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“I want to see Siobhan.”
Chelle Daly waited as Mikhail Aristov, the vampire king, studied her. The unnerving quiet, the penetrating intensity of his cool blue gaze sent a ripple over her skin. Mikhail was powerful. But did his power rival hers? That was the point of today’s meeting. Chelle needed answers and the first step to getting them was a face-to-face with a dhampir she’d been forbidden to visit. It had been months since Chelle had seen Siobhan and the female had something she needed.
The one word hung in the air. No inflection gave away Mikhail’s mood. Figures. He loved to keep people guessing. Chelle was no exception. In fact, he kept her more in the dark than most. Chelle wasn’t a member of Mikhail’s coven. She wasn’t connected to the Collective. The memories of vampires long since dead didn’t float around in her noggin like they did Mikhail’s. Chelle was different. Other. Made a vampire through magic and not by the bite and blood of another vampire. Chelle was a dangerous variable and Mikhail knew it.
“She has something I want.” Giving Mikhail too much information was sure to end with him shutting Chelle down completely. But not giving him enough would cause him to be suspicious. It rubbed Chelle the wrong way that she had to ask for permission at all. The words You’re not my dad! came to mind and Chelle swallowed down a snort.
Apparently Mikhail was only capable of uttering monosyllabic words today.
He leaned back in his chair and regarded her. “To what?”
Jeez Louise! One more clipped response from him and she was going to tear her hair out. “Nothing.” As far as Chelle was concerned, Mikhail was on a need-to-know basis. “It’s just a useless relic. But I stole it and gave it to her for safekeeping. I want it back.”
Mikhail’s gaze sparked with silver and his eyes narrowed. “A key that unlocks nothing? Why do you want it, then?”
That silver stare might have been intimidating to some, but Chelle wasn’t fazed. She flashed him a feral grin. “Sentimental value.”
Mikhail’s lips thinned.
Chelle let out a sigh. “Look, it seriously doesn’t even unlock anything. It’s completely useless.” That part wasn’t exactly a lie. The relic was one part of three. Without the other two pieces, the key was essentially useless. “I’d think you’d want me to get whatever relics I could out from under her.” Using Mikhail’s rivalry with Siobhan might be dirty pool, but Chelle was grasping at straws at this point. The vampire king’s expression remained inscrutable. Her voice dropped a couple of decibels. “You can’t keep me a secret forever, Mikhail.”
Mikhail looked away. Finally an emotional response from the stoic vampire. His guilt pricked her skin. He’d kept her a virtual prisoner for months. He’d forced her into a state of solitude so unbearable that Chelle had accidentally turned a dhampir with her overzealous bite. Lucas was the only member of her dysfunctional little coven and she was grateful for his company. Without him, she would have gone mad a long damned time ago.
“Siobhan has been asking about you.” The admission took Chelle aback. “For a few weeks now. She has the chest.”
Set’s Chest. That fucking box was the very magical relic that’d made Chelle a vampire. A power-hungry panther shifter had shoved her inside, and when Chelle emerged, she’d been changed. The memory of her time in that dank, dark basement twisted her stomach into knots. She could still smell the moist earth, the mildew. Could still feel the cloying touch of magic as it crawled over her skin. A chill slithered down her spine. She’d known her twin, Ronan, had given Siobhan the chest after they’d recovered it from the shifter. She’d failed to consider the dhampir would connect the chest to Chelle’s continued absence.
“I have no loyalty to Siobhan,” she told Mikhail. “Not anymore.”
She might have been a member of Siobhan’s coven at one point, but her allegiance ended the day Chelle became a vampire. She was the mistress of her own coven now—small as it may be—and her loyalty was to Lucas.
“I’m not concerned about your loyalty.” Mikhail was careful to mask his emotions, as well as his thoughts. Chelle couldn’t help but wonder how much he knew about her unusual powers to take such precautions. “I’m concerned about Siobhan’s agenda.”
Siobhan desired one thing above all others: to be independent of the vampires. And that would never happen. Dhampirs needed vampires to exist. No matter how much Siobhan wanted it otherwise.
