The Bitten / Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Two


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Chapter Twenty-Two

THE electricity of the crowd was the rush she required to take her head where it needed to be. The percussion always did that. Rocking the mic. Bass adding bottom; guitar screaming. Cowbells jerking her muscles with its pulse. One beat, the entire Sydney Opera House throbbing to the same rhythm - hers. Giving it all she had, voice coming up from the diaphragm. Stage lights and energy making the walls sweat. The team in perfect harmony, simpatico. Glorious. Keyboards becoming her spine, running melody up it one vertebra at a time. Head thrown back, wailing, sending truth up and out into the universe. Hands clapping the rhythm of the beat. Oh, yes! Tapped into an energy source she couldn't define.

As soon as the music stopped and the crowd roared, the awareness hit her. They were one and the same about their sensitivity to their environments, she and Carlos. When she was on stage, it was almost like making love... a much-needed release that cleared problems from her mind all the way to her soul. Every sense was keened, every part of her fired on with a passion near stroke level. Every sound, every impression, became one with her to the marrow. It was also like that when she was with him.

"Yo, Sydney! Is everybody all right?" she yelled, laughing, giddy from the natural high. "Give it up!" she hollered, waving her arm before her band to let them take the weight so she could slip backstage and change for the final number. She glimpsed the VIP box. Still empty.

The sight of the empty box immediately blew her natural high. All the performance euphoria drained from her. What if something had happened to him? What if they'd rushed him on the ship? Anything could have gone down.

Six black stretch limousines pulled up to the Sydney Opera House. Drivers at military attention, eyes shielded by black shades, glanced both ways before opening the door for dangerous diplomats. Five masters got out, smoothed the fronts of their expensive suits, looked both ways, and four of them extended a hand behind their rigid postures without glimpsing back, eyes hardened on the landscape. Curious onlookers were awed, but sensed it would be ill advised to approach. Feminine hands slid into stronger ones, slinky silks covering voluptuous forms moved in close to the males, syncopating their high-heeled strides to the determined ones on their right.

Carlos walked alone.

As the small party wound their way through the elaborate theater, Carlos just listened. The music was a part of him, her music. The aftermath of Damali's stage libations was bringing the other masters down, blowing their high. He could see it in their eyes as they regained their former clarity and control. It was definitely chilling him out, too. A variable. He was just glad that they hadn't seen her administer some of it.

Ever mindful of the mission, his power became laser focus to project the dummy tape on the inside monitors. There was no room for variables. Variables didn't exist.

At the entrance to the box, Carlos greeted the international courier with a nod, and led his guests in. He immediately went to the bar, picked up a crystal decanter, and filled a short rocks glass. Glancing at the courier, he summoned him for a poison test, and waited for the courier to take a small sip and return the glass. He didn't even look at the blood as he threw it against the back of his throat hard, swallowed, and blotted his mouth with the back of his hand, then refilled his glass. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the burly guard to wait outside.

Carlos could see the other masters smile as they settled their wives into the comfortable sofa-style seating and studied him from sly perspectives. Fuck it, he definitely needed a drink. Holy water notwithstanding, and despite her new condition, Damali's adrenaline had soaked the air. That was real.

He gave an idle human server a nod. "See that everybody has what they need, then you all can go," Carlos said, dispatching a vamp-helper to bring over several unopened black bottles and glasses. He sat with his guests listening but not listening to the small talk; listening but not listening to the music; beating his own ass for ever getting into a predicament like this; and waiting a little too anxiously to see Damali perform.

Wresting his attention away from the stage that she wasn't on, he glanced at the monitors, hoping they'd hold the correct image when she came back to it.

"I don't care about the results," Alani told her husband under her breath. "I don't like the reason you had such an intense reaction to me." She folded her arms over her chest, looking at the wall.

Okay... another variable. The wives not liking the fantastic outcome of the drug. Wounded female ego. Carlos watched the dynamic shift into play, wondering which of the wives he'd have to seduce the hardest. Right now, Alani had just taken the numero uno position.

"Darling," Evelyn said in a discreet murmur, "I would have given my eyeteeth if Harold could do what we all heard Amin do to you. Enjoy the results, and don't look a gift horse in the mouth." She sat back with a wise smile, nodded at Carlos with affection, and blew him a kiss.

