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The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Thirty-two)

He hadn't seen her directly for several days, but Jacob tried to accept it, rationalize it. She was fighting her own feelings for him. Therefore, in an odd way these repetitive absences were gratifying. Frustrating as hell, yes. Particularly when he felt her presence so close it was like the yearning left in the aftermath of an erotic dream.

Oh hell. He wished he were as stubborn as she thought he was, too stubborn to let any doubts filter into his mind and heart. He couldn't help thinking about her words, things she'd said and what she didn't say. The things that had happened during the short time in her service. Maybe she could influence his mind, and she was using this absence and her ability to manipulate his thoughts to make his doubts build, because one thing in particular kept needling his consciousness.

Her conflict, the physical and emotional pain she seemed to be confronting. Was he contributing to it?

It was as if they were back on that damn merry-go-round, or maybe they'd been on it the whole time, circling around, again and again, dealing with the same conflicts and issues. He'd had his sense of himself challenged over and over. What he wanted, what he would endure to have it, whether his willingness to do that was right or wrong. That had been his focus. How he was handling things. But now all the things Gideon had told him, all the flaws in his character repeatedly pointed out, rose more prominently in his mind as each day passed.

What about her? What did she really need?

She'd said it. So had Tara, even Carnal. Every time a vampire was around him, his formidable Mistress included, he felt swamped by their years of knowledge, so much greater than his. Their surety, based on experience, for what was right and true.

Not suitable to be a servant. Thomas had been sure, but with all the debris between now and his memories of his time with Thomas, the certainty the man had instilled in him was flagging. Had it been the desperation of a sick and dying man, hoping a coincidence had given him a way to perform one last significant service for his lady? Jacob thought of Lyssa lying in the hallway, seeking her own death. The anger he'd evoked in her, the frustration. Had she accepted him or had he forced the issue? Was he the best man to be her servant? Yes, she had a will of iron, but the Irish were stubborn enough to wear down iron.

It even crossed his mind that the compulsion to be with her could just be the pathetic cliche of a human drawn to a vampire's magnetism. Maybe he'd just been trying to spin the elusive threads of a wishful dream into the fabric of reality.

On the third night, he lay on the grass of her back lawn, staring up at the stars in the night sky. A child had told the emperor he was naked. A fool had brought a king back from despair by the simplicity of his worldview. He'd chosen to accept the role of human servant to Lady Lyssa because his gut had told him it was where he was supposed to be. The moment he'd seen her at Eldar's Salon, he'd known it with a deep conviction he couldn't shake even now. He'd known it at the bullfight, though he hadn't known what to call the compulsion then.

He wasn't certain if he was cut out to be a human servant. What he knew for certain was he was meant to serve her. What the hell that meant, he didn't know. Did he need to step out of the way to let someone more suitable take care of her?

"Oh, this is such bullshit. I'm sick of it. " At the fork of each road in his life he'd gone on his gut when every external source of information told him it was the wrong direction. He'd have to trust it.

He rolled to his feet, strode determinedly into the house. It took all of several minutes to stuff everything in his duffel, shoulder it and head for the kitchen entrance and the garage where he kept his motorcycle. Bran kept pace, following him with a stiff-legged stately stride that said the dog knew something significant was occurring.

When he rolled the bike out, he strapped the bag and the weapons tote on the back rack. Stood there, breathing deep. Swung his leg over to straddle the motorcycle, feel it between his thighs, ready to roar to life and take him wherever he wanted to go. She wouldn't hold him, would shut down the link between them, though she'd always know where he was and what he was thinking if she chose to do so. Wanted to do so. Sometimes in a weak moment, maybe he'd hear a whisper of her own thoughts in his dreams, her touch.

He would feel her. Know she was close, watching him. She could even be standing directly behind him now, where the bike's exhaust would make her skirt tremble around her legs when he started it up.

He stayed where he was a long time, straddling the gap between two decisions, somehow knowing whichever way he went on it, it was the last time he'd struggle with it. No matter what any of her kind or his own had to say about it. Even her.

"What's stronger than blood, Jacob?" His brother's voice, angry and hurt, when he'd left him. "What the hell is stronger than that?"

My feet have grown heavy and clumsy… I'd trip over them and fall flat on my face if I got more than a hundred paces from you…

I'm not as good as you think. I'm no saint, and I'm far from harmless.

He hadn't had an answer for his brother then. He did now.

The heart. That's what.

Bran sat a foot away from the bike, alert, gazing at him steadily. He'd wondered before how she'd taught him not to give away her presence when she was near. It was a question he hadn't had a chance to ask her. One of the many things he'd like a lifetime to find out. She didn't have a lifetime, though. Not even the length of a human lifetime left to her. Or a dog's.

