Vanda shuddered. The nightmare was back in full force. At the age of twenty-two she'd lost her home, her family, and her mortality. War had ripped her life to shreds, and she'd ended up all alone, hunted and hiding in caves.
And now, years later, she'd lost her club and friends. Once again she was in hiding, hunted by the Malcontents. Once again war was destroying her world.
A surge of rage shot through her. How could this happen again? Was she cursed? Her hands curled into fists. She wanted to punch something. Throw something. Scream.
She grabbed her whip off the table. Let one of those Malcontents find her. She'd flay his skin right off his face. She'd kill the bloody—The whip tumbled to the floor.
Oh God, she didn't want to kill again. What was she doing? She'd let monsters get to her before. She'd let them turn her into a monster. No. Tears burned her eyes. Never again.
"Vanda?" Phil approached her with a worried look. "Are you all right?"
What a selfish fool she was. She'd nearly thrown a fit out of self-pity, when there were other Vamps who had lost their lives tonight. Fourteen dead. There were Vamps in mourning. Vamps who were injured. Her anger wasn't helping them or herself.
She took a deep breath. "I'm all right. I–I felt really pissed for a while, but—"
"You took control." Phil's eyes softened, glimmering with love.
Her heart swelled with warmth. This nightmare was different from the last one. This time she had Phil. And she didn't have wolves chasing her.
Phineas cleared his throat. "I hate to break up the tender moment, but Phil and I have been ordered to return for a strategy meeting."
Phil stiffened. "I'm not leaving Vanda alone."
"She could come if she wants." Phineas turned to Vanda. "You know how to get to Romatech, right?"
"No thanks," Vanda said. "You two go on without me."
"Are you sure?" Phil asked.
She scoffed. "Gee, should I teleport to Romatech when the bad guys are bombing Romatechs? That's a tough one. I'll just stay here."
"I'll be back before dawn," Phil assured her.
"Then you'd better hurry up and go." She glanced at the clock over the kitchen sink. "It's already four-thirty."
He nodded. "Just a minute, Phineas. I need to put my uniform back on." He dashed to the bathroom.
Vanda strolled into the kitchen and retrieved two bottles of blood from the fridge. She handed one to Phineas.
"Thanks." He unscrewed the top and drank.
"Thank you for bringing it." She lowered her voice to a soft whisper so Phil wouldn't hear. "I know you suspect Phil and I are…involved, but please don't tell anyone."
"Sweetness," Phineas whispered back, "When it comes to you and Phil, I'm up to my eyeballs in secrets. But my lips are sealed."
"Thank you." Vanda clinked her bottle against his. She turned when she heard the bathroom door open.
Phil exited, wearing his MacKay uniform of khaki pants and navy polo shirt. "Okay, Phineas. Let's go."
She gave Phil an encouraging smile as he teleported away with the young black Vamp. And then she immediately felt lonely without him. How quickly and thoroughly he'd invaded her heart and her life.
She sipped from the bottle and wondered what kind of secrets Phineas was keeping. There was no way he could know her darkest secrets. She'd never admitted them to anyone. So he had to be referring to Phil. Was there something about Phil she didn't know?
She thought back to when she'd first met him. He'd been a tall nineteen-year-old college student with beautiful blue eyes, a quick wit, and a charming smile. Even then there'd been an aura of earthy sexiness to him, a strong hint of the man he was to become, and she'd felt attracted to him from the start.
Now, as a twenty-seven-year old man, he'd far surpassed that earlier hint of manliness. He exuded masculine power, strength, and confidence. He drove her wild with desire. He inspired trust and a sense of security. But how well did she really know him?
A few memories flitted through her mind. Phil discovering a bomb in her file cabinet without actually seeing it. Phil capturing Max in her club and having enough strength to pin a vampire to the floor. Her bouncer complaining that he moved too fast.
