The rest of the room seemed to pause, the other—living—guests warily backing toward the exits. The last thing we needed were for the vampires to get set off because of a cat-fight. Even though Belinda wasn't exactly model material, the sight of two women rolling around in a wrestling match might just do it for these guys, and the fact that there were a few meals-on-wheels like me around would only serve to heighten their excitement.
Wade eased his way between Belinda and Menolly. He gently pushed them apart. "Mother, Menolly, back off. We don't want a fight here." He glanced at each one in turn.
Speak for yourself , psych-boy, I thought. Menolly loved a good fight. And it looked like Belinda was no slouch in the rough-and-ready category herself, though I'd wager she'd deny it.
"Please, Mother," he added, whispering so low that I could barely hear him. Only my cat's hearing helped me pick up what he was saying. "This is my group. Don't embarrass me in front of them."
She gave him that icy stare that only irate mothers can give and then sighed and sat down, shaking her head. "Have it your way. Ignore the fact that I gave birth to you and spent thirty-two hours in labor. Ignore the fact that I put you through medical school when that no-good father of yours disappeared and that I made sure you had enough to eat and all the clean clothes you could ever want. You're an adult now. But all I ever wanted was for you to be happy. I just try to find out a little bit about this girl you've fallen for, and you both nearly stake me for my questions. Don't mind me—I'm just an old woman, and my feelings don't count—"
Wade pressed his lips together and shook his head at the ceiling. "I'm sorry, Mother. You know I appreciate all you've done for me—"
"And I keep on doing for you, and it looks like now I'll be your mother forever, or until you drive me into the sun with your lack of consideration!"
Menolly bit her lip so hard I could see the tooth marks. She touched Wade on the arm. "I think we'd better get the meeting started." Ignoring Belinda entirely, she turned and walked away, effectively slapping the woman in the face.
I turned, wildly looking around for something to focus my attention on so I wouldn't break into hysterical laughter. Sassy noticed my expression and did the last thing in the world I was prepared for. She grabbed me and planted her lips full on mine as one of her hands reached up to caress my breast.
Shocked by how good her kiss felt, how exquisite her touch felt, I let her lock lips with me, swooning as I wondered languidly if she'd take me home with her and do delicious things to my body all night long. But, amid the lingering kiss and ensuing fantasies running through my mind, I realized my danger. Trying to keep panic at bay, I did my best to push Sassy back. Menolly had beat the warnings into my head: Vampires Are Not Safe. Do Not Mess Around with the Undead. Do Not Offer Yourself As a Willing Slushy Machine.
Don't get me wrong, the concept of having sex with another woman wasn't the issue—that had occurred to me before, and I expected one day I'd act on it—but Sassy was a vampire, not an FBH anymore, and her tongue in my mouth was a little more than I could handle at the moment. I had no designs, past my immediate carnal reaction, on being her love bunny.
As I was starting to get afraid that I hadn't objected quickly enough, Sassy broke it off. Staring at me with glittering eyes, she grabbed my hand and dragged me to the back of the room.
"Sorry about that," she muttered. "I just didn't want you to laugh. That might have caused problems. Most vampires take themselves way too seriously, and the laughter thing kind of gets to them."
"And you don't?" I couldn't help but ask.
"Heaven help me, no." She grinned at me and patted her hair back in place. "My dear, I didn't reach the age I did by taking myself seriously. You have to let go and laugh. It's a lesson I learned the hard way during life, and it's one that I hope never to forget in death. Undeath."
"Thank you," I murmured, still shaken by my reaction to her. "I think." Once I made sure we were well away from the melodrama playing out with Wade and his mother, I added, "I thought for sure there would be bloodshed between Menolly and Belinda."
Sassy stifled a laugh. "I think it's funny. Menolly's just trying to be accepted by Wade's nest, my dear, and her way of doing that is to earn the respect of his mother through asserting herself."
Somehow I didn't think Menolly gave a rat's ass about being accepted by Belinda Stevens, but I kept my mouth shut.
