The Vampire With the Dragon Tattoo (Love at Stake #14) by Kerrelyn Sparks
Dougal Kincaid was not in a partying mood.
As he entered the ballroom at Romatech Industries, his stomach churned. Too many people. The jarring noise of all their voices grated on his ears, and he dreaded the thought of participating in meaningless chatter. For centuries, he'd avoided these situations by playing the pipes, but those days were gone. That left him with one option for surviving the night.
Hopefully the mixture of synthetic blood and whisky would deaden his undead senses before he was confronted with the same questions he'd been hearing for the past four years. How's your new prosthesis? Can you still wield a sword? Will you be able to play the pipes again?
He had a better question: how fast could he get drunk? He headed for the refreshment tables.
They mean well, he reminded himself. It was the only way they knew how to show their concern. It was better than having no one who cared. But damn, he'd lost a hand, not his pride. A man was more than his hands. More than his music? His chest clenched with the familiar pang of grief. Without music, his soul felt half empty. And the half that remained was a sad melody of regret.
The first refreshment table was covered with mortal snack food. He kept walking.
"Hey, man, what's up?" Phineas slapped him on the back. "Say hello to my little dudette."
Dougal glanced at the bairn Phineas was holding. Phin's wife, Brynley, had given birth to twins six months ago. This had to be the girl, judging by her frilly pink dress.
"Hello." Dougal became aware of an awkward pause. Was he supposed to say more? He racked his brain, trying to remember the little girl's name. Gwyneth, that was it. And Benjamin was the boy. For short, they were called Gwyn and Ben, which rhymed with their parents' nicknames, Phin and Bryn.
His stomach churned. "Hello, Gwyn."
The little girl squealed so loud that Dougal winced.
"She likes you." Phineas beamed proudly at her. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Yes." After a pause, Dougal suspected more flattery was in order. "Nice . . . dress."
"Yeah, her mom loves shopping for her." Phineas smiled at him. "So, dude, how's your hand?"
He gritted his teeth. "Which one?"
Phineas laughed. "Good one, bro. Well, I gotta go see how Bryn's doing. Ben just had a bomb go off in his diaper."
Thanks for sharing. Dougal strode toward the next refreshment table. It was surrounded by mortals and shifters, mostly women and children, gawking at the giant five-tier cake. Where the hell was the Blissky?
"Hey, Dougal. Have ye met my Tara Jean?"
It was Ian MacPhie, carrying another little girl. This time Dougal knew what to say. "She's beautiful. Nice dress."
"Thanks." Ian regarded him sadly. "I remember how ye played the pipes at my bachelor party. I really miss that."
Dougal winced inwardly. They mean well.
"How's the fancy new hand treating you?" Ian asked.
Here we go again. "Well, since ye asked, it is made of pure titanium alloy, strong enough for spacecraft and the deepest-diving submarines. In three seconds, I could pierce yer chest cavity and rip yer bleedin' heart out."
Ian's eyes widened. "Och, man. Get a grip."
"That's about all I can do." Dougal lifted his right hand, and, using his vampire mind control, he curled the fingers into a tight fist. The movement was smooth but caused a series of clicking sounds. The superstrong grip was great for wielding a sword, but the lack of manual dexterity made it very difficult to play the pipes. In other words, he was now more suited for killing than making music.
He swallowed down his frustration. "Have ye seen the Blissky?"
Ian snorted. "This is a birthday party for a bunch of bairns. There is no Blissky."
"Tara turned one last month in September," Ian continued. "Austin's little girl will be one in a few days and Robby's boy in November. With three birthdays so close together, we thought we should have a big party. I'm glad ye could make it."
As if he'd had any choice. The Echarpe family had come, and as their bodyguard, Dougal had accompanied them. "There has to be Blissky here somewhere. The damned stuff is manufactured here."
Ian shook his head. "Try to relax and enjoy the party."
"Is there any Bleer?"
Ian arched a brow. "What ye need is a good woman."
I had one. And lost her. "I need a drink." Dougal wandered toward the last refreshment table. How much had he lost over the centuries? His first and only love. His freedom. His family. His mortality. His hand. His music. Did so much loss make him a loser?
He instantly shoved that thought aside. He would never have lasted this long if he had succumbed to that sort of negativity. He was a survivor. He kept fighting no matter what.
