The Hunted

Chapter Ten

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Chapter Ten

Damali pushed open the compound door, then locked it, and staggered down the hall. She couldn't even hold her blade steady, and she dragged Madame Isis behind her, scraping the tip of it along the concrete floor. She swayed in the doorway as her team yawned and looked up, and then dropped to her knees. Marlene held up her hand to stop the guardians - who had summarily abandoned their card game - to keep them from rushing toward her.

On her hands and knees from fatigue, Damali pushed herself up and slowly stood, picking up the heavy sword, weaving where she finally righted herself. "I woulda called," she said in a weary tone. "But - "

"We know, we know!" Rider snapped. "Something literally came up - "

JL hadn't even checked the monitors when she'd approached.

"Don't look at me, fellas," Marlene said, studying her cards. "We ain't got a single weapon in the house for this - and no, I do not have a cure."

Damali yawned as the steel gates began to lift to let in the sunlight. Out of reflex, she raised her forearm to shield her face from the rose-colored glare.

"Damn. Reminds me of New Orleans," Big Mike chuckled, glancing at Damali, and then shaking his head, slapped down a card. "Relax, y'all. The girl is going out. You know you can't do nuthin' 'bout mojo. It's the most powerful shit in the world."

"Don't go there, Mike," Shabazz said, slapping down a card over his. "This shit ain't funny. The girl's probably a quart low."

"Relax," Marlene said with a weary sigh. "She's protected and grown. I ain't got no thin' to say."

Rider tossed Damali his pair of sunglasses from his vest pocket. Too uncoordinated to catch them, they hit the floor with a clatter.

"Pitiful," Rider said, looking at the now-chipped glasses. "Reflexes are all off... just outrageous. I paid seventy-five bucks for those."

"And, how's our boy?" Marlene said, unperturbed.

"He went home," Damali said through another yawn, and headed toward the kitchen. Damn... what a night.

"This is a full-scale crash and burn," Father Patrick said, shaking his head.

"You do know, Father, that the monastery has asked if we're harboring more than one illegal vampire. They are becoming concerned about the donations... after all, we cannot continue to feed him at this rate, if, well, if his present activity level continues." Monk Lin's nervous glance darted around the group that studied the body in the middle of the cabin floor.

"I know," Father Patrick admitted, glancing at his team, then down at the floor. He stooped where Carlos had fallen through the door to touch his shoulder, noting the fingernail marks that had scored his skin and where his T-shirt was ripped. "We'll figure it out later. Right now, just get him down into his lair."

"He'll be in no condition to deal with Brazil."

Father Patrick nodded at Padre Lopez's comment.

"Okay, that's it," Marlene said, her hands on her hips. "Enough! We've got work to do on this concert tour you've had Dan try to set up - and you haven't even been home or awake long enough to decide on which contracts you want him to sign, what venues you want to do first... chile, I swear! You're in no condition to travel anywhere to fight anything, and haven't worked on a single routine in over ten days."

Guilt swept through Damali, but she was still going out. Okay, so she'd taken ten days to block out the world and to claim a little happiness for herself, and yeah, she wasn't on point, wasn't on the job. But she was only human, and this thing with her and Carlos was new and white-hot.

However, Marlene's glare wasn't one of judgment, just defeat. It slowly made her think about all the things she'd promised herself after she left Inez's. Plus, there was something else in Marlene's eyes that she couldn't put her finger on.

Conflicting emotions battled within her. Marlene was right. True, the world needed a champion. But, damn, did it have to be tonight?

Marlene looked away and ran her fingers through her locks, then glanced up at the ceiling. So help me Father, I wanna slap her. She drew in a steadying breath and closed her eyes, then focused on the threat that Damali was still oblivious to. All right, she wouldn't slap the child's face with that information, and would give her a few more days of peace to get it together. No more innocents would be killed until the next full moon. Had to be demons, vamps had to feed nightly. But it was patently clear that, if Damali was so scattered, she had to pull her thing together on her own in order to be in mental condition to fight. "The fellas are worried, if we're going to a foreign country somewhere to do battle. Everybody's head has to be on straight."

"Yeah, but we've laid down all the new CD cuts, and wherever we finally sign for venues will be cool," Damali said quietly, hoping that Marlene wouldn't make her feel worst than she already did. What was Mar so worried about, anyway? She wouldn't turn, Carlos was fine... it was all good.

Damali tried to steady her hand as she put on her lip gloss in the bathroom mirror, mentally fending off Marlene's words. Just a few more nights, Lord... that's all she needed. Marlene just didn't understand. There was no such thing as the word "no" when it came to this Carlos-thing that gripped her.

