As he started for the door, it swung open and almost hit him. Aghast, he watched as Andrei and Viktor entered with a large trunk between them. Esperetta followed them into the room.
He was baffled as they placed the trunk at the foot of his bed. “What is this?”
The men didn’t answer. In fact, they refused to meet his gaze as they hastened from his room.
“There’s another trunk that needs to be moved, too,” Esperetta told them.
Viktor cringed as he looked at Velkan, then nodded. “Yes, Princess.”
“What trunk?” Velkan asked, stepping closer to his wife.
“My trunk. I’m moving in.”
“My room. Here.”
Completely stunned and flabbergasted, he opened and closed his mouth, unable to speak.
Esperetta walked over to him and placed her finger on his chin before she closed his mouth. “I know you don’t trust me, but tough shit.”
He would have gaped again at her profanity had her hand not prevented it.
“This is my home and you’re my husband. I made a mistake and for that I’m sorry, but I’m through being an idiot.”
He pulled back from her. “Dark-Hunters can’t be married.”
“Well then, someone should have told Artemis before she made her bargain with you and brought me back to life, huh? You were created as a married Dark-Hunter. I hardly think they can complain now.”
She did have a point about that.
“But – ”
She ended his words with a kiss.
Velkan growled as she explored every inch of his mouth and buried one hand in his hair. “Esperetta – ”
“No,” she said, tightening her grip in his hair. “I won’t hear any protests from you.”
He laughed at that. “I wasn’t protesting. I only wanted to say welcome home.”
Retta drew her breath in sharply at his words. “Really?”
He nodded, but even so she could tell that he didn’t truly believe her. But at least he was allowing her to stay. It was a start, and it was one that gave her hope.
The door opened again as Viktor and Andrei brought in the next trunk. They paused in the doorway.
“Should we come back later?” Andrei asked.
“Yes,” Velkan said, his voice thick. “And take your time about it.”
The men reversed course.
Retta laughed until Velkan kissed her again. Yeah, this was what she needed, at least until he pulled back and glanced at the trunk. “You didn’t arrive here with trunks.”
She bit her lip sheepishly. “It’s symbolic,” she confessed. “They’re actually empty.” Then she frowned as she realized he was dressed. “Where were you going?”
She arched a brow at that as a sneaking suspicion went through her. “No?”
She saw him hesitate before he spoke in a deep, emotionally charged voice. “I was going to find you and ask you to stay.”
He nodded. “I don’t want you to leave, Esperetta.”
“You’re willing to trust me then?”
He hedged. “Well…”
He kissed her lips, melting her anger. “I will trust you, but only if you swear to never leave here again.”
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and met that dark gaze levelly. “I will only leave if you’re with me. Promise.” Then she rubbed the tip of her nose against his before she met his lips and sealed that promise with a scorching kiss.
In all the centuries, Velkan had never bothered with The Order. He’d left them alone to run amok without his interference. But all that was about to end.
They’d threatened Esperetta and had almost killed her. Now that he had his wife back, he wasn’t about to let anyone take her from him again.
Without preamble, he used his powers to open the door to Dieter’s home. Velkan strode through the doorway as if he owned it. Dieter and Stephen looked up with a gasp, as did five other men.
And before Velkan could move, an arrow was shot at his chest. He caught it in his fist and tossed it to the floor. “Don’t even try that again,” he snarled.
“W-what are you doing here?” Dieter said as a fine sheet of sweat appeared on his forehead.
Velkan pinned each member there with a hostile glare that should adequately cow them. “I’m here to bury the proverbial axe. Where exactly I bury it is entirely up to you. Either we can bury it in the ground and let bygones be bygones or I can bury it in the heart and head of every one of you here. Either way, the persecution of my wife and her friend stops now.”
Dieter stiffened. “You don’t come in here and order us about.”
Velkan shot a blast that knocked him off his feet. “Be smart. Take the out I’m offering you. I promised Esperetta that I wouldn’t be a barbarian anymore. So I’m trying to be civilized about this and let you live even though the warlord inside me would rather I bathe in all your entrails.”
“We are sworn – ”
“Save it,” Velkan snapped, cutting Dieter off. “I was one of the members of this Order five hundred years ago and I know the oath you’ve all taken. And I’ve taken a new one. The next man or beast who threatens my wife or my servants will not live to regret that stupidity. Is that understood?”
He waited until each man had nodded.
Velkan took a deep breath. “Good. Now that we have an accord, I’ll leave you in peace.”
Turning toward the door, Velkan caught sight of something from the corner of his eye. Before he could react, a single gunshot rang out.
He snapped his head toward a corner of the room where Esperetta stood with Raluca, Francesca, Viktor, and Andrei.
Esperetta was holding the gun in her hands. Her eyes were narrowed on the men in the room. “Anyone else want to try and go for my husband’s back?”
Velkan looked to see Dieter lying on the floor with a single gunshot in his chest. Stunned, Velkan met Esperetta’s gaze.
She didn’t speak as she moved forward to take his hand while the wolves stood their ground. “Gentlemen,” she said quietly. “I think most of you have met Illie’s family and I believe they’d like a word with you. Alone.”
Stephen came to his feet. “Retta…”
“Save it, Stephen. You already told me what I needed to know.”
Velkan wasn’t sure what he should do, but as Esperetta pulled him from the house, he followed. And as soon as the door was closed behind him, he heard the screams of the men.
He stared in stunned awe of his wife. “I thought you wanted them spared.”
