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Excerpt for Dark Passion (The Brethren Series, Book Three) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

DARK PASSION

Book Three in The Brethren Series

by Sara Reinke



Second Edition

Copyright 2018 Sara Reinke


Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.




CHAPTER ONE

The average rainfall in South Lake Tahoe, California, was only slightly more than eight inches a year, but Eleanor was willing to bet that they were getting it all in one fell swoop, judging by the full-fledged downpour that beat a heavy, thunderous beat against the roof of the Range Rover.

A willowy brunette with shadow-cast eyes, Eleanor sat in the passenger seat, seatbelt still latched in place, her thick cascade of hair drawn back, fastened with a faux tortoise-shell clip at the nape of her neck. Her body was thin, her complexion pale, her fingers wiry as she twined them together restlessly against the nest of her lap. Her clothes seemed to hang on her much as they might have a dry cleaner’s rack, loose and ill-fitting, accentuating the gaunt haggardness that marred what otherwise would have been a face of striking, nearly mesmerizing beauty.

By contrast, Naima, the woman sitting behind the Rover’s wheel, had dark brown skin and chocolate-colored eyes, her black hair sheared so closely to her scalp it looked more like a shadow draping the pate of her ebony skin. Her body was long and strong, all elegant lines and muscular curves. She, too, was beautiful, her features chiseled, nearly regal.

Together, the pair watched the Heavenly Motor Lodge, an older motel built in Tudor Revival style. With a fading white stucco and exposed hardwood trim façade, it was a relatively nondescript building made all the more lackluster by the shroud of rain. There wasn’t much to see. A housekeeper pushed a wheeled cart, heavy with stacks of folded white linens and paper-wrapped rolls of toilet paper, along the awning-covered walkway. A young African American woman, her skin a lighter hue than Naima’s, had returned shortly before the rain had begun; dressed in a sweat suit, she’d obviously been out for a morning jog. No one else had yet to venture out and brave the weather.

The woman had ducked into one of the motel rooms, but emerged now, nearly twenty minutes later, redressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeved fleece pullover. They watched as she followed the walkway to a neighboring door some distance from her own, then raised her fist and knocked loudly against the wood.

“Who is that, do you suppose?” Eleanor murmured, as the windshield wipers slid against the glass in sweeping arcs, awarding her a brief glimpse of the girl that was quickly obscured by a fresh pelting of raindrops.

“Her name is Angelina Jones,” Naima replied as the motel room door opened and the young black woman ducked quickly inside. She used her telepathic abilities with an abandon that would have been frowned upon among the Brethren of Kentucky. Without inhibition or reservation, she’d open her mind and glean whatever she wanted or needed to know. “They call her Lina. She’s traveling with them.” She cut a glance at Eleanor. “She’s sleeping with Brandon.”

The motel room door opened again, and a man stepped briefly past the threshold. He panned his gaze, looking around the parking lot, his brows drawn, his mouth turned in a frown.

“That must be Rene,” Eleanor said.

“Yes.” Eleanor didn’t have to look at Naima to know she was frowning. It was obvious in her voice. “It must.”

“He senses us.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Naima shook her head. “He can’t.

I’m blocking him.”

“That won’t work, will it?” Eleanor asked as, again, the wipers cut a clear path on the windshield. “He’s like you.”

“No.” Naima’s frown deepened. “He’s not.”

The man, Rene, went inside again, closing the door behind him.

“Let’s go.” Eleanor reached for her seatbelt, unbuckling the latch. “It’s almost noon. Surely they’re up by now.”

“You promised you’d wait,” Naima said, catching her by the coat sleeve, her dark eyes wide with sudden alarm.

“No, I said I would wait.” She flapped her arm, dislodging Naima’s hand. “I never promised anything.”

She opened the truck door and got out, slamming it on Naima’s startled, sputtered protest. The rain was on her immediately, pounding the top of her head, beating against her shoulders, soaking her, and she drew the back of her parka up vainly by the collar, trying to shield herself as she scurried across the parking lot.

When she reached the shelter of the covered walkway running the length of the motel, Naima caught her again. Winded and drenched, the two women stood together, shivering, puddles of rain pooling on the sidewalk beneath them.

“We have to go back,” Naima said, water spattering from her lips. “You’ll need your treatment soon. Michel made me promise—”

“I’m fine. Michel is a mother hen.” Eleanor pressed her fingertips to her thumb, a crude shape meant to simulate a bird’s beak, which she then used to poke at Naima’s arm. “Peck, peck, peck. I don’t have time for his incessant nagging.” She turned, but Naima’s fingers coiled against her coat, stopping her once more. “The man in that room…” Naima cut her eyes toward the motel room door, her expression grim. “He has a gun.”

Eleanor smiled, the corner of her mouth hooking. “You won’t let him shoot me.”

When she turned, walking toward the motel room door, Naima didn’t try to stop her. “No, but I should,” she muttered as she followed, loud enough for Eleanor to hear.

As Eleanor raised her hand to knock on the door, it flew open wide, startling her. It took her a wide-eyed, surprised moment to realize she stood face to face with the business end of a pistol, one that was aimed with lethal emphasis squarely between her eyes. On the other end of the gun—visible only through her peripheral vision because she was too busy gawking at the barrel, or rather, the black, fathomless hole in the center of it—stood Rene, the man they’d seen earlier in the doorway, his dark blond hair swept messily about his face, his brows furrowed deeply, hiding his eyes in heavy shadows.

Bon jour,” he said, his voice low and menacing. Beyond his shoulder, Eleanor caught a glimpse of the young woman, Angelina Jones, and another girl, pale-skinned and dark haired, sitting against the edge of the bed, looking as weak and exhausted as Eleanor felt.

Tessa.

“Bang,” Rene said, his fingertip against the trigger, flexing inward to fire. “You’re dead, chère.”

Naima was on him before his finger finished folding. She shoved her hand forward, and he flew through the air like he’d been jerked back by an invisible set of strings. He sailed across the motel room, crashing into a large mirror over the vanity sink, shattering the glass. With a breathless grunt, he crumpled face-first onto the ground, surrounded by a shower of tinkling, glittering shards, the gun knocked from his hand.

“Rene!” the young woman, Tessa, cried, scrambling to her feet. Naima’s eyes had rolled over to black, her pupils widening. As she whipped her head around to face Lina and Tessa, her jaw snapped open wide, her fangs distending.

