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The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Twenty)

He'd parked his bike near the opera house earlier in the week and hitched back to a convenience store where he was supposed to meet Ingram in a regular car. From there the man was going to drive him the rest of the way back to Lyssa's house.

An elderly woman picked him up. She informed him she was turning eighty on Saturday, could barely see, and too many cars on the road made her nervous. After she asked him to take the wheel until they got to their destination, she talked him into stopping at the drugstore for her prescription and the grocery store for three soft pears and several cans of soup. When they finally got to Ingram, he'd had the man follow him while he drove her back to her house. He ignored Elijah's grin when the woman gave him a kiss on the cheek and two pieces of peach cobbler.

He could have lectured her on the foolishness of picking up someone who could easily overpower her and turning over the car to him to boot. However, he'd learned it wasn't necessarily a lack of common sense that made women act that way.

"A woman knows she's safe with you, Jacob. She just knows. " It was Milah, one of the circus tumblers he regularly tossed in the air, who'd first pointed it out to him. "Don't get me wrong. You're not a harmless puppy dog. But you can tell you'd break your own hand before you'd let it hurt a woman. "

He definitely wasn't feeling harmless at the moment. When Lyssa's fangs sank into him, she'd entered his consciousness on so many levels he'd almost shoved her away in panic. Instead, he turned that energy to holding steady, getting a grip. A fierce grip with both hands, his hold on her waist tightening as her invasion spread into every corner of his mind, deep into wells of his soul where even he didn't go.

His awareness of her was heightened beyond anything he'd imagined. When Thomas had talked about being connected this way, he'd imagined something like schizophrenia, with voices in his head. He had a certain ability to anticipate someone's needs, an uncanny intuition that had served him well throughout his life, but this went far beyond that. When they left the fountain, he stopped at the hallway leading to the restroom because he knew she wanted to wring out her shirt and re-pin her hair. They'd put the wig in one of his bags. He knew she wanted him to wait here,at the entrance to the hall. So he did as she left him without a word, just a brush of contact on his arm. Since no matter how often he'd studied it tonight he couldn't help watching that tempting little ass, he watched it until it disappeared into the restroom and was startled when she let him feel her pleasure at his regard. Her amusement.

He leaned against the wall, resting his head against the cool tile to ease the odd buzzing sensation. From here he could see the Ferris wheel, the way it tilted on its axis like a top. Somewhat the way his mind was doing, trying to find its balance now that someone was riding it with him.

Could she really read it all? Everything he thought or felt? For some reason, he'd never really considered her access to his thoughts below the surface layers. Now it was dawning on him, how many things she would know about him. Things she'd know about him almost before he had the thought himself. He didn't regret it, but damn if it wasn't an uncomfortable idea, making him self-conscious, as if everything about him was under a spotlight for her perusal. Not "as if. " It was.

I can leave no stone unturned, if I so choose.

She'd returned, was standing there next to him, but she'd spoken inside his head. Her lips had not moved at all. He suspected she'd intended to come upon him unawares, to underscore what Thomas had told him. The marks are two-way, but only when she allows it.

As if her invasion into his mind had opened up some of the rooms he himself couldn't open, for the first time he understood his own conflict better. She was a queen, a liege lady, in truth. He was her servant, while his soul burned to give her everything, just for a smile. His sense of honor would keep him at her side even when she drove him mad. But what would keep him protecting and serving her beyond every torment of hell was something she'd be shocked to know, maybe even offended–

His attention snapped to her face as she watched him, her jade green eyes filled with things he didn't understand and didn't want to interpret. Maybe it was good he couldn't read her mind. He couldn't bear her scorn at this moment.

"You consider me yours. No other man's. " She voiced the thought he hadn't intended to share. "Be careful, Jacob. You are right.