She shoved those thoughts away. Phil was a sweet and wonderful man. She shouldn't doubt him. She ought to be grateful he was so strong and fast. If he hadn't detected that bomb, she'd be dead. If he hadn't killed that snake, she'd be dead.
His love for her was genuine and beautiful. And she was falling in love with him. That was all that mattered.
The atmosphere in the war room was grim. Phil took a seat at the conference table next to Connor. He nodded at the others sitting around the long table: Jack and Lara, Austin and Darcy, Howard, Phineas, Emma, Laszlo, Gregori, and Carlos, the Brazilian were-panther. Some additional chairs had been brought in to line the walls. Hugo, the ex-bouncer from Vanda's club, was sitting beside Robby and Jean-Luc, who must have teleported in from Texas. Angus paced around the table, deep in thought.
In the corner of the room, Sean Whelan was sitting alone. As head of the CIA Stake-Out Team, Sean's mission was to identify and terminate vampires. That mission had grown a bit complicated when his daughter, Shanna, married Roman Draganesti, and even more complicated when his team members, Austin and Emma, switched sides. Sean's gaze darted nervously about the room.
Phil scanned the room once more and realized Shanna and Roman were absent. He leaned close to Connor and whispered, "Did Angus send the Draganestis into hiding?"
"Nay," Connor replied. "He wanted to, but they insisted on staying here. Dougal and Zoltan are teleporting the injured Vamps here, and Roman and Shanna are in the clinic, patching them up."
"How did the Malcontents manage to infiltrate the Romatechs?" Phil whispered. "I thought Angus tightened security."
"I did," Angus grumbled, overhearing. "We doubled security on the ground, but they attacked from the air. Rockets fired from helicopters."
"Army helicopters?" Phil asked.
"We think so," Angus said as he continued to pace. "They must have used mind control to infiltrate nearby military bases."
"I'll alert the military," Sean Whelan said. When a dozen heads turned to him with alarm, he lifted his hands. "Don't worry. I won't tell them about vampires. I'll just say there's a radical group of psychic terrorists on the loose, using mind control to infiltrate bases. I'll recommend a lockdown, no visitors allowed on base after sundown. Any strangers will be shot on sight. Maybe that will help."
"Thank you, Whelan." Angus paced down the length of the table. "Let's get started, then. As ye all know, two of our Romatechs were destroyed tonight. One of our top priorities is resuming production as soon as possible in Texas and Colorado. Gregori is working on that."
Gregori nodded. "We're already looking at some rental properties. We still have all the daytime mortal employees, so we hope to be producing again in two weeks."
"Good. Another top priority is keeping the remaining three Romatechs safe. To that end, we have enlisted the help of Shanna's father." Angus motioned to Sean Whelan. "Ye have the floor, Sean."
"Thank you." The CIA operative stood and gazed warily about the room. "As much as it grieves me to associate with your kind, I am convinced an alliance with you is in the best interest of living Americans."
"Thank you, Sean." Emma smiled at him.
He scowled at his former employee. "I've contacted the army, and they've agreed to provide extra security at your facility here and in Ohio and California. They'll also provide antiaircraft missile launchers, radar equipment, and the necessary personnel to man the equipment. They'll start setting things up tomorrow."
"How did ye explain this to the army?" Connor asked.
"I told them it was a routine exercise to combat domestic terrorism," Sean replied. "Which is true, in my opinion. Those damned vampires are the worst terrorist threat our country has ever faced. If there's anything else I can do to wipe the Undead off the face of the planet, just let me know."
An uneasy silence pervaded the room.
"Well, we're verra grateful for yer help, Sean." Angus shook hands with him. "Now, perhaps ye'd like to visit yer grandchildren? They're across the hall in the nursery with Radinka."
Sean gave him a wry look. "I'd rather stay here and see what your plans are."
A flicker of annoyance shone in Angus's eyes before he motioned to a chair. "Of course. Have a seat."
Angus resumed his pacing. "Roman's busy taking care of the wounded, so he canna report on his most recent project, discovering the formula for Nightshade. Laszlo, do ye know if he's made any progress?"