Easy target, Carlos thought to himself. Number four on the list.

He glanced at Master Xe, who returned an unusually nonthreatening smile and a serene nod in his direction, and then glimpsed his wife. She was snuggled up to him like a high school girl, her eyes dreamy and looking at the stage without seeing it. Kiersten reached over and slipped her hand into Lai's, which made Tetrosky chuckle. Lai lifted the female hand up to her lips, studied Kiersten's wrist with affection for a moment, and then lowered her mouth to it, slowly opening a vein until she shuddered.

Tetrosky brought his glass to his mouth, took a leisurely sip from it, and caught Carlos's gaze. "I'm going to hope that our esteemed councilman has more of what has begun a glorious evening?" The elder master waited, excitement brimming beneath his cool gray stare.

The other masters turned their full attention to Carlos, Tetrosky's question their own, a collective wish waiting to be granted.

"Of course," Carlos said as seductively as he could, motioning with his head toward the stage. "See the guy to the left on percussion," he added, identifying Jose. "That's my human courier. He'll bring it up here after the show."

"You don't have more on you now?" Amin said, sounding thoroughly disappointed.

"I didn't want to be tempted to open the package in here, man," Carlos told him truthfully. "It's being delivered in full and double hits... could cause undue chaos around all these humans. We gotta do this shit on the boat."

Amin chuckled. "I definitely concur," he said, stroking his wife's hair even though she pulled away. "But maybe we could coax you to offer a small sample in the limos?"

Before Carlos could speak, Alani had snatched away from her husband's touch, making him narrow his gaze on her. "Not now, darling," he warned. "Don't air our personal conflict in this VIP box."

"I told you, I don't want you to take that crap," she said, her voice a lethal hiss. "She smells like fetus - like a fucking pregnant human - "

"I said," Amin warned her again in a low, calm tone, "not to say one foul word about our highly regarded councilman's wife. Are we clear?"

Amin's gaze was sharp enough to cut, and after a few seconds, Alani sat back in her seat, arms tightly folded, her gaze at the wall venomous. "My deepest apologies, sir," Amin said, straightening his tie.

"It's cool," Carlos said, trying not to bug. The air. They could pick up Damali's condition in the air! Big ass variable. Not on point like he should have been.

"Well, I personally think it's very romantic of you, Mr. Councilman... Carlos," Evelyn breathed, "if I may be so bold."

He glanced at her, truly at a loss.

"Oh, you dear man," Lai Xe murmured. "You gave her a pregnant woman before the show - just to help her perform better... oh... my." She threaded her fingers through Kiersten's. "If you have something for the masters, don't you have anything like that for us?"

The masters sitting by him smiled, a hint of fang showing. How to play this... hmmm?

"Only if they approve," Carlos murmured, his gaze raking each female. "I wouldn't want to cause an international incident. This night is supposed to be just for fun. No business until tomorrow evening."

For the first time since the wives had been speaking, Alani turned her attention to Carlos. "I don't think my husband will have a problem with that," she said, her voice threading to him across the room like a satin noose.

"I honestly don't," Amin said, sitting forward, bracing his body weight with his elbows on his knees. "A word?"

He stood and went over to the bar. Carlos followed, watching the eyes of the masters at his back.

Leaning in close, Amin's voice dropped to a low, intense whisper in Dananu. But it wasn't a hard negotiation; it was more like an urgent request near begging.

Listen, Amin said, his gaze on his wife as he spoke to Carlos. I owe you an apology for doubting.

No offense taken, Carlos murmured. It's hard to comprehend, much less handle.

Amin nodded. I don't care what you give her, but get her out of my face tonight, and I'll owe you.

Carlos just stared at him. This brother was fucked up from just one little taste - like this? A master, and couldn't get rid of a regular female vamp? Pitiful. Man, you can handle that. Tell her to get lost, I'll give you another double hit, and go get yourself three or four babes... and -

You would give me another double hit?

Yeah, why not? You're my boy and I like your style. Got skillz, and held that shit back till you busted a blood vessel. Much respect.

