Light from the neon sign above illuminated Andreas's face in a pale red glow. His gaze traced the sweeping cursive letters of the sign reading, La Rose Rouge. A line bled out from the "e" at the end of Rouge and curved beneath the letters to form a rose where a single petal hung ready to fall, though to him, it resembled more closely a drop of blood.
He knew this restaurant from his sister, Adrienne's, stories of it, and he knew the secrets it hid. Considered one of Chicago's most elite places to dine and drink, he had made his reservation a month earlier. Each day since, it dwelled on his mind what it would be like when he finally walked through the double brass doors.
Would Renart Bellerose, the owner, be there? And if Renart was, would Andreas be able to maintain enough control to continue his plan, or would pain seize him to where he'd rush Renart in a futile attempt to smash the beast's fangs with his fists?
Andreas took a deep breath to calm the fury and eagerness the last thought ignited. He couldn't allow his emotions to control him. He knew what the outcome would be if he challenged Renart as he was now. He needed to maintain his composure and follow his plan...regardless if now that he was standing on the threshold, it seemed impossibly weak.
A chill shook Andreas. Another man walked by, so close the other's arm brushed his. As the man strode toward the doors, he glanced back. Andreas looked into the man's eyes, his breath catching at their loveliness. At a quick glance, they seemed gray in color, but looking into them longer, Andreas saw they were a true silver hue. The man's platinum blond hair captured the moonlight, shining like white gold. As he turned forward and disappeared into the restaurant, Andreas caught the flicker of a smirk on his lips.
The comfortable way he walked into La Rose Rouge betrayed what he was. True, he could simply be very wealthy and enjoy being seen in one of the most exclusive restaurants in town, but the way Andreas's sixth sense screamed in warning said the other was there for the actual reason the restaurant existed; to allow his kind to gather, sipping blood from crystal glasses while eyeing the humans who dined in obliviousness to the danger so close. Without doubt the man was a vampire.
He'd never actually been around or met a vampire, or at least, he wasn't aware he had. Adrienne said they were masters of blending in with society, and all his knowledge of them came from her. In a way, he couldn't help but admire them. From the things Adrienne told him, they were one of nature's most elegant and efficient predators, not so much different than a lion slinking through tall grass unseen by a herd of gazelle. Vampires only did what nature meant for them to do; he understood that, but it still didn't ease his pain over Renart unleashing that instinct on his older sister.
Adrienne's image flashed through Andreas's mind. She always allowed the long curls of her black hair to fall wherever they would, giving her a carefree, almost wild beauty. And wild was something she certainly could be. Whether it was standing on the edge of a bridge ready to bungee jump or defending him from a bully when he was in school, Adrienne was fearless. She even faced death alone, though she shouldn't have had to face it for many more years. And that was why he was here.
Andreas's fingers balled into a fist. He marched for the doors. He stepped inside, and a smiling young woman moved to greet him. Andreas wondered if she was human or vampire. Something inside him said she was human. Or could she be one of their servants? A minion of some sort? Either way, a vampire probably wouldn't lower herself to acting as a hostess in a restaurant, so he decided she wasn't a risk to him.
The woman's smile waned as she gave him a wary look. Andreas realized his anger at Renart must still be lingering on his visage and mentally chastised himself for his lack of control. He summoned his most charming smile for her.
"Do you have a reservation, sir?" she asked.
"I do. It's under Nikandros." Andreas smoothed his pale blue button-down shirt and flicked his hand at nonexistent lint on his black pants, feigning patience while she opened a ledger to check for his name.
She inclined her head in acknowledgment and turned to show him into the restaurant. "Would you prefer the bar or the restaurant, Mr. Nikandros?"
Andreas followed her through an arched doorway. "The bar, please."
