There was more to it, I just knew, but I had bigger concerns at the moment. Gregor's power flexed around me. I tried to pry his hands off, but it was as if they were welded onto me.
"I've got bad news for you then, because going back to walking on eggshells around your every mood swing? Sorry, Gregor. You lost your chance with me when I grew up and developed self-esteem. I'm never coming back to you."
"Why do you do this!" he shouted, giving up his false exterior of calm. "I offer you everything, and you scorn me as though I were lower than that whore of a lover who left you!"
His anger was drawing his power back into himself and away from me. I pressed my advantage.
"Because I'm happier being the castoff of a whore than I'd ever be as your wife."
Gregor shoved me away from him. I landed back in the tar pit, up to my shoulders in that sticky black goo. He stood over me and shook his fist.
"You are mine whether you prefer it or not, and you can think about this as you continue to hide from me. I will find Bones again when he doesn't have his people surrounding him. It's only a matter of time. And then, cherie, he will die."
I didn't have a chance to scream out my hatred of him, because the tar closed over my head in the next instant. I was moving downward very fast, like I was being flushed, and then -
I sat bolt upright in bed. The sheets around me were damp, but not from tar. I was covered in a cold sweat. And I was madder than hell.
"I'm going to kill you, Gregor," I growled to the empty room. Whatever leftover positive emotion I'd had for him as a teenager was gone. If I had another chance with a silver knife stuck in Gregor's back, I'd twist it with a smile. You should have before, my mind mocked. No good deed goes unpunished.
Vlad walked in my room without knocking. "Your rage has been seething in my mind for the past five minutes."
"I hate him," I said, getting up from the bed to pace.
Vlad stared at me without blinking. "I have no cause to war with Gregor, Cat, but it does pain me to see you like this."
"It's so maddening," I went on. "Bones might be able to kill Gregor, if he got him alone in a fair fight, but Gregor won't go for that. And I'm not strong enough to take Gregor down. I breathe, bleed, I don't heal instantly - I'm not tough enough for him. Being half-human was great for my old job. All those things I mentioned lured my targets and made me a more effective hunter. But with really old vampires, like Gregor, it just makes me...weak."
Vlad didn't say anything. He didn't have to. We both knew it was true.
"What are you going to do about that?" he asked at last.
I stopped pacing. That was the million-dollar question, wasn't it?
The next night, Vlad, Maximus, Shrapnel, and I were upstairs playing poker. Vlad had been winning all night, a feat I attested to his mind-reading skills - though he swore he wasn't using them on me - and the fact that Shrapnel and Maximus were probably afraid to beat Vlad even if they could. It was almost midnight when there was a loud knock downstairs. The three vampires leapt to their feet in a blur of motion. Flames were already shooting out of Vlad's hands.
Vlad hadn't been expecting anyone; that much was clear from his reaction, so I understood the cause for their alarm. Whoever it was had managed to get past Vlad's formidable guards without notice, chosen to knock to show us they didn't need the element of surprise, and had done all this without the very powerful vampire striding out of the room realizing they were even here.
In short, we were in deep shit.
I started after Vlad, but he whirled around with a snarl.
I responded with a mental roar of how he could go straight to hell if he expected me just to wring my hands and wait, when something moving outside the window caught my attention.
I pointed. "Look."
About three dozen of Vlad's guards were elevated in stark relief against the clear night sky, all twirling in lazy circles about twenty feet off the ground. They were opening and closing their mouths, unable to speak, but apparently trying.
That gave me a pretty good idea who was downstairs knocking on the door. Only one vampire I knew could cloak his power level to avoid detection and twirl hardened undead guards in the air like fireflies.
Vlad must have guessed also, judging from the flames slowly extinguishing from his clenched fists.
"Mencheres," he muttered.
I froze in the hallway, wondering if the mega-Master vampire was alone - or accompanied.
The knock sounded again. Now it seemed even more ominous than when I thought it was enemy forces.
Vlad motioned for Shrapnel and Maximus to lower their weapons. "Stay here," he said to me again, but with none of his prior vehemence. "I'll find out what he wants."
"Mencheres," I heard Vlad say moments later, to the echo of a door flinging open. "You are welcome in my home and may enter. You" - and here my heart skipped a beat, because the venom in that one word confirmed my suspicions - "may not."
A laugh responded to that rude greeting. Hearing Bones so close hit me like a physical blow.
"Tepesh, I've come a long damned way to get here, and pretty as your little dragon door knockers are, I don't fancy spending more time outside admiring them."
Mencheres, more tactful, addressed Vlad with the patience a parent used on an errant child.
"Vlad, you know I cannot allow you to forbid entry to the co-ruler of my line. To do so would insult me as well, and I know you don't mean to do that."
"Let my men down," Vlad said with an edge to his voice.
"Of course." Mencheres actually made it sound like he'd forgotten about elevating over thirty vampires in the air. There were multiple thumps a moment later.
In another mood, I would have found that funny.
"Very well, come in." Vlad's tone was far from gracious. "But you'll abuse my hospitality if you venture even a foot up those stairs, and we both know who I'm talking to."
Bones laughed again, only this time, it sounded closer. They must be inside.
"Really, mate, you're like a hound fretting over his scraps. Careful you don't unwittingly combust, or you'll ruin this fetching imitation Persian rug."
"And I have had enough of your comments about my home!" Vlad barked. I could practically smell the smoke coming from him. "What do you want, not that you stand a f**k-all chance of getting it, mate."
Vlad's exaggerated Cockney accent drained away my momentary shock and turned it into alarm. Bones had wasted no time in getting Vlad good and mad. What was he up to?
"I'm here for Cat," Bones replied, all bantering gone.
