relative safety of the room. Maybe if she got in there, it might buy Ross some time to catch up to the other guardsman.
She managed two small steps before being blocked again. All of these damned bodies everywhere, and none of them would move!
A glance behind her before she could go forward further helped her locate the were at the bottom stair step now. He was no longer yelling, but he still gripped the weapon at his hip like a lifeline. His eyes were dark slits that made her flesh break out in goosebumps.
“Coming through!” she yelled as she whirled to face the top again. It didn’t make a difference. Her words were lost to the air the second they left her mouth.
Gods. What to do?
As she shoved forward, she tried to think it through rationally. Why this sudden fear of a man whose body she wanted to jump only a few minutes ago? Maybe it was the intensity of his glare, the way it flamed over her when they visually connected. It could be the way just looking at him could make her pulse race, her heart pounding as it picked up breakneck speed. Or maybe it was just the way her father drilled into her time and time again the constant danger their statuses placed them.
She’d feel like an idiot if she was wrong. Although, an embarrassed prima lux was better than a dead prima lux. If she was wrong, she’d just apologize later.
The infuriating crowd refused to part despite the way Lia shoved. She peered over her shoulder again to see if the guard had gained on her. When she faced forward again, she stilled as pain spread over her chest like wildfire. She clutched a hand just above her abdomen only to pull it away again from the searing burn. Sticky fluid painted her hand red.
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