The Reluctant Vampire

Chapter Five

No one had men oned how long the trip to Toronto would be by helicopter, and Drina wasn't wearing a watch, so couldn't check, but it didn't seem to take long. Though that might have been because she was busy gazing wide-eyed down at the passing lights. She'd expected they would land in another schoolyard once they reached Toronto, so was a bit startled when they set down on the top of a building. It obviously wasn't their des na on, however. A er riding down in an elevator, Harper led her through a huge, majes c lobby and outside to the curb, where a car waited. Drina sighed as she se led against the warm, cushioned seats. She listened absently as Harper spoke to the driver, and then they were moving.

"The Night Club doesn't do much in the way of food," Harper explained as he se led back in the seat next to her. "So I booked a table at a restaurant for supper. I hope that's all right?"

"Of course," Drina said with a smile. "Actually, now that you mention it, I am rather hungry."

"So am I. Now we just have to hope that this restaurant is good," he said wryly. "I called my vice president for sugges ons of where to go, not thinking that as an immortal he doesn't eat. He assured me this place is good, though, for what that's worth."

"Your vice president?" Drina asked curiously.

"I have a frozen-food business," he admi ed with a self-depreca ng grimace. "Silly, I suppose, for an immortal to run one, but I was a cook when I was much younger, and while I eventually lost interest in ea ng, I never really lost interest in food itself," he admi ed, sounding embarrassed. "So my business down through the centuries has always been in some area of food service or other. Pubs, restaurants, and finally, frozen entrees. We've branched out to wine as well the last decade or so."

"Oh, well that's - " Drina paused and glanced out the window as the car slowed and pulled to the curb.

"It wasn't far, but I thought with it being so cold tonight, a car might be the be er bet," he explained, and then leaned forward to say something to the driver. She caught what sounded like there was no need for the man to get out and get the door, and something about calling when they were done here, and then Harper opened his door and slid out. By the me Drina slid across the seat, he had turned back and was holding out his hand.

Smiling, she clasped his fingers and li ed one booted leg and then the other out to the sidewalk, trying not to panic as she felt her skirt slide up her legs. That concern was forgo en, however, as she felt the slippery surface of the sidewalk under her boot. Holding her breath, she stood up, relieved when her feet stayed under her, and she didn't do anything as unglamorous as fall on her butt on the icy concrete. Harper ushered her a step away from the door, and then turned back to close it. The moment he'd turned away, she gave her skirt a quick tug to put it back where it belonged. By the me he turned back, she had finished and was smiling calmly.

He ushered her inside, and Drina glanced around as he spoke to the maitre d', no ng the low ligh ng, the crisp white linen, blood red candles, and what she would bet was real silver on the tables. Almost all of which seemed occupied. Then Harper was taking her coat and handing it along with his own over to a smiling young man in a black tux who whisked them away as another young man, similarly ou i ed, led them through the quiet restaurant to one of the few unoccupied tables she could see.

"Thank you," Drina murmured, accep ng the menu offered to her. She then glanced around again as the fellow le . The restaurant was busy, but the atmosphere subdued, so music playing unobtrusively in the background and the dinner guests speaking in so tones. A far cry from the restaurant where they'd had their lunch that day. There the music playing had been some form of rock or pop, played loudly enough that people had to speak up to be heard over it. This was nicer, Drina decided, and smiled faintly as she turned her attention to her menu.

"So," Harper said moments later, as their waiter le with their orders. "You know about my li le business. How about you? Have you always been a hunter?"

Drina smiled wryly at the "li le business" bit. She doubted men with li le businesses had helicopters, BMWs, and diamond-encrusted watches like the one Harper was wearing this evening. But she didn't comment on any of that, and merely said, "No."

Harper raised an eyebrow. "No?" he asked with disbelief. "That's it?"

"No, Harper?" she suggested mildly, but knew her eyes were twinkling with amusement and gave up teasing him. "Okay. Let's see . . ." She considered her past, and then smiled wryly and shook her head.

"Well, I was a perfume maker, Amazone, concubine, a duchess, a pirate, a madam, and then a hunter."

Harper's eyebrows had slid up his forehead as she ra led off her resume. Now he cleared his throat and said, "Right, let's start at the beginning. I believe that was a perfume maker?"

Drina chuckled and nodded. "My father first se led in Egypt, my mother was Egyp an. It's where I was born. Women had a lot more freedom there. We were actually considered equal to men, well mostly anyway. Certainly more equal than in other cultures," she added dryly. "We could own businesses, sign contracts, and actually work and make a living rather than be a burden to our fathers or male relatives."

