Finally Gregori turned his head slowly, ferally, and walked purposefully toward the narrow alley beside the building. Brown grass, dried and exhausted with its effort to flourish, was crushed beneath his feet, but there was not a sound to betray his presence, not even the disbursement of air. Once he was hidden from sight, he scanned the area to determine the exact placement of all those in the building and any other humans in the vicinity.
He dissolved instantly, one moment solid, the next invisible. He checked the building: all windows and doors were locked securely. The woman inside screamed, agony, terror, in her voice. The sound brushed at his mind, but he blocked it out, scanning three entry points to the interior. He chose the one beneath the building, through some cracked and crumbling rotted boards.
For a brief moment his image shimmered in the dark, compressing as it did so, shrinking smaller and smaller until a only little mouse nestled in the dried grass. It sat up on its hind legs a moment, whiskers twitching in the air. Then it rushed across the dirt and grass and scampered through a small crack beneath the stairs. The opening was narrow, but the little creature was able to squeeze into a space within the walls.
The insulation was old and thin, most of it long gone, and the mouse scurried quickly through the wall until it found a small knothole leading into a darkened room. The smell of blood and fear made its heart pound, but the predator deep within its tiny body snarled, exposing fangs and a dark, deadly purpose. The mouse hesitated before crossing the yellowed linoleum, its ears twisting this way and that, whiskers high, scenting for danger.
There was no one in the first room, which appeared to be an unused storage area. It smelled musty with mildew. Gregori's form grew, solidified, then shimmered into nothingness once again. He could hear the conversation from the next room clearly. Three men were arguing, one clearly disgusted by what they were doing.
"This girl is no more vampire than I am, Rodney," he snapped. "You just like doing this sick stuff. This one's some kid who likes to hang out with her friends pretending she's got fangs."
"We don't know that for sure," Rodney protested. "And since we have to kill her anyway, it isn't like we can't have a good time with her."
"Forget it." There was disgust in the first man's voice. "No way am I going to let you kill this girl. I thought we were scientists. Even if she really was a vampire, we shouldn't treat her like this. I'm taking her out of here and to a hospital."
"Morrison will kill you," Rodney bit out, all at once angry. "You're not taking her anywhere. We'll all be arrested. You, too - don't forget that. You're a part of this, Gary, you're a big part of this."
"No, I'm not. And if it comes down to that - killing an innocent girl or going to jail - I'll take jail."
Gregori could feel the impending violence, coming not from Rodney but from the third man, the silent one, in the room. He was stalking Gary from behind while Rodney held Gary's attention. The girl was trying desperately to warn Gary, her only hope, that he was in danger.
Gregori felt power in the room. Manipulation. Compulsion. There was more at work here than the society of human butchers. He glided unseen into the room, dispersing cold air in his wake. The third man held an already blood-stained knife out of sight along his right wrist as he came up behind Gary. Gregori inserted his invisible body between the two men. As the knife came up toward Gary's kidney, Gregori caught the attacker's wrist in an unbreakable grip and squeezed, crushing bones to a fine powder.
The attacker screamed, the knife clattering to the floor. Gary whirled around to face the third man. Rodney dove for the knife. The girl was so hysterical, Gregori could feel her heart pounding, hear it slamming at far too fast a pace. He spared her quick attention, shielding her from further thought. She simply slipped into an unconscious state, her eyes open and glazed.
Rodney picked up the knife and scrambled to his feet. "Looks like we're going to have to kill you, too, huh, Gary?"
Gregori sighed. Why did they always have to state the obvious?
Gary was backing away, trying to keep an eye on the third man, who had dropped to his knees, clutching his shattered arm, his face as white as a sheet. He was still screaming, a high-pitched, monotonous cry.
Gary slid the white lab jacket off his shoulders and wrapped it defensively around his upraised arm. "I'm not going to let you hurt her any more, Rodney. I mean it. This was supposed to be a legitimate study. Dissecting anyone alive, vampire or human, is torture, nothing less. I didn't sign on to hurt anyone."
"What do you think that poison you developed was all about?" Rodney snarled, waving the knife.