The small chemist sat up. "Yes, sir. He's completed two test serums. The problem, of course, is finding a test subject. At best, the serum will paralyze a vampire. Worst case scenario…" He grabbed a button on his lab coat and twisted it. "It could be fatal."
Connor leaned back in his chair. "Och, luckily, we have a volunteer. He's waiting in the silver room."
"The prisoner?" Laszlo plucked at his button. "That—That doesn't seem very humane."
"He's not human," Sean Whelan hissed. "He's a monster."
Angus sighed. "I'm actually in agreement with you there, Whelan."
"Hell must be freezing over," Connor muttered, then raised his voice. "We might as well put the prisoner to good use. He doesna appear to have any more information for us."
"And I hear ye've been working on something new, Laszlo?" Angus asked.
"Ah, yes." The chemist tugged at his button. "You see, I was talking to Jack last night at the party, and he told me about a device the FBI put into a hair weave for Lara in order to track her. Unfortunately, Jack could hear it, so he had to remove it. But then the Malcontents kidnapped Lara, and he was unable to find her for days."
"Aye, we know," Angus grumbled impatiently. "Get on with it."
The button popped off onto the table. Laszlo grabbed it and stuffed it into a pocket. "I started work tonight on a tracking device that would be completely undetectable to vampires and shape shifters. Then we could all be tagged, and if anyone gets kidnapped, we could rescue them quickly."
"Sounds like a great idea, buddy." Gregori gave the small chemist a thumbs-up.
Laszlo blushed. "Well, I was kidnapped once myself, so I know how frightening it can be."
"How exactly would ye tag us?" Connor asked.
"The device would most likely be inserted beneath the skin." Laszlo started fiddling with a new button. "The incision would heal during our death-sleep, so no trace of the surgical implantation would remain."
"How far along are you?" Angus asked.
"I–I just started tonight. I need a few nights—a week perhaps."
"Right. Good luck to you." Angus motioned to the door.
Laszlo blinked. "Oh. Of course. Thank you." He scurried out the door.
"All right, we need to talk strategy," Angus said.
Phil raised a hand. "Something just occurred to me. We could take Laszlo's tracking device, implant it in Sigismund while he's in his death-sleep so he won't know it's there, then pretend to be moving him and accidentally allow him to escape—"
"The devil take it," Angus exclaimed. "He might lead us straight to Casimir."
Excited murmurs spread about the room.
Sean Whelan jumped to his feet. "If we discover where he's hiding, I could send a special task force to stake Casimir and all his followers in their death-sleep!"
The murmurs stopped. Phil winced at the appalled looks on the Vamps in the room. If Sean felt it was entirely acceptable to stake Malcontents in their death-sleep, what would stop him from doing it someday to the Vamps?
Angus cleared his throat. "We appreciate yer help in matters of security, Whelan. But when it comes to killing Casimir, we'd rather do it with honor. Face-to-face on the field of battle."
Sean snorted. "You think those monsters have any comprehension of honor?"
"Perhaps no', but we do." Angus turned to Phil. "Ye have a great idea there, lad."
"Aye, but 'twill be a week or so before Laszlo has the tracking device ready," Connor said. "We canna wait here, twiddling our thumbs, while Casimir continues his attack."
Angus nodded, and resumed his pacing. "We need to act."
"If we can't find Casimir, we let him find us," Jack said.
"A trap," Angus murmured. "Go on."
"We should set the trap far away from the remaining Romatechs," Emma suggested. "Draw his attention away from them."
Phil nodded. "Then we'll be taking control of the situation."
"Verra good," Angus said. "We just need to bait the trap. Dinna Sigismund give us a list of Vamps that Casimir wants to kill?"
Phil clenched his hands into fists underneath the table. He couldn't let them use Vanda as bait.
"I have the list here." Connor retrieved a sheet of paper from his folder. "Ian and Toni. They would do it."