“Jesus!” Lina grabbed the nearest, closest approximation to a weapon she could find—a brass floor lamp. “Tessa, get behind me!” she cried, swinging the lamp like a baseball bat, sending the weighted rectangular base smashing into the side of Naima’s head, knocking her sideways, stunning her. When she moved to swing it again, Naima thrust her hand out, and the lamp was wrenched violently from Lina’s grasp.

Lina skittered backwards, her eyes wide with shock and fright, and she blinked at the lamp dangling in the air, whirling in sharp, snapping circles above her head. “What the…?” she gasped, gawking between the lamp and Naima. “What the fuck—?”

She might have said more, but her voice cut short in a startled yelp as Rene staggered to his feet and tackled Naima, breaking her concentration. The lamp toppled to the floor, causing Lina to dance clumsily out of its path while Rene and Naima landed heavily against the carpet. Like hers, his pupils had swollen, swallowing his eyes with blackness, and his fangs had fully dropped. They grappled together, and Rene straddled her, one hand clamped heavily against her throat, the other drawn back, his fist poised to strike.

“Naima!” Eleanor cried, just as Naima gathered her wits and telekinetically shoved Rene from atop her, slamming him up against the ceiling and pinning him there, nearly spread-eagle and immobilized against the plaster.

At the sound of Eleanor’s voice, Tessa turned, seeing her clearly for the first time. Her eyes widened, the alarmed color that had risen in her cheeks draining abruptly to ashen.

“Tessa…” Rene gritted his teeth, the tendons in his neck standing out as he strained against Naima’s invisible hold, struggling to move. His face was riddled with cuts and scrapes from the broken mirror, rivulets of blood streaming in thin lines down his forehead from his scalp. “Lina…both of you…run!”

Eleanor had been looking at Tessa, at the sudden, tussling flood of emotions in the girl’s face as she had recognized her—shock, grief, disbelief, joy and, inexplicably, outrage—but her eyes snapped toward Lina at the click of a gun hammer being drawn back. Again, she found herself facing the barrel of Rene’s pistol, only this time, Lina wielded it, swinging it wildly between Eleanor and Naima, her eyes enormous with panic, her arm shaking with fright.

“Let him go!” she shouted at Naima, her voice hoarse and shrill.

Naima met her gaze coolly. The lamp base had busted open her bottom lip and she brushed her fingertips gingerly against the wound, dabbing at the blood.

“I said let him go!” Lina cried. “Do it now or I’ll shoot!”

“Lina…!” Rene gasped, still pinned above her head, his face flushed with the effort to move now. His eyes rolled desperately toward Tessa. “Tessa…for God’s sake…run!”

“I’m a police officer!” The pistol shook violently in Lina’s hand, and she clasped it with her free one as well, struggling to steady her aim. “I’ll shoot you, I swear to fucking Christ! Whatever you’re doing…whatever the fuck you are, bitch…let him go. Now!”

“It’s alright.” Tessa stepped directly into Lina’s line of sight, moving between the pistol, Eleanor and Naima, her hands outstretched. “Lina, put the gun down.”

Lina stared at Tessa, dumbfounded, not lowering the pistol. “Are you crazy? Tessa, get out of the way!”

“Lina, please,” Tessa said. “Put the gun down. It’s alright.” She turned to the doorway, to Eleanor and again, Eleanor had no accounting for the anger, bright and apparent, flashing in her dark eyes. “This is my grandmother.”

CHAPTER TWO

Augustus Noble pressed his hand against his grandson Brandon’s mouth and nose, sealing off his airways and smothering his breath. At this, Brandon, who had lapsed into a state of semi-lucidity induced by blood loss and pain, opened his brown eyes wide, staring up at Augustus in bright, startled awareness. Mute, he couldn’t cry out, even muffled, around the heavy clamp of Augustus’s palm, and as he suffocated, he raised his hands, blood-smeared and shaking, and groped in feeble protest against Augustus’s wrist.

It would be so easy, Augustus thought as Brandon struggled weakly beneath him. The boy had been shot; his right arm was all but immobilized, his shirt and the sheets beneath him soaked in blood. While it wasn’t a wound that would prove ultimately fatal, the same could not be said for Augustus’s hand.

It would be so easy to watch you die, Augustus thought, because Brandon could hear him, sense his thoughts telepathically and see the murderous fury in his eyes. The dim illumination from the overhead lights in the jet’s small sleeping compartment suddenly became dazzling as Augustus’s pupils dilated, spreading wide, swallowing the circumference of his visible corneas in blackness. He felt his face flush with blood, his gums throb with sudden, hot engorgement, and his canine teeth extended, dropping into wickedly hooked fangs long enough to force his lips apart, his lower jaw to dislocate from its hinges.

Everything that you’ve done, he seethed, shoving his hand more firmly against Brandon’s face as the boy tried vainly, desperately, to peel his fingers away. Brandon’s cheeks had flushed scarlet, nearly violet, his eyes rolling wildly in frantic terror, his hands slapping, tearing at Augustus’s. Everything that you’ve cost me…everything you might cost me yet…it would be so easy.

Augustus jerked his hand back, leaving Brandon to gag for sodden breath, writhing against the bed, clutching weakly at his throat. He wiped his palm against the dark wool of his Armani slacks. That moment of rage, of brutal impulsiveness, was all he would allow himself. The world slipped back into its customary shades of light and darkness, his pupils shrinking once more. His gums ached, his teeth receding as he reclaimed his wits and forced his anger—and the bloodlust it had provoked—to subside.

“It would be too easy,” he whispered as he turned to leave.

Do it… Brandon croaked in his mind. He’d rolled onto his side and grimaced as he shoved his hand beneath him and struggled to raise his head. Kill me then. Just…just like you did with Grandmother Eleanor…

Augustus pivoted, meeting his grandson’s gaze. “What?” Although his face betrayed no hint of emotion, within him, it felt as if all of the blood had just abruptly drained into his feet, leaving the rest of his body leaden and cold. “What did you say to me?”

You killed her, Brandon said, shuddering with the effort to prop himself upright. So kill me, too. Go on…do it, you…you son of a bitch. He crumpled against the bed, his consciousness fading. It’s all…you’ve ever wanted anyway…

Stupid boy, Augustus thought, then turned and left the room. You know nothing about what I want.

