MENCHERES MADE NO COMMENT WHEN I appeared later with Vlad at my side. If he'd guessed at any of the drama, he kept it to himself. My mother and Denise had arrived. I'd seen their plane circling overhead while I climbed off the cliff down to solid ground.
A scream picked my head up as we approached the house. Mencheres closed his eyes and gave a shake of his head. He'd been standing outside awaiting my return.
"They've just been informed of his death," he said by way of explanation.
"You needed to speak with me?"
Mencheres blinked at my controlled tone. "I thought you wanted to see your mother first?"
"No, let's talk now."
Vlad gave a polite bow. "I'll leave you to speak privately," he said, and went inside.
Mencheres considered me with the same evaluat ing stare I gave him. Neither of us moved. Finally he broke the silence.
"I've used my power to try and locate Bones's body. For an instant, I saw him, shrinking into the state of true death, with a knife pierced through his chest."
The image slammed into me with more force than a cannonball. It was all I could do not to succumb to hysterical shrieks, like I could hear Annette doing. My fingernails punctured my palms as I ruthlessly squelched down my grief.
"Do you know where he is?" At least then I could bring him home. If nothing else, I could do that.
"No. I lost the image right afterward. I think Patra's using a blocking spell. She's used them before to keep me from locating her. I will try again, of course."
It was the first sincere, appreciative thing I'd said to him. Mencheres didn't smile, but some of the tightness left his face.
"It is my duty and desire to give Bones the farewell he deserves."
We didn't say anything after that for a while. At last, Mencheres spoke again.
"By his order while he was yet alive, Bones bequeathed everything to you. You are now Master of his line and co-Master of mine. I swore by my blood to honor the union forged with him, so by my blood, I will swear to honor it with you, as was his wish."
A lump barreled its way up my throat, and it, too, got thrown back down with all the other emotions I couldn't allow myself to feel. Instead, I nodded.
"If that's what he wanted from me, I'll do it."
Mencheres did smile then. "He'd be proud of you, Cat."
A small, despairing smile stretched my mouth. "That's all I have to keep me going."
There was the sound of something smashing inside. I straightened. "Is there anything else? I have to see to Annette. She sounds like I feel."
"The rest can wait until later. Go on. Tend to his people."
Despite my jealousy, massive grudge for her trying to sabotage my relationship, and outright envy at the years she'd been with Bones, when I saw Annette, I wanted to comfort her. If there was anyone here who knew exactly how I felt, it was her.
"Come here, Annette."
I peeled her out of Ian and Spade's arms. Both of them had been holding her, either for comfort, or to prevent her from smashing something else. There were several broken objects around her. Pinkish tears ran in torrents from her eyes, making her look positively awful.
"Let me go," she yelled at Spade. "Don't you understand, I don't want to go on without Crispin!"
Oh, how I seconded that. Still, Vlad was right. Bones deserved his retribution, and it was my job to see that he got it.
I grasped Annette's head.
"You will go on, because you owe Bones that. Patra's hoping his death means she's off the hook, but we're going to show her that she made the biggest mistake of her life. Come on, Annette. Make Bones glad he changed you into a vampire centuries ago-and his enemies terrified of it."
Dark pink streaks continued to pour down Annette's cheeks, but her mouth tightened into a hard line. I watched as her features changed from the twisted disfigurement of sorrow to the steely, collected face of the female who'd tried her damnedest to ruin my relationship when we met.
She swiped at her cheeks and rose to her feet.
They're going down, my look promised her.
You bet they are, hers replied.
Then she startled me by kneeling, her disarrayed head bowed. "Crispin told me he'd name you Master of his line if anything happened to him, so here and now, I pledge my loyalty."
I wasn't prepared for this. Then the other members of Bones's line began to follow suit, until even Tate knelt.
Spade moved next to me, but he didn't kneel, since he was Master of his own line. Instead, he lowered his head and kissed my engagement ring.
"I'll stand by your side, Cat, for the sake of my friend who would have expected no less from me."
I wanted to say something in the face of all this, but my throat closed off. Rodney murmured similar words and also kissed that glittering red stone. Ian surprised me by following suit. I dug my nails into my palms, fighting back the tears that tried to choke me.Don't you dare cry, I reprimanded myself.Don't you dare.
After all the vampires made their pledge, I cleared my throat.
"Thank you. I swear I'll prove worthy of your trust. As Spade said, Bones would have expected no less. Mencheres?"
He tilted his head. "Yes?"
"We'll hold an assembly in the near future for those under Bones's line to formally acknowledge you. After that, the focus is the same. We are at war."
"Why in the near future? Is there a mandatory waiting period?"
Mencheres wrinkled his forehead. "No, but in light of this sudden, tragic event, you have time-"
"Bullshit. I'm not going to get any cheerier, so let's get this out of the way. Bones's people will be freaking out with him dead, and the longer they're in limbo, the stronger Patra gets. What's the soonest this thing can be arranged?"
Mencheres looked taken aback. I ignored that and tapped my foot for punctuation.
"Tomorrow night. I will notify the proper leaders."
"Tomorrow night, then."