"There's nothing I can say to get through to you, is there?" Marlene sighed. The poor chile was still so blind. Something was blocking her third eye - love. All she could see was Carlos, and was seriously off her job. But having been there, too, there was no judgment, just sheer frustration.

Damali set her lip gloss down and looked at Marlene.

"I'm crazy about him, Mar."

Marlene sighed again and leaned against the door frame. "I know. Heaven help me, but I know." Please, Heaven, let this child wake up.

"We haven't been attacked."

"Yet." Lord, don't make me have to go in there and have another argument with Shabazz.

"I know. We're being careful, though."

Marlene just stared at her for a moment. She'd have to take this mess to the pillow with Shabazz. The man was gonna be off the hook, if she went in there and told him another night had passed and Damali was still not tuned in to Brazil.

"You two have been lucky, that's all. And even thought your sight is partially back, it's totally focused on one thing. And that's not good. My poor overtaxed brain won't even go near you guys to monitor for safety. There are some things I just don't need to see. Do you know that even Father Patrick's second sight is blanking on him, because of the images you two left in a monastery safe house!"

"Oh, man, that wasn't supposed to happen, and we both apologized for that. It was that first night, things got carried away, but we never went back there again. Swear we didn't." And what did Marlene mean by her sight being partially back? She could see just fine. She always heard Carlos in her head loud and clear, that was for sure.

"Regardless. You're out in the streets till all hours, and neither of you has your guard up. You're both blind, and can't see beyond each other, or the stars in each other's eyes." Marlene stared at Damali hard. "Plus, one night, that brother is gonna scare the mess out of you." Marlene paused and sighed. "You're gonna find out how strong he really is, gonna see him come out of a bag that's going to freak... you... out." Marlene ran her fingers through her locks and closed her eyes. "Don't ask me how I know."

For a moment neither woman spoke. Marlene silently prayed for patience and a healthy dose of discernment. There was no competing with a new lover, especially as a mom. But if Damali didn't snap out of it, before the next full moon came near...

"He won't hurt me, Marlene. We've been through that."

"I don't doubt his heart. It's his nature that concerns me, sweetie." Marlene smiled sadly. "He is what he is, and he won't mean to, but one day, you're going to push a button, girl..." Marlene sighed hard again and looked at the floor. "You are so on the edge and don't even know it. But, we all have to see for ourselves. I did, too, so I ain't talking bad about you."

"No, seriously, Mar. Okay, I admit that a couple of third-generations tried to push up on him a few times, but you know, when both of us stood side-by-side and stared them down, it was cool. Most of the second-generations were wiped out on his order after the Nuit thing went down. It's cool. Really." Even to her own ears, her words sounded contrived, despite the truth in them. Besides, Marlene didn't know anything about something like this. Marlene's look of total disdain didn't help matters, so she pressed on. "He's been hunting at night to replenish - "

Marlene gasped.

"No, no, no, not like that. Deer. We found this cool little place in the woods that - "

"I don't want to hear any more," Marlene said quickly, holding up both hands.

"Oh, Mar, but he's wonderful." Damali sighed and leaned against the sink. She needed a good girlfriend right now so badly to share her experience with, and while Marlene was part girlfriend, she was also part mother. That mother part stood in the way of a total confession. And God knows Inez wouldn't understand. She allowed her gaze to go toward the steel-covered windows.

"We talk about everything," she said in a distant voice. "What it feels like to be the only one of your kind... growing up, knowing what it was like to be different. What made us each choose our different paths." She looked at Marlene in the eye. "He's changed so much, has seen so many things. All he needs is a second chance."

Marlene nodded. "I know, baby... you love him." She sighed with final defeat lacing her breath. "Be careful when you go out and have a good time, while it lasts."

Without another word of protest, Marlene turned, left the bathroom, and was gone.

"He's fully immersed in the Neteru, Mr. Chairman," the counselor said, pacing before the Vampire Council. "He's not rational! We have sent the edict to our families topside that there will be no attacks, but my concern is Rivera's ability to complete the Neteru-delivery mission when it is time. He is compromised, and he will not be able to part with her."

"Are you blind? Surely this is part of his strategy, Counselor Vlak, to totally seduce her, gain her trust, throw off her team's guard... He enters their compound at will, escorts her openly, even in front of the Covenant team that cannot contain him. He grows strong, not weak!" The chairman's fist landed on the table and came away with blood, momentarily stopping the argument. "We are watching vampire history in the making!"

