Eighteen months ago…
István caught the vampiress Angyalka by luck. If she’d noticed him, he’d never have been able to jump her in time, slam her back hard against his body, and shove the discreetly palmed wooden stake over her heart.
Now, if she made any move to escape, she’d impale herself on the lethally sharpened stick and disintegrate. It was a classic move, perfectly executed. But it gave him no satisfaction since their quarry, the Ancient vampire Saloman, had just soared through the skylight in the glass-domed ceiling of the vampires’ nightclub, taking Elizabeth, the hunters’ bait, with him.
Fear, anger, and guilt would all have to wait. István’s immediate goal was to prevent the fiasco turning into a bloodbath. His team leader, Konrad, openly brandished a wooden stake, an understandable act of aggression which had brought Angyalka flying over the bar in the first place. Now, the backward surge of humans and the forward surge of vampires halted abruptly as everyone stared up to the skylight through which Saloman and Elizabeth had vanished.
There was even an instant when, from pure surprise, the vampiress held herself motionless as she took in her own position, clamped between István’s legs, pinioned by his arms. She couldn’t go forward onto the stake, so she strained back into him.
He followed with the stake, piercing her skin. He felt the wetness of blood under his palm, between her firm, soft breasts.
She was strong. But she wasn’t stupid. She stilled once more and then unhurriedly tilted her face up to look at him.
Her beauty crashed into him, a blow of raw, powerful lust. Short, stylish black hair framed piquant, almost elfin features that seemed oddly familiar. Fine, straight black brows sloped upwards like a devil’s over mocking, mysterious blue eyes so dark they looked navy. She had delicate, hollowed cheekbones, a short, straight nose, and a full, sensual mouth that just cried out to a man to crush it under his—if he was brave enough.
Big, jet earrings dangled from her pale shell-like ears. One caught against the creamy whiteness of her cheek as she twisted to gaze up at him. She wore a short little black silk dress with full-length, black leather boots. Long, slender legs, slim, elegant body, tiny waist, shapely breasts, and an alabaster, swanlike neck.
She looked like the angel carving over the club’s front door.
Her thick lashes drooped and rose again. The other vampires, interestingly, didn’t move. Perhaps they understood Angyalka’s danger. Perhaps she told them telepathically to be still. Her strange, dark blue eyes held his while, deceptively casual, she recited the club rules: “No fighting, no biting.”
Even through the relentless beat of the surrounding music, her voice wrapped around his loins like velvet, soft, dark, and seductive as sin. And it carried to the other vampires, who made no further move toward the hunters. Konrad and Mihaela, realizing they wouldn’t have to fight their way out after all, began to run for the exit in pursuit of Elizabeth and Saloman.
Deliberately, Angyalka pushed her firm bottom back into István’s hips. “What about you, hunter? Are you leaving too?” She smiled, rocking subtly against the erection he couldn’t hide. “Or are you staying to dance?”
The terrifying thing was, even with Elizabeth at the mercy of the monster they’d come to kill, he was tempted. And seeing it, she began to sway to the music, playing havoc with the lust already raging through his body.
He was far too old a hand to fall for this trick.
He stepped back. But like lightening, as soon as her hand could move, it flew up to cover his on the stake between her breasts. Electricity zinged through his fingers. He knew an urge to drop the stake and just palm her breast instead. As if she knew it, her siren smile broadened. Without warning, she spun to face him, revealing her fangs and all the very real danger that lurked below the pretended seduction of her eyes.
He’d held her immobile in front of her people. He’d humiliated her in her own bar, and she wouldn’t forget it. But he’d no time to barter words with a vampire, not even this one. He had to find and save the woman he loved, who would never ever love him.
“No dance, then,” she hissed. “Next time, it will be different.”
He didn’t doubt that. Acknowledging it, he gave her a lopsided smile as he backed away to the door. Then he turned and ran from the club to begin the futile search for Elizabeth.
“So this is Budapest.” The vampire Basilio leaned his back against the side of the chain bridge spanning the River Danube and gazed beyond the passing traffic to the city spread out on either side.