Amin broke out of the negotiation and wiped his brow. "When?"

"Soon as we get on board."

Amin nodded and looked at his wife. "I approve."

"If she knows how you feel, maybe she'll stop sweating you?"

Again, the towering master nodded.

"Want me to send her to you after she takes a hit?" Carlos waited. There was such a thing as protocol.

Amin smiled and shook his head. "For a double hit, she's all yours. She might come back easier to deal with in the long run."

They both laughed as Carlos slung an arm up and over Amin's huge shoulder.

"It's settled," Carlos announced, as he strolled over to the sofa where the ladies had gathered, taking Alani's hand and kissing the back of it as he returned to the group. He brought his gaze up to hold hers, sending every seductive image from his old life into hers that he could think of, allowing his voice to drop an octave. "It will be my pleasure to show a woman as fine as you something new."

"Councilman," Evelyn purred. "I am oh so sure that Harold would enthusiastically approve, too."

"Harold?" Carlos said with a smile, still holding Alani's hand and gazing down at Evelyn like she was dinner.

"Objecting never crossed my mind," McGuire replied with a chuckle. "Please keep my wife thoroughly entertained at your leisure. Especially tonight."

Carlos left Alani, letting go of her hand in a slow, dragging release while monitoring the quiver in it as he approached Evelyn.

He glanced at Amin, who approved with a smile. His competitor's nod said it all. Nice move. Very smooth. Carlos understood. This was serious game, he had to pull out all the stops. Just like in the streets, it was about more than co-opting the wives or a night of overindulgence; it was about primal power, the brazen display of it. A test. In his world it was all about conquest. The other masters had challenged him for his wife, and they'd expect no less than a returned demonstration of his skill and powers of seduction to draw the available females away from their mates - to do less would show weakness. That could not happen, not here.

He allowed his gaze to slowly sweep Evelyn. Her eyes held bitter disappointment when he initially ignored her hand as he bent down to her and didn't accept it, but sheer desire fired in them when he leaned closer in to place a kiss on her bare shoulder.

She let her breath out quietly and closed her eyes. "Mr. Councilman, Alani and I would both be more than pleased to keep you company tonight."

Mistress Xe gazed up at Carlos; her smile was slight, tense, anticipation coiling behind it like a cobra. Her dark eyes held such dignified agony that she was barely breathing. "If what you gave my husband had such stellar results," she said, glancing at her husband with so much lust it could have burned him, "then, I'm sure he would want me to acquire new skills as well." Her gaze went from Master Xe, holding a question, a silent request, then to Carlos. "It's been a long time since I've experienced anything new."

"I have deep respect for Master Xe... he is from the Old World, and as such, I would do nothing that would make him lose face," Carlos stated firmly, but smiled. This one was definitely number two. He dropped his voice even lower, and murmured to her, holding her gaze. "But if he ever does decide to cede you for one night, I assure you, you'll learn something new that you can share with him later. Call me - and let me know when you're ready."

"Fair exchange is no robbery, sir," Master Xe said, giving a slight bow from where he sat, thoroughly enjoying the spectator sport. Then he held Carlos's gaze with a steady but urgent look in his eyes. For a double hit, and your next visit planned - soon - to the Forbidden City, by all means.

Deep. Open Dananu negotiations - right in front of the wives, under very different circumstances than what had transpired before the hunt. This was getting interesting and they were indeed getting sloppy.

Done, Carlos murmured toward Xe, and then he returned his attention to Lai. "I guarantee that you won't be disappointed." He went to her, wet his thumb, and slid it down her jugular, tasting it as he put it back into his mouth, and causing her sharp gasp to slice the room.

Mistress Tetrosky was on her feet and had gone to Carlos, breaching all protocol. "Ask my husband... now... please," she breathed, her body melting against Carlos's, and her gaze darting between him and her master.

Carlos swept up her hand fast, making her swoon, turned her wrist over hard, studying the blue vein in it as he held her close to practically keep her from falling. "Your call," he said in a low timbre, looking at Tetrosky for a reaction. He allowed a hint of fang to show for added drama, making Kiersten begin to hyperventilate in his arms. "I'll be without my wife all night. Gentleman's agreement with Harold. You have no idea how much I'll miss her."

