A Taste of Midnight
Christmas music swelled from the tuxedo-clad orchestra, filling the ballroom of the Edinburgh mansion where two dozen beautiful couples danced beneath garlands of crisp holly and fragrant evergreen boughs. High overhead, giant chandeliers dripping with cut crystals and glittering gold accents scattered soft light like diamonds onto the Darkhaven gathering below. It was night outside the eighteen-foot windows that ran the length of the ballro drom, daytime shutters folded back from the glass to reveal a pristine, moonlit spread of rolling Highland hills blanketed in wintry white.
The scene was as picture perfect as a page in a glossy magazine.
Elegant, urbane. Utterly enchanting.
Danika could hardly stifle the urge to scream.
She didn't belong here. Coming back to Scotland for the holidays and to this Breed social gathering tonight-both at the insistence of Conlan's well-meaning relatives-had been a mistake. Two days in Edinburgh and already she was itching to book the next flight home to her quiet life in Denmark. She'd been in her high-heeled sandals and black cocktail dress only two hours, struggling to make small talk with a hundred people she didn't know, and more than half that time she'd been eyeing the mansion's front door with a longing she could scarcely hide.
"Are you having a nice time, Danika?"
God, it was all she could do not to pivot and bolt.
Instead, she smiled politely at the young woman beside her. "Of course. The party is lovely, Emma."
"You see? I knew you'd enjoy getting out for a while," the petite redhead said. She was the Breedmate of one of Con's distant cousins, a mere child in her twenties, still fresh with the shine of unspoiled youth and glowing with the promise of the eternal bond she shared with James, the handsome Breed male at her side. His dark eyes were tender on Emma, his strong arm holding her protectively at his side. When he smiled at his pretty mate, it was impossible to miss the press of his emerging fangs behind his lip. Desire transformed his gaze too, his irises flashing with heated sparks of amber.
The couple obviously adored each other, and it was hard for Danika not to envy them their future. Hard to remember what it was like to be newly blood-bonded and so in love, looking forward to time together without end.
Danika glanced away from the pair and smoothed the scarlet silk mourning sash tied around her waist. She'd forgone the traditional white widow's gown, but even a year and a half after Conlan's death in Boston, she found it difficult to give up this last symbol of her loss. Being in Scotland-Con's homeland-only made his absence more obvious. They'd forged a history together here, in the Highlands. Centuries of time bonded as one, living a peaceful existence, until Con's sense of duty and honor took them to America some hundred years ago, where he'd pledged his sword in service as a warrior of the Order.
They'd wanted for nothing, except the child they'd finally decided to have. Their son, Connor, conceived just three months before Conlan was killed on an Order mission gone awry. She'd hated leaving the baby back at her guest cottage with Con's family tonight, even for a couple of hours. He was all she had, her only link to the life she'd shared with Conlan MacConn. Danika glanced out at the sea of strangers all around her, civilian Breed males and their mates, a hundred unfamiliar faces in an unfamiliar place. She looked at them all, never having felt so alone.
"Will you excuse me for a moment?" she asked the couple beside her. "I should call the house again, make sure everything is all right with Connor.
"But you just checked in on him five minutes ago&nbsp;..."
Danika let the comment trail off behind her, already moving toward the quiet perimeter of the ballroom and fishing her phone out of her little evening clutch. The update from the guest cottage where Danika and Connor were staying was the same as it had been every other time she'd called. Everything was fine with the baby, no need for Danika to worry.
She thanked the Breedmate watching Connor and ended the call, knowing it was wrong to wish for a reason to leave the party and rush back to her child. She was supposed to be having a nice time tonight. Since she was stuck there until her companions decided to leave, maybe she should at least make an effort to enjoy herself a little.
Slipping the phone back into her purse, she began a slow circuit of the room. The red sash around her waist deflected the interest of all but the boldest of the unattached Breed males. Then again, at five foot eleven without the added height of her four-inch spike heels and possessing long blond hair, she realized she was hard to miss. She could ignore the assessing stares of the men at the gathering. It was the pitying looks of the other Breedmates that made her feel the most awkward.