You are my servant. I am your Mistress. Our relationship may be far more intense than that of human lovers, but it is far less equitable, I promise you. "

It was like catching mice running out of a cage. He didn't know which thought to chase down and try to slap back into the cage, but it was futile regardless. The bars were gone. There was nowhere to put them. The noise of the mall closed in on him as he struggled with it, and suddenly there seemed to be a lot less oxygen. "Jacob. " Her hand was on his arm. "Breathe deep, Sir Vagabond. Be calm. " Her fingers climbed to his biceps, squeezed. "Sshh… "

"I can't… Get a handle on it. "

"Nothing to get a handle on. That's where you're making a mistake. " Her touch stroked, soothed. "It's like… Do you believe in the Christian version of God? It's like that, the way they say He is in your thoughts at all times. "

"No one really believes that, though. " He tried to respond to her gentle teasing in kind, not let the first anxiety attack he'd ever had in his life overcome him. "No one thinks God's in there 24/7, listening to what you're going to eat for breakfast, or watching sitcom reruns at two in the morning with you. "

"I won't be, either, " she said with a smile. Cupping his face, she brought his eyes to her. When they steadied, focused, she nodded her approval, though she kept stroking his hair from his temples, helping him stay calm as he struggled for his bearings. "Yes, I'll know your thoughts if I'm listening at the time you have them. The main purpose of the mind link is to communicate without using our voices, and to communicate over distance. "

You can handle this, Jacob. You can do this.

Her voice or his? His, but she could hear him if she chose to do so.

"I may choose to eavesdrop, " she said quietly. "But when I do, most of the time you won't even know I'm there. I've never claimed or desired to be an easy Mistress to serve. If you curse my name, I may hear it, but as long as you act toward me with respect, most of the time I'll allow you the illusion of privacy, the normal range of emotions and personal thoughts inside your head without disruptive intrusion, even when I choose to be there. I don't expect you to be less than human. As Thomas may have told you, over time you'll become far less conscious of it. "

Until you lose it. As he weakened, Thomas had spoken of things a man confessed on his deathbed, the staggering sense of loss he'd felt when she blocked their link so effectively he could no longer sense it anymore. It had been like the removal of a vital organ, the severing of a limb.

When Lyssa's eyes darkened with pain, Jacob wished he could have thought about something else, anything else.

"My lady–"

"No. " She shook her head, drew away from him. "At least you won't have to worry about that, Jacob. I'll never give you the third mark. "

At first he wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly. She was walking, and he had to take a couple of fast strides to catch up, take her arm to stop her. "What do you mean? I don't understand. Have I displeased you somehow?"

She looked away, her body tense, wanting to move. "The second mark isn't a guarantee of the third, and it's not necessary for how I need you to serve me. "

"My lady, why do you insist on shutting–"

"Jacob, " she snapped. The admonition silenced him, but Lyssa saw the anger in his eyes, the hurt confusion. To have come so far, worked so hard, and she isn't going to even give me the chance… What the hell? She can't mean it. She–

She shut down her awareness of his thoughts, unwilling to hear the things that fueled her own frustration. It angered her, his presumption. Almost as much as her desire to do what he wanted.

Coldness invaded her vitals, cutting short the surge of temper. The hair rose on the back of her neck and she went still, surveying her immediate surroundings and then farther out, reaching and looking for the source. Pain rushed in her temples, sudden enough that she froze, caught in the grip of it. No, not now. Setting her teeth, she fought to look past it, to push down the nausea rising in her throat. Perhaps it was caused by what she was sensing, not an impending attack. She didn't know which was preferable.

"My lady. " He had her arm, his touch gentle but firm. "I should have brought us a car. Do you need your medicine?"

"No. " Lyssa blinked, clearing the haze over her eyes. It was an effort, but she made herself straighten. "We should go, though. "

Without prompting, he slid an arm around her, bringing her in to his side so they could walk through the mall, blending with the other young lovers who moved in trilling, giggling packs. Noise bounced off the walls. Thankful for the sunglasses, she closed her eyes, curled her fingers into Jacob's flesh. She heard him tell a security guard they were on their way out when he was admonished for not wearing his shirt. She didn't hear the response, but she was sure it was a male security guard. No woman would have required someone looking like Jacob to wear a shirt unless she was insane.

Where was it? She could feel the presence like a poison seeping through the walls, coating the tile floor, trying to come in contact with her. The source of it would not be inside the mall,however. It would wait in the shadows, knowing she'd sensed it. Staying in the mall would appear as weakness, and she refused to show weakness to this one, even if the effort killed her. It would be equally debilitating to let the creature believe it could get under her skin. Either way, she wouldn't permit it to have an advantage. Couldn't.

Jacob.