***

He left the bedroom and locked the door to the adjacent lavatory aboard the Boeing BBJ jet. As he closed the door leading to the main cabin, he ignored the sideways glances from his fellow Brethren Elders as they relaxed in cream-colored leather benches and seats, leaning together and murmuring to one another, quiet conversations to which Augustus had no desire to be privy. He could only imagine what they were discussing; with one in particular, Allistair Davenant, it didn’t take much imagination.

They think I’m weak, that Brandon’s failings are my own.

There was no disguising the wry smirk on Allistair’s face, even from a passing glimpse. The son of a bitch was enjoying this. Every last goddamn minute of it.

Once alone, Augustus leaned heavily against the sink basin. He lowered his head, closing his eyes and letting his breath escape in a long sigh.

You killed her.

He realized he was shaking, a slow but steady tremor working its way through his entire form, and he knitted his brows, bracing his muscles, forcing it from him. After a long moment, he reached beneath the lapel of his suit coat, drawing a photograph, yellowed with time, from an inner pocket.

He gazed at the woman in the image, beautiful and young, with wide, cat-like eyes and a wondrously full mouth. Dressed in a ruffled gown of filmy cream-colored gauze with belted waistline, cap sleeves and plunging V-neck, she wore her hair fashionably short-cropped and pin-curled in dark, glossy waves.

Eleanor.

Christmas, 1932. It seems like only yesterday, he thought and lifted the photograph to his nose, drawing in a deep, comforting breath. It was faint, all but faded, but still discernable to him: Je Reviens perfume. One inhalation was all it took; the granite façade of his stern exterior faded, the unflinching line of his mouth softening, yielding to a forlorn, nearly wistful smile.

He had lived a long time, long enough for the many passing decades to blur together, and yet he could still recall the night the photograph from his pocket had been taken as if it had been only yesterday, how the fragrance of Eleanor’s perfume—flowers, fruit and a light hint of musk—had enveloped him whenever he’d drawn near.

“You’re too hard on him.”

That’s what Eleanor would have told him about Brandon. In fact, she had told him this shortly before he’d lost her, while sitting against the bed and watching as he’d paced his bedroom like a surly, malcontent panther.

“He’s young,” she’d told him, drawing a momentary glower. In his mind, he could hear the rich, sensuous timbre of her voice and see her clearly; she’d been eating a Snickers candy bar—like the perfume, her favorite since the 1930s— and panning her eyes back and forth with his every stride. It’s funny, he thought. We were married for nearly two hundred years and they seem no more than the blink of an eye to me now. But these three without her…they’ve stretched on and worn thin, each one lasting an eternity.

“He’s weak,” he’d replied. “And spoiled. He’s pathetic.”

To his surprise, she had offered him no retort, only a crooked and enigmatic little smile. She’d unfolded her long, lean legs—awarding him a quick glimpse of her pale silk panties beneath the hem of her matching night-slip—and rose to her feet. “He’s young,” she said again, walking across the room, crumpling the empty candy wrapper in her hand. As she passed him, she swatted him in the ass. “Just like you were once.”

“He’s willful,” he said. “He takes delight in finding opportunities to defy me.”

“So do I, Auguste.” She was fond to call him by this, the French name variation to which he had been born, a name he’d forsaken so long ago it sounded nearly foreign to his ears, that of a man who had long since disappeared.

Eleanor laughed as she spoke, a light, nearly musical sound, and slipped the spaghetti straps of her slip from her shoulders. The alabaster silk drooped to the floor, sliding in folds past the taper of her waist, the outward curves of her hips. It pooled around her ankles and was joined in less than a breath by her panties, leaving her body—as lovely and nubile as a twenty-year-old’s—exposed, painted in sunlight from a nearby window.

For nearly two centuries he’d known her; for nearly that same tenure of breath, he had touched, tasted, explored and otherwise enjoyed every contour, curve and line of that same lithe body. And yet he still hardened simply at the sight of her, the front of his slacks suddenly straining with an arousal so immediate and fierce it was painful.

She glanced at him over her shoulder, her eyes filled with a mischievous sort of light, her brow arched, the corner of her lush mouth still hooked in a smile. Then she walked into the bathroom, her bare feet whispering against the granite tile floor, her hand outstretched behind her in unspoken—but instantly obeyed—beckon.

You killed her.

Brandon’s voice echoed in his mind, his words sharp and filled not with the customary fear Augustus had come to expect from the boy, but with disdain. With disgust.

You killed her.

Augustus returned the photograph to his inside pocket and looked up into the mirror, pinning himself with his own dark gaze. His hair—once dark brown, nearly black, a thick and heavy fall—was now stark white, even in the warm glow of the lavatory’s brass-adorned fixtures. He still looked young by human standards, but by Brethren terms, his age was apparent in fine lines etched from too much worry, too much grief, too much anger and all for far too long.

So many secrets, Michel Morin had told him once, the dearest friend Augustus had ever known, another piece of his life that—like Eleanor—he’d lost. You can’t carry them, Auguste. Not all alone.

“Yes, I can,” he whispered to his reflection. He spared a cutting glance toward the bathroom door, beyond which his grandson rested, lapsed back into unconsciousness again in the jet’s sleeping compartment. “And I will.”

CHAPTER THREE

Two weeks earlier, Augustus had looked down at another grandson, the battered, mutilated body of Brandon’s older brother, Caine. Then, as now, Augustus’s face had remained a stoic, unaffected mask of cool detachment, as if his hand had never caressed Caine’s face in fondness, his mouth had never stretched into a smile at the unexpected sight of him or his heart had never swelled with pride to witness any of his numerous accomplishments.

Caine, he’d thought, and inside, he wanted to scream the boy’s name, to shriek in stunned and anguished protest, to crumple to his knees on the glossy polished tiles of the morgue floor, bury his face in his hands and weep. In that moment, he would have given every cent in his considerable, multi-billion dollar fortune for that precious, elusive luxury.

