by Alyssa Day
Conlan whirled around, bending down with that innate grace that had fooled so many opponents into underestimating his ferocity, and swept Alaric’s legs out from under him. Alaric’s own ass hit the dirt, hard, before he could teleport. His control over the skill was only slowly improving in spite of practice, and trying to use it while under attack was tricky, at best.
Riley burst out laughing. “That looked like a fritz to me. Did that look like a fritz to you, wittle snookums?”
The chubby baby chortled out a gurgling laugh. Probably at Alaric, if Aidan was anything like his parents.
Alaric jumped to his feet and brushed the dirt off his pants. “One hopes you are addressing your son and not me,” he said dryly, lowering his sword and bowing to his prince.
Conlan shouted out a laugh and then returned Alaric’s bow. A wide-eyed boy, probably shocked to hear his high prince and Poseidon’s high priest jesting so casually, ran up and retrieved the practice swords.
“I can’t actually see anybody ever calling you wittle snookums,” Conlan said, still laughing. “Nobody would dare.”
“I’m sure his mother did when he was Aidan’s size,” Riley said, grinning with mischief. “You weren’t always the scary high priest we all know and love, Alaric. Once you were a cute little baby, drooling on yourself and peeing your diaper.”
Alaric’s lip curled away from his teeth. “Your Highness, did you mean to beat me into submission with the wooden swords or with your bride’s conversation?”
Riley laughed again, not in the least offended. As an emotional empath, or aknasha, she could probably read his affection for her as easily as he could read Conlan’s worry in the lines of the prince’s face. They’d been friends for centuries, he and Conlan, and now that Atlantis was finally preparing to take its rightful place on the surface of the world once more, the problems kept coming, as hard and fast as Conlan’s attacks in the practice ring.
“Speaking of diapers, as much fun as it is to watch the two of you all sweaty and shirtless, I’m off to change your son’s. See you both at breakfast?” Riley leaned up to kiss her husband, and Alaric had to look away from the depth of emotion the two shared. But even he, who had been alone for so long and had little prospect for ever being anything but, could not begrudge his prince and friend the love and happiness he’d found with Riley.
Conlan watched his wife and child as they headed off toward the palace, but then he sighed and turned toward Alaric. “What news?”
“None good, unfortunately. The scientists Brennan and Tiernan stopped in the United States were not the only ones working toward shifter enthrallment. Europe has a great number of underemployed scientists who are working toward the same goal, evidently. Our sources tell us that not only has the continuing vampire enthrallment of shifters spread to Europe, but someone very highly placed in either Interpol or Scotland Yard’s new Paranormal Ops division is the ringleader.”
Conlan smashed his fist into his palm and swore. “The bad news keeps on coming. What is the European plan?”
Alaric raised his hand, palm up, and a glowing blue-green sphere of energy spread out to form the shape of Europe. He clenched his fist and it disappeared. “The vampire alliances are growing. The rumor is that an international consortium of vampires has formed, and it is planning a concerted strike on all human rebels, using enthralled shifters.”
“Quinn and her counterparts have finally hit them hard enough to hurt, have they?”
Alaric was proud that he barely flinched at her name. “Your wife’s sister is the rebel leader of all of North America, Conlan.” And the woman Alaric loved. Not that he would ever be able to say the words aloud.
Conlan looked at him with some sympathy, and Alaric deliberately removed any expression from his face. “Quinn is constantly in touch with other rebels throughout the world. Though the new laws are making rebel offensives more difficult.”
In spite of the dangers vampires represented, or perhaps because of them, more and more human nations were passing laws guaranteeing the vampires equal protection under the law. Shifters, as well. Alaric had no problem with that—most shifters were simply trying to live their lives in peace. The few who had gone rogue were the equivalent of the human populace’s criminal element.
But if the vampires succeeded in enthralling shifters, when they had never before been able to do so, they would have a ready-made army of warriors far more powerful than any human soldiers. And shifters could create more shifters easily and quickly. At the very least, it would be a bloodbath of apocalyptic proportions.