“A magic coffin isn’t going to give Siobhan what she wants.”
Mikhail gave Chelle a dubious glance. “No? You’re separate from the Collective, therefore separate from every other vampire and dhampir in existence. How can that not be attractive to Siobhan?”
Mikhail had a point. Damn. Siobhan might not even realize it yet, but that damned coffin might just be the answer to her prayers.
“I’m not separate from Lucas,” Chelle pointed out.
Mikhail gave a swipe of his hand as though that little tidbit of information were inconsequential. “Ronan thinks the chest is safe in her care. I’m not so sure.”
Of course Ronan would. Chelle couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “I’m not as trusting as Ronan,” Chelle said. “But I do know the last thing Siobhan will do is climb inside the chest to see what it does.”
Mikhail cocked a brow. “What about after she sees you?”
“Siobhan hates vampires,” Chelle replied. “All vampires. She’d die before she’d allow herself to be turned. By anyone or anything.”
Mikhail rested his elbows on the armrest of his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. “You’ve been incredibly cooperative considering your situation. You’ve been patient despite your restless nature. Thank you for that.”
Chelle hiked a shoulder. “I haven’t been that well behaved.” She’d turned Lucas after all. And no one needed to know about her secret late-evening Starbucks runs. She might’ve agreed to a temporary life of captivity, but she’d never agreed to go without caramel macchiatos.
A corner of Mikhail’s mouth hitched in a half smile. “Have you met you?”
When the haughty king let his guard down he could actually be quite charming. She supposed that considering her track record before her turning, Chelle had been pretty damned well behaved lately. “How are Claire and the baby?”
Mikhail’s mate had given birth to their son about a month ago. Mikhail had kept close to home during that time, not letting either one of them out of his sight. Chelle couldn’t blame him. Not as long as the Sortiari and their lapdogs still ran rampant across the city. The secret society had waged war against the vampires centuries ago, nearly eradicating the race. Over the past year, they’d abandoned their cause, but the rumor was that their berserker foot soldiers hadn’t gotten the memo. Either way, Mikhail wasn’t taking any chances.
“They’re well.” His bright smile conveyed every ounce of love he felt for his mate and son. “Both are healthy and happy.”
“That’s good.” A twinge of emotion tugged at Chelle’s chest. Would she ever know that sort of love? Would her soul ever be tethered and returned to her? “I’m glad to hear it.”
Mikhail’s gaze burned through her and a few quiet moments passed. Chelle tried not to squirm, but damn, the male had a way of making someone feel downright uncomfortable in their own skin.
“Siobhan is a variable I can’t afford to turn my back on, but neither do I have the time to keep an eye on her.” Mikhail swiveled in his chair and his brow furrowed in thought. “Go see her. Get whatever relic it is you want. Gauge her mood and the climate of her coven. But Chelle”—a sizzle of power sparked the air—“don’t make me regret the decision to cut your strings.”
The prospect of getting her hands on the relic far outweighed her annoyance at being treated like a child who’d been given permission to cross the street alone for the first time. She gave Mikhail what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Besides, it’s not like he wasn’t getting anything out of the deal. In so many words, he’d requested that Chelle spy on Siobhan for him. A bold request considering she’d been a loyal member of Siobhan’s coven for over a century. Ronan’s alliances had shifted easily enough; perhaps Mikhail assumed that Chelle’s would as well.
Mikhail wasn’t far off in his assumptions. In truth, Chelle was on only one side: her own.
“I’ll get a read on her.” What Mikhail didn’t know was that Siobhan’s thoughts would be bare to Chelle if she wasn’t careful. Chelle’s powers were unlike those of any of the vampires in Mikhail’s coven. The scope of her abilities frightened Chelle. Distracted her focus. And drove her to find answers to the mysteries of her newfound vampiric existence. Siobhan was formidable, but the dhampir’s strength was nothing compared to Chelle’s. “If she’s up to anything, I’ll let you know.”
Mikhail smiled, showing the tips of his dual sets of fangs. “Good.”
Hopefully her visit with Siobhan would prove to be good for Chelle, too.
* * *
“Gunnar, we need to talk.”
Gunnar Falk looked up to find his second standing in the doorway to his office. Aren’s stern countenance and the set of his jaw was a clear indicator that whatever Aren was about to tell him, Gunnar wasn’t going to like it. No surprise. With the reemergence of the vampire race, the supernatural political climate was rapidly changing. And Los Angeles—a mere thirty minutes from their compound—had become the epicenter for all of it.
“What is it?” As the Alpha of the Forkbeard pack, Gunnar dealt with petty squabbles and disagreements all the time. Werewolves were volatile by nature. Living in close quarters didn’t do anything to tame that. The pack functioned more like a monarchy, with Gunnar playing judge, jury, and executioner to the petitioners who laid their grievances at his feet.
Aren walked into the office and closed the door behind him. He took a seat opposite Gunnar and fixed him with a serious stare. Gunnar massaged his temple, already feeling the onset of a tension headache. What is it now?
“Rumors are beginning to circulate about an uprising.”
In the three hundred years he’d been Alpha, Gunnar had yet to be challenged by a member of the pack. One brow arched curiously as he regarded Aren. “Who?” In the recess of his psyche, a low, territorial growl resonated. Any male who sought to challenge him would meet a swift end.
Aren’s brow furrowed. “No. It’s not within the pack. Ian Gregor is planning a coup against the Sortiari.”
Gunnar settled back in his chair as he regarded Aren. The berserker warlord’s infamy spanned continents and centuries. He’d been the Sortiari’s right hand for as long as Gunnar could remember. The berserkers’ history with the guardians of fate was a tangled mess of treachery and dysfunction. It served to reason that Gregor would turn on the ones who held his leash eventually. In truth, Gunnar was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.
“The berserkers’ quarrels with the Sortiari are none of our concern,” he replied after a long moment. “It’s not pack business.”
Aren’s lips thinned. “Don’t be so sure.”
Gunnar’s wolf scratched at the back of his psyche, agitated. With the full moon only a couple of weeks away, that animal part of his nature had been quiet while the moon was on the wane. But now that the lunar cycle brought the waxing moon, the wolf became restless, anxious to be let out to play. And something about Aren’s demeanor agitated the animal.
Aren’s dark brows came down sharply over his light golden eyes. Gunnar scrubbed a hand over his shaved head and blew out a breath. Apparently his wolf wasn’t the only one on edge. “It might not be pack business now,” Aren began. “But how long do you think we’ll be able to stay out of it?”
Gunnar pushed out his chair and rounded the desk. His wolf wanted to pace and Gunnar shared in the animal’s restlessness. His muscles were taut and twitched with every step. They needed the full moon and to be free to run and hunt. Over the next fourteen days, that need would only intensify.
“As long as I can manage.” Gunnar fixed Aren with a stern expression. “The last thing I want is to incur the wrath of either Gregor or the Sortiari.”
The Sortiari were as old as recorded time. A secret society that infiltrated every aspect of civilization, the self-proclaimed guardians of fate took it upon themselves to guide the course of history as they saw fit. Two hundred years ago, they’d attempted to eradicate the vampire race. As evidenced by the race’s resurgence, that particular directive hadn’t gone as planned. Some considered it a sign that their power and influence had begun to flag. Still, Gunnar had no intention of drawing their attention.
“Why not strike while they’re weak?” Aren shrugged a casual shoulder. For a moment Gunnar remembered his friend as he’d been centuries ago: a warrior clad in leather and fur. Unapologetic. Fierce. Viking. A feral grin lit his sharp features. “And reap the spoils of war.”
Gunnar let out a snort. Modern warfare was a far cry from the time and world he’d been a warrior in. “What spoils do you think we’ll reap?”
Aren’s eyes flashed with a golden light as his wolf rose to the surface of his psyche. “Power for starters.”
Aren was an ambitious fool if he thought it would be so easy. “What do you think, Aren? That Ian Gregor would simply bite the hand that feeds him and walk away?”
“I think Gregor is interested in vengeance and little else.”