"And you grew up to be a perfume maker," Harper murmured.

"My mother wanted me to be a seshet, a scribe," she explained with a grimace. "But I was fascinated by scent, how the blending of them could create another wholly different aroma and so on." She smiled, and added, "It turns out I was very good at it. The rich came from far and wide to buy my scents. I made a very good living, owned my own large home and servants and all without having to have a man at my side. It was the good life," she said with a grin that faded quickly. Heaving a sigh, she then added, "But the Romans arrived and ruined everything. Those bloody idiots invaded everywhere and brought their more archaic laws with them. Women were not equal in Roman society." She scowled, and then a smile began to tug at her lips again. "I couldn't run a business under their rule, but I could fight. I became a female gladiator. Amazones they called us."

"After the Amazons I suppose?"

Drina nodded, and said dryly, "The Romans were as lacking in imagination as they were intelligence."

Harper chuckled at her snide words, and she smiled.

"I wasn't a gladiator long. It just wasn't very challenging. The mortal gladiators were slower, weaker, and easy for me to defeat. It felt like chea ng. I did try to avoid 'to the death' fights. That would have just been, well, like slaughtering sheep," she said with distaste.

Harper nodded with understanding, and then they both fell silent and sat back as their waiter returned with the bo le of wine Harper had ordered. The man opened and poured a small amount in Harper's glass for him to try, and when he nodded approval, quickly filled both glasses. He assured them their meal would follow directly, and then slipped away.

"So bea ng up mortal gladiators was no fun, and you gave it up to become . . ." He arched an eyebrow.

"A concubine, was it?"

Drina chuckled at his expression. "Well, not just like that. Some me passed." She paused to take a sip of wine, smiled as the smooth flavor filled her mouth, and then swallowed, and said, "In retrospect, I think the concubine gig was my rebellious stage. I did behave and live with my family, playing the du ful daughter for a while before that. But it was very hard. A er having tasted the freedom of living and ruling my own life, to suddenly be reduced to a dependent child was very frustra ng." She blew out an irritated breath at the memory.

"Ah," Harper nodded with understanding. "Yes, I suppose it would be."

"Perhaps, had I started out living in that sort of society and hadn't tasted freedom, I would have handled it be er," Drina said though ully. "But I wasn't, so I didn't take well to being ruled by a man. At least not with Stephano doing the bossing."

"Your father?" Harper asked.

"No, my eldest brother. He was named a er our father. Our parents died when the Romans first invaded, and Stephano then became the "head of the family." She grimaced. "He and I are like oil and water. Or we were. We get along well enough now, though." She grinned. "But boy did he pitch a fit over the concubine thing. He even called in Uncle Lucian to deal with me."

Harper's eyebrows rose. "I'm surprised Lucian bothered to intervene."

"Well, it wasn't just the concubine thing. I was a couple of centuries old by then, and I suppose my being a concubine wouldn't have bothered him if I hadn't stepped over the line." She hesitated, and then sighed and said, "As you probably have experienced, mortals become boring as lovers and partners a er a while."

He nodded solemnly. "Easily read and controlled, it's hard not to give in to the temptation to do so."

"Yes, well . . ." Drina grimaced. "I'm afraid while I was seen as a concubine, I was really playing puppet master with my lover and kind of ruling the country through him. At least un l Uncle Lucian caught wind of it and came to give me hell."

Harper started to laugh, and then asked, "Who was he?"

Drina shook her head at once. It was just too embarrassing to admit. She'd nearly caused a civil uprising with her messing about, which was why her uncle had intervened. "Perhaps I'll tell you one day, but not tonight."

"Hmm, I'll hold you to that," Harper assured her.

Drina shrugged.

"So, next was duchess, I believe?" he asked.

"Yes, that was some me later. I was suitably chastened a er the concubine business. Enough to behave for a while again. We moved to Spain in that me, and the Spanish were as bad as the Romans when it came to women's place in society. But eventually I grew weary of Stephano bossing me about again. And then I met a very handsome and charming duke, who quite swept me off my feet."

"You've had a life mate?" Harper asked with surprise.

Drina shook her head. "No. But unlike most people, his thoughts were as lovely and charming as his words. He was an honest man."

"A rarity," Harper murmured solemnly.

"Yes. I quite liked him, and he truly loved me and asked me to marry him, and I agreed, promising myself I wouldn't control him or do anything like I had with . . . er . . . when I was a concubine."