Tetrosky's eyes went half-mast. "Only if I can watch."

Another fucking variable. Okay, new strategy to separate the pack.

Carlos brought his mouth to Kiersten's wrist vein, kissed it, and boldly licked a trail up the blue tributary to the inside of her elbow with the tip of his tongue, planting a solid kiss there, but didn't break the skin. So, Tetrosky liked to watch. Huh?

Her moan was so long and soulful as he followed the smooth line of her arm that it almost messed him up and made him nick her. Tonight, his game was strong. But he kept his eyes on Tetrosky. "You sure you want to do that with a double hit in your system and mine?"

"He doesn't care," Kiersten murmured, arching to wrap her arms around Carlos's shoulders. "Hasn't for a long time." She swept her nose the length of his collarbone, hovering dangerously near his throat. "I can smell it on you," she whispered in a husky voice. "You actually care about her. I definitely want to feel that. I love the way you smell."

"I smelled it, too," Alani said, breathlessly gravitating to him in a slow slide.

Evelyn was trembling as she stood slowly, coming toward Carlos with serious intent in her eyes.

"His black blood is saturated with pure, unadulterated passion." Evelyn glanced at the other women, her eyes filled with awe as she returned her sultry gaze to Carlos. "No, it's more than that. He loves her, which is so rare in our world. More alluring than even blind obsession driven by pure lust. I've never smelled it before in one of our males." Her cat eyes were hypnotic as she neared him and brought her face closer, a public throat strike eminent. "I've been around a long time. Do you have any idea how many of our males I've been with?"

Carlos leaned back and put his finger to Evelyn's lips, then kissed the bridge of Kiersten's nose. "Not here, sweetheart and not in the throat. Protocol." He smiled and handed Evelyn off to McGuire in a smooth body transfer. "Some things are just not done... in public." He slipped out of Kiersten's hold, and ran his hand down her back as he slid her toward Tetrosky. But as he swept her body, he also swept her mind like he had all the others. A deeply guarded secret lingered there. A recent one.

Mistress Xe was almost panting through a full fang drop where she sat on the edge of her seat. "That is so erotic." She squeezed her knees together tightly and closed her eyes.

"You sure you want to watch under the influence?" Carlos asked Tetrosky with a quiet voice and slow smile. Kiersten hovered near her husband for a moment, then sauntered back over to Carlos, slipping back into his embrace to touch his hair, then his face, tasting his perspiration off the tips of her trembling fingers. He needed more information, and went into her mind like a razor. "She's beautiful, like porcelain," he whispered through clenched teeth, and then bit her ear making her whimper and drop her mental guard. What is it, sweetness? Tell me what he has.

Carlos could feel Tetrosky battling for composure across the room, his faculties shredded by the drug in his system, Damali's performance, and the floorshow. "Do you want me to speak to you in Dananu, or Espaˇčola, when you come to me?" Carlos crooned, eliciting near delirium from Kiersten.

"Speak to her in Espaˇčola," Tetrosky murmured, leaning forward.

"Later," Carlos whispered, sending the hot promise into her ear while extracting her thoughts. What difference does it make if he rules the world, if he doesn't know how to make you happy? "Do you want me to come to you," he asked, lengthening his incisors to full-battle length and running them down Kiersten's jugular. You'll tell me, right, so I can... with you, mi tresora?

"Yes," she sobbed, answering both his spoken and telepathic questions.

Not risking a transmission, she sent the information by touch as her hand slid down to his groin. He shuddered for effect. The other wives stood and came to him. And he withdrew having gleaned all he needed to know. The key was in the hull of the ship, where all the masters' caskets had been loaded. Pure outrage dulled his reaction to her sensual touch. The bastard had been bold enough and strong enough to hide Carlos's marked man in his ship! Only a dark human ritual could have cloaked that from him. The reality was unsettling.

Carlos mopped his brow and kissed each female briefly and stalked away. "I'm going to ask you again, Tetrosky, are you sure you want to just watch, with all of them in there? 'Cause, brother if you reach for me, you're history. I don't play that, even high." Carlos laughed and shook his head when Tetrosky swallowed hard. "But if you want to check us out... while you're blitzed - "

"No," Tetrosky said fast, swallowing hard again as the other masters looked at him.

