Fabian floated around like a transparent maitre d', reporting in when the drinks or hors d'oeuvres ran low. Spade and Ian paid their formal respects in line. About thirty introductions later, Annette was next. She wore a strapless dress that looked poured onto her voluptuous figure. Long black gloves added a classy touch to the gown's sexiness. Next to her, I felt like Carrot Top in drag.
She put her arms around me. Taken aback, I froze. Annette squeezed me once, and whispered, "You made the right decision," and then let me go with a smile.
"Don't you look lovely, Cat? It would seem death becomes you indeed."
I hadn't expected such a warm greeting from her. "Thank you," I managed. "I heard it was all the rage this season."
She laughed, her chuckle holding a sinful undercurrent. "Dare I hope your heterosexual exclusivity has been buried along with your pulse?"
Now there was the Annette I knew. A voracious shark disguised behind a beautiful woman.
"That hasn't changed," I told her dryly. "Kind of you to inquire, though."
Her eyes sparkled. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. Ah, well, must move along. Frightful lot of blokes here to watch you not breathe, after all."
I saw a familiar frame lingering near the front entryway. Dark straight hair with its pronounced widow's peak framed an angular face while coppery green eyes met mine.
The tenseness of the past hour had taken its toll on me, making me so glad to see someone I trusted that I left my place to greet him. He smells like cinnamon and smoke, I thought when I hugged him. What an interesting combination of scents.
Then I became aware that the room had fallen silent. When I looked around, everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at us - and the look Bones gave me could have freeze-dried steam.
"Kitten," he said. "Would you kindly return...now."
Uh-oh. Guess I'd committed a faux pas by greeting a friend out of order.
"I gotta go do this," I muttered to Vlad. "Thanks for coming."
"Of course." His smile changed from the genuine one he'd given me to its usual sardonic curl. "Go greet your fans."
My fans, indeed. I'd never felt more judged or dissected in my life than I had tonight. Forget my lack of heartbeat or breathing; if someone had pried open my mouth and demanded to see my fangs, I wouldn't have been surprised.
"So sorry," I said to Bones. It surprised me that he was rigid, anger wafting from him like he'd been splashed with kerosene.
"Quite," he said, ice warmer than his tone. "Let me introduce you to Malcolme Untare. You'll recognize him by another name. Apollyon."
I almost snatched my hand back from the insipid grip of the man I'd barely glanced at. This was the ghoul who'd been spreading the most rumors about me?
Malcolme Untare, or Apollyon, as he'd named himself, was my height if I was in bare feet. He had black hair anybody could see was dyed, and even had one long piece wrapped around his head in that way some men did to fool no one into believing they weren't bald. I resisted a sudden strong urge to tug away that piece and scream peekaboo! at his bare crown underneath. Since I just left him standing there after I'd dashed off to welcome Vlad, however, I thought that might be pushing things.
But some things couldn't be helped. "How do you do?" I asked, giving him a more-than-firm handshake.
Apollyon let go like touching me had been distasteful. He had flat blue eyes and those smooth baby cheeks seemed at odds with his persona. Somehow I thought he should be covered in warts because he reminded me of a mean, squat toad.
"You are just as I expected you to be," he said with a scornful twist of his lips.
I straightened to my full height. In heels, I had two inches on him. A prick like Apollyon would hate to be looked down on by a woman. "Let me return the compliment."
"Kitten," Bones drew out.
Right, this was supposed to be a "no stones thrown" affair. "Great to meet you, Apollyon, and make sure you save me a dance. I'll just bet you've got on your boogie shoes."
Vlad made no attempt to hide his laughter. Mencheres gave me one of those you're-not-being-prudent glares, and Bones looked like he wanted to throttle me. Well, too bad. Apollyon had tried to incite people to kill me and other vampires, all based on lies and paranoia. Damned if I was going to kiss his ass and say it tasted like candy.
