Vampire Mine (Love at Stake #10) by Kerrelyn Sparks
After four hundred and ninety-nine years of existence, Connor Buchanan arrived at an inescapable conclusion regarding himself. He was a coldhearted old bastard.
He slowed to a walk after checking the extensive grounds at Romatech. Hed enjoyed zipping through the trees at vampire speed with the cool breeze whipping at his face and filling his nostrils with the heady scent of newly budded leaves and flowers. But then hed realized why he welcomed the coming of spring. Not for the warmer temperatures. Not for the promise of rebirth and renewal, since he would remain the same as hed been for centuries. No, to be brutally honest with himself, it was the shorter nights he was looking forward to. That meant longer days and more death-sleep. More time spent in utter oblivion. No thoughts. No memories. No remorse.
The main building at Romatech Industries came into view, and he slowed his pace even more, struck by a sudden reluctance to reenter the facility. More and more these days, he preferred to be alone.
Why bother with companions? Was there any conversation he hadnt already experienced a dozen or more times? And if he even hinted at the black despair that threatened to engulf him, he would only receive knowing looks from other Vamps as they doled out the usual diagnosis. He was nearing his five hundredth birthday, and apparently, hitting that mid-millennium marker could plunge the most stalwart of Vamps into a mid-life crisis.
Bull crap. Roman and Angus were both older than him, and they were content with their lives. Theyre happily married. He shoved that thought aside. He wouldnt fall prey to that form of insanity, no matter how old he got.
No, he was fine with being a coldhearted old bastard. He was good at it. Hed been perfecting the condition for years. He strode through a flower bed, trampling the new blossoms underfoot.
At the side entrance, he slid his ID card through the security console and pressed his palm against the scanner. When his ultrasensitive hearing detected the faint click of the lock releasing, he pushed open the side door and trudged down the hall to the MacKay security office.
His footsteps echoed in the empty hallway. No one came to Romatech on Saturday night except those who attended Mass on the far side of the facility.
He let himself into the security office and scanned the wall of surveillance monitors. Parking lot clear. Corridors empty. Cafeteria empty. Heart empty. He pushed aside that errant thought and focused on the screen showing the chapel.
Out of habit, he searched the small congregation to make sure Roman and his family were all right. Connor had been officially watching over Roman for more than sixty years now as a MacKay S&I employee, first as head of security at Romatech, and in recent years as personal bodyguard. Since Roman Draganesti was the inventor of synthetic blood and the owner of Romatech where it was produced, he presented a tempting target for the Malcontents who considered synthetic blood an insult and threat to their murderous way of life.
But the hatred went deeper than that. Casimir had been the one to transform Roman back in 1491. The Malcontent leader had thought it would be an amusing slap at the face of God to turn a humble monk into a bloodthirsty, homicidal vampire. But Roman had refused to turn evil. Hed made his own group of good Vamps, so they could fight the Malcontents and protect humanity.
Connor was dying on a battlefield when Roman changed him. He owed his existence to Roman. And his sanity. Keeping Roman and his family safe gave him a noble purpose, noble enough to almost make him forget what a coldhearted old bastard he truly was.
He watched on the monitor as Father Andrew gave his final blessing, and the congregation moved from the chapel into the hallway. Connors heart squeezed at the sight of Romans children, Constantine and Sofia. They were as close as hed ever get to having children. Tino had celebrated his fifth birthday last month in March, and Sofia would be turning three in May. He touched the screen that showed them prancing about the hallway. Having to sit still during Mass must have left them with pent-up energy that was now bursting free. He smiled as they skipped into the nearby fellowship hall, no doubt eager for punch and cookies. Their mortal mother, Shanna, gave Roman a quick hug, then chased after the children.
Connors smile faded as he watched his Vamp friends emerging from the chapel, nearly all of them with a wife at his side. Most of the men had succumbed to the silken trap of love. Poor romantic fools. How could they remain single for centuries, then out of the blue, one after another, plummet off the cliff like a dazed herd of sheep? Not only had they made themselves personally vulnerable to the heartache and despair that came with love, but they endangered the entire vampire world as more and more mortal women learned of their existence.
