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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Seventeen)

A connection achieved without effort, words or even thought. Who understood where her mind was right now. Jacob was that person, though she knew there was no logic to why she felt that way. He certainly wasn't over a thousand years old. But when she was with him, she felt like he'd always been with her, through every step, every century. Carnal was talking to a few of the type she'd seen too many of last night. Young, made vampire overlords impatient with things as they were, hungering for change just so they could feel important, a part of something. So much to learn, and yet they would burn down their school before the lessons could be taught. Such was the way of the world, and of youth. If it were not Carnal standing with them, she supposed she would feel indulgent toward them instead of edgy, wary. She wondered if her uneasy feelings were like a grounded boat captain come to the edge of a river to watch the boats glide past. She'd once been a part of that flow, but those times had passed. The flow might change some- what because of her absence, but it would still flow forward. She had to believe that. You are not God, my lady. Jacob had said that to her once or twice. Everything ended, even her. "There you are. " Lady Daniela's arm slipped through hers. "Ev- eryone down there assumes you're up here making your dance part- ner decision, examining us all like we're insects under a microscope. I've never seen so many male vampires preening. Checking their hair, their breath . . . The fit of their trousers. " Perhaps Danny was the next best thing to Jacob. They'd met at a Gathering, Danny's first. She'd gravitated toward Lyssa despite their differences in rank as if they were two inseparable schoolgirl friends, and Lyssa had surprised herself by welcoming it. Lyssa smiled. "Male vampires are far too arrogant to be self- conscious. Even if they could see themselves in a mirror, they'd never use one. " "Hmm . . . That's the truth.

That overlord from Florence needs a better servant. He's needed to blow his nose for the past two days. Every time I talk to him I want to tell him he has a pea factory grow- ing out of his nostrils. "

"Oh, gods, that's far too graphic. " Lyssa covered an undignified snort of laughter with her hand. "But so true. " Lady Daniela's gaze shifted, stilled. Her eyes spar- kled appreciatively. "However, on the brighter side, it looks to me there's a human servant putting them all to shame this year. The male vampires are fair seething about it. " Lyssa rolled her eyes. "Danny, if you don't stop fawning over that cocky servant of yours, he's going to be hopelessly spoiled. " "Cocky is a way to describe Devlin, on several different levels. He's one of a kind, the cheeky bastard. But . . . " Danny adjusted her stance, and with her arm through Lyssa's, she forced her to turn to- ward one of the arched entranceways. "Not my servant, dearest. I'm talking about yours. " She hadn't known what Jacob was wearing tonight. After con- firming early in their relationship he had the ability to attire himself appropriately without guidance, she'd found she liked being sur- prised by it, to enjoy the impact on her senses when he appeared. He'd outdone himself. The room was filled with vampire males who emanated other- worldly beauty. Some of it was glamour, but most was not. Generat- ing glamour for humans was far easier than for other vampires, and for the most part, it wasn't necessary. Whatever the genetic makeup of vampirism, it was disposed to making their species exceptionally attractive. Perhaps it was evolution, a helpful mechanism for attract- ing their prey. It was a reassuring indication they were somehow part of the natural world, not an exception to it as legend and night- mare folklore liked to depict. Jacob was handsome; there was no denying that. But as she'd known from their first meeting, it was more than that. Put physical human beauty against a vampire's and it could not compare. But his charisma, the quiet self-possession, the incredible intelligence and resourcefulness . . . The many talents he wielded, some of them un- expectedly dangerous and deadly, all somehow integrated into his physical appearance in a way devastating to the female senses. Put that in a tuxedo and Lyssa was sure she wasn't the only woman in the room whose breath had caught in her throat.

