Home > Vampires > Forbidden Nights with a Vampire (Love at Stake #7)

Forbidden Nights with a Vampire (Love at Stake #7)
Author:Kerrelyn Sparks

Forbidden Nights with a Vampire (Love at Stake #7) by Kerrelyn Sparks

 

CHAPTER 1

 

"Ye're late." Connor greeted her with a disapproving frown.

 

"So?" Vanda Barkowski returned the Scotsman's frown as she stepped into the foyer of Romatech Industries. "I'm not a harem girl anymore. I don't have to come running whenever the great Master snaps his fingers."

 

Connor arched a brow. "Ye were sent an official summons that clearly stated the East Coast Regional Coven Meeting would start at ten o'clock tonight." He locked the door behind her and punched some buttons on a security pad.

 

Was she in trouble? That «official» summons had worried her all week, although she hadn't let anyone know. She would have arrived sooner if she'd been allowed to use her Vamp skill of teleportation, but the summons had warned her not to teleport inside Romatech. Such an act would trigger the alarm, interrupt the meeting, and result in a hefty fine. So she'd driven from her nightclub in Hell's Kitchen with a detour first to Queens to pick up some costumes she'd had custom made. The traffic had been awful all the way to White Plains, leaving her much too tense. Damn, she didn't want to be here.

 

She took a deep breath and fluffed up her spiky, purple-dyed hair. "Big deal. So I'm a few minutes late."

 

"Forty-five minutes. Late."

 

"So? What's forty-five minutes to an old goat like you?"

 

"I believe it is still forty-five minutes."

 

Was that a glint of humor in his eyes? She chafed at the thought of being considered amusing. She was tough, dammit. And he should have been insulted that she'd called him an old goat. Connor Buchanan didn't look a day over thirty. She would have considered him very handsome if he hadn't fussed at her so much over the years.

 

She adjusted the black, braided whip she wore around her waist. "Look. I'm a businesswoman now. I'm late because I had to open the club and run some errands. And I need to get back to work soon." She had a meeting scheduled at eleven-thirty with all the male dancers so she could give them their new costumes for the month of August.

 

Connor looked unimpressed. "Roman is still yer Coven Master, and when he requests yer presence, ye're expected to arrive on time."

 

"Yeah, yeah, I'm quaking in my little boots."

 

Connor pivoted toward a table, causing his red and green plaid kilt to swing around his knees. "I'll need to search yer handbag."

 

She winced inwardly. "Do we really have time for this? I'm already late."

 

"I check every bag coming in."

 

He'd always been a stickler for the rules. How many times had he reprimanded her for flirting with the guards at Roman's townhouse? Well, just one guard. A mortal day guard who worked for MacKay Security & Investigation. A deliciously handsome day guard.

 

Connor worked for MacKay S&I, too, so he knew guards were never supposed to fraternize with their charges. As far as Vanda was concerned, that old rule needed to be tossed out. Ian had gotten involved with his mortal guard, Toni, and her love for him hadn't weakened her one bit. In fact, her love had empowered her, enabling her to kill Jedrek Janow in spite of the Malcontent's attempt to stop her with vampire mind control.

 

However, when it came to security at Romatech Industries, Connor had good reason to cling to his precious rules. Since the nasty Malcontent vampires hated the friendly, law-abiding, bottle-drinking Vamps, they also hated Romatech, where the bottled blood was manufactured. They'd managed to bomb Romatech three times in the past.

 

Vanda sighed. "I didn't bring a bomb. Do you think I would blow myself up? Do I look crazy to you?"

 

A glint of humor sparkled in his eyes. "I believe that will be determined at the coven meeting."

 

Damn. She was in trouble. "Fine." She tossed her hobo handbag on the table. "Knock yourself out."

 

Heat crept up her neck as he rummaged through her bag. God, she hated embarrassment. It made her feel weak and small, and she'd sworn never to feel vulnerable again. She lifted her chin and glared at Connor.

 

"What's this?" He pulled out a scrap of fabric that looked like a stuffed yellow tube sock with a large brass nozzle on the end.

 

"It's a dance costume. For Freddie the Fireman. That's his personal fire hose."

