One downside to being a vampire’s best friend was knowing she could read your mind.
Not that Noella ever would, at least not without good reason, but still . . . Something about the way Noella looked at her tonight put Felicia on edge. There was a certain knowledge in her eyes that hinted at questions to come. Questions that Felicia had to avoid at all costs.
Now, as the two of them strolled the perimeter of the grand ballroom’s dance floor, Felicia turned to her friend. “Every vamp in the nation must be here,” she marveled. “Maybe every vamp in the world.”
Noella St. Claire Devereaux laughed and hooked her arm through Felicia’s. “Just about. Those well enough to travel, anyway.” As they continued to walk, she peered at Felicia from beneath her eyelashes.
“What?” Felicia groaned good-naturedly.
Noella patted her hand. “You’ve certainly made an effort to greet them all. All except a certain dharmire, that is. Has Knox upset you?”
Felicia stumbled slightly. Inwardly cringing, she stopped walking and forced herself to smile. “Of course not. He’s been busy playing host, that’s all. With magnificent results. It’s been a wonderful party,” she said truthfully. The food had been delicious, the grounds beautifully appointed, and the guests charming; the fact that Felicia was miserable was beside the point. “The perfect way to celebrate your ninth wedding anniversary.”
“Acknowledging I’ve been married that long makes me feel old. It also reminds me how long it’s been since I last saw you. You really must try to visit more often, Felicia.”
“The Bureau’s struggling right now. Federal crime is at an all-time high with the recent insurgents. Every agent is working overtime.”
“I don’t care. I miss you.” Noella pouted. “Don’t make me sic Knox on you.”
Flushing despite herself, Felicia covered with a mock shudder. “Okay, okay. I’ll visit more often. Believe me, I know how ruthless you can be when you want something.”
“Dear Goddess, Felicia, whatever do you mean?”
Felicia snorted, both at Noella’s innocent act and her invocation of the Earth Goddess Essenia. Many Otherborns had changed religion over the years, but most of them, especially vamps, still worshipped the Goddess. She was thought to be only one of several deities, but she was the most revered because of her allegedly steadfast devotion to all living creatures. “Dear Goddess nothing. Your ability to take down the clan’s most sought-after bachelor is rivaled only by your ability to wrap your husband around your finger. Annette Bening could have taken lessons from you when she was courting Warren Beatty.”
For a moment, a furrow marred Noella’s perfect skin and her mouth twisted ruefully. “Take him down, huh? Sure, it was a piece of cake. It just took a hundred years or so for him to give up his odd notions about soul mates, and I’d already waited almost two decades before even trying to convince him to. He was over three hundred years old when we finally married. That’s practically unheard of for a vamp’s first marriage, full vampire or not.”
“Who knew Knox would play so hard to get?” Felicia said the words lightly, almost tauntingly, knowing that Noella would take the bait and rise to Knox’s defense. “He should thank the Goddess Essenia every day that you didn’t turn your sights on someone else.”
“He wasn’t playing hard to get, Felicia. He just views marriage more seriously than most vamps. When Knox loves, he loves fiercely. He couldn’t imagine marrying more than once, so he wanted to be sure. Sure he married the woman he could love for eternity.”
For eternity, Felicia mentally echoed. Because he needed to marry another immortal. Felicia took Noella’s hand. “And he did.” Felicia swallowed hard and forced out the words. “You are his soul mate, Noella.”
Raising one hand, Noella cupped her cheek. “Sweet Felicia,” she whispered, her dark eyes flaring brightly before going blank. “I’ve never believed in soul mates. Most vampires don’t. Knox’s romanticism comes from his father’s line. I’ve envied it at times, but I’ve also cursed it.” She shook her head as Felicia’s eyes widened. “Please. Don’t misunderstand. Knox has made me very happy, and I think the children and I have brought him happiness as well.”
“Of course you have,” Felicia interjected. “You—”
“But,” Noella said firmly, “I know he’s never felt truly complete, either. He married me out of duty and, yes, even affection, but I’ve never been the soul mate he wanted.”