The crown of Caine’s dark hair had been stitched back into place following the removal of his skull cap during autopsy, a gruesome band of sutures encircling his head. His torso had been bisected with surgical precision; a Y-shaped series of stitches cut down to below his navel, following the lines of his collarbone to his shoulders. His left eye was gone, his brow and forehead caved in: the sunken point of impact where a bullet had punched through flesh and underlying bone. He’d been shot three additional times: once in the chest, again in the shoulder and in the groin. Augustus could see fading impressions like bruises against his flesh where two older bullet wounds, one at the juncture of each shoulder, had been healing. Caine’s face—handsome and angular in life, his features so much like Augustus’s own, they might have passed for brothers—had been beaten so badly his eyes and cheeks were swollen, his nose a misshapen, bloated mess. His lips were split—deep fissures in which the brightness of meat beneath was still apparent. His last moments had been painful, then, and violent, undoubtedly filled with anger and fear, realizations that nearly shattered Augustus’s heart.

“Things have gotten out of hand.” Allistair Davenant had entered the room soundlessly behind him, but Augustus had known he was there, sensing his presence—a creeping, tickling sensation inside of his mind—even without turning around.

He’s dangerous, Michel Morin had told Augustus once. If he ever finds out the truth, Augustus, he’ll kill you.

“Something needs to be done,” Allistair said. His voice was quiet but filled with cold, leaden remonstration as he spoke. This is all your fault, was the underlying message, one that went unspoken but remained apparent just the same.

“I know,” Augustus said.

“The humans cut him open. They examined him. Who knows what they found? What they think?”

Augustus glanced to his left, where a pair of women dressed in identical blue smocks and scrub pants with blue paper caps and slip-covers on their shoes sat against the floor, shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the cinderblock wall. Their gazes were distant, unfixed and glazed as they stared across the room and seemingly off into space. One of them had begun to drool, a thin, silvery stream slipping from the edge of her mouth, sliding down the curve of her chin. Their minds had been disconnected; they were, in essence, sleeping, aware of neither Augustus nor Allistair, much less the other eight members of the Brethren Elders who had accompanied them into the building.

These others were currently occupied in the main part of the morgue building, keeping the remaining humans they had discovered on staff, five more in all, in similar states of suspended consciousness. Unbeknownst to them or Allistair, Augustus had done more than simply will them to sleep. He’d eradicated their memories, stripping from their minds any awareness or recollection of their presence. It was an ability unique to Augustus, even among the Elders, who were the most powerful telepaths among the Brethren; one they didn’t even suspect, much less know about.

He’s dangerous. Michel’s warning about Allistair came to mind again, haunting him. If he ever finds out the truth, Augustus, he’ll kill you.

“This needs to end, Augustus,” Allistair said.

He cut a glare in Allistair’s direction, his brows furrowed deeply. “I said I know, Allistair.” So shut the fuck up, was his own underlying message, as clearly imparted as Allistair’s had been.

Allistair retreated a step with a condescending nod, his hands raised slightly in feigned surrender as Augustus looked at his grandson’s corpse again, at Caine’s waxen pallor, mottled hues of yellow and alabaster with violet and plum-colored bruising.

“Of course, no one expects you to hold to your order now.” Allistair’s hand draped lightly against his shoulder. “I’ve spoken with the others. We’re all in agreement. If you rescind the call against Brandon, no one will object.”

Augustus might have hoped for even a few moments alone to grieve, that Allistair would take his repeated nonverbal cues and return to the foyer with the others to wait for him, but knew that he wouldn’t. This was as close to breaking as Augustus had been in a long time—since Eleanor—and Allistair had a front row seat, a goddamn kid at the circus, cotton candy in hand. He’s not going anywhere.

“It would be unfair to expect you to kill Brandon,” Allistair said. “Caine’s death changes everything. The clans are equal now, yours and mine, both with the same number of male heirs. Power has always belonged to the clan with the most. Equal heirs mean power divided equally now between the Elders of the clans—you and me.”

He was enjoying every goddamn minute of this, reveling in Augustus’s torment, just as he had for weeks now. Brandon had defied Brethren law by abandoning the ritual of the first kill—the bloodletting—and fleeing the farmlands the Brethren owned in Kentucky. The law mandated that Brandon be put to death for running away. Augustus had been powerless to prevent the decree.

But at least if he’s dead, the truth will die with him, Augustus thought, brushing his fingertips against the ruined remains of Caine’s face. For now, anyway.

The humans had washed the blood away from Caine’s skin and hair, but there was no disguising the extent of his injuries, the damage Brandon had done to him. But like expressing his pain outwardly, allowing himself even the momentary reprieve of grief, killing Brandon and being rid of him once and for all was a luxury Augustus couldn’t afford. Not any longer. And Allistair knew it.

Because now I need Brandon, goddamn it, Augustus thought. And Allistair knew that, too.

“If Brandon completes his bloodletting, you’ll once again have sole authority over the Brethren,” Allistair said, standing close to Augustus as he spoke, his voice nearly a purr. But Augustus didn’t need to be reminded of this.

If he killed Brandon, he would look the fool, too damn stubborn to recant his own order when presented with the chance, even if it cost him his power. But if he didn’t, he’d look weak. No one’s interests but his own, and those of the Nobles, would be served by Brandon’s survival. Allistair will be sure to remind everyone of that.

He glanced at Allistair. “And you’ll lose dual dominance,” he said. “You’d do that willingly?”

Allistair’s brows lifted, his expression growing wounded. “I can imagine your pain…” His cut his eyes pointedly toward Caine’s body. “I know how hard this must be for you. Right now, my personal interests are secondary.”

What a crock of shit. Allistair had dreamed of dominance over the Brethren for so long that even now, with only the prospect of sharing it jointly, he was practically salivating. He’d been plotting and scheming and trying to otherwise manipulate his way into control of the clans for as long as Augustus had held it, and whatever he was up to now with this act of seemingly selfless and gracious charity, Augustus doubted his personal interests were anything less than first and foremost.

Augustus zipped the front of the black body bag enveloping Caine closed. He could feel Allistair prodding at his mind, trying to probe past his carefully laid mental defenses, the telepathic shields that he’d kept in place for so long they felt more second nature to him than the abilities they were meant to suppress. Allistair didn’t know about these abilities; none among the Brethren did, but he’d suspected something was different, something secret, for a long time. Just once, Augustus would have liked to open his mind fully, to show the son of a bitch what he’d kept tucked away for so long, the truth of what he was truly, fully capable.

Instead, he had hefted the shrouded form of his grandson in his arms, cradling the cumbersome weight as easily as he had when Caine had been only a child. He’d brushed past Allistair, carrying Caine toward the morgue doors, his face stoic once again, his throat choked with tears that he would never allow to fall.