“Christophe is in London, isn’t he?”
“As you well know, having sent him there,” Alaric replied, raising one eyebrow. “Your point?”
“Let’s let him investigate. He’s already there, anyway. We’ll send Denal over to help.”
“You’re worried about Christophe, aren’t you?”
Conlan turned toward the palace and started walking, and Alaric fell into step beside him. “Aren’t you?” the prince said. “He’s close to going over a deadly edge lately—too much power and too little focus. I fear if we don’t give him something to concentrate on that he feels is worthwhile, we’ll lose him.”
“He should have entered the priesthood,” Alaric said darkly. “He has far too much magical power to be running around playing at swords.”
“Like the rest of us brainless warriors?” Conlan aimed a not-very-amused look at his friend.
“That’s not what I meant, and you well know it. If too much magic is left unchanneled and untrained, the wielder may become unstable. Mages have died—or killed—from simply going mad; and many of those had less power than Christophe.” Alaric’s mood darkened, thinking of one high priest in particular. The elders had banded together to kill Nereus before he could destroy all of Atlantis with his rage and magic, more than eight thousand years ago.
“That’s why I sent him to London to retrieve the Siren. It should be an easy job, and he has always been drawn to that part of the world, in spite of what happened to him there.”
“Or perhaps because of it,” Alaric said. “Akin to worrying a wound until it won’t heal.”
“Can that kind of childhood trauma ever heal?” Conlan shook his head. “I don’t know. You’ve been inside his head, what do you think?”
Alaric thought about it until they’d reached the palace gardens. Then he stopped, and Conlan halted to face him and listen. “I don’t know. Something is wrong—twisted—inside him. What humans did to him when he was such a small boy caused him to hate them all, as a race, with an almost zealous passion. Can that ever change? I simply don’t know.”
“And yet he protects them,” Conlan said. “There must be hope in that.”
“He protects them as duty, and as obligation. He fights vampires because he likes killing, not out of any altruism. He hones his magic in forbidden ways, but I cannot catch him at it, so I cannot censure him for it. Something—or someone—will drive him to the edge of reason, and then we will know whether Christophe will either heal and come to find some peace, or be forever destroyed by the bitterness festering inside him.”
“When will that happen, do you think? It would be good if we could schedule around it, since we have so many other crises to deal with,” Conlan said wryly.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Alaric replied, in the same tone. “While we’re discussing such pleasant topics, we need to move on to the maidens still held in magical stasis. The elders have warned me that the magic shows signs of deteriorating and we must either release them all or risk their deaths.”
Conlan winced. “Riley calls them the frozen virgins, and she told me if I don’t free them immediately, I can sleep on the couch for the rest of our marriage.”
Alaric shook his head in mock sorrow. “I cannot believe I’ve lived to see the day when our mighty high prince and fiercest warrior was brought low by the whims of a helpless human female.”
“Helpless. Ha! There’s a word I’d never apply to Riley,
at least not in her hearing, if I were you, my friend. She’s small but mighty.”
“I consider myself warned. Shall I send Denal to London, then?”
Conlan paused, and then he nodded. “Yes. He has a calming influence on Christophe, in any case, and perhaps with a new mission, Denal will quit mooning around over my wife.”
Alaric couldn’t suppress the grin. “I believe Riley called it puppy love.”
“Yeah, yeah. He’ll get over it when he finds a woman of his own. But in the meantime it’s damned annoying the way one of my sworn warriors glares at me whenever I kiss my own wife.”
“Perhaps it’s not glaring so much as the same nausea we all feel at your repulsive love-struck state, my prince.”
Conlan threw an elbow, and Alaric just managed to avoid it. “Don’t forget I can kick your ass, priest or no, my friend.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Conlan threw up his hands, muttering a suggestion in ancient Atlantean as to Alaric’s future activities, some of which were clearly anatomically impossible even for one as powerful with magic as he. Alaric simply laughed and went to find Denal, but his humor faded and vanished as his thoughts returned to Christophe.