Apollyon moved past me reeking with anger - I was getting good at this scent thing! - and I fixed another false smile on my face as I greeted the next dubious well-wisher.
IT WAS AFTER I'D SHAKEN THE LAST PERSON'S hand in line that Bones turned to me and spoke through a clenched jaw.
"Why did you invite Tepesh?"
I glanced over at Vlad, who was on the far side of the room talking with a vampire named Lincoln. To my knowledge, it wasn't the same man who'd freed the slaves, but then again, he was really tall.
Bones stared at me as if weighing whether I was telling the truth.
"Ask him yourself if you don't believe me," I said, exasperated. "Not that I mind Vlad being here, but it didn't occur to me to invite him since he wasn't one of the people screaming for my head."
"Keep your voice down," Bones hissed, tugging me none too gently toward an alcove near the front door.
I didn't know what he was so angry about. Had it really been such a big deal for me to leave the line and say hello to Vlad? Frigging vampires and their warped rules.
Though maybe I should rethink that statement, since as a full vampire, I was insulting myself now, too.
"What is your problem?" I asked, keeping my voice very low.
Bones looked at me like I'd grown two heads. "My problem, pet, is you leaving my side to greet your former lover as if you'd severely missed him."
Now it was my turn to stare at Bones like he'd morphed into an alien being. "My former lover? Have you lost your mind?"
In my disbelief, my voice wasn't as soft as it had been before. Bones's fingers tightened on my arm. "Do you want to air our business in front of everyone? Just say the word, then."
I forced myself to calm down, because otherwise, I'd get really shrill. "What gave you the idea that I'd had sex with Vlad?" I managed to ask in a whisper.
Bones raised a brow. "Charles telling me about how he'd rung you when you were in bed with Tepesh."
Oh for God's sake, that's right. Spade's phone call that morning when Vlad slept in my room. With everything that had happened, I'd forgotten about how that would have looked.
"You know how you told me I should have asked you about what happened in New Orleans, instead of assuming based on appearances? Well, back at you, Bones. If you had asked, I'd have told you I've never had sex with Vlad. I've never even kissed him. We slept together because we were both lonely and needed a friend. Nothing more."
From his face, Bones was wrestling with the information. I tapped my foot. If I can believe you picked up girl after girl with Cannelle and only drank them to sleep, then you'd better be able to believe me about Vlad, I thought with a glint.
"All right," he said at last. "I believe you, and I should have asked."
"I can't believe you thought I slept with Vlad, yet you decided not to mention it."
"Oh, I would have mentioned it, just not until this situation with your mum was resolved." His voice was rough. "I thought you did it because you believed I'd cast you off and had been shagging multiple women myself. I understood how it could have happened, though I damn sure wasn't going to let it continue."
So that was the other reason Bones challenged Vlad to a death match the night he'd taken me from the Impaler's house. He hadn't just wanted me away from Vlad out of concern over Vlad sacrificing me instead of his people if ghouls attacked.
"You came to get me even though you thought I was cheating on you?"
Bones cupped my face. "You pulled me out of New Orleans even though you believed I'd left you and humiliated you with several other women. That's what vampires do, Kitten. We always come for what's ours, no matter the circumstances."
I was just thinking I'd never been happier to be a vampire when a withering voice crackled the air.
"Take your hands off my wife."
My whole body stiffened as I turned in disbelief. The opened door behind me gave a clear view of Gregor striding up.
Bones pushed himself between me and the advancing vampire. I felt rather than saw Mencheres glide over to us.
"You are not welcome here, Dreamsnatcher," Mencheres said with frightening courtesy.
"Mencheres." Gregor had a cold curl to his lips. "You thought you'd won, taking her memory away and imprisoning me all those years, but you failed. Everyone now knows that Catherine and I are bound, and our laws state that at any formal gathering where one spouse is present, the other can't be refused entry."
Gregor was right. In fact, why hadn't I thought of that? Why hadn't the several-thousand-year-old vampire next to me thought of that? Hell, where was one of Mencheres's famed visions when it would actually be useful?
