After the sensual pace of Venice, London seemed to fit like a very well loved jacket. At 11:00 p.m., the city still vibrated with energy. Young people congregated at doorways to pubs and clubs, laughing, fighting, crying loudly over the phone while fighting with boyfriends.
In mid-August, the heat still stuck to her skin, along with the smog. Shiny black cabs whizzed past, darting around busses and pedestrians.
Each neighborhood had its own flavor, and the one she headed to tasted coppery like new money. With hints of pretension. The perfect setting for her quarry, one sanctimonious prick named Roth Wesslyian.
The cacophony of raucous, trendy youth faded into the murmur of patrons sipping expensive cocktails that took twenty minutes and fourteen ingredients to make. They sat at tables on the sidewalk but looked at phone screens instead of one another.
That worked for her purposes. They were all so busily engaged elsewhere, they barely even glanced her way as she strolled past.
Some would instinctively avoid her. Those were most often the people who still listened to their gut feelings. She was a predator and on some level, those people knew it.
Several blocks away from the main road, she crossed a small, perfectly manicured square, dropping onto the bench nestled under a tree.
Just beyond was the three-story flat Roth and his girlfriend lived in. Rowan leaned back as she pulled a neat little pair of field glasses from her pocket so she could get a better view.
Normally she’d have made an attempt to hide what she was up to. But no one seemed to be expecting her in London, though for Goddess’ sake, they should have.
If they had no sense of preservation, she had no problem taking advantage of it.
Admittedly, it was a bit of a thrill to sit there in the open. Doing some crime. Too bad Clive wasn’t there or she’d have gone back home to bounce on him a while.
A television flickered from its place on the wall; casting blue lights against the window in what she knew was the master bedroom.
Her valet, David, had procured the plans for the house easily enough. She even knew where all the security was powered. A central hub made it so easy to take out.
And she would.
When she wanted Roth to know she was there.
For the time being she’d stalk him, terrorize him and make him nervous. Because he was human garbage and she liked to play with her food before killing it.
He was in there, that little rat-fucker. Scurrying around, probably preening anywhere near a reflective surface. The man who’d repeatedly tried to have her killed and worse, paid for the assassination attempts on David.
“I’m coming for you, motherfucker,” Rowan muttered as she watched him parade around in ridiculous pajamas.
Outrage settled in as he lived his life in his silly, excessive way and people had died because of him. More would by the time this was over. How dare he be the one enjoying every sunrise when he’d filled the world with so much shit?
Her lip curled even as she took note that David had just approached from the west. Rowan tucked the glasses back into her pocket, made her notes about Roth’s nighttime routine and by the time her valet sat next to her on the bench, she was ready to be interrupted.
“I gave your driver the rest of the night off.” David’s tone was patiently amused.
“My driver. Goddess,” she muttered.
“Clive wants to take care of you.” Her valet and her husband got along. Pretty much. But they did usually agree on things that kept Rowan safe. Safer.
Safe adjacent really.
Rowan kept her gaze on the window where the light had just clicked off. “I don’t need a driver. That’s why living in London is so nice. I told him that. So tell me about the overall security. If these people are his professional protection here in London, I have some thoughts.” Like how sloppy it had been to let her sneak away so easily.
“I let them remain under the misapprehension that you were still in the ladies’ room. It took them twenty-three minutes to send someone into the bathroom.”
“Clive’s hires are usually better than that.”
David agreed with a slight nod. “My perception is they’re inexperienced when it comes to challenges like you. It didn’t strike me that it was malice on their part. Once they realized you’d gone they did a sweep of the area. I took pity on them once I was sure you’d gotten far enough away and then I called Clive. He convinced them to drive me and the bags to the house. I promised I’d be in contact with you.”
“I’m sure he’ll ask me about it.” And bitch at her for ducking out on his guards. But she needed to sneak around a bit on her own. Needed to settle in to London on her terms.
And she’d wanted to poke at Wesslyian to see what he had to defend himself with.
Not much, she didn’t think.