She spoke his name in her mind, and was reassured when he tightened his arm around her. He could hear her then.

Before they stepped out the parking deck entrance, she straightened, took his elbow in a more formal gesture. He gave her a glance, but said nothing as they moved into the deck area. He was alert, picking up on her mood, his eyes darting everywhere. She knew they wouldn't see her quarry, though. This one had to be flushed.

"Show yourself, Carnal. Unless you're planning to jump out of the shadows and say 'boo. '"

Jacob stiffened and she touched him with her mind. Follow my lead, and do not disobey me.

The vampire who stepped out was as tall as Jacob, perhaps taller. Emanating a vampire's physical perfection, he'd honed it to a razor-sharp attraction to draw whatever prey to him he chose. His long dark hair had once been short, but apparently he'd realized the style emphasized too well the precisely cut lines of his face, making the cruelty more easily noticed. His eyes, gray and piercing as an ice pick, were mesmerizing enough to seduce, but lacked the warmth for it. His lean body exhibited a tensile strength suggesting a fencer about to step into a ring.

When his eyes swept Jacob, the vampire dismissed him so quickly Jacob wasn't sure he'd even seen him.

His lady stepped in front of him, he noted with displeasure. He'd have corrected that, but her voice erupted in his mind again. Being such a new sensation, he had to take precious seconds to orient himself to it, focus enough to understand the message she was communicating.

Stay behind me. It's inappropriate for a servant to stand equal with his vampire Mistress. Even worse to insult her by standing in front of her. Speak only when spoken to. A servant never speaks when two vampires are conversing.

As she issued her terse instructions, Carnal's gaze was roving every inch of her in slow, deliberate appraisal, lingering in a way that made Jacob itch for a wooden stake. He tried to remain as impassive as his Mistress, but there was something about the way Lyssa held herself that suggested she was anticipating ugliness from this encounter. Jacob had never let a woman stand between him and danger. He didn't care for the feeling one bit.

"This is a new look for you, Lyssa. " His voice was smooth, well-pitched. A cross between a radio personality and a torturer for the Inquisition. "I came by your house, intending to leave my calling card, only to find no servant to meet me. I decided to amuse myself in the area until your return and was fortunate enough to be close enough to this place"–his lip curled distastefully–"to detect the most delicious perfume on the air. You. " He cocked his head. "Even in your own Region, I'm surprised you would send out such an obvious beacon like that. Your powerful compulsion magic has stirred up quite a few creatures of the night. "

"I've no concern about my enemies, Carnal. They're far more confident of themselves than they should be. "

Carnal gave a half bow, his dark hair falling forward over his shoulders. "I hope for your happiness and long life it is so. There are many these days who resist the Council and their pro-human laws. Taking down the vampire queen who helped implement them… That would be a powerful victory for them, a catalyst for irrevocable change. "

"An era of more bloodshed. It seems some never tire of it. "

"Blood is nothing, Lyssa. It is power that drives your enemies. ; Didn't Rex always say that? Have you forgotten his wisdom?"

Lyssa's posture did not change. From what little of her profile Jacob could see, she didn't even alter her expression. But he sensed Carnal had fired the first arrow when her tone went to frost.

"It seems you've forgotten proper etiquette. We've received no missive from you or a servant. You are to announce your presence before entering my Region. "

A flash of something went through the steely eyes, too fast for Jacob to give it a name, though he suspected it was hostility.

"My apologies, " the vampire said lightly. "I didn't think old friends needed such formalities. Perhaps you might consider sharing your dinner dalliance with me to break some of the ice between us?"

It took Jacob a moment to realize Carnal was referring to him, for he didn't look in his direction. He focused on Lyssa as if he were trying to peel the skin from her bones with the scalpel of his gaze.

"He isn't food. I'm training him as a new servant. "

Curiosity swept the vampire's features and his attention shifted back toward Jacob.

Lower your gaze.

The night he'd brought Lyssa home, Jacob recalled Thomas had advised him to avoid eye contact with Bran and not challenge the dog's dominance. Jacob had refused to do it. I'm here to take care of her, mate. That's the end of it.

He'd trained for months on the proper etiquette when a human servant met another vampire. But even with that and his Mistress's sharp admonition in his mind, Jacob faced the vampire's thorough assessment head-on, blue eyes clashing with gray as Carnal registered his existence for the first time.