Felicia took a shaky breath and struggled for the right words to reassure her friend. Finally, she said, “A person can have more than one soul mate, Noella. Maybe it’s just taken Knox time to . . .”
Noella spotted something over Felicia’s shoulder. Grinning broadly, she released Felicia, raised her arm, and waved. “Speak of the devil. Knox!”
Felicia had already started to panic with Noella’s talk of soul mates, but now that panic magnified tenfold. “I need to get this.” Felicia gestured to the sleek communicator hooked to her evening bag.
“But I didn’t hear—”
Swiftly moving away from her friend, Felicia called, “I’ll catch up with you in a bit. Go dance with your husband.”
Moving toward the ballroom’s double French doors, Felicia vaguely heard the band start another song. It was a haunting melody, romantic and slow. She couldn’t quite place it, but it made her heart ache all the same.
At the doors, she turned just in time to see Knox take Noella in his arms. Her friend was feminine and petite. She looked a little pale and tired, and she was definitely getting thinner, but she was still the perfect foil to Knox’s decadent good looks, even down to their matching silver hair. In the corner, Knox’s mother, Bianca, and his brother, Zeph, watched the dance, too, matching smiles on their pale, gaunt faces. Felicia couldn’t help wincing at the evidence of their decline.
Damn that filthy vaccine, she thought. The U.S. government had made it available to almost every human over eight years ago, before the start of its Second Civil War; almost everyone had taken it, thus changing their blood so it no longer provided vamps the nourishment they needed. Even now, when peace had been declared and the Others were being integrated into society, there was no way to reverse its effects. That meant vamps continued to starve. And suffer.
At least vamp children, Felicia consoled herself, had no need to drink blood until they transitioned at puberty. Noella and Knox’s twins, Joelle and Thomas, were flourishing. And thankfully, as a dharmire, Knox had been relatively unaffected. Although he required blood, he didn’t need as much of it because of his human DNA, a benefit he’d hopefully pass on to his children. She knew how guilty he felt because of his continuing strength, but his clan was lucky to have—
The music stopped.
Suddenly, Knox looked up and their eyes met. The pull toward him was so immediate that Felicia actually took several steps forward. But then Noella’s gaze shifted toward her, making her freeze.
It was definitely time for her to leave.
Unlike Noella, Felicia believed in soul mates. In the notion that certain individuals were two halves of the same whole, one soul divided in two and never completely fulfilled without the other. She was also open to the notion of multiple soul mates, just as she was to the concept of multiple lives. Unfortunately, however, she strongly believed in the sanctity of marriage and that an individual was entitled to claim only one soul mate at a time.
Knox had claimed Felicia’s best friend before they’d ever met.
She whirled, only to run right into a broad chest. With a gasp, she took a step back. Bony fingers squeezed her arms in a punishing grip. It was Dante Prime, Zeph’s father and, she’d been told, the most recent addition to the Vamp Council.
Felicia couldn’t stand him, and the feeling was mutual. That was how she knew Prime’s, “Lovely party, isn’t it, Felicia?” was meant to draw blood. She, however, simply raised her chin and said, “Yes, it’s beautiful.”
When she tried to pull away, his grip tightened. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me on my appointment to the Council?”
Angry, she tore herself out of his grasp, not caring how it might look to others. “Congratulations, Prime. I’m sure Knox will appreciate your advisement on the occasional matter.”
As she’d expected, he took immediate insult to her statement. “Advisement?” he sneered. “How dare you? The Council is the equivalent of the humans’ judicial and legislative branches. Composed of our most respected elders—”
“Whose decisions can, ultimately, be vetoed by the executive branch, namely Knox or his mother.” She feigned confusion. “Or am I wrong? After all, while the Council can pass laws, Knox can strike them at any time. That sounds advisory to me.”
“Why you . . .”