“I’m pleased the spell worked.”
It was easy enough—second nature really—to handle surveillance and intelligence gathering. But London was a city with a lot of cameras in a lot of places. So she’d managed to procure a very good spell that scrambled her facial features to fool security protocols.
Money well spent.
“I figured since everyone else was buying stuff on the magical black market I should get in on the action too.” She stood. “I’m hungry now. Let’s go look at Clive’s house. Is it insane? Will it make me nervous?”
David led the way, heading east a bit before cutting over a few blocks north.
“It’s a very nice home owned by an affluent, powerful man with a greet deal of face to keep.”
“That sounds like a lot of words to tell me it’s fancy.”
David wisely held his tongue. Which might have been why Rowan didn’t notice the sketchy-ass barely turned Vamp who’d been following them for a few blocks until he’d gotten close enough to touch.
And when he tried to, she had his arm bent back, popping it out of the shoulder joint as she pressed his face into the brick façade of the building they stood near.
He struggled against her hold so she pushed his face harder. Making sure it abraded his skin.
“Pay attention now, or I’ll end you,” she whispered in his ear. He tried to snarl so she used her free hand to cuff his other ear. “Who do you belong to?”
All she wanted to do was have a quiet evening, but no. Of course she had to get jumped by this jittery moron.
“I’m a Vampire!” he shouted this as if it meant anything to her.
“Barely. Who made you? I can pop that shoulder out of joint for hours and hours. Every time you get it healed, I’ll start over. I’m in a crappy mood now, so that’s my idea of stress relief.”
“Perhaps you should just kill him and be done. I’m hungry,” David said from his place keeping watch.
Rowan shrugged. “Me too. Okay then, Sketch, talk or die. Time’s up apparently. He’s a growing boy.”
“I’m not a boy.” A little exasperation in his tone, but he was still patient.
“He’s getting what the kids today call hangry. Hungry and angry. It’s not cute. Don’t make me have to put him on a time out for his attitude,” Rowan told the Vampire. “You’re not eating right. That’s why you’re twitchy and not feeling well. But you can’t go trying to eat tourists. That will get you executed. And here’s such a funny coincidence! I’m a Hunter and thereby legally entitled to kill you right here and now.”
“Why do they always make you explain?” David asked.
“It’s my vain hope they listen so I can avoid getting Vampire ash all over my clothes. I just washed my hair this morning, I don’t want to have to do it again. But I’m a giver, David. I’m trying to afford this Vampire a learning opportunity.”
“You’re quite the humanitarian, Ms. Summerwaite.”
“How do you know? About eating and Vampires?” Sketch asked her.
“I’m a Hunter. It’s my job to know. Also, I grew up in a Vampire household. I know a few things about you. Like how when a human is Made, the maker needs to educate the fledgling. The Vampire who made you isn’t doing right. Who is it?”
“I don’t know. Some woman. We met at a nightclub. We went back to my flat. Had a one-night stand. She bit me. And bit me more. And then she left. I thought I was going to die. But this happened instead.”
“Are you shitting me, Sketch?” Rowan didn’t loosen her hold. She wanted to believe him, but he’d have to prove himself more before she did.
“No! I wish I was.”
“Name’s Trevor. Not Sketch,” he mumbled.
“I’m going to make a call. If you try to run or give me any trouble, I’m going to have to kill you. You’re breaking some serious rules. You need to be taken care of so you can survive.”
She reached into her pocket and dialed Warren Farrelly, the Scion of Europe. Normally, she’d have reached out to Clive, but this was Warren’s territory and this fledgling needed some protection and right then.
“Hello there, Mrs. Stewart,” Warren answered his phone.
“Stop trying to agitate me.” She told him the story Trevor had told her.
Warren spoke to someone quickly and then got back on the phone. “One of my people is near you. She’ll be there to collect your charge shortly. I appreciate your restraint with him.”
“He’s like a puppy. A twitchy, slightly sketchy puppy. You have a Vampire not only feeding from humans without consent, but making Vampires without consent and abandoning them. You know how that’s going to be dealt with if you don’t get to your fanged lawbreaker first, right?”