 

Connor dropped the thong like it was on fire, then resumed his search of her handbag. He pulled out a sparkly flesh-colored thong with fake ivy twisted around the tube. "I hesitate to ask..."

 

"Our theme for August is 'Hot Jungle Fever. Terrance the Turgid is doing an ode to Tarzan. He'll swing across the stage on a vine while he's stripping."

 

Connor tossed the male thong on the table and continued his search. "It does look like a bloody jungle in here." He pulled out a vine of large leaves.

 

"Hot Jungle Fever is highly contagious," Vanda said with a husky voice. "I'm sure we could find a fig leaf just your size."

 

He glowered at her.

 

"All right, a banana leaf, then."

 

With a snort, he fished her car keys from the pile of vines and dropped them into his sporran.

 

"Hey," she objected. "I need those to drive home."

 

"Ye'll get them back after the meeting." He crammed the costumes back into her bag. "'Tis shameful for Vamp men to dress - or rather, undress - like this in public."

 

"The guys enjoy it. Come on, Connor. You never wanted to take your clothes off in front of some pretty girls?"

 

"Nay. I'm too busy trying to keep Roman and his family alive. If ye havena noticed, we're at the brink of war with the Malcontents. And if ye havena heard, their leader Casimir is somewhere in America."

 

Vanda repressed a shudder. "I know. My club was attacked last December." Some of her best friends had come close to getting murdered that night. She tried not to think about it. If she did, the thoughts would mushroom into bigger, more horrid memories.

 

And she had no intention of reliving them. Life was simple and pleasant at the Horny Devils nightclub, where gorgeous men danced in skimpy costumes, and pints of Bleer could leave the coldest of Vamps feeling warm and fuzzy.

 

Each night could pass without pain as long as she concentrated on work and kept the past firmly locked in a mental coffin. Days were even easier, for death-sleep was painless and nightmare-free. She could go on like this for centuries if people would just leave her the hell alone.

 

Connor gave her a sympathetic look. "Ian told me about the attack that night. He said ye fought bravely."

 

She refrained from grinding her teeth. It was hard on the fangs. She grabbed her handbag and swung it onto her shoulder. "So what's the deal? How much trouble am I in?"

 

"Ye'll find out." Connor motioned to the double doors on the right. "I'll take ye to the meeting hall."

 

"No thanks. I know the way." Vanda strode through the doors and down the hall, her high-heeled boots clicking on the spotless and shiny marble floor.

 

The unpleasant smell of antiseptic cleanser couldn't completely mask the delicious aroma of blood. The mortal workers at Romatech manufactured synthetic blood all day. That blood was shipped openly to hospitals and blood banks, and secretly to Vamps.

 

Roman Draganesti invented synthetic blood in 1987, and in recent years, he'd come up with Vampire Fusion Cuisine. On weeknights, Vamp employees worked at Romatech, making lovely drinks such as Chocolood, Bleer, Blissky, or Blood Lite for those who overindulged. The combined scent of all these drinks lingered in the air. Vanda took a deep, satisfying sniff to soothe her frazzled nerves.

 

Her superior Vamp hearing caught the sound of crackling static. She glanced back and spotted Connor standing by the double doors. He was watching her progress with a walkie-talkie in his hand. Did he suspect she'd make a run for it? It was awfully tempting to teleport to the parking lot and speed away in her black Corvette. No wonder he'd confiscated her keys. She could always teleport straight home. But they knew where she lived and where she worked. There was no running away from coven law.

 

Of course, only Vamps who drank synthetic blood acknowledged Roman Draganesti as Coven Master of East Coast Vampires. As she neared the meeting hall, Vanda's steps slowed. If Roman had some kind of complaint against her, why hadn't he approached her in private? Why humiliate her in front of the other bigwigs in the coven?

 

Connor's softly accented voice carried down the long hallway. "Phil has arrived? Good. Let me talk to him."

 

Phil? Vanda wobbled on her heels. Phil Jones was back in New York? The last she'd heard he was in Texas. Not that she was interested. He was just a mortal. But an incredibly handsome and interesting mortal.