"I've never been called a more degrading insult than your wife," I ground out. "Where is my mother, Gregor?"
Vlad also moved closer. Between him and Mencheres, if Gregor dared to attack, he'd be immobilized, then deep-fried until crispy.
This might turn out to be a great party after all.
"Your sharp tongue only guarantees you more punishment," Gregor replied as he swept inside the house.
Unexpectedly, Bones smiled, running his hand down my arm in a slow caress.
"Don't care for her tongue, do you? How strange. I find it's one of my favorite parts."
Gregor started forward in a rage - and then stopped. Gave a cagey look at Mencheres and Bones. Then he let out a rich laugh.
"No," he said. "I won't cast the first blow under an all-truce. You and I will have our day, chien, but not today. In fact, I came because I have a present for Catherine."
Rodney elbowed people out of the way, glaring at Gregor with almost as much hatred as I did. Gregor didn't mind. He smiled as he looked behind him at the woman making her way to the house. She was dressed in a red gown with a white fur coat. She had a leash in her hand, another vampire crawling behind her at the end of it.
"You're dead," I said in disbelief.
The auburn-haired woman laughed. "Oui, Catherine! You should know, as it was you who killed me. But you made a mistake. You fed me vampire blood just before slaying me, and then you sent me back to Gregor with my head attached. Merci for that. He wouldn't have been able to raise me as a ghoul otherwise."
Cannelle smirked the whole time she said it. Meanwhile, I wanted to smack myself. Of course. Cannelle had swallowed some of Ian's blood right before I stabbed her in the heart. Gregor would have known that by filching it from my dreams, same way he'd learned countless other details. Cannelle had wanted to be a vampire, but as it turned out, I'd helped make her a ghoul instead.
Cannelle kicked the vampire near her feet. I glanced down, saw long dark hair hiding a woman's face...and my blood ran cold.
"No," I whispered.
The vampire's head came up, her hair falling to the side - and I sprang forward.
Bones snatched me back. I struggled, desperate to get to her and horrified by the glowing green ringing her previously blue eyes.
"Catherine." Her voice wavered, so unlike its normal, strident tone. "Please. Kill me."
"Bones, let me go!"
He mercilessly tightened his grip and hauled me back instead. Next to me, Spade had Rodney in a similar grip as the ghoul hurled curses at Gregor. Mencheres strode forward and pointed his finger an inch from Gregor's chest.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Gregor threw back his head and laughed. "This is my present to my wife. See how merciful I am? Now Catherine can have her mother forever with her...once my loyal Cannelle no longer needs a servant, that is."
Cannelle smiled and delivered a kick to my mother's face. She fell over.
"I will kill you for this, Gregor!"
A booming began in my ears. At first I thought it was just the thwacking of my fists against Bones, who was using all of his strength to hold me. But then I realized the noise wasn't coming from that. It was coming from inside of me.
Cannelle's eyes bugged. There were shocked mutters. People all around began to stare. Apollyon pushed his way through the crowd, then glared at me.
"Her heart's beating. What trickery is this?"
I don't know who threw the first punch, but all of a sudden, everyone was brawling. Apollyon and the ghouls surged toward me, shouting.
Bones snapped, "Get her away from here," then handed me to Vlad before jumping into the melee. Vlad held me in a viselike grip, backing away. Mencheres began casting out his power like a net to try to and subdue the violence, but there were too many powerful undead people to freeze them all. Shouts flew through the air, then people, as things got more physical, and at last, there was fire as Vlad decided to make an exit.
A wall of flame appeared around us, protecting us as he elevated straight upward while clutching me. In the next instant, the ceiling blasted over our heads. Then the next one, and the next, until nothing but the night sky was above us.
"Goddammit, I won't leave them!" I shouted, as we vaulted through the ruined roof.
"It's the only way," Vlad muttered, squeezing me so hard I would have puked if I still could.