Widowed after so long together? I would rather die myself than lose my mate like that.
Danika briefly closed her eyes as the thought sailed at her from across the room. She didn't know whose mind she'd tapped into, nor could she bar the intrusion. Every Breedmate was gifted with a unique extrasensory talent. Hers was the ability to read thoughts, be it Breed, Breedmate, or basic Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, since Conlan's death, that ability had become unpredictable, unmanageable. His Breed blood had kept her youthful for centuries; it had also fed her talent and kept it strong.
Several times already tonight she'd been blindsided by a sudden uninvited mental commentary. Most were mundane prattle and insipid cocktail party drivel, but some thoughts bore sharp edges that zeroed in on her like arrows.
Never would've happened if Conlan had stayed in Scotland where he belonged. Never should've taken an outlander as his mate.
Danika lifted her chin and strode deeper into the throng of Darkhaven civilians. Let them stare. Let them cast their silent blame and suspicion. Let them gape at her like the outsider she was. She had never needed anyone's approval; she sure as hell didn't need it now.
She walked right through the center of the gathering, her steps unrushed, head held high. Overheard, muffled conversations joined the barrage of unwelcome psychic input, until it was nearly impossible to discern which words were spoken aloud and which were given voice only in her mind. Pointless musings on uncomfortable wardrobe choices and pending holiday plans overlapped with opinionated debates on Breed politics and the dismal economic situation of the human world.
By the time Danika reached the far side of the ballroom, her sk stroom, hull was ringing from the combined cacophony of sensory input. Some fresh air would help clear her head. She made her way toward a closed pair of French doors that opened onto an outdoor terrace.
As she neared, she saw the dark shapes of several Breed males standing outside. Their voices were little more than low rumbles on the other side of the glass. She paused at the mention of a pending live cargo shipment overdue at Edinburgh airport-something expensive, requiring discreet handling. That alone was enough to make her instincts prickle, but it was the next comments that froze her feet to the floor where she stood.
"Does the cargo include anything&nbsp;...&nbsp;exotic?"
"Perhaps" came the airless, arrogant reply. "So, be sure to bring your best offers. And your appetites, whatever they may involve."
Low, conspiratorial chuckles answered from the group of vampires. As they continued talking, their voices dropped to a level too quiet for her to make out. But she tried, edging a bit closer to the terrace doors and feigning rapt interest in a hideous painting framed on the wall beside her.
Eavesdropping is a very rude habit.
The thought slammed into her mind from out of nowhere, as deep and rich as molasses and thick with a rolling Scots burr.
Can be dangerous too, lass.
Did she know that thick, dark voice? Even more unsettling, did its owner know her?
Danika sent a quick glance around the gathering, looking for familiar faces among the throng in the ballroom and the smaller groups clustered at its perimeter. Aside from Conlan's handful of cousins and their mates, there were none but strangers all around her.
Yet she was sure she'd heard that slow, sardonic Highland drawl before. She thought about the conspiring handful of Breed males on the terrace outside, and she wondered&nbsp;...
Just then, the French doors opened and the four vampires started to file into the mansion. Danika drew back, too late to pretend she hadn't been standing there for more than a few minutes.
The male leading the pack latched on to her instantly with chill, slate-gray eyes. Impeccably dressed in his Armani tux, black hair slicked artfully back from his face, he gave her a thin smile. "What have we here?" The voice that had reeked of arrogance from the other side of the terrace doors now softened with oily charm as all but one of his companions-a towering wall of muscle, broad shoulders, and brooding, dark menace-melted into the rest of the gathering. "To think I might have left the party tonight without the pleasure of being properly introduced to someone as lovely as you."
Danika offered nothing in response. Far from impressed by his attention, she was too busy trying to get a better look at the Breed male standing behind him. Bodyguard or thug, she couldn't be sure. Tall and formidable, he wore more than one firearm beneath the conservative cut of his graphite wool suit coat. His gaze was partially concealed by the careless tousle of his thick chestnut-brown haih="ut-browr, but she could make out the savage line of a knife scar down one beard-grizzled cheek, and the bridge of his nose bore the jag of a poorly healed break.