Prime’s face suffused with blood, but Felicia shook her head. “Don’t bother showing me out, Prime.”
Leaving him fuming, she strode onto the patio.
Leaning against a stone column, she willed her pulse to calm. She wasn’t distraught over the run-in with Prime, she realized, but still feeling the aftereffects of seeing Noella and Knox dance. Each clamoring beat of her heart seemed to call out: No, no, no. No, I want him. No, it’s not fair she saw him first. No, it’s not fair she can give him what he needs and I never can.
Closing her eyes, she clenched her fists, furious at her weakness.
Taking several determined breaths, she checked her pager, but the Bureau was leaving her alone for once. She forced herself to walk the lush beauty of the Devereaux gardens. High above her, the top of the Dome blended with the night sky, seeming to disappear so all she saw was the twinkling of a thousand stars. Come daylight, it would shield vamps from the harmful rays of the sun. The Dome that Knox had designed and helped build was in many ways reflective of himself—a blend of modern convenience and old-world charm, separate from the rest of the world even as it thrived within it, a bubble where trusted Others and humans alike were allowed to gather in peace and friendship, but only on his terms and when he felt it was safe.
It was a brilliant blend of organic and artificial materials, aesthetically pleasing and functional, from the panels that let in fresh air to the generators that regulated the temperature and amount of light allowed inside.
“Noella wanted me to check on you.”
Gasping, she spun around. Even under the artificial lights that lined the garden path, Knox’s eyes flickered with heat and vibrancy. While he always dressed well, the black tuxedo emphasized the long, muscular lines of his body. It also highlighted his less-refined features—the sharp angles of his warrior face, flawless but for the small scar above his upper lip à la Harrison Ford. He’d gotten the scar when he was eight, Noella had told her, before he’d had the ability to heal himself. When she imagined licking the scar and the flesh between her thighs clenched, Felicia tried telling herself it was only because she’d always been a Ford fan.
Funny how denial became so much easier with time. She cleared her throat and forced a polite smile. “Why didn’t she—”
“Materialize here herself? You have been gone a long time, haven’t you, Felicia?”
He took her right hand and held it. Just held it. Biting her lip, she told herself to pull away but instead curled her fingers into his. “Is she that ill?”
“She’s weak due to the limited supply of pure blood, yes, but that’s not why she can’t teleport. She didn’t want to tell you, but she lost that power long ago. After the babies and then the miscarriages—”
Disbelief had her pulling away. “That affects teleportation?” She’d never heard that. All she knew about a vamp’s ability to teleport was that it was limited to places he or she had been before. If she’d known Noella couldn’t travel so easily, she would have come to see her more often.
Or would she? She’d been avoiding her friend for a reason—the one standing right in front of her.
“Sometimes. In full vampires at least. It’s why Noella rarely leaves the Dome. Without the power to transport, our females are even more vulnerable. Add to that a limited food supply . . .”
She briefly closed her eyes, picturing the emaciated frames of the many vampires inside. Damn it, she would not feel guilty. She might be a federal agent, but she hadn’t condoned the FBI’s actions in formulating the vamp vaccine. Nonetheless, unreasonable guilt prompted her to take his hand again. “The Bureau’s working to reverse that. It has been ever since peace was declared.”
He smoothed his thumb across her palm and she felt the caress on her nipples. Between her legs. On the nub that was swelling and aching for his touch. With a knowing smile, his touch firmed, making her bite her lip to keep from screaming. “And will it continue to do so,” he crooned, “when we’re all dead? For the sake of science?”
“Don’t say that,” she whispered, terror beating out lust. “You’re immortal.”
“We’re only strong immortals when we’re able to feed. Right now, many of us are simply existing; eventually our enemies will come after us.” Knox’s mouth twisted sardonically. “But no one ever said war was pretty. Even after the fighting ends, there are casualties.”
“Yes. Life is full of casualties,” she said softly. “And even with all the new races we’ve discovered, even with our common belief in a creator and an afterlife, we’ve no guarantee there’s anything better waiting for us. Not that any of you are willing to admit anyway . . .”