"I didn't develop a poison. I developed a very potent tranquilizer, designed to sedate nearly any powerful creature. Morrison had you people corrupt the original formula. I came here to talk to him about it. This is murder, Rodney. Any way you look at it, it's murder."
Gregori glided up behind Rodney. The man's mind stank of a vampire influence. He had thought himself protected from vampires by the hypnosis all members of the society were subjected to, but somehow a vampire had infiltrated their ranks and was contaminating the society further with his own depravity. It was the kind of thing vampires over the centuries had done for entertainment. Hiding their true nature, they would befriend humans and slowly bring about moral decay. Often they used the women of the human males they befriended for their own pleasure, later killing them. Sometimes they used the humans to kill each other. Clearly a master vampire was at work here, one that had escaped the net of hunters for some time, probably centuries.
Gregori touched Gary's mind. He found honesty there, integrity. He had never had contact with the vampire and was willing to die to save the girl strapped down on the stainless-steel table. He had interrupted the two other men at work and was sickened by their actions. But Gregori knew Gary would have no chance against a vampire-induced compulsion in the other man to kill. Rodney would win this battle. For a moment Gregori hesitated. If he intervened, he would allow Gary to live, but he would have to destroy Rodney. If he allowed things to take their course, Rodney could lead him back to the vampire's lair.
I know you're not even thinking that.
Savannah's outraged whisper was velvet-soft in his mind.
He sighed heavily.
Woman, leave me in peace. I have to do what is best for our people.
But he knew he wouldn't. He knew he could not let Gary die. There was something he liked about the man's courage and integrity, but, damn it, Savannah didn't have to know he had any soft spots. He'd never had them until she came along.
Savannah's laughter brushed along his spine like the touch of her fingers.
Gregori inserted his solid frame between the two men, shimmering in the air, wavering for a moment before materializing. There was instant silence. Even the third man managed to stop screaming, all of them frozen in place. Gregori smiled pleasantly, a show of gleaming white fangs.
"Good evening, gentleman. I heard you were looking for one of my kind. It might be in your best interest, Rodney, to put down the knife." The suggestion was made in a black-velvet drawl.
Gary backed away from the newcomer, instinctively moving toward the stainless steel table. His hands were up in the age-old surrender sign. "Look, I don't know who or what you are, but this girl had nothing to do with anything. Don't hurt her. Do what you have to do to us, but get her an ambulance."
Gregori kept his silver gaze focused on Rodney. The man was looking wild, the dark compulsion of the kill on him. Gregori could see so clearly; now so could Gary. Rodney needed to kill. It was as necessary to him as drawing in his next breath.
"Look out," Gary warned as it occurred to him that the vampire, no matter how dangerous, had stepped between Rodney and himself to save him. He glanced over at the third man. It was clear that the vampire had saved him from Todd Davis also. Steeling himself, he moved around to get in a better position to help the creature.
"Do not," Gregori hissed softly. He waved a hand, and Gary was unable to move, locked into some invisible prison. "Turn your head the other way."
The flash in the room was bright, like a mushroom cloud of lightning. The sound cracked the walls on two sides of the structure, thundering in Gary's ears so that for a moment he was deaf and blind. The house itself shook, rattling the windows like an explosion. When the smoke cleared, Rodney and Davis lay on the floor, lifeless.
Gary stared in horror at the two blackened bodies, then reached out a tentative hand to touch the invisible barricade that had somehow protected him. To his astonishment it was gone. Immediately he went to the girl. She was still breathing, but her pulse was shallow and thready. He tried in vain to undo the manacles locking her to the table.
"You are leaving fingerprints," Gregori informed him softly. He stared at the wide steel bands for a moment, and they simply fell away from her wrists and ankles. "Go now, walk away from this place. I will meet you at the end of the block." The silver eyes stared straight into Gary's eyes. "Be there. I can find you any time I wish it."
"She needs help." The human was determined to stand his ground.