The question was, what in the name of God was I supposed to do with myself until then?
After several comments that I hadn't slept, I went upstairs to one of the bedrooms just to shut everyone up. But as soon as I stretched out on the bed and felt the gaping emptiness next to me, I gave up and took a bath instead. For two hours I sat in the tub, staring at nothing.
Mencheres was in the doorway when I came out of the bathroom. "I have something for you," he said, and held out a small square box of carved antique wood.
"What is it?"
"Bones gave this to me several months ago to hold for you, in case anything happened to him."
"Set it on the bed." My voice was a rasp. I was afraid to take it, because there was a trembling in my hands that hadn't been there before. "And leave."
He did as I asked, and I was alone in the room with the box. It took me over twenty minutes before I had the courage to open it, and then I bit back a cry.
Pressed into the lining of the box's lid were pictures. The first was of the two of us last summer. Bones and I were on our swinging porch chair, his face in profile as he whispered something to me. Whatever it was, I was smiling.
The second photo was of me naked on a very tousled bed, clutching a pillow while lying on my side. My mouth was open, and I was sleeping with a sensual, lethargic expression on my face. One breast was visible while the other peeked out from the covers, as did the red curls between my legs. Somewhat embarrassed, of all things, I put it down and then noticed the writing on the back.
I took this one morning. You looked so lovely I couldn't resist. It makes me smile even now to imagine you blushing as you see it.
A strangled noise emerged from my throat at his familiar, elegant scrawl. I couldn't do this. It hurt so much I started to breathe in ragged, irregular gasps.
There was a folded note lying on top of whatever other items were in this box, with the wordsMy Beloved Wife written on it.
Instantly the letters blurred, because my eyes welled with tears that almost burned to get out.
Something in me knew if I read what was in that note, my delicate emotional control would disintegrate and I'd go insane. I shut the box and slid it under the bed. Busy, I had to keep busy. With warped resolve I dressed in the first pair of pants and top I found, not even seeing if they matched, and nearly ran out of the room.
Doc picked his head up as I entered the basement. He'd been twirling his two six-shooter guns. Most vampires were into knives, swords, or other archaic weapons, but Doc had a fixation for guns. He was never without them.
"Reaper," he acknowledged me.
"How old are you?"
If he was surprised by my sudden question, he didn't show it. Although I'd been around Doc off and on for a week, we hadn't spoken at length.
"A hundred and sixty, living years included." He had a pleasant Southern drawl that made each word sound more polite. Briefly I wondered if his colors had been blue or gray.
He held out one of his guns. "Want to give her a whirl?"
I'd run as if chased about forty miles in the woods, done two hours of solitary swordplay and more thinking than could ever be good for me. Guns? Why not?
"Your guns are female?" Asked as I took the piece. It required cocking to load. Mine were semi-automatic or fully, depending on what the situation warranted.
"Because, Cat, it's the feminine persuasion that's always the deadliest."
Dark humor. Under other circumstances, I could appreciate that. I twirled the gun on my fingers, cocking and aiming it in a blur of motion. Knives might be my favorite weapon, but that didn't mean I was an amateur with firearms.
"Very good," he noted. "That wall has only dirt on the other side of it. How's your shooting?"
In reply I unloaded the barrel into the designated area in a succession of six shots that echoed like only one. Doc smiled at the triangle outlined in holes. I didn't return it, not knowing if my face could form that expression anymore.
"Give me more bullets and I'll write my name," I said without real interest. "What about you?"
He took the gun and reloaded it. Then he spun both weapons in his hands with a speed my eyes couldn't follow, bouncing them off the ground and catching them, clanging them together in midair, and whipping them around his back and through his legs. All the while they went off, making the spectacle more dramatic by the bursts of loud fire. He had them back in my hands before the noise from the shots faded away.
I looked at the wall thirty yards away and got the joke. Doc had taken my triangle and turned it into an A, following up with a C and T with his fresh holes. Considering he'd done it during that dazzling display of tricks, it was very impressive.
"You'd be a hit with my team," I finally replied. "My guys would think that was the coolest thing ever."
"The law and I have a long, tangled history," he said with dry amusement. "So I'm happier far away from it."
"How did Bones come about changing you?"
Doc's features sobered. "He didn't. He's my grandsire. Annette changed me."
Oh. Now I glanced at him in an objective feminine way, noting the leanness of his frame, his attractively drawn face, hazel eyes, and slicked-back brown hair. Yeah, he looked like Annette's type.
"It wasn't what you're imagining. Back in the eighteen hundreds, I came upon four men cornering a woman behind a saloon. I shot two of them and the other two ran off. I didn't know I wasn't protecting the woman-I'd just denied her a hearty meal. Still, Annette didn't forget my misguided chivalry. When I was dying years later, she found me and offered me an alternative. So I took it."
It was something so like what Bones would have done, I turned away, blinking.Never forget a kindness. Apparently Annette believed that as well.
"You're not one of Bones's and you're a Master, so you're not under Annette's line anymore," I reasoned out loud. "So, then why are you here?"
He gave me a solemn look out of pale brown eyes. "The same reason you are. Because I don't forget my debts."