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Otis’s eyes bulged even further, if such a thing were possible, his throat working as he fought to scream. Duncan’s power reached out and simply stopped his heart from beating.
Nelson scooted aside, brushing his khaki pants fastidiously as Otis crumbled into a pile of greasy dust. “Uh, shall I—” he fumbled to say. “I mean is it okay—”
“By all means, Nelson,” Duncan said cheerfully. “Feel free to vacuum, and remember, if you need anything, call. But, know this. I keep track of my people, and I know what’s going on in my territory.”
“Yes, my lord. I won’t disappoint you.”
“I know. One last question, did Victor come here often?”
Nelson gave him a blank look. “Victor, my lord? He was never here, that I know of, and I’ve been at this house almost every night for two years.”
Duncan nodded. “As I suspected. Thank you, Nelson. Miguel, we’re leaving.”
With the humans gone, it took far less time to get out of the house than it had to get in. Someone snapped the music off as Duncan made his way through the den, and the silence was deafening. The house was still crowded, but with kneeling vampires who inched aside, clearing a path with bowed heads, murmuring their allegiance as Duncan walked past.
At some point in the future, he’d come back here, more than once if he lasted that long—and he had every intention of lasting a very long time. He wanted to know the vampires in his territory. Wanted to know the lives he held in his hands. But tonight he had other, more pressing business.
Duncan stepped out of the overheated house and lifted his face, welcoming the brush of cold air over his skin as he drew a deep breath. His security people waited, standing all around him with infinite patience.
“How far to Victor’s house, Louis?” he asked.
“Half an hour, my lord. No more.”
“Then, that’s where we’re going next.”
* * *
The SUVs raced down the dark roads, the people of Leesburg safely tucked away behind the walls of their houses, not knowing that vampires were speeding by in the dead of night. The convoy turned off the main road and passed through a well-lit neighborhood of neat, modern homes before leaving the lights behind once again. Victor’s house—now Duncan’s—was a few miles beyond, down a two-lane road with wide, grassy fields to either side. A spacious home was perched in the middle of each of those fields, well away from the road and up on a low hillside, as if to better gaze down upon their less fortunate neighbors.
The address Duncan and his people sought was down a sharp turn to the right, and then a long driveway ending in a square of neatly trimmed spruce trees, growing tightly together to create a barrier against casual observation. The driveway split through the trees to reveal a sprawling white clapboard house, with an old-fashioned covered porch along the entire front face. A single chimney and multiple peaked roofs made it look like a farmhouse on steroids.
Duncan had no sooner taken in the sight of the house, than Louis was jumping from the still-moving vehicle, snapping commands into his headset. The trailing SUV raced past, leaving muddy tracks on the perfectly maintained green lawn as it swerved around and back onto the driveway, tires squealing as it skidded to a stop in front of Duncan’s SUV.
“Miguel, what—” Duncan started, then saw the car parked to one side of the huge house. Damn her. “No one touches her, Miguel,” he said tightly. “Let me out of here.”
“Out, Miguel. Now.”
He heard her voice before he saw her. Standing on the front porch, waiting for them like she owned the place, was Emma, the thorn in his side. Despite himself, he grinned, thinking it might well be worth a few scratches for a taste of Emma Duquet.
His people ushered her off the porch and away from the house, surrounding her with a wall of impenetrable vampire bulk. Obedient to his orders, no one touched her, but they didn’t give her a choice, either. She either moved, or she would be crushed.
Duncan gestured, telling his vamps to fade back, and then he waited, knowing she’d never be able to remain silent.
“What?” she demanded, meeting his calm stare.
“Why are you here, Emma?”
“Probably the same reason you are,” she snapped.
“How did you know where we were going?”
“Hey, I work in this town. I have sources, too.” Her lips were pinched defiantly as she glared up at him, her violet eyes silvering in the new moon’s light. She shuddered suddenly, and he realized she wasn’t wearing anything but the hooded sweatshirt she’d put on back home.
“You’re cold,” he murmured and shrugged off his leather jacket, wrapping it around her shoulders before tucking her against his body and rubbing his hands up and down her back. She shivered again, almost violently, burying her face against his chest.
