But Matthew was not interested in tonight’s entertainment. His eyes were fixed on an ornate iron railing wrapped around the second-floor balcony that provided a sheltering overhang for the pedestrians below. That floor and the one above were restricted to members. A significant portion of the Domino Club’s membership roster had signed up when it was founded in 1839—two years before the Boston Club, officially the oldest gentlemen’s club in New Orleans, opened its doors. The rest had been carefully selected according to their looks, breeding, and ability to lose large sums of money at the gambling tables.

Ransome Fayrweather, Marcus’s eldest son and the club’s owner, would be on the second floor in his office overlooking the corner. Matthew pushed open the black door and entered the cool, dark bar.

The place smelled of bourbon and pheromones, the most familiar cocktail in the city. The heels of his shoes made a soft snick against the checkered marble floor.

It was four o’clock, and only Ransome and his staff were on the premises.

“Mr. Clairmont?” The vampire behind the bar looked as though he’d seen a ghost and took a step toward the cash register. One glance from Matthew and he froze.

“I’m here to see Ransome.” Matthew stalked toward the stairs. No one stopped him.

Ransome’s door was closed, and Matthew opened it without knocking.

A man sat with his back to the door and his feet propped up on the windowsill. He was wearing a black suit, and his hair was the same rich brown as the wood of the mahogany chair in which he sat.

“Well, well. Grandpa’s home,” Ransome said in a treacle-dipped drawl. He didn’t turn to look at his visitor, and a worn ebony-and-ivory domino kept moving between his pale fingers. “What brings you to Royal Street?”

“I understand you wish to settle accounts.” Matthew took a seat opposite, leaving the heavy desk between him and his grandson.

Ransome slowly turned. The man’s eyes were cold chips of green glass in an otherwise handsome and relaxed face. Then his heavy lids dropped, hiding all that sharpness and suggesting a sensual somnolence that Matthew knew was nothing more than a front.

“As you’re aware, I’m here to bring you to heel. Your brothers and sister have all agreed to support me and the new scion.” Matthew sat back in his chair. “You’re the last holdout, Ransome.”

All of Marcus’s other children had submitted quickly. When Matthew told them they carried the genetic marker for blood rage, they had been first stunned and then furious. After that had come fear.

They were schooled enough in vampire law to know that their bloodline made them vulnerable, that if any other vampire found out about their condition, they could face immediate death. Marcus’s children needed Matthew as much as he needed them. Without him, they would not survive.

“I have a better memory than they do,” Ransome said. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out an old ledger.

With every day away from Diana, Matthew’s temper shortened and his propensity for violence increased. It was vital to have Ransome on his side. And yet, at this moment, he wanted to throttle this grandson. The whole business of confessing and seeking atonement had taken much longer than he’d anticipated—and it was keeping him far from where he should be.

“I had no choice but to kill them, Ransome.” It took an effort for Matthew to keep his voice even.

“Even now Baldwin would rather I kill Jack than risk having him expose our secret. But Marcus convinced me I had other options.”

“Marcus told you that last time. Yet you still culled us, one by one. What’s changed?” Ransome asked.

“I have.”

“Never try to con a con, Matthew,” Ransome said in the same lazy drawl. “You’ve still got that look in your eye that warns creatures not to cross you. Had you lost it, your corpse would be laid out in my foyer. The barkeep was told to shoot you on sight.”

“To give him credit, he did reach for the shotgun by the register.” Matthew’s attention never drifted from Ransome’s face. “Tell him to pull the knife from his belt next time.”

“I’ll be sure to pass on that tip.” Ransome’s domino paused momentarily, caught between his middle and ring fingers. “What happened to Juliette Durand?”

The muscle in Matthew’s jaw ticked. The last time he came to town, Juliette Durand had been with him. When the two left New Orleans, Marcus’s boisterous family was significantly smaller. Juliette was Gerbert’s creature and had been eager to prove her usefulness at a time when Matthew was growing tired of being the de Clermont family’s problem solver. She had disposed of more vampires in New Orleans than Matthew had.

