“I’ll just announce you,” Mrs. Messerschmitt said, gesturing for me to take a seat in the waiting area.
I was having none of that. I rushed past her making a beeline for the office door. The silly woman tried to block my path, but I feinted to the left before dodging to the right and snuck past her. Usually this wouldn’t have worked. Vampires are fast. Super fast. Faster than a speeding bullet fast. If she hadn’t been so afraid to touch me, I’d probably be in head lock right about now.
I pulled open the door and rushed inside before she could get her nerve up to lay her hands on me. Inside was a roomy corner office with floor to ceiling windows that would have given a lovely view of the New Orleans Superdome if it weren’t obscured by the pouring rain. His office had the requisite huge mahogany desk and visitor’s chairs as well as a sleek looking computer that was probably the newest model of the best brand, and would probably require me to hock both kidneys to buy.
There was a sitting area to the side with interconnecting couches made of dark leather surrounding a large coffee table with a plate and chopstick set and a lazy Susan made of dark glass that was currently bereft of food. A mini bar a few feet away led me to believe this must be where Adam entertained his human clients. The top shelves of the mini bar were filled with booze. Vampires didn’t drink…significant pause here…liquor, but I could imagine there were bags of blood hidden in the mini-fridge at the bottom for the undead clients. Maybe it even had a compartment filled with old bones and chew toys for shifters what with Adam being Mr. Equal Opportunity and all.
The man himself was leaning back in a squeaky office chair, his brown leather cowboy boots propped up on the desk in front of him while he casually flipped through the Times Picayune. He didn’t look up from his paper when I came in. I stopped in front of his desk waiting for Adam to give my presence some notice while trying not to stare at him too hard.
Adam had been in his mid to late thirties when Horatio made him a vampire. He had the slightly rugged look of someone who had spent most of his life in the hot desert sun and wasn’t afraid of a little hard work. He was wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches, a white linen shirt, and blue-grey tie with his usual worn blue jeans and boots. I had never seen him in a tie and jacket before. The combination somehow worked for him, making him look like a corporate cowboy. His dark blond hair was still cut short and neat, and he had just enough stubble on his chin to be considered sexy without looking scruffy.
Not that I was staring at him. Much. I also wasn’t noticing how well he fit in his jeans either. The fluttery feeling I got every time I saw him since our bond became permanent had my stomach doing cartwheels and made my palms sweaty. I didn’t hurtle over his desk and jump into his lap, an achievement I’m quite proud of. The fact that he could command me to do this at any minute irked the crap out of me and scared me shitless.
I could tell he had eaten before I had arrived, at least. He was pale because, duh, vampire, but not starving pale and even had a little bit of pink in his cheeks, something I was grateful for. A hungry vampire has a tendency to overwhelm any nearby mortals with their aura, an involuntary reaction to hunger that they can’t control unless they feed. It’s kind of like being roofied without the benefit of getting drugged first. Aunt Lottie had made me a charm bracelet to ward this off, but I had left it at home along with my coat, my bra, and my dignity. Not to mention it didn’t always work when I was around him. I think it has something to do with us being blood bound, but I’ve never gotten up the courage to ask Lolita to confirm this. I didn’t want to know what it meant if the bond had nothing to do with it.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Worth!” Mrs. Messerschmitt cried, “I tried to make her wait but—“
“It’s alright Gerta,” he said, flipping to the next page of his newspaper, still refusing to look my way. “That’ll be all.”
The vampiric personal assistant nodded curtly and shuffled out of the office, pulling the doors softly shut behind her. She shot me an evil glare as she left, her eyes glowing yellow. Barely here five minutes in New Orleans and already I was making new friends.
I stood there waiting, glaring at him for what seemed like an eternity while he read. My emotional canvas was a confusing mixture of spiky irritation, red hot anger, and relieved euphoria. The irritation and anger was self explanatory. The euphoria, I liked to hope, was a side effect of the bond. Apparently, blood bonded mortals have a tendency to become emotionally attached to the vampire they’re bound to. This was another in a long list of reasons why I had been ducking his calls. I didn’t like the emotional roller coaster ride seeing him put me through, regardless of how many times I tried to remind myself that it was only hormones messing with my head.
