Masquerade, book ten in the Vampires Realm romance series that I write as F E Heaton, celebrates its official release today.
This action-packed, intense, emotional, and twisty vampire romance novel is now available direct from my site and in ebook at Amazon Kindle stores, Smashwords and All Romance eBooks. It will soon be available at Barnes and Noble Nook store, Apple iBookstores, Kobo Books and Sony Reader Store.
To give you a taste of this paranormal romance book, here’s the blurb and shiny cover, and also links to where it’s available and a double excerpt! Yes, two whole chapters today.
Ten years have passed since Sophis and Vivek, two vampires of the Venia bloodline, came close to death at the hands of twin hunters Aleksis and Izabella Romanov. The events of that night turned Sophis and Vivek against each other, shattering their close friendship and driving them apart.
Now, on the eve of a centenary Creator Day masquerade and at a time when things between them are dangerously close to separating them forever, they uncover a small army of vampire hunters in Saint Petersburg, led by their nemeses, Aleksis and Izabella.
With the safety of the rulers of the seven pure vampire bloodlines in their hands and their chance for vengeance hanging in the balance, can Sophis and Vivek face their past and overcome their differences? Will they realise their true feelings for each other before itâ€™s too late or will the hunters finally claim their lives as their deadly plot to destroy the bloodlines unfolds?
This book stands alone and does not need to be read in order with the rest of the series to gain maximum enjoyment.
Where in the Devilâ€™s good name had the rest of her squad gone?
It was twenty minutes past ten in the evening and Sophis had only managed to locate and relay orders to five out of her group of eight guards. If Commander Tynan discovered that she couldnâ€™t keep her squad in line and at their posts on time, she was heading for an earful and possibly punishment. She didnâ€™t need this right now after everything that had happened so recently and with the Creator Day masquerade less than a week away. Sophis clenched her fists, her arms trembling with the rage that pounded through her, part of it directed at herself, part at her squad and the rest at a man she couldnâ€™t think about without grinding her teeth and wanting to growl. It would have been bad enough if it had been a normal ball, but this year was a centenary and that meant two nights of celebration and all eyes on the guards of the host bloodline.
The Venia household didnâ€™t tolerate weakness at the best of times. With the safety of the lords, ladies, and other important members of the seven pure vampire bloodlines of Europe on the line, it was imperative that every group of guards performed their duties impeccably.
With her self-esteem already severely dented, Sophis dreaded that her team were going to be the weak link, the guards that failed should there be an attack, and it set her on edge as she walked across the immaculate lawn of the Venia mansion heading towards the main house. Her recent mistake during a routine patrol had already made her appear weak and unworthy of her position as a captain in the guard. If word reached her superiors that she couldnâ€™t control the newest members of her squad, they would lose all faith in her. She couldnâ€™t let that happen. She had to find the missing men and bring them into line, and she had to do it before anyone else discovered they were absent from their posts.
There was one man in particular that she didnâ€™t want to find outâ€”the person whose name labelled the largest part of her anger.
Sophis uncurled her fingers, stretching them and trying to shake away the burning fury and shame she felt from just thinking that name.
She hadnâ€™t seen Vivek since the night she had led her team on patrol in Saint Petersburg to confirm that the Validus bloodlineâ€™s reports of increased hunter activity in the city were true. She had confirmed it all right. A vampire hunter had attacked and she had leapt into action, earning herself a poisoned arrow in the back for her impatience.
Vivek had come out of nowhere and saved her life.
Sophis paused halfway across the beautiful moonlit garden as her left shoulder blade burned with the memory of that night over a week ago. She closed her eyes and pressed her right hand to the front of her shoulder, breathing deeply and slowly to steady her rising panic.
She owed her life to Vivek twice over now. Her fingertips pulled the black material of her uniform jacket tight as she clutched her shoulder and ground her teeth. His actions that night had left her confused. He had swept in and singlehandedly dispatched her attackers and had shown such concern when he had picked her up, cradling her in his arms like a princess, and ordered his men and hers to go on ahead and warn the infirmary. The sickness from the poison had come upon her then but she had remained staring at Vivek, her mind swimming. She wasnâ€™t a member of his squad, yet he had treated her as though she was, had shown the same amount of concern for her wellbeing as she had often seen him feel towards his men under similar circumstances.
Only he never went to their rescue.
He let them fight their own battles.
Why had he interfered with hers?
Was it just to make her feel weak, to make her look feeble in front of her squad and his, to make her appear as though she wasnâ€™t suited to the role of their leader? To prove to that small section of the guard that he was right and she shouldnâ€™t hold the position of captain?
Or was it something else?
In that brief moment in his arms, Sophis had dared to hope that the care he was taking with her and his concern werenâ€™t only because she was injured and sick. She had wondered if Ella was right. That hope still knotted her stomach and confused her whenever she thought about it. It had been nothing more than a slip, a flash of insanity caused by the poison, a fleeting feeling that Vivek had crushed. She would do well to remember that.
Vivek had looked so cold as he had carried her back to the mansion, covered in the blood of her attackers, reeking of their grim deaths at his bare hands. He hadnâ€™t looked at her once. His icy gaze had remained fixed ahead of him and his heavy steps had echoed in her drowsy fiery mind. She had kept her attention locked on him to stave off her muddled feelings and as a point of focus so she could battle the toxin. The cold abyss of his heart had shown in the depths of his eyes, void of emotions and any shred of care for her.
Nothing had changed that night. Not her feelings or his.
He was still the bane of her life with his sexist attitude towards her and his desire to have her thrown out of the guard. He felt nothing for her now. Those times were long past. Lost forever.
Sophis had felt that then as she did now, but it hadnâ€™t stopped her from musing the strangest thing.
Vivek never smiled anymore.
That thought had plagued her during her recuperation and even cut through her present anger towards him.
It lingered in her heart and she had spent her long empty hours of rest thinking about how he used to be and how he was now. The contrast between past and present was as sharp as that between white and black.
What had happened to the man she used to know, the one who had trained her and taught her to fight to the best of her abilities and, if those werenâ€™t good enough for her, to practice until she didnâ€™t have the strength to stand and then rest only long enough to catch her breath? Vivek had inspired her, supported her, and made her feel that if she tried hard enough she would be the best guard in the Venia household, surpassing even him. Where was the man with the brilliant smile that made his normally intense hazel eyes sparkle and the quick wit that had always brought out her own smile and made her feel so at ease around him? He was so serious now, his eyes as cold as glaciers and as hard as diamonds. His smile nowhere to be seen.
And he was cruel.