"A crowd gathers while you waste time. I can shield you from their eyes if you go now. Later, there will be too many. The girl will be fine. Do as I say." Already Gregori was turning his attention to finding the damaging prints of the other man, removing all memory of him from the girl, and ensuring that those outside the house would not remember the short, slender man in the gray suit who went out the back way.
Gary Jansen made his way slowly through the people now rushing toward the house. No one even glanced at him, actually knocking into him without seeming to be aware of it. In the distance was the wail of sirens. Fire department. Police. Ambulance. He was shocked, his mind almost numb. Whatever creature had stepped in and saved his life had more power than he had ever conceived a being could have. His brain replayed every movement, every word. He couldn't believe he had been allowed to simply walk away. The creature hadn't even taken his blood. For that matter, he didn't know if the creature drank blood. He got to the end of the block, and weakness hit him. His knees turned to rubber, his legs to jelly, and he had to sit abruptly on the curb.
A hand wrapped around the nape of his neck and held his head down. "Just breathe." It was an order delivered in that same mesmerizing voice from the storehouse.
Gary took in great gulps of air, fighting off the dizziness. He made a poor attempt at humor. "I'm sorry, but it's not every day I meet someone like you." When the hand slowly retreated from his neck, he straightened up to look at the tall, powerful figure looming over him. He had never seen a more dangerous-looking individual. He swallowed his fear. "Are you going to kill me?" The words slipped out unintentionally.
Stop looking like the big, bad wolf
You're going to give the poor man a heart attack.
Gregori sighed, exasperated. "If I was going to kill you, you would already be dead. What reason would I have for taking your life?"
Gary shrugged. "None, I hope." He stood up carefully and let his breath out slowly. Up close the man looked even more dangerous. Like a hungry jungle cat.
"I have already fed this night," Gregori said dryly.
"You're reading my thoughts, aren't you?" Gary tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. He had always wanted to meet the real thing. Always. From the first vampire movie he had ever seen, he had been fascinated, hooked. He was scared, no question about that, but this was the chance of a lifetime. "I've seen you. Does that mean you have to kill me? You let the girl go because she never saw you."
Gregori nodded toward the street, and they both began walking, slowly putting the chaotic scene behind them. "No one would believe you if you told them. In any case, I could easily remove your memory of our meeting. The girl will not remember you."
"I can hardly believe this myself. You're right, you know. If I told you my own parents, they'd have me locked up. This is awesome, completely awesome." He spun around in a circle, his fists clenched in victory. "Man, this is great."
Bring him home, Gregori, Savannah suggested.
Not a chance, Savannah. This one is crazy, too. I do not need the two of you driving me nuts. Why would anyone with a half a brain want to meet one of us?
"I joined the society to see if they had any real evidence of the existence of - " Gary hesitated - "vampires. You are a vampire, right?"
"You might think so," Gregori said noncommittally.
"They said they had this vampire blood, you know. At first I thought it might be a hoax, but it was unusual, real interesting stuff. I'd never seen anything like it. I'm a biochemist, and this was such an opportunity. The blood made a believer out of me." His words were tumbling over one another in an effort to get out. "Everyone thought I was crazy, even the members of the society, but I thought it might be really cool to establish contact with a real vampire. Unfortunately, they just wanted to capture them and slice them up."
Gregori shook his head over the naivet§٠of human beings. "Did it occur to you that a vampire might be a very dangerous creature? That maybe to lure one out into the open would cause your own death? Perhaps even the death of your family? Everyone you loved or cared about?"
"Why? Why would a vampire necessarily do that?" Gary challenged. He was clearly a man who thought the best of everyone.
Do you see why I avoid humans, ma ch§ڲie?
They are silly, exasperating creatures. You like him. You can't hide it from me, even if you try to hide it from yourself. Invite him home. Not for all the trees on this earth. I want to meet him. Savannah.
She was up to no good, he was certain of it. Gregori's hand went to the back of his neck, massaging deeply.
What I should do is scare the holy hell out of him so he will get over this nonsense.
"So, are you?" Gary asked.
"Am I what?" Gregori was distracted. Why had he ever talked to this fool in the first place? Because Savannah was making him crazy. Savannah had made him do something dumb. He had read Gary's mind and found him to be an interesting, likable person.