 

He'd spent five years as one of the day guards at Roman's townhouse when she'd lived there with the harem. Most of the mortal guards had considered the harem a silly bunch of nameless, undead women, connected to their real charge, Roman Draganesti. They had rated the harem's value somewhere below Roman's artwork and priceless antiques.

 

Phil Jones was different. He'd learned their names and treated them like real people. Vanda had tried flirting with him a few times, but Connor, that old grouch, always put a stop to it. Phil had followed the rule of noninvolvement and kept his distance - easy enough to do when he was usually at night school or asleep when she was awake; and she was dead during the day, when he was awake.

 

Even so, she'd suspected that he was attracted to her. Or maybe she'd just wanted him to be. Harem life had been so damned boring, and somehow, Phil had seemed intriguing.

 

But she must have just imagined it all. She'd been free from the harem for three years now, and in that time, Phil had never bothered to see her.

 

She paused to listen as Phil's voice replied on the walkie-talkie. She couldn't make out the words, but the sound reverberated through her with a surprising sizzle. She'd forgotten how sexy his voice was. Damn him, she'd thought he was a friend. But she'd just been part of the job, easily forgotten once he'd moved on to the next assignment.

 

She reached for the door to the meeting hall when it suddenly burst open. She jumped back to keep from being mowed down by a buxom woman and a cameraman. Vanda recognized the woman instantly. Corky Courrant was the hostess of the Digital Vampire Network's celebrity talk show, Live with the Undead.

 

"I reject this verdict!" Corky screamed, turning to catch the door before it swung shut. "I'll take this to the Supreme Coven Court!"

 

"My decision is final." Roman's voice sounded firm, but bored.

 

"You'll hear about this on my show!" Corky noticed Vanda for the first time. "You! What are you doing here?"

 

Vanda winced as the cameraman turned his camera on her. Damn. Now she was going to end up on Corky's show.

 

She smiled hesitantly at the camera. "Hi there, fellow Vamps. I'm going to the coven meeting. I always go to the coven meetings. It's our civic duty, you know."

 

"Cut the bullshit," Corky snarled. "You came here to gloat. But I'm not dropping my suit against you, no matter what the Coven Master says."

 

Vanda kept her smile glued in place for the camera. "Can't we all just get along?"

 

"You should have thought about that before you attacked me!" Corky screeched.

 

Oh, right. That incident last December at the club. Vanda had leaped across a table to try to strangle Corky Courrant. After all the turmoil that had followed, that little incident had seemed unimportant in comparison. She'd had shrugged it off as one more minor tiff. Vanda had had a lot of minor tiffs over the years.

 

She faced the camera with a soulful look. "It was an unfortunate mishap, but we can all be eternally grateful that our dear Corky has not suffered from it. Her voice is just as loud and strident as ever."

 

Corky snorted, then made a cutting motion to signal her cameraman to stop recording. She leaned close, lowering her voice. "It's not over between us, bitch. I have a lot of power in the Vampire World, and I'll see you ruined." She stormed down the hall, her cameraman scurrying behind her.

 

"Have a nice day!" Vanda called after her. She turned to enter the meeting hall and noticed how quiet it was. Everyone was staring at her. Great. They'd witnessed that little scene with Corky.

 

The whispering began. Vanda lifted her chin. She estimated there were about thirty Vamps in attendance. Mostly male. The archaic Vamp world was still run almost entirely by men. Arrogant, stodgy old men who didn't approve of her nightclub where Vamp men stripped for Vamp women.

 

She noted the sour looks on their faces. Obviously, they also didn't care for her purple spandex catsuit or purple, spiky hair. Out of the entire crowd, she spotted one friendly, smiling face. Gregori. Unfortunately, he was seated on the front row. She tightened the whip around her waist and strode down the center aisle.

 

Roman Draganesti was seated in the big Master chair on the dais. In the old days, the Coven Master sat alone, but times had changed. Roman's chair was flanked by two smaller chairs. His wife Shanna sat on his left, and the priest, Father Andrew, sat on his right. They were obviously his chief advisors. And both were mortal.

