“Are you thirsty?” Marco asked the brooding vampire.
Blake gave his captor the finger, but said nothing. Raniero shook his head. “Don’t be an idiot. The council’s on its way here, and you shouldn’t face them while you’re thirsty. It’s gonna be bad enough as it is.”
“Thanks for that advice,” Blake said, “but I’m not taking a damn thing from you.”
The two brothers looked at each other and shrugged. They remained quiet until their father joined them. “Open the cell door and leave us, both of you,” he told his eldest son. Marco gave him a questioning look, but did as he was told. He and Raniero went up to wait with their mother at the top of the stairs.
Aristes sat across the table from Blake and scowled at him. When the young vampire wouldn’t make eye contact, the clan chief sighed. “Tell me, Blake. How long have you been in love with Aramis?”
That got Blake’s attention. His eyes darted to Aristes’ and he went on the defensive. “I’m not in love with him. What the hell would make you think—”
Aristes raised an eyebrow. “Your pulse is racing. You’re nervous.”
“I’m not gay!” Blake shouted.
“You have nothing to fear from me. I have two sons who are gay. Is your father not… accepting?”
Blake scoffed. “Are you kidding me? My brother Galen announced that he was gay two Christmases ago. He disappeared that night and we’ve never heard from him since.”
“What?” Aristes asked.
“Yeah. I assume my father killed him.”
Aristes leaned over the table. “Do you have proof?”
Blake shrugged. “Besides the fact that Galen didn’t take any clothes, phone, computer or even his car when he left? Kinda suspicious, but whatever. There’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”
“What does Lilliana say about your brother?”
“Mom? She doesn’t say anything. She’s just there to look pretty and not question my father about anything.”
Aristes sighed, unsure how to continue. Galen Becker’s disappearance needed to be investigated immediately. And once Becker found out that his youngest son had betrayed his secret, Blake’s life was also in danger. They had to tread very carefully.
“I will not betray your secret to the council, Blake, but may I suggest that you tell them the absolute truth? Your crime carries a penalty of death, but your youth will be seen as a mitigating factor. The council may be persuaded to forgive your rash and foolish decision to frighten my son’s mate away. However, if you keep anything from them, or tell lies, you will be found out, and you will die.”
Blake didn’t answer. He was still trying to process Mr. Ambrogi’s words, “my son’s mate” and it wasn’t working. He cleared his throat and asked, “Aramis m-mated with Eliot?”
The chief nodded and desolation washed over Blake. It suddenly didn’t matter what the council did to him. All hopes of having the one he loved were gone. He’d tell the council everything, because if the council didn’t kill him, he’d find a way to do it himself.
The eldest Ambrogi boys and their mother sat around the kitchen table, worried at what they had just overheard. Aurelia shook her head slowly. “That poor boy. We cannot let Becker take him back.”
Marco nodded. “He’d be dead in two minutes. What’re we going to do?”
“Do about what?” Epifanio asked, poking his head through the door.
Aurelia gasped. “I thought you’d left.”
“Forgot to ask Dad something. Where is he?”
“Downstairs with Blake,” Marco said. “Not sure if you should bother him though.”
“It’ll be quick,” Epifanio answered, and took the cellar stairs two at a time. “Hey, dad. I forgot to ask you if—”
He stopped short at the sight of the young, red-haired vampire sitting across the table from his father. A strange sensation numbed his brain for a moment, until he could hear his father speaking to him.
“Epifanio, what do you need?”
“Er… yeah. Um. You said you’d cut me a check for the library fund last week, but I forgot, and I didn’t want to…” He stumbled forward and thrust his hand out to Blake. “I’m Epp.”
“Hi,” Blake said quietly and shook the offered hand.
Both vampires froze, white-knuckled, and Aristes’ eyebrows shot up. This didn’t bode well. He cleared his throat and Epifanio released Blake’s hand. The latter sank back into his chair, flexing his fingers as though he’d been shocked.
Aristes stood quickly and took his son by the arm. “May I speak with you upstairs?”
“Uh-huh,” he mumbled, eyes still locked on Blake.
His father switched his grip and took him by the collar, pushing him up the stairs. Without explaining to Aurelia, he continued on to his study and threw Epifanio into a chair. The young vampire was nearly catatonic until his father swatted the back of his head.
“Ow!” he cried, rubbing the injury. “What’d I do?”
“Excuse me?” his father asked. “I think you know what you did.”