“Unfortunately, Otherborns don’t have a direct connection to the Goddess any more than humans have to their Gods. Only those granted entry into the Otherworld have claimed to see her, but maybe someday . . .” He frowned then shrugged, as if wanting to recall his words.
Felicia understood why. “Yes, maybe someday you’ll see her for yourself. While you’re still alive, I mean. Again, lucky for you you’re immortal. Increases your chances, right?” Her last sentence was meant to be teasing, but her repeated references to his immortality only made her feel foolish. And sad. She tugged at her hand but he refused to let it go. “I have to go,” she pleaded, hating her weakness.
“Dance with me.” Desire pulsed in the air and his command radiated hunger, one that beckoned to her and made her dizzy with the need to give in.
Disoriented, she licked her lips. “What?”
“You’re going to run again. We won’t see you for years. So dance with me.”
“No. I don’t want—”
He pulled her into his arms, cutting off her words. Their chests and hips pressed together, and almost immediately he began a simple waltz, leading her so she was floating in his arms. The faint scent of mint rose between them and she leaned closer, barely able to stop herself from burying her face in the crook of his neck.
That same haunting melody was playing, and she wondered—
“It’s Chopin. Waltz number five.”
She gave herself a few seconds to enjoy it. The feel of his arms. His hair tickling her face. It was when she imagined them dancing at their own anniversary celebration that she pulled away.
A few seconds were apparently enough to have her thinking of forever. Don’t let him touch you again, she thought. Don’t let him destroy the wall you’ve used to protect your heart all these years.
She’d just started to turn when he touched her arm. “Noella knows how we feel and wants to give us ease.”
She froze. “Ease?”
“She knows why I married her, Felicia. She’s not angry.”
Violently, she jerked away and rounded on him. “No? How about hurt?”
He said nothing for several seconds. “Noella’s been free to make her own choices when it comes to bedmates. And she has.”
Eyes wide, she gasped. She knew the vamp society had different thoughts on marriage and fidelity, and most married vamps often participated in at least one “mating-pair.” Felicia looked toward the ballroom and pictured her friend as she’d been in Knox’s arms. She’d looked so happy. So fulfilled. And she’d never said anything to Felicia about—
“I know you don’t understand. You’re not that type of woman.”
Felicia pressed her lips together. What kind of woman was that? The kind to enjoy the pleasure of more than one lover? Or the kind to put the clan’s need for increased numbers ahead of love?
Either way, he was right. At least, she hoped so. It just proved how very different they were.
Because while Felicia believed in doing one’s duty, Knox took duty to a whole different level.
She knew he loved Noella, but even if he hadn’t, even if, for example, he’d fallen in love with a human, his soul mate, before his wedding—Felicia’s heart constricted at the thought—she suspected he would have married a full vampire like Noella anyway. In doing so, he could proliferate the vampire bloodline, but also distance himself from his own humanity.
But was that all Knox was willing to do? Did he, like Noella, feel a mating-pair was his duty, as well? And if so, just how many pairs were they talking about? Unable to stop herself, she asked, “Have you . . .”
His expression darkened, but he nodded. “In the past, yes. Noella wanted another baby and she was too weak to carry another one to term herself. She was—”
“You have other children?” she interrupted, sounding horrified.
“Of course not,” he snapped. “If I had another child, you’d know about it. There were no offspring, and I haven’t been with another female in years. But now?” Once more, he moved toward her. “Why shouldn’t I—why shouldn’t we—if she’s willing . . .”
“Willing to what?” she exploded, warding him off with a raised hand. “Share you with me? Let us pleasure each other until she’s strong enough to give you more children?”
“She loves us both, Felicia.”
“And I love her. All the more reason I’d never do something to hurt her. Ever.”