Two days ago, Sophis had returned to duty and this evening she had discovered that Vivek had filed a rather unsavoury report about the hunter attack in the city and her ability as a captain of the guard. He had cited her weakness, her leap into the fight without using her team, and other faults that she was already painfully aware of without his mentioning them to their commander. Her blood had caught fire as she had listened to Commander Tynan recite the report.
It was boiling now that she had discovered her men missing.
Sophis set her jaw, stormed across the damp grass and the golden gravel path and entered the elegant palatial mansion that was her familyâ€™s home, using the back entrance close to the ballroom. She moved swiftly along the short corridor towards the stone steps that led down into the basement. The hallway was plain and unadorned, with dull walls and cold flagstones underfoot, a poorer cousin of the bright cream corridors in the public spaces of the house, with their oil paintings and lamps, and antique wooden furniture that lent them a regal and warm air. These passages were used by guards and servants of her bloodline. No one of importance lowered themselves to walk them so there was no need for them to look remotely inviting.
The darkness clung to the hall, broken at intervals by a single lamp on the wall that cast insipid light in a small semi-circle around it, barely chasing back the gloom.
Sophis hurried down the stone steps to the basement, her heightened vision and her memory providing her with the position of each tread. The flat heels of her knee-high polished black leather riding boots were loud on the cold stone, echoing along the hall coming into view before her and marking the quick rhythm of her steps. She could have moved silently if she had wished, but she wanted everyone in the corridor ahead to know that she was coming. She wanted them to hear her anger before they managed to sense it.
She ground her teeth until her slightly extended canines cut into her gums, flooding her mouth with the sweet perfume of her own blood. The taste of it stopped her in her tracks and she drew a deep steadying breath, searching for some calm amongst the storm of her feelings so her fangs retracted.
This wasnâ€™t just about her missing men. Vivek was getting to her again and she was playing right into his hands. He wanted her angry, wanted her to slip up and give Tynan a reason to lose his faith in her abilities as a captain. She couldnâ€™t give Vivek the satisfaction of winning.
Regardless of what he thought about her, she was a good guard and a strong leader. She had fought for her position within the ranks and she wasnâ€™t going to throw it all away, no matter what he did or said about her. She wouldnâ€™t let him win. The guard was everything to her. It was her life.
Sophis strode along the dimly lit hallway, passing servants quarters and the blood store. The smell of it tainted the air, causing her stomach to twist and grumble. It had been days since her last feed. The preparations for the upcoming Creator Day masquerade had everyone rushed off their feet, especially the guards, and feeding hadnâ€™t crossed her mind since she had returned to duty. She would have to soon or she would grow weak and would be of no use to her bloodline during the celebrations. After her duties tonight had ended, she would request permission to head into Saint Petersburg to hunt. There would be enough time before sunrise for her to locate, distract and kill a suitable male human. Strong blood would allow her to last through the celebrations without needing to feed again and would restore her strength, giving back what she needed to prove herself a worthy captain of the guard.
She would show Vivek that she was strong and capable, that what had happened was just a glitch, nothing more than a mistake, and he was wrong about her. She was worthy of her position. She would prove that.
The door for the guardsâ€™ rest room came into view along the grey corridor and she straightened her back, tipped her chin up, and quickened her pace. Noise came from the room, drifting out of the open door along with warm light. She focused her senses, trying to detect whether her men were there, slacking off and disobeying orders. None of the voices coming from the room were familiar to her. She stepped inside, sharply coming to a halt and drawing all eyes to her. Several of the men quickly rose from the dark couches and armchairs scattered around the dull windowless stone-walled room and saluted her by pressing their hand against the breast of their black mid-thigh length uniform jackets. She scanned their faces, realised that neither Vivek nor her men were present, and then nodded and turned away.
Heat coiled in her stomach, anger blazing there and slowly pouring into her veins like acid that ate away at her restraint, giving free rein to her desire to unleash her feelings on Vivek even when she knew it was wrong of her to aim all of her fury at him. It wouldnâ€™t be the first time they had fought outside the training room. When she found him, she was going to give him a large piece of her mind and find out just why he had felt the need to emphasise everything she had done wrong that night in his report.
She passed another room where guards were relaxing between duties. Her men werenâ€™t there either.
Where were they?
Sophis hurried along the dim corridor to the steps at the other end, took them quickly, and pushed the heavy wooden door at the top open. The brightly lit vestibule of the house greeted her, warm with its pale yellow walls and grand crystal chandelier. The servants were already decorating the double-height room. Elegant arrangements of red roses stood in huge antique vases on the black-cloth-draped side tables and the pedestals placed around the large room. Several women dressed in plain black clothing were threading garlands of roses through the banister of the mahogany staircase that curved upwards to the first floor. That area would become the guest suites for the most important attendees during the ball and her family had spared no expense to ensure their comfort. They had even moved some of the less important members of the Venia bloodline to the second floor where her room and those of other ranked guards were to free up their stately rooms for the guests. The theme of red roses and gold would run throughout the entire first floor and the rooms on the ground floor that remained open to their guests during the ball.
Several guards entered from the ballroom beneath the balcony to her right and she saluted their commanding officer.
â€œHave you seen Vivek?â€ Sophis stepped towards Seth, a blond man of impeccable neatness who had come through the ranks at the same time as her, although he was closer in age to Vivek. The two men had never seen eye to eye. She now shared Sethâ€™s dire opinion of Vivek and he had grown supportive of her, even fighting her corner more than once when Vivek had chosen to start on her in his presence.
Seth waved his group of young guards on and then closed the gap between them. His deep blue eyes expressed more than his handsome schooled features. He wasnâ€™t happy.
â€œNot since Commander Tynan ordered us both to patrol the grounds and ensure there were no intruders. We split up to head around the perimeter wall in opposite directions and he was not at the meeting point. I waited with my squad for more than thirty minutes before realising that Vivek was not coming.â€
Sophis frowned, her eyebrows meeting tightly. Vivek was annoying as Hell when he put his mind to it but he wasnâ€™t someone who shirked his duties. It wasnâ€™t like him to leave a fellow officer to lead a patrol singlehandedly, especially when Tynan had given him orders to assist him. Something must have happened.
â€œPerhaps he finished before you and decided to return to the house.â€ The words sounded weak even to her ears. She wanted to give Vivek the benefit of the doubt, but it was difficult to see past her anger over his report and her missing squad members.
Seth didnâ€™t look so sure.
â€œListen.â€ Sophis glanced around the double-height room, making sure no one was close enough to them to hear her whispered confession. Seth would never tell on her. They had confided a lot in each other over the past ten years. She told him all the things that she would have gone to Vivek about in the years before he had turned sour towards her. â€œIâ€™m having trouble locating some of my squad. Three men. Theyâ€™re new recruits. I donâ€™t suppose youâ€™ve seen them?â€
â€œPerhaps they are with Vivek.â€ Sethâ€™s expression remained flat and serious.