He was tall enough to pull off the swallowtail coat he'd chosen. Perfectly pleated dark slacks, dress shoes that shone. Black studded shirt instead of white. He'd chosen a Nehru collar with a white satin ribbon edging that left his neck unencumbered by a tie. His hair, so often tousled at home because of his charming habit of raking his hands back through it as he worked, was brushed to a silk mane that feathered across his high forehead. The trim moustache and beard gleamed copper under the chandeliers, attracting her attention to his lips as it always did, the softness contrasting with the firm man- ner in which he held them. She raised a brow at Daniela's chuckle. "What?" "Nothing. " Danny made an innocent face. "I just asked if you thought Lord Belizar might do karaoke for us tonight. " Lyssa blinked. She experienced trepidation at being caught so baldly besotted until Daniela gave her a droll look, reminding her that Australian vampires were far more laid-back than their Eu ro- pean and Eastern cousins. And that Danny was very young and irrepressible, by vampire standards. "You responded"–Danny cleared her throat and did a credible imitation of Lyssa's manner– " `Undoubtedly. ' " "My apologies, Lady Daniela. " Lyssa made the attempt. "My mind must have been on tonight's Council Court. There will be many weighty affairs discussed. " Danny shot her a look. "Undoubtedly, my lady. " Even as Lyssa elbowed her with a smile, her gaze was pulled back to Jacob. As if she needed another reason to be captivated by him, he'd found her instantly and waited until she met his gaze to proceed into the room. While every servant in the room had a link with a Mis- tress or Master, he acknowledged her visibly, first and foremost, and waited for her attention to proceed, to be sure she knew he was there, available to her needs. She had the impression of it like the heat of his body curled at her back while she slept. Now, glancing at her often, he moved through the milling group with one hand at his back, the other loose at his side. A comfortable pose that allowed him to bow cordially as he made the appropriate level of greeting to each person.

His gift for recall of names and sta- tus was impeccable. When he encountered Devlin, his teeth flashed in a grin at whatever the man said, showing he'd already developed a comfortable male rapport with the Australian. That smile almost made her forget herself and curl her toes in her open sandals. She thought of him the previous night, the way he'd closed his hand over hers on the brand at his hip. When she'd taken him back to their room, she'd feathered her lips over it more than once, teas- ing his cock with the fine line of her cheek before she'd ridden him to climax. Rex had tried to control and dominate her, but in the end he'd had no ability to do so because she never trusted him enough to let him into her soul. Now she'd put her heart and soul as well as her physical well-being into the hands of a mere human. And she'd never felt safer in her life. Around him, the ballroom somehow became fantastical with its array of characters. He was surrounded by things that were tempo- ral, no longer her reality, but there he was in the middle of it. The soul who had bound himself to her, even through death. The lights of the chandelier sent out rays that sparkled in her vision. It occurred to her that he, Bran and Mr. Ingram had become the most real things in her life these last couple of months. She wanted to experience only what was real from now on. She had no patience for anything else. Why had she even come here? The reason seemed to escape her. She turned abruptly, thinking to leave. Registering the startled look on Daniela's face, she had no chance to make a vague excuse, for Lord Uthe stepped onto the platform. He reached out a hand to her as if he thought she'd turned at his approach. Apparently Danny came to the same conclusion, because her puzzled expression van- ished and she respectfully withdrew. "It's nearly nine, my lady. Are you ready?" The dance. The male vampires checking their hair and the fit of their trousers. An unwelcome palm hot against her waist, a male body too close. His eyes speculating on thoughts so far away from who she was, had been. What she wanted.

