SINCE I NEVER EXPECTED TO GET MARRIED, I'D NEVER given much thought to all that goes into a wedding. Luckily, it seems my mother has. She prepares lists and makes calls and for the next couple of days, we-Frey, Trish, Dad and I-run around so she can check each item off with a satisfied stroke of the pen.
I watch her closely-watch for any sign that she's weakening or tiring herself out. All I see is a woman at peace, happy even, immersed in the details of a day that obviously means as much to her as it does to Frey and me.
Still, it's up to Trish, Frey and I to handle the in-town stuff-shopping for dresses and suits, visiting the caterer to plan menus, choosing a wedding cake. A cake I can't eat. So we leave the final choice to John-John and Trish. After polishing off the half dozen samples supplied by the bakery, John-John decides he likes weddings. And the kids settle on a decadent chocolate mousse cake with a frothy whipped cream icing.
Thursday afternoon Frey and I make the trek back to the consulate, papers in hand. France requires a civil ceremony before any kind of religious service. Since a religious service is something I neither want nor plan to have, the consular employee who helps us suggests we look into a "humanist" wedding. An organization called Gracefully Personalized Ceremonies crafts individual services for couples who want a ceremony adapted to them and not the other way around.
Frey and I look at each other. If ever there was a couple who didn't identify with the traditional, it's us. So we take the pamphlet and contact information. We are assured such a ceremony fulfills the civil requirement that makes the marriage legal. And the service can be performed in any location. Sounds perfect for what we want.
We get back to Lorgues at six p.m. We purposefully planned the day so we would have an excuse to stay in town for the evening. In thirty minutes, Chael will pick us up for my meeting with the infamous King Steffan. So far, I've managed to push thoughts of it to the back of my mind, but I can't evade them any longer.
Frey and I sip glasses of wine while we wait in the cafe. We are both quiet.
At 6:15, Chael appears. One minute the extra chair is vacant, the next, he's sitting in it, joining us like the object of a magician's sleight of hand. He smiles and brushes an imaginary piece of lint off an impeccably tailored jacket.
"How does he do that?" I mumble to Frey. To Chael, I ask, Where is your car? I thought you were taking me to Steffan?
Did you find the documents satisfactory? he replies, not addressing my question. I was extremely pleased that you thought to come to me with your request.
Yes. Thank you. The two words are slow to form, but he did help us out of a sticky situation. I keep thoughts of the part he may have played in the neat wrap-up to Williams' case back in San Diego tucked carefully away. Time to explore that mystery later. I gesture instead to Frey. We are both appreciative. Now, about Steffan?
Before Chael can reply, a Rolls-Royce pulls to the curb. It's a classic, a Phantom, the top down, and a gasp of appreciation goes up from the people sitting around us. The car is a deep royal blue and from what I can see of the inside, the upholstery is red leather. The paint is so highly buffed, I can see Frey's reflection in the door panels. Only Frey's. It looks like he's alone at the table.
I wonder if anyone else notices.
I'm so wrapped up in my own musings, it takes an instant to realize the driver is looking at me.
A vampire. I nod acknowledgment.
Would you get in please?
Frey starts to push back from the table, but Chael puts a hand on his arm. Only Anna. We will wait here.
I see irritation tighten the lines around Frey's mouth as he shrugs out of Chael's grasp. This time it's my hand on his arm. "It's all right. You wait with Chael. I won't be long."
Frey shoots Chael a venomous look. "This isn't what we agreed on." Then his eyes latch onto mine. "Anna, I don't think it's a good idea to see this Steffan by yourself. What if you get into trouble?"
"I've got you on speed dial." I lean in and brush his lips with mine. "And Chael is staying here. If anything happens . . ."
The panther, dark and dangerous, flashes in Frey's eyes. He nods and relaxes back in his chair. He understands. "We'll be right here."
By the time I get to the curb, the driver has slipped from behind the wheel and is holding the front passenger door, rather than the rear passenger door, open. It's not surprising. It makes perfect sense to have an unknown vampire sit where he can keep an eye on her. Casting no reflection means not being able to watch in a rearview mirror.
