A chapter in which resolve is measured.
I ate. Blood-loss is one of those things that clouds your head and makes you a little nauseous, so when I sat down in front of a plate of grilled-chicken breast I hadn’t been very hungry. And then I put the first bite in my mouth, and suddenly I could have eaten a horse. The chicken worked in a pinch.
As I was gorging myself, Ira had a meal of his own. He’d taken two mouthfuls, and one long draw of my blood, but I guess he wasn’t sated yet. His deceptively mundane fridge was hiding bags of blood in his fruit and vegetable drawers.
I must have grimaced instinctively because he said, “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”
He ripped the bag open, poured some blood into a coffee mug, and popped it into the microwave. Note to self: never make popcorn at Ira’s.
“Is that human blood?” I asked.
He gave me a look. “Of course it is. A vampire like me can’t survive on animal blood. Plus, it’s so nasty why would I want to?”
The microwave dinged, and he took a long pull from the mug, smacking his lips when he was done.
“Don’t wrinkle your nose at me,” he said.
I looked back at my plate. “Wasn’t,” I protested.
“This happens to be one of the best years.” He held it to his lips again.
Maybe I’m weak, but I couldn’t resist a comment like that. “Best years?”
“Yeah, our donors come from a good bloodline,” Ira said. “I think this was the father of our current donor. He’s retired now.”
I’m not sure how long I stared at him. “Are you telling me you breed humans to make them taste better?”
His face—so normal, so handsome—was perplexed. “Why wouldn’t we?”
I didn’t have an answer to that.
Slowly, I put my fork and knife down. “So, basically, your people treat humans like cattle?”
“What?” Ira’s brows shot up his forehead. “No! Humans are loved, valued members of the House.”
“Uh huh,” I drawled. “Yes, obviously. It’s so clear to me now.”
“Don’t be so judgmental, Regan.” His face had started to darken. “Just eat your chicken. We’ll discuss all this when you’re done.”
“We’ll discuss it now,” I said, pushing back from the table a little. “If I’m going to have to act like chattel then we need a new plan because I won’t be an object, not even for—not even for the mission.”
“Regan—” he started, but stopped. His eyes tracked back and forth as he thought. “Okay,” he said slowly, “think of it like this. No, I can’t claim that humans and vampires are strictly equal in vampire society. But then, that’s true of any minority in any society. You can hardly blame me for that. There is an undertone of feed-stock to certain humans because, when it comes right down to it, we feed off of humans. However, you just experienced for yourself that feeding is not just about food. It’s also a sexual, emotional connection. There are vampires that treat humans like walking blood bags, of course there are, and there are humans who let them. In an ideal world that’s not how the system is supposed to work.”
Crossing my arms, I studied his face hard. “How is the system supposed to work?”
“Humans are supposed to be protected and cared for,” Ira said. “They enjoy the benefits of a supernatural being’s patronage, and in return they supply blood and companionship. It’s not drive-through window, and it’s not courtesan, either. It’s supposed to be symbiosis. Vampires need human blood to survive, but humans need to give that blood to survive themselves. Vampire culture is often a cruel and bloody thing, and humans that don’t have the safety and protection of a House don’t tend to fare very well.”
I thought about that for a few seconds. “So what will be expected of me?”
“I wanted to wait until you were ready to focus on this—”
“Just in general.”
“Well,” he said. “Considering you’ll be the newest Beloved introduced to the House, there will be a certain amount of submission expected from you. You’re low on the totem pole, don’t try and act like you instantly have access to our culture. You’ll have to earn your way in, especially since you’re a hunter. There will be words and actions that will convey this humility, and we’ll get into that after you’ve finished eating.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, Ira meeting my gaze calmly and confidently as I turned over what he’d said.
“All right.” I finally reached for my utensils again. “I suppose that makes sense, and I can deal with that for the duration of the mission.”
“I’m thrilled,” Ira said dryly.
“Don’t push it, buddy.”
We migrated to the living room. Ira sat on the couch, and I walked around the small room. Pacing helped me think and retain information. Sucking on a peppermint would have been better, but this would do for now.
“It shouldn’t surprise you,” Ira said, “to learn that a lot of vampire body-language revolves around the neck.”
“That much I know already,” I said. “A covered neck can be seen as a tease, but sometimes it’s a sign to back off.”
Nodding, he said, “That’s part of it, but only part of it. When I introduce you to vampires in the House, you’ll nod to greet them. Make sure your head is straight up and down because tilting your head to the side exposes the neck, which can be seen as an invitation.”
“Oh, I only have to nod?” I mocked. “No bowing, or anything?”
“If you won’t take this seriously—”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” I said. “So, I meet somebody and nod. What else?”
“Be polite, for one thing.” He gave me the stink-eye as he said this, as if doubting the possibility. “If someone talks to you, respond. Keep the sarcasm back if you’re asked a question. Just be nice, basically.”