â€œWhy would you say that?â€ The question sprung from her lips before she could stop it. It was obvious why he would think it.
Her men had spent time under Vivekâ€™s command while she had been recovering in the infirmary. He had probably taken the opportunity to corrupt the newest members of her squad. It was one thing to openly challenge her right to her position within the ranks of the Venia bloodline and completely another for him to convince members of her squad to mutiny against her.
Sophis closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, ignoring Seth as he spoke. She was jumping to conclusions again, basing everything on her feelings rather than fact. It was just her anger clouding her judgement. Vivek would never disobey Commander Tynan and he had only been honest in his report. It had pained her to hear the cold hard truth and know that he felt she was unfit to act as a captain. That pain was pushing her into reacting in a way that was unlike her. She was directing all of her anger at Vivek, pinning the blame on him to deflect it away from herself. This was her fault. She had acted rashly, behaved in a way unsuited to a captain, and had got herself injured and taken off duty. Now she was paying for it. If she hadnâ€™t rushed into the fight, Vivek wouldnâ€™t have had to rescue her, he wouldnâ€™t have had to file a report on her actions, and her squad would have remained faithful to her.
The scar on her back burned with the memory of the scrape of the holy wood arrow shaft and the fiery heat of the toxin. Fear threatened to seep into her veins again. She shunned the emotion, unwilling to allow it to control her. She had survived and she had learnt a valuable lesson, one that would see her survive her next fight against the vampire hunters.
When she found her men, she would see that Vivek wasnâ€™t responsible for their actions and that she was wrong to aim all of her anger at him.
She had to hold on to the faith she had in him and needed to remember what he used to be like. He was still that man inside. She was sure of it. Something had changed him and if she could discover what it was, she could set things right between them and restore the friendship they had once shared. That felt like too much to hope for. Vivek had changed so much that thawing the ice in his heart seemed impossible.
Seth was staring at her.
Sophis shunned her thoughts and looked him square in the eye.
His lips quirked into a smile. â€œPerhaps it is that female who distracts him.â€
Female? Anger lanced her gut again, spreading fire into her chest. She hadnâ€™t noticed Vivek chasing a female. If he was, it could prove that she was wrong and he had disregarded his orders tonight. Around twenty years ago, a female had caught his eye and he had shirked his duties then in order to pursue her. The feeling inside Sophis increased, burning through her blood, and she turned her frown on herself. What did it matter to her if Vivek was chasing anyone?
She pitied the poor female he had targeted. That was all this feeling was. She was just confusing it with something else, something she definitely wasnâ€™t about to consider, not even for a split second.
â€œIf you see my men, can you please come and tell me? If I find Vivek, Iâ€™ll reprimand him and send him to Commander Tynan to file his report,â€ Sophis said.
Sethâ€™s look turned sour and he frowned. â€œThe idiot will get what is coming to him one day.â€
Sophis couldnâ€™t agree more.
She saluted Seth and he pressed his hand to the chest of his crisp black jacket, nodded, and walked away.
Sophis stared after him, her focus wavering as her gaze tracked him until he disappeared down a corridor. She blew out a long sigh, her thoughts weighing her feet down. There was no point in putting things off. Her men were here somewhere. She wasnâ€™t sure what she would do if she found them with Vivek. It would be the final blow to her already damaged self-esteem but she couldnâ€™t stop looking for them now.
The basement guardsâ€™ quarters, the rest rooms there, and the armoury had produced no results. She hadnâ€™t sensed her men or Vivek there. No trace of their scent lingered in the air, which meant they hadnâ€™t been there in at least an hour. The grounds had held a hint of Vivekâ€™s scent, but Seth had explained that for her. Regardless of what Seth thought, Vivek had been out there at some point this evening, although that didnâ€™t mean he had patrolled as ordered.
Sophis closed her eyes and focused her senses. It was difficult to pick out a specific scent in the mansion. There were so many people coming and going because of the masquerade preparations that the scents all swirled together into one blanketing smell of roses and vampire blood.
If she were older, she would have been able to pick through the scents until she found Vivekâ€™s masculine smell of strong blood and warm aftershave. She was on the wrong side of one hundred for that sort of skill though. Picking him out of a crowd was beyond her.
She tipped her head up and drew in a deep breath anyway on the off chance that she might detect him. The smell of roses choked her senses. Useless.
Was he on this floor? There were areas where those of their rank could go, reception rooms they could use if they wished, but Vivek rarely went there.
They had become some of her favourite places for that reason alone.
Sophis turned to face the door on the opposite side of the room to the one she had just exited. It was one of the few remaining places to check. She crossed the entrance hall and entered the elegant green reception room. None of her men were among the guards relaxing on the deep forest green antique couches around the large fireplace or those playing card games on the polished wooden tables towards the back of the room. The smell of flowers lessened and something sparked on her senses as she approached the next reception room, her favourite one where she loved to relax with a good book and find some peace.
She ducked to one side when the dark wooden door opened and two guards walked out, and curled her fingers around the edge of it to stop it from closing. Instead of entering the pale blue drawing room that acted as a library for the guards of the bloodline, she remained tucked behind the door, listening in. Her senses pinpointed Vivek and several other soldiers. She recognised some of them, had studied the feel of them on her senses so she could pick them out during battle and quickly relay orders or check whether they needed assistance. Her three missing men. Disappointment lurched through her, its taste bitter in her throat and on the back of her tongue.
Sophis drew in another deep breath, needing it to retain control and stop herself from storming into the room and giving Vivek a piece of her mind. Her senses stretched out and she was familiar enough with the room to be able to picture where Vivek was.
That was her favourite armchair and he probably knew it. He was here on purpose, to show her that he knew her innermost feelings and how much pleasure that place brought her, and he was going to ruin it for her. Demon. She cursed him under her breath and tried to see who else was present in the room. Several males judging by their scent, and also a female or two. Some were seated further away from Vivek and his group, towards the double doors far to her right, where crammed bookcases lined the walls. Vivek was closer to her, seated near the elegant white marble fireplace in the cluster of dark blue upholstered antique armchairs and sofas that stood on the expansive ornate blue and gold Chinese rug.
â€œWe should probably go,â€ a deep voice said, gravelly with Czech accented English, and she recognised him as one of the younger guards assigned to her group.