Aurelia knocked on the door and Aristes said, “Please come in, my dear. You should hear this.”
“Hear what?” Epifanio barked in irritation.
“Your son,” Aristes explained to his perplexed wife, “has just done the unthinkable.”
“The unthinkable?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s found himself a mate.”
The stunning vampire’s eyes lit up and she turned to her son. “Oh my dear, that’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell me? Who is it?”
“Blake Becker,” Aristes replied blandly.
Aurelia blinked at her husband. “I’m sorry. Did you say—”
“Oh my God,” she groaned. “Epifanio, please tell me this is a joke.”
Epp looked at his mother and scowled. “‘Fraid not.”
She studied her son’s face and gasped. “No, apparently not. Look at those freckles!”
“Freckles?” Epp cried. He ran across the hall to the powder room and stared in the mirror. “Oh my shit! That’s what I get? Aramis gets a little patch of brown hair from Eliot and I get fucking freckles!”
Marco put an arm around his brother and smiled sympathetically. “Life is tough, little bro. And yours just got hard as cement.”
”Shh!” a voice hissed. “Don’t wake them up.”
“Oh shut up, Chia.” I recognized Blanca’s voice. “This is too good. We gotta tell them.”
Someone shook my shoulder. “Eliot. Hey, Eliot. Psst.”
I sat up with a start and my forehead smacked into something hard. “Ow!” cried Blanca. “That hurt!”
“Blanca,” Aramis growled. “What on earth are you doing in here?”
She flung herself onto the bed between Aramis and me and lay her head back on my pillow. Lucia sat on the edge of the bed, and put her hands up to get our attention. “You are never going to believe it.”
“The fact that you’re insane?” Aramis said. “Yes, I definitely believe that.”
“Shut up,” she said. “It’s important! Epp has found his mate.”
“Whoop-dee-doo,” Aramis droned.
“But you have to hear who it is!” Lucia whined, shaking her brother by the shoulders.
Aramis pushed her off and sat up. “Fine. I give. Who’d Epp shackle himself to?”
Blanca grinned evilly. “Blake Becker.”
I said nothing. Aramis said nothing. A bird chirped. Time passed. Finally Lucia verified the fantastic claim. “It’s true! Go ask mami. Everyone’s kinda freakin’ out.”
“Wait a minute,” Aramis snapped. “How the hell did this happen? I thought Blake was always hot for me.”
“What?” I cried, hopping out of bed. Immediately, I regretted this decision, since I was buck naked. The girls whooped with laughter and Aramis tossed me a pillow to cover myself with. I held it in front of me while he ushered his giggling sisters out the door.
He locked the door and turned to me, holding a hand out to defend himself. “I know you’re probably pissed, but all I meant was that I assumed Blake wanted me. He’d always acted strangely around me, but now that I think about it, he was even weirder whenever the whole family was around. He must have been picking up on Epp’s scent.”
I bit my lip and looked at my mate. “So, you don’t want Blake?”
Aramis shook his head and sighed. “Baby, I will never want anyone but you. I’ve never wanted Blake, even before I knew you existed. He’s a douche, and now that douche is gonna be family, and Epp’s father-in-law is the devil. This just got so much shittier than it already was. Come on. We’d better get cleaned up and dressed before mom comes looking for us. It’s almost time for dinner anyway.”
The feeling in the main house was tense, but everyone was trying to behave as normally as possible. Aurelia smiled widely when Aramis and I walked into the kitchen. “Oh, my boys. How are you?”
“Fine, mami,” Aramis said, kissing his mom’s forehead. “Fascinated by the latest gossip. Where’s Epp?”
“In the living room with his mate,” she replied with a raised eyebrow.
“You let Blake go?” I asked.
Aurelia shrugged. “It’s not like he’s going anywhere now. And I’m warning you now. You boys all better figure out how to get along with each other.”
“After what he did?” Aramis said through clenched teeth. His mother didn’t reply verbally, but her steely glare was enough of an inducement to agree to whatever she said. If she had looked at me that way and told me to stand in front of a subway train, I would have.
We went into the living room and found Epp sitting on the couch with his arm around Blake. Immediately, Epp hopped up, crouched in front of his soon-to-be mate and growled fiercely at us.
“Oh, sit down and put your bitch claws away,” Aramis said. He pulled me into a chair with him and added, “It’s all good. I got my mate and you got yours. And we forgive yours for being a royal douche.”
