The Bitten / Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three


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Chapter Twenty-Three

"You all right, man?" Rider asked as he climbed into Carlos's limo with Shabazz and Big Mike. "You don't look so jakey."

He could feel Jose and Dan assessing him along with J.L. as they waited for the rest of the team to get in and close the door. Carlos looked up and sealed the window between them and their driver, giving the signal to pull off. His driver seemed a little dazed, pulled off wobbly like he was DUI. Not good. Something was wrong. Just the fumes off this shit were affecting everybody. Maybe it was the amount of product Jose was carrying? He wasn't sure. But the effect was knocking his head back.

Damali had been stone-quiet beside him, monitoring his condition through the palm of her hand in his. She gave Rider a look that said back off, and then glanced through the rear window at the other limos following theirs. It felt like the walls of the vehicle were closing in on him, and he couldn't breathe. A cold sweat had broken out on his brow and he stained his suit sleeve wiping it away.

"You got the product?" Carlos said on a short breath, speaking to Jose. He could feel his gums poised to rip and his vision was beginning to intermittently flicker red.

"Yeah, we cool," Jose said, producing a small plastic bag.

"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Carlos bellowed. "Plastic, in here with me - next to her - and six nervous human male blood bodies with weapons!"

"You said to put it in plastic - "

"Yeah, so you could handle it. You had to seal it - put it in an equipment case - something!" In a flash Carlos encased the bag in a steel box right in Jose's hand and opened the windows, a rush of air giving him a chance to catch his breath.

"Oh, shit, Jose," Shabazz shouted. "What were you thinking about?"

"I thought it was just the contact from when he made it before in the suite - I thought - "

"Shut. Up!" Carlos said, his eyes closed. "Everybody stop talking for just five minutes. I can't go on the boat like this. You could have popped off a war in the damned VIP box."

"We have to - "

Damali's voice was the last one he could deal with. His glare had stopped her words, but it sped up her heart rate. The nerves in the close confines, multiple pulses, adrenaline spike all through it, made his hands shake.

"I told you!" Carlos yelled at her. It was reflex; her brothers couldn't even draw. He'd snatched her so fast and had kissed her so hard, hands at either side of her face, fucking him up as she opened her mouth and returned it hard. I want you so bad right now I'm losing my mind. Don't speak. He could feel her thoughts gathering, her words about to lacerate him more because she wanted him like that, too.

He let her go just as fast, pushed her away, needed to get out of the vehicle and walk to the damned ship. Just one more time...

"Do not answer me in a mind lock while I'm high." He slumped back, put his forearm over his eyes, sniffed hard, and breathed through his mouth, constantly running his tongue over his teeth till his fangs retracted.

"Don't do that on the boat," he said more calmly after a while. "I ain't myself, and could blow this whole mission." He sat up and stared out the window, refusing to watch how the wind was cascading her locks over her shoulders, or how her mouth had plumped from the hard kiss.

Why was it so hard for them to understand what this was like? Damali had even walked on the dark side for a moment with him, and she still couldn't fathom what this was all about... her humanity and hope would always be her blind spot. Frustration became fury, if she would only understand! Yes, master vampires had suave, superior intelligence, mind control, and powers beyond human comprehension. Yes, they had become masters of the game, were wealthy and had access to learning all the refined arts.

But all of that was focused on one goal - the relentless pursuit of pleasure... their greatest strength, their greatest weakness... seduction with the purpose to feed and mate and mate and feed in an endless cycle. At the core of what their realm represented was raw lusts - all of them - concentrated on level six. The drug only brought that out; her biology was the Light's weapon to draw that out of masters, make them show their true fangs in a weakened, compromised state. But she, like all women, only wanted to see what she wanted to see in her man, the good side ignoring the bad. He'd told her he was only vampiri! And in this state, pregnant or not, he would fuck her to death if she didn't stop.

He kept his eyes closed with the wind on his face. As his breathing began to normalize he focused on the issue at hand, making sure none of the Guardians had any illusions about what they were dealing with tonight.

"Amin took a full hit, and is messed up bad," Carlos said quietly. "Tetrosky isn't far behind him, on just a half. The man dropped fang in public in front of his wife - which ain't his style. Xe is dangerous like a motherfucker right now, but wants a double hit more than he wants his wife. McGuire is liquefied... you can pour him into a martini glass and drink him." He looked at Damali hard. "But he will not be denied after waiting for you this long. Kill his ass quick and be done with it. Don't dick around with him and tease him - he's unstable, like all of us are."

"You made more?" Damali said, her voice an accusatory whisper.

All Guardian eyes were on him.

"I had to. No variables. Sent it to Jose in case his stash was low. Needed to test it on the ride down from Queensland to see what the tolerance levels were."

For a moment, no one said a word. Damali sat back slowly, but her eyes raked him. "You didn't take any, did you?"

He laughed. "Are you crazy?"

"No offense," Big Mike muttered, "but you seem a little on the edge, bro."

"Between the performance and the contact, yeah, I'm lit. But not because I ever take my own product. Never did that, not even while living. And do I look like I need to take that around her?" Carlos stared at them, disgusted. "Give me some credit. In the distribution game, I'm all pro."

Too offended for words when they didn't answer, Carlos kept his gaze out the window just trying to breathe.

Safely boarding the ship wasn't her greatest worry, getting off of it, with her squad intact, was. Damali glanced at Carlos's huge Hellhounds that kept the other masters at a distance. They walked a lazy, snarling, hungry path between her and Carlos and the masters standing not far away with their wives engaged in tense chitchat. She held onto the rail, her side pressed against Carlos, her grip tight on her Isis, her gaze scanning the backs of her men, who also weren't too far away. She declined a bottle, saying she'd eaten well before the performance and was still too full. She kept glancing at the water, wondering why the wave caps were pink, and why there were lots of fins in it. Fucking sharks to deal with, too?

She needed to get a transmission to Carlos, but he'd told her not to go into his mind. Not on the boat. But when an extremely large fin surfaced and slid beneath the stained water, she had to have a private discussion.

"Can we talk?" she asked quietly, looking over the side of the yacht. Marlene and Father Patrick had to know there was some huge, predatory shit in the water. Their getaway plan was by small speedboat.

Carlos pulled his attention from the master he was talking to. "In a little while," he murmured. "Paciencia, por favor, mi tresora. Okay?"

Be patient? Sheeit. She knew he was working it to the bone, had to stay in drug kingpin character, but there was a serious problem. "I noticed there are sharks in the water," she said, interjecting herself into the male-dominated conversation. "I saw one huge monster, big enough to knock a small speedboat over." She saw her squad visibly stiffen. Okay, at least her crew got the message. Maybe they could transmit that to Mar. But Mar and Father Pat had also dropped some heavy science about the key that Carlos definitely needed to know. Speedboats as a getaway plan presented a huge issue for her team and the key. But how was she supposed to work with her mission partner if his ass was high?

"Right you are, little lady," McGuire said, asking for permission with his eyes to pass the dogs and Damali's squad. He waited for a moment until Carlos nodded and eased up his hold on her. "The ladies like to watch them feed. They've been pouring out bottles to draw them all night," he said, taking Damali's hand and bringing it to his lips. "Care to stroll the decks with me, and watch what happens when they drop a human-helper?"

She watched her team blanche, but it was showtime. "If Carlos doesn't mind?"

"Of course he doesn't mind," McGuire said, overly anxious and overstepping his bounds.

Carlos monitored the other masters. "Take one of the dogs with you, baby."

"She doesn't need one of those beasts, she'll be with me."

McGuire was openly challenging him, and had tightly threaded his arm around Damali's waist. Carlos glanced at the Guardians; they had to be cool. The other masters sensed it, too.

"It's all right, man," Carlos said, forcing a chuckle. "I'm sending one of the dogs so you don't get rushed. Want your hit now while you take your stroll, or when you come back?"

McGuire struggled with the decision. "How about if I take one for the road in my pocket?"

Carlos shook his head. "You need to do that down in a stateroom. You walk the decks with it, and you'll give every vamp you pass a contact. Do you really want to - "

"Wise man," McGuire said. "I'll come back for it. Your lovely wife and I should chat, get acquainted, before we go downstairs. I'll show her around a bit. Fair?"

Again Carlos nodded, watching the envy congeal in the others. McGuire's smug smile was about to touch off a blood battle; he could feel it. This was how they'd planned it, this was what everyone had agreed upon - but theory and the real deal were always two different things. Shabazz was so tight he was about to bust a blood gasket. Big Mike was about to lose it and just start shooting buck wild; he could feel that, too. Rider had a mental target on the back of McGuire's skull. J.L.'s Uzi was practically bouncing with pent-up readiness, and Dan was gonna shoot off his own foot if he fingered the release on his crossbow one more time. Carlos placed a hand on Jose's shoulder to keep the man from drawing as he passed him. Everybody stay cool.

"Why don't you gentlemen take a stroll, take in a few sights," Carlos said to Damali's men, his eyes sending a quiet message. They needed to fan out, position themselves by the agreed-upon targets. "The women on the boat are fine. There's human food, and I know you have to be ready to bust a grub after the concert. Find one of the servers - shrimp, mud crab, five-spice duck, Emu prosciutto, flying fish roe and wasabi... liquor out da ass," Carlos added, trying to sound relaxed and to get them to cool down enough to leave Damali alone with McGuire. They had to chill to play this smooth. "Damali will be fine. She's with McGuire and one of my dogs." He dismissed them with a glance that the other masters couldn't see as he rounded them. "All right? Be cool."

Begrudgingly the Guardian team nodded, filing away from him in a slow-moving huddle. Once out of earshot, Carlos sighed and approached the other masters. With Damali no longer at his side and having gone off with McGuire, he only had three masters to immediately contend with, if it got ugly.

"You gentlemen care to go downstairs for a little taste of something sweet?"

Smiles widened on the faces around him.

"We thought you'd never ask," Tetrosky said, waving his arm in a grand, sweeping, Old World gesture before Carlos. "After you."

"You promised us you had a little something for us, too," Evelyn whined.

"I am a man of my word, dear lady. Meet me in my room." He paused and looked at them as they giggled. "All of you."

