I slipped back outside the room and returned to the kitchen, where I pulled out a skillet and the eggs, then found the bread and butter. I popped four slices of bread in the toaster, then scrambled half a dozen eggs. Might as well make some for my lunch, as well.
Leo came into the room, freshly shaven and dressed. "What's up that you would disturb my beauty sleep?"
"Lots going on today and most of it bad," I told him.
"I guess you'd better give me the bad first." He poured orange juice for both of us and added a jar of jam to the table as I set his plate in front of him and sat opposite with my own food.
"Where to start?" I told him about Peyton and everything I'd found out.
"Shit." He hit the table with his fist. "Not Peyton, too? She doesn't deserve this--she's had a hard life and now . . . now we don't even know if she's alive. So what else . . . and I hope it gets better."
"That remains to be seen. Did you talk to Geoffrey about us wanting to see him yet?" I leaned back in my chair and savored the hot food. I was hungrier than I'd thought.
"Yeah, he said he'd decide in a few days."
"Well, it would seem he's already made up his mind." I handed him the invitation. "What can you tell me about Regina . . . and Lannan? Rhia told me to be careful around Lannan."
Leo's gaze flickered up to meet mine. "Yeah, I can see why she would. Lannan's . . . Lannan is a pervert, pure and simple. He thrives on the decadent vamp scene--the bloodwhores and the raves. In fact, I have a feeling that's what this little party is all about. And for some reason they want you there."
"Give me the lowdown on decorum. I need to know what not to do."
"Good idea. Formality among the vamps is never to be taken lightly. If they were responding to my question, the invitation would have been addressed to me. No, they want to see you for some reason. Don't trust any of them, but you can't refuse to show up. Nobody can refuse the Emissary."
I fingered the invitation, my stomach lurching. Decadent vamp scene didn't sit well with me. And bloodwhores sat even worse. My mother had been a bloodwhore and it had gotten her killed.
"Rhia said something about me being careful around Lannan," I said.
Leo bit into his toast, and chewed thoughtfully. After a moment, he swallowed and said, "I don't like talking about them. They employ me and I have to be careful in dividing my loyalties. But she's right. Lannan Altos prefers his bloodwhores with dark long hair, muscled, and . . . to be blunt . . . hot. You have the look he'd go after."
Hot? Me? I blinked. I never thought of myself in that category. But it would sound like a come-on if I protested. "Wonderful. Just what I need. Some creaking, ancient lecher after me. One with fangs, no less. "He's going to get a surprise if he tries anything. I don't swing that way."
"You're in for a surprise. Lannan is a golden boy. If I swung his way, it would be hard to resist but I'm straight and under Geoffrey's protection, so he can't touch me. Hey, you have anything to wear to this formal shindig?"
I stared at him. "Dude, I just got in from LaLa land, I've lived on the road since I was six--more or less. Do you think I have anything appropriate?" I didn't have time to think about shopping, not with everything going on. But Leo wouldn't let it drop.
"Then let's get going. You were the one invited, you have to look good. I've got a tux they bought me just for these occasions. And I know Rhiannon has some pretty dresses that will work.
Finish breakfast. We're going shopping."
Staring at him like he'd just grown another head, I finished my eggs and toast, and silently followed him out to the car.
"I hope you realize I'm not about to spend all of my money on some shiny ball gown," I mumbled.
Leo shook his head. "Don't sweat it. I'll expense the cost. Geoffrey will approve." And just like that, the vampires were buying me a fancy new dress.
After she got home from work and spent a few minutes with Leo, Rhiannon joined me in my room. We had three hours before we had to be at the party and both she and Leo were insistent that I had to dress the part.
"What does one wear to a vampire soiree?" I held up the little black dress I'd bought. It was short, sophisticated, and could pull off cocktails or dancing without a problem. Speaking of cocktails, the thought of what might be on the beverage menu made me a little queasy.
"That's nice--what is it? Silk?"
I nodded. "Leo wouldn't let me buy anything cheap."