It was true that vengeance motivated every move that Gregor made, but Gunnar wasn’t convinced. “If Gregor manages to depose Trenton McAlister, may the gods help us all.”
A growl rumbled in Aren’s chest. “You overestimate the berserker.”
Gunnar fixed Aren with an icy stare and held it until the male was forced to look away. “And you underestimate him.”
Aren shifted in his seat, slumping down. He knew better than to be at eye level with his Alpha. “The Highlanders are hotheaded and rash. There’s no way they could run McAlister’s empire. It was our legends that gave those beasts a name. All they’re good for is fighting.”
It was true that the Norse legends had given a name to the Highland beasts: berserkers. And Aren was right that their talent lay in violence and little else. Still, it would be stupid to discount Gregor’s calculating mind. The male was much smarter than anyone—Trenton McAlister included—gave him credit for.
“What do you suggest, Aren? Side with the berserkers to overthrow the Sortiari and then turn on them as well?”
Aren smiled and his gaze shone with bloodlust. “Why not?” The male didn’t lack for ambition, that much was certain. “Think of it, Gunnar. You’d be the most powerful male in the country. Hell, the world. The legacy of Sweyn Forkbeard would live on in a new kingdom and you would be its king.”
Grandiose plans to be sure. Gunnar’s great-great-uncle, Sweyn Forkbeard, had indeed been a king worthy of fear and respect. He’d usurped his own father’s throne and ruled Sweden with an iron fist for almost thirty-three years before his death.
“The king of Pasadena?” Gunnar asked with a sardonic chuckle. “Or better yet, high king of California? I think the local governments would have something to say about that.”
Aren brushed the quip aside. “You know what I mean. We’re not subject to the laws of mankind. There would be no supernatural power in the country that would rival yours. Especially if you managed to knock McAlister off his metaphorical throne. The pack’s supremacy would never be called into question.”
Gunnar leveled his gaze. “It isn’t now.”
The wolf growled in Gunnar’s psyche and the sound echoed in his chest. Aren’s suggestion that his power would be called into question even now further stirred his annoyance.
“There’s no need for that sort of reaction.” Aren relaxed his posture and let his gaze drop once again. “I’m only saying you should consider the possibilities.”
Gunnar stroked his fingers along his bearded jaw. “With the berserkers and Sortiari engaged in battle, the vampires will have a prime opportunity to come into power.”
It was rumored that their numbers were still small but that didn’t mean their population wouldn’t quickly grow. Gunnar didn’t admit to know much about the vampire race, but like werewolves, a bite was all it took to make one. A few vampires could easily become a few hundred in a single lunar cycle.
“Do you really think Gregor doesn’t have his sights set on them as well?” Aren met Gunnar’s gaze for the barest moment to drive his point home. “If he can manage it, he’ll take out all of his enemies in one fell swoop.”
On that they could agree. There was no way, after centuries of strife, Gregor wouldn’t finish what he’d started and wipe every vampire—and dhampir—from the face of the earth. “None of this matters.” Gunnar rounded his desk and settled into his chair. “All of this is nothing but conjecture.”
“Possibly.” Aren moved to stand but waited for a nod of permission from Gunnar. Only with his consent could a member of the pack stand taller than the Alpha. “But every rumor is founded in truth.”
Could be. Gunnar wouldn’t discount what Aren had told him today, but neither would he jump to action or side with any party. Gunnar’s only responsibility was to serve the best interests of the pack. So far, Aren had told him nothing to convince him that taking sides in a centuries-long war would benefit the Forkbeard pack in any way.
“Keep your ear to the ground,” Gunnar said. “And notify me if there are any more rumblings of uprising on the wind.”
Aren gave a sharp nod of his head and said, “Of course,” before taking his leave.
Gunnar let out a slow breath and relaxed back into his chair. His wolf continued to fret just under the surface of his psyche, disrupting Gunnar’s thoughts. The animal was on edge. Antsy. It didn’t bode well for what was to come.
Change was on the wind and Gunnar feared it wouldn’t be for the better.
Copyright © 2017 by Kate Baxter