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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
The raven and the falcon dipped and turned in that eerie way birds had of perfect synchronization. She led, he followed. It would take quite some time for him to match her skill, but he was learning quickly enough to keep up with her.
Syreena swooped back down toward the ground, catching an updraft off the mountainside Damien's holdings were built into. She was heading for the lake just beyond a ledge of rough-grown stone. Damien anticipated her, catching wind in his wings to brake his speed as she dove recklessly for the water just as heedlessly as she had leapt out of the window.
Again, she transformed on the fly.
She had missed the ripple of rubbery skin that immediately coated her distorting body. Even more, she had missed the artwork of the streamlined form of the dolphin. She hit the water at top speed, but the cut of her body made not a single splash. The dolphin skimmed beneath the surface like a flashing light of dark gray, the speed of the movement so quick, it was impossible to track while on the fly.
Damien settled onto the edge of the lake, mutating back to his most natural form until he was crouched low with one hand bracing his balance upon the ground. He watched her with more ease then, until she disappeared into the depths of the water.
She returned shortly, surfacing as the woman he was used to seeing, her exultant laugh making him smile wide.
"It has been so long!" she declared. "Only a week, but still too long!"
"So is there anything different? Beside the coloring, obviously."
"I am sure there is, but I am not aware of it yet."
"Are you sure you do not know what I am thinking?" he asked in such a way that he got a smile out of her to match her jubilant laugh.
"Yes, I do, but it has nothing to do with telepathy." Syreena raised a hand out of the water and beckoned to him flirtatiously.
"Mmm, same result either way, so I do not particularly care how it was managed," he told her as he rose up briefly and pushed off from the edge of the water.
His dive was clean and well-practiced.
When he surfaced, it was with a sputtered gasp.
"That's right," she said with an obvious snap of her fingertips. "It is wintertime, isn't it?"
Damien was not amused. He swam to her in earnest, snagging her by a slick arm easily when she spent more effort in giggling than she did in trying to escape him.
"Let me guess, you do not feel the temperature of the water."
"Not much," she agreed, letting him drag her warm body through the water until she was sealed close to his. "But I did owe you for the attack of cold hands."
"How is it you can feel that, but not this glacial cold?" he demanded.
"Because I was prepared. A flip of a mental switch, so to speak, and the fact that I am not entirely in human form."
He felt her slap her legs against his, only to realize it was a finned tail and not legs at all.
"Well, well, if it isn't the little mermaid," he mused, running a curious hand down her back and backside, noting the point where skin blended away and became the smooth coldness of her tail.
"Don't expect me to sing for you. I cannot carry a tune."
"Not even with a partial spirit of a Siren within you? I find that hard to believe."
He kissed her before she could retort.
"I thought I heard complaints about the frigidness of the water," she purred as she snuggled against his immersed body a moment later.
"Yes, but as the heat leaves my body, it is easier to take. You cannot claim the same, I imagine. I am wondering about the way you will react to my cold appendages this time."
She laughed, pushing away from him, splashing water at him.
"The joke is on you, Prince Damien," she taunted him. "You would have to catch me first."
She dove under the water, leaving him with an impertinent flip of her tail that sent a wave of water over him.
"The joke is on you, Princess," he muttered, "because I can hold my breath longer."
He did not bother to chase her, waiting instead for the inevitable call of oxygen to strike her.
When she did come up, he was going to see to it she warmed him up for her penance.
Jasmine entered the old Romanian stronghold slowly by using the convention of the door rather than one of the numerous balconies that dotted the edifice. The very first thing she did was to seek out the powerful signature of Damien's presence.
She had known he was on the property, but had expected him to be within the building. She was surprised to realize he was actually outside, some yards distant from it. She was not surprised to note that his new shadow was also quite close to him. She sighed with a little impatience. Did the woman never leave him alone?
Jasmine put aside the thought the moment she entertained it. She was just going to have to get used to this. It was clear that Damien intended to keep the Lycanthrope female as one might keep any pet. Apropos, considering she was more animal than anything else.
Jasmine took a long moment to survey the grand room she had just stepped into, looking over the cobweb-streamed ceiling with its domed roof and fresco paintings. When it was cleaned up, it would be restored to its former brilliance of color as well as the gleam of gold inlay that graced the moldings and latticework.
There was obvious pride in her appraisal of what she could see of the dim work. Her brother, Horatio, had done them during the Renaissance when it had been a fashionable way of doing artwork. He had always been the artistic, creative soul of their family. They had made a complementary match, she the student, he the artist. That is, until he took the diplomatic post in Noah's court many decades ago, taking what was to be permanent leave of their already dwindling clan.
One would think that, over so much time, the one constant someone like her should have gotten used to was that nothing remained constant. Things changed. Always. Considering how hard it was to entertain oneself after the first century or two, that was probably supposed to be a good thing.
But the absence of her brother had been as welcome to her as the arrival of the Lycanthrope Princess. In both cases, she had had no say in the matter. Which, of course, was how it should be.
That did not mean she had to be pleased about it.
But she would adapt, as she always did, in one way or another. She took solace in the volatility of the time that approached them so rapidly. At least she would not be bored. On the other hand, there were bound to be casualties that would be unwelcome.
And Damien carried the highest probability of being on the early list.
She had made her choices, however. Ruth had tempted her with all manner of choices, a feast of selections that had held so much appeal in so many aspects, and unconscionable results in others.
She would stay here, in this place, with this man who was like a brother and a father to her. She would tolerate the annoying consequence of a steprelative that Syreena would become as a result of that. Damien needed her help, and she would not abandon him at this dangerous time. She could at the very least give Syreena the credit of being capable of the same goal. It was very likely the one thing they would ever manage to have in common.
Though they had made the choice to settle back and play a waiting game with their enemies, Jasmine had made a decision of her own. She agreed that they needed time and effort to properly approach the situation, but there was something that could and should be done almost immediately.
After thinking it over all day, she had decided to include Damien in her plans. He had voiced his opinions on the situation in such a way that she was forearmed with the great potential that he could be swayed to her way of thinking.
Provided his little tart did not have the opportunity to object. If she did, she could sway him away from Jasmine's desires.
Something she seemed to do with frustrating frequency.
The real trick was going to be separating the two of them long enough to win Damien over to her way of thinking. Of course, she had a plan for that, one that was already set into motion. In a short while, brethren would begin to arrive and they would start to organize and revitalize the castle. They would be her key piece of bait for the little Princess.
Jasmine made her way through the household to her rooms, the ones she always stayed in when they resided in the homeland. They were too close to Damien's quarters now, so she would be choosing others in the wing farthest from the happy homemakers.
She began to relocate her stored belongings to that section of the house while she waited for others to arrive, including Damien.
Damien raised his head from the pleasurable task of nuzzling Syreena's stomach and looked back toward the castle they had abandoned. He sat up quickly, tugging her with him so that she settled high against his chest, her legs and bottom drawn up into his lap as he kept her secured to his body.
"We have company," he informed her when she looked at him with clear curiosity.
"Let me guess…" She trailed off with a meaningful up-cast of her eyes.
"Yes, it is Jasmine." He chuckled. "But I would hardly be concerned about that. There are Vampires moving in this direction. Several of them. I imagine it is our new household."
"Remind me to thank her," Syreena said, not sounding thankful at all. But Damien knew it was born mostly out of her disappointment of having their private tryst interrupted. He was beginning to know her better, and knew that she worried that they would have little to no opportunity for such private intimacies in a full court. She had spent fifteen years in that fishbowl, with everyone watching her so closely. She had probably looked forward to escaping a little of it.
"She is not fully responsible. They sensed my arrival. It is a combination of tradition and curiosity that draws them here."
Damien also knew she understood that this was for the best, even though it was potentially dangerous in its own right. This was the minute where their private affairs would become fodder for public opinion and reaction. She probably worried too much about it. Vampires were very unlike Lycanthropes in that respect. Those who dissented over the idea of their relationship would not make it well known, in order to suit their own purposes. The majority, however, would lose interest in the whole situation relatively quickly, if indeed it interested them to start with.
This was one situation where Vampire capriciousness would come in handy.
Syreena and Damien returned to their new home together, dressing in preparation to meet those who would soon arrive. The Princess left Damien's rooms first, since dressing for her was no more complicated than slipping her light dress back on. As she exited, she literally bumped into Jasmine.
The female Vampire made a momentary effort to excuse her part of the collision, but it halted almost immediately as she got a good look at the Princess's altered hair and eyes. Syreena did not begrudge the other woman her stunned shock. She imagined it must be a fairly startling change. Jasmine was obvious in her silence, her expression inscrutable, save for the sensation Syreena had that the Vampire was not quite pleased to see the transformation.
"I see you have completed the Exchange," she said at last. "I congratulate you and Damien. You are the first in thousands of years to do so. Let me know if I can assist you in the remainder of the Bonding ceremony."
"We will," Syreena said, more than a little taken back by the other woman's unusual graciousness. "Damien says the household is arriving."
"They are. I am sure it will be something for you to look forward to."
Again, Syreena had that sense that Jasmine was concealing something that gave her private pleasure in a seemingly banal statement.
"In what way?"
"You are mistress of this household now, Princess. You will be chatelaine, expected to organize and run it smoothly. I have performed the role in the past, but it is your place now."
"I see. It is a familiar role. I ran my sister's household in this manner."
Jasmine just gave her a smile in return as response. It would be amusing to watch the Lycanthrope try to give orders to a Vampire staff.
"Then I suggest you go to greet your arrivals. They are at the door." Jasmine reached to take Syreena's arm and guide her in the right direction. "They will continue to arrive throughout the night. You will easily be able to tell the domestics apart from the higher-ranking guests, I am sure. Sybil, the woman we use as head housekeeper, will be the first to show herself, if I know her, and she will make an excellent assistant for you."
Damien leaned back against a wall, his arms folded over the expanse of his chest, his dark eyes following his mate while she busily took charge of organizing the household staff. By turn, she greeted other guests politely and then promptly sent them back away. The house, she explained, would be in order in a few nights, and at that time she would extend a nationwide greeting to all who wished to pay homage to Damien. She disarmed the potentially insulting nature of the refusal of their company with a graciousness and a gregarious smile that was pure diplomacy.
No one who was not looking for it would ever think she was not a Vampire, he realized. First, it was an inconceivable idea that Damien would set up a household with a female not of their kind, so there was no reason to expect it. Those who found it curious that she did not evoke that natural sense that alerted Vampires to each other's presence did not mention it outside of a curious wrinkling of a brow. If anyone evaluated the strange female with those heat-sensing membranes of their eyes, they would know the truth immediately as she flared hot and red in their vision.
It was the latter that would likely provoke a response, so Damien watched them all very closely for it and any adverse reactions that might follow.
Soon the balance of those who would come to work and reside in the household reached the point where Damien could finally relax. These were the people most loyal to him, who had protected and defended this household near to their deaths in the past. From butler to scullery maid, their families had served his for eons and considered it a mark of pride that they were allowed to do so. It did not matter to him that they were the least powerful of his species, which limited them to their rank in Vampire culture. There was a power in these seemingly subordinate people that far outranked those Damien associated with in his personal entourage.