Don't blame me.
She sounded innocent.
"Are you a cold-blooded killer? Would you kill my family and friends?" Gary persisted.
"Yes to the first question," Gregori answered honestly. "And a true vampire is a great deceiver. Surely you have read the legends that vampires often lure humans into their power? A true vampire would destroy you and all you love. That is his sole enjoyment. Do not ever wish an encounter with a vampire upon yourself. As to killing you and your family, were you to threaten mine, I would not hesitate."
Gary stopped walking and stared up at the man beside him. Gregori moved through time and space soundlessly. His unusual silver eyes were mesmerizing, as was his beautiful voice. He moved like a predator, his eyes unblinking and restless. Everything about him screamed danger, yet Gary was strangely drawn to him. He could have listened forever to the sound of that voice. "You aren't kidding me, are you? But are you saying you aren't a vampire?"
"I am a hunter of the undead, a destroyer. There is, however, a true vampire among the members of the society you are in league with. He will destroy them all." The voice was soft and dispassionate, without expression.
Gary pushed a hand through his hair. "You're telling me all this because you're planning to take away my memory of you, aren't you?"
The silver eyes settled on Gary's face with regret. "I can do no other. I should not have revealed myself to you, but you had great courage, and your one wish that I could grant to you was to allow you to meet something of what you sought."
You're so sweet, Gregori, Savannah purred, her voice strong in his mind.
I am not sweet, he objected strenuously.
"I don't know what I did to deserve this," Gary said, "but I'm really grateful."
"You tried to save both the girl and me. I did not believe one of your kind, from your 'society,' would ever attempt to come to the aid of one of one of my kind." Gregori was truthful because he felt the human warranted it.
"You can trust me, you know. I'm not about to give away your secret. Aren't there any humans who know the truth?"
"They are in constant danger. I would not wish that for you."
You are the sweetest man, Savannah inserted softly, her voice brushing at him. Echoing.
Echoing? Close. He swung around, cursing in French, an eloquent dissertation that had Gary cringing. Savannah, however, simply took Gregori's arm and smiled up at him, the stars in her eyes dancing. She was like that. Distracting him and then slamming him sideways with her smile. With her blue-violet eyes with their accursed star centers. She didn't even have the decency to look repentant.
Don't be angry, Gregori. I was lonesome in the house all by myself. Are you really, really angry? Or just a little angry?
Her voice was soft, a siren's whisper, made of silk sheets and candlelight. Her long lashes were thick and heavy, a sweep of magic that caught his eye and held it there.
It is impossible for you to be lonely when you are always running around in my head.
"You're Savannah Dubrinsky." Gary breathed her name reverently. "My God, I should have guessed."
Gregori's entire demeanor changed, becoming all at once menacing and dangerous. His face was etched in stone, his mouth hard and faintly cruel. The hair on the back of Gary's neck literally stood up. He swallowed hard and instinctively moved a little distance from the woman. Not that he blamed the man, creature, whatever, but his reaction was more that of untamed beast than civilized man. Gary was taking no chances.
Savannah laughed softly. She leaned into the man despite Gregori's restraining arm. "He can read your mind," she reminded Gary softly, her breath swirling with tantalizing warmth over his neck.
He jumped away as if he'd been burned, his face flamed crimson, and he looked guiltily at Gregori.
Gregori's dark features relaxed. The hard edge to his mouth softened. "Do not worry, Gary, she is incorrigible. Even I have trouble with her. I cannot blame you for what I myself cannot control." His arm swept around Savannah's small waist, and he tucked her beneath his shoulder.
Are you angry?
The smile was fading from her eyes, her mouth.
Gregori tightened his hold on her when her step faltered.
We can discuss this at home, ch§ڲie.
You are already here; you may as well give the boy a thrill. But I warn you, not too big a thrill.
She relaxed her body into his. That quickly. That easily. As if she belonged, his other half. He was beginning to believe it might be possible.