Lyssa made herself rest her hand in Uthe's, her lips pressed to- gether to keep from screaming. That roiling feeling suddenly ex-panded exponentially. She didn't have stage fright, didn't even know what this was. It wasn't the virus. That was the only reassurance she could give herself, for suddenly her throat was so tight she could barely speak. Uthe brought her to the edge of the platform and commanded the attention of the large room with a raised hand, projecting his voice as the ballroom quieted. The lights closed in on her, his voice setting off a headache. "My lady. As our revered queen, we always ask that you lead off the first dance of the Ball. Will you honor us and one fortunate gen- tleman? That is, unless you've changed your preferences this year and wish to choose a lady?" There was some laughter, but the male vampires who thought they might be eligible were a palpable energy in the large room. Feel- ing it, those assembled quieted further with hushed expectancy. The candlelit chandeliers were lowered, other light sources dimming to give the main floor and herself the focus. She well understood the perceived significance of this moment. Back in Atlanta, in the far more casual atmosphere of her study, she and Jacob had reviewed a short list of candidates critically. Brian had been the easy choice. It would be clear she was honoring him for his scientific advances on behalf of their species, but no one would surmise that she had any- thing but respect for the far more lower-ranking vampire and his well-known father. The last time she'd been here, she'd been with Rex and Thomas. Her monk had stood in the shadows, the lights reflecting off his spectacles. Now Rex was dead, killed by her hand. Thomas had died alone in a monastery. No, not alone. Jacob had been with him. The first time she'd danced with Rex here, he'd been pleased with the prestige of the honor, but more than that, he'd wanted her. He'd believed in the Council she'd built. He'd fought at her side. He hadn't been a kind man, but he'd been a strong leader, a man to respect. And he had loved her. Until he lost his mind.

The lights were dim, but they still hurt her eyes. She wanted utter darkness. Her eyes were burning, trying to fill with mortifying tears. "My lady, " Lord Uthe said gently. She turned a desperate glance toward him. "We are on par, you and I, " he said. "I have no motives or designs upon you. If it would be easier this first time since your husband's death, I will be happy to . . . " He let it drift off, a courtesy. No. Never in her many centuries of life had she allowed her con- trol to slip voluntarily. Though it was a savage internal struggle, one during which her mind told her she would be wise to take Uthe's of- fer, she shook her head. She did manage to reach out and clasp his hand in an offering of thanks for his kindness. Then she was moving off the platform, toward the center of the floor where a circle had been opened to allow her room for her dance. She went to the center of it and let her gaze travel over the ar- rayed faces as the second hand on the ornate clock over the orchestra reached a minute before nine. Whoever she was looking at when that final ninth chime tolled was her chosen partner. He would come to her, meet her on the floor. Decades before, it was the decisive move that confirmed to all she intended to accept Rex as her hus- band. Now she passed over overlords, ladies. Region Masters. Council members. Belizar was missing, oddly. She almost snorted as her gaze passed over Carnal, and he straightened in one self-delusional mo- ment, thinking she might choose him. She would cut his hands off before they ever touched her again. When she coursed fully over the room, she pivoted on her heel, began the same examination in a counterclockwise motion. Brian was not readily visible. In case of his absence, she had several neutral choices like Uthe, where she could bestow the favor with little expec- tations beyond the dance. She saw at least two of those choices in the crowd. But she didn't want any of them touching her tonight. Maybe she was wrong and this tide of emotional response was attributable to the disease, but even Uthe had sensed what Jacob had pointed out to her before, in his quiet, logical way.

She was a woman who'd lost her husband and human servant less than two years ago and was now facing the end of her own life. All these rituals she'd last shared with Rex . . . It was overwhelm- ing at times. She wouldn't live to share Christmas with Jacob. That bothered her. She liked Christmas. Would she have made it this far these past few months without him? She doubted it. She needed to tell him that. Be damned any concerns about him getting too full of himself. They'd gone beyond that. Her skin shivered with desire for one man's fingers to be trailing along the line of her spine in her low-backed dress, one man's thighs pressing against hers in the turn of the waltz. The clock began to chime. One beat, two beats, three beats. She was measuring the beats of her heart rather than the counts of the clock. She let her gaze linger over the alternate choices, saw the hum- ble appreciation for the consideration in their eyes. It was well- known she often bestowed her second and third choices with a strike or two of the clock before she settled on her final choice. The crowd shifted as the sixth chime struck, tension and excite- ment gathering. A few smiles, enjoyment of the moment among those who knew they were not competing for it. Then she altered the direction of her gaze by ninety degrees, turning precisely on her heel. The murmurs died away, bitten off by indrawn breaths. The last chime echoed in a now completely silent ballroom. The preternatural stillness of vampires had descended, even their ser- vants frozen in the gravity of the moment. She could tell Devlin, as he stepped back from her choice, was dismayed and not a little shocked. Though he loved his own Mistress well, perhaps he was even a little disapproving. Yes, the Aussies were more informal. But there was a baseline code that governed them all, and she'd quite deliberately decided to grind it under the point of her heel. Jacob moved forward, the tap of his dress shoes loud on the floor of the ballroom, a beautifully arranged Rosetta pattern done in varying shades of wood. While there was no falter or hesitation to his steps, the set of his mouth was tense.

