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I closed my eyes, unable to help it. My sleeping-while-standing-up look wasn’t exactly appropriate mid-greeting, but the vampire’s energy had changed the tune of my surroundings. I needed to know if my imagination was running amok, or if the magic within him was speaking to me.

I sucked in a breath. Though I could hear Emery’s deep bass mingling with the enchanting, alluring song of Clyde, the words eluded me. Spicy, silky, and masterful, the vampire’s magic caressed my skin and flirted with my senses. It soaked into my being and settled into my core, tightening my body pleasantly. But unlike with Emery, this wasn’t a natural feeling. It was magical in nature, and its intent was my ultimate submission.

Electricity rolled over my skin, spicy and hot. I opened my eyes and met the keen gaze of the ultimate predator.

Emery hadn’t needed to tell me what vampires were capable of. I could see it plain as day—and, for better or worse, feel it in every fiber of my being.

It would be so good.

I knifed the thought curling out of my consciousness.

Yes, they were the ultimate predators—turning their prey against themselves.

But I was not prey. And he’d die before I submitted.

Emery took two quick steps to my side and grabbed my wrists, holding them low. Our electricity merged, as it always did, amplifying the power and energy dancing around us. Within us. He took my wrists in one hand and wrapped his other arm around me, holding me tightly to his body.

It was his Penny is not stable positioning. And he was exactly right: I was far from stable. I felt threatened to my very being, and every fiber in my body wanted to meet that challenge. Wanted to show this vampire that I would end him if he tried to move in and take what was mine: my body, my choice, my freedom.

“Take us to somewhere private, Clyde. Now.” Emery turned me away from the people passing us. “Deep breaths, Penny. Deep breaths. Try to calm it.”

The energy changed again, now supercharged. The vampire’s magic screamed destruction. Clyde’s demeanor had changed, as well, the cultivated grace from a moment before turning fluid and deadly. Fangs dropped down from blackening gums and his pupils enlarged until they filled the whites of his eyes. A strange, gristly hue coated his once-flawless skin.

“Wow. He turns really ugly when he’s amped up.” I hadn’t meant to say that. I’d meant to breathe. But the vampire’s magic licked at me, knives slicing down my skin. The fire inside me raged. Streams of magic started to weave around the vampire.

“I’m not doing this,” Emery said urgently, looking down at my hands. Then back up at me. His eyes widened, and his head snapped toward Clyde. “And she is untrained. She’s reacting to your magic in ways I wasn’t taught. You’re out of control, Clyde, and so is she. Fix this!”

The vampire blinked twice, his brow furrowing and that ghastly hue diminishing slightly.

Emery bent down to me, his lips by my ear. “Breathe, Penny. Just breathe. Focus on my touch. On my voice. He won’t hurt us here. But you can’t release that spell.”

“I don’t know how to keep from releasing that spell,” I said through clenched teeth. “I don’t know how I’m making it. I’m just reacting to what I feel.”

“I know. But remember, if a spell is woven too slowly, it’ll dissipate. Just slow it down. Slow everything down.”

I closed my eyes, focusing on his hands holding my wrists. On his arm tightly around me. His comforting feeling and smell.

I remembered how soundly I’d slept the night before, wrapped in a near-stranger’s arms. When I’d finally roused in the morning, Emery’s eyes were already open and staring at the ceiling. He’d lain still for who knew how long because he hadn’t wanted to wake me up.

My mind shifted to his admissions of not feeling good enough. His belief that he was evil. He’d trusted me enough to tell me all of that. I realized that the trust was mutual. So if he said I could relax and still be safe, I believed him.

As though a valve had been turned, pressure whooshed out of the situation. The spell fizzled and the energy slowed, no longer boiling around us. The spicy danger was still there, the vampire’s magic, but I ignored it, instead focusing on the positive feeling of Emery’s touch.

I opened my eyes, taking in the scene—people moving around within the hotel. When Emery shifted a little, I once again caught sight of the vampire, his eyes and skin back to normal, his fangs pulling up into his gums.

His hard brown eyes studied me before he adopted a disarming smile. “And here we are. Back to normal.”

I leveled him with a glare. “Don’t try to charm me, bub. I’ve seen you without your makeup. It’s not pretty.”

To my surprise, his smile spread. “And I have seen you without yours, so to speak. I will take the opposite assertion. You are breathtaking. Please, come with me.” He spared a glance for Emery, a sparkling, excited sort of thing, before leading us toward the bar area. Once there, we continued down the hall, past the dining area, and descended the stairs. “Are you hungry? I can have something brought to us now, or you can order room service later.”

“We won’t be staying.” Emery released my wrists but not my shoulders.

My stomach growled and I put a hand over it. “Will he try to drug us? Because I’m starving.”

“I will not try to drug you… I did not catch your name.” Clyde turned at a crossroads in the hall and bent slightly, as though readying for a bow.

“Penny.” I gingerly put out my hand. “Penny Bristol.”

He completed the bow, but didn’t take my hand. “I think we can both agree that holding off on touching is probably the best course of action for us right now.”

“Thank you,” I said, pulling my hand back. “We also need to speak with your boss.”

“Yes.” Clyde’s gaze flicked to Emery and back to me. “My lobby administrator said something to that effect. I was surprised. She is new. She did not know to contact me immediately with your message. Nor, it seems, did she know your name. I was intrigued by how a trick such as that was pulled off. I expected one of the Mages’ Guild. Follow me.” He led us to the right and then to a large office at the end of the hall. He flicked a switch, and subdued light rained down on a large wooden desk facing two leather chairs. A bookcase stood against the wall behind the desk, stuffed full. Wooden filing cabinets adorned another wall and a coat rack waited by the door. Watching it all was a lone plant in the corner, scared for its life among all the dead wood.

“Please, have a seat.” Clyde paused. “This is the most sterile private place available to us on such short notice. As soon as everyone is comfortable, we can move up to my quarters.”

A smile tickled Emery’s lips. “It’s not often a vampire of your age is this cautious.”

Clyde stopped next to the chair behind the desk, his hand resting on the back. “Not often, no.” He waited for us to sit before taking his own seat. “I need a little more information before I call Mr. Durant. He doesn’t like surprises. I’m sure you understand.”

Emery leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands in front of him. “In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to ask for Darius. I thought this would be one of our more typical interactions, with the exception of me asking you about translating a letter. But…”

I raised my hand, realizing Emery was at a loss for words. He probably worried about how much of my situation to give away. “Going above your head is my doing. I had a premonition to ask for the boss’s boss. Since Emery was coming here to see you, I need your boss. I have no idea why.”

Clyde steepled his fingers. “I see.”

“Well, then at least someone does. But your boss needs to come. That is non-negotiable.”

“You are lying, Miss Bristol.” Clyde’s cunning gaze made my scalp tingle. Fire crept up my middle again. I was having an awful time keeping my cool around this vampire. The guy was mighty dangerous, that was clear. “But I can’t tell about which part.”

“Then how could you possibly tell I’m lying?”

“Certain things. Little things. When studied, there are little tells that—”

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