Adam licked his fingers, flipped a page. I tapped my squelching slipper against the carpet impatiently.
“If you need help with the bigger words, just let me know,” I said with a tight smile, “Woogie Bear.”
He peered over his newspaper, eyeing me with a banal expression.
“No shit?” I looked down at my damp clothes as if just realizing I was wearing them. “Must have been the storm I was forced to drive through.”
“Funny,” he said, turning back to his paper. “Didn’t look like it was raining that hard.”
The comment was punctuated by the rumbling sound of thunder. Lightening struck, momentarily brightening the dimly lit room and the driving rain seemed to pound the windows all the harder. I gritted my teeth and eyed one of the chairs in front of his desk longingly, trying to break out of the hold he had on me, but I couldn’t move my feet.
“Don’t even think about it.”
“Why not?” I whined.
“You’re soaking wet, darlin’” he said gently folding the paper closed and setting it on his desk before giving me a hard glare. Adam’s Texas twang was coming out. His lordship really must be vexed. “I’m not allowing you to set your soggy ass down on my good furniture. You’ve already fucked up the carpet.”
“You could have called you know,” I snapped, crossing my arms over my chest. “I wouldn’t be standing here in my nightclothes fucking up your stupid carpet if you had given me some warning.”
Adam raised an eyebrow at that. “But you’re wrong. I did call.”
“Did not!” I said feeling childish, but not caring. If he wasn’t going to at least let me sit down, I was going to play the whiney blood bound brat.
“Yes I did,” he said carefully. “I called two weeks ago. Mrs. Warren picked up. Said you were feeling under the weather. Told me you would get back to me at your earliest convenience. Guess you didn’t get the message.”
“Guess not,” I muttered, unable to look him in the eye.
“I thought as much, so I called again a few days later. That friend of hers picked up, what was her name?” he said rubbing the stubble on his chin in deep contemplation. He wasn’t smiling, but I could tell he was enjoying my discomfort.
“Lulu,” I sighed.
He snapped his fingers and nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. Said you were out of town on paid vacation in Mississippi which I thought was mighty nice of your boss seeing as you were only hired a few days prior. How’s that job working out for you, by the way? Heard there was an incident with a grease fryer and a frozen chicken?”
“It was a turkey,” I said scowling. The bastard had been checking up on me. I don’t know why I expected any less of him.
“Yeah, that’s right. Now I remember. Miss Lulu said she’d let you know I called as soon as you got back. Guess that message got lost too. Along with the one after that. And the one after that.” His expression went deadly serious. “And the one after that.”
I tried not to squirm. His eyes could have pierced holes through my head.
I had gotten the message. I had gotten them all. Aunt Lottie had even warned me nothing good would come of ignoring Adam’s phone calls. Lolita hated vampires with a fiery passion, but Adam had had the good grace to use normal means to fetch me as opposed to the supernatural version of a pig call. And she not so subtly reminded me that I had gotten myself into this mess by venturing into the city in the first place, breaking the one rule she had made me swear never to break. Lolita was never going to let me live that one down.
“I have lost count of all the times I’ve called you, Mercy, so you’ll have to pardon my vulgarity when I call bullshit on your claim that I didn’t give you fair warning, especially seeing as I called this very night.”
“That is a bold faced lie!” I snarled.
“I called the boarding house and asked Mrs. Warren if you were busy,” he interrupted me. “She said you were just stepping into the shower and asked if I wanted her to fetch you, but I politely declined by telling her I would call you later. And I did. Call you, I mean,” he gave my wardrobe a meaningful glance. “I gave you a good fifteen minutes to shower and dress too. I think that was a might gracious of me, don’t you think?”
I stared at him dumbstruck. I’m known for taking long showers and I realized with a panicky dread that if some of the other boarders hadn’t used up most of the hot water before me, I’d be standing before him naked as the day I was born.
Now he smiled. The bastard.
I couldn’t storm out of the room. I couldn’t even move my legs to turn my back on him. I made do by covering my face with my hands, trying desperately not to cry.