"All right," Carlos murmured, gently extricating himself from Kiersten's hold again when she'd sauntered up beside him. He smiled and handed her off to Tetrosky with a gentle shove to distance her from his body, ignoring her visceral disappointment.

"Bastard," she said through her teeth, glaring at her husband. "I will never forgive - "

"That's not what I meant," Tetrosky said quickly. "I meant, no, I don't want us to both be in there with a double hit in our systems, Mr. Councilman."

Carlos chuckled and held out his hand to Kiersten, who grabbed onto it again like a lifeline. "Good, because this stuff will make you act stupid."

Tetrosky stood, cleared his throat, and walked over to the bar. He poured himself a shot of the more concentrated blends, tossed it back, and shuddered. "A double hit - she's yours. Do as you like, just make sure our yacht is cave-docked before dawn."

"No lie," McGuire said, standing and joining Tetrosky. He shook off the exchanges that he'd witnessed with a shiver. "Damn this crap is lethal... will make you challenge the fucking sun."

"Yes. Profound," Amin said, standing, going to the bar with the other masters to share a drink. "I hope you've given the crew express instructions to find shelter. None of us are going to be able to even transport by dawn."

"Too dangerous," Master Xe said, standing and going to the bar. "I don't like losing control like that so far from a lair. Maybe we should just have patience and wait to take it at the castle."

Variables were kicking his ass tonight. He'd just gotten the females all transferred into his control, had fired the masters up again with the little floor show of open seduction - trying to keep them distracted once their high had burned off, and now there was some new shit to contend with. Carlos glanced at the crestfallen expressions around him that were beginning to become shrewd and rational again.

"Makes sense," Carlos said, calmly depositing Tetrosky's wife on the sofa and joining the men at the bar. "Besides, if my wife is in with McGuire - just her voice alone is maddening while in the throes. Will carry all throughout the ship, the surf, the rock of the boat, salt air... sensory overload, and with a double hit, too?" Carlos shook his head. "Naw. What was I thinking? That was too irresponsible of me. Reckless."

He turned to Xe and put his hand on his shoulder. "You see how this female has compromised me, but Xe had my back." He dropped his hold from Xe, poured a fast drink, and tossed it down. "The Forbidden City, our next visit, for that one. Man, you have no idea how many nights that woman almost fried me. We'll wait till we get back to the - "

"Councilman, let's not be hasty," Tetrosky said, his eyes searching Carlos's. "Please."

"No," Carlos said, firmly. "Xe is clear and rational. I'm not right now." He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "Her adrenaline is all in the air, music in my head." He opened his eyes. "I'm not trying to wipe out the whole empire in one night on a pleasure ship - and Damali will make you do that." Carlos smiled, and then had to chuckle at himself. Damn he was good.

Xe approached him and placed a hand on his shoulder, glancing at the others. Carlos could feel him siphon for information, for the truth, and he got what he wanted, the part not threaded through the lie. He also knew that these boys loved living on the edge; they were adrenaline junkies, the more reckless, the more titillating. Everything else was just existing. He dangled the lure, and pulled it back, allowing Xe to see just how close he came to frying - the sun breaking the horizon, him looking down into Damali's sated face, he let the instant panic slingshot from his memory to Xe's awareness, then stopped the transmission.

"Councilman... I... uh... we implore you to brush aside my initial concerns. I was perhaps hasty. We trust that you would have made arrangements."

"No," Carlos said, pouring another drink and sipping it slowly. "I thank you for bringing a critical risk factor to my attention."

He had to fight not to openly chuckle when Amin grabbed Xe by the throat so fast that a near-extinction was probable. He glanced back at Xe's wife, Lai, and she wasn't even snarling. She hadn't even stood up! All she did was issue a disgusted glance over her shoulder. The other masters had surrounded Xe, taking Amin's side in the dispute.