As the chime's final note vibrated away on the air, he reached her, perfectly timing his approach. Dropping to one knee, he bowed his head, perhaps trying to soften the adverse effect of what she'd just done. But she extended her hand, bade him rise. When he brushed it with his lips and rose, she dropped in a low curtsy before him. The shocked gasps were audible this time, increasing the swell of mutters. When she straightened, she used the pressure of his hand to draw her back up to stand before him. It was expected to be adored by one's servant, but the way her skin burned with pleasurable fire when he looked at her as he did now . . . Gods.

How could they not see it? My lady . . . Brian is not here, but we had some other choices . . . I didn't look for Brian, or any of the others. A pause as he digested that, the light of his blue eyes fierce on her face. A light that did not hurt her eyes in the least. Concerned he might be, but she'd also reached into his soul and touched him. She knew he would deny her nothing. Hadn't he said so from the begin- ning? Is this wise? What can they do? Kill us? His lips tugged in acknowledgment of the irony. I will bear no man's hands on me tonight, Sir Vagabond. Only yours. Not just now, but to the end of my life. He swallowed. When he backed up a step, he took her with him. It was a traditional waltz, though she'd chosen one of her pre- ferred slow and languid 1920s torch songs as the music for it. He bowed to her again as she dipped into a more shallow curtsy, the formal beginning to the dance. Taking her other hand as she straight- ened, he drew her into his arms. There was no music. Lyssa glanced over her shoulder with an imperious, faintly annoyed look. The music director snapped out of his slack-jawed amazement to give the violinist his cue. The first pure, sad note quivered in the air, joined by several other string instruments.

Jacob moved into the four-step count, en- tirely proper spacing between them. She was having none of that. She moved into him so he had to slide his hand more fully around her waist, his hand on the small of her back and point of her hip as she wished. The dress she'd chosen for tonight was a black sheath with a transparent overlay of jet sequins. The front neckline dis- played her creatively raised bosom to give an eye-catching setting for her necklace of blood rubies and diamonds. The back dipped low, the sloping side edges cut in a jagged, lightning pattern held fast by a transparent piece of black net embroidered with the image of a Chi- nese dragon, matching the ink tattoo of one she'd had Jacob put on her shoulder. She could feel the heat of his hand through that trans- parent net. Closing her eyes, she let him turn her, his arms and the press of his body guiding her. He was a good dancer. A wonderful lover. A man she could lean on. She imagined the picture they made, like the top of a music box, the swallowtails of his coat and the fluttering edge of her skirt rippling as they turned, stepped. She didn't try to listen to his thoughts, but she wasn't closed to him. She was just drifting deeper into him, past the level of words, feeling the mlange of emotions that was Jacob swirl through her soul as he swirled her around the floor. Once the clock hand changed to the first minute after nine, oth- ers could join them on the floor. The Council members did first, tight-lipped and formal, choosing their vampire partners. Soon the floor was floating in multiple colors and faces she blurred out. The only thing she wanted in focus was Jacob. She was flying, the rest like a cherry tree's blossoms drifting around her in the void. "My stepfather did that once, a long, long time ago. Do you re- member? I stood under the branches and he shook them. It was pink snow. Fluttering around me, never ending. " That's what Heaven was. Cherry blossoms fluttering around her as a handsome man danced her around a wide floor. The petals land- ing on her eyelids, the tops of her breasts, his hair . . . The safety of a protector, the passion of a lover . . . When she reached up to touch the hair feathered over his brow, Jacob gently caught her hand, tightening his grip.