“I can’t stand being in the same room as you!”
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. I looked up not knowing how he would take it. I expected scowling irritation, Adam’s go-to mode when dealing with me, and was surprised to find a deep look of hurt. That rollercoaster feeling was back, but this time the feelings weren’t originating from me.
Did I mention that shared emotions were a side effect of a blood bond? Yeah.
The twinge in my legs went away and I was able to move my feet again. Adam sighed and gestured for me to sit. I hesitated for a moment before carefully setting my wet ass down. I tried to stay on the edge of the cushion as a concession.
He pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a migraine. “The reason I’ve been trying to get in touch with you is because Horatio is throwing a party tomorrow night. Your presence will be required.”
I frowned. I knew Horatio had to be involved in this somehow. Our last meeting had ended on a sour note when he tried to lay down the law and I responded by showing him the cool new trick Aunt Lottie taught me by making a ball of flame appear in my hand. I didn’t throw it at him, of course. Mostly because I didn’t think my aim would be all that good considering I could barely hold the thing without singeing my palm. He seemed visibly impressed all the same. That or scared. One of the two.
“Message received. Mission accomplished,” I said and made to stand up.
“It’s a very important party, Mercy,” he said trying to be patient with me. “All the big wigs are invited and I don’t just mean the New Orleans mesne lords. This is a state wide thing.”
That got my attention. New Orleans was under total vampire rule with every ward being run by a mesne lord—pronounced “mean” lord. Yeah, that gave me the chuckles when I first heard it too. But Horatio wasn’t just leader of New Orleans. He had become the high lord of Louisiana since the death of Hannibal, his maker and brother, a couple of months back in the aforementioned vampire power struggle. Hannibal had been killed by Adam who, ironically, had been commanded by Horatio never to lay a hand on him. Adam would have followed that order too, even past the point of starving—if he hadn’t been force fed my blood. The blood of a death oracle is toxic to vampires. They go stark raving, kill everything in sight nuts. I don’t know why.
Hannibal had been fated to die by Adam’s hand. And his teeth. And I think he might have bashed his head a few times into the concrete before ripping it from his body. I hadn’t just seen it in a vision. I had been there and I can tell you, it hadn’t been a pretty death. I can’t stop a fated death, not without paying the ferryman, i.e. cutting my meager existence by half. I had already done it once before for a boy I loved. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give up the goods for a vampire who would have forced me to be his blood bound sex slave.
I don’t know if Horatio knew I had had the power to save his brother and walked away, but I was paying for it regardless because I had done something else that had placed his new throne on a shaky foundation, something only he and a handful of people under his liege knew about. I had inadvertently taken away a very important bargaining chip he had with not only the mesne lords of New Orleans, but his entire Louisiana contingent. Because of this, he refused to allow Adam his freedom from the maker-child bond between them and had forced him to keep me on a short leash.
“He’s commanded me to make sure you show up,” Adam sighed. “He specified by any means necessary, so please, for this one time, do what I tell you to do and show up without me having to force the issue.”
My Woogie looked so cute when he pleaded. How could I say no? Especially since, really, I couldn’t.
“Fine,” I said begrudgingly. “But I have conditions.”
Adam snorted. “Of course you do.”
“I’ll need someone to pick me up,” I said hunching my shoulders. “My ride hasn’t been very reliable as of late. Speaking of which, I’m going to need gas money if you’re ever planning on sending me home.”
He nodded and pressed a button on the speakerphone on his desk and said, “Mrs. Messerschmitt? Please send Roy to fill up Miss Cross’s Vespa. It’s low on gas.”
“Right away, Mr. Worth,” came the obedient reply.
“It’ll be ready for you before you leave here tonight, but please don’t drive it to Horatio’s. I’ll have a Limo pick you up tomorrow night. He wants us to look our best for the state’s finest,” he said with a scowl that told me just how fine he thought they were.
I eyed him suspiciously. “You’re letting me go home tonight?”
“Believe me when I say I want as much to do with you as you want of me.”
