Manhattan, New York, NY

Raj watched from the darkness of his limo as Raphael’s Learjet taxied to a halt only feet away from him, its running lights splashing red and blue streaks across the jet’s thin white skin. His people were out there already, forming a protective perimeter around the private hangar, making certain no humans indulged in what would be a fatal curiosity on this particular night. Between Raj’s people and what was certain to be a full security contingent of Raphael’s, there would be more vampires in one place than humans ever encountered outside the safety of a blood house. And tonight these vampires would not be hunting willing human partners.

He could feel the sharp edge of his territorial instinct rising at the thought of a foreign vampire in his city, especially one as powerful as Raphael. He fought it down, not wanting his own vamps to be affected by it. It didn’t matter that it had all been arranged ahead of time, or that it was supposed to be a friendly visit. The reaction was planted deep into his DNA, along with whatever it was that had made him Vampire nearly two centuries ago. Most vampires were followers, with an instinctive desire to find someone stronger than they were, someone to serve in exchange for protection. But a very few, like Raj, like Raphael, came into Vampire as natural masters, their destinies encoded in their brains and blood, driving them to conquer and to rule others.

The jet’s engines wound down. Raj could see movement through the half-shaded portholes, and then the hatch cracked open and was swiveled aside. A massive vampire appeared in the entry, his eyes gleaming bright gold in the dim lighting as he surveyed the scene. This was Juro, Raj knew, although the Sumo-sized vampire’s twin brother was almost indistinguishable physically. But while they might look alike to a human, to a vampire there was no mistaking the more powerful of the twins. Juro wasn’t a master, but he was powerful enough to dominate most other vampires, which made him the ideal head for his Sire’s security contingent. And, like all of those in Raphael’s inner circle, he was one of the vampire lord’s own children.

Apparently satisfied, Juro spoke into what appeared to be a radio transmitter secured at the edge of his cuff and then deployed the stairs, leaping to the ground without waiting. His twin brother appeared next, but he didn’t even pause to ascertain the situation for himself, obviously trusting Juro’s assessment. He too ignored the stairs, jumping down to stand on the opposite side, even as a line of three black SUVs roared to a halt next to the jet. They were driven by more of Raphael’s security people, vampires who’d come in on an earlier private flight piloted and guarded by some of the vampire lord’s daylight guards, the very few humans he trusted enough to assume such duties. It was well known that Raphael himself never flew in daytime.

Raj opened the limo door. The noise of the small airport was a sudden abrasion against his ears; the stink of jet fuel and exhaust an assault on his sense of smell. He stepped onto the tarmac as security people poured out of the Lear until a full cordon circled the short stairway. They all knew Raj was there, but only those closest to him actually looked his way. Raphael’s people were all finely trained, and like Juro, fiercely loyal to their master.

Raj maintained his distance, not wanting to antagonize the other vampires unnecessarily. He was here, after all, to welcome Raphael to his city. The vampire lord appeared at last, briefly filling the narrow hatchway and blocking the light from inside before taking the five steps to the ground in a graceful blur. Although not as tall as the seven foot Juro, Raphael was nonetheless a big man—well over six feet, with the broad shoulders of his Russian peasant ancestry. But it wasn’t his physical stature that made him imposing, it was the wave of power that flowed out from him, surrounding his people and probing into the darkness, where it sought out and found every one of Raj’s vampires.

Raj’s power rose to meet this almost accidental challenge to his authority, touching each of his people in turn and strengthening their bond to him against Raphael’s intrusion. Raphael turned his head slowly to meet Raj’s gaze, his eyes gleaming as silver as the moon riding high in the black sky. He nodded once, then said something over his shoulder, waiting at the bottom of the stairs as a woman emerged from the plane, her dark hair blowing in the wash of the jets. Her laughter carried on the night air as she took the first few steps down the stairs, before accepting Raphael’s hand to guide her the rest of the way.

She was tall and slender, with an angular beauty that reminded Raj of those women in his clubs—the ones who were confident of their appeal and used it to their advantage. There was far more to this one than mere beauty, however. She was dressed in trim slacks and sweater, with a gun riding a shoulder rig beneath her short jacket. In spite of her laughter, her eyes never stopped moving, scanning the open runway, the hangar and finally settling on him. Her gaze lingered distrustfully and she took a step forward placing herself slightly between him and Raphael, like a bodyguard.

Fascinated, Raj reached out oh so carefully with his mind—Raphael would kill him if he meddled with his mate. But the woman only arched a brow at him in response. She seemed completely immune not only to his telepathic ability, which was considerable, but to the potent miasma of vampiric power that hung in the air of this unusual meeting. Most humans would have been cowering in fear. That she was not made him believe the rumors he’d heard, of battles she’d fought at Raphael’s side, and of vampires she’d killed on her own—vampires who were nearly as powerful as Raj himself.
Raphael slid a hand around her waist and leaned close, speaking directly into her ear. She studied Raj again, this time with an open curiosity that had him fighting an instinctive male desire to stand straighter for her appraisal. Chuckling softly at this proof of the power of beauty, Raj walked slowly forward to meet Raphael and his mate halfway. At a word from Juro, the security team closed in, forming a circle with the three of them at its center.

“My lord,” Raj said, bowing deeply. “Welcome to my city.”

Raphael quirked a smile, acknowledging the claim of ownership as well as the welcome. “Thank you, Rajmund.” He shot a quick glance at the limo, meeting Raj’s eyes briefly before turning to indicate the woman at his side.

“My mate, Cynthia Leighton.”

Raj dipped his head slightly and smiled. “My lady.”

“Cynthia,” she said instantly. “Or better yet, Cyn,” she added, with a friendly grin. “After all, we’re supposed to be having fun this weekend.”

Raj’s eyes widened in surprise and he exchanged a short look with Raphael who only shrugged indulgently. “My Cyn has an irreverent sense of humor.”

“Better than none at all,” she said fondly, leaning into Raphael’s embrace. “I hope we’re going to at least one club, though. Hopefully not one with jazz music.”

She was looking at him when she said it, so Raj replied, “I’m quite certain my DJ at Chopin’s will be happy to spin whatever music you like.”

Her eyes widened in delighted surprise. “Chopin’s is owned by vamps?”

“Of course.”

“Of course,” she repeated cynically. “What was I thinking?”

Raphael was observing this exchange with a mixture of pride and amusement that had Raj fighting to conceal his disbelief. He’d been attending council meetings with his master, Krystof, for decades and had never seen Raphael so much as smile. Raj turned his gaze on the woman who had clearly cracked that famous reserve and found himself intrigued, wondering what kind of female she must be to claim such a hold on the powerful vampire lord.

No sooner had the thought occurred than he felt Raphael’s attention sharpen. Raj shifted his gaze to meet the big vampire lord’s cold, black eyes, and he was abruptly reminded whom he was welcoming to his city. Raphael was not only the most powerful member of the North American Vampire Council, but possibly the most powerful vampire in the world today. He had survived the sudden and brutal death of his Mistress and defeated the lords of Europe when he was barely more than a hundred years old, coming to the new lands of America to found his own empire. Raphael controlled the entire continent west of the Rocky Mountains and no one had ever contested his rule. No one was that foolish—or that suicidal.

Raj bowed deeply. “My lord,” he said simply.

The famous reserve was back in full force. Raphael acknowledged Raj’s gesture with a bare twist of his head then said over his shoulder, “Duncan.”
As if conjured at will, Duncan appeared from behind his master, stepping around and in front of the Leighton woman, even as Raphael shifted slightly to put her behind him. Raj heard her slight protest and had to swallow his smile. He had a feeling this one would not willingly be placed back among the women and children in a crisis.

“Duncan,” he said, turning to the blond vampire. “It’s good to see you.”

“Raj,” Duncan said, smiling. “We appreciate the welcome, but it’s late, so let’s keep it short and sweet. We’ll be staying at the townhouse and—” He gestured at the waiting SUVs. “Our transportation is waiting,” he said unnecessarily.

“So they are,” Raj observed noncommittally. “Well, as you say, it’s late. My lord,” he said, addressing Raphael. “If it suits, I’d like to host you and your lovely lady, and the rest of your party as well,” he added. “Tomorrow evening. Perhaps three hours after sunset?”

“Thank you, Rajmund. We are pleased to accept. Until then . . .” Without further words, Raphael looped an arm around his woman’s waist and, with his security cordon closing tightly around them, moved over to the SUVs and disappeared inside.

“That went well.”

Raj turned with a grin for Duncan. “I thought so. You’ll be there tomorrow, Duncan?”

“Of course. As will Cynthia’s guest, Sarah Stratton. She’ll be staying at the townhouse with us, so there’s no need for separate transportation.”

“Who is she? Sarah Stratton,” he clarified, when Duncan looked at him in question.