â€œPerhaps you should run along and return to your mistress,â€ Vivek said, his voice low and teasing, his Russian-edged words filled with amusement that tore at Sophis. She wanted to shut him out and not listen, not hear the things he had to say about her because they would only worsen the pain she felt whenever she thought about how much Vivek had changed in these past ten years and how much his behaviour hurt her. â€œShe is no doubt wondering where you have gone and if you do not return to her soon, she will run crying to Commander Tynan. Although, I thought you had all come here because you wanted to be part of my squad? I only accept strong guards who can think for themselves, not younglings who turn tail and run.â€
Sophis gripped the door, her claws extending and pressing into the wood.
Not only was he trying to get her dropped from the guard but he was stealing her men too. She growled low enough that no one would hear her, venting her anger in the only way possible without open confrontation and violence.
His sexism was nothing new to her. She had endured such snide and horrible behaviour from others in the past, especially during the time when she had been working her way up the ranks. It wasnâ€™t often that a female was elevated to her level within the guard but it had happened before, and it would happen again, regardless of what the males in the house of Venia thought about it.
Part of her wanted to go into the room and remind Vivek that the Law Keeper of their bloodline, the highest echelon of guard and the position many of them aspired to achieve, was female. Marise was strong and powerful, and deserved her position as the representative of the Venia, the one who upheld the laws of the seven pure bloodlines in their name. Sophis looked up to her and fought to be as strong as she was. Marise was a sign that a woman could achieve anything they set their heart on, regardless of what some men believed. It was because of her that Sophis had the strength to endure everything that Vivek threw at her and wouldnâ€™t surrender her dream. She was strong and able, led her squad by example and followed the rules herself. She was the epitome of a good leader and one worthy of her position. She would keep working to prove that until even Vivek couldnâ€™t deny it.
â€œYou saw what happened the other week during patrol,â€ he said and the contents of his report echoed around her mind.
Her resolve faltered and her anger and disappointment turned back towards herself. She clung to the door, leaning on it for support, weak as she thought about everything that had happened. She had wanted so desperately to fight and prove that she was strong and worthy of her position, and she had only proven that she was still rash and a youngling in some ways. She hated that she had shown that side of herself to her team and to Vivek. She had given him a reason to believe her weak and unworthy of her captaincy, and that was something she despised with all of her heart, not because he would use it against her but because she had wanted him to believe in her, to have faith in her skills as he had ten years ago, and now he wouldnâ€™t.
â€œYou want to be in a real manâ€™s squad, not hanging on the skirt of a female. Is that not so?â€
Those words sent the fire in her blood to her heart. It consumed her, burning away the last threads of her restraint and releasing all of the pain she held locked in her heart, hurt that she felt whenever she thought about Vivek. She couldnâ€™t stop herself from stepping out into the open. Her dark brown eyes widened when she spotted Vivek sitting on her favourite armchair in the middle of the room, surrounded by his squad and the three men belonging to hers, and with a woman seated on his lap. Sophis recognised the neat chignon of blonde hair and the slender curvaceous outline before the woman had even turned her face away from Vivek to look at the others.
She couldnâ€™t believe what she was seeing.
It was Ella draped all over Vivek, sitting on his thigh with her feet tucked between his black-clad legs, her fingers running through the longer lengths of his messy short dark hair. Her friend smiled, as though in agreement with what he had said, and Sophisâ€™s heart stung over the betrayal. How many times had Ella supported her when she had griped about Vivek and his treatment of her? Ella had agreed with everything she had said about him and his sexist ways, and now she was sitting on his lap, staring at him with adoring eyes. Ella brushed her fingers across his cheek. He smiled at her.
Was he so absorbed in Ella that his guard was down?
The others had sensed her presence, and her anger judging by how they had backed away from Vivek, leaving him open to attack. The three males from her squad were staring at their boots, huddled close together as though there was safety in numbers. She would deal with them later. After she had given Vivek that piece of her mind reserved for him.
Sophis growled, crossed the expansive room in a flash, and grabbed Vivek by the short stand-up collar of his black military-style uniform jacket. She twisted it in her grip and tore him from the blue velvet armchair, sending Ella toppling off his lap as she forced him to stand and dragged him towards her.
His hazel eyes met hers, cool and calm, unflustered by her assault.
â€œIâ€™ve had enough of you.â€ Her words came out evenly despite the anger sweeping like liquid wildfire through her veins.
He smiled slowly, his sensual dusky lips bowing into it. Amusement shimmered in his eyes as he looked down into hers.
It didnâ€™t fool Sophis. The tight lines bracketing his mouth and the tautness of his neck muscles warned her of his anger long before the emotion began to roll off him in tangible waves that told her to back down or accept the consequences.
Doubt settled in her mind. Right now, she wasnâ€™t strong enough to beat him and she didnâ€™t have any proof to lay at his feet should he demand to know what had her so riled. She was overreacting again, pinning all of the anger that should have been directed at herself on him instead. She had accused and sentenced him in one breath and she had to go through with what she had started.
â€œWhy did you say those things in your report?â€ It seemed like the safest of her reasons to mention. He couldnâ€™t deny it at least.
â€œWhy did I tell the truth in a report to my commander?â€
When he said it like that, Sophis couldnâ€™t hold his gaze, no matter how hard she tried. Her eyes darted to his chest and the heat of shame engulfed and incinerated the anger in her heart, turning it to ashes. Vivek was right. He had only told the truth, a requirement when filing a report. What reason did he have to lie for her? None at all.
â€œIf you want to prove that you are not weak or a liability, then do so,â€ Vivek said and her eyes widened.
Was he challenging her?
She raised her gaze to meet his. His intense hazel eyes gave nothing away, no sign of his feelings or any hint of the meaning behind his words. The banked flames of her anger sparked back into life, fanned to a fierce roar in her heart by the challenge he had issued and the desire to prove herself.
â€œIâ€™ll fight you.â€ The hardness of those words leaving her lips surprised her.
The guards gathered around them moved back as one, positioning themselves at a safe distance, some of them shifting to stand behind the furniture.
A glimmer of light touched Vivekâ€™s eyes again and Sophis had the terrible feeling he hadnâ€™t meant what he had said as that sort of challenge. It didnâ€™t matter. She had fought him before and she would fight him again. She would prove right here and now that she was strong and capable.
â€œI beat you last time we danced,â€ he husked in a low voice that felt too intimate, as though he was trying to speak to her alone, shunning the others who surrounded them.
She could feel their eyes on her, the spark of fear that ran through some of the younger vampires and Ella, but didnâ€™t take her focus off Vivek. She wouldnâ€™t give him an opening. If he made the slightest move, she was going to knock him on his backside in front of everyone. That would bring him down a peg or two but would do nothing to satisfy the deeper craving for violence that filled every inch of her.