He thought of her all the ways he'd seen or experienced her. Vulnerable. But not the sickness. She would have expelled him long before now if she'd thought for a moment the main reason he was here was pity, so he didn't waste any concern on that. She had the kind of pride that would make her die in her bed alone, no matter how tortured by the symptoms of her illness, rather than compel someone to her side to be her caretaker alone.

He thought about her mannerisms during the vampire dinner, when she forced him to couple with two women he didn't know before the cruel eyes of strangers. Her threat at the salon to dismember him, which was an affectionate, lighthearted memory in comparison. The way she watched him with such close attention as if she were fascinated not only by his words, but every minute change of facial expression or body language. Knowing that close scrutiny was coupled with the ability to hear his thoughts made him feel exposed and inextricably bound to her at once, a sense of infinite belonging. Yes, he was what they called an alpha male. But he wouldn't deny he belonged to Lady Lyssa, nor did it bother him anymore to realize it. It didn't change anything that already existed to give it names.

He was acknowledging what was already there, a part of their relationship that like so much of it couldn't be adequately explained. Even by the two people who were a part of it.

In his mind were the good images. Fewer but far more powerful than the not-so-good, as she'd said. Like making love before the fire, after the dinner. When she waited for him, wanted him. Letting him take her down and have her, sweep them both into a realm where politics and their status in her world or his did not matter. Swinging his leg back off the bike, he set down the weapons bag and duffel. He would stay because she needed him, but more than that, he would stay because he was in love with her. Perversely, he realized that was what had caused the wave of doubt. Because he loved her with everything he was, he'd finally gotten beyond himself, the need to prove himself, to what she needed. While he was sure that there were many others who could be a better human servant to her, his gut told him in his inability to start that engine, she needed him. How or why wasn't important. He was going to be here for her.

Bran gave him a doleful look as Jacob started to shoulder the bags to return to the house. "Thought I was going to go for a spin and let you give chase, did you?" He paused as the dog cocked his head. "Well, I suppose someone has to keep you and your worthless brothers and sisters in shape. "

***

A moment later, Lyssa watched while he kicked the bike into gear and sped down the mile-long driveway, Bran in hot pursuit, his brothers and sisters materializing from all parts of the grounds to join in the fun. When he got to the end, he put a foot down and deftly spun the bike in a circle, spitting out gravel to make the dogs jump excitedly just beyond range as he gunned it to shoot back up the drive. As he did, she saw him laughing, the weight of his thoughts lifted now that he'd made peace with them. The image before her shimmered, and suddenly she saw him coming across the field at full gallop, his sword drawn, coming to the aid of a woman he'd never met, whose caravan was under attack…

Startled, she blinked and the image disappeared, but the vividness of it, like her dream of the knight the first evening Jacob was in her home, lingered. Of course what woman didn't dream of her knight in shining armor? But then, there was much to be said of a knight in a snug T-shirt and worn jeans, handling a powerful motorcycle with callused hands and the grip of his thighs as deftly as he might a warhorse.

She'd heard his thoughts, had experienced myriad emotions herself as he sorted through his own. A few of his thoughts had almost tempted her to break the silence she'd imposed between them. Watching Bran and his family give chase to the bike with that intensity that quickly brought to mind their heritage of pulling down deer or tracking wolves, she knew it wouldn't change her mind about her next course of action.

She just wished she could predict it would accomplish her intention, instead of skittering off into some altogether different direction, as her interactions with Jacob seemed to do.

There was no hope for that. The Council Gathering was approaching. She would make a last attempt to teach him the one lesson she'd been trying to teach him from the beginning, the one most crucial to his survival. From there forward, he would serve her, but Fate would be his true Mistress.

Damn it, Lyssa wasn't going to give him up to any other woman without a fight. She couldn't let him be another Thomas.

Open your mind, Jacob. Be ready to learn.

***

Five days later, she left him a message.

"It's time to test your skills for the Council. Meet me at the forest edge at full dark. Wear black clothing that allows you to move quickly. Bring your preferred weapons for fighting vampires. "

Jacob enjoyed the idle fantasy they were going after Carnal, but since she'd said to meet her where the thickly forested nature preserve started behind her house, he doubted that was the case.

The security company that regularly patrolled the outside perimeter of the fenced preserve handled detection not prevention, for she knew no human methods would prevent a vampire from entering and only result in loss of human life. But a vampire would have a very difficult time getting onto her property undetected, which was what mattered to her. She was waiting when he got there. His heart leaped foolishly at that first sight of her in a week. Standing in front of the tree line, she almost blended into it, an innate part of the woods. Her hair was loose, surprising him, but when he reached her side he saw it fit the wildness that seemed so close to the surface in her tonight. With no light out here save for the sliver of moonlight, her expression was in shadow.