The counselor spun on the chairman and folded his arms over his chest. "But he has not properly fed! He will be in no condition to address the Brazilian breach! Right now, given our heavy collateral damage from the civil war and the Amanthra incursion - fighting two major battles on two fronts simultaneously, Carlos Rivera is the strongest master vampire we've got topside, and he's... he's... The man has been decimated!"

For a moment, silence crackled in the room. Soon the murmur of dissent filtered among the seated council members. The chairman's eyes narrowed on the counselor.

"Could it be," the chairman offered in a lethal tone, his voice escalating with every word as he slowly stood, "that he is not feeding because he's been filled with Neteru?" The chairman knocked over his goblet and sent blood splashing to the floor. "Would you drink from mere human if you could have that as a nightly option?"

"He eats venison in the woods like a damned werewolf. A disgrace!"

Seething, the chairman reached out a bony hand, his claws extending as the fury swept the counselor close enough to him to snatch out his heart. Breathing heavily from the sudden burst of rage, he petted the terror-stricken counselor's chest. His voice became a sinister whisper. "In front of her to gain her trust. He cannot risk her believing an innocent died at his hands to inspire doubt in her. And he guards her every night from the moment the sun goes down, until dawn... when would he have time to bring down a kill?"

The chairman pushed the counselor away, and in relief, the counselor covered his heart with his hand.

"Rivera seduces her every night, at his own risk," the chairman said. "Her blood is a toxin to his system when not ripe - and he hasn't even flushed it with a human feed. He did this for the empire. A true blood sacrifice of merit."

Garnering calm, he walked behind the table, rounded it, and came to stand before the counselor, bearing fangs. He allowed his voice to dip to a threatening whisper followed by a hiss. "Now you find his soul, and you never speak ill of the master vampire who is so shrewd I wish he were my own son. Are we clear?"

"Wow," she said, laughing as she walked past the compound light barrier up the road to Carlos's car. "I thought you sold it years ago, and traded it in for the black Mercedes?"

"Yeah, well, what can I say? I sorta resurrected her from memory. I shoulda kept her and never got the sedan. I don't know what I was thinking."

He tried to seem casual, as though Damali's words didn't affect him. He watched her with sudden pride while she walked around the blood-red Chevy that used to be his heart. Although Damali had replaced his once-favorite girl on four wheels, he still had a warm spot for his old speed demon. Yeah... but the old girl couldn't hold a candle to his boo.

Damali was standing there all-fine, matching his car, in a red halter top that had rips in it like claw tears, her smooth belly exposed. Her long, gorgeous legs were sliding out from beneath a black leather mini, with her baby Isis dagger peeking out at the thigh as though her legs were flashing a hint of fang. Girlfriend was working a pair of strappy black stilettos to the bone that tied up her calf. He let his gaze travel up her legs. Damn, every time he saw her, she did something to him.

She had her hair swept up off her neck just like he liked it. Tonight she wore ruby teardrop earrings, had lost the silver and had gone to platinum settings just for him. Blood-red nails, toes, and have mercy, her mouth. She'd done something different with her eyes, too. They had a real smoky charcoal effect that made her look all-vamp.

It would have been nice to be able to pick Damali up at the door, but her guardians were just not having it. He smiled. Just like old times. Beep twice. Meet me. This was nuts.

"She's beautiful," Damali said, as she ran her hand gently down the door, but careful not to mess up the brilliant wax job. "Would'ja look at the rims on her... twenty-twos, wires, damn, Carlos. She's all that."

Damali looked at him with a wide, mischievous smile. He had to laugh.

"But how do you see over the engine to drive this thing? You got chrome coming out of the hood sittin' up higher than the driver, brother." She laughed and bent over to peer down, which gave him a nice view. "And the exhaust pipes look like they belong on Rider's Harley."

"You shouldn't make fun of a man's car, girl. It ain't right. And I don't need to see over the engine." He gave her a sexy smile and winked. "I drive her like - "

She held up her hand, laughing harder. "Do not say it."

He smiled broadly and shrugged. "I don't know what you're talking about. I wasn't gonna say, 'I drive her like I drive you.' D, all I was gonna say was, 'I sense the road - got skillz. Can drive her with my eyes closed.'"

"Uhmmm, hmmm. Yeah, aw'ight," she said, going around the vehicle one more time with a bright smile. "She is pretty. I love this car," she said, her hand trailing over the black leather seats as she walked around the convertible. "I'm not making fun of it." Then she laughed and shook her head. "Of course I like it. Always did."