Vivek lowered his head towards her, his sharp hazel eyes holding her motionless as though he had cast a spell on her, and carefully placed his hand over hers where it held his jacket. She started at the feel of his cool fingers closing over hers and swallowed the lump forming in her throat. She fought to tear her gaze away from his, feeling the danger of staring into his eyes, but failed. It was impossible when he was so close to her, barely a few inches away. Each flake of purest gold that flecked the transition of rich green to earthy brown in his irises held her fast and mesmerised her. She was open like this. He could attack her before she could bring her focus back to the fight let alone manage to defend herself. It would be game over in under a second.
He leaned in closer, until his mouth neared her cheek and she could no longer see his eyes. Her senses snapped back to attention, outlining the room and its contents in sharp relief in her mind. Vivekâ€™s proximity played havoc with them. Her vampire senses bounced off everything in the room like radar but it was quickest to leap back from him. She could feel his senses on her too, monitoring, focused with intensity. The signals echoed back and forth, bouncing off each other, until awareness vibrated between them and threatened to drown out the rest of the room. Sophis swallowed again, fighting a losing battle against it and the startling effect it had on her body.
â€œSurely you do not want to humiliate yourself again?â€ he murmured against her cheek, sending unpleasant shivers down her neck as his breath washed over it. The shiver became a tingling that spread over her arms and trickled down her spine. She fought the urge to close her eyes and shoved him backwards, placing distance between them.
His gaze lost its warmth.
â€œI won the previous two, remember?â€ Sophis tightened her grip on his black jacket and he tightened his on her hand, crushing her fingers with gentle pressure, not enough to hurt but enough to remind her that he was the stronger out of them, and not only because he had fifty years as a vampire on her. Another rush of tingles swept through her, stealing the strength from her legs and turning her mouth dry. She straightened, refusing to let him affect her and denying the electric feel of his fingers against hers.
Her senses sharpened and Vivek responded in kind, his focus settling wholly on her. The intensity of it and the sure smile that tugged at his profanely sensual mouth shot her concentration to Hell. She sucked in a sharp breath, narrowed her eyes on his, and tipped her shoulders back. Vivekâ€™s gaze briefly dropped to her chest, his right eyebrow quirking, and then met hers again.
She wasnâ€™t going to let him fluster her. She was going to prove right here and right now that she could take him in a fight because if she didnâ€™t, her men would never follow her lead.
Vivekâ€™s broad build lent him physical strength that she couldnâ€™t match, but while he could use brute force in their fights, she had intelligence and speed on her side. She had outwitted him several times over the past few fights and had won because of it.
Sophis snatched her hand back and squared up to him, tilting her chin up and holding his gaze.
â€œIâ€™ll win this time,â€ she said on a sneer, unafraid of the darkness emerging in his eyes as the colour began to bleed from them. The flecks of gold turned icy, black gradually ringed his irises, and then pale blue emerged and subdued the hues of brown and green until his eyes were softest aquamarine, the colour that signified him as a member of the Venia bloodline.
Each of the seven pure bloodlines had different eye colours when they were showing their true face. From the obsidian darkness of the Tenebrae, through the fiery orange of the Nocens and the blood red of the Vehemens, the intense emerald of the Caelestis and striking sapphire of the Aurorea, to the royal purple of the strongest family in Europe, the mighty Validus bloodline. All of them were unique in this one way, and many thought it was this difference that divided them, that pitted them against each other in an eternal battle for dominion over their species.
Sophis allowed her eyes to transform and her canines lengthened into fangs, revealing her true self to Vivek. His pupils widened and then narrowed, and she sensed the change in him, the moment he went from treating her as a feeble woman to a potential threat. His guard came up, his focus sharpening, swamping her with a sensation that she was in danger.
She wasnâ€™t going to back down. â€œYou just got lucky last time.â€
The group around them jeered.
Vivek glared icily at them and then his gaze shifted back to hers. His fangs showed between his lips as he spoke.
â€œI will not make the mistake of going easy on you again.â€
With that, he threw a right hook at her.
Sophis dipped her left shoulder back and down, bringing her head out of the path of Vivekâ€™s strike. His fist grazed her cheek as it passed her and before he could right himself, she brought her hand up and struck him under the chin with the heel of her palm. He grunted and stumbled backwards, quickly regaining his footing and lashing out with a clumsy punch. She evaded it but his feint worked. His left fist came out of nowhere and smashed hard into the right side of her cheek, sending her careening across the room.
The wooden edging on the back of one of the blue antique sofas slammed into her spine and forced the breath from her. She grimaced and clutched it with one hand while swiping the back of her other across her mouth to clear away the trace of blood from where her canines had caught her lip. She glared at Vivek.
He smiled casually, rolled his broad shoulders, and then kicked the armchair he had been sitting on out of the way.
Sophis pressed the sole of her right boot against the couch behind her and shoved it backwards, scattering the guards gathered behind it for protection.
She unbuttoned her stiff black uniform jacket, revealing the white pin-tuck shirt she wore beneath, walked to the sofa and carefully laid it over the back. Vivek ran a glance over her, his pupils narrowed and focused, as though he was putting her to memory, and then shirked his jacket too.
Rather than the standard-issue shirt, he wore a tight white t-shirt beneath his black jacket. He laid the jacket down with the same care she had shown towards hers, a mark of their mutual respect for the guard of the Venia bloodline, and then faced her again.
His build was even more daunting now. The stark white of his t-shirt emphasised the breadth of his chest, and the soft material clung to each muscle of his torso, outlining the chiselled square slabs of his pectorals and the hard ridges of his stomach.
Vivek flexed his fingers, causing the tendons and muscles in his forearms to ripple and his upper arms to tense under the tattoos that covered him from wrist to shoulder. He rolled his shoulders again and sent a cocky smirk Ellaâ€™s way, gaining a shy teasing smile from the blonde in return.
Sophis clenched her fists.
She was going to lay him out flat on his backside no matter how much damage she took. She wasnâ€™t going to let him use a fight with her over something as important as him belittling her and making her appear weak in front of three members of her squad in order to impress her best friend and work his way into her underwear.
If he hadnâ€™t been there already.
Sophis launched herself at him and he was too slow to respond. By the time he was facing her again rather than Ella, her right fist was smashing into his jaw. His head whipped to one side and she knocked it back the other way with a swift left hook. He grunted, blood coating his lips, and shifted his left foot, bracing himself. She didnâ€™t give him a chance to recover and didnâ€™t listen to Ella as she begged Sophis to stop hitting his face.
Maybe a little time bruised and not so beautiful would give sense a chance to plant roots and grow in Vivekâ€™s mind. Maybe then he would think twice about picking fights with her and doubting her ability.
Sophis landed an uppercut on the right side of his jaw and then frowned.
Had she just called Vivek beautiful?
