As Eloise shot me a smug smirk, unease slithered up my spine.
“There have been complaints,” Collins informed me.
“A member of your squad has made complaints about you, Commander Parker.”
Nothing he said or did could have shocked me more. Not a single thing. Not even if he had stripped off his clothes and done the Macarena dance on my desk in a G-string. Maybe I should have felt hurt, devastated, and betrayed by Collins’ news. But I didn’t feel any of those things because no way would I ever believe in a million sodding years that one of the squad would do that. “Bollocks.”
“It is but the truth,” Eloise seemed to take delight in saying.
“What game are you playing?”
Collins lifted his chin. “I realise this must be difficult for you, Commander Parker. But this particular member voiced a number of serious concerns. They didn’t feel they could go to Antonio with this matter as they feared he would not be impartial, being as fond of you as he so clearly is.”
“Concerns? Like what?”
“That you work them too hard and for very long hours. That you use unorthodox methods to train them – methods that involve subjecting them to pain. That you take them on more dangerous assignments than any other squad is taken on by their commanders. That you have harmed, and even killed, many humans on your assignments. That you used the squad in order to help avenge another vampire, which we all know is not an assignment. That you absorb their energy in order to use their gifts for yourself – that is exploitation at its worst.”
I just stood there, dumbstruck. I had no words. And that didn’t happen often.
Jared bristled. “Tell me you’re not serious.”
Collins’ tone was grave. “On the contrary, I’m very serious, Commander Michaels. So is this matter – it is not just one complaint, it is a whole list of them.”
Oh it was a ‘list’ all right: it was a list of things that had been twisted into sounding dark and cruel. Yes I worked the squad hard, but I didn’t work them any harder or longer than other commanders did their own squads. It was true that I sometimes hurt the squad during training, but only as part of helping them develop better reflexes. Besides, when you were training with people who had such violent gifts, there was going to be some pain whether everyone liked it or not.
It was also true that I had taken them on many dangerous assignments, but that was because Antonio often chose us to deal with such matters. Yes, I had killed during assignments, but I had never killed an innocent. It was also accurate that we had helped Jude avenge what had happened to her, but that had only been insofar as allowing her to come along while we dealt with the matter – we would have crushed that criminal operation in any case. And, yes, I had absorbed each member of the squad’s energy at one time or another to use their gifts, but it was only during training so that I could help them learn to better use and control those gifts.
Yet, all those things had been twisted in such a way as to make me indeed sound exploitative and cruel. What bugged me was that whoever had made these supposed ‘complaints’ had to have had inside knowledge of how I worked in order for them to have any knowledge to twist. Other than Evan, Antonio, Sebastian, or Luther, I never let people observe training sessions. The only people outside of the squad that I had taken on assignments were Jude, Ava, and Cristiano. None of them would have any reason to do this. But I didn’t believe for even one second that any member of my squad had anything at all to do with it. “Who really made these complaints?”
Collins was the image of snootiness. “As I told you, it was a member of your squad.”
Jared narrowed his eyes. “Oh yeah? Then who?”
“They wish to remain anonymous.”
I snickered. “Well of course they do.”
“I heard that two of your squad members are currently tainted. It is very sad, and I was quite surprised. Frankly, I would have expected better from the Heir, his mate, and their personal squad.”
Oh, the little f**ker.
“Fredrick, that is enough,” snapped Antonio.
“I have a valid point. These people should be powerful enough to protect and lead all vampirekind one day, yet they could not even lead and protect their own squad. Commander Parker is supposed to be particularly powerful, and yet two of her squad are now dying. My investigations show her to be hot-headed and reckless. One only needs to listen to tales of what occurred during the week of the Binding ceremony to know that. I believe two vampires went to the event and never returned.”
“If you’re talking about the woman who Turned me and came here with her consort, they almost had Sam killed.” Jared’s tone was dark and menacing, vibrating with a barely controlled rage. “No one was going to let them leave here alive.”
Collins straightened his tie. “The Prelature does not condone violence. You may perceive it to be excusable, but her first-born, who reported her disappearance, would not agree with you. The fact remains that Commander Parker is reckless. And that is not the only problem. Show them, Eloise.”
Still smiling smugly, Eloise dug out a newspaper from her briefcase and handed it to Jared. Her irises were glowing amber with lust, and all I wanted to do was bitch slap her. Jared didn’t even look at her as he took the British newspaper that was opened on a particular page.
Oh bugger. My stomach sank as I saw the photo of Jared and me, strolling around in London. It was one of the places we had visited during our ‘honeymoon’. The headline of the article was ‘New Lead in Missing Person’s Case’. There was then a detailed account of the day I had disappeared and an appeal from the police for more information.
“If the police try to identify Jared,” began Eloise, “imagine their reaction when they find a missing person’s report from nineteen years ago that shows he hasn’t aged.”
Jared snorted contemptuously. “They’ll just think it must be someone else. They certainly aren’t going to scream, ‘Shit, he’s a vampire!’” And I strongly doubt my mother bothered filing a report about me, he told me. She only ever cared about Evan.
“Perhaps,” allowed Collins. “But that isn’t the point.”
“What about me? I’m on that photo too. You’re not calling me reckless.”
Collins ground his teeth before speaking. “The squad member was clear that you are an extremely good trainer and that they have no issues whatsoever with you or your techniques.” He sounded annoyed by that.