CHAPTER FOUR

“I don’t understand,” Rene said, glowering at Eleanor and Naima each in turn as he sat on the side of the motel bed. When Tessa pressed a wet washcloth against a particularly sore spot on the back of his head—where he’d hit the ceiling, thanks to Naima—he winced. “I thought you said your grandmother was dead, pischouette.”

“I thought she was.” Tessa’s eyes remained wary, if not apprehensive, as she glanced at Eleanor.

Eleanor had tried several times to approach her, embrace her, overjoyed at seeing her granddaughter again. Each time, however, Tessa had hedged away with the same uncertain, inexplicably suspicious look in her eyes. At first, Eleanor thought it was because she was injured; after a few moments of closer scrutiny, this became apparent to her in the way Tessa moved, her posture. But it hadn’t taken long for the truth to become clear, even if Eleanor didn’t grasp the reason for it—Tessa was furious with her.

She doesn’t understand, she told herself in ineffective reassurance. Auguste told her I was dead, and she’s believed it all this while. It’s the shock of seeing me again.

The motel manager had apparently been alarmed by the ruckus of Rene’s earlier brawl with Naima, enough so that he’d called the police. A pair of uniformed officers had shown up only moments earlier to investigate the disturbance. While they hadn’t seemed impressed at all that Angelina Jones identified herself as a police officer, they’d done an immediate emotional about-face when Naima had stepped toward them, her mouth curved in a pleasant, courteous smile.

She hadn’t said a word; merely stood within a foot of each of the men—the officers and the motel manager—with that enigmatic and lovely smile lifting the corners of her lips. After a prolonged moment of this silent scrutiny, the police had turned and left, the manager trailing behind them—all without as much as a backward glance. They’d only just now departed.

“What did she do to them?” Lina asked, sitting rigidly in a straight-back chair, like a cat tensed and ready to run at any given moment, without any warning or notice. “The cops and that manager.” She leveled her gaze at Naima and frowned. “What did you do?”

“I made them forget,” Naima replied simply, with a shrug, as if to suggest that such things were perfectly ordinary, everyday occurrences and nothing at all to marvel over.

“Forget what?” Lina asked.

“Everything,” Naima said. “They don’t even know we’re here.” Again, with a nearly coquettish smile, she added, “I can do the same for you…”

“Leave her alone.” Rene gritted his teeth against a grimace as he stood, squaring off against Naima.

Eleanor had to admire his pluck, if nothing else. She could appreciate why Tessa obviously found it so attractive.

“Naima, stop,” she said. “They don’t know you’re teasing.”

Naima shot her a momentary look that clearly imparted: Who said I was? Eleanor chose to ignore this, smiling instead at Tessa, trying once again to get past that peculiar hostility that all but radiated in waves from the girl.

“We didn’t get off to the right start,” Eleanor said. “And I’m sorry for that. It’s been so long, and I’m so happy to see you again, Tessa, darling.” Her voice grew strained and her eyes stung with sudden tears. “I’ve missed you so much. You and your brother both. Where is Brandon? Still sleeping in the other room?” She glanced toward the motel room door, expectant and excited. “May we wake him?”

“Nice try.” Lina frowned, any pretense of civility gone from her face. She rose to her feet, her hands balled into fists.

“I’ve had enough of this bullshit, so stop playing dumb.

Where’s Brandon?”

Rene’s gun was now hidden away, safely out of her reach, but she looked around, her brows furrowed, searching for any handy weapon. Eleanor flinched, as if Lina had found one and then struck her with it, exchanging a surprised, bewildered glance with Naima. “What?”

Lina wasn’t playing. That much was obvious. And the fact that she was so grimly, furiously serious made Eleanor’s heart suddenly jump with mounting anxiety, a frightened, fluttering cadence she could feel hammering beneath her breasts. To Tessa, she said, “Brandon’s missing?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know,” Lina snapped, marching forward. She planted her hand against Eleanor’s shoulder and gave her a shove, sending her stumbling back a step. At this, Naima stepped up, her eyes rolling immediately to black, her fangs beginning to extend. Like a pissed-off cat with its hackles raised, she opened her mouth and hissed at Lina. Unperturbed or heedless, Lina squared off against her, settling her feet into a fighting stance and folding her hands into light, ready fists.

“Come on, bitch,” she challenged, hoisting her chin defiantly. “I’m not scared of you. I’ve taken out two of your kind in the last month.”

“Naima, no…” Alarmed, Eleanor caught her by the elbow. Athletic and lean, Lina was a strong woman, but she was still only human; Naima could break every bone in her body, all at the same time, with little more than a passing thought. And considering Naima tended to use her powers without much else, more impulse than conscious decision, Eleanor knew that placed Lina in immediate—lethal—danger.

“What do you mean, ‘taken out two’ of us?” she asked Lina with a sinking, horrible feeling twisting her gut. Slowly but surely it was dawning on her. They’re not here because Auguste got them out somehow. Tessa and Brandon…they ran away from the farm.

And oh, God, she knew what that meant—would that would mean their grandfather would be forced to do. She stared at Tessa in aghast. “Oh, child,” she whispered. “What have you done?”

“She didn’t do anything. It was me,” Lina snapped.

“Lina, chère…” Rene began, but she cut him off.

“It was all me, goddamn it, so you tell your husband that—this goddamn ‘Grandfather’ everyone thinks is so high and mighty. Caine and Emily came after Brandon, and I shot them both. They’re dead because of me. Brandon and Tessa didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Again, Eleanor recoiled as if she’d been struck, this time in the gut. “Caine is dead?” she whispered, her tears spilling. Not for Caine as much as for Augustus, because she could only imagine his grief—his overwhelming, heartwrenching anguish—when he found out. And he’ll be all alone with it, she thought. No one to trust with it, no one to turn to…oh,

God, Auguste… “And…and Emily, too?”

“It’s no more than they deserved—no better than what they meant for Brandon,” Lina said. “Don’t act like you don’t know! Augustus Noble put out the order to kill Brandon, and the only reason he’d call it off now is to save his precious goddamn dominance. What—did he think sending you here, all full of smiles and hugs, would trick him somehow? Or trick us—distract us while the Elders grab him and run? I’m tired of this.” Now she shoved Naima, knocking her back into the TV stand and startling the glorious, ever-living shit out of her—the only thing that kept Naima from retaliating immediately. “Tell me where Brandon is! Tell me right the fuck now!”