His fist slamming into her stomach knocked that thought from her mind and she gasped for air. While her body had no need for oxygen, she wasnâ€™t old enough to have overcome her instinct to breathe. Her throat burned as she sucked in great gulps, trying to settle her fear of suffocating. Vivek punched her hard before she could recover, his knuckles crashing into her right cheek and sending her down on one knee. Pain blazed over her skull, throbbing in her eye, and she couldnâ€™t help crying out. She flinched away when Vivek moved, expecting him to deal the finishing blow whilst she was weak and vulnerable.
He surprised her by backing off.
The scent of blood reached her nose.
Sophis slowly opened her eyes, rose to her feet, and looked across the open expanse of Chinese rug to Vivek. His chest heaved as he breathed deep and fast, muscles straining against the white t-shirt. She tried to meet his gaze but he had his ice-blue eyes locked on her cheek.
His pupils dilated, blotting out the paleness of his irises.
Sophis raised her hand and touched her cheek. It stung and her fingertips came away wet. Vivekâ€™s eyebrows knitted together but his pupils remained enlarged, fixed on the spot just below her right eye, burning into it.
Her own breathing quickened to match his, the scent of her blood affecting her almost as much as Vivekâ€™s reaction to it. His focus was completely on that single spot on her cheek, honed with such intensity that she doubted he was even aware of the others in the room or their jeers as they waited for the fight to continue.
He wouldnâ€™t back down. Sophis knew that.
This little cut wouldnâ€™t stop him.
If anything, it would only make the fight more vicious and deadly.
It would only increase Vivekâ€™s thirst for violence.
She knew it because it was how she felt as she watched him staring at the blood on her cheek, hunger darkening his eyes, his focus on his desire to taste the precious liquid that went with the scent now filling the pale blue room.
A flood of hunger crashed through her when Vivek wet his lips, tongue roughly capturing the blood that marred them. His blood. Her own ice-blue eyes fell to his mouth, her breath catching in her throat and saliva pooling around her tongue. She wanted to taste it too.
Sophis snarled and launched herself at him. He ducked, dodged to one side, and threw a punch at her. Sophis dropped low and swept her leg out in an attempt to catch his and send him down. He leapt over her attack and landed his own kick on her shoulder. She screamed this time. The tender scar tissue on her back blazed white-hot and she rolled away from Vivek, clutching her shoulder and breathing hard.
A brief flicker of concern lit his eyes.
Sophis growled, pressed her toes into the rug and sprung at him. He dodged, caught her wrist to stop her from passing him, and snapped her back to him. He didnâ€™t get a chance to land the punch she could see coming. She swept under his arm and kicked him in the back with the full length of her shin, sending him flying forwards and over the armchair. He hit the ground with a grunt and rolled to his feet.
And was gone.
Sophisâ€™s senses blared the warning but she wasnâ€™t quick enough to turn. He came up behind her, locked his hand around her right wrist and kicked her feet out from under her. She hit the rug face first and Vivek came down on her, knocking the air from her lungs.
She struggled against the weight of him across her backside and lurched up only for Vivek to shove his hand against her shoulder and press her into the floor. Pain ripped over the scar on the back of her left shoulder and she gritted her teeth to contain the cry that tried to escape her. Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them away, refusing to show weakness in front of her men and Vivek.
Vivek tugged her right arm back, bending it around until it felt as though it would pop free of her shoulder socket.
â€œYield.â€ It was an order.
He wasnâ€™t asking. He was telling her to give up the fight and concede defeat.
â€œNever,â€ Sophis spat out, forced her hips up and tipped him off her.
She rolled on top of him before he could move and straddled his stomach, her feet locked between his thighs and her hands pinning his wrists to the floor.
Sophis breathed hard and stared down into Vivekâ€™s icy eyes. Strands of her brown hair had fallen down and grazed his cheek, shifting in the breeze of their combined breaths. His stomach moved beneath her, a steady rise and fall, muscles hard against the apex of her thighs.
The world disappeared for her this time, the jeers of her men fading a little more with each second that she stared into Vivekâ€™s eyes.
The instinct to fight drifted away together with her consciousness of her surroundings as an awareness of only Vivek grew into existence. It shrouded her senses, forcing them to shift to him in their entirety. He lay beneath her, muscles strained and taut, gaze locked on hers, neither submissive nor aggressive.
Her breathing fell into synchronisation with his.
His gaze fell to her cheek. His pupils dilated again, hunger filling his eyes, sparking on her senses in a way that sent heat into her veins.
â€œYield,â€ she whispered, too caught in the moment to put a firmer voice to that word. It should have come out strong and commanding, not so soft and full of desire that was nothing short of disturbing.
Vivek drew a long deep breath. His stomach pressed into her groin, sending a not-too-unpleasant shiver through her.
With a lightning-fast move, he twisted his wrists out of hers, caught her hands, and flipped her.
Sophisâ€™s eyes widened when she found herself lying beneath him with his hips firmly wedged between her thighs. The spark of violence that had risen back into Vivekâ€™s eyes flickered and died as he dragged his gaze over her, heating her with only a look until she burned hotter than she would have if the sun had touched her. What the hell was happening to her?
She struggled against his grip but it only made things worse. His fingertips pressed into the backs of her hands and she realised with horror that he had entwined their fingers, his palms against hers, and had them pinned to the floor on either side of her head.
Worse than that, he was using a part of his anatomy that she didnâ€™t want to think about to keep her hips against the floor, immobilising her lower body.
Sophis swallowed and stared up into Vivekâ€™s eyes as his gaze shifted once more to the cut on her cheek. His lips parted to reveal the tips of his fangs. His cool breath caressed her face. Her breathing hitched. She almost wanted him to go through with it and run his tongue over the line of blood.
Things couldnâ€™t get worse than this.
â€œWhat in the Devilâ€™s good name is happening here?â€
Sophis cringed at the sound of Commander Tynanâ€™s deep Russian accented voice bellowing into the room.
There was a flurry of activity around her during which she tried to take her eyes away from Vivekâ€™s and failed. She couldnâ€™t even muster the strength to push him off her. She lay there beneath him, dying inside, wishing the rug would swallow her and take her to Hell. Spending the rest of her days in the fiery pit of torment down there was preferable to facing her superior and explaining just why she was lying underneath Vivek in the middle of a public space in the mansion.
Tynan appeared in view above Vivekâ€™s shoulder, leaned over and grabbed the back of his t-shirt. He tore Vivek off her and shoved him to one side. Sophis didnâ€™t say a word. If she kept silent, Tynan might not unleash the fury blazing in his dark brown eyes on her.
They slid down to her and narrowed.
No luck there.
She flinched when his hand shot towards her, closed around her shirt, and he yanked her onto her feet. He pushed her aside and she bumped into Vivek, who snarled at her, flashing fangs. She snarled back.
