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The idiot attorney in the gray suit continued to natter on about something useless---the most beneficial way to structure a retirement portfolio or some such rot---but Sullivan Quinn had long since tuned it out. The hair on the back of his neck bristled to attention. His muscles tensed and his nostrils flared as he drank in the tormenting fragrance. Somewhere in this snugly elegant club, among these rooms full of werefolk and vampires, witches and magic-users, in the middle of a January cold snap, he could smell the sweet, elusive scent of honeysuckle vines.
And it was driving this particular werewolf out of his bloody mind.
"... lost it when the dot-com bubble burst," short, bald, and boring continued. "Really knocked me for a loop. I didn't have a bite for nearly three days."
Quinn made some sort of not even remotely sympathetic sound and breathed in deeply.
To the left.
His head snapped around, light brown eyes no doubt glowing in reflection of his intensity. He scanned the area thoroughly and tried to suppress a growl when he didn't see an obvious source of the fragrance. It called to him, a sweet heady beacon of femininity, fertility, and fuckability. His three favorite f-words.
Maybe he'd been too long without a lover, or maybe his family was right and his hormones were telling him he was getting too old not to have a mate. Then again, maybe he'd just been sent round the bend by the corrupting influence of New York City. Whatever it was, all he knew was that he wanted that honeysuckle.
What he wouldn't give just then to be back among his own pack, where he could order the bright, intoxicating flowers brought to him like tribute.
Okay, so maybe that was a bit much. As guth of his pack, Quinn lacked the ultimate authority of Alpha, but he made up for it with a freedom and respect enjoyed by few others. Whereas Lupines deferred to the Alpha because of his power, they looked up to the guth because of the scope of his responsibilities. After all, in addition to being the pack's ambassador and negotiator, the guth was the keeper of its traditions, its histories, and its stories. He was the pack's living link to its past, as well as their insurance of a favorable future. So they might not have brought him the honeysuckle as tribute, but they would at least have let him end his current conversation without giving the impression of terminal rudeness.
"Oh, I got over it, of course. Drank three pints straight from the bags before I was fit company again," the charismaless wonder said, peppering his delivery with a few smug chuckles. "That'll teach this old vamp a new trick or two. You'll never catch me on another starvation diet!"
Quinn ignored the man's forced joviality---which, coming from a vampire who looked like Oliver Hardy, frankly creeped him out---and continued to search. He had to find that honeysuckle. In the last forty seconds, it had become the most important goal in his universe. Never mind that he'd flown from Ireland not two days ago to represent his country at a critical international meeting of Others, staking the honor of himself and his pack on his abilities as a diplomat. Bollocks to that. He needed those flowers.
". . . portfolio had been cursed by some old Cuban woman I bumped into at the market. Cost a fortune to have a witch break the spell, but since then things seem to be picking up steam. I've been quite pleased."
The small part of Quinn's brain that hadn't been commandeered to join the search team allowed him to respond with an eloquent grunt. Then Quinn inhaled another hint of honeyed blossoms, and that last holdout joined the search.
The Emperor of Ennui paused for breath and swirled his glass of watered-down bourbon. "But that's enough about me---"
"Yes," Quinn agreed. The hell with good manners. He had more important things to concentrate on, like giving in to the compulsion to follow his nose and leaving Sir Stultifying to yammer away at thin air.
He wove his way through the crowd of people gathered to welcome him and his fellow European representatives to America, ignoring every single one of them. Right then and for the first time in his life, he didn't care about his standing in diplomatic circles, about the long history of his family as ambassadors among the Others, about his reputation as a man who helped ease the way of his people into the future while keeping alive the stories of their traditions past.
Bugger all of that. He ignored the men who knew him and the women who wanted to and the important figures he'd come all this way to meet. He kept his attention focused straight ahead and followed the beckoning tendril of scent like a man in the desert followed a mirage. Single-mindedly. And hungrily.
He forgot about being a dignitary, forgot about being a guest, even forgot about being an Irishman. Christ, what had gotten into him? He knew the very thing that made him good at his job was that he always kept his cool, no matter how provoking the circumstances. He'd never have made an effective guth otherwise. Yet here he was, and there his cool went.
He continued to wonder about it even as the lingering scent drew him like a ring through his nose among the crowds that milled in the hall. There seemed to be folk everywhere, walking in and out of rooms, talking, laughing, and interacting with a tranquillity that the uninitiated might have found astonishing. After all, in a room full of predators, someone usually had to be the prey.