“Emma,” he said quietly against her ear. “What if someone had been waiting for you here?”
She spoke without raising her head, clutching his jacket closer. “The house is empty. I already checked it out through the windows.”
“You couldn’t have known it would be empty,” he said, exasperated. “And you still don’t. Just because you didn’t see anyone—”
“But you said,” she shuddered once, hard, then grew still, as if her body had expressed its displeasure with the cold temperature one final time before admitting it was now warm. “You said Victor was gone.”
“He is, but there were others involved, and we know nothing about them yet. It’s not safe for you to be here, certainly not alone.”
“But you’re here now.” She looked up, giving him big eyes, as if that could fool him into believing her innocent. “You’ll keep me safe, won’t you?”
“You’d have been safe if you’d stayed home, as I asked.”
“Well, I’m here now.” Her voice sharpened, and he almost smiled. He’d known she couldn’t keep up the wide-eyed façade for long.
Duncan ran his hands up and down her arms, as if still trying to warm her, using it as an excuse to delay—and to think. He didn’t want Emma anywhere near whatever Victor may have done in this house. The knowledge alone could be dangerous. But he understood all too well her need to know the truth about Lacey’s disappearance, her need to do something.
“You know, Emma,” he whispered, feeling her grow still as she listened to him. “I could take away your memories of this entire evening and send you home none the wiser.”
She drew back from him with a jerk, searching his face. “I’d never forgive you if you did that.”
“You’d never know. There’d be nothing to forgive.”
“I’d know,” she said firmly.
Duncan did smile then. She was stubborn as a mule, this one.
“I’ll be perfectly quiet. I promise,” she wheedled, clearly sensing his weakening resolve.
Duncan sighed. “Very well. But you will remain right by my side. And you will do whatever I say when I say it, no arguments.”
“As long as it’s nothing ridiculous,” she muttered.
“You know what I mean. If you tell me to bark like a dog or something, I’m not doing it.”
Duncan laughed and hugged her tightly before letting her go. “Very well. No barking.”
“Do you want this back,” she said, making a halfhearted move toward pulling the jacket off.
Duncan stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Keep it. You should have worn something warmer.”
“I didn’t have time. I wanted to get here before you guys, so I grabbed my keys and ran.”
“Maybe you should keep a jacket in your car. You know, for your next close pursuit.”
She gave him a quizzical glance, as if trying to figure out if that was a joke or not.
Duncan let her wonder. He took her hand and headed for the front door. “Remember your promise, Emma. What I say, when I say it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Your wish is my command and all that.”
“If only it were that simple.”
Miguel sent two of the security detail around to check the house from the outside. The others accompanied Duncan, most of them going in ahead of him.
Duncan scanned the front of the house as he approached, searching the many windows, although he wasn’t certain what he was looking for. That bad feeling Miguel had talked about was getting worse by the moment, and he already regretted letting Emma stay. He should have wiped her mind and sent her home. Forget what she’d said about remembering. He was very good at what he did, and she wouldn’t have remembered a thing. The problem was it felt wrong to do that to Emma. That didn’t make any sense to him, but something in his mind—or his heart—told him to be honest with her, or he’d regret it later.
Miguel held back a few moments, letting the security team go ahead. Lights soon came on inside, dimmed severely. It was the kind of lighting a vampire would prefer, and the hell with whatever human guests might be joining him. Typical Victor. But Duncan was glad for it, because he could already detect the unmistakable scent of old blood. A lot of it. And if that much blood had been spilt in this house, he didn’t want the glare of bright lights distracting him from whatever his other senses might have to tell him.
He walked through the doorway with Emma, who squeezed his hand tightly despite her earlier brave words. He took three slow steps and stopped, nearly crushed as his empathic senses were inundated by the pain and fear saturating every wall, every floorboard, every damn inch of this house.
“Emma,” he said in a strained voice. “Go back to your car.”
Her head whipped around. “Duncan?”
“Now, Emma, please. Miguel, have someone stay with her.” His lieutenant moved to take Emma’s arm, and Duncan added, “Gently, Miguel.”
“Duncan?” Emma repeated, her voice trembling with uncertainty. She might not have his exquisite sensibilities, but she wouldn’t need them to know something was wrong.