The Reluctant Vampire

Chapter Six

Drina sat back in her seat with a li le sigh that was half regret and half sa sfac on. She had enjoyed the food and was full, but regretted not being able to finish it. It was really good.

"So," Harper said, se ng down his own fork. His expression was also full of regret as he pushed his halfeaten meal to the side, but he smiled as he glanced to her, and said, "I believe you had just finished regaling me with your pira ng career and were about to explain how you landed as . . . a madam?" He arched an eyebrow. "Another rebellious phase?"

Drina grinned. He was trying not to sound shocked or affected in any way by that career choice, but she could see he wasn't taking it as calmly as he'd like her to think. Shrugging, she said, "Surely you must be bored with tales of my life by now. You should tell me more about - "

"Oh no," Harper protested at once. "You can't stop just before the best part."

She grinned at his expression, and then shrugged. "After I let go of the men and sold my ship, I decided to se le in England as a wealthy widow. At least that was the plan, and I did at first," she assured him, and then added, "Really, the madam bit was something of an accident."

"Right," he drawled. "You were an accidental madam."

Drina chuckled at his expression. "As it happens, yes I was. One night, I was wandering along, hunting for a snack and minding my own business, when I happened upon a young woman being beaten." Her smile faded at the recollec on. The girl, Beth as she later found out her name was, had been half-dead when Drina had come upon the scene, but the man beating Beth had seemed determined to finish the job. Shaking away the memory of Beth's poor ba ered body, she con nued, "I took excep on and ended it. Then I picked her up and she directed me to her home. But it turned out it was a brothel, and the man I'd stopped had been their protector." She said the last word with distaste, for he hadn't been anywhere near protec ve of any of the women under his care. The group she'd found at that house had all been terribly young, half-starved and each bearing the scars and marks of past beatings. Drina sighed. "Well, Beth, the girl I'd saved, told the others what I'd done. Half of the women were furious that I'd killed their "protector - "

"Killed?" Harper asked, one eyebrow flying up.

Drina grimaced. "It was part accident and part self-defense. He didn't care for being tossed about by a female and pulled a knife. That rather irritated me, and I tossed him up the alley." She shrugged. "He landed on his knife."

"Ah." Harper nodded.

"Anyway, as I say, half of them were furious I'd killed him, and the other half just didn't seem to have the energy to care either way. Then Mary, a rather mouthy bit of goods, announced that since I'd killed their man, I was now their protector." Drina smiled faintly at the memory. She'd been rather dismayed at the me but had felt responsible for the women and hadn't known what else to do. So, she'd become a madam.

"According to Mary I wasn't a very good madam," she admi ed with amusement. "I mean, I kept them safe and made sure none of their clients hurt them, but I didn't take any of their money. In fact, it cost me money instead," she admi ed with a grin. "And as far as Mary was concerned, that made me a failure as a madam."

Harper chuckled, but asked with interest, "So you just hung about and looked out for them for nothing?"

"At first," she said slowly. Sighing, she admi ed reluctantly, "But a er a par cularly nasty encounter with three drunk clients who tried to abuse one of the girls . . . well, I was injured. And healed," she said dryly.

"They sorted out what you were," he guessed.

"One of the risks of spending too much me with mortals," Drina said dryly. "Fortunately, the women took it much be er than One-eye had. In fact, they were surprisingly accep ng, and most just seemed relieved."

"Relieved?" Harper echoed with surprise.

Drina nodded and explained, "Well, I looked out for them but would never take their money. It turns out this had le them feeling beholden, and not one of them was comfortable with that. But now they felt they had something to offer me."

"To feed on them," Harper breathed, sitting up.

Drina nodded solemnly. "I refused at first, but Beth sat me down and explained that I was being terribly selfish in refusing their kind offer."

Harper started to laugh. "They had your number."

"Perhaps," Drina admi ed with amusement. "But it wasn't what she said so much as what she didn't say. I realized that they were afraid. I was the best protector any of them had had. I didn't beat or rape them, didn't even take a cut of their money and had suffered a few injuries to protect them and yet expected nothing from them in return. It confused them. They didn't understand why I did it."

"Why did you do it?" Harper asked.

Drina considered the question. "Because I could, and no one else would."