Carnal's lip curled slightly at the left corner, exposing a fang. Jacob didn't find it anywhere near as intimidating as Bran's upper set, which seemed at the time like it could have graced the model of a saber-toothed tiger at the Smithsonian. Jacob detected a glimmer of red in the man's eyes, but he kept that creepy flat tone, even as he held Jacob's gaze, acknowledging the challenge. "So the rumor is true. You dispatched your scabrous scholar. "

"I couldn't bear to have him near me after Rex's death. " Lyssa shifted between the two men, breaking the stalemate. Carnal's gaze shot quickly to her, a predator registering the slightest movement of prey that might try to escape him.

"You were merciful. I would have tortured him for months. "

"I don't have your lust for blood. "

The expression on Carnal's face altered, became more drawn. "Your distance wounds me, Lyssa. I've missed Rex, too. " The arrogance dropped from his voice, making it become more vulnerable. There was a disturbing rawness contrasting with the smooth menace. Strangely, Jacob sensed this was a more honest side to the creature confronting them.

"Things aren't the same without Rex. I was hoping… You and I loved him best. All I wanted was to spend time with you remembering him. To come to your home and feel the lingering sense of his presence. I was afraid you'd say no if I asked first. Please forgive me for taunting you. Truly, grief makes me a bastard. "

He dropped to one knee as Lyssa remained motionless, her back straight as one of the concrete pillars on the parking deck. When he lifted his head, his gaze returned to Jacob.

"Come, share the blood of your servant with me. He seems young and not yet broken in. The experience of being shared will do him good. He's a fine specimen. " Calculation gleamed in his now darkening eyes, reminding Jacob of twin rat holes. "I've no interest in his cock, but it's a particular pleasure to fuck a straight male while feeding. Their humiliation, their rage… Throw in a little pain, and it's an incredible taste. This one needs to learn humility. "

"I don't share the blood of my servant. Why would I be so foolish as to give you a connection to myself?"

"You were foolish enough to unleash your unique magic in this crowded place, Lyssa, " he pointed out, rising to his feet and squaring with her again.

"My husband gave you leave to call me familiar, " she said softly. "I never did. Since he's dead, the invitation is rescinded. "

Jacob tensed as the air heated around them, impending violence thrumming in the air. Carnal's pale lips curled back. "You weren't so formal when I was ramming my cock into you and you were screaming. Do you know how often I've thought of that? The way my cock was bathed in your blood when I pulled out of your tight ass? After I spilled my come into your body? Perhaps if Rex had let me fuck your frigid cunt we might now be celebrating our heir. "

Jacob stepped forward, intending murder. Instead, he was knocked to his knees. Lyssa's hand was in his hair, holding him fast, her eyes cold and remote as she stared down at him in the subjugated pose. "Behave. "

She turned her attention back to Carnal, who arrested his forward motion as she pinned him with her gaze. "As you see, I can teach my servant about humility myself. I need nothing from you except to observe the proper courtesies. Go back to your territory. Jacob will contact you when I have decided on the date you may attend me at my home and perform the correct formalities. Then you may travel through my Region. Otherwise I'll place a complaint with your Region Master. "

A muscle in his jaw flexed, but he performed a mocking bow. "As you wish. If my inconvenience serves your desires, then I will suffer it gladly. Far be it from me to disregard the all-important bureaucratic rules of the Council. "

She inclined her head, not rising to the bait. His gaze swept her. "I hope to see you in your normal attire on that date. This doesn't suit your great beauty at all. Good luck with your servant. I suspect he won't live long. "

Turning on his heel, he walked across the parking deck, his hard-soled shoes crisp and sharp on the concrete. Lyssa's nails dug into Jacob's scalp as her eyes remained on her adversary. His knees ached from the impact with the unyielding cement and his chest was tight with anger and embarrassment, but he forced himself to stay still, do nothing further she would perceive as defiance of her wishes.

When he reached the edge of the deck, Carnal stopped. "Do you even miss him, Lady Lyssa?" He turned his head, showing his profile. His lip curled, giving the impression he was spitting on the title, but Jacob saw the vulnerability had returned to his expression.