“My wife killed her.” Matthew didn’t elaborate.

“Sounds like you found yourself a good woman,” Ransome said, snapping open the ledger before him. He took the cap off a nearby pen, the tip of which looked as if it had been chewed by a wild animal. “Care to play a game of chance with me, Matthew?”

Matthew’s cool eyes met Ransome’s brighter green gaze. Matthew’s pupils were growing larger by the second. Ransome’s lip curled in a scornful smile.

“Afraid?” Ransome asked. “Of me? I’m flattered.”

“Whether I play the game or not depends on the stakes.”

“My sworn allegiance if you win,” Ransome replied, his smile foxy.

“And if I lose?” Matthew’s drawl was not treacle-coated but was just as disarming.

“That’s where the chance comes in.” Ransome sent the domino spinning into the air.

Matthew caught it. “I’ll take your wager.”

“You don’t know what the game is yet,” Ransome said.

Matthew stared at him impassively.

Ransome’s lips tipped up at the corners. “If you weren’t such a bastard, I might grow to like you,”

he observed.

“Likewise,” Matthew said crisply. “The game?”

Ransome drew the ledger closer. “If you can name every sister, brother, niece, nephew, and grandchild of mine you killed in New Orleans all those years ago—as well as any other vampires you killed in the city along the way—I will throw myself in with the rest.”

Matthew studied his grandson.

“Wish you’d asked for the terms sooner?” Ransome grinned.

“Malachi Smith. Crispin Jones. Suzette Boudrot. Claude Le Breton.” Matthew paused as Ransome searched the ledger’s entries for the names. “You should have kept them in chronological order instead of alphabetical. That’s how I remember them.”

Ransome looked up in surprise. Matthew’s smile was small and wolfish, the kind to make any fox run for the hills.

Matthew continued to recite names long after the downstairs bar opened for business. He finished just in time to see the first gamblers arrive at nine o’clock. Ransome had consumed a fifth of bourbon by then. Matthew was still sipping his first glass of 1775 Château Lafite, which he had given to Marcus in 1789 when the Constitution went into effect. Ransome had been storing it for his father since the Domino Club opened.

“I believe that settles matters, Ransome.” Matthew stood and placed the domino on the desk.

Ransome looked dazed. “How can you possibly remember all of them?”

“How could I ever forget?” Matthew drank down the last of his wine. “You have potential, Ransome. I look forward to doing business with you in future. Thank you for the wine.”

“Son of a bitch,” Ransome muttered under his breath as the sire of his clan departed.

Matthew was weary to the bone and ready to murder something when he returned to the Garden District.

He’d walked there from the French Quarter, hoping to burn off some excess emotion. The endless list of names had stirred up too many memories, none of them pleasant. Guilt had followed in their wake.

He took out his phone, hoping that Diana had sent him a photograph. The images she sent thus far were his lifeline. Though Matthew had been furious to discover from them that his wife was in London rather than Sept-Tours, there had been moments over the past weeks when the glimpses into her life there were all that kept him sane.

“Hello, Matthew.” To his surprise, Fernando sat on the wide front steps of Marcus’s house, waiting for him. Chris Roberts was perched nearby.

“Diana?” It was part howl, part accusation, and entirely terrifying. Behind Fernando the door opened.

“Fernando? Chris?” Marcus looked startled. “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for Matthew,” Fernando replied.

“Come inside. All of you.” Marcus beckoned them forward. “Miss Davenport is watching.” His neighbors were old, idle, and nosy.

Matthew, however, was beyond the reach of reason. He’d been nearly there several times, but the unexpected sight of Fernando and Chris had sent him over. Now that Marcus knew that his father had blood rage, he understood why Matthew always went away—alone—to recover when he got into this state.

“Who is with her?” Matthew’s voice was like a musket firing: first a raspy sound of warning, then a loud report.