Pressed his lips to her knuckles. My lady, I sense you are not yourself. Perhaps we should retire as soon as is acceptable– Black and white. In a blink, color became black and white, and Heaven became Hell. Burning heat exploded as rage, scattering the cool, tranquil touch of the memory. Sensual feeling became passion- ate, irrational anger. Locking her fingers around his hand without care for her strength, she narrowed eyes that had become filmed in red. "I'm not your servant, Jacob. Don't propose to order me to do anything. " A muscle flexed in Jacob's jaw as he managed the steps without faltering. Another fraction of pressure and she'd break several of his fingers. That didn't concern him. It would be a welcome distraction from the tidal wave of fear that filled him. They were under the scru- tiny of everyone, many of the males already eyeing him as if they'd be happy to tear out his vitals. Devlin's description of what happened to male servants perceived as having undue influence over their Mistresses was uncomfortably vivid. Would they be that aggressive toward Lady Lyssa's servant? He suddenly was all too aware that if an attack came, he was her only protection. If they took him away from her . . . The victim's condition will begin to deteriorate quickly. The mood swings will be so sharp they can almost occur midsentence . . . When that occurs, the physical attack will come quickly on the heels of the emotional . . . The vampire has entered the final stage, and it will be far more rapid than any of the previous stages . . . He should have made the call to Ingram. Earlier tonight, when he'd helped her dress, he knew he should have. He just hadn't wanted to believe . . . He'd been stupid. The cell phone was in his pocket. The other dancers were giving them a wide berth. Normally, he knew they would have maneuvered to be close to her, to win the fa- vor of a word. Instead the circle of space they left around her was filled with a buffer of hostility, suspicion. "May I cut in?" Jacob turned, his hand still clamped in his lady's grip, even as he kept his steadying arm about her waist. He found himself facing a vampire he'd not yet seen at the three-day Gathering.

If he had, he was sure he would have remembered him. He had several inches on Jacob in height. His skin had the smooth olive texture of the Middle East, and his eyes were piercing amber. Not brown, not gold, but a liquid amber so startling he doubted the man could have passed as mortal before color-altering contacts had been available. His hair was a burnished copper, long, bound back with ribbon to form a tail that fell just past his shoulder blades. He was dressed in a black, long-tailed coat much like Jacob's, only his shirt was white, his tie white silk and tied in a cravat style. A stick pin of a griffin done in amber and gold matched the setting for the ruby crest he wore on his left hand. Instead of slacks, he wore fitted black breeches and polished Hessian boots. His presence was causing quite a stir, which Jacob saw with relief had distracted the assembly from his lady's unacceptable choice of dance partner. Lyssa blinked at them both. Jacob tightened his fingers discreetly on her waist as a reassurance, waiting for her cue. But her mind was a whirl. Trying to get in tune with it, to grab a corner and slow it down,he was disorienting himself. He wasn't practiced enough at doing it yet, had only managed to get in sync with her once or twice, and that was with her cooperation. An energy reached into him, steadying him, joining him in his Mistress's mind with effortless ease. Almost like the hand of a mas- ter painter guiding his apprentice on the canvas, it gave him the abil- ity to circle around his lady's wildly spiraling thoughts, cushioning them from their erratic convulsions against the walls of her mind. The only vampire who can stand toe to-toe-with her . . . Who has as many secrets . . . Jacob met Lord Mason's gaze. Somehow Mason knew what was happening here. He'd no doubt Thomas's hand was involved in that. Though he didn't have time to dissect the whys and hows, like how the hell Mason could get into his mind and Lyssa's, Jacob made the instant, gut decision to trust Mason as an ally. He was in over his head, and her life was far more important than his ego. She needs to get out of here, soon.