"And did you?" he asked curiously.

Drina delayed answering by taking another sip of wine, but when a knowing smile began to tug at his lips, she gave up trying to think of a way of avoiding the ques on, and defended, "It's very hard not to when you know you're right, and he's just being a stubborn git."

Harper burst out laughing again, and she shook her head. "Anyway, he was only a duke, so it wasn't like I was ruling a country and risking civil riots, but s ll I felt bad about it every me I did take control. I also felt bad because I was keeping him from having an heir, which I knew he wanted."

"You didn't wish to have a child with him?" Harper asked curiously.

Drina frowned and shook her head. "It wasn't that I didn't want to. But it seemed cruel. Our child would be immortal, and aside from the increased risk of revealing what we were, he or she would have to leave when I did. It seemed cruel to give him a child, and then take him or her away."

When he nodded in understanding, she sighed and ran her finger around the rim of her wineglass. "Even with just myself to worry about, it became increasingly hard to hide what I was. I claimed a bad reac on to sun on my skin to explain why I avoided it, but I s ll needed to slip away to hunt every night, which was much more difficult than I'd expected . . ." She blew out a breath and shrugged. "We were only together a year or so before the duchess had to die."

"How did you manage that?" Harper asked quietly.

"Oh, Uncle Lucian helped me out," she said wryly. "The man always seems to show up when you need him. It's like a sixth sense with him or something."

"I've heard that about him," Harper said and asked curiously, "What did he do?"

"He arranged for a message claiming that Stephano was deathly ill and asking for me at a me when my husband was expected at court. Lucian assured him he'd see me safely there and had booked passage up the coast on a ship. Then he bought a ship, manned it with immortals, and my husband rode with us to port to see us off.

"It was surprisingly emo onal," she admi ed with a frown. "I mean, I knew I wasn't going to die, but I would be dead to him and never see him again, and I was quite overwrought. Of course, he put it down to concern for my brother and was very sweet and tender. He stayed to watch us sail off." She fell silent as she recalled that morning, and found herself having to blink away a sudden, surprising well of tears. She had been fond of many mortals over the ages, but Roberto had been a special man. She'd loved him dearly and for years had regretted that he hadn't been a possible life mate. Shaking her head, she finished quickly, "Uncle Lucian had purchased the ship with the sole purpose of sinking it. The ship went down, supposedly with all hands on board, and I, along with everyone else, was presumed dead."

"And then you were back to living with your brother," Harper said with a grimace that suggested he knew how little she would have enjoyed that.

"Not for terribly long," she said with satisfaction. "Just long enough to decide what I wished to do next."

"Which was . . ." He paused, apparently going back through his memory to the list she'd ra led off earlier, and then said uncertainly, "Pirate?"

Drina chuckled. "I was a privateer really, but it's the same thing, just that it was sanc oned by the government. As captain, I had a le er of marque allowing me to a ack and rob vessels belonging to enemies of Spain. Royal permission to plunder."

"You were the captain?" he asked with a smile. "And were you Captain Alexander or Alexandrina?"

She smiled. "Alexander, of course. Well, just Alex. But they thought me a man, or most of them did. As you can guess, few Spanish men would have worked a boat with a female captain, so I dressed as a man. I was very butch," she assured him with a teasing light in her eyes, and then wrinkled her nose. "Or at least I thought I was. It was most disheartening when I read in their minds that most of them thought me fey and probably gay."

Harper threw his head back on a laugh loud enough to draw several glances their way. Drina didn't care, she just smiled.

"I imagine you were a very good pirate," he said finally, and she chuckled.

"I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not."

"A compliment," he assured her. "You're clever enough, and had the fighting background for it."

Drina nodded. "Yes, we were very successful. But I eventually grew tired of watching my men die."

Harper arched an eyebrow as he picked up his wineglass.

She shrugged and picked up her own glass. Turning it in her hands, she said, "They were all very skilled, of course, and I insisted they train daily, but they were mortal. They weren't as fast or strong, and didn't have the "healthy cons tu on" or quick healing I enjoyed." She sighed. "I lost a lot of good men over the years, and finally decided enough was enough. It was me anyway. They were aging, I wasn't, and I had taken a wound or two that should have been fatal but wasn't." She grimaced. "When the figh ng comes from every side, it's impossible not to take injury."

Harper nodded in understanding. "How did you explain that away?"