Oooh! Burn! Now it was my turn to feel hurt. I really hoped he wasn’t sensing that from me. I’d hate for him to think I gave a crap.
I gave him a tight smile. “I’ll also need something to wear. As you well know, I am currently unemployed and don’t have the money to purchase something party ready.”
“Something will be sent to the boarding house in the morning,” he said without blinking an eye.
“And shoes. I’m not particularly looking forward to wearing uncomfortable footwear, but it’s not like I can wear my Doc Martins to this shindig?” I said giving him a hopeful glance and sighed when he gave a firm shake of his head.
“Already taken cared of,” he said and added before I had the chance to argue, “Pumps not high heels, and the dress will be elegant, tasteful, and not overly revealing. I warned Horatio that Mrs. Warren would not be pleased if she learned he made you dress up like a whore.”
That was easy, I thought. Time to push my luck.
“And I want to be paid,” I said, eyeing him furtively.
My Woogie frowned.
“Did I mention I was out of a job?” I said and tried to be reasonable. “I’m not asking for the moon, just the same hourly wage you pay your own employees. I mean, how long can this party be?”
“They get paid on commission,” he said, seeing my reasonable and raising me a reality check, “not an hourly wage.”
“Really?’ I perked up. “How much?”
“A hell of lot more than minimum wage. And they work damn hard for it, I might add.”
“I work hard!”
“You touch people and get a vision,” he said evenly. “It’s not exactly back breaking work.”
“It’s a specialized talent not many have or Horatio wouldn’t want to show me off at his little soiree,” I said haughtily. “And if memory serves, the last time I ‘worked’ for you guys, I did break my back. Literally. And my ribs. And practically every bone in my body. If you hadn’t healed me with your blood I’d be a quadriplegic living on life support now.”
I didn’t say, and we wouldn’t be blood bound. The first two shots of his blood might have started the bond, but I had chosen the third—the one that had made it permanent. There was no point in throwing the other two in his face, especially since my choice had been driven by self interest more than anything else.
“It’s just one damn party, Mercy,” he said through gritted teeth. “All you have to do is show up and keep your mouth shut for a couple of hours. I realize that last part might be hard for you darlin’, but with a little determination, I think you can overcome that tendency of yours of letting your mouth write checks your ass can’t afford to cash.”
“It’s never just a couple of hours!” I said, ignoring the sarcasm. “Every time I mix it up with you guys, it turns into an all-nighter ending with me taking bodily damage. And don’t even start about being able to heal me with your blood. It’s just too damn creepy.”
Adam sighed. “Horatio doesn’t pay me for my services. Why should I pay you?”
I slumped back into my chair in protest, not caring if I messed up his good furniture along with his stupid carpet. “You want to play it that way. Fine! Horatio can force you to call me, but you can’t force me to make me behave. I’m willing to play nice, but I’ve got bills to pay, buddy.”
“You live off your aunt,” he said mildly. “I think it’s safe to say, any bills you have to pay are probably paid by Mrs. Warren.”
Oh, he did not just go there!
“It’s not exactly something I’m proud of,” I said trying to keep my cool. “I can barely keep a job as it is. If you guys are going to take up my time, I think I should be compensated for it, don’t you?”
He made a rude noise. “I’ll talk to Horatio. If he’s willing to pay you, more power to you.”
I was about to argue the point when the speakerphone on his desk buzzed.
“Mr. Worth?” Messerschmitt’s clipped voice came over the speaker. She sounded harassed. “There is someone here to see you.”
Growling in frustration, he pressed a button and said, “I told you I didn’t want to be disturbed.”
“I’m sorry sir, but she is insistent.”
Adam frowned. “I don’t have client on the books tonight. Who is it?”
“I didn’t make an appointment, cheri,” a voice purred over the speaker. Her accent was French and feminine and sexy as hell. I could hear Mrs. Messerschmitt in the background arguing for the woman to step away from her desk. “Will you see me anyway? For old time’s sake?”
Adam was silent for a long time, staring at the speaker as if it had just bit him. He flicked a glance my way, and quickly looked away. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as that roller coaster feeling returned. I frowned because this time, it was most definitely not coming from me.