â€œYou both want to explain what I just walked in on, because it had sounded like a fight from the training room… but that wasnâ€™t what I just saw.â€ Tynan moved to stand in front of them and Sophis realised with dread that he was only wearing a pair of loose black sweat pants. His torso was bare, revealing his broad physique and a few new cuts and grazes. He had been training. The last person who had disturbed Tynan in the middle of one of his intense training sessions had spent a day locked in the cells in the lower basement.
â€œYou were fighting, werenâ€™t you?â€ His eyes shifted from Vivek to her.
Sophis inched her head downwards, afraid of admitting it but unwilling to have Tynan believe that what he had walked in on was anything other than one of their usual scuffles.
Tynan sighed wearily and scrubbed a hand over his short dark hair and down his face, causing his muscles to bunch and twist under his pale skin. Her gaze caught on the sweeping curves of the tribal tattoos that adorned his arms. She traced the beautiful decoration downwards, following the ribbons of it that snaked around his shoulders and then caressed his lower abdomen and hips before disappearing under the waist of his sweat pants. It was enough to spark any womanâ€™s imagination and have them wondering just where the markings went down there and what they looked like.
Every woman in the guard and even some of the high-ranking women in the bloodline knew that Tynan was single and a lot of them had their eye on him. He was handsome, strong for his young years, and held a good rank within the bloodline, but he wasnâ€™t quite what she was looking for.
Vivekâ€™s eyes burned into her. The intent behind his stare caused her senses to flare into life. She focused them on him, curious as to why he was watching her now. Anger dominated his scent. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. She wanted to end their fight. Is that what he was angry about too?
Tynan wasnâ€™t the only vampire in her bloodline with tattoos. Green and blue dragons covered Vivekâ€™s arms, elaborate and beautiful. Tattoos that she knew heâ€™d had done after becoming a vampire. Why someone would do something so permanent when they had a potential eternity ahead of them was beyond her, even if they were breathtaking.
She had seen them several times in the past when they were fighting or when he had been changing after his shift. The sight of them now took her back to when she had first entered the guard and he had trained her, teaching her everything she needed to know in order to defend herself and quickly dispatch hunters. He had been kind to her back then. Never a cruel word in her direction. Only smiles for her and encouragement.
Something had changed him.
How many times had those four words crossed her mind or kept her awake during the day? She had spent years trying to figure out what had happened to make him act so coldly towards her when she had once been able to call him friend and she was no closer to understanding him.
It confused the hell out of her.
â€œYou do know where the training room is, donâ€™t you?â€ Tynan said and she cast her gaze down at the Chinese rug, too ashamed to look him in the eye.
â€œYes, sir,â€ Vivek answered, his voice steady and calm, but thicker than usual. The hunger that had shone in his eyes still laced his signature on her senses, speaking to her of desire for blood.
He had wanted to taste that which he had drawn.
Sophis touched her cheek. Tynanâ€™s attention shot to her. He roughly caught her jaw and raised her head, his near-black eyes narrowing on the cut.
â€œExplain to me what happened here then,â€ Tynan said and released her jaw. â€œIn my office. Now!â€
Sophis flinched from the volume of that word and saluted at the same time as Vivek. Tynan turned and stormed from the room. Sophis followed him without looking at Vivek, grabbing her jacket on the way, and hurried to keep up with her commander. She could feel Vivek following her, his eyes boring into her back, focused so keenly that she could pinpoint the exact spot he was looking at.
Her left shoulder.
It still stung from the fight. When he had been on top of her, pinning her face first against the floor, and had pressed his hand into that area of her shoulder, it had hurt like hell. A second later, the pressure of his hand had lightened, as though he had realised that he was hurting her and didnâ€™t want that. Why? She had felt his hesitation before he had twisted her arm back too. He had never hesitated in a fight with her before. Was it because of her injury? It didnâ€™t make her weak, if thatâ€™s what he was thinking. She could still fight him. She would still fight him if Tynan let her. She was sure he wouldnâ€™t mind as long as it took place in the training room instead of somewhere the high-ranking vampires of the household could see them.
Sophis put her black uniform jacket back on and fastened the gold buttons that formed a V down the breast as she followed Tynan across the pale yellow entrance hall and then descended the stone steps to the basement. The guards there whispered as she passed, loud enough that she knew word had already spread about her fight with Vivek and how things had ended.
With her pinned under him in the most intimate of positions.
Why had fate sent her commander into the room at that exact moment?
She didnâ€™t want Tynan to start believing she was a weak female too. He was one of the few guards in the household who believed in her and in having women in the ranks. He had commended her several times on her abilities. She doubted he was going to be commending her this time or that he would be as understanding and supportive as he had been when reading Vivekâ€™s report to her. He led the way into his small cream-walled office near the armoury in the dingy basement of the mansion. The bright lamp on the oak desk struggled to add warmth to the windowless room and the sparseness of the furniture lent it a cold empty air.
Sophis stopped on the other side of the desk to him, her back to the door. Vivek filed in behind her and came to stand on her left. He pressed his right hand to his broad chest and she noticed that he hadnâ€™t put on his jacket. It wasnâ€™t like him to be so disrespectful around Tynan. As an officer on duty, he should be dressed appropriately, especially when in the presence of their commander. Sophisâ€™s gaze caught on the dragons dancing down his right arm, entwined with each other and so detailed that she could have spent hours studying them, picking out each lily or thorny rose in the gaps between them, and each scale on the dragonsâ€™ multi-hued backs. Tynanâ€™s tattoos sparked curiosity because of the way they disappeared from view but Vivekâ€™s were beautiful, breathtaking, and fascinating. They were art that enhanced the allure of his honed muscles and had always captured Sophisâ€™s attention.
She dragged her gaze away from them to find Tynan watching her, one eyebrow raised high. There was a look in his eyes that she couldnâ€™t interpret. It had an edge of disbelief to it, a hint of shock, and a smidgen of amusement. Why?
Her eyes widened.
No. It was nothing like that. He was wrong. Just because he had found her underneath Vivek and had caught her looking at him just now, didnâ€™t mean that she felt anything for him. Vivekâ€™s tattoos had always interested her. Her staring at them was like her looking at a painting. It was an appreciation of the skill of the artist and the beauty of the design, not an appreciation of the canvas. Tynan had it all wrong. If Vivek hadnâ€™t been standing beside her, she would have told him that too, regardless of how much trouble she would get in for speaking out of line to her commander. The days when her appreciation might have been more about the body the art was painted on were long past.
Tynan looked as though he was going to settle himself in the black leather chair behind his large desk and then turned his gaze on her and Vivek instead. He frowned and his already near-black eyes darkened further.