"It's got a sweetheart neckline. Hmm," she said, a thoughtful look on her face. "Whatever you do, don't bring attention to your neck. No flashy necklaces or chokers. Not a good place to accentuate."
She smoothed the velvet skirt and top she was wearing. "How do I look? Okay?"
"Okay? That green sets off your hair and turns you into a torch. You're gorgeous. You look Old World beautiful." I paused. "Hey, Leo warned me about Lannan. I'll be cautious. I'm nobody's bloodwhore. Ever."
"I know this is hard." She paused. "How much do you hate them, Cicely? And is it just for what they did to your mother?"
I glanced up at her, trying to figure out how to explain. "I don't. Not really. Krystal was a grown woman and she made her own choices, as stupid as they were. The truth is I don't hate vampires. I just don't trust them. No matter how many safeguards you put into place, they're predators and they can lose control. And when a vamp loses control, you're toast."
"Is that how you feel about Grieve now?"
I winced. "I love him . . . but can I ever trust him? I don't know. He's in the court of the enemy. They rip people to shreds. They feed on life energy as well as blood. When you think about it, the Indigo Court is far worse than the Vein Lords. Vampires you can reason with to an extent, and they're willing to make deals. I don't think the Indigo Court Fae are quite so civilized."
I held up the braided red leather belt I'd bought. "What do you think about this belt? I still don't know what shoes to wear."
"The belt's great. Wear these," she said, hunting through my mostly empty closet and holding up a pair of patent leather ankle boots with padlocks. "Cute. Very fetish. They'll go over well."
"I love boots." I slid them on, zipping up the sides and fastening the padlocks. Testing the stilettos cautiously, I hung the key around my neck, then stood to buckle the belt around my waist. "How do I look?"
Rhiannon gasped. "Gorgeous! You look so hot! You need makeup though." She paused, then added, "I never thought I'd be looking forward to a vampire's party. Hell, I never thought I'd ever be attending a vampire's party. Leo leaves me out of his job affairs and that's pretty much the way I want it. But if they can help me save my mother, I'll go." She paused, her words soft. "Life's changed for good. There's no going back, is there?"
I shook my head. "No, there's no going back."
"Do you think Myst is going to kill Heather?"
The question was so plaintive, so unexpected, that it drained the energy out of me and I slumped on her bed next to her.
Shrugging, I shook my head. "I don't know, Rhia. I don't know what's going to happen. But take a little time off from work. Tomorrow, let's go hunting in the ravine. Didn't you say Kaylin was going to be coming over today?"
"He called. Had to make it tomorrow. He'll be over in the morning. You really think we can go into Geoffrey's mansion, into a nest of vampires, and manage to walk out alive?"
I nodded, faking confidence. "We have to stop Myst. We have to find Peyton and Heather. When we come home, we'll go through Marta's charms and look for something to help protect us."
"What if they're feeding off her? Off Peyton? What if they're . . . using them?" The brilliant amber of her eyes grew watery.
"Then . . . we pray they can hold out till we find a way to save them. Your mother is strong--she possesses a lot of power. Peyton's no wimp. Try to keep hope. Sometimes, hope is all we have."
With a sigh, she nodded and gathered up her purse. We put on our finishing touches--makeup, jewelry, and headed downstairs to where Leo waited with a limo--sent from Regina herself.
One thing for sure: Life certainly wasn't boring. And another: Walking into a nest full of party-hearty vampires scared the hell out of me. Especially when I didn't know what they wanted.
The limo smoothly glided through the empty streets of New Forest, navigating the ice with ease.
I thought about what lay ahead. Geoffrey would be there. It was his house and as Regent of the Vampire Nation, North American branch, he had dominion over the entire continent when it came to the vampires. Geoffrey was one of the most powerful vampires alive . . . or undead, to be technically correct. But even he couldn't touch Regina. She walked among the sacred elite--an extension of the Crimson Queen to whom all of the Vein Lords paid homage. All but the rogues, that is.
While waiting for Rhiannon to come home, I'd flipped through more of A History of the Vampire Nation, and ran across a few references to Geoffrey, Regina, and Lannan. From what I could tell, they were all ancient and powerful.