Such a wave of emotion swept over me that I felt dizzy. Just as quickly, I slammed my mind shut, wishing I could do the same with my heart. This could be about business. I wouldn't humiliate myself by letting Bones know how just the sound of his voice was affecting me. Bones had said how great my shields were at keeping him out. Here's hoping I hadn't lost my touch.
"If she doesn't want to see you, then you've wasted your time," Vlad said, each word a dare.
I was still making up my mind whether or not I did want to see Bones when he let out a rude snort.
"You misunderstand, Tepesh. I'm not here to see her. I'm taking her with me."
My jaw dropped. Vlad let out something like a growl. "I'll fry you where you stand."
The unmistakable sound of knives scraping together had me out of the room, shoving Maximus aside with all my inhuman strength even as Bones replied, "Try it."
Three heads swiveled up toward me. Vlad's hands were still in flames, and Bones had two silver knives in his grip. Mencheres stood a few feet off, watching them like a silent referee. I came down the stairs. Fabian floated after me, darting in and out of the wall.
A glance showed me what was different about Bones since I'd last seen him. His hair was shorter, cropped close to his head and curling at the tips. His eyes were hooded as they met mine. Devoid of any emotion at all. That was the hardest thing to see.
"What do you think you're doing?" I asked him.
"Getting you," he answered, arching a brow.
If he'd said it while holding out roses and apologizing, I might have been moved. But Bones said it like he was talking about a pair of shoes he'd misplaced. I narrowed my eyes.
"And what if I don't want to be gotten?"
Bones looked at Vlad, at me, and gave a frightening smile.
"Then as his guest, Tepesh will feel honor-bound to defend you. That means he and I will have to fight, and he's quite brassed off already. I reckon he'll try to burn me to ashes straightaway. Of course, that's if I don't rip his heart open with silver first. So if you refuse to come with me, one of us will be dead in the next few minutes. Or, you can come along and we'll both live."
Vlad let out a foul curse even as I sputtered, "Are you serious? You left me, remember? Now you want to fight to the death over me? What kind of game is this?"
"No game, luv," Bones replied. "Just retrieving what's mine. You might want to decide soon. Vlad looks as though he's about to explode."
I cast a quick glance at Vlad, who did look like he was moments away from detonation.
"You come into my home to blackmail my friend?" Vlad snarled. Those flames climbed higher on his arms. "I'll - "
Vlad swung his gaze to me. I reached out, ignoring the licking flames on his arm. "Don't. I couldn't..."
I hoped only Vlad heard the rest of that sentence. I couldn't stand it if something happened to him. I might be pissed at Bones. Hell, I might want to roast him over a few flames myself, but I couldn't risk his life by stubbornness. From the energy rolling off Vlad, he wouldn't strike to wound.
Not to mention, I wasn't about to risk my friend's life; the glint in Bones's eyes said he wouldn't strike to wound, either.
Vlad tugged his beard and gave Bones a chilling glance. "I won't forget this."
Bones smiled in open taunt. "I certainly hope you don't."
Things would get violent any second. I swept past them. Forget my things; it was time to go.
"Are you coming or not?" I asked Bones as I went outside.
"Of course," Bones replied. I didn't wait, but took the arm Mencheres politely offered me and stomped over to what I assumed was their car, Fabian trailing behind me.
"Love your home," Bones said to Vlad in parting.
The answer he received made me glad I'd chosen to leave. If the two of them fought, there was no doubt that only one would walk away from it.
I waited a full half hour after we pulled away before I spoke. Bones had handed me a pair of headphones as soon as we got into the car. I'd blasted them loud enough to be dangerous. Damned if I knew where we were going with all that noise. But finally, I took them off, keeping my eyes closed.
"What the hell do you think you were doing? Vlad might have burned you into nothing more than a smear on his floor if I hadn't decided to go with you."
Bones let out a snort. "I didn't doubt your actions for a moment. You've never been able to turn down playing the hero to rescue me."
Bastard, I thought, and hoped that got through loud and clear. Whatever Bones's motivation in coming tonight, it wasn't for romantic reasons to win me back, that was clear. Was it just vampire territorialism? Even though he didn't want me, Bones didn't want someone else to have me? That was probably it. Well, I wasn't anyone's property, as he and Gregor would learn.
"You'll regret this," I settled on saying.
Another snort. "I don't doubt that either, Kitten."
I didn't reply, just put my headphones back on.
YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS."
I eyed the abandoned building with the blown-out windows, crumpled far wall and dilapidated roof with more than a little dismay. To make matters worse, it was surrounded by a junkyard. A smelly junkyard. Even Fabian looked like he wanted to run.
Bones shrugged. "I don't see the problem. It's quite safe."
You vindictive, manipulative -
"Care to see your room?" he interrupted my mental rundown. The look on his face said he was enjoying this.
"Let me guess - it's that smashed-up car right over there," I said, pointing to a flattened old Buick.
"Oh, you're not staying out here," Bones replied, walking over to the shell of the building. "Quasimodo!" he shouted.
There was a loud creaking noise, like what a machine would sound like if it could feel pain. Then from out of the ruined side of the building, two vampires appeared as if sprouted from the ground.
"We thought you'd be here an hour ago," one of them commented. "Her food's cold."
I was about to assure this unknown person that the smell had killed my appetite anyway, when a brunette seemed to levitate from the crumbled concrete next to him.
I gave Bones a glare promising terrible revenge. He didn't look at me, but his mouth twitched.
"Next time," my mother said, forgoing a hello, "call if you're going to be late."
The building was a front. The section that appeared to have collapsed hid an elevator complete with fake concrete blocks on top of it. At least the structure below had its own air-conditioning system, so the stench from the junkyard was greatly lessened in the underground dwelling. My guess was that it was an old bomb shelter. Don used some of those back in the States for his base of operations. Waste not, want not and all that.