"I think there was more to it than that," Harper said quietly. "You were your own woman and in charge of your life in Egypt un l the Romans invaded, and it seems to me that you spent a good part of your life a er that figh ng to get that independence and freedom back. You managed to regain some small measure of it as a gladiator, then some more from ruling a country as a puppet master/concubine, became a duchess to escape your brother's rule, and then pretended to be male to run your own ship."

He nodded. "I think you felt for those women. I think you were trying to free them from the tyranny of a male-dominated world, allowing them the independence to earn and keep their own money, and protec ng them from those who would have abused and taken advantage of them. You saw yourself in them and were trying to give them what you'd always fought for."

Drina shi ed uncomfortably. He'd seen her pre y clearly, and it made her feel naked. Trying to lighten the atmosphere, she teased, "Or perhaps I just secretly always wanted to be a prostitute."

"Did you?" he asked, surprised at the suggestion.

"No. I was well red of sex with mortals by then," she said on a chuckle, and smiled wryly. "You're probably right about my mo va ons, but even I didn't understand them then." She turned her wineglass on the table, and admi ed, "Originally, I tried to get them out of the business, but none of them were interested. They didn't see any other life for themselves." She sighed and shook her head, reexperiencing the confusion and frustra on she'd felt at the me. "Not one of those women had wanted to be pros tutes. Each had dreamed of a husband and family, a happy life. They were, every one of them, forced into it, a few by circumstance, but most by the man they had called their "protector." Once in that life, society considered them garbage, as if in a ma er of moments they'd somehow changed and become less."

"As happened with you when Rome invaded Egypt, and you were no longer allowed to run a business," he pointed out. "As if with the invasion, you had become less intelligent, or skilled, and were suddenly a child who needed a man to look out for her."

"I suppose," Drina admitted. "Though, as I say, I didn't see the correlation then. And I didn't suddenly feel less with the invasion, but they all seemed to feel they were all now less or damaged." She sighed.

"Anyway, when Beth gave me her li le talk, all I could do was reassure her that I wanted nothing and wouldn't suddenly abandon them. But, of course, her experiences in life didn't suggest that was likely. It didn't for any of them, and they were afraid and frustrated because of it. In their minds, there was nothing to stop me from simply pulling up stakes and leaving at any me. They didn't trust that I wouldn't, and the possibility left them constantly terrified. Once I realized that, I agreed to their offer."

"To feed from them?"

Drina nodded. "It turned out to be a good thing all the way around."

"How so?" he asked curiously.

"The women had always been on edge, fluctua ng between being overly nice and snapping at me and each other," she began, and then paused and wrinkled her nose. "Frankly, it was a bloody cathouse at mes. But once I agreed to feed from them, some sort of balance was restored. They felt everyone was ge ng something, so it would all be all right. They relaxed, the house gained a much more pleasant atmosphere, the women even became like family rather than figh ng all the me. It was nice," she said with a reminiscent smile. "And, of course, I didn't have to hunt at night anymore, which was handy. Everyone was happy."

"Everyone?" Harper queried, and she chuckled at his wry expression.

"Well, everyone but my family," she admitted on a laugh.

Harper nodded, not surprised. "I didn't think your brother would be pleased to have his sister running a brothel." He grinned and tilted his head, asking, "Did he call on Lucian for help with you again?"

"Of course," she said dryly. "When his many le ers and a personal visit to try to force me to sell the brothel and come home failed, Lucian was his next ploy. And Lucian even caught a ship and came all the way from the Americas, where he was living. He sailed into England to look into the matter."

"And?" Harper queried, leaning forward with interest.

"He read me, read my girls, and then turned to Stephano and surprised us all by announcing that I was old enough to make my own decisions. I wasn't doing anything wrong. He was proud of what I was doing for these women, and Stephano should be too, but whether he was or not, it was me he stopped interfering and let me be." Drina lowered her head to hide the tears that had swum into her eyes at the memory.

Bloody things, Drina thought. She didn't know why the memory of Lucian's approval made her teary. It was ridiculous really. She s lled when Harper covered her hand on the table and gave it a comfor ng squeeze.

"He was right."

Drina smiled faintly, and then sighed with disappointment when he withdrew his hand and picked up the wine bo le to pour more of the pale liquid into both their glasses. Se ng the now-empty bo le down, he then glanced around, relaxing when their waiter immediately appeared at the table.