"Gentlemen," Carlos said, touching Amin's shoulder. "Not here. Not in public. Humans wouldn't understand, then we'd have bigger problems that could jeopardize the whole evening." He waited for Amin to gradually let go of Xe's throat. "Let's all go sit down, watch the show, and once we're on the boat, I'll tighten everybody up." He winked at McGuire. "Then I'll hand Damali off to you. Fair?"

Immediately grumbles of approval rippled through the room as the masters returned to their seats, the wives now draped against them with gratitude. Carlos found a lone seat close to the edge of the box, but positioned so that he could keep everyone else within a sideline glance. This was no way to live - having exclusively pursued pleasure so hard that you were numb to it, unless it was twisted and depraved.

He didn't want to die tonight, but he certainly didn't want to live so long that the basic things in life became a nightmare of boredom, or gaining knowledge was so easy that anything truly new to the mind was seized upon like a drug. But the awareness gave him pause. Isn't that what happened to him while he was alive? Hadn't the mundane, but purer, things in life bored him, sending him deeper into the seductive dark side of the lifestyle he'd chosen? Hadn't he given up the basics, like kids, a family, friends, hanging out at the beach on a sunny day... his mom's cooking... for what? And wouldn't he throw caution to the wind to have a glimmer of that back?

This time when he glanced at the vampires around him, it was with a bit less disgust. After several hundred years, what would he be like? What would he be like right now if Damali hadn't shared her soul with him on a beach? Not just in Rio, but when they were kids... sitting in the sun. And, what the hell would he turn into without being able to hold her in his arms and love her like he needed to now? He couldn't even think about that right at the moment. That stark reality would definitely mess up his head. So he focused on the stage. He had to transmit the location of the key to her, but didn't risk a transmission directly to her. Every master in the house was focused on Damali, so he locked with the only person her knew could receive from him under blocked conditions—Father Pat.

He concentrated on the elderly cleric, and watched him glance at Marlene, who froze for a moment and then relaxed. If the two seers could focus on the location, maybe they could pinpoint where the key was hidden within the massive vessel's hull.

Carlos was careful to banish the thoughts from his mind as soon as he'd sent them. Looking at Damali was a good way to force anything else into the back of his mind. Her band was winding down; the lighting had changed. Slow droning didgeridoo vibrated the air with a mourning sound. Black lights illuminated white paint on dark faces. Carlos almost closed his eyes. Yeah, she was a master performer, but he wished she hadn't gone there.

He glanced at his counterparts, who were leaning forward in their seats, cool shredding as the anticipation for her final appearance mounted. He glimpsed the monitors to be sure his attention was holding. Shit... he might be the one who was the weak link in the variable chain.

Carlos sat back hard, watching the stage, trying to send his mind elsewhere as Shabazz's bass picked up the end of the mourning vibrations. Rider's guitar was wearing him out; it was connected to his skeleton, the high-pitch frequency too close to the pitch of Damali's frenzied desert energy. J.L. had captured the melody, the emotion of her thoughts, like smooth water, a caress. But Jose was fucking him up bad on the drums... they were linked; hombre had his rhythm, same one when with her. All right, all right, he could do this. It was just one last song, then him and his boys were out.

If he could just shake off all the seduction play, the rush of winning four conquests in a short struggle in the VIP box, forget about the triumph of playing four masters lovely... get her scent out of his skull, along with every conflicting emotion it brought with it, he'd be cool. All he had to do was focus.

Carlos smoothed the front of his suit and rolled his shoulders, glancing at the monitors. But she messed around and had that deep purple smoke flow over the stage floor, changed the lights to crimson, and sauntered out in that dress with her Isis at her side. He knew that was the plan, but seeing it again, now, fully aware that he could never have her like that once more... damn... The crowd roared, and he almost stood up. If the woman opened her mouth... let out her voice...

Stupid thought. That's what she'd come there to do - sing her heart out. He had to get it together. But the electricity running through the other vamps around him was a thick current of irrational desire that linked them. Then she really messed up and looked directly at the VIP box, her words shredding every one of the males in the box, most of all him.