 

What was the Vamp World coming to? Why had Roman given these two mortals so much power in a world where they didn't belong? With a disgusted huff, Vanda sat next to Gregori.

 

Roman acknowledged her presence with a regal nod. Vanda scowled back.

 

Seated at a table close to the dais, Laszlo Veszto scribbled notes with a fountain pen on antique-looking parchment. He was a chemist at Romatech, but also held the prestigious job of Coven Secretary. Vanda rolled her eyes. He might as well use a quill and inkwell. Or maybe a roll of papyrus and a stick reed.

 

"Sheesh, get the poor guy a laptop," she muttered to Gregori.

 

"He has one," Gregori whispered back. "But they like to stick with tradition for these meetings."

 

"These meetings are a joke," she grumbled. She supposed Laszlo was still writing down the decision that had upset Corky Courrant. "What happened with Corky?"

 

"Good news for you," Gregori whispered. "Roman dismissed her lawsuit against you."

 

"About time. I obviously didn't hurt her throat."

 

"Then Corky insisted that it would only be fair for Roman to drop the lawsuit that's been leveled against her, but he refused."

 

"What lawsuit?" Vanda asked.

 

"You haven't heard? The famous model, Simone, is suing Corky. Remember when I hired Simone to do Fangercise, an exercise DVD? Corky claimed on her show that Simone used fake teeth."

 

Vanda broke out in laughter, her voice echoing across the silent room. A dozen male Vamps shushed her. Laszlo dropped his pen and gave her a startled look. Then he glanced at Roman.

 

Vanda halted mid-laugh and cleared her throat. Damn. These old Vamps needed to pull the stakes out of their butts. She opened her mouth to say so, but Gregori touched her arm.

 

"Don't," he whispered. "Don't speak to him until he's spoken to you."

 

"Laszlo," Roman began quietly.

 

"Yes, sir?" The Coven Secretary fiddled with a button on his lab coat.

 

"Since Vanda Barkowski has finally arrived, let us proceed to the other suits against her."

 

Other suits? As in plural? Vanda glanced around nervously. Roman's wife gave her a sympathetic smile.

 

Anger sparked inside Vanda, and she clenched her fists. She didn't need anyone's sympathy. She was tough, dammit.

 

Laszlo fumbled through a stack of papers. He drew one page out. Then another. And another. Three pages? Her anger sizzled into a hot flame.

 

Laszlo gave her a nervous look, then proceeded. "Vanda Barkowski is being sued on three counts. Count one - unjustified termination of employment, resulting in loss of wages and mental trauma. Count two - reckless endangerment at the workplace, resulting in minor injury and mental trauma. Count three - assault with a deadly weapon, resulting in physical injury and mental trauma."

 

Vanda jumped to her feet. "That's a load of crap! Who's suing me?" Her face burned with heat as she scanned the room. "Where are you, you assholes? I'll show you some mental trauma!"

 

"Sit down, please," Roman said quietly.

 

"I have the right to face my accusers." She spotted three former employees hunched down in the back row. "There you are, you bastards!"

 

"Vanda, sit!" Roman ordered.

 

She whirled to face him. Dammit, he'd known her since 1950, and he was believing this crap from those whiny troublemakers? She pointed a finger at him. "You - "

 

She gasped when Gregori grabbed her arm and yanked her down hard onto her seat. He gave her a warning glare.

 

She drew in a shaky breath. Okay. She needed to calm down.

 

"How do you plead, Ms. Barkowski?" Roman asked.

 

She gripped her hands together, knuckles white. "Not guilty."

 

"You didn't terminate the first plaintiff's employment?" Roman glanced at Laszlo. "His name?"

 

Laszlo scanned the first page, then plucked nervously at one of his buttons. "He wishes to be called by his stage name - Jem Stones."

 

Chuckles reverberated across the room, then halted abruptly when Roman cleared his throat. "Ms. Barkowski, did you fire Mister...Stones?"

 

"Yes, I did, but I had just cause."

 

"No, you didn't!" a petulant voice shouted from the back of the room. "I was the best dancer you ever had. You had no reason to fire me!"

 

Vanda glanced back at Jem. "You were trying to sell your services. I run a dance club, not a brothel."