She liked the car, but was also fucking with him. She knew the sound of her voice, and the way she allowed her fingers to trail over the chrome grille as she went by, the way she let her fingers hover over the custom, iridescent crimson paint job, was giving him a hard-on. But he was glad she liked the car. He should have thought of it earlier, would have been the perfect place to take her... he'd fantasized so much about it when he was a kid.

She glanced at him. "So, you wanna take her for a whirl?"

"Rhetorical question, right?" He smiled and opened the door, watching how she slid against the leather, the friction hiking up her skirt to expose more thigh and blade. Damn.

"Where are we going?"

That question made him get serious and focus. "Need to take you 'round the way for a bit. Then we can chill. Cool?"

"All right," she said, but her smile faded.

He could see the wheels in her mind turning as she gazed at the horizon. He revved the motor without needing to turn the ignition key. He put on "Choppa Style," loud, letting the bass throb through him so he didn't have to talk to her just yet. He bopped with the refrain in the music. Oh, yeah, it was on now... and we ready.

This was something that she would never understand. Before he went to Brazil solo, he had to get a few things straight, handle some business. A week ago, a couple of lower-level males had pushed up on him, in the fucking street, when he was with his woman, no less. The only reason they'd backed down is because he and Damali had stood united. That could never happen again. Motherfuckers betta recognize, and she shouldn't even need to grip her blade when she was with him. The fact that she did, still didn't sit right with him. He was her weapon - and if that wasn't clearly established, she wasn't going anywhere on tour. Period. He was just glad she hadn't siphoned that info from his brain... and he was too glad that she hadn't picked up anything in the news yet.

Yeah, he had to make a run, then deal with Brazil before girlfriend found out. The Covenant and Marlene had given their word that they'd let him handle whatever was over there alone. The fact that she hadn't gotten hip was evidence enough that she wasn't completely back... then again, he did have to admit he'd had a role in keeping her a little blind. He didn't feel guilty in the least about that bit of sleight of hand while her mind was wide open; he was not allowing his woman to go on some damned hunt. That was out. Her crazy hunting days were over. If something needed to be iced, that was his job. She just needed to stay safe.

Not to mention, it was bad enough that the council had put an off-limits marker on him, as though he needed their protection like some weak vamp human-helper. They'd even put a temporary one on Damali, like he couldn't protect her! Vlak probably loved that shit...

Carlos kept his gaze fastened to the road, allowing the Chevy's speed to kick up with his rage. "Get Low" came on, building his confidence as the music got louder, the bass got stronger, words said what he needed to hear, All skit skit, mo'fucker, Aw skit skit got-damn. The music became his pulse. Lil' Jon and the East Side Boyz' lyrics were his theme. The bastard who stole his club was his.

Over in Brazil, whatever he was tracking might not honor that council mark. Most likely it wouldn't. He needed to know that if something jumped off, he could handle it. This was personal and very primal. The kinda shit women didn't understand. Even lower levels over there were off da chain, just like in the human realms. You didn't fuck with the South American dealers without serious heat and a squad.

Yeah, he was coming into his own, as power from the throne continued to take hold of him, but it bothered him to no end that it had taken this long to build up some immunity to Damali's blood. If he was a lower level, and wasn't getting a nightly dose, who knows? But it was working in his system the way the antidote to snake bite did. Needed a little venom in the cure.

Each time he bit her, he could actually feel his system absorb all of her passion, then take a jolt from the light within her as it threaded through his system and battled with it in his veins, temporarily weakening him, almost burning his insides - only to make him stronger when he came out of the bite. She woulda scorched the insides of a second-generation brother, slow heat implosion. Damn, she was awesome. Everything about the way she'd been designed was a lethal weapon... her eyes, her scent, the feel of her skin, her voice - even her blood, and it was designed to lure a master and slay him. And the Covenant and the council said ease up. Let his system regulate. Were they nuts? How?

With power came certain privileges. The thought almost made him smile. He glimpsed her from the corner of his eye. Hopefully her system was building a tolerance, too, because he damned sure needed to bite her every night at this point.

Carlos let his breath out hard and tried to push the nagging concerns to the back of his mind. He pumped the volume till he couldn't even hear the traffic around him. "Damn," by Bonecrusher, worked.

Vibrations from the speakers nearly rocked the Chevy off the road. It didn't make sense that first night. He had been so blitzed that he couldn't even seal her wounds as he pulled out. Had sent the girl home all raggedy in the throat. He shook his head. That was some un-smooth, virgin vamp bullshit that still embarrassed him. Her people did not need to see that. He didn't blame them for the way they were acting. If it was his daughter... perish the thought. He changed the cut and blasted Nellie. Who you came wit? Yeah... shake your tail feather.