The men seemed happy enough for now. Ignorance was bliss, Connor supposed. They didnt see the risk. They didnt feel the cold shadow of doom hovering just outside their gilded cage. They had no idea how love could drive a man to commit desperate, unthinkable acts, destroying his own soul along the way.
He turned his head and focused instead on the monitor that was playing the Digital Vampire Network. A black animated bat flapped its wings while underneath a message announced: DVN. On 24/7 because its always nighttime somewhere.
The Nightly News came on, so Connor turned off the mute button.
One last item. Stone Cauffyn picked up a piece of paper that had been pushed across his desk. A Vamp in Los Angeles believes he saw Casimir several nights ago. The newscaster scanned the paper, his face blank as usual. Im afraid we cannot confirm the report at this time.
Connor snorted. Last week, a Vamp claimed hed seen Casimir paddling an outrigger canoe in Bora Bora, and the week before, someone swore head spotted Casimir milking a reindeer in northern Finland. The leader of the Malcontents had become the bogeyman of the vampire world, spied behind every tree and whispered about in dark rooms.
And that concludes our broadcast for the night, Stone continued with his bland voice. For all the latest news on the vampire world, keep your televisions tuned to DVN, the worlds leading vampire network.
Not a stellar achievement considering it was the worlds only vampire network. Connor muted the volume as the ending credits began to roll.
He glanced back at the monitor showing the hallway in front of the chapel. Most of the congregation was moving into the fellowship hall. Father Andrew appeared to be in deep conversation with Roman, who was solemnly nodding his head. They shook hands, then Roman proceeded into the fellowship hall while the priest walked toward the foyer, his leather briefcase in hand. He was leaving earlier than usual.
Connor switched his attention back to DVN. A commercial had started for Vampos, the after-dinner mint guaranteed to get rid of blood breath. A handsome male Vamp, dressed in an expensive tuxedo, slipped one of the mints into his mouth, then kissed his date, who, oddly enough, was dressed in a skimpy bikini in the dark in the middle of Central Park. On horseback. A likely scenario, Connor thought with a wry twist of his lips, although his gaze did linger over the womans curvaceous body.
Bugger. How long had it been? Thirty years? Fifty? Too damned long if he couldnt even remember. No wonder he was a coldhearted old bastard.
Gregori, who always kept a roll of Vampos in his coat pocket, was constantly nagging Connor to go with him to the vampire nightclubs. Apparently, his plaid kilt and Scottish accent would make him an automatic babe magnet. There was a multitude of hot chicks, as Gregori called them, who wanted to relieve the boredom of immortality with a night of screaming wild sex. Gregori claimed it was their manly duty to keep all those Vamp women happy.
So far, Connor had declined. Attempting to cure his loneliness with a long line of faceless, nameless, desperate, Undead women didnt seem appealing. Or very honorable. Hypocrite, a small voice in the back of his mind needled him. Who are ye fooling, pretending to be a man of honor? Ye know what ye did.
He struck the voice down and glanced back at the surveillance monitors. Father Andrew had reached the foyer, and he set his briefcase on the table where Phineas had checked it earlier in the evening. As a safety precaution, all items brought into Romatech had to be searched.
The priest had left his overcoat on the table earlier, but instead of putting it on and heading out the front door, he strode across the foyer into the hallway on the left. Connor frowned, wondering what the old priest was up to. The hallway was empty except for . . .
Bugger, Connor whispered as the priest marched straight toward the MacKay security office.
He couldnt pretend he wasnt here. With a groan, he pushed back a long strand of hair that had escaped the leather tie at the nape of his neck while hed been running about the grounds.
He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. Can I help you, Father?The priest smiled. Connor, good to see you again. He shook hands, then peeked inside the office. Fascinating. Ive never seen this room before. May I Connor motioned for him to enter, then followed him inside.
Father Andrew pivoted, scanning the office. His eyebrows rose at the sight of all the weapons in the caged-off area in the back. He turned toward the wall of surveillance monitors. I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate you keeping us safe during Mass.