A Vampire like that was a big problem. A danger to humans.
Rowan continued, “This is Susan’s territory. I’m going to tell her.” It wasn’t even mildly interesting to her to protect the Vampire Nation at the expense of Hunters and humans.
Warren sighed. “I thought you were done with Hunter Corporation. You’d be a much better Vampire. Work for me. I’ll pay you ten times whatever you make with them and you can work however you want. No questions asked. You’re wasted on humans.”
Rowan was beginning to accept that she wasn’t as done as she’d felt two weeks before. The more thinking she did, the more she realized Hunter Corp. was hers to protect and defend. Because someone, something needed to balance the power Vampires had. She couldn’t do it on her own as well as she could within a Hunter Corp. running at full capacity. The passion and skill level existed if everyone was willing to take out the trash and change things.
Clive would pop a vein if she took a job with another Vampire. As amusing as that was to envision, she had to shut that down.
“Stop stirring shit up. I’m here for another reason so if you handle this on your own, it doesn’t have to involve me at all.”
In the background Warren had been giving orders as he listened. Three minutes later he came back to her. “All right. Bonita will be arriving presently to collect him.” He paused long enough Rowan was convinced she wasn’t going to like whatever he said next. “I have a few ideas as to who it might be. I’ll have Trevor look at some photographs when we get his statement.”
“You’ve got a rogue on the loose here in London? Is that what you’re telling me?” Rowan demanded. Vampires and their bullshit were always getting in her way. “I’m already cleaning up after the last mess you all made. I don’t have time for this.”
Warren laughed like it was funny. She wanted to kick him in the taint.
“There are always rogues so I won’t insult you by pretending otherwise. This one is a recent problem. We’ll handle it.”
“You’ll need to keep me or Susan apprised.” She hung up as a car eased to the curb and a tiny pixie of a Vampire got out.
“I’m Bonita.” She tipped her chin in Rowan’s direction. Giving her respect as she would have another Vampire of her station.
“Rowan. And this is Trevor.” She handed him over.
Bonita’s brow rose as she took him in. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Trevor? Don’t make me sorry I didn’t kill you.”
He nodded as he yammered his thanks before Warren’s pixie with teeth shoved him into the back seat.
Rowan and David continued their walk home as if they hadn’t even been interrupted.
“How long did you know I was watching you? Back at Roth’s?” David asked as he indicated the house they’d stopped in front of just three minute’s walk away.
“Not that long. You’re getting much better at surveillance. I’m being serious. You know I wouldn’t lie about something important like that.” When it came to his training she was deadly serious.
Her life—and his because he was her valet—was full of danger of the sort they just dealt with. And worse. He had to be capable of defending himself as well as holding his own on a team.
Rowan took a deep breath and let herself really look at the house.
She’d have been lying to pretend she hadn’t already seen it because she’d looked it up online. But in person it was even lovelier. Stately. The kind of home she knew graced magazine spreads.
“I’m going to break something or spill something within five minutes,” she muttered. A nervous flush settled on her cheeks.
“I’m sure that’s not true. Your home in Las Vegas is full of antiques and you haven’t broken any of them.”
A white stone townhouse similar to most in the neighborhood. It didn’t scream money. It murmured class and elegance because screaming money was crass.
The black lacquer front door was bookended by large ceramic planters with the Stewart crest on them. Each one of them had a manicured shrub/bush/tree thing. It slid open silently to reveal a man in his midfifties wearing a fantastic gray suit.
He smiled before bowing low and straightening in one, graceful roll. “Ms. Summerwaite, welcome. I’m Betchamp, the house manager. Please, do come inside.”
She’d been in Clive’s penthouse in Las Vegas, an antique filled showplace with stellar views. But there was a certain glitziness about it that didn’t fit him entirely.
This was quiet elegance. The wood floors gleamed, as did the stairs of the curved, wrought iron staircase. Rather than a tight spiral, it was a lazy curve upward two more floors.