“Ysabeau, I expect.” Marcus said. “Phoebe. And Sarah. And of course Gallowglass.”

“Don’t forget Leonard,” Jack said, appearing behind Marcus. “He’s my best friend, Matthew.

Leonard would never let anything happen to Diana.”

“You see, Matthew? Diana is just fine.” Marcus had already heard from Ransome that Matthew had come from Royal Street, having achieved his goal of family solidarity. Marcus couldn’t imagine what had put Matthew in such a foul mood, given his success.

Matthew’s arm moved quickly and with enough power to pulverize a human’s bones. Instead of choosing a soft target, however, he smashed his hand into one of the white Ionic pillars supporting the upper gallery of the house. Jack put a restraining hand on his other arm.

“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to move back to the Marigny,” Marcus said mildly, eyeing a cannonball-size depression near the front door.

“Let me go,” Matthew said. Jack’s hand dropped to his side, and Matthew shot up the steps and stalked down the long hall to the back of the house. A door slammed in the distance.

“Well, that went better than I expected.” Fernando stood.

“He’s been worse since my mo—” Jack bit his lip and avoided Marcus’s gaze.

“You must be Jack,” Fernando said. He bowed, as though Jack were royalty and not a penniless orphan with a deadly disease. “It is an honor to meet you. Madame your mother speaks of you often, and with great pride.”

“She’s not my mother,” Jack said, lightning quick. “It was a mistake.”

“That was no mistake,” Fernando said. “Blood may speak loudly, but I always prefer the tales told by the heart.”

“Did you say ‘ madame’?” Marcus’s lungs felt tight, and his voice sounded strange. He hadn’t let himself hope that Fernando would do such a selfless thing, and yet . . .

“Yes, milord. ” Fernando bowed again.

“Why is he bowing to you?” Jack whispered to Marcus. “And who is ‘milord’?”

“Marcus is ‘milord,’ because he is one of Matthew’s children,” Fernando explained. “And I bow to you both, because that is how family members who are not of the blood treat those who are—with respect and gratitude.”

“Thank God. You’ve joined us.” The air left Marcus’s lungs in a whoosh of relief.

“I sure as hell hope there’s enough bourbon in this house to wash down all the bullshit,” Chris said.

“‘Milord’ my ass. And I’m not bowing to anybody.”

“Duly noted,” Marcus said. “What brings you both to New Orleans?”

“Miriam sent me,” Chris said. “I’ve got test results for Matthew, and she didn’t want to send them electronically. Plus, Fernando didn’t know how to find Matthew. Good thing Jack and I stayed in touch.”

He smiled at the young man. Jack grinned back.

“As for me, I am here to save your father from himself,” Fernando bowed again, this time with a trace of mockery. “With your permission, milord. ”

“Be my guest,” Marcus said, stepping inside. “But if you call me ‘milord’ or bow to me one more time, I’ll put you in the bayou. And Chris will help me.”

“I’ll show you where Matthew is,” Jack said, already eager to rejoin his idol.

“What about me? We need to catch up,” Chris said, grabbing his arm. “Have you been sketching, Jack?”

“My sketchbook is upstairs. . . .” Jack cast a worried look toward the back garden. “Matthew isn’t feeling well. He never leaves me when I’m like this. I should—”

Fernando rested his hands on the young man’s tense shoulders. “You remind me of Matthew, back when he was a young vampire.” It hurt Fernando’s heart to see it, but it was true.

“I do?” Jack sounded awed.

“You do. Same compassion. Same courage, too.” Fernando looked at Jack thoughtfully. “And you share Matthew’s hope that if you shoulder the burdens of others, they will love you in spite of the sickness in your veins.”

Jack looked at his feet.

“Did Matthew tell you that his brother Hugh was my mate?” Fernando asked.

“No,” Jack murmured.

“Long ago Hugh told Matthew something very important. I am here to remind him of it.” Fernando waited for Jack to meet his eyes.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com