“Aramis!” His father walked into the room and glared at his sons. “This ends now.”
Aramis groaned. “Didn’t I just say it’s done? I’m serious. If anything, Blake helped me get Eliot sooner, so thanks, or whatever.”
Blake was perplexed. “Uh, you’re welcome?”
Mr. Ambrogi smiled and turned to me. “Eliot, there is someone to see you in my study. Come with me, please.”
I stood on shaking legs and followed him. He opened the door across the hall and I saw my father sitting in a leather chair in front of the fire.
“Dad!” I cried, and ran to him. He stood up just before I crashed into him and braced himself for the impact. I threw my arms around him and buried my face in his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Dad. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Honest! Are you okay?”
After he steadied himself, he squeezed back and kissed the top of my head. “I’m fine, Eliot. I’m fine. Well, not fine, really. I mean… are you… okay?”
I let him go and noticed Aramis behind me. I took him by the hand and said to my father, “I’m okay. And this is Aramis. My… mate.”
“Mate,” dad repeated. “As in… blood?”
Aramis and I both nodded and Aristes came to my rescue. “The boys have ritually mated, yes. Because of this, I think it best to have Eliot transfer to Belsmeade to finish his school year.”
“What? No!” I clenched my fists. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ambrogi, but I don’t want that. I have one semester to go, and I want to keep everything as normal as possible. Please, sir.”
He didn’t seem convinced. “And what happens if you lose your temper, Eliot? Or if you get thirsty? It could be very dangerous.”
I put on my best pout and said, “Please?”
Mr. Ambrogi sighed. “My God, you’re better at pouting than Blanca. Fine. As you wish. You can stay at that high school of yours. But at the first hint of trouble, you will have to transfer. And you must tell no one—and I do mean no one—of what has happened.”
I smiled. “I promise, I won’t, but, uh…” Turning to my dad, I smiled sweetly. “Dad? Since Aramis and I are kinda, ya know, together, can he move in with us?”
“Excuse me?” Dad asked with a scowl.
“Well, he’ll be at Belsmeade and I’ll be home and it’s really, really hard to be apart and it’s gonna suck enough—”
I heard Epp snort and start laughing in the other room, and then I heard someone smack him on the head. “Don’t be rude,” Aurelia snapped.
Epp said, “Ya know? I’m lucky I have any hair on that part of my head. You people are always hitting me!”
“Because you’re always an asshole,” Aramis called out to him.
“Basta!” Aristes barked. Then he turned to my father. “Please forgive my children, John. They can be somewhat uncouth.”
Dad nodded, but looked worried. I turned to Aramis. “Can Dad and I talk in private for a bit?”
Aramis looked bereft. “But, you don’t want me to stay too?”
“Please, Air. I need some time.” I could tell he didn’t like it, but he and his dad left the room and I sat in a chair opposite my father.
“So,” Dad said. “You’re feeling okay, after changing?”
“Surprisingly, I feel fine. Kinda weird to think about still, but too late to turn back now.”
He clenched his jaw. “Yes it is. God damn it, Eliot! What happened? You tell me you were going to a club in Boston and next thing I know some stranger calls me to tell me there’d been an accident. I panicked. I thought I’d lost you, bud. And then I found out that you’re…”
A tear dripped down his cheek and I moved to kneel at his feet. “Dad, I’m still here. It’s still me. I’m just a little… tougher to break now. But if you want to know, I’ll tell you everything.”
I went through the whole story, starting with meeting Aramis, all the way through the kiss that cost me my human life. He listened thoughtfully and asked a few questions now and then, until everything was told.
“But are you happy?” he asked.
“I am, Dad. I love Aramis and he loves me.”
He looked around at the luxurious furniture and shelves of old books and whistled. “Well, you’re certainly never want for anything, that’s for sure.”
“Love you, Dad,” I said.
“Love you, too, bud.”
There was a knock on the door and Aurelia peeked in. “We’re just about to have some dinner. Would you like to join us?”
“Dinner?” Dad asked. “You mean you—”
Aurelia laughed graciously. “My dear John, our family eats food just as humans do. We’re having pot roast this evening. Our cook is quite excellent.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m not used to all of this.”
“No reason to be sorry. You and your son will have to learn together, and we’ll all help you.”