"It was pre y tricky," she said wryly. "The first wound I took was a sword to the back. One of the buggers snuck up behind me while I was dealing with two others and - " She shrugged. "Fortunately, it was near the end of the ba le, and one we won. I woke up in my cabin with One-eye, the ship's cook, si ng beside me, his mouth scrunched up as if he'd sucked a lemon." She laughed at the memory. "He'd dragged me from the ba le while my first took over leading the men to finish the ba le. He'd carried me to my cabin, stripped away my jacket and shirt to tend my wound and discovered I had breasts. He was more horrified by that than the length and depth of the wound," she said dryly. Harper laughed.

"One-eye didn't admit this," she con nued, "but I read his mind, and it seems he was so sure he must be seeing things when my breasts were revealed that he grabbed me through my pantaloons in search of my

'equipment.' Much to his dismay, there wasn't any," she said wryly, and Harper's laughter deepened.

"How did you handle that?" he asked finally, as his laughter waned.

Drina smiled wryly. "Well, it took some talking and a bit of mind control, but I managed to convince him not to tell anyone. I suppose I could have just erased the memory and sent him off the ship, hired another cook, but he was a good man. A bit older than the others, more wizened, but a good man.

"Fortunately, he felt I was a good captain, so agreed to keep the secret, and the whole thing was so upsetting to him that he didn't seem to notice that I should have died from the wound.

"One-eye kept an eye on me a er that, though, watched my back in ba le and wouldn't let anyone else see to my wounds on the rare occasion that I took one." She took a sip of wine, and then added, "I only ever let him bind me if I couldn't manage myself, and then only once directly a er receiving the wounds. It was to be sure he didn't no ce how quickly I healed. He, however, thought it was because I was shy of his seeing my body, and I let him think that.

"For the first few wounds, he was so flustered by tending a woman that he prac cally closed his eyes while he did it." She chuckled. "Actually, he was surprisingly missish about it for a pirate. I think it was only because I was his captain." She shrugged. "But eventually he got more used to it, and then I took another wound that would have been fatal to a mortal, and that time he did notice."

"How did you explain it?" Harper asked.

"I didn't. What could I say? I just muttered that I'd always been strong and a fast healer and left it at that, but he started watching me more closely and started putting things together."

"Like what?"

"Like the fact that I stayed in my cabin all day, leaving the helm to my first, and came out to man the helm myself only at night, doing so with an unerring sense of direc on, as if I could see through the darkness," she said dryly. "That I only approached ships at night to a ack them. That I was uncommonly strong, especially for a woman, and that I was as nimble in the rigging at night as they would be during the day, while they had to feel their way blindly in the dark.

"Ah," Harper said with a grimace.

She nodded. "Then he followed me down into the hold of the ship one night when I went to visit the prisoners in search of blood to replace what I'd lost from a wound."

Harper didn't appear surprised by her words. Before blood banks, all of them had been forced to feed on mortals. S ll, she felt she had to explain, and said, "I tried never to feed on my own crew, and even with prisoners I was careful not to take too much blood, feeding on several rather than one or two. I wiped their memories that I was ever in the hold, and our prisoners were always treated well. I was careful."

"But he followed and saw," Harper murmured.

"Yes." She sighed unhappily. "He took that even worse than my being female. I did have to erase his memory then. We were already headed for port to off-load the prisoners, but I put him ashore as well. I gave him enough money that he wouldn't have to work again and sent him on his way." She shi ed unhappily. "Privateering just wasn't the same for me a er that. And, as I say, I was red of losing my men."

"So you retired from pirating," Harper said quietly.

"Yes." Drina took another sip of wine and shrugged. "It was me for a change. Fortunately, I'd made a fortune, definitely enough to keep me in dresses for a couple of centuries."

Harper opened his mouth to speak again, but paused as their waiter returned with their meals. They both murmured "thank you" as their plates were set before them.

Drina eyed the dish she'd selected and felt her stomach growl at the deligh ul aromas wa ing from it. It was something called chicken fe uccini. She'd chosen it because it was listed as the chef's special, and because it had been so long since she'd eaten that she wasn't sure what was good or not. But this certainly smelled delightful.

"It smells amazing," Harper murmured, sounding awed, and she glanced to his identical plate and nodded with agreement.

They fell into a companionable silence as they both dug in, but Drina found herself con nually smiling as she ate. She was enjoying herself, enjoying Harper's reac ons to her tales, his laughter, his shock . . . It was nice, and she decided she was going to have to thank Stephanie for arranging it.

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