"Sir, the matter at hand," Amin reminded him, pulling Carlos's attention away from the women.

"My bad," Carlos said, and laughed as they walked. He knew all the delays and chitchat were increasing the tension, but that was the objective: yank their chains till they snapped. Slow walk 'em.

They were already pissed at McGuire for his good fortune. All he had to do was go below deck, drop two hits each on these guys, then go find their wives. If the masters stayed in the room together, they were going to have to engage in a sudden-death battle to see who could get out of the room first to corner McGuire. It would be on. But he had to make sure the ladies were properly blitzed, or they could intercede. Second-level females could still be deadly, especially if the male didn't have his full faculties. Plus Damali needed a chance to get to McGuire alone. Variables - too fucking many of them, and he was too high.

As they entered the stateroom they had been in earlier, Carlos forced a belly laugh. "Damn, man, you could have fixed my table, and shit."

Amin chuckled and waved his hand to correct the problem. "I was... uh - "

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Slipped your mind," Carlos said, smiling broadly as he brought the steel box out of his pocket. "Double hits, all around, and we save McGuire's till he gets back."

He carefully opened the box, shielding his nose with his hand as he leaned toward each master and allowed him to take out two red pills.

"You're not joining us?" Xe asked skeptically. "What'd you do, lace this batch with colloidal silver?" Then he laughed and put a pill in his mouth.

But Tetrosky hesitated. "You don't even want a contact from it?"

Amin glanced at Tetrosky, and slowed his swallow of the second pill.

"You guys just pushed your wives off on me. Four females, and you want me to go in there with them that high? What, and ruin my reputation? Never." Carlos chuckled and shook his head, snapping the box shut, and then slipped it into his pocket. "I'm not having four fine females talk about me like a dog and put my business in the street. Shit, talking about how I busted a nut in two seconds and was slobbering on myself. Not tonight."

Tetrosky laughed hard with the others, relaxed, and took the drug. Amin finished swallowing as the first hard shudder consumed Xe. Carlos was on his feet and out the door before their fangs dropped.

"You sure you don't want to go downstairs, yet?" McGuire murmured against her hair, way too close to her throat for her liking. Even the ugly creature of a dog was snarling at the affront.

"The night is young - "

He had tugged her to him with such force that it almost knocked the wind out of her. "Tell the dog to back off," he warned as the creature started barking. "It is really getting on my fucking nerves."

Damali glanced over McGuire's shoulder. She could see her team in the distance, but they didn't have a clear shot. And what did you tell a monster with six eyes and jaws that drooled acid? Sit, stay? "Chill," she said, wriggling out of McGuire's hold. "You just made it nervous. They don't like sudden moves."

"I hope you do," he said, his voice low and so quiet that she almost couldn't hear him over the dog's incessant barking.

"Sit. Stay. And, uh, shut up!" she yelled at the Hell-hound, totally amazed when it did. "Deep."

"Are you?" he said, coming closer to her.

Oh, no, not one of these bastards that wanted to talk dirty in bed. Damali sighed. "You're right. We should just go down to your room and get this over with."

"You sound so... unenthused," he said, seeming offended, but still ready to go.

"No, it's just that the performance took a lot out of me," she hedged, checking her tone and improving it. "That's why I was stalling. I didn't want to disappoint you."

His hand caressed the side of her face, his fingers trembling, his green eyes glittering with pure lust in the moonlight. "If you were bled out and limp, you wouldn't disappoint me," he said quietly, lowering his mouth to hers and coming away with fangs. "After your performance, I was devastated."

It took everything in her power not to wipe her mouth and spit. But she forced a smile and touched his neck, trailing her fingers up and down it in a lazy stroke. "Why don't you go down and get some of what Carlos is passing around, and I'll meet you in your room in a few minutes?"

McGuire shook his head. "And leave you on deck with three other very disappointed masters around? I'm crazy about you, love, but I'm not insane." He smiled and nuzzled her throat, shuddering as he pressed his erection against her thigh and slowly moved against her.

She backed away just a bit when she felt his incisor about to score her skin. "Not in the throat. I'm married. Carlos will flip."

"My apologies. But you see what you do to me." His eyes held hers. "Baby, let's go downstairs to my room."

Carlos had told her to do this fast; he hadn't lied. Damali nipped her hair over her shoulder and weakly smiled at McGuire, then brightened it. She made her voice a mere whisper with a promise embedded in it, and glanced down at her sword as she spoke.

"The other masters have already taken a hit, and I'm sure it's kicked in by now... they've found a female and are very distracted, no doubt. Carlos will give you some, then we can have the time of our lives."

She leaned into him, and kissed the bridge of his clammy nose. "Even if I'm a little tired, and not at my best, I'm sure you will be." She let her gaze smolder and trap his male ego in its blaze. "I'll be sure to tell all the girls just how much fun I had with you tonight... might even tell Carlos to make Sydney a regular vacation stop, if I'm so inspired. Would love to do the Outback with you... alone."

McGuire glanced around. "Your band... your security team. They'll flank you, if I'm only gone for a minute?"