At one time that might have been true, and on more than one occasion Quinn had longed to return to the old ways---usually after settling a mind-numbingly unimportant dispute between packs. But just as the humans had evolved from Vikings to crusaders to frantic missile-defense builders, so too had the Others of the world evolved. They'd learned many centuries ago that to fight among themselves merely gave the humans an advantage in fighting them as well. For some, a common enemy made for as solid a truce as a common goal.
For once, though, Quinn's mind was not on the politics of truces or enemies or common goals. It wasn't on the advice his father had given him the day he'd taken over as guth: Always keep his wits about him, no matter what the distraction, no matter how strong the temptation. No, every brain cell he had, be it manly or bestial, had fixed on the sunshine yellow of honeysuckle flowers and the sweet taste of their nectar. He needed a sip. Now.
The mysterious scent maddened him, strong one moment, fleeting the next. Bloody hell, less than forty-eight hours in the country and he'd already developed an obsession. No wonder his pack had jokingly told him New York City would drive a good Irishman mad. They could be right.
His gaze shot toward the ceiling, as if he expected to see leafy green tendrils twining their way down from the chandeliers. Instead, he blinked up at lovely, white plasterwork like a drooling moron.
He grunted something unintelligible---well, unintelligible to all but another Lupine---and continued to stare.
The growl in that repetition got his attention, and Quinn lowered his gaze from the ceiling of the main hall of the Vircolac Club to the curious face of Tobias Walker, a master of bad timing and representative of his host pack, the Silverback Clan. From the moment of their first meeting thirtysome hours before, they'd fallen into the easy and insulting rapport of good friends or bad brothers.
Tobias raised an eyebrow. "If you're looking for the security cameras, buddy, you're not going to find them. Logan Hunter installed them himself before he moved up north. The security here is top-notch."
"Fascinating, I'm sure," Quinn said, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply. "But I'm really rather busy at the moment, Walker. I'll buy you a pint later and let you bend my ear as long as you please. Now, if you'll excuse me---"
He had barely turned toward the stairs before Tobias caught his shoulder and spun him back around. "Not so fast, Quinn. I didn't come over here to chat about the weather. I'm playing messenger."
Quinn barely paused. "Then tell your message-giver that I'm unavailable for the next little while, will you, boyo? I've more important things to see to at the moment."
"Afraid I can't do that, pal. This is business."
Quinn bit back the curse. Of all the bloody times for someone to remind him of his duties. It served as yet more proof that God must hate him.
"What type of business?"
"The type you came here for."
Just then, Quinn spotted the stairway, half-concealed around a corner, and wanted to howl at the injustice. He knew that was where the honeysuckle was leading him, and he couldn't get to it. In a minute, someone was going to dangle a raw porterhouse in front of his nose and then tell him it wasn't time for dinner. He just knew it.
He rounded on Tobias, eyes blazing with frustration. "D'you think you might be a tad more specific, lad?"
"Lad? What the hell has gotten into you?" Tobias paused only long enough to hear Quinn's snarl before he snapped back. "Whatever it is, don't bite the messenger, Cujo. Adele Berry has asked to meet you."
The name pierced Quinn's distraction. "Berry? She sounds familiar, but I can't---"
"She holds a seat on the Council's Inner Circle."
"That's the spirit." Tobias clapped one hand on the other man's shoulder and turned him back toward the club's enormous ballroom. The room he'd just left. Because it was in the opposite direction of his honeysuckle flowers. "She's holding court near the champagne fountain. You're just gonna love her."
Grinding his teeth to sand, Quinn shrugged the hand off his shoulder and headed resentfully in the indicated direction. "Certainly I will. I can tell from the sugared tone of your voice that I shall treasure this experience for all time."
"You'll certainly remember it for all time. No one forgets their first meeting with Dame Adele."
Glancing briefly backward, Quinn caught the uncomfortable expression that passed across Tobias's face.
"Yeah," the American said, "you might not want to call her that . . . you know, to her face."
"Why, thank you, Tobias. I'm not certain I would have worked that one out for myself."
"I'm here to help."
"And why don't you help yourself to a silver suppository, you supercilious Yank bast---"
"Good evening, young man."
If Quinn clenched his teeth any harder, he'd wind up having them removed from his sinuses.
Turning his back to the Lupine he'd like to strangle, he blew out a slow breath and pasted a charming smile on his face for the small, elegant woman seated before him. After all, she might have bad timing, but business was business.