"My lady?" Mason's gaze flickered in acknowledgment before he dismissed him with proper vampire indifference. Jacob turned her hand over to him, which had loosened its painful grip, even though she'd not stated her will in the matter. She was staring at Mason. Jacob could feel the wheels of her mind struggling,trying to right it with the help of the two of them. Then, with a click, it happened. A hard tremor went through her body, so strong he felt it through his fingertips as he made himself slide them from her waist. He forced himself to step back and let Mason's hand take its place. Lyssa blinked. Once. Twice. "It would be my pleasure, Lord Mason, " she said at last. Thank God. A shudder of relief passed through Jacob, almost as violent as hers. "Just Mason will do, Lyssa. We know what a farce titles are. " He handed his cane to Jacob with a curt nod. "Shall your servant retire from the floor?" "Yes. " She glanced at Jacob. "Thank you for the dance, Sir Vaga- bond. Await my pleasure with the other servants. " Jacob gave a half bow and retreated. Though he wasn't tied into any other minds here, the shift of reaction in the room was as abrupt as her temper and far more reassuring. Appreciative laughter and amazed murmurs. It now appeared as if she'd dallied with her ser- vant until Mason arrived, a fine bit of drama to amuse the other vampires. She'd actually duped them all into thinking she would choose a human . . . "Just like Lady Lyssa . . . She knows how ridiculous it is, all this nonsense about female vampires and male servants . . . So clever, al- lowing Lord Mason to make such an impressive entrance . . . Fine entertainment . . . " He should be relieved and pleased by the turn of events, the in- credibly fortunate save. So why did he feel like Malachi had speared him through the chest with a javelin, after all? Why did he want to snarl at all of them as he left the floor? When he moved past Devlin without stopping, the man gave him a look that fair screamed, "What the hell was that all about, then?"

One thing he'd learned from his lady was inscrutability. He gave Devlin the cane for safekeeping but kept going as if he were on an errand for his Mistress. He had a third mark. She could speak in his mind, after all. As he reached the arched entrance to the ballroom, he turned to see Mason talking to her. There was a light smile on her lips. His lady appeared mysterious and in control, her usual impressive mien, but Jacob knew it would be fleeting. Like contractions coming too close together, only in this case her behavior heralded the delivery of death instead of life. But for now her new partner had his face bent close as they danced. Her head was tilted back, their mouths tantalizingly close. Everyone was watching them. How the hell could anyone not look at them? They were perfect together. If she wasn't dying . . . Lord Mason was more than capable of protecting her. Loving her. Caring for her. When he'd mailed correspondence for Thomas in the last month of the monk's life, Lord Mason's name had been on one of the letters. Though he hadn't known the contents then, Jacob now had the an- swer to an unanswered question. Thomas had known what fate awaited his lady, and made sure her strongest ally among the vam- pires would be present when she most needed him. Regardless, leaving the ballroom, leaving her in the care of an- other man, was the hardest thing Jacob had done yet. As he turned the corner into a wide corridor, he saw the hall was lined with heavy tapestries. They likely allowed quick trysts between lovers who had the unusual vampire quirk of preferring privacy. When he ducked behind one portraying a medieval scene of the Knights Templar, he found it thankfully unoccupied. He'd just wanted a moment to collect his thoughts. He rethought the wisdom of that a bare second later when his body broke out in a cold sweat, his hands shaking. He had to protect her, and yet in a blink she'd made it clear that if she lost control, there'd be little he could do to contain the most powerful vampire in the room, sick or no. Five minutes before Mason arrived, he'd been facing a situation he knew he didn't have the resources to address.