"Them, the dogs, and Carlos. He gave you his word. They've got enough anti-vamp ammo to stop a small army from Hell, and history proves they can handle that. I'm sure you've heard." She lifted her Isis and leaned into him more closely, allowing the blade handle to brush his stomach while sending her breath into his ear. "I gave you mine. You want this right in the center of your chest, before I cast it away. Just like on stage and we double plunge while I straddle you? That performance was for you, baby. Want a private show?"

"I'll be right back," he said on a thick, hoarse swallow, his hands sliding down her sides with his gaze. "Call your men. Tell them to dust any bastard that gets near you."

"Oh, you can count on it," she said with a sly smile, then let out a breath of relief.

"This is fucking nuts," Rider whispered to Mike, as they followed the Aussie leading them to guard his room with Shabazz.

"You. The one with the dredlocks. You're on the stairs," McGuire ordered, splintering Shabazz off from the threesome.

"Five minutes. Tops," McGuire said to Rider and Mike. "Bring one of those beasts down here to keep any other master out of here while I'm with 'er - but if you come in if she screams, I'll kill you." McGuire paced away. "My men are on the periphery, guarding you, but since you have control of the animal, and have hallowed-earth ammo, I want you in security formation around me. Got it?"

Big Mike nodded and watched McGuire's back as he left. "In all my years, Rider, I never woulda thunk it."

"How in the hell did we wind up on a vamp Carnal Cruise Lines, our girl about to go in a room - with a master vampire, who we are supposed to be guarding... with a Hell-hound... and, the very jealous Mr. Rivera, who is supposed to be her husband - down the hall with four of the finest vamp babes I have ever seen in my life... but, Damali doesn't care... people are feeding sharks so we cannot just jump off the sides of this supernatural Hell contraption and swim home to the U.S. like we have sense. SOBs are dropping fang like it's Mardi Gras." Rider ran his fingers through his hair and lowered his weapon, glancing at the monstrous dog that just stared at him. "Mike, I swear. Either we are high, or we are already dead and in Hell for aaaalllll the stuff we did before we became Guardians. This is my summation, good brother. If we pull this off, this goes in the history books with our picture next to it."

"You ain't said a mumblin' word."

"I know we're on watch, and I know they're vamps," Dan whispered to J.L., "but damn, they're awesome. I've never seen this much T and A in my life, not up close like this. Is this how the other half lives?"

"Watch Damali's back and stay focused, dude. This is what Carlos was talking about. These hoes all bite. And just for the record, they don't live like no thin', they're dead."

Dan nodded, but his eyes followed a willowy blonde who strolled by topless wearing only a black thong. "Yeah, but, Big Mike made it out of New Orleans... after... uh, daaayum, there goes another one," he whispered, eyeing a redhead not far away. When she crooked her finger at him, he almost followed her.

"Big Mike is six eight, two-seventy-plus, and gave her a reason not to flat-line him, feel me? And Mar almost beat him down with a frying pan when he got better for being so stupid. Stay on post; stay focused," J.L. warned, holding Dan by the back of the shirt. "You're gonna fuck around and get nicked - then I'll have to shoot you."

"You all right, D?" Jose said fast and quiet, coming up to her and glancing around. "I saw the Aussie lean in to your throat, honey. If he bit you, I won't tell Mar, I promise. I just need to know so we can deal with - "

"He didn't bite me," she said quietly, leaning in to him. "But do not ever be that crazy as to not tell Marlene if you know one of us got bit." She paused and kept her voice a tight whisper. "I made that big mistake, don't you do it. And, if you think I did get bitten, what the hell is wrong with your survival instinct? I shouldn't be this close to your throat!"

"I don't care," Jose said, not pulling away, but covering where she'd whispered against his neck with his hand like it had burned him. "Marlene doesn't always have to know everything. And, if you have something you don't want her to know, I'm cool with that. I'm cool with all of it."

Damali sighed, and nodded toward a few lower-level male vampires who were smiling at them from the distance. The offer was sweet but misguided. If she was bitten, Marlene needed to know—and the other thing was not open for discussion on a vamp ship.

"They think I'm feeding, they're watchers for one of the masters. I'm not sure who they work for, though. So, give me your throat, Jose, so we can talk without alerting them." Her focus divided into splintered fragments. There were so many variables to keep on top of dividing her mind; everything had to work real smooth. "They probably haven't rushed me because they saw the master standing here first, along with the dog, and know I belong to a councilman. I'm going to play-bite you, then talk to you, but I'm not in flux, so don't freak. Cool?"

But Jose's eyes held something she couldn't describe as she leaned in to communicate with him and he honored the request. His body tensed hard.

"I'm not in flux, I swear," she whispered, trying to get him to relax and trust her. She could literally feel his eyes close... but then, yeah, right, of course... he had to make it look like a real feed. All right, he was gonna be cool, was in the game. Her fingers stroked his hair as she welded her body to him, bit down and sucked for a few minutes, then pulled away, and spoke into his ear just like a vamp female would have.

"Now, listen, I'm going downstairs before McGuire gets into his room to position myself, I will dust McGuire, then you and J.L. and Dan..." His hands traced her back, and the deep swallow he took stifled a moan she felt through his chest. She pulled back and looked at him. There was no mistake about what she saw in his eyes, or what she felt when her body fit against his. Oh, my God...