Dark red carpeting flowed before him, and he couldn't help but think the color had been wisely chosen. Round wooden tables covered in white linen and booths of cream colored leather seats filled the space. Small chandeliers hung down from the cathedral ceiling, their light causing tiny rainbows to dance off the walls trimmed in a gold leaf border. To the far right on a half circle stage, a string quartet played Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
Andreas noticed eyes turning from conversations and meals to him, many holding open appreciation, others a hunger beyond physical attraction. He was used to being looked at in the first way. His medium build lined in fine musculature, his hair of loose black curls, eyes of blue-gray, and delicate facial features provided him many admirers. Though in this place, being an attractive human was like being an injured gazelle within a lion's sight.
Andreas followed the hostess as she turned to the left, leading him through another arched doorway to the bar. The dark wood floors and walls made the space feel warmer than the cool formality of the restaurant. It also allowed for darker shadows.
The hostess departed, and Andreas headed for the long bar. As he reached for a stool, a hand clapped down on his shoulder. He turned, and though he considered himself fairly tall at six feet, his eyes were only level with the chin of the man beside him. Andreas was positive the guy wasn't a vampire, though he might be an ogre, if such things existed. At this point, with how his vision of "the real world" had been shaken, he didn't doubt the existence of anything.
Andreas tipped his head back to look into the man's eyes, and with a backhanded slap to the other's wrist, knocked the beefy hand from his shoulder. "Hands off."
The large man reached for him again, snatching him by the upper arm. "My boss wants a word with you."
Andreas stared at the man in disbelief. He'd been in the restaurant for less than five minutes, and already he had caught Renart's attention? The guard started walking, leaving Andreas no choice but to go with him. From the guard's purposeful march, Andreas guessed their destination was a booth taking up a back corner that allowed for a clear view through the doorway to see all who entered the restaurant.
His gaze fell on the man occupying the booth, and he knew from his sister's descriptions he was Renart. With his dark brown hair pulled back in a tight, short queue, his sharp, raptor-like features were pronounced. Andreas couldn't deny Renart was attractive, but there was an aura around him enhancing Renart's physical appearance. The vampire sat with an air of complete control, power, and dominance.
The guard brought Andreas to a halt at the table's edge. Andreas watched Renart's deep brown eyes move over him. He chanced glancing away from Renart to the group gathered round the booth: three males, two females. The predatory look in their eyes gave them away for what they were, and also, he didn't think Renart would flank himself with humans. Two of the males stood side by side whispering to each other. Watching them, a tremor of unease went through Andreas.
Neither of the two males looked like they could be far beyond twenty years-old, or in actuality, couldn't have been older than that when Turned. One had a purposely messy cut to his brown hair, the other wore his blond hair in a short, neat style. The brown-haired one had features rugged and angular, but no less handsome than the softer face of the blond. Andreas's gaze darted back to Renart when he caught movement from him.
Renart leaned his cheek on his fist, an amused smirk on his lips. "I know who you are, and I can make a guess as to what you're doing here, Andreas Nikandros."
Andreas steeled himself against the sound of Renart's voice, deep, smooth, and tinted with a French accent. How many times had Adrienne said the sound of Renart's voice alone was enough to melt her? Now having heard it, he understood better.
Andreas adopted a posture of arrogance and let out an indignant snort. "I would hope you could figure it out since I used my real name to make my reservation, and my purpose for being here should be fairly easy to guess considering this is a restaurant."
Renart's smirk broadened. "Not only is your scent similar to your sister's, but your sharp tongue is also. That was one of my favorite things about her and all the various ways she was skilled with in using it."
Andreas stared at him in cold silence.
"Ah, but that was before her tragic death," Renart continued, his voice nonchalant. "And now here you are, her distraught little brother coming before me on some misguided sojourn for revenge. I am correct, no? That is why you're here."
Andreas fought to control the muscles in his face from contorting with rage and maintained a neutral expression as he looked into Renart's eyes. "Actually, I'm looking for a master."
Renart let out a chuckle. "Are you now? Why does that sound so very unbelievable considering I know how dear you were to Adrienne, and I gather your feelings toward her were the same."