As a master vampire, as soon as the tip of the incisor was out, the punctures in her neck should have vanished. But messing with a Neteru, it took three freaking nights to master that nearly impossible level of concentration with her in his arms. Now he was about to go do something really crazy. But no leftover, second-generation wannabe from before Nuit took this region was gonna take his club! Oh, hell no. Bastard bought that shit from the DEA on auction, and had renamed it? Without asking him? No respect.

Protocol demanded that when a new master stepped up, everything got realigned, and if you wanted something you had to earn it and get it ceded. But this motherfucker, Nitro, just did a power grab? Carlos could feel the wind rushing by them, and Damali's body become tense. He needed to make a visit to New York, Miami, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Toronto, Peru, and Brazil. Hot spots. Had to get his main jaun, LA, on lock. Do a couple of shakedowns, then word would be out. Control would be reestablished.

"Baby, aren't you going a little fast?" Damali said, her tone strident and loud to compete with the bass thumping from the speakers.

Carlos looked down at the dashboard and read the speedometer: 110 mph. This was nothing. "I'm cool."

"Uh... baby? What's on your mind?"

He shrugged, bopping to the music while he kept his eyes straight ahead. "Nothing. Just wanna get a drink. See a few people. Then, we can go somewhere alone." He wasn't looking at her as he yelled over the music. He could feel her clutching her seat belt and the blood draining from her knuckles. "Where we're going," he said slowly as the Chevy sped up and bounced when it hit a seam in the road, "you gotta follow my lead to the letter."

She reached out and turned down the volume.

"Carlos, where are we going? For real."

He glanced at her, taking his eyes off the road to study her thighs. He smiled when she gripped the dashboard and almost shrieked. The mild terror the ride produced within her, plus the adrenaline, and his own rage, not to mention the way she looked and the way she smelled was making him crazy, not just a little irrational. The speed was exhilarating. The night was perfect. Maybe, later, he could convince her to sit on his lap while he did 220? He chuckled.

"All right. I'll slow down. Just wanna go see my old club. Brings back memories."

Damali glared at him. "Your old club was seized by the DEA, and I don't think it's a good idea for folks to know you're alive... I mean, you know, around."

Her concern for him warmed his heart, but she just didn't understand. "Yeah, true. But they sold it at auction. Heard a guy in my territory picked it up, and - "

"Is it a vamp club, Carlos?" She sat back in her seat as the wind whipped her face. She pushed a loose lock back up into her ponytail, then crossed her arms over her chest.

"Baby, don't act like this. It's about power. Absolute control of my zones so that no matter where you are, there won't be no shit. Feel me?" He looked at her hard, and then looked back at the road, dodging slower-moving vehicles. There was a motorcycle cop up ahead. Carlos blinded them to his eyes as they blew past him. "When you go on tour, when you're out in the street, I don't want no bullshit. If lower levels are trying me, I need to get this locked down, now."

The fact that she didn't answer him, grated him. On one hand, he was glad that she wasn't being her normally stubborn self But if she didn't challenge his need to make a stand, then her gut instinct was registering something he didn't like. Her confidence in his ability to protect her was not as firm as it should be. That, also, could never happen again.

When he pulled up to the curb, he yanked a pair of black shades out of his leather suit breast pocket and put them on. He smoothed down his burnt-gold silk shirt, tucking it firmly into his pants, and steadied himself for the inevitable - drama when he walked in with the Neteru. He studied the change to his marquis. Club Vengeance was now Club Eternity... Yeah, we'll see, when I smoke that motherfucker who owns it.

Carlos, don't start nothing in here. Please. Damali noted the tension in his body as he put his arm around her waist, and pulled her in tight. This mess was prehistoric! She watched male vampires in line puff up a little as they took a step forward, then thought better of it, ran a testosterone sensory check over Carlos, backed up, nodded, then let him through, bypassing the long line outside.

Lower-level, third- and fourth-generation females snarled under their breaths at her, but gave Carlos seductive smiles that she did not appreciate. Cleavage was everywhere, some of it real, some of it plastic. Some of her stage outfits weren't as daring as what some of these women were wearing. Damali almost felt dowdy in comparison.

But an eerie defensiveness entered her as Carlos escorted her to the bar, his gaze roving over what was once his. She could feel his rage building the deeper they walked into the club. Every nuance, every change within his environment sent a jolt through him. His grip tightened on her waist as he glanced up at the VIP booth and what had once been his office.