Naima sprang forward, cat-like and smooth. Without a sound, she leapt at Lina, then Rene darted into her path, moving so quickly, he was little more than a blur, clamping his hand against her to stop her short.

“That’ll be just about enough out of you, salope,” he told her, his brows furrowed, his eyes rolled to black. He’d tucked the gun back beneath the waistband of his jeans, but drew it now in that same, lightning-quick fashion. Within the blink of an eye, he held the muzzle against Naima’s nose. “Let’s see if your gris gris bullshit can stop a bullet.”

“Rene, no!” Eleanor tried to push him away, but Naima beat her to it. Rene had a moment to suck in a startled breath, then flew away from her, again as if jerked on an invisible cord across the room.

“Rene!” Tessa cried, frightened. He hit the wall hard and the gun tumbled from his hand as he collapsed.

“I’ve had it with you, bitch,” Rene seethed at Naima, looking up, his voice slurring as his fangs dropped, his jaw distending. “Dansons.” Let’s dance.

The outer door abruptly blew open, slamming into the wall with a sharp report like gunfire, as a swirling, swooping, furious flood of birds—hundreds of them—burst into the room. Naima cried out as they engulfed her in a cloud; drawing her hands toward her face, she staggered back, then collapsed to her knees and disappeared in the swarm.

“Both of you stop it!” Eleanor cried, shying back, ducking as birds rushed past her. “Stop it right now!”

Naima uttered a hoarse, nearly animal-like screech, and all of the birds whipped away from her, flung in all directions, sent careening and crashing about the room. Oh, God, she’s snapped, Eleanor thought, because Michel had warned her about this possibility.

If pushed too hard, too far…if she feels too frightened or threatened or angry…she could revert to her feral state again, he’d said. Her grasp on the rational is tenuous at best, as she’d had a lot of issues— a lot of anger—penned up inside of her for far too long…

“Naima, stop!” she screamed as Naima launched herself at Rene, this time not with the intention of stopping or hurting him, but meaning to kill him. “He’s your brother—stop it!”

It was like the proverbial dousing of ice-cold water on a pissed-off cat. Naima immediately dropped to the ground, snapping out of her furious reverie, stopping within a foot of Rene. She shuddered all over as she struggled to regain her composure, her breath huffing and heaving.

For his part, Rene looked like someone had kicked him mightily in the balls. His eyes had reverted to normal, and his fangs retreated into his gums. “Quoi?” he whispered, sounding shaken and stunned. “What…what the fuck did you just say?”

Naima spat against the floor. Apparently in her effort to control herself, she’d bitten her tongue deep enough to draw blood; her saliva was red-tinged against the thick, shaggy nap. When she didn’t immediately answer, Rene blinked from Tessa to Naima, to Lina and Eleanor, then back to Tessa again. “What did you…” he sputtered. “That’s not…no, I…I don’t…”

“This is Rene’s sister?” Lina repeated, staring in aghast at Naima.

“His half-sister,” Naima replied with a pointed glower, adding drolly, “Obviously.”

“But how…?” Tessa gasped, stunned. “How is that possible?”

“The usual way brothers and sisters come about, darling,” Eleanor interjected mildly. “It’s a long story, and I can try to explain. But first we need to find Brandon. Are the Elders hunting for him?”

“Yes.” Tessa nodded. “He ran away from the farm.

Caine and Emily followed to bring him back. I heard the Grandfather say the Elders would hunt him down and kill him, so I left, too, to warn him, help him if I could.”

So Brandon had finally pushed too far. He’d always been too headstrong and stubborn for his own good. Eleanor had liked to think he got that from her. But while that tenacity in her nature had endeared Augustus to her, in his grandson it had only infuriated and frustrated him. Oh, God, Eleanor thought in alarm. But Tessa said that Caine was dead! That means…

“He can’t kill Brandon now,” she said. “Augustus can’t kill him now—he wouldn’t have dared. Not with Caine dead.”

Not if he knew Caine was dead, anyway, she thought, a whole new sinking feeling seizing her gut.

“He knows about Caine,” Tessa said quietly. “The Grandfather knows. I…I think so, anyway. I called Dad and told him. Surely he would have said something…gotten word to him somehow.”

Eleanor could have kissed her in that moment, if Tessa would have let her, but settled for letting out a heavy sigh of relief. “If Augustus knows about Caine and the Elders have found Brandon, he’s safe…for the moment, anyway,” she murmured, more to herself than anyone else.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Lina exclaimed, staring at her like she had lost her damn fool mind. “Augustus Noble is a sick fuck—a sadistic son of a bitch who wants to force Brandon to murder someone—and you think Brandon is going to be safe with him?”

“If he can’t be with us, then at least Augustus can protect him,” Eleanor said. For a while, anyway, she thought, because she understood all too well that the elaborate house of cards her husband had spent more than two hundred years building now teetered on the tenuous brink of inevitable collapse.

And when it falls, it will destroy him.

Protect Brandon?” Lina practically screamed. “He broke Brandon’s hands last year!”

“Yes, protect him,” Eleanor said. “He has to. Because of what Brandon is, what he can do.” She looked at them grimly. “Because of what they both can do.”

CHAPTER FIVE

“I don’t like this,” Rene growled as the little Mercedes sports coupe he drove skittered and lurched for uncertain purchase on the steep, rutted road. Beside him, Tessa sat belted into the passenger seat, her hands splayed lightly, anxiously, across the slight, outward swell of her pregnant tummy. In the back seat, Lina opted for no seat belt and leaned over the center console, her brows narrowed as she watched the Range Rover bounce along ahead of them.

They had left the motel and agreed to follow the women—Eleanor Noble and Naima—out along the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe toward Emerald Bay. Their path had led them close enough to Rene’s own property here to make him grow anxious and irritable, then immediately past it onto an expansive private, gated estate.

“They’re your neighbors,” Tessa murmured. She hadn’t said much about seeing her grandmother—a woman she’d believed dead for three years—or about the fact that her twin brother, Brandon, was missing. She hadn’t said much of anything at all, as a matter of fact, and watched the conifer forests roll by past her window with a dazed, stunned sort of expression on her face. “All of this land…” She cut her eyes momentarily to Rene. “It’s right next to yours, isn’t it?”

Oui,” he said. “But out here, you can walk for miles in any direction and never see another living soul. It’s no small wonder I never realized.”

