Ignoring my question, Ricardo spoke in a courteous tone. “I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge last night. That was an impressive display of power. I have to say, it was quite ruthless of you to toy with Magda and allow her to believe she was winning the duel for a while. I admire that.”
“So you’re staying for the ceremony?”
He cocked his head. “In all honesty, I think that I would have stayed regardless. You may be, by far, the least polite person I have ever met, but I strangely find myself liking you.”
Oddly enough, I was quite happy about that. Although Ricardo hadn’t exactly been friendly at any point, I didn’t dislike him. He had been looking out for his bloodline, and that wasn’t something I could fault him for. In fact, it was a shame that all vampires weren’t like that. I’d certainly have appreciated it if Victor had been like that. “You know something? I like you too, Rick.”
His smile shrunk slightly. “It is Ricardo.”
“Right, that’s what I said.”
It was at that moment that Bran, Connelly, Kaiser, Rowan, and Marcia approached. Oh joy.
Connelly smiled affectionately at us. “I do not wish to anger you,” he said to Jared, “but it is impossible not to comment on how beautiful the mercury glow is.”
Well of course my irises were glowing – Jared had been grinding against me for the past half hour as we swayed, whispering sensual promises into my ear, so it was hardly surprising that I was horny. I wasn’t impressed by the fact that my arousal would be so easily evident to others. I could now relate to the plight of blokes and how they were unable to hide their arousal.
Jared laughed at Connelly’s comment. “I can’t blame you for that.”
“Yes, it is very unique,” said Bran. “I have to wonder if it was wise of Antonio to bestow power onto someone who was already extremely strong.”
Kaiser grunted his agreement. “Does it feel uncomfortable to have such an immense quantity of power inside you? Does it make you feel bloated?”
I shook my head. “It feels kind of…uplifting.”
Rowan spoke then. “I admit to feeling placated now that I have seen just what you can do.”
I snorted. “Forgive me if I’m not bowled over by the comment, considering you’ve been a bit of an arse.”
His mouth twitched into a smile. Not an ugly smile, but still self-satisfied and slightly mischievous. “But − as it turned out − it wasn’t anything you couldn’t handle, was it?”
Seeing that Marcia’s smile matched his, I realised something. “You two had been baiting me, hadn’t you? You’d wanted me to lose control, to show you my gifts?”
Marcia jiggled her head. “That was partly the motive. But it was also important for us to see if you would easily turn on your own kind. In the past, leaders have ruled by instilling fear − punishing anyone who disagreed with their decisions or dared to question them. We want to feel comfortable voicing our thoughts, want that assurance that we will be heard and not punished.”
That I could understand. Antonio ruled in such a way, and it had always worked. Everyone respected him for it.
“You gave as good as you got,” continued Marcia, “but you did not physically harm any of us. That spoke volumes about what kind of leader you would be.”
Huh. “I still think you’re a bit of a snob.”
Marcia laughed, sounding delighted. “Not something I haven’t heard before. Much like you, I do not believe in changing who I am to suit other people.”
That was something I could respect. Having exchanged nods with both Jared and me, the five vampires walked away.
“Since I arrived at The Hollow, I’ve been constantly tested one way or another,” I griped to Jared.
He smiled. “You think it was any different for me? Although I’d passed the try-outs and earned a spot in the legion, I hadn’t been promoted to commander straight away. That came later, and it hadn’t been easy. I wasn’t appointed as Heir until after I’d intercepted a direct attack on Antonio − twice. I hadn’t expected him to give me that position in a million years. There are lots of vampires in the legion who are older than me and have served him a hell of a lot longer than I have. Everyone was curious as to why he would select me. They knew I was powerful, but that hadn’t been enough for them to be comfortable with me.”
“So they tested you?”
“Yep, just like they tested you. They were rude, they were patronising, and they repeatedly goaded me. One of them even challenged me. Not like Magda challenged you. No, they challenged me for my position. That was something I wasn’t prepared to lose.”
“Who?” I’d kill the twat.
“You haven’t met him, because he’s dead.”
“He was a very old, very powerful, very well-known vampire, but I won. And I ensured that I made a spectacle of this bastard who had been a huge problem for Antonio over the years − no swift, clean death. I fought fairly, but I didn’t make it quick and painless. And no one forgot that. They didn’t want a leader who was dishonourable, but nor did they want one who gave mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. You did that very same thing to Magda, and no one will ever forget that either.”
Hearing my name being called, I turned my head. My eyes widened when I noticed two very familiar faces dancing on one of the floats passing us, waving like crazy. “Oh dear God.”
Jared’s gaze followed my line of vision and he laughed. Who wouldn’t? The feathery, sequin-covered eye-masks that they had clearly made themselves should have made Fletcher and Norm look completely daft, but they somehow suited them. It was their idea of dancing that was so amusing. It looked more like they were hyperventilating.
Having jumped down from the float that they had clearly hitched a ride on, they both dashed over to us. As usual, Fletcher gave me a tight hug. “Isn’t this party bloody brilliant?”
“I know, it’s amazing. I love it.”
Norm, too, gave me a hug. Pulling back, he studied my eyes and smiled knowingly. “The mercury’s glowing.”
I tensed. “Tell me the truth. Does it look bad?”
Jared groaned in frustration, tugging me to him and enfolding me in his arms again. “I’ve told you, it looks anything but bad.”
I huffed. “You would say that – you like sex.”
Laughing, Fletcher agreed with Jared, “It doesn’t look bad at all. It looks quite sexy actually.”