As she stared at him, his generously sculpted mouth turned grim, lips pressed flat and forbidding above his square chin.
Something prickled deep in her veins. The face was all wrong, but the grave twist of that mouth&nbsp;...
She knew that dark look. Didn't she?
"My name is Reiver," said the vampire with the dry voice and oily air that made her skin crawl. His gaze traveled the length of her, brows lifting when he noticed the scarlet sash around her waist. "And you must be the widow MacConn. A shame about your man. Dangerous business he was in."
Danika flinched at the reference to her dead mate. In fact, she could've sworn she detected the faintest quirk of reaction from Reiver's menacing associate too. "Conlan was killed doing something he believed in. Dangerous or not, he served the Order with honor."
He lowered his head in a vague acknowledgment. "Of course. And you have my sympathy for your loss."
She might have believed him even a little, if not for the leering glint in his eyes. "I'm not particularly interested in anything you have to offer. Now, if you'll excuse me-"
When she pivoted to walk away, his hand came down firmly on her arm. Danika heard the rumble of a growl but had no time to register if it came from Reiver or the guard behind him, whose body had gone rigid and alert, vibrating with menace. "Such a sharp tongue. The heathen warriors of the Order might find that attractive in a female, but you're a long way from Boston, my dear. A little courtesy would serve you well."
She glanced down to the long fingers that were snaked around her wrist and holding on like a vise. His bodyguard moved forward as though prepared to step in, but Danika refused to be cowed by either of them. "Let go of me."
Reiver's smile became a thin-lipped sneer. "We've hardly had a chance to get acquainted. Stay. I insist."
"I said let go."
He didn't. And in that next instant, the ballroom echoed with the sharp crack of her open palm connecting with his face.
It seemed as though the entire room froze in response.
Bodies ceased moving on the dance floor. The orchestra faded into quiet. Conversations halted, heads turned. Everyone stared at Danika and at the vampire who was seething in cold fury, blocked from delivering a return strike by the barricading wall of his bodyguard, who had placed himself between them.
"Danika!" Emma rushed over with James from across the gathering. They gaped at her as though she were a child who'd just poked a stick at a coiled viper. "Danika, what have you done?"
"Get my car," Reiver snarled to his bodyguard. His fury was o"0es fury bvious, glowing in the amber transformation of his eyes and the thinning slits of his pupils. Behind the curled edge of his lip, his emerging fangs gleamed razor sharp. "This spectacle is over. I'm leaving."
"Mr. Reiver," James interjected, clearly anxious. "I cannot apologize enough for this&nbsp;...&nbsp;whatever this was about. Please pardon our cousin. She couldn't possibly have intended-"
"No," Danika said. "You don't have to make excuses for me. I can speak for myself. And if I felt an apology was warranted, I'd give it."
Reiver's bodyguard muttered a curse under his breath while his employer's glare burned even hotter. "The car, Brandogge. Now."
As the big male moved off to carry out the command, Reiver raked Danika with a scathing look that practically stripped her bare. "Perhaps a little time in Scotland will help smooth the coarse edge America has left on you, Widow MacConn. For your sake, I hope so."
Before she could tell him where to stick that suggestion, Conlan's kin steered her away to let Reiver leave the party without further incident.
* * *
Bran swung Reiver's black Rolls-Royce around to the front of the Darkhaven and put the sedan in park on the paved half-moon drive outside the entrance. His hands itched on the steering wheel, his pulse hammered hard in his ears. Every instinct was on full alert, telling him to get his ass back inside and make sure the situation didn't escalate with his boss and the widowed Breedmate from Boston.
Not that he had to worry about Reiver. His reputation would insulate him from the worst of the gossip following his public rebuke and the attention it attracted from everyone tonight. Tomorrow it would be all but forgotten, or at least hushed into nonexistence. There were few members of the Breed nation in Scotland who didn't know better than to invite the wrath of Edinburgh's most sinister resident.