Jacob looked too, although with less interest. He was sure the castle and the steep hills behind were very picturesque, and the large, grand buildings on the opposite bank extremely fine. But Jacob’s undead soul didn’t do beauty. He did humans and, more importantly, money. He reckoned there was plenty of both in this city.
The third and youngest member of their traveling party, Gabby, who’d been dead for only about ten years, regarded her maker, Basilio, with irritating adoration. “You mean you’ve never been here before?”
Basilio was an old vampire, like around five hundred years old. One tended to assume the supercilious old bastard must have been everywhere in that length of time, but apparently not.
“I’ve never left the Americas before,” Basilio said casually. Although his speech still bore traces of his Mexican origins, his English had been perfected over many long visits to the United States and Canada. He transferred his gaze from the castle to Jacob. “This had better be worth it.”
“It’ll be easy,” Jacob assured him. “We don’t even need to see Saloman himself to find a way of forcing his hand. We just need to find out from others what his weaknesses are. You can read anyone’s head; I can con anyone. She”—he jerked his head at Gabby—“can seduce anyone. Together we’re invincible.”
Basilio curled his superior upper lip. “Actually, I’m invincible alone.”
“So how come Travis rules in North America and acknowledges Saloman as his overlord?”
“Because Travis is beneath me, and I have not yet encountered Saloman.”
Sure, Jacob thought derisively—and unwisely, since it wasn’t easy to hide such spontaneous if silent comebacks from Basilio.
The old vampire fixed him with a chilling, mud-colored eye. “I don’t like you, Jacob. Don’t make me give in to that.”
Jacob threw up his hands and began to walk over the bridge in the direction of the strongest blood scent. “Whatever.”
Behind him, Gabby said throatily, “Hello, stranger. Where can I go to dance?”
Gabby, little more than a fledgling, was eternally hungry and had clearly targeted her first prey of the evening already. Jacob glanced back over his shoulder. The two young men Gabby had accosted were exchanging bemused glances, answering in their own outlandish tongue.
“Hey, they don’t even speak English!” Gabby complained to Basilio.
Basilio sighed. “They’re not obliged to in Hungary. Just pick the one you want and I’ll have the other.”
“What about me?” Jacob asked indignantly.
Neither answered him. Gabby wound her arms round the neck of one startled if rather excited-looking young man and sank her teeth into his throat. His friend, obviously picking up that something was wrong, said sharply, “Hey!” —clearly the same in any language—and reached out to separate them.
It was the last thing he ever did. In a blur, Basilio grabbed him, drained him, and dropped him contemptuously on the pavement before striding after Jacob. Gabby slurped more slowly at her own meal, writhing sensuously against her captive as she killed him.
Jacob glanced with distaste at the first dead man. To keep a low profile, they really shouldn’t kill their supper. Perhaps it was meant as a calling card for Saloman. Whatever, Basilio always made such a mess of people.
Two children whizzed past, shouting with laughter. One of them was Robbie, Mihaela’s adopted son. They seemed to be playing some boisterous hybrid of tag and hide-and-seek among the adult guests, adding to Mihaela’s liberating sense of unreality.
It was a bizarre housewarming party. Part of her still couldn’t quite believe she was hosting it, and no one knew better than she that it could all go horribly wrong. However, she’d recently stunned her colleagues in the hunter organization by buying this wonderful old house in Budapest’s castle district, renovating it, and living in it not only with Robbie but with the vampire Maximilian, who had somehow become her lover. And Robbie’s adoptive father. The least she could do was invite them all over to look. And in fact, it was fun to watch them playing “spot the vampire.” For Maximilian’s acquaintances were just as curious as hers and had arrived in unexpected numbers—although Maximilian had welcomed most of them with no more than a curl of his lip.
The neighbors and her other “civilian” friends, of course, had no idea what was walking among them. But Mihaela believed the presence of Maximilian, and of the vampire overlord, Saloman himself, would keep the undead in line. If not—well, she wasn’t yet too pissed to stake a few of them. And there were at least four other hunters present.
Mihaela opened the front door to greet her divorced neighbor, Andrea, and Lara, Andrea’s fun-loving friend.