"I do pity the poor boy," Sassy continued. "I gather somebody got pissed off at him and turned his mother into a vampire in retaliation. Wade and his mother never got along in life. Now she's going to be on his back forever, because I can guarantee you, women like that do not give up control over their sons."
I glanced over my shoulder at the trio and shuddered. Just another reason why I never intended to marry. My family was warped enough, but add somebody else's family to the mix, and the possibilities were nightmarish. I turned back to Sassy.
"So, we really are looking forward to your party next week," I said, striving for some sense of normalcy.
She beamed. "My dear, it's simply going to be the event of the season! I'm glad you're coming," she added, reaching out to sweep my bangs out of my eyes. "You really are a lovely girl," she said in a husky voice, and I realized that Sassy was hiding more than the fact that she was a vampire. She was definitely a woman's woman. My stomach lurched as she swept her gaze up and down my body. The scary thing was that I found myself responding to the invitation. Vampires could charm Fae, but not as easily as they could humans.
"My boyfriend thinks so, too," I said, deciding that Chase had uses I hadn't put to the test. Deflecting interested vamps might just be one of them.
Sassy gave me a curious look, then after a moment shook her head and turned away. "It looks like they're ready to start the meeting," she said. "By the way, at my party, please remember that most of my old friends don't know I'm dead, so mum's the word."
With a giggle, she brushed a stray strand of her gray hair back into the tidy chignon she wore it in. Sassy's brilliant plum dress and sable wrap seemed lushly out of place in the basement meeting hall, but when I looked in her eyes, I realized how alone she must feel, hiding in the closet for so many reasons. She was a lonely woman, and it was obvious that she still had quite the conscience. Sassy Branson was a misfit, as were we all. And perhaps that is why I liked the woman.
By the time Menolly and I pulled into the driveway, she was willing to talk again. After the meeting, the moment I opened my mouth to say something, she shushed me, telling me to shut up. She fumed all the way home, driving a good sixty miles an hour, though I kept asking her to slow down. She didn't even notice when I plugged CCR into her CD player, a group she usually detested.
Morio's Subaru was in the yard, though, and so was Trillian's Harley. We'd jumped out of the Jag and headed for the house when she stopped me.
"Kitten, I'm sorry I was so snippy on the way home. It just took me some time to calm down. I never expected Wade's mother to be such a bitch."
"She is rather Jerry Springer, isn't she?" I said, giggling.
That cadged a smile out of her, and she wrapped her arm around my waist. "Yes, she is at that, Kitten," she said. "And that's precisely why Wade and I are going to just be friends. I don't think I could subject myself to frequent visits from his mother, even if he was the best lover in the world. And he's not. I like him, and I'll help with the group, but dating? I don't think so. Now, come on, let's go see what bad news the terrible trio have managed to dredge up."
Camille and her lovers were curled up on the sofa. Trillian sat on her left side, his arm draped over her thigh, and Morio was on her right, his arm resting around her shoulder.
"Have a party while we were gone?" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Camille flashed me a snarky look, but beneath her grin was a subdued look I seldom saw from her. Both Morio and Trillian were frowning. Actually, Morio was frowning, but Trillian had a scowl a mile wide.
Menolly pulled up the ottoman, while I dropped into the recliner. "Okay, Father—the war—the shield—Smoky… Spill it," I said.
Trillian snorted, then said, "Your father is safe, as far as I can tell. He disappeared into the woodlands near where your aunt is living. There is a price on his head, but he hasn't been caught. Your aunt is safe for the moment, too."
Relief must have shown on my face, because he added, "Don't get your hopes up. The war is in full swing. Y'Elestrial has moved on Svartalfheim, and the actual battle's begun." Trillian let out a long sigh, and I realized that he was as unhappy over the situation as we were.
"What about the OIA?" Menolly asked.
"They've been put under military rule. There isn't a chance in hell the cavalry will be coming to your rescue if something happens."