He plucked his white shirt from a row of coat hooks on the back wall near a large corkboard crammed with what looked like rosters and other snippets of information and slipped his arms into it, leaving it hanging open.
His gaze worked over both her and Vivek, scrutinising and assessing, slowly filling with shame that eventually had him shaking his head. He ran his fingers through his short dark hair and then took his seat, leaned back into it and loosed a long sigh.
â€œWhat am I supposed to do with you two?â€
Neither she nor Vivek answered. Tynan didnâ€™t want them to respond. It was written in the hard set of his jaw and his brown eyes.
Sophis straightened, standing tall with her feet shoulder width apart, and placed her hands behind her back, locking them together over her bottom. Vivek mimicked her pose, bracing his feet so his right foot was close to her left and tipping his chin up. He made her feel small when he stood like that, towering several inches over her. She fixed her eyes ahead, on the dull cream wall and corkboard behind Tynan, and waited for him to explode.
She could sense it coming.
Tynan shook his head again. â€œThe leaders of our bloodline are starting to hear rumours and I do not like being questioned by Lord Timur about my ability to lead his guard. If your behaviour continues, I will be forced to kick you both out. No demotions or punishment. You will be dropped to the rank of servant of this bloodline or you will leave it completely, whatever path your pride allows you to choose.â€
Sophisâ€™s heart fell into the pit of her stomach. Her gaze ate the flagstones under her feet, shame burning her cheeks even though they couldnâ€™t colour. She scuffed the grey stone slabs with the toe of her right boot. Her life was the guard and she had worked hard to achieve her position within it. She didnâ€™t want to throw that all away because of petty arguments with Vivek, but more than that, she didnâ€™t want to jeopardise Tynanâ€™s position as commander. It was one thing when only her and Vivekâ€™s positions were on the line, completely another when their lord was going to pin blame for their actions on Tynan too.
â€œWe cannot afford to have any weak spots in our defences, not after what happened with the hunter and Lord Timur, and with the approaching masquerade… and thatâ€™s what you both are.â€
Vivek audibly swallowed and her gaze crept across to his boots. His shame radiated through her, touching her senses, his feelings open enough for her to read them. They both valued the honour of being a guard, and she had fought to keep a level head and act in line with expectations, but Vivek pushed all the wrong buttons in her. He constantly goaded her into fighting and she had a feeling that he really did want to get her discharged. She just didnâ€™t understand why.
They held the same position so it wasnâ€™t done out of an intent to gain rank, unless he wanted to lead both squads. Tynan would never allow it. All squads had nine members now. Seven guards, a second in command, and a captain to lead them. Getting her kicked out wouldnâ€™t gain him any more than the eight guards he already led.
Was he doing this purely to have her dropped from the guard then? He had said in the past that she didnâ€™t deserve her position so soon after becoming a guard but did it go beyond that? Did he believe that she didnâ€™t deserve to be a guard at all?
She had been a civilian once, when she had been newly turned and still learning from her sire. He had wanted her to remain a civilian too and to go away with him to one of the other Venia safe houses in Europe. She had declined the offer and joined the guard instead, choosing to protect the most important members of her bloodline.
She wasnâ€™t sure she knew how to be anything other than a guard now. Without her duty, she would have no sense of purpose. If Vivek succeeded in getting her kicked out, she would probably leave Saint Petersburg and join her sire in Nice. She had always wanted to travel and he wrote to her sometimes, talking of the warmer weather and how different the blood tasted down there, spicy and exotic, full of vitality and nutrients that the blood of Saint Petersburg lacked. What was Nice like at this time of year? Spring in Saint Petersburg was chilly and it often snowed. Her sire had always made it sound as though it was warm all year round in the south of France. Unlike most vampires, she enjoyed summer, but that was when daylight ruled in Russia and the night was short. The lingering heat in the air when it eventually grew dark enough to leave the mansion relaxed her and made the world seem a better place.
She jolted to attention, saluting Tynan and snapping her heels together.
â€œBoth of you will stop this foolish behaviour. Do you understand?â€ Tynan said and she nodded without hesitation.
Vivek saluted and dipped his chin.
Neither of them had ever queried Tynanâ€™s orders. That only led to more questions in Sophisâ€™s mind. Tynan was younger than both her and Vivek, but he deserved the rank he had achieved in the short years that he had been a Venia. Both he and his brother, Jascha, were exemplary and perfect soldiers, trained as humans in special operations for the Russian government, and then as vampires to be the elite of the guards. Sophis knew that Vivek felt the same as she did about Tynan. If he could accept a man younger than him as his commander, why couldnâ€™t he accept a woman as his equal?
â€œI have a mission for you, and it will require you to work together.â€ Tynan stood and pushed his chair back before planting his palms on his oak desk. He levelled them both with a hard stare. â€œPerhaps it will knock some sense into your heads. You will hunt in the city tonight, without your squads, and will find out how many vampire hunters have arrived since our last count.â€
Sophis blinked. That sort of mission was something usually reserved for elite guards and Tynan himself. It was an honour to do it in his stead, but it was daunting too. The mission was important enough normally. With the Creator Day masquerade starting soon, bringing almost one hundred high-ranking vampires from the other six pure bloodlines in Europe to their mansion, scouting the number of vampire hunters in the city was critical. A wrong count, even if it was only one missed hunter, could spell disaster. The number of guards and their position in the grounds could prove ineffective and result in failure to protect the lords and ladies of the bloodlines.
She wouldnâ€™t be responsible for that.
Tynan was showing faith in both her and Vivek by giving them this mission and she wouldnâ€™t fail him.
Tynan nodded as though he had seen the resolve in both of their eyes.
His brown gaze shifted to her and softened. â€œAre you sure youâ€™re up for this mission?â€
Sophis cast her eyes around the room, searching for her strength and battling the sudden wave of fear that swept through her blood. After what had happened during her last city patrol and encounter with a vampire hunter, and the events of her past, it was only natural for her to feel apprehensive about heading out of the mansion grounds in search of them. Once she was out there, everything would be fine and she would overcome any residual fear of facing the hunters again.
She nodded. â€œI am.â€
A hint of a smile touched his mouth.
â€œGood to hear.â€ He regarded both her and Vivek, his deep voice losing its warmth and regaining its commanding edge. â€œI do not need to tell you how important this is. Many hunters have entered Saint Petersburg in recent weeks. We must discover what is happening. Hunters have never known of the masquerade before but we are beginning to suspect that they know now. Head into the city, scout them and report to me. Can you do this?â€
Sophis and Vivek moved as one, pressing their hands to their chests and speaking in unison.
â€œYes, Commander Tynan.â€