 

"The ladies were begging for me," Jem argued.

 

"And you charged them money?" Roman asked.

 

Jem huffed. "Of course I did. And I'm worth it! I'm the best there is."

 

Roman looked unimpressed. "The first suit is dismissed."

 

"What?" Jem squealed. "But I need my job back. How will I make a living?"

 

Roman shrugged. "It appears you have already embarked upon your next career. You may leave."

 

Jem muttered some cusswords as he stalked out the door.

 

Vanda felt a small measure of relief. One accuser down and two to go.

 

"The second suit?" Roman asked Laszlo.

 

"Yes, sir." The secretary fumbled through his papers. "Reckless endangerment at the workplace. This plaintiff also wishes to go by his stage name." Laszlo fiddled with a button on his lab coat. "Peter the Great, Prince of P-P-Peckers." The button popped off and rolled across the table.

 

Roman's wife covered her mouth. The sound of snickering drifted about the room. Even the priest was smiling.

 

Gregori leaned close to Vanda and whispered loudly, "How many pickled peppers did the Prince of Peckers pick?"

 

Vanda snorted and elbowed him in the ribs.

 

Roman lifted his gaze with an exasperated look as if he were asking God, Why me? He schooled his features and regarded the crowd seriously. "Is Mister...Prince here?"

 

"Yeth!" A slender man in the back row stood. He flipped his long blond hair over one shoulder. "I'm the Printh of Peckerth."

 

"You were injured at work?" Roman asked.

 

"Yeth," Peter continued with his lisping voice. "I wath danthing when I thlipped in a puddle of water."

 

"He wanted the water," Vanda interrupted. "Peter wanted to pull a chain and have ten gallons of water fall on top of him."

 

"You asked for the water?" Roman asked.

 

"Yeth. All the little water dropleth were glithening on my bare thkin. I wath incredibly beautiful."

 

"I'll take your word for it," Roman muttered. "And then you slipped?"

 

"Yeth! It wath awful. I fell on my nothe and broke it."

 

"You broke...what?" Roman asked.

 

"His nose," Vanda explained. "But we fixed it, and it's perfectly normal now."

 

"It ith not!" Peter planted his hands on his hip. "Now my voithe hath a terrible nathal quality to it, and everyone laughth at me."

 

The room filled with snorts of laughter.

 

"You thee?" Peter wiped at his teary eyes. "They're laughing at me. I'm thuffering from emotional trauma."

 

Roman sighed. "Mr. Prince, your accident was indeed regrettable, but I fail to see how you can hold Ms. Barkowski accountable when you requested the water yourself."

 

Peter crossed his arms and scowled. "She should have protected me."

 

"I reset your nose and gave you the rest of the night off," Vanda said. "You were the one who up and quit."

 

Peter pouted. "I want my job back."

 

"Is that all right with you?" Roman asked Vanda.

 

"Yes. I was always happy with Peter's work."

 

"Good." Roman nodded. "You'll hire him back, and we'll dismiss the second suit. Laszlo, the last suit, please?"

 

"Yes, sir." Laszlo shuffled through his papers. "Assault with a deadly weapon. The plaintiff goes by the stage name 'Max the Mega Member. " Laszlo plucked at another button on his lab coat.

 

Roman gazed about the room. "Mister...Mega Member? Will you describe the alleged incident?"

 

"Alleged, my ass." Max jumped up from his seat. "She put a three-inch hole in my chest. If she'd hit my heart, I would have perished on the spot!"

 

"My mistake," Vanda muttered. "My aim was off."

 

"Then you admit to injuring this man?" Roman asked.

 

"He was calling me filthy names in front of my employees," Vanda explained. "I couldn't let him get away with that."

 

Roman frowned. "I believe firing him would have been a more reasonable course of action than stabbing him."

 

"She did fire me!" Max shouted. "The bitch claimed I was a lousy dancer, and that's total bullshit."

 

"You are a lousy dancer!" Vanda turned to Roman. "He did a dance with a fifteen-foot-long python, and it got loose and wrapped itself around one of my customers. She had to teleport away before it could crush her. I told Max to take his snake and hit the road."