"Have you ever played tag, Jacob?"

"I have. " He wished he could see her face. Her voice rasped in a manner different than he'd ever heard it before, a creature he wasn't entirely sure he knew, and she was a mystery on most days. Even the dogs were acting differently. Not as house pets. Snarling occasionally at each other, reinforcing the pack's pecking order. Circling, impatient, they'd reverted to a primeval behavior he didn't know they remembered, but it called to mind the wilds of Ireland. As they brushed his legs he didn't pet them, knowing instinctively it wasn't appropriate and likely would lose him a hand. "Is that what we're doing?"

"The rules are essentially the same. I'll give you fifteen minutes to put distance between yourself and me. See if you can confuse me with your trail. I won't be using the mark to find you, only my vampire senses. Confuse me as best you may. "

She tugged the dress off herself, a hard rip rather than taking it off, underscoring the primitive nature of the game she intended to play. She wore nothing under it. Dropping to a crouch in bare feet, she rested her fingers on the dirt and considered him, her head c cocked, fangs catching the moonlight.

"Once I find you"–he noted she apparently had no doubt of this–"you'll try to stop me from running you to ground, using every weapon or method you've learned. I want to see what your brother has taught you. See if you can evade me, thwart my intent. "

"What intent is that, my lady?"

A flash of her eyes in the night, and Bran whined, the sound evolving into a half growl. "To treat you as prey. Capture you as I would if I was doing it on speed and intelligence alone. No seductive games. No glamour. Tonight you see my true face, Jacob. I will see how you survive it. "

He considered that. "And the dogs?"

"They'll run with the hunt, like the Fey riders at night, for it's their nature. They like to run. But they won't help find you. This is between you and me only. "

He inclined his head and began to remove the wooden arrows from the wrist gauntlet.

"What are you doing?"

"Preparing for the game you've proposed, my lady. " He removed the gun from his back waistband. Then a knife with its leg sheath, several hidden stakes and the small crossbow he carried, making a tidy pile of the weapons between them.

"I told you to bring those for a reason. "

"Which would be?" He blinked at her.

"You realize playing dumb means absolutely nothing when the person you're trying to irritate can read your mind?"

"Then I suspect whether I state the obvious or not, you're quite capable of being irritated. I won't draw a weapon against you, my lady. Not now. Not ever. "

"My point is to show your weapons will be useless against me. "

"As they've been against other vampires my brother and I have hunted and killed?" Now his temper flared, and he saw her green eyes fire in response. "Perhaps one day I'll show you I'm not nearly as impotent against your enemies as you believe me to be. But I won't use you as an example. As formidable as you are, my lady, I won't risk you being wrong. "

He removed another knife from the harness on his back, flipped and staked it into the dirt two feet from her before he dropped the harness to the ground as well. "Good hunting, my lady. Perhaps it's best you won't be listening to my thoughts for a while. "

He moved into the forest, letting its darkness swallow him. He'd run the trails with Bran and already knew where many of them were, since he'd explored the width and breadth of her property in the daytime hours. That she would catch up to him quickly, he'd no doubt. Vampire senses were keen. Hearing, sight, and of course she knew the property even better than he did. With only a fifteen-minute lead, he'd leave enough of a scent she'd pick up lingering traces of that as well. So he thought about an open area where she'd have to slow her approach, take time to search, and knew just the place.

Damnable, aggravating woman. Sometimes the similarities between her and Gideon were far too marked, their propensity for always assuming they knew what was best.

What does it gain to prove a man impotent, to convince him without a doubt he's helpless? A parent will still rush into a burning building to save his child, knowing they'll both die. Is it an act of futility, or a noble choice imbued with its own power because of the love that drives it?

His anger surged up, driving out philosophy in favor of raw reaction.

I'm not Thomas, damn it. Did you ever holdfast to his arm at night to keep him close to you in your dreams? Perhaps this isn't about proving Carnal can rip me limb from limb or that I'm ready for politics at the Council Gathering, but that you have control over a situation and feelings already far beyond your control. You're afraid of recreating a situation that broke your heart. But I am not him. And I am definitely not your fucking husband.

Pain shot through his temple, causing a brief sense of dizziness that made him stumble. His jaw flexed.

No cheating, my lady.