Something would have to be done about the warrior, probably sooner rather than later. Given the nature and power of Christophe’s magic, Alaric would be the one forced to do it. It wasn’t a task he looked forward to. Perhaps this mission in London would finally bring Christophe some measure of peace.
Christophe woke from a fantastic dream where he was in bed with the most gorgeous woman he’d ever met to realize two things: (1) it wasn’t a dream, and (2) it was turning into a nightmare.
“What in the nine hells?” he yelled out, reaching for a dagger as the ominous and furious face loomed over the side of the bed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on his perspective, his daggers weren’t currently in reach of his hands, which were full of warm, curvy, and definitely naked female.
“I would have preferred you steal the good silver,” Hopkins snapped, depositing a tray on Fiona’s bedside table.
Fiona squeaked something and yanked the covers over her head, but not before Christophe saw that her cheeks were flaming red.
“I would prefer that you didn’t come in a room without knocking,” Christophe replied, echoing the butler’s starched tone.
“As if you have any right to have preferences in this house,” Hopkins muttered, before stalking to the door. He paused before exiting, squaring his shoulders. “I would have hoped I’d raised you better, Lady Fiona.”
Then he closed the door quite carefully behind himself.
“Nice parting shot,” Christophe said, pulling the quilt away from Fiona’s sleep-tousled hair and flushed cheeks. “He’s good with the zingers, isn’t he?”
“He’s right,” she snapped. “I do know better. And I don’t know you at all, but I . . . we . . . oh. What a—”
“Great night? Best you’ve ever had?” Christophe suggested.
“Mistake,” she said firmly, yanking the quilt out of his hands and wrapping it around herself as she jumped out of bed. Then she paused, a rueful expression crossing her face. “Although, yes, it was rather great, wasn’t it?”
A wave of triumph swept through Christophe and on the heels of that, a more confusing and unexpected emotion. Relief? Gratitude?
“I’ve got to go to the book signing, partner,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes. She seemed almost shy, which was a little shocking after her wildness the night before. “You’re welcome to stay here or go wherever you nefarious criminal types go during the day.”
“Oh, I’m with you, ninja,” he said, jumping out of bed and stretching. She stared at him, her eyes widening when she noticed his erection, which hadn’t been the least bit discouraged by the butler’s interruption. Waking up with an armful of beautiful woman apparently made his cock very happy and Christophe wasn’t embarrassed to show her what she did to him.
She hastily lifted her gaze, her cheeks flaming even hotter. “Well, get dressed. And—and put that thing away.”
He laughed as she fled into the bathroom, trying and failing to remember the last time he’d woken up in such a wonderful mood. Oh, yes, this day was going to just get better and better.
* * *
London, Charing Cross Children’s Books, three hours later
Christophe looked around and wondered if the third level of the nine hells resembled a children’s bookshop. Tiny humans in every shape, color, and size ran, walked, crawled, laughed, cried, and shrieked their way through every inch of the place until the walls themselves reverberated with the noise.
He considered pulling his daggers and discovering if he could scare them into shutting up. Bad enough he’d had to put up with the scowls and glares from that punk chauffeur on the drive over. The boy had a bad case of first love for his boss. Fiona had been too distracted to notice the killing looks Sean kept shooting Christophe, who’d considered, then discarded, the notion of dumping the youngling in the middle of the Thames River just to teach him a lesson.
Now that they were finally here, in the middle of all this chaos, Fiona was at least outwardly calm and happy, smiling peacefully as she talked to the shop owner over in the corner, next to a table with what looked like hundreds of books piled on it. The noise faded a little from the forefront of his mind as he drank in the sight of her. She was every inch Lady Fiona today in a soft dress the pale blue of the sky at noon on a clear day. She wore heels with a ribbon thing at the backs, and her pale hair was worn down in silken waves that framed her beautiful face.