He looked away but his hands were still on her, had slid to her hips. "I'm sorry, D. But you're gonna have to find another way to have this conversation." His gaze came back to her, but he still hadn't moved. "I'm only human, for real, for real." Then he let her go.

"What happened out in the hallway, at the hotel?"

"This ain't got nothin' to do with that," he murmured, his gaze intense. "I've felt like this for a long time... but they said you had to choose. I always hoped it would be me."

She reached out to touch his cheek, for the first time truly understanding just how deep the wound in his soul must be. But he jerked his head away from her touch, not with anger, just self-preservation.

"Don't," he said quietly. "Like Carlos told you, it only makes the burn worse."

She nodded. Wanted to hug him, but couldn't now. He didn't want a big-brother platonic hug. He knew she was pregnant by another man, and still loved her, still wanted her. Would even take her if she had fangs. And he was standing on a ship with his life hanging in the balance, an unequal match for four master vampires and Carlos - there for different reasons than all the other Guardians.

Her hand found her mouth and she turned away from him and walked a few steps in the opposite direction, just so she could get some air. When she turned around, Jose was just staring at her, weapon dangling in his hand, his will openly shattered, and his hope gone. Oh, my God... what had she done? What was happening to her team? It was like everything was shifting, was mad-crazy, and there was no way to fix all the breaks in the family dam.

She went back to him, kissed his cheek quickly, and stepped away. "I love you, Jose. Like a brother, but trust me, I don't want anything bad to happen to you on this ship. That will break my heart, you hear? Get with Dan and J.L., and watch your back. When we get home - we'll talk. Just me and you, like old times. Cool?"

He didn't say a word to her as he stepped past her, and walked slowly toward the others a few yards away, leaving her guarded but alone until she was ready to go downstairs to McGuire's room. They both knew that it would never be like old times. A private confession had permanently changed everything. This couldn't be fixed and there was nothing to say now or later. That was the worst part of all.

"Mr. Councilman," McGuire said fast, poking his head into Carlos's room as a massive security guard opened the door. "Uh... a word?"

Four female vampires glowered at McGuire as they slowly drew back from Carlos. Evelyn nearly hissed when Carlos scooted her off his lap and got up off the red velvet sofa. Lai cut him a nasty gaze and went back to snorting the black powder off the coffee table. Alani stretched out on the bed, and crooked her finger at Kiersten who sauntered over to her and joined her.

"I'm really busy, man. Now is not a good time."

"He truly is indisposed, Harold," Evelyn crooned. "Go find somewhere else to play."

But Carlos went to the door, anyway. McGuire didn't need to get a contact from the black powder. His own blood wouldn't affect him, but another male might have a bad reaction. Carlos ushered the Aussie out of the suite and slammed the door behind them.

"Wha'did you give 'em to make them respond like that?" McGuire asked, sounding impressed. "I know they're vamp females, and all, but my wife acted like - "

"Where is my wife?" Carlos said, drawing out each word separately and holding McGuire by the lapels. "She's suppose to be with you at all times!"

"No worries," he said fast. "I left her on deck with one of your monsters and her bodyguards. I also have three of them in place now to guard my door, my men on the periphery."

Carlos let go of McGuire's lapels and gave him the hit he was seeking. "Go get her, then take it, and keep her in your room."

Damali picked her way down the stairs, and gave Dan the all-clear as Shabazz flanked her. The three younger Guardians took up a post by the top of the main stairs, waiting for Shabazz.

"You ready, baby-girl?" Shabazz murmured under his breath as he escorted her to rendezvous with Rider and Mike in front of McGuire's suite.

She nodded. "You see Master Amin, yet?"

Shabazz shook his head. "Haven't in the last forty-five. So you look alive in there. This joint's about to blow. I can feel the hair standing up on my neck."

"You seen Carlos?"

For a moment Shabazz didn't answer. "Nah. Ain't seen him."

"He's got the wives on lock?"

"Yeah," Shabazz murmured, walking with his eyes forward and not looking at her. "Time to rock and roll."

She kissed his cheek as she joined Rider and Mike, needing to do that before he went back to his post. "Be safe, 'Bazz. I love you."

"I love you, too. But ain't nothin' safe 'bout my job." Shabazz petted her hair and put his hand back on his gun, then glanced at Rider and Big Mike. "The Aussie in there?"

"Yep," Rider murmured, "and high as a kite. He stumbled right through the door without opening it, taking off his tie and ripping his shirt while walking. He asked one of us to go 'fetch' her. You believe that? The bastard is blitzed."

Mike leaned in real close. "Listen, this motherfucker is flip-top high. Full fang, four inches dropped, 'bout ready to howl at the moon for baby-girl. I say we shoulder cannon our way in and get this party started righteous."

An agonized wail made them stop talking and stare at each other.

"Hold the line," she whispered. "Too many of us are at risk if this doesn't go right."

Before they could argue with her, Damali had slipped through the door.

Carlos brought his head up from Evelyn's throat the moment the assassination registered in her system. She covered her hand where he'd left the kiss but no bite.