The dining formal dining room was cavernous. The table sat sixteen, which was unfathomable to me. Blanca and Lucia flanked my father, and I could tell that he was trying to enjoy their attention without seeming like a creepy old man. They were two absolutely, spectacularly beautiful nineteen-year-old girls, while he was technically old enough to be their father.
I was distracted by my thoughts when the butler—by Christ, these people had a butler—came in and started pouring wine into the glasses around the table. He arrived at my chair and asked, “Would you care for some wine, sir?”
“Um… no. Just water.”
He smiled politely and continued around the table until everyone but the baby and I had their glasses filled. Aramis’ father stood and raised his glass. “A toast. To the new members of our family: Eliot, Blake and John. Welcome to the clan.”
Everyone took sips of their wine, so I sipped my water. When the thin, cold liquid hit my tongue, I coughed and sprayed it in a fine mist all over myself. I was so used to warm, thick blood, that the water—the most basic beverage on the planet—made me want to gag.
Aramis chuckled. “Sorry, babe. Forgot to tell you that everything’s going to taste really different now.”
“Even water?” dad asked.
“Even water,” I replied morosely. I sank down in my chair, trying to make myself invisible. Aristes snapped his fingers at one of the servants, who hurried over to wipe my mess off the table. The butler then miraculously appeared at my side with a bottle of red liquid. I took it and was amazed that it was warm.
“It’s synthetic,” Aramis said quietly. “It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but it’s better than water.”
I lifted the bottle and sniffed at it delicately. When I didn’t hurl at the smell, I decided to try it. I slowly tipped the bottle up and took a swallow. The taste was definitely not the sweet, savory flavor of my mate, but the texture was the same, and it had a rich, earthiness to it that made it enjoyable. I raised the bottle again and began to chug it, moaning at the buzz in my gut.
“Eliot!” my father snapped.
“What?” I asked indignantly.
“Mind your manners.”
I looked sheepishly at Aurelia, who waved my worries away. “It will of course be hard for you to control your thirst. Have as much as you’d like.”
I really liked Aramis’ mom.
The butler brought me another bottle and announced, “The council has arrived, sir. Shall I show them into the study?”
“No need,” said a voice from the hall.
The door opened and eight vampires strode into the room. Six were men, all equally as handsome and distinguished-looking as Aristes. There were also two women. One of them was hanging on the arm of one of the male vamps. The second, younger female was… staring directly at my father with a look of utter disbelief. My father returned her gaze, with the addition of a slack jaw and a weird choking, rattling sound coming from his throat.
Dad shot from his chair and thrust his hand out to her. “John Berenz,” he told her.
The dark-haired beauty took Dad’s hand and stuttered, “N-nice to meet you. I’m Benita de Sorbino.” They didn’t release each other’s hands, but stood staring dumbly at one another.
Marco raised an eyebrow and asked, “Well, what have we here?”
Raniero shook his head in disbelief. “This place is turning into the Love Boat.”
Marco’s comment had the effect of a bucket of cold water on my father and Benita. They jumped back from each other and both smiled nervously. I looked at Aristes, who was massaging his temples with his thumb and forefinger. Something was definitely up.
Epifanio offered, “Maybe it’s the water. Blake, did you drink any water when you got here?”
Blake couldn’t answer before Nero laughed and said, “Damn. If it’s the water, give me some.”
He took my water glass and drank what remained in it. Epp said, “Keep it away from the girls, dude. We have their honor to consider.”
Lucia shot him the finger and Aurelia slapped her hand down on the table. “Enough!” she shouted. After she’d regained her composure, she stood and went to the group of vampires who were staring in horror at the scene around them.
Aristes stood and said, “Count Corleanni, it’s wonderful to see you again. It has been far too long.”
I giggled and whispered to Aramis, “A count? Really?”
He nodded, but remained silent. The count flicked his eyes to me, but looked back to Aristes. “Ah, Ambrogi. It has indeed been too long. I see your children are as… energetic as ever.”
Aurelia smiled graciously, “You are too kind.”
“Signora Ambrogi, it is a pleasure to see you again,” replied the Count in a thick accent. He bowed to Aristes and kissed Aurelia’s hand. “You remember the Countess?”
“Countess,” Aristes replied, kissing her hand. I thought I saw Aurelia flinch.
The countess laughed, “Oh, Aristes! No need to be so formal. And Aurelia, how do you stay so beautiful at your age?”