“Wow! Your party’s jumping!” Andrea approved, hugging her and dropping a bottle into her hands.
Mihaela laughed. “What, before your arrival? How can this be?”
“Sarcasm ill becomes a hostess.” Andrea grinned. “Now, I confess Lara and I have had a few already, so steer me away from the married men.” She paused, and her beautifully made-up eyes began to gleam. “Tell me that one isn’t spoken for. But of course, he’s bound to be…”
Hoping her neighbor hadn’t fixed her hopes on a vampire, Mihaela turned to follow her gaze. To her secret delight, her friend and fellow hunter, István, stood with his shoulder against the side of the staircase. His dark eyes were watchful as they always were, yet something in their fixed, unblinking gaze was almost predatory, as if his long recovery had made him hungry for more than Mihaela’s home baking. Dressed in light chinos, open-collared black shirt, and a smart-but-casual jacket, he looked both elegant and handsome, with no trace of the terrible injuries that had almost killed him six months ago.
Although his lips twitched in response to Andrea’s inviting smile, he made no move toward the group at the front door. Mihaela had the odd impression he was waiting for someone. But perhaps he was just keeping track of the vampire Dmitriu, who sat on the stairs only a few feet above his head, with two human girls draped around his neck.
“Not married,” Mihaela reported. “Nor spoken for—to my knowledge.” She could be wrong. István rarely discussed his personal life, although, being a hunter, he was unlikely to have much of that.
Andrea shook out her bracelets, as if metaphorically rolling up her sleeves. “Introduce me,” she commanded.
Obligingly, Mihaela took her arm, but they hadn’t gone more than a pace before Andrea’s friend Lara suddenly stopped them in their tracks. “No, wait,” she said urgently. “I know that guy.”
Mihaela blinked at her. “You do?”
“István,” Lara said slowly. “István Királyi. He’s bad news, Andrea—stay away from him.”
Mihaela narrowed her eyes. “He is not,” she said dangerously, “bad news.”
Lara looked away, smoothing out her pretty top in a flustered kind of way before she again met Mihaela’s challenging gaze with what seemed to be very conscious bravery. “Sorry if he’s a friend of yours, Mihaela, but I was at school with him, and ‘tearaway’ just doesn’t cover it.”
“School?” Andrea scoffed. “Lots of us were tearaways at school. And look at me, a mature, respectable member of the community!”
“Yes, well, he isn’t,” Lara said bluntly. “I heard he got worse after school. A friend of mine saw him stabbing someone in a back alley only a few years ago and reported it to the police, but István’s obviously got friends in high places, if you know what I mean, because nothing ever came of it.”
Damn. Lara was probably right. István was no doubt seen killing a vampire, but even with a name and a witness, the police wouldn’t have pursued him. Without a body, the investigation would have been squashed by the hunter network. Friends didn’t get much higher than that.
“Hearsay,” Mihaela retorted. “István is not a thug.”
“With respect, Mihaela, you don’t know that,” Lara said tightly. “I think he’s into organized crime. You should keep your distance from him. And so should you, Andrea.”
“He has got rather dangerous eyes,” Andrea observed doubtfully.
Mihaela blinked. István? Dangerous eyes?
Well, perhaps he had. She and István fought on the same side; to her, he was a completely trustworthy and reliable ally as well as an understanding friend. But if she thought about it, he was also totally ruthless. Like her. A hunter had to be to survive, and, like her, István had survived a lot.
He was, probably, her most trusted friend. And yet seeing him through her guests’ eyes made him suddenly a stranger. She really didn’t know anything about him at all.
As if bored by their overt and covert scrutiny, István eased his shoulder off the wall and strolled in their direction.
“Oh fuck,” said Lara. Andrea’s breath caught, and her tension zinged through to Mihaela. But István merely turned into the living room, from where strains of Bob Dylan drifted out to the hallway, and kept walking away from them.
Andrea hissed, “Look at the way he walks, so deliberate and controlled…” Her gaze appeared to be on István’s retreating bum. Out of sight of his “dangerous eyes,” she quickly reverted to type. “Maybe he’d make an uncomfortable companion on a dark night,” she allowed, licking her lips, “but I’ll bet you anything he’s a fantastic lover.”