A sense of infuriated woman, heat and fire, and she was gone, pulling out so fast he felt somewhat sick to his stomach. He had no doubt her purpose was to hear what was going through his head, not to find him. But by catching her there, he'd won a point. She was not invulnerable and unaffected by him. No one was invulnerable. Not vampires, humans or wolfhounds. Grudgingly he admitted only the dogs seemed to accept that with good grace.

Twelve minutes later he found the glade he sought. About twenty-five-feet in diameter, it was surrounded by an interlocking circle of live oaks, pines and maples, their branches a tapestry against the night sky. There was a good amount of undergrowth as well. If she moved rapidly, she'd give herself away. She could leap up into the trees, travel that way. But while vampires could leap to extraordinary heights, they couldn't fly, so she wouldn't be able to soar over the trees. He squatted on his heels, putting his back against one of the large oaks growing so closely to the pines he was enclosed on three sides. Even more important, he was shadowed. Crossing his arms, he bowed his head to his breast, closing his eyes so he wouldn't rely on them. Vision was a hindrance when it came to vampires. The human eye could not follow them, and yet it would try to, draining energy and focus from other senses he'd found more useful.

Concealed at his hip was the only weapon he hadn't dropped from his arsenal. He'd use it to prove his point, if he could. It was the vampires' assumption of human weakness that got them killed. How often had he and Gideon used one of the team as bait, leading the vampire into a trap, distracting him, taking him out with an error in judgment? Yes, Gideon had lost people, because vampires weren't stupid. Their senses could detect danger in ways humans were not as honed to pick up, except with exceedingly high effort and practice.

But he made every effort to do so now. Listening, his nostrils flared, body tense but loose at once. Alert and ready to move.

There were a variety of sounds. Leaves and branches making contact as the breeze moved through them. One of the nocturnal animals scratching at something. A bark in the distance as one of the dogs found something of interest and warned one of his more aggressive brethren back because he wasn't finished examining it to his satisfaction. He could hear the quiet sound of his own breath. His heartbeat. Thud. Thud.

She'd hear that when she got close enough, but she'd have to pinpoint its location. You didn't often escape a vampire. Gideon taught him that early. Once they were on your trail, your only chance was to turn to the offensive, set them up to surprise them and take them out. Was she moving quietly through the wood now? Those bare feet pressing precisely into the earth, disturbing no undergrowth, her body flowing through it, letting the foliage pass across her bare skin, branches leaving tiny red scrapes that would vanish in a blink? The moonlight would turn her pale skin to milky gray, all that dark loose hair cloaking her. A creature of the night. Why had she undressed? To show that with nothing but her bare hands she could take him down? Or to distract him with those curves, the pale folds of her sex she'd revealed with a primal immodesty as she crouched in her feral pose, watching him discard his weapons. His body burned at the deprivation. His cock had no sense at all when it came to her, but he ruefully acknowledged no other part of him seemed to, either. His heart ached to hold her in his arms.

Slowly he raised his head, opening his eyes as he braced the back of his head on the tree trunk. The branches of the large live oak across from him stretched out like the gnarled arms of a giant.

It took a blink for him to realize there was something not part of the expected picture. When he scrolled his gaze back, at first he thought he might be in a Faustian dream. Perhaps there were other reasons Lyssa had the forest perimeter patrolled. Not only to give her warning of vampire intruders, but to protect creatures humans only dreamed about in surrealistic nightmares or whimsical fantasy.

Then shock coursed through his blood, freezing him. He was looking at his Mistress.

She crouched on a tree limb the way she'd been squatting on the ground when he left her. It was this position that suggested the amazing possibility to him. Her bare toes curled into the limb, elongated so they were more like a bird's claws, holding her balance. It seemed she'd broadened and thickened in the shoulders with the transformation, but as he continued to study her, he was reminded of the gargoyles at Notre Dame. Winged gargoyles.

Her skin was silver gray now. Her hair was gone, her small skull as delicate as a child's, the ears pointed, fangs pronounced and curving out over her bottom lip. Yes, that was a tail wrapped around the branch several times, helping her remain still. It had a barbed tip. Her fingers were talons. The smooth sleekness of her was like an animal, no womanly softness. Even the discernable mounds of her breasts were part of the sleek musculature. Yet he found her incredibly feminine. He'd have known she was female even without the male curiosity that caused him to seek evidence of her bosom, her sex. Her eyes had gotten larger, rounded, more widely spaced like a doe's, with long lashes and no irises or whites, just pure darkness. The skin did not look scaled, but tough, like a seal's skin.

Despite the legends, he'd never known a vampire who could shape-shift. Their affinity for caverns associated them with bats, their affinity for predatory animals like Bran gave rise to the idea they could become all sorts of things, stories he'd always known were untrue. Vampires had exceptional, deadly talents. Speed, strength, seductive illusion. Transforming into something else was not one of them. What he was looking at had to be another mysterious power of his lady's Fey parentage.

