It had been a while since Rowan had seen so much blood. And considering what her last year or so had looked like, that said a lot.
She took a look at the male who was her father in all ways but genetic. Blood and gore stuck to his skin, matted in his waist length hair. He had a far away look on his face, what she could see of it.
Rowan had been dreading this. This inevitable decline into his personal darkness that would take steadfast and at times brutal dedication to see him through to the other side. The time when a few brief periods between the bouts of madness made you thank providence he was just run of the mill insane and dangerous instead of supercharged oh-yeah-those-fairytales-are-really-about-my-dad hair trigger slaughter for kicks sort of insane and dangerous.
Unpredictability in a creature as ancient as Theo was exactly what made him dangerous. There was no rule book. No comparison to be made. He was his own fearsome storm.
And Rowan, ill equipped as she was, still remained one of the very few who could coax him away from the song of his bloodlust.
It didn’t matter whether she wanted it, or that he’d nearly killed her more than once. Like being a Vessel to a goddess, this too was Rowan’s path.
All the sounds in the night around them had cut off. No night birds, no insects. Fear and barely leashed power danced around one another in a way that gave an edge to the urgency of a solution.
There were others nearby. Theo’s staff were far quieter than the two Scions who’d approached. Unable to take her attention away from Theo and risk being seen as prey, she had to hope no one did anything stupid.
But as people doing stupid things she had to risk her hide to save them from was a regular occurrence, Rowan figured she didn’t have long before someone screwed up.
She took a step forward. The moon was nearly full and high overhead so it was easy enough to watch as Theo tipped his head to the side, the movement more birdlike than human.
Brigid, the goddess who inhabited Rowan’s body from time to time, didn’t rush to the surface, but rather filled her from the skin to her bones. Not anger as much as the need to soothe.
Goddess of the forge, yes. Ferocious in battle, absolutely. But Brigid’s magic sought to heal and comfort as well. Theo wasn’t well. It seeped from his pores as he stood in the middle of his fine garden, the oldest and First Vampire looking quite like an extra from a horror flick.
“Did you go out on a hunt tonight, vater?” She called him father to bring him back from the brink, to underline who she was which would also hopefully keep her alive too.
Given the layers of blood and …gunk stiffening his clothing, he’d hunted and eaten and then hunted some more. It said up close and personal revenge—he didn’t kill them in a rage, or get super hungry and feed too long. He ingested his prey. He defeated them on every level and would hack bits up later.
Rowan wished really hard that she hadn’t thought of that.
It wasn’t his usual. Not even his usual slaughter in a rage. The way he killed the people he was wearing said holy mission. And there was only one reason for him to seek that sort of extreme justice—the attack that left Rowan barely clinging to life just two months before.
As for Theo’s field trip? There’d be no evidence found unless Theo wanted it. If he had the presence of mind to remember to cover his tracks.
Things were tense enough within the Vampire Nation that if he made a mistake with this little homicidal breakdown he could be facing a big threat to his leadership.
Gooseflesh rose on her skin as she tuned her focus. Theo’s pupils were enormous and his gaze unfocused. His energy was tense and unsettled instead of dreamy or drunk.
Rowan needed to exert iron will to get her heartbeat under control. If she got upset or he sensed she was scared, things to go sideways again instantly.
At least he’d be a little slower because he was digesting, but he was fast enough to kill every one of them without breaking a sweat.
Without turning around, Rowan spoke to those who were standing behind her. “Send for Nadir and Enzo. Immediately. Someone else get with Dina. She’ll know what to do with the human staff.”
More footsteps, this time retreating quickly, obeying her.
Theo still had his attention caught between Rowan and whatever movie was playing in his head.
“Rowan, what do you need?” Clive Stewart, the Vampire Scion of North America—and her boyfriend/lover—asked.
Clive was smooth. Elegant and classy in his custom tailored Savile Row suits and hand sewn Italian loafers. The Vampire had handkerchiefs on him at all times! But he could be vicious. Brutal. He was powerful. Strong. Possessive of late.
And for whatever reason, against the laws of nature, she found herself deeply in love with someone who by all rights should have been her enemy.
“We’ll handle this.” Warren Farrelly—yet another motherfucking Scion clogging up her shit when she was already standing in the middle of a mine field—spoke as he inched closer.
That unsettled energy began to sting as Theo made a sound, low in his belly, his gaze shifting from Rowan to Warren and then back to her. It took everything she had not to run and, before a breath or two, She coursed through Rowan’s veins. Power at the ready.
From the corner of Rowan’s eye, she caught sight of the household staff backing up slow, not attracting attention. She wished the two behind her would.
“If either of you gets any closer I will personally set you on fire. Please get the hell away from here until this is stable.” Rowan kept her voice soothing and melodic as she put her body between Theo and the two master Vampires at her back.