István couldn’t deny these were fascinating times.
A vampire with a bottle of beer in one hand watched him malevolently from the opposite corner of the living room, spotting him as a hunter. István picked up his own previously abandoned bottle and raised it casually to the vampire before he drank. No harm in letting him know he was spotted too.
Damn, how many people had Mihaela invited to this affair? He hadn’t expected there to be so many vampires here, and yet the one he’d been so sure of seeing was maddeningly, elusively absent.
Once Mihaela had ushered her latest guests in the direction of the kitchen, he moved restlessly back into the hall. One of those women watching him had looked vaguely familiar. Someone from school, perhaps, though no one he’d known well. Lara something, he thought suddenly. Studious girl, much too straight and disapproving to appeal to his teenage self. Come to that, she still looked bloody disapproving, although what he’d done to offend her by standing in Mihaela’s hallway was lost on him. Her friend was pretty enough, though, and he hadn’t missed her unmistakable interest.
Sexual desire stirred. It had been a long time, and he wanted a woman. He wanted to lose himself quite urgently in hot, meaningless sex, and he wouldn’t be averse to pursuing the woman with the bracelets. She had graceful wrists and long, slender legs encased in tight-fitting jeans… Maybe later. After he’d found her.
And eased his bloody, aching legs and back. All this restless pacing and standing around wasn’t good for them, and the knowledge annoyed him.
Some of the kids, including Mihaela’s Robbie, were bolting upstairs, calling to others already up there, as they climbed over the vampire Dmitriu, who still sat there with the same two human girls nuzzling his neck. No wonder his eyes gleamed. Dmitriu caught István’s gaze, shrugged, and stretched his pale lips into a lopsided smile.
“The times, they are a-changing,” sang Bob Dylan from the front room.
“No kidding,” Konrad murmured in István’s ear. He nodded with distaste at the scene on the stairs. “Are we really meant to be okay with that? To just walk away?”
István, who believed Dmitriu was too polite to drink from Mihaela’s human guests, at least while they were in her house, merely nodded and turned to distract his team leader. Since Konrad was still sensitive enough to see that István needed to sit down, he walked beside him without complaint until they sank onto the vacant sofa in the living room. One of Mihaela’s younger neighbors had just put himself in charge of music and was removing Bob Dylan from the CD player in favor of something livelier.
István, mostly to redirect Konrad from the health questions he could see forming on his lips, said, “It’s good to see you here. Mihaela was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
“I was surprised she asked me. I know she bears a grudge about my sending Cyn and John Ramsay to Malta for Robbie.”
“Well, you know my views on that too.”
Konrad curled his lip and looked around the room. The same vampire still lurked in the corner shadows, watching the dancers who’d sprung to life around the new CD. Through the door to the kitchen, the Ancient, Saloman, overlord of all the vampires, was visible, still incomparably elegant although perched on a work top with a glass of champagne in one hand. Through the other door, they could see Dmitriu fondling the girls who couldn’t seem to get enough of him.
“Is this it, then?” Konrad said disparagingly. “Détente between vampires and humans? We’re just meant to let them bite people in public?”
“You know vampire-related deaths are drastically reduced. Almost nonexistent in Hungary. I think this party is a good idea.”
“For Mihaela?” Konrad demanded. “Or for Saloman?”
“Both,” István said mildly.
Konrad stared at him. “You really have bought into this? You don’t see anything wrong in that?” He waved one impatient hand toward the hall door, and Dmitriu’s little ménage à trois on the stairs.
István let out a breath of laughter. “I admit I can’t shake off a sense of responsibility. But I don’t think those women would thank me for escorting them safely home right now.”
“They would if they had any idea what he was!”
“Maybe,” István said noncommittally. In fact, there was no way of knowing whether or not Dmitriu’s admirers were among the increasing numbers of humans who’d become aware of vampire existence over the last year.