“This is magnificent,” she told Betchamp.
“Would you like a tour as I show you to your rooms?” he asked, clearly pleased by her compliment.
“Yes, I would. Thank you.”
“The house was built in 1827 for Scion Stewart by his father as congratulations for being elevated to Penultimate.”
Clive had been essentially in the next in line seat for a Scion position for nearly two centuries. And The First had given him North America. The new world for the new Scion. Neither was all that new as things went, but Rowan knew Theo saw the poetry in such a move.
“This is the formal receiving room.” He pushed open gleaming wooden doors to expose a lovely sitting room in cream and navy.
Most rooms with the word formal attached to them were anything but inviting or comfortable. But the room managed to be warm and intimate while retaining the overall flavor of the house.
The receiving room connected to a gorgeous, very masculine, wood paneled library and office.
“This is Scion Stewart’s library and office. All the networks in the house have been set for your use. He urged me to reiterate that this was your home too and he expected you to make use of it.”
“He’s bossy that way,” Rowan said before she even thought. But before she could apologize for her snark, Betchamp chuckled.
“Alice told me you were a pleasant surprise. She was correct.”
Rowan nearly smiled at the mention of Clive’s personal assistant.
Betchamp led them through a living room that had a grand piano in a far corner. Comfortable clusters of chairs and couches spread through the room. A lot of windows for the abode of a Vampire. But Clive loved to look at the stars, even if he couldn’t have the sun.
The kitchen was a cook’s dream with loads of counter space and top of the line appliances.
“My wife, Elisabeth, is the cook and daytime house manager. She’ll be up to serve you breakfast or whatever you desire during the daylight hours. She popped round the market but should be back shortly.”
He led them up the back stairs. “Master suites are here on this floor. They just finished the remodel the day before yesterday.”
He pushed the door open to reveal a light yellow room with comfortable furniture and classic touches. “This is your sitting room. Your bedchamber is to the left.” He opened that door. More of the pale yellow, only this had a more French country feel with blue accents.
It hit her as she stood there. Clive had done what he said he would. A shared space but her own as well so she could move about freely while he was at daytime rest.
The colors and decoration were feminine. Elegant. Beautiful lines to all the furniture. Not a single overly fussy thing.
Clive knew her so much better than she gave him credit for.
He led her back through the sitting room to a larger space. Couches, a television, music, bookshelves. A casual, comfortable place she and Clive could be together in before he went off to rest for the day.
Opposite to Rowan’s bedroom, Clive’s bedchamber was sumptuous. Mahogany furnishings, plush bedding the color of deep amber. Quiet, calm. The perfect place to rest and be left alone.
Quickly Betchamp showed off the rest of the townhouse, including the mews house, which was a British way of saying guest house, where Clive had an office put together for her as well as a living space for David.
“Clive’s very thoughtful,” David said once they’d been left alone and told dinner was ready whenever they desired.
Yes, that he was.
“Give me a few minutes. I have to make some calls. I’ll see you at the dinner table,” Rowan told him and headed back to her sitting room.
Once she was alone, she pulled out her phone and gave in to the small satisfaction of jabbing the icon of his face to call Clive.
“Am I interrupting anything good like a beheading?” she asked, bending to breathe in the scent of the peonies spilling from a vase on a table near the door.
Red peonies. Her favorite. Which is why they were there.
Clive’s easy laugh was as heady as the scent of the flowers. “Your greetings never cease to amaze me. Not tonight. Not yet anyway.”
She heard the smirk in his tone. “I like your house,” she told him, feeling shy all of a sudden.
Rowan really needed to remember to say nice things to him. He was so good at it she took it for granted. Which maybe would have been okay if he’d only been some dude she was nailing. But he was so much more. And it might keep him amenable when she had to update him on her dealing with Warren earlier.
“Our house. And I’m pleased to hear it.” And he was. The emotion was plain in his words.
Their energy, even over the phone, comforted her. She’d never connected with someone like this. And she might even be in a place in their relationship where that didn’t make her so terrified she broke into a sweat at the thought of needing anyone.