Connor inclined his head. It wasnt an idle compliment. The Malcontents had tried bombing the chapel before. With Roman in attendance, along with Angus MacKay and other high-profile members of the bottle-drinking Vamp world, they were practically begging for an attack.
The priest gestured to the screen showing the chapel. So you were still able to watch the service?
Aye. Connor didnt admit that hed kept the volume turned off. I wasna here all the time. I did four perimeter checks.
Youre very vigilant, Father Andrew said with the hint of a smile. The silver fringe of hair surrounding his bald crown indicated an advanced age, yet his clear blue eyes and smooth skin lent him an oddly youthful and innocent appearance. Roman and his family are fortunate to have you.
Connor shifted his weight. Roman is verra important. The priests smile widened. You are all important in the eyes of the Lord. I was wondering why you volunteer to guard us every week. Surely you could take turns with the other men? I havent seen you at Mass for months now.
Connor winced inwardly. He should have known this was coming.
Im concerned about you, the priest continued. Perhaps its my imagination, but I feel like youve grown more isolated and . . . unhappy in the last few years. Roman agrees Ye talked to Roman about me? Connor snapped.
The priests eyes widened, but he remained quiet until Connor felt a twinge of guilt for raising his voice.
Roman tells me youre approaching your five hundredth birthday, Father Andrew said in a soothing tone. Ive heard that can cause feelings of depression or Bull crap. or anger, the priest finished his sentence with a pointed look. In your case, I fear youre shutting yourself off from your friends, which will result in you feeling even more alone. What do you think, Connor? Do you feel isolated?
Not isolated enough since he was forced to endure this conversation. He shoved the annoying strand of hair behind his ear. Tis no the same anymore. All the men are getting married.
I heard that you disapprove of their relationships.
Connor shot him an irritated look. Tis no that I want them to be lonely and miserable. They just doona see the risk theyre taking. Theres nothing more important to vampires than keeping our existence a secret. That has been our top priority for centuries, and theyre foolishly flaunting it.
Theyre in love.
You dont believe in love?
Connor grimaced as if hed been poked with a spear. Oh, he believed in love all right. Love was a bitch.
Father Andrew watched him closely. Theres no need to feel alone, Connor. You could come to Mass with your friends and take Holy Communion.
The wily priest was going for the jugular. Connor was purposely avoiding Communion. Hed been raised to believe he would have to go to confession first.
Father Andrew slipped on his reading glasses and removed a Day-Timer from his coat pocket. Id like to set up an appointment with you.
The priest ignored that remark as he thumbed through the pages. Roman would give you the time off.
How about next Thursday evening at nine? I could meet you here.
With his hand resting on an open page of his Day-Timer, Father Andrew peered over the rims of his reading glasses. Ive been a priest for over fifty years. I can tell when a man is in need of confession.
Connor stepped back, his jaw clenched. I confess nothing.
Father Andrew removed his glasses and fixed his blue eyes on Connor with a hard stare. You wont scare me away. I will fight for you.
A chill crept over Connors skin. The fight had been lost centuries ago.
The priest closed his Day-Timer with a snap and stuffed it into his coat pocket. I assume you fought in the Great Vampire War of 1710? And until Roman invented synthetic blood in 1987, you survived by feeding off humans?
Connor folded his arms across his chest. So in lieu of a confession, the priest was attempting an interrogation.
Ive learned a great deal about your world in the last five years. Father Andrew slid his glasses back into his chest pocket. I seriously doubt there is anything you could tell me that I havent heard before.
He was wrong about that. Connor motioned toward the door to indicate that the meeting was over.
A hint of amusement glinted in the priests eyes. Youre a man of few words. I like that. He took one last look around the room, and his gaze fell on the screen showing DVN. That woman looks familiar. Wasnt she the one who tried to wreak havoc on Jacks engagement party?
Connor glanced at the monitor, which displayed a close-up of a woman whose bright red lips were twisted into a smug smile. Thats Corky Courrant. She hosts the show Live with the Undead.
So this is the vampire channel? The priest stepped closer. Ive never seen it before.