“Never say never,” he gritted, his eyes blazing furiously. “This isn’t about me wanting to fuck just for the sake of fucking. You feel it, too, Felicia. You’ve always felt it. When we met, it wasn’t an introduction, it was recognition. My soul and yours. We belong together.”
“If that were true, it wouldn’t hurt so much to be around you. You’re married—”
“To a female I love, but am not in love with. To a female who knows the difference and does not require my fidelity.” In obvious frustration, he shook his head. “Life is more complicated than a human with limited years can ever realize. We’re talking about the survival of a whole race. The vamp vaccine is destroying us, especially those with full blood. For some reason, dharmires inherit the strengths without needing the pure human blood that full vampires do. Vampire females have always been rarer, but now males of strength are of limited numbers, too. I can’t just ignore that.”
For a split second, she felt swayed by his words. By his logic. It was why she’d vowed to lie if Noella ever questioned Felicia about her feelings—fear that Noella would offer something she couldn’t refuse. Her heart jumped, urging her to open her arms to him, but she forced herself to remain still. She understood the vamp clan’s need to increase its population. She understood why Knox believed he needed to be part of that. But that was his choice, just as it had been his choice to marry Noella and, she supposed, to stay married to her.
She visibly jerked at the thought. Vamps didn’t believe in divorce. Even thinking the word in relation to Knox and Noella made her feel guilty. And foolish.
She had a choice, as well, and she prayed she was making the right one. She forced herself to whisper, “I’m not asking you to ignore anything.”
“You are,” he charged fiercely, “every time you continue to deny us because I can’t pledge you eternal fidelity, any more than I can my wife.”
Wife. Wife. The word played in her head, reminding her of who she was and what she expected from herself and others. “There is no us,” she said sadly.
“I refuse to accept that.”
“You desire me now, but you’re right—I have limited years on Earth. I need to live those years honoring what I believe. I don’t believe in—in what you’re asking me for. Besides,” she reasoned desperately, “I’m just a passing fancy. When I’m gone, you’ll be glad—”
“No.” He growled and pulled her into his arms. She saw the terror that flashed in his eyes. “No.” Before she could stop him, his mouth took hers. And it was exactly as she’d feared it would be.
His mouth took but it also gave. It plundered even as it cherished. His tongue rubbed hers, then retreated, mimicking a different dance and causing the music to swell even louder, until it obliterated everything but the moment.
It was heaven. The kind of heaven one only dreams about, especially when her life has been filled with fear and uncertainty and pain. The kind of heaven that a mortal can’t have.
She wrenched away and backed up, wiping her hand against her lips.
He was breathing roughly, his expression almost desperate. “You can’t run from this forever, Felicia.”
Shaking her head, she kept moving. “I won’t have to.” She tried to smile even though her lips trembled. “When I’m long gone, you’ll get to see the peace that time brings. A peace I can only imagine. You and Noella and your family will share that together.”
His muttered oath was thick with emotion—denial, regret, determination—but she spun around and ran as fast as she could toward the common area. She moved past several guests, noting that in addition to the sprinkling of humans, there were several werebeasts and werecats present. A mage entertained some children, sparking fireworks that exploded their brilliant colors across the Dome sky, illuminating all the residences protected within it.
She spotted one of the horse-drawn carriages that would take her to the departure area. Knox’s car was parked in his garage, but cars were only driven within the Vamp Dome when they were leaving or returning from outside. Sadly, however, most full vampires, who made up 90 percent of the clan’s population, were too sick to leave the Dome now.
More than ever, the Dome was fulfilling its intended purpose—protecting those Knox loved. It didn’t just shield vamps from the sun or defend them from those who wished them harm. It now provided vampires a safe haven from prying eyes and gave them something even if their bodies wouldn’t—dignity. Protecting the clan was the only reason that the Dome had been created. But maybe someday, Felicia thought . . . She turned back to take a final glance at Knox’s home and the gardens where she knew he stood.
Someday the rest of the world would go where Knox was trying to lead them.
Someday today would lead to better things.