“I’m not the girl you married, Velkan. I’m a woman who now understands the way the world works. They wouldn’t have stopped coming for us. Ever. Frankie and her family owed a blood debt for what the Order did to her father. I say bon appétit.” She stepped into his arms and placed a chaste kiss to his cheek. “Thank you.”
“For trying to be a gentleman when I know it goes against every part of your nature.”
He took the gun from her hand and threw it into the woods before he cupped her face in his hands. “For you, Esperetta, anything.”
She gave him a speculative look. “Anything?”
“Then come and get nak*d with me. Right now.”
Velkan laughed before he kissed her lightly on the lips. And for the first time in his life, he gladly submitted to someone else’s orders. “As you wish, Princess.”
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT SEARCHER
“Isn’t it great?”
Rafael Santiago wasn’t a religious man in any sense of the word, but as he read the short story Jeff Brinks had published in the SF magazine in his hands, he felt a deep need to cross himself…
Or at the very least, club the college student over the head until he lost all consciousness.
Keeping his expression carefully blank, Rafael slowly closed the magazine and met his Squire’s eager look. At twenty-three, Jeff was tall and lean, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. He’d only been a Squire to Rafael for the last couple of months, since Jeff’s father had retired. An eager young man, Jeff had been good enough at remembering to pay bills on time, run Rafael’s business, and help to protect his immortal status from the unknowing humans. But the one thing Jeff had wanted more than anything else was to publish one of the stories he was always scribbling on.
Now he had…
Rafael tried to remember a time when he’d had dreams of grandeur, too. A time when he’d been human and had wanted to leave his mark on the world.
And just like him, Jeff’s dreams were about to get the boy killed. “Have you shown this to anyone else?”
Damn, but Jeff reminded Rafael of a cocker spaniel puppy wanting someone to pet his head even though he’d just unknowingly pissed all over his owner’s best shoes. “Not yet, why?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Rafael said, stretching the words out and trying to mitigate some of the sarcasm in his tone. “I’m thinking the Night-Searcher series you’re starting might be a really bad idea.”
Jeff’s face fell instantly. “You didn’t like the story?”
“Not a question of liking it really. More a question of getting your ass kicked for spilling our secrets.”
Jeff furrowed his brow, and by his baffled look it was obvious the boy had no idea what Rafael was talking about. “How do you mean?”
This time there was no way to keep the venom out of his voice. “I know they say to write what you know, but damn, Jeff… Ralph St. James? Night-Searchers? You’ve written the whole Dark-Hunter/Apollite vampire legend, and I really resent your making me a Taye Diggs clone. Nothing against the man, but other than the occasional bald head, the color of our skin, and a diamond stud in the left ear, we have nothing in common.”
Jeff took the magazine from Raphael’s hands, flipped to his story, and skimmed a few lines. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Rafael. This isn’t about you or the Dark-Hunters. The only thing they have in common is that the Night-Searchers hunt down cursed vampires like the Dark-Hunters do. That’s it.”
Uh-huh. Rafael looked back at the story again, and even with the magazine upside down his eyes fell straight to the scene. “What about this, where the Taye Diggs look-alike Dark-Hunter is confronting a Daimon who’s just stolen a human soul to elongate his life?”
Jeff made a sound of disgust. “That’s a Night-Searcher who found a vampire to kill. It has nothing to do with the Dark-Hunters.”
Yeah, right. “A vampire who just happens to steal human souls to elongate his life as opposed to the normal Hollywood variety where they live forever on blood?”
“Well, that’s just cliché. It’s so much better to have vampires who have really short lives and are then compelled, against their wills, and by a hatred fired by envy, to lash out at the human race. Makes it so much more interesting, don’t you think?”
Not really. Especially since he was one of the people caught up in that battle. “That is also the reality we live in, Jeff. What you just described is a Daimon, not a vampire.”
“Well maybe I borrowed from the Daimons a little, but the rest is all mine.”
Rafael flipped to the next page. “Let’s see. What about the cursed Tyber race that pissed off the Norse god Odin and is now damned to live only twenty-seven years unless they turn vampire and steal human souls. Substitute ‘Apollite’ for ‘Tyber’ and ‘Apollo’ for ‘Odin’ and again you have the story of the Apollite race who turn Daimon.”
Sighing, Jeff crossed his arms over his chest. He shook his head in denial.
“And what about this part here where the Night-Searchers sell their souls to the Norse goddess Freya, who is a vibrant redheaded femme fatale dressed all in white, to get revenge on whoever caused them to die?”
“No one is going to figure out that Artemis is Freya.”
Rafael growled at him. “For the record, unlike Artemis, Freya happens to be a strawberry blonde. But you were right about one thing. She is gorgeous and highly seductive. Definitely hard to say no to her.”
“Oh.” Deepening his scowl, Jeff looked up. “How do you know all that?”
Rafael grew quiet as he remembered the night he’d met the Norse goddess and she had tempted him well. That had definitely been one hell of a day… “Freya’s the goddess who hand selects warriors for Valhalla. Or in the case of myself, she wanted to take me off with her to her own hall and add me to her harem.”
Jeff gaped. “And you chose to fight for Artemis instead, what kind of stupid are you?”
There were times when the kid could be eerily astute. “Yeah, well, in retrospect it was a bad bargain on my part. But at the time, Artemis was offering me vengeance on my enemies it seemed so much more appealing than being Freya’s love slave… which gets back to Freya being Artemis in your story.”