Connor sighed. The old man seemed fascinated with anything from the vampire world. Along the bottom of the screen, a message announced that Corky was about to interview her mystery guest. Corky quivered with excitement as the camera moved back and the shot widened.
Connors jaw dropped. Bloody hell! He leaped toward the screen and punched the buttons to record and turn up the volume.
reached the pinnacle of my journalistic career, Corky said, motioning to her guest. It is an honor to have you on my show, Casimir.a
Father Andrew gasped. Thats Casimir?
Connor zipped over to the desk and hit the alarm button that emitted a sound too high-pitched for human ears. The Vamps and shifters in the fellowship hall would hear it and rush to the office within seconds.
Connor glanced down at the dagger in his knee sock while he reached overhead to make sure his claymore was in place. Tell them I went to DVN, he told the priest, then teleported away.
There was a big sign posted just inside the Brooklyn headquarters of the Digital Vampire Network. Auditions tonight for All My Vampires! Male romantic lead role.
Connor frowned as he pushed his way into the crowded waiting room. Apparently, over a hundred young Vamps wanted to star in DVNs most popular soap opera. Theyd come dressed for the part, most of them in black tuxedos. Others had opted for costumes: a gladiator, a matador, a Dracula with a long silk cape. Connor wrinkled his nose at the staggering scent of cologne and hair gel.
Hey! A young Vamp in a black trench coat and dark sunglasses nudged him. You have to get in line first to fill out the forms. He pointed a black-painted fingernail at the queue that snaked around the room.
Connor reached overhead and pulled out his claymore. With a chorus of gasps and squeals, the lads parted like the Red Sea.
Aw, shoot, he brought his own props, muttered a young Vamp in a cowboy costume. And that kilt looks awesome. I wish Id thought of that.
Damn. A Mr. Darcy impersonator tugged at his lacy cravat. I knew I should have gone with the butch look.
Connor strode toward the receptionist desk.
The girls mouth dropped open at the sight of his drawn sword. II
She appeared incapable of communicating in a coherent manner, so he skirted the desk and headed for the double doors behind her.
Wait! the receptionist cried. You cant go
Her words were cut off when the doors swung shut. He hurried down the hallway, hoping to find the recording studio before Casimir could escape. If he could kill the bloody bastard tonight, the Malcontents would scatter in disarray. Countless human lives could be saved.
He spotted the red flashing light outside a studio and resisted the urge to rush in with a war cry. Instead, he quietly opened the door and slipped inside. It was dark by the entrance, but across the room, two dim lights illuminated the stage. Connor weaved silently around the cameras, which appeared to be turned on, although they were unmanned.
You know I love you, a male voice whispered behind a monitor. You make me look so good.
Connor groaned inwardly. The voice didnt belong to Casimir, but to Stone Cauffyn. Apparently, now that the Nightly News was over, the newscaster was dallying with a lover, perhaps a makeup artist who made him look good.
Connor rounded the monitor and discovered Stone in a passionate embrace with . . . his hairbrush.
Aagh! Stone jumped and his brush clattered onto the floor. I say, you scared the dickens out of me.
Connor didnt know which was more bizarre: a man who used the word dickens or a man in love with his own hairbrush. Wheres Corky Courrant?
Look what you made me do. Stone grabbed his brush off the floor and inspected it for damage. Dash it all, I could have scratched it.
Where the hell is Corky Courrant?
No need to use such coarse language. And I strongly suggest you put away that medieval monstrosity of a weapon. Stone turned toward the monitor where he could see his own image and ran the brush through his thick hair. I say, I do sorely miss the good old days. Regency England, dont you know? When genteel people behaved with proper etiquette and Ye bloody whoreson, tell me where Corky is!
Stone huffed. Miss Courrant is not here. Thank God. She wanted to sully this stage with an unsavory character.
The studio lights turned on.
Whats going on here? A bald-headed man stood by the studio door, his hand on the light switch. He eyed Connor suspiciously. Ive called security.
I am security, Connor replied. Wheres Corky Courrant?