Clive touched her shoulder and Theo really didn’t like that. He stepped closer, the stench of death and pain seemed to come off him in waves. The glaze had gone from his eyes. This Theo stared at Warren and Clive, sizing them up. Idly thinking about ripping off arms and legs.
Yanking his attention back, Rowan went to one knee, wrist out. “Vater.” What she’d called him the whole of her childhood, even as he’d given her his lessons that sometimes gave her scars and always ended in blood.
What she’d called him until she’d found out her entire life had been a lie and the Vampire who’d raised her had been the one to order her birth parents killed.
Years after she’d run away and then trained to kill Vampires until she became the best at it, she found herself there on one knee, the mark of service on her wrist exposed to him. Father on her lips, ready to talk him off the ledge.
“I am here. I am well. Do you see?” She spoke in German at first. Taking more of his focus, getting him back to the present. He had to let go of whatever place he’d gone to. Whatever place the seductive song his bloodlust let free transported him to.
Until then, this imbalance would only increase until he erupted again.
The last time Rowan had thrown herself in front of Theo when he’d been overcome by madness and bloodlust, she’d been fourteen years old.
He’d been in a bad way for weeks. Had terrorized everyone, took it out on the staff. One night he’d lunged at someone and she’d stepped between. Begged him to remember them all.
He’d fed on her until she nearly died and left her crumpled on the floor of her room. She’d choked on her blood as he’d toed her to her side before walking away like she was nothing.
So not the time for this little stroll down memory lane.
Theo stepped closer and she tried to breathe through her mouth. He smelled of rot and death, and terror rolled off him in waves as she tried not to drown in the memories of her childhood.
Rowan switched to their old language, something close to Etruscan, she’d discovered recently. “Come inside and have some tea. I’ve returned from Las Vegas.”
He got to his knees then, right in front of her. He took her wrist. “You were away for so very long. They took you. I went to find you.” He spoke around a mouth full of teeth so sharp he could crunch through bone like it was nothing. The very old ones got like this in full bloodlust. It wasn’t just a matter of the incisors lengthening, but of utter destruction via rows of jagged teeth that seemed to burst out. His voice was rusty and yet pointed and full of burrs.
Theo was in there and strong enough to get control again if she could just get him that last little bit. Rowan slowly raised her other hand to cup his cheek. “I am here,” she repeated. “No one’s taken me. You trained me too well for that. You saw me to the airfield when Clive and I left for Las Vegas. Do you remember that? I told you I’d return. I have.”
He blinked several times. “You’ve come home, Petal.” These words surer and in German. His use of her nickname was a good sign as well.
He frowned, so sad and lost. “For a very long time you did not. You were the only sun I had and then you were gone. It tore a hole in me.” His voice broke as he bent his head.
Rowan let herself love him, flaws and all. With a sigh, she hugged him briefly, pressing her lips to his temple. “I’ll need to leave again. I have a life that’s outside these ramparts. But part of my life is here too. I’ll come back each time.”
Theo shuddered for long moments as the emotions tumbled from him, over her, battering at her control. He let it all go and she had no choice but to reach out again, to touch and offer comfort.
Finally, with one long exhale, he straightened and she let go. When he looked to her again his teeth were back to normal but there darkness still lurked at the edge of his gaze.
The immediate danger had passed, but they were by no means safe, or out of the woods just yet.
A discreet cough to alert her that someone approached. It was her cousin Enzo, Theo’s vassal—his companion, his servant, the person who took care of him and kept an eye on him to be sure he wasn’t veering into coming back after two days covered in entrails territory.
He’d stepped into that place, a place that had been Rowan’s until she’d escaped.
Enzo dropped to one knee next to Rowan, also showing his mark of service. “Ovilius, we’ve been concerned.”
“I believe a cup of tea after a bath might be in order,” Rowan said to Enzo. They needed Theo up and in control.
Enzo used that opportunity to be efficient, to exert some control and said, “Yes. Just the thing. I’ll have Cook make up a tray so you can have a meal and your tea with Rowan after you’re settled.”
The energy around Theo flexed and then unspooled with a graceful sort of menace. Rowan and Enzo remained on their knees until Theo had reached his full height.
Theo straightened the front of his jacket as if it were the finest thing in all the land. And then, as if he was impatient with how slow they were being he raised his brows. “Well? Make that happen. I’ll need my hair brushed afterward, Rowan. Then you can tell me about your trip.”
She hoped he’d tell her about his. She wanted to be sure he was protected. That by some weird chance he hadn’t left behind any evidence. A second pass over the scene by his Five would do that.
“I’ll handle the kitchen,” she said to her cousin. “You attend to him.” Rowan stepped back and handed the reins over. It was his job now. She had one of her own to do.