I climb in and he shuts the door, giving a two-finger salute to Frey and Chael. Frey frowns back. Chael merely smiles.
Once the driver has pulled the car into traffic, I turn in the seat to give him the once-over. He must have been in his thirties when he was turned. His face bears the look of one who spends a great deal of time outdoors-lines radiate from the corners of his eyes, his skin is smooth but deeply tanned. His dark hair is brushed back from his temples and touches the collar of his shirt and when his eyes find mine, they are green with gold flecks. He is broad shouldered, not dressed in the uniform of a chauffeur, the lines of his jacket cut in a classic style, his slacks tapered to the tops of polished loafers. His hands on the wheel look steady and strong, his fingers slender, his nails lightly buffed.
King Steffan obviously likes his employees to cut a stylish figure.
All the time I am studying him, he keeps his thoughts closed. Completely. He has been vampire for a long time to master such ability. Nothing comes through. Neither is he probing my thoughts. If I am of any interest to him, he gives nothing away.
King Steffan trains them well, too.
"Do you speak English?" I ask at last.
"Yes," he replies.
"Can you tell me where we are going?"
"We are almost there."
I look around. We have left the town limits and are traveling out into the countryside. But I see nothing that looks like a castle. In fact, I see nothing at all. This road, if I remember correctly, leads to a farming community and little else.
Strangely, I feel no concern. Where uneasiness should have vampire clawing her way to the surface, instead I find myself enjoying the ride: the purr of the stately old engine, the wind in my hair, the freedom of not having to guard every thought from intruding minds. The driver pays me no heed.
Fields surround us, the perfume of new grass and freshly tilled soil fills the night air. I look up at stars like pinpricks of fiery ice filling the darkening sky. They appear as if someone had thrown a switch at sunset to start the show.
A sliver of a moon dances on the horizon. Besides the stars, it sheds the only light, meager as it is, to illuminate the road. When the driver pulls off onto a side road, I stir and glance over.
"Where are we?"
He smiles but says nothing.
Okay. Enough is enough. "I thought I was going to meet King Steffan."
The driver slows the car at the edge of a bluff and stops
He turns in his seat and lets his eyes lock with mine.
Before he opens his thoughts to me, I know.
And feel foolish that I hadn't guessed.
This dashing driver, this old vampire with the impenetrable mind, is King Steffan. "Very cute," I say.
"Are you angry?" he asks.
I raise my shoulders. "Should I be angry?"
"Well, you were promised a castle."
I wave a hand. "I'd settle for a ride in this beautiful old car over a visit to a stuffy castle anytime." I brush a finger over the dashboard. "What year is it?"
"It's a 1929."
"And I suppose you're the original owner."
He laughs. It's musical and self-deprecating. "Yes. But you may change your mind when you see my castle. It's not stuffy, I assure you."
He is studying me the way I studied him when I first got into the car. After a moment, he says, "You are not what I imagined."
He tilts his head. "After the stories I'd heard about you, I expected someone with a harder edge. Someone tougher. You look like the schoolteacher you once were. Not a bounty hunter. And certainly not like the vanquisher of half a dozen old-soul vampires."
"You've done your homework."
"Of course. Haven't you?"
He looks surprised. "And yet you agreed to meet me alone? You were not afraid?"
"Half a dozen old-soul vampires, remember?"
He laughs again at that. "You have confidence, Anna. And strength of conviction, I can see that. It pains me to think we may become adversaries."
"Then you know why I'm here. Why we are meeting."
He sighs. "Chael told me. I am sorry it is such a sad occasion that brings you to France. But as for the other, you must recognize that you are out of your depth in Europe. We do not accept your title or your Council. Now that I have met you, I see why others respect you. But you will find no allies amongst the vampires in Europe. They swear allegiance only to me."
"Then it's you I'll have to convince to give up your shortsighted plan."
He studies me another minute, this time letting his eyes travel from my face to my breasts and down my legs in a lazy, appraising path that is as obvious as it is insulting. "You are welcome to try. In fact, I think I insist on it."
Bristling, I draw myself up on the seat. "Not even in your wildest dreams." Does it sound as juvenile to him as it does to me?