Andreas shrugged. "I warned her more than once that if you play with vampires you're bound to get bit. But she didn't listen, and now she's gone because of it. I don't have the same delusions she did, thinking she could make a beast like you love her. I know what I'm walking into, and I can handle it." On his final word, Andreas fought to not put a hand over his heart to calm the hurt from speaking of his sister in such a way.
"Oh, you're good." Renart sat forward and placed his hands on the table. All amusement vanished from his expression. "But I can smell your pain with every word you spit out. And while this display is mildly entertaining, I can't continue to breathe in that sweet scent you carry just like hers." Without taking his gaze from Andreas, Renart flicked his hand toward the brown-haired male. "Troy, take this toy out back and instill in him the importance of never returning here again."
Andreas lunged for Renart. He hardly twitched forward before Troy and the blond male snatched his arms. He felt their sharp fingernails, already grown into their predatory claws, sink through the thin fabric of his shirt and into his skin. Knowing that struggling would only attract the attention of other vampires, Andreas silently glared at Renart, and then walked as the vampires pulled him toward the back of the bar and through a swinging door to the storeroom. One of the females squeezed between them and the rows of shelves holding bottles of wine and various alcohols to a steel door. She shoved it open a fraction of a second before he was thrown toward it.
Andreas stumbled into the alley, reeling to catch his balance. He whirled around. A fist smashed into the side of his mouth. The force knocked him to the side and the ground. He landed hard, his body rigid with shock and pain.
Andreas struggled to suck in a breath, then lost the little bit of air he gained when a sharp-toed boot slammed into his ribs. He curled his body into a ball. Through his pain, laughter deafened him. Andreas lay still, waiting for the next strike to come. His mind moved far too sluggishly in forming a plan for escape, and it seemed fixated on one thought: he'd failed.
A voice broke through his thoughts and over the laughter.
"Children, children, look what you've done."
The laughter ceased.
The rich baritone spoke again. "Clearly you're undeserving of such a fine treat."
Andreas sensed the other vampires moving away from him. He opened his eyes to see them standing in a cluster near the wall of the restaurant, their gazes fixed beyond him. He couldn't help but think they resembled a pack of hyenas when forced to bow to a lion, unable to do anything but watch as their prey was stolen from them.
Andreas felt a presence standing over him. A hand touched his shoulder and pushed him onto his back. Andreas's gaze traveled up long legs clad in black pants to a steel-gray silk shirt and over each button to the top where two were open to reveal ivory skin. He looked at the slender jaw, the high cheekbones framed with platinum-blond hair, and met the silver stare of the other.
Troy took two quick steps forward. "Back off, Calidus! He's ours!"
The blond vampire snatched Troy by the arm, muttering under his breath. "Troy, no. No one's allowed to call Lord Titus that." His voice dipped lower, though Andreas still caught him mumbling the word "ancient."
Troy shook off the other's grip. "I know who he is, Isaac, and I don't give a shit. That piece is ours!"
Titus looked up from Andreas to Troy. With fluid grace, he stood, his gaze locked on Troy. Even without the gaze focused on him, Andreas could feel the lethal threat radiating from Titus.
Troy slunk back toward the door. "Don't think I won't tell Lord Renart about this."
"I'd be grateful for the favor," Titus said.
Troy backed through the door, Isaac and his companions mimicking his movements.
Titus kept his gaze on the door until it closed, then brought it back to Andreas. "And now for you." He bent over him and dipped the fingers of one hand into Andreas's hair near his temple, drawing them through the curls. "Let's get a better look at you."
Titus slipped his hands under Andreas's arms and, with the ease of lifting a small child, hauled him to his feet. He spun Andreas around, holding him under the light hanging above the backdoor and looked into his eyes, drinking in their blue-gray hue.
"Like the sea before a storm," Titus said softly.
His strength returning, Andreas got his feet under him and moved to take a step back. Titus dug his fingers into Andreas's upper ribs, stopping him. Andreas stood eye to eye with him, his heartbeat quickening. "Titus, that's your name?"