True, he'd told her to play to McGuire, but daaayum. He couldn't watch it. Not when she threw back her head hard like she'd just been bitten, sudden strike snap, and the tempo of the music picked up. She'd flung the Isis away from her, had literally tossed it up so it came point down and stuck into the stage. The crowd was rocking off their feet. Sweat seeped out of her pores, one droplet at a time, adrenaline shimmering in it, her voice a laser to his senses. "Oh... man." He stood fast and walked to the back of the booth.

"She's incredible," McGuire murmured, his focus riveted to Damali.

The monitors flickered and showed her actual performance, not the tape. Panicked, losing the ability to concentrate, he tore his line of vision from the stage, sputtering the images on the monitors back to the edited dummy compilation, but was fast losing the battle. Damali's true image kept overriding what was supposed to be shown to the vamps. She was in his head so hard, he couldn't shake it - not with her singing, not with the music, not with their personal rhythm at the forefront of his mind.

Tetrosky's gaze never left the stage. "Let all the monitors show her," he whispered on a hoarse breath. "Don't cheat us."

Damali's arms were outstretched, her body swaying, the crowd yelling, then she wrapped her arms around herself, turned away, and gave them her back. The position created the illusion that she was with someone, being held, as her voice hit a crescendo on the chant refrain, "Don't stop, no don't stop, this sweet transition." She allowed her head to fall back, and she belted out what sounded like a sobbing plea. "I remember when you turned me - bittersweet change that hurt so good."

He was holding onto the side of the bar by the time she turned around. Baby, you're killing me. But she ignored him and walked hard to the edge of the stage, purpose in every step. Her hands slid down her body as her eyes slid closed in a slow invitation, yet the rest of her was moving to the now up-tempo beat, flowing with it, then she clutched her belly, and wailed, "Don't you know you're my sweet transition!"

Master Amin lost it, was on his feet, with Xe and Tetrosky holding each of his arms. Carlos couldn't move, hypnotized at this point by her movements, her voice jack-hammering a hole in his temple.

"You cannot transport her off the stage in the middle of a performance, man!" Xe yelled, as both masters slammed Amin down in his seat.

But they weren't angry with him, just trying to hold onto what was left of their vampire cover. They had already abandoned their dignity. Tetrosky had broken his conservative cool and had dropped full fang, battle-length, in public, and couldn't retract. McGuire had tears in his eyes, fangs lowered, and couldn't catch his breath as Damali's scent stained the air. Xe was practically staggering as he left the front of the booth and went to stand by Carlos at the bar to collect himself, using his thumbs to send his incisors back up into his gums.

Damali marched back to her Isis near the front of the stage on the last stanza. "I'll give my life, just surrender, to this sweet transition with you." Then she drew her blade out of the stage, lowered it, opened her arms, and took another false strike that snapped her neck back, sending a collective shudder through the booth. Carlos closed his eyes as his gums ripped.

Mercy, woman. "Compasion, por favor," he heard himself whisper out loud against all his intentions, but none of the masters even flinched. Then she licked her lips, and took a bow to a standing ovation, her Isis now over her head, the crowd hollering for more.

Carlos shook his head as she yelled, "Good night Sydney!"

Bring me my wife, now! He'd hurled the thought at Jose before he could censor it. He saw Jose's head jerk up from the direction of the audience to him. Carlos waved him off. What the hell was he doing?

Every male in his booth was yelling for an encore with the crowd. Their wives had made their way to his side, practically licking the sweat off his face and brow. He elbowed his way out of the huddle. All of this was too volatile, and he hadn't even distributed the quantity of the substance that might really blow the lid off. Marlene was right. This was chaos theory at its worst. There was no controlling an uncontrolled substance - Damali.

He paced back and forth, waiting for Jose to bring her to the box. The other masters were like caged panthers, too, going from the bar to the edge of the booth, each giving him wide berth, their eyes sweeping the terrain, their noses polluted by all the hyped blood in the crowd, the adrenaline from her, him. Bottled blood wasn't gonna make it. Nor was blood from their wives' dead veins.

They shoved aside their wives' offers. Not good enough. It was in their eyes. What was easily accessible wasn't new.

"How long will she be?" Amin asked, his nerves frayed beyond all shame.

"I don't know," Carlos muttered. "You know how long it takes women to change."

"She's not changing out of that dress, is she?" McGuire said, sounding panicked.