"How provincial. You are engaged. To the shape-shifter, I know."
As if that is the only reason I could possibly reject such an opportunity. But his tone while condescending and scornful has an underlying hint of-disappointment. I try to probe for the meaning behind his reaction, but the mental brick wall is back in place.
He reaches down and starts the engine. "I'll bring you back to town-to your fiance whom I imagine is getting restless waiting for you. But we will talk again. I think you and I have many things to discuss, Anna Strong."
I reach over and grasp his hand, forcing him to kill the engine. "So, let's talk. Why waste time? I know what you are planning. You must know if you attempt to upset the balance between mortals and vampires, you will have to face the opposition of the Thirteen Tribes. We will be a formidable opponent."
This time, Steffan eyes me with nothing but a disdainful glare. The kind of expression I'd expect from a king. A dismissal.
"I am not prepared to argue with you tonight. In fact, have you not more important matters to tend to? Your mother is dying. You are preparing for a wedding. When we speak again, I want your full attention."
The hair bristles on the back of my neck. "You may not like what happens when you have my full attention."
He looks hard at me, then moves my hand aside and cranks the engine over once again.
This time I let him. Mentioning my mother reminds me that whatever Steffan's plans are, I do have more important priorities. Europe seems to be in no imminent danger, even from one as arrogant as this vampire who calls himself a king.
He pulls the car onto the road, makes a U-turn and we're heading back for the city lights of Lorgues. We travel in stiff silence and it's not until we've come to a halt in front of the cafe and I'm preparing to open the door that Steffan stops me with a hand on my arm. He's looking at Frey who has risen to meet me. He leans close. His lips are warm on my ear when he whispers.
Think carefully about your future, Anna. You could do better.
I pull out of his grip, a cold anger rising. You overstep, Steffan.
Frey is approaching the car, and I climb out to meet him.
I don't turn to see what Steffan is doing, but as the car engine revs, Steffan calls to me once again. Think about it, Anna, I could make you a queen.
Then he is gone, leaving me with Frey on the sidewalk.
Frey casts an inquisitive look, not catching Steffan's last comment. Unfortunately from his place at the table, Chael does.
A queen? Well, you have made an impression, he says when we rejoin him.
Frey is frowning. He may have missed what Steffan said but not Chael's reaction. "What's this about a queen?"
I wave a dismissive hand, sink into a chair.
And fix Chael with a warning eye. Nothing. To Frey, "Some bullshit meant to impress. A bad joke."
Chael doesn't wait to hear any more but stands as if ready to take his leave.
Which makes me snap at him. You knew it was Steffan in the car. Why didn't you tell me?
It was Steffan's wish to keep the first meeting low-key. I trust it went well. He pauses. I know you haven't resolved the issue tonight, and I will let you know when Steffan wishes another audience.
My temper flares. What issue? All that we determined tonight is that Steffan is an overconfident prick. When I meet with Steffan again, Chael, it will be on my terms. You can pass that on to his majesty and tell him I am the one who will be in touch.
Chael's eyebrows rise. He gives a little half bow. As you wish.
And then he turns on his heel like a Prussian soldier and marches off.
Frey shakes his head at his departing back. "Quite a character. Now." He leans toward me, takes my hand. "It was Steffan in the car? What happened?"
I fill him in as we sip wine. "Not much." I describe the ride and where we ended up. Steffan's comments to me about having no influence here but agreeing to listen to my arguments anyway. "We danced around like a couple of circus horses," I finish with a sniff.
"So the grand scheme never came up."
"Not so you'd notice. The only one who did any talking was me. I think this was a scouting party. Steffan taking my measure." Immediately, I'm thinking of the ways his eyes traveled the length of my body, appraising, coming to a conclusion about-what? His last remark certainly caught me off guard. Was he baiting me? If he was trying to impress me, he failed.
I don't say any of this to Frey. I finish my wine. I want to forget Chael and Steffan and everything vampire. I want to go back to the estate, hug my mother and make love to Frey. I take his hand and press it to my cheek. "Let's go home."
Whether it's the heat radiating from my skin beneath his fingertips or the breathlessness of my voice, Frey raises no objection.