I will find you. No matter what. If it takes a thousand years, I will find you.
The old promise reverberated inside his skull, reminding him that he'd failed the one person who had meant the most to him. His gaze wandered over the ballroom, taking note of all the happily married couples. They were chatting, laughing, admiring their babies.
His heart clenched in his chest. The loss he'd suffered almost three hundred years ago struck him anew, as if it had happened a few moments ago.
He wrenched a bottle of Bubbly Blood out of an ice bucket and poured the mixture of synthetic blood and champagne into a flute glass.
"For those special vampire occasions," he muttered, then guzzled down half the glass.
Someone tapped on his arm. It was Bethany, the eldest of the Echarpe children. Jean-Luc had adopted her a few years back when Heather had been pregnant with the twins.
The nine-year-old girl gave him a shy, embarrassed look. "I forgot where the restroom is. Can you show me?"
He glanced around, searching for Heather. "Yer mum canna take you?"
"She's busy with the twins, and Papa's in an important meeting with Uncle Angus and Roman."
Dougal tilted up his glass, finishing off the contents. No one had told him about an important meeting.
"Dougal!" Bethany's eyes grew desperate. "I need to go!"
"I'll take you." He grabbed the bottle of Bubbly Blood. "This way."
He led her out the double doors into the foyer of Romatech, then headed down the west hallway. Halfway to the MacKay security office, they reached the restrooms. Bethany went inside, while he leaned against the wall, drinking Bubbly Blood and wondering what was going on. Angus MacKay, head of MacKay Security and Investigation, sent a monthly report to all his employees to keep them informed, but there had been no mention of a meeting tonight.
According to the reports, after the deaths of Malcontent leaders Casimir and Corky, most of their followers had fled back to Russia and Eastern Europe. Angus sent security teams there whenever the bad vampires got out of hand.
Master Han, another evil vampire, was still growing an army in China and acquiring more territory. There had been three vampire lords assisting Master Han, but MacKay S&I employee Major Russell Hankelburg had managed to kill one before ripping out his tracking chip and going AWOL. About three times a year, Angus sent guys to hunt for Russell, but as far as Dougal knew, the ex-Marine had never been found.
Dougal's last mission had been over a year ago when he'd helped a were-bear in Alaska. And he'd only landed that job because all the other guys had been busy in the field elsewhere.
With another gulp of Bubbly Blood he chided himself mentally. While the other lads were battling evil, he was waiting for a little girl to finish using the restroom. Face the facts. They doona think ye're suited for being more than a babysitter.
After that disastrous battle four years ago when he'd lost his hand, he'd been grateful just to stay employed at MacKay S&I. Angus had arranged for him to be transferred to Jean-Luc Echarpe's house in Texas, where he had replaced Robby MacKay as head of security. It was a cushy job, since Jean-Luc was the best swordsman in the vampire world and could easily take care of himself. But when it came to keeping his family safe, Jean-Luc wasn't going to turn down the extra help, even if it was one-handed.
Dougal had been grateful to Jean-Luc, too. In spite of his busy schedule, Jean-Luc had taken the time to teach Dougal how to fence with his left hand. And then two years ago, when he had received his first prosthetic hand, Jean-Luc had trained him once again.
Now Dougal could fence equally well with both hands - a rare talent amongst the employees of MacKay S&I. So why was he still working as a glorified babysitter? Why wasn't he being sent on field work? The boredom was becoming increasingly hard to bear. Maybe he should just retire.
And do what? Sit in his cottage on the Isle of Skye and stare at the sea all night? There would be no one there, no sound other than the plaintive cry of birds and the rhythmic beating of waves against the cold rocky shore. One night would follow another, a hollow, desolate refrain stretching into eternity.
His friends here might pester him with painful questions, but at least they cared. He wasn't left alone with a half-empty soul.
He lifted the bottle for another drink.
"Dougal?" Angus's voice boomed down the hallway. "What are ye doing out here?"
He swallowed so fast that his eyes watered. Angus and his wife, Emma, approached him, their gazes shifting from him to the bottle of Bubbly Blood in his hand. Damn, they were going to think he was drinking on the job. Well, technically, he was.
"We've been looking for you," Emma said with an amused twinkle in her eyes.
"Aye," Angus agreed. "We need to talk." He motioned to the security office.
