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"Rest assured that if I have, I will be removed from my position and another will take my place." Mercer saw a light blinking on his phone and punched the button that connected him with the abbey's switchboard operator. "Yes, Brother Jacob?"
"A call for you, Father." Jacob's voice sounded strained. "It is on the secured line."
"Lord have pity on us." Ignatius gasped.
Mercer hadn't suffered cold sweats since he'd left Europe, but there was no denying the chilly sensation that inched down his spine. "Thank you, Brother Jacob." He glanced up at the guestmaster. "If you will excuse me, Brother?"
The older friar pressed his hands together, bowed over them, and fled.
Mercer took a moment to regain some composure. He had not yet received a call on the secured line. At times he had even allowed himself to forget about it, as much as he was able. Still, there was no need for hysteria. The call was likely some matter to do with the order's new administration; many things had changed since the pope had died. Likely this was nothing more than some sort of official notification that could not be entrusted to a fax like all the others.
Mercer's hand still shook a little as he picked up the phone. "Abbot Lane."
"Wasn't that a song by the Beatles?" a man with a New York-accented voice asked. Before Mercer could reply, he added, "You take your time answering your calls, Brother."
He couldn't place the voice at all. "Who is this?"
"I keep the Light of the World shining," the man snapped. "Don't tell me your fax machine is broken."
"I… I live for the Light," Mercer said, giving the traditional response. "Cardinal D'Orio, what an honor it is to speak with you."
"You're not going to speak, Brother. You're going to listen." D'Orio uttered a belch. "Pardon me. I know better than to drink Coca-Cola—it always gives me gas—but I love the stuff. Now, we have a report that one of the maledicti has established one of their infernal nests in your territory, Brother."
"I don't see how," Mercer said uneasily. "My predecessor eradicated the last of the demons some twenty years ago, did he not?"
"Your predecessor was a thief and a liar, but that's beside the point." D'Orio drank something. "You have the problem now. Capture what you can and burn the rest."
Kidnapping and arson, Mercer thought, all in the name of the Almighty. "Your Holiness, there may be some difficulty in carrying out your orders. I am prepared, naturally, but this cell has never been activated."
"Consider this your wake-up call, Mercer. I expect a full progress report in two days. Don't lose sight of the light." D'Orio hung up the phone.
Mercer pulled open his desk drawer and looked at the bottle of wine inside. He never drank here at the abbey, preferring to indulge himself away from the poor brothers under his care.
They didn't deserve to be exposed to the ugliness of his work. They'd done good things here, the sort of ordinary things that Mercer had once wished he could do.
They aren't like you, the ghost of his novitiate master in Rome whispered inside his skull. They're demons, and you were created to fight them.
Mercer knew what his mission had cost him. He'd lost his way—and almost his soul—trying to do the work and then forget the unspeakable things involved with what he'd done. But the work had to be done, and he had been chosen by God to do it. While he was convinced there was no heaven waiting for him after death, surely the majority of what he had done here would outweigh the bad and earn him purgatory.
He ran his fingers over the bottle's hand-printed label, and closed his eyes. "God help me. God help us all."
"More pink," Alexandra said as she looked around the beach house. "Holy Toledo. Is there some state law that says every other thing in Florida has to be pink?"
The men ignored her, but they had been doing that since they'd left New Orleans.
She wandered around the first floor of the light, airy house that had been provided for their use by some unnamed local ally of the Darkyn. To be fair, the house was not entirely pink; the decor included sea colors of blue, turquoise, and green to go along with artful touches of seashells and driftwood that accented the casual furniture. Large glass windows looked out over a long stretch private beach, and beyond that, the gently rolling surf of the Atlantic.
It should have been soothing, but something had been nagging at her since they'd left Louisiana. Alex couldn't quite put her finger on what it was, but it made her feel as if her temper—or something—was ready to snap.
"To think I would have sacrificed a limb to have a time-share like this two years ago." She stopped in the kitchen and checked the contents of the refrigerator, which had been stocked with four full shelves of bagged blood, wine, and the perishable medical supplies she'd sent ahead. At least they wouldn't have to hunt for willing donors while they were here. "What, no keggers?"
"Ale makes you vomit," Phillipe said as he carried her instrument bags into the room. "Do you wish me to place these in the cabinets or the drawers, Alexandra?"