"So how long were you a madam?" Harper asked once the waiter had nodded to his request for more wine and slipped away.

She picked up her glass and took a sip before answering. "Quite a while, actually. The women all knew what I was, so my not aging didn't ma er. I was never seen entering or leaving the brothel without a veil, and I didn't stay there all the me. I had a big brawny fellow act as bodyguard for the women on occasion so I could travel, and when I traveled, no one knew I was a madam." She shrugged. "Of course, as me passed, some of the girls left, either to marry, or to work a respectable job. One or two saved every penny they made and set out to start their own business, but Beth, Mary, and several others worked un l they got too old. Then I shut the doors and bought another, smaller, house, which I turned into a re rement home for the half dozen who remained.

"They were so excited," she recalled with a so smile. "It was far enough away that they could tell their new neighbors that they were re red widows or whatever they chose. They could be respectable, make new friends among the respectable matrons around them, and enjoy their waning years among the family they'd made in each other."

"It sounds like a happy ending," Harper said, smiling.

"It should have been," Drina agreed, her own smile dying.

Harper stilled, concern entering his expression. "What happened?"

"I set them up, saw them se led, and then le to travel, promising to visit frequently. But it was almost two years before I returned." She shrugged helplessly. "I didn't mean to stay away so long, but me slipped away from me."

"It tends to when you live as long as we do," Harper said, as if trying to mi gate the guilt he could sense in her words. "What happened to your girls?"

"Nothing un l just before I returned. According to Beth, they made friends in the area and were all happily enjoying their new home and re rement . . . but then another immortal happened upon the women. His name was Jamieson. I don't know if that was his first or last name. Beth just called him Jimmy." Her mouth tightened. "He was rogue."

"Oh no," Harper murmured, reaching for her hand again.

Drina turned her hand over under his and their fingers closed around each other's, and then she said wearily, "I don't know if he was just passing through the area and came across one of them, read her mind, and saw her history with me, or what, but something made him pick them for victims."

When she paused again, Harper squeezed her fingers gently in sympathy. Drina shook her head, and said ghtly, "He installed himself in the house and turned them all the same night in one horrible blood orgy. I guess it was horrendous; screaming old ladies watching each other being bled, and then having his blood forced on them, followed by the convulsions, the agony, the screaming." She shook her head, trying hard not to think about how it must have been for those women she had come to care a great deal for. She con nued grimly, "One of the women didn't survive. Her heart couldn't take it, and she died during the turn. But Beth, Mary, and the remaining five survived."

"The one who died may have been the lucky one," Harper mu ered, though she saw a haunted look in his eyes and realized she'd inadvertently reminded him of his Jenny.

Trying to pull his a en on back from the ghost of his previous life mate, Drina quickly con nued, "They woke from the turn confused and terrified, and were informed that now that he'd made them young and beautiful again, he owned them and they would do his bidding."

"He wanted them to prostitute for him?" Harper asked with a frown.

Drina shook her head. "They were to lure mortal men to the house with the promise of sex. But once there, these men would be robbed and fed on until dead."

"Christ," Harper mu ered. "He couldn't think to get away with that. Someone would no ce the sudden increase in number of missing men in the area."

"Yes, of course, but rogues are generally suicidal and want to be caught and put out of their misery anyway," Drina muttered.

"How did the women react to all of this?" Harper asked with a frown. "Surely they didn't go along with it?"

Drina cleared her throat. "Beth said that none of them wanted to. That Mary stood up to him when he told them his plans."

"Mary the mouthy one," Harper murmured, apparently recalling her earlier words.

"Mary the mouthy one who was too brave for her own good," Drina said quietly. "She told him they wouldn't do it. He could go to hell and they were going to find me and I'd stop him."

"Bet he didn't take that well," Harper guessed, sounding pained.

"He ripped her head off on the spot," Drina said grimly.

"Oh, Christ." Harper sat back in his seat with disgust, but s ll held on to her hand. If anything, his grip on hers was tighter, as if he was trying to infuse her with his strength to deal with the memory.

"The others immediately agreed to whatever he wanted at that point," Drina said quietly.