"Ma'am," he said, taking her frail, soft hand in his and evaluating her at a glance. She had the look of an aged Audrey Hepburn and the bearing of Queen Victoria. "Sullivan Quinn. I'm honored to be making your acquaintance."
"Indeed, Mr. Quinn, I know quite well who you are." She had the imperious tone used only by royalty or three-year-olds. Even he would be hard-pressed to match her for arrogance. "I am Adele Berry, one of the organizers of this little soirée and of your visit here to the United States. I know everything there is to know about you."
Quinn straightened to his full height and fought to keep his hackles from rising. He had been brought up to respect his elders. Right up until the day he could best them in a fight. "Now that would be an impressive achievement, ma'am, and one I'd be curious to know the trick of."
She stared at him from surprisingly dark and canny eyes. "I didn't get to be where I am by revealing my tricks, Mr. Quinn. Nor did I ask the Silverback to introduce us so we could make small talk about your ignorance."
His breath hissed in so loudly, he knew she must have heard it. She just chose to ignore it.
"I required an introduction," she said, straightening her impeccable posture even further, hands folded delicately over the handle of a silver-hilted cane. "I required an introduction because I want to know if the rumors I've heard about your planned speech before the Council might possibly be true."
Quinn bit back an impatient retort and searched for a conciliatory answer. When that didn't work, he searched for civility. "As I'm not privy to such rumors, having only arrived in New York two short days ago, I can't speculate on the truth of them, ma'am."
"Kindly do not play word games with me, young man. I asked you a question, and I expect a direct and concise answer."
At any other time, he would have been amused by this old woman with an attitude from hell and the manners to match, but not tonight. His nerves were on edge, his trousers were tightening, his mind was distracted, and his beast was yanking at the reins in an attempt to get free and get to the source of the floral sweetness in the air.
"No, you didn't, ma'am. You issued a command, which I'm sure is something you're quite accustomed to doing, but to which I am not accustomed to responding."
He watched those dark eyes narrow and struggled to keep the snarl off his face. No matter what his instincts screamed, this woman was not issuing him a challenge. He couldn't let himself treat her by the rules of Lupine society, even if Lupine society would have allowed him to pin her to the floor and clamp his teeth around her jugular.
"Young man, I am a member of the Council of Others."
She fairly radiated elegant outrage, but Quinn remained unswayed. The anger of being torn from his flower hunt helped sustain his resistance.
"I have been weighing the fate of the folk in this city for more than fifty years, be they shifter or vampire, witch or changeling. I am an elder in this community, and I am entitled to an answer. I am entitled to know if you will announce to the Council that your delegation is planning to reveal the existence of our kind to human society."
"With all due respect, ma'am, you will have that answer the minute I give it before the Council."
"I am not inclined to wait!"
"And I am not inclined to humor an old woman with inflated senses of entitlement!" The reply came out as a roar before he could stop it, though his teeth clacked together in the attempt.
That quite likely hadn't been the wisest move of his political career. He had spent a lot of time before flying to the United States finding out everything he needed to know about the Council of Others, and he'd read several indications that Adele Berry and the Council were twined together tighter than braided silk. For more than four decades, her voice had influenced the body that governed the activities of every nonhuman citizen of the greater Manhattan and tristate areas. She was not a woman to dismiss lightly.
Quinn took a deep breath and tried again. This was not one of his pack, he reminded himself as he attempted to pry his jaws apart. In fact, she wasn't even Lupine; he could smell that much. Actually, he thought, pausing to inhale, she smelled---
"Young man . . ."
---like rose and earth and the faintest trace of warm honeysuckle vines.
Quinn froze, nose locked on target like a dog on point, and breathed in deeply.
Fresh, sweet honeysuckle. Ripe and rich and ready to be fucked---
PLUCKED, he corrected himself, ready to be plucked.
"Young man, I demand an explanation of this discourtesy!"
Adele's voice rang brittle and strident in his ears, and he couldn't have cared less. One more, deep sniff told him his honeysuckle flower had been here before she disappeared. She had been near this woman, maybe even hugged her, and her scent led directly away from the grande dame and toward the hallway stair.
"Pardon," he growled, already turning and moving toward the door. "It's the Irish in me. Not a civilized bone in our bodies. Ask a Brit."
He didn't stick around to see her jaw snap shut, but he wouldn't have cared if he had. He was too busy licking his chops and grinning the grin of a big, bad wolf.
A wolf with a taste for honey.
Copyright © 2006 by Christine Warren