How Theo managed to flounce off with all that gunk on his clothing, Rowan didn’t know, but flounce he did as he disappeared into the house with Enzo clearing the way and handling things.
She turned slowly to face Clive and Warren. “If you see him like that again, don’t engage unless you’re ready to be torn to pieces.”
Warren looked up at the moon. “What if he left behind bodies? Witnesses? Survivors? We need to deal with whatever mess he—” Warren caught himself, corrected, “—with whatever may be at the scene.”
Why Warren was making so many mistakes Rowan didn’t know. He was old. He needed to never let his guard down. To have a rumor get to Theo that one of his Scions spoke ill of The First? When Theo was in this state? It could be disastrous with a dash of apocalyptic to keep it fresh.
“He wouldn’t have left any bodies.”
Warren had the nerve to sigh at her and give her a pity face. Like she was too naïve to know what was going on. “Rowan, you can’t just¾”
She cut him off with an impatient snap of her hand. “Think. He’d ingest his prey or leave it in the light. Given the state of him, he ate.”
Rowan started back toward the house. Dina, the cook and kitchen manager waited for her at the doorway.
Dina had been with Theo her entire life. She, more than just about anyone understood what was at stake here. Rowan was so relieved to have her around.
“I’m putting together a meal myself right now.”
Rowan got very close, taking Dina’s hands. “He’s in a bad way. I’m going to need you to cut the household staff here in the evenings. No humans but for his approved skeleton crew. Send them on a vacation or whatever.”
“He’s been teetering on the edge for a while now. Thank goodness you got back today.”
“I can’t save him from this.” Occasional bouts of full on crazy seemed to come with over nine hundred years or so of existence, and Theo had hit that one multiple times. “But I can help. Hopefully. When was the last time? Was there an episode in the years I was gone?”
“He was…difficult for about two years after you left. But he righted himself. Nothing like the last time. When you…”
Rowan waved it away. The past was past. She could not dwell there and live her life fully.
Rowan focused on Dina’s gaze. “All right. Thank you. Please keep David in the loop so I’m up to speed. He’ll remain in contact with me as I travel.” David was Rowan’s valet. He’d been assigned to her several years ago and pretty much did everything she needed him to. Sometimes—okay a lot of the time—things she didn’t even know she’d needed until he’d provided them.
He was bright. Loyal. Strong. Brave. Resourceful and smart. Rowan had long since given up trying to pretend she didn’t think on him like a younger brother, or even a child. He’d wanted to come on the upcoming hunt. But Rowan had instructed him to remain in Las Vegas to keep things going on that end.
He’d been pouty. Had argued and got really mad. But in the end, Rowan had remained firm. There was no way she was going to lose him. She’d rather have him alive to be pissy than dead.
“Thank you, Dina. I’m going to speak with a few people, change my clothes and then head to him so give me about twenty minutes if you can.”
Dina wanted to hug her, Rowan could tell. But she nodded instead, patting Rowan’s shoulder and then headed off to deal with the food.
Nadir was waiting at the base of the stairs leading to Rowan’s rooms and Theo’s personal wing. Nadir was the official Voice of Theo’s personal security force, the Five. None spoke in public but Nadir.
She inclined her chin slightly—an indication of rank and respect—at Rowan’s approach. Rowan did the same.
“Recht is with him now,” Nadir began to report as they headed to the ready room the Five used as an operations center for the entire Keep. It was safer to speak there, warded against spying.
The long hallway had the sun shades up so the night sky, clear and full of stars, seemed to surround them. Rowan had loved this part of the Keep as a child. Had loved the onyx on the doorknobs, the veins of malachite in the floors. The antique furniture was lovely and intimate without being fussy. The art on the walls had changed since she was last there.
“Is that a Rothko?”
Nadir smiled. Or she thought about it and it might have shown for just a moment. But Rowan was sure of it just the same.
“It is. Do you like it? I see it more out here than I would in my rooms. It was a gift from a gentleman who seems to have more swagger than sense. But sometimes those are the ones I find hardest to resist.”
Oh she wanted to know more about that story, but it wasn’t the time, and given the long, handsome outline Clive made, leaning in the doorway of the ready room., Rowan wagered there was some sort of Scion business to attend to. She was happily busy which worked in her favor as she wanted absolutely no part of Nation shit. Hunter politics were bad enough. Rowan didn’t need to go borrowing trouble from the Vampire Nation.
When she halted at his side, Clive searched her features for a moment before speaking. Making sure she was all right. She was working on accepting it when he did stuff like that.
“Hunter.” He tipped his chin. “I’m going to talk with Warren and Paola. We’re all squarely in his service.” Clive’d just underlined his loyalty to The First, which she appreciated. He’d done it in the hearing of Nadir as well. Just knowing he was behind Theo made Rowan feel better, even when she knew crazy times were coming. “Come to me when you finish. We’ll both have a meal with him.”