Her smile sent a bolt of lightning right through Gary. "Would you like to go to the Cafe du Monde?" she asked. "It's still open. We can sit there and talk for a while."
Gary glanced at Gregori's impassive face. Who could deny her anything? She was like something mysterious and magical from another world. Gregori looked as merciless and ruthless as ever, his dark, dangerous features granite, his silver eyes cold and glittering with menace. But his posture was protective, the arm circling her waist, tender. Gary turned his face away to hide a smile. Vampires seemed to have women problems, too.
"Would you like to join us at the Cafe du Monde?" Gregori asked him quietly, already changing direction. They turned down Saint Ann Street toward Decatur and Jackson Square.
As they passed the famous St. Louis Cathedral, Gary cleared his throat. "I always wanted to know, is it true the vampire can't go onto sacred ground? Will a cross help to protect a person, or is that hogwash?"
"The vampire cannot go onto sacred ground. His soul is lost for all time. It is his choice; he made the decision to become vampire," Gregori answered softly. "Do not make the mistake of feeling sorry for the vampire. He is truly evil."
"You're blowing all my theories," Gary said sadly.
"What are your theories?" Savannah asked, her blue eyes steady on his face. It made him feel as if he were the only man in the world, as if whatever he said was terribly important to her.
Gregori stirred restlessly. The cold, merciless eyes swept over Gary, leaving a bad taste in the human's mouth. He wanted to tell the creature he couldn't help himself, that Savannah was just too sexy. But he had the distinct feeling the admission wouldn't win him any favors. Instead, Gary kept his gaze steadfastly away from her haunting beauty and his thoughts centered on his excitement of being with such mythical creatures of the night. His lifelong dream.
"You were going to tell us of your theories," Gregori prompted gently.
They crossed the street with a crowd of wandering tourists. Gregori was all too aware of most of them staring at his lifemate. Heads turned as she stood on the edge of the cafe's patio, where tables were set close together.
One of the waiters waved them toward an empty table, then recognized Savannah, gawking for a brief moment, then hurrying to take their order.
Gregori sat with his back to a thick post, partially hidden in the shadows, his eyes restless, all senses on alert. He couldn't afford to let his guard down. Somewhere in this city was a powerful vampire with a legion of human puppets to do his bidding.
Savannah signed several autographs, chatting briefly with each person who came to their table. Gregori's hand was on the nape of her neck, his fingers moving soothingly, tenderly, against her bare skin. He found himself very proud of her. But by the time their coffee and baguettes arrived, even Gary wanted to be rid of the fans pressing close.
Gregori summoned the waiter and leaned close, his voice hypnotic. "Savannah has been happy to provide autographs for your patrons, but she needs to have time for herself to enjoy your superb coffee right now." The suggestion was a clear order, the silver eyes capturing the waiter and giving him no chance to do anything but agree.
Savannah smiled her thanks as the waiters provided her with loose protection from the tourists pressing around them.
"Is it like this everywhere you go?" Gary asked.
"Pretty much." Savannah shrugged calmly. "I don't really mind. Peter always - " She broke off abruptly and brought the steaming cup to her mouth.
Gregori could feel sorrow beating at her, a crushing stone weighing down her heart. His hand slipped down her arm to lace his fingers through hers. At once he poured warmth and comfort into her mind, the sensation of his arms around her body, holding her close. "Peter Sanders always took care of the details surrounding Savannah's shows. He was very good at shielding her. He was murdered after her last show out in San Francisco." He provided the information quietly to Gary.
"I'm sorry," Gary said instantly, meaning it. Her distress was evident in her large blue eyes. They shimmered with sorrow.
Gregori brought Savannah's hand to the warmth of his mouth, his breath heating the pulse beating in her wrist.
The night is especially beautiful, mon petit amour.
Your hem saved the girl, walks among the humans, and converses with a fool. That alone should bring a smile to your face. Do not weep for what we cannot change. We will make certain that this human with us comes to no harm. Are you my hero, then?
There were tears in her voice, in her mind, like an iridescent prism. She needed him, his comfort, his support under her terrible weight of guilt and love and loss.