For a moment, Konrad looked as if he’d let anger get the better of him. Then Mihaela walked through the room from the kitchen, slightly tipsy, judging by her grin. She waved to them in passing, looking so uncomplicatedly happy that even Konrad shut his mouth and smiled back.
“That is the payoff,” István murmured. “I never thought I’d see Mihaela so contented.”
“And you think that’s a good thing? With a vampire?”
“And Elizabeth with Saloman?”
It had hurt once. Now, he could say with almost total honesty, “Yes.”
“It’s just sex,” Konrad said in disgust.
István jerked his beer bottle with irritation, “I don’t think either Elizabeth or Mihaela would have had to look very far just for sex, do you? We have to allow them to be rather more than their hormones.”
Konrad made a sound like a snort and demanded, “When are you coming back to work?”
“Got a meeting tomorrow with Lazar,” István said vaguely. “Not really up to much more than a desk job,” he added. He tried not to care. He tried quite a lot. The fight for the hunters’ library last autumn had changed many things, made Saloman their ally, shifted the role of hunter more toward policing the undead community and the humans who came in contact with it. He wouldn’t think of personal injuries, not tonight. He was being positive.
“Want a drink?” he asked Konrad, easing himself to his feet. He could really have done with a longer rest, but he couldn’t be still.
Konrad shook his head. “No, I’ve done my duty. I’m going to head off before I kill something and piss Mihaela off even more.”
István clapped him on the shoulder. He felt for Konrad, knew he’d have to pull him out of this mire of hate and frustration before he did something stupid. But not tonight. Tonight, he had a mission—self-imposed it was true, but a mission nonetheless; and Saloman was among the company.
Abandoning Konrad, he made his way toward the kitchen. In the doorway, he almost bumped into the woman with the bracelets. Wryly amused, he watched a startling array of expressions flit across her face—a gleam of almost triumphant pleasure, twinges of alarm and guilt and defiance—before she finally smiled. His old schoolmate, Lara Whoever, must have remembered him and blabbed about his teenage follies.
And yes, there she was like a mother hen, glaring at him over the other woman’s shoulder.
“Lara, isn’t it?” he said pleasantly.
Lara blinked, as if taken aback by the courtesy of mere acknowledgment. Had he really been that obnoxious at school? Perhaps he’d stolen her parents’ car. “I’m surprised you remember me,” she said with quite unnecessary aggression.
“Likewise.” He glanced from her to her friend and returned reluctantly to the disapproving Lara. “So what are you doing with your life?”
“Teaching,” Lara said. Her eyes gleamed as if about to deliver the victory punch. “What are you doing with yours?”
“Security,” István said briefly. It was the standard answer of the hunters, but he could see it astonished his old schoolmate. Not surprising, really, since when they’d last met he’d been all too often on the wrong side of the law, and in school, those things got around.
“Security,” she repeated, blankly, as if this put a whole new complexion on things.
István turned to her friend, who looked unaccountably smug. “We haven’t met before, have we? I’m István.” He offered her his hand.
She took it with alacrity. “Andrea. And no, we haven’t. I live in the house across the road. So how do you know Mihaela? Or are you Maximilian’s friend?”
“Mihaela and I work together.”
Andrea cast Lara a look of such triumph that it was István’s turn to be startled. What in the world had Lara accused him of? She was looking confused now, and rather more attractive for it. He found himself smiling at her and felt Andrea’s glare like a dart in the side of his head.
Too complicated, back off, he told himself ruefully. “Excuse me, just getting another beer,” he said aloud and walked past them into the kitchen. There, he dropped his bottle into the bin and found himself a fresh one before he surveyed the unlikely kitchen occupants.
The Ancient vampire overlord, Saloman, the oldest and most powerful being who’d ever existed—probably—still perched on the work top, incongruously casual for so large and forceful a personality. Supernaturally still and handsome, he smiled at something said by his human companion Elizabeth, who sat at her ease at the nearby table with a glass of orange juice. Beside her, in the shadows, lurked Saloman’s elder creation, Maximilian, Mihaela’s enigmatic lover. If he was uneasy in so large a company, as he often seemed to be, he hid it well. In fact, he seemed more relaxed than István had seen him.