More than just her grandmother, Eleanor had once been Tessa’s closest confidante and beloved friend. Around her neck, Tessa wore a simple but striking pendant, a green sapphire solitaire that Eleanor had given her for her sixteenth birthday, one that she herself had once received as an affectionate token from her husband, Augustus. Tessa had treasured that necklace almost as much as she had Eleanor herself…right up until Brandon had told her the way Eleanor had really felt about Tessa.

It should have been you! Brandon had snapped, prodded into a hasty, heated admittance. Are you fucking happy now, Tessa? Grandmother Eleanor told me what happened to me—getting attacked, losing my hearing, getting my throat slit—it all should have happened to you!

And in his mind, Tessa had been able to see Eleanor tell him this. A Brethren man should be strong—speak his mind and stand his ground, especially a Noble. Women don’t need to hear or speak to make babies, no matter their clan. And in the end, isn’t that really all Tessa can ever hope to accomplish?

I was nothing to her, Tessa thought, blinking angrily against the sting of tears. All of those years she made me feel special, and she never believed it for a minute. She never meant a goddamn word of it.

“I don’t like it,” Rene said again. “How do we know these aren’t the ones who took Brandon in the first place? They could be tricking us, luring us into whatever same kind of trap they used to catch him.”

“No.” Tessa didn’t believe that. Seeing Eleanor again had whipped up a churning frenzy of emotions in her, and she’d wanted to simultaneously hug and throttle her. But no matter her own personal feelings, there hadn’t been anything deceptive, at least outwardly, in Eleanor’s mind that Tessa had been able to sense.

“She was surprised to hear Brandon’s missing,” she said to Rene and Lina without averting her eyes from the window. “She had no idea.”

“We don’t even know Brandon is missing,” Rene said pointedly. “Hell, the petit could have just gone out for a walk, grab a bite to eat, something—anything. We should have just stuck by the motel and waited to see if he came back.”

“Brandon wouldn’t do that,” Lina said. “Not without leaving me a note to let me know where he’d gone.”

Tessa didn’t need telepathy to know Lina was worried sick about Brandon. Her anxiety and concern were starkly apparent in her rigid posture, the crimp between her brows, the tense, terse way in which she hooked her fingertips into the caramel-colored leather upholstery.

“Something’s happened to him.” Lina’s voice cracked; her eyes welled with sudden, uncharacteristic tears. “They got to him somehow…the Elders…that son of a bitch, Augustus Noble.”

Eleanor had tried to tell them that Brandon would be safe with his grandfather, words that hadn’t made sense to any of them and that did little, if anything, to assuage both Tessa’s and Lina’s mounting fear.

“What about Martin?” Lina asked. “That sneaky bastard—he’s got to be in on this somehow, sent word to them somehow, him or that bitch wife of his. You said your place is out near here, Rene? Let’s stop, then, goddamn it. You’ve got him tied up there—give me five minutes alone with him, and I’ll find out—”

“We’ve already passed my place,” Rene told her. “There’s no turning back now, not if we’re following Tessa’s mamere.”

Martin Davenant was Tessa’s husband, if only by forcibly arranged marriage. A sadistic, abusive, conniving man, he’d followed Tessa not out of any genuine concern for his wayward bride, but because she was carrying his child. Dominance among the Brethren clans was solely based on which family had the most male heirs, and while Tessa’s family, the Nobles, had held exclusive control for centuries, Martin’s family, the Davenants, trailed closely behind.

And if my baby is a son, they’ll try to take him back, she thought, pressing her hands more firmly, protectively against her womb. They’ll take my baby away from me.

The Brethren were polygamous; Tessa had been Martin’s sixth wife. His first—and likely the best suited to match his violent, scheming nature—had been Monica Davenant. She’d accompanied Martin in his pursuit of Tessa, but Tessa had killed her in a brutal, bloody confrontation.

Which means I’m as good as dead myself, if the Brethren ever find me, she thought, because to kill another member of the Brethren was to mark oneself for death. No questions. No excuses.

An eye for an eye and blood for blood, Tessa thought, with a shiver.

“You cold, pischouette?” Rene asked, leaning over to switch the register from moderately warm to red-zone hot. His voice had softened, the angry edge gone, and when he glanced at her, his brows were raised with tender concern.

Martin may have supplied the seed for her baby, but it was Rene who had proven himself a true father. He’d damn near sacrificed his own life; as half-human, he’d offered his own blood to nourish Tessa and the baby and, more than this, to deliver them both from the brink of death following her fight with Monica. Monica had impaled Tessa through the abdomen with an iron fireplace poker, and, if not Tessa herself, then surely her baby would have died without Rene’s selfless intervention.

She’d fallen in love with him long before that, but that gesture had cemented in Tessa’s heart and mind that she could never return to the Brethren or the life she’d known there. Because my life is here now, with Rene, she thought. Our life is here— mine and my baby’s. We belong with Rene.

“I’m alright,” she told him with a smile.

“Are you hurting?” he asked. “It’s a rough ride—je suis désolé.” I’m sorry, he’d said.

Tessa shook her head, patted his hand. “Really, Rene. I’m fine. Watch the road before you run us into a tree or something.”

This attempt at banter helped to reassure him more than any words she might have offered, and he managed a laugh, shaking his head, averting his gaze to the windshield again.

“They’re turning up ahead,” Lina remarked, frowning as the Range Rover’s brake lights flared, then the lumbering SUV took a wide left, clambering up a sloping, gravel drive. At the top of the drive, they saw a large house—a stylized façade of wood and glass, graceful architecture that both blended into the surrounding wood environment and complemented it.

“What is this place?” Tessa whispered.

The Range Rover parked beside a muddy Jeep Cherokee just outside of double-wide garage doors. Rene stopped the Mercedes at some distance behind, but left the engine running, his hands poised on the steering wheel. As they watched, Eleanor and Naima got out of the SUV. Rene hadn’t said anything on the car ride along the way about the revelation that the tall black woman was somehow related to him. When Tessa had tried a tentative time or two to broach the subject, he’d rebuffed her attempts with a growling retort or glower.

His sister, Tessa thought in amazement as she watched Naima stretch languidly, raising her slender arms above her head and arching her spine. How could he have had a sister all of this time—literally next door to him—and never known about it?