 

Roman nodded. "A logical decision."

 

"But the bitch attacked me!" Max bellowed.

 

"Only after you verbally assaulted me!" Vanda shouted.

 

"What did you attack him with?" Roman asked.

 

"I wasn't going anywhere near him as long as he had that damned snake, so I grabbed one of my shoes and threw it at him." Vanda shrugged. "I guess I threw it kinda hard cause the stiletto heel sorta stuck in his chest."

 

"She nearly killed me!" Max hollered.

 

"And you nearly killed a customer with your snake," Roman reminded him. "Did your injury heal itself during your death-sleep?"

 

"Well, yeah, but that doesn't make it okay for her to attack me."

 

Roman drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I am not going to find fault with a woman defending herself against a verbally abusive male."

 

"Yes!" Vanda punched the air.

 

"I'm not finished." Roman gave her a stern look. "Your method of defense was inappropriate. I'm sure you have some kind of security who could have removed Mr. Mega Member from the premises."

 

Vanda shrugged. She did have a huge bouncer.

 

"This is the third time since the opening of your club that you have been summoned here because of inappropriate and violent behavior," Roman continued. "In short, Ms. Barkowski, you have a problem with anger."

 

"Yeah!" Max yelled. "She's a crazy bitch!"

 

"Enough," Roman warned the ex-dancer. "I am dismissing the charges under the condition that Ms. Barkowski take a class in anger management."

 

Vanda grimaced. Not again.

 

"This is bullshit," Max declared. "That bitch owes me! I demand to be compensated for the trauma she caused me."

 

"I'll give you some compensation." Vanda shook a fist at him. "Let's meet in the parking lot - "

 

"Vanda, enough!" Roman glowered at her.

 

She glared back.

 

"You are exhibiting a serious lack of control," he stated quietly. "Obviously, one class of anger management wasn't enough for you."

 

"Yeah, she flunked anger management!" Max snickered. "You just wait, bitch. I'll give you something to be angry about."

 

"You are now officially under a restraining order," Roman told the ex-dancer. "You will stay away from Ms. Barkowski, or you will be fined five thousand dollars."

 

"What?" Max looked aghast. "What did I do?"

 

"Laszlo, call security to have Mr. Mega Member removed," Roman ordered.

 

"Yes, sir." Laszlo punched a button on his desk.

 

"All right, all right, I'm leaving." Max strode from the room.

 

"The third suit is dismissed," Roman announced, "and Ms. Barkowski has agreed to attend a second round of anger management classes."

 

Vanda gritted her teeth as amused whispering sounded around the room. "I don't recall agreeing to anything."

 

"You will attend." Roman regarded her sternly. "Father Andrew has graciously offered to counsel you again."

 

She groaned inwardly. The mortal priest was a kindly old man, but he didn't have a clue about all she'd been through in her long life. And she really didn't want to tell him. Or anyone.

 

Father Andrew smiled at her. "I look forward to getting to know you better, my child."

 

Vanda crossed her arms. "Whatever."

 

"I will need a volunteer to be her sponsor," Father Andrew continued.

 

The murmuring in the room came to an abrupt halt. Absolute silence.

 

Great. With her superior senses, Vanda could hear the crickets chirping outside Romatech. She felt heat rising up her neck. No one wanted anything to do with her. "I don't need a sponsor."

 

"I'm convinced that you do," Father Andrew insisted.

 

More silence.

 

Vanda turned to Gregori. "Come on," she hissed.

 

"I sponsored you last time," Gregori whispered. "Obviously, I wasn't very good at it."

 

"Laszlo?" Vanda asked.

 

The short secretary jumped in his seat, and another button popped off his lab coat.

 

Anger sizzled in Vanda as she faced Roman. "You won't find anyone here to sponsor me. They're a bunch of cowards." She adjusted the whip around her waist. "And they're right! They should fear me. If any of them dares to reprimand me, I'll rip their heads off."

 

A collective gasp echoed across the room.

 

Roman regarded her sadly. "I don't believe you're entering into this exercise with the correct attitude."

 

She lifted her chin. "I've got plenty of attitude."