"The others immediately agreed to whatever he wanted at that point," Drina said quietly.

"I wonder why," he muttered dryly.

"So he sent them out to find men and bring them back," Drina con nued. "The moment they were away from the house, Beth tried to talk the others into fleeing. They could find me, she said. I'd fix this." She sighed, feeling the pinch of guilt that she hadn't been able to fix anything in the end.

"Did they listen?" Harper asked quietly, sitting forward again.

Drina shook her head. "They were too afraid. They didn't know where I was, and he might come a er them. She should go by herself, they said. They'd do what he said and wait to be rescued." Drina blew out her breath, and turned her wineglass on the tabletop with her free hand. "Beth fled, but she didn't know where to go to search for me, and she needed blood. She ended up returning to the original brothel to hide. She knew I hadn't yet sold it, and couldn't think where else to go. She hid inside for two weeks, feeding on rats, birds, and any other animal who got close enough to the house."

Harper's eyes widened incredulously. "She couldn't survive on that."

"No," Drina agreed on a sigh. "She was in a bad way by the end of the two weeks, but his turning of her had been so trauma c and she had always been kindhearted, she couldn't bear the idea of feeding on a mortal."

"What happened at the end of the two weeks?" Harper asked.

"She stayed inside during the day, but ventured out at night in search of small animals and such. She was chasing a rat around the side of the house toward the street when a carriage passed. My carriage."

"You were back?"

Drina nodded. "I was on my way to the new house, but I was thinking of pu ng the old one up for sale and just wanted to see what shape it was in. I wasn't going to stop. I planned to visit the girls first. I just wanted to see how it looked and that it was s ll standing and hadn't burnt down or something while I was gone. So, I had the curtains open to look at it in passing. Beth recognized me through the window and shrieked."

Drina closed her eyes as she recalled the sound. She would never forget it. It had been an inhuman wail, full of pain, rage, and need. The sound had brought her head sharply around, and she'd spo ed Beth standing there, pale and ragged.

"I didn't even recognize her," Drina whispered. "She was a plump, well-kept old woman when last I'd seen her, and this creature was a filthy, emaciated, young redhead. But I saw the glowing eyes and the state she was in and made the driver stop at once. I didn't realize who it was un l I stepped down from the carriage and she threw herself at me babbling insanely about headless Mary and the others."

"I still didn't understand what had happened. She was half-mad with blood hunger and wasn't making any sense. I tried to get her to the carriage, saying I'd take her to the re rement house, but she went crazy at the thought and the only way to calm her down even a li le was to promise I wouldn't take her there. I took her into the old house instead, and then set out to get her blood."

Drina shook her head. "It was an ordeal. She was repulsed and horrified at the thought of feeding on anyone, and I had to control both her and the donors. It was a slow process. She needed so much blood. I had to go out and bring back several donors one at a me, then control them both, keeping the donor from suffering any pain and unaware of what was happening, while also controlling Beth's horror and making sure she didn't take too much. And the whole me I was terrified that I'd simply have to kill her in the end anyway, that her mind was too far gone to be salvaged."

"Was it?" Harper asked.

Drina smiled wryly. "It's a funny thing about people. The ones who seem strong and mouth off the most, or bully others, are usually the ones most terrified and weakest inside. And the ones who seem quiet and speak their fears, appearing the weakest, are often the strongest under it all."

"Yes. I've found that too," Harper said solemnly. "So our Beth came out all right?"

She smiled faintly at his calling her "our Beth," but nodded. "Yes. I kept bringing her blood donors through the night. Let her rest for most of the day, and then began bringing in donors again that evening and night. She was coming around by the me dawn arrived on the second day, but I insisted she rest and we would talk a er. She slept straight through the day and most of the early evening, and I stayed and watched over her. When she woke, she was quiet and calm and much be er. She told me everything."

Drina blew her breath out on a sigh. "I immediately set out for the re rement house. I tried to get Beth to wait at the brothel while I took care of it, but she insisted on coming with me.

"I should have insisted harder," she said dryly. "I thought I would only have to handle the rogue, but in the two weeks since Beth had left, he'd infected the other women with his madness.

"Some of the things he'd made them do to the men they lured back to the house on his orders were . . ."