He'd been counting too much on his lady being an active partner in her own protection. Debra had warned him the disease could progress rapidly once it hit a certain stage. His lady, who'd meticulously prepared for so much, had displayed a very hu- man trait in avoiding preparations for the worst on her own condi- tion. He was a fool. He should have planned better. He should have tried to convince her to cut her time here short. But would it have changed anything? They had to make it to the Court session. He'd known that and had hoped, as he was sure she had, that she would make it. They'd had no choice but to keep going. They still had no other choice, racing against the clock and hedging their bets against death. Several weeks before, she'd realized it took too much of the en- ergy she needed to explain certain things to him. It was easier to let him ride along in her thoughts as she developed her plans and inten- tions. She just asked that he not interrupt her thinking or argue with her. She knew what she needed to do, and she needed his obedience to do it. She'd told him everything he needed to know about the Gather- ing. He had a brain, and he would use it. If Mason hadn't come, they would have danced. She would have ripped his arms off for trying to get her off the floor and that would have been perfectly acceptable treatment of a servant. Equilibrium would have been restored. He pressed his temple against the cold stone of the wall. When Carnal's face swam up in his mind, ironically it helped him shove the last of the panic attack away. No way that piece of shit was get- ting near her. Tonight. They just had to get through tonight. Then, God willing,he'd have time to get her home to die there. Recalling again his ner vousness before his first vampire fight, he remembered Gideon giving him a cuff on the ear, saying, "We're all going to die, bro. Either there's nothing after, in which case you won't exist to care about it, or Mom and Dad will be waiting. Mom'll say something like, `Now why did you do a fool thing like fight a bunch of vampires and get yourself killed?' And Dad will say, `At least you should have waited until you got laid by a pretty girl. ' "

Well, he'd accomplished the latter. The privilege of being in his lady's body was more than any man could ever ask from Heaven or Earth. Regardless of what happened, it was time to make the call they'd agreed Jacob should make to Mr. Ingram if things went downhill. Her actions tonight were the trigger. If they couldn't make it through the Court session, couldn't get the Council to pass the vote and then get back on the plane, then the only thing they could do to protect her people now would be done. Tears burned at the back of his throat. Pulling the cell phone out of his coat pocket to start the clock on his own death seemed to oc- cur in slow motion, as if his limbs moved through something far more resistant than air. Since the tapestry currently protecting him depicted the Knights Templar, he obeyed a sudden compulsion from the memory of those warrior monks and dropped to one knee, bowing his head. Dear Lord, I don't believe that her soul is damned. But I'll gladly go wher- ever she's going, if I'm worthy to follow. I'll know I'm in Hell only if I wake and find I'm somewhere she's not. Please help me do what I must do to protect her. Calmer, he rose, pressed the button and listened to it ring through. Thank God Mason had included a cell tower in the palace's modern-day upgrades; otherwise there'd be no way for him to get a connection. When Ingram answered, Jacob said quietly, "Start the clock. " A pause. "You got it, son. God bless you. " Another pause. "Both of you. " Jacob nodded, unable to speak, and closed the phone. If Ingram did not hear from them within the next twenty-four hours, he would make his own call. The one that would start the chain reaction to alert all of her fugitives and give them the informa- tion to find safe harbor in allied territories. Jacob didn't know where his brother was now–hopefully some- where out of trouble. But Ingram would also make sure Gideon re- ceived the letter Jacob had written to his brother before he left, saying the things he wanted to say.