"Don't stop," she said, her voice so thick she was slurring. "I'm tired of foreplay, take off your clothes. Please."

Carlos stood, four females surrounding him, eyes hungry. "Somebody just dusted your master, Evelyn - one of my lieutenants. I felt the current run cold through your system, didn't you?"

"What I felt was you," she said, loping toward him with the others, fondling her breasts as she walked. "Don't worry about it."

"Somebody just smoked him," Carlos said. It was going down. The dominoes were falling.

"I hope you feel them dust Amin," Alani murmured, her hands running up his chest as she slid against him. "But right now, the only thing you need to smoke is me, baby. Just do me."

Evelyn had run her hands up his back beneath his suit jacket, nipping his shoulder through it as she pressed herself to his spine, sandwiching him between her and Alani.

"If you kill Xe, can I watch?" Lai whispered through a drug shudder. She was on him in seconds and gyrated against his leg, then climaxed as she nipped his ear and drew blood.

Kiersten had him by the hand, and began leading him away from the sofa. "Don't worry about them. We need your total focus, Mr. Councilman. Please come to bed."

"Yo," Carlos said, pulling out of the serpentine knot of flesh surrounding him. "If a master got dusted, on my watch, I need to find out what happened. Take another hit, and I'll be back," he said, bolting for the door. Damn.

He couldn't even open it to get away they were on him again so fast. His only recourse was to simply walk through it and seal it with a transport block. He knew the black powder was strong, but shit... This was a precarious position for a married man. For a second, he glanced at the door, then at the security guard.

"Keep them in here," he told the courier, then vanished, materializing in front of the Aussie's room.

Rider and Mike drew fast, and Carlos held up his hands.

"It's me. It's me," he said quickly, knowing it would take a second for their human reflexes to pull weapons back. "She smoked him," Carlos said quietly, with a nod of his head. "How long she been in there?"

"Less than two minutes," Rider said with a smile. "You smell something burning? Our girl is good."

Carlos nodded, but he was very concerned. "She wasn't in there long enough to do that, no matter how good she is."

The Guardians hadn't even drawn a breath to respond and Carlos was through the door. His eyes scanned the room fast. A pile of ash lay in the center of the bed, still hot, smoldering, next to her blade. Damn... maybe she did? But then, where was she?

Again, he scanned the room for a tracer. Two male scents battled for his attention. The ship rocked and a loud boom cracked the ceiling above. Rider and Mike were in the doorway.

"Upstairs, all hands on deck. It's on." Then Carlos was gone.

Amin had Tetrosky by the throat and had body slammed him into the bridge deck so hard that the wood gave way. Hell-dogs took flight, flew, and dive-bombed the two combatants, snarling as Amin ducked, and caught one of them square in the jaw, dropping it from the air into the sea. Sharks tore at the hound, eating it alive as it struggled and flapped and bit at its tormentors, tail slashing, heavy claws slashing through the water. The weight of the water pulled at its leathery wings, trapping it too long under the surface as Great Whites disemboweled the yelping creature chunk by chunk.

An excited crowd had gathered. Tetrosky was back up with lightning speed, pushing Damali behind him. Carlos reached for her, but Tetrosky zapped her to the other side of the battle with a surge of dark current. Big Mike aimed his shoulder cannon at Amin, fired, and missed, as the huge Master ducked and glared at Mike, then blew him across the deck with a thought. A rail bent and immediately broke away from the side of the yacht, filled Tetrosky's hand, and whizzed past Carlos toward the center of Amin's chest as he charged. It caught Amin in the shoulder, slowing him down, nearly severing his arm.

A deep, echoing yell issued from Amin as he extricated the long section of metal with fury. Mike was back up on his feet, reloading. Rider took direct aim with Shabazz, but the ship lurched and made them all fall. An invisible energy burst sent the remaining dog sliding across the deck, its claws pulling up wood as it tried to break the momentum of the slide. A fireball headed directly toward J.L.Jose, and Dan to stop their frenzied shooting, and Carlos deflected it, returning his attention to Damali to try to draw her to him fast. But Amin sent a counter-wave, making both masters struggle for a second to break the magnetic lock they had on each other.

Tetrosky used the distraction and charged Amin with both claws aimed at heart level, but Amin pulled out of the force-lock with Carlos and deflected Tetrosky's advance with a scissor kick. There was no way to get in between them. They had too much space to maneuver and were at maximum hype.

The Guardians couldn't get a clear shot as the masters moved like lightning in a death grip, changing positions as they wrestled for each others' throats, shifting constantly with Damali at their backs and in danger of taking a bullet. Each time Carlos charged toward her, the two battle-locked masters would momentarily stop combat, and in unified intent place an energy wall between him and his target. Together they were strong enough to hold him back.

But they were getting tired, needed to feed. The winner-takes-all struggle was consuming massive amounts of their energy. They had to not only fight each other, but Carlos and a Guardian team. It was only a matter of time before one of them wavered, he could feel it.

As soon as an opening presented itself, Carlos headed toward Damali as the ship lurched again from the weight of the mortal combat that took out the helm when the two masters collided with it. He saw it happen in slow motion.

