Chapter One, Part 2
Grania O’Malley swirled the last of the no-name, nonalcoholic beer in her glass. It was as weak as Tiffani’s arguments, here at the graduation party. Her advisor’s customary bash was a roaring success, as could be expected given the quantity of food and drinks produced by his wife’s cooking class. Families bragged loud and long to anyone who’d listen about their member’s astounding accomplishments. Students and alumni chattered and argued anything from UC Davis campus politics to the best way to count those elusive ferruginous pygmy owls in Arizona. This was UC Davis’s liveliest graduation party, where conversation and music blared from almost every corner.
“Okay, Dr. O’Malley. I’ll be going now and you can fix my grades with the registrar.” Tiffani, who reeked of perfume and other chemicals, started to turn.
Grania fixed her best glare on the blond freshman. The slender girl froze.
“Final grades for the quarter, and the school year, were due this afternoon at two. Why should I change yours?”
Enormous brown eyes stared at her over a martini glass. “Because I need you to, that’s why. Because Toby O’Brien got an A from you. Because. . .”
“Toby attended all the classes and completed all the homework and the labwork,” Grania pointed out.
“But I took all the tests!”
Grania raised an eyebrow. “Is that how you got through high school?”
“Of course. I had all the requirements covered and still had time for parties.”
What had her high school really been trying to teach her? Social passing, where a student shows up for class and gets a good grade, whether or not he learned anything? Heck, by those standards, Tiffani was quite accomplished. She at least tested well.
Grania’s jaw set. But it wasn’t good enough to work with her owls. “Here at the university, you’ve got to do a lot more than just the minimum in order to earn top grades.”
The chit had the honesty to blush slightly before she charged on stubbornly. “So? I need an A to make up for my other grades, so I can come back next year. I want to be a wildlife vet, just like you. It’s why I signed up for your section.”
Heaven protect me from idiots. “But a good grade in one class won’t help you with all the selection boards you’ll face in the future. You need to work hard and long.”
She lowered her martini, staring. “What do you mean?”
Give her a chance. She does have occasional flashes of brilliance. If she’d just string them together into a consistent string, she could be something special. “You missed four labs and five take-home quizzes. If you give me some of those by tomorrow. . .”
“Tomorrow? Tomorrow?!” Total horror was written on her face. “I can’t do that! There’s Brad’s party and Andy’s. Then we’re all driving down to San Francisco afterward. I can’t possibly be back here before Sunday night. No way I’m doing more work on a Saturday, especially when school’s out.”
“In that case, I really don’t see how I can change your grade.”
“You’re supposed to just give it to me for attending the lectures! Isn’t that how you made it through?”
“No, sister, it isn’t.”
Tiffani shook her head, unwilling comprehension starting to dawn.
Grania began to hammer some lessons home. “Try hard work and paying attention to your advisors. No social life either, and no plagiarizing.”
“The odds are fifty to one – hell, a hundred to one against getting a good job as a wildlife vet. You still want that job?”
Tiffani nodded silently. Tears glistened but she blinked them back fiercely.
“Then start working your ass off for it right now, like I have. And watch your back. Because you won’t see the knives coming until they’re sticking out of you.”
“Knives? Ohmygawd, you’re not kidding. Maybe not literally true but not a joke either.” She swallowed hard and offered her hand solemnly. “Dr. O’Malley, I’ll work on those lab write-ups tonight.”
“Good.” They shook hands silently.
Tiffani stumbled off toward the gate, shaking her head and mumbling, “Knives?”
Grania shook her head, hoping the child pulled it together, and turned for the bar. Her sudden movement made the ornate gold cross fleury slip free from behind her dress. It swung wildly on its heavy gold chain, an echo of a barbaric past that suited her medieval velvet robes. Its style seemed extremely familiar to her, although it had been made in Texas, just before she bought it.
She started to tuck it back against her skin then smiled. She could afford a little time to dream about dating somebody in Texas.
Grania ran her fingers over the heavy metal curves as an expert tracker would. She slowed her breathing, until the party faded and only the jewelry was real against a haze of light.
Three months after his trip to Colorado, Rafael wished he’d never challenged fate by saying Madame Celeste wouldn’t visit Texas. Now he found himself dressed in his finest garb, meeting Ethan and Jean-Marie outside the great hall at Compostela Ranch, his home. He’d originally built it as an indoor riding arena, then converted it later to an exercise yard where the cachorros, the immature vampiros, could master their vampiro strength and speed. The massive limestone walls also made an excellent backdrop for the scented vines and plants of his herb garden.
Tonight, he was wearing a Charro suit, formal attire that emphasized his Spanish origins. The short, tailored jacket, brilliant white shirt, wide leather belt, and narrow necktie all reminded him of his caballero past – except for his entirely modern gun. He was the only one who would openly carry a weapon tonight, the revolver traditionally worn with a Charro suit and the symbol of his authority as host. Given these guests, he wore a Super Redhawk, lethal and accurate, rather than the more sentimental pearl-handled Colts Ulysses Grant had given him.
Jean-Marie was as relaxed as any modern man could be when clad in a fine Gucci blue silk suit. Ethan, on the other hand, wore a black, western-cut tuxedo with embroidered red flames flashing from the shoulders, collars and cuffs, and beautifully tailored to conceal the revolvers holstered underneath. As the host’s alferez mayor, he could stretch custom far enough to carry weapons but only if they were hidden.
Gray Wolf and Luis Alvarez, Rafael’s siniscal and oldest compañero, met them at the great hall. After almost two hundred years, Luis appeared barely forty and was as strong and fast as most cachorros. Born a Galician peasant, on the northwest coast of Spain, his eyes still carried shadows from when Napoleon’s men had destroyed his family – then been gutted by Rafael.