"I'll be there in a moment." Dougal glanced at the restroom door, his face growing warm. "I-I'm waiting for Bethany so I can escort her back to the party."
Emma smiled. "I'll take her. You two go on."
Dougal nodded and accompanied Angus to the office.
Inside, Phineas's younger brother, Freemont, was seated behind the desk, munching on a donut. He jumped to his feet and saluted with the donut still in his hand, leaving behind flakes of sugar on his brow. "Everything's cool in the building, sir. Robby did a perimeter check ten minutes ago. The grounds are clear."
"Good." Angus strode across the office, his kilt swishing about his knees. "And our guest downstairs?"
"The weird psycho dude?" Freemont gestured at the wall of security monitors opposite the desk. "He's still in stasis."
A weird psycho dude? Dougal studied the screens. The party in the ballroom was in full swing. In the hallway outside, Emma was leading Bethany back to the ballroom. The foyer was empty. Same with the cafeteria and Roman's laboratory. Laszlo was in one of the labs. He appeared to be cleaning and organizing. No activity in the parking lot and front entrance.
On the bottom row, Dougal spotted an interesting scene, and he leaned over for a better look. It was the silver room in the basement, a room designed for imprisoning vampires. A man was laid out on a stretcher, unconscious, with his arms and legs buckled down with restraints. "Who is he?"
"A more likely question is what is he?" Angus replied.
Dougal straightened. "He's no' a vampire?"
Angus shook his head. "No' exactly human, either. We have him in the silver room so none of his vampire friends can teleport in to rescue him. He has superstrength, as strong as we are. And since he's normally awake during the day, I was worried he would overpower our mortal guards. The only safe way to hold him was to put him in stasis."
"You should have seen it!" Freemont's eyes sparkled with excitement. "The psycho dude is so strong, it took three Vamps to hold him down while Abby gave him the injection."
Dougal searched his memory. He'd been out of the loop for too long, stuck in Texas. "Abby is Gregori's wife?"
"Aye. President Tucker's daughter. Luckily for us, she's a biochemist who earned her Ph.D. on stasis research." Angus patted Freemont on the back. "Ye can go to the party now."
"Cool!" Freemont headed for the door, stuffing the last of the donut in his mouth. "I think they're about to cut the cake."
When the door shut, Angus took a seat behind the desk. "I just came from a meeting with Jean-Luc and Roman."
"Aye." Dougal sat in one of the chairs facing the desk and set the bottle of Bubbly Blood on the floor next to him.
"Phineas and Austin have been in charge of security here at Romatech," Angus began. "Austin wants to continue when he's no' needed on missions, but Phineas wants to take an extended leave of absence. He's verra busy with the twins and his ranch in Wyoming. And I think he prefers the country now that he has to shift every month."
Dougal nodded. It must have been difficult for Phineas to make the transition to his new hybrid status of half vampire, half werewolf. He was fortunate to have a werewolf wife to help him adapt.
Angus leaned back in his chair. "So that leaves a position open here. I asked Robby if he was interested, but he wants to be transferred to Texas. His wife, Olivia, has family there. She wants her grandmother to help her with the bairn."
Dougal wasn't surprised. It had to be tiring for the mortal wives when their vampire husbands were dead all day and unable to help with the children. "So Robby is going to do security at the Texas Romatech?"
"He'll oversee that, but he'll also be in charge of Jean-Luc's security." Angus sat forward, his elbows on the desk. "He's taking his old job back."
Dougal blinked. "Ye mean - "
"Aye. That leaves you without a job."
I'm being let go. Dougal rose to his feet. "I understand. I was thinking of retiring - "
"The hell ye are. I need you." Angus motioned for him to sit, but Dougal was too tense to comply. "Jean-Luc tells me ye can fence equally well with both hands."
"He thinks yer talents are being wasted. Roman and I agree. So how would ye like to be head of security here?"
Stunned, Dougal sat. "Here?"
"Aye, and I'd like to put you back on the mission roster." Angus's gaze shifted to the prosthetic hand, then back to Dougal's face. "Can ye do it?"
"Aye." When Angus continued to stare at him, Dougal figured he needed to sound more convincing. "I can do it. I want to do it."
Angus smiled. "Good." He motioned to the bottle on the floor. "How about a drink to celebrate?"