Catching sight of István, Elizabeth toasted him with her orange juice. István raised his bottle to her. Even here, she glowed like sunshine, the woman who’d saved his life and was making him better every day. She hooked her ankle round a chair to position it invitingly.
“Take a seat,” she suggested. “Max and Saloman are being wine bores.”
“I’m afraid I want to bore about something else,” István returned, sitting carefully. He’d already spent more time on his feet than any other day since his injury. Time to be sensible, before he ruined everything. “I want to pick Saloman’s brains.”
Saloman’s eyebrows rose. “Intriguing. What about?”
The Ancient had the deepest, most unreadable eyes István had ever encountered, and yet something flickered there at the word “angels.” It might have been surprise or interest or simple amusement. Or a combination of all three.
Saloman’s lips curved slightly. “A massive subject. What can I tell you? Except that I’m not one.”
“That much I’ve worked out for myself,” István said dryly. “But what is their significance to you? Just symbolic? Or does the image have actual power?”
Saloman sipped his champagne. You couldn’t make out his fangs. “What makes you think that?”
“I’ve been reading up on enchantments and on combing and harnessing that kind of power. Angels keep coming up in the discussions, from medieval times to the present. And then I remembered seeing Elizabeth’s photographs of your tomb after she first wakened you. There were angels all over it. Weirdly Christian, I thought at the time. And then I found it even more bizarre, considering it was built not by your friends but your enemies—why should they want angels to watch over you?”
Saloman eased himself off the work top and reached for the champagne bottle, all without taking his eyes off István. “And what conclusion did you come to?”
With growing excitement, István knew he was on to something. Saloman was too interested, too encouraging.
István said steadily, “That they weren’t there for your good but to somehow harness or strengthen the power of those who ‘killed’ you, to keep fresh the enchantments that would keep you hidden from your friends.”
Maximilian muttered something and wandered away, understandably put out by the discussion, since he’d been the most important of the killers, although he’d had nothing to do with the burial. Saloman’s gaze flickered after him, then back to István.
“Very good,” he approved, like a teacher applauding a breakthrough in a slow child. He poured himself a fresh glass of champagne.
“So how does that work?” István pursued. “Why angels? Why should a lump of stone cut into a particular shape have more power than any other?”
Saloman took a sip, and when he lowered the glass, his lips were smiling. “It isn’t in the stone, or the shape.”
István frowned, searching the unreadable eyes that should have scared him witless. Would have if he hadn’t been on a knowledge quest.
Abruptly, István’s breath disappeared. “The word? It’s in the word?”
Saloman’s lips quirked. “Words have their own power. It’s how enchantments work. In combination with certain individuals, of course.”
Words. Names. Individuals.
One who wasn’t here tonight. István couldn’t kid himself any longer. She wasn’t coming. Or at least, not before his legs gave out. But he was pretty sure he knew where to find her.
“What,” Elizabeth said as István walked abruptly away, “was all that about?”
“István’s new gadget,” Saloman replied with satisfaction, watching the hunter’s back disappear through the living room. “Which we might conceivably need one day.”
István paused under the grubby angel carving and stared at it until it showed its true colors: an exquisite work of art, carved by a Renaissance master. You could easily walk past this battered door and its guardian angel above without noticing it—it was enchanted to make you do just that—but István had been here before. And besides, a new art gallery had opened up next to the anonymous door of the vampires’ Angel Club.
Although István had heard of it, he’d never seen the gallery before. The sign above the window proclaimed “Angel Art—antique and contemporary artwork.” Interesting, and much more attention grabbing to most than the exquisite carved angel above the club door.
He took a few photographs of it and stuffed the little camera back in his jacket pocket. The other, slightly bulkier instrument in his left hand measured temperature and other environmental factors. István wanted to see if those changed when the enchantment had to work harder. One day he’d bring a ladder and get right up to the angel. Or maybe for speed, he’d get Mihaela to do it. Some night when she wasn’t having a party.
On the other hand, the urge to actually touch it was strong. The angel was extraordinarily beautiful. Like her, its model, who owned the dangerous nightclub it protected.