"But they're still on their honeymoon," Emma protested. "Is there anyone else?"
"Zoltan and Dougal." Connor read from the list. "They were at the Romatechs that were bombed tonight. They have some burns and scrapes, but they'll recover during their death-sleep."
"Good," Angus said. "Then we have two."
"I'm on the list." Jack raised a hand. "I'll do it."
His fianc'ee, Lara, winced. "Then I'd better go, too. You guys will need a day guard."
"Actually, Jack, we have another assignment for you," Angus said. "I want Roman and his family to go into hiding tomorrow night. Usually Connor and Howard go with them, but I think it makes more sense for you and Lara to go."
Jack stiffened. "But I'll miss all the action. I'm the best swordsman you have. No offense, Jean-Luc."
The French Vamp waved a hand in dismissal.
"The two of you are the perfect choice," Connor explained. "Ye can guard at night, and Lara during the day. And ye'll still be alive for yer wedding."
Lara looked relieved, but Jack was grinding his teeth.
Connor gave him a sympathetic look. "I know how ye feel, lad. I've been there myself. But keeping Roman safe is verra important. If he succeeds in making Nightshade, it could be our greatest weapon in combating the Malcontents."
Jack heaved a resigned sigh. "All right. We'll do it."
Lara took his hand and squeezed it.
"Who else is on the list?" Angus asked.
"I am." Phineas raised a hand proudly. "Dr. Phang at your service."
Angus smiled. "Verra good, lad."
"I'll go, too," Robby announced. "They should have backup, someone Casimir isna expecting."
"Like a secret weapon." Angus nodded. "Good idea."
"Look, guys," Gregori spoke up. "I'm not a warrior, but I know marketing and publicity. You guys from the hit list can sit on a hill for a week, but if Casimir doesn't know about it, he'll never show up. You've got to stage and promote this deal without it looking like it's been staged and promoted."
Angus folded his arms. "What do ye suggest?"
"A believable scenario." Gregori rubbed his chin as he considered. "Zoltan and Dougal just narrowly escaped death tonight, so it would be logical for them to go out and celebrate. They would go to a Vamp club. The most popular one is Vanda's, but it was destroyed tonight. Is she all right?"
"She's fine," Phil replied quietly.
"Good." Gregori flashed him a smile, then grew serious again. "When it comes to Vamp clubs, I've been to most of them. We need a dark, seedy place, perfect for an ambush." He snapped his fingers. "I've got it. Vampire Blues in New Orleans."
"I like it," Angus said. "And the Coven Master there is a good friend. Colbert will help us out."
Gregori tapped his chin, still thinking. "We'll need publicity."
"What about Corky Courrant?" Emma suggested. "She does celebrity gossip on her show."
"Yeah, but let's face it," Gregori said. "Dougal and Phineas aren't celebrities. Corky wouldn't care what they're doing."
Phil felt a heaviness in his chest. There was a surefire way to get Corky's unwitting participation. He glanced at Connor, and the Scotsman was giving him an apologetic look.
Connor cleared his throat. "There was one more name on the list. Casimir wants Vanda Barkowski dead. And Corky hates her with a passion."
Phil's heart squeezed in his chest. Damn. He didn't see any way out of this.
Gregori winced. "There has to be another way. Vanda lost her club tonight. She's suffered enough."
"But she's a feisty lass, no?" Angus asked. "She might want revenge."
"She does have an anger problem," Gregori admitted. "But we've been trying to help her get over it."
"Her anger might be just what we need," Connor said. "We take her to the club, let it slip to Corky that she'll be there, and let Vanda throw one of her famous fits. Corky shows it on air, and when Casimir realizes Vanda is still alive, he rushes to the club, hoping to kill her. And that's when we kill him."
Gregori nodded. "That would work, but we need to make sure Vanda would be safe."
"I'll go with her," Phil said quietly.
"Can ye convince her to do it?" Connor asked.
Phil sighed. Did he have any choice?