The bald-headed man sighed. This is about that stupid interview with Casimir, isnt it? I told her it would cause trouble.
Unsavory character. Stone Cauffyn shuddered.
Connor gave the men an incredulous look. Hes a wee bit more than unsavory. Hes a bloody terrorist.
You think I dont know that? the bald-headed man asked. His pal Janow held people hostage in this studio. Thankfully some MacKay S and I guys showed up Hey, is that where you work?
Aye. Connor strode toward him. Where is Corky?
She threw a hissy fit when I said she couldnt interview Casimir here. I told her to take a few weeks off to cool down. Next thing I know, shes sending me a DVD of her interview From where? Connor interrupted.
Before the bald-headed man could answer, he was shoved farther into the room by Angus MacKay and three other Vamps who had attended Mass at Romatech. All four of them had their swords drawn.
Where is Casimir? Angus demanded.
I dont know. The bald-headed man nodded toward Phineas, Ian, and Jack. I remember you guys from the Janow incident. Youre from MacKay Security and Investigation.
Im Angus MacKay. And ye are?
Sylvester Bacchus, station manager.
Tell me. Angus stepped closer. Are ye aiding and abetting a known terrorist?
No! Sylvester ran a hand over his bald head, which was gleaming under the bright lights. I told Corky I didnt want any part of it. I sent her on vacation, but then she sent me the DVD From where? Connor asked again.
Sylvester shrugged. She didnt say. The package was postmarked California, a few days ago. Hollywood, I believe.
I say, what a fortuitous coincidence. Stone patted his hair as he regarded himself in the monitor. There was a report that someone spotted that unsavory character in Los Angeles.
Several nights ago, Connor muttered. Thats when the interview must have been recorded. Casimir could be anywhere by now.
The devil take it. Angus sheathed his sword.
Merda, Jack grumbled. I was hoping to kill him tonight.
Yeah, Phineas agreed. And the really shitty part is that bastards back in America.
Stone shuddered. Such coarse language. Thank God this isnt being broadcast to my listeners.
Sod off, Connor told him.
Humph. Stone lifted his chin and marched toward the door. Youre just jealous because your hair is unruly and barbaric.
You mean your hair is real? Phineas asked as Stone passed by. I thought it was a rug.
Stone gasped and ran from the studio, clutching his hairbrush to his chest. Phineas grinned and did a high five with Ian.
Sylvester, do ye still have the envelope Corky sent? Connor asked. We need that, and the DVD she made.
Sure. The station manager rushed out.
Angus retrieved his cell phone from his sporran. Ill call J.L. Once we get a location in California, he can check it out.
Connor nodded as he sheathed his sword. J. L. Wang was a fairly new Vamp, but as a former FBI special agent, he knew how to get the job done. We should check every place in America that Casimir has teleported to in the past. Those locations would be embedded in his psychic memory, so he was more likely to use them than risk an unknown destination.
Aye, Angus agreed. Jack, go with Lara to the compound in Maine. If Casimirs there, call for backup.
Will do. Jack teleported away.
Ian, go to New Orleans to warn the coven there, Angus continued. Then go to Jean-Lucs place in Texas to let him know. Is the school well guarded?
Aye, Phil is there with his werewolf lads. Ian teleported away.
Phineas, I want you and Robby to check out St. Louis, Leavenworth, and those farms in Nebraska, Angus ordered. As soon as I get Corkys DVD, Ill be returning to Romatech, so call me there to report.
Got it. Phineas teleported away.
That leaves the campground near Mount Rushmore, Connor said quietly. The accursed place where Casimir and his minions had slaughtered innocent people twice before. The same place where Robby MacKay had been held captive and tortured. If Connor had to lay a bet, he would wager this was Casimirs favorite location in America.
Angus sighed. I dinna want to send Robby back there.
I understand. Connor knew what it was like to be burdened with bad memories. Ill leave right away.
Angus reached out to stop him. Ye shouldna go alone. Drop by Romatech and take one of the shifters with you. Carlos or Howard.
Ill be fine.
That wasna a suggestion, Connor. It was an or
He teleported away before Angus could finish.