It was a long moment, but Lyssa replied at last, one hollow syllable that echoed, rebounding on ugly gray walls. "Yes. "

"And me?" "You were my husband's friend, Carnal. Not mine.

You'll visit my home due to my respect for your Region Master and in honor of my husband's memory, but I do not desire your friendship. Don't seek it further from me. "

With a snarl, he disappeared into the darkness. Lyssa waited. Jacob watched her face, realizing she was listening, all her senses extended to determine if they were alone. Her grip eased somewhat, her thumb stroking a lock of his hair from his forehead, easing the strain on his neck her hold had created. It didn't abate his fury, however. He wanted to tell her to let go, to never again make him take a second seat to her in a dangerous situation. Or treat him like a recalcitrant child.

When she turned her gaze to him at last, her green eyes were hard and cold. She backhanded him in the face.

Pain exploded in the bridge of his nose, his jaw and cheek area. The impact knocked him to the concrete. He knew she'd used restraint because he was alive, but he tasted blood in his mouth where his teeth had snapped onto his tongue.

"When I give you an order, you'll obey it. If I tell you to stand behind me, that's where you will stay. Without movement, without a word. Do you understand me?"

He scrambled to his feet almost as soon as she hit him. But before he could regain his balance, she struck him again, the opposite side, knocking him back down, making it clear she could do it all night long. He'd never be able to touch her, not even a slap worthy of two girls squabbling on a playground.

This wasn't being treated like a child. He was being treated like a slave, someone's property, prohibited by the laws of her existence from correcting that notion.

If you want to be in my world, that is what you are. What you must accept.

The presence of her in his mind, the things she had been trying to tell him and things Thomas had hinted at, suddenly made a cohesive, frightening picture. A picture she was forcing him to look at more closely than he'd done before.

Was she the answer to his destiny he'd sought for so long, or was Gideon right? Was he indulging in romanticized wishful thinking rather than truth? As Jacob pushed himself back on his heels, she turned her back on him, a strike more painful than the physical blows.

He didn't have to take it. He could take her home, walk away. Of course he'd walk away with two marks binding him permanently to her, but she would let him go. He swiped at his lips with the back of his hand, came up with blood.

Only moments ago, he'd known down to the depths of his soul he'd never walk away from her. He'd known it even when he took the oath, otherwise he wouldn't have taken it, for to him an oath was sacred, unbreakable.

It will guide you when everything else seems cloudy. Thomas had said that, comparing it to the sacredness that attended the oath of marriage. For better or worse… Our hearts know what is true, Jacob, and need no oath. It's our minds that need it, to help us stay the course through the rough patches. You will need the oath, I promise you. She will make nothing easy.

He spat blood. Well, this seemed to qualify as one of those rough patches.

He struggled to find it, the elusive something that could right his course again, and he remembered that first night, the naked pain in her gaze after Ingram had left and it was just the two of them.

I can't bear to lose another servant…

She had no servant. No one to indulge her need to casually reach out, touch and stroke. No one to hold her close, surprising her with the offer of comfort. No one to make her smile, banish shadows from her eyes. No one to kick around and treat like dog shit. She spoke, her voice quiet, tired. "I release you from your oath, Jacob. You don't have to stay. You can go now. I'll find my way home. He's gone. "

Damn it, remembering she could read his mind was a pain in the ass. But for all its drawbacks, the link could introduce an intimacy to their relationship that couldn't be duplicated in mortal interactions. He didn't have to guard words with her, he didn't have to do anything but be exactly who he was. There was a freedom to that.

Thomas, insisting he take that oath, had understood the fundamental essence of who Jacob was, what he wanted above all else.

He moved. One step after another as she remained still, her back to him. A pace behind her, he dropped to one knee, reached out and took her hand. Brought it to his lips before he lifted her knuckles, pressed them against his face where she'd struck him.

Lyssa had tuned out of his mind after hearing the bent of his thoughts. Lost in thoughts of her own, his touch startled her. As she turned toward him, she could feel all the conflict in him, all the reasons to walk away milling in his mind. There was fury simmering there, and yet still he touched her with courtesy and reassurance. Reading his mind was not the same as reading his heart, but this gesture provided the answer to the jumbled chaos of her own needs.

"He may be gone, my lady. But I'm not. "

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