His mind stuttered at the sight of her—all rosy cheeks, flushed with pleasure, and huge blue sparkling eyes. Memories of her passion the night before swept through him and he had to focus every ounce of his concentration to keep his cock from swelling in response. Not appropriate here.
But later, when he got her alone, oh, then he’d strip her bare in the sunlight and see how her beauty shone in the daylight as compared to her moonlit perfection. He’d—
“Help me with this?” Declan’s voice interrupted Christophe’s erotic thoughts about the boy’s sister and an unexpected niggle of guilt twinged him. Not exactly respectful to think that kind of thought in front of her little brother.
“Help you with what?” His voice came out brusquer than he’d intended.
Declan shot him a curious glance but only pointed to the folding chairs. Together with some of the bookstore staff, they set up the chairs for the parents and tossed around more of the beanbag chairs for the children as Fiona prepared to give her talk. Christophe looked up to find her smiling at him, and he shot her a grin of purely wicked intent. She blushed a hot pink color, which pleased him so much he caught himself whistling like a fool.
The owner stood up near the table and clapped her hands. She must have had some magic herself, because the overwhelming din quickly settled down into a dull roar and then quieted to almost a hush.
“Thank you all so much for coming out today to hear our favorite guest author. I know she needs no introduction, so without further ado, here is Lady Fiona Campbell, England’s beloved author and illustrator, to talk about her book, The Forest Fairies.”
The room erupted into whistles and applause, and Fiona’s cheeks pinked up again, which fascinated Christophe so much he nearly tripped over one of the younglings near the back of the crowd, where he stood. The tiny girl looked up at him, all big eyes and pigtails, and he tried not to grimace. She scooted nearer to her mum, though, as if she’d seen inside him to the scary monster within. That was one thing about kids, they were perceptive.
He’d known the couple who’d adopted him were zealots past the point of insanity, but nobody in that backward hamlet listened to a four-year-old child. At least not until he’d started crying for his parents and for Atlantis, and his budding magic talent had displayed itself.
Then they’d listened.<
“Mister, are you okay?” The small voice caught his attention and snapped him out of dark thoughts. “You look sad.”
It was another small girl, this one brave enough to approach the scary man. Before he could answer, she reached out with one tiny hand and patted his arm. “When I’m sad, I read one of Lady Fiona’s books and it makes me feel better. Just listen to her read and I bet you feel better, too.”
He blinked and stared down at her in utter astonishment. No child had dared approach him in centuries. He’d even wondered sometimes if when Atlantean parents warned children of the things that go bump in the night, they pointed to him as a fearsome example. Now this tiny girl whose curly-haired head barely reached his waist was comforting him.
Any moment, a seahorse would sprout wings and fly through the room.
She smiled up at him, her two front teeth missing, and something in his heart, long unused and rusty, lurched a little. “I think you’re right,” he told her, but then her mother was there, grabbing the girl’s hand and snatching her away.
“So sorry if she bothered you,” the woman said, but Christophe saw the suspicion in her eyes. She probably thought he was a predator, here to snack on the children.
“No bother at all.”
Declan stepped up next to him and grinned at the woman and little girl. “Declan Campbell, Fiona’s brother. I see you’ve met our friend, Christophe.”
The woman’s suspicion melted away in a genuine smile. “No, but Lily did. She’s never known a stranger she doesn’t make into a friend in a heartbeat.”
“A dangerous trait in a child,” Christophe said harshly. “Not all who smile are friends.”
Her smile faltered and she took a step back. “Of course. Quite right.” As she hurried away with her child, Declan shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced up at Christophe, who had a few inches on him.
“Making friends wherever you go, I see.”
Christophe glared at the boy. “Anyone who calls another friend too easily is a fool.”
Declan shrugged, not intimidated in the least. “And anybody who doesn’t is alone. Which is worse?”