István dragged his gaze downward and, watching the dials of his instrument, pushed open the door. He walked inside, let the door swing shut behind him, but there were no significant changes, other than those you’d expect going from outside to in.
The entrance and the long, winding staircase were both deliberately unprepossessing. Even the homeless would think twice about curling up in the dank, spider-ridden corners, not so much for fear of rats as because the whole place gave you the creeps. As it should, since it was full of vampires.
The detector in his other pocket warned him that one lurked at the top of the stairs. The club bouncer, there to deter and disarm trouble. He’d know István was here, might even sense that he was a hunter.
Abruptly, something moved at the top, a swishing of fast footsteps, a sudden blast of music and shouting, cut off like a switch as if the club door opened and closed.
István’s pulses raced. The bouncer might have been going to report the presence of a hunter, although he could probably have done so telepathically without leaving his post. But that brief burst of noise had sounded to István like trouble.
To go in there, he needed fitness, permission, and backup. He had none of these.
Fuck it. He’d come here to study angels, hadn’t he? This particular, bizarrely named angel.
Hastily, he grabbed his latest invention—which he thought of as his “bungee reel” — from his inside pocket, tied it around his waist, aimed it at the wall above the first turning in the staircase, and pressed the release switch. It worked like a dream, shooting the length of elastic like an arrow into the wall where it clung by its tiny, powerful claws. He felt the jolt as it locked and then it dragged him after it at almost the same dizzying speed.
He staggered on landing, but at least he hadn’t actually crashed into the wall. Another button released the claws and reeled in the elastic with one speedy snap. He aimed at the next landing and did it all again. And again.
On the whole, he reckoned he reached the top a couple of seconds faster than a fit man running. Pleased with himself, István pocketed his useful new device and took hold of the old, familiar one: a sharpened wooden stick.
Madness. How are you going to deal with trouble in a vampire bar in this state?
It didn’t matter. Old habits died hard. Earlier, he’d had to walk away from two willing human girls who’d draped themselves over the vampire Dmitriu at Mihaela’s party. That no longer counted as trouble. And he’d been away from real action for so long that he yearned for the old excitement like an adrenaline junkie.
Willing strength into his legs, which were inclined to shake slightly after their several flights and abrupt landings, he walked the few paces to the club door and pushed.
It gave at once, releasing the noise of recorded rock music and human shouting over the top. As István walked inside, something crashed to the floor amid the lighter tinkling of breaking glass.
Someone hurtled right at him, a knife blade glinting in his flying hand, a roar of anger on his lips as a vampire threw him across the room.
From sheer instinct, István caught the knife man, spun him, and dragged both arms behind his back in an unbreakable hold. The knife clattered to the floor, and the man, a young guy still in his early twenties, struggled to break free.
But István’s arms were strong. Compensating for the weakness of his lower limbs over the last six months, they’d had to be. Although the force of the man’s struggles knocked him back against the closed door, István merely used that to support himself while he held on and gazed beyond his captive to the vampire who’d thrown him across the room.
She really did resemble the angel above the front door.
Although she’d been expecting it, the trouble, when it came, still took Angyalka by surprise.
There was a crowd of them, all young men in their early twenties, she guessed. One of them she’d seen before: he had an aggressive glint in his eye more reminiscent of an angry vampire than a human. Plus, although they drank plenty, they didn’t seem as interested in the music as in the clientele. Still, they kept their hands, if not their eyes, to themselves, right up until the evening was drawing to a close when, without warning, they got up and walked onto the dance floor. In no time, their hands were all over the women and they were shoving at the men who took exception to their behavior.
It was a recipe for a full-scale fight, and since Angyalka did not want her club drawn to the attention of the human police—it had existed for centuries without any official control or interference of any kind—she stepped out from behind the bar to deal with it.
Her vampire bouncers were already marching purposefully toward the dance floor, which was clearing with some annoyance. Angyalka held the vampires back with one telepathic word and walked up to the ringleader, the youth she thought she knew, who had his arms around a blonde girl who quite clearly did not want to dance with him, let alone have her neck nuzzled.