“You like your space?” It was Clive who was shy that time. Vulnerable. A wave of wonder hit as she let herself appreciate what he made her feel.
Rowan walked through the outer sitting room and into the bedchamber beyond. Yes, it was her space.
Or he wanted it to be.
Rowan would feel like a guest for a while to come. She’d only just arrived and the staff there had worked for Clive for generations.
But she knew it wasn’t so much a question about the physical look of the place anyway. He wanted her to know he heard her. Respected her need for solace.
“I do really like it, yes. It’s quiet upstairs. Nice and separate from the social spaces below.”
His apartment in Vegas was constantly full of his staff and guests of one type or another. She found it difficult to find silence for more than short bursts of time.
This place was meant to be her sanctuary.
“You know how much I like being left alone. So you get a gold star. Bed is very comfortable.” She lay across it with a happy sigh. “Very comfortable.”
“It’s the same mattress that you have at your place here in Vegas.”
She blushed, smiling at his thoughtfulness. Embarrassed even as it made her so happy. “You’re very good at being thoughtful.”
“It’s your wedding present. The house is ours. I want you to be comfortable there. I want you to be comfortable in my life.”
Wedding present. She shoved the heel of her free hand over her eyes to hold back the emotion he evoked.
“You’re a Vampire, which makes it a lot harder than if you were just a dude. However.” She sighed. “You’re exceptional in the sack.”
“No substitute for experience,” he shot back.
“True. And you have spent your centuries honing your craft. So, we can tick off the sex machine box in the plus column.” She snickered as she imagined his face.
“Well, that’s good to hear. Other than keeping you adequately pleasured, what else about me overcomes my essential Vampireness?”
“You have excellent taste in wives.”
He laughed. “I completely agree.”
“You aren’t helpless. You don’t play games. You aren’t needy. You remember how much I love peonies. You arranged a remodel of your swank old rich guy manor house thing in what? A week?”
“Well, to be frank, I had been thinking of the remodel for a while. But the day you and I became bonded, I had Alice get things started.”
In a little less than a month he’d done all this. For her.
“This is a really good wedding present. Now I’m feeling a little panicked that you’re always going to win the present game in this relationship.”
“But do you lose that way?” The smug satisfaction was there in his words. He liked spoiling her. Weirdo.
“I like to win. This is not something that should surprise you.” Plus, when he was so good at it and she wasn’t, wouldn’t he feel put upon at some point? Like he did all the work?
That made her pissy. She hated it when people were better than she was at things and when it was something like this…love thing, she was utterly and completely out of her element. Something else that made her pissy.
But it wasn’t fair in this case to aim her bad annoyance at him. Because he was being a nice person. A good husband. Things she’d pretty much never really given much thought to having. Figured she never would have a husband of any type, much less a grumpy control freak Vampire Scion with ironed underpants and a stick up his totally fantastic butt.
“Rowan, I like to give presents. I like to befuddle you and fluster you with gifts. I let you punch people. I think it only fair that you allow me this.”
Rowan found herself relaxing with a happy sigh. He did let her punch people and gave her presents too. “You really are perfect for me.”
“So truly, you like our home?”
Clive had promised her things when they’d decided to get married. A shared space. A place she could call home with him. She figured he’d have a nice house and that he’d make sure she had a key and some servants. But this?
He’d given her the gift of truly listening and paying attention to her. To what mattered to Rowan. What made her happy.
And he’d done it without a word to her.
“I do. Thank you, Clive.”
“You’re welcome. Now tell me what you’ve been up to.”
She sucked in a breath. “I just wanted to get a lay of the land. On my own. I can’t very well do surveillance with servants in tow. It’s unseemly. And dumb. Who is going to be scared of that?”
He made a low sound. So annoyed with her. It cheered her a little.
“Anyway. You have a training issue here. I don’t think their incompetence was malicious. Just a lack of experience. I had David write up his observations of your team’s weaknesses and strengths. He’ll send it to Alice.”