Dan was knocked off his feet and was sliding, J.L. toppled and was skidding, Damali fell and hit the deck in a slow slide on her bottom trying to reach him and Dan, Jose righted himself and ran, then hurled himself to hit the deck on his belly right behind her—going for her and trying to save her from the shark-infested waters in a fast slide. J.L. had stopped forward momentum by catching on to a bent piece of railing, then reached for Damali, and missed.

No barrier from the others, Carlos's focus divided on blocking them and getting her. Master Xe appeared, and instantly vanished with Damali - but Jose and Dan were still going over the side. Rider, Shabazz, and Mike were right behind Carlos as Dan slid past the missing rail, taking Jose with him.

The ship lurched again, and Carlos was over the side of it, holding Jose's arm while Dan had both of Jose's legs. He'd brought his knees up and slammed his legs down to break into the deck and anchor himself. Carlos could feel Rider's arms around his waist, trying to help ground him, obviously forgetting for those few hectic seconds that he didn't need that type of help. His dog had sunk its teeth into his shoulder to hold him from going over the side. Instant pain shot through Carlos's system, but he held onto Jose.

"I got them!" Carlos yelled. "Go find her and smoke Xe."

Rider pulled away fast with the dog. Shabazz and Big Mike already had a head start on him, running with weapons raised down into the bowels of the vessel. The dog never left Carlos's side and barked wildly at the still warring masters on deck, standing between them and Carlos.

The ship lurched again, almost making Jose and Dan lose their grip on Carlos's hand. Carlos yanked hard on the young Guardian, and glared over his shoulder at the dog. "Do 'em!"

Tetrosky yelled when the remaining Hell-hound suddenly rushed him and tore his leg out of its socket. The wounded Transylvanian rolled out of the way of Amin's thunder stomp. But the splinters left from the impact of the stomp made broken wood available to Tetrosky's instant reach. When Amin came close to rip out his heart, Tetrosky staked him. The boat stopped rocking the moment the battle ceased, and Carlos slung the two Guardians up hard, catching them by their T-shirts. Tetrosky vanished.

Billowing black plumes from Amin's ashes made every vampire on top deck choke and heave. Carlos was gone. He was air.

"He chose to worry about saving two male human-helpers and didn't come for you? Foolish choice. What a pity. How can you be loyal to a man like that?"

Xe had her against the wall of a stateroom, his foul breath like a knife against her skin, and his incisors caressing her shoulder through her dress. Her Isis was in McGuire's suite, where she'd been before Tetrosky had come in behind her like vapor and pushed it into McGuire's heart from across the room.

With both hands against his chest, she flat-palmed Xe and pushed him up off her with all her might and walked away, furious. The aggressive, fearless action stunned him. That she had no fear, only rage, intrigued him. She could feel it, and she'd use it to buy seconds of precious time.

"Did my husband make a side deal with you without telling me?" Damali snapped, glaring at Xe.

"That's right," he murmured. "Get angry, just like you did in the parlor. Do that for me, baby."

"Did, I repeat, did Carlos Rivera - and I will kick his ass if he did without telling me - make a side deal?" She knew this was what he wanted, that this sick bastard was titillated by aggression. Liked it rough. All she needed was a few moments and a little working space to get to a table leg to stake him.

He circled her, breathing heavy, so unfocused on everything else but her that taking him down was not out of the question. She positioned herself near the coffee table, easy wood.

"Talk to me," she said, pointing at him. "He gave me away to McGuire for one night, so explain this bullshit now!"

"We made a side deal," Xe said, trembling where he stood, captivated by her rage. "If McGuire couldn't make it through the night, then winner takes all."

She smiled. "Carlos know anything about this?" She'd lowered her voice to a seductive level when Xe shook his head no. "How treacherous... I'm really impressed."

He walked toward her slowly, stalking her, his smile glistening with razor brilliance. She could see how high he was in his eyes, and by the very obvious fact that none of them had tried to transport her off the ship. She had to keep him talking, just a quick stomp of the table to knock out a leg when he rushed. She'd take out his heart through his back while he covered her, would let him think it was rough foreplay. She studied his eyes and backed up until the table kissed her calves.

"You don't think Carlos will come in here, do you?" she murmured, glancing around.

Xe shook his head. "Don't worry. I have this room temporarily concealed from his senses. He's divided right now, battling two masters. And, if he does, I have a stamped agreement between the others," he said, producing it for her like a bouquet of roses. "He's a man of his word. He foolishly gave you away for one night. McGuire couldn't handle the privilege... winner takes all."

She forced a smile. "My husband can be a very irrational man, at times. Why didn't you take me somewhere... more private?"

Xe sighed. "We'd all considered that, but your husband is also very astute. This is his vessel, and he blocked all transport off of it. Council-level does give him some minor advantages." He put the document away very carefully, his line of vision holding hers. "Now, Huntress, let us get to know each other on a less-formal basis. He'll observe protocol, a genuine agreement forged on his own ship... don't worry, baby, I'll take care of you tonight."

Big Mike's shoulder collided with the door three times before it gave way. Rider and Shabazz were in first, weapons drawn, just like they'd broken down all the other doors before this one. They scanned fast, saw no Damali, and were out. But this time Rider hesitated.