She could feel it in her bones, like a summer rain coming. Her man was outnumbered, and all she had on her was the baby Isis, her short blade.

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, his head jerked around and he pinned her with a hard stare. His gaze was so intense that it nearly burned her. She could see red flickering behind his dark shades. The warning in his eyes was implicit - Don't ever doubt me like that! Not here! He pulled away from her and offered her a seat, running his tongue over his incisors and breathing slowly through his nose.

She touched his arm gently. He looked down at her hand and nodded. She let her breath out very slowly. Okay, she had to learn the nuances of vampire culture fast and on her feet. But, then again, it wasn't all that different from life as she knew it on the streets. Primal. Alpha males in full force. Any hint of weakness was quickly sniffed out, any sign of disrespect swiftly dealt with. She sighed. She'd rather be making love.

"Later," he muttered, his gaze slowly going around the club.

Damali opened her mouth and closed it. Okay, he was definitely getting stronger, because she hadn't even mind locked with him that time.

"Chivas, just a hint of color," he told the bartender, "top shelf. How old is it?"

"Two days," the bartender said, smiling, bringing him a bottle to inspect. "Got same day if you want it?"

Carlos stared at him. "I asked you for top shelf, didn't I?"

"My bad," the bartender said, holding up his hand, and removing the offending bottle. "For the lady?"

"Dom - no color," Carlos said, not even looking at her.

Damali's gaze shot between Carlos and the bartender. Carlos's gaze was constantly sweeping the terrain, but the bartender was totally focused on Carlos.

"No color? In here?" the bartender said after a moment, and then shook his head. "You a bold mo'fucker." He pulled down a short rocks glass and a black bottle from the top shelf, along with a bottle of Chivas Regal, and blended the blood and liquor before Carlos. He then got a clear champagne glass and poured Dom Perignon for Damali, hesitating as he gave it to her. "Remember, I'm just the bartender... I just work here, if anything jumps off."

Carlos swirled the drink around in his glass, threw the murky concoction into the back of his throat, swallowed fast, and then winced as he set down the empty glass hard. He handed the bartender a C-note. "You tell your boss that the old owner is here, and that he's a bold motherfucker, too."

Carlos stared at the paralyzed vampire. His dark brown eyes glittered with fear and what little color was in his thin face drained away. "Now would be a good time for you to hit that panic button by the register," Carlos said in a low, even tone. "You don't want to make me go up to my old office to get him."

She knew this was a bad idea... She should have listened to Marlene! Now she was in Hell's kitchen, surrounded by vamps, and a mortal combat was about to jump off. Oh my G -

Not in here!

"My bad," she whispered. She could see the vamps in the midsection of the dance floor area discreetly realign themselves. Females gravitated ever so subtly to certain males. Certain males grouped together, bulking slightly - not too much, but like they were on standby. Humans quickly exited, on the excuse of needing a smoke, whatever, but even human helpers knew that their markers were no protection when two dominant males squared off.

Carlos hadn't even moved. He was sipping a second drink, appearing casual with his back to the staircase that led to the owner's office. Part of her was indignant; she could understand how he felt. They'd changed the paint to a sick purple. Had switched out his once beautiful black marble and mahogany bar, and put some crazy Lucite in there. The music was all right, but the lights were giving her a headache. The place had been classy before. Now it was so... tacky, it didn't make sense. She looked at Carlos as his biceps flexed.

Damali could feel his rage building as he was forced to wait for the new owner to grace him with his presence.

Suddenly Carlos stood up, looked at her, and nodded. "You're right, baby. It is tacky."

She opened her eyes wide. "Don't do it," she whispered. "Not - "

Damali closed her eyes and shook her head, knowing it was already done. When she opened them again, the old decor was in place, Carlos was smiling, six inches of fang showing, his brows knitted as he studied his old establishment.

"Much better."

The twenty vamps in the room immediately went into battle stances, but parted as a tall, very angry second-level vampire stormed down the stairs from the offices. She watched, numb, as a lanky, built brother with locks came barreling down the stairs, eyes solid red.

"Out of order!" he said, pointing at Carlos.

"No, motherfucker - you are way out of order." Carlos hadn't raised his voice, but the crowd stepped back.

She watched Carlos stand, turn slowly, and take off his shades. He was eye-to-eye with the male who faced him. The brother backed up, his long locks swinging. The competitor brandished gold-capped fangs with diamonds in them, and his eyes glowed the same color red as his silk shirt. His territory crest medallion moved with his cinder block chest as he took in and released air hard. When he recognized Carlos, he snarled.