She shook her head at the memories she'd read from their minds as she'd entered the house, a house that had been charming and comfortable when last she'd seen it, but was now a blood-spa ered nightmare, li ered with dead bodies, some of which had been rent to pieces. Her mouth ghtened. "They weren't salvageable.

"They a acked the minute we entered, which I hadn't expected. I was remembering the women the way they'd been, but they weren't those women anymore. He said a ack, and they came at us as if we were strangers who meant less than dirt to them. Beth and I were outnumbered, but we were also at a disadvantage because we weren't mad, knew these women, and they were like family. Or had been," she corrected on a sigh, and then admi ed, "I think Beth and I both would have died that day if council enforcers hadn't arrived to save our bacon."

"The council was on to them?" Harper asked.

"Yes, fortunately," she said. "But it would have been hard for them not to be. There was absolutely no cau on being used. A lot of men, women, and even children from the area had disappeared. Several of the missing had been seen following the women into the house. And the smell coming from inside was rather atrocious. They might as well have painted 'Look here' on the front door." She shook her head.

"The enforcers were apparently arming themselves in carriages across the street when we rode up and, as Scotty put it afterward, 'traipsed in as if attending a tea.' "

"Scotty?" he asked, pouring them both more wine.

"He was the lead enforcer on the raid. Now he heads up all the enforcers in the UK," she explained, and then grinned. "He was most put out with us that night."

Til ng her head to the side, she mimicked a very bad Sco sh accent, mangling it horribly with her laughter as she did. "Ye should ha'e sent a message round to the council to handle it, not danced in there yersel'es like a pair o' idjits. Ye cuid ha'e got yersel'es killed, ye silly arses . . . And wid ha'e twoo had we no been here to pull yer fat oot o' the fire."

Harper chuckled with her, and then lted his own head, and asked, "Is being saved by Sco y and the other rogue hunters the reason you became one yourself?"

"Partly, perhaps. They were pre y impressive. But I think we mostly joined up to make sure that what happened to the girls didn't happen to anyone else."

"We?" he asked, and then his eyes widened. "Beth?"

Drina nodded. "She's my partner. We joined together. Trained together. Were partnered when we finished training and work together still."

"In England?"

"No. Neither of us wanted to be there anymore. For Beth, England was a bad memory. As for me, well, the whole incident had ra led me. I'd always thought of myself as immortal, and while that's what we call ourselves, we aren't really. But that night in that house was the first me I was made to face it." She swallowed, and then explained, "When the enforcers crashed in, Beth and I were both pinned to the ground by the women, and Jimmy was about to hack off our heads. In fact, he was in the process of doing so to me when Sco y rushed him. It knocked him to the side and he only half scalped me, but it was enough. I stopped calling myself immortal that night. We are vampires."

He didn't argue, merely squeezed her hand again, and Drina con nued, "That was the first me in all my adventures that I actually feared losing my life. And it had the strangest effect. I suddenly wanted to see my family again, live close to them, spend me with them. But I didn't want to leave Beth behind by herself. She was a baby vamp and needed training, and she had no one." Drina shrugged. "We stayed to watch the house burn a er the hunters were done inside, then went straight to the docks, and I booked us both passage on a ship back home to Spain. We talked on the journey, and more while visi ng my family, and she decided to join as well. We joined the Spanish branch of the rogue hunters once she'd adjusted to being an immortal. We joined together, trained together, and as I say, we were paired up after training and are still partners."

"She's more than that," Harper said quietly.

Drina nodded. "My brother welcomed her into our family. She's like a sister and carries the name Argenis now."

"A sister or an adopted daughter?" Harper asked solemnly, and Drina smiled.

"A bit of both I suppose," she admitted on a chuckle. "But don't tell her that, or she'll squawk."

He chuckled and she smiled and slid her wineglass away, but then said, "Well I've monopolized the conversation nicely. Your turn. I know you were a cook once and own a frozen-food concern now, but what else have you done?"

Harper grimaced. "Believe me, my life hasn't been nearly as exci ng as yours. It would bore you to tears."

"I doubt it. And my life wasn't all that exciting. It just sounds like it in the recounting."

Harper snorted with disbelief, and then glanced around in ques on when their waiter appeared. The man smiled gently and slid a small leather folder onto the table before quickly retrea ng. Harper glanced at the folder and opened it to reveal a bill, then glanced around, his eyes widening.