She couldn't see him, but she apparently knew he was in this glade, for from slight movements of her head he knew she was traversing it with her gaze. Shadowed by the three trees, he was safe for the moment. He'd been fortunate to move his head when she was looking elsewhere. As widely spaced as her eyes were, they weren't quite wide enough to have caught the movement.

The position of her head, the slight tilt, told him she was now focusing on where he was. Jacob remained motionless. She kept staring. She knew he was there, but she couldn't separate him from the shadows of his cover. It had been an excellent choice,but he suspected he had only a series of seconds before its usefulness would expire.

Less than that. She exploded from the branch, swooping down. She thought she could flush him with panic or intimidation. He held fast as she plunged toward his spot, marking the best time to move even as a part of him marveled at the fascinating sight. The thin body, ribs as pronounced as a greyhound's. The leather-like wings, extended so he could see the curved talon at the elbow joint, were nearly ten feet wide, tip to tip. She looked like a fallen angel, one of God's outcasts coming from the bowels of hell seeking souls for Lucifer. Or a fairy bathed in blood so often she had brought sensual beauty and horror together in the same form.

She should have looked frightening, unappealing, but there was a precise elegance to her, the sparing movements he'd know in any form.

Closing his eyes, he waited until he sensed she was almost upon him. He threw himself out of the alcove as the sweep of her wings passed over him, her talons grazing his back, tearing his shirt. He ducked under her reach, spun and leaped on her back, snugging his arm around her throat below her jaw, taking the teeth out of the equation.

They tumbled, but she used the powerful wings to take her from the ground with him still holding on. Six feet in the air she executed a flip, which slapped her wings through the grass of the glade. It threw his weight in an unexpected direction, disorienting him. He lost his grip and two blinks later found himself on his back, his wind knocked from him and her sitting on his chest. Just as she had sat in the tree, her bare feet flat on his stomach, knees bent up to her bosom, protecting herself. Her wings were half outstretched to balance herself, those dark eyes focused on him. This close up, he could see far more of Lyssa in her features, though he had no lingering doubt he was in the presence of his lady.

Of course she appeared impassive right now, but he read other things. The tension in her body indicated an overwhelming energy, barely suppressed. It could be bloodlust, or just plain lust. Or something else, something more unguarded this form allowed more free play than her vampire form did.

She had him effectively pinned. At these close quarters, her strength and speed would counter anything he did. Testing, he lifted one arm and it was immediately seized in her grip, the talons overlapping so he felt them scrape against his skin. Pressing forward, he communicated intent instead of struggle, keeping his gaze steady on those dark eyes.

She'd not yet spoken, and he didn't know if she could speak in this form, at least in a way he would understand. But he didn't feel a need for it, lying beneath this beautiful, fascinating creature who could destroy him without a thought. He felt certain her power over him was not as absolute as she thought it was. But proving that was no longer as important to him as touching her face.

While she granted his desire, she kept her grip on his wrist. When he brushed the firm gray skin of her cheek, her eyes, those large dark pools, remained unblinking, watching him. As he pressed a fingertip along the prominent cheekbone, there was a silver sheen to her skin, a type of oil that set off a ripple of glittering reaction, like static rippling in tiny starbursts along a woman's skirt as she moved. This had an electrical tingle to it but no pain. The area on either side of the bridge of the nose and under the eyes was drawn taut in three symmetrical folds. They gave her eyes a further depth, a sorrowful mystery, and his heart tightened as he passed his thumb over them, wondering at the track shedding tears would take. Or if she could cry in this form. Now he moved on to her ear, twice as long as an elf's and yet standing just as upright, giving her the appearance of small horns. He traced up to the point, rising up on one elbow to do so. She tilted her head down toward him, making a soft crooning noise, a noise of pleasure as he dipped into the shell of it.

He couldn't help but marvel at the precise artistry of her. Her neck was long, giving her better reach to look over her shoulder when flying and execute maneuvers like he'd just experienced. He wanted to caress the line of it, but first he wanted this. He moved from her ear to cup her head, the bare skull under his palm. It was smooth and silken like her body when it had been brushed with a lustrous powder. There was an exotic, different scent to her as well, almost a hint of vanilla cream. Tantalizing.

At his touch on her skull, she made another of those soft noises, this time with a slight growl. He kept doing it, even as it became a low rumble and he knew he was arousing her with the stroking.

Hunger. She was hungry.

Raising his chin, he tilted back his head. Inviting. Offering.

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