Welcome to the ninth of ten excerpts from BOND OF FIRE.
Austin Commandery, mid-June
The Austin Commandery was Don Rafael’s original Texas ranch, built after he had enough fighting men to force a settlement deep within what was then hostile Indian country. It still maintained its status as a garrison and a fortress, emphasized by its sturdy buildings and stout limestone walls. Only a few miles from Compostela Ranch and close to Austin, it was now occupied by Ethan’s mesnaderos and their supporters.
Most of the buildings and their interiors gave clear evidence of the decades they’d been occupied by warriors –longhorn cattle skulls looming from the rafters, the arrowhead collection covering the billiard room’s walls, the racks of shotguns and rifles by every door, and more. The walls were plaster or rough-hewn limestone blocks, and the ceiling’s beams were clearly visible in most rooms, although the physical comforts were always the latest available – at least everywhere except in the meditation and punishment cells.
Ethan’s private quarters reflected his personal taste: a highly sophisticated, very modern mix of architecture, light, and décor where every detail combined into a hard-edged unity. Conveniences, whether technological or hygienic, were concealed behind panels and curtains. Like the man himself, the rooms gave up their secrets grudgingly, although they would obey direct orders from a privileged few, like those gathered here tonight.
Only three of the inner council lounged on the leather chairs: Jean-Marie, Ethan, and Caleb, Gray Wolf’s cónyuge.
Rafael was with Grania O’Malley, his new lover, whom he’d devoted himself to since they’d first met over two weeks ago. Such fidelity was a shocking display of interest – almost weakness – in a patrón, and one all his men were working damn hard to conceal from Madame Celeste. Tonight they were tuning personnel assignments so the meeting wasn’t, technically, anything he needed to attend.
Caleb was Texas’s second-oldest compañero and a brilliant geologist, neither of which would have normally qualified him for attendance. He was here as Gray Wolf’s alternate, since their conyugal bond allowed Gray Wolf to know everything that Caleb saw, felt, or thought. Gray Wolf was in Dallas, picking the brains of dryland farming researchers, one of his favorite passions.
Jean-Marie flicked a glance at Ethan, gauging his temper. Ethan was keying in the last changes to the watch list, his blond hair blazing under the light until he resembled a Renaissance angel. Not a cherubic one, of course, all chubby cheeks and smiles – but the type who stood with a flaming sword at the gates of hell.
They’d first met a year before the Civil War when Rafael had dragged in the young horse thief to learn some badly needed manners. They’d grown to be friends in the decades since, even with Ethan always giving Jean-Marie the subtle deference due an older brother. The former guerrilla had been stretched by this war, as they’d all been, making him a more brilliant fighter and leader.
Even so, Jean-Marie wondered what Ethan wasn’t telling anyone. Ethan was seldom talkative, but he didn’t usually hide secrets from Rafael or his elder hermanos. Recently he seemed to be shying away from private conversations. Odd, very odd.
But not as important as the rapes, suicides, and unexplained deaths plaguing central Texas.
Jean-Marie’s phone chimed softly, making his jaw clench, and he automatically hit the ignore button. The unique ring – three descending tones – meant another suicide prevention hotline hadn’t been able to prevent a death. A different ring announced when there’d been an unexplained death of a woman. Damn Madame Celeste’s two devils and their penchant for feeding on respectable women’s terror, which left their victims no peace afterward except in the grave!
“Are we agreed then?” Ethan’s right hand thumped the keyboard a few times, closing his entries. Light rippled across the wall behind him and settled into new blocks of text, displaying the new assignments. The great map of Texas facing it glowed in different colors, reflecting the new day and nighttime strengths in various places.
“I still don’t like leaving Luis alone. All he’s got to back him are some thirty-year-old compañeros.” Caleb’s forefinger stabbed the symbol for Austin. Red-haired and freckle-faced, casually dressed in jeans and T-shirt, he was usually relaxed and ready to joke but not when it came to filling in for his beloved cónyuge. Then he worked with an intensity and brilliance that could astonish even Ethan.
“They may be young compañeros but they’ve all got decades of combat under their belts,” Jean-Marie countered, summarizing the earlier argument, and came to his feet, unable to sit still.
The death count – whether from suicides or Beau and Devol’s murder victims – was now into double digits by his reckoning. If the prosaico media caught wind of it and guessed the cause, they’d panic. There’d be hell to pay afterward for all vampiros, guilty or not.
“If Madame Celeste is smart enough to try something during daylight. . .” Caleb measured off the miles to New Orleans.
“Which she never has been,” Jean-Marie reminded him yet again.
“We’ll call in Hennessy’s oldest pair of compañeros from Dallas if there’s serious trouble,” Ethan said firmly, sliding the keyboard out of sight.
“It’s more important our only pair of cónyuges are on the same shift,” the alferez mayor reasoned. “Gray Wolf has to work nights, which means you’re there, too.”
“You know damn well two cónyuges, even if one’s a compañero, are damn near unbeatable in a duel,” Jean-Marie drawled, deliberately keeping his voice calm. “With Beau and Devol – Madame Celeste’s top two assassins – here in Texas, we need the two of you as our strike team, ready to stop any trouble those assholes might start.”
“Shit, I know it’s the only way,” Caleb muttered, throwing up his hands. “But there’s no guarantee we’ll succeed, especially if Beau and Devol work together. It’d be different if I was a vampiro.”
“Giving us two experienced duelists and cónyuges – both of them with vampiro speed and strength? You couldn’t wish you were a vampiro half as much as I do.” Ethan snorted and started double-checking his revolvers. “But it won’t happen in time for this fight.”
“Takes a minimum of two years to make a vampiro,” Jean-Marie confirmed, double-checking his knife sheaths in preparation for departure now that Caleb had agreed.
“Yeah – but first, Gray Wolf has to agree to let Don Rafael turn me into a vampiro.”
Jean-Marie whistled, not quite glancing at the alferez mayor out of the corner of his eye. “Oh ho ho, is that the worm in the apple?”
“Yeah.” Caleb slammed down his hands, propelling him into movement. “Hell, we’re cónyuges! He knows down to his bones how completely I’m committed to him.”
“But only Don Rafael can create vampiros in Texas.” Jean-Marie quoted the Texas esfera’s first law.
“Yeah – but there’s no way in hell Gray Wolf will let me near Don Rafael’s bed, even if it’s only for a few months during La Lujuria while I become a vampiro. Despite the fact it’d give us immortality together.”
“Shit, you are in a mess,” Ethan agreed, coming up beside Jean-Marie. His voice was a shade too hearty.
“I tell you, I’m jealous when I look at some of the couples who’ve pulled it off – Eli and Sam, Gregor and Anders. . . On the other hand, unlike the fellows who prefer girls – at least I’ve got hope Gray Wolf will change his mind one day.”
Beside Jean-Marie, Ethan was immobile, hard grooves carved into his face.
Jean-Marie winced. Agonizing though it was, at least he’d buried Hélène and knew he’d never find the same heart’s ease with anyone else. He wasn’t someone desperately in love with a woman. He didn’t have to pray Don Rafael would reconsider one of his famously immovable decisions and permit a lady to become a vampira in Texas.
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved