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Miguel sized the guards up as they did the same to him. None of them gave any indication of their thoughts, not even a twitch of a muscle. But Duncan knew the two human guards were both troubled and puzzled by Miguel, sensing there was something different about him, but not knowing what. They didn’t know yet that Miguel and Duncan were both Vampire. Not yet.
Miguel handed over Duncan’s invitation—well, Victor’s invitation, but it was Duncan’s now. He smiled grimly at the thought, even as he watched the guard’s eyes widen when he read the name. The human stiffened, did a quick reappraisal of Miguel, then shot a glance at Duncan who met his gaze calmly.
“Gentlemen,” Duncan said finally. He put a little punch of power into it, tired of being forced to wait on the porch like an unwelcome solicitor.
The guard nearest the inside door jumped at the reminder. Regardless of his feelings about vampires, Duncan was an invited guest at a party where only the most powerful were welcome. The guard pushed the door open and stepped aside, pressing himself against the wall to avoid accidentally brushing against Duncan as he went by. Duncan smiled in amusement, wondering what the man feared. Did he think vampirism was contagious? That if he touched Duncan, he’d turn into a slavering animal? But, no, the guard was broadcasting his emotions like a brass band. He was terrified, but not of catching a disease. He was afraid of Duncan himself, as if Duncan was a wild animal who could turn at any moment and rip out his throat for no reason. Duncan sighed inwardly. The man was a fool, but educating misinformed humans wasn’t his purpose here this evening.
He entered the crowded townhouse, and immediately winced at the level of noise. Directly in front of him was a dark hallway, and to the right of that a narrow staircase that twisted up beneath the low ceiling. A few people lingered on the stairs, as if caught going up or down, but most of the guests he could see were in a drawing room to one side. A fireplace gave the room a welcome feel, but it was hardly necessary to add any heat. Not with all those people standing about and talking nonstop. There were more people upstairs; he could hear them talking and laughing. More oppressive than the noise, though, was the press of emotion from too many minds in a singularly confined space.
Duncan kept his face carefully impassive, but it was an effort. This was a large home, as such things went, and perhaps with fewer people it would have seemed more spacious. But as it was, Duncan felt as if he was being squeezed from all sides by humans who maintained a steady stream of dialogue, but had very little to say.
“Ambassador Milford?” A woman’s voice calling his last name drew him out of his thoughts. He looked up to see an elegantly dressed matron coming his way, her very high heels making tinny tapping noises on a checkered marble floor that reminded him of the courtyard in front of what used to be Alexandra’s house in Malibu. The human woman drew closer, her curious gaze never leaving his face. She was attractive for her age and fashionably thin, with the perfect smile of a professional hostess.
“We received word you would be joining us, Ambassador.”
Duncan inclined his head. “Madam . . .” he said leadingly.
“Forgive me,” she said, and laughed as she drew close enough to extend a hand. “Margery Whitlow. I’m delighted to meet you.”
Duncan took her hand and squeezed carefully, feeling the movement of fragile bones beneath his fingers. “Mrs. Whitlow, of course,” he said, remembering the name of the hosting couple from Victor’s invitation.
“Oh, call me Margery,” she said, and laughed again. She had a refreshingly genuine laugh, not something one usually encountered at parties like this, Duncan thought.
“Mrs. Whitlow is so stuffy,” she added. Her glance strayed to Miguel, but she didn’t say anything, clearly dismissing him as one more bodyguard. “Senator Grafton was most intrigued when I told him your staff had called. None of us knew Victor was leaving. It must have been quite sudden.”
“It was,” Duncan said noncommittally.
Margery paused for a moment, probably expecting him to offer an explanation. When none was forthcoming, however, she recovered deftly. “You have your work cut out for you, settling into a new post on such short notice. It was good of you to make time for us.”
“On the contrary, Margery,” Duncan said. He deliberately laced his words with a touch of seduction, and sensed the little rush of excitement she felt when he said her name. “There is a lot to do at the house, but houses can always wait,” he said smoothly. “I’m very pleased at this opportunity to meet Senator Grafton—and yourself, of course.”
Margery flushed with pleasure, and Duncan smiled.
“Margery!” An over-perfumed woman emerged from one of the side rooms, her arms held out in embrace. “I missed you when we came in.”
Margery pulled away from Duncan with obvious reluctance, her gaze lingering on his face even as her body turned to greet the other woman. “Gloria,” she gushed with totally faked enthusiasm. “How long has it been, darling?”