It took a second for all his senses to align and propel him back out the door. All three Guardians stood transfixed as they watched four naked female vamps feed off a massive security guard in a tangle of writhing bodies.

"Oh, shit," Rider murmured, backing up slowly. "I think we found the wives."

One lifted her head from the guard's throat, blood dripping down her chin and fangs. Shabazz glanced back at the door, but there was no opening, just solid wall. Two of the females lifted their heads from a sixty-nine position, and grinned, mouths wet, full fangs glistening in the low light as they blew an air kiss toward Big Mike.

Another female riding the dead man smiled and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Oh, look, how romantic. Carlos sent dinner."

Xe moved a lot faster than she expected and was on her as she crushed the table, leaping straight up, and coming down on it with all her weight. Machine-gun fire was echoing throughout the ship, then a huge boom shook the room. It rocked her where she'd landed, wood underfoot, and she fell. The wall blew out of the side of the ship, sucking everything in the suite out behind it into the now-visible ocean, except her and Xe.

"This is my ship, my house, motherfucker," Carlos yelled, slapping the center of his chest as he materialized and walked into the room with the ocean at his back. "That's my wife," said pointing at Damali and slow stalking Xe. "How long did you think it would take me to figure out that a blind spot was where you were?"

"Everything is in order, I assure you, Mr. Councilman," Xe said backing up, but not unnerved. He produced the parchment and flung it at Carlos. "Winner takes all - we made the pact in the stateroom after you left! All the masters have stamped it, and you can't override the contract." He glanced at Damali and smiled. "You gave her to a master for one night. Tonight. It is of no consequence whom she ultimately ends up with - you know how this works."

"Take your complaint to Hell!" Carlos roared. "I want a legal review at council level!"

"That could take nights," Xe growled, "and my patience eludes me."

A shoulder-cannon blast rocked the ship as the two masters squared off. Damali grabbed a makeshift stake from the broken table leg, and backed up deeper into the suite. All she'd need was to get bumped into the water. Reading her slow movements, both Carlos and Xe looked up.

"Get out of here," Carlos ordered, his eyes trained on Xe. "I'ma kick this bastard's ass."

"Tell her to stay away from the edge," Xe said through his teeth. "Once I dust you, I don't want to have to waste time reconstructing her from shark bait."

The suite door blew open as Carlos lunged for Xe, sending Damali through it. She was hurled against the far wall so hard that her head hit it and made her bite her tongue. She could taste blood in her mouth. Xe and Carlos had stopped combat for a moment, looking to see if she was all right. She hocked and spit. Carlos froze.

It happened in slow motion. The saliva and blood from Damali's mouth falling, falling, about to hit the floor of a vampire vessel sanctioned by the council as a part of his territory. A perfect DNA sample telling them everything they needed to know about Damali. Everything. Xe was moving toward him, but that wasn't his biggest concern. Xe's fist collided with his jaw. His head snapped back, and he couldn't send the power to catch her spit fast enough. The splat on the floor sounded like thunder, and spread out as she stood slowly, looking dazed. As he was going down he saw it sizzle on the floor and draw in, getting smaller and smaller until it was gone.

Time truncated instantly. Xe was in midair and coming down on him. Carlos held up his hand, paralyzed Xe's motion to a dead stop, ripped out his heart, and sent a table leg through it, staking it against the wall, then let him drop and burn. Carlos rolled away from the cinders, stood up fast, rushed to Damali, and grabbed her by the arm.

"My cover's blown. I have to get you and your men to a speedboat while I still have some power left."

She grabbed the back of his shirt, trying to slow him down. "Berkfield is in the hull of the ship," she said through her teeth. "He's the key."

Carlos stopped, spun on her quickly and held her by both arms. "Talk to me fast. We don't have a lotta time. I know the key is in the hull, but I don't have time to save him and you."

"Our seers located him from your concert transmission. The sacred blood," she said quickly between pants. "It's been injected into him - he's a living key. They'll put him on the seal and crucify him to bleed him out. As soon as his blood separates and hits the seal, the biblical gate opens."

Panic collided with terror within Carlos as he felt his energy waning. "I can't save you both. You're my top priority, D. Period. Send one of the Guardians after Berkfield, but you have got to get off this ship, and then your men can blow it. I can't worry about it if they don't get to him in time. If it's him or you, you know my choice." He began pulling her behind him but her resistance was slowing their forward progress.

"No! Don't you understand? He's an innocent. One with your mark. None of my men can break the hold on him within that hull - only you can, if Tetrosky performed a dark ritual. Only a vampire of higher level than him can break it to open that casket, or we have to find Tetrosky and behead him. If you let the man drown, they can still get to his body and drain him, but your soul will be lost forever with us going into the Armageddon!" Tears streamed down her face. "There will be no world, no future for humanity, including our child, if that sixth seal is opened."

Her voice fractured and split his conscience, making him grab her to him, then lift her to keep running toward safety no matter what she'd told him.

"Carlos, don't do this," she begged him as he carried her. "If you cross over, at least you can be a warrior angel, still on our - "

"You, the baby, that's all I care about, D!"

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