"They said you were dead."

"You know in our world, hearsay is dangerous, and doesn't hold up in council."

She watched a half smile cross Carlos's face. She tensed when she picked up motion in her peripheral vision. Five females had slowly gathered behind the new club owner, but when Carlos had spoken, they took a deep breath and hung back, their positions now in the middle of the two potential combatants without a clear choice being displayed. Deep.

"I'ma give you a choice," Carlos said, his voice low and lethal. "Since you didn't know I was around, as you claim, you can get your shit and your bitches out of my club - now, or die." Carlos walked to the center of the dance floor, putting space between him and Damali. "What will it be? And tell me my lair in Beverly Hills hasn't been opened. If you breached my lair, motherfucker, there will be no saving your ass. I'll pull a bone out of it."

She couldn't believe what she was watching. The five females walked over to Carlos and stood behind him as the other male bulked but he still didn't make a move.

"Like I said, man. I didn't know," the club owner said.

"Knowledge is power," Carlos said in a deep rumble that made the females come nearer to him, tilt their heads, close their eyes, and inhale his scent.

"Oh, Carlos... We had been looking for you, baby. Where you been?" one tall, voluptuous, female said, her island lilt pouring over him.

"Later," Carlos said. "Back up off me while I'm handling my business."

Later? Damali bristled as she watched the vamp flash her man a hint of fang, her breasts practically falling out of her red halter dress as she smiled and backed away. Damn hoochie had her double-D tits up in his face, and the Latina chick with the black patent leather bondage gear was gonna make her slap her if she tossed that long, silky pony-tail seductively one more time. Yeah, that blonde had betta recognize, too.

"How'd you feed?" the new club owner asked.

"That's my business," Carlos said, his tone icy. He gave the other vampire a stare that practically turned him to stone. "We understand each other?"

"You fed from her?" The blond female asked, her glare narrowing on Damali.

"Respect," Carlos said calmly, nodding toward Damali. "Don't come into my lair, unless I call you. She brought me back. Chill."

What? Now she was going to air this whole joint out. What did Unless I call you mean? Had he lost his mind? And hadn't he told those females to back off?

She watched them move away from Carlos, confusion crossing their faces. Then they glared at her. The venom in their glares felt like daggers piercing her body. That was cool, too. She would gladly handle them.

But, then, just as the storm was about to pass, the club owner breathed in deeply and looked at her. Damn it, her rage had spiked the air, and now he was looking at her with a little too much interest.

"You was gone a long time, Rivera. Heard they fucked you up bad in the tunnels. Month or so of rehab... word is, you ain't eating right. None of your lairs are sealed. Ain't answering no calls. Makes people wonder if you mighta gone soft. Dragging a human female around, and shit. Council mighta marked you, but anything goes topside. Accidents can happen." Then he looked at Damali. "He taking care of you, baby? If - "

"Yeah, he takes care of me," Damali said through her teeth. "Back off."

"Accidents do happen in the strangest places... like clubs. Happens every night," Carlos said evenly. "Believing your own hype is a dangerous thing. So is pushing up on my woman right in my face."

"Hey..." The new owner opened his arms and smiled. "If a man's got the skills to pull her, just like a man's got the skills to move up and take this club... what can I say?"

Damali braced herself for the lunge, but was shocked when Carlos just smiled.

"Wanna test your skills the old-fashioned way? Brute strength, I got you. I'm talking about who can finesse the best - since you're talking shit about my woman. Let's take it to the master level, since you wanna be one so bad."

The second-level male glanced around the room as the females again hovered between the two would-be combatants.

"I'm not gonna mess up my club," Carlos said casually. "And I'm not really trying to dust any more vamps in my territory - lost too many in the civil war. But if you think you can take me on a skills challenge, then let's go. Winner takes all."

The second-generation vamp laughed. "Your punk ass is so soft, you ain't even trying to fight. Pitiful."

Again the females shifted. The second-level vamp was focused on Damali, but kept Carlos in his line of vision.

However, the room went still when Carlos closed his eyes, and opened them. Pure red-glowing fury was in them when he did so. Eight inches of battle-fangs had dropped, his shoulders had bulked by three inches. He opened his hand and shock spread across the vamp's face as he started to move across the floor toward Carlos, obviously against his will.

"There is no fight, because it isn't worth it. Ripping out your punk heart will just mess up my suit and put me in a very bad mood, and I'm with my lady tonight." He body slammed him against the bar, hurling him across the room to collide with it, and looked down at where he'd fallen on the floor.