Geoffrey was estimated to be nearly two thousand years old. From what was known, his origins were based somewhere in the Xiongnu period in what eventually became Mongolia.
It's thought he'd been a lord during the time period, though he apparently hadn't given out any real details on his early life. And it was rumored that he'd sired Myst--although there wasn't much written about his life during that period.
Regina and Lannan, on the other hand, were far older, with their roots going back to Sumer. Regina had been a priestess of Inanna, so the rumors went, though they couldn't be verified except by her and it didn't appear she'd been chatting up the historian.
What was known was that it didn't pay to say no to any one of them. That alone sealed any doubt I had about accepting their offer, whatever it might be. I didn't like the thought of dealing with Geoffrey's crew, but I didn't want their fangs draining me dry, either. As far as betraying Grieve to them, I'd have to figure out a way to save him while getting rid of Myst.
I'd glanced over some of the punishments and inducements the vampires had used on the living through the years and decided that my conscience had needed a good reality check.
Leo and Rhiannon looked like a matched set--it was obvious they were together. I wondered what Geoffrey thought about Leo's involvement with my cousin. If he even bothered to think about it. Perhaps it was beneath his notice.
Ulean had opted to stay home--or wherever it was she stayed when she wasn't following me on the astral. The vamps didn't like astral or Elemental beings hanging out and Ulean had felt it would be safer all the way around.
I'll be listening from a distance. I'll come if you need me.
As we pulled into the driveway of the large estate, I wasn't surprised to see a plethora of BMWs, Porsches, Jaguars, and other high-end cars.
The lights of the mansion were sparkling and even from out on the lawn we could tell that the party was rolling. The manor spread across the lot--it must have been a good two acres--a vision in white with gold trim. Three stories high, and probably a basement, it reminded me of a Grecian temple plucked out of ancient Athens and dropped into the middle of New Forest. Columns supported a wide covered deck, and huge granite urns containing rosebushes were spaced evenly around the perimeter of the porch. Music drifted out, I caught snippets of Lenny Kravitz and Gary Numan and Seether, along with voices riding the wind, whispers of conversation in languages far older than any I'd ever heard.
As we headed up the stairs, I glanced back at the others. "Stick together. Don't let them separate us. We don't know what we're getting into and we can't afford to get embroiled in any skirmishes."
Leo nodded. "Remember not to meet a vampire's gaze. It's considered a challenge, and against an older, powerful vampire, we wouldn't last a minute."
Before I could reach for the doorbell, the double doors swung open and a tall, beautifully sculpted man stood before us. He was wearing a butler's uniform and his eyes were the black of night. Vampire. He bowed, swinging low.
"Hi, Regina asked me to come--" I started to say but he cut me off.
"You are Mistress Cicely Waters. And with you, your companions Master Leo Bryne, and Mistress Rhiannon Roland." The vampire nodded at each of us in turn. "You are expected. Please follow me."
He stood back and I stared at the door, feeling like I was about to walk right into the giant monster's gaping maw. Once the doors shut behind us, we'd be at the mercy of vampires and nobody knew where we were. I glanced at the others. Leo nodded. Sucking up the fear, I stepped across the threshold.
The foyer twinkled. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, with a hundred crystals dangling from the incandescent candlestick lights, and the hallway glittered as if bathed in diamonds from the refracted light.
"How beautiful," Rhiannon whispered.
Looking to the left, a short hallway forked to the right directly before ending in a set of double doors, their ivory surfaces covered in golden scrollwork. Directly in front of us, a master staircase led up several flights, splitting in a T at the central landings.
To our right, the hallway forked in a left turn, but the double doors were open and music filtered out from the room.
Huge potted plants decorated the foyer, miniature trees in porcelain urns that must have easily weighed a hundred pounds without the weight of the soil or plant. Tables lined the walls--long consoles in marble and wrought brass and bronze. Paintings lined the walls and as I approached the nearest I saw the name Monet and the brush strokes and realized that it was authentic. Whoever owned this estate had money. Good money.