Always, for all eternity, he answered instantly, without hesitation, his eyes hot mercury. He tipped her chin up so that she met the brilliance of his silver gaze.
Always, mon amour. His molten gaze trapped her blue one and held her enthralled.
Your heart grows lighter. The burden of your sorrow becomes my own.
He held her gaze captive for a few moments to ensure that she was free of the heaviness crushing her.
Savannah blinked and moved a little away from him, wondering what she had been thinking of. What had they been talking about?
"Gary." Gregori drawled the name slowly and sat back in his chair, totally relaxed. He looked like a sprawling tiger, dangerous and untamed. "Tell us about yourself."
"I work a lot. I'm not married. I'm really not much of a people person. I'm basically a nerd."
Gregori shifted, a subtle movement of muscles suggesting great power. "I am not familiar with this term."
"Yeah, well, you wouldn't be," Gary said. "It means I have lots of brains and no brawn. I don't do the athlete thing. I'm into computers and chess and things requiring intellect. Women find me skinny, wimpy, and boring. Not something they would you." There was no bitterness in his voice, just a quiet acceptance of himself, his life.
Gregori's white teeth flashed. "There is only one woman who matters to me, Gary, and she finds me difficult to live with. I cannot imagine why, can you?"
"Maybe because you're jealous, possessive, concerned with every single detail of her life?" Gary plainly took the question literally, offering up his observations without judgment. "You're probably domineering, too. I can see that. Yeah. It might be tough."
Savannah burst out laughing, the sound musical, rivaling the street musicians. People within hearing turned their heads and held their breath, hoping for more. "Very astute, Gary. Very, very astute. I bet you have an enormous IQ."
Gregori stirred again, the movement a ripple of power, of danger. He was suddenly leaning into Gary. "You think you are intelligent? Baiting the wild animal is not too smart."
Gary's laughter joined with Savannah's. "You are reading my mind! I knew it. I knew you weren't kidding me. That is so cool. How do you do that? Can humans, do you suppose?" For a moment he had been intimidated, but the laughter in Savannah's eyes eased his tension.
Savannah and Gregori exchanged a smile. It was Gregori who answered. "I know for certain there are a few humans who possess such a talent."
"I wish I had it. What else can you do?"
"I thought we were discussing you," Gregori said softly, somehow unwilling to leave the human with his own unflattering perception of himself. "I have never met a human male with more courage and insight than you displayed tonight, and I have lived a long time. Do not sell yourself so short. Perhaps you bury yourself in your work to avoid the pain of a failed relationship."
Savannah's long lashes swept her cheeks as she hid her expression. This from a man who perceived himself a monster. Who claimed not to feel for anyone or anything.
Gary took a sip of the celebrated coffee and a quick bite of the baguettes the Cafe du Monde was so famous for. He found them delicious. He noticed that the couple across the table from him appeared to be eating, but he wasn't certain they really were. What were they? Why did he feel so comfortable with them? He liked their company. He felt invigorated by it. Soothed by it. Interesting observation, when the man was rather like a dangerous, cornered animal, lethal at any provocation. He had witnessed the power the man possessed.
What if what the man said was true? What if vampires were great deceivers? What if the man sitting so casually across from him was deceiving him? Gary studied the impassive face. It was impossible to tell his age. His was a harsh beauty, with a hint of cruelty, yet he was incredibly handsome. He passed a hand over his face. How did one know?
"That is the problem with the vampire, Gary," Gregori counseled softly. "There is no way a human can tell the difference between what is the hunter and what is the vampire."
Gary noticed he used the word what not who. What was he?
"To enter our world is very dangerous," Savannah added gently. She went to lay a hand on Gary's arm in her naturally sympathetic way, but a low, fierce growl issuing from Gregori's throat stopped her. She put her hand in her lap.
Gregori ran a fingertip along her knuckles in a kind of apology for his failure to overcome his possessive ways.