“What’s the rest? I can tell there’s more.”
He was getting better at reading her like that.
Rowan told him about the situation with Trevor and how she’d called in Warren.
He got very quiet. No snarls or sounds of derision.
“I thought you two had gotten past that thing and were allies again.”
“That thing? You refer to the way he thought to take you from me?” Clive’s tone had gone very sharp.
As much as she got the tinglies when he was like this, she had to steer him away from jealousy land. “As if that would have ever happened. You know it. I know it and most of all, Warren knows it. This is his territory. I contacted him because that’s how it works.”
“You’re correct,” he said after a bit more silence. “I do appreciate your telling me now. Thank you for not killing him.”
“Warren or Trevor?” she teased.
“If Vampires only knew this side of you.”
“No! Then they wouldn’t be scared. Or they’d all try to talk to me and be my friend or whatever. And Goddess knows I have no more room for Vampires in my personal life. You’re all like hamsters. More of you every damned time I look in the living room.”
He laughed at that. The terse energy now dissipated.
“It’s my turn to tell you something. I’m going to be delayed two days. I’ve got some…personnel issues to handle,” he said.
Mmm. “I wish I could watch that handling.” He was all suave until he got pushed too far and then he was lightning fast and brutal. Totally, absolutely hotter than the sun. “Do your job. I need to do mine. It’s fine. You don’t need to come at all, you know. We can see your parents at the thing Theo is planning. It’s just next week.”
“Don’t sound so hopeful. My parents are expecting us both. They want to meet you. I had Alice let them know we’d be a few days later. Everything is fine with that.”
Rowan sighed. Meeting his parents freaked her out. Meeting anyone’s parents was weird. But these were in-laws! Vampire in-laws with a super powerful and influential son who’d just married a Hunter.
A lot of Vampires hated her. More feared her. This whole married-into-a-Vampire-family thing was so not what she was equipped for.
Her stomach growled. “I’ve got to go. There’s food waiting and I haven’t met Elisabeth yet.”
“I love you, Rowan. I’m coming for you. Betchamp is on notice to provide you with anything you might need. We also have a car and driver available twenty-four hours a day. I had my team bring in someone more suited to guarding you. He’ll be better equipped at surveillance and overall sneakiness.”
“Jeez. You Vampires and your love of being catered to and carted around.”
“Why take a bus when one has a luxury car and a driver to take you wherever you need to go? Don’t be silly and refuse to use what is yours now to make a point.”
Rowan snorted, relieved he was being bossy and high and mighty instead of perfect and sweet, or jealous and shirty about Warren. However, the sneaky bastard had boxed her in. Of course she wanted to take the bus to make a point! But he’d worded his taunt perfectly so if she did, she’d have to admit being silly and petty.
It didn’t mean she wasn’t going to, though. “I do what I want, Scion. We established that a while ago. I like the Tube. I like black cabs. I like to walk. I can’t be sneaky in a luxury car with a driver! I need to be sneaky. It’s as essential to my job as being cranky.”
Clive’s snort was a mix of eleven kinds of emotion. Rowan knew exactly how his face looked as he did it, the slight roll of his shoulders. Knew most of the time he allowed her to see it. Trusted her with his reactions, knew too she liked it so he used it to keep her on her toes.
“Of course you do, darling. And you’re quite exceptional at being cranky. And being sneaky. I’m sure you can find a way to do both with a personal driver. In any case, do try not to get injured. You’re my Hunter and I quite prefer you not in a coma.”
She grunted at the reference to her recent near dying. As if she’d forgotten. Rowan preferred not being in a coma too so she wasn’t going to argue. “Whatever. Is that dumb bitch drawing breath? No. But I am. Living is the best revenge.”
“Naturally. Just consider it. For my overall health and well being if you won’t do it for yourself.”
Rowan rolled her eyes. “We’ll see. Now, I’m hungry and you have some sort of beatdown to administer to some wayward Vampire. Take care of the boss, you got me?”
“As you command,” he told her right before he promised to touch base soon and hung up.