 

Roman sighed. "Is there no one here - "

 

"I'll do it," Shanna offered.

 

Vanda flinched. Roman's wife? She couldn't confess her horrid sins to sweet little do-gooder Shanna Draganesti.

 

Roman turned to talk quietly with his wife. Vanda's superior hearing picked up most of it. Shanna had a two-year-old son and a nine-week-old daughter to take care of. Watching Vanda would be too much of an added burden.

 

Vanda's anger spiked. She didn't need a damned babysitter. And she sure didn't want Shanna's pity. "Forget it! You won't find anyone here to sponsor me. None of the men here have the balls to take me on."

 

"I'll do it," a deep voice rumbled in the back of the room.

 

Vanda gasped. She recognized that voice instantly, but still, she had to turn to make sure it was really him. Oh, damn, he looked better than ever. He'd always been tall, but his shoulders looked broader than she remembered. His thick brown hair gleamed with red and gold highlights. And his eyes...his eyes had always taken her breath away. A pale icy blue that somehow managed to glitter with heat.

 

"I'll sponsor her." Phil marched down the center aisle.

 

God, no. She couldn't bare her soul to Phil. She'd confided a lot in Gregori when he'd sponsored her, but he was like a little brother. Phil could never be like a brother. "No! Ask Ian. Ian will do it."

 

Roman frowned. "Ian and his wife are still on their honeymoon."

 

Oh, right. Ian had told her they'd be gone for three whole months. So it would be the middle of August before he and Toni returned. "Then ask Pamela or Cora Lee."

 

Roman gave her a dubious look. "I can't imagine either of them being able to manage you."

 

Dammit, she'd had enough of this humiliation. "No one can manage me! I don't need a damned sponsor."

 

Roman ignored her and turned to Phil. "Thank you for volunteering."

 

"I'm not accepting him!" Vanda yelled.

 

Phil gave her a challenging look. "Do you prefer one of the other volunteers?"

 

She scowled at him. "I'll make you miserable."

 

He arched a brow. "What else is new?"

 

She blinked. She'd made him miserable? How? She'd always been nice to him. She noted the amused looks among the crowd. Dammit. They were enjoying this.

 

Roman cleared his throat. "Phil, do you understand the responsibilities that come with sponsorship?"

 

"Yes," he replied. "I can do it."

 

"Very well." Roman gave him a grateful smile. "The job is yours. Thank you. Laszlo, make a note of it."

 

"Yes, sir." Laszlo scratched away on his parchment.

 

"Wait a minute!" Vanda marched toward Phil. "You can't do this. I never agreed to it."

 

"Come." He jerked his head toward the door, then strode down the aisle and out of the room.

 

Vanda's mouth fell open. What the hell was he doing, giving her orders? Though she had to admit his backside looked really good. She glanced around and noticed the other Vamps watching her curiously. Well, maybe Phil was right, and they shouldn't discuss this fiasco in front of an audience.

 

She stalked out the door and spotted him across the hall, leaning against the wall with his arms folded. He'd always had rather big biceps for a mortal. "Look. This is a mistake. You're a mortal. You can't handle a Vamp."

 

"I made you leave the room, didn't I?"

 

Her anger flared. "Only because I didn't want to embarrass you in front of everyone while I kick your ass!"

 

His mouth tilted up. "Try it."

 

She stepped closer to him. "I've eaten mortals like you for breakfast."

 

His smile grew. "Lucky bastards."

 

She stepped back, huffing with exasperation. "Phil, this is crazy! You can't just...force yourself on me."

 

Something hot flared in his eyes. His gaze wandered down to her feet, then back to her face. "Sweetheart, no force will be necessary."

 

She swallowed hard. Did he think he could seduce her? Sure, she'd flirted with him in the past, but that had been nothing more than a little harmless fun. She couldn't actually get close to Phil. She couldn't open her coffin of horrors to him. Hell, she didn't open that door even for herself.

 

She took another step back. "No."

 

A flicker of sympathy registered in his eyes before they hardened to an icy blue. "We all have an inner beast, Vanda. It's time for you to face yours."

 

"Never," she whispered, and teleported away.