“Cutting in,” Angyalka said brazenly, yanking him off the girl and into her own far more distant hold. “Time to dance with me, on your way out. If you dance well, I might even let you back in next time.”
He blinked, slightly stunned by the speed and ease of his detachment from his chosen, if reluctant, partner. Then, recovering, he grinned and tried to pull her closer. A disconcerted frown tugged down his brow when he found he couldn’t.
“You’re strong,” he observed.
“Very,” Angyalka agreed, dancing him irresistibly off the dance floor to his own table. His friends, seeing something was up, began to hurry back toward them, clocking the bouncers who were closing in on the table.
Without warning, one of the humans lunged and upended the table, spilling drinks and glasses everywhere. There were screams from the patrons, laughter from the troublemakers, who started swinging punches and kicks at the bouncers. None of them connected, which seemed to both bewilder and frustrate the aggressors. But it was something else which distracted Angyalka. She smelled hunter.
Just what they didn’t need right now.
“I know why you’re so strong,” Angyalka’s captive taunted. “You’re a vampire, aren’t you?”
She had his arms and his legs under control. But what he did next took her completely by surprise. His head plunged suddenly for her neck and bit. Hard enough to hurt; hard enough to pierce her skin, even with blunt, human teeth.
There was no thought, just instinct and acute disgust. She plucked him up in the air and hurled him across the room with enough force for him to have hurtled to the bottom of the stairs, breaking the door on his way out.
Except that the door suddenly opened, and the last man in the world she expected to see walked in and caught her troublemaker, much as he’d once caught her.
The crash sent him stumbling back against the now-closed door, but he didn’t let go. Which was when the knife she hadn’t even seen fell from the troublemaker’s suddenly limp hand.
She stood perfectly still, staring at the newcomer, as did the others of that little group in front of the door, as if frozen in a photograph.
He was tall, lean almost to the point of lanky, and yet she knew well the hardness of the muscle beneath his casual clothes, the strength in his steel-like arms. He had straight, unstyled brown hair that tended to flop forward over his high, intelligent forehead. Calm, steady dark eyes met hers without fear or anger.
He was supposed to be crippled, paralyzed by the insane Luk during the fight in the hunters’ library. Clearly reports had been somewhat exaggerated, for this was undoubtedly the hunter called István, the one who’d held her humiliatingly immobile on their last encounter when the hunters had tried fruitlessly to capture Saloman. The one who’d reacted with gratifying spontaneity to her teasing. It had been some balm for her humiliation.
Once, she’d thought his own more permanent immobility was enough revenge for such a slight. Now, seeing him so hale and hearty, in perfect control of her vulgar attacker, she wasn’t so sure.
His eyes, gazing at her across the frozen carnage, were veiled for a human’s. Overanxious to give nothing away. Intriguing.
One of the troublemakers threw a punch at Béla, her right-hand helper, who dodged the blow with ease and grabbed his assailant. The hunter, István, obligingly slid along the door to the wall, where he lounged, as if at his ease, still gripping his wriggling, swearing captive, watching as the group of troublemakers was efficiently ejected.
Béla, with his own assailant in his right arm, took István’s captive from him with his left and dragged them both outside.
Angyalka’s human staff began to right the fallen tables and sweep up the broken glass. Most of them, if they worried at all about such occurrences, only did so the first time they saw it. Thanks to the speed of her security, none of them was ever hurt. And as for her human customers, they came to this place for its edge, its atmosphere of danger bubbling just below the respectable surface. Already their attention was returning to their drinks and to the dance floor.
All this Angyalka absorbed without releasing her gaze from István. He didn’t move, just continued to lounge against the wall as if quite at ease. Only he wasn’t. He was tense as a coiled spring.
“Well,” she drawled at last, gliding toward him. She let her gaze slide over him, took in the dragged-down pockets of his smart jacket—clearly he’d been to Maximilian’s party—and his right hand thrust casually into one of them.
“Is that a stake in your pocket, hunter?” She smiled. “Or are you…? Don’t make me say it.” Her eyes lifted to his and found a hint of amusement there.
He said, “I’m pleased to see you too.”