Duncan took advantage of the distraction to move in among the other guests. Miguel lingered near the doorway as Duncan glided from cluster to cluster of humans, picking up names and tidbits of gossip, introducing himself, and charming the locals. He was good at this sort of thing, much better than Raphael, and his Sire would be the first to admit it. Raphael at his most humble and charming was still massively intimidating. He couldn’t help it; it was simply who he was. Duncan, on the other hand, had the ability to lull the humans into forgetting what he was.
He was deep in conversation with the wife of a famous French author, modestly accepting her compliments on his impeccable accent, when Margery touched his elbow.
“Ambassador,” she said eagerly. “I’ve been neglecting you. Come. You must meet Senator Grafton. He’s in the main room upstairs.”
She laced her arm through his and pulled him toward the stairway. Miguel stiffened, but Duncan caught his eye and waved him off. With some vampires, her familiarity could have been fatal, but Duncan was too used to humans to be offended. Besides, Margery wasn’t a bad person as far as he could tell. Her strongest feelings toward him were curiosity laced with lust, which was partly his own fault.
She released his arm when they reached the stairs, which were simply too narrow for such intimacy. Duncan followed her at a discreet distance, Miguel ghosting behind him like a shadow. He had reached the twist in the staircase when another man came into view, heading the opposite direction. He had a ruddy face that spoke of too much booze on too many nights, and he was carrying a crystal tumbler of amber liquid that sloshed recklessly as he started downward. Duncan could smell the peaty scent of Scotch beneath the stink of sweat. The man looked up and saw Duncan coming towards him. He nearly stumbled in such obviously shocked recognition that there was no doubt he knew who Duncan was. Duncan studied his face in return, noting the crude features and scarred visage of an athlete whose best years were behind him.
“Miguel?” He queried his lieutenant on a narrow telepathic thread. Miguel was his child. This close the other vampire was like an extension of Duncan himself.
“Congressman Dean Kerwin, my lord.”
Interesting, Duncan thought. And the man was nervous at seeing Duncan. He nodded at the Congressman, as if he knew who he was, more for the pleasure of seeing the man’s nervous jerk of surprise than anything else.
“There you are,” Margery caroled as he stepped onto the second floor. “I keep losing you.” She hooked her arm through his again and drew him over to one corner of yet another narrow room, this one with thankfully far fewer people in it.
“Max,” she said, closing in on a pair of men deep in conversation. “This is Ambassador Milford.”
Max Grafton was a small, compact man with a sharp-featured face and intelligent eyes. And unlike Congressman Kerwin, Grafton was completely sober. The champagne flute in his left hand was artfully drained to half-full, but there was not a hint of alcohol scent about him. He turned away from his companion and extended his right hand to Duncan in greeting.
“Ambassador,” he said smoothly, his voice surprisingly deep for a man his size.
“Senator,” Duncan replied, giving him the requisite hardy handshake.
“Thank you, Margery,” Grafton said in obvious dismissal of their hostess.
Margery made a slight sound of protest that no one but a vampire would have heard, then smiled brightly and turned to Duncan. “I hope we’ll speak again later, Ambassador.”
On a whim of gentility, Duncan took her fingers and lifted them to his lips, lightly kissing the back of her hand. “It would be my pleasure, Margery,” he said letting the slow honey of his Southern upbringing flavor the words.
Margery raised the hand he’d kissed to her flushed cheek. “Oh, my,” she said. “You’re one of those charming Southern boys. I’ll have to warn the ladies.” She laughed again in that delighted way, then hurried off on her high heels.
Duncan turned in time to see a sour look flash across Grafton’s face, before it was quickly erased. “Brad,” Grafton said to his companion. “Give us a moment, will you?”
“Of course,” the man said and wandered across the hall to yet another drawing room filled with people.
“So,” Grafton said, drawing Duncan’s attention. “Duncan Milford, is it? I don’t think Victor ever used a last name.”
Duncan couldn’t think of anything to say to that rather inane comment, so he remained silent, studying the human in front of him and wondering at the hostility he could feel rolling off the good senator. He decided on a frontal assault. “Victor spoke highly of you, Senator,” he said. It was a lie, of course. Victor hadn’t spoken to Duncan about anyone, nor would he ever again, but Duncan was curious to see what Grafton’s reaction would be.
The senator grew very still, those intelligent eyes searching Duncan’s face as if hoping for a clue of some sort. Not that he’d find one.
“Did he?” he said finally. “I wouldn’t have expected my name to come up at all.”