Whatever awaited them after that, Jacob and Lyssa would deal with it together. Hold on to my heart, Jacob. Keep it safe . . . One night she'd teased him with her vampire speed, confusing him by moving the tools he'd been using to repair a fence from his left side to the right and then back again before he knew she was there. When he finally caught on, he looked up to see her sitting on top of the shed, her playful smirk touched by the gloss of moonlight. She'd shrieked indignantly when he went after her with the garden hose. Then he remembered her peeling an orange in the darkness, eyes glowing green like a cat in the night. Smiling at him. Whatever time we had, we used it well. Nodding to himself, he stepped out from behind the curtain. And collided with Debra, moving at brisk clip toward the ballroom. The purposeful strides of a lab assistant, used to hurrying even when she should be walking at a pace more suited to the sequined, sleek evening dress and teetering heels she wore. "Oh!" She yelped as he caught her arms, steadying her. When she smiled at him it was with an air of distracted excitement that fair pulsed off her skin. "Jacob. It's so good to see you. " "And you. " As he studied her, he saw no self-consciousness in her face about their earlier exhibition. She was wholly absorbed in some- thing else. "What's going on? You're wound up like a kid about to go to Disney for the first time. It can't be for this group. " She giggled, startling him. Putting her hand up to her mouth, she shook her head. "I'm sorry, Jacob. It's just . . . Oh, my God, I can't believe . . . " She made a visible effort to rein herself in. "I can't really tell anyone yet. Of course, you're her servant, and Brian certainly wouldn't deny Lady Lyssa the knowledge, since he's meeting with Lord Belizar. I'm sure . . . Lyssa has taken such good care of my lord, made sure he had what he needed . . . " His heart began to pump more rapidly. Jacob hardly dared to say it. While not normally able to read words from people's minds, it was resonating so strongly from her he couldn't miss it. "You've found the cure. To the Delilah virus. " "Yes!" She said it in an ecstatic whisper, squeezed his arms and rocked up on her toes with ebullience.

"Well"–she attempted to re- claim her objectivity–"we're ninety-nine percent sure we have. That's why Brian's been working so hard these last few days. Run- ning and rerunning the data. We'd done a limited test on affected vampire cells, but seven of the test subjects responded to the model exactly the way we hoped. The model simulated the vampire-servant physical connection. The cure serum worked on a Canadian vam- pire, our first patient. There were some side effects because we haven't got the dosage percentage down yet. But it worked, Jacob. It worked. We got the call a little while ago from Alabama. The vampire is cured. And it's all thanks to Andrev and Helene. The servant-vampire connection was the key, just as Brian thought it was. How ironic is that? Oh, Brian is . . . I've never seen him so excited. " Jacob's grip on both her arms drew her attention to the fact he wasn't smiling, his expression battle intense. "I need to speak with them. Brian and Lord Belizar. Is Lord Uthe with them?" "Yes, I think so. He was headed that way a few moments ago. I think we should wait for them, because he thinks they'll make an announcement at the Ball after he talks to them . . . " "It's a matter of life and death. Of my lady. " He was propelling her down the hallway even as he said it. Debra caught his arm, bringing him to a halt with firm resistance. "Oh, my God. That's why you were asking that day . . . Oh, God. I wish . . . But of course she wouldn't have allowed you to . . . How far along is she?" "Based on the description you gave me that day, she entered Stage Four about three or four hours ago. " He hesitated. "She had an attack a few moments ago, the type of mood swing you said would come shortly before the next physical episode. Lord Mason's working on getting her out of there after her dance. This evening"–he clenched his teeth, made himself say it–"when I was dressing her, I noticed she had a small series of blemishes just at the top of her buttock. When I rubbed my fingers over them, the skin came off. She hasn't noticed any pain yet, so I didn't tell her. " At Debra's incredulous look, he shook his head. "It's a long story. She had to make it to the Court meeting. Telling her wouldn't have changed her mind on that. "

She paled, and now she grabbed his hand, hurrying with him. "You're right; we need to tell them now. She could have less than a few hours. We can't lose Lady Lyssa. " He cursed himself, even knowing he could have done nothing differently. "Tell me how the cure works while we're moving. " She stopped abruptly then, losing even more color on her face. When she looked up at him, her eyes reflected a pain he didn't un- derstand. When she told him how the cure worked, he did. But he captured her hand, pulling her in motion again. Lord Mason might be the only one capable of protecting Lyssa from other vampires. He could even love and care for her. But Jacob now knew only her servant could save her life.

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