"I'm not planning on operating on the countertop." She frowned. "Maybe we should set up one of the spare bedrooms as a treatment room, the way we did at Val's place in Chicago. Assuming we have a spare bedroom. Have we heard back from Val about them moving Luisa, and is she doing okay?"
"Ms. Lopez is now safely installed in a rehabilitation hospital, where the Kyn may watch over her. Suzerain Jaus says she is well." He stowed the cases in the large walk-in pantry and reemerged. "As for the bedchambers, there are three in addition to the master."
"A little smaller than what we're used to, huh? After rattling around in le mansion, though, it's kind of cozy." She followed him out to the front room, where Michael was still rattling off things in fast French to Gard Paviere. She cleared her throat. "Some people should speak English when the non-French person is in the room."
Philippe smothered a chuckle as he went back out to unload more luggage from the limousine.
Alex waited impatiently as Michael finished whatever he was telling Gard. After Paviere clasped Michael's hand between his, he gave her a short bow and left them alone. "You want to repeat all that in the only language I'm fluent in now?" she asked sweetly.
"No." Michael dragged a hand through his hair and looked around him as if seeing the room for the first time. "You do not like something that is pink, you said?"
"That was thirty minutes ago. I'm used to it now. Val has Luisa out of the hospital and into a Kyn rehab place, where she'll be safe." She flopped down on a wicker love seat upholstered with palm-leaf-patterned fabric. "When do we go meet with Dr. Doom? Do I have to dress up and be nice, the way I did with Val?"
"We will arrange a meeting for tomorrow night. You may wear whatever you wish." Michael sat beside her, his expression serious. "You go nowhere near Lucan unless I am with you."
"Not a problem," Alex assured him. She had no desire to be alone with the high lord's former chief butcher. "Does he know we're in town, or is this like a surprise inspection where we show up and shock the bejesus out of him?"
His beautiful mouth flattened. "He knows."
But not because you told him, she guessed. "Okay. Are you going to teach me to hunt other vampires, or whatever it is you do, this time? It took us forever to find Thierry in Chicago."
"You said you do not hunt."
"I don't hunt for necks to bite," she reminded him. "I'm okay with going after a prospective patient, as long as I don't have to treat him like a sippy cup." The mental image of having to feed on a leprous vampire made her wrinkle her nose. "Euuwww. I think I just grossed myself out."
"Alexandra, this will not be as it was in Chicago," he said, and put an arm around her. "Valentin has always been a friend, but more important, he accepts me as his seigneur. Lucan has been trying to kill me almost since we rose to walk the night."
"Boy, you two really don't like each other." The look in his eyes killed the chuckle rising in her throat. "You are kidding about him… really?"
"Lucan and I have fought in tourneys, on battlefields, and anywhere else it was necessary to prove ourselves. In every instance, I prevailed over him and won Richard's favor." He lifted her onto his lap. "He came to despise me for it."
"It's been a couple hundred years since you two hung together, right?" When Michael nodded, she rested her cheek on his shoulder and played with the ends of the silk handkerchief peeking out of the breast pocket of his jacket. "Maybe he's gotten over it. Even Darkyn grow up eventually, right?"
"When the first colonies in America were established, like so many of us Lucan wished to come here to begin his own jardin. Richard refused to release him from his service and chose to send me instead to New Orleans." He removed the clip holding her curls in a loose knot at the back of her head. "For Lucan, it was the final insult."
"Bitch-slapped down by the boss." Alex winced. "I bet he just loved that."
"Indeed, he did not." Briefly Michael's arms tightened around her. "He slaughtered the human servants I had left behind in France, and burned my estates to the ground."
"No way." She lifted her head to stare at him. "Is that what he was trying to do to Nurse Heather? Is that why he broke into the house in New Orleans?"
"I cannot say. All I know is this: you are my sygkenis, and that makes you a prize target for him," he warned. "If he can lure you or take you away from me, he will. By seduction or any other means."
She couldn't believe it. "All this because he couldn't beat you at swords, and you got the cushy overseas assignment that he wanted?"
"Yes." He spanned her jaw with his hand, using his thumb to trace the curve of her upper lip. "Now do you understand why I wish you to go nowhere near Lucan?"