A compañero was a prosaico who drank vampiro blood frequently, developing a craving for – an addiction to – his vampiro primero. Traditionally, vampiros were leery of creating compañeros, because it was impossible to predict how long it would take for a compañero to develop his craving for a single vampiro. So vampiros only created concubinos compañeros – sex slaves and blood sources.
But despite the stigma attached to compañeros, Rafael had proudly fought beside them, using their strength and their ability to fight in daylight like a vampiro mayor. Later, he’d made all of his recruits serve a novitiate as compañeros, thus allowing him to judge their fitness to become vampiros.
The agony was that it was also impossible to predict how long a compañero would live. During most of his life, he’d appear the same age he’d been when he first began to drink vampiro blood frequently. But when the vampiro elixir began to attack him, he would suddenly show signs of aging and die within weeks or even days.
Normally a compañero could hope to live for a century, or a century and a half. For a compañero to attain two centuries was astounding. Death would come fastest, the longer he had lived.
Rafael had fought more battles with Luis at his side than with anyone else, a history that Luis occasionally took ruthless advantage of – such as his absolute refusal to yield his post beside Rafael during daylight battles. At least, not until there was a vampiro who could pick up some of the burden.
Rafael had once thought he could persuade Luis to change his mind. He’d never force him to become a vampiro, since he never forced anyone even when they’d already agreed to do so. Luis, like everyone else, would only become a vampiro when his eyes were open to the consequences and fearlessly accepted them. But, maldito sea, if Luis withered and died of old age before that happened, it would break his heart!
Any day now, Jean-Marie would be able to walk in twilight and Luis would become a vampiro. Until then. . .
Rafael automatically searched Luis’s face for signs of aging – and found none. He relaxed slightly. Luis would be the next compañero to become a vampiro – and no one would be happier than Rafael when that happened.
Luis bore his inspection with his typical slightly paternal forbearance. When Rafael relaxed, he bowed, holding back a smile, before disappearing into the great hall. He, after all, had duties to perform, as he’d reminded Rafael so many times before.
“Ready, Gray Wolf?”
“Yes, sir.” Gray Wolf’s smile at his creador was quiet but genuine. A Native American and Rafael’s second oldest hijo, he was elegantly dressed in a simple black silk shirt and black pants, with his long black hair neatly tied at the nape of his neck. For a man who owned more than one eagle feather headdress, it was a notably inconspicuous appearance. On the other hand, it was probably best to encourage Madame Celeste to overlook him, thereby continuing her usual treatment for men she couldn’t seduce.
Ready, Luis, Rafael ordered telepathically when he entered the great hall with his three eldest hijos. Fine tapestries and antique carpets glowed like jewels under the immense wrought-iron chandeliers, forming a brilliant background for seven score men in all their finery.
“Vampiros y compañeros, please welcome nuestro Señor, Don Rafael Perez!” Luis boomed. The big room erupted in cheers as the assembly stood up. Even the snipers in the balconies shouted greetings, adding to the clamor that literally shook the massive rafters.
Rafael lifted his arms in response from the front of the dais, his heart swelling. Who could want more than this, to be accepted as leader by the finest men in North America?
The bright haze solidified into a big man standing in front of a crowded room. Taller than any other man there, black haired and dark eyed, he wasn’t handsome, certainly not when compared to any of the four men behind him. Yet he held her attention as he raised his hands in greeting, evoking a flood of love and respect from the assembly.
Damn, he was stunning, more impressive than the Kodiak bear she’d seen standing tall and free in Alaska.
Her breath caught as a frisson of sexual awareness tightened her chest. What would such a man be like in private? Domineering, arrogant, overwhelming…
Beautiful man. Heat came to life deep inside her. Well worth dating.
Familiarity teased her, as if she’d seen him before somewhere, touched him somehow. She tried to breathe but she was caught in stasis.
Suddenly her cell phone rang, the modern metallic ring yanking Grania back to the raucous party. She automatically reached for the phone, cursing silently as his visage faded.
“Hello?” He’d been tall, maybe two meters? But what color eyes did he have? Shit.
Beth’s voice snapped across the line. “Got a situation here, Grania.”
Sometimes Beth sounded entirely too much like her policeman husband. Grania’s brain reluctantly snapped back into full awareness. “Hmmm, let me see. Larry’s gone to Tahoe with the family and you’ve got two, maybe three, animals coming in.”
“Two. Are you psychic or something?”
“Doesn’t take a psychic to know that one vet wouldn’t call another during a party if things were boring.
What’re the cases?”
Beth snorted. “Told Andy you’d figure it out, without me saying a word. Now he owes me a double mocha latte. Barn owl found by the road, ETA twenty minutes. Coyote hit by a pickup, ETA one hour.”
Grania was already heading for the door. “Give me fifteen minutes. I’ll take the owl, of course.”
She caught her hostess’s eye, pointed significantly at the cell phone, made an apologetic face. Nodded sad agreement with the other woman’s instant understanding, then waved good-bye. She’d stop by tomorrow for a more private farewell to the couple who’d helped her, ever since she’d come from Colorado as a kid too young for the bachelor’s degree in her backpack.
Beth sighed. “Thanks. I knew I was asking a lot, since you’re leaving California in two days, but I hoped you’d help. You’re the best with owls there is.”
Grania shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise, even from an old friend. “Yeah, right. Just make sure the coffee’s hot and there’s lots of it.”
“Gotcha. One extra-large espresso coming right up.”
Grania snapped shut her cell phone and swung herself into her old pickup. If nothing else, she’d be with friends, both human and feathered, on her next-to-last night in California.
Excerpt from Bond of Blood by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved