A Cursed Embrace Page 5

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Emme buried her face in her hands. “Do you think we’ve come at a bad time?”

“They’re fighting for dominance,” I muttered. It wasn’t easy being BFF with the undead.

Taran scowled. “What?”

“In killing the other master, Misha took his power and inherited the evil bastard’s minions.” I pushed my long hair out of my eyes. “Misha’s vamps want to stay top dogs and the others want to move up in position. The fighting has been going on all week. Misha assured me it would stop during dinner.”

Taran rolled her eyes and started forward again. Shayna’s gaze remained glued to the rear windshield. “Dude! That’s, like, totally barbaric.”

I’d come to accept that the rules among preternaturals had existed for centuries and for their kind’s own well-being. As outsiders, my family and I couldn’t say or do anything to change that. Still, that didn’t mean I liked or encouraged their behavior. “I know. But it’s the way of the vampires. They could just concede and accept their new ranks, except vampires are all about prestige and status. Those higher up remain closer to Misha. No way are any of them going to back down.”

The wrought-iron gates opened before Taran could hit the intercom system. The cameras hidden within the gargoyle heads lining the stone wall must have alerted Misha’s keep of our arrival. Since he’d named himself as our protector, we’d been elevated to our own status within the vampire world. In other words, mess with us, mess with Misha. And no sane vampire messed with Misha. As a rare vampire with a soul, he essentially juggled life and death, granting him unrivaled power.

Taran crossed over the stone bridge and circled the enormous fountain to park in front of the three-story mansion. When we first caught a gander at Chateau Misha, Shayna tried to convince us we’d inadvertently wandered onto a posh ski resort and spa. Misha’s home could only be described as a colossal mountain Craftsman surrounded by well-manicured botanical masterpieces. The essence of calm and tranquility surrounded the thirty-thousand-square-foot house overlooking Lake Tahoe.

Usually.

A cluster of vampires spread out in an arch near the man-made river filled with carp the size of alley cats. Two vampires in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms circled each other, their clothes ripped to shreds, their pigtails askew, their fangs out. A few yards away, beneath a white fir tree, two other vampires attacked each other like rabid rats while the fist-pumping crowd chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

In the middle of the chaos stood our werewolf buddy, Bren, taking bets and playing referee. “Hey, Mary Catherine! I told you, no axes allowed! Put the axe down. Down, Mary Catherine. Down!” He shook his head like a frustrated camp counselor. “Fuckin’ vampires.”

I leapt out of our SUV. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Hey, babes.” Bren shrugged. “Heard about the smack-down. Thought I’d make a few bucks.”

Taran quirked an eyebrow. “And they let you—a wolf—inside Misha’s compound?”

“Only after I told them I was with the little missus.” Bren winked my way. He whistled through his fingers, ignoring my growls not to call me that. “Agnes Concepción. Let go of his nuts! Fangs and claws, peeps. Fangs and claws.”

Emme clutched my arm. After the dead body strewn across our doorstep, the last thing she needed was more supernatural drama. As a hospice nurse, she dealt with end-of-life issues and death, and managed it beautifully. Blood, guts, and flying body parts . . . not so much. I led her toward the house before some poor bastard vampire’s ear could smack her in the face. “Come on, Emme, let’s find Misha.”

“Put me down for fifty on the freak with the axe,” Taran whispered to Bren before hurrying to catch us.

We walked across the stone-paved driveway. Edith Anne and Maria approached, swinging their h*ps hard enough to fan their tiny plaid skirts. More naughty Catholic schoolgirls. Awesome.

Edith Anne grimaced when she saw us. “The master is expecting you. This way.” She tossed her hair back and led with Maria at her side. She pointed to her mud-splattered platforms. “They made me march around the house in my new boots,” she complained to Maria.

Maria shot me the official hairy eyeball. “Beetches,” she muttered in her thick Brazilian accent.

The good Catholics always knew how to lay on the charm. Unfortunately they never felt the need to lay it on us.

“Screw off,” Taran shot back.

Before I became acquainted with vampires, my image of a vampire’s crib was stereotypical—an old, dank, dimly lit castle—paler than snow creatures lurking behind every turn waiting to eat me. Then I met the so-called creatures of the night. Tanning and admiring themselves seemed to be the Catholic schoolgirls’ favorite pastime. As far as Misha’s pad went, “dank” remained furthest from the truth.

The warm glow from the wood and iron chandelier greeted us in the mammoth foyer, dimly lighting the blue-slate floors and timber cathedral-style ceilings. Soft browns, golds, and muted burgundies accented the rich wood and stone walls. Misha’s decorator accomplished making his estate, a home—a rare feat considering the immense size. It reminded me of Misha: Although great in magnitude, it had a heart.

Taran’s high-heeled sandals clicked along the blue-slate floor, and while Emme wore ballet flats, her soft footsteps echoed louder than mine. Even with me in two-inch mules, my predator side barely made a sound.

We crossed the expanse of the long hall, roughly the size of Rhode Island, and into the solarium. Two of Misha’s very polite and very hypnotized servants opened the floor-to-ceiling glass doors leading outside. I stepped through first and onto the terrace. The breeze had picked up along the lake, but the six outdoor fireplaces built into the stacked-stone railing warmed the area at least ten more degrees. My thin cotton blouse would have worked perfectly, had I not had werewolf nibbles to hide.

My face flushed slightly at the thought and hoped the heat from the flames would hide my embarrassment. Emme had offered to heal my marks, but I needed proof of my time with Aric. It made our moment real and not simply one of the steamy dreams I’d had.

Misha stood upon seeing us and gave me a wink, strands of his long blond mane falling against the strong angles of his face and clean-shaven jaw. Vampires believed themselves gods who walked among mortals. If that were true, Misha was Ares—to be feared—all the while carrying the masculine beauty of Adonis. Tonight he dressed in all black. A black suit outlined the muscles of his tall, strapping form, an opened black silk shirt buttoned below his collarbone, and black shoes that cost a month’s mortgage. I smiled. It was good to see his body completely regenerated after the torture he’d suffered at the hands of his enemies.

He greeted Emme and Taran with kisses to their cheeks. Emme blushed, of course. Taran kissed back. I wondered how our boys would take that. The wolves’ dislike of vampires bordered on hate—Aric and Misha especially loathed each other. And while I remained sure each side had its reasons, I couldn’t condemn an entire race based on the actions of a few rotten apples.

“I told you to wear something sexy,” Edith Anne hissed under her breath. “You look like a dork.”

No matter how annoying the apples were.

Misha’s gray eyes flickered despite his back facing the flames. “Edith, is this any way to treat our most honored guests?”

Misha’s light Russian accent held no hint of anger. Yet his vampire mojo surged enough to lighten Taran’s eye color from blue to crystal. Edith and Maria cowered back, bowing as they retreated into the house. Edith’s voice shook. “My deepest apology, Master.”

My tigress itched to protrude my claws, alert in the presence of a dangerous predator. I calmed her by reminding her how Misha had guarded Emme, and how his family had shielded us from harm under his command. I wasn’t naive. And I sure as hell wasn’t stupid. With an estate full of vampires at his disposal and the amount of power coursing through his veins, Misha could kill us. But he wouldn’t. I’d caught glimpses of his pain, witnessed his heartbreak—a side I’m sure he’d preferred hidden. Yet it was that same side that won me over and allowed me to trust him not to harm us.

Shayna grinned when Misha kissed her and casually returned her small box of toothpicks into the pocket of her slacks. She’d sensed Misha assert himself and whipped out her favorite weapons. My lack of aggression eased her tension. Perhaps Koda’s animosity hadn’t turned her against the vampires. Yet.

Shayna punched him in the arm. “How’s it going, dude?”

“Rather well, my dear.” He reached into the inside of his suit as the breeze swept his long hair behind his shoulders. “I saw these and I thought of you.” Misha retrieved two long Asian hairpins and held them out for my perky sister to see.

The gleam to Shayna’s smile returned. “Cool.” She lifted them from his palm and stimulated her ability to thicken and manipulate metal. A trickle of light sparked from her belly-button ring as she transferred the element into the delicate pieces of hair jewelry, turning them into small, deadly daggers. She stepped back from Misha and tossed them a few times in the air, getting a feel for their weight. “A girl can’t have enough weapons these days, you know?”

Misha’s smile faded as Shayna returned the hair jewelry to their original shape and tucked them into the base of her ponytail. “No, it is best to be safe.” He regarded me then. “Which is why I am not pleased to hear you are to assist the . . . weres in their latest quest.”

It probably took Misha every effort not to say “mongrels” or “mutts” or some other inappropriate word to describe our wolves. I crossed my arms. “And how did you hear about that?”

Misha flashed me his famously wicked smile. “I have my ways, kitten. Shall we?”

I shook my head. Misha’s wealth went a long way. It wouldn’t have surprised me if his family greased the palms of weres in exchange for what could be interpreted as harmless information.

Misha stepped aside, revealing the elegant table setting. White linen covered the large round table while black silk napkins folded into ravens lay over the delicate china etched in silver. The staff appeared to pull out chairs for my sisters. Misha held out my chair himself. He leaned forward and paused, his lips close to my ear. “I see that mindless beast has finally come to his wits and shown you some affection.”

My cheeks heated. “Misha, I’m not going to discuss Aric with you.” Gee, this conversation sounded familiar. “And don’t call him names.”

Taran laughed. “You’d better get your groove on, Misha. Otherwise that wolf is going to steal my sister from under your thumb.”

“Nonsense.” Misha’s wickedness returned with a vengeance. “Celia may enjoy what I can do with my thumb.”

Just when I thought my face couldn’t get any hotter. “Stop it. Both of you.”

Taran danced her brows at me. “Aw, come on, Ceel. After years of dateless nights, you deserve a little attention.”

I would have slapped Taran upside the head if I didn’t think my blow would kill her. “There’s nothing between Misha and me.”

“That is only because you won’t allow it.” Misha leaned back in his seat, those gray predator eyes of his sharpening as they zeroed in on my neck. “However, we do have some time before the main course. Ladies, would you mind starting without us?”

My jaw tightened. “Yes, they would. And cut it out.”

Misha laughed. He flicked his napkin in the air. His and ours took off like the blackbirds they’d been shaped to resemble. Emme jumped as they circled above us and landed in our laps, unraveling and resuming their cloth forms.

“Damn,” Taran muttered. “I wish I could pull that shit off.” She didn’t just mean the flock-of-birds act. Taran often griped about the strength of her power being mostly limited to fire, lightning, and light. She possessed a rare gift—hell, we all did—but she wanted to do more. Witches couldn’t command fire to the extent or ease that she could, but their magic opened up possibilities Taran only dreamed of possessing. While my sister wasn’t power hungry—far from it—it almost seemed she craved something more spectacular.

Taran lifted the napkin again and placed it back on her lap after scrutinizing it closely. I poked at mine, half expecting it to peck. “You’re getting better at harnessing Tahoe’s power, Misha.”

“I find it easier now that my soul has returned.” He cocked his head. “Is there something you wish to discuss with me, my love?”

I frowned. “So Tahoe’s magic allows you to read minds now?”

Misha pulled my wrist toward him and touched the underside of my forearm. “No. But there are advantages to passing you my call.”

Misha had transferred the mystical equivalent of his phone number onto my arm. Should the superscary bad guys come knocking down my door, all I had to do was think his name and he would come to my aid. Apparently my arm also possessed reverse speed dial—it was how I’d found him when he’d been close to death.

I pulled my arm back. Misha hadn’t hurt me, but I didn’t want to do anything that might lead him on. And allowing his touch might tempt him in ways I only desired for Aric. “I didn’t call you today. How did you know something happened?”

The servers brought the first course, some sort of fondue thingy set on fire. Taran lifted the flames with her hands and blew them out with a kiss. Fire flat-out scared me, especially after almost being roasted alive. Taran beheld it like an old friend. The rest of us leaned back so the staff could extinguish our plates with silver covers. My sisters dug right in, dipping the chunks of bread into the thick, creamy liquid.

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