Titus tipped his head closer to him, his lips a fraction from Andreas's. "Titus Antonius. And yours?"
Andreas took a breath, inhaling Titus's exhale. "Andreas Nikandros."
Titus bowed his head, bringing his nose closer to Andreas's neck. "A Greek name." He lifted his head, his eyes focused on the rivulet of blood coursing from Andreas's bottom lip to his chin. "Maybe you carry ancient blood also."
Titus touched the tip of his tongue to Andreas's chin and licked up the red line, a deep groan rumbling from his throat as he did. There was a sweetness to Andreas's blood, just as his natural fragrance had betrayed, and the energy and virility of his essence sent a euphoric rush through Titus.
When he had passed Andreas earlier and took in his scent, it was as if he had breathed in the deliciousness of a fine pinot noir. He noticed how the other vampires perked up when Andreas entered the restaurant and knew he'd have to move fast if he was to have him, though he hadn't anticipated Bellerose would be so stupid as to throw such a delicacy to his mongrels.
Andreas wet his lips as he gazed at Titus. He saw the tips of two fangs peek out from under Titus's upper lip. He hadn't noticed them before, but now realized they had lengthened in anticipation of feeding, just as a cock hardened for sex. He could sense the strength and power emanating from Titus, and though he knew he needed to be cautious, he also gathered his fortitude. "You can have me if you want me, but on one condition."
Andreas saw annoyance flash in Titus's eyes an instant before he moved. Titus flung him around and threw him face first against the brick wall. Andreas put both hands on the wall to push off but found himself pinned between it and Titus's body.
His voice a low growl, Titus whispered in Andreas's ear, "If I want you, I'll have you, regardless of your feelings for or against it. No conditions involved."
Andreas stayed still. Despite the threat Titus posed, he couldn't help but take pleasure in the feel of his solid body against him. He shifted back the slightest bit, pushing his ass to Titus's cock and confirming his suspicion that Titus was hard.
A quiet moan left Titus's throat.
At the sound of it, Andreas knew without doubt he was dealing with a dominant male looking for two things: food and sex. Adrienne had told him most males had a high dominance level, but it seemed in Titus he had found the epitome of an alpha. Andreas risked pressing against Titus with a little more force and was rewarded by Titus slipping an arm around his waist, holding him as he ground his cock against him.
"Still," Titus said, "you've piqued my curiosity. What do you want?"
"I'm looking for a master. I want to be Turned."
Titus burst out laughing and stepped back from him. "Of course you do. You and everybody else who know we exist. All romance and passion, we are, right? But I'm afraid the world is already too full of whiny, self-loathing vampires mourning the loss of their mortal life and despising what they've become. It doesn't need one more."
Andreas faced him. "That's not how I would be."
Titus placed one hand on his hip as he contemplated Andreas. "Regardless, I don't Turn people. It's too much burden having to help them through the first few days, then holding their hand as they adjust to the life."
Deciding it was time to allow his own natural instincts to take control, Andreas stepped forward until he stood half an arm's length from Titus. He placed his hand on Titus's chest. "If you won't Turn me, then maybe you can at least give me a taste of what to expect when I do find a master."
Titus placed his fingertips under Andreas's chin. "Trying to seduce a vampire? You really are bold...or stupid."
Andreas closed the distance between them. He grazed his lips over Titus's. "Or horny."
Andreas brought their lips together. As he glided his tongue over Titus's, he felt the fangs' sharp points. He moved his tongue under one and pressed up against it. A shot of pain went through him. He felt Titus flinch in surprise, but he still thrust his tongue deep into Titus's mouth. A groan passed from Titus to him. Titus took Andreas's tongue with his own, sucking and savoring.
Andreas eased away from him.
Titus's eyes remained closed for a long moment. He slowly opened them, meeting Andreas's. "You're coming with me."
Andreas allowed a smile to grace his lips. "Let's go."