It was as bad as we feared, but at least our father and our aunt were both safe. I glanced at Camille. "And the shield we found at Zach's? And Smoky?"
As I spoke, a shadow flickered over Trillian's face, enough to tell me that somehow the dragon was the source of his irritation.
Camille bit her lip. "As we thought, the shield has demon energy behind it. My bet is that it belongs to one of the Hell Scouts. We left it out at Smoky's in his safekeeping. I don't want it in our house."
I stared at my hands, not wanting to think about the answer to the next question. But it had to be asked. "What did Smoky say about all this?"
She pushed herself off the sofa and walked over to the window, staring out into the darkened night. "An ill wind is blowing, and our names are riding the currents. I can feel it, as sure as I can feel my heart beating." She turned. "Smoky will help us, but he said we don't need to fly to the Northlands; he knows how to open a magical gate that will summon the Autumn Lord. He agrees that it's our best decision and our only real course of action."
"What's the price?" Menolly asked. "There has to be a price. We're dealing with a dragon and an old one at that."
Trillian jumped up and stormed into the kitchen. By the sound of it, he was rummaging around in the refrigerator. That was odd. Trillian never threw tantrums. He was a scary-ass cold-as-ice dude who rarely allowed his feelings to show. Menolly and I glanced at one another, then at Camille.
She cleared her throat. "In return for his help, I've agreed to become his consort for one week. We'll make the arrangements later, after we've taken care of this matter with the Puma Pride. I'll do whatever he wants, so long as it doesn't interfere with my oaths and allegiances to you two and to the Elfin Queen."
Concubine. While she didn't say the word, it echoed in my head. Yep, Smoky was going to have his way with Camille one way or another, and he'd just found the perfect excuse. Clever of him, but then again, he was a dragon, and we didn't dare ever forget that little fact.
A crash from the kitchen followed by "Gods almighty, where's the damned ketchup?" told us that Trillian was well and truly pissed.
Morio shook his head. "The price is high, but it's your decision. It can't be easy, being a dragon's mistress, but I believe he'll be honorable to his word. As much as he can be. That being said, he made it quite clear as to just what sort of services you'll be providing. I'd rest up before your week, Camille," he said with a soft smile. "You're going to be a very busy woman."
Startled, I turned away. Morio almost sounded like he was enjoying the fallout. As I caught his eye, he winked, and I hastily jerked my attention back to Menolly, who simply gave Camille an accepting nod as if it were a done deal, no further thought needed on the subject.
"And in return? What exactly did he promise?" Menolly asked.
"In return, he will open the barrier to the Northlands. And he'll summon the Autumn Lord. Menolly, you'd better not come with us. The spell has to be cast in the afternoon. Smoky insisted that Delilah, Zachary, Morio, and I come out to his land. He didn't invite Trillian, however." Camille let out a small grin. "I think he doesn't like the idea of—"
"He doesn't like the fact that you belong to me and that I'm only loaning you to him. And then, only if he returns you in one piece," Trillian said, stomping back into the room. He carried a large sandwich that looked far too messy.
I marched over to where he stood, holding the sub over the coffee table as he tried to keep the mustard from dripping. "Honestly, I know you're pissed, but this is ridiculous. Let me take that and I'll go make you another. I expect that Iris is in bed, or she'd do it."
Trillian gave me a blistering scowl but surrendered the massive hoagie, and I ran it into the kitchen, holding it out in front of me so it wouldn't drip all over my shirt. I dumped it in the garbage, then washed my hands. Before I set about making another for him—and one for myself—I took a quick peek in Iris's room to make certain she and Maggie were snuggled in for the night.
When I returned to the living room, Trillian was taking potshots at Smoky and berating Morio for allowing the deal to be struck.
"What was I supposed to do?" Morio said. "She's not my property. If she wants to fuck a dragon, I'm not going to stop her. And bluntly put, after what we felt on that shield today, I wouldn't bother to try. If it takes a roll in the meadow with Smoky to net us some much-needed information, then that's what it takes. Since Camille doesn't mind, why should we?"