“Ah,” Raphael’s lieutenant said in sudden understanding. “Nothing sinister, Raj. Truthfully. Sarah is an old friend of Cynthia’s, from college, I believe. Quite human. A professor at a university in Buffalo, in fact. It is my understanding she only moved there recently and is somewhat homesick. Hence our visit to cheer her up.”

“That’s it?” Raj said in disbelief. “All this to cheer up a human?”

Duncan shrugged. “Cynthia is fiercely loyal to those she holds dear.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Duncan gave him an inquisitive look. “I’m most curious about these rumors, Raj. As is Raphael.”

“Maybe we can discuss it tomorrow,” Raj said, suddenly eager to get back to his own lair. “As you said, it’s late and we all need to get inside.”

“Until tomorrow, then,” Duncan said and headed for the same SUV Raphael had taken.

Raj waited until Duncan had joined his master, then ducked back into his own limo and closed the door, shutting out the incessant noise of the airport. “Let’s go, Danny,” he said to his driver.

As the limo glided smoothly down the tarmac and onto the streets of New Jersey, Raj lifted the warm, sated woman from the bench seat and settled her on his lap, rubbing a hand absently against the silky skin of her thigh.

“We’ll drop her off midtown, Danny.”

His vamp driver glanced over his shoulder. “I can take you downtown first, my lord.”

“It’s too late for that. I don’t want you racing the sunrise either. We’ll drop her off first.”

Next to him, the woman stirred. “I want to go home with you, Raj,” she complained fitfully. “I’m your favorite, aren’t I?”

Raj quieted her protests with a gentle nudge of her too-susceptible human mind. “You’re my favorite late night snack, pet,” he assured her vaguely. That’s all any of his women were—late night snacks, or early dinners. It didn’t matter. None of them mattered to him beyond their nutritional value and some quick sex. Which was the way he liked it. A mate was a weakness, a vulnerability in a game where no one could afford it. Especially not him. If he succeeded in overthrowing his master in the near future, he would be occupied for months with one challenge after another. The last thing he needed was a fragile human female dragging him down, holding him back.

Even Raphael had waited nearly five hundred years to claim a mate, long after his empire was secure beyond challenge. Raj would be wise to do the same. Besides, he thought as he squeezed one of the woman’s full breasts, his thumb rolling over a plump nipple as she sighed with pleasure, there are far too many beautiful women waiting out there to settle for just one. Not yet. Not for a long time.


“He had a woman in the car,” Duncan observed. The SUV sped through the early morning. There was little traffic at this hour, especially on what was by now a Saturday morning.

“What a shock,” Cyn said dryly.

Raphael shrugged. “It is his city, and it is very near dawn.”

“Does he have a mate?” she asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Raphael said.

“No,” Duncan confirmed. “But I imagine his clubs, especially in Manhattan, are filled with willing and beautiful women.”

“Fantastic,” Cyn commented.

Raphael slipped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “He was intrigued by you, lubimaya. He obviously has excellent taste.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she dismissed, but he could tell she was pleased. “Is Sarah here yet, Duncan?”

“She’s waiting at the townhouse, although I would imagine she’s asleep by now. Her plane arrived much earlier this evening.”

“Security is in place?” Raphael asked, knowing it was unnecessary.

From the front passenger seat, Juro responded. “Yes, my lord. The townhouse is fully staffed and secure, including the daylight guard.”

“Thank you, Juro.”

They drove in silence for sometime, the night seeming even darker through the heavily tinted windows of the SUV. “So you and this guy are buds, Duncan?” Cyn asked.

“Buds?” he replied, amused. “Raj and I have a cordial relationship.”

“Raj?” she repeated.

“An American nickname,” Raphael explained.

She frowned. “Why not Ray?”

He smiled. “Because to the American eye, it is Raj.”

She shrugged and said, “I want to take Sarah shopping tomorrow.”

“After sunset would be best,” Raphael said.

“But we’re going out tomorrow night with Duncan’s buddy Raj, and Sarah probably didn’t plan on Chopin’s.”

Raphael sighed. “You are a tempting target for my enemies, Cyn.”

“But a target with teeth.”

“True enough, but I’d rather put those teeth to better use,” he murmured against her ear. He could feel the heat as her skin flushed with arousal.
His cock hardened in response.

“A few hours,” she said, somewhat breathlessly to his satisfaction.

“You’ll take guards with you, and . . .” He hardened his voice, for all the good it would probably do him. “You will not attempt to lose them.”

“I won’t,” she promised, patting his arm. “I’m not totally reckless, you know.”

Behind them, Duncan laughed out loud.

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