"She can't," Tetrosky said fast. "Her sweet scent fills it." He trembled, and looked at Carlos.

"I forbid it. She cannot change out of that dress," Xe shouted, losing himself, and then looking at Carlos fast for a pardon.

"We need to renegotiate," Amin said on a heavy exhale. He looked at the other masters. "Between the four of us - let's strike a new deal." He looked at Carlos. "You gave her away for a night; tonight, we can settle the particulars between ourselves."

"I feel you," Carlos said, walking away, and not even pissed. He had to get himself together. If Jose came in there with her dripping wet from the stage, a volatile package under his arm, J.L. and Dan locked and loaded with weapons... there wasn't enough firepower on this earth... They all had to come down.

Hear me clear, Carlos said, his gaze lethal. If you rush her, you die. If you rush my mule, you die. I am in a very, very fragile state, gentlemen. Using Dananu had gotten their attention, just like the direct threat - the sure promise - had. He could see them starting to normalize as survival instinct took over. They had felt the impact of that truth, no mental siphon required. Each nodded and backed up, and that's when he felt himself beginning to come down.

Finally a knock at their VIP box door sounded and all eyes followed it. He could feel each one of the masters around him struggling not to drop fang and answer it.

"I have a delivery for Councilman Rivera," Jose said, accepting the assessment of the international courier who stood outside the door. "They're with me," he added, motioning toward J.L. and Dan.

Carlos watched the guard sniff Jose, linger longer than was advisable, briefly close his eyes, then glance back at Carlos and the other four masters, then quickly gain his wits and relent. As soon as the bulking presence stood aside, Damali floated through the door on Jose's arm almost in slow motion. Immediately, Carlos tore his attention from her to her security detail. Jose was righteous, his dock nine was in a shoulder holster, the other hand resting on an automatic on his hip without the strap snapped. Dan had a crossbow held firmly at his side, and a Glock on his hip. J.L. had an Uzi slung over his shoulder by a thick strap, his hand nervously resting on the trigger.

"You expecting trouble, Mr. Councilman?" Tetrosky said coolly, his eyes on the crossbow.

"I do not take any chances with cargo this valuable," Carlos said, his eyes scanning the room. "I'm sure you can all appreciate that, now."

Damali glanced around the room, her eyes connecting with Carlos's briefly, but scanning the others. She had her long Isis with her, and then she smiled. "Is it cool for me to come in, or am I interrupting anything?"

"You are more than welcome to come in here, darlin'," McGuire said, but not going to her. He glanced at Carlos for approval to do so, but received none. Then he looked at the others in the room. "You are making the lady nervous, which is making our councilman nervous. The longer you do that, the more time goes by. So, my suggestion is that everybody relax."

Slowly but surely the tension in the room eased, the density lifted, and that's when Carlos went to her. If he had to fight, he didn't want her in the middle of the tackle.

With caution, he collected her from Jose's side, and Jose kept his eyes forward, scanning the group from behind dark sunglasses. All pro. Carlos was proud. J.L. and Dan seemed a little scary, but they had come in, hadn't blinked. That was good. But the fumes surrounding him were not. The seal on the product he carried was leaking.

He pecked Damali on the cheek as his hand slid around her waist, and he tried his best to numb himself to the sensation of her skin.

"That performance was off the chain," he murmured as they walked deeper into the private box to get away from Jose's side.

"I had a blast," she said, her smile bright, but the tension in her body easy to detect through his palm. "I love Sydney - the crowd is awesome here."

"We all enjoyed your performance," Amin said, his voice dripping desire. He glanced at his wife, and the electricity that passed between them put Alani on her feet.

"Yes, you were absolutely fantastic," Alani said, gaining a round of agreement from the other wives, who all went to Damali to hug her.

Carlos watched very, very carefully, each hug, each continental kiss exchanged with a wary eye. Not one damned nick had better break her skin! Sensing his growing possessiveness, they wisely withdrew, even though their female voices blended into a laughing, celebratory harmony as Damali stepped away from him. He glared at the masters. Yeah, they could congratulate her - verbally. Fuck a hug.

They nodded, understanding protocol.

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