Aramis’ mother bristled at the implied insult, but her smile remained fixed. “With a mate who loves me and my children by my side, it’s easy.”
Aristes stood in the middle of the two feuding vamps, looking like a man at a mark. I figured there was a history there, and it was ugly. The count saw the tension and shot his wife a look that would have made me shit my pants. The Countess backed off. Then, the Count turned to me.
We all stood up, and I swallowed hard. The ancient vamp’s eyes flashed white, asserting his superiority over me. I understood the meaning and nodded almost imperceptibly. Count Corleanni smiled and said, “So, you are Eliot?”
“And this is your father?”
Dad walked around the table and extended his hand. “John Berenz. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Count Corleanni.”
“Likewise,” replied the count, shaking Dad’s hand. “May I introduce my wife, Bella?”
“Countess,” Dad said. He followed Aristes’ lead and kissed the back of her hand. I could tell the Count was impressed by Dad’s manners and I was relieved. After all, Dad was the only human in the room.
After the exchange, I noticed my father subtly shifting sideways to stand next to Benita. I opened my mouth to say something, but Aristes cut me off. “And your brothers, Count. It is indeed a pleasure.” The other strange vampires nodded, but made no attempt to introduce themselves. Aristes continued, “I must inform you of a… development in the circumstances around young Eliot’s transformation.”
“Developments?” the count asked skeptically.
A low grumbling came from somewhere in the room. It grew in intensity, and we all looked at Epp. His eyes were black and he shoved Blake behind him. He bared his fangs and spoke in a harsh, feral voice. “Don’t touch him,” he warned the count. “He’s mine.”
Everyone gasped. Challenging the head of the Council was apparently a huge no-no. The countess put a hand to her breast as though she’d been slapped. The count’s eyes were wide in disbelief at the outrageous behavior. I wondered what would happen next, until Blake put his hand on Epp’s arm.
“Calm down, Epp,” he said. His mate straightened and nodded. Blake went to stand in front of the count and admitted, “It was my fault that Eliot went to Artery that night. Aramis had nothing to do with it.”
“Why did you break our laws?” the count asked.
Blake thought for a moment. “I-I was jealous. You see, I’d known I was gay for many years, but because of my father… I had to hide it. When Aramis found Eliot, I could tell they were mates, and Aramis was so happy and I was miserable.”
One of the count’s brothers spoke up. “Yours is an offense punishable by death.”
“No!” Epp cried, and tried to grab Blake. Nero and Marco held him back.
The count glared at Epp. “You have tested my patience once, Epifanio. Do not let it happen again.”
Aurelia clutched her husband’s hand, evidently terrified that her son was about to be killed for his disobedience. Aristes smiled at her sadly, then addressed the count. “Of course, your Grace, we do not dispute the laws of the Council. However, I ask you to consider to what Blake has to say.”
“Speak,” the count said to Blake.
He glanced at Aristes, and then to the Council. “My father has always been clear about his hatred of homosexuals. Two years ago, my brother Galen announced to my parents that he was gay. That night, he disappeared without a trace. He left everything behind.” He glanced back at Epp, then squared his shoulders and said, “I am officially accusing my father of killing my brother Galen.”
“Oh my God,” Aurelia breathed.
The count studied Blake thoughtfully. “How does this excuse your actions toward Eliot?”
Blake sighed. “I’d always thought I was attracted to Aramis, thought he might have been my mate. So when he found his real mate, I was so mad that I took it out on Eliot. Then Aramis challenged me for being nasty to Eliot, and of course I lost. But Aramis’ phone dropped out of his pocket, and well, you know what I did.”
“Yes,” the count said. “But it still does not excuse you.”
“No, sir,” Blake admitted. “It doesn’t. I deserve whatever punishment you deem appropriate. Even if it means death.”
Epp whimpered and the count looked up. “Come here, Epifanio.” The miserable vampire walked slowly to his mate’s side. Blake took his hand and Epp seemed to calm a little. The count looked confused.
Aristes explained, “It turns out that Blake and my son, Epifanio, are fated to be together. You can see how things are complicated. Blake’s feelings for Aramis were just displaced longing for my other son.”
“Oh, what a mess,” the count said.
“Trust me,” Blake said. “I know.”
Epifanio fell to his knees and begged, “Please, Count Corleanni. Please don’t take him away from me!”
The count’s brother spoke again. “He should die.”
Epp stood and looked at him, “Then you’ll have to kill me, too.”