"Aye." Dougal grabbed the bottle and poured Bubbly Blood into the two coffee cups Angus retrieved from the sideboard. "When do ye want me to start?"
"Right away." Angus drank from his cup.
Dougal glanced at the monitor showing the silver room. "I need to know more about the . . . guest. Who is he?"
"We doona know his name. He's refused to say anything other than curse at us in Chinese. J.L. and Rajiv brought him back two weeks ago. I'd sent them to China again to hunt for Russell."
"Did they find him?" Dougal asked.
"Nay. But they think he found them." Angus took another sip from his cup. "A group of Master Han's soldiers ambushed them. They were in serious trouble, when a barrage of arrows took out half the enemy."
Angus nodded. "It must have been him, but when the battle was over, they searched the vicinity and couldna find him."
Dougal motioned to the monitor. "So this is one of Master Han's soldiers?"
"Aye. He's mortal, or started out that way, but he now has some of the superpowers that we possess. We're no' sure how Han is transforming the mortals, but it has something to do with the demon Darafer and some drugs he made."
Dougal frowned. They'd defeated villainous vampires before, but never one who had teamed up with a demon.
"The problem with hunting for Russell is that he's hoping to kill Master Han," Angus continued. "So in order to find him, we also have to search for Master Han."
"What's wrong with that?" Dougal asked. "Should we no' be trying to kill the bastard?"
"We need to, aye, but 'tis verra hard to actually find him. He's taken over a large portion of southern China, Tibet, and the northern portions of Thailand and Myanmar. 'Tis a huge area to canvas. J.L. and Rajiv have spent months there, and they've discovered thirty outposts, each one heavily guarded. As far as they can tell, Master Han teleports from one fort to another, and they never know where he'll pop up next."
Dougal winced. "Like playing whack the mole."
"Aye. Master Han has nearly a thousand soldiers now, spread over the thirty outposts. J.L. and Rajiv are so outnumbered that they try their best to avoid any confrontations." Angus sighed. "I was discussing this with Roman and Jean-Luc. We find ourselves in a moral dilemma."
"They may be the enemy, but they're mortal." Angus extended his cup toward Dougal so he could refill it with Bubbly Blood. "We never felt guilty about killing Malcontents. They're a bunch of rotten bastards who've spent centuries killing mortals and enjoying it."
"Aye," Dougal muttered. "And they're already Undead. They simply turn to dust after ye skewer them." Just like his hand, once it had been sliced off in battle.
Angus nodded. "But when we kill Master Han's soldiers, they doona disappear. Their bodies remain. And so does our guilt. As far as we know, their souls go straight to hell."
Dougal winced. "I dinna know that."
"Our guys learned about it on their first mission to China. The mortals enjoy their superpowers as a gift from Darafer, but when they die, their souls belong to him forever." Angus dragged a hand through his hair. "We doona know if the mortals agree to the bargain, or if they are coerced through vampire mind control. Roman and I have discussed it at length, and we're reluctant to engage in battle with these mortals. We doona want to kill them."
And dispatch their souls to hell. Dougal finished his Bubbly Blood and refilled his cup. "While we wait, Master Han is making more of them. Dooming more souls."
"I know." Angus drank. "That's why J.L. and Rajiv brought back one of the soldiers. We have some good scientists here: Roman, Laszlo, and Abby. We hoped they could figure out how the mortal was changed and how to change him back."
"Then we could save them instead of killing them," Dougal concluded.
"Aye." Angus finished his cup and set it on the table. "Abby has been studying blood and tissue samples from our guest, and she claims he's been altered genetically. 'Tis beyond her area of expertise, so she suggested we find an expert to help us out."
Dougal nodded. "Did ye find someone?"
"Dr. Lee did." Angus referred to the vampire doctor from Houston. "He's been looking for an assistant, since he has an increasing number of Vamps and shifters and wee bairns to take care of. He found a physician who also has a Ph.D. in genetics. A young mortal. And a genius, according to Dr. Lee. He's bringing her here tonight."
"Aye." Angus stood and paced across the room. "He hired her a week ago, but he had some trouble breaking the news to her about vampires and shifters."
Dougal finished his cup of Bubbly Blood. Was it right to drag an innocent, mortal woman into this mess? "She dinna take it well?"
"Nay. She became so upset that she wanted to quit, and he ended up erasing her memory in order to keep her employed. We doona want to lose her."