I grimaced. “Pull my punches, got it. What next?”
“Stick close to me at all times,” Ira said.
“Don’t want a hunter wandering the halls?”
“I’m sure no one does,” he said, “but that’s not it. If we’re going to fool people with this, we have to act like a Lover and Beloved. I can hardly shower you with affection if you’re across the room, now can I?”
“Okay, point taken.” I didn’t know why I was being so snipey. Pre-mission jitters, but I knew I had to get over it. I felt for my hunter calm, and took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m just used to getting the info, and then going. We still have days before we do this, and I’m not used to that.”
Shrugging, Ira said, “It happens.”
“Not to me,” I said. “I don’t let it happen.”
Even as the words left my mouth I felt the perfect calm of my battle-ready mode sweep over me. I’m not sure I could sustain it for two days, but I guess we’d see.
“I know you’re a professional,” Ira said, “but this is something new for you.”
“Sort of.” Watching his face, I said, “I’ve infiltrated vampire groups before.”
He frowned. “Then why don’t you know this stuff already?”
“It was always rogue groups before,” I told him. “The rules are a little different.”
“Yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “The rebel groups pick and choose rules as it suits them.”
“Which is why my knowledge is spotty,” I said. “Immersing yourself in the enemy culture doesn’t help you kill them.”
“How can you kill a people you don’t know anything about?” Ira asked.
I knew from our fight that he was no warrior, but this threw it in my face in a big way. For a predator, he didn’t seem to have much a killer instinct.
“I didn’t say I didn’t know anything about your people.”
“You just said—”
“Enemies do not have culture,” I cut in. “Enemies have habits, weaknesses, and patterns to observe and exploit. I don’t know how to nod my head at a vampire because that knowledge doesn’t help me kill them. I do know that the average vampire’s land-speed is enough to avoid bullets because that does help me kill them.”
After a beat, Ira said, “I see. Well, anyway, what I was going to say is that it’s natural to be nervous about something you’ve never done before.”
“I’m not nervous, exactly.” I rolled my shoulders for emphasis. “I just don’t know how to burn off the jitters. I’ve got it for now, though.”
“Good.” His eyes got intense. “You’re sure you’ll be okay with any shows of affection? It won’t affect your judgement?”
I gave him a smooth, cocky grin. “Ira, I am the king of one-night stands. If there is any person on this earth that can put up with whatever hanky-panky needed to fool the House, it’s me.”
“Really?” He deepened his voice.
With a come-hither lilt in my own, I replied, “Really.”
Slowly, seductively, Ira left the couch, and crossed the room towards me. He crowded in close, but I held my ground, giving him my best pair of bedroom eyes as he looked down at me. He reached out and gripped my left wrist, causing a startled hiss to leak out of me as he squeezed my bite-mark. Keeping his grasp on me, he raised the wound until it was level with my face. And then he tightened some more. I could feel the dull pulse of it all the way down to the root of my cock, but I kept my face teasing and alluring.
“Regan,” he murmured, dipping his head in close. “Are you sure you can handle this?”
Tilting my head up until our lips were almost touching, I breathed, “I’ve been bitten before.”
He pulled back, eyes blank. “What?”
“I told you I’ve infiltrated rogue groups,” I said. “How exactly would I have done that without getting bitten? Yes, it feels fantastic, but I won’t get addicted. I’m better than that.”
“There’s always a chance, each new bite is a new chance,” Ira began, but I shook my head.
“No.” It looked like the time had come to spill the beans. “There was a rogue leader in California. I played the part of a harmless vamp tramp, and he took me into his bed—with all that goes with it, for a vampire. He bit me, all over, in every position imaginable, during sex, and sometimes just for the hell of it.”
Ira’s eyes were dark as he hoarsely asked, “There a point to this?”
“Yes,” I said. “For almost a week I was on the fang of a vampire leader, and I was fine. I kept my head.”
“You killed him?” Ira asked, though his voice said he knew the answer.
“Still,” he pressed on. “I’m no rogue, I’m a fully realized vampire elder. Could your rogue compare to that?”
“He was seeking,” I said coolly.
Dropping my hand, Ira stepped back, like he was seeing me for the first time. “You resisted the pull of a seeker?”
“For almost a week,” I repeated. “The mission is what matters, Ira. When I’m in my hunter’s head-space all else is secondary. You can bite me, hell, fuck me, in full view of the House and everyone in it, and I won’t care.”
He turned away, staring out the window above the couch. I could all but hear the gears turning.
“I underestimated you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I said, studying his back. “But can you do what you have to get us through this? Whether you like it or not, you’re a part of this mission, and you’ll have to act like it.”
Ira looked back at me. “I already said Zo was dead to me. What she did to your friend was just wrong.”
Milly, I thought. Her name is Milly.
“That a yes?” I said out loud.
“That’s a yes.”
“Good.” I released a breath. “There anything else I need to know?”
“Then let’s get to it.”