"Get up. Find your car keys. We do this the old-fashioned way."

Carlos ordered. He glanced around the bar. "If he lives to tell about it, he can keep this club. If I smoke him, all my lairs get resealed, and you let the regions know I'm back and I ain't bullshitting. Don't make me go lair to lair, kicking in doors to make it known - I ain't got that kinda time, but I will if I have to."

Visibly shaken, the challenger stood up. But it was clear that the scent of adrenaline-spiked Neteru was making him foolish and cocky.

"Aw'ight, man. A skills test. You ain't been a master that long. Before Nuit, an old master had this region, and even Nuit had years on you - "

"And Nuit got his ass neutered by this hand," Carlos said, his glare narrowing as he flexed his fist. "Bet you heard that, too."

The females smiled and nodded. "We did," one of them breathed.

"What's the challenge?" the Caribbean chick said, boldly going to Carlos and leaning against him.

"My Chevy against your Hummer. Twenty miles. Dematerializing, materializing grand prix - open highway, then through streets. No human body count, no property or collateral damage. Smooth as silk, dead as night, no witnesses. Winner takes all." Carlos spoke directly to the challenger and extricated himself from the female's embrace.

"That's not fair," the second-level vamp said, trying to save face and back out. "Your car is lighter, has less weight, and - "

"What, punk? You scared?" Carlos chuckled and studied his nails. "Tell you what. I'll weigh my car down with a human female. Complicated cargo, especially when it gets hyped, tense, screaming, adrenaline-kicking, Neteru in full effect, distracting as shit. You don't have to take a human-helper with you, to keep it fair. Cool? Takes a lot of skill to jettison vamp bodies and illusion-matter at high speeds, switch frequencies, and bring human cellular structure through solid matter and then come out on the other side without losing velocity. Need skills like that to hit V-point, too - ask the ladies. That's why I'm a master, and you're not. So, either your out-of-order ass goes for the ride, or I can just smoke you here. I'm giving you a chance to do what you should have done when I walked through that door." Carlos smiled. "Run."

Damali couldn't catch her breath. Carlos was out of his mind. She was not getting in that car! She glanced around quickly as the five females draped themselves on him. She watched in horror as the other males in the room gave him a nod of respect, reduced bulk, and pounded fists. She watched the second-level vampire shakily produce his car keys in his hands and nod without a word. She watched her man nod at her. Was he mad?

Carlos stared at her. Damali stared at him.

Two females were at his side, nuzzling his neck.

"Carlos, baby, if you pull this off, call me, hear? Tonight."

He stroked the bondage-gear-wearing babe's hair, and gently pushed her away.

"If she lives through it," Carlos said seductively, "I gotta save it for her. You know that, right, mami?"

Damali's jaw went slack.

"But, baby, she can't deliver a double plunge bite or hit V-point with you," the babe from the Caribbean said, running her hand down Carlos's chest. "When you take this human bitch home, come back to Beverly Hills before dawn, lover. I know it's been a while since you had it like a master needs it."

"I'll see," he murmured, looking at Damali. Come to me, now. Don't front. Not here.

"Just nip me before you go, baby," the blonde murmured against his throat. "This is the wildest shit I've ever seen. You're turning me on."

The two sisters from around the way had book-ended Carlos. It was like an out-of-body experience as she watched this madness go down. Damali didn't know which vampire to stab first - Carlos, or one of the babes up in his face. And even though common sense told her to leave, something purely female had her rooted to the floor.

"Baby, that weak punk is gonna spin out on the first turn." They both looked at Damali. "Why don't you bring her back to the lair, and we can all eat in the Jacuzzi. Bet she'll be pumping enough adrenaline to knock everybody's head back."

Come to me now!

Carlos held Damali's gaze with his unwavering line of vision. The other males were slapping each other high-fives, laughing, talking about the pending race. Vampires were placing wagers and yelling about how awesome this whack shit was going to be. Damali folded her arms over her chest. Come to you? Get those bitches out of your face, now!

When he didn't move and one amorous female vamp grazed his earlobe with her fang, Damali started walking forward, her hand sliding up the side of her skirt toward her dagger.

"Do not make me come over there," she whispered, making the room go still.

Then Carlos chuckled. "See, that's why I'm crazy about her. She's nuts." But he untangled himself from the females' hold and got out of Damali's swing range. "C'mon, baby. We do this like old times - only you don't drop the bandanna. You ride shotgun. Cool?"
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