"What?" Drina asked, and peered around as well. They were the only guests le in the restaurant. The remaining tables were empty and cleared and workers were quietly se ng chairs upside down on the tables, she supposed so that the floor could be vacuumed.

"I think we're holding them up," Harper said, pulling out his wallet.

"It would seem so," she murmured, glancing at her watch. "What time do they close?"

"Half an hour ago according to the waiter's thoughts," Harper answered wryly, se ng a credit card in the folder and closing it.

"Oh dear," Drina murmured, finding the man and casting an apologetic smile his way as she asked, "Is he very upset?"

"Surprisingly not. But I'll leave him a big p anyway to make up for it." He pulled his phone out and was talking quietly to his driver when the waiter took the folder away. By the me he'd hung up, the waiter was back with receipts and slips for him to sign.

The waiter might not be upset by their staying so late, but apparently he was s ll eager to go home, she thought with amusement, as Harper quickly filled in the p amount and signed the bo om. Not that she blamed him.

A cold blast of wind slapped at them as they stepped out of the restaurant, and Drina huddled into her coat, grateful she'd bought the long, heavier one today and wasn't s ll wearing the lighter coat she'd worn to fly to Canada.

"The car should be along soon, but maybe we should stay close to the building for cover," Harper said, urging her back toward the wall beside the door.

"It's snowing," Drina murmured, eyeing the flakes whirling wildly around them with a frown.

"Yeah, here I'll block the wind." Harper turned to face her and stepped up close, offering his body as a shield.

"Thank you," Drina murmured, fighting the urge to sway toward him.

"Where's your new scarf?" he asked with a frown. "Did you leave it in the restaurant?"

"No," she said, slipping her hands out of her pockets to catch the lapels of his leather coat and hold him in place when he started to pull away as if to rush back into the restaurant to fetch it for her. "I'm afraid I forgot it."

"And your hat and gloves too," he muttered, covering her hands with his gloved ones. Drina smiled wryly. "I'm not used to needing them. Spain never gets this cold."

"No," he said, and then fell silent, his eyes seeming frozen on her lips.

Drina s lled, nearly holding her breath. She was sure he wanted to kiss her. When a moment passed without his doing so, she used her hold on his lapels to draw him nearer, whispering, "It's cold."

"Yes," he growled. He released her hands and let his drop to slide around her back, pulling her closer still. "Does this help?"

"A li le." She sighed, squeezing even closer. She could hear his heart pounding, a quick ta oo, and slid one hand from his lapel to glide it up to touch his face and then onto his ear. Caressing the cooling skin gently, she whispered, "You're cold too." Then she leaned up on her ptoes and blew her hot breath against his ear before whispering into it, "Does this help?"

Harper mu ered something she didn't quite catch, and then he turned his head and claimed her lips. Drina immediately slid her hands into his hair and let her mouth dri open, invi ng him in . . . and all hell broke loose. It was as if she'd torn away chains that had bound and gagged him. She found herself suddenly pressed hard against the wall behind her by both his hips and his hands at her shoulders, and then he was undoing her coat, his hands almost tearing at the bu ons in his eagerness to reach what was inside. And all the while his mouth devoured hers, his tongue invading and exploring. Drina responded in kind, digging the nails of one hand into his scalp while the other dropped around to clasp his behind and urge him on as he ground his hips against her. They both gasped with relief when he managed to get the last bu on of her coat undone and jerked the lapels apart. When his hands immediately moved to cover her breasts, she moaned and arched into the touch. They froze when the door opened beside them. Harper tore his mouth from hers, and they both turned to stare blankly at the waiter, who had frozen halfway out the door. The mortal's eyes were wide and his expression amazed as he peered through the glass door at them. Their waiter.

"Oh," Harper mu ered, and then, seeming to realize he was s ll clutching her breasts, released them at once and stepped back from her, only to step closer again when the wind caught her open lapels and began to whip them about. "Here."

He quickly pulled the sides closed, then glanced around almost desperately. Relief rushed across his face when he spo ed the car at the curb, and he caught Drina's arm and urged her quickly toward it, muttering, "Have a good night," over his shoulder.

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