Gary took a deep breath. "Maybe that is true, but maybe I'm already compromised. I wasn't supposed to be at the warehouse this evening, but I showed up. My formula didn't look right to me, so I performed a little investigation. I ran a chemical composition test. I was so angry, I went to one of the few society addresses I had. When I found that poor girl there, I went berserk and called the boss - Morrison - at his private number. He wasn't available, but I left word I was going to shut down the society, expose it to the newspapers, to the police. I don't think Rodney was as interested in killing you as he was in killing me. I got the feeling someone ordered him to kill me."
"He was under a vampire's compulsion. Nothing would have stopped him," Gregori admitted.
"So I'm already a target, aren't I?" Gary pointed out triumphantly.
Gregori sighed again. "Try not to sound so happy about it. There are limits to our protection. And you endanger Savannah."
For that alone I could rip out your heart.
The words seemed to shimmer in the air, unspoken but heard.
Gary looked startled. "I'm sorry. I didn't think of that. I guess she would be a target if she's seen with me." He was obviously upset. "I feel terrible that I didn't even consider it."
"Keep your voice down," Gregori reminded him softly. "We need to know more of those involved in this society than we do. Do you have a list of names?"
"Yeah, of the ones who worked in the lab. The legitimate lab, I mean. Not the sick ones you saw tonight." Gary pushed a hand through his hair in agitation. "I want to call the hospital, make certain that girl's all right. You know, I still can't believe they were going to cut her up alive."
"I told you," Gregori reiterated, "the vampire's only source of entertainment is the misery of those around him. He will deliberately corrupt those he believes are the least likely to succumb to his powers. It is a game to him. You are a good man, Gary, but you are no match for a vampire. He could make you kill your own mother. Anything abhorrent to you, that is what he would force you to do."
"I don't want you to erase my memories," Gary pleaded. "I've waited my whole life for this moment. I know you say I can't tell the difference between a vampire and a hunter, but I think you're wrong. For instance, you scare the hell out of me. You look dangerous, you act dangerous. You don't even try to hide it. You are a very scary man, but you feel like a friend. I would trust you with my life. I'm betting that something evil would appear pleasing but feel foul."
Gregori's glittering silver eyes settled on his face, a glimmer of warmth in them, a hint of humor. "You are already trusting me with your life."
Savannah leaned into Gregori. "I'm so proud of you. You're getting this humor thing down." She looked across the table at Gary, laughter dancing in her enormous blue eyes. "He has a little trouble with the concept of humor."
Gary found himself laughing with her. "I can believe that."
"Watch it, kid. There is no need to be disrespectful. Do not make the mistake of believing you can get away with it the way this one does." Gregori tugged at Savannah's long ebony hair. It hung to her waist, a fall of blue-black silk that moved with a life of its own, that tempted, invited men to touch it.
"So, what are you going to do about me?" Gary ventured painfully.
Savannah resisted the urge to touch him sympathetically. She was naturally demonstrative, naturally affectionate. When someone was upset, she needed to make things better. Gregori inhibited her normal tendency to comfort.
I cannot change what I am, ma petite, he whispered softly in her mind, a slow, soothing black-velvet drawl. His voice wrapped her up and touched her with tenderness.
I can only promise to keep you safe and to try to make you as happy as I can to make up for my deficiencies. I didn't say you had deficiencies,
she returned softly, her voice a caress, fingers trailing over the back of his neck, down the muscles of his back.
Need slammed into him, low and wicked. His skin crawled with fire. His silver eyes slid slowly, possessively over her, touching her body with tongues of flame. Touching. Caressing. His urgent need exploded in him like a volcano. In his head a dull roar began. Abruptly he wished Gary gone. The cafe gone. The world gone. He wasn't altogether certain he could wait until he was home with her. The riverbank was suddenly looking very inviting.
Gary raised his hand for the check. There was a deep regret in his eyes. He was going back to his normal life. It wasn't that it was such a bad life, but he felt connected with these people. He had been isolated all his life. Always out of sync with others. The one who always marched to the different drummer. "So, I'm ready. Go ahead. Just promise me you'll visit once in a while."
Gregori's hand, moving on Savannah's neck, suddenly stilled. He inhaled sharply.
I feel it, too.
Gregori leaned across the table to stare into Gary's eyes.