Naima loped toward a flight of stairs leading up to a patio that wrapped around the southward facing side of the home, a wall that seemed built from nothing more than mirrored glass, surely awarding a nearly panoramic view of the mountainside and lake below to those inside. After a long moment, in which Eleanor studied the Mercedes patiently, expectantly, she at last turned and trailed behind Naima.

“Where are we?” Tessa asked again.

In Kentucky, the Brethren lived in family collectives, all under one roof, albeit very expansive roofs. The Noble family mansion, for example, was one of the largest Victorian mansions still in use as a private residence in the United States, second in size only to the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate. But while this home was indeed large, it was still no more than a single-family dwelling, not at all like the Brethren mansions. Tessa opened her door, but as she reached for her seatbelt, Rene caught her hand. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m getting out,” she replied. With the door open, she could now catch sweet, distant refrains of music, someone playing a piano from somewhere close by. “Rene, we’ve come all this way. What did you think, we were just going to sit in the car when we got here?”

“I don’t like this, pischouette,” Rene said. “I got a bad sense about this place, don’t you?”

Actually, Tessa had just the opposite sensation. She could feel the presence of others like herself—all Brethren had that innate capability—but it was a very comfortable feeling inside of her, something warm and not at all unpleasant. She’d felt something similar shortly before she and Brandon had been attacked by Monica Davenant. The twins had been nearby, down by the lakeshore, a historical site called Vikingsholm. Brandon had stood out by the water’s edge, his eyes closed, his mouth turned in a soft smile.

There’s something peaceful about this place, don’t you think? he’d asked Tessa. I feel like…I don’t know. Like I belong here.

“Let’s just go back to the motel,” Rene pressed. “We’ll go there and we’ll wait for Brandon. If he’s not back by this afternoon, then we can go introduce Martin to the back side of Lina’s fists, see if we can—”

“Rene, your sister is here,” Tessa said. “Your grandfather, too—your family.”

“You’re my family, pischouette,” Rene told her. His brows lifted, pleading. “You and the bébé. I don’t need anything—anyone—else.”

“Well, I do.” Lina frowned. “I need Brandon. Do whatever the hell you want, Rene, but let me out.”

“Lina, chère, you know what I meant,” Rene said. “Listen to me. Even if the Elders have taken Brandon, we know where they’re going, where they’ll bring him—to Kentucky. We don’t need their help.” He cut his eyes to the house.

“That woman damn near knocked you through a cinderblock wall…without laying a finger on you,” Lina said, meaning Naima. “I’m going to go out on a limb here, Rene, and say yeah, we could use help like that.”

“You don’t even know that they want to help,” Rene countered.

“No,” Lina agreed. “But I’m about to find out.” She gave his seat an emphatic slap. “Out of my way, damn it.”

Rene cut off the car engine, stalling the Mercedes out to a rumbling, begrudging standstill. Taking this as an unvoiced invitation, Tessa unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out. Although Lina quickly clambered out behind, Rene remained inside for the moment at least, his expression anxious and torn. The piano music grew louder, more distinct, a familiar, classical melody Tessa couldn’t quite place as she went up the stairs to the patio. There was no sign of Eleanor or Naima at the top, but she saw a series of glass doors had all been opened to allow the cool, crisp air into the house. The sweet strains of piano music floated from just beyond the thresholds, and, curious, Tessa crept toward them.

The patio doors opened onto a large living room. A black grand piano stood against glossy hardwood floors near the windows, and here a young man sat playing a wondrously sweet melody. Eleanor had said she was bringing them to meet Rene’s grandfather.

Could this be Michel Morin?

When the piano abruptly struck a sour note, then fell silent, she jerked in surprise. Seeming to share in her start, the man turned and looked directly at her and there was no way he could have been Rene’s grand-anything. Like her own grandfather, Augustus, Michel Morin was more than 300 years old and, according to Eleanor, the founder and CEO of one of the largest biomedical research companies in the world— Pharmaceaux International. Brethren or not, the man before her at the piano was entirely too young to be a mogul of that sort of magnitude. He looked little older than Tessa herself.

“Uh…hello,” he said, his expression curious but unalarmed. “May I help you?”

“Oh…!” Tessa hiccupped, shrinking back in the doorway, nearly tripping over Lina in the process as the other woman came up behind her. “I…I was just…”

“Oh, Tessa, Lina, good.” Eleanor appeared in a nearby doorway, walking in from what looked to be an adjacent formal dining room. “Come inside. Don’t be shy. We don’t bite.” She said this last with a pointed glance at Lina and mischievous sort of giggle.

“Hey, Eleanor.” The young man smiled. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“We went around to the front door, darling,” Eleanor said with a smile. “I hate to disturb you when you’re playing. It was lovely. What was it, Chopin?”

He nodded. “Fantasy Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

“Tessa, Lina…” Eleanor flapped her hands in beckon as she crossed the living room. Naima trailed behind her, her feet bare now, her stride long, languid and graceful, nearly prowling. “Tristan, I’d like you to meet my granddaughter, Tessa, and Angelina Jones, a friend of Brandon’s. This is Tristan Morin…Rene’s youngest brother.”

Tall, athletic and lean, with a haphazard tumble of sand-colored hair and the same caramel-colored eyes and sharp, refined features, Tristan bore a striking and undeniable resemblance to Rene. He glanced between Tessa and Lina, his gaze lingering at Lina’s throat and the small, but still discernable marks where only weeks earlier, Brandon had fed from Lina.

The Brethren needed blood to sustain themselves, to maintain their accelerated healing abilities and prolong their lives to span centuries. Humans would have called them vampires. Brandon had always called them monsters and had fled from not only his home, but his birthright as well, because he’d refused to kill a human in order to feed. He’d never heard of any other way, much less tried it—and neither had Tessa— until meeting Rene. Having learned from Rene that feeding didn’t have to necessarily equate to killing, Brandon had drawn his first taste of blood from Lina’s throat.

“It’s nice to meet you both,” Tristan said, then turned his gaze to Eleanor. “I need to speak with you and Naima for a minute. In the kitchen, maybe, do you mind?”

There was something in his gaze, a pointed severity that stood in noticeable contrast to his polite smile. Tessa didn’t miss it and apparently, neither did Eleanor.

“Tessa, why don’t you and Lina have a seat?” she suggested. “Make yourselves at home. When Rene comes in, he can join you. I’ll bring us all some tea.”


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