Rowan shook her head, knowing that wasn’t possible. “He’s not going to tolerate sharing my attention with anyone else right now. I’ll come to you after.”
He wanted to argue. She saw it in the set of his mouth. Naturally he did because he was a master Vampire with a great deal of power and money and he was surrounded by yes. His staff. The Vampires in his territory—which, by the way was an entire continent. Vampires and humans alike took one look at that face, at the clothes, the cars, the way the man so obviously knew how to treat someone in the sack, and they fell over themselves.
Rowan was a whole lot of no in Clive Stewart’s life. He needed more no to combat his fussy, uptight control freakish nature. Normally it was amusing to see him struggle to accept that she’d just said no. But given the situation, she’d think it was amusing later.
In the end, he didn’t argue. Which was one of the reasons she usually found herself far more enamored of kissing him rather than staking him. “All right. If you need anything.”
If she needed anything he couldn’t help, but she had no doubt he’d die trying. Which was more than she ever thought she’d have.
He left after one quick look at her, and Rowan blew out a breath as she turned back to Nadir. “Okay so you share with me what you think I should know. This is urgent enough we’re just going to have to trust one another.”
“When it comes to him, to his best interests, I do trust you, Rowan.” A pause before Nadir continued. “As you know, we’ve been investigating who assisted Enyo after she left here.” The Five had been on the trail of Enyo, the badass bitch Vampire who ambushed Rowan nearly two months before.
Theo had come upon them near the end of the battle Rowan had been on the losing end of. She’d been barely alive and Theo had made the choice to save Rowan instead of continuing his pursuit of Enyo.
The depth of his rage that his rules—Vampire Nation rules—had been violated and the infraction had left his daughter clinging to life was bottomless. Rowan hated Enyo for her own reasons, but from what she’d witnessed and felt, Theo’s feelings must have been more like volcanic revenge filled hate. He’d banged her way back in the early days. Like of the world and stuff since they were both old as dirt. Enyo’d put a geas—a magical choke chain—on him so he couldn’t discuss details of her origins. But Rowan knew her foster father and he knew those details and would simply see that geas as a way to handle Enyo on his own before she got another crack at anyone under his protection.
“Last week we located some Blood Front Vampires who had helped Enyo the night she attacked you and escaped the Keep. When we showed up to handle our breach of security, several of them had left and though we vigorously interrogated those remaining, none seemed to know where the traitors had gone to.”
“Did you report this to him?” Rowan asked Nadir.
“Yes of course. You understand how our command works. And when I awoke the evening he eventually disappeared it was to find we had a few leads. I briefed him on that. We split up the leads but I’m guessing he decided to aid us.”
Nadir continued, “Once we knew he was gone for sure, we began to head to each location we had a lead on. There were two left so I’ve sent out operatives to each. I’m going to assume that’s where The First has been.”
“You’ll clean things up when you do figure it out?” Rowan asked.
Nadir only barely resisted rolling her eyes at Rowan’s question, which made Rowan feel better. At least Vampires being arrogant was normal. Normal was good.
“I apologize for my impertinence.” Rowan didn’t hide her smirk and Nadir gave her one right back. ”I’m on my way to change and then go to him now.”
A quick touch at Rowan’s wrist to pause her exit. “You did well,” Nadir said quietly. “With him I mean. He might have been a lot worse off, and so all of us would have been too.”
It meant a great deal to hear that. But it wasn’t something Rowan could afford to dwell on for a while. She nodded, brisk. “I’ve instructed Dina to adjust the staffing. No humans here but for a well trained skeleton crew, only in the daytime and escorted home before twilight. I think the Vampires need to do the same, but that’s your stuff, not mine so I leave it to you.”
Nadir agreed. “We all feel this would be the safest option. Recht will accompany you when you leave in two days. I will remain here with the others and keep watch.”
They couldn’t stop Theo, not really. But every one of the Five had been with Theo for several centuries so they knew how to handle him best.
“He’s going to want to come. He’s made that clear over and over. He can’t.” Nadir meant Theo. She didn’t have to give all the reasons why. She and Rowan both knew them.
“No, he can’t. Not like this. I have enough to handle. I can’t keep tabs on him or prevent some sort of incident. And he’s absolutely veering into I do what I want because I’m old and super powerful territory. I’m working on a way to bring it up and present it.” She’d been working on it for the last six weeks but finding him like this only underlined it. And made it a million times more difficult.
“You know him better than most anyone else,” Nadir said, letting the subject drop.
After receiving one last promise that she’d be informed of any new information, Rowan jogged back to her suite of rooms to change.