You will do as Savannah tells you without question, without thought. Instant obedience.
"Gary, I want you to go with Savannah now. We are hunted. She will shield the two of you from all eyes, and I will lead the predators in another direction. Savannah, we will walk together into the shadows. Can you manage to keep the two of you from sight without my assistance? I will need to maintain an image of the two of you with me for some distance, and I would like to provide an unexpected storm. The clouds will be of some aid to you."
"No problem," she answered without hesitation. Nothing in her face betrayed her sudden apprehension. This was Gregori's way of life, not hers. He was the master.
Gregori placed money on the table and smiled into the waiter's eyes.
You will assist us in leaving this place without incident.
His silver eyes held the waiter captive for a brief moment. When he released the man from the hypnotic thrall, the waiter waved the others over, and they formed a loose semi-circle between the table and the rest of the occupants of the patio.
Gregori added a generous tip and nodded to Savannah and Gary to leave. Savannah moved gracefully, going directly across the darkened street, heading for the shadows of the square. She was very much aware of Gregori still close to her, his body protective. For a moment she thought he brushed her shoulder with his hand, the sensation was so real, but when she turned her head, he was several feet behind.
Go, ma petite, take Gary to the house. Do not allow the neighbors to see either of you. And place the safeguards carefully. What about you? There is no safeguard I cannot unravel. Go now.
This time, there was no mistake. He was four feet away, already turning away from her, but she felt his mouth burning possessively on hers, lingering for just a moment, his tongue tracing the curve of her lip. She couldn't believe he could make her want him, burn for him, when he was going off into the night alone to fight their enemies.
The night has always been mine, Savannah. Do not waste your time worrying about me.
The soft, mesmerizing voice exuded confidence. Gregori strode away, walking along the edge of the square, and at his side appeared to be Gary and Savannah, moving at the same casual pace. Leisurely. Tourists out sightseeing.
Clouds began boiling across the sky, fast moving and dark, bringing an unexpected fine mist, steam rising in the heat of the night. Savannah concentrated on her task. It was relatively easy to make herself invisible from those she wished to avoid, but she had never attempted to shield another from prying eyes. Pulling her mind firmly from the issue of Gregori's safety, from the sure knowledge that he would have to kill yet another time, she caught Gary by the shoulder and turned him toward the line of shops leading up the square. "Stay to the inside and keep walking no matter what, even if someone looks as if they are going to bump right into you."
Gary didn't ask any questions, but she could feel his heart pounding in the night air. Fog rose off the river, a thick soup of vapor that drifted with the wind into the square and moved quickly to cover the streets. People laughed loudly to conceal their sudden nervousness. Along with the blanket of fog came an apprehension, a sense of danger. Things moved in the mist, evil things, creatures of the night.
Gregori continued the illusion of Savannah and Gary sauntering with him along the riverbank. They appeared to move as a unit, meandering along, talking quietly to one another. Gregori wanted to put distance between the innocent humans and the illusion he was creating. He could feel those following him, knew they saw only what he wanted them to see. They were ghouls. Macabre puppets sent to do their master's bidding. A slow hiss escaped as he felt the demon inside him lift its head and unsheathe its claws, fighting for freedom.
His body stretched, muscles rippling, welcoming the familiar power surging through him. He laughed softly, a low taunt sent out as a challenge. His mind touched Savannah's, assuring himself that she was nearly to the house. She was doing a good job of concealing herself and the human from all along the streets. Savannah was a mere child, a fledgling, with little training in their ways. He was proud of her, weaving in and out of the crush of tourists pouring out of Preservation Hall. It was a difficult task, and she accomplished it like a professional.
He allowed the two illusions he had created to shimmer over the water, then slowly fade and dissolve into the fog. Only he continued across the expanse of water toward the Algiers landing. He made certain the undead could see his challenge. The dark compulsion of the kill was on them, the vampire's minions. A slow, humorless smile deepened the cruel edge to his mouth. The vampire, seeking Savannah, had had no idea he would be grappling with Gregori, the Dark One, here in New Orleans.
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