Dougal winced. "And he's bringing her here? The place is swarming with supernatural creatures."
"We thought it best. As a scientist, she has great admiration for Roman and his invention of synthetic blood. She also knew about Abigail's achievements and was eager to meet her." Angus motioned to the monitor showing the ballroom. "And there's a blasted party going on for a bunch of bairns. How frightening can we seem when we dote on our children?"
Dougal snorted. "So we'll convince her that we're as meek as lambs?"
Angus smiled. "That's the plan."
"What of the moral dilemma of exposing an innocent woman to a dangerous world? What if she wants nothing to do with us?"
Angus's smile faded. "We need her. And since ye'll be working here, I expect you to do yer part to convince her to help us." He held up a hand when Dougal started to object. "Ye may think it's wrong to involve her, but what if she can free the soldiers who've been enslaved by Master Han? There could be over a thousand souls she saves."
So the needs of the many outweighed the needs of one? There was a ruthless logic to it, but it still didn't sit well with Dougal. How often in the past had he ranted against a cruel fate thrust upon him without his consent? The same thing could happen to this woman.
He took a deep breath. The die was cast, and he couldn't fight it. All he could do was protect her to the best of his ability. "Hopefully she will react well tonight."
"Like ye said, we'll be as meek as lambs." Angus stepped closer to the wall of monitors. "They're here."
Dougal glanced at the screen that showed a black Town Car pulling into the parking lot. "Who's with her?"
"Abby picked her up this afternoon at LaGuardia and took her to Roman's townhouse. After the sun set, Dr. Lee and Gregori joined them. That's Gregori's car. He's driving."
"They plan on telling her the truth soon?" Dougal asked.
"Aye," Angus replied. "Abby will take her to the lab first. Laszlo's been getting things ready."
Dougal glanced at the monitor, where Laszlo could be seen straightening a stack of papers. No wonder the chemist had cleaned the room. He'd even combed his unruly hair and put on a fresh white lab coat with a full array of buttons.
Dougal's gaze shifted back to the dimly lit parking lot, where the Town Car had come to a stop by the front entrance. His nerves tensed as a heavy feeling swept over him. Something was wrong. The air was suddenly too thick to breathe. He grabbed the bottle of Bubbly Blood and swallowed down a gulp. It didn't help.
Gregori and Dr. Lee exited the front seats and opened the rear car doors. Two women emerged. One was short with curly auburn hair. Abigail Tucker Holstein: renowned scientist, daughter of the American president, and Gregori's wife. The other . . . Dougal glimpsed a slim young woman, who turned away from the camera, her long black hair swinging about her shoulders.
His prosthetic hand tightened around the bottle of Bubbly Blood.
Gregori punched in the security code at the entrance, then opened the doors so they could enter the foyer.
"Dr. Lee made the mistake of simply blurting out the truth," Angus said, watching the monitors. "Abby thinks we should pique her scientific curiosity first. Then we'll have a better chance at reeling her in."
They paused in the well-lit foyer, and Dougal had a clearer view of her from behind. The graceful curve of her spine and firm set of her shoulders, the inquisitive lean of her head as she looked about . . . so familiar. Painfully familiar.
His shoulder blade itched as his tattoo grew warm. Turn, turn toward the camera.
Her head moved slightly as if she might have heard him. Turn, turn to me. A sizzling sensation started on the tail of his tattoo, then burned a path along the dragon's body, over his shoulder to his chest, till it erupted in the fiery breath etched in crimson over his heart.
He gritted his teeth against the surprising burst of pain. Why was the tattoo tormenting him now, when it had been quiet since 1746? It took a great effort just to whisper. "What's her name?"
"Dr. Chin. Leah Chin," Angus replied.
Li Lei. Dougal's heart thudded in his ears, a pounding rhythm for the sad melody that had haunted him for so long. I will find you. No matter what. If it takes a thousand years, I will find you.
It had taken almost three hundred years, but he'd found her. Turn, Li Lei, turn to me.
She swiveled, looking around the foyer, then glanced straight up at the camera.
It wasn't her.
His heart seized with an abrupt pain. Of course it wasn't her. How could it be? He'd buried her himself in a grassy mound overlooking the Yangtze River that had claimed her life. She was lost to him forever.
His fist clenched, and the bottle of Bubbly Blood shattered in his prosthetic hand.